Tanizards can't speak.
That's what Jimador kept telling himself, anyway. Then again, he'd had quite a few Rock Sticks. Maybe it was just a sugar rush. Yeah. That was it, a sugar rush. He'd been sitting out in the sun too long, trying to enjoy his Kiko Lake vacation, but despite it all, the stress from his real life back as an analyst in the Neopian Stock Market was taking over. That was it.
"Are you going to get in my mouth now, or do I have to put you in there myself?"
Yep. Definitely just stress.
"What are you talking about?" Jimador asked. He figured it was best to try and reason with the hallucination. He'd read once that if you figure out that you're dreaming, you can change it. Though he already knew he was dreaming and that wasn't working...
"Oh, for Poke's sake," the Tanizard huffed. She came closer, batting her tail fin like a flag. "Haven't you seen the other Tanizards around, the ones who bring tourists underwater for a closer look? Like Draylox?"
She waited, her tail brushing faster, tossing spray on Jimador's hands. He looked down at them. They were his normal hands. Nothing unusual about that. He licked one. It tasted like salt and his fur. If this was dreaming, then he shouldn't have been able to do that. Right?
"Right," Jimador said, absently. The Tanizard took it well.
"Good. Then you'll know that I'm here to take you down there," she said.
"But you're, um... you're kind of small," he said.
Her tail splashed even more water: a tidal wave on his left hand, nowhere else.
"It's called swallowing all this water to balloon myself. Honestly, do you know nothing about Aquatic Petpets? I thought Neopian Central Chias were a bit more scholarly than this," she scoffed.
Jimador flushed. He did read a lot! Just... never about Petpets. He'd never really had the time to adopt one for himself, what with his work and all. Too much time looking up statistics and calculating his graphs, barely a moment to nab a hot dog off of Hubert before he closed up for the evening. And what if the little Donksaur or Triffin decided to eat his work, all his hard work? Or string it about his Neohome? No. Not a chance. Not even if Queen Fyora herself made it a Quest for him.
The water moved like sludge and, belatedly, Jimador noticed he wasn't on land anymore. The Kiko Lake beach was, in fact, in front of him—and he was on some slippery, gossamer fins. And then: water, like a cushion, surprisingly, not too deep. Why, he could just sit there. He did so.
Then he realized.
"I have a name," she called back, her voice not quite a thundering boom but more like a glass humming. "It's Aerix."
"Aerix," Jimador repeated. "Did I give you permission to swallow me?"
"Nope. And technically, I haven't swallowed you. You're just... sitting," Aerix chirped. "Now relax, like I know you want to, because in a minute I'll need you to get to work, and you've got to be sharp."
Jimador balked. Wasn't there someone he could call about this? He moved to find—then remembered that all of his contact devices had been left back at his vacation home. He'd wanted to relax, after all, no interruptions. He'd been doing just fine until Aerix the Tanizard wafted up. Maybe he could call the PPL once he was back on land. If she even let him back on land. Did Petpets eat Chias? Were they in on it with the Lupes? Jimador could see it now.
"Do you know anything about coral, Jimador?" Aerix asked.
Jimador thought for a moment. There was that one time he researched coral furniture for COFL, but he hadn't really looked into much else.
"I didn't think so. Sit back, then. You're about to get a history," Aerix said.
She was swimming, he could see; how she was able to both keep her mouth open and not have him drown in her mouth with all the water flooding in, he wasn't sure. Jimador could feel a kind of bubble around him. He wondered if all Tanizards did this, or if it was just specific to Aerix. She did seem sort of special. But maybe all Petpets had abilities Neopets just didn't bother to investigate.
"Coral makes up a great deal of what's inside Kiko Lake. I know you've been on those ridiculous glass bottom boat tours," Aerix said as they swam past one of the boats. It was sparkling, and some Neopets inside were gawking, pointing, taking pictures.
"They show you the nice tourist homes, with their fancy, rounded coral and the smiling Kikos. That's all well and good. The Neopoints Kiko Lake gets from that keeps us Tanizards very well cared for. And I do appreciate that," Aerix pointed out. She circled one of the underwater gift shops and then found a small cove to settle in for a moment.
"The problem is, nobody goes very deep anymore. Not even the Kikos themselves," she continued. The water in front of Jimador swished with bubbles and spray—probably from Aerix's tail, he figured, but he couldn't really tell anymore. He'd given up trying to figure things out and just decided to relax. Whatever was going on, as long as she didn't swallow him, he'd be all right.
"And why would anybody think to? Kiko Lake's so peaceful. Mayor Fuff keeps the lake floor clean, and organizes the whole island well enough. Everybody listens, and the tourists come, and even our Yooyuball team's doing better," Aerix said. The bubbles were getting wilder now—Jimador could barely see the familiar, bustling underworld of Kiko Lake.
"Who would think about going below?" Aerix said. The bubbles swarmed one last time, and Jimador saw a brief, brilliant flash. Then it all cleared, and he sat up straighter.
"Apparently, someone did," Aerix finished.
Jimador looked out at the waterscape. There was coral everywhere—a reef here, a reef there, brilliant colors like an artist's palette—no, wait a minute...
"You see what they've done," Aerix led. She stayed in her small cove, and Jimador realized she was afraid to go out further. It was no surprise—his mind kept playing tricks on him, but he was starting to see: the reefs were decaying. The colors he had seen so vibrantly on the lakefloor were a dull grey, nearly blackened. There was seaweed spackled across them like castoff clothing, and not a sign of anything living. The reefs always seemed to hum with life; here, they sat, weighty stone. Even the water seemed wrong: oily, murky, thick.
"Who would want to do this?" Jimador asked.
He felt Aerix shrug.
"I thought you might be able to tell me. I don't think you're involved with this, of course," she clarified. "But you do know some major industrial players in Neopia—or, at least, you research them. Who would be interested in what's underneath Kiko Lake's floor?"
Jimador couldn't think. His mind was as sluggish as the water down here, which, as he belatedly realized, was making Aerix twist and snap. Her limbs were less agile than before, as she swam in place in the little cove.
She was being poisoned.
"Shouldn't we go back—" Jimador started.
"Not until you find some clues. Look hard. I'll be fine," Aerix said.
Jimador felt the pressure—and much more than just the depth. He squinted around, wishing that he'd been better at sports as a kid, better at finding that ball coming at his face, better at pushing the Yooyu into the goal, or passing the Gormball at just the right angle to avoid a splashing. He had never been good at sports. It was why he went into business; it was just hard angles and answers, there. Pure finance; no dexterity needed for a clumsy Chia like him.
He thought about it for a moment—dexterity. Sports. Business. Nothing down here seemed out of the ordinary, except for the lack of anything. Whatever had once been underneath Kiko Lake's lakefloor was gone; and if Kiko Lake was formed in a volcano, then something must've been interested in that volcano's power. He remembered Eithne, the scheming faerie who tried to help bring down Mystery Island. She had been working for a shaman... Tura-Kupek.
Jimador felt Aerix shudder. She wasn't going to last much longer. He had to look harder, into both his thoughts and the surroundings. What would be here for someone looking for an energy source to siphon, to steal, to tap into? The Kikos could be ruled out; they made enough Neopoints from tourism. And Aerix thought it was external. So: who would want this power?
There. Power. POWR.
Nobody knew anything about them. Not even analysts like Jimador, who'd been in the game for so long. All he could do was try to predict their numbers—nobody ever so a representative from them on the actual market floor. And their competitor was, of course, CHIA. Chia Steel Holdings. Which would explain, of course, the way everything looked steely—greyed out, heavy, rock solid coral. If he reached out of Aerix's mouth, why, Jimador was sure that the coral he saw would break—it was so brittle. And it looked eerily similar...
"Rock sticks," Jimador said. "They're trying to market the coral as Kiko Lake Rock Sticks."
"What?" Aerix asked—weak, but interested. Jimador didn't notice, wrapped up in his analysis. He was in his element, and finally in control of the situation—of something, for once. It was electric.
"POWR is trying to sneak in tainted coral to replace the Rock Sticks sold here in Kiko Lake. They came down here, polluted the coral with their machines—I'm guessing, I don't see much here but if they're a competitor to CHIA then they must use lots of machines, lots of unchecked machines that don't control the emissions," Jimador rambled. He noticed his bubble was getting tighter, but figured it was just because he was squirming around so much, so excitedly.
"They chose all this because they know CHIA got into a lot of trouble a few years ago for accidentally having their waste pipes redirect into the Neopian sewers. There was a huge backlash—that's why they created that Sewage Surfer game, you know. It was a parody of CHIA. I felt so ashamed of my own kind," Jimador said.
"But I see it now—they wanted to frame CHIA, say they were replacing the Sticks so that they could make more Neopoints, to challenge POWR. The floor here looks like steel. CHIA makes steel. It's so easy to make the connection—to make it seem like CHIA wanted to break poor Kiko Lake's only source of business, to swoop in and take over with gritty grey steel pops or something like that. I mean, can't you imagine it? POWR would break the story, Neopia would bankrupt CHIA, and POWR could come up with no competitors and swamp the market. It's all business. I can't believe I didn't see it earlier, in the statistics reports."
And then he really saw it: a slim bit of wood sticking out on the lakefloor. He could nearly make out a smidge of the writing: -X CO.
He was right.
"Aerix, can we get that bit of wood? It's sticking out just over there," Jimador pointed. It was only a few hundred feet or so. He figured she could get out there.
"Aerix?" Jimador repeated. "Come on, if we can get that, and if I can snap some pictures with my tourist camera—" Jimador swiped at his neck, to the camera still waiting for him. He snapped a few pictures, zooming in and out, trying to get everything. He especially made sure to take a picture of the stuck wood in the coral.
"Aerix? Come on, pictures are done. I think this'll be a good start, so long as we can go pick up that driftwood," Jimador pressed.
Aerix didn't move. In fact, it had been a while since she'd done much of anything.
"Oh, Fyora," Jimador realized. Quickly, without realizing what he was doing, he swam out of Aerix's mouth. The pressure and sludge of the water hit him immediately; without her bubble, he was directly exposed to whatever decayer POWR had left behind.
Aerix's head was bobbing silently. She was alive, he knew—but she didn't have much longer until she was overcome. He could see it in her, somehow. He wondered why, not having known anything about Tanizards before—but sharing that time and space with her seemed to attune him, somehow.
He swirled around—which took so long, and so much surprising effort. There was the driftwood. He began to swim out to it, feeling like all of his limbs were moving in sludge. It wasn't easy, but he kept going. Aerix was so concerned about Kiko Lake that she was putting herself in real danger—and she'd brought him here to do what only he could do. He had to gather the evidence so he could start building a case to take POWR down.
As he got closer and closer, the water seemed to pillow around him, locking him in just like Aerix's bubble had. He flailed, trying to reach it. He pushed out with his small arms.
If he could just... get... further...
There! His hand grasped it, pulled the wood free. He pushed off of the coral, hard; it splintered beneath him. It was brittle, like he'd thought—no real steel at all. He grabbed some of the broken coral with his feet, latched onto it for dear life. Then he began to swim back. He could barely make out Aerix's glimmering lavender form in the cove. She was covered in some sort of white substance...
The bubbles. The froth. She must've used the cove as a sort of pulley device, to bring them a lower station in the Lake. Now it was reactivating. She'd calculated just how much time she could stand and now they had to go. Jimador swam faster. It felt like syrup, sticky and slow, but he kept going.
The bubbles burned brighter. He could hear a small swishing sound, and knew the transport was going to begin soon. He didn't know how to activate himself; he'd be stuck here. POWR would know they were being examined.
Jimador couldn't let that happen. The Kikos were so peaceful, Aerix so kind; he had to save them.
With strength he didn't know he had, Jimador pushed the water aside like plates. He swam faster, stronger than he ever could. The bubbles were nearly blinding but that was good, it just meant he was closer and closer.
Twenty feet to go and he saw Aerix's form begin to glow, to vanish. He had only a few moments to get in there.
Ten feet. She was almost gone.
With a final push, Jimador thrust himself through the wall of bubbles and spray. He felt the pressure leave him again, then lightly re-engage.
Aerix's bubble. He'd made it.
Jimador briefly looked down to see the driftwood, camera, and steel coral all safe and sound in the bubble. Then everything went a lovely shade of black, then white, then blue: Kiko Lake, again.
"Aerix, we did it!" Jimador yelled.
Then he looked around: a gawking Elephante, a cooing Ruki. They couldn't swim underwater. Neither could he, for that matter.
He reached his hand out and found only glass. He was in a glass bottom boat. He could hear the tour guide excitedly rambling on about Kiko Lake's famous taffy. The cove, the froth, the bubble Aerix had used to transport him—nothing.
He looked down to see the camera, driftwood, and steel coral all in his left hand. Everything was safe and sound. So, then: it wasn't a dream? Or was it something else?
A brief flash of lavender caught his eye. He jerked his head, hard, to see it in the water; but it was gone just as fast. He smiled.
"Thank you, Aerix. Whatever you were," he whispered.
The tour guide went on, and Jimador waited, already building a list of contacts in his head. Vacation was going to end early, and he had a few days to track down just what was behind this mysterious POWR.
But first, perhaps a stop for a little Petpet friend to inspire him. Luckily, he knew just the friend he had in mind.