XVIII: The Deep




Chapter XVIII



Frank’s reverie
November, 2029

Sand sifted warmly between his toes as he splayed them out wide and, his jaw drooping slightly open, curled them up again. He liked the textured softness of the miniscule grains and smiled, guffawing slightly. Laughter felt good, too.

A bit of drool ran down his chin and, sucking loudly, he wiped at his mouth with a large, sloppy gesture, using the length of his pale white arm.

‘Amphisbaena.’ “No.” ‘Anacoluthon.’ “No.” ‘Andesitic.’ “No. No.” He rocked on his heels, swaying gently in the cool air. ‘Amaranth.’ “No.” ‘Indonesia.’ “No…” But it was closer. ‘Paraplegia.’ “No.” ‘Amnesia.’ He stopped and stood up straight, starkly still. Suddenly he started rocking more fervently than before and wandering in circles, his eyes cringing, lungs breathing in/out/in/out/in/out. He might have been hyperventilating.

“Aaaaagh!!” He cried out and kicked the sand, tears streaming down his cheeks. Nostrils flaring, he wavered and fell to his knees, the world spinning all around him. He cried aloud again, his fingers combing over a bare head, searching in vain for hair to grasp and pull in desperation.

Then he was on his side, knees curled to his chest, a blinding yellow sun beating upon tightly shut eyes, black spots like daubs of paint against their lids. “Hnngh! Hnngh!” he groaned loudly, his throat straining with the effort; his diaphragm was tight and wrought with pain.

‘So bright, so bright…’ Again, he cried out aloud and his jaw clamped shut, the grinding of his teeth drowning out the sound of a gently rolling surf, aquamarine waves placidly breaking upon the shore.

He lay like this for some time, accompanied only by the gentle swaying leaves of palm trees towering high overhead, not too far from where the world had deposited him. His eyes told him that the sky was bright, infinite blue; his ears shushed with ocean noises; and his heart pounded with… feeling.

‘Feel is strange…’ he thought. He wrapped his arms tightly around his chest, as if he could somehow hold feeling in and keep it from escaping.

‘Thirty minutes,’ he remembered from somewhere. A sense of urgency shot up through his chest, colliding with the dense miasma in his mind. ‘Get up. Get going.’

Before he knew quite what was happening, his body was struggling to pick itself up from the beach, intending to take him inland. At first he felt like an unwilling passenger on its journey, but whatever part of him wanted to go that way did so with such conviction that he didn’t feel very fit to argue.

‘I must be mad,’ he thought, with some distress. Then something happened in his brain—like a switch being flipped, or maybe a rubber band snapping as it reached its elastic limit—and he could see clearly; could hear himself think. ‘What happened to me… who am I?’

He was supposed to know this; was supposed to remember where he was from; what his name was; and how that all related to where he was headed… but he couldn’t.

‘It’s okay… I’ll keep going...’ he thought, pressing onward. ‘I just need to stay calm…’

Golden sands shifted into dense brown earth, pebble-strewn and flayed into soft swathes by the occasional heavy rain. His feet stumbled on in crisscross fashion; his hands supported him on the rough bark of indigenous trees when he thought he might fall. He still hadn’t found his balance, but he was slowly regaining his sanity.

‘This doesn’t happen…’ his feet wandered on, ‘People don’t just end up on a beach,’ he looked down, ‘naked… delirious… forgetful…’

No shadows of the past luxuriated upon his waking mind.

‘But I remember…’

“Ingish,” he tried to say. “Speeflghhh…aaagh…” His tongue felt heavy; his jaw stiff and sore. Silently, he mouthed words as he went along, hoping this was a temporary impairment.

The path he traveled was forgiving, mostly free of entanglements and harsh rocks as it led up the side of a hill. Even so, his bare feet began to protest and he looked for an ideal place to stop.

Having come upon a soft rise in the hillside that afforded him a better view of what was happening in the distance, he rested and gathered his wits. From beneath the sound of his breathing emerged a distant noise—a sea of voices and trembling string instruments, drifting on a breeze. His eyes climbed skyward in the sound’s direction, where they were met with an astounding beauty: a trio of shape shifting silver lines, encircling each other as if they were sea creatures more at home in the air than in the water.

“Delfy,” he whispered with wide eyed reverence. He didn’t know why he found the Delethaima’s silvery, streaming dance among the clouds so entrancing. But the part of him that knew how to feel awe and wonder was thoroughly engaged… in spite of the fact that he was sure he had seen others like it before. In fact, he realized, astounded by his own awareness, he knew exactly how it worked—its body formed of cells that farmed energy from the wind, the sun, and even the swirling motions of its own diaphanous dance, helping it to remain airborne in perpetuity.

More than that, he knew, he could build one. Easily. ‘How many other people could say that?’ he wondered, mulling over the suddenly very curious nature of his own existence. Then, contemplatively, he muttered to himself, “Are cub eefiry meg tha…” His eyes cast down, he took a deep breath, unsure of whether to laugh or cry out in frustration. ‘Not me, apparently,’ he thought, refuting the basis of his question.

‘Fifteen minutes.’ He didn’t know where the cues were coming from or what they were counting down to. Even why he was so intent on traveling a particular path. He didn’t know the area well—he was sure of that—but he knew he was going the way he needed to. ‘To the Delethaima.’

This area didn’t seem much used. And for such a beautiful place, too… he would have found it odd if he’d had the capacity to notice. After about thirty minutes of walking and steadily gaining feeling in his muscles he began to come to his senses.

He stared at the sky. ‘No cars…’ He knew he had seen a few from the hillside, but none directly overhead. ‘What is this place?’ He was stricken with the distinct feeling that he wasn’t supposed to be there. And a few minutes of walking later confirmed it.

Peering out of the tropical landscape, just off of the semi-formed dirt path he was following, was a curious metal post marked with all manner of warnings and pop up holographic displays, which rotated menacingly around it.

He caught his breath. ‘DEF.’ A Discriminating Energy Forcefield—an invisible wall of sorts. And, he knew, again to his intense bewilderment, that this one was extremely high-tech; possibly experimental.

He approached cautiously, terrified that someone would come rushing out of the bushes and capture or kill him any moment, just for being on their land. Or maybe that’s why he was there in the first place—like Sanger Rainsford, only if he were a gibbering, amnesic wreck instead of a seasoned hunter.

‘I’m so screwed…’ he thought. Then, ‘One minute. Just wait one more minute.’

He stood breathlessly eyeing the post, as if it might pounce on him the moment he let his guard down. Red holograms rotated around its sleek, black body, and he could faintly detect a light red shimmer, indicating which way the otherwise invisible wall ran, lined with private property warnings.

‘Okay. Go now.’

Trembling, he approached the post with some difficulty. And as he did, the rotating red holograms warning him away shifted into green triangles—the universally understood “access granted” symbol. In addition, they now bore an unsettling message:

“Emergency protocol engaged. All exits unsealed. User unidentified.”

‘Could it be a trap?’ he wondered. But what else was he going to do? He knew he had to keep following the path he was on; as if the directions were programmed into him.

‘Take a deep breath,’ he thought, ‘it’s all going fine.’ And, passing beyond the field, he tried to understand the significance of where he was—trees, rocks, dirt… beautiful, yes… but that wasn’t why he was there. It couldn’t have been.

He looked over his shoulder. “Restricted Area. User unidentified,” now hovered bright red behind him. There was no going back, even if he had wanted to. And he couldn’t fathom how he had gotten inside in the first place.

Then another instinct kicked in as he left—for though thoughts were coming to him more fluidly now he still knew next to nothing about himself or who he was.

‘I need to find out,’ he thought. ‘As soon as I can…’
He wasn’t worried about how that would happen. He just needed to get to a standard console—they were pretty much everywhere—and let it scan his DNA, or read his facial features, or examine his eyes, his fingerprints… hell, even the sound of his voice. Something would have to come up.

What worried him was that when it did, someone might come looking for him. He already suspected some moral turpitude in his past, judging from where he had awoken, so it wouldn’t hurt to find a place where he could blend in and slip back out easily…

‘The festival,’ he thought. If he really was on somebody’s ‘list,’ then at least being in a crowd of people would give him cover temporarily. It might have been safer to wait, but the thought didn’t even cross his mind—he needed to know who he was.

It wasn’t long before he began to see beyond the trees—A ten minute walk at the most—but a lifetime’s worth of questions flooded over him, and he couldn’t help but wonder how he knew so much about the world and how it worked yet, somehow, couldn’t remember a single detail of how he had been involved in any of it.

‘I’ll know soon,’ he thought. ‘Everything will be okay.’

The low bustle of city noise resounded nearby and he felt drawn toward the familiar comfort. Presently, modest storefronts with coral and sea blue paint jobs emerged softly through the leaves of trees, small crowds of people drifting lazily in and out; clad in light clothing and free of any sort of agenda for the day, each was fully disposed to take in the warm sun and feel the cool air on their skin as they indulged in the gentle sublimity of that divine Maui afternoon.

The scene had a pacifying effect on him. But rather than enter into the small crowds of people just yet—he was naked, after all; still a minor taboo even in those liberal times—he kept himself tucked away behind trees and bushes, walking along what he guessed was a path almost parallel to the energy wall. As long as he didn’t stray too far one way or the other, he kept telling himself, he would be okay.

The medium-dense vegetation soon gave way to a wide stretch of paved road, left over from years gone by. About a hundred yards from where he stood though, the antiquated stretch of asphalt had since been modified into a landing space for sizeable vehicles, and a small security outpost accompanied the drop-zone.

‘No flyovers allowed,’ he realized. ‘So that’s why there were no cars.’ Everybody going in was likely funneled through that single point, or possibly one other. ‘Meaning the exits would likely be sealed too... except in life-threatening emergency situations…’ Which must be the case, he surmised, seeing as how he was allowed to leave.

‘Whatever happened… might have something to do with my memory…’ he thought. But he couldn’t just go up and ask someone. He had to keep going—towards the festival.

Leaning out from behind a tree, he eyed the small, understated security outpost warily, about a hundred meters down the road. It seemed unmanned, at least for the moment—a fact that lent unsettling credence to his theory. With A.I. sentries, there was no need for shifts or the abandonment of a station except in emergency situations.

‘There’s no one here. They won’t even notice me... I could just walk straight across… no problem…’

But he couldn’t convince himself. Eyes darting this way and that, he determined that time was of the essence, and now might be his only chance to make it across the road unseen. Throwing himself into a mad dash, he took care to impact the hard ground with the front of his feet before the heels in order to reduce the strain on his joints and muscles. But he still found running difficult, and instead settled for an anxious, hunched over jog.

Finally, he made it to the other side. With a small cry of exertion, he dropped to the ground and crouched quivering in the brush, tending to a shaky feeling of near relief. ‘Oh my god…’ he thought, panting heavily, ‘I’m overreacting… or underreacting… I’m not sure…’ He closed his eyes and tried to take deep breaths, but he couldn’t keep himself from looking around frantically between every stiffly forced draw.

Overhead, a light whooshing noise called his attention skyward, and almost just as he had seen them, a small convoy of vehicles was alighting upon the pavement he had crossed not two minutes earlier.

‘SATE,’ he read, printed on the side of a large, black carrier. ‘Systems and Tactical Execution…’

Whatever hope he’d had for some normal resolution to all of this evaporated in that moment. They weren’t looking for him though—they’d have been all over him by now if they were; he was sure of it—but SATE didn’t just show up for anything. They were the government’s top computer experts and “situation handlers,” a daunting combination of S.W.A.T. and Mensa.

And they moved with a kind of urgency that was unsettling. A pair of figures clad fully in black disembarked rapidly from the vehicle and launched themselves towards the security station. Moments after entering, the convoy passed beyond, leaving them to handle matters at the entrance.

He wondered what the convoy could possibly be doing, and took a timid look in the direction it had headed. After a moment’s search, he did a double take—a large white column of what looked like steam plumed immensely in the distance, like some colossal, roiling cloud risen from the sea.

‘That can’t be good.’ He tried to imagine what could have vaporized such a large quantity of water so quickly… Then a column of blue light lit up the cloud and massive white electrical strands bolted out of it with an enormous CRACK, the sky all around it flashing darkly.

He ducked back under cover, startled. ‘I couldn’t have had anything to do with that,’ he said to himself, ‘No, no…’ but a lone memory slipped back into his awareness, sickening and unwanted—Damp tile against his bare feet… or, his feet were wet with something gel-like against the cold tile… his hand…

He didn’t want to think about it, but he couldn’t stave off the memory.

… his hand navigated labyrinthine menus, overriding safety measures… reprogramming heavy duty underwater construction equipment, laced with Kadradine—a powerful explosive—to tear apart the thick covering around the facility’s mini nuclear fission reactor, starting in forty five minutes…

‘Oh my god…’ a cold chill ran up his spine.

The hazy darkness of a tormenting memory morphed into his last moments in that place, as he counted down backwards from forty five minutes while wrenching open the cover on a circular, single-man evacuation chamber, cold blue light all around.

‘No, no, no,’ he thought, sitting in the brush, holding his head in his hands.

‘ “Forty four minutes,” ’ he had said aloud to himself, free of any speech deficiency, as he slid into the tube, his body still wet with that slippery gel. His mind had run down a mental checklist—‘ ‘Manual security monitoring systems shut down’ ’ he had confirmed, eyeing a dark, deactivated console—but he already knew he’d done everything he needed to. No evidence would remain of his time there.

But he hadn’t smiled at his victory. Hadn’t sighed with relief. Hadn’t felt a thing... He had simply closed the hatch, eyed the sea beyond through the glass bottom of the steel escape pod, and gripped a pair of steel handles, pulling them towards himself to send the pod careening into the Pacific ocean.

Presently, he fell back against a tree, wrangling with what he had just remembered about himself. And then the memory that tied him to this moment—the pod, racing towards the beach; him turning it to face the facility, ejecting himself, and sending it back to where it had come from, to be engulfed in the impenetrably dark depths of the ocean floor.

Then a scrambling sensation in his brain, like his wires had been crossed. Faces, computer codes, world-knowledge—all twisted and soldered inelegantly together over the backdrop of the ocean and the beach where he had then found himself, screaming and crying, falling, crawling, clawing at the sand.

… He wasn’t supposed to remember any of this. And he knew it.

‘But why… why would I agree to something like that…’ he thought, tormenting himself with the question. Then, ‘What if I didn’t… What if it was mind control? I need to get help. I need to tell someone.’ He picked himself up from the ground. ‘No… I can’t. They would hold me responsible for that explosion...’

He felt queasy.

‘They might still…’ A new resolution stirred within him. ‘There’s no way. No one can ever know about this...’

Whatever he had been like in that life lost beyond memory, he prayed to God that he had been thorough.



. . .


Maria felt light as a feather. Or maybe, light as air, the cells in her body having all dispersed and been absorbed into everything that is… She opened her eyes…

Yes… darkness throughout. A void presenting unbound potential… Creation rushed through her fingertips, outstretched; silvery, transparent, ghostlike. A gray wave rippled beneath her feet and she could feel… God, how she could feel! As if a blind, deaf, anosmic, suddenly aware that she had been standing in a field of lavender and rose, orchestral birdsong alighting upon her eardrums in singular sensation.

And then that symphony of light and sound played through every last cell in her body, each orchestration uniquely its own, yet undeniably a part of the same whole as all the others, each inseparable once heard in transcendental chorus.

An ashen landscape fell all around her, lending understated form to the woods and grassy hills. She recognized the area immediately, noting the hole to the underground home where Frank’s body lay. But… They aren’t homes… she realized in astonishment. They’re graves.

In every direction, she became aware of miniscule flames hovering over seemingly random places in the land—many near trees, some in overgrown gardens that she had been too distracted to notice… Each space held a particular significance to the spirits now attached to them.

Spirits… The dead… I am seeing the dead…

The luminous, multicolored entities floated silently over monochromatic landscape until they reached her, surrounding her in their warmly glowing light.

A similar flame now emanated from her body as well, changing color subtly upon the current of her thoughts.

“You smell of death…” echoed all around her. The words caused a stone to drop in her chest, her euphoria instantly obliterated.

And they were words now; not like with Hecen, where she struggled to divine his feelings from her own and translate his intent.

“What do you mean?” she asked. Were they talking about Frank? Or worse… Could she have somehow died?

Dim, silvery forms emerged from the hovering flames—four legged, sleek bodied, and vaguely familiar... but their physical appearances didn’t matter; she could feel who each of them was, though only insofar as they would allow her—many clearly held great depths of their beings obscured.

“Your field has been tainted…” they intoned, low sound vibrations rippling through her.

They moved around her in a disquieted circle, and she felt a familiar probing as they accessed her memories. Then they hovered stilly in place.“Child, your feelings are an open doorway into your being. No wonder you fall so easily under the command of others...”

The flame in which Maria’s body was ensconced shifted from curious light blue to dark, heavy purple. She felt immediately defensive, and wholly betrayed; though by what or whom she wasn’t sure.

“What do you want with me?” she asked. Then, remembering her conversation with the ‘Goddess’ Dr. Kerry, “Or is this how dreams are on this world?”

“This is how dreams are on all worlds. You are the element that has changed. Your mind and aural field”—the flame emanating from her body, she knew—“have opened… for better or worse… allowing in new modes of thought, the old tenets of observation to which you clung long since rendered meaningless.”

They pitied her. She could feel it… But why?

“So I chose to come here?” she said.

“Did you?” they asked.

And right then, she caught a glimpse of what she would become; or maybe it was merely their perception of where she was headed. And it was a dark place.

“Can you see the future?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“But there is nothing you can do to change it…”

“There is nothing we can do to change you.”

She wanted to know what they meant by that; but theirs’ was an evanescent realm of being; she could feel them slipping away.

“Help me to understand…” Dirt, on her face… she pressed a hand to her cheek. “Why…” Words escaped into the darkness, her silvery body disappearing as the hand became hard and rough, pressing her jaw out of alignment. She was no longer light or free, but held down by the weight of flesh, blood, and bone, her arms and neck stiff and heavy.

She groaned lightly as she returned to cognizance, finding herself still enshrouded in black; but there was no great mystery in the fact this time, and the darkness was suffocating.

God… this pounding… She shifted her body slightly and freed an arm from where it was wedged beneath her; slowly, she let it find its way up to her head, a large wound stinging upon her touch.

Sucking her breath in through her teeth, she pulled away the hood covering her eyes and lightly brushed aside a swathe of dark hair, matted with blood. The world filtered colorfully into her awareness through aching eyes, and she felt like she was eighteen and back in the Arkos corporation college of sciences, where she had spent a significant amount of her time severely hung over.

Shifting her weight, she soon found herself sitting quietly beneath the shade of the great tree upon the roots of which she had collapsed; and, sighing, she allowed her mind a placid sort of nothingness. After a time, she felt almost unburdened, for though the events of the past day or so were like nothing she had ever experienced, all of the strangeness and incongruities seemed to amass into an oddly stabilizing equilibrium.

Musing over her own internal entropy with a light smile, her eyes drifted skyward, to where they were met by infinite blue and radiance, the sun’s light filtered through the gently heaving boughs of trees, their wooden fingers playing gentle, shushing song with thousands of dark green leaves.

This world really isn’t so different from my own… came the recurring thought. The similarities amazed her more than the differences. It is more pure, if anything…

Her mind turned to Frank, as it seemed wont to do, and she was overwhelmed by the feeling that this planet… dimension… whatever… wasn’t suited for his dead body. And she felt confident that he would no longer be a burden to her, carried as he was before…

Maybe that’s what Ada was really talking about… she thought, standing slowly. His body wasn’t the weight that I carried… It was the heaviness of my mind; my thoughts; my worries.

But something irked her. “Your feelings are an open doorway into your being,” the spirits had said, “No wonder you fall so easily under the command of others...” What had they meant by that? Could it have had something to do with Ada Kerry?

She reflected carefully on the idea as she crossed the soft grass swarming towards a steep cave entrance. As she descended back down rocky, dirt covered incline, her eyes adjusted slowly to the light—but when it came into focus, all she saw was rock walls, dirt floor, and, in the place where Frank’s body had been, a red rose with a white ribbon tied around its stem…

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