I was the last to wake. Aria was beside Kailo, comforting him. Kailo had not slept well. Nightmares. It was to be expected.
“Once we cross over, the nightmares will stop,” Aria reassured Kailo.
“How do you know?” I asked, surprising myself with the question.
They both turned to look at me.
“We’re travelling into the night. The night that ends all nights. As all things must come to an end, this one is nearing its conclusion.”
Well that didn’t mean much, so I pushed another question. “Yes, but how do you know these things?”
“I’ll let you know when we’re on the other side.”
“The other side of what?” She wasn’t making any sense, as always.
A single klaxon sounded on the White Squid and Aria moved to the front of the ship. We followed her.
She was looking carefully at the panel’s data display. “These are the coordinates the Priest gave me. There should be something here,” she said, looking puzzled.
We all looked outside, nothing but empty space. We were in the same system as the lifeless moon we had just taken off from. But there was nothing to see but stars, a single sun, a lifeless brown planet, and the equally dead moon we had just departed from.
“Look!” Kailo croaked, pointing up at the ship’s canopy.
“What is it?” I said, looking up and still seeing nothing in the dark.
“Moves round, slow and dark. Darker than dark.” Kailo tried to explain what he was seeing.
“I see it,” Aria said. “But it’s tiny, if the distance I’m measuring is correct.”
Finally, I saw it. A very dark, slow moving silhouette, like a circular spiral tunnelling its way into a black abyss. I could almost imagine invisible stairs leading down into some chamber of horrors, except it was upside down.
“What are we looking at?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, but I know we need to go into it.”
“Into that! Will the ship fit?” I asked.
“We’re going to find out.” Aria pulled back and aligned the White Squid, gently manoeuvring into the slowly rotating coil.
“Warning, danger,” the ship announced.
“Release ship to manual,” Aria ordered and took the helm.
There was a gentle shudder as we entered, followed by a deathly silence. We had been swallowed into darkness and emptiness. There was nothing all around. For a moment I recalled someone reading a story to me. It was a story about a girl going down a rabbit hole, a girl called Alice. Who was Alice? The only girl I knew was Aria.
I told Aria and Kailo what I remembered from the story as we waited. Kailo found it amusing. Aria was preoccupied looking at the ship’s instruments to respond, waiting for something to change, an indication there was something outside. But nothing happened.
“Are we moving?” I asked.
“Yes, we’re moving, but I’ve nothing to measure it against,” she replied.
“We’re lost,” Kailo stated.
“No, I don’t think so. The Priest wouldn’t have given us these coordinates if they weren’t supposed to take us to our destination,” Aria said.
I jumped as the klaxon sounded off once again.
Another shudder and we were out of the darkness and into the night.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“According to these readings,” she said, pointing to the ship’s display, “we’re back where we started. We’re in the same system with the portal, which led us to the Dancer in the Wind.”
“Are you saying we didn’t go anywhere?” I asked.
“Oh, we went somewhere,” Aria said. “Look at that planet and its satellite, supposedly the one we just departed from.”
“The moon’s much closer,” I observed.
“Yes, it is,” Aria added.
Those same barren worlds were no longer the same, no longer the charred shells we had witnessed. In awe, we regarded a single blue sphere, seemingly renewed with an endless ocean. Encircling in its orbit was the same moon, now vibrant and intertwined with swirling cloud systems. Where the clouds cleared there were pockets of lush green forests sprawling over gentle hills. But a single scar broke the peace. A gaping trench, unsettling and amiss, stained the moon. From that erroneous crack a trail of debris—rock and dust—ascended into space, only to fall back on the planet. And like the umbilical cord between a mother and child, it connected the two worlds in a moment of confrontation.
“I think the moon and planet had a close encounter,” I said.
“They did. There’s lots of debris floating about, we’d best avoid it.”
“I don’t understand, how can we be in the same place as before while everything has changed?” I asked.
“We are and we aren’t. The ship is reading the exact coordinates the Priest gave us, which is why the klaxon sounded a second time. I fear we’ve entered a dissolution. And to be truthful, we shouldn’t even be here. I don’t know how the Priest got these coordinates. This should be impossible.
“Impossible, because this isn’t supposed to be real. At least not real for what we know to be real from the viewpoint of where we were. I mean, before we went through that hole.”
“Down rabbit hole go Alice and friends,” Kailo said. “Alice brave girl.”
“Or crazy girl,” I replied. Aria gave me a strange look. “Oh, I mean Alice, not you… or us.” I flushed.
Aria ignored my awkwardness and released a small stationary beacon, signalling the tunnel’s position for us to return to and set course for the ocean planet.
“There are stories alleged to this. Of the ones I’ve heard, they only mention these events occurring at the edges of the galaxy’s shell. We’re not at the edge, actually we’re very near the centre, so I’m not sure how this glitch appeared here.”
“Glitch! But what is it?” I persisted.
Aria considered what she was observing. “An anomaly. I’ve heard it mentioned only in whispers, of ships with their crews lost, never to be found again. Disappearing at the edge of the galaxy. It’s called The Fade.”
“All I know is we shouldn’t be here. We’d best find what we’re looking for and get back out again. I don’t want to end up stuck in here, especially when it decides to….”
“Fade away,” I added.
“Kailo’s stomach not feels right,” Kailo said.
“Sounds like ghost tales to explain the lost,” I said, unsure how much Aria actually knew.
“Maybe you’re right and it’s just tales. But we’re here aren’t we? So, there might be some truth in the tales after all. In any case, I don’t want to spend too long in this place. It still feels wrong.”
We entered the planet’s orbit and the klaxon sounded again.
“OK, at least we know it’s here on the planet somewhere.” Aria began scanning for points of interest.
“Either the scanner is malfunctioning or else this system doesn’t follow the rules. I can’t get the scanner to work.”
I could see the scanner was not registering anything. Even the planet was not showing up. Only our eyes were making sense of what we were seeing. This was weird, could we trust our eyes, or were we witnessing some grand illusion.
“We need somewhere to land. I can’t see anything but water,” she said.
Kailo and I looked for a possible landing area. But there was no land, nowhere to set down. The whole planet was covered in water.
“Doesn’t look promising, maybe we need to go back to the moon?”
“No, the signal was for here,” Aria insisted.
We circled the planet twice without spotting any land. Aria finally moved the ship to what she considered to be one of the planet’s poles.
“Garrr! Maybe there,” Kailo gurgled, while pointing starboard.
There was something on the horizon, a smooth blemish on the water. Aria turned the White Squid and picked up speed until the blemish grew. Soon, we were hovering over an area of pale mist with pink, salmon coloured clouds drifting high in the sky.
“Maybe there’s land under all that haze?” I said, noticing a large formation emerging from the mist.
“We’ll soon find out,” Aria added as she took the White Squid down.
Without the assistance of the ship’s senses, Aria flew in as slow and level as possible. Eventually, she flew low enough where the mist began to dissipate to the point where we could discern land. I quickly realized we were over an island.
“Mountain ahead!” Kailo warned.
Aria slowed even further, to the point where we were hovering a few meters above ground.
“I’ll set down here,” she said.
The White Squid landed on a large flat patch of ground near the mountain. It was the only mountain on the island, at least from what we could make out. I was having trouble discerning its actual size due to the mist. Around us the ground was covered in a low sea of dry, golden amethyst grass. The colours were a vibrant reflection emanating from the different shades of pink sky and dark clouds above. The grass stretched out into all directions, even down to the ocean edge.
But there was something else in the grass. Bizarre mounds with limbs and stems, which were more like appendages belonging to fauna rather than flora. They were scattered about like sheep sleeping in a meadow. Some of the mounds were upright, others were kneeling, as if they had become animated for a moment and then fallen back into some state of mummification or coma. Each had a single large round attachment, resembling a head, with a single trunk extending from the head back down into its own body, desperately searching for nourishment as it expired. But they were lifeless and joyless, like they were never real to begin with, and though inert, they terrified me.
I turned to Aria. “What now?” I said softly, as if not to wake the sleeping.
She looked out across the island, up at the haze shrouded mountain and then to the sea where the moon had appeared. The sun was setting below the horizon. Finally, she turned to look at me.
“I’m not sure,” she replied, her face sad and yet angry with her inability to remove the incantation of confusion she herself had surrendered to.
“Well, we can’t just sit in here. We’re explorers, so let’s go outside and explore.”
Unable to take any clear readings, we eventually asserted the planet was temperate by feel alone. Hopefully, it would stay that way.
As we stepped outside, we were confronted with a light gust and relieved to feel the ground was solid and firm, not to mention it was real, at least to all my senses. The grass felt like grass, but there was no other vegetation. The mounds had roots, which crawled out and hid in the grass in all directions, causing us to trip on occasion. All my senses were registering this world to be real, but Aria was not sharing my view. She was preoccupied with herself and seemed ready to break out at any given moment.
My curiosity overcame my fear and I paused to inspect up close the trunk on an upright mound’s head. It had thorns on one side, facing inward. The trunk itself led back to what can only be described as a gaping mouth, jarred open and filled with thorns, or were they sharp teeth? I wasn’t certain, and I had no intention of putting my hand in its mouth to find out. The head was covered at mid-level with a line of green sap like spots, which could easily be mistaken for eyes. Six on each side, totalling twelve. Touching those eerily rapacious eyes was like touching icy glass. Touching the mound was like touching the petrified bark of a dead tree.
“Stop wasting time, we need to move on,” Aria said, sounding unusually on edge and annoyed at my interest to inspect the mounds.
“Agreed, we should make for the mountain, it shouldn’t be far,” I said. Aria didn’t respond but followed me, as did Kailo. Our path was covered in haze making visibility difficult and walking hazardous.
The sun dipped below the horizon and the island fell to twilight as we crossed over a natural bridge rimmed on both ends with stacked stone rubble, which we had to climb over.
“Did someone place these here, trying to block the path?” I asked.
“Not know,” Kailo said looking about curiously.
I looked to Aria for a response, but she seemed oblivious to my observation.
A rocky path took us higher until we reached the foot of the mountain, only there was no foot of the mountain when we arrived, just an edge. And as for the mountain, well let’s just say we stood there for a while as we tried to comprehend what we were looking at.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Looks like big tree has fallen into crater,” Kailo added while Aria stood silent.
Eventually, Aria spoke, her voice echoing into the crater. “More like a jigsaw of perennial plants that can’t stop growing. They’re clinging onto that giant tree like climbing vines holding it down, so it won’t fly away. Almost as if they caught it before it could escape.”
“This place unnatural,” Kailo said.
I could only agree.
The edge we stood on was part of a rim that formed a gigantic crater. Below us, an endless web of disproportionally colossal vines, stems and tubers stretched up and out of the crater forming countless arches and beams, intertwining and clinging onto the massive branches of the tree. The tree hung in mid-air, slowly rocking back and forward like a broken spectre, strewn and battered on the haunts of ill fate. Its massive trunk stretched skyward and its roots clung to a giant rock, which formed the shape of a mountain. The how and why it was floating would require investigation we were unable to perform and only guess at.
We descended into the crater using the countless vines as stairs to the crater’s bottom. On reaching the bottom we found a large lake in the centre, and on its bank someone had built a small base. The base consisted of only one cylindrically shaped room with windows and an entrance. To the side a straight corridor connected the room to a glass bio-dome full of plants, most likely grown for food. Around the base were several containers and storage units. Piping ran into the base from the lake for water, and a back door connected a ramp, which led to a small pier. At the very end of the pier a small submersible vehicle was floating above a submerged geobay.
“We’re not alone,” Aria said.
“Little Alice fell
bumped her head
and bruised her soul”