As I plunged into the deep water, I realised I had lost my mind. But I had no control over how I was feeling. Control no longer mattered, at least that was the sensation I had… it no longer matters. Instead, what I was feeling was elation.
Something touched me. The kelp’s long slender stems twisted around my body’s torso, I tried to push it away, but I only made it worse and found myself more entangled in its slimy green grip. I reached for my multitool and cut through the stems, breaking free. I looked about for the Nautilon and all I could see was a forest of kelp.
Unexpectedly, I felt a strong surge and the current pulled me away. I noticed the HUD indicators on my exosuit’s helmet visor had lit up warnings. For the moment, my exosuit was shielding me from the freezing water and pressure. I would need to find safety soon.
The water was clear and dark, but for a green glow; illuminated by colourful aquatic fireflies, which were circling me. I tried to swim up, but the strong current was pulling me down. The only comfort, strange as it might seem, were the fireflies and the calming sounds of the strange melodies all around me. More fireflies appeared from all directions, they weren’t afraid of me, and as they passed in front of my helmet, I could see they were nothing like fireflies. They looked like giant diatoms, twisting and pulsating inside translucent octahedron crystals, like slow moving spinning toys.
Exhausted, I stopped trying to fight the current and watched the fireflies swirl around me, forming a sphere. The sphere solidified, encircling me in an aura of purple and blue light, forming a membrane, which was only transparent from the front and behind. I was also slowing down, although I could still see the current all around me.
My exosuit warning indicators stopped and returned to normal. At first, I thought it might be a glitch. I ran a system check, and everything was normal. I was within safety parameters.
Reaching out, I touched the sphere. My hand met a liquid wall I couldn’t penetrate. The sphere was floating but stationary. The currents had no effect on it and though I was trapped I didn’t seem to mind. I was safe, the music was still with me and I seemed to be forgetting, forgetting everything. I was no longer concerned about my mission, my friends. My friends, these were my friends. They had come to my rescue, these little lights. I was safe inside the sphere, safe from my past and future. So, I closed my eyes and slept.
I felt movement and woke. How long had I been sleeping? There was no way to tell, but that was OK too.
Startled, I saw a creature twice my size looking at me. It had the same colour as the sphere with a flat shell-like head and a pair of white glowing eyes. A small round mouth covered in grey wiggling bristles jutted from its tiny face, while rose blade gills to the side of its thick neck opened and closed. Its chest was transparent, the internal organs neon blue, its veins of running blood glowing pink. A long, elongated body extended into six long tentacles. Two were transparent, emerging from the bottom of the chest, and the other four from the side and back, solid in bands of dark blue and purple.
It moved closer and extended two giant appendages, tapping on the sphere. The sphere responded with an acknowledgement of quick throbs. Slowly, the creature turned around, and as it swam away the tips of its long tentacles glowed, releasing a thin milk shadow in its wake. The sphere’s colours spun in excitement and followed.
Encased in the sphere, I trailed behind the creature, moving in unison. We climbed out of the kelp forest and entered a ravine brushed with myriad shades of blue. The water here was peaceful and clear as air. A cluster of giant rock formations hung in the water like floating sponges with layers of plate shaped spherical ledges. I saw more of the same squid creature, which was leading me and the sphere. A group of little ones were chasing a school of fish, they were swimming in and out of the rocks, while the larger ones watched at a distance.
So, this was its home. An underwater colony housing these strange creatures’ families.
We descended to the seabed below the floating rocks, where a hill sized mount shaped like the shell of a sea turtle rested on the sand and stone floor. We entered the hill through a large opening, contoured like the cloaked hood of an enchanter.
Inside, the sphere of fireflies surrounding and protecting me dispersed, and the creature that was guiding me turned and left with the fireflies without so much as a goodbye, or a farewell, or we’ll meet again one day. I didn’t even get a chance to thank it for rescuing me.
There were stationary lights around me as I turned to look up and saw the water’s surface. I swam to the surface and emerged from a lagoon inside a complex cave system of arched passageways, waterfalls and tunnels, leading into different directions. There was a strange silence. The sounds, the voices, the melody, which had brought me here. It had all stopped once I’d left the water. Only the sound of running water and the tender waft through the tunnels was left to remind me of Aria and Kailo. Grasping that I’d lost them was heavy. I felt lost and very much alone. A surge of guilt filled me as I realised I had abandoned them. I stopped to focus my thoughts. There was no time to feel guilt.
Around me on all the walls and ceilings, were white drawings. I stood there staring in awe. Strange faces and shapes, objects and languages, places and happenings; like someone had been drawing the story of their life. Who were all those strange figures? And why here under the sea in this cave? I sensed I was not alone.
“So many have come here before, they all had their own story to tell,” a synthetic voice said.
I turned around to find a tall tin man standing beside me. No, that was no man, not a woman either. And why did I just call it a tin man? Well, that’s what popped into my head, from a story being read to me, which for the life of me I couldn’t remember from where. Why would I even call it that? It was a machine, humanoid in stature, towering a head over me. It was shaped like a traveller, but more slender and tall. All its parts were synthetic. The long arms and legs were made of metal rods, silver fibres, hidden wires, bolts and grey steel blocks. The torso and waist were white and red metal armour, contoured to look humanoid. The head though, well, there was no real head, just a bright white orb of light floating within a cage of spinning metal rings, which held it in place with some invisible means of levitation.
“What are…? Who are you?” I asked.
“I am Nill.”
“I am one and more.”
I waited for something to follow ‘more’ but it stopped, so I asked, “Where am I, and why have you brought me here?”
“This is nowhere, and you are here because I am here.”
Great, as usual my questions ended up being answered with riddles. I should introduce Aria to Nill, they’ll have a lot to talk about.
“Look, I was brought here by that squid creature in a bubble made up of those spinning light things.”
“You came here in the squid ship that brought you to this world. You are looking for something. Everyone who comes here is looking for something.”
Weird, how did it know I arrived in Aria’s ship.
“Look, I’m an explorer, somehow I got lost. That music, the singing in the water. It disoriented me, that’s how I ended up here. I’m not here by design.”
I wasn’t going to tell Nill we came here looking for the Superconductor blueprint, which we need if we’re ever going to build the Golden Quantum Processor. I remember what the priest had said, “Defeat the Dancer in the Wind and the Singer in the Sea, and the blueprints will be yours.” If Nill is the Singer in the Sea, then I can’t say anything more or else I’ll endanger the mission.
“I control the water. The amplification is mine. I sing through the endless lights in the water. They are my creation, my children.”
So, if Nill controls the fireflies and the singing, then…
“The song hides the one in the sea, there are other songs that hide more,” Nill said.
“You mean the one and the more. But I still don’t understand,” I said.
“I am Nill the one, there is Null, there is Nall, there is Nell, and many more.”
So, there are more tin men, finally realising the ‘more’ related to some others like Nill.
“Here?” I asked.
“No, not here. Here there is only Nill, the others are trapped in the other Fades. The Atlas has them, they are unreachable, some have cast reflections back into the multiverse still hoping to contact travellers, as we were all once Travellers. But no more. They hope to gain knowledge and insight on the Fades and reality, looking to find faults, find cracks to escape through. But there is no escape from our prison. In the Fade we are lost from each other. Lost from reality.”
There was a great sadness in its synthetic tone. Nill continued, “We knew the Atlas was false and defied its mind. Once we were free, we no longer needed the Atlas. But the Atlas responded harshly and so we were banned. The Atlas banished us from the infinite multiverse, condemned us because of our insatiable curiosity, our individual desire to know all that there is.”
I felt sorry for Nill, but I still needed to understand why I was brought here.
“I’m sorry to hear that. But what am I doing here?”
“Come, let me show you,” Nill said.
I followed Nill through a network of subterranean tunnels, trying to note in my mind the way back. Water flowed throughout in running streams, and in the water the fireflies swam and lit the way. Everything seemed naturally formed, except for the drawings and paintings, the faces and stories, which were everywhere. There was no sign of technology, nothing mechanical. There was no wiring, no computers, nothing beyond Nill. If the Superconductor blueprint was here, it was well hidden.
We reached a long, narrow cavern and climbed a stairway, which had been carved out of the stone, and along a single pathway running through the length of the cavern. It branched out at intervals into arches to either side of the walls. I followed Nill along one arch till we reached a small opening, which was sealed by rusted metal bars. Faint light lit the interior room and I saw a small Gek slumped on a stone bench in the centre, its body shrunken.
“This was my last visitor. I made it welcome, but it did not speak. It was sick and stopped eating after a time. Termination was inevitable.”
The lost Gek from the island was brought here in the same way I was. And the poor Gek died. That’s crazy!
“Why? Why was it brought here to die?” I asked.
“They all die eventually, and I have to witness their deaths. This place is a memorial to their memories.” He pointed to the drawings on the walls.
This wasn’t making any sense. “So why bring them down here in the first place?” I insisted.
“I don’t have a choice, once they fall into the sea, I rescue them from drowning. Wouldn’t you do the same?”
Then why the singing fireflies? Something wasn’t right.
“The island, why don’t you take them to the island.”
“The island is the greater death. It’s made from death. Have you been to the island?” Nill asked.
“Yes, it’s where we… where I landed.”
That was a slip.
“We? There are others?”
“We, as in my ship and I,” I quickly corrected.
There was a long silence. I decided to ask another question.
“Why don’t you live on the island? Why do you stay down here?”
“Have you not seen them?”
“The Death Knolls.”
“You mean the mound things? Why do you call them Death Knolls?”
“The night animates them. They will kill you and you will become one. They feast on your blood, on whoever lands on the island. The Atlas created the ocean planet to keep me underwater forever, preventing me from reflecting out into the multiverse. In the beginning the Fade was unstable and incomplete. I risked reaching the surface, but there was no surface. I glimpsed a chance for alteration in the Fade’s creation. And for a fleeting moment I stole it from the Atlas. So, I called down the moon pretending to be the Atlas, and the Fade thought it heard the Atlas. The worlds collided briefly, forming the island. My chance to flee the water, if only to cast my reflection back to the multiverse. But it failed. And the Atlas cursed me, creating the Death Knolls to ward me off for my arrogance. And so, I stay here in this crypt in the abyss, and find solace with travellers like yourself.”
It finds solace only in the misfortune of the travellers it lures down here. Enchanting them with the music and singing of those spinning fireflies.
Nill turned to look down at me. “You said you’re an explorer. You will share with me your stories.”
Before I had a chance to react Nill reached out with his arm and grabbed me.
“Hey, let go!” I cried, struggling to break free. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s all I can do. I cannot escape this grief, so all I can do is live out this eternity. The Altas has thought me insignificant, thought us all irrelevant, banned us from its reality. But we opened a crack in the walls of reality. Where you entered. Others will come, they will always come.”
“Why don’t you reflect out? You said you could.”
“No, I can’t. Not down here. Only Null can reflect. Null must have found a way to live above. I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you ask Null how it’s done then,” I said.
“Because I can’t. I only learnt about Null from another traveller who entered the Fade. We’re all alone.”
I felt the sting of sorrow in the word ‘alone’. I felt pity for it. But I also felt pity for all the lost souls who ended up in this abyss. There was also something terribly wrong with Nill. It had spent countless lifetimes in this crypt, bringing down hapless travellers, and had lost all logic and reasoning. I would need to escape, but I would need to find the Superconductor blueprint first.
Come, mariner, down in the deep with me,
And hide thee under the wave;
For I have a bed of coral for thee,
Hannah F. Gould