The Vast Ocean Below Us

The squeeze has been getting tighter as you’ve progressed deeper into the crawlspace. Much too tight for anything resembling comfort. You don’t consider yourself a claustrophobic; you never had any problem being stuffed into tight vehicles, scrunched in between your friends, heading to some beautiful gathering together. The ceiling and floor that your body is pressed against here do not feel anything like your friends. The destination on the other side of this stupid fucking cavern anus better be as beautiful as all the carnival of the gods itself if it’s going to be worth this horrendous experience. The the stone absorbs your heat slowly through you contact with it, and you consider yourself lucky for it because your nervous system is now getting wired and you need to dissipate the heat or you’ll surely overload. And then what will you do? Puff up and get inexorably stuck? Try to go backwards? The mere thought sends the first murmurs of panic up your spine.

And now you’re getting stuck. Like Winnie the fucking Pooh. You hear the scrabbling of one companion in front, and the sounds of the other behind you. You’re not on all fours anymore, that seems like a luxury taken for granted in the distant past of minutes ago. No, not quite stuck yet. You’re now on knees and elbows, worming your way forward.

You have your own light which you stupidly did not grasp before getting into the squeeze, and now it’s too late. Your pack, which you’re pulling by a string, might as well be in a different country for all the availability you have to it now. There is a feeble light from beyond your forward companion, enough to see, but they’re also worming themselves, and sometimes the flicker and shadow gives way for brief but total darkness, so dark it’s like a being unto itself, hungry to snuff out anything seen.

You have known darkness before. The gentle darkness of a darkened bedroom. The jump-scare pranky darkness of the cellar. Darkness that likes to scare little kids. But this darkness that flickers in and out of negative space in the tiny crawlspace underneath a million tons of stone is different. The kinds of darkness you’ve known are trickles of water falling off the roof or murmuring creeks. The inky blackness that threatens you now is the vast ocean. It exists on time scales far beyond the brief flicker of your existence. It cares nothing for your life or what you bring to this place.

There comes this moment when Tyrell realizes he has a choice. To panic or not to panic, that is his choice. He has never before in his life had the opportunity to make such a decision. Panic has either set in, or it has not. But here, in this ancient darkness, it is different. This is not a The walls are closing in moment. This is not teetering on the edge of some cliff. This is a choice of succumbing to a primal fear as old as mankind itself, or letting logic win over that primal emotion.

Tyrell tries to push his focus away from the feeling of stone scraping against his back, and simply look down. He pushes himself to the ground as hard as he can, and even though it does little to alleviate the pressure on his back, it does give him a feeling of control.

It is a fleeting feeling. As he moves forward, inching ever deeper into the darkness, the passage does not stay the same. Of course it doesn’t. One second he feels like he is in control, the next a ridge of stone presses against his shoulder and the thought of the whole thing caving in on top of him explodes into his mind.

To panic or not to panic. He chooses not to. He tries to tell himself there is some sort of comfort in the darkness, some sort of achievement in conquering it. Of course that achievement will be worth nothing if all that stone crushes him like…

To panic or not to panic. He chooses not to. Slides forward, inch by inch. Deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth.

In moments like these, one either loses the future and the past, or one lives in them. Tyrell is telescoping between two extremes, between forgetting the existence of any reality outside the cave, and between forgetting his body.

In the former moments he is more beast than man, more shape than beast, a miserable bundle of neurons aching and contorted, a puzzle piece slotted between infinite slabs. He feels his spine nearly meshed with the ceiling, his vertebra like the teeth of a gear. He feels the darkness thick like salt water extend eternal above below and beyond, and the afterimages of the light he has now forgotten dance in his eyes like faintly bioluminescent organisms. The kind you see in the benthic zone.

Through the stone she flows. Swims through the darkness far underneath the sky like a giant eyeless squid, searching tentacles hunting for sustenance in the shadows of shadows of shadows that will never see light. She belongs inside the stone. Her being is not material, not made of stuff, but rather is a complex expression darkness itself, propagating forward in a stable pattern of potential and kinetic energy, always searching for patterns of energy that can be subsumed into her solitonic body made of standing waves. She does not feel the decay of molecules breaking, but entropy comes for all, and so she needs low-entropy configurations to stave off the inevitable. Fortunately, while they are not entirely common, competition for them are also rare for few hunters like her are willing or able to endure the low pressure conditions in the upper crusty reaches of the world.

Her world, the true world, exists far below this quagmire with its pockets of air and water. Her world is rich and complex and competitive. Civilizations and savant species rise and fall in the propagation of energy patterns deep inside the core of the Earth, while further up where the pressure and radiation doesn’t allow for quick and unimpeded travel or communication, things are just less interesting, less alive, less vibrant. The surface and beyond is a distant hell that no one in their right mind would ever even consider visiting, unless well and truly cast out of society and denigrated to the level of inhabiting a material body. Or are thrill-seeking extreme explorers like her.

And so it is in this bog of solid stone, where veins of surface air and water dig through the rock and creates very unsafe conditions, that she finds something she’s never seen before. And it is inside a vein that she senses it. A pattern of movements, a material body, scrabbling forward with difficulty, as out of its element as she is. She wonders if it will sustain her.

Tyrell does not sense her. Not directly at least. It is only in the vague perturbations in the flickering of light and shadow that has him intuitively recoil, barely subconscious that something isn’t the way it should be in a situation that his instincts are screaming at him isn’t at all how it should be.

Tyrell makes it. Emerges on the other side of the squeeze. Cool air descends subtly on his damp skin.
His heart pounds. Polly is laughing. He is wheezing, coughing. She slaps his back. Still laughing.

“Yessa…”

He can’t see her. His heart pounds faster.

He sees her. He sees her. Ok. It will be ok. She emerges. Panting. Her pack follows her closely, an afterbirth. Her eyes are grateful if not joyous as they meet his. They embrace. Sob.

As their breath evens, turns to normal, they look around them. They cannot see where their lamplight ends. Polly is unboxing the flares.

And as they break the three sticks into fire, their light reflects back from uncountable crystal faces, as many as the stars in the Milky Way. Thus the three enter the Cathedral and become its first vertebrate devouts.

(Cathedral soundtrack!)

The walls of the Cathedral are made of granite and marble cracked with the pressure of a thousand years and sixty thousand leagues. Old though not decaying. Wet and yet dry. Imposing and yet comforting. Echoes of strained music slip through the lining of the stones held together by gravity alone; with the music comes liquid slowly dripping onto the ground.

The Cathedral is a name that humans have given the ancient structure; it was never meant for the feet of men. That is not to say the Cathedral was not meant for Earthlings, but it was not meant for men. Around the Cathedral, on the ground that Polly and Tyrell stood, was a done made of diamonds and crystals. Polly’s flares lit up a thousand fireworks so bright that even the granite of the cathedral could not help but sparkle back. This is the first act - she said as she handed Tyrell one of her flares. Walk inside, she hushed.

On the far end of the Cathedral is an altar with signs long lost to human knowledge. On top of the altar is a candelabra with three arms waiting, timelessly, for something to use it. Tyrell placed his flame into the right arms and in an instant, the right side of the room lit up in a myriad of impossible colours and figures. Tyrell’s eyes were aglow with the images on the wall. Men with flaming sticks, animals running into the water, rainbows rising out of volcanoes and then darkness.

Polly approached the altar with her flare and placed it into the left arm.

The light from the flares is reflected in those myriad surfaces, creating a spectacle of light and shadows the likes of which Tyrell has never seen. He stares in wonder, wide-eyed like a child, and can’t help but smile. It is a strange feeling, smiling in this place.

“What is this, you guys?” comes Yessa’s voice from behind him. He cannot hear a single trace of uncertainty or fear in her voice, merely curiosity. At that moment he loves her more than ever, here in this place where love is but a rumor, something never meant to be carried into this place of worship.

“Corey wrote about it in his journal,” Polly says. “He never found it himself, but he collected any information he could find about it. Rumors. Myths. There is a drawing of it in a convent outside Naples.”
She traces the delicate arms of the candelabra, and Tyrell realizes it is not a separate piece, not an actual candelabra, but an extension of the stone beneath, as if smoke has coiled upwards and solidified into this shape.

Tyrell’s sense of wonder suddenly shatters. Chills run down his spine and he can feel the hairs on his arms standing up, waving their flags of warning. Something primal awakens in him, a fight or flight reflex he has never felt before. His stomach churns and he sweats. Light-headed, he leans against the rock, trying to find his bearings.

“Babe,” Yessa says, “are you ok?” She comes over, touching his face with cool fingers, caressing his cheek. “Do you need something to drink?”

Tyrell barely notices she is there. All he can see is the look on Polly’s face as she stares at him. Expectation. Triumph, almost. She is smiling a feral smile, exposing all those perfect white teeth. Polly has been his little sister in all but blood for many years, but now, for the first time, he realizes something has always been off. Something has been missing in her, and now, here, in this half-darkness, she has found it.

Something moves in the shadows behind her.

Movement, or merely light-play on that faceted surface, which rises vertiginous into the dark? Tyrell dusts off his arms, a nervous tick, as though he could wipe away the chills and suspicion. Yessa, behind him, has picked up on his sudden fear, and grips his wrist.

Her hand tightens as Polly approaches her, until he can feel the little half moons of her nails burrowing into his flesh. Polly reaches forward, and grabs her flair. For a moment she resists, tugging back, unwilling to relinquish the light, and their trinary system is thrown off balance, Tyrell stumbling towards Yessa as she’s yanked forward by Polly, whose feral grin has contorted into the open-mouthed, panting snarl of a wolf. The slab, the facet they are standing on seems to Tyrell to lurch, like a mirror wobbling on a rubber ball, the light catching its surface the moment before it pitches forward and shatters –

Then Yessa lets go of the flair, and the floor is horizontal, and Polly is human again, sauntering forward to place the final flare in the central arm of the candelabra.

There is a real, though clichéd, story of how Satan was once the favourite of our Lord above. The most beautiful of angels and true heir to all that was holy. However, Satan grew jealous of those above him, the Son and the Holy Spirit; beauty cannot replace the shame of one’s lowly birth. Satan would never fully receive the bounty of heaven, though at no fault of his own.

Beauty turned to jealousy and jealousy turned to pride.

A cardinal sin that sent him from the brightest of the land beyond creation to the darkest depths of the underworld. Gabriel struck Lucifer with his sword of fire and so he tumbled through the realm of the living in a ball of flame. Bursting into hell, the land lit up as his body had; where his eyes were once used to the natural light of God, Satan’s eyes were now burnt by the light he created.

And so Polly put her flare into the middle candelabra. The ground shook. The walls cracked. The altar twisted. The stone slithered. The tapestry of lights that Tyrell had but a few minutes past gazed at in wonder was now projecting a different image.

The rainbows were rivers of multicoloured blood. Animals ran into water only to stop breathing. Men with flaming sticks chased other men and upon catching, lit them up. Out of the volcano came the darkness.

Polly, turning around at Tyrell and Yessa, did not step forward towards them. She placed one hand on her head and another on the melting stone altar. Silence. Silence. Silence.

Then as if once again possessed, Polly slammed her head against the altar relentlessly. Tyrell dashed forward to stop her but she threw him off. Slam. Slam. Slam. Slam. Blood dripped down her forehead and onto the ground which was now covered in cracks. Slam. Slam. Slam. Slam. The cracks in the ground began to show in her skull.

You are back in the squeeze, the Cathedral is in the rear. Yessa is in front of you. Can’t have her in the back. Her eyes had had the shark-like quality of trauma and dissociation. She’s an expert cave explorer, but what has transpired is so far outside her or anyone’s experience that her expertise has become a liability more than a strength. You can’t trust her to make good decisions right now. Which begs the question coming from some semi-rational self-reflective voice inside yourself almost below conscious perception that whispers in the uncanny cavities of silence between the resonant noise of wriggles as you clamber forward. It mutters: Can you trust yourself to make good decisions? What do your eyes look like right now?

Your lamp is in your hand but the scatter of the light is fickle because you need your hand to proceed. Darkness envelops you. Disappears again. Light scatters across the snaking tube. The air is bad. Too much carbon. You’re forgetting things. Your fingers are bruised. Working too slowly. Like an old man on a computer he was not brought up to handle. You’re standing behind yourself, telling yourself, no, not like that, you need to put your hand there, no not like that, oh for fucks sake let me do it.

But you don’t know how to do it. You’re forgetting the way forward, the way out. Where is yessa? You can’t see her anymore. The shadows are alive. They are mocking you. The air. You have forgotten how to crawl. You’re going to die in here.

“Yessa! Yessa!”

You hear a sound. It startles you. In panic you jerk up but there are a billion tons of rock inches above your head and now things go black again, an even deeper pitch of black, with little black stars made of pain.

You are released from your form. Floating in the ocean of blackness. Other senses come alive. And there is someone else there. Not Yessa. Something else that moves, reaches out, enveloping you in an embrace of love and thirst.