How we crossed the sea, my thoughts during that voyage, and an encounter in the dark.
Travel by submarine has revolutionized my field, allowed me access to parts of the world on which no human being has set foot in half a million years, but grateful as I am that these discoveries came about within my lifetime, I would just as soon never enter another. The confined spaces beneath the upper canopy, the close quarters of the housing terraces receding into great Mount Ai are nothing like the confinement of the Coelacanth.
The blue, dappled gloom beneath the tangled boughs of the Asati is rich with the water of life, enveloped in its touch like fine raindrops on the skin. The boughs comfort me like a parent, who shields me from the brutality of Yol and its blasted sky, its biting winds and howling thunderheads. The geometric grace of the cliff terraces makes order of the jungle chaos, red rock alive with the lights of the city, glimmering in veins of malachite and turquoise, silver and quartz that thread the great caverns like low-hanging chandeliers. The dimness shines, and every narrow avenue or alleyway swims with reflective fairy lights, fills with the reverberation of other voices, elsewhere and yet intimate. They are breathing places, but like Ara, the Coelacanth is dead.
The translucent polymer of the forward hull shows nothing but the blackness much of the day. We’ll navigate by sonar with the lamps off for most of the voyage, to avoid agitating the wildlife of the abyssal plain. My grandmother told me tales of the Deep Wanderers when I was a little girl, as I told them to you, mad children of The Mother lost to disaster, and some of that old fear rises in me now. My wonder is no less profound for this, but I imagine teeth in the dark, scarlet flowers blooming in the water, and I feel like a child again myself. The cold, impersonal metal of the ship does not comfort me, no matter how pleasing the curves of its architecture. I crave the open air.
I have given orders for the crew to pair off as bunkmates. The life and contact of another body nearby may make the difference between a difficult journey and a damaging one, and we must care for ourselves diligently even so soon as this, to avoid greater difficulties in the future. Veena and Cantor need no encouragement to share company at night, and though Emir may complain of Yrai’s bombast, we agree that he most of all needs a companion. Daira is amenable to joining me, and last night’s sleeplessness was eased by her conversation in the dim violet and indigo of our UV lamps.
She is frightened, but her resolve is nothing short of extraordinary. Her inexperience affects her self-assurance not at all. She is one of those young women whose genius and ambition may outpace her maturity, but with guidance I don’t doubt that she will become one of the greatest minds in the field as my generation gives way to the next.
She spoke of the long dark on the expedition to contact the Narai, the hopelessness of the low jungle swallowing our backtrail, threatening to overgrow us should we stand still for too long. She spoke of her near miss with the quickvine, the greatest terror of her young life – and then of the wonder as the yeti’s tough, hairy hand swallowed her own and drew her up with one mighty arm. We were soaked to the bone, Fading without daylight, but at the end of the gauntlet the silent giants of the lower dark had welcomed us into warm caves, vibrantly alive with bioluminescent fungi and strewn in warm comfort with the soft-woven shed of the troupe’s thick hair. We recalled our silent council signing with the Matriarch, the awe of being honored with the customs and beliefs of her people from a living source.
Daira confided in me that she had determined to give up on her path and seek another should we find our way out of the fecund heart of the Cradle – but that it had been this moment which convinced her otherwise. This, the reward that she now knows our peril and suffering may reap. Priceless beyond measure, to be privileged with the knowledge of things lost to humanity long ago. I think I have always seen myself in her, and it thrills me to see the familiar elation of discovery in the eyes of one so young. To know one leaves the world a little better than one found it, and to know one relinquishes it into hands that will carry it still higher – I flatter myself by feeling that I have lived well.
I find comfort in Yrai’s friendship as well, no less treasured. My brother in bonds of love, his antics and optimism bring color to dim places, and the melancholy of memory grows softer when shared. We play capstones in the engineering bay daily, and occasionally I let him win. Doctor Emir is content to both prescribe my therapeutic hashish and consume his own in quiet company with me. In these scheduled hours as my mind ceases to clamor and Emir is relieved of his chronic pains we discuss what are now the latest scientific publications, but will soon be wildly out of date.
Shol Dai Hana’s Archaeological Record of the Antecedents commands my attention still. The copy I own was commissioned by my uncle, given to me when I elected my career track in my eleventh year – a pointed gesture, I think, toward your Grandfather Barrtok, who thought his daughter ought not to lose herself in the Growth communing with the dead rather than the living. I know it now by heart, yet I half regret not having taken it with me. Dai Hana was not the first to uncover evidence of an antecedent society beneath the foundation of our own, but her insights still move me, and I thrill to think that I may be among those to validate her theories.
What is so enticing about the Antecedents is the scarcity of evidence, and the level of intrigue and inference this scarcity breeds. What is there is not enough – one must also analyze what is not, must fill in the negative space in order to sketch the outline of reality. This vague penumbra is only a shadow, yet the shape it suggests is unspeakably grand.
Shattered fragments of titanium pipework are to be found buried throughout the continent, in a network whose scope and complexity suggest cities the size of nations, millions strong. We have carbon-dated panes of opaque polymer that we believe were used in construction, virtually undegraded after nearly a million years, and how they were created we still do not fully understand.
They are not derived from either the poylactic acid of corn or the cellulosics of cotton, but rather from some kind of petrochemical – substances that are so rare and so deeply-buried on Shol that such construction seems impossible. The purity and sheer tensile strength of these materials suggest methods of manufacturing far beyond our reckoning. We estimate that the power generated by Shol’s solar field in a hundred years would be insufficient to maintain even a single city of this kind without compromising our economy and infrastructure. Even then this would require that we know the process these chemicals are to undergo.
So how was it done? From what source did the Antecedents draw this energy, and what technology allowed them to harness it so efficiently? How did they build, travel, love, sing with voices so compelling that the earth itself thrust up its skeleton to scrape the vault of the sky?
And why did it end?
On this last, at least, I can guess. These relics survived the greatest environmental disaster of which we are aware, but given the extent to which it changed Nar’s very soul, the people who built these grand constructions might not have fared so well.
When we make landfall we will travel north, toward the only major construction our exploratory probes took note of. I loosely define it as a dead city, although its size defies imagination, and it stands fearlessly under the sun, on the flat earth, crystal towers veined with silver in interconnected residential districts, each as expansive as the entire table of Ai Tepui. If we are to find the information we seek, this is the only place to begin.
I have not wholly discounted the hope of finding some people alive underground after all this time, our cousins whose legends and histories might tell us more, but when we arrive, we will have greater concerns than my wishful thinking. Yol’s radiation will be our foremost problem, though I hope the ruins will provide us with adequate shelter for much of the expedition. It may nevertheless interfere with communication, both back to the Coelacanth and between one another, should we become separated in that glass jungle. We must begin analyzing wildlife to determine what can be foraged and locate renewable resources before a disaster in hydroponics makes them necessary. There may even be hostilities. Until now it was believed that only marine life retained the atavistic practice of carnivorism after the cataclysm, but in a land with so little vegetation and insect life, I cannot imagine how else any fauna might survive there.