The Edge of Nowhere

by Ray Kolb

Jred-pah slid silently across the plain. His flagella worked in excited anticipation, flooded with waves of heat, color and sound. The plain rose quickly now. Feedback was intermittent.

The terrain was different here than at the culture. His sensors picked up strange and new wavelengths. Dark, patchy, irregular waves. His cilia moved him across the surface, taking in all sensations. Rough, round, and-–other. It was exciting.

He emoted a message to Fromt-rod, doing her best to keep pace with him. Are you scared?

They were heading for the Void. No feedback. Just silence.

He picked up most of her response, broken up because of the distance between them through the rippled current and because of her nervousness. No — scared. — excit– to b- her-.

A wave of elated vibrations coursed around his membrane.

They were far away from the culture. Jred-ord would be angry. The warnings were specific from the time Jred-pah fissioned from Jred-ord.

Offspring venturing beyond the confines of the localized parameter never came back.

Jred-pah’s flagella quivered in irritation. Tales to keep offspring from exploring, always under the control of the old and dying.

#

They were anchored five hundred meters northeast of Mangilio Beach. The water was crystal blue and a comfortable eighty degrees. A few dozen meters further east the Pacific Ocean turned a deep, dark blue. They were at the edge where the coral reef off the coast of Guam dropped sharply down to the Marianas Trench.

The locals called it the Edge of Nowhere.

Glen and Trisha fell backward into the water, letting their weight take them down gently. Soon after, another half-dozen divers joined them. Everyone paired up. One instructor per customer.

“How are you feeling?” Glen asked, his voice muffled by the regulator. He was used to the awkwardness.

Trisha was startled, even though they’d practiced talking with the system while still on the boat. She looked at Glen and smiled. She mumbled something.

“Say again?” Glen said.

“Doing great,” Trisha managed.

As they descended, the water around them cooled and darkened but they had no trouble seeing. The tropical noon-day sun pushed through from above.

Glen checked his depth gauge. They were thirty meters down and planning to go sixty meters further. Glen turned on the light attached to the side of his mask. He motioned for Trisha to do the same.

#

Phludt-grel had been to the Void. He’d emoted the details of his journey to Jred-pah.  Fromt-rod had been at the telling too and felt sincerity from Phludt-grel just as Jred-pah had. Zfet-fem emoted disbelief, dismissing Phludt-grel’s stories as falsehoods. As had the thousand others who’d been near, deciding Phludt-grel was emoting misleading reality.

The emotings had been strong, almost overpowering. Do not leave the culture. Danger is everywhere.

Jred-pah had decided to leave at that moment. No choice really. Within seconds, Jred-ord would have been fed the emotings of a thousand, thousand warnings. Jred-pah wondered if Jred-ord would come for him.

No, he would not! He would not come because he is no more. Jred-pah was surprised at the heat his anger generated. His temperature quickly imbalanced. He stopped moving and opened a vacuole, allowing the cooler water in.

He knew the reason he’d fled. The betrayal of Jred-ord.

Jred-pah cooled and memory of the coming synthesis of Jred-ord and Charysst-sem battered his sensors. Jred-ord would cease to exist, as would Charysst-sem. Instead, two would become one only to become four. Would any part of the new ones even know him? Would there be anything left of Jred-ord to remember him?

Jred-ord had insisted yes, that Jred-pah would better understand when Jred-pah had to do the same. Soon, Jred-ord had emoted, Jred-pah would not be able to fission other Jreds. He would be too weak and need to recombinate his essence with another. Jred-pah wondered if his offspring, Jred-qal and Jred-rod, would be as unaccepting of his synthesis as he had been of Jred-ord’s. Will they feel betrayed?

He realized he was troubled about something that had certainly already happened. What would they call themselves? Charyjre? Jrerysst? Something new entirely? The new recombinant beings would probably be close to fission-status themselves by now.

As Jred-pah should have already done. Again. He should have fissioned and created Jred-sem. If he was still able.

Or maybe he should have synthesized.

Then it was clear to him. He and Fromt-rod should return to the culture and commence their own synthesis. Jred-pah knew Fromt-rod yearned for recombination. Her emotings had radiated a grouping need since before they’d left the culture.

#

Another sixty meters and it was dark, not jet black, but dark enough to need light. The coral reef ended, rounding off at the edges, and led to the deep, black depths of the Trench. The Marianas Trench wouldn’t bottom out for another thirty-five thousand feet.

Trisha stayed close. Glen could tell she was scared. He didn’t blame her. Glen had been to the edge of the reef before but not on the eastern side. Not here at the Edge of Nowhere. He was an experienced diver, having dived mostly in Guam but also in Hawaii. He’d never seen anything as eerie as the pitch black chasm, opening up like a giant mouth a few hundred meters below.

Glen’s light disappeared a couple dozen meters down, as if eaten by the blackness. His mind told him it was hundreds of meters below but the clear, deep blue water distorted the distance. The black mouth seemed to expand, rising up for him.

He shook his head and forced himself to pull away.

“Let’s head over there,” Glen said, pointing to a section of the reef showing the color of promise.

Trisha nodded a nervous yes and did her best to keep up.

#

The water around Jred-pah was colder. And darker. The surface tension hardened beneath his cilia. His exploratory emotings returned less than half the time. The silence was unnerving.

Jred-pah stopped his movements. He emoted behind him, receiving scattered sensations from the descending landscape. He could no longer sense Fromt-rod’s presence. Had he lost her? Had she turned back?

Jred-pah emoted randomly, fear and confusion setting in. Am I alone? He had trouble interpreting the sensations. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate on locating Fromt-rod.

Jred-pah recoiled when his membrane and cilia were touched from the side.

#

The other divers stayed close to the reef. No one seemed eager to venture out in the open, just above the black mouth of the Trench. Glen made a concerted effort not to turn around and look into the abyss.

Most of the others stayed together as a group. Glen and Trisha had wandered off, not too far, to explore other sections of the reef.

A school of black and white damselfish swam around, behind, and above them. Glen was drawn in by Trisha’s wide eyes and big smile. He pointed out a snowflake eel slithering in and out of a little cave.

They made their way further down the reef, where it started to turn underneath. It was quite dark here but their lights allowed them to see well enough.

As his light passed over, Glen named off a few of the different kinds of coral: lace coral, pink-red antlers, lined in white; mushroom coral, a peeled orange the size of a beach ball; and lobed cactus coral, a giant brain. Glen mentioned their scientific names but Trisha’s eyes glazed over.

Glen and Trisha continued scanning the coral reef with their lights, stopping here and there for Glen to comment on some coral or fish.

Glen tensed up from a tap on his shoulder. He turned. Trisha, one hand resting on his arm, pointed to their right.

“Is that a starfish?” she asked.

It had the vague shape of a classic starfish but he knew almost immediately it wasn’t. It didn’t look like any coral he’d recognized before. It was white and sprouted out like a starfish or a flower, but the petals were long and narrow, covered by large bumps. The petals didn’t float with the ocean current, staying firm as if set in stone.

“Let’s take a closer look,” Glen said.

#

I’m here, Fromt-rod emoted. Are you okay?

All of Jred-pah’s flagella quivered. His temperature rose fast. He opened his vacuole again but the cooler water didn’t help. He needed to feed.

Jred-pah’s cilia trembled and surveyed the plain, feeling for the tiny ones. There. There. And there. Only a few hundred but they’d have to do for now.

His cilia funneled the tiny ones together and he wrapped his body around them. His membrane reconnected around the tiny ones. They gradually dissolved within him.

His temperature began to steady.

I want to leave, Fromt-rod emoted.

Jred-pah agreed. They needed to leave. Back to the culture. If Jred-ord still existed, in any form, Jred-pah needed tell him he understood now.

A blinding light engulfed them.

Both emoted severe pain from the overload of heat.

#

“It looks so strange,” Trisha said. She reached out her hand but quickly pulled it back. “Alien almost.”

Glen didn’t say anything. He floated above the white flower coral and then swam around it, studying it from all sides.

Glen came back to where Trisha treaded in front of the flower coral. He savored her look of excitement and expectation. He smiled.

Trisha waited, looking back and forth between Glen and the coral flower. “Well?”

“It’s a silicified octopus.”

#

The heat was unbearable. Jred-pah felt himself burning, the water within him boiling, his flagella shriveling, his membrane cracking.

He flopped back and forth, faster and faster. He tried calling for Fromt-rod but couldn’t form the proper emotive wave.

#

“This is such a rare find,” Glen said, reaching into the watertight pouch at his side. “I’d guess a pregnant female jammed herself into a small hole. After giving birth, they usually die within a few hours. Normally, the carcass eventually rots away. Maybe one in a million will silicify like this. Amazing.”

Trisha felt his excitement. This was more than the instructor pretending for the sake of the customer. “Have you ever seen one before?”

“Just in pictures,” Glen said.

From the pouch, Glen withdrew a baggie. He reached down and pulled his knife from its sheath strapped to his lower leg.

Glen moved in close to the octopus. Trisha moved closer, but stayed behind him.

“Here,” Glen said, pointing with the knife, “you can still see the suckers on the tentacles. They’ve hardened into stone-like little bowls. I’m going to scrape a bit out.”

#

Jred-pah had tried to save Fromt-rod. When the blinding burn was still attacking them, he’d found Fromt-rod and managed to place himself on top of her, shielding her from the burning. The burn would kill him, he knew, but he owed Fromt-rod for bringing her out here. To the Void. To danger.

And then Fromt-rod saved him.

The burn left and he’d lain there, slowing imploding from the outside pressure, his vacuole unable to take in water to keep the pressure equal to the outside.

Fromt-rod found him, prodded him, emoted with him, wouldn’t let him fold into himself. She emoted they should synthesize. To save them both.

Jrefrom, synthesis of Jred-pah and Fromt-rod, moved away from the Void. Back to the culture. Jrefrom would wait until they reached the culture parameter before fissioning into four.

#

Glen carefully scraped the knife along a quarter inch section in the middle of one of the petrified suckers. He held the baggie next to the knife. He shoved the thin sliver of solidified octopus into the baggie and zipped it closed.

#

The trek from the Void to the culture was long and slow but Jrefrom was filled with hope.  Jrefrom had been to the Void and survived. But not by ignoring the advice of elders. And not by doing it alone.

Rejoin the culture. Instruct offspring to stay within the localized parameter. Show the culture the beauty of itself.

Lead the culture.

The closer Jrefrom moved toward the culture, the stranger the sensations became. The emotings were difficult to understand.

Jrefrom reached where the culture used to be, the strange sensations becoming clear. All that emoted back was a giant crater where millions had once been.

The End