Darkness was the law of this reality.
Most of the time, darkness is like the cold, a thing not quantified by the presence of light or heat, but rather by the degree of absence. Most of the time, claims of dark or cold just indicate a heat/light level that is lower than normal, or lower than comfortable.
This was not that kind of darkness.
This was to darkness what the concept of absolute zero was to cold. It was the kind of darkness a child might find under the bed in a room with heavy curtains drawn on an overcast, moonless night in a deep forest. If the child had a bed, of course. Or a room.
Absent the ability to orient himself in anyway using his sight, the boy had paid keen attention to even the faintest sounds joining him in the dark, which is how he had found his way to the source of a soft trickling that sounded like tickled ice cubes.
The boy leaned toward the brackish water leaking down the wall, stuck his tongue out and lapped what he could off the smooth stone. He patted the wall with a hand and a fist, reaching as high as he could stretch.
Which was not that high.
He couldn’t tell where the water was leaking into the tunnel. He slumped against the wall and tried not to cry. Gathering himself, he rose, lapped at the wall a few times.
So that room with all the tunnels…
I want to call it a hub.
Somewhere in the midst of the murky haze that was ubiquitous flickered a blurry image of the so-named hub, a roundish space branching into a half dozen halls, two of the openings adjacent to each other were glowing, one red and the other blue.
That is an impressive recreation of a place we haven’t ever seen.
I just counted the steps between doors, and then generated an approximation.
Kind of a guess, but with math.
What do the colors mean?
The image flickered two extend the two halls in question. The blue tinged hall lengthened until it was longer than the hub was wide, and by a considerable margin, featuring a narrow waterfall pouring into a little pool against the wall closest to the red hall.
The red hall reached about half the distance of the blue before stopping at a square room maybe two thirds the size of the hub, with a much smaller branch extending a bit into the murk beyond.
Forgive the, ah, artistic license. The blue is for the water, the tunnel leading to where we are here. The red is for the small room with the Pipe.
And the Starting… ?
The Starting Point. Yes. That is further down the water tunnel, away from the hub. But as far as the hub is concerned.
Um, ‘as far as the hub is concerned?’
I mean. Just seems like a lot of different options all passing through that one place? If any two of those tunnels lead to anywhere, which we NEED one of them at least to do if we don’t want to spend forever alone in the dark, then it becomes the intersection between those places and water.
And the Starting Point.
Yeah, you said that already. The Starting Point and that one tunnel. This should help us remember where we are. We could make that little room a base, and then explore from there. Hope we run into something?
But yeah, all that other stuff, too, I guess.
The tunnels on either side of the lit pair flicked and stretched a bit.
Do we want to try the one next to the red one, or the blue one?
Just like that, huh?
No reason to delay the inevitable.
Not sure I like the sound of that.
I like the blue one. Let’s go that way.
Works for me.
Another flickering dismissed one hall while lighting the hall adjacent to the blue with a soft green hue.
No, the blue one!
Um. We’ve already been there. That’s where we are sitting. Right now.
Not all of it? It keeps going, right? You mentioned that one tunnel.
I mean, I think so?
What does that mean?
Everything right after the Starting is a lot fuzzier. Our head hurt so bad it was tough to think, and I was trying to count AND remember about volcanos… I think this tunnel splits?
The blue hall pushed further, hooking a little away from the red before it faded to less of a hall and more of a blue impression winding into the murk.
Which is where things are real not clear. We know there is a space that’s kind of filled with rocks down this way?
The non-hub end of the tunnel flared into a brighter blue.
I think there was a split to cut off to the right about HERE.
Somewhere about halfway between where the blue ended (or started) and where the hall became more defined the blue pulsed in a steady rhythm.
Um, but again. Um. Sorry.
Well, we’ll see. No need to apologize. We don’t even know if it’s there. Let’s go look. And get another drink.
He stood, and if there had been anyone to see the small boy turning to lick at a leaking wall, they might have described the particular twist of his facial muscles as the hint of a smile.
There was no one, of course. And it was too dark to see.
He turned, stepping in the direction away from the hub. After a while the boy began trailing a hand along the left side of the tunnel.
Why are we walk-groping the wall?
What? That isn’t a thing.
Don’t want to walk past the tunnel, do we?
Oh. Right. Grope away.
The boy crept at a slower pace, cocking an ear forward to try and catch any change in the ambient quiet.
He kept creeping, trailing his hand.
He stopped, listened for a while, and he sniffed at the air. He kept walking. Then the wall fell away from his hand and he froze. And turned, following the new tunnel.
Soft steps, rolling from the outside, heel to toe. Knees bent, hands stretched out as the boy whispered from one wall across to the other and slipped near silent down the tunnel. The walls on either side narrowed, until he no longer needed to shuffle to touch opposite one, just a step. Then not even a step. Then he didn’t even need to reach. Then the tunnel came to an abrupt end.
He felt the wall in front of him with tentative fingertips.
Doesn’t feel like the other walls.
His fingertips flit back to the side walls, skittering back and forth between the two distinct textures, lingering a bit at the place where one became the other.
This new one feels like it had little lines running rough up and down it. Rough and uneven lines.
Um, like a tree?
More like a wooden wall.
Maybe a door? Are there any things like hinges?
He felt along the wood, tracing the outline where the tunnel met this new wall, all the way around, and back and forth across the face of the wall.
He found a cold nub in what seemed like the middle, and ran his finger over it several times, leaning close to sniff at the spot, and then smelling the wood, pulling back for a moment, then leaning to smell the edge where the tunnel met the wall, running his hands along the intersections as high as his limited reach would allow.
Then the boy backed away, fingers extended to touch the wall, then he shuffled back a few quick, short shuffles straight down the dark tunnel, and dropped to squat on his heels, bouncing in tiny surges up and down.
This, ah, seems.
I was thinking ‘painful’.
It is a wall of wood at the end of a stone tunnel. If it isn’t a door, what would it be, some giant plug? And if it IS a door, the hinges are on the inside, so it should open if we hit it hard enough.
Not disagreeing, but…
It is so dark. Our hand, our head. . .
Do you have any other suggestions?
. . .
Here we go.
He exploded from his squat straight at where his mind swore to him the wooden wall was waiting, hurling himself forward into the unrelenting dark with every ounce of fury his tiny body could unfurl.
His frame stretched to its full length, twisting to thrust a shoulder out into the darkness ahead of his sensitive head, his toes leaving the ground a half a moment before that shoulder made contact with the rough wood and his body crushed back into a ball between the force of his momentum and the obstinate resistance of the wood. The resulting collision screeched loud and high, blasting the wood back into a broad open space which the boy could see.
We can see!
The space extended higher than the boy could reach, higher than he could reach standing on his own head even. Trying to match the space he saw in front of him to the length of a full shuffle step, it was maybe fifty steps across. Small boxes stacked against the far wall, and then a small desk, and the rickety remnants of a bookshelf.
Then his eyes fell onto the reason he could see, a miracle and a wonder in both that, and more ways than this poor boy boy was capable of understanding, or appreciating, at this point.
In the middle of this small hollow in the earth at the end of a pitch black tunnel of despair was a small body of water.
The boy would later notice the small holes in the rock wall, from which small rivulets trickled into the water, their own miracle. Even before then, he would notice the small fish that swam in little curlicues that vacillated between lightning and lazy, a second miracle. Neither of those would be the first thing that he noticed.
The first thing that he noticed was that the water was glowing.
A quick aside. For many of us scattered across the verse, it may be the case that glowing bodies of water are nothing worth note. As an easy popular example, the glowing algae in the seas of Xenephon light every coastline and inland lake, framing the continents in their bioluminescence. Let me assure you, such was not the case on the old rock.
There there was, for sure, the occasional place here and there across the globe, a pool in the forest in the northern Germanies, a cave on the Thailanese coast, and others, regarded as sacred or holy for most of our time earthbound. Two of the great yearnings of our species, light and water, in conjunction? Well, that could never be anything less than special.
Not that any of that information was available to the small child crouched in a doorway, jaw agape, eyes darting like the unnoticed fish in the water from said water to the roof, to the water, to the desk, back to the water, to the boxes, back to the water.
Always back to the water.
That is, ah, glowing, right?
Do, uh, things like that
Pools. Maybe really tiny lakes? And, um, no. They don’t. Um. I don’t think. Pretty sure.
So. Um. This thing.
Pool. Pond? What’s the difference?
Are you asking us? Feels like a pool.
Um. Right. Let’s stick with pool.
So this pool.
Which they don’t do.
And we can see.
Seems like good news. Except that we don’t understand what we are seeing. Are we sure that we are awake? Um, and, well. Sane?
I really don’t want to be crazy.
I think we should maybe run a few, um, tests. To check those kinds of things.
We already know a crazy test?
Well, no, ah, not exactly? But we can test whether we are asleep. Remember when I showed Whiney that we were in our own head.
You want us to slap ourselves.
Out there, where we are already cold and alone and scared.
We aren’t really that cold.
Wait, that’s true. Though this room feels colder than the tunnels were.
And slapping ourself, alone, in the dark
It isn’t dark anymore.
IS SUPPOSED TO REASSURE US THAT WE AREN’T CRAZY?
Um. No. The slap is just supposed to show that we are awake. Cause it doesn’t hurt here in our mindspace?
We are already broken and bruised. Now we think hurting ourself ON PURPOSE is a good idea?
Good point. Maybe don’t use the hand with the broken fingers?
The boy crouched by the doorway reached down and dropped a handful of tiny pink souvenirs into a pile next to the open door and stood, closed his gaping mouth and tore his eyes from the shining body of water to what seemed now more like a cave than a room despite the furnishings, and looked at the rough, natural, uneven ground at his feet.
The boy stared at a spot on the rock, noting the deeper hue shade of grey and the particular pattern of the crystalline flecks, took a deep breath, and slapped himself right across the face.
As the clap faded quick in the heavy air, the boy shook his head, blinking deep, slow winks. The boy’s face distorted as he stretched his cheeks and jaw muscles. He rubbed at the flushed cheek, and something like a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth near his fingers. He lowered his hand back to his side and raised his eyes to sneak a peek at the pool.
So, not dreaming, then. Crazy still seems like a good bet.
Well, if we were crazy, wouldn’t we think that we weren’t?
Um. I don’t think that makes sense.
Well, what do we mean by crazy?
You think that the world is the way it isn’t?
That sounds pretty good. I can go with that.
Alright. Let’s test the world.
We can DO that?
Yeah, no, I’m with Whiney this time.
I mean, I think we can? We can just check some things that we think make sense about the world? Like, um, test the rules?
Yeah, no. Still lost.
Look, can we fly? Do things fall up? Do solid things stay solid? Um. I think we just want to find a test to prove that the world is not what we think it is.
Do we know what we think it is?
Um. Not really. I think we try to just feel it out?
Ok. Um. So how close is our mental copy of this room?
Real close. We can see this one. This place is pretty much the same.
Ok. Let’s move something in here, and see if it moves out there.
In the midst of the murky expanse, the copy of the door swung shut with a sharp suddenness.
Hey! We don’t… Nevermind. It didn’t shut the door out there. But, um, let’s leave the outside door open? I don’t want to get stuck in here.
We opened it the first time.
And that kinda hurt. So, yeah, let’s just leave it.
Now we know that our shenanigans in here didn’t close the door out there. Point for sanity?
We are having a three-way conversation in our head. I don’t think we get to claim points for sanity, yet.
Nonsense. That just means that insanity has points, too.
I don’t think I like this game.
Let’s check if solid things stay solid.
One hesitant step after another, through the soft greyish light pervading the space, a child approached a desk that was taller than he was. With increasing confidence, small fingers grazed across the chair and front of the wooden desk, shaping it out the way a blind man would, or the way a mime might pretend to shape one.
He pulled the chair away from the desk, and pushed it back, listening to the wood scraping against the stone floor. Ear cocked to the fading resonance of the scraping, the boy heard another, rhythmic sound he had not noticed earlier.
Doesn’t that kind of sound like…
The leaky wall down the tunnel?
His gaze shot to the water and the edge where water met stone. In little swells, the edge of the water rocked up and down on the rock, back and forth. Then the boy noticed the fish, and he crumpled to the ground.