The rift divides the land in two halves, but neither of them is interesting. It is the rift itself that calls to people, entices them with its siren’s call from worlds away: only a dozen meters wide, with steep cliffs and a bottom that can never be seen. Shine a light into the rift, they say, and it will only flee back to you; jump in, and you will never see light again.
The bathynaut jumps, and she does it with only the slightest hesitation. She wears a complicated diving suit of dull metal and protruding bolts, like the armor of an ancient marine treasure hunter. From the top of her helmet, an air tube extends to the pumps on the rim, and at her belt, she is attached via rope to a great wench, so she can be lowered in and pulled back out.
The rope unwinds, and the bathynaut falls into the rift, deeper and deeper. It takes an eternity until the rope tightens and catches her, stopping her acceleration way before terminal velocity.
If she looks back up, she can only glimpse a narrow line of heaven, and she feels the extraordinary loneliness of her undertaking for the first time. The cliffs are far too sheer to be climbed back up, diving suit or not, and the air in her helmet will only last for a few minutes should the tube be severed.
Light doesn’t make it all the way down between the slopes, and while traces of it surrender to the pull of gravity, the majority escapes back into the outside world. What little light reaches the lower regions of the rift just bounces from wall to wall, losing some of its color with every repetition, until only its bones remain.
The dust is another matter: for each particle of light that gets away, a particle of dust slowly trickles into the abyss, accumulating higher and higher in some sort of floating, fog-like mass.
The bathynaut sinks slower now, emerging into the waving dust and the darkness. It is not the gloom of a lanternless night that swallows her, nor the blackness of a blank sky; it is something more foreign, a negative brightness that radiates from the dust flakes like the bioluminescence of anglerfish, providing a pale non-illumination.
It is like plankton drifting through the hadalic regions just above the seafloor, like snow being blown into the mouth of a bottomless cave; it makes the dust visible, but only faintly, and nothing else besides it.
There is still no ground under the bathynaut’s heavy boots, and she cannot even see herself, just murkiness and the specters of dust. Deeper and deeper she drops, only discernible by the muffled sound of the rope, far into the realm of the unknown. There are things living inside the dust, everyone knows that, but nobody has seen them and returned.
It is, in fact, one of the reasons the bathynaut is going down, right after treasure and the Conundrum. She tries to focus on this thought while she keeps falling, her inner ears irritated by the absence of any visible confirmation of movement – and then, finally, her boots touch the ground.
The impact is more violent than she anticipated, and for a moment, pain floods through the bathynaut and washes over everything else. She can feel nothing in the void, and she can only make out flickering dust, similar to afterimages on her retina.
Her hand fumbles over her chest plate, finds a dial and turns it. Sharp light cuts through the gloom and the dancing dust, a white cone extending in front of the bathynaut. She is not alone: creatures float all around her, worms or snakes, colorless jellyfish with trailing tentacles or crab-like entities of shells and claws, of baleen plates and longing eyes. The bathynaut is surrounded by moving things on all sides, by their moist quivering trunks and long arms, as if she has entangled herself in some sort of monstrous, sentient seaweed.
They don’t attack, but neither do they flee before the brightness of the bathynaut’s light. They float, glide, and crawl toward her, slowly but all the more horrifying. The bathynaut’s gloved hands draw letters in the dust, and her voice tries to escape the bulky helmet and metal-grilled face window, asking what they are, what they want, screaming at them to go away.
They have voices, too, a myriad of them, rasping and crunching and crackling in the bathynaut’s ears; and they explain to her that they want nothing, that they aren’t real, that they don’t exist. But listen, they say to her, we can show you something down here that is real, something you will want to see.
They come closer and closer, groping with their multifarious extremities over the outer hull of her suit. Come with us, come now, they echo through the darkness, what else did you dive into the dust for? Aren’t you an explorer?
And so, she walks behind them until her flashlight peels something solid out of the levitating dust, one of the steep inclines of the rift. There is an entrance, a short tunnel, and the bathynaut steps through it. She knows that she has to be careful with her air tube and rope, but for now, they are long enough to follow her inside a rapidly expanding cavern.
There is something in its center, a hole that even the bathynaut’s light cannot fully illuminate. A hole that stretches into the distance, comparatively narrow, but long and steep. There is nothing on either side, except for a winch and an oddly shaped pump, and it seems to go down for an immeasurable distance.
Jump in, the creatures murmur to the bathynaut from the entrance, their bodies a swaying wall of gills and sucker cups, of hooked teeth and translucent flesh. There are layers to everything, their chorus tells her, one below the other, deeper and deeper until the very bottom.
Dust particles begin to deposit on the bathynaut’s suit, sticking to her like sediment collecting on the ocean floor. The longer she stays in one place, the heavier their weight becomes, encrusting her with a shell that restricts all her movements.
She walks closer to the abyss, looking down into a colorless void, sensing the pull of much denser atmospheres. The winch on the rim has a rope to clip in, and a tube extends from the pump, just the right size for her helmet. Briefly, she feels wonder, a hint of fear even, but it doesn’t matter: for in this deeper rift, do treasure and the Conundrum not wait for her?
With clumsy fingers, she hooks in the rope and exchanges the tubes, breathing dry and untouched air that grinds into her lungs like sand. The bathynaut looks back at the strange dwellers in the dust, at her discarded tube and the old rope, then takes another step.
She jumps, and she does it with only the slightest hesitation.
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