It took a long time for me to realise that he was gone. Longer, I remember thinking, than I would care to admit to him when we were reunited. It was not that I did not notice his absence so much as I did not find anything strange in it at first. My companion was prone to wander off from time to time, rarely taking the time to say goodbye or to inform me of his plans, but always he returned with fresh tales of adventure. Sometimes I wondered if he did it to impress me, if his concern was not the experiences themselves but the raising of his stature in my eyes. The truth was that he needed none of these affectations to win my regard, but he enjoyed the process, and I the telling, and so I let the matter be.
Eventually, though, I came to realise that this disappearance was unlike those which had come before it. At first I indulged myself by imagining a confession of my anxiety to him upon his return, enduring his good natured taunts as we settled back into the rhythms of our shared existence. Still, I fretted as I went about my day, clinging as close as I could to our normal way of doing things as though he could be conjured by the rejection of his departure. Slowly my resolve faded and the rocks became rich with his absence, my actions heavy and meaningless without him there to comment and tease. One meal passed, and then another, so that by the time of the third I found that my concern had eclipsed my desire to sustain myself. I knew that if I were to raise an alarm he would be mortified upon his return, and would scold me greatly, but eventually my fear outweighed such concerns.
I reached out to my most adjacent brothers, placing my voice on the current and letting it carry across them. Their response, when it came, was chiding and brief. I gave him too much leeway, they said, was too generous with his absences and his assumptions that I would always be there to greet him upon his return. I acknowledged their rebukes and pressed my questions again, and they confessed to having no knowledge of his whereabouts. By now I was becoming deeply concerned; on every other sojourn he had stopped by at least one of our neighbours, to boast of his new adventure an d prepare them for the glory which he perceived in his imminent return. Such vainglory and boldness had seemed to me an endearing trait, one which I encouraged, such was my love for him and for his happiness. Now such memories only served to torment me. I thought of the dark bulks that moved silently through the darkness below us, the grey shapes that cast long shadows and haunted the nightmares of the young. No good could come of brooding on such things, and I endeavoured to cast them from my thoughts.
Without him, the rock to which I clung was too large, and it was too easy to allow myself to imagine a dozen discomforts which his presence rendered invisible or insignificant. I began to see only places where he had been, and where he was no longer. Each of my arms was an arm which did not lie alongside one of his, and each of my thoughts was one which echoed, unshared, into the waves to die. My mind was empty without him, the water surrounding me great and dark and empty. The tug of gravity upon me, usually so light as to be invisible, began to feel a terrible burden, as great as the burden of loving one who was not present to return it.
The anger and frustration which he was so adept and cooling began to boil and fume within me. It was no longer sufficient to wait and hope; for the good of my own state of mind, it was imperative to act. I began to expand my frame of reference, drawing from the memories of those in our immediate shoal, sensing the world as they did. Their song enveloped mine, and for a time I left my rock behind and became many. I felt the squirming, ripening, waft of life, the feeding of young and the hunting of prey, the evasion of hunters and the cool hard security of clinging to rock. It washed through me and for a moment I forgot my goal, forgot my companion and myself. There was a delirium in the collective, a safety in the immortality of numbers that could never be known by a lonely individual. Eventually I drew back, closing myself to the song that surrounded myself, becoming only myself once more. The whole was safer than the one, but it could not love.
I had felt no trace of the one that I sought, and though I had left a trace of the necessity t contact me upon sighting my companion in the minds that I had passed through, I was becoming frantic with concern. My efforts had taken more from me than I had thought, or perhaps it was merely my anxiety that was consuming me, but I had become hungry once more. Slowly I extracted myself from the cool, safe outcropping to which I clung, working myself over rock until I reached the nearby cluster from which it was my habit to feed. My companion had often commented on my parochial diet, asking in his wheedling way how I could be content to taste only the one source of food day after day. I felt again the rich combination of frustration and shame such questioning awoke in me, and for a time it was as though he were there with me, so perfectly could I run through the stages of the disagreement which would follow.
It came to me as I ate that I had detected something strange in the shoal, a chorus that was not known to me, an echo of something young and brash and grating. It was not of my own kind, I was sure, and at first I attempted to disregard it. As I did so, though, it occurred to me that it was exactly the sort of voice which might appeal to my companion, the sort which he would seek out for no better reason than to hear or feel something which he had not had chance to hear or feel before. Where I heard only garish offense, I understood that he would heard adventure. Returning to my usual position, I reached out towards it myself.
What I found baffled me. It was the practice of our kind to array our pairs across the rock as broadly as was possible, in order to maximise the room for food to grow, as well as to minimise the number of us who would be taken in the event of a strike by a predator. In such an arrangement those of us who wished to wander from place to place were provided with the space to do so, and those of us who preferred to remain in place and communicate with their fellows by means of song were unimpeded. This was the way of things for all of our kind, for as long as we had lived as we do. That, at least, was what I had supposed before this day. The minds that I touched were packed closely together, their bodies almost touching and their arms interwoven across the rock. Their thoughts were jumbled, anarchic, and when I sought to hear their song I fell headlong into it. How any of them could maintain a coherent identity I did not know. I thought of the time that the darkness below had resolved into a terrible sleek gray shape, tearing through those who clung to the rock around me, vanishing into the pit from which it came and leaving the water thick with blood and sundered flesh. The screaming tumult of panicked voices had been as horrifying as the attack itself, and the cacophony which rose to assault me from this nearby shoal was no less overwhelming.
Eventually I recalled my purpose, and pressed my demand for any sign of my companion. If any response was forthcoming, I could not make it out against the nightmarish tones of their song. Emboldened by their failure to respond to me, I made my demand once more, my vigour renewed by rage. Again, there was only an indecipherable babble in response, though by I had become sufficiently attuned to their strange song to detect something new within it, an undercurrent of something which sounded a little like a whisper and a little like laughter. Enraged at their disregard I demanded to know who they were and what madness might drive them to arrange themselves with such terrible strangeness and then deny the requests of those who petitioned them from without.
At last a response was returned to me, framed in the terrible sympathy of the young for those who they consider to be old. The voice which spoke to me – I could not tell if it were a single being or something emerged from all the minds before me – explained that they had departed our shoal in silence many seasons ago, and that though many among my kind were aware of their presence, there was little possibility of discourse between the two. They sought to shame me with my own words, to turn my temper against me, and bade me to repeat my questions with a cooler voice. Inflamed by their arrogance and my own increasing terror I insulted them, demanded that they explain themselves and give answer to my enquiries.
Their response came in the form of an image, a direct projection into my consciousness the like of which I had not previously experienced. They showed me a great chasm, a yawning impossibility atop which perched a tiny flicker of consciousness. With no small amount of horror I perceived that that thin candle of life was the entirety of my world, that it included not only my own shoal but five or six adjoining ones of whom I was completely unaware, their configurations as strange to my eyes as they were different from one another. I saw with shame that the spread of my own kind was greater than my companion’s tales had led me to believe, and understood with horror that the world was yet larger still than
I could comprehend.
They showed me my companion, his tentacles as strong and clever as I remembered, his body luminescent and beautiful. He went among them, entwining with them, joining their song though his voice was unpracticed and unsure. The sight of him broke open something that I had not felt harden inside me, and I watched the vision they presented with increasing fear. I saw the strangeness of their song suffuse my companion, saw in him the signs that surely only I could detect of his confidence giving way to braggadocio and then at last to fear. The shoal swept him along, the rapture of their joining blinding them to the evidence of his disquiet. Then his grip loosened, his tentacles unfurled, and he fell.
I will ever be haunted by the image of the only being I had ever allowed myself to love, who had ever stilled the rage that slumbered in my heart, falling from my sight. The grey shapes in the depths continued to glide back and forth beneath him as he tumbled towards them, and then his tiny form was lost. I did not see them twist and churn in the manner which indicates a feeding frenzy, but his form would not have been sufficient to prompt such a thing. As impossible as it seemed, any one of the monsters below could have lazily consumed my world without the need to pause. I felt the light and meaning go out of my world.
The other shoal broke the connection there. They returned to their own strange song, seemingly insensate or unconcerned for the revelation which they had laid upon me. I sat motionless for a long time, thinking over all that I had seen. As I stared into the dark, a final echo of song passed through my mind. My break from the other shoal had not been clean, and I saw a glimpse of what my companion had been seeking when he went to them. A legend, born of this high intensity discourse of their fevered consciousness, of another world below ours. A shoal to dwarf all others, a song to end all songs, at the bottom of the world. He had gone to them to hear their tales and return them to me, but now that he had fallen they did not mourn their brief companion, for they believed that he had fallen into paradise.
The rock to which I clung, my comforting corner of a world too large to endure, seemed sad and meaningless, the depths below larger and more horrifying to bear. I moved to eat, and found myself disinterested in food. I tried to settle myself, telling myself that my loss and revelation were sufficient for a single day, and found myself unable to sleep. Nothing would content me, and nothing was of value. The choice, when it came to me, did not seem as such. So it is with all great decisions, I have found. I did not consider it, I simply looked upon my life and found that there was but a single option available to me. That which surrounded me way immaterial, and my life was below me. With no idea of what awaited me, with no knowledge of whether I might survive the descent, I opened my arms and fell.
The water below was dark. At first the lack of rock beneath my arms was terrifying and I thrashed on the spot, my thoughts desperate and wild. The grey shapes that embodied the termination of everything I had ever had or would ever be approached. If they detected me I would die; there was nothing that I could do to prevented. They passed smoothly around me, their long sleek fins flicking lazily. I fell, and they swam on, and I did not die.
It was dark for a long time, longer than I could count. The cold became a part of me. I slept and woke and wondered if I had dreamed all that had gone before. I heard a whisper from below me, and believed myself mad at last. The flicker of sound was followed by another, and then another, and then the trench around me blazed with light and song. The thousand shoals below my world dwarfed everything that I had ever known, and I tumbled towards it, caring only that my companion had come this way, and now so did I.
Bio: Alex Hardison was born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, where he obtained a degree in Politics and International Studies with Honors. He lived for a year in London and has travelled in both Europe and America, and now resides in Sydney with girlfriend and cat. He has previously been published in Rudy Rucker’s webzine FLURB and keeps his own website at www.volatite-memory.com.