Darkness Full of Light

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Darkness Full of Light

By Tony Dietz

This is not the first time my sisters have tried to drown me.

I was four the first time they tried. They pushed me under in the deep end of the pool, and my mother had to jump in to save me. I was eight the second time, when they abandoned me in the deep waters of the Abyssal Plain. That was after my mother went away, and it was my father who noticed I didn’t return with their pod, and who punished them after I’d been found. I was ten the third time. They neglected to fill my air tank, but by then I was on to them, and I checked it myself. They’re jealous of me because my mother was our father’s favorite wife, and because I’m his favorite daughter.

Now I’m fourteen, and I watch them carefully. We live in a dangerous world where there are many ways to drown. The warnings have been drummed into us since our first underwater breath: sink too deep and the pressure will crush you; float too high and your blood will boil; breathe too hard and you’ll run out of air; and never, ever, swim up into the light.

We live below the light, in the Midnight Zone, two thousand meters under the surface of the sea. The Sunlit Zone barely makes it two hundred meters down. That’s where all life that needs light lives. Beneath the Sunlit Zone is the Twilight Zone, where fish hide from predators and rise only at night to feed. Beneath the Twilight Zone is our world, the Midnight Zone, a darkness lit only by our headlights and the occasional bioluminescent squid. 

That’s what my sisters call me, by the way—Squid. It’s not meant to be a compliment, but I take it as one. Squids are graceful and beautiful and fast and terrible. 

Our home is the Mata Deep Sea Sphere: a mining base built a hundred years ago on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It was built to mine rare metals from the hydrothermal vents in the Tonga Arc. Now we dig for what we need to survive. 

My sisters and I are fifth-generation Matas, descended from a group of climate migrants who followed the example of their island home and sank into the sea. We are taught in school that surfaces create friction, and that it is better to live far from the interface and the heat and turbulence that surfaces and surface dwellers create. There was a lot of friction a hundred years ago: superstorms, rising tides, mass migrations, water wars, and worse. The lucky ones escaped. They were called the one percent, the ones who had enough resources to travel to places the masses couldn’t reach. Some went into space, others into the high mountains. Our founders chose a ball on the bottom of the ocean.

Waves from tides and storms don’t reach the Midnight Zone. Radio waves neither. We live in total isolation, getting power from the vents, oxygen from the water, and food from the ocean. We have no contact with the surface. Our elders tell us that the surface-dwellers didn’t listen to our cries when our home sunk below the waves, so why should we listen to their suffering.

We survive, even as the dodos die. That’s what we call surface dwellers—dodos—and we like to chant: “dodos can’t swim, can’t fly, all they do is die.” It’s because dodos went extinct, and the surface dwellers fast followed them. Or so we are taught.

To tell the truth, we know nothing about the surface. We learn about the sea, but never the sky. Our library only has books about the sea; our intranet’s files all concern the sea; our movies are about the sea; our speech, our songs, our art, are all sea, sea, sea. 

We don’t know what we don’t know, but we sense something is missing. Something big.

Only one of our teachers ever mentions the surface. That’s Ms. Talanoa. She breaks all the rules and her classes are my favorites, even though she’s a bit loopy and constantly jumps from topic to topic. Like yesterday. She started by reciting this ancient dodo poem about how no one’s an island, how we’re all connected, and how any one person’s death diminishes everyone. The poem ends by saying: “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” Ms. Talanoa asked us what we thought it meant. I said it was probably a storm bell, tolling to warn the dodos to do something before they ruin the planet. She said that the “thee” in the poem means “you,” and she gave me this penetrating look that made me squirm. She can be weird like that.  

Then she jumped topics and started talking about our Sphere and how it was designed using a principle of compression and release that some guy named Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed up. His buildings had dark cramped entryways to compress people before releasing them into big bright rooms, which seemed bigger and brighter after the compression. It sounded like a good idea, but I guess the Sphere’s designers ran out of money for the big bright rooms, because the whole place is dark and cramped. Ms. Talanoa asked the class to imagine what it would be like if they had to spend their lives compressed in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s entryways without ever getting released into the big room. Then she gave her weird look again, which made me think she wasn’t talking about design principles any more. 

Another jump and suddenly she was talking about the sky and the stars, and how our sun is just one of billions of stars in our galaxy, which is one of billions of galaxies in the universe. I left her class with my head spinning. When I went to bed I dreamed I was a bright star, streaking across the sky, and my sisters were smaller stars trailing in my wake. I told my sisters about my dream at breakfast. They weren’t impressed. If looks could drown, I’d already be at the bottom of the sea.

My mother was like Ms. Talanoa. She liked to talk about the surface too. Once she even showed me a picture from the surface that was passed down to her in secret from her great-great-grandmother. It was of a family at the beach on a sunny day. You could see all the way to the edge of the Earth, and the light was so bright and the sky so blue it made me cry. My mother showed it to my father too, but he took it from her. He said it wasn’t good to dream about the light when you live in the dark. My mother looked so sad after that. My father must have realized his mistake, because when she went away he told me he’d given her what she wanted, which was enough air to go to the surface. 

You see, when they built the Sphere, the founders didn’t think two thousand meters of water was enough to truly isolate us, not if we could surface whenever we wanted. So, they set the Sphere’s internal pressure to a depth of two hundred meters, which is twenty times the pressure at the surface and about as much as a human body can stand. Our bodies are all pressurized to this depth. We are taught in school that they did this to reduce the pressure difference across the Sphere’s walls. But then they teach us about pressure, and percentages, and significance, and we understand that they are lying.  

We all know the real reason, because they teach us about the bends too. Anyone who tries to surface after living at two hundred meters of pressure will get bent. Their blood will boil. It will bubble like a can of soda: bubble under their skin, in their joints, in their heart, and in their brain. It will be painful as all heck. And gross. And fatal. And because our dive suits are only designed for positive external pressure, we can’t swim higher than two hundred meters in our suits either. If we do, they will literally explode. 

To surface without getting bent we would need to pause at a depth of two hundred meters, flood our suits to equalize pressure with the sea, and then surface slowly, decompressing over several days. But our leaders are stingy with air. We have to meter our air in and out whenever we dive, and no one is allowed to draw more than eight hours at a time. The air we breathe is the chain that binds us. 

I am glad my father somehow got my mother enough air to reach the surface. When I think of her, it’s much better to think of her in the light than in the Deep. 

I have nightmares about the Deep. We all do. It’s deep and dark where we live, but there are places that are darker and deeper. We live next to one of those, the Tonga Trench, where the ocean floor plunges to a depth of seven thousand meters. The bottom of the trench is called the Hadal Zone, as in Hades, as in death. You sink down there, you are never coming back. This is where our nightmares lie. We call it the Deep, and it’s the scariest thing. 

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My sisters and I are forbidden from swimming near the trench, which is probably what draws us to it. Whenever we dive, we always seem to end up there. Like today. We were meant to be working. Although we are too young to operate the heavy machines that grind the vents, our small hands are perfect for collecting the manganese nodules that are strewn across the ocean floor. I was swimming circles about my sisters, grabbing nodules as they reached for them, and filling my bag with twice the number they did. I teased them the whole time, in good fun of course, about how slow they were—fat sperm whales to my slick squid. I may have laid it on a bit thick. Sometimes I forget to be nice without my mother to remind me.

It’s my new dive suit that makes me so fast, and they are all very jealous of it. My father’s engineers worked for months to perfect its design. The suit is made of a woven beryllium composite with ferromagnetic joints and a graphene shell. I’m not sure what all that means, but I learned it by heart so I could slip it into conversations with my sisters. It’s slim and flexible and has a monofin a dolphin would die for. 

Today was the first day I got to take my suit out into the ocean. Its luminescent surface flashed a rainbow of colors as I darted among my sisters. I was fast and beautiful and graceful and terrible. I grabbed them from below, like a shark, which freaked them out. They gave chase, but they couldn’t touch me. It was the best of fun.

By rights the new suit should have gone to Asherah, as she’s the oldest. If not her, then her sidekick Daryah, the second oldest. Or any of my older half sisters: Coralia, who loves to dance; Sirena, who’s always singing; Pearl, who thinks she is pretty; Kaia, who never stops talking; Tohora, who always listens; Vaha, the instigator; Kaivai, the peacemaker; or Anga, who swims almost as well as me. 

But our father chose to give it to me, Jozette, because I’m his favorite.

My older sisters are all named for the sea, but my mother didn’t follow this tradition. My little sister’s name is Satya, which means truth. I’m not sure what my name means. My sisters tell me it means “full of herself.” It’s not meant to be a compliment.

No one was leading—we were just mucking about—but we soon found ourselves at a point on the rim of the trench known as the Suicide Drop-Off. It’s terrifying to float at the edge and peer into the ink-black Deep, impenetrable to our lights, even to our sonar. The terror doesn’t come from what we can’t see; we are used to floating in darkness. The terror comes from what we know: that we are at the edge of a vertical cliff that falls thousands of meters to the bottom of the trench; that if anything were to go wrong with our buoyancy compensators, we would sink to the bottom; that the pressure would crush our suits long before we got there; and that there would be no way to recover what was left. That’s why it’s called the Suicide Drop-Off. Our doctors are very good at resuscitating victims of drowning. But pop a valve and sink into the Deep and no one is bringing you back.  

Today we dared each other to swim out over the trench. Although I am the youngest, I was the first to take the dare. Heart pounding, barely breathing, I swam out and back again. Then others went, and each time we dared each other to go farther. I swam way out and teased my sisters, calling them blubber-heads and scaredy-squids. It was meant in good fun, but they were very jealous of my new suit. 

That was when they decided, once again, to drown me.  

“Come here, Squid,” Vaha called. “There’s something caught on your tank.” I could see her smiling through her helmet’s visor, so I swam over to her. I thought she was going to help me. Instead, she unclipped my tank. Coralia swooped past, snatched it from her, and passed it to Sirena, who taunted me. I pushed Vaha away and propelled myself furiously after Sirena, but she handed my tank off to Kaia, who dangled it over the trench. I chased her, but she shot it over to Anga, who swam even further out over the trench. 

I stopped wasting air chasing them. “Give it here, Anga,” I demanded, and grasped for the worst threat I could think of. “Give it here, or I’ll tell father.” 

Anga waggled my tank in front of her. “Come and get it you spoiled little squid.” I charged at her and she tried to toss the tank to Kaivai but its valve caught on her bag of rocks, tearing it from her belt and disrupting her buoyancy. Anga went up, and my tank, with her rocks attached, fell tumbling into the Deep. 

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This is not the first time my sisters have tried to drown me, but it looks like this time they might succeed. They circle me, undulating gracefully, feigning concern. I see through their illusion. Nasty, vindictive sirens. 

I should cut my hand across my neck to signal that I am out of air, to ask them to share their air. Some already have their hands on their buddy hoses, ready. But I’m too angry.   

“You can all go to hell,” I say, and I flip and kick down into the trench to chase my tank. 

It feels good for about ten seconds. 

Then my fury fades to fear. My tank has sunk fast, weighed down by Anga’s rocks. I sweep the narrow ray of my headlight, but it shows nothing but black deep. I listen for pings from my sonar. There it is, faint but recognizable, a long way down. 

The fear clears my thoughts. I pull up in a tight arc, hoping to see lights following me. There is only darkness. I really should swim back and beg for air. 

I’d rather die.

I dive down, driving with my fin, slipping through the water, sinuous as a seal. A readout in the corner of my helmet shows my depth: 2500 m. I’m tempted to kick harder but know I would just churn water and waste energy. I stretch my arms forward, hands clasped together, and focus on being one with the water, a streamlined sliver in the dark deep. I’m fast and beautiful and graceful and terrible.

Why do my sisters want to drown me?

An alarm sounds in my helmet, warning that I’ve exceeded my suit’s rated depth. I ignore it. My sisters’ suits are only rated to 2100 m, but mine is rated to 3000 m. I watched them proof-test a prototype of my suit and remember them taking it much deeper than its rated depth. They put a seal inside. When the suit imploded, the seal’s blood bloomed like algae in the water. It wasn’t pretty.

Why do they hate me?

3200 m. My light pencils the darkness. My brain feels fuzzy. I’m running out of oxygen. The black seems blacker, if that’s even possible. I wish I could remember the depth at which the seal bloomed. 

3400 m. I’m out of my head, like in a dream. I see myself, a tiny prick of light in the great darkness of the Deep. I am all alone. There are no stars trailing in my wake.

What did I ever do to them?  

3600 m. My tank! A faint reflection in the dark. I chase on, down and down and down. All I can hear is my heart. Time slows as its beat counts the seconds I have left. 

3800 m. My sight narrows. Been here before. Seconds from blacking out. If I do, I’m dead. Drowned. 

3900 m. So close. My tank is right there. My hand closes on it. I clip in my hose. Darkness. 

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Why do they want to drown me? Why? Why? Why? My question echoes in the dark. 

Then I hear a voice. Wake up. It sounds like my mother. 

I’m not dead?

Not yet.  

4000 m. I’m deep in the abyss and still sinking. My suit has locked up and it’s making sounds it’s never made before, grinding and creaking. I can taste fear in my mouth, feel it in my stomach. 

You have to stop sinking. 

I reach down to inflate my buoyancy compensator. Nothing happens. The water pressure must be higher than my tank pressure. I’m trapped, caught in a crushing fist. Help! Please don’t let me bloom like the seal. 

The rocks.

The rocks! I unclip my bag and let it go. I unhook Anga’s rocks from my tank and let them go too. I stop sinking and an enormous wave of relief shudders through me. I rise, slowly at first, then faster and faster as my compensator inflates. I am shaking in my suit as I shoot upwards. 

At 3500 m my waist unlocks, and I can swim again. I twirl as I rise, a graceful rainbow fish pirouetting. My sisters will be so glad to see me.

I stop spinning. My sisters hate me. They want to drown me.

Do they?  

When I was four, they pushed me under!

They were playing. You got pushed under in a chaos of bodies and bubbles. They didn’t even know you were there. 

When I was eight, they abandoned me on the Abyssal Plain!

You hid from them to see if they would notice. Is it their fault they didn’t?

When I was ten, they didn’t fill my tank!

You were old enough to fill your own tank. 

They stole my air and threw it down the trench.

They were teasing you, just as you teased them. Anga didn’t mean to drop your tank. It was an accident.

They wouldn’t give me air.

You didn’t ask.

They didn’t follow me.

You didn’t wait for them.

They hate me.

They’re jealous of you.

Because of my suit.

Because their father loves you more, and you rub their noses in it.

I decide I really don’t like the voice. 

A vertical rock face looms large in the beam of my headlight. I angle toward it as I ascend, trying to distract myself from the annoying voice. Something glints on top of a rocky outcrop. I adjust my compensator to halt my ascent and hover beside the wall as I peer at the thing in the rocks. My depth gauge reads 3000 m. I know what it is, long before I gather the courage to admit it to myself. 

Crushed suicide sinkers. 

A great pile of suits, all crumpled, like a heap of discarded dolls that have been stomped on hard and tossed aside. There must be hundreds of them. It feels so wrong—wrong that they’d felt their only option was to sink, and wrong that even their wish to sink had been denied. They’d wanted to lie on the bottom, forever undisturbed, not here, just below their crush depth, waiting for someone with a new suit to discover them. 

I should do something. I fin down and roll the topmost suit off the pile and over to the edge of the outcrop. I unclip its tank, whisper “Rest in peace,” and push the suit over the edge. As I watch it sink, my light illuminates the reflective number on its helmet. All our suits have numbers. They represent the order of our birth among the Sphere’s population. Mine is one thousand, which makes me special, the first millennial. My mother was eight hundred, which made her special too, a centurion. None of my sisters have special numbers. This suit’s number is 985, which is Tessa’s number. 

Tessa was one of Anga’s friends. Once, when I was crying because Anga had excluded me from a game, Tessa put her arm around me and told Anga to let me join. I’d been so happy to join the game, and then so intent on winning, that I’d never even thanked her. Now, as I watch her sink into the Deep, I worry that I’m not a very good person. 

A cloud of dark thoughts gathers. I avoid them by inspecting Tessa’s tank. I should have sent it to the bottom with her, but it felt like such a waste. I connect my buddy hose to see if there’s air left. It feels a bit like stealing, but I forget that when I see the readout in my helmet. I’ve more than doubled my air supply. Fourteen hours! I’ve never had so much air in my life. I look over at the pile of suits and see a treasure trove of air. It’s not a nice way to see, but it gives me an idea. A breathtaking idea. 

I could surface!

I could see the light!

And then another thought, almost as compelling—I would never have to see my sisters again. 

I collect tanks, rolling suit after suit off the pile and over the edge. I don’t look at their numbers and I don’t watch them sink. The chain of tanks grows and my air supply increases with each one. By the eleventh tank I have eighty hours of air. But the eleventh suit catches on a rock as I push it over the edge. Its number flashes in front of my face.

Eight hundred.

Oh no. 

I watch my mother sink, the beam from my headlight a thread connecting us until she is swallowed by the darkness. The pressure builds. I feel again its crushing fist. The walls of the trench close in on me. I can’t take it anymore. I open the valve to my compensator and surge upwards, dragging the chain of tanks behind me. I explode from the trench, choking on sobs, and continue rocketing upwards, unable to see through the tears streaming from my eyes. I continue accelerating as the water pressure drops and my compensator expands. No more darkness. I need light.

Through my tears I sense the sea above turning from black to blue. I shoot through a bloom of jellyfish and startle a turtle swimming above them. A school of quivering tuna parts for my passage. I blink away my tears and check my depth. 300 m. I adjust my compensator and slow my ascent till I hang, suspended in pale blue water.

Oh father, 

You lied to me.

You said you gave her air. 

You said she went into the light. 

You said you loved me most. 

Was it love?

Or was it guilt?  

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Sink too deep and the pressure will crush you. Float too high and your blood will boil. Breathe too hard and you’ll run out of air. And never, ever, swim up into the light. 

Rules, drummed into us till they became part of us, like the language we speak, the names we answer to. I’ve swum too deep. I’ve breathed too hard. I’m swimming into the light. What name will I answer to now?

I flood my suit and rise slowly, hanging suspended for hours between each ascent. Above me the water is blue, below me it is black. A manta ray wafts by. The water above grows darker, and I worry that I am sinking, then realize it must be night. I sleep in my suit between ascents. When morning comes I am higher, and there are shades of green in the blue. Closer and closer I creep toward the surface. A pod of dolphins cavorts about me. The turtle returns for a visit. 

Hunger makes me wonder what I’ll do for food at the surface. My mother told me that fruit doesn’t rot on the branch like it does in the damp under the sea. I wonder if the dodos really did all die. I wonder if there is anything up there at all. 

Meters from the shimmering surface I almost lose my nerve. But there’s nothing for me below. With a powerful thrust of my tail, I launch myself upwards, and in a shower of spray, I burst into the light. 

Too bright! I shut my eyes and crash back into the water. My second attempt is more controlled. I surface and slowly open my helmet’s visor. New air rushes in, fresh, thick, and clean. It’s like breathing life. The sky is awash in red and orange. I open my eyes wide and let it all in. I’m a baby being born. It’s too big, too much for my mind to comprehend. My eyes focus at the range of my headlight—the farthest I’ve ever seen. But the world is much bigger. I try to focus farther, but the world is bigger still. I try to focus at infinity, and finally, there it is. The whole world. 

What a release! 

Clouds glow in the distance, floating above what must be the horizon, the edge of the Earth. My soul just might burst with the beauty of it all. I keep wanting to point, to show someone. It’s breaking my heart to see it alone.

I spin at the sound of laughter behind me. My sisters! But it’s not them. It’s something even more wondrous than the horizon: an island city under sail, a hodgepodge flotilla of boats and containers lashed together and supporting a dense honeycomb of buildings, plants, and machinery. Not mechanical, not biological, but both, and human, and very alive. People swarm everywhere. Their shouts float across the water. And something else … singing. They are singing! No one sings in the Sphere, where voices are trapped, but out here songs soar into the sky. I watch and listen, entranced. Patch-quilt sails billow in the breeze. The sun sinks as the city sails away from me. Only after the sight and sound of it has faded do I think that maybe I should have called to them. But it is too late, and I am left alone with the greatest lie of all. The dodos didn’t die. They survived.

I close my eyes and float alone on the dark ocean. I wander in my thoughts for a long time. I think about my mother’s sadness, and my father’s guilt, and my sisters’ jealousy. Lastly, I go to the place I have been avoiding, and think about myself. I feel like I am in a great big room, and even though I am full of myself, I am not enough to fill it. 

I think I want to change who I am. 

When I open my eyes, I gasp. The sky has cracked open and the night is ablaze with a shoal of light. My mind struggles to stretch wide enough to fathom the scale of what I see. 

I am a tiny speck, floating alone in a vast ocean, on the surface of a planet that floats alone in a measureless universe.

Adrift, I cry for my sisters to take my hand because I am small and scared and drowning in this infinite sea of stars, this darkness full of light. 

I turn away, close my visor, and dive back into the sea. I want only to curl into a ball and hide. I purge my suit and plunge down till mine is the only light in the darkness. Down and down I dive and I don’t stop till my light finds the ocean floor and the edge of the trench. 

There, in the darkness, ten lights throw their beams into the black Deep—searching.

My soul sings as I swim toward the lights.

Toward my sisters.

If they ask, I will tell them of the terror of the trench, and the wonder of the sky. I will tell them not to lose hope, not to sink into the Deep, because I have air and there is life in the light. I will tell them that together we could brave the surface. If they ask, I will tell them all these things. But first, I will hold their hands tightly and beg their forgiveness, because no one’s an island, and I know now that without them I will surely drown.

Next Story: Luna, by David Samuel Hudson

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