Just one thing: the Ecluvian Ocean isn’t beautiful. I’m five fathoms down, nose to the glass, and all I see is mud and black weed. Beauty, religion, and rainbows all got left topside. Of the five people crowded into this submersible, there’s nobody here who would wish to see the Ocean again.
Just wanted to make the point.
I first learned about Kandos in the psychiatric unit of our deep core rig, from a woman named Penelope Korvac, an outpatient like me. It was my first visit and the med bay staff sent me the wrong way. Left, left, right, left, they told me, but it wasn’t. It was left all the way. Not a right in sight. Misdirecting an insane person is inexcusable.
Korvac was the statuesque brunette poised on the waiting room’s black plastic cushions when I walked in. She sat quite still, a magazine open in her lap, her scented wrists throttling the dry air. Just another deranged doll, I guessed. But calm on the outside.
The only other person in the room was a teenaged boy, standing with his nose up against one of the view portals, his hair wilder and darker than the weed that billowed beyond the glass.
“Hey. This the psyche unit? I’m lost.” I didn’t care who answered.
The kid just stared at me with placid green eyes. The woman unfroze a smile and reconfigured herself on the cushions. “I certainly hope so. I’ve been waiting two hours already.”
She was attractive, in a chiseled, spiky way. Approachable, certainly, perhaps even reasonable.
“Hope they don’t keep us too long,” I said. “It’s not safe to stay in one place too long. The body transforms eventually. Adapts to the environment. On a bio-molecular level, I mean.” I settled into the cushions while I had her attention.
“Yes,” she said. “I can see how that might happen.”
The kid had turned his attention back to the portal.
“Accelerated devolution of the species,” I elaborated. “Becoming something else. That’s what we’re talking about here. The flesh leading the mind.”
She took a moment to admire the elegance of her own fingernails. “I had a friend once who thought he was becoming a fish.”
“There you are. And how is he now?”
“Cold, wet. Confused.” She slowly leaned forward, and whispered, “But if you are really transmuting, I’d love to hear about it. It must be so interesting.”
I could have been totally honest with her right then. I could have told her that I was perfectly sane, that I had been utterly shit-scared for the last two months, and that I firmly believed that feigning paranoia was my last real hope. But I played the game. Just in case.
“So are you two together?” I nodded towards the boy.
“Yes, we are.”
“He looks like a stray. Haircut and all.”
“My husband makes his own decisions when it comes to personal grooming.” And she didn’t even wink.
I didn’t rise to the obvious line of questions. If she wanted to cradle-snatch, that was her choice. “You been down here long?”
“Just a month. My husband has been assigned to the drilling teams. We only returned from Kandos three months ago.”
I must have looked dumb at that point.
“You have heard of Kandos, haven’t you?” she quizzed.
Vaguely. Some dust ball in the outer rings. It had been surveyed for gems once and turned up dud. “Yeah, I heard of it.”
“My husband and I crossed the bridges.” She spoke the words almost reverently, as if recollecting a famous miracle.
She smiled, a patient tutor. “You don’t know, do you…? About the Bridges.”
I knew there was some mystical bull surrounding Kandos. Despite being an empty husk, the place had become a Mecca for travelers and pilgrims. But I’d never been sure why.
She lowered her voice, as if wary of releasing a great secret. “Nobody knows how and why they form, but the Bridges appear randomly, at any point on the surface. There are four of them, all equal in length and breadth, all materializing the same height from the ground, always intersecting one another at their mid-point.”
She looked away for a moment, perhaps striving to bring the spectacle close again. “They look like cloud formations, but they’re solid. For just a short time. They coalesce like a birthing planet, and then dissolve. Without heat, or fusion or energy storms. And they are absolutely, utterly, the most beautiful things you will ever see — all the colors of the cosmos, shifting into one another, lighting both the ground and the sky above, as high as you can see.”
I wasn’t sure if she was tripping or not. But she seemed to believe herself. “And you crossed them? You walked over them?”
“To the very center, the intersection. My husband and I, together. Hardly anybody has ever done that. The Bridges only solidify for a short time, and it’s almost impossible to locate the points of origin, where they’re low enough to board.”
“So, what did you find?”
She leaned closer, her eyes glittering under the strip lamps. “Everything we’d hoped for. Absolutely everything.”
Being technically unstable of mind, I guess it was okay of me to stare. Whatever else the Bridges had bestowed, they had undoubtedly unhinged the woman’s sanity.
The door to the consultancy room opened and a sallow-faced individual slunk out. A fake. An outrageous fake. I can spot the malingerers at fifty paces.
I cursed him as he slunk away, hoping the bastard hadn’t fouled my pitch. The doctor who followed him to the door was a weathered parchment of a man, his brow a corrugation of dismays. “Mr. Freeman,” he called, peering over a clipboard, “would you like to step inside?”
I glanced at my fellow patients in surprise. “They were here before me….”
“Ms. Korvac has been here all day. She knows it’s not time for her appointment.” He made it sound as condescending as the words allowed.
Korvac graced me with her sweetest smile as I got to my feet. “See you again,” she purred, at the same time returning her attention to the magazine she held.
Hubby didn’t even bat an eyelid.
I make bedrooms. That’s what I do. The sleep chambers that hang like crystal eggs from the underbelly of the rig. If you can sleep for your regulation eight hours, without claustrophobia or dehydrated membranes, it’s all down to me. Don’t thank me now, but I make you comfortable in the dream dimension, give you warmth and moisture, bring you something of the womb. Perhaps not a vocation for heroes or statesmen, but I’m of use, and there’s the essence of it; I’m worthwhile.
And yet I never felt this was my world. I always hung to the last rays of sun that filtered through the topside bedlam, yearned for the light like some energy-crazed protozoan. And that’s my problem; I feel I’m finally losing sight of it. Finally embracing the darkness.
Not that I can tell you any of that, Doctor. No, it sounds far too reasonable. So instead of being the drowning man, grasping for your every sympathetic word, I’ll just stare, wide-eyed. And slowly sink before you.
“I’d really rather you didn’t play with that article,” he grumbled. “It’s very expensive. Thank you so much.”
I put the paperweight down. Beads of sweat were massing in the trenches of my physician’s forehead.
“I need some time to make a considered evaluation of your mental state, Mr. Freeman. Perhaps we could see you again in say — three days time?”
“Sure. Take as long as you need.” Just certify me. Just save me.
Korvac was gone when I left the consulting room. I wasn’t surprised. Disturbed people do strange things.
On the way out I encountered the staff who misdirected me. “I hope that you all become turd-like,” I informed them, “and sink to the bottom of the sea.”
Got the last word on that one.
I wanted to go see Zarah after my ‘interview’. But that was normal; I pretty much wanted to see her before, after and during everything I did. Infatuation is a cruel color for a curse.
I was involved with her even before the Ecluvian Madness had first hit us. Events then had just conspired to push us closer. At least, push me closer to her.
The disease had appeared in spring, when our twin moons turn red and the topside shines crimson, (though down here in the depths, only our calendars and the darker shades of weed tell us the seasons ever cycle). No one knew how the virus had invaded us, but it broke out in all four of the Company rigs, and the effect was devastating. Victims became subject to hallucinatory episodes, becoming paranoid and deranged. Some experienced a remission before the virus began its systematic destruction of cerebral tissue. From our population of two hundred and thirty people, we sent twenty nine people topside for treatment. There was — and is — no cure. Twenty nine people went up to the light to die.
We’ll none of us ever forget the fear of those months, of greeting one another with charmless smiles, wary of each other’s proximity, fearful of contamination. The bug was transmitted through skin contact only, the medics thought. Maybe. So for three months I stayed solitary, accepting all commissions by communiqué only, seeing only Zarah, my guiding light, my calm at the eye of the storm.
I still remember the sheer terror when I suffered my first hallucination, a preposterous vision of myself growing fins and gills, swimming serenely clear of the rig.
“Jesus, Oh God, I’ve caught it, I’ve caught the bug!” I remember wailing into the viewcom.
“Wait a minute. Just stay calm,” Zarah had advised me. “You don’t know you’ve been infected.”
“I hallucinated, goddammit. That’s the first symptom!”
“What had you been doing?” she asked me.
I explained I had been testing the O2 supply to a new bedchamber, adjusting the filtration.
“And was the oxygen level low?” she’d coolly enquired.
Of course, I’d been hyperventilating to compensate.
She’d smiled like a patient angel.
I really love you, I’d thought. This only goes to prove it.
Zarah knew I’d been for my consultation at the psyche unit today, but she didn’t much care. She didn’t seem to much care for anything I did anymore. It was all part of my rich tragedy.
I found her packing files in the records office, watertight plastic binders with critical personnel discs, all ready to be sent topside for the Company’s scrutiny. I always envied the bastard who got to take them up.
“How did it go?” she asked, not really looking up.
“Fine, I think. I don’t know.”
Her assistant glanced at me and smiled, one of those, ‘I know you’re uncomfortable with me being here, but I’m enjoying every exquisite moment of it’ acknowledgments.
“Can I see you a moment?” I blurted. “In private?”
Zarah glared at me like I had killed her favorite pet. Her co-conspirator threw up her hands in mock exasperation and left the office. She probably would have done the same thing even if I’d said nothing; the opportunity was too good to miss.
“I stand a good chance of being out of here soon.”
“I know.” She kept on packing the files.
“If the Company sections me, I’ll pick up my disability package and get myself topside, start looking for something bigger and better. It could work out good for me.”
“I’m happy for you.”
“Tell me you don’t want to stay down here with all these ghosts…?”
“It works for me. Maybe not for you, but for me.”
“And what if the bug hits again? We’re just lab rats in a tin can.”
She fixed me with a look that told me I was being paranoid again. The virus had all-but disappeared as we’d developed immunity, now throwing up only the occasional isolated case. It was her best look of admonishment, but all I saw were two eyes deeper and more impenetrable than any ocean.
I retreated from the issue, defeated. “I wanted to ask you about a woman. Name of Korvac. I met her today, with her husband, who was about fifteen. You heard of them? I’ve never seen them before.”
She returned her attention to the records on her desk. “The name doesn’t sound familiar. Is she with med staff?”
“She’s a patient.”
“I don’t know her.”
I thanked her for her time, wished her well. I wanted to ask her precisely when and why she’d stopped caring for me, but that suddenly seemed such a long time ago that it had become a matter for posterity.
I left her as I found her, a petite flame-haired secretary, busy with her files.
“I hear some poor bastard tested positive for the bug, the other day.” Simmons delivered the information like it was nothing. He announced it with his back to me, while he was busy threading a plastic hose through a bedchamber’s filtration conduit.
The news shocked me to the core.
“Guy barely even hallucinated, so I heard. He never even suspected it could be the bug. They’re giving him some counseling then taking him topside.”
Counseling? Last rites.
“Guess they think talkin’ to him must pep him up some,” added Simmons.
I felt a slick of sweat sliding through my fingers.
“Maybe advising him on his life insurance…” he chuckled.
My contractor’s pearls of wit were the least precious in the seas. But the blunt artisan was the closest thing to a friend and confidante I had.
I must have been quiet enough for him to turn around.
“You okay?” he asked, grinning. “Not freakin’ out again, are ya? Textbook hypochondriac is what you are — hear about some other guy’s problem and you got a temperature all of a sudden.”
He knew I’d been tested for the bug two months back, and to him, my negative result had made the subject a running gag. Simmons was like that.
“Just makes me want to get clear of this dead-in-the-water tank. Nobody’s safe down here.”
“What you gonna do? Topside? Company’ll never take you on again — not after you’ve been sectioned. If they section you.”
“It’s a whole other world up there now. There’s industry. Business, entertainment, farming. All kinds of work on the atolls. And yeah, they will section me, and I will get my disability. I’ll be certified by the end of the month, just you watch. Whatever it takes.”
Simmons finished feeding the hose through and snapped the conduit cover in place. “Ask me, you’re more than halfway there.” He finished packing his tools. “You wanna grab a drink in the bar?”
Of course I didn’t. But I agreed anyway. We clambered up the ladder from the chamber and back into the main arteriole. The bedchamber was one of five new contracts I had. People were shipping into our miniature Atlantis faster than I could believe. The Company was still ruthlessly recruiting in its drive to scour the bedrock for mineral pay dirt, and there had never been a shortage of gentlemen adventurers. Deluded individuals all.
“You heard of a new arrival by the name of Korvac?” I asked him. “Woman with a kid.”
“Nah, never seen the name. What does she do?”
“She’s a psyche patient.”
“Great. So instead of depth charges, they’re droppin’ psychos. They definitely want to sink the place, I’m tellin’ you. It’s an insurance job.”
But that was the difference between Simmons and I; his paranoia was only play-acting. And he knew it.
“You seen Zarah recently?” he quizzed.
Sore point, but I wasn’t letting on. “Yeah, this morning, why?”
“Ah, she probably told you then. They’re retesting a lot of the Ecluvian cases. The latest guy had a different strain of the bug.”
“You are definitely yanking my chain.”
“Swear to God, man.”
I glanced at him to see if he was grinning, but he wasn’t. And I felt a sudden, cold rage that Zarah hadn’t even bothered to mention it. “So you have any more good news for me,” I snapped, “or are you done pissing on my day?”
“Yeah, one more. It’s your round.”
We’d arrived at the neon signs for the bar, but I’d lost even the thirst I never had.
My follow-up appointment came through in two days, and I was relieved. I’d spent the last two nights sweating over the idea I might not be sectioned, and I just wanted the decision done with. Sure, I could just get myself topside, but without any Company pay-off I’d just be more surface flotsam. Hiding my nerves in front of the doc wasn’t going to be easy.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Korvac in the waiting room again, but I was slightly shocked to see her there. This time without her husband.
“So you’re moving in here, I guess?” I said, sitting opposite her.
“That’s not what I had in mind,” she replied, running her fingers through her long brown hair.
“And what do you have in mind?”
“Standing by my husband. Gathering experience, knowledge, insight. New perspectives.”
“Guess those Bridges didn’t bring you quite enough, did they. For you to end up here.” Between mental patients, it wasn’t a rude supposition.
She leaned forward, as if to lend weight to her words. “My husband is fifty eight years old, Mr. Freeman. He went up onto the bridges a tired, spent man, with no more dreaming in him.” She leaned back again. “You’ve seen him now.”
Sure I had. And we were sitting in a psychiatric ward.
“We still don’t know what the Bridges are, Mr. Freeman. But my husband and I think of them as hope and fate, as perseverance and adventure. And we sat and embraced where they all met. That’s all I can tell you.”
“So maybe it solved all your problems. That’s great for you. Some of us are in too deep for easy fixes.”
I’d let my guard down and I wasn’t pleased about it. Still, even if she thought I was perfectly rational, nobody would believe her.
“Nothing about finding the Bridges is easy, Mr. Freeman. Even the act of searching for them is an uncertain adventure.”
“Maybe for most of us, a little certainty is what we need.”
She smiled. “Is your life so full and rich that you can happily forgo the chance to completely remake it, to reshape yourself, losing all your failures and fears?”
No. Of course not.
“The Universe is nothing but a collection of mysteries, Mr. Freeman. And it’s given us one to share.”
My Doctor emerged at the door to his consulting room. By his dulled expression, he seemed to have slipped away from life’s ordinary cares just a little more. “Mr. Freeman,” he called. “If you please…?” He gestured to the inside of the room.
I was caught by surprise when Korvac grabbed my sleeve as I stood. She held tightly, speaking in a hushed voice. “Go to Kandos,” she whispered. “Find the Four Bridges. It’s your best hope.”
I was shocked at what she said, not only at the words, but the look in her eyes. It was as if we’d both sliced through all the layers of masquerade for just an instant, revealing a ghastly and irrefutable truth.
She relaxed her grip almost immediately, settling back into the cushions, perfectly placid once more.
My doctor issued a deep sigh of impatience.
I’ve tried, of late, to arrive at a definition of madness. To know its color and form, to understand the guises it takes when it takes one’s hand and leads one, guileless, toward its tricks and traps. But there are many missteps for the unwary.
For while we safely promenade the tunnels of this plastic shell, the ocean beyond teems and broils with a million tiny deaths. And the portals we fashion to look into the dark, show us only our own faces, white as maggots, rippling in the weeds. A legion of untold, routine mortalities, strangers all to the sun.
So, my question, Doctor, is:
How is one supposed to ever truly know oneself?
“Well, Mr. Freeman. I’ve made a very careful evaluation of your state of mind over the last two appointments you’ve had here….”
For God’s sake, man…
“And while I’m not convinced that you are suffering from any recognizable paranoid delusion…”
…can’t you see I’m dying down here?
…I’m quite certain that the impairment to your concentration and rational thinking is of a sufficient order to make your continued employment here unsound, from a safety point of view.”
“Based on this finding, Mr. Freeman, I am empowered by the Company to forthwith release you from your contract. With a full settlement package.”
He delivered the judgment in a weary, monotone voice, but his pronouncement drained me of whatever energy held me upright. I could have leapt over the desk and kissed him. But that would have been the sane thing to do.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. If you think that’s the best thing.”
I signed all the forms, ended the pact, dreaming all the while of a cool, unprocessed breeze and two bright red moons. A month of graded depressurization and I’d be topside again. The Universe had just morphed.
Korvac had left when I emerged from the consulting room. But it wasn’t like I cared anymore.
I was already swimming up to the light again.
I buzzed Simmons almost immediately, and we met in his apartment, and celebrated over an ancient flask of single malt whisky, laughing and joking until past midnight. And when I finally staggered from his room, it was with some sorrow that I realized that the sight of a door with Simmons’ name and number on it would very soon be a thing of the past.
And I dreamed that night. A rhapsody of color and light, wherein the Universe folded into thin, iridescent ribbons, allowing me to pull myself, hand over hand, through a great and dark void. I saw my mother and my father, beckoning me toward them; I dreamed that I lay my head in Zarah’s lap, and that she told me that I needn’t worry again.
And Korvac. I dreamed of her too. Garbed in sackcloth, like a religious penitent, journeying through the dust storms of Kandos, constantly gazing skyward, ever searching.
I awoke in a burst of cold sweat, my forearms tingling, heart racing. Your best hope, she had said to me. But why?
Something was terribly wrong. The Company hadn’t contested my claim at all. They were just happy to see me gone.
I pulled on my tunic and left the bedchamber, my mind racing. Perhaps I was being paranoid again, but I needed to know. I had to find out just who Korvac was.
By our rig’s timekeeping, it was three in the morning. Crew manned the drill shafts all round the clock, but admin staff would be scarce at this time. It was my intention to gain access to the records office using a card key of Zarah’s that I’d cloned once, when I’d suspected her of seeing someone else.
Being paranoid had its occasional benefits.
I made sure the office was empty before I swiped the key card through. Normally, the room was a hive of bustle, both human and machine; now it was a cold blue tomb, echoes waiting to pounce from every corner. The record files were contained in cylindrical vaults, row upon row of discs containing all relevant personnel information; rank, tax status, medical history, criminal indictments, everything the Company needed to know. Or thought it should know.
It hurt me that locating Korvac’s disc in the second vault was so easy. Painful because there was no way Zarah could not have known of the file. I couldn’t decide whether it had been a deliberate deceit by her, or just apathy. The wound was deep either way.
There was a security code on Zarah’s console, when I loaded the disc. 213232. The date she had arrived at the rig, and her age. Even if I hadn’t seen her key it in so many times, it wouldn’t have taken too long to work out.
The name PENELOPE KORVAC flashed up on screen, along with her other vital stats, age, marital status, company employment history.
I didn’t have to scroll very far to see her profession:
I suppose the notion had entered my mind, but I’d never allowed it enough time to unseat all the ideals that had kept me going; hope, belief in my own tenacity, a faith in some sort of future. Now, as I read, I felt each of these had drifted clear of me, sinking inexorably beyond reach.
PRIMARY VOCATIONAL TRAINING: PSYCHOLOGY COUNSELOR,
SPECIALIZING TREATMENT AND CARE,
TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS
The tides still rolled far above, all the satellite worlds in the Universe held to their orbits, and each and every comet that traveled the cosmos, still flew true.
But everything had changed.
And all I could do was sit on the floor, knees huddled up to my chin, and tremble. A child lost in the dark.
The ‘summons’ came through the following morning — a mandatory interview with the Company’s medical board. So they could tell me what I already knew.
In truth, I was beyond caring what diplomatic protocols concerned them. It didn’t matter anymore. The only reason I went was because I had nowhere else to go, no one else to speak to. I simply drifted to the appointment, navigating the tunnels and lifts like a corporeal being, condemned to the same weary travail.
In the event, they had little to inform me, and even less to give me any cheer. I was the condemned man, before a jury of my peers, obliged to hear their sentence.
There’s a new strain of the Ecluvian.
Acting more slowly.
Not producing the same symptoms.
We had to be sure.
We’re very sorry.
They had tested thirty-six individuals. Two of us had tested positive. Only two.
I asked them how long they thought I had, and they told me they didn’t know. Perhaps three years. Perhaps three months. There were variables to consider, outside factors.
“And what about Doctor Korvac?” I asked them. “Why couldn’t you have told me? You must have known by then.”
Korvac’s name provoked a flurry of whispers amongst the panel. In the end, one of their number simply said: “Doctor Korvac’s status is still being monitored. She still carries the virus.”
If the hull of the rig had split apart at that moment, and sea water come raging into the room, I could not have been more shocked.
There were no Bridges.
There had been no counseling.
I hadn’t read her file far enough. Former Company psychologist, Doctor Penelope Korvac, was quite insane.
“Thank you again for attending, Mr. Freeman.”
We really are very sorry.
I gathered my things the same afternoon. Tidied more than gathered, there were so few. Just a few books, some clothes, discs from my family. I knew it would only be a day or two before I was authorized for transfer topside — the rig was far too small for surplus dwellers.
I’d decided not to tell Simmons. He’d remember me simply as the affable butt of his wisecracking, his hypochondriac drinking partner. Knowing I had the bug would just drag him down; there was no need.
Zarah was different. Some things had to be settled. For posterity’s sake.
I went to her apartment late in the afternoon, after her shift had finished. Not knowing what I wanted to say, or what I wanted her to say to me, just knowing it was something I had to do.
As it turned out, I arrived just as she’d returned from work, the door to her room still open, her Company tunic thrown untidily on her bunk. When she saw me standing in the doorway, she immediately froze, quickly assessing just how much of a threat I might pose. When I managed a weak smile, the nervousness visibly dissipated.
“Hi,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay,” she mumbled. “Fine.”
“I just came to say goodbye.”
“They’re shipping you out already?”
“Disturbed and diseased. Wouldn’t you?”
She looked at the ground, the walls, anything but me.
“How long had you known that I tested positive for the new strain?”
“A few weeks. No more than that.”
A short silence passed between us.
“There’s just one thing I have to know,” I told her. “Before I go.”
She nodded mutely.
“Was it because of the illness that you stayed away from me?”
She shook her head almost imperceptibly, perhaps unwilling to consolidate the hurt. Until she finally, reluctantly, whispered, “No. It was nothing to do with the illness.”
My guiding light. My calm at the eye of the storm
“Thank you,” I said. “For being honest with me.”
I wanted her warmth so badly, wanted her arms around me, wanted the consolation of her tears. But she had nothing to give.
“Take care,” I said, turning to leave. “Look after yourself.”
I heard her murmur, ‘You too’. But it was a sentiment of no more value than an echo. And I was already walking away.
I’d always thought of myself as a stoic person, resolute in the maw of adversity. But that’s because I never believed I’d be called to the test. Now I found myself completely alone, on a precipice from which there was no route but down, into the abyss. And it terrified me so completely that I hardly knew what to do.
I found myself drifting toward the conservatory, a large domed viewing room in sterile white, with an array of hanging plants for home comforts. Sometimes, in the spring, clusters of bright red weed would drift down from the surface, creating bright streamers in the sea above the viewing dome. Now, it was a simply an ocean of shadows.
I didn’t even see him when I first walked in, but it made sense; he seemed to have a fascination for the depths we inhabited. He was sat on the far side of the room, gazing upward through the plastic screens.
Doctor Korvac’s husband.
He didn’t see me at first, and when he did, he simply looked away. Perhaps because he was just another outcast, hopelessly estranged from reason.
I walked over and sat near to him. “How’s Mrs. Korvac,” I asked him. “Your wife.”
He fixed me with a deadbolt stare and then snorted in amusement. “She’s not my wife. We’re just friends. Traveling together.”
It figured. “So where did you meet?”
“On Kandos.” He looked upward again. “When we found the Bridges.”
He said the words so calmly, and yet each and every syllable was a gear that turned the world so fast that it made me dizzy.
I suddenly wanted to grab him and shake free every iota of truth. “You found the Bridges?”
“We found them together. She came to Kandos because she was ill. She picked up a bug on a rig like this one — it was eating away her mind. She wanted to see the Bridges before she died. I was with a party of merchants, but they were leaving and I wanted to stay. So we hooked up.”
“You really found them?”
“They weren’t like we’d heard — just a rock formation in the desert that looked like four bridges crossing each other. But then something weird happened. It was like all the light in the desert collected and concentrated on that one place. Like being in the middle of an energy storm. But perfectly calm, y’know?”
“How ill was she?”
“She was pretty much beyond help even when I met her. She’d tried not to lose her mind, pushing herself, testing herself all the time. But it was too late.”
I hardly dared ask the question. “The illness stopped after the Bridges, didn’t it? It didn’t get any worse.”
He nodded. “That’s why she came here, where you got research on the bug. To find out why. To tell others.”
To tell me. Deep in the grip of her own imagination, she had surfaced just long enough to try and help me.
I could barely dam the swell of emotion I suddenly felt for this woman who had faced her darkest demons.
“Where is she now?”
“Probably sleeping. She sleeps a lot. I think she likes to dream about the Bridges.”
Of course. She would go back to Kandos. To find herself again. To be saved.
I knew I would probably never see Penelope Korvac again.
“When you see her,” I asked him, “would you thank her for me? For coming here. For telling me her story.”
And he didn’t shy away when I embraced him. Perhaps because he understood that, at that moment, he was Korvac and Zarah, that he was Simmons, and my mother and father, and everybody in my life who had ever brought me close and given me hope.
I’ll tell her, he said.
And he made it a promise.
Of the five of us journeying topside in this submersible, three of us have new contracts up on the atolls. Myself and one other crewmember have been sectioned and given disability pay-offs. Only I — as far as I know — carry a fatal illness.
The submersible will dock with a way station soon, where we’ll be greeted and led to de-pressurization tanks. And I’m wondering if the nurses will be able to tell who we are just by looking at us, by studying our expressions, our body language, the way we speak.
And whether those things will betray my choice, the choice that Penelope Korvac, an insane woman deep beneath the waves, gifted to me: The fraternity of perseverance. The fellowship of faith. The brotherhood of blind hope.
I’m going to Kandos.
To find the Four Bridges.
Wish me luck.