In the depths of the night Dolores tossed and turned in the grip of a lucid dream, a nightmare agony of fear and desire. More than a dream, it was a message from her lord under the ocean, Tuoni the life taker and life giver. It was a warning, a demand, a reminder that when they first met she had been dying…
… and now she dreamed she was dying again, struggling for breath in the stale freezing air of the crippled bathyscaphe. Miles down deep in the crushing dark, slumped in her chair before the ship’s command console, she watched the lights of the emergency systems flicker from green to amber to red, and die.
Totally without power the lightless bathyscaphe canted to one side and sank down through unnaturally warm waters towards the ocean floor.
‘Imelda? Electra?’ Dolores gasped weakly in the pitch darkness. Her head pulsed with pain, the bitter cold. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get her breath. Somewhere in the cabin were oxygen tanks, somewhere a torch. She fumbled with her harness with clumsy fingers. The skin on her knuckles tore on the edge of the simple release but her oxygen-deprived brain could not work out how to open it.
‘She’s not moving.’ Imelda’s voice came ragged and faint.
‘Is she…?’ Dolores couldn’t say the word. The thumping agony in her head surged and silent white noise flared behind her eyes. Electra, so bright, so quick to see new ideas, always the leader.
‘Not yet. Won’t be long. Not for any of us.’ Imelda was never the one to prevaricate.
She had forgotten. Hope had made her forget, had wanted her to try again. There was no hope.
‘Imelda, I’m so scared.’
Imelda didn’t speak for a moment. ‘So am I, honey.’
‘There’s no way out, is there?’
Another pause. Even now she knew Imelda was calculating, thinking. Still hoping to beat the odds, still trying to do better than her best.
‘Not this time,’ Imelda finally replied. ‘Whatever killed those mining drones has got us too.’
It had been exactly like that, just as if something had reached out and struck the valiant little submarine a series of blows, killing its systems one at a time: sensors, engines, computers, life support. They had felt it too, felt it come for them, a psychic pulse the failing instruments registered just before they died.
‘What the fuck was that?’ Electra cried as the dials swung and numbers scrolled. Then the main drive and manoeuvring motors stopped. All eight of them.
Around them in the dark ocean phosphorescent life surged and writhed in weird ecstasy.
Pain beat inside Dolores’ head like a hammer. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered. ‘This is my fault. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me.’
This time Imelda did not reply.
The agony in her head intensified. Then, blessedly, it was gone. Dolores realised her chest had fallen still. She could feel her body just lying there, motionless, no longer breathing. This is what comes next, she thought. This is what it is like to travel beyond life and light, but no-one can be told. An immense sadness filled her. She wasn’t ready to die, she didn’t want to–
A strange grey light rose up around her and Dolores found she could see through the walls of the bathyscaphe as easily as through the round armoured windows. A dreary, flat vista stretched in every direction, cold and colourless. Far in the distance black plumes of superheated water boiled up from volcanic vents in the ocean floor.
Far beyond them something watched her, vast and curious. It reached out and bleak words flowed through her dying mind.
You feel your death. I watch you die. All things die. All toil in vain.
You would rather live?
Cleave to me. Be mine. Accept.
You are dying.
No! Save me! Save us!
I– I will.
The sea-thing filled her mind. It became her mind. Dolores knew life from another life, another time.
At the same time the intruder rummaging through her own memories. It too wanted to live and to know. It was huge and old, ancient beyond reckoning. It had slept through the ages and now it was awake it discovered it no longer remembered who or what it was.
All it knew was that once there had been a great labour, and that it it had toiled alongside its brothers and sisters for their masters. When that that titanic work was done there had come not reward, only betrayal.
Close to the surface of Dolores’ mind it discovered the stories Markus Koponen had told her on their long walks alone. Ancient legends from his northern culture, the deeds and names of heroes and Gods. Identity and meaning lay there. It found who it wanted to be.
There was a hell, Dolores learned, and Tuoni was its master. Her own guttering life endured at his will.
Hell was a place called Tuonela, the grey realm of the oceanic abyss. An endless plain of cold, grey silt, rent in two where the world heaved itself apart in a jagged rift ten thousand miles long. Its denizens were the blind shrimps and armoured worms who clustered around vents of boiling black water, and the enormous ten-legged crustaceans who chewed tunnels through the flesh of dead whales.
Under that soft silt Lord Tuoni slept, dreamless for millennia. Then, when new warmer waters bathed him, he dreamed.
It was still too cold for Tuoni to fully wake. He dreamed the fall. He dreamed the great betrayal again and again, the burial of his kind. This place should have been his grave, was the grave for his brothers and sisters. His creators had meant to destroy them. Now their time was long gone, creators and created. Only Tuoni remained.
A Lord defends his realm, as the sparse wreckage of mining robots and remote drones showed. A Lord also needs followers, a household.
‘I wake, yet I still dream,’ Tuoni boomed in Dolores’ head.
Compelled, Dolores cried out. ‘The whole world warms, spring comes sooner, glaciers melt, ice sheets calve, winter recedes, ocean currents are changing.’
‘This will be my new world. I desire it.’
‘We fear it.’
‘And so you came to my realm?’
‘At your old master’s bidding.’
‘Yes.’ Unbidden memories filled Dolores’ mind: Koponen excited at the rewards of deep-sea mining; Koponen cursing the loss of yet more equipment; Dolores persuading Electra and Imelda to accompany her in the bathyscaphe.
Something awful ransacked the contents of Dolores’ mind, selecting this, discarding that. Lost within her own skull, Dolores witnessed her own rearrangement and discovered she could not miss what she no longer was.
‘I dream he will fail,’ Tuoni said.
Coming from within Dolores own mind the words were irresistible, as if she thought them herself. ‘We will stop him for you,’ she said.
‘I will reward you. I will remake you fit to dwell beside me when I rule.’
An iota of Tuoni’s cold blood flowed within her veins, the promise of change to come.
I should not want this awful thing, Dolores thought. But I do. Oh, how I do.
‘I release you,’ Tuoni said.
Dolores’ skull felt like it was being crushed in a vice.
Then she was back in the light, back in the bathyscaphe. Electra cradled Dolores head while Imelda pushed rhythmically on her chest. She opened her eyes and took a rattling breath.
Imelda wept and laughed. She kissed Dolores’ cheek, kissed her brow, her mouth. Behind her eyes lay new knowledge.
The bathyscaphe was fully functioning, filled with sweet air, bright light, the steady drone of pumps and filters, the sweep of radar. External lights blazed into the oceanic night.
Dolores sat up. A quick look at the console showed they were rising, rising. Panic filled her, she was not who she was, she needed to prepare. This was too fast, too soon.
Electra’s hand lay on her shoulder. ‘We are here.’
Dolores looked into her friend’s eyes and saw with a mix of relief and sorrow that Tuoni’s thoughts also crawled inside their minds. She was not alone.
Imelda and Electra spoke together: ‘Koponen sent us here.’
Dolores felt words form in her mouth. ‘Tuoni says we must stop him.’
‘Tuoni says by any means,’ Imelda said.
‘Tuoni-’ Electra’s beautiful mouth trembled, twisting, ugly. She bit down, bit through her own lip but still could not stop the words. Blood streamed from her mouth. ‘Tuoni bid me seek his bride, the salt-water woman come to dry land.’
The three women exchanged looks of mutual, lustful, revulsion. Tuoni had altered them in body and mind. The shuddering horror in them was pity for who they had once been, the understanding that their changes were incomplete and one day they would cease to care.
They were like three ships sailing into dark waters. Each day the shore-lights of sanity lay further behind.
Dolores wanted – ached – to give herself to Tuoni. Before that she must do his bidding on dry land. Only then could she sink down and live with him in his realm of Tuonela. Only then could she join with him in an awful coupling and have his seed crawl and bloat inside her.
Her own desires appalled her.
As the bathyscaphe rose towards the surface her terror diminished to anxiety, fading like the echo of a dying shriek. Her two best friends were with her, she felt a kind of fulfilment, an anticipation for the future she had never known before. All became well.
Dolores resumed her seat, fastened her belt and checked the ship’s systems. The bathyscaphe trembled as she vented ballast from the tanks.
Imelda’s smile was wider than before, as if there were more teeth in her mouth. She wiped drying blood onto her sleeve. ‘Let’s go have some fun.’
To be continued…