Depths of Perception
Part I: Praesidium
The current whispered past me, hinting at a warmth I’d rarely experienced, living as I had in the depths of the ocean. It raised a shiver of curiosity down the scales of my body, from the top of my upper limbs to the tips of my tails.
My guard duty had brought me as far from the city as I was allowed to go. It was a much-avoided assignment, for I was completely alone for two cycles and was a frilled shark or other predator to attack me, I would have to fight it alone.
After warning the city, of course.
But truly, I didn’t mind. The dark clear water offered an endless horizon of possibility, of freedom from the strict confines of the city and my life in the praesidium caste, forever bound to protect.
But against what?
Warmth slithered over my scales again. Curious, I decided to follow the current back to its source. What could possibly produce such a temperature change that could endure so close to the ocean floor?
Concentrating, I accessed the microprocessor embedded in my spine, giving it the mental sequence command: track current. The sensors in my eyes created a dim green grid that began to assess the temperature differences in the currents swirling around me. At the same time, tiny wires embedded in my skin began to pulse in time to my heartbeat while also scanning the water. In a few moments, the unusual stream was identified. As I kicked my tails out and began moving, I wondered if following the current would be considered insubordinate.
I’ll tell them the water was calm in my sector and that I felt it prudent to make sure the unusual current posed no potential threat to the city.
Truthfully, I didn’t think I could convince them, but it was better to have such a thought now when my memories could easily be searched later in one of the Auctor’s psi-probes. So I stretched my body out and let my muscles enjoy their movements through the water. There were endless drills and training, but rarely the chance to swim at will to a far-reaching location, especially one that left the city far behind.
Many hours later, a line of deeper black rose began to smudge the distance. By now, there were several warm water currents surrounding me, so I didn’t mind losing the one I’d been following. Instead, I paused to study the ocean floor stretching out in front of me.
Command: enhance vision, I directed the microchip. Accordingly, my optics increased the light-dark ratio and overlay the images in front of me with a bright green. I wanted to flick my inner lids closed at the brightness, but instead gave my eyes a few moments to adjust. When they did, the panorama in front of me showed a gradual upslope marked by tumbled rocks scattered across the floor. As I swam closer, I noted that one area had a large cluster covered with algae. It was only when I was within sonar range that I saw the regular shape of it.
Command: analyze anomaly.
For a brief moment, I wondered how my processor could recognize what it had never seen, but the command embedded in my consciousness took over, distracting me as it began to streak black lines across my vision.
Millennium era ship, wrecked by hostile force.
Again, frustration filled me as I wondered what the ‘millennium era’ was, knowing that when I returned, an Auctor would simply access the data and expect me not to ask questions – especially as I was praesidum, born to follow orders. Still, I could see the ‘hostile force’ had somehow torn a hole through one side of the long oblong shape.
Was this why we were not allowed so far from the city?
But as the current was coming from beyond the wreckage, I continued past it, despite my desire to stop and explore. Not yet. First I needed to find the source of the warmth.
The line of tumbled rocks began to rise, becoming mammoth boulders in a broken line that rose far above me as I continued swimming. The water was much warmer – in fact, I could not recall a single moment in my life where I had felt warm to such a degree. The ocean floor was cold and mostly lifeless, with only a few large predators to deal with on occasion. My processor regulated my temperature, so I had never truly paid any attention to the sensation. I had to stop frequently to give my sensors a moment to catch up – they didn’t appear to have been built with atypical temperature fluctuations in mind. Still, my heart rate remained normal and my enhanced vision continued to function, so I continued to head upward.
About three quarters of the way up the slope, my eyes began to burn. I stopped and hastily closed my inner and outer lids.
Command: disengage vision enhance.
Cautiously, my outer lids flicked back. Instead of utter darkness, the water was lit some color I’d never seen.
Red, my processor supplied.
Fascinated, my inner lids opened as well as I slowly started to move forward, looking around myself as shapes reformed themselves under the new-colored light. I’d lived my whole life with black, grey, white, green, silver, blue. But red was wholly new to me, and I found myself wondering, yet again, why the Auctors had never described other colors. Because they knew, I was sure, the shades that filled our hidden histories.
The currents swirled around me, marking my skin with touches of hot and cold imprints. Certain now that I needed to know what lay at the top of the ridge, I flexed my tails and shot up. The light grew stronger, less red and brighter light red.
Orange, the processor rang out in my head.
Amazed, I reached the highest peak. And quickly forced my inner lids shut as a wash of heat and light stabbed at my eyes and skin. But the image remained clearly in my mind. An abyss lay below me, a rent in the ocean floor. Through its center ran a line of bright orange-red, flowing in thick sheets.
Radioactive lava. Warning! Extreme danger.
Surprised, I closed my outer lids to better read the data scrolling out of my processor. Because of that, I didn’t see the rippling edge that signaled a shock wave rolling towards me. Instead, I was suddenly caught in a riptide, conflicting currents tearing at me from different directions, flipping my body carelessly around. Despite my enhancements, it was several long minutes before I pulled free by slipping into a nearby current. But I misjudged, not realizing how strongly the current was moving directly upwards. I fought to escape, my training screaming at me beware the surface beware the surface as I struggled to kick myself out of moving water. Yet I was well and truly caught, so I realigned my body to move with the flow, ready to dive down the moment I freed myself.
Again, I flicked opened my outer lids to see the light around me completely changed. It was blue, a color I knew but a shade I didn’t recognize. It was bright, nearly white, and when I looked down I realized I could no longer see the ocean floor. Its absence sent a pulse of panic through my veins, which I quickly suppressed with a mental nudge to my heart, slowing it down.
Command: assess. A hum filled my mind as my processor worked to obey.
Mesopelagic zone, also known as twilight or middle pelagic zone. 800 meters wide. Insufficient light for photosynthesis. The metalimnion, or thermocline, located in this region, contains rapidly changing temperatures -
Frustrated, I cut the feed off. Too many strange words sounded in my head. What was photosynthesis? What did my processor mean by 800 meters wide? Were there more layers? Years of schooling crashed in against me. We were taught that there was only one ocean, made of up the seafloor, the dark, and the predators. We were taught never to surface, and that safety lay within the dark.
Yet as I continued to drift up, able to escape the now-gentled current, I found myself unwilling to deny the sheer strangeness of clearly seeing the open ocean around me, though my inner lids remained firmly closed against the lightening water.
Suddenly, a white light went off in my sensors, barely visible in the brightness.
Warning! Within 50 meters of epipelagic zone. Turn back.
Command: cease alarm.
But my processor refused to obey.
Numb with shock, I repeated myself.
Command: cease alarm.
Warning! Within 30 meters of epipelagic zone. Turn back immediately.
Angrily, I readjusted the volume so I wouldn’t have to hear the repetitive chant. I took a deep calming breath before turning my head to face towards the now-painfully bright source of the light. With a defiant burst, I kicked my tails out to move with the current.
Warning! Epipelagic zone breached. Turn back immediately or –
Ruthlessly, I lowered the volume to a subsonic level that I normally reserved to enhance my biosonar call for long-range communication. I could still hear something like sound, but the words became a meaningless series of notes.
Above me, I could see a change in the water. Some disturbance was making it fracture in unusual ways, but above it stretched an expanse of blue wide and calm. Something inside me hungered for the feel of that ocean against my skin. My hands appeared, reaching up of their own accord towards that unwavering vision above the whirling eddies splintering ceaselessly over me.
Agony arced through my nerves. My spine bent, the back of my head nearly touching my tails. I tried to access my processor, to scream out a command, but the pain kept me insensate and unable to move. My subsonic volume command dissolved as words began to form.
Trepass! Initiating involuntary removal via neural shock.
No… I merely wanted…
… to see…
Electricity surged and arced, racing along my nerves.