The abyss, far from Aiur’s more populated regions, took Skai a half-pulse to reach. She was grateful for the wisps that led her way; the expanse was riddled with sharp rocks and ridges intent on hooking her by the boot, and without light from the Arc or any other nearby constructs, the wisps were all she could rely on aside from her own eyes.She came upon the hole and steadied herself at her usual perch, a slab of rock overlooking its edge.
The wisps filled in around her. Even they seemed reluctant to go anywhere near the mouth of the abyss, as if lighting its contents had been forbidden on some level of their design. Skai didn’t doubt it. The numai had warned her to stay away from it several times.
She edged forward on her cut of white stone and gazed into its depths. She often wondered what it would be like to push off from her perch, open up her arms and fall into its black descent. She stared at her hands and imagined them flying apart like the sands from her trance. Nothing but a vessel. If she cracked open, would an ai pour out or a cloud of dust?
A cool breeze brushed over her, stirred her silver tendrils of hair and delivered a drawing aroma. Aija. Skai had almost forgotten her reason for being there; the darkness swallowed her capacity to think or feel, mirroring her on an instinctual level.
She inhaled a breath and averted her gaze; she could already hear the crunch of accompanying rock and clinks of metal: more evidence that Aija had followed through with their plan to meet. Skai hadn’t doubted her. It was the silence that tricked her into believing, valid or not, that she was alone in the world. A particle amidst the flying sand.
She stiffened as a golden, upturned hand slid into view to offer her a fruit she’d never seen before.
Skai pushed it away and glanced back at her. After facing the dark and silence of the void, she half expected Aija to be a dream. But she was real, as drawing as a flame, close enough to consume Skai with her vibrant eyes all over again.
Aija laughed and nudged Skai’s hand with the fruit a second time. “I found it. Tastes pretty good.”
“You found it?” Skai imagined Aija strolling through some undergrowth and scooping it from the ground. “It looks rotten.”
Aija gave the fruit a pat and cooed as though it could hear her, “She didn’t mean that. She insults what she likes… It’s just how she is.”
Skai couldn’t help but stare at the bright contrast of white teeth that grinned back at her, well aware of Aija’s bait. I’ve never insulted you, she might’ve blurted out if she didn’t practice thinking before speaking. Then it occurred to her that she had called Aija both annoying and loud when they were younger. And beautiful, she recalled with a blush.
“Just try it,” Aija insisted.
Skai snatched the fruit away just to cease Aija’s prodding. “It smells weird.”
“You mean delicious.”
Skai shot her a distrustful glance before attempting a bite. The skin was too hard to break.
“There’s a hole,” Aija pointed out. “Try using your tongue.”
“I’m not using my tongue,” Skai snapped, thrusting the fruit back into Aija’s hands. “Why are we here? I thought you were bringing my gear.”
“I did.” Aija set the fruit aside and twisted around to pull her jacket off; Skai hadn’t even noticed she’d been wearing it the entire time. Contrary to Aija’s joke in the arena, she did wear clothes underneath, but the revealing fabric didn’t prevent Skai’s face from burning hotter.
She squeezed at the front of her own shirt, her eyes magnetized to the curve of Aija’s waist. “What’re you doing?”
“Giving it back.” A few clinks followed as Aija undid the clasps holding the padded armoring in place.
Skai blanked as they were passed her way. Stop staring. She tore her eyes away and strapped the pieces of gear where they belonged, her knees and wrists soon dressed for another round in the arena. She slid into her jacket last, mentally noting how much it smelled like Aija. Like a far off world.
“Feel better?” Aija asked.
No. Skai pulled her jacket in around her and fixed a few of its clasps. “I don’t understand you.”
Aija chuckled. “Neither do I.”
Skai rubbed the back of her hand over her jaw. “You could’ve given it back in the arena.” Aija had her chin in her hands, her elbows on her knees, her eyes on the abyss. “Why’d you drag me all the way out here?”
Without looking up, Aija shrugged. “It’s our place.”
“Was ours, I guess. Besides…” Aija tossed her hair over her shoulder, stretched her arms over the tops of her knees and tucked her smile into the crook of her arm. “You would’ve run off. But out here?” She gestured toward the dark expanse. “No escape.”
Skai’s heart climbed into her windpipe as though vacating her chest would save it from Aija’s impending assault. She swung her head around to focus on the abyss, pleading with her increasingly stressed organ as Aija slid nearer, Relax. Stop, stop. It went on pounding until Aija swept a curl of Skai’s hair from her shoulder and replaced it with a tapping finger.
“You all right?”
Skai blotted out everything but the darkness ahead. It was still and calm, offering nothing but silence. Emptiness. “I’m fine,” she lied. Regardless of how terrible nothing made her feel, she always found herself seeking its refuge. Why?
Aija hummed. “What’re you looking at?”
“Wanna explore it?”
“Uh?” Skai glanced back at her and gripped at the rock with a shaking hand. “I’m not going down there.”
“So?” Aija clinked around one of her pockets before withdrawing a slice of metal the length of one of her fingers. “We have light.” The metal strip folded in on itself, shaping a cube with two missing sides. A cyan light blinked to life in the relative darkness — ancestor technology.
Skai tilted her head. “Where’d you get that?”
“Found it.” Aija tossed the cube into the abyss, but instead of falling, it jolted to a stop and hovered just out of reach. Whenever she moved her arm, it bobbed as though tethered to her by an invisible thread.
Skai had seen things like it in the arena and old ruins; it was interesting, but it did nothing to make the abyss appear welcoming. “It’s too deep. We might fall.”
Aija chuckled. “Exactly.” She edged forward and peered over the rock. “I bet nobody else has ever been down there. Bet it opens up to a whole different world.”
Skai offered her own theory, “Bet it’s a bottomless pit.”
“It has to go somewhere.” Aija elbowed her in the side. “Wouldn’t you wanna find out?”
Skai imagined the darkness converging like the powdered sand from her trance, sprouting a head and limbs and sucking her into an endless embrace. Her heart attempted another lunge of escape. “No.”
Aija crouched near the mouth, raised an eyebrow as if it were some cryptic puzzle and hummed. “It could be fun.”
Fun was the last word Skai would have chosen to describe the hollowness that glared back at them. Her heart lunged for another reason when Aija lowered herself into it. “Wait!”
Aija dodged Skai’s attempted rescue and grinned. “Are you coming or not?”
Skai opened and closed her mouth in search of what to say, but Aija’s continued descent cut her thoughts short. “Ao’set—” Her heart went on pounding as the top of Aija’s head, barely lit by her cube, began fading from sight. “Aija!”
Without thinking, Skai fumbled for something to stabilize herself—a handful of tangled roots—and leaned over the abyss. Ao’set, she thought again, though the insult wasn’t even befitting of Aija. Aija was far from brainless; she seemed to do everything with a specific outcome in mind, and Skai couldn’t fathom what to expect this time.
Aija’s echoed laughter answered her.
Terrified, Skai clung to the wall until she managed to find grooves safe enough for her boots to dig into. Her progress was slow, but the descent wasn’t as difficult as she’d imagined. The lumps of rock felt at home in her hands and her heart buzzed with a combination of intrigue and fear. She had never before been so conscious of her own weight; it threatened to tear her from the wall at the slightest mistake— And into the void, she thought in panic.
“Wait!” she yelled again. “You’re going too fast.”
“I’m right here.”
Skai glanced over her shoulder to find Aija a mere arm’s length away with a silly grin plastered across her face. “You’re infuriating, you know that?”
Aija bit her lip, still smiling. “Couldn’t let me go alone, could you?”
Skai shot her a scowl. “We’re going to die because of you.”
“We aren’t gonna die.” The abyss echoed Aija’s delighted laughter. “This is fun,” she emphasized, gesturing toward the blackness as though teaching Skai a new word.
A freezing bout of air drove up Skai’s back. “It’s cold,” she complained.
“Would you rather be all cozy in your little bed?” Aija mocked.
Skai rolled her eyes and aimed to match the speed of Aija’s descent. “Maybe I would.”
Aija chuckled. “All alone?”
Skai chose to ignore the suggestive nature of her question, though the visual that accompanied it proved to be more resilient. She swallowed nervously and glanced over her shoulder. Aija’s cube of light was far from adequate in illuminating the surrounding black; all that escaped was a bioluminescent insect. She squinted as it hummed past her face.
“Look!” Aija paused to stare after it, her eyes alight with its glow. “Did you see that?”
Skai didn’t answer; she’d momentarily lost herself in the light on Aija’s hair, the contour of her jaw, her full lips. She quickly glanced back over her shoulder when Aija met her gaze.
“That was a bug!” Aija reached out to slap Skai’s shoulder. “Did you see? A real one, not a wisp!”
Skai had seen the insects plenty of times, but she didn’t want to dampen Aija’s excitement. “The rest will hide if you keep shouting like that.”
Aija leaned in close and whispered, “I’m not shouting.” She smirked at Skai’s flushed cheeks before gesturing to their surroundings. “The tunnel carries our voices, little pan’ylnai.” Her eyes darted over Skai’s lips as though seeking a reaction to her continued use of the endearing term, but Skai said nothing.
She gave her lower lip a slow, nervous chew, further convinced that Aija’s intentions might involve backing her against another wall. Skai couldn’t imagine a worse place to fight off Aija’s advances. She aimed for distraction. “How long do you think this goes on?”
“Forever,” Aija panted. “I’m already tired. Can we go back?”
Skai gave her an exasperated look.
Aija grinned. “You thought I was serious? I could go all day.” She snatched the light cube and leaned back with a swing of her shoulder.
Skai’s heart hiked into her throat. “You’re gonna fall!”
“I won’t fall.” Aija dropped the cube into the abyss, but its light didn’t have to travel far. It landed with a shallow splash just below them and the tunnel’s floor came alive with an eerie blue.
In less than a tick, the lurking terror Skai imagined evaporated.
Aija dropped from the wall and joined her cube with a louder, wetter splash. Skai glowered down at her and wiped the offending spray from her face. “You found the bottom,” she mock-congratulated. Somehow, she was filled with a worsened sensation of emptiness at the realization: the abyss had an end—a foul-smelling, less than enlightening end.
She climbed the rest of the way down as Aija scoured the watery floor.
“Look at all this skao’ji.” Aija rescued her cube and wrinkled her nose at whatever sludge came up with it.
“Gross.” Skai grit her teeth as she eased into the water. “Please don’t tell me we’re in some kind of…waste.”
Aija laughed. “I don’t think so. It’s like…” She tried rinsing her light in the topmost layer. “…a weed or something. Smells musky.”
“Don’t touch it.” Skai gave her cheek another rub and fought the urge to make a face. “Can we go back now?”
“What about the bugs?”
Skai exhaled a slow breath and closed her eyes before fixing Aija with a pointed stare. “Aija. It’s dark, it’s wet, and it smells bad.” She motioned for Aija to head back up. “Can we please go? I’ll never get this stink out of my nose.”
Aija sloshed toward one of the walls and prodded at whatever crevices her fingers brushed over. “Your nose’ll survive.”
Skai fought back an aggravated exhale. She could almost sympathize with Aija’s desire to find something, anything, but the adventure they sought didn’t exist. There were no secrets to unveil, no more tunnels to explore. The world was empty and lifeless, just like the numai, just like Skai.
“Is this what you wanted?” she blurted out, throwing her hands up. “This is your definition of fun? Dragging me to this ag’au?” She turned to the wall, afraid to meet Aija’s gaze. “There’s nothing out here. Nothing.” She fumbled around for a foothold, feeling miserable about being there and even worse for her outburst.
Skai slid her eyes shut a second time and summoned up all her tolerance. She could hear Aija sloshing nearer, could almost feel the warmth of her body closing in on her back.
She grabbed for the wall in an attempt to put more distance between them, but it kept changing somehow, hard one moment and sticky the next.
Aija gave the back of Skai’s coat a soft tug. “Wait.”
Skai panicked. It happened again: the vicious pounding in her chest, the jolt that raced up and down her spine, the tingle on the back of her neck. She doubled her efforts to find a foothold, but the rock was gone. It had turned smooth, flat, almost warm—
Aija jerked Skai away faster than she could realize what happened. The wall opened up like a dilating archway, inviting a sluggish wave of water and shining light on them.
“Arc matter down here?” Aija laughed. “No wonder the numai kept chasing us off.”
Skai stared at the door in disbelief. Aija was right: it was identical to the openings leading into the Arc, its contents just as bright and smooth aside from the muck that bled in from the abyss.
“Careful,” Aija whispered, inches from her ear. “I think there’s some in there.”
This time, Skai didn’t fight when Aija dragged her to the side and pinned her to the wall. “Some what?”
Skai held her breath and squinted around the opening until her eyes adjusted, trying to ignore the fact that Aija had flattened against her backside. “Where?”
“Look.” Aija leaned farther in, pressing her jaw to Skai’s temple in the process.
Skai glared up at her from the corner of her eye. She didn’t see any numai. The room emulated a small cave that opened up into another tunnel. The muck made its way across the floor as a stream, like the place had been carved to guide it. “What am I looking at?”
Without extending her arm, Aija pointed toward the far end of the room. “Shadows. Back wall.” Her voice was lower than Skai had ever heard it, close enough to her ear to send shivers up her spine. She stiffened and focused on the tunnel in time to catch a flick of shadow.
The static, Skai realized. There was no mistaking the signal that accompanied every numai, a high-pitched ringing that dominated complete silence. “Aija, we should get out of here.”
No answer. Aija reached around her to pluck a scurrying beetle off the wall, smiled and stuck it to her shirt.
The sharp clatter of numai crossing rock reached Skai’s ears, but it didn’t come from the tunnel ahead of them. It came from above. She looked up to glimpse two orb-like eyes glowing down at them from the mouth of the abyss.
The static amplified.
“Ji,” Aija swore, grabbing Skai’s hand and dragging her into the room.
Skai panicked. “Aija, they’re gonna—”
“What?” Aija teased, “You afraid they’ll give us one of their disappointed head-tilts?” She led Skai through the enclosed space, their boots squelching across the abyss’ residue. “Let’s see what’s down here before they lock us out.”
The tunnel at the end of the room opened up into a short but expansive layer, its walls and columns dripping with bright vines. A field of plants stretched out before them, broken only by synthetic bits of rock and chunks of constructs.
Skai didn’t take long to find the source of the shadows; fleshy spheres of varying sizes sat nestled amid the plant life, alive with the twitching silhouettes of bodies. Some hovered above the ground, tethered by cords of luminous vines. A few motionless numai accompanied them, unaware of Skai and Aija’s intrusion.
Skai’s heart pummeled her ribcage at the ground-shaking thud that followed them; the numai from the abyss must have jumped down in its haste. At the same time, the ones ahead turned to look at her and Aija in unison.
The static thundered.
Skai’s heart matched its furious rhythm as the spheres burst to life around them, straining at the ends of their cords and screaming.
Aija skidded to a halt and tugged Skai in, shouting a slew of profanities just audible above the shrieks. Before Skai could make sense of her surroundings, the numai charged at them from every direction, their eyes bright amid the thrashing spheres.
There was something frantic, even terrifying about the static—the voices—that burst into Skai’s mind.
Heaps of glass-like bodies slammed into her at once, pinning her to Aija’s side. She felt crushed beneath the numai’s weight, dizzied by their prolonged static, horrified by the distant thud of fists on rubbery flesh.
A sickening pop raked through the air, followed by the grotesque spray of fluid and a body hitting stone. Skai couldn’t tear her eyes from the withered, empty sphere and the thing that clawed its way over the floor, its skin loose and translucent, its eyes darker than the abyss, its mouth reduced to a rasping hole—nothing.
Its neck snapped around to meet Skai’s gaze as though she’d screamed at it from across the room.
She burst into a cold sweat, her body rigid and unresponsive as Aija jerked and kicked to free them. Skai was deaf to her shouts, the shrieking, the static. She hardly registered the numai’s tightened hold. The empty eyes across the room were all that existed, drawing on her like a vacuum.
It wasn’t until one of the numai broke away to meet the creature halfway that Skai snapped out of her trance.
Aija’s hand found hers as another numai spread its fingers over them, spraying them in the face with a stinging chemical. Before her sight blurred and her mind went dull, Skai caught sight of the creature flailing in the numai’s grasp, desperate to reach them.