A memento by one of Arcta Hydraia’s tech team trainees. (70, Fire On All Sides)
Upon exiting transport, the three young royalty followed their father to the Verdant Plateau, where children were gathered. Carlo felt nervous, as if he were somehow to blame. They were meeting other kids who were at Pyrean Midsummer, to celebrate that they were better thanks to the Imperium, after the evil criminal had made them all sick with the virus. This was happening on the Verdant Plateau to remind everyone that this was a place of health and prosperity.
In front of Carlo, his older sister and brother didn’t look at each other much, but looked up often toward their father. The walk from the plateau’s edge seemed long, until they reached the opening in the Pergola that awaited them.
The Magus children stood to their father’s left, Carlo the youngest standing farthest out. He stood up straight and tried to smile. The kids he faced looked very serious. He wasn’t sure what they expected of him, so he tried to smile a little more.
King Ascendant Vario addressed the children’s assembly, flanked by teachers and caretakers. He congratulated everyone on the sick population’s total recovery, and proceeded to explain everything: that the disease had come from Hirylien, the many misdeeds of criminal Raev Sturlusson, and how the doctors created the cure from the hidden serum in the man’s arm. The kids looked at each other and back at the royal family through the corners of their eyes. There was one girl whose gaze was fixed on Carlo, and didn’t leave him. He would look away and back to see her still watching him. Her hair was yellow and straight, and she looked only a little bit older.
When the speech was over, the kids lined up to shake hands with the royal children. With handshake after handshake, Carlo grew confused and more nervous. There wasn’t anything in particular, but this wasn’t going the way it was supposed to. There was none of the ecstatic fawning common at other children’s greetings. They peered at him intently. When that girl walked up to him, he almost wanted to run and hide. Panicking, he looked at his father, who was looking right at him. Strangely, Carlo bowed before sticking out his hand. The girl bowed back, and without saying anything, shook his hand in a way that felt like she wasn’t shaking it at all.
The two residents and two visitors stood in the observational bridge of the Arch’s peak room. They looked upon an expanse that faded from view. Displays monitored the structure and the space around it. Brothers Arjun and Bux turned to General Alisandre. “So, what happens next?” Bux Woollibee asked him.
The General looked steadily back at the other two men and the dragon. Disengaging his gaze, he gestured toward the furniture. “Seat yourselves.” They did so unassumingly.
Draig paced slowly. He gazed from each corner, trying to focus on the depths beyond. Turning to his hosts, he asked, “Can we turn off the lights?” Arjun nodded, and without reply made the room go dark.
Now they were lit only by the residual glow from the Arch’s basal sockets, like streetlight seen from upper stories. Draig looked intently at the displays showing gradations of light in the areas below them. He felt a desire to press himself against the outward windows like a child, as though they might let him through. He had never admired empty water so much, or felt so drawn to it. Behind him, the Woollibees wore their own secretive smiles. Arkuda opened and closed er eyes.
Draig was grinding his fist into his palm. “Is it possible to dim the base light?” he asked.
“We can make it go out completely, if you wish,” replied Bux with a gleam in his eye.
“Yes, I want that.”
Arjun rose from where he sat. “I’ll go issue a lights-out, windows-black.” He exited the room, and Draig turned again to the displays. Slowly, the light left. As it disappeared, his limbs seemed to gain weightlessness as his eyes fixed on nothing. “Ah,” said Draig. The others kept silence.
Arjun returned, briefly allowing in a slice of light from the doorway. It was sealed out, and the weightlessness returned once more. Draig could see neither floor nor ceiling, where they ended nor what was beyond. The displays were invisible. He enjoyed this moment padding in the darkness, feeling far from anything. If he tried he could hear breathing, including his own, but for the most part he didn’t try. He chuckled and liked how the sound hung in the air.
Something showed itself out there: a moving finger fish glowing indigo-cobalt. “Life,” said the General, puzzling it out.
“Yes, life,” said a Woollibee; which one, he wasn’t sure. More fingers of light joined the first, as though appearing from a distant current. They flickered, oscillating and migrating.
“Do schools exist down here?”
“Yes,” said one of the brothers. “And things that eat them. And, things that eat them.” The lights approached, flickering.
“Have you noticed how stable it feels in the Arch?” Arjun’s tone as he spoke was candidly jovial. “You can thank Bux for reversing the tensile hold you witnessed on the surface – down here it’s known as torrential slip.” The glowing school arrived at a static space where it shifted around, unwilling to pass the Arch.
“Do you keep a repellant field around the structure?” the General asked.
“No,” replied Bux, “it would interfere.” The curious school came to a still rest and disappeared. Something completely different appeared in its place: a maze of light the size of a city block.
Draig spent several seconds assessing and managing his alarm. He almost jumped to action, but didn’t. The Councillor, the engineer, and the scientist remained silent. This wasn’t an attack situation, yet. The glowing thing turned, as though it had seen something, and continued to turn until the same part of the maze was facing them again.
Then the General noticed two large shadows occluding parts of the glowing pattern. He moved his hands in front of his body, mirroring the way the shadows moved in front of the maze. This felt similar to the delivery of a detailed speech. Noticing, he turned to show the others what he was doing, then remembered it was pitch dark. “You two brothers, do you see it? Have you seen this before?”
“I have never seen… this one. Similar things, much much smaller. Yet, I am not afraid.”
“We have reason to be, judging by the size and power of this denizen. But I’m not afraid, either.”
“I’m very pleased to meet it,” said the Councillor. “It may be expressing the same.” Draig turned to look. The mazy glow dimmed and brightened with a soothing pulse. Claymore decided to try something. Facing out, he shadowed his chest with flat hands then dropped them open to his sides, palms out. Two giant shadows met in the center of the maze and opened back into the unseen.
At this, the mazy lights darkened to invisibility, erasing themselves. Twenty glowing bulbs appeared. Draig looked down at himself and saw his outlines illuminated, as this light was noticeably brighter. The two greater bulbs resolved into a pair of shapes like boltcutters the size of small spacecraft. They threw the most luminescence. Above them close to center, two bouquets of nine comparatively tiny bulbs sprouted, each on its independently moving and lengthening stalk. Below the bouquets appeared feathery mandible appendages, framing a mouth outlined in a proportionally small grin. One, two, then three pairs of glowing parentheses lit successively, widening the teacup grin.
Draig laughed despite the gigantic strangeness.
Below the mouth, an outline of a different color drew itself in the darkness: the edges of its central plates. It roughly resembled a heart with wings. The General couldn’t bring himself to remark; he looked sidelong as though expecting the practical joke to be explained.
The central shape pulsed as a point of light appeared between the eye bouquets, spreading outward to circle its entirety with a simple, galactically elliptical outline. “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh.” The sound of overawed acceptance flew out of Draig’s throat.
“It’s bigger than… than this!” exclaimed Arjun, flapping his hands in the way that speechless engineers indicate their walls. “There has been nothing of the sort that we have seen.”
“Yet here it is,” his brother said, seeming pleased. “I am glad to see this… one.”
“Are you not?” said the Councillor. “It is an honor.”
“I feel vulnerable,” said the General.
Arkuda replied, “That is also appropriate.”
The creature’s outlines were obscured as flickering wiggles of light covered its entirety, including its propulsory rippling fin skirt. All was lit as though in alarm, rather than in deceptive patches. The mazy lights that had first awed and stunned them grew bright underneath that as well. Draig worried that something bigger was about to arrive.
It did. The torrential slip didn’t waver, as around them particles of ocean floor lifted and motion-froze in upside down tornado shapes. How could the cold down here get colder, how could a current make ice within the ocean –
– and what was that crustacean doing?
Its giant claws opened and shut with musical timing, sending regular shockwaves through the water. Its glowing furriness blinked in alternating patches, also in time. It looked absolutely jolly.
A shape formed beneath the creature, lifting it high above them as it continued to dance, play music, and emit light. What appeared was the form of a head large enough that the creature atop it looked like a hat. The enormous dragon face appeared endlessly pleased.
Draig finally pressed his face against the glass, to be sure he was eliminating the illusion of a layer. Behind him, Arkuda drew breath to speak, but didn’t. Draig knew who that was in front of him. He swayed back and forth as though meeting a childhood hero.
He now recalled his actual first meeting with Councillor Arkuda as a boy of three. It was easy to forget because it was as though he’d known er forever. He had slipped free from his busy Arbiter father in the Council hallways. He roamed passageways in earnest search of something certain, shortly to be stopped by an awesome being. His search over, he allowed the dragon to place him on er shoulders. He held on carefully to Arkuda’s horns as he rode back to his father. That Draig was remembering it now felt elegant and real. He couldn’t quite recall the lesson, only that there must have been one.
Draig then realized that Arctyri was only the second dragon he’d met. He had seen others, but only met Arkuda. Perhaps that was an inaccurate human tendency, to think they knew a dragon after having only seen em.
Under the gaze of this dragon pleased to meet him, Draig sat. He got as close as possible to the barrier separating him from a friendly-seeming abyss. The dragon shimmered as e further materialized. The glowing creature balanced atop the dragon calmed its light display. At this depth, the dragon’s form was especially crystalline and fluid; the light emitted by the friend on er head was distributed via contralucent conduits, enough to display itself in the deep darkness.
From cross-legged, Draig pressed his palms to the window before him, trying to feel the water on the other side. The crustacean scooted toward Arctyri’s back as ‘e angled er horns toward the window. Spiraling in shapes like the icy peaks formed in the current of er arrival, three rose in the center toward a triangular peak. Two terminated at the distance between Draig’s palms, the third between and above.
Arctyri’s third extended horn touched the barrier, which appeared to change. Draig placed his forehead against the spot, and he no longer felt anything between him and the water, or him and the dragon. He felt the other two horns connecting with his hands. The window barrier remained, yet it wasn’t between them.
Draig felt the coursing cold, depth deepening, freezing breath, rude harshness… a swift, seamless, ouroboric mobius attracting power by its concentration. The fleetest and most shocking current, harbinger’s whistle, riding ice to clouds that dance beneath nothing but stars. Whole worlds in continuous grasp: Arctyri is there somewhere, bringing food, or death, motion, or change. Draig learned of the being and how ‘e works.
Arctyri met Draig Claymore as well, through small stories he told er in split second word-thought and physical emotives. Arctyri introduced to him others of er acquaintance, including the Davyjones (as his species name was given, this one male and eldest of them) still perched on er somewhere. Seeking and meeting was something dragons would allow with any species, learned Draig, though a dragon attracts its kinds.
The Davyjones crustacean crept over the back of Arctyri’s head and laid his claws next to horns further up. Davyjones, crunches bones, sees yours inside you, gravity guides you to Davyjones who rules the floor. Draig and Eldest Davyjones got to know each other well in that moment. They would recognize each other anywhere.
Arctyri extended two more freezing horns to touch the barrier at either side of the General. Claymore called, “Woollibee and Woollibee, Arctyri asks you to approach and join.” They both went to a point of contact, pressing their hand to it and facing each other.
Arctyri charged them with responsibilities and knowledge according to their roles. Should the dragon be compromised by er part in the Viridian Phasing, they understood what they each could do. ‘E communicated er reasoning and motivations for being a part of it.
In addition, there was a new name being spoken by dragons. Acamar. This was the first time any of Arctyri’s audience heard it, including Arkuda. Arkuda repeated the name reflexively in er voice: Acamar. Arkuda formulated a meaningful phrase for the humans: “where it stops flowing.”
Arkuda was shining softly. The three humans were lit on one side by frost-carried bioluminescence, and on the other by early morning sunlight in a place that never sees it. Quietly, Arctyri withdrew and Arkuda dimmed. With a last look at them, Arctyri loosened er manifestation and soared faintly upward in er current, Eldest Davyjones riding just behind er head, skirt rippling.
“We’ll go now from the foot to the peak. But alas,” Woollibee said with a playful tone, “no peeking. You are here as guests of Arctyri’s. What we do here, as well as the Arch’s purpose for existence, is outside of your business. Luckily for you, or it might be another year before you once more took to the air.”
“Whatever you do, it must be fascinating,” said the General.
The builder nodded sharply. “At times.” It was then that the door opened, and they beheld someone with an unmistakable resemblance to their host. “Bux!” The two kin raised their arms at each other. “This is he,” said Arjun as he gestured them out of the room, “my brother and partner in science, Buckminster Woollibee. He is the leading mind behind the tensile force technology you just witnessed, as well as many of the other systems that keep us comfortable and secure.” The researcher was dressed in a buttoned floor length off-white overcoat with a closed-neck collar. The General and the Councillor approached him and made handshake introductions.
“Bux Woollibee, at yours and Arctyri’s service. When I was informed that a seeker would be arriving, I knew it would be worth whatever inconvenience. I sought Arctyri myself long ago, and I know doubtless that without that significant experience, I and my teams couldn’t have accomplished the feats within which we now stand.”
General Claymore began to wonder what the seeking process would impart to him, rather than to them. Other proposed options had seemed poor and ineffective to his preliminary glances; but he hadn’t fully considered himself an actual part of the Viridian Phasing protocol. That it might somehow empower him hadn’t been a goal, but now he perceived it may be a key matter.
“Let us travel,” said the mechanical scientist.
The current began to swell, bearing them higher into the air. “Now, the tensile force technology unclasps from its connected water layers.” Instead of a barely perceptible yawing, the building moved in a steady direction: down. It accelerated smoothly in the current’s tow. Claymore guessed that they were moving faster than it felt inside the room.
“Are you normally in charge of this descent?” the General asked the engineer.
“My brother and I transfer the duty between ourselves.” Just before the surface disappeared, it shifted towards the corner of the room. “The structure changes shape in response to the first diagonal shear current. We are now in this conformation.” He placed the heels of his flat hands together in a consummate V.
Woollibee dimmed the lights so they could see something of the ocean through which they were passing. He pointed out a mesopelagic vegetative raft, with signs of cavorting from its resident life forms. “Without shining any lights it’s mostly a series of shadows, but we don’t do that without a reason.” Councillor Arkuda sat erself down on the ground.
“If you appreciate blackness, we can watch the last light disappear.” Draig and Arkuda both nodded. Arjun extinguished the light in their chamber, with the timing of a sliver of moonset. Their eyes sought it, and barely caught the remaining trace as it left like an imagined shimmer.
Arjun Woollibee gently revived the room light. He continued to narrate, doing a sort of interpretive dance while describing the progressive shapes of the structure, as he liked to call it. “We move through the water as the leading edge of an object that becomes denser and more massive. The invisible object has a shape that can withstand the pressures through which we descend.
“After the V, the linear form bows out into the shape of a lucky bowl: smooth, open, drifting down through a full sink. Farther down, the shape becomes flatter, and weighted – like a bag with objects placed inside, or a tea mug. The flatten widens, bulging: a market basket or longboat’s bottom. Then the curve really stretches out, really really big – this is the meteor.” He called each stage through the climes of darkness, keeping time and mental track. They took his word for it that the subtle motions they felt meant what he indicated.
“Inverting. Are you ready? We’re going to see light again. But this time, it comes from below.” Woollibee turned out the room light in time for them to catch another breath of darkness. Glimmer appeared again like a distant moon rising from the edge of the floor. It was more concise than surface light, something to squint at. It rose and grew, centering directly in their field of vision. “These windows respond to light intensity with filtering that keeps us from going blind. It’s worth it to be able to see.”
The light rushed toward them with increasing acceleration. It was a square landing coupling, bright, and bigger than the end of the structure. With immediate gentleness, that was it. Woollibee looked at the other two. “The quicker, the better.”
The glow of the landing socket surrounded them on all planes but the floor and the entrance wall. The light color cycled slowly and seamlessly through the spectrum. “I like to take a self-portrait when we land,” said Woollibee. He punched in sequences on a ten-key pad by the door, and pointed to the wall.
“Here it is – here we are. Welcome to the Arch.” In the snapshot on the wall, it was hard to tell how big it was with nothing nearby for comparison. The straight black bar they entered from the air was now judiciously curved into one of the oldest shapes in human construction: the keystone arch, each of its tall feet planted in a glowing patch of light. Draig traced the outer shape of it in the air with his finger, sighed, and nodded. Arjun smiled at him from one side.
Though er countenance showed little difference, Arkuda was beaming. “It’s a distinct pleasure to be here with you, where sunlight has never reached. Under the mystery.”