Bloodfishing
rating: +23+x

The water was cold in your lungs, heavy like air never should be. You breathed anyway, the sea tasteless and painful in the limp meat of your lungs, and gardens of alveoli burst in your chest.

Inhale.

Your breath smelled like iron and strawberries. It was thick and heavy, over the saltwater stinging your tongue, and it hurt hot like the aftereffects of surgery. Above you, beyond by the waves, the sky did not grant you comfort as it once had, because for once in your life, more than clouded-over nights and cave-rank blot-out, the sky just wasn’t there. It wasn't there with obvious absence: the edges of the black turned fuzzy through the waves, and you had to fight to keep your eyes from sliding off the heavens like water over an oilslick.

Exhale.

Whatever remained of the world above was receding. You inhaled reflexively, the water granting you no oxygen but your lungs working anyway, replenishing the warmed water within with chill from without. CO2 bubbled in your bloodstream as you sank. You felt the gaseous buildup as dizziness, as broken promises and an uncomfortable warmth in your arteries, as intermittent pangs in the muscles of your heart. As an onset of numbness where your arteries closed off; the sound of harbor gates shutting to the tides of your bloodflow, heard somehow over roaring Current sucking you down.

The Current dragged you deeper, enveloping you in a cool embrace, and the not-sky and the reflection of yourself on the underside of the waves receded too quickly. A few stray bubbles trickled out from your nostrils.

Inhale.

There was nothing. Just a warm, primordial darkness. With the sky gone, you did not struggle. You had kicked the life out of your legs long ago. Small flashes of white prickled at your vision like dandelion puffs.

Exhale.

Your limbs responded sluggishly, your fingers not at all. You didn't feel like breathing anymore. You wanted to, sure, but your body had no memory of its own, and with your brain dying of hypoxia it had forgotten the joys of oxygen. All that was left were synapses firing randomly, ecstatic in their freedom before they, too, were snuffed out. You had maybe a minute. Thirty seconds.

Inhale.

You drifted deeper. The darkness had lightened, somehow, not whitening but rather saturating into an impossible stygian blue, and you felt that you were at a standstill in the water, neutrally buoyant. The sea here was thick, heavy, a great amorphous leviathan kissing you, enveloping you. Your heart was no longer beating the way it should. An arrhythmic battering of thunderclaps at the glass of your chest, warped by the deep. That you could feel. Was this peaceful yet? Or were you panicking but unable to feel it?

Exhale.

Your eyes still worked, and there was no red around you. Just the darkest blue you’d ever seen and the cold of the abyss. Where was the red?

Hot tears floated from your face. Your fists refused to ball. Your lungs collapsed. Some measure of anger and despair finally, finally sparked in your mind, because the Stygian Current wasn’t here, not like it was above. No red water. No bodies. Only the blue, trying in vain to be soothing but only a broken lie in your eyes. You struggled to rage, to writhe, but your body only twitched.

I can’t breathe.

That was one of your last conscious thoughts before the sea took that too. The Current sped up. A great roar ushered you in, the darkness swallowed hard, and you went under.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

North. The sea flows hot and endless. There is a Current on the surface of the water, subsuming even the irregular broken-glass waves to show its red muscle. The water is deep, a sticky morass that flows like an artery. In it, slimy flesh slides over rotting muscle which squishes against lumpy yellow fat, and viscera oozes out through lesions and loose skinflaps and hot broken bones just beneath the sticky dark water. Ten miles south of this Current, a lone sailor in a heavy blue cloak approaches with a frightening speed, fervor bordering on religious intensity. Their name is indescribable, and they are full of terror and longing.

Powered by memories here and gone, one fact remains: they will be there soon. The Current awaits.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

Why are you here?

Memories are so often shortened, cut out like a pie without filling. All exterior and no interior. All ends and no journey. You are sailing the Stygian Current, a thick realm of bodies and slick glutted waves. The world is red; your horizons heavy and dark like tree-sap so languidly poured into a cracked patch of garden. And you are sailing.

Perhaps people love endings because journeys are long. If memories are short, then the joy of a journey cannot be held in full by memory. Which is why the middle of things is an anxiety, a provocation. Something about the middle of things scares people. That is what you think, anyway. You trail a petal-shaped oar through the water, scarcely disturbing the smooth glass of the sea. Waves are lesser now that the sun has gone out – with no heat coming from above, the convection routes of the world have slowed. Less power to the great gears of the world means those gears left spinning are turning languid, peaceful. And one of those great gears is the sea and her waves.

The sea herself is thick. Here it is clean, a sharp brine to pickle your flesh, but just North of you the wind carries a nauseous miasma. Your prow is turned straight toward it. And yet despite this knowledge, yet you feel incredibly, indelibly calm. Calm comes to you in a strange way, like you are a radio that has gone to that precise channel between stations where the static seems to sing. That is the feeling in your chest, but somehow the peace does not disturb the strength in your arms or clarity of your mind as you row through the warm layers of the sea above, purposefully ignorant of the abyss below.

The ocean is as tranquil as you are. You have grown fond of her, in these past few weeks. She has – despite the Current you follow, so heavy with death and decay – given you life, sustenance, calm waters where there should be storms. Bursts of witchfire, not auroras, lights your way as you follow the Current to the north where you hope — hope, desperately hope – you will find what you are looking for.

Your chest is numb. No, it is peaceful. That is the term you had decided to use all that time ago. You feel at peace. Calm. Controlled and free. No anger. No sorrow. No pain. You are at peace.

So why do you possess the overwhelming urge to drown yourself?

You take the oars in your hands and keep rowing. Thin pieces of metal contort and spark at your joints, fuelling your body with mathematics and magic you wrote in your university days and now can’t hope to do even half as competently. But instead of lamenting or refusing to use what you have made, you follow in your footsteps and trace the lines you once knew like you now know music.

Your eyes are drifting shut, and a soft heatless glow comes alive from the inscriptions in your back, right below the socket-scars. Your arms move freely without your command, leaving your mind safe to rest and recover. Willingly you submit to this, and you hope that this time your slumber, near the pungent sidesweep of the Stygian Current, will not suffer the scarlet dreams that so often plagues it.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

East. The city hums with raw power and energy, brilliantly lit beneath incandescent streetlights that fill even the darkest alleyways with molten gold. The windows of the shops are like obsidian mirrors, warped from heat-blasts two weeks prior and fractured in places where the bodies piled too heavily against their fragile existence.

The windows aren’t the only things fragile here. Everything is. The city, the sky, the people. The glow of the streetlamps catches within a man’s eye – he is holding a bushel of faded poppies, walking briskly, long strides making their heavy heads bob in synchrony under his arm. Waves of red. In three hours, he will be home, and the man and his husband will place the poppies in a vase on the table. An hour from then, they will share a quiet dinner, then read their favourite books on the old stuffed couch, then walk to the window to see the sunset before remembering that that doesn’t happen anymore. They will watch the streetlights instead, standing side by side in the quiet, and when the streetlights fade they will go back inside.

The man and his husband will walk upstairs, hand in hand, and lie down together to take a rest from which they will never wake up.

We are all so fragile.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

Why are you so afraid of failure?

The black hull of your souped-up skiff slices through the broken-glass brine of the void below, reflecting bodies much like your own trapped eternally floating upward, too far from the origin of the Current for the water’s effects to take hold.

Don’t look at those.

And so you don’t. Your chest is pleasantly at peace. Your thoughts are clear, quick, sharp as a knife, or the prow of your boat — sharpened to a blade in case of icebergs. Or bodies.

You are far north now, the Stygian Current’s wake and your own runics having carried you faster than any boat reasonably should. You can feel the hum of your magic running – sometimes you sense a spot off, a discrepancy, a rough patch in the fabric of the radio-fuzz that surrounds your boat as another hard-won sequence dies to the salt in the water, but you just down another bottle of foul blue liquid (there is a box in the back of your boat, growing lighter by the day), put your hands on the oars, and stand back as your body makes the world blur by.

You’ve taken to the habit again. You don’t know how many days it’s been without sleep. The exhaustion should tell you, but it’s been so long now that the ache of dreams pressing against the back of your mind is as omnipresent as your hunger, your thirst. As omnipresent as the scythe of sweat and urine reeking from your skin and cloak. You have been dreaming on the wide-eye, letting your mind wander. You can’t stop it. Maybe that’s a good thing.

You drift in the Current, arms moving mechanically but body otherwise still. The Current is less putrid now, the flesh sweeter. You are close now. A patch of twisting tattoos on your neck – fresh enough to hurt, healed enough not to catch an infection – has heated up today, just as you hoped it would. You may have forgotten the runes and modifiers that let you write the sequences propelling yourself and your boat, but you’d be dead before you erased the knowledge of heat and location. Those things you know. Those you cared about. No revoking what you spent so much time and effort learning.

The runics on your back have you pulling at the petal-shaped oars still. It’s been too long since you have seen yourself afresh, so you notice now: the metal under your skin. Like a prisoner studying the patterns made when they press their palms against their eyes, you trace the lines in your body: at your biceps, your core, your back, in your face. Under your scalp and bundled close inside your calves. Beads of metal in the pits of your arms and legs, a dense network on the backs of your thighs and loosely wrapping your hips to join the braided highway on your spine. As your body rows, consider: When did it hurt?

It didn’t. Never did.

Stop thinking about it.

And so you do.

You row, and the flesh grows fresher. There is still no horizon.

    • _

    With that thought, you don’t stop rowing. Your body speeds up, runes on your back attuned to your neurochemistry and finding distress. The rest of you is ignorant of this, for now. Your skin smells of failure, desperation, pain. But your mind is free to wander, and there is no running from the source of fear. Do you remember?

    You could be anything, you know. Anyone. You don’t remember setting sail from the dock; that’s a false memory. You woke up in this canoe, checked the sides and found runes of the type you know you could draw – you found your signature, even, a little carbon inlay referring to what you think your name might have been – a clever reference in your teenagehood, but only a fragmented shadow now of what you dearly wish you could remember. So the facts remain: You don’t know your name. You don’t know how you got here.

    But you do remember some. You remember what was chemically hammered into your brain with memophenidates—the decades of schooling under the Relan Common Educations Ground Act; you with an ironing rod and a souped-up thermometer, sticking metal into the meat of you and burning holes in your legs until you smelt of sweet pork so you could pass that god-awful test of thermal signature recognition; wanting to get into the Aeronautics Corps and failing because you had bound your breasts for so long that after surgery your ribs were permanently deformed and brittle – in the application appointment, spinning high as a kite and slick from failure, you had just received the message in the waiting room, and listened with eyes glazed and bloodshot as the doctor took your wet palm and told you in soft tones that the implants didn’t take, and that they were so sorry to reject you, and best of luck on your future endeavors—

    Fuck. It hurts to remember.

    So don’t.

    A snip of memory here, a little tying-up there, and you find your chest roiling with something like anger. You are blazing too high and hot to put a stopper on that furnace — to cork that odd-shaped bottle that is your deformed chest. That thing that still lets you breathe despite all that you did to it. It’s better to remember, even if you put it in the back of your mind. Forgetting is an erasure not just of you, but of history.

    Your skin is clammy, and you know without knowing that if you could see your skin it would be blue and purple, blushing deep in lividity. The sockets on your back hurt, and you don’t know why.

    Maybe it’s best to remove this memory entirely, then. No loose ends.

    So do.

Drift for a long time. Wait for the runes on your back to reach a certain temperature — you’ll know what it is when you feel it. Pray fervently to nothing in particular — to the past? To a better future? — that your calculations were correct. And then, with a nose filled with air that is not clean but not putrid, hear something.

Are you here because of the Doors?

They’re gone, you know. The only way out is to die.

The wind whispers thick over the strange terrain of viscera and bone. It carries with it the strangest tones, and with it comes something almost like a voice. Like a violin with vocal cords instead of catgut.

Or are you here for the final Door? The one at my origin?

You won’t like what you find there.

Keep rowing. Ignore it, block it out. Even though you know it already. It is unjust for the universe to know something formally before you are willing to acknowledge it.

You thought you were Charon, didn’t you? Sailing the Styx. You are dead, a zombie. Nothing you can do about that now. Why don’t you jump off the side now, feel my sweet embrace?

But you haven’t done that. Why all this effort, to find a special place to die? Trying to prove yourself alive, going to dive in and cross your fingers, prove yourself like the rest? Or are you asking for a boon, desiring to become Achilles? He’s dead too, you know. Drowned even while I brought his flesh alive again. He scarcely took more than fifteen breaths before he was drowned in me, and the rest of his life was just my extension of those breaths. In Hades, everyone knows that. Breath is sacred, and he’s hated for having next to none. They think he shouldn’t have been considered mortal.

Maybe you heard I was merciful. Is that it? Will you try to find my origin, a climber following the rivers of the world to the snow of the mountains? It’s reversed, you know. There’s a mountain under the sea, deep down, inverted. A hole in the earth. You’ll die of hypoxia. Are you asking to live, when you go down there? I won’t let you.

“Shut up,” you say, and your voice surprises you. It is gravel and stone; it is razorglass in a sealed bunker with no way out; it is brittle ice below the powdery fluff before the avalanche that makes the mountainside crumble. It is not a nice voice. It is not a pretty voice. What it is is the voice of a living corpse.

I’d hate to see you gone. You sound so sweet.

Turn back.

It's disgusting.

But it’s yours. You were beginning to think you didn’t even have one. Hadn’t tried speaking, didn’t remember what you sounded like, and because you never tried, thought you couldn’t. That’s your life, right there. Your mind finds the line of this thought like a wheel dipping into a well-worn groove in a dirt highway. And now that you think you’ve always known it, you will never despair for your lack of knowledge because you can’t remember not remembering.

You aren’t willing to give up, are you? I won’t grant you my boon. Nobody gets to be immortal. Nobody gets to leave.

There is no easy solution now, is there? No Ways, no Doors. Please don’t cry.

The Current has forked ahead of you. It is fathoms deep and a kilometer wide, and you are at sea level so you can’t see which side is more fruitful.

I’ve not granted my blessings since the war, and I’m not going to start now.

There is a spark in the back of your mind. Your chest heavies, your arms slacken, your muscles droop. The implants of metal and hard-packed salt ampoules tense within your thin muscles, and briefly you wonder if you had made the tattoo at your back for this purpose too, but no, you come free of the tightening bonds of your own body and all too soon you have made a turn at the fork in the Current, turning right, and as the pattern on your back heats to a fire there is a click.

Don’t do it, the wind seems to beg. No more. But you’ve stopped thinking of it as the wind, haven’t you?

A mile down the Current, you stop rowing. Runelight, hot and pale, illuminates the fresh red water, burning out from the metal embedded in your skin. Chunks of viscera bubble up from the watery depths intermingled with froth and cobwebs of veins, netting of arteries. And it doesn’t disgust you in the least.

You have arrived. And you are ready.

    • _

    ✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

    In the North runs the Stygian Current, living on that fuzzy grey barrier between life and death. Living like a virus. Living like an idea.

    How does someone die? How does coral die? Pieces are floating in the water, made buoyant in and by the Current of the dead. It is when we describe the dead coral that we wonder if coral goes as a whole into the great beyond or only as a sum of its parts. What is coral but a structure, after all, of a thousand-million individual organisms? And what of people? After all, a person is their gut microbiome, their cells, and their organs all working in tandem, and each could theoretically exist without the rest in the right environment. What counts as death on the individual scale, and how does the Current know to keep a person's brain and organs together when they enter and die?

    The sea smells strange, chalky and redly damp as a used surgery theatre. Does this mean that coral is taken as what it thinks of itself to be? If that is the case, how does it handle someone with gaping holes in their memory? Someone like you? You would say that the stars had aligned, but there were no stars. No more relying on knowable forces for luck — all that was left in the world was intuition. The Stygian Current runs darkly red in the faint runelight, stirred only by the languid movement of great dark leviathans in the deep, and you breathe the smell of dry chalk on the wet breeze.

    And then, when the chalk threatens to turn to foliage in the fungal growth of your lungs, you row away.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

South. The glaciers here are thick, pillared and dense like overlapping city spires. The ice flows out in thick sheets over the sea, glossy under dark clouds under a darker sky. The glaciers float where they stretch over the sea, and without sun for so long they have grown desolate, empty, and cold.

The wind is frigid, and when it rains the raindrops turn not to snow but into tiny needles of frozen water, microns thin. The seaside and all her glaciers are quilled with thousands of microperforations, the decades of icicle-rain and generations of animal tunnels making a honeycomb out of the frozen cliffs. These days, it is not uncommon for layers of rock to shear off in high winds, the land taking down the ice below in a futile retaliation against the might of the sea.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

You were right about lividity. Your skin is bloated, swollen with microorganisms where the contagion of rust-iron hasn’t taken to rot. You are puffy and purple, like a bruised plum or grape, trellaced with fat green veins and arteries. Will you grow fruit?

Maybe later, you decide.

What is your name, exactly? You had called yourself something, back in the day. Make no mistake — your thoughts now are an exercise in unconsciousness. You are blinding yourself to the world and you know it. So don’t go half-hearted when you distract yourself — throw yourself into it. You will win this race, even if it is against yourself and your awareness of the world.

For a name, you’d want something simple, memorable. You don’t remember any titles – memophenidates don’t let you recall names, just experiences. Sensations without meaning attached. So right now, you can’t remember jack. But—

You do remember this. Your name is like autumn leaves in summer. Your name is the sweet crush of pomegranate arils bloodying your teeth. It is the crunching of snow ripe for avalanche. Your name is poppies blooming in a snowfield, copses of great trees stretching spindly fingers black against a snow white sky. Your name is the too-hard bite of a stranger’s dog drawing blood with yellow fangs and clumsy fingers stitching the skin of that same broken dog in the middle of a highway, buffeted by steamy asphalt fumes brought to a roar by cars with speed gauges reading 60.

Your boat bobs against the defeated wrath of the sea, a planetoid in the void, a moon lit by the glow borne from wires and magic beneath your skin.

Your name will be Red. Not Mr. Red or Ms. Red or Mx. Red. Just Red. Or M. Red, you suppose after a moment. The trappings of gender don’t seem to apply to you. He could apply, you suppose, or they, to your preference, but no dignifiers. If you are a season, you are one without affiliation.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

In the West, it is different. The forests border the glaciers, like the mountains, and armies of cold white gloss mix with the legions of thick warm greens. The ice comes from the black-rock beaches, and the green hails from the snow-topped mountains, having crept down to venture the coast centuries upon centuries ago.

The ice and the green both wish for peace, and unlike the cliffs, the green does not wage hopeless war against nature, for unlike the South, the Western landscapes are not mutually exclusive. Where the green cannot go, the ice, and where the ice cannot go, the green, and between those places, something extraordinary. In rare hilltops and wind-shorn trail-ends worn over decades by wind and erosion, where the forest and the glaciers both can be: a compromise. That is where the snow can be found, white as truce and light as peace can be. And in the snow, snowshoe hares make their dens and prepare for the gluttony of a sunless spring, and silver foxes yap and chirrup and do all the strange things foxes do when they find that the fireflies are out and the food is plentiful and the world is set for them to play. And the world, in this small stretch of land between the glaciers and the mountains, is not so bad after all, for this place has always known darkness and always will. Some things survive, no matter what.
The snowshoe hares and the foxes play today, for the foxes are full and the hares have yet to learn fear. Beyond the glaciers and the forest, and beyond all those small spaces where the world breathes: the calm, languid expanse of the sea.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

The sequences propelling your arms and chest have slowed. The air around you is chill, steaming at the edges, and the blood of the Current is thick, congealing and faintly frosting at your sides and in your wake. Don’t think on why this is — it simply is, with no ramifications for the time being.

While your body still moves, try to enter the blue dream again — and find that you cannot. You are too far gone now, too deep in the dream of life to return to the dreams of the dead: of the rest of the world, of the lives of others because you are untethered, unhooked from the fishing line tied to the anchor that is your body. Or is the blue dream life in full, and this the dream? You cannot tell. And as you are not a philosopher, the words and their meaning slip quickly from your mind, and you are left stranded, bewildered, on the brink of reality, left to observe. And so, like anyone else in a Current of bodies, you look down.

You seem frozen, my wayward dancer-on-the-waves. Let me describe it for you.

Beneath my waves are tiers of bodies. They are neutrally buoyant, stacked in stories fathoms high. The lowest have their flesh pressed against their bones — both of metal and of calcium — while the highest are stacked like they are sleeping, my waters filling their lungs so they appear as to be breathing, wings gently swaying open and shut like a thousand pinned butterflies.

Their light glimmers in your eyes; I can see this much, from your proximity to me. Pull back, now, don’t drown in me.

The bodies glimmer with half-caught light. The light comes not from my sisters in the sky, but from the Work captured beneath their skin in wires of iron and silver and gold. It saps your motion, you know, and mine as well — my body moves much slower here. I resented you for it — all of you — but I’m quite calm now. The world is strange these days, and friends are short in coming.

Do you wonder what happened to these sorry legions? Their puppeting was severed — they were sleeping on the wing, like so many of you used to do. Lucky you, not having those on your body. You’d disagree, but I’m a selfish thing. Any creature closer to my waters is a comfort to me.

Simply put: Their communications were cut. They fell from the sky, and only a scant few in the onrushing dark woke early enough to catch themselves before they hit my waters and drowned.

Is that enough, now? Do you know what you came here for?

They all died. Is this enough to convince you, yet, not to join in their ranks?

Don’t drown yourself. I don’t grant boons. You’re the only one left.

Don’t go. Please.

But you must.

You shake yourself from the clinging words of the Current. It is so close now, and difficult to detach yourself from the sliding thoughts as they tangle in your grey matter and unhook from the world, floating in the abyss in pale replacement of the all-too-distant grave of the stars.

There is a storm on the horizon. It’s a wetness in the air, a thickness blue and grey in your bioengineered sinuses and lungs.You plow forward though, a pattering of your heart drumming the blade of your ship forward through the body-choked waves. Skirting over boulders of shoulderblades, nearly caught and then harpooning through the ribcages of the freshly gone. A stygian ocean of pale, of barely-started-bleeding, of just-stopped-breathing, exhales still hot in the storm-heavy weather.

It’s soon. You push, jagged and hard and heavy and strong as molten iron poured through a hundred tonnes of ice, through the bodies, and gently your heart is eased from the runic web your whole being is caught in as you slide not across but down a slow, sweet slope of bodies with pulses still visibly dying in the arteries of their necks and chests, the netting of their lives making one last stand before, like you, succumbing to what all life eventually leads to.

A strike, and a strip of darkness illuminates against the pitch sky — crazed like superglue to thin, brittle plastic. Someone else is out there. Somehow. They — their craft — juts out, just inches over the horizon, bucks and keels, like the tail of an ocean liner in the swirling eye of a monsoon — before the hull cracks in half, ruptures. And then that patch of the sky is closed once more, and the world, for all its heaving and gurgling and reeking and rotting, lies still again.

How many remain alive? How many remain still dying? You hope you are the last ones: in the distance, like fireflies throughout Rela’s black horizon, flash and creak the signs of desperate life, bastions of magic futilely reaching for the heavens in supplication. Light pierces the darkness like a drowning man’s outstretched arm. But there is no one to reach back, no one to answer their pleas for help. There is no lighthouse at the edge of the silent sea, no fisher of men to snatch them away in his nets.

This is how the world dies. In the infinite darkness, a final candle is extinguished. With your death, the world – this dead world, this festering, necrotic planet — can finally rest in peace, its eyes gently closed by the cadaver of its last child. Can you see it, the gratitude in its tired, bulging eyes? Rela dies, and so do you. And so you turn towards the prow, gazing into an empty mirror of frigid shades, into the red of the Current, intent on passing through. The boat tilts, following the whirlpool’s spiral path, towards the center of the ocean.

There is a flash of cyan-green-yellow light off in the distance, your eyes tracing it to the dandelion-bloom signal flares. They come not from the smitten land of frost and sand, but slightly off the coast. What is it, you think, but a prelude to the blackness?

The shadow falls over the land anew, thicker, denser. At its heart you sense nothing, not even the despair that came with the death of the sun and the stars. It is a wave, a gargantuan hand that lunges towards you like the hand of a dead man falling upon the ants and the microbes in the soil. As it nears, you hear nothing but the last thrums of your heart, the last pleadings of the Current for you to brace. But you won’t listen. Your boat tips, and a wave of vertigo hits. There is nothing but darkness and you, and soon only the darkness—

Only the darkness.

Cold. Dark. Crushing.

Your hands leave behind a luminous trail as you sink, magic leaking out from the iron under your skin like blood, your form a luminescent streak in the water of the dead. Your heart is a cooling furnace, pounding its last liters of molten blood as it drags you under. Sink now, through an errant hole in the sea floor you can barely sense

Dream no more.

I can’t make you alive again, not empty your lungs so that you may crave air anew. This is the end. Are you happy? I hope you are.

There is nothing beyond this, you know. Nothing meant for living flesh, nothing meant for beating hearts. Fields of Asphodel, wheat and shadow. They are awaiting you, in body or in soul, however you arrive first.

This is the end of the road for me, the place where I cease. No further can I take you. What happens next, only the gods know. I hope you make it through. I hope something better awaits.

Good luck. And goodbye.

Salt floods your nostrils, reeking. It burns. The world collapses in slow flashes. The beating heart is an anchor, a stone bound to your chest and left to sink. In the turgid Stygian Current, amidst countless bodies of those who died before and later and never, you descend. Can you bear to look at them through boiling eyes? They look familiar, don’t they? Once you heard that all waters were one, no matter how names would try to divide them. All waters one… all people one, in life and in death.

Somewhere in the back of your mind, the part cordoned off by memophenidates and decades of government-sponsored schooling, a ticking chain reaction takes place, and the infused iron under your skin dims, readying in response to a barely-thought command.

Your lungs fill with salt, tiny sodium particles rending pink flesh, cutting off your oxygen. Pain sears through you, unexpectedly savage but ever more distant and deadened as hypoxia takes hold. You breathe anyway, and gardens of alveoli burst in your chest.

Inhale.

Your breath smells of iron and strawberries, and there is the heaviness, the weight of deeper waters clashing with the inner sea that now occupies your insides.

Exhale.

What is there to exhale? Bubbles amidst tinier bubbles, water meeting water anew. As within, so without. Burning.

Inhale.

Trickles of red join the pus that seeps from your mangled form, wounds reopening under the lash of salt and pressure. Like a pox-riddled man you leak. The old, the new — within your thrashing-opened pocket amidst the bodies you bleed from wounds long since healed, the preservative waters of the Current having opened them into gill-flaps. A thousand cuts down and you are still swimming weakly, breathing the red of the stygian sea, gashes like atrophied gills sucking in water that does nothing but scald them. The sockets in your back — did you forget those? The memory blocks are undone now; the pain fresh again — are the worst, gulping salt and sucking water beneath your skin; pressurized for the sky, they crush into aluminum rivets, intricate circuitry groaning and snapping and collapsing. The pressure is shoving your body into itself, folding spaces between bones with muscle; your bones creak, and your brain deforms in its housing.

Exhale.

Somewhere under your skin, in the memophenidate-engorged and metal-touched neural circuitry that remembers because it is not allowed to forget, a chain reaction finishes, and for a brief moment in the sea there is a flash of lightning without thunder. Bodies groan and deform all around as you sink, in proximity to you.

And you are not crushed as you sink, because your iron is keeping you alive. Just barely.

But you cannot breathe. You’ve only prolonged your death. Amidst your dying synapses, in the ones not cemented, orphaned equations try holding on to each other. Flickering, they try forming something coherent: as your war drum heart fights a losing battle; as your chest agonizes under the pressure, an idea forms. A new sun, radiant and blessed, shines over a dead world. In its light, life grows anew, men weeping tears of joy and gratitude as green sprouts pierce the sterile earth, as the frigid land melts and blossoms, as the world is reborn.

Exhale.

The equations, so clear, so evident. Hard to conceive, impossible to make, and yet… In these last spasms of your brain you see sigils painted in your blood, fed by your drive to survive, to make the world a home. The configuration, the work of a lifetime, the ultimate gift crafted from the dreams of a drowning man… it is so close, almost in your grip… the New Sun will be made in defiance of gods and fate, in stubborn rebellion against the cruelty of a dead universe. You will make it for all who will come after you, for all who will…

Inha—

No!

Not yet! Please!

But the Current is a deaf god who hears no prayers, a mute god whose silence is final. Your epiphany, your revelation, sinks along with you, lost to the depths as your blue world goes black at last. Your synapses collapse, bioelectric impulses flickering and fading as one final time your extremities spasm in a desperate attempt to pull you back to the surface you know to be as distant as the black sky above.

Inhale…

You can feel it, can’t you? The whirling maelstrom in the Current rocks your body back and forth, swiveling and twisting and leading you astray, not towards the soft bottom of the sea, but to every capricious direction its mindless wrath desires. In the void, your vision flashes in kaleidoscopic arrays — silver, teal, yellow, green— more, but your dying mind can barely ponder its meaning. There is no point in struggling anymore. It is time.

Exhale…

Oxygen running out, your fate is upon you. Give in. There is nothing else.

Inhale…

There are holes in your chest. Water gushes out with every reflexive, useless breath.

…Inhale. One last time.

Feel your legs. Your arms. Feel them. You can’t, can you? There is nothing there, nothing but cold emptiness, sensory stumps. All they do now is flow alongside you, drifting as you continue to sink at irregular intervals. No sunlight above, no sunlight below. Can you even tell which direction you’re falling towards? Perhaps you are flying, headed towards the endless void of space, where dead stars release their hold on their gravity wells at last. But no — that mausoleum is reserved for the asters who once gave you warmth, who once gave you hope. For you, there is only this watery grave.

All you can do is hope that the Current’s name rings true, and that your continued existence now will be a mark in your favour. For what comes after.

Only a refracted reflection of your own fading runelight marks your path in the darkness, in the icy embrace of the sea. The waves above will not remember you. A strange terror, muted and distant — numb and silent — takes hold. Do you still crave for oxygen, for breath? No, you are too far gone for that. You are done. Float, fade away.

Exhale, not as an action but as a relaxing.

And go.
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀
⠀⠀

⠀⠀And then—
⠀⠀
a dim tug on your ankle.

And then—
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ vivid sensation.

⠀⠀⠀⠀splashing.
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀coughing.
burning pressure; ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀dry fingers on battered skin.
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀hurt.

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀Red eyelids. Sunlight?
And— distant shouts. A hard tug.

⠀⠀And then, at last—
Air. Warm and pure.
⠀⠀
⠀⠀⠀⠀
Welcome back, my broken bird. Welcome back.

Inhale.

My brain is melting out of my ears. If you don’t read this, I’ll eat you. As a salad. With orange juice. Sitting on a hot sidewalk, sun beating down, sunscreen unopened in a tight-lipped tube at my feet, exhaust fumes spiralling into the clear blue sky. Lemonade stand somewhere, kids calling for customers. I’ll eat you there. Wholesale. With my teeth.

This is a behemoth of a story, and I contributed to it approximately the same amount of effort that a male mammal contributes to the making of a newborn child: 5 pages and a groan.

We become slaves, hostages, to habit, bonded in chains and shackles crushing the wind, the gust swirling with the oak leaves mottled like camel skin and crab scales over the pavement.

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