I am miles down, submerged in dreaming, when the first tug comes.
One means status.
A call and an answer. A courtesy check.
I pivot in my harness, guessing which way is up from the tug of gravity on my hair. I have my fingers wrapped for the return signal when the second tug comes.
Two is for caution. This sets my heart lumbering into my throat.
There are not many creatures native to the Abyss. Snails and rock-frogs. Phosphorescent lichens like slow-dying stars. A few colonies of bats, maybe, tourists in the upper reaches.
I am not in the upper reaches.
I am down at the edge of the what the winch lets us reach. The Benthic Threshold, according to the laboratory techs. A flat plane of darkness, of non-space, where filaments of the finest, thinnest umbra gather.
There is no life here. Nothing documented. There is only me, dangling at the end of a string, an intruder with a headlamp and a spindle, her hands gloved and ready for the catching of shadows.
I imagine something like a mouth but longer and more sinuous winding out of the dark. Wrapping the cable. Descending towards me with its teeth and saliva and hot pulses of breath.
And that's when I feel the third tug.
Three means a failure of the mechanism. It is also where the tug-code runs out.
The Abyss is hostile to electronics. It distorts and fractures light. It swallows up sound. A tether and a harness is the only way into it.
A motor and a spool is the only way back out.
I realize my breath has stopped in my chest and slowly I force it back out. I am not in immediate danger. Anything that would send me plunging, free-falling away from the surface into whatever unmapped reaches the Abyss yet holds would have already happened.
Instead of tugging I would have felt slackness and the rushing of silent air past my face.
I let my lungs fill and empty steadily.
The team on the surface will retrieve me.
And until then, I have a job to do.
I rotate my body away from the tether, laying out flat as the unmapped emptiness stretches beneath me. I imagine that I can feel the umbra all around me, winding over me, knotting in the hollows beneath my eyes, in the roots of my hair, under my tongue.
Tangling around my spindle.
I picture that last part as clearly as I can, pinning the vision in my mind, as I turn the tiny bone-handle and begin gathering shadows.
The official name for the Abyss is the Stevenson Anomaly.
It squats like a boorish guest in the middle of western Kansas.
When it first arrived, there was some minor economic damage; cornfields, households, family pets and trucks that fell down into the dark.
Newscasters thought this was quite sensational. The president thought it was an act of terrorism. Scientists coughed politely and said things about tectonic shifts and pockets of gas beneath the earth's crust that no one else really followed.
Those same scientists spluttered and went bug-eyed when every attempt to map the new pit returned dataless. Radar, lasers, even dropped tennis-balls that had been wired to broadcast steady radio signals were all absorbed by the Abyss. Ground-penetrating sonar images, taken from its edges, shot straight into the depths of the earth.
And for as far down as they could go, the Abyss was there, always by their side.
Manned teams were next. A few daring pioneers, suckered in by promises of posterity, went unsuited into the hanging void.
The first of them to return alive came back covered in clinging inky film, her lungs thick with darkness.
That was how we discovered umbra.
Imagine, if you will, a substance softer than silk. Gentler than a brush of lips. Weightless as a huff of helium. And then imagine that it has the tensile strength of dragline spiderweb, and that the first few kilos of the stuff that were ever made to combust are burning still, powering a very scary thermal reactor in rural Missouri.
'Worth its weight in gold' is an antiquity. An outmoded turn of phrase. Gold cannot compare.
Valuable metals, cultural artifacts, nights in east Kansas brothels with three pretty gender-of-choices; those can sometimes aspire to be worth their weight in umbra.
And so we dive for it.
Tethered and supervised, we are lowered one at a time down into the Abyss. It seems to be attracted to us, pooling around us like a fish considering a lure, and we bring it back spindle by spindle to the immense approval of the United States government.
Our pay is quite good. Our benefits are exceptional. And the rare mechanical failure that drops one of us endlessly into the dark is like lightning. It comes regularly, but it is too abrupt, too total to really worry about.
That is what I tell myself every time I descend, at least.
And when I am dredged back up again, rich and shivering, I get drunk enough to forget it.
Shadows gather on my spindle, matting into a tight, fine reel. I am done. What would take hours near the surface is done in minutes down here in the deep.
The Abyss has gradients; thresholds to pass, just like a throat.
The deeper you dangle, the more there is for you to harvest.
And the more it closes around you, readying you for a snap and a drop into that final precipice.
The finest grade of umbra is at the bottom. Cashmere black. Like bait to a trap.
I clip my spindle to my belt and try not to think. Rescue may take some time, and it is best to keep a clear mind in the meanwhile. Timekeeping devices fail. Game-consoles refuse to boot. Waiting in the Abyss means an audience with your own demons. No one else.
I figure I have this aced. My demons are docile, domestic things: fat of belly and blunt of pitchfork and horn.
Then I notice the breathing.
It is not my own. I know this factually, immediately, with every yellowed fiber of my bones. It surrounds me: a slow fluctuation in the air. An indraw and an exhale.
A lock of my hair moves.
The hackles on the back of my neck rise, cramming themselves against the polymer fabric of my diving suit. I feel my teeth click together. My eyes are wide.
For an instant, it is like being five years old and lying beneath darkened bedcovers, hearing a creak of hinges from my open closet. Then I recover.
This is a new phenomenon. Catnip to the scientists that cluster in the academic shantytowns surrounding the radius of the Stevenson Anomaly.
This is an early retirement. A change in careers: bright lights and sweat and stages - and never again a dream of being eaten.
I strain my ears, listening for a rhythm to the breathing.
I find one, and with it come words.
Membrane, the air around me seems to sigh.
Chemical lightning crawls my spine. Terror leaves its tang at the back of my mouth, but the pit is not done speaking.
Interloper, it sings.
I want to wrap my body around the tether and inch my way back up. I want more than anything else to see sunlight, to feel a flatlands breeze, to have solid earth cupped beneath my back like the curved palm of a lover.
Go deeper, the pit pleads, and I think back to every mechanical failure that has ever claimed the life of one of my co-workers.
Our tethers are triple-checked. The spooling machine that dips us in and out is maintained regularly.
It should be impossible that any of us ever die on our descents, and yet we do. Periodically.
In a slow trickle we vanish into the pit.
Like deep-sea explorers, we all carry a dive knife. It is a strange bit of kit, a leftover from the first few expeditions when no one was entirely sure what we would find down here. I take it into my hand without realizing it, admire its curve, and then set it against the side of my tether.
The air around me resonates with something low and thrumming. It sounds almost like the word please. Followed by go deeper. Followed by please.
"One," I tell myself quietly, just barely under my breath. "Two. Three. Four."
My knife remains poised, refusing to move from its position.
"Five. Six. Seven."
Mechanical issues can take some time to fix. Hours. Minutes. Longer, if the man who should be minding the reel is off taking an unsanctioned smoke break, flicking ash over the ledge.
"Eight. Nine. Ten."
The Abyss breathes again.
I am at seven thousand, nine hundred and fifty four before my line tightens and I am drawn up again.
"It talked to me." I eye my supervisor, cold and flinty, from across the cheap plastic desk. The man is thin and neatly dressed, with a competent professional haircut and a long-since-cooled latte on the surface in front of him. He does not meet my eyes, instead finding something fascinating to study just past my shoulder.
"There are many phenomena that have been reported by professional spelunkers over the past several centuries. Some of them involve tricks of distance and light. Others of acoustics." This sounds to me like a rehearsed speech. I feel small and hollow and far away. I feel as if I am dangling over a massive and vast mouth.
"Is this your way of saying you would like to take some sick time?" he asks, steepling his hands around the latte.
I shiver. "It's my way of telling you that the Stevenson Anomaly is alive. It has thoughts and feelings. It has wants. It wants us down there."
My supervisor's eyes narrow. "Why don't you take a short break?" he says. "Say, the next couple shifts. Sit them out. You will still be compensated, and in the meantime I can provide you with the number to an excellent therapist. There are provisions in your contract for long-term paid medical leave, should it be required. We care about you, and the last thing we would want would be for - "
I tune him out. I shut the door of my thoughts on his nonsense parade of words and find myself back in the Abyss.
Since returning to the surface, it seems as if every quiet moment takes me there.
Every distraction has me hanging by a tether, knife gripped kind and ready between tightened fingers.
I shudder and I interrupt. "What would it take for you to believe me?" I ask.
My supervisor shrugs. A sickly, hangdog smile makes its way onto his face. "Proof?" he shrugs. "Truth be told, you're not the only person to report something like this. We don't publicize it because, well, you can imagine how sensational that would sound to the press. But it's a common hallucination."
I bite my tongue. Hard. Enamel indents press against the flexible flesh.
"It's like fighter pilots seeing UFOs or people seeing shapes in old houses. The human mind fills in patterns to make sense of a lack of stimuli." He almost-yawns, faux bored, but his eyes are dark and bright. "Let it drop," he suggests, "and come back to work in a few weeks."
I think about the spool of umbra that I brought back up with me on my latest dive. I think about the way I kept my dive-knife against the tether all the way back up, about how the technicians at the top had to pry the blade from my numb fingers. About how there were fraying strands in the polymer of the rope from the times where I had lost control and begun absentmindedly to saw at it.
I think about two kilos of blackness, burning forever in Missouri.
I swallow around a miserable lump in my throat. "You're probably right," I say.
My vacation is quiet and uneventful.