It's a big world out there

Kimi and Jerilyn’s mother continued their bedtime story, “And then Adam the bat's friend, Jane the fish, showed up and stuck her head out of the water. Adam hastily finished chewing the beetle he was eating before exclaiming, 'Jane! Where've you been? We haven't seen each other in ages.' 'I've been exploring a marvelous new worlds. I wish I could show you,' said Jane the fish. 'Who says you can't? I can't swim, but you could carry me,' said Adam the bat. 'I suppose so. You'll have to hold your breath, though,' said Jane. So Adam took in a big breath of air, and held on to Jane's back. 'Hold on tight!' said Jane, and plunged below the surface. She swam, and swam, and swam, for what seemed like eternity, especially to the air-breather on her back trying to hold his breath. Finally, just as Adam was about to run out of breath, Jane the fish surfaced again, and Adam the bat took in a big breath of fresh air. There wasn't a rock ceiling above their heads, just empty space all the way up. And far, far, far above the ground there was an enormous intense light, so bright that neither bat nor fish could look directly into it without hurting their eyes, and it illuminated their surroundings so much that they could see far around them from light alone, without echolocation. Adam shook his wings dry, took off, flew up, and kept climbing higher into the air, with no rock ceiling above him to limit his ascent. Eventually he got spooked by how far he'd gotten from any solid object, so he started flying back down, and returned to Jane in the water. That's all for now, dears. Sleep tight.” Their mother kissed each of them on the forehead.

“Mom,” asked Kimi, “could there actually be a light that bright?”

“I don't know,” she answered, “but according to ancient myth, there is such a thing. Or was, at least. I suppose there's no way of knowing whether it's still around. It's in a far away world with no rock ceiling too, so goes the myth. Sweet dreams.” Their mother left.

“No rock ceiling,” Kimi whispered, “That's even wilder than the thing about the light. Like, would it just be air all the way up forever? Surely there'd have to be an end somewhere, right?”

“Maybe there is a rock ceiling there, but it's so high up that you can't hear the echo,” Jerilyn suggested.

“Wow, that would be so disorienting, not being able to hear the echo off the rock ceiling,” said Kimi.

“Given what Mom said about the light, maybe you could see the rock ceiling even if you couldn't echolocate it,” said Jerilyn.

“But I guess if people thought there wasn't a rock ceiling at all, it must be high enough that you can't see it either,” said Kimi.

“I guess so,” Jerilyn agreed.

“Jerilyn,” said Kimi.

“What?”

“Do you think it's real?”

“No,” said Jerilyn.

“Are you sure?”

Jerilyn hesitated. “No,” she said. She really had no way of knowing for sure, however outlandish it may sound.

“Jerilyn.”

“What?”

“I'm not actually feeling all that tired. Are you?”

“Eh, somewhat, but not especially.”

“Let's go find the place Mom was talking about.”

Jerilyn thought about it. On the one hand, the mythical place probably didn't exist, and even if it did, there was no way they were going to find it. On the other hand, an adventure might be fun. “Let's do it,” she said.

They snuck off and made their way to their canoe. They avoided making sounds so as not to advertise their presence, so they had to rely on touch to find their way, but they knew the route well enough that that wasn't a huge impediment.

They set off, and as they knew the waters immediately surrounding the dock by heart, they were able to navigate away from the island silently, but once they were a ways out, Kimi started making clicking noises with her tongue so they could echolocate their surroundings. They aimed straight for the closest point where the rock ceiling met the water. They couldn't echolocate that far, of course, but Jerilyn remembered the way from her navigation lessons. Once they got too far from the archipelago, they had to rely on trying to keep going in a straight line, but soon after, they encountered the wall.

“What now?” asked Kimi.

“I suppose we look around for a tunnel,” said Jerilyn.

They turned right and followed where the rock ceiling met the water, keeping it on their left, their casual conversation sufficing to provide enough noise for them to track their surroundings. They never found a tunnel. Eventually they got tired, pointed their canoe back in the direction they came from, and set off for home. When they first encountered an island, they weren't sure which one it was, and they went all the way around it in a circle so they could estimate its size and shape. It seemed unfamiliar, but Jerilyn thought back to her navigation lessons, and by the time they had completed their circle around the island, she came up with a guess as to which island it was. If she was right, they were significantly off course. She turned the canoe in the direction she thought home was, and when they passed the next island, she gained confidence that she was right, and indeed, their new path took them straight home, where they docked the canoe, dried themselves off, went straight to bed, and each fell asleep instantly.

*

Kimi and Jerilyn made several more expeditions to find tunnels to new worlds, taking off in different directions each time. On their fourth trip, they found an indentation well into the rock, which tapered out into a vein of air sticking just above the surface of the water. They got as far in as they could, until the rock ceiling got too low for them to stay under while they were sitting in the canoe. They stashed their paddles in the canoe, and carefully got out and swam farther in while towing the canoe. They soon reached a point where the canoe couldn’t go any farther even without them inside. They found a part of the rock ceiling that jutted down below the rest, and they pulled the end of their canoe downwards, pushed it under the jutting rock, and released it, so that the jutting rock extended into the canoe and would keep it from floating away.

They swam in further. But soon even the indentation they found sunk below the surface of the water. They each took a big breath of air, and kept swimming farther out underwater. They hadn’t brought sonar rods or a light, and couldn’t snap underwater, so they had no way of echolocating underwater, and had to rely on touching the rock ceiling above them to tell where it was. They didn't get very far before Jerilyn decided that that wasn't a great idea. She turned back, and pushed Kimi to turn back as well. Even with Jerilyn's caution, they were both somewhat short of breath by the time they could get their noses back into the air.

On their next trip, they brought a pair of sonar rods, and aimed for the same indentation they had found on their previous trip. When they arrived at where the rock ceiling met the water, they were in unfamiliar territory. On their previous trip, they had been keeping the line where the rock ceiling met the water to their left as they’d followed it until finding the indentation, and this time, they’d tried going a bit to the right of the course they’d taken on the previous trip in an attempt to go more directly to the indentation, so they figured that they’d overcorrected, and turned left. They soon found the indentation again.

Again, they went as far as they could while keeping their heads above water, Kimi carrying the sonar rods. Then they dove down into the water, much deeper than necessary just to stay below the rock, so that they would be able to echolocate as far as possible without the nearby part of the rock getting in the way, and Kimi rang the sonar rods.

The rock ceiling’s descent flattened out not long after the last of it passed below the surface of the water, and there was a small air pocket just a bit after the rock ceiling flattened out. About twice as far in as the air pocket, the rock ceiling started to pitch up sharply.

They swam up back towards the surface for air, Kimi ringing the sonar rods between armstrokes so they could keep track of where the air was instead of bumping into the rock ceiling.

“Let’s check out that air pocket,” Kimi suggested, after they surfaced.

“Not a good idea,” said Jerilyn.

“We can totally make it there,” said Kimi.

“Air pockets sometimes have bad air in them. We could get there, of course, but I’m not so sure we could make it back after coughing out nasty air,” Jerilyn explained.

Kimi reluctantly agreed not to explore the air pocket, and they turned back.

*

On their next trip, they brought buckets. They figured if they weren’t sure they’d have enough air in their lungs for the trip to the air pocket and back, they could bring some more air outside their lungs.

When they’d gotten as far as they could while keeping their heads above water, they quickly discovered that it was just about impossible to swim underwater while carrying a bucket full of air. After a long while trying, they figured out how to get themselves positioned upside-down in the water with their feet against the rock ceiling while holding a bucket full of air pulling them up against the rock ceiling, so they could walk along it. Both of them still had trouble carrying a bucket and a pair of sonar rods underwater at the same time, so they’d put their sonar rods back in the canoe. But they were able to make enough sound to echolocate their immediate surroundings by hitting the sides of their buckets.

They both needed a breath by the time they got to the air pocket, as walking upside-down underwater was much slower than swimming. So they found flat portions of the rock ceiling to put their buckets down on, then turned around, exhaled, stuck their heads in their respective buckets, and took a breath. Then they exited the buckets, and Kimi approached the air pocket. She stuck her hand in, and made contact with the rock almost instantly; it was, evidently, a very shallow pocket. She stuck her nose in, being careful not to rise high enough to hit the rock ceiling, and, heeding Jerilyn’s warning, cautiously took a small breath of air. It was rancid. She coughed it up and recoiled out of the pocket, then scrambled for her bucket while fighting the urge to inhale. She finally got her head in the bucket, took deep breaths and kept coughing, while Jerilyn held her up so she could focus on regaining her breath instead of swimming.

By the time Kimi got her breathing under control, the air in the bucket was quite stale and she was short of breath again, so she left the bucket for her big sister to deal with while she swam back to fresh air. Jerilyn took another breath from her own bucket, dumped the remaining air out of the buckets, and swam back while carrying them, which took her a lot longer than it took Kimi because of the drag caused by the buckets.

“You were right. That was nasty,” Kimi commented, once Jerilyn surfaced.

They decided to make another trip underwater to try to explore past the ridge where the rock ceiling pitched back up again. They retrieved their sonar rods and tied them to Kimi’s wrist to make them easier to carry at the same time as the buckets, and set off in the same direction as before.

They set their buckets down near the air pocket, each took a breath, and then swam out to the ridge. Another ring of the sonar rods revealed that the rock ceiling pitched straight up into a vertical cliff, and that there was a wide expanse of air about thirty feet above them.

They retreated to their buckets, each took a breath from them, and then dumped the remaining air out and swam back with their buckets.

“I don’t understand how the water went so high up. The surface is definitely much higher on the other side than it is here,” said Jerilyn, after they surfaced again.

“Yeah, weird, isn’t it? Also, how are we supposed to get there? We canoed around the edge for miles in each direction and didn’t find any tunnels or places where it bends around or anything that could lead to that place,” said Kimi.

“There probably isn’t any route there going over the surface. If there was, it would be even harder to understand why the water level is different there than here,” said Jerilyn.

“A completely separate world! Do you think it’s the place Mom told us about?”

“I don’t know.”

*

They left for home, and on their next trip, they brought four buckets, with the intention of going all the way to the surface on the other side of the rock. Then they repeated the previous expedition’s trick of walking upside-down underwater with buckets of air, this time each carrying a bucket in each hand, which was even harder to get into position for, but eventually they figured it out. This made it not only difficult to ring the sonar rods, but also difficult to hit the buckets, and they resorted to periodically letting their buckets hit the rock ceiling to make enough noise to navigate.

They stopped briefly near the air pocket to turn rightside-up and take a breath from their buckets, and then turned back upside-down and kept going, buckets still in hand, all the way until the point where the ridge pitched back up again. They set down the buckets in stable locations, turned rightside-up, exhaled, took deep breaths from their full buckets, and swam up towards the surface, leaving four half-filled buckets on the underside of the ridge behind them, Kimi periodically ringing the sonar rods on their way up so they wouldn’t collide with the rock.

They surfaced and each began to take a deep breath, then stopped in shock, and cautiously started to breath again. Something was off about the air. It smelled... not stale, exactly, but strange, not like any air they'd ever smelled before. It smelled overly fresh, in a way, as if all the air they’d beathed until that point had been a bit stale, and they hadn’t noticed.

Jerilyn raised a hand out of the water, shook some water off of it, and snapped. For the briefest of instants, they both thought that perhaps there wasn't a rock ceiling above them at all. But then they heard the echo, and realized that there was a rock ceiling above them at perhaps three times the height that they were accustomed to at home. And they couldn’t see any bright lights in the sky, or anything at all for that matter, so they couldn’t be in the place Mom had described in the myth. Aside from the rock on one side of them and bending into a ceiling far above them, there was nothing around them, just water for as far as they could hear.

“We gotta get the canoe in here so we can explore this place,” said Kimi.

“How in the world are we going to do that?” asked Jerilyn, realizing as she spoke that perhaps it should have been “how out of the world” rather than how in it.

“I don’t know,” said Kimi.

They swam around a bit, but didn’t find anything interesting, and decided to go home. They dove down under the ridge, retrieved their buckets and inhaled from them, surfaced on the other side, got in their canoe, and headed home.

*

Later, they did some experimenting at home, and discovered that their canoe was almost exactly the same density as water. Armed with this fortuitus fact, several buckets, and a lot of rope, they set off again for the other world.

A test run revealed that their rope wasn’t quite long enough to stretch from where they could park their canoe to the air on the other side of the rock. Finding this out resulted in Jerilyn dropping the rope on her way up after crossing the ridge so she could surface and breath, and then returning to their canoe, and they reeled the rope back in.

They set up three buckets of fresh air on the underside of the ridge, and one by the air pocket. Then Jerilyn took the sonar rods and swam out to the ridge and treaded water with her head in a bucket while Kimi filled the canoe with water, and pushed it underwater and forward, Jerilyn ringing the sonar rods in the water to help Kimi tell what she was doing as she swam under, and periodically ducking down into the water to keep herself updated on Kimi’s progress. Kimi wasn’t getting very good resolution from the sonar rods, but it helped that she remembered the path. Kimi, pushing the canoe ahead of her, reached the bucket by the air pocket and took a breath in it. Jerilyn took one last big breath from a fresh bucket and took off for the surface as Kimi continued forward pushing the canoe. When Jerilyn surfaced, she was able to help by reeling in the canoe, holding onto the rock cliff for leverage. Kimi went ahead of the canoe so she wouldn’t run out of air, and together they finished reeling in the canoe to the surface. With some difficulty, they emptied the water out of the canoe, righted it, and got back in.

Righting the canoe had been a lot of work, and they took a quick break to catch their breath. Then they set off in their canoe, keeping their old world to their left.

They heard sounds of civilization coming to them before they echolocated the island from their own snapping. They turned towards it and approached. They were noticed, and it seemed that they had caused a fair amount of consternation.

They got close, and a man was standing on the end of a peninsula near them holding a long, straight stick, facing them and snapping repeatedly. There were also boulders sticking above the water a ways to either side of them.

“Hello,” said Kimi, “Who are you? I’m Kimi.”

The man did not respond, but he did stop snapping and started clicking his tongue. The tongue-clicking wasn’t giving them good resolution on him, but they could tell he was moving in some way. Jerilyn snapped, revealing that the man had both hands on the stick, which was pointed at them, and he was leaning back as if about to throw it. Jerilyn dug her paddle into the water and swung them around, just as the man threw the stick. It narrowly missed Kimi.

“Hey, what was that for?” Kimi shouted.

“Kimi, paddle forward hard!” said Jerilyn, as she began to do so herself. They heard splashing sounds to either side of them, followed by the sounds of people swimming towards them. The man on the shore began clicking his tongue again, and seemed to be preparing for another throw. Jerilyn swung the canoe around again, and the stick just missed her. She resumed paddling forward, and the man on the shore dove into the water.

Someone grabbed the back of the canoe near Jerilyn and pulled himself up towards her. She moved her paddle between them just in time to block a thrust of a stick towards her. He grabbed her paddle with the hand that hand been on the canoe. Kimi lunged at him and hit him in the neck with her paddle with a surprising amount of force for someone her size. He dropped Jerilyn’s paddle as well as his own stick and fell back into the water. The recoil from Kimi’s lunge caused their canoe to collide with someone else as he pulled up towards the position Kimi had just left. Jerilyn hit him over the head with the edge of her paddle, and he too lost his grip on the boat. Jerilyn pushed him away from the boat with her paddle while he was too disoriented to grab it, and then Kimi and Jerilyn returned to their former positions and kept paddling hard. No one caught up to them, and they relaxed a bit once their pursuers had given up.

It took a while before they encountered the next sign of civilization. They approached much more cautiously this time, coming to rest at shouting distance. A small gaggle of people were gathered at the shore closest to them.

“Hello!” one of them shouted. They sounded funny.

“Hello!” Kimi shouted back.

“What is that thing?” asked the person on the shore. Their words were tricky to understand.

“What thing?” asked Kimi.

“The thing you’re sitting on floating in the water,” the stranger clarified.

“The canoe?” asked Kimi.

“The what?”

“This is called a ‘canoe’,” said Kimi, slapping the side of the canoe.

“Okay, so, what is it?”

“You use it to cross the water,” said Kimi. She wasn’t sure what else to say about the concept of canoes.

“What are you doing?” asked the stranger, giving up on getting more information about the canoes.

“We’re exploring,” said Kimi. “The last people we encountered weren’t very nice,” she added.

“Uh, were they the <unrecognizable word>?”

“The what?” asked Kimi.

“Did you encounter them over there?” asked the stranger, gesturing in the direction Kimi and Jerilyn had just come from, and snapping to give them good enough resolution to tell where he was pointing.

“Yes,” said Kimi.

“What the <unrecognizable> were you doing over there?”

“Uh, we didn’t know not to go there.”

“Uh, well now you know. Good thing you survived. Where are you from?” asked the stranger.

“Elsewhere,” said Kimi, knowing the name of their island wouldn’t mean anything to them.

“Uh-huh. Hey, do you guys need any supplies, like food or anything? We’d be happy to help out if you show us how the canoe works,” said the stranger.

“That would be gr-” Kimi started.

“Kimi, no,” Jerilyn interrupted, “They want to steal our canoe.”

They were both getting hungry, but they’d have trouble getting back home without their canoe. It wasn’t worth the risk. They kept going. They were not pursued.

*

It was a long time before they found land again. When they did find land, it wasn’t an island separated from the old world by water like the others had been, but instead, the rock wall separating them from the old world flattened out to become navigable by foot. They were ravenous, having serious regrets about having ventured so far without food, and on the verge of turning back. So they were quite gratified when they smelled vents. They pulled their canoe onto the shore, located the vents, and gorged themselves on ventmoss. Their hunger sated, they noticed they were getting quite tired, and they went to sleep.

When they awoke, they decided to explore the new land they’d found. They walked inland for quite some time without finding another shore; they’d never imagined a land so vast before. Eventually they became tired again, gave up on finding water on the other side, and turned back. They lost track of the exact route they had taken, and when they reached the shore again, it wasn’t familiar territory. A gust of wind carried a faint smell of vents towards them, and, guessing that it was from the same vents they had found earlier, they followed the shore in the direction the wind had come from. This guess turned out to be correct, and they found their canoe right where they’d left it. They ate some more ventmoss, drank from the water, and rested for a while.

Then they decided to venture uphill, in the direction of the old world; perhaps they would be able to walk on top of the rock ceiling of the old world. The ground gradually steepened, and they kept going long past the point where they had to crawl on all fours, and each step brought them more up than forward. At times, they had to rely on their voices for echolocating footholds when their hands were occupied clinging to the rock and they couldn’t snap. When they turned back, it was due to some combination of the steepness spooking them, and them getting quite tired. They downclimbed facing backwards until the ground had flattened out enough that they could walk upright without falling over, and then they walked their way back to their canoe and the vents, had another meal, and went to sleep.

When they woke up again, they decided to return home. They followed the route they had taken last time, but steered clear of any signs of civilization. When they neared the place where they’d met the people who’d attacked them, they stayed very close to the rock wall separating them from the old world, paddled slowly, and instead of snapping, frequently gently tapped the rock next to them for guidance, in hopes of minimizing noise and not advertising their presence.

When they reached approximately the place where they had first surfaced into the new world, they had some trouble figuring out exactly the right place. Kimi periodically dove into the water with the sonar rods, and in most places, it was easy to tell that they couldn’t be in the right place because the rock extended down too far vertically into the water. But eventually they found a point below them where the rock didn’t extend as far down, and theorized that that might be their route home.

Jerilyn dove below the edge of the rock, rang the sonar rods, and sure enough, there were their buckets of air on the underside of the ridge. She went back to the surface, and they tied their rope to their canoe, filled the canoe with water, and pushed it under while Jerilyn held the rope. They surfaced again after pushing the canoe down a ways underwater, took deep breaths, dove all the way under the ridge until they got their heads in air buckets, and pulled the canoe further down by reeling in the rope until the canoe was below the ridge. Then they dumped the air out of their buckets and carried buckets and rope back to the other side, with a quick stop at the bucket they’d placed midway to take breaths and pack up that bucket too. They were desperate for air by the time they finally surfaced on the other side.

After they finished panting for breath, they reeled in their canoe, and laboriously emptied the water out of it, righted it, and went home. Their parents were delighted to see them, cross at the prolonged absence, and skeptical of their tales of the new worlds they’d discovered.

*

Some time later, Kimi and Jerilyn decided to make another expedition to the new world and try to climb further up the steep cliffs they’d found. Realizing that it would take a long time, and they’d want water and food other than ventmoss, they packed some dried fish and plenty of buckets, and fashioned some seals for their buckets so that water could be stored in them without spilling when jostled around.

They set out along the same path as in their previous expeditions, although it took them some time to find again the indentation in the rock where they’d crossed over into the new world. Once they did, they repeated their usual procedure to get to the other side, after tying their extra buckets (two containing dried fish sealed inside) to the canoe, since carrying the extra buckets underwater themselves would have been too unwieldy.

Once they reached the air on the other side, reeled in their canoe, righted it, and emptied the water out, they took a break to catch their breath. They then continued roughly in the same direction as their previous journey, with a detour to steer clear of signs of civilization before they rejoined their original route, which they successfully stayed on from then on, making for a lengthy but uneventful trip to the place they had landed at on their previous trip.

Unlike on their previous trip, they were not hungry when they reached the land, as they had been snacking on dried fish the whole time. But they were quite tired, so they went to sleep before going any further.

*

When they awoke, they filled the remaining space in their buckets of dried fish with ventmoss, filled two other buckets with water, and took off uphill, each carrying a food bucket over one shoulder and a water bucket over the other. They kept going past where they had turned back the previous time, and not long after, had to backtrack a bit because the route seemed too precariously steep. But after a little exploring, they were able to find a more navigable route up.

After a long ascent and many quick breaks, they decided they needed some sleep. Unfortunately, they were on very steep ground. However, after a bit of exploring, they managed to find a crevice of flat ground big enough for both of them to lie down in, and they went to sleep.

They continued their ascent when they awoke. At one point, Jerilyn, who was in the lead, slipped and fell on a steep stretch. Fortunately, she did not hit Kimi on the way down, and was not far above some flatter terrain on which she managed to stop her fall. Miraculously, the seals on both of her buckets had held.

Kimi downclimbed to join Jerilyn, and asked if she was alright. Jerilyn reported that while she would probably develop some bruises from the fall, she was otherwise undamaged. They looked around for a safer way up, eventually found one, and continued on.

The hill eventually flattened out considerably, and they were able to consistently walk upright without their hands on the ground, though still uphill. The rock ceiling got progressively lower, to the point where it wasn’t far above their heads. In places, they even had to duck under it, though there were also places where the rock ceiling was much higher. At one such point where they rock ceiling was anomalously high, they saw a few small points of light above them at an angle, and in that particular direction, the rock ceiling was further away than they could echolocate, if it was there at all.

Eventually they grew tired, and went to sleep again. When they awoke, they noticed that the ground quite a ways behind them was glowing brightly. The air in a line connecting the rock ceiling to that patch of ground was also glowing faintly. They walked towards it, but the glowing patch narrowed and disappeared before they reached it. They turned back uphill and pressed on.

Later, they saw another glowing patch of ground, again with accompanying faintly glowing ray of air shooting up to the rock ceiling, well to their right. They headed towards it, but it too narrowed and disappeared before they reached it, and they turned back uphill.

The rock ceiling narrowed further, and they had to crawl to keep going. On multiple occasions, the rock ceiling come so close to the ground that they could not go further, or even merged with the ground, becoming a wall in front of them, and in such cases, they had to backtrack and find a different route up. At one point, the only route forward was so narrow between ground and ceiling that, in order to get through them, they had to take their buckets off their shoulders and push them ahead, and advance while lying flat. Kimi, being smaller, had an easier time of this, and at one point, Jerilyn got stuck, but Kimi was able to turn around in a slightly wider spot just ahead and give Jerilyn a hand, helping her get through.

The ceiling rose further above them again, eventually to the point where they could walk upright without ducking. They saw a patch of little points of light ahead of them, and they went in that direction, which required a steep climb. As they drew close, it became apparent that the points of light were coming from a hole in the rock wall, as echoes bounced off rock to every side of the patch of points of light, but not from the patch itself.

They passed through the hole. Though the ground continued to stretch out before them in all directions, there was no longer any wall to either side or in front of them, nor a ceiling above them, as far as they could tell from the echoes of their snaps. There was an almost-vertical wall behind them surrounding the hole, but rather than bending above them into a ceiling as it rose, it bent back in the other direction, as if to form high ground after flattening out further beyond their hearing range. There were many little points of light in every direction above them. There was one big source of bright light, almost a disk, but with one side blunted slightly inwards. There was faint light pervading through the air, so that they could see things in their immediate vicinity, including each other, clearly, despite the bright lights being far above them, and they could even see geological features much farther away than they could hear.

“We found it!” said Kimi, “The place from the legend! Look, there’s the bright light Mom told us about!” She pointed to the big almost-disk of bright light above them.

“Yeah,” said Jerilyn, “It doesn’t hurt to look at, though. And Mom didn’t mention all the other lights. Still, considering it was an ancient myth, it did turn out to be remarkably accurate. That sure is a lot of light.”

They explored the new wide open land, snapping as they went to echolocate the ground, even though they could see it just fine, since they were not accustomed to using light to find their footing. They quickly discovered that it was far larger even than it had first appeared. For instance, they set off in the direction of what appeared to be a patch of vegetation low to the ground, which they could see but not echolocate, but the vegetation seemed to grow larger but draw further away as they approached, not coming within echolocating range until well after they expected it to.

On their way, they heard a burbling sound, and investigating, they found a trail of fast-moving liquid flowing across the ground. Kimi tapped the surface of the liquid hesitantly, then cupped her hands, plunged them under the surface, and brought some of the liquid back up in her hands. It felt like water. She sipped it. It tasted like water. She reported her findings, and Jerilyn followed suit, and concurred. They had never come across such a wide stretch of such fast-flowing, shallow water before. It was a fortunate find, as they had been running low on water, and would have had a hard time on their way back if they hadn’t found more water. The water was fresher than the water in their buckets, so they refilled their buckets with it.

By the time they finally reached the patch of vegetation they’d been headed towards, it became apparent that the vegetation, which they had initially thought to be low to the ground, was actually enormous, with thick stalks extending far over their heads, high enough to extend well past the rock ceiling from home, and branching out, with vegetation covering the branches far above them.

A similar phenomenon occurred when they headed for some small hills in the distance. Again, the hills seems to draw further away as they approached. But unlike the vegetation, the hills did not also seem to grow as they approached. They pursued the hills longer than they had pursued the vegetation, but the hills still seemed no closer, and their size hadn’t changed. They speculated that perhaps the hills were simply illusions, or perhaps they were vastly further away than the vegetation had been. They were tired. They found a good spot to lie down, and went to sleep.

*

Something was wrong. Kimi opened her eyes and screamed, waking Jerilyn, who also screamed. There was light everywhere. So much light, as if an anglerfish’s lure was right in front of their eyeballs, except that it was coming from all directions.

They quickly identified the source of the light: an inconceivably bright light coming from the ground in the distance, which, true to the legend, it hurt to look at. They turned away from the light, held each others’ hands, and took deep breaths to calm themselves down while they got used to the incredible quantity of light all around them. Jerilyn speculated that, since this light was so bright it hurt to look at, and was located far away on the ground, and the light they’d seen before was merely bright and located far up above them, that perhaps the light that their Mom had spoken of in the myth, which was supposed to be painfully bright and high up above them, was a conflation of the two lights that they’d seen.

Once they’d calmed down a bit, they kept exploring. The bright light slowly climbed above the ground and into the air, which Jerilyn noted meant she was probably wrong in her earlier speculations. At the same time, the light kept gradually getting even brighter, to the point where it hurt to look in any direction at all, and, counterintuitively, it actually got harder to see as the intensity of light increased. The novelty of so much light flooding their surroundings wore off quickly, so they ended up spending a lot of time with their eyes closed, but their ability to see farther than they could echolocate was useful for navigating, so sometimes they would squint or partially cover their eyes instead.

Eventually, Kimi noticed that her skin hurt. She remarked on this, and Jerilyn noticed that her skin hurt as well. There was no obvious cause to their ailments. Jerilyn speculated that, since they’d been fine before the light got so bright, and the skin under their clothing didn’t hurt, that perhaps the light was hurting their skin. They decided to try getting out of the light.

They found some more of the tall vegetation, which was dense enough to block much of the light from coming under it. They took a break under it. It was generally more pleasant there, as it was cooler (it had been warm earlier), and the reduced level of light didn’t hurt their eyes as much.

Their skin kept getting worse, though. This gave them some doubt over whether it was the light that was hurting their skin, but it still seemed possible that it was because of the light, and their skin was continuing to hurt because of damage already done. And they didn’t have any better ideas than staying there; the hole in the rock that they had emerged from was far away, and they didn’t feel like making their way back to it in all the light, in case it was the light that was hurting their skin. They had no guarantee that the light would go away, but since it had been much dimmer earlier, that gave them some hope that it would dim again.

Kimi began to cry out of some combination of fear and the pain of her skin. Jerilyn tried to comfort her, though her skin also hurt, and she was also concerned. They waited there a long time without the light going away. They were exhausted, as they had been woken up by the light well before they would have woken up on their own, but they also couldn’t get to sleep because of the light, stress, and pain in their skin. Their skins were growing blisters, and they were losing hope that the light would go away any time soon, so they were considering making their way back to the hole, when they noticed that the source of the light was slowly making its way back towards the ground. They decided to wait for it to get there to see what would happen.

The light slowly dimmed as the bright light drew close to the ground, and Kimi and Jerilyn took off for the hole they’d emerged from. They’d gotten used to the way that their surroundings would seem to grow and draw away as they approached, and they were able to use landmarks they recognized by sight to navigate back to the hole. They refilled their water buckets again when they reached the fast-flowing vein of water. There was plenty of vegetation and wildlife around them, and they speculated that some of it might be edible, and they had gone through well over half their food, so it was tempting to attempt to restock on food for the return trip, but they didn’t know how to determine what was edible, as they didn’t recognize any of it. Jerilyn was concerned that, since light seemed to be toxic to their skin in high doses, perhaps consuming vegetation that had been exposed to that much light might also be toxic to them (she realized later that this could also be an issue with the water that they’d found, but it wasn’t like they could just not drink water, so it was a risk they’d have to take). They had to make do with the food that they’d already packed.

The bright light in the sky was long gone, and, following its departure, the ambient light continued to dim. By the time they reached the cliff, the ambient light had returned to the level it had been at when they’d emerged, and they could see the little points of light, and the one big light in the sky that had so impressed them when they’d first seen it, but no longer seemed so grand, in comparison to the much brighter light that had replaced it for a time.

They found the hole that they’d emerged from, walked in, and retreated inwards quite a ways from the hole before they collapsed on the ground, exhausted, and slept.

*

Their skins were still painful and sensitive when they awoke, and the hole they’d traveled through was glowing intensely.

They continued on their way back home, but when they got to approximately the point where they thought the narrow spot they’d crawled up through was, it took them a long time before they found it. Crawling back through it was quite painful, as it was impossible to climb through without scraping their sensitive skin. But after some painful struggle, they made it through.

Their progress down was much slower than their progress up had been, both because of their skin sensitivity slowing down their crawling, and because it was difficult to retrace their steps. Recognizing this, they rationed their food and water so that it would last long enough. During the phase of their journey where they had to crawl under a low ceiling, they seemed hopelessly lost for a long time before they finally made their way to an area where they had enough room to stand up, and in that more open area, they were eventually able to find what seemed to be their previous path. Satisfied that they were no longer lost, they went to sleep before continuing.

They had an easier time following their route up from then on. Despite their skin pain and weariness slowing them down, they actually exceeded their pace from the way up on the flatter portions of the trip, but they lost that extra time on the portions where they had to climb. Despite their efforts to conserve food, they ran out by the next time they stopped to sleep.

After descending further for quite a long time, they ran out of water, but they realized that they were getting close to the water, the vents, and their canoe. They desperately needed more sleep, but they needed food and water more, so they pressed on. They were quite relieved when they finally reached the bottom. They drank from the water, sated their hunger with ventmoss, and went to sleep. When they woke up, they got in their canoe and set off for home.

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