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The Loveliest Abyss in the Universe

Andrew M. Crusoe

PRELUDE

A low hum oozed through the unlit passages, flowing throughout a dizzying labyrinth of underground tunnels that the world above could never have imagined.

The source of the hum was located far below any level that the Nirangi Order had permitted for mere members. Only the most holy, the most clever, and the most cunning had attained the clearance to reach the lowest levels of the complex. Only these select few knew of the machine’s existence.

The product of decades of unrelenting work, the machine rested at the lowest level of the complex, in a hexagonal room with unlit corners that seemed to creep of their own accord and a ceiling so high that not even the lead scientists had bothered to bring in enough illumination to light it. It was deemed unnecessary.

Instead, the resources had been focused on defense, with holy guards placed liberally along the path to the machine room, which could only be accessed by a hidden door.

The Order of Nirangi had gone to great lengths to keep the machine secret. And as it sat in the center of its hexagonal home, the machine rumbled, stewing with a dark energy and an even darker purpose.

Anyone standing beside it might have remarked at how bizarrely sharp the edge of the machine looked, haloed in a series of thin, metallic rings that grew thicker toward the center, forming a horrendous bowl that stood just over a meter high. Upon closer examination, it was easy to see how nearly every element in its design had been focused toward the center, toward a large hollow space that was filled with a bubbling, oozing darkness that had not been there just a moment before. The darkness grew until it touched a tiny probe on the edge of the bowl.

At long last, the machine had found Maraka.

Everyone on the council had concluded that Maraka’s bones would be perfect to pinpoint the coordinates of the Abyss. Building upon previous experiments that showed how one’s energetic body imprinted on the physical body before death, the machine had taken the concept a step further. Once it had compiled the complete energetic signature of Maraka’s bones, they set it to work on finding Maraka’s soul. After all, who better to locate the Abyss than the most notorious murderer to have ever lived? His soul would surely have had no other fate than the Abyss itself.

The only difficulty was time. While the machine’s mechanism was well understood, its speed was not, and no one could say with certainty how long the machine would take to work. Dozens of theories had been put forth, but they were all thrown out as unsubstantiated. And many of the scientists had resigned themselves to visiting the machine whenever they had the chance, vainly hoping that perhaps, just perhaps, they might be there when the machine at last opened the viewing portal.

Holy guards had been placed outside the room to keep watch, until one scientist, the youngest, got the bright idea to design a probe to set off a silent alarm when the viewing portal finally opened. Many of the other scientists smacked their forehead when they heard this, wondering why they hadn’t thought of that. Many of them grew increasingly wary of the project, and once the machine had been completed, most of them had enjoyed a well-deserved holiday to the nearby archipelago.

All the while, the youngest scientist stayed within Zaamani’s borders. In fact, he scarcely left the basilica complex. Although the machine would surely show them something quite horrendous, he was nonetheless electrified with excitement at the thought of it finally working. Indeed, unbeknownst to everyone else, he’d programmed the probe to message his comm first.

And so the probe, a tiny silver orb connected by a thin wire to a charge-sensitive alarm, waited to trigger. With each passing morning, Sujan’s anticipation grew, because he knew, deep down, that when the probe fired, it wouldn’t merely make him and his team famous, it would make their names immortal.

 

CHAPTER 1

MADAM VIRAGAT

As a slowly moving wave, the congregation of parishioners flowed into the Zaamani Basilica, wearing their traditional blue and indigo pastels. The basilica, which was the largest such structure in the entire Zaamani nation, had been built long before the modern age of curving synthetic sapphire, so its towering limestone steeples stood out against the rest of the crystalline skyline.

Today’s sermon would be about divine law. At least, that’s what Madam Viragat, Chief Chintak of the Zaamani Basilica, had imagined for this morning. Her olive face was filled with fine wrinkles, yet in spite of that, she somehow retained the warm hue of youth in her features; and as she walked up to the lectern, her plum cloak billowing with each stride, she smiled broadly.

She looked out onto the congregation that was waiting reverently for her words, hungry for meaning, starving for answers. And behind her, six other robed chintaka stood in a line, expressionless.

“Beloved,” she began, her words seeming especially deliberate this morning, “something deep is stirring within our land, a cancer that threatens the longstanding peace and tranquility that we have attained.”

“What is it?” a young, fearless voice called out from the front row, a move that terrified his parents.

Unfazed, Madam Viragat gazed down to the boy and spoke in measured sentences. “My child, the cancer is disbelief. Zaamani is a wide and diverse nation that spans our continent, and fewer and fewer of our flock join us on our days of rest. I fear that this trend will continue, which brings me to this morning’s passage.” She touched the glass panel built into the lectern, and it flickered to life, displaying a passage in large, crisp text. “In prehistory, the tribes that inhabited this continent were at war and believed only in their primitive self-interest. They had no concept of a greater good, and they certainly did not fathom the afterlife. When they died, they passed into death unpurified, and their lack of knowledge did not pardon them for their impurity.”

A smirk flashed across the face of one of the lesser chintaka behind her, and he cleared his throat and spoke up. “Madam Chief, pardon my interruption, but could you kindly elaborate on their fate? For those who are newly initiated, perhaps the reminder would serve useful.”

Madam Viragat glanced back to him, a dark expression filling her face. “Of course,” she said, turning back around. “The consequence for the unpurified is inescapable. There is only one destination after their departure from this world.”

She paused, sweeping her harsh gaze across the wide space that held the congregation.

“The Abyss,” she finally said.

The child from the front row couldn’t stay quiet. “But how can you say that? How could the ancient tribes know if they’d never been told? That isn’t fair!”

His mother rushed to cover his mouth and scolded him under her breath, while the Chief Chintak shook her head.

“Child, a cosmic law does not change because of your ignorance. If I did not know the law of gravity, would you believe I could fly?” Madam Viragat breathed slowly and continued. “This is the fallacy that faces our age. Some believe that ignorance pardons evil, but it surely does not. The Divine passes judgment as swiftly as a tsunami rips across an ocean. There is no escaping this truth. Yet, there is hope. The teachings of the Nirangi are our salvation, teachings of humility, loyalty, and responsibility. That is what brings us to congregate here. Within these teachings, within this book, is the only truth.” She held up one of the thick, brown volumes of Nirangi scripture that was lying in front of her. “And soon, I hope to show you firsthand—”

A high-pitched whistle went off in Viragat’s ear, silencing her. If anyone else had heard it, they would have been thrown off of their train of thought, too. Yet to her audience, it appeared that Madam Viragat had frozen in mid-sentence for no apparent reason, and she set the tome back down.

Why now? Why did it have to be in the middle of a divine message? She had feared this might happen, and so had made a contingency plan.

“Beloved, I am needed for an emergency meeting that cannot be delayed. I am regretful to leave you now. Chintak Tarus will continue in my stead. I trust you will find his words enlightening.”

One of the lesser chintaka, an older man with fine wrinkles, walked up to the lectern, and they bowed to each other slightly before Madam Viragat hurried away and followed a small opening down a narrow hall.

At the end of the hall, she opened a small closet and quickly removed her plum cloak, replacing it with a somber grey one. Now properly prepared, she zipped across the hall, over to another room that had long been unoccupied. Viragat walked to a low, knob-less door in the corner of the room and pressed her fingers onto a pad beside it. The door slid back, and as fast as she could, Viragat shuffled down the narrow staircase, past a series of holy guards, down the stone hall, across several subterranean intersections, and down several flights of stairs until she reached an entirely featureless dead end where several other high-ranking Nirangi members were already waiting for her.

A younger man clad in a black robe spoke first. “Madam Chief, it seems the machine is finally active. We notified you as soon as we knew.”

Madam Viragat studied him coldly. Although well into adulthood, he was the youngest of the elite members, a scientist transferred from Shamindesha, the coastal province. But his youthful appearance belied his intelligence. He had only been here for three years, but in that short time his service had been exemplary.

“Has anyone been inside yet?” Viragat said.

“No, we thought it respectful to wait for you, Madam.”

Madam Viragat nodded, suddenly remembering his name. “That was wise, Chintak Sujan. The Chief Chintak is meant to enter first. Move aside.”

They cleared a path for her, and she pressed her palm to the bare wall of the dead end. Slowly, the wall rumbled aside to reveal an opening, and a low hum echoed all around them as they filed, one by one, into a hexagonal room.

Sujan let Madam Viragat pass as she rushed up to the terrible machine, tapping at its cold controls. Just ahead, a dark mass was swirling within its focusing bowl, like liquid clouds of impenetrable smoke. Sujan got lost in the sight of the churning mass, until Madam Chief barked her orders, shattering his cloudy trance.

“An image is coming through,” she said. “Take your positions!”

All five of them, including Sujan, encircled the machine and placed their right hands on one of the six silver handles protruding from it. At first touch, Sujan felt a charge and then a pulling sensation as the machine made a low gonging sound.

“Direct your energies toward the focusing bowl! The etheric energy is nearly at optimum levels. Very close now, my chintaka!”

Around him Sujan noticed how the others winced, and just ahead the clouds changed, gradually resolving themselves into a bright image.

“Here it comes, beloved! Here it comes!”

Sujan had never heard Madam Chief sound so excited before. Her unrestrained enthusiasm almost frightened him, and as he watched, the bright image resolved itself into the view of a snowy basin with colossal ice formations reaching into the sky like terrible daggers.

“Something must be wrong,” Madam Viragat snapped. “Sujan, is the machine still locked onto Maraka’s signature?”

Sujan glanced at the small auxiliary display beside the silver handle and used his other hand to operate the controls.

“Apologies, Madam Chief. The machine has found two matches. Permission to select the other?”

“Yes, chintak.”

Sujan raced to reprogram the machine as the rest of the chintaka glared at him, still holding their etheric handles.

The focusing bowl flickered and swarmed with dark, brooding clouds once more; and the machine let out another deep gong.

“Get on with it!” another chintak yelled.

“Hold on!” Sujan yelled back. The tension in the room had grown so thick, that he felt as if the air itself might catch fire.

And then, the clouds cleared for a second time, revealing a truly horrific sight. Sujan looked outward and beheld a raging volcano oozing lava over its jagged surface, only to spill into a roiling lava lake at its base. In the distance, dozens of other volcanos raged along with it, spewing chunks of molten boulders high into the dark space above. When he looked closer, what he saw filled him with horror: a figure in the far distance was swimming in the lava lake, and lying on the blackened ground beside it, even more bodies were strewn in various positions.

They had found exactly what they were looking for.

Madam Viragat’s gaze darted over to Sujan, but he could hardly speak at the torturous sight. The image had filled the room with a red light, casting ghostly silhouettes onto the walls.

“We have found it, Chintak Sujan,” she said, in an almost reverent tone. “And we are going to save multitudes with these images.”

“Yes, Madam.”

“Confirm archival subroutine activity.”

Sujan checked the auxiliary display. “Confirmed.”

For a few more moments, they all gazed onward through the window into a hideous realm, speechless at its indescribable grotesquery. Since the machine did not provide a method to collect sound, the space was silent except for the growing whine within the machine, as if it were under considerable strain.

Sujan thought he saw one of the figures walking along the edge of the lake, toward the viewport. But how could that be possible? The machine was designed to permit electromagnetic radiation in one direction only, so there was no way it could see them. Sujan heard the machine begin to whirr as the image wavered, but he simply couldn’t pull his gaze away. Still, the figure headed directly toward their viewpoint, and behind it, Sujan thought he saw other figures gnashing their teeth in unimaginable fury.

At last, Sujan could finally make out its features. It was completely bald and clearly female, with skin that was a deep crimson. The figure looked up and made eye contact with Sujan for a split second, before the image flickered away to darkness.

“What happened? Is the machine all right?” Madam Viragat shouted.

“Could she see us?” one of the chintaka said. “Is that possible?”

“It’s impossible!” Sujan barked, but then checked himself. “She must have seen something behind the viewpoint. It couldn’t have been us. Madam Chief, the machine appears to have had its power cut off. It’s possible—”

“Cut off? How much power was consumed?”

Sujan checked the display below. In under five minutes, they had devoured as much power as the entire province consumed in a typical day. Since the province now contained nearly a half million citizens, Madam Viragat’s eyes went wide when he told her the reading.

“The machine is unresponsive. We must have overloaded the conduits for the entire complex! Hold on.” He released his grip on the silver handle and ran over to a panel by the door. The panel was dimmer than normal, and he brought up a diagram of the entire complex, confirming that the subsystem had automatically cut power to the room to avoid a total system overload.

“I’m sorry, Madam Chief,” he said, glancing back to her. “If we ever want to reactivate the machine, we’ll need new equipment to deliver the power.”

Madam Viragat simply stared into the focusing bowl, now merely an empty space. “Yes,” she said quietly, “I suppose we will.” She turned to Sujan. “What about the images? Were they preserved?”

He tapped on the panel and checked.

“Yes, we have just over a minute of ultra-band EM video.”

“Enough then. Enough to show them the fate of those who do not believe.” Madam Viragat finally released her hold on the silver handle, and walked over to the door. “Reset the machine,” she said, waving her hand toward it. “And place an order for any components you need to provide the necessary power. When it’s ready, message me immediately.”

Now that she had released her hold on the machine, the rest of the chintaka followed suit; and Madam Viragat walked down the hall, leaving them in silence.

“Madam Chief,” one chintak called out, “where are you going?”

The Chief Chintak turned back to face them, for once appearing as old as she really was. “My dear chintaka, we have just seen the Abyss — using our own etheric energy as a catalyst, no less. We would be wise to rest. Oh, and Chintak Kathanik,” she said, shooting her gaze over to one of the other chintaka, “prepare a formal summary of what you’ve seen here, and I will compile an official report.”

“Yes, Madam Chief,” Kathanik said reflexively.

And she turned around again, her long grey cloak swinging around as she did so, and disappeared down the hall. As she receded into the darkness, five chintaka stood around a lifeless machine, slumping over in utter exhaustion.

 

CHAPTER 2

OUR BELOVED FAMILY

The following day, everyone on the team, including Sujan, received an encrypted message containing the official report of their glimpse into the Abyss.

Each of them was tasked to contribute their observations and provide suggestions. Yet this was not an easy task for Sujan, and he read the material dozens of times before he began his formal notes for Madam Viragat. There were numerous problems with the report, most of which he had anticipated; and he sat at his desk anxiously, contemplating how to phrase his thoughts so that Madam Chief would be receptive to his logic.

First and foremost, the report made assumptions that were not adequately supported by their data. When he had first seen what the machine had shown them, the images he saw were so profound that he never questioned the true nature of what they were seeing, but as he reviewed the ultra-band video they’d recorded, uncertainty gnawed at him. How could he be sure that they really were seeing the Abyss and not somewhere else?

After much reflection and prayer, he had to admit that there was no concrete evidence to prove this was the Abyss. What they witnessed matched the description of the Abyss in Nirangi scripture well enough, but their glimpse had simply been too brief to be conclusive.

Sujan reflected on their original plan. After a long period of research, the Order of Nirangi had recovered the grave of Maraka, the most vile man ever to have lived. According to state records, he was so incredibly evil that he would actually eat the flesh of his victims, who were mostly young women, after murdering them. And when they’d finally found his hideout, they found ropes woven out of hair and razor sharp knives carved from bone.

The Order of Nirangi had concluded that if the machine could manage to hone in on someone as evil as Maraka, they should be able to track his energy body, what some would call his soul, back to its final fate: eternity in the Abyss. Sujan raised concerns about this assumption during their formal meetings, but they went unanswered. Madam Viragat’s staunch determination tended to drown out the concerns of the other chintaka, so perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised.

In the end, Sujan decided to ask Madam Chief for more time before they published the final report. Getting the necessary equipment to upgrade the machine would only take a few days, and then they could do another session to confirm whether or not they truly had found the Abyss. After all, being thorough was a value he and Madam Chief shared, and he dispatched his message to her office with a cautious confidence that she would see reason.

Just a few minutes later, his display flashed up a response.

≛ Madam Viragat, Anuttam Chintak {ac.zaamani.bas}
∸ Chintak Sujan {chintak33.zaamani.bas}
4943:0710:038810
 
Your request for postponement for release of the official report is denied. Any doubt that may have existed is insignificant to the proof that we now have. However, the notes you have provided concerning phrasing and flow will be considered.

Many blessings for your continued service to our Beloved Family.

+Mme. Viragat, AC, ZB.

 

Sujan’s gaze darkened as he read the message. He had been afraid of this. Ever since he’d moved to the capital province of Nividesha, he noticed a disturbing correlation between power and pride within the basilica. He’d noticed it back at Shamin province, too, but it was even more pronounced here.

“This is wrong,” he whispered. “What if we’re mistaken? It’ll be the greatest sin the order has stumbled into since…”

He tried to put unspeakable thoughts out of his head as his mind raced for a solution to the conflict within him. Would he submit to Madam Viragat’s will or hold firmly to his desire for truth?

He pulled up the ultra-band video of their viewing once more, and this time he closely studied how the volcano spewed chunks of molten rock high into the air. He couldn’t see any sky in the background, only blackness. That matched what the sacred texts said about the Abyss; one unchanging description of the Abyss was that it existed deep within the planet, and therefore had no sky, only a dark unforgiving roof of jagged rock.

The molten lake seemed to ooze with hate, and he marveled at how fluidly the lava lake moved. He ran a spectral analysis on the ultra-band video, which contained frequencies ranging from infrared to gamma. Just as he suspected, elements 8 and 14 were in abundance. No problem there.

On a whim, he watched the video from the beginning at one-tenth speed. He watched as one volcano spewed a molten rock into the air, and for the first time Sujan noticed a white, jagged spike reach down to the landscape in the far distance.

Sujan furrowed his eyebrows and played back the video again, this time going one-fortieth speed of the original video. Scanning the individual frames, he watched as the rock ticked across his view, and far behind it a bolt of lightning etched down in a jagged path toward the ground. Soon, another bolt raced up from the ground to meet it, and a few frames later they met in the middle space, creating a bright, jagged bolt that flashed across the landscape, briefly illuminating something high above.

He repeated the procedure again, this time playing the video one-hundred times slower than realtime, and watched as the distant lightning made contact. At the instant of its greatest brightness, he saw something that should simply not have been there: a row of distant clouds.

Sujan yelped in surprise. “Clouds? But the Abyss has no clouds!”

He watched the entire video again, and all of the facts hit him like a series of falling bricks: the lightning, the lava lake, the creatures beside it, and the crimson woman that had walked toward their view.

“This is no Abyss!” Sujan smacked the desk with his palm. “It’s a world.”

Sujan transferred the images to his reading pad, put his computer to sleep, and darted out of the room. The conclusion was inescapable. He could only hope that Madam Viragat would agree.

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What Reviewers are saying about The Loveliest Abyss…

 
“Readers can feel how much thought he has put into all the details of this alternate world — even details we can’t yet ‘see’…I can hardly wait to find out what happens next!” — Tui Snider, Author of ‘Paranormal Texas’

“I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The story gets going quickly and puts forth big questions for the reader to ponder without pushing a specific opinion. I really appreciate it when an author lets me get there on my own, a subtle but complex part of the craft.” — Anela (Creator of AmidtheImaginary)

“As a reader of the Aravinda books, I enjoyed the new angle on the galaxy this story offered…I’m sure it would also work as a good introduction for any new comers to the series.” — M.M. Stauffer (Tatterwing Chronicles author)

“Enjoyed this in one sitting and I can’t wait to read about what happens next!” — Billy Horn, Amazon Reviewer

“Sci-Fi with an ethical purpose for the 21st century! The author’s work has been called Transcendental Science Fiction, and with good reason.” — Flavia Westermann