I had descended more than 10,000 meters before I realized that something was wrong. Considering my year, I should have expected it. The bitter divorce. My son’s unexpected death. Bad oysters two weeks in a row.
The engineering crew said that power fluctuations were a minor problem. Nothing to worry about, like the fickle tide or overcast sky. But now, in a ham-fisted twist of irony, all of it seemed to add up to one nasty punch line: I was at an all-time low in my life and sinking uncontrollably towards the deepest known point on Earth.
There was a violent jolt as my submersible made contact with the ocean floor. When my eyes opened, the displays were blank and the darkness was absolute, pressing in on all sides like the water outside the sub. The haunting groan of the ocean was the only sound bold enough to break the silence. I felt for the flashlight under my seat, my heart pounding. With a click, I turned it on, focusing its beam on the lone, seven-inch window, peering out into the gloom.
Thick, swirling particulate caught the light, clouding my view of the bottom. The wholeness of my isolation dawned on me. I remembered the sun when we left Guam, the frothing waves as they sealed me in. The Last Fathom, my submersible, was built to collect data on the abyss, like the Deepsea Challenger or the Trieste. But now, it was an idle dud. A casket. I felt a chill as my nose touched the glass.
There was a crackling voice over the radio:
My pulse quickened. I leaned forward, pressing the headset against my ears. “Surface, do you copy?”
The radio continued to pop and hiss. Finally, a response came: “This isn’t the surface.”
I paused, frowning. It was a terrible joke. “Surface, I have multiple system failures. The thrusters are out, ballast weights not responding—”
“You’ve found a crack, Last Fathom. Fallen through.” The voice was breathy and deep, sizzling with static. It could have been male or female.
A shiver went down my spine. “A crack…do you mean the trench?” I pointed my flashlight out the window. The debris was gone. In its place was inky blackness.
“No, not the trench,” said the voice flatly. “A crack in the map. There’s no bottom out there. Look.”
There was a glimmer in the dark as a display illuminated. It was the depth gauge, its numbers blinking as they continued to plummet. Just an error, I thought.
“I—I don’t follow you.”
There was an audible sigh. “You’ve contaminated my data, Last Fathom. The least you can do now is listen.”
My mind was spinning now. Was this someone on the research team? It certainly didn’t sound like it…
“All right, I’ll listen,” I said, warily. “And I’m sorry about your data.” There were hundreds of ways to die in the abyss.
Whoever this was, they were all I had.
“Apologies won’t help you, Last Fathom. And I can’t help you. It would be bad for research. But since I’m bored and you’ve already voided your treatment I don’t mind chatting. You’re as good as dead anyway.”
A wave of panic overcame me. “Dead?”
“Sure,” said the voice. “Oh, don’t worry. You’re still alive elsewhere, in other treatments. We can’t let people go back once they’ve breached the map, you know. It would spoil the model.”
I was suddenly seized by dread, but I knew I had to think rationally. So long as I had this person on the radio, I could still reach my crew. Maybe I could reason with them…
“You keep saying that I’ve breached the map,” I said, suppressing a nervous stutter. “What does that mean?”
“Well, you can’t expect us to render it all at once. Everything you’ve ever seen is hollow. But, because of some oversight on my part, you’ve passed through the geometry and into the void.”
“The void…” I squinted out the window once more, trying to decode his words. For the first time, I noticed trails of beading water dribbling off the glass outside like rain. The ocean was gone.
“That’s right, Last Fathom. If you dig a hole we’ll draw it up for you, to mask the void. But if we drew everything that was out of your sight we would waste resources, tax the model.”
“Ah ha,” I said, scratching my head.
“But we’ve cut a few corners to make it more manageable. Your universe is only expanding as fast as your ability to observe it. Your molecules are only as sharp as your best lenses. And, we’ve removed all life from places that are out of your reach. It’s a very efficient system. Keeps your treatment running on schedule and without much delay.
But…that’s the trouble with these parallel treatments. You can’t expect them to be perfect. Quality control is a tough job, you know.”
“I can imagine,” I said, still grasping for meaning. I knew I had to keep this person talking if I wanted to survive. “But these treatments, your data…it sounds like you’re doing an experiment.”
In that instant, my brain did a somersault. I thought of my research team, their models of ocean plate tectonics. Parallel treatments. Universes. Rendered models…
My voice began to shake. “Are there…differences between these treatments of yours?”
“Yes, variates,” the voice said, yawning. “They create forks in each treatment’s timeline.”
“I see…and my, er, treatment?”
There was a pause. “You want to know the variate?”
I fell silent. Suddenly, I felt foolish, like I had bought into a joke.
“Ah, Last Fathom,” the voice said, chuckling. “You always were intelligent. Well, in this case, the variate was you.”
I hesitated. “Me?”
“Sure. A few days before your thirty-fifth birthday, you chose to hold in a sneeze. That one divergent act lead to many others and, well, here we are. Frankly, it isn’t the first time you’ve found yourself at the bottom of the sea.”
“Not the first time?” My mouth hung open. In a flash, my son came to mind. I remembered how he had loved the waves as a child—and how those same waves had taken his life as an adult. “But, how…why?”
“Simple,” the voice replied. “We need to try every conceivable scenario to answer our questions—”
“Well, the same ones you were working on, actually. ‘What is the meaning of it all?’ ‘How did our world begin?'”
There was a tired sigh. “Your reality models one of our likely precedents, and mine is almost certainly a model of someone else’s. It’s just models on top of models, repeating on and on into infinity. Or, as the saying goes, its turtles all the way down.”
I shifted in my seat. “But…if it’s all just a stack of models, we can never get to the bottom. We’ll never find the meaning of it all—”
“Or, perhaps we already have.”
The quickness of this response caught me off guard. A lump formed in my throat. “What…do you mean?”
“Oh, come on,” said the voice. “The search. You’re a scientist, you should know. The search is at the bottom and the top. It’s the only real variable, the definitive ‘X’. We each choose our own search and then we chase it. And so, if the simplest mathematical model says that ‘X’ equals ‘Y’ then the answers to the questions we’re trying to answer must be…”
“The same as the search?”
“Or, a function of it, yes.” The voice said, with an audible smile. “But that’s my point. Even though I now need to discard your treatment, you should be pleased. You have achieved something very few people do.”
I frowned. “You mean die in a trench.”
“No,” the voice chuckled. “You have chased your variable to its beginning, discovered that the meaning of your search is simply the search itself. Not everyone realizes both their ‘X’ and the ‘Y’, you know.”
I pondered that statement in silence. And in a strange way, it made me feel more at ease. At the start of my journey I had thought that all was lost. The divorce, my son’s accident at sea…but now, I saw that it was all a direct result of my own research; the search that gave my life meaning. I had shared it with my son, and continued it in his memory.
But now, I was meant to follow him. And although I was no longer afraid, I couldn’t help but imagine my fate.
“It will all be fine,” the voice said, as if reading my thoughts. “You’ve been here before, and you’ll be here again. Hopefully, in a treatment that isn’t so flawed. But if so, it’s alright. My work is awfully lonely. I’d be happy to speak with you again.”
“Likewise,” I said, with a weary smile. A profound fatigue overcame me as my window grew bright with a blinding light. I felt warm and content as I closed my eyes.
“Goodbye, Last Fathom. Till next time.”
And then I knew no more.
M. C. Kaske is a doctoral candidate studying medical education technologies at New York University. In the past, he has received awards from the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) and the University of Illinois at Chicago for a graphic novel on cell biology. Presently, Matt writes articles for the AMI’s newsletters and enjoys writing stories in all genres in his spare time.
Illustration by M. C. Kaske