We stood back fifty or so paces from the forest’s end, unsettled. We were used, by now, to the monolithic presence of trunks—wide as towers—the stunted, dark-dwelling shrubs/undergrowth. The phosphorescent moss. Even when we encountered ravines, crevasses, one could always make out the other side, dim glow-light at least. Here, though, there was none of that. Beyond the last few wall-like mammoths of living wood, for the first time in seven months, there was only unnerving blackness. No one wanted to go further. “Alright, break!” I called.
The others set down their packs, squatted or bounced, stretched their legs. Moved around.
“Thom, with me please,” I said. Our blond mop of a cartographer stepped up and uttered my favorite word: “Sir.”
I exhaled long, steadying myself. “Let’s have a look at this, see what it is, what we have to do about it.”
“Yessir.” A slight croak, covered by confidence, or feigned confidence.
We stepped forward, a heavy reluctance trailing around our ankles. The comforting pillars around us gave way to emptiness, and suddenly, after over 6 months of marching among primeval giants, we looked out into void.
We stood at the edge of the earth. Below and in front of us, the forest floor dropped off steeply and disappeared. Above us, the air was dark and still, and I could see the ancient timber sinews stretching out beyond our lamplight, patches of moss dimly visible along them. I could only assume that somewhere far above us, great branches arced out into the abyss to join with their twins on the other side—the twins I could not now make out. Hence it remained black, impenetrable beneath the leagues-distant canopy.
Yet when I looked at last out from my vantage point at the edge of the trees, it was not into mere darkness, no. I stared into something terrible and atavistic. A great, vibrating emptiness. There was nothing out there, nothing beyond the dim rim of our light. Our torchbeams reached/struck out into blank space, searching, searching—
I remember as a child shining my little dynamo torch into the night, hoping to see the beam trace its line into the dark. This was like that, save that where, as a boy, I caught hazy cloud-sketches of leaves, branches, here our little light was swallowed by infinite black. No object to reflect anything back to us. No trees, no other lip, and looking down, no bottom. Just, for a little distance, the earth on our own side sloping into emptiness.
By Thom’s calculations, rough as they were without stars, we were some 1600 leagues from our starting point, and theoretically nearing the other side, the end of our long trek. The mythical deep forest, through which we had moved these past months, and to which we had grown accustomed, had enveloped us, cocooned us. Shielded us. As we marched deeper, further from sunlit lands, the life that moved in the deep grew stranger. We grew used to the unusual, expected the unexpected. Now, though, that same primordial bastion of strange, unexpected life had just thrown up something unexpectedly unexpected. In the middle of the boundless forest, a strange place absent of vegetation, life.
Thom spoke up, a breathy whisper that barely carried, trailed off as if swallowed by the void: “It’s…”
I rocked my head in a small nod. One way or another, all the other gullies, cracks, and canyons we had faced had a way across, even if it meant going down through them. But here—here was an abyss with no boundaries.
No. That could not be. Somewhere on the other side of this monstrous null space, was land. Trees. And after that, Asia. There could not be, on our round planet, a crack in space leading to nowhere. An end to reality. There would be no end to our journey, until we reached Formosa.
Shivering, I shook off the despairing mantle and said to Thom, “Look. Nothing within reach of our light out there.”
Thom uttered, trance-like: “No.”
“Nor right, nor left. Only down.”
“Even that’s more tumble than trot, sir” he added, coming out of his stupor.
“Well. Let’s get back to the group.”
The others, of course, were disbelieving. I told them they could go look if they liked, and most of them did. They returned, sobered. I spoke up: “Now. What are our options? Thom, where are we, do you reckon?”
“Ah, by my calculations—rough, mind you, hard doing this with no stars—we’re maybe 1600 leagues from San Fran. Mostly west, a little south.”
“Alright, 1600 leagues and seven months west-southwest. Where does that leave us?”
“Well, if we’ve kept our bearings right, we’ll be nearing the other side, relatively speaking. Maybe another 400 to 450 till we reach Taihoku Prefecture. We’re four fifths of the way there. Still long, but…”
“So then another month and a half ahead of us.” Grumbles followed my estimate, though not from everyone.
“Except that there chasm got us blocked.” That was Pierce. Pessimist, but a good man in a scrape. Followed orders, too.
Jill Tomlin chimed in. “Well, yeah. Praps. But we ain’t tried to go around it yet. An’ it don’t take much down here to be dark as Satan’s arsehole. Could be there just ain’t no moss t’other side to light us up our way.”
“Could be. Could be we don’t know.” Jameson, always practical, stood up, brushing off his pants. “Way I see it, we test first before giving up. Find out if there is another side we can reach easy from here. If not, we find out if we can go around.”
“Sure,” I said. “Good thought. So here’s what we’ll do.”
“On my mark,” I said. Jameson held the flare rifle to his shoulder, waited. The others stood nearby, a few paces back from the abyss. “Fire!” I shouted, and Jameson’s flare raced out into the dark, a gleaming bead. We traced it as it flew, arcing up over nothing and then slowly down, down, down, down. No sound as its light fell away.
Everyone was silent, taking it in. “Thom?” I asked.
After a few seconds, he replied. “300 meters out. Nothing. Too far anyway for our ropes.”
“You see it. Just keeps going, getting smaller. Like a little star.”
“Yeah, a little star swallowed by the empty ether.” Pierce sounded grumpy. “All this work, we have to turn back.”
“Alright, now. We’re going to split up. Jill, Thom, Pierce, you’re with me. Jameson, you’ve got the rest. We’ll go north, you go south. Travel light, leave our main packs here. Take only the minimal supplies and tools. Try to get as far as you can in half a day, following the rim, then stop, turn back and meet here. Red flag I’ll nail to the tree to mark the location. Let’s go.”
Some four leagues later, we halted not far from a small outcropping that jutted/stuck into the abyss. We had kept just inside the line of trees during our march, and the deep, unsettling blackness of that endless dropoff had faded to an uneasying hum. Stepping out from behind their shield, the vast alien emptiness of it poured onto us, threatened again to drown us, sweep us away. There was nothing beyond the rim of the abyss, a great nothing that rested here in this secret part of the world like a monstrous, lurking predator. Hiding behind the trees, we had dimly felt its presence, but coming out to the edge was as if it had suddenly turned its gaze on us and was hungrily preparing to pounce. It was too big, too vast to exist, and yet it did. It was the incongruence one wants to ignore, but that is too real, cannot be pushed under the carpet.
We stood in silence. Shining our torches further north, we saw only continuation. And beyond, the dim glow of tree-moss diminishing into the near distance and the dark. Jill was the first to speak. As always, it was poetical. “By zounds I done seen enough o’ this void. It ain’t ne’er gonna end. Long’r than God’s cock it is.”
I nodded. “We”ll turn back here, then. We’ll place a marker, first, though. Thom.”
Thom stepped, fumbled in his pack, pulled out a folding spiked rod and unfolded it, attached a small version of our expedition’s flag to it, and jammed it hard into the soil. The banner picked up and fluttered nicely in the fair constant wind that poured through this abyss.
We left the marker and the remains of the boar jerky remonte-esprit we consumed on that outcropping, and turned back toward the place where we first met the abyss.
Jameson stepped forward, wiped grime and sweat from his forehead. “Took you long enough, sir.”
“We stopped for tea on the way.”
He chuckled at my reply. “What’d y’see?”
“Just keeps going north. No way of knowing how far, nor if it’s getting any narrower.”
“Or wider,” added Thom.
“Or wider,” I confirmed. Jill rolled her eyes and said “Not like that’d be useful fer us to track.”
“What did your team find, Jameson?”
It wasn’t a stair. Not exactly, not as we knew it. Not hewn (rough or smooth), not built—more a vague jumble of boulders and earth. But it would do. No way north, no way south, no way across, and too far out to turn back now. I turned up my lamp, looked back at the crew, and stepped down onto the first monolithic step.
This story was a response to the writing prompt “Overnight, the world’s oceans have been replaced by vast forests inhabited by strange creatures. You are on an expedition to find a lost ship in what used to be the middle of the Atlantic“.
In retrospect, I think starting at the lip of the Trench means that I sacrifice the potential buildup of atmosphere that would come from describing a long trek through dark, ancient forest, and thus the emotional surprise of removing the claustrophobic insulation of the trees all of a sudden. Instead, I end up focusing more on the act of exploring, the decisions made in the face of such a radical departure. I’m not sure if it’s as interesting, in the end. Certainly not as dramatic.
I also toyed with the idea of ending on evidence of some strange civilization (i.e., the stairs are actually carved or built, and clearly not of human proportions, and the team decides to descend all the same).