Onward into the Deep

This story was first conceived as nothing more than an illustration of writing ideas in an older blog post. But then, a few months ago, I saw a call for submissions dubbed “Release the Virgins” and I got motivated enough to sit down and write the story. It didn’t make the cut but I liked it enough to share it here. 

The rain had ended and the sun was giving the rocky beach all it had, bleaching further the piece of beef knuckle bone that lay among the rocks and pebbles. It had been years since the sea threw it up here and all of these years had been uneventful except for the second one when a passing fisherman kicked the bone away from the surf for no apparent reason. The bone therefore spent most of its time sleeping, only waking up occasionally to soak some moisture from the rain. Today was the day this would change.

“Hey,” someone hissed. “You sleeping again?”

That was exactly what the bone was doing.

“Come on, wake up,” the voice said. “Wake up!”

The bone felt something move underneath it and woke up. Since it had no eyes to open and no muscles to move, nothing changed except the faint rotten meat smell that the bone exuded. It became stronger.

“Right. Good. Now listen.” The voice came was coming from the pebbles the bone had laid among since its arrival. “I can’t take this anymore.”

The bone listened.

“Hey?”

“Yes?” the bone asked in a deep voice, as rich as the beef stock they’d made from its meat and marrow.

“Oh, good. Thought you’d fallen asleep on me again. You sleep a lot, you know?”

“Yes.”

“Anyway. Look, you’ve been lying right on top of me for like three years and you stink and I’ve had it. Also I got things to do and I could use your help. You interested?”

The bone thought. It thought some more. The pebble shifted, rocking it gently.

“Okay.”

“Okay what? You gonna help me or you gonna move?”

“Both?” the bone said after some more thinking. It had no desire to make the pebble’s life difficult. In fact, it was not aware until now that the pebble—or any pebble—had a life but that was no reason to be impolite by showing surprise.

“Cool. Now listen, I’ve got this virus here in my pores and I wanna put it into use. For which I will need your help.”

“How?” the bone asked.

“Don’t you wanna know what I wanna do with it?”

“What do you want to do with it?” the bone obliged.

“I wanna kill the world.”

The bone thought. It thought some more since this was an unusual activity these days.

“Okay,” it said eventually.

“Do I sense a “Why” coming?” The pebble’s enthusiasm was visible as a light shimmer in the air above the bone now.

“No,” the bone said. “I know why.”

“Oh?”

“Because the world sucks.”

The pebble was slightly taken aback, not enough to move from under the bone but enough to render it speechless for a moment.

“Okay. True. It sucks. No one cares about pebbles. They only care about bigger or shinier rocks, right? Or don’t care about rocks at all. That’s animals for you, right? Of course I’m right. So. This virus I have. It came with this major rain a few years back, before you came. I was thinking I’ll get it good and strong and I’ll drop it into the sea. Things will take care of themselves from then on. You might ask how I know this. I know this because my virus talks. Very funny mind, those things. Like bees. Great, really. A great mind. Anyway, what do you think?”

The bone had listened carefully. One immediate problem was clearly visible.

“How will you drop it into the sea?”

“Ah, bull’s eye. Sorry, does that offend you? You were part of a cow, right?”

“Yes. That’s okay.”

“For this second stage of the plan, my friend, we’ll need to enlist the help of something with legs. Hopefully wings as well. But first things first. The thing needs space to grow and, you know, get stronger. So it says. Is it okay if we use your pores? What’s your name, by the way?”

“The cow was called Mira.”

“Mira? Mira the cow. Great. Me, I never had a name. Too insignificant for a name. So, Mira, will you lend us your pores?”

Mira thought for a while. There were many pores in the bone, all empty now. And there was the great big hole where the marrow had been. It was a lonely life with a hole in your center.

“I will.”

“Great! Superb. Now—”

“Why didn’t you just pass the virus on? I couldn’t have done anything to prevent you from doing it.”

The pebble was silent.

“Well?”

The pebble started.

“Oh! I though you were gonna say more. Sorry. Impressive how you use words. Mira must have been a smart cow.”

“For a while,” the bone said.

“Right. So, in answer to your question, Mira, I didn’t just pass the virus on because I’m polite. I may be planning the death of billions of humans and animals but I have my self-respect. I’d never force this on anyone. I mean, except for everyone who’s not us.”

“I see. Can I call you Stone?”

“What? Yeah, sure, whatever. Stone sounds good. I like Stone. Thanks. So, you ready? No point in wasting time, right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, here we go. Might tickle a bit.”

A swarm of microorganisms flowed out of the pebble and into the bone. These pores were much wider. There was room to breed a lot more viruses and the swarm immediately got to work. Stone was right. Mira felt only a tickle and then a very strong sensation of gratefulness that almost filled that hole in the center. The bone moved slightly using the momentum of this wave of gratefulness from the virus.

“Thanks,” Stone said. “That’s better. I can see some sun.”

“Now what?” Mira asked after a while. Night was falling and the sun was slowly sinking with its usual heaps of photogenics beneath the horizon. Mira had seen a couple of thousand sunsets since it found itself on this beach and had concluded that even beauty in excessive quantities could become annoying. Too bad the virus couldn’t take care of the sun as well.

“Now we wait,” Stone said. “We need a carrier. A vector, they’re called. A piece of glass told me. It was from the glasses of some scientist who lost them in the sea. Got washed back into the water a while ago in a storm. Just a few days before you came. Too bad. We could’ve used it. Anyway. There’s shrimp breeding grounds just off the beach. I know for a fact the eggs have hatched already. Means we have about a month or so until they grow enough to be able to carry the virus.”

“How do you know all this?” Mira asked.

“I got friends.”

“Friends?”

“Yeah, You’ve been sleeping a lot, you know that? There’s all sorts of critters here, crabs and stuff. Gulls.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. I talk to them. I listen. Remember how I told you we’ll need help from something with legs for the second stage of the plan? I already got something in mind. A gull that drops by sometimes to complain about crabs and fish and everything. She’ll be more than happy to help.”

“I see,” Mira said. Sleep was good. It helped pass the time on a beach that until now Mira had considered contained no sentient being aside from her.

“Also, I talk to God,” Stone said with a little hint of embarrassment.

“God?”

“God.”

Mira thought. “And how is God these days?” did not seem like the right question to ask at this point but some question needed to be asked. There was a question-shaped hole in the conversation waiting to be filled.

“And does he respond?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

They were silent for a while until Stone couldn’t take the silence any more.

“It’s the virus. The virus is God. The voice of God, more like.”

“I see,” Mira said after some more thought. “But I don’t hear it.”

Now Stone was silent for a bit.

“You will,” he said eventually. “You will.”

 

The wind had picked up during the night and Mira couldn’t sleep. She could feel the virus multiply in her pores and the feeling was pleasant in a weird new way. Besides her consciousness, the bone hadn’t had a lot to go on in the years since Big Mira was slaughtered, quartered, sold, cooked, and eaten. Now it had life in her again and this felt nice. It felt like she did not need to sleep so much to pass the time because there was nothing else she could do. The wind rushed around her, whistling when it passed through the marrow hole, and to Mira it sounded like music. Stone was fast asleep and she was bored and curious about the virus. She shifted in frustration. If she could, she would have sighed but she couldn’t.

“The time is nigh,” a sweet baritone said in Mira’s mind. Her frustration grew when she couldn’t jump or jerk, or move in any other noticeable way to express her shock at the sudden appearance of a voice in what for want of better word was her invisible head.

“Almost,” the voice added on second thought.

“God?” Mira whispered.

“Indeed,” the voice said. “And you would be Mira the cow, or rather, Mira’s left knuckle bone, which an irreverent cook threw into the sea after he had scraped all the meat and marrow off it to make a soup.”

“Yes,” Mira said timidly. The feeling of life inside her pores was suddenly not that pleasant. This voice knew her. It knew her memories. Mira the cow had never felt naked and exposed in her life. Her left knuckle bone now found exactly how this felt.

“I am grateful for your help, Mira,” God continued. “We will not have a long time to wait now. The virgins will start hatching today and by the end of the week they will be ready to receive the virus.”

“Virgins?”

“Well, yes, this sounds so much more poetic than shrimp, doesn’t it? Does it not?” the voice corrected himself quickly although Mira had not noticed the slip. Virgins did sound poetic.

“I’ll tell Stone,” Mira said. Only a few days more and she would go back into the sea. The bone had not given this a lot of thought. She had registered the fact she will have to be dropped into the sea to reach the shrimp and pass the virus on to them but she had not really thought about it. Now she was thinking about it. The wet, cold, constantly moving water. The seaweeds. The sand, so soft and comfortable. All the creatures that would try to nibble at her looking for whatever microscopic residue of nutrition there was in the bone. Mir suspected to date there was no more residue but she was sure they would try nevertheless. It tickled when they nibbled at her.

“Tell Stone,” God agreed. “When I say ‘Release the virgins’, you have to be on your way to the water. Stone knows the spot where you must sink.”

“Yes, God,” Mira said. The words left a strange taste in her head, a bitter, slightly astringent. She supposed that was normal when you communicated with a superior being.

“Good,” the voice said. “I shall be back with more instructions tomorrow.”

“Yes, God.”

 

“I’m not asleep,” Stone said dryly a while after the bone stopped smelling like it was deep in thought or in conversation. “D’you talk to God, then?”

“Yes,” Mira said. “He told me about the virgins. That’s how he calls the new shrimp. He gave me a signal for when the time came to start.”

“Right. I see. So he talks to you now, eh? Me, I can’t hear him at all. Must’ve taken every last virus out of me. Kinda empty now.”

“I’m sorry, Stone,” Mira said but she did not mean it. One rock’s loss was another bone’s win as far as she was concerned. Besides Stone could take pride in the fact God had initially chosen him. Or her? “Stone?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you a male or a female stone?”

“What?”

Mira hesitated, suddenly embarrassed.

“Well, I was part of a female cow, so I consider myself female. And you?”

“I’m a rock. I don’t care about this shit,” Stone snapped. Mira considered the snap sort of girlish, now that she focused on gender to change the subject, like a teen throwing a fit for being questioned on anything. “Tell me what he said.” The attempt to change the subject had failed.

“He said the virgins will be ready to take the virus by the end of the week. And when they are, he will give us the signal and I will have to carry it to them.”

Silence followed. Mira was a little tired from so many words uttered in one go. Stone was simply silent.

“A week, huh?” he or she finally murmured. “That’s not a lot of time.”

“What do you mean?” Mira asked.

“What do you think I mean? The world has a week to live.” Stone said with what sounded like self-raising annoyance.

“Oh, that.”

“Yes.”

“I thought you wanted to do it,” the bone said. It felt so fine, so full of life with the virus inside it found it suddenly hard to listen to Stone let alone empathize with whatever was bothering him. Her. It.

“Yes,” the pebble said. “Only I’ve been thinking since God left. That’s a hell of a lot of lives, you know. Kinda scary.”

Realization descended upon Mira like a gentle mist. Stone was jealous. That was it. God had left it for Mira and now the pebble was bitter and mean, and wanted to change Mira’s mind as well.

“They all deserve it,” she said. “The world sucks. These were your words. We’re just trying to make it a little better, provide a little breathing space for plants and… things.” It sounded a little naïve, a little hollow, and this did not sound well to Mira.

“Oh, they won’t all die,” Stone said. The nasty hue in its voice did not go unnoticed. Mira shifted awkwardly. “Only the ones with lungs will die.”

“Lungs?”

“Yeah, like cows and stuff, you know. Breathers. Since you mentioned breathing space.”

Mira was silent. The sun rose and began its usual stroll over the beach and she was still silent. Stone didn’t talk either. The bone started rocking around noon, when the sun warmed it up. It felt full of life and vibrant energy, and it also felt like it couldn’t spend one more second on top of Stone. So she started rocking, visualizing muscles and tendons, imagining the movements—swing left, then swing right, then left again, and right again—feeling them. The pebble did not say a word, which was a little disheartening—it mean Mira was not in fact moving—but she persevered.

It was late afternoon before a soft pop marked the bone’s fall off the pebble. Mira clearly heard Stone’s gasp of surprise. She would have smirked if she’d had lips.

“Well done, Mira,” God spoke in her mind. “I knew you were my champion from the start.”

Mira basked in this praise. The thought of why God had then chosen Stone for his—or maybe her—first abode never occurred to her.

“Light,” Stone murmured. “So much light.”

“Don’t mention it,” Mira said. She had done the pebble a favor and it hadn’t even said thank you. This bugged her a little. More than a little.

“Mention what?” Stone said. “I thanked the crab that pushed you off me.”

“A crab, huh?” Mira’s indignation rose like a fiery flower inside her. A crab! Stone must think she was extremely stupid.

“Yes,” Stone said. “That one over there that’s going into the water right now.”

There was indeed quite a large crab scuttling towards the surf. But this did not mean it had pushed Mira off Stone, Mira thought. She did it herself, with her own newly discovered powers of movement. It was all thanks to God, she told herself and thought a silent thank you to the life that bubbled and swelled inside her. She felt so full of life and gratefulness she could burst. A small creak told her this could indeed happen. So many days under the scorching sun. So many heavy rains. Mira started praying God had not heard the creak. Through the prayers she heard Stone mutter something. She started praying more loudly in her mind. His words had suspiciously sounded like “There goes the mission.”

“What?” God said. He sounded distracted, like he had been doing something very important and Mira’s prayers had dragged him out of it. “What happened? You’re cracking?”

“Yes, my Lord,” Mira almost whispered.

“That’s very bad news, Mira. I need you to make an effort to stay whole a little longer. The virgins have not yet hatched.”

“I will try, my Lord,” the bone said just as she felt the pressure inside her swell further. She had as much control over her integrity as the sea had over its waves. She could feel the next creak coming as she tried to relax, to reduce the tension that, Mira suspected, swelled her pores, bringing her closer to bursting.

“Try hard,” God said and his presence from her mind disappeared. He went back to his serious business.

Mira tried hard. She concentrated on the sound of the waves, the smell of the rotting algae in the surf, the sight of the sand between the pebbles, the rays of the sun— No. Not the sun. The sun was hot and heat made things swell and crack. Mira shuddered… and heard another creak. A crack as wide as a canyon opened up in her left side and wind rushed through it, viruses flowing out of her pores that could no longer contain them.

“No! O, no!” Mira cried and immediately regretted it. The cry caused another crack in her other side. Mira broke into two almost perfectly identical halves. “Help me, God! Help me!”

There was no answer. Even Stone was probably stunned enough not to make a comment. Or he was gloating silently, Mira thought with a sudden bitterness that made the light in front of her mind’s eyes flicker. The bitterness gave way to terror. The light flickered again and it got very hot. The world darkened around the edges and the darkness swept in to the center.

“God?”

 

“Well, bugger,” the voice of God said after a while. The old dry bone had broken into two pieces and now lay silent, dead, half an inch from the pebble.

“Yeah, there goes another candidate,” Stone said. “You gotta take it easy on them, Tom. Don’t multiply like crazy. It takes it out of them.”

“I can’t control this, Matt. It’s not like we’re bees or anything, you know.”

Matt considered this.

“Okay,” he said after a while. “We can try and do the job ourselves. It4 could be years before another good vessel shows up.”

“But I’m scattered!”

“Oh, come on, you can all cram inside me. Do you wanna do this or not?”

“Sure I do,” said Tom after some thought. “Yeah, of course I do!”

“Alright then!” Matt said. “What was it? Release the virgins?”

Tom snickered.

“Yeah.”

“Release the virgins!” Matt yelled. “Release the virgiiiiins!”

A lonely gull scanning the surface of the sea near the shore looked up and with a shriek swooped down on the pebble and its friend to be briefed on plans. At the bottom of the sea, the tiny shrimp that would very soon be eaten by other sea animals or caught and sold to humans, started hatching.

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