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Fiction

Under the Sea of Stars

The True Accounting of The Whitmore Expedition, What Was Found, and What Was Lost Forever

June 9, 1882

We have traveled here, to this most innocuous of country landscapes, to make good on a promise made by my grandfather, Carlton Whitmore, to a girl he loved in his youth. How foolish that sounds, writ down so! But it is true. Grandfather met her on the banks of the Bolton Strid, where she stood naked and confused, water drying on her skin. His notes state that she knew no modesty, and that “she was pale as the belly of a deep-river fish, one which had never seen the sun, and like them, she glittered in the light, covered as she was in an innumerable quantity of tiny scales, which were soft as skin when I touched her.”

His notes continue in this vein for several pages, and verge upon something which a proper young woman, however scientifically minded, should not willingly touch. I have often wondered whether that strange girl from the Strid might be more properly termed my grandmother, for my mother was pale as thin milk, and I burn in seconds in direct sun. More damning for my grandfather and his claims to have been faithful to his wife, Mother sometimes seemed to glitter in the light, as if she were covered with innumerable tiny scales.

Regardless of my grandfather’s fidelity, he kept meticulous notes describing where he had found the stranger, who “spoke perfect English, but seemed not to understand any of the things around her, from hedge and fen to the Strid itself.” He carried her home as if she were some sort of prize—not uncommon for men such as he, when faced with a mystery—and named her “Molly,” keeping her at his estate until her untimely death a year later. His lady wife announced my mother’s arrival shortly thereafter.

Grandfather pledged that one day, he would uncover Molly’s origins, and carry news of her death back to her family. He died without having kept his word, and my mother promised him that her sons would return to the Strid and finish what he had started. Mother had no sons, and so here I, Amelia Whitmore, am preparing for adventure.

The Bolton Strid is not a likely place for adventures to begin. Were we to follow this modest-seeming stream for a time, we would see it widen into the respectable River Wharfe, despite it having neither tributary nor access to the sea. The banks are narrow, deceptively so, tempting several members of the expedition—who think this a lark, a girlish fancy, and never mind that I pay their salaries—to speak jocularly of leaping across to the other side. I have thus far been able to deter them with tales of drownings and unrecovered bodies, but I will not be able to hold them for long.

The farmer whose land we are to camp upon has visited twice since this morning’s arrival, asking questions about what we hope to find. He wishes to be sure he is not cheated of gold or jewels. Upon his second visit, I confessed that we had traveled from London in the name of scientific endeavor and family pride. I described Molly to him, and told him of her meeting with my grandfather. He grew quiet then, and looked on me with new suspicion.

“This is no place for a lady,” he said finally, and stalked away from us, as if he had been dirtied by my words.

Tomorrow we go below.

June 10, 1882

The Bolton Strid is one of Britain’s quiet mysteries, known but virtually forgotten in the face of newer, flashier wonders. None who has fallen into the Strid has ever been recovered; all are lost. Had Ophelia floated down this stream, her family would have carried home no body to bury. Its depths are unknown, its mysteries unplumbed, although many—my grandfather among them—believe that the water conceals a system of hidden caverns, allowing a river of startling depth and ferocity to masquerade as a simple country stream.

M. Delacroix, who made a name for himself exploring the underwater caverns of the Mendips and the Italian Mediterranean, has been responsible for planning our descent and seeing to the soundness of our diving suits, which are some of the finest ever built. They will keep my men safe during our descent. As for myself, I shall be using my self-contained breathing apparatus, modified and improved from the design of Mr. Henry Fleuss, who has shown his original to such wide-reaching effect. To him, I wish a fortune. To me, I wish only not to be crushed against the stone walls that wait for us beneath this deceptive stream’s pastoral surface.

Perhaps a diving suit would be safer. But I will not arrive in a place never before seen by human eyes so encased in metal that I cannot see the wonders around me.

M. Delacroix has informed me that we are prepared to descend.

Soon, I shall see what wonders wait below, in the depths of which my grandfather dreamt.

Later

I do not know the time. I do not know whether it is day or night, or whether I should measure now by some means entirely new, by tides or by the subtle changes of water. Oh, but I shall learn. I shall learn!

We began our descent into the Bolton Strid when the clock struck nine. Five men and M. Delacroix were stationed on the shore to run the machinery of our dive, slowly unspooling the heavy cables which would keep us connected to the surface. Four more men were pressed into their suits: John, David, Michael, and Joseph. Each of them carried a harpoon, for safety’s sake, and to be used to remove rocks or other detritus, should we become wedged below. The fifth cable was for me, although I would not be tethered to it, but would instead cling like a lamprey to its promised stability.

“The currents in the Strid cannot extend more than a certain distance beneath the surface, for they depend upon the motion of the water,” I said.

M. Delacroix looked unsure. “You are not accounting properly for the caverns. Water can form great knots when it moves through trapped places. You may find the current travels deeper than you think.”

“Even the deepest caverns cannot be without bottom,” I said. “Your expertise is valued and necessary, but I assure you, I have considered all the possibilities, and have arrived upon this as the safest option open to me.”

M. Delacroix sighed. “As you wish,” he said, and moved to ready his men, while I moved to ready mine.

We entered the waters of the Strid at the stroke of nine. John was first to strike the surface, and vanished in an instant, pulled down by the weight of his suit and by the current of the Strid itself. The machinery tethering him to shore groaned and held, proving to the rest of us that the descent could be made safely. We entered thus in the following order: John, Michael, David, Joseph, and finally myself, for I would have more flexibility than my fellow divers, but also greater risk from the deep and unforgiving currents.

I seated my mask of tempered glass above my eyes, adjusted my bathing costume, which was less modest than it might have been, having been tailored to remove any fabric which might catch or keep the current, and looked one last time upon the daylight world. The wind was rippling the grass of the fields. M. Delacroix’s face was pale and drawn, his lips heavy with unspoken warning.

I stepped off the bank and into the deceptive violence of the Strid.

The current was my immediate companion. Had I not gripped tightly to the metal cable which was my anchor, I would have been gone in a twinkling. Even clinging to the cable, I found myself knocked quite unkindly against the bank. The weights at the cable’s end were preventing it from being pulled horizontal by the weight of the water, but it was a near thing, and as I descended, I did not see any of the men who had entered the Strid with me. If they were present, they were blocked out by the darkness of the Strid itself.

I activated my torch, which was connected to my eye protection by a complicated series of welds that had thankfully thus far been able to withstand the current. The light was bright enough to show me the granite walls around me, and I was immediately overcome with a feeling of claustrophobia. The Strid surrounded me like the mouth of some great, unmoving beast, widening as I descended down into its gullet. Panic clawed at my chest, and I was tempted—ah, sweet temptation!—to turn and pull myself back along the cable to the shore, where we could pull my divers back to surface, and to safety.

The moment passed. As has always been the case, curiosity got the better of me, pulling me downward.

The waters of the Strid were cold, and grew colder as I descended. I saw beams of light in the near distance, signaling the placement of my men, yet for all their closeness, I was alone in the gloom. No fish moved in the light of my torch; the current was such that any fish would have been whipped away before it could begin to swim. All around us were the granite walls, and the potential for dire disaster. Still I continued to descend, my weight-belt keeping me from bobbing back toward the surface, my grip on the anchor cable keeping me from being swept away.

Then, with no warning, the current stopped.

All around me, the beams of light jittered in apprehension. I counted quickly, but could find only three. Four men had entered the Strid, and three had made it to this place below the crushing currents. I risked removing one hand from the cable long enough to pulse my torch three times, signaling that all were to continue downward.

The descent was smoother now with no current to tear at us. The water grew warmer around me, until it was less a slap and more a caress upon my skin. The lines continued down, and so did we, until with less warning than even the current had given, we broke through the surface of the water and fell.

Being lighter than the men of my expedition, and being equipped with good gripping gloves, I was able to stop my fall before I struck the ground, which was some twenty feet below the pulsing ceiling of water that hung, somehow suspended, in the air. Our broken anchor lines came to an end eight feet above the ground. Fine silver sand covered everything in sight. It should have provided a soft and easy landing, but my men were wearing full diving suits. Two fell cleanly, landing so as to cushion the impact. The third—dear John!—landed upon his head, and did not move again.

I finished my descent as quickly as I dared, shimmying down the anchor cable to the sand below. Gravity had not reversed, even as it denied the water above me: when I set foot upon the sand, it held me. The bottom of the Strid, suspended as it was, glimmered like a sea of liquid stars.

The nearest of the men was sitting up and groaning. I hastened to help him remove his helmet, and was rewarded with the puzzled face of Michael, the most experienced of my divers. “Are you well?” I asked.

“Miss Whitmore?” He blinked at me. “Where are we?”

“A cavern below the surface of the Bolton Strid! See, the water is suspended above us, no doubt due to some quirk of the Earth’s magnetic fields! The mystery is close at hand.”

Together, we were able to revive Joseph. John, as I have said, was beyond saving, having died on impact with the floor, and David was nowhere to be found. My two surviving divers have been charting the cavern in which we find ourselves, attempting to determine a means of climbing back to the surface without passing through the Strid. I have been taking notes on our voyage so far. M. Delacroix laughed when I sealed my expedition notebook in a jar to carry at my waist, but see now who has the last laugh! I have discovered something never before seen by human eyes, and I shall document it, every step.

Why, if I did not, then who would ever believe me?

Later still

We are not alone here.

Joseph and Michael returned from their search to report that they had found three tunnels branching off from the main cavern, all seeming to descend deeper into the living Earth. We have decided to separate. Each of us has taken a different tunnel, agreeing to walk for as long as it takes to reach a count of five hundred. Then, regardless of what we might have found, we would turn back. Both men were of course resistant to my taking the same risks as they were, but when I pointed out that I was paying their salaries, and that they would indeed be paid even if I did not return with them, they acquiesced. Truly, I feel that their protests were more a matter of observing social niceties than any real concern for my wellbeing.

I chose the center of the three tunnels, where my screams—were I given occasion to scream—would carry farthest, and be best heard by the two men remaining in my employ. I carried my torch with me, assuming that its light would be needed. By the time I reached a count of one hundred, the ground had begun to slump subtly downward. I was traveling deeper. Still I pressed onward. There was a chance the angle could change, and aside from that, I was burning alive in my own curiosity. Had any footsteps ever traced this path before? I, a mere female, was doing what my father and grandfather alike had failed to do!

As I reached a count of two hundred, I realized my torch was no longer the sole source of illumination. The walls, which were covered in strange, spiky crystals the length of my hand, had begun to glow. It was a soft, silvery light, delightful in its delicacy, and it seemed to emanate from everything around me. It traveled through the crystals, but did not originate with them.

By the count of five hundred, I had found no exit. I took samples from the walls—a small crystal, some of the silver sand which was everywhere—and walked back to the main cavern. The light died behind me.

When I reached the cavern, I found Joseph and Michael already there . . . and John, who had landed so badly when first we arrived in this strange place, was gone. Drag marks on the cavern floor marked where he had been taken, moving away from the three caverns Joseph and Michael had found.

I wish to follow. If we are not alone, perhaps we have found Molly’s people, the ones who live beneath the currents of the Strid. More later.

• • • •

We followed the drag marks in the sand until we came to a place where the wall, despite seeming whole, yielded somewhat beneath our fingers. Pushing together, Michael and Joseph were able to shift the stone, revealing a fourth cavern. This one tilted sharply downward, and was well lit by the illumination I had observed on my solitary walk. The drag marks continued on the tunnel floor.

“This seems unwise,” said Michael. “We should climb back up our anchor ropes, and find the surface thusly.”

“The anchors were not designed with the true depth of the Strid in mind,” I said. “Unless you can fly straight into the air, you’ll never catch the bottom, nor pull yourself upward. We must continue on.”

“Or we can wait for rescue,” said Michael doggedly.

I sighed. “I shall double your salary, and more, tell all who ask of your bravery and quick-wittedness. You shall be the toast of the adventuring community, gentlemen, and all that stands between you and that glorious future is a little cavern. What is a cavern when faced with men?”

Perhaps it was my stirring oration, although it seems more likely to have been the promise of greater rewards, but Michael was first into the tunnel, with Joseph close behind him. I followed the two of them at a more leisurely pace, taking advantage of the light as I looked around me.

The base of the wall was clearly granite, but overtaken quickly by the crystals, which grew in great profusion, and matched no mineral of which I am aware. The closest might be a glowing, silvery quartz, but pure, with none of the fissures or cracks to which quartz is prone. I imagined myself a dowry of silver crystals, necklaces and rings fit for a queen. I am not ashamed to admit this. I am a woman, after all, and have long been aware of what is and is not fitting for my imaginings.

The silvery sand which covered the floor seemed to absorb and refract the light from the crystals. I took several samples. Based on texture alone, I began to suspect the “sand” was in reality formed from the crystals themselves, ground down into something approaching powder. That would make everything around us, save the granite, something which had been previously unknown to science. I dismissed thoughts of jewels, and thought instead of awards from the Royal Adventurer’s Society. Surely they would allow me admission, regardless of my gender, after so great a find!

But once again, I was getting ahead of myself. It was an easy pitfall, given the wonders surrounding me. We walked on, Michael drawing far enough ahead that when he dropped out of sight, I did not notice immediately. Then Joseph called for me to halt, saying that a great pit had opened in the tunnel floor, and that Michael was feared lost. He might have said more, had not the ground crumbled beneath his feet, sending him falling to the same unknown fate. He did not scream. I have been sitting here for some time, waiting for signs of life, and I have held to that: if he did not scream, perhaps he did not fall so far, and is finding his way back to me now.

I do not dare approach the pit.

• • • •

I cannot be ruled by fear. I am a woman, yes, but I am also a Whitmore, and Whitmores do not allow ourselves to be held back by petty weaknesses. If I believed the constraints of my gender, I would never have made it here, to this unseen world beneath the Bolton Strid. I will approach. May God keep and protect me.

• • • •

The ground gave way at my approach, as I had feared it might. I scrabbled for purchase, grabbing at the crystals on the walls, but succeeded only in slicing my left palm lengthwise, drawing blood. I fell, like my men before me, and like my men before me, I did not have time to scream, for scarcely had I left the tunnel behind but I was plunging into warm, limpid waters, like those described by adventurers who have journeyed into the tropics! It was as if I had been dropped into some unseen giant’s bathtub. The water glittered with more of that silvery sand, here suspended in solution, and a light shone in the distance. I swam toward the light, for what else was there for me to do? I could not return to the surface: there was no way back, even if I knew how to find the place where I had entered this unnamed subterranean lake.

As I swam, I thought of Michael, and of Joseph. They had stripped out of their diving suits when we first went to investigate the tunnels. Hopefully, that would have reduced the weight of them enough that they could swim without faltering, and I would find them waiting at whatever safe haven was up ahead. I couldn’t allow myself to think that there was no safe haven, not even for an instant; to lose hope would be to falter, and to falter would be to drown.

The light grew brighter as I grew closer. It was not the same as the light from the crystals on the walls above—the crystals which also covered the bottom of this lake in vast profusion, their light throwing an ambient glow over all they touched. I swam on, distantly aware that I would be running out of air soon, yet still willing to hold to hope.

The source of the light was yet another tunnel. I had no choices left to me, no hope of finding my way back: I swam on.

The crystals grew more thickly here, their points like jagged barbs cutting through the water, forcing me to take care as I pulled myself along. Michael and Joseph were both larger than I, which did much to explain the faintly coppery taste of the water. They had no doubt cut themselves attempting to navigate this narrow space. My lungs were not yet burning, and so I continued onward, until my head broke the surface. I gasped, first out of the habitual need for air, and then a second time, in amazement.

The crystals grew from the water up onto the walls, and then onward, onto the ceiling of the great cavern, so great that the crystals at its top twinkled like stars in the natural darkness. Everything was in twilight, and everything glittered silver and bright and beautiful.

Michael and Joseph stood on the shore, surrounded by people with silvery hair and pale, pale skins, like the bellies of deep-water fish. They wore light, delicate gowns of transparent fabric and pearls the size of my thumbnail. They were barefoot, and their toes were long as fingers, webbed with delicate spans of skin. Their hands held spears, and those spears were directed at my men.

One of the people on the shore turned toward me. She could have been my grandfather’s portrait of Molly, brought to sudden life on this unexpected shoreline. Then she smiled, and I knew the rumors had all been true, for she had my mother’s smile, so long absent from my life, so dearly, dearly missed.

“They said they traveled with a woman,” she said, and her voice was sweet, touched with an accent I did not recognize, but rather thought that I had heard in my dreams. The gills in her throat fluttered when she spoke. She was beautiful, but she was strange. “Welcome, sister. Welcome home.”

More of the silvery folk hastened to help me from the water, offering their hands to me with such reverence that it took my breath away. In no time, I was safe upon the shore.

“These are my men,” I said, gesturing toward Michael and Joseph, who looked upon me with relief. “They intended no harm in coming here, nor do I. My name is Amelia Whitmore. I am an explorer from the land above, and I am very pleased to meet you.”

“Ah. We did not know that they belonged to you.” The woman who had first greeted me waved her hand, and the spears were lowered. “It makes sense that you would have made preparations for so great a journey. How did you pass through the current above? It keeps us safe and keeps us captive, and none have made it to the depths in so very, very long.”

“I mounted a full expedition to dive below the surface of the Strid—the water which keeps the currents,” I clarified, remembering Grandfather’s reports of Molly and her basic ignorance of the world around her. If she came from this subterranean world, then her inability to recognize things such as the sun began to make perfect sense. As well ask your average Londoner to recognize the surface of Mars! “I came to keep a promise made by my grandfather.”

The woman looked at me thoughtfully. “What promise was that?”

“There was a woman.” The sand was warm beneath my feet. I stood a little straighter. “I don’t know what name your people would have known her by, but my grandfather called her ‘Molly.’ She was my mother’s mother. My grandfather promised he would try to find the place she had come from, but he died before he could. Now here I am.”

The woman lit up, smiling so brightly that there was no question she recognized the woman I was claiming as my grandmother. “Moliansha! You’re Moliansha’s tributary! Truly, this is a day to be thankful for. Oh, you must come to the city. You will meet your sisters, and your brothers, and we will have a grand feast to celebrate your return to your family!”

Then she embraced me. Her skin was soft, despite the scales.

In that moment, I knew that I was home.

• • • •

It is impossible to mark time here, in this space below the Strid, and perhaps that is by design: perhaps time, as we know it in the world above, does not truly matter here.

We walked through their city, which was as something from a fairy tale, carved from the bodies of crystal spires tall enough to rival any church steeple, and all of it dusted with the silvery sand. The streets were cobblestone—strangely ordinary, until I looked closer and saw that all the cobbles were made of beaten silver, soft under our bare feet. The feeling of warmth that I had experienced on the beach continued to spread through me as I walked, like something in my blood was responding to a magnetic pull I had never felt before.

Our guide, whose name was Soriana, walked at the head of our small formation; my men brought up the rear. As we traveled, she spun stories of the city, describing in intricate detail a history that seemed to span centuries. Writing it all down will be the work of years, and far too great in scope for this small journal! This is the archeological find of the century, if not the millennia. A whole race of underground humans, living unseen beneath our very eyes? Truly, this will make my name among the archeological community.

But what happened next I must write down, for it is almost beyond believing.

She led us to the palace, built within the tallest of the city’s spires. My men and hers she bid to remain outside, and led me deep, to a room where a woman who could have been Molly sat upon a crystal throne.

“My queen,” she said, and bowed. “I bring you lost Moliansha’s tributary, who has dared the currents to come back to us, despite the cost, and has brought riches from the surface world.”

“Bring her closer,” said the woman on the throne.

Soriana led me to the queen of this glorious, nameless place, who looked at me gravely, making careful study of my eyes, my hair, and the planes of my face. Finally, just as I began to fear I had been rejected, she smiled.

“My daughter’s daughter’s daughter stands before me,” she said. “The tributary runs true. Take her to the pools. Give her strong wine and ripe berries; make her welcome. We feast tonight.”

“I thank you, my queen,” said Soriana, with a deep bow. She sounded . . . relieved. Perhaps feasts are rare in this city beneath the world? It would only make sense for that to be so. Sources of food must be limited here, with no sun and little fertile ground.

My men, and hers, were gone when we left the queen’s chamber. “We shall see them later,” said Soriana, and led me to a great crystal bathhouse, where women with skins of silver dipped in and out of warm, limpid pools that swirled with glittering sand. She bid me disrobe, and oh! Perhaps it is shameful for me to admit this, but I was among the company of women, and I did as she had asked, standing naked and shivering before this relative stranger’s eyes.

For her part, she plucked at my hair and looked critically at my skin, until I felt quite the curiosity in her eyes. Finally, she said, “All will be made well with some bathing,” and guided me into the first of the silver-swirled pools.

The water wrapped around me like a velvet hand. I sunk down to my chin, closing my eyes and allowing it to soothe away the worst of the bruises from my travels. Soriana pressed sweet berries between my lips, the likes of which I had never tasted. I swallowed, and felt my skin tingle.

I did not mean to fall asleep. I know only that I did.

Final entry

I will seal this journal as tightly as I can, in hopes that it will survive its passage through the currents and out to the surface of the Bolton Strid. If you should find this message, know that I am lost: do not look for me, for what you find will not be what you seek. Beware the water. Beware the currents. Beware the Bolton Strid.

I woke after a time uncounted to find that the pools around me were abandoned, and I was alone. The silver sand adhered to my skin, refusing to come off when I dried myself on the robes that had been left for me. I thought nothing of it. Who hasn’t gone to the beach and come away with a handful of dust sticking in their hair? I was more distracted by the robes, which were filmy and revealing and quite indecent, but were all that I had been left to wear.

I followed the path back to the outside, where the streets were filled with the subterranean peoples, who laughed and shouted and fired rockets of silver sparkles into the air. Soriana was there, and she smiled to see me. “Come, come,” she cried, laughing as she grabbed my arm. “The feast begins!”

She led me through those beautiful streets and crystal-lined avenues, into a great amphitheater carved into the living, silvery stone. Tables had been set up there, and what seemed to be the city’s whole population was present. The queen sat at the head of the longest table. Spaces had been left beside her for the guests of honor: Soriana, and myself.

I did not realize what they had done until the servants began carrying out the feast.

I cried out, leaping to my feet, and Soriana was quick to comfort me, saying, “No, no, Amelia, be not afraid, for look: you belong. Look.” She indicated my hands, where the silver sand had adhered most thickly, and I saw to my horror that they were webbed to the first knuckle. There was no sand. There were only scales, the gift of my long-dead grandmother, growing in response to her natural environment.

“You are of our kind; we do not feast upon our own,” she said, and I ran.

No bodies have ever been recovered from the Strid: what it takes, it keeps, because what it takes, it gives to those who dwell beneath. I have been given to them. I can no more return to the surface than can my poor men, only two of whom knew the mercy of a natural death.

This is my home now, this nameless kingdom below the crushing currents. I am lost. I have found too much, and I am lost. The webbing continues to spread on my hands and feet; my gills are forming. Whatever is in the waters here, below the world, it keeps us safe once we are chosen. My grandmother has saved me from devouring. She has damned me to become a monster, as she was, before she somehow made her way to the land above.

I will not follow in her footsteps. If I cannot be who I was, I will remain here, and suffer my punishment for what I have done. I leave you with this warning:

Do not go near the Bolton Strid. Dear God in Heaven, avoid those limpid waters. What waits below . . .

What waits below is a different form of drowning.

• • • •

Ed. Note: This notebook was found floating in a sealed diver’s jar in the River Wharf, carried there by the currents from the Strid. It is believed to be a work of fiction, penned by M. Sebastian Delacroix, who is to stand trial for the murder of Miss Amelia Whitmore, feared lost in the waters of the Bolton Strid, along with the men who accompanied her.

No bodies have yet been found.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire was born and raised in Northern California, resulting in a love of rattlesnakes and an absolute terror of weather. She shares her home with a variety of cats, far too many books, and enough horror movies to be considered a problem. Seanan publishes about three books a year, and is widely rumored not to actually sleep. When bored, Seanan tends to wander into swamps and cornfields, which has not yet managed to get her killed (although not for lack of trying). She also writes as Mira Grant, filling the role of her own evil twin, and tends to talk about horrible diseases at the dinner table.