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Out of Darkness


Lillian Stewart Carl

In the story that follows, a contrasting study of faith and technology, new writer Lillian Stewart Carl suggests that how you look at something is as important as what you see . . .

Lillian Stewart Carl has been a newspaper columnist, librarian, engineering aide , and college history teacher. She has published stories in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Amazing, Amazons II, and elsewhere. Her novels include Sabazel, The Winter King, Shadow Dancers and, most recently, Wings of Power. She lives with her family in Carroliton, Texas.

Sarah laid her cheek against the cold glass of the porthole, extinguishing her own reflection. The water outside was only swirling darkness. No; there was light, an infinity of tiny gleams, suspended peat particles both refracting and swallowing the halogen searchlights of the submersible.

Sarah wondered once again why she had let Mark talk her into joining him on this run. The water was dark and cold and deep. Loch Ness, it was said, never gave up its dead.

She turned away from the window, inhaling deeply to reassure herself. But the air was stale. Sweat ran in tickling streams down her back.

Mark sat at the controls, humming delightedly to himself. Hydrophone, speakers cleared of static and echoing with the hollowness of deep water. Sonar transponder, steady lines on the oscilloscope, registering only fixed objects—the camera rig at the end of the pier and a couple of sunken logs.

He loved this, Sarah thought with exasperated affection. Electronic senses extended, circuits opening and closing at his command. No wonder he'd given up his summer vacation to take this job with the Expedition. It was his summer vacation. His yearly fix of marine biology spiking his day-to-day expertise in electronics. And I can work anywhere, in my mind or out of it.

Of course, the doctor said she was fully recovered, ready for a change of scene. Therapy for a nervous breakdown, or nervous hyper-excitement, or however coolly they defined that shadow lurking among her thoughts. They had defined the horror that had sucked Julie's life as cancer.

Sarah realized that her damp palms had left grey smudges along the edge of her sketch pad. The first page, mountains. The second page, cottages along the road to Inverness. The third page—nothing. Nothing here but darkness.

In the ravaged husk of Julie's body only her eyes remembered youth, staring in a dumb, anguished betrayal from the thicket of plastic tubes and leads and hoses that tied her down like a technological sacrifice.

The speaker clicked. Mark leaped to his dials, adjusting them as delicately as he had been touching Sarah since her sister's death. The speaker clicked twice more. "Listen," he said over his shoulder. "There it is again, just like yesterday. No known reason for those clicks. Don thinks that it might be some kind of sonar signal emitted by the animal."

The animal. The mythic monster. Estimated to be twenty feet long. Coasting silently through the darkness, through the cold darkness, attracted to the dim yellow shape and the muted lights of the submersible.

The submersible was about the same size as one of the beasts. Sarah's fingers tightened on her pencil and it broke. Sixty feet of thick water lay between her and the surface; this was the animal's element. Something hovered just beyond the circle of light, sensing their passage. She inhaled again, but her breath stuck in her throat and she choked. The sweat was cold now, flowing in streams down her face and body. Perhaps the sub was leaking, perhaps the seams had broken open.

"There!" Mark cried. Several small slashes startled the oscilloscope, moving fast across the field. Following them was a thick, heavy line, something big. Something very big. "It's chasing those salmon," said Mark. And, into his headset, "Don, we've got it! We're following!" He jerked the submersible around and accelerated.

No! Sarah screamed, but her voice was glue in her mouth. No, leave it alone, don't follow it into the dark!

The line on the oscilloscope wavered, thickened, thinned again. A barrage of chirps reverberated from the speaker. Sarah crouched, her hands over her ears. Mark, please, she moaned silently, let it go.

It was gone. The speaker hummed, the oscilloscope steadied. "Wow," Mark said, "it sure can move. It dived, Don, and it dived fast. Straight to the bottom, six hundred feet. Did you get anything?"

Sarah sat up and tried to quell her shivering. Come on, it was childish to be afraid of the dark.

"Yeah," continued Mark, "it does seem to be shy of the camera rig. Some kind of electrical field, do you think?"

"Can we go up now?" Sarah asked. Her voice was thin and faint.

"Hell," Mark said, and for a moment she thought he was speaking to her. Then, "Yeah, we're on our way. Blowing ballast."

"Mark?" she asked.

He glanced around at her, grinning in both exhilaration and frustration. "Almost had it, honey. Sub just can't move fast enough. Talk about a critter perfectly adapted to its environment. Straight down to the bottom!" He turned back to the controls.

The bottom of the loch. Centuries of silt, icy mud, dark like a grave. She shook herself, grasped at her sanity and steadied. Adults were too afraid of the dark, she told herself. The oscilloscopes around Julie's bed had registered not life but inexorable death.

The water outside the porthole lightened, became the color of thick tea. Then waves, and daylight. Glorious daylight. Sarah gathered up book and shattered pencil, her limbs as limp and loose as floating seaweed. But her head was clear. Transparent, she thought. Mark should be able to look right inside her, analyzing each curving track of thought.

"What's the matter?" he said. He stood to release the hatch.

"A touch of claustrophobia," she replied shamefacedly. "Too much water out there."

"Scuba diving along the Barrier Reef didn't scare you."

"This is different."

"Nessie has you spooked? Yon have too much imagination."

"I wouldn't be an artist if I didn't have imagination."

"You can say that again." His expression wavered between concern and annoyance and settled on a noncommittal shrug. He clambered topside and reached back to help her out.

She inhaled eagerly of the cool breeze and scanned the blessedly open horizon, hillsides quilted in shades of green, the stone houses of Lewiston, blue sky blotted with wisps of cloud. Don and a couple more Expedition people rowing out to the sub.

Sarah sat down on the wet coping of the hatch, folded her hands, and waited for rescue.

Sarah glanced with distaste at her breakfast plate. Every morning the same meal, eggs and a bland link sausage and broiled tomato, cold toast in a rack and oatmeal that tasted of vinegar. The waitress brought pots of boiling hot water and tea, and then handed around the plates one by one by one, making a labored trip back to the kitchen each time.

Mark and Don were deep in discussion, electronics, cameras, anguilloform eels, Nessiteras rhombopteryx. The long, intense face of the Expedition leader shimmered in the steam from the teapot, as if he spoke through a barrier of water. "Popular superstition has that it's an elasmosaur, left over from the Age of the Dinosaurs. But no reptile could survive in water that cold."

Mark nodded savagely. "You can't tell from the fossil record whether the dinosaurs were cold-blooded. There's a good case for warm-bloodedness."

Sarah cradled a warm cup in her hands and gazed out the window. Science sought to disprove superstition. But if superstition hadn't recorded a creature in the loch, science wouldn't be looking for one.

Myth, which wrests meaning from the unknown, is hard-wired in the circuits of the human brain. The terminology might be Mark's but the thought seemed to be Sarah's alone. How could these men deny the fear of the unknown?

A ship moved slowly down the loch, leaving a V-shaped wake. The wake would be reflected from the nearly vertical banks, meeting again in the middle of the water long after the boat had passed. Some tourist would take a picture of it and declare it the tracks of a monster.

But the loch was deceptive. Waves, wakes, glassy spots and sudden outbreaks of bubbles—most of it could be explained by wind, by temperature gradients, by rotting vegetation. Loch Ness was the deepest loch in Scotland; perhaps the water guarded the secret of its depths by casting illusion across its surface. The Buddhist philosophers might be right, that life itself was just an illusion.

"I didn't believe in Nessie," Don was saying, "until I saw Rines' pictures during the seventies. And his videotape! I mean, there it was; a moving and therefore living animal, its size triangulated by the strobe, its passage recorded and measured."

"I have measured out my life in coffee spoons," Sarah muttered.

"Huh?" said Mark.

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light!" she declaimed.

"Ah. Poetry. Thomas Eliot or somebody." Fondly thinking he had responded, he turned back to Don.

"Lousy picture, though," Don sighed. "This year we'll do better. Get it all down. Irrefutable evidence."

Evidence, Sarah thought. Exhibit A in the murder of a legend. She turned back to the window.

Patterns of light and shadow played across the loch. Beneath its surface was another world, where sight was useless, where hearing was a primitive sonar receiver, where touch—what of touch? Did Nessie touch with pleasure the rough, scaly skin of her mate? Did she fear the dazzling sun-blast beyond the water's surface membrane?

Imagination, Sarah told herself. What matters is not the threads of data, but what our imagination weaves from it. What we believe.

"And if you get that irrefutable evidence?" Mark asked.

Don's eyes gleamed. "A new species unknown to science. Think of the fallout! Biology, medicine, genetics; environmental ecology . . ."

"Admit it," teased Sarah. "You simply want to be the little boy who slays the dragon."

Don turned to her. "No one ever said anything about killing it," he remonstrated soberly.

Mark rolled his eyes upwards, whether at Don or at Sarah was hard to tell. Sarah allowed herself a dry laugh and picked up her sketchbook. "I'll leave you with your evidence. I'm supposed to be illustrating a book about intangibles, after all." And not distracting you from your quest for certainty, she added to herself.

"Yeah," said Mark, as he blew her a conciliatory kiss. "The elves' quest for the dragon's magic sword, or whatever it is. Fantasy."

"Fantasy is good for the soul," she retorted. "Even though you'll never find irrefutable evidence of the soul's existence." Her smile was equally conciliatory, even indulgent, if somewhat strained at the edges.

They had already dismissed her. "Now," Don was saying, "if we take the submersible beyond Foyers this afternoon . . ."

Sarah hiked down the road toward Urquhart Bay. The castle, poised on its promontory beside the lake, was picturesque enough. But passive, somehow. Not like the water itself. Or like the stream of tourists heading for Drumnadrochit and the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition. It might be the twentieth century, the age of the antibiotic and the integrated circuit, but mankind still craved myth. Created it, if necessary, now that genuine gut-wrenching, nape-crawling, awe-inspiring Mystery had been enlightened into a few shadowy corners.

The local Scots profited from the religious impulse just as had innkeepers on the great medieval pilgrims' routes. They even offered good quality woollens, ceramics, and jewelry among the plastic Nessies and the children's tee-shirts reading "I'm a wee monster from Scotland."

Sarah found a low stone wall, sat down, opened her sketchbook. A few strokes and the castle rose against the mountains opposite, no more substantial than its reflection, only a dream. Elf lords danced on the battlements, and the skirling of their pipers summoned narrow heads and necks from the water. The necks swayed to the music. The stones in the castle trembled beneath the dancing feet, left the bounds of earth and sailed across the water.

A groundskeeper worked on the steep grassy slope leading to the castle, his scythe swishing back and forth like yet another image from the dark ages. Suddenly, despite herself, Sarah wondered if the man's battered hat concealed a death's head.

She ripped the page from the book and tore it into dirty shreds. Mark, she thought, I'm sorry. I'm not a computer or a submarine; my nerves are not neat columns of facts and figures on a CRT. It would be a lot easier if they were.

But then, even those facts and figures had to have a programmer.

It must have been the reflected wake of a ship that moved at a stately pace down the center of the loch. A brilliant illusion, as if something swam just beneath the surface, at the boundary of two worlds.

The afternoon was shrouded with hazy cloud. The breeze that stirred the valley of the loch was fresh from the Highlands, Sarah told herself, scented with heather and gorse. Presumably heather and gorse had scents.

The launch crested another wave. Not good Nessie weather, this; the loch surface was chopped and broken. So was Sarah's stomach. Again she gulped, and again she wished she hadn't had that broiled tomato.

But her resolve was as sharp as her pencils. Everything would be all right, no more fear, no more resentment. She was just jealous, that's all, of the attention Mark paid to the Expedition.

"Steep sides," Mark called out. His eyes were not focused on the steep boulder-strewn banks slipping by, a mile distant on either side; he watched the readout, sensing the invisible land beneath the surface, sheer cliffs, caverns, cold bottomless silt.

All right now, Sarah said sternly to herself. Calmly, calmly.

Don leaned over the stern of the launch, calling directions over his shoulder to the person steering. "Nice even speed, slow gradually. Wide curve toward Invermoriston."

If the boat swung around too fast it would foul the leads of the sonar towfish. Damned expensive towfish, thought Sarah. You could endow an art scholarship or build a library with what it had cost. But then, the elusive beastie was probably worth it. Not to prove its existence—a myth, by definition, did not require proof. It was the search that mattered.

Near Invermoriston, soon after the disastrous battle at Culloden in 1746, a certain Roderick MacKenzie sacrificed his life by acting as a decoy for Bonnie Prince Charlie, wearing the prince's jacket and drawing the English fire upon himself. Romantic, even quixotic, gesture, but it had bought him an immortal name.

"Carefully!" Don bellowed.

Sarah's pencil danced. Don's aquiline profile appeared on the paper, shadowed by the peaked hat of an eighteenth-century British admiral. Nelson, cloaked in his own mythic certainty, strolling the quarterdeck until a French sharpshooter could immortalize him, too. Sarah bit deep into her lower lip, A paradox, that dying could win deathlessness, but the bereaved would embrace any paradox if it promised meaning.

"Signal's breaking up," Mark called.

Don boomed, "Slowly!"

"No, no, probably just a thermal layer."

Sarah laid down her book and pencil, reached for the thermos, then rejected the idea of hot tea. The chill of the afternoon was only accentuated by the gradual carbonation of her stomach. Maybe if she changed her position. She stood, gingerly, and stretched.

"Don't rock the boat," Mark growled from the corner of his mouth.

"Rocking boats is my specialty," she responded.

The waves smacked rhythmically against the side of the launch. The wake was barely discernible. Ahead was dark corrugated water, flecked with foam—Irish coffee, grumbled Sarah's stomach, and again she quelled it.

There was a smooth place between the waves, a dim shape moving dimly beneath the surface just at the bow of the boat. A trace of a wake, overwhelmed by backwash. Sarah, bemused, leaned over the side. Through a glass darkly. . . .

Then she realized what she was seeing. A creature from another world, a dream at arm's length, toying with its pursuers. She inhaled, opened her mouth to speak.

The shape veered to the side, cutting across the bow. The launch ran up onto it and stopped with an abrupt clatter of equipment.

Sarah was catapulted over the side. For a fleeting second she thought something had seized her, jerking her from the boat. No, she was falling, loose-limbed and helpless as a doll, downwards into darkness. The water rose up, slapped her, swallowed her.

Cold, bone-chilling cold. Loch Ness never gives up its dead. Her open mouth filled with water, her throat clogged with it. Her blood clotted with horror. The sensation drained from her hands, her limbs. Then, with some desperate flash of rationality she told herself, Dammit, you can swim! She thrust herself upwards, breaking the surface, spitting and coughing. The boat, where was the boat!

Her waterlogged sweater dragged her back under. Into the element of the creature, borne downwards into impenetrable night. She fought, screaming silently, for the surface.

A searing breath of air. Shouts in the distance, a motor. And something touched her leg. Her numbed nerve endings thrilled with it, a rough, flexible appendage. She wrenched away, floundering, and the water pulled her down again. Crushing cold, and darkness watching, waiting . . .

Something grabbed her and dragged her gasping into the air. She struck out, but she was moving in slow motion, hands like lead weights.

It was Mark. "Hey," he shouted, "calm down."

Easy for you to say. This isn't your nightmare. Hands pulled her from the water and hauled her like a sack of dead fish over the gunwale of the boat; she noted the metal ridge but felt no pain. Mark splashed down beside her and she clutched at him, shivering with more than cold.

"Are you all right?" Don asked. And to the others, "Get the towfish in, quick. We have to get her back to camp." He peeled off his jacket and wrapped it around her.

Her hair leaked runnels of water down her face. She was crying, she realized, hot salt tears mingling with the peat-dark drops of chill.

"Towfish is fouled," someone called.

Don turned. "That sudden stop; could've been a log, I guess."

"Yeah. Sure. I just hope we didn't hurt it."

They hauled in the torpedo-like bundle of equipment, clucking solicitously. The motor roared and the boat slapped against the waves. The banks of the loch heaved and shuddered, tumbling from the sky in waves of varied green.

"What got into you?" Mark asked. "You were flailing around out there as if you'd never swum before."

"S-scared," she stammered.

"Of what? Of Nessie?"

"Of the dark. Of getting lost in the dark. Of never coming back."

"Sarah," he sighed, shaking his head, but even so he pulled her closer to him.

Don sat beside them and opened the thermos. The sketch lay water-stained at his knee. "I like that," he said "Always admired old Horatio."

His courage? Or his ego? Sarah's teeth chattered on the cup Don offered. "Thank you."

The boat sped up the loch, riding the crest of superstition, suspended between daylight and shadow.

Sarah stood on the narrow curve of beach beside Urquhart Bay. Behind her were the trailers—the caravans, she corrected herself—of the Expedition. The rhythmic chug of a motor, a door slamming, voices; the evening stillness caught it all and held it suspended, swirling particles of sound. Shadows lay long across the glassy surface of the loch.

Hands touched her shoulders and she started. Mark's voice intoned, "From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night . . ."

"Good Lord deliver us," Sarah finished. How appropriate.

He stood beside her, contemplating translucent sky and translucent water separated by the black horizontal slash of the opposite shore. "Sarah," he said, "surely you didn't mean to imply this morning that Don is only hunting sensation."

"I'd like to see him turn down a guest spot on the Carson show."

Mark snorted. "All right; we all want a shot at immortality. But give him some credit as a scientist."

"And what he's doing is cool, dispassionate scientific research? Cheap rhetoric." She scuffed at the gravel. The water lapped questioningly at her toe. "It's like those people who say they've seen a UFO. They have an emotional stake in the answer. They want to believe there's more to existence than death and taxes."

"So?" He stared at her, brows tight, as he would stare at some unidentifiable marine creature.

"Irrefutable evidence? Tapes, pictures, whatever, it all comes in through the senses and is evaluated by that brain which causes emotions, too. The local superstitions are evidence. One of my drawings is as valid as a photograph."

"But not in the same way. Superstitions, art—they can't be quantified."

"Why should everything be quantified? Because your particular fear of the dark finds comfort in quantification?"

A boat beat up the loch, sending shock waves through the twilight. After a long time Mark laid his arm across Sarah's shoulders and said quietly, "Julie's death was—pretty ghoulish, wasn't it? Respirators, plastic tubing, all the technological paraphernalia that only prolonged her agony and left us to wonder why."

She stood stock still in the circle of his arm. She had thought him insensitive, but what he was, it seemed, was sensible. "Yes," she whispered, "if we didn't wonder why we'd be vegetables."

A faint gleam diffused into the sky above the dark ridge of the distant shore. A thin pale gold circlet swelled up and out. The moon rose over Loch Ness and laid a shining path across the water.

"Beautiful," said Sarah. She could step onto the light, follow the path up and across the dark water and into the sky. She could dance among the Pleiades, as light as one of her pencil-and-paper fairies, unencumbered by mortal flesh.

Mark's face was burnished by the light. How handsome he was, how sturdy. She warmed in his glow.

"Just think," he said, "how much equipment the Apollo astronauts had to leave up there. Perfectly good cameras."

Sarah's image cracked, shattering into crystalline shards that cut deep. . . . No. They did not cut. She would not let them cut. They tickled instead, and she clung to his arm wreathed in helpless giggles.

"Now what?" he asked warily.

"You. You're so refreshingly honest, straightforward, unimaginative."

"That's a compliment?"

"Yes. Yes, actually it is."

"Okay," Mark said, baffled but obliging.

Sarah could see him plunging fearlessly into the dark, eager to see what lay on the other side. Foolish bravado, to court the silent shapes in the depths, to risk oblivion. Wasn't it?

They turned toward their own tiny trailer, pausing just outside for one glance back at the gleaming celestial disc. "Luna," Sarah conjugated, "lunacy, lunar tides, lunar rover." Light, perhaps, an imperative beyond darkness

Arm in arm they went inside and shut the door on the night.

Sarah stood on the threshold of the Expedition hut. It was morning of a clear day. Brilliant sunshine dam ed on the waters of the loch before her, and the waters heaved, slowly, stretching toward the light.

Beneath the surface sheen, in the darkness where the light could not penetrate, an earlier expedition had found ancient stone rings. Relics of an earlier time when the water level had been lower, Sarah told herself. Man's ancient impulse toward ritual, to propitiate the dark even as it swallowed him. To defy it.

No one was in camp; Don and the rest of the Expedition staff had left early to haul the submersible up to Lochend. Mark had promised to follow later that afternoon. Right now he was working over the monitors in the hut, creating a minestrone of wire, capacitors, transformers, trying to line their 110-volt equipment to the 220-volt power source.

Rather like us, Sarah thought. Two different voltages, the neurasthenic nut mated to the scientist, together forming something unique and vital.

Mark was humming something under his breath that could have been anything from a Beatles tune to a Beethoven symphony. With a grimace Sarah tucked her sketchbook under her arm and strolled down to the beach. There was another anomalous wake pleating the water, probably an echo of the Expedition launch.

One of the videotape camera leads was snagged on a rock, and she bent to retrieve and straighten it. The sinuous shape of the wire piqued her imagination. She sat down beside it and drew a pencil from her pocket. The wires became living appendages reaching into the water, reaching into another element, defining shapes in a shadowy world, human eyes and ears and voices, human senses cleaving the darkness. If truth is beauty, she thought, perhaps science was indeed art. What did scientists want, after all, but to believe in the quark or the quasar or the validity of the human observer who named them both?

Mark stopped humming, encountering some problem that absorbed his entire attention. Sarah began humming, stilling a quaver of fear with melody. The twin wave of the wake crimped the surface of the loch.

She remembered the peat-dark water closing over her head. She remembered the touch of something—not unearthly, because it was from Earth.

Without darkness, light would be meaningless; without light, darkness would be impenetrable. Human perception was sketched in shades of gray. The quest for understanding, whether pursued by scientist or artist or tabloid myth-monger, was its own ritual of propitiation.

She grinned; here I go again, purple prose and all. Julie used to call me a real vapor-head, and she was probably right.

Sarah's pencil danced. An animal, long neck, flippers, strong rhomboidal tail sending it with swift, sure strokes through the darkness. An animal questing, warily, fearfully, toward the mystery of light.

Several salmon leaped from the loch and fell back, spattering themselves across the water. The wake followed, the twin wave curling white and thick. Iridescent bubbles skimmed upwards, neither light nor dark, joining world to world.

A long dark neck, eyes and nostrils like slits, thin protuberances like horns. A mouth gaping open, seizing a salmon. A thrashing in the water, spray cast upwards like tiny prisms into the sun.

The fish disappeared. Sarah's pencil fell from nerveless hands. The illusions of the loch, the surface concealing the depths—she could not trust her senses. She had called it, surely, from the fevered depths of her need to believe.

The creature flopped over, flippers beating the air, rounded belly facing the sky. Its thick tail beat the water, sending droplets high into the air. The droplets, cold ice flakes, fell on Sarah's face and she started.

It was there. Not an object of fear, but of awe. An affirmation. She stepped backwards, one foot behind the other. Her sketchbook trembled in her hands. "Mark," she called hoarsely. "Mark, come down here, please."

The creature lay still, back arching from the water, wavelets licking at its skin. Its head and neck curled from side to side, slowly, seeking food.

"Mark!" Sarah croaked.

Distracted, he called, "Huh? What?"

"Forget the monitors. Get your camera, if your own eyes aren't good enough." And a moment later, softly, "Thank you, Julie."

"What?" Mark called again, plunging down the embankment to her side. He hadn't brought a camera.

"There," she said, with a grand wave at the loch, the wake, the fish, the basking creature. It seized another salmon, tilted its neck upwards, splashed about as if playing with its prey.

Mark collapsed onto a rock, swearing slowly, reverently, under his breath.

Sarah plucked another pencil from her pocket and began to sketch. Head, neck, back—even the fish leaping from the water.

"No camera," Mark mourned. "Strobe's blown a fuse. No sonar, no hydrophone."

"You can see it, can't you?" Sarah flipped to the next page in her book, beginning again. Magic flowed through her eyes, through her fingertips; the image leaped from the paper.

"I see it," said Mark. "Whether it's really there is another matter."

"Yes, Mr. Spock," she returned with a smile.

The creature slipped beneath the waves and disappeared. The water smoothed itself and lay still. The sunsheen reflected from the surface of the loch like from a burnished shield.

Sarah's fingers slowed and stopped. She was weak with effort. Her knees buckled and she sat beside Mark.

"God!" he wailed. "No camera!" His eye fell upon her drawings and lightened. "Hey, those are good. Now if we can only get Don to believe it."

"Do you believe it?" she asked quietly.

"Yes. I saw something. And I'd sure like to see it again, even if it takes a lot of looking."

"That's all that matters."

"Is it? Is it really?" He laughed. "It's that easy, then?"

"No, it's never easy," Sarah replied. "But the wanting to search; that's enough." They sat close together by the deep water. The darkness ebbed.

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