The Ocean Stairs
Walk deeper and deeper into the ocean. Where does it go? Where did it come from? This story could house a game full of exploration in a wild ocean full of colorful characters, ridiculous or unexpected moments, insane creatures, and interesting puzzles.
“Why do we only go out at night?” asks the new guy.
This new hire has a small mohawk that sticks out in every direction, at least until it gets wet. I’ve already forgotten his name, so I start calling him “Spike.”
The boss answers for me. “These stupid lights attached to our helmets get so dang hot, even underwater, that we’d sweat to death if we went out in the daytime.”
We’ve just arrived before dusk, but already I can see the boss’s unshaven face has beads of sweat dripping down from it.
The three of us are in diving gear, chest deep in the water. Behind us is the beginning of a river only ten or fifteen yards wide. Ahead of us, the river turns into a rushing waterfall, barreling down into thirty feet of water. The river goes on for about fifty feet before it finds another waterfall, splashing down into deeper waters. The river continues like this, each time with deeper and wider expanses after every waterfall. Eventually, it leads into the ocean, but no one has ever made it out that far. If you could get a good view of the river, it would look like gigantic, water-filled stairs that lead up from the ocean.
“So we just jump in?” asks Spike.
“Well, you’ll land in plenty of water to slow your fall, but you never know what’s down there. Better to carefully drag yourself down with your pickaxe,” responds the boss.
“This suit’s so heavy, I’ll be fine. See you down there, chumps!”
With that, Spike leaps over the waterfall, disappearing feet-first into the water. The boss gives me a tired smile and a nod. After a quick breath, the boss jumps in after him. I admire the two of them: Spike, for being so young and unafraid of anything, and the boss, for being too tired to care. Meanwhile, my fear still has a strong grasp on me, and I take a step back. I’ve jumped in dozens of times, but it still terrifies me. I take a deep breath and position myself in a running stance. I can see the water is up to my nose through the glass of the helmet, and after a yell, I sprint forward, making sure my feet are below me as I fall into the pool below.
The truck door slams so hard it bounces back. Spike starts walking to the bar, but the boss is quickly behind him.
The boss screams, “What the hell was that? When I tell you we’re leaving, you come with us. You don’t jump down further! First day in the water and you want to push your luck?”
“Don’t talk to me!” retorts Spike, “Don’t say a word to me ‘til you can tell me what the hell is at the bottom level!”
Spike slams another door, this time the one attached to the bar we almost always go to after work. It’s the only one in town still open this late at night, when dawn is creeping up on us.
“We had a perfect run, too. That stupid kid doesn’t care about the pearls, he just wants to explore. Get an adrenaline rush or something.”
It was true. Armed with only a pickaxe, a knife, and a box, all of which can attach to the suits, we go down, level by level, prying open clams to find pearls. This time, all of us filled our boxes. We might even get bottles of beer instead of the cheap cans tonight.
“The truth is,” the boss starts, “I do know what’s down there. Well, at least I think I do.” He holds the door open for me with his foot as I walk inside. “The ocean existed before mankind, right?”
“I suppose so.”
“Of course it did. Religion, science, doesn’t matter, ocean came first. In fact, we kind of came out of the ocean. The ocean was our womb.”
“Not sure where you’re going with this…” I said to the boss. It was strange hearing him talk about philosophy. “Hang on.”
I looked away from the boss to see a new face at the bar. Her name tag just had a smiley face sticker. True to her tag, though, she wore a bright smile, underlining two bright blue eyes and a perfect brunette hairstyle that lay across her shoulders. “Hi,” was all I could muster.
“Hi handsome,” she said, “that spikey-haired kid ordered these for you.”
Two bottles with premium beer appeared in front of us as I looked toward the exit – Spike was just outside the door, leaving without even a wave.
“Let him be,” said the boss.
”We found a table, and the boss continued, “Okay, we were born from the ocean. So, all that stuff that helped put us together is still in there. Like, the raw materials of existence.”
“Wow, where did you hear this stuff?”
“I’ve got smart friends!” he barks back at me. “Okay. The spiritual guys around here, they worship the sea. They believe the sea represents the totality of existence – of life, of everything. We are all connected to the sea. The highest state of enlightenment for these monks is gained when they dive into the ocean, and merge with the sea.”
“What? What does that mean?” I’m as surprised to find out about these monks as I am about finding out that the boss knows anything about spirituality.
“They literally dive all the way down into the sea, no suits, no gear… nothing. They say they can find reality there; a higher state of consciousness. The monks claim they can find the beginning of everything down there. You can see it in the art they create. It’s usually a raindrop about to merge with the sea.”
He gives me an inquisitive look. I respond, “I’m not a spiritual person, but… that sounds great! I can’t believe we haven’t tried to go down that far. There are only three or four steps we haven’t been on. Should we try to see what’s down there?”
“No, man!” he almost shouts, but stops himself as he swings his head towards the pretty new bartender, embarrassed. He looks at me again, and after a long pull on his beer, he says, “They never come back. The monks that go down all of those stairs to reach the ocean, they’re gone forever.”
“No one goes searching for them?”
“Anyone who does just gets swallowed by the ocean or something. Poof! Gone from existence. Eaten by a monster or carried off by aliens. Maybe there is an answer down there.” The boss takes another swig.
“I admit I’m a little curious.”
“Would you really want to know, though? Maybe this world was made by robots and the mainframe is down there.”
“You don’t even know what a mainframe is, Boss.”
“Yeah, fine. Well maybe we’re just in someone’s dream. We’re fictional characters created by neurons in some guy’s brain. The ocean might just be the end of his fabricated world.” The boss has a worried look on his face.
“Yeah, that might be. Or those monks are just getting gobbled up by a giant fish monster.” I try to make a monstrous face and snarl at the boss. This gets a small chuckle out of him. He looks a little less worried now.
We leave a tip on the table and walk outside. We do our usual glance at the truck bed to make sure no one stole our suits. Everything looks normal; both of our suits are there. After half a second, both of our heads bolt back as we realize there should be three suits in there.
The tires of the truck screech against the pavement. In a matter of minutes we’re by the river again. Daybreak has appeared; I know it’s going to be sweltering in the suit, but I quickly hop into it.
“Just take the pickaxes,” says the boss. I can hear him through the radio inside of our suits. Remembering that there is, in fact, a radio, I try to call Spike.
“Spike, where are you? Don’t do anything stupid,” is all I can think to say.
A moment later we’re jumping down each stair, getting closer to the ocean. The fear I had earlier is gone, thanks either to the beer or maybe it’s just the necessary courage needed to help our new employee.
After a few minutes of searching and more jumping, I hear the boss’s voice on the radio, “This is it. We’ve never gone beyond this point. After this, there are just two more steps, then the ocean.”
I nod. “Ready?”
In the lower steps on the river, you are constantly submerged in water. We step off the cliff, but instead of letting ourselves fall, we slam the pickaxes into the wall behind us… except the wall is so hard, the pickaxe bounces back. After a few more strikes, we realize that the wall will not give in, so we let ourselves fall. As we’re falling, we see plenty of sea life we rarely see further up the stairs. There are huge, brightly colored fish swimming in and out of even larger anemones. Jellyfish that must be more than fifty feet long float by – they would be terrifying, but the suits are thick enough that we’ll be fine.
We make it to the edge, but there’s still no sign of Spike.
“Should we run for it?” asks the boss.
“Did you ask if this kid was crazy in the interview?” I retort. After a sigh loud enough for him to hear over the radio, I say, “Let’s do it.”
The next step down, we see a gigantic octopus, larger than an entire office building, lying on the sea floor, using its tentacles to swat fish into its beak.
One more step down and we are surrounded by total darkness, even though the sun is directly over our heads. The creatures down here glow iridescent colors – at least the ones we can see. We flip our head lamps on to see the silhouette of a diving suit looking over the edge.
The two of us approach Spike on either side. I decide to speak first.
“What do you think is down there?”
“That question… it guides me. If I don’t jump down there, I’ll never know. The answer – what actually is down there – doesn’t matter. I just don’t want to be haunted by that question.” Spike does not avert his gaze from the edge. A tiny, white light can be seen in the distance, but mostly all we can see is darkness.
“I envy you, you know,” I say to the kid. “I let the question haunt me because I’m so comfortable here. I wish I was brave enough to jump. Are you really ready to leave this place?”
“What do I have here? A world full of more questions?” he asks.
Our boss chimes in. “You have a job.”
Spike finally looks at the two of us and smiles. “Please accept my resignation. Thank you very kindly for the opportunity.”
He looks at me to give me a nod, and that’s when I see it. I knew I wanted to be him – to be a fearless young man again – but this makes no sense. He is me. His light eyes, his one dimple, his straight hair, even if it is mostly cut off. I’m looking into a mirror that is reflecting an image of my younger self.
In my headlamp’s spotlight, I see Spike bend his knees and put his hand to the ground. The Boss tries to grab him, but in a sudden splash of sand and bubbles, Spike is over the edge, descending into the dark unknown.
The boss’s attempt to grab Spike has sent the boss flying towards me; his suit barrels into mine, causing me to fall the floor. The boss lends me his hand, and as I take it, I look at his helmet. There is a sizeable crack that has appeared on the glass, but that’s not what startles me. I can see it in him, too, whatever it is. He is me, only older.
The Boss helps me to my feet. He seems calm, but I watch as the crack grows larger. I think back to what the boss was saying earlier. His mouth moves in front me as I think of the words.
“Maybe we’re just in someone’s dream,” he says to me. The crack has gone down his body and across his leg.
“We’re fictional characters created by neurons in some guy’s brain.” The crack moves into the ocean floor.
“The ocean might just be the end of his fabricated world.” The crack in the ground opens up like an earthquake, revealing a bright, white light. The Boss falls into the light. I’m still on the ground, too astonished to get up.
The quake grows larger. I force myself to my feet, staring into the white oblivion. I close my eyes. “This is my dream,” I think to myself.
I open my eyes, and the bright, white light is now neon pink. I blink again, and to my amazement, it is a soft, calming yellow. “If this is my dream, then let’s do what I want.”
The quaking continues, but I close my eyes and imagine the bar in front of me. A moment later, I open them, and there it is. A pub is on the ocean floor. In my heavy suit, I trudge towards the door. I push through the entrance to find my new favorite barkeep in a completely dry place. Without hesitation, I remove my helmet.
“Who are you?” I ask the beautiful bartender. What else are you supposed to ask the woman who is literally from your dreams?
“I’m here to help,” she says. “You’ve been here for a long, long time.”
“Can you come with me? To the end of the world, I mean?”
“No, I can’t come with you.”
I close my eyes for a moment. Opening them, I see the bartender is now by my side, embracing my hand. Staring into her deep blue eyes, we walk out together. We stride through the door and up to the edge. The fact that neither of us have helmets on is apparently okay. Peering over the edge, we stare at the yellow glow for a short, calm moment. The ocean floor splits open as we jump into a luminous abyss.
I close my eyes for a moment. Opening them, I see the bartender is by my side, but she has different clothes on: a doctor's outfit. My head feels like it weighs a thousand pounds, so I don’t move it, but I look around to see my pickaxe hung up on a bright, yellow wall. The pickaxe is still covered in coal dust.
“Welcome back, Mr. McCloy. I’m here to help. You’ve been here for a long, long time.”
I'm happy to be here. Alive. But... I want to go back. There must be a way...