The swarm

The journey to the swarm was uneventful, though after a day at sea they entered squalls of acidic rain that hurt their eyes and tasted foul. On the second day they reached a point close enough to the swarm to see it and understand its magnitude – it stretched across the whole sea before them like a fog bank, fading into hazy obscurity to left and right and giving off a vile stench. Dilver had been right, they could not penetrate the haze above the swarm, and deeper into the swarm this haze stretched high into the sky. A vile, warm breeze rolled off the thing whenever the wind changed, as if it were exhaling charnel breath, and from their vantage point they could see a pilot whale decaying in the hazy edges of the swarm.

They dove, heading down to the submarine’s safe depth of 40m and making fast progress to the swarm. As they passed under it their sonar screen lit up, and looking at it they felt as if they had begun sailing under a cloud of some kind. The submarine slowed down to more closely measure the swarm, and the tension mounted. In the front of the sub Ryan had begun donning his scuba gear, but everyone could not help but notice his nervousness and unusual reluctance to prepare for a dive. Everyone thought the same thing: they were floating under a cloud of death, with no clue about what to do when they got to its centre, and their whole fate resting on an 18 year old boy and his sea lion, who would be swimming up to scout at the edge of that noxious web of death.

After perhaps an hour of careful movement Leviathan noticed something new on his sonar screen: a huge object lying beneath the water, so big that its edges extended beyond the submarine’s weak sonar range, and hanging perhaps 60m or more below the surface. The submarine could go beneath it, but this was obviously what they were looking for. It was time for Ryan to dive…

Under the miasma

Under the miasma

Ryan entered the chamber at the bow of the submarine where Arashi waited, and when he was sure that he was ready the chamber flooded, Arashi taking his dive breath on command. The lights went out, the front doors of the submarine opened, and Arashi dragged Ryan out into a cathedral of neon. With the sun hidden behind clouds and sinking and the sea covered in a thick carpet of jellyfish, the ocean at 40m depth was almost black, and Ryan and Arashi found themselves hanging in a twilit limnal zone, looking down at rapidly fading grey light, and up at the carpet of jellyfish. Jellyfish, of course, are phosphorescent, and the ocean surface was crowded with countless blinking lights, a neon constellation stretching as far as Ryan could see in every direction. For a moment Ryan forgot his work and hung in the twilit depths, gazing up at this pelagic universe in fascination. Blues, reds, greens, all flickered above him, so rich and varied that he felt as if he was looking up at a new sky.

A deadly sky, of course. Ryan remembered his task and set off to explore the sonar shadow. As he approached the shape he turned on his torch, and found himself staring at a mysterious object from another world. A huge stepped structure hung in the water in front of him, stretching from the surface to perhaps 30 metres below where Arashi and Ryan floated, staring in awe. It was some kind of huge stepped structure, incomprehensible in design to innocent Ryan but obviously a relic of the pre-flood era. It stretched beyond his torchlight in both directions laterally, and from the way the waves slapped against it at the surface he guess it rose above the surface of the water. It sloped away from him as it rose, and he and Arashi could glide along its barnacle-encrusted surface upward towards the neon-flickering swarm, noticing how it was carved in step shapes, each layer of the steps slightly recessed from the one before. It seemed to Ryan that a century ago when the world flooded, a nation of toiling slaves must have built some kind of pyramid and set it afloat on the high seas. How could that be?

At the steps of the temple

At the steps of the temple

After a few minutes drifting across the subsea structure, Ryan decided he needed to check what was happening above the water. How big was this thing? Where did it go? He had noticed that near the face of the structure the swarm was so deep that only the biggest jellyfish, and the dying jellyfish, gathered. The jellyfish here were the size of small boats, with thick rope-like tentacles that would probably be powerful enough to entangle him if they touched him, but these jellyfish were far enough apart that he thought he and Arashi could find a way through. Ignoring the tension in his belly he drove Arashi up towards the surface, picking a spot where two huge jellyfish lay dead and rotting to make space for himself. As he approached, Ryan noticed an amazing thing: all the jellyfish were pulsing with movement, but all their movements were in the same direction. The jellyfish themselves were not laid out in any regular order, but their movements were all in one direction: towards the Hulks.

He managed to pass between jellyfish relatively easy but as he pushed for the surface he began to feel strange: tingly and vague. He noticed that Arashi became listless and then began to twitch, losing forward momentum. Something was affecting them in the zone where the jellyfish swam, but he couldn’t guess what. It was too late to go back now and he needed a view, so he drove his mount forward, and although Arashi was barely responsive he managed to break the surface after a few more moments’ struggle. They floated there for the moment Ryan needed, Arashi chan hanging limp in the water and Ryan fighting a strange feeling of nausea and confusion. Above the water the miasma stretched out into misty obscurity, but immediately in front of Ryan the strange pyramid rose up into the distant fog, silent and most importantly free of human interlopers. Ryan pushed Arashi down and they dived, Arashi now swimming on the dimmest of reflexes, his body twitching and jerking as if poisoned. They passed back through the zone of dead jellyfish and almost immediately Arashi recovered, looking back at Ryan and releasing a thin stream of panicked bubbles. With time running out and Arashi agitated and confused, Ryan directed them back to the submarine. They reached it in time, the doors to the chamber closed without incident, and after what seemed like an eternity Ryan and Arashi chan were back into air and light. Ryan staggered through the doors of the exit chamber and began stripping off his wetsuit, shaking and clamorous with reaction. Behind him Crimson tossed fish to a listless and uncaring sea lion, returned temporarily to its feral self. For good measure, he closed the doors to the exit chamber, because no one wants one ton of panicked beast rampaging through their one room submersible, and they sat down to hear Ryan’s story.

Voltaire’s Temple

Ryan of course knows nothing of the ancient world; he is barely a man, and he has never been educated in anything except diving and how to communicate with dumb beasts. He has never learned about the ancient world, so he doesn’t know about the strange stepped temple he saw. But Dean has studied the ancient world, and identifies it immediately from the description as a Ziggurat. As the world flooded, communities desperately tried to build floating structures that were cheap and reliable. Some people gathered together fallen trees and old boats and bound them together; others used purpose-built structures such as the Arc; but as time began to press, innovative design became impossible. Instead, people needed to find ways to build floating structures rapidly, cheaply and en masse from existing systems. One of the most popular methods was to adapt plastic modular dock systems to build huge structures that were guaranteed to be buoyant. These plastic dock systems were designed to float and to lock together; it was just natural that they should be converted into huge immobile structures that would float when the ocean reached them. By loading the bottom-most layers of these plastic blocks with concrete or water, or building them around steel super-structures, huge floating structures could be mass produced, laid out on land and prepared. When the flood reached them they would rise gently with the water, and people could float safely on the ocean. Most of these structures were build with an outer pyramid structure surrounding an inner bowl, in which people lived and food was grown. The bottom-most blocks were built to be heavier than water, and buoyancy carefully balanced so that a large portion of the structure would be underwater. A 100m-high structure might have 40m above water, with the inner area close to sea level but protected from the ocean by 40m of plastic wall. The whole structure would float, and being made of 1000s of blocks built in many layers it was highly unlikely to ever sink. The huge underwater structure provided strong substrate on which to build an ocean environment, and the whole thing was so large as to be proof against even the strongest of storms. Unfortunately these structures had one major problem: they were too large and too cumbersome to move, and eventually they would encounter a current that was heading either north or south, and drift into polar regions where all their occupants would die.

This Ziggurat had clearly not drifted into polar regions, but had instead found itself caught in a swarm, and in a current heading into the gyre. But how had it come out of that current? Leviathan provided the answer to this question[1]. Ryan’s strange feelings, and Arashi’s strange behavior, when they were surfacing must have been caused by some kind of electrical field in the water. This field must be the reason for the strange, coordinated behavior of the jellyfish. By sending an electric field through the water someone must be controlling the direction of movement of all the jellyfish in the miasma, and the field of jellyfish was so large that the ziggurat moved with it. Someone inside the ziggurat was driving it, and to do so they must be in control of a very powerful source of energy. Everyone immediately settled on the same single possible explanation: nuclear power. Captain Dilver had told them to find out what was driving the swarm and destroy it or bring it back if it was useful: here they had a relic from the start of the flood, an almost indestructible floating monument that would make an invaluable addition to the Gyre; and inside it a functioning nuclear power plant. All they had to do was take it.

Galvanized by this decision, they set course for the ziggurat. The submarine would not be impeded by jellyfish in surfacing at the edge of the temple, since only the largest of the swarm floated here and the submarine’s vents would not be clogged when they were venting water, only drawing it in. They could surface, but they might not be able to submerge again. As they rose Leviathan turned off all the submarine’s electronic systems and its batteries, setting the vents to full open and surging to the surface in a barely-controlled rush. They swept up the sloping sides of the ziggurat and splashed to the surface just a short distance from the ziggurat, drifting to a rough stop against its plastic sides. After a moment’s debate they gave the Ocean Whisperer a cell phone and told her to stay put, strapped on filter masks, and emerged from the conning tower hatch.

The ziggurat was as deserted on this side as Ryan had described. The air was still and calm, thick with the haze of the miasma, and the only sound was the gentle wash of waves against its sides. The plastic face of the ziggurat was devoid of life, and stretched above them into the mist, silent and dead. In the short distance they could see there was no evidence that anyone had ever used this monolith, but they knew someone must be here. They jumped from the submarine to the ziggurat’s steps, carefully avoiding the foul water, and gathered themselves at the base of the steps. A decision was quickly taken, and Dean stole carefully up the steps towards the top of the ziggurat, to see if he could find any sign of life. Moving stealthily from step to step, he ascended perhaps 100 metres before he reached the ziggurat’s crown. Here the air was clearer and he could see perhaps 500 metres in either direction, which gave him a full view of the whole top of the ziggurat. The ziggurat was roughly rectangular, perhaps 1km long and half a kilometre wide, with a bowl cut into its centre that was perhaps 400m long and 200m wide. From the rampart where Dean lay carefully watching the steps cut steeply down into this bowl, which lay perhaps 40m below the ramparts – about 60m above the water surface. The ramparts stretched around this bowl in a perfect rectangle 10m wide. At the furthest, narrower ends of the rectangle the ramparts were surmounted by a single watchtower, rising perhaps another 30m above the ramparts. On the far side of the bowl from Dean a huge crane rose into the sky, built into the superstructure of the ziggurat itself. This rusting monolith must have been used to load the original ziggurat with its current contents: on the floor of the bowl several sections of aircraft fuselage had been placed, and were obviously being used as accomodation. Opposite them, at one end of the bowl near one of the watchtowers, was a small cooling stack and the obvious structure of some kind of modular nuclear power plant, steam rising gently from its tower and into the soupy air. The rest of the bowl was covered in soil, on which grew scraggly grass and a few stunted, weak-looking lemon trees. A large section had been set aside for farming, and here amidst ragged cabbages, tomato vines and strawberry bushes Dean could see a single person working, weeding and tilling. The only other signs of life were distant figures in each of the watchtowers; otherwise the whole thing was silent and empty. But judging from the aircraft fuselage and the scale of the farm, there could not be many people here – perhaps 20 or 30.

Dean slunk back down to the group, and together they moved up to his position on the rampart, stopping just below the rim. They could take this place, if they moved quietly and quickly. They made a rough plan, and prepared to take their greatest conquest …

[This report has been split into parts for brevity. The final part will describe the somewhat chaotic and confused battle for control of the ziggurat].

fn1: this situation gave a great example of the benefit of skill checks. Leviathan is a ship’s captain and engineer, the kind of person who should understand such things. Crimson’s player is an engineer, the kind of player who knows about such things. When I described Arashi’s condition Crimson’s player immediately realized an electric field was being used to control the jellyfish. But Crimson would never understand such a thing, and Leviathan – the PC that actually should know this stuff – was being played by someone with no engineering knowledge. So I required a simple engineering skillcheck by Leviathan to intuit what Crimson’s player had guessed. Understanding this information was not crucial to the adventure, but not getting it would lead to problems with the submarine when it surfaced. It’s unfair to penalize a group because the player who understands the history of electrical impulses is playing an idiot.

Photo credit! The photo of the Steller sea lion was taken by Emerald diving company at Neah bay.