7 min read

Building Beyond: Unfathomable Depths

Beware the dome

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

A deep sea diving expedition finds a long-abandoned dome.

Suzanne Walker is a Chicago-based writer and editor. She is co-creator of the Hugo-nominated graphic novel Mooncakes (2019, Lion Forge/Oni Press). Her short fiction has been published in Clarkesworld and Uncanny Magazine, and she has published nonfiction articles with Uncanny Magazine, StarTrek.com, Women Write About Comics, and the anthology Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability. She has spoken at numerous conventions on a variety of topics ranging from disability representation in sci-fi/fantasy to comics collaboration. You can find her posting pictures of her cat and chronicling her longsword adventures on Twitter: @suzusaur.

Hunter Ford is a copyeditor of nonfiction and a writer of fanfiction.

In all your years, you’ve never seen anything quite like it. The dome is clear as glass, revealing within a perfect ecosystem for human life. Oak trees dot the edges, log cabins line one end, with a nineteenth-century-era church jutting into the refracted sunlight. It looks like the Oregon Trail took a wrong turn and built a little house in Atlantis. Except there are no humans anywhere to be found.

“Should we get a closer look?” your assistant asks, as baffled as you. Uneasiness crawls under your skin, but curiosity wins the day in the end.  You pilot the submarine to the edge of the dome, the unreality becoming clearer with each fathom.

Suddenly an almighty force jolts the submarine. The alarms go haywire, and as you frantically search for the cause you realize the dome still grows ever closer, a tiny, tubed entrance visible just to the north. You try every trick in the book, but the  tractor beam pulls you in toward the dome. The door to the tubed entrance swings shut as you enter, and you watch in horrified fascination as the water drains from the sides of the submarine. A second door opens, one that leads to the dome, swinging inward with an awful sense of finality.

It takes another four hours before any of you have the courage (or defeatism) to enter the dome. Inside you find the air crisp and smelling of spring, a breeze gently rustling at the oak trees. A solemn moooo pierces the silence, and upon further exploration you discover cows and chickens in the yards of some of the houses. But no humans to be found.

Over time the truth of your situation dawns with growing horror. Once a day food supplies are delivered through the tube; fresh vegetables and cuts of meat you’d deem questionable at best. Above you, sharks and great turtles and every manner of crustacean crowd the dome, their eyes wide as they watch you in fascination. The dome is perfect, in every way that matters—a functioning ecosystem that will keep you and your crew alive for the rest of their days. But there is no escaping this Atlantis you’ve been lured to. Every day you send your best crew out to try the door, to break the dome, to find any way out. But there is none. This time, you are at the mercy of the fish, and this time, the fish will study you.

Natalie Zina Walschots is a writer and game designer. She is the author of Hench, a novel about the mistreated and undervalued employees of supervillains, which was a finalist on the 2021 season of Canada Reads and nominated for a Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her body of work also includes LARP scripts, heavy metal music journalism, video game lore, and weirder things classified as "interactive experiences." Her writing on the interactive adventure The Aluminum Cat won an IndieCade award, and her poetic exploration of the notes engine in Bloodborne was featured in Kotaku and First Person Scholar. She is (unfortunately) the author of two books of poetry: Thumbscrews, which won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains. Natalie sits on the board of Dames Making Games, a space for queer and gender-marginalized people to create games freely, where she hosts interactive narrative workshops. She plays a lot of D&D, participates in a lot of Nordic LARPs, watches a lot of horror movies and reads a lot of speculative fiction. She lives in Toronto with her partner, four cats, two mantises and a jumping spider.

That deep, everything carried its own light. Ours blasted out in front of us like weapons, ugly slashes of brightness that drove off anything it passed over. The things that lived there flickered and pulsed with delicate bioluminescence that we could only see when we turned off our lights and let our eyes adjust. Doing this was terrifying, the abyssal blackness slowly giving way to a starfield. We snapped our lights back on quickly, let the beams cut everything to murk and muddiness.

When my light passed over the first gentle curve of the dome, it shone.  It was weird but familiar at first, a comforting glint like glass. There was only a sliver of it visible at first, the barest crescent rising over the sludge. I kicked my way closer, activating the kinaesthetic motors in my deepsuit with the movement. The light I held bobbed along in front of me, gliding over the surface. When I came up close to it, kicking again to pause my forward momentum, I would have gasped if I could. The ocean floor dropped away abruptly in front of me, a yawning trench opening up at my feet. I instinctively leapt back, the carefully calibrated buoyancy of the suit doing nothing to soothe the certainty in my animal brain that I could fall into that oblivion forever.

Just like the void in front of me, the dome reached out and down, curving away out of reach of the light. I could not find the edge of it, just the smooth gleaming arc stretching further than I could see or calculate. I decided very quickly that this was above my pay grade and expertise, that it was time to take some samples, record a few images, and pass this off to someone whose name was actually on the fucking grant that paid for this trip down.

A camera hung around my neck, the strap attached to the suit so I couldn’t drop it no matter how clumsy the huge, pressurized gloves I wore made me. It was composed of a circular eye behind a thick, reinforced lens, with two broad, u-shaped handles on either side. Gripping one, I dutifully passed the camera over whatever I could reach, tracing the light over the dome. When I aimed the light and camera down, a slow, blade-shaped thing swimming by contorted and lurched away, as though the light hurt it. It probably did. I let the camera go and it settled again against my chest. Pulling a pressure tube from the supply in the suit, I moved closer to the dome. I doubted the sharpened scoop at the end would be able to pierce the surface — it seemed hard, crystalline maybe — but if I didn’t at least try and get a surface sample I might be written up again. So, steeling myself, I pressed hard and quick, hoping to scrape off something or at least dull the scoop as proof of my valiant attempt.

There was a hard surface, but it was as thin as surface tension, brittle like the burnt sugar on a creme brûlée. The pressure tube, and my entire hand up to the elbow, broke through it immediately and gouged into the gelatinous interior. I yelled painfully around the tube in my throat. Unable to stop myself, I dropped the light I held and instinctively laid my other hand against the dome to try to push myself away. The surface gave way again, burying my other hand up to the wrist. Nearby, the light floated, still throwing illumination but now undirected and uncontrolled.

I forced myself to still, so I wouldn’t make things any worse in panic. The equilibrium of the suit would keep me from falling forward and sinking in; I just had to move carefully, find the right angle, and let the equipment do its job. My throat felt like it was bleeding and my heart pounded, but I reclaimed control of myself. Carefully moving my legs in tiny increments, I began to wriggle and kick, micro-adjustments that showed the motors the direction I wanted to go.

Then, something pulled at one of my fingers. It was incredibly gentle and exploratory; I could have believed it was just the pressure of the gel around my hands, reacting to my struggle, but it was a single finger. A choice. It wasn’t a pull so much as a sucking sensation, uneven but pulsing, like a mouth around a thumb. More little tugs came to other fingertips, then along my forearms. The light was angled away now as it spun in the water nearby, so I couldn’t see what might be touching me. I kicked with a little more force, trying not to make any more noise and hurt myself again, working my way out of the jelly an inch at a time. None of the little sucking things were strong enough to hold me.

With one arm free and the other nearly so, relief began to rush in. I didn’t care if they fired me for damaging whatever the fuck this thing was, or for not getting a sample of whatever the little mouths were. I’d be very happy to take a bariatric elevator up and collect my last pay stub.

Then, the cord around my neck tugged sharply downward. Something had coiled around the camera, something slick and strong that seemed made of equal parts gelatin and muscle. As my light drifted even further from me, I could just barely see the lights inside the thing pulsing as my eyes adjusted. I exploded with movement, flinging my whole body up and back as hard as I could, but the strap stayed fused to the back of my suit and the thing held steady. Then, with a calm, steady pressure, it pulled me forward, jelly closing around the entire suit as though I had been swallowed.

My dome would be made of thick metal, crusted in algae and barnacles and anemones. The diver who finds it approaches slowly, swimming the circumference to investigate the full breadth of the dome before venturing too close. They extend a hand and, through the steady resistance of the water, knock three times. They're about to swing away when the panel of the dome they just knocked on swings open, revealing impenetrable, inviting darkness within.

All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Suzanne and Hunter’s dome is the jumping point for a fascinating, hilarious story of a reverse aquarium. Natalie's dome is the foundation of all my nightmares from now on. My dome is an exploration of awful temptations we must – but cannot – resist.

What used to inhabit your abandoned dome? Would you go inside?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

No matter what you do, please find ways to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, support Black people and communities, and participate in local mutual aid.

In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.