Sunday, August 16, 2020

Lamplighters: Darkness

"Intan, shine your spotlight over toward that mass over there please."

"What the hell is that, Doctor?"

"An umbral mass that is undergoing the final stages of absorption."

"What did it used to be...?"

"It could have been a cow. Or a freight train. It gets difficult to tell. Come this way now, please."

- Radio chatter from a routine field work assignment at the Elu Igwe Land Reclamation Front

 "All that is, is kith and kin. All is stardust. As moon reflects sun, we reflect moon.

Darkness gave way to light, absconded with it, and shall yield it again soon."

"Prayer against the Dark", Kith of the Moon

The human instinct to fear the night once served a valuable role in self-preservation.

Now, with darkness ever-present and deepening, it is perhaps humanity's greatest distraction and detriment.

Learning to temper one's fear of the dark with a healthy amount of something else--stoicism, hate, prayer, professionalism, the list goes on--is a vital lesson that no one grows up without. Even in the heart of a settlement's pallite processing facility, the dark is never very far away. Exhausting, miserable vigilance is the only way forward, even if "forward" only leads to a slightly more delayed death.

Of course, one can't get along with plucky determination alone. One has to know the enemy.

Qualities of Deeper Darkness

Everyone learns about the mechanics of that which perpetuates the Long Night differently. Some lucky enough to receive a formal education are taught about its dangers in the form of lectures and texts. Most learn more informally from parents or other community members growing up. A few learn firsthand, and a few of those even survive.

Deeper Darkness (DD) is a phenomenon that breaks most previous understandings of physics, thermodynamics, and a slew of other fields in ways that are still being accounted for, decades after its first appearance. This has not stopped certain, more practical pieces of information about it from becoming common knowledge today, fortunately. What little is known about is as follows:

It is Spontaneous

DD does not appear to stem from any single source. Any shadow, if left undisturbed by light for a long-enough period of time, has a chance of generating a patch of DD. Controlled experiments with pallite cannons have concluded that the probability of DD generation increases exponentially over time until it reaches 1.

The speed of this increase varies considerably depending on circumstances that are not fully understood yet, but which likely include preexisting local DD density- this is why it can spread rapidly in trackless wilderness, but is relatively manageable when it appears in an untouched storage room in a populated area.

On average, DD can manifest anywhere from minutes to weeks in a darkened area. Shining a light upon a darkened area, even a low intensity one, is sufficient to reset the clock on generation so to speak. Only sustained, direct bombardment by high intensity light can dispel DD once it has accumulated in an area, however. Exact brightness varies, but a general rule of thumb is that the ideal "scrubbing" light has a high enough luminosity to blind operators without proper protective equipment.

The task of keeping every surface within a space illuminated or scrubbed regularly enough for it to remain habitable is a major preoccupation of the vast majority of human beings at present. Pallite light arrangements need regular maintenance, and demands for energy efficiency encourage the use of claustrophobically small spaces with sparse furnishing. Major settlements often have enormous custodial departments specially trained to remove and prevent domestic DD deposits.

It is Palpable

Describing DD as "caking" over things or requiring "scrubbing" is not an elaborate extension of metaphor. It is an actual, physical thing. It can be interacted with in a range of ways, including not only the visual, but also the tactile, olfactory, and (highly discouraged) gustatory senses.

Observing samples of DD for full knowledge of its physical properties is a challenge, because the light-absorbing properties of DD renders almost all known areas of the spectrum unable to penetrate its aura or 'halo' of anti-illumination. This halo of darkness extends beyond the physical body of a DD sample by anywhere from several millimeters to meters, depending on size and relative strength of its steeping. Pallite is one of the few forms of lighting known to penetrate the halo and reveal what is underneath.

Prolonged exposure to pallite causes DD to deteriorate over time. (Un)fortunately, the world is in no short supply of DD samples, and most lab technicians need only walk a few meters beyond their settlement's safety fences to obtain more.

DD in its natural state superficially resembles a severe mold infestation growing upon any surface. Large, spot-like structures radiate outward into smaller and smaller blotches in uniform fractal patterns, forming a pulpy, fibrous carpet that ranges in thickness between a few millimeters and several centimeters deep.

It is tough and slightly spongy to the touch, difficult to damage in any meaningful way with small arms. It is also extremely flame-retardant, mitigating the effectiveness of controlled burn methods used for containment.

The color of DD is so uniformly black that it looks more like a hole in reality than a physically present thing. This is due to the fact that it absorbs ~99.9998% of all light across the visible and most of the invisible spectrum.

Prolonged exposure to pallite causes DD to stop expanding, shrink, and 'die' so to speak. Its halo diminishes, and its spongy growths become weak and brittle, like a dry old insect hive. Larger structures slough apart, and with enough concentrated illumination, any trace of it other than leftover scars will sublimate into apparent nonexistence.

The general consensus is that DD has a smell, but what exactly that smell is depends upon the observer. Some accounts describe it as one or several smells of rot and decay, burning plastic, bleach, or a particularly cloying, artificial fruit candy scent, among others. These smells may be due to the breakdown of the matter that DD has grown over, rather than a product of the DD itself.

Dubious reports claim that DD tastes like the color purple. Subjects who taste or ingest a sample are rarely able to articulate the flavor more fully than that before rapid infection and fractalization sets in.

It is Mobile

DD 'grows' at a constant rate unless checked by pallite illumination. It can attach to and spread over any surface, whether organic, inorganic, living, inanimate, or artificial. Some of this new mass can be accounted for as previously belonging to thing which DD has broken down, but most appears to be continued spontaneous generation of matter.

Like the rate of spontaneous DD generation, the speed of DD growth is highly variable depending on environmental conditions. Growth is fastest within the halo of an existing mass, and slowest within an area of shade that is entirely surrounded by pallite.

Minor domestic growth can be managed on a daily or even weekly basis, but objects left unattended within areas of wild dark are rapidly enveloped. Caravan vehicles that have gone dark have been observed to become caked within a matter of hours.

Lingering pallite radiation seems to slow the growth of DD. This is supported by evidence of Lamplighter lamp-wagons taking days to fully succumb to envelopment, even after running out of pallite fuel. Pallite miners and Lamplighters themselves, living or dead, have been known to possess a sort of "resistance" to DD growth, remaining incorrupt after hours of prolonged exposure with minimal protective equipment.

DD particles suspended in the water or air large enough to sustain DD can also turn into micro- or macroscopic orbs of darkness, ensuring that danger and limited visibility are three-dimensional and omnipresent within areas of sufficient steeping. Drinking water must be run through pallite filters, as does air in any facility with extensive ventilation shafts that could house patches of darkness.

Atmospheric conditions and prevailing winds permitting, clouds of airborne DD particles have been known to form and blow across the land, distributing DD across a very wide area. This phenomenon is known by the unoriginal but sufficiently ominous moniker of darkstorm. Darkstorms are extremely dangerous, and are one of the leading causes of settlement compromise and loss of reclaimed territory. They resemble sandstorms or blizzards of black snow, and have been known to consume entire kilometers of illuminated land in a few hours.

It is Corrupting

Deeper Darkness does not fit most definitions of what constitutes a living thing. Some have compared it to a slime mold or even a virus, but it does not reproduce or depend upon hosts, nor does it "eat" in any conventional manner, regardless of what it seems to do to living tissue that it absorbs.

Regardless, it sometimes behaves like a living thing, or perhaps a force of nature that trends toward an end goal of expansion and absorption. Considering its antagonism toward the human species (alongside just about everything else in the world), it is all too easy to ascribe a malevolent intent or intelligence to the darkness. The topic is subject to extensive debate across many fields, and is beyond the scope of this piece.

When DD interacts with matter, it breaks it down into its most base elements and adds those elements to its own mass. At some point in this process, those base elements are converted into more pure DD. Even after being subject to illumination, no trace elements of absorbed matter can be found where a DD sample had once been. How exactly this conversion process occurs is not known.

Living tissue is not spared by this process. It breaks down all the same, causing severe damage to any organism infected with DD as it expands across and throughout the body. Bodily trauma is inevitably fatal unless the infection is quickly neutralized by pallite illumination and radiation bombardment. Survivors are known to bear deep, sprawling, fractal-shaped scars which are prone to act as sites for spontaneous generation, and therefore reinfection.

Early stages of DD tissue damage.
Subject I-82 of the Lavada Project.
Limb later amputated to prevent spread.

Infection can occur from prolonged bodily immersion in darkness, or from direct contact with DD, even under controlled conditions. Ingesting contaminated food or water, or breathing air with darkstorm particles in it, can lead to a far rarer form of internal infection.

The exact effects of internal infection are poorly researched compared to pallite poisoning at this time, but is believed to be rapidly and uniformly lethal, with organ failure the leading cause of death- euthanasia at the first sign of alveolar or lymphatic fractalization is recommended by the ethics boards of most leading medical institutions.

Darkness does not always kill, at least not immediately. Sometimes the rate at which it breaks down a host animal is slow enough to afford the organism hours or even days of in-tact motor functions and at least some mental faculties.

The near-universal violence and aggression displayed by these individuals can likely be attributed to mental stress caused by intense, nonstop pain. Their tendency to seek out sources of light may be rooted in a lingering association of light with safety, despite the fact that immersion in light causes harm once enough of the body has been assimilated. Their resultant efforts to smother light sources can therefore be interpreted as a misguided attempt to reach that safety.

The fact that infected organisms rarely attack one another, and instead make concerted efforts to attack uninfected individuals using a vast array of spontaneous mutations and bodily abnormalities, up to and including destroying light fixtures from afar, is not so easily explained.