THE STAR PLUME
Copyright 2016 Kae Bell
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments or locales is purely coincidental.
As her hummingbirds worked nearby, capturing color clouds on beating wings, Princess Cressida worked among the stars. In the distance, she noticed a faint shimmering on the star field’s edge. Odd, she thought. She did not remember setting a net so far away. But the color was caught. It glimmered, unlike any color she had seen.
Done with her work, she looked again toward the horizon. The color flashed in a gentle celestial wind. Intrigued, she walked toward it, stepping from star to star, her steps long and assured, her dark hair twisted in a low bun at the nape of her slim neck.
As Cressida moved toward it, making slow progress, the color undulated. It wavered first silver then blue then gold.
At last she reached the strange color cloud, which she studied. It was soft, like the other colors, but tougher, heavier. She scooped it into her catcher bag. She’d look at it more closely once she got home. It was late and was time to go. She turned to rejoin the hummingbirds.
But when she turned, Cressida saw only a vast field of unfamiliar stars. She had wandered farther than she had realized. She was alone in a sea of strange starlight.
Her horse Flyer was nowhere to be seen. She called his name. But there was no whinny in reply. Nor could she hear the beat of hummingbird wings.
Hmmm, she thought. Not part of today’s plan to be stuck out here alone. She was tired from the day’s work and her long walk. She wasn’t sure which direction to go, so she sat down to think on a blue dwarf star that twinkled and winked at her.
It was the first time she had sat down all day. Her muscles ached with relief when she set her heavy cloud catcher bag down. As Cressida leaned back against the blue rock, her eyelids grew heavy. She tried not to but she couldn’t help but doze off in the silent sky.
She woke. What was that? She sat up when she heard the sound again. She listened harder. It was soft, but unmistakable. It made no sense though. Music? Out here?
As she continued listening, she discerned a slow, soft tune sung by voices the likes of which she’d never heard. She didn’t understand their words, but she heard them, many individual songs blended into a single harmonious sound. She looked around but there was nothing and no one here except the sky and the stars.
The ethereal voices soared and fell in a joyful melody. She had not heard stars sing before. The sound slowly faded and morphed into what sounded to Cressida like low laughter. She wondered, crazily, if the stars were laughing at her for getting lost.
She heard heavy footsteps, followed by a jangle and a clink. Then again, louder. Someone was coming. She stood up, brushing stardust off her knees, She peered into the distance.
“Hello?” she called out. The night swallowed her puny voice.
From behind the blue dwarf, a tall lanky man appeared, dressed head to toe in a shimmering star suit. On his head was a vast sparkly cowboy hat, a foot and a half high. His shiny boots were covered with thick stardust and around the ankles, heavy silver spurs. With every step, his silver spurs jangled. A thick ring of keys on his belt made the ‘clink’.
“Hello little lady. Haven’t seen you ‘round these parts before. Are you lost?”
“Umm, well yes,” Princess Cressida said and blinked several times. “I am lost. I’ve been gathering colors.” She showed the man her bag filled with soft clouds of red, green and yellow. “And I must have wandered too far. From over there.” She pointed in a direction that was an endless field of stars. She turned. “Or maybe over there.” She frowned, confused.
“Happens now and again, never fear. New folk lose their way up here, get all kinds of dis-orientated. But you’re in luck today. This blue dwarf star sent out a distress call when you set up shop here. So I come to see what was the ruckus.”
He stuck out his hand.
“I’m Zav. Short for Xavier. I’m the Star Wrangler ‘round here.”
She politely took his offered hand. “Hello. Thank you for coming to help. I’m Princess Cressida. I live, well, quite far from here actually.” She gestured into the darkness.
“Ahhh.”Zav nodded knowingly. “I’ve sure heard about you.” Wrangler Zav grinned. “Stars talk, you know. Word gets around about visitors. You do good work.”
“Why thank you. If you please, what is a Star Wrangler?” Princess Cressida asked. She didn’t want to seem ignorant, but she had no idea.
Wrangler Zav stuck his thumbs in the belt loops of his silver trousers and furrowed his brow. Stardust dotted the stubble on his chin.
“Well, out here on the far edges of the sky, it’s mighty unruly. The stars are wild, untamed, not part of any constellations known to you and me. So they act up, get into star scuffs. The old stars argue with the new stars that want to change things. It’s just the way. The new stars try to outshine everyone else. And of course there’s the black holes trying to gobble everyone up. Takes a lot to keeps things in order, everyone in their place. I keep ‘em in line. Plus, all kinds of star creatures out here on the edges, some you’ve never even seen in the sky. Gotta watch out for some of them.”
Princess Cressida looked skeptical, staring at the vast sky all around them. “Seems like a big job for just one person.”
“Oh, I’ve got a bunch of folks work for me.”
Wrangler Zav scratched his chin, thinking. “Let’s see now.”
“I got a Star Tuner…So the stars sing in tune. I heard them singing to you, so you know about that.”
Princess Cressida nodded. She’d loved the song.
Wrangler Zav continued. “And a Star Shiner…so they look all sparkly and such.” He patted the blue dwarf on which they sat.
“A Star Mender…cause sometimes they get broke. He patches them up, good as new.”
“And of course there’s a Star Stables….for all the baby stars.”
“And last, the Star Chaser…”
“The Star Chaser?” Princess Cressida asked.
“Sure, sometimes you get a star that wants to roam free in the sky, so they go missing. So where there ought to be light, there’s darkness. That’s where the Star Chaser comes in. My back up team.”
Wrangler Zav looked into the dark distance, as if searching for something lost.
A loud ‘moo’, then a large black and white belted cow came flying through the air to land gracefully by Zav. She too was bedecked in silver and wore a sparkly silver cowbell. Princess Cressida stared. The cow had the longest eyelashes Princess Cressida had ever seen. The cows ears twitched back and forth as she studied the Princess warily. She did not like strangers.
Wrangler Zav smiled and patted the cow’s head. “This here is Blaise. She’s my best Star Chaser. She catches those rascals and puts them back into place.”
Wrangler Zav stopped to listen to Blaise, who was lowing anxiously at him.
“Uh oh. Sounds like we’ve got a problem. A band of young stars runbling in the distance, planning to star jump.”
Princess Cressida leaned forward to peer into the distance but she did not see any big groups of stars on the horizon. “Star jump?” she asked.
“Yes, they fly fast through the sky, one after another, falling from a great height, each going faster than the last. Puts on quite a light show. It’s usually the youngins’, they have no fear. It’s against Senti regulations, disrupts star traffic, and creates all kinds of debris and such. You need a permit for such things.”
Wrangler Zav turned into the wind, his nose twitching. “Listen, Princess, you can wait here or you can join us. But there’s a star storm moving in and the stardust tends to be pretty thick. It’s not pleasant. I’d suggest you come along.”
He’d hopped onto Blaise’s sleek back and held out his hand.
Princess Cressida looked around. She was lost and far from home. She knew she couldn’t find her way back without Wrangler Zav’s help. Certainly, she didn’t want to sit here during a star storm.
She nodded, took Zav’s hand, and hopped up onto Blaise, who leapt expertly off the star, heading for the horizon’s dark edge.
Blaise flew for a long time across the black night sky. There were no stars out this far. Princess Cressida could not see her hands in front of her but she could feel the wind on her face and smell the sweet stardust carried on the celestial currents.
Suddenly, they turned a sharp corner in the Star Plume and the sky was filled with rays of brilliant white light flashing back and forth.
“Whoa Blaise.” Wrangler Zav urged Blaise to a stop a good distance from the gathered stars. “What do we have here?” he asked.
There were hundreds of stars gathered on the edge of the dark sky, in bright clusters. More stars appeared, shooting across the sky to the growing gathering.
Princess Cressida had never seen so much starlight. The stars were every size, massive bursts down to the smallest points of light, and not only white starlight either but all different shades of yellow, red and blue, glowing hot and angry, gases swirling around them, mixing and forming.
The combined brightness hurt her eyes.
“When will they jump?” she asked. She thought it sounded like a fun event to see from a distance, even if it was illegal. The Senti were so restrictive lately.
Tearing his gaze from the quickly growing numbers, Wrangler Zav glanced back at her, his face dark with fear.
“Blaise was wrong. These stars aren’t planning a jump. They’re getting ready for battle.”
Wrangler Zav steered Blaise behind a long-dead dark star. From behind the cold craggy rock, they watched the scene unfold.
“A battle,” Princess Cressida whispered. “Against whom? I don’t see anyone here but the stars. And us,” she added, her face white with surprise. “They don’t want to fight with us, do they?” She eyed their numbers and their sheer size. “I think they would win.”
Despite the uncertainty, Wrangler Zav chuckled “No, not us, thank goodness. Don’t think a human has ever won a battle with a star before, though probably not too many have tried. No, I’m not sure why they’re gathering for. But I imagine we’ll find out sooner than we’d like.” He scratched Blaise between the ears. “Huh, Blaisy?”
“How can you tell they’re here for battle? They seem to be milling around randomly.” Princess Cressida watched the gathered stars shift and twinkle, flying left and right in front of her.
“You can tell by the light. When stars are happy, like when they star jump, the light above them is blue tinged. But you see there,” he pointed at the swirling vapor cloud above the gathered stars. Stray rocks and dust kicked up from the stars, swirled in the gaseous mix. “The star halo is red. That’s a battle color.”
“I didn’t know stars battled.” She thought longingly of her placid stars back home in the night sky over her kingdom. She doubted her stars had ever battled or even could.
“No, it’s rare. That’s why we need to sit tight. For them to gather like this, it must be a serious threat. Odd, as I’d not heard of coming trouble. But maybe…”
“It seems like nothing could defeat this much star power.” Princess Cressida interrupted him, confident in the stars’ collective strength. She could not imagine a foe so great.
“Well, that’s the thing, I’m not rightly sure. I’d heard rumblings and rumors at stops along the Star Plume, but that’s all I thought it was. People make up stories when they’re bored. But what I heard made no sense, because…” Wrangler Zav stopped himself and looked into the night, then back at the Princess. “Anyways, can’t do much but wait it out.”
As more stars arrived in increasing numbers, the starlight grew brighter, filling the sky with light in every corner. Some stars left trails of dust and light that burned bright roads across the night sky. The Star Plume. Princess Cressida watched, mesmerized.
The Red Dwarf stars had arrived in the great numbers, forming a loose ring around the others. They were natural fighters, young and fearless.
The first blast of light came from a Red Giant star that towered over the others. He sent a massive fireball toward the west.
“Someone must be coming,” Princess Cressida said.
Within seconds, the sky was lit with flashes of light, as the stars sent a nuclear barrage toward the approaching threat, roiling hot masses of gas and stone arced through the air and exploded in the direction of the danger.
From where they stood, Princess and Wrangler could not see the threat. Then, as the volley cleared, Wrangler Zav swore under his breath. Princess Cressida looked at him. His eyes were fixed on a distant point. She followed his gaze.
Princess Cressida watched as a massive being approached, sliding slowly across the sky. It was as tall as the Red Giant star, with roughly defined edges that went in and out of focus. In its hands was a massive weapon.
“Is that a star?” asked the Princess.
“No, ‘fraid not. Just the opposite, in fact. Ain’t never seen one in person.” Wrangler Zav lifted his silver hat to give his head a scratch. “It’s a Time Fiend. Nasty things, I hear. Made of mutated time, all backwards, a trash heap of mistakes. I can’t think what he wants with this crew.”
The Time Fiend approached. It surveyed the gathered stars then with a low roar, shot the gun towards the gathered stars.
The charge from the gun moved slowly, tracer lights from the charge leading its way to the huddled stars.
Princess Cressida watched in horror as the stars in front took a direct hit. The charge hit and the stars, so bright, grew dim and then fell dark, extinguished like the dead star the Princess and Wrangler hid behind. Watching the sudden destruction, Wrangler Zav muttered to himself. Blaise lowed in reply. At least twenty stars now lay dark and cold.
“What was that?” Princess Cressida asked in horror.
“A time burner. The charge is eons of compressed time.” Wrangler Zav wiped away a discrete tear. “When it hits a star, it ages it to its death, burning it up from the inside. What would normally take billions, maybe trillions, of years happens in seconds. It’s a nasty weapon. I’ve never seen one used.”
Wrangler Zav looked mournfully at the newly dark stars. The remaining bastion had quickly retreated, their light and color shifting, a thick cloud of stardust stirred up. The halo above changed colors from red to white.
“Is there no defense against it?”
Wrangler Zav shook his head. “No. Thankfully, it can only carry two charges. The time charge weighs a lot, all those years compressed into a single charge. It takes an age to make a single charge.”
Princess Cressida looked at the Time Fiend morphing in and out of focus. “So he has one more.”
“Yes. But I doubt he’ll use it. Still don’t know why he’s here causing such trouble. Maybe just sending a message.”
A small white star broke from the huddled defensive pack. It moved toward the time fiend without regard. Princess Cressida watched in awe.
“Look, that little star is moving towards it. What’s he doing?” she asked breathlessly.
For a moment, the bright star faced the massive being, taunting him to shoot his last charge. The Time Fiend eyed him.
“He’s a brave one. He’s trying to save the others, take that last charge for himself.” Wrangler Zav watched helplessly. His job was the wrangle unruly stars into order and he felt a deep kinship with them, the young ones especially. So fearless. So much potential.
Watching the young star and the Time Fiend face off, Princess Cressida felt an immense pressure building, first in her ears, as if she was plunging into the deepest pit. Then the pressure moved onto her entire body.
“Something is happening. I feel like I’m being compressed,” she said to Wrangler Zav. “It doesn’t feel right.”
Wrangler Zav stared hard into the distance. He could see nothing. But the pressure was unmistakable. “I feel it too. This is not good.”
Without warning, the Time Fiend fired the second charge at the white star. Its starlight burned fiercely for several seconds. Such a young star would have lived for ages. Then with a final flare of light, it fell still and dark. The huddled stars made a collective low tone.
Princess Cressida’s face was scrunched up with despair, her eyes red. She turned to Wrangler Zav. “But at least now the others are safe? Right?”
The pressure all around continued to increase. Wrangler Zav looked through a single ocular night scope into the distance, to better see the light wavelengths. But where he would normally see a full spectrum, all he could see was darkness. He looked more carefully. The darkness, a slightly deeper shade than the night, was moving towards them.
He dropped the scope, his mouth open in shock.
“It’s a whole dag-burnt army. What in the blazes do they want?”
Princess Cressida peered into the night but saw nothing. “What army? I can’t see anything.”
“An army of Heat Leeches. You can’t see ‘em exactly, only the outline. But they’re dense, so you can feel ‘em. That’s what you felt.” He looked again through his scope at the approaching shapes. “There must be thousands of ‘em. They invade a star like a virus and quench the light.”
“Why are they here? Where do they come from?” Princess Cressida longed to be back home, with her horse Flyer and her hummingbirds.
Wrangler Zav’s face was dark with worry. The twinkle in his eyes had gone, extinguished by fear. “I don’t know why they are here. But I know where they come from. They come from the Dark Spectrum, his emissaries. Which means the rumors I heard are true.”
He looked back at the approaching mass of Heat Leeches, which took their place by the Time Fiend. The stars shifted uneasily, not knowing the true danger they faced. The sky was filled with blue light.
“What rumor did you hear?”
“That a Night Prism has been found and the Dark Spectrum has come to claim it.”
Princess Cressida knew about prisms. She had several herself. She used them to measure out colors. But a Night Prism? That was new.
“What’s that?” she asked.
Wrangler Zav said, “The way I understand it, darkness has wavelengths, like light.” He nodded at the bag of colors Princess Cressida carried. “When darkness passes through the Night Prism, the Prism breaks the bonds of darkness forged to keep the universe in balance. The Night Prisms were locked away long ago to prevent this.”
Wrangler Zav stopped to watch the Heat Leeches. All around them, one by one, stars went dim, as the Heat Leeches bled them of light.
Zav turned to Princess Cressida. “These Heat Leeches will take these stars hostage. They can be recharged but only by an internal infusion. There is nothing we can do to help right now. We must try to find the Night Prism before the Dark Spectrum does.”
“If the Dark Spectrum finds it first, it will break the darkness into wavelengths. “
“What will happen then?” asked the Princess
“It’s only on the longest wavelength of darkness that true evil can travel. If the bonds of darkness are broken, the Dark Spectrum will come. And if that happens, the universe will have no chance.”
The three traveled toward the realm of the Dark Spectrum. They rode the Star Plume for what seemed like hours. It was dizzying, the speed at which Blaise could gallop. Cressida clung to the cow’s rough coat.
It was quiet on the Star Plume, no other travelers. Princess Cressida had never known such silence. It grew colder the deeper they went into the pitch. Princess Cressida gladly took the heavy silver coat Wrangler Zav offered to her.
As Princess Cressida peered into the darkness zooming by, looking for something, anything, she felt vaguely ill. Her sun, the sun that warmed her home planet, was nowhere to be seen. Strange rocks whizzed by them, some dangerously close. There was no starlight and no star song. The only light was from a sickly lantern worn around Blaise’s sturdy neck. As the lantern rocked with movement, it cast a pale light ahead, barely illuminating the Plume ahead.
On they rode. In the darkness, it felt like they were climbing a steep hill. Princess Cressida could hear Blaise’s labored breath. Then, a small faint light appeared some distance ahead, like a flashlight shining in the night. Blaise galloped toward the light. Eventually the light grew larger and brighter. When they went around a sharp curve on the Star Plume, the light disappeared. Princess Cressida felt despair. Somehow the light had buoyed her hope on this journey.
Around the dark bend Blaise galloped and then there the light reappeared, almost directly in front of them. Princess Cressida saw that it was a lamplight, serving as the beacon for a massive stone boulder, two stories high, in front of which stood a tall sign: “Igneous”.
Blaise slowed her pace and Wrangler Zav spoke quietly: “We’re here.”
Several saddled animals waited outside the boulder, grazing on tall sea grass growing in a shallow moat at the rock’s base. There, by the unfamiliar creatures, Blaise stopped. Wrangler Zav hopped down.
Princess Cressida turned to face him as he hopped off of Blaise. “Where is ‘here’? This looks like the end of nowhere.”
Wrangler Zav smirked. “Nope. Just the opposite. It’s the beginning.”
“The beginning of what?”
“That makes no sense.”
“I agree.” With that, Wrangler Zav helped Cressida from the saddle to her feet. He surveyed the waiting animals, nodding at one creature that blinked rapidly on seeing him. Wrangler Zav approached the open doorway, through which yelling and smoke spilled. He turned back to the Princess.
“They don’t much mind their manners in there, Ma’am. It’s a rough place.” Zav scratched his chin, his nose and his forehead in succession. “It’s not a place for ladies, is what I’m trying to say.” He tipped his hat at Princess Cressida out of respect.
Princess Cressida sniffed in displeasure. “I’m sure I can take care of myself. Remember I run a Kingdom of my own. I’ve had troubles to sort out.” She sniffed again. She didn’t care for being told to wait in the wings.
Wrangler Zav narrowed his eyes. “Alright, we’ll give it a whirl. I can’t leave you out here anyway. That Celestial wind might pick up and when it does, it blows everything away.”
“What about the animals? What about Blaise?”
“Blaise always finds her way home. She’d got one of those honey beacons in her head. Like a bird.”
Princess Cressida looked at Wrangler Zav. “A honey Beacon?” Do you mean a homing beacon?”
“That’s right. Works like a charm. Blaise ain’t never been lost more’n a year.” He bobbed his head several times, remembering. “Enough talk, let’s do this.”
He led the way through the arched doorway into the cavernous bar, ducking his head, too tall for the doorway. Inside, the ceiling was so high, it seemed barely visible. Then Princess Cressida realized there was no roof. The bar opened directly onto the sky.
The patrons sat on rough stone benches around the circular bar, talking. They stared and grumbled as Wrangler and Princess Cressida walked by.
While she ignored the men’s stares, Princess took discrete note of the different galaxies at the bar. A clear man from Hedrion – Cressida had a distant cousin there, it was always off-putting to stare right through someone, with only the eyes, lips and heart opaque enough to see. A few Blues from Zarvis. The Grass Men, there were several, glared at her. On the edge of the bar, she saw the X-rays, from Xreesa.
“An assorted crew out this way,” she said quietly to Wrangler Zav.
“It’s a trading route and it’s always open. I’d say ‘24/7’ but that doesn’t mean much out here. No 24 and no 7.”
As she walked the last seats on the bar, Princess Cressida sensed others. She looked at the bar stools but saw only half-empty glasses being lifted and set down. There must be either Infrareds or Gammas, she thought, but she wasn’t sure which. Always hard to tell until they spoke.
No bartender manned the bar. People helped themselves by pushing a button. A glass descended from the ceiling and on its way down, was filled by the stream of liquid from a large central unit.
Princess Cressida followed Wrangler to a square table in the back, with a clear view of the bar and the door. As Wrangler walked he glanced side to side at the seated patrons. He spoke quietly, with a nod of his head to the right. “There he is, the fella who told me the Night Prism rumor. I thought he was foolin’, tellin’ tales, like you do. I’m gonna find out where he heard those rumors.”
Princess Cressida looked at the man. He looked average in most respects, human like she was. His eyes, which she could see from a distance, were ice blue and slightly too large for his face, like he was constantly surprised. Something was off. She looked again and saw he had no whites to his eyes. Just the blue. He looked familiar.
A bosomy middle-aged waitress appeared at their table, all blond curls, long red nails, pink uniform, and chewing gum. Her nametag read, “Flo,” in curly cue script.
“What do you want, Wrangler?” she barked.
“Hey Flo. Nice to see you too. It’s been an age. How’s the boss?”
“You know Per, he’s the same grumpy old goat.” Her voice dropped to a raspy whisper. “Only now he’s older and grumpier.” Flo snapped her gum in protest. “So, come on. I got other customers, so whaddaya want?”
“Two Solara punches.”
“Coming up.” She waddled away to the bar, ignoring a Grass Man who pinched her ample bottom as she passed him.
Wrangler Zav turned to Princess Cressida. “Have you got anything to trade? Any jewelry you can part with? A bangle? I’m going to talk to our rumor-mongerer over there but I’m running low on Celestial Coin. This fella drives a tough bargain and if he knows anything worth telling, I’ll have to pay for it.”
Princess Cressida touched her gold earrings. “Well, I have these.” She looked at her simple skirt and shoes. She wasn’t much for flash. Then she had a thought. She put her hands on her burlap bag. “Of course, I have the colors, do you think he might like any of those?”
She opened the burlap bag and rummaged around inside. “Here’s a bright blue.” The blue cloud billowed around her and Wrangler Zav before she got hold of both corners. Wrangler Zav shook his head ‘No’ and Cressida stuffed it back inside the bag.
She rummaged deeper. “Or a dark red. He might like that.” Color billowed out around them as she pulled out a few more options. Wrangler Zav shook his head no each time. A heard trader had little need for colors.
Then she remembered how she had gotten lost in the first place. She reached toward the bottom of the deep bag, pulling forth the silver color cloud she had wandered so far to collect.
Now, freed from the burlap bag, the silvery cloud billowed like a sail in the dim bar, catching all the available light. It seemed to grow in size and shape, the cloud taking the shape of a castle, then a mountain, then a sun. It shimmered just as Princess Cressida remembered.
Seeing the silvery cloud, Wrangler Zav gasped. He glanced at the bar and saw several heads turn in his direction, people jabbing elbows at each other as they caught sight of the metallic sheen. A few patrons stood up. The bar owner pushed his seat back from his table to head their way.
“Put that away. Now,” Wrangler Zav hissed. His lips were set in a straight line, pressed against his teeth as if he might bite.
“My goodness.” Princess Cressida eyes grew wide at Wrangler’s tone. She quickly gathered the filmy color together and pushed it back into the burlap bag. “I just thought, it was pretty, maybe he’d like it for trade…”
“Oh, he’d like it alright…”
Several patrons had jumped off their stools and were ambling toward them, blocking the way to the door. A few of them were pointing at Princess Cressida.
A tall column of white light appeared in front of Wrangler Zav. Princess Cressida stepped back in surprise, shielding her eyes.
“Looks like you’ve attracted some unwanted attention.” The light spoke to them. Princess looked more closely and saw the light had within it the semblance of a human form that blinked in and out of view, depending on the angle.
Wrangler Zav sighed with evident relief. “You could say that. Your timing, Hyko, as usual, is darn near perfect.”
Princess Cressida cleared her throat, with a pointed look at Wrangler.
“Princess Cressida, this is Hyko. An old friend.”
She looked sideways at the light and saw in the light a wide smile and kind eyes. She couldn’t hide her surprise when the light spoke to her.
“Pleased to meet you Princess. Any friend of Wranglers…”
“Pleasure.” Princess Cressida curtsied, unsure exactly where to look.
“Sorry to interrupt these pleasantries but we could use some assistance right about now.” The approaching crowd was growing closer and louder, as the traders pushed towards Princess Cressida.
Hyko smiled…or at least seemed to, from where the Princess stood. “Always happy to help you out, Wrangler. I’m getting pretty good at it, had a lot of practice. But hey, who’s complaining, ‘specially since you’ve got such pretty friends.” Princess Cressida blushed.
“You know the drill,” Hyko explained. “Hang on to me. I’ll give them an exit they won’t soon forget.”
“Just get us outta here.”
Princess Cressida grabbed hold to the column of light, which had a strange feel, crinkly like paper but heavy like velvet. Wrangler Zav did the same, as Hyko lifted off the stone floor, through the open ceiling into the night sky, a lone shooting star in the darkest sky.
As they both clung to Hyko as he sped through the night, leaving a sparkling trail in his wake, Wrangler Zav whispered to Princess Cressida, “Where did you get that silver cloud?”
“It was caught in a net on the edge of my star field. It’s how I ended up so far from home. Why?”
“Because that there cloud is the Night Prism. And now a bar full of traders has seen it. People know the rumors are true. It’s only a matter of time before the Dark Spectrum learns of this.”
“This puff of color is the Night Prism? What was it doing in my world?”
“I’ve no idea. But we’re going to find out. Most important, we’ve got to hide it – and ourselves – from the Dark Spectrum.”
Per sat at the table watching the Igneous patrons gossip. That freak Hyko had created a massive scene; Flo had thrown a few of the rowdier patrons outside, along with ‘the rest of the animals’, she’d told them. Per reminded himself to give Flo a raise.
Watching the lingering excitement ripple through the rough traders, Per sipped his whiskey and considered what he’d seen.
The Night Prism. In his bar.
There’d been rumors. He’d heard them, as had every one on the trading routes. There were always rumors about the Night Prism.
However, this time, the rumors had been different. A message from the Dark Spectrum itself, that it would pay infinite Celestial Coin to the trader who brought him the Night Prism.
Rumors or not, messages from the Dark Spectrum were far and few between. It was difficult to get information across the Breach, in either direction. Per had tried once himself, when he was younger and braver. The attempt had cost him a chunk of his left hand and taught him not to mess with Time Fiends, which guarded the far side of the Breach.
With his good hand, Per rubbed his stubbly chin. His watery blue eyes looked beyond the bar to the open doorway. An unfamiliar silhouette had stepped into the doorway. Per admired her curves as he wondered what else the night would bring.
The woman in the doorway stepped inside. She was dressed in a tight jumpsuit the color of rust. It was flecked with dust from the Star Plume, as was her hair, as rusty red as her suit.
Outside a loud whinny of complaint caught the woman’s attention and she called back, “Flyer, I’ll be right back.”
She consulted a wide metal band on her forearm and looked around the bar, peering deep into the shadows. There, she spotted Per, seated at the farthest table from the entrance. She walked his way, throwing her long legs forward in a runway strut, for effect. The patrons watched her walk, one of them hissing low at her in approval.
Per watched the woman approach. He stayed seated but he felt his heartbeat quicken, out of fear or desire, he was not sure. He knew one thing. This was his place. He didn’t know who this harpy was, marching toward him like a victor to the spoils. He downed his whiskey and shoved his chair back, tilting it upward on two back legs.
When the woman reached Per’s table, they stared at each other for a single slow breath. She spoke.
“Per Nickel? I’m Aglaje from Colum III. I’m seeking my sister Cressida. I understand she was here a short time ago.”
Per shook his head slowly, eyeing the stranger. “No one tonight except the regulars. Had a little ruckus from a star freak, but nothing out of the ordinary this far out.”
“You didn’t see a beautiful young woman dressed in a low-cut brocaded gown and her silvery cowboy friend? Were you asleep?”
Per regarded Aglaje, then removed his glasses and proceeded to clean each lens with a silk pocket square he always kept in his breast pocket. Among ruffians day in and day out, a man needed to maintain dignity or he might end up like the dregs. He inspected the glasses. Satisfied, he placed them again on the bridge of his shiny nose. He never hurried. And he never gave out information for free.
“Ma’am, I’ve not any idea to whom you refer,” he said, lifting both hands, palms up, in his ignorance. He frowned to convey his disappointment in himself. “But please have a beverage on your way out. Compliments.”
The woman’s eyes were bloodshot and angry. Per noticed she was attractive but well worn from hard living. Probably easy company on the Star Plume. Dark circles under her eyes suggested she hadn’t slept in days.
Aglaje seethed, “There’s a belted cow out there that says otherwise. She brought my sister and her cowboy all this way. I want to know where my sister is. And I think you know.”
“Sorry, afraid I am unable to assist you. Please excuse me…”
Per stood to leave but his waitress Flo interrupted him, blocking his exit. She shook her yellow waitress pencil at her boss.
“Per, don’t be a jerk. She’s looking for her sister. You know that Princess lady was with Wrangler Zav. You SAW the commotion they caused. And holy crap, what an exit!”
Aglaje turned to Flo. “You saw them. Did you speak with them?”
Per scowled at Flo, but Flo nodded, smiled, and snapped her gum, always pleased to piss off Per.
“I don’t usually have much time for chitchat you know, it gets busy in here and it’s only me on shift, since Per is too cheap to hire more help. You see, Wrangler Zav and me, we go way back, to our younger years, so I’m always happy when he stops in, he’s polite-like. So, yes, I did speak with them, but only briefly, to take their order. Afterward, I overheard them talking. Seems that Wrangler was looking for a particular trader. Then the next thing I knew they pulled out that Night Prism and the place just about near erupted into chaos. Some fool broke nearly every glass at my station in a rush to get over there and I got to cleaning up that mess. Next I looked, they were gone.”
“Honey, I don’t where they went, and I don’t care, as long as they paid their tab. But I sure know how they went. A star freak, one of those bright hybrids, took ‘em outta here in a flash.” Flo pointed up at the open roof, through which shone only darkness.
Aglaje stared up into the night. It had been a long journey and it looked like it was not yet over. She asked, “This ‘Star freak’. What’s its name?”
“Hyko. He goes by Hyko,” Flo said, sticking her pencil in her streaky blond hair.
Slumped down in his seat, Per glared at Flo.
“Thank you.” Aglaje pressed something cold and hard into Flo’s weathered hand, then hurried to the door.
Flo stared down at the odd rusty coin. She stuck it in her pocket and went back to work.
Slowing from light speed, Hyko landed on a high rocky plateau that sat alone in space. The plateau was circular and about the size of roundabout. The sky was a brilliant blue overhead but all along the horizon, the blue faded to black. Black tendrils led the advance of night.
Hyko surveyed the plateau, which was empty, save for loose stones and space debris. A satellite from a distant planet had crashed there many years before and it lay in a mangled metal mess nearby.
Certain it was safe, Hyko unfurled the fronds of gaseous light in which he’d wrapped Wrangler and the Princess during the long journey. His passengers, slightly dazed by the journey, stepped forward.
Wrangler took off his hat, swatted it a couple times against his silver trousers and placed it back on his head, adjusting the hat’s angle. He let out a yelp, which made Princess Cressida jump in surprise and put her hand over her heart.
“Yowwee! Hyko, you never disappoint! What a ride! I haven’t had a thrill like that since I hitchhiked on Haley’s comet before it all burnt out.”
Hyko had dimmed his light to a faint blue glow and he brightened at the acknowledgement and praise. His black eyes reflected the sky above.
Freed from the confines of Hyko, Princess Cressida blinked up at the blue sky. It reminded her of home and in a wave of homesickness, she stepped back toward the plateau’s edge, kicking a few pebbles over the edge.
“Princess!” Wrangler yelled. Princess Cressida threw herself forward as the stones along the edge gave way to her weight of her feet. She lay still for a moment on the ground, her feet dangling over thin air, then crawled toward Wrangler, where she stood and brushed comet dust from her gown. Wrangler placed a hand lightly on Cressida’s shoulder then a moment later removed it. He stepped to the plateau’s edge and looked over into a black nothingness.
Turning to Hyko, he said, “The sky, I’ve never seen anything like it. What is this place?”
“This is The Kempt. It’s at the end of Breach, the divide between our world and the realm of the Dark Spectrum,” Hyko said.
“None of those sissy traders will follow us here. So we should be OK.”
“Yes. But you are on your own. This is as far as I can go. It’s dangerous for me even to be here,” Hyko added.
Wrangler gave Hyko a half salute, half wave. “Understood. Well, again, we sure ‘preciate the save. You stay safe. Say ‘hi’ to your Momma for me.” Wrangler Zav winked at Hyko, a twinkle in his eye.
Hyko nodded, his light brightening to a blinding brilliance as he prepared to leave.
Princess Cressida watched in awe as Hyko, now a column of white fire, lifted up from the ground. Among the sparks and flames that twisted off in abandon, Cressida could see Hyko’s eyes smiling at her. In the next heartbeat, he was gone, arcing across the blue sky toward the black horizon, leaving a trail of light.
Wrangler and Princess Cressida stared after him.
“Wrangler, I’ve never met anyone like Hyko before. Who, or What, is he?”
Wrangler watched the sky. The black horizon was still creeping upward, swallowing the blue. Troubling. Wrangler turned at Princess Cressida’s question.
“That Hyko he’s a hoot, ain’t he? He’s what some people call a Hybrid. But the proper name for his kind is Astra Hominid. He’s half star, half human.”
“How on earth does THAT happen?” Princess crossed her arms and stared back at him, skeptical.
Wrangler tipped his hat. “Very careful-like. His mother was a real trail burner, a wild one. I had to rassle her back into place more than once. Seems one warm summer night, she took a liking to some handsome gent who made a wish upon her and well…Hyko was the result.”
Wrangler sighed. “But we have no time for such tales right now. We gotta get through the Breach.”
“Seems like we’re more exposed than ever out here. Was this a good idea?” she asked.
“This was our best option, Princess. Them traders from Igneous will be looking for us. All their friends will be looking for us. For that Night Spectrum, worth a whole load of coinage. And we’re not exactly inconspicuous, so this place was our best bet,” Wrangler Zav said. “Only a damn fool will look in the Breach.”
“No one is looking here YET,” Princess Cressida corrected and crossed her arms. “But what about later, when they don’t find us anywhere else. I’m sure some enterprising trader will take a chance out here – none of those men seemed the fearful type. What do we do when they come this way? Not much out here, I’m guessing, only a few places to look. And here we are, stuck on this rock like a sore thumb. No Blaise, no Hyko to help us escape this time.”
Wrangler waggled his head in frustration. Women, he thought.
“We’re not stuck anywhere, with that silver bauble you got in your carpet bag.”
“The Night Prism? How can that possibly help us?”
“It’ll help us get off this rock, as you say.”
“And go where?”
“To see the Dark Spectrum.”
“You cannot be serious. Honestly, your ideas seem to go from bad to worse. We can’t just waltz into the Lair of the Dark Spectrum and expect to have an audience with him.”
“I agree. We’re not gonna waltz. We’re gonna sneak.” Wrangler scrunched up his nose, clearly looking forward to the prospect of a good sneaking.
“Through the Night Prism.”
“That sounds crazy. And not just a little crazy but full-blown crazy.”
“If you’d prefer to wait for the Igneous traders and their friends, when they come a callin’ – and you’re right, they will – be my guest. By now, there’s sure to be a mighty bounty on our heads.”
Princess Cressida rummaged around in her bag as if looking for her house keys. She came up empty. She shrugged, defeated. “Fine. We’ll do it your way.”
Wrangler Zav smiled and swatted his knee. “All righty then. Take out that there Night Prism and let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”
Princess Cressida reached again into her bag, this time to the very bottom, underneath all the other colors she’d collected. She knew the Night Prism now by feel, it was like rough raw silk, heavy and unfinished. She liked the feel of it in her hand. She pulled it forth.
The silver cloud billowed in the light wind, as the material wafted out of the bag. It seemed larger than the Princess remembered. It pulled away. She had to hang on tight to not lose hold of it.
Wrangler Zav admired the waving silvery material. “Don’t let go now. We lose that, we really are sunk.” He nodded, looking it over. “Mmmhmm. That is a fine example of engineering. A bit fancier than the one I’d seen all those years back.”
Princess Cressida held the material up by two ends, to look at it more fully. “It’s just a piece of silvery cloth. I don’t understand all the fuss.”
“Not quite, little lady. Now, watch how I do this and then do exactly what I do. And don’t let go of the Prism. No matter what happens. Even after.”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Princess Cressida winced. “Will it hurt?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. But it sure will feel different. It’s easier if you don’t fight it.”
With that Wrangler Zav grabbed the Night Prism’s edge with his hands, placed the cloud on the ground and sat down square in its center. Seated, he reached out for each corner and gathered them all over his head.
From inside this life-size dumpling he said, “Grab this here and hang on,” waggling the collected corners.
Princess Cressida stepped forward and took hold of the gathered corners, holding the edges of the Night Prism together with her small hands. The Night Prism seemed to have a mind of its own and it waved and flapped in every direction, pulled by the call of other places and other names.
In a moment, the cloud’s edges had seamed together. Princess Cressida could no longer see Wrangler Zav inside. The cloud changed color, first a dark red, then black as night. It billowed from the inside as if wracked by an internal storm.
Princess Cressida held fast to the collected corners. She heard a surprised “Ahhhhaa” from Wrangler Zav and then nothing. The silver cloud expanded as if inhaling. The Princess could barely hold fast to its edges as it stretched farther and farther outward. Then it collapsed with a rapid exhale. The material lay limp in Cressida’s hands. She shook it. It was empty. Wrangler Zav was gone.
Cressida stood alone on the plateau. What light there had been was gone. She stood in the darkness. She took one deep breath and then another, building up courage.
Wrangler had said to do exactly the same. The Princess stood in his footsteps, outlined in silver stardust, and sat down on the Night Prism, wrapping herself in the wispy cloud. She waited.
Princess Cressida had been on a ship once, as a child. It had been a long sea journey and she remembered most of all the rolling movement of the sea, as massive waves passed under the ship’s hull, shifting everything slowly to and fro. Each night, the undulation had rocked her to sleep, the ebb and flow of the ocean’s song.
As she had sat wrapped in the Night Prism, at first nothing had happened. She pulled the material closer. She felt it faintly at first, a foreign pulsing in her body that grew stronger with every passing second. Her heartbeat, that familiar corporeal sound, faded in volume as this other beat grew stronger.
Princess Cressida tried to find the source of the pulsing but realized it was everywhere she was. It was her skin that was pulsing, as if it were the skin of a beating drum, not the skin on her body. The sound grew louder still.
Then, it was not only her skin that was pulsing. It was her cells, sounding out a rhythmic beat. The cells in her bones and muscles, her blood and lymph, every cell in her body, polarized somehow by the Night Prism, the electrons shifting back and forth, back and forth, a rhythmic music.
Princess Cressida stopped fighting the pulsating rhythm and gave her body over to the Night Prism.
All of her that was living lifted through the Night Prism, her muscles and bones broken down into the resonance of ionic bonds, ever moving, electrons singing as they whirred in an endless circle. She was transported to the realm of the Dark Spectrum. No longer a Princess, but a song.
It moved in slow easy waves, like the sea, rolling to the edges of the Confine. When it hit an edge of the infinite wall, it would turn, without hesitation, in the other direction, like a caged lion.
“Why why, tell ‘em that it’s human nature, why, why?”
“Ninety-nine dreams I have had and everyone a red balloon. It’s all over and I’m standing pretty…”
A guard interrupted. “Your Excellency. Please pardon my intrusion. You said to come as soon as there was news. There has been a sighting of the Night Prism.”
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt,” came the Dark Spectrum’s reply.
“Sir, the Star Wrangler brought a woman, a Princess, to the Igneous bar. She revealed the Night Prism in her satchel.”
“There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it,” said the Dark Spectrum.
“No, your Excellency. No one acquired it from her. Wrangler and the Princess escaped with the help of a Hybrid star.”
There was a long silence, during which the guard waited. He was anxious. He had heard that guards had been destroyed when they reported bad news to the Dark Spectrum. He pressed against the wall.
Finally, the Dark Spectrum replied: “Mother, did you have to build it SO high?”
The guard nodded and continued. “We don’t know sir, where they have gone. We do know that Star Wrangler has successfully used a Night Prism in the past.”
The guard waited for instructions. Then he heard:
“The night is calling, I have to go. The wolf is hungry, he runs the show. He’s licking his lips, he’s ready to win. On the hunt tonight for love at first sting…Here I am…Rock you like a hurricane…Here I am…Rock you like a hurricane…111000010001010001010001010000101111000…”
The guard turned and hurried away, relieved not to be punished for the bad news he had delivered. He needed to find the others and warn them. He had never heard the Dark Spectrum so angry.
Igneous was nearly empty. The traders had drunk their fill and returned to the Star Plume to ply their trade. Dim blue light shone from gas lamps lining the slate walls. Usually starlight lit the bar, but no more.
Flo collected glasses and cups from the bar, wiping the bar top with a dirty rag as she moved from one end to the other. She skirted around an overturned chair and headed to the back, her hands and arms full of dirty glassware.
Per stuck his foot out from his table as she walked by, nearly tripping her. She stopped in time, but one shot glass flew from her grip, smashing to the floor with a crash. Per spoke, his voice low with anger and want.
“Wrangler didn’t even know that girl had the Night Prism, did he? But he knew one was liberated. That’s why he was here, wasn’t it. Who was it told Wrangler about the Night Prism?”
Flo gave him a sour look. She was tired of Per and his brusque ways. But not many places would hire a woman like her. She adjusted the load in her arms. Amber liquid dribbled out of one half-empty glass, down her forearm. She nodded her head toward the bar, directing Per’s attention to a lone trader sitting in the shadows at the far end of the empty bar, slumped over, his head on the stone, snoring softly. Several empty glasses lined up along his head.
Per scowled. “Breen? What would he know about the Night Prism? He’s useless. Look at him, he’s addicted to Carbon Tablets.”
“I only know what I know,” Flo said, stepping over Per’s legs and continuing to the back.
Per lifted his significant weight from the metal chair, which creaked as he stood, and lumbered to the bar. He was a wide man, with a strong taste for sugar freight. A wide forehead and large dark eyes gave him an air of foreboding, which helped to keep the peace among the drunken Traders.
Reaching the bar, Per grabbed Breen by his not-insignificant shoulder and shook him awake.
“Wake up, you addict. What do you know about the Night Prism? How did that lady get a hold of it?”
Breen stopped snoring and he snuffled his discontent at the unexpected disturbance. His eyes squeezed more tightly shut. He’d been dreaming of naked flying Princesses and did not want to leave them unattended for even a moment. He tried to pull his cowl over his head but Per grabbed his hand and shook him again.
“Fool, wake up or this is the last time you drink in my bar.”
His face still flat against the bar, Breen opened his eyes to stare sideways at Per. Seeing Per’s glowering face above him, never a good sign on waking, Breen lifted his head. His eyes were bloodshot, his pupils wide from the Carbon Tablets he’d washed down with the several punches he had consumed. He cradled his head in his hands, his long dirty locks entwined in his thick fingers.
Breen mumbled something and Per, increasingly irritated, barked, “Speak up!”
Breen repeated, more clearly this time. “I had it, I had in my hands. Slippery little suckers, those…”
Per stepped backed. “YOU had the Night Prism? I don’t believe you.”
Breen blinked a few times, wiped his bleary eyes, and reached slowly into his inside coat pocket. He felt around for a moment and pulled out a small metal snuff box, which he opened and held out.
Per peered at the contents. Inside, pinned to the bottom of the box, was frayed piece of silvery fabric, the length of a man’s pinkie finger. The fabric twisted and turned against the pin.
Per looked up at Breen, his scowl gone, a small but respectful grin in its place.
“You realize what someone would have paid for that? Where’d you find it?”
“Down the Liquid Mines.”
“Hmmm.” Doubt had crept onto Per’s face again, his eyebrows high, as if he might ask a question. But instead he stepped forward and studied the tin again. The proof was right there, the captured fabric scintillating, even in low light. He looked up at Breen.
“That’s not your regular route, is it? That’s Grainer’s territory. You better hope he doesn’t find out. What were you doing way over there?”
“I was doing a job.”
“What job would that be? Poaching another trader’s pieces?”
Breen shook his head defensively. “Someone asked me to stand guard. Watch and listen, they told me. Paid me upfront in Coin. Wasn’t doing nothing wrong.” The last sentence trailed off in mumbling. Breen was accustomed to being accused of wrong-doing.
“Watching and listening for what?” Per squinted, his eyes honing in on Breen’s mouth, which puckered and unpuckered grotesquely even when Breen was not speaking. Per winced as Breen licked his lips.
“Anyone or anything. Wasn’t no one supposed to be there. It was closed off, like, at the top. I had to climb down on this long metal ladder hammered into the stone. At the bottom, it was real quiet, just a lot of brush and even a few trees. I was alone down there. Hadn’t really thought about it, how dull it would be just to sit around. Nothing happening. So boring, watching and waiting. It was torture, after a while, all that sitting. I got to hoping something would happen. Make me feel like I earned that money. Anyway, in the end, no one came and no one went. But they’d told me, wait until someone comes to let you go. Like I said, they paid me upfront and I’m a man of my word, unlike a lot of traders out there. They knew my name, too, so I couldn’t walk off the job. I’m responsible you know.”
“Sure you are, as responsible as they come,” Per nodded as he poured himself a tall glass of brownish liquid.
Breen grabbed Per’s hand, sloshing some of the brown liquid on the bar top.
“Careful you fool, what’s gotten into you!”
Breen leaned and eyed Per’s beverage. “I sure could use a drink myself. All this talking is thirsty work, you know.”
“Oh, so now you’re demanding, are you? You’re already running on credit, three weeks back, you owe me. What’d you do with all that Coin they paid you? Some of that should be coming my way.” Per poured Breen a short glass of the brown liquid.
Breen’s glassy eyes shown with Carbon Fever. “It was like they knew someone would be coming, as I remember. They seemed so certain.” He sipped his glass, trying not to gulp it all down in one swallow.
“So I waited. Started digging around in the bushes. I was hungry, thought there might be fruit or something. It’s lush down there, so peaceful. I was eating berries, I’d found some blue ones that looked ok. Was picking them right of the branch. Then there, at the base of the bush, all bunched up and covered in dirt, there’s this shiny thing.”
“The Night Prism.”
Breen wiped his shiny brow. “That’s right. I dug around it and picked it up, shook it out. It started to jump and tug in my hands. It was like a wild creature, took me by surprise. The more I held tight, the harder it pulled, in every direction.”
“And then it got away?” Per raised his well-plucked grey eyebrows.
“Well, the man had come back to relieve me of my shift, you see.” Breen took another sip, a larger one this time. “I was worried, as was not sure if I was supposed to eat those berries and all, those berries stain your fingers, and there is no way to hide it, just has to wear off…”
“But the Night Prism ripped as you held onto it,” Per said impatiently.
Breen nodded. He enjoyed telling a tale, especially if there was free drink to be had. “That’s right. A man called out to me by name, said I could go. I turned around with the Night Prism in my hands, my fingers blue as could be. The man, he must have been someone important, he was dressed all fine, he shouted out, as surprised as me, and then he jumped at the Night Prism. This startled the little silver bugger and it pulled so hard away from me, flapping and luffing so, I thought my shoulders might get yanked out of joint. Not as strong as I once was I guess. In my prime, I thought I might be a Wrangler…” Breen’s eyes grew moist at the memory of his younger, more hopeful days.
“But anyway…that’s when I tried to get a better grip on it, shifted my hands up but it slipped away the second I loosened my fingers.” Breen flexed his thick, dirty hands. Grime lined the under nail of each finger.
“But that little piece got caught on my zipper.” Breen showed Per the offending metal zipper along his ancient jacket. It was meant to close a long pocket on the side of the garment. It was half zipped and rusty, having not functioned for well over a century.
Per squinted as he topped up his own glass and Breen’s, then pulled up the nearest stool. He got as close to Breen as his nostrils would allow without revolt. Then he inched a bit closer, sure it would pay off.
“Breen, my good fellow, how did you get this job in the first place?”
Breen gulped this liquid down and eyed his empty glass. “He asked for me specifically,” he said, trying to hide his pride.
“Who is ‘he’?”
Breen started to fumble with his jacket, buttoning and unbuttoning the dull metal buckles. The wool was worn thin along the bend in the arm and his dry patchy elbow shown through in some places.
Per was in no mood for coy traders. “Breen, out with it or you’ll never drink here again. You know your credit is no good elsewhere. Who was it asked you to guard the Liquid Mines?”
Breen finished his drink, sure it would be his last. He uttered a word that stopped Per’s heart.
If a being could be both alive and dead, Princess Cressida thought, this is what it would be like. She was conscious, of that she was sure. But she could not feel her body. Any body or anything. In fact, she could not sense anything corporeal. No touch, no smell, no taste, no sight. Wait. Sound? She tried listening. There was the absence of sound, which she decided was quite different from silence.
She willed herself forward, not knowing if she was merely shrouded in darkness or numbed by the transition from the Night Prism. There! she heard a sound, a fine high-pitched repetitive squeal. She stopped to listen more clearly and the sound ended. Perhaps it turned a corner away from her? She moved in a different direction, toward the source of the sound. There it was again, that high-pitched squeal. What a shrill noise! She tried to move away from the sound, deciding best to avoid its maker, but it followed her as she turned a corner and climbed up a slope.
Wait a minute. She stopped to consider this strangeness.
How was she moving? She stopped and thought. She could not see herself, could not feel herself. No feet, no legs. But she was definitely moving. Without a body.
Princess Cressida turned to retrace from where she started and the wailing began again.
Then she remembered Wrangler Zav’s ‘Ahhha’ as he had disappeared into the Night Prism. This was it. This was the change.
She was sound. Which meant Wrangler Zav was sound. Which meant she should be able to hear him. She stayed very still and tried harder to listen to the Nothing.
Then she caught it, a faint low tone from a ways away. She waited. It seemed to be coming closer. She could tell it was Wrangler Zav. She was not sure HOW she knew. She sensed the pulsing undulation, so different from her own, and was certain. She moved toward it.
As he waited for Cressida, Wrangler Zav tried to recall how it all worked. The up and down was disorienting, especially at his age. When he’d been a young man, it was a kick, all this out of body stuff, up and down. Back then, there had been lots of jokes, young men still getting used to their strong bodies, suddenly losing them to sound waves, sneaking around, all under the threat of capture by the Dark Spectrum. It had been easy then, to be so reckless. But Zav did not want to get captured.
He moved, gauging the density of the material. Forward, up and down. He stopped for a moment, remembering. No backward. Never backward.
He hoped they’d only need to hide out a short time. He didn’t fancy getting stuck in the Nothing. No thank you. When he’d been here so many years ago, the universe had not been on the edge of war. A trip to the Nothing had been a prank, a dare. He moved again, spooked by the stillness.
Odd. He remembered it being slower going last time.
Truth was, he didn’t mind this freedom. Not one bit. His old body, his knees and back, all the moveable parts really, were worn out from years of riding the Plumes and chasing runaway stars. There was no avoiding it in his profession. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d busted himself up tying down a young upstart star.
This effortless oscillation was freeing.
Now where in the blazes was that Princess? He followed a high pitch he heard in the distance. Sounded like complaining. Had to be her.
As she rounded a corner, she heard Wrangler ask her, “Do you still have the Night Prism?” She stopped, so relieved at having found him. It was beyond disconcerting to move in a place one could neither see nor feel.
Wrangler asked the question again, this time using her name at the beginning. She felt like he was surrounding her, his sound was everywhere. She tried to reply but was unable to speak without a mouth or a body to make sounds.
“Unnnth…” she said. Or thought she said.
Wrangler explained quickly, “Listen now. To talk, don’t try to speak, in the regular way. Just keep on moving along and then think about what it is you want to say to me. It’ll come through via your wavelength.”
Princess Cressida decided now was not the time for questions, so she started to move. That, at least, she had figured out how to do.
“I don’t know. How would I even know if I’ve got the Night Prism? I don’t even know what has happened to me!” She moved as quickly as she could, her pitch rising.
Wrangler slowed himself down to a crawl, trying to come up beside the Princess.
“For now, suffice it to say you don’t need to worry about getting gussied up while we’re in here. Is there a part of you that feels slower?”
“Yes, kinda like it’s a dead weight, dragging you down, slowin’ you up. Try bouncing off that wall over there, see how it feels.”
As she moved, she noticed a slight drag as she climbed upward. She explained this to Wrangler. He made a high pitch sound of relief.
“Good. That’s the Prism. Best hang on to it or we’ll lose our way back. Me, I don’t fancy hangin’ around here longer than we need to. Alright, follow me.”
“Wrangler, what are we?”
“We’re sound. Pure unadulterated sound. The Night Prism can only handle wavelengths. We can’t be light, so we got converted to sound.
“Where are our bodies?”
“All scattered about, spread along this sound wave as particles of sound. Not your clothes of course, that got left behind. Bit embarrassing when we go back to the other side. But never mind about that now. Stick close to me and if you hear something else besides me, slow yourself way down but don’t stop. Keep moving. The guards can detect waves, though if I recall right, they’re more likely to detect light.
As it happened, his warning came just in time.
The guard Koe returned to the guard station. There, he found several others playing Sinew on a large table in the middle of the rectangular room. In a corner, a newbie suited up for the first time, struggling with the thick black material. The newbie had his suit on backward and the others snickered at him as he struggled to zip it up from behind. Koe pealed off his own heavy suit, grabbed a drink from the fridge and settled down to join the game. He thought about telling the others exactly what the Dark Spectrum had said but everyone was in high spirits and he didn’t want to dampen the mood. Except for the newbie, this group was set to rotate out shortly, back to the other side. It had been a long twenty years for them all.
On the wall opposite the main door, several large screens displayed various readings and measurements of temperature and pressure. A complex chemical formula took up the entirety of one screen, with percentages below each of the listed compounds. The percentages changed by a few points up and down every few minutes.
Koe rolled the dice and drank deeply from the bottle. This was only his fifth interaction with the Dark Spectrum and it was as terrifying as his first. His friends watched in surprise as Koe continued to drink from the bottle until it was empty. He wiped his mouth of the harsh clear liquid and took a breath. Seeing the others staring at him, he laughed off his unusual behavior.
“What?! Darkness makes me thirsty!” He wiped his mouth again for effect.
The newbie had finally figured out his suit and was zipping it up. Hale, the most senior of the guards, called out to the newbie, “Don’t forget your sealant, lad.” The newbie, walking awkwardly in the tight suit, stopped in place and turned to the shelving, on which stood several metal canisters marked ‘Sealant’. He selected one, shook it, and then sprayed a thick stream of bright yellow fluid along the suit’s main seams. That completed, he walked toward the table for any last minute advice.
The alarm that sounded from a screen in the upper right corner made him jump. The siren rose in pitch and then descended, filling the room with its sound. The screen itself flashed orange and black.
Rather than acting, everyone simply stared. Not one of them had ever seen that screen alert before. Not in twenty years. They knew what it was but…could it be?
“What does that alarm mean?” The newbie had been studying all the different measurements of this unique system but didn’t have them all memorized.
Koe placed the bottle back on the table and shook his head. He looked at Hale, who nodded.
“It means we have an intruder.”
Koe turned to suit back up. He wanted to tell the Dark Spectrum. This news would please his Sire.
Stars are sneaky creatures. When they wish to be undetected, they travel the skies without light, called being ‘On the dark’. Stars travel on the dark all the time, kind of like flying under the radar. But, like most creatures, they leave behind evidence of their presence. In particular, Stars shed ‘Radiance’ as they move through space, a persistent trail of dust particles and gases. It is this Radiance that makes up the Star Plume.
The first Star Plume was discovered by chance. A Trader named Grolock found he got an extra ‘kick’ when he followed a star’s path. Anything to save time. He started following the stars, even the ones traveling on the dark, tracking them by the Radiance wake.
It was later confirmed by the High Senti that the Radiance moves forward, like a current, so travelers on the Star Plume are pulled toward their destination. The Senti liked to take credit for major discoveries, so they were always dispatching members to measure and manipulate. But all the Traders knew it was one of their own and Grolock lived on in Trader lore, long after his passing.
Naturally, the mapping of the Star Plumes followed. The rush to be the first to map the outermost reaches led to many a barroom brawl, as Traders and even Wanderers tried to win the right to name a Plume. In the end it was decided by the Stars themselves, who after all knew the universe better than most, had been around the longest.
The Time Fiend stood on the edge of a far-flung Star Plume and inhaled, pulling in the amalgam of elements floating in the vacuum. Its massive hairy tongue touched the roof of its mouth, tasting the universal particles as they passed over his unrefined palate. Light tasted faintly of clover. The Time Fiend could sniff it out when it was hiding. And he’d found it. The last of it.
The Time Fiend edged carefully around a strong black hole in front of him, feeling its pull. Those black holes were nasty beings, with a penchant for time.
Ahhh, there. The Time Fiend slowed down as he gazed at the sight before him. Several Stars, one of them much larger than the others.
This large Star had shone in this edge of the universe for eons. During this time, it had gently warmed several planets that revolved around its light. It had morphed and aged, as stars do, and was now busy condensing and cooling in its golden years.
The Time Fiend prepped its gun. No time to waste. The Dark Spectrum waited.
The Fiend blasted its gun, blasting the Stars into a cold death, and the revolving planets with them.
The light Packet escaped just ahead of the Time Fiend’s blast. The largest Star had released it only moments before.
The Packet slid assuredly through the darkness, seeking a safer zone. It landed on a passing frozen comet. There, it shuttered itself deep in an icy crevice filled with dust and gas, pushed itself up against the farthest wall, lest it shine around the corner and give itself away. Cold methane and ammonia swirled around the miniscule light source, attracted by its tiny warmth.
The Packet shivered, uncertain. Before the Time Fiend appeared, it had been planning to jump out for a long journey to wherever light might go. The Packet knew nothing of Time Fiends. It could not imagine why any creature would destroy a Star. It peeked out from its corner and watched as the Time Fiend approached the cold Star that had been the Packet’s home, watched the Time Fiend scoop the Star into a large bag. The Packet could see other dead Stars in the bag. Then the Time Fiend turned and all the Packet could see was the Time Fiend’s hulking backside.
The Packet thought about consequences and likelihood, about probabilities and percentages. Then putting all that aside, it leapt. In a burst, it slid under the oily scales of the Time Fiend and hitched a ride to the Nothing.
Before the Senti developed the Nothing, they studied the Dark Spectrum, its properties, its abilities, and its tendencies. From that, they engineered a holding cell so vast and so complex, it exceeded their own expectations and hopes.
The Nothing was designed to hold the Dark Spectrum forever. Importantly, the Dark Spectrum would be slowed down to almost a crawl. The density was critical.
The Senti built redundancy into the Nothing, to avoid material failure.
In the testing phase, a Nothing prototype had been developed using only a single material. Unfortunately, every substance has a weakness, be it stability, reactivity, or radioactivity.
The prototype had deteriorated when subjected to extreme time.
A few adjustments were made, further expertise called in. The completion of the final Nothing was a marvel.
Before the Dark Spectrum was launched into it, the Nothing was available for viewing by high-ranking dignitaries from all participating systems.
It was lauded as self-perpetuating. Impenetrable. Eternal.
That was when all the Night Prisms had been collected and locked away, their usage banned. Too risky.
Nothing was left to chance. Everything had been carefully thought out. Each detail addressed. All contingencies considered.
But something always slips through the cracks.
Aglaje reached the Wayeer before its moons had passed the Sidestream. The Star Plume dropped off precipitously here, as few travelers visited this forlorn place.
Flyer had worked up a sweat from the long ride and the quickly dropping temperatures had frozen his coat into thick salty clumps. Aglaje bed the tired horse down in a vast stone stall built deep into the side of a cliff. Several other riding animals were in residence and Aglaje could see they had recently been fed and watered. This was a good sign that someone was tending after things daily, as she’d hoped. She’d taken a risk coming all this way.
As Flyer settled in, the animals shifted nervously in Aglaje’s presence, one of them at the back of the vast stall screeching in protest. Wishing to avoid alerting a caretaker who might not be interested in her story, Aglaje stepped outside and rolled the heavy metal door closed. It had not been locked when she arrived, so she left it as it was.
Outside the stall, in the faint light cast by her neck lantern, Aglaje looked around. The area was mostly wasteland, just bluish scrubby brush and grey rock. The Wayeer was a hard place, with ruthless winds post moon-phase. Aglaje knew she needed to get inside before full night if she were to survive. If she found the door and they did not let her in, she would take shelter with the animals and be on her way.
The darkness was eerie. She had always loved darkness, especially traveling by starlight. But of that, there was none tonight. She had only a faint glow from her compass to steer by.
Aglaje had bought the Wayeer coordinates from a Trader named Gost who she’d met on her travels. The existence of the Wayeer was known to only a few, its location known to fewer still. How Gost had come by the information was a mystery still to Aglaje.
She’d bartered hard with him – she carried Liquid for such purposes. But Gost had not wanted Liquid. They were both hard Traders who knew what they wanted and aimed to get it. After he’d taken a good long look at her, Gost had promised her the coordinates and named his price. In the end, they had both enjoyed the night. Aglaje wasn’t ever one to look backward. She’d gotten hold of the information she wanted. That was all that mattered.
Now, she followed the compass down a faint path in the dirt. The brush on each side of her was dry and unforgiving, filled with bramble and nasty prickers. She walked forward, careful to stick to the path.
After a long time – time always passed more slowly in the dark – Aglaje noticed the terrain was changing. Flat scrubby plans had given way first to gentle hills, then more steeply sloping stone. Now, high walls of shale rock swept up around the slim path.
Aglaje stopped walking. She was tired and she could hear the winds coming.
She shone her light in a slow circle, looking for any sign. Surely she was close.
Her light caught on something. There. A door marked with a half moon circle.
She knew they moved each night and that this was the mark of the current residence. News of the Time Fiend’s deeds had traveled widely. Helpfully, Time Fiends could not see writing.
She knocked and heard the sound echo inside the deep metal tunnel, the sound reaching into the depths of the barren planet. A moment later, the door opened and she stepped into the welcoming darkness.
The guard Koe hurried to the Confine. He could hear distant music, the Dark Spectrum singing to itself. The breathy female voice filled the Confine.
“Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday Mr. President, Happy Birthday to you…”
Over and over it sang this. Koe found the repetition irritating but it was not his place to express opinions. He doubted that would be well received.
The singing stopped. The Dark Spectrum wove toward the viewing platform, where he stood.
Koe cleared his throat and began his report.
“Sir, two intruders have been detected. They have entered as sound waves.”
He sensed the Dark Spectrum slowly circle within the Confine, rising and falling, its spectral darkness leaving a tunnel-like impression in the material as it passed through it.
Koe was relieved to have good news. He could feel his pulse racing.
A long monotone sound came from the confine. It continued for fifteen seconds and stretched to thirty. Then it stopped.
The Dark Spectrum continued, “This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test. In the case of a real emergency, this would be followed by instructions from your local police station…”
Koe had not heard this one before. Odd, he thought. He was sure he’d listened to all the tapes. He waited, uncertain of the meaning. The Dark Spectrum would continue. It liked an audience.
“Oh well uh well uh, unh. Tell me more, tell me more, didja get very far, tell me more, tell me more, like does he have a car, uh huh…”
Back on familiar ground, Koe replied, “A male and female, based on their Amplitudes.”
The Dark Spectrum slowed down, as if thinking. A very different tune filled the Confine.
“Move yourself. You always live your life. Never thinking of the future. Prove yourself. You are the move you make. Take your chances win or loser. See yourself. You are the steps you take. You and you – and that’s the only way. Shake – shake yourself. You’re every move you make. So the story goes.”
Confused, Koe shook his head. His hands were sweating and he felt a chill. This was not going as he expected.
He stuttered. “S…Sir, I’m sorry, if, I’m not certain exactly…please I don’t understand what you are asking.”
The Dark Spectrum slowed to a lazy wave, rubbing up against the barrier that separated the massive Confine from the viewing platform. Koe thought he could almost see a vast mouth amidst the seething dark mass.
Growing larger in amplitude, occupying the entire Confine, every curve and corner of the space, the Dark Spectrum screamed:
“Like the latest fashion
Like a spreading disease
The kids are strappin’ on their way to the classroom
Getting weapons with the greatest of ease
Hey man you talkin’ back to me?
Take him out
You gotta keep ‘em separated
Hey man you disrespecting me?
Take him out
You gotta keep ‘em separated”
Koe braced himself against the thick metal rebar that served to hold the Nothing together.
“Sir, please, I’m not sure…”
The Dark Spectrum began again, the single voice now soaring in a question.
“Can anybody…find meeeeee…somebody to love?”
Other voices joined in, the repetitive sound filling Koe’s head, the words reverberating through him, coming at him from all sides.
“Find me somebody to love, find me somebody to love…”
Koe stepped back on the platform, understanding spreading across his glistening pale face. He retched once, wiped his mouth, and spoke.
“Yes, sir, at once. I will see it done.”
He scurried away, trying not to be sick again.
The Dark Spectrum wound itself to the Confine’s highest height and circled down to the deepest corners. It shot back up. It repeated this. Up, up as high as it could go, then releasing itself to the depths.
A woman. It had been a long time.
The Dark Spectrum began a slow tune, one of the first it had intercepted and one of its favorites.
The voice carried well beyond the Confine.
“I am just a new boy,
Stranger in this town.
Where are all the good times?
Who’s gonna show this stranger around?
Ooooh, I need a dirty woman.
Ooooh, I need a dirty girl.
Will some cold woman in this desert land
Make me feel like a real man?
Take this rock and roll refugee
Oooh, baby set me free.
Ooooh, I need a dirty woman.
Ooooh, I need a dirty girl…”
Aglaje stepped into the dark tunnel, reminding herself that she had no weapon. She had left her gun with Flyer in the stables. They would have taken it from her anyway, out of caution, and its mere possession would have sent the wrong signal, one of menace rather than peace. That would have started things off on the wrong foot.
The door closed behind her and there was the sound of well-oiled metal bolts sliding into place, securing the unit. Just in time, too, as Aglaje could hear the winds pick up beyond the door. She hoped Flyer was ok.
She stepped forward, taking slow steps. The floor seemed to be polished metal and the walls, which she could touch on either side of her, were cut stone.
She’d walked forward about ten paces in the dark when a loud voice screamed her, “Do not move further!”
Halting, she peered ahead and glanced behind but did not see anyone, notr even the silhouette of a person.
The voice spoke again.
“Place your hand on the light.” A square panel had lit up on the wall next to her.
Aglaje did as she was told, placing her palm flat on the screen. She held it there for 15 seconds. The screen blinked white, then the color changed to a blue then a green. When it went dark, Aglaje removed her hand, rubbing her palm, which felt tingly and warm from the light. The reading had been quick, faster than the Readers at the Plume Way Stations.
The next tests started immediately. Aglaje braced herself. She’d known they would test her but she thought perhaps they would speak with her first. Apparently, they needed to know what she was.
Bright light filled the hallway. The brightness increased in intensity until all she could see was a wall of white. Momentarily blinded, Aglaje leaned against the wall. She knew there was non-visible light as well, passing through her.
As quickly as it had lit up, the tunnel fell again into darkness. Aglaje could feel her heart pounding against her thin ribs. She had to make it through this.
The heavy sound blasted through her on all sides, starting low then rapidly increasing pitch and volume until it was deafening. Aglaje resisted putting her hands over her ears. They were watching her from somewhere, as well as taking readings. She needed to resist showing weakness. It would end soon. She hoped.
When the sound ended, the voice spoke again, as if none of this had happened.
“Please state your reason for this unscheduled visit.”
Aglaje inhaled. Here goes. “My sister has entered the Nothing through a Night Prism. She is with a Star Wrangler and I believe they are going to confront the Dark Spectrum.”
There was a long pause before a reply came back. When the voice spoke, it sounded neutral but Aglaje felt she could hear a shift in tone, a strain to hide a level of increased interest and disbelief. She had expected this.
“That is impossible. There are no Night Prisms available for usage. They were all collected.”
“One was released not too long ago in the Liquid Mine and my sister found it.”
Again, a long pause.
“We are unable to help you.” There was silence for a good minute. Aglaje knew they were reviewing the readings they had taken from her palm.
“However, you are heavily depleted,” the voice said. “You would not survive your journey. We will supply you but then you must leave.”
Aglaje sighed. She did feel tired. “I’ve been on the road a long while, “ she said, more to herself than the voice.
The voice interrupted her thought, as it continued.
“The rest of your report is being completed.”
Aglaje furrowed her brow. The rest of her report? What did that mean? The Readers measured Liquid percentage. She had light and sound checks before, though none quite so intense as that. She tried to remember her last one, probably fifteen years ago, when she started out as a Trader.
“Please step forward.”
A door at the end of the tunnel slid open, about fifty yards ahead. Aglaje walked toward the light and stepped into the small room.
The room was square with blue walls with framed pictures of the Star Plume on the walls. Aglaje saw several sections she recognized and a few she did not.
The single chair waited in the corner. There were no windows and recessed lighting provided dim light.
“Someone will be with you in a moment.” With that, the voice system disconnected. Aglaje heard a short burst of static and then silence.
She sat down. She considered their refusal. Given what she’d told them, they would know the risks involved. After all, they were the experts. Were they bluffing? Were they frightened by her presence? Would they treat her as they had said or was she herself in danger? They would, of course, also wonder if she had been followed or worse yet, if she was merely a diversion for some larger threat.
Aglaje looked up at the sound of metal sliding against stone. A door on the far side of the wall opened. A tall woman stepped in, dressed in a long yellow robe. Her face was deeply lined and her short white hair was done in sharp spikes atop her head. She held a silver tray in her right hand. As the door behind her slid closed, the woman approached toward Aglaje, taking a roundabout path across the room, as if circling prey.
“I’m Nin. I’ll be treating you. How do you feel?” Nin asked, watching Aglaje. Aglaje could feel Nin assessing the color of her skin, the circles under her eyes, her drooping eyelids.
Aglaje stared back. Nin’s eyes were the color of spring leaves.
“Tired,” Aglaje replied.
Nin patted her hand. “You’re lucky to have made it this far. You are nearly out. Dangerous to push so hard. Now. How many do you have?” Nin asked.
“Three,” Aglaje replied
Nin pursed her lips and shook her head slightly.
“Regulation is four for Traders,” Nin said, gingerly lifting a white ampule from the tray.
“I’m smaller than most Traders.” Aglaje said.
Nin ignored this defensiveness. “And where are they located?”
“Both feet and my left hand.”
Nin nodded and took hold of Aglaje’s left hand, turning it over to reveal her palm. She probed the meaty flesh at the base of Aglage’s thumb, feeling for something. She pursed her lips to one side in concentration.
“It’s really in there.” Her fingers pushed hard again below the thumb. A thick rectangular piece of flesh the size of a stamp popped up below Aglaje’s thumb. It folded over on itself, revealing an ampule tucked in the flesh, similar to that in Nin’s hand, only blue.
Nin deftly pulled out the blue ampule and placed the white ampule in its place. “There we go.” She placed the skin back in place, pressing lightly.
“That’s one.” She repeated the process with each of Aglaje’s feet, pushing against the ball of each foot.
Finished, she stood and stared at Aglaje.
“You took quite a risk coming here. You’ve been tracked since you landed. There was some disagreement about what to do with you. Normally intruders are warned. If that doesn’t discourage them, more severe measures are taken. Permanent measures.”
Aglaje nodded. She was not surprised. Of course, they needed to protect themselves. “Why was I allowed to pass?”
“One of us is a Baser. He sensed something about you that indicated you should pass through. Our tests confirmed it. Combined with what you have told us, we thought it was best to let you in.”
“What did he sense?”
Nin smiled at her, her wrinkles scrunched about her eyes. “You do not need to pretend with me.”
“I’m sorry?” Aglaje was confused. ”I’m not pretending.”
The smile left Nin’s face and her eyes darkened. “You do not know?”
Aglaje shrugged. “Know what, exactly?”
Nin leaned in. Her eyes were filled with compassion. “You are a Hybrid. You are 20% light.”
Having returned to the now empty Station, Koe walked to the back and flipped a switch on the far wall. The blank wall lit up, revealing a 10’ x 10’ digital map of the Nothing, shades of grey depicting the various densities and layers. The borders of the Nothing were like Cilia, thick finger-like tendrils constantly moving and waving, beating away space debris that might cross the Breach.
Koe’s eyes scanned the screen for movement.
There in the lower right corner, he saw them. Two colored waves, the up and down movements showing a circuitous progress toward the center of the Nothing, the Confine.
He watched the oscillations. The tall wave, blue on screen, led the way while the flatter yellow wave followed close behind. Koe saw the blue wave speed up and then slow down abruptly when the yellow wave fell behind. Occasionally, the front and backs of the two waves would overlap on the screen, their convergence green, and then they would separate again.
It made him a little queasy. Still, he had a job to do.
Koe waited until the blue wave gained a wide lead on the yellow wave. He quickly pushed three vertical black buttons on the panel to the right of the large screen. A dim light flicked on by each one, blinking then holding steady and bright.
As the attenuator loaded, Koe watched the wavy lines. When the blue wave pulled ahead again, Koe pushed the last button in the row, holding it down as he watched the result on screen, as a pulse of anti-waves projected toward the blue line.
The anti-sound pulse traveled through the dense material, honing in on the intruders. Once a wave was attenuated, there was no way out.
Wrangler felt the pulse hit just behind him. He stretched himself as high as he could go, increasing his amplitude.
“Cressida, get higher!” he yelled. She was behind him or had been only a moment ago. But he could not hear her. He yelled again.
“Get louder!” No reply.
A second shot of the attenuator pulse hit Wrangler’s tail end. He felt his wave end diminish, growing flatter, as the peaks and valleys lost height with each passing moment. The weakness crawled forward, flattening him slowly but surely. Wrangler pushed forward but he could feel the weakness moving along him. It had flattened a third of his wave already.
With every ounce of energy left in his system, Wrangler turned a sharp left and propelled himself forward and up as high as he could go. He felt himself pick up speed. He’d hit a patch of gaseous metal. This was the least dense area of the Nothing. He needed to stay in this seam to conserve energy. He picked up speed again and he felt his wave propagate all the way back to his end.
He hoped Cressida was right behind him. But he didn’t dare stop.
She hadn’t meant to do it. Well, not really. She had hardly known what she was doing. Mostly, she just wanted to escape. To go home once and for all. And going farther forward in the Nothing wasn’t helping.
When the attenuator hit in front of her, she didn’t know what was happening. She thought she heard Wrangler for a moment. She suddenly felt slow and tired. Sluggish.
Slowing down, she thought. What was she doing alone in this strange place? Her body pixilated across a vast space, maybe never to be reformed.
In the distance, she could hear Wrangler calling for her again. Was he in front of her, to the left, or maybe straight up?
The weird slow feeling hit her again and the sound of Wrangler’s voice got all warped and warbled, like a record played too slow on a turntable.
All she wanted was to go home. That’s all she had wanted from the beginning. That stupid Night Prism had lured her away from her home.
Now, here she was, nothing more than sound, as far from home as she could possibly be. She’d done enough. She was going home. One way or another.
With great concentration, she slowed to a stop, feeling the silence as a standing wave. Then she pushed away from her edge, moving backward, tracing over herself. The sound that came from her was a low eerie moan. It frightened her and she moved more quickly, to escape herself.
As she pushed back from where she had been, she could feel the Night Prism at her end getting closer. She did not know what would happen when she reached it. But she no longer cared.
She heard another low sound behind her, louder than her own sound. It was not Wrangler. The sound grew louder. It sounded familiar but still faint, as if a memory of a sound and not a sound itself. It was soothing.
She listened as she doubled over herself, criss-crossing her earlier forward motion. She seemed to pick up speed moving backward and she no longer felt as tired. She reached the tail end of her wave, now a wave folded in two.
She recognized the song as her wave began to pass through the Night Prism, into the density of the Nothing.
The Dark Spectrum was waiting for her there.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when the skies are gray, you’ll never know dear how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
Quotation/Song credits in order
Michael Jackson “Human Nature”
Rick Springfield “867-5309”
Nena “99 Red Balloons”
Sun Tzu “The Art of War”
Pink Floyd “The Wall”
The Scorpions “Rock You like a Hurricane”
Mildred Jane Hill/Patty Smith Hill “Happy Birthday”
Grease “Summer Nights”
Yes “Owner of a Lonely Heart”
The Offspring “Come out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated)”
Pink Floyd “Dirty Woman”
Willie Nelson “You are My Sunshine”