This is my 2023/24 holiday serial. It was originally published on my Patreon over 12 days, as free promotional content. For the sake of convenience, I’ve collected the entire thing here, so it can be read all at once. If you’re looking to duplicate the cliffhanger feeling of the original release, just read one a day! If you can resist peeking ahead, that is. It’s a steampunk style story, following a strange airship on an unusual journey. I hope you dig it!
Years had passed since Seace had visited the cable decks, and she’d forgotten what a nice view they provided. She grabbed one of the iron ropes and leaned out over the edge, stretching her body and gazing below. Her hair was cropped shorter than her thumbs, but even so, the wind ruffled it like an invisible hand. The sound of rushing air pounded in her ears.
“Eden’s apple, Scarp,” she shouted. “Will ya look at that!”
He was not quick to lean out over the drop, and with both hands on a thick strand, he peeked down to look at the scene below.
There were grassy hills as far as they could see, bright green like some tropical frog, and formed in a way that, from above, they resembled the rolling waves of the ocean. Massive crystals of rose quartz, enormous pink obelisks the size of mountains, jutted up from the soft pastures. They had some sort of internal illumination and cast a gentle light across the ground. There was no rhyme or reason to their size or placement and many stuck out at odd angles. The few that had fallen weren’t glowing at all.
“It’s not that exciting, Sea,” he yelled back. “We’ve seen much stranger angles.”
She shook her head, pointing back at the body of the airship. “Not that! The Imago! You can see so much of it from here.”
Scarp craned his head around to look behind him. It was certainly a more striking view than the idyllic landscape below. The cable decks, which used to house the tinsails, were built like wings, sticking out of the vessel, positioned roughly a third of the way from the nose and rending antenna. The pair had an excellent vantage for seeing the hundreds of meters that comprised the back sections of the ship. His view was okay, but hanging out over the edge like she was, Seace was able to take it all in.
The Imago was roughly the same shape as a dirigible, but unlike its counterpart that had crew and passenger areas hanging below, structures and other odd constructions clung to every part of the enormous airship. They were stacked on the sides like tree-trunk mushrooms. They rode the top, piled like reclining skyscrapers, tips leaning back from the wind. They were built into massive rings that wrapped around the circumference like big brass belts. These new obtrusions varied widely in type and function, often being built tightly together or even on top of each other. There were lots of other wings and fins and rudders. Some were adorned with massive propellers, glass propulsion funnels, and jet engines. Smaller balloons, covered in magical symbols, supplemented the ramshackle construction. It was steaming and sparking, and the whole thing jiggled like one good kick might dislodge chunks of the speeding city.
And what speed! The landscape beneath them passed quickly, despite their being higher than the clouds. The smoke they produced was whisked away, carried to the back of the ship, and swallowed by their wake.
Seace frowned at the sight of it. The wake was enormous, churning reality behind them, and far too close. Despite how quickly they were moving, she could tell it wasn’t as fast as they should be. She squinted, trying to determine just how much it had gained on them.
Scarp saw what she was looking at and pulled himself away from the edge. He didn’t like it at all. The thought of what the wake was, and what it was doing, made him uncomfortable. He grabbed Seace’s arm.
“I didn’t come here for the view,” he said.
She pulled herself in, and walked past him, heading across the deck. “Why else? I wanna look at the front end.” She rushed off, swinging on cables like they were partners in a May-pole dance. Scarp followed, shouting over the wind. “I wanted to talk to you about something. Something important. I think…” he paused. “I think I need your help.”
Seace circled around and, as she rotated, dragged a hand across Scarp’s chest, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, do you now?” She flung herself to the next cable with a laugh, continuing on her way.
“No, not that! Sea, this is serious!” He stopped chasing after her and stood his ground.
She realized that he wasn’t fooling around, and she stopped her playful flitting. She walked back to where he was. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Next time you want to talk, don’t bring me someplace so fun.”
Scarp sighed. “You make everything a game. It’s all fun to you.”
Seace shrugged. “It’s not my fault I’m easily entertained.”
Normally, he’d jibe and press her on who’s fault it was, if not hers. She was glad when he didn’t. His expression was more uncomfortable than usual, and she waited to hear what he had to say.
He took a deep breath. “You know how I feel about you, and I don’t want that to change, but…”
The decking beneath their feet dropped away and pitched to the left.
They both screamed as they lifted into the air, but there was no hearing it over the massive bang that washed over them like a wave. They hit the ground and toppled, rolling across the deck toward the edge. Scarp had the lucky misfortune of catching a cable anchor in the stomach. He clung to it and stopped himself. Seace wasn’t so fortunate as she slid across the floor. She reached out and caught hold of a cable, and stopped herself momentarily, but the wire was quivering with tension. She knew the moment she touched it, the line was bound to snap. When it did, she managed to hang on, clinging to the lifeline as she careened toward the railing.
She was able to catch one of the rail posts with her leg, wrapping her knee around it. Her body swung into the open space, but between her leg and the coil in her hands, she kept herself from falling off the airship. Upside down, she hung on for dear life. She could smell burning oil and taste smoke in the air. Below, the ground both soft and sharp, grew closer by the moment.
The Imago was crashing.
The vessel rocked with another groaning explosion and leveled off. Seace used the opportunity to clamber back onto the deck and away from the edge. There was a sharp reverberating noise as several of the cables snapped. She ran for Scarp. He’d managed to gain his feet as well, and stood, wide-eyed, clutching a nearby support.
She grabbed his shoulder and pulled him along as she ran past. “This way! Into a bulkhead frame!” He didn’t resist, following along behind her.
The ship wasn’t pitching so badly, but there was a vibration beneath their feet, like a massage chair cranked up too high. It wasn’t much, but Seace could feel the downward tilt. It was slight, but at their speed, it wouldn’t be long before they collided with the ground. She tucked Scarp into a doorway and gave him a frantic kiss on the cheek.
“Stay here, love. I’m going to help!” He nodded and she ran back to the deck. It was safer to travel inside, through the different buildings, but it was cramped and the path wound like a maze. There was sure to be panic as well. It would take far too long. She kept a hand on the railing, ready to catch herself, and ran as fast as she could manage.
Fortunately, this section of the ship wasn’t in use any more. While the cables were still attached to massive harnesses above, they weren’t occupied anymore. They’d long since stopped using Cloudbellies, a species of sky-whales, as a means of transport. They’d worked well enough for a while, and Seace had enjoyed the beautiful simplicity of using living creatures to pull the ship, like some sort of celestial chariot. Their song had been an unintended benefit. But the demands on their velocity were ever increasing, and there’s only so fast a sky-whale can fly. Sentimentality be damned, the method had been abandoned, as had dozens of others, in their constant race for acceleration.
She turned away from the edge, hopped up some stairs, and entered the remains of the dried old hepler forest -once lush with lifting macropoln for the whales- and increased her own speed. The trees were dead gnarled things. The branches snagged her jacket, but were too brittle to hold her, snapping off as she crashed her way through. The growth platforms were tiered and, one by one, she rose up along the side of the Imago, until she was almost on the top section. When she got to the end of the woodlots, she took a sharp right and entered a service tunnel.
It was wide, broad enough for service vehicles, and every so often there were large aluminum roll-up doors. When she got to the fifth one, she jerked it up, slid under, and entered a warehouse. The place was floor to ceiling oak barrels. Old fuel for the alcho-turbines. One of the shelves had fallen, cracking them open like a carton of eggs. She splashed her way through the sour wine that had spilled across the floor and crossed to the other side. There was a lift, she hopped on, and was able to catch her breath while it carried her up.
She was feeling good about her progress. It had only been a few minutes since the first explosion. She wasn’t far now. Maybe she would make it in time. A pair of doors slid open above her, and the lift carried her out of the innards of the ship and deposited her on the top. She emerged facing the spired front of a Destynation church.
The structure was large, and was built like a traditional cathedral, but was tilted, angled backwards at a forty five degree angle, sloping away from the nose of the ship. She always thought it looked like someone had shot it with a hair dryer, or some cartoon where everyone tilted when things got fast. It wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Things were moving quickly, and a typical building would have been blasted apart by the wind.
The place was always pretty busy, but now it was packed. The doors were open and there were crowds of parishioners inside praying. They had palms pressed together with their heads tilted back and wrists on foreheads, turning themselves into tiny human steeples. They were singing loud enough, she could hear it over the wind. She didn’t stay and listen.
Leaving the devoted behind, she raced for the front magnetopusion rings. As they came into view, she could tell that someone was already there, trying to solve the problem. The system resembled an upside-down cone, or a tornado, increasing in scale as it got higher. The top ring was comprised of sixteen monolithic slabs, floating in the air, rotating. These slabs looked like black, featureless magnets and were the size of transports. The layer beneath was identical in every regard except for scale, also spinning with no visible means of suspension. Three more rings, each smaller than the ring above, rotated, all perfect representations of each other. When one trembled, their counterparts trembled. It all descended to a single control panel, the foot of the twister, where there was a core ring, no larger than a chess board, with small pieces that could be manipulated. Several engineers were standing around it, looking concerned. The occasional wiggle in the blocks she’d noticed meant they’d already cranked it up as high as safety recommended.
As she ran up, she saw that Maene wasn’t there. Either he was at one of the other ring junctions, or she’d beat him to the punch. In either case, she was the senior engineer on site. She skidded up to the panel, shouting for them to move out of her way. One look at her face and they complied. She pointed at the closest one.
“Pull the fours, eights, and twelves. Now!” she shouted.
“Which ring?” he asked.
She waved her hands in frustration. “All of them! Now!” They rushed to comply.
She slid her hands into the control mechanism, set the time stamp for thirty seconds, and called up a diagram. There was no touching the rotating pieces on the main board while the engine was engaged. To do that, you had to issue orders to the high speed automatic manipulators. Using the slower moving replica, she quickly shuffled the diorama and tweaked the velocities to reflect what she wanted done, only just finishing with a second to spare. As soon as the time was up, silver arms, as fast as a blink, reached into the spinning machine and made the changes she’d implemented.
The result was immediate. Above, the rotating blocks spun so fast they could hardly be seen. They wobbled on their axis and there was a clattering as many began to bump and jostle together. The result to the power flow was exactly what she’d wanted. Beneath her feet, she felt the pitch of the airship level off and rise up. They had their power and were no longer crashing. She’d done it.
The other engineers murmured, glancing nervously at the magnetopulsion engine. There was a heavy snap as one of the top slabs cracked in half. In quick succession, all of its smaller counterparts, on the lower rings, snapped in the same places. The fragments drifted, hitting, and colliding with others. There was a series of thudding booms as more of the rotary panels smashed together and crumbled. The cascade failure was deafening as organized slabs reduced themselves to a slurry of chunks, like boulders in a blender. She’d heard the big guns, capable of firing hundreds of rounds in a minute, and they couldn’t compare. The staccato was deafening. The other techs backed away in horror, clutching their ears as they watched the furious cyclone of magnet dust and shards.
Seace switched control screens, released the grips on the ruined slots, and re-inserted the four, eight, and twelve panels. A pelting of rocks, all that was left of the slabs, rained down. A black cloud rushed past them, carried by the angry wind. When the sooty mess cleared, she could see the few panels that had been preserved, back in place, spinning in lonely rings of three where there had once been sixteen.
The energy batteries were full, but, once they drained, they’d never fill again. The Imago was alive, but the unit was destroyed, capable of less than 20% of what it had been. She’d only delayed the inevitable. Eventually, the Imago would crash. But Seace didn’t mind.
After all, that’s all they ever did.
“Savior’s tears, you’ve humped it hard this time, Seace.”
She shrugged as Maene crunched through the magnet remains and inspected the readings on the control panel.
He didn’t like the look of them. “We’re at a +12.6 meter gain. Compound that by 12% hourly and we get,” he tapped a few numbers into the calculator. “Sixteen hours, give or take. Not good.”
“Better than the dirt,” she countered.
He nodded slowly. “Yeah, sure, but dirt wasn’t the only option. We were about to increase the angle when you hit the gas. Now that the engine is busted, that becomes a lot more difficult. I’m sure you know that.”
She rolled her eyes. “The engines were already busting! It’s the whole reason I had fry them keep our asses in the air. I’m sure you know that!”
Maene smiled at her. “Of course. Why you think you still have your job?”
“Because I’m the best engineer on the ship.”
He didn’t argue the point. “And humble even.”
“What’s the angle going to be?” she asked.
“They haven’t decided. Needs to be 28 degrees, at least, to get the acceleration up to put the wake gain into the positive again. They’re talking 60+ though, to give us lots of time to rig something new.”
Her eyes went wide. “60+? That’s nuts! We’ve never angled that sharply before. Never over 45, and you remember that? It was awful!”
He flipped down the screens on the machine. There wasn’t anything else to do with it. Like all the other dead tech, once they they didn’t need it, it would be powered down and left to rot. Until then, it would function in its diminished capacity just fine.
He came over, and joined her, standing a bit closer than she found comfortable. He knew she was with Scarp, but didn’t care. As a group, most of the engineers were an arrogant lot. They were the ones keeping the Imago afloat, and had no shortage of ego. While she shared their confidence, she didn’t like they way they behaved, as if they were entitled to special treatment, and everyone else was lesser. Almost everyone. They certainly had respect for the Pilots and their holy mission. The other engineers viewed themselves as knights, fighting gravity, on a quest for the promised land. She was convinced that most of them did what they did for the status, and didn’t even actually care about keeping people afloat and alive.
It was part of why Seace spent all her free time with Scarp. She couldn’t stand their macho nonsense, and she missed few opportunities to let Maene know.
He flopped an arm across her shoulders. “Sure, 45 it was rough, but it’ll be fine ‘cuz we’ve got such a fantastic engineer around!”
She slumped, and backed away, but he moved with her, yammering away. “It’s true! As long as we’ve got you, we’ll be fine. Wreck as many propulsion systems as you like. I’ll forgive you.”
She shoved him in the chest and shook her head. “No! We’re not always going to be fine. You know the Pilots can’t keep this up forever! Even if we find this promised land they’re looking for, we’re still going to have to deal with the wake.” She jerked a thumb in the aft direction.
He disagreed. “You’ve got it all wrong! Every world is different. When we find the perfect world, the wake won’t matter. It’ll just dissipate behind us, like it was never there.”
It hadn’t even been an hour since she’d leaned out over the railing and looked at the churning nightmare of wake for herself. No part of her believed that anything, ever, could simply dissipate it.
Nature ripped wherever they changed angles and passed from one reality to another. A small tear, at first, pulling just a few tiny remnants through as they jumped worlds, like crashing through sheets of glass, a few shards followed. But the accumulation never lessened. World by world, the wake grew, dragging pieces of everywhere they’d ever been behind them. Worlds of fire. Worlds of water. Worlds that had blasted weapons at them. Cities and ceramic mountains and uprooted forests of barbed wire. The wake was a swirled up churn of thousands of worlds, screaming and rushing behind them. It had its own momentum now, driven by their flight, and if they slowed, the deadly stew would overtake and destroy them.
Seace didn’t believe there was a miracle world that would save them. But she did have a plan.
“If we’re retrofitting things with the next angle, maybe it would be a good time to consider my strategy for stopping.”
He sighed and gave her a condescending smile, shaking his head, no. “The Destynation isn’t stopping until it gets where it’s going. You shouldn’t worry over what to do about the wake. Our job is to stay ahead of it. That’s all.” He reached out to tap her chest with a pointed finger, but she leaned back and he just waggled his hand dismissively.
“I keep telling you this and you keep not listening,” he said.
She agreed. “Yup, we are definitely not listening to each other.”
There was a double beep from his communicator and he pulled it from his belt. “Maene here.” He listened, frowning as he did so, and when he’d heard the message, said goodbye and clicked it.
“That didn’t take long,” he said.
“How many degrees?” she asked.
He pressed his lips shut, not wanting to say. She raised her voice. “Maene! How many?”
His voice lost its flirting tone. Dead serious. “71 degrees.”
They had to be insane! Or desperate. She couldn’t understand what the Pilots were thinking. Nobody with any sense would make a decision like this. Their pursuit of perfection was going to get everyone killed.
“When? How soon.”
The world-shift sirens began their pulsating wail, indicating that everyone had to get to security pods and buckle up. He didn’t need to answer her, but he did anyway.
The wail of the sirens had three different phases. The first gave everyone time to secure anything that needed to be battened down. Ten minutes for that and then the second pulsated and increased in volume. Another ten to strap in and get prepared. For most people, this meant a mouth-bit and blindfold. The very last siren beat an electronic peal once every second, for one minute. If anyone wasn’t ready by then, they were the countdown to doom.
Seace wasn’t part of any of the shift preparation teams, and she was too far from her quarters to go back and check if everything was secure. When the alarm started, Maene grabbed her by the arm and tried to bring her with him to the closest pod with safe seating racks. She shrugged him off and ran in the other direction. He didn’t try to follow her.
Typically, there was more warning that the Imago was going to turn. In the past, when they were moving more slowly, they’d schedule it out days in advance. But the time-frame was shrinking, from days, to hours. Seace had her preferred place to ride out shiftings in, up by the bow of the ship. Scarp never joined her; he couldn’t stand the place. Nobody joined her. Despite having room for dozens of people, she was the only one to ever strap in. It was like having a movie theater all to herself. Only, instead of a screen, there was a window, facing the rift.
She couldn’t stand not seeing where they were going.
It was a hustle, but she made it with time to spare. She found a center spot in the front row, closest to the glass, and buckled up. The belts had delicate circuitry running through in the shapes of mystic symbols. As the final piece latched, it all began to glow. They’d learned early on, that without some sort of protection, the human body was prone to changing to match the new world. The first experiments in traveling to other realities had resulted in a horrible mess for the original explorers. They weren’t just for turbulence, and, while they protected everyone well enough, the world jumping still induced intense nausea in most people. Sight and sound made this worse. Throughout the process, almost everyone was blind and deaf and clutching their armrests tightly.
But as the countdown pounded out, Seace loosened her muscles, relaxed back into her chair, and gazed straight ahead.
It started with a line that bisected the world. She couldn’t see it, not exactly. The phenomenon was like staring edge-on to a mirror. Half of the world became an imperfect reflection of the other, with a strange seam between. But, unlike a mirror, this line was jumpy like a vertical heartbeat monitor. It flickered, increasing in intensity, until it ripped in two, and something new began to appear between the reflections. It pushed, vibrating, and, with an electric snap, the broken line passed to the left and right of them. Her stomach dropped and a wave of vertigo hit her.
One angle down.
Through the glass, she could see that the world had changed. Not entirely, but in significant ways. The grass hat become brown, twice as tall, and braided like a child’s hair. The pink crystals monoliths lost their sharp edges, rounded off, and had become some golden hued metal material. The sky was orange now and, once again, a barely noticeable line appeared to slice the horizon.
Only seventy more to go, thought Seace. She swallowed hard and wiped her eyes.
The next world took the braided grass and wove it into an endless colorful kitchen mat. The gold towers sculpted themselves into geometric art, shining, and reflecting in the light of an extra sun. The one after was glitter dust in the air, and the cacophony of birds so loud she could hear it through the glass. Tree-stumps the size of plateaus, rainbow-colored craters on a gray moonscape, and a sea filled with origami ships. On and on, world after world, she watched them pass.
Somebody had to see them all. She’d decided a long time ago, when the wake was young, that it would be her.
They’d never intended to harm the places they passed through. In the beginning, the Imago had been a glorified lifeboat, nothing more. With the spread of the rust vapors, their world was doomed. Over seventy percent of the population was already dead when the Imago shifted a single angle into the reality next door. They’d never intended to go further, only to escape the poisonous air.
But the next world was too similar. The people there had wanted to know how they’d accomplished the shift, and, beset upon by their own ecological problems, tried to take it by force. The Imago left them behind, turning the dial several degrees, to avoid arriving in a similar place.
But that world had been water as far as the eye could see. Six more degrees and it was ice. By the time they’d turned forty, they’d discovered the connection between velocity and angles. The further they turned from their origin, the faster the ship moved. Not a huge amount, but the speed was growing with every turn of the dial.
With the speed, came the wake.
When fuel for the steam engines grew scarce, the Pilots shifted to gain momentum, lessening the burden on the engines, until they found a world where they could send out fliers to gather coal from ashen black mountains. When steam failed altogether, they switched to combustion and found a world with an ocean of gasoline. On and on, they pushed, modifying the ship as necessary. Seace couldn’t say how long they’d been on the voyage. Nobody aged the way they were supposed to. No two worlds had the same day or night cycles and their requirements for sleep varied wildly. Decades, at least. Maybe more like centuries? While lifespan was long, memory was not. She barely remembered old London, but she knew she’d been there, a long long time ago.
The Pilots stopped looking for someplace safe and altered their goals. They decided that they would find the perfect world. The Destynation Church was born, the mad remnant of a world that had probably died ages ago.
It was her job to keep the ball rolling, but, as she stared at world after world, melting together before her, she was tired.
She had her plans, for how to land the Imago safely, but she’d get no help from anyone else. If she was going to do it, she was on her own.
The world they finally stopped in was nice enough. It was coated in a thick forest and laced with a network of white stone mountains. There weren’t any lakes or oceans that Seace could see, but the clouds were all made of some type of floating liquid. She could see tall ships sailing the airborne seas, and there were port cities built on the peaks of the mountains for them to dock with the world below.
It looked nice, livable, and entirely out of reach. She felt bad for what the wake would do to them. Scarp, it seemed, had similar feelings.
“That’s pretty. I like the way the buildings cause the mountains to look like they’re wearing crowns. I wonder how many of them will make it.”
She turned away from the window, not wanting to see details.
“The ones in the distance will be fine. Anything beneath us, though…” She didn’t need to explain the consequences.
Scarp frowned, staring down at the places their passing would annihilate, taking it all in. “I hate it.”
She wrapped her arms around him. “I know.”
“I wonder, sometimes,” he said, “If there’s another ship, moving through worlds like we are, only, instead of leaving death and destruction behind, they’re trailing blessings and hope. Healing the path behind them, rather than tearing through like brutes.” He paused. “Like killers.”
She gave him a squeeze. “I don’t know. Maybe?” She’d seen enough worlds to believe it wasn’t impossible.
“I want to be a part of something like that. I can’t do this anymore,” he said.
She nodded. “I agree. That’s why I’m going to land the ship.”
He pulled away from her, annoyed, and turned back to the window. “They’ll never let that happen.”
“I’m not planning on asking them. I can make it happen.”
He didn’t hide his irritation. “And then what? They just happily live out their lives wherever you drop them? No consequences for what they’ve done?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t even know what the consequences for something like that would look like. I just want to stop it.”
He had a look in his eyes she hadn’t seen before. Scarp wasn’t a forceful or pushy guy. He was normally a nervous, careful, sort. But as he gazed down at those strange cities beneath them, the anger in his face was cold and hard.
“I can think of one.”
Seace didn’t like what he was thinking. Sure, Scarp was upset, and he had every right to be, but she was working on the problem. She knew how to fix it. Once she landed the Imago, and they managed to survive the wake, they’d finally end their mad tear across reality. Maybe then, they could hold the Pilots accountable. But that was a problem for later. First things first.
He turned quickly and crossed the room, quickly taking her hands. “I have something to show you. I tried the other day, but we were interrupted.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“I can’t just tell you. I have to show you. Come on.” Tightly holding her hands, he led her out of his quarters.
They made their way toward the stern of the ship. She tried to get a clue as to what he wanted to discuss, but he was tight-lipped and didn’t answer her questions. They followed a long, circuitous route that brought them to the underside of the Imago, down in the pipe-gut tangle of the original engines. There, in an abandoned loading dock, he showed her his surprise.
It was an escape capsule.
It looked more like a bathysphere than something that was meant to fly, round and brass, with two stubby arms, like oil cans, on either side. These were on swivels, capable of rotating as needed. She could tell that they were propulsion, meant to guide the ship in any direction. Like its underwater counterpart, the vehicle was attached to a thick cable and winch, so it could be lowered out of a nearby hatch.
“Scar? What are you planning?” she asked.
“I’m leaving, Sea. It’s not finished yet, but when it is, I want you to come with me.”
Her brow furrowed. “What are you talking about? You know I’m working on my plan to land us! Why would you do this?”
He looked at the pod, not her face. “I can’t. I just… I can’t be with them anymore. Even if you manage it, I don’t want to live with these people. I don’t even want to be in the same world as them.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “They’ll die if somebody doesn’t stop them. You know that, right? You’d really let that happen?”
He nodded, quickly. “Yes, let them go. They’re doing exactly what they want, Sea, and hurting people in the process. They deserve whatever they get. We don’t have to be a part of it.”
She didn’t disagree that they were wrong, and making a horrible mistake, but that didn’t mean she was going to abandon them to death either. If he would just be patient, she could make them stop. Once they’d landed, and the Imago was on the ground, they’d settle and accept whatever world they’d arrived on as their new home. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy, but then they’d have to face what they’d done. Wouldn’t they?
His voice softened as he continued. “You shouldn’t do this anymore, Sea. I don’t know if I can be with you, if you keep helping them. You’re… complicit.”
She stepped back as if he’d slapped her. All she’d ever done was work to keep her people alive! He knew damn well that she didn’t condone the choices the Pilots made, and she didn’t believe the drivel the Destynation Church peddled. But someone had to keep the Imago in the air. Their lives, his life, depended on it. How could he think that of her?
He pointed to the pod. “It’s meant for two. One pilot on each of the thrusters, to drive it. We winch out, come right up to the edge of the wake, then push ourselves off-center, feeding cable out as we go. Once we’re away from the main maelstrom, we cut loose and fall. We’ll catch the edge of the wake, for sure, but the hull should be able to withstand it. There’s parachutes, for once we get through.”
He closed the distance between them and put his hands on her hips. “Please, come with me. I need you. I can’t drive it alone, and, well, to be honest, I’d feel safer if you gave the whole contraption a look-over.”
She brushed his hands away. “You say I’m complicit in killing all those people we pass over. Fine, maybe I am. But, if I go with you, I’m responsible for killing every soul on the Imago! Not strangers. Not some random world. People we know.”
He slumped. “You shouldn’t save them, Seace. They’re murderers. They won’t stop.”
“I’m sorry, Scar. I love you, but I can’t leave them to die. We didn’t choose the wake! It was an accident.”
He shook his head, disagreeing. “You’ve had ideas on how to stop the Imago for years. Hell, you keep updating them to account for the acceleration and size of the wake. You’re constantly asking, begging, and they won’t stop. It may have started as an accident, but it isn’t anymore. They know what they’re doing.”
Maene’s dismissal was too fresh for her to not feel his point. “I can’t let them die though. I have to try and save them.”
For a moment, that same anger she’d seen earlier flickered on his face, aimed at her. Then he turned away and walked over to his ship.
She left him there, more determined than ever to put her plan in motion. He didn’t speak so that she was meant to hear; but even so, as she strode out of the hanger, his words reached her.
In the weeks that followed, Scarp took to avoiding Seace.
She didn’t like it, and the rift in their relationship was a distracting burden. But every time it boiled up and she thought she should hunt him down to talk it out, to try and settle things between them, she realized that there was nothing she could say to solve it. The best, and only, course of action she could think of was to pull off her plan faster than he managed his. To her mind, it was a race, with everything at stake: both the lives of everyone on the Imago and her connection to Scarp. She was saving both of them. She had to. Her pace was frantic.
It wasn’t difficult to hide what she was doing from Maene. The engineers didn’t typically have big crews beneath them; the robo-mech spiderlings obviated the need for that. But while the task was easy to hide, the workload was brutal.
They’d opted for a hydrogen-saline pressure system to produce the energy needed to keep the ship afloat. Water was abundant in the clouds and filled with minerals. They could scoop up what they needed and run a sloppy machine, flush with fuel. Levitation enchantments would provide pressure and flow to create a liquid circuit. It wasn’t the most difficult retrofit, or the most complicated, and it spread through the Imago like a cardiovascular system. Lots of new pipe and hydraulics to install and old leftovers to remove. It was a simple pattern, but it was long, and repetitive, with a slew of pieces.
The scale of task was a stroke of luck for her, the fact that the new system was ship-wide, as it allowed Seace to move wherever she needed to implement her plan. She was able to perform her job and still make progress on her own secret mission. Every evening, she coded detailed instructions for the spiderlings to ensure they were working around the clock. If she wasn’t present, she made sure they were working on something legitimate, in case one of the other engineers investigated. For this remote work, they did the removals and staged supplies and prepped locations. But she was always present whenever she was working on the tasks associated with stopping the Imago.
Seace didn’t trust unsupervised spiderlings with so many explosives.
She was watching the things swarm an old radio relay like ants on candy. They were half the size of a person, with four brass arms for working and four brass legs for moving. They could climb most anything and, on a flat surface, could cartwheel fast enough to keep pace with a transport vehicle. Their housing units, segmented like a peeled orange, each held a dozen tool sets. Most of them had specialized load-outs, but a few things were standard: drill, torch, simple tools, etc… The way they worked together was like a dance of limbs, and, as usual, she was impressed with herself for her ability to synchronize so many of them. Most engineers could coordinate a half dozen or so. She had over twenty on this site alone. Another dozen were elsewhere, stripping and collecting old pipe.
Her ability was on account of some personal modifications she’d made to one of the spiderlings. By removing most of the interior compartments and replacing them with computational relays, she’d created a sort of relay hub. This ‘boss spiderling’ was able to translate many of her simple commands into complicated requests and pass them along accordingly. It was the only unit of the whole lot that had the specifications of her entire plan.
Concentrating as she was, she didn’t hear Maene approaching until he was almost on top of her.
“I keep telling you, you’re gonna crash those things one of these days,” said Maene. “How can you even tell what they’re doing?”
She flicked her control dash and turned a dial moments before he came up beside her. Her command spiderling scurried behind the radar housing and froze, hiding from him.
“If it’s too confusing for you, I can always stop. You can get someone else to do it,” she said.
He put his hands up, defensively. “No, no. I’m sure you’re fine. I’m just ridin’ ya, Sea. Relax.” He glanced at her panel and then at the work site. He nodded.
“That’s coming along well. You’re not as far as I thought, but, that just means you’re only a little ahead of schedule, slacker.”
She huffed and flicked the controls. A trio of spiderlings turned to face Maene, lifted arms, and raised a single screwdriver into the air. He laughed at the ‘salute’.
“Glad to see you’ve still got your sense of humor. I noticed you’re not bunkin’ with Scarp anymore. Thought you might be mopin’ around,” he said.
“We’re both just busy is all. We’re still together.”
Maene bobbed his head. “Busy, right. I know what you’re up to, but what’s he do again?”
She knew the answer wouldn’t lead anywhere good, but it wasn’t worth a dodge or a lie. “History teacher.”
Maene scoffed. “Oh, yeah. Fuckin’ useless, that. What good is knowing a damn thing about the old world once we find perfection?”
She slammed a few buttons and pushed at him to back up with her elbow. “Did you just come here to harass me? Go do some work already!”
“I am workin’! It’s my job to check on you. See how you’re doing. If my girl had such a cushy job, and still didn’t have time for me, I’d be upset,” he said.
“If you had a girl, would you still bother me with this bullshit?” She had a pair of spiderlings drop a bundle of pipe from the second tier of scaffolding, punctuating her sentence with a clattering racket.
He turned away. “Alright, alright! I’m going. But if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
She waited until Maene was gone to recall her boss-bot back over from where it had been hiding. She had it resume monitoring functions for the spiderlings with explosives and watched them place the charges on two dozen hidden locations. When they’d finished, she sent them off to go get more.
Two more days was all she needed. She’d finish the explosives tomorrow and slide the remaining shielding into place the day after. The bypass was already finished. She’d filled the tanks that needed it.
She wondered how close Scarp was to finishing. The dreadful thought that he might have already left struck her, gone without a goodbye. But no, he wouldn’t do that. Would he?
She wanted to go see, to check on the lifeboat and find out if it was still there, but she stopped herself. Knowing wouldn’t change anything. She had to stay the course.
If she hustled, she could probably shave a few hours off the process. Six? Maybe eight? Would that be enough?
She took a deep breath and looked at her robotic assistant. He was working better than she’d anticipated. They made a good team. Together, they could handle a bit more work. Eager to get to it, she summoned another half dozen assistants.
Scarp found Seace in the secondary starboard fabrication chamber. The machines were running at full tilt, creating objects that looked like shields. The sort Roman soldiers used to form palisades. They were chugging away, pouring metal into molds, sliding the cooling pieces onto the conveyor belts where they were hammered into shape, and stamped before being doused for cooling. It was hot and loud and steamy, but, even so, Seace noticed him almost immediately. She didn’t hide the look of relief on her face. Leaving the machines to their task, she rushed to his side.
“You’re still here! Thank goodness!”
She reached out to hug him, but he stepped back, offering his hands instead. She wanted an embrace, but would take what she could get. She pulled off her leather gloves so she could feel his skin.
“I’m finished,” he said. “Done.”
She squeezed his hands. “Me too! I’m done! I mean, I’m almost done. Everything will be in place by morning. You don’t have to leave now.”
His face looked sad, then resolved as he spoke. “I am leaving. As soon as the sunset touches the horizon. I’m asking you, begging you, to come with me.”
She bobbed on her toes. “But you don’t have to go! It’s all ending tomorrow! I’m going to stop the ship, it’s just about ready. Once we land, we’ll leave them. If you don’t want to be around any of them for what they’ve done, that’s fine. We’ll go someplace else, away from the Imago and everyone in it. Please, wait a little longer. Let me save them!”
He looked down at her and shook his head, no. Letting go of her hands, he gave her the hug she’d wanted. But, it didn’t feel right. It was deep and long, and she realized it was probably the last one she’d ever get from him.
“You can’t save them and be with me. You shouldn’t save them. They deserve their destination.” He pulled away from her. “Goodbye, Seace. I love you.”
Her mind spun, looking for a solution, trying to think of a way to make him stop. He didn’t give her the time. With a teary-eyed look, he left the workshop as quickly as he’d arrived. Stunned, all she could do was watch him go. She realized, as she stared at the empty door, she hadn’t even told him she loved him back.
She stood there, frozen, unable to move as the machines cranked out shields. This couldn’t be happening. There had to be a way to fix this. A glance a the clock told her that she had just under an hour before sunset. That was when Scarp was leaving, with or without her. She still had half a day of work left before she was ready. Maybe nine hours. But she was so close!
Maybe close enough.
It was a risk, sure it was a risk, but she might pull it off, if she wanted to take the chance. Just enough time. If she set her plan in motion immediately, then the Imago would already be landing before Scarp could implement his own plan to leave. She would have to move quickly, though. Right now.
She flipped her control console up from her tool-belt and flicked the screen to life. Her finger hesitated over the button, but only for a moment, before she pressed it. Rising in chorus, the sirens that indicated a reality shift sang out across the entire ship. She didn’t bother shutting down any of the machinery she’d been using as she raced out of the fabrication chamber. What was unfinished, didn’t matter anymore.
Her plan had three phases. Triggering the alarms had been easy because she was able to do that from anywhere. But the next parts of the plan required her to be at a particular spot she’d set up to control things. It was a distance, but she could make it before the sirens finished their cycle. She had to wait until everyone on the Imago responded to them anyway. Fifteen minutes and crew and passengers alike would be buckled in and eyes closed, expecting a normal shift. Sure, the Pilots would know something was wrong, and Maene as well, but they couldn’t stop the alarms. She’d seen to that. Her hope was they’d assume some sort of malfunction and buckle up like everyone else.
Using her wrist controller, she sent her chief spiderling racing ahead to her destination. She told it to unscrew the bolts and reveal the secret control panel they’d built. She’d left him in the workshop, but he made up the distance, and passed her with ease, even though she was running. She wasn’t out of place, sprinting across the deck. The sirens had taken everyone by surprise, and there was a mad scramble to reach the secure seating modules.
She wove her way through people, making her way topside and up. Her destination was a glass observation deck. It looked like a transparent water tower, a clear bulb of a thing on a trunk, with a spiral staircase wrapped around it. Because of its placement, she could look down on both sides of the ship, and, most importantly, backwards towards the wake. She arrived to find her special spiderling waiting next to the open console. She checked the panel, reviewed the numbers, and input her codes.
The moment the countdown sirens shifted into their final minute, she triggered every one of the explosives simultaneously.
All across the surface of the Imago, demolition bombs went off. Huge and bright, like orange flowers blooming in high-speed stop-motion glory. The ship was a rickety beast on a good day, but with a kick like that, whole sections shattered and began to tear free. Old factories (abandoned), enormous engines (rusted), housing (derelict), and more, blasted away from the core of the ship. She smiled as the Church of Destynation finally fell onto its back and toppled to the wind.
Everywhere, the Imago was shedding its skin: walls and roofs and floors lifted.
Seace was jettisoning 46% of the mass of the vessel, at her best calculations. Nothing with passengers separated, she’d been careful about that. But everything else, however vital it might be, was breaking away. All their work, along with the accumulated bullshit they’d built and abandoned to keep the ship flying in their mad quest for perfection, was chopped off like a bad haircut. It had its own momentum, and the Imago flew alongside the colossal fleet of discarded bits.
Now, she had to force the ship perpendicular, as hard a turn as they could take, before the debris lost that momentum. The starboard side of the Imago was reinforced with armor plating. Thousands and thousands of shields installed by her spiderlings. The robotic minions were programed such that, even now, they were still welding panels into place.
Once the Imago turned, it could drop. The massive wreckage would continue on, drawing the wake along and over them. They’d catch a lot of the distortion wave, but not all of it. She hadn’t gotten all the shields into place, so it wasn’t impervious. There had also been more buildings she hadn’t been able to blow. The ratio of mass wasn’t exactly what she’d been hoping for.
But it should work. It had to work.
She was about to trigger the engines and swing the ship broadside when the door to the observatory slammed open.
Maene was there, holding a large wrench.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he shouted.
She turned and faced him, surprised.
There was no hiding what she was doing. “We have to land, Maene. We’ll die if we don’t.”
She shook his head. “I knew it! There was no way those retrofits were taking you so long. I found your panel here, last week, but didn’t know what you were up to. This is crazy, Sea! I can’t let you do it.”
He marched toward her.
“You’re chief engineer, Maene. You know the state of the Imago. We can’t go on like this! The Destynationists are wrong. You know that!”
He stopped in front of her and raised the wrench over his head, threatening to crush her with it. She stood her ground, glaring up at him. She didn’t believe for a second that he would hit her. He couldn’t. He’d been infatuated with her for years. She’d always frustrated him and pushed his buttons, but he never fired or demoted her. Always, he’d forgive her and try, over and over, to win her affection. The wrench was an empty threat.
“Seace, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but it’s going to stop. Right now.”
He swung the tool down hard, over her shoulder, and into the control panel. Seace screamed and grabbed his arm, but it was too late. He was a big guy and he managed several more swings, even with her clinging on him. It sparked and sizzled, and the screens went blank.
Seace stared in horror. Without the ability to turn the ship, the wake would catch them.
That would be the end of things.
He dropped the wrench and grabbed her arm. “I’m taking you to the Pilots. What happens to you isn’t up to me anymore. I’m finished.”
The Pilots wouldn’t hesitate to throw her from the ship for what she’d done. They were fanatics, every one. Maene couldn’t hurt her himself, but now that she’d pushed him far enough, he just might let them do it. It would have scared her if not for the knowledge that nobody would live long enough to see her punishment carried out. As Maene began dragging her across the room, she flipped open her belt controller and punched buttons furiously with her left hand.
Next to the destroyed panel, her command spiderling sprang to life. One hand engaged a large clamp and the other attached a pair of pliers. It jumped at Maene’s back and wrapped it’s legs around his waist. He screamed as the pliers grabbed his ear and squeezed. The clamp grabbed the arm holding Seace and bent it backwards. She helped the machine by throwing an elbow into Maene’s stomach.
It was enough. He lost his grip and she was free. She scrambled for the door and raced down the spiral staircase out of the observatory. With every rotation down the stairs, she could see the wake behind them, churning like a thundercloud made of fire and splinters, steam and bones. She didn’t need to calculate velocities to see that it was too close.
As she hit the main deck, the countdown siren shifted into the throbbing tone that played while they were adjusting the angle of the Imago and moving through realities. It was eerie and strange without the accompaniment of the shift engines and the sound of ripping dimensional barriers. Far too quiet. It wasn’t long before everyone would know that something was wrong. Once that happened, people would leave their safety seats to try and determine what was going on. She didn’t want to think about the death-toll if she couldn’t turn the ship in time.
She normally didn’t want anything to do with the Pilots, but the Maene’s threat had given her an idea. Her console was destroyed, but it had only been a splice, connected in to access the main helm controls. She could still fire the required engines from the cockpit of the Imago. It wasn’t far.
She bolted into the wind. Worried that Maene would come after her, she looked behind her. Her fears were well placed. He’d managed to throw her spiderling off the observation tower. It twitched on the deck, sparking and trying to regain its feet. Maene was circling the stairwell, racing down at speed. But he wasn’t what frightened her. The wake, lightening and vines, had reached the aft end of the Imago. The primary back fin of the ship, over five stories high, buckled and melted like microwaved plastic. Enormous bulbs of mold sprouted from the molten metal globs. The ship shuddered as the fin was consumed. Tendrils of purple rope licked the back engines, leaving a thick red liquid dripping wherever they passed.
She forgot about Maene and pushed her speed, pumping her legs as fast as she could. She unlatched her tool belt and let it drop, discarding the weight. Nothing on it was more important than getting to the cockpit.
She didn’t encounter any resistance from security when she got there. Relieved that they were away, she burst inside to find the place was near empty. Everyone, with the exception of a trio of Pilots, were gone. The ones that remained, were strapped into their chairs, far across the command center. Even if they had the inclination to unstrap and rush her (and why would they?), she had time to do what was required.
The center of the room was dominated by the crystal compass, a massive rainbow-hued star that hung in the heart of the world shifter construct. There was a flat band of gold floating around it, marked with the degrees of a circle, like something fancy you’d see on an old fashioned globe or compass. It was impressive, but she barely gave it a glance. A single command panel was all she needed.
There was a crashing rumble as another something, she had no idea what, was torn from the aft of the ship.
Somewhere near where Scarp had been going.
She used her access, navigated to the right screen, and engaged the engines. The thrust was immediate, hurling her sideways onto the floor. They were turning, as fast as they could, they were turning! She had no idea if it would work or not. The current situation was way outside the range of possibilities she’d calculated.
The roar of the wake swelled, and the Imago groaned as it heaved to starboard.
Seace clung to the base of the console chair and hoped it would all hold together.
The entire Imago shook as it turned. With so much of the ship blown off, what remained was less bound-up and constrained. She could feel the bones of the old airship rattle, like the entire vessel was having seizure. That, with the waves of the wake lashing strange realities against them, and she couldn’t avoid feeling like she’d made a fatal mistake.
As the nose swung into place, the sunset came into view through the main cockpit windows. She watched as it slowly centered on the sun, remembering what Scarp had said. She stopped focusing on the sound of squealing metal. She ignored the automated alarms, and the banging, and the throbbing in the floor. She kept her eyes on the sun as, moment by moment, it dropped. It touched the horizon just as the ship stopped turning. They’d survived the course alteration, but all she could think about was how this was the very moment when Scarp said he was leaving. Surely he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.
With the easing of the centrifugal force, she climbed back into the seat and eased the lever to drop their altitude. It was important that they separate from the debris cloud and lower altitude, as quickly as was safe. Another half hour descending, then, she could engage landing gear that had never once been utilized. Her stomach dropped as the started downward. She checked the readings.
The wake was crashing against the shielded side of the ship, but it appeared to be holding well enough. Each of the defensive panels the spiderlings installed had been inscribed with a rune and a lesser version of the same magic that kept the passengers from altering forms during a world shift. These would prevent the energy of the remnant worlds from transfiguring the Imago itself. Sure, some would splash around the barrier, but not much. It was more dangerous to people than to the inanimate parts of the ship. She could tell, with a quick search on her screen, that most everyone was still safe and secure. She cursed as she realized one of the safety compartments near the back was gone. Twenty-seven people, consumed by the wake. She knew there would be losses, but her heart pounded and she felt a faint at the thought.
As they lowered, they also slowed, and much of the wake began to pass over them, chasing their debris. The view of the sunset was replaced by a swirling cloud of soot, strobing with multi-hued colors, and wailing like a hurricane. She heard music, gunfire, and the howls of beasts. They were in it, the edge of the wake, but they weren’t dead. If her readings were right, then, they only had to survive a few more moments. Across the room, she heard the Pilots shrieking in terror. The great crystal of the world shifter construct shook, and, for a moment, it looked like it would tip from its housing and come crashing to the floor.
Then they burst through the reality storm.
Above them, the sky was a nightmare stew of all the worlds they’d ever crashed through. This maelstrom of matter was, for the most part, rushing overhead and following the massive chunks of ship they’d discarded. Seace adjusted their slope and pushed what engines were left to move them away from their decoy. It wasn’t as fast as she’d have liked, but they were clear. She’d done it.
She couldn’t help but laugh as the realization struck her. They were going to be safe! Most of them anyway. She could patch things up with Scarp, move away from everyone else, and stop this mad search for perfection. Her eyes teared up, looking out over their new world with its white mountains and liquid clouds. She’d never dreamt they would wind up someplace so beautiful. Not perfect, but wonderful compared to where they had came from.
As the tension broke, she sobbed.
The door to the main deck opened, and Maene was there.
He’d been outside when the wake had washed over them. Away from the protective magic; he’d been changed. Not for the better.
The left side of his body was a scabby mesh of wicker and hay, like a scarecrow patio chair. She could see he had muscles beneath, but they were raw and injured. His torso had become transparent and all of his organs were as visible as the fruit in a holiday jello. These innards weren’t human anymore, made of strange shapes and colors, and were not attached together like they should be. He had extra eyes, porcupine hair, and his right arm was the size of a gorillas. His left leg was a braid of snakes.
He saw her and snarled over staple teeth. “You!”
She stared at him, horrified. She wanted to tell him she’d done it, that she’d saved everyone, but it wasn’t true. She hadn’t saved him. Nothing could save Maene now. “My god, Maene. I’m sorry!”
He lurched into the room, staggering as he walked, and using his long primate arm like a third leg. She thought he was coming for her, but he had other intentions.
He was going for the world engine.
She realized what he was doing too late. There wasn’t anything she might have done to stop him, even if she had. He was always bigger than her, and now he was monstrous.
One of the Pilots saw his intent and tried to intervene. “Stop! You can’t just turn it! You have to calculate the…”
Maene picked the man up by his head and tossed him across the room. He grabbed the dial in his muscular fist.
“We will find it! We will make it to paradise!” he shouted.
He heaved against the ring, cranking it around and starting a world shift. But he didn’t stop with one pull. Again and again he hauled on the golden band.
Two full rotations.
The crystal grew brighter with every turn, filling the room with light like a rainbow sun.
It was madness. It was their death. Even their best enchantments couldn’t save them from what they would become with a shift like that.
Howling in anger, Maene kept turning the dial.
Seace threw her arm up to shield her eyes from the blinding beams of color. She couldn’t see Maene anymore; only a vaguely human outline, fuzzy, and distorted, where he’d been. She turned away and scrunched her eyes shut, giving them a moment to recover from the intensity of the glare.
Her mind raced with potential solutions, ways to stop what was happening, but despite decades of experience, she couldn’t conceive of any way to fix it. There was no disengaging the world shifter construct, not while it was active. She couldn’t countermand the order for altering the angle either. Backwards was impossible, always had been. The acceleration that accompanied shifting would keep them afloat, wherever they wound up, but they would never be able to stop. Not after this. Soon, they wouldn’t even have time to see the worlds they tore through anymore, let alone slow down enough to land on one. Even if they found their precious paradise, they’d hurl right past it.
And all that assumed they weren’t changed into something less than human along the way.
The thought reminded her that the shifting was starting soon. She crawled across the floor, feeling her way through the shining light, to one of the empty security chairs, and strapped herself in. The enchantments wouldn’t protect her for the thousands of degrees Maene had spun the dial, but it would hold them at bay for a while.
As she exhausted her options, she couldn’t help but hear Scarp’s voice in her head. He’d always said that the Destynationists would never let the ship land. Despite her best efforts, it appeared he was right. They never would. Now, the Imago would just speed ahead, faster and faster, shifting angles until it changed so much it couldn’t even be called a ship. Eventually, what was left would simply become the tip of the wake. They would be nothing but a storm of chaos, bullying their way across reality.
She desperately wanted to tell him she was sorry. She should have helped with his lifeboat, agreed to pilot, and gone with him. It was too late, though. She’d doomed them all with her failure. All she could do now was find him, apologize, and maybe they could die together. It was impossible to solve the Imago’s troubles, but if she could get to Scarp, she might be able to solve one last problem of her own.
Putting her hands over her eyes to keep from being blinded, she looked through the cracks in her fingers and squinted at the horizon through the main window. Outside, the seam that would split the world was quivering, and she watched it burst, pushing away the world with liquid clouds and thrusting them into a land of oyster trees and a sky filled with hairy butterflies.
She couldn’t leave the room without the protection of the runes on the chair straps. But there wasn’t anything stopping her from carrying protection with her. They had originally created prototypes of rune armor, meant to give the engineers a degree of safety in the event of a mid-shift disaster. But they’d proved to be bulky, hard to work in, and they wound up never being needed. They were probably in some storage unit that Seace had blown off the ship earlier.
Cursing the choice to ditch her tool belt earlier, she went through her pockets, looking for anything to help rig temporary protection. She found a small wire clipper. They shifted through four worlds while she removed the straps of her chair. The glow from the compass crystal was so bright that it hurt her eyes, even squeezed shut, as she worked the last strap. As soon as it ripped free, she wrapped the mess around her neck and staggered to the door. She’d need a better power source, and had to wire it , but she wouldn’t find those things here. She had to get out.
The force of the wind almost knocked her down as she left the cockpit. Across the length of the ship the starboard side of the sky was filled with wake, undulating, and angry, but slipping behind them again as they pressed ahead. The rest of the sky was a starless night filled, instead, with floating neon letters. Everything smelled like burnt chocolate.
“It’s not that exciting, Sea,” she remembered. “We’ve seen much stranger angles.”
She wasn’t sure she had.
She pushed through the wind, attempting to make it to to the nearest fabrication center. Not all of the engineering locations had been on the ship’s exterior and she still had options. But it was far, and the protective straps weren’t going to hold their charge for very long. Maybe not long enough.
She wondered how Scarp might react if she arrived, distorted and disfigured, like Maene had.
A green fog washed over the deck as the Imago plunged into a new world. Blindly, she ran ahead, arm outstretched, hoping without confidence that she was still going the right way. She saw a light and made her way to it. To her surprise, it was moving as well, and approached her quickly.
Her spiderling! It was still sparking as it crawled across the deck toward her. It held her tool belt in his pliers hand and had a protective rune shield on its back. Her eyes went wide at the sight of it, and she laughed in relief.
“You! My friend, you’re a sight! I could kiss you!”
The spiderling tilted its body away, rejecting the offer while extending an arm out, passing her the tool belt.
They passed through three worlds while they assembled what they needed, and the fog washed away, replaced with a half dozen suns in different shades of blue. The rig they wound up with would protect her from most of the harm, putting the reality strain onto the spiderling. When she was finished, she wore its body as a backpack, and had protective symbols on all of her limbs. Her machine companion ran two of its legs parallel to hers, and made walking in the wind much easier.
Now, all she had to do was find Scarp before everyone died.
He’d been planning on departing from the abandoned hangar, near the aft, when she last saw him. It was as sensible a place as any to start. Odds were good he was in a nearby safety bunker.
They passed through two worlds as she marched through the gale to his location. When she arrived at the hangar, he wasn’t there.
The lifeboat wasn’t there either.
Her heart sank. He’d done it. He’d left her. She tried to slump to her knees, but her brass spider legs held her upright.
“Oh, Scar. I’m sorry.”
The squeal of metal on metal answered her. At the edge of the platform, a thick cable scraped along the lip. Scarp’s cable. Her eyes went wide. It wasn’t slack! It was still tight! His bathysphere contraption was still on the other end of it!
She ran over to the edge and looked down. There, tighter than a bowstring, was a line extending away from the ship. Her eyes followed it back to where it vanished into the wake.
He was in the wake, alone.
She looked at the winch, thinking for a moment that she could pull him back, but one glance at the taught cable and she knew that would snap it. She had no idea why it hadn’t snapped already. It would soon, any moment now.
There wasn’t really a choice.
She gave the Imago one last look, and let it all go.
Seace dropped over the edge, carried down the trembling cable in the arms of her brass spider.
The Imago had increased the rate of its shifting. and, as Seace slid away, she had a hard time differentiating what was the assault of new worlds and what was the wake. The sky became an undulating smear, blending with the mad kaleidescope of their aftermath. She felt dizzy and nauseous. Was she falling into a raging sea or rising into a stormy sky? The line was straight as an arrow, but she felt like she was rotating on a merry-go-round. Her senses didn’t match her perceptions. She wanted to slap herself, to clear her thoughts, but she didn’t dare let go of the spiderling. She shook her head furiously and screamed, trying to push away the feelings. When she looked up the line (or down? Along?), her doubts about where she might be ended.
The wake had swallowed her whole.
Her fingernails turned black and two of the dials on her spiderling became ears.
Raindrops, saturated with the past, sprayed her face.
“Will you get in here? That stuff’s not good for you!” said Scarp.
Seace ignored him. “It’s so hot! Do you know how hot it is on the factory floor? Twice as hot as outside. Thrice! I don’t care what’s in this rain, so long as it cools me off.”
He hunched beneath the awning. “Lockit pox! Oilits! And… acid! Plenty of acid!” She’d been working all week and this was their only day off. She wasn’t going to let a bit of weather ruin their time together, regardless of how toxic it might be.
She reached her hand out, asking him to join her. “You’re not going to rust, silly man.”
But he did rust. Right then, in front of her. His body narrowed, stretched out and twisted, like a strand of taffy. He elongated, becoming absurdly tall and straight. He fell backwards and she hugged his waist, desperate for him to come back. She felt the wind on her face as she raced along him. Seace stared at the cable she was riding, looking at the corrosion on the surface, wondering if it had really been Scarp.
No, her head was.
There were imperfections in the rust. Tiny filaments, like bristles, rising off the line. She leaned in close and they grew, swelling until they were the size of buildings. It was so detailed. Almost like she was there, or maybe her eyes had become telescopes. She leaned into the vision, shrinking as she passed into the line and walked along the underside. She stepped onto a balcony.
It looked out over an ember city, dusted with rust, glowing with amber light. There was a curved arch behind her and, beyond it, a dining room. She walked in. There were people there, but different. They were the color of teeth, bulky and hairless: a man, woman, and two children. Something about them was very familiar.
The woman looked at her with cavity eyes. “Seace?”
Although she was different, she couldn’t deny the resemblance. The woman was her. Some form of her at least. “Seace?” she asked back.
The man, a strange version of Scarp, threw his napkin down onto the table. “I expect you’ll want me to decide between you! Again!” The children looked at her in confused horror.
“No,” said Seace. “I’m not here to make you. I mean, I’m not here. I don’t think. I’m not us.”
Her alter-ego picked up a knife from the table and stood. “Too much of you! Entirely too much!”
Seace backed away from her, but her heels caught on the lip of the doorway. She fell backwards, toppling over the balcony and falling into open space. She watched herself, at the railing, watching herself fall.
She was glad she was gone.
Was she gone?
Strong hands caught her by the shoulders and pulled her sideways onto the surface of a small planet. Very small. She hunched one hemisphere and her spiderling took the other. One of them was upside-down, but she’d be damned if she knew which.
He’d grown himself a mustache. It twitched, and a series of clicks emerged. Somehow, she understood the machine chitter. “Watch yourself, the surface is slick.”
It was. Like a million glass marbles, glued to a hanging disco ball. Hanging? There was a line, extending up to the arms of an enormous mobile. Not line.
“Is this it? The escape ship?” she asked, touching the ground beneath her.
The spiderling lurch-shrugged. “You haven’t programed my answer yet.”
Carefully turning, she reached down and pried a marble from the planet surface. It was bigger, in her hand, than it was underfoot, larger than an apple. She tossed it away and it expanded in size as it circled the shrunken planet: a new moon. Underneath the spot she’d removed it from, she could see the hull of the lifeboat.
“It is! We’ve got to clear these marbles and find the way inside.” She began plucking them from the surface of the world and flicking them behind her. Her extra arms helped.
Moon after moon began their erratic orbits. It wasn’t long before the ship/ball/planetoid/sphere looked more like the model of an atom than a planet. Dozens of electron-moons whizzed and zipped overhead. Seace had to crouch, but she was making progress. She’d finally found the door, and almost had the hatch handle revealed, when one of the wayward satellites collided with the cable.
The effect was explosive. The bathysphere, now snapped from the line, spun, and toppled through the wake. The surface marbles all flew free, increasing the number of moons tenfold and hurling Seace and her spiderling out into the open churn. She used her arm to throw one of her other arms, like a rope. The limb snaked out and managed to grasp the door latch. She swung her foot like a life preserver, casting it away for her robot friend. She felt like a noodle, with a bit of herself stuck in the middle. The spiderling managed to latch on with a telescoping butterfly net. She didn’t remember the spiderlings ever having an attachment like that, but it wasn’t impossible. She wasn’t expected to know every attachment of every spiderling at a time like this, was she?
Not when clutching a handle for dear life.
The door – smell of cookies heat from oven grandma – opened.
Opened – revolving door spinning university late for class – wide.
Unfolded like – bouquet on the steps day after date gift first – a flower.
Petal – a handful of leaves crunching dead into dust – after petal.
Plant to – fingertips on skin massaging sore muscles sliding hips – fingers.
Peacock feather – clutching across the deck together ship lurch crashing – hands.
Fanning to – sweat work muscle strain must – reveal.
She fell into the diving bell, hugging Scarp with a thousand arms.
His own multitude grasped her back.
Infinite hands of brass pulled the door shut behind them.
Once they’d dropped free of the wake, Piderline deployed the parachutes.
Seace and Scarp sat, leaning on each other as they held hands and gazed out the window. The bathysphere lifeboat had been significantly altered by its time inside the wake. The windows were larger, offering an excellent view of their new world. The interior had been redecorated in pink suede, and the exterior had grown a thick fruity mango skin. It wasn’t the only thing that was different.
Scarp’s eyes were different sizes and didn’t match anymore. His hair had become a mane, like a horse, going all the way down his spine. He was a bit taller, and his knees could bend sideways.
Seace had grown small antlers on the tips of her elongated ears, two extra toes on each foot, and had another, smaller tongue beneath her original one. She felt different, too, in her lungs, and when they tested it, they discovered she could hold her breath for nearly an hour. Of course, she couldn’t talk when she wasn’t breathing, so the experiment as to how long she actually could do it was inconclusive.
But their changes weren’t nearly as surprising as Piderline’s. The spiderling’s body had shifted to a more humanoid stance, with the central hub elongating and becoming more like a torso than a pincushion. He had no eyes, or head, but that didn’t stop him from sporting a monocle, a new top hat, and a brand new personality of his own. He informed them of his name change once they’d cleared the wake.
He fiddled with the instruments as the others stared out over the new world.
The plants were more blue than green, and the sky had rings of opalescent pearl. The oceans were chalk brown, like coffee with too much cream. They had no idea if it was inhabited by people or not, but they’d spotted herds of something like rabbits, the size of elephants, and a large variety of flying reptiles. In any case, it could support life, which meant they could survive there too.
In the distance, through a tear that split dozens of worlds, they saw the Imago as it corkscrewed down through reality. Like a worm, gnawing through the pages of a book, it was a small thing, down at the far end of the angled hole it left behind, receding. Above it, the wake descended like a waterfall, crashing down after it. They watched it go, and as the rift closed behind them. Where they’d passed, the azure forest was melted black, fused glass, and bubbling mud. This wasteland smear ended abruptly at the place the tear had sealed.
Seace couldn’t help but feel sad, even though she couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly why. Was it their dying? Or the death of those their passing caused? Or her failure to save any of them?
So much death she’d been unable to prevent, but somehow, here she was; safe in Scarp’s arms.
The feeling was confusing in how good it felt.
“You did the right thing, trying,” said Scarp.
He nodded. “It was a braver thing than what I wanted for them. Kinder.” He dragged his fingertip along one of her new antlers.
“Ridiculously reckless, as well,” interjected Piderline. “I was there! I saw what she did. Panels and explosions and whatnot! Poor calculations, all that! I’ll tell you one thing, she won’t be making any of the decisions when we land. Not for me, no sir!”
Seace didn’t argue. She’d had enough trying to solve problems; lifetimes of them, keeping the Imago afloat, ever since they’d left London. It felt like an eternity. She was done. The robot spider-man could run the show for a while and let her and Scarp have a break.
“What do you think it’ll be like, down there?” Scarp asked.
She felt the gentle sway of the ship drifting down on the parachutes, and looked at the swath of unmoving world beneath them. There was a feeling in her chest that was different. A pressure that was gone. They’d need to make shelter, sort out a food and water supply, explore and see if there were other people, and all the while learn to avoid any hidden dangers it might contain.
But with the pressure of their velocity gone, all of that seemed small. She felt lighter. More open. She’d forgotten what it felt like; not to be speeding, hurling, and pushing, every minute of every day.
There was time now.
To pick a direction.
Or maybe just sit still.
“Slow,” she said. “And absolutely perfect.”
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