[From Ainadamar: First Flight of the Madrugada]
When the Madrugada popped through the film, it was into a storm of color. At first, the crew thought the chaos was the result of the slip. None had been through a slip that long before. In fact, no one at all had ever been through a slip that long before, so far as any of them knew.
At the end of a normal slip, there was a momentary skidding of color as objects reassembled themselves in normal space. But this was different. For one thing, Weekiebye was, without diminishing, streaming colors like a Navajo sand painting in a hurricane. He stood at station behind the captain’s chair, waving his gloved hand to and fro, watching the particles of periwinkle, black and silver that rushed from the tips of his fingers fracture into billions of shining facets. Notwithstanding the broad-brimmed Spanish hat and dark blue mask he insisted on wearing even indoors, and even around people who knew perfectly well who he was, his eyes evinced an unusual aspect of surprise.
Not unexpectedly, Prince Ivan Stratsimir of Krăn, Captain of the Madrugada, was the first to snap out of it. His powers of concentration were legendary.
“Position please, Slim,” he said, addressing the ship’s navigator, who sat forward of the captain, next to the pilot.
Slim rubbed his eyes with one hand and passed the other over a softly-lit panel the size of a playing card. He furrowed his brow.
“I am waiting, Slim,” said the captain.
“Sorry, Captain. It’s just, the reading is so dang crazy.”
To the left of Slim, in the pilot’s seat, Dem Pilato Dem shifted color.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Pilato?” asked the captain, aware that the pilot’s shift to a deep orange color indicated a worried surprise.
“We are close to Origin, sir,” said the Pilot.
“How close?” he asked.
Dem could feel the captain’s eyes frowning impatiently into the back of his head.
“Uh. Inside the Curtain, Captain,” he explained
“Mr. Weekiebye,” said the captain, over his shoulder, “Would you be so good as to as to double-check Mr. Pilato’s figures?”
The mountebank entered figures quickly, then passed his hand once, twice and a third time over the actuator at his station. He shook his head.
“Point zero seven off the P. o. O., Captain,” he said.
“Christ,” muttered Stratsimir. His mouth cracked with a flash of light and smoke leaked out.
“Language, Johnny,” cried Red Mona from the port weapons station.
“Mona, let’s take a look outside,” he said.
Red Mona stood, unfolding her long body in its chainmail and fur bikini and reached up to depress the screen plate actuator.
The unusual nature of space around Origin grew in intensity. The cabin was a storm of color and texture that would make both the most catastrophic head trauma and the deepest religious awakening look like a box full of bottle caps. Each activity, however pedestrian, required a Herculean effort of concentration, like a drunk trying to decorate a cake.
Stratsimir scowled (darkly, handsomely, etc.) at his inability amid such chaos to conjure even a simple glass of, well, let’s just say wine from the air. Embarrassed, he glanced quickly around to see if anyone had noticed.
At the front of the bridge, two great slivers of light appeared on the golden surface of the ship’s interior. The material of which the ship was constructed was almost warm to the touch, more like a plastic than a metal, and glowed with a low ambience. It was, however, harder and lighter than the most high-impact carbide-ceramic vessels of the Fornax Confederacy.
The slivers raced toward the curved ceiling and down almost to the floor, turning at ninety degree angles, tracing a silver-white line, turning again and joining together to form two immense squares. With a high whine two huge panels began to recess, away from the inside of the bridge, light pouring in around the edges. A resonant clang and change in tone and the plates moved sideways to slot into brackets on the outside of the bow and stopped with a muffled bang they could feel in their bones, or, in the case of Ddededd Ll, ship’s surgeon and resident xenotaxonomist, in his cartilage.
What greeted them was something well out of the ordinary. Well, further out of the ordinary. It was colorful, sure, that’s for sure. There were pink hearts and yellow moons and green clovers, there were cosmic events pulled inside out like wet rubber gloves and mathematics was involved. And it was wrong. But it was oh so right too, like the most adorable teddy bear of all time made out of Corning Fibreware Insulation ™ and stuffed with human teeth. Realities were getting unpacked out of other realities. Universes were blooming and folding back into one another.
Slim would later say, “It was like watching every single Cezanne picture get painted one after the other on the insides of your eyeballs while someone whispered dirty jokes in your ear in a voice made out of numerals.”
“Who’s Matisse?” asked Patches.
“Cezanne,” said Slim.
After about 30 seconds of jaw-dropped staring, Stratsimir stood up.
“I think that will do, Mona,” he said.
“What?” she asked.
“Close the plates!”
Red Mona snapped out of it and slapped the actuator. As the great plates slid back and closed out the light, the crew recovered their wits. In a heartbeat, in his case this was more a figure of speech, Stratsimir was standing beside Nimue at the starboard communications consoles.
“Nimue,” said the captain, with the Barry White voice he usually saved for speaking to virgins in nightdresses, “ping the Aliel Curtain.”
Nimue’s eyes clouded over. The captain sighted along the line that led from where she sat, in her green gown at the communications array, in the here and now of the known universe, however compromised by the proximity of Origin, and into the world beyond, the world of which Nimue and her people were a part and where she ranged at will. He could see only a short way into it. It was not his. Like an in-drawn breath, perfectly balanced, a place of indescribable delicacy and strength, the strength of a feather on a bird in flight, or of a spider web, Nimue sat in both worlds and reached out.
“I can see the rain of colors through the Curtain,” said Nimue. “I can hear the ringing and grinding of the hub, behind me, the Point of Origin.”
We’re inside the curtain, thought Stratsimir. How is that possible?
“Everyone alert to stations, please,” said the captain. “We are, in fact, between the Curtain and the P.o.O. I know. That’s impossible. And yet…”
They were inside the Curtain. The minefield they would have to negotiate just to get back to the Curtain, which itself might well part them out like a subatomic chop shop, was frightening. Knowledge of the Verge, as the area surrounding the Curtain was called, was a patchwork of whispers, myths, folk tales and science, utterly unreliable.
The universe was riddled with trenches and sinkholes, that much was well established, as was the fact that these aberrations grew in frequency and intensity the closer one came to the Curtain. It was said, additionally, however, that there were worlds in the Verge that were paradise, where singing or simple making of any kind, even at some times talking or thinking, without the obstacle of “reality,” flowered immediately into being. Real being, not just existence. Other worlds there were also, they said, infernal ones, where the most elemental functions of matter and time were abrogated and tacos feasted on human ass meat, if you had the misfortune of thinking along those lines.
Of the area beyond the Verge, past the Curtain, nothing was known. Or if known, never shared. Or, if shared, never by a being of recognizable shape and comprehensible nature.
The difficulty in working the equations and the timing for a slip within the Curtain was incalculable, thought Dem. Even charting a slip from a Class Four trench was no fun. He’d seen his matx’s ship destroyed when it slipped too close to a sinkhole in the Pxlwn Segment. He was barely able to pluck him out of normal space as the sinkhole collapsed, crushing the Scout-class slipper like an empty tin of Nzgort ™. And it wasn’t two weeks later the hcitc left with a llib miner who had a claim on the Peninsula of Fear and Hatred, on the moon slightly to the left of Nigel Five.
“Dem!” shouted the captain, kicking the back of his seat and jolting him out of his reverie. “Ready the slip engine.”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” he said, flipping the can up on the small metal switch that charged the CBM intakes.
“Coordinates, Captain?” asked Slim.
“Calculate from Earth,” he said, crossing his legs and leaning back in his chair.
“We’re going to try to slip all the way to Earth?” asked Red Mona, incredulous. The rest of the bridge crew turned to look at the captain, equally worried.
“No,” said Stratsimir, cursing silently as he failed yet again to conjure a glass of wine out of the increasingly chaotic and unreal air. All he could coax into existence was a handful of fir needles and a punch card for a drive-through coffee kiosk off the Marquette Interchange. He shook his hand absently.
“We just need to make it past the Curtain,” he continued. “We can’t afford to slip around in here, hopping toward the Verge. We’re going to try it all in one burst, in the hopes of extricating ourselves from this unlikely situation before our luck runs out. Once we’re past the Curtain, we’ll make the rest of the trip in normal fashion.”
Normal fashion, of course, was to slip 50, 60 million light years at a time, at most, reenter normal space, power down and let the engines cool off, run the checklist, make any necessary repairs and grab a bite to eat as everyone’s molecules settled back into place. Once everything was back to normal you could recalculate and slip again. The slip itself did not occupy any time, of course. Once you crossed the event horizon of a slip you were already exiting on the other side.
Many believed, especially the primitive races new to slipstream travel, that while in the stream one’s soul was in peril from ghosts, demons, radio waves and a dozen other imaginary phenomena. The Léhña even believed one could cross over to the spirit world while in a slip and, if one were instructed properly and approached the experience in a reverential cast of mind, could gain great wisdom. Entire Léhña ships, mobile seminaries, criss-crossed the galaxies full of acolytes seeking enlightenment. The Heretic-in-Chief of the Abbey of the Brotherhood of the Unexpectedly Bent Tine even claimed to have witnessed the birth of the first vampire, whose name he declared, was Nudity Jones. Unless he had slipped into the tower of the Akkadian Anu, which was unlikely, Stratsimir doubted he’d witnessed what he thought he had. And at any rate, he had the name wrong. As every vampire knew, the First was named Thianhuaittrenband, though his friends called him Tim and then he ate them.
“Dem,” said the captain, “let’s gear up for an 8/10ths of one percent fold. We’re going to try to pop out on Earth axis and ride out of the hot band on the Dyeb Shelf, alright?”
Slim started the calculations. With the help of the ship’s computer, whose motherboard he and Dem had designed and Patches had built, they’d have it in just under half a minute. That was 20 percent faster than even the brains on the big Chalcedony rigs.
“Patches, how’s the engine look my friend?”
Meow. Pfft. “It’s getting less real down here by the minute, Captain,” said Patches in a distinctly bedraggled voice. “But when it troughs out, we’ll be as good as we’re going to be.”
The atmosphere was getting less real on the bridge as well. Red Mona’s sword hand had, for instance, transformed into a bunch of rock roses, a trawler-frozen salmon and a cotton candy before popping off and splashing onto the deck plates. But Mona was lucky compared to Ddededd Ll. Part of the ship’s surgeon was stuck to Weekiebye’s console, while the other part was, ostensibly, aft in the doctor’s surgery.
“Confound it, you great squid,” shouted Weekiebye, “put a halt to your cursed wiggling before I drive my poniard through your tentacles!”
Shortly thereafter, the part of Dded that had been on the bridge disappeared with a toot, leaving a slowly-dissipating cloud of lavender.
“Mapped to the slip, Captain,” said Slim, shouting over the sound of every piece of music ever written for the Xleorimid banjo, which was, judging by the looks on his crewmates’ faces, playing exclusively in a tight space directly around his head. Stratsimir had drifted into a wisp of absolute silence and Mona seemed to be fighting off something small and unnerving. Dem felt like he was trying to look at the instruments by the light of a strobe. A divisor was playing “Harby Blarby Chambles” on a comb and tissue paper inside Nimue’s ear canal, making her laugh. Stratsimir steeled himself.
“It’s all you, Patches,” cried Stratsimir.
Pfft, said the engineer though the com. Dem engaged the slip but held in the actuation, relying on Patches to execute the burst that would fold space. Patches, unfortunately was, at that very moment, below decks struggling to keep his head on straight. Literally.
Behind Patches, the slip engine was pulsing with light like an overfilled glass held from spilling only by surface tension. As the room pulsed around him he slaved the command panel to the actuator. With one eye on the power read and the other on the end of an eight foot stalk, he waited for the unreality to crest and recede. As his eye snapped back into his head he lunged, punching the command panel with the pads of his right hand. The entire ship filled with the hideous squealing of a tape being run backward. The Madrugada lurched sickeningly. Then in an instant, it flattened out into a single dimension and flashed out across the event horizon.
The crew sat facing each other in a circle. They each occupied the top of a round bollard made of blue-green volcanic glass. Slim had seen bollards, great iron things bolted to the piers, polished by the constant sliding on and off of gigantic ship’s hawsers, during the five months he had lived in New York.
He stayed in a bare room above a tavern on the East River where the ships from London, Marseilles and Rotterdam would dock.
Dem Pilato recognized the glass they were made of. He had seen the great glass roads that led out of the volcanic range of Shauvr on Flinex, a tropical moon popular among the sexual exceptions from the worlds around the Breem Hook. He’d gone there during his short-lived attempt to become a voluptuary, after his matx had left him. He had gotten one night like a Cavafy poem out of it, but decided pretty quickly that it was not for him.
They sat in a circle, Slim, and, to his right, Dem, then Mona, Patches, Dded, looking petrified and hanging on with his suckers, the captain, Weekiebye, Nimue and Stanislaus, the ship‘s cook. It may be misleading to say “sat” as that presumes their weight was on the bollards and the bollards themselves were “sitting” on something, which was patently not the case. They were clinging to the bollards, which were floating in something less than space, which usually has stars and whatnot. An aqueous light seemed to emanate from the glass and form an illuminated globe, beyond which nothing of any sort was visible. They were floating in a void, within a bubble of light, riding around on bits of glass.
They looked one to the other in stunned shock. Just as Captain Stratsimir was assembling his wits, a momentous thing began to happen. A dust of micaceous red particles began to fall through the upper reaches of the globe. As it descended it began to condense, into nine more or less regular columns, one above each member of the crew, and another above…something else. As it sank into them, their bodies drank it in, fully absorbing each column and leaving a momentary red tint to their skin. Slim felt, they all felt, ready for something, readied for something.
Another lightfall began. This time it was of letters. At least that’s how they understood what they saw. Letters, symbols, sigils, glowing with the red light of heated iron and falling at different speeds, some the size of snowflakes, others the size of butterflies, some as big as the leaf of a skunk cabbage. They fell onto upturned foreheads, sank into breasts and were absorbed into the backs of hands. The snow of words fell and fell, no telling if it were a minute or an hour or a day, transforming each psyche into a treasury or armament of meanings and each mind into a storehouse of speech.
In the beginning was the Word.
As the lightfall slowed they looked at each other again. With each look and each change of viewers and viewed, meanings were created, altered, built up in sophisticated layers, then simplified, resolved, then built up again. By looking at each other, thought by thought, they formed phrases, lines, verses, whole texts. Something inside them built up, gathering and ordering the morphemes, words, sentences into chapters, canticles, volumes. A statement was made, accompanied by its own exegesis, rolling forth a million-year cantata sung by every mote and particle of sentience through history, built on foundations even older, from every quadrant ever formed in space and all that lay beyond it, toward an overwhelming question. (Oh, do not ask, what is it?)
On the bridge, in the surgery, in the engine room and in the mess, the rains of the Aliel Curtain slashed through the ship and its crew like molten rubies. But instead of burning, they splashed a pomegranate-colored coolness on heads and hands and breasts and refreshed the air with a freshness that the members of the crew would recall all their lives, a coolness that revitalized the mind and spirit as well as the body. Instead of the rubbery stretch and stuttering, phased stumble that usually accompanied the end of a slip, there was a sudden intent wholeness and finality.
They were perfectly still, earthward of the Curtain.
Suddenly, sparks snaked around the bridge, racing along the edges of instrument consoles and tracing the bulkhead seams. Panels lit up like magnesium flares, crystals cracked, filling eyes with dancing spots of silver. Environmental lights flickered and went out, triggering the blue emergency diodes. The deck head access panel burst open, dumping a flailing load of conduit and cable onto the captain.
“Well,” he said. “We have tubing up there.”