Everything around her was so foreign, so strange, that she had to struggle to keep a realistic angle on things. There were starry animals before her, frightened of her, and an old woman who just wanted to be left alone. According to Chagrinn, and according to what she’d experienced, deserving of pity though they were, they weren’t reality.
Reality was the white space of the Source, or something beyond even that they could not comprehend. Shook and Cain was a bubble of a lie in need of popping and sometimes popping was a violent act. When it’s all over, when they realize there was no point in hating me, I’ll find these stars again and apologize. Everything will be fine because the runners will have revealed the truth. This isn’t a real act. They’re just clinging to dispassionate predetermination. This isn’t real. I’m not really doing this. I’m not actually… pulling this sword!
Bombi drew her watery blade and rushed to help Chagrinn. She still wasn’t an experienced fighter, but it didn’t take much skill to swing the weapon in the face of the retreating animals like a crackling torch. She and Chagrinn touched shoulder blades, allowing her to protect his back while he used his doubling punches to pummel the star creatures.
“I always hated these things,” he admitted through gritting teeth. “My parents always said to look to the sky for guidance. They said these animals,” he kicked the horse and knocked it right on its side, “knew all the pathways of the world. They know nothing. Their sky isn’t even the sky. The Source is beyond it.”
Bombi glanced at Fyar. The woman was still on her knees, her forehead against the floor. Her mouth was hidden by her hair, but the girl swore she could hear her muttered prayers speeding up. Praying faster can’t do much good. Only moving faster can. We have to move faster than Shook and Cain allows. Impelled by these thoughts, Bombi asserted herself in the fight. The frog constellation tried to leap on her and smother her with its flat body, but she pierced the astral webbing of one of its feet and staked it to the ground.
She twisted the seafoam sword, breaking the tip of the blade off. With a surge like a wave it grew back, even as the old tip kept the frog staked down. That was fortunate. Perhaps this sword is the only friend I need by my side. When she turned she saw Chagrinn trouncing the other beasts. The fight was nearly won already, but something felt off. She stuck a finger in her ear and tried to dig out a strange sound. What was it? It was like growing whispers, but also like poison gas leaking from cracks in the ground.
“Fyar’s prayers!” Chagrinn called to her. “Stop her!” Bombi nodded and rushed towards the hermit. There was no need to hurt her, just put a hand over her mutterings. The old woman didn’t even have teeth to bite with. The crane flew past Bombi’s head, but she diverted it with a wild slash that sent night-sky feathers sailing to the ground. Bombi neared Fyar; she threw out a hand to cover the woman’s mouth.
One of Fyar’s hands rose with lightning speed. Her fingers twirled and her wrist cracked as her hand snapped towards the wall. Bombi followed it with her eyes and saw the glassy fixtures of Rorquas on the wall. They glowed red from the arrow and many cracks blurred their original connections, but Bombi saw something else. Her feet stopped. Something reflected in those stars had grabbed hold of her mind. What is this? Is Fyar doing this or is it the whale? I can’t move. The stars are going to eat me!
The projections were too busy dealing with Chagrinn to bother with her, so nothing interrupted. Her eyes could not move from the whale on the wall or even blink. A chill ran through her, strong enough to cause drops of sweat to recede back into her skin. The red irritation of the arrow’s magic seemed to fade. The shape of the whale was clear again and a picture formed inside its borders.
She saw a dark-skinned infant, barely an hour old. She was swaddled in simple cloth, but resting on a block of rough wood. A hand moved into view from the swirling edge of the whale’s frame. There was a sharp metal instrument in its grasp. The tip of the device was inserted into the babe’s nose. The hand squeezed. Pinkch! It punched a hole in the babe’s nostril; the child cried out in shock, but the hand was not concerned. The parents, seated in a corner behind the block of wood, were not concerned. This was just the way things were done; it was a fact of life.
The hand came back, this time with a small elongated case. It popped open to reveal a row of minute diamond studs with silver edges. One of them was fixed to the child’s nose. Her first jewelry. The first decoration her employers adorned her with. This is me. This was just after I was born. Rorquas saw this. You saw this and did nothing! The bit of flesh they pierced might as well have been my soul! That’s how it felt.
The visions weren’t finished with her; Bombi had to watch as she was aged by injury. Each and every piercing flashed before her. A row of holes on her ears. Pinkch! The middle of her nose. Pinkch! Her eyebrows and cheeks. Pinkch! Pinkch! The little girl was slowly lost under all the clasps and glitter. Every piercing was a strike at her heart, a darkening of her pupil as she lost the capacity for hope. It shows me this to torture me, to prune what little spirit has grown back thanks to Chagrinn. The whale wants me on track as much as everything else.
Bombi bit her own tongue in an attempt to break free of the visions. Tears streaked down her face, but she succeeded. The visions were gone and the whale was right there to replace them. Its head smashed into her body and lifted her off the floor. She dropped her sword, but its blade touched her arm and flattened against it; she could grab it again once she was stable… if she was ever stable again. The whale tossed her to one of the other constellations. It tossed her back. Her heart bounced around inside her.
Kill me if you want; it doesn’t change that you’re a monster! You could’ve helped me. I didn’t have to be a slave. I didn’t have to be a runner either. Rorquas clicked and squealed angrily, seemingly in response to her thoughts. The whale turned its nose skyward and pumped its tail, moving them both towards the ceiling.
“Bombi! Dislodge!” Chagrinn advised, but it was too late. They crashed through the bubbled ceiling and into the sea. Bombi’s mouth filled with salty water. Her blade could not stay solid around its own material, and its sandy hilt was knocked from her arm. It sank while they rose. Straight through the water they pushed, breaking its true surface moments later. Bombi choked on the air and spray. She wasn’t even holding on; Rorquas’ force kept her firmly on the whale’s nose.
The speeding air dried her absurdly fast. They passed through the lowest clouds. The dim light of the astrolabe, which had glimmered under the sea’s surface a moment ago, was gone. The only light now was the moon, the stars, and the whale itself. Up there, in the constellation’s element, its thoughts became clear to Bombi. Even as they soared ever-higher she felt waves of emotion passing from the star beast and into her.
Rorquas… You wanted to do something for me, for the child born under you, but you could not. You can no longer come down to the lands of Shook and Cain without the aid of Fyar’s astrolabe. You wanted to help, but now I have struck at your family in anger. It doesn’t matter. I never mattered Rorquas. I died from that first pinch, despite what Chagrinn would have me think. You couldn’t help. Your track is higher than the rest… but you still swim around in the tiniest of bowls. Kill me. See if I care.
The air was very cold now. Bombi’s eyes felt heavy; they were barely open when she saw something else punch through the clouds. It was another constellation… the horse… and there was something on top of it. The beast had a cord wrapped around its mouth and neck; Chagrinn held the ends of it. He was using the straps from their bags as makeshift reins! His mount was not pleased, but its wild bucking could not dissuade the runner. He pulled with strength achieved by heaving himself in and out of the world a thousand times. Slowly, jerkily, he closed the distance between them.
Now you care Chagrinn? Is it concern, or will your run be ruined without a partner? Will you have to slice your own throat to restart your days? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. He’s the only who has tried to save me, regardless of reason. All the others pretended they cared. They cooed to me when applying my shackles. They lied about the openness of the future. Chagrinn is a cold savior, but he’s the only one I’ve been allotted.
Her back struck something, forcing the breath out of her. Her fingers and toes filled with needles of pain. What could she have possibly hit so high, so far from everything solid? The top of the world of course. There’s a bottom, so there must be a top. The whale’s tail continued to pump, perhaps even faster than before. It pressed her against the sky violently.
The apprentice couldn’t figure out what the beast was getting at, until the sky itself ripped and she passed out of the world. Rorquas reversed direction and returned to the sky, leaving Bombi to drift. She tried to spin around, but the air had no substance. Thanks to its proximity to the ground, the bottom of the world had allowed her to walk. The top was not so kind. She floated as if underwater, the force applied by Rorquas sending her further and further into a white abyss.
There was nothing to grab hold of, nothing to reverse her momentum. She looked down at the hole Rorquas had created. It was the only thing she could see in any direction. A single spot of midnight with frayed edges. I’ll die out here, like Chagrinn said. No food. No water. If I’m lucky the Source will destroy me before that. Is this all you could do for me Rorquas? You couldn’t save me, so you used the one exploit you knew to put me out of my misery?
The hole in the sky grew smaller by the moment, but she could see Chagrinn approaching it on the back of his unwilling steed. Pull as he did, the horse would not cross the threshold; it would not kill itself. The runner leapt from the constellation’s back and into the void. He grabbed hold of the ragged edge of the sky and pulled himself down so he wouldn’t be caught out as Bombi had.
She watched, her detachment growing like rust, as Chagrinn held on with one hand and fumbled through his bag with the other. Out came a rope, but it was clearly too short to reach her. Chagrinn examined it for a moment, weighing things in his mind. He judged the distance between them.
The rope went back into the bag. So he’s already giving up. Oh Chagrinn. You can’t poison me with false hope; that makes you the best man I’ve ever met. The rope came back out. It went back in. It came back out. In and out he pulled the rope, faster and faster each time. In the bag. Out. In. Out. A blur. The rope was neither in the bag nor outside it.
Chagrinn pulled it out with both hands, pulling the end of the rope in two directions. This caused the rope to split and become two. Its strands had not separated; it had simply transformed into two identical ropes. Bombi realized it was an exploit. In overwhelming the bag it had become confused as to where the rope was supposed to go, so a rope was assigned to each direction.
He wasn’t done yet. His hands moved even faster; the bag could’ve caught fire at any moment. Another rope was produced. Another. Ten more. Twenty more. He tied them all together, end to end, even managing to toss it towards Bombi while further replicating it. Bombi couldn’t stop herself; she reached her hand out. It was Chagrinn, so naturally he had thrown it at the perfect angle. The lifeline drew closer. Bombi still had the needles in her hand, trying to convince her to pull back. They wanted her to contract, to shrink away from the rope, to feel the piercings again and again until there was nothing left to pierce. They felt like lances. Still, her fingers stretched out.
The replication stopped. Chagrinn was still performing the motions, but there was no more rope to be made. Ninety-nine ropes in total. Shook and Cain knew no man could carry more than ninety-nine. The rope reached its full length… and fell short. It hung there for the briefest moment and then drifted backward lazily. Bombi was still going. Even a speed runner could not save her.
“I’m sorry!” He shouted to her. She could no longer see his eyes, or the pull of horror on his cheeks, but she believed him. He had never promised success, only the truth and a chance.
“I never had a life,” Bombi called back, only loud enough for him to hear. No rasp of anguish. No sniffle of sorrow. She had been born to live a quarter-life after all, with the birth of slave children as her only accomplishment. “Do not feel for my cold track. It is better that no feet ever touch it. Goodbye.”
Chagrinn lingered at the edge of the sky for a moment. It was not lost on Bombi how much that meant. A wasted moment for him, even a second, was like a year of hard labor in a mine doomed to collapse. It was a wound to his run, and his runs were all that mattered. Eventually he hopped back into Shook and Cain. She couldn’t tell if the hole sealed back up or if it had just gotten too far away to see.
“Is anybody out here?” Bombi calmly asked the nothingness. “Can the mighty Source speak?” If it could it did not answer her. Am I spinning? I can’t even tell anymore. I don’t know from which direction I came. A rock without ground. A raindrop trapped in the air because its cloud and puddle have fled in separate directions. A thing of no consequence. That is all. My only trouble was in thinking otherwise. I had no duties, no responsibilities. Just malicious fibs to get this raindrop moving, to make some use of it.
She knew she could not be used anymore. Even the world had lost its grip. Perhaps Rorquas really had helped her. For a short while she would be her own world and there would be nothing else. Bombi sang. She didn’t know if she could sing, as her employers had never asked for her music.
The song was one of Cain: a tune that could get you kicked out of respectable establishments. Its lyrics were about a hard day’s work and the thin gruel it earned. It was about the gruel not being worth it. It was a tune of moaning stomachs questioning law and morality. What good were they if they allowed scarcity? If they allowed your base to rumble and collapse. Good girls just go hungry. That’s what Timorrow used to point out. The grumbling stomach was a mark of pride to them; it meant their work came first.
Bombi wasn’t hungry, not yet. When she was, when she’d floated for a half a day, she would begin to see things. Flashes in the white. Lights that fluttered like moths. She would try to touch them and find no substance. They would still touch her, inside her mind. She would recognize them. The nudges. The tickles. The little things that had helped her make decisions. They were like Rorquas, but they were also different. They came from somewhere else. Their home was neither Shook and Cain nor the Source.
Where had they come from? There was time to think about it. Another day or two perhaps. Born dead. Pierced to encourage aeration and rot. Finally, my destiny.