Bombi wanted to be a speed runner; she wanted to run so far from her old life that ever returning to it was impossible, but she couldn’t bring herself to harm the star projections. She knew they were innocent in all this and didn’t deserve whatever Chagrinn had planned for them. An apprentice was not a slave, so she was free to do as she wanted.
“I want to help you,” she told Fyar as she got down on her knees and pressed her hands against the cold floor of the astrolabe.
“Wonderful,” Fyar whispered without opening her eyes. “Put your forehead against the ground. Supplicate under the stars. Tell them your secrets and ask for their aid.” Bombi did as she was told. A chill ran up her neck as the highest part of her sword’s blade touched it. It was all black with her eyes closed, but there was still a maelstrom of noise around her.
I wanted only freedom, she told Rorquas silently. The freedom that you have in the sky. Is this because I was born under you Rorquas? Is part of your spirit my own? I fear Chagrinn has no spirit, that it has been replaced with brittle twigs of iron. I pray that I am part of you, so that you may take my strength now when you need it.
“Bombi! Traitor! How dare you abandon your first run?” His voice got closer. She heard him back-dashing straight for her, but she did not lift her head or open her eyes. She kept to her prayer; her spirit was an immovable object. Something collided with Chagrinn and knocked him away before he could reach her. By the sounds it had to be Rorquas, but the whale seemed much larger now. Bombi felt the gust from a strike of its tail; she heard Chagrinn slam into the mechanism.
Gears ground. Glass gems in the wall fixtures shattered. The bull got back to its hooves and charged across the astrolabe. The girl felt all of this vibrating through her forehead, but she dared not look up. She had chosen this new route and she needed to have faith in it.
“You’re all slow!” Chagrinn mocked, his voice doubling across the room; he was his own echo. “Snails crawling through a paper forest! Too foolish to know it’s just the scribbling of a child! I will not be best- ouph!” One of the constellations must have finally snatched him. The celestial beasts all made sounds as if clumping together. Bombi guessed they were collapsing onto the runner and each taking up a limb. The air whipped itself up into a cyclone, pulling Fyar’s hair far enough that Bombi felt it against the tips of her own ears. Still her eyes remained closed. Only the gentle touch of Rorquas’s snout would bring her back up.
Chagrinn screamed not in anguish, but frustration. The collective power of the projected stars spun him around. The cyclone threw him upward, straight through the watery skin of the dome and into the sea. The air settled. The rhythm of the mechanism returned to normal. Bombi waited for a sign that eventually came when Rorquas nudged her shoulder. She opened her eyes and slowly rose to her feet.
The constellations lounged about in smug victory. The opossum hung by its tail from a stiff lever. The crane was nestled atop the mechanism. The frog croaked as it stretched out on the floor like a carpet. Rorquas had the most energy; it was on display as it bounded through imaginary waters around Bombi’s head. The girl laughed.
“Sweet child,” Fyar said, “you have done the world a great service. The runners can never understand what I have here. To them it’s just a tool to spy on each other. They cannot feel the awe that connects man and sky.” She patted the haunch of the horse constellation.
“Have I done anything at all?” Bombi asked. “The tracks will be run again. Chagrinn will come back here next time and do the same thing if he so wishes.”
“I don’t think so. Angry as he gets, he has little interest in revenge. His attention is fleeting and speed is his only true concern. Besides, he knows that I keep my knowledge between tracks and that if he tries this again I will be ready for him.”
“Does it bother you that none of this is permanent?” Bombi asked the old woman. “It’s all going to repeat.”
“I knew of history repeating itself even before I knew of the tracks,” Fyar said sagely. “There is more to understanding than cynically stating the truth. Life is something you can understand, even without knowledge of its underlying rules. I understand what makes me feel at peace. I understand that the stars care for us and live and frolic in the grandest of places: the purple summits of the very sky.” Rorquas celebrated the hermit’s appreciation by flying up, breaching the bubble, flipping in the water, and returning. Water rained off its sides as it circled the chamber.
“Does Rorquas know something of my future now, despite my journey into the emptiness beneath the world?” Bombi asked.
“I’m sure he does, but I’m the one who knows your immediate future. You will stay here and be my apprentice. I can already see it in your eyes. You can’t leave the whale any more than he can leave you.”
“But when it’s over…” Bombi said, her smile fading. She thought of death and returning to her life of servitude.
“When it’s over and when it begins,” Fyar began, “you will remember everything. You will only bear what you have before until you are old enough to come and find me. Then we can do it all again. Or you can do something else. You have forever Bombi. There will always be pain, and struggle, and tears, but history repeats itself. Until one of them gets the ultimate world record that is. Then… who knows.”
“How do I start this time?” the girl asked eagerly.
“You must experience the sky,” Fyar answered with a toothless grin. For a moment lights like twenty little stars flashed in her mouth and brightened her smile intensely. Bombi turned to see the constellations gathering around her. The bull sniffed at her with its big black nostrils. The crane stuck its head between her legs and lifted her up off the ground. Bombi uttered her surprise, but it swiftly transformed into laughter. I bet the stuttering back-dash gives you a headache. It can’t be as wonderful as this.
Rorquas’s gaseous form passed through the crane’s; the whale snagged Bombi right off the bird’s back and took her higher into the astrolabe. The other constellations took flight as well, all chasing after Rorquas, making triumphant sounds, and blowing purple vapor from their noses in mesmerizing geysers. Bombi looked down at Fyar, but the hermit was not joining them. The look on the woman’s face suggested she’d done it a thousand times before and wanted nothing more than to observe someone else’s experience. Fyar puffed out her cheeks, telling Bombi to hold her breath. Bombi inhaled deeply and kept it.
Rorquas passed through the astrolabe’s aqueous dome. The water chilled Bombi to the bone, but it was only for a moment. Her hands sank into Rorquas’s back so they wouldn’t come loose while they raced upward. Seconds later they broke the surface. The waves snagged some of the starlight from the dark sky, making the girl feel like a star herself, drifting in endless space.
The other constellations emerged as well, shaking off the spray and running up the air like it was the face of a steep mountain. Higher and higher they all climbed. Bombi saw the whole coastline. She saw a dot that might have been the palatial city, the dot that might’ve been her entire life up until now. She’d hopped the tracks of her life twice now, in rapid succession, and she should’ve been exhausted, but the joy of Rorquas filled her with energy.
Shook and Cain became partly obscured as they broke the cloud surface and kept going. The stars were so close now, close enough to pet. Even the individual ones swayed back and forth with some life, welcoming the projections. Bombi looked at a cluster of the shining things and realized it was the true Rorquas… and they headed straight for it! The tiny whale sang a song of endless play and bottomless cheer as it dove into itself, merging projection and star.
The vapor under Bombi was tumultuous for only a moment, and then she found herself on the true back of Rorquas. The whale was so large she could no longer see the end of its head from where she sat. Its dorsal fin rose behind her head, taller than several homes stacked. These creatures are so mighty. They are the fish of the biggest pond. There is no escaping it for them, no bottom of the world, but it doesn’t matter. They belong here. They rule here.
The other constellations merged with their smaller selves and became animate. Great purple trails of sky followed behind them, stirring the aether of the world. The frog leapt over the whale. Bombi raised her hand and let it pass through the frog’s throat and belly. With no oil or swirls muddying the lenses of her fingertips, Bombi felt only the essence of creation on them. It was the sensation of the beginning of the world, the birthing of light, and its first greeting to the sky. Shook and Cain was a stodgy old clock, but it had to start somewhere. Even its seconds had been green and tender once.
The starlight had already dried her clothes, her hair, and the inside of her ears. It made her tears of joy especially noticeable as they streaked off the side of her face. To her it didn’t even feel like they moved that fast. Rorquas went higher. Higher. They were over all the other stars now, watching the backs of the other constellations. Rorquas slowly rolled onto its side, encouraging her to stand and walk toward one of its fins. As she did so, Bombi stuck one hand in the air again to feel the rush of sky… and struck something.
It wasn’t exactly solid, but her hand couldn’t pass through it either. It didn’t seem to stretch, warp, or discolor. It was simply a barrier, hardly more than the word itself but still impenetrable. I’ve been in the bottom of the world, so this must be the top. Past it is the Source: white, infinite, and terrifyingly empty. Very well. I will let it be. The sky is plenty big enough for us stars.
Bombi and the constellations played through the night. She envied their lungless bodies, for her own quickly grew sore from all the laughter. Sadly, the night had to end. The purple of the sky faded as the aggressive orange of the morning took hold. Rorquas returned to its position in the sky and once again sent a tiny projection of itself outward to carry Bombi back to the astrolabe.
Bombi climbed off the back of the whale, her whale, her guardian in the sky, and set foot back in the astrolabe. She felt a twinge in her back and winced. Rorquas watched with concern as she rubbed the tender spot.
“It’s alright my friend. It’s only a back and it’s only a bit worn out,” she said, stroking the constellation’s chin. The whale chirped as youthfully as ever, something Bombi could no longer do. This was not the first time she’d dismounted the stars after a night of wonder, but a time well after her thousandth. She’d stopped counting. Her head was once again covered in silver, but it was hair instead of jewelry.
She had stayed with Fyar and studied the stars. She learned all the stories about how the stars used to roam the land freely before Shook and Cain drove them off it to make room for their grazing cattle and goats. She learned of the brothers Shook and Cain themselves in the reflected memories of the constellations’ liquid-light eyes. Neither of them seemed like good men. Why they were allowed to forge an entire history was beyond her understanding.
Rorquas returned to his spot on the wall, vanished until the return of the moon. Bombi walked slowly to the wall and pulled the crescent lever, closing the astrolabe’s roof. The magic would return as it had every night of her life since her arrival. Her time among the creatures of the sky had given her smile lines so deep that no torture could gouge them out. She wasn’t quite old enough to have lost all her teeth like Fyar, but her back was certainly less joyous at the end of the night now.
A painting of Fyar hung on the side of the central mechanism, rotating with it so the old hermit could see how well her apprentice kept her machined sky looking and working. She had passed more than thirty years ago, but not before granting all her knowledge to Bombi. Now the girl from the palatial city, the brief amateur speed runner, was the old hermit of the astrolabe.
Occasionally a green runner showed up to try and take advantage of her star knowledge, but she sent them away. When they wouldn’t take no for an answer she brought out the seafoam sword and threatened them. It didn’t matter if they proved as powerful as Chagrinn, or more powerful, because nothing could dislodge Bombi from the astrolabe but death. Just as Fyar had passed the knowledge to her, so too did she inherit the magic. The astrolabe would not work without her, and if a runner dared kill her the ocean would come crashing in and ruin their run as well.
It had been difficult at first, watching Fyar have to bow for some of the runners and let them paw at her tomes and instruments with their blank fingers. She was afraid of what they could do. Bombi had told her she wasn’t alone anymore; she didn’t have to act the servant. Together they started turning them away, pulling the sword when necessary. Most of them didn’t know the blade’s exact nature and feared it was more powerful than it actually was. Word of it spread and they called it ‘the hermit’s stinger’. If Chagrinn had ever heard tell of it, he never bothered to correct his community.
Her thoughts of her old master were strange. Wherever Chagrinn was, he was not living life as she had been for decades. He might’ve been the same age as before, skipping through holes in Shook and Cain like a rabbit too afraid of its own burrow to stay there overnight. He might be younger than he was if he’d found a better route. He might be older if he neared the end. He might be gone, swallowed by the Source and totally erased from existence and history. If that was the case, then come Bombi’s rebirth she would no longer remember him. He would have run out of existence like an hourglass missing its bottom half.
After one last glance at the fulfilled face of Fyar, Bombi headed toward another small chamber off the astrolabe: her bedroom. With nights brimming with starlight she’d come to hate the oppressive heat of the sun. The stars were the light of the spirit, while the sun was merely Shook and Cain’s biggest campfire.
Her smooth fingertips, not even age had returned their wrinkles, touched her silk sheets just as the bells rang. Years ago she’d grown frustrated with boots scuffing her door, so she’d built a chiming box visitors could activate with the flip of a switch. The sounds came into her bedroom through a small brass funnel next to the headboard. She groaned. Don’t they know what time it is?
Next to the funnel was a bubbled lens, part of a series bouncing back and forth along the inside of the astrolabe’s walls, leading to the door. She squinted, scrutinizing the warped image of her visitors. Cain’s cudgel! There are so many. How do they even fit in there without wetting their shoulders? Have there ever been this many people in the astrolabe? Certainly not on my watch.
Bombi pulled her windswept hair back and tied it up. She looked a mess, but she’d been past caring about her appearance since before she’d walked into the sea. She threw on a purple robe to cover her legs before grabbing the seafoam sword, just in case, and placing it against her back. She ruffled the collar of the robe to hide the hilt. Then she left her poor lonesome bed behind, walked through the mechanism, and opened the front door.
She was met by a jowly but fit man with shoulders as wide as a canoe. He wore a blue and gold uniform and an elaborately decorated gold belt buckle. His hands were clasped before him, bending his shoulders in an attempt to appear less threatening. All it did was make his shoulders look like a tensed bow with a nocked arrow.
Behind him were fifteen other people all wearing similar uniforms. They stood in formation and stared straight ahead, with the exception of the woman at the head fellow’s side. She was hunched over, her uniform was in disarray, and her face was completely hidden by her long curly hair. She seemed to be having trouble breathing, as every few seconds she made a sound like a toad slowly stepped on.
“Please excuse our intrusion,” the man said with a voice like the groaning of an ale cask, “but are you Bombi? Is this the hermit’s astrolabe?”
“I am she and this is that,” Bombi said plainly. She was too tired for games and no human could play them like the stars anyway. “Who are you?”
“I am Hieron of the Win State.”
“The Win State huh?” Bombi mulled out loud. It had been a long while since she’d heard the name. Fyar and the runners spoke of it frequently, but with hushed tones and hatred. Back when Chagrinn had told her of people who wanted to stop speed runners he hadn’t put a name to them, but they certainly had one: Win State. She knew they were highly organized, but from the stories it seemed they had difficulty competing with the cavalier risk-taking of true runners. They occasionally bravely wandered into exploits, but it was just to shut them with explosives or drag a runner back to Shook and Cain.
“This may be a strange question,” Hieron started, “but have you heard of… speed running?”
“Gah! Gahahahaha!” Bombi burst out in laughter. She reeled backward from it and gracefully sat on part of the mechanism that happened to swing by. She failed to contain her mirth for two full revolutions. She laughed and laughed until the effort tired her further and turned into a yawn; while she did this the Win State let themselves in and lined up along the wall, out of the path of the mechanism.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Hieron called to her over the sounds of the mechanism.
“You don’t have to shout; I’m right here,” Bombi said as she passed by his face on the swinging arm of the astrolabe. Why did I even say that? I really am just a crazy old woman now aren’t I? Fyar would cackle proudly. “Heard of them? I was one.” Unfortunately, she passed behind the mechanism’s center just as she said it, so she missed their shocked naïve expressions.
“What do you mean by that?” Hieron asked, trying to hide his own surprise. Mustn’t look like you don’t know everything in front of your underlings. If Chagrinn had done such a thing I never would’ve made it here.
“You know… it’s odd,” she said as she swung by again. “Oh but actually… it isn’t! All of you stood in front of the constellations you were born under as soon as you lined up.” The Win State members glanced over their shoulders at the arrangements of glass stars in the wall. “Except for you four over there. You weren’t directly under anything. Poor you.”
“I’ll have you know, hermit, that we do sometimes execute runners. It would be wise of you to explain yourself.”
“Fine,” she sighed. Lying might be fun, but sleep would be more fulfilling. It was better to just give them whatever information they wanted and head to bed. She had a standing appointment with Rorquas and the sky for the rest of her eternity. “I was once an apprentice to a speed runner named Chagrinn. The lifestyle did not suit me as I preferred to actually have a life.”
“That was a very wise choice,” Hieron said. Suddenly the hunched woman next to him gasped and had to steady herself against the wall with one hand. Hieron held her shoulders, but Bombi noticed a moment of hesitation before he did. She also saw strange curved lines on the woman’s hand; one of her fingers seemed to be on backwards.
“What happened to her?” Bombi asked.
“A bad encounter with a runner,” Hieron explained. The woman said nothing, but she patted Hieron on the chest to indicate she was fine. “She was pulled through an exploit while she had a hold of the blighter. Pulled in several directions at once. This is what the runners cause Bombi: twists and torture. They seek to disrupt the world and possibly destroy it. Do you disagree?”
“I don’t think I do,” she said as she thought it over. “The runners used to come here to use the stars against each other. The stars weren’t meant to be used that way. We put a stop to it.”
“That was brave of you. However… you are still off-track. In fact, I’m surprised to learn runners frequented this place so. It was the traces of your old life that drew us here.”
“It wasn’t the pen was it?”
“We did come across that, yes.”
“Damn. Chagrinn was right all along. Oh well. Still a horrible man.”
“We came to return you to Shook and Cain’s vision.”
“I won’t go. You’ll have to kill me and toss me into the bottom of the world to get me to stay away from my stars.”
“I think we can avoid all that,” Hieron offered, “provided you work with us. You are off-track, but members of the Win State are allowed to be off-track, as well as utilize exploits and corrupted items, in pursuit of the runners. We must follow them wherever they go. If you agree to be a member, and turn over all information you have regarding every runner that came here, that threatened your stars, you will be allowed to stay and live as you please.”
“So all I have to do is tell you about the runners?”
“That and continue to do whatever you can to interfere with their runs. You seem to be doing a marvelous job so far.”
“You… You’re agreeing? Just to be clear.”
“Yes, I will be a member of your Win State. I’m not wearing one of your silly uniforms. I’ve worn a uniform enough for a hundred lifetimes, and I did it all before I was twenty.”
“Excellent. I’m glad this could be resolved so simply.”
“Now I would appreciate it if you showed yourselves the door,” the hermit of the astrolabe said. “The sun is shining and I’m very tired.”
“Of course. I will send someone by in three days’ time to collect a written summary of the runner activity you’ve encountered. Good day to you Miss Bombi.”
“You should try the night,” she called to them as they filed out of the astrolabe and back onto the seafloor. She thought about warning them that they were perilously close to the closing of the watery tunnel, as it was only open for brief periods at dawn and dusk, but she didn’t bother. At worst they’d get far enough before the collapse that they’d only have to deal with wet underwear.
As for the report the Win State expected, there were a few peaceful lagoons in the sky where she and Rorquas could rest and compile it. She had a bottle of enchanted ink made from the tentacle of a constellation octopus that she was dying to try out. The thought of it made her giddy as she stretched out on the spinning bar of the mechanism. I think I’ll just sleep here. Bombi drifted away on the astrolabe, her body following the path of the seasons and stars.
Her mind was made up; indecision had aged out of her. There was no need for another nudge.