I: A Matter of Ballast

Revery Palimpsest was crucified under the three suns of Channel-on-Channel. The nails were from an industrial bolt gun, so she felt like a fabricated house. But how heartening to feel, which meant she was alive. Crucifixion was always a slow death. Classic.

She’d been enhanced to resist things like this, not crucifixion specifically, but in a general sort of way. It didn’t matter though, because the scavengers had already taken her leglike, her rubberized augmented organs, her CardinalEye. She didn’t blame them. “It’s death to farm out here, it’s worse than death in the mines…you want them to sing opera as well?”

But the fact remained that she was hanging from a forty-foot high cross with a single leg, ugly holes in her abdomen, and a missing eye. Which is fine if that’s your thing but it wasn’t. The scavenger’s removal of her leg was, perhaps, a blessing, because they had to pull the nail out to do it, so her remaining leg was hanging free. But it put a lot of dead weight on her arms, forcing her to rest her foot on a jagged ridge of the rough-hewn cross, shifting weight between her bleeding, aching sole to her numb, pinioned hands.

The sun went down and she stopped frying like an egg on a pan. Twilight was a cool reprieve. But as night darkened the metal became like ice. If she didn’t still have coagulants in her bloodstream from one of the organs taken yesterday, she’d have bled out. But the ghost of their benefits would fade as she excreted them in sweat and piss.

Jellies of dusk floated after the sister suns, carried on the tide of their evening, just enough light to survive, any more would blanch their bells, waft them shriveled to the mesa.

A spirit wandered past in the night, plants growing from its corroded carapace.

An hour from morning someone came to the foot of the cross and asked for her hand in marriage. She said no and they went away.

Just before noon, as the cross was heating up, the voice in her ear crackled for the first time since she was captured. It was crunchy, distorted by the blow to the side of her head, but she understood every word.

“Is the mission compromised?”

“Not especially. Why?”

“We heard you were crucified in the middle of the desert.”

“A minor setback.”

“Sorry. But we have to disavow your mission.”

“Where is my clone?”

Long silence on the other end. Where they’re making the call on something much nicer than a bleeding ear.

Revery licks her cracked lips. “She’s not going to let you do this.”

“She gave the order.”

“What?”

The only sound in her ear is the buzzing of flies.

“She wouldn’t. We’re the same. The same person. We are connected.”

Time passes. The cochlear implant dissolves and drips from her ear.

Is night here already? Blissful cool. But this night is a circle. A shadow. A ship. The cross shakes and rattles and rips from the earth, sucked into the magnetic bay of the tarnished craft.

“Well what the fuck I was not expecting that.” A woman in greasy dune-clothes cracks a can of gall and studies her. “I need that metal, lady.”

“You can have it.”

“Well alright then.” She pulls the nails out and Revery rolls off, slamming to the floor, her sweaty skin sticking with sand and flakes of rust.

The scavenger offers Revery a can. Revery tries to swallow the bitter liquid but coughs, spitting it in the air where it falls like sea foam on her face. She lets gravity pour the rest down her throat.

“Do you think you’ll die?”

“I think that’s up to you.”

“Well I have a doc-like in the trunk but I think you’re extra fucked in a health sort of way.”

“Let’s try it.”

The doc-like surgerizes, narcotizes, and cauterizes, stopping the bleeding and easing her system away from shock. She feels bad, not just from being crucified. The doc-like’s stock is being depleted, and painkillers aren’t cheap.

She blows the scavenger, does a top-notch job. Even naked, starving, and injured, the body has ways of generating value. And the scavenger has a nice curve to her cock, gives Revery’s mouth a nice resistance to work against the glans.

The ship sets her down outside a junk market along a lake of green mineral water. She says goodbye and the scavenger slaps her on the back and says, good luck girl.

She works a month doing accounts for a water-mind, then swaps her wages for an ancient prosthetic leg from the Wars-Under-Night, dusted and rusted but eminently stompable. The last few coins she uses on a can of gall and a hitch to the nearest sky-quay. She hangs out all day in the groups of workers waiting for offworld gigs, signs up for a dirt wage run to 9ffn6. The captain needs four people to serve as offsets for the hyperspace engine, making sure its nightmares don’t rip the ship from reality.

She’s strapped into a coffin full of sun salt. She’s gone for three months.

As the ship tunnels through the void between worlds, the dreams of the hyperspace demon rampage through her own. She runs, fights, hides, holds objects as they crumble and she tries to put them back together. Always late, always forgetting.

Working a gig hauling giant clam shells from the feast tables at a gala in Accumulation-of-Many-Living-Things, she sees herself, radiantly chatty. “Why? Why’d you leave me?”

Her clone sets down the wine glass and walks away. Her bodyguard shifts to take her place like a pale shadow.

Six years ago. The Outfit offered her a pay raise if she volunteered for the sisterselfing machine. The first truly literal double agents. They were so good together. They knew each other’s rhythms, hand in glove.

“Who was the hand? Who was the glove?”

Then the Regression War came and the machines were destroyed. Only a few doubles remained, the rest hunted down or experiencing the disease known as Other Annihilation Syndrome. Their services became much more valuable.

Their memories were divided between their bodies so if they were captured, they couldn’t reveal the plans of the other. Laying under the dark mirrors as the quality of light passed between them like clouds rolling across the face of the sun.

Separate memories became separate agendas.

She should have noticed as the memories were titrated. How she seemed to be receiving the dysfunctional, crippling memories, getting heavier as her other self got lighter. A matter of ballast.

Even crucified she hadn’t suspected a thing, had assumed both of her was compromised, that she was lucky to be alive. But she knew the expression on her other’s face. Knew that the other Revery had stolen something from her, far more precious than candy.

She sinks to her knees as her happier, smarter, brighter self walks away. A waitress-like chirps, offering her a drink, then moves on after no response, the silver of its tray like a departing moon.

How do you fight it? She did this to herself.

Two years later she still has that antique leg and her left eye-socket is still empty. She could have saved up for a rudimentary phosphene mapper but having one good eye complicates things.

She’s eating vorridge from the survey ship’s nutrition spigot. She tries not to think of the beach house in Lariat-Sun, the seaweed she snacked from the rocks. But she does think of it, and much more, things she hasn’t thought of since she and she went under the dark mirrors and divided their mind like meat on a plate. The memory oubliettes are crumbling.

She puts her hand to her mouth and shakes as the mental structure disintegrates, memories swarming from the fissures in her lobes like a dungeon disgorging its rats.

She could never have done it to her self. She had too much guilt for that. Had know too much pain. But her healthier, titrated self, Revery Palimpsest the Victor, had been entirely capable of betrayal, lacking the memory of what it feels like to be helpless.

Across the weeks she finds a good memory here and there like a shiny coin on the ground. The lopsided depression of her midden-mind becomes less crushing. Like taking off iron boots at the bottom of a black lake.

She gets a job on a cruise liner. Tourists feel adventurous out here, even though it stays in safe parts of the void, lukewarm shallows populated only by the frailest shadows, always within distance of the mother planet that glows with the safety of a cave mouth. The ship doesn’t even have a hyperspace demon, it’s all real time.

The cruise liner, in addition to serving a buffet, circulates past the ruined satellite of Final-Throne, offering guided tours through the ruptured orchard where a tree from every green world once grew. She remembered how much she wanted to visit it. So she waits.

Revery burns the bodyguard’s marshmallow face with the blowtorch and kicks her inside the elevator, fusing the controls shut. It’s fine. They aren’t bred for pain.

Bad Revery’s leglike is slender, silver, with all the grace of biology sculpted through machinery. Her toes even wiggle through the open pump, held anvil-heavy to Revery’s cheek. Revery tries to get off the floor but that doesn’t work out.

She wants to ask why, but Bad Revery knows, has already responded. She speaks in a brittle voice, a voice neither of them has heard before. Like she’s playing a recording.

“The machines that crawl on the underside of the sun.”

Every light on the ship goes out.

Bad Revery is gone.

What did The Outfit share with her? Why wasn’t I good enough for this information? What kind of deal did she make with them?

Revery runs down the corridor, her rusted leglike whining with maximum power.

Emergency bioluminescent bacteria lamps glow cyan. She sees her other self like a phantom. She reaches out.

Bad Revery fires her revolver, melting a hole in Revery’s leglike. “Stop. Or I’ll have to put you down.”

Why didn’t she aim to kill? Is Bad Revery’s memory oubliette cracking too? Is she feeling guilt for the first time in all these years?

Revery tears the exposed battery from her leglike and flings it. Acid spatters across Bad Revery’s pumps.

“You bitch.”

Red light blooms from the algae sirens. People run through the corridors like shadows panicking from sudden corporeality.

Bad Revery holds a dark mirror. She’s titrating. Revery hobbles across the ballroom, trying to cross the distance of feelings, each second turning her other’s guilt to triumph.

As the bad memories fade, Bad Revery accelerates the mirror, her reflection growing deeper and grander, tears turning to wine and blood.

Revery swings her makeshift crutch, smacking the mirror against the wall. At the moment of shattering, Bad Revery’s head twists to stare at her.

Revery drives the cart into the ship-quay where the rich have their luxury vessels parked. A revolver shot blows a wheel off, sends the cart skidding. She crawls through the forest of ships and bumps into a golden thrill skimmer. She uses an industrial cutter to burn the door open (balsa alloy, typical for these frivolous skimmers). She hears Bad Revery’s heels banging across the floor, she can’t tell how far away she is.

She pulls on the breather suit now that her butchery has exposed the skimmer to the void. An empty leg hangs from the suit, she folds it up and bunches it under her so it doesn’t go flapping. Her memories swirl insanely, she can barely see the runes of the dashboard through the splintering flashbacks.

She pings quay control to open the void-gates, but they won’t respond. Fuck. Only one way out of here.

“Engine, take us to hyperspace.”

“You aren’t my mistress.”

“I know. It’s an emergency. The ship’s dying.”

“I don’t feel beacons burning.”

“Okay. You got me. I’m a disgraced agent running from my smarter, more successful clone. I tried to kill her but I failed. And now I’m stealing a million-coin ship.”

The hyperspace demon cackles, lantern swinging back and forth. “Well. I was getting bored.”

The ship snaps like a gold needle on a compass and pierces reality.

WANTED:
Revery Palimpsest
FOR CRIMES OF:
Espionage and agentism, including releasing viruses of hirsutism and porphyria into the local population
Life-theft
Ship-rustling
Sisterselfing

This was a lucky ship to steal. Little luxury skimmers like this don’t get to use their hyperspace engines often, they’re just for emergencies. No wonder the demon was bored.

On the unlucky side, the skimmer was just for romping around the upper atmosphere, quick races through the void shallows at most. It doesn’t even have any prayers engraved into the hull.

“Where are you headed,” the demon asks.

“Anywhere with a doctor and a dysfunctional legal system.”

“I want to go somewhere cold.”

The void is warm, so very warm. Revery pulls a map-scroll from the ceiling and studies the illuminated worlds. “Couple blue planets over here. How about Back-of-the-Eye?”

Revery emerges from the ship in the luxury dress she found in the closet. She lights a cheroot and exhales the prismatic smoke. If she’d had a shower and wasn’t missing a leg and an eye, she’d pass for respectable. She grins and waves her arms at the locals clambering up the side of the snowy ridge on their spiderlike.

“Pirates hit my cruise liner, brazen as all get out.”

They look at her mutilations dubiously.

“My eye and my leg were as golden as my ship. If you could take me to the nearest city I’d be obliged to you.”

She flashes a center-coin.

She gets a hot meal and acceptable prostheses. Relaxing in the hot springs of the hotel’s penthouse dome, she slides a trainer into her eyeball’s port, iterating her depth perception until it catches up.

A knock on the door. Come in!

The concierge stands outside the hot spring curtain, speaking in a delicate tone.

“I’m sorry, but your coin was refused. The system says it’s…stolen.”

“That’s impossible. I’ll come down straightaway to sort this out.”

“Of course, miss.”

As soon as the door whispers shut, she bolts from the bath. “We’re fucked, engine.”

Demonic light flares from the satchel on her bed. “You’re fucked. I’m an innocent engine.”

“You could have done nothing and let them catch me. They’ll know this.”

The demon is silent.

“I kept my promise. I took you with me. Gave you a nice view. Didn’t leave you to rot.”

The demon’s paw sticks to the lantern glass like a gecko. Revery chugs her glass of nectar ferment and slams it down.

It feels good to run for her life on a proper prosthetic, but she wishes she could have spent another night in the hotel and properly cleaned out the mini-bar. It was nice being treated like a person again.

They corner her in a hydroponic farm at the edge of the city. She cuts feeding tubes with a pruning shear and floods the halls with nutrient fluid, listens for the splash of their pincing legs.

“Ship, ship, we need a ship.”

The mini-quay of the farm has a few harvest drones and a lumbering industrial vehicle, some kind of glorified forklift.

“Fuckity.”

The flimsy prefab door is being clawed open.

“Okay, fuck, okay.”

She opens the engine compartment of the industrial lifter and rips out the coolant tank. She lowers the demon’s lantern inside, straps it in with duct tape.

“Are you serious?” the demon says.

She gets inside the lifter as the door shreds apart and the mantis gendarmes skitter toward her. “GO GO GO.”

The lantern flickers tightly. “This could kill us.”

She points outside. “They will kill us.”

The lantern’s light careens in blinding arcs through the unshielded vehicle. Even the reflection against the windshield is like staring directly at the sun. Her retinas dance with things meant only to be glimpsed in dreams, profane out here in crisp, itchy reality.

The industrial lifter is torn into the void.

The lifter isn’t airtight. Sweat gathers on her collarbones as as the void seeps in. The lantern sparks over her shoulder. “I told you so.”

“Quiet.”

“Evisceration is a quick death compared to asphyxiation. You didn’t do the math on this, did you?”

“Shut up.”

“I saw someone suffocate, once. I was in a mining vessel. It ruptured out in the felsenmeer. One of the breather suits was defective. Designed by the lowest bidder.”

Revery is silent.

“They say people just die at the end, but I saw it. When the shadow entered her lungs. It filled her, made her seem like she was alive again. Swelled up and animated. Her mothers would have wept to see this phenomenon.”

Revery turns to face the lantern light.

“The shadow walked her from the ship like she was taking a summer stroll. It needed her face.”

Revery’s breathing is very small. “You say that like you enjoyed it.”

“I did.”

“You’d like my other self.”

“Why? Is she more interesting than you?”

Revery’s eyelids are shut, tinged with purple.

“You’ve already seen someone suffocate.”

“I’ve seen a miner suffocate. I haven’t seen someone in an evening dress suffocate.”

“What if I could do better.”

“Better?”

She tells the story of the crucifixion. Just the beginning. Then stops talking.

“And?”

“I’ll tell you the rest if you cast us somewhere with air.” Her face is changing color.

The lifter isn’t designed for this, so it almost tears in half. The hydraulic grabber hangs from torn tubes, clanking slowly back and forth. But they’re in a place with air. A certain kind of air.