II: The Decorative Plate Trade

The industrial lifter lunges through the universe and crashes into a haze of lavender fog. The air is breathable but sickly sweet.

The jump was almost instantaneous, so this place is either very close to the ice planet or the demon snagged onto a current, a suggestion within the void. Old, seductive grooves that humans avoid for a reason. The roads of the cursed ancients.

She staggers from the wrecked lifter and her foot sinks into decayed emerald carpet.

Oh no.

“You brought us to a Palace.”

“It’s no threat to me.”

“If I die here you’ll have no one to activate your lantern. You’ll be stuck here for eternity.”

“The interior of my lantern is more spacious than you’d think. You’re welcome to come inside.” The lantern burns redder with these words.

“We have to leap again.”

“Shh. I don’t have enough light. It takes time to kindle.”

“How long?”

“Your improvised vessel won’t survive another leap anyways.”

She slings the demon lantern over her back and leaves the parlor behind.

The lungs of the Palace are still breathing. They blow fog through yellow bones wrapped in a rotted uniform. Past a portrait of a noblewoman in a ringworld meadow, face slashed apart.

Footsteps at the end of the hall. Revery freezes. A masked woman comes into view. She raises her head, as if listening.

“Don’t attract their attention,” the demon murmurs.

“How are people alive in here? The Palaces were sealed.”

“You think they’re alive? Stupid slut.”

“She looks very healthy.”

The mask is like red wax festooned with leviathan teeth, framing plump lips painted gold.

“It’s not life, it’s a loop.”

The masked woman moves jerkily out of view. A few moments later a bell rings.

“Their elixir of immortality ate them from the inside out. Like fossils. A recording of life.”

“How old are you? How do you know this?”

“If you interrupt the loop, they’ll become erratic.”

The sign says Quay in antiquated script. Revery sets the lantern down and jerks on the door. Locked.

She feels a light touch on her shoulder. The woman’s mask looms at her side, massive and crimson. “Dinner is ready,” she says.

She guides Revery to a room with a long table surrounded by other masked people. She pats a seat with her gloved hand and Revery sits down. Her place is set with a platter of beets, red cabbage, and rhubarb. The sweet mass glistens at her.

“Our ransomweed harvests have been good this year. Do you agree?” A guest with a mask of bedraggled feathers or moth antennae addresses her. Revery mutters, yes, they have been. The guest returns to her meal, forking a wad of rhubarb into her mouth. Then she smiles at the chandelier, teeth stained purple, her glasses pure white with reflection.

Up close the healthy bloom of the guest’s skin is closer to enamel. Something lacquered and mineralized. An occasional stiffness when carrying out certain actions. Repetitive tapping of spoons or jittery sippings of soup. She sees that the garish pattern of the carpet is actually a melange of spilled food, layer after layer stamped into the floor. The sweet lavender fog that pours through the room is covering up so many odors, which emerge from the haze like fetid carcasses on a dismal shore.

She swallows the bile in her throat and looks for a way out. The hostess is at the end of the table, pouring someone’s wine. Revery slowly slides her chair back and steps away from the table. As she reaches the edge of the room, she hears the sound of glass shattering.

Footsteps gather behind her. Hinges whine all around her as the inhabitants of the Palace emerge. She runs to the quay door, kicks in the old wood, grabs the lantern, and bolts across the splintered threshold.

Ancient ships rest inside something that looks like a huge stable. A sword is stuck in the wall. The floor is charred with black marks.

It smells like cinnamon in here. Gilded metal accents join the wood of the ship together, lacquered dark red wood carved with prayers against the shadows. The cockpit has a dashboard of powered vellum and illuminated gauges. A decanter of some extinct whiskey rests on the edge of the dashboard.

She sets the lantern in the chancel of the ancient ship, surrounded by snowbanks of melted candles.

“Engine. I need a short leap, just far enough to throw us through the Palace walls."

“That isn’t my name.”

“What is your name?”

“You don’t deserve to know.”

Behind the flurry of aristocratic heels she hears a rusty lumbering of something far heavier. “They’re coming for us.”

“You never told me the story of the crucifixion.”

“There wasn’t time.”

“There is time, Revery.”

“You’re insane.”

“You’re drowning in a sea of time and you say you’re parched. If you want to make the time, you will.”

“It’s a really long, complicated story—”

“Show me pain on your body.” The demon’s breath like the birth of a nebula against the glass.

“My body.”

The ship rattles with each step of the approaching thing. The clink of chains, the scrape of something dragged behind it.

“Show me something interesting.”

Engine demons crave novelty. Yet all but the most fierce demons of the greatest warships can be bought with trivia, games, whatever esoteric interest they have. She worked a greenhouse ship where she fed the demon tricks with cards.

Older demons are more likely to get bored. They become difficult to work with, even as their engines became seasoned like cast iron pans, capable of jumping further into the void. In the most recalcitrant cases a demon is snuffed. How was a demon like this on a luxury skimmer?

Revery picks up a tank of coolant. Studies the lantern like she’s sizing someone up at a bar.

She starts drinking the coolant. The lantern doesn’t react.

She lifts the tank high, blue fluid running down her throat, spattering the scalloped lace of her neckline.

The lantern flickers.

She slams to the floor and pukes across the stone tiles. She looks up with a sapphire grin, eyes watery and red.

“Oh, fine,” says the lantern.

The lantern burns. But the ship doesn’t move.

“Why aren’t we going?”

“The chamber’s damping my light.”

She runs to the cockpit and scours the dashboard, looking for something she missed. The flight initiation sequence is weird, has too many steps.

“What the fuck. There’s a three step prayer process before the engine can run.”

“Better get praying.”

She chants through her chemical burning mouth, does the hand motions, finger to forehead, wrist to navel. Finds tiles in a slide-out tray, casts them and arranges the suns in order of brightness, turns the shadow tiles face down. The ship is slammed by something massive, the tiles go clattering against the wall, but the ritual is complete.

She goes back into the engine chancel and her legs spasm, she clings to a wall-strap as her eyeballs twitch, impossible to focus.

“You look beautiful like that. I hope you realize.”

“Jerk off later.”

It feels like the ship’s tearing in half. But apart from a terrible groaning and creaking, and the shattering of the decanter (which she had been looking forward to), it remains intact.

The demon brings them into real time. In the distance she sees the Palace receding, turrets and spires jutting through the void.

She wipes azure drool from her mouth and walks to the bathroom, which is spacious for a ship. A granite bath with a pumice stone and ash soap, a mirror framed by bacteria lamps that glow at her approach. She pisses into the waste hole, her dick throbbing white-hot, trying to focus on the floor engravings, spiritual mantras about each day being a new chance to impress the local sun, which is an emissary of the platonic sun. She can’t stop dry heaving. She needs water.

She gets in the bath and pulls the chain. Water spatters her face, she swallows it until she chokes. She’s glad the ship’s purification systems haven’t broken down, she could have just swallowed a load of black mold sludge.

A hollow in the wall glows with that familiar light. “There is a physician’s kit in the other room.”

“Why are you helping me?”

“Coolant poisoning is a relatively boring death. I’m holding out for the undefined horizon of possibility.”

She sits back in the pilot’s throne, eyes closed as the lantern talks, the heat of its light washing against the back of her neck. Almost comforting.

The cruise liner was just a day ago. Fighting her clone in the corridor, tasting the underside of her platform heels. Bad Revery’s wordsShe 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.”
pulse through her head, indistinguishable in tone from her internal monologue.

“My other self will be at the beach house. Just a few worlds away. She feels safe there.”

“Won’t she expect…herself?”

“I know a way in that she doesn’t. Because she removed all her bad memories.” The cellar, boarded up in a rage after she fell down the stairs and broke her ankle. A tunnel runs from the cellar to a cove. She used to shout in there when she was very angry.

Flashes of salt, sun, eyes shut as the tide nibbles at her ankle. Are those drops of foam or champagne? Skipping frames of memory, dislocated from context. The past is uninhabitable.

She smashes through the wall at the top of the cellar stairs with a sledgehammer. The pale bodyguard sprints from the kitchen. She swings the hammer, spattering milkblood across the paisley carpet. Before they can regrow she swings a few more times, like beating a chowder to death.

She waits at the edge of the hall, counts under her breath. A bullet hole appears exactly where she knew it would. She sprints up the stairs to where Bad Revery is reloading and slaps her. Bullets tumble down the padded steps.

She drags herself by the ear into the bedroom and holds the revolver to her coccyx like she’s returning a lost bone to Bad Revery’s skeleton. “It only takes a squeeze to make you a paralytic.”

Bad Revery wants to turn around and strangle her. She knows this. How didn’t she pick up on the revulsion before? Never clone someone with suicidal ideation.

“What did you mean by the machines? The sun?”

Bad Revery looks at the nightstand, and Revery follows her gaze to the fancy plate. The design shows a sun surrounded by text.

“They’ve been passing secrets back and forth through the decorative plate trade for years.”

“Secrets worth betraying me for?” The room stinks with the feedback loop of their sweat.

“Worth everything.”

Revery gets a prickling feeling in her balls. She keeps the revolver trained on Bad Revery and picks up the plate.

A stylized sun with black dots lining the underside of the surface. The words around the sun are from an archaic language, mostly decorative now, but once the tongue of choice for sermons and religious texts. She tries to translate.

The workers that change on the below of the sun

The constellation pattern on the rim of the plate almost looks like a hyperspace coordinate.

She realizes she’s stared at the plate a second too long. Remembers what she would do if she were her, which she is. She ducks. If the distance between their reflexes wasn’t stretched by years of repetitive menial labor and lack of health care, she’d have succeeded.

The vase shatters over her head, wetting her face with musty water pink with blood. A flower, imported through hyperspace just to die in that vase, tangles in her hair.

She staggers back, revolver knocked somewhere across the blurry carpet, puts her hands up like little shields. “Look at these hands. Look at the holes you put in them. You left me there to fry in the desert.”

Bad Revery picks a ceramic shard from the floor.

“We have to bring ourselves back to symmetry. We won’t have to fight anymore. We’ll be one mind.”

Bad Revery swings, nearly slicing through her nose. “We are immiscible.”

Revery runs around the bedroom, knocking over furniture as her clone stalks after her, speaking slowly. “I never want those memories inside me again. I don’t remember them, but their weight is in my body. The ashy outline of a furnace on a wall. That’s a feeling I won’t pursue.”

The Outfit found her in a coastal boomtown, sea drained by the drills of heaven. She grew up knowing it as a desert full of fish bones, wandering to the edge of the giant holes and flinging stones, knowing she’d never hear them hit the bottom.

She lost her leg when she was fifteen, to a rot or a rust, she never knew, just something there was no medicine for, out there in the mining town with nothing to mine.

She’d scored on a secret aptitude test they’d embedded in the schoolhouse. Something about her having “reinforced blood”. The Outfit offered her a leg and a future.

She stares through a glass wall set in concrete as cards flash past on metal clamps like a shooting range. Each has a person on them.

“A waitress.” She hears the sound of dishes clinking.

“A pop idol.” A crowd roars.

“A…” She trails off. Clears her throat. “A, um…”

The card whisks back into the darkness.

When the Outfit told her about the sisterselfer, she stayed up all night imagining making hundreds of herself, enough to overrun the whole building. She wouldn’t be lonely anymore, everyone would understand her.

Revery screams through the open window. Her voice flies across the dark sand, crashes into the surf.

Bad Revery jerks her by the collar and slams her to the floor. She presses the vase shard to Revery’s cheek. “In a few seconds, no one will ever mistake us for each other again.” Blood pools around the tip of the shard.

Revery can’t speak without shredding her cheek. She stares into her clone’s eyes, trying to share whatever is missing, trying to speak through iris and pupil and lash.

The ship smashes through the roof. Her old scrapbooks and mementos fly through the air as the attic explodes. All the new friends and family she’d tried to make, the life she’d painstakingly sculpted from nothing, scattered on the sands of midnight.

Revery crawls through the wreckage of the room, grabs the plate, and leaps onto the extended ramp. Bad Revery claws at her ankles and she kicks her other self in the face, feels the crunchspurt of her nose.

She stares down at the exposed room so far below. How long did they live in that house together without her understanding how far they’d drifted from each other? The exposed workings of a diseased skull, now absent one of its neuroses.

The lantern dangles demurely. “You have a very shrill voice, you know.”

“It’s a scream. That’s the point of it.”

“You don’t sound grateful.”

Revery flings the flower from her hair. “Thank you.”

“Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Thankful.”

She burns the sole of her foot with a blowtorch.

We lived in a nice house by the beach. This is no longer the case. But we still share accommodations. We live inside our hate. I hate you because you aren’t part of me. You hate me because I was part of you.

She limps to the engine chancel and shows the demon the plate. “Do you understand this pattern? This is where my doppelganger is going.”

“It’s an older form of coordinate notation, but it’s more or less intelligible. Maybe a day away.”

“Just so I’m clear, what does less mean in this situation?”

“We jump into solid rock, smack into a star, that sort of thing.”

“Let’s try to do our best today.”

Revery roots through the ship’s lounge, trying to find something edible. Rhubarb wine. Rhubarb jam. Packets of dehydrated rhubarb.

“I feel her five hours ahead,” says the lantern.

“How can we make up the time?”

“It would be a very bad idea to make up the time. That would mean finding an old road, letting the current catch us.”

“Do it. Please.”

“Only so I can see what happens.”

She blacks out.

She runs along the beach, trying to catch her other self. But the sand is too thick, there are too many grains to count, they pile up around her ankles. If only she could count them all, she could control them.

Her other self is smiling in the dream. They run at each other like they’re going to become one again. But all she hears is the sound of two hands slapping together.

She wakes up with dried blood on her upper lip.

What happened, she says. But no sound is heard. Her loudest shriek is silence. The void presses warm and heavy around her.

The lantern is dark.

She licks her lips. It feels like the water is leeching from her body. She picks up a mug hanging from a chain by the water tank. The handle is inside the cup. Still attached. Just reversed.

She runs to the lavatory and looks in the mirror, heart pounding. She touches her face, opens her mouth, peels back her eyelids.

She steps back so the full light of the mirror lamp hits her.

Her eyes are inky black.

The lights of the ship go out. She goes to the cockpit and starts a diagnostic check. Galvanic skeleton down. Emergency bacteria lights turn on, painting the walls feverish red.

Wait.

She touches her eye. This used to be a prosthetic. But it’s soft and warm as the other eye now.

The crash into the deep void set off a a symmetrical process. It guessed what the other eye was like from the first one. Or maybe thought didn’t come to it; the symmetries of nature inflicted on her messy body. She runs her hands across her skin, fingers trembling like tectonic vibrations in the silence. Her leglike is still there. A comforting scar.

Something dark slithers across the glass.

Her chest rises and falls rapidly. The ship is getting hotter. She checks the hatch, runs her hands across the seams of the corridor.

There it is. The leak. She fumbles for a caulker but it’s too late. A greater darkness pours through the hole.

A spark in the corner of her eye. From the engine chancel. Is the demon trying to kindle itself? Or was that a death throe? We’ll have to trust each other in this silence. Trust that we’re both trying to survive.

Did that patch of darkness move?

She runs to the supply locker and grabs a breather suit, then stops. She could put it on. But the air would run out. She has the feeling there is only darkness outside, forever. Only a lantern leap has a chance of returning them to the illuminated world.

She throws the suit over her shoulder and returns to the corridor.

If only it had some kind of shape, a beating heart to claw at. But it’s just darkness shifting. As smooth as blinds dropping.

She runs down the corridor and shuts the cockpit door.

The door vibrates. Without sound, it’s just a horrible blur.

She picks up a piece of broken glass from the decanter that fell yesterday.

The door shudders open. The hydraulic pump blows out silently, leaking pressure fluid from the wooden frame like sap.

The darkness enters the room. It’s every darkness that ever made her feel trapped and afraid. The darkness of the pits in the drained sea, the darkness of the lights going out in the Outfit dorms, the darkness in her clone’s eyes when they stared at each other on the bedroom floor. The inability to listen to pleading. This is what she fears. She relied on her tongue for so long, it was all she had as a child, a little yappy voice, no, no, no, please, do this instead, the only sword that never left her, sharpened with desperate need.

She remembers the demon’s story“The shadow walked her from the ship like she was taking a summer stroll. It needed her face.”. She unscrews the helmet from the breather suit.

Bacteria lights die as the darkness expands, as the cockpit seems to sink into nothing.

She slices her palm open and drips blood into the neck of the suit. Hides in the corner, wrapping her hand in a torn hem of her dress.

The shadow flows sinuously inside the breather suit. The smell of copper intensifies.

She screws the helmet back on and drags the suit like a balloon to the hatch. She pushes it through and screws the hatch tight, then runs to the hole and caulks it.

She goes to the engine room and waits for the demon to kindle.

They come out of hyperspace facing a stone wall. Revery stares at it for a few moments. Pulls back on the joystick. As the ship draws back, the wall curves, becomes a cylinder, colossal as the pillars of Igneous-Seal. Revery puts her hand to her mouth.

A vast cathedral-ship orbits a dead planet, spires bristling from the bow like a stone-forested mountain.

She goes back to the engine chancel and smears her palm across the lantern glass, leaving a red stain. The demon’s light laps at the bloody glass like water at the edge of a disturbed pool.

“Good job,” she says, feeling vaguely like she’s congratulating a pet, albeit one who finds the sight of her blood exciting and can tear holes in reality.

“What happened to your eyes?”

Revery looks away. She’d forgotten about the eyes. She spent so much time memorizing her own body so she could understand exactly how others perceived her, each part rated as numerically as ship parts, calibrated to be loved, tuned to go through doors closed to others. Now the balance is off.

“You’re lucky the void rupture didn’t cause even more interesting changes. I saw someone turn inside out on a run to 77vn2m.”

“You can tell all your great stories about people turning inside out after I kill my clone.”

The lantern radiates through the deck prisms mounted all over the ship like boils, casting its light outward.

“Something is kindling in the cathedral. You’d better hurry.”

“There’s nowhere for that ship to go. This is the edge of all known star charts.”

The cathedral ship’s rose window lights up like the sun is shooting through it. The demon cringes, curling up in a ball.

“What’s wrong?”

The demon whimpers, rocking back and forth in its lantern.

Revery suits up and drops into open void, falling toward the stone plain of the cathedral-ship, lantern trailing behind her like an uprooted anchor. Toward her other half, gaping like a wound.