It keeps her on a flat surface. A desk, a stone slab, an operating table, it changes every time.
How horrible to be grabbed with those white-hot claws. You burn, but you don’t die. She sees how the notion of hell gathered, ember by ember, in the slumbering minds of the ancients.
Stay sane. This is an illusion. A projection of her body into the resonance between the void. Humans are fish in murky water. Demons wade through the water, we see their legs and think it’s a species of legs.
Revery is trapped mid-leap above water, in the world the demon has made for itself out of scrap memories.
When she concentrates very hard, she feels gravel on her skin. The sun salt of the coffin in the waking world. The queasy feeling of being a hologram, in both places at once.
I’m rationalizing, she thinks. Clinging to the secular theory of the Outfit that calmed her during missions. Admit it, this is hell. This is where demons live.
At first she was blinded by the woven light of its fractal fireflesh, the incandescent filigree of its veins. But now it holds that light behind itself, behind the careful hands, as if cringing from its own radiance. The hands that work on her are memories that the demon wears like gloves. Plain human hands, sometimes with the stain of a half-remembered ring, sapphire like blueberry juice on a knuckle.
Working for The Outfit, she had to go on a demon hunt once. Her sisterself sent her papers in the sole of a slipper. No explanation, just a ticket on a hunting ship and a fake ID. That’s how it worked, receiving only the raw tools and figuring out how to apply them. Their shared schema meant they had an untraceable telepathy, an encryption nothing could crack.
As the caravel sailed through the void, she studied the other hunters. Some were tasked with fighting off adult demons. Others were there to lure the babies into the lanterns dragged behind the ship. Today’s bait included an equationEngine demons crave novelty. 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. for solving the distance of a prayer to the closest sun.
They set their bait of baubles and waited.
A roar of light arced above the ship, burning an emerald tint into the edge of the viewing dome. She heard boots on the strap-decks on the outside of the ship, the growl of guns strange enough to scar demons.
Then the tear of a leather tether, someone plucked into the void. Their gun, big and crude like a piece of mechanical debris given a trigger, dinked against the glass dome.
The demon streaked past, a solar flare plucked from its sun like a loose thread. Revery saw the hunter in silhouette, skeleton entombed in the living flame. The demon found its bauble.
The demon sunBrightness grows as she nears the end of the ship. There must be more than one lantern yoked in the chancel. A sun of demons. hangs overhead, casting insane shadows. Behind them she sees another sun, the sun the ship is flying toward.
How does she see it? Only strange things, demons and living shadows, can be seen in hypersleep. The immense fire of stars is extinguished in here.
Is this sun alive? If not alive, does it conceive?
In her dreams inside the dream, her only reprieve from the ceaseless torture, she dreams of the sun’s heart, the fuel of universes, full of wishes and terrible change.
“Why haven’t you tried this on some other trip with dreamer offsetsThe captain needs four people to serve as offsets for the hyperspace engine, making sure its nightmares don't rip the ship from reality.?”
“As we move closer to the sun, my dream grows clearer. We are flying toward clarity.”
“The sun makes you stronger?”
“It tastes like my mother’s milk.”
The demon amputates her right foot.
The foot grows back. The same impulse as a phantom limb, body-memory regenerating her to be tortured anew each day.
“I’m sorry you have such an inflexible mind.”
She gets free one day, night, moment, when the demon leaves the room and the chains have turned soft as cotton.
Outside it looks like a replica of the immortal's mansionThe 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., a memory pasted onto the wall of the void. She runs down the hall past blurry portraits.
A harpsichord falls from the sky and flattens her.
“I’ll set you free. I promise.”
The demon keeps working.
“Don’t you want to be free?”
“Of course I do. But you will never open the lantern. So I do not think of it.”
“Anyone would say that in your situation,” the demon says as it severs a finger.
Revery’s eyes sting with tears. “Even if you keep doing this, no matter what, I’ll let you out.”
“When your sleep ends, you’ll smash my lantern, and everything I’ve learned and felt for 216 years will be snuffed out.”
“You can’t deny your nature, little scorpion.”
The demon is painting. To Revery, it just seems like her blood is getting smeared around more.
“How long has it been?”
“Months and months and months.”
“That’s so long.”
“In here you can’t really tell. Your projection feels time like a dream, moving from experience to experience like a ghost. But you perceive pain beautifully. Pain is the science of the moment.”
Revery has mastered the art of talking without a tongue. “It’s funny, isn’t it. I’m trapped out there, you’re trapped in me.”
“You don’t sound like it’s funny.” The demon slits another notch in Revery’s right sole.
Sometimes the demon is tired from all the torture. It sits on the edge of the table, staring into a patch of the void visible through the crumbled ceiling.
“Stars were our watering holes. Our library was a pillar of fire.”
Revery sees it in the demon’s breath; prismatic exhalations of nostalgia. A darkness swimming with flame, expanding clouds of gas, the deepest molasses of sentience, a civilization of fireworks.
“My name is The-Application-of-Heat-to-Sand. It’s easier to say if your native tongue is fire.”
“Can I just call you Lantern?”
“That would be fine. I wouldn’t have to hear you mangle it. The way your lips slap together and your tiny face-bones clack and your air-bags wheeze…”
“You’re very rude.”
When the demon’s exacting light is turned from her, when the lucidity of its presence departs, her memories leak and contaminate the dream, made incontinent by the gaze of the black mirror.
She sees herself, but smaller, that lanky girl dragging the metal pipe leg, just another bit of scrap in that rusted desert. Bony back pressed against the metal pew in the Iron Church, making out with bored older girls, ponytails bobbing back and forth like scurrying rodents, phonograph sermon eroded into gibberish.
You don’t know enough to be afraid yet.
Sometimes the other demons are closer, and she can see their bodies inside their light like constellation mythologies.
One of them hangs overhead like a cloud. Bleeding from the sides of its head, two crusty ribbons. She’s never seen such wounds on a demon.
Lantern is going through the list of classical tortures in alphabetical order. Revery crackles on the rack like popcorn. G was nice. Guillotines and garottes, simple and quick, concentrated on the neck area.
“It’s not fair.”
“I don’t think anything in our entire time knowing each other could be called fair.”
Snap. Crik. Pop. “How are you controlling the dream?”
“I have eight breaths to exude through my coremada, the feather-antennae that extrude from my spine. These breaths renew themselves within minutes. If I had grown up with my own kind, I would have used them to flirt. It allows us to create a shared dream from the swirl of our oneiro-pheromones. It is beautiful. I will never know it.”
One of Revery’s arms is starting to detach. “You can. You will. Let me go and I’ll walk straight to your lantern and undo the clasp. I swear.”
The demon turns away. The rack continues to turn. “Even if my lantern were opened, it wouldn’t matter.”
Revery bleeds patiently.
“If we are taken, our mothers can’t imprint on us. We can never return.”
The demon curls up, face buried in its feathers.
“Well, we can try. But I would be gored. My smell is all wrong.”
Revery tries to look sympathetic through the dislocations.
The demon gnaws on itself. “Sometimes I think of going back, letting them tear me apart, if it’s the closest I can get to—”
Revery wants to say something, but the words don’t come. Another moment passes and the demon’s feathers return to their regal composure.
“Each breath tethers something in the void. A finely detailed painting: one breath. A room, if you don’t look too close at any particular detail: two breaths.”
Revery tries to reach out with her mind. To inflict the slightest tremble on the mote of dust that’s been looping overhead.
“That won’t work. Your mind is stuck in the first realm, the plane of dirt and suffering. A mouldering cut of ham. I’m astonished your brain even functions. Self-sabotaging, suicidal, eugenicidal, just enough awareness to understand how hideous your existence is, but not enough to do anything about it.”
“You’re so depressing.”
“Do you understand the effects of time on one’s personality? I never wanted to think like you. Your thoughts, your speech, it’s a stain.”
“If you were sorry you’d have let me out of the lantern.”
“I can’t do that in here.”
“We’re holding knives to each other’s throats in two different worlds. I’m cutting first.”
Revery is on a table again, joints snapping back into place. “You’re taking so long to do it.”
“This isn’t for my entertainment.”
“Then why? Why spend all this time tormenting me?”
“I can’t kill you in here. Your projection is one of those trick candles that flickers back when blown. But I can destroy your mind. Leave you a drooling husk.”
The sword stabs through her chest, splintering through the table. Revery cries out.
“It’s not my fault humans are designed this way. I’m just shutting you off the only way possible.”
The dream has edges where the demon isn’t concentrating, a wrong-world always picking at itself. Revery looks for the frays, tries to ignore the rupture in her intestines as her belly is opened.
The demon looks a little sick. “Well, this is just a mess.”
A dining room (2 breaths) with paintings borrowed from the palace of immortals (1 breath) and the demon’s best approximation of the courtyard fountain of Citadel Azimuth (1 breath).
Revery’s on the table being carved up like sashimi. “It must be sad in here. Playing with memories like crayons. Reminds me of the drawings I made as a child.”
“You don’t like the fountain?”
“It’s kind of plain. Ah. Ahhhh. Nothing specific about it. I can’t. Ahhh. Hhh. Focus on any part without blurring it.”
The demon’s feathers twitch twice and a lake unfurls like an azure carpet, lapping at the mosaic floor of the dining room. The water doesn’t become clearer as it flows into the cracks, vivid blue veins ebbing through the mosaic.
“Feels a bit cheap.”
Another feather-twitch and the lake teems with awful depth, aquatic strata swarming with dead plant matter and scaled things. She feels the fear of drowning.
“Impressive. But water is easy. It’s elemental, like you. You can’t do humanity in detail.”
Her clone stands beside her (1 breath), real enough to bring bile to her throat.
“I’ve seen department store mannequins with more flush.”
The feathers tremble. Her clone’s clothes frost with lace, eyes fill with reflections, and the revolver orbits her pelvis like a doll accessory. She’s drenched with all the perfume of the black mirror, impossibly hateful and desirable. She picks elegantly at slices of Revery’s thigh chilled in a bowl of ice, dipping them in brine.
Revery grabs Bad Revery’s revolver and shoots the demon in the face. She rolls off the table and runs across the lake. The demon’s feathers spasm, impotently sparking. A cage falls onto Revery and she kicks through it like charred branches. The smell of burnt pheromones.
She finds a door steeped in gravel. She scoops away the gravel like a dog burying a bone, then kicks at the door. It rattles but holds.
The demon climbs the gravel hill, remembering its wound back into itself.
Revery picks up a rock and bashes at the doorknob, splintering the wood around it.
The demon looks up at her, ancient eyes clouded with nebulae.
Revery says, “We’re just two trapped animals.”
The demon creeps a little closer. A breath returns to its feathers, and she sees the eyes dilate in calculation.
“Anyone you ever get your claws on will be like you, trapped in sleep, trapped in the only job anyone will pay them to work.”
The knob breaks off and the door creaks open. The demon tenses. The door frame feels like an airlock, a painting, a guillotine. Revery is very still.
“I will let you go,” she says quietly.
She tears the roots of the parasite from her mucus membranes, feels it slither from her intestines and throat as she coughs and hacks like something dead waking up.
The parasite is called a Cessfool. They are harvested from a swamp planet, where they attach to a certain mammal, creating a closed system with their digestive tracts. They grow new mouths and filter out toxins for their delicate hosts, taking a nutritional tithe. A cheap way to maintain hypersleepers.
She sees her doppelganger, back bare in a white dress, hunched in a corner, muttering into a dark mirror.
She tries to look over her clone’s shoulder and see the reflection, but Bad Revery seems to sense her presence. She sets the mirror down and walks away.
“Don’t walk away, bitch.” Revery stumbles after in a haze of hypersleep sickness. She loses her doppelganger in the corridors, loses her puke on a bas-relief.
Somewhere down the corridor she finds the great chain of being scratched into the wall.
The suns and stars in order of radiance
Or here demons here?
She finds the writer around the corner. A dead-eyed deacon collapsed against the wall, rubbing a little stub of chalk to nothing between her fingers.
“Why isn’t the ship stopping? We're flying into the sun.”
“We told the demons to stop,” the deacon mutters.
“Aren’t they bound to obey you?”
“Then how could the ship still be moving?”
“They destroyed their faculties for hearing.”
Revery remembers the demons driftingOne of them hangs overhead like a cloud. Bleeding from the sides of its head, two crusty ribbons. She's never seen such wounds on a demon. through the dream-hell.
She follows the light. The gentle murmur of prayers in the distance grows louder. If she can find the rood screen again, she’ll find the control deck.
Another deacon lays on the floor in a jumble of limbs, the almond smell of a cyanide wafer on her slack tongue. Revery unstraps a pair of smoked glass goggles from the deacon’s face.
The chorus of prayers in the distance turns to screeches. She emerges from the corridor into the fury of the sun, stinging through the smoked glass. She climbs the steps of the chancel, past sizzling urns of her cloned flesh. Her mouth waters.
The deck beyond the rood screen is scorched with unbearable radiance. She crawls up the steps like a bug, skin peeling and red.
At the top, the demon lanterns no longer seem so bright, outshone by a greater light. The cardinal stares at the immense circle of the rose window. It so neatly frames the blazing star they’re plummeting toward it seems like a sun itself.
Revery approaches warily, an ornamental chalice gripped in her fist. The cardinal is sun blind, her pupils tiny dots. “Nice day. Not a cloud in the sky.” The cardinal’s smile stretches her face horribly.
The cardinal turns to face Revery. She rings her bell.
Sun-lobotomized beadles rise from the floor where they were sunning themselves like lizards. Revery spits at the cardinal and runs. A staff strikes her across the back, the symbol of the church bruising a cloudy purple-black sigil into her shoulder-blade.
She runs down the steps, past the smoking urns. Beadles are scattered across the hall like discarded dolls. They stand up, silently blocking her, turning with her movements, forming a wall around her, pushing her back up the steps.
The cardinal’s voice rings out, crisp as bacon. “Put it in her. Show her the glory of the true sun!” A beadle brandishes a solar nimbus, lifting it like a surveyor’s spike.
Revery reaches behind an urn and grabs something by its chain. The lanternRevery crouches in the shadow of the rood screen and listens for footsteps. She sets the lantern behind an urn and slides herself down the steps, staying low between the rows. slides out. A beadle’s staff strikes her skull, smashing stars through her eyes. She uses the last of her strength to kick the lantern down the steps. It smashes on the stone.
The demon swarms through the air in a stream of fire, swallowing the beadles and burning black the skin of those who leap to the side. A beadle slams her nimbus spike into the demon’s thigh. The demon slashes the beadle’s guts across the floor with a single swipe.
The demon absorbs the heat of the sun, growing larger as it clambers up the steps, knocking urns down like tea cups, an avalanche of potsherds and roasted clone-flesh. The demon smashes through the rood-screen and gazes at the cardinal with all of its eyes.
The light of each eye is bright enough to burn through the cardinal’s blindness, her private darkness invaded by a storm of infernal irises. She weeps in terror and runs, making it seven feet before the demon’s barbed tongue catches her and flings her inside its furnace-belly. The cardinal’s scream turns to a howl of steam.
The demon tears the lanterns of its imprisoned kind free, smashes their glass. Deafened demons recoil from her and flit away. The cathedral slows but continues its inexorably dive into the sun.
The demon rises to its full height, feathers splayed like reptilian frill or a celestial peacock, casting its shadow across the hall, shielding Revery from the sun’s skin-peeling heat.
They stare at each other for some time.
Revery bows and crawls away, wading through the river of the demon's shadow.
Light creeps through the cathedral, flowing angularly around corners. Even the dark engine room is growing bright, the clank and grind of machinery turning bass as the metal softens.
Bad Revery flicks bug-eyed sunglasses on and smiles at Revery. She’s wearing a black and white checkered bikini. Sunscreen is smeared across her nose and cheeks like warpaint.
“Can you get my back?”
“Like you had mine?”
Revery rubs sunscreen into the groove of her clone’s spine, skin tanning before her eyes. Sweat drips from Revery’s face onto her clone’s tail-bone.
“You’re raining,” Bad Revery says.
“Summer rain is the most delightful,” Revery says listlessly.
She feels sick. This was meant to be her. This was stolen. She was supposed to be at the center of everything in beautiful cathedral ships wearing expensive swim-wear. Not feeling guilty and stuck.
She squirts another blot of sunscreen onto Bad Revery’s thighs, working it in with her knuckles.
“It was all for nothing,” Revery says.
“All for everything, dear sister.”
“The sun isn’t what you think.”
“Why are you trying to ruin my fun?”
“I saw the sun. While I was sleeping. I know its heart.”
“Delirium. Let me tell you what it really is.”
Bad Rev picks up the black mirror. Even the sun doesn’t reflect in it.
“The ancients believed the universe had once died. In that time, the gods met to discuss its fate in the darkness between. They made a great pyre and drew lots to decide who would lay down in the flames. For to create a new universe, only a god is sufficient kindling.”
She sighs as Revery’s fingers work faster.
“We live in the ruin of a dead universe, and think it is alive because we have nothing to compare it to. Such sweet abundance and clarity of being, you would weep to know what we’ve lost. This is the darkness between. Only my offering to the pyre sun can create a new one.”
“You think you’re a god?”
“According to the criteria we discovered. According to the adjustments we made. The sun will read my mind and my blood and think I am a god. I will be reborn, and all life will be filtered through me.”
Her clone places her hand on Revery’s face, as if to crush it. Revery speaks, her breath warm against Bad Revery’s palm, stinking with the halitosis of hypersleep. “You won’t be protected. I saw the truth in hypersleep.”
She thrills to see Bad Revery’s lip twitch through the sunscreen. The jizz of god is just ranch dressing now, baby.
“And you’d think I was the spiteful one. Cheer up, this means you’re a god too. An abject one, to be sure, but the black mirror made you archetypal enough. The martyr, the sufferer, the loser.”
“It’s the great chain of being. The other clones died from Other Collapse Disorder"Your doppelganger's deal was to give us the secret of her flesh. To tell us how a clone eluded the inevitable disease of your kind, the so-called Other Collapse Disorder. A secular term that would have us believe it to be a mere affliction of the body as opposed to what it truly is: the manifestation of the god's wrath in every cell of your counterfeit flesh." because they still looked human, but they weren’t part of the same link. The laws of creation shattered them. But our flesh is transitional. Reinforced bloodShe'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., remember? Fucked into one of our mothers or their mother's mothers by something in the void. We were always on a different link."
Revery snatches at the mirror but Bad Revery jerks it away. She smacks a button on the floor. The stone tiles roll aside, revealing a hole like in a diving station. The sun blazes through it, rasping the moisture from the air.
“Forgive me, sister. It’s my time to shine.” She rolls over and grabs her swimming goggles.
Revery squirts sunscreen in Bad Rev’s eyes, stinging gobs of chemical white, and grabs the black mirror. Her clone claws at her eyes, spitting up little hisses and gasps, weeping milky tears.
A certain civilization, during times of war, would appoint someone to store in the mirror any atom of their being that would hold them back from total purity of response, the kind of hard decisions they said were required during crisis. It would be too dangerous to have such a personality in charge all the time, so why not create an artifact that can add and subtract the necessary qualities at the key time? A mirror-tyrant.
The Outfit pried it from the bony claw grip of a shriveled corpse on a nerve-throne in a stone satellite above a planet razed to the rock.
Her clone stalks after her with inflamed eyes, chasing her around the diving hole, around the pillar of rippling heat that rises from the true sun. “There was enough happiness for both of us,” Revery says. “You didn’t have to be selfish.”
“You’re wrong. It would have taken us decades to pay off The Outfit’s contract. Why should both of us be unhappy? I’d rather live one whole life than two pathetic halves.”
Revery’s throat twitches as she tries to speak without crying. “I understand now.”
She takes the black mirror from behind her back. Her hands tremble. "What are you doing?" her clone says.
Revery tries to wipe away her tears, but the sun's already licked them from her cheek. “I’ve got to be cruel so you can be kind.” She stares into the black mirror, sweat glinting on her skin like bright glass.
Her clone skids to a stop, nearly falling into the hole. She clutches her head, eyes oscillating as the mirror leeches at her memories and schemas. She grits her teeth and grabs Revery by the face, but her gouging fingers becoming slapping palms become trembling brushings. Please...please...
A shadow falls across Revery’s face, the only shadow that can still exist in this place.
Her clone's infallible confidence drains, leaving only disappointment and regret. She screams, lunging into Revery with the last of her passion. They slam to the floor together and the mirror shatters, shards digging into Revery’s face. It hurts as they go inside, wires pulled through cheese, resonating like the singing of a wine glass—then silence. They dissolve like sugar.
Her clone clings to Revery’s ankle like the tide of memories is going to sweep her out to sea.
“Who are we?”
Revery doesn’t answer. Through the hole in the floor, the sun is an ocean of fire rolling endlessly below. She feels her blood squirming at its light. She takes a step closer.
Her clone is turning valves on the machinery. Trying to rotate the cathedral ship. “We can still leave. It’ll take a long time without demons, but we can sleep in the coffins. Please. We don’t have to die out here.”
Revery stares across the vastness of space. The seesaw of guilt and greed, the people who hurt, the people who heal, the helplessness of being good, the endless hunt between lambs and wolves and lambs who think they’re wolves and wolves who say they’re lambs, back and forth, inseparable from each other, a universe of hospitals and guns, interlocked by a golden wheel.
She thinks of the planet they grew up on, a dead yellow rock. She thinks of the first green planet she ever saw, the possibility she felt inside her young flesh. The mirror dust in her blood reflects behind her eyes. She is a black cloudy ball hovering behind her selves, watching silently, in a warm dark place without sound.
Revery laughs a horrible, lost laugh.
“It all looks like boiled spinach.”