Things have been quiet on the blog for front for a few months. One might assume that this means I haven’t been doing any writing. This is not entirely true. Between the start of October and the end of December I bashed out eleven and a half thousand words for an open submission. January and February were then spent not doing any writing, as I was consumed by the nervous and uncertain energy of “waiting.” In the end the piece wasn’t accepted for publication, but I’m still inordinately pleased with myself that I actually tried.
With the waiting out-of-the-way I got back to working on one of my pet projects. Gayane Al-Taftazânî and her associate Almund Skeete have made their inevitable return. The stories in and around their strange futuristic world now run in excess of fifteen thousand words, so I thought it high time to give the collection a name: The She That Wanders Cycle. Below is part 4 of Gayane and Al’s personal adventure “On a Bright Angel’s Wings.” As ever, it was an uncomplicated joy to write. I hope you enjoy it.
On a Bright Angel’s Wings
The dark of evening had begun to boil away, fading into the fuzzy and unclear remembrance of morning; a moment slipped away and a window time closed.
A pale honey-gold lurked on the horizon, crawling towards a light crystal blue, before being lost in a swaddling field of clouds stained in tones of icy pink; A rich, warm glow devouring the sky and consuming the last tattered vestiges of night. The city still glowed: a hodge-podge of putrescent sodium-yellow, cold YAG-diode white, and warm neon orange. The slick and glimmering sheen of the night’s rain lingered, leaving the streets resinous and haunted by the smell of scorched lavender and processed spices.
Almund Skeete lounged against a pillar of night-black steel, one proud vertex on the great ring of standing stones that made up the threshold between the city and the port. The ring encircled a half-mile wide disc of drab, slate-grey rock that sat stark against the weathered brown, ferrox stone of the city, and the vitreous glimmer of the port’s landing strips. Of the forty or so pillars that sat along the circumference, no two were made from the same material. The local legends said that each of the pillars were raised in testament to the power, glory and primacy of the alder-realms: there was the narrow, red-hued, wrought iron spire for the Old World at the heart of the inner system, that, despite its years, never rusted; there was the blue feldspar spiral for Talon-vree; the knife of milky-white basalt for Phnom Canesta; the quartz trellis for the Quasar Lords; the fluttering pinions of Chrysocolla silk for the Oligarchs of Oort and Kuiper; the sheet of smoked grey-glass for Those Who Yet Dwell in the Tumult of Shadows. But so many of the pillars had no patrons appended to them, and several were nothing more than shattered and broken stumps; ruined and unrecognisable, their names and physicality lost to the storm of years. The pillar of night-black steel was one of those without a name. It was only known that at neither dawn, nor dusk, nor noon, did it cast a shadow, and that it loomed with a tired, eyeless menace.
Within the circle of pillars lay the bazaar of Ways and Threshold, or to give it its local name: Threshy.
The hollow sky-bells chimed the coming of the dawn shift-change. A murmuration of stalls folded up and swept out of the bazaar, while others swarmed in from the peripheries. Dispensary stands unfurled themselves and set out their piles of narcotics in little paper-twist packets. Their bewildering array of gaudy colours and stripes dictated by the cartel standards authority. The colour of the paper denoted product, while the stripes showed, purity, vintage, and cut. All on display to catch the commuter rush.
Gayane ambled out of the ramshackle morass of the bazaar with a vivid blue storage cube hovering in her wake. At two meters to a side, the cube had clearly struggled to navigate the narrow switchback pathways of the bazaar and now floated above the milling crowds. Al watched her as she made her way towards him. She still wore the gown she had been in dressed in the night before. The thousands of mirror cloth segments had grown dull with smears of atmospheric dust and a thin patina of oxidation, and the jewel like fragments of glass which decorated it now flamed with the refracted light of the sunrise. She had unpicked the adornments from her hair and had tied her sandy blonde curls behind her head in a pony tail. As she reached him, Al stepped away from the pillar and vainly tried to smooth the creases from his jacket.
“I have made all the needful purchases we shall require for now,” said Gayane.
“What exactly did you buy in there? You were gone for nearly an hour,” replied Al.
“Needful things,” smiled Gayane. “Food mostly. But Gayane acquired a few special things in case of emergencies.”
Gayane tutted, “And spoil the surprise? Where is your sense of adventure, dear Almund?”
“I think I used up most of my allocation by agreeing to come with you.”
Gayane paused in thought. “Good comeback. I give it a six out of ten.”
“What would a ten have been?”
“Highly culture dependent,” Gayane said. “In some cultures angrily screaming ‘Your face is a sense of adventure’ before storming off, would warrant a ten.”
“Nowt so queer as folk, eh?”
“You know not how true those words are, my friend,” replied Gayane with a smile.
The two of them left the bazaar and the city behind them and headed out onto the inky black corundum plain of the space port. It stretched out towards the horizon, filled with shuttles, freighters, grand high-liners, and the oddments and star-junks of a thousand different worlds. Some traversed and taxied along runways and byways lit by the ancient matrix systems deep below the plain’s corundum skin; a riot of lurid whites, pulsing yellows and throbbing reds.
Others waited or wallowed, loading and unloading; some rusted and sat immobile, having squatted unmoving on their berths for centuries. The turbulent majesty of the port lay before Gayane and Al like a frozen sea.
An open-topped passenger sled swung out the throngs of ships and made its way towards them, its bevelled under-chassis skimming across the port on a silent cushion of magnetised air.
The sled spun through ninety degrees and floated to a side-on stop. Gayane hopped onto the flared running-board and offered Al her hand. Without hesitation he took it and she pulled him aboard with a giggle. The storage cube vibrated along all three of its axes and nestled itself into the luggage rack with a happy sounding bloop.
They settled into the battered bucket seats and Gayane turned to a vivid blue dome on the sled’s bow. “Ninety four west promontory,” she asked.
The dome faded out of blue and into a sharp acid-green. With a tinny fanfare of Galvosian slide-horns, the sled raised its wind-fields and sped off across the port.
As the sled whisked them towards their destination, Al sat facing back towards the city. With every passing second they drew further away from it, the buildings and spires shrinking from view.
“You seem forlorn,” said Gayane.
“I suppose I am a bit,” Al replied.
“You are sad to be leaving, yes?”
“Yeah…” he paused, scratching at his chin. “It seems silly doesn’t it? Considering how much I’ve grown to loathe the place.”
Gayane shrugged “It is home,” offering no further explanation. But she didn’t need to, Gayane had a strange and oft disconcerting way of making people always understand what she was saying, even if she didn’t actually say it.
Al chuckled. “It’s that simple isn’t it?”
“You may not belong here any more, but yet it is very much part of who you are.” She sounded almost wistful.
“That sounds like the voice of experience. Where’s home to you, Gayane?”
“Far away,” she sighed, “very far away indeed.” Gayane looked up at the sky, her eyes distant and glazed, filled with an aching longing that could never be quenched. And with that, they lapsed into a companionable silence.
The west promontory had been laid out some four hundred years ago to ease congestion and facilitate the expected boom in exports of high carbon gold laminar out beyond the Hydra’s Eye; the nova had killed that dream before it had a chance to get off the ground. Now blocks twenty through six hundred were home to mouldering ore transporters, rotting construction plant and vast clusters of dead, empty space. Oddly, the ten block had spent the last one hundred and thirty eight years as a family run patisserie. They made a killing shipping Punschkrapfen and Mille-feuille to half the inner-system and a hand-full of the trans-Nep stations.
The passenger sled trundled into the vast emptiness of the ninety block and headed towards the only ship moored there. At only a third of a klick, from stem to stern, it seemed small, dwarfed by the derelict space around it.
The sled drew to a halt at the edge of the 94th port-grid on the starboard side of the ship. Gayane and Al stepped onto the shinning onyx of the port, the storage cube blooped with delight and unhooked itself from the luggage racking.
The Kilderbran and Voss skylifter sat low on its landing gear. The ship was painted a brilliant opalescent white, it glittered with chromatic flames in the morning sun. A flourish of crimson swept along the sharp, almost brutal length of the hull, before flowering into a grand fractal mandala on the chin of a broad, hammerhead prow. As it sat there idle, it had about it an air of contained and slumbering lethality, like a sheathed sword, or an unloaded gun.
The ship’s turbines lay toward the stern nestled beneath the stowed gravifoils, somehow managing to remain grotesque and heavy despite the smooth and fluid shapes of their casement.
“What’s with the paint job?” asked Al.
“She was white when last I saw her,” said Gayane with a frown. She studied the jagged whorls the covered the ship’s prow.
“Something special about it?” asked Al, seeing the look on Gayane’s face.
“The Children of Ormskirk are of the Old World, their ways strange even to Gayane Al-Taftazânî, and they are not known for yielding their secrets.”
“But…” interrupted Al.
“I think it is a blessing,” said Gayane. “Of sorts.”
“Of sorts?” said Al with a tinge of worry in his voice.
“They do not decorate things they do not believe to have great spiritual value.”
“Well, that’s ominous.”
Gayane punched him in the arm. “We are setting out on a great adventure, Mister Skeete! Your inner-system negatively is something you should leave here!”
“Okay! Okay!” Al said with a laugh. “So,” he began, “what’s it called?”
“The ship. What’s its name?”
“It does not yet possess one.”
“It needs a name.”
“How quaint of you, Almund.”
“No, really. The local transit regulations specifically require an alpha-numeric designation, flag state and registration name.”
Gayane gave him a dumbfounded look, as if asking how he could possibly know that.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work with shipping and logistics recently,” he offered by way of explanation.
“Well if you are so well versed in this dark bureaucratic magic, Almund, you can do the honours of naming it.”
Al gazed down the length of the ship that was to carry him once more out into the wondrous infinity of the cosmos, towards the bulk of its engines and the raised bubble of the conning tower. The morning sun danced over the undulating, composite mesh of the gravifoils. It roiled and flowed like fiery quicksilver, and made the dubiously legal apparatus look like fluttering feathers on a pair of folded wings; the wings of a titanic and majestic bird that though now still and slumbering, a creature of almost peace, still possessed a coiled and ravenous fury that could tear you to pieces.
A thought bubbled from the depths of Al’s mind, a snippet of something he had once heard.
“The embrace of dusty ground,
No longer it clings,
To the heavens we are bound,
On a bright angel’s wings.”
“Is a poem not somewhat too wordy for a ship’s name, Almund? Your inner-system entertainments have led me to believe they should be short and dramatic. Like Velvet Thunder, Firebrand, or Casus Belli.”
“It was something I heard once, long ago,” Al replied, his voice distant and longing.
“Gayane has never heard it before. Something you learnt in one of your so called schools?”
“No… I heard it on a moon, a tiny one out in the sticks. So small and insignificant it didn’t even have a name. I was on a freighter out of An-nizām, there was a big solar plume passing across our heading, one of the backwater stars going wild, none of the deep-range sats picked it up. So we bellied down on this speck of nothing. We were there for three weeks, grubbing around in this thick, silty mud, with these locals who’d been kicked back to the stone age, descendants of some ancient shipwreck.”
Gayane watched the words tumble from his mouth, like he was painting a whole world before her eyes.
“Their leader, chieftain, whatever she was, whispered it to me the day before the storm died out and we left. Like she knew it was time for us to go. I offered to take them with us. But she said they were waiting for a different angel.” He turned back towards Gayane. “I think this is my angel. My bright angel.”
“Bright Angel…” said Gayane, rolling the words around in her mouth, tasting their corners and sounds. “I think it is a good name.”
Gayane and Al walked towards midship and underneath its sharp keeled belly. Gayane dug around in her bag and produced a small sphere about two inches across. Its surface was smooth and translucent, glowing with a milky pink, obscuring and cloaking a matrix of pathways and threads that looked like bubbles of air frozen in ice. She brought it up to her lips and kissed it. A narrow cargo ramp lowered out of the ship’s belly with a purr.
Al raised an eyebrow at Gayane.
“Gene lock,” she replied.
The pair entered the ship, their storage cube trailed behind them before snuggling down in a corner of the hold.
Al ran his hand down the broad, shinning silver walls. A deep, throaty rumble echoed from the depths of the ship.
“Gayane? Did the ship just purr at me?”
“Our Bright Angel has a recently birthed semi-intelligence managing core systems, some of them can be quite similar to pets,” she replied.
Al silently mouthed “what?” at Gayane.
“There is no cause for worry, I think it likes you.”
They made their way towards the command deck and the surprisingly spacious cockpit. The broad bubble window dominated the front wall, parts of the ceiling, and the adjacent walls. Gayane walked up to the central console and slipped the milky-pink sphere into a recess rimmed with the face of a gurning Saxonite grotesque. It swallowed the sphere and snapped it into place with pointed, golden teeth, its dead, black eyes flamed with a cold, blue fire. Lights and dials began to rise out of their slumber. Ghostly pale streaks of xenon blue traced paths over the bowed cockpit window, plotting orbital trajectories, tracking incoming ships, and displaying everything from wind speed, to light levels, to atmospheric composition.
The pair of flight chairs swivelled round to greet them. Gayane and Al sank it the soft, supple embrace of icy pale tallahaxi hide. Once seated they were swung back towards the cockpit window, a whole variety of new readouts appearing before their eyes: body temperature, respiration and heart rate, brain wave mappings, and galvanic skin response.
The vital readouts floated themselves out of view to be replaced with power flow rates and the steadily climbing spin rate of the main engines, their thrum filling the quiet of the ship.
“I assume you know how to fly this thing?” asked Al.
Gayane laughed. “As if they would let a person pilot a ship this large inside the gravity well! You are a funny man, Almund Skeete.”
“Broadly speaking, it is so.” Gayane flicked her hands across the empty space in front of her. Readouts spun away, to be replaced with telemetry and trim settings. The stately and majestic gravifoils shivered, flexed and slowly began to unfurl, their spines gently biting into the skien of reality. The Bright Angel rose like a soap bubble caught it an errant breeze; gently buoyed on unseen currents and rocked by the world in which it dwelt.
The Watchers in the port towers picked up the Bright Angel’s take-off. A flurry of data sparked through their synapses and disgorged into the sea of white, nano-circuitry that wrapped their grey matter. Trillions of calculations flashed between the towers, trawling data from a thousand local sensors, as well as the short, mid, and long-range sat systems in orbit. In less than a blink of an eye they had meshed with the Bright Angel’s navigation systems and started pushing it along a precisely determined trajectory out of the planet’s atmosphere.
The Bright Angel flew stately and serenely on its procession out of the atmosphere and started to skim through the cold and endless vacuum. They left the city and the port far behind, until they were nothing more than a slight marring on the surface of a vast brown waste. The ship slid into the embrace of a high-anchor jump-cradle, the deft hull clamps of the surrounding rings fastening themselves to the Bright Angel.
“So, Almund,” began Gayane, turning to face him, “As first mate and master navigator for our great undertaking, what shall be our first destination? What glorious course shall we plot?”
Al looked thoughtful for a moment “Sol Ba’nard,” he said.
“Not Sols Centaurus?” asked Gayane.
“Well, sure, we could head there, but with the way the traffic gets around this time of year…” Al sucked through his teeth. “We could be waiting for an outheading for days.”
Gayane made a disgusted sounding “ugh.”
“Buckle up my friend, lay in our course, and prepare yourself for the beginning of our adventure!”
Al prodded tentatively at the unfamiliar display, painstakingly checking every box as he set their destination, leaving the flight computer to calculate the heading and hash-out the specifics and intricacies with jump control.
The cradle rings slowly began to reposition the ship, drifting and angling through the degrees, down into minutes, and nudging gently through the seconds, lining the ship up with the clear and straight path out of the system, Past traffic, asteroid, planet and moon. The Bright Angel seemed to strain against its cradle, impatient and eager, its superluminal turbines beginning to whine as they spun to speed, punctuated by the mark XI’s signature undulating A-flat pulse. Space began to loosen and flow like water around the turbine hearts, bubbling and boiling. The gravifoils splayed out to their fullest extent, dipping their tines into the seething maelstrom of reality, sculpting and shaping the fabric of existence, unmooring the Bright Angel from pesky inconveniences like physics.
A countdown filled the cockpit window with sharp, lurid numbers in an iridescent orange.
10, 9, 8, 7…
The cradle rings began to spin and widen, moving themselves clear of the Bright Angel’s wings and hull
6, 5, 4, 3…
The clamps snapped free, leaving the ship to float unimpaired in its own small bubble of where and when.
Gayane reached out across the centre console and took hold of Al’s hand, gripping it tight. “To the heavens we are bound, my friend,” she said. They looked at each other and smiled.
2, 1, 0…
The Bright Angel leapt free from its cradle like a dog coming off a leash, tearing its way past c like it wasn’t even there. Hungrily it devoured the distance before it, galloping through the void, away from the inner system; toward Sol Ba’nard, and toward adventure.
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