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Witches of the Pinspecked Void


There are some lines that can't be crossed
But sometimes those lines get lost

-Ike Reilly, "Duty Free"

Out on the delta, Cataria paddled her skiff as the wet hot night closed in. Away in the dusky saltmarsh, clouds of golden fireflies buzzed clouds of blue sparkflies to stoke their glow.

She reached out and stripped a spray of sticky seagrapes from a laden bush and drew them to her mouth. "Before space," she said to the moon, "a last sweet taste of home." But the berries were sour.

"I'm having trouble hearing you," said the eighth moon. The pockmarked sphere wavered as if over a bonfire, then resolved into a face like a fat old barncat. "Have we met?"

"My name is Cataria Meerschaum," she said, "and I'm surprised to be already talking to the moon."

"'The' moon? I can assure you that I am impeccably subjective. Up on the Scroll, you by the sea and your lover in the mountains would see the same moon, but here-"

"I've had no lovers except space itself, which flummoxes your metaphor."

"Oh, you want to talk philosophy? I once had a pair of eyeward scientists, a man and a lady, look at me with their cheeks pressed together, left eye to right, looking for the place where the two moons became one. I turned them into a hermaphrodite. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!"

She was now crossing the edge between water and Faewater, here at the eyeward end of that long boundary. To her left loomed the craggy tip of the great seawall that sheltered the far eyeward Scroll. On the wall's landward side, cordgrass and bulrushes gave way to reeds and cattails as the water freshened, and on the seaward side strange swells licked the stone.

She pulled the oars and crossed over. Looking backward, fleece ferns and fireflies sublimed into mist, and she turned to look forward, where her skiff slid on a tapestry of starlight patterned in fanciful schematics of Scroll and space.

"If you want my advice," said the moon,

stay close to land
keep it in your sight
and when your mind of the eye is right
then other lands
known or unknown
will fly by winds of skies unflown
to stitch your mind in a rickety seam
joined in this land of dream

Cataria was already rowing out. "I'm going straight across to the City."

"In that case, I look forward to keeping you company through long months of drifting, finally guiding you to the precise insanity where you can join my lunar tribe. Because of all the shores on this sea, the Potential City is the most elusive and — oh, there it is!"

From the mist above, rusted girders poked like spines on broken cacti, and ahead the Faewater filled wrecked foundations and lapped weathered rubble.

"My apologies. You look so young, but I see that you have made this crossing many times."

"It's my first."

"Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!" A girder popped him like a bubble.

Cataria grounded her skiff in the Fae-flooded waste of a dreamplay factory where great brass gears and splines slanted up from the starglaze.

It was like a moonlit night minus the moon. She tied the boat to a grommet the size of her head, and scaled a pile of rubble to street level, where gold-veined wet-black cobblestones led among jagged wallfronts toward the night glow of a million cities.

The light changed — the great luminous bulge flickering in brightness and hue and profile. As Cataria paused her feet, the light stilled, and it stilled again as she paused her mind.

Now it was sky blue piling up, now dull red spreading out, and the red felt welcoming. Then, imagining her intentions beyond the city, her adventures in space, the red light moved with her thoughts like a windblown fire.

From the street margin came a chorus of purrs and gasps. Faint lights like flaming swampgas resolved into glowing cateyes trailing lithe bodies like smoke. The densest one drifted forward and cocked its ears.

"Only in the legends of our predecessors has anyone learned the city edge so fast. The philosopher-queen Wyzzyx Bathilde, of the Zirconium Panopticon, came chasing pirates who had kidnapped her son. It turned out he had faked the whole thing to run off with a midscroll trollop, but having tasted wandering, Bathilde never settled. Some say-"

"Who are you?"

"We are called the damned souls of those who died in this uncanny transit, but really we just like it here."

"And you're all cats?"

They chittered. "That image comes from you. Cat-toy of the saltiest sea, battlewitch of the Barnacle Palace, you have been prognosticated. We would wish you luck on your journey, but that would be wishing rain on clouds."

The little eyes blinked out.

Cataria's mind continued stalking its potential. The city before her would be dignified and decayed, echoey and rumbly, languorous fire and earth. There she could move in shadows or walk in the open while she found a path to space — its star-encrusted galleries but also its back passages, its forgotten rooms, its deepest basements and loftiest towers. And outside?

With this intention, the great glow settled to a smoky orange-red with an almost concave top — an old city in the Pitcairn chain — and she could smell it now, cinnamon and hot tar and pools of water in stone.

She walked, and at every corner were new details: the distant roar of a furnace, the creaking wheel of a wayward foodcart, and now a moth as big as a bird, swooping down on grey and red wings to circle the first single light, a vacuum-filament streetlamp that dimmed and brightened as the city's powernet smoothed the center by throwing wobble to the edges.

She briefly thought, if I were to look at the flicker of this light as I looked at the light of the million cities... but she was tired. Down an alley she found a moonlit courtyard — no moon of home but a hunchbacked lump of chaff from the forging of the planet — and in a deep corner, under a bush like an old gnarled hand reaching from the earth, she gathered a bed of the many seasons of leaves and trash, and slept.

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