I came across, in my notes about light, the words of a prisoner remembering life in solitary confinement. He wrote that the only light he experienced was 'the vivid burst of brilliance' that came when he shut his eyes tight.
-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
"Bring me another blanket." Pareidolia lay on a tattered patio lounge chair under the stars, halfway up a scrubby ridge overlooking a dotted rune of radio telescopes on a graben plain. Up the roadless slope their rental car leaned wonkily on two flat tires.
Shadrach lay his own coat over her. "Why must we do this? I know rail tunnels and forest paths where we could cheat the Eyeline and pass to the Scroll. There I know a mountain meadow where tame modrounceys feed on sweet thistles. We could ride the high road to an abandoned hillfort where they would never find us."
Somewhere above them, a coyote yipped.
Like plunging on a mouse, Paredolia threw an unearthly howl. Like sonic sparks, more coyotes answered from the ridge above, to both sides, and impossibly, from the range ten miles over the plain.
"Your memories," she said, "how did you keep them?"
"You, I could never fully forget. You itched and itched below the surface, like some dissipated mermaid, and when you crested, the veil of this world quaked and withdrew, and I saw everything." He shivered defiantly against the night.
The coyotes chattered tensely.
She said, "The faeward heath, the Hills of Counterlux, the Swamp of Ecstatic Ambiguity, up the line of solipsism dominance from the cold beach of space to the Mountains of Candy Madness, and over that line, through the Nest of Rooms to the Fountain of Divine Pinholes..." She drew a ragged sob.
"I forgot it all, but I felt the hollow nausea of its absence, in this dungeon. This world doesn't heal us, or even merely hold us. This world breaks us." Tears drizzled down her temples and her body shook. "Now it will break."
She convulsed violently and threw another howl, a sky-splitting vicious yip like yanking a two-stroke ripcord.
The liminal symphony exploded. The stars loosened in their constellations, and danced.
In the back of the police cutter, tubecrack refugees were having a drug party. Zuki passed out cannabinoids and psilocids, empathics and dissociatives, timescrunchers and egodeaths, scrubs and arbs. Everything but jacks, which Dusty and Blink needed for driving.
Up in front they were improvising timesync through a globe-sized cryptcrystal ball that levitated over its brutalist ashtray base and refracted a view like a yo-yo in a kaleidoscope. They stared into the bright abyss and their fingers played its surface like a hot piano.
Behind Zuki, a Minoan zitherist sat hunched over his strings plucking a chromatic jangle, while the drummer leaned his chin at the sky while toe-thumping a hide drum and shaking a string of bells. Two women stood and sang like desert ghosts, in notes so close and so clean that you could hear the throb of their interference.
A muscular Pitcairn with a head bandage like blue glass was talking to a serene Glimmer on a disposable mechanical leg, clothed in a full body scarf like a black furry animal whose hairtips glowed green.
He said, "What if every hair on your scarf is a life? Growing thinner and drier, and then ending in annihilating illumination."
She said, "And in our eyes it feels like new life." The scarf loosened.
Two more Glimmer and an Aquan were playing interpretive rock-skin-knife. For a moment their ambiguous handthrows were deadlocked, until the Aquan declared "You're rock and you're knife!" They laughed and threw again.
Two Devonians, in bloodstained spidersilk canvas outfits, were recreationally genetesting a Chthon swamp huntress in a scaly bodysuit and a double necklace of tiny bird and rodent skulls.
"It says you had a Pitcairn ancestor four generations back, a Thanan at seven, and a touch of the Scroll."
"Does it say the future?"
Dusty and Blink came down from the bullettip, whose window was now the comfortable mirrorhall of a warptube.
Blink said to Zuki, "Dude, I am so spritzed. I haven't felt this good for twenty minutes."
Dusty said, "We're dropping off in reverse coolness."
"Okay, I'm on an intuitive and even I don't know what that means."
"The most awesome passengers stay longer. So the party will get better and then we'll go after the Princess. She's probably only now into Chainspace, and the Moonbat's going all the way to its home port on Glimmer 5-8."
Blink said, "She can arbjump."
"Whoa," Dusty said. "So she might have already left the Moonbat and caught a Sifrexan cogtug to the high frontier."
Zuki said, "And she's so new-hatched from the Scroll that I got to design her Ether pictograph. Here it is."
The ceiling screen showed a blue and grey eye, whose upright pupil was a black sword.
At the SQA tubeflower, Cataria jumped the Moonbat and caught a Sifrexan cogtug whose polyhedral hull stretched away like an origami alligator. It dropped brightly into the pixellated blue-white of the Sifrex fourline.
"Hey." She kicked the hull. "You're going the wrong way."
Just below her, the hull pulsed blue with a voice that came through her shoes to spook her suit. "Arbitrary space is destination neutral. You guessed wrong."
"The way your bubble was wobbling, I thought you were loaded with cogs going to some outpost on the sevenline."
"I'm an old ship. I'm always wobbling." The Blip laughed and its dull blue glow congealed like lightning. "But also, I am empty of human will and fully autonomous. For you, Bride of Space, I will go anywhere."
Inside the ship, she followed luminous wallripples down into the belly. "Why did you call me that? Bride of Space?"
"It's an honorary term, among my people, for an arbjumper good enough to defeat our countermeasures."
"I didn't notice any. But among autonomous tugs, the term for high level jumpers is Master of Space or sometimes Mistress. Where did you get Bride?"
She stopped and looked at the suspiciously watery wall-glow. "Do I know you?"
Before her, a dull-glazed column of light resolved into her father. He stood in rumpled long underwear, wearing a hat of an anchor being lifted from the mud.
"Goddammit, dad, how far do I have to disappear into the trackless void to get away from you?"
"I am not your father," it said. "I am a cryptohologram. But I'm trying to recover." He chuckled. "Seriously, the image appears to you as a trusted figure." He winked. "I don't know why it chose me."
"Just how far faeward did you have to go to make this call?"
"I happen to be in the midscroll hills, visiting my distant cousin, the Countess Chernobyl Von Zerelli."
"Getting bored with the Queen already?"
"She has a daughter, ten years older than you, who also went to space. Treblinka is a spacecop timepilot, and she's just been hired as your vicecam by Thanan mutineers." He beamed. "A week in space and you've already destabilized a chain!"
"I don't suppose you called to congratulate me."
"No, but since Blink found you, I thought I'd ask for your help."
"This is about her, isn't it?" She glared at him. "Even where there are no suns, I can't get out of Pareidolia's batwing shadow."
"In a way, it's about you."
"Not unless you want me to kill her."
He took off his hat and bowed his head. "Catkin," he said, "your sister is opening the dungeon. The entire Scroll wants you to kill her."