What child hasn't laid on the dewy grass and dreamed of leaping into the star-studded night sky? If your "uncle" is Jørgen Pangloss, it just might happen. But what will little Raina learn about her own future in the depths of the sky?
Standalone excerpt from Reversed Black Maria (unpublished).
Dyadya, what star is that?” asked Raina, pointing high into the dark skies over the Ural Mountains. The star in question was very, very bright, and more than a little bit oblong.
“That’s the Astrodelphia 2 habitat. A million people live there,” replied Jørgen Pangloss, a sprig of ryegrass hanging absently from the corner of his mouth. The silver eyes he shared with her sparkled in the wan light of the waning moon. It was long past her bedtime. If her mother knew she was out watching the stars, she’d die of apoplexy. On any other night, Raina would have had her own reservations. The park was huge, and wild things rustled in the brushy hedgerows. But tonight she was perfectly comfortable, because her uncle was with her.
“How about that one?” she said, pointing to a lesser, twinkling light skimming the peaks in the southeast.
“That is Fomalhaut, the ancient Mouth of the Fish,” Jørgen replied. “A dreadful place. Shaggai is only planet with solid ground. It is covered by a carnivorous fungi. Nobody knows if it’s intelligent, because it attacks anything that moves. But it plays strange, beautiful music to itself after two of the three suns have set.”
“That’s creepy. Is it the worst place in the galaxy?”
“By no means. I can think of a hundred places I’d be less likely to revisit.”
“Which one is the worst?”
Jørgen’s eyes scanned the high heavens, as if searching far away in space and time. “It’s hard to say. I’ve been to so many terrible worlds. But I had to name one, it would be the Rottwald. The flora and fauna are corrosive. Were you unlucky enough to find yourself in the Feurholz without protection, even for an instant, you’d be burnt to a crisp. Yet people live there, damned fools that they are.”
The image of a marshmallow blackened and cracked by fire came unbidden to Raina. She shuddered. “I’d never, ever go there, not even on a dare.”
“Is that so?”
She nodded solemnly.
Jørgen chuckled. “Inna, you shall someday be stronger than a hundred men, but even you cannot say such a thing. Destiny will take your soul wither he would go, not the other way around.”
Destiny was not a happy subject for Raina. “Matushka says I’m destined to be nobody,” she mumbled.
Jørgen bit through the stem of grass with a snap. “She is wrong.”
He abruptly stood. The dew-dust on his inky trousers sparkled in the moonlight. Raina was bitterly disappointed. “Must we go home so soon, Dyadya?”
“We aren’t going home yet. I would like to share a secret with you. Will you walk with me?”
“Oh! Yes!” she cried happily, leaping after him. Uncle Jørgen’s secrets were always deep and wonderful. They went east toward the mountains, away from the manor. For a long time, they walked in silence. The night grew cold, and the moon disappeared behind marching clouds. A wind arose. It carried with it the distant howling of wolves.
Raina faltered, and squeezed her uncle’s hand.
“When you walk with me, all the war machines of the Galactic Legion could not harm you, let alone that sorry pack of whelps,” he said softly, hefting her high onto his shoulders. “But come, it will be more comfortable here,”
She immediately relaxed. A huge yawn overtook her. “How much farther, Dyadya?” she asked sleepily.
“Not far. Just past those trees.” He pointed to the dark line of a hedgerow at the crest of the next ridge, hunched beneath a scattering of stars. A thrill ran through Raina. The hedgerow marked the boundary line, beyond which she was forbidden to go.
“Matushka says we mustn’t pass the bounds,” Raina protested. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Jørgen snorted. “Your Matushka is asleep, dreaming her cold, dark dreams. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” He took off at a smart clip, climbing the gentle slope to the trees in a few short minutes. He paused at the top of the slope.
“Cover your eyes,” he said.
“You wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise, would you?”
She giggled, and did as she was told. There was a rustle, the smell of mould scattered underfoot, the scratch of a leaf at her face. A sudden, unexpected wave of nausea roiled her belly. It passed as quickly as it had come, but the atmosphere changed with it. Instead of chill air and damp leaves, a warm breeze laden with sea-smell filled her nostrils. She sniffed, delighted.
“You may open your eyes,” Jørgen said.
She did, and gasped in ecstasy. Though it was still nighttime, they were no longer on the hill at the edge of the park. The scene before her was a mad riot of alien splendor. Her uncle stood upon a mighty dais at the head of a great avenue, lined with rank of banners snapping in the sea breeze. It stretched down and away, to a harbor filled with gaily-lit ships and boats of every description. Great buildings overshadowed the avenue on both sides. Some were built of stone, while others were made of steel and glass, or wrought of crystal as clear as a mountain stream. But the wonder of the avenue and the night city was utterly overshadowed by the heavens above. A broad river of golden stars flowed across the breast of the sky, set so close that no sky could be seen between them. They cast a fantastic arabesque of color on the skin of Raina’s outstretched hands.
Jørgen lowered her from his shoulders. “Damsel, rejoice! In life thou hast attained Valhalla,” he intoned grandly when her damp shoes touched the ground.
Raina could not contain her amazement. “Wha… What is this place? How did we get here?” she stammered.
“This is my demesne, to whence I may go at will,” Jørgen said. “Eight worlds are mine, but this one is dearest. Within its circles, I am lord and master, and nothing may happen outside of my will. But when my change comes, it shall be yours.”
She goggled up at him. “Mine? Really?”
Her uncle laid a fond hand on her head. “Yes, mean gift though it be. You are worthy of better, and better you shall have, as much as in within my power to give.”
“But you’ll be gone,” Raina said unhappily, the import of his words finally sinking in.
“Gone? Perish the thought. My change will be unlike that of airy men, to be certain, but I will never leave you.”
Jørgen’s thin face was framed by teeming starlight. “The airy are everyone you have ever met, save one. The eldest apostle said, ‘for what is life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.’ He spoke rightly according to his lights, but he did not know me.”
Raina wasn’t sure what he meant, but she nodded anyway.
They strolled together through the streets of the miraculous city. They met no one, but Jørgen pointed out spectacle after spectacle, wonder upon wonder. There were tall buildings that floated in midair, colossal trees that sometimes overtopped them, and a thronging host of unseen night birds singing strange arias. At the top of a long, gradual hill, they arrived in a vast square hemmed in by soaring domes suffused from inside with azure light. Here was a sky-scraping statue of a mighty woman. Like the prow of a mountain range she loomed, a distaff colossus of luminous marble, sensuous and terrible. Her sinewy arm reared a sharp sword of polished onyx high into the heavens.
Raina shuffled uneasily to a stop. “Dyadya, who is that?” she asked.
For a change, Jørgen did not have a quick answer. He paused, his gleaming eyes flicking from her to the colossus and back again. When at last he spoke, his answer shook her to the core.
“It is you, Inna.”
“Me?” she replied in a tiny voice.
“Yes. She is Raina Aeternum, my greatest work. She is made to shake the stars from their courses. None like her has come before. None shall follow in her wake. The Powers and Principalities gaze upon her and tremble, for they know the days of their dominion are numbered.”
“But it can’t be me. I am so small.”
Jørgen chuckled. “Aye, you are. But you shall not always be. Indeed, I would not be surprised if you someday crush this paltry pebble beneath your foot.”
Raina blinked up at the colossus, her emotions reeling. Uncle had never spoken this way before. It was scary, but exciting, too. Why did he think her grand enough to honor with a monument, when everyone else rejected her? Words to that effect were forming on her lips when she saw something even stranger than the statue. At the zenith of the sky, beyond the tip of Raina Aeternum’s sword, there was a perfectly round hole cut in the backdrop of stars, about the size of a penny held at arms’ length. Through it, she could see a few small stars, and a shape like a splotch of ink on an indigo carpet.
Raina pointed to it. “What is that?”
Her uncle looked up. “That’s the L2 shunt. I normally keep it closed, but tonight it is open to the Coalsack nebula. But that reminds me. Come, sit!”
They settled on the edge of Raina Aeternum’s mighty plinth. Jørgen rummaged in his pockets. “Hold out your hand,” he said.
She did as he asked. He placed a ring on her palm, like no ring she’d ever seen before. Light as a feather, its stony surface was chased with a writhing band of ever-changing symbols in a strange alien script.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A gift, of course,” Jørgen said obscurely. “It is valuable beyond the dreams of the airy. Keep it with you always. You will need it someday.”
“If I wear it, will it give me special powers?” she asked hopefully.
Jørgen laughed. “No, no! It is nothing by itself. For the time being, let it be a reminder to you of me, and of this place. We must leave, for you will soon be missed. Never forget what you have seen, or that it is yours by right.”
“Will you bring me here again?”
“You and I shall not come this way together again. When you return, you will do so on your own, the captain of your own will. Don’t be discouraged! Once you set your course, none shall have the power to thwart you. All locks will crumble to rust in your hands, and the stoutest door will shatter at the touch of your shoulder.”
“But I want to stay!” Raina protested, tears welling in her eyes. Now that she had a taste of her uncle’s magical world, the thought of returning to her unhappy life on Earth was intolerable.
Jørgen wiped away her tears with his handkerchief, and hugged her close to his chest. “It is better this way, my dearest beloved. You must come into your own, and become yourself. That is impossible here. This is a place of memory, of love lost, and longing unrequited. It is not for the young and free.”
“Will you still come to me?” she whimpered into his jacket.
“Of course, as often as I may.”
She hugged him tightly. “Thank you, Dyadya! I was afraid.”
“You are welcome, Inna. You must sleep now, lest you be tired in the morning, and arouse suspicions. Pleasant dreams.”
“But I’m not sleepy…” she said, even as she fell fast asleep in her uncle’s wiry arms.
That morning she woke up in her own bed, dressed in her favorite pajamas as if nothing had happened. Of Uncle Jørgen there was no sign, and the shoes and clothes she’d worn for her night-walk were clean and dry in her closet. But no sooner had she decided that the beautiful world beneath a river of fiery stars was nothing but a dream, than something fell from her pajama pocket with a clatter.
It was a tiny ring of stone, chased round with writhing symbols in alien script.