Size / / /

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

"Tweel, I think I've spied an unrecorded world! Come take a look," Mallowell said.

I was watching the engineers install the sluices for Cyan's new waterway system. Soon we wouldn't have to empty piss buckets any more, and fresh water would come up to my room instead of me having to go down to get it.

I went over and looked into Mallowell's Longview.

"No, that's Ankari. We saw it once before." I told him when and where.

"Ah," Mallowell said.

I was about to pull my eye away from the Longview when something blotted out the world I was tracking. Just for a moment. Then it happened again. I changed the Longview's focus to short distance.

There were people in the sky!

"There are people in the sky!" I said.

"What?" Mallowell said. "What are you talking about? Let me see."

I let him see. I looked up with my naked eyes, and saw specks in the sky that I knew were people, because I'd just seen them close up.

"What in the universe . . . ," Mallowell said. "My goodness, they're corpses. Thousands of them."

"About 8,000," I said.

"Cyan is plowing right through the middle of them, pulling them out of the sky!" Mallowell shouted at people in the streets to get inside as the specks got bigger and bigger, then the sky was filled with falling dead people. People screamed, and I saw a mother in a window across the way cover her child's eyes with her palm. Mallowell and I stood under an overhang and watched. One of the dead people landed on a spiral roof across the street with a loud thump. It was a lady in a pink dress. She was all cut up. I pushed my face into Mallowell's shirt because I didn't want to see her any more, and he put his arm around my head and led me inside.

Eight days later, we made an emergency-link with a world called Kokoru, because there was smoke coming from a lot of Kokoru's buildings, and they had spread a green signal, which means "help us." I didn't go to Kokoru, and I'm glad I didn't, because there were dead people there, too.

The people who weren't dead said that Salyn had linked with their world without permission, and taken things that didn't belong to him, and his army had killed lots and lots of people, and burned houses and shops.

If that wasn't bad enough, Salyn wasn't just the leader of Ork any more. He had linked seven other worlds with Ork all at once, in a big clump. Houses and people were crushed, because most worlds only have one linking spot cleared, and some of the worlds were squeezed in the middle. The crushing of things, and the killing, sounded very bad, but I thought that worlds squeezed together sounded very good, because if worlds were all hugged up together, and I lived in the middle of the hug, there would be much less open space, and my hands would stop shaking, and I wouldn't cry so much. I cried a lot.

The Oldsters decided that all us scientists should stop what we were doing and focus on what to do about Salyn, in case he ever passed near us again. Mallowell and I stopped working on our map, and tried to find out where Salyn was with the Longview, so we could avoid passing near him. But he must have been far away, because we couldn't find him.

Cyan signed an alliance with 37 other worlds. We linked in clusters of two and three, and used propulsion to keep the clusters close together. Every day, the streets were filled with the thump of people marching in lines. Instead of baking blackcakes and making fabric birds that rode in the sky, everyone practiced killing invaders.

My job was to help Mallowell think of ways to run away from Salyn if he got too close. Propulsion. I wasn't good at propulsion. So I watched Mallowell. He was using our map to test propulsion models with different configurations of worlds linked together.

He tried linking a dozen worlds together in a line, then he set the whole line spinning very fast. I didn't think that was a good idea, because we would all get very dizzy if he tried that with real worlds.

The line of worlds formed a big, blurry circle as it spun, then suddenly the string that was holding it snapped, and it crashed to the bottom of the sphere of the universe and the line burst apart and the worlds bounced all over, then settled together at the lowest point in the sphere.

It scared me, but it wasn't the loud noise that scared me; it was something else that was in the back of my head where I couldn't get to it. I was so scared that my stomach hurt.

I told Mallowell I was sick, and I went to Seery and helped her sort peep nuts. She let me separate them into piles of 222, as long as I also removed the cracked ones while I was doing it, and this helped me not think about the spinning worlds so much, but I still saw them whenever I closed my eyes, so I tried not to close my eyes, but finally it was night and I had to go to sleep, and then I had to close my eyes.

I had a dream, that the spinning worlds didn't burst apart when they hit the bottom of the sphere. They just kept going, right through it, and Mallowell shouted, "What, what, what?" and stepped into the map, and he started to sink. His feet disappeared, then his knees, then his waist, until he was only a head. And his head said, "We're taking flight now, little Tweel, where the open spaces go on and on and on." Then his head sank too, and I was alone.

I woke screaming. Seery made a shush-shush-shush sound and rocked me, but I couldn't stop screaming for a long time. The empty space from my dream wouldn't go away; it was in my head, the back of my head felt like it had been opened up, and there was nothing back there but space—black, black space, going on and on.

And while I screamed, I saw a picture in my mind, of the angle that a line of linked, spinning planets would have to be at when it hit the edge of the universe, to break through it. And that made me scream even louder.

I cried out when I spotted Salyn's world-clump in the Longview. First it was a scared kind of cried out, but it turned into a wanting kind of cried out, because all the planets were hugging each other, and I wanted to climb inside and be hugged by all those planets so I would stop shaking and crying all the time.

It was a giant, lopsided ball, about 150 worlds linked together, rotating slowly end over end. I called Mallowell.

He didn't cry out; he just kept saying, "What, what, what"; and his hand shook when he adjusted the focus on the Longview.

The Oldsters signaled the rest of the alliance about the world-clump, and then the whole alliance ran. I went back to the map with Mallowell, and we figured out speeds and distances and evasive maneuvers as people poured into the streets, shouting and carrying pointed things.

"There's no way to escape him," Mallowell said while we lay in bed with the lights out. "Nowhere to run." He sounded very sad. Salyn's world-clump would catch up to our alliance in 27 days and four hours.

There was nowhere to run. Nowhere that wasn't terrible; nowhere that wouldn't make me scream forever.

I was sorry Mallowell was sad, but I wanted us to live in Salyn's clump. I wanted Mallowell and Seery and me to huddle in bed with worlds and more worlds hugging us from the sky.

I heard Mallowell sniffle. "My Seery. What will become of us?" he said. I rolled over and put my fingers in my ears, but I could still hear him. "Our beautiful, beautiful Cyan."

He reached over and pushed his face into my neck and cried. I felt the wet from his tears on my neck, and the prickle of his beard.

"You've been a good assistant, Tweel. And a good friend."

Seery put her hand on my head and stroked my hair. She was crying.

I started to cry too, and shake, because I didn't want to tell them. But they let me sleep in their bed, and Mallowell told me science things, and they were sad, and I could stop them from being sad.

But if I did, I would be sad. And I would shake all the time.

I lay awake for a long time, with my heart pounding. Then I woke up Mallowell and Seery, and I told them about the open spaces that go on and on, and about how you get there.

For a long time Mallowell didn't understand what I meant. He kept asking, "Outside what? Outside where?" And I would answer, "Outside the universe." He asked how I could possibly know there was an outside to the universe, and I said, "Because it's a sphere."

I'd never seen Mallowell angry. I was very scared. I pressed my face against Seery's cloak and whispered the Yellow Bird song. I whispered because Rembagh, the man with the twisted stick who always sat in the tall chair in Oldster meetings, thumped his stick on the floor and told me to stop singing it out loud because it was distracting everybody.

"What choice do we have? Tell me! What choice do we have?" Mallowell screamed. His face was as red as the middle section of Gootang, which I'd last seen when it passed Allberry when I was 12 years and 11 days old.

"What you're suggesting is nonsense! Unmatched twaddle! Unbelievable bilge!" a pale-skinned woman from Gurpin said. I knew she was from Gurpin, because all of the alliance representatives wore robes that were the colors of their world, and she was wearing a yellow robe with zigzagged bolts of brown. "There is no outside. By definition there is no outside to the universe. We'll only waste precious time that we need to plan our defense."

"Our defense?" Mallowell said. "There's no defense against that abomination! It's gotten too big. It will eat us. It will eat everything. Our only hope is to go where it cannot follow."

"And where is that? Into your assistant's fantasy world?" the woman from Gurpin said.

"Let's be clear about what you're saying, Mallowell," the representative from Ettentupan said. "You want us to set our worlds spinning and head toward the edge of the universe while Salyn closes in, because your assistant assures you there is an outside of our universe, but he cannot explain why, nor can you?"

"He is an extraordinary boy—"

"Extraordinary?" the woman from Gurpin said. "It was his idea that caused this mess in the first place. Now you want us to trust him again?"

I stuck my fingers in my ears and sang the Yellow Bird song out loud. Seery took me out of the meeting, and I was glad. I don't like it when people are angry with me.

I didn't get dizzy when the line of worlds was spinning; it looked like it was the sky that was spinning. There was Salyn's clump, blotting out 35% of the sky, then it was gone, then it was back again, blotting out 36% of the sky.

I watched from the navigation plateau, which had walls, but no ceiling. Mallowell and Seery pressed against me on either side, but I still felt like I was falling into a deep hole.

When the chief navigator was not shouting directions to the signalers, he was shouting directions to the singers, who were standing on platforms of different sizes and singing into pipes of different circumference that led to Cyan's propulsion chambers. I had told him that the speed and angle had to be just right, or we would bounce off instead of going through. I wondered if he could get it just right. I didn't want him to, I wanted us to bounce off.

"Look!" Seery said, pointing at the sky.

The sky had gotten white and foamy, like the water at the bottom of a waterfall. There was a terrible boinging noise. I closed my eyes and pressed my hands over my ears, but I could still hear it and it made my stomach sick, so I shouted the Yellow Bird song, but that didn't help, and my stomach got worse. Mallowell and Seery were making unhappy sounds too. The boinging slid behind my eyeballs and it felt like it was going to push my eyes out onto the floor of the navigation plateau, and I thought about the woman from Gurpin who said I'd wrecked the universe, and I must have made another mistake, because this was not empty space, it was awful, awful pain.

Then, all of a sudden, it was gone. I opened my eyes.

The sky was huge, and black, and empty. Just like in my dream—empty space that went on and on, with no edges. I started to shake. I slid down between Mallowell and Seery until I reached the floor, then I hugged my knees, and I screamed.

"Ho, Tweel!" a man I didn't know said as I passed him in the great hall. He raised his fists in the air, which is how people on Cyan greeted Oldsters, but now also greeted me, which I liked.

"Hey-o, Tweel, and thank you!" a woman I didn't know said. She raised her fists as well.

A man I did know—Soothin, a singer—put his arm around me and pulled me close. "I'll be your comfort guard on this walk, Tweel. Where are you going?"

"To Mallowell's observation deck," I said as he walked with me. That's what they called it when people walked with me, my comfort guard. It was not as bad as I had thought, the endless black sky, because I had my comfort guard, and I got "ho"s and "hey-o"s from everyone I met. I liked the "ho"s even better than the comfort guard. It was like what I imagined living deep inside the planet clump would be, because the planets would have pressed around me even though they didn't actually touch me. The "ho"s and "goodly-met"s pressed against me the same way, even when there was empty space all around, and I did not shake and cry nearly as much. Maybe one day I would sleep in my own bed. But maybe not; I enjoyed sleeping with Seery and Mallowell.

Mallowell was looking into his Longview when I got to the observation deck.

"Go ahead, little Tweel, look," he said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder and motioning to the Longview.

I didn't want to look at the blackness through Mallowell's Longview. Even though Mallowell was smiling, I did not want to look. There were no planets there, and it had no edges. There was nothing but one glowing white ball that didn't give off enough light to light the black sky that went on forever.

Mallowell said, "Go on, you'll like this."

I looked. The Longview was focused on our universe, our home. I could see inside it, right through the sphere to the planets inside. I could see shadows of worlds—they looked like specks of dust, swirling inside. I wished the Longview was stronger, so I could find Allberry.

"Adjust the Longview seven degrees on the horizontal," Mallowell told me. So I did, and I saw . . .

I saw another universe, another sphere, with planets swirling inside.

"What, what, what?" I said.

Mallowell laughed. "Now five degrees horizontal, three vertical."

I adjusted again, and saw another sphere! It was more distant than the first two. I laughed. It was not so empty out here. That made me feel very happy, very hugged.

"Can we get into these spheres, just as we got out of ours?" Mallowell asked.

"Oh yes," I said. "Getting in would be much easier than out." In my mind, I could already see the angle that would allow us to break into the spheres from the outside.

"Ah. We are explorers then, not refugees," Mallowell said. He looked down at me. "We wanted an assistant navigator, and you ended up changing the universe." Then he reached over and rubbed my hair, which I liked.

Will McIntosh has published stories in Asimov's, Interzone, CHIZINE, Postscripts, Black Static, and others. This is his second story in Strange Horizons. He was a finalist for both the British Science Fiction Association and the British Fantasy Society awards for best short story of 2005. By day he is a psychology professor in the southeastern US. To contact him, send him email at For more about him and his work, see his website.
Current Issue
26 Feb 2024

I can’t say any of this to the man next to me because he is wearing a tie
Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.
verb 4 [C] to constantly be at war, spill your blood and drink. to faint and revive yourself. to brag of your scars.
Issue 19 Feb 2024
Issue 12 Feb 2024
Issue 5 Feb 2024
Issue 29 Jan 2024
Issue 15 Jan 2024
Issue 8 Jan 2024
Issue 1 Jan 2024
Issue 18 Dec 2023
Issue 11 Dec 2023
Issue 4 Dec 2023
Load More
%d bloggers like this: