This cover was illustrated by the author.
Loneliness came in waves. Waves which curled over one another like the ripples of the silver horizon. Waves which barreled into white cliffs and shattered coastlines. All and any variety of length, but each wave sharing one undeniable characteristic: perpetuity.
The grand swell and the inevitable dive.
Categorizing our time is a method of understanding. An approach to the comprehension of what it means to be “alive.” As mortals, we see death as the last line, and all else is divided into slices of the pie between birth and that eventual end. Major memories constitute the containment of particular “selves” which evolve with each new memory. We change along catalysts for our metamorphosis.
We trap time somewhere between “before” and “after” and sometimes forget that the present will, sooner rather than later, be sectioned off all the same.
I see, now, why we are not meant to live so long as the gods. The beings which forge universes hear the sirens of pyroclastic storms and dance imperceptibly to the slow tune of tectonic plates grinding under the light of a first born star—whose moment of conception is less a moment by our mortal standards, but instead a series of millions of years of gases fusing and fissuring, eventually blending out of blackness into light.
Our minds cannot bear this thinking.
So we organize our lives by milestones. The visions we see live only in our minds—the chamber through which our stories are seen and expressed.
The almighty power of Creation still leaves me in awe of the most simple piece of the puzzle: that our entire lives and everything experienced are stored in our heads.
What I’d come to realize is that my head arranged my existence in aforementioned waves.
The lonely times. The not-so-lonely times.
All else fell somewhere in those two.
My time in the liminality is perhaps the one section of my existence that I have trouble in placing. As the stretches between lonely and not-so-lonely are so minute in the grand scheme of my recollections that I, on some level, find it equal.
As I’ve said before, a sleep, of sorts, between states. A numbness brought about by the lack of extremes.
Yallo the lizard crouched at the thirty meter hanger door of a star cruiser. She eyed the expansive liminal sands before us from the direction whence we came. In the distance, a pink tornado swallowed a village. Mountains “fell” from the clouds in the sky all backwards and inverted, and far too sharp to be formed from slow geological processes.
From my view as I investigated the hanger door lock one last time, it seemed that the knife mountains pointed to Yallo in the frame of the ship’s hanger door. In that pose she resembled a painting.
The vessel lie at a thirty degree angle after crashing engine-first into the liminal sands. Electric sparks fluttered from snapped wires and emergency lights on the floor—no doubt to guide the now piled-up starfighters in the corner out of the hanger and into the fray.
Moving up the angled floor took its toll on the hips.
The opposite side of the hanger did not open. The door mechanism and the computing power of the vessel surely failed on impact. The wide exit must have already been open, being the only entry point we spotted from below.
I fiddled with a monitor screen far too high for me, so I lifted myself onto the dashboard—careful to avoid pressing any buttons or messing with the screen—and assessed. The screen waved in intervals of pink and blue light, then white static. Something cracked the corner of the screen on impact.
Yallo whispered something.
“What is it?” I said, always inquiring after her mumbling.
“We were too late,” she said, matter of factly.
I knew we were late the second we spied the ship. “We were twenty kilometers or more away.” I eyed past her to the knife-like mountains in which we’d made camp for awhile. “We couldn’t have made it here in time.”
The native “shell-bellies” as Yallo referred to them had obviously wiped this vessel clear of the inhabitants, unless the ship were already purged of life in some other way before it came into the Liminality. I’d wager the natives came first.
“There are ways to move without movement,” Yallo cursed, “but it is beyond me.”
Other beings shifted through the Liminality as a songbird on silver wind—landing precisely where it meant to. As if it calls to the branch mid-flight upon which it will, in mere moments, sing away.
Not long before the starship crash, we watched a pack of vicious amphibious wolves slip in and out of reality. After they’d slain their kill—a snail so enormous most houses would be envious of the shell—they slipped off and away.
A strange vacuum of transportation not unlike the silver ship I spied in my first moments in the white sand.
Yallo had no method of traversing these lands. Her navigational ability was reserved to finding those newcomers who’d crashed or arrived in the Liminality and then defending their souls from the natives.
Directionless without a path to the being called Myth, I marched alongside the lizard. Together, we stood a far fairer chance at defending new souls. Together we could claim some semblance of redemption for losing those children.
We’d saved a few voyagers. A giant couple, recently wed on their homeworld, who struggled to comprehend what happened to them. A bronze-aged tribe of pink, tetrapod water collectors sent to fill the day’s jugs from the river. A trio of android taxi drivers from some far off utopia who, even after arriving in the liminal plane at the base of an active volcano spewing green magma, continued bickering over who rear-ended who at the intersection on Bobat Avenue.
One of the androids got snatched by a shell-belly flier resembling a nautilus. The tetrapods fought alongside us, and not one became fodder for the native stomachs.
Yallo ran her medallion through her digits. “Hoped for a few.”
“We have an entire warship here,” I said. “There must be a few.”
“If the shell-bellies came, they sniffed out whoever remained from the crash. Honed for the hunt, they are.” Yallo kissed her medallion, which resembled a cigar-slicer I’d seen at the cafe Carlan Doulet’s sometime before the skyless world and Venefica’s rampage. The oval medal hung beneath her coat at her chest on a chain so thick you’d need to saw it free.
“All beings make mistakes. Even Dragons forget corners of the very worlds they bring into being,” I spun my starspear and burned stonefire in my gut to alight my eyes, “are you staying here?”
Yallo slithered onto all fours and scurried after me as I made way to the elevator doors. I broke them open with Force. The open shaft ran a fair two hundred meters in green and blue emergency lights.
Yallo leapt to the opposite side of the elevator shaft and crawled to the next floor portal to investigate.
“That’s what I thought,” I muttered, then followed.
We moved into the hallways separately and arranged to meet in the hanger when Yallo’s timers ran out. She carried several wrist clocks—all of which came from her homeworld. The watches found increments of time in what I’d say were ten to fifteen minute units. The smallest units were clicks somewhere a few seconds off, and those quarter-hour chunks were divided into smaller sections to replace minutes.
Koro-min which were the not-quite-seconds—Yallo’d explain later that this rhythm was determined by the heartbeat of a great insectoid queen who conquered half her homeworld. Tama were the quarter hour chunks. Then tama-min were minutes. She said that no one used tama-min, they merely said “half tama” to refer to a few minutes or so. Her hours were ten tama, with eight of those a day.
I didn’t have my own timepiece to track the relativity of her clock to mine, but the situation allowed me to ponder my Dahn time table in accordance with all of these places I’d been and seen. When Peridot talked of years, she spoke of my own years relative to myself. I assumed this, anyway. What were her years? Did gods see years as seconds?
Some planets take years as the orbit around their star. Other realms have years built into the mechanization of their universe by their gods. Tides and moon cycles determine years. Calendars developed by the mortals create such divisions.
We break our lives into meals to digest, piece by piece.
Every person across the vast universes is handed a developed time system. If they aren’t, they find it themselves—measuring the sun cycle or the moon or the vision of the cosmos found on a cloudless night. Worlds without stars and moons beat to the rhythm of heartbeats in darkness. All is categorized by moments turned memories.
Yallo timed one of her watches to three tama and latched the device onto my neck—as I was far too small to don her wrist-wear on my arm. Still without clothes, I investigated the labyrinthian broken frigate first feeling the drafts of cosmic air through the halls, then nothing but stale air the deeper I delved.
Oxygen. Clean oxygen. So clean that the filtration systems on the vessel must have been extremely advanced.
Moving between broken down doorways and empty halls flashing in emergency lights brought me back to the world with the dead colonizers. Threshold arrived so quickly to investigate by my side. My friend’s objective view of any given circumstance came in the vast vision she had access too—the past and, apparently, the future.
As I moved in those halls, ears, eyes, and nose keen for signs of life, I prayed to Threshold. I called to my friend. A faint music danced in my heart—that sensation that an Agglomerate sensed my call. A faded song remembered on a record spinning round and round, but kilometers away.
I felt her, somewhere.
Did she feel me calling? Did she hear the faint record spinning round and round without any direction?
How I wished for her to be there, running her runes between her fingers, whispering to the walls. She could tell Yallo and I the truth of what happened in an instant. She’d know these people, where they came from, how they came here, and if the shell-bellies got to them.
Then we could sit by a fire and I could listen to her dark philosophies, and I could tell her of Opsalat, and my fears, and what happened with the White Island and the Genesar.
I missed her.
I missed her kindred spirit, one of very few in the vastness of Existence who could relate to me, and give guidance, and listen without needing to sympathize. The battle with Venefica showed me the awesome might of Threshold’s abilities. But I’d come to know a woman bound to eternity for many millennia, a goddess of place and memory, who—despite her drive to expose truth, and enact arbitration, and eviscerate devils—could be described just as I was: alone.
She was a person beneath all her capability and philosophy, and that promised me that somewhere down the line I’d still be a person too.
I felt alone, but I wasn’t lonesome.
My time as a WorldWalker, after being torn from my family, I expected to be the worst times of my life. On reflection, I see that the time after That Time and before the sleep of a score and six centuries was possibly the most vital key to all that I am.
I began my story with the WorldWalking not because of the Genesar, or the drama of being torn from my family, or the dire circumstances of each individual situation, but because there began my longest friendships.
I missed Threshold dearly.
Porbiyo? Porbiyo I missed a painful amount. The most frustrating companion I may have ever had by my side, but still my friend. A friend who began a descent into madness but started to become—in my eyes—better.
I climbed a long service corridor. Entirely black, I burned stonefire to light the crawlspace blue. The blue of my eyes reflected in the metal walls, bringing me back to that coastline where I’d taken Porb to the rocks.
His voice. . . the pain in his voice. I’d beaten him senseless. I hadn’t realized that the madness had engulfed him as it did so many other liminal beings. He’d behead someone for slapping a cow’s bum too hard. No sanity allowed for such a thing. But when I hit him—when I told him he needed to change—I felt his fear.
He was a person. He was my friend.
I’d made companions that I believed I’d have for all my life, and then they’d been ripped from me not by the natural fades of time, but by another extreme circumstance.
Yallo’s timer rumbled against my neck. The little clock chirped. Time to return to the hanger bay. Three tama had passed.
I wondered how much would pass until I’d see my friends again.
I retraced my steps through the titanic vessel and came to the elevator shaft where we’d departed. I hung from the doorway and leapt down into the tilted hanger. Yallo seemed to have only just arrived, as she walked to a large control console and ran her claws along the dash.
“No one,” I called to her.
“No one,” she turned, frills vibrating in disappointment.
Yallo took her side sword and the handle swept out to become her sword spear. The runic technological markings on the white blade burned electric green.
The lizard eyed the distance.
I skittered across the hanger bay. From the rounded rectangular doors shown beautiful rays of light from dozens of stars and suns and planets churning out between the many skies. Far out, a siege of warships beached upon a great citadel as cannons fired. A zeppelin soared upside down across the void with a banner behind reading, “Marry Me.” A boxy truck with an enormous ice cream cone fell from the sky and crashed in the sands.
Something was there. Something my eyes, ears, and nose could not detect.
My fur raised across my body. Chills tickled my spine.
I slid by Yallo’s side, starspear at the ready.
“Show yourself,” Yallo called, confident as ever.
My body tensed.
Two wicked lense flares. White orbs. Comets? Stars? Meteorites?
Stars aren’t stars,
Not always babe,
They see you too,
In wicked ways.
Eyes barreled in a death dive towards us. Then wings burst out to catch the descent, leading to a feathered cowl. A strong white beak shrieked. Talons uncurled from a long torso.
My heart nearly burst from my chest.
A white owl some five meters tall.
The flaring lenses of her eyes dissipated, revealing brilliant red to be their true hue. Caution behind her, the owl tucked in her wings as her sword-length talons landed upon the hanger floor. The outside Liminality cast her shadow in a halo of mythic lights.
Suddenly I was but a mouse in the field beneath the shadow of a predator. My mother’s lullaby and the song to which Opsalat sung played quiet in my ear.
I nearly fell back, but before I stumbled I forced my foot forward. Stonefire instinctually churned in my gut. The blue and orange light of my eyes reflected in the owl’s crimson stare.
Twenty meters may as well have been one between the predator and I. Yallo stood between us. I felt no safety with my companion. I’d forgotten she was there.
Something in those red eyes—more like mechanical lenses than true eyeballs—said, “You are mine, mouse.”
Yallo’s words returned me to reality, “I know what you are,” she spun her swordspear and opened her frills to the owl.
The owl’s feathers shimmered in some divine luminescence hued to the most earthen pinks. Each tan feather seemed marked in black streaks that rippled with the cosmic winds. She seemed almost furry, rather than feathered.
The owl’s beak opened with a stone voice, “You know what I am, Con Segal Yallo Ra, just as I know you. I do not hide what I am.”
“You hide behind the form of an insect large as a house,” Yallo called, “I take your words for what they are, Postulant: hypocrisy.”
The owl spoke to Yallo, but her eyes did not leave mine.
Did she say the owl was an insect? What did that mean?
“There is no one left on this vessel for you to interrogate,” the lizard said. “No fresh souls for which you may take inquisition.”
The owl—beak and all—smiled. The face of the bird parted in shaggy fur-feathers to grin. Cold gripped me as those eyes drove further into my soul.
“I am here for you,” said the owl. “Alfarin, I taste your soul. I wish to know of it.”
Yallo eyed me as the Alfarin tune played aloud.
The owl opened her wings and leapt over Yallo. Wind off the owl’s advancement held my fur down. The scent of fresh peppermint followed her landing. Her beak came within a meter to my face.
I did not flinch. I, admittedly, froze.
“I have come for inquisition,” she whispered. “I wish to know you. How you came upon the means to understand language. How you came to the liminal wastes. How you evaded my detection—and the detection of my siblings—for so long.”
“Awfully aggressive,” I said, “for someone asking questions they don’t deserve answers to.”
“You have no comprehension of what you are speaking to,” the Postulant said.
“I know that this specific owl is native to my home,” I said, “and that my friend, here, said you were an insect to her. I have some idea of what you are—you illusory fear monger.”
My eyes ran across the feathery fur. Not feathers, or fur. The Postulant’s coat comprised of parchment. Thousands of strips of parchment layered with countless ink markings in endless languages.
Those eyes were machine parts. Not organic, but indeed mechanical lenses.
“You take the form of an owl to frighten me?” I let go a light laugh and gripped my starspear tight. “Would you like to know what happens when foolish parties try their hand at scaring me?”
The Postulant cocked her owl head in a freakishly avian manner. She glared at the starspear and grinned, “They took a toothpick to the eye?”
“I don’t know who you are, or why you’re here, but I suggest you depart. Now,” I churned stonefire in my breath. “I have no qualms with you from threats alone. Do not act on those threats.”
“I threatened you not. I am here to know you. If your anonymity is so vital, then know if you do not answer my list then I shall seek my answers elsewhere.”
“Seek elsewhere you may,” I said, still not entirely sure what this Postulant even sought after.
“Leave him,” Yallo said, sliding from behind the owl. She came by my side, swordspear in tow. She released her frills and hissed at the enormous owl. “Not all who come here are bound to answer you and your kinds’ lists.”
“Not all who come here are capable of evading my detection for so long,” she eyed me again, “tell me, did you know of my Order before your arrival? Did you come here purposefully?”
“Enough,” Yallo said. She said to me, “She cannot harm you.”
I rose an eyebrow.
Yallo said, “If you don’t wish to answer her questions, tell her to go. She must obey.” The lizard growled, “I wish I’d known such an option before I’d spoken.”
“Go,” I said, without hesitating. “Leave, Postulant.”
The owl bowed and turned towards the open hanger door. She paused before flying off, “Farewell, little rat. I shall hunt your truths as a raptor in the night—vision keen as can be. I have not a moment to waste on waiting.” And off flew the predator until she turned invisible, and faded away.
After a moment, Yallo lowered her weapon and wandered to the edge of the hanger. She said, “You weren’t visited? In the first moments you came to the Liminality, a Postulant did not come for you?”
I shook my head, “I have no idea what that was.”
Yallo closed her frills and compressed her swordspear into a sword. She said, “They wish to know you. Who you are, what you’re doing, why you do what you do. They’d ask, and ask, and ask,” Yallo growled, “and once you agree you cannot rescind.”
“How do you mean?”
“A list of endless questions. Only when they are satisfied may you stop answering,” Yallo stared off, “and satisfaction comes at a price. I learned more of myself hearing those answers than I ever did living the experiences. The reflection was. . . tortuous.”
Knowing who I was, and who I would become, the relief in maintaining my anonymity was intense. Yallo did not have answers for who the Postulant—and the others of her kind—worked for, and what they did with their knowledge accrued.
“Sometimes, one is meant to be alone with themselves,” Yallo said. “In the moments of great change, in this place between places and time between times, being in oneself is a powerful position.” She set her jaw, “Sometimes. . . loneliness is of value.”
Perhaps that is why Yallo never talked of her homeworld, or her past. Perhaps that is why I never told her of mine. We hiked between battles, saving who we could, sharing in victory or mourning in the few circumstances we’d lost a soul or come upon an empty war ship.
“Your clock,” I poked the clock around my neck, motioning to return it.
She motioned without words, but said “Keep it.”
In one another’s company, we were entirely alone.
I came to find that my estimates with Yallo’s units of time were quite accurate. As we journeyed from the starship into the white sands, I counted my seconds as I knew them, then measured against the ticking of the tama’min on Yallo’s gift. The journey gave ample time to assess said time.
Her seconds were slightly off my own. A tama did represent around fifteen minutes. Ten of those were an hour—called haunds. Eight haunds a day. But I counted tama-min.
“Why such useless measurements?” she asked as I counted. “What of tama? Why so small as tama-min?”
We passed a geyser which sprayed green acid in a salt-lake. On either side were craggy beige bluffs. Perhaps a coastline appeared here, now all dried and blended into the white sand desert? Some sort of purple slug with a hundred plump limbs inched along in the geyser ooze.
“The small add up into the big. How do we know how much time passes if we don’t measure the small?”
“It can never be precise,” Yallo said. “Precision is wasted. Keep to tama. Still never right. Cannot be right—time is not to be measured only lived. But tama have more space. More cushion for error.”
“Is that why your people don’t care for tama-min?”
“I think of it like the slug,” I pointed to the purple incher, “each leg shifting into position is a second. A, uh, koromin. Then the legs together are tama-min. Then tama. You need the smaller movements first to make the body move forward.”
“I find the longer I think of the smallest things, the more I lose sight of the biggest ones.” She tapped her watches on her wrist, “I keep these to track my days and my years. That is all which matters.”
“I never think of time. Not. . . in the smaller ways. I’ve lost track. Where I come from, we had a tower to tell time, but it was always tuned to track and the sun.”
Yallo inhaled deeply, “That is the best way, I think. Living. No mindfulness of the passing in the minutia of the day. Merely existing as we are meant to exist. Being what we wish to be. Defining our lives by actions and deeds and activities rather than some arbitrary distinction of moment.”
“Do you find yourself drawn to the tiny times?” I felt my brain wanting to count the tama-min. I wanted to watch the clock pass. I wanted to feel myself moving forward.
“Sometimes,” she said, “but I do not like it. Makes the pressure in the head feel. . . wrong. I wish to live for life and not for mechanical processes.”
The light disappeared around us as a hundred suns set. In our depth of field, some sort of starship battle illuminated the horizon just enough to see. But mostly, all the lights turned to night.
“What happened?” I said.
“There is so much light in Creation, it is rare to have the dark.” She opened her arms to the skies and lands churning above the white sands. “Perhaps somebody decided to make some nighttime. I say we enjoy it.”
We moved to the top of one of the beige cliffs, which overlooked a meadow of red grasses on the opposing side. Even in the darkness, a fortress glistened glittery black at the end of the meadow some kilometers away.
Yallo took a stone for a stool. I created wood and lit a fire.
A tradition of ours, even if newly established. Since the first night with the bus we always lit a fire.
“I still remember their faces,” I said of the children in the water.
“I still remember too.”
We talked for awhile. Of our journeys, first. Then of our homeworlds. She told me of the insectoid queen who conquered the moon—the form of which the Postulant took for her. She told me tales of her sword and where she’d learned to use it. The magic that enhanced her shrill screams.
I told her some stories. A few that I’ve told you.
We adventured for some time. How much? I could say in my time, and in hers. Instead I’ll say it in such terms:
Together we broke a falling mountain before it crushed a village, and then celebrated with the villagers with games. I taught them Patchwork, and they taught me humlow.
Together we rode the highways of a fallen country through the desert. Kilometers of three laned roadways marked with exits and ramps leading to chaotic liminal destinations instead of their original purpose.
Together we stumbled upon an old yellow hut in a forest of blue trunkless trees. And something called to me. Some faint, distant voice. An echo in the vastness as if I were drowning and a savior called my name. When I went inside the noise became a voice.
A record spinning round and round.
A pile of spoons huddled on the floor of the hut. When she saw me, she turned into an enormous smiley face of spoons and wrapped her collection around me in embrace.
I cried. I cried hugging spoons.
I still laugh when I think of what Yallo must have first thought before she realized Skedder the Master of Spoons was alive.
But that silver and steel hug meant more than I could possibly put into words. Skedder was not my closest friend, but she was a friend. And to feel the touch of someone I knew?
The wave rolled in high. So very high.
The next time we camped, I watched Skedder gift Yallo a spoon. She’d been to Yallo’s homeworld—the realization took far too long to puncture my thick skull. The chances of such a thing? Fate and destiny are fickle, yet always purposeful.
I spent almost no time at all alone after the White Island incident and my touching the Glaire, but it felt to be some of the loneliest in all my life. The longest drawn fear brought along by the doom spiral of introspection and worst ideas imaginable. That spec of time, nearly meaningless in the scheme of measurement, became defining.
What is time? A system of measurements?
I suppose time is nearer the slow consecration of starlight forming from the void—nebulas bursting with particulates of life spiraling through gravity, until they coalesce in an eternal collection of reactions.
The blending out of blackness into light.
By the fire, telling stories, I felt the silence to be the blackness, and the chatter of friends the light.