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Meanwhile, in Universe #364b

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1. Anchal and Icarus in the Troposphere

This is her favourite moment: the driving winds slip their fingers between the grips of her boots and the gently curved hull of the plane. There’s a forever moment of weightlessness and her hair settles gently around her shoulders before gravity reasserts itself and continues its reverse trajectory, whips forward past her face, and Anchal falls, hollering with joy.

It’s a clear day, bright sun shooting rays past her faster than she could ever hope to fall. She tucks her chin to her chest and reaches her arms towards the ground to speed her descent. There are no clouds today, no shifting filmy mists to dive through. Sometimes the clouds are thick, like masses of spun sugar or cotton batting that catches in her hair and mouth; those days she leaves spread-eagle cut-outs in their mass through which sunshine escapes and paints sunshadows across the land below.

Large feathers whip past her head, and Anchal grins and throws out her arms to alter her trajectory to take her over the figure at the edge of her vision, tumbling sedately with a trail of feathers drifting above him.

“Hey Icky!” she hollers as she closes in, reaching out to snag him by one crossed arm and unify their descent.

Icarus scowls at the nickname but nonetheless uncrosses his arms to grab her other hand and float beside her. His wings are even more bedraggled than usual at this altitude. “How’s Stephen?” he asks politely.

Anchal goes to shrug, then realizes the motion doesn’t work. “Good, last time I talked to him. He hopped a plane for Places Unknown last week.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Icarus says, just before the winds reverse and hurl them back up into the sky. His hands tighten around Anchal’s as she whoops in joy.

“Why don’t you just wire your dad for the money for a plane ticket?” Anchal asks at the top of the ascent. “You know the planes are the only way out of here. The planes and the whales, I mean.”

Icarus snorts. “You can climb the Tower to plane-hop all you want, but no one’s ever ridden a whale.”

“No one who’s ridden one has stuck around to tell the tale,” Anchal corrects. She’s flushed despite the cold, misses the hair tie she lost somewhere in the climb to the top of the Tower, somewhere scaling a crane. She’s always dreamed of the stars, but the whales are the only ones who can reach them – they can cross the dimensional barrier, or they can somehow soar past it to the sky above. “I’m sure your father misses you,” she says. When she was a child she used to sit on the beach and watch the whales soar away and wonder.

Icarus flips them over so they’re staring at the sun rather than the ground as they fall. “It’s my fault I ended up here,” he says, barely audible over the whipping wind. “I fell through the barrier because I didn’t listen to him, but I’ll make it back.”

“Okay,” Anchal says, and squeezes his hand before she lets go. “See you on the flip side.” She knows he hates this part, hates the fall, hates everything except the flying, but she loves it all. She picks up speed and spin as she dives back towards the ground, passing hot air balloons and whales and a listing rocket. Grass, sea, and sand flash by below her, dots growing into tiny figures, trees coalescing from shapeless green to textures. She alters her course around a man floating along on the string of a balloon, and he tips his hat toward her.

Grass and sand and sea and asphalt and she finds herself looking for somewhere new, somewhere she hasn’t touched town before. She’s close enough now that she can see the wakes of the velociraptors in the tall grass.

She hurtles over a base jumper, pulling her arms in to flatten her trajectory into a tight spin. There, she thinks, hurtling towards a cliff, over the cedar shake shingled roof of the old farmhouse, running ricochet trajectories in her head as the rock face sharpens into detail, dirt into boulders and crags and finally gravel, trees resolving leaves and branches, and she closes her eyes and bounces right back into the waiting sky.

 

2. The House on the Hill

There’s a faint creaking of floorboards as a mouse noses its way across floorboards long since worn smooth. There’s dust in the air, motes dancing on the light that flickers through old fashioned glass windows. The mouse’s whiskers twitch, backlit, as it rears up to sniff the air. There is no cheese, no crumbs of bread, and the smell of its own kind is faded with age. It explores further anyway, skittering across dusty countertops and the cold metal range of a coal-burning stove. The wooden legs of the furniture retain the smell of resin, the deep oily scent of furniture polish.

There are cans in the cabinets. The doors stick when swung open and the labels on the cans are faded, but the best before date is always tomorrow. The garden out back lies fallow and quiet, the grass that brushes against the faded walls is never more than knee height. There is a uniform layer of dust inside, but the silver in the drawers does not tarnish; the only cobwebs are abandoned in the corners but there are no red-eyed flies lying dead on the windowsills.

It’s quiet in the house, the only sounds the faint creaking, the clicking skitter of mouse paws. The mouse scales the couch, grey with dust, testing the fabric before chittering with satisfaction. It races across the floor, squeaking out the suitability of nest-building materials. It squeezes out through the tiniest of holes along the door, then lets out a final panicked squeal as a velociraptor snatches it up.

The house is silent again, save for the faint rush of tall grass blowing against the outside walls, the occasional creaking board as the house settles itself back down to wait.

 

3. Jamal’s Famous Lemonade with Rock Sugar, 500 Feet Below Ground

Jamal is dreaming of cotton candy bake sales and soaring lead balloons. “Wake up, sleepyhead,” a sundog says, and Jamal blinks heavy eyes open to see Joshua sitting on the mattress at his side, hair combed and dressed for the day. There’s a faint glow coming through the curtains. “Up and at ‘er,” his husband says, pressing a kiss to Jamal’s forehead before striding over to open the curtains, letting in the full light from the phosphorescent lichen coating the rock wall outside.

“Lunch is in the fridge,” Joshua says, as he strips the blankets from the bed, grinning as Jamal curls protectively into a ball. Cold feet are one of the few things Jamal hates more than mornings. “Don’t forget to feed Spot.”

Jamal grunts out something that probably sounds less like an affirmative than he was aiming for. Joshua just laughs fondly and kisses Jamal’s bare shoulder on his way out the door. Jamal groans and slowly levers himself up to carefully lower his feet to the cold floor. He watches Spot eat his salmon pellets while he eats his cereal, the leucistic axolotl snapping at the pellets that float to the bottom of the tank.

It’s a thirty-minute climb to his stand, lunch nestled neatly atop the lemons in his backpack. Their house is located midway between his stand and the caverns below, where Joshua tree-tends. Joshua comes from the surface; came to see the trees and never left. Jamal’s parents ran a lemonade stand at the other end of the tunnels, but got tired of Marios piling up on the platform from which they plied their trade; now they run hot air balloon whale watching cruises.

It’s only the lemons Jamal brings with him every day, fresh-picked from one of the orchards below. The sugar he leaves at the platform, well-covered against rock-candy-flies. He carved out the platform by a trickling brook so there’s always water, filtered clean from the ocean above. He also leaves his ceremonial lemon hat, because it keeps getting knocked around when he climbs with it on, and falling into his eyes.

It’s a pretty quiet morning, and he sits there without customers, writing in his notebook, until he hears the ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ of several people descending from above. He doesn’t understand how so many people miss the ladder, or fail to bring base jumping gear. People will bounce, yes, but he’s slipped on his climb a few times, and repeated bouncing at high velocity in a narrow tunnel is something he tries to avoid.

“Lemonade?” he offers hopefully as three people drop past him, screaming.

“Noooooooo thaaaaaaaaank yooooooooouuuuuuu,” one of them yells as she plummets past, red hair streaming.

“Lemooooooon haaaaaaats aaaaaaaaaare cooooooool,” the second yells, straightening his bowtie in midair.

“Gerrrrrrrronimooooooo!” The last one is laughing, arms arched together to pierce the air as she hurtles head-first town the tunnel.

Jamal sighs and settles back into his chair, picking his book back up.

The three have bounced up past him and fallen down again twice before Jamal hears the careful skitter of dislodged rocks as someone descends the ladder. From long experience, he thinks the trio will probably reach the apex of their trajectory right around the height of his platform next time.

“Lemonade?” he asks hopefully as the figure descends.

The man looks down in surprise and loses his grip on the rock wall, tumbling the final few feet to the platform. “Um, yes, thank you,” he says, lying on his back and staring up into the tunnel. “You haven’t seen a tumbling trio by any chance, have you?”

Jamal hands him a lemonade, and the man sits up to take it, handing him some sort of paper money in turquoise and grey with a monarch on it. “Should be back up to this level in a minute or two,” Jamal offers. The money is extra-dimensional will have to have changed, so he tucks it into the side drawer with the rubies and coins that glow. “Last time past, the curly-haired woman was looking bored and the man was laughing and doing summersaults.”

“That sounds about right,” the man says. “I can’t believe they missed the ladder. I mean, it’s right there.” He takes a sip of the lemonade and does a double take at the glass. “This is extremely good.”

Jamal grins. “Thanks. Did you come to see the trees?”

“Nah, we just came to go exploring.”

Someone in the tunnel laughs. “There are trees? Fantastic,” the man says as they up hurtle past the lemonade stand, starting to slow.

“Now you’ve got him going,” one woman says, while the other reaches a hand toward the man standing beside Jamal.

“Come on, husband,” she commands at the top of their ascent.

He shrugs. “Might as well,” he says, and throws himself spread-eagled off the platform to catch the woman’s hand as they descend.

Jamal watches them fall and shakes his head. “Tourists.”

 

4. Joshua and the Trees

There is light in the rocks, just waiting to burst free. Joshua can feel it against his closed eyelids and upturned face. He dreams of the sky, sometimes, but in waking he thinks this is better. There’s something beyond the lichen that lights them, because the larger they did the caverns, the brighter the light becomes, until the broadest, highest domes dazzle the eyes.

It is always late spring in the tree caverns, always lazily buzzing insects and the scents of fresh-blooming flowers and moist loam after it’s been turned. He leans back on his elbows, bare toes and fingers digging into the gently waving grass and listens to the whispers of the leaves. In the evening, the light fades and the trees fold up their leaves, some insects quieting while others wake from sleep. Some of the lichen remains stubbornly lit, distant flickering lights that cast faint light but could never be mistaken for the stars. There is mist in the morning, fog that winds around the ankles, until the brightening light burns it away.

If they dig the caverns, the trees grow. The rock wears to soil, and green grass peeks its head through the brown loam. When they start digging it’s hard to tell which caverns will generate the most life, which ones will host trees and grass and flowers, which will host bogs and pitch pine and clover, and which will be full only of moss and glowing warmth. They dig small burrows around the tunnels, above the roof like inversed mushroom clouds; they dig down and out and sideways and wait to see what wakes from the soil.

It’s the trees that call to Joshua; he dreamed of the caverns as a child, and when he came to the underground to see them, first he found the trees and Jamal and then he found he couldn’t leave either. He’s sitting in the grass in one of the smaller caverns, so there’s only one tree, still young and only twice his height. When they dig out the cavern more, others will grow, and this small tree will one day tower above them. Its leaves rustle, and with his eyes closed, Joshua thinks he can almost understand what it says. He can hear the meaning, sometimes. Sometimes he thinks it’s a lullaby. There’s a sharp differences in the rustling in the larger caverns, the multilayered conversations the trees have with each other.

Many of the other tenders were called by the trees themselves, but few can hear them like Joshua. Some of them love the grass or soil, the warm weight of the tunnels or the adventure of exploring somewhere new. Clarice, who feels about the ponds like Joshua does about the trees, reads meaning from shifting currents, the swaying of aquatic plants and tumble of gravel in clear water, from the darting movements and the reflection of light on the water’s surface.

There’s an echoed call down the tunnels. “Joshua!” one of the other tree tenders yells.

Joshua shakes himself from his reverie and stands, looking around for his shoes.

“Joshua!” the call comes again as one of the new tree tenders bursts into the cavern. The tunnels are more dimly lit than the larger caves, and the woman blinks against it, pupils blown wide from the dim light. “Joshua,” she repeats, leaving over to catch her breath. She takes a moment to catch her breath, giving Joshua time to lace his shoes. From her clothes and the dust in her hair, it looks like she’s been out on exploratory duty. “It’s one of the new caves,” she says, voice still high. “Joshua, there’s a fish.”

“A fish?” he clarifies. “A vertebrate? We never get fauna before flora.”

She nods, grin wide and bright. “A fish.”

“A fish,” Joshua repeats, feeling his mouth twist into a smile. The sense of peace and calm is gone from his body, replaced with excitement. “A fish. I’ll go get Clarice. You gather the others and tell them we have a new priority dig.”

The woman nods and darts off.

“A fish,” Joshua laughs, pressing his hand to the bark of the tree. “I think today will be a good day,” he says, and wonders what else the caverns will bring them, what else they’ll discover.

 

5. The HMS Schrodinger vs the Flying Jellyfish

The waves have smoothed into broad swells, and the metal (station?) has fallen behind the curvature of the Earth. The mile-tall reach of the Tower has just begun to show before them. Captain Azumi rises from her crouch at the tip of the bowsprit, feet firmly planted on the wood and one hand wrapped around the thick rope of the forestay that runs to the foremost mast. It always feels like the ship is moving faster out here; waves crash by underfoot and the motion of every swell feels exaggerated. She takes a moment to savour the wind in her hair and spray in her face before she calls commands back to her first mate. “We should go slow – that water up ahead looks pretty deep.”

Amanda’s already moving, barking out commands that have the crew sprinting across the deck and up the rigging, furling the sails to decrease the amount of wind they catch. Azumi releases the forestay to make her way back down the bowsprit, booted feet steady against the motion of the waves as she winds her way through the foresails and drops to the deck. The ship’s momentum carries them forward at near the same speed despite the decreased propulsion. The ship is quieter with less wind in the sails, and the normal hum and call of the crew slowly quiets. Except –

“Shut up, Carl!” Azumi yells, and waits for his calls of ‘Avast!’ to quiet.

“Arrrr,” Carl says as he limps his way towards her, and Azumi sighs.

“Carl, we’ve been through this before,” she says. “You’re not actually a pirate.

The out of ‘verse biology intern they have riding shotgun trails Carl to the bow. She can’t seem to look away from his hat, and the giant feathery plume that jerks in the wind. “Excuse me?” she asks. Trudy, Azumi thinks her name is. Might be. “What’s going on?”

“You’ll find out in a minute.” Azumi says, and narrows her eyes at Carl. She wishes almost constantly that he wasn’t the best swordsman this side of the Tower. Or that louder, non-stabbing weapons were more useful here. “Stop limping. Neither of your legs are pegs.”

The crew has assembled before her, and aside from Trudy standing nervously to the side, they all seem to know what she’s going to say. “Listen up,” she says, making eye contact nine. “We’re heading into deep water. I’ve taken us down to five knots, but there’ve been reports of aggressive activity in the area from the last few ships that passed this way. We’re going to be running quiet, so bells and whistles away, and – ” Everyone aside from Trudy is prepared, and – wait, nine sets of eyes?

“Wait, who are you?” Azumi asks a woman at the back.

“Errrr,” one of the crew says. “She’s my cousin, Elizabeth.”

“Arrrrr,” Carl says, and someone pushes his hat forward over his eyes.

“And why,” Azumi asks, “is she here?”

“I found her climbing the rigging.”

Azumi takes a slow breath. “Are you going to make me ask you what she’s doing here, on my boat?”

“I asked her the same question, actually, but she wouldn’t tell me.”

Azumi opens and closes her mouth. “Right,” she says. Sometimes she really regrets giving up a lucrative accounting career to ferry snack foods in tall ships.

“Excuse me,” probably-Trudy asks, “but what are we all doing right here, at this moment?”

“We’re heading into deep waters,” Azumi repeats. “That means one thing – jellyfish.”

Even though they knew it was coming, a whisper runs through the crew, and they scatter to man their battle stations. Well, everyone but probably-Trudy and cousin Elizabeth.

“What on earth does that mean?” Trudy asks loudly, and glares as Azumi clasps a hand over her mouth.

Quietly,” Azumi whispers, scowling as Trudy slaps her hand away. “Do you want to disturb them?” The boat around them is silent save for the breaking of the waves against the hull, the groan of wood and faint fluttering of sails.

“Jellyfish?” Trudy repeats incredulously. “You’re afraid I’m going to wake the jellyfish?”

The boat lurches, as if a large volume of water was suddenly displaced somewhere below them. Trudy and Elizabeth tumble to the deck, but Azumi manages to keep her footing. “Yes,” she says as the jellyfish break the surface and hurtle into the sky around them. Their outer tentacles whip madly in the wind, while the inner oral arms wreathed with pulsating ruffles hang more heavily. “That’s exactly what I was afraid of.”

“This doesn’t make any sense!” Trudy says, staring open-mouthed at the jellyfish that hover over them, semi-transparent bodies casting filmy orange shade. She ducks as Azumi swings her sword and removes trailing tentacles that were billowing too close to them. The tentacles fall to the deck with a mucousal flop. “They look like nettle jellyfish, but they have the wrong number of oral arms.”

“That’s what’s bothering you?” Azumi asks, herding Trudy and Elizabeth through the swinging tentacles to what shelter the masts offer, hissing as she takes a hit from a barbed nematocyst to the arm. As far as they can tell, cutting arms and tentacles doesn't cause the jellyfish any pain, and they grow back eventually. It just shortens their reach and minimizes the damage they go until they get bored and go away.

Trudy shrieks a little and ducks, flattening her back against the mast. “That and the fact that they’re, oh, fifty to a thousand times larger than they’re supposed to be, and trying to eat us.”

“They’re just hungry,” Elizabeth says.

“Even the lion jellies aren’t this big,” Trudy continues as the battle rages around them. There are sliced tendrils and oral arms covering the deck in ooze. As far as Azumi can see, all of her people are still on their feet. “I mean, lion jellyfish can be 125 metres in length, but they’re only 2.5 metres at the cap, and they don’t look anything like this.”

“Uh huh,” Azumi says, pulling the other woman out of the way as one of the jellyfish crashes into the mast above them and begins to deflate, arms and tentacles coiling to the deck as it loses altitude. “Where’s our stowaway?”

“Um,” Trudy says, eyes wide, and slowly raises her hand to point.

Azumi slowly turns, feeling something inside of her sink. She expects to see Elizabeth being hauled overboard, wrapped in orange tentacles, and it takes her brain a moment to parse what’s going on. Elizabeth is sitting on the wooden railing, legs dangling off over the ocean, and appears to be – chatting with a jellyfish. She’s saying something about the middle class and the 1%, and absently passing pieces of candy and hotdog over. The jellyfish is carefully taking them in its oral arms and passing them up into its mouth and gastrointestinal cavity, where they float, visible through its transparent skin.

“Right,” Azumi says, then yells “New plan!” The deck underfoot is slippery with water and mucous, but she manages to stay upright as she throws herself at one of the crates they’re transporting. It comes open with one precise hit from the hilt of her sword, and spills tofu dogs all over. “New plan!” she repeats again, this time more loudly, and starts hurling hotdogs at her crew. “Jellyfish treats!”

In the end, it turns out that while the jellyfish love tofu dogs, they love gummy strawberries even more.

Azumi stands at the aft of the boat with her first mate, staring at the heap of jellyfish falling away behind the ship, attempting to work open a wooden box of candy.

“Huh,” Amanda says. “Will you look at that?”

“Good call, Elizabeth,” Azumi says, looking up just in time to see her disappearing up the rigging, her cousin chasing after her. Most of the crew is cleaning the deck, re-securing open crates and sweeping tentacle residue overboard.

Trudy is sitting beside them, staring at the jellyfish falling away with great consternation. “But,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Azumi laughs, and drops a hand to Trudy’s shoulder as she turns to leave. “You’ll get used to it, kid.”

Trudy stays, staring at the horizon. “But jellyfish are carnivores.”

 

6. The Whales

Sings-from-the-Deep makes her way through the twisting currents. She cuts across riptides and sends shoals of fish running for cover, silvery sides flashing as they scatter. She laughs at them as they run, grinning wide to suck in a new mouthful of water to sieve for krill. She hears a strange sound at the outer ranges of her hearing and follows it down into the water until she brushes belly-down against the shallow shore, then turns and propels herself upwards at full speed. She arches her back as she breaches the surface of the water, enjoying the rush of air before she crashes back down and floats, breathing.

From somewhere not too far away, her mother calls to her. It is almost time for Sings-from-the-Deep to leave. She’s known this time was coming, as she moved from milk to krill and the seasons came and went and she grew long and sleek. There are other mother-calf pairs here, but they space themselves in the water, carrying invisible borders with themselves to keep them separate. She’s told this is the smallest of the isolated oceans, where mothers come to raise their young for the first few years of their lives, until the calves are strong enough to fly to one of the other oceans. There are other types of whales here, too, all smaller than her mother. They live in pods, and Sings-from-the-Deep will miss them when she leaves with her mother.

Some let her swim with them, frolic and play. She will miss them when she leaves, but she is growing to be larger than them and she knows somehow that when she outsizes them she will no longer be welcome. She breathes deeply and dives again. She feels like she knows every inch of shoreline of this ocean, this pond, every underwater range and coral plain.

Not long now, something in her sings, has been singing for a while. She doesn’t always come crashing back down when she breaches the water’s surface; she hovers and soars and arcs up, but has always returned here, to the place that raised her, to the only place she’s ever known. This swim, this exploration, feels almost like goodbye. She feels her heart soar when her mother calls her home.

Her mother gooses her, chases her in circles, laughing, then swims by her side and tells her all the stories she was told by her mother before her. Sings-from-the-Deep knows then that this is the end, and presses herself close to her mother’s side as they swim.

We’ll see each other again, child, Mother says. There are only so many oceans, and we have nothing but time.

Still, she presses herself against her mother as tight as she can, tells small keening stories of everything she’s seen that day. This place seems so small to her, and she longs to see something new, discover something else, somewhere else, but she’s afraid.

Just think of everything you have to explore, Mother sings. Everything new.

I love you, cries Sings-from-the-Deep as her mother gently pushes her away.

I love you, too, replies Mother, but it’s time for you to go.

Sings-from-the-Deep closes her eyes and dives deep, as deep as she’s ever been, to the crabs and darkest water, then turns and explodes back up towards the surface of the water, the line that divides worlds.

I love you, her mother sings, and it follows her up, up, up, into the sky. She misses her mother already, misses reassuring, distant songs of the other of her kind, but she’s awestruck by the size of the world, the texture and the colours, the light falling golden instead of blue. She has no idea where she wants to go first, which ocean she wants to explore.

In the air ahead of her, she sees a human girl hurtling, dark hair streaming and whooping with joy. It’s a voice Sings-from-the-Deep recognizes, a girl who sometimes sits on the sand, trails her fingers in the water, and speaks of the stars.

Sings-from-the-Deep would miss the sound of other voices, if she were to lose them.

She makes a split second decision, wobbly changing her course to parallel that of the girl falling, and gently offers up her back. The girl alters her trajectory to land smoothly behind the base of her skull, and the pair fly up, up, world dwindling below them.

The light falls away as they bypass the dimensional barrier, and as the ocean of stars opens up before them, Sings-from-the-Deep and Anchal soar.