Gateways: “The Starry Floor” by Michael Strange

TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Michael Strange. Michael was born a storyteller. His strength is in telling a story verbally and he has risen to the challenge of translating his skill to the page. Tonight, we are thrilled to take his writing and give it back to voice. This is “The Starry Floor”

Ilya had calculated the odds a hundred times. The ship shouldn’t be there. It shouldn’t be anywhere near them. The Universe was infinite—so wide and so vast that even their vaulted consciousness couldn’t fathom of the whole of it. But there it was on the huge C.R.C. screen: an Abromic ship. It hovered almost directly beneath the ringed planet the computer records indicated as LR81-16. Without magnification it only registered as a tiny metallic dot pulsing in the doleful light of the system’s Red Dwarf.

It was a little more than an heap of metal and a handful of life-support systems, but Ilya could feel them—all twenty thousand unaltered humans living in squalor aboard the ship. Those beings, like all of their particular faith, had refused the Mandates of Vega. Instead of doing what was sensible, their ancestors had fled old Earth on generation ships many thousands of years ago in one massive migration. Their prophets promised them a new Eden—a docile planet somewhere in the dark of space to replace the one they had murdered.

All sorcerers across the colonies knew that only 16 planets in all of Creation were destined to bear life that would bloom with higher consciousness. Humans had murdered their cradle planet, and matricide was not a sin the Universe would soon forgive. After the death of old Earth, no planet in any galaxy would give them further succor, nor any moon bear the weight of their civilization. Space was now a prison for mankind. The Mandates of Vega relegated colonies to the voids—the dark spaces between systems—and banned humans from exploration.
The computers of the Jiàn Liù detected damage to the Abromic ship. It had been hit by debris, its water tanks punctured. That was the only reason they risked coming so close to the shadow of the planet. Those twenty thousand souls were dying, would be dead in less than a week without the ice mined from the rings of LR81-16.  

The crew of the Jiàn Liù had come for ice too. Their mining vessels had been collecting ice chunks for months. Within another six, they would melt the stuff, scrub the water, and bring it back to the colonies at Shiu and Porgol. 

The Jiàn Liù had nothing to fear from the planet’s shadow. They were not humans; none of the crew was. The ship was comprised of 300 INOgana—artificial beings built from boron fibers and engineered souls—and although they had their own sort of consciousness, the INOgana were more extensions of the ship than anything else.

Ilya was the only thing aboard the Jiàn Liù of living tissue, but they were Many-Gendered—a perfect being. Their DNA and consciousness had been rendered on Vega by the most inspired artists and dreamers, their bodies perfected in virtual systems by genetic sculptors long before ever being printed. The Many-Gendered could seemingly pass as human, but they were as different as night and day. The curses of the Universe could not touch them, nor should they.

Jiàn Liù, please initiate commands 86-12, 86-13, and 97-60, Ilya intoned. Immediately the ship went to work closing the cargo hold and preparing for travel. 

Ilya then took four precious tallow candles from their metal tubes and placed them at the cardinal points along the bone-chalk circle they had drawn on the core deck. Each was worth a small fortune. There were only a few colonies that had enough resources to raise bees or cattle. Most animal protein came from V.A.T.s or was printed, yet the celestial sorceries required the candles be made of natural products, just as it was with the wine. 

Taking the castlyn bottle in hand, Ilya used a long glass pipette to draw the wine out, spilling seven precious drops onto the floor of the deck as a sacrifice to the Volg. Ilya placed the last drop on their tongue. They let the sweet, dark red wine spread and roll over every fold and surface of their mouth. It tasted like nothing else in the Universe—a spicy, complex flavor that was impossible to print.

Ilya took their place at the center of the chalk circle, immediately falling into a rhythmic breathing that would silence the mind and turn their perception inward. Then, with a clear, calm voice they invoked the names of the Volg, and with each syllable they felt the fabric of spacetime vibrate and begin to pulse. The four candles set upon the circle caught fire, their wicks shimmering with pure black flames—this was the sign that the Volg had heeded their words. In the presence of these benevolent, higher-dimensional beings, Ilya made the gestures.  They drew out the symbols in long, graceful motions, the tips of their fingers leaving traces of light in their wake.

To Ilya the path to the Starry Floor was like a song they had sung a thousand times, but now in the face of the planet’s shadow, it had become strange and unfamiliar. The proximity of the Abromic ship had awakened something sinister in LR81-16, a wrath all planets held for humankind. In lower-dimensional embeddings, the attack would seem subtle:  life systems would fail, communications would cut out. Mass delusions would take over, causing paranoia and chaos among the crew of the Abromic ship.

With celestial power, Ilya’s robes began to radiate, bleeding hues of pink, then ruby, and finally coming to rest in Stygian black. As the higher dimensions opened before them, Ilya uttered the final words of the incantation, and spacetime began to tessellate and fall in on itself.

The vacuum of the Universe and all it contained was repeated endlessly in every direction. This was an illusion, the husks of the lower dimensions peeling away, forewarning that they were quickly approaching the Mirrored Hall, the event horizon, the barrier between the infinite and those layers of reality that still bent to the forward flow of time. 

Urgently Ilya let go, their soul expanding outside of their body. Time, pain, joy, life, death, all of their opposites disappeared, frozen in the moment of their becoming. Memories and sensations reticulated and spun on white-hot atoms, whirling into a blurried frenzy before blowing apart and careening off into the furthest corners of the Universe.

To be nothing is to be everything. There was some truth to the philosophies of the Saejick Buddhists. Ilya felt these thoughts sputter and dance across the void that was opening inside them. Knowing is pain. Knowledge is the origin of pain. Nothingness is the cessation of pain. Oblivion is the path toward the cessation of pain.

A gulf within their consciousness bloomed, and Ilya’s perfected soul lifted the Jiàn Liù from the Mirrored Hall into the Starry Floor. Far below them in the lower dimensions, the Jiàn Liù rattled. The many tessellating ships, the countless copies of the Jiàn Liù swimming in a sea of infinity, began to bloat, their outlines becoming unclear and their steely hulls darkening, smearing into the shimmering purple and blue celestial light that hummed about them.

The Starry Floor took form around Ilya and the ship, a cube of indistinguishable, immeasurable distance. The Temple Masters had once told them this place was at once boundless and infinitesimal; the sum of the Universe contained within its smallest constituent part. On all sides of the cube, stars fell endlessly, flowing from edge to edge as if each plane were a waterfall of suns.

With a blast of phosphorescent green light, one side of the Starry Floor parted, and the shadow of LR81-16 arose from the lower dimensions. Beneath the pressure of the planet’s great wrath, Ilya’s strength began to ebb. It was monstrous—a colossal shadow of impossible tentacles that swirled and pushed against the folds of space. With each shove, the shadow squeezed more of its labyrinthine body through the breach in the Starry Floor.

Outside of time, Ilya’s perception covered every detail of the thing’s body, counting every wet, shimmering scale. They became lost in and devoured by its magnitude, a golden speck in a sea of black.  

In the lower dimensions Ilya could hear the ship ordering all INOgana personnel to report to the nearest maglock. Whatever was happening there required the crew to follow immediate emergency protocols. 

Move the ship, they felt their spirit plead. The command was given so serenely, yet Ilya could feel the weight of the rite beginning to form pressure cracks along the length of their consciousness. Move the ship to Vega. Do what we were trained to do.

Ilya willed themselves into action and reached out towards the wall of the Starry Floor that stood parallel to the shadow of the planet. They would need to breach the surface to reach Vega. Ordinarily this would be a simple extension of their consciousness, but the pull of the shadow was causing the floor to churn. The milky glass of a million star systems rolled and swayed within the tremendous gravity of the raging planet as Ilya reached out to connect with the edge of the Starry Floor, drawing a piece of it open. A tiny hole appeared and they sent their perception though. 

The wrong quadrant. An vacant system, devoid of life. A dying sun. Again and again, they opened breaches in the flowing wall of stars to send their mind through, each time finding another unfamiliar part of space.

Behind them, the planet roared. The sound was so loud and so terrible that it made the edges of the cube darken and momentarily blink out. 

Ilya turned back toward the wall, and with all of their resolve punctured a hundred keyholes in the Starry Floor, more than they had ever thought possible. One by one the keyholes burst open, black quasars tangled amidst the webs of undiscovered constellations. 

Then, with their strength almost depleted and as they neared the point of exhaustion, Vega’s familiar flashing red lights appeared through one of the rips in the wall. 

It is here, Ilya whispered, coalescing their focus to allow the other gates to collapse. In a fraction of a second, the other keyholes blinked out of existence. We are…moving us…now, Ilya struggled to intone as they pulled the Jiàn Liù across the vastness of the Starry Floor, lowering the ship into the reality surrounding Vega, a hundred trillion miles from LR81-16.

Karolyn Blake is an actor and improviser in Chicago with a passion for dogs, laughter, and inclusive spaces. She is a founding member of the Shrews Improv and proud to be a singer in the Shanty Shipwreck Show. You can see and hear her every month in Starlight Radio Dreams, recorded live at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro and available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.

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