"Flight of the Runewright" -- sample
Here are the first 2,144 words from "Flight of the Runewright," by Howard Tayler. The full novelette appears in Space Eldritch, from Cold Fusion Media, published October 29th, 2012.
There is a click, soft and silvery, at my throat. The black velvet bag over my head is now locked in place, and I won’t be able to see a damned thing until I’m safely aboard the Voidheron and bound for freedom. I know better than most just how damned those things are, but the thought of a blind, winding walk across the rune-inscribed tarmac gives me a momentary chill.
“The rope is to your left, Mister Simonson,” says a voice in my right ear. She sounds like a sweet girl, and she’s speaking remotely. Very remotely, I expect. She’s probably never seen the path we need to walk, let alone the glyphs, symbols, and assorted ’grams carved into the ancient materials of Voidheron’s hull. Seeing is believing, and believing is not worth it. My brother–my twin, just forty seconds my senior–has seen and believes, and is locked away for his own and everybody else’s good.
So I reach out with my left hand, and there is the rope. It feels like silk, and it’s thick. It hangs from something above me, taut above my hand, slack below.
“Hold tightly as you walk. Do not let go.” There is a mechanical hum and a click above me, then a gentle pull forward on the rope. I begin to walk.
“Mommy, why won’t they let us see?” The child’s voice is coming from maybe five meters ahead of me. Shut up, kid. You don’t want to know.
“The spaceship is very bright on the outside. We need to fly through the darkest parts of the whole universe, and our ship is brighter than the sun. If you looked at it, you’d burn your eyes.”
Lucky kid. His mother is one hell of a liar. I mean, that’s a good lie. There’s just enough truth in it to convince you that you shouldn’t look, but it’s not the whole story. The actual truth will have you wanting to look. After all, how can seeing some letters and numbers, or whatever those shapes are, really break your brain?
My brother, like all the rest of the runewrights, had to do his work with a patch strapped over his left eye. Always the left. Something about brain hemispheres. You can get by if just half your head has eldritch power coruscating through it, but if both eyes see what you’re writing, if you get a chance to really think about it, it’s all you can think about, and your head ends up in the place where Voidheron needs to go, except your head can’t get back out.
Ignoring the nervous murmurs around me, I walk. Led by the pulling of the rope, I step along a gradually tightening rightward curve. Then a sharp left and a long straightaway. There are others ahead of and behind me, shuffling carefully. Now another sharp left. I take a few steps, and my rope stops pulling. I take another step and my rope tugs backwards once. I stand still, waiting for direction.
The murmurs and shuffling footsteps are just a few meters behind me, moving from my left to my right. Somehow I’ve gotten off the path. It’s not my fault. I was led here. Did they pull me out of line? Do they know?
My face begins to sweat inside the velvet bag. Does velvet breathe? Am I going to suffocate? The smell of my own breath is suddenly overpowering. I brushed my teeth this morning, didn’t I? Is this halitosis or fear?
“Hold still for just a moment, Mister Simonson,” says the voice of innocence in my right ear. “Some passengers must take different paths than others.”
Some passengers? What does “some” mean? Thirtysomethings with brown hair and blue eyes? Or men who cleared security on a false ID? I think on the last time I saw my brother, Jude, bound to his hospital bed with heavy, padded straps, the bandage over his left eye keeping his mind from further fracturing. I stood at the foot of that bed, holding an envelope in my right hand, his Exodus Lottery notification inside. In my pocket, his passport. I wanted to apologize, but the words wouldn’t come.
A pull on the rope, this time to my right. It startles me, and my heart begins to pound. I follow, and I hear myself whispering. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I clench my teeth against the voice, and it stops. My voice. Act normal! It’s too late to apologize to Jude, and mumbling a mantra will get me profiled. I blow out an exasperated sigh, and my breath smells like old cheese.
“Relax, Mister Simonson. We’re almost there.” I inhale deeply, through my nose like you’re supposed to when you’re relaxing. I exhale, and something warm and wet dribbles onto my upper lip. Snot? Sweat? Tears?
Blood? I haven’t had a nosebleed since we lived in Flagstaff. The air was too dry and too hot and way too thin. Say what you want about Wisconsin, but at least the air doesn’t cut you. For the first time I wonder what the air will be like on Terra Tenska, on the other side of the Abyssal Void. Cold and thin? Warm and wet? Those are okay. But cold and wet? Ugh. Depressing. That’s suicide air, and I breathed enough of that in Bellevue.
I’m being stupid. T-2 is a planet, not a state park. Earth has hot, cold, wet, dry, thick, thin … Terra Tenska should be the same. I just need to settle in whatever they call the local equivalent of Wisconsin, someplace where I’m free to enjoy the hot and the cold without sandstorms or suicides.
I’ve successfully distracted myself from the panic. See? I’m not guilty of anything. I’m not acting suspicious. I might be self-medicating on introspection, but that’s healthier than alcohol, or binge eating.
I wonder what the food will be like on Voidheron. The trip to Terra Tenska takes three days, so they’ll have to feed us something. Of course, figuring out accommodations like that for a couple thousand people is child’s play. The Abyssal Void makes travel so simple. No need to generate thrust to escape your planet. No need to spin for gravity, either. Just build something big and airtight–it might as well be a freestanding luxury hotel–and let the funny writing pull it to a new world. It’s as cheap as free, even considering the fact that you risk driving all your runewrights in-fucking-curably bonkers.
“Watch your step, Mister Simonson.” The tarmac gives way to something smoother. I’m on the ramp. Voidheron and freedom lie immediately before me. “Welcome aboard. Someone will be with you momentarily.”
I lick my lip and taste what dribbled there. No copper, but lots of salt. Sweat, then. Not blood. No parting shot from Flagstaff. Earth isn’t bothering to say good-bye to me, so I’m not going to bother saying good-bye to her.
My hood comes off, and the fresh air is delicious by comparison. They’re going to want to wash that thing a couple of times before putting it on anybody else’s head. I rub my knuckle across my upper lip and blink as I look around.
The lobby is a huge space, high-ceilinged and long. It curves out of sight in either direction, with milling crowds also extending beyond my view. Voidheron is cylindrical? Perhaps this is a subtle reminder that she truly is a starship, not the hotel she masquerades as. A hotel with no windows. We can’t have anybody looking at the runes on the tarmac, let alone at the Abyssal Void through which we’ll travel.
And then I see it, in my mind’s eye. The curving, indirect paths we took to board weren’t mapped to prevent us from stepping on the power symbols in the tarmac. Our trails were their own runes, inscribed by a couple thousand blind pedestrians. Was my pause the tail on an eldritch Q, a tilde changing the sound of some alien consonant? Or was I a serial comma in support of some extradimensionally-screamed list of crimes?
There were dozens of different tracks, all tracing some arcane cursive, all leading inward from a distant perimeter to the focal point, the great columnar Voidheron. Passengers poured through entrances at the circumference and into this lobby, where power in turn poured off of us and into … what?
There is a haunting familiarity to all this, a moment of déjà vu. I resist the temptation to draw my path from memory. Even accidental runes can have power. If I manage to get it right, what will I prove? That I can cause my own head to explode?
My nose dribbles onto my upper lip, and I wipe it away again with my knuckle. A washroom would be nice right about now. I cast my eyes about for the familiar restroom icons and then stifle a laugh. It’s unlikely they’ll label anything in the Voidheron in that way.
There is movement at the inner edge of the lobby. A second set of doors has opened, and uniformed attendants are handing key cards to passengers. My berth, or room, or whatever, will have a washroom. I mill about in the queue, waiting my turn, as the people around me do the same. Unhooded, some begin to converse.
“I think it’s silly.” An older woman to my right is complaining to her husband, or perhaps the most patient stranger in the world. “A book, a paper book, can’t crash a spacecraft. Not unless you hit the pilot in the head with it.”
God dammit, ignorance is dangerous. Jude explained this bit to me once, I think. Somebody did, anyway. I don’t want my freedom cut short by a careless idiot who doesn’t understand the peril we face. I interrupt.
“The problem is the way the pages touch, ma’am.”
She turns to me, as does the man next to her, who appears visibly relieved.
“Of course the pages touch, young man. Without a binding they’d fall out of the book.”
“It’s not the binding. When the book is closed, all the letters on opposing pages touch. Those words and letters? Maybe they’re all English when the book is open, but when the book closes you get new shapes, new paths in the ink. Just like a Q is an O with a comma in it, the closed pages form hundreds of thousands of random characters.”
Her eyes widen in surprise.
“I’m serious. The hull is covered in runes, right? Well, the ship’s controls are runes, too. I don’t know how they work, but if you throw the wrong random symbol inside the ship, even in something ephemeral like paper and ink, the controls might stop working, and then where would we be?”
She scowls. “You really believe all that?” She puts her hand to her heart and lowers her voice. “I heard the symbols and the blinders are all rigmarole to distract us from a fancy, Chinese space-drive.”
I’ve heard this one. If only.
“Maybe so. But if they’re scamming us, they’ve got to sell it, right? So … no books.”
“Mister Simonson?” Our conversation has taken us to the head of the queue, and the attendant is offering me a key card. “This will lead you to your cabin. Congratulations, sir.” He smiles as I take the card.
Just like with the silk rope, I’m now being led by a thing in my left hand. A map on the card scrolls down as I walk forward, down a short corridor, up two flights of stairs, and then down a longer, curving corridor. All of the doors on my path have been identical. Blank. No writing anywhere.
A group of travelers ahead of me–a family, perhaps–arrives at their door, which opens with a wave of the card. I walk past their blank door as it shuts. I proceed three doors further, and then the map in my hand displays a filled, blinking circle. Usually these things are indicated with an X. Perhaps that simplest of symbols has too much power to be used, even ephemerally, in display paper. But this is my door, and with a wave of the card and a twist of the knob, I’m inside.
It’s just like a hotel room, if sparser: bed, chair, lamp. And a private washroom immediately to my right. First things first, then.
I check my face just to be sure Flagstaff wasn’t flipping me off. No nosebleed, though I am a little pale. I splash some water on my face, cool at first, and then warm, relaxing.
Fool. If I’d had any sort of a nosebleed somebody would certainly have said something on my way here. Blood isn’t just a disease vector. It’s the most dangerous paint in the world.