Under normal circumstances, David wouldn’t think that diving toward a near-infinite cosmic storm of unfathomable power was a good idea. But the dot of white fire now glows so fiercely that it hurts his eyes, and rapidly changing altitude is one of the fundamentals of avoiding artillery fire. Since the storm is already exerting force, trying to draw them down, he can dive faster than he can climb. So they dive, arcing away from the dot of white fire as they descend. The fire dims for a moment, as if surprised, then blazes even brighter than before. The roaring of the maelstrom swells around them, and David is convinced it is a sound of rage and fury.
Smaller dots of white fire appear along beneath them, and something that is neither lightning nor fire erupts from each point. David isn’t flying in a straight line, however—he spent too much time flying as Sky Commando, is all too familiar with enemies trying to shoot him out of the air—and his weaving, twisting descent always places him in an empty space.
The maelstrom is powerful, but it is slow. It isn’t used to dealing with something so small.
It takes an hour before the maelstrom stops trying to shoot him out of the sky. After that, the dots of white fire trail along after him, waiting for him to slow or stop. They do neither: they descend, and the storm grows ever larger, and its pull grows stronger. The roaring of the storm, dampened as it is by the golden sphere, is relentless and terrifying.
He has no sense of scale in this place. His only point of reference is the storm, which is much too large to measure by. They have descended to the point where he can no longer see the edge of it. He believes the distance between them is still vast; at the same time, it looks almost close enough to touch.
He’s noticing more detail. From his original position the maelstrom looked like a purple cloud spouting fire—now it’s apparent that the purple is a layer of clouds covering something else. He can see glimpses of it now: something churning with incredible, relentless energy, just hidden from view. Allard can tell him little about what it might be. Its kind do not willingly approach the storm.
Still, it notices something David has overlooked—an odd disturbance in the seething mass of clouds, at the far edge of his vision. The arcs of white fire that lance across the clouds stop, suddenly, when they reach the edge of it. Still descending, David changes course toward the disturbance. The dots of white fire change course to follow, undeterred.
Occasionally the clouds break apart, providing more glimpses of what lies beneath. Fire, if an ocean of flame were possible. As he reaches the disturbance, the clouds begin to thin, and finally he sees what it is: a massive whirlpool of fire, spinning furiously, sweeping the clouds into it where they are torn apart. The roaring is even louder here, and all David can think is Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here. If ever there was a gateway to hell itself, this was it.
An ocean of fire feeding a whirlpool of fire.
An ocean of… living fire? Allard claims the maelstrom is alive.
The maelstrom lives, Allard insists. Whether the fire is maelstrom, or the maelstrom dwells beneath fire, I cannot say.
“You don’t talk the same,” David says.
“No,” he hears himself saying. “I do not… masheud.”
As he crosses the lip (the event horizon, something that is not Allard whispers, and he forces the thought aside) he is overcome by a wave of vertigo. The sheer volume of fire pouring into the whirlpool’s mouth, the violence with which it sweeps around and around as it spirals into the depths, the annihilation of every cloud that approaches the rim—all combine to overwhelm his senses. Allard’s alarm spikes as it realizes David is losing all sense of direction, the golden sphere wobbles, the surface rippling as David’s concentration slips. If it drops, here, so close to the fire, they will surely die.
Again Allard notices what David overlooks. He feels his left hand extend, pointing out. His eye follows the gesture; as he focuses his vertigo falls away. There, high above the fire, roughly dead center of the whirlpool, is a cluster of indistinct shapes.
There, Allard urges. David, grateful for something to focus on, urges the sphere forward.
It is an island. It is a series of islands, tiny motes floating above an immense inferno, existing without explanation, apparently unaffected by the maelstrom in any way. As they approach the islands grow more distinct, and David sees the cities: buildings like knife blades rising out of the ground, jagged, unrelenting spires piercing the empty sky above. Straight avenues cut between jagged skyscrapers, ending at little, empty barren plots of land squeezed in between the jagged buildings. Each island has one of these cities, each of varying sizes but similar in architecture and design. The islands are all connected by a spiderweb of bridges, and he draws closer it becomes apparent that the islands aren’t tiny at all. David might have no head for the size of things on a cosmic level, but he knows the scale of cities very well. The smallest city on the smallest island would dwarf New York. The larger cities are the size of small states.
And they are all, as far as he can tell, empty. The buildings exist. They were obviously created. The closer he gets the more obvious it appears that the buildings, roads, and bridges are in good repair. But he sees no movement anywhere.
He asks Allard, but the shadow knows nothing. These are not its people. They do not approach the storm.
A new sensation pushes at the border of his mind—a trickle of an entirely new kind of pressure. There is intent and awareness behind this pressure, and it is similar to some of what he felt when he first spoke his name aloud in this realm. At least one of the things that noticed him then has taken note of him a second time, and then in a thrill of alarm he feels the one awareness become two, the two become ten, and then, like a dam breaking, there are more minds than he can perceive, all slowly focusing on him.
The cities were never empty, David realizes. They were asleep. And now they are waking up.
Rise. Escape. The golden sphere shoots up, away from the storm, away from the cities of jagged blades. They are far enough across the whirlpool that none of the points of white fire can follow them, and it is suddenly more important to escape the minds that are focusing on his own, the same way a magnifying glass might settle on an ant on a sunny day. He pours his will into the speed of the globe, and the islands shrink beneath him. Moving faster than he thought it was possible to do, the islands are soon no more than specks beneath them.
He slows the globe, gasping for air. He didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath.
What do we do now? David asks.
Up, Allard urges.
They continue up. The pulse of the storm lessens a bit more, and some of the fear dissipates. As they continue to rise, it becomes apparent that they are not alone: a huge, rubbery, manta-like creature soars silently past them. It is the length of a battleship, David thinks, though considerably wider, and on the back of this beast, he sees a smaller version of the cities they left behind. It reminds him of Robert Thorpe’s mechanical island, only the buildings look like knives growing out of the island’s back.
He feels no awareness coming from the island at this time. He moves the sphere higher, passing it quickly, not wishing to risk another inadvertent awakening.
He sees other creatures, from time to time. There is something like an anemone, little more than a floating ball of podlike appendages that flail uselessly until something wanders too close. Then the pods extend to razor-sharp tentacles, latching on to whatever it can. David sees one of them capture an uncolonized manta, burrowing deep into its flesh. He rushes past them, and is thankful that they disappear from view before the anemone can begin tearing the larger beast apart.
There are birdlike creatures as well—at least two species, as far as he can tell. One looks vaguely like a headless pterodactyl, all leathery hooked wings and long tails. The other looks more like the shadow of a bird than the bird itself. He only sees those out of the corner of his eye—great flocks of shadow birds that disappear when he turns to look at them directly.
Still they rise.
“I don’t have a plan,” David admits. “I don’t know what I did to take us here. I don’t know how to get us out.”
A ripple of dread runs through him. It isn’t his.
I may know a way.
“You don’t sound happy about it.”
It takes the shadow a moment to consider the word happy.
No. I am not.
“Can you explain it?”
Allard tries. Images flash through David’s mind. Rigid, unchanging shapes that grow heavier the longer you look at them. Colors that burn. A mathematical equation that makes him want to scream. A memory of voices lifted in a song that devours the singers, the final note changing from a scream to a despairing sigh to utter silence in a matter of seconds.
“I don’t understand,” David admits.
Allard tries again. David sees a city—not the knife-edged cities of the floating islands, but one of regular geometric shapes, made entirely of dark glass, set in a methodical fashion against a backdrop of absolute darkness. Two rivers flow into the city from opposite directions, both running in perfectly straight lines, stretching on without apparent end. In the very center of the city is an obelisk that towers above everything else. A voice, or something like a voice, calls out from the rock.
“You want us to go there?”
No, that’s not exactly right. Allard doesn’t want to go there, but they must. The obelisk has the burning light that bends the worlds.
David tries to make sense of that and fails. “I still don’t understand.”
Trust, Allard murmurs. This will require trust.
David snorts. The shoe, it seems, is on the other foot.
“Very well,” he says. “I submit.”
There is startled silence, followed by brief laughter and grim amusement.
Good enough, Allard murmurs, and then the shadow takes control.