Vasvis Ten-Fold Reaper stepped out of the shower, and spread her arms wide. Water dripped down onto the floor as spindly metal arms whirred out from the smooth white walls, drying pads working their way across her body. Other arms fed her long black hair through drying rollers, and another set held out the day’s clothing: a shortish skirt, a tank top, and a long white coat with a high collar and far too many belts and pockets and chains. On the back was the image of a clenched fist, surrounded by a sunburst.
“My Lady, we have received further reports from Varssarang Station,” a deep, pleasant voice said over a hidden speaker.
“And?” Vasvis pulled her arms through the sleeves of her jacket.
“The island has been completely obliterated, all original personnel are dead or dying, the fires on the ocean surface have yet to stop, scraps of dark matter waste still dot the area to a distance of over forty kilometers, and the dying screams of the dimensionally shifted continue throughout the blast zone.”
Curses. Another setback, more time wasted. This put the project…at least another eight months behind schedule. This was unacceptable: the Kinetic Overdose Gel, the Deep-Sea Nuclear Reconnaissance Endoskeleton, the mk7 Selchangelon unit series, the LONGSTRIKE orbital harpoon gun, all of that worked. All of that was developed on time all while the Temporal/Spatial Boundary Overpass Device floundered along like a morbidly obese man with one leg trying to reach a piece of unidentifiable fried food on a high shelf. She sealed the clasps on her boots.
“Furthermore, the barbarian fleet bearing their representative has arrived. Shall I send a drone out to retrieve the test subject now?”
“Yes, yes, fine.” She waved her hand absentmindedly. Savages. Who needed them? Completely uncivilized. No manners, no culture, lived off of scraps, completely helpless against the things in the deep, and, worst of all, they were horrible house guests. They always smelled like fish. But…but there were a few of them who were interesting. Especially this one. He actually volunteered to have stuff shoved in his brain. Still a fish-shitting savage, though.
“As you wish, my Lady.”
Vasvis rolled her neck and cracked her knuckles. Time for work.
Nikolai picked at the massive scab on the fleshy part of his thumb. The skin was peeling around the edges of the brown-red patch.
Time passed. He sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the ship, salt in his nostrils, and the wind rattling the fishbones that hung from the rim of his wide-brimmed hat. He took a swig from a plastic jug, filled with some pale yellow liquid with unidentifiable chunks bobbing at the surface. Setting that aside, he reached into his vest and removed a dented tin of chewing chalk from his inside vest pocket.
Nikolai was a philosopher, a shipseer. It was his role in life to look at things and think about them. Of course, one could not live off of philosophy alone, so he also served as doctor, navigator, keeper of records and accounts, translator, and advisor to the captain.
Sometimes, when he was away from the others and left alone with his thoughts, Nikolai imagined that he was dreaming, that the movements he made were merely the phantom actions of his sleeping mind wandering about in a great, unknown dream-time. He looked the part, with his hooded eyes and quiet, deliberate words and posture of perpetual lethargy. A sleeper waiting to wake up, stuck in that limbo before the dawn where the sleeper is aware of their sleep but cannot manage the effort of waking themselves.
The world he looked out on was likewise a dream: A ridge of jagged black mountains reaching up to the clouds, splitting the world in half. Misshapen reefs and bars broke the surf, stone melted and twisted into bulging shapes. Birds roosted on the distant crags, crowing and screeching and flying about.
And there, towering even over the mountains, was the Center. A white cube, kilometers to a side, reaching from the surf to the clouds. Windowless, unadorned, monolithic. Even from this distance, it looked too big to be real.
Nikolai was jerked out of his dream back into sleep. Someone was standing next to him. He did not break his gaze from the structure in the distance.
“It isn’t right, Nikolai,” a woman’s voice said. Mu. Nikolai swallowed his wad of chalk.
“It’s for the good of the fleet,” he responded. “Or, right and wrong are relative concepts with no objective basis. Or, it was predestined by fate. Or, it never happened, and I am simply a dreaming god.”
“Nikolai.” Mu sat down next to him. “No one returns from the Center. I don’t even want to think about what they’ll do to you in there.”
“My choice and my life is my own.”
“That doesn’t make it right. You’re one of us.”
Nikolai finally turned to look at Mu. Poor, simple Mu, with her splotchy birthmark and yellow teeth and solid black eye and ox horn buns. She was not a philosopher: She was a midwife, a whaler, a mechanic, a brewer. She knew nothing of the dream that was life.
“I came to you a stranger, and I must be moving as one. The Center was willing to pay a fortune for my safe delivery. By nightfall, you will all have enough fuel and food and medicine and machine parts to supply the fleet for months.”
“I still don’t like it.”
“What’s happened has happened,” Nikolai said again, with the intonation that this was his final statement. He offered the tin of chewing chalk to Mu. “Chew?”
“No, thank you.”
Nikolai snapped the tin shut and placed it back in his vest pocket.
“You have no work to do?” Nikolai said. Mu and the others were always busying themselves with things they called work, but they never chose to put their minds to the real work of determining who they are, why they are here, and what exactly was for lunch.
“The whole ship’s gone quiet. Now we’re all just waiting for the Center to come.” She nodded towards the Center. “It doesn’t really feel like it’s out there, does it? I can see it, right there in front of my face, but it doesn’t feel real.”
“Reality does not bow to expectations. Expectations merely mask what is. This is what it is.”
Nikolai was not entirely sure why Mu chose his company above that of others. It was one of the great questions that he enjoyed pondering. She had no interest in philosophy, nor any ability for it, she had made no romantic movements towards him, and was not subtle enough to hide any secret feelings of that sort. He had no interest in the art of brewing or song-weaving, and felt no romantic inclinations towards her. Occasionally they would work together, but that could be said of any two people on the ship. It was not particularly a close friendship even: more of a mutual toleration.
It was what it was, and what it always had been.
Wait…Nikolai squinted, peering into the distance. Movement by the Center. A tiny patch of wall turned black for a moment before turning white again.
Yes, there it was. A white sphere, dotted in the center by shifting concentric rings of black. A ship of sorts.
One of many, and possibly his last.
The door opened to the command room. Her command room: a wide, open space split into two tiers. A high-backed chair, more of a throne, sat on a little extended platform that looked out over the banks of computers on the lower level. It had sculptures around the base, savages and the beasts of the deep, crushed underfoot. On the wall behind the throne was a bright mosaic of the First Punch: a great whale shark, struck down and killed by the Great Fist Harker. The founding of the Center, in those foggy mythic days. The day man fought back first against the selachian menace, when they dove into those bottomless oceans and met the enemy at their door, when they fought on the beaches, and in the tidepools, and on the reefs and in the flooded ruins of the ancient cities laid low by the aquatic adversaries. And they succeeded. The Center was founded, and the threat was driven back beneath the waves where it belonged.
“If it must be done, kill the ocean itself,” spoke the Harker so long ago. The thought always made her a little teary eyed, though she never showed it in public, save in Special Center Patriotism Moments.
But right now, there were more important things to do, such as devour the food brought to her by a little mechanical servant. The contents of the bowl consisted of gold-leafed rice grown in the backs of political prisoners, jellied fetal pandas, sea-vent lychee, and ruby-dust tiger testicles with a Château Lafite sauce. Apparently, the kitchen staff decided to be low-key today.
“Mmph…mm…computer, make me a reservation for forty in the Super-Fun-Time-Room for say…sixteen forty-five. Double dose of XLSD. And make sure you bring in those twin bastrodon strippers.”
“Of course, my Lady.”
“The savage here yet?”
“The drone has just docked. A team is prepared to move him to the Audience Room as we speak.”
“Ah. Guess I should get down there, then.”
Vasvis kicked at the base of her throne, right at the sculpted face of a baby that was getting mauled by a mako. The chair began to descend on an elevator.
This entrance called for music, though she couldn’t decide what kind.
The aerobathsyphere drone stopped. A circular section of curved wall opened, and Nikolai was greeted by a half-dozen bulky Center troopers, bearing shackles. He didn’t complain. The troopers were higher-ranking than the grunts and scouts he had seen over the years, and all that rank seemed to have gone right into human-growth-hormone treatments. In one of the many Center fashions, they wore white vests, had their hair bound into four queues, and had division insignias tattooed on their arms. One of them either lost a bet or was drunk, and had a photorealistic penis tattooed across the right side of his face.
Nikolai was unfazed by their appearance. Thugs, nothing more. A thug was no threat to a philosopher. They were a stepping stone anyway in the way of his actual goal. He followed them through winding white hallways, silent, wandering through his dream. He could feel it stronger now, the tug of waking up. Dreams within dreams had led him here. Perhaps now he would finally wake up.
The Center wanted people of certain talents. They could build for muscle, plan for smarts, train for sexual prowess, but certain types of mind they wanted to get into. They wanted people who could dream. Piecing that puzzle together had taken years. Building up the nerve to seek them out willingly took several more. Dreams within dreams had guided his hand in the end. They revealed secrets of the foundations of the world to him, foggy and faded as they were. He had found the philosopher’s goal: the truth.
That truth was thus: Things had always been, and they had not always been.
Now all that was needed was to wake up from the dream and find out what was behind the truth.
The group came to a set of doors, which in turn led to a large, well-lit room. The walls were all decorated with brightly painted bas reliefs, mostly depicting the butchery of sea life or various sexual acts, or sometimes a combination thereof, and lined with massive gold-plated statues of people doing those very same things.
There were two chairs. One was small and bolted to the floor. The other was a throne. A woman lay sprawled across the arms of the throne, stuffing her face with something Nikolai did not care to know about.
The guards fastened Nikolai into the chair, and once again, he did not complain. They could kill him, but if he didn’t make much of a fuss about it, they probably wouldn’t. Not entertaining enough. And even if they did decide to kill him, which they probably would, Nikolai was beyond the point of truly caring.
“Holy fucking sharktits, that’s good stuff,” the woman said. She glanced over at Nikolai. “Oh, yeah. You’re the savage who wants to get things stabbed in his brain. That’s a kink I can respect. I mean, that’s why you’re here, and not already getting shit stabbed in your brain, because I want to congratulate you on having a good taste in fetishes for a shit-eating savage.”
“So you say.”
“I mean, you got some balls on you. If you weren’t some sorta fish-shitting savage, I’d fuck you.”
Nikolai’s mind shifted. New thoughts flowed through long-empty neurons.
Dreams within dreams.
“Wait, what?” the woman righted herself in her seat and squinted at Nikolai. Nikolai himself had no idea where the word had come from, but he could feel more on their way, unbidden, worming around in his head like leeches in the bloodstream. The haze was wearing down, breaking apart.
“What are you mumbling about, fish-shitter?”
More thoughts, words, images, feelings, everything bubbling up without any sort of reason or logic, without definition or order.
The shark! Remember the shark, Nikolai! Dreams within dreams! Truths locked away within dreams within dreams until in his sleeping state could not tell one from the other!
Nikolai woke up.
“I know you, Veronica! You were in charge of…of…goddammit you were in charge of the pictish badgers… we worked together, and you said the same thing to me when-”
“Back then! The world has always been like this and it has not always been like this!” The words were flowing freely now. He was awake, awake! “Listen, Veronica, something has gone wrong, something has gone horribly wrong, we broke the universe and I …I know…argh I know what it is but I can’t find the words to say it! But we can fix it! We can undo it all! You just have to trust me, please.”
The woman stood up from her chair. Fright, disgust, confusion on her face.
“You’re fucking crazy, fish-shitter.” She snapped her fingers. Two of the statues moved from their pedestals, arms splitting into spidery masses of sharp, whirring tools.
“I know you, Veronica! I know you!”
The woman left the audience room behind her, showing no sign that she had heard Nikolai.
The examination of the man went off without a hitch, or so Vasvis was told. The entire thing had put her in a sour mood. Results were probably messed up, what with him being even more insane than usual. She hadn’t actually looked at the test results, but she was quite certain that he would have no connection with the Dreamtime.
And to make matters worse, the strippers were unavailable. There went the best part of the whole damn orgy. Maybe she should just cancel it, hop herself up on Fukkinkawaii and have vicious hate sex with whoever she could get her hands on.
That was a good plan, were it not for the fact that she couldn’t get the fish-shitter out of her head. He was crazy, she knew that. Completely out of his mind, babbling nonsense, nothing to worry about.
So why did she remember his face?
The ceiling of the Esoteric Reflection Chamber gave her no answers, save the crushing existential residue of the worthlessness of everyone else in the world. Usually that cheered her up, though not as much as vicious drug-fueled hate sex.
She got up and walked out the door, leaving behind other people’s problems. Down the hall towards the elevator, sulking.
The elevator door opened to reveal a blood-soaked, wide-eyed, and thoroughly naked man wearing the freshly severed head of a great white around his neck and no small amount of occult symbols carved into his flesh.
“I’m a shark! I’m a shaaaaaaaaaaaark! Suck my dick!”
Vasvis Ten-Fold Reaper scowled, jabbed him under the sternum with her left hand, and tore it out. With her right hand, she made a fist and caved in his skull.