Door to Stranger Stars
rating: +18+x

Do you know what it is like to drift on a raft?

Not that kind of raft that sluggishly ponders its way down a river, mind you, nor the kind that wallows in the fetid saltless waters of a mountaintop crater lake. Those rafts are little more than planks and deserve to be nothing more, for they need not to be anything but what they are. The type of raft of which I speak is not those. This type of raft is one that rolls and bucks like a bull, that slops with water overdeck with every passing wave, the kind that goes belly-up in a storm, rights itself again, and flips over again until the rider knows not which side was its belly and which its back. This type of raft is one studded with barnacles and bull-kelp streamers, the kind where bringing luggage aboard is a fruitless endeavor that will only result in heartbreak. This type of raft is one which serves as both a lifesaver and a trap, one which keeps the rider alive while they sleep and one where birds – exhausted by storms, long flights overseas, and terrified of hungry orcas – come to land and end up sopping with seawater, too heavy to fly and too light to drown, ready to be eaten by the rider.

This type of raft is vicious. It bites its occupant with barnacled logs, ironish limpits, and thick fraying hemp ropes that feel like razor-wire and leave impressions on sleeping skin, the kind where the morning mind, fuzzy and bleary with salt-filled watery dreams of the deep sea, chokes and scream, fearing where the hemp has chafed a sea’s branding – a branding that comes with reddened skin from the sun, wood splinters forming constellations of pinprick scars in the heels of the hands and feet and knobs of the knees, the kind that comes with years of exposure to salt and one’s own stale pee distilling to drinkable water in a sun-warmed plastic pouch. This type of raft is brutal, unkind, the stuff of bad dreams, the kind of cruel punishment one only expects to see in the aftermath of a shipwreck or seaborne war. This sort of raft is what you would expect to see surrounded by corpses.

This type of raft is where I found myself now.

They say that there are doors out on the open sea, floating like flocks of frozen birds, waiting for travellers to step through. Giant doors the size of castles, tiny doors the size of limpets, great gaping maws the shape and humidity of whale-mouths, all hanging in the wind, suspended by nothing. They are wholly unlike the Waygates on the ground, and even further from the Open Ways manufactured in the cities. These, they say, go anywhere, anytime, and change and disappear on a whim. Those who speak of the doors snort with derision, then, and roll their eyes, scoff at the idea of the doors representing anything real. “Flier’s tales,” they say. “The stuff of too few dreams.”

They are real, I can tell you that. I used to see them all the time, back when I was a long-haul flier out on the open ocean, transporting boxes across continents in a dying tradition. The doors rose like mountains, then, their arches like jagged spires towering out from the sea and churning the surf to froth where they touched blue. Other doors, higher, were so large they blotted out the sky, and others still, nearly submerged, only their tips and tops rising from the waves, formed black spots in the clean thermal radiation of the deep-sea hotlines with their stone, glass, metal structures. So alien in the world.

The doors. Sometimes, when I was not daydreaming my life away on the wing, I stretched my muscles and dove down between their frames, careened between the spires, exercising stiff muscles used to gliding in aerial acrobatics with the wildest, silliest grin on my face and a heart lighter than air. When I was a child, I had dreamed of being a forest-flying army ranger. That opportunity was long gone now, but I was able to live it out in the doors and their spires, then. The doors would whizz by my head, the sunlight would glitter off the sparkling surf, and the wind would plaster my salt-rough hair to my head. I would brush my wingtips against the edges of the doors, where I skirted their edges, in a flurry of colours like a snowstorm of confetti, and despite the weight of my pack and the ever-present soreness of my wings and hurt in my eyes from too many hours spent gazing at the sun, I would be happy.

But the legion of doors never lasted. The doors always ended.

I never went through them, of course. Not back then. The doors were always shut, and their porches small and nearly unlandable, and my curiosity ebbed from that alone. It was extinguished fully with how those with landable porches – large, welcoming, made of smooth marble, laser-etched steel, grippy blistered wood, sandblasted plaster – held a sense of deep foreboding to me. They were not attached to houses, and when I skimmed by they felt foreboding in the deepest sense, the kind of foreboding you get when walking through a graveyard on a too-humid midnight stroll where the air is like soup and the ground is like mud, so thick and deep you think you might get sucked in to join the bodies. And even if I wanted to go through the doors, I couldn’t. It said not to leave, in my company contract – Clause 56: Keep Course. Too many people had left recently, anyway. Who would I be if I disobeyed?

A lifetime without creativity does strange things to the mind.


The raft drifted North. I felt the course in my mind, a magnetic tug somewhere deep in some recessed sulcus in my brain like a gently embedded fishhook. The water was cool here, far from the thermal lines, and though I knew how to navigate by light, I focused on true North. I did this, of course, because the Sun was out. Not out like it was at night, nor out like if it were behind a cloud, but out like a light: in the sky and on the horizon, there was no telltale bloated red bloom, no glow from the blue-green moon, no rusted painter’s streaks of a fingerpainted sunrise on the horizon. What there was was a deep blackness, all around me, blanketing the world like the whole planet had gone blind. No stars, no clouds, just a clear, empty nothing in the sky, a kidnapper’s hood over the planet.

My range of vision was limited to the raft and the waves barely around it. The water glowed thinly, waves silhouetted with the frail phosphorescence of cyanobacteria, the last of a dying species hungry for sunlight and receiving none. My raft, of course, had no such glow; my light came from the thin grey heat of sequenced spellcraft metal ridgelining my skin, bubbling my blood with unsparked potential.

The sky seemed to sneer at me.

I took a breath. Another. Felt my ribs expand and contract as a vice around the feverish flesh of my limp lungs, felt the ache of my weary body against the cool rasp of salt-softened logs. Then, I stood, wobbling faintly on unsteady legs, and peered out across the black water, seeking with salt-burnt eyes, searching through the dappled cyan-grey waves for something. I wasn’t quite sure yet what it was that I was looking for. Change, I think. Anything but the dark.

There was nothing. Just pure, untouched void.

I sat back down hard, bruising and scratching my primaries on the deck, clutched the barnacled husks of stapled wood hard, with white knuckles embossed with subdermal steel, and forcefully wept silent, blood-tainted tears. I wept, and grit my teeth so hard it felt they would shatter in my mouth, and razor-wire coiled and uncoiled in my chest as I fought not to scream. My wings ached from the strain of a too-recent long-haul flight, my knees scraped, and my whole body – my poor, beautiful body, my pride and joy – was bloody, skin torn down to ribbons, muscle worn down to soft, fragrant bone and crunchy cartilage, weakened and slack against the rough planks. I was starving, sodden, wasting away, and I curled on myself, head in my hands. What was I to do?

I looked with a stricken gaze out to the black horizon, and, deliriously, I thought of the myth of Icarus, the golden-winged child of the Labyrinth who flew so high he touched the Sun, and the Sun, poisoned by Icarus’s red blood, heaved and spat him down to Earth where he lay, crippled, for the rest of his days until he was eaten by wingless ants. What was I, if not Icarus after the death of the Sun? I drifted on the raft, bloodied and shaking, stressed and tensioned high like metal on the verge of snapping. My wings were in disrepair, feathers mangled by the sea where I had crashed into the waves, my body too weary to lift and too hungry to soar. If I were Icarus, at the death of the Sun, broken-winged, waiting to be devoured by ants, I would not be surprised. I would have laughed. I bared my teeth at myself, peering hunch-backed into the water like a gargoyle at my murky, wavy reflection, and for a moment I thought I did look like a gargoyle, all battered and bruised and monstrous as I was.

I looked to the horizon.

No.

No.

There was something on the horizon. I stood, almost toppled over, teetered on one leg and rebalanced and stared as a shockwave – I don’t know if that is what it was, or if it was just a particularly strong and loud breeze – burst over me with the smell of ions.

Out across the water, almost touching the unlit black sky, came booms of thunder and explosions of kaleidoscopic light, bursting like lightning punching through the violent dark, proud and leaving afterimages in my wide eyes. But unlike lightning, these explosive globular lights came in blinding gold, neon purple, and violet-red, and did not illuminate the clouds bunched at the end of the sky. The raft, I think, drifted closer then, because with that I bumped into something dark in the water, spun forward, and with that, the place – a dot on the horizon – with the fireworks lit itself, house by house, with a warm orange glow. And then, I swear I heard voices. Music, despite the distance. And I knew what those explosions were.

Fireworks.

There is a dictionary of obscure sorrows. Or, at least, there was. I discovered this after the Sun went out. I suppose the death of the Sun should have been the more notable event in my life, given the significance of it all: the cold and the dark like a thousand summoned shadows, charging like a tidal wave, or maybe an undertow, overtaking all corners of the planet in a millisecond. But no. The death of the Sun was an afterthought, a footnote, in the recesses of my memory. What I remembered of the death of the sun was odd, fragmented, oddly picturesque and unrelated: a glimpse of a fish in a wave, the curl of a feather on an unruly turbulent wind, the feel of the sudden chill on my skin.

Memory is odd like that. Like stifled laughter at a funeral, a yawn during surgery, or video games played at work, memory is – more often than not – not the event itself, but all the events surrounding it. And for me, the thing that signified the coming of eternal darkness was the dictionary of obscure sorrows.

I had been… something at that time. I have been so many things in my life – a doctor, a surgeon, a barber, a traveller, a wanderer, a flier, a duelist, a lover, a murderer – that it’s sometimes hard to remember who I am. In any case, the time when the Sun took its last gasp was when I was strong, healthy, young and full of life. Or maybe that’s just my projection on the event – after all, nobody is truly happy in their life. Happiness only comes with failures in recollection.

But I was alive, and I was not unhappy.


The raft rocked. I paddled hard, paddled with my wings, dragging my primaries through the water, holding to the raft with my arms and flapping powerfully through the storm-leaden surf, choking on waves thick with rotted algae and the occasional bloated corpse, skin ballooned and waxy white in the sequence-light of my frantic body. I steered around them, those bodies, and wondered at those with backs bereft of wings, but not for long. I never spent much time with any of those bodies, only the amount I needed to to move around, because I could see it, now. I could see land.

I speared through the surf, a song in my heart and hunger forgotten in my belly, and, spurred by familiarity from all those times carrying packages on the wing, I moved.

Let me tell you of the death of the Sun.

I had been flying across the sea, over a superheated cable glowing with blackbody radiation marking the way between continents, flying with wingtips brushing the edges of the waves. The sun was hot on my glossy feathers – feathers damaged from the constant wind, from the endless days-long sleepless flight, from the constant salt and humidity on the screaming, streaming wind – and I had no land in sight, was navigating by magnet-sense and sealine, bored and dodging the waves, when a shadow passed over me.

That’s what I thought had happened, at first. But then it came like a hurricane, the darkness, rushing across the sea like a titanic black wave, staining the sky and ground with violent dark in a whole instant. Everything was gone, all at once, together. The strange thing was, I was not afraid at first. I had been daydreaming on the wing, thinking of all I looked forward to doing and all I was required to do before when I hit ground – I would unload my frontpack of cargo, unstrap and oil my legfins from my aching calves, crash and sleep the sleep of the dead in a comfortable hangar-bed with a legion of fellow snoring couriers, and eventually be woken again, days later after resting and eating enough to fit a small army, and I would fly out again to carry a package elsewhere.

I skimmed the waves, and the violent dark spurred me from my thoughts. The dark was cold, colder than anything I had ever known, and I thought myself blind. I panicked, then, splayed my wings, flapped hard and rose fifteen, twenty, thirty meters up in seconds to what I hoped was not someplace sideways, felt out a thermal, disturbed and half-gone from the sudden onrush of wind, and circled loosely, heart pounding in my neck and chest, terrified and groping at my face.

There is no such thing as the sky going dark like that. Not during an eclipse, where the sky turns like night, nor during a thunderstorm, where the sea glows still with the heat of the day. A deep, violent blackness like this is a distinctly unreal experience, one that should never be felt where the wind is slow and the sea is hot. And that is why I was terrified.

And then my radio beeped on my chest, a squeal of static and channel-swap, and light – blessed light! – flared from it, red, and I could still see, but the sky was no longer light. I circled, oriented myself from the dipping spiral I had made while dark on the faded trails of the sea thermal, and through my pounding heart I took out a marker from my pocket and inscribed short marks on my skin. Gold light issued from my body, then, dimmed to silver quickly as the heat caught up, and I felt my heart slow. And as my body cooled and issued light, I watched the waves, listened through the radio jabber, through the panicked cries and shouted instructions.

Nonsense. All of it. Cries of when and where and who. When I found a time to speak, I did so. My voice hurt to listen to, rough and raspy from dehydration, lack of use, but I spoke. ”What happened?”


The corpses were thick. Thicker than I ever could have imagined. They drifted in packs around my raft, floating ununiform with the current and the wind in pale fetid masses from the land where fireworks bloomed like dandelions. I stood on my raft, then, not paddling, wobbling slightly, wet wings outspread for balance. The corpses, from what I could see of them in my sequence-light, went on for miles. I would not make it to my destination easily – they were sparse here, but they thickened to nearly cover the waves, I could see, where they lapped against the shore.

I did not consider where the corpses had come from. I only considered how to get through them.

I stayed standing like that for a long time, catching the wind in my wings as a human sail, and shivered. It was cold, had been for days now, and though in open water the heatlines still worked and were not cold enough to freeze, close to land, like where I was now, it was, and frost had formed on the backs of the bodies.

The wind died down, and I gained the sense that it would not come back for quite some time. More fireworks boomed in the distance, louder now, and I lay on the raft, on my belly, stretched out, trailed my half-kite calf-fins through the water behind me like a boat rudder, and, grimacing, dipped my broken-feathered wings in the water and paddled through the corpses.

It started with the sun. At least, I think it did. Maybe there was some event out there that triggered it, roused the Sun from its millennia of dozing heat. Perhaps it was the magic we used, or maybe the Open Way, but technology is all too often blamed. Maybe it was natural chance, a whiplike wave sent too far, a sunpulse ballooned too strong. Whatever it was, it happened, and there was no warning for what happened, and there was no way to undo the aftermath.

Whatever had happened, the results were certain. All at once, the Sun was not there. And that’s all there was to it – I never listened to explanations, when I did have that chance, beyond that. Maybe I should have listened, learned, but regrets are useless in this day and age. I can’t go back, and if I could, I doubt that wisdom would make any difference in my choices.


I drifted closer to the city. The fireworks were blinding now, illuminating the sky like tiny suns – those suns and stars we had lost all too recently, and my chest ached, strained with my neck as I stared up with wet eyes at that which was once mundane and now was a memory of blessings gone by.

The corpses were thick. I had to tear my eyes from the city, then, beautiful as it was. It was not as grand as it had seemed from a distance – the buildings looked oddly short, the skyscrapers slanted like someone had chopped them off down the side. No people flew about – they darted, quick as gyrs, through the windways, and carried hot red glows with them that I could not understand. And though I would have understood more if I went closer, I could not. The wind could not carry me any further, and neither could my paddling. The corpses were thick, and I had reached a sandbar.

They had appeared when I was sailing forward. I had stopped paddling a while ago, when the wind had picked up, exhausted and too tired to care. What was I thinking, going toward the city? I would not live, if I arrived. I had been clutching the raft with pruned fingers, damaged wings outspread, catching the wind with feathers ratty from lack of oil and care, and when the wind moved, I did too, pushing through the mass of bodies but not putting in any real effort of my own. I knew from experience that though they looked solid, the bodies would be soft, spongey and delicate like fresh bread. Bodies, on the open sea, always turn that way – I had seen all too many over the years. If I tried to move them, they would only tear apart.

I turned to face the wind, hot and acrid, rushing from the city and oddly smoky, gulping down my nausea at seeing the corpses bobbing up against my raft, bloated and waxy and puffy white. I looked up, away from the city, away from the stinging smoke.

I saw the doors.

They glowed, despite the darkness, despite everything, like angels, like too-big stars in the sky, thousands of them standing proud against the lightless void. And one door, one with a porch and a tiny green doorbell encircled by a gold-wrought serpent, stood invitingly, porchlight on, about fifteen meters in front of me in the wake where I had sluggishly sailed an hour before.

The city belched, barked thunderous fireworks into the air, illuminating the sea of corpses from behind me. I turned, keeping the door with the gold and emerald serpent in the corner of my eye lest it leave, and watched the city with a torn heart.

What I had not seen from miles out was visible now.

Fire. And gunshots.

They say that living is easy with eyes closed. They also say that a sedate anchor is the happiest object in the world, for it makes no decisions, goes nowhere, thinks nothing, and provides a service just by existing.

I disagree. My philosophy is that when things are bad – you lost your job, your cat died, the world ended and you just sailed through a sea of stabbed, torn, mutilated bodies floating in a rancid, acidic sea just to come up on a city roaring with fire and blistering with gunshots because everyone thought the world had ended and that everything was okay to do because nothing mattered anymore and we were all going to die – when you come across something indomitable, the best thing you can do is try something else.

It’s not running away. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. Maybe it is running, but it is running with a purpose - you leave what didn’t work and find something else, try a different tactic, a different strategy. You take the first semi-reasonable option, anything that comes your way, be it good, bad, ugly, or worse, the first thing different that will lead you to different consequences than the dead end of a life in front of you, and you take it.

I mentioned earlier that I have been many things: a lover, a murderer, a writer, a dreamer, an executioner, a wanderer. All those things I have been because I took a chance, saw a fork in the road and went down it. I do not believe in being a passive observer in life. Perhaps that is why being on the raft distressed me so much: I was nothing more than a drifter, a pawn for the currents to play.

And so when I saw the door, an unknown, a foreboding, terrifying thing so warm and inviting in front of me, waves washing clean the marble stairs with smooth salt, and the cold wind filled with choking smoke of the city behind me, warming my back in the way that the Sun never would, yes, I felt a tug. I had to make a choice, and my choices had been to die at sea or die in a city enraged and terrified by the death of the only mother we ever truly knew. My options had been death or death, and I was unwilling to die, and here was a third option. Unknown, but welcome. Showing itself at last.

I knew what I would choose.


I took a deep breath, steeled myself, glared at the city as waves of acrid radiation-smoke washed out over the bodies. My feathers were broken, my primaries cut like those of a pet bird, and I stood there on my raft, balancing on scabby legs stinging with dry salt, and felt my heart thump its six-chambered beat in my chest.

I breathed in. I breathed out. More corpses bobbed to the surface, and I saw their deaths in their faces: gunshot, fire, drowning, poison, hanging, suicide. On the shore, people shouted, waved brands at other people waving brands, and bang-bang-bang, more bodies were rolled into the water.

Nauseated, prickling with not just chill, I stared down the door. It winked at me, the porchlight warm and flickering like a hurricane lantern. I did not need to paddle, this time – another shockwave boomed out from the city, a blast of hot radioactive air burned over and through me, and I washed forward with a wave, almost fell down when my raft bucked under the first step. I did trip, when I stepped forward off the edge, skinned my knee on the cut of the step, and with gritted teeth I grasped the hard marble stairs with a hand pale like parchment. My raft bobbed out from under my feet and I was soaked, heavy. I hauled myself up, a sodden gosling in the lake of a crater, and found myself nose-to-wood with the stuff of forgotten dreams.

Gunshots boomed behind me and I stood before a warm door, a heavy, dark oaken thing, intricate and bright like it was lit from the other side. Tiny letters in a foreign text lettered its surface like wood grain, and behind its surface, I swear I heard not the sea, not fire, not gunshots, not screams and not the distant whistles of seeker bombs, but voices. Music.

Wet, cold, and alone, with a city of murderers at my back, thermal lines turning black in the sea, a dead sun glittering its last remnants of stolen plasma into the void unseen, I held my breath and opened the door on oiled hinges.

Light.

I stepped through.

Not gonna lie, I'm not sure about this one. Wrote it in two sessions and edited it in one. There's a lot of lore here, but I think I sprinkled it in too thinly.
Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled white text amusement: Snapdragon forgot how to say "uwu" properly.

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