Into Starlight
rating: +13+x

Rustholm! Sweet Rustholm!

Its citizens sprawled across the Western Relict, spreading tales of its good cheer everywhere. Rustholm! The merchants knew it well, that crumbling stone gyroscope bleeding granite into space, where they went to trade with its breathless citizens for star-fish and acrobatic fire.

Rustholm was suspended in a strange orbit, high above the plane of the solar system. Its shape, constantly shifting in suspended circles, was variable, mutable, its citizens redrawing the map day by day. Who built it, none of them knew - but who cared? It was ancient and forever, at least until the rust broke through the steel bones and the stone tumbled into darkness.

The town was inhabited by the breathless ones, their long limbs and spined heads visible from miles away, jumping across the station on wings of gold. Natural and exuberant acrobats, they spent their days with chrome harpoons, firing at the star-fish from strange vessels of their own design. Odd, half-broken vessels, the kind of thing any mortal would be mad to use. But the breathless laughed at mortals, with a strange whooping laugh that took in the round, useless helmets and soft white spacesuits.

Rustholm was eternal, a little outpost in somewhere on the road to nowhere, in the sky without state or time, where all was forever and history had come to a close.

The great days of Rustholm, however, were its coming-of-age days.

The little sky-fish of the Relict - the sky trout, the high salmon - these were nothing, just the scraps the breathless scooped from the sky's detritus. They swam through space, unknowing and unknown, little minds barely percieving their altered circumstances. Earth's far-gone oceans and the ink of night - what difference was there, really?

So they swam onwards, but each dreamt, secretly and distantly, of their cousins. Of the great leviathans, the *otho-mahilama*, as the merchants called them. The Great Fish of the sky, enormous and unique, no two the same, they strode through the sky like colossi. They were vast, unimaginably vast, swallowing suns and flittering across galaxies.

The breathless loved them. One came by every few months, for reasons nobody knew. It was like Rustholm was a familar waypoint, a hub for them, drawing them in like a lure. They never ate its sun, although which would want to eat a half-burnt thing like that? Its red glow barely produced a dawn on the station. No, they had bigger stars to eat, to consume, to turn to ash in the great furnaces of their stomachs.

It so happened that, to become an adult, a breathless had to prove themself. They had to show that they understood what it was to be immortal, to withstand all troubles, to reconstitute oneself on a whim.

They had to land on the back of a Great Fish. And then they had to dive into the sun.

Samson was bored. He sat at the edge of a long, black cliff, embedded on the edge of one of the circles. Oblivion twisted away before him, as the sky continued its long, slow spin around Rustholm.

He was bored. He was seventeen! Why did his birthday have to come three days after the last Great Fish had gone by? He wanted to be an adult! He wanted to join Jape and Mac and all the others, leaping to and fro from vessel to vessel, hunting pike with great harpoons.

But here he was, instead, stuck dangling his feet over the edge. He wondered what a reconstitution felt like. He'd seen his mother do it often - fall too far into the night, or be taken by an angry sky-shark, only to reappear in front of him, whole and complete. She said it hurt a great deal. He didn't believe her.

He looked at the sun. It was not a true sun, like those of the inner worlds. It was a broken thing, dark red and angry, spewing more and more of itself out each day. He wanted to leave here, to fly elsewhere, to feel the night rushing past his face, to dive into greater suns than this…

Humans, with their odd language and strange suits, would never know what he knew. He could fly, fast and hard, into fire itself! And he would live, like it had never happened! He was Samson, son of Armaria, son of Holden, the quickest of his year and the snappiest of his-

A glimmer. What was that? He thought at first it was more starlight, reflecting dully off dust and debris. But then it moved, gained form. It must be so, so far away…

"It's here," he screamed, scrambling up and running towards home. "A Great Fish is here!"

The flame from the torches burnt bright. There was chanting, fire-blowing and feasting as twelve youngsters stood proud and tall on the outer rim of the gyroscope.

Armaria was fussing. Samson was brushing her off.

"It's fine, mum, really, it's- I'll be OK!"

Armaria sighed. She was a good fisherwoman, and tried hard to provide for her family. Granted, being immortal, there wasn't much to provide, but it was the principle of the thing.

She smoothed his head-spines back and smiled. "You know you don't have to do this, right?" But Samson merely glared back.

Soon, the twelve stood, teetering, on the gyroscope's edge. Samson looked along the line. There was Aya, her face set and determined; Cormac, sweating profusely and surreptitiously biting his lip, trying as ever to look more casual than he was; Horsteinn, stretching his arms and champing at the bit…

He turned ahead and looked down. There it was, swimming at impossible speeds below them; bright blue scales the size of continents, eyes the size of worlds. Its fins were moving, movements that were small from here but vast below.

The blue sheen surrounding the fish was its atmosphere, those strange gases that had been collected from so many journeys. It looked like the edge of a cosmic knife, with a strange hum to its sharpness. Samson didn't need it, but he was glad it was there.

He took a deep breath. They reckoned, at this distance, it would take him five minutes to land on the fish's back. The others were already beginning. He screwed up his eyes, brushed his spines away, and leapt.

The void rushed up around him as he span, over and over again, the atmosphere whistling hot against his ears. He could take it. The breathless had leapt into burning volcanoes; they had ridden the flute-lanes to Betelgeuse and Orestes. He was one of them, and would not let his ancestors down tonight.

The scales flashed blue and scarlet as he approached, twisting this way and that. Slowly, they became vast, blinding, dwarfing his vision. His world was soon a single blue scale, seeming at first to twist in on itself before becoming simple, still. Little details ballooned out: ridges and crevices, caves and mountains. Moss was growing, red and black, on one of them; tiny animals could be seen crossing streams.

He changed position. Lifting his arms wide, he let his gliding-wings extend, pushing back against the air flow and swooping forward. Laughing, he gradually slowed, dropping gracefully to the cold earth.

The sky was black, but there was air here- he might not breathe it, but he felt it, cold to the face and eyes. He let out a huge whoop, gazing up at the stars as they changed and shifted. The fish was on the move.

The landscape was rocky, hilly. Patches of blue scale jumped out here and there, but the sheer accumulation of space matter had created crags, earth and plants all around. A four-eared hare jumped from behind a rock, twitched its nose and headed towards him, curious and innocent. He grinned, and lay on the open ground, his head on a grassy mound.

The others would have landed by now, too; continents away, scales upon scales in distance. Whole histories could be eked out here. Maybe they had. He thought of the mosaics on Rustholm, their bright colours and strange shapes. Men in yellow hats, halls symmetrical and vast. Nobody really cared who had made them, but sometimes, in the dark of night, a few of them wondered. A few of them whispered…

Sighing, his head drooped onto the mound, and dreamed.

The dream was blue. Everything was blue. Samson had never seen an ocean, but he swam in it, felt all of it, let it wash over him. All was blue, all frosted, the waves sifting softly above him. He let his arms extend and his body fall, slowly, into the dark.

A fish, a blue-and-gold fish, swam around him. He tried to catch him, but could not. It spoke.

"Why do you wish to fall into the sun?"

Samson wasn't sure. "Because it's what we do. We fall into the sun, and are born anew."

"How do you know?"

"I have seen it happen. I have seen my friends, my mother, reconstituted over and over again."

"How do you know they're still your friends? How do you know that's still your mother?"

Samson made no answer. The sunlight felt more distant now.

Hovering in front of him, eyes darting back and forth, the fish looked right at him. "I remember your town. I remember all of it."

The waters abruptly opened up, and Samson saw Rustholm again, whole and beautiful. It was covered in a thousand colours, with ships coming to and fro, spinning fast and freely. A huge, black sculpture was suspended above it in the shape of a star.

"I remember the Empire, the State-That-Was. I remember its vast palace, suspended above the greatest star in the sky. I remember the Emperor's favourite servants, the trade hubs, the long night of my brothers as even we bowed at his feet."

"I remember revolt. I remember the fall of the state, the burning ships and the red-and-black crusade. I remember the cries of the servants' rebellion, each one pledging to dive into the sun rather than serve one day more. I remember…"

But it was no use. The fish screamed, the image disappeared, and the inky water surrounded Samson, again and again, powering over him, penetrating his skin, his bones, his heart-

Samson awoke. He remembered nothing of his dream. The Great Fish was roaring, a sound that burnt the sky and lifted the earth up beneath him. The patches of scale shimmered purple and scarlet.

Above was the sun, its half-burnt red fire frying the moss and grass. The hare was gone, hidden in some dark chasm. But Samson was breathless, and did not heed the heat, even as it seared his flesh and tore at his skin.

He wondered if it hurt. He wondered how much it would hurt. He could feel his body collapse and see it become whole once more, twisting and turning in the light, in the black.

He was a tiny thing, wings and spines and coal-dark eyes, staring up into the fire. He wondered, dimly, if he would come back, or if something else would. Something different.

The roar of the fish shuddered through him. The sun would be past, soon. It was now or never. He clutched his fists together, looked up, and hesitated.

He felt himself leap forward, but could no longer tell why.

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