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The Red Wilderness
by Timothy Winkler
I wander among the bodies that are scattered on the plain, going from
one to another like a tourist in a strange museum. I can still recognize
a few of my shipmates, though most do not look human anymore. My friend
Tokmaza has become a cobwebbed mass of thorn bushes, with bits of jewelry
from her lifesuit shining among the branches like ornaments. Her partner
Setyakhet, not far away, is now a mound of antlers floating in quivering
pinkish gelatin. His technician's exoskeleton lies all around him,
shattered into countless small pieces. And even though I cannot find my own
partner, Lianya, I think I have found her sister, a translator named
Govakiya. She now has a velvet-covered elephant skull and a jellyfish body
full of translucent organelles. Her voder, a box of black metal made in the
shape of a Kelmish reliquary, is half-buried in the dust next to her.
The dead whom I knew in my former life are outnumbered by the remains of
people I never met, passengers who were in storage until we came to this
world. I never fully realized just how many people slept alongside us in
our ship, all of them now strewn across the red landscape, a multitude of
transmuted corpses. I stand for a while by each one, repeating over and
again a simple funerary prayer. We are so far from our ten-thousand gods
in this place, I do not know if they will ever hear me, but these prayers
are my last duty to those I will soon join.
I cannot remain solemn for long, however; as I go among them, I am struck
by the odd beauty of the protean dead, and mourning eventually gives way to
fascination. Some have turned into chimeras like Govakiya, with limbs and
bodies wildly mismatched, as if assembled by a capricious child. I have
seen porcupine-like things with dark blue crab legs, elongated giraffe-shapes
with luminous anemone skins, and wingless birds with translucent fish-tails
and wrinkled monkey faces. Others, like Tokmaza, have become more like
plants: there are twisted, leafless trees wrapped in onionskin and
wasp-paper, the ground beneath them littered with waxy seed-pods; there are
black and purple growths like mushrooms, their bulbous heads marked with pits
and spines; there are colorless flowers that sing in the gentle breeze. And,
here and there, I have come across fallen bodies that do not look much like
anything at all, except perhaps the bizarre sculptures you sometimes see in
In the middle of everything lies Hantavinda, our ship's non-human Pilot,
the one whose mistake brought us here. It has melted into a scum of black
sludge that is furry with green cilia. A few of its dark, polished bones
stick up out of the sludge, all of them spotty with whitish patches of
fungus. The ship itself, now resembling an enormous pewter conch shell,
sits in the middle of this tarry mess, silent and alone.
As for myself, I have already begun to change the way the others did
before they died. My skin crawls with electricity, my flesh is restless
inside my skin, and there is a distant insect hum in my ears. My body aches
to sink down into the fine scarlet dust, to surrender at last. If I could
find the place where Lianya fell, I would gladly lie down next to her and
give in to the will of the planet.
I hold on to this desire and keep moving while I can. As I wander across
the plain, one of the surviving drones from the ship follows me and listens
to my memories, recording them before I forget myself forever...
It began when our Pilot lost its way in the void between Yanten Port and
the planet called Nine. One moment we were gliding along the arc of a
jumpline through otherspace, the next moment we were tumbling free in the
starless nowhere. The ship immediately howled in protest, waking us up with
klaxons and verbal warnings. Hantavinda bellowed a cry of lamentation that
could be felt through the bones of the ship. Gravity wavered, making us
heavy, then light, then heavy again. The glowtubes in our isolation pods
flickered and dimmed as the ship struggled to regain its equilibrium. Then,
before we were let out of our pods, Hantavinda did a thing Pilots almost
never do: it withdrew its sensory connections from the ship, plunged its
head into the hypertorus that was the heart of the ship's drive, and
committed ritual suicide by rupturing a vestigial poison gland.
After the alarms were shut off, the crew assembled in the Commons, which
was near the cavernous chamber that housed the immense body of the dead
Pilot. The ship's ghost told us what it knew, which was not much. Somehow,
for a fraction of a second, Hantavinda had become distracted, by what it
could not say. The ephemeris showed no singularities or other weird
phenomena on the route from Yanten Port to Nine. There were no pirates in
this part of space, no belligerant species, none of the ancient Tixa
artifacts that sometimes caused trouble by popping unexpectedly through
dimensional barriers. And even though our Pilot had been young, only about
eight-hundred years old, Pilots all have the esoterica of supralight travel
written in their genes. So it seemed unlikely that youth alone could be a
reason for Hantavinda's desperate action. In short, the cause of what had
happened to us was a complete mystery to the ship's ghost. It could not
even venture a speculation, it said, since it did not have a single clue to
Among the crew, there was a long moment of silence. Captain Yerrod put
her face in her hands, Engineer Hadyin's face became more ashen than usual,
and the rest of us just stared at each other. I had lived on the ship all
my life, and I had never heard of a Pilot violating the Ethic before, not
like this; it must have happened sometime during all the long millenia since
jump travel began, but not in living memory. For most of us, the corpse in
the chamber below the Commons had been someone we thought of as our friend,
our protector, our companion through the long night of the jump interval.
Now, when various members of the crew began to speak, they murmured about
the Pilot's cowardice, the selfishness of its despair; it had chosen the
easy way out of a bad situation, leaving us behind to face danger without
its help. It might not have been fair to Hantavinda, to condemn it this way,
without knowing all the facts, but it is hard to be fair when you are
frightened to death.
The Captain shook her head, lowered her hands, and cast her hard blue eyes
around the room. She said, "We do not have time to stand here debating the
Pilot's morality. We all know what will happen to us if we remain stranded
in otherspace. So, the problem before us is, how can we drop the ship back
into real space on our own, without a Pilot? That is all we'll discuss now;
we can conduct a postmortem later, if we survive."
Engineer Hadyin furrowed his brow, and a little color returned to his
cheeks. Inside the dark armor of his exoskeleton, he resembled a very
dignified warrior-saint from an ancient altar-piece, the kind of figure that
was meant to inspire faith. The problem was, our faith in his expertise
normally extended only as far as the ship's systems, not into the areas of
strange physics that only Pilots could comprehend. Still, of us all, he was
the one most likely to come up with an answer for the Captain. And if it
was the wrong answer, well, it would not matter much, since we were doomed
anyway, being Pilotless in the void.
We waited quietly while the Engineer thoughtfully rubbed his jaw. The
ship's ghost refrained from interrupting with status reports and warnings,
since it was as curious as the rest of us about what Hadyin might say.
After a few minutes, he asked the ghost some questions about the hypertorus
and the integrity of the interface net. The ghost responded with a list of
numbers, which Hadyin repeated into the ear of his exoskeleton's brainbox.
Then he tapped absently on the shell that encased his torso, nodded his head,
and turned to the Captain, saying, "If we burn out the drive, we should
automatically return to real space. We could end up almost anywhere, and we
would be left without much power, but we might at least be out of immediate
Some of the crew muttered their disbelief, but most seemed resigned.
After a day when one impossible thing had already happened, who could deny
the Engineer a chance to try another impossible thing, especially if it
might save us? I could not judge the merit of Hadyin's idea, since I was
just an interspecies-liaison officer, but I was willing go along with
anything to avoid dying out here, locked outside of our own universe.
Captain Yerrod, Hadyin and members of the tech crew gathered around an
interface terminal that was set down in a nearby conversation pit. A few
long minutes later, the Captain left the Engineer's group and came back to
us to say, "I have given Hadyin permission to attempt an induced failure of
the hypertorus. He's not certain if he can even do this, but everyone
should be prepared to experience a great deal of pain if he succeeds. We
know about such pain from the Chronicles, from the time before there were
Pilots to protect people during jump transitions. In any event, this seems
to be our only hope of getting back where we belong. So let's make sure the
passenger pods are still locked, then let's all return to our own pods to
wait for the jump."
Falling into teams for a quick run-through of the ship, we cleared out of
the Commons. I headed down a passageway with Tokmaza, Setyakhet, Lianya and
a pair of small drones. The last I saw of Hadyin, his exoskeleton was
growing a clear helmet and breather-tubes for his descent into the Pilot's
chamber. The last I saw of the Captain, she had a ink-stick in her hand and
was drawing the crescent-shaped sign for good fortune on the Engineer's
The gray sky is pressing down lower than before, a woolen blanket that
moves like there are crowds of bodies sleeping restlessly above it. The
luminous haze that fills the air is sometimes bright, sometimes dim, as if
it is pulsing to the beat of a very slow heart. Under me, I can feel the
body of the planet vibrate, as if a huge engine is down there in the center
of the world. My face is washed by an aimless breeze that is full of pure,
I stand on the edge of the empty desert, just beyond the outermost ring of
transformed bodies. Behind me, the ship is a silvery fallen star that
floats on a pool of shadow, the center of an exotic oasis. Before me there
is only an endless expanse of vermilion dust, which is patterned all over
with little furrows like the meandering tracks of worms. I was drawn out
here by a white spark that I had noticed glittering on the open ground.
When I stood over it, the spark turned into a shiny metal ring: Lianya's
torque, the Kelmish ornament I gave her when we were children. I cannot
tell which of the nearby bodies is hers, but it does not matter; this is the
place where I belong, where I will soon let the planet finish its work.
I have already become very different from what I used to be. My arms are
now like the branches of a tree made of smoke-colored glass. My legs are
now as thick and heavy as elephant legs, and are covered with rough skin
that is as orange as new rust. My head has changed shape for the third or
fourth time, and now I can see the whole circle of the horizon all at once,
out of more eyes than I can count. I am twice as tall as I used to be, and
twice as slow: every step takes more effort than the last. At one point, I
had a pair of downy black moth-wings, but they fell off, leaving smooth pink
scars on my back. My new tail, however, has only grown longer, and has
lately started to poke holes in the red earth if I am still for more than a
few seconds. I suppose it is looking for a place to set down roots.
The drone that hovers above me has also begun to change. What was once a
blue metal polyhedron is now a spiny urchin-like thing that is surrounded by
a shimmering, sparking aura. I know it is still listening to me, because I
can still hear its flat machine voice in my head prompting me whenever I
fall into a reverie, which is happening more and more often. It is so hard
to keep my thoughts focused, but I try; I must finish this message in a
bottle. Only then will I surrender....
When the Engineer at last succeeded in damaging the hypertorus, its
failure was catastrophic. When it imploded, the shockwave of pain that
rushed through the ship was like the fiery breath of a many-headed dragon.
It hurt so much, even the passengers in stasis must have felt it: a tide of
agony that consumed everything in its path, human and machine. In my pod, I
could hear the ship's keening wail above the mindless screams of the crew. I
could see and taste and smell the pain; the whole universe was the interior
of a white-hot furnace. All the violence of the jump interval that the Pilot
used to shield from us, all of it rained down on our naked souls, soaking us
through with blind terror.
Then, a nanosecond later, it was over. Thunder rolled through the body of
the ship, then faded away, leaving absolute silence in its wake. The
glowtubes in my pod went dark and my body floated weightless inside the
safety harness. I was alive, if exhausted, my body drenched with sweat, my
lungs and muscles aching as if I had just run up the side of a mountain.
I activated the bioluminescent cells on the surface of my lifesuit, which
enveloped me in an aura of pale greenish light. I told the harness to let
me go, but it did not respond. I felt for the release latches under my hands;
once I tugged them open, the arms of the harness fell away from my body with
a hydraulic sigh. When I jetted over to the hatch, I found that it, too,
would not respond to my commands. I managed to force it open the
old-fashioned way, by turning the screw set into the bulkhead beside the
hatch. Then I jetted out into the passageway, where other glowing bodies had
already begun to stir.
I joined Tokmaza and Setyakhet, and traveled with them around the curve of
the ship towards Lianya's pod. She met us halfway, and we headed off for
the stasis holds where passengers were stored, to check on our assigned
sections. Other groups like ours spread out through the ship's passageways,
bound on similar missions. In spite of all this activity, the ship was very
quiet, more quiet than I had ever known it to be before; the gray background
noise that I had lived with since childhood was suddenly noticeable for its
When we reached Aft Section Blue-Eleven, we found the same conditions we
had seen all over the ship: everything was offline. The stasis generator's
ceramic casing looked like crushed paper, the monitors were all black holes
in the bulkhead, and the stasis coils themselves, made of the polymer known
as Tixa-glass, fell into drifts of ash at the slightest touch. Life-support
had failed, too, and the still air was growing cold, so that our breaths
were little puffs of mist.
The four of us jetted around the hold, ducking in and out of the stacked
cells in which the stasis pods reposed. We had to work fast to manually
unlock the pods, before the waking passengers suffocated. I threw open lid
after lid, telling the people inside not to be frightened, even though
anyone would be frightened to wake up weightless in the cold and the dark.
After all, this was not how our passengers expected to arrive at their
destinations; this was how you woke up in Sahal, the mythical pit of the
Still, most of the passengers were cooperative. They were already in
lifesuits and so could jet into the center of the hold, where Tokmaza
explained our situation. Many of the older men and women had complicated
black ideograms tattooed on their foreheads, the sign of devotees of Yao,
the saint whose home temple was on Nine. Yao had been a particularly
austere figure, and his followers had adopted the solemn expression he
always wore in his portraits. Nothing much could move these people, not
even finding themselves awake in a ship in trouble. The few passengers who
seemed uneasy or afraid were taken in hand by the Yaoists, who were somehow
able to soothe them without speaking a single word.
We led our passengers out of the hold and down into the heart of the ship.
As we neared the Commons, we met a woman named Chanifer, a member of the
engineering crew. She floated in the middle of an intersection, holding a
bulky generator box in one hand and a field projector in the other. Her
suit cast a dim glow upon the bulkheads, which in this part of the ship were
decorated with mosaics of birds and fish from hundreds of different worlds.
Behind her, the passageway that led into the Commons was sealed off by the
pulsing black membrane of a barrier field.
Setyakhet went up to her and they spoke for a few minutes. When he
returned to us, he said that we should take the passengers aft again and
find places for them in an empty compartment. As we moved back up the
passageway, I looked back towards Chanifer, who seemed drawn, worn out, her
eyes red, her cheeks hollow. I jetted close to Setyakhet and asked him what
she had said. He answered quietly, "When the drive imploded, it took the
center of the ship with it...the ship's ghost, Hadyin, the Captain, everyone
who was near the hypertorus, they're all gone. Chanifer says there's
nothing down there now but a big empty space."
For a moment, I forgot how to breathe. It made sense, of course; we had
seen enough evidence already to prove that the ship was dead. And yet, to
hear it spoken aloud was still a shock. I remembered the words of a
school-lesson: the ship is our mother and father, the ship is our life, as
we are the life of the ship.... I thought, Hantavinda, old friend, if only
you had not left us, we could have survived anything with your help....
When we reached the aft habitat sections, I was suddenly too busy to
wallow in grief. We helped passengers settle down in empty cabins while
technicians worked to draw power from the still-active drones, so that they
could restore at least limited life-support. Lianya and I then went in
search of other crew, to exchange information in person since the commnet
was not working. The last I saw of Setyakhet and Tokmaza, they were holding
hands as they hovered near a dark glow-tree. Their heads were close
together and their expressions were grave as Setyakhet whispered into
The branches of my arms have now grown little red leaves, each one a sharp
arrowhead spotted with purple flecks. My torso is now very long, and is
covered with chitonous spikes and patches of scaly blue lichen. My tail has
found a layer of fertile soil under the oxidated dust, and my roots go down
to touch the cold, quicksilver veins of the planet. The hum in my ears
grows louder all the time, though it is still a faraway noise. At my feet,
which are like the fluted buttresses of an ancient sequoia, Lianya's torque
lies shining in the sourceless light. From this place on the edge of
everything, I watch the bodies of friends and strangers as they continue to
change. Many of them are now growing together into amorphous masses, jumbled
collections of scissor-wings and insect legs, moss-furred bones and thorny
galls, lead-colored skulls and filaments of spun glass...
Along one of the main passageways, Lianya and I came across a sensory
interface node. Even though we both knew it was almost certainly dead, we
tried anyway to access the ship's nerve-net. When we touched our foreheads
to the concave depressions in the interface niche, we did not even see
static; there was simply nothing coming through the net anymore.
What we wanted was to look outside the ship, to see where we were. Side
by side, we jetted through the branching passages, following the ideograms
that pointed the way to the ship's outer sections. In the airspace between
the inner and outer hulls, Govakiya flew up to us and said that all of the
viewports she had been to so far were permanently opaqued, frozen in jump
mode. The three of us flew off together down the length of the ship, toward
the bow docking bay, where we hoped we might find some ports that were still
Once we were in the bay, we had to work our way around the crumpled bulk
of a passenger shuttle to reach the hull. The shuttle had come loose from
its berth during the Pilotless jump and was now laying on its side,
surrounded by the floating wreckage of its gravistat-pods and repulsor-vanes.
Lianya and I followed Govakiya as she picked out a path through the tumbling chunks
of debris. Beyond the shuttle, we discovered that someone had erected a
half-strength barrier field, to contain the damage. We pushed through the
field, then jetted out into the open space between the berths and the locks.
Numerous other ship-folk were scattered all over the curving wall of the
hull. Their lifesuits glowed weakly in the dark, making them look like
weary fireflies. Most were hovering around various dim circles of light,
murmuring as they looked out of the ship. Govakiya drifted away toward a
nearby port; Lianya and I jetted over to an observation dome by one of the
airlocks. Once there, we stared out at a scene that was unlike anything in
the universe we called home.
A vast, featureless disc the color of fresh blood floated in the middle of
a dull gray void. It was perfectly round, with a knife-sharp edge, unlike
any planet I had ever seen. Alone in the void, illuminated by a diffuse
radiance that came from nowhere and cast no shadows, it was hard to tell
just how big it was, or if it was even spherical. Between the ship and the
red disc, thousands of fuzzy black objects swarmed lazily around like clouds
of gnats. And that was all, there was nothing else to see. Even so, Lianya
and I stayed in the dome for a long time, mesmerized by the strange beauty
of this alien place. After a while, I noticed that the red disc was slowly
growing larger, expanding to fill the viewport....
I have caught the spiny urchin of the drone in my branches; it is now a
dead brown clump like a bird's nest among my leaves and twigs. With the
last of my strength, when I could still move, I picked up Lianya's torque
and held it high; now it is covered over with my blue, scaly bark, visible
only as a swollen place around a lower limb. When I could still see, I
watched the scattered masses of transformed bodies grow together into
something like a forest, with crystalline trees and papery flowers of all
shapes and colors. Now I cannot see at all, and yet I know, somehow, that
the forest is sending tendrils in my direction, as I send out tendrils of my
own. I do not have ears anymore, and yet I can still hear the faraway hum:
it is coming closer, changing from a hum to a noise like a rushing wind full
The red world drew us down, or perhaps it moved towards us; we could not
tell in a universe without reference points. The black specks outside the
ship began to swirl about more quickly, like grains of spice in a pot of
stirred water. Filling every viewport, the disc of the red world became an
endless flatland under the ship as the pull of gravity restored our sense of
direction. The ship drifted gently down and the light brightened all around
us without throwing our shadow onto the desert below. The black specks swam
around in little vortices, then disappeared. Soon after that, we felt a
soft thump as the ship touched the surface of the silent, empty planet.
It did not take us long to decide what to do. The Pilot was dead, the
ship's ghost was dead, the hypertorus was ruined, gone. We were alone in an
alien universe, in a ship that was now little more than an artifact. We
could never get our passengers out of this place, no matter what we tried;
this red desert was our last destination. So, we did the only thing we
could do: we opened the airlocks and stepped outside.
At first, we grew clear bubble-helmets from the collars of our lifesuits
and kept them on while we walked away from the ship. But our suits found
that there was an atmosphere, thin and cold, yet breatheable, so we let our
helmets be resorbed and took deep breaths of the pure, fresh air. How such
a planet could have an atmosphere like this was not clear, however; the
desert was bare from the ship to the horizon in every direction.
People began to wander out onto the plain, some alone, some in pairs or
in groups. Lianya and I walked a little way together, our boots kicking up
drifts of scarlet dust that settled slowly in the light gravity. A kind of
electricity filled the air, which pricked at my skin, making me shiver.
Above our heads, the gray void was now a gray sky that resembled the belly
of an endless raincloud.
After a while, we decided that I would return to the ship, to bring our
passengers to the bow locks. Lianya went over to Govakiya as I jetted up
through an open hatch. The last I saw of her, she was walking into the
desert, arm in arm with her sister....
Now that I am bound to the forest by a net of gossamer filaments, I know
what the others discovered as soon as they surrendered, that they changed
but never died. I can hear voices, all of them talking softly, speaking in
many different languages. I can hear Yerrod, Lianya and Setyakhet
whispering to each other. I listen to the ship's ghost and the deep,
rasping voice of the Pilot as they discuss the recent past; Hantavinda says
that it cannot remember what went wrong along the jumpline, but that it is
sorry to have failed. The ship's ghost tells the Pilot that there is nothing
to be sorry about, everything will be all right. Other voices, too many to
count, fill the darkness with a sound that is like breakers washing ashore on
a nighttime beach. I call out and they answer, and I feel myself drawn into
the waking mind of the planet, where it is warm and where there are no