The Well of the Infinite by Steph T

The Well of the Infinite

starring Milo Pulsar and Shaula Bluestar

There is nothing starbeings love more than flying freely through the blackness of space, feeling the warm solar winds in the gossamer of our wings; leaving a faint glowing streak of dust and gases behind us as bits of our atmospheric field drift. I am no different than the rest of my race in that I love to bask in soft solar radiation, drifting lazily in the welcoming black. It’s hard to explain the bliss to non-starbeings- it’s rare that we expend the necessary energy to extend our atmosphere for another, and that’s really the only way an outsider can come close to understanding the sensation. The closest I can come to comparing it is to say that it’s like a combination of laying in the sun and also eating a delicious meal. Or perhaps lounging by a crackling fire, sipping a glass of aged Sargi brandy, cherishing the complex flavors. That’s what the starlight is for us- it’s food and drink and comfort all wrapped up in one.

Starflight is bliss.

But this was not. This was Milo and I spiralling crazily out of control, Androsus below us screaming in saurian rage and terror as the runes carved into his wings sputtered and flickered and failed.

This was not how we had planned our day to go.

Let me back up a bit. It had been an ordinary enough day, to start. One of Milo’s wizard contacts had spotted a strange new planet in his scrying- strange in a way he could not properly explain, save to say that it was not quite haunted, but that was the closest he could come to describing what he was detecting. My tetrapteryx Tau was resting at the Tower of Deepsight from an injury, so Milo and I hopped on Androsus, his pteradon. Androsus was one of the earlier models of dinorocket, and he’d been genengineered pretty huge to fit in all the early model rocketry and runework- he could easily carry us both, and had done so often, with no trouble to speak of.

Today was looking to break that streak.

As soon as we’d entered the solar system, the flight and atmo runes on Androsus’s wings had started to flicker. And when we hit the planet’s gravity well, the poor guy had just shorted right out. I’d managed to push the range of my atmosphere out to cover Milo and Androsus, but that was taking all my concentration- and we were rapidly spinning our way into a graceless planetary atmo entry.

“Milo, it’s getting awfully hot,” I yelled over the growing roar of entry burn and Androsus’s shrieks.

“I know, I know, I’m getting the thermal up as fast as I can! Something’s… fighting me… there!” The temperature suddenly grew much more bearable as a half-dome of crackling white energy flew up around us. “C’mon, Shaula, don’t worry, it’s not even as hot as that weird curry you like.” He laughed at my expression. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I hate when you say that,” I said faintly, tightening my grip on my riding strap. “And there’s nothing weird about giant scorpion curry.”

Milo only laughed louder. He’s like that, though- thrills to the danger, and always a smile on his face during our increasingly common near-death experiences. Me, I just do what I can to ride it out with serenity. So I sighed, and closed my eyes, and poured my will into the cloud of atmosphere surrounding us.

There’s a subtle trick to entering a planet’s atmosphere. Basically, you’ve got to slow down smoothly enough that the friction doesn’t burn you right up. But if you don’t have the luxury of being able to make a few slow orbits to burn off speed, there’s a trick I’ve picked up. It’s not easy, and it’s frankly exhausting, but if you can get the atmo gasses rolling into a sort of slipstream, you can diffuse the heat- or at least roll it around behind and to the side of you.

The atmosphere on this planet was thick, and it wasn’t easy to match my own, but I managed it. I heard Milo grunt in acknowledgement as the pressure on his thermal shields lessened, and he could turn his attention back to manually piloting us in for a landing. I kept my eyes closed until Androsus touched down.

“Shaula, still awake there?” Milo asked me gently once Androsus was settled. “Andry needs a rest, but I don’t trust his breath filter runes. How’s the air?”

I tested the edge of my fields. “Feels pretty compatible. Take a whiff?” Milo grunted, and I let my field relax, the excess molecules dissipating evenly into the air around us. “How’s that?”

“It’s good,” he confirmed. “This planet must have been standard terraformed at some point. I wonder why it never made it to the galactic registry.”

“Mm. Not sure.” I opened my eyes, sat up slowly. Lightheaded, but I could walk, I decided after a moment. I turned my face up to the sun shining on us. “Hmm. This star… it’s very old.” I paused, listened for a moment. “But silent. Sleeping, or…” I didn’t finish the thought.

“The energies of this planet are strange, as well,” Milo said thoughtfully, looking around us through his Etheral mask. I followed his gaze; all I could see were trees. Pretty trees, for what it’s worth: pale green foliage, huge rounded leaves. “Strange,” Milo repeated, his mask glinting weirdly as he studied the flow of magic around us. “There’s almost no residual magic here- at least, nothing of the sort you’d get off sentient life.”

“Then what made Androsus’s runes fail?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“That’s just it,” Milo shook his head. “The lack of magic itself- it pulled at his magics, like a… like pressurizing a cabin. High pressure, low pressure, it pulls.” He gestured, still half-lost in contemplation; I understood.

“Will the runes be able to adjust? As the, hmm, the pressure equalizes?”

“Probably. But it’ll take some time.” Milo slid off Androsus’s back and landed lightly on the springy grass. “Need a hand?”

I nodded, and he made a gesture with his wand. A gentle pressure settled around me, scooped me up, set me down softly on the turf. I took a cautious step; the ground dipped under me, but I managed to keep my balance. “Space legs,” I sighed. “Okay, got it. Thanks.”

“Looked like there was a city about half a click that way,” Milo pointed. “Good a starting place as any.”

I nodded. “Let’s do it, then.”

“Back soon, Andry,” Milo patted the pteradon’s head. Androsus made a raspy noise of contentment and settled down to bask in the sun.

I took a minute to shrug on a robe- like most starbeings, I tend to wear minimal thermals when in space, it makes it easier to maintain my atmo field- and we were off. It was an easy stroll- the ground was level, and the trees were densely enough packed that there wasn’t much in the way of underbrush.

“There’s something strange about this forest,” Milo mused, half to himself.

“No large animal life?” I offered. We hadn’t see anything larger than some silvery-colored insects yet.

“Hm, maybe. And no real game trails to point at there even being large animals.”

“Something’s got to be balancing the flora, though, right?”

“Yeah.” Milo. “Well, usually, at least.”

I shrugged evenly. “You know more about terrestrial life than I do,” I conceded.

“Not much to know, here.”

We walked on in silence, the woods eerily quiet around us. Aside from the occasional buzz of insects, and the steady crunch of twigs and such under our feet, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. I watched Milo grow more and more uncomfortable as we went, fidgeting with his wand and adjusting the fit of his mask. “Just too quiet,” he muttered when he realized I’d noticed. I smiled softly, laid a soothing hand on his wrist. “It’s not natural, Shaula,” he sighed, but he did relax some.

“I know,” I said sympathetically. “This isn’t like the silence of space; it feels artificial, somehow.”

We pressed on. Eventually the trees ended and agricultural fields began; we could see the city not too far in the distance. It was a beautiful sight; all gleaming white buildings, pleasing arches and curves. It looked at first glance like human design, but from an older era, though I couldn’t say exactly when. Human architecture is so different from starbeing; we use a lot more crystal, and more rays and points.

And humans don’t have nearly enough windows in their dwellings.

In any case, we clambered down into the agricultural field and took off at an angle to intersect what looked like a road. The vegetation was fierce and green and thick; it looked as though it had once been well tended, but had long since been let go. Crawling vines and tangled weeds mixed in with the leafy green that I assumed the field had been meant for.

At the corner of the field we happened upon an unnerving scene. Half a dozen or so manual farming tools lay propped up against the fence, neatly lined up and partly grown over with flowering vines. I frowned, touched the handle of what had once been a hoe. “Lined up so neatly,” I mused. “Like they thought they’d be coming back.”

“No one’s been back here in years,” Milo said with a grimace. “The metal’s going to rust all where the enamel’s chipped; the wood’s seen a few seasons at least of weathering.” He shivered. “But you’re right; these have just been set aside- not tossed down, not stashed away. That’s… strange.”

I looked at him gravely, and he gave me a long and thoughtful look. We have known each other long; we did not need to speak the words we were thinking.

It was possible that every living creature on this planet- bugs excluded- was dead.

We broke the gaze at the same time, and I slid through the railings of the fence. Milo hopped the bars and together we made our way to the road, which, despite the passage of time, was still very much in one piece. We walked towards the city.

As we got closer, we started seeing vehicles, evidently abandoned. All of them tucked neatly onto the side of the road, or into careful little rows with others. Milo peered into one of them, shook his head. “Mana battery’s completely run down,” he called. “And this one… this one’s gas, but the tank’s dry. Huh.”

“I suppose we keep walking, then,” I said dryly.

He snorted, and a ghost of a smile drifted across his face. “I’m fine to keep walking. Was just thinking of my fragile, dainty, tenderfooted starpartner, is all.”

“Mmm.” I gave him a tiny, private smile. “Your starpartner’s feet will survive.”

“All right then.” He grinned, shook his head. “Onward, then.”

We reached the city limits just as the sky started to darken with encroaching night. I looked up at the sky, tilted my head to one side and made a few calculations. “Hmmm… day’s looking to be about one-point-one standard. Maybe less. A bit over standard, but not more than point-one.”

“That would fit with colonial terraforming standard,” Milo said thoughtfully.

We wandered among white buildings, across broad stone courtyards and under smooth arches. All the city was white stone, and as the sun set it glowed with gorgeous waves of reflected color. I couldn’t help myself; it was beautiful, and I made a happy purr of acknowledgement. Milo didn’t say anything, but I could feel his tolerant smile without even looking.

When darkness fell, though, it was absolute. Whatever lighting this city had once had, it was long gone, and there was no moon in the sky yet. I concentrated for a minute, relaxing a little bit of my control; a soft haze of pale blue light began to emanate from my skin, lighting the courtyard around us for ten meters or so. “That bright enough?” I asked.

“I was going to just cast an optics spell, but you had to go all glowbug,” Milo teased gently. “Good enough.”

Without really planning our path, we wandered fairly aimlessly, ending up in a broad plaza positioned in front of a building set a bit apart from its neighbors. It was tall, with a rounded dome top; if I had to guess, I’d say it had been some sort of town hall or government building. A number of much larger vehicles- buses and barges, a few hoverferries- were parked in the plaza, lined up just as neatly as their cousins in the outskirts.

Without saying anything, Milo shifted position to one directly in front of me, wand hand held in a deceptively lazy low pose. After a moment of hesitation, I drew my laser whip from its holster.

“This is where they were all going?” Milo asked, but it was only half a question. We knew this was it; whatever it was.

“Some kind of mind-magic charm, maybe?” I offered.

“There are a couple kinds of fae with that kind of power, but I’ve never seen it implemented on this sort of scale.” He shifted his stance; he had his laser whip in his off hand, I noticed. “We could come back in the morning, when there’s more light.”

In response, I just glowed all the brighter.

“All right, then,”  he said darkly. “But if we get eaten by a…” He didn’t finish the thought, but I could see the corners of his mouth crinkle with a smile.

“Then it will certainly  be my fault,” I replied, amused.

We entered the city hall.

The lobby was wide and spacious; my blue light filled the room with a peaceful glow, splashing the tall white arches and painting the marbled floor beneath us. Our footsteps echoed around us, and my robe made a whispering sound on the smooth, smooth floor.

We followed the foot-worn path on the floor, slicker and shinier than rest from who-knows-how-many pairs of feet trudging over it. It led us down a hallway to a wide set of stairs, and then curved downwards.

Down and down we climbed, the stair spiraling gently. Around and around; the walls, so bare of ornamentation, began to look all alike, and for a fanciful moment I imagined we were trapped in the same stretch of stairs, twisting down forever and ever.

We reached the bottom at last. The basement was small, compared to the scale of everything that had gone before it; the stone was rougher-cut, and flecks of quartz glinted in the grain, reflecting back blue and bright.

And in the center of the room, glittering brilliantly, was the Well of the Infinite.

It was modest enough, I suppose; a ring of flat stones, rising to about waist-high; about three meters across. Something inside it glittered brighter than the quartz-lined walls; dark runes were carved deep into the rim.

“By the void,” Milo whispered, as awestruck as I was. “It’s the Well of the Infinite.”

I swallowed, hard. There was no denying it; we were both of us well-enough read to recognize it at once. “I’ve heard that all the wisdom of the ages is contained in the Well,” I said through a throat suddenly gone bone-dry. “If you can just ask the right questions.”

“And I’ve heard the Well is a source of such deep and powerful mana that it could create Life anew,” Milo replied, his voice carrying just a hint of a tremor.

“It’s said that to gaze upon the Well is to look into the past, the future, and the now all at once.” My eyes grew large as I looked at the glittering stone pit. We found ourselves drawing closer to it; our curiosity unstoppable.

“And that to drink of its waters grants eternal youth and health.” Milo tightened his grip on his wand, and pushed back his Etheral mask with his other hand.

There was no room in our minds for thought of the emptiness of the planet; all we knew is that we had to get closer to the Well.  Had to look into it. One step closer; another; we were at the Well, hands resting on the edge, leaning over to gaze into its depths…

Space. I was floating in space, around the orbit of my homestar- my first homestar, the one that was destroyed along with my whole family. But they were here around me now, singing with joy, arms encircling me…

…and I was, at the same time, in freefall over the Tower of Deepsight, on the back of my Tau, laughing in delight. Milo and I were racing, seeing whether Tau’s quick reflexes or Androsus’s raw power would win out; laughing and exhilarated, weaving the winds around me…

…and I was a hundred different futures, each different from the next, each full of bliss and passion and thrill, a hundred different joys ringing out, a hundred diamond-perfect moments…

Anything I wanted, I knew I could have; any answer, any secret. All could be revealed to me, if I only opened myself to the Well, opened myself fully, gave myself to it…

…and I was on the edge of the Well, blue light flickering erratically around me, as my energies were being drawn, slowly but steadily, into that glittering pit. And through the haze of euphoria, I realized how this entire planet had disappeared; how even their starmind had been taken in; and with a broken cry I pulled myself away.

The shock as the euphoric sensation abruptly cut off hit me like an adamantium hammer. I nearly fell to the ground, reeling from the blow. But as I turned to look at my partner, at Milo, all of that fled from my mind.

He was leaning right over the Well, and his eyes were wide and glassy, his jaw slack; his expression was one of drugged-out bliss. And a strange mist was rising from the Well, reaching tendrils out towards his face, inching closer…

It was no time for subtlety. I didn’t even think. I threw myself at Milo, body-checked him with all of my strength and a burst of starforce to boot.

We landed hard on that rough stone floor, and the blow knocked the air out of him- and the mind back into him. Pain washed over his face; then confusion; and finally, a deep sadness. I touched his forehead gently; my hand trembled with exhaustion. He took my hand in his and squeezed it tight, but neither of us had words. After a long moment, I lay my head down on his chest and closed my eyes, unshed tears burning in the back of my skull.

We left the way we had come, and the trek back up those curving stairs seemed to take three times as long as it had coming down. I held firm to Milo’s hand; partly to help resist the temptation to just turn back around and fall into the Well; partly because I just needed to feel the warmth of another living being in that cold white tomb.

We stopped to catch our breath at the top of the stairs. “We need to destroy it,” Milo said, cracked words breaking the silence.

“How?” I asked, and there were so many questions buried in the word. We turned together to gaze at the stairs; and we realized, at the same moment, that there was no way we could bring ourselves to bring violence against that place. Despite its horror, despite its hunger, the Well was beautiful; mysterious and powerful. And even if we’d been able to force ourselves to do it- what force could we possibly level that would be strong enough?

“Then we need to hide it,” he said, decisively.

“Of course,” I said in slow wonder. “The reason we hadn’t heard of this place.”

“It would have been a very powerful veiling,” Milo nodded in agreement. “But nothing lasts forever; the wizard who cast it must have died without passing the wardenship to another.”

I lifted my gaze to a high window, where a purple moon had risen. “I have an idea,” I said simply.

We worked a powerful magic that night, the two of us: Milo casting the lion’s share of it. It was a multi-layered veil shield; the first, to hide the planet from all sensing; another, to make any  mind that perceived it simply slide away in disinterest; and dozens of others in a similar vein.

And me? I tied it to the star. For as long as that star burned, the veil would remain. I felt no guilt as I did so; it would cut the star’s life in half, roughly, but that star was empty now, its mind deep within the Well of the Infinite. I didn’t even want to think about how that had happened.

“So that’s one more life-saving to you,” Milo remarked off-hand as Androsus powered  us up into the skies. “I think I’m still up two or three, though.” He glanced at me sideways, eyes dancing with mirth.

“Do you really still keep track?” Even as exhausted as I was, I couldn’t help but be amused. “I’ve honestly lost count at this point.”

“Pshht, it’s about having standards,” he rolled his eyes overly dramatically.

I laughed at that; I couldn’t help it. We cleared atmosphere then, and as we watched the planet below us quietly just melted away. In seconds it had disappeared entirely; even knowing it was there, behind a veil, I couldn’t bring myself to perceive it. “Well done,” I praised Milo warmly.

“Go team,” he replied easily, bumping my fist with his. “Now let’s go home and sleep for a week.”

“Agreed,” I said wearily. “Androsus, home.”

The big red pteradon let out a raspy cry, and his runes glowed brightly as he obeyed.


(C) 2010 Stephanie Tyll

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