Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Eternal Horizon

Suddenly the horizon gave birth.

There were effects. I was affected by them. I sat with my goddess on my knee. She didn’t need me, nor I her. So everything was equal and free. We were in love.

Renuka is short and beautiful. Her skin glows in the twilight. Her hair is black and curly. I never drown in her deep brown eyes, but my image constantly bathes there, cleansing itself of all disappointments and miseries. I am happy and almost powerful.

I met her in the depths of the Indian Ocean. Somewhere between the Seychelles and the Maldives. I had been thrown from my ship by pirates. That’s what occasionally happens when you stop to ask directions from a galleon with crimson sails. The eyepatches, accordions, and cutlasses should also have awakened my suspicions. When I pulled up next to them, they swarmed over the side.

I hardly managed to utter a word before I was pitched into the sea!

That wasn’t too bad. After all, a man might be rescued by a miracle, and in fact this is what nearly happened. A dolphin surfaced and allowed me to cling to its back. In gratitude, I played and sang to it, shanties and salty ballads. It was an hour before it could bear no more. It dived with an exasperated flick of its tail.

I was alone again. I sank in due course, my lungs full of water.

My entire life passed before my eyes. When it reached the present, it became stuck in a loop, because it had to include the moment when my entire life passed before my eyes. And so on.

There was no end. I couldn’t die.

Immortal, I bounced lightly on the seabed.

• • • •

Renuka was already there. She was combing her hair.

She regarded me with a flicker of surprise. Then she winked. We couldn’t talk underwater, so we just nodded and kissed. I guess I’m not the first man to have an affair with a deity of the ocean, but I felt very special. And still do.

Days later we came up for unnecessary air and allowed the currents to wash us onto an unnamed island. This became our love nest. We ravished each other on the warm sand. We returned often to the same spot. There were always offerings waiting for us. Our presence had been noted. Her worshippers are generous and inventive.

I am grateful for the fruits and wine, but my favourite gifts are the jars of honey. I unscrew these and trickle the liquid gold onto the beautiful quim of my divine girlfriend. Then I lick it off and bring her to the sweetest orgasms. The best taste in the world.

Not far from our island there is a gaping hole in the floor of the sea. Not the entrance of a cave, but something more substantial. The mouth of a secret river that flows far under the dreams and thoughts of fish and men. We decided to explore it. Renuka is an impulsive goddess. We swam together into the darkness, holding hands. I used my little guitar as a rudder.

The waters grew chill and only the feel of strange currents told us that this hidden river was fed by equally mysterious tributaries. But we continued along the main channel, which narrowed until we scraped our backs on the rock ceiling. We heard peculiar sounds beyond the walls of this submerged passage, frightful howls and groans, though whether of geological activity or unimaginable beasts was impossible to determine with any confidence.

We kept going, lands and cities and people high above us. At last, the tunnel twisted upward and we surfaced at the bottom of a deep well. The eroded sides provided many suitable handholds. We scrambled to the top and lay panting in an ancient temple in a cold desert. We had emerged just south of the Altai Mountains in Central Asia, about as far from the ocean as it’s possible to be.

For a sea goddess and her lover, that is very exotic.

• • • •

It became our private retreat. A second love nest.

Nomads on camels brought us wild honey.

One morning I discovered an unusual property of our mutual desire. When Renuka is sufficiently excited by the attentions of my fingers and tongue, her quim becomes a mouthpiece for the sea. Placing my ear to her moist lower lips, I can hear the waves crashing beyond her womb. And ships passing in the dawn.

I confess I was amazed the first time.

She stroked my hair. “It makes perfect sense. Even through ordinary shells, the music of the ocean is audible. The more beautiful they are, the more accurate the surging and swelling. And my little shell is the most gorgeous of all.”

This is true. I kissed and listened again. Her pubic hair is so black it is almost blue. A natural harbour for my love.

“There is something else,” I said. “Not the sea. Wild chanting.”

She frowned. “My worshippers are praying. They must be calling for me. I wonder why? Will you listen more carefully? Repeat to me their words.”

I caressed her until she opened still wider. Then I returned my ear to its former position. Our distant island was throbbing with ritual. A festival dedicated to Renuka. Her followers wanted a favour, or else they were trying to warn her. Without understanding, I reported what they were saying. I felt my goddess tense, but without pleasure. She pushed me away.

“Bad news. Another horizon has appeared on the sea. It is red and possibly bloody. A baby horizon. Clearly the first horizon has given birth. An unexpected event!”

“I didn’t realise the edge of the world was female,” I replied.

“Nor I. Who or what could have impregnated it?”

We pondered briefly. I soon had the answer. All the seamen who had sailed to the horizon from sundry ports for thousands of years. Millions of seamen. It only takes a single individual to fertilise a geographical concept or optical illusion. Obviously one had.

I said, “We will get used to the new arrival.”

She shook her head. “No. The second horizon lies between the land and the original horizon. What if the sun sets behind the new one by mistake? This is what my worshippers are worried about. It will set in the sea and boil away all the water.”

I gasped in horror. “What shall we do?”

She smiled gently. “It is still only early morning. We have a full day to think of a solution. But first I suggest we take a look at the situation ourselves.”

I agreed. I always agree with her. Partly because I am in love, but mostly because she is never wrong.

• • • •

There wasn’t enough time to travel overland by camel or feet, nor to swim back down the subterranean river. So Renuka took emergency measures. She turned herself into a wave. She doesn’t do this too often. It’s a bore, or so she claims. There’s a joke there, don’t know where. Nor did I know precisely where we were going at any given moment when we flowed out of our crumbling temple. I rode her like a surfer and she carried me south.

We crossed the desert and accelerated over Xinjiang, washing the Old Silk Road, but leaving not a drop behind, for she gathered all up into herself. I laughed in the foam. Nomads bowed as we passed. Then into the high plateau of Tibet, where briny pools, remnants of ancient seas that had been unable to drain off, compared their waters with ours unfavourably.

My mirth ceased as we swirled through the towering peaks of the Karakoram range. I grew dizzy and wished to be let down. But our mission was too urgent. There was the great desert of Rajasthan to glide across and the marshes west of Gujarat. At last she slowed, for we had almost returned to the ocean. Entering a port city, she stopped and changed back into a woman and we stood together on a harbour of the Arabian Sea, looking out in the direction of our unnamed island, but not at it, for it was too small and far.

The second horizon was a remarkable sight.

Exactly halfway to the old horizon, it glimmered red on the waters.

It was noon already. The sun had ceased climbing. Down it would roll now into the evening and the probable destruction of all liquid and life. I trembled. And then I began to sing.

I made up the lyrics as the melody progressed. I crooned a ballad about the sun, how it was no fool and was sure to set behind the further horizon as it always had. But I was less confident than my tone indicated, for I knew that mistakes can be made by anyone or anything, and I was overwhelmed with a sudden vision of the flaring red ball dipping its rays into the tops of the waves, turning them to steam and hissing more and more angrily as it eased the rest of its stellar bulk into the bleeding blue. I almost smelled the purple vapours, felt them baste my cheeks and cook me alive.

I was unable to continue. My song dissolved in tears.

• • • •

Renuka brushed a stray ringlet from her eyes.

“Our island is stuck somewhere between the two horizons. It won’t stand a chance.”

I mumbled, “What shall we do?”

“Singing is no use, that’s for sure.”

I accepted the rebuke. It was a familiar one.

I haven’t introduced myself properly yet. Forgive the omission. My name is Luís Rodrigues. I came originally from Lisbon. I play the cavaquinho, a type of guitar with four strings. All my girlfriends have been goddesses. Pure luck, I suppose. Or adulterated fate. Don’t mind which.

“We should evacuate my worshippers,” said Renuka.

I nodded, though I knew it would make little difference. With the seas boiled away, nowhere on the planet would be safer than anywhere else. But as a goddess with a strong mothering instinct, she undoubtedly considered it her duty to try to rescue her people. I wondered aloud how we would physically remove them from their present location. There were hundreds of them.

“They can’t all surf on my wave,” she answered. “We need a ship.”

“Can we afford to hire one?”

She stroked her earrings. These were little oysters on chains and under her touch they sprang open, disgorging two black pearls, which she held up for my inspection. Cool and lustrous, they rolled together in her cupped palm.

“With respect,” I ventured, “those aren’t quite rare enough to pay for an adequate vessel. We require a galleon at the very least.”

She flashed me a lovely smile. “I’m aware of everything. These pearls will pay for a raindance. Run now to the market and find me a fakir skilled at magic, but not too skilled. And fetch a jar of local honey while you’re at it!”

• • • •

I did so. The name of the port city was Porbandar and it was a confusion of sounds, people and things for which no apologies were offered. I stumbled into the market almost by accident, but it might have been more difficult to avoid it, so sprawling was this collection of stalls and booths. I parted the curtains of spice dust with my hands and approached an obscure corner shaded by a forest of umbrellas, all open and fixed high on frames, for this was a kiosk whose owner wished to fully display his wares. Below these clustered canopies, prone in the overlapping penumbras, a group of fakirs and wonder workers rested their powers.

I strolled among them, careful not to knock over any baskets, for many of these were full of cobras and their spit. And maybe worse. Flutes and naked swords also made my progress perilous. But with uncut and unsplintered feet, I eventually located the man I sought. He was the scrawniest and most desperate looking of all, so ruined by his lack of ability that his eyes barely widened when I showed him the pearls. But he meekly followed me back to the harbour. On the way out, I secured the honey.

Renuka studied the fakir with a mild frown.

“He was the least promising there,” I explained.

She relaxed and asked him, “Can you make rain? If so, hurry!”

He licked his thin lips and proceeded to cast an ornate but imperfect spell. I alternated my attention between his graceless antics and the new horizon that wavered on and through the deep like a duelling scar on a belly or streak of tomato paste on a simmering curry. With a cracked voice, our fakir called out incantations that belonged to a time before turbans and slippers. I noticed a slight cooling of the early afternoon heat, almost a tickle on my brow. But our magician was sweating and puffing with oven exertion. A pitiful figure. He danced in a circle, arms upraised and tongue protruding. Then he collapsed.

I assume he had held some sort of dialogue with the local rain god or goddess. I asked Renuka about this, but she wasn’t familiar with any such deity, though she always appreciated any being or agent that returned to her realm the water which evaporation kept stealing. There was no point questioning the fakir on this point. He was unmoving, seemingly drained of all vitality. I looked up. A small cloud was nudging the face of the day. A very light shower began.

“Is that the best he could manage?” I snorted.

Renuka held me close. “Yes, but that’s exactly what we want. A decent magician would have conjured up a monsoon and blotted out the sun completely. This clumsy amateur has given us a pathetic raincloud. It is most fortunate!”

And she pointed with a splendid finger.

A rainbow was forming in the sky. It dipped its spectrum into the sea as they often do, but it must have been confused, for the point of contact was the new horizon, the closer edge of the world, not the old unreachable one.

“For the first time,” crooned Renuka, “a rainbow has a real end.”

“How will this assist us?” I blurted.

“Don’t you see? The pot of gold kept guarded by every rainbow is now available! It is only halfway to infinity! The original horizon is an illusion created by the rules of geometry. As we approach it, so it recedes at an equal rate. But the new one is less distant than the limits of our vision! So it can be reached. I was hoping for this. We now have a source of considerable funds to pay for a ship. It was also a test. If a rainbow can be tricked by a second horizon, so can the sun, or any other meteorological or astronomical phenomenon.”

“I understand,” I responded, “and this result reinforces our worries.”

Renuka clapped her hands and cried, “Staggering wealth is available to any shipowner or captain willing to lend their vessel to me! Spread the news among the sailors of the port! Enough gold to make every volunteer rich! Don’t delay! All your dreams will be affordable, at least until the end of the world later today! But an afternoon of riches is still better than one full of lack!”

She called this to the general crowd gathered near us. Some ignored her or just blinked confused eyes or rubbed suspicious chins. But a few decided her offer was worth serious attention. They began to scuttle, seeking captains and permission. It seemed an important cargo had just come in, so complex was the bustle along the quays. There were good navigators and mates at a restaurant on Rupalee Corner. They were fetched, fingers still sticky and licked as they rushed to the goddess to experience the fuss of her offer for themselves. I stood quietly and made shade over the fakir.

It soon became apparent that none of the ships moored in Porbandar on this particular day were powerful or strong enough to embark on a mission through and beyond the rainbow. Or perhaps it was the sailors who were at fault, for when they realised exactly what was involved, they shook their heads and slowly recoiled, cheeks hot with shame. But this was acceptable cowardice. For although there was open sea between the two horizons, the closer horizon was still the edge of the world, and one which could actually be attained, and the idea of sailing over any edge of a world is not pleasant. So fear overcame greed and it appeared our islanders would never be rescued. These sailors just weren’t desperate enough.

• • • •

But news of our offer had spread along the coast to other towns. And now a ship manned by real reckless types pulled in and dropped its anchor less than a mile out. It must have sailed here from one of the neighbouring ports such as Kuranga or Navibandar. It was large, too, a galleon made of teak with tall masts. Renuka was delighted, but I was furious, for its sails had been dyed crimson. It was my lost ship, converted into a pirate vessel! I hopped up and down and blubbered my distress to my goddess.

She soothed me to coherence with caresses and wisdom.

“What temerity!” I grumbled at last.

The chief of the pirates, whoever he was, was standing on the deck with a spyglass. He examined the houses and inhabitants of Porbandar, sweeping his gaze across the smoking factories, the carved wooden balconies of the buildings, the rickshaws in the narrow streets, the market, the mouth of the freshwater creek, and finally the harbour. He lingered over the individual expressions of the sailors. Then he chanced on Renuka’s face and my own, which were pressed close together as she sought to comfort me. I noted that he adjusted his focus. He dropped the spyglass. He ran over the deck shouting orders.

It must have been some quality in the features of Renuka that alarmed him so. He probably realised she was a goddess with powers greater than those of any human, including pirates. Seeing her so closely associated with a former victim, practically kissing him, he must have feared the worst kind of vengeance. Red sails full of wind, the galleon turned and sailed away again, the crew struggling to pull the anchor back up.

They managed to escape faster than they could reclaim it from the seabed. The ship accelerated directly away from us, the anchor scraping and bouncing along behind, catching on coral reefs and ripping them to pieces, so that millions of fragments of coral were washed ashore on the tide, like a necklace for the entire subcontinent. Suits you, India! As the ship grew smaller with increasing distance, I turned to Renuka with a wild laugh.

“Transform yourself into a wave again and let us chase them!”

But she smiled and took my hand. “I don’t believe in revenge. Sorry.”

I pulled away from her loving grip and snarled, shaking my fist at the dwindling speck. As if in response to this angry gesture, a strange thing happened. Another strange thing, I should say, for this life of mine is full of peculiarities. Anyway, there was a ripple on the sea very close to the edge of the quay, where I stood, and a dolphin surfaced and nodded politely. Furthermore, I recognised it as the same creature that had abandoned me to the mercy of the ocean currents all that time ago. Imagine that!

It would be a lie to say it winked. And dolphins always seem to be grinning, even when they don’t mean to, but some aspect of its demeanour, I can’t state what, gave me the impression it was asking for forgiveness. It hoped to redeem itself by helping me. I jumped into the sea, swam the few strokes to its back, clung to its fin with one hand, my cavaquinho held aloft and dry in the other, and with a hasty kiss blown over my shoulder at Renuka, I allowed myself to be carried off in pursuit of the pirates.

• • • •

We began to catch up with the galleon, but a totally unexpected event occurred at the new horizon. The pirates had been pulling up the anchor all this time and it had slowly risen higher through the briny deep until it was almost out of the water. Just a single barb now trailed under the waves. This was a fortunate or contrived coincidence, depending on how you looked at it, for the barb actually caught on the line of the horizon itself. But it didn’t brake the galleon, which was large and possessed of considerable momentum. No, it stretched and curved like the string of a crossbow.

I nearly lost my balance as I observed and chased developments. The galleon kept going and the horizon kept stretching and the tension was alarming and I wondered what would happen if it slipped loose from the anchor. It would probably spring back and catch the dolphin and myself and propel us backward at high speed. We would be like an arrow, but what would be our target? The roof of a house in Porbandar? Or a stall in the market? Then I envisaged other possibilities, which were more extreme and more useful.

I pictured to myself the galleon slowing up as the pressure of the stretched horizon increased. But it would reach the secret island of Renuka and myself. Frantic to abandon ship, the pirates would steer onto the nearest beach. The vessel would be stuck on the white sands. But at this point, the tension would simply be too great. Like a giant piece of elastic, the horizon would snap back into place, hurling the ship and our island with it high into the atmosphere. The island would collide with the sun, which was coming in for its daily setting, and knock it back toward noon.

The world would be saved, at the cost of our love nest, our secret paradise, which would be vaporised. Very apt really, for Renuka is a sea goddess and the isle of her cult would extinguish the blazing threat, if not the blaze itself, to the human race.

This didn’t happen. I’m still grateful.

Instead, the ship proved stronger than the illusion. Stretched beyond endurance, the new horizon broke at both ends of infinity, at the left and right limits of my vision, and ended up dangling limply on the barb of the anchor, like a length of mystic spaghetti. Then I saw my island ahead. I was struck with three quite different but very forceful emotions. I felt relief at no longer being the horizon’s arrow, delight at coming home to paradise, and regret that Renuka was not with me. I needed to express this tumult in my heart in the only way I knew. A song. I relinquished my hold on the dolphin’s fin, kept my balance by clenching my knees and strummed my instrument. Then I opened my mouth.

It was too much for the dolphin, which promptly dived again, regretting its regret, and also for the galleon, which had endured years of my songs when I owned it. The timbers were obviously shocked at this resumption of their musical torment and abruptly split apart. The ship went down with all its pirates, dragging the slack new horizon with it. Then I felt the water rise up below and rush me the rest of the way to the island. It was Renuka in wave form, not seeking revenge but rendering assistance, and I surfed her on my little guitar, as I had done before all the way from Central Asia.

• • • •

The day didn’t end there, though the sun now only had one horizon to set behind, the original edge of the world, and did so safely. We lay on one of our beaches, surrounded by devotees, in a close embrace but unreasonably chaste, to contrast with the pirates, who had been reasonably chased, and stared up at the emerging stars, the brightest of which refused to twinkle. I was bewildered.

“What’s the matter?” Renuka asked.

And I replied, “Look at the sky. Mars appears to be missing!”

“So it does! Why is that, do you think?”

I considered this enigma. Then I had the answer. It was astounding.

“The old horizon didn’t give birth after all!” I cried. “No, the new horizon was a visitor. The edge of a smaller world. The Martian horizon!”

“It was on vacation from the Red Planet? That explains its ruddy colour, which we mistook for blood. And also why Mars has disappeared from the firmament. Without its horizon, it can’t have a shape and thus can’t be seen!”

“There are no seas on Mars. It must have fancied a swim.”

Renuka sighed. “But now it has drowned.”

We kissed lightly while we waited for fresh honey.

I said casually, “This makes sense. Imagine believing that a geographical feature is female and could be fertilised by generations of seamen! How ridiculous! I’m glad everything has turned out to have a sober explanation.”

“The pirates snagged an adult alien horizon.”

I smirked. “If they had sailed up or down the coast, they might have escaped. But they believed that once over the curve of the world, they would be out of sight. This was formerly true, and is true again, but not when they tried it. The original horizon was too distant, so they steered for the closer one. It was their downfall, literally.”

Renuka replied, “I can’t help but imagine your ship at the bottom of the sea, a new home for clams and fish, with its cargo of dead buccaneers and the horizon of another planet tangled around its anchor, undulating in the currents.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” I remarked.

“Shall we visit it down there? Shall we? Oh, let’s! Come with me into the depths now and we will swim around and into the wreck. It will be haunting, mysterious, romantic, and sombre at the same time! Hold my hand and follow.”

I was in no position to argue. Our worshippers prostrated themselves in the sand as we stood and walked to the sea. Our honey exploits would have to be postponed. I was just able to cope with the disappointment. As we entered the surf, I glanced up at the glittering heavens again. I wondered how many other horizons had left their own planets and taken vacations on ours. They probably envied the fact we had oceans. That is understandable. But how many horizons had never come back from holiday? All sorts of accidents might have happened to them. The solar system might once have been crowded with planets that no longer had shapes. And now Mars had been lost as well.

• • • •

My speculations turned out to be alarmingly accurate. We reached the seabed, but there was no galleon and no drowned pirates. The vessel had sunk directly above the mouth of the subterranean river. So it had been sucked down and along the narrowing passage, dragging the loose horizon with it. Then I realised that the howls and groans we heard when we first explored this river were the horizons of those missing planets, lost down tributaries of that secret waterway, writhing like worms to seek a way out. This thought made me reluctant to approach the entrance and my terror must have communicated itself to Renuka, for she swam away quickly still holding my hand and I went gratefully with her.

We surfaced again and returned to our island. We forgot our cares in tropical peace. But within a few months, we received an unlikely guest. A camel was climbing out of the ocean with its rider, his robes dripping and his scimitar already turning to rust in his sash. The beast had swum across half the Arabian Sea! The messenger was one of our other worshippers from our ruined temple under the obscure peaks of the Altai Mountains. He dismounted and prayed to us. Then he looked up and told us that a crew of dead pirates had surfaced at the bottom of the well in the centre of the temple and had hauled themselves out. They had taken up residence in our second love nest. This was no great loss to us and we were barely annoyed. Central Asia might be an exotic location for a sea goddess and her lover, but for pirates and their ghosts, it is purgatory and a just punishment. The only gold in that cold desert is sand and honey. The only booty is the occasional discarded sandal of a nomad.

Our guest departed and I lay between the thighs of my goddess, listening to the sea through her sweet quim, hearing the gentle swell and the splash of the camel’s hooves. There was no need for either of us to say anything. We had just had a big adventure with a new horizon, but it no longer mattered. Ordinary horizons come and go, for they are nothing more than optical illusions, but there is one eternal horizon and it is independent of planets. It is even independent of time, music, and honey.

The eternal horizon is our love, for it has no edge or end.

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Rhys Hughes

Rhys HughesRhys Hughes was born in 1966 and began writing from an early age. His first short story was published in 1991 and his first book followed four years later. Since then he has published more than thirty books and his work has been translated into ten languages. His main ambition is to complete a grand sequence of exactly one thousand linked short stories, a project he has been working on for more than two decades. He is now three-quarters of the way through this opus. His latest book is the ‘steamprog’ novel Captains Stupendous.