Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Worldless

The Worldless

Every day NuTay watched the starship from their shack, selling satshine and sweet chai to wayfarers on their way to the stars. NuTay and their kin Satlyt baked an endless supply of clay cups using dirt from the vast plain of the port. NuTay and Satlyt, like all the hawkers in the shanties that surrounded the dirt road, were dunyshar, worldless—cursed to a single brown horizon, if one gently undulated by time to grace their eyes with dun hills. Cursed, also, to witness that starship in the distance, vessel of the night sky, as it set sail on the rippling waves of time and existence itself—so the wayfarers told them—year after year.

The starship. The sky. The dun hills. The port plain. They knew this, and this only.

• • • •

Sometimes the starship looked like a great temple reaching to the sky. All of NuTay’s customers endless pilgrims lining up to enter its hallowed halls and carry them through the cloth that Gods made.

NuTay and Satlyt had never been inside a starship.

• • • •

If NuTay gave them free chai, the wayfarers would sometimes show viz of other worlds on their armbands, flicking them like so much dijichaff into the air, where they sprouted into glowing spheres, ghost marbles to mimic the air-rich dewdrops that clustered aeon-wise along the fiery filaments of the galaxy. The wayfarers would wave in practiced arkana, and the spheres would twirl and zoom and transform as they grew until their curvature became glimpses of those worlds and their settlements glittering under the myriad suns and moons. NuTay would watch, silent, unable to look away.

Once, Satlyt, brandishing a small metal junk shiv, had asked whether NuTay wanted them to corner a wayfarer in a lonesome corner of the port and rob them of their armband or their data coins. NuTay had slapped Satlyt then, so hard their cheek blushed pink.

NuTay knew Satlyt would never hurt anyone—that all they wanted was to give their maba a way to look at pictures of other worlds without having to barter with wayfarers.

When NuTay touched Satlyt’s cheek a moment after striking, the skin was hot with silent anger, and perhaps shame.

• • • •

Sometimes the starship looked like monolithic shards of black glass glittering in the sun, carefully stacked to look beautiful but terrifying.

Sometimes the starship would change shape, those shards moving slowly to create a different configuration of shapes upon shapes with a tremendous moaning that sounded like a gale moving across the hills and pouring out across the plain. As it folded and re-folded, the starship would no longer look like shards of black glass.

Sometimes, when it moved to reconfigure its shape, the starship would look suddenly delicate despite its size, like black paper origami of a starship dropped onto the plain by the hand of a god.

NuTay had once seen an actual paper starship, left by a wayfarer on one of NuTay’s rough-hewn benches. The wayfarer had told them the word for it: origami. The paper had been mauve, not black.

• • • •

The world that interested NuTay the most, of course, was Earth. The one all the djeens of all the peoples in the galaxy first came from, going from blood to blood to whisper the memory of the first human into all their bodies so they still looked more or less the same no matter which world they were born on.

“NuTay, Earth is so crowded you can’t imagine it,” one wayfarer had told them, spreading their hands across that brown horizon NuTay was so familiar with. “Just imagine,” the wayfarer said. “Peoples were having kin there before there were starships. Before any peoples went to any other star than Sol. This planet, your planet, is a station, nah?”

NuTay then reminded the wayfarer that this was not their planet, not really, because it was not a place of peoples but a port for peoples to rest in between their travels across the universe. Dunyshar had no planet, no cultures to imitate, no people.

“Ahch, you know that’s the same same,” the wayfarer said, but NuTay knew it wasn’t, and felt a slight pain in their chest, so familiar. But they knew the wayfarer wouldn’t know what this was, and they said nothing and listened as they spoke on. “If this planet is port, then Earth, that is the first city in the universe—Babal, kafeen-walla. Not so nice for you. Feels like not enough atmo for so many peoples if you go there, after this planet with all this air, so much air, so much place.”

And NuTay told that wayfarer that they’d heard that Earth had a thousand different worlds on it, because it had a tilt and atmos that painted its lands a thousand different shades of place as it spun around the first Sun.

“Less than a thousand, and not the only world with other worlds on it,” the wayfarer said, laughing behind their mask. “But look,” the wayfarer raised their arm to spring viz into the air, and there was a picture of a brown horizon, and dun hills. “See? Just like here.” NuTay looked at the dun hills, and marveled that this too could be Earth. “Kazak-istan,” said the wayfarer, and the placename was a cold drop of rain in NuTay’s mind, sending ripples across their skull. It made them feel better about their own dun hills, which caught their eye for all the long days. Just a little bit better.

So it went. Wayfarers would bring pieces of the galaxy, and NuTay would hold the ones of Earth in their memory. It had brown horizon, blue horizon, green horizon, red horizon, gray horizon.

• • • •

When the starship was about to leave, the entire port plain would come alive with warning, klaxons sounding across the miles of empty dirt and clanging across the corrugated roofs of the shop shanties and tents. NuTay and Satlyt would stop work to watch even if they had customers, because even customers would turn their heads to see.

To watch a starship leave is to witness a hole threaded through reality, and no one can tire of such a vision. Its lights glittering, it would fold and fold its parts until there was a thunderous boom that rolled across the plain, sending glowing cumulus clouds rolling out from under the vessel and across the land.

A flash of light like the clap of an invisible hand, and the clouds would be gone in less than a second to leave a perfect black sphere where the starship had been. If you looked at the sphere, which was only half visible, emerging from the ground a perfect gigantic bubble of nothingness, it would hurt your eyes, because there was nothing to see within its curvature. For an intoxicating second there would be hurtling winds ripping dust through the shop shanties, creating a vortex of silken veils over the plain and around the sphere. The shanty roofs would rattle, the horses would clomp in their stables, the wind chimes would sing a shattering song. The very air would vibrate as if it were fragile, humming to the tune of that null-dimensional half-circle embedded in the horizon, a bloated negative sunrise.

In the next moment, the sphere would vanish in a thunderclap of displaced atmos, and there would be only flat land where the starship had once stood.

A few days later, the same sequence would occur in reverse, and the starship would be back, having gone to another world and returned with a new population. When it returned, the steam from its megastructures would create wisps of clouds that hung over the plain for days until they drifted with their shadows into the hills.

• • • •

Being younger dunyshar, Satlyt worked at the stalls some days, but did harder chores around the port, like cleaning toilets and helping starship crews do basic maintenance work. Every sunrise, NuTay watched Satlyt leave the stall on their dirt bike, space-black hair free to twine across the wind. The droning dirt bike would draw a dusty line across the plain, its destination the necklace of far-off lights extending from where the squatting starship basked in sunrise—the dromes where wayfarers refueled, processed, lived in between worlds. The dirt bikes would send wild horses rumbling in herds across the port plain, a sight that calmed NuTay’s weakening bones.

NuTay had worked at the dromes, too, when they were younger and more limber. They’d liked the crowds there, the paradisiacal choirs of announcements that echoed under vaulted ceilings, the squealing of boots on floor leaving tracks to mop up, the harsh and polychrome cast of holofake neon advertising bars, clubs, eateries and shops run by robots, or upscale wayfarer staff that swapped in and out to replace each other with each starship journey, so they didn’t have to live on the planet permanently like the dunyshar. Nowadays the dromes were a distant memory. NuTay stayed at the shack, unable to do that much manual labour.

Those that spent their lives on the planet of arrivals and departures could only grow more thin and frail as time washed over the days and nights. The dunyshars’ djeens had whispered their flesh into Earth-form, but on a world with a weaker gravity than Earth.

• • • •

NuTay’s chai itself was brewed from leaf grown in a printer tent with a second-hand script for accelerated microclimate—hardware left behind from starships over centuries, nabbed from the junk shops of the port by NuTay for shine and minutes of tactile, since dunyshar were never not lonely and companionship was equal barter, usually (usually) good for friendships.

NuTay would meditate inside the chai-printing tent, which was misty and wet in growing season. Their body caressed by damp green leaves, air fragrant with alien-sweet perfume of plant life not indigenous, with closed eyes NuTay would pretend to be on Earth, the source of chai and peoples and everything. Each time a cycle ended, and the microclimate roasted the leaves to heaps of brown brew-ready shavings, the tent hissed steam like one of NuTay’s kettles, and that whistle was a quiet mourning for the death of that tent-world of green. Until next cycle.

The tent had big letters across its fiber on the outside, reading Darjeeling in Englis and Nagar script. A placename, a wayfarer had clarified.

When Satlyt was younger, they’d asked NuTay if the dunyshar could just build a giant printer tent the size of the port itself, and grow a huge forest of plants and trees here like on Earth or other worlds. NuTay knew these weren’t thoughts for a dunyshar to have, and would go nowhere. But they said they didn’t know.

The starshine was easier, brewed from indigenous fungus grown in shit.

• • • •

Sometimes, as evening fell and the second sun lashed its last threads of light across the dun hills gone blue, or when the starship secreted a mist that wreathed its alloyed spires, the starship looked like a great and distant city. Just like NuTay had seen in viz of other worlds—towers of lights flickering to give darkness a shape, the outline of lives lived.

The starship was a city, of course. To take people across the galaxy to other cities that didn’t move across time and existence.

There were no cities here, of course, on the planet of arrivals and departures. If you travelled over the horizon, as NuTay had, you would find only more port plains dotted with emptiness and lights and shop shanties and vast circular plains with other starships at their centres. Or great mountain ranges that were actually junkyards of detritus left by centuries of interstellar stops, and dismantled starships in their graveyards, all crawling with scavengers. Some dunyshar dared to live in those dead starships, but they were known to be unstable and dangerous, causing djeens to mutate so kin would be born looking different than humans. If this were true, NuTay had never seen such people, who probably kept to themselves, or died out.

NuTay had heard that if you walked far enough, you could see fields with starships so massive they reached the clouds, hulking across the sky, that these could take you to worlds at the very edge of the galaxy, where you could see the void between this galaxy and the next one—visible as a gemmed spiral instead of a sun.

• • • •

Once, the wayfarer who’d left the origami starship for NuTay had come back to the stall, months or years later. NuTay hadn’t realized until they left, because they’d been wearing goggles and an air-filter. But they left another little paper origami, this time in white paper, of a horse.

Horses were used for low-energy transport and companionship among many of the dunyshar. They had arrived centuries ago as frozen liquid djeens from a starship’s biovat, though NuTay was five when they first realized that horses, like humans, weren’t from the world they lived in. Curiously, the thought brought tears to their eyes when they first found this out.

• • • •

Sometimes the starship looked like a huge living creature, resting between its journeys, sweating and steaming and groaning through the night.

This it was, in some sense. Deep in its core was residual life left by something that had lived aeons ago on the planet of arrivals and departures: the reason for this junction in space. There was exotech here, found long before NuTay or any dunyshar were born here, ghosts of when this planet was a world, mined by the living from other worlds. Dunyshar were not allowed in these places, extraterra ruins where miners, archaeologists, and other pilgrims from across the galaxy gathered. NuTay, like most dunyshar, had little interest in these zones or the ruins of whatever civilization was buried under the dirt of this once-world. Their interest was in the living civilization garlanding the galaxy, the one that was forever just out of their reach.

On their brief travels with Satlyt strapped to their back as a tender-faced baby, NuTay had seen the perimeter of one of these excavation zones from a mile away, floodlights like a white sunrise against the night, flowing over a vast black wall lined with flashing lights. Humming in the ground, and thunder crashing over the flatlands from whatever engines were used to unearth the deep ruins and mine whatever was in them.

NuTay’s steed, a sturdy black mare the stablemaster that had bartered her had named Pacho, had been unusually restless even a mile from that zone. NuTay imagined the ghosts of a bygone world seeping from out of those black walls, and trickling into their limbs and lungs and those of their tender child gurgling content against their back.

NuTay rode away as fast as they could. Pacho died a few weeks later, perhaps older than the stablemaster had promised. But NuTay blamed the zone, and rubbed ointment on Satlyt for months after, dreading the morning they’d find their kin dead because of vengeful ghosts from the long dead world that hid beneath this planet’s time.

For Satlyt’s survival NuTay thanked the stars, especially Sol, that had no ghosts around them.

• • • •

Satlyt had asked NuTay one day where they’d come from, and whose kin NuTay themself was. NuTay had waited for that day, and had answers for their child, who was ten at the time. They sat by their shack in the evening light, NuTay waving a solar lantern until it lit.

I am a nu-jen dunyashar, Satlyt, they said to their child. This means I have no maba, no parents at all.

Satlyt asked how, eyes wide with existential horror.

Listen. Many . . . djeens were brought here frozen many years ago. I taught you; two humans’ djeens whisper together to form a new human. Some humans share their djeens with another human in tiny eggs held in their bellies, and others share it in liquid held between their legs. Two people from some world that I don’t know gave their djeens in egg and liquid, so that peoples could bring them here frozen to make new humans to work here, and help give solace to the wayfarers travelling the stars. We are these new humans—the dunyshar. There are many old-jen dunyshar here who have parents, and grandparents, and on and on—the first of their pre-kin were born to surrogates a long time ago. Understand, nah?

Satlyt nodded, perhaps bewildered.

I was nu-jen; the first person my djeens formed here on the planet of arrivals and departures. I was born right there, NuTay stopped here to point at the distant lights of the dromes. In the nursery, where wayfarer surrogates live for nine months growing us, new-jen kin, when there aren’t enough people in the ports anymore. They get good barter value for doing this, from the off-world peoples who run these ports.

Who taught you to talk? Who taught you what all you know? asked Satlyt.

The dunyshar, chota kin! They will help their own. All the people in this shanty place, they taught me. The three sibs who raised me through the youngest years and weaned me are all, bless them, dead from time, plain simple. This planet is too light for humans to live too long as Earth and other livable worlds.

Did you sleep with the three sibs so the djeens whispered me into existence?

No, no! No, they were like my parents, I couldn’t do that. I slept with another when I grew. Their name was Farweh. Farweh, I say na, your other maba. With them I had you, chota kin.

They are dead, too?

NuTay smiled then, though barely. I don’t know, Satlyt. They left, on a starship.

How? They were a wayfarer?

No, they grew up right here, new-jen, same as me. They had long black hair like you, and the red cheeks like you also, the djeens alive and biting at the skin to announce the beauty of the body they make.

Satlyt slapped NuTay’s hand and stuck out their tongue.

Oy! Why are you hitting your maba? Fine, you are ugly, the djeens hide away and are ashamed.

Satlyt giggled.

Anyway, such a distracted child. Your other maba, we grew up here together. We had you.

They were here? When I was born?

NuTay pursed their lips. They had promised that their child would have the entire truth.

For a while, hn. But they left. Don’t be angry. Farweh wanted to take you. They made a deal with a wayfarer that sold them a spacesuit. They said they could get two more, one emergency suit for babies. Very clever, very canny, Farweh was.


NuTay took a deep breath. To hold on to a starship. To see eternity beyond the Window, and come out to another world on the other side.

Other maba went away holding on to a starship on the outside?

I see I taught you some sense, chota kin. Yes, it is as dangerous as it sounds. Some people have done it—if they catch you on the other side, they take you away to jail, like in the dromes for murderers and rapists and drunkards. But bigger jail, for other worlds. That is if you survive. Theory, na? Possible. But those who do it, ride the starships on the side, see the other side of time? They never come back. So we can’t ask if it worked or no, nah? So I said no. I said I will not take my kin like a piece of luggage while hanging on to the side of a starship. I refused Farweh. I would not take you, or myself, and I demanded Farweh not go. I grabbed their arm and hurt them by mistake, just a little, chota kin, but it was enough for both of us. I let them go, forever.

Farweh . . . maba. Other maba went and never came back.

Shh, chota kin, NuTay stroked a tear away from Satlyt’s cheek. You didn’t know Farweh, though they are your other maba. I gave them all the tears you can want to honour them. No more.

But you liked Farweh, maba. You grew up with them.

NuTay smiled, almost laughing at the child’s sweetness. They held Satlyt before their little face crumpled, letting them cry just a little bit for Farweh, gone to NuTay forever, dead or alive behind the black window of existence.

• • • •

Many years later, NuTay’s kin Satlyt proved themself the kin of Farweh, too, in an echo of old time. They came droning across the plains from the dromes, headlights cutting across the dust while NuTay sipped chai with the other shanty wallahs in the middle of the hawkers’ cluster. The starship was gone, out on some other world, so business was slow that evening.

Satlyt thundered onto the dust road in the centre of the shanty town, screeching to a halt, their djeens clearly fired up and steaming from the mouth in the chilly air.

Your kin is huffing, one of the old hawkers grinned with their gums. Best go see to them.

So NuTay took Satlyt indoors to the shack, and asked what was wrong.

Listen, NuTay. Maba. I’ve seen you, year after year, looking at the wayfarers’ pictures of Earth. You pretend when I’m around, but I can see that you want to go there. Go after Farweh.

Go after Farweh? What are you on about, we don’t even know whether they went to Earth, or if they’re alive, or rotting in some jail on some remote world in the galaxy.

Not for real go after, I mean go, after. Story-type, nah?

Feri tail?

Exact. I know next time the starship comes, it will go to Earth. Know this for fact. I have good tips from the temp staff at the dromes.

What did you barter for this?

Some black market subsidiary exotech from last starship crew, changing hands down at the dromes. Bartered some that came to my hands, bartered some shine, some tactile, what’s it matter?

Tactile, keh!

Please, maba. I use protection. You think wayfarers fuck dunysha without protection? They don’t want our djeens whispering to theirs, they just want our bodies exotic.

What have you done, chota kin?

Don’t worry, maba. I wouldn’t barter tactile if I wasn’t okay with it. But listen. I did good barter, better than just info. Spacesuit, full function. High compressed oxy capacity. Full-on nine hours. Starship blinks in and out of black bubble, max twenty hours depending on size. The one in our port—medium size, probably ten hours. Plus, camo-field, to blend into the side of the ship. We’ll make it. Like Farweh did.

How do you know so much? Where do you get all this tech?

Same way you did, maba. Over years. There are people in the dromes, Satlyt said in excitement. They know things. I talk. I give tactile. I learn. I learn there are worlds, like you did. This? You know this isn’t a world. Ghost planet. Fuel station. Port. You know this, we all know this. Farweh had the right idea.

NuTay shook their head. This was it. It was happening again. From the fire of the djeens raging hot in Satlyt’s high cheekbones they knew, there was no saying no. Like they’d lost Farweh to time and existence, they would lose Satlyt too. NuTay knew there was no holding Satlyt by the arm to try and stop them, like before—they were too weak for that now.

Even if NuTay had been strong enough, they would never do that again.

It was as if Farweh had disappeared into that black bubble, and caused a ripple of time to lap across the port in a slow wave that had just arrived. An echo in time. The same request, from kin.

What do you say, maba? asked Satlyt, eyes wide like when they were little.

We might die, chota kin.

Then we do. Better than staying here to see your eyes go dead.

• • • •

Even filtered breathing, the helmet and the suit was hot, so unlike the biting cold air of the planet. NuTay felt like they might shit the suit, but what could one do. There was a diaper inside with bio-absorbent disinfectant padding, or so the wayfarer had said.

They had scaled the starship at night, using a service drone operated by the green-eyed wayfarer who had made the deal with Satlyt, though they had other allies, clearly. Looking at those green Earth-born eyes, and listening to their strange accent but even stranger affection for Satlyt, NuTay realized there might be more here than mere barter greed. This wayfarer felt bad for them, wanted to help, which made NuTay feel a bit sick as they clambered into the spacesuit. But the wayfarer also felt something else for Satlyt, who seemed unmoved by this affection, their jaw set tight and face braced to meet the future that was hurtling towards them.

• • • •

“There’ll be zero-g in the sphere once the starship phases into it. Theoretically, if the spacesuits work, you should be fine, there’s nothing but vacuum inside the membrane—the edges of the sphere. If your mag-tethers snap, you’ll float out towards those edges, which you absolutely do not want. Being inside the bubble is safe in a suit, but if you float out to the edge and touch it, there’s no telling what will happen to you. We don’t know. You might see the entirety of the universe in one go before dying, but you will die, or no longer be alive in the way we know. Understand? Do not jerk around with the tethers—hold on to each other. Hold on to each other like the kin you are. Stay calm and drift with the ship in the bubble so there’s no stress on the tethers. Keep your eyes closed, throughout. Open when you hear the ship’s noise again. Do not look at the inside of the bubble, or you might panic and break tether. That’s it. Once the ship phases out, things will get tough in a different way, if you’re alive. Earth ports are chaos, and there’s a chance no one will find you till one of my contacts comes by with a ship-surface drone to get you. There are people on Earth who sympathize with the dunyshar, who want to give them lives. Give you lives. So don’t lose hope. There are people who have survived this. I’ve ushered them to the other side. But if you survive only to have security forces capture you, ask for a refugee lawyer. Got it? Refugee. Remember the word. You have been kept here against your will, and you are escaping. Good luck. I’ll be inside.” The wayfarer paused, breathless. “I wish you could be too. But security is too tight inside. They don’t think enough people have the courage to stick to the side of the ship and see the universe naked. And most don’t. They don’t know, do they.”

With that, the wayfarer kissed Satlyt’s helmet, and then NuTay’s, and wiped each with their gloved hand, before folding themself into the drone and detaching it from the ship. Lightless and silent, they sailed away into the night. NuTay hoped they didn’t crash it.

NuTay felt sick, dangling from the ship, even though they were on an incline. Below them, the lights of the launching pad lit a slow mist rising from the bottom of the starship, about four hundred feet down. The skin of the ship was warm and rumbled in a sleeping, breathing rhythm. They switched on the camo-field, which covered them both, though they couldn’t see the effects.

Satlyt was frighteningly silent. Chota kin, NuTay whispered to test the range com. Maba, Satlyt whispered back with a sweaty smile.

• • • •

The starship awoke with the suns. Their uneasy dozing was broken by the light, and by the deeper rumble in the starship’s skin. The brown planet of arrivals and departures stretched away from them, in the distance those dun hills. The pale blue sky flecked with thin icy clouds. The port dromes, the dirt roads like pale veins, the shanties glittering under the clear day in the far distance. Their one and only place. Hom, as wayfarers said. A strange word. Those fucking dun hills, thought NuTay.

Bless us Sol and all the stars without ghosts, whispered NuTay. Close your eyes, chota kin.

Remember Farweh, maba, said Satlyt, face wet behind the curved visor. The bottom of the starship exploded into light, and NuTay thought they were doomed, the juddering sending them sliding down the incline. NuTay held Satlyt’s gloved hand tight, grip painful, flesh and bone pressed against flesh and bone through the nanoweaves.

I am old, NuTay thought. Let Satlyt live to see Earth.

• • • •

The light, the sound, was gone.

• • • •

Satlyt convulsed next to NuTay, who felt every movement of their kin through closed eyes. They embraced, NuTay holding Satlyt tight, a hollow vibration when their visors met. The ship was eerily still under them, no longer warm through the thick suit. Satlyt was making small sounds that coalesced slowly into words. We’re alive.

Their breathing harsh in the helmet, the only sound along with the hissing breath of Satlyt into their own mic.

NuTay opened their eyes to see the universe looking back.

• • • •

Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t look.

I know you opened your eyes, maba. What did you see?

I don’t. Don’t look. I saw darkness. Time like a living thing, a . . . a womb, with the light beyond its skin the light from creation, from the beginning of time and the end, so far away, shining through the dark skin. There were veins, of light, and information, pulsing around us. I saw our djeens rippling through those veins in the universe, humanity’s djeens. Time is alive, Satlyt. Don’t let it see us. Keep your eyes closed.

I will, maba. That is a good story, Satlyt gasped. Remember it, for the refuji lawyer.

• • • •

Time is alive, and eventually it births all things, just as it ends all things.

When the ship turned warm with fresh thunder, their visors were set aglow, bathing their quivering eyelids with hot red light, the light of blood and djeens. Their spacesuits thumped down on the incline, the tethers umbilical around each other, kin and kin like twins through time entwined, clinging to the skin of a ship haunted by exoghosts.

They held each other tight, and under Sol, knew the light of hom, where the first djeens came from.

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Indrapramit Das

Indrapramit Das

Indrapramit Das (aka Indra Das) is a writer and editor from Kolkata, India. He is a Lambda Literary Award-winner for his debut novel The Devourers (Penguin India / Del Rey), and has been a finalist for the Crawford, Tiptree and Shirley Jackson Awards. His short fiction has appeared in publications including, Clarkesworld and Asimov’s, and has been widely anthologized. He is an Octavia E. Butler Scholar and a grateful graduate of Clarion West 2012. He has lived in India, the United States, and Canada, where he completed his MFA at the University of British Columbia.