New York City spreads out beneath us, gray steel and gleaming glass from our aerial perspective, virtually stripped of the color and chaos that almost always fills its streets, and everything about it is familiar, and nothing about it is familiar, and I am so very far away from home.
I’m tired of this. They warned me when I started that one day I’d be tired of this, and I thought they were ranting and raving the way hidebound old fools always rant and rave when there’s a scientific advancement at hand—it’s as much a part of the process as the grandiose declarations of showing them, showing them all, and the ceremonial passing of the adventurer’s compass. Turns out they were right. There are only so many wonders you can see before you start thinking longingly of your own bed in your own room in your own home, of the pillows battered into the shape of your head, the mattress that knows every curve of your body better than a lover ever could, the heater that rattles in that way that turned into white noise years ago, unremarkable, soothing, memorable only in its absence.
I don’t think I’ve had a decent night’s sleep in five years, and I still have two more to go, and I hate this.
My current helmsman is a green-skinned nymph from a parallel where the gods of the Greeks never faded from power. Instead, they continued doing what they did best—fighting, fucking, and feasting—until ninety percent of the population could trace their lineage directly back to one god, demigod, or mythical figure or another. Not that they called them “myths,” since, y’know, when you’re one of the eleven million families whose Solstice dinners Zeus is required to drop in on, the situation isn’t very mythical anymore. She looks up, nods once, and goes back to studying her instruments.
“Mammalian,” she says finally. “There are representatives of other populations, but they’re all at what we expect from the human-dominated Manhattans. The avian clusters match my pigeon data, and the insects match up with cockroaches. Mostly. There are a few outliers.”
“Are the mammals moving slowly and with confidence, or are they cowering in the subway tunnels?” We once found a parallel where the pigeons had somehow turned carnivorous and bloodthirsty. A flock could pick the flesh off a human’s bones in under a minute, the piranhas of the sky.
We lost two interns on that stop, and we didn’t even manage to collect any of the flesh-ripper pigeons. Which is a much bigger pity. No one signs on as an intern for a trip like this one unless they have a massive death wish or a family that’s desperately in need of the survivor’s benefits. It’s sad and it’s tragic and it’s the reason we have such a high death toll every time we cruise the parallels. Everyone needs to get by. Flesh-ripper pigeons, though…
Those would have given the rest of us a reason to turn around and head for home, finally in possession of something bigger and better than the little trinkets we’ve been picking up since day one. Still, a hold of trinkets is nothing to sneer at. Stubby isn’t the biggest or fastest or shiniest airship in the fleet, but she gets the job done.
“Mammals are within median human standards—this looks like a boring one—and they’re out on the streets in pretty large numbers. They seem to be alive, so we’re not dealing with a reanimating pathogen.”
“Thank the Lightning for that,” I say.
The rest of the bridge crew offer their own counterpoints, varied by their parallels of origin. The ones who’ve been with me since the beginning thank the Lightning, and the two we picked up in that weird theologically inverted parallel thank the Thunder, while Daphne—my helmsman—thanks her father, Zeus, in a bright, chipper voice that makes me thankful, once again, that we haven’t encountered him anywhere outside the parallel where we picked her up. The last thing I need right now is a randy deity showing up on my bridge, especially since he might not recognize Daphne as his daughter.
I turn. Our navigator is looking over his shoulder at me. Well. One of his heads is. The other is still watching the curved window that makes up the front of our airship, crystal clear and apparently fragile. Most people who attack us aim for that window first, not asking themselves how many protections we’d put on a sheet of glass that size. The fact that it’s not a solid mass of bugs doesn’t seem to be the clue it should.
“What is it?”
He smiles uncertainly. “I think I see the Flatiron.”
That makes me stand a little straighter. Not every parallel has a Flatiron Building. Oh, every one we’ve discovered where the European colonists constructed a settlement in the area we know as “Manhattan” has had plans for a Flatiron Building, but they don’t always get built, and once they’re built, they don’t always survive. Some of them have burnt. Others were bombed. One of them was infected by an artificial bacterium intended to help destroy landfills by converting them into arable soil, which had converted it into the largest pile of loam I’d ever seen. An intact Flatiron is reason to celebrate.
Maybe. “How secure does the structure look?”
That’s… good. “Is there a docking station on the roof?”
“Negative, captain.” Daphne looks up from her instruments. “The mammals below us are pointing and stopping as we pass overhead. I don’t think the airship caught on in this parallel.”
“Oh, lovely. Primitives.”
“There are flying machines,” says one of the other bridge crew. “They seem to operate on an internal combustion basis, but they get where they’re going. Fast, too. If we had one of those, we’d be home within the quarter.”
“With our surveys half-finished,” I snap. “You can’t chart ground properly if you’re moving across it too fast for anything to record. Use your head, or we’ll get you a new one.”
“I’d like a new head,” says the navigator. “The ones I have don’t provide me with a full range of vision. Three heads, now. Three heads is where it’s at.”
I manage, barely, not to throw my hands up in the air. “I’m going belowdecks,” I say. “It’s time to prep the incursion team.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” shouts the helmsman. Everyone laughs.
I am so tired of this shit.
These are facts about the universe in which we live:
First, it’s basically a sheet of baklava that hasn’t been cut. Layer upon layer of reality, all resting lightly atop one another, all sweet and delicious and ready to be devoured. And trust me when I say there are things out there that are totally into the concept of devouring existence as we know it, one crunchy, nut-filled bite at a time. Worlds that aren’t watched have a tendency to blink into nothingness and be forgotten, filling the belly of some cosmic terror, creating yet another hole in the pastry. When a world gets eaten and a hole opens up, it’s easier for the baklava-eaters to shove their nasty little hands in and pry more pieces loose.
Maybe “your world is a tasty snack, good luck sleeping tonight” isn’t a good way to start a conversation, but I’m with the Cartography Corps, otherwise known as the Looters. Diplomacy is for people with a much higher pay grade than mine. Because…
Second, not every world knows they’re not alone, and better minds than mine figured out a long, long time ago that it’s best to let people figure things out in their own time. If one world opens a window on another, they view themselves as peaceful explorers. If a world has a window opened on it, they view the people on the other side as hostile invaders. Aren’t humans fun? I mean, to be fair, that sort of maps up to most of recorded history in the majority of the parallels we’ve charted, but still, it means we have to be careful when we’re surveying.
But it doesn’t mean we can stop.
The Cartography Corps is a joint venture by the governments of nine of the most advanced parallels. We have alliances with countless more. They send us resources, crewmen, and supplies, and we launch our airships into the vastness of the universe, charting and recording everything we encounter. We map the baklava, because we can’t tell when things are missing unless we know what’s supposed to be there. Despite my navigator’s fascination with internal combustion engines, they’re not suitable for our purposes: they go too fast, and our maps wind up with holes in them, empty places where the data ought to go. We travel by airship like civilized people, sailing across the endless sea of parallel worlds, making our lists and checking them twice, telling our archives who’s naughty or nice.
And of course there’s the looting. We’re not pirates, but we’re not saints either, and we’re almost always a long, long way from home, unless we find something that demands immediate attention from the scholars at the University. We gather trinkets and artifacts as we travel, along with raw materials, tucking them all away in our hold until we can’t carry any more and get to turn and head for home. We try never to take anything of specific social or religious significance. On parallels with a decently sized human population, we can sometimes even pay for what we abscond with.
Airship contact is inevitable, of course, but it’s never yet been a major concern. Some parallels fire on us, and that’s fine: if they don’t have the ability to move between layers of the baklava, they don’t have anything powerful enough to breach our shields. Other parallels try to worship us as gods, which is a little annoying for everyone except for Daphne, who takes it all in stride. Godhood is her family business, after all. Mostly people just give us what we ask for and try to forget us as quickly as possible.
Me and Stubby—my airship, Her Majesty’s Stalwart Trumpet of Glory—have been running the North American mapping routes since I left home, and part of our job is to drop in, verify the location of semi-universal landmarks, and see whether they have any artifacts in need of preservation. Hence our current course for the Flatiron Building, which is, as I mentioned, close enough to universal as to be a little bit unnerving. Why that building? Why that location? No one really knows, but wow are there a lot of them.
The scouts and rangers of the incursion team are, as always, completely at ease when I step into their shared quarters, a single large room that takes up most of our lower deck. They have free access to our hold, and most of them have “borrowed” various artifacts to decorate the space around their beds, hammocks, and sleeping tanks. The effect is not unlike stepping into a junk shop that had an unfortunate encounter with a hand grenade.
Heloise is playing some sort of dice-adjacent game with Tim and Tom, using precious gems in place of the dice. Alcestis, from Daphne’s world, is face-down in a hammock, snoring gently. The rest of the incursion team is nowhere to be seen, which worries me a little.
“Captain on the deck,” I call, voice pitched high and carrying.
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