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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Void Star

A Novel

Zachary Mason




Floating World

Below her are the lights of the valley, like burning jewels on a dark tide. The Bay is a negative space around them, its leaden ripples picked out in the moonlight. There is, Irina realizes, a pattern in the flawed latticework of lights, something deeper than the incidental geometry of buildings and streetlight, to which the city has, unwitting, conformed itself, and, with this revelation, what she had taken for single lights expand into constellations, and each of their lights is a constellation in itself, luminescent forms in an endless descent, and the city is like a nebula, radiant with meaning, and this is how she finally knows she’s dreaming.

She is aware, now, that she’s on a plane, her forehead resting against the window, is aware of her slow, even breathing, of the awkward abandon of her legs skewed out in front of her. She caught the last shuttle from Los Angeles to San Francisco, leaving after midnight from a terminal abandoned by everyone but the drones scrubbing the floors. Now, twenty thousand feet in the air, she is alone, the plane following the sky’s ley lines of its own accord, like a mute, friendly animal that knows the way home. Even in the dream’s residue this gives her pause, automated commercial aviation only having come about when she was a teenager, but she thinks how, with access to the eyes of satellites and databases of the windforms and cloudforms and aircraft in the sky, the plane can see all the night at once.

She remembers the camera set unobtrusively into the seatback—perhaps in some distant darkened office-park there is an attendant, bored, lonely, her fingernails digging crescents into her coffee cup, face awash in LED glow, who is watching her, and worries, briefly, at her stillness, but is reassured by the motion behind her eyelids, and does the attendant feel some vast compassion for her charges adrift in this dark gulf of sky?

The plane banks and she comes fully awake. A loudspeaker offers muffled advice that she automatically ignores. Out the window she sees the imbricated panels of the wing shift slightly, the airflow whitely visible. Below her, the Bay and the ragged scrawl of lights, but now they are entirely legible and entirely banal—the glitter from the spires of the new downtown, the shoals of the office parks, the favelas glowing like cyclopean piles of cinders. She feels lighter, now; she is descending.


High Playground

The stinging impact of Kern’s palms against the cool concrete and he’s up and off again, flowing over the rooftop jumble of the favela’s density. The night’s celebrants and their predators have dispersed, and the workers are just stirring, so his progress has no witness but the flags and laundry shivering in the wind.

A canyon opens before him, a gap in the fabric of the rooftops—discipline requires that he never break stride, so he gauges his footing and leaps, glimpsing balconies below him, the cables criss-crossing the void—the momentary coldness of the rift’s exhalation. Landing, he’s grateful for the concrete’s roughness, its traction, how it makes the favelas his playground.

A drone like a bulbous, dog-sized ant methodically deposits a new layer of concrete on the wall before him; it slowly lifts its mauve plastic head to scan him but he is up, over and past. Illegal, that kind of robot; their hum, ubiquitous this time of day, will be gone by the time people are working. Another night and whatever it’s building will be finished, its weight added to the ever-burgeoning city.

The concrete seems to give, slightly, under his feet; perhaps an illusion, born of his speed, or perhaps this block is overbuilt, and unstable. He has seen the sinkholes, the fractured declivities, the rubble intermixed with splintered furniture, scattered clothes, all the sad relics of ruined private lives. He has explored the settling ruins of recent collapse, remembers the cramped incidental geometry of the unplanned mazes, the terror of masses shifting above him. He runs faster, as though pursued, breath steaming, feet seeming barely to touch the ground.

Now the rooftops slope down and he is infused with a terrible lightness as he leaps over prisms of broken concrete, the slope reminding him that there were hills under the favelas, once, and he wonders if the favelas’ broken contour mirrors the hills’ hidden swell. He has never found bare earth, there, just tunnels, tiers and old rooms ever deeper, and below them the ancient buildings, the basements and sewers, the forgotten warrens in the dark. There were wonders down there, they said, if you knew the way—a brothel in a long room lit by a single bulb, a secret club where men played chess and no one ever spoke, a swimming pool full of seawater, tiled in lapis.

Before him is an aluminum water tower, once a chemical tanker, protruding from the roof like an egg set on end. He gathers momentum and launches himself up, its crudely welded ladder creaking as it takes his weight, and then he is perched on top, the tanker shifting, vibrating with the slosh of its thousands of gallons. As his breathing slows and his sweat dries he takes in the pale moonlight on the water, the silver clouds enveloping the bridges, traces with his eyes the map of his secret byways through San Francisco. Something about the light on downtown’s towers makes it seem remote, incorruptible, a place outside of time.

Copyright © 2017 by Zachary Mason