by Joel Doonan
The edge of the universe is a place bathed in a warm radiance. It is a space where the distinctions between what is light and what is dark, what is good and what is not, are blurred beyond recognition.
At the very end of the ocean of time and space I sat, quiet, in the small wooden boat. Three days of steady rowing brought me to the glassy calm silence where the water appeared liquid gold even as I dipped my blistered hands to cool them. Ripples circled my cupped hands as I lifted the water, and all was silent except for the soft splash as it trickled through my fingers to rejoin the great gold sea.
At first the view was symmetrical in all directions and I was alone, but I did not feel alone. Suddenly a breeze came, nudged my boat toward a brighter area of sky. I rowed toward it, into a place where sky and ocean melt together, and as I continued, my boat became transparent like glass; then I became transparent as well until finally there was no difference between myself, the boat, the ocean or sky in all directions as far distant as could be perceived.
It was at this point that I spoke the first words in many days and my words came out in many voices and languages at once. It became a great reverberation which echoed though the diffusion of sky, ocean and rowboat, onward and outward to infinity. I said, "I have traveled long and hard. I have rowed and sailed and now have finally found the end of everything. Is there nothing more beyond this place?" And there was a wait of hours as the echoes of my words circled around, resounded and slowly faded; but then faintly at first, an echo did return, one which sounded as if it were formed from my very own words. It rippled back from the vast diffusion around me in many voices and languages until it became a great and powerful roar and it said with a mighty, deep thunder, "There is always more."
As I sat up on the couch, perceptions blurry from a late afternoon nap, my gaze fell upon three oranges in a line along the white window sill nearby, their rough skins brilliant and shiny in the day's last light. Through the tall glass windows behind them I could see the first colors of the evening sky. It cast a pale orange glow across the room and I said quietly, "There is always another path to follow, and a new challenge to meet".
On this very night my path would lead me to join a team and enter a great race; the annual crossing of sand skiffs through the Red Moon Desert.
Now well rested, I rose and gathered the three oranges, tucked them inside my shoulder pack along with my charts and calculator, and headed east to find the Wild Orchid.
They had searched for me -- or someone like me -- for more than a week, a young navigator with a love of the stars who would be willing to take a risk and join their team, someone with a certain intuitive understanding of direction and place when presented with a night sky. Secretly I was a seer of dreams as well, but this was something they did not need to know.
Loren and Levana had created their tri-rig skiff from spar-tree planks and polyamide resins. It was a unique blend of old craftsmanship and new materials. The hull was tough as iron and slick against the sand due to its streamlined design as well as the electromagnetic ripples sent resonating through the copper veneer along the lower part of each sponson. The magnetic waves set a sympathetic repulsion between sand and hull so that even a child could easily push the skiff along. It was an old technology, one used by merchants long ago to transport cargo across the desert before the development of airships, a technology gradually improved upon and now used by sporting and recreational vehicles. Long ago the merchants often traveled by night to avoid the daytime heat, and now the annual nighttime race bears homage to the traditions of that ancient time.
Levana's long hair tossed across her face like pale dry grass in the wind as she offered me a hand. "Welcome aboard the Wild Orchid," she said as I took her arm.
Loren stood tall and strong on the front bow as he worked to secure a pair of twin lanterns to the rigging. I took one of the two side seats and scooted my shoulder pack beneath. I switched on their compact map light, unrolled my land chart across a small map board and clamped my calculator to the board's edge. The space was cramped but adequate.
There is a certain tension in the air before a race, something often felt only by the contestants, and now for the first time as evening turned to night, I felt this tension as well. Twenty eight skiffs formed a widely spaced line, each craft marked by bow lanterns shining green, orange, or blue, as daylight gradually faded to expose a plum colored, star jeweled sky. We would race across one hundred fifteen sectors of the Red Moon Desert by night, crossing the entire western quadrant to finish at the town of Dressen.
The sandcraft were constructed in many sizes and configurations: bi-hull, tri-hull, a large multi-sail with a crew of six named Ship of Legends, and many small, single sail, one pilot skiffs called sprites. The late summer desert winds were known as the "harvest winds", coinciding with the citrus harvest in Dressen, and now the line held steady against the wind's force with anchor boards planted firmly in the sand. We all waited for the signal to start the race.
Late day whirlwinds buffeted the line as the desert gave up the day's last heat. The Wind Angels coaxed sand devils up from the dust and I closed my eyes as a swirling torrent passed around us. Then just as the full moon rose high enough to clear the eastern horizon -- a moon turned plum red by the iron rich dust -- a fiery torch was raised above a high rocky outcrop directly ahead. With our anchor boards released we launched forward and racers tightened their sails to catch the night wind.
Small, agile skiffs were first off the line, kicking up dust as they veered left or right to miss the rocky outcrop where the torchbearer stood waving the light. As the Wild Orchid accelerated I studied the moonlit desert for obstacles and landmarks and made notes along the edges of my map. I knew that features change from season to season and while my charts showed the locations of mountains and ravines, natural erosion could change the course of small washes and expose layers of sharp rock. I slipped on my night viewer, dialed up the brightness and set the magnification to triple. "Rocks ahead, ten points east," I said to Levana. She responded quickly, watching her compass as she shifted the rudders. Loren drew the sails taut as we launched off the edge of a sand wash, became briefly airborne then dropped into the soft drift. With the steady hiss of sand beneath us and the wind at our backs we kept pace among the fastest racers.
Now the skiffs began to spread out, each crew free to take whatever course they chose. The bow lanterns of the most distant craft began to twinkle with the warm, rising desert air and gradually faded from view.
It was smooth, uneventful sailing for most of the first hour but I kept alert, scanning the distance ahead of us. Something on the horizon suddenly caught my eye: a odd shine from reflected moonlight, almost like winter snowdrifts. In a moment I knew what it was. "Corrugate gypsum sand," I shouted, "Solid drifts ahead. Area too wide to go around, we'll have to go through!"
Summer rains could sometimes leach minerals to the surface to crust and solidify small dunes into a sea of rigid waves. Not well known here in the Red Moon Desert, it was a more common feature in the Eastern Province where I lived.
We hit the first few sharp ridges with a whining crunch and slowed down slightly as we forged through. Loren grimaced. "All that beautiful hand applied finish," he said, "Late nights mixing resin. Three days of polishing."
"At least the copper is still intact," said Levana, leaning over for a better view, "It's thick enough to take a real beating."
It was a rough, jarring ride through the hard sand. From somewhere off to our left we heard the groans and cracks from stressed hull planks. It was Ship of Legends, and as the large skiff fell behind we knew they were no longer in the competition.
We maintained our speed and were soon past the gypsum dunes. Nearly thirty sectors of smooth sand lay ahead and it was an opportunity to gain easy distance. I brought out the three oranges and handed one each to Levana and Loren.
I removed my night goggles, relaxed and listened to the droning sound of hissing sand resonating up through our hulls as I peeled my orange. I gazed at the plum colored moon and stretched out my legs. The sound of the sand began to resemble an odd sort of music, strange and distant like the music of nature one hears in the wind through forest branches or among grassy shoreline dunes. My map indicated no immediate hazards and with a long night ahead, I had time to rest. I closed my eyes but could still discern the odd color of the moonlight through closed lids. With palms up and open, I could even feel the soft light against my skin.
Dream images gradually began to fill my thoughts, images which became more and more vivid as I let myself fall in toward them.
At the very edge of the universe lay a sea of golden sand. I sank to my ankles as I walked and I continued with determination and purpose, but not knowing my destination. Rain began to fall and I looked to the sky. The air was electric and sparks rose from my arms and shoulders. Lightning danced across the heavens in all colors and was reflected around me in the many glassy puddles. I dropped to my knees and set my palms flat against the wet sand as rain dripped from my hair and suddenly before me, washed clean by the rain, lay three flat stones the size of dinner plates. Each bore a different inlaid symbol in colors of azure, jade, and ocher. There was meaning and importance in the ancient text, but even as I stared intently at them, the meaning of the symbols remained beyond my understanding.
"What is that?" said Loren, showing a look of concern as he pointed ahead into the dark shadows cast by a high ridge.
I shook off the dream and sat up quickly. I lifted my viewer and peered into the darkness. Sparks and small bright flashes of blue light shone just above the sand, a mystical sight reminiscent of the energy spirits described in the old texts that danced about the ground just before thunder storms. I increased the brightness and magnification.
"There is a pair of single-pilot skiffs," I said. "Two sprites. The sparks are coming from their lower hulls. The sand must be wet! A small rain shower could have passed through here. The skiffs are slowing down. I think the dampness is causing a reaction with their hull resonance."
"I think we can change our frequency to a pattern which better matches wet sand," said Loren, "Quick, hold the sail ropes."
I jumped up and took his position while he knelt and opened a small access panel. The green glow from the charge controls spilled into the space just behind the navigator's seat.
"Watch our lower sponsons," he said to Levana. "Wet sand is more conductive; particularly this iron rich sand. We'll raise the frequency just a touch."
Levana held tight to the rudder handle as she leaned over to watch the point were the sand contacted the copper veneer. "Now we have sparks," she said. We began to slow down and the air around us felt cooler.
Loren raised the resonant frequency, gradually, until the flashes of light diminished. The Wild Orchid accelerated. He resumed control of the sails as I slipped back into the navigator's position.
It had been only a small local shower, a late summer gift from the sky for the desert's sparse life, but the sprites, their batteries drained, were stranded until the sun would return. We swiftly passed them, our speed reestablished, and were soon back into dry sand and warm air. Loren reset the hull frequency for maximum speed and we continued without incident, crossing more than twenty sectors.
Levana caught my attention with a rapid hand wave. "Check your maps. We should be nearing The Badlands. We need to be careful."
I brightened the map light and recalculated our position. The land chart showed a lacy network of crags and ravines spanning several sectors ahead. Many of them intersected as they coursed in ragged, irregular paths leaving no safe passage, but with careful inspection I noted a single narrow margin of flatland which wove through the region. Crossing The Badlands was indeed the most direct path to Dressen, but also the most treacherous. Any skiff larger than the Wild Orchid would be unable to make the necessary tight turns, and all other racers had elected to go well around this dangerous region.
"This is where your input is critical," said Levana. "We're the only racers to have a dedicated navigator position on the team. It's been more than eighty five years since a racer attempted a night crossing of The Badlands."
"I've been told that you can still see parts of their wooden skiff in the bottom of a deep wash," added Loren, "still perfectly preserved by dryness and mineral salts."
I adjusted my viewer to see both my land chart as well as the horizon ahead. I recalculated our position as thin dark shadows to our left and right marked the edges of steep ravines. "Shift two points right," I said to Levana. I motioned toward Loren to slow. He slacked the sail for a safer speed. Here the wind direction became less predictable and every resource of skill and intuition was required from each of us.
Moonlight softened the roughness of the Badlands. It muted the deep red and yellow colors of eroded rock and subsoil as we navigated through. Without the light of a full moon high overhead, a successful crossing would have been unlikely. At the sight of each landmark I marked our position on my chart and refined our heading. My fingers were fast on the calculator figuring tangents and turns, and our path often took us dangerously close to an edge.
Suddenly to our left, a dark abyss appeared like a shadowy lake of ink, its steep drop only a few spans away. I motioned to Levana to steer gently south and gestured toward Loren to loosen the sails even more. Another ravine lay close to our right and the sand layer beneath us thinned. Two ravines had nearly joined from natural erosion; a feature not indicated on my chart. Creaks and groans resonated up through our hulls as they ground against small patches of exposed rock. We were slowed with each grind and soon came to a stop. Loren slacked the sail completely and we climbed out to inspect the situation.
Loren and Levana wasted no time. Extra rope was drawn from a storage compartment and tied to the front rigging. The Wild Orchid made lighter by our departure, we were able to pull the craft carefully through the narrow passage. We dragged it nearly 150 spans, then fortunately the sand layer began to deepen and the ravines parted company. We took our normal positions, tightened the sails and with a strong smooth wind at our backs resumed our rapid pace for the final stretch to Dressen.
Beyond The Badlands lay the flattest and smoothest region in the entire western quadrant. The pre-dawn winds were strong, almost gusting, and I often needed to stand and lean to help keep us level. The sand beneath us now had a finer, smooth, and very dry composition which allowed us to set a new speed record for the Wild Orchid.
The sky began to brighten slowly and the great red moon lay low in the west. It wasn't long before we glimpsed the tall white spires and mooring docks of the city, with five great airships tethered high above.
With the approach of dawn the moon and stars were washed pale, and then suddenly bright direct sunlight, the first of the new dawn, splashed upon the great airships gilding them yellow gold. They were cargo vessels waiting to be loaded with the products of the citrus harvest and each ship's mooring lines were marked with colorful pennants.
We maintained our speed without a break, but even with our dangerous trek through the Badlands to save time, a single competitor had managed to keep pace with us through the night.
Orange Beauty was within sight at a distance to the north, slowly closing ranks as we approached our destination. The large magnificent skiff had been the favorite to win, the darling of Dressen and winner of last year's race. Its hulls were painted bright orange, its sails pure white, and orange striped pennants waved from two top masts. While the Wild Orchid appeared dingy from the dusty night crossing, somehow the Orange Beauty appeared clean and bright, skillfully piloted by an experienced crew of four who knew the desert exceptionally well. Soon we were side by side, our speed matched.
Far off to our left and right, rows of yellow marker flags indicated the final stretch of the race. The lines of flags gradually drew closer and narrowed the passage toward the finish line and our two vessels remained side by side until we were barely ten spans apart.
We were close enough to see that their crew looked weary. We were all weary at this point as the wind gusted ever stronger but our two speeds remained matched. Levana motioned toward their lower hulls. "They've been through the Desert's Teeth." Rips and tears in their copper laminate were visible at the sand line, caused by razor edged rocks exposed from windstorms. Damage to the conductive veneer reduced the electromagnetic repulsion and even with their greater sail area it was all they could do to keep pace with us.
Some distance ahead at the end of the yellow flags, I could see a bluish wall of light which spanned the distance between the two lines and marked the precise finish. Many townspeople had risen early and gathered to watch. Now it was up to Loren to master the wind, hold tight to the sails and make adjustments for speed. Levana and I did what we could, shifted our weight toward the high side as the right sponson became airborne but we were still unable to pull noticeably ahead of Orange Beauty. We remained even with the other vessel even as we entered the wall of blue light.
There are many things one remembers in life, and some events which stand out above the rest: a first true love; the adventure of leaving home for the first time for education or the start of a new career; and for me, the time I stood atop the divide of the western range just at daybreak after a week of hiking, with the land to my left and right falling away to the plains; and now the finish of a great race.
Time seemed to slow as we pierced the paper thin veil of blue light. The momentary flash of brightness that crossed my eyes seemed to last for several seconds.
Cheers, clamor, and some confusion rose from the crowd. With heads shaking and hand gestures, three judges quibbled over the race results. It would be a tough call.
It was determined that the frayed ends of our windblown bow ropes entered the light first -- and this was indeed part of our vessel - but the first solid point of our hull was two fingers behind that of Orange Beauty. For the first time in the two hundred thirty year history of the race, it was proclaimed a tie.
As Loren lowered the Wild Orchid's sails and powered down the hull charge, Levana set the rudders and planted the anchor boards. I slipped down from the main hull and set my cramped and shaky feet on the cool dry sand.
The morning wind carried the aroma of fresh baked cakes, citrus marmalade and jadeleaf tea from the open windows of a nearby housing co-op. Other skiffs began to arrive, mostly single pilot sprites. We shook sand and dust from our hair and clothes and headed toward the showers.
With fresh clothes and wet hair we entered the dining hall, each took a tray and proceeded down the breakfast line. We were tempted with a complimentary assortment of baked citrus pies, three kinds of spicy hot legume pilaf, breads and jams, teas, juices, and pan-fried nuts and greens in orange oil.
"My name is Eleen, City Council member, and this year's director of the Red Moon Race."
She stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows which faced east toward the desert, a narrow table set with a number of awards at her side.
"Sailing conditions were excellent this season," she continued, "Strong wind and dry weather, and we've had a greater participation and higher number of finishers than in any race during the last seven years. On behalf of the city of Dressen, we welcome and applaud each of you. I hope you will each take the time to stay for a few days, do some shopping and enjoy our hospitality."
As she continued, I gazed out the tall windows. I could see the Wild Orchid anchored outside, windblown, scratched and dusty, and smaller skiffs parked beside it. Glancing about the room, large photos of past winners lined the walls and chronicled more than two hundred years of competition. There were also numerous hand drawn artistic skiff designs from the town's school children with novel hull and sail configurations. A young man entered and walked hurriedly across the room, a pair of freshly engraved awards in his hands.
"I would like the teams from both the Orange Beauty and the Wild Orchid to please come forward."
Our team and theirs joined City Council member Eleen by the window and exchanged handshakes.
"The two hundred thirtieth race across the Red Moon Desert has been proclaimed a tie. Each of these fine teams receives first place awards."
She picked up the wooden award bases upon which were mounted three, solid gold oranges. Both teams stood close for a photo record.
We took our seats to finish breakfast and I turned to Levana. "What do these symbols mean? I've seen them before."
She shifted the award around for both of us to see and she traced the symbol imprinted on the first orange with her finger.
"The mark of Wind," she said. It's from the ancient calligraphy. This symbol is where my name, Levana, comes from. She moved to the next orange. "And this is the mark of Moon. The last orange has the character for Sand. There is a very old fable in which these three elements, considered to be in constant motion, are described as the clockworks of the desert."
"And finally the award for the most tattered skiff that despite all hazards still managed to complete the race," continued Eleen, "Will the team from the Twin Rivers Sport Club kindly step forward."
Two young men who I knew from the sport club back home rose from the couch and joined Eleen in front of the windows.
"Some would argue that this is the finest award of all: an 'emperor size' jar of Dressen's famous Five Fruits Marmalade for each of you!"
It was late morning when Loren, Levana and I parted company. They thanked me for helping win the award and asked how we could share it. I smiled. "The memory is enough for me. Keep the award with your skiff. Really, it was the Wild Orchid who won the title."
Their skiff was water-worthy as well as sand-worthy, and they would sail the Wild Orchid down the broad, Garigold River from Dressen back to their homes in Forest Province.
"A good time to test my skills on the water," said Loren, "and the grassy banks make great camping."
"I've always wanted to see the orchard country," added Levana," The trip should take us about five days."
I bade them farewell and now it was up to me to arrange my own passage home.
"I know a certain ship captain," said the co-op's cook as I helped clean the breakfast counter in preparation for lunch. "His name is Neelan and he pilots an airship that services the Twin Rivers Region among others. Might provide an interesting ride home for you. I know they're short a loading hand since my son was married last week."
I was excited by the proposition: a free ride home on a great airship. The ship's cargo manager was glad to have extra help in exchange for passage and, skirting a few safety issues, I rode the conveyor strapped to a crate of oranges, from the ground up to the open dock bay on the underside of the airship "Provincial Explorer 134ND7."
For the rest of the day I worked the top end of the conveyor, grabbed each crate off the top rung as it came up, and at a near run lofted them back to the storage bins on either side of the cargo hold. By early evening after moving three hundred fifteen crates of oranges -- I know because I had to count them all -- I was ready to collapse.
There were drop-down bunks under the view windows in the crew lounge. I folded one down and slid my shoulder pack underneath. I could just see the badlands to the east which we had worked so hard to cross, and thin lines in the sand left by the passage of the many skiffs. I wrote in my journal as stars gradually jeweled the sky around us and small lights shone from homes and shop windows below.
I awoke to the soft humming of turbines. It was just pre-dawn and the city of Dressen was nowhere in sight. Captain Neelan appeared with a cup of hot tea and an orange pastry bun.
"Ion thrust turbines," he said proudly, handing me the complimentary breakfast, "Not those noisy old mechanical ones. Incoming air is highly charged as it passes through the front fan vanes and then accelerated by a rotating inverse charge along the turbine body. The charge is stripped away by the rear fan vanes and electronically recycled as the air exits at a high rate of speed. Brilliant bit of engineering. The whole system forms a resonant loop. They're so energy efficient they can be powered by our solar collectors." I nodded with hot tea in one hand and pastry in the other.
By noon we were over the town of Westland. We unloaded twenty eight crates to their grocery co-op then continued on to Mali-Kava, the historic city of ancient scribes. There was no time to ride the conveyor down for touristing, though. We were quickly off to the next delivery.
After a day of little to eat but far too spicy bean pilaf and fresh oranges, I began to eat the orange peelings as well. After three days, I actually preferred the peelings.
"Saves money and time," said Neelan at lunch. "We usually eat from the cargo we carry." He held a unpeeled orange in his left hand. He just stared at it, having already eaten two. He glanced at me as I chewed on a strip of peeling. "During spring and summer we carry a wide variety of produce but autumn does get a bit monotonous."
As we crossed the edge of the western grasslands and into Windward Province, the sight of my home town of Twin Rivers was more than welcome.
I was glad at the thought of getting back to Windward University to complete my degree in Planetary Geology, back to regular meals and a good night's sleep. From my journal notes I would compose a story for the upcoming issue of the Windward Journal, about the two hundred thirtieth race across the Red Moon Desert and the first tie in the race's history.
Neelan handed me three oranges as I sat atop the final crate to ride the conveyor down to the grocery co-op. "Fine job," he said as I waved below to my friends Nell and Welan who worked the ground end. "Here's a little something to take home. Keep in touch. We can always use crate handlers and soon we'll be bringing a variety of wonderful hot peppers up from Southern Aldora on our return trip. Two hundred fifty crates at least."
I nodded, smiled politely and imagined three days of eating little but hot peppers.
© 2007 Joel Doonan
Bio: Joel Doonan grew up in the rain forest of eastern Peru, where he experienced dangers and wonders not found in your average suburb, and developed, at an early age, an avid interest in writing. Now a small business owner in central Texas, he lives on 22 acres of untamed rural land, where, despite heat, grasshoppers, hail storms, and the natives (he does not specify whether he means Native Americans, or just Texans), he still finds time to write. Joel has had two short stories published by "Wild Child Publishing", and three others by Aphelion, most recently Talking to Stones, August, 2007.
E-mail: Joel Doonan
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