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The Stars are Wonder
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
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The Stars are Wonder, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

8.
The Water Walker


We are not saved. We have passed again into the open sea and despite Onion War's confidence of landfall we have been abandoned by bird and cloud alike. The sky is a heartless blue card, the ocean an unthinking mirror bladed by sunglints. Again our stores are diminished. Again our water is bracken and smelly, and we drink our urine in the mornings with animal relish.

We are all tanned like kings, even the inferior ones.

Mr. Stay and Mr. Bailiff have both expired in their cabins, one by bottle and one by traditional suicide. Neither loss was felt as keenly as that of our spiritual leader, the deaf magician. He went to sleep one night and did not awake, an empty phial at his bedside. Criminal suicide is likely, but Captain Valley enters nothing in the log anymore. The remaining hands help to huck the three bodies overboard and no words are spoken. All magical pomp is ignored, for the men feel ignored by the magic.

Captain Valley is grim. "He was no real man of magic," he swears quietly.

Our rationality is eroding. I see it in myself. I can still hear the magician's amelodic sacred weapon between the slap of the surf against our hull and the seashell sussuruss of hot air. Twice under the weird purple sky of twilight I have seen a figure following the bubbles of our wake, stepping between the waves as if hiking in a meadow, faintly glowing, careless, impossible.

I bring dismal rations to Onion War: green cake and bugs. I feel he may be our only hope. "Stick your finger in the little woman," I implore him. "Question the world! Find our way! Count the stars!"

He is weary and his skin is ashen. His breathing is noisy. "I have run the figures through my vulvic triangulator a thousand times."

"Then when will we get to the Empire?"

"We should be there already...we should already be home." He trails off and stares with unfocused eyes out the port in his cabin -- nothing but unfathomable blue.

I snap my fingers and jostle his shoulder. "Hey! Master War! We've awakened in a prison cell and are not being fed at all: what can we do to know the mind of our captors? What can we do, man?"

He shakes his head sadly. "There are no captors, boy."

We sit in silence a moment, and then a strange little smile plays briefly over the old man's lips. "She's so beautiful," he comments.

"Who?" I ask.

I trace his gaze out the portal and then stand up for a better view. I stand up too quickly, and falter in dizziness. I imagine I see the one who walks between the waves but my vision throbs with the spectral bruising of afterimages. I am weak. My tongue is thick and my throat very dry. I blink with effort. I cannot even see the sea -- only a wall of blue as if our ship were flying. My tortured brain will no longer render the image of the damned water.

"I see nothing."

Onion War chuckles mirthlessly. "And nothing sees you."



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