Chapter 21: Power returns to the Exodus. Craighan is dead, Deim is still breathing, and the Wheel whispers to Navkin to take his place. First Officer Stochman attempts to re-establish military command over the Exodus, but Jaren asserts his own authority, backed by Teg and thirty of his closest friends.
For the first time in Nethereal, we are given the idea of a ship as a living entity. Craighan’s death is attributed to the Wheel rejecting him. Deim calls the Exodus “she” and states that the strange jump through space was not from him but the ship going where it wants to. The Wheel tempts Navkin to usurp Deim’s place at its controls. No other ship has exhibited any behaviors, from Guild couriers to the Shibboleth, to bulk freighters. An ominous sign, given the dead.
At the end of the chapter, Navkin endures a strange gel shower that almost drowns her. I am baffled as to why so much time was devoted to the scene, but little in Nethereal has been insignificant. I expect that future chapters will shed light on this incident.
Craighan has been deemed “as dead as Zadok.” According to the myth of father and daughter killing and becoming one another, shouldn’t Thera be ascendant? Why did she abandon her universe?
Chapter 22: Teg joins the navy scouts as they survey the space around the Exodus. In this stratum of space, air replaces the vast vacuum between the stars. They find a forest world and land amidst ruins. The scouts are attacked by a pack of bipedal chimerae. Teg fights free of his attacker and radios for pickup by the Exodus, as the natives have swarmed over the survey shuttle.
I was premature in declaring in the last post that the Exodus would appear in Hell proper. Instead, they are outside the gates. In Inferno, before Dante enters Hell, he passes through a dark woods near a small mountain, which Teg’s newfound world mirrors. Three beasts, a wolf, a lion, and a leopard, stop Dante, and drive him into a dark place. Teg’s attacker is a mix of wolf and two kinds of cat. Although he bests his attacker, more beasts drive Teg into the dark woods. If Teg is following in Dante’s footsteps, it will be interesting to see who is Virgil, his guide, will be and who his Beatrice, his love, will be. So far, only Navkin might fit the role of Beatrice, but little warm between her and Teg has been seen.
Before the natives attack, Teg discovers a fresco of a winged woman, matching the iconography of the goddess Thera. He also finds a design on the wall that matches the tattoo on the back of Deim, a confirmed worshipper of Thera. The goddess images are a strange sight on the path to Hell.
Chapter 23: Deim dreams of the Wheel. Embraced by a woman with reddish hair, he basks in a presence of peace alien to the Middle Stratum as her flies the Exodus towards a golden Mobius strip larger than any star system in the Middle Stratum. On the structure’s surface, roads spell out a revelation in an unknown script. Before the message is complete, a sailor wakes him so that he can start his shift on the bridge. Unsettled by the navigator’s disheveled appearance, Stochman warns Deim to not risk the ship. Deim instead warns the would-be captain to never lay a hand on Thera’s chosen.
On the forest world, Teg stumbles through the dark woods, pursued by a beast. The Exodus flies overhead and pulls him, alien abduction style, into a ship’s hangar.
Looks like the role of Dante will be played by multiple men. The description of Deim’s girl, a woman with reddish brown hair, matches a painting of Dante’s Beatrice, painted by Rossetti. In addition to being Dante’s unrequited love, Beatrice also served as Dante’s guide through heaven in the Paradiso. The golden Mobius strip, bent in the shape of infinity and etched with golden robes, is certainly heavenly imagery. Whatever revelation written on the surface, however, has plunged Deim into zealotry.
Chapter 24: Teg and Jaren argue in the officer’s lounge. Jaren wants to stay in orbit over the forest world, but Teg, the only survivor of the scouting party, wants to go anywhere else. Vaun Mordechai interrupts, and informs Jaren that they orbit the vestibule of the Nine Circles. The only way to safely return to the Middle Stratum is to go through each of the Nine Circles. To do so, they must find the gate to each one, which is hidden by the denizens of Hell. Teg informs Jaren and Vaun of the mural that matches Deim’s tattoo. The image of Thera on both looks like Navkin. Teg also reveals that the beast who chased him through the woods was the same wolf Navkin summoned previously. Vaun convinces Navkin to take the Wheel. She locates the first gate and flies the Exodus through.
Vaun Mordechai is filling the role of Virgil, the guide through Hell, although Virgil never played with anything as soul-corrupting evil as Teth. Of interest is how he is named. Here he is Vaun. Whenever men disappeared into whatever fate Teth has created for them, he is always Mordechai, with the first syllable appropriately invoking the Latin root mort, meaning death.
Chapter 25: The Exodus appears inside a huge hollow sphere, lined with columns of grey beings marching around lakes of fire. The next gate appears, and Navkin flies the Exodus through into a realm of billowing clouds. Spooked by some…thing…preying on the grey men, Navkin demands time away from the Wheel. Jaren gives the crew a shift to relax and follows Navkin to her quarters. The two near-siblings confide in each other, including Navkin’s misgivings about Vaun.
Afterward, Jaren searches for Vaun. Over drinks, the recluse confides a personal history of abuse and revenge before telling Jaren of other gods besides Zadok and Thera. The Nine Circles are these gods’ handiwork, a trap to imprison the souls of the dead. The ship might be on its way to Tzimtzum, and the gates between Circles are actually locks that Navkin is throwing wide open. At the end of his lecture, Vaun invokes the will of Teth.
For all the extensive resonance in Chapter 22 to details in the Inferno, Nethereal diverges instead in the details of the first Circle. Dante’s First Circle is Limbo, an “earthly paradise” that is a faint echo of Heaven given to unbaptized babies and virtuous pagans. Nethereal’s first Circle instead invokes a modern’s understanding of Hell as an underground cavern filled with lakes of fire.
The other gods of Vaun Mordechai and Hell are not necessarily gods, but beings higher than humanity, the Gen, and the other races of the Middle Stratum. Some prey on the souls of the dead. Others attempt to deny the soul-eaters their food. I am reminded of the way some Christian scholars attempted to place the pantheons of various peoples into the choirs of angels and demons.
These five chapters reveal much of the cosmology of Nethereal. As the spiritual is now driving the plot, straight through the heart of a soul-prison built by fallen angels, these chapters reward a careful reread. Some of Nethereal’s secrets can be puzzled out from the clues already presented. Future revelations will rely on the framework presented here. That said, for all of the spiritual realm around the Exodus, it is still captained by a space pirate and his crew. Fell deeds await.