The Gray Maelstrom is the best publishing experience of my life by a fair bit; I had the idea one day, immediately sat down and typed it up, corrected two typos, and mailed it to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction. They bought it and it appeared in the February 1983 issue, when I was twenty, which makes it twenty-five years old this month.
This is broadly set within the Great Wheel of Existence, like most of my writing.
My name is Joel Gray. Or was. The Joel part, of course, is appropriately meaningless. That my surname is Gray I find meaninglessly appropriate, for it is so very, very gray.
There are two shapes here. A mathematician from the place where I was born would tell you that the only meaningful numbers are zero, one and infinity; but then, I have spent infinity, spent it twice over in this limbo of the gray, and I assure you that the number two is the only meaningful number.
The first shape is the line; long, twisting and sinuous, lines weave themselves about my disembodied viewpoint in a multitude that halves forever; they pulse, and resonate, one to another, on those rare occasions when two lines come into close enough proximity to affect each other. They writhe like snakes embracing, exchange information the nature of which I am only now beginning to grasp, and then flash apart to resume their solitary lineness.
The other shape is the sphere. They are perfect spheres, without grain or roughness, and all of a size, unlike the lines. With no reference points to judge against, the spheres may be very large or very small; impossible to say. When I first came here, I used them to measure the lines against.
They are colored in shades of gray, subtle variations of grayness, from dark grays that almost remind me of the color, or lack of it, that I seem to remember as “black,” to pale, chalky grays that almost seem to be the color – or lack of it – that I recall as “white.”
They move. The lines squirm through and above the spheres, and there is never the third element of empty space; all that I see is composed of the dancing spheres, the writhing lines, and the shifting shades of gray.
(The dance was, I thought when I first came to this place, without meaning, but now I see it otherwise; rather than simple Brownian motion, it harmonizes; the dance is of form and rhythm, with a complexity such that without eternity to contemplate it I should never have discovered it.)
Sometimes, when with all the effort that my disembodied self is capable of expending, I am yet unable to concentrate on the gray maelstrom, I remember the time before I came here. I was a geologist, a professor of geology in a place called Arizona. As this timelessness has stretched on I have found myself more and more unable to recall events from that place; it seems to have been a curious world, a place of color and sensation, and most strangely, a place of others who were like myself; they did not bear the name Joel Gray, but they were like me nonetheless.
I do remember the ending. Perhaps I shall never forget it. I was out in the field, collecting samples, and had set up camp as the night wore on. I intended to … sleep? … yes, sleep, and I had built a fire, for warmth.
It had come out of the sky, with fear strong in the thoughts of those contained inside. They were not like me; they were not named Joel Gray, but even more than those who were like me but did not bear my name, these differed.
They thought of their craft as an inverspace ship, and it was crippled by an impact with an antimatter micrometeor. They needed to land their ship and make repairs, but they could not do that without turning off the inverspace drive field. It was their great bad fortune that the micrometeor had destroyed the controls that would allow them to shatter the integrity of the inverspace drive field. They had a way out, though; their drive field, when taken deep into the gravity well of a sufficiently massive planet, would of its own accord attenuate and flicker out.
They knew a very good reason why they should not do this – it had something to do with their religion, or beliefs – but they were weak, and they wanted to live. They took the ship down, to the planet whose name was, I think, Earth.
Thou shalt not activate an inverspace drive within the atmosphere of a potentially inhabited planet.
I learned all of these things as the landing ship’s drive field washed over me, and then, in the instant before I learned from the mind of the drive engineer why an inverspace field must not be used in the atmosphere of a potentially inhabited planet, I was here.
That was two eternities ago.
Damn this grayness.
The storm of line and sphere plays about me. I am certain, now, that there is a pattern to it all. And sometimes … when I concentrate very hard … it seems that I can make the dance shift, and do what I will it.
Of this much I am sure: I am growing. With each pulse of graying eternity, the complexities and intricacies of the dance become plainer, easier to encompass.
With this growth comes a feeling of power, raw, exultant power.
Perhaps some timeless time I shall have grown to such extent that I am able to shed the storm like a snake shedding its skin, and return to the place where I was a man named Joel Gray.
I know, with a certainty that passes description, that the power shall not desert me, if ever I leave the gray maelstrom.
And if this should come to pass, I think I shall ask the drive engineer of the people who are not like me just why an inverspace drive must not be activated within the atmosphere of a potentially inhabited planet.
I am more certain than ever that the dance bends to my will.
There is a story I remember. It concerns a creature called a jinn.
This jinn was imprisoned within a bottle. He was a creature of great power.
After a thousand years in the bottle, he had decided to grant three wishes to whoever unstopped the bottle and let him out.
After two thousand years he had decided to serve forever whoever unstopped the bottle and let him out.
After three thousand years he had decided to spend the rest of eternity torturing the luckless creature who released him.
It amazes me now, how easily the dance shapes itself to my will.
The alien starship sat squat and holed on the cold sands of the Arizona desert. Some forty yards from where the ship landed, a geologist was sleeping next to his fire.
Within just a few seconds, the flickering, dying inverspace field would withdraw from the shape of the sleeping man.
The very last sight any of the aliens had was of a tall, gray demon, stalking patiently toward their ship, a bare few feet beyond the edge of the shrinking inverspace field.