David Brin's BRIGHTNESS REEF

Brightness Reef sample chapters

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Asx

i must ask your permission. You, my rings, my diverse selves.
     Vote now! Shall i speak for all of us to the outer world? Shall we join, once more, to become Asx?
     That is the name used by humans, qheuens, and other beings, when they address this stack of circles. By that name, this coalition of plump, traeki rings was elected a sage of the Commons, respected and revered, sitting in judgment on members of all six exile races.

     By that name -- Asx -- we are called upon to tell tales.
     Is it agreed?

     Then Asx now bears witness... to events we endured, and those relayed by others. "I" will tell it, as if this stack were mad enough to face the world with but a single mind.
     Asx brews this tale. Stroke its waxy trails. Feel the story-scent swirl.
     There is no better one i have to tell.

Prelude

     Pain is the stitching holding him together... or else, like a chewed-up doll or a broken toy, he would have unraveled by now, lain his splintered joins amid the mucky reeds, and vanished into time.
     Mud covers him from head to toe, turning pale where sunlight dries a jigsaw of crumbly plates, lighter than his dusky skin. These dress his nakedness more loyally than the charred garments that fell away like soot after his panicky escape from fire. The coating slakes his scalding agony, so the muted torment grows almost companionable, like a garrulous rider that his body hauls through an endless, sucking marsh.
     A kind of music seems to surround him, a troubling ballad of scrapes and burns. An opus of trauma and shock.
     Striking a woeful cadenza is the hole in the side of his head.
     Just once, he put a hand to the gaping wound. Fingertips, expecting to be stopped by skin and bone, kept going horribly inward, until some faraway instinct made him shudder and withdraw. It was too much to fathom, a loss he could not comprehend.
     Loss of ability to comprehend...
     The mud slurps greedily, dragging at every footstep. He has to bend and clamber to get through another blockade of crisscrossing branches, webbed with red or yellow throbbing veins. Caught amid them are bits of glassy brick or pitted metal, stained by age and acid juices. He avoids these spots, recalling dimly that once he had known good reasons to keep away.
     Once, he had know lots of things.
     Under the oily water, a hidden vine snags his foot, tripping him into the mire. Floundering, he barely manages to keep his head up, coughing and gagging. His body quivers as he rises back to his feet, then starts slogging forward again, completely drained.
     Another fall could mean the end.
     While his legs move on by obstinate habit, the accompanying pain recites a many-part fugue, raw and grating, cruel without words. The sole sense that seems intact, after the abuse of plummet, crash, and fire, is smell. He has no direction or goal, but the combined stench of boiling fuel and his own singed flesh help drive him on, shambling, stooping, clambering and stumbling forward until the thorn-brake finally thins.
     Suddenly the vines are gone. Instead a swamp sprawls ahead -- dotted by strange trees with arching, spiral roots. Dismay clouds his mind as he notes -- the water is growing deeper. Soon, the endless morass will reach to his armpits, then higher.
     Soon he will die.
     Even the pain seems to agree. It eases, as if sensing the futility of haranguing a dead man. He straightens from a buckled crouch for the first time since tumbling from the wreckage, writhing and on fire. He turns a slow circle...
     ...and suddenly confronts a pair of eyes, watching him from the branches of the nearest tree. Eyes set above a stubby jaw with needle teeth. Like a tiny dolphin, he thinks... a furry dolphin, with short, wiry legs... and forward-looking eyes... and ears...
     Well, perhaps a dolphin was a bad comparison. He isn't thinking at his best, right now. Still, surprise jars loose an association. Down some remnant pathway spills a relic that becomes almost a word.
     "Ty... Ty..." He tries swallowing. "Ty -- Ty -- t-t-t --"
     The creature tips its head to regard him with interest, edging closer on the branch as he stumbles toward it, arms outstretched --
     Abruptly, its concentration breaks. The beast looks up toward a sound.
     A liquid splash... followed by another, then more, repeating in a purposeful tempo, drawing rhythmically nearer. Swish and splash, swish and splash. The sleek-furred creature squints past him, then grunts a small disappointed sigh. In a blur, it whirls and vanishes into the queer-shaped leaves.
     He lifts a hand, urging it to stay. But he cannot find the words. No utterance to proclaim his grief as frail hope crashes into a chasm of abandonment. Once more, he sobs a forlorn groan.
     "Ty...! Ty...!"
     The splashing draws closer. And now another noise intervenes -- a low rumble of aspirated air.
     The rumble is answered by a flurry of alternating clicks and whistled murmurs.
     He recognizes the din of speech, the clamor of sapient beings, without grasping the words. Numb with pain and resignation, he turns -- and blinks uncomprehendingly at a boat, emerging from the grove of swamp trees.
     Boat. The word -- one of the first he ever knew -- comes to mind slickly, easily, the way countless other words used to do.
     A boat. Constructed of many long narrow tubes, cleverly curved and joined. Propelling it are figures working in unison with poles and oars. Figures he knows. He has seen their like before. But never so close together.
     Never cooperating.
     One shape is a cone of stacked rings or toruses, diminishing with height, girdled by a fringe of lithe tentacles which grasp a long pole, using it to push tree roots away from the hull. Nearby, a pair of broad-shouldered, green-cloaked bipeds paddle the water with great, scooplike oars, their long, scaly arms gleaming pale in the slanting sunlight. The fourth shape consists of an armored blue hump of a torso, leather-plated, culminating in a squat dome, rimmed by a glistening ribbon eye. Five powerful legs aim outward from the center, as if the creature might try to run in all directions at once.
     He knows these profiles. Knows and fears them. But true despair only floods his heart when he spies a final figure, standing at the stern, holding the boat's tiller, scanning the thicket of vines and corroded stone.
     It is a smaller bipedal form, slender, clothed in crude, woven fabric. A familiar outline, all-too similar to his own. A stranger, but one sharing his own peculiar heritage, beginning near a certain salty sea, many eons and galaxies distant from this shoal in space.
     It is the last shape he ever wanted to see in such a forlorn place, so far from home.
     Resignation fills him as the armored pentapod raises a clawed leg to point his way with a shout. Others rush forward to gape, and he stares back, for it is a sight to behold -- all these faces and forms, jabbering to one another in shared astonishment at the spectacle of him -- then rushing about, striving together as a team, paddling toward him with rescue their clear intent.
     He lifts his arms, as if in welcome. Then, on command, both knees fold and turbid water rushes to embrace him.
     Even without words, irony flows during those seconds, as he gives up the struggle of life. He has come a long way, and been through much. Only a short time ago, flame had seemed his final destiny, his doom.
     Somehow, this seems a more fitting way to go -- by drowning.

I. THE BOOK OF THE SEA

You who chose this way of life --
to live and breed and die in secret on this wounded world,
cowering from star-lanes you once roamed,
hiding with other exiles in a place forbidden by law --
what justice have you any right to claim?

The universe is hard.
Its laws are unforgiving.
Even the successful and glorious are punished
by the grinding executioner called
Time.
All the worse for you who are accursed,
frightened of the sky.

And yet there are paths that climb,
even out of despair's sorrow.

Hide, children of exile!
Cower from the stars!
But watch, heed and listen --
for the coming of a path.

-- The Scroll of Exile

Alvin's Tale

     On the day I grew up enough for my hair to start turning white, my parents summoned all the members of our thronging cluster to the family khuta, for a ceremony giving me my proper name -- Hph-wayuo.
     I guess it's all right, for a hoonish tag. It rolls out from my throat sac easy enough, even if I get embarrassed hearing it sometimes. The handle's supposed to have been in the lineage ever since our sneakship brought the first hoon to Jijo.
     The sneakship was utterly gloss! Our ancestors may have been sinners, in coming to breed on this taboo planet, but they flew a mighty star cruiser, dodging Institute patrols and dangerous Zang and Izmunuti's carbon storms to get here. Sinners or not, they must have been awfully brave and skilled to do all that.
     I've read everything I can find about those days, even though it happened hundreds of years before there was paper on Jijo, so all we really have to go on are a few legends about those hoon pioneers, who dropped from the sky to find g'Keks, glavers and traekis already hiding here on the Slope. Stories that tell how those first hoon sank their sneakship in the deep Midden, so it couldn't be traced, then settled down to build crude wooden rafts, the first to sail Jijo's rivers and seas since the Great Buyur went away.
     Since it has to do with the sneakship, I guess my given name can't be too bad.
     Still, I really like to be called Alvin.
     Our teacher, Mister Heinz, wants us upper graders to start journals, though some parents complain paper costs too much, here at the southern end of the Slope. I don't care. I'm going to write about the adventures me and my friends have, both helping and heckling the good-natured sailors in the harbor, or exploring twisty lava tubes up near Guenn volcano, or scouting in our little boat all the way to the long, hatchet-shadow of Terminus Rock.
     Maybe someday I'll turn these notes into a book!
     And why not? My Anglic is real good. Even grumpy old Heinz says I'm a whiz at languages, memorizing the town copy of Roget's by the time I was ten. Anyway, now that Joe Dolenz, the printer, has come set up shop in Wuphon, why should we have to count on the travelling librarian's caravan for new things to read? Maybe Dolenz would even let me set the type myself! That is, if I get around to it before my fingers grow too big to fit around those little backward letters.
     My dad, Yowg-wayuo, acts all grumpy, puffing his throat sac and telling me not to be such a human-mimicker. But I'm sure he likes the idea, deep down. Doesn't he keep taking borrowed books on his long voyages to the Midden, even though you're not supposed to, because what if the ship sank and maybe the last ancient copy of Moby-Dick went down with the crew? Wouldn't that be a real disaster?
     Anyway, didn't he used to read to me almost from the day I was born? Booming all the great Earthling adventure tales like Treasure Island, Sindbad, and Ultraviolet Mars? So who's he to call me a humicker!
     Nowadays, Dad says I should read the new hoon writers, those trying to go past imitating old-time Earthers, coming up with literature by and for our own kind.
     I guess maybe there should be more books in languages other than Anglic. But Galactic Two and Galactic Six seem so darn stiff for storytelling. Anyhow, I've tried some of those writers. Honestly. And I've got to say not one can hold a peg to Mark Twain.

     Naturally, Huck agrees with me about that!
     Huck is my best friend. She picked that name even though I kept telling her it's not a right one for a girl. She just twists one eyestalk around another and says she doesn't care, and if I call her "Becky" one more time she'll catch my leg-fur in her spokes and spin till I scream.
     I guess it doesn't matter, since g'Keks get to change sex after their training wheels fall off, and if she wants to stay female that's her business. As an orphan, Huck's lived with the family next door ever since the Big Northside Avalanche wiped out the weaver clan that used to squat in Buyur ruins up that way. You'd expect her to be a bit strange after living through that, and then being raised by hoons. Anyway, she's a great friend and a pretty good sailor, even if she is a g'Kek, and a girl, and doesn't have legs to speak of.
     Most times, Pincer-Tip also comes on our adventures, 'specially when we're down by the shore. He didn't need a nickname from some story, since all red qheuens get one the minute they set five claws outside the brooding pen. Pincer's no big reader like Huck and me, mostly because few books can stand the salt and dampness where his clan lives. They're poor, living off wrigglers they find in the mudflats south of town. Dad says the qheuens with red shells used to be servants to the grays and blues, before their sneakship brought all three to hide on Jijo. Even after that, grays kept bossing the others for a while, so Dad says the reds aren't used to thinking for themselves.
     Maybe so, but whenever Pincer-Tip comes along, he's usually the one chattering -- with all leg mouths at once -- about sea serpents, or lost Buyur treasure, or other things he swears he's seen... or else he heard of somebody who knows someone else who might've seen something, just over the horizon. When we get into trouble, it's often on account of something he thought up inside that hard dome where he keeps his brain. Sometimes I wish I had an imagination a dozenth as vivid as his.
     I should include Ur-ronn in the list, since she comes along sometimes. Ur-ronn's almost as much of a book maniac as Huck and me. Still, she's urrish, and there's a limit to how much of a humicker any urs can be, before planting four feet and saying whoa.
     They don't take to nicknames, for instance.
     Once, when we were reading a mess of old Greek myths, Huck tried calling Ur-ronn "Centaur." I guess you could say an urs kind of looks like one of those fabled creatures... if you'd just been conked in the eye by a brick and can't see or think too well from the pain. But Ur-ronn disliked the comparison and showed it by swinging her long neck like a whip, nearly taking off one of Huck's eye-stalks with a snap of her three-way mouth.
     Huck only said "centaur" just that once.
     Ur-ronn is a niece of Uriel, who runs a forge next to fiery lava pools, high up on Mount Guenn. She won a scholarship to 'prentice as a smith, instead of staying with the herds and caravans on the grassy plain. Too bad her aunt keeps her busy most of the time, and won't ever let her go off in the boat with us, on account of urs can't swim.
     Ur-ronn used to read a lot, back in that prairie school. Books we never heard of in this hick corner of the Slope. She tells us the stories she can recollect, like all about Crazy Horse and Genghis Khan, and urrish hero-warriors from those big battles they had with the humans, after Earthers came to Jijo but before the Commons got patched together and they started the Great Peace.
     It'd be uttergloss if our gang could be a complete Six, like when Drake and Ur-jushen and their comrades went on the Big Quest, and were the very first to set eyes on the Holy Egg. But the only traeki in town is the pharmacist, and that er is too old to make a new stack of rings we could play with. As for humans, their nearest village is several days from here. So I guess we're stuck being just a foursome.
     Too bad. Humans are gloss. They brought books to Jijo and speak Anglic better than anybody, except me and maybe Huck. Also, a human kid's shaped kind of like a small hoon, so he could go nearly all the same places I can with my two long legs. Ur-ronn may be able to run fast, but she can't go into water, and Pincer can't wander too far from it, and poor Huck has to stay where the ground is level enough for her wheels.
     None of them can climb a tree.
     Still, they're my pals. Anyway, there are things they can do that I can't, so I guess it evens out.

     It was Huck who said we ought to plan a really burnish adventure for the summer, since it would likely be our last.
     School was out. Mr. Heinz was on his yearly trip to the great archive at Biblos, then to Gathering Festival. As usual, he took along some older hoon students, including Huck's foster sister, Aph awn. We envied their long voyage -- first by sea, then riverboat to Ur-Tanj town, and finally by donkey caravan all the way up to that mountain valley where they'd attend games and dramas, visit the Egg, and watch the sages meet in judgment over all six of Jijo's exile races.
     Next year we may get our turn to go, but I don't mind saying the prospect of waiting another seventeen months wasn't welcome. What if we didn't have a single thing to do all summer except get caught loafing by our parents, then sent to help pack dross ships, unload fishing boats, and perform a hundred other mindless chores? More depressing, there wouldn't be any new books until Mr. Heinz got back... that is if he didn't lose the list we gave him!
     (One time he returned all excited with a big stack of old Earth poetry, but not a single novel by Conrad, Coopé, or Coontz. Worse, some grownups even claimed to like the stuff!)
     Anyway, it was Huck who first suggested heading over the Line, and I'm still not sure whether that's giving a friend due credit or passing on blame.
     "I know where there's something to read," she said one day, when summer was just getting its early start here in the south.
     Yowg-wayuo had already caught us, vegetating under the pier, skipping rocks at dome-bobbers, and bored as noors in a cage. Sure enough, he right-prompt sent us up the long access ramp to repair the village camouflage trellis, a job I always hate and I'll be glad when I'm too big to be drafted into doing it anymore. We hoon aren't as fond of heights as those tree-hugging humans and their chimp pets, so let me tell you it can be dizzifying having to crawl atop the wooden lattice arching over all the houses and shops of Wuphon, tending a carpet of greenery that's supposed to hide our town against being seen from space.
     I have doubts it'd really work, if the Day ever comes that everyone frets about. When sky-gods come to judge us, what good will a canopy of leaves do? Will it spare us punishment?
     But I don't want to be called a heretic. Anyway, this ain't the place to talk about that.
     So there we were, high over Wuphon, all exposed with the bare sun glaring down, and Huck blurts her remark like a sudden burst of hollow hail.
     "I know where there's something to read," she says.
     I put down the lath strips I was carrying, laying them across a clump of black iris vines. Below, I made out the pharmacist's house, with its chimney spilling distinct traeki smells. (Do you know that different kinds of plants grow above a traeki's home? It can be hard working there if the pharmacist happens to be making medicine while you're overhead!)
     "What're you talking about?" I asked, fighting a wave of wooziness. Huck wheeled over to pick up one of the laths, nimbly bending and slipping it in where the trellis sagged.
     "I'm talking about reading something no one on the Slope has ever seen," she answered in her crooning way, when she thinks an idea's gloss. Two eyestalks hovered over her busy hands while a third twisted to watch me with a glint I know too well. "I'm talking about something so ancient, it makes the oldest scroll on Jijo look like Jo Dolenz just printed it, with the ink still wet!"
     Huck spun along the beams and joists, making me gulp when she popped a wheelie or swerved past a gaping hole, weaving flexible lath canes, like reeds in a basket. We tend to see g'Keks as frail beings, because they prefer smooth paths and hate rocky ground. But those axles and rims are nimble, and what a g'Kek calls a "road" can be narrow as a plank.
     "Don't give me that," I shot back. "Your folk burned and sank their sneakship, same as every race who skulked down to Jijo. All they had were scrolls... until humans came."
     Huck rocked her torso, imitating a traeki gesture that means -- Maybe you're right, but i/we don't think so.
      "Oh Alvin, you know even the first exiles found things on Jijo to read."
     All right, so I wasn't too swift on the grok. I'm plenty smart in my own way -- steady and thorough is the hoonish style -- but no one ever accused me of being "quick."
     I frowned, mimicking a human "thoughtful" expression I once saw in a book, even though it makes my forehead hurt. My throat sac throbbed as I concentrated.
     "Hrrrrrm... Now wait just a minute. You don't mean those wall markings sometimes found --"
     "On the walls of old Buyur buildings, yes! The few not smashed or eaten by mulc-spiders when the Buyur left, a million years ago. Those same markings."
     "But weren't they mostly just street signs and such?"
     "True," she agreed with one dipping eyestalk. "But there were really strange ones in the ruins where I first lived. Uncle Lorben was translating some into Gal Two, before the avalanche hit."
     I'll never get used to how matter-of-factly she can speak about the disaster that wiped out her family. If anything like it happened to me, I wouldn't talk again for years. Maybe ever.
     "Uncle swapped letters with a Biblos scholar about the engravings he found. I was too little to understand much. But clearly there are savants who want to know about Buyur wall writings."
     And others who wouldn't like it, I recall thinking. Despite the Great Peace, there are still folk in all six races ready to cry heresy and warn of an awful penance, about to fall from the sky.
     "Well it's too bad all the carvings were destroyed when... you know."
     "When the mountain killed my folks? Yeah. Too bad. Say Alvin, will you pass a couple more strips over to me? I can't quite reach..."
     Huck teetered on one wheel, the other spinning madly. I gulped and passed over the lengths of slivered boo. "Thanks," Huck said, landing back on the beam with a shuddering bounce, damped by her shocks. "Now where was I? Oh yeah. Buyur wall writings. I was going to suggest how we can find some engravings no one's ever seen. At least none of us exile Sixers."
     "How could that be?" My throat sac must have fluttered in confusion, making burbly sounds. "Your people came to Jijo two thousand years ago. Mine almost as long. Even humans have been here a few hundred. Every inch of the Slope is explored, and each Buyur site poked into, scores of times!"
     Huck stretched all four eyes toward me.
     "Exactly!"
     Floating from her cranial tympanum, the Anglic word seemed stressed with soft accents of excitement. I stared for a long time, and finally croaked in surprise.
     "You mean to leave the Slope? To sneak beyond the Rift?"
     I should have known better than to ask.

     All it would have taken was a shift in the roll of Ifni's dice, and this would be a very different tale. Things came that close to going the way Huck wanted.
     She kept after me, for one thing. Even after we finished repairing the lattice, and went back to loitering near the ships moored under huge, overhanging gingourv trees, she just kept at it with her special combination of g'Kek wit and hoonlike persistence.
     "Come on, Alvin. Haven't we sailed to Terminus Rock dozens of times, and dared each other to keep on going? We even did it, once, and no harm ever came!"
     "Just to the middle of the Rift. Then we scurried home again."
     "So? Do you want that shame sticking forever? This may be our last chance!"
     I rubbed my half-inflated sac, making a hollow, rumbling sound. "Aren't you forgetting, we already have a project? We're building a bathy, in order to go diving --"
     She cut loose a blat of disgust. "We talked it over last week and you agreed. The bathy reeks."
     "I agreed to think about it. Hrm. After all, Pincer has already built the hull. Chewed it from that big garu log. And what about the work the rest of us put in, looking up old Earthling designs, making that compressor pump, and cable? Then there are those wheels you salvaged, and Ur ronn's porthole --"
     "Yeah, yeah." She renounced all our labors with a dismissive twirl of two stalks. "Sure, it was fun working on that stuff during winter, when we had to sit indoors anyway. Especially when it looked like it'd never actually happen. We had a great game of pretend.
     "But things are getting serious! Pincer talks about actually making a deep dive in a month or two. Didn't we agree that's crazy? Didn't we, Alvin?" Huck rolled closer and did something I've never heard another g'Kek do. She rumbled an umble at me, mimicking the undertone a young hoon female might use if her big, handsome male was having trouble seeing things her way.
     "Now wouldn't you rather come with me to see some uttergloss writings, so burnish and ancient they were written with computers and lasers and such? Hr-rm? Doesn't that beat drowning in a stinky dross coffin, halfway to the bottom of the sea?"
     Time to switch languages. While I normally find Anglic more buff than smug old star-god tongues, even Mr. Heinz agrees that its "...human tempos and loose logical structure tend to favor impetuous enthusiasms."
     Right then, I needed the opposite, so I shifted to the whistles and pops of Galactic Two.
     "Consideration of (punishable) criminality -- this has not occurred to thee?"
     Unfazed, she countered in GalSeven, the formal tongue most favored by humans.
     "We are minors, friend. Besides, the border law is meant to thwart illicit breeding beyond the permitted zone. Our gang has no such intent!"
     Then, in a quick flip to Galactic Two --
     "-- Or hast thee (perverted) designs to attempt (strange, hybrid) procreation experiments with this (virginal female) self?"
     What a thought! Plainly she was trying to keep me off balance. I could feel control slip away. Soon I'd find myself vowing to set sail for those dark ruins you can dimly see from Terminus Rock, if you aim an urrish telescope across the Rift's deep waters.
     Just then, my eye caught a familiar disturbance under the placid bay. A ruddy shape swarmed up the sandy bank until a dappled, crimson carapace burst forth, spraying saltwater. From that compact, pentagonal shell, a fleshy dome raised, girdled by a glossy black ring.
     "Pincer!" I cried, glad of a distraction from Huck's hot enthusiasm. "Come over and help me talk to this silly --"
     But the young qheuen burst ahead, cutting me off even before water stopped burbling from his speech vents.
     "M-m-mo-mo-mon --"
     Pincer's not as good at Anglic as Huck and me, especially when excited. But he uses it to prove he's as humicking modern as anyone. I held up my hands. "Easy, pal! Take a breath. Take five!"
     He exhaled a deep sigh, which emerged as a pair of bubble streams where two spiky legs were still submerged. "I s-s-seen 'em! This time I really s-seen 'em!"
     "Seen what?" Huck asked, rolling across squishy sand.
     The vision band rimming Pincer's dome looked in all directions at once. Still, we could feel our friend's intense regard as he took another deep breath, then sighed a single word.
     "Monsters!"

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