Brightness Reef sample chapters
II. THE BOOK OF THE SLOPE
The better part of a million years has passed since the Buyur departed Jijo, obeying Galactic rules of planetary management when their lease on this world expired. Whatever they could not carry off, or store in lunar caches, the Buyur diligently destroyed, leaving little more than vine-crusted rubble where their mighty cities once towered, gleaming under the sun.
Yet, even now, their shadow hangs over us -- we cursed and exiled savages -- reminding us that gods once ruled on Jijo.
Living here as illegal squatters -- as "sooners" who must never dwell beyond this strip between the mountains and the sea -- we of the Six Races can only look with superstitious awe at eroded Buyur ruins. Even after books and literacy returned to our Commons, we lacked the tools and skills to analyze the remains, or to learn much about Jijo's last lawful tenants. Some recent enthusiasts, styling themselves "archaeologists," have begun borrowing techniques from dusty Earthling texts, but these devotees cannot even tell us what the Buyur looked like, let alone their habits, attitudes, or way of life.
Our best evidence comes from folklore.
Though glavers no longer speak -- and so are not counted among the Six -- we still have some of the tales they used to tell, passed on by the g'Keks, who knew glavers best, before they devolved.
Once, before their sneakship came to Jijo, when glavers roamed the stars as full citizens of the Five Galaxies, it is said that they were on intimate terms with a race called the Tunnuctyur, a great and noble clan. In their youth, these Tunnuctyur had been clients of another species -- the "patron" that uplifted them, giving the Tunnuctyur mastery of speech, tools, and sapiency. Those patrons were called Buyur, and they came from Galaxy Four -- from a world with a huge carbon star in its sky.
According to legend, these Buyur were known as clever designers of small, living things.
They were also known to possess a rare trait -- a sense of humor.
by Hau-uphtunda, Guild of Freelance Scholars, year-of-Exile 1908.
Hear, my rings, the song i sing. Let its vapors rise amid your cores, and sink like dripping wax. It comes in many voices, scents, and strengths of time. It weaves like a g'Kek tapestry, flows like a hoon aria, gallops and swerves in the manner of urrish legend, and yet turns inexorably, as with the pages of a human book.
The story begins in peace.
It was springtime, early in the second lunar cycle of the nineteen hundred and thirtieth year of our exile-and-crime, when the Rothen arrived, manifesting unwelcome in our sky. Shining sunlike in their mastery of air and ether, they rent the veil of our concealment at the worst of all possible times -- during the vernal gathering-of-tribes, near the blessed foot of Jijo's Egg.
There we had come, as so often since the Emergence, to hear the great ovoid's music. To seek guidance patterns. To trade the produce of our varied talents. To settle disputes, compete in games, and renew the Commons. Above all, seeking ways to minimize the harm done by our ill-starred presence on this world.
Gathering -- a time of excitement for the young, work for the skilled, and farewells for those nearing the end of years. Already there had spread rumors -- portents -- that this assembly would be momentous. More than a usual quota from each clan had come. Along with sages and roamers, grafters and techies, many simple folk of two-legs, four and five -- and of wheel and ring -- followed drumbeats along still-frosted mountain tracks to reach the sacred glades. Among each race, manifold had felt the tremors -- stronger than any since that provident year when the Egg burst from Jijo's mother soil, shedding hot birth-dust, then settling to rule our fractious passions and unite us.
This latest pilgrimage may not yet have solidified as waxy memory. But try to recall slowly wending our now-aged pile aboard ship at Far Wet Sanctuary, to sail past the glistening Spectral Flow and the Plain of Sharp Sand.
Did not those familiar wonders seem to pale when we reached the Great Marsh and found it in bloom? Something seen once in a traeki lifetime? A sea of color -- flowering, fruiting, and already dying gaudily before our senses. Transferring from boat to barge, we travelers rowed amid great pungency, under avenues of million-petalled sylph canopies.
Our companions took this as an omen, did they not, my rings? The humans in our midst spoke of mysterious Ifni, the capricious one, whose verdicts are not always just, but are ever-surprising.
Do you recall other sights/experiences? The weaver villages? The mulc-spiders and hunting camps? And finally that arduous climb, twist by twist of our straining foot-pads, through the Pass of Long Umbras to reach this green vale where, four traeki generations ago, geysers steamed and rainbows danced, celebrating the dark ovoid's emergence?
Recollect, now, the crunch of volcanic gravel, and how the rewq trembled on our head-ring, mutinously refusing to lay itself over our eyelets, so that we arrived in camp barefaced, unmasked, while children of six races scurried, shouting -- "Asx! Asx! Asx, the traeki, has come!"
Picture the other High Sages -- colleagues and friends -- emerging from their tents to walk, slither, roll, and greet us with this epithet. This label they regard as permanently attached to "me"... a fiction that i humor.
Do you recall all that, my rings?
Well, patience then. Memories congeal like dripping wax, simmering to coat our inner cores. Once there, they can never be forgotten.
On Jijo there is a deep shine in the section of sky farthest from the sun. We are told this is rare on worlds catalogued by the Great Galactics, an effect of carbon grains -- the same ones that seed the hollow hail -- grains sent by Izmunuti, the glaring star-eye in a constellation humans call Job's Torment. It is said our ancestors studied such traits of their new home before burning and burying their ships.
It is also said that they simply "looked it all up" in a portable branch of the Galactic Library... before consigning even that treasure to flames on the day called Never-Go-Back.
There was no hollow hail on that spring morning, when the other sages emerged to salute our rings, calling us/me Asx. As we gathered under a pavilion, i learned that my/our rewq was not the only one grown skittish. Not even the patient hoon could control his translation-helper. So we conferred without the little symbionts, fathoming each other by word and gesture alone.
Of all whose ancestors chose hopeless exile on this world, the g'Kek are senior. So to Vubben fell the role -- Speaker of Ignition.
"Are we guilty for the failure of rantanoids?" Vubben asked, turning each eye toward a different point of the compass. "The Egg senses pain in the life-field whenever potential is lost."
"Hrrrm. We argue the point endlessly," The hoon sophist, Phwhoon-dau replied. "Lark and Uthen tell of a decline. Rantanoids aren't yet extinct. A small number remain on an Yuqun Isle."
The human sage, Lester Cambel, agreed. "Even if they are past hope, rantanoids are just one of countless species of root-grubbers. No reason to figure they were specially blessed."
Ur-Jah retorted in our Jijo dialect of Galactic Two that her own ancestors, long ago and far away, had been little root grubbers.
Lester conceded with a bow. "Still, we aren't responsible for the rise and fall of every species."
"How can you know?" Vubben persisted. "We who lack most tools of science, left to flounder in darkness by our selfish forebears, cannot know what subtle harm we do by stepping on a leaf, or voiding our wastes in a pit. None can predict what we'll be held accountable for, when The Day comes. Even glavers, in their present state of innocence, will be judged."
That was when our aged qheuenish sage, whom we call Knife-Bright Insight, tilted her blue carapace. Her voice was a soft whisper from one chitin thigh.
"The Egg, our gift in the wilderness, knows answers. Truth is its reward to an open mind."
Chastened by her wisdom, we fell into meditation.
No longer needed, the errant rewq slipped off our brows and gathered in the center, exchanging host-enzymes. So near the center of our small universe, we took up a gentle rhythm, each sage adding a line of harmony -- of breath and beating hearts.
My rings, do you recall what chose then to occur?
The fabric of our union was ripped by booming echoes, cast arrogantly by the Rothen ship, proclaiming its malign power, before it even arrived.
We emerged to stare, dismayed, at the riven sky.
Soon sage and clanfolk alike knew The Day had finally come.
Vengeance is not spared upon the children of the fallen.
The Family of Nelo
The paper-crafter had three offspring -- a number worthy of his noble calling, like his father, and his father's father. Nelo always supposed the line would go on through his own two sons and daughter.
So he took it hard when his strong-jawed children deserted the water mill, its sluiceways, and wooden gears. None heeded the beckoning rhythm of the pulping hammer, beating cloth scavenged from all six races, or the sweet mist spread by the sifting screens, or the respectful bows of traders, come from afar to buy Nelo's sleek white pages.
Oh, Sara, Lark, and Dwer were happy to use paper!
Dwer, the youngest, wrapped it around arrowheads and lures for the hunt. Sometimes he paid his father in piu nodules, or grwon teeth, before fading into the forest again, as he had done since turning nine. Apprenticed to Fallon the Tracker, Dwer soon became a legend across the Slope. Nothing he sought escaped his bow, unless it was shielded by law. And rumors said the fierce-eyed lad with jet-black hair killed and ate whatever he liked, when the law wasn't looking.
As focused as Dwer was wild, Lark used paper to plot vast charts on his study wall, some parts almost black with notes and diagrams. Elsewhere, large spaces gaped blank, a waste of Nelo's art.
"It can't be helped, Father," Lark explained near wooden shelves filled with fossils. "We haven't found which species fill those gaps. This world is so complex, I doubt even the Buyur ever fully grasped Jijo's ecosystem."
Nelo recalled thinking that an absurd thing to say. When the Buyur leased Jijo, they had been full citizens of the Community of the Five Galaxies, with access to the fabled Great Library, dwarfing all the paper books in Bibios! With a word, the Buyur could beckon any answer under the sun. Under a billion suns, if tales of the past could be trusted.
At least the sages approved of Lark's work. But what of Sara? Always Nelo's favorite, she used to love the smells, rhythms and textures of papermaking -- till age fourteen, when she stumbled on a talent.
Nelo blamed his late wife, who had entered his life so strangely, long ago, and used to fill the kids' heads with odd tales and ambitions.
Yes, he decided. It was all Melina's fault --
A low cough jarred Nelo's drifting resentment. He blinked as a pair of deep brown eyes peered over his pitted desk. Dark fur framed a face so nearly human that unwary traeki sometimes gave chimpanzees the courtesy due full members of the Commons.
"Are you still here?" Nelo snapped.
The face winced, then nodded to the left, toward the paper storeroom, where one of Nelo's aides slowly gathered lorn sheets from a discard bin.
He cursed. "Not that garbage, Jocko!"
"But Master, you said to fetch waste scraps we can't sell --"
Nelo ducked under the Great Shaft, a rotating horizontal shank of hardwood, carrying power from the village dam to nearby workshops. He shooed Jocko away. "Never mind what I said. Go back to the vats--and tell Caleb to put less water through the millrace! It's four months till rainy season. He'll have us out of business in two!"
Nelo scanned the shelves for himself, finally choosing two reams of slightly flawed sheets, bound in liana vines. They weren't quite rejects. Someone might have paid cash for them. On the other hand, what was there to save for? Didn't the sages warn against investing much pride or care in tomorrow?
For all strivings will bejudged, and few will win grace. . . .
Nelo snorted. He wasn't a religious man. He made paper. The profession implied some faith in the essential goodness of time.
"These'11 do for your mistress, Prity," he told the little chimp, who rounded the desk, holding out both hands. Mute as a rewq, she served Nelo's daughter in ways no other being on Jijo could manage. Ways that few could comprehend. He handed over one of the heavy packages.
"I'll carry the other. It's time I dropped by anyway, to see if Sara's getting enough to eat."
Mute or not, the ape was expressive with rolled eyes. She knew this was just an excuse for Nelo to have a look at Sara's mysterious houseguest.
Nelo growled. "Come along and no dawdling. Some of us work for a living, you know."
A covered walkway linked the dam/factory to the forest, where most villagers dwelled. Fierce sunlight filtered through a canopy of living camouflage. At noon it took an optimist to think the screen would hide the buildings against a resolute scan from space -- and among the Six, optimism was viewed as a mild type of heresy.
Alas, it was not the type of heresy followed by Nelo's eldest son.
Concealment seemed doubly problematic for the great dam itself. Unlike the ones qheuenish colonists made, bottling small ponds behind barriers that mimicked landslides or piles of logs, this dam spanned half an arrowflight from end lo end. False boulders and cascades of melon creepers blurred its outline. Still, many called it the most blatant artifact on the Slope -- outside of some ancient Buyur site. Each year, on Denouncement Day, radicals harangued for its destruction.
And now Lark is one of them. Nelo cast a stock complaint toward his dead wife's spirit. Do you hear, Melina? You brought the boy with you, when you came from the far south. We're taught genes don't matter as much as upbringing, but did I raise a son to be a rabble-rousing apostate? Never!
Instead of camouflage, Nelo put his faith in the promise of the founding ancestors who planted their truant seed on Jijo, claiming there would be no determined scan from space. Not for half a million years or so.
He once stressed that point in an argument with Lark. To his surprise, the lad agreed, then said it did not matter.
"I urge drastic measures not because I'm afraid of being caught, but because it's the right thing to do."
Right? Wrong? A cloud of dizzying abstractions. Lark and Sara kept bringing up such fluff--arguing with each other for hours about fate and destiny. Sometimes Nelo found Dwer, the wild boy of the forest, the easiest of his children to understand.
The village carpenter's shop spewed sawdust, making pipe for Jobee, the rotund village plumber, to splice into homes, bringing fresh water and taking away waste to the septic pits. The comforts of a civilized life.
"Deep shade, Nelo, "Jobee drawled in a manner that invited a soul to stop and chat a spell.
"Cloudy sky, Jobee," Nelo replied with a polite nod, and kept walking. Not that a few duras' idle banter would hurt. But if he learns I'm visiting Sara, he'll drop by later with half the town to find out what I learned about her new pet . . . the stranger with the hole in his head.
Once upon a time, it had been a fallen chipwing with a broken tail rudder, or a wounded toyo pup. Anything sick or hurt used to wind up in his storeroom, where Sara tended it in a box lined with his finest felt. Nelo had figured his adult daughter finally past that phase -- till she returned from a routine gleaning trip a few days ago, with a wounded man thrashing on a stretcher.
Once Nelo might have opposed an outsider, even a sick one, lodging in his daughter's treehouse. Now he was glad to see anything draw her from a year's hard work and isolation. One of Sara's guildmasters had written to him recently, complaining that she was shirking a principal duty of a woman of her caste, prompting Nelo to write back, rebuking the fellow's impudence. Still, any interest Sara showed in a man was cause for guarded hope.
From the covered walkway, Nelo spied the town exploser and his young son, inspecting an anchor-pier of the great dam. Forbidding and earnest, with deep-chiseled features, Henrik reached into a recessed hole and withdrew a bulb-ended clay tube. Scrutinizing the charge, the exploser held it for his son to sniff.
Nelo was suddenly acutely aware of the mighty lake, lurking behind the dam, ready to sweep away the locks and factories if ever a signal came for Henrik to do his duty. He also felt a pang of jealousy over that knowing tête-a-tête between father and child--the sort that he once had with his own sire. One he hoped to share again, with someone who loved paper as he did.
If only one of the three kids would give me an heir.
I'll have one yet, he vowed. If I must bribe the sages to command it!
Henrik slipped the tube back inside, resealing the hole with clay.
A low sigh hissed to Nelo's left, where he saw another person also watching the explosers. Log Biter, matriarch of the local qheuenish hive, squatted by a tree stump with all five legs drawn in. Nervous exhalations stirred dust beneath her blue carapace, and she wore a rewq over her vision strip -- as if that would tell her much about Henrik and son!
Anyway, what was Log Biter worried about? Surely this was just routine maintenance. Dolo's human villagers would never sacrifice the dam, source of their wealth and prestige. Only a few orthodox fools wanted that.
And Nelo's eldest son.
Everyone's edgy, he thought, turning away. First an abnormal winter, then Ulkoun's proposition, and Lark's heresy. And now Sara comes home with a mysterious outsider.
Is it any wonder I have trouble sleeping?
Most villagers' homes lay safe from the glowering sky, nestled high in the trunks of mighty garu trees, where strains of edible moss flourished on wide branch-top gardens. It seemed a niche made for Earthlings, just as blue qheuens loved lakes, and dry plains suited urrish tribes.
Nelo and Prity had to stop briefly while children herded braying bush-turkeys across the forest loam. A pair of opal-skinned glavers, perturbed while rooting for grubs, lifted their round heads and sniffed haughtily. The children laughed, and the glavers' bulging eyes soon dimmed, the light of anger costing too much effort to maintain.
It was the familiar rhythm of village life, and Nelo would happily go on taking it for granted, but for his eldest son's words before leaving for Gathering, when Lark explained the reason for his heresy.
"Nature is taking hold of this world again, Father, moving beyond the patterns imposed by its former tenants."
Nelo had been doubtful. How could unsapient life change a world in less than a million years? Without a guiding race to tend it, as a farmer manages a garden?
"It's what declaring a world fallow is all about," Lark went on. "Letting it rest and recover without interference."
"Without the likes of us, you mean."
"That's right. We aren't supposed to be on Jijo. We do harm simply living here."
It was the moral dilemma of the Six. The ancestors of each race had felt they had strong reasons to come so far in sneakships, planting outlaw seed on a forbidden world. The Scrolls spoke of crime blended with desperate hope. But Nelo's son stressed only the felony. Moreover, Lark and his comrades planned finally doing something about it. A grand gesture at this year's Gathering, atoning for generations of guilt with an act of devotion, both holy and terrible.
"What foolishness!" Nelo had protested. "When civilization finally resettles this galaxy, there'll be no sign our kind ever lived here. Not if we live righteously, by Egg and Oath. What you plan will make no difference!"
In any quarrel with Dwer, there would have been defiant shouting. But Lark was even more frustrating to talk to, masking his purist heresy behind an obstinate civility he must have inherited from his mother.
"It doesn't matter if our crime is never discovered, Father. What matters is we don't belong here. We simply should not exist."
Villagers saluted their paper-crafter as Nelo and Prity passed by. But today he only glowered, wishing acridly that his offspring wouldn't vex him so -- first by neglecting his wishes, then by inflicting the ferment of their disturbing ideas.
Several boats lay berthed at the town dock. Nimble, sleek-furred noor beasts scampered across the masts, tending lines and camouflage shrouds, as their kind had been trained to do for centuries by the tall, long-snouted hoon. The crew of one vessel helped some local men load a cargo of glass and metal, scavenged from a Buyur site upriver, destined for reprocessing by the smiths of Ur-Tanj town, or else bound for the dross pits, far out to sea.
Normally, Nelo might have paused to watch, but Prity tugged his sleeve, urging him upward, into the blue-gray branches of the grove.
As they turned, sudden shouts blared. Men dropped their burdens and hoon sailors crouched, splaying shaggy legs. Creaking tree trunks swayed like the ship masts as lines snapped and ripples stitched the water. A cloud of leaves poured from the forest, filling the air with spinning spiral forms. Nelo recognized the basso rumble of a quake! Spine-tingling fear mixed with a strange thrill as he pondered whether to try for open ground.
The tumult passed before he could decide. Branches kept swaying, but the walkway planks ceased vibrating and the watery ripples vanished like dreams. Relieved sailors snorted. Villagers made reverent hand gestures, for Jijo's flexings were sacred omens of the planet's healing force, even when they brought riotous ruin. Once, a century ago, a more violent quake had brought forth the Holy Egg, a blessing worth all the pain that accompanied its birth.
Oh, Mother Jijo, Nelo prayed as the last temblors faded. Let things go well at Gathering. Let the sages talk Lark and his friends out of their foolish plan.
And perhaps, he dared add, let Dwer also meet a girl of good family and settle down?
He knew better than to ask a third wish. Sara wouldn't want him invoking a deity in her favor. Not unless it were Ifni, the impartially capricious goddess of numbers and fate.
When his pulse steadied, Nelo signaled for Prity to lead. Their route now spiraled up a massive garu, then along branch-tops spanned by rope guideways. Nelo's feet moved by habit and he barely noticed the height, but the bundle of paper grew heavy in his hands.
Sara's treehouse perched so high that daylight spread for hours across one wattle wall. Nelo gripped a guide-rope while crossing the last stretch. The naked sun was so unsettling, he nearly missed noticing a square-sided cage, made of braced rods, that hung from a pulley next to Sara's sky porch.
A lift! Why is a lift attached to my daughter's home?
Then he recalled. It's because of the Stranger.
Pungent aromas wafted from the house -- tart, musty, and sweetly slimy. Peering inside, Nelo made out slanting rays of light, slabbing through louvered blinds. Sara's voice could be heard, muttering unhappily from another room. His hand raised to knock on the jamb but paused when a pair of shadows loomed from within--one a cone-shaped outline of circular tubes, taller than Nelo's head. Nubby feet propelled the bottommost ring, making squishy sounds as it neared.
Two roller-hoops framed the smaller creature, whose slim torso ended with a nair of graceful arms and four eye-tipped feelers that peered all ways at once. One wheel squeaked as this entity rolled forward, revealing the spotted brain case and droopy eyestalks of an elderly g'Kek.
If any two citizens of Dolo Village could make Nelo feel spry at his age, it was this pair. In all the life-history of their two species, no g'Kek or traeki had ever climbed a tree.
"Cloudy skies, papermaker," the wheeled one said.
"Deep shade, Doctor Lorrek. And to you, Pharmacist." Nelo bowed twice. "How goes your patient?"
Lorrek's Anglic was superb after years serving Dole's mostly human populace.
"Astonishingly, the injured man gains strength, soothed by Pzora's special unguents" -- the doctor bent a stalk toward the traeki whose ninth torus looked flushed from hard medicinal labor -- "and helped by the care he receives in this clean air."
This was a surprise. The Stranger had seemed a goner.
"But his wounds! The hole in his head --?"
Shrugging had originally been a human gesture, but no one did it with more poise than a g'Kek.
"A fatal mutilation, I feared. Clearly the outlander owes his life to Pzora's secretions, and your daughter's swift action, hauling him from that foul swamp."
The traeki pharmacist then spoke, turning its jewel-like sense organs, its voice wavering like an untuned metal harp.
"i/we help gladly, though our synthesis rings near-swoon from the effort. Unguents of rare potency were needed. Yet it seems difficult to please."
"How do you mean?"
"Only here, up high where germs are scarce, might the work be done. Miss Sara's abode is ideal, and she will let no other take the patient. Yet she complains so! Aggrieved, she speaks longingly of an end to her work-disruption. Toward getting us all out of her hair."
"It's just a metaphor," Lorrek explained.
"As i/we assumed. Its paradoxical dissonance we/i esteem highly. May her selves understand that."
"I'll see that she does," Nelo told Pzora, smiling.
"Thank you all, excellent Nelos," the young traeki responded, slipping into plural form. "i/we hope for serene work, when we return this evening."
Lorrek wrapped his eyestalks, and Nelo needed no rewq to read the old g'Kek's silent laughter. "Serenity is good," he agreed dryly, coughing behind a hand.
He braced the elevator cage, first for the heavy traeki to shuffle aboard. Then Lorrek rolled in, his left wheel wobbling from untreatable degenerative axle disease. Nelo pulled the signal rope, calling an operator far below to start the weight-driven winch.
"Has anything been learned about the Stranger's identity?" Lorrek asked while waiting.
"Not that I heard. Though I'm sure it's just a matter of time."
So far, even merchant traders had failed to recognize the unconscious man, implying he came quite a distance, perhaps from the coast settlements or even The Vale. No one in Dolo knew Melina, either, when she arrived long ago, with a letter of introduction and a baby on her hip. The Slope is a bigger place than we're used to thinking.
The g'Kek sighed. "We must resolve soon whether it will better serve the patient to send him on, now that he's stabilized, to be examined in --"
The cage shuddered, then dropped swiftly, cutting Lorrek off mid-sentence.
Ah well, Nelo thought, watching the car vanish steadily below moss-heavy branches. That'd explain the shouting. Sara wouldn't want her pet sent to specialists in Tarek Town--even if she does complain about disrupted work.
Would she ever learn? The last time Sara's nurturing instincts took over--succoring a convalescing book-binder, in Biblos--it led to a love affair that ended in tragedy, scandal, and alienation from her guild. Nelo hoped the cycle wasn't repeating.
Even now she could win it all back--both her position and marriage to a respected sage. True, I never liked that sour-pussed Taine, but he offers a more secure life than she'd have had with that frail lover of hers.
Anyway, she can still do math while making me some grandkids.
The little chimp plunged into the house first. Sara's voice called from shadows, "Is that you, Prity? It's been nothing but interruptions, but I think I finally whipped that integral. Why don't you look it ov--"
There was a flat sound. A large bundle, landing on a table.
"Ah, the paper. Wonderful. Let's see what the old man sent us this time."
"Whatever the old man sends is good enough for one who don't pay for it," Nelo groused, shuffling while his eyes adapted. Through the gloom, he saw his daughter rise from a desk covered with notebooks and obscure symbols. Sara's round face spread with a smile he always thought beautiful, though it might have helped if she'd taken more after her mother.
My looks and Melina's wild brains. Not a blend I'd wish on a sweet lass.
"Father!" She hurried over to embrace him. "You gave me a start."
Her black hair, cut like a boy's, smelled of pencil dust and Pzora's unguents.
"No doubt." He frowned at the shambles of her quarters, worse now with a mattress by her desk. A jumble of texts, some bearing emblems of the great Bibios trove, lay amid notes on the "new direction" her research had taken, combining mathematics and linguistics, of all things.
Prity took one of Sara's papers and perched on a stool. The chimp worked her lower lip, scanning one line of symbols at a time, silent collaborator in an arcane art Nelo would never understand.
He glanced toward the sleeping porch, where sunlight spread across a blanket, outlining two large feet.
"With both of the lads gone, I thought I'd come see how you're doing."
"Well, I'm all right, as you can see." She gestured, as if the firetrap of a treehouse were a model of home-tending. "And I have Prity to take care of me. Why, I even recall to eat, most days!"
"Well . . ." he muttered. But Sara had taken his arm and was gently maneuvering him toward the door. "I'll come visit tomorrow," she vowed, "when Lorrek and old Stinky want me out of the way. We'll go to Belonna's for a nice meal, hm? I'll even wear a clean gown."
"Well--that'd be fine." He paused. "Just remember, the elders will assign you help, if all this gets to be too much fuss and work."
She nodded. "I know how this looks to you, Father. 'Sara's gone obsessive again,' right? Well don't worry. It's not like that, this time. I just think this place is ideal for preventing infection of those horrid wounds--"
A low moan floated from the back of the house. Sara hesitated, then held up a hand. "I'll be a moment."
Nelo watched her hasten toward the shuttered porch, then he followed, drawn by curiosity.
Prity was wiping the injured stranger's brow, while his dark hands trembled outward, as awarding off something deadly. Livid scars laced the man's arms, and yellow fluid leaked through a gauze dressing near his left ear. The last time Nelo had seen the man, his skin was ashen with a pallor of approaching death. Now the eyes, with near-black irises, seemed to flame with awful passion.
Sara took the wounded man's hands, speaking insistently, trying to soothe the abrupt fit. But the outsider clutched her wrists, clamping down so hard that Sara cried out. Nelo rushed to her side, plucking vainly at the strong fingers gripping his daughter.
"Geógeógeódow!" the stranger stammered, yanking Sara toward the floor.
At that moment, the sky cracked open.
A savage roar blew in the shutters, knocking pottery off kitchen shelves. The entire gani tree leaned, as if a great hand shoved it, knocking Nelo off his feet. With ringing ears, father and daughter clutched floor planks as the tree swung over so far, Nelo glimpsed the ground through a gaping window. More crockery spilled. Furniture slid toward the open door. Amid a storm of swirling paper, Prity shrieked, and the wide-eyed stranger howled in harmony.
Nelo managed one dumbfounded thought. Could it be another quake?
The garu whipped them back and forth like beads in a rattle, for a terrilying interval that felt like eternity -- and must have lasted all of a minute.
Amazingly, the house clung to its cleft between two branches. Vibrations thrummed along the tree's abused spine as the wail in Nelo's skull abated at last, trailing to numbed silence. Reluctantly, he let Sara help him rise. Together, they joined the stranger, who now clutched the windowsill with bone-white knuckles.
The forest was a maelstrom of dust and fluttering leaves. No trees had toppled, much to Nelo's surprise. He sought the great dam and found that it held, thank God. The paper-null appeared intact.
"Look!" Sara gasped, pointing above the forest toward the southeast sky.
A thin white trail showed where, high overhead, the air had been riven by something titanic and fast--something that still sparkled in the distance as they glimpsed it streak past the valley's edge, toward the white-tipped peaks of the Rimmer Range. So high and so fleet it seemed -- so arrogantly untimid -- Nelo did not have to speak his dread aloud. The same fear lay in his daughter's eyes.
The stranger, still tracking the distant, dwindling glitter, let out a foreboding sigh. He seemed to share their anxiety, but in his weary face there was no hint of surprise.
Do you recall, my rings, how the Rothen ship circled thrice over the Glade of Gathering, blazing from its hot descent, chased by the roaring protest of a cloven sky? Stroke the wax-of-memory, and recollect how mighty the vessel seemed, halting
dramatically, almost overhead.
Even the human tribe -- our finest tech-crafters -- stared in the round-eyed manner of their kind, as the great cylinder, vast as a glacier, settled down just ninety arrowflights away from the secret sacred hollow of the Holy Egg.
The people of the Six Races came before us, moaning dread.
"Oh, sages, shall we flee? Shall we hide, as the law demands?"
Indeed, the Scrolls so command us.
Conceal your tents, your fields, your works and very selves. For from the sky shall come your judgment and your scourge.
Message-casters asked -- "Shall we put out the Call? Shall villages and burghs and herds and hives be told to raze?"
Even before the law was shaped -- when our Commons had not yet congealed out of sharp enmities -- even then our scattered outcast bands knew where danger lay. We exiles-on-Jijo have cowered when survey probes from the Galactic Institutes made cursory audits from afar, causing our sensor-stones to light with warning fire. At other times, shimmering globe-swarms of Zang fell from the starry vault, dipping to the sea, then parting amid clouds of stolen vapor. Even those six times when new bands of misfits settled on this desert shore, they went ungreeted by those already here, until they burned the ships that brought them.
"Shall we try to hide?"
Recall, my rings, the confused braying as folk scattered like chaff before a whirlwind, tearing down the festival pavilions, hauling dross from our encampment toward nearby caves. Yet amid all this, some were calm, resigned. From each race, a few understood. This time there would be no hiding from the stars.
Among the High Sages, Vubben spoke first, turning an eyestalk toward each of us.
"Never before has a ship landed right in our midst. Clearly, we are already seen."
"Perhaps not," Ur-Jah suggested in hopeful Galactic Seven, stamping one hoof. Agitated white fur outlined her flared urrish nostril. "They may be tracking emanations of the Egg! Perhaps if we hide swiftly . . ."
Ur-Jah's voice trailed off as Lester, the human, rocked his head--a simple gesture of negation lately fashionable throughout the Commons, among those with heads.
"At this range, our infrared signatures would be unmistakable. Their onboard library will have categorized us down to each subspecies. If they didn't know about us before entering the atmosphere, they surely do by now."
Out of habit, we took his word for such things, about which humans oft know best.
"Perhaps they are refugees like us!" burst forth our qheuenish sage, venting hope from all five leg-vents. But Vubben was not sanguine.
"You saw the manner of their arrival. Was that the style of refugees, treading in fear, hiding from Izmunuti's stare? Did any of our ancestors come thus? Screaming brutishly across the sky?"
Lifting his forward eye to regard the crowd, Vubben called for order. "Let no one leave the festival valley, lest their flight be tracked to our scattered clans and holds. But seek all glavers that have come to browse among us, and push those simple ones away, so our guilt won't stain their reclaimed innocence.
"As for those of the Six who are here now, where the ship's dark shadow fell . . . we all must live or die as fate wills."
i/we sensed solidification among the rings of my/our body. Fear merged into noble resignation as the Commons saw truth in Vubben's words.
"Nor shall we scurry uselessly," he went on. "For the Scrolls also say -- When every veil is torn, cower no more. For that day comes your Judgment. Stand as you are."
So clear was his wisdom, there rose no dissent. We gathered then, tribe by tribe, did we not, my rings? From many, we coalesced as one.
Together our Commons turned toward the ship, to meet our destiny.
The weird noor still dogged his heels, leering down at him from tree branches, being an utter pest.
Sometimes the sleek, black-pelted creature vanished for a while, raising Dwer's hopes. Perhaps it finally had tired of dusty alpine air, so far from the swamps where most noor dwelled.
Then it reappeared, a grin splitting its stubby snout, perched on some ledge to watch Dwer hack through thorn-hedges and scramble over upended slabs of ancient pavement, kneeling often to check footprint traces of the runaway glaver.
The scent was already cool when Dwer first noticed the spoor, just outside the Glade of Gathering. His brother and the other pilgrims continued toward sounds of gala music, floating from the festival pavilions. But alas for Dwer, it was his job to stop glavers who took a strange notion to leave the cozy lowlands and make a break for perilous freedom. Festival would have to wait.
The noor barked high-pitched yelps, pretending to be helpful, its sinuous body streaking along at root level while Dwer had to chop and scramble. Finally, Dwer could tell they were gaining. The glaver's tired footprints lay close together, pressing the heel. When the wind changed, Dwer caught a scent. About time, he thought, gauging how little mountain remained before a cleft led to the next watershed... in effect another world.
Why do glavers keep doing this? Their lives aren't so hard on this side, where everyone dotes on them. Beyond the pass, by contrast, lay a poison plain, unfit for all but the hardiest hunters.
Or tourists, he thought, recalling the Lena Strong's offer to pay him to lead a trip east. A journey whose sole aim was sightseeing... a word Dwer had only heard til now in tales from old Earth.
These are crazy times, he thought. Yet the "tour organizers" claimed to have approval from the sages -- under certain conditions. Dwer shook his head. He didn't need idiotic ideas clouding his mind with a quarry just ahead.
The noor, too, showed signs of fatigue, though it kept snuffing along the glaver's track, then rising on its hind legs to scan with black, forward-facing eyes. Suddenly, it gave a guttural purr and took off through the montane thicket -- and soon Dwer heard a glaver's unmistakable squawl, followed by the thud of running feet.
Great, now he's spooked it!
At last Dwer spilled from the undergrowth onto a stretch of ancient Buyur highway. Sprinting along the broken pavement, he sheathed the machete and drew his compound bow, and cranking the string taut.
Sounds of hissing confrontation spilled from a narrow side canyon, forcing Dwer to leave the old road again, dodging amid vine-crusted trees.. Then he saw them, just beyond a screen of shrubs -- two creatures, poised in a showdown of sable and iridescent pale.
Cornered in a slit ravine, the glaver was obviously female, possibly pregnant. She had climbed a long way and was pulling deep breaths. Globe-like eyes rotated independently, one tracking the dark noor while the other scanned for dangers yet unseen.
Dwer cursed both of them -- the glaver for drawing him on a profitless chase when he had been looking forward to festival -- and the meddlesome noor for daring to interfere!
Doubly cursed, because now he was in its debt. If the glaver had reached the plains beyond the Rimmer Range, it would have been no end of trouble.
Neither creature seemed to notice Dwer -- though he wouldn't bet against the noor's keen senses. What is the little devil doing up here? What's it trying to prove?
Dwer had named it Mudfoot, for the brown forepaws marring an ebony pelt, from a flattish tail to whiskers that twitched all around a stubby snout. The black-furred creature kept still, its gaze riveted on the flighty glaver, but Dwer wasn't fooled. You know I'm watching, show-off. Of all species left on Jijo when the Buyur departed, Dwer found noor the least fathomable, and fathoming other creatures was a hunter's art.
Quietly, he lowered the bow and unfastened a buckskin thong, taking up his coiled lariat. With patient, stealthy care, he edged forward.
Grinning with jagged, angular teeth, Mudfoot reared almost to the glaver's height -- even with Dwer's thigh. The glaver retreated with a snarl, til her bony back plates brushed rock, causing a rain of pebbles. In her forked tail she brandished a stick -- some branchlet or sapling with the twigs removed. A sophisticated tool, given the present state of glaverdom.
Dwer took another step, and this time could not avoid crushing some leaves. Behind the noor's pointy ears, gray spines jutted from the fur, waving independently. Mudfoot kept facing the glaver, but something in its stance said -- "Be quiet, fool!"
Dwer didn't like being told what to do. Especially by a noor. Still, a hunt is judged only by success. Dwer wanted a clean capture. Shooting the glaver now would admit failure.
Her loose skin had lost some opal luster since leaving familiar haunts, scavenging near some village of the Six, as glavers had done for centuries, since their innocence was new.
Why do they do this? Why do a few try for the passes, every year?
One might as well guess the motives of a noor. Among the Six, only the patient hoon had a knack for working with the puckish, disruptive beasts.
Maybe the Buyur resented having to quit Jijo, and left noor as a joke on whoever came next.
A buzzing lion-fly cruised by, under filmy, rotating wings. The panting glaver tracked it with one eye, while the other watched the swaying noor. Hunger gradually prevailed over fear as she realized Mudfoot was to small to murder her. To enhance that impression, the noor sat back on its haunches, nonchalantly licking a shoulder.
Very clever, Dwer thought, shifting his weight as the glaver swung both eyes toward the hovering meal.
nbsp; A jet of sputum shot from her mouth, striking the fly's tail.
In a flash, Mudfoot bounded left. The glaver squealed, struck out with the stick, then whirled to flee the other way. Cursing, Dwer sprang from the undergrowth. Moccasins skidded on spoiled granite and he tumbled, passing just under the flailing club. Desperately, Dwer cast the lariat -- which tautened with a savage yank that slammed his chin to the ground. Though starving and weak, the glaver had enough panicky strength to drag Dwer for a dozen meters, till her will finally gave out.
Shivering, with waves of color coursing under her pale skin, she dropped the makeshift club and sank to all four knees. Dwer got up warily, coiling the rope.
"Easy does it. No one's gonna hurt you."
The glaver scanned him with one dull eye. "Pain exists. Marginally," she crooned, in thickly slurred Galactic Eight.
Dwer rocked back. Only once before had a captured glaver spoken to him. Usually, they kept up their insentient pose to the last. He wet his lips and tried answering in the same obscure dialect.
"Regrettable. Endurance suggested. Better than death."
"Better?" The weary eye squinted as if vaguely puzzled, and unsure it mattered.
Dwer shrugged. "Sorry about the pain."
The faint light drifted out of focus.
"Not blamed. Dour melody. Now ready to eat."
The flicker of intellect vanished once more under a bolus of animal density.
Both amazed and drained, Dwer tethered the creature to a nearby tree. Only then did he take account of his own wincing cuts and bruises while Mudfoot lay on a rock, basking in the last rays of the setting sun.
The noor couldn't talk. Unlike the glaver, its ancestors had never been given the knack. Still, it's open-mouth grin seemed to say -- "That was fun. Let's do it again!"
Dwer recovered his bow, started a fire, and spent the day's last half-midura feeding the captive from his meager rations. Tomorrow he'd find it a rotten log to root under for grubs ... a favorite, if undignified pastime for members of what had once been a mighty starfaring race.
Mudfoot sidled close when Dwer unwrapped some hard bread and jerky. Dwer sighed and tossed some to the noor, who snatched chunks out of mid-air and ate with dainty care. Then Mudfoot sniffed at Dwer's gourd canteen.
He had seen the beasts use gourds aboard hoon-crewed river boats. So after a dubious pause, he pulled the cork stopper and handed it over. The creature used both six-fingered forepaws -- nearly as deft as true hands -- to adroitly slosh quick dollops over its tongue, smacking loudly.
Then it poured the remainder over its head.
Dwer shot to his feet, cursing. But Mudfoot blithely tossed the empty vessel aside. Rivulets ran down its glossy back, dribbling dark splatters in the dust. The noor chirped happily and began to groom.
Dwer shook the canteen, winning a few drops. "Of all the selfish, ungrateful --"
It was already too late to hike to the nearest stream, down a narrow, treacherous trail. A waterfall growled, close as a bird might fly, but over a midura away by foot. This was no crisis; he'd done without before. Still, the sound would give him dry-mouth, all night long.
Never stop learning, said the sage, Ur-Ruhols. Tonight, Dwer had learned one more thing about noor. All told, the price of the lesson was pretty cheap.
He decided to arrange for a wakeup call. For that, he would need a clock teet.
There were good reasons to get an early start. He might still make it back to the yearly Gathering of the Six, before all the unpledged human boys and girls chose partners for jubilee dancing. Then there was his annual report to Danel Ozawa, and Lena Strong's ridiculous "tourism" idea to oppose. Also, if he led the glaver away before dawn, he might manage to leave Mudfoot snoring by the coals. Noor loved sleep almost as much as upsetting the routines of villagers, and this one had had a long day.
So, after supper he drew forth a sheaf of paper folders, his cache of practical things. Many of the wrappers had come from his brother's wastebasket, or Sara's.
Lark's handwriting, graceful and controlled, usually traced some living species on Jijo's complex order of life. Dwer used Lark's castoff notes to store seeds, herbs, and feathers -- things useful in the hunt.
Sara's hand was expansive yet tense, as if imagination and order held each other in check. Her discards swarmed with baffling mathematics. Some failed equations weren't just scratched out, but stabbed to death in fits of frustration. Dwer used his sister's work-sheets to hold medicines, condiments, and powders that made many Jijoan foods edible to humans.
From one folded page he drew six tobar seeds -- plump, hard and fragrant -- which he spread across a rock some way downwind. Holding his breath, he used his knife to split one open, then fled a rising, pungent cloud. The glaver mewed unhappily and the noor glared at him until the breeze swept most of the intense aroma away.
Back in his sleeping roll, Dwer waited as the stars came out. Kalunuti was a hot, reddish pinpoint, set high on the leering face of Sargon, pitiless enforcer of laws. More starry patterns followed -- eagle, horse, dragon.... and dolphin, beloved cousin, grinning with her jaw thrust in a direction some said might lead to Earth.
If we exiles are ever caught, Dwer pondered. Will the Great Galactic Library make a file about our culture? Our ways? Will aliens read our constellation myths, and laugh?
If all went as planned, no one would ever know of this lonely colony, or recall its tales. Our descendants, if any, will be like glavers -- simple, and innocent as the beasts of the field.
Fluttering wings grazed the firelight. A squat form landed near the tobar seeds, with wings of grayish plates that slid like overlapping petals. The birdling's yellow beak devoured the nut Dwer had cracked.
Mudfoot sat up, eyes glinting.
Dwer warned, half-dozing -- "You bother it, an' I'll have yer hide fer a hat."
Mudfoot sniffed and lay down again. Soon there came a rhythmic tapping as the teet started pecking at the next nut. It would take its time, consuming one kernel each midura -- roughly seventy minutes -- until the last was gone. Then, with a chattering screech, it would fly off. One didn't need a printout from the Great Library to know what function the Buyur designed this creature to fill. The living alarm clock still worked as programmed.
Lark is wrong about our place on this world, Dwer thought, lulled by the unvaried tapping. We do a service. Jijo would be a sad place without people to use its gifts.
There were dreams. Dwer always had dreams.
Shapeless foes lurked beyond sight as he wandered a land covered with colors, like a rainbow that had melted, flowed across the ground, then frozen in place. The harsh hues hurt his eyes. Moreover, his throat felt parched, and he was unarmed.
The dream shifted. All of a sudden, he found himself alone in a forest of trees that seemed to stretch up past the moons. For some reason, the trees were even more threatening than the colored landscape. He fled, but could find no exit from the forest as their trunks burst into flame, then started to explode.
The furious intensity of the nightmare yanked him awake, sitting up with a racing heart. Dwer stared wide-eyed, glad to find the real woods intact, though dark and threaded by a chill breeze. There was no raging firestorm. He had dreamed the whole thing.
Still, uneasiness certainty gnawed. Something felt wrong.
He rubbed his eyes. Different constellations swarmed the sky, fading in the east under a wash of predawn gray. The biggest moon, Loocen, hovered over silhouetted peaks, its sunlit face spangled with bright pinpoints -- the domes of long abandoned cities.
So what's wrong?
It wasn't just intuition. The clock teet had stopped. Something must have disturbed it before the time to chatter its alarm. He checked the area, and found the noor snoring on quietly. The glaver tracked Dwer dully with one thoughtless eye, the other still closed.
All at once, he knew the problem.
It wasn't where he'd left it, within arm's reach. It was gone.
Anger flooded the predawn dimness with blinding adrenaline outrage. Dozens had spoken enviously of his bow -- a masterpiece of laminated wood and bone, fashioned by the qheuenish craftsmen of Ovoon Town. But who...?
Calm down. Think.
Could it be Jeni Shen? She often joked about luring him into a poker game, with the bow at stake. Or might it be --
He took a deep breath, but it was hard disciplining his young body, so full of need to act.
Stop and hear what the world has to say....
First, he must calm the furious spilling of his own unspoken words. Dwer pushed aside all noisy thoughts. Next he made himself ignore the rasping sound of breath and pulse.
The distant, muttering waterfall was by now familiar, easy to cancel out. The wind's rustle, less regular, soon went away too.
One hovering sound might be the clock teet, cruising in hope of more tobar seeds. Another flutter told of a honey bat -- no, a mated pair -- which he also disregarded. The noor's snoring he edited, and the soft grind of glaver-molars as she re-chewed her cud.
There! Dwer turned his head. Was that a scrape on gravel? Pebbles rattling down a scree, perhaps. Something, or someone -- bipedal? Almost man-size, he guessed, and hurrying away.
Dwer took off after the sound. Gliding ghostlike in his moccasins, he ran some distance before noting that the thief was heading the wrong direction. Away from the coast. Away from the Slope. Higher into the Rimmer Range.
Toward the Pass.
Padding up the rocky trail, Dwer's angry flush gave way to the scrupulous cadence of pursuit -- a tense, almost ecstatic concentration on each thrust of heel and toe; the efficiency of motion needed for silence; an eager probing beyond his own soft noise to seize any trace of the pursued. His head felt clear, no longer poisoned by fury. Whatever the reason for this chase, he could not help feeling a kind of joy. This was his art, the thing he loved best.
Dwer was near the notch of gray light separating two shadowy peaks, when a problem occurred to him.
Wait a minute!
He slowed to a trot, then down to a walk.
This is stupid. Here I am, chasing off after a sound I'm not even sure I heard -- maybe a hangover of a dream -- when the answer was there all along!
He stopped, beating his fist against his thigh and feeling like an idiot.
It's just what a noor would do -- stealing things. Swapping a villager's chipped cup for a treasure, or visa versa.
When he returned, would a pile of ligger turds sit where the bow had lain? Or a diamond wrested from the crown of some long dead Buyur king? Or would they all -- noor, bow and glaver -- simply be gone? Mudfoot had been quite an actor, snoozing by the coals. Did it cackle when he hightailed off, chasing his own outraged imagination?
Alongside anger, there arose a grudging appreciation.
A good one. He really got me.
Then again, this noor might have a surprise coming. Of all the humans on Jijo, perhaps only Dwer was qualified to find the beast and get even.
It would be a difficult chase. Maybe impossible.
Or else the hunt of a lifetime.
Sudden insight filled Dwer with wonder. Was that the noor's gift? To offer Dwer a chance to...
Ahead of him, in the vague dimness, the corner of a shadow moved.
His unfocused eyes had been open to peripheral vision, habituated to a static scene. A reflex hunter's trick that made one especially sensitive to motion -- as when a "boulder" shifted to the left, then moved onward toward the Pass.
Ears snatched distant, tickling scrapings, softer than the wind. Dwer's eyebrows knotted as he started forward again, slowly at first, then stealthily faster.
When the blurry shadow stopped, he stopped, splaying his arms for balance.
Profiled against pre-dawn gray, the silhouette waited a few duras more, then turned and continued on its way.
Trust your instincts, Fallon the Tracker used to teach. The old man was nobody's fool.
Mudfoot had been the obvious suspect. Perhaps that was why it didn't occur to Dwer, back at the campsite. He would have wasted valuable time blaming the logical culprit. His first impulse had been right, after all. The initial clue, a true one.
The shadow turned again. Dwer traced a human shape, alarmed now, fleeing with his purloined bow. This time he sprinted, forsaking stealth for speed. Pebbles flew, rattling the pass with echoes. The other swiveled too, leaping away like a striped gusul in flight.
Only three humans on Jijo could outrun Dwer, and none at all in rough terrain.
End game, he thought, bearing down for a final dash.
When his quarry turned, he was ready. When it drew a knife, he knew this was no joke. Dwer launched into a tackling dive, primed to hear shouts of anger and dismay.
Unexpected was the thief's face, looming as he hurtled forward.
Above all -- a complete and total stranger.
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