by Ryk E. Spoor
Blushspark clung tightly to Bluntspear's broad, rough back; the big, stolid haulfin gripped even more tightly onto the mass of wild spearweed, as the world roiled around her. Spearweed. Good choice, Bluntspear, good choice. That won't break off in your arms.
Of course, that wouldn't save them if this part of Hotwall collapsed. She could hear the deep-thunder splitting of rock in the distances, a sudden shrieking of a vent pinched almost shut; her skin visioned the panicked movement of flakefish and giant orvanel, discharges of life-signals bright and urgent; she thought she picked up Jetgrab's cursing from the other side of the valley. And above all, the sharp, shattering, groaning howl as the sky broke far above.
This is the worst worldshake I've ever felt. Worse than anything the Elders, even Steadyglow, ever told about. Worse than anything I've read about in the Archives!
A shockwave of current erupted from the depths below, and she felt both her and Bluntspears' grips beginning to slip. No! If we let go –
If they let go, the currents could carry them anywhere – smash them to pieces against rocks, suffocate them in concentrated feedfumes, even into a fresh vent to burn alive or to the sky where they might vanish.
The clump of spearweed began to lift, telling her that part of the bedrock had come loose.
But before their anchorage was entirely torn away, the current hesitated, shifted, and began to die down. The water was now so clouded that she could barely make out Bluntspear's panicked flickerings under her own body, less than a quarter-spear from her higheye. She chirruped and fluttered against him, reassuring him with bright flashes. "Good Bluntspear. GOOD work. We're going to be okay."
The world was still echoing all around with the movement of sky and continuing fall and settle of the ground. But in a moment or two, she could pick out a familiar long-voice hum. "Blushspark? Blushspark!"
"I'm all right, Jetgrab," she answered, unable to keep a small, uncontrolled tremble from her resonances. "You?"
A vibration of terrified amusement. "The cave I was hiding in collapsed but I got out." The voice was hard to understand at this range, but they'd been playmates almost since they hatched, so she could make out the words.
The thought of being inside a cavern when that happened . . . She shuddered, her body vibrating from the end of her tailgrips all the way to the tips of her fingers. "Spirits and Ancestors!"
"No harm." He tried to make it sound casual, not succeeding very well. "Lot more exciting than our game of Earth Against Sky usually is."
She couldn't argue that. "We'd better get back; I can't hear the pod from here, so there must be a lot of turbulence and maybe heatwaver coming up."
"There is. Concentrate on the highband – where we look for zinties, about – and you'll be able to hear the waver."
"We'll have to go all the way around Hotwall, I think."
His voice was suddenly uncertain. "You're the one who lives in the Archives, Blush… is this as bad as I think?"
She wanted to reassure him, but she couldn't lie. "This felt worse than anything I've read about."
In a tone so quiet she could barely make it out through the still-chaotic noise around, he said, "Then, the pod . . ."
The horrifying possibility had already occurred to her. "We can't tell. We have to hope that it's just the disruption."
His tones firmed up; "You're right. But they'll want us home fast."
She'd been getting enough echoes from him now that she could catch his space fairly well. "You're a long ways ridgeward from me; wouldn't make much sense for us to join up now. You take the far end and I'll take the near."
"I've got Bluntspear, remember? Even a full-size orekath isn't going to just charge him without warning. You take care of yourself."
"You too. See you back at Seven Vents." A hesitation, then, "And if… well, if anything's gone wrong, we meet at Twinevent, okay?"
She listened; the rippling pulse of Twinevent was still clear, probably above the worst of the disruption. "Okay."
They tried to keep up their communications, but once they started going around Hotwall the resonances died off. Might even be an inversion around the Vent area for a while; that will make long-distance talking hard and maybe smelly breathing, too.
She guided Bluntspear carefully, using echopings sparingly; despite the massive haulfin's stalwart presence, she knew it would be exceedingly unwise to draw attention to her presence here, alone and separated from a pod. The worldshake might make predators hide or lose interest . . . or might have put them to a fever-pitch of panic and hostility, prepared to defend territory or attack any threat without thought or care. She wasn't exactly a warrior – she was more interested in building things, exploring things, thinking things, and like Jetgrab had said, reading the Archives and understanding things – and this was a pretty scary situation.
At least I kept the catchbag! Hate to lose all those rockbites. The rockbites looked, and to a casual soundping even sounded, like chunks of rock, but inside was some of the best meat to be found on all of Hotwall, and she'd gotten lucky and found a whole bed of the creatures. Whenever she and any of the other midsters – children her age, not quite adults but old enough to do useful things – were out playing Earth Against Sky, or orekath Chase, or anything else, it was expected they'd bring back something for the Pod, too. And the Archive-reading told me a trick for locating the rockbites without having to guess.
Heatwaver ahead. She could also hear the squeaky groaning of a vent, and warmer water buffeted her with the sharp tang of ventsmoke and feedfumes. Focused pings gave a return that told her it was a narrow band of waver, so she squeezed Bluntspear's top arm twice.
The big haulfin gathered himself, taking such a large volume of water in that she could feel his whole body expand, and then blasting it out behind him with such force that she was almost torn off by the roaring passage of water. For an instant there was a flare of heat and stinging, concentrated ventsmoke, and then they were through, into much cooler water as they passed over the edge of Hotwall and into the open water beyond.
The water was much clearer here, a down-current from above clearing the turbulence away. She could see all of Bluntspear easily; in fact, if there had been anything within twenty spears she could've seen it clearly, and probably blurry images for another thirty spears or so. And it was clearing even more. She cut her own glow as much as possible and stroked Bluntspear, who immediately dimmed to an almost invisible ghost.
Of course, most hunters wouldn't rely on eyesight; skinsight, sensing the very motions and interplay of movement that was life, and soundsight that could pinpoint and track, those were the tools of the hunter . . . and the hunted. She didn't sense anything dangerous near, but this would be the most dangerous part of her trip – farthest from the Pod and the Seven Vents region that was guarded and watched, in open water away from easy shelter. She pressed closer to Bluntspear, alert and tense.
Suddenly she sensed . . . something. It hummed in her skin, a warm yet piercing sensation that was terribly faint, maybe a thousand spears off, but growing slowly closer.
From above. Falling, from thousands of spears above.
Falling, and singing as it fell.
What is that?
She focused all her attention in that direction, risked a quick set of pings.
Nothing! There were no returns, nothing coming back, yet still the singing, haunting skinsight dropped, with a fluttering like a speared flakefish settling to the bottom.
An involuntary flash of blue-green awe and dread lit the water around her. Dropping from the Sky…
But that was all stories. Steadyglow and most of the other Elders were clear on that. There were no demons in the ground, they said, and nothing beyond the sky. It was a game, something she and Jetgrab had been playing just a little while ago, one of the games all the people had played when they were young.
But she'd been raised with the old stories, read them carved on weedrecords in the Seven Vents' Archives, and what was drifting down towards her was like nothing the Elders had ever described.
Nothing again . . . no, wait. Something. Something tiny!
The skin-singing thing was barely trackable, something she'd be able to grip between two fingers, but though it was still a hundred spears away its skinsong was like an entire school of brightswimmers.
And now she could see it. A glow was descending in slow, graceful spiral towards her, a glow of pure white light such as she had never even imagined, something that even the best lightshapers in her Pod would have strained to replicate for even an instant. Yet it glowed perfectly, steadily, shimmering ever clearer and brighter as it swung this way, then that, pirouetted and turned.
From the Sky. A Skyspark. There wasn't any other explanation; this was no fish, it was no hunter, it was nothing anyone had ever seen or heard or sensed, not in all the Archives, not in all the tales, only in legends that her people had relegated to children's tales ages ago.
She urged Bluntspear forward and up. Her hearts were rippling in overdrive, and her breath came as quickly as though she had been sprinting away from some terrible threat, so much water passing through her that she had to counterbalance the slight thrust. But I can't miss this! I can't!
As she got closer, she could see it looked almost like an eye, a round gleaming orb held by . . . something. Another thrill of awe went through here. Straight lines like that . . . smoothness and echo of something like deepglass, touches of spearstuff . . . it looks . . . carved.
She reached out towards it, even as Bluntspear shied and slowed, uncertain.
Without warning the Skyspark blinked and vanished; it seemed to her that it had first compressed, collapsed into itself and then exploded, a perfect shockwave of light and sound and skinthrill achingly beautiful in its purity. She felt a stinging in her high ridgeline and tasted something sharp, alien, bitter in the ocean.
The Skyspark was gone, the last echoes of its mystery dying away. She reached back and felt along her ridgeline, found . . . something stuck there. She couldn't quite pull it out, but it didn't hurt much.
She looked back up, into the empty, black void from which it had descended, and wondered. But now she also sensed faint skin-echoes approaching from farther out, and knew the Skyspark's beautiful death had called other things to it, and she felt a spurt of fear. orekath!
She turned Bluntspear and urged him homeward as fast as he could swim, casting one last glance behind and up towards the place from whence impossibility had come.
"Vuundi!" came her mother's voice. "Oh, thank the Seas you're all right."
She let her mother twine arms and fingers around her, and didn't even protest the use of her given name this time. For a moment she just lay there, letting herself pretend to be a child, and breathed a ripple of relief. The Seven Vents still stand, the pod's all right.
"Hmmm, yes," said Steadyglow, his massive form slowly catching up to Heatdancer – Blushpark's mother. "We were concerned, especially when young Hurunnda got here ahead of you."
"Jetgrab's here? Good." She extricated herself from her mother's grip. "Is . . . is everyone else okay? Was anyone hurt?"
Steadyglow pulsed reassuringly. "A few minor injuries, and the east netcage pulled apart, so we've lost part of the farmschool, and the Archives will have to be reinforced again. But no serious injuries." His colors rippled pensively. "But unless fortune of the Sky has echoed widely, I fear we shall hear worse news from other pods."
She fumbled at her side and pulled the catchbag off Bluntspear's harness. "Here, Elder. Thirty rockbites."
"Ho, now, well done, and much needed now. But . . . what do I smell on you, Vuundi? Your shining flickers oddly, and your voice is trembling. Were you attacked?"
She saw the quick flash of rose that gave her the nickname of Blushspark; it always happened when she was nervous and embarrassed around the elders, and sometimes around the other midsters. "Not really, though there were some hunting orekath close once. But…"
She turned her ridgeline towards Steadyglow. "Elder Pollesi," she said, being properly formal, "Something is stuck in my ridgeline, and I . . . don't want to say anything until you look at it, smell it, sense it. I'm . . . not sure what is real, right now."
There was a reason the Elder was called "Steadyglow"; nothing fazed him, nothing surprised him, and he never acted in haste or without great forethought. She could see him recognize just how serious she was by the fact that she was never this formal, and that meant that she felt this was important enough to speak of even with the need to recover from the worldshake.
"Very well, Vuundi-Blushspark. Hold yourself still, then."
He drifted over to her and concentrated on her; she could feel as well as hear the vibrations as he directed his own soundsight upon her.
"Extraordinary," he said after long moments. "It is . . . an object, a fragment, of something, perhaps a finger's width and length. I have never sensed anything quite like it, and the smell that clings to it is . . ." He trailed off, then flickered a smile. "Unique. Sharp, deep, strange. It was driven into you with considerable force; you are fortunate indeed that it has done no real damage. I can see where it has penetrated and if you wish I will remove it."
"Let me do that, Elder," her mother said, to her relief. Steadyglow was wise and kind, but one of the things he wasn't was a trained healer, unlike Heatdancer. "Now hold still. Let me get out a stickyseal." She pulled one of the squashy blobs – squeezed from one of the creatures that lived right on the edges of the Vents – and held it in the fingers of one arm as she gently twined fingers of the second around the fragment of the Skyspark and then braced herself with her third arm and her tailgrips to give a quick pull. There was a spark of pain, echoed in her own light, and then the stickyseal was pressed down, stopping the bleeding and soothing the pain.
She didn't have to ask for the shard; her mother knew her well, and handed her the sharp-pointed thing, curved and white and strange.
Many of the others had gathered by now, and were staring in confusion at the tiny enigma. "You have a story to tell us, I think."
"Yes, I do." She breathed in and out, letting the water flutter around her, calming herself, remembering. Then she began to speak.
When she was done, even the less-excitable members of the Pod were flickering in rose and blue. "A Skyspark?" Steadyglow said finally, slowly. "A light that fell from the Sky?"
"I don't know what else to call it, Elder," she said. "It sang in light and skinsight. I can't even echo that light, really. It was something like this." She did the smallest, brightest, purest pulse she could, "but that's nothing, not even close, it's muddy and unclear and dull compared to what the Skyspark was like."
"Hmm, yes. May I see that . . . shard again?" He took the extended object, passed it near his sensing spiracles, down his own senseline, held it close to his eyes and shone light on it from all angles. "Blushspark, you have always been truthful, and this is indeed something beyond our knowledge. Yet . . . this thing looks to me as though it was made, though I cannot imagine of what, or how. It does not seem to be part of – if you will pardon me for speaking what is obviously in your mind – some ineffable creature from the Sky, that helped place our Middle World between the Earth and Sky."
She couldn't restrain the blush at all this time, and the water around her was rosy for a moment. "Sir, I –"
He laughed gently, pulsing in red and orange. "I am not making fun of you, Blushspark. Your description . . . was almost poetic, and you have gone through something indeed vastly stranger than I think any of us can understand, so it would be even more strange if thoughts of our legends did not come to you. But you yourself have sought understanding as much as any your age, delving into the histories, reading the Archives until your mother dragged you out on more than one occasion. What do you think?"
She smiled gratefully at the Elder. "I . . . don't know, Elder. Nothing I've read is anything like what I heard and felt. I just know it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, and I will hear that song forever. I want to know where it came from."
He sighed, a rippling flutter through the water. "As would we all, I am sure. But the Sky . . . you know it is not a safe journey. Often breath is short there, short and painful, for the feedfumes and ventsmoke accumulate in the high, until brought down by the great currents. And with this great worldshake, the predators will be agitated, in patrols for the injured and confused for some time.
"And you know of things that fall from the sky. Stones, usually, yes, but we also know that any who have sought their origin have never found anything . . . or, if they did, they never returned to tell what they had found."
She bobbed her understanding reluctantly. "You're saying . . . there's no point in looking."
"I hesitate to be so absolute about it, for this is no rock, that is certain. But we have much work to do for the Pod of Seven Vents, and surely you understand we can spare no people on a risky expedition to the Sky without some reason to believe there is more than this single mystery." He smiled gently. "If there truly is something there, something so wonderful, it will not disappear tomorrow, or the day after."
Blushspark's heart wanted to argue, but her mind knew the Elder was right; he usually was. Suddenly she felt exhaustion sweeping over her; terror, awe, and shock were taking their toll. "Yes, Elder. M . . . mother? Can I go rest?"
"Of course you can, Vuundi."
She found their weave-house and curled up on her perch; the memory of the pure, impossible song echoed through her mind even as sleep took her.
Blushspark drew in as much water as she could and charged, gripping the braidrope as tightly as possible. It grew taut, fighting her and the other five midsters as they, in turn, fought to get to their anchor positions.
This time she just made it, clamping her tail gripper onto her designated anchor-rock in the shaping line.
Glancing back, she saw the others were also firmly locked down. The huge blade-shaped leaf of cultivated, pure spearweed, more than twenty spears long, curved now, bent into a half-circle. Elders, directed by Steadyglow, hooked their own lines on and began pulling slowly and steadily to bend it more.
This was a delicate operation, despite the massive strength of the spearweed; pulling it too far could cause it to snap rather than bend, which would be a terrible waste of such a fine leaf and could be dangerous to those nearby. But it had to be bent farther than the actual intended shape, or it would spring back too far. You could tether it into shape to some extent (and you usually did to give the support rib some resilience), but no one wanted a building that was trying to pull itself apart.
And as this was the main arch for reinforcing the Archives, it was especially important.
Blushspark kept her grip, though her arms were starting to ache from the fingers down. This was the last of the major repairs; a dozen cycles had gone by while the netcage had been painstakingly rewoven and restocked; some of the tame fish and other animals had stayed, a few more had been recaptured or wandered back, but catching enough more to support the Pod had taken the most time. Other minor damage remained, but overall the Seven Vents had taken the worldshock well.
As Elder Steadyglow had feared, some of the other pods had not been so lucky; over in the healing weavehouse, her mother was tending the three survivors of Linewall Pod; she'd heard part of the story the exhausted, terrified Elder Yiinimi had gasped out, that when the worldshake hit, the entire Linewall had split open and obliterated their whole valley in boiling ventwater; had the three of them not been on the ridge they would have died instantly, and even then they had been badly burned by the uprush of deadly liquid.
"Release!" came the command, and she gratefully let go. The spearweed uncoiled . . . but only to the limits of its restraining ties, and the tension they could hear when the ties were pulled showed it had accepted the shaping. A whistle of triumph echoed through the valley.
Able to relax finally, Blushspark took out the shard and looked at it again. The alien tang was fainter, but still there. No one she'd shown it to, not even the scouts and messengers who'd visited from the other Pods, had ever seen or sensed anything like it – except one scout who had been not too far from their valley, who thought he might have heard, very faintly, the song she described, or something like it. This had been just before the Skyspark had burst, because he also thought he'd heard something pop.
"We could go see if we could find any more pieces," Jetgrab said, drifting around in front of her to see the shard.
She blinked all three eyes in surprise and pleasure. "Would you? I mean, there's probably nothing to find, I was at least forty spears above the earth and I'm not exactly sure where. I mean, I'm pretty sure, but not exactly, if you know what I mean."
Jetgrab flickered rapid green amusement. "I know just what you mean, but hey, we've done our work and both old Steadyglow and Designer Turnwheel say we're free. And maybe the smell will lead us to them."
She saw the Elder passing by. "Elder? May we? Go look for more pieces of my Skyspark?"
Steadyglow rocked his body back and forth. "It was near the end of the Hotwall, hmm?" At her affirming bob, he flickered indecisively. "A bit dangerous for two midsters. But . . . all right. Take Bluntspear, and watch yourselves. I do not want you taking chances. The Pods have lost enough people in this last tragedy, none of us want to lose more; yet we know that to seek answers is one of the highest callings."
"We'll be careful, Elder Pollesi, I promise!" she said earnestly, using the old one's given name to show how seriously she took this.
"All right, then."
Getting Bluntspear from the grazing nets took only a short time, and then the two of them headed out of the valley towards the far end of Hotwall.
She felt her tension rising as they got closer – unreasonable and silly of me, she reminded herself. This was something that's never happened to anyone before; it won't happen to me again.
"Are we in the right spot?" Jetgrab murmured with the dimmest speech he could manage. They were mostly dark now, watching with skinsight and with sound for anything approaching.
"I'm . . . not sure." She tried to think back. There was a heatwaver. Very narrow, one I could get through rather than have to swim a hundred spears to get around. She listened and risked a few probe-pings.
There! On that ridge! The sound was right, and if it was in that direction then…
"Here. It was right about here that I saw it." She remembered the echo-navigation sights she'd gotten in those moments. "And I swam up to meet it there. So…"
"Hmph. I see what you mean. Lot of water for it to fall through in little pieces, and there'll be plenty of muck down here. Still, worth a try. I'd like to have a shard of my own, and if we get enough pieces we might even be able to put it together for the Archives."
They turned Bluntspear downward until he reached the bottom. "Somewhere along –"
Bluntspear shied abruptly, and at the same moment something lunged from what had seemed featureless mud.
"Miremaw!" Jetgrab hissed in dismay.
A sinuous, three-jawed monstrosity, the miremaw struck again, trying to catch either the slower Bluntspear or smaller midsters. Swimming fins extended from its ridges and while it could not match their jetting speed, it could turn and maneuver very quickly.
But she and Jetgrab were also warriors of the Seven Vents. We can't let it get Bluntspear! The stolid haulfin was one of the best workers of the Pod, and even if it wasn't, quite, able to think and talk, Blushspark thought of him as a friend.
Jetgrab, she could tell, had the same reaction, and they moved almost as one. The two midsters rippled back from the lunge, then twined arms around the bright spears and charged.
The miremaw was huge, twelve spears or more in length, the uncontested master of its stretch of ocean, and it was simply not ready for the smaller – scarce two spears in length – creatures coming towards it. In startlement it balked, and that was fatal. Jetgrab's speartip took it straight through one eye, and Blushspark rammed hers home directly into the gaping maw, digging into the dominant jaw's roof and striking into the brain from the other side.
The creature's convulsive death-throes shook the water, but it was dead in that moment. The two members of Seven Vents let themselves drift momentarily, shaking from reaction, before Jetgrab let loose a shaky yowl of triumph, one she echoed; they grasped arms and repeated the victory howl. "Skies," she gasped finally. "A miremaw. We just killed a miremaw."
"Yeah," Jetgrab said in a hushed voice. "And a monster. There's meat and bone in that for . . . well, a lot of people."
"Do you think Bluntspear can move it?"
"Maybe. Dragging even really big weights is what he does. But it'll be slow going. Look, you stay here with it and Bluntspear, I'll jet back to the Pod and bring help. Won't take me more than a little bit to get in safe calling range."
She thought for a moment. So much for our search, but this is so much more important for the Pod. "Okay, but be fast. You know scavengers . . . or worse . . . are going to pick up on the blood pretty fast."
"Yeah." He glanced around, hovering in the water nervously. "Okay, I'm gone."
To keep herself busy, she brought Bluntspear down and started to harness him to the body. Jetgrab would bring help but there was no reason not to prepare. And while she kept her senses on full alert, doing something helped keep her from getting more and more nervous; working on the black plain with the immense, monstrous form of the miremaw looming nearby would unsettle anyone, but just sitting there in the never-silent yet lonely black? Eww.
The quick, sharp sequence of sounds echoed faintly from overhead, with muffled, sharp overtones unlike anything she'd ever heard. It sounded almost like snapping sky inside woven padding, or like the hollow sound inside a tub being pounded from within. But there was something about that sound, the way it resonated – or didn't – that was simply . . . wrong.
Now there was more . . . a faint hissing, chiming, impacts of something falling, but it was falling and hitting things. Impacts with a solid surface, when there was no solid surface above her except . . .
She stared upward, knowing that somewhere far, far above, beyond where she'd ever been allowed to go, perhaps fifty thousand spears above, something was falling. Falling on the Sky.
But how could something fall on the SKY? She couldn't grasp it, except in the legends, those that said that there were gods, spirits, things beyond the Sky…
Two more of the strange quick sounds, then three more just as something huge struck something else – several somethings, perhaps, but struck with an impossible sharpness that nothing falling through water could ever make. But what else is there to fall through? her mind demanded, almost running itself in circles trying to understand the incomprehensible, and then a slow hissing roar like a landslide, but that, too with the sharpness of impossibility.
Slowly the sounds diminished, faded to silence. She became aware that there were other figures around her, Steadyglow among them, all pointed upward, all staring into the enigmatic black that absorbed sightpings and returned nothing.
For several minutes all of them waited, listening. Aside from faint, faint traces of settling sky or stone, it was quiet from above. Finally, Steadyglow turned to her.
"It would seem," he said, "that the Sky is restless here." His tone was calm, but there was an undercurrent of excitement . . . or even fear . . . in it that shocked her, because the Elder never displayed such emotion. "This is the same place, hmmm?"
"Yes, it is."
"Hmmm." He studied her, even as the others began affixing their lines to the miremaw's body. "And both times the . . . events happen when you were present."
"What . . . are you . . .?"
"I do not know," he said, with a chagrined flash, red and blue-green and patterned like ripples. "But history is long and patterns are woven in it, woven ever and always, and running through them as a single long blade is that some people are those to whom things happen, who are chosen by . . . chance or perhaps something else to be given opportunity."
He looked at the body of the miremaw, and his customary control reasserted itself. "Of equal moment is that you and Jetgrab performed a hunt – albeit unplanned! – worthy of the finest Hunters. You are midsters . . . yet few Elders could have done better."
Her ruddy-bright namesake flashed out. "We didn't really think, we were just protecting Bluntspear."
"Defending one of our most faithful friends? Do not belittle that reflex. You leapt to the defense, you acted, you triumphed. You think fast, and act correctly. I can ask no more. And coming at this time, such a mighty kill is a great blessing; we have more refugees come today, and the ability to lay in many provisions . . . this is well."
She looked up again. "What should I . . . do, Elder?"
He stared into the darkness with her. "Let us wait a few cycles. See if more signs from the Sky come to us. If they do . . . it is your mystery, and your right, Blushspark. I will not prevent you from seeking it, if you dare."
She looked up and thought about fifty thousand spears of darkness, with nowhere to hide, no ridges to dodge around, open water where the orekath ruled, cruising silently and invisibly until it drove at you in a rush of death.
Do I dare?
Do I dare not?
The first answer came only a feedcycle later; echoing, shrieking, the sound of an orekath in fury, and then in shocked, disbelieving agony. Blushspark heard it only because she had swum high, very high, above the boundaries of even the highest peaks of Hotwall, feeling the shift of pressures within her, readying herself for a venture she was still not sure she dared take.
The high-pitched shriek, carried along with a deep undertone, was of a full-grown predator, not a youngster, not a dying aged creature. There were larger monsters, of course; the miremaw itself was larger, though it struck mostly from ambush, but there were others, vastly greater than the orekath though far from as common. But such monsters, if they chose to attack one of the other predators, were not silent; they would first stun their opponent with a great shock of sound that would resound across many thousands of spears like doom.
She heard no other sound; just the angry attack and sudden scream of agony and flight.
And it came from far, far above. Towards the Sky.
"Something is there," Jetgrab said quietly, startling her.
She realized her senses had been so focused above that she had actually missed his approach. Stupid! Stupid midster! If I do that on the way through the great void, I'm dead. "Yes, something is. What are you doing all the way up here?"
He flickered oddly, a friendly yet nervous shimmer that was echoed in his skinsight resonance. He's nervous. "Wanted to know if you were really, really going. I . . ." He suddenly turned, curved away, rippled back. "I . . . don't want to . . ." Jetgrab's body rocked indecisively, then he sighed, a burbling sound that reflected his tension. "Blushspark, you know I . . . really like you."
Suddenly even the mystery of the Sky seemed almost irrelevant. Me? Is he saying . . .? "Jetgrab . . . you . . . we're just midsters."
He reached out hesitantly with his top arm, touched her own. "Not much longer, not now."
That's true. We completed that hunt. The Elder's letting me make a decision to go or stay. I guess that means we're going to be Elders soon. "You choose the least-warm setting for such a glow, Jet," she said fondly.
Her tone relaxed him, and he gripped her fingers a little tighter. "Needed more here." He looked up. "It's not my place to go with you unless we were paired, and we can't do that now . . . even if you do . . .?"
She laughed, letting the blush not just spark but flare long and bright. "Of course I do, Hurunnda," she said, using his real name. "I guess everyone's known we would, sooner or later."
They hung there for moments, resting atop Bluntspear, letting skinsense and sound intermingle as they hadn't ever quite done before. Finally, though, Jetgrab let go, slowly, reluctantly. "You're going, aren't you?"
"I have to, Jet. I have to know."
"You always have to know. The girl who spent all her time in the Archives because people got tired of answering your questions. You learned to read the weedrecords whole hands of cycles before most of us. You're probably going to be a Designer. Of course you have to know." He wavered, then bobbed forward and embraced her whole body for a second. "Just . . . come back, okay?"
She hugged back. "I will. And I'm not leaving quite yet. I need to get prepared." She looked up. "But now I know I will go."
The two returned to the Pod, and she found Steadyglow working with the Designers on new weavehouses; the Seven Vents were going to let all the refugees stay, and that meant expanding the whole village. "Blushspark Vuundi," Steadyglow said. "I've been expecting you."
"Elder Pollesi," she said formally. "I have heard a dying orekath far above where nothing should be. That has decided me; I'm going."
He turned to face her fully, all three eyes focused upon her. "Hmmm, yes. I had no doubt you would. And on speaking with the Archivists, we are agreed that this is worth the risk to the Pod." He reached over and handed her a large weavebag; inside were several large, black, almost shapeless objects. "Four breathsponges. You are going to the top of the world, and often the water breathes foul there."
"Four?" She was astounded. Breathsponges, which accumulated . . . well, whatever it was that made breathing work inside of them, and could be peeled and squeezed to vent the good water within directly into the body, were rare, and usually kept for healers or for those on dangerous expeditions for the Pod, not for some midster on a crazy quest. "Elder, that's an eighth of our reserve. I can't –"
"We insist. Any venture to the Sky is dangerous, Blushspark. And these mysteries are ones the Pod would like answered, so it is within my discretion. Do not use them if you do not need them, of course . . . but we shall all feel better knowing that you will not be felled instantly because the water is foul."
She saw her mother hovering in the back, ripples of worry clearly visible. "All right, Elder. Then I can provision myself from the storehouse?"
She swam over to Heatdancer and embraced her. "I'll be okay, Mother."
"I . . . I know you will. But forgive me for being worried; your father was lost in the Dark, too."
"I'll come back."
Heatdancer's smile was sound and light. "Don't break that promise."
A cycle later she began the ascent. Bluntspear calmly swam up in a lazy spiral, letting their bodies adjust to the slowly falling pressure. There were some creatures, she knew, that couldn't survive the shift, and that could be an advantage if you realized it; run higher or lower and they could not follow. But her people could fly to the Sky or dive to the Deeps, and so could the haulfins.
Suddenly, from above, she heard a humming buzz, a sound like a pinched vent. But there are no vents in the Sky.
The sound went on for several spiral arcs, then stopped. But a few moments later, it started again, and lasted for about as long. The cycle repeated, again and again, and she felt a slow chill of awe or fear. It's . . . regular . . . it's not random.
Of course, many creatures could do regular actions; the careful, precise approach of an orekath, criss-cross and close, criss-cross and close, the stalking of a ridgeclaw in three taps and a pause, and so on. But this sounded like a . . . a moving vent, and that made no sense at all.
At twenty thousand spears up she stopped, waiting, stretching her senses as far as she could. A few faint movements in the distance, but no sign that anything was tracking her or even noticing her and Bluntspear.
She ate, a twistmeal of shimmerleaf with miremaw meat, and gave a large chunk of the meat to Bluntspear. Then they started again.
Thirty thousand spears up. Forty thousand spears, and she was now closer to the Sky than anyone she had ever met, and even the sounds of the deep bottom were faint, faint, and she drifted in darkness almost absolute to sound, to eyes, to skinsight.
But . . . far, far above still . . . she suddenly caught a hint of song, a thrill in her skinsight. It's there!
There was no doubt; waiting there, just beneath the Sky, was something singing the song of the Skyspark.
She drove Bluntspear faster now, as fast as she dared ascend. Forty-five thousand spears high, and the song was louder and glorious, not one song but many, as though a hundred Skysparks were hovering, waiting. She felt a thrill of dread and awe, that she was approaching answers or death, or perhaps both.
Then the ocean boomed, a thrumming thunder that roared like a vent just opened, but more and different, a howl and rumble that went on and on and on, as though the Sky itself was about to erupt. She froze, pulled down, waited, wondering if this was the rage of those above the Sky, warning her to come no closer to the mystery dropped from above.
But the sound, awesome and terrible though it was, came no closer; it did not change or waver as she cautiously urged the now skittish haulfin higher. Whatever was happening, it did not seem to be directed at her.
And the Skysong was still calling to her, beyond the rumbling roar of the venting Sky.
She felt the cold of the Sky now, and the water smelled of old breath and feedwater and death. Yet . . . not so much as she had expected. There was movement above, the water . . . flowing toward the sky . . . and disappearing into the roaring whirl of sound.
And then she saw it; the tiniest glimmer of pure white, shining through the water a hundred, two hundred spears above, and she knew that she was near the Sky, and near the answers she sought.
Slowly, slowly she rose, approaching to get a glimpse.
Something floated there, floated just below the Sky. It was larger than she was, larger even than Bluntspear, probably five spears or more long, massive, shining white and reflective as a fresh-hewn spear from the heart of its weed, other parts dark as muck, still others seeming made of solid water, clear to sight yet distorting faintly like heatshimmer.
And it shone, dozens of Skysparks set about it, singing in light and skinsight so beautifully that she felt her whole body rippling with the ache of her heart.
She backed off then, not sure what to do next. What is it? Is it . . . a Sky being? What will it do?
The thing was . . . strange. The overall lines were smooth, and she could see there was a clear front to the thing, with two arms extending from it – arms with strangely simple, almost crippled-looking hands, maybe four or five fingers on each. Along its sides were several round things that extended slightly below the main body, which hung at a steep angle from the Sky. There were no fins, and it seemed stiff and hard as stone. How can it move?
The thing had to be able to move; it hadn't been there all this time, someone would have found it thousands of cycles ago.
Gripping her spear tightly, she told Bluntspear to stay where he ways; the haulfin seemed quite content to get no closer. Slowly, slowly she approached the singing Sky-thing, swimming to one side. It seems to have anchor-tendrils, holding it to the Sky. That explained why it was staying in one place without fin or jet. She didn't approach the anchor yet; that would be a delicate maneuver and Blushspark had no idea what the thing's reaction would be. "Hello?" she said. "Do you understand me?"
The Sky-thing made no reply; whether that was because it could not reply, or did not deign to, she couldn't guess. She was no longer afraid, but she was puzzled. This thing sang like it was not merely alive but transcendent, yet it didn't feel alive. It didn't move like the living; right now, in fact, it wasn't moving at all; she couldn't figure out how something could sing that way without any motion of any kind. From . . . inside, she thought . . . she could sense other vibrations, again of a sort she'd never heard before, with that sharp overtone that was so utterly alien. She drifted down towards the area that had seemed clear as the water.
And something moved within, moved back as though startled.
Blushspark stared, fascinated. That moved like it lived. She remembered the rockbites. They, too, had a hard, unmoving shell, anchored themselves, and inside a moving, living creature.
It was a grotesque thing that seemed to face her. "Seemed to" because there were two round, moving dots in the generally circular part pointed towards her, dots that looked very much like eyes. Above these possible eyes was a mass of filaments, very fine filaments pulled back and away somehow, and below a part that opened and closed on occasion – a mouth? And the whole area around that possible-face seemed surrounded by another layer of that heat-shimmering solidity.
It was excessively eerie; the thing seemed to have no symmetry at all.
No. I'm wrong, she corrected herself, and smacked one arm against another reprovingly. It has two things on each side. Everything we know tends to have three sides, but this one has two.
Drawing up her courage, Blushspark took her gaze away from the strange thing within the shell, and drifted closer to the shell-thing itself, surrounded by that achingly pure singing light. She tapped the thing – oh, so very gently – with the spear; the spear rang as though it struck stone, with an undertone of bone.
There was a sort of oval area on one side, separated somehow from the rest, a line or crack running completely around it. She approached that, curious.
Without warning, the round black things all along the Sky-shell spun, whirring at stunning speed that caused the whole thing to lunge in the water. Blushspark instantly darted backwards, afraid she'd gone too far. But the spinning died down and the singing Sky-shell hung quiescent once more.
What was it doing?
It was a warning, obviously, she decided. That oval area must be sensitive, even though it didn't ping as any less hard than the rest of the thing. How did those spin? They looked like the crane-barrels, except there was nothing to make them turn. A crane needed someone to be able to grasp the handles on the outside and turn the barrel that was attached so it wound up, or let down, the braided line. Turned from inside the shell, then. She'd never heard of a creature that could spin things that way, but then no one had ever heard of anything like this at all.
She moved in again, back to the end that had seemed to have a face.
The face flashed at her with that pure white light. Blushspark jumped in the water, but held her location. Now it flashed again, and again. A pause, and now it flashed, flashed, flashed again. Another pause, flash, flash, flash, flash, all of them still clean and beautiful. A pause, and then a long, long blaze of that lovely light that went on for a heartbeat, two, three before it faded. A pause of several heartbeats, and then another flash.
What in the world is it doing? She watched the flickering as it repeated, and repeated again.
A chill struck her, as though she had driven herself straight into the sky. It's a pattern.
She was suddenly frightened, dashed back, back to the familiar, broad, solid form of Bluntspear. It's counting! Counting what? Why?
Slowly, the chill strengthened, along with a sense of wonder and awe. "Bluntspear," she said in a hushed voice, "I . . . I think it wants me to answer."
She took a long shuddering breath, letting masses of water pass through her, and felt her filters twitch at the foulness of the water, so diametrically opposite the purity of the thing she faced. Need a clear head. Reluctantly, she took one of the breathsponges, held it before her inlets and squeezed steadily while breathing in. The clean, strong scent of the bottom-water washed through. Blushspark got two, three good breaths out of the sponge and it reinvigorated her.
She rose up to face the strange thing again and concentrated. I hope you don't expect me to duplicate that light. She was nervous, trying to keep her hands from working in the water but failing. What will happen when I answer?
She swallowed water, then flashed once. Waited, flashed twice. Waited, flashed thrice, and now she saw the thing inside stiffen, move back, little mouth working, eyes almost seeming to widen, as she gave the series of four flashes and then ended with the long flare that – she hoped – meant "end."
The little thing inside hesitated. Then there was a single flash, a pause, and the long flash.
One . . . and end?
Counting, she reminded herself. She had to be right. She had to be right now. Hearts pounding faster than ever, she flashed twice, sent a long flare burning into the water.
Three brilliant flashes answered her, and Blushspark LAUGHED, looping through the water in joy. I understand! It understands! It thinks, it THINKS, it wants to talk with me! She sent her own understanding, counting up higher and higher, and suddenly she understood the real source of the joy within her.
This thing was no god, no spirit. But it was not one of the people, either. It was something new, something wonderful, yet somehow it was something like her. She knew it, somehow, just seeing the quick movement of the creature inside its shell. It was overjoyed to meet another thing to speak with, to know.
The shining Skyspark had not been a sign of the gods, or some impenetrable mystery. It had been something so much more. A sign that the answers were greater than the questions, that the people themselves were not alone.
Blushspark turned back, to see new patterns of shimmering light, new mysteries, and behind that she saw something familiar. For somehow, in the wideness of those eyes in the monstrous face, in the workings of the mouth and gesturing of strange-stiff appendages . . . she saw a reflection of the same joy.
Two flashes, and now the light took on a shape, two lines at right angles. Two more flashes, another shape like a spear-barb, and then four flashes.
What . . . ?
That same strange pattern repeated several times, then stopped. Then one flash, the two crossed lines, two flashes, the spear-barb, three flashes. That repeated a few times, then another, two flashes, the crossed lines, three flashes, spear barb, five flashes.
The thing cycled through those patterns again. She tried to figure out how to replicate those shapes; the lines were clean and straight as spearshafts, a challenge since most patterns the people liked to use were curves and patterns of shadow. I think I can do it. But I'm not sure what it means –
All of a sudden she wanted to smack herself. Sky and Deeps, it's obvious! It's not counting now, that new symbol means addition. One plus two equals three!
She gave the long flash that meant "end," and the thing cut off, went dark. With careful concentration she inclined herself so her back would be easily visible, then sent a flash, made the crossed lines, then another flash. If I'm right . . . she made the spear-barb shape, and then added one and one to make two bright flashes.
The light flared out, one short, one long, a sign that seemed to shout yes! as loudly as her heart was beating. She couldn't restrain a spin of joy, and then to test her understanding, sent them three flashes, the crossed lines, and seven – followed by the long ending flash. Will it . . .
Instantly, it seemed, ten brilliant flares answered her. Blushspark flung her arms wide with exultation and felt the rosy blush cover her. She didn't care. This was something so wonderfully strange, and so special, there was no chance of embarrassment.
But now the thing inside was doing something else. She couldn't make it out.
Then it used the manipulator branches that seemed attached to the moving inside parts to put . . . something else in front of it.
A three-sided thing that looked like a child's doll, like one of the woven charm-dolls most children got shortly after they hatched.
What . . .?
She stared at it, wondering. Is it imitating me somehow? Why?
Then something else, long and cylindrical, with round things spaced along it, bent objects attatched to the front, placed with the rear facing the doll.
She knew the thing was trying to say something, and she felt so stupid. What does it mean?
And suddenly she found herself sinking as revelation burst in. That cylinder thing with the round objects . . . it's representing ITSELF.
And that means . . .
She streaked back up, reached out a finger, touching the smooth heat-shimmer solid as close to the charm-doll as she could. Then she extended her arms, gesturing to all of herself. Repeated it, and the Sky-thing blazed out YES. She pointed to the other object, and to the Sky-thing, and again it blazed YES.
But there was more. Two more models, a giant charm-doll and something tiny, something that fit inside the Sky-thing doll. With a jolt, she realized the tiny thing looked like the moving part within the Sky-thing.
And then it all suddenly fit. This is not a shell. This is a riding . . . something. The moving thing inside is what's talking to me!
Shaking with nervousness, Blushspark reached out, pointed to the little creature inside and to herself, and then from the big shell-thing to Bluntspear far below.
YES, blazed the Skyspark-light. Yes, yes, yes.
Amazing, she thought, and spun herself around with the joy of having more mysteries in the answers. How do you ride inside something without it eating you? Or . . . She touched it again, drifted around. It is as solid as spears. Could it be . . . a spear? An object, something made? But then how . . .?
She looked more carefully inside. There are . . . other things in there with this one. Objects, tools. That's how it made the dolls. Looking closely, she saw there were several such objects hanging on the walls of the shell… and despite the distortion of the transparent material, one of them had curved and straight lines that looked familiar. The first Skyspark… it was a tool. Something they dropped. But those are inside. The creatures are inside. How could they drop . . . ?
Drifting farther, she felt heat radiating from two fins on the thing's back – heat so great that it seemed the thing must have a deep-vent within. Yet the rest of it was cool. The arms, too, were hard, solid things, no sign of life. She saw, now, another of the two-sided moving creatures inside, this one in the front of the riding . . . object?
She was close, now, to the Sky, so close she reached out a finger and drew it along the smooth coldness. Water flowed past her, rumbling along the ice and away into that impossible roaring something only a dozen spears distant.
This close, she could see how the riding-object was anchored to the Sky, and for a moment her hearts seemed to stop.
For this was not an anchor of a living thing. It was not even a permanent anchor at all.
A loop of cable – not braidline, but something similar – stretched through a round eye-support, for all the world like something suspended from one of the Pod's cranes.
But the cable, stretched taut as her nerves, went into the Sky.
She heard taps, raps, bangs through the Sky above her. And though it was impossible, she thought, at last, that she understood.
Blushspark streaked back down, got the attention of the creature inside, and gestured to herself. Pointed into the depths. Then she pointed to the creature –
And pushed upward on the Sky-thing, making it bob upward towards the Sky.
For a moment she thought she had somehow understood things wrongly, for there was no immediate reply. But the second time she repeated it, the blaze of YES eradicated the darkness.
And if that's true . . .
She went up to the Sky, spread her arms wide, sensed as hard as she could.
Movement. A faint singing above, a light I can sense just barely there.
Hammering on the Sky.
Hammering from above the Sky.
She was suddenly absolutely sure of the impossible truth. This was a Sky being – one from beyond the Sky – and it had fallen through the Sky . . . along with something, a tool, perhaps . . . that had continued to fall until she saw it come singing into view. Above . . . above the Sky were more…
Blushspark knew, now, that this was bigger than she was. This was bigger maybe than the whole Pod of Seven Vents. She gestured to the creature, trying to tell it that she understood, that she was going back, that she'd be back with more people.
As she dove down and landed on Bluntspear, urging him to dive, dive, she didn't know if the Sky-creature had understood yet.
But it would, when they came back.
Blushspark smiled, shimmering and tingling with awe, and drove for home.
And the song of the Skyspark followed her . . . within.
Copyright © 2013 by Ryk E. Spoor
Ryk E. Spoor is the coauthor, with Eric Flint, of Boundary, Threshold, and Portal. All are part of the Boundary SF series, as is the preceding short story. Ryk (pronounced “Rike”) is also the author of solo novels Digital Knight, Grand Central Arena, Phoenix Rising, and upcoming Grand Central Arena sequel, Spheres of Influence.