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War, Ice, Egg, Universe
I shall start four cycles before the Westerian invasion, the threat of which I then appreciated only as a source of support for my research into the source of lightstone.
My third-molting-father, Professor Colonel Threeclickson, had come to express his worries about my slow field work in the deepest part of the long valley that gave our land its name, some eight-to-the-fourth body lengths from the University. His fronds drooped toward the ice and he glowed with white noise as all the hairs on his four long legs vibrated in disharmony. Reaching over with a long arm, he lifted up my head.
“Up there,” he said, waving his three remaining arms upward. “The answers lie above.”
I could not nod agreement with his pincer under my mandible like that, but managed a polite “Yes, sir,” from my spiracles.
He let go and I brought my head down again, but only to the level of my upper thorax.
Threeclickson’s spiracle covers clapped. “You are always staring at the ice, Loudpincers. Elevate your ambitions.”
I bent my neck up again so my head was at the level of his. “Sir. The ice is where we find the lightstone that takes our instruments up there. If we knew where lightstone came from, we might be able to find more of it, and, perhaps, even ascend ourselves, without dying first.”
Threeclickson seemed mollified; the hair on his legs settled down and assumed their normal texture. “Your logic is right, but be wary of becoming too indirect. You know that Professor General Icescriber has proposed building an ascent sphere of ice?”
I shivered with the thought of such an adventure as well as from lingering fears from larvahood myths about the eater of disobedient souls in the land of the dead. “Yes . . . uh, sir . . . I’ve seen drawings of it. It’s one arm thick all around with polished areas to see through; it should resist crushing and let us get really high—if we can find or make enough lightstone to lift it.”
Threeclickson laughed with staccato slaps of his spiracle valves, which made his upper thorax sparkle. “I rather supposed that would appeal to you. At my third molting, I shared that ambition. There is some promising related research that, however, must be held among the staff for now . . . ” He trailed off. “But the water above is not friendly to life. As a body goes up, its heavy parts are compressed and we cannot breathe easily above eight to the fifth body-lengths. It is, after all, the realm of the dead . . . Well, Loudpincers, have you looked at the latest lightstone research?”
“Goodphaser thinks it works its way up from further below.”
The professor huffed currents out of his spiracles. “So much is obvious.”
“Softtipspawn has a theory that lightstone might be connected with the periodicity of icecover plant growth,” I ventured.
“Pure speculation. I know she is a friend of yours, but biology isn’t Softtipspawn’s field. Major Lecturer Tightpincers is a zoologist, however, and she is pretty sure that lightstone is excreted by an unknown species of giant iceworm—little iceworms have long been known to feed on concentrated minerals released from warmfall water as it freezes.”
I tried to imagine a huge worm tunneling through solid ice and couldn’t, so I maintained a respectful silence. Threeclickson and Tightpincers were thick, and if rumors were to be believed, might spawn together next feasting season.
“I can tell you don’t think much of that one,” Threeclickson said, accusingly.
“Sir . . . it’s very difficult to observe anything in a warmfall,” I said. “The warm water makes one slow or even unconscious.”
“She surrounds herself with ice before going in and is usually conscious for long enough to note what happens. I must admit there has been a problem getting others to replicate this. Well, what else have you found out?”
I recited my research. “Lightstone comes in many varieties and varies in lifting power per unit volume, though it takes a sensitive balance to see the difference. Lightstone with the most inertia lifts most strongly. Some people have timed the rise of lightstone through the ice to the surface by protecting the surface over them from variations and taking measurements every feast cycle. They drift upward at varying rates, usually less than one over eight-to-the-fourth body lengths in a cycle.”
“Brightpincers and Loudlegs,” Threeclickson replied. “They’re visiting from Great Warmfall. And they’ve also shown that solutions of ground lightstone are the same as found in iceworm excrement, by the way. Well, what conclusion do you draw from all of this?”
I hesitated, not sure I should tell Threeclickson all my cosmological speculations, but vanity spoke. “I think they might be concentrated by living things, not living in the ice, but rather on the other side of the ice. There could be another shell of water beyond this one, further out from the center. Like an egg of ice with many shells. But that’s just speculation,” I hurried to add.
“And not original. There is a long history of stories about beings from the underworld. Unfortunately, they are tales to make larva more attentive.”
I opened my pincers. I could not help that. “I need more data. Since I’ve covered almost all of the base’s allocated research area, the only way to get more is to go, well, deeper. Lightstone comes from somewhere.”
Another spiracle flap. “Well, I haven’t seen any giant iceworms either, so maybe. But be careful who you say that to; I would not want to see my molt-son ridiculed.” He waved his fronds. “Going down to go up! The Mystical Church would love it. But your logic seems unassailable.”
He waved an arm toward the west; a dim glow of noise marked the direction of our neighbors in Crossvalleys. “I wish our Long Valley were likewise unassailable. But Highfronds’ Westerian Empire draws nearer. They are absorbing Crossvalleys—see the glow of their war machines? We are getting refugees daily.”
I shivered. Crossvalleys was but a thirty-cycle hike from Long Valley, and only Lushole lay between them and us. “We are no match for the empire in population,” I said.
“Aye, but do we just allow ourselves to be eaten or enslaved? Our one hope lies in better weapons, and that means better research. So, do your research, but keep in mind the needs of defense; the research must pay off soon, Loudpincers. There is not much time. Goodcycle.”
He scrabbled off among the hillocks and ridges of the research field, lit in sparkles by the myriad sounds of nature. Pompous as he was, it was good for him to journey so far and take so much time with me. The bottom of Long Valley was very isolated; it was too prone to enervating warmfalls to be settled, so he’d come some distance from the comforts of civilization.
I wanted to find more lightstone, of course, but that was only part of the ancient question that had gripped my imagination. How deep could I go? The bottom of Long Valley’s eponymous rift was by all accounts as far from the center and the land of the dead as one could get in the ice. It was kept clear by a periodic warmfall, so I had a good head start.
What was below the ice? Theology had long held that our universe was a bubble in an infinite volume of ice, and academic cosmology had no better suggestion, so the question itself was a minor heresy, but priests did not have the standing in Long Valley they had in Westeria. Some radical geometers had offered the idea that the ice was finite but unbounded; if I could dig down forever I would end up coming up on the other side of the universe, just as if one kept going west with the current from Long Valley, one would eventually reach Long Valley from the east side. That closure was of two dimensions and required three, the greater closure would be in three dimensions and require four.
The idea made my head ache. I didn’t believe it, anyway. Something came up through the ice to make the plants grow. That something did not come down from the center, because you could cover the plants and they would still grow. And they would still grow according to the regular cycle. To me, this meant that something different had to lie below, something that changed with the cycle.
I took my prized lightstone axe from my thorax pouch and carefully tied its tether to my abdomen belt against its tendency to fly upward. I followed the path back to my pit, contemplating the universe. Icesplitter’s model of weight held that water pushed things less dense than it out from the center, giving us weight and keeping us firmly on the ice.
It seemed to me that unless there were something pushing the ice toward the center, the universe would explode. Therefore, there should be a layer of water, or something, beyond this one. Perhaps more. The “layer” that lay beyond our layer must generate, or at least transmit, lightstones. And if I could find it, my people might have what they needed to defend themselves.
I checked my surface stores and rappelled down a knotted rope to begin again my painstaking routine: thirty swings of the axe, then wait for my body to recharge itself as the ice chips settled back down. Then do it again. It took me a demicycle to lower the pit floor by a quarter arm.
With each new level reached, I gently laid my ear fronds on the hard, cold ice-viewer, chirped a command to my vibrators, and watched for the dull fuzzy spots that would signify lightstones.
A quarter-cycle went by. Then I noticed something strange; not a dark, hard reflection spot that would signify a lightstone, but rather that half of my field of view seemed dimmer than the other half.
I raised my body on all four legs and directed my attention to the viewer itself. Designed from Valleyscraper’s sonic wave theory of vision, it had eight-squared cones, each widest at the bottom and narrowing to a small plunger and plate arrangement at the top, on which one laid one’s fronds. It multiplied by two times eight squared the slight motion of the waves emerging from ice in contact with the wide ends of the cones to those fronds in contact with the narrow ends.
The fluid in each cone was under a slight pressure, and if it leaked, the amplification would be somewhat less intense; and I would perceive that part of the wave front as being dimmer. But I could not think of anything that would cause half the cones on one side to leak.
The viewer was anchored to the ice by a heavy tube frame; if the pressure on one side were not the same as on the other, there might be a difference. With effort, I braced all my legs and lifted the viewer off the ice; it did not seem unbalanced.
Still, I examined it at a wide range of frequencies—and nothing looked wrong.
I might, I realized, be sounding the edge of a huge object buried deep beneath the ice, its faintness due to depth, or softness. I went to the viewer and chirped for illumination. The dark half was still there. I moved the viewer slightly and chirped again. The edge stayed where it was—so it lay in the ice and not in the viewer.
Was it, I wondered, the edge of a physical change in the ice at that level? A field of soft ice? I thought I would have to expand my pit to test that hypothesis, and that would take cycles of work. But as I went to move the viewer to make room for digging, I tilted it and had an inspiration.
Suppose I dug my pit with a slightly concave bottom? I could move the viewer around scanning through the ice at various angles, looking thus in a different direction in each place and greatly expanding my field of view. I hastened to work.
It took another quarter cycle, but there was definitely something down there. It was huge, it was distant. It, I dreamed, might be a giant lightstone, more than enough for thousands of weapons. But I would never get to it before the Westerian armies got to us; I would need help to dig down quickly. I went off to find Threeclickson, snacking on local iceweed as I went; no time to stop for a meal now!
I found Threeclickson in his office with General Councilor Sharpfronds and four others.
“Loudpincers! Just the young body we need. You have saved me the trouble of sending for you. You know the general. I would like you to meet as well Professor Lieutenant Farfronds, Mr. Crushpincers, Mr. Eightfold Longtail, and Goodmother Quickfronds.”
“Goodcycle, all. Need? I have just come to tell you I’ve found something of potentially immense value, what is possibly a huge lightstone buried deep in the ice.”
Spiracles flapped in humor. “What would you say, Loudpincers, if I told you we have gained access to where we shall not have to dig for lightstone?”
I waved my pincers upward in a questioning posture.
“Precisely. If you come into the courtyard, we shall show you. Are you curious?”
I decided to set my news aside for a moment; I had delivered it and need not argue or expound on its importance, and the possibility of a journey to the center excited me. I nodded agreement and followed the Colonel and the General.
The university offices form a hexagon, the center of which is an open area twenty bodies across. Much of the military development that we would rather others not hear was done there, and as such an invitation to enter was a mark of great trust—something I even more greatly appreciated as I approached its entrance, secured by three military personal and two sets of woven stiffplant doors.
We negotiated this gauntlet one by one and found in the open space beyond, with sonic beams illuminating it from all sides, a vast sphere, fully three bodies across. A windlass even larger than it was stood next to it. A small fortune in netterbug web fiber must have been wound around it.
“Young Loudpincers,” Sharpfronds’ said. “There is a steady rain of lightstone skyward; it all must collect in the center. But how far is that? Now Prof. Major Crossfronds has received an echo from his instrument.”
“An echo?” Were there layers above as well as layers below?
“Almost three times eight-to-the-fifth body-lengths above us is a reflection.”
“Not a temperature ghost,” Threeclickson added. “Something real that does not move. The center itself, or at least something that might stop lightstone on its way to the center.”
I looked at the sphere and the windlass. Then I spotted its propulsion system: a small net filled with a fortune’s fortune of lightstone waving gently in the current above the sphere, straining to drag the sphere upward.
My leg hair vibrated in spite of myself. “You mean to go where the dead go to reclaim the lightstone?”
“Exactly,” Threeclickson said. “And you must come too.”
It was said gently, as if in invitation, but it was an invitation, I realized, that I dared not refuse now that I knew what technology would accomplish this trip. Besides, if I had been told everything with a free choice, I would have begged to go.
“When?” was all I asked.
They were all still for a moment, and in the dark silence, the thumps of distant war machines made the horizon glow. Threeclickson waved an arm in Sharpfronds’ direction.
“There must be no delay,” Sharpfronds said. “We go as soon as provisions are loaded, in about thirty clicks. What you need will be on board, so there is no need to gather anything; however, I should not dismiss the danger.”
He cupped his fronds toward each of us in turn. No one wavered that I could sense.
“Good. If you have affairs to settle, you, I, and all of us should do what we can in the time we have to resolve them. There are sonotube cubicles around the perimeter which you may use.”
“You are going yourself, General?” I asked, not knowing then how impertinent that was.
Sharpfronds turned, then waved an arm, dismissing any idea of offense. “My style is to lead from the front, Loudpincers.”
With that, he departed.
I stood and looked in wonder at the sphere for a few clicks, then proceeded to the perimeter.
From the standpoint of few affairs to complicate things, they had chosen me well. I had only my eggmother to tell and my project for an inheritance. Eggmother was away, so I called the university recorder, who took my message for her and recorded my will. For the project, there was nobody but Softtipspawn. Because she was an early teacher of mine, our relationship was still a bit spiny and for her to consider spawning with a student was to mix things better not mixed. But I would be a student no longer in a few cycles, and her eggs carried an intelligent heritage. We were of similar age, three moltings each, and this was thought best for reproductive success. If she would not get my seed, at least she would get my data; that in itself was seed for something.
The next step was the hardest. One wants, more than anything, for one’s existence to have meaning. My discovery would, perhaps, cause my name to be immortal. But if it fell into the hands of the Westerian Empire, every being in the universe would be in jeopardy. With great reluctance, I told the recorder to place my will among the things that would be destroyed should the university fall to the empire. Not until that moment had the impending invasion really hit home.
A horn pulsed deep long waves. Our departure signal, probably, though I had not been told that. I left the cubical and headed for the sphere. There, Mr. Crushpincers directed me toward a hinged section of the sphere. He was, despite his name, quite small.
“It is a hatch. Pull it outward,” he said.
I did as he said and it opened easily, almost pulling itself from my fingers as it swung hard toward the ice. “It seems too heavy to be strong,” I said.
“It has many layers of fiber joined with a glue made from iceworm skin. It is both stronger than ice itself and heavier; this is a secret which you must keep now.”
I moved the door back and forth, thinking about how strong and heavy it was. “If we have this, what do we need of lightstone weapons?”
Crushpincers clicked with good humor. “Not as much, certainly. But we need lightstone for much more than for weapons; we need the lightstone to fly over the enemy. A lightstone-levitated gondola with four archers could neutralize an eight of eights of infantry, if even a quarter of their load of poisoned daggershells found the target.”
The instinct of a daggershell was to seek the ice at as high a velocity as its water jets would take it, its hard, notched shell penetrating deep enough to hold it until its next molting. They could stab completely through a thorax and still stick in the ice below. Many cycles ago, I had come close to being under one, and the wonder and fear at hearing its bright landing so close to me was one of my strongest youthful memories. To us such a thing as a weapon spoke of our desperation. To actually swim above the ice levitated by lightstone fired my imagination.
“What a project! Are you coming along?”
“No, someone must mind the windlass, I fear. Now you’re the last, so on your way.”
I nodded and entered the sphere. My companions were on benches against the side around the equator of the sphere, each with a portal that had been invisible from outside. Cabinets, no doubt filled with the equipment we would need, lay under the benches. I took the remaining free bench and looked around.
I felt I had entered some new and strange universe. The inner wall was smooth to even the highest frequencies, like an egg. Apart from the benches, the cabinets, and a cylinder covered by what sounded to be a taut drumhead at the very bottom, it all seemed very stark and featureless.
“We ascend,” Sharpfronds said. Only the slightest motion betrayed the truth of what he said.
“Loudpincers,” Goodmother Quickfronds said. “I have prepared something for us all to take that will ameliorate the effects of the rising pressure. I assure you, despite what it tastes like, that it will not harm you—I have taken it several times myself in pressure chamber tests.”
“Pressure chamber?” I had never heard of such a thing.
Quickfronds raised her fronds in pleasure. “It lies beneath the north side of the University. We carved a cylindrical room, then froze a plug that, after some grinding, matches the opening almost exactly. The ‘almost’ we take care of with a caulking paste of crushed iceweed. A great screw can push the plug down, compressing the water beneath it.”
I made postures of admiration. “This must have been in work for some time.”
Sharpfronds clicked his spiracles. “It has. Fortunately. Dr. Quickfronds is our greatest expert on this, and we trust her to keep us alive. Now let me show you another wonder. Crushpincers?”
“Yes, General?” The voice had a tinny quality, missing some of its lower register glow, but it was clear and understandable. But where was Crushpincers?
“How far?” Sharpfronds asked, directing his voice to the drum.
“Two eight cubed and six bodies of line out,” the voice answered, lighting up the drumhead.
Crushpincers must be outside the sphere, I thought. Observing the play out of the tether line. But, I remembered, the reel was on the ice, and we’d been rising for some time. We’d have gone through the reflecting layer beyond which unaided acoustic senses could not see. So how?
Sharpfronds leg hair vibrated in excitement. “Good show. Loudpincers and everyone, there is enough tension in the line to carry the sounds we make, as amplified by the big drum head you see in the center. Another drum is attached to the line by small lightstone rollers, so that Crushpincers’ voice can vibrate the line and carry up to us. The same works in reverse.”
“Crushpincers is still on the ice?” I said, half asking, half stating.
“Yes,” Sharpfronds said.
I could think of nothing to say. The implications of being far, far above the ice and still being able to talk to those below ran riot in my mind. Speaking tubes ran only a few eights of body lengths before the voice faded to inaudibility. Beyond that, messengers had been needed.
We rose and rose. There was no way to keep track of cycles, save through the voice of Crushpincers or one of his students from the drum below; but they told us that two had passed. Dr. Threeclickson said, based on his geometrical analysis, that we had ascended a hundredth of the distance to the mathematical center. Sharpfronds said we should reach something soon; occasional holes in the reflecting layer had revealed another reflecting layer at about this distance.
We were all feeling somewhat ill. The pressure, Goodmother Quickfronds said, was compressing the heavy fluid cavities in our bodies, interfering with our ability to produce energy. We would be able to tolerate it based on the pressure chamber experiments, for quite some additional distance. But it would be uncomfortable until we got used to it.
I felt tired, a little woozy, and lighter and lighter. I began holding onto my shelf instinctively, as if to keep from floating off it like I was made of lightstone. The very physics of my body was changing; it was as if I was being drawn to the land of the dead. Should we really be doing this, I wondered.
To keep my mind off my innards, I tried discussing cosmology with Quickfronds, explaining to her my idea that the universe was like an egg with multiple shells.
“Egg, universe—it’s an interesting analogy,” she said. “Shells exist to keep out parasites, but allow water and dissolved heavyfluid to enter and nourish the embryonic larva. The larvae exist between the shell and the center, which has nourishment, but is not alive. An idea is a bit like an egg, too, I think. It should stay in the shell of one’s mind until it is ready to emerge, no sooner, no longer. A real egg has only one shell, Loudpincers, and hatches only once. And before crèches and culling, most larvae were eaten when hatched. If our universe is like an egg, are we really ready to crack its shell?”
War, ice, egg, universe—individuals were laid, hatched, lived and died. But everything else seemed to stay the same. “For how long have nations rose and fell, for how long has knowledge been won and lost, how many generations of soldiers have died fighting over the same ice?”
Quickfronds nodded. “For longer than we know. Sometimes a warmfall will expose relics; Steadylegs of Crossvalleys has looked at the distribution and frequency of such finds and thinks warmfalls are less frequent now than when they were deposited, and the ice is on average a few body lengths thicker. But there is no discernible change in these rates for the five and three-eighths great greatcycles for which we have records.”
I imagined all my research lost to the Westerian invasion and then, greats of greatcycles later, being duplicated by someone else, only to be lost again.
“What happens to a larva that stays too long in its shell?”
“The worms come, in time. An eggshell is not forever.” Quickfronds waved an arm around her, “Our present shell only seems like it. Your analogy of the egg seems to repeat itself on several scales, and both in abstract and concrete. There may be some wisdom in it on how the universe does things.”
“Thank you, Goodmother.”
She nodded and turned away, signaling the end of conversation. I, too, was having trouble concentrating as what the pressure of the ascent was doing to my body distracted me. On and on we went, and we grew quieter and more unsure. How much cable did Crushpincers have on the reel? I couldn’t remember.
If we did not find something soon, I thought, we might be in no shape to do anything with it.
“Comrades,” Professor Lieutenant Farfronds called. “Something lies . . .
The impact came as a surprise, throwing us off our shelves.
“ . . . ahead of us.”
We floated together into a jumble on one side of the sphere. Or the bottom, now, for, pulled however gently, we stayed there. It felt as if up had become down and down, up.
Then, before anyone could even groan in astonishment, the sphere began tilting back and forth, and we slowly rolled as a mass to the top. After much embarrassed and apologetic moving of limbs, we sorted ourselves out into a rough circle around the top.
General Sharpfronds gathered himself, jumped and swam up to the drumhead, and latched on. “Crushpincers!” he bellowed.
There was no response. The sound transmittal system depended on tension, I realized. And now there was none. We rocked slowly, feeling upside down and helpless.
Finally, there was some more rocking and a kind of sucking sound. The motion of the sphere changed, now feeling like it was tethered again as opposed to sitting on something.
“General? Anyone?” Crushpincers’ tinny voice sounded.
“Thank goodness,” Mr. Longtail sighed.
“We’re here, Crushpincers. We’re seemingly, uh, upside down, but everyone seems okay. Ah, Goodmother?”
“It was a gentle crash, we should all be undamaged.”
“I’m undamaged,” Sharpfronds echoed. Others followed his lead.
“Good.” Crushpincers voice came after a discernible delay. “We noted when the line went slack, but there is some lag since you are so far up. I have had to reel you back a little to restore tension to the tether, but you should still be close to what stopped you. Can you open the top hatch?”
It was at our feet now; top had become bottom.
“We shall attempt that presently. Thank you, Crushpincers.” Sharpfronds waved a limb at us. “It seems we have arrived.”
“We should gather the lightstone quickly,” Goodmother Quickfronds said. “I don’t know how long our physiology will hold up under this pressure.”
Actually, I felt somewhat better than I had earlier. Perhaps my body was adapting to the new conditions. I was conscious of, well, slowness, in my thought and movements. But quality seemed unaffected.
Sharpfronds nodded. “Loudpincers, Farfronds, unscrew the latches. Longtail, wind up the beacon.”
We all jumped to our tasks, though I wanted a look at the beacon. Wind-up implied a spring of some sort; I had never heard of a spring driving a beacon before. The threat of the Empire had made the University busy indeed, and I found myself very curious about things that, apparently, no longer were to be hidden from me.
But first things first. I went to work on my latches. As I did so, the sphere began to develop a slight monotonic glow; the beacon, I presumed. Soon the hatch swung aside, and revealed “below” us a vast, smooth, featureless plain starkly lit by the tone of the beacon. I didn’t see anything at all that looked like lightstone.
“So that is the land of the dead. Not quite what we were told before molting, is it?” General Sharpfronds said. “No eater of souls, no pleasure gardens, and no piles of lightstone, either.”
“No, sir,” said Farfronds. “It looks like another layer of ice, though darker, less reflective.”
“The multishell cosmology,” Professor Colonel Threeclickson said. “When the lightstone hits it, it must work its way through to another layer of water, perhaps one that is inhabited. As for the darkness, we have no idea what our layer looks like on the other side. It could be a debris field.”
My leg hair wilted. That was my idea and Threeclickson had stolen it. I felt vindicated but disappointed that I had not gotten any recognition.
“And what happens to the dead?” Longtail asked. “I have a bad feeling about this. It is not what we expected. If we cannot see any lightstone, perhaps we should go home.”
Silence greeted that remark. Not finding the lightstone made the expedition a failure and could have grave consequences for our nation.
“The area of this land must be over eighty percent of the area of our land.” Professor Threeclickson said. “We can only see a small portion. Where do the warmfalls come from? We should take more of a look.”
“You are welcome to stick your head in the crack,” said Longtail.
“I volunteer,” said Lieutenant Farfronds.
“Thank you,” General Sharpfronds said. “But I would like one experienced soldier to remain aboard the sphere at all time. Since I shall have to make the decision of what to do, I shall get the information first hand. Your orders, Farfronds, are that if anything happens to me, have Crushpincers pull you all back. You hear that, Crushpincers?”
“I hear, General. May I suggest that, in that event, we pull back a little way and reevaluate. We would not want to lose you.”
“Oh, bother that. Very well. Pull back a little and, Farfronds, you do as you think best. But should I meet my end up or down there, whatever it is, honor me by making sure that nobody else meets a similar end.”
“Sir!” Farfronds replied.
“Enough discussion. Ware above, as below!”
Sharpfronds let go of the communications drum and dropped slowly through the hatch and onto the plain. So far, so good. But then he kept going into it, though very slowly.
“Soft!” he said. “Like so much rotten tissue. Slime. I’m sinking into it! Totally unexpected! Throw me a line, quickly.”
Farfronds leaped up to the cabinets below our benches and clinging with three arms managed to open a cabinet with one, extract a coil of rope, and toss it down to me. “Loudpincers! Tie an end to the latch and throw the coil down at Sharpfronds.”
A glance down at Sharpfronds showed only his head and fronds still echoing above the surface. His voice holes were beneath it, but he had two of his arms just on the surface, waving slowly back and forth, trying to swim in it, it seemed. He could keep that up only so long, I realized. He was suffocating.
I glanced up in time to catch the coil of rope, but instead of just throwing it down to Sharpfronds, I followed the coil and lowered myself claw by claw toward the surface. The exertion made me incredibly tired.
General Sharpfronds had vanished entirely just as I reached the surface; there was nothing to show that he’d caught the coil. I began to lower myself into the surface, head first, to keep my spiracles above for as long as possible. Voices called to me to stop, but there was no time to argue.
The material was viscous, clinging, and dense. I tried chirping to see, but the viscous mass seemed to absorb every sound I made; it was as black as deafness.
I reached as far down as I could with my upper arm, feeling my energy wane as the substance began to block my spiracles. I felt something, and grabbed and held. It could be Sharpfronds’ limb. Or something else entirely. Something long dead.
Shuddering, I held on and began to back. Slowly at first, as the holding and the motion took every available bit of energy I had. But as more of my spiracles emerged into clean water above, I felt a little more strength.
Then the rope started to move up. My comrades must have seen me try to back out, I thought, and helped by pulling the line in.
My head broke into the water and I started rising faster. I shook myself back and forth to try to clean my fronds and vision returned. What I had in my hand was definitely someone’s wrist, just inward of his pincers.
I looked around for a moment as my flapping spiracles desperately tried to restore my energy. In the monotonic glow of our beacon, every bump in the surface cast long, exaggerated shadows. One of the shadows moved, undulating toward me. I had to stare for seconds to be sure of what I was seeing; the rise in the surface was huge.
Suddenly, the slime fell away and a great round hole slowly broached above the slime, then waved right and left before descending again. The hole appeared to be a mouth with six huge triangular teeth around its rim, pointing inward. The Eater of Souls, I thought—mythology come real.
Clinging with both hind arms, I reached down into the slime with my other arm, grabbed my prize, and pulled. With the group above pulling as well, an entire arm emerged: pincer, wrist, and up to the second joint.
The huge surface undulations moved nearer. Not enough time, I thought, not nearly enough time. But I continued to pull. Suddenly, the strain on my arms seemed to double and I had to cling, both to rope and the arm, with all my remaining strength. The eater? One slice of those teeth and I would be left holding only an arm, if that.
But before I let go, I saw that the arm I held was emerging rapidly now; we were being pulled faster from above. The winch, I thought. They must have told Crushpincers to reel us in. The General—for it was he—began to emerge. He came clear; thorax, head, abdomen, and his limbs trailing limply, but still in one piece, the muck streaming away from his body.
The slime swelled up next to us and a great arch, the upper part of the eater’s mouth, broke the surface and rose inexorably up beside us. Slime fell away from two, then three huge triangular teeth.
This would be very close, but the general’s body was free now and we were rising even more rapidly than the eater’s mouth. Maybe it would miss. I freed one hand from the General’s arm and got ready to try to bat or push us away. Hopeless, perhaps, but I would not give up.
Then something large and bright fell rapidly from above—incredibly quickly, the speed of its passage creating a brilliant wake behind it. I recognized it; it was our bag of lightstone, the one on top of the sphere that suspended us up/down from the ice. What a thing to see lightstone as falling, but that was the current perspective.
It struck the mouth just a body length from me and cracked it, caving it in between two huge triangular teeth. The mouth tore open, its parts waving uselessly. Dense material began to flow from the wound toward the center. Then we were above it, and rising (falling?) rapidly with the sphere.
I was pulled into the hatch, still holding the unconscious General Sharpfronds by his arm.
I released him to Goodmother Quickfronds and collapsed near the hatch with my limbs tucked under me, chrysalis style, shaking uncontrollably. My hands, my head, my body had plunged into the remains of others, accumulated over the ages. Even as I lay there, pieces of the dead clung to me. I had sought treasure in their land and they had guarded it well. I had seen the eater of souls itself. I abandoned myself to my shudders, and lost conscious thought.
When I woke, I had been cleaned. Also, I floated; down had become ambiguous again. There was no need to chirp for vision; the hull glowed with many sounds—a sign of a robust slipstream. Were they reeling us back so rapidly? Crushpincers must have an eight of helpers turning the wheel!
Professor Lieutenant Farfronds came over to me and touched me with a limb. It was the gesture of an equal and a friend, and without his saying anything, I realized my status had changed. “The General survives, for now. But we are all in great danger; we have lost our lightstone and our fall toward home is too rapid. There is no tension on the tether. Indeed, it trails behind us now. We shall have to do something desperate, and soon, and we may not survive. I wanted to talk to you a moment first.” He raised a pair of limbs. “I speak to you as one who, despite my professor title, has always been more of a military person. I have fought the bandits in the countercurrent reaches, and I have witnessed courage, so I know it when I see it. Some will judge this expedition a failure, for the loss of lightstone. But I think we have found a good and courageous soldier.”
“Thank you, sir,” was all I could think of saying.
He nodded, touched me again, then swam over to Goodmother Quickfronds and the General.
Some time passed, then Professor Colonel Threeclickson called us to attention, the first time he has said anything for some time. While he was the ranking officer after the incapacitated Sharpfronds, he’d let Lieutenant Farfronds, who must have been far more experienced in emergencies, take charge of details. But apparently there were responsibilities of leadership and rank that one does not duck.
“Companions . . . ” He hesitated.
I clenched my pincers. It would, I thought, be so like Threeclickson to make some kind of acerbic, imperious, cautionary speech or lecture now, putting us all on notice. But there was no time for that. I had always feared him more than respected him, and now when a greater fear ruled, I had little confidence in him.
“Companions, if we stay with the sphere until it falls to the ice, we shall be crushed. Therefore, we shall have to abandon it. Lieutenant Farfronds, tell what must be done.”
Short and to the point? While his logic remained, the manner did not seem to be that of the Threeclickson I’d known.
Farfronds crawled quickly up to the hatch, then dropped toward the drum, spreading his limbs and fingers as he did so. He did not fall rapidly.
“See,” he said. “The more area you present to the water, the slower you fall. And, after a certain amount of time, no matter how long you fall, you do not fall any faster. Our bomb-throwers call this ‘terminal velocity.’ If you spread yourselves wide enough and so fall slowly enough, you should land on the ice uninjured. You must only have the courage to do it.”
Neither I, nor anyone else, had the instincts of a floater or a swimmer. It was our nature to cling to the surface, anchored by our weight, to not be swept away by currents. I grabbed my bench all the more tightly as I listened to what Farfronds said. I saw the glow the walls of our sphere emitted from its too-fast passage and could easily imagine the crunch as it hit.
“How much time?”
I could barely hear that voice, but I recognized it immediately. General Sharpfronds was back with us.
Farfronds raised his upper arms. “Soon, sir. We have no idea of how far back we’ve come. We could strike at any moment.”
“Very well. Open the hatch.”
“General, you aren’t ready yet . . . ” Goodmother Quickfronds said.
“Am I ready to be crushed?” His voice seemed a bit stronger. “I will lead us out. You will come next.”
“Me!” Quickfronds exclaimed.
There was a moment of quiet. Then Sharpfronds said, “I may have need of you when I hit the ice.”
There was some nervous clicking of pincers at the General’s small joke, but it seemed to break the tension. Farfronds motioned to me, and I joined him in undogging the hatch. But when we were done, we couldn’t budge it.
“Pressure,” Threeclickson said. “The sphere is at the pressure of high above. We must let it out to open the hatch.”
Lieutenant Farfronds scrabbled down from the hatch, reached into the cabinet below his bench, and pulled out a military spear. Then he stabbed the tip directly into the communications drum. The sound of its ripping almost blinded me, and I felt an immediate and terrible discomfort all through my body, as if I were about to explode. Groans filled the sphere, but gradually the pain got less. Also, I suddenly realized I was back to my normal weight, and almost fell from my hand-hold near the hatch. What did pressure have to do with how much I weighed? Compression, I remembered. As my body expanded and gained more volume, it fell more rapidly.
“Loudpincers, the hatch!” Farfronds shouted. I pulled with as much strength as I had, and it opened, grudgingly at first, with a bright hiss of water jetting through the crack. Then it opened more easily. I reached down, to take the General’s hand—he was too weak to climb up to the hatch.
Before he left, he gave what might be his final command, “Follow quickly, all of you.” Then he was gone.
Goodmother Quickfronds quickly leaped up and followed him. After a moment of hesitation, Professor Colonel Threeclickson followed. Mr. Eightfold Longtail, however, stayed clinging to his bench. Lieutenant Farfronds went over to him.
“Go, now! You must.”
Longtail shuddered in denial.
Farfronds tried to pry his pincers from their grip, but got nowhere.
“Get out of here, Loudpincers,” he told me.
Again, I disobeyed orders, dropped from the hatch and tried to help pry Longtail loose. But it was hopeless. I touched Farfronds and drooped my fronds.
He nodded. “Go. I will follow.”
This time I did go, leaping for the open hatch and pulling myself out and through almost in one move. The scream of the water passing by it made the falling sphere below me visible, if in a wavy, uncertain way. Below, to my right, I could make out the courtyard of the university—too close, I thought. I spread my arms and legs as Farfronds had told me, and my fall slowed immediately.
I stared at the sphere, receding below. Where was he? There! A dark shadow appeared in the glowing slipstream, and began sliding off to the right.
The sphere suddenly exploded in a million frequencies of sound and went dark. I chirped, and saw the ice below me, coming up too fast. Now my height and fall were very real; every muscle in my body tensed with terror. I struggled for control and stretched myself as much as possible and flailed at the water with my claws, trying to swim back. At the last moment, I put all eight limbs down to break my fall.
The landing was an anticlimax; I didn’t hit any harder, I thought, than if I’d landed after jumping as high as I could. Terminal velocity, Farfronds had said. I had learned, I thought, a great lesson of mind over instinct. Feeling myself whole, I chirped in the general direction of where the sphere hit, saw it, and headed that way to see what I might do to help poor Longtail.
On my way, I saw a bright crunch, chirped, and recognized Colonel Professor Threeclickson. Of course, having left the sphere before I did, he would have had longer to fall. I went over to him, and ascertained that he had come through the fall as well as I had.
Then I told him the bad news. “Sir, Longtail wouldn’t leave the sphere. I was headed over to see what I could do.”
“You should stay back, Loudpincers. You would not want to see what must . . . Forgive me. You have already . . . I . . . Yes, let us go see what we can do.”
Threeclickson had asked me to forgive him. I sensed again that whatever happened now, my life had changed greatly.
Goodmother Quickfronds landed just then and scuttled over to us. We told her what had happened. “Threeclickson, tend to the General when he comes down. Rest should be all he needs, and a little cleaning off. Loudpincers, you’re young and strong. Come with me.”
We were halfway to the wreckage before I’d realized how easily Quickfronds had given orders and how uncomplainingly Threeclickson had obeyed. Five cycles ago, he had been the terror of my life. An act for the benefit of the student, I surmised, by one whose real nature was to defer to others. Yet I almost felt sorry for him.
We reached the crumpled sphere and found our way in through a hole in the wreckage. Lt. Farfronds, of course, had gotten there before us, but there was nothing to be done. A jagged section of the hull had neatly severed Longtail’s abdomen from his thorax. He had, uselessly, extricated himself and tried to hold his severed half against the wound, but that, Quickfronds said, only hastened his death, as certain fluids from the nether part should not mix with those in the thorax.
Quickfronds turned to us. “Should you ever find yourself in such a situation, do what you can to stem the bleeding from the thorax. You will still die, but may have as much as a cycle or two to say and do whatever last things you have to say or do.”
Threeclickson and General Sharpfronds arrived next. We removed the unfortunate Longtail from the wreckage and all stood vigil for an eighth of a cycle as his body became light and ascended to the land of the dead, to become part of that slime in which I had been briefly immersed. I shivered, thinking about what I had touched. I thought of my conversation with Quickfronds as I watched Longtail ascend. If our universe was an egg with a single shell, what lay outside? What laid it?
We were a sober group back at the University, arms at sides, fronds still. General Sharpfronds, now much recovered, addressed us along with several military commanders and university staff.
“Gentlepeople, we took our best shot at it. We learned much of cosmological and perhaps theological interest, though the eater of souls we encountered seemed a very physical creature. Looking at echoes, I might have worn a rope and been pulled back with much less bother. But such an encumbrance could itself have been risky. Again, we took our best shot.
“Now we are in a very grave situation. Lushole has fallen; nothing remains between Long Valley and the empire. Highfronds has delivered an ultimatum: we should submit peacefully as inferiors to his superior government, or be crushed by his armed forces. We have five cycles to reply.” The General snapped a pincer in contempt. “He has that little respect for our ability to improve our defenses significantly in that time. Hubris may be his undoing. Highfronds is a charismatic leader—do not underestimate him. But the juices of his abdomen run his mind, and we shall make that our advantage. We will do the unexpected, the unanticipated. We will fight creatively.
“The good news is that our war floaters are ready. With enough lightstone to float a dozen of them, we should be able to even the odds and make advance against us too expensive for them. If we can float all thirty, we may be able to repel them without significant loses of our own; a result that might guarantee our independence for some time. But that is a still-sealed chrysalis; we need more lightstone, for we can float only one as things stand.
“Lieutenant Lecturer Loudpincers has found a possible source of lightstone deep within the ice.”
There were murmurs in reaction to this news, creating far more of a stir when it came from the General’s voice holes than it when it had come from mine only a few cycles or so ago. But I barely noticed: Lieutenant Lecturer Loudpincers, he had called me. Graduation eight times eight cycles early and a field commission, too! If only I proved worthy of it.
The General continued. “It will take some time to dig it out, six to seven cycles. We will move civilian population and the war floaters deep within our territory, back in the cracks where they will be hard to find and may easily defend themselves. The University hexagon we shall turn into a citadel, capable of holding out for a hundred cycles against any attack machines we have heard of the Westerians possessing. They may yet come up with some new weapon to save, or revenge, our people—but that is a very faint hope indeed. Our best chance lies with the war floaters.
“General Highthorax and General Stronglegs have prepared maneuvers and delaying actions which might give us three cycles or so beyond the ultimatum date. In that time, which will be purchased with the lives of the brave, we must find Loudpincers’ giant lightstone, section it and launch the war floaters. Unless someone has a better idea.”
Dark silence covered the gathering.
“The sacrifice will be great and the timing very, very tight. So we had best start digging.”
Later, when I happened to be close to the General, I told him, again, that what I had was a theory, a speculation, at best a good idea. “Now soldiers will lose their lives on the idea that it is true.”
“So you tell me now that you think you’ve oversold your idea,” he said this with cold stillness.
I trembled; I had never been so frightened.
But General Sharpfronds rested a pincer on my arm, the reassuring touch of a father on a larva. “I am not so molt-damaged that I did not recognize the risk; nor did you mislead anyone by stating possibilities as certainties. The one certainty, which everyone in this country knows now, is that without some miracle, we are all slaves or dead. Well, miracles occur in combat as well as in craft, but they are done by soldiers who have hope. If we had not had your lightstone find to give them hope, we would have had to invent something of less substance.
“But I would prefer not rely on miracles of any kind, so let us get about the digging. We have some equipment here that will be useful; my people will take care of it. Refresh yourself and be out there in an eighth cycle.”
I nodded, then, remembering my new status, clapped my pincers, military style. “Yes, General.”
I headed for my student quarters, perhaps for the last time. I tried to contact Softtipspawn, but she had already been evacuated. Whatever happened, nothing would be the same. I gathered a few mementos to fit in a pouch, then lay on my bench and rested.
When I arrived at my dig the next day, General Sharpfronds’ people had spread a great panoply of cloth and pipes around my hole. After a moment, I recognized it—a warmdrill. If one seals a certain flatweed against the ice so that water cannot flow through it, in time a heavy compressible fluid will collect at its roots, against the ice. This fluid, if allowed to flow into a container of dead plant material, will displace the water with its very heavy essence. Such heavy fluid makes plant material grow very hot, and water is pumped through that heat. The hot water, forced down by means of bellows, cuts through the ice rapidly. As a mere student, I had never had access to such inner University wonders. As the chief of a potentially nation-saving emergency project, I had as much special equipment as could be conveniently placed in the area.
We drilled cylinders, a body length deep at a time. First we carved a circle in the ice and made it deep, then, with a special sideways-facing nozzle, we cut in horizontally and so detached the cylinder from the ice. Ropes were frozen into each cylinder, and it was hauled up. Then the process was repeated.
In the distance, the glow of the battle of the University had began to light the sky.
Down the shaft went, just spinward of the large mass I so fervently hoped was lightstone.
“Water,” someone yelled. “We’ve struck water.”
My first thought was multishell cosmology. My second was about how wrong that first thought had proved far above.
“Melt water, not seawater,” the person in the bore shaft yelled, as if he could read my thoughts.
“Great central heavens!”
There was silence. “What is it? Can you see it?”
I turned to one of our draftees, Premother Longlegs, a first-molt apprenticed to a sweettree farmer, now a refugee. “Longlegs, go tell General Sharpfronds that we’ve reached the objective, but something strange has happened.”
Someone had to go down. There were only four of us above. Who to send?
At that moment, for some reason, I thought of General Sharpfronds and his pronouncement: “My style is to lead from the front.” The organizing had been done; what remained to be done was below.
“Tell him that I’m going down to investigate. Platoon Sergeant Shinyclaws will be in charge, up here, until I get back.”
Like most officers who rose via the academic rout, I’d taken special pains to learn the names and procedures of the pure warriors; but was still uncomfortable. A seasoned troop might be holding his spiracles in amusement at how I did things, but Longlegs was as new to this as I was. She snapped a claw as if she were at drill, turned, and was off.
“Sir!” Shinyclaws said. She was a veteran, and there was a sharpness to her voice that made me worry that she resented my rapid rise; she perhaps didn’t take in the three moltings of academic training that had preceded my one act of physical courage. I should, I thought, deal with it now.
“Sergeant Shinyclaws? I’m new to this, I know, but we’re very pressed for time. If you’re unhappy, I’m sorry. I didn’t choose the circumstances.”
“Oh, sir. Not that at all. Well, not with you at any rate. I’m maybe a little unhappy because I’m not at the front. I’m still of egg-laying age, I’m afraid, and the General Professors are looking ahead to replenishing the population. But if we don’t . . . I mean there won’t be any point.”
I thought about that. Both positions had a logic to them. I thought it through. “Shinyclaws, the work behind the lines still has to be done. By having that done by females of egg-laying age, the Generals cover two needs with one action. Personal happiness is secondary in such times. Sorry.”
“Yes sir. I understand. But I would rather die fighting them now than be overwhelmed here and forced to bear their eggs later.”
I could only nod. I had not realized the full implications of her assignment.
“Anyway, Lieutenant, ah . . . ”
“Loudpincers, sir. You’ll be wanting to take a runner down with you, sir. Betterthinker would be my choice.”
“Right, thank you. Carry on, Sergeant.” The optimistically christened Betterthinker was actually one of the slower troops on the uptake, but he was fast and strong. “Betterthinker!” I shouted. “Come on. You’re with me.”
We’d built a tripod over the hole and a tube of rope netting hung down from its apex, enclosing the hot water tubes. The netting also functioned as a ladder of sorts, and on these we descended.
As we went, I reminded myself of who was below. It was the third shift; Sergeant Raspyclaws, Mr. Icefronds, the water jet technician, and able soldier Larvasaver. None were evident as I reached the level of my suspected giant lightstone. The shaft went further down; the plan had been to approach the lightstone from the bottom.
Only a half body-length or so of ice separated me from it and I could easily see it by holding my fronds and mandibles against the ice and chirping. It certainly looked like a lightstone; its rugged surface was full of shiny pits and sharp edges. But it was huge—several body lengths across, at least.
I felt warm water at my abdomen. My first thought was that it was the cutting water, but that had been turned off some time ago. The warmth was enervating; I wiggled my abdomen to increase water flow, then switched my body around, hanging upside down so my spiracles would be in higher, cooler water.
The warm current was issuing from the horizontal shaft. I moved down further so my fronds could see through it. The warmth made me forgetful and fatigued, and I had to fight to concentrate on moving each limb, but I persisted in descent.
Finally, I was level with the shaft, chirped, and saw the thing hanging below the giant lightstone. It was long, rounded at each end and unnaturally smooth, as if turned from a lathe.
On the ice in the shaft beside it lay the bodies of my crew. If I went to them now, I would probably suffer the same fate. I turned and began to climb up the cutter’s suspension ropes, but could only move a little at a time. I had to get to colder water.
“Betterthinker. The ropes. Pull me up.”
I was incredibly tired. If I let go right now, I would literally fall asleep. A very pleasant . . . .
The ropes jerked upward, again and again. I should let go. No, I should hang on. It was getting cooler. I was thinking again.
I resumed climbing, and spotted my savior amidst a jumble of rope and tubes. “Good, Betterthinker. I’m awake now.”
“Handholds, sir. On the wall. I need to let go.”
I saw the notches in the ice and grabbed onto them with two claws as I let go of the ropes with the others. As soon as I had detached myself from the ropes, they slid back down. Betterthinker had, I realized, pulled up not just me but the whole cutting apparatus as well, weighted as it was with superheavy fluid tanks. Well, Sergeant Shinyclaws had said he was strong.
I looked at the tubes and ropes, straightened out again. If they were to pipe down cold water instead of warm, I might stay awake long enough to rescue my colleagues. But I would need something to keep the cold water around me. I scrambled back up the shaft as fast as my legs and arms would take me.
Tailoring is a skill the career military know well, I found out. We took one of the woven flatweed covers and made a rough tube of it for my body, cutting slits to allow my limbs to stick out and tying it around my neck and around a heavy fluid tube just beyond my abdomen. We knew how much tubing the cutter had used, and coiled twice as much for me. The tube served two purposes; to give me cold water to keep me awake, and, in an emergency, they would be able to pull me back with it. I also took the end of a coil of rope, in case something or someone else would need to be pulled back.
With Sergeant Shinyclaws and Ordinary Soldier Bristlelegs pumping cool water around me, I headed down again. It seemed to go more quickly this time, despite my encumbrance. Though I could feel the heat on my head, I had not the slightest loss of energy. The cloth tube that surrounded me, however, puffed up and deflated with each push of the bellows above in a way that would have caused amusement, had the mission not been so serious.
I traversed the horizontal tube quickly and reached the bodies of my comrades. Asleep or dead, I could not tell, but I dragged each one back to the shaft and harnessed each to the spare line. Then I called for Betterthinker to haul them up.
Then, alone, I encountered the wondrous object that had apparently followed the lightstone up through the ice. It was as wide as the shaft, and its warmth had melted a path all the way up to the lightstone. The thought of the lightstone reminded me of how much we needed it, and how quickly. The entire crew, I realized, would need cold suits like mine. No matter how curious I was, there was no time to investigate. We could work around the thing, whatever it was.
Lightstone! It must be after the lightstone just like my compatriots and I had been after lightstone in our ill-fated expedition less than three cycles ago. Less than a three cycles? It seemed like a greatcycle ago. The thing seemed like more proof of layered cosmology—but, the layers were different. Alien. My mind was dizzy with change and happenings.
No time, no time to investigate. I turned to leave the shaft and get help.
“We’ve struck water—meltwater, not seawater. Great central heavens!”
I turned back. It was Sergeant Raspyclaws’ voice, much more clearly than I had heard it at the top of the shaft, but it came from the object. There must be beings inside the thing, I thought, from the next layer; it seemed obvious; the large object was their version of the sphere I had ridden to the land of the dead. They were trying to talk to me, but all they knew of my language was what Sergeant Raspyclaws had shouted—so they were repeating that. Could they see me, somehow? I saw nothing from them but that burst of language.
Time, I had no time. But maybe they could help. Help us in our war? How. Perhaps they could carve lightstone—they were apparently after it themselves.
Perhaps they wanted it for themselves.
Where did my greatest hope lie? I decided to invest a few moments and pointed to myself. “Loudpincers.”
“Loudpincers,” it repeated in a golden burst.
I showed them my body parts: pincers, claws, fronds, arms, legs, and mandibles. I shouted LOUD and whispered soft. I backed up for go and went forward for come. I showed them ice, water, and lightstone. I tried “cold water” spilling some from my suit, and “warm water” waving my arms around. It repeated everything correctly and I said yes. I wished it would make an error so I could teach no.
I curled up in a chrysalis posture. “Sleep,” I said. I unfolded myself. “Awake.”
“Hot water sleep.” It said.
“Yes.” I was getting somewhere.
“Cold water sleep.”
“No, no. Hot water makes sleep.”
“Cold water makes awake.”
“Yes. Cold water makes awake? Question. Yes. Answer.” Would it understand inflection? “Cold water makes awake. Statement. Hot water goes down? Question.”
“Come Loudpincers up?”
“Yes.” It was quick, picking up everything, forgetting nothing.
But I was getting tired and running out of time. How could I ask them to help?
I chipped some ice and showed them “take” and “move.” They understood.
“Loudpincers take lightstone up.”
“Lightstone go up?”
I moved my arms frantically, upward as fast as I could.
“Yes, up. Loudpincers take lightstone up fast!”
The effort wore me out. I felt warm. Then I noticed that the pulses of cold water in my tube had stopped. That could only mean the empire had arrived. I had only moments of consciousness left, time for one last plea. I took my ice chipper and swung it at my head, stopping just short.
“Kill. Kill above. Cold water stop.”
Silence greeted that. What an idiot I was. What could our problems possibly mean to them?
Unable to stand any longer, I collapsed to the floor of shaft.
“Help,” I said. How does a person alone act out help? “Help.” I tried to move an arm . . .
I woke with cold water flowing into my tube again. My first thought was relief—perhaps we had won above. My next thought was that the Westerians had figured out that I was down here and were on their way to enslave me. I found strength enough to chirp. My tube, I saw, was now running into a squarish hole in the alien thing and providing a steady stream of cold water. Hovering around me, swimming, were tiny circular things with little claws. One of them stopped in front of my fronds.
“SEEN-DEE,” it said, pointing to itself with one of its tiny claws. “Cyndi help?”
“Yes,” I said. “Cyndi help.” Then I remembered the situation above. What hope for them there’d be now, I had no idea. But I had to ask.
“Cyndi help kill above?
“No, no, Cyndi no kill.”
They could not understand, not yet. They could not understand my nation being raped and enslaved, its heroes and my friends rising to the land of the dead. They would understand in time, but too late, too late.
“Cyndi help above sleep?” it said.
“Great center, that would work! Yes. Help above sleep. Stop kill. Stop war.”
It was not done simply. The Iceprobe, for that was what they called it, had to back off and come back at an angle to intercept our shaft. There was no room in it for me; I clung to the lightstone while all this happened, and nearly fell asleep again. But before I did, Cyndi brought me a small squarish pack, which she fixed onto the back of my tube. It took water in and pumped it out, cold, into the tube feeding my cold suit. For this reason, I was the only one awake to witness much of the defeat of the Westerian army, for Cyndi’s artificial warmfall put our soldiers asleep as well.
It was not done instantly. The Iceprobe could swim on jets like a daggershell, but it was alone and the Westerians had overrun almost everything. But they had bypassed the University after Crushpincers stopped their effort to breech its walls, intending to starve it out later. And they had been slowed by the deeply cracked area in the far east where General Sharpfronds had planned Long Valley’s last stand. The terrain and our deployment had broken the massed Westerian armies into smaller groups, and Sharpfronds’ creative engineering had worsened the obstacles.
There was time to talk; Cyndi learned our language quickly, forgetting nothing and able to understand more and more of my descriptions. I learned that Cyndi was not the tiny machine, nor in it, but existed far from it and talked to us and the machine as Crushpincers had talked on the drum, but without a tight line. She is female—indeed she told me that should she reproduce she would retain the egg in her body and a larva would emerge from her abdomen. Horrifying, but natural to them—and having been in the land of the dead, I am no longer squeamish. She did everything quickly; she came from a place, she said, which had cycles called “DAZE” that were only a fifth of a real cycle.
“How long such wars repeat?” she asked.
I gave her Quickfronds’ assessment of great-greatcycles and thickening ice.
She was quiet for some time, then said. “That long be eight to the fourth times our notched history maybe. Stop war cycle now be good. Possibly”
We went to the university first, putting asleep the army that besieged it. Crushpincers had ascended, but the university walls were still held by students and old professors. I was acclaimed a temporary general by the chancellor, and under my command, the university folk made cold suits and sortied out. The line that had tethered the sphere on its journey to the land of the dead was put to another use, shackling a Westerian army. We left eight to guard eight-cubed.
There was no rest. Each Westerian battalion we encountered presented its own problems. We ran out of lines and had to come up with new ways of shackling. Cyndi at first objected to the threat of violent force in restraint. But as she heard the tales of rape and dismemberment and saw the evidence, she exhibited fewer qualms. We ran soon out of Long Valley guards for captured Westerians and had to change our strategy to find more of our own people. In this, my senses proved superior; I spotted and recognized the glow of a battle. We went there and put both armies to sleep.
That was the end of my generalship; the army we found was commanded by Goodmother Quickfronds, whom I was very glad to see. But the fact that she was in charge of an army spoke volumes on how many had floated above while I had been teaching Cyndi our language.
I expressed my sorrow and apologies that I had not succeeded more quickly.
“You have saved us,” she told me. “You must not berate yourself for not dying uselessly.”
“Colonel Goodmother, I could have argued more strongly to dig for the lightstone first.”
“The center seemed like a better idea at the time,” she said. “What was done was done.”
Cyndi interrupted this. “Colonel Goodmother Quickfronds . . . your title . . . healer? Know bodies?”
Quickfronds turned her attention to the tiny machine. “I did research at the University. In better times, I healed. Now I bring death.”
“No longer. Teach me. We end this less time.”
After a long talk, Cyndi asked for as much inedible vegetation as could be found or spared. We put it in the hole in the Iceprobe’s side. An eighth of a cycle later, a cloud of very tiny machines issued forth. Two cycles later, all the Westerian soldiers that remained marched home in shackles.
Such is my history. Of those of us who ascended to the land of the dead, only Goodmother Quickfronds and I survived the war. General Sharpfronds died at the front even as his contingency plans were being executed, even as I remembered his leadership style. He has a large and deserved memorial outside the university.
But perhaps as great a story was how blustery, inadequate Professor Colonel Threeclickson and a student battalion held off an entire Westerian brigade at the entrance to the northern crack into Long Valley with warmdrills and bombs hastily made from daggershells and tricks of chemistry for half a cycle. Most of our population was able to flee in that time he bought with his life.
What remains is another story. It is the story of contact with the outer shell, where down is up and up is down; of many eggs, some of ice, some of lightstone, some of heavyfluid. It is the story of the beings who exist around other centers at vast distances that circle great hot centers of heavyfluid producing an energy we can only vaguely sense as heat. It is the story of meeting Cyndi in person, standing on the top of a cave of ice, head down and telling me how she thought I was upside down. She is tiny for so powerful a being, only an eighth of a standard body length, even in the lightstone covering she must use in our water. It is the story of her ‘STAR,’ ‘SOL’ and her center ‘URTH,’ which she assured me had places here and there where I could exist quite comfortably. It is the story of all that has changed us so much and of which so many have written about with much more grace and elaboration than I.
Was my meeting with Cyndi an incredibly lucky coincidence? Certainly it was to me, but it was less so from other views. She was coming anyway. Given our species, she would likely have come during a war; it happened to be the Westerian invasion. She found the thinnest ice to seek inward, I found the thinnest ice to seek outward; the location of our meeting was no coincidence. Yes, the survival of the Long Valley nation was determined by mere fractions of a cycle, but, patriotism aside, that is probably not crucial to the greater story. Cyndi’s people are explorers. Contact was going to happen in some random way; it went this way.
Now, nothing can ever be the same. Between war and contact, it will be a long time before our scientists catch up to the standards of Cyndi’s people. Our academics are as new larvae in learning and our military traditions but an unfortunate history. But this is not without promise.
Allow me but two items of postwar personal interest. The first is that, a greatcycle after I returned to the University, I had a visitor I had never expected to see alive again. A female veteran with a half-regenerate arm appeared in my door with a military click.
“Colonel professor, do you remember me?”
“Shinyclaws?” I was astounded.
“The same. I was captured, but they didn’t think a female would sacrifice an arm to escape. I linked up with General Highthorax in defense of the southern cracks. We were winning when your alien girlfriend came along and spoiled the game.”
“Oh?” I’d heard the story. “Casualty ratio?”
“Maybe ten of them to every one of us. Defense versus offense, and we had a prepared position and daggershell archers.”
“And how many of you were left before sleep came?”
Spiracles flapped in amusement. She knew she’d been caught. “Two eights of us. Against eight to the fourth of them.”
“I’m proud to have known you.”
She came up to me. “How much do you mean that?”
Suddenly I realized that I was the one who had been caught. “Well, a lot.”
“Enough to give me your sperm?”
It wasn’t, by any means, the first offer I’d had. But it was the first one I accepted.
The second and last thing I have to say was that, before Doctor Cynthia Lord Mallagues left to explain her actions to others of her kind—which I gathered would take some explaining—she made an appearance in the Westerian capital that will not be forgotten for a long time. As a result, the Westerian empire is no more, for they no longer have emperors there.
The Westerians executed Highfronds themselves. They have a unique method in that land; the abdomen and the limbs are severed and the thorax is tied off. What remains is lightened by pressed flatweed and ascends, still conscious, up and into the land of the dead.
I am, perhaps, the only one alive who can truly appreciate what that means.
This was inspired by Europa, but isn’t specifically set there. At the time of its writing, the Europa ice layer is estimated to be too thick, and Jupiter too far from the sun, for any significant transmission of light through the ice, or hopes of penetrating it with something like the “iceprobe” above. It was rather conceived to be a satellite of what we now call a “warm Jupiter,” at an unspecified (in Earths frame of reference) distance and time from here and now. But just recently (December, 2013), we have received word of the discovery of geysers on Europa’s southern pole. So the ice may not be so thick, after all at least in some places. Time and exploration will tell.
The ice bottom buoyancy-pinned ecosystem described here has some Earthly analogs in polar regions, but here, it is the dominant one with the local sense of up and down reversed from our gravity-dominated environment. This was more difficult to write than one might think, as conventional ideas of up and down were difficult to suppress. One really has to imagine oneself in the environment.
Are these aliens “too human” in character if not in form? At some point, one has to admit that one is writing a story for human beings to read and to whom they will be able to relate. But I think there is an argument for a certain universality in the underlying motivational programming of intelligent beings; we see much of ourselves in the behavior of life around us, even that whose last common ancestor lived hundreds of millions of years ago. One might expect to see reciprocity, hierarchies, collective aggression, and even sacrifice for the sake of the greater gene pool. Such traits have survival value here and may have survival value elsewhere as well.
—GDN, Jan. 2014
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November, 2002.