David Brin's INFINITY'S SHORE

Infinity's Shore sample chapters

(description and bonus information)

Those who hunger after wisdom often seek it
in the highest heights, or profound depths.

Yet, marvels are found in shallow sites
where life starts, burgeons, and dies.

What pinnacle, or lofty mount,
offers lessons as poignant
as the flowing river--
a crashing reef--
or the grave?

--from a Buyur wall inscription, found half-buried in a marsh near Far Wet Sanctuary


Streakers [Five Jaduras Earlier]

Kaa

* What strange fate brought me,
* Fleeing maelstroms of winter,
* Past five galaxies? *

* Only to find refuge,
* On a forlorn planet (nude!)
* In laminar luxury! *

     So he thought while performing swooping rolls, propelling his sleek gray body with exhilarated tail strokes, reveling in the caress of water against naked flesh. Dappled sunlight threw luminous shafts through crystal shallows, slanting past mats of floating sea florets. Silvery native creatures, resembling flat-jawed fish, moved in and out of the bright zones, enticing his eye. Kaa squelched the instinctive urge to give chase.
     Maybe later.
     For now, he indulged in the liquid texture of water sliding around him, without the greasiness that used to cling so, back in the oily seas of Oakka, the green-green world, where soaplike bubbles would erupt from his blowhole each time he surfaced to breathe. Not that it wasn't worth the effort to inhale on Oakka. There wasn't enough good air on that horrid ball to nourish a comatose otter.
     This sea also tasted good, not harsh like Kithrup, when each excursion outside the ship would give you a toxic dose of hard metals.
     In contrast, the water on Jijo world felt clean, with a salty tang reminding Kaa of the gulf stream flowing past the Florida Academy, during the happier days on far-off Earth.
     He tried to squint and pretend he was back home, chasing mullet near Key Biscayne, safe from a harsh universe. But the attempt at make-believe failed. One paramount difference reminded him this was an alien world.
     Sound.
     -- a beating of tides rising up the continental shelf
     -- a complex rhythm tugged by three moons, not one.
     -- an echo of waves, breaking on a shore whose abrasive sand had a strange, sharp texture.
     -- an occasional distant groaning that seemed to rise out of the ocean floor itself.
     -- the return vibrations of his own sonar clicks, tracing schools of fishlike creatures, moving their fins in unfamiliar ways.
     -- above all, the engine hum just behind him... a cadence of machinery that had filled Kaa's days and nights for five long years.
     And now, another clicking, groaning sound. The clipped poetry of duty.

* Relent, Kaa, tell us,
     * In exploratory prose,
          * Is it safe to come? *

     The voice chased Kaa like a fluttering, sonic conscience. Reluctantly, he swerved around to face the submarine Hikahi, improvised from ancient parts found strewn across this planet's deep seafloor -- a makeshift contraption that suited a crew of misfit fugitives. Clamshell doors closed ponderously, like the jaws of a huge carnivore, cycling to let others emerge in his wake... if he gave the all clear.
     Kaa sent his Trinary reply, amplified by a saser unit plugged into his skull, behind his left eye.

* If water were all
     * We might be in heaven now.
          * But wait! I'll check above! *

     His lungs were already making demands, so he obeyed instinct, flicking an upward spiral toward the glistening surface. Ready or not, Jijo, here I come!
     He loved piercing the tense boundary of sky and sea, flying weightless for an instant, then broaching with a splash and spume of exhalation. Still, he hesitated before inhaling. Instruments predicted an Earthlike atmosphere, yet he felt a nervous tremor drawing breath.
     If anything, the air tasted better than the water! Kaa whirled, thrashing his tail in exuberance, glad Lieutenant Tsh't had let him volunteer for this -- to be the first dolphin, the first Earthling, ever to swim this sweet, foreign sea.
     Then his eye stroked a jagged, gray-brown line, spanning one horizon, very close.
     The shore.
     Mountains.
     He stopped his gyre to stare at the nearby continent -- inhabited, they now knew. But by whom?
     There was not supposed to be any sapient life on Jijo.
     Maybe they're just hiding here, the way we are, from a hostile cosmos.
    That was one theory.
     At least they chose a pleasant world, he added, relishing the air, the water, and gorgeous ranks of cumulus hovering over a giant mountain. I wonder if the fish are good to eat.

* As we await you,
     * Chafing in this cramped airlock,
          * Should we play pinochle? *

     Kaa winced at the lieutenant's sarcasm. Hurriedly, he sent back pulsed waves.

* Fortune smiles again,
     * On our weary band of knaves.
          * Welcome, friends, to Ifni's Shore. *

     It might seem presumptuous to invoke the goddess of chance and destiny, capricious Ifni, who always seemed ready to plague Streaker's company with one more surprise. Another unexpected calamity, or miraculous escape. But Kaa had always felt an affinity with the informal patron deity of spacers. There might he better pilots than himself in the Terragens Survey Service, but none with a deeper respect for fortuity. Hadn't his own nickname been "Lucky"?
     Until recently, that is.
     From below, he heard the grumble of clamshell doors reopening. Soon Tsh't and others would join him in this first examination of Jijo's surface -- a world they heretofore saw only briefly from orbit, then from the deepest, coldest pit in all its seas. Soon, his companions would arrive, but for a few moments more he had it to himself -- silken water, tidal rhythms, fragrant air, the sky and clouds....
     His tail swished, lifting him higher as he peered. Those aren't normal clouds, he realized, staring at a great mountain dominating the eastern horizon, whose peak wore shrouds of billowing white. The lens implanted in his right eye dialed through a spectral scan, sending readings to his optic nerve -- revealing steam, carbon oxides, and a flicker of molten heat.
     A volcano, Kaa realized, and the reminder sent his ebullience down a notch. This was a busy part of the planet, geologically speaking. The same forces that made it a useful hiding place also kept it dangerous.
     That must be where the groaning comes from, he pondered. Seismic activity. An interaction of miniquakes and crystal gas discharges with the thin overlaying film of sea.
     Another flicker caught his notice, in roughly the same direction, but much closer -- a pale swelling that might also have been a cloud, except for the way it moved, flapping like a bird's wing, then bulging with eagerness to race the wind.
     A sail, he discerned. Kaa watched it jibe across the stiffening breeze -- a two-masted schooner, graceful in motion, achingly familiar from the Caribbean seas of home.
     Its bow split the water, spreading a wake that any dolphin might love to ride.
     The zoom lens clarified, magnified, until he made out fuzzy bipedal forms, hauling ropes and bustling around on deck, like any gang of human sailors.
     ... Only these weren't human beings. Kaa glimpsed scaly backs, culminating in a backbone of sharp spines. Swathes of white fur covered the legs, and froglike membranes pulsated below broad chins as the ship's company sang a low, rumbling work chant that Kaa could dimly make out, even from here.
     He fell a chill of unhappy recognition.
     Hoons! What in all Five Galaxies are they doing here?
     Kaa heard a rustle of fluke strokes -- Tsh't and others rising to join him. Now he must report that enemies of Earth dwelled here.
     Kaa realized grimly -- this news wasn't going to help him win back his nickname anytime soon.
     She came to mind again, the capricious goddess of uncertain destiny. And Kaa's own Trinary phrase came back to him, as if reflected and reconverged by the surrounding alien waters.

* Welcome...
     * Welcome...
          * Welcome to Ifni's Shore... *

Sooners

The Stranger

     Existence seems like wandering through a vast chaotic house. One that has been torn by quakes and fire, and is now filled with bitter, inexplicable fog. Whenever he manages to pry open a door, exposing some small corner of the past, each revelation comes at the price of sharp waves of agony.
     In time, he learns not to be swayed by the pain. Rather, each ache and sting serves as a marker, a signpost, confirming that he must be on the right path.

     His arrival on this world -- plummeting through a scorched sky -- should have ended with merciful blankness. What luck instead hurled his blazing body from the pyre to quench in a fetid swamp?
     Peculiar luck.
     Since then, he has grown intimate with all kinds of suffering, from crass pangs to subtle stings. In cataloging them, he grows learned in the many ways there are to hurt. Those earliest agonies, right after the crash, had screeched coarsely from wounds and scalding burns -- a gale of such fierce torment that he barely noticed when a motley crew of local savages rowed out to him in a makeshift boat, like sinners dragging a fallen angel out of the boggy fen. Saving him from drowning, only to face more damnations.
     Beings who insisted that he fight for his broken life, when it would have been so much easier just to let go.
     Later, as his more blatant injuries healed or scarred, other types of anguish took up the symphony of pain.
     Afflictions of the mind.

     Holes gape across his life, vast blank zones, lightless and empty, where missing memories must once have spanned megaparsecs and life years. Each gap feels chilled beyond numbness -- a raw vacancy more frustrating than an itch that can't be scratched.
     Ever since he began wandering this singular world, he has probed the darkness within. Optimistically, he clutches a few small trophies from the struggle.
     Jijo is one of them.
     He rolls the word in his mind -- the name of this planet where six castaway races band together in feral truce, a mixed culture unlike any other beneath the myriad stars.
     A second word comes more easily with repeated use -- Sara. She who nursed him from near death in her tree house overlooking a rustic water mill... who calmed the fluxing panic when he first woke to see pincers, claws, and mucusy ring stacks -- the physiques of hoons, traekis, qheuens, and others sharing this rude outcast existence.
     He knows more words, such as Kurt and Prity... friends he now trusts almost as much as Sara. It feels good to think their names, the slick way all words used to come, in the days before his mangling.
     One recent prize he is especially proud of.
     Emerson...
     It is his own name, for so long beyond reach. Violent shocks had jarred it free, less than a day ago -- shortly after he provoked a band of human rebels to betray their urrish allies in a slashing knife fight that made a space battle seem antiseptic by comparison. That bloody frenzy ended with an explosive blast, shattering the grubby caravan tent, spearing light past Emerson's closed lids, overwhelming the guardians of reason.
     And then, amid the dazzling rays, he had briefly glimpsed... his captain!
     Creideiki...
     The blinding glow became a luminous foam, whipped by thrashing flukes. Out of that froth emerged a long gray form whose bottle snout bared glittering teeth. The sleek head grinned, despite bearing an awful wound behind its left eye... much like the hurt that robbed Emerson of speech.
     Utterance shapes formed out of scalloped bubbles, in a language like none spoken by Jijo's natives, or by any great Galactic clan.

*In the turning
     of the cycloid,
* Comes a time
     to break for surface.
 
* Time to resume
     breathing,
     doing.
* To rejoin the
     great sea's
     dreaming.
 
* Time has come
     for
you my old friend.
* Time to
wake
     and see what's churning.... *

     Stunned recognition accompanied waves of stinging misery, worse than any fleshy woe or galling numbness.
     Shame had nearly overwhelmed him then. For no injury short of death could ever excuse his forgetting --
     Creideiki...
     Terra...
     The dolphins...
     Hannes...
     Gillian...
     How could they have slipped his mind during the months he wandered this barbarian world, by boat, barge, and caravan?
     Guilt might have engulfed him during that instant of recognition... except that his new friends urgently needed him to act, to seize the brief advantage offered by the explosion, to overcome their captors and take them prisoner. As dusk fell across the shredded tent and torn bodies, he had helped Sara and Kurt tie up their surviving foes -- both urrish and human -- although Sara seemed to think their reprieve temporary.
     More fanatic reinforcements were expected soon.
     Emerson knew what the rebels wanted. They wanted him. It was no secret that he came from the stars. The rebels would trade him to sky hunters, hoping to exchange his battered carcass for guaranteed survival.
     As if anything could save Jijo's castaway races, now that the Five Galaxies had found them.
     Huddled round a wan fire, lacking any shelter but tent rags, Sara and the others watched as terrifying portents crossed bitter-cold constellations.
     First came a mighty titan of space, growling as it plunged toward nearby mountains, bent on awful vengeance.
     Later, following the very same path, there came a second behemoth, this one so enormous that Jijo's pull seemed to lighten as it passed overhead, filling everyone with deep foreboding.
     Not long after that, golden lightning flickered amid the mountain peaks -- a bickering of giants. But Emerson did not care who won. He could tell that neither vessel was his, the home in space he yearned for... and prayed he would never see again.
     With luck, Streaker was far away from this doomed world, bearing in its hold a trove of ancient mysteries -- perhaps the key to a new galactic era.
     Had not all his sacrifices been aimed at helping her escape?
     After the leviathans passed, there remained only stars and a chill wind, blowing through the dry steppe grass, while Emerson went off .searching for the caravan's scattered pack animals. With donkeys, his friends just might yet escape before more fanatics arrived....
     Then came a rumbling noise, jarring the ground beneath his feet. A rhythmic cadence that seemed to go--

taranta taranta
taranta taranta

     The galloping racket could only be urrish hoofbeats, the expected rebel reinforcements, come to make them prisoners once again.
     Only, miraculously, the darkness instead poured forth allies -- unexpected rescuers, both urrish and human -- who brought with them astonishing beasts.
     Horses.
     Saddled horses, clearly as much a surprise to Sara as they were to him. Emerson had thought the creatures were extinct on this world, yet here they were, emerging from the night as if from a dream.
     So began the next phase of his odyssey. Riding southward, fleeing the shadow of these vengeful ships, hurrying toward the outline of an uneasy volcano.
     Now he wonders within his battered brain -- is there a plan? A destination?
     Old Kurt apparently has faith in these surprising saviors, but there must be more to it than that.
     Emerson is tired of just running away.
     He would much rather be running toward.

     While his steed bounds ahead, new aches join the background music of his life -- raw, chafed thighs and a bruised spine that jars with each pounding hoofbeat.

taranta, taranta, taranta-tara
taranta, taranta, taranta-tara

     Guilt nags him with a sense of duties unfulfilled, and he grieves over the likely fate of his new friends on Jijo, now that their hidden colony has been discovered.
     And yet...
     In time Emerson recalls how to ease along with the sway of the saddle. And as sunrise lifts dew off fan-fringed trees near a riverbank, swarms of bright bugs whir through the slanted light, dancing as they pollinate a field of purple blooms. When Sara glances back from her own steed, sharing a rare smile, his pangs seem to matter less. Even fear of those terrible starships, splitting the sky with their angry engine arrogance, cannot erase a growing elation as the fugitive band gallops on to dangers yet unknown.
     Emerson cannot help himself. It is his nature to seize any possible excuse for hope. As the horses pound Jijo's ancient turf, their cadence draws him down a thread of familiarity, recalling rhythmic music quite apart from the persistent dirge of woe.

tarantara, tarantara
tarantara, tarantara

     Under insistent stroking by that throbbing sound, something abruptly clicks inside. His body reacts involuntarily as unexpected words surge from some dammed-up corner of his brain, attended by a melody that stirs the heart. Lyrics pour reflexively, an undivided stream, through lungs and throat before he even knows that he is singing.

"Though in body and in mind,            {tarantara, tarantara}
We are timidly inclined,                    {tarantara!}
And anything but blind,                    {tarantara, tarantara}
To the danger that's behind --          {tarantara!}"

     His friends grin -- this has happened before.

"Yet, when the danger's near,            {tarantara, tarantara}
We manage to appear,                      {tarantara!}
As insensible to fear,
     As anybody here,
          As an-y-bo-dy here!"

     Sara laughs, joining the refrain, and even the dour urrish escorts stretch their long necks to lisp along.

"Yet, when the danger's near,            {tarantara, tarantara}
We manage to appear,                      {tarantara!}
As insensible to fear,
     As anybody here,
          As an-y-bo-dy here!"

PART ONE

     Each of the Sooner races making up the Commons of Jijo tells its own unique story, passed down from generation to generation, explaining why their ancestors surrendered godlike powers and risked terrible penalties to reach this far place -- skulking in sneakships past Institute patrols, robot guardians, and Zang globules. Seven waves of sinners, each coming to plant their outlaw seed on a world that had been declared off-limits to settlement. A world set aside to rest and recover in peace, but for the likes of us.

     The g'Kek arrived first on this land we call the Slope, between misty mountains and the sacred sea -- half a million years after the last legal tenants -- the Buyur -- departed Jijo.
     Why did those g'Kek founders willingly give up their former lives as star-traveling gods and citizens of the Five Galaxies? Why choose instead to dwell as fallen primitives, lacking the comforts of technology, or any moral solace but for a few engraved platinum scrolls?
     Legend has it that our g'Kek cousins fled threatened extinction, a dire punishment for devastating gambling losses. But we cannot be sure. Writing was a lost art until humans came, so those accounts may be warped by passing time.
     What we do know is that it could not have been a petty threat that drove them to abandon the spacefaring life they loved, seeking refuge on heavy Jijo, where their wheels have such a hard time on the rocky ground. With four keen eyes, peering in all directions at the end of graceful stalks, did the g'Kek ancestors see a dark destiny painted on galactic winds? Did that first generation see no other choice? Perhaps they only cursed their descendants to this savage life as a last resort.

     Not long after the g'Kek, roughly two thousand years ago, a party of traeki dropped hurriedly from the sky, as if fearing pursuit by some dreaded foe. Wasting no time, they sank their sneakship in the deepest hollow of the sea, then settled down to be our gentlest tribe.
     What nemesis drove them from the spiral lanes?
     Any native Jijoan glancing at those familiar stacks of fatty toruses, venting fragrant steam and placid wisdom in each village of the Slope, must find it hard to imagine the traeki having enemies.
     In time, they confided their story. The foe they fled was not some other race, nor was there a deadly vendetta among the star gods of the Five Galaxies. Rather it was an aspect of their own selves. Certain rings -- components of their physical bodies -- had lately been modified in ways that turned their kind into formidable beings. Into Jophur, mighty and feared among the noble Galactic clans.
     It was a fate those traeki founders deemed unbearable. So they choose to become lawless refugees -- Sooners on a taboo world -- in order to shun a horrid destiny.
     The obligation to be great.

* * * * *

     It is said that glavers came to Jijo not out of fear, but seeking the path of Redemption -- the kind of innocent oblivion that wipes all slates clean. In this goal they have succeeded far better than anyone else, showing the rest of us the way, if we dare follow their example.
     Whether or not that sacred track will also be ours, we must respect their accomplishment -- transforming themselves from cursed fugitives into a race of blessed simpletons. As starfaring immortals, they could be held accountable for their crimes, including the felony of invading Jijo. But now they have reached a refuge, the purity of ignorance, free to start again.
     Indulgently, we let glavers root through our kitchen middens, poking under 1ogs for insects. Once mighty intellects, they are not counted among the sooner races of Jijo anymore. They are no longer stained with the sins of their forebears.

     Qheuens were the first to arrive filled with wary ambition.
     Led by fanatical, crablike gray matrons, their first-generation colonists snapped all five pincers derisively at any thought of union with Jijo's other exile races. Instead, they sought dominion.
     That plan collapsed in time, when blue and red qheuens abandoned historic roles of servitude, drifting off to seek their own ways, leaving their frustrated gray empresses helpless to enforce old feudal loyalties.

     Our tall hoonish brethren inhale deeply, whenever the question arises -- "Why are you here?" They fill their prodigious throat sacs with low meditation umbles. In rolling tones, hoon elders relate that their ancestors fled no great danger, no oppression or unwanted obligations.
     Then why did they come, risking frightful punishment if their descendants are ever caught living illegally on Jijo?
     The oldest hoons on Jijo merely shrug with frustrating cheerfulness, as if they do not know the reason, and could not be bothered to care.
     Some do refer to a legend, though. According to that slim tale, a Galactic oracle once offered a starfaring hoonish clan a unique opportunity, if they dared take it. An opportunity to claim something that had been robbed from them, although they never knew it was lost. A precious birthright that might be discovered on a forbidden world.
     But for the most part, whenever one of the tall ones puffs his throat sac to sing about past times, he rumbles a deep, joyful ballad about the crude rafts, boats, and seagoing ships that hoons invented from scratch, soon after landing on Jijo. Things their humorless star cousins would never have bothered looking up in the all-knowing Galactic Library, let alone have deigned to build.

     Legends told by the fleet-footed urrish clan imply that their foremothers were rogues, coming to Jijo in order to breed -- escaping limits imposed in civilized parts of the Five Galaxies. With their short lives, hot tempers, and prolific sexual style, the urs founders might have gone on to fill Jijo with their kind... or else met extinction by now, like the mythical centaurs they vaguely resemble.
     But they escaped both of those traps. Instead, after many hard struggles, at the forge and on the battlefield, they assumed an honored place in the Commons of Six Races. With their thundering herds, and mastery of steel, they live hot and hard, making up for their brief seasons in our midst.

     Finally, two centuries ago, Earthlings came, bringing chimpanzees and other treasures. But humans' greatest gift was paper. In creating the printed trove of Biblos, they became lore masters to our piteous commonwealth of exiles. Printing and education changed life on the Slope, spurring a new tradition of scholarship, so that later generations of castaways dared to study their adopted world, their hybrid civilization, and even their own selves.
     As for why humans came all this way -- breaking Galactic laws and risking everything, just to huddle with other outlaws under a fearsome sky -- their tale is among the strangest told by Jijo's exile clans.

from An Ethnography of the Slope,
by Dorti Chang-Jones and Huph-alch-Huo

Sooners

Alvin

     I had no way to mark the passage of time, lying dazed and half-paralyzed in a metal cell, listening to the engine hum of a mechanical sea dragon that was hauling me and my friends to parts unknown.
     I guess a couple of days must have passed since the shattering of our makeshift submarine, our beautiful Wuphon's Dream, before I roused enough to wonder, What next?
     Dimly, I recall the sea monster's face as we first saw it through our crude glass viewing port, lit by the Dream's homemade searchlight. That glimpse lasted but a moment as the huge metal thing loomed toward us out of black, icy depths. The four of us -- Huck, Pincer, Ur-ronn, and me -- had already resigned ourselves to death... doomed to crushed oblivion at the bottom of the sea. Our expedition a failure, we didn't feel like daring subsea adventurers anymore, but like scared kids, voiding our bowels in terror as we waited for the cruel abyss to squeeze our hollowed-out tree trunk into a zillion soggy splinters.
     Suddenly this enormous shape erupted toward us, spreading jaws wide enough to snatch Wuphon's Dream whole.
     Well, almost whole. Passing through that maw, we struck a glancing blow.
     The collision shattered our tiny capsule.
     What followed still remains a painful blur.

     I guess anything beats death, but there have been moments since that impact when my back hurt so much that I just wanted to rumble one last umble through my battered throat sac and say farewell to young Alvin Hph-wayuo -- junior linguist, humicking writer, uttergloss daredevil, and neglectful son of Mu-phauwq and Yowg-wayuo of Wuphon Port, the Slope, Jijo, Galaxy Four, the Universe.
     But I stayed alive.
     I guess it just didn't seem hoonish to give up, after everything my pals and I went through to get here. What if I was sole survivor? I owed it to Huck and the others to carry on.
     My cell -- a prison? hospital room? -- measures just two meters, by two, by three. Pretty skimpy for a hoon, even one not quite fully grown. It gets even more cramped whenever some six-legged, metal-sheathed demon tries to squeeze inside to tend my injured spine, poking with what I assume (hope!) to be clumsy kindness. Despite their efforts, misery comes in awful waves, making me wish desperately for the pain remedies cooked up by Old Stinky -- our traeki pharmacist back home.
     It occurred to me that I might never walk again... or see my family, or watch seabirds swoop over the dross ships, anchored beneath Wuphon's domelike shelter trees.
     I tried talking to the insecty giants trooping in and out of my cell. Though each had a torso longer than my dad is tall -- with a flared back end, and a tubelike shell as hard as Buyur steel -- I couldn't help picturing them as enormous phuvnthus, those six-legged vermin that gnaw the walls of wooden houses, giving off a sweet-tangy stench.
     These things smell like overworked machinery. Despite my efforts in a dozen Earthling and Galactic languages, they seemed even less talkative than the phuvnthus Huck and I used to catch when we were little, and train to perform in a miniature circus.
     I missed Huck during that dark time. I missed her quick g'Kek mind and sarcastic wit. I even missed the way she'd snag my leg fur in her wheels to get my attention, if I stared too long at the horizon in a hoonish sailor's trance. I last glimpsed those wheels spinning uselessly in the sea dragon's mouth, just after those giant jaws smashed our precious Dream and we spilled across the slivers of our amateur diving craft.
     Why didn't I rush to my friend, during those bleak moments after we crashed? Much as I yearned to, it was hard to see or hear much while a screaming wind shoved its way into the chamber, pushing out the bitter sea. At first, I had to fight just to breathe again. Then, when I tried to move, my back would not respond.
     In those blurry instants, I also recall catching sight of Ur-ronn, whipping her long neck about and screaming as she thrashed all four legs and both slim arms, horrified at being drenched in vile water. Ur-ronn bled where her suede-colored hide was pierced by jagged shards -- remnants of the glass porthole she had proudly forged in the volcano workshops of Uriel the Smith.
     Pincer-Tip was there, too, best equipped among our gang to survive underwater. As a red qheuen, Pincer was used to scampering on five chitin-armored claws across salty shallows -- though our chance tumble into the bottomless void was more than even he had bargained for. In dim recollection, I think Pincer seemed alive... or does wishful thinking deceive me?
     My last hazy memories of our "rescue" swarm with violent images until I blacked out... to wake in this cell, delirious and alone.

     Sometimes the phuvnthus do something "helpful" to my spine, and it hurts so much that I'd willingly spill every secret I know. That is, if the phuvnthus ever asked questions, which they never do.
     So I never allude to the mission we four were given by Uriel the Smith -- to seek a taboo treasure that her ancestors left on the seafloor, centuries ago. An offshore cache, hidden when urrish settlers first jettisoned their ships and high-tech gadgets to become just one more fallen race. Only some dire emergency would prompt Uriel to violate the Covenant by retrieving such contraband.
     I guess "emergency" might cover the arrival of alien robbers, plundering the Gathering Festival of the Six Races and threatening the entire Commons with genocide.

     Eventually, the pangs in my spine eased enough for me to rummage through my rucksack and resume writing in this tattered journal, bringing my ill-starred adventure up to date. That raised my spirits a bit. Even if none of us survives, my diary might yet make it home someday.
     Growing up in a little hoonish village, devouring human adventure stories by Clarke and Rostand, Conrad and Xu Xiang, I dreamed that people on the Slope would someday say, "Wow, that Alvin Hph-wayuo was some storyteller, as good as any old-time Earther."
     This could be my one and only chance.
     So I spent long Miduras with a stubby charcoal crayon clutched in my big hoon fist, scribbling the passages that lead up to this one -- an account of how I came to find myself in this low, low state.
     -- How four friends built a makeshift submarine out of skink skins and a carved-out garu log, fancying a treasure hunt to the Great Midden.
     -- How Uriel the Smith, in her mountain Forge, threw her support behind our project, turning it from a half-baked dream into a real expedition.
     -- How we four snuck up to Uriel's observatory, and heard a human sage speak of starships in the sky, perhaps bringing foretold judgment on the Six Races.
     -- And how Wuphon's Dream soon dangled from a pole near Terminus Rock, where the Middens sacred trench passes near land. And Uriel told us, hissing through her cloven upper lip, that a ship had indeed landed up north. But this cruiser did not carry Galactic magistrates. Instead another kind of criminal had come, worse even than our sinner ancestors.
     So we sealed the hatch, and the great winch turned. But on reaching the mapped site, we found that Uriel's cache was already missing! Worse -- when we went looking for the damned thing, Wuphon's Dream got lost and tumbled off the edge of an undersea cliff.
     Flipping back some pages, I can tell my account of the journey was written by someone perched on a knife-edge of harrowing pain. Yet, there is a sense of drama I can't hope to match now. Especially that scene where the bottom vanished beneath our wheels and we felt ourselves fall toward the real Midden.
     Toward certain death.
     Until the phuvnthus snatched us up.

     So, here I am, swallowed by a metal whale, ruled by cryptic silent beings, ignorant whether my friends still live or if I am alone. Merely crippled, or dying.
     Do my captors have anything to do with starship landings in the mountains?
     Are they a different enigma, rising out of Jijo's ancient past? Relics of the vanished Buyur perhaps? Or ghosts even older still?
     Answers seem scarce, and since I've finished recounting the plummet and demise of Wuphon's Dream, I daren't waste more precious paper on speculation. I must put my pencil down, even if it robs my last shield against loneliness.
     All my life I've been inspired by human-style books, picturing myself as hero in some uttergloss tale. Now my sanity depends on learning to savor patience.
     To let time pass without concern.
     To live and think, at last, just like a hoon.

Asx

     You may call me Asx.
     you manicolored rings, piled in a high tapered heap, venting fragrant stinks, sharing the victual sap that climbs our common core, or partaking in memory wax, trickling back down from our sensory peak.
     you, the rings who take up diverse roles in this shared body, a pudgy cone nearly as tall as a hoon, as heavy as a blue qheuen, and slow across the ground like an aged g'Kek with a cracked axle.
     you, the rings who vote each day whether to renew our coalition.
     From you rings i/we now request a ruling. Shall we carry on this fiction? This "Asx"?

     Unitary beings -- the humans, urs, and other dear partners in exile -- stubbornly use that term, Asx, to signify this loosely affiliated pile of fatty toruses, as if we/i truly had a fixed name, not a mere label of convenience.
     Of course unitary beings are all quite mad. We traeki long ago resigned ourselves to living in a universe filled with egotism.
     What we could not resign ourselves to -- and the reason for our exile here on Jijo -- was the prospect of becoming the most egotistical or all.

     Once, our/my stack of bloated tubes played the role of modest village pharmacist, serving others with our humble secretions, near the sea bogs of Far Wet Sanctuary. Then others began paying us/me homage, calling us "Asx," chief sage of the Traeki Sept and member of the Guiding Council of the Six.
     Now we stand in a blasted wasteland that was formerly a pleasant festival glade. Our sensor rings and neural tendrils recoil from sights and sounds they cannot bear to perceive. And so we are left virtually blind, our component toruses buffeted by the harsh fields of two nearby starships, as vast as mountains.
     Even now, awareness of those starships fades away....
     We are left in blackness.

* * * * *

     What has just happened!

     Be calm, my rings. This sort of thing has transpired before. Too great a shock can jar a traeki stack out of alignment, causing gaps in short-term memory. But there is another, surer way to find out what has happened. Neural memory is a flimsy thing. How much better off we are, counting on the slow/reliable wax.
     Ponder the fresh wax that slithers down our common core, still hot-slick, imprinted with events that took place recently on this ill-fated glade, where once gay pavilions stood, and banners flapped in Jijo's happy winds. A typical festival, the annual gathering of Six Races to celebrate their hundred-year peace. Until --
     Is this the memory we seek?
     Behold... a starship comes to Jijo! Not sneaking by night, like our ancestors. Not aloofly, like a mysterious Zang globule. No, this Was an arrogant cruiser from the Five Galaxies, commanded by aloof alien beings called Rothen.
     Trace this memory of our first sight of Rothen lords, emerging at last from their metal lair, so handsome and noble in their condescension, projecting a majestic charisma that shadowed even their sky-human servant. How glorious to be a star god! Even gods who are "criminals" by Galactic law.
     Did they not far outshine us miserable barbarians? As the sun outglows a tallow candle?
     But we sages realized a horrifying truth. After hiring us for local expertise, to help them raid this world, the Rothen could not afford to leave witnesses behind.
     They would not leave us alive.

     No, that is too far back. Try again.
     What about those other livid tracks, my rings? A red flaming pillar erupting in the night? An explosion, breaking apart our sacred pilgrimage? Do you recall the sight of the Rothen-Danik station, its girders, twisted and smoking? Its cache of biosamples burned? And most dire -- one Rothen and a sky human killed?
     By dawn's light, foul accusations hurled back and forth between Ro-kenn and our own High Sages. Appalling threats were exchanged.
     No, that still took place over a day ago. Stroke wax that is more recent than that.

     Here we find a broad sheet of terror, shining horribly down our oily core. Its colors/textures blend hot blood with cold fire, exuding a smoky scent of flaming trees and charred bodies.
     Do you recall how Ro-kenn, the surviving Rothen master, swore vengeance on the Six Races, ordering his killer robots forward?
     "Slay everyone in sight! Death to all who saw our secret revealed!"
     But then behold a marvel! Platoons of our own brave militia. They spill from surrounding forest. Jijoan savages, armed only with arrows, pellet rifles, and courage. Do you now recall how they charged the hovering death demons... and prevailed!
     The wax does not lie. It happened in mere instants, while these old traeki rings could only stare blankly at the battle's awful ruin, astonished that we/i were not ignited into a stack of flaming tubes.
     Though dead and wounded lay piled around us, victory was clear. Victory for the Six Races! Ro-kenn and his god-like servants were disarmed, wide-eyed in their offended surprise at this turn of Ifni's ever-tumbling dice

     Yes, my rings, i know this is not the final memory. It took place many miduras in the past. Obviously something must have happened since then. Something dreadful.
     Perhaps the Danik scout boat came back from its survey trip, carrying one of the fierce sky- human warriors who worship Rothen patron masters. Or else the main Rothen starship may have returned, expecting a trove of bio-plunder, only to find their samples destroyed, their station ruined, and comrades taken hostage.
     That might explain the scent of sooty devastation that now fills our core.
     But no later memories are yet available. The wax has not congealed.
     To a traeki, that means none of it has really happened.
     Not yet.
     Perhaps things are not as bad as they seem.
     It is a gift we traeki reacquired when we came to Jijo. A talent that helps make up for the many things we left behind, when we abandoned the stars.
     A gift for wishful thinking.

Continue reading Infinity's Shore.