David Brin's INFINITY'S SHORE

Infinity's Shore sample chapters

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Rety

     The fierce wind of flight tore dampness from her streaming eyes, sparing her the shame of tears running down scarred cheeks. Still, Rety could weep with rage, thinking of the hopes she'd lost. Lying prone on a hard metal plate, clutching its edge with hands and feet, she bore the harsh breeze as whipping tree branches smacked her face and caught her hair, sometimes drawing blood.
     Mostly, she just held on for dear life.

     The alien machine beneath her was supposed to be her loyal servant! But the cursed thing would not slow its panicky retreat, even long after all danger lay far behind. If Rety fell off now, at best it would take her days to limp back to the village of her birth, where less than a midura ago there had been a brief, violent ambush.
     Her brain still roiled. In just a few heartbeats her plans had been spoiled, and it was all Dwer's fault! She heard the young hunter moan, held captive by metal arms below her perch. But as the wounded battle drone fled recklessly onward, Rety turned away from Dwer's suffering, which he had only brought on himself, trekking all the way to these filthy Gray Hills from his safe home near the sea -- the Slope -- where six intelligent races lived at a much higher level of ignorant poverty than her own birth clan of wretched savages. Why would slopies hike past two thousand leagues of hell to reach this dreary wasteland?
     What did Dwer and his pals hope to accomplish? To conquer Rety's brutish relatives?
     He could have her smelly kinfolk, for all she cared! And the band of urrish sooners Kunn subdued with fire from his screeching scout boat. Dwer was welcome to them all. Only, couldn't he have waited quietly in the woods till after Rety and Kunn finished their business here and flew off again? Why did he have to rush things and attack the robot with her aboard?
     I bet he did it out of spite. Prob'ly can't stand knowing that I'm the one Jijo native with a chance to get away from this pit hole of a planet.
     Inside, Rety knew better. Dwer's heart didn't work that way.
     But mine does.
     When he groaned again, Rety muttered angrily, "I'll make you even sorrier, Dwer, if I don't make it off this mudball 'cause of you!"

     So much for her glorious homecoming.
     At first it had seemed fun to pay a return visit, swooping from a cloud-decked sky in Kunn's silver dart, emerging proudly to amazed gasps from the shabby cousins, who had bullied her for fourteen awful years. What a fitting climax to her desperate gamble, a few months ago, when she finally found the nerve to flee all the muck and misery, setting forth alone to seek the fabled Slope her great-grandparents had left behind, when they chose the "free" life as wild sooners.
     Free of the sages' prying rules about what beasts you may kill. Free from irky laws about how many babies you can have. Free from having to abide neighbors with four legs, or five, or that rolled on humming wheels.
     Rety snorted contempt for the founders of her tribe.
     Free from books and medicine. Free to live like animals!
     Fed up, Rety had set out to find something better or die trying.
     The journey had nearly killed her -- crossing icy torrents and parched wastes. Her closest call came traversing a high pass into the Slope, following a mysterious metal bird into a mulc spider's web. A web that became a terrifying trap when the spider's tendrils closed around her, oozing golden drops that horribly preserved....
     Memory came unbidden -- of Dwer charging through that awful thicket with a gleaming machete, then sheltering her with his body when the web caught fire.
     She recalled the bright bird, glittering in flames, treacherously cut down by an attacking robot just like her "servant." The one now hauling her off to Ifni-knew-where.

     Rety's mind veered as a gut-wrenching swerve nearly spilled her overboard. She screamed at the robot.
     "Idiot! No one's shooting at you anymore! There were just a few slopies, and they were all afoot. Nothing on Jijo could catch you now!"
     But the frantic contraption plunged ahead, riding a cushion of incredible god force.
     Rety wondered, Could it sense her contempt? Dwer and two or three friends, equipped with crude fire sticks, had taken just a few duras to disable and drive off the so-called war bot, though at some cost to themselves.
     Ifni, what a snarl. She pondered the sooty hole where Dwer's surprise attack had ripped out its antenna. How'm I gonna explain this to Kunn?
     Rety's adopted rank as an honorary star god was already fragile. The angry pilot might simply abandon her in these hills where she had grown up, among savages she loathed.
     I won't go back to the tribe, she vowed. I'd rather join wild glavers, sucking bugs off dead critters on the Poison Plain.
     It was all Dwer's fault, of course. Rety hated listening to the young fool moan.
     We're heading south, where Kunn flew off to. The robot must he rushin' to report in person, now that it can't far-speak anymore.
     Having witnessed Kunn's skill at torture, Rety found herself hoping Dwer's leg wound would reopen. Bleeding to death would be better by far.

     The fleeing machine left the Gray Hills, slanting toward a tree-dotted prairie. Streams converged, turning the brook into a river, winding slowly toward the tropics.
     The journey grew smoother and Rety risked sitting up again. But the robot did not take the obvious shortcut over water. Instead, it followed each oxbow curve, seldom venturing past the reedy shallows.
     The land seemed pleasant. Good for herds or farming, if you knew how, and weren't afraid of being caught.
     It brought to mind all the wonders she had seen on the Slope, after barely escaping the mule spider. Folk there had all sorts of clever arts Rety's tribe lacked. Yet, despite their Fancy windmills and gardens, their metal tools and paper books, the slopies had seemed dazed and frightened when Rety reached the famous Festival Glade.
     What had the Six Races so upset was the recent coming of a starship, ending two thousand years of isolation.
     To Rety, the spacers seemed wondrous. A ship owned by unseen Rothen masters, but crewed by humans so handsome and knowing that Rety would give anything to be like them. Not a doomed savage with a scarred face, eking out a life on a taboo world.
     A daring ambition roused... and by pluck and guts she had made it happen! Rety got to know those haughty men and women -- Ling, Besh, Kunn, and Rann -- worming her way into their favor. When asked, she gladly guided fierce Kunn to her tribe's old camp, retracing her earlier epic journey in a mere quarter day, munching Galactic treats while staring through the scout boat's window at wastelands below.
     Years of abuse were repaid by her filthy cousins' shocked stares, beholding her transformed from grubby urchin to Rety, the star god.
     If only that triumph could have lasted.

* * * * *

     She jerked back when Dwer called her name.
     Peering over the edge, Rety saw his windburned face, the wild black hair plastered with dried sweat. One buckskin breech leg was stained ocher brown under a makeshift compress, though Rety saw no sign of new wetness. Trapped by the robots unyielding tendrils, Dwer clutched his precious hand-carved bow, as if it were the last thing he would part with before death. Rety could scarcely believe she once thought the crude weapon worth stealing.
     "What do you want now?" she demanded.
     The young hunter's eyes met hers. His voice came out as a croak.
     "Can I... have some water?"
     "Assumin' I have any," she muttered, "name one reason I'd share it with you!"
     Rustling at her waist. A narrow head and neck snaked out of her belt pouch. Three dark eyes glared -- two with lids and one pupilless, faceted like a jewel.
   "wife be not liar to this one! wife has water bottle! yee smells its bitterness."
     Rety sighed over this unwelcome interruption by her miniature "husband."
     "There's just half left. No one tol' me I was goin' on a trip!"
     The little urrish male hissed disapproval. "wife share with this one, or bad luck come! no hole safe for grubs or larvae!"
     Rety almost retorted that her marriage to yee was not real. They would never have "grubs" together. Anyway, yee seemed bent on being her portable conscience, even when it was clearly every creature for herself.
     I never should've told him how Dwer saved me from the mulc spider. They say male urs are dumb. Ain't it my luck to marry a genius one?
     "Oh... all right!"
     The bottle, an alien-made wonder, weighed little more than the liquid it contained. "Don't drop it," she warned Dwer, lowering the red cord. He grabbed it eagerly.
     No, fool! The top don't pull off like a stopper. Turn it till it comes off. That's right. Jeekee know-nothin' slopie."
     She didn't add how the concept of a screw cap had mystified her, too, when Kunn and the others first adopted her as a provisional Danik. Of course that was before she became sophisticated.
     Rety watched nervously as he drank.
     "Don't spill it. An' don't you dare drink it all! You hear me? That's enough, Dwer. Stop now. Dwer!"
     But he ignored her protests, guzzling while she cursed. When the canteen was drained, Dwer smiled at her through cracked lips.
     Too stunned to react, Rety knew -- she would have done exactly the same.
     Yeah, an inner voice answered. But I didn't expect it of him.
     Her anger spun off when Dwer squirmed, tilting his body toward the robot's headlong rush. Squinting against the wind, he held the loop cord in one hand and the bottle in the other, as if waiting for something to happen. The flying machine crested a low hill, hopping over some thorny thickets, then plunged down the other side, barely avoiding several tree branches. Rety held tight, keeping yee secure in his pouch. When the worst jouncing ended she peered down again... and rocked back from a pair of black, beady eyes!
     It was the damned noor again. The one Dwer called Mudfoot. Several times the dark, lithe creature had tried to clamber up from his niche, between Dwer's torso and a cleft in the robot's frame. But Rety didn't like the way he salivated at yee, past needle-sharp teeth. Now Mudfoot stood on Dwer's rib cage, using his forepaws to probe for another effort.
     "Get lost!" She swatted at the narrow, grinning face. "I want to see what Dwer's doin'."
     Sighing, the noor returned to his nest under the robot's flank.
     A flash of blue came into view just as Dwer threw the bottle. It struck watery shallows with a splash, pressing a furrowed wake. The young man had to make several attempts to get the cord twisted so the canteen dragged with its opening forward. The container sloshed when Dwer reeled it back in.
     I'd've thought of that, too. If I was close enough to try it.
     Dwer had lost blood, so it was only fair to let him drink and refill a few more times before passing it back up.
     Yeah. Only fair. And he'll do it, too. He'll give it back full.
     Rety faced an uncomfortable thought.
     You trust him.
     He's the enemy. He caused you and the Daniks heaps of trouble. But you'd trust Dwer with your life.
     She had no similar confidence in Kunn, when it came time to face the Rothen-loving stellar warrior.
     Dwer refilled the bottle one last time and held it up toward her. "Thanks, Rety... I owe you."
     Her cheeks flushed, a sensation she disliked. "Forget it. Just toss the cord."
     He tried. Rety felt it brush her fingertips. But after half a dozen efforts she could never quite hook the loop. What happens if I don't get it back!
     The noor beast emerged from his narrow niche and took the cord in his teeth. Clambering over Dwer's chest, then using the robot's shattered laser tube as a support, Mudfoot slithered closer to Rety's hand. Well, she thought. If it's gonna be helpful...
     As she reached for the loop, the noor sprang, using his claws as if her arm were a handy climbing vine. Rety howled, but before she could react, Mudfoot was already up on top, grinning smugly.
     Little yee let out a yelp. The urrish male pulled his head inside her pouch and drew the zipper shut.
     Rely saw blood spots well along her sleeve and lashed in anger, trying to kick the crazy noor off. But Mudfoot dodged easily, inching close, grinning appealingly and rumbling a low sound, presenting the water bottle with two agile forepaws.
     Sighing heavily, Rety accepted it and let the noor settle down nearby -- on the opposite side from yee.
     "I can't seem to shake myself loose of any of you guys, can I?" she asked aloud.
     Mudfoot chittered. And from below, Dwer uttered a short laugh -- ironic and tired.

Alvin

     It was a long time, confined in gnawing pain to a cramped metal cell. The distant, humming engine reminded me of umble lullabies my father used to sing, when I came down with toe pox or itchysac. Sometimes the noise changed pitch and made my scales frickle, sounding like the moan of a doomed wooden ship when it runs aground.
     Finally I slept...
     ...then wakened in terror to find that a pair of metal-clad, six-legged monsters were tying me into a contraption of steel tubes and straps! At first, it looked like a pre-contact torture device I once saw in the Doré-illustrated edition of Don Quixote. Thrashing and resisting accomplished nothing, but hurt like bloody blue blazes.
     Finally, with some embarrassment, I realized. It was no instrument of torment but a makeshift back brace, shaped to fit my form and take weight off my injured spine. I fought to suppress panic at the tight metal touch, as they set me on my feet. Swaying with surprise and relief, I found I could walk a little, though wincing with each step. "Well thanks, you big ugly bugs," I told the nearest of the giant phuvnthus. "But you might've warned me first."
     I expected no answer, but one of them turned its armored torso -- with a humped back and wide flare at the rear -- and tilted toward me. I took the gesture as a polite bow, though perhaps it meant something different to them.
     They left the door open when they exited this time. Slowly, cringing at the effort, I stepped out for the first time from my steel coffin, following as the massive creatures stomped down a narrow corridor.
     I already figured I was aboard a submarine of some sort, big enough to carry in its hold the greatest hoonish craft sailing Jijo's seas.
     Despite that, it was a hodgepodge. I thought of Frankenstein's monster, pieced together from the parts of many corpses. So seemed the monstrous vessel hauling me to who-knows-where. Each time we crossed a hatch, it seemed as if we'd pass into a distinct ship, made by different artisans... by a whole different civilization. In one section, the decks and bulkheads were made of riveted steel sheets. Another zone was fashioned from some fibrous substance -- flexible but strong. The corridors changed proportions -- from wide to painfully narrow. Half the time I had to stoop under low ceilings... not a lot of fun in the state my back was in.
     Finally, a sliding door hissed open. A phuvnthu motioned me ahead with a crooked mandible and I entered a dim chamber much larger than my former cell.
     My hearts surged with joy. Before me stood my friends! All of them -- alive!
     They were gathered round a circular viewing port, staring at inky ocean depths. I might've tried sneaking in to surprise them, but qheuens and g'Keks literally have "eyes in the back of their heads," making it a challenge to startle Huck and Pincer.
     (I have managed it, a couple of times.)
     When they shouted my name, Ur-ronn whirled her long neck and outraced them on four clattering hooves. We plunged into a multispecies embrace.
     Huck was first to bring things back to normal, snapping at Pincer.
     "Watch the claws, Crab Face! You'll snap a spoke! Back off, all of you. Can't you see Alvin's hurt? Give him room!"
     "Look who talks," Ur-ronn replied. "Your left wheel just squished his toes, Octofus Head!"
     I hadn't noticed till she pointed it out, so happy was I to hear their testy, adolescent whining once more.
     "Hr-rm. Let me look at you all. Ur-ronn, you seem so much... drier than I saw you last."
     Our urrish buddy blew a rueful laugh through her nostril fringe. Her pelt showed large bare patches where fur had sloughed after her dousing. "It took our hosts a while to adjust the hunidity of ny guest suite, vut they finally got it right," she said. Her torso showed tracks of hasty needle-work -- the phuvnthus' rough stitching to close Ur-ronn's gashes after she smashed through the glass port of Wuphon's Dream. Fortunately, her folk don't play the same mating games as some races. To urs, what matters is not appearance, but status. A visible dent or two will help Ur-ronn show the other smiths she's been around.
     "Yeah. And now we know what an urs smells like after actually taking a bath," Huck added. "They oughta try it more often."
     "You should talk? With that green eyeball sweat --"
     "All right, all right!" I laughed. "Just stopper it long enough for me to look at you, eh?"
     Ur-ronn was right. Huck's eyestalks needed grooming and she had good reason to worry about her spokes. Many were broken, with new-spun fibers just starting to lace the rims. She would have to move cautiously for some time.
     As for Pincer, he looked happier than ever.
     "I guess you were right about there being monsters in the deep," I told our red-shelled friend. "Even if they hardly look like the ones you descr—"
     I yelped when sharp needles seemed to lance into my back, clambering up my neck ridge. I quickly recognized the rolling growl of Huphu, our little noor-beast mascot, expressing gladness by demanding a rumble umble from me right away.
     Before I could find out if my sore throat sac was up to it, Ur-ronn whistled from the pane of dark glass. "They turned on the searchlight again," she fluted, with hushed awe in her voice. "Alvin, hurry. You've got to look!"
     Awkwardly on crutches, I moved to the place they made for me. Huck stroked my arm. "You always wanted to see this, pal, she said. "So gaze out there in wonder.
     "Welcome to the Great Midden."

Asx

     Here is another memory, my rings. An event that followed the brief Battle of the Glade, so swiftly that war echoes still abused our battered forest canyons.
     Has the wax congealed enough yet? Can you stroke-and-sense the awesome disquiet, the frightening beauty of that evening, as we watched a harsh, untwinkling glow pass overhead?
     Trace the fatty memory of that spark crossing the sky, brightening as it spiraled closer.
     No one could doubt its identity.
     The Rothen cruiser, returning for its harvest of bioplunder, looted from a fragile world.
     Returning for those comrades it had left behind.
     Instead of genetic booty, the crew will find their station smashed, their colleagues killed or taken.
     Worse, their true faces are known! We castaways might testify against them in Galactic courts. Assuming we survive.
     It takes no cognition genius to grasp the trouble we faced. We six fallen races of forlorn Jijo.
     As an Earthling writer might put it -- we found ourselves in fetid mulch. Very ripe and very deep.

Sara

     The journey passed from an anxious blur into something exalting... almost transcendent.
     But not at the beginning.
     When they perched her suddenly atop a galloping creature straight out of mythology, Sara's first reaction was terrified surprise. With snorting nostrils and huge tossing head, the horse was more daunting than Tarek Town's stone tribute to a lost species. Its muscular torso flexed with each forward bound, shaking Sara's teeth as it crossed the foothills of the central Slope by the light of a pale moon.
     After two sleepless days and nights, it still seemed dreamlike the way a squadron of the legendary beasts came trotting into the ruined Urunthai campsite, accompanied by armed urrish escorts. Sara and her friends had just escaped captivity -- their former kidnappers lay either dead or bound with strips of shredded tent cloth -- but she expected reenslavement at any moment. Only then, instead of fresh foes, the darkness brought forth these bewildering saviors.
     Bewildering to everyone except Kurt the Exploser, who welcomed the newcomers as expected friends. While Jomah and the Stranger exclaimed wonder at seeing real-life horses, Sara barely had time to blink before she was thrust onto a saddle.
     Blade volunteered to stay by the bleak fire and tend the wounded, though envy filled each forlorn spin of his blue cupola. Sara would trade places with her qheuen friend, but his chitin armor was too massive for a horse to carry. There was barely time to give Blade a wave of encouragement before the troop wheeled back the way they came, bearing her into the night.
     Pounding hoofbeats soon made Sara's skull ache.
     I guess it beats captivity by Dedinger's human chauvinists, and those fanatic Urunthai. The coalition of zealots, volatile as an exploser's cocktail, had joined forces to snatch the Stranger and sell him to Rothen invaders. But they underestimated the enigmatic voyager. Despite his crippling loss of speech, the starman found a way to incite urs-human suspicion into bloody riot.
     Leaving us masters of our own fate, though it couldn't last.
     Now here was a different coalition of humans and centauroid urs! A more cordial group, but just as adamant about hauling her Ifni-knew-where.
     When limnous Torgen rose above the foothills, Sara got to look over the urrish warriors, whose dun flanks were daubed with more subtle war paint than the garish Urunthai. Yet their eves held the same dark flame that drenched urs' souls when conflict scents fumed. Cantering in skirmish formation, their slim hands cradled arbalests while long necks coiled, tensely wary. Though much smaller than horses, the urrish fighters conveyed formidable craftiness.
     The human rescuers were even more striking. Six women who came north with nine saddled horses, as if they expected to retrieve just two or three others for a return trip.
     But there's six of us. Kurt and Jomah. Prity and me. The Stranger and Dedinger.
     No matter. The stern riders seemed indifferent about doubling up, two to a saddle.
     Is that why they're all female? To keep the weight down?
     While deft astride their great mounts, the women seemed uneasy with the hilly terrain of gullies and rocky spires. Sara gathered they disliked rushing about strange trails at night. She could hardly blame them.
     Not one had a familiar face. That might have surprised Sara a month ago, given Jijo's small human population. The Slope must be bigger than she thought.
     Dwer would tell stories about his travels, scouting for the Sages. He claimed he'd been everywhere within a thousand leagues.
     Her brother never mentioned horse-riding amazons.
     Sara briefly wondered if they came from off-Jijo, since this seemed the year for spaceships. But no. Despite some odd slang, their terse speech was related to Jijoan dialects she knew from her research. And while the riders seemed unfamiliar with this region, they knew to lean away from a migurv tree when the trail paused near its sticky fronds. The Stranger, though warned with gestures not to touch its seed pods, reached for one curiously and learned the hard way.
     She glanced at Kurt. The exploser's gaunt face showed satisfaction with each league they sped southward. The existence of horses was no surprise to him.
     We're told our society is open. But clearly there are secrets known to a few.
     Not all explosers shared it. Kurt's nephew chattered happy amazement while exchanging broad grins with the Stranger...
     Sara corrected herself.
     With Emerson....
     She peered at the dark man who came plummeting from the sky months ago, dousing his burns in a dismal swamp near Dolo Village. No longer the near corpse she had nursed in her tree house, the star voyager was proving a resourceful adventurer. Though still largely mute, he had passed a milestone a few miduras ago when he began thumping his chest, repeating that word -- Emerson -- over and over, beaming pride over a feat that undamaged folk took for granted. Uttering one's own name.
     Emerson seemed at home on his mount. Did that mean horses were still used among the god worlds of the Five Galaxies? If so, what purpose might they serve, where miraculous machines did your bidding at a nod and wink?
     Sara checked on her chimp assistant, in case the jouncing ride reopened Prity's bullet wound. Riding with both arms clenched round the waist of a horsewoman, Prity kept her eyes closed the whole time, no doubt immersed in her beloved universe of abstract shapes and forms -- a better world than this one of sorrow and messy non-linearity.
     That left Dedinger, the rebel leader, riding along with both hands tied. Sara wasted no pity on the scholar-turned-prophet. After years preaching militant orthodoxy, urging his desert followers toward the Path of Redemption, the ex-sage clearly knew patience. Dedinger's hawklike face bore an expression Sara found unnerving.
     Serene calculation.

     The tooth-jarring pace swelled when the hilly track met open ground. Soon Ulashtu's detachment of urrish warriors fell behind, unable to keep up.
     No wonder some urs clans resented horses, when humans first settled Jijo. The beasts gave us mobility, the trait most loved by urrish captains.
     Two centuries ago, after trouncing the human newcomers in battle, the original Urunthai faction claimed Earthlings' beloved mounts as war booty, and slaughtered every one.
     They figured we'd be no more trouble, left to walk and fight on foot. A mistake that proved fatal when Drake the Elder forged a coalition to hunt the Urunthai, and drowned the cult's leadership at Soggy Hoof Falls.
     Only, it seems horses weren't extinct, after all. How could a clan of horse-riding folk remain hidden all this time?
     And as puzzling -- Why emerge now, risking exposure by rushing to meet Kurt?
     It must be the crisis of the starships, ending Jijo's blessed/cursed isolation. What point in keeping secrets, if Judgment Day is at hand?
     Sara was exhausted and numb by the time morning pushed through an overcast sky. An expanse of undulating hills stretched ahead to a dark green marsh.
     The party dismounted at last by a shaded creek. Hands aimed her toward a blanket, where she collapsed with a shuddering sigh.

     Sleep came laced with images of people she had left behind.
     Nelo, her aged father, working in his beloved paper mill, unaware that some conspired its ruin.
     Melina, her mother, dead several years now, who always seemed an outsider since arriving in Dolo long ago, with a baby son in her arms.
     Frail Joshu, Sara's lover in Biblos, whose touch made her forget even the overhanging Fist of Stone. A comely rogue whose death sent her spinning.
     Dwer and Lark, her brothers, setting out to attend festival in the high Rimmer glades... where starships were later seen descending.
     Sara's mind roiled as she tossed and turned.
     Last of all, she pictured Blade, whose qheuen hive farmed crayfish behind Dolo Dam. Good old Blade, who saved Sara and Emerson from disaster at the Urunthai camp.
     "Seems I'm always late catching up," her qheuen friend whistled from three leg vents. "But don't worry, I'll be along. Too much is happening to miss."
     Blade's armor-clad dependability had been like a rock to Sara. In her dream, she answered.
     "I'll stall the universe... keep it from doing anything. interesting until you show up."
     Imagined or not, the blue qheuen's calliope laughter warmed Sara, and her troubled slumber fell into gentler rhythms.

     The sun was half-high when someone shook Sara back to the world -- one of the taciturn female riders, using the archaic word brekkers to announce the morning meal. Sara got up gingerly as waves of achy soreness coursed her body.
     She gulped down a bowl of grain porridge, spiced with unfamiliar traeki seasonings, while horsewomen saddled mounts or watched Emerson play his beloved dulcimer, filling the pocket valley with a sprightly melody, suited for travel. Despite her morning irritability, Sara knew the starman was just making the best of the situation. Bursts of song were a way to overcome his handicap of muteness.
     Sara found Kurt tying up his bedroll.
     "Look," she told the elderly exploser, "I'm not ungrateful to your friends. I appreciate the rescue and all. But you can't seriously hope to ride horses all the way to... Mount Guenn." Her tone made it sound like one of Jijo's moons.
     Kurt's stony face flickered a rare smile. "Any better suggestions? Sure, you planned taking the Stranger to the High Sages, but that way is blocked by angry Urunthai. And recall, we saw two starships last night, one after the other, headed straight for Festival Glade. The Sages must have their hands and tendrils full by now."
     "How could I forget?" she murmured. Those titans, growling as they crossed the sky, had seared their image in her mind.
     "You could hole up in one of the villages we'll pass soon, but won't Emerson need a first-rate pharmacist when he runs out of Pzora's medicine?"
     "If we keep heading south we'll reach the Gentt. From there a riverboat can take us to Ovoom Town."
     "Assuming boats are running... and Ovoom still exists. Even so, should you hide your alien friend, with great events taking place? What if he has a role to play? Some way to help sages and Commons? Might you spoil his one chance of goin' home?"
     Sara saw Kurt's implication -- that she was holding Emerson back, like a child refusing to release some healed forest creature into the wild.
     A swarm of sweetbec flies drifted close to the starman, hovering and throbbing to the tempo of his music, a strange melody. Where did he learn it? On Earth? Near some alien star?
     "Anyway," Kurt went on, "if you can stand riding these huge beasts awhile longer, we may reach Mount Guenn sooner than Ovoom."
     "That's crazy! You must pass through Ovoom if you go by sea. And the other way around is worse -- through the funnel canyons and the Vale."
     Kurt's eyes flickered. "I'm told there's a... more direct route."
     "Direct? You mean due south? Past the Gentt lies the Plain of Sharp Sand, a desperate crossing under good conditions, which these aren't. Have you forgotten that's where Dedinger has followers?"
     "No, I haven't forgotten."
     "Then, assuming we get past the sandmen and flame dunes, there comes the Spectral Flow, making any normal desert seem like a meadow!"
     Kurt only shrugged, but clearly he wanted her to accompany him toward a distant simmering mountain, far from where Sam had sworn to take Emerson. Away from Lark and Dwer, and the terrible attraction of those fierce starships. Toward a starkly sacred part of Jijo, renowned for one thing above all -- the way the planet renewed itself with flaming lava heat.

Alvin

     Maybe it was the compressed atmosphere we breathed, or the ceaseless drone of reverberating engines. Or it could have been the perfect darkness outside that fostered an impression of incredible depth, even greater than when our poor little Wuphon's Dream fell into the maw of this giant metal sea beast. A single beam -- immeasurably brighter than the handmade eik light of our old minisub -- speared out to split the black, scanning territory beyond my wildest nightmares. Even the vivid imagery of Verne or Pukino or Melville offered no preparation for what was revealed by that roving circle as we cruised along a subsea canyon strewn with all manner of ancient dross. In rapid glimpses we saw so many titanic things, all jumbled together, that--
     Here I admit I'm stumped. According to the texts that teach Anglic literature, there are two basic ways for a writer to describe unfamiliar objects. First is to catalog sights and sounds, measurements, proportions, colors -- saying this object is made up of clusters of colossal cubes connected by translucent rods, or that one resembles a tremendous sphere caved in along one side, trailing from its crushed innards a glistening streamer, a liquidlike banner that somehow defies the tug of time and tide.
     Oh, I can put words together and come up with pretty pictures, but that method ultimately fails because at the time I couldn't tell how far away anything was! The eye sought clues in vain. Some objects -- piled across the muddy panorama -- seemed so vast that the huge vessel around us was dwarfed, like a minnow in a herd of behmo serpents. As for colors, even in the spotlight beam, the water drank all shades but deathly blue gray. A good hue for a shroud in this place of icy-cold death.
     Another way to describe the unknown is to compare it to things you already recognize... only that method proved worse! Even Huck, who sees likenesses in things I can't begin to fathom, was reduced to staring toward great heaps of ancient debris with all four eyestalks, at an utter loss.
     Oh, some objects leaped at us with sudden familiarity -- like when the searchlight swept over rows of blank-eyed windows, breached floors, and sundered walls. Pushed in a tumbled mound, many of the sunken towers lay upside down or even speared through each other. Together they composed a city greater than any I ever heard of, even from readings of olden times. Yet someone once scraped the entire metropolis from its foundations, picked it up, and dumped it here, sending all the buildings tumbling down to be reclaimed the only way such things can be reclaimed -- in Mother Jijo's fiery bowels.
     I recalled some books I'd read, dating from Earth's Era of Resolution, when pre-contact humans were deciding on their own how to grow up and save their homeworld after centuries spent using it as a cesspit. In Alice Hammett's mystery The Case of a Half-Eaten Clone, the killer escapes a murder charge, only to get ten years for disposing of the evidence at sea! In those days, humans made no distinction between midden trenches and ocean floor in general. Dumping was dumping.
     It felt strange to see the enormous dross-scape from two viewpoints. By Galactic law, this was a consecrated part of Jijo's cycle of preservation -- a scene of devout caretaking. But having grown up immersed in human books, I could shift perspectives and see defilement, a place of terrible sin.
     The "city" fell behind us and we went back to staring at bizarre shapes, unknown majestic objects, the devices of star-god civilization, beyond understanding by mere cursed mortals. On occasion, my eyes glimpsed flickerings in the blackness outside the roving beam -- lightninglike glimmers amid the ruins, as if old forces lingered here and there, setting off sparks like fading memories.
     We murmured among ourselves, each of us falling back to what we knew best. Ur-ronn speculated on the nature of materials, what things were made of, or what functions they once served. Huck swore she saw writing each time the light panned over a string of suspicious shadows. Pincer insisted every other object must be a starship.
     The Midden took our conjectures the same way it accepts all else, with a patient, deathless silence.
     Some enormous objects had already sunk quite far, showing just their tips above the mire. I thought -- This is where Jijo's ocean plate takes a steep dive under the Slope, dragging crust, mud, and anything else lying about, down to magma pools that feed simmering volcanoes. In time, all these mighty things will become lava, or precious ores to be used by some future race of tenants on this world.
     It made me ponder my Father's sailing ship, and the risky trips he took, hauling-crates of sacred refuse, sent by each tribe of the Six as partial payment for the sin of our ancestors. In yearly rituals, each village sifts part of the land, clearing it of our own pollution and bits the Buyur left behind.
     The Five Galaxies may punish us for living here. Yet we lived by a code, faithful to the Scrolls.
     Hoonish folk moots chant the tale of Phu-uphyawuo, a dross captain who one day saw a storm coming, and dumped his load before reaching the deep blue of the Midden. Casks and drums rolled overboard far short of the trench of reclamation, strewing instead across shallow sea bottom, marring a site that was changeless, unrenewing. In punishment, Phu-uphyawuo was bound up and taken to the Plain of Sharp Sand, to spend the rest of his days beneath a hollow dune, drinking enough green dew to live, but not sustain his soul. In time, his heart spine was ground to dust and cast across a desert where no water might wash the grains, or make them clean again.
     But this is the Midden, I thought, trying to grasp the wonder. We're the first to see it.
     Except for the phuvnthus. And whatever else lives down here.
     I found myself tiring. Despite the back brace and crutches, a weight of agony built steadily. Yet I found it hard to tear away from the icy-cold pane.
     Following a searchlight through suboceanic blackness, we plunged as if down a mine shaft, aimed toward a heap of jewels -- glittering objects shaped like needles, or squat globes, or glossy pancakes, or knobby cylinders.
     Soon there loomed a vast shimmering pile, wider than Wuphon Bay, bulkier than Guenn Volcano.
     "Now, those are definitely ships!" Pincer announced, gesturing with a claw. Pressed against the glass, we stared at mountainlike piles of tubes, spheres, and cylinders, many of them studded with hornlike protrusions, like the quills of an alarmed rock staller.
     "Those must be the probability whatchamacallums starships use for going between galaxies," Huck diagnosed from her avid reading of Tabernacle-era tales.
     "Probability flanges," Ur-ronn corrected, speaking Galactic Six. In matters of technology, she was far ahead of Huck or me. "I think you may be right."
     Our qheuenish friend chuckled happily as the searchlight zeroed in on one tremendous pile of tapered objects. Soon we all recognized the general outlines from ancient texts -- freighters and courier ships, packets and cruisers -- all abandoned long ago.
     The engine noise dropped a notch, plunging us toward that mass of discarded spacecraft. The smallest of those derelicts outmassed the makeshift phuvnthu craft the way a full-grown traeki might tower over a herd-chick turd.
     "I wonder if any of the ancestor vessels are in this pile," Huck contemplated aloud. "You know, the ones that brought our founders here? The Laddu'kek or the Tabernacle."
     "Unlikely," Ur-ronn answered, this time in lisping Anglic. "Don't forget, we're in the Rift. This is nothing vut an offshoot canyon of the Nidden. Our ancestors likely discarded their shifs in the nain trench, where the greatest share of Vuyur trash went."
     I blinked at that thought. This, an offshoot? A minor side area of the Midden?
     Of course she was right! But it presented a boggling image. What staggering amounts of stuff must have been dumped in the main trench, over the ages! Enough to tax even the recycling power of Jijo's grinding plates. No wonder the Noble Galactics set worlds aside for ten million years or more. It must take that long for a planet to digest each meal of sapient-made things, melting them back into the raw stuff of nature.
     I thought of my father's dross ship, driven by creaking masts, its hold filled with crates of whatever we exiles can't recycle. After two thousand years, all the offal we sooners sent to the Midden would not even show against this single mound of discarded starships.
     How rich the Buyur and their fellow gods must have been to cast off so much wealth! Some of the abandoned vessels looked immense enough to swallow every house, khuta, or hovel built by the Six Races. We glimpsed dark portals, turrets, and a hundred other details, growing painfully aware of one fact -- those shadowy behemoths had been sent down here to rest in peace. Their sleep was never meant to he invaded by the likes of us.
     Our plummet toward the reef of dead ships grew alarming. Did any of the others feel we were heading in awful fast?
     "Maybe this is their home," Pincer speculated as we plunged toward one listed, oval ruin, half the size of Wuphon Port.
     "Maybe the phuvnthus are made of, like, parts of old machines that got dumped here," Huck mused. "And they kind of put themselves together from whatever's lying around? Like this boat we're on is made of all sorts of junk --"
     "Ferhafs they were servants of the Vuyur --" Ur-ronn interrupted. "Or a race that lived here even vefore. Or a strain of nutants, like in that story vy --"
     I cut in. "Have any of you considered the simplest idea! That maybe they're just like us?"
     When my friends turned to look at me, I shrugged, human style.
     "Maybe the phuvnthus are sooners, too. Ever stop to think of that?"
     Their blank faces answered me. I might as well have suggested that our hosts were noor beasts, for all the sense my idea made.
     Well, I never claimed to be quick-witted, especially when racked with agony.
     We lacked any sense of perspective, no way to tell how close we were, or how fast we were going. Huck and Pincer murmured nervously as our vessel plunged toward the mountain-of-ships at a rapid clip, engines running hard in reverse.
     I think we all jumped a bit when a huge slab of corroded metal moved aside, just duras before we might have collided. Our vessel slid into a gaping hole in the mountain of dross, cruising along a corridor composed of spaceship hulls, piercing a fantastic pile of interstellar junk.

Asx

     Read the newly congealed wax, my rings.
     See how folk of the Six Races dispersed, tearing down festival pavilions and bearing away the injured, fleeing before the Rothen starship's expected arrival.
     Our senior sage, Vubben of the g'Kek, recited from the Scroll of Portents a passage warning against disunity. Truly, the Six Races must strive harder than ever to look past our differences of shape and shell. Of flesh, hide, and torg.
     "Go home," we sages told the tribes. "See to your lattice screens. Your blur-cloth webs. Live near the ground in Jijo's sheltered places. Be ready to fight if you can. To die if you must."
     The zealots, who originally provoked this crisis, suggested the Rothen starship might have means to track Ro-kenn and his lackeys, perhaps by sniffing our prisoners' brain waves or body implants. "For safety, let's sift their bones into lava pools!"
     The opposing faction called Friends of the Rothen demanded Ro-kenn's release and obeisance to his godlike will. These were not only humans, but some qheuens, g'Keks, hoons, and even a few urs, grateful for cures or treatments received in the aliens' clinic. Some think redemption can be won in this lifetime, without first treading the long road blazed by glavers.
     Finally, others see this chaos as a chance to settle old grudges. Rumors tell of anarchy elsewhere on the Slope. Of many fine things toppled or burned.
     Such diversity! The same freedom that fosters a vivid people also makes it hard to maintain a united front. Would things be better if we had disciplined order, like the feudal state sought by Gray Queens of old?
     It is too late for regrets. Time remains only for improvisation -- an art not well approved in the Five Galaxies, we are told.
     Among poor savages, it may be our only hope.

     Yes, my rings. We can now remember all of that.
     Stroke this wax, and watch the caravans depart toward plains, forests, and sea. Our hostages are spirited off to sites where even a starship's piercing scrutiny might not find them. The sun flees and stars bridge the vast territory called the Universe. A realm denied us, that our foes roam at will.
     Some remain behind, awaiting the ship.
     We voted, did we not? We rings who make up Asx? We volunteered to linger. Our conjoined voice would speak to angry aliens for the Commons. Resting our basal torus on hard stone, we passed the time listening to complex patterns from the Holy Egg, vibrating our fatty core with strange shimmering motifs.

     Alas, my rings, none of these reclaimed memories explains our current state, that something terrible must have happened?
     Here, what of this newly congealed waxy trail?
     Can you perceive in it the glimmering outlines of a great vessel of space? Roaring from the same part of the sky lately abandoned by the sun?
     Or is it the sun, come back again to hover angrily above the valley floor?
     The great ship scans our valley with scrutinizing rays seeking signs of those they left behind.
     Yes, my rings, follow this waxy memory.
     Are we about to rediscover the true cause of terror?

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