Dangerous Thoughts, ch 1
A bubble in spacetime expanded from a single point at eye level. It grew wider and wider until it seemed to rest on the circle of stones off the pathway. The bubble wavered and puckered as it held open against the pressure of the surrounding spacetime trying to collapse it.
The opening caught the attention of several inhabitants of this world, and they approached it. On the other side they saw a planet none of them recognized immediately, of fiery volcanoes and two daytime stars in the sky, one red, the other white. Standing on this alien world were the two sentient beings who had opened this hole. The natives of this world instantly recognized them as Deka and Kylac, two Archeons from the planet Rel.
Several of the people of Movar ran the other way, toward another bubble of similar size hovering less than a claw’s reach above the ground. They ran through it one by one and vanished, though outside observers could see an image of them running into the background projected around the surface.
At the first spacetime hole, the crowd had become larger. Two different species of mammal stood side by side, waiting. Half the people stood on four legs and had fur ranging in color from bright green to bright brown. The light from their planet’s star made them all glow faintly from the tips of their tails to the crowns of their ears. Their eyes were large, and they had long, tapered snouts that ended with an appendage that resembled a third eye. Even in broad daylight the furred creatures gave off light of their own.
Among them stood furless creatures. Twice as tall as the furred ones, they walked on two legs, but were still hunched over and could function on all fours if necessary. The daylight had the opposite effect on them. The light the furred creatures gave off seemed to fall into their furless bodies, as if they glowed negatively. They were not invisible, but they seemed faded and barely noticeable at a glance.
The Relians visible through the wavering sphere approached it. They grew larger, filled up the opening until finally they emerged from its surface. The first to step through was a theropod covered in blue scales so dark they were nearly black. A red stripe ran up the top of his snout and down his back to the tip of his tail. Immediately after his tail exited the portal, a bipedal canine with digitigrade legs and a slightly hunched posture followed. His belly was white, his forearms were black, and the tip of his tail was white as well. The rest of his body was covered in red fur. They stood side by side and observed the people as the unstable sphere closed behind them.
The furred creatures barked and whined at the newcomers. The furless ones, who stood in shadow even as the daytime star baked this planet in bright light, hissed and clicked at the two. They walked up to the raptor and the fox, touched their scales and fur. The people of Movar only stood as high as the theropod’s knees.
Deka and Kylac remained still and received the greeting. They had just come from a world inhabited by people who spoke only one language, and now they had to adjust to two.
They had only been here once, many solar years ago, and under much better circumstances. Quickly they adjusted to a new world with new customs and new languages. Words began to emerge from the hisses and whines.
“The portals went out!”
“Ricio told us she can’t make a way offworld anymore!”
“She was unconscious for days!”
“We could not reach anyone!”
Deka and Kylac had been among many species who had evolved in herds, and they never tired of their way of welcoming newcomers among them.
The crowd became larger. Movars both furred and furless poured out of the portal on the other side. Word had spread quickly of their arrival, and people from all over the planet came to greet them. Deka and Kylac knew they did not make this much of a fuss over every visitor, but the disaster had touched them as well, and they wanted to know what was happening.
Deka looked around. They had landed on a branch of a stone path designated for unannounced visitors. The branch connected with a larger path that reached for a hundred paces in both directions. Other paths split from this walkway and ended at circles of stone, dozens of them as far as he could see in both directions. Each would normally have held a portal to another world, or to another place on this world. Now he only saw six portals open, and they wavered and rippled, struggling to hold their spherical shape. Movars rushed out of these portals and joined the group around Deka and Kylac. Everyone wanted to touch them, talk to them, hear from them.
The two visitors took in dozens of voices at once, following every word. It was easy to sort them out.
“Yes, it’s all true,” Deka said, doing his best to speak the language of the furless species. “Our planet was destroyed.”
More questions hit them. More concerned paws and hands touched them.
“That’s why we’re here,” continued Kylac. He spoke the language of the furred creatures, as his mouth and throat were better suited for it.
Soon the path was full of people. Deka and Kylac smelled the concern in the air, and they drew comfort from this. They had scent in common with the mammals of Movar, though these creatures relied more on the eyes than the nose. Finally, every inhabitant of the Movar culture surrounded Deka and Kylac, more than a thousand glowing quadrupeds and non-glowing bipeds.
The herd began moving, and the two strangers among them were carried away in it. Everyone gave the few portals on the stone path a wide berth, roughly following the path. The path ended in a grassy field, and the herd was leading the Relians into it.
The meeting place was not called anything in the Movar language. It was so central to their lives they didn’t even have a word for it. Offworlders named it that, and Deka and Kylac stood there now.
Up to their shins in grass, the herd ebbing and flowing around them, they tried to tell their story. Kylac, the red-furred canine, began talking to one of the furred creatures, only for her to wander off and another to take her place. The female that wandered off told the tiny piece of Kylac’s story to the others, and it flowed through the herd.
Kylac then told another fragment of his story to the closest male until he wandered off, repeating what Kylac said to others, and they to others, and so on.
Deka, the blue-scaled theropod, also told fragments of the story to individuals who spread those fragments to others. It was not jarring or difficult, merely how the Movars socialized. Everyone had a fragment of the whole, and eventually the herd had taken in the fragments, put them together, and come up with the entire story.
They grieved for the loss of more than twenty thousand people, along with countless animals and plants. The collective grief of an entire culture filled the field. Cries and hisses went up. Kylac and Deka felt nothing. They had witnessed the grief of the last four planets, but none of it reached them. They could not feel anything, not when there was so much to do, so many unanswered questions.
As the planet’s rotation took the daytime star to the far side of the world, the glow of the furred creatures became more intense. So did the void the furless ones left in the light. Gradually, everyone went to sleep, leaving Deka and Kylac standing awake in the middle of the field.
They had been exhausted, but a trip to this planet was refreshing. There was something special about being among a people so united in mind and purpose. They sat in the grass and watched.
The land was in total darkness now, but the glow of the furred members of the Movar race created a second star on the ground. The light did not reach the furless members of the herd, who appeared as holes in the light.
The Movars were a sight-based culture. The furred quadrupeds had pigments in their fur that absorbed the ultraviolet light from the planet’s star and used it to glow as a means of attracting a mate. The bipedal, furless ones had once hunted them, having evolved to take advantage of this glow, but the furred Movars had excellent eyesight and could spot predators easily, so the furless ones had developed a special pigment in their skin that had the effect of absorbing light. In response, the furred ones developed large eyes to take in an enormous amount of light to better see their predators. Eventually, the predator’s anti-pigment became so refined it actually did cancel out light.
As on so many planets, predator and prey remained locked in this conflict for thousands of years. It pushed their minds higher and higher until both species achieved sentience. When they realized they were both intelligent, they merged into a single herd, and the predators found other things to eat. They still retained their strong herd mentality and could not stand to be separated from the group for too long. Few left the planet for more than a day or two unless they brought a dozen others with them.
Something was moving on the far side of the field, at the hub. Deka and Kylac rose to their feet, and carefully moved through the herd of sleeping individuals to meet the glowing quadruped standing on the path. They scented the furless ones out so they would not step on anyone. Deka was especially careful of this, for the claws on his inner toes would slice open flesh without even trying. Kylac had blunt claws for gripping the ground while running, so he wasn’t as concerned.
It took them many breaths to cross the field. When they arrived, they cast dim shadows in the green and yellow glow of their fellow Archeon, Ricio. The furred Movar only stood as high as their knees, since she walked on all fours.
“Welcome back to Movar,” she said in the Relian language.
“Thank you,” Deka said, also in Rel.
“We’ll tell you shortly, but please, from your point of view, tell us what happened here.”
She turned and began walking along the path. Deka and Kylac walked at her side, matching her pace.
“I was talking to someone about... I don’t remember what. Then I felt incredible pain in my mind. The next thing I remember was waking up in the grass. Everyone told me I had been unconscious for five days. The portals were gone. This was a surprise to me. I wasn’t merely asleep. I lost every portal I maintained. Immediately I began reconnecting the different parts of Movar, but it has been difficult.”
She looked at one of the portals as they walked by. It flickered and wavered, showing a distorted, unstable view of a region of Movar on the daytime side. She stopped in front of it.
“I... I can’t seem to open ways as I once did. It was several days before I could open a new portal at all. I still can’t open ways to other worlds. I’ve been elsewhere on Movar, trying to reopen ways to each region. I returned as soon as I heard you were here.”
She turned around and sat facing the raptor and the fox.
Deka rubbed his hand-claws together. “In sequence or out of sequence?”
Ricio huffed. “I appreciate the attempt, but I’m not in a laughing mood.”
Kylac sat down. The reptile sat as well, and Ricio lay on her stomach. While Kylac spoke, Deka looked around the path. The stone circles were so empty without portals resting on them. This entire path once contained hundreds of ways leading to as many worlds. Other planets just a step away. Walk through any of these spheres and instantly one would be a million light years away, talking with a civilization older than one’s own planet, and anyone could come and go as they pleased.
Only five portals were open now, all leading to different parts of Movar, all unstable, similar to the portals he and Kylac had opened since the disaster. Like Ricio, neither had been able to concentrate as well as they had before. Whatever happened had hurt them in ways they did not even know they could be hurt.
Deka envied Ricio right now. He missed having a few dozen portals to maintain. He missed musing on them day and night, feeling the connections between different points in the universe and holding them open. Now... His and Kylac’s life had been nothing but panic. He doubted either could maintain a portal for more than a few breaths, let alone years. Ricio could at least maintain ways between different parts of the planet now. Not perfect, but lasting.
Normally the spheres were so solid and stable they didn’t seem like ways at all, but glass spheres. He hadn’t been able to open a stable portal since the disaster, and he missed being able to.
Since their planet was destroyed, he seemed to have lost a good chunk of his ability to concentrate. There had been a time when he and Kylac made perfect spheres and kept them perfect for years at a time, as all seasoned Archeons could.
The story was over. Kylac had told it in sequence.
“I can’t imagine...” Ricio said. “The entire planet?”
“It broke apart in front of us,” Kylac answered. “We escaped, and then the portals collapsed.”
“I kept thirty-one open,” said Deka. “Kylac had another thirty-one. Forty linked different parts of our world together. The other twenty-two led offworld. They ended within breaths of each other.”
“Left both of us paralyzed for days,” Kylac continued. “Everything stopped. Ended. Terminated. There was nothing for us to think about. We happened to end up on the Ya’mah homeworld.”
“At least you were cared for,” Ricio said.
Deka looked down at the ground. “We scared them. We just fell in, and our way closed behind us. The portals their Archeon held open closed, too, and he fell into the same coma.”
“They kept our bodies alive while our minds recovered from the shock,” Kylac continued. “Nobody else had come through with us. When we found out how long it had been, we decided to go to Reebe and look for survivors, but nobody made it through that portal before it collapsed. We’ve been traveling to other worlds, hoping to find someone who survived.”
“What of Rive and Friend?” Ricio said.
“We don’t know what happened to them,” said Deka. “They might be dead. I don’t know where Sonjaa and Rupi were, or the hatchlings.”
They sat in silence for a while. Ricio lowered her head and rested it between her paws. Deka and Kylac remained silent. Her scent told them she was just beginning to feel the weight of what had happened. She whined, stood up, and walked between the raptor and the fox, comforting them the only way her kind knew how. She tried to huddle with them, but without a herd it was difficult to do so. Deka and Kylac leaned in closer so they could to make their own little herd.
She needed to grieve. Her grief did not reach them. The two Relians felt nothing but raw determination to find survivors and figure out what happened.
“I’m sorry to say,” Ricio began, “somebody did come here.”
Kylac’s ears bloomed. “They did?! Where are they?”
“I think you should see for yourself.”
She backed away from them, turned, and trotted up the path. Deka and Kylac ran after her. In a hundred strides, Ricio veered and ran headlong into a portal that just barely held its spherical shape. Deka turned, ducked his head, kept his tail straight behind him, and ran through it as well. Kylac straightened his tail, folded his ears against his head, and followed his raptor. He emerged on a rocky ledge standing next to Deka and Ricio. It was still daylight here, but the star was about to set. Kylac recognized this part of Movar.
Both species had a tradition about death. When a Movar grew old, he left the herd, traveled to the cliffs, and lived there until his body gave out. They had once believed the edges of cliffs were actually the beginning of bridges to the next life, so they made sure to meet their end on a high cliff.
The discovery of portal physics should have made the tradition of traveling thousands of paces to the nearest cliff obsolete, but it only made them more determined than ever to make the journey themselves, without shortcuts. Only in dire emergencies did they use portals to take someone to a cliff upon death.
Kylac, Deka, and Ricio stood facing a line of Relian bodies, some reptile, others canine. Swaths of scales and fur were missing. Huge streaks of flesh and bone gone, exposing organs underneath. Enormous holes had been torn through the bodies. Legs missing. Arms half severed. Faces gouged to the bone. Sometimes part of the bone itself was missing, as if it had melted away, leaving the remainder of the skull smooth and polished.
There were about twenty of them, lain out as neatly as possible, faces turned to the edge of the cliff. Deka and Kylac carefully approached. The scents from the bodies had long decayed, and there was no way to know if any of these people was somebody they knew. Deka grumbled a little; Sonjaa could be among them, and he would never know it.
One of the canine bodies had been sheared in half lengthwise. Deka and Kylac stood over him. Ricio approached a moment later, keeping her head and voice low, as if afraid to wake them.
“I didn’t see it myself. The herd told me they poured through the portal just as you see them. I had maintained the way between Rel and Movar, and it collapsed while this one was passing through. These people were still alive. I was unconscious, and nobody had any idea what happened or what they should do, so they carried them here. It was the first way I opened. I’m so sorry.”
Kylac dropped to all fours and scented the body, hard, trying to figure out who he was—trying to get something from him—anything! All he could smell was decay. He sniffed harder. He inhaled dirt, snorted it out, and walked on all fours down the line, scenting everyone.
Deka did the same, bent from the waist, trotting up and down the line, trying to identify someone. He smelled nothing but death. No burning, no scent of injury. Flesh and bone were just missing randomly, as if gravity itself had reached into their bodies and taken whatever it wanted.
They walked up and down the line like this several times. They met at the body in the middle, a reptile of the Relian race. One leg was gone, and so was a good swath of the torso. No scent anymore. No way to know who this was, or if this had been male or female.
Deka opened his mouth and screamed. Kylac howled with him. Five planets since the destruction of their world, and these were the first Relians they had found.
Ricio slowly padded up to them. She nudged them together, and they formed a small herd as they grieved. They fell asleep as the star set on this side of the planet.
Deka woke up in the middle of the night. It was cold up here without the star to warm his scales, so he reached out and pulled his fox closer. It woke up the fox, and he tapped noses with his raptor. They met each other’s eyes. They had been together long enough to know they were thinking the same thing.
They had only been to five planets. They could not be the last of Rel, and they refused to accept the possibility. They would rest with a herd for a bit, and then they would make a way to a new world. Deka began the calculations.
Sample from Dangerous Thoughts, published by KTM Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-7322824-0-7. © 2018 by James L. Steele. All rights reserved.
KDP version also available