Dangerous Thoughts, ch 2-1
Deka knelt on the edge of the stone circle. It had been the circle once occupied by the sphere that joined the planets Rel and Movar. He had been pondering the calculations in his mind for four of this planet’s days, and he was almost ready to open the way.
He had not been idle this whole time though. He and Kylac socialized with the Movars. Deka helped tend the crops while Kylac helped the herbivores hunt prey.
The furless, predator Movars tended the plants while the furred herbivores hunted. It was a beautiful agreement they had made centuries ago, when they first discovered their glowing prey was intelligent. Both species had demonstrated their commitment to learning about one another by feeding each other. They had become two species, one culture.
The farming and hunting consumed their entire lives at first, but the more they learned about one another, the broader their minds became. They discovered portal physics, and ever since then the portals irrigated the crops and provided shortcuts to the migrating animals the furless ones ate. They had freed the people of Movar to live as they chose. Deka never tired of thinking about it. It was a story repeated on so many different worlds across the contacted universe.
Finding the bodies of twenty-six Relians had been the best thing to happen to them so far. Smelling the victims of the disaster made it real, and facing the reality had allowed the emotion to come out at last.
Kylac had even tried looking for a Movar to have sex with, but since his fur didn’t glow, none of the furred creatures on this world were interested in him. He tried enticing the furless ones. Kylac had never been with a creature that absorbed light, and it sounded like a great thrill. They, however, regarded him as rather ugly because he reflected too much light. This frustrated the fox but was a relief for Deka because it had been the first time since the disaster that Kylac showed desire. Deka had been worried about him, as a Relian of the canine species could revert to their old ways in just a couple days if deprived of sex. It had been about thirty days since the disaster, and Kylac hadn’t thought about it once until now, so Deka breathed easier watching him try to entice people again.
The fox endured four more days without it. On any other planet, Kylac would have found a partner in just a few breaths. Most everyone in the contacted universe knew about the canine species of Rel, and most took full advantage of them, but not the people of Movar.
The whole time, Deka had been meditating on where they were in the universe, and where he wanted to go from this point. He pondered where the motions of the galaxy would take each planet, where in the orbit each planet would be right now, the rotational speed of each world, and where he would have to aim if he wanted to set them down on the ground. Each planet had a designated area for Archeons to arrive unannounced, and aiming for any specific place took years of practice.
Deka was a good Archeon, and he was determined to make a sphere again. He and Kylac felt so much better after grieving, so he was sure he could do it again.
Kylac stood behind his raptor and watched. Many Movars were watching as well, including Ricio. An Archeon opening a new way was something many would not see in their lifetime, so they were eager to witness this.
Deka came closer and closer. The math flowed like liquid through his mind. He wasn’t aware of the numbers calculating orbits, rotations, velocities, spacetime density, gravity distortion, and the numerous other variables. Rather he was aware of the feeling the equations and numbers and changing variables gave him.
Finally, he arrived. His mind had calculated where the next world was. Every equation returned a variable, which fed into the previous equation, which fed into another, forming a cascade of interlocking formulas in his mind. The equations themselves formed a bridge between Movar and another planet several thousand light years away. They opened a hole in spacetime. It wavered, expanded, filled out, and stretched until it became a wobbling sphere large enough to walk through. The Movars who had never seen a new portal open stood in awe.
Deka tried to make it completely spherical and smooth, but it wouldn’t lock in place. Something was missing. Some part of the equations he couldn’t seem to find. It aggravated him.
On the other side of the portal, feathered people landed in front of the new way and gazed into it.
Deka rose to his feet. Kylac stood at his side, rubbed his raptor’s neck with a padded palm and fingers.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Deka stabbed the ground with a killing claw and walked into the wavering sphere, Kylac at his tail. As soon as they were through, Deka released the equations. Variables stopped changing at predictable rates, equations disconnected, and the bridge fell away. A feeling of where the planet would have moved since he broke the connection lingered, and it would remain for a few moments before he forgot entirely, then he would have to recalculate everything from the beginning if he wanted to return.
They were now on the planet Ixcy.
Archeons often took great comfort knowing where certain planets were at all times. It made them feel as if they carried an entire culture with them. Deka himself had maintained the portal to this world from Rel, and losing his connection to Ixcy had kept his heart pounding at night even more than seeing his own planet destroyed.
He and Kylac were standing on a wooden surface overlooking a vast ocean, surrounded by massive treetops. The platform was just a few paces above the water, and much like the stone path on Movar, it reached far into the horizon. Concentric growth rings lined the ground, each about a quarter pace apart, polished smooth by generations of people walking here. Certain sections were notably less smooth than the rest of the surface. These spaces had once contained offworld spheres.
This tree stump island had been the site of their civilization’s hub, large enough to keep portals to hundreds of planets and still allow visitors room to socialize with the locals. Dozens of other portals would have led to trees around the whole ocean.
Canals had been cut into this dead husk of a tree, creating cracks in the surface and tunnels below where underwater spheres would have been, some linking to oceans on other planets, others leading to numerous parts of the ocean on this world.
Not a single portal was in sight.
Birdlike creatures filled the sky, backlit by a tiny, green-hot star. They leaped from the trees, soared down, and landed on the tree stump, surrounding the Relians. They had bright plumage ranging in the blues and yellows and whites and greens. Especially green. Green on this planet was so vibrant it was painful to look at directly.
These birds stood upright about as tall as the theropod and the canine, wings unfolded and waving around, forming broad gestures accentuating their chirps and warbles. The raptor and the fox took a few moments to shed the Movar languages and recall this one. Deka had the easiest time speaking it, as his vocal chords were better suited to imitating their high-pitched chirps. Gradually the words became clear.
“The portals disappeared!”
“Is everyone all right?!”
“What happened? Where is everyone?”
To Deka’s surprise, Kylac spoke first. “Rel has been destroyed. We’re looking for survivors. Did anyone from Rel come here?”
The birds continued to chirp and squawk and gesticulate. It was difficult to get a word in with these people. Kylac explained what they knew, which was very little. As the fox did, Deka turned around and peered over the edge of the platform. Just under the surface of the ocean, another group had gathered: the aquatic species of the Ixcian culture.
In moments it swelled from a few dozen fish to a few hundred. They swam up from the bottom of the ocean and from within the tunnels under his feet. The water on this world was so clean one could see to the floor no matter how deep it was. They were probably asking the same questions as their avian companions, but it was impossible to hear above the surface.
Kylac finished telling them what happened, and the crowd erupted with the sound of an entire civilization in collective grief for the loss of a planet. Under the surface came a low-pitched vibration that made Deka and Kylac swoon. Some of the birds still in the surrounding trees had been listening to Kylac, retelling his story to the people below the surface. The fish grieved as well, and it was so loud it crossed the water and into the air.
Hundreds of birds on the stump screaming in grief. Hundreds of fish in the ocean expressing the same emotion in their own way. Gradually the time to grieve ended, and one of the birds approached them.
“Come with us.”
Two avians spread their wings and took flight. They lowered on top of Deka and Kylac, spread their talons, and picked them up by the shoulders. Now the Relians knew something bad had happened, as the avians never carried anybody anywhere. There had not been a need before; their Archeon maintained portals to every tree on this world.
“It’s Chreeb,” said one of the birds as they carried the two Relians over the former hub and toward a tree that towered hundreds of paces in the air.
“What happened to him?” Deka shouted.
“Nobody knows. We were hoping you could help.”
The birds surged upward and dropped them on a thick branch. Deka and Kylac ran across it and through an opening carved into the trunk. It was dark inside, but Relians of both species could see in the dark, so their eyes adjusted.
The walkway spiraled downward around the trunk, forming an internal ramp carved out of the tree itself. The interior was wide enough to pace fifty times before turning. Several avians were in here, gnawing and pecking at the wood with their beaks. The birds had to keep these spaces carved or the tree would grow back inward.
The walkway ended in water. Beneath the surface, the fish species of the Ixcian culture had gnawed out an opening of their own. Various fish were chewing the parts of the tree under the surface right now. Maintaining these trees was central to their culture, as they were the only places the two species could communicate.
The Relians approached the water line and halted. Just below them was the lowest section of the ramp, where it flattened and formed a level ring. The water was just high enough to cover the fish, but low enough for someone of Deka and Kylac’s stature to stand on a flat surface and interact with the fish and still be able to breathe.
Chreeb lay still on this ring.
Deka and Kylac knew what was about to happen, and they spread their arms and legs.
The birds were obsessed with keeping the water clean. Ever since they became aware their prey had feelings and could think, they had built their culture around never harming them again. They preened themselves extensively, removing all loose feathers, sap, leaves, insects, and other impurities before entering shared waterspace.
Having no beaks, Deka and Kylac could not preen themselves. Since he lacked fur, Deka was exempt from the requirement, but he went through it anyway for their sake. Kylac, however...
Two avians landed on Kylac, flattening the fox on his back as beaks rapidly pulled on clumps of fur all over his body. Five more flew from above and landed on Kylac, and from ear to paw, sheath to snout, they preened him of everything in his fur that might pollute the water. His tail waved wildly in laughter as more and more birds descended on him, flipped him over, and preened his backside.
Deka had but one avian mouthing him with her beak, and she was very gentle about it, as his scales were already clean. Knowing he would be coming here, he had taken the time to bathe on Movar. He also knew Kylac, on the other hand, had not bathed on purpose.
Moments later, the avians flew off Kylac and perched on the spiral ramp above with the other hundred avians waiting eagerly all around the tree. The fox stood, straightened his fur, smoothed his tail with his hands while flicking his ears. He joined Deka at his side, and they stepped into the water together. The intense starlight kept the surface of the sea water warm, so it was pleasant in here. The ramp leveled out, and now they walked on the lower ring in water only up to their hips.
“It is relief to see you again, Deka and Kylac.”
The voice came from the tree trunk, an amplified subsonic voice of one of the fish floating between the surface and the platform on which Deka and Kylac stood.
“I am glad to be back,” Deka said. He spoke the language of the avians. It did not echo; the tree trunk captured the sound and carried it down through the water.
Unlike so many species in the contacted universe, both sentient races on Ixcy did not take communication for granted. The trees were carefully carved and trimmed, and the water was kept pure. Any change would mean losing their only link to one another, and losing touch with the only other sentient species on the entire planet was too great to risk.
“What happened to Chreeb?” Kylac said.
There were many fish under the surface. It was impossible to tell who was speaking, as the fish did not speak with their mouths.
“Your story fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge,” replied the tree trunk. “Now we know what caused it, but not why.”
The tree magnified the voice of the fish so much that it transmitted emotion itself. Deka never tired of it.
The Relians waded through the water and stood at Chreeb’s side. He wasn’t dead; his gills were moving in and out, but slowly.
Kylac rested a hand on the fish. His scales were cool to the touch. Deka also rested his hand on him, careful to keep his claws up so he wouldn’t accidentally puncture the skin.
“He still hasn’t woken up from the shock,” Kylac said.
Deka closed his eyes and cooed quietly.
“We’re the first to visit?” Kylac asked. “Nobody else has come?”
“No,” replied the voice from the trunk. “You are the first. Has everyone met the same fate?”
Deka felt the fish’s smooth scales. “Yes. This is the sixth world we’ve been to. Everyone felt the shock when Rel’s portals collapsed. We were out for days. Every other Archeon was out just as long. Some are awake but still can’t think.”
“Then he shall wake soon?” asked the voice from the tree.
“Should...” Deka said. “He might just need more time.”
“Different species will handle it differently,” Kylac said, looking up at Deka. “Chreeb isn’t like the other Archeons. We should bring a Selt.”
“Why?” Deka answered. “What can they do? The brain must heal itself. Even they can’t force that.”
Kylac remained silent for a moment. He was sure Deka understood. They rarely had to explain things to one another.
“This isn’t just coma from an injury,” Deka continued. “This is coma from the shock of multiple portals closing against his will. Think about how it felt when you were under. The bridge tore away, but your mind was still working the calculations. Variables still moving in their predictable cycles, and yet nothing was happening. What does the mind of an Archeon do? Keep trying to reach the destination. His mind is trapped in an equation that has no solution now, but it did have a solution before. There is no medicine for that.”
The lack of echo in here felt astounding. Words did not merely hang in the air. They reached their destination and did their work. The silence that followed the raptor’s words held weight.
“Can you do anything?” said one of the birds above.
Deka turned his muzzle upwards. He heard exactly who had spoken, but he addressed everyone.
“Chreeb wanted to do everything himself. Whenever there was a portal to another world, he wanted to make it. The more ways he held open, the happier he was. He held onto the equations of Rel’s portals harder than most. It will probably take him more time to wake up.”
“Deka...” Kylac said. “Ixcian anatomy.”
Deka turned and glared at Kylac. The fox was sure Deka knew but didn’t want to face the possibility.
Kylac addressed the people in the tree. “The fish have two brains. Involuntary functions in one, the conscious mind in the other. Each part is unable to affect the other. The shock could have damaged his conscious mind but left basic body functions unaffected. Given how many equations he held onto, and how hard he held onto them, the disaster may have killed him.”
Deka closed his eyes and snarled inwardly, hands still folded, killing claws down. “He is alive! He’ll wake up eventually! He just needs more time than we did!”
“I know you don’t want to consider it, Deka, but it is possible. The Selts can feel brain activity. We can’t. If they determine he’s still alive, then we know we only have to wait.”
“I don’t need a Selt to tell me if someone is alive or dead! Let me stay with him for a while. Maybe he’ll respond to my voice.”
“What if he doesn’t wake up? We should be ready for that.”
Deka huffed and panted a few times, eyes still clenched tight. Gradually, his hands unfolded. “I know you’re right. Begin the calculations.”
“I already did. I should be ready in a day or two.”
Those words filled the tree with hope. Kylac turned and stepped out of the water. He said goodbye to the fish, and ascended the spiral ramp. The birds took flight, swirling up and out the top entrance. They had preened themselves so well not a single feather fell from their bodies.
Kylac reached the top some time later. He stepped out into the green starlight and looked out. Bushy treetops as far as the eye could see. Beneath those, an endless ocean without a fragment of dry land on the entire planet.
Something orange slammed into Kylac and knocked him down, pinning him to the branch. Something white and pink also landed on him. Two avians were on top of him. Kylac’s nose confirmed both were female. One of them sat on his sheath, coaxing him out. Kylac liked the feathered Ixcians. They had no rules except to keep it out of the water. It felt good to satisfy himself at last. It had been too long.
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