Dangerous Thoughts, chapter 4
“Good thing you got off a few times before we left for Lesa.”
Kylac’s tail danced around as his ears bloomed. “I know. I’ll have to go days without it there.”
“We’ll have to go days without any contact at all.”
Deka was sitting on the worn path in front of the empty clearing where the portal to Rel would have been, in the final moments of calculating a way to the gas giant. He and Kylac had spent the last four days with the Selts and the Zjr as everyone grieved for the lost Relians on their world. The people of Selta dealt with the bodies the only way they knew how: by looking at them. It was symbolic, reminding everyone that though they had made death rare on their world, they must not hide from it when it happens. Deka and Kylac had watched, but did not feel repulsed. They tried to learn the same lesson the people of Selta did.
A few paces in front of Deka, a portal widened to Relian-size and settled on the ground. It was spherical for a few breaths, and then Deka lost the feeling of a few variables, and local spacetime began pushing back chaotically. Deka used to be able to perceive the order underneath, but the feeling was difficult to find again. Deka stood up and walked straight through. Kylac followed his tail and emerged—
The wind sucked Kylac from the portal, lifted him off the ground, and carried him several hundred paces, spinning him around. He tried to scream, but the wind had pulled the air from his lungs, leaving him feeling deflated. He spread his arms out, and his claws screeched across glass.
He was inside a glass tube more than large enough for three creatures of his stature to walk upright. As he tumbled around and around, he caught glimpses of blue and red clouds swirling around at a thousand paces per breath.
The wind slowed, as if it hit a barrier, and it dropped Kylac to the spongy ground. It wasn’t dirt. Dirt did not exist on this world.
Kylac rose to his hands and knees, gasping for breath. He couldn’t smell a thing, and his exposed skin burned. Everything covered in fur felt all right for the moment, except that his lungs had stretched to the breaking point. He choked, thrashed. His nose was useless here, so he used his eyes to figure out where he was.
Deka lay a few paces away, surrounded by blue-red gas, also gasping for breath. Kylac turned his head in the direction they had come. The glass tube curved around the rim of an island floating in the clouds. The gas giant’s atmosphere rushed in through a hole in the tube where Deka’s sphere had opened. The wind had set them down at the midpoint, where it slowed enough to let them stand on their feet.
The planet’s atmosphere was made of hydrogen and helium with various other trace elements that combined in the clouds to form ammonia, arsenic, and sulfur. Kylac hacked. Deka coughed and gasped. Kylac raised his arms, and the light breeze pushed him closer to his raptor. He grabbed Deka to keep himself from being blown farther away. Deka held him close, and they looked around the tube.
Something flew against the wind and landed inside the hole. Deka and Kylac only saw it in shadow, as it was backlit through the gas. It flashed several colors in rapid succession.
Remain calm I am coming
It turned and climbed through the tube. As it approached it became clearer and clearer. Its body was triangle-shaped. Its arms were actually folded wings, which puckered while it walked. Its head was triangle-shaped as well, blending in with its body so well it was difficult to tell where the head ended and the body began.
A ridge of bone ran along the edges of its body. It produced colors, sometimes glowing, sometimes flashing. Green-white-yellow-black-green-red-brighter-red-fade-to-blue-flash-pink-six-times—
We had no way to warn anybody the Bellows Archeon is dead and the Wing Archeon won’t wake up just before the portals went out they doubled in size and took part of the tubes with them the tubes are open now some people were killed we didn’t expect anyone to come here—
—or we would have repaired the tubes sooner but there has been no time—
The Relians couldn’t follow it anymore. Their vision was fading. The Wing stood in touching distance, and it had something on its back. It looked like glass, with many glass pieces inside, all spinning and moving: a machine with six glass pipes connected to a hose made of extremely thin glass that connected to the sides. It shoved two of the pipes into Deka and Kylac’s mouths.
Air rushed into Kylac’s mouth. He coughed out the poison first and then suckled the pleasant mix of oxygen and nitrogen. Deka was right beside him, still holding onto his fox, sucking down the air from the tube as fast as he could. They had to exhale away from the tube, which allowed more poison into their lungs, but it was better than before.
The Wing let the machine on its back fall to the spongy ground. The ridge along its body lit up: white-pink-orange-flash-blue...
Follow me we have shelters for oxygen breathers
Deka and Kylac helped each other up. The Wing hobbled along the ground past them, following the wind through the tube. The Relians held the machine between them and followed the Wing.
Deka turned his head to the side and scanned the interior of the island on the other side of the glass. Many Wings stood out there in the open. The atmosphere blew against them from one direction, the gas speeding by so fast Deka could barely see it. Among them were creatures floating just above the spongy surface at various heights. Inflated blobs of flesh with a ridge running around their whole body, which flashed and glowed various colors. They were looking at the Relians, chattering amongst each other.
Offworlders here now
How did they get here
Horrible moment to arrive
Maybe they know what happened to the portals
By now they had reached a square cut into the ground covered by a glass hatch. The Wing pulled it open and beckoned them to enter. Deka and Kylac descended a short slope, and the hatch slammed shut above them. The Relians sucked air from the tubes and coughed out the waste along with any poison that made it in. The machine they held weighed them down, so they slumped, waiting in front of a glass door.
The atmosphere cycled. Kylac’s fur blew around as the poison air escaped and clean oxygen and nitrogen rushed in. Finally able to breathe the air, they set the machine down and held each other as they coughed and examined each other.
“You’re covered... in red scabs,” Kylac said.
“Your skin is burned. Some of your fur is falling out.”
Kylac gasped several more times. Deka coughed violently, and now he suddenly felt the searing pain on his scales caused by chemical burns from the ammonia in the air. Too much longer out there and they might have melted.
The glass door opened. The Relians stepped through, carrying the now-inert machine with them. When the door closed, they stood in the middle of a menagerie of different people.
Two quadrupedal canines from Emrim.
Five six-legged insects from T’laae, talons folded as close to their bodies as possible.
Three bipedal lizards from Gelleen. Their neck-scales were blood red and throbbing. Kylac’s tail waved as he coughed, wondering how three male Gelleens one right after the other would feel.
Deka and Kylac took a few more deep breaths, glanced at each other, and picked a language. Deka chose the Emrim’s language first.
“I’m Deka. This is Kylac. We’re from Rel. We’re Archeons.”
Kylac repeated it in the language of the T’laae, which was all clicks and throaty gurgles.
Deka then repeated himself in the Gelleen language.
The inhabitants did not react. Deka and Kylac observed the Gelleens were standing at the end of the room closest to the door, which was lined with a few shelves where small cubes rested. The others huddled by the glass pane at the far end of the room. They smelled terrified, and the odors coming up from the floor told Deka and Kylac nobody had ventured from the wall in some time.
Kylac knew exactly what was happening, but for the moment he was too busy expelling poison from his lungs.
The outside hatch slammed shut again. Deka and Kylac spun around and looked through the glass door. A Wing stood on the other side, surrounded by thin blue and red gas. A Bellows hovered next to it at eye level.
Their body ridges glowed in unison.
Welcome Relians are you hurt
Deka and Kylac could not speak their language. No offworlder could. But the two sentient species that inhabited the floating islands of Lesa learned an alternative language to communicate with offworlders. It was simplistic, but it worked. Deka and Kylac set the machine down, spread their hands, and signed back in unison.
Yes, we are hurt, but we are all right.
The floating blob of flesh deflated and lowered slightly to the ground. It flashed several colors so quickly they blended together into one hue. Good now I am glad we told someone to keep watch over the tubes in case someone arrived
The Wing now flashed. Do you know what happened
Deka and Kylac gestured their story as quickly as they could, but the sign language was limited in what it could convey. The two Lesans flashed long streaks of white upon the news of Rel’s destruction. The Relians signed new details from the Selts of what the disaster did to the Archeons and expressed sorrow at the loss of their Bellows Archeon. That was why they came; the Selts were fearful for his safety. They assured them that their Wing Archeon should wake up once her mind recovered from the shock, but they did not know when.
The Bellows flashed and faded all sorts of colors: no Relians had been on this world when the portals failed and just before the portals closed they swelled up doubled in size and swallowed parts of the tubes allowing Lesa’s atmosphere in many offworlders in the tubes died before we could take them to the shelters all fifty-three islands have shelters for different breathers but we are running out of food for them
Meanwhile the Wing was also flashing and fading: we are having difficulty keeping them together we can not communicate with any of them and the few who know our language do not know it well enough to understand much
Soon the colors became synchronized as the two creatures unified their conversation, which indicated it was coming to a close.
The lack of food is becoming a problem the atmosphere generators can run almost indefinitely but we did not expect to hold this many offworlders for so long please take these people back to their worlds
With a synchronized brown-green flash, they finished. Knowing Deka and Kylac were Archeons, they had used the ultraviolet and infrared components of their language as well.
Deka and Kylac signed together in reply. Yes, we will take these people away.
Can you be quick, flashed the Wing.
Deka and Kylac thought about how time was measured on this world, and then signed their answer together.
Half a cycle to make a portal for each island. By then we should have a way offworld ready, or it might take another two days.
The Wing and the Bellows did not flash happiness.
Very long but we knew and we will do our best not all are oxygen breathers so take pain not to send them to their death you know the islands’ layout
It was a question. Deka signed back for both of them.
Yes, which numbers are what?
Islands one through twenty are oxygen breathers twenty-one through twenty-five breathe only nitrogen twenty-six through fifty-three breathe methane.
Three different types of worlds to portal to. Fifty-three portals to open to other worlds.
Deka signed: There is no time to take everyone to their home worlds individually. We will send the oxygen-breathers to Selta, the nitrogen-breathers to Kexi, and the methane breathers to Jiniv. They will be cared for there.
At the same time, Kylac signed: We will create ways to each world here in this shelter. We will open spheres to each island and bring everyone here to leave from a single place.
The two Lesans flashed and flickered in unison again. Thank you and please hurry we cannot keep everyone here forever and we are so sorry about Rel we want to know what caused it please tell us when you learn
They turned and floated around. The upper hatch opened, they climbed the steep ramp, and the hatch closed again. Deka and Kylac turned in place, observing the people in the shelter.
“I’ll work on the ways to the islands and Selta,” Deka said. “You work on the other two offworld portals.”
Kylac was scenting the Gelleen lizards from a distance, ears flicking. They were huddled together, touching each other, hormones surging. The scents of the others in the room were fearful. Kylac didn’t need to be an Archeon to figure out what had happened in here.
“First things first.” Kylac approached the Gelleens. “Hello, everyone.”
The lizards growled and hissed at him in unison. Kylac sat down among them, close enough for them to catch his scent. Kylac was drinking their scents in, and they smelled gorgeous. The fox slipped out of his sheath, and all three Gelleens noticed at the same time.
Deka rubbed his claws together and turned his head to the wall. He addressed the people pressed up against it. He spoke in the Emrim language first.
“Don’t worry. My fox can calm them down.”
He repeated himself in the T’laae language, but the people still looked and smelled terrified for Kylac. Deka figured they had tried to reason with the Gelleens before and someone had been hurt, so they had been huddled here this whole time.
Deka decided to let Kylac’s actions convince them. He walked across the room to the wall opposite the door. The walls were spongy, made of the same plant matter as the floor and ceiling. A hole had been cut into this wall and filled with a thick plate of glass. Deka peered outside.
The red-blue clouds above were lit by a white star. The island was far enough down in the atmosphere that the star appeared as a blurry disc through the gas.
Deka saw another island in the distance. Huge streamers reached up from it far into the clouds, ending in bulbous, gas-filled balloons that floated on the border between outer space and the planet’s atmosphere. They absorbed starlight, processed it into energy, and fed it back down to the body.
A plant rooted to the upper atmosphere.
Thousands of paces below, the gas divided itself into bands of red, blue, white, and yellow. In each band, the wind blew in opposing directions. Further down, the clouds became so dense they behaved like a liquid, and nothing could survive there. The islands themselves were full of gas that suspended them between the dense clouds below and the deadly radiation from space. They were the only habitable regions of Lesa.
Somehow, with the atmosphere constantly roaring, life had formed here. Two species living inside the floating mass of plant life, each developing its own way to move from island to island in search of food.
The Wings had developed bodies so aerodynamic they were barely affected by the wind. The Bellows developed bodies that took in the air and used it to propel themselves around.
Deka turned from the view and glanced at Kylac. The fox was on his back, the dominant Gelleen on top of him. Kylac was moaning and licking the scales up the lizard’s arm. The Gelleen was growling and moaning as well while the two lizards behind them fought over who would be second.
The raptor scented the people around the room. They recognized the fox was doing something none of them could, and it was working.
Deka held his hands together, touching the claws in a smile, and gazed out the sheet of glass again. He never tired of seeing this planet. It was so beautiful, and to know that life could thrive here was enough to make him dizzy with awe.
The Bellows and the Wings were neither predator nor prey. They fed off the plants, moving from island to island when they had consumed enough of one so they did not kill it. They helped each other find new islands, and each species grew up together and came to rely on the other for survival. The force of the constant storm was so strong their language did not develop any spoken component. Instead, their bodies became partially fluorescent, and color itself became language.
Fifteen generations ago, they discovered portal physics, and they no longer needed to fly from island to island in search of food. They maintained permanent portals to the islands, and civilization flourished. It was a beautiful culture on an equally beautiful and dangerous world.
They ventured to other worlds and joined the contacted universe. They learned other species wanted to experience where they lived, so they did something very rare and almost impossible on a planet such as this. Using sand from other worlds, they built tubes of glass around each island so offworlders could visit Lesa. Everything that couldn’t be made of plant matter was made of it, as glass was the only other material that would not deteriorate in these harsh conditions.
They created machines to cut the soil faster to install the tubes. Machines to create artificial atmosphere for visitors. They were so useful the machines began to take command of other parts of their lives. They began to use machines to process the plant matter into other things. Things to eat. Things to use for other purposes, but all for the purpose of allowing offworlders to visit.
Kylac gasped as the dominant male withdrew, and the next climbed on top. Deka rubbed his claws together and admired the view outside. The others admired the view on the other side of the shelter.
Deka pondered the machines as the second male penetrated his fox. Machines were everywhere on this world now. Deka wished he could see more of it, but they were always surrounded by poison atmosphere. He could never see how the Wings lived their lives. He could never observe the Bellows effortlessly floating through the powerful wind from one island to another. At best, these tubes provided only a fleeting glance at a life Deka would never experience.
The second male finished with Kylac quickly, and now the third nudged the fox over. He rolled to his hands and knees, and the Gelleen climbed on top of him.
Deka looked down through the glass. Just below, partially embedded on the surface, was the machine that kept them alive. It was larger than the portable device they had carried inside, and there were only two hoses connected to it. Deka now wished he’d had the opportunity to learn how these machines worked. It was incredible for a species to go to these lengths to accommodate offworlders at all, and it deserved further study.
The raptor stepped away and turned to the closest inhabitant in the room, the female quadruped from Emrim with yellow fur. She stood about as high as Deka’s waist.
“What is your name?”
She did not take her eyes off Kylac and the Gelleens. “I’m Rawoc.”
“Nice to meet you. Where is our food supply?”
She gestured with one paw to the wall behind the Gelleens. Deka stepped away from the wall and approached it.
“No, don’t go near them!” Rawoc shouted.
Deka walked by the spent Gelleens to the wall they had been guarding. It was lined with small cubes of processed plant matter. Deka picked one up between two claws and sniffed it. It smelled edible, even to a carnivore, made of concentrated nutrients. It wouldn’t be filling, but it would keep anyone alive. There were only twenty cubes left on the shelf, and Deka calculated a hundred cubes would fit on it.
“This wall used to be full of them?” Deka asked.
“It was,” replied the quadruped. Her mate hadn’t spoken a word, and Deka smelled too much fear in his scent. He had folded inward.
Deka turned to her. “Don’t worry. You’ll be off this world soon.”
The last Gelleen had finished with Kylac. The scales on their necks had cooled down, and their scents did not clog the room anymore. The collective scent of the room changed to relief.
“That’s right,” said the fox, still on his hands and knees. “We’ll be on an oxygen and nitrogen planet soon.” Kylac repeated himself in the other two languages.
The Gelleen pulled out. Kylac collapsed onto the floor, sinking into it slightly. The two canines and five insects approached Kylac as he lay spent.
“I don’t know how you managed to calm them down, but thank you!” clicked several of the insects.
Kylac’s tail waved. “I’m a Relian canine.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve never been to your world,” said another. “I don’t know your species.”
Kylac rolled over and stood. “The canines of Rel have universal pheromones.”
“Almost universal,” Deka said from the shelves.
“Yes, almost, among compatible species. As soon as I stepped inside, I could smell them. I figured it was causing trouble in here.”
“It was, definitely!” said the canine.
Kylac could smell she was female, and the other was male. This was a mated pair, and he remembered the Emrim canines were exclusive, so there was no hope of getting any from either of them.
“They were taking all our food, hissing at us for coming near them. This is the first time we’ve been able to walk around the room!”
“That’s not surprising,” Kylac said. “Gelleens are territorial during their reproductive cycle. They didn’t come here on their cycle, but being shoved into an enclosed space brought it out because they did not think to bring someone of their companion species to Lesa.”
Kylac looked over his shoulder and repeated himself in the Gelleen language. The dominant male made a few mumbles and growls. Kylac faced the canines again.
“Exactly as I thought. Don’t hold it against them. They didn’t expect this either. Being confined stimulates the mating drive, and their higher brains shut down when it happens. Normally their companion species can keep them in line, but they were caught by surprise. They are sorry for what happened.”
Deka translated for everyone. Now everyone seemed friendlier to the Gelleens, and distances closed at last.
“We can make our food supply last,” Deka said to everyone. “While we’re working on the ways to the other islands, I’m curious. What brought everyone here?”
The insects spoke first. They had just recently heard about a gas giant that had built means for offworlders to visit. Their world, T’laae, had no portals to Lesa, so they had taken spheres to six different planets before finally coming to one with a way here. They had walked the glass rings, admiring the views of several different islands. Suddenly the portals expanded and vanished, taking chunks of the tube with them, and poison atmosphere blew into the tube. Fortunately the Wings and Bellows saw what happened, grabbed the portable atmosphere machines, and guided everyone to the shelter.
Deka and Kylac translated their story for the others.
The canines from Emrim went next. They had just mated, and they came to Lesa as part of the celebration. Their Archeon had opened a way to Lesa just for them. Rawoc had learned some of their language, but she did not know enough to understand what the Bellows and Wings had been saying to her since the disaster.
Everyone had only intended to be here for a day or so, just long enough to witness the beauty, to see the Wings and Bellows fly and float effortlessly in wind that would knock any of them down and whittle their skin raw. It wasn’t very real, as there could be no scents, but it forced them to use their eyes to take in the experience, just as the Wings and the Bellows did.
The people in the room finally understood one another. For some time, Deka and Kylac wandered the room, standing between groups of people and translating between them. Now that the Gelleens were calm, everyone could finally speak to them.
Kylac was standing by the glass pane translating the Gelleens’ story for the quadrupeds when his eyes caught movement outside. A Wing had landed below the view of glass. Kylac walked up to it and looked down. He could barely see the Wing below, crawling around on top of the atmosphere machine.
“What’s he doing?” Kylac said, mostly to himself, but loud enough for Deka to hear.
A loud crack filled the shelter. The creature had dislodged the machine from the side of the island.
“You! Stop! Stop!”
Deka ran to the pane. Everyone else followed.
The Wing ripped the machine free, the wind caught it and carried it away. The hoses still connected to the shelter now flapped about.
Deka screeched at it, pounding on the spongy plant matter that made up the wall.
The Wing looked up, spread its arms, and sailed upwards, landing on the glass and glared inside. Its ridges flashed fourteen colors rapidly. Finally it pushed away, let the wind catch it, and glided out of sight.
“What did it say?” said a few people in their own languages.
Kylac stared blankly out the window. “Don’t come back.”
Deka translated into every language necessary in one breath. Nobody moved for some time.
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