Centuries spent gazing at the rusty red worldlet above their world failed to inspire people to rise so high. Until now. Long Sight, a learner, spends as much time as possible at the telescope on the outside of their artifical worldlet.
Sharp Tongue and others think him crazy. Yet they all could learn so much from Emberland. A world so much like their own, except smaller. Did life exist there? Heretical, yet an undeniable question.
Long Sight wanted to take advantage of every moment to study Emberland—in what might be the only chance of his lifetime!
Long Sight’s fur ruffled as he caught the oily scent of Sharp Tongue’s approach up the shaft leading to the forward observation bubble. He whistled softly through his big front teeth in annoyance at the intrusion. What must he do to get time to himself? He had reversed his dormancy cycle, and he spent as much time as possible in the bubble above the pitted surface of their worldlet, exposed to the unimaginable threats of this airless void, and still Sharp Tongue sought him out and intruded on his solitude.
Long Sight left the big telescope, kicking hard with his strong hind legs to propel himself toward the opening. He caught a toe-grip at the entrance with one foot, steading himself with a brief touch on the side of the opening. The soft black cushioning gave slightly beneath his fingers and rebounded, faintly sloshing with the water contained. A burrow sheathed in water, just like home, meant to make the worldlet feel more substantial than it was while also serving the dual function of shielding them from the radiation of the sun and providing the necessary water circulation.
Sharp Tongue caught a toe-grip in passing and brought himself up short of the opening, his beige fur dimly lit by the weak light filtered through the dome. Sharp Tongue blinked his large round eyes, enormous really, a sign of his caste that rarely, if ever, ventured up to the surface of any burrow.
“Long Sight, it is true. You are here.”
Long Sight twitched an ear at the telescope. “Performing my duties, Sharp Tongue. Scouting the world ahead.”
“The data feeds to any burrow, why subject yourself to such risk? I’m told rocks fly in this region without regard to their proper place. What if one were to strike the dome?”
“I trust the sentries to sound the appropriate alarm if any large hazard appeared.”
Sharp Tongue’s ears drooped. “I’m told a small hazard could get past the sentries, that the speeds involved could still cause significant damage and even puncture the thin skin of the dome.”
Long Sight let go of the toe-grip with one foot to reach up and scratch at in itch on his shoulder. “The risk is acceptable if my scouting reveals more details about the world we approach.”
A shudder ruffled Sharp Tongue’s fur. He peered forward, blinking large eyes and then drew back into the shadows. “I don’t see how you stand it; you’re actually out above the surface of the worldlet with nothing but that fabric between you and nothingness!” Panic tinged Sharp Tongue’s voice.
Long Sight decided to change his tactic. He pushed off the toe-grip, floating backward where he deftly caught the next toe-grip. He beckoned with both arms as if drawing Sharp Tongue to his chest. “Why don’t you come out and I’ll show you the new world? I can see much even at this distance. When we get closer, we’ll see as well as the hawk sees flying above the plains.”
A small squeak, quickly cut off, came from the tunnel. Long Sight’s ears pricked forward and he heard the quick pants as Sharp Tongue turned and fled deeper into the worldlet, taking his oily scent with him. Satisfied, Long Sight turned back to the telescope. A quick kick sent him flying across the dome to the observation post as easily as the hawk he had mentioned. He caught the bars with his feet and steadied himself on the poles. He didn’t look immediately, still mulling over the encounter in his head. Sharp Tongue’s evident concern touched him, despite the annoyance of the intrusion. He whistled between his teeth. Most thought him crazy, all astronomers for that matter. The idea of going out at night terrified most of the people. And yet some had gone out to look up at the stars and eventually they had ventured far higher than the hawk, all of them crazy to a degree, even a burrow-bound administrator like Sharp Tongue.
It was true that he could view the data from the telescope down in the burrows but seeing something on the screen lacked the reality of seeing it with his own eyes in real time. Long Sight pulled himself down to the viewing ports until the cool metal touched the fur around his eyes and in that instant he found himself flying free. He was the worldlet, looking out into the space that surrounded them at the world ahead.
Emberland. The world of mystery that had soared through the night overhead like a coal tossed into the sky. Their early ancestors had told many stories about Emberland and what the changing faces meant. Long Sight saw it now as a world rich in features and details. The thin atmosphere still held clouds of some water vapor, but mostly dust. Now and then he saw features that suggested water flowing free on the surface, at least for a time, as if it had burst out of underground pools only to evaporate. He could clearly see the ice caps. Were the darker areas of the surface vegetation? Did strange animals live on this arid world? Or even — Long Sight dared to wonder the heretical thought — other people?
He pulled back from the viewer and blinked as he looked around the dome as if another might somehow have known his thoughts. He shook his fur out, took a few consoling licks on the back of his hands and smoothed the fur on his face and neck. He was alone and safe. He pulled himself back to the viewer.
The dusty red face of the planet, filled with its own mountains and valleys, dark regions and lighter, clear traces of ancient rivers and the scattered craters showing the truth of Sharp Tongue’s fears about flying rocks, all of it hung in space before him. Completely unlike their own warm, blue planet behind them. Now they were the flying rock, or more accurately the flying snowball, an artificial burrow painstakingly assembled in orbit and then sheathed in tons of water. Great wide solar wings had caught the sun’s weak winds and ever so slowly had lifted the worldlet into an ever-widening orbit until gravity and timing sent the worldlet flying to Emberland. Long Sight and the others like him knew that the worldlet had only been created as a political stunt to demonstrate the wisdom and power of their leaders, that they could create such a thing was magnificent, but he was more interested in learning about Emberland. It was a whole world in its own right, circling theirs, true, but that merely afforded them the opportunity to reach it more easily. Nearly a dozen other worlds, most of them with worldlets of their own circling them, all circled the sun. He had seen this with his own eyes through telescopes on the ground. He imagined dozens of artificial worldlets flying through the space between worlds, back and forth between each world and home, using the gravity of these worlds and wide wings to catch the sun’s winds. With enough worldlets traveling between worlds learners like him could visit any world they wished.
Long Sight’s ears drooped. Such a magnificent dream, he feared, was beyond the leaders’ interests. Their motivation wouldn’t extend that far. On their safe return home this worldlet might never fly again. That left him with this one chance to see Emberland up close.
He pulled out the tablet mounted beneath the viewer. He focused on a series of river valleys in the southern hemisphere that all led to a basin, what must have been an inland sea at one time. He saw patches of darker material in the valleys and the basin. His fingers tapped out notes on the tablet, describing in detail each of the features for further reference and study. There was much work to finish in the short time available.
A week after Sharp Tongue’s brief visit to the dome, Long Sight was floating back to the dome through the tunnel, kicking himself along the toe grips to keep moving. He saw movement in a side tunnel and just managed to catch and hold the toe grip before colliding with the person that shot out of the side tunnel. He smelled fresh cut plants and recognized Sweet Leaf as she tried to catch a toe grip and missed, tumbling into his tunnel. She squeaked in alarm.
Long Sight reached out and caught her gently, holding firm with both feet. He stopped her rotation and moved her down until she had grabbed onto the nearest toe grip. Then he let go.
Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed down the back of her cream-colored neck, and she curled herself down into a ball of embarrassment. “Many apologies, learner. I meant no offense.”
Long Sight thumped one foot. “None taken.”
Sweet Leaf uncurled, showing more of her supple cream-colored fur. Her ears perked up slightly as her large dark eyes blinked at him. “Very gracious.”
“Not at all.” Long Sight wondered what she wanted. He knew her only by reputation; she was one of the workers that tended the deep gardens. An important role in the burrow, without which they would all surely starve.
“May I ask a question?” Sweet Leaf asked.
“You just did,” he replied. Sweet Leaf’s ears sank back toward her neck again. Long Sight thumped his foot again. “I meant that only in jest. Please, what is your question?”
“Word spreads that we reach Emberland today. Is this true?”
Long Sight whistled through his teeth. How little any of the people understood the basic principles of this worldlet! From the time they departed they had known exactly when this moment would arrive, it could not have come any sooner or any later, and yet they didn’t understand.
“Yes,” he answered. “As the data screens in every burrow have said since we departed.”
Sweet Leaf’s ears perked up a bit more. “Is it possible, that is, could you show me?”
Long Sight went very still as if the shadow of a hawk had passed overhead. “Show you?”
Sweet Leaf twitched an ear at the tunnel leading to the telescope dome. “I wish to see it myself. Watching it on the screens, well, we could still be at home safe in our burrow and see the same thing. I want to see it for myself.”
Impressive, but then workers did venture out of the burrows even at home. Still, best to check. “You realize the dome sits on the surface of our worldlet, a thin shell of material to contain the air.”
“Yes, I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ve never been up there. We flew from home in the vessel without windows and entered straight into the worldlet burrow. I want to see the outside.”
“Very well. Come with me.” Long Sight kicked off his toe grips, twisting to the side as he flew past Sweet Leaf. The smell of fresh cut plants made him suddenly long for home. He imagined burying his nose in the fur at her neck, but immediately dismissed the idea. She belonged to the worker caste; he was a learner. Quite an unlikely combination.
He sailed along the tunnel and his ears easily picked up her soft panting behind him as they moved. It didn’t take long to reach the end of the tunnel. With practiced ease Long Sight caught and held onto the last toe grip at the mouth of the tunnel just long enough to rotate around and then he let go to sail through the air right to the viewing platform. He caught the railing, and turned himself around to watch Sweet Leaf’s emergence. She stopped at the mouth of the burrow, just a hint of movement in the shadows. Carefully she stepped out onto one of the toe grips around the entrance and stretched to her full slender length. Her head snapped around as she scanned her surroundings and the dome above. Instinctual behavior, Long Sight observed. Checking for hawks or other predators. Even now the residents of the burrows showed such behaviors and few felt comfortable exposed on the surface, despite the fact that the predator populations had dwindled to those living on a few protected preserves.
“It’s bigger than I expected,” Sweet Leaf said, without moving from her spot by the entrance.
“Don’t you want to see the world ahead?” Long Sight twitched his ears at the telescope. “You’ll have to come up here.”
“Is it safe?” she asked.
Long Sight raised his ears. “As safe as anything.”
Evidently accepting his answer, Sweet Leaf moved along the surface from one toe grip to the next, following the path to the ring surrounding the telescope. She glided from there up onto the platform. She didn’t cower the way some might. Long Sight twitched his ears at the screens mounted along the platform.
“There it is, Emberland.”
She leaned forward and sniffed as she took in the screens. Long Sight tried to see it the way a worker might. What did she make of the mountainous region now on the screen? Did she realize that several of those mountains were taller than any similar peaks back home? The upper reaches were white in spots with glaciers, but not sheathed in ice the way peaks of this size back home. The view slowly moved as they approached. At this point, Emberland was slowing them down with its gravity. Long Sight already knew that their worldlet had arrived right on target so that Emberland’s gravity would bend their course right around the world. A little less velocity and they could have gone into orbit around Emberland. How he longed for that! But that was not the mission. Instead they would pick up speed as they swung around Emberland and end up propelled back toward home. Their larger world would slow the worldlet into a stable orbit. In theory the wings could be extended to accelerate the worldlet once again and return to Emberland, but Long Sight feared that it might never happen.
“What’s it like?” Sweet Leaf asked, speaking directly to his fears.
There was no point in denying the evidence of their own eyes. “Very dry. An active, interesting world in its own right but it lacks the complex water cycle of home. Most of the water seems to be frozen at the poles, or underground. I’ve seen evidence that some volcanic activity continues, which at times releases water onto the surface but it soon evaporates in the thin atmosphere.”
“Are there plants?”
Long Sight’s ears drooped. “Not that I’ve seen. It’s possible, maybe even likely, given the presence of water and volcanic activity that there are microscopic plants and other organisms on the planet.”
“But we aren’t going to find warm fields or nut grasses?”
“No, those would not survive under the current conditions. It is likely that conditions were more hospitable in the past. Unfortunately, we may never know unless we put toes to ground.”
Sweet Leaf shivered. “I can’t imagine why we would want to do that; it looks as unpleasant a place as the old stories suggested.”
“But there’s so much more we could learn,” Long Sight persisted. “If there was more vegetation in the past we might learn what happened here and help prevent droughts or other problems at home.”
Sweet Leaf leaned into him. It caught him so much by surprise that he almost lost his grip. “You learners, always wanting to figure things out.”
“Yes, well…” Long Sight trailed off as something on the screen caught his attention. “What’s that?”
Sweet Leaf’s ears drooped. “What is it now?”
Long Sight touched the screen on either side of the spot and moved his hands as if spinning a wheel. The telescope zoomed in on the image.
Sweet Leaf let out a sharp warning cry and crouched. “We’re falling!”
“No, I merely focusing the telescope.” Long Sight hit the track, and the screen flashed around the borders indicating that it had a fix.
At full magnification, the spot didn’t gain a whole lot of detail, but whatever it was it was highly reflective and cylindrical in shape, lying on the surface of Emberland. Long Sight felt his fur rising as he studied the image. That shape, whatever it was, clearly wasn’t natural. It looked almost like ice, but not quite as bright. There was a hint of red to it. Maybe dust?
Sweet Leaf uncurled slightly. “What are you doing?”
“There’s an artifact down there,” Long Sight said. “Something constructed.”
Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed tightly to her head. “That’s not possible.”
Long Sight tapped the screen and isolated the section with the structure. He initiated an enhancement program. “See for yourself.”
“That could be anything,” Sweet Leaf said.
“It’s artificial,” Long Sight persisted. “Someone built it.”
“You’re not making any sense,” she said, edging away from him.
For a second, Long Sight regretted saying anything at all, but he couldn’t hide from the truth as if it was a hawk. He would not cower in his burrow while they flew above this extraordinary burrow.
“Will you get Sharp Tongue for me? I think we have much to discuss.”
“Yes, thank you, learner.” Sweet Leaf pulled herself down the rails to the surface beneath the platform and then glided along the track to the tunnel. With a final white flick of her tail, she vanished from sight.
Long Sight shook his fur out and returned to studying the screens. He wouldn’t have long unless actions were taken to slow the worldlet and convincing Sharp Tongue to slow the worldlet? That might prove impossible.
By the time Sharp Tongue peeked out of the burrow Long Sight was ready to rip out his fur. The worldlet had already moved far enough that he could no longer use the telescope to focus on the structure on the surface. Sharp Tongue popped up onto the surface and immediately looked all around, clinging to the toe grip while nervously combing through the fur on his chest.
“There are no hawks here,” Long Sight said. “But we must take action soon.”
Sharp Tongue dropped down and crawled from one toe grip to the next until he reached the platform. He climbed with his ears plastered down to his skull. “You must come down into the burrow, learner. You’ve been up here too long.”
“What? What are you talking about? We must take immediate action and deploy the solar wings to slow the worldlet.”
Sharp Tongue clucked his tongue sharply.
Instinctively Long Sight started to duck, and his heart beat faster. He forced his ears back up and stood straighter. “The worker must not have explained the situation clearly. The telescope identified an artificial construction on the surface of Emberland. I will replay the record for you, but we must begin the process to deploy the wings.”
“No, learner. You are mistaken. There is nothing on the surface. If we deployed the wings to slow the worldlet, you would see yourself on the next orbit. There’s nothing there but craters. Emberland is well-named, a harsh and inhospitable world unsuited to the people.”
Long Sight could not believe his ears. He stepped over to the display and tapped the controls to bring back the display of the object on the surface. Instead of responding the display whistled and refused to pull up the recording.
On the screen, a storage error message appeared.
Long Sight tried again. The same result. He turned around and looked at Sharp Tongue who was still squinting his big eyes and combing nervously through his fur as if he had picked up vermin.
The truth came into Long Sight’s thoughts. “What did you do with the recording?”
“The recording needed correction since it was clearly either tampered with or flawed.”
Sharp Tongue’s ears rose. He stood to his full height. “Learner, I believe that spending so much time above the surface of the worldlet has damaged your mind. I insist that you return below. Besides, there is plenty of footage of Emberland already stored. More wastes resources.”
“It was there! A construction built by beings other than the people!”
“Impossible!” Sharp Tongue’s voice thundered. Long Sight couldn’t resist cowering back. Sharp Tongue continued in a cutting tone. “And your statement clearly demonstrates how spending time outside the burrow has damaged your thinking. Doctrine is clear on this point. Only the people have the intelligence to understand the world.”
Long Sight grabbed the railing and forced himself to rise. “The construction was there. Even without the recording, when other worldlets visit Emberland they will discover it as well.”
Sharp Tongue grabbed onto Long Sight’s toe grip. He grabbed the learner’s arms, and Long Sight felt his muscles go limp. He adverted his face. Sharp Tongue spoke with his mouth right at Long Sight’s ears.
“No more worldlets will visit this place. One trip was sufficient. And I already told you, learner, even if we did stay you would see nothing but a crater. Now. Go below.”
When the administrator released him, Long Sight fled and hated himself for it, but the instinct ran deep. He bounded from one toe grip to the next, only touching two before he reached the burrow and plunged ahead at a reckless speed. He was deep in the warm, humid air that smelled so much of the people before he came to his senses enough to slow. Ahead he smelled green growing things and drifted on into one of the large growing chambers. Sweet Leaf propelled herself out of a cluster of blue berries to catch his hands. He couldn’t stop shaking.
She guided him down to a toe grip near one of the large light clusters. The heat felt like a noonday sun on his fur. She combed through the fur on his back and hummed a soothing vibration.
Ever so slowly Long Sight’s trembling stopped, but his mind raced on ahead. It all made sense now. The way the worldlet construction was suddenly announced and rushed through. The excessive mass used. And Sharp Tongue’s insistence that only a crater existed. The administrators knew about the construction Long Sight had seen before they ever left. That was the whole point of this journey to Emberland, to destroy those others.
Long Sight trembled more. He leaned into Sweet Leaf. To prevent the people from learning that doctrine was flawed the administrators had destroyed other intelligent beings. But had they considered whether or not these other beings were like hawks, which might come circling again?
This story is the 83rd short story release, written in April 2011. A fairly short story, I enjoyed the alien perspective and the view of these timid, yet brave, aliens.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Poly Contact.