Authors: Robert L. Forward
Pierre floated nearer and watched over Jean’s shoulder as she had the computer rotate the image of the star slowly on the screen. The hot smoke patterns were in white, the magnetic field lines in blue, and the Coriolis and gravity forces in green.
“It looks like the weather patterns on the Earth,” Pierre commented, his fingertips resting on her shoulder to help him keep station.
“Yes,” Jean said. “The smoke travels mostly east-west
from the volcano because it is easier for it to travel along the magnetic field lines than across them. But when the smoke reaches the magnetic poles, the easy direction is into the ground, so the smoke piles up into a big crescent with the volcano in the middle. There is some leakage at the poles though.”
“Why is the leakage staying in a belt north of the equator?” asked Pierre, “I can understand that the smoke leakage from the east pole would stay in the north spin hemisphere since it is above the spin equator, but why doesn’t the smoke leaking from the west pole contaminate the atmosphere in the southern hemisphere?”
Jean spoke toward the console, “West pole view!”
They watched as the image rotated to the view over the west pole and stopped. Jean pointed to the screen, “It happens that one of the stronger sub-poles of the chaotic west polar region happens to lie along the same magnetic longitude as the volcano, and it also happens to be above the spin equator. That sub-pole has blocked off that longitude, keeping all the smoke trapped in the northern hemisphere. The leakage from the west pole, combined with the leakage from the east pole, forms the intense smoke belt just north of the spin equator.”
Smoky-Sky looked up and worried. The sky was now nearly always full of smoke. When it was time to name him shortly after he had left the egg, the Old Ones in charge of the hatching pens had thought a smoky sky so unusual that they had given him that name. Now—many, many turns later—here he was, Leader of the Clan, and haunted by his own name.
The crops from the petal plants had been getting worse and worse. The nearly constant cloud cover overhead seemed to suffocate the plants. It was time to
move. But could they go far enough to escape the ever-present smoke?
“I had better move slowly,” Smoky-Sky said to himself. “No use running from a Flow Slow right into the maw of a Swift.”
He moved to the clear place between the stockades and the field of plants and t’trumed a call for the clan to gather. Soon all but the guards and the hatchlings were arranged in arcs to the east and west of him.
Smoky-Sky spoke. “The times are not good. We will have to move where the sky is not so smoky and the petal plants can grow. It will be a long journey, so we must have much food to carry. Blue-Flow, you are to take a hunting party and look for a better place for us. I think it will be far from here, so take as many pods as you can carry, for you will not be back for many turns. Remember the words of our ancient Aged Ones—‘Go in a direction others do not go.’ ”
Blue-Flow moved off to one side, followed by a crowd of younger warriors eager for adventure. He picked a small group and led them off to the pod bin to load up on food. Smoky-Sky watched, musing, “He will be a good leader. He has picked the ones with stamina, even if they are not the best hunters. More importantly, since it will be a long journey, he has an equal number of both sexes.”
Smoky-Sky turned to the crowd and said, “I don’t know how many turns it will be before the hunting party comes back, but when they do, I want the pod bin filled to the walls. The petal plants are not growing many pods, so we will just have to plant more of them.” Amid a shuffle of groans, Smoky-Sky pushed his way to the tool bin, picked up a sharp shard of dragon crystal, and set off to the field to start poking holes in the hard crust, knowing that the best way to get people working on a long hard task was for the leader to start in first.
Blue-Flow looked over his group. They were all well
bulked out with pods tucked away in their storage pouches. “Let’s go,” he said, and started to push his way southward in the hard direction, the others snuggled up to him in single file. After a turn of hard travel, they finally passed over the horizon and were on their own.
For many, many turns the hunting party moved along, the sky overhead still smoky. Finally, Shaking-Crust remarked during a pod break, “I think that the smoke is even worse here than back at home.”
They could not all agree then, but after a few more turns of travel it was very obvious to all of them that conditions were worse here. The smoke filled the sky, and the crust was covered with sickly red-yellow ash that chilled their treads as they flowed over it. There was some talk of going back, but Blue-Flow would have none of that. This was his first trial as a leader of a hunting party and he would not come back with pods still pouched in his body.
Blue-Flow drove them on, always moving in the hard direction. The difficult grind of pushing ahead, with the poor grip that the ashes gave to their treads, took all the fun out of the expedition. But something else was happening that added to their discomfort—they were becoming lost!
It was not for many turns that one of them mentioned what they had all been feeling. “This land bothers me,” said Final-Pod. “I feel that I am lost all the time. Yet I know right where I am. I can see the cliff over there that we passed a few turns ago, so logically I know that I could make my way right back to the clan with no problem, just by going in the hard direction in the opposite way we have been going—but I still feel lost.”
They all agreed. Logically they knew they were not lost—but they definitely felt as if they were.
“Let us move on,” Blue-Flow said, pushing off again.
But the further they went, the worse they felt and the darker the sky became. Then the pods began to run low.
At the next break Shaking-Crust spoke up for all of them, “I think we should turn back, Blue-Flow. The land and the sky just get worse and worse the further we go. Perhaps the instructions of the ancient Aged Ones are no longer correct.”
Blue-Flow countered, “If we tell the clan to go back in the direction that we came from, they will just get closer to the volcano. If we have them go east or west, we know they will run into the other clans that are fleeing the volcano. If they stay where they are, the smoke will kill the petal plants and we will all starve. Our only hope is in this direction. We must keep going as long as we can.”
Shaking-Crust said, “You may go on if you like. I’m going back.”
Blue-Flow had been expecting something like this for a long time and was ready for it, but he had never expected rebellion from his favorite playmate. Without warning, he was on top of her, drubbing her brain-knot soundly with his tread and knocking her out before she had a chance to move. Still on top of the unconscious body, he whispered, “Does anyone else want to challenge me?”
No one moved as he flowed off Shaking-Crust, who was starting to recover from her sonically induced shock. As her senses cleared, she heard Blue-Flow talking.
“I don’t think you realize how serious things are. The volcano is poisoning all the Crust that it can reach. The only hope for the clan is for us to find a place where we can survive. If we do not, the clan will die, the hatchlings first.” This last was a telling blow. For although the cheela were not attached to a specific hatchling, and no female could even remember which egg she
had put into the hatchery unless it had some distinctive marking, they were all very attached to the little hatchlings, who lived a spoiled life until they were old enough to go to work. The thought of hatchlings dying was enough to eliminate any thought of quitting.
Many turns later Blue-Flow was really worried. They were way past their food supply limit. It would be a weak and thin party of cheela that came back to the clan—if they made it back. The feeling of being lost had become worse. At the next break he was almost ready to quit. But first he decided to have a better look ahead. He took the longest dragon crystal spear that they had and poked its sharp end down into the crust. It stood far up into the sky, many times higher than he could ever lift an eye on one of his own flimsy eye-stubs. When the others saw what he was doing, they gathered in a circle around him and applied pressure on his edges. He formed a thick pseudopod with one of his eye-stubs at the end and flowed it up along the shaft of the dragon crystal spear until his eye was perched on top of the spear. The sky looked smoky right to the horizon …
“I see a star!” he shouted, and his pseudopod flowed back down so quickly that they were all rippled by the energy regained from its fall. “The sky is still smoky, but it must be thinner because I can see a star through it. The star was right on the horizon.”
Shaking-Crust insisted on seeing it, too; after much effort, she soon had one eye perched on top of the spear. The star was almost exactly in the hard direction, and right on the horizon. Shaking-Crust was almost positive that it was brighter than any star she had ever seen, but without any other stars visible to compare it with, she was not sure.
Great-Crack and some of the others wanted a look too, but Blue-Flow stopped the sight-seeing. “It takes
as much energy to put an eye on top of the spear as it does to travel a few turns where we can all see it from eye level. Let’s get moving!”
With something to aim for, spirit returned to the column; for the first time in many turns, they made good time over the ashen land. Soon the star appeared above the horizon, and as it did, the feeling of being lost began to decrease. By silent agreement, the rest breaks were short and they pushed on.
Soon Blue-Flow noticed that there were short breaks in the intense cover of smoke. After a few more turns of travel, the ashes on the crust stopped being a hindrance to travel. Soon other stars were visible, strange ones that they had never seen before. But the strangest one of all was the intensely bright reddish yellow one that hung motionless in the southern sky from turn to turn, while all the others whirled about it like a cloud of minor deities paying homage to a god.
It was an awe-inspiring experience for them all as they moved forward out of the smoky hell in back of them into a new land, free from smoke and ash, and with untouched petal plants growing in delicious profusion all about them. There were plenty of game signs, and soon they were all enjoying the meat of a Slink, interspersed with delicious, perfectly ripe pods.
“There are plenty of game signs, but no sign of a single other cheela,” said Shaking-Crust. “The game was not particularly afraid of us. It is as if they had never been hunted before.”
“This place sounds like an Old One’s stories of heaven,” Great-Crack said.
“I guess we should call it Heaven,” Blue-Flow agreed. “Bright’s Heaven. For Bright, the God Star, rules over it all, and its bright glare keeps the smoke from coming over the horizon. Let us load up with food and head back over the ‘lost’ region to tell the
clan the good news. We have been gone so long, they probably think we are dead.”
Pierre turned from the display on his console and called over to Jean, who was operating the Lyman-alpha telescope at another console. “I was trying to think if the weather would be any different on Earth if the magnetic field of the Earth were east-west instead of nearly north-south.”
“No,” Jean said. “The Earth’s magnetic field is too weak to affect the atmosphere on Earth as it does here.”
Pierre laughed, and Jean looked at him quizzically. “I just realized that the only real effect of an east-west magnetic field on Earth would be on homing pigeons. Homing pigeons use a combination of the earth’s north-south magnetic field and the east-west Coriolis spin forces for homing. They would feel completely lost if the magnetic field lines and the Coriolis force lines were in the same direction—as they are along the spin equator here. That would be even worse than the fact that the directional sense of a homing pigeon gets turned around when the pigeon is released in the southern hemisphere after being trained in the northern hemisphere.”
Pierre turned back and spoke at the console:
“Store that sequence!
“Continue monitoring volcanic lava flow pattern on Priority Two basis!”
He turned to Jean, “Well, the main console is all yours. I’m going to get some food, write a little, then head for bed. See you next shift.”
Jean pulled herself into the main console seat, quickly checked all the settings, and carefully buckled herself in. “What are you writing now?”
Pierre stopped himself at the hole in the deck and
replied, “It’s a physics text for the ten-to-fourteen age bracket. According to the communication flashes from the publisher, I made such a hit writing scan-books about science and space for the eight-to-twelve age group on the way out to Dragon’s Egg that I actually have fan clubs. Do you realize that when I get back from this trip two years from now I am going to be getting more in royalties from children’s books than I will in salary for being a space scientist?”
“Well, none of us are jealous—much!” Jean said. “We all realize that every kid you make enthusiastic about space science is going to be a voting taxpayer after we return, and we should come back to Dragon’s Egg with a follow-up expedition before it leaves the Solar System.”
“I’m sure the World Space Administration agrees with you. They even gave my publisher a special rate on the cost of transmitting my manuscripts back.” He turned and pushed himself down the passageway.
Great-Crack was a pack rat. Although one of the better hunters in the clan, with two Flow Slow kills to her credit, she was the constant butt of jokes from her hunting mates because of her habit of picking up and carrying anything she found that looked interesting—and because of her highly developed sense of curiosity, practically everything looked interesting to her.
When it came time for the hunting party to load up with ripe pods for the long journey back to the clan, Great-Crack had to unpouch her trinkets so she could load up her pouches with pods. She went over to a shallow depression in the crust; amid ribald calls of “What are you doing? Laying three eggs at once?”, followed by “No, just one, but it’s the size of a Flow Slow!”, she dumped her precious pile of odds and ends,
with the heavier ones around the pile in a low wall that she hoped would protect them from the constant winds. With luck, she would be able to pick them up again when they returned with the clan.