Authors: Robert L. Forward
Broken-Petal knew a good thing when he saw it, and the most important trophy from the next hunt was not the torn-up carcass of a Swift, but many overripe pods, bursting with hard little seeds. Then his problems began, for the cheela in his clan were hunters.
Hunting was not hard work. It consisted of a leisurely stroll in the country with a bunch of friends, followed by a short period of exhilarating terror and a chance to demonstrate how brave and strong one was, climaxed by an orgy of eating and lovemaking that compensated for the long trek home carrying hunks of flesh.
Farming, however, even poke-and-cover farming, was hard work, especially in the tough crust of Egg, and there was no heroism or fun involved to make up for it. And worst of all, after all that hard work, it took many, many turns before there was any food to show for the effort. Broken-Petal had to tread on the edges of quite a few before he finally saw all the hard little seeds safely tucked into holes in the crust, unhappy at the loss of the sky.
Broken-Petal moved to the next row and the next, feeling proud. This had been their third crop of petal
plants. The first crop had gone well, but there had not been enough plants for the whole clan, and they still had to forage to feed everyone. Broken-Petal had made sure that there were enough holes the next time, and his care was made easier by the cooperation of the digging crew, who now appreciated the long-term consequences of their labor.
As Broken-Petal moved between the rows, he saw a white patch in the crust. As he passed over that section of the crust, it seemed strangely hot. He moved back and forth, feeling the crust with his underside. He was bewildered. This had never happened before. As he went between the plants to check in the next row, the crust trembled underneath him. The automatic sonar sensors that he used to track his prey sprang into action and his bewilderment changed into shock. The source of the trembling was directly below him! He was scared.
“Is it a
“No. No. There is no such thing as a dragon,” he reassured himself. The old hunters used to tell tales of a tall, fire-shooting monster that came up out of the crust and stopped a cheela in his tracks by searing his outer edges with its violet-colored fire. The dragon would then fall on him from its tremendous height, smashing him like an egg sac and then absorbing him for dinner. No one had ever seen a dragon, but the large, very strong crystal bones that were found scattered in profusion over and underneath the crust certainly gave a taint of credibility to the tales, for no one knew where the dragon crystals came from.
Broken-Petal moved away from the area as the crust got hotter and hotter and the trembling from underneath continued. He was halfway back to the clan stockades when some of his rear eyes saw a spurt of bluish-white gas shoot from a crack in the crust, searing a petal of the plant overhead.
A group from the stockades met him as he approached. “It feels like a crustquake,” one said, “but it keeps on repeating in the same place.”
“It is not far,” said Many-Pods, one of the clan’s best trackers.
“You are right, Many-Pods,” Broken-Petal said. “Whatever it is, it is right in the middle of our field.”
The clan flowed carefully to the edge of the field and took turns looking down the affected row as the hot smoke and gas continued to pour from the crack. More plants were burned now.
Broken-Petal had been thinking, and when the clan had finished looking and formed to the east and west of him, he knew what he had to do.
“The smoke and hot gas are going to kill our plants,” he said. “Pretty-Egg, get back to the stockades and get everyone here fast. Even the littlest hatchling can carry a few pods. The rest of you, start picking as fast as you can. Start by going as near the smoke as your treads can take, then pick everything off those plants. Even the unripe pods will taste good after the ripe ones are gone.” Broken-Petal led the way down the row as his instructions radiated away through the crust.
“Just when things were getting better,” he thought. “The gods shall tread the edges of the proud,” the old storytellers had always said. Well, he had let himself get complacent, and the Old Ones were right.
He moved as close as he dared to the vent. The smoke was reaching high up into the atmosphere now. The heat radiating down on his dark red topside from the billowing bluish-white column was uncomfortable. Although the crust was hot, he could still get to within three plants of the vent. He paused for a moment, formed three manipulators, and started picking pods, ripping most of them away from the flesh of the plant, although some of them were near-ripe and came away easily. He stored the pods in a carrying pouch he
formed in the upper part of his body. He moved back and forth, picking pods as he went, approaching the crevasse at a distance that was mediated by the desire for food overcoming the unwillingness of his tread to move to hotter crust.
The first section of plants nearest the crevasse went quickly. Broken-Petal organized things so that the pods were dropped by the pickers at the edge of the planting, to be taken back to the stockade by the younger ones and stored away by the Old Ones. Although they moved as fast as they could, they lost many pods from the plants that were too close to the crevasse. The tedious work continued, with the laborers constantly harassed by shocks and crust dust falling on their topsides.
Soon, all were back from the field, their eating pouches sucking quietly on pods as they rested at the outskirts of the clan compound. Some of their eyes scanned the small, blue-hot hill that now grew in the middle of the devastated petal plant field, while other eyes followed the pillar of smoke that went far up into the sky until it seemed to touch the stars. The smoke went from an intensely glaring blue-white column at the base, to deep, deep red clouds far up in the cool black sky, the bottoms of the billowing red clouds tinged with a yellow glow from the crust below.
The times grew difficult. The food they had harvested lasted a long time, but the diet of immature pods was a great deal less tasty and nourishing than the steady turn after turn of feasting that they had enjoyed after they had learned about farming.
Broken-Petal tried to salvage things. There were no overripe seed pods from the recent crop, so he sent out a team to forage in the far regions for more, while he had the rest gouge holes in the crust away from the towering column of smoke. After much labor, the
holes were ready, but the hunting party returned empty-handed.
Broken-Petal knew better than to berate them. In times like these, a successful hunting party had its pick of love partners, while these would only have each other for many, many turns.
“What was the problem?” he asked.
See-High spoke for them. “We saw many hunting parties that were doing what we were doing, out gathering every pod and hunting every animal they could find, even the almost worthless Tiny Shell.”
He went on. “We went as far as we could before our own food ran out. It was the same everywhere. Everyone was so busy hunting that there was no fighting. We thought about attacking one of the other groups, but it was obvious from their thinness that they were carrying very little in their pouches in the way of catch, and were as bad off as we were. We even attempted to talk with some of them using long-talk. Although they don’t speak just the way we do, it was obvious from what we could make out that all the clans are afraid of the tower of smoke and the constant trembling of the crust.”
Flow-Hunter, the clan’s bravest hunter, who had been allowed to change her egg-name after her third kill of a Flow Slow, interrupted with a laugh. “Some of them think that the tower of smoke is from the fire of a dragon, and the trembling is the dragon moving over the crust to get them! All of them are talking about leaving, saying the place has become taboo.”
Then Broken-Petal had a flash of inspiration born out of the natural instincts that had made him Leader of the Clan. “If every clan is out hunting and stripping the crust bare of food,” he said, “we will go where they don’t go.”
He spoke to the hunting party. “Go eat and load up
with food. With the next turn you are going out hunting again, only this time you are to go southward—in the hard direction.”
There was a shuffle of discontent from the group. They had been expecting to be sent out again in an attempt to redeem themselves, but to be sent in one of the hard directions sounded like punishment. No one ever went in the hard direction unless he had to—not even the powerful Flow Slow. See-High started to object, but Broken-Petal tapped him to silence with a sharp ripple from his tread. His tread started again, softer this time, and the encouraging words rippled through the crust to vibrate against the treads of the hunting party.
“I’m not angry with you, and I know that to travel in the hard direction means that you will move so slowly that you will still be within sight after three turns,” he said. “Think—every clan we know is east or west of us, and we all go back and forth over the same territory, stripping it bare. If you go in the hard direction far enough, you may find land where there are fewer clans and more food. Now, eat and go!”
Long before the turn was complete, the hunting party was ready to leave. Broken-Petal gave them last instructions. “Go neither east nor west until you can see mature petal plants; then you can go off to examine them to see if there are any seed pods. If not—continue south until you do. But don’t go beyond your food supplies. I want you back.” His tread rippled with wry humor. “After all, there are two directions that are hard going, and if you don’t find anything in one direction, you could always try the other one.”
With a rumble of bitter humor, the hunting party pushed off toward the south. After a half a turn, they were out of reach of short-talk, but still were visible as figures halfway to the horizon. After three turns they
disappeared over the horizon and the rest turned to their chores—and waiting.
See-High pushed slowly into the springy air. The most difficult part about traveling in the hard direction was that his body kept trying to slip to one side or the other. If he didn’t hurry, but kept sliding a thin edge into the hard direction, then expanding it to make a crack that he could flow into, the going was steady. It was like going into a wind, but different. The wind kept pushing on him even when he was still, but the only force he felt from moving in the hard direction was the force he himself made when he attempted to move in that direction. If he stood still, for a while he could still feel the pressure, but then it slowly penetrated his body until he finally felt nothing—until he tried to move again.
See-High looked around and saw the rest of the party slowly struggling their way along. Ahead of him was Flow-Hunter, one of his favorite fun partners. Although he was leader of the hunting party and shouldn’t be doing such things while they were on a hunt, the slow grind of pushing into the slippery air had made him bored. He pushed even harder and in a little while was right behind Flow-Hunter. He tickled her trailing edge. “What are you planning at break period?” he whispered, the electronic waves of his whisper tingling her multihued skin.
“Stop that!” Flow-Hunter protested. “It is hard enough pushing through this slippery stuff without being tickled from behind. Get back or I won’t be doing anything with you for many turns, much less during break period.”
See-High persisted. He flowed forward, both above and below the trailing edge of Flow-Hunter, giving her friendly squeezes as she tried to ripple him off. She
pushed forward harder to get away from him. Although normally she could out-distance him, See-High found that he kept right up to Flow-Hunter with almost no effort. Suddenly he stopped playing around and tapped her to a stop. “I had no trouble at all keeping up with you,” he said in amazement. “There you were, pushing away in the hard direction and I felt as if I were going east or west! Why?”
After a little bit of experimentation (and many giggles and slaps) they found that, once a gap was opened by a pathbreaker, the gap would remain open as long as she kept moving. Then if someone else stayed right on her trailing edge, very little extra effort was needed for him to move forward. As See-High had found, it was like moving in the easy direction (except for the pathbreaker, of course).
Before long, the hunting party was rearranged in a line. The head of the line worked at top effort as long as possible, then dropped to the side to let a fresh pathbreaker move ahead, while the tired one dropped into the end of the line and strolled along, cuddled up to the friendly trailing edge of someone of the opposite sex. The hunting party pushed forward at rapidly increased speed, with no breaks needed except when the two mismatched males got tired of being in on only half the fun and insisted upon being between two females.
They soon reached lands where there were fewer and fewer hunting parties and, after many turns, came to a region where mature petal plants could be found with pods still on them. It was not long before they had not only plenty of ripe pods for food, but also more than enough seed pods, bursting with little hard seeds. They stuffed pods and seeds into carrying pouches until the pouch orifices in their skins bulged out painfully.
The way back was rougher, for their bulky thickness
caused by the load of pods and seeds made it necessary to open a wider gap in the hard direction before they could move through it. Their thickness also made them obvious targets for attack. Their new technique for moving in the hard direction saved them from being overcome by a large war party from a neighboring clan, but it cost them See-High, who was at the end of the column when the war party rushed at them from ambush out of the east as they went by. They were going to turn and attack, but See-High ordered them to continue while he kept the attackers at bay long enough for them to escape.
Broken-Petal eventually saw a thicker but shorter column of hunters show up over the horizon. At first he was bewildered by the shape and speed of the moving cluster of cheela. From a distance, they looked like a strange new type of Flow Slow, except that a Flow Slow was too lazy to move in the hard direction. He started to call an alarm, but it soon was obvious that that unusual motion of the head of the monster was the peculiar heave of Flow-Hunter as she pushed her way along.