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Chapter 0

Dance of Life

          Ki Que-Na banked left against the onrush of drenched rising air, as she and the other reys in her tribe spiraled upward through the surging cumulonimbus storm tower, riding aloft a powerful updraft into an uncertain future. The supercooled, saturated wetness was easily shed by Ki's slick hide as she rose through the torrent. Her left wing was still sore from an encounter with a rogue eddy during the previous passage – the reys' cyclic journey down and back up through the multilayered clouds – but there was no time to dwell on this now. Instead Ki felt the usual rush from the intense concentration required to navigate a water cyclone.
          A male rey darted directly in front of Ki, startling her, then began to execute a trick roll. Pi Lu-Chi?? Ki groaned inwardly. If Pi thinks this is going to impress me, he must be even more immature than I imagined! Ki and Pi were about the same age, and had been close playmates as youngsters. A sudden flash of lightning strobed overhead, quickly followed by a reverberating din of thunder, even as the tribe veered collectively to avoid a downdraft and accompanying shaft of killer hail. Pi briefly lost focus, and cartwheeled several times before regaining his orientation. In the same moment, a burst of stray hailstones ricocheted off Ki, as they too were swept by the raging wind toward the upper reaches of the storm.
          To a human eye, the scene at this depth in the clouds of the gas-giant planet Jopitar would be black as the darkest night in the deepest cave on Earth, except for the intermittent illumination provided by lightning. But Ki was unconcerned by this. Like terrestrial bats, reys could both see via light (albeit infrared in the case of reys) and navigate (even “see”) by echolocation. Ki scanned her surroundings with bursts of ultrasound, trying to locate either of her parents, or her dear friend Trah. Yet it was difficult to distinguish one rey from another in the noisy tumult. She did discern a child struggling nearby to keep up with its mother. However, this was no time for trilling encouragement, or coming to the pup's aid.
          Despite the danger, Ki realized that this was her favorite part of the passage. No sooner did she have this thought, than a chaotic wind gust slammed into her, sending Ki into a wild wobble before she could reestablish a suitable trim. It didn't occur to her how strange it was that more reys weren't routinely killed during an ascent. How many creatures on how many worlds could intentionally enter the belly of a thunderstorm, and live to tell of it? But Ki was young, and invincible.
          Pi must have been embarrassed by his earlier performance, Ki thought, for now he was nowhere to be seen. Maybe there was hope for him after all. Still, she didn’t particularly mind that he was gone. Why couldn’t he just …
          The overall formation of reys was more ragged than before, but still held together as the tribe soared upward through the tempest. The reys moved nearly as one, connected by echoing ultrasound. Ki lived again in the eternal now, as she dealt with the turbulent currents and abrupt course shifts. A magnificent bolt of lightning arced below her, and Ki peered down through ragged holes in the seething clouds. Forever upward she and the others spiraled, in the rey dance of life.

          Eventually the updraft would weaken and the clouds brighten, as the tribe approached the icy top of a thunderhead and light from holy Coel penetrated from the emptiness that lay above. Then the reys would look for an appropriate break to roll out, into open air – and the great falling that lay beyond.