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Chapter 1

A tribe of reys in V-formation, gliding down from the orange cloud tops of planet Jopitar, illuminated from the left by a setting sun, two crescent moons visible in the background

Sunset

Mother wind, you lift me up
into the expanding dome of night,
to lay my prow on silken moon
and suckle on her milken light.

          The reys rested as they glided swiftly down from the high point of the passage, arcing eastward into a sinking wedge of atmosphere bordering the dying storm cluster that had raised them up from the depths. Wave after wave of V-shaped formations swept across the salmon sky, as the winged creatures plunged through the lean and frigid hydrogenous air. Overhead, a mottled cloud cover of lofty ammonia cirrus was weakly illuminated by a partially obscured and distant sun, setting rapidly in the west.

Skysong fills my riddled soul
with rhythms of the night and day.
Chesheer crescents loft again
to chase my colic with their sway.

          Na Ki-Sha stirred from a brief and restless slumber, abandoning any further effort to sleep. Shivering in the cold dim light, he wistfully watched the darkening hues of swirling infrared, as the tribe sank through a flat cloud layer of ammonium hydrosulfide ice crystals. He could scarcely remember the time as a young child when he had witnessed a clear, unobstructed vision of Soel – the blinding Goddess of Light, one of the most sacred manifestations of the world-spirit Maddee – with his own eyes. It had been at the apex of a towering passage, the highest he could recall. A trio of slender crescent escorts, hanging motionless in an ultra sky, had attended Her.
          An even older memory flickered in Na’s mind. He must have been dreaming of a lofty night summit when he was yet an infant. On that singular occasion Na had beheld Luun, another beloved aspect of Maddee. Her soft, full face had reached out and touched Na's soul.

Father storm, pray thrust me bold
on firebolt wings through hail and cold,
to reclaim tattered dreams of youth
and taste your glorious solitude.

          Na caught a final glimpse of the vacuous expanse overhead, through an ephemeral break in the clouds. He also spotted the silhouette of an impressive cumulonimbus storm tower far back to the west. The tribal elders had chosen to follow a particularly shallow course, and to mount a much smaller, gentler storm during the preceding passage. This had become all too routine. Innumerable cycles (passages) had passed since the tribe had probed deep into the atmosphere and attempted a great storm, which could propel them to the highest cloud tops, and facilitate soaring or riding the currents into a different sector of the regional circulation. The local manna had thinned to anemic levels, and the tribe had grown weak. Few young were being birthed, and those seldom survived a single passage. Lethargy and a sense of futility possessed the tribe. The elders refused to acknowledge that it might even be time to seek out a totally new complex of the mighty rivers of fire. Spawned by gigantic convective plumes that mushroomed up from the depths of their world, these systems dominated the currents on which the reys and other Jopian life depended.

Rare air draws my breath awry –
the restless press of emptiness,
where ought meets naught in a winter sky
of white on black, of black on white.

          Why were the elders so timid? Could they not see that their decisions only weakened the tribe further, in a vicious cycle? Trying to forget the cold, Na twisted his gaze toward his lone daughter Ki Que-Na, soaring some distance to the right. So serene, so beautiful he thought paternally. Her soft grey hide nearly shone in the failing light. A proud cerebral hump sloped up from the back of her perfect, flattened conical body, tapered at the rear to form a graceful yet powerful tail. Two great rounded, billowy wings, expertly trimmed and angled even as she slept, extended from either side of her frame. Protected under Ki's wings were the long, furrowed folds of rey female reproductive organs, which Na fantasized would someday renew the tribe, or even spawn a new one. Ki was a survivor, the sole offspring of Na and his one mate, Que. In normal times, to have a single mate and but one child at his age of nearly 1,800 cycles would have been highly unusual. But these were not normal times.

Fleecy clouds fly fast away –
feckless refuge from the night without.
Void gapes open beneath my breast,
plunging into endless doubt.

          Chill air blew incessantly across Na's prow. Things cannot continue as they are, he fretted. Could Ki be the one foretold? She will rise down through the eye of the great storm, to spawn a new tribe. Storytellers of previous generations had passed down an ancient prophecy of a queen rey who would emerge when the tribe faced extinction. Na knew that his daughter was the One. Or, he wanted to know. How could he know what was unknowable? In spite of a desperate craving to be certain of something, and contrary to the teachings of the elders, Na knew in his heart that he could be absolutely certain of nothing – not even his own uncertainty. His very life screamed this truth.

Black mist insinuates my skin
as shadows threaten from within –
a nameless fear, cloaked in shame
that I be abandoned yet again.