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Chapter 2

Gas-giant planet Jopitar in crescent phase, facing downward

Dark Passage

The night is empty
Pity the sleepless ego
Lost in round despair

          The planet Jopitar is an upside-down world from the perspective of an Earth-dweller. Because it is a gas giant, the planet has no accessible solid surface. The reys consequently more often think of vertical location in terms of depth rather than altitude. Their natural reference level is the roof of the troposphere, or active weather layer, marked by the tops of ordinary ammonia ice clouds. Yet the reys do not know any distance scale analogous to "kilometers" or "miles." They instead gauge depth by sensing pressure, and to a lesser extent temperature. Both rose inexorably as the tribe sank ever deeper into the bottomless soup that was its home.
          Na thought groggily back to the moments of near freefall after his tribe had tumbled out of the head of their latest storm. Surely it was at least one coile (a rey "hour") earlier. Only nine more coiles to go, he thought sarcastically, until they at last reached tepid air, and the other reys awoke. Maddee, how he hated when he couldn't sleep.
          The cloud peaks were supposed to mark a new beginning – the first quad of a fresh passage; the welcome start of a long, swift glide into a neighboring storm-free region. But there had been precious little time for celebration or any kind of cavorting in the clear, pristine air above the main cloud deck. Na realized now that the past storm must have been weaker than he originally thought, and had failed even to penetrate the upper tropospheric circulation. That hallowed realm lay beyond the range of all complex life forms save the reys, who could ride the strongest storms through the highest ammonia cirrus. How long had it been since the tribe last kissed the roof of their world? The previous tempest was only 60% as tall as the storm towers that could lift them to such magnificent heights; the tribe had fallen short yet again.
          The first quad normally commenced with a brief but intense round of mating. How could that happen now, Na brooded? Recent storms offered so little time above the clouds, and his fellow reys were so weak with hunger. They could barely tolerate the cold air anymore. Matings had become less and less frequent since the manna began thinning. Na could only wistfully dream of the last time, so long ago, that he had mated with Que. Ki was the happy result of that joining.
          The reys dropped through layer after layer of broken stratus cloud. Na could distinguish the layers by their smell and feel. The frozen hydrosulfide fog soon mixed with mists of stinging water ice. A tinkle of shattering ice periodically broke the monotonous sound of rushing air, as a sleeping rey unconsciously shook loose an accumulating sheath. The icy vapors eventually blended with heavy clouds of ammonia-bearing liquid water.
          Time staggered by for a tired and lonely Na. The clouds tasted more bitter than usual. Was he awake or asleep? Logic fell in and out of place. Occasionally he dozed, and dreams of rich manna intermingled with the reality of the hungry night that now engulfed them.
          But time did inevitably pass. One day blended with the next, boundaries meaningless in the dark depths. While reys do experience day and night at the cloud tops, they do not know in advance when it will be one or the other. They consequently have no concept of a suolar day (referring to Suol, the local sun), which is only about eight coiles (ten human hours) long. Reys gauge long stretches of time in a comparatively imprecise manner, in terms of the cyclic passage, which averages roughly 17 local days, and is split into four irregular quads.
          By the end of the first quad, Na's tribe had glided a broad reach toward the east, deep into a comparatively calm province. The reys had fallen ten percent that span in the process, more than one third of the way to the bottom of their vertical range. The rate of descent had slackened, to human walking speed (downward) in the much-thickened air. Na stretched and rippled his stiff wings, relishing the growing heat. The temperature now approached the boiling point of water, still cool by rey standards, but balmy enough that the other reys began to waken, one by one. The V-shaped flying formations morphed into a huge cylindrical pattern, within which most of the reys spiraled gracefully downward.
          A few youngsters began to playfully dance and flit about within the overall arrangement. Na could hear one of them counting turnes, the time for the cylindrical rey formation to complete one rotation. Almost one human minute long, there were nominally 81 turnes in a coile. A young female was trying to count the 81 fliqs (rey "seconds") in each turne, but having trouble. She will learn, Na thought. He recalled counting both turnes and fliqs out loud as a child. Na still counted turnes, but silently now, without any conscious effort. He had developed a good sense for the duration of a fliq by adulthood, although he didn't automatically count them.
          Though he did not feel rested, Na was relieved that the first quad was coming to an end. He looked forward to the second quad – a period of safety and calm when the reys could socialize, plan for the future, give birth, and educate their young. It typically lasted some 25 coiles. Perhaps social interactions and activities would lift him out of his funk.

Sweet awakening
The sight of friendly faces
Breaks the night's embrace

          "Blessed falling," Na hailed his daughter as she awoke, shaking off sleep with a tremulous shudder.
          "Why father," Ki responded, "I should have known you would yet play my keeper. Am I forever doomed to awaken to your sweet voice?" Na felt the combined indignation and affection in the undulations of her voice. Ki's cool independence disturbed him at times.
          Unlike at the cloud tops, Na now mainly saw his daughter not by infrared light, but high-frequency sound. Reys could emit bursts of ultrasound from a bellon – a versatile organ at the center of the rey "face." Echoes were imaged by a pair of large, deep-set acoustic eyes on either side of the bellon, just below and between the (much smaller) infrared eyes. The acoustic eyes also functioned passively, to visualize objects lit by ultrasound from extraneous sources (in particular, other reys). In addition to four primary acoustic colors, reys perceived three primary infrared colors with their optical eyes. A colorful world indeed!
          Using a specialized channel of the acoustic visual system, Na flashed to Ki an image of the distant storm tower he had seen at the cloud tops, followed by a series of commentative pictograms. Ki studied the sequence thoughtfully before responding. "That looks like quite a storm. Though I do wish you would try sleeping next time around."
          Na and Ki conversed using an exotic combination of ordinary auditory speech and visual speech. The former consisted of modulated low-frequency sound, also produced by the bellon, and detected by a pair of ear-like receptors on opposite sides of the cerebral hump just behind the acoustic eyes. Unlike auditory speech, visual speech required some degree of face-to-face contact. A staccato series of high-frequency sound pulses was beamed from one rey to another, who would "read" the flashing pattern visually. The content could include simple pictograms, more abstract logograms, and shaped images.
          Ki caught sight of Pi Lu-Chi and another sleek young male approaching mischievously from below. Mature male reys were easily distinguished from females by their smaller bulk and more streamlined body shape. The robust female frame was more adapted for strength and endurance, to carry young through the trials of the passage. Ki did not let herself appear particularly impressed with either Pi or his companion. Instead she dove to the right to avoid them, flatly calling "Catch me if you can" over her left wing.
          Pi and the other rebuffed male soared to a position just beyond Na's right wing tip. "Your fine daughter confounds me, Na! She and the other females lately seem so dissatisfied, so unreceptive to my brothers and me. I fear we will all grow old and stale."
          "My dear young Pi," retorted Na, "you have so little patience. Seek out Ki at the cloud tops; there, she may surprise you."
          "Ah Na, but that is the problem, isn't it. The passages have been so starved and shallow, there is no energy or time for joy at the summits." Both males fell silent, melancholy once again.

          Ki had retracted her wings close to her body, and plunged through the vacated central core of the tribe. Most of its 257 members were awake now, exchanging greetings as they stretched and cast off the vestiges of sleep. As Ki passed the corps of elders, she slowed and reluctantly flashed her wing tips, then dove again. Were they really still due such respect? The tribe suffered so, under their indecisive leadership. Nearing the lower level Ki spotted her friend Trah, and abruptly unfurled her wings, nearly somersaulting in the rush of air.
          "Trah, you oversleep," admonished Ki.
          "Happy falling, Ki," she responded gently. "I was just resting. I've been a bit tired lately."
          "And no wonder," Ki replied, "how can you be expected to carry a child when the manna is so poor? We must all watch over you. I fear you are too strong for your own good. How many others have dared to bear young under these half-starved conditions?"
          "Do not worry, my dear young sister," calmed Trah, "I am yet capable. And the elders promise that the manna will be replenished soon. Has not the great Mother always provided for Her own?"
          Ki was sometimes annoyed by the naiveté of Trah, but admired her stubborn courage and warmth. "Of course," she replied with some sarcasm, "and we will all fly in the holy light of Coel next cycle! We will watch over you nonetheless. Our few young must be protected, or the tribe will diminish even further." Ki recalled how their clan had supposedly numbered an impossible 513 reys when her parents were young.
          "And why do you yet tarry?" demanded Trah peevishly, rekindling an old dispute. "Your folds are supple, you could easily add a child to our numbers, even at your tender age. You know that Pi seeks you constantly at the summits, yet you rebuff him. See how he has nourished me …" Trah gently caressed her sleeping child, protected in the folds under her wing, still clinging to the sinewy nipple at the end of its birth canal. It had as yet separated and flown solo for only a few floundering moments during the previous cycle, and then hadn't strayed more than a body length from its mother.
          "Why must you dwell on that? I just feel the time isn't right. My having a child now would only weaken the tribe, not strengthen it. Your birthing was courageous, though you know I disagreed with it. But let us not argue. Have you decided on a name for your son?"
          Trah's forehump lifted noticeably. "I will let the elders name him, on his independence." She paused. "And … you will be his second guardian?"
          "Of course," Ki gushed, "I would be honored." The prestige and the responsibility of guardianship were not trivial. Though the offer was not unexpected, its suddenness surprised Ki. "Though I expect," Ki mused, "that this is your sly way of getting me more interested in children." Trah beamed a koot – the rey acoustic equivalent of a smile – back to her friend (rey emotions are expressed primarily through sound). "Since I will now have this responsibility," Ki continued, "I must ask – when do you plan to begin the child's lessons?"
          "Probably one cycle before his independence," replied Trah proudly but thoughtfully. "That should be soon enough. I intend to use the traditional method. First simple soaring early in the fellowship period; then timing and signaling; distance and velocity sensing; temperature and pressure gauging; and of course lift and turbulence foretelling, during his first storm. I am sure he will learn quickly." Although the reys had no formal science, eons of evolution in a turbulent sea had produced an instinctive understanding of the currents. Rey brains performed awesome analog computations in turbulent hydrodynamics at a moment's notice, with no conscious effort or awareness. This innate ability was further developed by instruction during childhood, following methods passed down from one generation to the next. A mature rey could predict the appearance of a dangerous eddy far enough in advance to take precautions – at least, ninety nine percent of the time. The unexpected one percent kept life in a storm from becoming boring.
          "Good. I prefer a somewhat different order of lessons myself," Ki chirped in reply, "but your way is certainly well tried. Now, I must return and tell father the good news. You need to rest. I doubt anyone would notice if you even missed the community chorus."
          Trah's response was unfortunately predictable. "No! Do you think me a cripple? I will participate like everyone else. I enjoy it so."
          "I am sorry," soothed Ki, "but at least rest until then. Happy falling!" Ki spread her wings fully and slowly rose upward and away. As she passed the elders, she again flashed her wing tips, and wondered at their low whisperings.

          Sum, the chief elder, acknowledged Ki's passing, then turned to his comrade Quo. "You must calm yourself, or the others will hear and be alarmed."
          "Of course, you are right. But the fact remains: we have erred, and let the tribe down. The manna has not been replenished, as we promised. Our people feed now on a diet of legend and prophesy – a far cry from what our ancestors knew. We should have—"
          "Taken the great passage long ago," Sum interrupted, "as you constantly remind us. Quo, where is your faith? The Great Mother has never abandoned Her people before. Even in the olden times of the great famine, did She not at last rescue us? If we abandon Her now, fail Her latest trial, who could fault Her for turning Her face from us? Who else would lift us from the great void? Are your wings so strong, your will and commitment so deep? In any event, the situation is very different now from what it was cycles ago. The tribe is weak; most would not survive a great passage. Certainly not a great storm, nor any other misbegotten search for a new source of manna."
          "Or do you mean that none of us elders would survive?" injected Proda, a huge aging female. Proda had mothered 15 children during her long life.
          "Proda, you test us constantly," comforted Sum. "The welfare of the tribe is the sole reason for this body's existence; each elder here knows this. If the tribe does not survive, our individual lives become meaningless." It was not that the individual was considered unimportant or worthless by the reys. Within a tribal family, the individual was highly valued, and competition could be fierce. But the reys were not loners. Without a tribe, an individual rey was nothing, lost on an infinite sea of random darkness.
          Sum paused, then continued thoughtfully. "That few or none of the elders would survive a great passage is irrelevant. Together with the central issue of faith, a real problem is that a sufficient number of younger members may not survive to form an effective breeding group. My own inner vision is that they would not."
          Ye, the oldest male of the tribe, spoke up. "We must not close our eyes to the Mother! She cries at the summits that She must test Her children so, for our own good. The vision of Sum is strong. Has he not proven this time after time?"
          The group of elders was restless. The same discussion had been repeated cycle after cycle, only the inner vision of Sum became more sure, even as the sense of urgency grew. "Sum, yours is not the only vision," blurted Quo. "What is the consensus of the group?"
          A flurry of curt signals cut the air.
          "The same as last cycle," intoned Sum wearily. "As many feel we should stay the course as feel we should move on."
          "And so, our direction is set by our own blindness," uttered Proda. "Why does the Mother seek to divide us so? We must all pray to Her more than ever for guidance. And we must of course continue to maintain publicly that the manna will be replenished before long. If the rest of the tribe thought there was any chance it would not, the loss of morale could devastate whatever chance of survival remains." The elders had decided.

          At last the elder Proda moved through the ranks, calling the reys to order. The time of the community chorus had arrived. The great cylindrical formation dissolved, as the reys reordered into a flattened ellipsoid more typical of the bottom leg of the passage, through the feed layer. Elders and females carrying young gathered at the center, together with several ailing adults. These were surrounded by immature but free-flying youth, interspersed with mature but childless females. The healthy mature males formed an outer shell completely enclosing the others. Pi assumed the role of first cantor, flying backward at the front of the formation, while a young adult female took the place of second cantor at the rear end. The tribe flew straight, at a slight downward pitch.
          Pi began the chorus by reciting an ancient verse that recounted the rey creation story (roughly translated into English as free verse, to maintain the aural quality of the narrative):

In the beginning
all was void, and void was all.
Yet Mallah awoke from timeless sleep
to the sound of Her own Song.
Mallah Is that Mallah Is.
Mallah pulled Her way from formless abyss
by the Music of Her Being.
Mallah said "Let there be light,"
and the light became Mallah.
Mallah said "Let the light become all things,"
and Mallah became all things.
Fires gathered in the midst of the heavens,
and oceans bubbled up from the fiery depths.
The seas begot Her children,
at once one with Mallah,
and yet separate.

          Following tradition, Pi now referred to Maddee by the sacred name Mallah. This title emphasized the generative female aspect of Being, and its use was restricted to special occasions. The second cantor responded to Pi by chanting a related ancestral verse that portrayed Creation's eternal struggle:

The great serpent twisted from the same nothing.
Yet the serpent would swallow its own tail.
The serpent is that it is not.
The serpent stands before Mallah,
but Mallah heeds it not.
The serpent commands Her to fall,
but She rises on wings eternal,
to Sing Her Song Forever

          A group of 16 young adult males abruptly broke rank and slipped into the darkness. Heartbeats later they reemerged, flying pell-mell now toward the tribe from every direction. Mimicking an attack of ribbon serpents, the rey's only predator, they drowned the tribe in a disorienting cacophony of ultrasound. Pi responded by singing out a clipped note of aural sound back toward the rest of the tribe. Each rey joined in as the pulse passed by, matching its pitch and timbre, until it reached the second cantor. She immediately returned a modified waveform, which was again sung out by the other reys. Pi replied; and so on. Throbbing sound flowed back and forth through the tribe, uniting it, and forming a haunting, ethereal tune, a tense violin string played by the wind. The cantors were free to select and vary notes; they seldom discussed a pattern beforehand, but improvised.
          The tribe resonated with song, at one with itself. Again and again the 16 outside males mock-attacked the main group, showering it with a stupefying din. But they were successfully ignored, and finally rejoined their comrades. The music changed from its original simple format, as harmonics and short pulse trains were added. The entire formation began to slowly undulate and gyrate according to signals hidden within the symphony. Words were added, and the music transformed into a sound poem:

We rise to fall, we fall to rise;
the passage ties our ocean skies.
Through time's eternal cyclic call,
we fall to rise, we rise to fall.

          The reys sang on through the darkness, filling it with a hopeful light.

          When Na awoke a few coiles later from a short but restful nap, the tribe again flew in a great cylindrical formation, straight down into the abyss. Fortunately Na was not afflicted by acrophobia, and the sudden realization of his immediate physical situation did not disturb him as such. Yet slowly the euphoria of the chorus receded as worries over the future returned, and the open sore in his soul festered anew. He tried to fight off the perpetually recurring despair, knowing rationally that it was not helpful. But he did not believe the assurances of the elders. Their authoritative, certain manner especially irked him. Yet he would not challenge them.
          Why not? He had special difficulty dealing with conflict, more than what could be ascribed to normal tribal instincts. This was true even with his own equals, not to mention the elders. Whenever he did try to face discord with another rey, Na would feel the lightning wrath of Father storm boil up in his gut, threatening to explode in blind fury and destroy the universe. Sometimes he would actually want to be that destructive fireball, which terrified him even more. A distant memory of a childhood accident, when his right wing had been ripped open, rumbled into his consciousness. What had he been doing? Where had the others been? Such terrible power was locked inside him.
          A flurry of activity caught Na's attention far below and to the left, where a young mother was disciplining her son for a minor infraction. Na winced as she slapped and butted the boy several times. The shy youngster finally retreated a safe distance, where he flew quietly and refused to play, fearing he would do something else wrong. That one will be of no use to anyone in an unexpected storm, Na thought sadly to himself.
          All of Na's doubts, anger, feelings of impotence erupted through his hide, possessing him. The elders' decisions and actions were so utterly aimless and futile, in the face of probable extinction. Could no one else see or feel it? The tribe, his only link to Holy eternity, withered before his eyes. What was the purpose of existence? To cower before fate, hide from life's uncertainties?
          Not even Que understood. She was so distant lately. She rebuffed his every advance, and seemed to get most of her emotional support now from one of the other males. Had he been self-centered, ignoring her, even deriding her feelings and beliefs? Had he done this to punish her for her insensitivity to his own needs? For her refusal to accept him as he was? Or was it that he failed to …? Surely, it would be futile to speak with her now. Na tucked his wings, and plummeted to the bottom of the tribe. There he brooded, facing the harsh wind and speaking further to no one.

          The remainder of the second quad was dull and uneventful. Melancholy once again infected the tribe, as unrelenting hunger and an even more insidious lack of purpose reasserted themselves.

          The elders at last proclaimed the beginning of the third quad, directing the reys to regroup into V-shaped flying patterns, and begin a straight glide westward. The timing and bearing indicated the elder's intent. They had of course again chosen a shallow passage through the customary circulation. The tribe would skim along the top of the feed layer, before riding aloft a weak storm cell in about eighteen coiles. If the manna was still thin, there would be precious little time to feed, although the nadir temperatures and pressures would not be severe, and exposure to ribbon serpents should be minimal.

          Trah slipped noticeably weaker as time crawled past, her hungry child ever demanding. Ki and another large female moved closer, flying slightly ahead and on either side of her, trying to provide additional lift. Ki sought to encourage her friend. Just a little longer, Trah! Soon we will be swimming in delicious broth, I can feel it." The other rey unabashedly added, "Think of your child, if not yourself." But as the tribe at last approached the feed layer, Trah barely managed to hold her wings taut. She and her companions glided in a trance, by naked instinct.
          The tribe was quiet, tense, the anticipation almost unbearable. At this depth, 25 times lower in the atmosphere than the bottom of the most abyssal trench in Earth's oceans, the pressure approached 80 times the sea level value on Earth. The sultry air literally glowed, warm even for reys. Male scouts scanned the surroundings with their infrared eyes, though there was yet little to see, apart from other reys and a few random thermal streams. Due to a lack of shadows or other significant contrast, the tribe continued to rely on sound for mutual navigation.

A rey, searching for manna near a swirling hot spring

          "The fountains! The fountains!" called a suddenly ebullient young rey, as a group of murky, swirling hot springs appeared straight ahead, glowing brightly in infrared light. The springs had spun off a local river of fire, which was still some distance off. Reys generally steered clear of the scorching main bodies of these convective streams, but sought out the tamer associated springs. Both supported prolific colonies of chemosynthetic, photosynthetic and predatory manna microbes, which swarmed in the cooler fluid around their peripheries.
          As they approached the springs, the reys stretched open their sieve-like mouths (located near the front end of the rey underside), ready to scoop up and filter out any edible matter in their paths. Infrared eyes served them well now, as the springs were much warmer than the surrounding air.
          There! Bubbling up from the depths, a huge spring lifted skyward, beckoning the tribe on. A still-cautious Ki crooned to Trah, "It seems that you fooled us, old girl. You just might live to see Coel after all." Gathering her remaining strength for the coming feast, Trah managed to return a weak koot.
          They struck suddenly and without warning. Waiting in semi-conscious stupor near the springs, the pack of ribbon serpents had been awakened only turnes before by the faint rumble of the approaching tribe. Dispersing, and orienting their long, ultra thin bodies along the line of sight of their prey, the serpents had been virtually invisible to the tribe's scouts. Screeching a hideous, blinding cry, they now viciously attacked from all directions.
          When the disorienting blast of sound hit her, Trah lost all remaining sense of direction, and dropped like a hailstone through the tribe. Ki fought an overwhelming urge to follow, as the smaller and more maneuverable Pi dove to her friend's aid. Pi reached Trah just as the lead serpent charged. As it approached, the front of the serpent opened and expanded into a huge circular mouth, lined with dozens of backward-slanting saber teeth. Pi aimed at a sensitive spot just behind the serpent's sonic eyes, and rammed it at full speed, striking with his blunt rostrum even as the serpent reached its intended prize. Stunned, possibly even killed, the serpent reeled away, only to be replaced by another. The second serpent grasped Trah's back firmly, then savagely lashed back and forth, tearing at her flesh, and knocking the infant free. As Pi watched in horror, another serpent swallowed the infant whole, then disappeared into the dark. Trah too was by now beyond hope. Pi reluctantly returned to the perimeter of the tribe, to help ward off serpents from the main group.
          The attack ended as abruptly as it had begun. Three other reys – one childless female and two defending males – had been taken in addition to Trah. All the time the tribal unit continued to move toward the main hot spring. The reys softly sang and chanted together, chiefly to maintain their collective orientation against the acoustic assault of the serpents, but also to calm their terror. As the now bloated serpents were left behind to fight over the remains of their catch, the tribe entered the warm currents around the spring. In silence, save for orientation sound pulses, the reys gorged on the soup. But the size of the spring was soon betrayed by the thin broth it offered. The frustrated reys soon moved on in search of more substantial fare. It would be an especially long 85-coile climb up through the storms, the final quad of the passage, to the promise of cloud tops and sleep.