Read an Excerpt
The Cluster Series: Book Four
By Piers Anthony
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Piers Anthony Jacob
All rights reserved.
Heem of Highfalls emerged from the transfer chamber and followed the HydrO ahead of him toward the acclimatization wing. Another HydrO host rolled into the transfer chamber behind him. The operation had to move with precision; there were more than three hundred HydrOs to process as nearly simultaneously as possible.
Yet Heem moved without vigor, hardly perceiving his surroundings. A squirt of flavored water struck him. "Thirty-nine! Are you conscious?"
Heem yanked himself to a better semblance of awareness. "Yes, yes," he sprayed. "Merely adapting to my transfer-guest."
"Then get to your chamber. You have bypassed it."
So he had. He was up to forty-two. Heem reversed course and moved to thirty-nine. He picked up the vapor taste of it and rolled into its aperture.
The chamber was small and comfortable. The air was fresh and neutral, with plenty of free hydrogen. "You have three chronosprays before release," the room informed him.
Heem collapsed. In his subconscious he dreamed the forbidden memory. He was a juvenile again, among his HydrO peers. In that secret time before he metamorphosed into adult status. He was rolling with his siblings in the beautiful ghetto of Highfalls, bouncing across the rock faces, through the chill rivulets, and around the huge soft domes of the trees. They were racing, their jets growing warm with the competitive effort.
Hoom was leading at the moment. He had the strongest torque jets and usually gained on direct-land terrain. Heem was second, closely followed by Hiim. Haam trailed; he had a clogged jet and it hampered his progress.
Heem had been gaining jet strength recently and had always had finesse in liquid. Today was especially good; his metabolism was functioning better than ever before. Now Hoom was tiring, becoming too warm; his conversion efficiency was declining slightly. Heem remained relatively cool, yet was putting out more water; he was gaining. The feeling of victory was growing.
Hoom, as leader, chose the route. Hoping to improve his position, he plunged into the highfalls itself.
It was an effective tactic. Heem plunged in after him, and suffered the retardation his cooler body was liable to. He lost position. But soon his liquid finesse helped him, enabling him to recover quickly, and he was gaining again. He caught up to Hoom, then passed him as they emerged from the water.
"Lout!" Hoom spurted. He fired a barrage of jets at Heem in an unsporting maneuver. Some of them were needlejets that stung. Heem, alert for such foul play, fired one needle back, scoring on Hoom's most proximate spout as Hoom's own jet faded.
"Cheat!" Hoom sprayed, enraged. He fired another barrage which Heem countered with another precise shot. Heem had the most accurate needles of them all.
Now the others caught up. "No fighting, no fighting!" they protested.
"He needled me, trying to pass!" Hoom sprayed.
For a moment, the audacity of the lie overwhelmed Heem, and he was tasteless. Thus it seemed he offered no refutation, and that was tantamount to confession.
But Haam was cautious about such judgment. "I did not taste the initiation of this exchange," he sprayed. "But it was Hoom, not Heem, who needlejetted me at the outset of this race, clogging my jet."
Perceiving the shift of opinion, Hoom took the offensive again. "What use in winning a race, anyway? We have raced every day, now one winning, now another. How does it profit us? Which of you has the nerve to roll up to a real challenge?"
"Why roll to any challenge?" Hiim inquired reasonably. "We have no needs we cannot accommodate passively. So long as there is air, we are comfortable."
"You may be comfortable," Hoom replied. "I want to know what lies beyond this valley. Are there others of our own kind, or are we alone?"
"Why not go, then, and report back to us?" Hiim asked him.
"I do not wish to go alone. It is a long, hard roll over the mountain range, perhaps dangerous. If we all go together—"
"I find difficulty and danger no suitable challenge," Hiim sprayed. "It seems foolish to me to risk my convenient life in such manner."
But Heem found himself agreeing with Hoom. "I do not entirely relish the roll up the mountain slope or the prospect of drastic shift in environment," he sprayed. "Yet my mind suffers dulling and tedium in the absence of challenge. I value my mind more than my convenience. Therefore I will undertake the roll up the mountain with Hoom."
Hoom was uncommunicative, caught in the awkwardness of being supported by the party he had fouled. It was Haam who sprayed next. "I too am curious about the wider environment, but disinclined to undertake the enormous effort of such a roll. I would go if I could ascertain an easier mode of travel."
"Make it really easy," Hiim scoffed. "Ride a flat-floater."
There was a general spray of mirth. The flatfloater was a monster whose biology was similar to their own. It drew its energy from the air, merging hydrogen with oxygen, with a constant residue of water. But its application differed. Instead of using jets of waste-water to roll itself over land or through the river, it used them to push itself up into the air a small distance. This required a lot of energy; in fact the force of its jets was so strong, and the heat of its conversion so great, that a large proportion of its elimination was gaseous. Water expanded greatly when vaporized, so that the volume of exhaust was much larger than the volume of its intake. Hot water vapor blasted down from it, billowing out in disgusting clouds, condensing as it cooled, coating the surroundings. The sapient HydrOs stayed well clear of the flatfloaters.
Hoom, however, was foolhardy. "Why not?" he demanded. "The upper surface of the floater is cool enough, where the air intakes are. It indents toward the center. We could ride safely there—"
It might just be possible! Their analytic minds fastened on this notion. But almost immediately objections developed. "How would we guide it?" Haam asked.
"How would we get on it—or off it?" Heem added.
Hoom found himself under challenge to defend a notion he had not originated, for indeed if a flatfloater could be harnessed, it could surely take them anywhere rapidly—even over the mountain. If he could establish the feasibility of the flatfloater, he could make them all join the traveling. "The floater is stupid. When it feels distress, it flees it. We could needle it on the side opposite the direction we wish it to go, and it would flee, carrying us along."
They considered, realizing the possibility.
"And to board it," Hoom sprayed excitedly, "the floater descends to bathe itself, for it has no jets on its upper surface and the sun dehydrates it. Periodically it must immerse itself in water. We have only to lurk at its bath-region and roll aboard as it submerges. To deboard we must simply force it near a slope and roll off the higher side. Since the floater is always level, the drop to ground will be slight."
They considered further, and it seemed feasible. Hoom had surmounted the challenge of method; now they were under onus to implement it. Since none came up with a reason to refute this course of action, they found themselves committed.
Heem was excited but not fully hydrogenated by the notion. He wanted to explore, but feared the possible consequence. So he went along, as did the others. The physical race had become something else, and Hoom had retained the initiative.
Given the specific challenge, they set about meeting it without immediate emphasis on the long-range goal. They located the spoor of the flatfloater, in the form of taste lingering on vegetation and ground, diffuse but definite. They traced it in the direction of freshness, locating the floater's favorite haunts. It preferred open water, not too deep, with no large growths near enough to disrupt the takeoff. That made approach more difficult.
They decided to lay in wait underwater. It was more difficult to breathe in liquid, since it was in effect a bath of their own waste product, but there were tiny bubbles of gas in it that sufficed for slow metabolism, for a while. In flowing water it was possible to remain submerged indefinitely, for new bubbles were carried in to replace the used ones, and the non-hydrogenated water would be carried away. However, flowing water tended to be cool.
The advantages and disadvantages were mixed. Their ambient taste would be diminished by the reduced rate of metabolism necessitated by the limitation of hydrogen, and the surrounding water would dilute that taste, and the slow current would carry it away, until their precise location was virtually indistinguishable. The danger was that if the wait were too long, they could be cooled to the level of inadequate functioning. This had happened to a former peer; he had soaked himself in chill water to abate a fever, had slept and never awoken. He remained there now, functioning on the level of a beast, his sapience gone. It had been a cruel lesson for the rest of them: one of many. Do not suffer your body to cool too far, lest the upkeep of your sapience deteriorate.
Heem remembered a time when thirty or more sapients had inhabited Highfalls; now only the four of them remained.
However, the season was warmer now, and the river was more comfortable. Heem wondered about that: what made the seasons change. The heat of the sun beat down throughout the year, yet in the cold season it came from a different angle and lacked force. Obviously the cold inhibited the sun, whose presence they knew of only by the heat of its direct radiation against their skins, or possibly the different course of the sun inhibited the season—but why was there a change? Heem had pondered this riddle many times, but come to no certain conclusion. The answer seemed to lie elsewhere than in this valley, perhaps across the mountain range. The more he considered the ramifications of this project, the more he liked it. Surely there was danger—but surely there was information, too. Since ignorance had caused most of the deaths of his peers, especially the massive early slaughter before the thirty he remembered had emerged from anonymity, knowledge was worth considerable risk.
They settled under the water at the site, hoping the monster would come soon. Heem, required to be still and communicative for an indefinite period in the proximity of potential danger, found his thoughts turning to fundamental speculations. Where had he and his siblings come from? How had they known how to intercommunicate? What was their destiny?
The third question had an obvious and ugly answer: they were destined to die. Most had succumbed already. Perhaps escape from the valley was their only hope of survival. Heem felt his own mortality, the incipience and inevitability of death. Was there any point in opposing it? Why, then, was he opposing it?
But he rebounded from this line of thinking. He must be suffering the chill of the water, of immobility. He raised his metabolic level slightly, hoping the increased flavor diffusing about him would not be noticeable to his companions. Maybe they were doing the same.
Now he pursued the other questions. Communication? Somehow they had always known how to spray and jet and needle flavor at each other, and quickly learned to interpret the nuances of taste to obtain meaning. Certain flavors portended certain things, as was natural. Sweetness denoted affirmation, bitterness negation. From that point, the shades of taste flowed naturally to ever-greater definition. Why this was so seemed inherent in the nature of the species.
What was their origin? They had all appeared together in the valley, as nearly as he could ascertain. All had been physically small; he knew that because landmarks, boulders, and such things that had once seemed large now seemed small, and it seemed reasonable that it was the living things who had changed. All had been able to fend for themselves from the outset, lacking only the cautions of experience. Any could have saved themselves from any of the demises that had taken them, had they possessed Heem's present knowledge then. Surely they had come, innocently, from somewhere—but where? There was no answer; that was beyond the beginning.
There had to be an origin, he decided. Sapient creatures did not appear from nowhere. Otherwise more creatures of his kind would have appeared. This had not happened. So it seemed they had all been spontaneously generated in one single burst of creation. Or they had all been placed here, and left to their own survival. Heem found the latter alternative more convincing. That explained what had happened, but not why. Why would anyone or anything do this?
No matter how he reasoned it out, Heem could not roll up with an explanation he liked. Whatever had done this thing was evil. If he ever found opportunity to fight back—
The monster was coming! Heem felt the vibration in the water, separate from the vibration in the air, as the thing settled low. The massive jets blasted down into the water, initiating turbulence that was uncomfortably forceful. Only jets of phenomenal power could create reaction of this magnitude, and it was growing rapidly.
Heem was abruptly afraid. He had suppressed his nervousness before; now it burst out into uncontrolled random jetting. All his small pores opened, and the sphincter muscles of his body forced his reserves of water out. It was a panic reaction, accomplishing nothing except the depletion of his immediate motive fluid.
With an effort he controlled himself, and became aware of the diffusing taste of the exudates of his companions. They had wet down too, though that was anomalous here within water. That reassured him considerably. Almost enough to make him want to roll on, on through this wild scheme.
The flatfloater was gliding in for its submergence much faster than any sapient creature could. Before Heem could formulate some objection, some reason to quit this project, the huge disk cut into the water and planed down. The turbulence was suddenly terrible. Bubbles swirled by in such profusion as to make froth of the water. Heem was rolled right out of his niche by the bubble current and wafted upward a short distance. He drifted momentarily in the eddy, perceiving his companions in similar straits, before stabilizing. But he realized that this was fortunate, because otherwise he could have been stuck directly below the settling monster. Its weight would not be oppressive, buoyed by the water; but if it remained long, the four of them would have been trapped. The warmth of its gross body might keep them from cooling to the point of deterioration, which was good, but the low hydrogen of its elimination could stifle them.
The floater drifted to the bottom. The eddy drew Heem in toward the creature's surface, and this was another excellent roll. With minimal guidance, Heem was able to sink onto the upper surface of the disk. His companions did the same. They had in this surprisingly simple fashion achieved the first stage of their objective.
Yet the remainder hardly seemed promising. It was one thing to contemplate riding a floater, but quite another to do it. The many uncertainties of the venture loomed much larger now. How would they stay on, if the monster maneuvered violently? Suppose it did not respond to their guidance?
The floater gave them little time to reflect. Its intakes were on the upper side, and though it lacked the acute perception of the sapients, it could hardly miss their presence in this case. Alarmed, it jetted upward, its progress slanting because of the resistance of the water. The current across its surface became fierce, but at the same time the suction of its large intakes held them against it. They could not roll off—not while the floater's metabolism was active.
The flatfloater rose out of the water with a burst of meaningless spray. Sapients sprayed only for communication, emitting multiple fine jets of water flavored with the chemical nuances that constituted meaning. It was an effective mode. If the neighbor to be addressed was too far distant for spray, a specific squirt could serve as well; in fact, such solitary jets were employed when the conversation was private. Once the residue flowed off the receiving skin, it lost its meaning in the welter of background contaminants, leaving news only that there had been communication. Thus public and private dialogues were matters of focus. Especially pointed or private messages were needled, as with insults during a fracas.
Excerpted from Thousandstar by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 2009 Piers Anthony Jacob. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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