Lingnan and Thalia hadn’t noticed they were being followed. Flutes rarely remained on the surface for long. Fewer still in these parts ventured this far north of their village. The jagged dusty slopes of the Rift dove a league beneath the surface into a canyon that stretched to the horizon in both directions. It was as inhospitable a place you could find on the surface, with no guarantees of a good burrow to escape to when the Light Echo came. Neither Flute had been in the habit of telling anyone where they were going. Flute life is an open life, with a low regard for secrets and a strict intolerance of adventures.
The two Flutes in pursuit were not so malicious. They were young, just past their sixth season and nowhere near the age where any considerable responsibility could be thrust on them.
“I think they saw us,” Olof said.
“You worry too much,” Horace said.
Though the same age, Horace was the taller of the two. And while Olof was rounder and sturdier and a good deal redder in the cheeks, neither was very intimidating.
“We should turn back,” Olof said. “There aren’t even burrows out here.”
“You’re sitting on a hatch,” Horace said.
Olof looked down at the round hatch beneath him, the doorway that separated the surface from the burrow below.
“Besides this one,” he said.
“One is all we need. But best not sit on that one. I don’t want you breaking it if the Light Echo comes early.”
“I’m not that big!”
“You’re big enough.”
“Hush up, Horace. They’ll hear us. What are they doing?”
“You told me to hush,” Horace said. “Just watch.”
They had ducked behind a rise not far from where Lingnan and Thalia now sat. Thalia was sitting with her legs dangling above the Rift, strumming a guitar. Lingnan, beside her, faced the sky. The nearby white spire swayed as it reached up into the dark sky and vanished. Its summit was limitless.
“I’m gonna get closer so I can hear them,” Horace said.
“I want to burrow.”
“Burrow then, Olof. This was your idea. I’m staying till the Light Echo drives me under.”
“I’ve never been above ground, Horace. I’m not sure I like it up here.”
“Your first time? Truly?” Olof nodded. Horace said, “It’s not as scary as a good Flute would have you believe.”
“You’ve come up often?”
“I come all the time to try and catch the Light Echo.” A sharper Flute would have seen Horace was lying. Olof certainly was not that. “There are simple rules to follow, Olof.”
“Simple rules, right.”
“Good. First things first, if you are going to explore, make sure you’re a good close distance from an open burrow.”
“Like the one I’m sitting on?”
“Like the one you’re sitting on,” Horace said. “Redshifts run wild up here. If the Light Echo comes early you want to be able to burrow fast.”
“Fast. How do you know when the Light Echo is coming?”
“The three sets of chimes you hear down below? Same up here. Except they might sound more like trumpets.”
“It’s a trumpet.”
“Ok. What else?”
Horace stopped. Ten leagues away another white spire splintered down the middle and cracked at the base. Thunder roared across the basin.
“A trumpet!” Olof said. The young Flute hopped up and opened the hatch he’d been sitting on.
“Hold up!” Horace said. “It’s not the Light Echo. Look.”
The spire collapsed and slowly crashed against the surface so hard its shock wave blew back their hair. It had fallen west, away from them all.
“Good thing it didn’t fall this way,” Olof said.
“Good thing,” Horace said.
“What happens now?” Olof asked.
“The Light Echo will come. Tomorrow the spire will be gone.”
They crawled on all fours until they were only a few meters from the two older Flutes and well within earshot.
“What’s he looking at?” Olof asked.
“Something on the spire, I think. The other spire.”
“Something or someone?”
Horace shrugged. High atop the spire, higher than either Olof or Horace could see and higher still than any Flute in this region had reached or even dared climb, was a Flute.
“Do you think he’ll make it?” This was Lingnan, staring up at the spire.
“He never makes it.” Thalia was playing her guitar in fitful bursts, stopping and starting again after each mistake.
“I know. But this time.”
One of Thalia’s strings broke and she cursed and looked up.
“I think the Rift has gotten bigger.”
“You mean just now?”
“I mean always. Remember when we were kids?”
“We’re still kids, Thalia.”
“Maybe you, Lingnan. Ugh, how am I supposed to play now?” She put down the guitar. “It didn’t used to be so deep. The Rift. And so big across. It’s gotten bigger. Did you bring your lantern? I have some milk. I could make a new string.”
“I think he’s going to make it.”
Horace and Olof crept closer and nudged their heads over the rise.
“I don’t like this,” Olof said.
“You said that already,” Horace said. “There’s only so much you can not like.”
“There aren’t limits.”
“There are. You’ve crossed them and come back again.”
“I don’t like this, Horace.”
“Lower your voice. They’ll hear.”
“No, I will not lower my voice, Horace. We’re on the surface. If my mom only knew…someone is climbing a spire. Another one’s fallen down. That girl over there is playing a guitar. A guitar, Horace! Everyone is breaking custom and who knows when the Light Echo–”
“Will you two shut up?”
It was Thalia. She reached over the rise and yanked up Olof by the hair.
“Who is it?” Lingnan asked.
Thalia pulled Olof’s head up enough so Lingnan could see.
“Them again? Are we really that interesting?”
Horace tiptoed his way near the edge of the Rift.
“You can come closer,” Lingnan said. “Just don’t fall off.”
“We just wanted to explore the surface,” Horace said. “We can’t help who follows us up.”
“Right. We followed you. Come sit down, Horace.” He patted a spot just next to him and swung his legs over the Rift.
“I’m find standing.”
When Thalia let him go, Olof skipped over to the Rift and peered over.
Lingnan said, “Doesn’t seem like you to break custom, Olof.”
“Horace brought me up. I’d just as soon stay burrowed. Is this the Rift?” Lingnan nodded. Olof said, “And that one over there? The one that fell…how far does it go?”
Lingnan began to scratch out a crude sketch of the area.
“No writing,” Olof said and wiped away the sketch.
Lingnan pointed behind them. “Home’s back that way. The spire fell the other way. Across the Rift and–”
“–And when the Light Echo comes it’ll be gone?”
“Who knows, Olof? Why don’t you two head back before we redshift and the Light Echo wisps you off.”
A low trumpet boomed across the Rift. The Flutes all hopped up and the air seemed to vibrate. Olof swung around, looking for Horace but Horace was gone.
“He left me. He left me!”
“Don’t worry, friend,” Thalia said. “You’ll come with us.”
“The Light Echo,” Olof said.
Lingnan was staring up at the spire. The Flute was dropping to the floor, leaving behind him a trail of rope. The sky itself remained the same. Black but for the faint trails of red which ribboned across the horizon.
“He’s not going to make it this cycle, Lingnan. Come on.”
“Take Olof and head down.”
“No, Lingnan. Dactyl’s not waiting. Neither are you.”
“Maybe this time we’ll see it.”
“You’ve seen it before. Come on!”
Two trumpets this time. Each one like a long, low belch of iron against hollow granite.
“The Light Echo, Thalia. I just want to see it.”
Thalia was 30 cycles older and heavier than Lingnan by at least one stone. Olof didn’t need dragging. He followed her willingly. Lingnan she took by the hand and dragged to the burrow they had picked earlier.
The third round of trumpets began. Thalia yanked up the hatch and kicked Olof inside.
“I can’t wait for you, Lingnan.”
Dactyl, the spec climbing the spire, hit the floor and disappeared into his own hatch.
Lingnan nodded to Thalia. He took the rope and climbed down into the burrow. Just before he closed the hatch Lingnan looked up from the burrow and saw, just as the final trumpet blared, the dark sky shift red.
The Light Echo.
He smiled and sealed the hatch.
Most Flutes broke custom in some way. Many kept journals or sung songs or told historical tales when they knew these acts were frowned upon. Thalia had a guitar. Lingnan had a booklet of maps he hid beneath his bed.
The resident of this burrow near the Rift was nowhere near as cautious as they. Books lined the walls, instruments hung from the ceiling, even the bed was homemade.
“Look at this!” Lingnan was the only one excited. He jumped off the rope ladder and began to rummage.
“Don’t touch those,” Thalia said.
“There must be six hundred books. And maps!”
“And guitars, Thalia. Guitars, drums–what are these?” He touched a forearm length cylinder with a series of holes drilled in one end.
“It’s a flute,” Thalia said.
Olof pressed himself into a corner.
“Books and books and books and notebooks,” he said. “Writings and scribbles and maps and drawings and instruments and furniture. Furniture ain’t like this. Furniture ain’t supposed to look like this. It’s so, it’s so, it’s so…pretty.”
“Take it easy, Olof,” Thalia said. “You didn’t make any of this. You’re not going to get in trouble.”
“But isn’t it great, Olof? Check out this title.”
Olof scuffled back but there was nowhere to go. Lingnan stuffed the notebook in his face.
“‘Seasonal Changes in the Rift.’”
“I can’t read,” Olof said.
“See, Thalia, you were right. It is changing.”
“Lingnan, just calm down.”
“There’s nobody here.”
“Someone else’s history. Not mine. Come on, Olof. Take a breath.”
“I just want to see if there’s one thing,” Lingnan said. “One thing and one thing only.”
“A map of the world. The whole world. That’s what I want to see. There’s gotta be one here.”
Lingnan shared a simple burrow with his father. They had two beds sent to them from a northern milk farm that provided most burrow furniture for these parts. There was a table for eating, a furnace for cooking and two hatches–one to reach the surface, the other, the underground. The closest thing you could find in their collected burrow to a broken custom–besides the notebooks Lingnan hid beneath his bed–was the single wooden column that extended from floor to ceiling that his mother had built when he was first born.
This one was different. Columns of wood jutted across the ceiling. The walls were not earthen but clay and someone had carved out pockets and holds so one could climb from floor to ceiling without a rope ladder. There were the bookshelves of course and the musical instruments but there was also a woven basket chair that hung from the wooden rafters.
“I’m going with him, Thalia,” Lingnan said
“With Dac. The next climb. I’m going with him.”
“There’s nothing to see up there but the rim,” Thalia said.
“You’ve heard the Shaman speak,” Lingnan said.
“The Shaman, yes,” she said. “Exactly. A shaman. A sham.”
“I’m going with him.”
“You go with him. We’re going below.”
She pointed a finger at him. “You don’t tell me to be careful, Lingnan. I tell you. Goodbye.”
They were not the first books he had ever seen. His mother had taught him how to read at an early age. Thalia was the only girl he’d met who knew how. His mother had read an adventure book to him as a younger flute and she even kept a notebook herself which his father had left with her body when they sacrificed her to the Light Echo after she died. The resident of this burrow had adventure books too, but more interesting to Lingnan were the journals and scientific textbooks littered throughout. The opening line to the journal he had showed Olof: “The Earth is changing. The Rift has grown. Everything around us has begun to decay and nobody seems to notice or care.”
The passage was dated Season 280, cycle 116. Long before Lingnan was ever born.
Lingnan dropped down into a single dark hall. It was as narrow and confined as the surface was open and free. Its halls were wet and fleshy and the dewy milk that loosed itself from the rock glowed white. Random passages broke free and fell off into unknown regions of the aether. Even Lingnan, for all his bravado, dared not speak of exploring them.
The walk back was long but worth it. The burrows out near the Rift were all but abandoned. Lingnan’s only company was the occasional banished vagabond who never said much anyway. He climbed up into his burrow an hour later and found his father, blind and old and jobless, asleep on his bed. He tolerated the silence and the containment for as long as he could–it may have been 15 minutes–before he found himself back in the halls, knapsack in hand, pushing through the doors of Greely’s, a dirty unconstituted milk pub that served all ages.
Thalia was there and so were Horace and Olof and they were speaking with Dactyl, the spire climber they had watched earlier.
“What did I miss?” Lingnan asked.
“Three drinks I had before ya’ll ganged up on me.”
“We just got here,” Olof said.
“Dactyl thought he was close,” Thalia said.
“I was close,” Dactyl said. “Drac.”
“You climbed all day.”
“Redshift came early. Second day in a row. It was bad luck.”
“It was slow climbing.”
“Fast don’t matter if you ain’t got luck,” Dactyl said.
“But slow climbers can’t summit,” Thalia said.
“I ain’t trying to summit.”
“You’re trying to get all the way to the top of one of those towers?” Olof said.
“Spires,” Horace corrected.
“And there are no tops to them,” Thalia said.
“And I ain’t trying to get to no top,” Dactyl said.
Dactyl was two seasons older than Lingnan and Thalia. He didn’t go to school. He’d passed that time of his life long ago. He wasn’t old; but he’d lived more of a life than the rest of them combined. The youthful pudgy faced younger Flutes saw in him a gruff, bearded dissident, whose attraction lay in that he did what they could not, namely, drinking spiced milk beverages and exploring desolate areas of the surface without having to report to a parent.
“Where are you trying to get?” Lingnan asked.
Dactyl looked to the two young Flutes, Horace and Olof.
“They don’t know anything,” Lingnan said.
“Drac,” Dactyl said. “Let’s get a table.”
They sat in the darkest corner of the bar near the stage where an old man was preparing to speak.
“There’s your precious teacher,” Thalia said to Lingnan.
Dactyl brought over six drinks, two spiced milks for himself, four plain for the rest.
“There’s a burrow,” Dactyl said. “A burrow in the spire.”
“A burrow?” Thalia laughed.
“I’ve seen it,” Dactyl said.
“A burrow?” Horace laughed too. “Up there in the spires? Nobody lives up there. That’s ridiculous. Come on, Olof, we’re going.”
“I want to stay.”
Horace scoffed but relented.
“Where did you see it?” Lingnan asked. “While you were up there?”
Dactyl shook his head.
“Do they all have burrows?” Olof asked. “Every spire?”
“I don’t know,” Dactyl said.
“Who lives up there?”
“I don’t know.”
Thalia said, “How do you know about this, Dac?”
“Told ya, I saw it.”
Lingnan asked, “How did you see it?”
Dactyl finished off his first drink in one gulp. He pulled from his pocket a white splotchy cylinder with a clear refracted sheet as hard as stone placed on either end. It was no bigger than his finger.
“Go ahead,” Dactyl said. “Look through.”
“Ugh,” Thalia said. “A Shaman totem. Why would you have one of these, Dac?”
Lingnan held the totem up to his eyes and looked through.
“A telescope! A real telescope. Thalia, look at it, or through it, I mean.”
“I’m not touching that thing,” she said. “And lower your voice. That thing breaks more customs than I care to think about.”
“You okay in here, Thalia,” Dactyl said. “Greely’s is for pilots and dumb young Flutes who don’t know no better. Folks here break customs just by dreaming.”
“What’s a telescope?” Olof asked.
“Drac,” Dactyl said.
“Check it out,” Lingnan said. “It lets you see far away places. I’ve heard stories of Flute’s studying the Airglow with these.”
Olof hesitated to take the scope. Accepting it he also accepted a clear and distinct path
towards a future he could not predict.
“Don’t look through it,” Horace said.
But he did. What he saw he knew he could never unsee. That there was a world beyond his burrow, beyond his land, beyond even the Light Echo and the Aether. Beyond, beyond, beyond…the word consumed him.
The old man on the stage arose. He was tall and lean, with a long gray beard and a pilot’s roguish grin. Lingnan had seen him before.
“Been more of them lately,” Dactyl said.
“Them?” Olof said.
“Shamans,” Dactyl said. “Shamans, pilots, Hadars from the North even.”
The Flutes had heard the name before. Hadars: emissaries from the northern lands on the other side of the known world. Nobody knew what they were after though.
“And that one up there,” Dactyl said. “Same Flute who sold me your precious totem.”
“This?” Lingnan said.
“So he says.”
“He’s a real one then. A real Shaman?”
“Thing works don’t it?”
“Why’d he give it to you?”
“He didn’t give nothing. He sold it. I’d heard stories of things up in the spires.”
“Burrows. Headed out to the Rift, started looking. More spires out there than you can count. Took me six shifts till I spotted it. Was just glad the damn thing didn’t blow off like that one today. Drac.”
“What did you spot?”
Some burrows form naturally. Others are carved out. Either way, it takes a Flute to seal a burrow with a hatch. Someone had been up there.
“What’s that word you keep saying?” Lingnan asked.
“Drac,” he said. “It’s just me spouting lip.”
“Yeah, but what is it? What does it mean?”
Dactyl sighed and took another drink before he spoke.
“Every culture’s got different names for ‘em. The ancient Flutes up near the Neptune Massive call them Centaurs. Amaltheans call them Lynx. The Hadars, they’re more specific. They call ‘em Octans, on account of them having eight legs. I never heard them stories directly. I only been to the Crest. Ions up there don’t just say the name. They curse it. Drac. Draconis. Dracons. They all talking about the same things.”
“Why do they curse them?”
“The way the myth goes, there ain’t just one earth. About as many earths as there are Flutes. And each one is doing the same thing. Dying. And so they curse the beasts because it’s said the Draconis will appear when our earth decays, to sweep up the few lucky Flutes who can fly and take them up the Airglow in search for a new planet.”
Their table became quiet. It was a bit too serious a subject for Flutes this young.
“I don’t get it,” Olof said.
“Good grief, Olof,” Thalia said. “They say it when things aren’t going well. Light Echo came early. Drac. Two stupid Flutes interrupted my guitar practice. Drac. Rest of it’s just a fairy tale.”
“Fairy tales,” Olof said.
“Yup,” Dactyl said. “That’s all they let us have ain’t it?” He finished his second milk and slammed it down. “I don’t know what’s up there. I don’t think about it too much, ya know? But it’s up there. The Hatch I mean. That’s all that matters to me. It’s up there and I’m down here.”
“I’m going with you,” Lingnan said.
“You certainly are not,” Thalia said.
“The next Blue Shift. Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s Cycle. I can help.”
“You’ll slow me down.”
“I can help!”
“What do you want to see so bad?” Thalia asked. “What’s up there you can’t get down here? What do you want answered?”
The old bearded man on the stage finally spoke and the bar went silent. He stomped his foot six times, parroting the chime and the trumpets that signaled the Red and Blue Shifts.
“We all live near this big long canyon with no end and yet none of us explores the canyon. None of us goes down into it. Few of us even talk about it and when we do we’ll give that Flute the look that all of you are giving me now. ‘Hush. Quiet. Why would you even want to talk about that?’ But I am here and we are talking about it. The Rift. Seasonal changes in the Rift. Some of us are old enough to remember when the Spires near the Rift were not so white. When there were more of them. Not a forest. This isn’t the Crest. But more…The Rift has changed my friends. The Rift has always been changing. Not merely the Rift. The whole whole. Cycle to cycle, season to season. Everything is getting older.”
The Flutes in Greely’s weren’t having any of this. Some even threw milk glasses.
“Get off the stage, you Sham!” they shouted.
Dactyl shouted, “Go on, Wizard!”
“There was a first cycle and there will be a last cycle. The mining we do from the Furrows, the spiced milk you drink right now, the beds you sleep in–all of these hasten our decay. My fellow Flutes, we don’t have much time left.”
The Flutes soon left and went their separate ways. Lingnan meandered through the upper halls and found his way back home where his father, awake but not active, was waiting.
“I came by earlier but you were asleep,” Lingnan said.
“You should have woke me up.”
“I didn’t know how long you’d been out.”
“What were you doing?”
“Hanging out with Thalia.”
“And that custom breaker? That old climbing Flute.”
“Of course not.”
“I just like to watch him climb.”
“That’s how it starts.”
“I’m going for a walk.”
“Lay down. Rest up. You sound tired.
“I’ll sleep when I actually am.”
“I got you a job.”
“Mining milk ores from the Furrows. It’s local. You like climbing. That’s what the job needs. Climbers.”
“I climb now.”
“And now you’ll get paid for it. You can start after your birthday.”
“I don’t want a job.”
“You won’t be in school anymore. That’s how it works.”
He looked to the hatch above his father and wondered what would happen if he opened it.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said.
Lingnan dropped into the lower halls and darted from the older Flutes who lounged there. Younger Flutes were not supposed to go so deep. Younger Flutes were not really meant to do much of anything.
A heavy low throttle rumbled from beyond the walls and he knew that he was close. The Blue River was a hundred meters high. A dense opaque membrane held it back, but the river rushed by so fast the membrane almost wasn’t needed. It held itself back by sheer force.
The hall of the Blue River was crowded with Flutes. Some were hitched to the membrane and working to make sure the membrane never broke and flooded the lower levels. The rest were pilots crafting vessels that could tolerate the hard current of the river. Lingnan found a corner where he’d be out of sight. He took out the notebooks he had snatched from the burrow earlier.
“Seasonal Changes in the Rift.”
He opened to the first page and began to read.One of the pilots had dragged his vessel up to the river. The vessel was a raft, ten or twelves planks across. It was tied together with rope made from milk. Two rigid brown sails rose from the rear end. One, like an inverted “C” hung over the boat, the other faced against it.
“It’s not gonna hold,” his assistant said.
“It’ll hold. It’ll hold. Come, baby dear, hold for me.”
“Away! I don’t need you. I’ll put her in myself.”
Lingnan began to fall asleep.
“You’re drunk,” the assistant said.
“You’re too young. You wouldn’t know.”
The pilot eased his craft through the membrane and into the Blue River. The sails caught. The rush of blue coarsed over the sails and beyond the raft, leaving a bubble of free space and air within the raft. The craft held.
“A little faith. That’s all you ever need. Milk! Hand me my drink, boy.”
The assistant gave the pilot his drink.
“Yes. Yes. Yes, baby. Hold. Hold. No, no, no…”
The rear sail, meant to slow the craft against the current of the river, collapsed. The raft dissolved. Its remaining parts the Blue River took into its mad tide.
“Why not hitch a ride with another pilot?”
“You can go home, Hand. Go home. Be gone with you.”
“It’d be cheaper. It’d be faster. Why not? Why do you have to do this thing?”
Lingnan tried to stay awake to hear his answer but he had been awake so long and his day had been hard. He fell asleep in the corner of the station, hidden from all but the most prying eyes. Somewhere in his dreams the drunk Pilot’s answer found him.
Dactyl was higher than he had ever been and so high up that Thalia, standing beside Lingnan, could barely make him out.
“Can you see him?” Thalia asked. She had her guitar out but had given up the tune she had been practicing when another string snapped.
“It’s definitely a hatch.”
“Can you see him?”
“A hatch and a burrow. A burrow sll the way up there.”
“Give me that.”
She snatched away the telescope and looked through.
“He looks tired.”
“He’s been climbing all day. We’ve been here all day.”
“A hatch. All the way up there,” Lingnan said.
Thalia took the climbing rope and tugged it twice.
“What are you doing, Thalia? He’s too high up to feel that.”
“We’ve been here all day. All day. The Light Echo. The Light Echo. If he keeps going he’ll be too high to make it back down.”
“He made it yesterday.”
“He’s higher today.” She tugged on the rope again.
“He’s too high to feel it.”
“He’s close, Thalia. He’ll make it.”
The first deep trumpet of the oncoming Red Shift blew across the Rift.
“The Light Echo,” he said.
Thalia tugged on the rope. Lingnan looked up through the scope.
“What’s he doing? Did he hear it?” she asked.
“He heard it. He’s climbing.” Lingnan’s voice was cold and stern.
“He’s not coming down.”
The second round of trumpets began.
“Is he close?”
Lingnan was staring up through the telescope but was silent.
“Is he close?” she asked again.
When Lingnan tucked the telescope into his pocket Thalia had her answer. He opened their hatch and led her down inside. The third round of trumpets began. Before he closed the hatch he looked up once more. Without the telescope Dactyl was nothing but a faint spec on the white towering spire. The last he had seen was the tiny frame of Dactyl pressed within a crack on the spire, ten meters from the hatch. Close. But not that close. The third trumpet from the third round blew. Lingnan sealed the hatch as the dark sky shifted red.
(see what happens with our friends next month!)
The Light Echo, “A Burrow Way Up There” © 2012 Christopher Dart