When last we left our compatriots they were in a troubled spot. They had discovered a burrow way up high alongside a spire near the Rift and somehow got it into their Flute heads that it would be a good idea to climb up that spire and check out the burrow. “Sucks to the Light Echo,” Lingnan said, I believe. Well, the Light Echo got the last word for their good friend Dactyl decided to once again make the climb, only this time he didn’t climb fast enough and was taken by the Light Echo, never to be seen again. We meet our Flutes many cycles later. Both Lingnan and Thalia have passed their coming of age and now work in a furrow deep below the surface mining for milk, with both of them still wondering what exactly is up there…
“What Was the Weird Part?”
Thalia had been having the dream her entire life. A man was on the surface atop a mountain that overlooked a flat city of lights. It was dark out and the man had a monoscope as wide as a torso and as long as any young Flute. He was looking through it at a sky punctured with light, not unlike the city below. A woman was beside him with a guitar and she was playing the guitar for him with all five of her fingers and they were both in love. She had never seen a world like the world in the dream atop the mountain. The only lights she had seen in her own sky were the faint ribbons from the color shifting Airglow present in the dark sky. The man and the woman in the dream had remained–even when she was a baby–the same.
She saw Lingnan almost every day in the milk mines and yet in the 30 cycles since they had started working they shared less than a half a dozen words. Most evenings after work she snuck off to the surface and sat above the Rift and practiced the tune she had heard in her dreams. If enough time passed she would wait and hope for Lingnan to appear. He never did.
The milk mines were far below the surface, lower than the Rift and the burrows and lower even than the Blue River, in dark furrows that fell deep into the Aether. Thalia and Lingnan were latched to the wall of one now. They dug their pick-axes into the spongy red soil and unearthed the oily white clay–milk they called it–which every Flute in every culture from here to the Crest found invaluable. A hundred other Flutes were with them, each repeating the same motions. The red rock minerals glowed for a short while as they fell down the abyss like a rainfall of candles.
At the end of each shift Thalia saw Lingnan do the same thing. He tucked a small bag, no bigger than a pair of fists, into his pants. He readied his body and planted both feet against the red rock. After three deep breaths he scrambled up to the surface as fast as he could. Each cycle he became that much faster. He was testing himself.
“Hey, Lingnan,” she said to him, dropping off her dufflebag after a shift.
He turned and stepped away without giving her a glance.
“What ya up to?”
“But what you up to now that you’re off?”
“Don’t plan on anymore work.”
“You wanna grab a drink with me at Greely’s?”
“I’ll be there already.”
“I’ll keep you company.”
“Don’t need any.”
Lingnan sat at the bar at Greely’s and ordered drink after drink after drink while Thalia watched from across the room. She tried her best to keep up but she’d only been old enough to drink spiced milks for a short while. She stopped after two drinks and took her milk unspiced. Horace and Olof found her. Olof ordered himself a milk. Horace asked for his spiced. The waitress smiled and nodded and brought him an unspiced milk anyway.
“Lingnan is over there,” Olof said.
“You guys aren’t sitting together.”
“But why would you sit here and he sit there?”
“Sometimes a girl just wants to drink alone, Olof.”
“Are you guys fighting?”
Horace said, “You couldn’t finish two milks. I wouldn’t say that’s drinking.”
“It’s not a competition,” Thalia said.
“He’s had six.”
“And you can’t order one.”
Olof said, “Even if you are fighting, even if it seems he doesn’t care–I have still seen him look at you. Only when you look away.”
They soon left and Thalia returned to her unfinished drink. Lingnan never stopped with his. After eight he pushed his glasses aside and put away the notebook he had out.
“What was Lingnan drinking?” Thalia asked Leslie, the bartender, after Lingnan left.
“Ask him,” she said. “He ain’t far off.”
“I’m asking you.”
“It ain’t for me to say.”
“You’re the bartender.”
“And you pay the tab.”
Thalia slung a bag of coins onto the bar.
“You buying drinks for the whole place?” Leslie asked.
“Just for you.”
“You want to know his drink tonight or every drink a season back?”
“I want to know what this buys me.”
Leslie scooped the coins off the bar.
“Water,” Leslie said.
“It was water.”
“More than you had.”
“Not even with spit. Not once.”
“And he pays you for it?”
“Not as much as you.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Maybe he’s got some friend watching him who he don’t want watching. You didn’t pay me to answer why. He drinks water. Not milk. Water. Nothing spiced. Haven’t seen the boy tip over yet.”
Thalia kept her distance as Lingnan bumbled his way through the halls. A half hour into the walk the halls emptied and Lingnan stood up straight and lengthened his stride. Thalia knew where they were. She’d taken this road so often lately she could have closed her eyes and not got lost.
A thin sharp wind hissed across the Rift and blew Thalia’s dark hair into her face. The spires around it bent and swayed, their white echelons lit by the faint radiation of the airglow in the dark sky. There was nobody out here. She found the hatch and dropped straight in without knocking. Lingnan was sitting on the floor cross legged, stiffening up bands of milk over a lantern.
“You dirty little thief,” Thalia said.
“Get out of here, Thalia.”
“Make me,” she said. “Rope? That’s what you’ve been stealing milk for? Rope? You’re going up there aren’t you? I’ve seen you climbing from the furrow. You’ve never been that fast. You’re training.”
“Of course not. I’m sure you’ve just ignored all the holds in this room too.”
“What do you think is up there, Lingnan? It’s a burrow. There’s more of them than we can count.”
His band of milk stretched and snapped and he flung the scrap into a pile of others.
“But it’s up there,” he said.
“It’s up there, Thalia. It’s not down here or in a furrow or even deeper in the Aether. It’s up there. Higher than any of us can see. And I saw it. There’s more to the world, Thalia.”
“The Light Echo.”
“Sucks to the Light Echo. I want to see what’s beyond it. I want to be higher than any Spire could take us. I want to see more than what this silly scope can see.” He stretched a new band of milk over the flame. “I won’t live 40 seasons. This spire could fall any cycle. I’d rather go up there and risk it. Risk the Light Echo, or the Red Shift, risk this–” he thumped his chest three times– “than toil away another day mining milk from the ground. Doing nothing.”
“It’s not nothing.”
“It’s nothing. I’m going. Dactyl be damned.”
He stretched the band and folded it over and stretched it again.
“When are you leaving, Lingnan?” He didn’t bother to look up. “Fine,” she said and walked over and smacked the milk from his hand. “But if you really meant to go up there you wouldn’t waste time making rope. You wouldn’t waste your time practicing on these pretend walls in here. You’d just go up there. You’d just do it.”
She returned to Greely’s where she found Horace and Olof in the same booth as before, but with a new friend. He was a Flute around Thalia’s age whom she’d never met but had seen once or twice hanging around the Blue River. She smiled at him and flirted and convinced him to buy her spiced milks.
“I’m a pilot,” the Flute said. “Kelvin Jansky.”
“Well not yet. A pilot, I mean. Not officially. But I work for one.”
“I work in the mines. I was just on the surface. Olof here has been with me.”
“How far out did you go?” Kelvin pretended to be unfazed by her admission.
“To the Rift.”
“Have you been to the Cross Plains?”
“Refugio Beach?” He nodded. She shook her head.
Horace said, “The Cross Plains? Don’t be silly. How’d this fella get there? Where did he stay?”
“The underground doesn’t stretch that far. At least no hole I’ve ever seen. But there are enough burrows on the way. And he found a few out there on the Plains.”
“Burrows?” Thalia said.
“But not like ours,” Kelvin said. “They were brand new. Nothing in them. No furniture. Nothing.”
“Wow,” Olof said. “Weird.”
“That wasn’t the weird part. He stayed out there six cycles. Don’t ask me what he did with himself. Flute is a pilot but I know he wasn’t shuttling nobody out beyond the desert.”
“What was the weird part?” Thalia had already grown tired of this conversation. Horace and Olof leaned in close across the table. The whole bar became silent in that imaginary way the world hushes when you feel tense.
“He said the damn thing was moving. The Plain. Just a little each cycle.”
“That’s nothing new,” Thalia said. “Everyone’s heard that story.”
“But has anyone seen it?” Kelvin asked.
“Nobody has seen it,” Thalia said. “You’re telling me a story someone told you. I like to believe my own stories.”
Olof asked, “How far out did he go?”
“To the horizon,” he said. “He found a burrow out there. Brand new like the others. Unlived in. Untouched. The Plains stretched out farther than that. The land became white. Like milk. Not opaque like the rest. He walked out until he came to the edge and the land dropped off, the world ended. The Airglow all around. Above, ahead, and below.”
“The edge of the known world,” Olof said.
“There was another burrow way out there against the cliff.”
“Did he stay in it?”
“He’d been out a long time already. You don’t stay alive as a pilot by being reckless.”
“Pilots are reckless by nature,” Thalia said. “Otherwise they’d work in milk mines.” She pinched herself for saying that.
“Either way,” Kelvin continued. “He didn’t stay in the burrow. But he did go back the next day to check on it.”
“What happened?” Olof asked.
“It was gone.”
“What was gone?”
“The burrow. The Plains. Everything. Fallen off. Swallowed by the Light Echo.”
Thalia passed out in her Burrow and dreamed of a thousand Flutes vacationing on her eyes. The daring Flutes dug deep into her pupil and they saw what she saw: her aspirations of the future, regrets of the past, all passions and insecurities. Deeper still and they fell into her dreams and sat there alongside her as she watched them unfold.
Her foreman called her up from the furrow midway through her shift the next day and told her about an opening many leagues away.
“A good spot,” he said. “A good stepping stone. I know you’ve thought about leaving. Going north. This’ll help you out. Maybe in another few seasons you could make it up to the Crest.”
Another few seasons, she thought. And another few more she’d be dead. All for a short life in the North.
“I’d be a foreman, right? So I’d stay up top? I like climbing in the furrow though.”
“It’s beneath you. If you’ll pardon the expression.”
“Can I let you know?”
She gulped. “Today.”
She dropped into the furrow and axed at the walls and caught fragments of milk and she found herself looking around the walls for Lingnan who wasn’t there. A chime rang through the furrow, a high inverted yip that a creature might make. The Flutes all heaved the last of their fragments into their bags and climbed out. Thalia waited for the the third chime till she readied herself. The last bit of milk she slipped into her pockets. Her bag, half filled with milk clay and other minerals she heaved down into the abyss. She was alone. Lingnan had climbed out faster each day, getting stronger, more fit.
“Lingnan,” she said out loud. “What a jerk.”
She was faster than him. She was stronger than him. She was better and she knew it. She unclasped the rope and squatted down on the hard rock of the furrow. One breath, two breaths, three. She took off. And to any Flute watching from above, Thalia looked as though she were sprinting up the rock. A vertical climber.
“I lost my bag,” she said to the foreman when he asked about her decision.
“Yeah. I lost it.”
“Where’d you lose it to?”
“Down there.” She nodded to the furrow. “My answer is down with it.”
Lingnan was strapped with a bag of water, a bag of food, one bag full of untapped milk, rope, a lantern and a small pan he imagined would be good for something. He had been climbing for hours and was sweaty and hot but the breeze felt good and despite the fear that chalked the back of his throat, he could not stop smiling. He was still a league from the burrow as best he could tell. Every thirty meters he anchored himself to the spire and drew up his rope and then began again.
He’d spotted the black dot at the foot of the spire but didn’t dare stop to look and see who it was until the next anchor. She was far enough down that he could not make out her face even with the scope. But he knew who it was.
“Stubborn,” he said. Hooked to the spire he released the wall and clasped his hands together to yell. “Hey, Thalia! Turn around. You’ll never make it.”
She continued on up the spire. No rope. No bag. Nothing. She didn’t even stop for breaks or an extra breath.
“Crazy Flute,” he said.
A hundred meters from the burrow, Thalia caught him.
“You’re crazy,” he said.
“What?” The wind was angrier up here. It was tough to hear much else.
“I said you’re crazy.”
She climbed up beside him and dug both feet in and punched him so hard he swung off the spire and dangled in mid air by the rope he had anchored to the spire wall.
“You’re trying to kill yourself!” she said.
“You’re up here with no rope. No water.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Look at yourself!” he said.
She punched him again.
“Stop that!” he said. “You’ll fall.”
“You’re the one that needs rope.” She climbed past him.
“Where are you going?”
“Well I’m not going down there,” she said. “You coming?”
“You’re a bully,” he said. “That’s what you are. That’s why I didn’t bring you along.”
The hatch was round, auburn and, unlike every other hatch both Flutes had seen, was made from scales.
“What are those?” Lingnan asked.
“Don’t know.” She knocked on the hatch. It was hard. The scales scratched her knuckles.
“Don’t do that,” he said.
“Now you’re the conservative one?”
“Why are you so angry?”
She peered down. “We’re a long way up, Lingnan. Let’s get inside, yeah?”
The hatch opened outward. Thalia hopped in and took the first deep breath since she had started her climb.
It wasn’t so easy for Lingnan. He had a pack full of gear and a bag full of rope and he was strapped to the wall of the spire.
“Climb in first, then take all your gear off,” Thalia said.
“Leave me alone.”
He unhooked himself from the rope and his hands began to shake. He was free now with nothing to catch him if he fell. Thalia saw the look in his eyes and reached out her hand.
“Come on, Lingnan.”
The first great bellow of the coming Light Echo shook the spire and Lingnan lost his grip. He dropped from the ledge of the burrow and caught himself on the foothold just below. The rope he’d used to keep himself to the spire slipped away and dropped a fathom down to the floor below.
“I’ve got ya,” Thalia said.
She was flat on her belly, one arm thrown down to catch Lingnan, the other held flat against the hatch to brace herself.
“I’ve got ya,” she said.
“I’ve got ya. Climb.”
“But the rope.”
“Rope can’t save you anymore. All you’ve got is me. Now climb!”
He took one step off the hold and Thalia, with one arm and one hand, lifted him square off the spire and dragged him into the burrow gear and all.
“You know,” she said, “If you didn’t bring all this garbage you wouldn’t have needed my help.”
“Girls shouldn’t be so strong. It’s weird.”
“Shut up. Help me close the hatch before the Light Echo comes. It’s cold in here.”
“No!” she said. “Don’t close it. Look!”
They crawled to the edge of the hatch and stuck their heads out. They had climbed all day. Both had looked down to see how far they’d gone. Both had looked up to see how far they had to go. Neither had once looked out.
“Look at that,” Thalia said. The second round of trumpets began.
They saw the entirety of the Rift. It stretched from east to west and ended on opposing horizons where the sky bent and the earth seemed to drop off into the ribbons of orange and red and green Airglow that shined beyond. Where the Rift ended ahead of them another began and beyond that two more. They counted 18 spires, each as white and tall as this one. Well beyond the spires the land fell off like a cliff into the clear opaque white plain Thalia had heard about the day before. The whole horizon looked like the top of a globe.
Thalia couldn’t look away.
Lingnan began to close the hatch.
“Hold on,” Thalia said.
“Don’t screw around. You shouldn’t even be up here.”
“You shouldn’t,” she said. “Think how the Light Echo might look from up here. Don’t you want to see it, Lingnan?”
He took her hand and stood there with her and together they closed the hatch.
The walls of the burrow looked like they had been carved out by some unimaginable creature the Flutes had never seen.
“So this is what the inside of a spire looks like,” Lingnan said.
“Maybe,” Thalia said. “Except the scales.”
Despite the scales and the placement of the hatch on the wall instead of the ceiling, the burrow was very much like every other burrow they had seen.
“A lantern,” Thalia said. “Good.”
“What are you doing? Don’t fool around.”
“There’s no way out of here until tomorrow. I’m not going to spend that time with you.”
She took the lantern to the ground and ignited the flame.
“I can’t believe you brought your guitar up here with you.”
“I always have it with me.”
The guitar was tucked and folded inside a small pack she had on. She took it out and unfolded the neck and expanded the body like an accordion.
“Give me some of your milk,” she said.
“Don’t be so bossy.”
She stretched the milk over the flame, folded it over and stretched it out again, over and over until it became a fine thread.
“How did they build this burrow all the way up here?” Lingnan said.
Thalia, face over the fire, said, “You assume there is a They. The burrows have always been here.”
“And who lived in this one? And what about those scales?” Thalia didn’t look up from the flame until Lingnan muttered, “Maybe these have the answer.”
A bookshelf lined the far end of the burrow, six shelves high, each shelf filled.
“More books,” Thalia said. “Someone lived here. Someone broke custom. Probably the same Flute who owned the books we saw before.”
“Maybe,” Lingnan said. “You have your music, I have my books. We all break customs when we have to.”
Thalia pulled her string taut and plucked it. It shot out a twang that in the small burrow startled both Flutes.
“Scared?” Thalia said.
“They’re just books.”
She took out her guitar and threaded the string and when it was threaded she tuned the guitar and began again the song she had attempted before–the song she heard every night in her dreams. Lingnan scrolled through the books and listened to the melodic sounds as Thalia plucked the strings with all five fingers. He stopped when a title caught his eye.
“This one,” he said.
“Shhh,” Thalia said.
He sat down beside her with the book in his lap and before he opened it he read aloud the words on the cover that had caught his eye.
“An Outline of History: by Eugene Michael Antoniadi.”
Most of the others had vague overly worded titles that made little sense to Lingnan. “Geological Surveys: A Collection of Abstracts.” “The ABC’s of Airglow Variation,” plus even more ethereal sounding titles such as, “When the Earth Dreams” and “The Origin of Flutes.” None of them struck a chord but that first one.
Thalia looked down at the book but didn’t miss a beat. She continued on. Lingnan opened the book and read the introduction.
“Verbal and written observations of the Earth have continued despite persistent hostility towards scientists, writers and musicians across the Earth. Recorded here is the collected wisdom and generally accepted knowledge of our planet from its beginning to the present day.
“We did not reach this decision fruitlessly. It was no frivolous exercise. Each scientist and historian and musician and writer challenged every accepted notion of our world and accepted the risk that came with that venture. The risk, as we all know, was a sacrifice to the Light Echo. But what is the Light Echo? What is the Airglow we see in the sky? How long have we been here? Who were the first Flutes? Are there other Earths other than our own? Are those Earths populated with Flutes of their own? How has the Earth changed and what does this change mean for our future? These questions we have asked despite our culture’s attempts to stop us. This volume seeks to answer those questions. We begin with the terrestrial maps.”
Lingnan turned the page.
Thalia finished the song and her sigh filled the room. Lingnan, a few steps away, felt tingles climb up his whole body. He faced her and she smiled at him and he smiled back.
“You did it,” he said.
“I did,” she said. All her hostility had vanished and she was simply happy and comforted to be with her friend again. “What did you find?” she asked.
“A map,” he said. “There is a map.”
“A map?” She had never seen a map before. Maps required writing and drawing and paper and all three broke custom. She had only once or twice looked at a book when Lingnan wasn’t around.
“A map of what? Of the Rift?”
“Of the Rift, yeah. But more. Other Rifts. The Crest. The whole world.”
He nodded and he was sweating and yet she could see his arms were goosepimpled.
“Should I come see?” He didn’t answer and she scooted over to him. It was a map indeed but not one she expected. The map was of a Flute’s body, from head to toe, each body part labeled with regions and cities. There was a more detailed map of a toe with toenails and even the hairs were labeled.
“That’s where we live,” Lingnan said. He pointed to the map of the toe.
“What is this?” she said.
“This is Earth,” he said. “It even has a name. It is alive. It has been alive. It’s aging. It has a head and it has eyes.” He pointed to the head. “And it dreams, Thalia”
Lingnan continued through the books and every so often Thalia asked for an update but for the most part they were quiet. When the shift came they packed up their gear–Lingnan took the history book and three others–and prepared to leave.
“Lingnan,” Thalia said when she opened the hatch, “Do you have your scope on you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Why?”
“Neither of us looked up when we got here. Let’s see how far up you can see.”
From the surface, the farthest object they could see with the scope was the burrow. Beyond that the spire disappeared into the sky. And as far as any Flute imagined the spires climbed forever. There was no limit to them. Thalia looked up through the scope and found this untrue. The spires did have a summit. They clustered together at their summits, some of them touching. Beyond them the sky was blacker than she had ever seen it. Almost as though someone had thrown a blanket over them.
“There’s more!” Thalia said.
“There’s…there’s. No. No. No. I can’t.”
It took him a moment to find what Thalia had seen. When he did he took her hand and it was sweaty and his was sweaty and he fell back into the burrow, suddenly afraid of the height above and below. High atop the spires, leaping from summit to summit, was an eight legged creature, as black as the dawn, as large as thirty Flutes, with whiskers and a shell on its back. And Lingnan wondered if maybe Thalia had seen what he had seen–not the creature itself–but the Flute who rode on its back.
“What is it?” Thalia asked.
“I know what it is,” Lingnan said. “I know. You’ve heard of them before.”
“What is it?”
He put down the scope and sat back down in the burrow. They hadn’t let go of each other.
“Do you remember what Dactyl always said? Do you remember when he cursed?”
“Drac,” she said. “‘Every culture’s got different names for ‘em.’”
“There ain’t just one earth,” Lingnan said, echoing what Dactyl had told them. “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 lucky few who can fly and take them up the airglow in search for a new planet.”
They crawled to the edge of the burrow and stuck out their heads and each one looked through the scope to search for the eight legged creature but it was already gone. They stayed there for a long while, not sure what to expect. Lingnan thought maybe there would be more. None ever came. Soon they descended the spire and burrowed. They held onto their secret for as long as they could but Horace and Olof did finally pry it from them. Together at Greely’s, a pint of unspiced milk between them, the four Flutes agreed that whether they liked it or not, an adventure was soon to come.
The Light Echo, “What Was the Weird part?” © 2012 Christopher Dart