Lost Colony Ch. 13-4

“You said it’s forbidden for me to be here.”

“Oh yeah,” Chael snorted. “The Precipice aren’t supposed to take anyone else onto these waters, and certainly not to the place I’m taking you.”

“And yet here you are, doing just that.”

“I believe we’ve established that I’m not really Precipice.”

It sounded like a weak explanation, a way of avoiding something that Chael wasn’t allowed to share. Sparr was getting accustomed to the veil of secrecy that shielded whatever nugget of truth the Precipice guarded. They had funded his rescue for some reason. That was enough for now.

“So what can you tell me? Where are you taking me that’s so special?”

“Well, right now, I’m taking you through a vortex. Look.”

Sparr heard it before he saw it, at first a faint susurration which grew more defined with the passing of every second. A wave slapped against the side of the boat.

“Hold on,” Chael said, raising his voice to be heard. “It gets bumpy.”

The roof of the cave rose, or at least the sprinkling of glow worms did. For most of the journey they had been no more than three or four meters overhead. Now, as they approached the source of the noise, the tiny creatures rose to ten meters, then higher yet. The horizon expanded as well. If the glow worms had presented a constellation before, they now spread to form entire galaxies. The space they were entering must have been hundreds of meters across.

The sound of water filled the chamber, gurgling and surging, pushing at the boat. What had felt spookily serene just minutes before had turned violent.

“Hooooo!” Chael cried out, howling with laughter. “You wanna go northwest?” he shouted. He increased the strength of his rowing.

“What?” Sparr had no idea what the man meant. Spray began to soak the boat.

“No? Okay!” The boat tossed and jerked in the current. Above, the glow worm galaxy spun crazily. “How about north?”

“Chael,” Sparr shouted, struggling to be heard. “I don’t fucking-“

“No? Fine, we won’t go north!” The source of the gurgling was somewhere to their right, some sort of rapids or whirlpool. There was just enough light to make out the glint of something surging and wet. “How about east?”

The man was having a laugh, Sparr realized, enjoying the opportunity to test his strength against the spinning current. Chael repeated the jest once more before finally steering the boat free. “South it is, the most boring direction.” He was still laughing, but as they left the roar of the vortex behind them Sparr could hear that Chael’s breath had grown labored. The boat settled once again into milder current.

“The fuck?” Sparr grumbled.

“There’s a couple of spots like that,” Chael said, still laughing and winded. “You just gotta know the trick.”

“And what trick is that?” It was difficult to stay upset with the man.

“Know where you came in, and count the streams leading away from the center. It helps if you can spot a few landmarks on the ceiling.”

Sparr had a thousand questions, but rapidly growing fatigue was pushing them aside. The last several days had been marked by flight, combat, sex, and trekking. He was once again flagging. With Chael ably steering them, Sparr pulled up a blanket, stretched out as comfortably as possible against the hull of the boat, and found sleep.

***

He awoke to the crunch of stones. Sparr’s first realization was that Chael was pulling the compact vessel ashore on a gravel and sand spit. His next realization was that it was light enough to see.

They were still underground. The ceiling of the cave soared above them at least thirty meters, an irregular surface of sharp stone broken by crevices. It was from these that the pale, blue light shone. Beyond the spit, the stream continued, plunging once again into darkness.

“This is kind of difficult with you still in the boat.”

Groggily, Sparr realized that Chael was addressing him. The compact boatman stood on shore, still shirtless, holding the bow line, and giving Sparr an exaggerated, impatient look. Though stiff and sore, Sparr roused himself and hopped out of the boat. Together, he and Chael dragged the vessel clear of the water.

“Soooo, we’re here?” Sparr asked. The cave didn’t feel particularly welcoming. Lichen grew on a few of the larger boulders, but the spit itself was desolate, little more than a patch of gravel. Then he heard it, the same sibilant, hushed sound he had heard weeks ago while standing at the Portal, a sound like grass blowing in the wind, or mist dripping against shells.

“Almost,” Chael said. He was searching Sparr’s face for something. “You hear it, don’t you?”

“Yes.” The sound was so elusive that even Chael’s few words chased it away. Only after the two stood in silence could Sparr pick it out once more. “What is it?”

“You’ll see shortly. Oh, and fetch that, will you?”

Sparr followed Chael’s gaze to the back of the boat where a small bundle lay wrapped in cloth. He offered it to Chael.

“No,” Chael said. “It’s for you. Open it.”

Sparr unwrapped the cloth. Within, carefully padded, he found the portable DNA sequencer and a packet of collection strips.

“She thought you’d want it.”

“Holy crap!” Sparr turned the device over in his hands, powered it on and off, and checked for damage. It was still functional. “She gave it to you? Tracee?”

“Yes,” Chael replied, smiling warmly at Sparr’s reaction.

“Shit!” He was ecstatic, stunned, and confused. “Wait, Waii said the Klee weren’t sent by Tracee. It sounded like they didn’t even know who she was.”

“They didn’t. When Tracee contacted…,” Chael said before trailing off. “Hey, how about we talk as we walk?”

Sparr stashed the sequencer, shouldered his satchel and followed Chael up the spit. It rose from the stream bed, and, at the far side of the cave, entered a much smaller rock and ice tunnel. The floor of the tunnel was rock ground nearly smooth, as was the left wall. The ceiling and the right wall were made up of deep blue, cracked ice. He realized that the ceiling of the outer chamber must be ice as well, close enough to the surface for daylight to push through. He was beneath a glacier.

“Tracee contacted the Precipice,” Chael explained. The man was boundlessly energetic, forcing Sparr to scramble to keep up. “She gave them the box and a drawing of some kind.”

By box, Sparr understood Chael to mean the sequencer. The drawing must be the one that he had hastily prepared for Tracee to show to the Precipice. “So the Precipice contracted with the Klee to rescue me?”

“Well, no.” Chael glanced quickly at Sparr before turning away. “The Precipice at Neeva didn’t do shit. No offense, but they had no idea who you or Tracee were. And I don’t know what that drawing was, but they must not have found it terribly interesting.”

Sparr sighed inwardly. He had thought the drawing was so clever. He was just about to ask his next question when the pair came upon an obstruction. Bulging from the ice in the right hand wall, an elongated boulder lay partially exposed, as if the advancing ice had been unable to grind it down. But what Sparr at first took for a smooth surface turned out to be finely textured. He stopped to examine it.

Some kind of grey, feathery plant was growing across the entire surface of the boulder. Each frond was no longer than Sparr’s index finger, and consisted of a central stalk hosting a hundred tiny, fine tendrils. Though unfamiliar, it reminded Sparr most of a feather star, an aquatic animal he had shown to Calista a lifetime ago. While Chael waited patiently, Sparr swabbed one of the fronds with a DNA collection strip and fed it into the sequencer.

Sequencing, the machine indicated, before seeming to come to a halt. Sparr stared at the screen, unsure what had gone wrong. The sequencer should have already decoded the plant’s DNA and found the closest Earth match. Instead, the screen had gone blank except for a spinning icon which indicated that it was busy. He was about to try reading the strip again when finally the screen displayed a status.

1 percent decoded.

Muttering a curse, Sparr returned the sequencer to his satchel. It must be damaged, and he had no tools or diagnostic equipment. There was little to do except check later to see if it had finished the simple task.

“Ready?” Chael asked. If he had any curiosity about the sequencer it didn’t show. Once again the two resumed their walk.

Sparr needed something to take his mind off of the damaged device. “You were saying the Precipice wasn’t going to rescue me.”

“The Precipice at Neeva weren’t, no. I was sent from the Portal.”

If Sparr had been confused before, he was now doubly so. “Huh? Priests at the Portal sent you to rescue me? How did they-.”

“Not exactly,” Chael said, cutting him off. “I was sent to fetch you. It wasn’t until I got to Neeva that I learned you needed rescuing first.”

Sparr’s head swam, filled with competing questions. “Why did the Portal priests send for me?”

“Well, that I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them yourself.”

“And how soon will we get there?”

Chael laughed. “We’re already here.”

On cue, the tunnel opened before them. Whereas the section they had just passed through had been at most three meters across, Sparr now found himself entering a chamber at least ten meters wide. Nor were they alone. Throughout the chamber at least ten or twelve Precipice Translators, children with shaved heads, were resting, drawing, or playing. The gentle susurration of the odd Precipice language must have been what Sparr heard earlier.

Chael waved over the priestess who seemed to be watching the children. She greeted Chael warmly, but her eyes were on Sparr.

“This is the one?” she asked.

“Yep,” Chael replied. “Is Brielle ready?”

The priestess regarded Sparr with what might have been mild disapproval. “Yes,” she admitted. “Wait in the next hall,” she said, before slipping away.

As Chael led him through the chamber, Sparr noticed several more of the elongated, plant-covered boulders. Each was partially embedded in the ice, and all were roughly the same size. They must, Sparr thought, be from some particularly dense native stone that even the merciless grinding of a glacier couldn’t wear down.

At the end of the chamber they passed through a nook connecting to another chamber of similar size, as well as a ramp leading up. It was obvious that, although the tunnels were largely of natural origins, they had been carved, connected, and enlarged. Chael led him to the far chamber, where they waited for the priestess to return.

“I can tell you a little,” Chael said, his eyes shifting nervously between Sparr and the chamber entrance. “I was told to bring you to Brielle. She’s one of the oldest Translators, and one of the best. She’ll be a guide of sorts.”

“You said you didn’t know why the Precipice sent for me.”

“They didn’t tell me,” Chael admitted, “but the fact that they’re letting you speak with Brielle says a lot. They’d only send her if it was important, and if whatever it is they want you to do requires the best Translator.”

“I don’t get it,” Sparr said. “I don’t understand this language. You said you grew up here, right? Grew up in the Precipice?”

“Yes.”

“So you learned the language.”

“Yes,” Chael said, “and now I’ve lost much of it.”

“That’s what I don’t get. I studied French in high school. That was more than fifteen years ago and I can still parlez-vous a few words. Near as I can tell you’ve been around this scene your entire life and yet you can’t speak the language?”

The squat boatman stared at Sparr as if he had two heads. “Of course not. I don’t know what French is, but no one past the age of twenty can speak their language.”

Sparr was about to push the point, but was interrupted. The priestess he had met earlier walked stiffly into the chamber, a young woman in tow. She glared at Chael. “I hope you realize how precious she is.”

Chael threw his hands up. “I do as they ask, just like you.” He sighed, then stood. “C’mon, I’ll buy you a drink.”

The priestess delivered her own, heavy sigh, looking accusingly at Sparr. She hugged the young woman, whispered something into her ear, then left with Chael. The boatman grinned back at Sparr. “I’ll see you in a bit.” The two were gone.

Sparr got his first look at Brielle. The young woman appeared to be around age fifteen, with shaved hair, soft features, and a generous body. She wasn’t what Sparr considered especially pretty, but carried herself well, and had an open expression.

“Sooo, I don’t know exactly why I’m here,” Sparr began.

“I understand,” she said. Brielle’s voice had a high, singsong quality. “Is there something in particular that you want to know?”

There were a million such things. “Why do only children speak the language of the Precipice?”

Brielle smiled, an achingly sincere expression of acceptance and understanding. “Let me show you.” She took Sparr to the center of the chamber, which, like the previous one, was strewn with several of the elongated boulders. “Listen,” she said.

He did. As Sparr had noticed earlier, the same sibilant sound reached him, coming from all directions. “Okay…”

“Alain,” she said, smiling with infinite patience, “what you’re hearing isn’t the language of the Precipice. It’s their language.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Here.” Brielle led him to one of the boulders. She pressed his hand against the feather-like plant. “Listen again.”

Sparr’s hand resonated, caressed by vibrations almost too swift and delicate to be perceptible. There were gaps, stretches where the feeling either disappeared or became too subtle for his senses, but they were balanced by sounds, by feelings, that he could detect. Awareness pressed in on him, crushing realizations long held at bay.

“Oh my god!” Sparr yanked his hand away, staggering back. His world, everything he thought he knew about Kaybe, was collapsing around him. He scrambled for the gene sequencer, punching the display to check its status.

100 percent decoded. Alien DNA sequenced. No Earth match.

“This is a native species,” he gasped, gesturing at the plants.

“No,” Brielle said softly, “she is a native species. It’s their language, Alain, not ours.”

Too much was happening too quickly. “But I can barely hear it. How do you…”

“She is one of them, Alain, an Original.” Brielle’s eyes were fixed on him, pale and imploring. “Of us, only the very young can hear. Even I’m already beginning to lose my ability. In five years I’ll be able to hear no more than Chael, no more than any adult.”

Pieces of the puzzle were crashing into place. “Of course,” Sparr said. “High-frequency hearing loss. It starts in your teens and continues through life.” That was why the Precipice took in children. Without them they would have no way to communicate with… what? He remembered the dark shapes underground in the Precipice drawings. They had reminded him of seeds. “That’s not a rock.”

“No,” Brielle giggled. She brushed her hands over the fronds. They rose up to explore her, curling around Brielle’s fingers and tickling her palm. “She’s an Original.”

It was overwhelming. The colonists had made first contact with a sentient alien species four hundred years earlier and no one on Earth had a clue. He was bursting with questions but one rose, absurdly, to the top. “What do they eat?”

Brielle giggled again. “I can show you.” She led him to the far end of the chamber, where the ice narrowed to two meters. “This is one of their burrows. Do you see the dark streaks?”

“Yes.” The tube was veined with green and red lines, traces of something in the ice.

“They eat it with their fronds.”

“They burrow through the ice?”

“Very slowly, yes. Would you like to feed her?”

“Yes,” Sparr said eagerly. “How?”

In response, Brielle cut away a chunk of ice laced with red particles. She handed it to Sparr. “Just hold it close to her.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Sparr walked back to the creature, the Original, and gently lowered the chunk of ice toward its fronds. As soon as he was close enough, the fronds rose, caressing the ice and Sparr’s hand with equal interest. When he released the ice, the fronds quickly encircled it, rubbing away at the chunk. As water melted and dripped away, the fronds closed around the red particles, no doubt beginning to digest them.

An idea struck him. Sparr darted back to the burrow, and, using DNA collection strips, swabbed both the red and green particles. He fed one into the sequencer. As before, it took unusually long before the device showed a status.

1 percent decoded.

He didn’t need to wait for the sequencer to finish to know that he had found another alien species. The Originals fed much like feather stars did, collecting and digesting tiny plankton-like creatures. Except feather stars didn’t have to burrow through ice for a meal.

Sparr sat, rubbing his eyes and trying to clear his head. The discovery explained the Precipice entirely. It was through contact with the Originals that they knew what life had been like on Kaybe before the colonists arrived. The aliens fed them the descriptions that went into the murals used to record and teach the planet’s history. And it explained why the Portal, the Precipice’s most important site, was located on the ice. The quasi-religion taught the truth, but had few followers.

But why was he here? If the Precipice only wished to free him, perhaps in thanks for shutting down the mining on Horn Island, they could simply have returned him to Neeva. He raised his head.

“You didn’t bring me here to tell me Precipice secrets.”

“No,” Brielle admitted. The Translator pulled a rolled parchment from the fur she wore to guard against the chill. She spread it onto the floor of the chamber, revealing a scene that Sparr recognized at once.

“The Translators were drawing this scene when I was last here. The Originals described it to them, didn’t they?”

“Yes,” Brielle agreed. The scene depicted a landscape much like the ones the Precipice used to record the early arrival of the colonists. A harsh, vertical line, which Sparr was sure represented mining activity, plunged deep underground. Above, the landscape was blighted and dark, with stunted trees and human figures fleeing while others lay prone, either dead or dying. The underground world wasn’t faring any better. A dark blotch spread out from the site of the mine, turning the otherwise pastel scene a charcoal grey.

“It’s like what happened four hundred years ago.”

“It will happen again.” Brielle’s good humor had faded.

The realization settled in on him. “You want my help stopping it.”

The Translator nodded, her eyes assessing his reaction.

“What happened the first time? Did the Originals stop it somehow?”

Brielle sat, dropping easily to the floor. She was comfortable in the ice tunnels in a way that only someone who had spent their youth there could be. “Of course you see how unlike us they are.” She held up her hands.

Sparr got the idea. “Sure. Not like they can race to the surface waving their arms and saying ‘don’t drill here!’.”

“But they do have some technology.”

The word ‘technology’ had an awkward place in the Kaybe common tongue. The word might as easily mean ‘parts’, or ‘scrap’. With no technological development on the planet, the locals understood machines only as leftovers, or relics from myth.

“The Originals shut down the mining with their technology?”

“They tried. We didn’t listen.”

Not for the first time, it struck Sparr that the Precipice knew perfectly well when the colonists had first arrived on Kaybe, and the complicated legacy that had followed.

“What did they do? I mean, what did they try that we didn’t heed?”

“They could stop the old machines.” Brielle’s brow knitted in concentration. “With a… wave?” She put her hands together then dramatically swept them apart, fingers spread. “Like a quickly blooming flower.”

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