A Novel of Cometary Space
When all the children sleep—
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light Her lamps…
-- Emily Dickinson, Poem 790
A mandala of living wonders unfolded around the three travelers while they flew from the head where they had started, in the direction of the tail. Propelled by the soft hiss of airjets, this trio of young adults had spent most of a standard day flying through the huge tunnel within the body of the cloudwhale that was their entire world. For a long time the tunnel’s surface around them appeared mostly a uniform blue-grayish color.
The three were enjoying a hiatus from their regular studies in the headend colony where they lived, in order to observe first-hand the native flora and fauna of the cloudwhale’s internal environment. The natural tunnel where they flew averaged about five kilometers in diameter. Bare tunnel walls eventually gave way to what looked like an intricate carpet that coated the “bottom” half of the curved inner surface. Here the harp trees grew tall and closer together.
The travelers had at last reached the tunnel’s central forested region, near the middle of the cloudwhale’s living immensity.
They sailed over a profusion of delicate growth that clung to the surface. Harp tree thickets and clumps of snapping claw trees gave way to multi shrubs and paisley meadows. Flocks of the common flix swirled on the humid air like confetti, or hung suspended in granulated clouds. A few shimmering spheres of water wafted low over treetops through the microgravity environment, trailing vaporous wakes of mist. Only this small section of the cloudwhale’s inner world held such a concentration of living things.
“Enjoy it while you can!” Jib said with cheery fatalism. “It may not be here much longer. Apocalypse soon!” He accelerated in front of Keter and Asia; his cynical words barely made it back to them.
“Hey, d-d-don’t assume the w-worst,” Keter shouted to his brother. “I b-bet someone will save the world. It c-could even be one of us. Or all of us…”
Jib pushed his flight goggles up on his brow. Keter pushed his goggles down around his neck, while Asia took hers off, and hooked them onto her belt.
Jib slowed his flight by extending all four limbs, and he glared back over his shoulder. “Just because WALT WHITMAN’s safely tucked into the Oort Cloud right now, it would be stupid to assume that we’re safe in the long run.”
Keter scowled. “Are you saying I’m stupid?”
“You’re both partly right,” Asia said. “As usual,” she added with a little sigh. “Whatever’s coming, we might as well enjoy this opportunity instead of making a debate out of it. Pax. All right?”
Keter grinned amiably and nodded beside her. His brother simply spun around with a twist of his airjet nozzle and flew onward. Jib performed a showy series of forward somersaults, as if to dismiss the importance of his companions, then he settled into a determined glide. Despite the natural splendor that surrounded them, a small dark cloud of self-doubt remained suspended within him. Sometimes he wished he could be as uncomplicated as his brother seemed to be.
In spite of all the enchanting distractions, Asia paid more attention to her argumentative companions and their flying styles. Both young men were handsome specimens in their own ways. Slender fair-haired Jib, darted through the airspace with predatory precision, and always seemed too serious.
His huskier, dark-haired brother Keter surged and tumbled with deliberate grace as he flew. Nothing seemed to really bother Keter, least of all Jib’s constant challenges. Asia knew how dissimilar their differing paternity seemed to have made made these half-brothers. Still, according to the polite parameters of the cloudwhale’s colonial culture paternity was not a matter to be discussed openly. Within the carefully engineered social parameters of the colonies, good manners in conversation were not only considered important, but even necessary.
Since the brothers recently moved from their mother’s sorority into a fraternity to live among adult men, the tensions between the two had not subsided. It used to be so much more fun to spend time with these two, she thought, before they moved out of the sorority. It must have something to do with sex… everything is about sex with young men their age! Only if I try to say anything about it, that would only make things worse.
She and Keter caught up with Jib.
She noticed that the brothers exchanged contentious glances. Aware of another incipient argument, she attempted intervention. “I’m getting awfully hungry, you guys. Harp Tree City can’t be all that far away…”
The suspended trio gazed in the tailward direction at a hazy bluish crescent that defined the tunnel walls not many kilometers from them.
“Sure,” Jib said, “Harp Tree’s right there under the Horns.”
While “up” and “down” were no more than conventions related to human anatomy in this world without noticeable gravity, “head” and “tail” were actual directions within the cloudwhale’s immensity. Overall the cloudwhale resembled a fat cylinder with rounded ends, slightly less than two hundred kilometers in total length. Its mass was mostly composed of light and spongy tissue, being covered externally with a thick, extremely tough skin that blocked most cosmic rays. Internally the single long tunnel snaked through it from head to tail, and naturally contained a breathable, oxygen-rich atmosphere. The tunnel walls were bioluminous, and provided plenty of ambient light to see by. The cloudwhale’s mass and density were not sufficient in themselves to produce significant gravitation.
“The Horns are at the exact center of the forest,” Jib added condescendingly, as if they were tourists from outer space.
Keter and Asia exchanged glances of patient forbearance. Then the three flew onward, and now they skimmed closer over the treetops.
“Look.” Keter pointed and they braked their jets to a halt, in order to watch pencil-thin dandylizards amid the foliage below.
The dandylizards drifted on puffs of hair at the ends of long tails.
“And look there,” Jib said.
Deeper in the diffuse growth lurked fat inflated wingsnakes, recoiling slowly on the hunt, paddling with stubby flippers at the jaw. One snake stalked a lizard by stealthy degrees scarcely discernable to the eye, and then lunged suddenly. At the last moment its prey popped an air bladder and vanished in a blink of collapsed fluff. In the confusion of fleeing dandylizards, one of them flew directly into the open jaws of another wingsnake, which snapped it in two with an audible kratch sound.
“Oh dear,” Asia sighed, and covered her mouth.
The snake wriggled and sank into the shelter of gauzy green angelhair to digest its prize with a venting fart of deflation.
“Are you sure,” Asia said, “that there’s nothing dangerous to us living around here?”
“Not likely this side of the Horns,” Jib sounded confident.
“C’mon.” Keter beckoned. “I’m hungry too.”
The three soared tailward at a faster speed. Harp trees combing the air for food grew more common amid sheltering lagoons of angelhair where glistening blobs of water had been trapped like gigantic half-hidden jewels.
By this time the Horns themselves presented an impressive sight. The forest grew mostly along the “bottom” half of the tunnel because of occasional spin intervals when the entire cloudwhale turned along its lengthwise axis. That axial spin—to the human senses indistinguishable from mild gravity—produced centrifugal force that concentrated moisture on the downside of the tunnel. At the middle of this region, where the tunnel dipped slightly below the lengthwise axis, the treeline along both sides of the tunnel peaked into twin crests that formed the Horns. From a distance these crests appeared to taper to sharp tips—an illusion of perspective.
Opposite the tips of the Horns near the topside, on the forest floor at the bottomside stood the plume sequoia grove. This cluster of “trees” reached nine hundred meters in length. Rather than actual plants, the sequoias were spines that protruded from the inner surface, extensions of the tunnel surface itself, on which foliage flourished in symbiosis. Just in front of the plume sequoias the travelers could see the white domes of Harp Tree City, as if a cluster of mushrooms had sprouted on the forest floor. Beyond the blue crescent of the Horns a twist of lacy cloud softened the receding atmospheric distance of the farther tunnel.
“What a lovely place!” Asia declared wistfully to the boys who cruised at her sides. “So incredibly peaceful…” I really don’t want to choose between these two, she thought with some distress. That could only make things worse between them. Anyway, it just isn’t fair that I’m in this position! I really want them both—so may a triad will work out eventually… even though they are both sons of Rose.
Jib and Keter simultaneously regarded her: the shock of auburn hair cut in a shag, her heart-shaped face, and green elfin eyes. The brothers’ gazes met and they looked away again. Moments later screams of terror and anguish from the left side below them shattered the tranquil scene. “S-sounds like s-s-someone’s getting k-killed!” Keter cried out.
Jib scowled. “I think for once you’re right…”
“Come on,” Asia snapped. “Someone’s in trouble!”
She flashed away like a goldfish, and the brothers sheepishly accelerated after her. The three youngsters flew so swiftly that they caught a flock of dozing flix unaware. Hundreds of the hand-sized hexagonal creatures scattered to all directions in chirping and sputtering confusion.
Asia held the lead though Keter first spied what was happening. “Right there!” he shouted as Asia broke her momentum and the boys glided to her sides.
“Oan’s Balls!” she groaned in disbelief. “That thing’s eating her alive!”
Within a perimeter of harp trees the diplotree wobbled above the surface with a woman snared in its vicious tentacles. To no avail she desperately kicked and flailed to free herself. Sprays of serrated arms from opposite ends of the bulbous tree lashed and raked at its victim. The limbs shredded her and drew chunks of flesh into the dark star of its gaping maw.
The woman had to be in shock by now. Her screams had subsided to loud panting and low agonized groans. She struggled mechanically. Gobbets of her blood spun and clashed on the air.
Jib hung numbed by horror, his belly a frozen lump; he could not respond.
Asia clung to him, gasping and shaking him by his shoulders.
Keter simply sped directly into the fray on a burst of his airjet, which forced the others into action.
“Wait, Keter Rosen!” Asia wailed. “It’ll get you too!”
“There—there’s got to be a better way,” Jib sputtered.
“Stop your brother, Jib Rosen! He’ll get killed!”
“I can see that…”
Before the other two could disentangle their fears, Keter landed with both feet on one bulb of the diplotree’s six-lobed body. The entire raft of the monstrous carnivore lurched and shuddered slightly from the thrust of his jet, which kept him pressed onto it. Keter crouched and danced to avoid the slashing tentacles, and grabbed blindly for the tattered woman.
She managed to hook an arm around his legs and screamed loudly again.
A thrumming whine rose from deep within the diplotree’s core. It sounded pleased with itself, as if it might double its catch of human flesh. Toothsome arms gathered ominously toward the two figures crouched on its flank.
Overhead, flix chattered in a frenzied cyclone.
Asia yelled: “Do something, Jib!!!”
“Might be able to distract it,” Jib muttered to himself. He adjusted his airjet nozzle to one side, and then shot forward as he uncoiled a line from his flight-belt. He flung the line out, and snapped a long wave into it while trailing it behind him as he completed a wide arc around the monstrous creature.
Though the diplotree was as virtually weightless as everything was in the microgravity, he knew its mass could easily crush him against the forest floor with its momentum. So he took care in pulling the line taut.
Rasping tentacles caught the line at once as Jib jerked on it hard to tilt the raft of spheres. He countered his own surge toward it with a burst of air. Snapping beaks that studded the arms snipped through the line almost immediately.
The jolt of that release of tension flung Keter and the woman apart from the diplotree. A funnel-cloud of flix descended over them. The snaking arms thrashed angrily at their loss.
Asia flew closer and helped Keter to haul the victim away from the agitated carnivorous tree. Keter bled from gouges on his cheek and one thigh—nothing terribly serious.
However Asia saw that the woman had lost an arm above one elbow, along with other massive wounds that still spouted blood. Her insides churned. I’ve got to breathe deeply, Asia told herself, and just do whatever I can to help.
The diplotree must have resorted to its hunting tactic in which it mimicked the sound of flix, as a webwolf lure, for now the little hexagonal flyers fluttered and clustered all over the thing until they totally covered it. Normally, the diplotree’s preferred prey were webwolves, which fed on flix. No matter how many of the flix the tentacles snatched and fed into the tree’s mouth, the little flyers did not seem discouraged from roosting all over the monstrous thing.
When Asia and Keter had the victim out of range of the deadly arms, Jib approached them with his sundered line in tow.
“Tie off her arm,” Asia gulped, “or she’ll bleed to death.” The girl looked down to see where she had been squeezing the bloody stump of the woman’s arm as tightly as she could with her bare hands.
Keter was not so badly hurt though he appeared dazed; nonetheless he reached for Jib’s line.
“I’ll do it.” Jib nodded grimly. “You take care of Asia.”
Flushed and panting, Keter slipped an arm around Asia, who began to heave sobs of relief. “I’ll call Harp Tree for emergency med help.”
Jib grimaced at his task. “We can get her there faster ourselves. Just call ahead so they’ll be ready to receive her.”
Keter did so; he activated a commlink through the nanoscreen painted on the back of his hand. He also stroked Asia gently while she hunched in misery and threw up. He kicked the glob of vomit down into some nearby vegetation, oblivious to the mess it left on his boot.
Jib improvised a tight tourniquet. Though the woman had lapsed unconscious, he had managed to slow the worst of her bleeding. He brushed away whatever globules of blood he could, and took her in his arms like an oversized, damaged child. “Are you two all right?” He glanced at his companions.
His brother tried to smile bravely, but it looked like a grimace.
“No,” Asia’s voice quavered, “but we will be. If we can get her to Harp Tree in time, she’ll survive.” She stared a moment at her bloody hands, then looked away.
“If she d-does, they can g-grow her a new arm.”
They situated their goggles back in place over their eyes, for protection from the made wind of maximum velocity. All three young folks added the thrust of their airjets to the mass of the injured woman’s body while they flew her toward the Horns at full speed.
Jib still sounded breathless: “She must have been a tourist taking pictures of the wildlife. No colonist would be crazy enough to go anywhere near one of those things.”
“She seems to be breathing steadily,” Asia noted. “I think she’s gonna make it, you guys.”
“What I d-don’t get,” Keter said with a frown, “is why we found a d-diplotree so far headward at all.” Colonists knew that the dangerous diplotrees ordinarily kept to the tailend of the forest, where their regular prey, the webwolves could be found. Also well known was the fact that webwolves fed exclusively on their own smaller cousins, the flix. So the carnivorous trees often imitated flix to lure the webwolf.
Jeb agreed, “Yes, it is strange.”
They had only a few more kilometers to go. The urgency of their mission made the trip seem far too long and too slow.
At last they sank toward the chaste white hemispheres of Harp Tree City anchored in an expanse of flowering paisley.