Although the boy named Fifteenth was strong, launching himself from the ground was very hard work, only for emergencies. When at last he began to run out of strength on his first long flight across the plain toward Knife-in-the-Sky he was careful to choose a spot where hillocks gave him a small height advantage for the next launch. A tall tree would have been better, but here there were only fire-trees and bee-trees, and neither was any good for climbing. When you climbed fire- trees no matter how careful you were some of the fire clung to your skin and, although it did not seem to do immediate harm, after a time you sickened and died. And bee-trees, of course, were guarded by their bees. These were not really bees in any sense, but they shared with Earthly bees a disposition to assault invaders en masse, so the boy avoided them.
He did not sleep on his first landing, only ate from the stocks he carried, rested drowsily for a thousand breaths, and then launched himself again. It was unsatisfying flying over the marshes that he soon encountered. There were few updrafts, and only weak ones, to climb in. Nearer home, generations of wingmen had located reliable springs of rising air in many places— where the lowest slopes of the mountain shaped the wind, or where for some reason the ground was always warm. But he was at the edge of the known world already, as far as his people were concerned. He could recognize some helpful signs. Nearly always fire-trees meant rising air, not because the trees themselves were warm but because they only grew in warm soil. But the stands of fire-trees here in the marshes were spindly and infrequent. Better than nothing. Not very good.
So he climbed mostly with the power of his lean, long arms and chest muscles, and flying was steady work. Better than walking. Still, not good.
It did not matter. The boy’s purpose held, and after every rest or meal or sleep he launched himself again and drove on toward Knife-in-the-Sky.
He had known that mountain all his life, but he hadn’t known how far it was. He slept twenty-three times crossing the alternating marsh and flatlands past the edge of the grass, and eighteen times more crossing what was pure marsh, where he could rest only on hillocks and the steamy mist that rose around him while he slept was malodorous and cloying. Each time he knotted the count into the cord around his throat when he woke, and looked toward Knife-in-the-Sky; and still it seemed no larger.
Beyond the marshes he crossed an endless carpet of thick, bright moss that had a queerly sharp smell which he associated with the electrical storms that rolled around the upper reaches of his mountain—but he had no name for “ozone.” Something in the air above the mossland made him sneeze. The moss bore no fruit and it gave him no game. He counted twenty-eight sleeps on his way across it, and came out giddy with hunger and thirst.
He came down, with the last of his strength, on the bank of a shallow river that rimmed the moss world. Flying off again would be hard work, but it couldn’t be helped. He knelt and drank the black water until he began to feel ill, and then looked for food in the forest on the far bank. Its plants were club-shaped and leafless, shining with their own cold light like dwarfed, warped fire-trees. Shining daggers of thorns guarded the hard red nuts they bore. He picked a few doubtfully, and looked farther. But there was none of the game he knew from the grasslands near his home, none of the fleet four-legged herd animals, or the horned, two-legged hoppers. His arrows killed a small weakly flying thing that fed on the nuts, but its flesh was tasteless and dry. He roasted some of the nuts, and felt sicker after eating them than he had before.
He summoned the strength to pitch his wings together to make a tent, pegged against one of the club- shaped trees. He rolled inside, curled up in a ball, and tried to sleep. It was not easy. The boy had never known what insomnia was, but he had heard old people speak of it sometimes and now he understood what they meant. He was drained and aching. For the first time he began to wonder if he were not as crazy as his brother had said. His brains truly felt as if they were bound to the ground. His thoughts could not rise and fly over him; they were limited to fear and misery and depression.
After a time he decided that he must eat, no matter what, and rose again.
Here in the marshes the sky was darker than on the slopes of his mountain; there were fewer fire-trees, and the light from the steely bright moss on the far side of the river was of little help. The boy had never heard of concepts like “day” or “night.” He had never seen a sun in his sky, or for that matter a moon or stars. There were none to be seen, except for the occasional rare coils of silvery haze that, he had no way of knowing, were distant galaxies. One time was as good as another to sleep, or to eat, or to hunt. But he was not used to being hungry or ill.
It made him feel dizzy and faint, and when he crawled out of his wing-tent and saw the bright cube that whirled away out of sight he thought at first it was the imagining of sickness.
Sick as he was, his brain cleared almost at once. Once or twice before, in the long flights over grass and marsh and moss, he had thought he had glimpsed something small and bright and far behind. But it had always hung just at the threshold of visibility. He knew that the Watchers traveled in huge things that were bright and shiny. But this did not seem very large, nor did it ever come closer. He had heard of the small new Watchers that his brother had told him about. Was this one of them? He could not say.
All he could be sure of was that it had not harmed him so far, at least, and certainly there would never be a better chance to do him harm than while he lay shaking and weak in the wing-tent.
It gave him much to think about, but he could think without fear, for somehow he did not believe that this small Watcher intended to hurt him.
Curiously, the effort of thinking, perhaps also the sense that some sort of creature was not far away, even if hiding, seemed to sharpen his mind and his will. He stood up, drank again from the river, and began to search for the sprays of flame-bright red bloom he had seen from the air. These marked a thick-rooted plant. When he found them he dug out roots, and found among them nests of blood-red worms that, he thought, he had heard the older wingmen of his people describe as edible in bad times.
The roots were sweet and white and good, the worms less good. They were gritty and revolting raw, but he made a fire and soon learned to clean them of their digestive sacs before broiling them. He made his first satiating meal in many sleeps, rolled back into the wing-tent, and slept soundly and well. He stayed by the river bank for three more sleeps, and then felt strong enough to pack himself with roots and smoked worms and go on again.
He flew steadily and low, saving his wasted energy, careful with the now-worn bands of his harness. He strained his neck with watching, ceaselessly scanning the sky all around for orgs, or Watchers, or for another sight of the small Watcher that had fled from him by the river—all the time searching the forest for food, studying the horizon for signs of updrafts that might help him.
The dully glowing forests sloped sharply upward now. He slept seven times in a belt of fog and rain. With Knife-in-the-Sky now lost in the lowering sky his target was gone. He set his course as much as he could by following the upward slopes. When those signs failed, or were doubtful, he drew from his harness the one gift his mother had given him that had been her father’s.
The crystal-cased object that glittered like the small Watcher was the size of the boy’s thumb. Inside it a needle spun about, but ever seemed to quiver toward a single direction with the end that was brighter than the other. His mother had not known much about it, except that the wingmen of her people used the devices to mark the direction of flight when landmarks failed.
The air grew cooler as he climbed. When he camped for one sleep on a moss-grown rock he woke shivering and chilled. He crept stiffly from beneath his tented wings and found the low clouds gone.
He looked up and caught his breath.
Knife-in-the-Sky filled all the world ahead. The forests lifted toward it forever, rising piles of pale brown and gray and ivory, splashed with vast black masses of fallen stone.
So high he had to stretch his neck to look, the mountain itself rose out of those broken boulders. Walls of dead rock marched up and at the top of that unclimbable wall, higher than he could imagine, the jagged summit slashed across the rippling colors of the sky.
He studied that summit for a long time, looking for orgs while the damp wind that blew down the slopes of the mountain numbed him with unexpected cold. He knew they were there. They were always there, when they were not sweeping down to the lower slopes and the marsh and the grasslands and forests, seeking their prey. Perhaps those distant black spots, so hard to distinguish from the motes of dust that one sees on the surface of one’s own eye, were orgs; he could not tell. Whatever, they were still a long way off. He stepped back to see more clearly over that giddy wall, felt a sudden gust as he was caught off stride; and the ground slid away under him. He grabbed wildly for the anchor rope that secured his tented wings, but his chilled fingers slid off it. The wind spun him off the rock; he flailed his arms, trying to get his balance; the moss was slippery, the cold had made him clumsy and he went sprawling over the edge.
The fall was only twenty times his own height—say, a hundred and fifty feet by Earth measures—so there was no real danger. Even without wings he could glide to some extent, as Earthly sky divers used to direct their fall before allowing their chutes to open. He picked out a landing spot where a bank of crimson moss promised some cushion, stretched out his arms, writhed with his body, spun around like a cat dropped from a table, and landed not too badly, considering the sluggishness of his muscles from the cold. A pink cloud of spores rose around his plowing feet and half blinded him. He sprawled, sneezing and choking, and then stood up and looked around.
The clouds below had shifted, and he could see across the great bowl of marsh and plain almost to the slopes of his own mountain. Past the brown and yellow slopes beneath him, the moss world made an endless sea; past it, the marshes, overhung with cloud, traced with thin black lines of rivers. In the hollows white fog lay.
He had not realized home was so far, but he could spare no thought for it. He turned and looked up the rock to where his tented wings and supplies were. Without wings he could not fly, but he could still climb; unfortunately, the rock was very steep and he could not trust his stiffened fingers to seek out holds in its crevices. He would have to climb the long way around.
The boy had no lack of practice in climbing, but as a wingman he disliked it very much. Without wings it could be dangerous. The combination of low gravity and dense atmosphere that his world possessed made the lifting of mass easy, but unbalanced the equation of wind versus inertia; caught by a gust on a vertical face, it was quite possible he could be flung so far out that even the slow acceleration of his world would crush him when he struck ground again. So he sought an easy way and sprang carefully from point to point, and was concentrating so hard on his task that he almost did not see the small Watcher as it swooped past his head and then spun away upward toward the place where his gear waited for him.
The boy shrank back into a crevice in the moss and waited for attack.
The attack did not come. Actually, he had not thought it would; this small Watcher for some reason did not seem menacing to him. And yet what could it be doing with his gear? He could hear nothing. He could see nothing—then, in a flash, he saw something startling: a bright flare of golden light that washed the side of the mountain and disappeared in a moment.
Cautiously the boy eased his way out of the little fold in the terrain and stretched himself to peer upward. He listened; he looked; he smelled; he reached out with all of his senses toward the top of the rock, but there was nothing.
He knelt on folded legs for a hundred breaths, considering. Strictly speaking, there was nothing on the rock that he could not do without. Food, spear, bow, wings, harness—he could not make them as well as the specialists among his people, but he could make them well enough to get buy. The wings and harness would be the most difficult, but he had seen enough of his brother’s work to know that replacing them would not be impossible.
Still … the thing was, the gear on the top of the rock was his gear, and he wanted it back.
If the small Watchers were the same as the big ones there would be no question. His only option would be to flee, and that would almost certainly be useless, if his brother’s stories were halfway true. But he did not think there was any hostility stored in the glittering little cube he had seen.
So with great daring, very slowly and cautiously at first but then more quickly and openly, the boy made his way around a boss on the mountainside, up and over it, and emerged higher than the rock where he had slept, looking down on it, an easy spring from it.
He had not known what to expect, but he had not expected what he saw.
The cube was no longer just a cube. It hung in air a yard above the moss, not far from his wing-tent, steady as if it were nailed there, not dipping or even trembling in the winds. But it was growing something. From one face of it a glowing, filmy bubble of something was spreading to form a sphere almost the height of the boy—then taller, while he watched.
The sphere stopped growing. The boy looked and pondered, wondering whether to approach. For dozens of breaths nothing happened, unless a shadowy sort of movement inside the sphere was real, and was something happening.
llie boy could see his gear, waiting for him. He could detect no harm in the cube or in the bubble.
He did not come to a conscious decision; but in a moment he discovered that his legs were gathering under him and he sprang toward the top of the rock. He turned in air to bring his feet under him, landed well, spun around to face the small Watcher.
And then something did happen. There was another flash of that intense golden explosion of silent light, and for a moment he was blinded. And when he could see again at all he saw that the bubble was burst open, sliced from within, like an org’s egg with the hatchling just coming out; and out of it was stepping—what? A man? Short, fat, squat, dark, curiously clothed—but yes, a man!