The mountain was a friendly mountain. It had been growing for half a billion years, as mountains naturally did. Its slow cells fed on rain and air and windblown dust, compacting them into a core of solid quartz.
On other planets, Earth for example, mountains also grew, but in a different way. Terrestrial mountains were thrust up from below by the slow violence of shifting continental crusts and the shock of volcanic eruptions. Here mountains grew more gently.
A boy, whose name was Fifteenth, lived on this mountain with his people. When he was little it was his whole world and he had not imagined anything beyond it. Now he was nearly grown. From time to time he looked beyond the mountain, but always came back to it. It was home.
It was not all hospitable. Its summit was a rounded crown, carved with winding fissures, glowing with a blue bioluminescence brighter than the storms that often boiled around it. Lower down, where the winds were now too warm and dry, its surface film of shfeifig life was tattered iifto drying shreds. With the life-coat dying, the age-eaten stone beneath was caving away from the vertical cliffs, adding black and shattered masses to the boulder slopes below, where the wild orgs nested. The boy never went that high. It was too dangerous.
But lower still, there was home! The dead stuff of the mountain had rotted into rich black soil that spread in delta-plains and marshes all around its foot. Floods
from its stormy heights ran down to water the forests and mosslands that reached all the way to the grassy flat- land where the people ranged to find food and trophies, and bring them back to the sweet slopes of the mountain.
Fifteenth’s people were nomadic wingmen. From the heights on the side of the mountain they could launch themselves into always-present orographic updrafts, and spiral out of them to overfly the green rainpaths of the plain. There were roots and fruits, waterholes and game. When they found what they wanted they swooped down and possessed it. It was a good life. It was flie only life Fifteenth had known, but it was not good enough.
And when he was just coming bearded, he looked around the camp of his people and sat in thought for a long time, testing a thought that had come to him. He looked out across the flat plains to that other distant, seemingly barren mountain that his people called Knife- in-the-Sky. It was hard to see in the uncertain light from the plains and the few forested parts of its slopes. The boy’s people had never seen daylight, or for that matter night; they marked the passing of time by their own body cycles or by changes in the trees and animals, since they had no other clock on a world that showed nothing in its sky but clouds and, rarely, some faint misty distant gleam that looked like a swirl of muted silvery fire. But even when they could not see Knife-in- the-Sky they knew it was there. For every org on the boy’s own mountain there were a thousand on Knife-in- the-Sky. On his own mountain their clutches were scant, and often the eggs produced weaklings; but always there were new orgs coming from Knife-in-the- Sky to replenish the stocks. The boy sat staring at the distant jagged peak for many thousands of breaths, and then he went to tell his brother that he had resolved to leave his people, to cross the plain, to climb Knife-in- the-Sky and steal a wild org’s egg.
“You are young,” his brother said wearily and
fretfully, “and you are foolish. Other youths have gone org-hunting. They do not come back.”
Fifteenth stood stubbornly silent, hanging his head. His brother was the head of his clan, the clan in which fourteen other males were older and therefore more powerful than himself. The boy did not want to show disrespect to his brother by disagreeing, but he could not make himself promise to give up his plan.
“Only those whose minds are on the ground hunt orgs,” his brother warned.
The boy still did not speak. They were standing outside his brother’s new tent, pitched in the yellow light of a clump of fire-trees. His brother’s new wife was singing in the tent, grinding grain for their next meal. From beyond the fire-trees the slow clang of a blacksmith’s anvil rang: that was the boy’s cousin, Second.
The brother carefully worked his awl through a double thickness of leather before speaking again. Then he looked up. “If you stay with us, I will share my skills with you,” he offered.
The boy showed his astonishment. Their father had been a wingwright. As was proper, his skills had come down to the eldest of his sons. With a new wife, First would surely have sons of his own before long, and to give wingwright skills to Fifteenth would be depriving his own get of what was rightly theirs. “I thank you,” the boy said. “But I will go.”
“Knife-in-the-Sky is farther than it looks,” his brother said. “Why go there when there are orgs here, if you are determined to die?”
“There are better orgs on Knife-in-the-Sky. I have never seen their lairs there. I know what they are here.”
“From your mother,” First said gloomily. “Of course. But there are more orgs and stronger orgs there, and they take care of their eggs. Besides—”
He looked UD from the harness he was mending and scowled across at the jagged distant mountain.
“Besides the orgs, there are the Watchers.”
“Why should the Watchers bother me?”
“They do not tell us why!” His brother looked up angrily and incautiously, pricked his finger with an awl, and grimaced with pain. He put the finger in his mouth and said around it, “They live beyond the mountains. They ride in the sky in machines the size of twenty orgs, and attack all creatures that don’t obey them. And there are new Watchers now. Little ones. No one knows what they may do.”
“I’ve never seen a Watcher,” the boy said.
“Not on the mountain. But to get to Knife-in-the-Sky you must cross the plain and marshland. You cannot do it all by wing. You must walk for many sleeps. I’m afraid the Watchers will find you.”
“But if they do not,” the boy said, “I will come back riding an org.”
“You—riding an org!” The brother took his finger out of his mouth and spat blood. “You’ve never seen an org close up.”
“My mother did,” the boy said.,
He turned and scowled across the plains toward Knife-in-the-Sky. He was a strong young man, tall even among his people, who averaged better than seven feet in height. If he had been on Earth he would have weighed no more than a hundred and sixty pounds—here much less—he looked not like a reed but a whip.
He looked a great deal like his mother—his father’s second wife, whom his father had stolen away from another band. She had been a First Man’s daughter, and her father had pursued them on a tamed org, until the fleeing couple set fire to dried grass and escaped under the smoke. She had handed on her lore of org-training to the boy: where the eggs were found, how the hatchlings could be tamed.
The time had come for him to use that knowledge, because he was of an age to use it—and for another reason. For the girl who had become his brother’s new wife had been the girl Fifteenth himself had wanted.
The brother picked up his awl again. “If you have to be a fool—” He shrugged and suddenly grinned. “I’ll make a new harness for you.”
And so, for many meals, the boy hunted meat while his brother made the harness. The dark-eyed girl who had become his brother’s wife helped him smoke the meat, and if her presence near him was a steady pain he never showed it, and if she knew she never told.
When the harness was finished and fitted he loaded himself and the three of them trudged up the friendly mountain toward the finest of the launching places. There where the slope fell steeply away for a thousand feet, the gentle, cradling updraft never failed. From this cliff edge one could circle and soar more than a mile into the thick, sweet air of their world, and launch oneself many sleeps away across the plain in a single flight
They stood and stared at Knife-in-the-Sky, and then the dark-haired girl caught her breath and cried, “A fire in the clouds! Look!”
Before them, even higher than Knife-in-the-Sky, a lance of silvery light was extending itself in a soaring arc down through the bright, living clouds. Neither the boy nor his brother was frightened, although it was a strange thing to them; their world knew nothing of meteorites, since near them there was nothing small enough to fall into their air. It was not unique. It was rare.
The brother muttered, “There was such a flame a hundred sleeps ago, and after that the small Watchers appeared.”
“Has anyone been harmed by a small Watcher?” the boy demanded.
The brother shook his head no, though what he meant was “not yet.”
“Then I will not fear if there are more. Good-bye,” the boy said, kissed them both, grasped his buttocks with his hands, and leaped headfirst into the air. When he was well clear of the rock he swept his arms up in the sinuous stroke of the wingman, extended the filmy wings of scraped leather, and flapped and soared until his brother and the girl were all but invisible to him, tiny, staring figures no larger than pebbles.
And then he turned out of the updraft and stroked through the air toward Knife-in-the-Sky.
He did not look behind him.
Even if he had looked, he might not have seen that something shared the air with him, a cube of metal, bright on all its faces, brighter still with lights and lenses on the face toward him. It was no larger than Fifteenth’s fist and a long way behind as it stolidly punched a passage through the air, borne on magnetic forces of which none of the boy’s people had ever heard. The boy did know it was there. He was not meant to.