Story Excerpt

Light Up the Clouds

by Greg Egan
 

1

Tirell stood on the platform at the edge of the forest, looking out at the banks of red clouds. As he waited for Anna’s glider to come swooping down, his eyes were drawn to the swirling patterns below, where stronger winds set the thicker clouds roiling, spinning off vortices in thrillingly strange hues: deep blues, rich browns, grays shading almost into white.

“If you fall, it won’t look so pretty,” Selik joked.

“That’s true.” You could only see the patterns from above; if you were down among them, at any one point you’d be surrounded by a monochromatic fog—while being crushed to death with nothing to show for it.

Tirell took a few steps back from the edge.

“Here she comes,” Rada announced.

Tirell followed Rada’s gaze and caught sight of the glider, descending in a broad, shallow helix that brought it almost directly above them before carrying it away again. He knew that Anna was an old hand at this maneuver, but he couldn’t help feeling a visceral sense of how terrified he would have been in her place, if he’d been the one controlling the rudder.

On its second approach, the glider was much lower. For a moment Tirell thought it might miss its target, but then he realized he was blind to the true curvature of its path, misjudging it by its foreshortened appearance. The glider flew directly into the mouth of the clearing, shot straight past him and the other onlookers, and dived into the wall of soft foliage that some ancestral aviator must have cultivated generations ago, and a thousand grateful successors had tended ever since.

The three of them ran toward the site of the impact, but before they could reach it Anna had already clambered out, apparently unharmed. As Tirell drew nearer, he could see that the glider, though strewn with leaves and tangled in the vines, had suffered no real damage either.

Everyone worked together to pull it free, then they dragged it across the platform and secured it in its proper place—using thicker vines, in a more orderly arrangement.

With the job done, Anna turned to them and announced, “I think the cousins might be back.”

Tirell strove to interpret her demeanor, wondering if she was teasing her friends. As far as he could tell, she was perfectly serious, but he would have thought this claim was something only a child could believe.

“The thing’s still up there?” Selik asked warily.

“Absolutely,” Anna confirmed. “But now there are three of them. All in similar orbits.”

Selik hesitated. “Are you sure you’re not just seeing different asteroids every time, coming and going from the equilibrium point?”

“Not if they’re doing it at random,” Anna replied. “There’s an object of the same size and brightness in the same orbit as I saw on the last trip. So either it’s the same thing as before, or whatever took its place managed to mimic its appearance and slip into exactly the same trajectory. I can’t speak to the fate of the other two yet, but if they’re still following their present course when I return, that would stretch the bounds of coincidence.”

Rada said, “With three asteroids all disturbing each other, it would be absurd to expect them to remain in the region at all, let alone retrace their orbits.”

“Of course,” Anna agreed. “If these are natural objects, moving under gravity alone, they couldn’t possibly hang around much longer.”

The group fell silent. Tirell could almost hear a collective rejoinder that only tact was keeping anyone from uttering: If these are natural objects?

Anna scowled. “So do you all think the cousins are dead?”

Selik snorted. “Dead or alive, I can’t say I’ve been expecting a visit.”

“Why not? Because it wasn’t sooner?” Anna brushed an insect off her shoulder and sat down on the platform, gesturing to the others to do the same. “I’m serious! If our own ancestors struggled with the Changes, why wouldn’t the cousins have struggled just as much? They could have lost everything and had to start over, as many times as we did. And if we still lack the means to visit them, why should we be shocked that it took them this long to make the same journey in reverse?”

“But we don’t know that they survived at all,” Rada stressed.

“That’s true. But we survived what they thought was unsurvivable, so we could have been as wrong about their chances as they were about ours. And that’s just the way we tell the story now: because we didn’t die, we pretend we always knew that we’d made the better choice. But maybe at the time, both groups were glad that the other would be trying a different strategy—improving the odds that at least one would succeed.”

Selik was unconvinced. “All these ‘maybes’ have been plucked out of the sky before. That’s the trouble with invoking the cousins: you can call on them to explain anything.”

“So how do you account for these observations?” Anna demanded.

“The observations could be wrong,” Selik replied. His tone was respectful, but Tirell was still shocked by the bluntness of his words.

“I know what I saw,” Anna said mildly.

“Anyone’s eyes can deceive them.” Selik looked uncomfortable, but he wasn’t retreating.

“You mean, especially at my age?” Anna asked. She turned and gestured at the glider. “So why don’t you go up and check for yourself?”

“You know I don’t have the experience.” Selik seemed to regret his choice of words immediately; if he deferred to her skills as a pilot, why not to those as an observer?

Rada said, “Why not take a fresh pair of eyes with you, next time?” She glanced at Tirell. “In a body still light enough not to weigh you down?”

Everyone turned to him at once, eyeing him appraisingly. Tirell felt his stomach tense, and he struggled to quell the fear rising in his blood. They’re joking, he told himself. About everything. Anna was joking about the cousins, and they were all in on the joke except him. But now they were putting an end to the ruse by pushing it beyond their victim’s threshold of gullibility.

“Would you be willing to do that?” Anna inquired. “It’s about time I had an apprentice.”

Her voice still betrayed no hint of mirth. And even Selik seemed to be taking the proposal seriously.

“I’m a fruit picker!” Tirell protested. He’d stumbled on the group in the market, overhearing one of their heated debates, but even when he’d started tagging along to their gatherings, he’d never expected to do anything more than listen—or at most, interject with a question or two.

“I’m not asking you to stop that,” Anna replied gently. “This wouldn’t take up all of your time.”

Tirell did his best to consider the offer calmly, with the seriousness it deserved. He’d always wanted to know what lay beyond the clouds; until now he’d been content just to listen to Anna’s reports, but if even her friends started doubting her, what would her testimony be worth? He might as well have stayed in the market, where storytellers improvised wild confabulations that differed on each retelling, no more permanent than the clouds themselves.

“I’ve never flown before,” he admitted. “Not even to the closest forests.”

Anna was unfazed. “And why would you have? There’s nothing worth seeing there. We can take this as slowly as you like; you don’t need to become a pilot at all, if you don’t want to. For now, the most important thing is to have someone up there with me, to confirm what I’m seeing.”

Tirell put his fears aside. “All right,” he said. “I’ll come with you.” The next flight would still be many days away; he’d have plenty of time to change his mind.

The forest was already darkening, as the glistening bead of the Far Sun dropped away to the west. Tirell tried to imagine the time before the cousins left, when the Near Sun had supposedly been so much brighter that the whole warm half of the world had been uninhabitable.

He wasn’t sure if he believed that or not, though many people he trusted had repeated the same story. But it would take much more to persuade him that, not only were the most extravagant claims about the old days true, everything he’d once thought of as belonging either in the unfathomable past, or at an incomprehensible distance, had now reached into the present and was drifting around just above his head.

 

*   *   *

2

“Take as much fruit as you like,” Tirell encouraged Delia. “They were almost falling into the sack.”

She gauged the weight of half a dozen, and chose two. “What do you want for them?” she asked.

“Leave it for the future.”

Delia scowled, as if she resented the obligation, but Tirell wasn’t short of anything at present.

“If you pick too many, you’ll kill the trees,” she scolded him.

“That’s really not true.” All the fruit parted from the branches eventually, but plucking it before it was buoyant enough to survive outside the forest did no harm to the parent, other than thwarting its ambition to give rise to a whole new forest of its own.

“I heard you’re going flying with that madwoman,” Delia informed him. Tirell didn’t reply; he had no idea how she could have learned about his plans, but they were none of her concern. “You’ll get yourself killed for nothing,” she said. “If you want some excitement, my friends fly back and forth to Lappa all the time. It’s a short trip, but the winds can really set you spinning, so at least you’ll be having fun if it all goes wrong.”

“I’d rather die from a lack of air than too much of it,” Tirell joked. “Anyone can fall into the depths, but how many people do you know who’ve fallen into the sky?”

“You’re an idiot.” Delia ambled away across the floor of dead branches, toward the pile of juicy larvae Madeleine was offering.

“You can weave me some new clothes,” he called after her, fairly sure that she hadn’t taken enough fruit in his entire tenure to have earned him anything of the kind. “Or just a new sack,” he added.

Three of the infants who hung around the market crawled up to him, babbling happily, so he sat with them for a while, talking to them and feeding them mouthfuls of chewed fruit.

After a while they grew bored with him and headed over to try their luck with Madeleine. Tirell lay down beside his wares, and felt a patch of bark scrape against his shirt. Before the cousins left, or so the story went, even the cold half of the world had been so hot that everyone went naked. But surely they would have been scratched a lot more? Or was people’s skin tougher then? Like his soles and his palms, but all over?

He drifted off to sleep, then was woken by someone prodding him with their foot.

Selik said, “If you still want to do this, Anna’s getting the glider ready.”

“Now?” Tirell had thought he had a few more days.

“She wants to take advantage of the weather while it lasts.”

Tirell clambered to his feet. “I’ll do it,” he said. “She’s a good pilot, I know she won’t kill me.”

“Of course she won’t.” Selik noted his hesitancy. “But?”

Tirell said, “I know you don’t think the cousins have come back—but do you really think they ever left at all? Flew beyond the clouds, all the way to the Far Sun?”

“Not all the way,” Selik corrected him. “The inner worlds keep their distance from it; it’s not the same as we are with this one.”

“You know what I mean.” Tirell didn’t doubt that there’d been some parting of the ways long ago, but falling out of touch with a group of distant relatives didn’t really strike him as a convincing proof that they’d left the world behind.

“The cousins might have failed,” Selik replied, “but I believe they did try to make the journey.”

How? How is that even possible?”

“They must have built some kind of vessel.”

Tirell laughed. “That doesn’t explain anything! If you ask me how to build a glider, I couldn’t do it myself, but I could probably still convince you that someone else could. But once the air thins out to nothing, what is there to discuss? Gliders won’t work. Buoyancy won’t work. ‘They built some kind of vessel’ is just another way of saying that they did something no one understands, in order to achieve something no one knows how to achieve.”

“We’ve lost a lot of knowledge,” Selik conceded. “But I don’t believe we could be wrong about the entire history of the Changes.”

“People tell greater lies all the time,” Tirell argued. “Just for amusement. ‘The trees that talked’ . . . ‘The birds that raised a child’ . . . ‘The mite that slew the lizard’ . . .”

“No one puts children’s stories into the Recitation.”

“But they do leave things out, apparently.” The versions of the Recitation Tirell had heard were missing all kinds of things that Selik, Anna, and Rada had learned from their own reciters.

They reached the edge of the marketplace and began scrambling up the branches. Bark-colored lizards fled Tirell’s approaching grip, always choosing the last moment to abandon the camouflage of stillness for escape, sometimes scampering over his body, sometimes dropping and trusting the forest to catch them on a lower branch. Tirell felt perfectly secure as he climbed; if he did fall, the branches and foliage here were more than dense enough to stop him very quickly. But all this talk of the cousins was forcing him to picture a time when the trees themselves had fallen, and people had fled from forest to forest as everything in the cold half of the world began to die.

When they arrived at the platform, Anna and Rada were waiting. “Ah, there’s my apprentice!” Anna exclaimed, as if she’d just spotted an awl or a chisel she’d mislaid.

Tirell said, “Can we start with ‘passenger,’ and work up from there?”

The glider was already untied, but it took the four of them to drag it into place between the pulleys. Anna climbed inside, and motioned to Tirell to join her. He complied, but he was already regretting his decision. Now that he was on the verge of trusting his life to it, he couldn’t help noting that the glider was really just a hollow log with some fancily shaped boards attached. And unlike a living log, it possessed no buoyancy at all.

“Are you sure I won’t weigh you down?” Tirell fretted. Squeezed in behind Anna with his knees pressed against her back, he found it hard to believe that the burden he contributed was negligible. “I was planning to fast for a couple of days before the flight, but Selik caught me by surprise.”

“I never fast,” Anna replied, “but if I find we’re overloaded you might need to empty your bowels at short notice.” Tirell spent a moment in horrified contemplation before deciding it would be best to assume that she was joking.

“Are you ready?” Rada asked. She’d threaded the vine from the pulleys around the capstan at the front of the glider, and was waiting impatiently for Anna’s assent to proceed.

“We’re ready.”

Rada joined Selik behind the glider. Tirell turned and watched them at first, but as they began hauling on the other end of the vine it seemed wiser for him to look where he was going, even if he had no control over his destination.

The glider shuddered, then slid forward. Tirell had helped with the previous launch, running backward across the platform, amused at how light the strange arrangement of vines and capstans made the glider feel, while compensating for this generosity by making the platform runners move twice as far as the glider was advancing.

“Hold on!” Anna instructed him.

“To what?” But then he saw the two curved branches that Anna was holding, attached within the hollow, and he gripped them behind her.

Ahead, the mouth of the clearing grew nearer, exposing endless ranks of red cloud. Tirell weighed up the benefits of jumping out onto the platform while he still had a chance. If nature had wanted people to leave the forests, it would have let them retain the gas from the fruit they ate, instead of belching it out. But he was weighed down with pulp, and entirely free of the one ingredient from his diet that might have saved him.

The glider passed over the edge of the platform—and instead of soaring skyward it dipped alarmingly, heading for an elaborately twisted blue-and-white vortex far below. Tirell squeezed the handles so hard he could feel splinters digging into his skin, but then he saw Anna’s legs moving slightly, working the pedals that controlled the wing flaps, and the glider leveled out, leaving him staring over her shoulder at a sight less terrifying, but still utterly wrong: red clouds spread out ahead forever, without a single branch or leaf in sight.

He glanced back toward Maldo, but it was already dwindling into insignificance, like a tangled ball of twigs someone had tossed into the sky. “How will we find our way home?” he asked.

“I know the winds,” Anna replied.

“What does that mean?” Tirell complained. When someone asked for directions to the market, you didn’t just smile and say: trust in the leaves.

“It’ll be easier to explain when we’re on our way back. For now, what we need is altitude.”

Tirell had many more questions, but he decided to shut up and stop distracting the pilot. While he was in no position to rank the dangers they faced, his presence was certainly the most novel factor in the current journey, so the less impact he had on the way it unfolded, the better.

Anna muttered to herself as she examined the clouds. Then she seemed to make a choice, and sent the glider swerving gently to the right. The destination she’d selected was a disheveled red column, full of wind-streaked wisps that suggested some vertical motion of the air, though if Tirell was honest he could not have determined by eye if the current was ascending or descending.

When they reached the edge of the column, the answer became palpable. As the glider rose, Anna kept its path curving slightly, so it circled the strange cloud formation like a vine wrapping around a tree trunk. Tirell tried to take comfort in his instinctive response to gaining height: inside the forest, it almost always meant that he was safer, with more obstacles to break his fall. And perhaps it wasn’t entirely foolish to feel the same way even in the open air. If something went wrong, the higher they were, the more time Anna would have to correct the problem before they hit the depths.

When they broke free of the column, Tirell looked around, then upward. There were yet more clouds above, as red as those surrounding the forest, but he could already discern gaps between them, filled with pallid light in the direction of the Far Sun, but shading into darkness elsewhere.

Anna did not disguise her frustration as she searched for the next opportunity to ascend. Once she picked a target, Tirell fixed his gaze on it, trying to commit to memory every feature that distinguished it. If he ever decided to become a pilot himself, he was going to need a very long list from Anna of all the signs he should heed, but for now he could just watch and try to learn a little.

Close up, whatever order Anna had discerned in the second column was less apparent than ever; to Tirell they just seemed to have reached a scraggly mess of fragmented clouds. But while the currents buffeted them unevenly, as the glider looped around it was lifted more often than it dropped, and gradually they rose above the thicket of red.

The Far Sun had almost set, and the cloudless sky was darkening in the east. But at the zenith, there it was: a dull magenta disk a sixth as wide as the entire view.

Tirell felt a new kind of dizziness that had nothing to do with the motion of the glider. He had never doubted that the Near Sun was real; he had explained its cloud-hidden presence to children who’d fretted on the days when the Far Sun briefly vanished behind it at noon. But seeing it for himself made all the other claims in the Recitation, if not more convincing, certainly more urgent. The Near Sun wasn’t just an idea, it was a thing as solid as a tree. So either it had once blazed a thousand times brighter than it did now, or it hadn’t. That wasn’t a matter of opinion, or whether it sounded appealing, or exciting, or strange. Either the Changes really had come about because this disk had gone from outshining the Far Sun to its present, barely illuminated state, or the whole account of the past was nonsense.

“Why is one side brighter?” Tirell asked Anna.

She turned to face him. “One side of what?”

He nodded upward, wishing he hadn’t let his curiosity overpower his resolve not to divert her attention from the glider’s controls.

“That’s to do with the way we orbit each other.” When Tirell replied with uncomprehending silence, she added, “Some of our air is still falling onto it, even now. But it doesn’t fall in a straight line, so it hits one side more than the other. That’s the cause of the hot spot.”

“I see,” Tirell replied. Her explanation made a certain amount of sense, but it only increased his vertigo. If the air of the world was raining down gently on the Near Sun, right before his eyes, and doing even a little of the thing that made the Far Sun shine, then it no longer seemed such a stretch to imagine that the very same current had once been much stronger.

“We’re just waiting for sunset now,” Anna explained. Mercifully, she was no longer twisted around toward him. “If these things are still where I saw them last, it won’t be hard to spot them.”

“Circling around the . . . equilibrium point?” Tirell didn’t feel that he’d earned the right to employ that term so casually, as if he truly understood how the tug of the world, the tug of the Near Sun, and the effect of being whirled around in a circle all added up to zero. He was prepared to believe, though, that such a balance might be precarious, and that anything that drifted by and lodged there by chance was unlikely to linger.

“That’s where I’ll be looking.”

“And if this is the cousins . . . how are they doing it?”

Anna laughed. “If they could overcome the gravity of the Near Sun entirely, this would be nothing to them.”

Tirell was confused. “You mean the gravity of the world? It was the world they escaped from, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but that’s the easy part.” Anna raised one hand to point straight up. “The tiniest push will get you over the equilibrium point, but then you’d just crash into the thing that did most of the work for you. If you want to go and take your pick of the inner worlds, your real fight is with the Near Sun, not the world you were born on.”

Tirell was prepared to take her word for it, though the Near Sun was clearly much farther from the equilibrium point than the world was. He wriggled a little in the hollow to relieve the cramp that had been growing in his forearms, though it wasn’t easy to stretch his muscles without letting go of the handles.

“We could add vines here that we tie around our bodies, to keep us from falling out,” he suggested. But vines might dig into their skin. “Or strips of cloth?”

“Mmm.” Anna wasn’t really interested in such luxuries.

The Far Sun moved behind the bank of red clouds below them to the west, and though that wasn’t enough to extinguish its light, when Tirell looked to the east he saw a smattering of white dots emerging from the grayness: stars, the farthest of Far Suns. He really had no right to be surprised that so many things from the Recitation were turning out to be true—but Anna’s skills were rare enough that he could imagine whole forests where no one took up the same role, and the stories people told children about the void beyond the clouds were entirely unconstrained by the possibility of anyone checking them.

“Here they come now,” Anna said. Tirell took a moment to realize that she was speaking not of anything approaching, but the objects of her interest finally attaining visibility. Peering upward, all he could see at first were a few faint stars struggling to compete with the dull but undiminished light of the Near Sun. Then he realized that one of the “stars” was moving—slowly, but still too fast, and in the wrong direction, to be merely crossing the sky the way the Far Sun did.

“I can see one,” he confirmed.

“Cover up the Near Sun with your fist,” Anna suggested, demonstrating.

Tirell didn’t want to let go of either handle; the glider was still circling the air column, shuddering and bouncing in response to the vagaries of the currents. “I might give my eyes a chance to adjust first.”

He closed one eye and turned his head back and forth, trying to obscure the Near Sun while he scrutinized the region around it. “Oh, I can see two more!” he blurted out, before realizing that he’d confused himself and was double-counting the first one. But then a moment later there was no need to retract; he’d sighted three distinct specks, all circling the zenith.

“How do we know they’re going around the equilibrium point?” he asked Anna. “Couldn’t they be orbiting the Near Sun?”

“Be patient,” she said. “There’ll be evidence soon enough.”

Tirell raised his gaze again, waiting for the promised revelation. After a while, he was rewarded in a different way. “I think there are four now. Definitely four.”

“Aha.” Anna sounded underwhelmed, as if she’d been offered a low bid for something she was selling in the market.

Tirell tightened his grip with his left hand, then raised the right one to help him. With the Near Sun better masked, he could see at least one more point of light. Shifting his gaze and his hand and keeping careful track of everything was harder than he would have anticipated; he could appreciate Selik’s skepticism now, as less a slight against Anna than an honest assessment of the difficulties for any observer. But eventually he settled on a verdict.

“There are six,” he said.

“I think that’s right,” Anna replied.

As Tirell tried to make one more recount, he found himself coming up short. “Wait, no, there’s only . . .”

“Look again,” Anna suggested.

“Only two. No, not even . . .” They were gone, all six. “What happened?”

Anna said, “The Far Sun’s dropped too low now to illuminate them. And it didn’t take long; that’s how we know they’re at the equilibrium point, not farther away.”

Tirell pictured it: the shifting shadow of the world rising up to encompass the strange visitors. “If this is the cousins, what are they doing up there?”

“Watching us?” Anna suggested. “Waiting to see what we’re like now, after all this time apart, before they introduce themselves.”

“Watching us through the clouds?” Just how magical were the cousins meant to be? “And why would they need to watch us from six different places?”

“Maybe they came here from their new home in six vessels, and the stragglers have just caught up.”

“How big are those things?” Tirell wondered.

Anna hesitated. “From their brightness, I’d guess about a hundred times larger than Maldo.”

“That’s a lot to bring along for a casual visit.” Even if the cousins needed to pack enough food for a long journey, six hundred forests’ worth seemed excessive. “You’d think they’d start with a couple of emissaries, traveling light, just to make contact.”

“I don’t know what any of this means,” Anna confessed. “But at least you can tell the others I wasn’t imagining it.”

“Of course.”

Now that the task was completed, Tirell had nothing to distract him from the fact that he was sitting inside a tree trunk, swooping around above the clouds in darkness, with no idea which way was home.

Anna sensed his disquiet. “I know it’s hard, but the safest thing will be to wait for sunrise; if we tried to go back now, we could end up anywhere.”

“I understand.” Tirell had witnessed the timing of her returns often enough to have known what to expect.

He glanced up at the lopsided magenta glow; he could feel the warmth of it on his skin. Without that lingering heat, would the world be entirely dead now? The Far Sun was brighter in its own kind of light, but too distant to pierce the chill.

“Just tell me we won’t follow the air that’s falling on our neighbor,” he joked.

“We won’t,” Anna replied. “Not unless we really try.”

*   *   *

3

“How’d it go?” Selik asked, as he helped Tirell to his feet.

“Good.” Tirell realized he was shaking. He was ecstatic to be back in the safe boughs of the forest, but as the glider had turned toward Maldo for the final approach, it had taken all his strength not to leap into the depths just to avoid the impending collision.

Selik and Rada helped the returning travelers get the glider safely tied up, but then Tirell glanced at Anna and realized that she was leaving it to him to speak first.

“I saw them,” he said. “Just where Anna said they’d be. Except now there are six.”

“Six?” Selik regarded him dubiously, as if this new detail somehow made his testimony less reliable.

Tirell was annoyed. “Go up there yourself, if you don’t believe me.”

“Are you sure they weren’t just stars?” Selik pressed him. “Because—”

“I know how stars move,” Tirell replied. “These weren’t stars. They were six bright objects, circling the zenith, that lost their light not long after sunset.”

“That does sound like something solid, nearby,” Rada said, clearly aiming for a conciliatory tone. “Like asteroids, but . . .” She made a cupping gesture with her hands, as if to suggest a constraining force that was preventing the objects from slipping away.

“What are asteroids made of, anyway?” Tirell asked. People had used the word in front of him ever since he’d joined the group, but he still didn’t really understand it.

“Rock,” Rada offered, unhelpfully. “The same as the inner worlds.”

“But what exactly is ‘rock’?”

“It’s a bit like bone, but it’s not from anything living.”

Tirell grimaced “Have you ever touched rock?”

“Of course not.”

“Then how do you know what it’s like?”

Rada said, “It’s in the Full Recitation. Before the cousins left, people studied these things; they weren’t going to flee to the inner worlds without some idea of what they’d find there.”

Tirell felt very tired. What he’d seen with his own eyes was real, and he was persuaded that the general story of the Changes was probably correct, but he had less faith in the details that no one could confirm, and only a fraction of people seemed to bother retelling.

The four of them sat on the platform together, trying to make sense of the growing number of objects the latest expedition had revealed.

“Why would the cousins hang back for so long?” Selik mused. “Do they think they’d be unwelcome?”

“Maybe they can’t survive among us,” Rada suggested. “Even the ancestors would shiver at the temperatures and pressures we’re used to, and who knows what the cousins ended up having to adapt to. Whatever kind of life they have on the inner worlds, I doubt it’s much like ours.”

“But either they have a way to deal with that, or there was no point coming in the first place,” Selik protested.

“I think they’re being cautious,” Anna said. “It’s been . . . well, longer than anyone knows for sure. They wouldn’t want to rush in unprepared.”

“Maybe we should give them a signal,” Tirell proposed. “Let them know that we’re still as friendly as ever, but we’re growing impatient to meet them.”

Selik was amused. “What kind of signal could we send, from this distance?”

Anna said, “It shouldn’t be necessary. If they’re looking for us at all, they’ll find us.”

“Then maybe they’re just not looking,” Selik replied. “They’ve returned to their old world, for some reason—but as far as they’re concerned, it’s obvious from the state of things that the people they left behind would have died out long ago.”

*   *   *

4

“Can we call it nineteen and be done with it?” Tirell pleaded. There’d been a time when he would never have believed that counting dots in the sky could be painful, but he was aching in places that no amount of fruit-picking had ever reached.

“Just check it once more,” Anna insisted, as if the exact number might carry some significance, beyond the fact that it was always increasing.

Tirell closed his eyes for a moment and tipped his head from side to side to stretch the muscles in his neck, acutely aware that if he waited too long the encroaching shadow would render his observations meaningless. He adjusted his restraint and positioned himself beneath the occultation disk again.

“One, two, three,” he muttered, tapping his thigh with his thumb to make the numbers more palpable as he counted. The objects weren’t even moving so rapidly that he had any real excuse to confuse one for another, but the way they traveled at slightly different speeds disrupted any temporary pattern they formed, undermined his confidence that he wasn’t missing any of them, or double counting.

“Nineteen,” he declared, as close to sure as he was ever going to be. He made a guess as to which of them would be the first to vanish and followed it until he was proven right. “Nineteen,” he repeated. As he watched the lights wink out, he began to believe that he’d actually grasped the true geometry of the whole strange constellation.

“Now we wait for morning.” He looked down at the jumble of red clouds below the glider, surprised at how clearly he could still see them. “Are we higher than usual?” he asked Anna. That wouldn’t affect the timing of the objects’ extinguishment, but it could prolong their own dusk.

“I don’t think so,” Anna replied. “But tell me what you think about the Near Sun.”

Tirell folded the occultation disk away to give himself a clear view. At first he was unsure if his eyes, having adapted to the Near Sun’s absence, were now reacting more strongly to its light, but after a while that no longer seemed like an adequate explanation. “It looks brighter. And the brightest part is larger than before.”

“That’s what I thought,” Anna said. “I’m glad I’m not losing my mind.”

Tirell was fairly sure that Anna had been making these trips for at least a couple of years; if there was some seasonal change in the strength of the wind that blew from the world onto the Near Sun, she would have been expecting it.

But if not the season, what else had changed?

“Even an asteroid would have some gravity, wouldn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“So if these things are asteroids that the cousins have put into place, then just as the Near Sun competes with the world for our air, they’d be pulling it in the same direction?”

“That’s right.”

Tirell wasn’t sure if Anna was humoring him, leading him into some kind of logical trap where he’d just be displaying his ignorance. “But then, after the air fell past them, they’d pull back on it, wouldn’t they? Fighting the Near Sun’s pull? So the two effects would cancel each other out?”

Anna said, “I don’t think they would cancel each other. So long as there’s a stronger upward pull on the atmosphere, and more air is flowing away from the world, the extra amount is never going to turn around and come back to us. And the asteroids certainly can’t hold on to it. So if we’re losing more air, there’s only one place it can go.”

As Tirell was turning that over in his mind, a flash of light burst out of the darkness. It was gone in an instant, but it left a lingering impression on his eyes, which gave him a fair idea of its direction. It had not come from the Near Sun, but it had been close.

“Did you see that?” he asked Anna. He didn’t dare move his gaze toward her, lest he lose what little information he retained about the origin of the light.

“I saw something illuminate the cloud tops,” she replied. “What did you see?”

“A point of light, close to where the objects were circling—but much brighter. Maybe brighter than the Far Sun, while it lasted.”

Anna was silent for a time, then she said, “You know that’s what they say about the cousins’ vessels? When they finally departed, they were brighter than the Far Sun.”

Tirell had heard the same verses, but he had always taken that detail to be some kind of soppy metaphor for the hope the cousins carried with them.

“They’re adjusting their motion,” he guessed. “If they start to slip too far from the equilibrium point, they push themselves back to where they need to be.”

“That would make sense,” Anna replied.

Tirell had long given up arguing for any natural account of the objects’ behavior, but now he was losing not just his last traces of skepticism, but any sense of the cousins as a mere abstraction. A few points of light moving across the sky had never been enough to convince him that he was on the verge of coming face to face with his long lost relatives, but now they had to go and flaunt their prowess and make themselves a thousand times more real.

“If we understand that the asteroids are helping to convey more air to the Near Sun,” he said, “then the cousins could hardly have failed to anticipate it, could they?”

“No.” Anna’s voice sounded strange, as if it was floating away on the wind.

“So it might even be the whole point of the exercise,” Tirell reasoned. “Not so much a peculiar side effect, as the reason they’re doing what they’re doing at all.”

“If that’s true,” Anna said, “then there’s nothing to be gained from doing it by halves. To make the Near Sun just a fraction brighter, when they have their own means to summon brightness at will, would be a complete waste of effort.”

Tirell was silent for a while. It felt as if the glider was following the same wide circle as ever, but the lingering illumination of the clouds below revealed shifting patterns among them that would normally have been lost in the twilight.

“If they knew we were here, and knew how we lived,” he said finally, “then surely they wouldn’t be doing this for our benefit? No one could imagine that bringing the Near Sun back to its old glory, after so long, would be the slightest bit helpful to us.”

“You’d hope not.” Anna seemed to be reserving judgment on just how confused the cousins might be.

“But if they’ve remained accustomed to the old temperatures, and they believe they’re the only survivors of the Changes . . .” Tirell couldn’t quite bring himself to say it.

“Then they might be preparing for a triumphant homecoming,” Anna concluded, “by rendering the world they were forced to abandon habitable once more.”

 

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Copyright © 2021. Light Up the Clouds by Greg Egan

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