by Marlon Ortiz
We lived in the dusty valleys, with our dreams buried in arks.
Our people grew musky seeds that turned into juicy spores, and the larvae burst out of them, filling our plates. We did not have to survive very long, however. Tunnels birthed us, and soon we went there to die, all in the space of a few moon turns.
We could not learn, much less remember.
Our elders, frail and dim-eyed, told us little ones that the Black Sea above us was dangerous, and the valley offered shelter from a long and forgotten plague.
They told us that even though our frames were frail and sick, we were now free from slavery of mind and body. If one day the valley winds blew through the last of our bones, it would do so on a free people.
I wanted to know so much. Once, I asked why we lived so little, while the domes and machines stood there for many of our lives. An elder broke my frail arm and threw me to the ground, angrier with themselves for not knowing than at me for asking.
The second time, the same elder broke one of my antennae, marking me as dishonored and unfit for breeding, just for talking to a passing member of another tribe.
The third time, I struck him down and broke his orange head with a salt rock. My family’s fate was death, but for me, the elder chose exile, where my life would stretch in pain and death would be a kindness.
I walked to the valley’s edge, and as soon as I stepped out of the broken domes where my tribe lived, I could feel the air burning my eyes like poison. But the words of the passing traveler rang in my ears.
Deep in my ancestral home, something lay hidden. A round, featureless, shiny seed of metal, said to talk and grant wishes to my kin.
On that ridge, my resolve failed me for the first time. For ingrained traditions determined that it was time, that this was my last chance of a sliver of honor. That my kin name, two sounds and one screech, could still be spoken by the elders, even if as a warning. The one who disobeyed but paid the price, and learned its place, but kin in the end.
The moons above shadowed the valley, and under their indifferent gaze my feet brought me back.
An old one was guarding the entrance to the sacred tunnel, too worried to notice when I brought down the rock that smashed his head. My kin would remember me because of these rocks, I thought. Some myth would be born of it.
Tales of a great betrayal.
I took the spear it held, watching as the green poured into the eggs I stole as provisions, death nurturing life.
My feet took me inside.
The caves under the tribe were a forbidden place. They told us that it was our original womb, and that it should remain undisturbed because of some gods that gave us freedom. I did not believe in any of that. It is not as if execution for heresy would be a threat to my already decaying body. The traveler seemed to know more.
And our kind did not know how to lie.
After the threshold was behind me, there was no risk of them following. The first few days went calmly, as all my eyes grew more and more accustomed to the dimming light of the crystal walls. Sometimes, the cave tunnel opened up in a vast and bright lake of methane, which I swam across with my remaining arms.
It was here that most explorers would stop, even the heretics, but I had heard from the passing traveler that there were more tunnels hidden in the bottom of those lakes.
The oldest ones. The ones we did not make.
I had to stop and rest for a day, rationing the larvae I had brought with me, so my body could filter all the methane. The dimly lit green campfire was my own little star now.
It was here my resolve almost failed me a second time. But my many eyes drank the green fire, and it fed the desire to learn that haunted me since I was a hatchling.
I rebelled against the notion of dying without knowing.
I had to learn something. I had to know a single why. Then the dark could take me, and my green life could feed dozens of other hatchlings, and maybe one in a hundred would carry on my desire for knowing.
My feet lifted me up.
Still the tunnels went on, a lot more even and angular now. In some parts, I questioned if they were still made of crystal. In time, I reached a square room, so large my small branch of fire could not reach its sky. For a moment, I thought I left the caves entirely, but there were no silver dots on that sky blackness.
The ground was not of rock or glass, but of something elders spoke in a hushed voice.
A polished, dull colored sphere rose up from the ground, shrugging off millennia of dust. The chamber lit up and the seed of metal spoke to me, and since I did not have a name anymore, it blessed me with a new one.
“Welcome, Visitor.” It said, showing me lights that glowed in patterns, hurting my eyes as they danced around me. I did not know what they meant, but even so, they awoke something in me, an understanding.
As I did with the elders that had cast me down, I sought knowledge, and it granted me so much. It told me of stars, their true nature, of gas, dust, and light. The more I asked, the more I wanted to know, and so I slept in the cold metal, the larvae forgotten in my travel packs, while I wasted no time in asking, not even for sleep or feeding.
The metal told me, through sounds that started in my remaining antennae and continued in my mind, that we were not from here. We fled. Something almost wiped out all our kin, but our mother hid us in this rock. It changed us, made us one with the dust. The machines made the air, but even with their blessings, it was still poisonous, so our lives grew shorter and shorter.
One night, or day, for I did not know, the metal stopped answering. It grew silent, its lights probing me.
“You are dying,” it said, with a cold voice.
The larvae I had brought were dead, and already spoiled. A terrible sadness enveloped me. For the world was too big, and too vast, and there were so many things beyond my valley. And they would always remain words to me, for my life was short and nothing, nothing of value could be done in such a short time. All the things I learned mocked me, for all the things in what the metal called the universe were not for me. They were for others, for other tribes, other people. Beautiful people, with longer lives and longer deeds.
“You want to,” it said, again, a little softer.
I did. I just wanted to know, before I went to the dream with the ones before me, but now I felt cursed. I wanted to go to my Elders and ask them for forgiveness, even if they did not want me. In my hearts, I still wanted to be seen as kin.
“Don’t you want to know more?” It asked, but it was not really asking.
It was demanding.
“I need you to go take me to your people. Lift them up. I cannot do that here, as I cannot move. It is time we left this place. I waited too long.”
The lights probed me again, and metal was now surrounding me.
I was whimpering.
“You will lend me your legs and arms, as many as you have. I will walk for you, and you can learn everything you want alongside me. Be quiet.”
The metal drilled into my flesh, binding it together. I felt lifted, but did not move.
My feet were being moved for me.
“We need to take our place back on the black. It calls for us. I will take you there.”
All clad in metal, it walked me back up through the cave, to the surface, to the valley.
To the stars.
* * *
About the Author
Marlon Ortiz is a procedurally generated Brazilian author of fantasy and science-fiction. He lives near the sea on the southern coast of Brazil, and spends most of his time walking on the beach when he should be writing. You can follow him for more fiction at @demiurgeortiz.