An avid reader, and now writer of Science Fiction, Robert Holt has set all his stories in one universe. A reader will recognize worlds, technology, and often characters from other stories.
Sky Fire is a ‘comming of age’ story from his Gate Jumper collection, and can be found in, FARSPACE 2 available at http://www.lulu.com/utilityfogpress
Chapter I Cast out
Tay’Ya toyed with a sweet-fruit. She wasn’t hungry, but it looked so good. She knew her nest mate, Cho’Oy, sat above her in the branches. He’d been tormenting her for days, trying to force her out of their mother’s nest. Pretending not to notice him, she played with the fruit and listened.
When she heard the whisper of leaves, she knew he’d launched himself at her. Rolling into a ball, she dropped from the branch she’d been gripping, almost reaching the ground shrubs before opening her arms and legs to catch air in the thin membrane stretching between them. Spilling air from one side, and throwing her tail to the other, she made a sharp turn. Catching a branch with three long clawed fingers, she swung around, snagged the tree-trunk with her toe claws, and scampered up to the top branches.
Cho’Oy was unable to match the move and flew by. He made the mistake of glancing back and missed the last tree.
She chattered happily as he plunged in the black swamp water. When he came up covered with stinky mud, she laughed and called down, “It will serve you right if the swamp creature eats you.” But when she spotted one moving towards him she screamed a warning.
He ignored her and continued scraping mud off his fur.
When she screamed again, he glared up at her. “You can’t fool me. You want me to run like a frightened nestling… Forget it.”
Unable to help, she could only watch as the creature pulled him under.
“I tried Mother. I really tried, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“What was he doing in the swamp?”
Tay’Ya hung her head. “He wanted me out of the nest. He tried several times to push me out of the trees.” She felt no remorse, nor did her mother. Cho’Oy was simply gone. Had he been successful in his effort, she knew he may have boasted. Males were like that.
Her mother had been adding soft ferns to the nest. As she returned to the task, she stated without emotion, “You must leave soon anyway child. There will be another… haven’t you noticed?”
Tay’Ya had. She even knew when that old male rubbed her mother’s back; he wanted to plant his seed. She knew, but didn’t want to think about it. Another nest mate… another to share her mother’s time… would she resent it? Would she try to push it out like her brother had done to her?
Something her mother said? Leave? “Mother, why must I leave? I can share the nest with the new one. I…”
“Because you’re not a youngling any more. Haven’t you noticed how the males sniff around you? You’re near full-grown. You must make your own nest.”
“But nothing. It’s time. I’ve taught you how to build… I’ve taught you how to care for a nestling.”
Tay’Ya shuddered. She’d watched when an old male planted its seed in another female. It looked disgusting. “I’ll never let a male touch me like that. I’ll push him away…I’ll fly to the farthest trees and hide.”
Her mother chuckled. “No you won’t. You’ll welcome him. You’ll scream at any female that tries to take a male from you. You may even go looking for one. I know I did…One beautiful male. He never seemed to notice me, but I made him notice…You’re his seed.”
Tay’Ya went to the highest branch of her…or was it her mother’s tree? It didn’t matter now. With a scream of rage, she launched herself out. Using her tail to maneuver rather than spilling air, she stretched the glide. The last trees loomed ahead. She could see the black swamp and the clear water on the other side. Could she make it past the mud? Could she swim across to the trees beaconing from the other side?
At the last moment she veered over, spilled air, and made a grab for a short tree. Its thin branches couldn’t hold her weight and bent down, almost dumping her in the mud.
Slowly, reluctantly, she made her way to the top of a nearby tree and stared across the broad river. She’d never seen anyone over there, but it was such a long way off. With her mottled fur, she knew she would be hard to spot; even at half that distance.
Draping her tail over her head, she cried.
The Sky-Fire nearly touched the trees across the river, ready to disappear. Another wouldn’t come out of its hiding place behind the tower for a long time. The night creatures were waking; filling the air with their mournful cries. She’d flown in the dark before, but the branches were hard to see, and the great winged hunter would be patrolling the sky. She had to move now… but where? She could see her mother’s tree, but didn’t want to go there. Without a secure nest, the night fog would make this tree too cold and wet. Possibly one of the short bushy trees near the tower would be better. The fog seldom reached that high.
Spreading her flight skin in preparation to launch, she felt a slight pain. Stretching the skin tighter revealed a small tear. Blood leaked from it, matting the fur. It wouldn’t interfere with flight, but it needed attention.
Glancing towards the old one’s tree, she spotted a small object circling above the tower. As it spiraled down she could see it was the old one. How had she gotten so high? Mentally mapping a route, avoiding her mother’s tree and another inhabited by a grouchy old male, she launched.
It was near full dark by the time she reached her target.
After a soft and nearly silent landing on the lowest branch, she cooed to announce her arrival. She hoped the old one wasn’t sleeping, because it was now proper to wait for an invitation.
A sharp irritated voice lashed down through the branches. “Who comes?”
“Tay’Ya, nestling of Sar’Too, Revered Mother… May I enter? I’ve a tear that needs mending. It’s said, you’re the best.”
Politeness and flattery took the bite out of the old one’s voice. “A tear? Yes. Come up child. Why are you out flying in the dark?”
“My mother has cast me from her nest… I have nowhere to go.”
Tay’Ya entered as the old one added a bit of moss to her lamp. The flame sputtered, then grew brighter when the oil-soaked addition caught. As she looked over the girl, inspecting the tear, her voice was soft and consoling “Cast out…Sad, yes? But that’s the way of our folk. You’ll have to build a nest…The good trees are all taken. So many younglings, building nests to raise more younglings. Our world grows more crowded and smaller. When I was young, it took five light times of flying to reach the end of the trees. Now you can get there in three. Only dead stumps remain upriver.”
As the old one rattled on, Tay’Ya listened politely, watching as she crushed some purple berries and spread them on the tear. The sting went away. Then from her carry-pouch she produced a thin stone punch along with some fibers from a string-fruit, and laid them out.
“Child, now you must learn to mend tears. Some you will need help with, but this one you can reach yourself.” Spreading her own flight skin, the old one displayed many small, and some large rips. All had been neatly closed, leaving only thin scars. “You must be a good flyer; otherwise you’d have more than that small hole. When you’ve seen as many cold times as I, you will have more. Now pick up the punch and make several holes. Thread the fiber through, and pull it tight.”
Tay’Ya timidly forced the stone through. There was no pain. The berry juice had numbed the area. When she finished tying the fiber, the old one inspected her work.
“Not pretty, but you’ll get better. Now run along, I need to sleep.”
“I have nowhere to go.”
“Oh… I forgot… You’ve been cast out. Old age makes one forgetful. I suppose you can stay the night. Tomorrow you can find a nesting place.”
“Thank you Revered Mother…That punch…where can I get one? Were you flying above the tower? How did you get so high? Will you teach me?”
“Child… let me get some sleep. So many questions… Sleep now. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Tay’Ya tried but sleep came slowly. When she finally drifted off, she dreamt of flying high above the rocky tower.
Chapter II Learning to Fly
The new Sky-Fire was just peeking over the tower when the old one shook Tay’Ya awake. “Child, if you want me to teach you, you’ll have to get your lazy bones out of the nest… I could use some help cleaning this place.”
“Revered Mother, will you show me how to fly way up the tower?”
The old one chuckled at her impatience. “Later, eager one. Clean first, then gather food. We must wait until the Sky-Fire is over the river. The wind is sliding down the tower now. When the Sky-Fire warms it, the wind will climb up again… It’s the wind that pushes you up. And please call me Chi’ne. Revered Mother makes me sound so…. Old.”
Tay’Ya looked at the nearly white fur and knobby fingers, but decided to say nothing that would make Chi’ne angry. Then she checked out her nest… It hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. With a sigh, she started brushing debris towards the entrance.
Tay’Ya had many questions, but each was greeted by a dismissive grunt until the old one seemed satisfied with her work. Then with a ‘follow me’ gesture, she launched towards the river. Tay’Ya was amazed by her flying and tried to match the moves as she followed. She knew then, she had much to learn… Her mother hadn’t taught her nearly enough. There was more to life than rearing nestlings… and starting more.
After gathering sweet-fruits, they flew to the tree of an old male and traded some for mud-crawlers, then went to the community fire to roast them.
Tay’Ya kept watching the Sky-Fire, willing it to move faster, but it just continued its slow crawl across the sky.
Chi’ne noticed where she looked and chuckled, “Patience little one. We have other things to do. If I remember, you wanted a punch?”
“Oh yes. Where did you get yours?”
“Follow me, child.” With that, she scampered up the nearest tree, and launched up-river.
Tay’Ya followed, but after two jumps she could see they were headed for the tree of an old male that all young females avoided.
Chi’ne snagged a branch near his nest, and without a word or greeting, went in.
Tay’Ya picked a lower one, hesitated a moment, then followed. She found the old ones chatting playfully, but when she entered, the old male stopped and grinned at her.
Slapping him lightly on the head, Chi’ne introduced her new student. “This is Tay’Ya. She could use one of the fine punches you make.”
“If she’ll let me rub her back, I’ll consider it.”
“What would a sweet young thing like her want with a wrinkled old one like you? Just give her one. You’ve rubbed my back often enough in all the cold times we’ve known each other.”
“But rubbing hers would be more fun.” Grinning again, he dug through a basket, and produced a very fine punch. “Will this one do?”
Chi’ne snatched it from his fingers. “You never gave me one this good. In all the times…”
“When you were young and pretty, I didn’t know how to work the stone like I do now. Otherwise I would have… You were always my favorite.”
Wrapping the punch in moss, and tying string-fruit fibers around it, Chi’ne placed it carefully in Tay’Ya’s carry-pouch. “Be cautious with this. It could injure your milk nipples… and believe me, that hurts.” With another playful slap to the male she said, “Come youngling. It’s time to fly.”
At the base of the tower, Chi’ne leaned out, spreading her flight skin. The warm wind lifted her, and seemingly without effort, she made small circles near the rock; each one higher than the last.
Tay’Ya tried several times to match the moves. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, but she finally got the feel of the rising air. Soon she was flying almost as good as the old one. Landing on the narrow ledge with Chi’ne was another matter. With no branches to grasp, she raked her claws against the stone. Unable to grip it… she fell. Grabbing air, she circled back for another try.
On her third attempt, she made an ungraceful landing near her teacher.
Chi’ne chuckled, but said nothing. She was busy picking the purple berries that took pain away. They seemed to grow from many cracks in the rock.
At this height the river looked smaller, and Tay’Ya could see another tower beyond the trees. Thinking about her mother casting her out, and the many annoying males sniffing around her trying to rub her back, she wondered what it would be like on the other side.
When they’d filled their carry-pouches, Chi’ne stepped out into the wind, shouting over her shoulder, “Follow my moves.”
With her arms forward, she reminded Tay’Ya of a pointed bitter-berry leaf… and she seemed to be going very fast. Again, it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Each time she picked up speed, the air caught in her carry-pouch, throwing her off balance, and spilling some of the berries. Finally settling for the long glide she knew so well, she slowly spiraled down.
Listening to her student’s explanation, Chi’ne offered more advice. “Look here. Notice the holes I’ve punched in my carry-pouch? These beads I’ve tied in my belly fur fit in them holding it closed. See? I’m not that good of a teacher after all. I tend to forget the little things.”
Tay’Ya had noticed the beads, but thought they were only decoration… lots of females decorated their long belly fur. She thought it was silly and had never done it. Closer examination showed her the beads were not just tied, but secured with resin from the needle tree.
Looking again at the tower, Tay’Ya pointed at its highest point. “Can I fly across the river from way up there?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t like it here… The males are always sniffing around me wanting to plant their seed. Ti’Ti is mad at me for letting my brother get eaten by the swamp monster… I think she liked him a lot, but it wasn’t my fault.”
“I suppose you could. My sister tried, but I don’t know if she made it.”
Determined to learn, Tay’Ya built a small nest near the tower. She spent many crossings of the Sky-Fires learning to fly. Each time she got near the river, fear took over and she veered off returning to the trees she knew. She wanted it so much though… One day she would make it… She just knew she had to try.