longtail - a prologue
by
Xiangjun Zeng

[What follows is material which I did not accept for the Anthology.  Why, then, am I displaying it here?  Because of its huge potential. 

At the moment, in my view and that of fellow-editor John Greer, this initial version doesn't work as a story; but I would invite readers to reflect on what the author has built up so far.

We're given a richly habitable far-future Solar System, in which we can follow the adventures of a creature who uses a transport system originally built by enigmatic Old Ones, to travel between the worlds.  Those worlds are not named, and we are supposed to guess what they are.  The Red Desert is obviously Mars, but what about the others?  I would argue that one major fault of the tale, so far, is that we are given insufficient clues.  But this is rectifiable.

As is the case for every page on the site, comments are welcome from readers.  But here I intend to go further than usual and, if and when the comments start to come in, display a second version, one which we can all fiddle around with...

First, though, here is XJ's scenario:]

1.

The Longtail slid down the gravel-filled slope leading into a temple of the Old Ones. The slope was riddled with roots of the local plant life, breaking up the structure and taking over as sovereign the space that the Old Ones had left behind.

    He was careful stepping off the slope. The plants were inexorable and relentless in their conquest and the structure had became weak over the long absence of the Old Ones. The life that grew near these structures fed off the energies of the place and exhibited peculiarities. In past temples he had visited, there had been plants that uprooted themselves to give chase and bugs that stunned him with flashing lights, which left him vulnerable to other types of plants that lived in symbiosis. The plants here have strange growths on their branches and he was careful not to disturb them lest he found out what they contained.

    He moved with care towards the altar in the temple. The altar was made of a material that was smooth and resisted time. The plants were unable to conquer it, nor did dust and grime make any inroads.

    Approaching the altar, he patted dust off his fur and pulled out his leather gloves. Although he required precision, the material left an alien feel when he touched it. It was not unpleasant or painful, just very strange and he disliked it. It was slicker than ice. His hands would slide off, unable to find purchase, and there was an unnerving warmth underneath that pulsed to his heartbeat.

    The Longtail took out a worn leather notebook to help him decipher the Old Ones’ script, which was filled with numbers and symbols that were difficult to make sense of. His tufted ears swiveled to catch any strange sounds. Satisfied that he was alone, he crinkled his snout in concentration. When he was confident he had the right sequence he closed the notebook, moved his hands over the altar and got ready.

    A low hum started to build as the machinations of the ancients awoke and fulfilled their purpose once more. Soft light emitted from the ground and openings in the floor and ceiling revealed themselves as the temple summoned the Skybridge. A large capsule emerged, with space to spare for two Longtails to sit in.

    And the plants started coming alive.

    Disturbed by the commotion, the growths on the plants started swelling, changing to an ugly purple. The Longtail tensed and pulled up his cowl, tightening his cloak and pulled on his mask. The cloak and mask were artifacts of the Old Ones that he found on his early adventures, resistant to many corrosive and lethal toxins.

    The growths burst and spilled a strange fluid that turned to mist when it came in contact with the air. Some insects caught in the path were petrified in an instant. The Longtail dashed towards the Skybridge as the entrance opened. His tail whipped from side to side to keep balance as he clambered into the capsule. He struck the panel by the door with the ease of experience, and the door closed just as the mist started circling him.

    The Skybridge hummed for a brief moment, and shot itself through the opening in the ceiling.

2.

    The legacy of the Old Ones were enigmatic and often dangerous, and the Skybridge was the only one understood in any fashion. It enabled travel between worlds. From the Red Desert, where the Longtail hailed, to the Swimmers of the Cloud Ocean and the Tree Dwellers of the Steaming Jungle. The Longtails of the Red Desert had trade with the Tree Dwellers and there was as much contact between the two tribes as the Skybridge would allow. The Skybridge moved with its own rhythm. When the time was right, such as the priesthood understood, the Skybridge allowed travel between the Steaming Jungle of the Tree Dwellers. Other times the Skybridge pointed to strange, wonderful and fatal places.

    Finding the Swimmers cost many lives on both sides. Many years ago a member of the priesthood was able to map the rhythm of the Skybridge and opened a new connection. The connection opened a door to the Cloud Ocean. There was an explosive push of air as the gas from the Cloud Ocean rushed in, blowing apart the temple housing the Skybridge. Then the air ignited, turning the temple into a giant ball of fire. So bright and terrible was the inferno that it could be seen against the day for miles in the Red Desert. The Skybridge closed itself quickly, as some unknown system the Old Ones set in place kicked in, preventing the disaster from spreading.  

    It took almost ten years to rebuild the temple. When the fire cleared, there wasn’t a stone left standing that wasn’t burnt or melted from the heat. The blackened bodies of the priesthood were scattered across the site, as were the bulbous, spongey bodies of the unfortunate Swimmers that were sucked in when the Skybridge opened. Much of the archive was lost in the fire, along with the histories of the Longtail tribe.  

    The connection to the Cloud Ocean was never opened again in full. The priests learnt later that there was too great a difference in pressure between the atmospheres of the Cloud Ocean and the Red Desert. The slightest opening would cause air from the Cloud Ocean to surge through with devastating effect. The air in the Cloud Ocean was also unstable and combusted with fanatical enthusiasm near any torches.

    The fire also left behind a great deal of moisture. An enterprising young priest had suggested that as a way to produce water, a valuable commodity in the Red Desert. The idea of setting off explosions to get a few barrels of water raised more than a few eyebrows and stiff whiskers. In the end the priests contented themselves with tentative communications with the Swimmers instead, although it was hard to make out their speech as much of it were hoots and whistles in a range beyond Longtail ears.

    The priest that opened the door that fateful day was never found again. His body was not amongst the dead. That was his father. He had been searching for him ever since, traveling from Skybridge to Skybridge. Visiting wondrous places of the Old Ones looking for his trail from the notes he had left behind. His father had proven hard to find, and it seemed sometimes he never would.

    As time passed, it was the spectacles of the Old Ones’ world that drove him on. To see the sights, to wonder what might have been. To feel the half-told stories seeping out from the ancient structures.

    He was led to an archive of the Old Ones by an entry in his father’s journal not long ago. The entry described a wondrous flower, growing out of a glowing crystal. A flower that kept its bloom for years, bright with an inner light and heat.

    The Longtail did not think his father found what he was looking for. There were signs of frustration. Angry, crumpled paper notes that his father left behind detailing the ciphers he used to decode the Old One’s language. The Longtail had used the same ciphers to read the ancient archive, marveling at the things it hinted at and also the ingenuity of his father.

    As the Skybridge hurtled through the aether that bound them all together, it was possible to look out through the transparent material the Old Ones had built the capsule out of. It was disconcerting at first. A thin strand of light arcing through a vast darkness punctuated with scores of dotted light. There was a lofty majesty to the darkness. And the stillness was midwife to thoughts and ideas; meditation he had come to appreciate.

    Those points of lights were called stars in his father's journal. He had claimed that they were like the sun except that they were very far away, so they seemed small. It seemed implausible to the Longtail, for the void in between would have to be incomprehensible in scale. There could not be enough space anywhere to hold something like that.

    His father had claimed a great many other things. The Red Desert was known as Mars in ages past, for instance. Or that the Steaming Jungle was once Venus and that the only world to have held life was the green-blue world he had just left, the name of which had long been lost to time. It was very fanciful. He could not see how life could have only been on one world. It would have been so crowded. Nothing was mentioned about the names in all of the Old Ones' archives he had read either, so who could have given the worlds those names?  

    He shifted the cloak around to a more comfortable position as his mind turned these questions over, as he had many times in the past. He had been searching for his father for a long time. He had set off on this journey because it might lead to signs of him. He wanted to know why he opened the Skybridge that day. He wanted to know what he was searching for and what he found.

    He wanted to find the flower. If he had to be honest, he wanted to find the flower more than he wanted to find his father. He had been seeing it in his dreams ever since he read that entry in his father’s journal. All of his father’s entries had filled him with questions and wonder. His journeys have been as much about the adventures and all the marvels he never imagined he could have seen.


3.

    The Skybridge neared its destination, sweeping over an enormous world many times bigger than the Red Desert, with a dense atmosphere marbled in bands of red and white. At this distance, he could see the bands crawl across the surface as the great air currents of the titan struggled against each other. A monstrous red vortex large enough to swallow smaller worlds formed out of the tapestry of never-ending storms. It was the Cloud Ocean, dwelling place of the Swimmers. It was the largest of the known worlds and his father had called it a gas giant. He was in the outer spheres now, where everything was alien and that strangeness can kill if one was not careful.

    The Skybridge gave off a strange humming, the aether thickening and becoming opaque, vibrating as it landed on a smaller green-gray moon orbiting the Cloud Ocean, cloudy and just as temperamental as its' parent. The Skybridge fell still as it came to a rest.  

    The door opened and the Longtail stepped out. It was cold and his breath turned into white clouds as he huffed. He pulled his cloak in; the material was good at trapping heat.

    The coldness of the place made the Longtail cautious. The temples of the Old Ones kept their temperatures no matter the season, and this temple looked incomplete. There were no signs of the smooth material that the Old Ones built with. The Skybridge was housed in a cavern, with pipes running into the walls, and standing lamps that turned on with a soft glow as the Longtail moved close.

    There was a track of sorts on which wagons with no wheels sat, leading towards a large tunnel. The air seemed breathable, but he left the mask on just in case. The Longtail walked towards the tracks. Lamps mounted on the tunnel wall sensed his approach and illuminated his path, like the standing lamps in the Skybridge chamber. He could make out struts supporting the tunnels and strange instruments lining the walls.

    The Longtail walked over and inspected them, hoping to glean more information about this place. He prodded the instruments with care, but they were dead. He ran a gloved hand over the them and came away with dust. Whatever this place was, it was not built with the same care that the Old Ones took. No dust would have covered the instruments if it had been.

    He pressed on and soon reached a large cavern. It was dark, but as he stepped into the cavern the lights came on. He gaped. In the center was a bottomless hole. It was huge, boring straight through the ground into the abyss. Straddling over the hole like a gigantic spider was an immense drill. There was other equipment scattered around and piles of rocks.

    This was a mine. The Old Ones’ perhaps. They are the only ones the Longtail knew of capable of operations in this scale, although it lacked the finesse of the Old Ones’ style that he had come to associate with them.

    The Longtail walked to the hole and peered into it. There were tiny glimmers of light glinting off some crystalline structures jutting out of the walls. He glanced over to the rock piles and saw more of that same crystal. He picked one up and studied it, feeling its weight in his hands. It had a swirling milky center and was heavy for its size. He kept the crystal in his bag for later study.

    Stepping away, he moved to the other side of the cavern towards another tunnel as large as the one he had just stepped out of, snaking further into the darkness. He hoped that it led to an exit or somewhere interesting.

    The path in the new tunnel sloped with a gentle elevation and the walls here were much smoother than the ones that came before. Pausing, the Longtail knelt to take a closer look at the floor. There were signs of heavy passage but it looked old. Decades old. The Longtail curled his tail under him and sat on it, thinking. It was clear the place was abandoned, but not by the Old Ones. They had disappeared thousands of years ago, and this was too recent.

    He needed to find another way out. A Skybridge is one-way once it had been used. It took time for it to reset. If he did not find another Skybridge, he would be trapped in this place for years. He also did not think his father had come through here and there were no signs of the flowers. The was no point in remaining in this mine. He got up and walked.  

    After what seemed like an hour of walking he came to the end of the tunnel with a sealed metal door. It gleamed under the illumination of the tunnel lights. The frame was thick. Three inches of an unknown alloy ran around a solid door with no hinges that he could see. There was a heavy lever that would take all his strength to open if he could figure out how.

    The door was unlike anything he had seen, more advanced than any of the races he knew could produce. None possessed the skill required to shape the amount of metal he saw before him and in such intricate ways. Yet, it was not the Old Ones.

    There was a deceptive simplicity in the way the Old Ones built their legacies, as if with magic. A panel in the wall that strained the eyes to be seen, sliding open without a sound. A surface so smooth that things fell off with little resistance and where the controls sat under the surface. This door was too crude for that. Someone else had been here before. Someone who possessed skill far beyond any of the tribes, but nowhere near the Old Ones.

    He tried the lever. It did not budge. Stepping closer, he put his hands onto the door frame and closed his eyes. He could feel a slight warmth and a low hum radiating through the door. It was still working. He ran his hands over the door and stepped back, trying to find a way to unlock the door. A mechanism sat at the base of the lever, which he was sure was a lock. A bar ran through the fulcrum preventing the lever from turning, but there was no way he could see to remove the bar.

    He looked over the door again. This time he ran his hands over as much of the door as he could reach. His hands found a dial that gave a little when he applied some pressure. Excited, he turned it all the way. It was stiff and a soft click sounded as something inside the door moved into place. A thud and the lock on the lever was removed. Taking a deep breath, he put all his weight behind the lever and pulled.        

    With a dull metallic clang the door unlocked itself and opened. A blast of air rushed out, bringing up a dense cloud of dust along with it. The place had not been used for a while.

    As the dust cleared, the Longtail marveled at what he saw. It was a room of immense proportions. A large rectangular plaza filled with rows of strange tracks, atop which winged contraptions sat. It would have taken him an hour or two to cross on foot. There was a large rock wall on one end that stood tens of meters high, and opposite that was another frame not unlike the one that circled the door he just entered, except it was larger. Much larger. It covered the entire wall. There was other machinery scattered across the floor, some with wheels carrying ore from the giant mine within.

    In a way, the fact that this was not the Old Ones’ work intimidated him more. There was a mystery to the Old Ones and that created a gulf between them in his mind. This however, he could understand. He could see how it might work although he would not have been able to invent the concepts underlying. The scale of it brought home the amount of power it took to carve this room out of the rock and lay it with so much metal. There was another tribe out there who could build this and was familiar enough with the Old Ones to harness the Skybridge to bring them to this place. And maybe not long gone, like the Old Ones. He shivered.

    The Longtail crossed the threshold and entered the room. He stood upon a walkway and took the stairs leading down. He placed his footing carefully, making sure that the steps were stable, and descended with as much stealth as he could muster. He did not know what guardians might have been left to haunt this place.

    He crept forward as he reached the bottom. Like the rest of the tunnel however, some restless spirit that inhabited the place sensed his presence and flooded the area with light.

    He cursed under his breath. So much for being discreet. Still, it was unwise to throw all caution to the winds. He moved along the walls towards one of the winged objects. They looked like aerial transport of some kind. He had seen from the platform that the tracks led out to the wall with the giant frame. He hoped it still worked.

    The wings of the flyer stretched out to about 10 meters on either side, tapering to a point. The edges of the wings looked sharp enough to slice into the air currents as it rode the wind. The body was a tubular pod, bulbous in the front with a slim fin towards the back. The vehicle was anchored in place by a powerful metal arm from the tracks that would launch the flyer into the air. There was space for one.

    The Longtail crawled into the pilot couch, looking over the controls. Whoever built this place had learnt how to harnessed the Old Ones’ power. Rougher, more brutal contraptions were hooked over and tapped into the familiar flawless perfection of the Old Ones’ tools. Symbols, different from the scripts of the Old Ones, were written alongside. It was more angular than the flowing eddy of the Old Ones’ language. That was good; he had more chance at figuring out the Old Ones’ work.

    He squeezed into the pilot seat, trying to get comfortable, and pulled out his journal. He had acquired fluency over the years but learnt that being meticulous always paid off. He started studying what was in front of him, and jotted down the symbols of the Other for good measure. It might come in handy later.

    After some study, he worked out how the machine was rigged and brought it to life. The machine purred and hummed as its system came on and the pilot pod lit up. Soft, glowing lights on the wings and the nose came on and the catapult tightens its clamp on the machine while winding itself up. As far as he could make out, steering was limited from the pilot pod.

    The Longtail got out of the pod and looked over to the giant door. He had to get that open somehow so the machine had somewhere to fly to.

    He doubted that this door could be opened with a mere hatch. The gates back home had required a team of Longtails turning a giant winch. He looked around the plaza and spied a room at the back wall several spans up with a wide window overlooking the grounds. Promising.

    There was a staircase leading up. He climbed with quick, soft steps. Caution made him check the room from outside. It was bigger than it appeared. There was a circular table in the middle. Dark panels hung from the ceiling and there were long tables by the sides of the room filled with the kind of dials and buttons he found in the pilot seat of the flyer.

    Nothing attacked him yet, so he entered. And like everything else, some ghost living within the walls came alive with a soft sigh when it felt his presence. The tables lit up and pictures flicked across the hanging panels. The surface of the round table became bathed with a gentle blue glow. There were Old Ones script written alongside the rougher script of the Other. Looking over the Old Ones' language, he soon figured out how to engage the giant gates.

    He could not yet decipher the Other’s language in full but it did not seem say the same things the Old One’s script did. He was confident he could open the gates with what he had however, so he ran the sequences that opened the gates.

    The plaza dimmed for an instance before flickering back on as power was pulled to open the gates. An immense thud, followed by the screech of tortured metal as gears that had lain fallow for too long started turning again. The sound echoed through the cavernous hall.

    The Longtail flinched. It was too loud for his liking. He still worried about traps left behind for intruders. Intruders like himself. After an agonizing wait, which the Longtail was certain all manner of dangerous things would swoop out from nowhere to crush him for his audacity, the gates opened.

    He beheld a sight few were given to see. It was desolate out there. Great swirls of clouds darkened the vista. Huge spires of rocks rose like jagged teeth from the maw of a nightmare. Lightning crashed from distant storms bathing the mountains in a menacing silhouette. He took a moment to absorb the power of it.

    And then the lights in the room flicked to red.

    From his vantage point, the Longtail could see movements in the shadows of the plaza. The gate started closing. The guardians of this place had woken at last. The Longtail bolted out of the room he was in. He rushed down the stairway, sprinting as fast as he could. He needed to get on the flying machine before the gate closed and he was trapped. Beams of light swept across the grounds as four-legged metal spiders hunted for intruders. He counted at least a dozen.

    Crouching low, the Longtail waited for a break in the sweeping lights and burst forward in a leap, bounding towards the flying machine, his claws scraping across the ground.

    He missed a timing and a beam swept across his path. Too late to stop. He gave everything he had and ran. The machines turned their attention towards him and advanced with menacing intent.

    His adrenaline rose. It was a damn fool thing he had done. He should have paid more attention to the text. The Other symbols that he could not decipher must have been a trigger for the alarm. Too late now. He pushed forward. He needed to get the flying machine going before the guardians blocked the track.

    He reached the flying machine and jumped into the pilot seat with a well timed swing. With an urgency born of fear, he ran through the sequence to awaken the flyer.

    The machine responded and the pilot seat hatch started closing. Too slow. The Longtail could hear the guardians closing in, their metal legs thundering across the floor like drumbeats.

    Desperate, he released the brakes of the catapult from inside the pilot seat. Red lettering flashed across the screen in warning. He ignored it and slammed the controls to turn the flyer on.

    The engine roared to life and the catapult leapt forward, pushing the flyer across the plaza with breathtaking speed. The wind rushed into the pilot seat, smashing into the Longtail's face and blurring his vision.

    One of the guardians had came too close into the flyer's path. The flyer's wing struck a glancing blow across the guardian's head. The flyer rocked and bucked against the clamp. He closed his eyes......and the catapult held.

    It held, hurtling the flyer towards the gates and towards the storm-tossed sky. The gates inched ever closer and the Longtail’s breathe became short with tension. Behind, the guardians gave futile chase.

    With a sudden burst of acceleration, the catapult crashed into the end of the track with a loud crack as metal collided against metal. As it did so, the catapult swung its arm and threw the flyer into the air.

    The engine roared and pushed the flyer airborne...and he was out!


4.

    The flyer soared through charcoal skies broken by cracks of lightning, illuminating shadowed landscape below. The Longtail had a much closer view of the jagged, teeth-like mountains than from before. They were faceted and smooth, as if a gemcutter had plied his craft on them. Rivers of glinting crystals veined through the rocks, pulsing with a blue inner light as the lightning flashed past.

    Past the jagged rocks was a void. So deep and dark that the lightning and the light from his flyer could not penetrate into the valley. If the mountains joined at the bottom, it was a long way down. The Longtail could not envision any natural process that could leave mountains looking like the maw of a deep sea creature that stretched into its gullet.

    His mind full of disquiet, he looked up at the sky. It was not any better. The clouds roiled and churned. At times the high winds would reach such ferocity that they tore the thick clouds apart revealing the overbearing glare of the Cloud Ocean, the red vortex looking like the pupil of a maddened creature.

    There was a loneliness in this place, inhospitable and harsh. If a god wanted to be left alone, it would be in such a place that he would brood.

    The Longtail had no idea where he was going, adding to his growing discomfort. The flyer seemed to have its own path, and was headed towards that no matter what he did.

    It reminded him of the old sand-mule his family had back on the farm in the Red Desert. After the burning of the temple archives, he and his mother had to move out. They needed work, and the town was too filled with rage for them to stay. They packed what little was left after the temple elders were done picking through their belongings and moved out to his grandfather's waterpouch farm.

    It was hard living. Waterpouches stored moisture in their waxy roots to weather the harshness of the desert, and the roots were in demand by travelers crossing the Red Desert. It took a great deal of water to farm them and what pockets of water were in the area were almost dried up. They were always skirting that thin line where the farm collapses. Their days were filled with trying to scrunch up water from anywhere. Morning dew, or having to go into town to buy. Most of the water went into farming and the Longtail learnt young to get by with little.

    Their only blessing was the sand-mule. They called him Angry, because he had a foul temper. He had a great nose for water, somehow separating the smell from the ubiquitous rust in the sand that gave the Red Desert its name. Much of his childhood was spent on Angry's back wandering the endless rocky Desert in freezing cold, with only his father's journal and Angry for company    .

    Most times, he let Angry go where he would. The sand-mule was too stubborn to follow directions. He would plod around to catch hints of moisture. When he found it, he would make a straight line towards the source, sometimes going over rough terrain just to get to it. The Longtail thought he did that just to make the trip miserable for his little passenger.

    Despite that, Angry was family. He was his closest friend, and ornery uncle. When Angry got too old, his grandfather saddled him for a trip. Angry gave him a long look before they set off. His grandfather returned alone that evening.

    The flyer had its sights set on something, and was flying towards that. The machine seemed nimble enough in the storm and there was not much he could do save ride along. He looked out the windows to get a sense of the land he was crossing. There was no hope he could make such a journey on foot. No way to scale those mountains and no way to cross the valleys he could see.

    He was starting to get lost in morbid thoughts when he noticed something out in the distance. There was a faint shimmer when the lightning flashed. Squinting his eyes, he waited for the next lightning strike.

    The sky flashed again, and this time he saw it with more clarity. An ethereal wisp stretching out from the ground all the way to beyond the grim storm clouds. It was a Skybridge. He had never seen one in its entirety before but there was no mistaking the aether that tethered them.

    The tension he had been holding in his shoulders melted away. He was not sure how he was going to leave this world, but the sight of the Skybridge cheered him up. He could figure out the resonance to take him away, and as luck would have it, the flyer was headed that way.

    Now that he was more relaxed, he decided to take out the crystal he had picked up from the caves and studied it. There was now a faint blue glow emanating from within, similar to the crystal veins in the mountains outside. Taking it out of the mines had changed it. It pulsed with its own rhythm. Whatever this was, this world was full of it. His guess was that whoever built the flying machines and the giant compound that housed them were mining it and transporting them with the flyers.

    He was less clear about the connection to the Old Ones. Perhaps they took one of the Skybridges and shifted it here and made it work for them. That would have been quite the feat, since traveling between the stars was only possible through the Skybridges. And yet the one in the mines felt makeshift, like the way the flyer controls were makeshift. The Old Ones did not put that Skybridge there.

    His reverie was broken as the flyer started banking. It was nearing its destination. Putting away his things, he wrapped himself up in his cloak and readied to leave.

    The flyer began its descent and the ground below came into focus. He could see rows of the familiar catapult tracks from the mines. The tracks led into a squat and heavy structure sitting in an open space, defiant against the lashing rain. Behind the structure was a dome, a perfect hemisphere nestled in the rock, with veins of blue running over the body like marble. There was an eerie beauty about it, and the perfection of the sphere hinted at the Old Ones’ work.

    The flyer circled over the site in a spiral, getting closer with each turn. At the final turn, it glided towards one of the empty tracks and slotted itself onto the catapult arm, engine purring as it shut off. The catapult held tight and retracted into the structure.

    The pilot compartment opened, spilling light into a dark room. The Longtail got out in haste and hid in the shadows, wary of another alarm. There was nothing however. Not even the ghost that had tracked his presence ever since he came to this world. The room stayed dark, save for the light coming out of the flyer. He began looking for a way out.

    He shut the flyer down to allow his vision to adapt to the darkness. Under a layer of dust, he could just make out the shapes of tools and other rubbish scattered across the room. Struts hung about from the ceiling like metallic vines. Marks on the floor suggested heavy equipment might have rested once. There were no signs of a separate exit. The only way out seemed to be the entrance the flyer came in from. The storm was hitting this place hard, the pouring rain thundering against the walls. He was not eager to head out but he had to find the Skybridge.

    The rain outside was ferocious. He could feel it stabbing through his coat like tiny spears. In the distance, almost hidden by the torrent, was the shimmer of the aether across a rocky slope, coming from somewhere inside the large smooth dome he had seen from the sky. He started climbing.

    The slope was rough. It was much further away than it seemed at first. The rocks were made slick by the rain and it was hard to get a firm grip. He fell more than once, cracking bones against rock. He also had to swim across bodies of water that had gathered between crevices of rocks.

    When he came up against the dome, he sank to his knees in exhaustion. Taking a moment to collect himself, he looked around, trying to find a way in. The rock face was smooth to the touch, broken up by the crystal ore that ran through everything in this place. There was no sign of construction, as if it was carved whole from the mountain.

    He could not find a way in and he did not relish scrambling over the perimeter trying to look for one. The ground was as rough as the slope he just climbed and the dome covered a huge area.

    As he looked over his surroundings, an idle thought entered his mind. He wondered what the strange new tribe that built the flyers were doing here. They were using the flyers to carry the crystal ore here for sure, but what did they do with it all? There was no sign of it.....

    He sat up. A thought struck him. They might be bringing the crystals into the dome, and if they were there must be some method to transport the ore in. The rocks looked like they have lain on that slope undisturbed since the beginning of time and the possibility of roads were low.

    He looked around and saw a long ramp behind the squat building that he had not seen before leading to a cable car. He sighed. Climbing down was always harder than climbing up, and that was not counting the rain trying to wash him away as well. He picked himself up and set off.

    It was a struggle. When he stood before the cable car, he was bruised and trembling. He had cracked his ribs against a boulder when an unexpected rush of water swept him off his feet, smashing his flailing elbows and knees on the rocks as he tumbled. He was lucky that the boulder caught him even if he might have broken his ribs.

    Glancing around, he soon found the controls to work the cable car. He released it and the car screeched as its wheels turned against the years of rust it had accumulated. Wincing against his ribs, he clambered into the car and closed his eyes as he sank in temporary respite.

    He woke with a start as the cable car rumbled to a stop. He rubbed his eyes. The involuntary nap reminded him of how sore and tired he was from the ordeal since arriving in this land. He climbed out of the cable car.

    The Other had smashed a hole into the dome and connected the cable. The walls of the dome was thick. Tracks were laid for moving the cable once it reached the dome and it stretched further in. The strange glowing crystals illuminated the tunnels with its cold, distant light. He walked on. The tunnel had signs of heavy usage. He wondered why the Old Ones and Others were here. What drew them here, but more important, what drove them from here. It was clear that the Others had left unwillingly and in haste.

    A slow and subtle change in the quality of the lights brought him out of his musings. The light from the crystals made a gradual transition into a warm, orange glow. He hurried forward. Something in his bones told him this was important and he was eager to see what.

    The tunnel led round a bend, and as he came over, he saw that the tunnel came to an end. It opened up to a chamber beyond and it was filled with the same saturated orange light from the crystals around him now.

    He left the tunnels and stepped into a giant stone garden, amidst motes of soft brilliance that danced and eddied like fireflies throughout the room. There was an enormous hollow in the middle of the room where a column of rock rose from the depths that the Old Ones had carved from the mountain, twisting in a spire like a tree of stone. Lacing through the rock tree were huge veins of the crystal. Where they pooled large enough, clusters of glowing flowers grew.

    A tree of stone, bearing flowers of light. The beauty of it clenched his heart. His father hadn’t done the real thing justice with his description and drawings.

    He wanted to get a closer look at the crystal flowers. He scanned the room and saw cart tracks that ran in a long spiraling slope against the wall. He started walking. The tracks had to end somewhere.

    As he moved along, he could not help but be curious about the glowing motes dancing around him. He reached out and caught one in his gloved hands. It was a seed. A tiny flap curled into a cup shape, soft and feathery, was attached to a seed no larger than a grain of sand. The light emanated from the seed, and the cup flap pulsed in an undulating rhythm.

    He gave the seed a gentle toss, and watched as the pulsating flap bore the seed away.

    As he moved down the tracks, he could see that where the flowers took roots, the crystal changed from its natural blue light into the warm orange. There was an eddy within the crystal. A back and forth where the flowers changed the light within the crystal.

    All of a sudden, the mining made sense. There was energy in the crystal. Whatever reason made the Others depart must have been a desperate one.

    That thought grew heavy in his mind. The dome was immense and it was a long walk. The unnatural silence punctuated by the hollow rasping of his claws on the tracks was incubator to half formed fears. He started getting an itch between his shoulders. The kind he got when someone was creeping up behind him.

    Just when he thought he could bear the tension no longer, he spied in the distance the end of the tracks. They stopped at a ledge that led further into the walls on one side and towards a scaffolding that scaled the stone tree on the other. He quickened his pace.

    His curiosity had always gotten the better of him. Despite his unease, he turned towards the tree when he reached the ledge. He needed to get a closer look at the crystal. He scampered up the scaffold and swung onto a branch. Careful of his balance, he moved towards a cluster of the glowing flowers.

    They were delicate. Thin, crystal like petals that refracted the inner glow from the roots. Tiny seeds clustered below the petals. The roots formed a tangle that coiled around the crystal, growing inwards where it nestled as the heart, feeding on the energy flowing through.

    He wanted a sample. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a small hammer and chisel.

    The Longtail tried to be careful not to cut away too much of the other flowers, but it was unavoidable. It was starting to get hard to focus. He leaned back and rubbed his snout, trying to still the nausea rising from deep within.

    It had been a long day, such as he might have counted back home. He had set out to find the Skybridge that took him here. That search had taken him months, through many strange lands. This was the furthest the Skybridge had ever taken him and the first time he was so close to the Cloud Ocean. That climb up the slope had also exhausted him. Little wonder he felt ill.

    He bent back to his task. He continued chipping away at the crystal with swift, tiny strokes. He stopped. The nausea was growing worse. He eyes swam. The room started tilting. He tried to stand up, but could not keep his balance. He weaved like a drunk, stepping on the flowers, crushing them and raising a cloud of seedlings.

    The room screamed.

    It was a high pitched whine that went on and on. It shattered his thoughts and spun the room. He retched. He tried to reach for the scaffold, but tumbled down from branch instead onto the ledge. It knocked the wind out of him and he curled in agony from the noise.

    He had to get out. He stumbled towards the corridor on the other side of the ledge. Fighting the nausea, he struggled upright and tried to run. The corridor whipped to the side and he turned around to follow it. Not staying still, the corridor did a lazy swim in the other direction. He sank to his knees and tried to crawl towards it.

    The keening became even more powerful. The noise threatened to burst his eardrums and he clutched at his ears from the torture. The pain did wake him from the disorientation however, and he beat a hasty retreat from the stone garden when he found enough balance to stand.

    The noise did not end even after he left the garden, traveling through the crystal veins in the walls of the corridor. It was less intense however, and allowed him to move without the crippling nausea. He hurried as fast as he could, leaning against the walls for support.

    When he was far enough away from the devastating noise he crumpled to the ground, breathing in labored gasps. He waited for the pain to pass and he could think again.

    He was unprepared for this place. The stone garden and the guardians in the mines had almost ended his travels. Danger was a constant companion in his searches, but this time it got too close. The guardians in the mines were due to his carelessness, but he could not have guessed that the rocks were alive in that way. The crystal flowers had reacted to his vandalism. First with what was in hindsight a sound attack that he could not hear and then a fevered pitch when he crushed the flowers in his dizziness.

    Time to leave. He did not want to find out if the flowers shared any defensive connections with the rest of the crystals in this place. Grimacing, he pushed himself up, using his tail for support. He took a tentative step, and continued walking when he was sure of his balance.

    Soon he reached the end of the tracks where the crystal was shipped and stored. Rows of wagons lined the walls of a mid-sized room, piled with ore ready to be taken to some unknown place. There were doorways that splintered into other parts of the facility. Picking the corridor with the most wagon tracks, he stepped through. It made sense to him that the way to the Skybridge altar saw the most use.

    It wasn’t long before he reached the Skybridge. There were crates scattered across the chamber, some of which were filled with the crystal ore. He moved towards the Skybridge and looked at the controls. The Others had built their system on top of the Old Ones’ here as well. The Longtail took a moment to prep it. The bridge hummed and as the frequencies aligned, the capsule rose into place. He stepped inside and the capsule shot through the heavens, taking him away.

    As the land fell away, he gave a heavy sigh and slumped down. The trip was not as fruitful as he had hoped. He had come looking for signs of his father and had found none. He had found the crystal flower, but could not take back a sample and it offered no clues to his search. Was his father even there at all, he wondered. The place had been dormant for decades by his count. Long before his father had disappeared. How could he had known to describe the crystal flower in his journal?

    Putting the thoughts out of his mind, he took off his satchel and set it aside, looking to get some rest. As he did so, he felt a lump. Reaching in, he took out the crystal he had picked up from the mines. It gleamed with a soft glow. At least he had managed to keep a memento and the trip was not a total loss. He wrapped the crystal up in a piece of cloth and returned it into the satchel.

    Brushing off the seedlings that had gotten onto his coat, he leaned back and closed his eyes as the Skybridge took him home to the Red Desert.