By Adrian Simmons
You are Gamma alone.
You move through the Architecture, making your way through the area that is not-quite-Architecture and not-quite-ground. You press against others, workers and soldiers and even other Thinkers. In the darkness you smell them, and feel their signals quiver along your lateral grooves. Your mandibles are closed tight; you have a task in the crown.
Mandibles locked, you begin the long circular climb up the warrens of the Architecture. The tunnels carved through dirt and clay give way to the spiraling chambers of spit-paper and then you come to the great central vent. The light beams down and air flows past you, the heat of the Architecture pushing it up and out. Workers Thump you and are ignored, soldiers Thump you and then give you a poke with their scythe mandibles when you won’t unlock. At the very top, the crown of the Architecture, there is a writhing throng of bodies: workers and soldiers and one young Thinker. Your laterals quiver, feeling their confusion and frustration.
You scan the sky; it is empty in both your near and far vision. You push through the legs and bodies and Thump the other Thinker, insistent, on the side. Unlocking your jaws, you entwine antennae, and the thin parts of your head-carapaces just over your mouths meet.
You are (Gamma)(Epsilon).
“There are not two scaled-badgers digging into the fungal gardens, but five! You don’t know if you should try to scare them with the shine-stone or use the rolling-stones, or whether the soldiers are right and you should go to the gardens and fight them.”
“Your task, Gamma, is to go to the crown, take over operations there, and drive away the scaled-badgers.”
“Your task, Epsilon, is to take five soldiers with fighting sticks and establish them as a guard to protect the crown from any birds.”
“Your task, Gamma, is to take workers to manipulate the rolling-stones.”
“Your task, Epsilon, is to watch for any Nuhurr-Tooth Architecture war-parties out in the burned plain.”
You are Gamma alone.
The young, frustrated Thinker, its thoughts still yours and yours its, turns to the excited soldiers, Thumping them, then joining with them, forming them into a semblance of order to provide a guard for you.
You are Gamma + worker.
You were told by the Thinker to get the shine-stone, then by the soldier to gather fighting sticks, then by the Thinker to move the rolling-stones. Which should you do? You are hungry. There has been little food since the fire, and the scaled-badgers will eat what little remains.
You should gather the other workers and move the rolling stones to the edge of the crown.
You are Gamma alone.
The worker slides past, intent on its new job, happy to have its confusion lifted.
You think, shaking the images from the worker’s brain out of your own. One of the soldiers, impatient because Epsilon hasn’t joined with it yet, Thumps you hard.
You are (soldier)Gamma.
“You must give me more fighting sticks! I will drive away the scaled-badgers! I fight against all enemies of the Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture! I will make a great Contribution!”
“I will take my fighting stick and join with Epsilon, and I will watch the sky for birds, so the workers can move the rolling-stones.”
The soldier’s feelings, its eagerness to fight and its frustration at Epsilon’s indecision: these feelings swarm in your mind, sticky and potent. A younger Thinker might be swayed by them, but you are not young like Epsilon. You have your task and you have knowledge, third-mind, that dozens of soldiers would be killed fighting the scaled-badgers directly – knowledge that the soldiers themselves could never comprehend.
You climb out onto the edge of the crown. The sun burns huge and red and blocky near the horizon. The slow moons are nearly full; the fast one is streaking over the mountains far to sun-comes-up. Below you see where the five scaled-badgers are tearing into the fungal gardens. As you’ve been trained, as you’ve experienced second-mind uncountable times, you check the hedge of sharp-sticks that protrude up and away from the crown, then check for birds again.
The sky is empty and you direct the workers to move the stones up and over the edge of the crown. They roll down the grooves and smash into one of the scaled-badgers, knocking it down the side of the Architecture, shocked but uninjured. The hole it had dug into the fungal garden sprouts the ends of a dozen fighting sticks.
It takes eight of the ten stones to finally drive away the five scaled-badgers. By then other Thinkers have arrived. Joining with them, you organize the repair crews and stone-retrieval crews.
You are (Gamma)(Eta)
“Nobody above soldier has taken a long look around; you, Gamma, should do so.”
You are Gamma alone.
The sight of the plain burned so utterly is unnerving. Unseasonable. Unnatural. The surface trails are utterly exposed, their protective layers of sharp sticks destroyed. Toward the river you see the blurry skeletons of trees, their leaves gone, and the vines – the vines the Architecture needs to cross the river – are gone, too. So much destruction. So much desolation. It was lucky the fire did not catch the main Population of the Architecture of the Deep-Spreading-Root as they fled from the fighting with the Nuhurr-Tooth Architecture.
Foraging and trying to find vines to cross the river have been the priority tasks, and there have been few scouts sent back toward sun-comes-up to look for the enemies of the Architecture.
The shine-stone is out and has a full crew. There are no kolx or two-horned uunnas to signal to. The shine-stone signals to the far outpost in the tree by the river. It signals back that there are no vines, there are no kolx or uunnas.
A hoolda bird, a big one, begins circling above the Architecture, just where your vision goes from clear to blurry. It dips, lower and lower, and you decide it is safer to get back inside. This is when you see the new hill.
Dipping back down, you Thump and join until you’ve taken the soldiers from Epsilon. They will protect you from the hoolda bird while you look again.
The hill is not large, but it gleams in the sunlight, far away, where your vision turns from blurry to blocky. This is something beyond your experience, beyond second, third, or even n-mind experience. Hills do not grow; they are, or they are not. Trees and plants grow, and the Population makes an Architecture grow.
The hoolda bird leaves, after several jabs from the soldiers’ fighting sticks, and you send some workers to gather the feathers it dropped. Then you return to the depths of the Architecture.
When a Thinker has time alone, with its mandibles clamped, the memories of others, of Thinkers and workers and soldiers, begin to fade.
The new task of building a subsurface long-tunnel is the kind of task that gives a Thinker a lot of time alone. Alone enough. It is strange, this reshuffling of your memories, of Gamma and your experiences and the experiences of not-Gamma.
You have been alive for 239 days. The disastrous battle with the Nahurr-Tooth Architecture war-party was ten days ago. You were not there; you were helping to groom one of the tamed kolx that had come to scratch itself against the Architecture.
The fire was eight days ago. You were helping to make a floating-scaffold to evacuate the Population across the river when the message came to take shelter in the Architecture. You saw, second-mind, the flames swirl down the plains, more like a sandstorm than the seasonal fires you know n-mind. The floating-scaffold was destroyed, the tame kolx and uunnas were driven off and have not returned; the trained hoolda birds were killed.
Smaller floating-scaffolds could be built, but there are no vines, and without vines, there is no way to guide the scaffold across the river. The current will take them where it will. If the Population of Deep-Spreading-Root cannot cross the river, the Nahurr-Tooth Architecture will destroy or enslave it.
You have argued, in the Caste, that you should be part of a band to attempt to cross the river and find vines on the other side. You love the Architecture and the Population it houses that much. The crossing of the river was to be your great Contribution.
A quiver of warning flits from ahead along the laterals of the workers. One of the watchers has detected something. Pushing ahead past the stone-still work-crew, you slip Outside, find the worker on watch, Thump, and join.
Image: a member of a Population, alone, struggles across the blackened plain. Fear and worry. Is it a scout? An enemy?
You turn the work-crew into a guard-crew. Then the mass of you advance into the stubble. There you find a Thinker, one of your own, from the Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture, starving, dirty, its carapace blackened by the sun and flaking from the fire.
The Final Contribution of (Gamma)(
The hoolda-bird will not obey your pulls on its feathers. It is better trained than most, but it will not fly toward the kolx herd. Perhaps it is trying to escape another bird? You scan the sky and see a thing that cannot be. There is a second fast-moon, high above you, and as you watch it turns into a small sun.
The bird flaps and begins to fly toward sun-goes-down, and above you, you see that the small sun is growing, like a sweet-sphere-fungus out of the bottom of a great gleaming hill in the sky. In a bellows pump, the time it takes for one breath, the hill doubles in size and the sun quadruples.
Then your laterals go mad, a screeching keen of sensation that soon turns to pain. No matter how tight you close your lateral invaginations, the sensations will not stop. The world flips and flips again, and the bird flies straight down. The tough branches of a tri-triangle-leaf bush catch on feather and wing, then flesh and carapace and then, then.
One side: the carrier-bird’s broken body hangs half out of the bush. Another side: the kolx stream by. Two of your six mobility legs are broken. Another side: the new sun is as big as the old sun and touches the ground. A wind like none before or since pounds you, throws you out of the tri-triangle-leaf bush and to the ground.
Dirt and grit blast at you, and kolx pass, shaking the ground. Then you see the fire. It is a wall of flame, not the waves of tongues you know of second-mind. Then you feel it: a heat worse than a dozen midday suns, and a pain with it to make you forget your broken legs.
Running, running on those broken legs, running on your manipulative tentacles, you charge toward a panic-dropped pile of kolx dung and bury yourself in it.
“Is there a new hill on the horizon?” demands GammaThinker-Caste.
It’s an unfair question, and GammaThinker-Caste knows it, but there has been a great deal of unfairness lately. There have been conflicts lost. Images and memories have flooded the Caste of late, images that make little to no sense.
“The older images, first-, second-, and third-mind, do not match the new images of the horizon in the direction facing sun-comes-up, three-eighths of the way between sun-comes-up and sun-goes-down.”
You say, “I saw, first-mind, a hill that shined in the sunlight. I saw, second-mind, a hill fall to the ground on a ball of fire. These things I saw, these things I know.”
There are others, other Thinkers, who have climbed onto the crown and looked in that direction. The older ones, who have looked there before, they see something strange there, something new.
“Vision is not the best sense, especially from far away. There will have to be patrols,” GammaThinker-Caste says. “A patrol must be sent.”
“Some aspects of the Population will have to suffer. There are not enough workers/Thinkers/soldiers to forage, maintain the Architecture, scout for Nahurr-Tooth war-parties, and go to the new hill.”
“In two days there will be more 27 more workers, eight soldiers, and two Thinkers. When they are part of the Population, then there will be enough for the expedition.”
“Do you have two days?”
“You will have to make do with two. You will have to wait.”
In the afternoon of the first day a monstrous creature advances on the Architecture.
You, Gamma, are near the vent and go up to help with the defense of the Population. There you see it.
The creature stands one-third as tall as the Architecture itself. It stands like a khoola-bird with backward knees, but it has no tail and no long beak. Its head is impossible; it is round and seems to be one huge near-range eye. It carries a kind of shell, or perhaps a scaffold, on its back.
(Gamma)(Chi): “Could you roll a rolling-stone down at it?”
“It’s too big for that.”
(Gamma)(Pi): “You will get five skirmish parties together and you will surround it from below. You will wait until a round rock rolls toward it before swarming out of one of the lateral tunnel openings.”
As Pi goes to gather its crews, you wait atop the crown, mandibles locked and laterals closed. There is worry and near-panic among the workers and soldiers and even the Thinkers. You are old enough to savor the direct experience of something new, something not found in any shared memory, and you want a few moments undistracted to concentrate on this new being.
The creature stands there, in a strange wide-stance. It isn’t really attacking, yet. It’s standing on one of the intake-tubes for the fifth radial cistern.
It raises a manipulative limb, holds up a poorly polished piece of shine-stone and reflects sunlight toward the crown.
Chi Thumps you so hard that you worry you might slip over the lip of the crown.
(Gamma)(Chi): “You should roll the rolling-stones now. Now! Only the Populations know how to reflect sunlight.”
“Perhaps it is some strange animal newly tamed by the Nahurr-Tooth Architecture!”
“Now! Attack now –”
“Calm. Bellows in and bellows out. Many creatures do not dig into the Architecture until they are poked first. You should go back to the rolling-stone crew and wait.”
Chi unlocks mandibles and rushes back to the rolling-stone crew. Chi is young. Many of the Thinkers are young and have lived thus far with memories only of failures in skirmishes and battles, of deprivation and of fire. They are ready, eager even, for Contributions.
You should help operate the shine-stone. If the creature is signaling, you should ensure the Population signals back.
The creature stops reflecting sunlight. Then it does it again – not at the crown, but at you. At Gamma alone.
Images carried from mind to mind to you: a quick far-scale glance from the opening of the intake tube for the third radial cistern reveals a carapace that isn’t a shell, and skin that isn’t like any hide.
A worker farther out from long-tunnel two observes a long line of oval tracks stretching behind the creature toward sun-comes-up.
(Gamma)(Sampi): “You will signal back. Perhaps it can be domesticated?”
Helping Sampi and Sho and the workers, you get the shine-stone set up and reflect sunlight toward the creature. Its one huge eye does not blink.
The creature shines back.
(Gamma)(Sho)+(Sampi)(Chi): “Does it want something? It isn’t dropping anything into the vent like a trained bird.”
It moves. An unlikely gait carries it around the Architecture toward sun-comes-up, where it flashes again.
(Gamma)(Chi)+(Sampi)(Sho): “You can’t flash back; the sun is too low in the sky and opposite the Architecture from the creature.
“You can flash back with two more shine-stones. You’ve done it before, to attract uunnas to bed down near the Architecture for the night.”
Helping the workers, you control the direct sun-goes-down facing shine-stone. Sho controls the sun-comes-up facing shine-stone. With Sampi’s help, you bounce the light to the creature.
More worker-thoughts: the tracks lead back to another creature, different from the first. Different from anything. It is as big as a bull kolx, but low to the ground. It has no legs.
You are GammaThinker-Caste.
“How did the creature reflect sunlight once the sun went down?”
“It did not reflect the sunlight, it made the sunlight. It held up a thing in its manipulative limb and made sunlight from it.”
“Then the two creatures left, the smaller ones getting inside the larger.”
“Is one a Thinker and the other a tame animal?”
“Is one a worker and one a Thinker?”
“Is one a Thinker and the other an Architecture?”
“Is one a Thinker and the other a scaffold?”
“There is a war-party from Nahurr-Tooth Architecture not far from here. There are two scaffolds. The war-party has slowed because it has trouble foraging the burned land. Perhaps You can harry it and delay it so finding food becomes more important than making war on You.”
“There are two scaffolds? Have You seen animals?”
“There are hoolda birds. Four of them.”
“Has the Nahurr-Tooth war-party seen the new hill?”
“You do not know.”
“What if the New Creature attacks? What shall You do?”
“You could dig a trap for it.”
“The great stone is only eight body-lengths from the Surface. A trap will not be deep enough to kill it. It will be very hard for You to trap it there without vines.”
“You shall send out scaffolds to ambush the foraging crews of the war-party.”
“You shall prepare a scouting party to go to New Hill at sun-comes-up.”
“You shall organize a foraging party and gather all the carsk grass growing next to the river.”
The cool of the morning gives way to the heat of the day as you move the small scaffold through the plain. There are advantages resulting from the fire: the scaffold can be carried much easier, and there is no need for clear-cutters, and not as much need for scouts.
Sunlight slips through the weave of the scaffold, an oblong dome of sticks and branches woven into a protective shell over the ambush party. Nine sharpened defending sticks thrust out of the shell, but there are no predators in the ashen wasteland of the plain. At one point a small herd of brells rumble past, and you maneuver the scaffold lengthwise into them. They step around it, fearful of its hedge of sharp sticks. There is dung there, in their trail, but it is of poor quality and there is no time.
There are three workers from the Nahurr-Tooth Architecture. You shut your lateral lines tight. Thump only to communicate.
(Soldier)Gamma: “I, and three more of me can destroy the workers!”
“There are only ten soldiers. I will do it with two soldiers and four workers.”
“I could do it easier with a Thinker.”
(Gamma)(Rho): “You should go with them. Soldiers are not as smart as you are. You should go, Gamma, because you are older. You should stay, Rho, because you are smaller.”
The orders filter through the workers and the soldiers, and you all slip underneath the scaffold. Outside is very frightening. There are no escape tunnels here, no shelter of defensive sticks over you. You carry two small bits of wood in your manipulative limbs; this will outwit a worker, but not a soldier.
You and the other six fan out, your laterals shut tight. There are no predators. No incidental animals pass by. One of your soldiers runs, its long legs devouring the distance before it leaps upon the enemy worker. You feel a sudden, sharp pang through your closed laterals as it lets out a warning.
You run, kicking up dust and ash, passing two of your own workers to catch the enemy forager.
It turns, lunges at you with its heavy, blunt mandibles. You wave your stick in front of its head and it clamps onto it, crushing the tough wood in its vice-like bite. Then you dart forward, clamping your mandibles tight where its head meets its thorax. The worker’s limbs scrabble at you – strong! Have you had that little food? Are you that weak? Its laterals open and it screams for help.
Its alarm is barely dead when a Nahurr-Tooth soldier charges out of the burned stubble ahead and hurls a stone at you. Heaving the body of the worker up, you use it as a shield. In the terrifying moments when the soldier hesitates, unable to tell you from its kin, members of your Architecture arrive and rush upon it.
The alarm from the enemy worker does not make it back to the foraging scaffold of the Nahurr-Tooth Architecture. You find them on the other side of a small ridge, unaware that there is a scaffold, even a small one, from the Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture out hunting for them.
Your scaffold, smaller and quicker, rams theirs hard. Your abdomen is torn open, second-mind, by the scythe mandibles of a soldier.
Image: more food than you’ve seen in days is collected in their hanging basket.
The soldier forces its way into your scaffold, pausing long enough to bite a worker in half, then charges at you. You throw a bunnta-fish rib into its eye and, using it like a lever, pry its head up and away until two more workers throw themselves on it.
Gamma + worker: images of three Nahurr-Tooth Thinkers fleeing into the plain.
The kolx-rib makes an excellent lever, and your team of four workers gets its edge under the enemy foraging-scaffold. Then Rho’s team begins pulling on it. The enemy scaffold tips.
A Nahurr-Tooth soldier throws a rock that catches you right where your left mandible protrudes from your head. You feel the carapace crack. Pain flashes like hot-season lightning. You charge, furious, to give your final Contribution.
The soldier is exhausted, covered with the viscera of your workers. Its scythe blades are dull but still crushingly strong. Your legs, walking and manipulative, wrap around it and you squeeze. You squeeze for what feels like days. The tough carapace flexes and you feel the pulsing of its hearts. You tighten around the thorax, squeezing the bellows until they can no longer expand. The soldier gets two legs under it and slams you into the scaffold again and again until it finally collapses.
Image: birds, hooldas, loop above it all, eager for the feast.
Return to the Scaffold! The message through laterals and Thumps flies out through the skirmish party. One more strong heave on the kolx-rib and the enemy scaffold flips all the way over. The hoolda birds descend. Some enemy workers beg to be taken with you.
(Gamma)(Rho): “Make them carry the food and the wounded.”
Halfway back to the Architecture, as the sun beats down on the structure from midday above, a worker finds you.
Image: the strange creature is back, standing this time near sun-goes-down.
A little farther on and a soldier finds you.
(Soldier)Gamma: “I am told that I shouldn’t let the Unclassified Creature see the scaffold. I am told that I should go through the long-tunnel by the living tassel-tuft grass.”
(Gamma)(Rho): “You can’t leave the scaffold unprotected. Even damaged, it is one of the few the Architecture has. You should go into the Architecture, Gamma, your mandible is broken. You should go into the Architecture, Rho, you have lost both near-eyes. It is decided that you, Gamma, should go.”
The run across the burned land is not easy. Outside, exposed, but there are scouts and defense sticks here and there, and you and your band are unmolested by any predators or incidentals. You keep your mandibles closed. Your laterals broadcast barely-contained anger and pain and nobody Thumps you.
You get into the cool safety of the Architecture, find a worker to pack spit-paper around your damaged mandible, get below, join and learn.
You are (GammaThinker-Caste) + (Mwasaa Kifimbo).
Mwasaa Kifimbo reflects sunlight in flashes, some long, some slow: “Have we done damage?”
“To the Architecture or the Population?”
“The Population. Do you have vines?”
“What are vines?”
You, Gamma alone, leave the roiling mass of the gathered Thinkers, conscript three workers, and go to the storage chambers. You find a vine, a very small bit that is too short to use for much of anything, but not short enough to discard. You double-check it is the right type, the kind that has a short leaf with a deep groove running up the middle. You drag it up the vent and out of the crown, and then carry it down to the feet of the creature.
What you’ve experienced first and second-mind is true. Your laterals hum and tingle when you get ten body-lengths away from the creature. Is it afraid? It has a feeling much like an alarm, an alarm cry that a white-bodied hatchling in the nursery would make. Only it is very weak. But very consistent.
The creature no longer looks like a khoola bird to you. It is intelligent, and your mind tries to make it look like some kind of Thinker. One whose blocky abdomen is folded back so much that it presses against its thorax, and stands on two ridiculously thick legs and makes its way through life with only two manipulative limbs.
You close your laterals as best you can. The creature bends in an unlikely way, and one grotesque limb picks up the old and withered vine. It holds it in front of the clear-bubble of its carapace. The head is inside it. Its eyes, its eyes move like antennae. The moist, shuddering antennae are retracted into its soft shell above a mandible-less mouth that looks like a gaping anus. It is utterly bestial, and utterly alien. Those horrid eyes swim in their sockets, looking at the vine and then at you. The creature is looking at your broken mandible; you are almost sure of it.
You are (GammaThinker-Caste) + (Alexandra Goldstein + (Mwasaa Kifimbo)?).
“…grooming, in exchange for vines?”
The strange creatures have a lot of folds in their odd skin, and where there are folds there are parasites and vermin. Perhaps these things can be domesticated like the kolx.
“We have no need for grooming.”
The creature is maddening. It, they, simply stand there, asking questions. They want to know how many of you there are, how the workers and Thinkers, soldiers, and queens differ. What is it like to experience a join? Do you feel air vibrate in your head(?)?
For a time the Caste answers the simple questions, but always tries to get the discussion back to two things: information about the Nahurr-Tooth Population, and what the new creatures will trade for vines.
The creatures claim there is a problem with trading, with being here at all, that starting the fire was a mistake, that they will suffer a great deal of trouble for assisting one Population against another.
These conversations take a long time, and a lot of food and work. One of the creatures will communicate, using the shine-stone code for about one-eighth of the day. Then it will go back to the creature/scaffold, and another one will come to and do the same for another eighth of the day. Then that one goes into the scaffold and they rumble away, fast as a charging uunna, to the gleaming hill. Two-eighths of a day later they return. By then the Caste has had time to share, mind-to-mind, the experiences of the ambush parties against the Nahurr-Tooth, and uncountable images from the ambush parties.
When the creatures return, the Caste has a plan.
“Do you often make war on other Architectures?”
The Caste makes no answer. All go about their business in the Architecture, pretending to ignore the outlandish giant maybe-Thinker outside.
The creature persists in its questions and the Caste persists in its refusal to answer. The maybe-Thinker stays for quite a while. It watches the business of the Population outside of the Architecture. As it turns to go back to its odd maybe-scaffold, you signal it with the shine-stone.
“The Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture will trade information for vines.”
“We are not to assist one Population over another.”
“The vines the Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture needs to cross the river have been destroyed by the fire. Have the trees over the ridge where the Nahurr-Tooth Architecture stands been destroyed by the fire?”
“We(!?) deem that information might give the Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture an advantage in the conflict.”
“The trees around the Nahurr-Tooth Architecture are not damaged by the fire. The Nahurr-Tooth Architecture can continue to build war-scaffolds. The Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture cannot cross the river without vines. The Nahurr-Tooth have been aided by the fire.”
The new creatures are, for all their size and strangeness, a bit stupid. Do they truly believe that the Population can’t see those awful, obscene mouths of theirs? And that the Caste would not figure out that just as a juvenile Thinker lashes the air with its antennae when agitated those hideous bone-lined holes wouldn’t do the same?
The mouths and the eyes of the new creatures move around quite a bit when presented with this argument. It must be a good argument!
But the maybe-Thinker does not answer the question. “I and my allies(?) must confer and re-evaluate.”
And well before its one-eighth of a day is over, it turns and struts back to its maybe-scaffold.
The Caste has a second plan.
It takes you, Gamma, three-eighths of a day to dig the tunnel. It is deep, descending and then traveling along the top of the Great Rock. It is straight, like a defense-stick. It takes four Thinkers plus one hundred and thirty-eight workers to complete. It turns up at the end and emerges to the Outside.
It opens in a broken and ragged patch of ground – the patch of ground where the new creatures’ maybe-scaffold always stops.
The sun has not yet set when the creatures come back. The quiver in your laterals grows as the scaffold approaches and stops behind you. You’ve had spit-paper, heavy with deep clay, packed into your laterals. It is uncomfortable, but it blocks out the signal. The workers, lacking any such protection, retreat down into the safety of the tunnel, while you, Zeta, Omicron, and Psi wait, huddled close together near the tunnel’s opening.
It is odd. You are senior Thinker, in this group at least, and one of the more senior Thinkers from the Caste itself. It has been hard, the foraging and the fighting, the intolerable arguments in the Caste. Many have been killed, many are missing, and many are assigned nursery or garden duties. Your time should be filled with joining and planning and thinking. Yet it is not. You are alone, your fellow Thinkers close but not touching. You’ve not been so alone since your days in the nursery.
You rarely think about the nursery, about those early solitary days of the egg chamber, of the crush of bodies in the main chamber, of the swell of minds touching and joining with your own.
The four of you move up the shaft, slowly – so slowly that you can barely see any motion, even with your near-range eyes. The singing gets worse, but not so bad that it causes pain. Instead it feels like a kind of gibbering call.
You and Psi get to the opening first and very cautiously look around. The Caste was right: the thing is more of a scaffold than a creature. It has no legs, and only touches the ground at six points – six disks like rolling-stones. There are strange smells you have not encountered before. There are familiar smells, of the ash and dust, and the smell of fresh-cut carsk grass.
(Psi)(Omicron) + (Zeta)(Gamma): “How far and fast can this go? There is no living carsk grass anywhere. How does it move? It does not eat. It does not forage. There is another Thinker(?) inside of it; we can see the scaffold move when it does.”
“Perhaps we could ride under the scaffold and it would take us back to its Architecture and we could raid it?”
“It would take almost a day for us to walk from the New Hill to the Architecture. We could fly back some things, if we had any hoolda birds left. But we do not, so…”
“You, Omicron, should go back to the Architecture and share this.”
You break and are again Gamma alone. Above you, one of the Thinkers(?) returns, opens a door on the side of the scaffold and climbs in. After a while the other door opens and the other Thinker(?) gets out and walks to the Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture.
You creep around the scaffold, finally touching it with a limb, then an antenna. Then you climb up one of the legs/rolling-stones. It is made of many different foreign materials. It is not clay, or spit-paper, or wood or bone or woven grass. It is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The scaffold moves, lurching to one side as the lone remaining Thinker(?) inside gets out. Flattening yourself against a dome-shaped bit above the rolling-leg, you try to make yourself as small as possible. Psi drops and runs back to the hole.
The creature, with the surety of a stalking-nulna, walks to your side of the scaffold. It bends its legs until its bulbous head is near the rolling-stone. Then it reaches a manipulative limb right at you. Its mini-limbs touch the top of your body carefully, then wrap around in an awkward four-to-one grip and begin pulling you.
You consider biting, but that would do little good, so you let go and allow the creature to take you.
It holds you upside down for a moment before turning you over and holding its other manipulative limb beneath you. Your legs touch the odd skin/carapace and it lets you go.
It moves you toward its clear face-shell and those horrible eyes. It turns you so your damaged mandible is near its eyes.
You are not so high up that you can’t jump, but you’re not a young Thinker anymore.
It begins walking to the back of the scaffold. In its other manipulative limb it holds the funny thing – the thing that reflects light like a shine-stone even when the sun is down. It flashes at you.
“Four lengths(?) from here to Architecture.” It points a digit toward the river, not quite toward sun-goes-down.
“Four lengths(?) from here to Architecture.” It points again. “Many broken legs(?) on the river. Vines. Vines on the broken legs(?) on the river.”
You have no idea what it is trying to say, and hope that it doesn’t intend to break your legs.
The other Thinker(?) is returning. Its movements are quicker. Perhaps it is afraid? Perhaps it is angry.
The two Thinkers(?) stand close together. The one holding you looks, tilting so its bizarre face can scan the sky. You look up, too. Some birds are there, but they are just a flock of small spine-backs.
It carries you away from the scaffold and puts you down next to a large stone. You dig into the soft soil a bit, an old n-mind habit, and watch as the two creatures climb into the scaffold. The scaffold moves. They do not carry it; it moves on its own. The flat rolling-stones begin to roll, but not downhill, just…rolling.
You are GammaThinker-Caste.
“How is such a thing possible, that it can roll without rolling downhill?”
“The creatures say the shining hill will leave soon, before the next sunrise.”
Worker images: the Thinkers(?) standing on top of a small rise, using shine-stones to signal to the Nahurr-Tooth war-party.
“They say they’ve told the Nahurr-Tooth war-party that the plain will be filled with fire again soon, before the next sunrise. They have asked the war-party to return to the edge of the hills and wait for twenty days after the fire to return to war.”
“The Nahurr have made no response.”
“They say they will not trade vines for information about the Population. But they will trade information about vines for information about the Population. They say there are vines growing along a raft of broken tree limbs on the river.
The outpost-tree by the river is a small Population unto itself. There is little Architecture. The ground is sandy and shifts. All the tunnels and chambers must be shored up with wood or spit-paper.
You rest here. You repair your scaffold and join with the six Thinkers in charge of the outpost-tree, telling them things that cannot be sent via shine-stone.
Rested, you move on with your scaffold.
There is no place more terrifying than the sandy expanse by the river. The plain, after the fire, is a hard place to live. This is so because it now looks like the sandy expanse by the river.
The two slow moons are full overhead, and the fast moon is nowhere to be seen. This is not good. There is light, yes, the kind of light that does your kind little good, but does the predators and incidentals a great deal of good. You have another scaffold, but instead of three Thinkers there is just you and Xi. There are also only half as many fighting-sticks a scaffold this size should have.
Twice a great two-horned uunna comes and paws at the scaffold. Twice you stab it in the snout and drive it away, but it has cracked part of the frame. More work to carry, now. You consider returning to the outpost-tree, but time is crucial. You must find the vines to move the Population across the river.
A scaled-badger comes, intent on eating its fill of your crew. You spend too long fighting it off.
One worker is dead, two are wounded, and there are only one-third of the defensive sticks you need.
The river itself is an enemy. It sloshes past, deceptively gentle. You know, n-mind, that the river can change, can move and flood where you now walk.
Foraging along the river, at least, is easier. There is more vegetation. There are small creatures your workers capture that you can eat. There is, after what seems like an eternity of travel and sand and risk, a wide, low spot. In the moonlight you can see a great mass of broken tree-limbs stuck against the rocks protruding from the water. You are here at last.
You are running out of time. Soon the shining hill will launch, and the fires will come. You have little time to forage or set up a proper scaffold.
You do not think that matters now. What matters now is speed: you must get back to the Architecture with the vines.
A worker returns from scouting. It observed branches and sticks and logs, some burned, some not. There is water flowing under and over, and vines growing out over them. Should you get the vines? Is that the task? No, you should not get the vines; the vines are the wrong kind. You need the kind that has a deep groove down the middle; these have a deep rise down the middle. They will dry out too quickly and be too brittle. You cannot use them to move the population across the river.
What will you do? What can you do?
What can you do but go back to the Architecture to make your Contribution?
What will the Population do? What can it do?
It can survive on a little fungus, and a little foraging. It can send out parties of Thinkers, workers, soldiers and queens, as far as they can go, and the Population can build a new Architecture or Architectures and continue.
What will you do now?
You will forage. There is no food left in the scaffold. Forage and make new defensive sticks and try to return to the Architecture before the shining hill leaves and the fires return.
The river is dangerous, but there is good foraging here. There is much to eat that grows between the wet sticks and logs. There are creatures where the sand and mud mix, small ones.
You don’t see the scaled-swimming-badger. A worker’s alarm sounds in your laterals, and you turn to see it splash out of the water and onto the rough raft of logs. It jumps up when it sees you. It charges, mouth open.
Using all four manipulative limbs you stab your long foraging spear into its tongue. It jumps back, and then sideways. It receives another jab from a worker and then runs toward the water. Its weight dislodges part of the raft. As the logs break apart, it runs for long moments atop a log that has broken free of the raft. The log spins beneath its feet for a few strides before it jumps into the water.
You are Gamma + Contribution.
The Tube-Scaffold is a hollow log, with the pieces of the original scaffold tied by half-moon-leaf vines at the ends. Four workers must push; the other twenty are inside, running up one wall. Once you get it moving, you can keep it rolling.
Not downhill, just rolling. It is not as fast as a running alone, but faster than walking and faster than carrying the old scaffold. There is no easy way to control it. Instead, you and Xi take turns running alongside it, to look for obstructions and obstacles, and then to help redirect it. A six-legged grass-stalker chases you for a while, so you slow and stop. But by the time you get the defensive sticks out, the creature leaves, slipping into the darkness as suddenly as it appeared.
You go outside to help redirect and notice there is another fast moon in the sky. No, it is not a moon, exactly; it is a thing, like a bird, but it has the strange objects that make light like shine-stones. It flies back and forth.
(Gamma)(Xi): “It is the signal. You should dig down into the sand to protect yourself from the fire. That is what the Caste said to do if any of the Population was outside.”
“You should continue to move the tube-scaffold toward the far-outpost tree. It will be safer there, almost as safe as the Architecture itself.”
Together you and Xi go through the procedures to get the tube-scaffold moving again. On the third time you redirect, Xi Thumps you and warns that the new moon is no longer in the sky. You and your crew begin to dig into the sand, nearly burying the new scaffold before the light comes. Scurrying inside, you all huddle and hide.
You have seen, first mind, what the fire the Gleaming Hill makes is like, and you brace for the worst. The light grows and grows, and then the heat comes, a wave of it, hotter than the vent at noonday.
The heat grows, and then a wind comes, eroding your hastily dug shelter. The light is high in the sky.
You don’t know how long it takes, but the light finally goes away, and the heat slackens, then fades. Your crew gets out and inspects. The sands are as hot as if they were in noonday sun, but nothing is burning.
You begin to roll to the outpost-tree.
The Nahurr-Tooth Architecture waits ten days after the big Thinkers(?) leave before resuming their aggressions. The first of the Deep-Spreading-Root Architecture’s war-tube-scaffolds is ready in six.
You run with the rest, the sunlight spearing through the holes in the log’s surface, lighting your bodies: two hundred gleaming carapaces, a writhing sea of legs and manipulative limbs and antennae. The mass of you power the log over the ground, over the thick stubble of returning vegetation, and into the side of the Nahurr-Tooth war-scaffold. The world shakes when the two collide.
You send out the task: the uunna-ribs slide through the holes in the log.
Images: workers and soldiers of Nahurr-Tooth swarming toward the openings of the log. Fighting will commence there soon.
Two of the ribs have caught beneath the frame of the Nahurr-Tooth’s war-scaffold! You were right! You must send out the task!
The task goes out, and all bodies not fighting at the two ends turn and begin to run up the back of the log. When the mass of the Population gets halfway up the wall the tube begins to roll again, away from the enemy Architecture this time. After a quarter roll you send out the task to stop. Defend the ends!
Images: the Nahurr-Tooth scaffold half lifted from the ground, pried up by the uunna ribs.
It has worked. Now! For Contribution!
The task goes out. Workers and soldiers open hatches leading out of the log and pour through.
Images of the fight: of the Nahurr-Tooth war-party torn between freeing their scaffold, trying to force their way through the spear-hedged ends of the tube-scaffold, and defending themselves from the attackers coming from the hatches.
You do not fight; you are an old Thinker. You stay inside the tube-scaffold. You assign tasks. You join and you experience the fighting and the rout of the Nahurr-Tooth war-party second and third-mind.
There has been much thinking of the rolling without going downhill. Many things have been planned. You are an old Thinker now. You may not live to see many of them come to fruition. You have a new idea, a new Contribution: an Architecture in a giant tube, rolling atop the sluggish river, far easier and faster and farther than along the land.
It is a worthy Contribution indeed.