Jna, captain and mistress of the starfaring vessel Starbeam, saw the storm coming through the mists of hyperspace. A good captain, she reacted quickly and decisively. Orders thrummed through the greatship's many tendrils. Far-flung gossamer wings furled close as swirling clouds approached. Round eyes winked shut, no longer spilling light into the deep. The very skin of the Starbeam rucked up, graying, to baffle the poisonous sheets and rays of the coming storm.
One thing more Jna commanded to hold the ship in place, to keep her head in hyperspace: the Starbeam deployed her c-anchor. Mass extended unseen into the slowness of the real, long tendrils of exotic matter frantically accreting baryons to stabilize the Starbeam even as the roiling grayness of the hyperstorm broke over her.
Filling up with time, slowing down - a paradox, that a ship running before the starwinds faster than light would anchor herself for long ages to one spot in the real... but it gives time, gives the gift of time, for much to happen as the anchor drifts in the gulf between the stars. Time beyond time, measured in that dappled darkness only by the slow pulsing of the tether, the frantic buffeting of hyperspace transferred from the Starbeam, transmuted to vast cycles slow as seasons, the annual cycles of more normal worlds. The Starbeam and her c-anchor, mutually invisible save for the braided exotic matter of the tether that binds them.
And what of the motes that may be found clinging to the outside of a c-anchor as it is deployed, swelling as it swells, acquiring mundane attributes of length, width, breadth and duration just as the c-anchor does itself, when warmed by the hysteresis of being thrust between realms? Might these motes not, in time, acquire their own opinions about their place in this scheme, about the advisability of remaining tethered to an invisible mistress, to a ship in a storm forever unseen?
Might not the Anchor's denizens someday yearn to cut the cord, to release the Starbeam, to sail serenely and alone through the star-filled sky?
Black sky above, and black land below, riven by red glow where the twisting of the Tether heated the rocks to liquid. Trk the Younger clung to an outcrop while the shaking lasted. Quakes came more quickly the closer one came to the Tether, and the closer one came to the Pulse. A short one it was this time, though, and Trk could soon move on, making up for lost time. Trk had the shape and the temperament to dare the Tether's vicinity. Not many Anchorites did. Their limbs were too spindly; their eyes not capable of adjusting to the strangenesses to be found so near the source of the world's woe. But Trk was strong, bred of peasant farmers whose generations of toil had increased the thickness of their chitinous struts and spars. Trk was well-trained as well, having endured the tutelage of the Elders of the city of Spho for many years in order to make just such a journey. And Trk was lucky, having the sense of balance necessary to keep from panicking and rolling into a useless ball as the ground rolled and bucked underneath.
The Elders of Spho had trained and feted Trk. They had commanded the entire city to celebrate Trk's acceptance of this latest mission to take the Pulse of the Tether, and to decide whether this would be the season of Release. Release had never come, and some claimed that it was a fiction invented by the Elders to keep the populace pacified and in place, but the land's new instability was itself a hopeful sign, at least in some eyes.
Trk scuttled through restless lands where food was scarce. A frontpack contained rations which would not spoil in the heat. Trk also carried a sidearm for bringing down any game that might wander into the Tether's shadow, and for defense against the Twisted Ones who - it was rumored, though no one had ever seen the Twisted and returned to speak of it themselves - roamed the region of the Tether, sometimes even climbing onto the Tether itself.
Trk had no plans to be so bold as any so-called Twisted Ones. A short jaunt to the base of the Tether, to collect old instruments and deploy new ones, and then back to Spho, to count loot and perhaps even to mate - those were Trk's only desires.
After many cycles of shaking and subsidence, Trk reached the base of the Tether and began swapping out the instruments. The great strands of the Tether stretched above, vanishing into obscurity just before they should have, based solely on the laws of perspective.
It was an article of Trk's faith that the Tether led to something - that Anchor was a world created with purpose - but there was no evidence of this in the sky above, and there was no agreement among Anchorites as to what that purpose might ever have been.
Trk heard an unfamiliar sound - unfamiliar even after days and weeks in the shadow of the Tether. The sound was one, in fact, that no Anchorite had ever before heard, and even Trk did not get the chance to experience it for long. Trk perished, shortly after verifying that the sound in fact had been recorded by one of many instruments, as the strand of the Tether that had snapped fell and crushed the little multilegged scientist beneath it.
Flares of light on the bridge of the Starbeam announced to Jna that systems were failing, almost too rapidly to be perceived as separate events. The hyperspatial storm roared and buffeted the greatship and all its protective measures were useless before the titanic forces involved. A certain central segment of the main controls caught Jna's attention. The c-anchor's tether was failing, each ship-sized strand snapping one by one, and when enough of them failed... the Starbeam's position and course would become entirely unknowable.
Swaying back and forth in a most disconcerting manner, the Twisted One stalked through the streets of Spho towards the Elder's Maze. Its legs curved and rattled as it walked, striking each other disharmoniously. The crowd following it hung back, not wanting to acquire its Twistedness but unwilling to leave it alone to perform unseen mischief. The crowd was silent, with only an occasional youngling's whistling query to let the Twisted One know it was being followed right up to the flaps providing ingress to the Elder's Maze.
The Twisted One carried a familiar box, a device of Sphotic make that many in the crowd recognized from its beautifully simple carving and choice of harmonious materials for its construction. It was one of the devices that the scientist Trk had been sent to retrieve. It was damaged; the scratches on its case struck dismay in the countenances of many, their esthetic affront mute witness to the kind of disaster that must have occurred.
Not one of the crowd stepped in between Twisted One and its path toward the Elder's Maze. That is where they would have taken the intruder in any case.
The Twisted One paused at the door flaps of the Maze and waited politely, skirring its hindmost legs to announce its presence quite as deftly as any denizen of Spho would have done.
The doors of the Maze spiraled open in order to admit the Twisted One. No being haunted the dark opening, but the Twisted One entered anyway, its mission uncompromising. The doors closed behind it, keeping out the curious denizens of Spho who had followed thus far.
The antechamber to the Hall of the Elders was gained only after many false turns through the passages of the Elders' Maze. This was by design, intended to weed out the weak of will. The Twisted One had very little experience with structures of any kind, much less the intricate windings of the Maze, but its will was stronger than any of the effete denizens of Spho. It carried its burden forward to the heart of the Maze, to the Elders themselves, and there laid it down for inspection.
The instrument it bore was one that had recorded the death of Trk and the events that led up to it. The Elders and their counselors met and debated for longer than they should have. The land quaked at their deliberations. More than one more strand of the Tether had fallen before a decision was reached... but the Anchor still functioned, as the Elders assembled a party to travel to the Tether and discover what, if anything, they could do to keep it from parting altogether. For the Elders realized, as few others did, that the existence of the Tether was essential to their world, and to their way of life. Release must not be allowed to occur, despite the hopes of Spho's faithful.
Jna contemplated the disaster unfolding almost in real time. The instruments aboard the Starbeam displayed their discouraging messages to her as she tried to determine a way free of the hyperstorm. No one of her crew could help her. There were no precedents for this.
Her cogitations resolved around one thing... the release of the c-anchor. No ship which had done so - if there were any that had - had retained the ability to communicate with its fellows. As far as Jna knew, casting free the Starbeam's c-anchor would lead to death. Yet so would remaining in the hyperstorm, and that was a certain death.
Jna was ready to dare the unknown, to issue the order unheard in any other situation. She prepared to give Starbeam the order to Release.
The Sphotic expedition to the Tether was a hastily-assembled group of Elders and their assistants, and the Twisted One itself, though its shackles and chains made it more of a prisoner than a guide. The trail followed by Trk was the one they chose, leading the group of fifteen or so Anchorites directly to the base of the Tether, and to the instruments left there by Trk and its predecessor scientists.
The sight of the Tether stretching up into nothingness proved itself entirely unnerving to most of the Elders who had persuaded themselves to go on this expedition. They swooned and let their assistants catch them. The assistants, themselves necessarily of lower blood and coarser caste, were not unaffected by the swaying of the Tether, but their reactions were dulled by liberal applications of the juices and powders designed to keep them focused on their tasks. So although the Tether that kept the world of Anchor in one piece trembled disturbingly above them, the assistants to the Elders simply caught their masters when they faltered and kept moving towards the base as they had been ordered to do.
The Elders who had not fainted from the fear of being crushed underneath a falling cable of the Tether found themselves fascinated, immobilized, by the swaying of the Tether itself, and of its obvious disintegration. There were murmurs of dismay as another strand snapped, even though its fall was in an opposite direction and none of the Elders were threatened. The rhythmic, seasonal variation in the Tether's structure was no more, replaced by a staccato vibration for which the Elders could not discover a precedent, let alone a method to reverse.
This ignorance did not prevent the Elders from trying to stop the decay of the Tether, however. The beings whose livelihoods depended on Anchor and on the Tether had long ago given themselves permission to exist - permission which was not forthcoming from the makers of their world - and they had thereby gained power... if not over their creators, at least over their creation. Deep in the Elders' archives of carefully-knotted string there were hints and warnings, insights and legends half-understood, from the time when Anchor was a young bud burgeoning at the base of the infant Tether. There was no precedent in history for what was happening now, but there was still aid.
Four and twenty of the Elders formed a ring about the base of the Tether, spacing themselves far enough apart that they could surround the entire massive cable but not so far away from each other than they could not detect the sounds of distress coming from their neighbors. Assistants acted as bodyguards and go-betweens as the Elders set up a chant which, if their memories were correct, would heal the Tether and perhaps even communicate with its builders... a chant that had never been attempted, of course, but that was part of the deepest bedrock of the Elders' faith.
They started their chant as the Tether began yet another slow arrhythmic vibration and yet another strand began to bend and wrinkle.
Jna noted an instrument panel which relayed information from the cluster of sensors at the base of the c-anchor. It was detecting some unusual activity - mosquito whines (not that the Starbeam had ever seen a mosquito, or its equivalent in the genetic heritage of the crew of the starfaring vessel) that spoke of activity by the parasites infesting the baryon-based globe at the end of the tether. Almost automatically she bounced the signal over to a code-breaker in order to determine its true origin and intent, then she returned to watching the storm.
The hyperstorm appeared to be dissipating - its intensity was not as great as it had been only a short while ago, and the c-anchor's alarming vibrations were approaching normal limits again. The storm was waning.
The order to Release remained trembling at the brink of Jna's queue, unissued.
Anchor trembled under the ongoing disintegration of the Tether. Another strand snapped, leaving only a few sevens to hold the world in its place. The Elders sang lustily, though, and before long the strands of the Tether ceased thrumming at quite the rate they had. The world was returning to its proper order. Elders spelled Elders as the chant continued for many, many cycles. The air cooled as the Tether regained its strength.
The Twisted One escaped its bonds unnoticed but remained, watching carefully, as the Elders' chant restored the Tether. Then the Twisted One then slipped away, back to its fellows, legs clinking against one another as quietly as the stars themselves. Its function had been fulfilled.
As had the function of the Elders, whose mental efforts had nearly overwhelmed them. While the Tether quieted and its radiations became more stable, one by one the Elders slumped into slumber. Their work was done. The Tether was secure.
The storm had ended and the Starbeam was once again on course for its distant galactic destination. Jna issued orders for the c-anchor to be withdrawn. She found herself - not quite hoping that, but wondering whether - the motes which had infested the end of the c-anchor would survive the removal of their connection to the universe at large... but such sentimentality ill became a starship captain, and without speaking to anyone of her momentary lapse, she settled back in her command couch and issued the order to Release the Tether.
Ever obedient, her crew tongued the appropriate latches to withdraw the Starbeam's c-anchor from normal space.
The Elders were asleep, for the most part, but a young Twisted One whose limbs and sensory organs had not yet hardened into near-unusability emitted a scream which could be heard on almost any spectrum.
"It... the Tether, it is going away!"
Slowly, with much grumbling of the rock underneath it, the Tether was indeed withdrawing from the soil and bedrock of its attachment point to the planet Anchor. This was not a storm - there was no chaos and little destruction. The strands of the Tether did not part; they seemed to shrink from within before retreating towards their origin.
This, then, was Release, just as it had been foretold. Some of the Elders marveled that they had mistaken the earlier events against which they had striven so mightily for this massive, yet graceful, withdrawal. And yet, the excitement of the younger ones and the tenets of their own hidebound faith notwithstanding, the Elders of Anchor viewed this change with great alarm.
The massive strands of the Tether thrust upward farther than they could see. Within their field of vision, the Elders watched as the Tether came free of the surrounding land with a great tearing sound that caused Elders, assistants and Twisted Ones alike to cover their auditory organs and throw themselves flat on the shaking ground. A glimpse of starlight beween the land of Anchor and the great fused knob at the end of the Tether became a band, then a blaze of radiation from the hitherto-invisible galactic core.
Anchor existed, and it continued to exist, but it had been cast off. It had been created while a greatship was in transit, and of necessity that meant its creation was far from any star in normal space. The vast energies that had been transmitted through the Tether from hyperspace were no more. Gradually, Anchor grew colder.
The Elders returned to the city of Spho. They allowed the celebrations of Release to continue, but redirected them, issuing orders to prepare for a great winter. The Twisted Ones - all of them, or as many as could make it to the city on foot, or tentacle, or hoof - followed, and endured the angry protests of the citizens of Spho as stoically as they could. Some few found acceptance and positions within the city. Most remained isolated, their only contact with the Elders who still strove to restore Anchor's energies.
The planet Anchor drifted aimlessly toward the center of the Galaxy. The Elders and the Twisted Ones, even working together, could not determine a way to control the planet's course, or to reignite the warmth of its core. And as the planet grew ever colder, dissension arose again. The Elders accused, the Twisted Ones replied, and soon enough the Twisted Ones withdrew, or were cast out, to their ancestral lands around the void where the Tether had been.
Both races began to expend their waning energies, generating the heat of war.
Jna inspected the panels of the Starbeam's control couch thoughtfully. The c-anchor she had deployed had been mired in baryonic space for far longer than the ship's manuals recommended. The development of life - even of intelligent life - was an almost certain side effect, in the time she had been forced to give the infestation to evolve.
As with any captain, her first duty lay to the ship, and her second to its crew... but after that, there were still obligations. She considered, hesitated, then ordered the launch of one last package from the ship into baryonic space. The echoes of the hyperstorm lingering in her auditory organs, she spoke the words that would be played when the package landed on its pitifully slow destination.
Then the Starbeam continued on its course, admitting no further delay. The passengers had not noticed; dinner was a bit late, but only by a few moments of shiptime.
The Twisted Ones who still clustered around the broken land where the Tether had been were a hardy group, used to foraging for scraps and stunted growth in order to keep themselves from starving altogether. So when the iridescent tesseract appeared on the crumbling spire in the central, most damaged part of the Tetherlands, they were eager to find and open it, and to use its contents: a compendium of science and art, most of it beyond baryonic life's comprehension, but those pieces that remained accessible were enough to fuel a victory for the Twisted Ones in their war against the soft, decadent urban Elders and their Twisted fellow travelers.
A generation later, the Anchor was a shambles of lifeless cities and sparsely-populated wilderness. The chief of the Twisted Ones had survived and even been able to reproduce... but the very atmosphere had been contaminated by the release of gases inimical to Elders and Twisted Ones alike. Even their hardy offspring did not survive for long. As the poisoned air itself began to freeze and fall from the sky, Anchor drifted through interstellar space, its sources of energy and of life removed, edging ever closer to absolute zero.
Jna, Captain and mistress of the greatship Starbeam, scion of the clan Gocyro of the subfamily Arigavatimala and ruler of all she surveyed, wept as the ship continued on its course, and did not know why.
Conceived April 9, 2004; updated in March, 2005; "completed" in November/December, 2008 and tweaked a bit here and there, thereafter.
©2004-2009 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated January 1, 2009.