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«Brightness Reef», David Brin

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iВ must ask your permission. You, my rings, my diverse selves.

Vote now! Shall i speak for all of us to the outer world? Shall we join, once more, to become Asx?

That is the name used by humans, qheuens, and other beings, when they address this stack of circles. By that name, this coalition of plump, traeki rings was elected a sage of the Commons, respected and revered, sitting in judgment on members of all six exile races.

By that name — Asx — we are called upon to tell tales. Is it agreed?

Then Asx now bears witness… to events we endured, and those relayed by others. “I” will tell it, as if this stack were mad enough to face the world with but a single mind.

Asx brews this tale. Stroke its waxy trails. Feel the story-scent swirl.

There is no better one i have to tell.


Pain is the stitching holding him together … or else, like a chewed-up doll or a broken toy, he would have unraveled by now, lain his splintered joins amid the mucky reeds, and vanished into time.

Mud covers him from head to toe, turning pale where sunlight dries a jigsaw of crumbly plates, lighter than his dusky skin. These dress his nakedness more loyally than the charred garments that fell away like soot after his panicky escape from fire. The coating slakes his scalding agony, so the muted torment grows almost companionable, like a garrulous rider that his body hauls through an endless, sucking marsh.

A kind of music seems to surround him, a troubling ballad of scrapes and burns. An opus of trauma and shock.

Striking a woeful cadenza is the hole in the side of his head.

Just once, he put a hand to the gaping wound. Fingertips, expecting, to be stopped by skin and bone, kept going horribly inward, until some faraway instinct made him shudder and withdraw. It was too much to fathom, a loss he could not comprehend.

Loss of ability to comprehend …

The mud slurps greedily, dragging at every footstep. He has to bend and clamber to get through another blockade of crisscrossing branches, webbed with red or yellow throbbing veins. Caught amid them are bits of glassy brick or pitted metal, stained by age and acid juices. He avoids these spots, recalling dimly that once he had known good reasons to keep away.

Once, he had known lots of things.

Under the oily water, a hidden vine snags his foot, tripping him into the mire. Floundering, he barely manages to keep his head up, coughing and gagging. His body quivers as he struggles back to his feet, then starts slogging forward again, completely drained.

Another fall could mean the end.

While his legs move on by obstinate habit, the accompanying pain recites a many-part fugue, raw and grating, cruel without words. The sole sense that seems intact, after the abuse of plummet, crash, and fire, is smell. He has no direction or goal, but the combined stench of boiling fuel and his own singed flesh help drive him on, shambling, stooping, clambering and stumbling forward until the thorn-brake finally thins.

Suddenly, the vines are gone. Instead a swamp sprawls ahead-dotted by strange trees with arching, spiral roots. Dismay clouds his mind as he notes — the water is growing deeper. Soon the endless morass will reach to his armpits, then higher.

Soon he will die.

Even the pain seems to agree. It eases, as if sensing the futility of haranguing a dead man. He straightens from a buckled crouch for the first time since tumbling from the wreckage, writhing and on fire. Shuffling on the slippery muck, he turns a slow circle…

…and suddenly confronts a pair of eyes, watching him from the branches of the nearest tree. Eyes set above a stubby jaw with needle teeth. Like a tiny dolphin, he thinks — a furry dolphin, with short, wiry legs… and forward-looking eyes… and ears…

Well, perhaps a dolphin was a bad comparison. He isn’t thinking at his best, right now. Still, surprise jars loose an association. Down some remnant pathway spills a relic that becomes almost a word.

“Ty … Ty …” He tries swallowing. “Ty-Ty- t-t-t—”

The creature tips its head to regard him with interest, edging closer on the branch as he stumbles toward it, arms outstretched-

Abruptly, its concentration breaks. The beast looks up toward a sound.

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