Size / / /

Part 1 of 2

The world we were linked to was named Cyan, because of its color, blue-green with specks of yellow at the equator. It blotted out almost 60 percent of the blue and yellow sky. It looked like a gigantic curved wall, and it scared me because when I looked straight up part of Cyan was above me, and it felt like it could fall on me even though I knew that was impossible.

If I looked very closely, I could see roads and buildings on Cyan. There was movement in the sky between Allberry and Cyan: 4,000 to 5,000 silver specks—a flock of flying puffer fish, migrating from Allberry to Cyan.

I did not want to live on Cyan, but Father said that passing a family name on to another world was a great thing, and that I should try my very best on the tests so I would be picked to live on Cyan, even though I would never see Father or Mother, or my sister Leela or my brother Hamn, or my uncle or my aunt, ever again.

When we were at the front of the line, an emigration staff member led us into the visitors' hall, which was a big empty room. The empty space made me feel dizzy and sick, so I sat on the floor and put my head between my legs.

The floor was made of shiny clear marble, and there were tiny skeletons of odd plants and animals embedded in it. Mother said I couldn't look at the floor now, maybe later, because they were waiting to give me my test, so I got up and held on to Mother with both hands and pushed my face into her shoulder so I wouldn't see all the empty space, but it still felt bad because I knew the empty space was there.

The testing room was smaller. The tester was a Cyanese woman. She was tall and thin, like she'd been stretched, and her eyes were set at angles instead of being horizontal. She told me to sit in the chair across the desk from her, then she told Mother to wait outside. I screamed when Mother let go of my hand, because I was completely surrounded by empty space, and she told me she'd be right outside, but that wasn't close enough, so when she closed the door I got up from the chair and tried to sit on the tester's lap. But she told me I had to sit in the chair across from her. So I did, but it felt very bad, so I wrapped my arms around myself and hummed the Yellow Bird song.

There was a big glass bowl on the tester's desk, and it was filled with about 2,800 marbles, painted to look like tiny worlds. I couldn't tell exactly how many marbles there were, because I didn't know the size of the bowl, but I recognized some of the worlds they were supposed to look like. I didn't like the way all the worlds were piled on top of each other, because that's not how the worlds are. Worlds have lots of space between them, and they whiz around, and they bounce off the edges of the universe and whiz back toward the middle, or they bounce off other worlds, only worlds don't collide much any more because people steer them with their singing.

"Kypo," I said, pointing to a black marble with a yellow stripe around its middle. I pointed at a green one; the green got darker toward the poles. "Cimsily."

"Yes, that's fine," the tester said. But she wasn't looking to see which marbles I was pointing at, so how did she know it was fine? She was fussing with a box of things behind her that I couldn't see, but I had seen it for a moment when I tried to sit in her lap.

She took out a booklet. "All right, Tweel. The first part of the test is about current events and issues on your world," she said. "What are the names of the six High Council members on Allberry?"

I said I didn't know.

"What is Semple Figsing?"

I said I didn't know.

She went on asking questions, and I went on saying I didn't know, until she put away her booklet and took out a box with 16 holes in the top. She told me that things would pop out of the holes, and I had to touch the blue and green ones, but not the red and yellow ones, before they went back into their holes. I didn't touch many blue and green ones. I saw what color they were very fast, but I have slow fingers.

More boxes and booklets came and went. Then the tester said, "The next part of the test is pattern acuity."

I sat up straighter in the chair. I liked patterns.

She held up a picture of gold-colored leaves connected by straight white lines. There were 37 leaves and 162 lines in the picture.

"Which of the leaves disrupts the pattern?" she asked.

Disrupt meant misbehave, so I pointed to the bad leaf—the one that made me feel a little sick.

She held up another. "And in this one?"

I pointed.

Each picture had more and more leaves in it, which made it easier to find the disruptive leaf. The tester was looking at me now, and she was making an O with her mouth, and I wondered if I had done something that Polite People Don't Do, but all I was doing was pointing at leaves, so I decided that wasn't why she was looking at me. I decided she was looking at me because I was good at patterns.

She took out a new kind of picture, a swirl of nuts and berries and other fruits that looked as if I was looking down on them from above.

"Now, which single object does the pattern most hinge upon?" she asked.

"Hinge upon" sounded like a friendly thing to do, so I pointed at the friendliest one, a barberry toward the top left corner.

When I'd finished a bunch of "hinge upon"s, she came out with pictures of pretty colored stones, and asked, "Which, if removed, would cause the least shift in the existing pattern?" That would be the shyest, if it caused the least shift to the others, so I pointed out the shyest stone in each picture.

The tester stared at me, and I liked that, because the room didn't feel so empty when she stared at me. I still would have preferred to sit in her lap. She called out her instructions quicker and quicker as she went along, and the answers leaped at me before she even asked the questions, and I twisted my head sideways to catch a glimpse of the next picture as the tester was pulling it from the bag. The pictures came quicker; her voice seemed like it was filled with foreign sounds, pops and screeches, and my heart pounded with joy, and the empty space didn't matter any more because I was hugged by the puzzles that came from her bag. I laughed and was very, very happy.

Then, all at once, she stopped pulling pictures from her bag.

"Don't you have any more?" I asked.

The tester turned her palms up. "I'm sorry, that's all."

I cried, because I wanted to do more puzzles, but the tester came around her table and put her arm around my shoulder as she led me to the door, and that helped. And she said, "Tweel, I think you'll soon get to play with more patterns than you've ever dreamed of." And that helped even more, so I wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my shirt and sniffed to stop the dribble from my nose.

When I saw Mother I ran to her and hugged her hard and told her how many leaves were in each picture and how many nuts and berries and fruits and stones and how many marbles were on the tester's desk.

Father told me that I had scored very high on the test, and that Cyan would let me immigrate, and I would work as an Assistant Navigator. He was very proud, and so was Mother, and my sister Leela, and my brother Hamn, and my uncle and my aunt. I was sad, and scared, and that night I huddled close to my sister Leela and my brother Hamn and cried until I fell asleep with my face pressed against Hamn's damp nightshirt.

I didn't like the trip to Cyan. A Cyanese man put me in a harness and attached me to a very thick rope along with 47 other people who had been accepted for immigration. Then he turned a crank, and we were lifted into the air, and I was completely surrounded by empty space, and I screamed and hit myself because the pain made the empty space leave me alone. I went up, higher and higher, and the tugging on my harness got lighter, until I was almost floating, and I was still screaming, and it was hard to breathe, and I felt dizzy. Then I felt tugging on my head, and then my body flipped around and I was dropping toward Cyan, and the tugging from Cyan got stronger and stronger until my feet touched the ground.

I screamed and pulled at my harness until a man came and tried to take it off me. It took a long time, because I kept hugging him.

"Tweel! Who is Tweel?" a man shouted while I was still being unhooked. The man had a pointy white beard with a black streak in it, but no hair on his head. He was tall; he looked even more stretched than most Cyanese.

I raised my hands so he would know I was Tweel. He came right over and greeted me, and said his name was Mallowell, and that he was the chief of navigational science on Cyan, and I would be assisting him.

"You're a curious one," he said, while I wiped tears from my cheeks. "You're very good at some things, and very bad at others." He looked into the sky and made a humph sound, then he looked at me again. "Fortunately, all of the things we're responsible for are the things you're very good at!" Then he got very happy and he laughed, and patted me on the head, which I liked.

Cyan was nothing like Allberry. The ground was mostly silver stone instead of red clay, and there was almost no flat land at all; everywhere it was steep ups and steep downs. Steps were carved all over, leading in every direction, crisscrossing each other between buildings made out of the same silver stone and also transparent stone. Blue-green water raced through channels cut in the stone, and sometimes the stairs went over the channels. Because of all the running water, there was a hissing sound in the air that hugged you wherever you went. I liked that. I don't like silence.

Mallowell took me on a tour of my new home, the Science and Propulsion Center, and I stayed close to him, because there was so much open space and not many people. I didn't understand my home. We stopped in a room where people stood on pedestals of different heights and sang different notes while an old wrinkled Cyanese woman hopped around pointing a long forked stick at them. Another room had walls made of the transparent stone, and was filled with water. We didn't go into that room.

When it was time to go to sleep, Mallowell led me to a room that was as big as my whole house on Allberry, and told me it was my room, and showed me where my bed was, and where to store the stick I use to clean my teeth, and my satchel of spare clothing, and my softstone.

Then he left me all alone. As soon as he closed the door I screamed, because I had never been alone before. I heard Mallowell call through the door that there was nothing to be afraid of, that he was just next door.

There was no one at all to look at, only things, and none of the things were even moving, and I felt like I was falling down a deep hole. I ran to the window and looked into the sky so I could see worlds moving, and I recognized one of them, Spin, which I had last seen when I was nine years, 557 days old.

From the west, a giant world drifted into view, blotting out the edge of the sky. Though I had never seen this world in the sky, I knew it was Allberry. Allberry was going away, and my family was going with it, and I might never see them again because worlds rarely link twice.

I watched Allberry as it moved east and shrunk at the same time. I pressed my cheek against the window pane, watching out the edge of the window until Allberry sank out of sight behind the trees to the east. Allberry was pink and red and yellow and orange, and I would watch the sky every day until I saw it pass again, and I would wave to my mother and father and sister Leela and brother Hamn and aunt and uncle.

I changed into my night clothes and went next door to Mallowell's room, and as quiet as I could so I wouldn't wake them, I climbed into bed between Mallowell and his wife, Seery, who I'd met at lunch.

Just as I was drifting off to sleep, the bed jerked, and Seery yelped and jumped out of the bed.

"Tweel? What are you doing?" Mallowell said. "You can't sleep here."

"Why not?" I asked.

"It's just not what people do," he said. I got up and went back to my own room, and got into my own bed and hugged my knees, and I couldn't stop shaking, but I finally fell asleep and then I probably did stop shaking, but I don't know because I was asleep.

My work place was Mallowell's laboratory. It was filled with big stone pots and circles made of transparent stone, and instruments with strings that might have made music but I didn't think so. There was a big hole scooped out of the ceiling and floor in the middle of the room, forming an open sphere, and in it thousands of marbles like the ones on the tester's desk hung suspended from strings. Light glowed from behind the ceiling and floor, just like the light that glowed in the sky.

"Mhyyrl," I said, pointing to a white marble with grey speckles. "Littleboom. Pellpinnin. Allberry!" I pointed to each one. I liked Mallowell, because he let me stay very close to him.

"Yes, very good!" Mallowell said. "We're not starting from scratch, then."

Then Mallowell started to talk. He called it a lecture. He told me all sorts of things about the worlds. Some of the things I already knew, but most of it I didn't know. I listened so hard I nearly forgot how empty the room was, and my heart pounded so I could hear it in my ears. When Mallowell told me something especially new, sometimes I cried, because it was so beautiful it made me happy and sad at the same time.

He told me the universe is shaped like a giant sphere, and when a world reaches near any edge of the universe, the edge pushes it back, toward the center. And that before people developed propulsion for their worlds, they would bounce off each other, and people would be crushed. That's why there are too many people on most of the worlds now, because no one is getting crushed. Mallowell estimated that Cyan had 60,000 people on it (although he hadn't counted all of them to know this for sure), and that some worlds now had over 100,000.

But the most beautiful thing he told me was that the movement of the worlds makes music that we can't hear, and that the note each world sings as it moves depends on how far it is from the center of the universe. He showed me this on his model, by holding marbles tight so they didn't bob around, then plucking strings of different lengths. The strings made different notes when he plucked them. He said this was how propulsion works: we change the song our world sings by singing along with it, at just the right place, singing just the right songs, and this causes the world to move differently.

Mallowell said he wanted to map all the worlds in the universe, so he could understand it better, and predict how worlds moved in it. Then we would know where all the worlds were likely to be (unless they were using propulsion, which he called error variance) even when we couldn't see them. And best of all, my job was to help him!

"I want you to go outside once a day, always at midday, and draw a picture of where all the worlds are in the sky," he said.

"I can start yesterday," I said.

"Yesterday?" Mallowell said. "Don't you mean tomorrow?"

I shook my head, and picked up a softstone and sheet of parchment from Mallowell's work table, and sketched all the worlds that were in the sky when I looked at them midday yesterday. Then I pointed to the ones I knew and told him their names, and then I told him the worlds I'd seen before, and when I'd seen them.

Mallowell made an O with his mouth, just like the tester had done. He put his hand on my shoulder. "You—" he swallowed. "You can remember every world you've ever seen? And the date you saw them?"

I nodded.

Mallowell hugged me so hard that he squeezed a huff of air out of me. He spun around in a circle, and because he was hugging me I spun in a circle, too. He laughed and laughed, and said I was solid gold and a genius. I told him he was the genius, because he knew a lot more things than me.

That night I got into my night clothes and waited until some time had passed, then I went down the hall and I wriggled into bed between Mallowell and Seery as quietly as I could.

But Seery still woke up, and huffed, and nudged Mallowell awake. He propped himself up on one elbow and looked at me, and I looked back at him and smiled.

He said "Now, Tweel, we've gone through this once. You can't sleep with us."

"Can I sleep near you?" I asked.

"How near?" he said. I pointed to the floor.

"Would that be acceptable, love?" Mallowell asked Seery.

"You're a lucky man to have me, Mallo," she said.

"I am indeed. Thank you, love."

Mallowell fetched me a big armful of quilts and weaves, and I made a nest at the foot of their bed.

"Till tomorrow, Tweel," Mallowell said, lying back down.

"Till tomorrow," I answered. "Till tomorrow, Seery."

She laughed. "Till tomorrow, Tweel. You'd better not snore."

I don't think I snored, because in the morning Seery didn't say that I did, but I don't know for sure because I was asleep.

A few days later, while I was making drawings of what worlds were in the sky when I lived on Allberry when I was four years and six days old, Mallowell told me that Cyan was going to link with a world called Ork in two days. Mallowell would meet with Ork's navigational scientists to exchange ideas, and he was going to bring me with him, because I was his assistant.

"Exchanging ideas is far more valuable than exchanging goods or people," Mallowell said later, while we were adding worlds and adjusting locations on his universe map. He was using his lecture voice. "We build on each others' ideas, and they spread. If the world that invented propulsion had not linked with other worlds and exchanged ideas, propulsion would not have spread, and we would still be living in constant fear of collisions.

"I think ideas are like the universe," Mallowell went on. He was holding his wooden angle-measure in one hand, and three marbles—which were new worlds to be added to the map—in the other. "Each thing we know is like a world, spinning about in our heads, and when two things we know collide, they see if they fit together in some interesting way. If they don't, they bounce away; but if they do, they cling together and change each other before bouncing away. And this is how ideas are formed."

I watched the three marbles in his hand, pressing against each other in a clump.

"Why not three?" I asked.

"Three what?"

"Why not three ideas colliding together at once, and seeing if they all fit together in some interesting way?"

"I suppose it could be three. Why not? Or four, or ten."

Mallowell opened his palm and chose one of the marbles, which represented Elto because it was grey on one hemisphere and silver on the other. I made the squeaking sound that I make when things shift in a way I don't like.

Mallowell looked at me. "What?"

"I want them to cling together. They're not done seeing if they fit together in some interesting way."

Mallowell looked at the marbles. They were shiny and smooth; his palm was rough and wrinkled. He looked at me.

"It doesn't have to be three at once. Two ideas can clump together, and then two different, and then the third two, and they will have passed on the same information as if they all three had clumped at once."

I shook my head no. I didn't know how to explain it, but I knew two, two, and two wasn't the same as all three at once. I could picture why in my head. I tried to explain.

"Two-idea links are lines. A three-idea link is a triangle. It's not the same as three straight lines."

Mallowell looked at me, thinking so hard some of the wrinkles on his face scrunched together.

"You're talking about worlds, aren't you? You're suggesting that linking three worlds at once to exchange ideas would advance knowledge faster than if they all linked separately?"

I nodded yes, because that was what I was suggesting. I liked science very much.

Mallowell thought some more, then he said, "Humph," and we went back to work.

That night I woke up in the deepest dark, and I missed my sister Leela and my brother Hamn very much, so I wiped my eyes on my nightshirt and crept into bed with Seery and Mallowell, taking care to be soft and quiet as a field marm. This time Seery did not wake up, and I fell right to sleep, happy and content.

My plan was to sneak from the bed before Seery and Mallowell woke, but when I opened my eyes, Mallowell was sitting up, looking at me. He laughed.

Seery woke and rolled over. She looked angry.

"It's what he's used to," Mallowell said to Seery. "He doesn't mean anything, you know, untoward, by it. Just until he adjusts?"

Seery looked at me and sighed. I smiled.

"He sleeps to your left, not between us," she said. "And some nights he cannot come to the room until high dark hour."

I nodded happily, though I didn't understand why I had to wait until high dark hour on some nights, or how many nights some nights might be. I hugged Seery, then I hugged Mallowell, then we rose, and I ran to fetch the stick I use to clean my teeth, and my satchel of spare clothing, and my softstone. Now I would sleep much better at night. There would still be too much open space during the day, so I would still shake and cry a lot during the day, but not at night.

Ork's navigational scientist was hairy and smelled bad, and he didn't care about our map. He only wanted to talk about propulsion. Ork already had 64 propulsion points compared to Cyan's 16. Mallowell asked him where they were in such a hurry to get to, then he laughed. But the Orkian scientist didn't laugh; he only rubbed his hairy chin, which made the muscles in his arm bunch up.

Before we had time to do much talking, the door of the meeting room flew open. It hit the wall and made a loud bang, and I screamed because I was startled. A big, hairy man with arms so thick they wouldn't lie straight at his sides came in. Three fat metal sticks dangled from his belt; they clanked together when he moved. He moved fast. He looked angry, and he was making loud breathing noises through his nose.

"We're leaving," he said to the Orkian navigational scientist without introducing himself. "Gather the rest of the science team and meet me at the bridge." Then he left without saying goodbye or even closing the door behind him.

The Orkian scientist got up from the conference table and ran out the door. He didn't even gather up his note papers first. I looked at Mallowell, and he shrugged.

Later, Mallowell told me why the man, who was the leader of Ork and was named Salyn, had been angry. Salyn wanted to trade a new thing he called "scrip" for Cyan's food and goods. "Scrip" was a piece of paper that said he would do a favor for Cyan later, or help if some other world tried to hurt Cyan. The Oldsters, who were the leaders of Cyan, and who Mallowell was one of, didn't like the idea, and that's why Salyn got angry and left.

I laughed when Mallowell explained what scrip was, because Cyan might not pass Ork again for years.

"Maybe that's why Ork is so interested in propulsion, so they can move more quickly and see the same worlds more often," Mallowell said.

It was an interesting idea.

When Mallowell suggested linking with more than one world at the same time to the other Oldsters, they didn't think it was a good idea. It would mean clearing a second linking point on Cyan, so people would have to move out of their houses, because their houses would be crushed. The other Oldsters didn't think it would add much, because we could link with as many worlds as we wanted, one at a time.

Mallowell told me this, then he told me he was like a spikefish—once he sunk his teeth into something meaty, he didn't let go.

Two hundred eighty-seven days later, Cyan linked with two worlds at once.

The other worlds were Gurpin and Ettentupan. We navigational scientists from the three worlds had a conference, and there was arguing and lots of people making lectures and asking questions and drawing with softstone. Some of the things that people knew stuck together with what other people knew, and soon everyone was talking about using glass to see things that are very far away, and all the scientists were excited by the time it was over.

The merchants were happy too, because linking with two worlds at once made trading easier.

Fifty-seven days after our three-way link, Mallowell and I were up in the observation tower. Mallowell was experimenting with holding special pieces of glass up to the sky to see far away, and he saw a remarkable thing: three worlds linked together. None of the three worlds were Gurpin or Ettentupan, the worlds we had triple-linked with.

"Your idea is taking flight, Tweel," Mallowell said. He put down the glass and rubbed my hair all around, which I liked. Sometimes Seery did it before we went to sleep.

Read Part 2 here

Will McIntosh has published stories in Asimov's, Interzone, CHIZINE, Postscripts, Black Static, and others. This is his second story in Strange Horizons. He was a finalist for both the British Science Fiction Association and the British Fantasy Society awards for best short story of 2005. By day he is a psychology professor in the southeastern US. To contact him, send him email at For more about him and his work, see his website.
Current Issue
19 Feb 2024

That was Father—a storm in a drought, a comet in the night. Acting first, thinking later, carried on not by foresight, but on luck’s slippery feet. And so we were not as surprised as we should have been when, one warm night in our tenth year on the mountain, Father showed us the flying machine.
The first time I saw stone and Bone in ocean
This is it. This is the decision that keeps you up at night.
Wednesday: How to Navigate Our Universe by Mary Soon Lee 
Issue 12 Feb 2024
Issue 5 Feb 2024
Issue 29 Jan 2024
Issue 15 Jan 2024
Issue 8 Jan 2024
Issue 1 Jan 2024
Issue 18 Dec 2023
Issue 11 Dec 2023
Issue 4 Dec 2023
Issue 27 Nov 2023
Load More
%d bloggers like this: