What was that?
The leading wave of the first pulse hit the vibrissae on Felockati’s chasm-facing tentacles, then continued its race across his territory as his other sensors twisted to focus on it. He could tell how close it was from the narrow point of origin and partially occluded source — something large sinking down past the margin of the abyssal canyon. All around him the little mind glows dampened in alarm as every creature that could do it sought shelter.
Nothing falls from the surface, nothing this size. It was bigger than the southern ohluckt he’d dodged in his rootless youth, in his travel days. This was no carcass, slowly losing its equilibrium in the water as it decayed, but something that sank quickly, like a rock does.
He peered down over the edge, spacing the oculi on his tentacle tips widely for light reception, but nothing could be seen but a loose trail of bubbles hastening upward, marking the disturbance. The object had vanished.
A crumpling sound reached him, and from far below a large heaving mass of air glimmered blue and silver in the filtered daylight, headed for the surface along the near wall of the canyon. He stretched his longest tentacles and sampled it as it rose past his own level.
What an odd taste. Not like the air above the water at all, as I remember it. It tingles.
He pulsed the water. “Felockati calls. Something sank into the great chasm. Not rock, not animal. From surface. Who knows?”
He waited for his neighbors to respond. From the other side of the canyon came a single reply.
“Oloktikt knows. From surface, yes. With splash, then no movement. Hollow to my ping.”
“Felockati confirms. Hollow. Gone.”
Gone, indeed. No returning from the lightless depths. His own remains would someday drift and sink there, those parts of him not buried or eaten.
Long ago, Felockati had prepared for the time of his rooting by seeking out an unclaimed territory with an impassable barrier along one boundary. If the proper depth for a tektali rooting was to bar him forever from direct sight of the sun and the stars, at least he would have something unique to explore within reach, as far as his tentacles could probe.
Ever since, he had been waiting for his youthful choice to redeem itself and now, at last, something had happened. But is this all? Over so soon?
He hoped one of the wanderers had heard him and would bring him more information. It had been too long since one had stayed for a while, to help raise a brood, and he hungered for the news from far away that the well-traveled brought with them, with their pod of lively sister-kin.
The mind glow of a good-sized kekak patrolling overhead distracted him and he stealthily wove together a loose net-wall of tentacles, letting them drift relaxed and naturally on the upswelling current in the animal’s path. When it got close enough, he clenched his net shut, intertwining the ends to keep the kekak from escaping, and then stung his dinner until the mind glow was extinguished. It was done so tidily that none of the nearby mind glows was disturbed, and he dozed while his body refreshed itself.
What was that? Another one? The surprise of a light touch elsewhere while he was inattentive almost made him drop his prize part-digested, and his integument shivered reflectively. There’d been nothing in the background mind glows to alert him. He raised a small cluster of tentacles around the point of contact to quickly identify the threat, but after he had peered at it from all angles, he let most of the tentacles slump back again. This was a small thing, no danger to him.
What is this? Not an animal. Not hollow, like the one that fell into the abyss. Long and thin and pointy, a bit curved, like an ohluckt fang, but much smaller. Hard. Slick. Not bone, not tooth, not rock. Not like any plant I’ve ever heard of.
He wrapped a tentacle mouth around it, carefully. An unfamiliar taste. Something was inside it, like heat, but he didn’t think it was alive.
Are there more like this?
He surveyed the mind glows. They were disturbed by something else above him that was sinking, rotating slowly. It was about the size of a full-grown wanderer, though nothing like it in shape.
This was definitely alive, some sort of animal, and it was going to come within his reach. He formed a quick net-wall and snagged it before it could drift out over the chasm. He pulled it to safety, then he let it float loose inside a woven enclosure so he could observe it from all sides.
A quick ping told him something about its nature. Those protuberances weren’t tentacles — they had some sort of bone-like reinforcement. The surface was odd, as if it weren’t really attached. Like the little ahktakt that grows into its borrowed covering?
Some of the surface seemed slick, like the fang. He reached into the enclosure with one tentacle to taste the head and check, but pulled back abruptly when he detected a sudden change in the mind glow, and then a bloom of fear. He withdrew all his tentacles except the ones forming the net-cage.
The animal changed position and explored the net-cage without coming close enough to touch it. The four long limbs seemed to work like tentacles.
Surely this must belong with the strange fang? Let’s find out.
He passed the object along until it reached the tentacles nearest the enclosure. Attracted by the movement, the creature turned, the shiny covering of its head facing the movement. It reached for the object with one tentacle.
Felockati passed the fang into the net-cage and held it loosely by the tip of a tentacle. The animal took hold of it using the bone-cluster at the end of its own tentacle, and Felockati withdrew to watch what would happen.
The creature attached the fang to its covering with a thin filament and used a second tentacle to poke at the base of it. A bright image winked into the bight of the curve of the fang, and the creature looked at it.
Then it swam over to the nearest net-wall and poked at it with the sharp end of the fang.
“Stop that!” Felockati focused several oculi on the small stinging hole, and noted with part of his mind that the creature had reacted in surprise to his pulse, like a youngling scolded for scratching him with a kekak tooth.
Did it understood me? Animals don’t understand taktali. What is it?
He turned more oculi to the creature which floated motionlessly, as if trying not to be noticed. I need a wanderer here to talk to it — it’s like one of my own younglings, too small to understand a father. What if I make a wanderer for it, in its own shape?
Felockati repurposed the ends of five tentacles from the inside of the net-wall and wound them together in a rough simulacrum of his visitor — two tentacle ends dangling below and above, and one rising at the top with its oculi cluster facing in a single direction.
All this time the creature had been holding the fang in one tentacle. Now it raised it, and a bright round object shone in the space between it and the simulacrum. There was nothing really there, to Felockati’s ping, but he could see it clearly enough. The colors were bright and vivid, like the colors at the surface of the water, the colors of his youth.
The view got larger and larger, though the object itself took up no more space, and finally it showed a stretch of sea floor with a deep gash. The creature waved a tentacle all around it, then pointed in the direction of the abyssal canyon, barely visible through the loose net-wall.
Does it mean the world?
Felockati scooped up and compressed a ball of fine sediment mixed with slime from his integument to hold it together and passed it up to the simulacrum. He drew a line on it, jagged, like the canyon edge, and showed it to the creature.
The fang displayed a picture of his ball, and wrapped the first image around it, fitting the two together. It pulsed a noise at the same time.
So, that might mean agreement, or same, or yes.
He echoed the sound.
The creature tapped itself with a tentacle and pulsed a different sound. Was this its name, or the name of its family, or its kind? No way to tell. The name, Kat’ina, meant nothing.
The display showed an animal configured in a similar manner, with four tentacles and a head.
Ah, must be what they look like with no covering. I was right. How strange and rigid they are.
It made the Kat’ina sound, then showed many of the animals together, and pulsed a different sound he couldn’t quite grasp. The meaning was clear enough, though.
“Felockati,” he pulsed, and the simulacrum pointed at itself. He formed a group of sketchy tentacular simulacra and said, “Taktali,” before disassembling all but the first simulacrum again.
The fang returned to the original display of the world, which began to spin slowly. Kat’ina pointed at the indication of their present location and showed him how he could touch the projection and make it stop or make it expand.
Felockati spent several moments fascinated by the display, retracing some of the world-circling voyages of his past, the underwater mounts and canyons and plains he had learned as a youngling, before he rooted himself, once and for all.
He lifted his tentacle tip from the image. He pointed at Kat’ina and pointed at the world. Where do you come from?
The fang’s display showed him the surface at sunset, then it took the spinning world and pulled out so that it got further and further from the sun. Finally it showed the world circling around the sun.
I would have thought it was the other way around.
The view expanded until the world became a small dot, then more bright dots appeared, circling around the sun. Stars began to appear on the edges of the image.
The fang’s display paused, and then it pulled out further. His sun shrank and shrank, until it was no bigger than any of the stars.
Felockati’s tentacle drew back. When I admired the stars in my traveling days, I never suspected they were suns, far away. Have they changed, since I settled here? Do they all have creatures like this?
He pointed at Kat’ina again, and at the stars in the image.
The display centered on a star and made everything larger until he could see another world. There was water, but also land that rose above it, dry land, something the wanderers had speculated about but that he had never seen. The display showed him pictures of the creatures, on the dry land, out in the air.
That’s why their tentacles need reinforcement. I remember how heavy a tentacle was, when you lifted it above the surface. Imagine spending all your life like that.
The image changed to something large and shiny with creatures inside. It left the dry-land world and went to Felockati’s world, and circled it. A smaller object separated from it, hit the surface, and Kat’ina fell out of it.
Felockati tapped the projected display until it turned back to the image of the object hitting the surface. He pointed at it, pointed in the direction of the canyon, and then scooped up some sediment and squeezed it between his tentacle ends until only fragments of dirt escaped.
The display showed the object hitting the surface and sinking into the abyss, then being crushed.
“Yes,” Felockati said, echoing the first sound they had exchanged.
Kat’ina’s tentacles poked at the fang, and a new display began, showing the fallen creature rising to the surface, and another object coming down to get it.
His visitor would return to the stars, the stars he would never again see for himself.
Was this all? A brief meeting, then gone? Nothing but questions, the rest of my life?
The tip of the tentacle Felockati had been using to point with pulled back.
He unwove the net-wall, dropping all but the cluster that made up the simulacrum. Kat’ina tilted its head back to look up at the surface, then busied itself with the fang again. The display showed the simulacrum and Kat’ina together, rising to the surface and getting into the object.
No, you don’t understand.
Felockati vibrated the loose sediment off of his tentacles and raised them, first those nearest to Kat’ina then, progressively, all throughout his territory. The largest ones barely shuddered, well-rooted, but the water stirred to the ends of his claim. His visitor rotated to follow the movement, holding the fang between its two upper tentacles, until Felockati completed the circuit and resettled himself.
He could feel the surprise in the creature’s mind glow, as the water calmed.
I wish I could. I’d like to see where you come from. I never thought, when I shut away the stars to root myself, that I might want to rise again.
Maybe the females can go with you, to visit your alien oceans. But not me.
Kat’ina used the fang to show him an object on the surface above them, moving up and down with the water like an ilituck pod. There were creatures in the object.
The display showed the object being tethered with a filament to the land beneath the water.
Felockati hastily tapped the display until it showed the original image of the abyss. He drew a line from the edge of the canyon up, until he ran out of display.
Do it here! No one claims the abyss as territory, and no one claims the surface.
The fang displayed its version of his proposal, a long shiny filament anchored to the edge of the canyon, near his simulacrum, and a floating object above it.
The creature fastened the fang to its body, then rotated to face the simulacrum. It reached out one tentacle and clutched its bony cluster around the tip of the simulacrum’s pointing tentacle, and Felockati wrapped the tip gently around his visitor’s in response.
Then the creature released its grip, and began to slowly ascend. Felockati raised the simulacrum in company with it, until his tentacles reached their full length and he was forced to unweave the model. The creature waggled a tentacle as it rose, and Felockati waved his tentacle tips in reply.
He watched until it merged with the surface and disappeared.
“Come,” he pulsed, as far as his signal could carry. “Come, wanderers. I have news.”
He would give them the detailed story, when the sister-pods arrived, and they would spread it all around the world. Maybe one would stay for a while, to keep him company. Maybe she would still be there when his visitor returned.
“Come. I have such a tale to tell.”