The gorge spread out before Togohn. Splitting the land as far as the eye could see, the gaping, empty blackness appeared to have a life of its own. The wind raced up out of its depths, twisting and howling in its flight to the stars – the Star Wind.
Excitement overcame the doubt and guilt that gnawed at Togohn. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Taking a deep breath, he turned off the engine of his modified skimmer just as it cruised over the edge of the gorge. The skimmer dropped straight down. His breath caught in his throat. His heart jumped. His stomach bounced somewhere in space trying to find him.
An up draft caught the skimmer, shooting Togohn high above the edge he’d just left. The skimmer settled. The glide wings on each side held. He floated on the air currents defying the cavernous hole below him. Feet locked into the stirrups he’d set on the skimmer, Togohn stood straight up, throwing his arms out to salute the wind that ran like velvet waves over his burnished red flesh. His wide nostrils flared with exhilaration.
He knelt into the skimmer pushing down hard with his trailing foot while simultaneously pulling his leading foot up hard and fast into the front stirrup. The front of the skimmer kicked up and he leaned forward into the upward glide. He straightened, then pulled his knees into his chest. Forcing the skimmer to follow his motion, he leaned into a back flip. The skimmer completed the roll.
He practiced loop after loop, then turns and twists, gliding easily in and out of free falls until the farthest of the three suns that lit Pranth faded into darkness. The excitement left his large yellow eyes.
He set the skimmer down on the edge of the gorge and hastily gathered the work equipment he’d left the fields with a few hours ago. He was late. Pulling the mass of long, black braids out of the band that held his hair, he hit the switch on the skimmer. The engine barked into a smooth hum sending the protective screen up around him.
He made the perimeter of home just as the flashing, warning light became solid. He slipped inside without a second to spare. The night screen came up surrounding the complex he called home.
His thoughts ran wild with the glide over the gorge. He could still feel the floating sensation and the rush of the wind. Tomorrow he’d slip the engine off of the skimmer and see what it could really do without the extra weight.
“You’re late!” his father loomed in the doorway.
“I’m sorry.” He apologized without wanting to. A surge of resentment came from some where deep in his chest and ran up into his throat. The glide had been too good to spoil with an argument.
His father stepped aside, following Togohn into the underground dwelling. “What’s going on with you now? You aren’t still trying to piece together that old book are you?”
“No, dad. No!” His thick black lips pulled down into a scowl. “I was talking with Gheds. Just talking.”
He lied. He always searched for more of the book. Since the day he found the perfectly preserved pages that his father and his father before him kept, he had been obsessed with finding all of it.
“You aren’t dragging Gheds into anything foolish are you? You know he’s much younger than you and too easily influenced.”
“No, Dad!” Anger raged through his voice.
“Don’t forget you have to be responsible. Think ahead,” his father said.
Be responsible. Don’t have any fun. Don’t laugh. Pay attention. Tend the crops. Work the fields. Live and die, just like everyone else had as far back as anyone could remember, screamed through Togohn’s mind.
“I’m starving. What’s for dinner?” Togohn said, trying to change the subject.
“Your favorite, my child,” his mother said, chasing them to their seats.
The conversation moved into their normal mealtime discussion. Crops; the encroaching blue fungus that covered everything in its path after the suns’ set; repairs on harvest gliders; the three girls that would reach marrying age next season and the five boys that would vie for their favors, Togohn being one of the five.
Togohn sat silently, listening to his father talk about everything except what Togohn wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk about the book or gliding over the gorge. He knew there was more than this. There had to be other worlds and space travel. Other life forms must exist somewhere. The book had painted a picture of life entirely different from the one they led.
Togohn stayed with his mother after his father retired.
“He’s always upset with me,” Togohn said flatly. “I haven’t done anything right since I found those pages of the book.”
“You know that’s not true. He just doesn’t want you to go through the disappointment he did,” his mother said softly. Her hand strayed to smooth Togohn’s brow.
“He doesn’t care about anything but the fields and work.” Irritation rose in Togohn’s voice. “Twelve families, existing just to exist. The book would give us a chance to see what we were or were meant to become.”
“Your father felt the same way when he found those pages. He was about your age and he tried to find the rest of the book. He was filled with anger and frustration for years because a few pages of an old book painted a picture of something long ago and far away. It’s only a dream, my son. An old dream that haunts the thoughts.”
“What about the gorge and the wind that races to the stars?”
“The gorge is said to be bottomless and the winds make it very dangerous.”
“How would anyone know if they aren’t allowed to go near it and know one can talk about it?”
“Time will heal some of the feelings you have now, you’ll see.” Her voice was gentle, trying to sooth the impatience that ran through him.
Togohn fell asleep feeling the air rush up at him as he leaned into a glide and then spiraled down, only to be swept back up in an exhilarating rush as the skimmer pushed him faster and faster.
For the next few weeks he practiced gliding and worked on perfecting his skimmer. If anyone caught on, he’d be forced to ride to the fields again with his father as he had until the last season.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” Gheds caught him leaving the field. “I haven’t seen you in over three weeks other than a wave across the field.”
“I did it! I floated the gorge!” Togohn’s voice came in an excited whisper.
Gheds shook his head emphatically, “No! Nope. We all know that’s impossible.”
“I did I’m telling you and that’s where I’m headed right now. Tag along if you like.” Togohn’s eyes searched Ghed’s small face for approval.
“This I’ve got to see. How do we do it without getting caught?” Gheds couldn’t conceal the shiver of excitement that ran across him.
“Just follow me. They’ll think we’re going to the back field to burn off some of the fungus.”
Everyone else was content to farm, to survive from day to day. But not them . . . they had talked about the gorge and sailing to the stars ever since they could remember. They whispered it – dreamed it – like leashed, wild animals longing to loose the bonds of this existence and sail into the unknown.
Togohn led the way. He had the tools unloaded, the engine slipped off the skimmer, his braids pulled into a band and his field clothing off by the time Gheds landed his skimmer.
Gheds watched Togohn prepare for the glide. He was much smaller than Togohn and much less confident. As many times as they had talked about this day, Gheds had never believed it would really happen. He grabbed his throat as Togohn pushed the skimmer over the edge and jumped onto it.
“Be careful!” Gheds screamed as the skimmer and Togohn dropped out of sight only to shoot up high over head about 30 yards out from the edge.
Gheds danced from foot to foot, clutching his stomach and then his mouth as Togohn leaned into the skimmer – floating out over the gorge, turning and spinning, falling straight down and then shooting up again.
“You want to try it?” Togohn asked as he settled his skimmer next to Gheds.
“No! Well yes, but not yet. You have to teach me.”
“You’re right. My skimmer is too big for you anyway. We’ll work on yours and I’ll show you how to turn and move before you step off the edge.”
The sky darkened rapidly. A storm was coming. The lightning began it’s crazy dance across the horizon. Blue, bright tendrils snaked across the land towards the gorge, arcing and crackling a warning of their approach.
Togohn and Gheds threw their field gear onto the back of their skimmers and turned towards home just ahead of the storm, the thick hair on their bodies stood on end from the charged air.
Togohn threw his head back and screamed at the wind, “Yes!”
Gheds never believed they would do anything different than what their parents had done and now he watched Togohn with awe and terror. Togohn wasn’t afraid of anything. The gorge, the storm, everything they’d just done left Gheds with a tense, frightened feeling.
The storm slipped off behind them and they hastily said goodnight, agreeing to meet at the back field the next day.
Togohn’s sleep was filled with visions of planets spinning just out of his reach. He floated towards them and just as he got close enough to one to see mountains rising out of the mist, it would spin off and disappear into space.
He made it through the work day, tired but excited about the project with Gheds. Gheds arrived at the back field just after Togohn.
“Come on!” Togohn’s large eyes were dancing with fire. He had secretly worked on glide wings during the last season and had several different sizes and designs. He led the way into one of the storage hives.
“There.” Togohn gestured at the glide wings stacked behind old work skimmers and equipment.
Gheds walked around them, “Are you sure these will work?” His voice was skeptical and he nervously toed one of the wings.
“You aren’t afraid are you?” Togohn asked. When Gheds looked away, Togohn prodded him. “What do you want to do, grow up and be like everyone else here?”
“No!” Gheds blurted out. “No, I just don’t want to get into trouble.” His voice faded off.
“Well bring your skimmer in here. We’ll see how far you really want to go when we have it set up.” Togohn’s voice was scornful.
Gheds brought his skimmer in and when they finished with it, all of the field equipment and the engine released at the turn of a lever.
Each day Togohn showed Gheds how to lean into the skimmer and turn away from it. To push his weight into his lead foot and lift, to crouch for an updraft and shift his weight when he was moving into a turn. Four weeks later Togohn declared they were ready for Gheds’ trial run over the gorge.
“Tomorrow we’ll go after we leave the fields.” Togohn stated.
“No!” Gheds yelled, then stammered, “What I mean is, I’ve only done this training with the skimmer on the ground.”
“You’ll learn. That’s how I did it.”
“I’m just not ready yet.” Gheds said.
“Coward.” Togohn’s voice was tinged with scorn. “We’ve talked about this since we both can remember.”
Gheds looked at Togohn with hurt in his eyes. “You’re right. We’ll go tomorrow after the fields.” His voice trembled.
Togohn’s father waited for him after breakfast the next day.
“Gheds’ father went by the back field. He said you boys haven’t spent much time burning that fungus. It’s moving in on the new clearing. What are you doing out there?”
“Why don’t we just run the perimeter shields like we do here?” Togohn asked.
“Our power source is running low. We’re working on something new but it may take awhile. That doesn’t excuse you from doing your job. Where is your head lately? I feel like I’m talking to a fungus.”
Togohn could feel the irritation in his father’s voice and it created a flare of anger within his being. “Maybe if we all worked at finding the book things would be different. Maybe if we could even talk about it . . .” he heard himself saying.
“The book again? You just can’t let it go can you? Get to the back field and get it cleared, stay out of my sight until you figure it out.” He was gone.
Togohn’s face was almost black. Anger burned through him. He’d go to the back field all right. He’d go just long enough to find Gheds and then head for the gorge.
The conversation with his father kept running through his mind, even after he found Gheds and they arrived at the Gorge. They both pulled to the edge of the gorge and removed their field clothing and the work equipment from the skimmers.
“We’ll leave your engine on for your first run. If you run into any trouble, just hit the switch and it’ll straighten you out. Remember when you first pop over the edge, you’ll drop. Don’t worry, you’ll come right back up, fast.” Togohn watched Gheds’ eyes as he tried to prepare Gheds for the drop.
Waves of terror moved across Gheds features, he kept swallowing and his naturally deep red skin had turned almost black. Gheds was shaking and his eyes were narrowed to slits.
“We’re ready. I’ll be right with you. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Togohn pushed his skimmer over the edge and landed on it as it began to drop. Swept back up above the edge, he balanced his weight, waiting for Gheds to make a move.
Gheds looked straight ahead, his eyes locked onto the empty space over the edge of the gorge.
Impatiently Togohn waved his arm, “Come on!”
As if he were a robot, Gheds hit the switch. His skimmer, driven by its engine, moved over the edge and headed out across the gorge.
From somewhere out of the blackness far below a blue beam of light began. The beam grew in intensity and size, moving towards Gheds. Gheds’ skimmer never dropped. Instead it shot straight up with Gheds still attached to it and screaming. Gheds and his skimmer were gone.
Gheds’ screams rang in Togohn’s head. The light spread out, filling the gorge, running right at Togohn. He watched it sweep around his skimmer. The skimmer shot upward and the force slammed him to his knees. Togohn looked down only to find the surface of the planet had disappeared.
For the first time in his life, he didn’t know what to do. Because of him his friend was in peril and so was he. Fear raced into his thoughts. Everyone was right about the Gorge, what had he done?
Abruptly the turmoil in his mind stopped. His senses reeled. A sea of bright star patterns ran through him as if he felt them more than saw them. In a dizzying rush of light, color, and blackness folding into a kaleidoscope, he stopped moving.
He swallowed hard. His stomach and other internal organs felt as if they’d been removed and then pushed back in, all out of the order they’d left in. He tried to focus on the light that floated around him, moving in and out of shadow.
“Ahhh,” a whispering sigh. “It has been such a long time. Well, 4,792 years, 7 months, 22 days and 16.5 hours to be exact.”
The light settled into an order and his senses cleared although he was still having trouble with his stomach staying where it should.
“You are not feeling well. How thoughtless of me.”
The light changed to soft green. His stomach stopped churning and his vision cleared. He was standing on the skimmer in the same position he’d left the gorge in. Gheds skimmer was next to him. Empty!
As if reading his thoughts, the voice came again, “The small one who came just ahead of you. He was not happy. He is resting.”
A vision of Gheds appeared on the wall, he was lying on a bed, his face completely relaxed, asleep.
Relief for Gheds flooded over Togohn, at least he was alive. He turned each way as far as the stirrups on the skimmer would allow and surveyed his surroundings. The walls were metallic – smooth and polished, without a seam or break. The ceiling and floor dropped into empty, black space filled with stars and moons of the night horizon.
“Who are you and where are we?”
“I am Vharna, of the vessel Star Wind.”
“Where are you?”
“Oh, I am not a life form as you are. I am a system coordinator. I deal with life forms and translate their commands to the inner system of the vessel. My primary function is the well being of life forms and maximizing the functions of the systems of this ship. No, I am not anything like you.”
“You mean we are on a real space ship, we can travel to other worlds and stars?” Togohn asked.
“This is not an ordinary space ship!” the voice was tinged with indignation. “My, it is unbelievable that you are the descendants of the Masters,” the voice said, as if contemplating what should happen next.
“What Masters? What are you talking about? And why don’t you show yourself?” Togohn demanded. He didn’t know what else to do.
Togohn found himself seated in a reclining chair in another room. The wall in front of him flickered and became a maze of stars. Three suns floated off the planet that grew in size before him.
“I do not have form, however I can appear to you in any manner that pleases you. If you will feel more comfortable, I can take the shape of something or someone from your mental images.”
“No. Just tell me what is going to happen and why are we here, or better yet, how did we get here?”
“Then I will begin with the beginning. Your ancestors left the Traghn Star System over 5,000 years ago. Fifty of them, all masters in their field – twenty five males and twenty five females. They secretly built the Star Wind to carry them to a new galaxy.”
“Why? Were they bored and hated farming?” Togohn could understand anyone wanting to leave this existence.
“The planet they fled was filled with war and struggle. They wished to pursue a life filled with intelligence and understanding, working together in harmony, not killing each other with weapons that became more dreadful each year.”
“Did they write the book?”
“Yes. Each male took a portion of the book to the planet’s surface with him. It was to be preserved by each generation.”
“I found my father’s portion of it. It was the beginning of the journey into space. I couldn’t find any more it.”
“The first part of the book tells of the Traghn Star System and their reasons for leaving. It continues into their travel through space and finding this planet, their decision to abandon the Star Wind and survive off the land. If they gave up everything they left behind, they would have to work together just to survive. Everyone would be equal.” The voice drifted into silence.
Togohn’s mind raced, filled with the stars and traveling through them. Excitement flooded over him at the possibilities.
Vharna continued, “They left only one portal of escape in case they came across a problem that would erase their existence.”
“Yes, but not as it is now. The third sun’s novae – 1,198 years and 286 days – after they colonized the planet, caused a disturbance in the planet’s inner core. An earthquake created the gorge and dropped the travel pad. The nova brought other changes. The ones that would visibly plague you most is the fungus and the electrical storms.”
“Why didn’t they multiple? There are less of us now than when they settled.”
The novae did many things to the planet. Your life form was a victim of it also. It started a gene drift due to radiation that drifted into your atmosphere. If you remain on the planet and it stays intact that long, your race will be extinct within another 1,000 years.”
“What do you mean, ‘If it stays intact that long?”
“The second sun is due to nova within the next four days. I cannot estimate the depth of the damage it will do to the planet.”
“Are you sure?” He was frightened now. His family, everyone he had grown up with, everything he knew was in danger.
“Please!” Indignation ran through the voice. “I am an authority. I have every system of the Star Wind at my disposal and the greatest minds of the Traghn Star System created us.” Arrogance dripped off the voice.
“How did we trigger the travel pad?” he asked. Maybe, just maybe there was a chance . . . if he could convince his dad.
“One life form moving into its perimeter would trigger it before it slipped into the gorge but with the years of disuse, it began to seal from the outer edge toward the center. One of you moved directly into the beam and triggered the mechanism.”
“Will it remain open?”
“Yes. It is sensitive to any life form movement although it may be lost forever after the next nova.”
“If we just step off the gorge, it will open?” he asked. He knew what he wanted to do and there wasn’t much time.
“No.” The voice was patient as if dealing with a small child. “You must maneuver into the exact position you were in before to activate the beam.”
“Can’t you just open up a beam or something and bring all of us here?”
“No. The planet was established as a beginning. Each person must make their own decision and move into the beam to arrive here. If anyone remains behind, this ship will never leave this sector.”
“Gheds and me, how do we get back to the planet?”
“Must you go so soon? After all, I am created to deal with life forms and it is lonely here.”
“I have to, but if I can work things out, we will all be on the Star Wind before the nova.”
“Very well. I can place you wherever you would like.”
“Inside the perimeter of home, please.”
In a flash of light and color, Togohn and Gheds stood together outside Togohn’s dwelling.
“It was a dream,” Gheds said with a sigh of relief. “More like a nightmare.” He rubbed his eyes and yawned.
Togohn’s father appeared in the doorway. For the first time Togohn noticed the age that had crept into his father’s face in the last few seasons and his eyes. Eyes that expressed his pain and worry for Togohn and those around him.
“You’re alive! We found your field gear and clothing at the edge of the gorge. What happened? Why did you go there?” His voice was grating, angry. The last question faded into a high pitched screech.
Standing his ground, Togohn said, “Dad, I know you don’t want to hear about the book or the gorge, but we have a lot to talk about and not much time to do it in.”
“Not that again.” His father was shaking. His face contorted. Tears glistened in his eyes and began running down his face. His fists were clenched at his sides.
“We thought you were lost to us. We’ve been so worried.” He came towards Togohn and Gheds with his arms out. For the first time, Togohn understood his father’s frustration and anger with him.
Somehow he had to convince everyone that the planet was in danger and so were they. How would he convince them to jump onto a skimmer and float out into the gorge until one of them triggered the travel pad beam? Gheds was unconscious from the time he’d reached the Star Wind until just a moment ago so he wouldn’t be of any help.
A knifing pain ran through his chest. Nothing would ever be the same again. He would be on the Star Wind before the nova destroyed the travel pad, with or without everyone he knew.
“We have to talk and this time, Dad, you have to listen.”