Summary: The Explorer—an intergalactic traveler—is finishing its catalogue of the solar system when it encounters a tiny community on a moon orbiting Saturn. At first, the Explorer only thinks of its job. As it sees more, it begins to remember that perhaps there is more to the universe than just facts and data. But will an entity so long devoted to its duty violate regulations to help an insignificant being?
This solar system was small. It had a young yellow sun, bright, naïve, and resilient. It was as determined to bring warmth and light to its nine orbiting worlds as the fiercely beating heart of a mortal creature tried to suffuse each vein and blood vessel with life. As most young and naïve things, however, it was only partially successful in its efforts. The Explorer had found traces of failed civilizations on the farthest three worlds, a struggling tribe on the third, decaying empires on the second and fourth, and various non-carbon based forms on two others.
Yet for all that, this collection of rocks orbiting a tiny center was insignificant when compared to the grand glory of its nearest neighbors. However, the Explorer could not help but feel a twinge of admiration for such a diverse range of struggling beings. Admiration was not an encouraged emotion, but no one needed to know. The Explorer was the furthest of its kind in this stretch of the universe, and it had been eons uncounted since it had seen another of its kind.
With so much empty space, so much silent time passing in the reaches between stars and populated worlds to observe, the Explorer had little else to do than contemplate the trillions of lives it had observed, but not touched. Admiration was not encouraged, but interference was punishable by severe methods.
The Explorer drifted from the red fourth world, comparing the bloody civil war raging across its surface to the other political struggles it had witnessed in its many years exploring this galaxy. The struggle was nothing new. On New Zima, on Yznan, on Elda Delt, armies and innocents were fighting and dying at that very moment to ensure that one person rather than another sat on a particular chair. The Explorer knew the reasons for the fights, it understood the emotions…but understanding is not feeling, and never would be. Though it could catalogue every physical manifestation of an emotional stimulus in millions of species, the sensation of anger was even farther removed from it than its home world.
There remained only one planet in the system to observe. The Explorer had left it for last, in part because its initial view of the planet had not seen life on it, and partly because it was the most beautiful. Even at this distance, the Explorer could see the striations of its rings—composed of rock, dust, and other debris—the opalescent moons illuminated by the planet light, and the swirling patterns of gasses on the surface itself.
As the Explorer steadily drifted towards this planet, it considered what the other worlds knew of it. If its nearest neighbors had known of it, they had made no sign. Aside from archaeological relics, none of the lost civilizations beyond it had any written texts left to their credit. The residents of the great gas giant directly beside it were obsessed by their sport and had no technology to closely observe their sister world.
The people of Mars called it Elin-ial, or "the Ringed Star". Those of Earth used too many tongues to have merely one world for it, but its discoverer had named it Saturn. Those of Venus did not look above them; that people was an inward-looking folk. If they had ever possessed technology to pierce through the space that separated them, the Explorer could see no trace of it.
The Explorer was glad when a planet was its own to discover. Usually—especially in the advanced systems that even knew something of the Explorer's kind—most of its work was already done. There was so much traffic flying between the planets that often, the Explorer could find all it needed to in the library of a single world. This system was different. There had been only limited transit between planets—a few visits here and there, no more—and all the races were entirely unaware of the other's existence. Truly remarkable, that a race of sentient beings could really believe itself alone in the vastness of existence.
And yet, many did.
So absorbed in its own thoughts and reflections the Explorer was that it was almost upon the outer ring of the planet before it discerned the movement. The sight stopped it in its smooth flow towards the sphere, and it took up a rotation concurrent with the slow motion of the dust particles of the outermost ring to study it at leisure.
A small moon circled the planet, carving a black path between two rings. The surface of it was pitted and irregular, as much from impacts from flying bodies as from its close contact with the rough texture of the rings. It had gouged canyons, mountains that seemed nothing more than accumulations of debris, and no sign of an atmosphere or anything that might support the kind of life the Explorer had seen on Mars, Earth, or Venus.
It drifted steadily closer. An undiscovered life form was always exciting…as it understood excitement, that is.
There was indeed a flurry of movement emerging from one of the deep canyons. Three bodies, each with four long limbs that curved down to articulated clawed feet, scuttled over the loose rock of the surface. One was smaller than the other two, and seemed harried by the other, much larger, which was slashing at it aggressively with those rocky talons. A thin whine emerged from beneath it; the Explorer assumed that any mouth or face it had was located at the intersection of the four arms.
The largest of the three reared up on two of its limbs. A smooth patch of gray skin—composed of what, the Explorer could not yet tell—slid back and revealed a faceted eye and a mouth as uneven as the canyons on the surface of the moon.
The mouth opened and the Explorer waited until it had spoken enough for it to extrapolate the language roots and acquire a basic lexicon. The language, composed of more consonants than vowels and a bevy of non-aspirated clicking sounds, reminded it of many other primitive tribes on a variety of other worlds. With so many previous examples to draw from, it soon understood everything, but caught only the last part of the diatribe.
"…invaded my home!"
The word "home" seemed inextricably linked with that of "cave". Considering the nature of the moon and the lack of movement on the surface, it was likely that these beings were exclusively subterranean.
The smallest, nursing a gash on one of its arms, sat upright as well, though its "legs" trembled with the effort. Its voice was significantly less powerful than the accuser, but it spoke up bravely enough.
"Arbiter," it began, speaking to the third party, "Elder Sister has misunderstood."
Interesting. The term "elder sister" did not seem to imply a family relationship in this case. It was merely a term of respect for an elder in the tribe. The little one was trying to be diplomatic. The Explorer could also see no physiological differences between the three beings: they might all be female, "sister" could be a term of respect, or their reproductive organs were entirely internal.
"My little one did not mean to invade. She was merely looking for mtskhet," no translation for that—possibly food or some resource these creatures valued, "and wandered beyond her own home-cave."
"A lie!" the other declared, advancing on the smaller one with its two massive upper limbs outstretched. The defendant cowered away from them, scuttling around a few ranged boulders until her little body was protected. "This Insignificant seeks to deflect suspicion from herself. All know my home-cave is rich in mtskhet, which may not be taken without my permission."
The smallest one bent all four limbs until her face must have been pressed to the ground. "I did not send the little one. She had not had mtskhet for these many turns. She thought…if she found some no one had claimed…"
The voice trailed off into a series of whimpers and squeals that were gone immediately in the vacuum of space. The Explorer drifted closer still.
"I beg mercy! Mercy, for my little one! Do not banish her from the home-cave!"
"Arbiter," the largest spoke again, "the situation is clear. One must take the punishment for this crime, and the punishment is to be—"
For the first time, the last being, the Arbiter, spoke. It cut across the speech of the other by rearing high up on two limbs, stretching the other two to their full length above its face. The Explorer might have laughed if it could, for the sight of this tiny creature, doing something that was so clearly impressive and mysterious to its own kind, reminded it of nothing so much as a gamon-bug on Ekcrepis IV performing its mating dance.
The Arbiter, now commanding silence from the other two, proceeded to wave its upper limbs perpendicular to its body, as it declared, "Do not lecture me on the punishment, Insignificant," and the accuser, up to then so upright and proud, bent almost as low to the ground as the defendant, "You know nothing of the mysteries of Justice.
"And yet," it continued, its arms still waving slowly, "you are correct. The mtskhet was stolen; the necessary Triad of witnesses agree to this fact. A theft of something so precious must be answered by a banishment. Thus balance is kept. Thus order is maintained."
"And harmony achieved," both the others finished.
Ritualized call-and-response, the Explorer noted. Even the one who must suffer from the judgment answers to the call of balance and order. It would not be able to verify its hypothesis just then, but the Explorer had seen enough of the sentient universe to know that these creatures likely had a stratified community devoted to the maintenance and division of limited resources. It would be consistent with their behavioral patterns.
When the trial was over, the Explorer decided it would follow the Arbiter—clearly the headman (or woman, in this case) of the tribe—back to its home and catalogue what it found there.
The Explorer's attention had drifted from the trial at hand. It likely would have taken very idle notice of the rest of it—having seen so much of the same before—had the defendant not spoken up again.
"I beg the Arbiter to allow me to stand in the place of punishment."
The other two were silent. The Arbiter's undulating arms stilled, and then it replied, "You are a clan-mother, Younger," the Explorer noted the different titles: Insignificant from one, while the leader merely said Younger, "your Unearthed," the Explorer might have also translated the odd phrase as "Dugouts", "would suffer in your absence. Including the one for which you would stand punishment."
The younger bent again to the ground. "I have a sister clan-mother who would care for mine as her own, and there is a banishment that allows for a chance of redemption, which my little one would not be able to attempt."
'Unearthed' must refer to children, then. The mother was offering to take punishment in place of her child.
The Arbiter dropped to all fours again, clearly stunned by this development. "You refer to a Revolution?"
The word in this case did not refer to a violent uprising, the Explorer realized. It instead meant rotation, turn, or orbit. Its attention was once again firmly caught, waiting patiently until the meaning of the defendant's wish should become clear.
"No," the accuser said, and there was an urgency to the denial that was totally unlike its previous fearless manner that the Explorer was even more interested. "My consent is necessary for a Revolution and I do not give it."
"Your consent is not necessary if I decide it is not," the Arbiter replied. It stood still and silent for several moments. Bound by its behavior, the two others were similarly silent and motionless. Beside the tiny moon, the spiral rings of Saturn continued in their lazy, drifting courses. Chips of ice and rock collided, but gently, no fragment ever leaving the gravitation eddies that bound them together.
The Arbiter stirred itself. "There is much to be said for a Revolution. The little one accused should not be banished at such a young age. She is so young, in fact, that the act of theft may not even be known to her as a crime. Banishment would be nothing other than death; a slow, lonely death."
"And no more than she," the accuser reared up, mouth wide in an ugly grimace, "or her khalasht clan-mother," no translation for the epithet, "deserves!"
"Be silent while judgment is rendered!" the Arbiter thundered, rearing up likewise. The other cowed immediately, scurrying backwards a few steps and bowing its body until it kissed the ground. At the sight, the Arbiter calmed, but only slightly. "You do well not to wait for me to command you into obeisance," it said, "do not move until my sentence is complete."
The other did not move even to indicate agreement.
"Younger," the little one bowed as she was called, "I allow you to stand in your Unearthed's stead."
She pressed herself to the ground, all limbs splaying out beneath her. "For what punishment, my Arbiter…my Overmother?"
So the third creature was female after all. Perhaps it was a single gender society; perhaps the males were subservient and had nothing to do in matters of law. Though the Explorer was caught in the legal proceeding before it, it still had every intention of going directly underground once it was over to understand how the clan functioned.
But it was time for judgment. The Arbiter's arms were waving again as she said, "I agree to grant a trial by Revolution, and command Khala-im-Aqa-Bhrer to answer your challenge. Insignificant," by her earlier outburst, the accuser seemed to have lost her rights to a more exalted title, "you may rise and meet your challenge."
She rose, but not to the proud height she had once held herself. A challenge of Revolution must be a serious thing, the Explorer imagined, to so humble such a proud being so quickly.
Meanwhile, the defendant had risen to her full height, which only brought her to the first joint of her opponent's upper limbs. She was thinner, too, and altogether looked incapable of meeting the accuser in any kind of physical challenge. When she spoke, however, her voice was calm and her words were even, in the same ritualistic manner in which the Arbiter spoke.
"I, clan-mother Vizma-al-Bhren-Albenzou, do challenge clan-mother Khala-im-Aqa-Bhrer, to answer the challenge of Revolution. I hold my Unearthed falsely accused of the act of theft. To prove the false accusation, I hazard myself to trial by Revolution. I and my accuser will leave the safety of our home-caves. The first one to circle the Heart-world," and one limb gestured to the planet in the center of the rings, Saturn itself, "and return to the home-cave, will be justified. Does the challenged answer to the trial?"
Khala reared back on her hind legs and her mouth opened wide as she snarled, "I, clan-mother Khala-im-Aqa-Bhrer do answer the challenge. At the word of our Arbiter, let the trial begin."
Moving as one, the two clan-mothers moved to the top of the tiny orb, looking down over the rings on either side of the moon they called home. The Explorer drifted to hover above and between them, surveying the different choices they had.
The accused had moved towards the outer ring, which was a poor choice tactically, for it would take her a much longer time to circle the planet if she had to remain within its bounds. The gap the moon made in the rings was significant; despite the strength evident in the limbs of these beings, the Explorer could not imagine them capable of jumping such a divide. However, the outer ring had a great variety of larger particles to jump between, and might offer safer passage. The inner ring, by comparison, had more small particles that might not support the weight of the creature, and therefore might require constant motion on the racer's part.
The Arbiter stood between them, waiting until both participants seemed settled and ready. Then she stood upright and said, "By my word, I declare the first to return from trial by Revolution will determine the punishment of the second. By my word, I declare the laws of Revolution. Each must keep to her own ring. Neither may harm the other. And, should the loser decide on honorable forfeit, no punishment may be handed to her Unearthed or any of her kin.
"Is all understood?"
Both racers answered, "Yes, Arbiter."
There was a pause, during which all three beings seemed not to move a muscle.
By the time the word was out of the Arbiter's mouth, Khala had already launched herself forward, powerful hind limbs driving her from boulder to boulder. In her wake, the bodies of ice and rock spun crazily, bouncing off each other and leaving as distinct a wake as a boat through water. Vizma had a strong start as well, though it was evident her body was far less capable than her opponent's. She could jump as far, but seemed to need time in between leaps; she clung to the boulders and let their momentum carry her along the way.
The Explorer turned away, following the path of the Arbiter as she made her way back to the home-cave. There would be no surprise to it regarding the outcome of this competition. Given the extra distance Vizma had to travel and her physical limitations, Khala would easily win.
As there was nothing to see outside, the Explorer knew its time would be far better spent in examining the main society of these creatures. It could watch the proceedings of the race later, once it understood more.
So it drifted along behind the Arbiter, silent and unseen. None of the Explorer's race needed to fear being seen if it wished not to be. Its species existed on a slightly shifted dimensional plane from the one they observed; the two existed parallel to each other, but by use of certain technologies its race had created, the small gap between the two could be breached. But the Explorer's physical body was still not of that dimension, and as such was invisible and soundless.
The Arbiter unknowingly led the Explorer down into the heart of the moon, through tunnels burrowed with surprising precision. They were round enough to accommodate one of their species walking at full extension of all its limbs, but the Arbiter had dropped to four legs again and walked with its face to the ground.
The more the Explorer considered it, these tunnels seemed far too sophisticated and uniform for these creatures to have constructed them without technological aid. It revised its earlier assumptions about this society being a primitive one; clearly they must have some advanced machinery…that begged the question, then, of how they had constructed such devices. The moon had few mineral resources, and the Explorer had detected no energy signatures on its first pass through the solar system.
Pondering all these things, the Explorer almost absent-mindedly entered a large cave, where the Arbiter paused to greet an assortment of its kind busied inside. The Explorer, still considering, did not pay attention at first, assuming that the Arbiter would continue on to the heart of whatever city these beings had made. When she settled down in the middle of a circle of three little ones and greeted them as her own however, the Explorer realized that this was it. This simple, smooth-edged cylindrical hollow was the Arbiter's home.
Shocked from its musings and ashamed at itself for its assumptions, the Explorer broke away from the Arbiter and began to examine what it saw.
The cavern had been cleared in the same way the tunnels had been made. Some sort of machine must once have done it. The walls of the cave were smooth as glass, curving gently around and broken by four tunnels—including the one that led to the surface—at equal intervals. The clearing was reminiscent of the creatures themselves; a central head and four long, multipurpose limbs.
Around the edges of the cave gathered different family groups, seeming to consist of a mother (clan-mother), and her Unearthed. The children ranged in size, but for the most part, even the largest child was only half the size of the mother. Notches in the walls and floor seemed to be storage for each group, but the nooks only contained a kind of crystalline deposit the Explorer did not recognize. The crystals shimmered silvery-gray in the darkness; they were the only sources of illumination in the pressing darkness of the moon's underground.
The creatures seemed sedentary. There was little movement besides a shifting body there, a waving arm there. The Arbiter's entrance had attracted a flurry of attention, but once she sat down with her family, each creature returned to her own concerns. The Explorer saw no physiological differences in any of the beings, and so assumed that they were all female. Perhaps the men made different home-caves. There were three more tunnels to explore, after all.
The only curiosity in the chamber was a deep cylindrical well at its center. The Explorer drifted above it, but the darkness was too intense to see more than a few meters down. There were shallow grooves in the side of the well at regular intervals as far down as it could see. A slightly warmer current of air flowed up from it; though the creatures did not seem to need heat, the largest clan-mothers, with the largest deposits of the unidentified material, ranged their families around the well. Clearly some prestige was associated with this position in the cave.
Patience was the best asset an Explorer could have, so it settled down between two family groups to listen and observe.
It let the tides of various conversations shift around it, latching on to a sentence here and there, but mostly letting the minutiae of this underground life become familiar.
The children told each other stories in a round-robin way, each starting an idea but leaving it to the others to finish. These stories dealt with their mythical beings that lived in the stars, and the God-figure they thought lived in Saturn. Some children called it the Eye, others the Great Mother, but the Explorer thought that the two concepts were linked. This god seemed defined by her watchful love for them—her children—and the assurance that she would one day return to see what her children had done for her.
Meanwhile, the clan-mothers went about the business of daily life. What that consisted of, the Explorer could barely tell. Besides keeping an eye on the children, and adding a word into their stories here and there, they did almost nothing.
The first big variation the Explorer saw was a clan-mother emerging from the well in the center of the room. She climbed face-down, with two diagonal limbs clinging to the grooves in the wall as two others supported a small chunk of the luminescent crystals on its back. As she emerged, the children of all clans flocked around her, murmuring in happy amazement.
The clan-mother put the material down, stretched to her full height and said, "I have been blessed by the Great Mother!"
"The Great Mother blesses us all," the phrase came from every mouth, with uniform, precise similarity.
"May this offering hasten Her return, and please Her when she does."
"So may it be."
Another call-and-response, the Explorer thought, watching as the children formed an honor guard to escort the mother to her own clan. They watched, upper arms waving in unison, as she put the crystal into an empty slot in the wall. Near the other crystals, it glowed brighter, tendrils of light and shadow moving through the rock like smoke.
The children sighed again, and went back to their own mothers.
The Explorer had been focused on the ceremony, but soon a small disturbance on the farthest side of the cave drew its notice.
One smallish clan-mother—just slightly larger than Vizma had been—stood in the center of a ring of six children. Three of them clung to her with their strong, hooked claws, and in voices pitched higher than the usual soft murmur common in the caves, begged her not to go.
"Please, friend of our mother," the biggest of these said, "who will care for us while you are gone? A clan should not be without a mother or a friend. We are six alone…it is unnatural."
"What can I do?" the mother replied, trying to free herself and glancing around to see that their argument was going unnoticed. "Your mother was my friend as I was hers."
"She will win," the child insisted. "She will come back to us."
"But in the meantime," the elder sounded exasperated, "I must do my duty; not just for the Great Mother, but for you. It is my turn to go below. And so I must."
The oldest child let the mother go, moving backwards and bending to the ground. Its voice was muffled by earth as it said, "You must. May I then, act as clan-mother and take responsibility for your Unearthed?"
The child's voice had been loud enough to attract attention from the other nearby mothers. As if linked by a single thread, they all turned and drew inches closer. Their conversations and storytelling quieted. The silence spread throughout the entire cavern.
The mother had slumped backwards, retreating from the request. "Vizla," she said, "your mother entrusted me with your protection. If I allowed you to take over my responsibilities, I would be ignoring her wishes."
"I would care for your children as I care for my own sisters," the girl insisted, standing upright on wobbly rear legs, upper arms waving in the ritualistic way that showed the Explorer that this child took what she was going to say seriously.
The other would have none of it. "You do not know what you ask. There is more to being a mother than simply gathering mtskhet, which you are not old enough to do anyway."
Vizla looked around at the gathering of mothers who watched them. "With no mother, your stores will all be taken. When the Great Mother returns, you will have nothing to show. The kindness you have shown us will be your downfall. I am old enough to declare myself a mother. And so I shall."
"She is well within her rights to do so, Tskhala," the Arbiter had drawn closer as the two argued, and now declared, "Vizla is—in the absence of her clan-mother—oldest of her siblings and fully capable to declare herself independent. Vizla-al-Bhren-Albenzou," she turned to the girl, who had bowed in the presence of her superior, "motherhood is a great responsibility. Do you hold yourself ready for it?"
"I do, Arbiter," she replied, upper arms waving. "And to prove that I do, I offer to take next shift to bring mtskhet to the surface, for the glory of the Great Mother."
Ttskhala moaned, but she did not interfere. The Arbiter stretched to full height, nearly touching the ceiling, and her mouth was a firm line as she said, "I grant your request. So shall it be."
Vizla bowed, and turning once to touch each one of her siblings and Tskhala's Unearthed, she headed immediately for the well's mouth and started lowering herself down. Her limbs, not grown to full maturity, were only barely able to reach the full distance of each step.
Tskhala followed her; just before the girl sank out of sight, she whispered, "Please be careful, daughter of my friend. Take the passage directly ahead, when you reach bottom. I pray Great Mother's care for you."
"She cares for us all," Vizla said, and turned her full attention towards the descent.
The Explorer floated down, staying just slightly ahead of the child as she made her way from step to step of the treacherous ladder and into the heart of the moon. This far from the living area and its assembled mtskhet, there was almost no light whatsoever in the well. Vizla reached carefully for each tread, but she was so short that every time she let her handholds go, she dropped a quarter meter before her legs caught again. After a few minutes, her spindly arms were trembling with the effort.
"Great Mother help me," she murmured, the words repeating over and over as she climbed. "Great Mother help me."
The Explorer counted almost a full hour of its own time before they finally reached the bottom. The well set down in the middle of another room similar to the one above; cylindrical, with four tunnel entrances opening onto it. The walls, however, were nowhere near as smooth as those above. They were pitted and gouged; if this was a mine, the Explorer could tell that the room had given as much mtskhet as it could.
Vizla lowered herself to all fours and took the passage directly ahead, as instructed. Outside of the room, the corridor was littered with fragments of rock; there was evidence of frequent subsidence in the walls. The girl walked slowly, using all four legs to touch for solid ground before shifting her weight.
Being young, she shared in the disadvantages of youth the universe over; namely, she lacked patience and caution. After the first few minutes showed the corridor relatively safe, she grew careless, scuttling forward as quickly as she could, a joyful 'thank you' to the Mother spilling from her mouth.
She paid for it. One leg cracked through a weak spot in the floor, and she wasn't able to stop herself from tumbling over. The weight of her whole body led to a collapse. The Explorer shot through the hole to see Vizla falling, legs flailing for purchase, only to land face-up on the smooth floor of another tunnel system.
Vizla lay still for a long while. The Explorer compared her period of unconsciousness to other species it had observed; were the girl Nerrat, Beloi, Natashial, or Irryx, she would have been dead long since.
The Explorer wondered why watching this one possible death—after all the millions it had seen—should affect it so. It hovered mere centimeters from the child's face, watching it avidly for any sign of life; after every minute, it had to remind itself that interference was strictly forbidden. If the girl was to die, she was to die. The Explorer could do nothing…should do nothing.
Lost in its thoughts, it missed the first flutter of Vizla's eyelid. After a moment, the girl opened her eye, its facets searching through the darkness, pale illumination glittering from each surface.
"Great Mother," she groaned, each limb feeling for solid purchase as she sat upright, "thank You for Your mercy. Forgive my foolish pride."
With the prayer said, Vizla looked up the way she had fallen. "Another tunnel," she breathed, "I have found another tunnel. Praise the Mother if there is mtskhet here!"
The Explorer wondered how long it would take the absorbed child to notice the bank of crystals just sticking out from the tunnel wall behind her. Already in this passage it was far lighter than the one from which they'd fallen. Deeper into the planet, these older, long-abandoned mines were full of the mineral.
The expression on Vizla's face—eye as wide as it could be, mouth firmly shut—almost made the Explorer want to try laughing. Slowly, the girl approached the gently glowing crystals, upper arms reaching out for them as though they might vanish if she touched them. The Explorer ran a quick scan; there was more mtskhet in that one deposit than had been in the entire chamber above.
Vizla clearly thought so too. She fell to the floor and muttered into the rock, "Praise the Mother! You have honored Your humble servant with this bountiful gift. This will pay for all; for my clan-sister's foolishness, for my mother's shame. Thanks to Your mercy, Your grace."
After repeating her thanks four or five more times, she rose again. Still she did not touch the crystals. Instead, she looked up at the jagged hole through which she'd fallen. "How am I to reach the surface?"
The Explorer wondered the same. The ceiling was twice as high as the girl was tall, and there were no grooves carved in the walls to help her make the climb. Since the central well did not penetrate down this deep—otherwise these mines would have been worked long since—the Explorer could only see hope for her in a rescue.
Rescue…both mother and daughter seemed to need one. It had seen the start of the Revolution trial; Vizma would never succeed in defeating Khala at a trial of speed and endurance.
Vizla had crouched back on the ground, mouth moving silently as she prayed for guidance and deliverance. The Explorer looked up again. It seemed wrong that such good fortune as the daughter had received—whether it came from her Great Mother or not—should be so marred by her mother's death.
The Explorer had seen much. It had travelled far. Always, it had been obedient to the strictures of its kind, to the rules that governed its journey. Perhaps that was wrong. Perhaps it had been distant so long from its own kind—from friends and family it barely recalled—that it had purged itself of something important. Something this community valued.
The Explorer could not remember its own mother; perhaps it had not loved her as Vizla had. It could not help but think that if it had, it would remember everything about her, regardless of the space and time that had passed between them.
Love. So much of this universe seemed based around the emotion. And the Explorer could no longer remember if it had ever felt it itself. How was it to understand this people—any people—if it could not remember?
Its choice was made. Disdaining to follow the path Vizla had led it down, the Explorer rose directly up, passing through rock, ice, and metal until it once again floated in the vast emptiness of space. The milky yellow sphere of Saturn, the supposed home of Vizla's Great Mother, filled its vision. None of its scans could detect any life of any kind underneath the swirling outer layer of clouds.
The Explorer felt momentary regret at losing the chance to fully quantify this solar system, but if it did what it now intended to do, it would not have the chance.
It could move at great speeds. To cross the boundaries between planets, let alone between galaxies, it had to. From one instant to the next, the Explorer was no longer near the tiny moon; it had risen directly up so it commanded a full view of Saturn's rings spread out beneath it.
In another moment, it saw Khala. As expected, that clan-mother was much farther along its ring than her competitor, the weaker Vizma. That mother was stopping frequently, jumping at slower and slower intervals as the race went on. As the Explorer watched, Vizma stopped entirely, and sank down so her face rested against the icy chunk of dirt she floated on.
Quick as thought, the Explorer reached her side. And just as her daughter was likely doing at that moment, the mother was praying for deliverance.
"…not for myself, oh Mother," she was begging, moaning into the dirt beneath her, "but for my daughters. For Your daughters, for You planted them for me to Unearth. They will be alone; and three alone is unnatural. There must always be a mother."
The Explorer had drifted between Vizma and Saturn. So when the mother rolled over, faced the planet, and raised her trembling upper arms in appeal, she looked directly into its eyes, though none in this dimension had ever seen the Explorer's face, and none ever would.
"Please, Great Mother," she said, eye half-lidded and bent towards the planet, "give me the strength for honorable forfeit. Give me the strength to do what must be done for my Unearthed."
If a god of any kind was watching, it thought, it could not fail to answer such an appeal. In its entire survey of this universe, however, the Explorer had never meant an entity outside of itself that could justifiably be termed a god.
Vizma did not know it, but she was about to receive the one miracle that would ever occur on any of the six hundred and forty-eight million inhabited planets and seventy-one million populated moons.
As it watched, the clan-mother gathered her legs about her for one final leap. This time, she did not look towards the ring, but directly at the planet. She crouched for a moment, ready; at last she said, "I commend my life—both in the now and in the what-comes-next—to the Great Mother."
Her jump carried her beyond the Explorer, but it moved far faster. A slight adjustment in its manifestation technology gave it the barest physical manifestation possible. For the first time since the start of its Voyage so long ago, it felt the lack of pressure in the vacuum of space; it felt the tiny weight of Vizma as it guided her away from her collision course.
The sensations brought back a stream of long-forgotten memories. Almost too fast to process, it remembered the way sunlight felt on its skin, a hand touching its face, the taste of bitterfruit souring its mouth.
It had had no idea how much it had missed—for years uncounted after its journey began—the feeling of being corporeal.
Vizma, resigned to death, lay limp under its influence. Only after the Explorer had to exert a bit more pressure on her to overcome the growing influence of gravity did the clan-mother open her eyes and realize she was drifting above the planet, on such a course that would bring her down on her moon far ahead of Khala.
Whatever Vizma thought of her miracle, she did not speak. The two of them soared in silence, each marveling—for the Explorer now remembered what it felt like to truly marvel—at the beauty of the planet beneath them. The Explorer could not regret what it was doing, not when it thought of the mother and daughters happily reunited and safe from further persecution, but it would miss seeing sights like this.
Saturn was a pearl, iridescent and perfectly shaped, hanging in the midst of glittering diamond-points of stars. Its ever-changing surface had subtleties of beauty even beyond that of its neighbor, Jupiter. Whatever hid below those serene layers of dust and gasses would remain a mystery…perhaps forever.
If there was a god to be found anywhere, the Explorer thought, Saturn would be a good home for it.
As they grew closer to Vizma's home moon, the Explorer made tiny corrections to their altitude, course, and speed. Fifty meters above the little orb, it let the clan-mother go; she sailed smoothly and landed gently, coming to rest on all four legs.
The Explorer sank into nothingness once again, regretting the loss with true sorrow. Strange how mere moments with the barest capability of sensation had done so much to remind it of what it had once been, and what it had lost during its endless years of travel. It felt the nothingness as though without the constant effort of thought, of self-awareness, it might cease to exist altogether.
But its attention was drawn by Vizma, who had not moved a muscle from where it had set her down. It waited, watching nothing else but her, until Vizma stood upright again.
The Explorer knew very little about this species; the short span it had been with them was nowhere near enough for it to discern all it wished to know. But Vizma taught it one thing—one very important thing—just then.
Her people could sing.
Her voice somehow shattered into three different tones, each one wrapping around the other as smoothly as a braided rope. It rose and fell, dissipating almost instantly into the vacuum of space, but in the short time that it lived, it soared.
The Explorer listened. For once ignoring its training, for once trying not to think of how it compared to the countless songs it had heard on every world it had been.
This was the song of Saturn. It was like nothing else in the universe.
Vizma sang to the Great Mother; words of praise, words of gratitude intermixed with the wailing song that seemed too sorrowful for joy. For hours, she sang. And then when she finished, she stretched flat on the earth of her home world, and lay there. Still as though she had frozen like the particles of dust and ice all around her. But the Explorer heard the rhythm of life inside her body; it wasn't a heartbeat, it wasn't a surge of blood or any other fluid. The Explorer would never know what force kept Vizma's people alive, but it knew its sound.
It soon heard another sound, too. Khala was finishing the race, and was in sight. The larger clan-mother paused for an instant as it saw Vizma's form lying limp and motionless, but she made another three jumps and landed hard on her hind legs.
"Impossible," she said, crawling over to her opponent. "I never once saw you ahead of me. You have cheated somehow; you have lied. Too frightened for honorable forfeit, you returned the way you came."
Vizma did not move. Khala snarled and reared up, waving her arms.
"I will bring the Arbiter! She will punish you for this!"
"I will come with you," Vizma stood slowly, still keeping her face towards the ground. She spoke quietly, but every word was clear and certain. "I must speak with her myself."
"Speak about your cowardice to the Arbiter?" Khala gave a scornful laugh, "She will give me leave to throw you and your ardzeli children off our world. You deserve to be at the Great Mother's mercy."
"I was," she replied, and led the way back into the home-cave. The Explorer followed closely behind.
The two competitors were welcomed back into the cave with a flurry of excited movement and an explosion of whispers. One glance showed the Explorer that Vizla had not yet managed to escape her trap; Tskhala hurried forward to great her friend and let her know what choice her Unearthed had made in her absence.
The news of her daughter's descent into the mines was the first time since Vizma's rescue that she had looked frightened. But she reigned in the fear and spoke in reply to the Arbiter's question: "Who was first to return?"
"I was, Arbiter."
"She lies!" Khala cried. "She never surpassed me for an instant along the rings; she waited until I was out of sight, and then returned the way she had come."
The Arbiter stretched to her full height, staring at Vizma. "Is this true?" she asked. "A violation of the rules of Revolution is punishable by more than your own banishment. Younger," she leaned forward, "your Unearthed would be banished as well. Tell the truth, and only you shall suffer."
"Arbiter," Vizma replied, "I was saved. I was honored by our Great Mother."
Speaking with the same flat, clear tones as she had spoken to Khala, Vizma explained her preparation for honorable forfeit, her leap towards the planet, and then her inexplicable rescue. "I sang my thanks to the Mother until I had no more to say," she finished, "and yet I had time for silent reflection until my Elder," she gestured towards Khala, "returned from Revolution."
Vizma rose to full height. "I do not wish for my Elder to be punished for failing in the Revolution. All I ask is that this proof of the Great Mother's mercy lead to pardon on all sides. She forgave me, and through me, my mistaken Unearthed. If the Mother has forgiven me, I ask my Elder's forgiveness. And all is done."
"And all is done," the Arbiter echoed. "What say you, Khala?"
It was clear to the Explorer that the older clan-mother did not believe a word of the supposed miracle. But it was also clear—to both the Explorer and to Khala—that the rest of the community did. So the clan-mother dropped to all fours, bowed to the ground and said, "All is done. I hold the Mother's forgiveness as my own and ask your pardon for accusing you in error, Younger."
"You have my pardon. Arbiter," she turned and bowed herself, "if I may ask an indulgence?"
"The Mother has indulged you today," the Arbiter spoke almost wryly, "I suppose I can do the same."
"My Unearthed took responsibility as a clan-mother, but all know that she did so because she was protecting herself and her sisters from my shame. Now that this shame is gone from me, I ask permission to descend and help her. The mines hold many dangers I was not able to tell her of before she went below."
The Arbiter thought for a moment. "It is the will of the Mother that one shall descend at a time. However, if you take no mtskhet up with you on your return, and forfeit your next turn to descent, I will permit it."
"Thank you, Arbiter," Vizma replied, moving immediately towards the well. "Your mercy is as great as the Mother's herself."
But a commotion had broken out by the well before Vizma could reach it. A steady, bright light was emerging from the inky darkness below, and there were quiet grunts and louder scrapes coming slowly nearer. The Explorer could see what the others could not; Vizla, a huge chunk of mtskhet balanced on her head with one arm, was making her way up the shaft.
The Explorer would have given quite a lot to learn just how the child had done it.
Perhaps there was more than one miracle to be had in the universe after all.
The whole community ranged itself around the well, waiting and watching. None more intently that Vizma, whose mouth was tight shut and whose eye stared, unblinking, into the brightening darkness. When Vizla's uppermost arm finally reached over the edge, her mother bent to her and pulled her the rest of the way up.
Everyone gasped at the size of the crystal she had brought along. But it lay forgotten on the floor by its discoverer, who only had eyes for Vizma.
The child reached towards her mother with her two upper arms, stopping short of touching. Vizma reached to bridge the distance, and their claws intertwined like gears locking into place. Vizla's smaller fingers fit perfectly between her mother's.
"I thought the Great Mother had given me a blessing to make up for your loss," Vizla said, quietly. The whole room waited in silence, listening. "But she was just giving me a small kindness to make your return as joyful as it should be. Oh, Mother!" and she lunged forward, arms winding twice around her mother's thin body.
Then, the Explorer heard the call; the sound of its own language was distant, but unmistakable. Its time was done; its error of judgment had been noted, and it was being summoned immediately. Its punishment would be rendered upon materialization before the Voyaging Committee.
As it prepared to depart, it felt not a particle of fear, nor an instant of regret. It focused on the entwined shape of mother and child, adjusted its equipment, and faded from that reality.
Perhaps it had loved its mother. Soon it would remember for itself.
And every punishment would be worth that.