Scientifiction

Scientifiction

by Howard Waldrop

Illustration by Darryl Elliott

One of her knobs itched.

Lala reached inside her vest and scratched it with the hand not holding the spear.

Something made a sound to her left. She unbuttoned her jacket’s elbow flaps so she could hear better, turned back and forth. Nothing else.

She stood at the guard post on the cliff outside the Settlement overlooking the water. The sun lay as it always had, low on the horizon, big and dull in color, speckled with black, giving off much below-red along its rim. Out of the black dots, occasional other colors flared through, sometimes in long slow curtains that faded as they rose.

The water was flat. There was a thin cold wind that barely rippled its surface. A thick crust of salt, reddish-brown in the dim light, lay along its edges.

The sound came again. This time she saw one of the roaches down to the left, along the shore. She shifted her spear. Then she saw it was one of the smaller, solitary, purple-colored ones, not one of the ones who ran in the great packs.

The roach had come down to the ocean along the beach to the left of the Settlement. The beach itself was bare except for the salt-boulders at the waterline.

In the distant curve of the flat sound two small outcrops of rock stuck out. The farthest one was covered, like the beach, with salt-rocks, but the closer had a sparse growth of lichens on the landward side.

The purple roach hesitated, feeling the air with its antennae. Then it began to run toward the island, and only broke through the surface tension halfway out, dropping down into it, but not sinking because of the salinity of the water. It wallowed on toward the rock outcropping, its legs working awkwardly, rising and falling, sending ripples out onto the flat water of the sound.

A fin broke by the far island, delta-shaped. Then another down the curve of the sound, out from the salt-beach.

The roach stopped, half-sunk in the ocean, not moving.

A third fin, and tail, came up and went down just off the lichen-covered rocks.

The cockroach turned around, more ripples spreading out from it, and began crawling its way back toward the beach.

The fins showed again, swung into line.

The roach worked harder, picking up speed.

Three furrows of water, humped moving tunnels, came toward it from three sides.

The roach slosh-wallowed furiously.

There was a smash and slap of water, two more slaps and a crunch. Spray went up, obscuring that part of the bay. Then it settled; two or three swirls drifted away. One leg, still working, floated to the surface, making feeble ripples. Something dark took the leg under, fin breaking water, then was gone.

Then the sea was flat again under the red-speckled sun that took up a fifth of the sky.

Footsteps on the ramp. Atta came down from the Settlement, spear in hand. She rubbed antennules with Lala. “You’re relieved of guard duty, Lala,” she said. “Anything happening?”

“Not much,” said Lala. She turned to go up the ramp, then stopped. “Ever notice how there are fewer and fewer of those solitary roaches all the time?”

“It’s the Roach-Packs,” said Atta, spitting. “Because of them, there’s fewer and fewer of everything out in the Cold World.” She pulled her coat tighter around her.

Lala went up the ramp and back through the wall into the Settlement.

She made herself some lichen soup on the Fuel-stove. Then she went into resting-phase, and then stirred herself and groomed, taking care especially of the knob on her right side halfway between her arm and leg. Its twin on the left was not giving her any trouble at all.

Then she went down the runs and corridors to visit the workshop of Doer Tola, who was usually busy, but interested in everything, to tell her what she’d seen on watch.

The Doer greeted her with her antennules in the outer workshop. The Doer listened to her story, then said, “I just found something you should see. Come with me.”

They went into the inner room, lit by the glow of a Fuel-furnace and several Fuel-lamps. Occasionally one of the lamps gave off one of the long sparks that went right through your body without burning.

A roach was tied down on a low table, its legs hanging over the sides. It was half their size, and Lala could tell by its grey-brown color it was from a pack. It moved weakly, death some short time away.

“One of the ones not killed on their last raid,” said Doer Tola. She went to the Fuel-furnace and drew up the door, then blocked the lamps with covers of the grey metal. Lala could still see dimly in the below-red.

Doer Tola brought a covered Fuel-lantern near the roach. “Watch,” she said.

She uncovered a small portion of the lantern. The first light falling along its side made the roach’s legs move very fast, even in its weakened state.

She repeated the movement. Again the wounded roach moved.

“I’m convinced they have something along their sides that makes them move when the light changes quickly.”

The roach let out a feeble sound.

“Don’t you see?” she asked Lala. “The light never changes. At least, not from the sun. And it looks like it’s trying to move away from the light. What could be the use of that? The Settlement’s the only source of light besides the sun and stars, and the light should not change that much… It has me puzzled. I suppose I’ll have to take one of these things apart and find out. Probably not this one, though, it’s too full of holes.”

The roach moved weakly and a low whining sound came from it.

“And I’m sure this one’s voice organs were damaged,” she said. She groomed one of her antennules with her right forearms. “The more we find out about them, the better we can understand them, maybe even control them.”

“That would be nice,” said Lala.

There was a jump of brightness that both of them felt; even the roach struggled. They looked around. A long spark came through the wall from the landward side.

They heard a rattle of voices. Then the sound of feet in the corridors, then at the entry to the workshop.

“Doer Tola! Doer Tola!” yelled a voice. Someone rushed in as Tola uncovered the lantern.

“Doer Tola! Doer Tola!” said the excited worker. “Something—something—”

“Calm down, calm down,” said Tola, rubbing her antennules toward the worker’s head. “What is it?”

“We—we don’t know. But—we think it’s a new Sparky!”

“You’ve never seen a Sparky,” said the Doer, “hardly anyone has.” But she was getting excited, too—both Lala and the worker could smell it.

“It’s big! It’s bright, brighter than anything, brighter than the Sun!” said the worker.

“Where?”

“Come on!” said the worker (her name was Ilna). “This way, Doer, this way!”

They stood on the very top of the Settlement, on the jumbled pile of straight rocks that leaned up. The sun was behind them, the sky darkening to halfway overhead from it, then brightness—brightness in the upper registers, a fountain of higher light came up from the low place behind the Settlement. It shot up into the air many times taller than the nearest real hill, thin and wavery at its top, brighter and thicker at the bottom.

Long sparks came from it, some of them through the ground in front. Others went up, out into the sky, dulling the stars. It got bigger as they watched.

The whole populace was on the Settlement buildings, excited, talking—the air was as thick with smells as after an abortive raid from a roving pack.

“Well, well,” said Doer Tola. “I never thought I would see one. It has to be a Sparky, there’s nothing else it could be.”

There was a hum all around them. The Leader and Doer Sima came up, watched a short while. The Leader was very nervous, putting out as much indecision as the Sparky put out light.

Sima and Tola rubbed antennules and talked excitedly with each other.

“Well,” said the Leader (there was just so long she could watch before she went back to being Leader), “what are we to do?”

“Oooh!” said the crowd. A big long spark curved up out over the Settlement and went into the sea. More showered into the low hills around them.

“Doer Sima will take a party out to see how big it is, and what it’s doing,” said Tola. “They’ll have to go get Fuel-miner’s suits, if it really is a Sparky.”

“What else could it be?” asked the Leader. “We all know what a Sparky is, don’t we?”

“Well,” said Doer Sima, “we reason it to be like what happens when Fuel-miners get two big pieces of true Fuel too close together. Only on a more massive scale. And somehow, they happen by themselves. Perhaps the action of water, or rare shifts in the—”

“Quite right,” said the Leader.

“So it has to be a Sparky,” said Doer Sima. “But we must first find out its size.”

“And I’ll inventory all the Fuel-miners’ equipment, see how much more we’ll need,” said Tola. “The lichen-harvesters should be working—we’re all probably going to be at this a while.”

“Just make sure you deal quickly with this thing,” said the Leader. “I’ve heard stories.”

“We’ve all heard tales,” said Doer Sima. “What we need are hard, usable facts.”

“You should go talk to Grandfather Bugg,” said Lala.

They all turned to look at her, the Leader showing surprise. “Lala, isn’t it? Why should we?”

“He’s seen a Sparky ...

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