Au’ko gestured toward the solid white brilliance that had been the upward border for our entire lives. “The Sky, by definition, is what is above,” he pointed out, shaking his neural sac. “To speak of something above the sky is therefore a contradiction in terms.” He emphasized the force of his argument by throwing out a feeler, seizing a tanark that was singing a little song as it floated by, and munching upon it with great firmness.
“You have to learned to think with your neural sac,” I countered. “You learned to think well, but you must learn to think with your feelers. You must learn to think with your claws.”
“You sound like your uncle.”
“I’m quoting him.”
“Well, that would explain it. You may speak freely of your uncle’s heresies to me, but don’t mention them to others. The only reason the Bearded Ones haven’t boiled your uncle is they’re sure he’s a little off in the sac.”
“I can show you for yourself if you have the gumption to meet me during the Redness.” At predictable times, the sky above us would redden, and all decent creatures hid in the reef far below to pray to the gods. It was the best time for those who were seeking privacy.
“I will meet you outside your home right in the middle of the Redness,” he agreed. “But I’m not going to see anything I haven’t seen a hundred times since I was a seedling.” He began to swim off, but then turned back for a final word. “You have to promise to keep your feelers off me,” he said. “I hope this is not just an excuse for more of that nonsense.”
“I promise,” I said. But deep within my neural sac, I fantasized that Au’ko and I would someday have seedlings of our own. He seemed to be staring into the folds of my neural sac at times, but one could never be sure about such things.
When the Redness arrived, Au’ko was as good as his word. Clever as he was, he noticed immediately what I was up to. “You’re hiding something in one of your feelers,” he noted.
“Yes,” I admitted. “Very little gets past your eyestalks, Au’ko. You can examine it if you’d like – just as soon as we get to the Sky.” We floated upward and the solid white brilliance drew closer to us, stretching away in all directions. It had long been known that the Sky surrounded everything that was like a huge cold shell – that the universe consisted of the reef below, the water between, and the encapsulating Sky.
Both of us were taking a considerable risk. Against the light of the Sky, we two would have been very visible to anyone watching. But it was a very good bet they were busy with their prayers.
When we got to the Sky, I handed my surprise over to Au’ko without another word. He felt every bit of it and held it up carefully to his eyestalks. At length, he spoke. “Well, you’ve already surprised me. I have never seen anything like this – or anything made of this material. It’s clearly a hollow tube of some mysterious but very strong substance. And along one side of the tube is a raised rough edge.”
“What do you think it’s for?” I teased.
“I haven’t the vaguest idea.”
“My uncle makes these things,” I explained. “He goes down in the hottest parts of the reef, and uses the heat to manufacture materials no one has ever seen before.”
“He better be careful. He’s liable to boil himself without meaning to.”
“He’s been hurt more than once. You can see the damage on his claws. But he doesn’t care. He’s very brave.”
“Maybe too brave for his own good. Still, it’s an amazing accomplishment. What do you do with it?”
“I’ll show you. But you have to give me one of your feelers, so you can learn how to do it yourself.” He shook his sac doubtfully, but extended the feeler just the same. “Now, to begin with, you hold the tube by one end and touch the Sky with the rough edge. Don’t touch the Sky with your feeler, now. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I know better than that.”
“Now scrape at the sky with the rough edge. As if you were harvesting food from the reef.”
“I’m doing it,” he said. “But it feels like blasphemy.”
“It is blasphemy. Make the most of it.”
He scraped away. He was very strong. In much less time than it had taken me, the Sky wore away above us, becoming more and more transparent – and more and more Red. “I’ll do this part,” I said, and thrust the tube through the remaining layer of the Sky. “Now – quickly, look through the tube with one eyestalk.”
He looked through the tube, and shivered all over. “There are bands of bright colors!” he cried. “And, right in the middle of them, there is a Great Red Spot. That’s what causes the Redness. What is it?” He grabbed me with a dozen of his feelers, never ceasing to stare though the tube. I had never felt such joy. “Tell me what it is!”
“I have no idea what it is,” I admitted. “Neither does my uncle. But it is not reef. It is not water. And it is not Sky. There is more to the universe than we have ever guessed.”
“I can’t see anything any more.”
“The water in the tube has frozen through. Quick, use your strength and pull the tube out of the hole before we lose it.” He let me go. I sighed. He used all his feelers to pull the tube free.
“This is the greatest step forward in the history of our race since we first floated free of the reef,” he said. It sounded as if he were praying. He was quiet for a quite a time before he went on. “Your uncle has given us the means to look upward,” he said. “But there is so much more to be seen. I want to see what the top of the Sky looks like – what the Sky would look like if we were floating on top of it, instead of floating below it.”
“I don’t know how you could ever do that and live,” I murmured doubtfully.
“You will have to confess to your uncle that you have shown me what you have shown me,” he said, planning the whole thing out. “We need to ask him to make a tube that bends at a right angle.”
“What good would that be? You can’t see through a right angle.”
“There are gems on the reef that reflect light. You can see your eyestalk in them.”
“Have your uncle put a reflecting gem inside the tube, at the point where it bends. We will thrust the tube through the Sky. Then we will look through it and, reflected in the gem, we will see the Sky from the top.”
More than one Redness went by before the bent tube with the gem was ready and, with my uncle’s blessing this time, Au’ko and I got away from everyone else and went back to the Sky. Au’ko scraped, and I pushed the bent tube through. Au’ko insisted that I look first. “I would never have dreamt of such things without you,” he said. I looked through the bent tube. “Yes?” he asked, somewhat impatiently.
“It looks roughly the same from the top as it does from the bottom,” I said. “Cold, white, hard. You take a look.”
Au’ko put his eyestalk to the tube. But, as he looked, he turned the tube around so what he was surveying a complete circle. “There’s something standing on the Sky,” he muttered. “It’s not alive. It’s a giant tube, much like the ones your uncle makes. But it’s standing on legs. And there are living creatures moving near the legs.” He pulled the bent tube down before it could freeze into the Sky. “There are creatures – living beings, just like us, but completely different – who stand on the Sky. Do you believe me?”
“Of course, Au’ko.” I touched him, briefly but tenderly, with my feelers.
“We must capture one of them and bring it down there where we can see it.”
“We could take one of the long polyps,” I suggested. “We could cover it with sticky oil, and pass it through a tube into the world above the sky. Then we could slowly pull the polyp down through the tube. If one of these creatures sees the polyp moving, and touches it, he might get stuck to the polyp. Then we could pull him down into the water to see what he looks like up close.”
He hugged me. I would have invented a thousand things for a hug such as that.
Very few creatures can ignore a slowly moving length of polyp -- particularly when it’s moving away from them. (It must be some sort of instinctual drive.) I practiced down on the reef, when there was no one around, flinging the polyp through my uncle’s tube and then pulling back on the polyp. Au’ko believed the polyp might travel even further in the non-watery space we’d seen above the Sky.
It took only a few tries before one of the creatures who walked on the Sky reached forward to try to grab at the retreating polyp and found itself stuck to it. We pulled it down through the hole. Au’ko and I felt it and stared at it.
It was no bigger than a tanark. One end of it was encased in a transparent bubble. I would have said there were eyes on that end, but there were no stalks, and how can eyes function without stalks? It pointed to itself and gestured upwards to the Sky. It held up three tiny tendrils and then pointed to itself. “Be gentle with it,” I begged Au’ko. “Treat it as gently as if it were a seedling. Touch it only with your feelers. No claws.”
“I need to talk to you about seedlings,” Au’ko said, and my heart sang. “Right now, though, I think we should show this – this creature from above the Sky -- to your uncle.”