Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 5

The thick nutrient gel—pressurized like embryonic fluid—held Dr. Swenno’s body in place while memories saturated and inculcated. Nascent dreams spun as slow as meditative breath, to the pace of a body nearly arrested. His heart had slowed to five beats per minute and new hallucinations were drawn forth. The imagery stretched to the point of incoherence and became truly alien. He lived infused with colors manipulated to mathematical widths. Sound and smell distorted to unfold in three dimensions: Phlox could taste the frequency of birdsong, feel the fluidity of sunlight.

At times, the inchoate would snap and his mind reassembled familiar signs and memory played with proverbial images.

Manto fruit, fresh and pulpy, drips down his hand—its fragrance like candied youth. The laugh of his sister as she hangs from a branch just out of reach. The specific pitch of his mother’s howl from high above. Then the forest hanging still in silence and filtered light.

Sunbeams among towering trees, years later. Someone important forgotten. The thin forestland of Auctons outside the capital: twenty miles beyond the city where the farrlin trunks are massive, some towering four hundred feet high. These venerable trees grow far apart and form familiar landmarks, focal points for a distinct Primalan pack, and Phlox’s memories layered like the leaves.

The spiral, the breaking branch, the whistle of wind through dry leaves, the color of anger, the smell of rain on healthy bark, the feel of clean fur. Everything concrete. Then, in the blink of an eye, there are no shapes, nothing to touch, as dreams wrap tight around his head.

His mother squeezes him close to her chest. He is small—his fur is a startling white—and she talks softly, constantly to her white furred infant even though she knows he cannot speak yet.

Lost in this memory fueled hallucination, Phlox lives deep in these childhood moments reshaped.

He feels warm and comfortable. His stomach is full and the air fresh with the scent of yellow blossoms. His mother moves toward the center of the tree, and Phlox clings easily to her dark belly. He does not have any idea where they are headed. It does not matter; he does not need to know.

She reaches the trunk and moves down to a lower layer of branches. Phlox can hear his sister laughing and the sound of pebbles dropping on smooth wood. Soon his mother is standing on the platform of their summer bower, and the dream shifts to twilight. Hammocks line the perimeter of the small loft, and white farrlin seedpods dangle down. Phlox reaches up and bats one, eventually grabbing and plucking it from its stem. He holds it tight, a cherished prize that his hand remembers and holds stubbornly—even as his mind is distracted by new sounds.

His father is in the kitchen stirring a large pot of stew. Phlox drops from his mother’s hip and scampers over to watch him. He stops stirring and pulls out two large wooden spoons. He starts tapping them rhythmically on the rim of the pot, and bits of stew fly, droplets splatter in several directions, but the sound is beautiful. Phlox begins to jump up and down wildly, howling and barking. His father drops the spoons back into the boiling stew and scoops Phlox up with one hand, tossing him up toward the overhead branches. Phlox laughs in strong belly barks, as his body rushes up and down, caught each time in the soft swing of his father’s shaggy arms.

In the cold air of the hibernaculum, there was a gentle hum, and Phlox’s eyes trembled below their lids.

Adolescent, his back still speckled with white, he dangles upside down in the warm breeze. It is high summer—Indigo season.

Night, day, night, day, night.

Moonlight. Starlight. None of this was found inside the void. Splinter Sixty-Six slipped onward as Phlox’s subconscious battered the hull, and the dreams of a hundred monkeys sparkled, spun on.

The void was silent, receiving, listening.

Tinctured images of his wife smear across his vision. It is the far north where all Primalans live in concrete towers, and the environmental degradation is difficult to ignore, but it is that first magical day when he met Derra. He is awestruck. It does not matter that she comes from malans who no longer followed the flower seasons.

The sound of paper tearing, leaves being torn in half. Derra screams. “Say it. Say her name!”

And the dream shifts—a memory of a favorite tree. His gray chest rises and falls, and his thin smile returns. He crouches more than halfway along the length of a thin branch, feeling it bend and sway with his weight and the gentle wind. He walks out for almost the full length of the branch, letting it bend dangerously. Then, jumping lightly it snaps and flips him out to a neighboring tree. His body arcs gracefully toward outstretched branches. He snags one, letting it bend, hearing it crack. Before it breaks completely, he lets it go and falls softly to the branch below. Catching hold is easy; the split second before jumping was the frightening part.

His mind fell into blackness: the pungent, dark past tense. It was a lost place—where hope fell down an infinite black well—impregnated with the color of guilt and a dull thumping sound. Nightmares swallowed light, and his real memories spiraled out of reach.

Then painful thoughts blotted out by bright purple circles: a psychedelic reprieve.

“Phlox, the manto fruit is ripest at the top of the trees, close to the sun.” He looks down and sees his grandfather bounding up the massive farrlin trunk. His silver gray hair flashes through light beams as he jumps gracefully from branch to branch.

The old growth has formed a dense jungle. Trees have twisted their branches together. The ground is in permanent shade. Phlox is pulled down into concepts, his body and mind streaking down, the light green morphing to brown, then black. He sinks into the ground. He feels himself melting: the flesh separating from his bones. All that remains are bones, white and broken.

The pain was inside a head, inside a cargo freighter, inside nothing, in the middle of it all. From the essence of blue and rapid flow of waves, the dreams began again.

Phlox’s grandfather shouts up, “Every malan knows the scent of ripe manto fruit. I’ll show you where the best fruit grows.” Phlox sees the old malan, his pure gray fur and the familiar crooked tail, swing away gracefully even with a pack full of fruit. The black, feathered Cortt are trilling loudly, circling Phlox’s head. He laughs as he jumps high into the neighboring tree, letting the recoiling branch fling him above his grandfather’s lean frame. Phlox tosses spoiled fruit down, aiming for his grandfather’s head, laughing when he misses, jumping wildly about when his aim is true.

Now it is years later, but late summer again; the manto left on the trees is heavy, rotten. What is missing? Someone is gone. Or is it just the memories, scrambled and wrong? He holds up his thin pale arms and looks at them. He pulls his hand along his tail to feel the familiar bump, the kink near the base, passed down through generations.

A flash of consciousness and confusion.

He plucks a round ripe manto fruit and squeezes it with both hands, and lets the heavy pulp squish out between his fingers. The red juice streams out, staining his fur. He doesn’t care and flicks the bits of fruit into the air.

At first, Phlox’s dreams were varied, inventive, and psychedelic to the point of incomprehension. He would sometimes be lost in liquid light for days. His mind had steadily surveyed it all, drawn connections, and invented scenarios. But over time, the dreams spun tighter. This closed circuit program looped between a troubled mind and the cold algorithms of the hiberchamber machines.

Flash. It is summer, and a very young Phlox hides in a tall farrlin tree. He is breathing heavily because his sister had been chasing him only a minute earlier. A gentle breeze blows through the trees, stirring the smallest leaves while heavy tubular flowers hang motionless. Bright red zag flies dart around the flowers, and as the flies pass through the floral cylinders, the beat of their tiny wings amplifies significantly. The tone fluctuates as hundreds enter or exit the flowers, growing deeper as the insects travel up the hollow blossoms, whistling as they fly out.

Here, deep in the middle strata of the Canntor forest, the sunlight of high-summer cannot penetrate the branches and leaves above. Phlox cannot see or hear any trace of Inkk, so he leans out into a thin sunbeam, and his lobes glow bright pink. He has made a tactical error: he just stepped into the only spotlight in this theater. He hears something scrape against wood. It must have been very high above him; he tries to hold his breath. She had found him many times before by following his loud panting breaths. She was patient that way: the way only an older sister can be. Eventually, she is going to catch him and make him pay for burning Sinjji with a magnifying prism.

What was that? It must be her on the other side of the trunk. Its diameter, even at this height, is greater than twelve feet, so he has a hard time telling exactly where she is located.

It sounds like she is moving downward. And what, calling his name? Yes, calling out his name. Is it a ploy?

“Phlox-ie, it’s time to go.” Bluffing, obviously bluffing.

Then she is silent. She is being careful and stealthily traversing branches close to the trunk. It is impossible to know if she is descending or ascending. Phlox moves up to the flat top of the branch above him. He inventories his stockpile of rotten fruit. She’s not looming anywhere close, so he swings down with his tail wrapped around a smaller branch to try and find her.

Branches snap. Globs of pulpy fruit splatter above him, sending a fragrant spray of juice into the air. A piece hits him square in the back. He drops to the next branch and then hops from limb to limb, staying close to the curve of the trunk. He needs to cut the angle, put his sister out of sight, but his fruit bombs are now out of reach. How did she do that? How does she get so close without making any sound?

The colors of the forest give way to gunmetal gray, birdcalls are replaced by the clunk of boot heels, and Splinter lurches deep within the void.

A return to the unrelenting images of plummeting. A dreamscape built on an unending cascade, a seamless tapestry rolling and unfurling. Mechanically, themes were rewoven like threads. The same palettes returned and washed his visions in monotonous colors. The black tones of the wild Cortt, the cool, gray black of their fine breast feathers, and the deep, flat-black of the wing tips—a color that threw nothing back. Everything he had done, and everything he dreamt he was doing, was now painted in the color of their pointed feathers or their sharp, omnivorous beaks.

Deadlocked. The images had twisted and turned but eventually were trapped at the base of his ancestral tree: this was the cycle from which he could not wake. His unhealed mind could visit no closer. Here it always broke apart, recycled and fluctuated thousands of times. The fragments beyond were without color, flickering slowly like old grayscale movies.

The farrlin with their red flowers fading, peeling, and sinking to the forest floor are now bare of fruit. The Chiwasa deep in their burrows. The leaves brittle and dry. The glare of the early winter sun. The sickening, dull sound that a body makes when it hits compact earth.

The shift and spin to return, begin.

Holding on with only his feet, he balances on a branch, just feet away from the ancient tree top pedestal. The wind whips his eyes dry. The Cortt are already circling high above. His surroundings dream shift to the flat black of their beaks, even the leaves of the farrlin tree blend to gray. He stares straight up, counting the Cortt, watching them spiral closer. They are coming.

Phlox quivered, and he could almost remember why, why he waited for the Cortt to come. He thought he heard the hum of machines. Every once in a great indistinguishable while, he achieved meta-consciousness. For a few seconds at a time he was lucid, knew he was only swinging through a world of dreams. But each time, this realization would wash away, and when his mind would gasp for clarity again, it would be as if for the first time. There was never a building of awareness because his brain was saturated with his life revisited. For five years, neither his body nor mind matured.

Bone fragments, like hard rain, drop down on Phlox’s head. There are no trees for shelter. It is deep, black night, and long heavy bones keep falling, their ghostly glare reflecting just a moment before impact. The dull thud of contact builds to a thunder of its own. He darts and ducks under anything he can find. All there is for cover are delicate ferns and small shrubs, and they are no match for falling bones.

Phlox lived inside the creases, the imagery that doubled back. All he could see was a calcium scaffold, a skeletal trunk and branches. Tallow-colored bones stained his landscapes for months. He was trapped at the center of moist marrow.

A salty rain begins to fall from the pitch-black sky. Then the bones return. They are volleys of dull arrows, misdirected clubs. They slam into the soft dirt like two-knuckled fists. The ground is littered with tiny fibulas; he trips on them as he searches for cover. He falls headfirst into a small mound of them, crisscrossed. As he pulls himself up, he sees that they are not randomly stacked, but instead placed at precise angles. Is there something inside? Something moves. Someone speaks.

Who’s talking and roaming the Splinter? Phlox asked himself, but a hypnotic chanting filled his head, and he immediately lost the lucid stream.

As the years stretched on, the copies of copies, and the dreams of dreams, found refuge, inundated in the stratum of obsession.

In five years, he had seen everything and lived through nothing. Images, the television reruns of his mind. He survived five years of drowning in the filth, the waste of broken memories. Was it just the result of five years of solitude? Or had he felt a presence? Not of a god, but of something watching. Was it a third eye, an all-seeing machine or the static of others dreaming in the same airspace? He was in no condition to distinguish. His mind blinked, and consciousness was gone.

Drinia V

Rotation 108/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: Kora’s gone, fallen from our sphere. She does not dream at all tonight. We’ll write volcanic eulogy in newly erupted lava.


Line forgotten/Revolution forgotten

I’m set adrift without electric. I lay awake in lonesome vision, quiet and cold. I am forced to forage, trade day for night and sleep in bright sunlight.

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