COMPLETE 5-MINUTE SCI-FI STORY FROM "ZERO 9-4"
TIME OF THE GAP
It was moving. The impossible was occurring. King Tree was shaking. The ground around its mighty roots trembled. It creaked in ear-stabbing screeches. The air filled with the horrifying sound. piercing
We edged away, too afraid at the unbelievable happening. The whole forest – the World – echoed with the sound. ‘King Tree is in agony,’ Cayto whispered, afraid to be heard. ‘This cannot happen.’
‘It has the height of an hour-long walk…
‘The strength of rock…
‘The girth of our temple…
‘It is King Tree…
‘Yy-goth!’ Again the ground shook. My feet thrust up by the sudden movement. Tossed backwards, we scrambled further away. Just in time. The ground burst between Jareth and me. The cracking sound of timber, as when a branch might fall, but more terrible. Close – here and now. Among us. Another upheaval. We clutched at the rough bark. A shattering sound from above. King Tree jerked. ‘It moved. The Tree.’ I gasped for breath.
Vastly high into the great great canopy, further than anyone had ever climbed, there was movement. Small branches crashed down around us. Moments later, leaves thudded close by, or fluttered away. We all scattered to shelter against other tree trunks, each of them a two-minin walk around the base.
We watched, our little forage group. Until now, it had been a good expedition – two slother-beasts that live in the greensky had fallen. ‘Perhaps they were fighting,’ Jareth said when we found their pulvered bodies.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘Get them wrapped. We’ll carry one home, and dine well this night, and return for the other tomorrow.’ I wore the uniform on that three-day expedition. My first time with the silver wings and flames. Symbols of power and right – the same as those inside The Shrine. So whatever I said was what was going to happen, and we carried the slother in teams.
It was a long way through the permanent shade of the forest. The unusually large amount of tree litter around this area had made progress exceedingly slow. ‘Something’s disturbed the sky,’ I said, and the others agreed as we clambered over fallen branches.
‘We saw the canopy waving more than usual yesterday. It even disturbed the stillness down here. Ah well, these’ll do us well for kindling.’
Branches falling? That happened on occasion, but for this to happen? A tree had never before trembled. Not a whole tree. Not King Tree – the fabric of the world.
Craaaack! A root thicker than a man sprang into the air, hurling Cayton and Jareth back amid a mass of flying soil and rocks. A shrieking splitting noise pierced our ears. The forest was changing.
‘King Tree is moving! It’s leaning!’ Cayton’s jaw quivered in disbelief. ‘It’s impossible – trees are for ever.’ More and more it leaned. Another root dragged and screamed upwards, finally wrenching into the air in a cascade of litter and rock. Slowly… slowly… a fearsome angle of threat and doom – King Tree moved away. Its mighty trunk leaning more and more. Klith and Matty ran – anticipating it coming even down to them. The world was ending in the greatest crashing sound imaginable. All around, the permanent fabric of the forest was turning on its side and over. A tree is falling. Impossible – trees are for ever.
Branches sundered and roared all around. Ear-splitting cracks had us down, cowering and clutching each other. A vast bough crashed and bounced not five paces from me. It shook and shuddered. As did I. Huge limbs of other trees were smashed apart by the power and vastness of the great one as it fell among them. Its base was lifting, tearing itself from the ground. Roots springing up.
‘It’s coming down…’ The tones so hushed in awe at the dreadful thing. So close now – looming over, so colossal. It formed its own sky, so briefly in a mass of splintering crashing branches and leg-long needles and cones that thudded and shook the ground all about us in a maelstrom of fallingness. A great cacophony of sound and terror.
The ground heaved. It shuddered and trembled. Nearby trees were pushed aside by its enormous branches, and more branches fell in an endless rain of splintered timber and man-sized leaves. The mightiest noise the world could ever know. An impossible angle… raging through the other trees.
A tree is coming down. King Tree – the greatest of all. A mile high. An expedition was lost forever in its towering heights. Not even a single body had fallen.
It was down. The crashing was tremendous, the cloud of debris hurling back up among the branches. King Tree bounced. Once. Then shuddered. And settled. The rain of debris continued… leaves and cones, flowers. A creature with short striped fur. It twitched and sagged. ‘Count our numbers.’ All here as we re-gathered, shaken, but unharmed, other than the terror at the sight and sound of a tree falling – the Impossible. ‘But the trees are the world,’ we said.
‘Look,’ I stared up. We all stared. ‘The canopy…’
‘The greensky... is split apart.’ Aghast, we stared. A Gap in the Sky. Almost on my knees. ‘It’s destroyed.’ The beautiful green and dark and dappled ceiling of the sky was shattered and broken – a raging gap – a dreadful brightness.
My eyes burned in the rays that struck down at us. Incredible columns of brilliance penetrating the trunks and branches. We looked. We saw the monster light that was eating the sky and had smashed King Tree down. Lying thirty steps away, a wall of earth and roots like an enormous spider with arms that reached for the canopy. Still it groaned, in the throes of death. Already settling into the ground and the undergrowth, the litter of leaves still drifting upon it.
We shrank back. ‘What is this? Brilliance? Where is the all-promised Higher Sky of velvet blackness? The star points of light that we shall drift among, go back to, settle in?’
‘Is it all lies? The Belief?’ Jareth asked. ‘We cannot have come from such eye-scorching radiance.’
‘Have faith. Have faith,’ I tried to reassure them. ‘The World has not come apart. It’s but one rent—’
‘One rent? But it was King Tree. It is no more.’
‘The start of how many more?’ Klith demanded. ‘Is it the first of many?’
We fled, escaping the reaching claws of light that brillianced our faces and stung our eyes. Away from the catastrophe; to hide and recover and return to the village – not two-dozen arrow-flights away.
Our leaders and elders were mouths agape. ‘You actually witnessed such an event?’ Non-plussed at our survival, they took us aside, ‘We need every detail of what you recall, how you felt, what you actually saw.’ As though it was a phenomenon to be studied, not a catastrophic blow to The Belief
A brief conference. We went to the Landing Ground, where stood The Shrine, the great gleaming smoothly metallic egg that brought our forebears here – or so The Belief would have it. Within, it held all knowledge. In its omniscience, would The Shrine have the wisdom now? Can it help us in this time of fear and destruction?
The elders talked and debated, and consulted the Shrine. For long minutes they tapped and asked, and checked on the keys and banks and screens.
‘This is our opportunity to escape… to rejoin the stars…’
What? Do they intend to do battle with the great furnace above the sky? Does it really exist?
‘Who will go?’ they asked each other.
They speak of salvation and rescue? ‘What is that?’ I asked, utterly lost in the all-knowing words of the Elders. ‘What imprisonment? You would leave here? To be eaten by the—?’ I hardly knew what to call it. The fabled, the unseen. ‘Does the fiery mouth truly glower down above the canopy?’
‘The Gap is a window,’ they said, ‘to the Higher Sky. At present the fiery face dominates, and when it goes, the darkness comes. And through The Gap we shall see the starlight points.’
‘We must be fast,’ Elder Gor-captain said, ‘for the surrounding trees will quickly cover the rent and seal it up.’
‘We have perhaps a day or two. The forest does not like the light to penetrate to its soul. The leaves will spread, very swiftly. If the Gap is also to be a doorway, we must go through as soon as we may.’
I’m so afraid. The thought that The Belief could have hidden truth… as they say now. I took them to the place of the crashed remains of the most vast and ancient tree there’d ever been. It had truly happened. A part of the Sky had torn apart and come down to us. Up we gazed, and we waited and watched.
‘See? See? The darkening… The starpoints.’
It was. The fabled Higher Sky with points of light, there to be seen by all who’d come. Where we could travel in the Shrine, and drift among the starpoints.
It’s been decided – we’re now three hundred strong, from forebears numbering twenty-eight, who came here in The Shrine. The leaders claim they can make The Shrine reach to the stars and take some of us out – to seek for others of our kind. To return and take all who wish to go. ‘But only now,’ they insist. ‘We cannot wait for council meetings and The Belief Elders. It must be now. Tomorrow at latest.’
‘The Shrine that is the egg of our origins can fly again; it can burst through The Gap before it closes. And it will fly again through the blackness to the stars whence our forebears came.
‘Another day, possibly two, and The Gap will be gone – our green and dappled sky restored once more.’
They seek volunteers to enter the shrine, and accompany them, soaring through the high branches. But so few wish to leave. Too afraid to lose all they have here, where life is safe and constant. Six elders are willing. They seek two-dozen more.
Though sore afraid, and I know I’ll be roasted and eaten by the blazing mouth, I’ll go, and drift among the stars. And seek others of our kind.
There’s nothing for me here.
Not since just before the forage expedition, when I was so proud of being invited to wear the uniform that I asked Kizi Orman to wed me.
And she turned me down again.