The base group of Kaden’s Pack Gelbo was like most mid-sized villages: many temporary wooden structures and a handful of stone buildings. In the dim past, Quintaglios had built many stone temples and houses, but, so the stories went, landquakes had been few and far between then. These days, it didn’t make sense to lavish too much care on a building, for it would not be too many kilodays before tremors would crack its foundations or topple its walls.
The Packs had to move about, lest they hunt all the meat in an area. Soon enough, Kaden’s people would abandon this village and move to another. Likewise, after this territory had been unhunted for several kilodays, another Pack would come here.
Kaden and Afsan arrived at the village shortly after even-dawn. Both were dusty after their long hike. They’d killed well on the way, though, so Afsan sought only a brief swim in a stream before going off to see where Wab-Novato plied her craft.
Novato’s workshop was in what used to be a temple to Hoog, one of the Five Original Hunters. Although most of the temple’s rooms were no longer inhabitable, their roofs having caved in or their supporting walls buckled, several were still usable.
Kaden’s instructions had been no more precise than that — one of the rooms in the temple — and Afsan had to poke his muzzle through the entrances of three chambers before he found the one he wanted. The first housed a massive old female who worked metal into surgical instruments that were traded, so Afsan was told, throughout Land. The second was a small movable-type shop, apparently setting up documents for printing. They had worktables covered with thousands of tiny metal slugs, each one with a different glyph on it. The third was a bizarre place in which two young males had thousands of lizards in open-mouth glass jars. Something about trying to understand why some bred with certain characteristics, apparently.
These two fellows gave Afsan directions to Novato’s room — "last one on your right after you pass the sacrificial pit" — and Afsan headed down the corridor, sunlight streaking through cracks in the ceiling.
On his way, he noted that on some of the walls faded murals were still visible, depicting ancient hunting rituals and — Afsan shuddered — what seemed to be a cannibalistic feast.
Novato was nowhere to be seen, but her office turned out to be quite small, far smaller than that occupied by the lizard-breeding operation, for instance. In the foreground was a round flat basin that reminded Afsan of some he’d seen used by lapidarists to polish stones. Leaning against one wall were big sheets of the clearest glass Afsan had ever seen. Another wall was crowded with shelves containing books, carefully organized, Afsan saw, in The Sequence.
Most of the titles were recent, printed on the new presses, but a few were older hand-copied volumes. As Afsan scanned the titles, one discipline flowing smoothly into the next, his tail did an involuntary jump. Novato had a complete set of Sa-leed’s Treatise on the Planets, bound in rarest kurpa leather.
Suddenly Afsan heard a low growling from behind him. His claws automatically extended and he turned quickly around. There, in the doorway arch — whatever actual door the ancients had used was long since gone — stood a female five or six kilodays older than Afsan, her skin mottled with those yellow flecks sometimes seen on people from the mountains.
Afsan immediately realized what he had done. Having spotted the books, he had walked clear into the room, violating every territorial rule. Quickly he bowed low from the waist.
"Forgive me," he said at once. "Your room fascinated me so I…" Afsan thought briefly about trying to explain how he’d assumed that an ancient discarded temple was open territory, but he realized that would simply get him in worse trouble. He swallowed hard. "I’m sorry; I meant no disrespect. You are Wab-Novato, aren’t you? The glassworker?"
The female’s claws were still at full extension and her mouth hung loosely open, showing serrated teeth. "I’m her," she said after a moment. "What do you want of me?"
"I’ve traveled a long way…"
"Where are you from?"
"From Carno, originally…"
"Carno’s not so far."
"But my home now is in Capital City." He bobbed his muzzle toward the bookshelf. "I am Tak-Saleed’s apprentice."
Novato’s claws retracted so quickly that they seemed to just disappear. "Saleed’s apprentice! By the eggs of creation, come in!"
Afsan clicked his teeth weakly. "I am in."
"Of course, of course. I’ve read your master’s works a great many times. He’s a genius, you know — a complete genius! What a treat it must be to study under him."
Afsan knew his muzzle would give away any polite lie, so he simply bobbed his head slightly.
"What brings you here, good fellow? You are a long way from home."
"I’ve been on my pilgrimage. Our ship is docked near here."
"Pilgrimage boats don’t come to the west side of Land."
"This was, ah, a most unusual pilgrimage. That’s part of what I want to talk to you about. But the main thing is your far-seers."
"What do you know about my instruments?"
"I sailed with Var-Keenir…"
"Keenir! That gruff old beast! By the prophet’s claws, he was fascinated with my work."
"A boon to navigation, he said."
"That it is."
"But it has other uses," said Afsan.
"Aye, that it does. If the hunters ever get over their silly prejudice against it, it could revolutionize tracking. And…"
Novato clicked her teeth loudly in delight, "You’ve tried it, then? To look at the objects in the sky?" Her tail pranced with joy. "Glorious, isn’t it?"
Afsan was actually slightly disappointed. He thought he’d been the first to use it for serious night-sky observations. "Indeed. I saw many things on my journey."
"You were using that far-seer I’d made for Keenir? The brass one about this long, with an ornate crest just below the eyepiece?"
"Ah, not a bad effort. Exceptionally good lenses, but not all that powerful. The one I used to have up on the Osbkay volcano is much bigger. It showed a lot more detail."
"More detail? That would be wonderful! Please, you must let me see."
"I’m sorry, Afsan, but it’s broken." She indicated a tube about as thick around as Afsan’s leg lying on a nearby bench. "The lens cracked — I have that problem a lot with the bigger ones. I’ve been meaning to repair it, but we’ve been getting more and more black clouds belching from the volcano. I’m afraid we’re going to have to move the village again, and my equipment does not travel well. It seemed better to wait until we get to our new location before making another lens that size."
Afsan was disappointed. "I’ve seen some amazing sights through Keenir’s far-seer," he said. "But with a larger instrument, you must have seen even more."
"Oh, indeed. Wondrous things. But there is much I can’t explain."
Afsan clicked his teeth in empathy. "Me, too."
"Come," said Novato. "Let me show you the sketches I’ve made. Perhaps you’ve got some ideas."
They moved across the room, Afsan needing three steps for every two of hers. At the far side, she had a couple of wooden stools. He straddled one while Novato fetched a leather-bound book from a nearby bench. She swung a leg over her stool, too, and sat not far from Afsan, proffering the book. Afsan opened it, the stiff leather creaking slightly as he did so. At first he thought that she’d acquired the book full of empty pages, but then he saw the gut ties that pulled the spine together and he realized that she added each new leaf as the sketch on it was done. The leaves were large and square and the sketches seemed to have been created with a combination of graphite and charcoal.
And what sketches they were! Novato had a keen eye and a steady, practiced hand. Add to that the fact that she had done most of her observations through a more powerful far-seer and the results were breathtaking. At the bottom of each page she had noted the name of the object depicted and the date and time she had made the observation.
The first page showed Slowpoke, Afsan’s favorite moon, as a thin crescent with a ragged edge — mountains like predator teeth — along the demarcation between lit and unlit parts.
The next showed another moon, Swift Runner. Its surface, seen in a gibbous view, looked like spilled entrails, fresh from a kill. Lumpy forms covered its face, each shaded a little differently with charcoal smudges or graphite cross-hatchings.
Several more views of moons followed, and then Novato showed Afsan her sketches of the planets. She had devoted five pages to Kevpel, the planet Afsan believed, although he hadn’t yet told Novato this, to be the next closest to the sun from the Face of God.
The first sketch showed Kevpel with a diagonal line through it, almost as if Novato had meant to strike out the sketch, unhappy with the result. But why add it to the bound collection if that were so? The next showed Kevpel with handles coming out of each side, like a drinking bowl, similar to the handles Afsan had observed on Bripel during the voyage of the Dasheter. The third page also showed Kevpel with handles, but they seemed larger, more open. The fourth showed another view, with the handles oriented differently again. And the fifth, like the first, seemed to have a line through Kevpel, although this line was canted at an opposite angle to the one on the first page.
"What do you make of those?" asked Novato.
Afsan looked up. "The ones with handles are like what I saw on Bripe! when I observed it with the far-seer."
"Yes, I’ve got a similar set of studies of Bripel. It’s much like Kevpel."
"But," said Afsan, "I don’t understand the ones with the lines through them."
"They are the same thing. The handles seem to be thin indeed. When seen edge on, they all but disappear. In fact," and here Novato lowered her voice, somewhat embarrassed, "I have to admit that in that last sketch what I drew as a continuous line really looked like a few broken line segments. But I knew it must be continuous; I knew it."
Afsan’s mind raced ahead. "It’s almost like a torus, or a ring, around the planet."
"A solid ring. Incredible. It would be like a gigantic guvdok stone. Or like those great lava flows that harden into flat pathways, only in the sky, floating. Imagine walking on such a thing!"
Novato lifted the book from Afsan’s lap, thumbed it to find a particular page near the back, and returned the volume to him.
"Look at that," she said.
"Yes?" Afsan said blankly.
"See the planet in the foreground?"
"Yes," said Afsan. "It’s Kevpel again, isn’t it?"
"That’s right. Do you recognize the pattern of stars in the background?"
"It’s the Skull of Katoon, isn’t it?"
"That’s right. Look at the star representing Katoon’s right eye."
Afsan scanned the page, noting the silvery-gray marks that Novato had used to indicate stars. "It’s behind the ring around Kevpel."
"Say that again," said Novato.
"I said, it’s behind the ring around Kevpel — by the prophet’s claws, it’s behind the ring, but still visible! The ring must be glass. No, that can’t be right; we’d never see it. It must be — it must not be solid; maybe it’s made up of pieces of — what? — rock? It looks solid…"
"From this distance, yes. But up close," said Novato, "I bet it’s made up of countless tiny fragments."
"And Bripel has such a ring, too," said Novato.
"Yes." Afsan wrinkled his muzzle in thought. "Then why doesn’t the Face of God have a ring?"
This took Novato completely by surprise. Her jaw dropped open, showing teeth, something one never did in polite company. "What do you mean?"
"The Face of God is a planet, too." And then he told her everything he’d come to believe during his voyage with Var-Keenir aboard the Dasheter, told her how the Dasheter had sailed around the world at his suggestion, proving that the story of Land being an island floating down an endless River was just silly myth, proving that the world they called home was nothing more than one of the moons that moved in circular paths around the planet known as the Face of God.
Novato knew at a glance that Afsan was relaying what he believed to be the truth. Yet her expression made it clear that she was having trouble digesting it all. But at last she nodded slowly. "It’s incredible," she said, "but it explains much." She wrinkled her muzzle. "Our world a moon…"
"That’s the easy part," Afsan said softly.
Novato nodded. "Indeed. The other part…"
"God merely another planet."
"It frightens me to even hear those words," she said.
"It frightened me, as well."
"How can it be thus?"
"How can it be anything but thus?" Afsan gestured at her sketches. "You’ve seen that what’s in the sky often isn’t what it first appears to be. I didn’t set out to disprove the existence of God. I was simply looking at things to make sense of what I saw."
"But for there to be no God…"
Afsan’s voice was softer still. "There may still be a God."
"But you said the Face was nothing supernatural."
"That proves only that what we call the Face is not really God. There may still be a God."
Novato looked excited. "You’ve seen something else, then, something that could be God?"
Afsan dipped his muzzle. "No. No, I haven’t."
"I’m not sure. People believed in God long before Larsk returned with his story of having seen Her directly."
"That’s true," said Novato.
"Perhaps Larsk was wrong. Perhaps no one has ever seen the real face of God."
"But She may still exist." Novato’s voice gained strength. "She must still exist."
"I don’t know," said Afsan. "I just don’t know. Have you read the ancient philosophers? Dolgar? Keladax? People like that?"
"I read a little Keladax, kilodays ago."
"You know his dictum: nothing is anything unless it is something. That is, a concept without material reality is meaningless."
Novato bobbed. "So he said. But Spooltar disagreed. She stated, ’A true belief is stronger than the mightiest hunter, for nothing can bring it down.’ " She paused, looked at the ground. At last she said, "I still believe in God, Afsan. Nothing can bring that down."
"I’m sure of what I said about the Face, though," Afsan said gently. "I’ve been sure for over a hundred days, but your sketches have made me even more sure." He leafed through the pages, steering the conversation back to matters of observation and deduction. "Look at the way you drew Kevpel and Bripel, which are the closest other planets to us. You’ve got them both striped horizontally. Like the banded clouds that cross the Face of God."
Novato shook her head. "I never thought of that." Then she looked up, bringing her mind back to practical matters, as well. "But you say the Face is a sibling to Kevpel and Bripel, right? Similar to them in structure and each with a large entourage of moons. Then why do Kevpel and Bripel each have rings around them and the Face does not?"
"Exactly," said Afsan. "Why not, indeed?" He scratched the underside of his muzzle. "Have you mapped the circular paths of the moons around Kevpel and Bripel?"
Novato looked blank. "I don’t know what you mean."
"I mean, have you examined how far to the left and the right each of the moons appears to get from the disk of the planet? Do any of them move less far left or right than the outermost edge of the planet’s ring?"
"No. They all extend farther than the ring — much, much farther in most cases."
"Then the moons move outside the ring; they travel beyond it."
"If you say so."
"They must; they move in circular paths. The farthest apparent distance from the planet indicates the radius of that circular path."
N’ovato was quick. She nodded. "And the rings are circular, the particles within them must be moving in their own circular paths."
Afsan thumped his tail over the back of the bench. "Egg-shells! Think about it: I know from my observations that the farther out a moon is from a planet, the slower it moves in its circular path."
"And the farther out a planet is from the sun, the slower it moves in its circular path. Kevpel revolves around the sun faster than our planet, the Face, does, and the Face revolves around the sun faster than more distant Bripel does."
"So: the particles on the inside of the ring must travel faster than the particles on the outside. It couldn ’t be a solid ring: the stress between the inside parts wanting to move quickly and the outside parts wanting to move slowly would tear it apart."
Novato closed her eyes, struggling with the concept. "I’m not sure I understand."
"Do you have more paper?" Afsan asked.
"Yes. There." She pointed across the room. Afsan got up, retrieved a leaf and a piece of charcoal, and returned to the bench, sitting even closer to Novato than he had been before.
"See," he said, sketching a solid circle in the middle of the page. "This is a planet." Novato nodded. He made a dot. "Well, here’s an object moving around it in a tight circle. That object could be a particle in a ring, or it could be a moon, like the one we live on. Well, let’s say it takes one day to rotate around the planet." She nodded again. "Now, here’s an object farther out, moving around the planet in a looser circle. Again, it could be a more distant moon, or it could be a particle in the ring that’s farther out. Say this more distant one takes two days to move around the central planet." He drew the paths of the two objects, so that his planet now had two concentric circles around it.
"So there’s a difference in the, the force, that makes the object swing around the planet, right?" said Novato. "The closer the object, the faster it wants to move in its path."
She reached over, took the charcoal stick from his hand. "But a moon isn’t a point; not when seen through a far-seer, that’s for sure. It’s a sphere."
Afsan’s turn to look somewhat lost. "Yes?"
"Well, don’t you see?" She drew overtop of the two dots Afsan had made to represent his two different particles, making them into fat circles. Then she pointed with an extended claw. "The inner edge of a moon is closer to the planet that it rotates around than the outer edge is. The inner edge wants to move quickly; the outer edge wants to move slowly."
"But a moon is a solid object."
"Right," said Novato.
"So it can only move at one speed."
"Perhaps it splits the difference," said Novato. "If the inner edge wants to take one day to revolve around the planet and the outer edge wants to take two, then the whole thing does it in one and a half days."
"That makes sense," said Afsan. "Really, for most moons it wouldn’t be any big deal. Take a distant moon, say one like Slowpoke that takes a hundred days or so to revolve around its planet. Well, maybe the inner side wants to take ninety-nine days and the outer side wants to take a hundred and one. That’s only a one percent variation, nothing major."
"True," said Novato.
"And, of course, those moons that are farther out rotate on their own axes at different rates than they revolve around the planet. So it’s not like the same side is always going slower. The stress of going too fast or too slow is evened out over the whole thing."
"What’s this about rotation rates?" said Novato.
"Well, the moon we’re on always keeps the same side toward the Face of God. That’s why the Face of God is never visible from Land. So the part with Land on it is always moving around the Face of God faster than it really wants to. And the pilgrimage point, directly beneath the Face, and on the other side of our world from Land, is always moving slower than it wants to."
"Ah, okay," said Novato. "So the stress does not get evened out."
"No," said Afsan. "I guess not. Not really. Yes, over the whole sphere, the difference is split. But some parts are always rotating faster than they want to, and others are always rotating slower than they want to."
"Is this normal? For a moon to always keep the same side toward the planet it revolves around?"
"It’s normal for moons that are close to their planet, yes. In our system, nine of the thirteen moons seem to always keep the same side facing in. Excuse me: ten of the fourteen moons; I keep forgetting to count us."
Novato looked puzzled. "But the stress must be significant if you are close to your planet. I mean, we don’t take long at all to rotate around the Face of God."
"We take exactly one day, of course."
"Of course," she said. "That’s not long. And the world’s a big place."
"Indeed," said Afsan. "Based on how long it took the Dasheter to make its voyage, I’d say the world has a diameter of about ten or eleven thousand kilopaces."
"Well, doesn’t that mean that there’s a big difference between the speeds that the Land side and the pilgrimage-point side want to move at?"
"Yes, I guess it does." Silence for a few moments while both thought. Then Afsan continued. "In fact, I bet there’s a point at which a moon would be so close to the planet it revolves around that the stress between inside and outside would be too much. The difference in the desired speeds of movement would be enough to tear the moon apart."
"Leaving rubble," said Novato. "Wait a beat." She turned, staring off into space. "Wait a beat. How about this? The particles that make up a ring are the rubble left behind from a moon that moved too close to the planet it revolved around. What we see now as the ring around Kevpel might once have been the innermost moon of Kevpel. And the ring around Bripel might have once been the innermost moon of Bripel."
Afsan’s jaw dropped open; his tail swished in agitation. ’’But the Face of God has no ring around it."
"And we are the innermost moon of the Face of God."
"Vegetables. That doesn’t sound good." But a moment later she brightened. "But look, not every planet has a ring. I’ve seen no signs of one around Davpel — and I can clearly see its phases — or around Gefpel. Now, Carpel and Patpel are too small and dim to show any detail, even in my big far-seer, but there’s no reason to think they might have rings, either."
"Besides, Afsan, Land isn’t breaking up. It’s as solid as can be."
Afsan gestured at the cracks in the temple walls. "Is it? The ancients used to find it worth their while to build temples such as this. Now we’re lucky if a building will stand for a few tens of kilodays."
"And the volcanism, the landquakes, the riverquakes…"
"You’re jumping to conclusions, Afsan. Look, Land has been here since time began. It’ll be here for a long time to come. Besides, if we’re right about the origin of the rings around Kevpel and Bripel — if — well, then, there are moons that travel in tight circles around them, as well. I’m sure we could work out how close a moon has to be before it’s in danger of breaking up."
Afsan nodded mild concession. "You’re right, of course." The intellectual stimulation of being here with Novato had excited him. Such a lively mind she had! He looked at her and clicked his teeth in a good-natured gesture. She clicked back, and he realized that Novato must have been thinking much the same thing about him. For it was a heady atmosphere, full of startling revelations and incredible discoveries.
And in that moment, Afsan understood that although he’d already been through a series of rites of passage — leaving his home Pack of Carno, starting a profession, undertaking his first hunt, receiving his hunter’s tattoo, completing his pilgrimage to the Face of God — there was still one rite of passage he had not yet completed.
It was unusual for a female to go into estrus outside of the mating season, but great excitement could cause it. Afsan’s nostrils flared slightly at the first whiff of the scent coming off Novato, the chemical that unlocked the drive in the male. His claws extended in response to the unexpected stimulus, then slowly relaxed into their pockets at the tips of his fingers as his own body recognized what the pheromones were signaling.
His dewlap went from being a flaccid sack waggling beneath his muzzle to a puffed ruby balloon, almost as big as the dome of his cranium.
Novato turned and looked at Afsan, sitting closer than normal territorial instinct would allow.
Afsan was embarrassed. His body was reacting in unexpected and, he feared, inappropriate ways. But Novato, sweet, beautiful Novato, bobbed her head twice, slowly, deliberately, in concession.
Energy surged through Afsan and he rose. At the same ume, Novato fell to her knees, propping up her torso with her arms.
She lifted her tail…
And Afsan mounted her from the rear, his penis slipping out of the folds that normally protected it, feeling cool and hard in the open air.
He worked his hips, maneuvering by instinct.
She was perhaps as much as half again his age; half again his size, but the union worked — oh, how it worked! — as Afsan and she moved in a rhythm that matched the pounding of their hearts, the pulsing of his sex organ, the puffing of his dewlap…
Until his seed was released within her, his mind exploding with a delight only previously imagined, a delight held for heartbeat after heartbeat, Novato beneath him hissing quietly in pleasure…
And then, finally, he withdrew, his energy spent, her pheromones shifting to a more neutral character, his dewlap deflating, but hanging loosely open to help dissipate his body heat.
He climbed off her, stepped back into a relaxed tripod stance, catching his breath. She stretched out, belly down on the stone floor of her workshop, her eyes half closed, each breath taking longer to come than the one before.
Afsan slid to the floor beside her, his tail loosely wrapping around hers. He was exhausted; soon they both slept.
The world might be coming to an end.
But they’d worry about that tomorrow.