The colossal serpent hatched from an egg in my brother’s keeping. It almost killed him as it burst out, unfolding coil after coil, slithering through the air. It traveled through a rift in our world to a dimension where no one speaks, none have ears to hear. It is our responsibility to stop the serpent, for we are as gods on every world except our own.
I was still toddling along on all four limbs when my mother began teaching me that I was not to be so helpless for long, that I would soon and for long eons thereafter possess the burden and privilege of great elemental power. Our power comes from the one force that pervades all dimensions, gravity. And that is why we too can learn to cross through and into those dimensions. Our world, our planet, lies at the center of a great galaxy of stars so dense and bright and simple white that some say it looked as if a cosmic titan had spilled some milk as he woke at the dawn of the universe. We are charged to aid any who need or call for aid. And we are particularly tasked with caring for a young and fragile world on the farthest edge of the galaxy. For we had left a seed of ourselves there long ago and that seed was now growing.
And so, each of us must visit the world at least once, so we know where it is. I had visited it dozens of times, for I liked the world. It reminded me of home and yet it felt young and hopeful, much as I felt. It was there that we found the egg. I felt it was a mistake to even touch the accursed thing, much less bring it back to our home. But who was I to question my brother? Before I opened my eyes to the world, Frayley had already visited a dozen worlds, learned twice as many languages, gathered many friends, and lost his heart to a lover. He had even lived on one or two other worlds for a while. I have as yet never lived on another world. And until that day, I had only visited the worlds that fell within the inner orbit of our own.
The excursion that brought us to the nest was meant to be a mission of exploration. And we were allowed to bring back specimens of interests so far as we did not disturb daily life in the land. It was rumored that there was now conscious life in the land, but if that were so, others were assigned to find it and assess it. We had found and collected many eggs of many creatures. But this one so fascinated my brother that he spent all the rest of that day’s light studying it. Though it looked simple and similar enough to any odd egg we might see, upon closer examination, it matched nothing in our records. The rest of us feared the return of the egg’s mother any moment, not because we knew then what the creature was, but because we feared we may have to fight some poor creature who would surely throw her life at us to defend her young. But after some time, we deemed that the thing must have been abandoned.
And so my brother took it.
It was the force of the creature’s birth, I think, that made the rift into which it flew. I wondered if it were ordained to be so by the laws of nature. I wondered if we should interfere. Still, the people of the hapless world on the other side of that rift did not deserve to have the fearsome serpent foisted upon them. We had not much time to follow the thing before the rift began to seal itself. We had scarcely the time to wonder how we would return home. Never had I yet traveled to another dimension.
We leapt into the rift with only the garments and weapons and food upon our persons. And with no allies but each other. I feared that the fall onto the hard earth of another world might kill us, or that the air filled with elements that nourished the native life might poison us. I forgot all my mother’s confidence in the strength and supremacy of our people in the midst of my primal terror.
A terror that was unfounded. For the air was fresh and healthful and we did not fall but float down through the canopy of a lush forest. And my brother reminded me when I gaped at him that the gravity of the world had a weaker hold on us, likely because our native planet was much larger.
Where first we landed, we were seen by none but the still-developing creatures of that world. Long-limbed primates leapt about the trees, one screeching curiously at us. There was much chirping and clicking and piping, for we were in a part of that realm that was rich with life. We followed our wit and senses to the apex beings of that world and made for the closest outpost of civilization. I have typically been larger than the native peoples of the realms I have visited. So it came as a surprise when we emerged into a town where most of the people—those who appeared to be full-grown—were a head taller than I am. We used no disguises to hide our true forms, for we had seen that the people looked almost identical to us. And so we guessed that this was the same planet on which we had found the serpent, only in a nearby dimension. Perhaps it was the force of its birth that had torn the rift and the serpent had come here by mistake. I could not speculate further. I could not reason past the thought that we must find the creature before it caused any damage to the land or any harm to the creatures and people who lived there.
I had thought it strangely quiet as we had approached the settlement. And eerie that none of the people gave greeting, until Frayley observed that they could give no greeting that our ears would hear. For here was a people who had no use for sound. They gestured and glanced at each other as they approached us. They made expressions as if speaking and responding, yet they made no sounds. They were mind-speakers, telepaths. We two had no skill in that language. Some of our people practiced it, but so far as we knew, it was a talent that one could only be born into, not one that could be learned. And we had decided we liked the sound of our voices. And of song and laughter.
But it seemed the speaking between minds had some advantages. We were approached by a woman who had a sketch of the serpent. Indeed it was no crude scribble, but a vibrant likeness of the serpent painted with watery pigments. The dominant colors were the green and blue of the serpent’s glistening scales. And to express the great girth of the creature, the coils burst beyond the borders of the cloth-like sheet that the woman held out to us. Frayley nodded up to the tall woman who offered the sketch. Her eyes seemed sharply focused. She had protrusions on either side of her face that appeared to be the remnants of what may once have been ears. These people had mouths, and they used them to smile or gape at us. They had teeth and though I had not seen tongues, I would have wagered they had tongues. For they still ate and drank. But they had no voices.
And as we worked to figure how we might communicate with these people through pictures, someone else approached. The man was a bit shorter than the others, and his dress was different and seemed to me to be scholarly. He held out his hands, opened his mouth, and gave a croaky greeting with a voice that had clearly not been exercised for a long while. We did not understand his language. It has never been one of my skills to learn any language easily. It took great pains and much time for me to learn the mere dozens that I knew. But it did not take Frayley long to learn it. He fixed his focus on the man, half-closed his eyes, and gestured for the man to keep speaking, and the man seemed to understand.
The man was an ambassador for the town. He explained that most villages and small towns had at least one. And cities and capitals had many. It was through them that all other people experienced sounds, for the majority of the people in that world were deaf. And they had no need for sound, for they could see into the minds of many of their world’s creatures. And each could link to another, or to small groups. And all could link to a great collective mind that kept watch over their world. Frayley and I decided to be careful of our thoughts despite the man’s assurance that laws prohibited entering a mind without permission, even as they prohibited one from entering a person’s home without permission. Though the punishments for breaching a mind were far more severe. We had indeed been greeted and welcomed when we arrived before the people realized we had no skill in their language. They were accustomed to visitors who spoke and so had alerted the ambassador. I was certain, however, that they were not accustomed to serpents of cosmic proportions.
Frayley told of the serpent—he was certain it was female—and confirmed that the creature in the sketch was the creature that we hunted. He explained that we saw her enter their world from ours and we were there to either capture or destroy her, for we feared she might ravage their world, whether through accident or malice.
The ambassador sent runners to inform their leaders. He asked us to wait while his people organized a response. He was confident they would give us both permissions and resources in our quest. For they had been watching the serpent as soon as she arrived.
He offered us refreshment as we waited. And in that moment of respite, we looked up at the sky from which we had fallen and saw the truth of where we were. For we were not on a planet, but on a moon. The hazy blue orb that hung in the sky was the planet to which the moon was anchored. We asked the ambassador about this. He spoke of a great exodus from the blue-green planet above. There were too many to sustain. And some were chosen to settle nearby worlds, including the moon, whose name was Iolyra. And he seemed sincerely proud of his homeland. But hesitations and furtive glances told me that he was hiding some detail of his story. Then as we sat, sharing a drink with our host, the ground began to quake. The ambassador assured us such quakes were natural and common in recent times, but I feared it was our serpent. We had brought a great calamity into this world.
The Iolyrans were no idlers. Soon after the quake, we were greeted by the town’s chief ruler through the translation of the ambassador. The chief gave us a small force including the ambassador to help us track the serpent. Thanks to Iolyran telepathy, we had no trouble in the tracking. Within moments, the ambassador had learned of the serpent’s movements and where she seemed to be heading from the linked minds of those who had seen her.
We were given mounts and we rode them hard to catch up with the serpent, who seemed to be bearing toward a lofty mountain. As we pursued her, we encountered the signs of her passing. We skirted a vast valley in which we saw a fearsome sight. Mounds and mounds of translucent material that seemed like folded sheets. It was her molting. And the entire valley was covered in it. I could not fathom her girth now, nor how she could attain it without feeding. I feared we would soon come across lands emptied of all creatures, or perhaps scattered bits of bone and flesh that might have fallen from her jaws in the haste of her feeding and growing and flying. But we saw only more bits of molting.
Soon, we spotted her. She had no wings, indeed no limbs at all, yet she flew through the air of this world. Even as small as the moon was, it still pulled at us and I wondered how it did not pull her down. Our heritage gave us the power to twist the pull of gravity so that we could leave our mounts and leap ever farther and faster in pursuit. We left our Iolyran comrades behind and hurtled toward the serpent who hurtled toward the great mountain. We watched her slither up and up and up through a crown of smoke and cloud. We bounded up after her. When we reached the peak, we saw that the mountain was hollow. Smoke and heat rose from below, but all we could see was darkness. We walked out on an outcropping of rock and we saw the great serpent coiled and floating before us.
I stood no taller than the slit in one of her eyes. The smaller scales of her face might have served me as a shield. As we watched, she molted again, right there where she floated. The coils of her body writhed and rubbed against each other and clumps of her molting fell into the black abyss below.
When she roared, the sound was…indescribable in any of the myriad languages I have as yet learned. It was a tune of terrible beauty, of tranquil cacophony. At the hearing of it, I felt a magnificent dread. And a sharp longing. And a keen remembrance. I heard in her call the underwater echoes of whale-song, the baritone thunder of a tiger’s roar, the majestic trumpeting of the elephant. All the creatures of the serpent’s native home. Or at least the world into which she had been abandoned.
There was no particular malice, though I strained to hear such. But I could not believe the creature would do no harm, even if by accident. And I realized that it was I who must lead the charge against her. Frayley had her in his possession for mere days and had never known the serpent. He had only known the egg. And yet he seemed inexplicably charmed by the creature. He had insisted they contain her, insisted that they strive not to destroy her. Mesmerized he stood before her.
I drew my blade. The serpent’s scales seemed made of hard stone and the hide below them was no doubt tough and thick. But my blade was made of a metal forged in the center of a star. A metal that has no name in any world save my own. And it could slice through the crusts of planets to the very core.
She roared again and made a series of stilted bellows that sounded eerily like thunderous echoing laughter. And each sound rattled and rumbled through my bones and flesh. I wondered if the Iolyrans had caught up to us, if they stood at the base of the molten mountain, listening to it quake and rumble.
Still my brother stood, his weapon undrawn, and his eyes half-closed. I realized what he was doing. I had watched him do it many times. He was trying to learn her language.
I glanced between the two and the mountain quaked, throwing me off my feet. I dropped my blade and never found it again. I rolled off the outcropping and would have fallen to my doom but I fell upon one of the serpent’s coils. She was so vast now that the titanic coil seemed a flat surface. A flat, but slippery surface. I struggled to my feet and looked up. The outcropping was high. But I readied myself to leap up when Frayley suddenly leapt down and landed beside me. Before I could speak, before I could protest, he invoked his right as leader of our quest and as my elder brother to call upon my unquestioning trust. He pressed a hand against my shoulder and gestured that we should lie down, flat against our bellies. And so we did. And I felt a familiar sensation of a force pulling me against the great serpent’s scales.
She dove into the mountain’s hollow with us on her back. Deeper we plunged and the gravity of the world bore down on us. I tuned the workings of the bones, muscles, bladders, and glands within my frame to withstand the force and the heat. The serpent splashed into the pool of glowing molten rock and I held my breath and I readied my flesh for its first test of such extremes. But it seemed there was no need for there was some force around the serpent that shielded us, that pushed aside molten rock and hardened earth and whatever else we passed through. The serpent’s scales, or perhaps the skin beneath, fluoresced a soft blue-green light that illuminated the darkness below the moon’s surface. And then we began to slow and I saw a sight I had not yet seen, the heart of a heavenly body. There was a hollow space into which the serpent just fit, and then there was a core of solid iron, the moon’s core.
The serpent slid over and around the core, coiling herself once, and twice, and three times. And as she did, Frayley told me what she had told him.
She heard the moon crying. From the warm safety of her egg, and through the screen that separated the dimensions, she heard the moon’s moans of suffering and pleading. It was the quakes. They were the harbingers of greater doom. For the strain was beginning to shake Iolyra apart from its very core. And the people had not the means to stop it. But the serpent knew she could help them, if only she would be born. And she might have waited till it was the proper time, but then Frayley had taken her away, so far away that she had to hatch early so she would have the time to grow big enough and strong enough to create a rift that did not just pass through dimensions but reached from the center of the galaxy to its edge.
Even as I watched, the tunnel she had made into the moon’s core was sealing itself, for she had dug it with the skill of an earthworm. Her mass had grown and grown, faster than she had planned, so that it would be enough by the time she reached the core, so that she could wield the force of gravity. There she lay, coiled and tensed, at the center of the world she was holding in place. She had come to save not to slaughter.
We floated in the hollow between the core and the next layer of the moon now. I saw in the vastness of the serpent’s eye a determination and resignation for what she believed was her fate. She was born too soon and she bore the scar beside her eye where the cosmic shell scraped skin that had not yet hardened into scales. It was a huge furrow now and the sight of it pierced my heart with pity and awe. For if Iolyra were to abide, the serpent would have to remain as she was.
Frayley moved toward her. He had learned her language, but could not speak it himself. So he spoke in our language and told her that he would not abandon her. I did not see that we had the choice to, for the tunnel from which we had come was closed. And neither of us could make a rift. We had relied on an unspoken hope of finding others like us in that dimension, who would help us return home.
The serpent opened her mouth, but not to speak. She held it open and from within came a dim but certain light. My brother moved toward the light and this time, I trusted both brother and serpent, and I followed. The light grew brighter and brighter as we approached. And I felt a heaviness come upon me. I stumbled into my brother’s back as we emerged onto a plains. The light dimmed and I saw that it was the very spot from which we had embarked. There were shards of eggshell all around us. We were walking upon them. The serpent had swallowed us and sent us back through her substance to the place of her birth. To our world.
With the help of our people, we returned to Iolyra within a few of their days. We found the Iolyrans anxious and cautious, for they had feared we had been killed by the serpent and they were uncertain if we had defeated her. They had seen no sight of her for days, but they feared if she might have survived. They feared the mountain would erupt and shake and destroy their world. But since the day we fell into the mountain, the quaking had stopped. The mountain had calmed.
We told them our story. We told them of the serpent’s sacrifice. And we asked and received their leave to try and reach her. But we could not. Rifts through dimensions were made in open skies for a reason. None could make a rift to the center of the moon without harming it or the serpent.
But the serpent had made such a rift. And she had done so safely. My brother aimed to bring her relief, to build a machine to take her place. It would take many rotations around Iolyra’s sun and the help of our people and the moon’s people to build such a thing. In return for our help, the Iolyrans taught us their language, the skill of speaking with our minds. And with it, Frayley reached the serpent as she slept at the heart of the moon. He told her he would keep his word. He would not abandon her. And he told her why.
It was our duty, our charge, our responsibility to help the serpent, for she needed aid. But it was also our privilege and honor to help the serpent, for she in her cosmic mystery and relentless immensity was as a god in our world. And she in her blue-green magnificence and her benevolent resolve was a hero in his.
Copyright © 2014, story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Iolyran Serpent” by Nila L. Patel (serpent head design by Sanjay Patel). “The Serpent’s Birth” by Sanjay Patel.