I regret that we require a little more background in order for you to understand the moment; the way it affected us as we stumbled out of the underbrush and got our first view of the most remarkable sight yet on a world that already impressed us.
It might seem odd to you that we would be in such wonderment of what was really only a small woodland lake. In fact, we’d all been fairly boggled even by the size and volume of the waterway where our ship bogged down. What we saw as an incredible, huge body of water was actually, as I now know, merely what you would call a “creek”. And not a very big one.
Please understand that there are no bodies of water worthy of that term on our own world, and no running water. It’s not dryer there, particularly; it’s just that water is what I suppose I should call universally distributed. Rain collects in puddles, in the grasses and trees, and sinks into the ground where we can access it through wells. In population centers rainwater is often caught in elaborate cisterns and viaducts, some of them famous architectural flourishes for which those particular cities are remarked.
It’s not lack of water that deprives our home of rivers and lakes and oceans: it’s lack of variation. I understood, once I had the time and perspective to consider it, that it requires mountains, or at least hills, to produce rivers. That lakes and seas are only possible where there are deep depressions to fill with water. Our world is homogenous: smooth and uniform without all the upheavals that create altitude. This may be because it spins more flatly on its axis, without seasonal “wobble”. Or because we have no moon. I’ve been discussing this with your scientists and there are several theories.
So there is little I can do to try to infect you with the emotions we experienced as we straggled out from that stream bed onto the shallow slope of a grassy beach and found ourselves standing before a mass of water that extended so far in front of us that we had trouble seeing what was on the other side. All that blue surface, all that volume beneath it. All that water!
It was another of the series of staggering revelations that broke us away bit by bit from our conceptions of what a world could be like. I was completely flabbergasted, myself. Carat, naturally, crooned over the beauty of it all. Greater Than, uncharacteristically hushed and gingerly, walked to the edge, touched a foot into the water, then walked out to knee depth and stared around. He wet a hand and licked it, then scooped up a handful of water and drank. He turned to us and made an affirmative gesture towards the water. We forgot our mystical awe and remembered our thirst; streamed into the shallows to drink.
Greater Than turned ponderously, surveying the shoreline. “This is where we’ll stay for now,” he said firmly. Carat chuckled in delight at that prospect, kicking up spumes of water to make rainbows in the sun.
Point had scooped his helmet full of water and was holding it out to Tilde, who let a handful of kits lap from it. He looked around also, then said quietly, “If you don’t mind a suggestion?”
Greater Than scowled, but said nothing. Star, who was down on her knees in the water, stood and shook herself off, more shining drops of color in the strange, heady air. She spoke a little louder than usual. “What do you suggest, Captain Point?”
He motioned up away from the water, to the edge of the bigger trees. “That we make a camp up there, not right here by the water.”
“Why?” Star asked in the same meant-for-everybody voice.
“Yes, why?” Carat implored. “It’s really beautiful here.”
“Who knows what effect living right by so much water would have?” Point said, and gave Greater Than an inviting eye so obvious he might as well have waved his hands in the air.
“This area might be dangerous,” Greater Than rumbled, as if he hadn’t spoken before. “And it’s wide open and insecure. I’ll scout the treeline for a suitable place to rest you for awhile.”
I nodded gravely with a straight face and squatted, bringing the water almost up to my chest. It was cold and clear and seemed charged with a clean, vibrant energy. I bowed my head forward and drank deeply. There would surely be worlds we could have crashed on that wouldn’t be as happy a chance as this one, I was thinking. Following an unbidden, childish impulse, I stood up and fell over backwards, spreading my arms. I found that the surface of the water supported my weight. I closed my eyes in the strong sun and floated weightless. Even gravity was optional in this place.
We come from the trees. We evolved as arboreal beasts, born to scan wide-eyed and sniff the breeze. Our entire culture, society, and subconscious are those of a tree race. This will be part of us forever, even since we Descended to populate the savannas of our world and build the cities and technology so abhorred by the reactionary Ascensionists among us. Yet we were already realizing that the trees of this new world dwarfed the ones we knew. We’d had views of the massive trunks and staggering heights of these new breeds of trees as we marched through the shrub-choked creek bed, but the broad view offered by the lake made the colossal size of these alien forests manifest to every one of us. We walked along the edge of the forest belittled by silent ramparts of intimidating giants. No longer thirsty, but no less hungry, we searched the depths of the woods eagerly as we sought an ideal place to bivouac. We saw little of use, except more of the woody cones along with the characteristic brown needles from their strange, leafless trees.
We stopped momentarily at the foot of one of the most massive trees we had yet seen, a monster whose top we couldn’t begin to see, whose trunk was so thick our entire troop could have joined hands and been unable to circle it. Its leaves were fittingly huge: the largest of the ones we saw on the ground beneath it was almost as tall as Carat, who picked it up for her standard marveling admiration, then posed behind it, peeking out teasingly at us. But most of us were not in a mood to be entertained.
A kit started keening, a mournful and depressing sound that even Tilde’s ultra-maternal touch couldn’t calm. We stood at the base of the monster tree, atop a slight rise that offered a charming outlook on the blue waters of the lake sparkling in the sun, a characteristic of water we had never known before that moment. And, still isolated and abandoned; again felt the creeping tendrils of fear.
The one to speak was Comma, who seldom said much on board. An Ascensionist of deepest dye, she tended to closely follow their voluble leader, Underscore. She stood up from where she’d been squatting to stare at the huge tree, a rather unattractive doe whose ochre fur and dark pink tips augmented a dour character. She looked upward a long time and raised spread arms, a gesture we had learned to read as preamble to rambling dissertations in cult-speak. But we were fortunate: all she said was, “This… This is High Nature.”
A sour pearl-gray political outcast named Plus, who missed no chance to deride the sect, laughed harshly. “It’s nature, all right. And about as high as it ever gets.”
Comma swung on him with a fierce look. “Don’t mock the Absolute, you simpering procurer!”
She looked upward again and intoned as solemnly as any proclamation from the Stand itself, “There will be a sign to us.”
Many today assume that the next event, or at least its timing, has been exaggerated, but please judge me by my reputation as witness that it was at that exact moment that the acorn fell, only a body’s length in front of her.