...the Earth hung overhead like a rotten fruit, blue with mold, crawling, wrinkling, purulent and alive.
-Damon Knight, "Masks"
"When Chthon Prime was Earth, the mushroom of the savanna was late, leaving dungpiles barren of transcendence until the forest people found their own teachers. When at last they exploded in conquest, they were no less demonic, but instead of making grainfields and deserts, they fed saplings on the buried hearts of their enemies."
The huntress, Brillix Windigo, was telling the story of her chain while Chthon 3-1 swole sticky in the hemisphere tip of the police cutter.
Ochre-skinned, in iridescent armor like an excited pangolin, she sat on Dusty's lap in the spacechair, while Zuki sat in the timechair next to her new inamorato, the roguish Devonian Levi Ripp, who showed his dusting of hyena genes by watching hungrily as the planet unscrolled.
At the very edge of space, carbon wafer dragonflies flashed rainbow gleams as they darted to harvest argon isotopes and helium.
Below, butterflies with wings like windowfrost modulated atmospheric ions to balance the planet's headlong chaos by casting thunderstorms and raising aurorae.
Below, colossal etheric amoebae regulated esoteric frequencies, and feeding off their skinflakes was an ocean of microetherfauna who could be gathered into retinas and lenses by Chthon ethertech sightseers and spies.
Below, in late afternoon, biozeppelins fuzzy with static charge summited to magnet the crystalline carcasses from the higher atmosphere, and then dropped with the darkness to feed the treetowers at midnight.
At dawn they would rise again on swelling gasbags, through pollen and modswallows, gnatclouds and petalwheels, chlorophyll buzzards and adventuresome raptors and swarms of kanji where crytoholographic waste sorted its lost meaning.
The police ship was amphibious, but optimized for Gridspace, and it wobbled like an old bucket down the gravity well.
Brillix pointed to the green festoons on the fibrous platforms of the treetowers. "That ivy has been so many generations in the heavens that the canopy is all it knows of the earth, and it hardly guesses the more fertile ground of its deeper roots."
Now they broke the canopy into the airy cathedral of the upper forest.
"Those bronze beetles live and die on a single tree, genelinked to eat any leaves not of their host. Usually it's just sunlight parasites, but if the trees get too close, they eat each other. When one tree dies, its beetles climb another and stamp its code into their last eggs.
"Those red birds eat the beetles, and spit their chitin in pellets catalyzed for swamp toads to swallow and transmute to their metallic armor.
"Those squirrels are so far upcogged that they only fight over style. Here their nests are like pagodas, but in the east they're spherical, and at the quarrelsome boundary both designs are tested for strength. Because they keep their birthrate sub-capacity, they have so many spare nuts that they use them as feed for breeding extravagant caterpillars."
They breached the lower canopy, a plane of glossy leaves so flat that it was the planet's default horizon. "The trees are the same height because they mingle roots and share, and also because if one gets too tall, monkeys will fight over the high branches and break them. Monkeys!" she spat. "Before time, the Swamp Mother bristled at the arrogance of the Sun, and made his children from the most incorrigible of all beasts."
Down in the twilight damp, braced on stumps and anchored by vines, a great wicker landing platform bore a red X, on which the craft now bumped and settled.
Brillix was first out, and she tugged a secret vine loosing a cascade of bloodblossom petals to signal her arrival to the ethersphere.
Levi sipped the sweet foetid air like a connoisseur of planets, and drank. Zuki turned her face to the red petalstorm while her eyes pretended to fly. Dusty stretched and watched an insect that looked like a copper fiddle and hopped like a cricket.
Blink blank in a shaft of sun, and slunk inward to her cryptic mission.
A while later she launched, waving to her crewmates sinking in the gloom, and fell heavenward on the gravdrive.
Through nutbutter trees and tarfruit blossoms, circled by an improv modswallow racetrack and scattering the thoughtclouds of holocasting etherfauna, through the veiny green roof she rose, and then cranked the fire engine and blasted past spaceneedle treetowers into the void.
The Sifrexan cogtug, like a piece of bleached driftwood, circled the Cthuthex convergence, a voodoo whirlpool of Chthon snakes and ratkings, Thanan boneships, and the junkety carnival of craft that ventured the dead chains.
Early to her meeting, Cataria sat on a diamond bulge on the hull, trying to cut the zero-point weave with the Edge of Space.
"That's good," the ship pulsed. "Remember that you are cutting with your mind. Your arm is a mere prosthetic between the vitality of the soul and the divinity of the blade."
"Not my arm." She wrist-flicked the edge like the lash of a whip, and a fountain of starlight bubbles burst the gash and tickled the cogtug's skin.
"Who are you," the ship said, "to learn so fast?"
"Don't you remember? I'm your daughter."
"I'm forgetting, like the glazy days of summer in September's chill. Don't let me forget."
"I don't know... Here's your ride!"
The spacecop cutter hovered and Cataria shot the gap into the deep airlock of the law.
It was autumn in the midscroll hills, and flaxtamaracks were shedding yellow threads that drifted like prickly snowfall in the crosswise sun.
In the meadow, a teenage girl was harvesting pillows of unspun gold with an airsieve, when storming up the eyeward trail came her far cousin, just six years old, on a wild pony she had befriended in the lowlands.
"My sister," said the fierce tiny girl. "Has she come this way?"
"She might have," said the older girl. "Come with me to the chateau."
But it was a trap. In the great walnut hall her father was waiting to take her home. And after a night of feasting on bushpeaches and playing mountain rags around the great hearth, as they rose in the morning balloon to catch the spindle zeppelin, she stared faeward down that cloud-walled well of sparkling blue.
"I see her!" She jerked her father's arm.
"No, that's just-" He laughed. "Of course you see her. How is she doing."
"Dad... she's scary."