Journey to the Top of the Nether

By William C. Tracy

Action & adventure, Sci-Fi, Children's


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7 mins



The Ground

- To my dearest daughter:
On the front of this postcard you will see my latest rendering of the Imperium. The hot air balloon is aiding my research greatly. Fortunately for me it was a clear day for viewing.

I think we may be able to travel even higher than I can in my balloon! I have a surprise to show you when I return home. Are you looking forward to your first adventure with your mother?

With Love,

Postcard from Morvu Francita Januti to her daughter.

I stared up at the giant, glowing wall of the Nether, stretching up above us. I made sure I closed my mouth be-fore Mom saw me. It’s higher than I can see. It just…fades into the distance.

“Come on, Natina, we need to pack the balloon,” she said. I rolled my eyes at the wall.

“Mom, when you asked me to come on a climbing expedition, I thought it would be the haunted cliffs on Sath Home or something,” I said. “Not a wall of crystal no one has ever seen the top of. Are we really going to try climb-ing this?”

“We are,” my mother said, and I turned to watch her. “Others have tried to reach the top of the Nether before, but no one ever made it. We’ll be the first. Just think of it!”

“I think someone else could be first. Let them fall off and find out what not to do.” I shuffled one shoe through the green grass and weeds thriving where the crystal wall met dirt. I imagined a body landing here with a thud. “We can try later, when it’s safer. Or better yet, study what they find from the comfort of our own home.” I was missing my room already, and we’d only been gone eight days from Etan, with preparations and travel time.

My mother—the famous explorer Morvu Francita Januti—spread her long arms wide, taking in the sheer face of Nether crystal in front of us. It stretched to the left and right as well, an immense glowing sheet. “Where’s your sense of adventure? No one has even gotten past the cloud layer in a balloon.”

“There’s a reason for that,” I said, looking past her at the strange hunk of metal and crystal behind us. “You seriously think this crystal beetle thing will do it?”

“My excavation team calls it the Nether drill. It’s not actually a beetle, even if it looks like one,” Mom corrected. “We tested it out at Broken Column where we found it. It can drill holes in Nether crystal—hence the name—and it climbed all the way to the gap in the column.”

“Which is not, in fact, as high as the clouds,” I reminded her.

“Well, no, but we know the concept works,” Mom told me. Now she was frowning, her cheeks turning a darker blue. I was starting to annoy her. Good. “I discussed all this with the Effature himself and the Council of the Maji when they approved my expedition. I don’t need to explain it to you.”

“No, you just needed a fourth body for the ascent,” I said. Fortunately, I was good at rock climbing. Our family had been going on mountaineering trips since before my little brothers were born.

“It’s good for you to research in nature, not just at home,” Mom said. “The drill will make everything a lot easier, anyway. Now come on.”

“I still like ‘crystal beetle thing’ better,” I muttered and crossed my arms. Something chirped in the bushes that grew near the base of the wall, but I ignored it. I’d seen enough ‘native specimens’ on the trip in from Gloomlight already.

It does look like a beetle, all hunched over like that. Especially with the black shell and those jointed legs. It even has crystal mandibles. I took in the two shimmering spikes that stuck out of the ‘head’ attached to the metal shell. They look like melted glass. The device was pretty amazing, even if I thought the plan to kill ourselves climbing a sheer, slippery, indestructible wall was kind of terrible.

“Let’s finish the packing,” my mother said again. “We can debate all you want on the balloon ride, while you still have the energy to do it.”

I wouldn’t let her off that easy. “Why are we taking the balloon again? If this…drill…can climb the wall, why not save the effort of getting the balloon ready?”

“It’s quicker. The beetle isn’t strong enough to carry us all at once,” Mom said. She pulled her dark hair back and tied a ribbon around it so it was out of the way, like she did when she wanted to work on something complicated. “We’ll rise as high as we can with the fuel on board, then attach the drill to the wall, and climb behind the drill from there. I told you all this already, or weren’t you listening?” She turned away.

“I was listening,” I said, but quietly. I shook my head and trudged after her. When she wasn’t looking, I gave the crystal beetle thing a pat on its side as I went past. It wouldn’t have forced me to come on one of Mom’s expeditions of hardship and drudgery.

Good girl. Its jointed legs were tucked up underneath the shell, but it was almost taller than me, and Mom and I were taller than a lot of the other people in the Nether, since we were both Etanela. I didn’t know how the other nine species survived, being so short. The majus traveling with us would have trouble keeping pace while the other three of us were climbing.

I took another look back at the wall, as I followed Mom. I had been in the Nether before, but not often. Mom was the one who spent all her time here, rather than at home with my other mother and father.

The wall of the Nether stretched left, right, and up, as far as I could see, casting the light that lit this place. These walls enclosed the whole Nether, but it was hard to imagine, on such a massive scale. It was like we were at bottom of a giant box, almost as big as my homeworld of Etan in land area. It would be dark in the Nether except for the light of the walls, and the columns, of course.

At the pile of luggage that would somehow accompany us up the sheer face of the wall, I poked at the bundle of wafers, jerky, and water—rations for our journey. The faint fishy smell was a comforting reminder of home. We’d catch more to drink when it rained, but we had enough to start.

I’m hungry enough to eat a whole package of wafers by myself. I held back, though. No one knew how high the top of the Nether was, and if the wall was this sheer and bare the whole way up, we’d need to watch our food carefully to make sure we didn’t starve.

I let my hand trail off the seaweed wafers, counting what Mom brought. Looks like enough for about twenty-five days. I looked up at the wall again, then had to catch myself before I fell over. I really hope Mom knows what she’s doing. She said the return would be quick, and we wouldn’t need to worry about supplies. Were we going to rappel the whole way down? I…might not have listened to that part when she was explaining.

My hand fell onto another box, bulky, and made of squishy wood I’d never seen before. It’s like the big sea-weed stalks that dry out on the beach on Etan, with the hollow insides, but harder.

When I saw what was on top of the box, my hand drifted toward the metal hexagon. It had a strange pattern carved into it.

“Don’t touch that, girl,” a harsh voice said. I looked up into large, silvery eyes. A set of three head-tentacles were wound in a bun on top of Majus E’Flyr’s head. She was a Lobath—the only other of the ten species of the Great Assembly with what Mom called ‘an aquatic background.’ I wrinkled my nose at her musty scent. She didn’t smell like the ocean at all, not like an Etanela. I let my hand fall to my side. Maji were important, and no one messed with them.

“Well, go on.” Majus E’Flyr made a shooing motion with one long-fingered hand. The other was perched on the hip of her blue jumpsuit. Her skin was so red it was almost purple, and incredibly wrinkled. She was ancient. “That System took notes from many maji to create, and if you break it, all that effort will be wasted. It’s supposed to protect what’s inside.”

I gave the majus a skeptical look. I’m not a child. Mom brought home plenty of artifacts and breakable fossils, and the whole family helped her sort them. I helped analyze the strange, new discoveries. I just didn’t like risking my neck finding them.

I sighed and gave Majus E’Flyr a friendly nod and what she would think was a smile. I’d have to deal with her while we were climbing, and I didn’t want to make a bad impression right at the start. I might end up helping her up the wall.

At least I could talk with her normally, in the Nether. I’d learned the trader’s tongue in school, and a little of the Lobath language, but the Nether helped translate when people were inside it. It meant I could speak my own lan-guage, and the majus would still understand me.

Mom was staring daggers at me from the basket. Behind her, the mass of orange fabric was stretched out over the grass at the base of the wall. Mom would need to fully inflate the balloon before we could take off, so I had time.

I checked the little watch Alondri—my father—gave me for my last birthday. Fortunately, it measures Etan hours as well as lightenings and darkenings. No converting to figure out what time it is, and I don’t have to ask Mom. She had made sure to tell me all about how there was no sun in the Nether, as if I didn’t already know. It was weird seeing the walls and the columns dim and brighten at the same time every day, but I’d adjusted.

It was about half past fifth lightening—early morning—and I hadn’t had any breakfast yet. My stomach growled. Maybe I could sneak a couple wafers from the stores if I help Partino load them. But I’d let him handle that big box the majus was guarding. I could see her silver eyes watching me from here.

Under Mom’s gaze, I went to the last member of our party, another Etanela like Mom and me, who was lifting heavy boxes into the basket of the balloon. She won’t look away until I lift something. First dragging me along, now forced labor.

“What are you loading, Partino?” I asked. Partino Jusare Okala had been my mother’s porter—a research assistant really—since before I was born. He was a lot more fun than she was.

“Oh, just cases of your mom’s scientific gear,” he said, with a wink. He lifted a case as tall as me up over his head and into the basket of the balloon with a thunk. He was the strongest person I’d ever seen. His arms might be big-ger around than Majus E’Flyr’s waist. But I wasn’t staring.

“That better not have been my spectrum analyzer you just dumped like a sack of old squid chum,” Mom called out from the other side of the basket. The balloon was inflating, and the basket was big enough around that she couldn’t see Partino wince. Or me.

Partino held a finger up to his lips, and I bit back a laugh. Might as well do something. I went to the pile of luggage and pulled at the sack holding the books and necessities I’d packed.

“Oh, this is heavy,” I said, and now it was Partino’s turn to laugh.

“Maybe shouldn’t have packed so many books, little one,” he said, and poked my nose with a wide finger. But he took the sack from me and put it in the basket as I scrunched my face up.

I’m not little anymore. He had called me that since before my two younger brothers—five and six cycles younger than me—had been born. “Stop fooling around and get the rest in,” Mom called. Partino and I both sighed, and then laughed at each other. “We’ve only got another lightening before the balloon is ready to take off, and I want to be far up the wall by evening.”

She kept muttering as Partino and I turned back to the pile of luggage. “Other naturalists mocked Alondri and Kayla for cycles about their theories on the top of the Nether,” I heard her say. “Well now we can prove them right.”

So that’s why she’s so fired up about this expedition. I pulled my hair back out of my face—the same dark bushy mop as Mom. She’s worried about our family’s reputation. I shouldn’t give her a hard time, but with all the papers she’d written with my other parents, and all the awards she’d won for being first at this and the best at that, I thought she could take second place for once.

Let someone else discover what was at the top of the Nether. We’d be there to make the important scientific connections later. It was always easier to see how things fit together when you could look at them in your own time, rather than in a rush. That was the main place where Mom and I differed.

I picked up another box of rations and carried it to the basket. My father and other mother were busy back on Etan with my little brothers, and taking care of our house. They did a lot of research into the artifacts Mom brought back. And we’re going to bring back more from this trip.

Mom said my other father died before I was born, but people said his theories were even crazier than Alondri and Kayla. Is this all to prove he was right, too?

Despite the grief I give her, Mom and I have a special connection. It’s why I’m named after her—my name is Natina Morvu Januti, and hers is Morvu Francita Januti. She got her middle name from her favorite parent, just like me.

I call Alondri and Kayla by their names. I don’t love them less—I just connect more with Mom, most of the time. It’s why she forced me to come along when I complained I never got to see her anymore.

Time to do some work, Natina. I picked up another box. If I don’t fall off this wall, I can at least bring back proof Alondri and Kayla are right about…whatever theory they have.



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