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by Robert J. Sawyer
Book One of The Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy
Copyright © 1992 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Paperback: Berkley/Ace, June 1992, ISBN 0-441-22551-9
Trade Paperback: Tor, May 2004, ISBN 0-765-30974-2
Science Fiction Book Club selection number 01169.
British edition: New English Library, January 1995, ISBN 0-340-61802-7
Japanese edition: Japanese edition: Senseishi Afusan No Tomikyo from
Hayakawa Publishing Company, Tokyo, ISBN 4-150-11053-0
(translation by Masayuki Uchida).
(Expanded to novel length from the cover story novelette
"Golden Fleece" by Robert J. Sawyer in the September 1988 issue of
Afsan often escaped to this place. He remembered the first time
he had run up this hillside, half a kiloday ago, after his
original encounter with the formidable Tak-Saleed.
Formidable? Afsan clicked his teeth in humor, figuring that the
choice of adjective was a sign that he must be getting accustomed
to all this. Back then, after his introduction to the master
astrologer, the word he'd used was "monstrous."
That first time he'd run up here his only thought had been to get
out of the city, get back to his distant home Pack of Carno, back
to the simple life of a country boy. He was sure he'd never get
used to this dizzying, terrifying world of apprenticeship, of
scowling imperial guards, of hundreds of people ten or more
gathered together in the same place at once! Afsan hadn't
experienced crowds like that before, never felt such a wash of
pheromones over him. He couldn't stand the tension, the constant
fear that he was encroaching on another's territory or otherwise
breaching protocol. He had found himself tipping from the waist
so often it made his head spin.
But on that day, as on this, Afsan had been calmed by the
magnificent view from here, tension slipping from his body, claws
retracting so far that Afsan thought he'd never see them again,
tail swishing back and forth in leisurely, contented movements.
The sun had set a short time ago. It had swollen to a bloated
egg, changing from its normal white to a deep violet, before
dropping behind the ragged cones of the Ch'mar volcanoes to the
west of the city. A beautiful sunset, Afsan had thought, the
wispy clouds a veil across the dimming disk, tinged with purple,
with red, with deepest blue. But then Afsan found all sunsets
beautiful, and not just because of the play of color across the
clouds, although this evening that was indeed spectacular. No,
Afsan welcomed sunsets because he preferred the night, craved the
This will be a grand night for observing, he thought. The only
clouds were around the volcanoes, and those rarely lifted.
Overhead, the vast dome of the sky was immaculate.
Tonight was odd-night. Most adults slept on odd-nights. For
that very reason, Afsan did not. He preferred the peace and
tranquillity of the hillsides on those nights when the thought
came unbidden it was as if they were his own territory.
Of course, Afsan owned nothing of value, and, having entered a
life of quiet study, his chances of acquiring land were how
did the old joke go? about as likely as one of the Empress's
eggs being used as a game ball.
But even if he couldn't own land, he would always have the stars.
The sky was darkening quickly, as it always did, and there would
only be a short time of real night before even-day broke.
Afsan inhaled deeply. The air was as clear as the waters of
spring-fed Lake Doognar back home, the smells of he flexed his
nostrils, wrinkled his muzzle of wildflowers; the scent of a
large animal, perhaps an armorback (although how one of those
would get this high up a mountain he didn't know); urine on those
rocks, likely from a much smaller critter; and, underneath it
all, faint, but more prominent than when he'd first arrived in
Capital City, the sulfurous tinge of volcanic gases.
He had been straddling a boulder, his tail hanging over it, to
watch the sun go down. Now it was time to climb higher up the
hillside. He did so, the three broad toes on each foot giving
him excellent traction. Upon reaching the crest, he clicked his
teeth in satisfaction, then continued partway down the other
side, placing the bulk of the hill between himself and the
torch-lit glow of Capital City. Afsan lowered himself to the
ground, and lay on his side to look up at the panorama of the
As usual, Afsan found it uncomfortable with all his weight on his
right shoulder and hip, but what alternative was there? Once he
had tried lying on his belly in the sleeping position and had
craned his neck to look up instead of forward, but that had given
him a stinging crick.
Dekadays ago, he'd asked Tak-Saleed why there was no easy posture
for Quintaglios to look at the stars, why their muscular tails
made it impossible to lie on their backs. Saleed had stared down
at young Afsan and declared that God had wished it that way, that
She had made the stars for Her face alone to gaze upon, not for
the pinched muzzles of overly curious apprentices.
Afsan slapped his tail sideways against the soil, irritated by
the memory. He drew his nictitating membranes over his eyes.
The purple glow of the twilight still filtered through, but that
was all. Afsan cleared his mind of all thoughts of old Saleed,
opened the membranes, and drank in the beauty he had come here to
The stars scurried from upriver to downriver as the brief night
raced by. Two of the moons were prominent at the start of the
evening: Slowpoke and the Big One. The Big One was showing only
a crescent sliver of illumination, although the rest of its disk
could be seen as a round blackness, obscuring the stars. Afsan
held his arm out and found that if he unsheathed his thumbclaw,
its sickle silhouette appeared about the same height and shape as
the Big One. The Big One's orange face was always intriguing
there were markings on it, details just a little too small, just
a little too dim, to be clearly made out. What it was, Afsan
couldn't say. It seemed rocky, but how could a rock fly
through the sky?
He turned his attention to Slowpoke. It had been in one of its
recalcitrant moods again these past few nights, fighting its way
upriver instead of sailing downriver. Oh, the other moons would
do that occasionally, too, but never with the determination of
tiny Slowpoke. Slowpoke was Afsan's favorite.
Someday he would make a study of the moons. He'd read much of
what had been written about them, including Saleed's three-volume
Dancing the Night Away. Such a whimsical title! How
unlike the Saleed he knew, the Saleed he feared.
Some of the moons moved quickly across the sky, others took
several tens of nights to cross from horizon to horizon. All
went through phases, waxing and waning between the extremes of
showing a fully lit circular shape and appearing as simply a
black circle covering the stars. What did it all mean? Afsan
He scanned the sky along the ecliptic, that path along which the
sun traveled each day. Two planets were visible, bright Kevpel
and ruddy Davpel. Planets were similar to the moons, in that
they moved against the background stars, but they appeared as
tiny pinpoints, revealing no face or details, and their progress
against the firmament had to be measured over days or dekadays.
A few of the six known planets also showed the strange retrograde
motions that some of the moons exhibited, although it took
kilodays for them to complete these maneuvers.
Near the zenith now was the constellation of the Prophet. Afsan
had seen old hand-copied books that called this constellation the
Hunter, after Lubal, largest of the Five Original Hunters, but as
worship of them was now all but banned, the official name had
been changed to honor Larsk, the first to gaze upon the Face of
Lubal or Larsk, the picture was the same: points of light marked
the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, and the tip of the long tail.
Two bright stars represented the eyes. It was like a reverse
image, Afsan thought the kind one gets after staring at an
object, then looking at a white surface since the prophet's
eyes and Lubal's, too, like those of all Quintaglios, must have
been obsidian black.
Above the Prophet, glowing faintly across the length of the sky,
ran the powdery reflection of the great River that Land sailed on
in its never-ending journey toward the Face of God. At least,
that was what old Saleed said the dusty pathway of light crossing
the night was, but he'd never been able to explain to Afsan's
satisfaction why it was only during certain times that the great
River cast a reflection on the sky.
Saleed! Abominable Saleed! It had taken Afsan fifty-five days
riding atop a domesticated hornface in one of the merchant
caravans to get from Pack Carno, part of the province of
Arj'toolar, deep within Land's interior, to Capital City on the
upriver shore of Land.
The children were the children of the Pack, of course only the
creche operators knew who Afsan's actual parents might have been
and the whole Pack was proud that one of their own had been
selected to apprentice to the court astrologer. The choice,
presumably, had been made based on Afsan's showing in the most
recent battery of vocational exams. He had felt honored as he
packed his sashes and boots, his books and astrolabe, and set out
for his selected future. But he had been here for almost five
hundred days now. True, that was something of a record. As he
had discovered after arriving here, Saleed had had six other
apprentices in the last four kilodays, all of whom had been
dismissed. But, even though he seemed to have greater endurance
than the previous tryouts, Afsan's dream of contributing to the
advancement of astrological research had been smashed by his
Afsan had idolized Saleed, devouring his books on portents and
omens, his treatise on the reflected River in the sky, his
articles on the significance of each constellation. How he had
looked forward to meeting the great one! How disappointed he had
been when that day finally came. Soon, though, Afsan would be
leaving on his pilgrimage. He thanked God for that, for he'd be
away from his master for a great many days able to study in
private, free from Saleed's critical scowl.
Afsan shook his head slightly, again clearing his thoughts. He'd
come here to bask in the beauty of the night, not to wallow in
his own misfortune. One day the stars would yield their secrets
Time slipped by unnoticed as Afsan drank in the glory overhead.
Moons careened across the sky, waxing and waning as they went.
The stars rose and fell, constellations hustling across the
firmament. Meteors flashed through the night, tiny streaks of
gold against the black. Nothing gave Afsan more pleasure than to
behold this spectacle, always familiar, always different.
At last, Afsan heard the pip-pip call of a wingfinger, one
of the hairy flyers that heralded the dawn. He stood, brushed
dirt and dead grass from his side, turned, and looked. A cool
steady breeze played along his face. He knew, naturally, that
the air was still for what could move the air? and, rather,
that Land, the ground beneath his feet, was sailing ever so
smoothly down the mighty River, the River that ran from horizon
to horizon. At least that was what he'd been taught, and he had
learned painfully that one does not question the teachings. And
perhaps, he reflected, it was true that Land floated on
the River, for if you dug deep enough, did you not often come
upon water beneath the ground?
Afsan knew little of boats although his pilgrimage would
involve a long water journey but he did understand that the
bigger the boat, the less it rocked. Land was roughly oval in
shape. According to explorers who had traveled its length and
breadth, it was some 3 million paces from the harbor of
Capital City to the westernmost tip of Fra'toolar province and
about 1.2 million paces from the northernmost point of Chu'toolar
province to the southern tip of the Cape of Belbar in Edz'toolar.
Such a great rocky raft might indeed float reasonably smoothly
down the River. And, after all, the journey was not always a
steady one, for the ground shook, sometimes severely, several
times each kiloday.
Still, the floating was the part he always had a little mental
trouble with. But he himself had seen how the porous black
basalts that covered so much of Land's surface could indeed be
made to bob in a chalice of water. Besides, if there was a
better explanation for the way the world really was, he couldn't
think of it at least not yet.
His stomach growled, and, opening his wide mouth, Afsan growled
back at it. He understood that a ritual hunting party was going
out today, and that meant he might get to eat something other
than the usual fare from the imperial stockyards. He wondered
what they would bring down. Thunderbeast, he hoped, for it was
his favorite, though he knew that even the largest hunting packs
had trouble felling those great animals, with their massive
pillar-like legs, their endless necks, their lengthy tails.
Probably something less ambitious, he thought. Perhaps a
shovelmouth or two. Stringy meat, but an easy kill, or so he'd
heard, even if they did almost deafen you with the great
bellowing calls they produced through the crests of bone on their
He ambled back up to the top of the hill. From there he could
look in all directions. Below him lay sleepy Capital City.
Beyond, the wide expanse of beach sometimes completely
submerged, but now uncovered almost to its maximum extent.
Beyond that, the River, its waves lapping against the black
The River was, Afsan reflected for the thousandth time, like no
river he had ever seen inland, nothing like the Kreeb, upon whose
north side his Pack of Carno roamed. The Kreeb, which formed
part of the border between the provinces of Arj'toolar and
Fra'toolar, was a meandering channel of water. But this river
the River spread from horizon to horizon. That made
sense: it had to be immense for Land to float upon it.
Those who had traveled all around Land claimed that from no point
were the River's banks visible. But it must be a river it
must be. For that is what the teachings said. And,
indeed, hadn't one of the great explorers Vek-Inlee, was it?
Or long-clawed Gar-Dabo? One of them, anyway, had discovered
what she claimed was one bank of the mighty River, all ice and
snow, just like on the tallest mountaintops of Land, after
sailing far, far to the north. And another explorer and that
person's name completely escaped Afsan at the moment had
eventually confirmed that the northern ice was one of River's
banks by sailing an almost equal distance to the south and
bringing back accounts of a similar icy shore there. But those
stories were often discredited, since they were accompanied by
claims that if you sailed far enough north or south, the River
flowed backwards, and that was clearly ridiculous.
Afsan stared out at the deep waters of the River. Soon, he
thought, soon I shall sail you.
Far out to the east, where the sky and the River met, a purple
glow was growing brighter. As Afsan watched, the tiny and
brilliant bluish-white sun slowly rose, banishing the stars and
planets and reducing the dancing moons to pale ghosts.
More Good Reading
An excerpt from Far-Seer by Robert J. Sawyer. Copyright ©
1992 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.
More about Far-Seer
"Random Musings" column: Are the Quintaglios Too Clever?
Essay: Writing The Quintaglio Ascension
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
More Sample chapters