The beast emitted a muted honk from the end of its nose, eyes focusing on the colorful spray of cloth. Its paws gripped one of the thicker tree trunks with sharp-clawed toes, and it climbed with its long nose dangling to one side and the woman still seated in its crook. She leaned forward to peer between the branches and leaves, looking up at the enormous expanse of tangled cloth.
Then her eyes dropped down, and she gasped. "Freyr! There!"
Ropes hung from the canopy of cloth like the threads of a spiderweb. But no spider spun at the end of the ropes, only a man dangling limply.
"We'd better get him down."
He woke to the face of an angel.
She was a brown-skinned wingless angel with a crooked nose, a wide face, short tangled hair, and strange beasts for servants, but she was no less an angel for all that. She'd saved his life; as far as he was concerned that made her more than qualified. "I've asked your name before, haven't I?" His tongue felt thick and his words slurred.
She nodded. "Twice." She had a tray with a couple of capped bottles and a big mug of warm soup in her hands.
"Sorry. Never was good with names."
"Also, you keep fainting." She set the tray down next to his bed.
"Terrible manners. Must apologize." He tried to sit up, and to his surprise succeeded. The room around him was strange: walls, ceiling and floors all of smooth polished wood, with a few pieces of sturdy wooden furniture and wood carvings for decorations. Someone really liked wood. And brown. All different shades of brown, from pale beige to deep mahogany, created by stains and inlaid in various intricate patterns in the furniture. It was pretty in its way. He glimpsed himself in a big mirror opposite the bed. He was not pretty in any way. The skin of his face, upper chest, hands and wrists, was red and puffy from burst blood vessels.
She sat beside him and smiled. Her smile was as crooked as her nose. "You already did."
"So I did. Sorry about that. Oh wait, apologizing again."
"I forgive you. Do you want to try drinking some soup?"
"Sure. Will you tell me your name again?"
"I am Illyana." She tipped the cup to his lips. He drank; it was warm and bland and he was grateful for it, too.
"Mmm. I'm Richard Paulson. No surname?"
She shook her head. "Don't need one."
Richard spent many days convalescing in Illyana's bedroom. Despite the presence of his angel, he was not in Heaven. He was still in Western Altheia, which Illyana called home. It turned out this wasn't the trackless wilderness he'd been led to believe.
Well, it was sort of a trackless wilderness. Illyana's people had seceded from the galactic community. He and Illyana spoke often as he recovered. She had fascinating stories to tell, about the local wildlife and her life there. She lived alone, with her nearest neighbor almost a kilometer away. He couldn't imagine a lifestyle so isolated, so empty of people and the entertainments he was used to. It sounded like it should be boring, but Illyana never sounded bored. She had a way of talking that could make even ordinary things seem interesting, and nothing she talked about was ordinary.
"So what do you people do, really? This is some sort of high-tech agrarian community?"
"Not agrarian," Illyana explained patiently. "Agrarian people farm. We don't farm. We like the forest here and do not want to cultivate it or transform it. Our goal is to live without a disproportionate impact on our environment." Her own home was artfully designed to resemble a thick-trunked tree from without.
"... right. So you're, what, hunter-gatherers?"
"We don't hunt, either. We do gather, but we're not primitives. We have computers, robots, microfusion power plants, medicines and so forth."
"How can you maintain all that without an industrial base?"
"The robots do a lot of the maintenance and we do the rest."
"But you've got no economies of scale! And your communications ... you've got no ansibles?"
"We've got short-wave radios."
"And no vehicles?"
"No roads. We don't want to have a disproportionate impact on our environment. We use the goriphants for transportation."
"What about graviders? They don't need roads."
"What's a gravider?"
"Those do sound nice," Illyana admitted. "Except for the part where it throws you out when you're several kilometers above the ground."
"It does have certain drawbacks." He leaned back against the pillows and shook his head. "Still. You've no idea how to get to Inverse Spaceport?"
"There's a spaceport? Where's Inverse?"
"It's on Quarter Continent. Northeast of here, across the Midnight ocean. About sixty-five hundred kilometers from here. I think."
She shook her head. "My people left the galactic mainstream sixty years ago. We haven't had word of what's going on outside this forest since then."
"You're kidding. No one ever tries to leave?"
"We like it here. It's comfortable and beautiful and we have everything we need."
"But ... no one?"
Illyana gave a little shrug. "Not so far."
"So I'm stuck here."
She reached out with one brown hand and smiled her crooked smile. "It's a good life we have here, Richard. Would it be so bad to try it?"
He looked at the hand of his angel as it covered his, and thought about the strange beasts she rode, the vast expanse of wilderness surrounding them, the stories she told. He thought about his family, and his friends, and his work, and the life he'd had. He'd lost that, maybe. But he hadn't lost everything. Richard smiled back at her, feeling suddenly giddy. "No. I suppose it wouldn't be."
proboscis: a nose, especially a prominent one like the trunk of an elephant. Also, the long tubular feeding organ on some invertebrates, such as butterflies and mosquitos.