2947-01-07 - Tales from the Inbox: A Gossamer Guardian

All colony worlds have their legends. The dark, towering stalkers of twilight that haunt the dreams of Heraklean children and the jovial, rotund tricksters said to dance among the cyclopean stones of Planet at Centauri’s Makismov Barrens are famous throughout explored space, but the new worlds, too, have their mythical denizens.

Håkøya, a Coreward Frontier world very close to Maribel, has a legend which seems far older than its short colonial history. Atte U. claims to have experienced these legends as reality, and though he has no footage or witnesses to support his story and his claims seem more the product of hallucination than reality, we have seen stories cross this space far more outlandish than his. Personally, I am not convinced; I suspect he encountered something or someone out there, but stunned and possibly concussed by his hard landing, Atte's account is likely not reliable.

After his encounter, he claims to have wandered in the forest for a week before being rescued. His rescue and weak condition (most Håkøyan plants are edible to humans, but he evidently managed to eat one that isn't) when found can be corroborated by a local news report, but none of what is reproduced below could be verified, save that the tale he sent to this publication is consistent with his original retelling post-rescue.

Atte found Håkøyan legend to be good idle reading, so he sought out all the dubious but thrilling accounts he could find on the system datasphere. He didn't take the tales told by the second- and third-generation colonists any more seriously than the vivid folklore of Hercules, his home-world - every world humanity had settled collected legends of that sort.

Atte had come to Håkøya for its idyllic equatorial climates, rugged natural beauty, and lack of dangerous native fauna. The world seemed perfectly suited for a spacer's sabbatical or retirement, and he knew many older spacers chose to live out their sunset decades the world if they could afford it. Atte himself didn't plan on retiring just yet - he was a bit past his prime, perhaps, but the stars still called his name. A few months of laid-back frontier life was all he wanted from Håkøya.

Reading the myths of the Håkøyan colonists proved a welcome addition to his season of rest. Many of the tales hinted at fell beauty seen at a distance among the trees in the highlands, and whispered of broad, enticing paths sweeping through cursed woodlands where human feet had never fallen. Those who followed such paths, it was said, were swallowed up forever. Such elflike legends seemed only to be a retelling of the legends of old Earth, bred anew in the minds of the over-imaginative and under-stimulated colonists. Still, there seemed to be many locals who believed them.

To be sure, the world had much yet untouched by human hands. There were wonders yet to be seen, but they were natural ones, rather than supernatural – Håkøya had earned with ease its reputation as the Confederacy’s best Frontier getaway from the bustle of Core Worlds life by being lush, pleasant to human sensibilities, and most of all, unusually safe. Its life teemed everywhere, but it was the life of a tended garden, harmless to the human form. 

At first, Atte scoffed at the locals’ superstitions. In the controlled environment of the planet’s spaceport city and resorts, it was easy to think the frontier yokels merely foolish. Only when he staggered free of the twisted remains of a rented air-lighter deep in the forested hills, did he wonder whether that doubt was misplaced.

Still dazed by the force of his aircraft’s spectacular wreck and thankful that the crash harness had worked as intended, he paused at edge of a pool of still, clear water to splash his face clear of the chemical residue of burning circuity clinging to his skin. When he looked up, he knew instantly why those legends were taken seriously by the colonists. Swallowed up in trackless forests as he suddenly was, Håkøya’s beauty had morphed from pleasant to oppressive, and even judgmental; Atte couldn't shake the thought that a singed and ugly thing like himself was an intruder barely tolerated by the primeval wilderness. He wanted nothing more than to flee back to his resort lodgings, where legends of strange things wandering the alien woods had been easy to dismiss as a silly local myth.

To his apparent good fortune, when Atte turned away from the pond, he spotted a trail where he hadn’t noticed one before, broader than an animal track and beaten down from regular use. The Håkøyan wilderness was home to thousands of far-scattered hermits, most of them retired spacers, and it seemed a stroke of luck to have crashed in the domain of one such recluse. Following the path, he guessed, would lead to someone who could radio back to town and secure him a return to civilization. He had no idea if the wrecked lighter had gotten off an automated distress signal before augering into the canopy.

The trail proved so twisted and switchbacked that Atte soon lost all sense of direction. There seemed no reason for this meandering, as if the path had been laid down at random. It remained strong and easy to follow, so he stayed with it. Local wildlife darted away into the undergrowth at his passing, and vegetation gravid with brilliantly-colored local fruit peeked out from behind the trees. It would be easy, he thought, for a hermit live off the land without ever returning to civilization - Håkøyan biomass was generally edible to humans.

At last, he came to the path’s terminus, but it was not a recluse's cabin as he had expected - the path terminated at the bole of a tree-like growth. The great, stately thing with a gnarled trunk sat across the path as if the path had come first rather than the ancient tree, though the path did not continue its winding course beyond.

Atte approached, wondering if perhaps a hermit had carved his home into the broad trunk. There was no doorway in the lee of the arching roots - instead, he saw that what had appeared at a distance to be a single trunk was in fact two entwined, one growing from each side of the path and woven together tightly all the way to the ground.

“Wait, intruder.”

The voice was barely a whisper, but it startled him all the same. He looked all around for the source, and was just beginning to assume his imagination had overreacted to the sound of a local avian when he spotted a wispy, feminine figure slouched on a knot of the tree’s tangled roots. She was not clothed, but neither was she naked – a misty substance clung to her like a fine lace gown, and covered her face like a veil. Through this veil, he could tell she was not looking at him, but upward, face inclined to the sun peeking through the branches.

“Strange creature.” The apparition spoke again, still imperiously refusing to even glance in the marooned spacer’s direction. “Ahead lies such glorious peril that you must be allowed to know it.”

Atte opened his mouth, but found that he could not speak. Even if he had found something to say, the thought of using his rough, foreign voice to address such a being filled him with shame. The slim figure’s veiled but obvious beauty, though blatantly not human, also not entirely unfamiliar, and Atte couldn't shake the sense that he was not seeing this creature for the first time. She was as at home in the Håkøyan wilderness all around as a diamond set in a crown, perfectly and obviously kin to the glorious desolation – or perhaps, as if it was a part of her.

The figure stood languidly, her face still tilted toward the sun, and glided across the root-choked soil toward the offworlder. “Your warning has been given. Tread this path at your own peril, or return to your stars and forever wonder what lies beyond this warning. Once chosen, your path will be set.”

As she spoke, Atte heard a groaning, creaking noise behind him. He turned to see that a narrow archway had opened between the twin entertwined boles of the great tree - an archway through which the path continued its meandering course on the far side. Without doing so, he guessed that if he walked around the tree's far-flung roots, he would see what he saw before - that the path ended where he stood.

Atte returned his attention to the veiled apparition and nodded his comprehension, swallowing and utterly failing to voice many questions. 

The moment stretched on, and the figure seemed content to give him all the time he needed to consider the choice. As his thoughts whirled, she wandered seemingly without direction, face always upturned, and never venturing far from the great tree. Her footfalls were utterly silent, and Atte watched her helplessly. She was, he concluded, as wild as the rest of Håkøya – wild, but as pleasing to the eye as all the world’s sights. 

In the strange logic of the moment, he had no doubt her warning was genuine. Håkøya's biosphere contained nothing known that could threaten humans, but if this gossamer-clad being could exist, that knowledge was perilously incomplete. He feared what lay beyond, but all the undiscovered perils of whatever lay through the arched gateway in the tree almost seemed worth braving, in the hopes that the veiled visage of this beautiful guardian might, if only for an instant, turn his way.

In the end, though, Atte knew he couldn’t go through. He was a spacer, not a frontier rambler, out of his element and out of his league. What could he do but turn away? Not without second thoughts, he set his face to the direction from which he had come, noticing for he first time that the pall of smoke from his crashed aircraft was no longer visible over the trees.

“As you wish, child of the stars.” The figure’s voice was solemn, even disappointed, as Atte took the first step away. 

Once he had set his course, he found it impossible to stop – it was as if his feet had determined to flee even if their owner had second thoughts.

When at last he got control of himself and turned to look, Atte found that the path petered out into the underbrush just behind his heels. The great, gnarled tree and its veiled attendant had vanished as totally as if they had never been.