THE FALLING GAME
You come to the canyon's edge in the burnt blue dusk. On the other side of the chasm, the Imerin call to one another in the howling patterns of a language you don't understand. Three take to the air. They fly with heavy wingbeats and dip into the expanse below, tails whipping. Up again, they spread their wings and spin higher.
Behind you, the other missionaries huddle together and whisper. They are afraid to stand too close to the edge. The ones who arrived before you have come to this part of the canyon and have looked down to that stretch of hard, bare land—forty feet long and a hundred across—that the Imerin now circle above. They have told you about the Falling Game, but you don't know if you can believe them.
The three Imerin fly for some minutes more, silent. The aliens who stand on the other side of the canyon, watching, cast slender shadows in the last of the light. They are silent, too.
One of the flyers drops from the sky, wings folded against its body, arms crossed over its chest. It plummets and your heart hitches as you realize that it is falling face first. Just when you believe it cannot possibly recover, the Imerin pulls out of the dive with a snap of its wings that echoes against the chalky rock walls. Almost at once, the next one starts to fall. Again, it catches itself just before it hits the canyon floor, and the third starts its descent.
This one does not recover. No snap of the wings, no crack of air against skin. From this height you cannot see the blood and the bone, the long muscles stripped of skin. The rest of the Imerin spiral down from their stone perches, slow, and encircle the body.
The other missionaries push past you, holy books in hand, and peer down from edge. They ask one another the same questions that needle you. Why do they fall? Why did the first two make it, and the last one die?
You leave the group to find a quiet place and you realize you are not alone. Another Imerin sits on this side of the canyon not twenty yards away. Legs folded, wings tucked up behind its back, it watches you. Your third day here and this is the closest you have been; you notice for the first time how its broad chest bones push up, how its skin pulls taut across the planes of its face. You notice how it looks at you, its eyes seeking to understand the foreign geometry of your body.
Why aren't you with the others? you ask.
What are you holding?
The Imerin speaks softly, deliberately, in a language it has only known for a few weeks. Full, round vowels bleed into the consonants carved on either side.
The other Imerin fly up and away from the body, cutting lines across the gunmetal sky. You move closer to the alien beside you, open the holy book in your lap, and begin to speak.
The Imerin have told your people that human language is a trick of tooth and tongue, that the sentences you speak and the lines you write are lies pinned to the face of meaning. They talk about meaning like it's something absolute, like it's something they can see if only they peel away the deception of words and letters.
You leave the settlement in the early hours, when the biometallic nets encasing the compound's tents still glow soft and silver, waiting to warm under the alien sun. The Imerin you spoke to last night asked to see you again, so you walk to the sun-bleached hills with your holy book under your arm. You know you should be thinking about which stories you'll tell, which passages you'll read aloud, but you can only think about the alien's body, its curving arms and muscled back, the way it reached to touch you just before you left.
Meaning has never been so clear to you as it was in that moment.
They live in hollowed-out pockets in the canyon's sloping walls, cool shallow caves carved so high that you and the others can only come near by climbing to the top of the canyon. It's an hour from the settlement, following a steep path in the dry heat.
When you reach the top—vision blurred from the grainy air, back slick with sweat—the Imerin are already awake. They glide from one cavern to another, folding their wings and crouching on hands and feet as they enter. Eventually, one flies over to where you stand. It lands with a clap of its wings and a rush of wind so sharp with sand you have to shield your eyes.
You came back, it says.
Its hairless, naked body shines in the cresting sun. Now, standing face to face, you realize how tall it is. You have always been short for your people, but with its shoulders thrown back it stands nearly five heads higher than you. It does not smile—its mouth is too round, too lipless for that—but it raises its wings to shield you from the glare.
Yes. You take the holy books out from under your arm. Do you want to read?
You and the Imerin sit under the trembling branches of a smooth-skinned tree. It sits close to you, close enough that its pointed knee brushes yours.
You begin where you have been taught to begin, with the story of creation. You make it through the first few verses. The lilt of the lines you have recited since you were a child carry you along, but your mind wanders and your thoughts come untethered in the alien's gaze. You stop.
I have to ask, you say, turning your body so you face one another. Why don't you help the ones who fall? Why don't you stop them?
When the alien looks at you there is no anger or fear, no understanding or guilt. We cannot stop the ones who fall.
But why not? you persist. Why do they choose to fall? And then, after a moment's consideration—is it a choice?
It is a choice. It is tradition. History. Belonging. Salvation. It pauses, its round mouth narrowing and opening soundlessly. There aren't enough words. Words aren't enough.
You smile at the alien's wordplay. It is a marvel that this species that has virtually no technology, that has not traveled the cold of space or seen any world beyond this one, has mastered the turns of your language in mere days.
But maybe I can show you the reason for it, the alien says. Would you like to see?
Yes. Very much.
We will have to cross. It gestures to the canyon with an outstretched wing.
A moment's pause.
I can carry a young bilibri. You are almost the same.
You do not know this alien, or this world—in fact, you have only ever seen pictures of bilibri and the other animals native to the canyon. You do not know if you can trust the Imerin but part of you, the part that kept you awake through the night's long hours, pushes you forward.
You leave the holy books there on the outcropping and the alien wraps an arm around the curve of your knees, another around your back. Then it jumps.
At first you think you are falling, plummeting, and all you can see is the canyon's blurred, blue-grey walls. With a snap of its wings, the Imerin pulls you both up into the air again and with every desperate, powerful wingbeat your vision rocks. You bury your face in the warm skin of its chest and bite your cheeks so hard you bleed. Its fingers dig into you and it pulls you close.
When you land on the other side, the Imerin lets you down. It runs a hand down your back as you pant on all fours, waiting for the churning in your gut to stop.
Are you safe? it asks.
Yes, you say. I'm okay. I'm safe. Thank you.
It's a minute before you can stand. You steady yourself with a hand on its shoulder, an excuse to feel the scratch of its leathered skin.
This side of the canyon is different from the one you climbed before. It stretches out, a long plateau. Crooked trees buckle the rocky ground and reach leafless branches against the sky. Slips of grey grass prick out of the earth. In the distance, creatures walk on spindling legs, jostling each other, moving with the nervous energy of the herd.
The bilibri are near today, the Imerin says. The others are here, too.
You watch the Imerin take to the air and then you see that six other aliens are already in the sky, spiraling down from a great height. The Imerin doesn't join the rest but flies just behind them, separate enough to seem to be flying alone.
During the hunt, nothing is said out loud.
Four of the aliens fly high, far above the herd, and the other three stay low and approach the grazing animals. As soon as the bilibri notice the occasional wingbeat, the sound of the approach, the three Imerin separate in concert: two spread to flank the frightened animals and one stays in the middle. Their approach is slow but measured and by the time the bilibri start to lope away, their braying lost to the open air, the four other Imerin descend from the sky, spacing themselves out to encircle the herd. The bilibri turn when they see the aliens they've begun to run toward, but they are surrounded. Wordlessly, the Imerin close in.
You cannot help but to marvel at this, the perfect communication of moving bodies and determined need.
They pick three bilibri off from the rest, running the animals down and breaking their slender necks. The rest of the herd disappears across the plateau. A plume of ashen dust rises behind them.
When the Imerin lands beside you, its long, sharp toes are dark with dried blood.
We take only what we need to live, it says, as if this is an explanation. The others will go on. Now do you see?
You don't see. Whatever connection the alien hopes you have made is lost on you. But it watches you so carefully—so expectantly—that you don't want to disappoint it.
Not completely. Not yet. But I will, you assure it. You'll have to show me more.
The alien shuffles its wings, clicks the long bones against each other.
You should get back to your camp. The others must be waiting.
Yes, you agree. It'll be dark soon.
So the Imerin picks you up again and starts back to the other side of the canyon, to the holy books you'd almost left there on the ground.
It's only three days before you and the other missionaries wake to find the Imerin looping high above the canyon, preparing to fall. While you have been away, the others have spent long hours arguing and deciding and now they are ready.
You watch with leaden shame as they run out to bottom of the canyon. They link their arms and form a circle of their own, so far below the circling Imerin. The missionaries stand together, their defiant eyes trained on the aliens, and they wait.
You cannot join them; you cannot bear to imagine what your Imerin must think of you now: you traitor, you liar, you false friend. But, just like the others, you watch. The aliens spin for some minutes more, silent, and none fall. Eventually, the missionaries break their ranks and come away flushed with the excitement of their success. They clap each other's backs and smile.
You don't go back to the tents. You make the trip up the canyon's ridge, your soft hands scrabbling at grainy rock. You think of what you will say to the Imerin, how you will explain that your people value life more than anything else, how it's not your fault that you don't yet understand.
You reach the top when the sun is high and wait there until the backs of your hands are red with its heat, but no one comes.
The next morning, there is blood and bile on the canyon floor. You and the others find a split bone in the dirt. It is sharp, marrowless, hollow.
Three months pass. The Imerin have stopped falling, for now, though your people are still wary; the missionaries redouble their efforts, bringing relics and holy books to the aliens' aeries; you have stopped attending morning services because that is when your Imerin most likes to sit and talk with you in the jagged cliffs and this, you find, is itself a kind of prayer.
Three months pass and some heavy, fearful thing spreads roots in your mind and keeps you from sleep. It is here now, when your Imerin meets you in the quiet morning. It is calm at the canyon's top; no breeze raises dust to the air or sends grey grains of sand skittering over your sandals. You take the Imerin's hand in yours and press it to your cheek—a ritual greeting, a need to feel the cold brush of its skin.
Where will we go today? the alien asks. Its chest muscles pull tight as it unfurls its wings. We are building nests for the ones who will give birth in the wet months. Would you like to help?
Yes, you say. You look at the alien's face when you speak because, though its command of your language is uncanny, you still fear that it does not understand you fully. Maybe it can read meaning on your body, in the emphasis of your hands and the accents of your brow. But I've been thinking about something.
The Imerin folds its wings and sits.
The other missionaries think that the Falling Game is over. That they've made you stop. Have they?
Made us stop? The alien echoes. You hear, for the first time, something like surprise in its voice. A hint of annoyance. No, you have not made us stop.
I'm afraid that they will try to stop the Game again, you say, pushing forward. I'm worried that—
It is not a game, the Imerin hisses. Games are competition. Winning and losing. Beginning and end. Its voice grates.
It's not a beginning or end? you retort. It seems very much like an end.
It is not. It is relief. Transgression. Revolution—
The alien stops, its eyes narrowed as it looks for more words that will not come. Then—
Come with me, it says.
The Imerin picks you up roughly and takes off running. Three months spent growing comfortable in the twisting grip of its fingers dissolve in a wash of fear. It flies low, wings furiously beating, into a hazy distance that is farther from your tents than you've traveled before.
The Imerin tires after a while and sinks to the earth. It has flown beyond the hunting grounds, over a valley sunk between shifting dunes and past a winding, long-dry riverbed. You fall out of its arms at the base of small hill. The land is different here. The hill is formed of stones so smooth you imagine they must once have known the give and take of an ocean's tide. Thin reeds push up from between them and bend in the wind.
Over here, the alien says. Its voice is flat and unreadable again.
It climbs the hill quickly, with small leaps and wingbeats, and takes your hands when the stones slip from under your feet. When you reach the top, steadying yourself with a hand on the Imerin's arm, you look out onto a gully between stony banks.
The ribcage of some giant beast curves out of the ground. The bones reach high above you, above the Imerin too. They are whitened and cracked from years of sun and sand and storm, but stay rooted in the earth.
Stranger than this, though, are the plants that grow out of the bones: sleek vines and prickling fungus; stems and roots and fanning leaves; flowers whose pollen-soaked faces turn to watch the rise and fall of the sun.
The Imerin leads you into the ribcage. Nubs of a spine and broad hip bones break out of the ground. Forty paces ahead, an open jaw bares ancient teeth to the sky.
What is this place? You run your fingers along spiraling blue tendrils that trail down from above you.
It is a graveyard. A place for ancestors.
So this is an Imerin? you ask, surprised. These bones are so large.
These are the ones who came before, the alien replies. It doesn't explain any further, and you don't ask it to.
You and the Imerin stay together in the shade of the bones until the flowers can turn their brilliant heads no further to watch the sun go down. In the dusk, a plant with silver vines snakes out of the skull and uncurls its leaves in the hollows where a nose once was.
History, belonging, salvation; relief, transgression, revolution.
You still can't find meaning in the Imerin's words, but in this moment you almost believe that you don't have to.
You are not part of the group that decides to end the Falling Game.
They go out by night, while the Imerin roost, with one of the biometallic nets. The net is more than the missionaries can afford to give up—even with all of the conservation nets in place, the settlement only just produces enough energy to be sustainable—but the others say that they cannot preach while there's the possibility that the Game will continue.
You follow them out into the starless night, begging them to stop. But you can't explain what you don't understand. You wonder if the Imerin are watching from their smooth stone caverns. You wonder if your Imerin is watching too.
It takes nearly forty men and women to spread the net across the width of the canyon, to pin it stake by stake into the rock walls above that stretch of ground where your people watched the aliens fall. When it is done, suspended there in the air, the net begins to glow silver again.
You start for the hills because maybe if you make it to your Imerin, it can explain to the others what your people are doing. But already the aliens spill from the shadowed canyon walls. Your people lift their eyes to watch them circle above you.
For three weeks the Imerin continue as if nothing has changed. They hunt when they need to, keep to their canyon aeries.
You visit your Imerin every night now. It flies with you to the top of the canyon, to a place beneath the branches of two trees. The fear you first felt at flying, a fear that wrapped itself tight in your chest, comes undone at the touch of the alien's skin, at the cool you feel when you press your cheek to its chest and listen for the way its pulse matches the pounding of its wings.
Tonight, you and the Imerin lean against the tree trunks. It sits close enough that its long fingers brush the back of your hand. Usually, you will sit like this in silence with the alien until you fall asleep. But tonight, you can't keep yourself from speaking.
When I asked you about why the other Imerin fall, you say, considering your thoughts, I wasn't asking because I want it to stop.
No. I was asking because—you swallow, and arrange the words as best you can—I couldn't bear to see you fall. I couldn't stand to see you die and not know why. I know that the tradition is important to you, but need I to know—will you fall?
Your Imerin watches with small, luminous eyes. Its face is as impassive as ever, but it takes your hand in its crooked fingers, opens its mouth, searching—
Something thunderous shakes the canyon walls. The howls of ten, fifteen aliens all at once.
You and the Imerin scramble to the canyon's edge. You look down the dizzying drop to the canyon floor, to the net. Below, a group of Imerin work at the biometallic web. They pull at the stakes, beat at them with rocks. They try to rip the net. It flickers, its soft silver light dimming and then flaring, unable to maintain its glow.
If they release the net before it's ready, it could hurt them all, you say.
When the Imerin looks to you its gaze wanders, mistrustful. You will explain this. You will tell them what your people have done.
It picks you up, fingers pulling and twisting at your arms, and begins the descent. As it flies your Imerin howls, a sound torn from the hollowed drum of its chest.
When it lands, the Imerin lets you fall to your knees on the canyon floor. It bolts for the others, screaming. But before it makes it very far at all, two of the stakes pull out of the wall. The net's tension is broken. It begins to curl up, rolling back toward the other side, but two aliens are still stuck, their fingers entangled in the mesh, and they are rolled in with the netting. It sparks and sputters, electric charges running along the fine lines of the web, jarred by its sudden removal. The Imerin inside fight for a minute, struggle to get out of the shrinking, shivering net, and then they stop all together.
Behind you, the other missionaries start to pour out of the compound.
The government notice comes at the end of the next day. You and the other missionaries are to leave the following morning. A freighter is scheduled to be in orbit then, and it will take you to the nearest outpost. The unauthorized use of the net was a violation of a hundred laws, an embarrassment to your church. Everyone is to leave, and everything but the necessities can be left behind.
You spend the last night with the Imerin. Neither of you can sleep, so you go up to the canyon's edge and sit.
What will happen to you when you go? it asks.
I don't know.
Will you stay with your people and their books?
The sky grows light along the horizon. Nothing moves; there's no wind to raise dust to the air or to touch the branches of the distant trees.
I don't think I can anymore, you say.
The Imerin turns its head and watches you with its small, bright eyes. It looks to you the way bilibri eye the impassive sky after the hunt and their herd has thinned; it looks to you the way you once looked to your holy books, brows creased, for meaning that you hoped could be sculpted from words alone.
You know, you add after the silence has stretched, I wish—I hope—
I know, it says.
In those last real moments before the dawn, in the calm and quiet cold, the Imerin moves closer to you and brushes its shoulder against yours.
Together, you wait for the light to fill the spaces between you.
IAN MUNESHWAR's fiction appears in venues such as Clarkesworld, Gamut, PodCastle, and the anthology An Alphabet of Embers. He currently resides in Raleigh, where he is pursuing an MFA at North Carolina State University.