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Mammoth prisms and spindly spires stretched across the pale blue sky, catching the sun in a ripple of rainbow shimmers. Stairlike forms seemed to stretch forever, crossing and weaving in an endless dance of structure and light. From a distance, the crystalline fingers and branches looked fragile, like coral growing in a fish tank. But at close range, the giant prisms were as solid as marble columns, and as smooth and dazzling as diamonds.
Dwarfed by the towering crystals were five young humanoids; they soared among the spires like birds flying through a forest. Sails billowed from their arms and legs to catch the convection currents, but the fliers mostly depended upon graceful acrobatics to propel themselves. Tandra, the team leader of the five youths, glided to a thick green monolith, tagged up like a swimmer making a lap turn, then bounded off in an altered direction.
Two young Elaysians followed her lead, bouncing off the same crystal and racing after her. The other two members of the science team took different angles at the big monolith and soared off in parallel trajectories. One of the boys rolled into a midair somersault, just having fun. This close to the core of the planet, crystals grew in profusion, so there were plenty of smooth surfaces for pushing off.
Tandra frowned, deepening the crease around her V-shaped forehead ridges. Once they reached the hollow core, she knew they would have to be more careful with their flight patterns. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure the robotic hover-platform was following them. At a discreet distance, the meter-long disc floated along, its small thrusters making minute course changes. Once they reached the core, Tandra knew they might need the platform, for a push-off or a roost.
Laughing and chatting, the five students soared from one spidery, crystalline structure to another, plunging deeper into the center of the unique planet. To the few visitors who came here, Gemworld looked more like the intricate skeleton of a planet, or a giant snowflake made of prisms. For the Elaysians, it was a crystalline aviary. For the other sentient races, Gemworld was what they made of it. All of the inhabitants knew it was a special place, even if very few of them had ever seen a conventional planet for comparison.
As Tandra flew through a stand of rainbow-hued prisms -- old growth before the natural geometry had been improved by fractal models -- she gaped at the exquisite beauty. She thought angrily about the outsiders who claimed that Gemworld wasn't a real planet. They pointed to its forcefields and lack of mass, thinking that such a place had to be artificial, despite its immense size. They simply didn't understand.
Although the crystals looked cold and foreboding, even with their uncanny beauty, they sheltered a surprising variety of life. What could an outsider know about that? Outsiders couldn't stay long enough to really appreciate Gemworld because the low gravity was harmful to most gravity-dependent species. Although humans' muscles were a dozen times more developed, they could never soar between the sparkling archways like Elaysians born and raised in this gossamer cage.
A clearing loomed on the far side of a thicket of crystals, and Tandra realized they were getting close to the core of Gemworld. At one time, it had been a molten, metallic mass like a conventional planetary core, but the Ancients had sacrificed it to fuel the crystal. Now the inhabitants were slowly rebuilding the core with new crystal growth, which was the reason for the students' outing today.
Despite the fact it was empty -- or because of it -- Tandra found the core of Gemworld an eerie place to travel. Since it was hollow and equidistant from the massive crystal constructs surrounding it, the core was the most weightless part of the planet. Only trace gravity was measurable here.
As they flew farther into the ancient heart of the planet and the old-growth crystal, the light became more refracted and eerie, as if the ancient ocean were still there. Tandra felt the weight of ages, how many ages nobody knew, except perhaps the Lipuls. And even they had gaps in their history. The sparkling hues of the upper levels had given way to rust, olive, and sage colors, and the weathered facets were striated from elements that hadn't assaulted them for millions of years.
Tandra could well imagine the great oceans that pummeled these prisms eons ago, when even the Lipuls and the Gendlii were single-celled animals. Gemworld had been young then. Now it was old. But it was still a planet, thought Tandra, despite its low gravity.
Glancing around, she noted that her friends gave little regard to their solemn surroundings as they soared and tumbled through a swooping archway. They were just a flock of young people on a field trip, thought Tandra, and she shouldn't judge them too harshly. Hovering so close to the birthplace of the planet always gave her a sense of history -- and a chill -- but today it seemed more eerie than usual.
"We'll hold up at the purple prism!" Tandra shouted to her comrades.
"Oh, we can make it across!" scoffed one of the boys, soaring past her.
"We'll hold up!" she shouted back. "I'm the team leader."
Tandra knew she couldn't do much if the others disobeyed, but none of them wanted to get stuck out here in the wilderness. They wanted to measure the new stand, see if the fractal modeling program was working as expected, and get out of here. It was too lovely a day to be plodding through kilometer after kilometer of empty air. Although the outing had been fun so far, it had also been long, and the young Elaysians were impatient to return to their research base about four hundred prisms above them.
One by one, the students alighted softly on the ancient purple spire at the edge of the clearing. Tandra gazed into the hollow marrow of the crystal and could see its pulsing gel center. It was a sight she always found reassuring, because it meant that Lipuls probably lived within the marrow. Before the students lay a wide expanse of nothingness, broken up by little islands of discarded equipment, dust, and debris, all of it floating uselessly. In the distance, the edge of the crystal growth shimmered like a mirage.
"How much farther?" asked Lucio, the cutest of the boys, with his slight frame and rare dark hair.
"I'll find out." From her backpack, Tandra took a small handheld device and turned it on. She waited a few seconds until the positioning device communicated with the shell that circled the planet and fixed their current position. As the students hovered around her, Tandra punched in the coordinates of their destination.
"About two hundred prisms." Tandra took a bit of ground crystal from her pocket and tossed it into the air to check the air currents. Now she knew what kind of arc to take to stay on course. "We can cover it in an hour if we get good jumps. Everyone, take a drink, because there won't be time to stop."
Taking her advice, the young Elaysians pulled out sip tubes and sipped from water bladders built into their backpacks. One by one, they used the hovercraft to crouch on the rough-hewn monolith then bound off into the wide-open wilderness. Strung out like a line of migrant birds, the Elaysians soared gracefully across the hollow core of Gemworld.
Tandra realized she would have to rely heavily on the positioning device, so she took it out of her backpack and slipped the strap around her neck, letting it float behind her. A quick glance assured her that the rest of the team and the hover-platform were following dutifully behind, then she double-checked to make sure they were on course. Finally satisfied that they would reach their destination in due time, the team leader spread her sails to catch the prevailing air currents.
It didn't take long for her to realize that somethi