Episode Six: Drifting
To some in the ancient Lowcity, the strange floating creatures called Hohi can barely be said to exist. They are more of an abstract concept, an oddity for other people to care about, a thing of tales they were taught in their youth. Even among those for whom they are a solid thing, a part of the Lowcity’s fabric like any other, the name “Hohi'' is seldom used; in its stead, they are called “Gasbags”, the sort of name one should probably expect of a place called “the Lowcity”. It would likely be considered a slur by the Hohi, if they cared to consider it anything at all. But their minds are quite unlike those of the people who call them such, just as their bodies are, and insults mean little to them. Physical reality is all that matters, and the reality of the Hohi’s physicality is quite unlike any other. Almost completely cylindrical, fully grown Hohi range in size between seventy-five centimetres and two metres long, and typically have a diameter of around fifty centimetres at the midpoint, tapering gently at each end. Their skin is rough, rubbery, and a glistening silver in colour; there is almost never any variation in colouration, although faint black patterns on a subdermal layer can be seen under certain lights. The surface of their cylindrical bodies is otherwise unblemished and featureless, save for four long tendrils that protrude from the Hohi evenly spaced around their midpoints. Remarkably dextrous, these tendrils retract into the body when at rest and can extend upwards of two metres- and are capable of fearsome grip strength, should one anger the Hohi to whom they belong. But Hohi are slow to anger, outside of situations in which they or those they hold dear are threatened- although, once their ire is raised, they almost never forgive.
When one first lays eye upon a Hohi, from close enough that their features may be discerned, among the first questions raised is invariably “How do they see?”. Not unreasonable, as they are as eyeless as they are earless, noseless, and less every other kind of orifice one might care to mention. The answer, as is often the case in the Lowcity and especially the case with the Hohi, is complicated. In no small part this is because, in this as in most other ways, the Hohi are different to other Lowcity denizens. They do not see as a Skitterling or a Fallen does, they do not smell as a Grib can or hear as a Lesh might. As far as most knew they might well share any or no traits with the strange Golnur, their only rival in the Lowcity for the throne of “least knowable”. The simple answer is that the outer layer of a Hohi is porous, filled with an incredible number of holes so small that none can see them with the naked eye. The inner layer, whose patterns some claim to see in the shifting of phosphor lamps, holds the sensory organs that the outer layer lacks; however, these too are so different from those any observer might have that no real progress has been made in understanding them. For most, though, this explanation is enough: you can’t see their eyes or ears, because they’re on the inside. As complete and comprehensible an explanation for the Hohi as any other. The only real sensory difference between the Hohi and most others is the matter of colour: while the spectrum of colour visible to the varied residents of the Lowcity varies greatly, the spectrum visible to whatever a Hohi has for eyes is by far the narrowest. But, blind to colour as they may be, they are not exactly colourblind. They can feel colour. The colour receptors that most have in their eyes are, instead, located on the ends of the Hohi’s tendrils, and by brushing their tendrils across a surface they can feel what colour it is. By the time one learns this of the Hohi, they have usually learned so much else of them that this barely even registers as odd.
But most in the Lowcity do not learn much of the Hohi, for the simple reason that they do not encounter them. They are limited to the uppermost levels of the Lowcity, not by law but by their own nature. They are creatures of the sky, much like the Fallen; but even moreso than the Fallen, they abhor the ground. And a life below its surface is not just unpleasant, but deadly. The same strange anatomy that allows the Hohi to defy gravity itself renders them acutely vulnerable to increases in pressure. A Hohi which soars up to the very edge of the world’s atmosphere will suffer no ill effect, but that same Hohi must be very careful as it returns to the ground lest they suffer from Compression, the effects of which are too unpleasant to describe. And below ground- in the Lowcity, for instance- the pressure increase rapidly outstrips what they can handle even given time to acclimate. As a result, Hohi are only ever found in the uppermost levels of the Lowcity, never descending more than a handful of kilometres below the surface. They do, however, often ascend beyond the limits of the Lowcity’s earthen ceiling: perhaps the most unique trait possessed by the Hohi is their ability to survive in the toxic environs of the surface without issue. The poisoned air poses no issue to them as, while they do need to breathe, some quirk of their anatomy means that not only can they breathe toxic air- the air they exhale is purified of all contaminants.
One might wonder, then, why so many Hohi choose to live in the Lowcity at all. The areas they inhabit are as comfortable as any are likely to be, with higher ceilings than are typical as well as the sorts of accoutrement and furnishings that suit a Hohi, but creature comforts can only bring so much comfort when every moment is filled with a dull but always present sort of agony. Why, then, do so many Hohi come to the Lowcity? Why do they live in those tunnels when they are uniquely free to live where they please, floating above the ruined world? There are many who do; in fact, plenty of Hohi never even touch the ground, let alone descend below it. They float among the clouds in clouds of their own, dozens or hundreds of them entwining their tendrils and gently drifting over all. They see things that none below can conceive of, sunsets more brilliant than those depicted on the frescoes of the Fallen Cathedral. They know better than anyone below that, contrary to popular belief in the Lowcity, the surface is not dead. It is simply a different sort of alive to what once was. They may, even, have laid eyes on surviving places not so different to the Lowcity, the domains of Outsiders that some Lowcity residents claim still exist beyond the City’s tunnels And yet a not insignificant number of the Hohi choose to leave their floating world and live below ground. Why?
Today, the Lowcity welcomes a new resident. A Hohi from the Sunward Float, it has no name. No individual Hohi do, when they arrive in the Lowcity, though some choose to take one after some time spent among the Hohi of the City. There is little ceremony for the new arrival: it simply drifts down into one of the tunnels which leads to the surface, following the familiar fleshy tubes that provide the Lowcity’s air- irrelevant to a Hohi- down into the populated areas of the upper levels. Another Hohi drifts out into the tunnel from a nearby room; perhaps it somehow knew that the new arrival had arrived, or perhaps not. The pair entwine tendrils for a moment, then the newcomer is led towards… Well, it’s not quite a customs department, as coming and going is far too infrequent for any permanent setup of the sort. There is an area near the uppermost reaches of the Lowcity where administration regarding the surface is handled, mostly by Lesh bureaucrats: new arrivals are logged, repairs to the entrances are arranged to be carried out by Umbressi maintainers, and expeditions to the lost surface are dispatched. For even after all this time, there is still a bounty to be found in the old world. Perhaps that will be this new Hohi’s role in the Lowcity, journeying out where few others can and finding lost technology, strange new life forms, or simply the inspiration to make great art? For now, the future is wide open- and perhaps that is why some Hohi, perhaps the only people in all the ruined world who have a choice in the matter, choose to come to the Lowcity: because almost anything that can be found in what remains of the world can be found there. It isn’t paradise, not by any stretch of the imagination (especially for a Hohi) but it has- it is- potential. Perhaps that potential is, itself, the reason this Hohi has chosen to come here.
After some bureaucratic business not worth getting into, the Hohi is officially allowed into the Lowcity proper- or at least, the limited area in which a Hohi can survive. The tunnels in this area are tall and wide- by Lowcity standards- to better facilitate the Hohi who are the main residents. The new arrival is led by its new acquaintance through these tunnels, past rooms and chambers where other Hohi go about their business, the occasional tendril drifting out into the corridor in greeting. The new arrival drifts slightly higher as a Skitterling hurries past, perhaps in surprise at this unfamiliar sight, or perhaps just as an attempt at courtesy; the Skitterling barely even acknowledges the Hohi, as he knows better than to expect much in return. The pair pass through a large chamber, where Hohi drift low to the ground, their tendrils dragging through a low-hanging mist. Yet again, the Hohi prove themselves to be perhaps the most… singular of the Lowcity’s residents: this is a cafeteria. The new arrival pauses to sample the Lowcity’s cuisine by dipping its tendrils into the mist, drawing in the nutrients that it holds; as it does so, a Hohi much larger than the others floats by, a fresh supply of mist emanating out from its skin. The Hohi have no name for these individuals who make daily journeys up to the surface, where they draw in the sun’s energy and metabolise it into nutrient mist. All Hohi are capable of this feat, though only the most capable take it as their calling. For surface dwelling Hohi, the nutrient mist is food only for the youngest, or the infirm: those for whom photosynthesis does not provide sufficient sustenance. In the Lowcity, those most capable do so for all. Perhaps this is why the new arrival has come to the Lowcity: for this clarity, this specificity, of purpose? In the Float communities of the surface, roles are fluid and change constantly. No single Hohi has a specific role for their entire existence, or even for an entire week. But in the Lowcity, such a way of life is less practical, and Lowcity Hohi tend to have one task they do- and do well. Perhaps that is why some are drawn here: for that simplicity, that clarity?
When the new arrival has had its fill, it moves on. Its companion now shows it to the area where the Lowcity Hohi rest, an area- typically- unlike most others in the Lowcity. Due to the varied requirements of its varied inhabitants, the layout of the Lowcity tends toward tunnels of varying sizes layered on top of one another, with gently sloping paths leading up or down between levels. Vertical shafts are used chiefly for the transportation of goods, rather than people- although personal elevators may be found in particularly wealthy Lesh districts. Here, however, where the Hohi dream, no one but the Hohi has cause to visit. And so the full potential of verticality is put to use in a sprawling collection of chambers not unlike a beehive where Hohi may find a spot to rest, tucking themselves into a chamber that snugly fits their size and dozing without fear of drifting away. The Hohi do not sleep, as most others do. They do something similar, and they most certainly dream, but they never lose consciousness. As with so much else of the Hohi, it is a difference that is impossible to fully comprehend- in no small part because the Hohi are uninterested in explaining it. It is a state not unlike meditation, if not quite so voluntary. But like meditation, it is almost spiritual in nature- perhaps the only element of Hohi society in which the practices around it are observed for reasons more akin to emotion than any practical concern. The Hohi must be undisturbed during their rest; not an unreasonable or unfamiliar stipulation, as most would agree that undisturbed and safe sleep are incredibly important. But for the Hohi it is not just a matter of not being awoken- again, they cannot wake, as they do not sleep- but that even the act of observing them at rest is an affront. The Hohi dormitory, for want of a better word which the Hohi do not care to give, is a unique place in the Lowcity. Many curious sorts who live in the lower areas might like to visit just out of curiosity or to better understand their city, much as they like to see the Reservoir or the Fallen Cathedral or the strange automata of the Lesh. But visitors are not allowed here. It is, as much as anything is sacred in Hohi society, a sacred place. Here the new arrival is left by its guide, as it finds for itself a nook where it can recover from the journey here. Before long, it is tucked away in a spot just right, where it can dream; perhaps of the sky it has left behind, perhaps of the task which has brought it here. Perhaps this, itself, is what has brought it to the Lowcity. To the Hohi who drift above this kind of stillness is unthinkable: even at rest, they are subject to the whims of the wind. One can easily imagine that having times of stillness, of peace, being reason enough.
With all that said, perhaps it doesn’t have a reason at all. Perhaps, in attempting to understand the motivations of the Hohi, the people of the Lowcity are imposing their own biases upon them- with the simple notion that a reason is needed? In so many many ways, the Hohi are unlike them, unlike anyone else. Perhaps needing a motivation for one’s actions is just another difference? Perhaps this Hohi has come to the Lowcity to find a motivation for coming here, and for the next thing it does. Or perhaps it has simply drifted here, as its fellows do in the sky above. Soon, the new arrival will rouse itself and properly begin its new life. It will, in all likelihood, find tasks to complete, and learn the written language that most Hohi use to communicate with the other Lowcity residents, and live out its life as it pleases. It will probably choose a name, and new friends, perhaps it will have a family. Perhaps it will do none of these things. Only after its life has ended and the totality of its story has been told will anyone else know the purpose behind its actions, if even then. Really, is that so different to how anyone else lives, after all? Anyone, at any point in time, in any place, in any world, and least of all in that strange place some call the Lowcity?