Kyrean Life, Sort of
by Michael "Mystic" Olson
The sun beat down warmly on the world of Kyrie while Shaldea clung to the side of her bartoui tree and peered eastward. Her claws found easy purchase in the plant’s tough skin, anchoring her securely against the frequent winds of her world.
“Shaldea, I need you to pick up Sol at the port for me. I meant to retrieve him earlier, but the wind hasn’t cooperated in days.” The young kyrean twitched her head-spines in agitation and then composed her emotions before replying, “Yes, Grandmother.” Nearly two years old already, and the little barnacle couldn’t even tread his own water yet. Human forms were good for so little.
She allowed herself one last adolescent sigh before smiling broadly and leaping from her perch. Water glistened in the daylight below, and the young woman reveled in the sensation of falling freely as the air rushed along her turquoise skin and pulled pleasantly at her head-sail. She was already well below the wind ceiling, and her elders would have doubtlessly admonished her for not releasing her sail yet.
Shaldea allowed herself a few more seconds to savor the sensation, and then even she had to admit it was time to stop. With a flick of her muscles, the silken chutes slid free of their hollows and tried to yank her back into the sky by her forearms and calves. The ocean rewarded her with a stinging slap for her folly before yielding into a welcome embrace.
Long kelp-like leaves from the bartoui brushed lightly at her legs as she kicked back and forth to stay afloat. Bobbing down into the water, she called out into the kelp listening for the echoes of breakfast. They came in the form of a small collection of shapes not far below. Shaldea threaded through the water, navigating the foliage with ease, feeling a predator’s joy. Her claws darted out and impaled ten of the tiny fish before the school knew she was upon it. The survivors scattered throughout the leaves as the kyrean surfaced and began to eat her meal. After cleaning the last morsel off her digits, she began the long swim upwind.
Kyrie was a world of water and sky. Its blue surface was broken only by a handful of tiny islands and the sporadic bartoui stalks that Shaldea’s people called home. Humans, being the children of earth and flame that they were, had found no place to call their own when they came to establish trade on the simple world. So they had forged one.
The spaceport glinted on the horizon, a disc of metals and plastics resting on the ocean; a wholly alien sight. Massive floats labored to support the weight of starships and the city that serviced them, while anchors of equally impressive size reached down into the depths to keep them stationary.
It was a city of whispers, run mostly by kyreans. Accustomed to conversing with neighbors from miles away, they had to be careful to speak softly in the close confines of an urban area. Shaldea found the entire thing a bit unnerving.
Her head spines began to itch, not with the perpetual murmurs, but with a much louder sound. High-pitched like the vibrations Uncle Daniel made by pursing his lips. Hollow ‘splooshes’, light ‘thwips’, and unexplainable hissing sounds joined the cacophony as the water’s surface was ruptured. As far as the eye could see, similar pocks were being formed on the ocean.
It almost resembled rain, but no raindrops Shaldea had ever seen trailed fire through the sky and steamed the water upon impact. Looking further up, the teenager could see bigger balls of flame falling with deceptive speed. They appeared no faster than bartoui seeds that had finally drifted below the winds, which meant they had to be large indeed. A piece larger than her torso crashed into the sea and sent up a spray of water that actually struck her. Jolted from the surrealism of the sight, she took a breath and dove under the waves, kicking rapidly for depth.
The scene beneath the surface was no less strange. Thin strings of bubbles delineated the passage of each small piece of debris, while the heat of larger ones spawned seething clouds. Shaldea watched the large piece vanish quickly into the murk below, realizing that the water couldn’t begin to cushion the impact of the meteorites. Maybe she could take shelter beneath the spaceport.
Shaldea began to swim in the direction of that shadowy disk, listening to the whispers that had turned to shouts amidst the burning rain. And then the entire spaceport shuddered and dipped, churning the ocean around it. The kyrean girl could tell exactly where the structure had been hit, and the size of impact. She could tell by the wailing screams and moans rising up in a ring around the site, and the silence from its center.
Sol was on that station, she remembered in shock, even as the platform trembled beneath a second impact. Shaldea climbed her way to the surface where she was assailed by the rare occurrence of waves on her world. She gathered her mind and fought against the undulations, struggling to cross the short distance between herself and the city.
When she finally won her way through, the adolescent found herself thrown against one of those uniquely human contraptions for ascendance. Her uncle and aunt had termed it a ‘ladder’ when she had asked once upon a time. It consisted largely of two long metal bars connected at regular intervals; awkward at best from the viewpoint of a kyrean.
Shaldea clung to the device as the city rocked up and down, eyeing the pole built nearby for Kyrie’s natives. When the water next lapped at her legs, she dove off in that direction, reaching her destination in a few furious strokes. Her claws dug gratefully into the rubbery face. She took one moment to steel herself, and then began to scurry upward as fast she could.
The spaceport was just beginning to steady when she reached its surface, some twenty feet above the surrounding ocean. Greasy smoke rolled skyward in a thick plume just a few blocks away, where the station had been hit. The dome-shaped dwellings that lined the streets had been cracked, upended, and shattered.
Those who had been beyond the blast were already digging through the rubble, searching for survivors. The workers dug through the jagged plastic and metal toward the vibrations of the living. They’d never sense the subtler noise of a human child in the chaos, not while there were more audible victims clamoring for attention everywhere.
Shaldea ran down the street toward the visitor center that had been holding Sol, doing her best to ignore the occasional meteorite that continued to fall down and dent the ground. She found the multistoried structure devastated by the blast, not even recognizable as a building. Shoving aside the sick feeling of fear, the young woman keened desperately into the wreckage, listening past the pop of burning plastics, the hum of small electronics, the gurgle of broken water pipes, and the grind of shifting debris.
She couldn’t find the one sound she was looking for, the muffled throb of a human heart. That didn’t mean anything, she told herself as she searched for some way into the collapsed structure. It was hard to hear humans even when there weren’t three floors of rubble in the way and bedlam all around. She at last sensed something resembling a passage, and ripped the pieces of debris blocking it aside. Getting down on hands and knees to fit, she began to crawl and climb her way through the twisting pocket. Each sonorous groan of the building’s remains caused Shaldea to redouble her efforts. She was freefalling beneath the wind curtain for sure now, she acknowledged while trying to ignore the tickle of dripping blood where the passage bit into her skin.
Things began to quiet as she worked her way deeper inside, the starport was coming out of its panic, and people were doing what they could to make rescue efforts easier everywhere. The power grid snapped off, the water fell still, and the entire city seemed to silently hold its breath, waiting for outcomes.
Shaldea listened again, straining past the small sounds and her own heart leapt to hear a small rupturing of the air as a pair of human lungs tried to shake communication from it. He wasn’t far. She refused to consider the possibility that it was someone other than her cousin, for it was the only life that she could detect nearby. Listen
She began to dig past the remnants of wall and furniture, listening for sounds of shifting and praying nothing that she swept aside was holding the passage together. Finally there was enough of an opening to squeeze through into the space beyond.
Half the room had come down and was piled up in a ramp down from ceiling to floor. She crawled inside to find her cousin Sol, sitting in a corner and leaking fluids out of various orifices on his face. As far as she could tell he was just making random air vibrations, but it was hard to tell with young humans sometimes.
Shaldea glanced around at the ceiling as she crawled down, trying to guess how long things might continue to hold. The young boy paused in his lamentations at the sound of her approach, and clung eagerly to her as she picked him up. He probably had no idea who she was, and the kyrean girl belatedly realized that she had left her voice box at home. Sol had been young enough during most of their encounters that hand gestures sufficed for the things one had to say to him.
She tried to hold him in a comforting manner as she carried him back up to the passage. It was a difficult climb out, with her alternately carrying him on her back, or pulling him along where the passage was too low for that. There were a few points where she heard rumbles further back as some air pocket or another collapsed in on itself, but their small tunnel continued to hold until at last they crawled out into the light.
Sol clutched his eyes and buried his head in her shoulder to hide them from the light. The sky was still being painted with smoke, but plumes of water were being arced into the area immediately surrounding the impact. The last of the fiery projectiles had passed beneath the ocean, and the waters had all but calmed.
The pair made their way out of the affected area, to where people still waited in their homes anxiously for news of loved ones, and information. Shaldea knocked on one of the doors, and asked for a needle and some thread. She was welcomed inside and one of the residents volunteered to do the stitching for her, which was a relief after all she had been through. Almost all of her kind were skilled in the art of basic medical care, a necessity for a people who traditionally lived an hours travel from their nearest neighbor.
“’dea!” Sol proclaimed at one point during the process, indicating that he recognized her at least. She offered him a weary smile in return.
“You found this child at the disaster?” her caregiver asked.
“Yes, I was coming to retrieve him for my grandmother. He’s my cousin by adoption,” Shaldea answered. If the situation seemed odd to the other kyrean, she was polite enough not to pry.
“I do not think you should attempt to glide on this, there are too many gashes to repair properly. It would be best if you wait until after you have shed,” the woman said, as she finished putting another line of neat stitches in her patient’s sail. “If you need a place to stay, we can show you to one of the rest centers, or if they are full you can stay here.”
“Thank you for the offer, but my cousin’s family would be very disappointed if we were not there for the holiday. I shall swim or find other means,” Shaldea announced, as she clasped her hands and bowed to her hostess.
The other means she ended up pursuing consisted of a collection of boats available to the public. Usually they were employed by humans, but kyreans with handicaps or unusually heavy burdens were known to make use of them as well. Her aunt had taught her how to pilot the strange devices when she was young, so it was no problem guiding the craft to her grandmother’s bartoui.
It was an atypical home by the standards of Kyrie, with several rooms built around the trunk and a woven ladder running its length. A wheel of shed sails spun through the wind, generating the electricity human guests would find valuable at night.
The grandchildren made their ascent to the room carved in the top of the tree and found their grandmother examining the seams in still more shed sails that comprised the sole piece of clothing she owned. She smiled at them as they entered, sweeping Sol up into an embrace. A box on the wall chirped, “Hello, Sol!” in a kindly voice as it transformed radio waves into sound. Shaldea had stopped home to retrieve her own as well, and it dangled from a cord around her neck at the moment.
“It would seem you had quite the adventure,” her grandmother said, running a claw tip lightly along one of the sewn gashes on the teenager’s shoulder. “It’s some fine stitchwork. Do they hurt much?”
“Not more than they should,” Shaldea answered. “’Pain is the price of being foolish’,” she intoned in the manner of one who had heard the lesson many, many times.
The young lady’s grandmother quirked a smile and stated, “And your mother is right every single time she says that.” The expression softened as she continued, “But what you did today was brave, not foolish, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’m very proud of you, and everyone else doubtlessly will be as well when they hear.”
The day faded into a clear night as they whiled away the hours engaging in preparations, and listening to what information drifted across the sea. They straightened the guest rooms, hung decorations, and ruined some perfectly good fish by subjecting them to intense heat. Shaldea wondered if they were doing all of it for nothing. There had been a grim death toll at the spaceport, and the platform was currently waiving off all traffic until the damage could be better assessed.
The kyrean girl contacted her parents and told them of her exploits. They praised her for her accomplishments, admonished her for giving them something to worry about, and wished everyone in the house well.
It was much later when a wailing scream filled the night, sending almost palpable tremors through the air. Shaldea’s head snapped up in alarm while Sol watched her in amazement and the grandmother smiled a knowing smile. The teenager sprung out the door and onto the side of the bartoui, peering up into the crystal night. The stars sparkled with sharp, unobstructed clarity save for a bright blue tear in the sky that was bearing straight toward the tree at a chilling speed. It was a heart lurching sight to one who had gone through a meteor storm that same day.
The projectile slowed as it neared until it became obvious that it was just the flare of a ship’s ion engine. Shaldea was forced to blink in surprise at her own voluminous black eyes as the shiny surface of the craft drifted to a halt a few feet away. A hatch slid open, and a ramp extended, ruining the image and replacing it with the smiling face of Aunt Sarah.
“Shaldea!” she proclaimed in greeting, “You haven’t changed a bit! Oh why can’t human children be like that. Sol just keeps growing and growing on me.” The adolescent did her best to hide a flash of annoyance at being compared to a child. She did involuntarily skitter back along the tree as the human woman spread her arms for an embrace, though. “Ah that’s right,” Sarah observed, placing the hands on her hips. “I’d forgotten. You’ve moved out on your own since we saw you last. You’re going through that entire ‘Don’t touch me!’ phase aren’t you?”
“It’s not a phase, it’s a culture!” the kyrean’s voice box protested.
“Your mother used to say the same thing,” Sarah said, not put off in the least as she made her way through the door.
Her Uncle Daniel finished offering his gratitude to the pilot who had brought them and then stepped into the entrance. He gave a polite nod to his niece before stripping down to his shorts much to her relief. At his gesture, she slipped inside ahead of him to an out of the way part of the room.
Sarah’s husband entered with head held high and hands clasped behind his back. Shaldea’s grandmother waited for him inside, perched atop a regal throne carved from the bartoui and stained a rich mahogany. The kyrean had draped the skirt of silken, flowing sails around herself, and a gem-like front had been placed over her voice box, which was now secured to her chest by an elaborately wrapped set of black leather thongs. She supported Sol in her lap with forearms wrapped in handless gloves.
“Ambassador,” she intoned royally.
“Your Excellency,” he returned, bowing respectfully.
They held their positions for all of five seconds before the elder woman began laughing. “It’s good to see you again, Dan. Or most of you anyway. I’ll get you out of those shorts some day yet.”
“Not before I get you into a shirt,” the man returned wryly. Clothing remained one of the few sticking points between the two races. Kyreans only covered themselves to hide gross deformities, and thus found the sight of clothing to be slightly stomach turning. Humans found nudity uncomfortable for reasons that Shaldea had never heard one manage to express clearly.
With the formalities taken care of, the rest of the night was devoted to swapping stories, singing songs, and sharing food. Though they hadn’t shown up in person, Shaldea’s parents contributed to the chatter via a voice box on the wall. Ever since her Grandmother had been named godparent of a human child, and called upon to fulfill the responsibility thirty years ago, the family had been bumping into strange customs and behaviors. Some were incomprehensible, like the song of ‘Jingle Bells’. Some were agitating, like having to look at Uncle Dan and Grandma wrapped in disease bandages all night. Underneath all the strangeness one could still recognize a family, though. Watching grandma and Aunt Sara take turns holding Sol, she decided that the sum result of things had probably been positive. An opinion she revised a moment later when her cousin flung a fistful of pudding that struck the adolescent directly in the face.
This story has a lot of strengths, the biggest of which is a rich, detailed and interesting world-setting that is shown to us very effectively as the story progresses. As I've said before, "show, don't tell" is one of my cardinal rules, and it's a real pleasure to see how well you've done that here. You do a nice job of showing us the world from Shaldea's perspective, emphasizing the senses that are important to the kyreans and helping us to understand their cultural mores and hang-ups. The humans really seem like the foreigners in this story, which is a nice achievement. The kyreans' radar-sense is a very neat idea, though it seems like an odd adaptation for an aquatic species to have -- radio waves are useless underwater because they're quickly scattered and absorbed. Sonar would have made more sense, but that wouldn't allow for the long-range "telepathy" you've built into the kyrean culture.
Your technical skills are very strong throughout -- a few errors and awkward bits, but nothing too serious. You generally do a good job of describing the kyreans' appearance, too, so it's fairly easy to visualize the scene in the picture when we get to it. No major criticisms in any of these areas.
I do have one fairly serious critique, however, and that concerns plot and pacing. The central focus of the plot, Shaldea's effort to rescue Sol, comes to an end halfway through the story; there's no dramatic energy left to carry us through the long conclusion. When the story does end, it seems abrupt and unfinished.
Everything you've written here would work fine if this were part of a larger story, but there needs to be something else to carry the plot besides Shaldea going to fetch her cousin. You've got a beautiful little world set up here, with some interesting characters that could make for compelling drama -- especially as they interact with other members of their respective cultures, who might not approve of such a mixed-race family. Mix all of that into a broader plot that involves this family in events on a planetary or galactic scale, and you'd have the makings of a great novella or novel. Let me know if you ever continue this story, because I definitely want to see it!
Final Score: 44 out of 50
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