Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction


[Originally published in E-scape.]

I am a sociologist by trade, a cynic by nature, a student of history by choice. Terran history preaches again and again that the most courageous sacrifice a human being can make is to give his life for the lives of others.

But the Synobians are not human.

I wonder… would the mythic heroes of ancient Greece or Rome or America have given their deaths to save their brethren? Would they even comprehend such a sacrifice? I know one Synobian who did.

And - God forgive me - I helped him do it.

*     *     *

I met Whistler in the seaside village of Mezkor, on the western coast of the supercontinent. He was my official contact among the Synobians - the clan elder assigned as liaison to the "swimmers of the dark sky-ocean." The Synobians related everything to ocean. Aside from one true continent and a smattering of volcanic islands, the sea covered everything, from fathomless trenches to the shallows above submerged continental plates that had drowned eons before the first Synobian drew breath. The ocean surrounded them. Defined them. Perhaps that explained Mystery Number One: villages ringed the coast of the supercontinent, but we had yet to locate one more than a hundred kilometers inland.

There was nothing mysterious about why Deepspace Development Corporation had been so eager to send a survey team. The natives seemed to have no use for the interior, and that was exactly the part of the planet for which DDC Management lusted. Central mountain ranges concealed a geologic treasure trove: gold, silver, platinum, copper, juicy veins of high-grade ore. Enter yours truly - Jonas Witherspoon, Ph.D., contact specialist - a xenosociologist prostituting himself to big business for the privilege of traveling to the stars and encountering alien cultures in their pristine state… before we transform them into something else.

Yet another reason I am a cynic: cynicism provides a convenient facade for cowardice to hide behind. I wore my cynicism like armor before Synobia. Before Whistler.

On the morning the trouble started, we were walking a familiar stretch of beach near the village: sand glistening like snow, sun shining down so hot and bright that the ocean sparkled like a molten mirror.

"Whistler, the things my people wish to bargain for are buried in the ground far away from here, in places your people do not live. Your people do not use them. You are an elder of your village, a leader of your clan. Why can you not give permission?"

Whistler whistled softly in response, the translator humming in disjointed harmony. The bloody thing still could not untangle the spaghetti of Synobian grammar; its lexicon remained limited and imprecise.

"To be eldest among children, I have come. To give not, I can, what to own not, I do."

Synobians looked remarkably humanoid, considering the vagaries of evolution: two arms, two legs, bipedal gait. Slick salamander skin buried beneath a carpet of symbiotic sproutlings that drew nutrients from dead epidermal cells in exchange for protecting their host from the relentless sun. Sproutlings bristled over Whistler's flesh like emerald fur. Still, he looked quite humanoid… and therein lay the danger. In my experience, familiarity breeds, not contempt, but misinterpretation. Often with tragic consequences.

"If you cannot speak for your people, who can?"

"To clan Mezkor, to speak, you must. To be eldest of eldest, they have come. To join beyond the land of children, they have come, in Mezkor true. To be Mezkor, they have come, beyond the land of land."

Riddles within riddles… or so it seemed, after the translator finished tying his meaning into knots. We stood in silence, watching some of Whistler's fellow villagers frolic in the surf a few hundred meters from shore. Several clung to the massive dorsal ridge of a trylvol: a whale-like creature with half a dozen eyes completely circling its swollen cranium, reminiscent of a beluga with an overactive pituitary. I sighed deeply and tried again.

"Whistler… we have found no land but this land. No other place where your people live. Where have these elders gone, so we may speak with them?"

Whistler's song grew more shrill as the translator struggled to keep pace. "To Mezkor true, they go. To be not children, they have come. {To pass / to die / to join / to live} they go, clan eternal, Time's ocean all."

Whistler pointed toward the horizon as if that one gesture answered all my questions. I saw only the endless sea… and a mystery I could not solve.