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Science Fiction


By Brian Burt
Sep 16, 2018 · 5,555 words · 21 minutes

Buddha lamp cradling a plasma orb.

Photo by Melanie Magdalena via Unsplash.

From the author: The most courageous sacrifice a human being can make is to give his life for the lives of others... but the Synobians were not human. Would you give your death to save your species?

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 façade 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.



After a long day of misunderstanding Whistler in ways variously novel and familiar, I sought the only solace available on a remote survey mission:  a fistful of aspirin and a bottle of synthetic scotch.  To my chagrin, I had to get both from Dexter Conley.  Dexter was the expedition's supply clerk.  He also ran the kitchen — easy duty, since the meals practically prepared themselves — and served as unofficial bartender.  Not a bad sort, Dex… except for being a bit of a scam artist and a terrible xenophobe. He did have his virtues, though. One glance at my expression, and he had the bottle in his hand.

"Tough day at the zoo, Professor?"

I slugged back half the glass, then struggled to regain the power of speech.  "Whistler won't sell a bloody grain of sand without the blessing of these mysterious clan guardians.  I can't figure out what I'm dealing with… ancestor worship, afterlife mythology, tribal gods, animism?  I just had a little virtual conference with the VP of Mining Operations.  He made it quite clear who's to blame for the delays."

Dexter scowled.  "Bastard ought to work for a living.  Sits back there in civilization, with his giga-buck salary, designer drugs, designer women….  How's he expect you to reason with a walking compost heap?"  I felt my temper smoldering, fed by the scotch in my belly, but I was too exhausted to give Dexter a lecture on universal tolerance. He took my silence for agreement and shot me a conspiratorial wink.

"Got something to cheer you up.  Found it out on the beach during low tide a couple days back.  You like a good mystery, huh?  You're gonna love this."  He unlocked one of the storage compartments, glancing furtively from side to side, and pulled out a field sample pouch.  He brought it back to the table like a mother cradling her newborn.  "Not gold or diamonds, but it's weird enough to make me rich when we get back to the world."

Dexter reached into the bag and pulled out… something. At first glance, it looked like the biggest pearl I had ever seen:  twenty centimeters across, shimmering with nacreous luster.  Roughly oval, with strange notches pocking its iridescent surface. Dexter passed it to me, balancing it on his fingertips.  "Grab it good and tight, Professor."  The thing's surface was not as smooth as it looked — it could not have been in the water very long.  An electric tingle traveled up my arms and down my spine, rising in intensity, pulsing like the beat of some invisible heart.

Jonas Witherspoon fell into another world.

How to explain it?  Sounds, smells, colors unlike anything I had known… beyond anything I had imagined.  Music filled my ears, a banshee wail of rage and sorrow.  Behind that, the rhythmic roar of the ocean, sighing counterpoint of wind and wave.  Blurry images paraded past my eyes:  jagged cliffs, thundering seascapes, jungles bursting with flora I could not name.  I tasted salt spray, felt the touch of hands that were not human.  A thousand shattered memories fought to assemble a consciousness that belonged to someone else.  Some thing else.  As I flailed away in horror, one emotion dogged my escape after all the rest had evanesced into oblivion.  It lingered like the bitter aftertaste of scotch.


Dexter pulled the orb from my shaking hands, teeth gleaming inside a dark tangle of moustache and beard.  "Wild ride, isn't it?  Affects everybody different.  Me, it just seemed a little spooky, but Johnson in Precious Metals recycled his lunch after thirty seconds, tops.  Found a dozen like this one, although each takes you on a different trip.  Know a fellow back on Luna who specializes in alien artifacts — weirder the better.  Figure I can work him for 500K per.  I call them 'ghost stones.'  Fits pretty well, don't it?"

"It fits… like a glove.  But we ought to have one of those things analyzed for toxicity, try to identify the agent causing the… effect."

Dexter's face twitched.  "Already analyzed it.  No mineral value, no hazardous chemistry.  Here I am, confiding in a fellow spacer, and you want to squeal to management?  The bastards who pump us through i-space to make their fortunes owe us a lot more than a little scavenging on the side!  You may have more degrees than the average stellar core… but out here, you're still a grunt.  Don't forget that."

At the time, I was in no condition to argue.  A weak nod satisfied Dexter.  The grin returned, tight but companionable.  "Get some sleep, Professor.  Forget your troubles.  Amnesia is a survival skill out here in the Big Black."

I took his advice.  I went straight to my berth and collapsed on the bunk, exhausted to the marrow, yet — as pathetic as it sounds — I was afraid to sleep.  I just ordered the lights to dim and lay there, trying to understand.

One thing grew painfully obvious.  No matter how much I wanted to, I would not forget about the ghost stones.



I slept like a man who has been wrapped in a shroud of nightmares and buried alive.  When the comm badge buzzed well before dawn, I was grateful.

"This is Witherspoon."

"Jonas, it's Jenny Margolis.  Sorry to wake you, but I'm afraid we have a situation.  I'm down here in the breakroom with Dexter Conley and two of your liz… ah, Synobians.  Somehow they sneaked in during the night.  Dexter claims he caught them stealing supplies.  He fried one pretty badly before we got things under control."

Adrenaline propelled me upright, burned away the glaze of sleep.  "Are they from Mezkor?"

I could almost hear her shrug.  "Jonas, they could be from Proxima Centauri for all I know. Survey mission leaders are not paid to play charades with the natives.  That's your department."

"Sorry.  On my way."

I tumbled into the breakroom minutes later.  Dexter fidgeted beside Jenny while three members of her team trained laser pistols on the Synobians.  The first — a female I did not recognize — lay slumped against the wall.  Laser burns had stripped away sproutlings from her abdomen, leaving charred patches that seeped purplish fluid.  Her companion knelt beside her, trying his best to tend her wounds.  I could not stifle a groan.

The second Synobian was Whistler.

Jenny saw the expression on my face and scowled. "Don't tell me one of these two is your contact?"

"Afraid so."

Jenny fumed like a volcano with a throat full of magma. She turned smoldering eyes on Dexter, who did not flinch… much.  "I've heard his side of it, Jonas.  I want you to get theirs."  Dexter started to argue, but Jenny silenced him with a conspicuous wave of her pistol. I knelt beside Whistler and activated the translator, wondering if Dexter's glare would burn a hole in the back of my head.

"Whistler, why did you come here?"

I had never seen Whistler angry before.  Even the translator could not filter his venom. "To betray clan Mezkor, you have come.  To murder soul of Mezkor true, you have come.  What to steal, you have, to save, we must.  To leave not without {mind / soul / spirit / essence} of brood siblings, we will.  To leave not, we will!"

A tremor ran along my spine.  I turned to Dexter, who managed to look guilty and insolent in equal measure.

"Dex, where are the ghost stones?"

"You rotten son of a bitch!  Should have known better than to trust a snotty little lizard-lover to keep his yap shut."

Jenny's temper turned her cheeks to flame.  "I'm out of patience, Dex.  Either I take this place apart to find what you're hiding, or I take you apart.  Don't make me choose between the two — you'd be a lot easier to replace."

Dexter hesitated too long.  When Jenny pointed the pistol at his crotch, he decided not to call her bluff.  He rummaged through the storage compartments and pulled out half a dozen pouches. Whistler uttered a piercing cry. I opened a pouch and carried it to him, careful not to touch what lay inside.  He pulled out one of the two orbs nestled within and stroked its surface with the reverence of a temple acolyte.

"To grow shallow, Time's ocean.  {To die / to pass / to join / to live}, brood siblings must, clan Mezkor true, Time's ocean all.  To go, we must!"

I turned to a baffled Jenny Margolis.  "As best I can interpret, Dexter has committed an act akin to desecrating a religious shrine.  I don't know if we can repair the damage, but I'd like your permission to try."

Jenny nodded, one eye on Dexter.  "What do you need?"

"A skimmer to get them where they need to go.  Field provisions and a medikit so I can treat the female's wounds, if she'll let me.  A day or two of freedom — without any boardroom interruptions — to get this mess sorted out."

"You've got it.  I'll be taking my team east to B Camp for a few days to finish mapping the platinum deposits in Sector 27.  I'm leaving Killian in charge here.  If you run into any problems, buzz him and he'll track you down.  Clear?"

"Crystal.  I'm not the hero type, Jenny."

She laughed, a bit too enthusiastically.  But she gave me what I wanted.

I stowed the ghost stones in back of the skimmer — under Whistler's careful scrutiny — then steered us in the direction he pointed: over the forest, toward the cliffs that ran along the coast north of A Camp.  An area we had scrupulously avoided, since Whistler made it clear from the first days of contact that it contained hallowed ground.  I estimated we would reach the cliffs in less than an hour. We probably would have… if the skimmer had not mutinied about fifteen minutes out.  The control systems spouted gibberish before the vehicle settled to the ground and died.  I tried my comm badge.  Nothing but static.  Someone had overridden the skimmer's controls remotely — and jammed communications as well.

Dexter Conley was not a graceful loser.

I considered going back for help, quickly discarded the idea.  Dexter — and whoever had helped him sabotage the skimmer, a feat which bespoke a technical expertise far beyond his depth — would be waiting.  I saw no choice but to continue, relying on the cover of the forest and Whistler's home field advantage.

I grabbed the medikit and a pack full of field rations. Whistler and the female — I told the translator to designate her "Krysta," in honor of an old girlfriend who had dyed her hair a similar shade of green — each carried a pair of ghost stone pouches.  I slung the remaining two over my shoulder.  Krysta could barely walk, but she refused to let us relieve her of her burden.  I tried the comm badge one last time, then tossed it in the skimmer.  The unit contained a transponder that could be used to track us.  Anyone capable of jamming it would know that.  The first slivers of dawn began to poke through the foliage overhead.

I had no idea where we were going, or what we would do when we got there.  But I knew someone would be watching.



By the end of the day, Krysta could not walk.  I tried to analyze her condition with the medikit, but Synobian physiology did not lend itself to analysis with human medical tools. Two glandular organs on either side of her neck were pumping large doses of an unfamiliar hormone into her system. I could not decide whether they were causing her deterioration, or battling it.  When I asked Whistler, he indicated that they were vital to her welfare, and I knew with numb certainty that random tinkering on my part could only make matters worse.  I decided to take the path of least resistance.

I did nothing.  I sat there, while Whistler sang to her, and watched her die.

It happened gradually throughout the night.  She lost movement in her extremities.  She could not turn her head.  Her eyes dilated, plunged her into blindness.  Her jaws clamped shut, forcing her to breathe through the single nostril atop her head.  As dawn approached, her breathing grew more labored.  She did not live to greet the sunrise.

Whistler asked me to help carry her.  We brought her to a clearing with a large earthen mound near its center, at least two meters in diameter.  At Whistler's behest, we placed Krysta's body on top of the mound. He sprinkled her with aromatic herbs while crooning something high and haunting.  When he had completed the ritual, he headed back into the trees and bade me follow.  For just an instant, at the edge of the clearing, I paused to look back at our fallen comrade.  I wish to God I had not.

Hordes of insectile creatures poured from the mound, swarmed over Krysta's body in wriggling profusion.  I could barely see what lay beneath the mass of chitinous scavengers… and still, I saw too much.  I lurched into the protective embrace of the forest, following Whistler as quickly as my trembling legs could manage.  I caught up with him near our encampment, relieved that we would soon be on our way, putting kilometers between ourselves and that wretched stretch of woods.  My relief was premature.

"But Whistler… Time's ocean grows shallow, does it not?"

"Shallow and shallow, yes.  To leave not, we can."

And so we waited.  I told him about my travels to exotic, uncharted worlds during four decades spent "swimming the dark sky-ocean."  Whistler recounted the legends of his people:  cryptic tales of changeling souls and the hidden paradise that lay "beyond the land of children."  While I tried to puzzle out the meaning of those myths, the sun crept steadily across the sky and began its descent beyond the western treetops. Whistler rose and headed toward the clearing.  With a pounding heart and a fluttering stomach, I followed.

As soon as we stepped out of the trees, my feet grew roots. On the mound where we had placed Krysta's corpse that morning, only a skeleton remained.  A carpet of dead sproutlings surrounded it like shorn fur. The bones did not just glisten — they shone in the twilight as if they had been carved from mother-of-pearl.  I could only follow Whistler with my eyes as he approached the naked skeleton of his brood sister.  I do not know what I expected — a mournful hymn, perhaps. Whistler defied my expectations.

He did not sing.  He did not weep.  He reached down, grasped the skull of his dead sister, and began to twist. Vertebrae uttered a grinding shriek as he snapped and splintered them without remorse.  Whistler pulled the skull free and retraced his steps in my direction.  Something about that skull looked very… wrong.  No eye sockets, no ear holes, no ragged semicircle to mark the upper jaw. The oval in Whistler's hands had a smooth, unbroken shell.  Patches of its bony surface — especially those in areas where no bone had any right to be — bore the unmistakable sheen of fresh growth.

Another ghost stone to add to our collection.

Whistler trilled softly.  "Shallow and shallow, Time's ocean, Witherspoon.  To go, we must."

We dragged our macabre cargo through the forest despite the moonless night, our path lit by the eerie glow of luminescent fungi.  I have always been a rational man.  I do not believe in spirits or supernatural events. But throughout that long, exhausting night, I feared the darkness.  Soon enough I had other things to fear.  Whistler began to move arthritically.  Just after noon, he staggered, fell, and could not get up.  We were close now to whatever sacred place Whistler had been guiding us — I could hear the muffled roar of the ocean in the distance, could smell its briny tang.  Whistler gazed up at me with large, liquid eyes that would have looked haunted on any creature's face.  When he spoke, the translator choked on whatever he was trying to convey. Finally I began to understand:  he wanted me to remove the strange organs at the sides of his neck.  Remove them… or destroy them.

"When Krysta was sick, you said those organs were helping her."

"Shallow and shallow, Time's ocean.  To be last of brood siblings, I have come.  To save not Whistler, organs of neck will.  To destroy brood siblings all, they will, unless to destroy them, Witherspoon will."

I programmed the medibots as best I could to recognize the offending organs, then injected them into Whistler's neck.  As twilight gloamed around us, Whistler's eyes closed. I — Jonas Witherspoon, inveterate agnostic — began to pray.

I passed my vigil leaning against the trunk of a mushroom fern, listening to a symphony of unseen creatures prowl the alien night. My mind conjured ghastly images to explain each chirp and croak and chitter.  Once or twice I thought Whistler had stopped breathing.  I was afraid to check.  Afraid to find that I had killed him.

Morning came at last.  To my immeasurable relief, the medikit still registered vital signs. The mystery organs in Whistler's neck had been crippled, their flow of hormone stanched.  Before the sun had risen above the treetops, Whistler's eyes fluttered open.  He sat up — weak, but alive.  Whistler was alive!  For one triumphant moment I felt like Jesus beside the burial cave at Bethany.

I have since often pondered what life was like for Lazarus after the world moved on to other miracles.  The Bible chooses not to dwell on that point, but I….  As we followed the thunderous call of the ocean, I saw the misery in Whistler's eyes and wondered whether I had saved him or condemned him to a fate more tragic than I could fathom.

The keening wail of a trylvol sounded in the distance.



By midday we left the shade of the forest.  The ocean's roar grew steadily, dragging us forward until we reached the cliffs.  Below us, beach stretched to the north and south, undulating with the coastline like an albino serpent.  Waves thundered against the sand, foaming and bubbling as they slipped back into the cerulean embrace of the sea.  Whistler stood there for a long time, staring at the horizon.  Then he led me down a path hewn across the cliff face to the shore below.  He wandered onto the beach with the reverent steps of a pilgrim who has finally reached the holy shrine.  If shrine it was, the Synobians had hidden it well:  I saw no cairn, no marker.  Only fine white sand and pure blue water.  Whistler opened a pouch and withdrew a ghost stone, less polished than the others.  Krysta's.

"To finish the journey, we have come, little sister. {To die / to pass / to join / to live} you will, brood siblings all, but one.  To wait, clan Mezkor does, in joy.  To swim, you shall, Time's ocean all."

A new voice cut through the breeze to hack the fragile beauty of that moment into bits.  "Isn't that sweet, Killian?  Makes me want to cry."

Dexter Conley emerged from the shadows beneath the cliffs, followed by a younger man — Paul Killian, the rookie supervisor Jenny Margolis had left in charge.  It appeared her judgment was as flawed as mine.

"Good to see you again, Professor.  Have to admit, we were getting worried.  Took your precious time getting here, didn't you?"

"How did you find us, Dex?"

"Didn't have to.  Been here before, you see?  That story about finding the stones down by A Camp was garbage.  I figured, when the lizards told us this part of the coast was verboten, they must've had something to hide.  Something valuable.  Turns out I was right.  Figured fungus-face would be too damn dumb not to lead you and the stones right back here. Turns out I was right about that, too."

I tried my best to fix Killian with a withering stare. "How much are you willing to do to earn your cut, Paul?  If you let me walk away from this, Dex knows I'll report the whole affair to DDC Legal. You'd never get the stones off-planet, much less get a chance to sell them.  Are you ready to commit murder for him?"

Killian looked rattled.  Dexter's own calm began to unravel.  "Shut the hell up!  He knows the plan.  I brought enough black-market chemistry to keep you comatose for as long as it takes. You'll just be MIA, Professor, and everybody will blame the lizards.  Supply drone's due at A Camp in a few days.  There's a clerk on the other end who owes me a favor.  He'll get the stones to a safe place.  After that, you'll rejoin the land of the living with a fuzzy spot in your head where the last couple weeks ought to be."

Dexter's eyes were dark chips of ice.  He probably meant what he said, but the substances used to erase memories were very unpredictable.  Russian Roulette with chemical bullets.  Panic scurried through my innards on sharp little claws.

"What about Whistler?"

Dexter's smile looked like a runaway facial tic. "Don't have any qualms about frying a lizard.  I might just spare fungus-face, though… if he follows orders.  Tell him to hand me the stone he's holding, Professor.  Tell him to do it slowly."

 I relayed the message to Whistler in a voice brittle with shame.  Whistler did not speak, or sing, or whistle a single syllable in response.  He stared at me long enough to make me squirm.  Those eyes… full of shadows.  Full of ghosts.  He took one step toward Dexter, stone held out like a child slaughtered to appease an evil god.  Then he uttered a screech that would have chilled the blood of any banshee.  Before Dexter could react, Whistler's arms snapped up over his head with uncanny speed.  The ghost stone catapulted out over the churning foam and splashed into the surf at least ten meters from shore.

Hatred bloomed in Dexter's eyes, turning dark ice to steam. He aimed the laser and fired. Whistler's leg exploded in a spray of pulp and bone.  He collapsed in the sand, his throat making sounds like the warble of a dying bird. Blood oozed from the blackened stump like blueberry syrup to stain the sand a deep burgundy.  Before I could stumble to Whistler's aid, Dexter shoved the pistol in my side.

"Make like a statue, Professor, or I'll do you the same."  He glared at Killian, who looked very young and very frightened.  "Keep that pistol pointed in the right direction! I'm gonna go fish that little bit of treasure out before the undertow drags it away.  These maggots try anything, you fry 'em… or, so help me, I'll fry you."  Dexter flashed an ugly grin as he pushed past.  "I just might find a few more beauties to add to my collection while I'm out there.  Tell your one-legged lizard that for me, Professor."

Dexter waded out into the tide, stomping and flailing and cursing in the area where Krysta's stone had disappeared.  Oh, I hated the bastard at that moment even more than I feared him!  I prayed silently with all my might that he would not find it, that at least Whistler might die with that small measure of consolation.  But God does not heed the prayers of cynical agnostics.  Dexter swam farther from shore, dove, let out a whoop as he broke the surface with a shimmering oval in one hand.  A spasm of anguish rippled through Whistler's body. Dexter shook the orb in our direction, exultant.  Taunting.

That was the last moment of triumph Dexter Conley ever knew.

A glistening island of silver flesh breached the sea behind him, rising up and up, like a mountain spawned by the titanic collision of undersea continents.  Its lower ring of eyes fixed on the tiny human floating beneath them as immense jaws parted, as saliva mixed with brine cascaded in a dozen waterfalls between rows of spiny teeth.  Dexter sensed the gravity of something massive behind him, tried to spin around. I do not think he succeeded.  I do not think he ever recognized the shape of his own doom.  It was the largest trylvol I have ever seen… the largest anything I have ever seen.

It crashed down on Dexter before he even had a chance to scream.  Water exploded in all directions, obscuring everything in geysers of salty spray. When at last the wall of water melted back into the sea, we saw no sign of Dexter.  The trylvol writhed in surf too shallow to support its bulk, a great fleshy tanker run aground.  Slowly, ponderously, it rolled itself sideways toward deeper water.  Seconds later, the sand beneath it dropped away, and it submerged.

Killian and I were too stunned to utter a sound. Whistler was not.  He shrilled a song of victory and vengeance, a sound so giddy with emotion it made my skin crawl. The trylvol's silver back broke the surface in the distance and it echoed Whistler's cry.  I glanced dazedly at Killian.  He stared at me.  He stared at Whistler.  He stared at the immense wake of the diving trylvol, and something collapsed inside him… something that had been waiting for one more little push.

"I'm so damned sorry, Jonas.  We've… I've got a skimmer just up the beach.  I'll bring it back for you… for both of you."

I tried to treat Whistler's wound, but he would not let me.  He would not let Killian and me bundle him into the skimmer until we had finished what we came to do.  Whistler lay stubbornly bleeding in the sand while we unworthy humans threw the rest of the ghost stones into the sea.  The trylvol swam back and forth not far from shore, trilling softly.  Swallowing the souls of lost children.



We've learned a great deal since Dexter — may he roast in Hell — pointed us in the right direction.  Synobian brains are different from ours:  new neurons grow continuously throughout their "juvenile" phase. Their brains expand until their puny skulls can no longer contain them.  A release of hormones triggers a pupal stage — the body dies while the skull seals around a brain that is undergoing drastic chemical and structural changes.  Trylvol digestive enzymes weaken the shell sufficiently for the metamorphosed brain to emerge, wend its way through the trylvol's sinus passages, and assume its rightful place.  Many brains assemble in the massive cranial cavity of a single host:  five trylvols hold the majority of clan Mezkor.  Some of these gestalt mentalities are as old as recorded human history.

The "soul of Mezkor true" is more ancient than we can conceive.  More alien than we can comprehend.

And Whistler?  We kept him alive, repaired his mangled leg as best we could.  Meager recompense for what we stole from him. The organs in his neck were the harbingers of change, secreting the hormone to initiate his glorious transfiguration.  He knew I could not save the rest of his brood siblings without his help, so he had me destroy his only chance to join them.  In Synobian terms, Whistler gave up eternity.

And I?  I am doing everything in my power to ensure that his sacrifice will not be in vain. Whistler and I converse more fluently now.  He has warned the trylvols about us — what we have come for, and what we may take if we are not stopped.  The clans have gathered in the open sea to devise their strategy.  They communicate their plan to Whistler, who communicates it to me.  They will sell DDC those precious rights to the minerals locked beneath the skin of the supercontinent.  They have no use for such things.  But those rights will be contingent on an irrevocable ban against exploitation of the ocean.  The soul of Synobia will be safe.

I will doubtless lose my job over this "bungled" negotiation.  I do not care.  In light of what Whistler has lost, it seems a pittance.  His headaches grow worse as the brain imprisoned in his skull presses out against the shell of an egg that will never hatch….

I am a sociologist by trade, a cynic by nature, a student of history by choice.  I wonder, as I brood over this final entry in my mission log, if the Saviors immortalized by history are created by actions, or events, or both.  Will trylvols someday gather — far beyond the sight of land — to sing their haunting tributes to the child who gave everything to protect their aggregated souls from damnation?  I wonder….

I wish I could return to Synobia in a thousand years, and know for certain.

This story originally appeared in E-scape.