[A short story]
His contact among the kahoons met him the moment he stepped off the dropcraft. The sensory proboscis above its single, gaping intake nostril lifted in greeting, and the tendrils at its tip quivered as it tasted his scent. It then uttered a spoken greeting to him, the words emerging from its nostril. A kahoons four jaws were a formidable masticatory apparatus. They could crack, crunch, rasp, snap, and grind; the jaws of a consummate omnivore. However, they could not speak, as a kahoons esophagus and trachea, unlike those of a human, took two entirely separate courses through the neck. The intake nostril possessed the equivalents of lips and vocal chords to shape sound, while the outlet spouts atop the kahoons skull could produce soft whistling notes. Both types of noise were utilized in the common tongue that kahoon and human used to speak to each other; Danaus had made sure to polish up on his whistling skills before coming here. Amongst themselves, kahoons also incorporated beak clacks and clatters, winglet gestures and infrared signals, flag (tail) signals, and jaw-feeler gesticulations, but those were difficult for the unmodified human brain to understand as language, and indeed impossible for a human to replicate.
Welcome, Danaus, the kahoon messenger said in one articulated inhalation punctuated by a short exhaled whistle.
Thank you, Tidehopper, the human returned with a deftly-executed series of whistles and a bow. The youngish alien returned the gesture, its heavy, chest-high head slowly dipping.
Your journey was comfortable, I hope. A somewhat odd thing to hear from a race that was, whenever possible, non space-faring.
As comfortable as it was short, Danaus replied. The Ring, his starting point, was only a few tens of thousands of kilometers overhead, practically a stones throw. Shall we walk?
Of course. Tidehopper turned around on its four locomotor limbs and the two began a leisurely stroll down the beach.
The sand was not overly hot, but it was granular and uncomfortable, and peppered with bleached calcium shells and carapaces. Danaus, in keeping with the fashion of the past several decades, was barefoot, and a lifetime of temperature- and texture-controlled artificial floors had left his feet ill-prepared for these conditions; an unfortunate oversight in his preparations. He could have easily levitated, even in this planets relatively weak magnetic field, but human custom and etiquette forbade such flagrant use of technology in the presence of prims.
Has the sea been generous lately, friend? asked Danaus.
Generous enough. The [clack, whistle, rustle] have begun their southward migration and grow scarce, but the [high whistle, chatter, low whistle] abound. There were no common tongue translations of these prey animals, apparently, or (rather less likely, Danaus thought) Tidehopper was just being forgetful.
Good, good. I look forward to eating some spinetail tonight, if any can be caught.
It should be easy. I will have a word with the fishermen.
Amongst the dunes and beach grasses ahead was a small grouping of domed huts, made of reeds, driftwood, and kahoon guano. These were not kahoon dwellings, however. The design and dimensions were all wrong. They were prim dwellings, and their occupants stood and sat in small family units around them. Humans of various race and build, the children naked and the adults nearly so, staring at him with open curiosity or stink-eyed suspicion, depending on the age of the starer. Primitivists were humans who purposely reverted to a hunting and gathering existence, or the children of those who had made that choice. It was generous of the kahoons to share their land, game, and forage with these eccentric deniers of modern civilization.
Your cousins fare well, said Tidehopper, using a generic term for relations. Very few have died this year, and several have been born.
I am happy for them, said Danaus, returning the stares of his conspecifics. A child smiled back while her parent stared back with an expression of indifference.
Kahoon and civilized human walked on, exchanging pleasantries and observations and avoiding any mention of the matter which had necessitated Danaus visit; such weighty business would be discussed at the proper time, and with the proper personage. As they walked, Danaus began to notice that he was being trailed by a veritable parade of inquisitive prim children. He glanced back at them and smiled, causing the children to pull together in shy groups and murmur and giggle. A moment later, conventional etiquette be damned, he turned around and levitated briefly at the height of about half a meter. The children cried out in astonishment and delight, and instantly transformed from a shy and curious mob into an excited and jumping mob. Harsh words from the parents, barked in a language Danaus did not recognize, had most of the children making a reluctant return home, but a few adventurous souls followed on. Danaus grinned at them.
Up ahead, a quartet of kahoon fishermenmost likely two conception-sibling pairshauled something large, manta-like, and dead out of the surf. Spiracles and gills leaked water on its pearly ventral surface, while its jaws, homologous to those of the kahoons but wider, toothier, and more complicated, yawned and gaped and attracted the tiny buzzing opportunists that were the inevitable inhabitants of beaches the galaxy over. As they neared, one of the fishermen gripped two of the great dead things mandibles and brandished them in the direction of the Prim children while uttering a fierce growl. The affect was thoroughly mock-threatening, and the children laughed and fled. Relations between children and good-humored adults were as universal as beach flies, it seemed.
Will this do for dinner, if a spinetail cannot be captured? asked Tidehopper.
I think it will do nicely, answered Danaus, eyeing a muscular hunk of meat near the base of the things huge pectoral fin. Thatd make a great steak, providing the flesh wasnt poisonous. A speedy scan revealed that it was quite safe, and even flavorful.
Further up the beach were signs of kahoon habitation. Kahoon fishing craft, little more than long, flat-topped logs, were arranged in rows on the sand. The lazy lines and spirals that were the kahoons favorite design motif were carved into their hulls. No oars or anything of that nature; the kahoons long locomotor limbs served that purpose.
Further inland were kahoon warrens, blocky things seemingly made of nothing but right angles, rising about a meter and a half out of the sand and extending about the same distance into the earth. Danaus caught a pungent whiff of ammonia, and sure enough, he spotted a conception-sibling duo hard at work constructing a new structure. A roughly diamond-shaped pit had been dug into the sand, and one of the pair laid down a layer of guano cement to form the walls, while the other gobbled mouthfuls and sand and shells to produce a fresh new batch of mortar. Many of his fellow civilized space-farers, especially humans, found the kahoons choice of building materials rather repulsive, but Danaus himself took it in stride. Whatever worked, was his motto. He was just glad of his ability to deactivate his olfactory sense.
Towards the center of the kahoon village was a larger structure, the hermaphrarchs warren. While the rest of the kahoon buildings were a generic pasty off-white, the elders house was colorful, with interspersed bands of mauve and pale orange. The builders had consumed pigments and dyes while ingesting their building materials, a decorative practice reserved solely for hermaphrarchs, hunting chieftains, and whatever other ruling offices that existed in the assorted variations of kahoon society. This was Danaus destination. Tidehopper descended the short entrance ramp to announce the human visitors presence, and a moment later Danaus was invited inside.
Waverider, the hermaphrarch, sat on the damp dirt floor in the center of its warren, its locomotor limbs weaved around each other in the kahoon version of the zen pose. In one of its mandibular tendrils it held a polished wooden crucible, in which something pungent and no doubt psychotropic smoldered. Another one of its mouth tendrils waved the smoke into the sensitive feelers at the end of its sensory proboscis. A quick scan revealed that whatever the hermaphrarch was toking would also affect a human nervous system, so Danaus projected a field permeable only to air over his mouth and nostrils. The orange hues of the hermaphrarchs face were particularly vivid, a sign of its social dominance and also probably of its drug-induced state. A bright blue shawl, embroidered with classic kahoon spirals, covered the aft half of its body. In its main pair of manipulative limbs the hermaphrarch held a pale rag of preserved skin, perhaps that of a past hermaphrarch. The elder kahoon was practicing dermomancy, attempting to find meaning in the whorls and wrinkles of the preserved skin, and if Danaus visit hadnt interrupted it a full-blown séance might have been in the works. Danaus hoped the old alien wouldnt be upset at his interruption of its communion with its ancestors.
Presently, the old kahoons eyes briefly concavedthe kahoon version of a blinkand went convex again, a sign that its seat of consciousness was transferring from its sensory-intuitive mind (which was likely as high as a kite) to its cognitive-rational mind. It would still experience synesthesia and mild hallucinations, but it would also be able to carry on a lucid and logical conversation. The duality of the kahoon mind was a strange thing.
Waverider clapped its jaws and made a strange warbling snort. As a matter of stubborn principle, hermaphrarchs did not speak the common tongue, though they could certainly understand it. Assisted in-brain translation of the various kahoon sounds, emissions, and gestures would be overly time consuming and ambiguous, so Tidehopper, the hermaphrarchs chief secretary and probable successor, would do the translating.
The hermaphroditic kahoons almost always produced two offspring per mating, one from both parents. The resulting semi-twins, called conception-siblings, would be each others closest partners in life, and kahoon social organization made most tasks and occupations a cooperative affair between two conception-siblings. Occasionally, due to death or illness, only one kahoon produced an offspring from a mating. Practical and socially-sanctioned options for these singleton kahoons were few, and of these few options, being hermaphrarch or chief secretary to the hermaphrarch were doubtlessly the most prestigious.
Waverider and Tidehopper exchanged several rounds of inscrutable noises and gestures. Moments later, Tidehopper turned to Danaus and said, You may speak.
Danaus stepped forward and gave a formal bow. Greetings, great mother and father of the people. I apologize for interrupting your sacred rituals. It was a necessary, however, for I bring news of potential great consequence to both of us.
Waverider waved a hand in dismissal, a remarkably human gesture. Whether this similarity in body language was, like the shell necklace it wore, a borrowing from the prims, or sheer coincidence, Danaus had no idea. The hermaphrarch spoke, and Tidehopper translated. Think nothing of the interruption. The honored hide was revealing no secrets to me today. It paused. I know why you are here.
Danaus was surprised. You do, wise one?
I believe I do. Waverider emitted a strange noise, and over one of the walls appeared a screen interface. Like much of the kahoons communications, much of the data was emitted in the infrared spectrum, so Danaus modified his visual range accordingly. He wondered where the device that projected the screen was housed. Probably buried underneath the floor; hiding it in such a way would be typical of the kahoons. An advanced species that used its technology as little as possible and viewed space travel with a mixture of unease and contempt; no wonder they and the prims got along so well.
Strange glyphs and diagrams appeared on the screen, which changed at Waveriders spoken command. As the view changed, Danaus realized that he was seeing the local volume of space, translated into the unorthodox iconography of the kahoons. First, the inner stellar system; next, the outer stellar system, with its outlying dwarf planets and oort cloud; next, the local galactic neighborhood, at a resolution of about one hundred forty lightyears to each side of the screen. In the upper right corner, near the opposite side of the screen as the home system, a dim red dot, surrounded by a whorl, blinked. Waverider rose to its feet and pointed at it with a mandible tendril. This.
Yes, answered Danaus. It has been moving in a straight-line trajectory directly towards this system for over a thousand light years. If it continues, it should arrive here within fifteen rotations. He trusted Tidehopper to translate that into a unit of time more meaningful to the planet-bound kahoons.
The dot represented a zeelyat gas volume, a sphere of zeelyat-breathable atmosphere about thirty kilometers in diameter, enclosed by invisible fields and forces. The whorl surrounding the dot represented the furiously roiling spacetime surrounding the strange craft. A zeelyat craft did not move by any manner of propulsion. Rather, it sat in one place while bending the space around it to its whim, remaining technically stationary even as the volume of space it occupied sped towards its destination at many, many times the speed of light, while, somehow, simultaneously avoiding the problems of relativistic time-debts. It was a fantastic mode of travel, a wish-fulfilling mode of travel. Only the zeelyats knew how to do it, and they werent sharing.
It may pass through.
We think that unlikely. While it has been observed, it has not deviated a single kilometer from its path. And that path is taking it on an interception course with Zezeuth. Zezeuth being the most common name for the local sun.
A suicide mission, then? Waverider asked. Tidehopper translated it into common tongue tones that even a human could tell were ironic.
He smiled. We think not.
A zeelyat gas sphere in this system would be a great threat to your Ring. That was an understatement. Zeelyats were aloof and unpredictable, answering to no one and explaining to no one. Though of terrestrial planet origin, they showed absolutely no interest in other terrestrial worlds, and the inhabitants of those worlds had nothing to fear from them. Residents of orbiting habitats, asteroids, or gas giants had plenty to worry about if zeelyats visited their neighborhood, though. Zeelyats took asteroids and gas giants for their own inscrutable uses, and destroyed orbitals and spacecraft for no reason at all. Or ignored them. As said, zeelyats were unpredictable.
No one could do anything about it, either. Taking up arms against the zeelyats was suicide. They were far from invincible; a half dozen full-capacity fleet warships would stand an excellent chance of destroying this oncoming gas sphere. The problem was that the zeelyats would strike back, and strike hard. The last great Retaliation had occurred before humans were even a space-faring race, and it was still spoken of in fearful tones.
That is what I have come to speak of, Danaus said.
We wish to use this landmass as a refugee shelter. Waverider did not respond, but its posture took on an attitude of greater attention. Most residents will evacuate via starship to other stellar systems. Many already have. However, we estimate that around five percent of the Rings population will stay behind; roughly forty three million entities. They do not have another home in the galaxy to go to.
You wish to station forty three million refugees
here? asked Waverider. Tidehoppers translation held tones of skepticism and apprehension.
No. Most will go elsewhere. Thoosa, Psamathe, and Ploto have agreed to take about eight million each. Ploto even has a methane dome and some pressure-gas environments to accommodate those who cant live in this sort of biosphere. These were the three largest floating cities on this watery globe. All three were currently drifting south of the equator in the opposite hemisphere. Callirrhoe has agreed to take three million on their landmass. We can convert a few of the floating agriculture platforms and house another million that way. Another fourteen million will go to the tunnel cities of Astyana. Astyana was the next closest planet to Zezeuth, a barren, airless, unterraformed rock, with subterranean population centers near its poles. That still leaves almost a million refugees. We would like to put them here. All carbon-based oxygen breathers with similar physiologies, so they wont need enclosed atmospheres or any special treatment of that sort. We are ready to deploy the construction drones for their housing and facilities immediately.
How long would they stay, provided I give permission?
Not long, hopefully. There is a chance, though, that they will remain here indefinitely.
Waverider considered this a moment. One million people, with all of their bustle and strangeness. All of their complexity and noise and entertainment and greed. He pumped his winglets, his atrophied second pair of limbs, seemingly in agitation. In honesty, I do not find this idea attractive. Your cousins, the primitivists, would like it even less, I think. What will you do if I refuse to take these one million noisy, strange people? Will you put them here anyway?
We will search for another place to put them, but if necessary, yes, we will put them here anyway. Danaus hung his head and hoped this gesture of his peoples collective shame at this disrespect got through to the alien.
Waveriders manipulative limbs flexed and extended quickly and its eyes concaved and convexed. What this body language signified Danaus was not sure, but presently Waverider spoke. You have my permission, then. I sincerely hope, though, that I shall not have to share my space with your people for long.
We hope to impose upon you as little as possible as well.
Leave my presence now. I must speak with my forebirthers and foreimpregnators about this. Waverider resumed its place in the center of the room, its trochanters flexing as it weaved its locomotive limbs together in a seated position. It let out a squawk and the screen interface deactivated. As Danaus and Tidehopper left the building, it spread the dried hides of its ancestors out before it, hoping that their spirits would speak to it.
Outside, the swiftly-spinning world was already turning away from the sun. The stars were beginning to appear. Nearby, a cooking pit was being dug and filled with hot coals, while the manta-thing was being swiftly cut and gutted.
Despite the upsetting news you bring, you are still welcome to eat with us, Tidehopper said.
Thank you, said Danaus. He looked up at the sky. In only a few more minutes, it would begin. The two sat a short distance away from the cooking pit, watching the meal being prepared. A few human primitivists hung around in the background, hoping to take some meat back to their families.
May I ask some questions, Ring messenger Danaus? asked Tidehopper.
What will you do with your Ring once all the people leave?
Danaus thought for a moment. It will be dismantled, and the pieces will be sent off to safe locations. The main engine shaft will probably be sent to another system thats safely out of the way. Perhaps around Betelgeuse.
So, this is the end of the Ring? There was a tone of sorrow in the young kahoons voice which gave Danaus pause.
I sincerely hope not, Tidehopper. Once this threat passes, it will be rebuilt and the refugees will return to it.
And if the threat does not pass? If the zeelyats intend to stay?
Then it will be reassembled in another star system, if it is reassembled at all. At huge cost and inconvenience to everyone. Even in this age of plenty, it was no small thing to invite another billion beings to live in ones star system. Trade and tax agreements to work out, agriculture and food resource rights to secure, energy and raw material needs to be met. A pain in the ass, to use a crude and antiquated expression.
His inner clock alerted him that it was time. He looked towards the northeast. Sure enough, a grouping of lights, more orderly and quick than the stars behind them, was climbing over the darkening horizon. The Ring, his home, running another lap around the world of which it was the brightest and most populous satellite. With line-of-sight restored, he beamed the confirmation signal. If he increased his magnification and spectral range he would soon be able to watch the building drones descend to the surface, carrying the forms and frameworks of the refugee shelter that they would erect, not too far from here.
Much further out, beyond the range of his visual augmentations, was the ship beyond sent to negotiate with the zeelyats. Or, to be rather more truthful, to plead to them to consider the needs and wants of people besides themselves, for goodness sake. His father was on that ship, coming out of retirement to put his diplomatic experience to use again. Danaus needed to return to the Ring soon. His fathers current mate, MSshaila, would be worried sick, and Danaus wished to offer her what comfort he could. Hed board the dropcraft and return just after dinner, he decided.
I hope the Ring is rebuilt, said Tidehopper. Ive always wanted to go there.
Danaus looked at the being in surprise. You? I thought kahoons hated being in space.
Tidehoppers mandible tendrils assumed a position that was the kahoon equivalent of a sad smile. Sometimes people change.
I put a lot more work into this, both the image and the accompanying text, than I have my other Ring aliens. This is my attempt to introduce an actual plot to the Ring universe, show more of that universe, and broaden the cast of characters in that universe.
If you prefer the friendly inconsequentialness of the previous descriptions, don't worry, because the descriptions of many of my future Ring aliens will return to that form. Others will continue on with this story sequence, though.
I again ask some of my more etymologically-minded friends to come up with some words for me. First, for the kahoon leader, I wanted a word that was a gender-neutral version of patriarch and matriarch, since these aliens are hermaphrodites. I couldn't find a word, so I made up "hermaphrarch." If you can think of something better, let me know. Or, if you think that the word I came up with works fine, don't.
Also, conception-sibling. If you can think of a more elegant phrase, let me hear it.
As for the alien design itself, at first I was designing it to fit with another Ring-related piece of writing that I wrote not long ago. This creature ended up having the wrong personality to go along with that piece of writing, so I had to write something new for it. It turns out its harder to make alien designs to go along with the stories than vice versa.
Some half-unconscious influences on this design are the creature from "The Host," Shelob, and a goblin shark.