Iro flipped her observation bubble’s shutter open. Her tiny craft’s instruments told her exactly where she was and where she was headed, but that didn't matter. She wanted to see.
The bright yellow star was a welcome beacon. It was too far away to activate her heat shields, but close enough to show a definite disk before the speckled background of night. Several of the pinpricks around it weren't stars but rocky planets. She had to consult her chart to identify the one she wanted.
The star was cataloged as 742/Grα91. The amphibious tree-dwellers of Lesut, thirty light-years away, called it “The Moss Heart.” The blue planet that sat comfortably in the system's liquid-water zone was referred to by the charts as Grα91/3A, by the interstellar biogenetics community as TGAC Prime, and by its long-extinct inhabitants as “Earth.”
Iro loved that name. She loved all indigenous names, preferring them to the cold designations of the Galactography Institute at which she apprenticed. It irritated her professors to no end that she used native nomenclature whenever possible in her research. “The word Earth,” an instructor once pointed out, “translates as dirt.” She didn't care.
Her pod approached Earth in a high arc over the orbital plane. She coasted on momentum alone, her last course correction made several days before. Any further use of her fusion drive would alert the Ish Marak sentinels in Earth's orbit and the game would be up. Before she came within a thousand diameters of the planet, she would have to shut down her life support and trust that the pod's insulation would keep her heat from bleeding away. At present, the liquid inside her ship was a comfortable 35°C. If it fell below zero, she'd die of hypothermia long before impact.
Ck'Luō reached Earth a month before Iro. Instead of arriving in a working spacecraft, Ck'Luō had hidden in the hulk of a Chango supply vessel found drifting in the system’s cometary cloud.
With Ck'Luō inside, his pod-brothers launched the derelict sunward. The ship would eventually burn when it hit the solar atmosphere, but Ck'Luō jumped overboard when it crossed the orbit of the small, red fourth planet and fell the rest of the way in a stasis-suit.
It wasn't the longest interplanetary dive on record, but it was by far the trickiest Ck'Luō had ever attempted. His stasis field cycled off for one second every ten hours of his descent, making the seventy million kilometer plummet pass in a matter of moments. The cycle grew shorter as he made final approach, creating the illusion of slowing while the azure water-world filled the sky beneath him.
“This goodly frame the Earth,” he couldn’t help but notice, was hardly the “sterile promontory” that the Bard’s fictional prince lamented. The “brave, o’erhanging firmament” had been more justly described, but Ck'Luō didn’t have time to admire the view.
The trick was in the proper timing of his antigravity thrust. If he triggered it low enough in the atmosphere, the Earth’s magnetic field would mask its signal; if he waited too long, he and a hundred square kilometers of the surface would revert to elementary particles.
As it was, he pulled the cord too early, while he was still within easy range of the Ish Marak’s scanners. He realized his mistake when the warning claxon went off in his mask. The sentries were fast, and he had scant moments to avoid being pulled into a holding cell and charged with criminal trespass.
Ck'Luō cut the antigrav before it was fully expended and spun around by thrashing his tail. He thanked the Bard that Earth had a sister planet or this would never have worked. With his thruster pointed at Earth’s airless companion (against which he already saw the outline of an Ish Marak cruiser) he cut the antigrav back on and used the mass of the silver Moon to accelerate him toward the gossamer clouds below.
He broke atmosphere going way too fast, faster than his stasis suit could tolerate. The emergency heat shield kicked on at 75,000 meters and slowed his descent, but it wrapped him in a pillar of fire that surely gave his position to anyone with eyes to see. It couldn’t be helped. All Ck'Luō could do was hope that the planetary guardians weren’t crazy enough to intercept him before he hit the surface.
In that, he was in luck. Beneath him stretched an endless plain of blue. There was enough power left in the antigrav for him to survive a rocky landing, but he would have been captured within moments. Coming in over the ocean gave him a fighting chance.
He couldn’t see the Ish Marak overhead, but he assumed they were there. The sentinels were nothing if not relentless, and the flora and fauna of Earth were some of the most prized in the galaxy. It had taken years for the Ish Marak to curb the exploitation of Earth’s biosphere, but in doing so they had forbidden access to the planet for almost any other purpose. That didn’t stop the odd pilgrim or thrill-seeker from trying, and it was only that possibility that Ck'Luō wasn’t a gene-pirate that had kept the sentries from shooting on sight.
His heat shield overloaded two clicks above the ocean’s surface. Ck'Luō waited another thousand meters before turning his antigrav back on. “Most provident in peril” he imagined himself in the Bard’s words, “courage and hope both teaching him the practice.”
The antigrav kicked like a wild kushat, but he clamped his jaw and rolled with the blow. He flipped over in time to see that yes, there were three Ish Marak flyers homing in on him.
He stripped in mid-air. His limb-sheaths came off first, freeing his arms and legs. His torso plate ejected and his tail-cover slid off when he unbuckled his harness. His helmet was the last to go, the wind almost blinding him as it ripped past his head. The shadows of the sentinels grew near, as did the chop of the surf. Ck'Luō smiled and waved at his pursuers, then he deactivated the antigrav, slung the last of his harness away, and dove head-first, naked, into the sea.
Iro’s craft blazed through the sky over the continent that had once been Eurasia. Her trajectory took her toward the largest of the inland seas that separated the northern and southern landmasses. She hoped to make it all the way; if she didn’t, she would have a long walk ahead.
As it was, she had to eject before her flyer slammed into the top of a mountain. The force of the parasail snapping taut almost broke her shoulders, but she kept her wits long enough to steer toward a valley beyond the glacier below her. Not for the first time she wished that the ancient Human geneticists who’d gifted her race with arms and legs had had the foresight to grant them wings as well.
She glided for miles as the mountains became green foothills. Tiny motors in her parasail kept her aloft, but in the end gravity won and she touched down (rather hard) by the banks of a rippling stream.
Iro sloughed out of her flight suit and crawled, aching, on knees and elbows to the water. It was cold – colder than any of the currents on iceless Siren, her home. She clamped her teeth and slithered in, letting her lungs empty and the chill of snow-melt pass through her gills. The harness had left creases in her flesh; she rubbed her shoulders and thighs and hoped the marks would heal quickly. Her tail shivered violently in the chill water, but she held to the rocky bottom and forced her body to adjust to the temperature.
She wondered what the ancient Humans would have thought if they could have seen her. Doubtless they would have imagined her some fantastic mythological creature, yet thanks to their star-faring descendants there was as much terrestrial DNA in Iro’s blood as there was native Sirene. Would the Humans have been proud that one of their long-lost children had finally returned home?
Iro strode back to the bank, dorsal fins quivering in the air, and checked her position with her navicomp. It could have been much worse. She had made it as far as the northern end of the peninsula that had been her destination. Now she only had to traverse three hundred kilometers of hilly terrain to reach the settlement of the Roänn caretakers.
It was a long way to go on foot. It would be better, she decided, to follow the stream to the sea and swim down the coast. She hoped Ck'Luō was having a better time of it. With luck, he was waiting for her already.
After diving in the icy waters of the open ocean, it became clear to Ck'Luō why Humans had evolved on land. Earth’s seas were too damned salty, for one thing, and the cold made him wish for a layer of blubber like his portly pod-brother Vh’Las.
For the first few days, Ck'Luō kept below the surface and focused on evading capture. Once he felt sure (or at least hopeful) that the Ish Marak had abandoned pursuit, he poked his head into the air and attempted to get his bearings. The navicomp strapped to his waist had thankfully survived the fall, and it placed him some five hundred kilometers west of the inland sea where he and Iro had arranged to meet.
Coming to Earth had been Ck'Luō’s idea. Splitting up had been hers. It was easier for one, she pointed out, to slip around the sentinels than it was for two. By staggering their arrivals, they would be less likely to arouse the Ish Marak’s suspicion. By keeping a low profile, they would only increase their chances of reaching the Roänn colony.
Iro was always the practical one. Ck'Luō was the poet. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said the Bard, and Ck'Luō believed it. It was the same every time Iro left on one of her expeditions for the Institute. Ck'Luō always welcomed her home with verses culled from the finest Human and Sirene wordsmiths, or fresh songs of his own devising. They always made her smile, even if she didn’t fully appreciate them the way he did.
They had never traveled off-world together, and Ck'Luō had wanted to on this of all occasions, but Iro’s logic won out. He reminded himself that love “looks on tempests and is never shaken; it is the star to every wandering bark.” It was enough that they were both there, on the world of their genetic and spiritual ancestors.
He waited until night to plow eastward through the waves, and he used the stars to guide him.
On the third day of her trek down the coast, Iro needed a rest. She was cold, tired, and wrinkled as an old woman. She wanted to be beautiful when Ck'Luō saw her next, not frigid and withered like a water-logged ckabba-fruit. There was a narrow beach at the base of a cliff; she pulled herself ashore and lay in the sun to dry.
Birds wheeled overhead, their brilliant white bodies a contrast to their dark faces. Iro’s biocomp implant identified them as ichthyaetus melanocephalus, the Mediterranean Gull. She told it to record the video stream from her optic nerve. She meant to record every life form she came across. One didn’t visit Earth, even illegally, without taking pictures.
Of all the known biospheres in the galaxy, Earth’s was the most abundant by an order of magnitude. Even her own world, with its unbroken oceans full of life, couldn’t match the sheer variety and unparalleled bounty of the species of Earth. It was because of the peculiar nature of Earth DNA – more aggressive, competitive, and adaptable than any other genetic blueprint known to exist.
Iro sunned on the beach until she felt like herself again. The Institute’s records had warned about strong tidal effects caused by Earth’s moon, but the inland sea was mostly sheltered from them and Iro slept undisturbed by the rising water.
It was only after she woke that she noticed the stairs. She hadn’t seen them before, but now that the sun had dropped closer to the horizon, she could see the shadow they cut against the face of the cliff. It would soon be too dark to swim any further, so she decided to explore upward.
It was a tricky climb. The steps were so old they’d almost weathered down to the original rock. It was slow going and at times she had to drop on all fours to keep her balance. She didn’t want to think about getting down again. It was already too late to turn back.
There was nothing at the top of the cliff but a jumbled collection of stones. She’d hoped for a forest with more animals to record, but the woods didn’t begin for another kilometer. Instead, only grass and moss grew through the piles of rock that it took her several minutes to recognize as the remains of a Human village.
She started recording. Out of reverence, she almost stopped breathing. Her colleagues at the Institute wouldn’t care about the ruins, but Ck'Luō would never forgive her for not sharing. Iro was a Naturalist, but Ck'Luō was a Humanist. She knew he would trade the sight of a million new species for five minutes on the hallowed ground of the Ancients he so adored.
In the center of the village was a marker. It was old, probably as old as the steps from the beach, but not as old as the ruins themselves. On the black obelisk were markings in a flowing Roänn script, faded by centuries of wind and rain. The language was Galactic Standard, but the words were those of one of the poets Ck'Luō idolized. Most of the passage was lost, but she could still read the heart of it.
“The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Ye all which it inherit…”
Humans weren’t much for modesty, Iro thought.
Oh, she corrected herself.
“And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.”
By all that lives, Iro wondered, did the Humans even then understand that they would one day be no more? Is that what drove them to such lengths to seed themselves across the cosmos?
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”
The rest was too worn to read. She would have to remember to show it to Ck'Luō. If they were lucky, she could even bring him back. She listened to the gulls for a while, then climbed down the steps to the cool evening waves.
The warm Mediterranean was a relief after the frigid and tempestuous Atlantic. Ck'Luō found a quiet cove almost immediately after passing the boundary waters and camped for several days. His ration packs were nearly gone, and he would have to start hunting his food if he wanted to survive. He’d seen many new species already, and he wished he had an implant like Iro to record them. He would have to describe them to her in verse instead. It would probably be best, he thought, to leave out the parts about eating them.
Earth fish were quick, he’d give them that. Unfortunately for them, though, they’d gone too many millennia without being hunted by anything except other fish. Ck'Luō hadn’t brought any of his gear, but he was able to fashion a net and a crude spear out of some local plant life.
He decided to start small. There were schools of a particular silver fish that were especially plentiful. After a little exertion, he nabbed three, slit them open, and let them bake in the sun for an hour before dining on their succulent white flesh. It was filling, but only whetted his appetite for more. In the deeper sea he had seen larger creatures; he would have to make a go at them as soon as he was a little more rested.
Iro was beginning to wish her journey would never end. Earth was so very, very beautiful. She had to wonder what had pushed the Humans into space to begin with. Why travel outward into the void when they had paradise all around them?
Her navicomp told her she was less than a day’s swim from the Roänn colony, but there was so much to distract her and it was so hard to resist indulging herself.
The creature she swam with that morning was a mobula mobular, a giant devil ray. It fluttered almost effortlessly like one of the great cloudwings of Cavor, only beneath the waves instead of above them. She trailed it for an hour, logging the entire experience into her biocomp. She wished she could capture one and bring it back to Siren, but knew that even speaking that thought aloud could land her in an Ish Marak holding cell.
Her stomach cramped. She was hungry, but she couldn’t bear to eat any more rations. The Roänn settlement waited only kilometers ahead; she turned from her lovely watery companion and started toward shore.
When she looked behind one last time to watch the ray vanish in the distance, another creature caught her eye. She stopped swimming and started recording again, waiting for her biocomp to classify the animal and correlate the video stream. When the beast’s name inserted itself into her field of vision, it was outlined in red.
Isurus oxyrinchus, Lamnidae family. Colloquial name: Mako shark. Warning: EXTREME HAZARD.
An image from the computer file appeared underneath the warning. All she saw was the creature’s teeth. Iro twisted in the water and bolted. She hoped she was far enough away that the monster wouldn’t follow.
She was tired, but thanks to her journey she was also in the best physical shape she’d ever been. Arms and legs tucked in tight, she slithered eel-like toward the still-unseen shore. It couldn’t be too much farther, she thought. She glanced behind her to see if she’d lost the mako.
It had closed half the distance. By all that lives, it was fast! Iro redoubled her efforts; she could feel all three of her hearts ready to burst from the exertion. She glanced over her shoulder again. The shark was closer still, and it didn’t even seem to be trying.
She thrashed her tail harder, but she couldn’t go any faster. She could see the bottom now; the shore had to be close. The water around her was warming up with the heat from the monster itself. Iro glanced behind one more time.
All she saw was teeth.
Ck'Luō was on his guard, his spear at the ready. He’d grown to know Earth’s creatures well, and he knew to be cautious. The Mediterranean current carried him toward his destination, so he conserved his own strength. He didn’t know what it was that drove the bigger fish to attack. Maybe it had to do with pheremones or the high body temperature of Sirenes compared to the local fauna. He’d have to ask Iro about it when they met.
One more day, he told himself. Less than a day. Hours now. His gills practically quivered with anticipation. It had all been worth it, he thought. The hardship, the cold, the loneliness… Ah, but the adventure! The wonder! The sheer beauty! Even if he never did it justice in verse (and he would sure as life try) to share such a breathtaking voyage with the woman of his dreams was the experience of a lifetime.
There was a bitterness in the water, at once familiar and out-of-place. Was it her? The Roänn were close, and the sea only five meters deep. Had she recently passed through these shallows ahead of him? Had he actually picked up her scent?
He couldn’t help but assume that the answer was ‘yes.’ He turned away from the current and followed her trail. Of course, he knew, it could turn out to be some other form of sea-life that he was tracking, but it suited his own romantic notions to believe otherwise.
As he neared the shore, anticipation turned to worry. The scent had become stronger and it was definitely Sirene, but what he smelled couldn’t be right. His hearts went cold as he pushed toward the bottom. What he tasted in the water was a hint of blood.
He found the strongest confluence in a small hollow on the sea floor not fifty meters from the coast. Sirene blood tended to sink in Earth’s over-salty water, and the hollow was coated in it.
Ck'Luō couldn’t believe it. There had to be another explanation, but he couldn’t think of one. Could there be other Sirene on Earth besides he and Iro? He knew there weren’t, but he begged the fates and the Bard’s uncaring God otherwise. He swam back and forth along the seabed looking for any sign or clue.
He found a piece of her waist-harness with a few remaining ration-wafers wedged between two boulders. Later, he found the end of her tail.
The Roänn caretaker found the young Sirene sitting quietly at the edge of the surf. The Roänn’s name was Beach-Comber, after an old Human pastime. He doubted that Human beachcombers had ever come across anything so strange.
He held up his roots as he trudged into the water. He wasn’t quiet, yet the Sirene didn’t stir. Beach-Comber leaned over and touched a branch to his shoulder. Only then did the boy jump.
“Forgive me,” the Roänn rumbled in Galactic Standard, “but are you the Petitioner who fell into the ocean six weeks ago?”
The Sirene boy’s eyes were wells of sadness. He nodded.
“Most amazing,” the Roänn observed. His leaves fluttered excitedly in the breeze. “We’d thought you lost. We never imagined that you could survive such a journey. Incredible!”
The boy wiped water off his cheek. It was a very Human reflex, one that only a few of their descendants shared.
“Don’t cry,” Beach-Comber told him gently. “You mustn’t cry. You’re here! You’re alive! This is a time for celebration. Please, come with me to the colony. We can be there before nightfall. There’s still plenty of light.”
“What light is light, if Iro be not seen?” the boy suddenly said. “What joy is joy if Iro be not by? Tarry I here, but I attend on death. Fly I hence, I fly away from life.”
“Pish,” the Roänn scolded. “None of that. Besides, you’re saying it wrong and leaving parts out. The Bard would never approve. Now pull yourself together and take my branch.”
He had to practically drag the youth out of the water. Once on land, the young man followed without argument. He didn’t say anything, in fact. Beach-Comber knew that of all the races in the galaxy, the aquatic Sirene were the most like to Humans as the Humans themselves. This one, he mused, was displaying the Human quality of “dragging one’s feet.”
“This ‘Iro’ you speak of,” he said. “Tell me about her.”
The youth was silent at first. “She was everything,” he eventually said. “She was the light that shimmers on the face of the water, and the comforting shadows beneath. She was a splash of color on a barren seabed. She was a flower in the coral. She was the music of the tide, and the dance of the waves.”
He went on like that for a while. Beach-Comber let the words drift through his leaves and into the air, where the wind carried them in the pollen to his brothers and sisters at the colony. When at last the pair of travelers arrived, everyone there had heard Ck'Luō’s song filtered through the language of trees.
Beach-Comber gestured to a low hilltop that overlooked the sea. “This way, Petitioner.” On the crest of the hill was a small stand of Roänn who had already gathered.
Not many made requests to visit the Roänn colony on Earth any more. Fewer still were granted permission to land, but the two Sirenes’ request had been so unusual that it intrigued the Roänn even after the Ish Marak guardians above denied them access. The young ones’ bravery in defying the sentinels could not go unrewarded. The Roänn would grant what they had asked.
Beach-Comber guided the sorrowful young man to the top of the hill. At the summit, two of the trees stepped aside and Ck'Luō gasped in wonder.
For there stood Iro. Her tail was a bandaged nub, her face and arms bore fresh cuts, there was a hole in her dorsal fin, and she leaned on a crutch for support, but there she was. She smiled.
“The light that shimmers on water, huh?”
Ck'Luō blushed. Beach-Comber watched bemused as disbelief and joy battled on the boy’s face. At last, the youth ran to his companion on exhausted legs, took her in his arms, and kissed her in the setting sunlight.
Beach-Comber managed a chuckle. “That part comes at the end, I think.” The two Sirene, both embarrassed now, stepped away from each other while another Roänn, the eldest of the colony, addressed them in quiet solemnity.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he began.
It was a ceremony as old as Humanity, as old as time. The words were fluid and had changed over the eons with the shifting of oceans and the passing of stars. The intent was always the same: a binding of hearts and a sharing of souls.
The elder Roänn spoke of commitment and honesty, of suffering and joy, in sickness and in health, until the two were parted and reunited in eternity. At the end, he asked a question.
They each answered in turn, “I do.”
This story is copyright 2010 Jared Millet. It was originally published in Shelter of Daylight Vol. 3 from Sam's Dot Publishing.