His gills were perfect. The water rushed into his mouth and was forced out over his ruby slits as he propelled his body through the blue-green water of Oceana Cyenya Regal. Cy-rial kicked with legs made of thick, sinuous muscle, serpentining his lithe body so easily you couldn’t tell where he began or ended within the displaced water. Between rock formations, into the middle of other Cyen families–sometimes laughing, sometimes irritated–Cy-rial swam with power and grace.
The best part of the swim was playing the li’ai. The instrument’s filaments tickling the inside of his lungs, taking each of his breaths to convert them to sound his brethren could hear under the water. Vibrations created by the movement of his body twisted the sound waves into music so beautiful that the Cyen language created a new word to describe it: vyem.
Cy-rial’s song was an anthem for his world. The inhabitants of Cyenya stopped to listen as the notes hummed through the waves and . . .
A hot air blew over Cy-rial’s neck. He opened his eyes and saw the transport ship pass overhead. The water from the Artificial Environment Pack that was sealed over his head, continued to slosh from side to side, but the tingling in his gill slits was disappearing. Cy-rial was left to regain control of his breathing as he descended to reality.
He sat up in his chair, looking out over the inlet from his veranda. The ship was landing at his family’s aerodrome a few miles away. Cy-rial unsnapped the Enviro-Pack as he stood up. The warm water washed down over the scales of his shoulders. He loped over to the railing of his balcony, leaning forward heavily. Cy-rial’s eyes teared up, watching others of his kind swimming below. They cut through the water like torpedoes, a dissipating trail in their wake.
His attention was captured by the signal beacon from the aerodrome. Sighing, Cy-rial turned and walked into his dwelling. He pushed a button on the nearest wall.
“This is Cy-tal at the aerodrome.”
“Your guest has arrived and is being decontaminated. He will be ready for pick up in approximately ten minutes.”
“Acknowledged,” Cy-rial replied sadly. “I’ll be there.”
Cy-rial paused with his hand still on the communication button. He stared at the webbing between his fingers, flexing it to watch the ripples in the skin. The pattern of the veins was precise, matching his father’s to within a hundredth of a percent. “Family identification,” he muttered to himself, “that’s all its good for.”
Cy-rial went to the landing pad and started up his inelegant but functional flying barge. It was nothing more than a platform with four seats, a motor and steering mechanism, but it was sturdy, good for short trips. He slid into his seat behind the steering column and lifted the machine off the ground. It hummed quietly as he flew over the water. He kept his focus on the sky in front of him, not daring to look down into the water again. He couldn’t stand the flood of emotions anymore today.
The sun beat down on his teal-blue scales. Cy-rial reached to his right and pulled a sponge out of a container of water, squeezing it over the top of his head. The cold water cascaded over the sensitive tips of his scales. He knew he should have worn his neoprene suit since he was going to be in the sun for at least half an hour, but he hated the way it made him feel. The fact that he couldn’t be in the water with everyone else was taking its toll already. Did he really have to have his organs pressed together in an artificial prison? He doused himself with another sponge full of water while cursing the sun.
It was a straight course to the aerodrome, and he knew there were no other craft in the air, so Cy-rial closed his eyes, his nictitating membranes blanketing them with a whispery touch.
Cy-rial didn’t want to meet the creature that was waiting for him, but he had to do something to ease the pain of his existence. Gub Tran was a Dualite, a race that Cy-rial knew little about except that their world had gathered great wealth, and Gub Tran was willing to transfer some of that wealth for a mere possession. Cy-rial didn’t care about the money as much as he cared about ridding himself of the possession.
Cy-rial opened his eyes while patting his skin down with water. His timing was perfect as the landing pad was right underneath him. He began his descent, easing the barge down between the etched lines. He stayed seated, looking towards the offices, waiting a few moments before he saw Cy-tal open the door leading Gub Tran out to him.
Dualites were round, globulous creatures with extremely stubby legs and large feet capped by three massive toes. Gub Tran’s head was a globe of translucent flesh that rippled constantly to promote the flow of fluid over the brain and down through the rest of the body. Despite the fact that the Dualites were known as one of the most hideous-looking races in the universe, they were famous for their fashion, and Gub Tran was no different. He displayed his wealth by wearing a suit made from the silk of a Ventrasion spider, an animal so rare that when one hit the black market there was a bloodbath among the warlords to see who got the prize.
Gub Tran reached the flying barge, giving a little bow and said “Cy-rial?” His voice was wavering as Dualite vocal chords were encased in saliva sacks. “Why did I invite this odd creature to my world?” Cy-rial thought for a moment then quickly reminded himself it was too late for regrets, no matter how palpable they were.
“Yes,” Cy-rial finally replied. “Welcome to Cyenya.”
“Thank you.” Gub Tran bowed again.
“If you’ll climb aboard, the trip back to my home is only a few minutes.” Then he watched with hidden amusement as the Dualite hefted his bulk into the seat next to him.
The first part of the return trip was made in silence as Gub Tran was mesmerized by the bright blue water of the Cyenya Regal Ocean. With childlike fascination he watched the Cyen people swimming. Cy-rial would have preferred that the silence lead them home, but the inevitable question finally came.
“I have a query for you,” Gub Tran began, “that I am certain you have answered many times to intruders like me, but my curiosity has sped up my tongue, and I must ask.”
Cy-rial’s face darkened a shade, but he knew it wasn’t the Dualite’s fault. “I know what your question is,” he finally said with resignation. “Don’t feel bad for asking it. Cyenya is a water world, only 11 percent covered by land mass. Ninety-eight and a half percent of Cyens live in the water. They’re capable of coming on land, but they live mostly in the expansive oceans. The other one and a half percent live on land each doing so because of an extenuating circumstance. Mine is a birth defect. My lungs and gills did not develop properly. I can only stay under water for a limited time.”
Cy-rial tried to keep his tone of voice matter-of-fact, but his emotions must have given him away.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” Gub Tran said. “This is obviously very difficult for you.”
Cy-rial regrouped. “It’s understandable that you wanted to know. I’m sure we could spend all day asking questions of each other about our respective worlds.” Then he turned to Gub Tran with a crazy smile and added, “but let’s not.” Momentarily taken aback, Gub Tran was silent. Then he realized what the strange smile meant, and he began to laugh. Cy-rial joined him, but inside he was screaming.
Cy-rial’s home was a four room structure, three on the first floor and one large area upstairs. The walls were made of Plexiglas so he could keep the first floor rooms filled with a five-foot pool of water. Because of Gub Tran’s visit, he had had the rooms emptied. The walls had small ducts installed at the top which Cy-rial turned on as he entered the main room. A gentle waterfall slid down the walls. Cy-rial ran a hand through as he walked. Then he rubbed the water over the rest of his body.
“Wait here,” Cy-rial said. “I’ll bring the instrument.” He ducked into the adjoining room for a few minutes and then came back out with his prized li’ai. Cy-rial’s steps were slow, his eyes never leaving the instrument in his hands. He halted after only a few feet, looking up. When he saw Gub Tran standing in the center of his home, he almost screamed at him to get out. The words were buried in his throat when he looked back down at the li’ai. It was two pieces of connected, pliable tubing–one very thin with hundreds of tiny hair-width filaments and the other an inch thick with five stiff pins. The instrument woke him up in the morning and then haunted him the rest of the day. He had to either get it out of his home or jump into the ocean, swim to the bottom and let the water fill up his inferior lungs until they exploded. If it weren’t for his parents and sisters living in the water beneath him, the choice would have been an easy one.
Cy-rial looked up to see Gub Tran watching him with. Shaking off his anguish Cy-rial walked over to the Dualite.
“Here it is,” he said as he laid the li’ai into Gub Tran’s meaty hands.
“I have heard of these instruments, “Gub Tran said, “and even once saw a drawing but never held one. Can you explain how it works?”
“Right,” Cy-rial replied, clearing his throat. “The thinner tube is wended down our throat and into our lungs. The thicker piece is attached to our bodies. You can see the five pins, which are made of the hardened fat of a cy-roonhen, a fish that swims in our oceans. The li’ai player has five holes drilled into the muscles of his torso and leg for the pins to be inserted into.” Cy-rial walked closer to Gub Tran and pointed out his own holes. He then took the instrument from Gub Tran, popping the five pins into place.
“Like this,” he said. “I would then swallow this tube, and when I swim in the water, the filaments gather the air from my lungs and direct it toward my muscles. As I swim, my muscle movement converts the air into sound waves that a Cyen can hear underwater.”
“Fascinating,” Gub Tran breathed, entranced by the explanation. Cy-rial removed the li’ai from his body and handed it back to the Dualite. There was some hesitation in his voice, but he finally asked his next question. “Once again, I do not mean to be indelicate, but if you can play this elegant instrument, why are you willing to sell it?”
Cy-rial’s face was consumed by a wistful smile. “Yes,” Cy-rial started, “I can play. But not the way it’s meant to be played. A true Cyen song lasts for up to two hours, the player swimming through the ocean transfixing the listener to the point where they fall into a sort of coma called a vyem. The ocean is filled with Cyens floating languidly in the warm water, a beatific look on their faces. This is the true nature of a Cyen song.”
“And because of your condition,” Gub Tran said carefully, “you cannot play a true song?”
“No,” Cy-rial said. “At best, if I imperil myself, I can make thirty minutes. My playing, I’ve been told, is good. I just can’t complete the cycle. You will be doing me a favor, Gub Tran, to remove the li’ai from my home.” Cy-rial turned away, walking over to lean into the water stream of the far wall. He again adamantly wanted this creature out of his home. He wanted to be left to his misery in peace.
“If I may,” Gub Tran said, “I can sympathize with you. I love music of all kinds. I have been to concerts on over sixty worlds. I have collected instruments from almost two hundred cultures, but I have not the talent to play one of them, including Dualite instruments that members of my own family are proficient at.”
Cy-rial’s temper softened. He watched the Dualite’s eyes as he spoke. Gub Tran was almost in tears speaking about his passion, and he could not take his eyes off of the li’ai.
“It is a special curse, isn’t it?” Cy-rial said, his voice soft. “To feel the music deep in your soul but not be able to create it yourself. I think I’m glad that you are the one purchasing the li’ai,” he finished, and he meant it.
Shades of blue and green swirled in a soup that held him in place. The water was always warm, no tension, but no relief either. “What is this body for,” he asked, watching life float away on the waves. Staring at the wall where it once hung went from occasion to habit to obsession. The house was haunted by its absence even more than it had been by its presence.
The first year passing was tangible, but the second year was violent. The music had been siphoned from Cy-rial’s veins through the tubes of the li’ai, leaving him with only flesh and blood. And what good had they done for him? Isolated him from his people, an outsider fending for himself under the trenchant sun, but the music . . . that had led him back. He could play when others couldn’t. He could feel the vibrations in his cells when others only heard the notes with their ears.
Hours, days, years, they became one. Cy-rial lived in their void, sans music, slowly getting used to the silence. He used the 500,000 tenants he got for his li’ai to expand his business exporting minerals. He was successful at something he cared nothing for but he continued because his family was proud of him.
It was on a typical day that he received a vid call from someone he never expected to hear from again. When he acknowledged the signal and the picture transmitted, he flinched. The entire screen had been swallowed by the head of Gub Tran.
“Cy-rial, I hope I am not intruding,” he said in greeting.
“Uh, no, no,” Cy-rial stammered.
“You are surprised, I understand.”
“No . . . I mean yes, but it’s all right.” Cy-rial hoped his face was hiding his true feelings better than his voice.
“I have some questions about the li’ai if I may ask them.”
“Sure,” Cy-rial whispered while in his head he wailed “sure, let’s talk about what I loved more than anything and sold to you in a fit of maudlin pain. Let’s chat about the instrument that created the music to keep me alive.”
“I have a female friend that would like to play the instrument, but . . .”
“Wait, Gub Tran, no offense, but a Dualite will never be able to play the li’ai. You’re body type is . . .”
“You misunderstand Cy-rial. My . . . friend, is not Dualite. We have another race on Dua-5 that we assimilated into our culture. The Veens are a slender, athletic race. I assure you she has the proper body type.”
“Ok,” Cy-rial said, still dubious. “What’s the problem?”
“The pin holes in your body, is the depth arbitrary or is it of importance?”
“The depth is very important. It’s another reason your friend won’t be able to play the li’ai.” Gub Tran frowned, obviously irritated at Cy-rial’s insistence that no one but a Cyen could play the instrument. “Cyens,” Cy-rial continued, “have three layers of muscle. The pin goes all the way through the first level and halfway into the second. Anything deeper or shallower and the li’ai won’t get the full range of movement from your body.”
“The li’ai was created for our bodies.”
“My friend will be disappointed. Thank you for the information Cy-rial. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Cy-rial turned off the vid screen. He stared at the blank panel imagining someone else touching his li’ai, putting it into their body. It was such a personal instrument. Cy-rial’s scales tingled with disgust. That was his li’ai. He had thought Gub Tran had more respect for it than to gift it to one of his girlfriends.
Cy-rial felt his body swaying as he remembered playing. The high pitched notes required his hips to undulate at a steep angle. For the bass notes he could relax. The filaments danced inside his lungs, gathering the air like a mother cradles her brood then sent it to his muscles. The ocean water rolled around him, hugging the contours of his body, wrapping him in a cocoon.
Cy-rial did not know where Dua-5 was and he wasn’t likely to ever travel there, but somewhere on that alien world, his soul called out to him.
He had been down about twenty minutes. Cy-rial calculated he could make another twenty-five. The lung expanding exercises he had been doing had helped to increase his capacity, but it was a laborious process. He decided to enjoy the next twenty minutes watching his nephew do his aquatic tricks, and then he would have to surface.
Cy-lan, his sister’s youngest child, was six years old and already a strong swimmer. He could do things in the water that his own father couldn’t do. With the movement of Cy-lan’s hips and the strength of his legs, Cy-rial couldn’t help but think what a wonderful li’ai player he would make. But he knew his nephew wanted to be an athlete, a racer. He couldn’t believe how close he had become to the boy over the last four years. Their relationship had saved him from a life of drudgery.
Cy-rial hung in the water laughing as Cy-lan swam in circles around him faster and faster. Making a plan to grab his nephew on his next pass, Cy-rial readied himself to move but instead froze in place. His ears pricked up as a Cyen song rippled through the water toward him. He immediately began looking around for the player but didn’t see anyone with the instrument. The more he listened, he realized how out of practice he was. The notes were dull and elongated. The player was far away and Cy-rial was on the very edge of the listening area.
Even though his brain told him to stay put, Cy-rial felt his body start to swim slowly in the direction of the music. There was something about the song. It was enticing as a Cyen song should be, but it was different. The style was like none he’d ever heard before.
Cy-rial’s reverie was broken by a kick in the head from his giddy nephew. He smiled and made a grab for him, but the child was too quick. Then he gasped. He had lost his concentration on his breathing, and his lungs were burning. He got Cy-lan’s attention, telling him to swim back to the family pod. Cy-lan swam in for a quick kiss goodbye and then kicked away. Cy-rial pushed hard upward. He broke the surface and stretched his mouth open side, sucking in air to fill his lungs. Floating calmly over to the rocks, he pushed himself out of the water and lay down on a flat stone. His eyes closed, his chest rising and falling with effort.
The music. It had been so long since he had heard it, even longer since he had played. He missed the pinch of the pins in his legs and the filaments brushing the inside of his lungs. Most of all he missed swimming, knowing he was creating something memorable as he did. Seeing other Cyens fall into a deep trance because of the beauty of the music he was producing gave him a thrill he couldn’t match with anything else.
At first as he lay on the rocks, all Cy-rial could hear were old tunes that were still rattling around in his head. His hands moved as he pretended he was swimming, weaving a symphony with air and movement. However, the memories quickly went from wan to painful. Cy-rial dropped his hands haltingly, pushed the songs away and instead listened to his own breathing.
His mind stayed unfocused so it was several minutes before he heard the strange sound–a humming in the distance. He sat up, opening his eyes. Over the water in the sky, he saw something hovering. When he widened his gaze, he realized it wasn’t one but dozens. They were spread out across the horizon.
Cy-rial scampered off the rocks and up to the second floor of his home, running out onto the balcony. He held a looking glass up to his eye. The glass was not powerful enough for detail, but he could see they were flying ships, and the shapes were not Cyen design. He also saw something dropping out of the belly of the ships. He had to get closer.
Cy-rial ran to his flying barge, getting it into the air quickly. He skimmed low over the water, keeping the looking glass up to his eye. The ships were round, seven stories high, with a bulge in the middle. They were a dull brown color with universal markings on the side, but he couldn’t make them out yet.
The engine on the barge whined as Cy-rial raced over Oceana Regal. Finally the markings became clear. It was a Dualite ship. What were dozens of Dualite ships doing in the skies of Cyenya? He tried to push the barge even faster, but smoke was billowing out from under the platform. He eased back on the throttle before his craft died completely. It dipped and dove, almost dumping Cy-rial into the water. He put the barge into rest mode, turning the engine off, allowing it to hover.
As he peered through the looking glass, he saw something different drop from the closest ship. Whatever it was stayed attached to a cable, disappearing under the water. Then the ship moved slowly westward, dragging the cable through the water. After a few minutes the ship stopped and retracted the object back into the ship. When it rose from the ocean, Cy-rial could see it was a net filled with struggling Cyens.
Dropping the glass, Cy-rial dove into the water. He saw his people floating in a state of vyem caused by the Cyen song. No, it was songs. Cy-rial could now make out multiple streams of music hypnotizing his people. As he sank, still trying to make sense of it all, he saw an unfamiliar creature swimming about fifty yards away. It was gray-skinned and longer than a Cyen by a meter. Cy-rial couldn’t believe it. The creature was playing a li’ai.
Quickly reminded of his limitations, Cy-rial surfaced. He bobbed in the water and watched the net drop from the ship again. His eyes wandered to the dozens of other ships. The Cyens were being harvested.
The things he saw dropping into the water originally must have been the gray beings with li’ais. They wrapped the Cyens up in their song, allowing the nets to easily scoop up their motionless bodies. A face suddenly appeared to Cy-rial: Gub Tran. Years before he had sold his li’ai to him, believing him to be a collector.
“What have I done?” Cy-rial asked softly. His beautiful li’ai had been corrupted. How had the gray aliens learned to play it? It belonged to the Cyens, created for their bodies, for the way they move. In a flash of memory so painful he felt it as if he had been punched Cy-rial heard Gub Tran’s voice speaking about a female “friend” of another race. What did he call them? Veens?
“Oh no,” Cy-rial wept. The vid call had been about Gub Tran gathering information. Cy-rial had given him vital information for the Veens to play the li’ai. This was all his fault. He had bonded with Gub Tran over a proposed love of music, and it had all been a ruse. Cy-rial had let an enemy onto his home world. He had given them a gift, and now . . .
Cy-rial felt light-headed, his body falling back into the water. He had brought doom to his people. The ocean consumed him, his face drifting below the surface as his body fell limp. Then he heard the screams again: Cyens wailing in anguish. Cy-rial’s eyes snapped open, and he leaped from the water, grabbing the edge of his barge. He clambered aboard and started it, slamming the accelerator forward before the engine was fully alive.
The net was lifting more of his people up toward the ship. Cy-rial pushed his barge. With his free hand, he opened a utility box to grab one of several knives he kept inside. Burdened with thousands of pounds of struggling Cyens, the net moved slowly upward. Cy-rial was almost there.
The barge suddenly dipped to the right. Cy-rial yanked hard on the steering column, but the ship made another sharp dive. Then he saw the scorch marks. Cy-rial looked up to see two Dualites firing laser weapons at him. The net was now out of his reach as well. Reluctantly, Cy-rial dove from his disintegrating barge into the ocean.
Once in the water, he looked around frantically. He raced to any Cyen he saw, trying to shake them from their state of vyem, but it was no use. Then one of the li’ai players swam by. Cy-rial swam up behind the Veen, grabbing one foot. When she panicked and stopped swimming, Cy-rial snatched the li’ai and pulled. The pins of the thicker tube popped out one by one. He then turned, kicking his legs hard into the mid-section of the creature. The smaller tube escaped from the Veen’s lungs, allowing Cy-rial to surface again.
Cy-rial took deep breaths to prepare his lungs. He was also remembering the notes for the warning call. Cyenya had had years of peace. It had been a long time since a li’ai player had been asked to play it, but he needed to break his people out of their comas. As he continued to gulp air, he inserted the pins into his body. They didn’t fit perfectly, but he believed they would stay in place. Cy-rial took one last huge breath before swallowing the thin tube. The filaments tickling his lungs felt good.
Descending, Cy-rial swam without his usual grace. The warning call had to be disruptive, to cause a Cyen’s normal brainwaves to skip, to alert their bodies to danger. Cy-rial’s legs kicked in a herky-jerky motion. He twisted his torso left and right instead of rippling it in a steady wave.
Cyens all around him twitched but weren’t released from the vyem. Their brains were confused, and the Cyen song was overwhelming. Cy-rial swam harder. He saw a female Cyen break free of her coma, but she didn’t know what to do next. The warning call blared, but the Cyen song caressed. Before the female could decipher her own thoughts, a Dualite net scooped her up. Cy-rial tried to produce the warning even louder, but his lungs fought him. He was dizzy and needed air. Surfacing before he passed out, he hung in the water, cursing his useless body. He had hoped to awaken a few Cyens to cause a chain reaction, but he couldn’t get through; he wasn’t powerful enough. He was good enough to destroy his world but not to save it.
Cy-rial turned onto his back, lying on the water, staring at an empty patch of sky. All around him the chaos blared, and he couldn’t stop it. The cries of his captured people sank into the ocean with the mechanisms of the nets clanking and whirring while the Dualite ships’ engines hummed. His mind tried to black it out, but it was impossible. How could he make it stop?
Cy-rial’s eyes widened. It was his last option. For several minutes he lay still, water lapping at his face, remembering the first time he realized he was different and the terror that had enveloped him. His mother and father had rotated shifts on land, giving up so much of their own lives for him. No one had ever made him feel like an outcast. They had all sacrificed to help him survive. Now he had to return the favor.
With a push he sent his body head first under the water, swimming straight down. He moved with his eyes closed, relishing the feel of the ocean. His scales tingled, and for a brief moment, he could believe he had always lived here. When he reached the bottom, Cy-rial sat down in the silt and waited.
Cyens had to keep moving. Even when they slept, their bodies instinctively continued to glide through the water. Stopping completely halted the movement of water through their bodies leading to death. The Cyen brain worked as a collective, allowing them to communicate over vast distances, giving them the gift of feeling the music of the li’ai, and jolting their nervous systems when one of them died.
Cy-rial ceased all movement. The water poured into his mouth, slowly drowning him. He knew when his mind took its last thought, his people would wake up. They would feel his life force extinguish and not even the most lavish Cyen song ever conceived could stop it from happening. He said goodbye to his family, praying for their safety as his body spasmed and fought for air. Then he said goodbye to Cyenya.
BIO: Christopher Hivner writes from a small town in Pennsylvania surrounded by books and the echoes of music. He is neither famous nor infamous. He has recently been published in Illumen, Dark Eclipse and The Horror Zine. A collection of short stories, “The Spaces Between Your Screams” was published by eTreasures Publishing. website: www.chrishivner.com, Facebook: Christopher Hivner – Author, Twitter: @Your_screams