Free-Time by Steve Simshauser

Kyarel lined up with thirty other gylarian cadets on the flyer staging zone. With wings folded and tails tucked, they bowed and waited for instruction from the governess.

“This is the transfer station at HerrTor-5.” Kyarel froze in rapt attention—she was an elder-one, a gy·an, and commanded respect. Standing tall in regal quadrupedal stance, the governess towered four times the height of the human chaperones at her side. Her beak-like muzzle was a human-height in length and balanced by a pair of horn-like ear-crests.

“There will be a layover of one day before resuming transit to the academy,” she continued. Her comlink shone in the sun. Its polished green crystal and woven gold collar were a splash of color against her otherwise austere tri-tone silver and gray coloration. Pleated and draped like a toga, white fabric shrouded her core body from shoulder to haunches.

“Regroup here at midday tomorrow for boarding. Until then, you are released on your own recognizance.” Azure and violet iridescence swirled across her milk-white infrared eyes as she nodded and gave a slow blink of her sapphire-blue visual eyes. She then turned and headed toward the entrance. Most of the cadets followed with tails held high. One chaperone escorted the governess, and one stayed on the deck.

A breeze swept across the platform. Diverse and fascinating, this was the complex breath of a living world. Kyarel slowed and turned into the wind, wandering to the side, up to the edge of the observation deck. The local sun, Torr, was already past zenith and almost halfway to the horizon.

“Hey,” a fellow cadet called. “We’re going to get something to eat. You coming?”

“Not now. Go on ahead.”

As the doors slid closed, Kyarel gripped the lip of the deck with wingclaw-hands and surveyed the scene. The lodging tower was near the edge of the spaceport complex, and one side of the platform overlooked agricultural use. Near the center of the port, a lifter-tug was moving a cadet transit module to a maintenance/storage bay. Meanwhile, a heavy-loader started skyward with a cluster of cargo modules to be put aboard the merchant transport before it left orbit.

Yearning grew, and the chance to explore this new world became irresistible. Kyarel shifted, crouched, and leapt—pushing away from the tower and vaulting into the sky. With a powerful first upstroke, the wings snapped to full spread and grabbed air—building speed to soar in the rising plume of warm air and gain altitude. The updraft drifted out over the farmland, away from the port and clear of any vehicle corridors.

A new and different sense permeated this place. The rookery had been on a heavily industrialized planet. This world was dedicated to the production of naturally grown, old-form foodstuffs, and a transport hub. A feeling—something vague but alluring—drew Kyarel from circling in the updraft and into a straight-line track downwind into the east.

Kyarel sailed along, skimming a thermocline—sustaining speed and altitude with occasional triple wingbeats. The sun slowly sank behind building clouds. Turning back at twilight would give enough time to return to the tower before the midnight curfew. The comlink could track time from the local network.

The terrain below was a variegated assortment. About half of the landscape appeared to be untended free-growth, which formed a network of full-mix ecosystems interspersed with patches dedicated to specific crops.

The whine of a turbine approached from behind and a flyer flashed by. Kyarel pushed through the buffeting of bow-wake and wingtip vortices. At first glance, the profile could be mistaken for a gylar—but this was a vehicle: a hybrid ornithopter/jet, slightly smaller than a cadet. The craft banked and circled around, settling into a parallel vector.

A human pilot was visible through a bubble canopy forward of the ‘shoulders’—the wings folded to mimic mid-upstroke. Liftfan disks spun up and aft-mounted thruster nacelles swung down as the craft came alongside Kyarel and matched speed. The sense from the human mind held no threat—only a fascination with flight, curiosity, and a bit of envy of the gylar.

Clever human, quite an ingenious machine, Kyarel quietly thought and gave a quick nod of appreciation, then resumed normal flight attitude. In aerial quadruped configuration, the craft dipped and bobbed in a manner no gylar could copy. It danced about—off to the right side, then the left, backing and side-slipping to maintain one wingspan minimum clearance.

Now you’re just showing off. Further images in the mind·sense of this human revealed that he, too, was bound for the academy: with an expectation of replacing his machine with a living partner.

Don’t assume that it’s going to be me, little-one. Kyarel shrugged off and ignored his outreach. After pacing along for a short while, the craft rocked in a wing-wag salute, then veered away.

Seven quadrupeds moved through the woods below. They were about the size of a human, but with only a basic feral awareness—these were free-roaming wildlife. Others of the same species were probably being prepared and served to the siblings back at the tower. Hunger was becoming a nuisance. The thought of taking one of these was tempting—just swoop down, flash-char it, and feed. But that would mean losing valuable altitude and time—and there was something more important to search for.

A different need had taken precedence in the precious remaining daylight: a longing, deep and primal. The feeling matched descriptions of resonance with a human mind—primary criteria in the selection of a comate, a life-partner. A key mission of the academy was to match team partners and provide training. Ultimately, to have gylar and human minds synchronize and complement each other, to act together as two halves of a whole. The pilot was academy-bound, clever and motivated, but his was not the sense that had drawn Kyarel to this time and place—somewhere nearby was another—a potential comate.

Where? Kyarel overlapped sight and mind·sense in an instinctive hunting technique. With careful attention to sense the dimensionality of life, the terrain below was like a sea of color: myriad speckles in a full array of hue and intensity.

I know you’re out there. Where are you?

The sky ahead started to darken—it would soon be time to turn back—when a bright flash filled the air. Kyarel banked and turned right, to ride across the wind and look back. The clouds had turned into a wall of rain and blocked sight of the port. Erratic bursts of lightning lit the storm from within. Ahead was a ground transport terminal. It could provide shelter from the storm, and an alternate way back to the port.

The most rational choice would be to head for the terminal immediately and take shelter. Flying back to the port against the storm would be exhausting and the lightning would make it dangerous. The comlink called up the local transport schedule.

But… No, not just yet… Just a little longer…

There! To the left from the terminal: a singular point of brilliance amid a cluster of buildings. Kyarel pulled and dove, adjusting for optimum speed. The impact of droplets warned that the storm loomed overhead.

Concentrating on the mind·sense drew in clarity and detail. This was a strong mind: alert and sensitive, considerate and compassionate, intuitive and creative—a fine soul with the name Daelin. Thoughts of the academy formed in the sense. There was a disappointment bordering on anger that a recent chance to apply had been missed due to schedule conflicts with harvesting activities. A memory involving the designer/pilot echoed among the images.

“Dream on, farmboy. You really think they’d ever accept you?” The taunt hurt but would not quell the eager yearning for knowledge.

Daelin stood in the doorway of an equipment shed, watching the sky as the wind roared and the first raindrops clattered on the roof. Preparing to pull the door closed, he took a deep breath of crisp electrified storm air mixed with shed air, laden with odors of fuel and lubricants from the recently parked harvester and other machinery. A distant form caught his attention—silhouetted against the lightning—just as it disappeared in a column of mist that dropped from the thunderhead.

The world around Kyarel dimmed and plunged as a microburst blasted down from above. The tailwind stopped airflow over the wings, while rain blanketed everything with a featureless gray void. Blind and plummeting in freefall, Kyarel frantically flailed at the air, trying to regain lift. Flickering shadows below became treetops.

The right wing snagged and jerked, forcing a sideways descent into the canopy. The left wing slipped underneath and caught between a couple trees. Branches battered the wing spars and jabbed the membranes while hammering the flight muscles. The dorsal ridge slammed into a cluster of tree trunks that blocked the way. Carbon nano-fiber reinforced but hollow bones strained against much thicker, solid wood. The trees flexed and recoiled—and Kyarel collapsed to the wet forest floor, stunned by the brutal impact.

Rain poured through the leaves and the sky darkened from both the storm and deepening twilight. The trees in one direction became backlit as a machine approached through the haze. Any attempt to move brought naught but pain. The left wing was limp and totally useless.

Daelin stopped the crawler at the treeline. Almost by instinct, its lights were aimed into the woods where Kyarel lay. He dismounted, grabbing a flashlight and a two-way radio from the toolbox and a couple of waterproof tarps off the wagon he had in-tow.

“Hoya, gyar!” he called out and switched on the light. The beam caught a quartet of eyeshine deep in the woods. Two pairs: one, fist-sized and about a foot apart, blazed an icy-blue; the other, more than trice as big, flanked the first with a somber red glow.

A chill swept through Daelin: an instinctive fear of the dark—especially a dark forest on a dark and stormy night. He froze in his tracks, and fought to squelch the memory of his father’s tirade about how the gylars were descendants of an ancient terror weapon: a bioengineered race whose name meant ‘of/like demons.’

He shook free of the waking nightmare, and dismissed it as history from a time long past. The two species now thrived through a cooperation that benefited both gylar and human: a symbiosis the old man never tried to understand.

Kyarel called with a plaintive warble.

Concern and sympathy dispelled any hesitation—and Daelin headed into the woods as Kyarel heaved and surged toward the welcome intruder.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Daelin winced. “Stay still, relax. Moving with broken bones can cause more injury. Relax. Let me help.” Kyarel understood the human words directly—a standard dialect of the common language—making the comlink translator function redundant.

“Mobile to base,” Daelin spoke into the radio while approaching. “Call EMS. We have an emergency. Over.”

“What?” his father’s voice responded.

“An injured gylar, grounded in the woods between the north field and the station, needs help NOW. Over.” Daelin reached out his hand to offer compassion and gently pet the soft down-covered hide of Kyarel’s cheek between the eyes and ear-crests.

“Dad doesn’t like advanced tech. But at least he’s OK with old-fashioned radio.” Daelin mind·spoke—a clear and freely offered telepathic outreach.

Both enjoyed the sensation of human skin on gylar hide. With neural networks practically touching, the interchange deepened exponentially. Mutual respect and mutual admiration flooded through both minds. Each saw through the other’s eyes, felt each other’s feelings.

“Medevac is on its way,” the radio squawked. “An alert had already been logged.” As Daelin turned and started unfolding one of the tarps, he noticed the woven gold strap of a comlink pendant around Kyarel’s neck.

Kyarel felt at ease with this human. Echoes in the mind·sense were inviting and calming. Basking in the thought-forms and looking out through the mindset of this one was comforting. Interests and wants matched and aligned. Surrendering part of one’s mind in exchange for never being alone made the thought of forever less frightening.

Meanwhile, Daelin worked to process the implications of the sharing. In that flash, it felt like he had gleefully sat down and told his life’s story to this great beast—and it to him. No judgment, only acknowledgment and acceptance.

The tarp unfolded to a square about twice Daelin’s height on an edge. He stepped up to Kyarel’s shoulder, spun and whipped the tarp so it came down over the hump of flight muscles. It covered the gylar’s back and draped over the shoulders and rump.

“Must have been something pretty important,” Daelin spoke up. “I mean, what was worth the risk of being out in a thunderstorm like that?”

Both knew that wasn’t quite the question he wanted to ask. The true question seemed beyond what human sensibility would let him say aloud.

>Comlink VOX off< (a silent command to the comlink): Kyarel felt no such restriction.

“I was looking for you.” Sensing the reaction in Daelin, which confirmed the human understood the gylar dialect, Kyarel continued, “I would like to be your partner, if you would have me.”

Mentally backing away, Kyarel blocked any outreach from the human and cowered behind shielding, isolated and alone. The human would make his decision free of any influence.

Daelin fumbled the second tarp, and paused; to be offered partnership was automatic admission to the academy and a gateway to the stars beyond. A future with this saurian as his companion was open to him. Eventually, this saurian body would be his body—albeit not exclusively so—to live on in the memory of the dragon.

“It would be an honor to be your partner,” he said and successfully applied the second tarp. “There, that should help keep you warm.”

Daelin turned and found himself gazing levelly into Kyarel’s aqua-colored visual eyes. At an arm’s length away, the beak lowered and the long head bowed to vertical. Green and indigo iridescence swirled across the infrared eyes. The human reached out, stepped up, and embraced the gylar’s muzzle, resting forehead to forehead as the dragon’s breath enveloped him in a smell akin to grain and horses, mixed with smoke from a burning fruit tree.

My friend, Kyarel rumbled softly—words were no longer necessary.

A moment of comfort and sharing, a hug and caress—and the wing didn’t seem to hurt as much. Daelin performed a quick walk-around—adjusting the tarps while checking the injuries.

“I don’t see any major bleeding, but that wing is in bad shape,” he said with a quick pat to the beak. “Looks like multiple fractures.

“Relax and stay put. I’ll clear a path.” Daelin scanned the area toward the field. “Looks like I only need to drop two trees to clear a path.”

The comlink alerted: “Emergency Medical Service is nearly here.”

Daelin sprinted to the wagon to grab a tree-cutter and some chains.

As the second tree fell, light flooded the area as air-rescue arrived. Daelin headed toward the field to meet a couple of technicians as they reached the woods.

“This way,” he turned, shining the lantern light on the tarp-clad form.

“Watch your step”—he swung the light to the hazards—“There are a couple of stumps; I’ll drag the brush out while you work.”

The techs set their packs down next to Kyarel—and Daelin returned to the freshly fallen tree. An injection eased the pain while two tight loops and a hook secured the chain to the trunk. A mesh of straps was spread underneath Kyarel and secured to a frame while the chains were linked to the front of the crawler and the wagon was unhitched. The stretcher lifted while the crawler turned and backed away, pulling the vegetation to the field and off to the side. The branches swept the path clear.

“Good job, thanks,” one of the techs commented while moving the stretcher to the ambulance.

Safely secured in the transport, Kyarel’s consciousness started to drift in a drug-induced haze. Daelin grew confused as the EMTs loaded their gear and prepared to leave. This part of their mission accomplished, they closed the hatch.

Shouldn’t I be going too? he pondered as he stood beside the wagon.

On the stretcher, Kyarel stirred weakly and murmured.

“My friend, follow. Find me, please…” Daelin felt the thought as it faded into sleep.

Waiting in the recovery ward, Daelin sat back in the chair and tried to relax. Kyarel rested in a state of semi-conscious, deep twilight. The chemical haze eased its grip and human thoughts reached to the saurian with the caress of concern.

“I am here, my friend.”

Kyarel took comfort in sensing Daelin nearby, and reciprocated the outreach—seeking to calm the turmoil that raged in the human.

“Dad was furious when I told him that I had accepted partnership.”

“We are the product of our past—parts of which are rather unpleasant.”

The two souls drifted in a shared dreamscape.

From deep in time immemorial, humans and saurians shared an interwoven history: both were subjugated by the ancients. Humans were used as general laborers and soldiers—some advanced to supervisory and tactical command roles. Saurians were subjected to selective breeding and genetic manipulation—to be molded into specialized weapon systems.

Not all was at peace among the ancients.

On a remote wasteland, one faction found a pterosaur that improved its hunting success by modifying its behaviors based on memories and knowledge absorbed from its prey. The ancients enhanced the ability for use as a tool to gather information and disrupt a rival’s human population. The weaponized race was one of cruel and vicious pterosaurs that delighted in eating humans—not just for the nutrients of the body, but gulping them down alive to contain and extract the detailed contents of the mind. The assimilated knowledge would be used to help evade capture and to hunt down the next meal/victim—and ultimately be harvested by the overseers. The absorption was so complete that the beast entrapped the living vital essence of its prey—the hapless soul a plaything—to be teased and tormented in the appeasement of a sadistic appetite.

The final refinement to the gylarian arose from a particular skirmish among the ancients. A weapon that obliterated all traces of life from a planet was deployed against a strategic technology center. While the weapon purged the world of complex organic compounds and artificial structures, it did so by exchanging quantum matrix clusters across the multiverse—effectively swapping planets.

The onsite overseers found themselves still alive, but transplaced beyond time and space. Isolated from their homeworld, and facing their own mortality, they seized upon a plan to extend their lives and maintain control of the facility. Revising the design of the terror-weapon pterosaur could repurpose it to serve as a survival vessel—giving them renewed bodies and refreshed life spans while they worked to find a way home.

To deweaponize the demons, revisions suppressed aggression by inhibiting gender development, and relocated the soul-catcher neural network from the gut to a marsupial-like pouch. They tried to reduce the saurian’s mentality to a receptive blank slate. What they achieved was a predisposition to mimic and mirror those it encountered—giving the gylarian an instinctive inclination to treat others as they would treat others.

As the overseers reached the end of their days, only one possessed a mindset compatible with a gylarian. The two bonded—becoming the First·team and first elder·one. The others tried, but failed. Later, a human bonded with a gylarian, and the combination unlocked the inhibited gender development.

With the technology of the ancients at their disposal, humans and saurians soon set out to explore and colonize the new universe. In contrast to the ancients, they reached out in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation. Many of the indigenous races accepted the newcomers as friends—and an interstellar alliance was formed: the Miriakon.

Kyarel stirred and stretched. The wing was a bit sore and stiff, but functional. The comlink was on a shelf on the other side of the room.

“The medical team removed it as part of pre-op. They were proud of how well they were able to mend the bones,” Daelin commented as he stood at the edge of the mattress. Kyarel saw his memory of the preceding night.

The governess and a chaperone entered the room. Daelin backed away from the bed in deference to the elder-one and Kyarel crawled off the mattress to stand with Daelin.

“What do we have here?” her tone was neither pleased nor derisive.

“He deserves to be a cadet. He followed me. Can I…” Kyarel stopped—it had been a rhetorical question. However, the situation was definitely not the norm. She closed her eyes and drew a slow, deep breath. Kyarel and Daelin felt her take full-sense and actively probe: touching, testing, and judging the bond between the pair, gylar and human. Muted murmuring rippled in the mind·sense as she conferred with the chaperone.

Being a gy·an, her mind was a mature fused team: equal parts, gylar and human, sharing the one body. In her touch were images of the beauty and pleasures of a good symbiotic pairing. The academy had been established to minimize the agonies and loss of life that could result from bondings gone awry. Kyarel recognized that failure would mean searching for another or face a thousand years of gnawing emptiness and isolation. Similarly, Daelin knew failure would mean searching or accepting an existence limited to the abilities and lifespan of the human form.

The human mind wavered in apprehension, as did the gylar. While they awaited the verdict, each reached to the other for solace and reassurance in the newly forged mental bond.

“Through the human, the gylar gains purpose and continuation of the species. Through the gylar, the human gains enhancement and extension of the individual. In the bonding, both gain insight and companionship. Each pledges to protect and care for the other—to share equally in a new joint existence. That is the contract.” She paused.

“Do you understand, agree, and accept? Be certain—bonding requires total commitment: body, mind, and soul.” It was a mutual question, to both Daelin and Kyarel.

“Yes.” The answer was equally mutual.

“Very well. This partnership is approved,” she declared and the chaperone nodded. “Comate quarters will be provisioned.”

She sat back on her haunches. Slipping her muzzle past the frontispiece of her toga, she nuzzled the fold of skin along the aft edge of her flight muscles. From her pouch, she pulled a comlink pendant—the crystal and mount were the same size as that worn by the chaperone who took it from her beak.

She then picked up the comlink from the shelf and held it by its strap. She approached and slid the pendant’s loop over Kyarel’s head and down the neck. Meanwhile, the chaperone walked up to Daelin and similarly draped the smaller comlink around his neck.

“You can tell your family of your acceptance, yourself,” the chaperone said. “Or let the academy send notice—your choice.”

Kyarel bowed to the governess. Resting keel-bone sternum on the floor was also intended as an invitation to Daelin—who, encouraged by a nod from the chaperone, promptly seated himself in the natural saddle formed by the juncture of the neck and dorsal flight muscles.

“Come, now.” The governess rose and turned toward the doorway. “Boarding-time.”

A wave of concern swept through Daelin: concern over the family having to redistribute the workload in order to keep the farm operating.

“A commendable dedication to family and a strong sense of duty,” she clucked approvingly before either of the pair could speak. “Scholarship benefits include family assistance, which can apply in this case.”

They made their way across the port campus using ground transport. Arriving at the lodging tower, they boarded the elevator. As it started to lift, Kyarel felt a quiet query from Daelin.

“I know your gender isn’t set, yet. So, when we get into conversations with others, would you prefer I use the gender-neutral ke-form pronouns?”

“Technically, (ke) is correct until we are elder-one. But, as I will come to reflect you and your body·form is male, (he) could be used, for now. Ultimately, we’ll share the form you’re most comfortable with,” ke responded.

The elevator reached the flyer platform level and stopped. The doors slid open and they stepped out to join the other cadets on the platform. Several gylarians gathered around in curiosity and congratulation. Daelin leaned forward and gripped the comlink strap, adjusting his balance as Kyarel poised, tall and proud.

“Lucky you, farmboy.” The designer/pilot was there, among a group of human cadets waiting to board. His name was Neyki. He and Daelin had been in the same class several times over the years. A bit of a bully in his early years, he had mellowed some—turning his aggression into an intense drive and determination to be the best, and the first.

Nothing would be gained by responding in kind to an outburst of old habits. However, ignoring him could be misread as disrespectful and an insult. Kyarel and Daelin calmly and casually nodded, smiled, and waved to Neyki, then boarded the shuttle, together.

They were a team—Free·time was over.


Steve Simshauser grew up in the birthplace of aviation (Ohio). He lives in the mid-west and balances writing time with a day-job as an aerospace systems engineer. He shares his homelife with his spouse and two cats. He has been a writer/editor for RAK Graphics, and has also contributed to Daniel Mickle’s The_Abrasax_Chronicles series. He’s even produced award-winning poetry. While at RAK, he produced the comic book series Dragon_of_the_Valkyr, which served as the initial introduction of the Gylarian dragons and Valkyr/Miriakon multiverse.

The artwork for Free-Time is by James Mravec, www.jamesmravec.com, @jimmravec.