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It's a Long Way Down · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
The Long Down
T’Shhrl’s tentacles quivered in anticipation. Not anxiety. And certainly not fear.

The young Charfl breathed deeply, his air sacks expanding and contracting vigorously as he prepared himself for his dive. The moment was almost upon him, and he would only have one chance. One brief sliver of opportunity. If he succeeded, he’d bring fame and glory to himself, and prosperity to his Pod.

If he failed…

Well, the Long Down awaited all Charfl, in the end.

T’Shhrl used his long, scaled wings to shift his oblong body slightly to the left, letting the Current carry him over his target. As anxious… eager as he was to begin, he wasn’t so young or foolish as to waste energy rushing forward. Not when he had such an arduous task ahead of him.

Rolling his body upwards, he allowed his main eyes to focus on the skyscape above him. The swirling green and white clouds, the blue blobs of Nectar Seeds, the flashes of light as the rest of his pod spoke back and forth over the miles that separated them as they hunted.

He very intently did not think about the fact that this might be his last glimpse of Home.

If only another of his pod had been closer! Another set of tentacles would make his task far safer, though still far from safe. There was nothing safe about the Long Down. Some of his first memories were of being a tiny podling, suckered to his Matron’s back with his brothers and sisters, and being told to beware the Long Down and the Far Up.

The Far Up was bad enough. It was dangerous, but not inherently deadly. There just wasn’t anything up there. As you rose higher and higher above the cloud layers that were Home, there were fewer and fewer things to eat. Then it became harder and harder to breath. A Charlf’s wings would bite into the air less and less. Eventually your airsacks would start to hurt, no matter how hard you tried to expel them.

Go too far into the Far Up, stay there too long, and you’d eventually pass out. Hopefully before you ruptured an air sac. As a foolish youngling, he and his podmates had held contests to see who could fly the highest and for the longest. T’Shhrl could only shake his tentacles at the thought of how ignorant and arrogant they had been. It was a small miracle that no one had been injured.

Still, the Far Up wasn’t that dangerous. Even if you passed out, your podmates would have time to catch you before you reach the Long Down. But once you entered the Long Down…

With a twitch of his wings, he set himself straight and level once again. His lower eyes, weaker but more sensitive to the changes in dark and light, warned him that he was nearing his goal. To his main eyes, the shadow in the distance was clearer than ever. A darker spot against the brown and white swirls that separated home from the Long Down.

A piece of the rare and elusive Short Down.

The Long Down was a constant of life. Within the murky brown layer, no Charfl, no anything could live. It was an endless maw from which none could escape. Whether due to age, illness, attack by predators, or their own foolishness, all Charfl eventually went to join their elders in the swirling eddies of the Long Down. It was a simple, natural, well understood part of life.

Unlike the Short Down, which was anything but natural.

All things moved with the Current. The pods of his own people. The Nectar Seeds, Fruit Clouds, and schools of Malguls they fed upon. The packs of Byrilks that could mean death to any Charfl foolish enough to be caught alone. Even the clouds of the Far up and Long down followed the Current! The Current could be fickle. It could twist and turn. It might change its direction and course on a whim. It could be calm and placid, or it could scatter a Pod across miles of turbulent air. But all things moved with the Current.

All things except the Short Down.

The Short Down was an anomaly. An aberration. Strange, unnatural, but undeniably valuable. Most often it was little more than a shadow in the darkness of the Long Down, far too deep for even the bravest to visit. But perhaps once in a generation a Pod would find the Short Down sticking up out of the depths like the fin of a giant Byrilk. That was a joyous occasion to be sure. But like all contact with the Short Down, it was fleeting. The Current would soon carry the pod away from the alien realm, and even the strongest of fliers could only resist its pull for so long.

T’Shhrl was not lucky enough to find the Short Down sticking up into Home. But it was close. So very close. Through the wisps and eddies of the boundary layer between the Long Down and Home his main eyes could catch glimpses of the strange, black object.

The Long Down was a death sentence. But not an instant one. A Charfl could dive into it and return safely. If they were strong. And fast. And lucky. It was not a thing to be done lightly. But the rewards for reaching the Short Down, the treasure, the glory, the accolades!

He couldn’t tell if the Elders that had Passed On were showering him with fortune and favor, or leading him to his death. One the one tentacle, he was incredibly lucky to have spotted the shadow of the Short Down in the first place, and fortunate that it was close enough that it might be reached. One the other, it was a grave misfortune that none of his podmates were in range to assist him in this dangerous endeavor. And while he was certain he could reach his goal, he was far less certain about making it back to Home again.

In the end, he decided to take his chances. The Short Down was simply too valuable. Not just to himself, but to his entire Pod. To have had the opportunity to help his people, and pass it up… He would not be able to live with himself.

The time was drawing near. T’Shhrl expanded and contracted his air sacks more and more rapidly, purging his body of toxins as he prepared for his dive. The timing would be tricky. The way the Short Down moved against the Current made it difficult to predict.

He took a moment to flash the bioluminescent panels on his upper and lower surfaces, signaling his location and intention to his podmates. Perhaps fortune and the Currents would smile upon his Pod, and someone further down the line would be in a position to exploit his discovery.

And then there was no time left for other considerations. T’Shhrl inhaled deeply to fully aerate his blood, then contracted his air sacks and folded his wings. His oblong body fell through the air like an arrow aimed into the underworld.

He felt his body shake and shudder as he passed into the Long Down. He’d faced far worse turbulence in his short life, but never so abruptly as when he passed through the boundary. It buffeted him from side to side, making his breath holes vibrate.

Then he was through the worst of the it. Or through the worst of the turbulence at least. Because nothing could be worse than the Long Down. The brown clouds stung his eyes as he dove through them, rending his upper and lower sets worse than useless. Only his main eyes could see through the murky depths, and even then only poorly.

T’Shhrl tensed and forced himself to bioluminesce. It was a waste of energy to glow so brightly, but his dive would be pointless if he could not find what he was seeking. Though if he frivolously wasted too much energy his dive would be both pointless and fatal. Still, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he had to give it his all.

For long seconds he feared he had made a terrible mistake. There was nothing here! Had he mistimed his dive? Had the Short Down’s unnatural motion thrown him off course? Had he dived too deep and passed right under it? How far into the Long Down was he? It was impossible to tell, as he could not longer see Home. Not with the way the brown clouds stung his eyes.

Fear and doubt began to squeeze his heart, just as the pressure of the Long Down squeezed his air sacks. Did he dare stay down here any longer? Did he dare flee in cowardice? Where was the line between bravery and foolishness? And had he already crossed it?

And then a massive shadow appeared across his path.

The Short Down! He had made it! T’Shhrl flared his wings, fighting against the Current as he struggled to slow his pace and make contact with the mass of black. It was a difficult task, but one well within his capabilities. Or so he thought, right up until he was upon his goal.

The Current around the Short Down was like nothing he had ever felt before. It was as if the world itself was screaming in anger at the Short Down’s mere presence! The wind ripped and tore at the scales on his wings, driving him this way and that, slamming him hard against the rough black surface.

Battered and dazed, his largest tentacles flailed wildly, barely managing to find purchase on the rocky spire. The Current roared around him, and his tentacles shot pain signals through his body at the strain they were under. He barely had the presence of mind to recall where he was, and why he was there. With his failing energy he flashed his glow panels once more, desperate for a clearer view of his surroundings.

Once again the Elders that had Passed On smiled upon him. The brown clouds of the Long Down parted for just a moment. Just long enough for him to find what he had come so far to seek. From beneath his chest a dozen of his smaller grasping tentacles descended, grabbing loose bits of the strange material of the Short Down.

He grabbed what he could, as quickly as he could. There was no time to examine his prizes. His air sacks were burning with need. His eyes were blind. And his largest tentacles were screaming in strain. With a gasp he let go, allowing the Current to pull him where it may, praying to the Elders that it would be merciful, and smash him against the Short Down no more.

The Elders had apparently stopped listening to his pleas, as he struck the black object at least thrice more before passing into the relatively clear space of the Long Down. His wings were bruised and battered, a smattering of scales scraped clean off. But his prizes had been kept close to his chest, held tight in his tentacle’s grip.

With a powerful flap he sent himself soaring upwards. Or that was his intent. In truth his flap was more feeble than powerful, his bruised limbs barely obeying his commands. He struggled to expand his air sacks, to increase his buoyancy. But the weight of the Long Down was pressing against them from the outside, while the brown clouds burned their insides.

There was no air in the Long Down. No breath of home and life. He could feel his body weakening, his heart slowing. He was floating upwards, but slowly. Too slowly. The world was growing dimmer. Darker. If he passed out now his air sacks would contract once more… and the Long Down would claim him.

Perhaps if he was lighter, if he just dropped his prizes… But no. His tentacles curled up closer and tighter with their treasures. He hadn’t come all this way to fail. Not now. He’d either make it Home and bask in his success… Or he’d carry his burden with him into whatever lay beyond Death.

It was, of all things, the turbulence that saved him.

It smashed into him, shaking him vigorously back and forth. Though with nowhere near the force the Current had exerted around the Near Down. It rattled him enough to refocus his attention on the world around him, and to drag him from the deadly stupor his deprivation had driven him into.

And it reminded him that here there were bits of Home. Here there was the breath of life.

His air sacks swelled as he drew in deeply of his Home. He felt drained. His whole body ached, and his blood sang in desperate need for air. He was still far too close to the Long Down for comfort, but each heartbeat brought him further and further away from the boundary.

Exhausted, he could barely muster up a feeble glow. But he persevered. It was important to let the rest of the pod know of his success, and of the dangers he had faced. If any of his podmates were in position to make their own dives, they would know to do so with caution, and with full strength. If they had to fight the Current to get into position, they wouldn’t have the strength to make the dive and return.

His duty done, T’Shhrl uncurled his tentacles to examine his prizes. Before his main eyes he held them. A dozen blacks bits of the Short Down. The Elders called it ‘Obsidian.’ And I was more valuable than a cloud of Malguls.

If two pieces were struck against each other just right it would produce a black sliver sharper than any Barrtha’s tooth. Strapped to the end of a long piece of bone, it would make a weapon fit for the greatest of warriors. Weapons to keep packs of Byrilk and other predators away from the pod. Weapons that would help keep his people safe and well fed for another generation.

And this great boon for his Pod was all thanks to his skill and bravery in facing the Long Down. There would be praise and accolades for his daring. The Elders would surely speak of him for many rotations, and the name T’Shhrl would be passed down through the generations for as long as his prizes remained!

Slowly, painfully, he used his wings to turn himself around, to face against the current. As he slowly but steadily rose higher, he could see the shadowy shape of the Short Down as it receded into the distance, its silhouette growing fainter and fainter as it grew further and further away. With a lightened heart he mustered up enough energy to flash the strange, alien object a respectful thank you and farewell.

He didn’t turn away until even his main eyes could not longer catch a glimpse of shadow.
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#1 · 1
Ooh, xenofiction!

Okay, from the start you're communicating the nature of the world pretty well, but everything's on the verge of becoming an unwelcome lecture. I'm about a third of way through, and it feels as though almost nothing has happened.

Wings and tentacles and multiple pairs of eyes give a good sense of alien (though they also remind me a bit too much of cthulu).

You might want to tone up your clarity. I spent most of the story imagining the Short Down as some sort of floating fabric thing. Considering how important it is, we're not told much beyond that it's valuable. This is cleared up in the end as a sort of revelation, but there's a fine line between being coy and unnecessarily obscure.

Speaking of the end, the obsidian reveal feels like it's trying to carry more weight than it does. And for that matter, it's a cheat to just call it obsidian when everything else is alien calques and made-up names.

Honestly, I'm struggling to find anything else to comment on. My biggest problem with this story is that there's so little there. Okay, so it's only two thousand words, but still. The plot is that a character goes and gets a thing. The characterisation is that he's the sort of person (or Charfl) who would go and get a thing. The reveal isn't. There are no interactions between characters at all. And the world, though interesting, is presented so fleetingly that I leave feeling unsatisfied.
#2 ·
It's funny, just yesterday I was musing in the car about what it might be like for a creature that spent its whole life cycle in the air, and how it might evolve. I was imagining more of a flyer than a floater, though.

Enough about strange coincidences, though.

Seconding S&S on xenofiction.

There was a lot of information conveyed quickly, but for the most part, it was done anecdotally enough that I didn't find it particularly distracting.

The meat of the action was simple, but did what it came for.

Agreed that I wasn't entirely sure what short down was, and my perception was colored by 'Artificial.' While appropriate to their worldview, it did make me suspect that it might be some technological alien(human) artifact.

Overall, the plot could have been more engrossing, but the perspective and world were refreshing.
#3 ·
by any chance, inspired by the Slylandro? probably a coincidence.

for all the descriptions of tentacles and air sacs, somehow this creature didn't feel inhuman enough, at least in its thinking. I think I prefer aliens that are a bit more exotic, with a unique outlook shaped by their strange environments. This one just felt like a human with a different outward appearance.

The plot is pretty basic, since so much text is spent on explaining the setting, but to me it feels like worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. Repeatedly telling me that this area is dangerous and awesome, but I'm not feeling it in my bones. Nothing hints at a relationship between the character and the danger zone. If this were a human-fic, it might as well be a generic haunted house or something.

The treasure recovered at the end was a bit of a letdown, I was expecting something with a greater revelation. To be fair, I think the obsidian can work just fine, if there was some foreshadowing for this earlier on. For example, showing that these creatures have an urgent need for this material, or perhaps establish that solid matter is so rare that even a few chunks of rock can be priceless. For a while I thought he was just doing it for thrillseeking, or bragging rights.

I do appreciate that this story was trying something a little different from the usual.
#4 ·
· · >>Ranmilia
T’Shhrl’s tentacles quivered in anticipation.

Well, that's certainly a first sentence.

Good book. Better than the movie Avatar by miles, though I'm a general Zahn fan.

Anyway, here I can fall back on the existing comments, especially S&S and Haze. It's well done in the sense that it isn't too hard to figure out the basics, but why force any amount of puzzling? As Haze noted, once you're able to decode what "Charfls" and "Downs" and all that actually mean, the story might as well have been about a human diver. There's no payoff for the xenofic barrier, it's just xeno for xeno's sake. Maybe some people are into that, but it leaves me feeling neutral at best and frustrated at worst. If I have to spend time and mental energy decoding what's essentially a CIA document of Xyzzys and Plughs, I expect some reward for having done so, in the form of some interesting ideas that couldn't easily be expressed otherwise.

I'm not too sure about the decoding part too. At first I thought the setting was underwater. Then, from the mention of layers and currents and spots, I thought it was Jupiter, or a similar gas giant with no surface. Then the ending reveals that the Short Down is something made of obsidian?! Is it a ship? A mountain? How does a Charfl even know what obsidian is, when they seem to be unable to observe a surface, let alone volcanic rock? Very weird choice in the absence of any further context. It's not too important to the plot, but probably a downgrade for the story compared to what I expected (grabbing bits of technology off of some sort of human space probe or observation vessel).

All that aside, the one scene IS a pretty nice action scene. Those are harder to write well than people think, and I do like this one. Even though I never got a good mental image of a Charfl, I could follow what was going on and get properly excited for the protagonist.

Overall serviceable, mid-tier fare, and an interesting deviation from most of the entries we get round here. Thanks for writing!