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Author Topic: EP478: People of the Shell  (Read 14722 times)

eytanz

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on: January 30, 2015, 11:19:23 PM
EP478: People of the Shell

By Brian Trent

Read by Jeff Ronner

---

Egypt’s rolling ice-dunes were suddenly peppered by a new ashstorm, as if a bowl of soot had overturned in the heavens. King Cyrus held up his fist and the war drummer ceased his rhythmic pounding, the oarsmen relaxed, and the sandship ground to a halt in the slush. The ash sprinkled Cyrus’ cloak and collected in his beard. He leaned against the deck rails and stared.

“Do you see that?” Cyrus asked his daughter, lowering his facemask around his smile. “Look!”

The girl squinted. “Are those the pyramids, father?”

“As I promised you.”

Three fires danced high in the darkness. In a world of never-ending night, the Egyptians alone had devised a brilliant defiance. The Giza pyramids were like magical lighthouses, capstones removed, their vast bodies filled with pitch, and red fires lit to smolder like desperate offerings to the vanished sun.

Standing on the sandship deck alongside his king, the Magus Jamshid said, “May they welcome us warmly. We are in no condition to fight.”

“I did not need a fight to take Babylon,” Cyrus reminded him.

“That was before the Hammerstrike, my lord.”

But the king waved his hand dismissively. “I will go to them and look in their eyes, and speak to them as friends, and trust that generosity has not perished with the trees.”

The withered magus grunted derisively. He was bearded and ancient, his skin like the patina of old scrolls. Jamshid wore a dark blue turban, facemask, and a scintillating black robe the same color as his pitched eyebrows. His gaze smoked like hot iron.

The royal sandship stood at the head of the royal Persian fleet. It sounded majestic, Cyrus thought, but only four sandships – with a meager two hundred starving Persians – remained. The men resembled skeletons in their rags. Their leather armor was reduced to chewed twines that the men fisted in their hands, to nibble on in want of food. When the last of the leather was eaten, little trace would remain that animals had ever existed on the Earth.

Cyrus turned to their dirtied ranks. “I give you Egypt!” he bellowed. “It is still here, as I promised!”

Hunger, not hope, blazed in their eyes as they beheld the pyramid fires.

Jamshid touched his arm. “Sire! The runner is returning!”

Cyrus followed the magus’ gnarled brown hand. He saw only falling ash and smoky miasma curling from the ice.

A moment later, the scout emerged into the fleet’s amber lamplight. The man saw the royal sandship and dug his spiked boots into the ice to stop hard. The archers relaxed their bows.

“Sandship, my lord!” the young man cried. “Approaching dark and fast from the southeast!”

“Banner?” Cyrus asked.

“I have not set eyes on it. They run dark.”

“They have seen our lamps,” the magus guessed.

Cyrus stooped to his daughter. She was such a tiny thing, like a miniature of his wife, with an oval brown face and her hair pulled back in the royal style. “Go into the cabin, my dear.”

She nodded and bit her lip. “Are you going to kill people, father?”

“I hope not.”

“Are they going to kill us?”

“Not while I live.”


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DerangedMind

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Reply #1 on: February 01, 2015, 11:20:45 PM
I guess I'm going to be the first one to comment...

The story was good, the reading excellent.  But, it never drew me in to it.  Maybe this is one that would have worked better for me in print than audio, but I had a hard time focusing and paying attention. 



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #2 on: February 02, 2015, 07:41:09 PM
So, when I first saw the title, I've got to admit that I was thinking of something kind of like this:



Boy was I wrong.

This one was a roller coaster for me. From Marcel the Shell with Shoes on to an awesome kick-ass historical sci-fi apocalypse setting - which I loved to the point that I am currently mulling over exactly how I want to steal it and make it my own - to an ending that really left a bad taste in my mouth. See, I really hate "victory snatched from the jaws of defeat" stories, and that's exactly how the ending sat with me. The People of the Shell are doomed. Whatever these creatures are, their life cycle probably involves eating up all the biomass and then shooting back off into space (*cough* Tyranids *cough*) (which isn't a criticism - see above re: me stealing this entire premise - theft is great).

Eventually, the monsters are going to finish eating everything and then they're going to move on to the next planet, and the People of the Shell are going to die. Despite his scientific unsophistication, Cyrus's idea could actually kind of work: exploit the invaders but keep their numbers low, interrupt their life cycle when there is still something alive - chances are pretty good that some animals survived somewhere, there are portions of the ecosystem that aren't entirely dependent upon sunlight, or don't need a lot of sunlight to cling to life, and life survived the last major extinction event - and then take back the planet. But the ending cuts off that possibility. If the story had just been of a doomed world and its people's last gasp, or even of how the folly of humans prevents the possibility of rebirth, I could have enjoyed it, but add in that tantalizing glimpse of hope... nope. Not my thing. Some people enjoy it, but I find it really frustrating.

In the end, I can only give this one three out of five stars. It was extremely well realized from moment to moment, and I was quickly drawn in to all the characters, but I really don't like bait-and-switch endings like this. They might not be categorically bad - some people are into them - but they're really not for me.

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davidthygod

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Reply #3 on: February 02, 2015, 08:02:46 PM
Slow start, interesting middle section, irritating ending.   I do like the Historical Fiction, apocalypse model that is being used though.  Tons of potential.

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TwoXForr

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Reply #4 on: February 03, 2015, 12:03:44 AM
Enjoyed it, but I was a bit unclear were the creatures the cause of the catastrophe, (maybe I missed that because I was walking my dogs at the time and no telling what could have distracted me at a key point)


It was well written, and to me it will be quite memorable, a cautionary tale, the people that will continue to live inside the beast have given up on being human and will become something else down thru the ages.  Will taboos develop about the outside world, will yearning for natural light be something that will be shunned, and how will eating the alien meat change them. 

I too was unhappy with the snatching victory at the last moment.   It leads us to a story down thru the centuries of a rebel child leaving the beast and discovering sunlight and plants and a clan of people that somehow survived the destruction. 

"Reason is not automatic. Those that deny it cannot be conquered by it." Ayn Rand.


Myst

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Reply #5 on: February 03, 2015, 07:26:34 AM
This one left me cold. I don’t mind the stories about characters that try and fail. But here they tried and the author said nope this whole thing is a setup so I can point at you and do a Nelson Muntz HAHA at the reader.



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #6 on: February 03, 2015, 03:59:04 PM
Wow... I'm starting to feel kind of bad for the author. We're all hitting the story again and again on the same point. Take note, authors: we do not like defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

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Unblinking

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Reply #7 on: February 03, 2015, 04:02:23 PM
I generally liked the story.  It wasn't enthralling for most of it, but was interesting enough to follow along.  Where I got really interested was where the three ideologies all arise and are in current conflict--between those who want to hunt all the creatures to death, those who want to preserve them all, and those who want to selectively farm one creature while using it as a base to kill other creatures.  That part really got me, though I have to agree that the ending killing anyone who wasn't into the religion really killed it for me.  I'm just going to retcon out that last bit if you don't mind.

Honestly, as they were arguing, I didn't get why the guy was complaining about being fleas on a big monster.  Especially since he has a kid to worry about--in the current state of the world, he could choose to kill her and spare her a dismal future, or could watch her either starve or turn to cannibalism, or they could live together as fleas.  The choice seems pretty clear to me.  It turns out that his thoughts were more sensible than that--worrying about the future of the planet if these things are left to eat and breed without obstacle, so I thought he could've articulated himself better than just complaining about being fleas.  

That being said, I don't think his plan would've had a snowball's chance in hell anyway.  If they used one creature as a base of operations, then that means they can't go anywhere that isn't within some reasonable distance of that base.  They don't know where the other Hammer has gone, it might have its own batch of babies with it, so if those are left unchecked, even if all the babies near this one are systematically killed.  Without the technology to travel around the world quickly, they're not going to be able to keep everything in check, I think.

Enjoyed it, but I was a bit unclear were the creatures the cause of the catastrophe, (maybe I missed that because I was walking my dogs at the time and no telling what could have distracted me at a key point)

I think that was intended, yes.  The Hammer was one of the creatures.  The rumor of a second event like the Hammer was another one of the creatures.  If they produce sexually, those two behemoths had some babies and they're eating up all the biomass and reproducing rapidly with this abundant foodsource and only the slight possibility of hostile flees as mortal threats and will keep going until there's nothing left (or at least nothing edible to them), and then presumably they'll pair up and head to other planets.  Or maybe they don't reproduce sexually, or maybe they only crashland once they're pregnant already, in either case both creatures could be spawning regularly.




ElectricPaladin

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Reply #8 on: February 03, 2015, 04:22:58 PM
I generally liked the story...

Oh, good.

Anyway, I don't think their life cycle would make sense if they had to mate on the planets where they landed. The chances of two or more of the buggers landing on one planet is too small, and then the chances of them finding each other on a place as big as a planet - even if they have pheromone trails or some such - is just... nope. It's a bad idea.

My guess is that their life cycle combines sexual and asexual reproduction. They arrive, reproduce asexually (but possibly with some kind of meiosis-like process that reshuffles their traits) in order to eat up the world's biomass, then reproduce sexually with each other (after a few hundred generations of reshuffled reproduction and picking up mutations to add a little genetic diversity back into the mix) in order to produce whatever structure they use to launch their spores (ie. the new "hammers") out into space. That way, even a single "hammer strike" is enough to continue the species, but they still get some genetic diversity.

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Unblinking

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Reply #9 on: February 03, 2015, 05:57:28 PM
I generally liked the story...

Oh, good.

???


Anyway, I don't think their life cycle would make sense if they had to mate on the planets where they landed. The chances of two or more of the buggers landing on one planet is too small, and then the chances of them finding each other on a place as big as a planet - even if they have pheromone trails or some such - is just... nope. It's a bad idea.

My guess is that their life cycle combines sexual and asexual reproduction. They arrive, reproduce asexually (but possibly with some kind of meiosis-like process that reshuffles their traits) in order to eat up the world's biomass, then reproduce sexually with each other (after a few hundred generations of reshuffled reproduction and picking up mutations to add a little genetic diversity back into the mix) in order to produce whatever structure they use to launch their spores (ie. the new "hammers") out into space. That way, even a single "hammer strike" is enough to continue the species, but they still get some genetic diversity.

Yeah that probably makes more sense.



BobbyNightrider

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Reply #10 on: February 03, 2015, 05:57:35 PM
I really thought this was a story about the author's anxiety with socialism and social programs as a solution to modern problems. The devil beasts were symbolic of big, slobbering, inefficient, welfare states (complete with a stereotypical "welfare queen"), while heroic King Cyrus symbolized a free-marketeer. Cyrus wants to beat the devil beasts back  to the minimum level necessary until killing them off sometime in a blissful free market future when governments, I mean giant snails, will no longer be necessary. This ultimately decided to be a horror story, so Cyrus bit it in the end.



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #11 on: February 03, 2015, 06:04:39 PM
I really thought this was a story about the author's anxiety with socialism and social programs as a solution to modern problems. The devil beasts were symbolic of big, slobbering, inefficient, welfare states (complete with a stereotypical "welfare queen"), while heroic King Cyrus symbolized a free-marketeer. Cyrus wants to beat the devil beasts back  to the minimum level necessary until killing them off sometime in a blissful free market future when governments, I mean giant snails, will no longer be necessary. This ultimately decided to be a horror story, so Cyrus bit it in the end.

First of all, wrong thread. I'm going to copy paste this response into the actual thread, and it will make sense when the mods move your post.

There we go.

Anyway, that's a really interesting interpretation. I don't really agree with it. There's some serious lack of support - in particular, I don't think that the high priestess of the shellfolk came across as a wellfare queen, just because she's "Nubian." Life in the shell isn't really all that easy - the story made it clear that there's a lot of work to be done! Additionally, the shellpriestess's critique of the "old world" was a little too spot on for her to be a straw man. I mean, complaining about starving, being displaced by the wars of the mighty, and then beaten and raped is hardly the image of the lazy good-for-nothing big government leech. She's a woman with valid concerns about how the likes of King Cyrus ran the world.

That said, it's definitely true that King Cyrus has a sort of a macho "big men rule the world, and the rule it by being big deal macho types." The author certainly portrays that attitude as having a certain lack of creativity and flexibility, which the priestess represents. He also has certain ideas about the proper place for mankind, which the story makes clear are based on his personal biases rather than anything clear or coherent (ie. "mankind should not be a parasite because... that's not what the gods made us for! Yeah!"). I don't think he came across as terribly sexist or cruel, though. He even tried to have his men survive primarily by trading rather than raiding and cannibalism, like the other king.

I don't really think your interpretation holds much water, but it's certainly interesting.

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ElectricPaladin

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Reply #12 on: February 03, 2015, 06:05:19 PM
I generally liked the story...

Oh, good.

???

As I wrote earlier, I was feeling bad that we were all bashing the story and writing "I liked it, BUT..." and I was happy that someone expressed less mitigated enjoyment.

Captain of the Burning Zeppelin Experience.

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Reply #13 on: February 03, 2015, 06:37:24 PM
I generally liked the story...

Oh, good.

???

As I wrote earlier, I was feeling bad that we were all bashing the story and writing "I liked it, BUT..." and I was happy that someone expressed less mitigated enjoyment.

Ah!  OK.  I get it now.



Dwango

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Reply #14 on: February 03, 2015, 08:18:32 PM
The story connected with the ancient empires of history was a nice touch in the story.  It was interesting how the three different groups dealt with the tragedy and the tensions between them had a lot of potential.  But again, that ending was rather strange.  I would think two leaders of their people would be smart enough not to parley in front of the priestess who is obviously worshiping the monsters as gods.    No problem with the victory being snatched away at the last moment, just not hot on the why.  It's also incongruous to have her talk about the cruelty of the misogynistic history and then sacrifice the other leaders to the monsters.

I think Cyrus's plan was not that well thought out either, but neither was the priestess's plan.  Eventually the monsters would run out of food, since they are killing it all to make the dust, so there is no more food when they are done.   They would have to leave or starve, unless maybe that is their plan, to shoot an egg or hammers out into space to another unlucky planet, while they die here.



Unblinking

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Reply #15 on: February 03, 2015, 08:39:33 PM
It's also incongruous to have her talk about the cruelty of the misogynistic history and then sacrifice the other leaders to the monsters.

Why is that incongruous?  If anything, I'd say that her history gives her a plausible reason to hold a grudge against people who ruled in the world before.



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #16 on: February 03, 2015, 09:07:22 PM
It's also incongruous to have her talk about the cruelty of the misogynistic history and then sacrifice the other leaders to the monsters.

Why is that incongruous?  If anything, I'd say that her history gives her a plausible reason to hold a grudge against people who ruled in the world before.

Yeah, I agree that it was totally congruous. "Y'all are assholes so we're going to shoot you full of holes; we're awesome, so we're in charge now" is the logic that pretty much every revolution ever has been built on, and as uncomfortable as it might make one - those revolutions sometimes worked. Now, there's a broader argument to be made about if any revolution can ever work, given that the same old jerks seem to end up in back in power eventually, or the new boss starts to behave like the old boss, but that seems to be true of many revolutions, both peaceful and violent.

It's also worth noting that the People of the Shell seem to have embraced both hierarchy (some folks get chitin armor, others don't, and the priestess is definitely the one in charge) and triumphalism (they don't just kick the kings out, they make sure to murder them themselves). That said, the priestess never actually said "I am out to create a world of love and sharing where nobody gets hurt and everyone's point of view is welcomed." All she actually said was "you guys were crappy rulers who let bad things happen to people who were technically your subjects." And as far as I can tell, her subjects are, in fact, both safe and well fed. So there's that.

Which is not to say that I sympathize with the priestess. I'm more in Cyrus's camp, personally, because I think that his way of thinking is more sustainable (it will eventually - if it works - give Earth back to the humans). But I don't think she's any more hypocritical than anyone who has claimed power.

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Myst

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Reply #17 on: February 04, 2015, 02:51:56 PM
I think part of my problem with the ending is, you have 2 military men who are survivors of many battles and their retainers just walk into a ambush. The armored priests magically produced bows? A bow is pretty big and it should be noticed. Hiding it under your cloak just makes it more obvious that you are hiding it.

In a roleplaying game it’s the Rocks Fall Everyone Dies move..which may have been what the author was going for now that I think about it.

Thanks Myst



Max e^{i pi}

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Reply #18 on: February 04, 2015, 09:08:43 PM
I didn't have a problem with the story, I just don't get Eyonga. I could get behind an author setting us up for a possibly good ending in the future and then just going "you like that? You think that's good? Well TOO BAD! They're all screwed!" But why oh why would Eyonga go and do something so incredibly stupid?
She strikes me as someone who was on the bottom of the food chain in the old world, experiencing first hand all the terrible and stupid things a man can do to another man. And now she is given the opportunity to reshape humanity's destiny, without making the same stupid mistakes. So what does she do? She dooms everybody.
She tells us how she was so smart to follow the creator and eventually to ride it and live on it, so why is she so dumb as to not see what will inevitably happen? Is she blinded by power? Does she hate the old world so much that she can't pass up the opportunity to kill some of the of kings?
The story itself was fine, up to and including the ending. Eyonga is just an unbelievable character to me.

As for reproduction, why does it need to be so difficult? The creatures grow and mate on a planet, their young are (born? hatched?) and grow. When the planet starts to die, they fill some egg sacks with many unborn young and send them out to the cosmos. Perhaps they eat their way through the planet's crust and it explodes, sending egg sacks everywhere. A single egg sack hitting a planet is enough. The young, of all sexes, are born and go to work.

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bounceswoosh

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Reply #19 on: February 05, 2015, 02:27:50 AM
At first blush, the ending annoyed me. But then I hit on why it's great. Here are these two male rulers so self absorbed that they start haggling about the future of humanity without ever taking into consideration that there is this woman standing right there who they already damn well know worships the creatures they plan to kill. But it doesn't even occur to them to see her as a threat.

Sort of echoes Tiptree's The Women Men Don't See.

Okay, granted, that's not where the story seemed to be going for the first 95%, but I'll take it.



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #20 on: February 05, 2015, 05:39:13 AM
At first blush, the ending annoyed me. But then I hit on why it's great...

I wouldn't call that "great," but it does add a certain dimension I hadn't seen - thanks for pointing it out!

I still feel like it was an unpleasant bait-and-switch ending, and it still hurt my personal enjoyment of the story, but I can accept that this might have been what the author was going for.

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Chairman Goodchild

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Reply #21 on: February 05, 2015, 09:42:42 AM
Mountain-sized snails from outer space in an alternate-history post-apocalyptic ancient Earth full of starvation and cannibalism.  This is the first story I've heard that would have worked as an Escape Pod, PodCastle, PseudoPod, or Drabblecast story.  I feel like there should be some kind of award for that.  

As gristly as this story was in places, it was a very entertaining ride and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I also enjoyed that the protagonist of the story is Persian and the ancient Greeks are seen as the antagonists.  It's always the other way around in fiction, and it was nice to see this perspective switched for a change. (Steampunk authors, please take note with endless English protagonists.)
« Last Edit: February 05, 2015, 09:53:51 AM by Chairman Goodchild »



hardware

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Reply #22 on: February 06, 2015, 02:11:08 PM
I liked this one, it was certainly not your standard story and did pose some pretty hard questions to it's protagonist. The end was a big part of that - clearly these guys were just underestimating just how much their world had changed and overestimating their own position in this completely new world. That humanities only chance for survival seems to be as a parasite is a bitter pill to swallow, and their plan was clearly one built on they considered themselves the master of the situation - but that was exactly what they weren't anymore, not as individuals, and not as a species. Ultimately, that's why they could not live on. Very dark, when you think about it.



albionmoonlight

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Reply #23 on: February 06, 2015, 02:13:14 PM
But why oh why would Eyonga go and do something so incredibly stupid?
She strikes me as someone who was on the bottom of the food chain in the old world, experiencing first hand all the terrible and stupid things a man can do to another man. And now she is given the opportunity to reshape humanity's destiny, without making the same stupid mistakes. So what does she do? She dooms everybody.
She tells us how she was so smart to follow the creator and eventually to ride it and live on it, so why is she so dumb as to not see what will inevitably happen? Is she blinded by power? Does she hate the old world so much that she can't pass up the opportunity to kill some of the of kings?

At first blush, the ending annoyed me. But then I hit on why it's great. Here are these two male rulers so self absorbed that they start haggling about the future of humanity without ever taking into consideration that there is this woman standing right there who they already damn well know worships the creatures they plan to kill. But it doesn't even occur to them to see her as a threat

I am interested in both these points.  It makes complete sense that the kings would do everything possible to recreate the old world.  They were the rulers of that world.  They had the most to lose when the Hammer came down, and they lost the most.  They see no point in living in a world where they are not in charge.

Eyonga (and, like, 99% of humanity) did not have it good before the hammer came down, to put it mildly.  Before the Hammer, Eyonga and people like her were slaves, or starving peasants, or conscripted soldiers, or just trying to live off the scraps of the scraps that fell from the kings's tables.  Post-Hammer, they have enough food day to day.  They have self-determination.  They have shelter.  They have protection from war and battle.

Yeah, I mean, it will probably all end when the shell creatures decide to launch back into space and they all asphyxiate.  But that's the future. If I were Eyonga, I would do what she did.  I would do everything possible to make sure the old world stayed buried in ashes and never came back.



Zelda

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Reply #24 on: February 07, 2015, 09:10:58 AM
I like this story very much EXCEPT it runs afoul of my biggest pet peeve about fiction. Why, oh why, do authors not give their major characters distinctively different names? Ideally names that start with different letters. Cyrus and Croesus? Too similar. I couldn't give my full attention to what the characters were saying because I had to devote part of it to determining which one was speaking.

ETA: Now that I've read the other comments I want to say that I liked the ending of the story. Both Kings were living in a pipe dream where the Earth was going to go back to normal in 25 or 50 years. Guys, you can no longer see the sun! Getting back to "normal" is centuries away at best. The People of the Shell are the only ones who understand the circumstances. I was surprised at the killing but I can see that the two Kings would be huge troublemakers if they were kept around.
« Last Edit: February 07, 2015, 09:34:40 AM by Zelda »