Illustration by Remko Troost
For those inducted into the faith of Pharasma, the Lady of Graves, death is not an ending, but a doorway: an entry into a new existence and way of being. The shirren Keskodai understands this transition well, and greets it with the joyful reverence it deserves—an outlook that's not always comforting to the patients in his medical bay.
Keskodai grew up in the burning deserts of Fullbright, the side of tidally locked Verces that's always turned toward the sun. Though cosmopolitan, his hometown of Takoris was primarily shirren, having been an early satellite settlement of the original shirren colony on that world. The child of a priest of Hylax, the Forever Queen, Keskodai grew up steeped in the values of friendship and diplomacy, and felt a deep connection to the divine, yet chafed at the idea of serving the same god as his parent. Exactly which god he'd serve instead remained unclear, until the coming of the Gray Shakes.
Believed to be the result of a biotech experiment gone wrong at the local university, the plague called the Gray Shakes burned through the city like a wildfire, turning shirrens' chitin gray, rotting off their antennae, and eating away at their telepathy and motor function, leaving them awake but unable to communicate until they finally expired. In the weeks it took the local government to find a cure, thirty percent of the city's shirren population died.
In the midst of this horror, a young Keskodai first encountered priests of Pharasma, black-robed beings of all different races who'd come at news of the plague. Somberly, the Pharasmins walked among the afflicted, offering magical healing where they could and comfort to those too far gone, whispering to them of the Cycle of Souls and the new worlds that awaited them. The beauty of their ministry moved Keskodai, and he quickly joined their hospice work, leaving home to study at a temple in the Ring of Nations once the plague was safely contained.
After years as an initiate, Keskodai returned home a full priest of Lady of Graves, ready to tend to his people. He quickly fell in love with two members of his congregation, a female-host couple, and the three soon joined arms in marriage. Yet as much as he loved his community and his partners, a part of him remained unsatisfied. That part of every shirren that thrills at choice and decision-making began to wonder: Had he made the right choice in coming home? In choosing a life so similar to his parent? How could he know if he wanted this when there was still so much out there that he'd never experienced? The desire to explore continued to grow, until at last, after the birth of their first son, he and his partners sat down and made a plan. He would leave and see the galaxy, taking their child with him to expose him to the same new experiences. Once the child was old enough to leave his cradle-jar, Keskodai would decide whether he'd seen enough to return in good conscience, in which case both of them be welcomed with open arms. If not, the child would return alone.
In his effort to see as many worlds as possible, Keskodai took to signing on with freelance adventurers and starship crews, particularly those headed out beyond the edges of the solar system. While quite capable in combat, he prefers to act as the ship's medic, trusting that his mercenary companions will give him plenty of opportunities to employ his goddess-granted magic in patching up the broken or blessing them on their journey into the Great Beyond. The cheerful manner in which he talks about death often initially disturbs those under his care, yet anyone who spends much time with the shirren quickly learns that his even-keeled, fatalistic approach to life and death doesn't make him cavalier about it: for him, to give less than his best effort in healing his friends would be to risk them dying before their appointed time—a loss for him, and a grave failure in his duty to his goddess.
As with many shirren, Keskodai is a team player, always ready to throw in to help others, and a social butterfly who loves meeting new people. A crewmate once called him "the galaxy's friendliest death priest," and he wears the badge with pride. Though quite fond of option bars and other artificial means of stimulating his choice centers, he's careful not to let himself overindulge... usually. More often he satisfies his need for independence by customizing his gear—though he doesn't consider himself vain, Keskodai is intensely proud of the aesthetics of his gear, his collection of trophies, and his mustache (which he thinks lends him an air of gravitas). His greatest pride, however, is his son Chkoresk, still in his larval stage. Like many shirren parents, Keskodai constantly carries Chkoresk—affectionately nicknamed "Chk Chk"—around in a heavily fortified cradle-jar designed to let Chk Chk learn about the world from relative safety. While Chk Chk isn't old enough to speak yet, his telepathy only good enough to grant brief blasts of childlike emotion, Keskodai holds conversations with him regularly, with Chk Chk tapping on the glass to communicate his answers.
Though Keskodai is generally as easygoing as he appears, he still has his demons. The Gray Shakes tragedy left him deeply distrustful of certain types of research and technology, and he's constantly torn between his faith in individual freedom and his desire to protect the community through heavy government regulation. Worse, he's come to love the life of a wanderer and the friends he's made along the way, and deeply fears the day when Chk Chk grows old enough to return home, and Keskodai has to choose whether to head back to Verces with him, or continue on alone.
James L. Sutter