Excerpt for Something Other Than Human by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Something Other Than Human

By Jeni Linden

Published by Jennifer Linden at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Jennifer Linden

Cover art by JSL

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Table Of Contents

When It Began

How It Happened

Why It Never Ended

About Jeni Linden

When It Began

John Kala caught the reflection of Shiv’s scowl in the slick surface of the ship’s observation bubble. He pressed his fingers against the plass, making a cage to enclose the reflection, and continued studying the gleaming sphere of the planet down below. It seemed small from this distance. Small and lonely.

“Shallia has the survey assignments drawn up,” Shiv said. There was no hint of animosity in his voice.

“The buoys are all in place.” John, too, attempted a neutral tone. “I’ll have to miss the first day, though. The nose scanner on my mapper is wonky.” He turned, and shrugged regretfully.

Shiv’s eyes narrowed.

“Allison can work on it when you guys get back. I won’t miss more than a day—”

“Nice try, Johnny.” Allison stood in the entranceway of the lounge. She blew John a kiss to take the sting from her words. “I found the problem. You’re all set to go.”

There was a barely noticeable pause. Then John said, “Well, then.”

“We’ll drop tomorrow,” Shiv said. “On schedule. All of us.”

***

GY-6531-2 was a star system at the extreme edge of the explored hyperspace trails, over a thousand realspace lightyears from Sol. Out in the deep, lonely reaches of the unknown. The timidity of the early years of exploration had vanished when it became obvious that there was no grand galactic civilization to assimilate humanity, nor yet hostile aliens bent upon destruction. Humans were, it seemed, echoingly alone in the vastness of the galaxy…

…Except that just last year, Survey Team 532 had made a discovery that pointed up just how vast, in space and time, it was. Humans were still alone at the apex of sapience, perhaps. But now—well. Now it wasn’t just goldilocks planets that Survey was searching for.

Which was the first thing John thought of when he spotted the mountain.

It was during their third drop, two hours in. He’d spent the entirety of his last two drops in tedious hours of diligent note-taking, overflying the interior of the planet’s largest continent. Not that there was anything to take notes about. He’d been assigned the western half of the continent, and it was nothing but desert. And although that boded well for easily obtained mineral resources for future colonists, John had no clue what those minerals might be. Some property of the sand set up an interference pattern in the scanners, and they hadn’t yet figured out how to counteract it. Which meant that John had nothing to do during the long hours but brood over the failure of his scheme to be alone on the ship with Shallia.

The mountain, an anomaly in the otherwise blindingly bright sands, offered a welcome distraction. John ignored the blip of his next buoy, and veered a hair to the south.

As he got closer, John’s initially casual interest suddenly flared into something more urgent. Was that a ramp carved into the side of a cliff? A ramp leading to a boulevard which zigzagged its way up the side of the mountain? Or was he imagining it? John dropped lower to get a better look, ignoring the irritatingly chirpy voice of the onboard computer which demanded that he stay to his preset course. He knew, even if the damn imbecile machine didn’t, how important this could be.

He flew over the shining silver buttes, ignoring the monologue from the computer which mostly consisted of “analysis: unknown”, and worthless advice to scan this area or that. The computer didn’t care that all the scans resulted in meaningless hash. Follow protocol and reality be damned.

The shifting haze of windborne sand cleared for a moment, and the mountain stood out clearly against the sky. The planes and angles and crystalline fractures of its rugged heights caught the sun and reflected it back in a million scintillating patterns. John let out a low whistle of admiration.

“Damn, that’s beautiful.”

Then he cursed the involuntary comment. After six years in Survey, he still wasn’t accustomed to the fact that everything he said and did was recorded. It was, according to the book, a safety requirement. The recordings could be recovered even if disaster struck, and wasn’t that more important than some outdated idea of personal privacy?

John reduced speed and altitude even more as he got closer to the mountain, doing his best to ignore the computer which was still nagging away at him to return to his assigned path. He jotted down wind speed and direction absently, then did a double-take. Really? He checked again. 136 KPH and rising.

Long ridges began to connect the buttes, rising as they converged on the cliffs ahead. Logically, one of them should lead to the boulevard ahead, though he couldn’t tell which one. He chose one to follow. Instantly, the wind caught at him. He was suddenly very busy staving off an uncontrolled tumble, and he got a closer view of the cliff face than was comfortable. He wrestled his craft back in line, his heart doing its best to leap out through the breast of his flight-suit, looking frantically for that boulevard—there. It was as wide and smooth as it had looked from afar, which was a good thing, as he was no doubt exceeding the local speed limit.

The computer began to scold him about his proximity to an irregular ground surface. He set his jaw, and kept going.

Up ahead was a break in the towering cliffs, a ragged gap half-obstructed with stone spires. The craft rocked as he neared, and he checked his gauges: wind speed had continued to increase. He fed more power to the stabilizers.

His instruments were still stymied, giving him no details of what lay ahead. The computer demanded that he increase altitude or decrease speed.

He laughed, a single short bark, and let his craft shoot through the break.

And his jaw dropped.

First, a shattered fissure in the cliff wall, a chasm that plunged terrifyingly into unseen depths. Then an oval-shaped crater: a giant soup bowl filled to overflowing with a swirling gallimaufry of sparkling sand. Silver dominated, but there were layers of ruby red, streaks of translucent amethyst, angry knots of dark brass. The wind speed was outrageous, and he started to get distress signals from the hull. Shit. The stuff was abrasive as hell. He increased altitude, and the turbulence nearly sent him into an uncontrolled tumble. So—higher still.

Now he could see that the shifting, seething sands were being funneled to another break in the opposite side of the valley. Beyond the ring of the cliffs, the wind had deposited the multicolored sand in a fantastic giant’s painting; intricate ripples fanning out from the crater in ever-increasing widths. He dropped as low as he dared to get a closer look.

“Shallia has got to see this,” he murmured.

“Do you wish to contact the ship?” the computer chirped brightly.

John bared his teeth. Some wunderkind in the bowels of Survey’s psychology department had decided that this particular voice would lead to a personal relationship between man and machine. That this false companionship would reduce incidences of depression.

“Depress this, bastard.” He flipped the switch to the outside audio. The sound of the wind would surely drown out the computer, the damn computer, attempting to pry into his very thoughts—

And instead of wind-sound, music flooded the cabin. It was huge and strange; his ears filled with it, his head throbbed with it. His blood beat in sympathy with it. It consumed his conscious mind. Slowly he became aware of subtleties. A shifting of chords; a dissonance; an unexpected, heart-wrenching melody.

A splash on his note-taker, and he realized he was weeping. “What is it,” he shouted. Maybe the computer answered. He couldn’t hear.

After a while he thought to flip the switch closed. The silence was shocking. He heard the throbbing of his heart and his fingers as they twitched on the board.

“Analysis,” he whispered. His voice was ragged. “What is that sound?”

“Wind-induced vibration of a physical object, composition unknown. Estimate: between fifty and one hundred objects, ranging from twenty five to one hundred twenty five meters in length, ranging from one tenth to fifty millimeters in width, margin of error, twenty percent.”

His mind wouldn’t focus. What did that mean? He studied the crater below him, looking for the source, but he was too far away.

So he descended. The break on this side dipped only about halfway down the crater wall, and stone spires rimmed the edge, standing up like tines in a giant comb. He had time for just one quick glance before the wind caught him again. He yelped, corrected the roll, corrected the tailspin, and the computer screeched at him: he was heading straight for one of the biggest spires. A panic shift to the right, and he shot through the gap. Below, a smooth stone surface. Plenty of room. He landed.

A moment, then, to simply catch his breath.

The wind gusted, and sand momentarily obscured his view. The computer began another monologue, something inane about how risking one’s life was a crime, and how all of humanity depended upon Survey members to be steadfast and dependable. John ignored it, and began to search for the source of that incredible music. Nothing was immediately obvious. Behind him, the apron ended in an irregular cliff, perhaps a hundred meters high. He studied it for a moment, then shook his head. In front of him, the sparkling sand hurled itself through the gaps between the spires, and—

He gasped. Squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again, and increased magnification on the view-screen. Each stone spire had a string or wire attached at the top and the bottom, leaving the center length free and exposed to the gales. It was impossibly huge, but it was absolutely, positively, something made.

A bead of anticipation began to burn within him, because, of course, this was what Survey had been in a fever for them to find. Ever since Team 532 had made the discovery of the century on their previous planetfall. A mere hundred days ago. A lifetime ago.

John stared at the immense artifact, but his eyes lost focus, and he remembered that planetfall…

The excitement, the triumph… But mostly, he remembered the last day. The survey had been wrapped up, Allison and Shiv were up at the ship, directing the newly-arrived ground crews, and Shallia had asked John to fly her down to the surface.

He spent the first half-hour looking uneasily over his shoulder, because although an excursion like this wasn’t exactly forbidden, it certainly wasn’t outlined anywhere in Rules & Regs. But Shallia! The coolly self-assured captain disappeared in a ripple of uninhibited laughter, and she effortlessly shook off the constraints of shipboard life. John met—and matched—the challenging sparkle in her eyes.

“Thanks to us,” John said, “they’ll have to rewrite the books. They’re probably scrambling already.”

Shallia struck a pose. “In the two hundred years since humankind has escaped the confines of Sol System,” she declaimed, “no other sapience has been discovered. We can now declare that it never will be found. Drake’s equation has been solved, and the solution is N=1.” She cupped a hand over her ear. “Eh? What’s that you say? New evidence? Bah!”

They laughed, and John laid his hand on her arm and drew her forward.

A tumbled mass of broken blocks was across their path, and instead of going around, they climbed over it. Thick groundcover with tiny pink flowers cushioned their impact as they jumped down. The land sloped down before them, to a little round valley perhaps a quarter kilometer across. On the valley floor were five pools arranged in a quincunx. Four granite outcroppings, evenly spaced, were reflected in the four outer pools.

“I don’t see it,” Shallia said.

“Just a bit further.”

Allison had marked the spot with a splash of orange paint. The ground cover had grown, partially obscuring it, but it was still visible.

“There,” John said, pointing.

Shallia shaded her eyes with her hand, and peered down at the nearest pool. In the smooth surface of the water was the reflected image of the granite outcropping, and the patterns that were carved upon it. She grinned like a kid looking through the window of a candy store.

“Four new maps of hyperspace trails.”

“We’ve already explored the one,” John said. “And part of another.”

She flicked his shoulder with her finger, then wrapped her left arm around his waist and squeezed. “Three, then. Or two and three quarters. Really, John, don’t nitpick. What a find this is! What a fabulous gift from the past. I wonder if they knew they were leaving it for another starfaring species.”

Her eyes shone up at him, and John swallowed through a throat suddenly gone dry, suddenly aware of her proximity, her beauty, and the absence of any observers—including mechanical ones…

“We’ll head for GY-6531-2 next,” she said. “I’ve already filed the plans with Aquila Base.” She let go of him and made a frame of her hands, peering through it at the reflection before them. “I truly believe that symbol means that particular star system is somehow important.” She flung her hands wide. “Ah! This is beautiful.”

“Beautiful,” John said, looking not at the pool and the alien notation, but at Shallia’s profile.

She knew it. She turned to him, her lips moist and slightly parted. John’s breath hitched. He stroked her hair, and cupped the curve of her jaw. She swayed closer to him, and convulsively, he put his arms about her.

She pressed her body to his, and whispered, “Yes.”

Then he bore her down, and they made love in the shadow of the alien ruins. And when they returned to the ship, John finally understood the wary dynamic between Shiv and Allison, and he, too, was drawn into the dance…

A lull in the windstorm outside, and a break in the clouds, and John jolted out of his memory.

He called the ship. “Your hunch panned out.”

Shallia’s face flickered and blurred on the screen. “You’re breaking up,” she said. “Please repeat.”

This damn sand! John stabbed for the lifter controls, and when he’d gained enough altitude above the stuff, he tried again. “You were right. About the symbol our little green friends made on their map.”

The interference had faded enough that he could see her face. And the scowl on it. “What are you saying? Our little green—oh!” Her scowl transmuted to a grin. “Are you saying there are alien ruins?”

He grinned back. “Better than ruins. Better! I’ll send you the files. Play the audio at quarter volume.”

He circled above the desert while she took her time with what he had sent. When she called him back, her eyes were huge and her smile likewise. “Incredible,” she said. “Are you sure the transmission came through correctly? That interference you were experiencing earlier—?”

His heart swelled. “Should I return to the ship? Just in case?”

“Yes,” she said. “Just in case.” And her smile promised paradise.

As far as John knew, he was the only one who had slept with Shallia—but he didn’t know for sure. And for his sanity, he would keep it that way.

She met him at the airlock, before he could even take time to wash away the stink of four hours in a flight suit. When he protested, she did things that made his objections disintegrate like tissue paper in the rain…

By the time Allison and Shiv had docked up, showered and changed, John and Shallia were sitting decorously on opposite sides of the lounge table. Shiv studied them in one split-second, perfectly neutral glance—which told John that Shiv, at least, hadn’t been deceived. Fortunately, Allison was less observant.

“I found ruins,” he said, before Shiv could begin to question him about his early return.

They both gaped at him.

He enjoyed the moment smugly. It was almost as good as sex with Shallia. Almost.

“Like on GX-8793?” Allison breathed.

“They’re calling that planet Cybele, now,” Shiv reminded her.

“Different,” John said. “Smaller. Prelim analysis says it’s almost certainly the same civilization—but look!” With a flourish, he opened the file. He’d already set it up to play out on the entertainment screen. He got as caught up as the others as the sequence unfolded. In a way, it was even better than the real-life version had been. The sonorous melodies of the harp started out as a distant, maybe even imagined, undertone to the wind. At first the others didn’t remark upon it. Shiv exclaimed instead at the colored sands, the gigantic painting on the desert floor... and Allison was caught up in the glory of it reflected in Shallia’s eyes... But as the harp song grew louder, they both looked at him, frowning.

“What is it?” Allison demanded.

John didn’t answer. The song swelled into almost unbearable loudness, and he pointed wordlessly at the screen, where his cameras had picked up the first glimpse of the harp strings. The all watched, mesmerized, as the amazing totality of the instrument finally came clear.

“They loved music,” Allison said when the recording ended, and they all sat, limp and fulfilled, as if Shallia had loved them, too.

“But what is it all for?” Shiv leaned forward, already beginning to pick through the accumulated data from John’s recordings.

“For beauty,” Allison said firmly. “Why does everything need a mundane purpose?”

“You’re projecting yourself onto them.”

“So are you!”

Shallia stood, drawing their eyes. She squeezed Shiv’s shoulder, and dropped a kiss on Allison’s forehead. “We won’t try to study it tonight,” she said. “We’ll celebrate instead. Meal combo 281, I think.”

All the meals were reconstituted and recycled nutrients, available in two hundred and ninety different combinations. By common consent, they reserved ten of them for special occasions. Two-eighty-one was lobster tails, steamed cauliflower, chocolate torte, and Chardonnay—none of which was any different in essence than fish tacos, ice cream and beer. But it was one of their necessary charades.

The next morning—morning, of course, being another one of those deceits by convention—Shallia spoke to all of them in the lounge.

“Of course we’re not allowed to do surface exploration,” she said, “but I think we should get a closer look at this valley.” She tapped the control panel, brought up a satellite picture of the area. “I patched together all the weather data for the area, and I noticed the wind isn’t constant. John, you just happened to hit it during a peak. Look—” she fast-forwarded a sequence. “Wind storms start over this ocean here—go over this range of mountains here—then sweep across the desert. We’d have at least four days warning before another storm like that. Local winds are present, but not as strong, and they tend to taper off around midmorning. I think that if we approach the caldera from the southeast during local noon, we’ll be able to effect a safe landing.”

They were all silent for a moment. Shiv was the first to speak. “Landing?”

Allison said, “We who?”

“All of us,” Shallia said decisively. She slapped the console. “We’ll put old Betsy here on auto. Shiv, you’ll come in the lander with me. Allison, John, you two follow in your mapper-planes, since you’re the best pilots.”

They all stared at her, Allison with tears gleaming in the corners of her eyes. That would have been the time to speak out. To put their objections on record. But not one of them did.

How It Happened

There was no room for the lander on the rock apron at the crater rim, so Shallia set down a half-kilometer to the north on the flat desert, and had Allison and John shuttle the supplies up to the site.

John eyed the pile that had accumulated in the lee of the largest spire with misgivings, but it was Allison who spoke.

“Shallia,” she said, “this looks like enough stuff to set up a permanent camp.”

Shallia raised an eyebrow. They had begun by wearing regulation armored atmosphere suits, but on Shallia’s orders, had switched to the lightweight skin suits and masks to filter out the dust. Certainly the air would not poison them, and the temperature was well within human tolerance levels.

But they were cutting corners.

John, remembering what that dust had done to the hull of his mapper, had insisted on the masks. Otherwise they might not even be wearing those.

“I got a message-drone from Aquila Base,” Shallia said, her eyes meeting each of theirs in turn. “About Cybele.”

Shiv glanced quickly at Allison’s mapper-plane, fifteen meters away.

John followed his glance, frowning. Apropos of nothing, perhaps, he remembered that while the armor came equipped with comm-systems and—of course—recording devices, the skin suits didn’t.

“We’re not to speak of the Mirror Pools,” Shallia said. “Not even to each other. Orders from the top.”

There was a blank silence before Allison spoke. “But that’s—” She, too, glanced at her mapper. “That’s crazy,” she whispered.

“The concern is,” Shallia said, “that there may be something more to them than the hyperspace maps. Colonization of Cybele has, of course, already begun, but the Mirror Pools have been cordoned off with a high-security fence.”

They stared at Shallia, horrified, bewildered. John cleared his throat. “Are they not going to follow the other maps?”

“I don’t know.”

Allison: “But what are they afraid of?”

“I don’t know that either.”

Shiv crossed his arms, and turned away, staring out over the dust-filled valley. “Terra doesn’t want to find living aliens,” he said. “They’re holding on to their empire by the skin of their teeth.”

John and Allison instinctively drew together, increasing their distance from Shiv. They weren’t revolutionaries. Dabbling in politics was dangerous—even out here, so many lightyears away.

“Regardless,” Shallia said lightly, “We’ll take the opportunity to study this harp before they decide to cordon it off, too.” She pointed at the largest crate, the one that held the prefab dwelling. It was meant for emergencies, but it had everything—at least, everything the planners could think of—that a person would require for months of survival on a raw planet. “I’ll be staying planetside,” she said. “Along with those who decide to stay with me. I won’t issue any orders. This will be purely a personal decision.”

“But—” A slew of objections came to John’s mind. He chose the least offensive of them. “The ship. Auto isn’t meant for extended periods of time.”

“We’ll all take turns with ship maintenance,” Shallia said. “Shiv, why don’t you work out a schedule we can all live with?”

John and Allison exchanged secret glances. This could be grounds for getting cashiered, for getting sent back to Terra—maybe even in handcuffs. But their love for Shallia was greater than their fear, and so they all chose to stay.

***

Despite what Shallia had implied, they didn’t do much actual work. Oh, they thoroughly surveyed the immediate vicinity the first week, measuring and charting each stone pillar with its attendant harpstring. They explored a dizzying stairway that led from the flats up to a series of twelve shallow caves. The caves were lined with mirror-smooth metal decorated with intricate geometric designs, reminiscent of the Mirror Pool maps. Shallia took reams of images, storing them on her personal memory crystal. In case, she said. Just in case. None of them asked in case of what.

John thought they might attempt to analyze the patterns as they had the Mirror Pool ones, but Shallia said they would do it later. She forbade, too, any more expeditions up to those chancy heights. It was better, she said, to listen from below.

And, oh, they listened. They spent days upon days doing nothing but listening. It was a strange, dreamlike time. Shallia was the center of gravity they orbited; their sun, their princess, their goddess. The ever-changing sound of the harp dictated their worship: some days they tangled in dissonance, everyone vying separately for her favor; other days were seamless paeans of love and joy.

The survey of the rest of the planet remained unfinished. It didn’t matter, Shallia said. This was the important thing, right here. She claimed to have sent a message drone to the nearest base detailing the discovery. John wondered if she truly had. Then he castigated himself for daring to doubt her.

It was Shiv’s turn up at ship, on a day when they had emerged, gasping and blinking, from the dream. After Shiv left, Allison spent nearly an hour sitting close to Shallia on the listening bench that Shiv had built, her head nestling on Shallia’s shoulder, one of Shallia’s hands captured between her own. John watched unobtrusively, fighting down jealousy. Then Allison leapt to her feet. “It’s not fair,” she said. “I can’t be so—Shallia! I can’t just let you go!”

Shallia rose, tears standing in her eyes, and reached out to Allison. But Allison grabbed up her mask and fled.

John took an abortive step after her, then turned to Shallia. “What’s wrong with her? What did you tell her?”

Shallia just stared into the middle distance and never met his eyes. “She needs time to herself.”

Outside, the harp was a mere whisper of notes. John took a few deep breaths, trying to hear it more clearly, hoping for its alien wisdom to emerge… but he was alone inside his head. He blinked, and looked at Shallia. She was beautiful as ever, but something in the slump of her shoulders or the dull sheen of her hair made him think of the hopeless faces of the political prisoners back on Terra. He shook off the illusion, and sat in the recently vacated space beside her. He put his arm around her. “We need to think about wrapping things up, here.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know.”

“If we start now and put in twelve hour days, we’ll get most of the survey work done.”

“I have never stopped you from performing your duties.”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Shallia…”

She turned her face to him. He kissed her. But when the kiss began to deepen, and his arm to tighten about her, she pushed him away. “No,” she said. “I can’t”

He stared at her, stunned and hurt. Maybe he understood what had driven Allison out into the rocks, alone. “Never? With any of us?”

Her eyes flickered at the admission of what had never before been admitted.

But that was when Allison burst back into the prefab.

John and Shallia sprang up. John started to check her for injuries, but she was laughing. “I found something,” she said. “Come and see. Oh, come and see.”

She led them to a ragged crevice only a few centimeters wide in the tumbled rocks behind the smooth rock apron. “Look!” She turned on her flash, and shone it into the crevice.

John and Shallia crowded forward. Tantalizing glimpses of shaped stone, of carved pillars, of painted frescos met their eyes.

“I think it keeps going,” Allison said breathlessly. “I did a quick radar scan—can’t scan very deep around here, of course, but what I saw—”

Shallia knelt at the crevice and tested the rock. “We need to get in,” she said in a voice that brooked no argument.

“We don’t have any digging equipment,” Allison began. Then she interrupted herself. “The rescue bot! I’ll call Shiv and tell him to bring it down.” She stopped, glanced at Shallia. “If you think we should, that is.”

Shallia stood, and favored her with an approving hug. “Of course,” she said. “Of course.”

***

The little robot had never been designed for heavy excavating, but its main digger claw lasted long enough to bore a hole big enough for a person to wriggle through. Allison insisted on being the first one in. No one argued.

They shone their flashlights about, stunned; and outside the morning wind thrummed through the harp strings. This was better than Cybele, John thought. Smaller, maybe, but on Cybele everything was tumbled ruins except the Mirror Pools. This was basically intact. He found a side path, and ventured down it a few steps. More inscriptions covered the walls between arched windows that looked out over some dark lower level. Maybe someday someone could translate them. Maybe someday humanity would begin to know an alien mind. Maybe—

“John!” It was Allison. “Come see this!”

She had found a little room, perfectly round, with a stele standing in the exact center. “What does this look like to you?” She brushed away dust energetically, and jabbed a finger at the stone’s surface.

John joined the others. Spidery inscriptions emerged under Allison’s administrations. They weren’t carved or painted like the others, but etched into a metal plate, like in the caves up the precipice stair. The lines were faint, and hard to trace, but— “I’ll be shit on,” he said. “It’s the harp.”

Shiv met his eyes, and they both grinned. “Musical notation,” Shiv said. “In pictorial form. A message for us?”

“Maybe,” Allison said. “Don’t project.”

John studied the pictures. All eighty three strings on the harp were depicted on the metal plate. A symbol was etched below each string.

“And see—” Shallia blew dust away from the pedestal. “Another picture.” They crowded around. “With the same symbols.”

“Notes,” John said instantly. Shiv was just a second behind. They laughed.

“It is an entire score,” Shiv said. “See— The stele is covered with them.”

They dusted in silence for a moment.

“We shouldn’t call it a harp,” Allison said presently. “The wind strikes each of the strings indiscriminately. The only way to alter the tone would be to shorten each string, like pressing a guitar string against a fret.”

“Windharp sounds better than wind guitar,” John said.

“And what guitar has eighty-seven strings?” Shiv said.

“Okay, whatever.” But she was still grinning. “I wonder which picture is the beginning. And do the symbols indicate the frequency of the tone? Or the duration of the note? Or both? How can we decipher this?”

“More to the point,” John said, “How the hell would you get up there to play it?”

They were all silent, considering. “Maybe the Cybelenes could fly,” Allison said.

“There’s never been any evidence—”

“Oh, Shiv, just because that would invalidate your pet theory—”

“Now children,” John said.

“Maybe there are more carvings on the spires,” Shallia said. “We could climb up there and look...”

“When Ground Survey arrives,” Allison said, “they’ll have floats.”

None of them looked at her.

Shallia broke the awkward silence. “I wonder if we could play it.”

They all protested.

“Not us personally,” she said. “I meant, humanity. And if we can play it—should we?”

***

Sleep came slowly for them all that night as they lay in their separate, chaste corners of the prefab. John, listening to their breathing, felt like the others were an extension of himself. He knew their minds in a strange way. He knew Shallia lay meditating; Shiv was sitting, eyes open, an old anger boiling within him. And Allison was silently weeping: even after her triumph in finding the tunnels, Shallia had again rejected her. Had they been on the ship, John would have gone and commiserated with her over the futility of the torches they burned at Shallia’s altar. But here in the restless night of this alien planet, each of them stayed alone.

The next day was John’s turn to go up to the ship. Even before he docked, he saw the message drone in its bay. For a second, his only thought was a feeling of vindication: he had been right to trust in Shallia. She’d said she’d sent the drone, and sure enough, she had. But—the drone. Aquila Base. Survey

The weight of nearly a month spent ignoring duties descended straight into the pit of his stomach. And something shattered explosively inside his mind.

What in the hell had they been doing?

None of them were irresponsible types—hell no. It took too much to get into Survey to throw it away on a whim. And this whole last month had been nothing but a whim. A whim… of Shallia’s.

He swallowed.

Shallia.

His thoughts chased themselves in futile circles, duty sparring with love and back to a simple, selfish fear for his own ass.

Eventually, fear and duty won out over love.

The message in the drone was innocuous enough. Congratulations to them from the admiral. Notification of bonuses for all of them. Instructions from various experts on tests to run, observations to make, protocols to follow. The list of personnel for the Ground Survey team, and when they would arrive.

John copied the entire file into four record crystals, and stowed them in his carryall. Then he opened the log, and began. It was harder than he had imagined, and when he was done, his throat ached. But that didn’t stop him from loading the new ship codes into his personal file. And it didn’t stop him from getting into the lander for one last trip down to the planet.

Shallia stood when he entered the prefab. Her face might have been made of stone as she met his eyes. How had she known?

“Shallia Fiorillo, I relieve you from duty.” The words grated like sandpaper in his throat.

She said nothing.

Shiv leapt to his feet. “You can’t—you can’t—”

“I’ve already done it, Shiv. It’s too late.”

Shiv yelled something wordless, and leapt at John, swinging. One of his fists connected with John’s chin, and the world went away.

Then Allison was swabbing blood from his face. He must have only been out a minute or two. He raised himself up on one elbow. “Where are they?” His voice was still sandpaper harsh.

Allison sat back on her heels. “Why did you have to do it, John? Why?” Her tears were not for John.

“Why didn’t you go with them?”

Her eyes dropped.

He softened his voice. “It’s because you’re not blind to reality like they—like we—you know we have to wake up sometime.” He gulped in air. Outside, the harp was booming, shouting, singing. Weeping. “Where did they go?”

“They took supplies. Shallia had them all ready to go. How did she know?”

“How did she enthrall us all? Answer that and you’ll know.” He fumbled his way to his feet, and reached for his carryall, and found the record crystals. “The message drone came back,” he said. He tossed one to her. “Read it if you want. I’m going out to find them.”

Allison stared at the six-sided crystal as if she’d never seen one before in her life. “They’ve gone into the catacombs,” she said. “I doubt we’ll find them if they don’t want to be found.”

He grabbed her shoulder. “Wake up, Allison, dammit. What should we do? Just leave them here to die?”

She wrenched herself from his grip. “How many days from Aquila Base?”

He stared at her blankly. “What?”

“Forty, or less,” she answered herself. “Forty days, John. You can’t make me believe that Ground Survey isn’t already on their way here—I’d guess they’re already halfway here. Shallia took supplies for months. We wouldn’t be leaving them here to die.”

“We are not leaving team members on a raw planet,” John said harshly, and clenched his fists in the cloth of the carryall. “That is not what we do.”

But in the end, they did.

They searched until their muscles gave out, climbing up, down, around, and through the senseless maze of underground passageways. They called until their voices were gone. They left trap cameras and tangler webs. And caught nothing.

Still, there was no more talk of giving up… until the day when a flying animal with a naked pink tail attacked Allison. John was right behind her when it buried its fangs into her neck. He killed the thing with one easy wrench of his wrist, then stuffed it into his armpit and grabbed Allison when she staggered.

He didn’t even stop to think. He threw her over his shoulder and ran. Allison’s mapper was forty meters closer, so he took that. He briefly considered flying the few kilometers over to the lander, which did have a state of the art first-aid kit… but it was just first-aid.

Allison roused briefly as they left the atmosphere. “Thirsty,” she muttered.

“Hang on,” he said. “You’ll be okay. We’re almost to the ship.”

Her pulse rate was fluttering wildly by the time John got her to the infirmary couch. She moaned and shouted alternatively. All the diagnostics came back red. Condition of patient critical. Recommend immediate vital cessation.

John got the lid closed, punched buttons with hands that shook, then cursed and opened it again. He shoved the corpse of the little creature in beside her. The infirmary couch would freeze the little bastard just fine.

Allison roused again just before he shut her down. “Why, John?”

He cleared his throat, and brushed her forehead. “Shh,” he said. “You’ll be asleep soon.”

“Why did she do it?”

“Why does anyone go off the deep end?”

“We were all obsessed. With her. With the Cybelenes. With the harp. But it didn’t... it didn’t eat us up.”

“It ate Shiv.”

“Shiv,” she said. “He was part of the Miner’s Rebellion back in ’48, did you know that?”

“None of that matters now, love.”

Her reply slid away into an unbroken hush. John shut the couch and sealed her in.

The voyage was terribly silent.

He reached Aquila Base, and the medics revived Allison. They commended him on his foresight in bringing the body of the creature that had bitten her. Because he had done so, they were able to save Allison’s life.

She recovered in time to attend their trial.

Why It Never Ended

The conviction hadn’t been unexpected, but it was a shock nonetheless. The sentencing, though, was a puzzle. He and Allison hadn’t been extradited back to the stifling paranoia of Terra, or even imprisoned here at Aquila Base. There had been no talk of forced counselling or rehabilitation. Why not? Because of their otherwise sterling years in Survey?

Maybe. Or… maybe something else.

Which still left open the question of what to do now? Where to go? Over the past five years, Aquila Base had grown to the size of a small city, but he wouldn’t stay here if he could help it. Drearily, he decided to apply for Colonist status. Cybele was out of the question, but there were other less desirable planets he might get approved for.

But before he could put his thoughts into action, he got a request from the Colonization Administrator, a request couched in the form of an order—which explained the lack of sentencing.

He met Allison outside the Administrator’s offices.

“They want to give us governorship of the Windharp planet,” she said.

“I know.”

“The planet has already been approved for colonization. Less than a year—they’re sure impatient to study it.”

“Ground Survey never even found bodies.” His voice was too harsh.

“We could refuse the governorship,” Allison said.

“Then what? Back to Terra for rehabilitation?”

Allison looked away, shrugging. “Shiv was rehabilitated,” she said softly. “They kept it quiet, but he told me about it. Before you joined the team.”

“Does that matter now?”

“There were things he couldn’t talk about. Until…” she lowered her voice even further. “The harp music broke his rehabilitation.”

John stared at her. “But…” Thoughts chased crazily around in his mind. Shallia. Shiv and Shallia. Their history together. History he’d never know. And Allison. Allison had loved Shallia before he had. A surging grief rose in his throat, grief and anger and jealousy.

Allison touched his arm, and suddenly he looked, really looked at her. She, too, was beautiful. How had he never noticed it before?

…Because of Shallia, of course. Next to Shallia, anyone would fade to insignificance. But Shallia had chosen something other than human love.

“Will you accept the post?” Her hand had closed around his wrist.

He took a deep breath, suddenly realizing something. “Terra isn’t eager to study those ruins, they’re scared shitless.”

A pause, a look over their shoulders. The corridor stretched emptily in both directions. Allison bit her lip. “Why?”

“The poison-rats, the weird sand… And the harp.” He closed his eyes and shuddered. “Of the whole damn planet, likely. This is a punishment for us, a dangerous assignment... But if we accept, we’ll be in charge of it. The harp.”

“Yes, of course.”

“We can control access.”

Her nostrils flared. “Yes.”

“We can choose people who are...”

“Immune.”

“Rational.”

“Skeptical.”

Their eyes locked. “We’ll name the planet Quaere,” John said, “to remind ourselves to question everything.”

“And,” Allison said, “we’ll be—we can be—we can stay. Together.” Her eyes asked a question.

A shiver began in the small of his back and ran up to the crown of his skull. Allison lifted her hand, her small, brown, infinitely capable hand. He took it and raised it to his lips, and kissed the palm where an old scar crossed it. “Together?”

Tears filmed her eyes, and her lips quivered.

“Allison…”

Suddenly she nodded convulsively. Two tears sprang free. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, John, I’ll marry you.”

Was it only because of the echoes of Shallia that she could see in his eyes? If so, he understood. But he understood, too, that beyond those shared memories, there was something else, something deeper. Something true. It was a love forged in the crucible of Shallia’s soul, but a love that was, nonetheless, their own.

###

About Jeni Linden

Jeni lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband Jim. She enjoys many outdoor activities, especially skiing and gardening.

Look for Captives of the Song: Book One of the Silver Sands trilogy, coming soon to Smashwords.




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