REQUIEM FOR CORONACH
By Todd H. C. Fischer (c) 2020
Vecidor Ik’thi’oro stood over the bodies of his fallen brothers and sisters, dead scions of an ancient line that was threatened by treachery from within, and enmity from without. The markings on his face—one for each decade he had lived—were obscured by the blood of the fallen. The Yanadar race could not afford these deaths; its eventual oblivion crept ever closer with each of them that perished.
These dozen or so need not have died. If only they had listened to reason.
Sword in hand he walked deeper into the sanctuary. He desperately wished to wipe the weapon clean, and return it to its sheath, but custom and law forbid that it be freed of gore until its job was complete. Though it tore at his heart, Vecidor knew that more killing would come.
A triad of young monks stepped before him; they each could only have been ninety or so years of age. None of them had yet earned the right to bear the Mark of Adulthood.
“Please, Custos,” said one of the monks, using Vecidor’s title. “You must stop this madness. No one may enter the Vault unless consecrated by the Conductor.”
“Little one,” he replied, hands spread, “You have heard me speak in stupa and in the halls of governance. There is but one way for our race to survive, and it is in the Vault. To stand in way of the survival of our species is to declare war on us all. As a Custos I must defend our race, even against our own.”
One of the other monks pushed her way forward, her eyes glaring. “Your ideas have been condemned by the Conductor and the Council of Firsts! What you have done here, what you plan to do, it breaks our code, goes against our very being!”
Sighing, Vecidor brought up his sword. “I see you will not be swayed by reason, just as those fools who rule us would not be swayed. If my words will not turn you from the path of oblivion, my sword shall send you to its embrace.”
So saying, Vecidor struck at the triad, his sword trailing blood. The three young monks fought bravely, and as the first two died by his hand he promised their spirits that he would scourge his body in recompense. In his mind he sang a lament for their souls. The third monk, the angry one, fought better than her brothers. Given time and training she would have become a formidable warrior. Alas, such was not to be.
When she fell to the tiled floor, Vecidor waved his hand in a ritual sign of respect. He stepped over the growing pools of blue blood and strode ever nearer his destination.
Finally he reached the door of the Vault. Once again he was forced to shed Yanadar blood. His followers, few though his choir might have been, had argued with him, wanting to help him reach the Vault. Yanadar had refused. Each life taken for this righteous cause would be taken by no one but himself. The dishonour would be his. He would allow no other to face the consequences for what must be done.
With the guardians of the Vault dead, Vecidor easily swung the doors open. The interior of the Vault were covered in green glass, a soft glow emanating from the high ceiling. In the center of the room squatted the bulbous form of the Maestra. Physically larger than other Yanadar, the Maestra had long ago given up her freedom to serve her people as a living computer, a repository of all wisdom. Cables connected her directly to her throne, keeping her alive, where she exercised her access the Undersong. Through this connection all other Yanadar wrote their songs, their melodies, and sent them to the Maestra for archiving. At the moment the Maestra looked at the approaching Custos with alarm. She had received the dirges and elegies of those who had died outside her chamber. She had heard Vecidor’s teachings—his etude—and knew what he desired.
“Honoured Maestra,” he said, still holding his sword, small blue drips falling to the floor. “You know why I have come.”
“You cannot,” was all she said, her voice light and airy. Vecidor closed his eyes in pain, thinking that such a melodious tone may soon be lost.
“Do not force my hand,” he said in reply. “You know my resolve.”
“Your melody is atonal, Custos. Harsh, discordant.” Her fingers nervously stroked the skin of her belly. Vecidor saw her body reflected across the glass walls, over and over again, into infinity.
Going on forever, he thought, just as the Yanadar would go on.
“My song is of no consequence. When I am done it will fade and be forgotten by all save you. But my acts…my acts will live on, will allow our race to live on. I must do what I must.”
Vecidor moved to the Maestra’s throne. “I, like all our kind, deplore the use of torture, Maestra, I ask again, do not force my hand. Tell me the coda.”
She looked up into his eyes; what she saw made her skin grow pale. Still, she said, “No.”
Without giving himself time to think, Vecidor grabbed one of the cables that extended from her body and sliced it in half. She screamed as he dropped the cable to the floor, a thick grey liquid oozing from the ends.
“Your song has been sung for over four thousand years!” he shouted. “Do not let it end now!”
Still she would not answer, and so he continued to cut at her, cable after cable. Her body shook in agony, her screams echoing throughout the chamber. Across the walls her tormented reflection assailed his eyes, yet Vecidor would not relent.
Finally, she screamed, “Peace!” Vecidor lowered his sword. In a quavering voice the Maestra sung to the Custos. When she was finished, she wept tears of shame.
“Cry not,” said Vecidor as he wiped his sword on his leg. “Because of you our people will live on to sing for many aeons to come.”
He held that truth close to his heart as he walked back to his ship, the Maestra’s sobs clawing at his ears.
If there was one thing Esmerelda Prin hated it was someone who cheated at cards. Unless, of course, that person was her. In this case it was the man across the table from her, who spread his hands wide and grinned boyishly at her. She knew men like this, who got along on their good looks and quick wits. He was going to find that neither would help him here.
“I have no idea how that ace got up my sleeve,” he said. “Maybe it got stuck there in the laundry, or maybe someone else stuffed it in when I wasn’t looking. I swear, darlin’. I ain’t no cheat.”
Leaning forward, Esmerelda whipped out one of her knives and sliced open the front of his jacket. Several cards, dice, and chips spilled out across the table.
“Uh,” he managed to mutter before rough hands grabbed him by the arms and pulled him towards the back door. The establishment on Kellon’s Moon hated cheaters even more than she did.
Putting the cheat out of her mind, she collected her chips off the table; she left his chips where they were. She didn’t feel like playing cards anymore so looked about the casino floor for something else to wager on.
Adjusting her red leather jacket her eyes settled on a game of Sortita in the corner. It was a Yanadar game which required the player to sing on pitch with music the game displayed on a monitor. Gamblers could set different difficulties and then bet on how accurate their singing would be. Most Sortita consoles featured human music as well, but Esmerelda felt like a challenge. As she walked up to the machine she saw a Yanadar sitting at a nearby table. His long face was marked with several tattoos, his thin mouth set in a line. A bony ridge ran across the top of his head, nose little more than nostrils. He was dressed in roughhewn travelling robes that were covered in dust. His triangular eyes followed her.
“Can I help you?” she asked, putting her hands on the game console.
He shook his head, looked away.
Frowning, Esmerelda chose a traditional Yanadar song on the Sortita game. She had a pleasant singing voice, if she did say so herself, and bet that she could sing the tune at least eighty percent accurately. Yanadar songs were usually unaccompanied by music, and this song was no different. As the display showed her the lyrics, she sang along, pronouncing the alien words as best she could. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the Yanadar watching her again. When the song finished the screen began to flash and sirens went off. She smiled when she saw that she had been ninety-four percent accurate. The game spit out her winnings.
As she collected her chips she felt a hand on her arm. The Yanadar was now standing beside her. “Please, I must speak with you. From across the room I could feel your vibrations, but now I know for certain that you can help me. It is the will of the Composer that we have met.”
Oh great, she thought to herself. It was one of the highly religious Yanadar. In her experience highly religious people were unpredictable; add an alien heritage to that and who knew what someone was capable of. “What do you do, pal? Sit around and hit up winners for their chips? Here, I’ll give you a couple, but I gotta run.”
“No, you misunderstand.” His thin mouth got even thinner. Esmerelda noticed how small and perfect his teeth were as he said, “I do not need any money, the Composer will provide, as he has provided me with you. Do you know anything about my people’s faith?”
“No, I don’t, Skippy, and I’m not in the mood for Sunday school right now. Just trying to have a bit of fun before I look for a new contract.”
“Ah!” he said, brightening. “If it is a contract you seek, I will provide one to you. If you can get me to Earth I will see to it that you will be well paid.”
“You pretty much admitted to me a second ago that you don’t have a lot of money,” said Esmerelda.
“At this time, I do not,” he admitted. “However, the Composer will ensure that you will be paid. You are now a note in my song. We are in harmony.”
“I dunno,” said Esmerelda. She paused when she noticed he was no longer looking at her, but behind her. She turned to see two other Yanadar entering the gaming hall. Both wore white suits with a black symbol on the chests. They also appeared to be wearing gags.
“Tacets,” muttered the Yanadar. “They have come for me.”
The other two aliens pushed their way through the crowd, generating several angry shouts which they ignored. They stopped before Esmerelda and the traveller.
“Gentlemen,” she said, “I don’t know…”
A fist caught her in the mouth, sent her spinning backwards into the Sortita console. She regained her balance and had her knives in her hands almost immediately.
“No!” shouted the Yanadar. “Do not hurt them!”
Not really knowing why, Esmerelda restrained herself and kicked her attacker in the chest. This drove him backwards into a table, sending cards and chips flying. Several angry hands grabbed at his suit. The second white-clad figure—the Yanadar had called them, what, Tacets?—threw a fist at Esmerelda. She blocked it with one arm, punching him in the gut with her other hand. When he bent over she put her hands behind his bone crest and brought her knee up into his face. His small nose broke, and blue splashed on her pants. As he fell to his knees, Esmerelda was grabbed by the traveller and pulled towards the door.
“We must flee,” shouted the Yanadar over the growing din in the gambling parlour, the fight spilling out among the other patrons. They sped outside and ran several blocks, past street vendors hocking all manner of goods, Esmerelda sheathing her blades. Finally they slipped into an alcove in a back alley.
“Care to explain that?” gasped Esmerelda.
“Of course,” said the Yanadar, taking large breathes through his nose. “ I am Avas Kit’mor, a Refrain. To understand what is transpiring you must first realize that my people believe that all of creation is a symphony, and we are notes within the songs of that symphony. Each of us, Yanadar and non-Yanadar, write melodies with our actions and deeds each and every day, and these add to the symphany. But just as the Composer sang a song of creation to bring the universe into being, so too is there a song of destruction.
“There is one among my people who longs for past days of glory, when the Yanadar were numerous and our Empire was vast. It was thought our songs would go on forever. However, now we find ourselves in decline. Where once we were many, now we are few. It is thought that before long our song will end entirely. This one, who is called Vecidor Ik’thi’oro believes that he can stave off the ending of our song by prematurely silencing yours.”
Avas made a ritual gesture with his hands before continuing. “He is a Custos, a man of great age and wisdom; it was thought by many that one day he would be made a First. However, he has gone against the will of the Conductor and the Council with this plan. He sought to steal the coda—the song of destruction—which he must sing in a certain place, and use it to wipe humanity from the universe. I regret to say, that he has the coda, ripped from the Maestra who kept it hidden, taken by violence.”
“Whoa,” said Esmerelda, holding up her hands. “This is a lot to take in. Can this Vecidor guy really wipe out an entire race by singing? That sounds ludicrous. There’s hundreds of billions of humans spread throughout known space. And how would our absence stop your people from eventually going extinct?”
“It would not,” replied Avas. “Nor do most Yanadar find it an agreeable plan, even if it would work. The level of death Vecidor seeks to cause is monstrous, base, vile. We cannot continence it. Or rather, most of us cannot. Vecidor has gathered a choir of followers, including the Tacet. They have been set on my trail as I have information Vecidor requires.”
“Let me guess: the locations where the singing has to happen?”
Avas nodded. “Among my people I am counted among the Refrains. That is, one who has been born again to continue their song. As such, I was deemed holy and chosen from among the Refrains by the Undersong to be the custodian of the location where the coda must be sung.”
“Wait, I don’t get it. If this song is so dangerous, why didn’t you and this Maestra person just forget it? Erase the files, whatever. Why keep such dangerous knowledge?”
Avas looked shocked, his mouth wide. “My people remember all. Each note, each song, each melody. Nothing is forgotten.”
Esmerelda thought about that for a second. “So…”
Avas nodded again. “You are now in my song, and my song has been shared with the Maestra through the Undersong. Vecidor and his followers have been cut off from the Undersong, but you will still be known to him now thanks to the Tacet. They will report to Vecidor on what happened here. They will hunt for you now too.”
“Well, thanks a lot!” Esmerelda threw her hands up in the air, but her anger quickly cooled. Avas had only been talking to her. It was the Tacet who threw the first punch, dragged her into this kicking and screaming. Calmer now, she said, “So what happens now?”
“As I said, I need to get to Earth. There is a large colony of Yanadar there who work for human corporations. I am hopeful that these corporations will protect me.”
“You ever dealt with a corporation before?” smirked Esmerelda.
“No,” admitted Avas. “There is a very deep cultural taboo among my people to killing other Yanadar. Vecidor has broken this taboo, but the rest of my people are not likely to do the same. If Vecidor were to find me among my own kind, they could not fight him. But if I go to the colony on Earth, those Yanadar will petition their employers to protect me. As I said, I am considered holy.” To Esmerelda, Avas looked a little uncomfortable saying that. “If I am important to their workers, and their workers are important to them, I may be safe.”
“Maybe. And I suppose you expect the corporations to pay me?”
Avas spread his hands. “If the Composer makes it so.”
She shook her head, but smiled. “The mercenary part of me wonders if I shouldn’t just leave you here.”
“You can if you wish, but I do not think you will. We are in harmony, human female.”
“The name is Esmerelda. And I guess I’ve got a berth for you.”
They made their way carefully to the dock where Esmerelda’s ship—the Hunchback—awaited them. Walking up the access ramp, Esmerelda spoke into a com on her wrist. “Betty, open the front door. I’ve got company, and we’ll be breaking grav fast.”
“Affirmative, Es,” replied a cheerful voice.
Once aboard, Esmerelda led Avas to the ship’s cockpit. Sitting in the pilot’s seat was what—at first glance—he took to be a tall human woman with big black hair held back in a kerchief and wearing shorts and a red top. Her arms and legs were covered in colourful tattoos, though they were unlike any Yanadar markings he had ever seen. She turned her head to wink at him and a blue spark shot from the socket.
“A robot?” he asked.
“That is Betty Bot,” said Esmerelda, sinking into the co-pilot’s seat. “Pilot and all around rascal.”
“She looks very…real.”
“Oh she is real,” purred Esmerelda, pulling on her strapping. “You might want to take a seat back there and prepare for takeoff, by the way. My inertial negaters are…spotty.”
Avas dropped into a passenger seat, pulling at the webbing meant to keep him in his seat during takeoff. Betty was talking to someone in control, getting clearance to depart.
“Damn it,” said Esmerelda. “I just realised I never had a chance to cash in my chips!”
“That’s Es for you,” said Betty to Avas. “It’s why I’m the brains of this outfit.”
“Just get us into space, you gargoyle,” snapped Esmerelda. She did so while smiling. It was a bit confusing to Avas. Human melodies often were.
The ship shuddered under them, lifting into the air. Avas gripped the armrests on his seat, as Betty turned the ship to face heavenward. When the thrusters ignited they shot into the sky. The negaters appeared to be working, as Avas felt only the slightest pressure on his body. Still, when Betty decided to carry out a barrel roll he was glad he was strapped in place.
“You still want to head for Earth?” Esmerelda asked him.
“The devout should take me into their chorus,” Avas replied.
Shrugging, Esmerelda turned to Betty. “You heard the man. Earth it is.” She undid her straps, turning her seat to face Avas. “Do you know which megacorps this Yanadar colony works for?”
“I have heard it said they have aided in the development of medicine, entertainment devices, infrastructure and something called a burger-cube?” Avas’s inflection rose at the end, making it a question, as if he was worried he had gotten the word wrong.
“Ah,” said Esmerelda. “Well, all the rest could be any of a dozen megacorps, but the burger-cube, that’s produced by only one company.”
“Wow Taste Good Ranch,” rattled off Betty. “With over five hundred thousand locations galaxy-wide.”
“I have never eaten human food,” said Avas. “Until the Undersong told me of what Vecidor had done, I lived simply in my stopa, eating only traditional Yanadar food.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call burger-cubes ‘traditional’ food. The taste of a burger—meat, bun, condiments, all of it—all in one gelatinous cube. Easy to transport, easy to cook. Hard on the gag reflex. And yet people wolf those things down.”
“It sounds most unappealing,” said Avas.
Betty turned her head and winked at Avas again. “Listening to her you’d never think she eats them all the time.”
“I do not!” protested Esmerelda, though Avas saw her kick some sort of soiled cardboard box under her seat.
“The important questions here, friends, is how we’re going to get Wow Taste Good Ranch to let us talk to their Yanadar workers,” said Betty as she entered the coordinates for Earth into her flight console.
As the Hunchback entered slipspace, Esmerelda said, “Leave that to me.”
Standing on the bridge of his ship, Vecidor again reached out for the Undersong. Once again he felt himself cut off. He had resigned himself to this silence when he entered the Vault, but it still weighed heavily on his soul. With a small effort he reached out again, sending his song to the members of his choir onboard. At first he heard nothing, but soon quiet melodies made themselves known. He smiled, hearing the music of his people. With time and effort he and his choir had created their own Undersong, an Outersong. Already one of the Tacet had offered to give up his autonomy and become their Maestra.
He called his choir the Ut, to remind them that they had come first, that they had roamed the stars for thousands of years before humanity even knew what a star was.
Walking through the corridors of his ship, Vecidor pondered what to do about the Refrain that had escaped him on Kellon’s Moon. The two Tacet who had been sent to collect the monk had failed. Having already joined the Tacet for a prior failing, vowing to never again speak or sing out loud, they begged to be ritually flogged. Physical violence against their own kind was generally unheard of among the Yanadar, but the Tacet had always been a strange sect. Vecidor agreed to their request, and held the whip himself. As always he would do anything for this people, no matter how it might pain him.
He entered what had been a simple store room but was now being turned into a Vault. In a break from tradition the walls were not being replaced with mirrors. Visions of the Maestra screaming still haunted Vecidor’s thoughts. He did not want such a remembrance here. Instead the walls were to be covered with red cloth and adorned with framed musical scores. In the center of the room a throne had been constructed. Singer-surgeons were easing the chosen Tacet into the throne, preparing him for implantation. It was a great service this Yanadar was providing, ensuring that the songs of the Ut would not be lost. The voices of the singer-surgeons were raised in praise
He wondered how the other Yanadar—who he thought of as the Kanon—could so easily and callously cut off the Ut from the Undersong, setting up the probability of losing their songs forever, breaking with all tradition, but could not bring themselves to sing a song that would preserve all their music for aeons to come.
Fools, he thought. Fools and madmen all.
He thought sadly of his adue—his mate—who he would likely never see again. She, like most of the Yanadar had resisted his teachings. She had tried to sway him from this path, going so far as to physically restrain him. He had asked her, if she could injure another Yanadar for the greater good, why could she not silence a few if need be to save the whole?
She had said that melodies must fade on their own; that no one should ever cut music short. He had cried at her that allowing their people to die away, to let their former planets and systems be taken over by mongrel humans or shrivel and die untended was doing just that—cutting the Yanadar chorus short, allowing their music to die.
In the end she was resolute. And though she may damn him and all the Ut, still he would carry out his justice and save her and his people by using the coda.
What else could he do? His voice joined with those of the singer-surgeons as they finished their work.
Humans were disgusting creatures, thought Ploug, just ask anyone. By anyone, of course, he meant anyone other than a human, though he knew there were even some humans who could not stand their own kind. For good reason too. Humans were too tall, always bumping into those shorter than they were; they had too little hair, and too much stink. Ploug wasn’t sure if they groomed themselves at all, but if they did it must only be once or twice a day. It made him shiver to think about it.
He looked at his reflection in his computer monitor. For a Bixit he was rather a handsome subject, he thought, with no sense of modesty. His ears were webbed and large—which was important among the Bixit—his nose, likewise, large, with flared nostrils. His head was covered in thick black hair which he groomed almost constantly by licking the backs of his wrists and rubbing them over himself. Bixit preferred to be naked, which allowed easy access for cleaning their body fur, but for some reason nudity was a real issue with humans—just one more of their failings. For that reason Ploug had to wear a yellow company jumpsuit when on the job. Ugh, yellow. What a hideous colour. And only in one shade; so drab. If he was going to have to wear clothes the least his superiors could do was get him something full or colours in vibrant patterns.
His console came to life, interrupting his narcissistic introspection. Oh great, he thought, it’s her.
Forcing a smile he didn’t feel onto his fang-filled mouth, Ploug hit the respond button. The image of Esmerelda Prin filled his screen.
“Hello, Ploug,” she said. He saw that she had cut her hair even shorter since he had seen her last. So distasteful.
“Prin, what do you want? I’m at work.”
“You still work for Wow Taste Good Ranch?”
He was immediately on guard. From Prin such an innocuous question was sure to be anything but. “Why?”
“I hear there’s a bunch of Yanadar that work for your corporation.”
“There’s a lot of people who work for the Ranch,” he replied, wondering if his boss might be monitoring this call ‘for quality assurance.’
“I’m not interested in a lot of people, just specific people. Yanadar people.”
Yanadar. There was another race that was too tall and not hairy enough. “Esmerelda…”
“Do I need to bring up New Neptune?”
Gods damn it. She would have to bring that up. He turned on a disrupter he kept hidden under his desk that would cause anyone listening in to hear nothing but static. “No. You do not need to bring up New Neptune. What, exactly, do you want?”
“We need access to the colony. That’s it. We’ll do the rest once we’re down there.”
Ploug sighed, began pressing buttons on his console pad. “Alright, I’m sending you co-ordinates and doctored permission to land. You are now transporting seeds from Hyropa for testing. If you get caught down there, I won’t be able to help you. You’re on your own. And we’re even!”
“Thanks, small fry,” said Esmerelda before the screen went blank.
Ugh, thought Ploug again. Humans were so, so ugly.
The airlock cycled open. When they passed through they found themselves standing in a plasteel corridor that led off towards a tall grey building. On top of the building they could see a giant image of Moot, the astronaut cow mascot of Wow Taste Good Ranch. Avas seemed very interested in the cartoon cow, and Esmerelda had to draw his attention to the man standing patiently before them.
He was dressed in a smart blue suit with a slim black tie. He smiled and, looking at Avas, began to sing. Avas smiled in return, and gave voice to a dulcet counterpoint. When they were finished they each made identical movements with their hands.
“My name is Myles Chu,” the man said. “I’m the cultural liaison between WTGR and the Earth Yanadar Collective. It is my pleasure to welcome you to our facility.”
“I thank you, Myles Chu, for your song,” replied Avas. “Your attempt at our formal greeting is appreciated.”
Esmerelda dug her elbow into the Refrain’s side, but Avas only looked puzzled at her reaction. At any rate, if Myles felt upset at Avas’s comment he didn’t show it.
“I understand that you are here escorting a shipment of seeds,” said Chu, consulting a tablet. “I must say that seems rather odd.” He looked closer at Avas’s face. “Especially considering you’re one of the Refrains.”
“You know much of my people?” asked Avas.
Grinning broadly, Chu said, “There was a reason I was selected for the post of liaison, Repeated Song. I have been fascinated my entire life by the Yanadar. I have studied your customs, your songs…”
“Then truly it was the Composer’s score that brought you here to meet us,” said Avas. “I must admit to you that we did not come here transporting any goods”—he ignored Esmerelda as she again elbowed his side—“but rather are here on urgent business. I must meet with the colony of my people, what you called the Collective. It is, I assure you, a matter of great importance.”
From behind them, Betty said, “I guess subtlety is not a trait of the Yanadar, huh?”
Esmerelda moved in front of Avas. “Listen, kid. Now that my friend here has spilled the beans, it’s true, we are here under false pretences but I’m telling you, its crazy important.” She moved her hands close to her sheathed knives. She didn’t want to have to put this guy down, but she would if she had to.
“It would be an honour to be of service to one of the Repeated Songs,” said Chu; Esmerelda’s hands relaxed. “I can take you to the Collective’s Council right now.”
So saying he led them through the plasteel corridor where it terminated at a security station. Two boxy sentry robots stood by the door. They trained their rectangular heads on the party.
“IDENTIFICATION,” they demanded in unison.
“Myles Chu, employee number A4-72, cultural liaison, Yanadar Mollification Department.” Chu raised an identcard which the robots scanned with their flashing red eyes. “These three individuals are my guests. They are experts in Yanadar-human relations, and are here as part of the Choral Demulcent Initiative. Authorization Beta Gamma Seven.”
“ALL GUESTS MUST REGISTER.”
Chu quickly whipped up false identities for the rest of the group. Esmerelda was impressed with how quick the kid was on his feet.
The robots stood silent for a moment, cradling their weapons, their single red eyes flashing.
The security door slid open and Chu led the rest through.
“Now that was impressive,” said Esmerelda. She kept flexing her fingers though, ready to draw her knives if need be. It never paid to relax your guard completely.
“Stupid Borger brand bots,” muttered Betty. “Nothing in their heads but loose bolts.”
Chu led them deeper into the building, past windows overlooking a meat processing plant. Esmerelda stared with wide eyes at the sluices of liquid meat shooting through hoses and passing through gigantic blenders, to finally be squeezed out into yards and yards of cube shaped molds.
“This is what you eat?” asked Avas, a distinct hint of disgust in his tone.
“Oh, you get used to it,” said Chu offhandedly. “Just be glad out here you can’t smell it. Before it sets and the synthetic scent microbes germinate it’s pretty gross.”
“I’ll stick to oil,” said Betty as they moved on.
Beyond the processing plant, Chu led them into a large room whose walls were covered in reflective tiles. As Avas and Chu knew, each pattern within the tiles represented different songs of the Yanadar, from arias and madrigals to canticles and hymns. The ceiling was high and glowed with inset light panels. Scattered about the room were dozens of lounges, upon which curious Yanadar dressed in blue work suits looked up from their tablets. When the one closest to the door saw the markings on Avas’s face, he jumped to his feet, made the ritual gesture with his hands that Esmerelda was becoming familiar with, and began to chant. The other Yanadar, male and female, crowded around them and took up the song.
Looking slightly embarrassed, Avas held up his hands pleadingly. “Thank you, my friends, for taking me into your chorus. I come to you on a grim mission.”
One of the other Yanadar—whose jumpsuit proclaimed her to be named Zeled Mir’it—said, “We have heard your melody in the Undersong, Refrain. We will gladly offer you succor here. I am sure the Cadenza can speak to the human Firsts on your behalf.”
“That’s what they call me,” said Chu in an aside to Esmerelda and Betty. “Cadenza.” He was grinning like a happy puppy being given a bone.
To the rest of the assemblage, he said, “I will speak with the Firsts, and I am sure that, once they know the cultural importance of the Repeating Song they will indeed offer him refuge.”
As the Yanadar once again began to sing, Esmerelda shook her head. There was no way things were going to go this easy. Was there?
At the back of the room one Yanadar stood apart from the others. Kor Hi’ji was also pleased to see the Refrain, but not for the same reasons as the rest. Though he had lacked the courage to join the song of the Ut, he felt in his heart that the coda was the only hope of their people. Working for the humans in this place had only deepened that resolve. He had had to be very careful of those feelings, and not allow them to seep into his melody. If he did, it would travel through the Undersong and all would know him for what he was. It took a great effort of will to keep that verse private, keeping it locked within his soul. At times it threatened to overwhelm him, demanding to be shared.
He had heard the teachings of Custos Vecidor Ik’thi’oro, had heard his melodies before he and the rest of the Ut had been severed from the Undersong, silenced and shunned. He knew that Vecidor needed the Refrain, needed information that he had kept secret from all others. Kor looked at Avas and did not see the same strain in his eyes, did not see the wear on his face that he saw on his own. Why could the Repeated Song keep a verse private from the Undersong with no sign of difficulty? Running a hand along his ridge, Kor left the workroom and made his way to his private quarters.
Before they had been cut off from the Undersong, the Ut had sung of their ships. This knowledge was still in the Undersong; Kor reached out and found it. Letting his mind wind through the notes, he found what he was looking for: the resonance signatures of the Ut ships. Though the Yanadar could all communicate through the Undersong, communication with other races—such as the humans—required that their ships also be equipped with vocal transmitters and receivers.
Sitting at his desk, Kor keyed the resonance signatures of the Ut ships into his console. He did not bother to encrypt his transmission, as he was sure if the human Firsts were monitoring his call they would agree with what he was about to propose.
Onboard his flagship the Solenne, Vecidor sat in contemplation. His mind wove its way through the Outersong, wending through the songs of his choir, singing accompaniment to their melodies. He took great joy as each song made its way to the Ut-Maestra, saved and preserved, never to be lost.
A new voice sounded in his head, telling him that they were receiving a transmission from Earth, the home planet of the sprawling human race. The singer told him that the caller was also Yanadar.
Intrigued, Vecidor brought his attention fully to the present and switched on his seldom used terminal. The drawn and weary face of a Yanadar appeared on the screen. His marks proclaimed him to be almost twenty decades of age. Heavy lines ran down from his eyes, as well as at the corners of his mouth. Vecidor reached out tentatively through the Outersong, tried to reach the person on the screen. Though he thought he detected the slightest vibration he could not reach him. This then was one of the Kanon. Intriguing.
The Yanadar vocalised an air of greeting, then lapsed into speech. “Honoured Custos, I am Kor Hi’ji. I find I am of no choir. I call you with news you must hear. I know you seek the location in which the coda must be sung. He that holds that knowledge is here on Earth, with me.”
Vecidor leaned forward, trying not to let his excitement show. He could feel his followers own elation as his song sent them this momentous news. “You are not of the Ut,” he said. “When I called, you did not follow. You stayed among those who would stand by and watch as our voices went silent one by one. Why do you offer me this news?”
Kor looked down, refusing to meet Vecidor’s eyes. “I trembled with fear at the thought of being cut off from the Undersong, of hearing nothing but silence forever in my mind. Yet now I master that fear; I know what must be done.”
“Do you truly, given where you are?” Vecidor found it difficult to speak surreptitiously, just in case any human on Earth was overhearing the transmission. It would be so much simpler to sing.
Kor looked back up. “I do. I know the cost. It is one that should be paid.”
Satisfied, Vecidor said, “I hear you, and I believe. What is it you propose?”
“The Refrain wishes to seek sanctuary from the human Firsts for whom I labour. I will speak to them and offer them another option. I have found from observation that greed is a great motivator among the humans. The Refrain can offer them nothing. You can offer them wealth.”
Vecidor pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Riches I have, ones the humans might desire, ones I have acquired for when I must deal with their kind. Offer these Firsts whatever you deem is required. I will pay it, or give them my marker for the rest.” A marker, he thought to himself, I will never have to repay.
Zeled Mir’it had insisted on holding a feast in Avas’s honour. Chu had put in a call to his superiors and had been told someone would get back to him shortly so they all sat down to eat in the commissary next to the Yanadar workspace. Esmerelda and Avas sat at table while the Yanadar piled it high with dishes serving various fruits and greens. She looked around longing for meat, then recalled the burger-cube processing she had witnessed earlier. Her stomach churned and she decided she’d be happy with salads after all.
Betty stood behind Esmerelda while she ate, robotic eyes scanning the crowd. Esmerelda knew she was recording all kinds of data; Betty loved minutia. Beside her Avas was deep in conversation with Zeled. Many of the other Yanadar were hanging on his every word. When he realized he was being watched so closely he stopped speaking. The questing songs of the others still made their way toward him though, asking questions, seeking truths.
He frowned as he felt something strange within the Undersong, a discordant note, a melody out of tune with the rest of the chorus. He looked up as wide double doors opened across the room.
Kor Hi’ji walked into the commissary, followed by four security robots. Kor pointed across the room at Avas and said, “That one.”
As he did Avas felt an explosion of notes from Kor, a cacophony long held back from the Undersong. It was a song of frustration and of hate, of longing and of shame. It was a condemnation of the Yanadar and an embracing of the teachings of Vecidor Ik’thi’oro. It was a decleration. Kor named himself among the Ut.
A sense of horror and surprise reverberated through the Undersong. All the Yanadar present turned to stare at Kor in disbelief. How, they sang, how could they not have seen him for what he was?
As Kor’s anthem bled through the Undersong it made its way to the Maestra. In her throne, so far away, still suffering from the terrible wounds inflicted upon her by Vecidor, she recorded his song…and then severed his connection.
Kor stumbled by the door, putting out one hand and holding onto a security bot for balance. The sudden silence that clamped down upon his mind was deafening. He thought he would weep, but a soft connection then made itself known. Vecidor had tried to reach Kor with the Outerside when they had spoken over the coms and that tentative touch had left a trace behind. Kor’s mind followed the soft sound, getting louder as his mind winged out into space, growing and growing in volume until his song was once again one among many. His song became one of triumph, and he shared with the Ut what was transpiring on Earth.
All of this happened in seconds; Esmerelda hadn’t even finished jumping to her feet.
“SURRENDER INTRUDERS,” boomed the security bots as they walked forward, weapons at the ready.
“Whoah, whoah, whoah,” said Chu placing himself in front of them. “What do you think you’re doing? These people are guests of the Choral Demulcent Initiative. Check in with Mr. Sanderson. He’s the head of my department. I’ve got a call in to speak with him about these people.”
“REQUEST TO SPEAK DENIED,” said the main bot, reaching out and grasping Chu’s arm. “ALL EMPLOYEES ARE TO RETURN TO THEIR CHAMBERS IMMEDIATELY.”
The Undersong rippled with notes of concern. The Yanadar in the room got to their feet and linked arms, forming a barrier between the bots and their quarry. Zeled sung to Avas, urging him to flee. Avas was reluctant, but the noise of the songs begging him to run compelled him.
He was ushering Esmerelda and Betty to the closest doors when two of the security bots suddenly leaped over the Yanadar. The impact of their landing knocked them all to the floor.
Esmerelda banged her head when she fell; blood ran into her eyes. Behind her she heard a gun go off, and then shouts and screams. She saw a table fly over her head to crash through a wall. She was pulled to her feet by Chu, whose left arm flopped drunkenly when he moved. He was shouting something, but she couldn’t hear him over the sound of ringing in her ears. Also…what was that? Singing?
She saw Zeled dragging Avas out into the hallway. She and Chu followed them, Betty bringing up the rear. She looked over her shoulder and saw the Yanadar workers being pushed aside by the security bots. One of the bots had a hole blasted through its stomach.
“I tried to grab its gun,” gasped Chu as they ran. “It went off; hit another bot. Thing went crazy.”
The five escapees came to a halt as another pair of robot guards turned the corner ahead of them. Behind them they could hear the stomping sounds of pursuit.
“In here,” shouted Chu, shoving open a door with his shoulder. Esmerelda and the others followed him into the burger-cube processing plant. Esmerelda gagged on the stench that assailed her nostrils. All around her the automated plant sent rivers of juiced meat sloshing through troughs and tubes. With difficulty she managed to keep her salads down.
As the others climbed up a ladder to a walkway, Avas paused to catch his breath. As he put his hands on the rungs he heard songs of warning and alarm. He scrambled up the ladder, but felt a hand grabbing at his ankle. He looked down and saw Kor glaring after him. The newly declared Ut followed him up onto the walkway. The others were now halfway across the room, all except Zeled who had waited for Avas to ascend .
Kor launched himself at Avas, hands clasping around the Refrain’s throat.
“You will tell Vecidor where to sing the coda,” grunted Kor. “The humans’ song will end.” Avas was shocked at the violence. It was almost unheard of for one Yanadar to place a hand in anger upon another let alone intentionally cause harm. What had happened to Kor to make him this way?
Avas heard Zeled shout, “No!” She ran past Avas, driving her shoulder into Kor’s side. He grabbed at her as he fell backwards off the walkway, toppling over a railing. Avas reached out for her, but both she and Kor fell into space, landing in one of the giant automated blenders. Avas put a hand over his mouth, eyes wide, as he saw the two Yanadar liquefied, their flesh pulped and sent through the sluices to join the rest of the meat. In his mind Zeled’s song simply faded away.
Again Avas was grabbed, this time by Esmerelda. She pulled him across the walkway as the security bots smashed their way into the plant below them.
Gunfire erupted, chewing on the underside of the walkway. One of the rounds shot up and caught Avas in his shoulder. He staggered from the impact. Wailing erupted in the Undersong as the Yanadar shared his pain.
Having reached the far end of the walkway, Betty had stopped and was prying up part of the railing. “Normally I’m a lover, not a fighter,” she said, shrugging. “However.” That said she spun the length of railing about her head and threw it at one of the guards down below. The metal pierced the robot’s head, its red eye blinking out.
Esmerelda pulled Avas after her. She felt liquid seeping against her hand. Her eyes were still occluded with blood. Chu had opened a door, was leading them down a corridor. Her head was still reeling from striking the floor; everything seemed to be happening in alternating bursts of high speed and slow motion.
Betty had mapped their movement when they had entered the WTGR building. She used that data to extrapolate where they were now. If her calculations were correct they should be nearing the security door that led back to the Hunchback. As the others ran ahead she stopped by a public access port and stuck her finger in it. In milliseconds she found herself connected to the building’s security systems. She sent her consciousness throughout the system, seeking weak spots in their data blocks. In the back of her mind she wondered how similar this sensation was to what Avas called the Undersong. Her digital tentacles soon found their way through and around the corporation’s defenses. She ordered all active security bots to assemble in a room on the other side of the building; just to be safe she also told them to ensure that they took all human staff members with them. Before she jacked out she also made sure that she used Ploug’s security clearance to free their ship from the mooring clamps.
As she hurried to catch up with the others, she saw the security door they had been seeking. Walking through it were the first two security bots they had met outside. They looked down at Esmerelda who was drawing her knives.
“NON-STAFF HUMAN,” they said in unison. “PROCEED.” So saying, they turned and walked away.
They ran to the Hunchback, each of them (except Betty) expecting a blast to catch them in the back at any second. Betty punched in the code to open the airlock and they all scrambled onboard.
Betty ran to the cockpit and fired up the engines. She saw that Ploug was on the monitor, yelling obscenities at them. She muted the channel as the little hairy alien vented his anger. Apparently he had noticed that she had downloaded his security code when he had sent them their permission to land. If he hadn’t wanted her to take and use it, he should have had better encryption on his systems.
“Hold on,” she said as the Hunchback took off.
This time the inertial negaters did not do such a good job. The thrust of the ship taking off pushed them all backward. Chu fell on his broken arm, crying out in pain. Esmerelda was thrown into Avas who was slumped in a corner.
“We’ve got bogies,” said Betty. Esmerelda hoisted Avas into a passenger seat, strapping him in. The Yanadar was bleeding from his shoulder. She stumbled to the co-pilot’s seat, activating the ship’s weapon systems. At least her own wound seemed to have stopped bleeding.
On her monitors she could see three enemy fighters approaching from dead ahead. She looked out the viewscreen and took in the three triangular ships. On the sides of them she could just make out the Wow Taste Good Ranch logo: the familiar horned burger-cube atop a golden sunburst. The corporate ships opened fire.
Betty took evasive action. “One of them’s a logjam, boss,” she said. “Can’t make slipspace until it’s dealt with.”
Studying her instruments, Esmerelda tried to guess which ship was jamming their equipment.
“Esmerelda,” said Avas weakly. “Don’t…”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not gonna kill any of them, if I can help it. They’re just schlubs doing their jobs.”
“I would remind you that right now their job is to kill us,” said Betty matter of factly.
“She’s right,” said Chu. “You may show restraint, but they’re unlikely to do the same.”
“Let’s just see what happens,” said Esmerelda. “How much you wanna bet the logjam is the middle ship?”
“Bet?” asked Chu, confused.
“One in three odds,” said Esmerelda. “Too late. Bomb’s away.”
From the front of the Hunchback Chu saw a missile streak towards the middle Ranch fighter. It struck just below the cockpit, causing a small explosion. The fighter cut its engines and fell behind its escorts.
“Interference is gone,” reported Betty. “Slipping in three, two, one…”
The ship shuddered and then the vista outside the viewscreen changed to shifting clouds of purple.
“Where exactly did you program us to go?” asked Esmerelda.
“Nowhere as of now,” answered Betty. “Right now we’re just bouncing around slipspace. We can do that for an hour, maybe two before we’ll need to drop back out. In that time maybe we can figure out what we should do next.”
As Chu settled into a seat, holding his arm, Esmerelda made her way over to Avas. She undid his strapping and then pulled open his robes. The wound in his shoulder was still seeping blue blood. On his chest she saw numerous markings like some of the ones on his face.
“They represent the former lives my people believe I lived,” said Avas weakly. “Marks I do not feel I have earned, nor deserve. I never wanted this. The attention. The devotion. There was a reason I chose to live as a hermit in my stopa. I did not want…” His voice trailed off for a few seconds. “I tried to save her. Zeled had not yet seen her fourteenth decade. If I had fallen instead of her, this would all be over. Her song would still be sung, and I would take the location of the dirgeworld to my grave.”
“Dirgeworld?” asked Esmerelda, wiping at his wound with a cloth.
“A dead planet, and the location in which the coda must be sung,” he replied.
“You told me your people remember everything, record every song. If you were to die, would the dirgeworld’s location really be lost?”
Avas’s eyes were downcast; he sighed. “No. If I die the Undersong will impart that knowledge to a new Refrain. Just as it would tell the coda to a new Maestra should the current one perish. It is this inability to let go, to allow release, the fear of loss, that may mean the end of your entire race.”
“Not if we can help it,” she said.
He took her hands in his. “Esmerelda, when we first met I told you I felt we were in harmony, that I had sensed your vibrations from across the room. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Composer meant for us to meet. If you are willing, I would like to try something.”
When she nodded for him to continue, he said, “My people have written many songs. Most have been for the betterment of our race. One of those songs is a hymn of healing. I would like to teach it to you.”
“You want to teach me to heal?”
“I want to teach you a song. You already know how to sing. I have heard you. Will you learn the song?”
Again, she nodded. He placed her hands on his wound and gave voice to words unlike any she had ever heard before. She felt the melody move around her, through her. A slight sense of electricity flicked across her skin, through her hair. She closed her eyes, listening to the lyrics, feeling the tune. Avas paused, began the song again. This time she joined him, their voices blending in a duet. She could feel a power in the room, a thrum in her flesh, a beating within her very soul. A wave of light seemed to burst from her heart as the final syllables rang out.
Avas let go of her hands. When she pulled them away from his chest she saw that though the shed blood remained, the wound itself had closed, leaving only the faintest of scars.
She stared at Avas in awe, until her stunned silence was broken by Chu. “Um, I don’t suppose…” he said, pointing at his broken arm.
Anger seethed through Vecidor, his song jangled, dissonant. The newest voice in his choir had gone silent after a brief blast of terror. His link to the Refrain had been lost. He withdrew into his personal chambers, pulled the shutters of his mind, kept only the briefest of connections open to the Outersong.
In the center of the room there was a stone column three feet high. He climbed upon it, sat on its uncomfortable surface. While sitting here he was in the exact epicentre of the room, equally distant from each surface. He folded his hands, closed his eyes. Normally when meditating he would have followed the singing of his people, down into the deep recesses of the Maestra’s stores and found an ancient song. He would study that song, deconstruct it, rebuild it, play with its harmonies. Now that was no longer an option. The ancient songs were lost to him. The Ut-Maestra held only the recent songs of his choir.
Instead he thought of the coda. The deep, dark notes, thundering bass and crashing melodies. He saw how the notes thrust against each other as if in conflict, until they were suddenly thrown apart, ending in a deafening crescendo. He pulled apart the lyrics, flayed them, laid them bare. Saw how the coda called its curse. And though the writer of this song—the Composer?—had written it about the Yanadar, Vecidor removed the name of his people from the score. Refusing to contemplate upon this, he replaced the Yanadar with his term for humanity, as he did every time he dwelled upon the coda. In his mind he saw how that one alteration changed the entire melody, making it somehow even darker; the words harsher, more guttural.
Under his breath he began to sing. Though he was not in the correct location for the coda to work, he could feel an energy building in the air. He knew he should stop vocalising, only sing in his mind, but he persisted. As the song rushed to its inevitable conclusion there was a crash of thunder and a great cracking sound rebounded throughout his chamber. He felt the column shift below him and leaped agilely to the floor as the pillar fell in two pieces. Even here, undirected and barely focused, the coda had power. He would have to be careful.
He reached out again for the Undersong, but it remained beyond his grasp. It was frustrating, infuriating! All this would be over if only he could access the Undersong and discover the Refrain’s hiding place. Vecidor was certain he was no longer on Earth.
Exasperated he kicked at the debris on his floor, and then cursed himself for his lack of control. He was acting like an untrained novitiate of only two decades! He calmed himself, found his centre, hummed a song his mother had written for him when he was a child. She was long dead; killed by a human.
He marched back to the bridge of the Solenne and sat in his seat of command. He looked out at the other ships under his command, saw—in his mind—his Seconds sitting on the bridges of those ships. He reached out for them, found them, found strength in them. Their own songs were slightly unsure, hesitant. They were worried about their holy mission; they knew Avas Kit’mor was again lost to them. Vecidor trilled a calming lullaby, a reassurance that all would be well. He knew he would find the Refrain eventually. He had other agents in play.
Plzzt was one such agent. Even as Vecidor studied the coda in his solitary rooms, the Bixit was winging her way to Earth. She had no idea why Vecidor wanted this Avas Kit’mor captured, nor did she care. All she cared about was getting paid. And Vecidor promised to pay very well.
Like all Bixit, Plzzt resembled a short humanoid bat, a resemblance she embraced. She knew many humans were afraid of bats, and she used that fear to her advantage when she hunted them (most of her targets were humans after all). Even her wide winged ship was painted black to fit in with the motif.
As she flew by the headquarters of Wow Taste Good Ranch she read over the com reports that had come across her terminal. Vecidor had told her that the target had been identified at the Ranch, so she had set her connection to the InterGalac to scan and compile any news items concerning the megacorp, no matter how insignificant the news source may be. Her computer had found reports of a ship taking off from WTGR airspace, but not before firing on a Ranch vessel. She was willing to bet a month’s rations worth of fluttermoths that her quarry had been aboard that ship.
Her scans had also found that two workers from the Ranch had had their employment terminated just after that incident in the air. The first was a human, who she had thus far been unable to track. The other was named Ploug, a fellow Bixit, and now the unhappy owner of a pass off world.
Popping into regular space, Plzzt sought for and attained permission to land at the closest space terminal to the Ranch’s headquarters. According to her reports Ploug had activated his ticket there and was currently sitting in a terminal lounge waiting for boarding to begin.
After berthing her ship, Plzzt snapped a belt around her waist hung with several pouches. Like most Bixit she hated clothes, but she had to admit that pockets were useful.
She made her way to the lounge scanning for Ploug. She found him sitting on a raised seat at a small round table. Empty glasses littered the table’s surface. Ploug turned reddened eyes towards her when she climbed into an empty seat across from him.”
“What do you want?” he snarled. Usually the sight of a fellow Bixit would have made his day, especially one that was flaunting the humans’ insecurities when it came to nudity. He was nude now himself, his fur exposed for all to see, his hated jumpsuit taken from him when he had been fired. It was the termination that bothered him. He had done a favour for Esmerelda and it had come back and bitten him in his ass. Even meeting a naked female Bixit wasn’t lifting his mood today.
Pushing some of the empty glasses away from her, Plzzt leaned forward. “Ploug, is it? Up until earlier today an air traffic controller for WTGR? I heard about the incident over the Ranch today. I want you to tell me all about it.”
“Why in all the hells would I?” he asked, following his question with a swig from his current drink. Foam clung to the fur around his mouth. “Just let me slink off this rock with some of my pride intact, will you?”
Steepling her clawed fingers, Plzzt said, “I’ll be frank. I’m looking for someone, and I think he might have been on the ship that invaded your air space this morning. I’m willing to pay for information.”
Ploug’s eyes took on a greedy glow when she mentioned money. “I dunno about any ‘he’ that was onboard. What I can tell you is that the ship was owned by a human, woman, name of Esmerelda Prinn, a backstabbing bitch.”
Plzzt grinned. According to her dossier from Vecidor, this Prinn was known to be in the company of her target. “Tell me more.”
So Ploug spilled all he knew about Prinn, about her past as an orphan on the streets of Orion Secundus, some of her exploits as a bounty hunter, some of her known travelling companions, such as the robot, Betty Bot. He left out all details of what had gone down on New Neptune though. That he kept to himself, ashamed to have needed a human’s help back then. What he did say was, “We worked together briefly, back in the day. She called in a marker, wanting to visit the Ranch HQ. I sent her a doctored flight plan, permission to land, clearance codes; washed my hands of her. Next thing I know there’s reports of live fire from inside the corp’s main tower. My systems went all screwy; she hacked ‘em, I’m sure of it. Then she took off, but not before shooting down one of our—the Ranch’s—ships.” He leaned forward, looking Plzzt right in the eye. “What she don’t know is that when I sent her those codes, I sent along a little extra present. A special little piece of tracer code that’s been pinging off her ship’s location…to anyone who knows what to listen for. Would that be something you’d care to hear?”
The bounty hunter reached into one of the pouches on her belt and pulled out a credstick, which she pushed across the table. “Yes,” she said. “Yes it is.”
When she returned to her ship, Plzzt sent a mission update to Vecidor’s ship. After having her system scan the code Ploug had given her for any malware, she punched it into her system. Now all she had to do was wait for the Hunchback to drop back into normal space. She grinned, and whistled happily as she polished her collection of weaponry.
“My mistake was trying to hide among my own kind,” said Avas as they sat around a table. “Every one of my kind knows what this mark represents.” He pointed at one of the tattoos on his face, continuing, “It raises too much notice. There may be more Ut sympathizers lurking within other Yanadar colonies. It may be easier to hide among people other than my own, to whom this mark would mean nothing.”
“I know just the place,” said Esmerelda as she polished one of her knives. “Estachon Station, in the Far Reaches. It’s off the grid in unpoliced space. A port city of millions, mostly humans; little chance of running into any Yanadar there.”
“I’ve heard of that place,” said Chu, flexing his arm. He’d been doing that a lot since Esmerelda had used the healing song to set the broken bone. “It’s renowned for its lawlessness. Will we be safe there?”
“As safe as anywhere,” replied Esmerelda. “Being surrounded by security didn’t make us any safer on Earth.”
Chu conceded her point.
Speaking into the com on her wrist, Esmerelda said, “Betty, drop us out at Estachon Station.”
“Glad you finally picked a destination, boss. Being in slipspace this long has been taking its toll on the Hunchback. We’re going to need to schedule some maintenance soon. Also, I’ve been detecting some sort of anomaly in our systems. I keep trying to track it done, but it keeps disappearing, only to show up again once I stop looking for it.”
“When we get to Estachon, you stay on the ship, sweetness, and lock it down.”
The ship shuddered, making all their teeth shake.
“We’re there now,” said Betty’s voice.
“Perhaps I should just stay on the ship,” said Avas. “Then no one will even know that I am here.”
“I’ll stay here too,” volunteered Chu. “If it’s alright with Avas, I would love to hear more about his role amongst his people.”
Avas sighed, but signalled his assent.
“Suit yourselves, boys,” said Esmerelda, standing up and putting on her jacket. “As for me, I’d like to see what the action’s like around here. Get the lay of the land. Then I guess I should do some work on the Hunchback so she doesn’t tear herself apart the next time we slip.” She laughed at the look on Chu’s face. “Don’t worry, kid. I’m exaggerating. Mostly.”
With a grin and a wave of her hand, she left the room.
Betty’s consciousness was deep within the Hunchback’s systems. She sent her tendrils throughout the ship’s code seeking the furtive anomaly. As she cleared each system she erected blockades, to keep the anomaly from doubling back behind her. Slowly, methodically, she went about her work. She found a few irregularities in the settings for the ship’s showers, also in the InterGalac browser Esmerelda had bought on the cheap, as well as a lock Esmerelda had put on the ship’s thermo settings so no guests could change the temperature aboard. She logged the first two to deal with at a later date; she’d leave the thermo lock alone. Esmerelda always got cranky when she was too cold.
Finally, as more and more barriers closed off avenues of escape, Betty saw the anomalous code fleeing before her. It bounced against her barriers and, when it found it had nowhere left to hide, began to decompile itself. Betty’s tentacles grabbed the code by its metaphorical wrists, wrapping it in a shield. She wasn’t about to let it off itself before she had discovered its purpose.
She sent a probe through the shield that began to scan the code, forcing it to give up its secrets. When she discovered what the code had been doing she cursed—a habit she had picked up from Esmereda—and put the code in quarantine. She sent out an emergency ping.
Plzzt had been sitting in her ship for a half an hour, waiting for Ploug’s tracer to go off. She had begun to think he had played her, when she finally got a notification that the Hunchback had re-entered regular space. She punched in the co-ordinates for Estachon Station, a place she knew well, and in the time it took her to blink she was there.
Esmerelda had only just entered a gambling parlour near the docking bays when she got Betty’s urgent ping on her com. She sighed, turning her back on the siren call of the gambling machines, the flashing lights, the bursts of music, the excited shouts of people at the games and tables. She had been hoping that she’d be able to convert her chips from Kellon’s Moon here, perhaps at a loss, but she had no idea if—or when—she’d ever be back to that moon.
“What is it, Bets?” she said into the com. “This had better be serious.”
Betty’s tone of voice left no doubt that it was serious indeed. “Es, I tracked down that anomaly I mentioned. It was malcode, courtesy of Ploug. As soon as we dropped out of slipspace it started pinging off our location to who knows where. Ploug, for certain, but there is no way of knowing who else might have been listening. Our location is compromised.”
“I’m heading back now,” said Esmerelda, already running down the street. She pushed her way through the crowd, past naked Bixit peddling strange cooked meats at food carts, Nessarian nuns on one of their pilgrimages to places of sin, off duty workers from various megacorps, prostitutes, beggars, mercenaries carrying a wide array of weaponry, and dock workers lugging about large pieces of machinery.
Tripping over a wicker basket, which earned her the angry squawks of a merchant, Esmerelda saw a small black ship pop into regular space in orbit. It immediately turned towards the docks and made its way towards the Hunchback. She called into her com, “Betty! You better prepare for boarders!”
Chu and Avas were still sitting at the table when the Hunchback shook again.
Getting to his feet, Chu asked, “What was that?”
“Boarders,” said Betty as she ran into the room. She had a gun in her hand, and offered another to the human. “I’ve never used one of these before,” Chu admitted as he gingerly took it from the robot.
Avas was holding his head in his hands. “No. No more violence. No more death.”
“Relax, Repeated Song,” said Betty, using his honorific. “I set them to stun. ‘Course, there’s no way to know if the people ripping into the Hunchback’s side will show us the same courtesy.”
“Everywhere I go, I put people in jeopardy.”
“You don’t put people in danger,” said Chu, “Vecidor does. Everything that’s happened, that’s on him, not you.”
“Touching,” said a high piping voice. They turned to see a bat-like Bixit standing in the doorway. In one hand she held a hooked spear, in the other a laser blaster. The gun was trained on Betty. “All I need is the Yanadar. You two can go on with your lives…if you drop those guns right now.”
Betty put a tattooed finger to her red lips. “Hm. How about, go fornicate yourself!” She fired her gun, a blue blast of energy flying past the Bixit’s head. The bounty hunter ducked back around the corner.
“Ok, robo,” came the Bixit’s voice. “Guess I’ve got no choice.”
A small grenade came flying into the room. Betty threw herself on top of it; when it went off smoke filled the room. Chu and Avas both began to cough and choke on the fumes. Betty heard them fall to the floor; she found that her vision could not penetrate the acrid smoke.
A small clawed hand reached out of the swirling noxious clouds; a device clamped itself to Betty’s leg. Instantly she felt her systems invaded by foreign code. She tried to throw up her digital barriers, but the code was already working against her, shutting off her systems one by one. She slumped against the floor, power draining from her metal body.
As the smoke began to dissipate, Betty watched helplessly as the Bixit, wearing a breather mask, walked over to Avas’s unconscious form. The bounty hunter pulled a rope out of one of the pouches on her belt and tied it around Avas’s chest. Whistling, the Bixit began to pull Avas out into the corridor as Betty could do nothing but watch helplessly, her fingers fluttering uselessly.
When Esmerelda got to the docking bay she saw that the black ship had attached itself to the side of the Hunchback by an umbilical. Through the thick clear plastic she could see a Bixit lugging the comatose form of Avas behind her.
Esmerelda’s first instinct was to enter the Hunchback and make sure Betty was alright. However, knowing that the lives of billions were hanging in the balance, she made for the enemy ship instead. She hoped Betty—if she wasn’t scrapped—would understand.
She clambered up one of the black ship’s set of landing gears, the metal leg offering her access to the ship’s interior. She quickly pulled a lastorch out of her jacket and began cutting a hole into the ceiling. She had to be fast. If she was still in the landing gear when the ship reached orbit she would freeze to death. She felt a thrum building up around her, knew time was running out. Finally, a disc of metal fell away. She pulled herself through the hole just as the ship’s jets began to fire and it floated slowly into the air. Below her, the metal leg began to withdraw into its cavity. Still holding the metal disc in one hand, she held it over the hole. With her other hand she changed the setting on the lastorch from ‘cut’ to ‘weld’. As she felt the ship climbing higher and higher, she welded the metal disc back into place, hoping that the weld would be strong enough.
She sat back, sweating, against the wall of the corridor she found herself in. Reaching into another pocket she activated a personal tracer. If Betty was still functioning, she’d be able to track its signal.
Pulling her knives from her sheathes, Esmerelda began to prowl the halls of the ship. Given its small size, it did not take her long to find the cargo bay. The bay was lined with several barred cells. Only one of them was occupied.
“Esmerelda!” called Avas. “What confluence of notes brought you here?”
“We humans call it luck,” she said, examining the cell’s lock. It was a good one, high end, would not be easy to pick. As it was a manual lock, rather than digital, she pulled her lock picks out of yet another pocket.
A small sound behind her made her drop to one knee, spinning around, knife held out before her. The female Bixit was regarding her with a critical eye.
“Skilled, to be sure,” she squeaked. “I was in and out in minutes. I’m not sure how you managed to get onboard, but I’m afraid I don’t take passengers. Only cargo.”
As she brought up her blaster, Esmerelda rolled to the side, springing up onto her feet and launching herself towards the Bixit. The bounty hunter tried to swing her blaster around to bear, but her shot went wide. Esmerelda hit the small alien with a tackle, slicing at her head with the knife. In his cell, Avas was moaning in distress.
Plzzt was knocked back by the tackle, but she managed to duck most of the knife slash. However, the blade caught the tip of her large ear, drawing blood. She snarled and fired again.
The blaster bolt almost caught Esmerelda in the side, but only burned through her jacket. Striking again with her knife, Esmerelda caught the Bixit’s hand; the blaster clattered to the floor.
Snarling, Plzzt threw herself on Esmerelda, biting and clawing. The human managed to block most of the blows, but she felt claws scratch across her stomach, ripping through cloth and skin. She lashed out with one booted foot, heard the Bixit grunt and saw her fly backwards into a cell door. As Esmerelda went back into a fighting stance, she felt her vision begin to dim; a weakness ran through her limbs.
The Bixit laughed. “My claws,” she said, holding up a hand. “Coated with a sedative. I guess the Custos is getting two for the price of one.”
Esmerelda passed out, falling to the floor, a sad crooning from Avas’s cell the last sound she heard.
When Chu came to, he found that Avas was gone. Betty was lying on the floor, a small device clamped to her leg. Clutching his head, he walked over to the robot and pulled the device free, leaving small black holes in Betty’s tattooed leg.
The robot’s eyes blinked, and she stood up straight. She took the device from Chu and crushed it in her hand.
“Filthy thing,” she said, dropping the broken bits to the floor. She put a hand to her head, smoothing back her hair and straightening her kerchief.
“That bounty hunter must have taken Avas,” Chu told her. “What do we do? Where’s Esmerelda?”
Betty cocked her head to one side. “I’m picking up her personal tracer. She isn’t on the Station anymore.”
“Did she somehow go after that Bixit?” asked Chu.
“Unknown, but a good guess. Just a second.” Betty tilted her head to the other side. “I’m pinging Esmerelda’s com but she’s not answering.”
“So what do we do?” asked Chu.
“We go after them,” said Betty as she walked towards the cockpit.
Vecidor stood in Plzzt’s cargo bay, staring at the Refrain who was being held by two of Vecidor’s personal guard. The Bixit bounty hunter was worth every credit he had paid her. When her ship dropped out of slipspace, he had wasted no time in shuttling over to gather his prize.
As was tradition, he sang a paean of praise for the Repeated Song, before saying, “At last, Refrain, we meet.”
“Our meeting is not a happy one,” said Avas glumly. “You are a harbinger of death. A dark note indeed.”
“Dark notes have their purposes in all the Composer’s songs,” replied Vecidor. “This is my purpose, why my tune was ever begun.” The Yanadar Custos turned to regard Esmerelda in her cell. “You, human. I thank you for your part in bringing Avas Kit’mor to me. It will be in part thanks to you, that I will be able to sing the coda and bring about the end of your vile race.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” shouted Esmerelda, hands gripping the bars of her cell. “You’re talking about the deaths of billions and billions of people! How could you be so callous?”
“I place more worth on the continuation of my own species, over the proliferation of your own. Your people now build monuments to greed and commerce where once my people thrived. You choke us with your very presence. There is nowhere in the galaxy we can go to escape you! You are everywhere! How will the Yanadar’s chorus ever be heard over the noise of yours? We will regain our place as the chosen, as the children of the Composer. Once you are gone.”
“You’re insane.” It was all Esmerelda could think to say.
“The greatest songs can come from the most damaged minds,” he retorted.
Avas looked at him sadly. “You know that all the Yanadar who do not follow you have heard this through my melodies. Even now, my song flows through the Undersong. All Yanadar, everywhere, are listening to us now.”
“Let them listen,” said Vecidor grimly. “Let them listen as you tell me from where the coda must be sung.”
“I will do no such thing,” said Avas. “Torture me, if you will, as you tortured the Maestra. I will not tell you. Kill me, and the knowledge you seek will move from me to another of the Refrains.”
“I will not torture you,” said Vecidor. “I will sing to you.” So saying, the Custos began.
Avas felt the power of Vecidor’s song, even though they were not connected by the Undersong. His words beat against Avas’s mind, the rhythms pressing, probing. In disbelief Avas felt his mind begin to crumble from the probings of the Outersong.
As he continued to sing, Vecidor was filled with feelings of elation and victory. His experience with Kor Hi’ji on Earth, in his ability to leave a trace of his song in the mind of a Yanadar to whom he was not connected made him certain that if he focused enough—if he brought his full will to bear—his mastery of the song from thousands of years of experience—then he would be able to flay open Avas’s mind and take the notes he needed.
Avas began to scream as the Outersong smashed itself against the Undersong, over and over again. The song of the excluded forced its way through, spread its dark taint in Avas’s song, which seeped into the Undersong. Across the galaxy, Yanadar everywhere cried out in shared pain at this violation.
Finally, Vecidor found the notes he needed. He withdrew his song, fell silent. Avas hung limply in the grip of his guards. With a gesture, the Custos had the guards lay Avas gently into a bed in one of the cells.
A dirgeworld, he thought to himself. A world where once the Yanadar had thrived, but which now lay lifeless in the void of space. One of many the Yanadar had abandoned over the long centuries as their race diminished and sped towards oblivion. This specific dirgeworld, known now as Coronach, was one of the original homeworlds of the Yanadar. It felt right that this should be so, a coming of full circle. Coronach, which saw the birth of his people, would also see their rebirth.
Plzzt had watched all this impassively from where she leaned against the bulkhead. A buzzer near her elbow began to sound. “We have company,” she said, looked at a console. On the monitor she saw the Hunchback appear. “It’s their friends.”
“What happens to these two now is of no consequence,” said Vecidor dismissively. “Sell them back to their friends, for all I care. Double your profits. I know that is important to such as you.” So saying he and his guards headed for the airlock.
Dropping back into normal space, Betty and Chu found themselves facing a small fleet of Yanadar ships. Between them and the fleet was the black bat-like ship that had attacked them on Estachon Station. As they pondered exactly how to proceed, they saw a small shuttle disembark from the black ship, heading towards the fleet.
The ship’s system alerted them to an incoming call. When Betty answered it she found herself looking at the Bixit who had boarded their ship.
“Greetings,” said the Bixit. “I am called Plzzt. We have met before. There is no need for further violence. I will be glad to return your crew members to you. For a price.”
“Are they injured?” asked Betty.
“The human is unharmed. As for the other…I am unsure. He was interrogated by his brethren in a strange manner. He has been asleep since.”
“What do you want for them?”
Plzzt purred. “I am sending transfer details to you now, including the amount of creds I desire. Once I have received confirmation of the transfer we may dock together and I will allow your friends to rejoin you.”
Betty tapped her console with her fingers, looking at the sum Plzzt wanted. It wasn’t impossible, but it would nearly wipe out all their savings. With an electronic sigh, she sent the funds.
On her monitor she saw Plzzt grin. “A pleasure, business with you. Shall we dock?”
When the airlock cycled open, Esmerelda walked through, carrying Avas’s limp form. Betty hurried forward and kissed Esmerelda before taking the Yanadar from her. Chu stood to one side looking worried.
The airlock closed, and they heard the umbilical withdrawing. Outside the Bixit ship moved away a short distance and then disappeared. Likewise, the Yanadar fleet winked out, one after the other, shifting into slipspace.
Betty carried Avas to a cabin and laid him on a bed. As she did so he came awake.
“We have to hurry,” he said. “Vecidor knows where to sing the coda. He has gone to Coronach, the dirgeworld.”
“His fleet just left,” said Betty. “They’ll arrive before us. Do we have any hope of stopping him?”
Avas forced himself to his feet, pushing past her into the corridor where Esmerelda and Chu were standing. “We are no longer in this alone,” he said. “My people heard what Vecidor did to me. They know where he is going. They will aid us.”
“I’m still not even sure what that guy did to you,” said Esmerelda as they all hurried to the cockpit.
“He somehow forced his way back into the Undersong, briefly, but violently. It was not a pleasant experience. I would rather say no more.”
Slipping into her seat, Betty said, “I’m going to need the co-ordinates for this Coronach. It’s not in my database.”
Avas rattled off the numbers; Betty tapped them into her console. The Hunchback quaked; metal groaned. Somewhere they could hear screws falling to the floor. “We’re fine,” said Esmerelda reassuringly to Chu. Outside the viewport they saw a momentary swirl of purple, and then they blinked back out of slipspace.
Ahead of them they saw the Ut fleet. Between them and the dark brown and black sphere of Coronach however was a second rag tag fleet. It was made up of vessels of various makes and models.
“My brothers and sisters,” said Avas. “They are here to blockade the planet. They will not allow Vecidor to land.”
Aboard the Solenne, Vecidor scowled at his viewscreen. All of the Kanon had heard him rip through the Undersong and violate Avas’s mind. If he had been anathema to them before, he was doubly so now. Every ship piloted by Yanadar had made its way to Coronach to keep him from landing. He could, of course, instigate a firefight, but many Yanadar would be killed. His Ut would be forced to kill. That, he would not allow.
He was unsure if the Kanon would fire on them. Would they have the resolve to kill fellow Yanadar—even if they were Ut—to save the lives of humans?
He stalked from the bridge to the docking bay. He reached out with the Outersong and told his Seconds that they were to hold position and to take no action that would end a Yanadar life. Reluctantly, they agreed to these orders.
Boarding a shuttle, Vecidor launched into space. He knew he was being tracked by every member of the Kanon fleet. He waited, holding his breath.
Twenty seconds passed. Thirty. A minute.
None of the ships opened fire on him. He smiled, flew his shuttle through the Kanon line towards Coronach. In moments he would land on the surface. He would sing the coda, and he would wipe the human scourge from existence.
Onboard the Hunchback, they watched the small shuttle fly through the Yanadar fleet.
Avas sighed in a strange mix of relief and regret. “They could not bring themselves to fire on him,” he said. “Vecidor is likely aboard that shuttle, but none of my people could bring themselves to kill one of their own.”
Esmerelda was incredulous. “Even though not doing so dooms hundreds of billions of people to die?”
“The taboo is very strong,” said Avas. “At the very core of what it means to be Yanadar.”
“What do we do now?” asked Chu.
“If they won’t stop him, we will,” answered Esmerelda. “Betty, follow that ship.”
As the Hunchback moved to pursue, the Ut ships opened fire on them. Vecidor had ordered his Seconds not to take Yanadar life, but he had said nothing of killing human interlopers. If they knew Avas was aboard it seemed they didn’t care. Betty swooped through space, evading the blasts of laser cannons.
The Yanadar fleet began to move, repositioning itself between the Ut and the Hunchback. The laser fire faltered, then stopped.
“I’ve located the shuttle,” said Betty. “It’s set down in the middle of an urban area nearby.”
The Hunchback entered Coronach’s atmosphere, once again having its hull shaken for all it was worth. Chu waited nervously for a bulkhead to give way, sucking them into space, but nothing happened. The ship soared through the air and over the remains of an ancient Yanadar city, the spires long since crumbled into piles of rock. Most of the buildings had collapsed; there was no sign of vegetation anywhere.
“Truly a dead world,” said Avas as Betty landed the ship in a city square, beside the shuttle they had been chasing.
When they stepped outside the first thing they noticed was the flat, funereal quality of the air. It tasted old, stale, dead. Then they heard the singing. All four ran towards the sound, rushing up a stone stairway, finding themselves in an open air arena. In the centre of the bowl-like depression where, in ages past, the ancient Yanadar would have performed, stood Vecidor. His arms were thrown wide, his sword at this side. His robes were blowing about him though there was no wind. His triangular eyes were squeezed shut and his thin mouth was open wide. As he sang his voice rose in volume, becoming louder and deeper at the same time. Around him the very air crackled with electricity, blue sparks flying from his bone crest, his fingers.
Betty pulled out her gun. “With my apologies, Avas,” she said, pulling the trigger. The blast struck an invisible shield a meter from the Custos’s body. He still seemed to not even know the rest of them were there.
“It is too late,” said Avas. “Once started, the coda cannot be stopped. At least, not in such a manner.” He turned to Esmerelda. “We can stop it. Together.”
She looked at him in disbelief.
“With our voice, our song,” he continued. “You sing as no other human has ever sung before. You resonate. You and I are in harmony. No other human could have sung the song of healing, and yet you did. Twice. The Composer has led us both here. It is our destiny. Our reason for being. Our song can stop the coda.”
“How?” she pleaded.
“Rather than a song of ending, we must sing one of beginnings. A capo—a song of creation.”
“How?” she repeated.
“Follow my melody,” said Avas as he began to sing.
Esmerelda listened to Avas’s voice, as around her a gale began to blow. She felt a fire begin to burn within her body as the coda bore into her. Closing her eyes she offered her voice to Avas. As the two began to sing, their voices coming into complete harmony, the fire within her cooled. Their song became louder and louder and Esmerelda felt pulses of energy bursting from her, pushing against the howling wind.
All across the galaxy, Yanadar everywhere stopped what they were doing and began to sing. Their melodies flowed through the Undersong and poured into Avas. Esmerelda gasped as something in her mind opened like a blossoming flower and she heard thousands of voices singing as one. A sense of euphoria spread within her, joy at this connection that no other human had ever experienced before. Her voice became more powerful, and together she and Avas began to drown out the coda.
Vecidor, who had been smugly confident of his victory, now felt waves of opposing harmonies crash against him. His eyes opened in surprise as he saw the human woman singing with the Refrain. Mustering all his will he called on the Ut, channelled them through the Outersong, adding their voices to his own. Still he was battered by the capo and took half a step back from the duet. How was this possible? She was only a human!
Esmerelda’s mind ran through the Undersong as her voice gained in strength. She could not just feel the Yanadar, she could see them where they stood, or sat, or kneeled, in gardens, on ships, in pools of water or at their desks. She drew from their power and soon began to feel other presences. Not within the Undersong, but beside it, beyond it. She focused on these bursts of static, tuned into them, became one with them. Through them she found other humans, spread throughout the galaxy, who, for reasons they never could have explained, were at that moment singing songs of joy. Each of these songs poured into her, and through her into the Undersong and into Avas. She felt his astonishment and then his elation at the connection she had somehow forged between his people and her own. The capo began to grow exponentially in strength.
Holding his hands before him as if he could physically ward of their song, Vecidor’s voice faltered. He felt his concentration waver, and the coda writhed around him, roiling in a fury. In frustration he gave vent to a scream of rage and drew his sword. He knew he could not drown out the capo, but he could quiet its voices. He stalked toward Esmerelda and Avas, pushing through the palpable energy that pulsated from them. The ground under his feet began to shake as the destructive energy of the coda and the creative energy of the capo crashed into each other.
Esmerelda saw Vecidor approaching as though through a haze. As the Custos raised his sword she tried to move but her body seemed paralyzed by the forces flowing through her. Her eyes grew large with alarm.
Suddenly one of her knives was sprouting from Vecidor’s throat. His song turned into a series of gurgles as he choked on his blood. He fell to his knees in front of Avas whose face was lined with sorrow. The Custos clutched at the blue that seeped from his wound, his triangular eyes locked on Esmerelda. He then fell forward face first into the dust.
Strong hands gripped Esmerelda’s side as Betty pulled her back towards their ship. She saw that Chu was likewise pulling Avas. Both she and the Yanadar still sung, but even with Vecidor dying on the ground the energy unleashed by the coda did not dissipate. It became even more violent. Great cracking sounds could be heard, and the earth began to shake. She was bundled onto the ship, placed in a seat. She felt the ship take off, shake as it entered orbit. Only then did her singing quiet, the connection to the Undersong fading away. She suddenly found the creaking of metal, the sounds of movement of her friends, to be too quiet. She shook her head, tried to clear it, found that Avas was seated next to her. Chu knelt beside the Refrain, one hand on the Yanadar’s shoulder.
“I had no choice,” said Avas forlornly. He refused to meet her gaze. “If he had killed you, the coda would have overwhelmed me and destroyed your race. I had no choice…and yet now I am as he was, a killer, a discordant note.”
“What about the Undersong,” asked Chu. “Are you still part of it?”
Avas blinked. “Yes, though I know not why. The Maestra should have exiled me by now.”
“Repeated Song, I know what you did hurt you, but it seems to me that your people have forgiven you,” said Chu. “I’m no killer, but I can tell you that Vecidor got what he deserved.”
“Holy crap.” Betty’s voice came over the coms. “Take a look outside.”
Turning on a monitor the others saw the silhouette of Coronach receding behind them. As they watched the sphere began to tear itself apart as the unfocused power of the coda made itself manifest. The Ut fleet slowly turned away from the planet’s destruction and drifted into the black. The other ships stayed to bear witness. Avas could feel them singing an elegy for Vecidor and for Coronach; he added his song to theirs. Though Vecidor had been a murderer and a madman, he had still been Yanadar, and each death was a loss to them all.
Avas’s people had not turned on him, as he was afraid they would when he sank one of Esmerelda’s knives into Vecidor’s flesh. He had acted on instinct, lost in the power of the capo. He did not know how he could carry out such a destructive act while singing a song of creation. He would have to meditate long upon that. There were many possible implications, some of which frightened him.
He would also have to dwell on what had happened with Esmerelda, For a human to connect with the Undersong was unprecedented on its own…but he had felt her connect to other human songs as well. She did not just resonate; the two of them were interwoven, conduits weaving many voices into one song.
He reached out a hand, found that she had been reaching for him as well. Together they sat in outward silence, their songs touching, as the Hunchback sailed into the void.