|Forum Home > Now This Ain't No Frak > The Faerie Song|
Sorry this isn't Let's Make a Deal part 4. But the name of this ship got stuck in my head, and I had to write a story for it. So here goes:
"I know a story."
All conversation in the Resolve's mess died abruptly, leaving only the hum of life support and the engines. William Tiller, the gaunt Tech Infantry medic, hardly ever spoke. Just those four words alone made this one of his more talkative days.
His commander raised an eyebrow and looked into his empty mug before setting it down on the table around which they sat. "Go on, then, Will."
James settled back into his own chair to listen.
Tiller leaned forward and glanced briefly into everyone's eyes before fixing his gaze firmly back at his own hands.
"It's not my story, it was told to me. I can't say for certain that it happened. But something about it rings true."
Suddenly, Tiller lifted a hand and pressed his index finger down onto the table. A thin wisp of smoke began to rise with a hiss.
James jerked and started to ask what the hell he was doing. The table's surface was genuine maple heartwood from New Paris. But something about Tiller's expression made James hold his tongue. For the moment, at least.
"I had just finished training. But the battallion I was originally assigned to was reorganized and deployed to Fieras before I even reached Avalon. I was given a temporary transfer to the Disease Control Board's division on Mars, but the Resistance blew up the office while I was waiting to catch a shuttle. I spent a lot of time on transports bouncing back and forth between staff officers for a couple months.
"I remember one of those transport ships quite clearly. It was an old Portman-class frigate, decommissioned and sold into civilian service. This was way back during the second triumvirate, and the Captain had a contract with the Fleet to do odd jobs like hauling light freight on short-notice or transporting infantrymen in assignment limbo. He was former Fleet himself, and that ship was his one true love."
Tiller tilted his head back to look up towards the ceiling.
"The whole hull was painted this awful milky-white color, and he'd named it the Faerie Song." The medic shook his head.
"I wasn't going to ask about that, I didn't care. But I was making that particular hop with six other men with similar reassignment issues. And one of them did ask.
"And the Captain laughed, and then he looked at us, and then he looked through us and through the far bulkhead behind us. And then he told us the story of how he was a commissioned officer for six hours before retiring.
"He was on his graduation cruise. The Fleet used to put all the officer candidates in a given year onto ship and have them astrogate an interstellar cruise with minimal supervision as their final test. It was more formality than challenge, and when they arrived they would celebrate their commissions."
Tiller paused a moment and took a sip from his glass, before looking back up towards the ceiling and continuing.
"They were going from Earth to Avalon. At the time, the easiest hyper route there was, with plenty of nearby traffic to render assistance if anything went wrong.
"Only they lost the beacon within five minutes of entering the gate. They lost the beacon, and had no contact or sensors on any other ships or even the gate they'd just gone through. They never figured out how or why it happened, but it was the least of their problems. Within just a few minutes of going adrift, things started to get weird.
"The crew deck started to expand: the floors got bigger, the ceiling got farther away, and walls started to disappear. All their instruments went dead and their lights started to dim and things began to grow around them, right up through the deck plating. And then, before anyone had gotten the least bit of a handle on what was going on, they weren't even on a ship anymore. They were in a forest, in the dark, and in utter confusion.
"Their instructors managed to gather all the cadets together and take command, since this was obviously an emergency situation. But even with some discipline restored, no one had the least idea of what they ought to do. The tree canopy obstructed most of their view, but there were no stars or moon that anyone could see to give a hint of a location. The only coherent theory they could come up with was that some fluke in the hyper transition shunted them into a pocket dimension of hyperspace. But how that explained the ship disappearing, no one could say.
"And then, while they debated whether to make camp or go exploring, people began to appear and emerge from the trees around them.
"Not ordinary people," Tiller said. "But people like you've never seen outside fantasy holos. They dressed in the most elaborate and exquisitely tailored costumes you can imagine. Fur capes, feathered hats, jeweled crowns, lace-trimmed shirts embroidered with gold and silver thread."
Tiller levelled his head to look at the others around the table. "Yes, their clothes were magnificent, gorgeous even. But their faces and their limbs were..." he trailed off.
James had never seen William Tiller smile before, and the expression the TI medic displayed now was one of the most disturbing things James had ever seen. His spine felt like it had turned to ice.
"The Earth Fleet cadets were terrified," Tiller continued. "But the forest people pleaded with them not to be afraid. They poured out of the trees, dozens, maybe hundreds of them, and surrounded the crew. They made a bonfire in a small hollow, and they brought out food and drink from wherever they'd come from, and invited the cadets to share. It was a bewildering experience, as you might imagine, but I suppose everyone was so caught up in the moment that they saw no alternative to accepting it. So they all joined this feast that was happening in this strange forest where a starship used to be.
"And once the cadets and senior officers were fed and drunk, the forest people brought out finely crafted exotic instruments and began to play their music. And here our transport captain was at a loss for words to describe the sound, except to say that it was the most alluring, thought-consuming song he'd ever heard."
Tiller closed his mouth and hummed a few notes that were neither alluring nor thought-consuming. Then he shook his head and shrugged.
"Sometime after they began to play, one of the forest people leapt to his feet and called to the lead instructor of the training ship, asking her to dance. Shocked, but still absorbed in the mood of the whole event, the instructor complied. Then more of the forest people asked more of the crew to dance with them, until everyone was on their feet and frolicking in rhythm. Our captain said he danced with a forest woman whose long copper hair seemed to move under its own power in sympathy to the music. The dance carried on with forest people and ship crew alike moving and laughing and singing nonsense words. The feast seemed apart from time as they all danced around the fire in the night.
"Until cadets began dropping dead," Tiller said. "Our captain thought little of the first few of his companions who keeled over, even as the party danced across the backs of their corpses. But eventually he started to take notice of how many of his fellows were wheezing and coughing up blood as they tried to continue singing. He began to notice the ache of his own blistered feet and abused knees. He became afraid again, but he did not know how to stop. He did not want to stop, the song was so beautiful. He said it must have taken days for all of his fellows to collapse, until it was just him continuing alone, while all the myriad forest people pranced around him, still laughing and urging him onward.
"His vision clouded as his own eyes started to bleed. He said that he felt terribly sad because he knew that he would have to stop soon, that he was about to die and would not be able to dance anymore.
"And then he said that an old man appeared among the forest people, another human like himself. And he said that the forest people ran from the stranger, that the music stopped, and that he stopped dancing to it, and was nearly overwhelmed by his sense of loss. He said that he was ready to die then, but the man put a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
"And the old man lifted up his other hand, and the whole forest caught fire. Then he said to our captain, 'I'm sorry. I can only give back a little of what you've lost. And in return, I must ask that you relinquish it again, in time. You will find my successor under a black star. He must discover the living truth. Help him.'"
Tiller took another sip from his glass, then swirled it around for a moment while watching the vortex of water inside.
"His ship re-emerged from the Earth hypergate six hours after it had left. He was the only person aboard, and the acting captain since all the commissioned crew was gone. The rescue team said he was nearly catatonic when they found him. The medical board concluded that he was suffering delusions from an unknown hyperspace accident and promptly discharged him from the Fleet.
"It took him decades to recover enough to buy his own ship and go into private service. He said that he was never able to hear music again. Any music, that it just sounded like empty noise. So he named his ship after the one song that he always wanted to hear again, even though it nearly killed him the first time."
Tiller set the glass down on the table, "I never ran into the man again after he dropped us off at the depot we were headed to. But I did try to look him up a few years later; I'd been reminded after seeing another Portman frigate in a scrap yard. Turned out he was arrested and disappeared on some meaningless political charge during the civil war.
"I'm sure everyone else on that ship wrote him off as a nutcase. I wanted to do the same, even told myself I had for a long time. But I've never been able to forget the story, and that's usually a sign of something. When you've seen enough of this universe, you start to recognize its patterns, even when they make no kind of sense at all."
At last, Tiller lifted the finger he had kept pressed to the top of the table all this time. But instead of leaving a scorch mark as James had expected from the smoke, a tiny sculpture rose up from the wood. It was a tree, no bigger than his thumb, bone white and filled with delicate branches like spun glass.
Tiller snapped his fingers, and the miniature tree caught fire. It burned from top to bottom in a manner of seconds like a match, but left no smoke and no ash. The fire made a wailing noise as it consumed the sculpture. James winced at the horrible sound but, just before it went out, he thought he recognized the very beginnings of some haunting bit of music. But then the fire went out and the noise ended. The mess table was left spotless.
"And that is the story of a starship which entered hyperspace and became a forest which hosted a feast of strange creatures and their lethal dance. Believe as you will."
Tiller pushed his chair back from the table, stood up, and walked calmly from the mess. No one else spoke for quite some time.
Best excuse for a flashback within a flashback I've seen in quite a while.