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Authors: Kathleen O'Malley,A. C. Crispin

Silent Songs

BOOK: Silent Songs
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Silent Songs (Starbridge #5)

A. C. Crispin

Kathleen O'Malley

Dedicated to the memory of

Louis Cain

We all miss you, Uncle Louie --K. O'Malley

"Will we let ourselves be destroyed ... without a struggle, give up our...

country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit... and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, 'Never! Never!'"

--Tecumseh of the Shawnees

"When people come to trouble, it is better for both parties to come together without arms and talk it over and find some peaceful way to settle it."

--Spotted Tail of the Brule Sioux

Prologue

First-in-Conquest Atle grasped the sides of the hydro-sleeper and pulled himself out of the nutrient broth with an effort. He lingered drowsily in the tank, his long legs folded tightly under his narrow pelvis, as the warm, sweet liquid lapped against his broad-chested, red-blue mottled torso.

This resting stage gave his body time to synchronize with its forebrain. That organ, the one that made decisions and took risks, still had to wait for the tiny hindbrain. A small cluster of glands and nerves, the hindbrain was the seat of instinct and bodily functions. Safely tucked away in his short, thick, triangular tail, only it could signal the end of estivation.

The need to breathe came suddenly, as the First inhaled the cool, oxygen-rich air of his ship, the massive Exploratory Ship
Flood.
He coughed, tasting sweetish, viscous fluid. As his thoughts cleared, he clambered stiffly out of the tank, his long, narrow feet hitting the deck with a splat. His hands and feet had evolved from the need to grasp tree limbs, and had two long digits in the front and two more extending from the heel.

Something must have happened,
he realized.
Something important.
The readout on his tank said that it'd been three years since he'd last been brought up.

Gazing down the stacked rows of hydro-sleepers, he paused to stare lovingly into the one nearest his. It held his mate, Dunn.

So beautiful,
he thought, leaving a wet smear on her sleeper from his hand.

Their four children had been perfect, too.

The First's large, round, protruding eyes--marbled with the same red and blue pattern as his skin--roved the expansive estivation chamber.

Reluctantly he moved to the communications station, drying his hands before activating
the
console.

The music of his language filled
the air
as
the
computer spoke. "Greetings, First-in-Conquest Atle,
Captain
of the
Flood,
First of all the Chosen."

2

I know who I am,
he thought wearily, wishing the machine had not been programmed by rank-jealous bureaucrats.

"There is important news from Home," the computer continued, "and the reports of robot probes that you must screen alone."

"I am alone," he confirmed. His song vibrated from his throat, making his vocal pouch swell; his mouth remained closed. "Give me the news from Home, first." He requested this hesitantly. It wasn't like the ship to wake him for news releases--they'd been gone more than ten years, so whatever happened back Home now had little relevance to them.

Such a long time, ten years.
A male matured in five, and bred in ten. Atle himself was forty. Few lived to be sixty.

"One year ago," the console sang, "the Exploratory Ship
Deluge
discovered a planet with atmosphere. But the air is thin, and the water underground.

Colonization will be expensive."

Won't it, though,
Atle thought grimly. A dry world would not take the pressure off Home.

"Two years ago," the computer continued, "communications with the Exploratory Ship
Monsoon
were abruptly terminated. It is considered lost."

He swallowed and closed his eyes while the computer droned on with all that had been done to reestablish contact. Atle listened for a respectable time, then asked for the next item.

"It is with profound regret," the machine began, "that your Government must address you with sorrowful news."

The First stood rigidly, gripping the console with both hands, his two forefingers and two opposing thumbs clamped tight. He knew that phrasing--

it preceded the announcement of a family death that came about through Government service.

"The Exploratory Ship
Pluviose
was destroyed when two of its reactors malfunctioned. Your son, the Glorious First-in-Conquest Dunner, valiantly struggled to save his ship and crew but was killed in the ensuing explosion.

Your daughter, Stalwart Second-in-Conquest Alta, courageously staffed the lifeboat station to ensure that all producing females were loaded into sleeper ships."

She escaped,
Atle silently wished at the machine.
Tell me she escaped and
is out there, waiting for rescue.

"Unfortunately, ship's communications ended abruptly, and simultaneously all lifeboat beacons ceased. It is believed that the reactors exploded, destroying the ship and lifeboats, which would not have had time to get beyond lethal range. Your Government grieves with you in your loss, Glorious First."

Atle's moan of despair whistled through silent corridors, past

3

the endless rows of sleepers. His legs buckled; only his grip on the console kept him from falling.

"I
begged
them not to go on the same ship," he sang. "My children ...! My children...!"

The pain was like drought, like fire, parching his organs, squeezing his heart. His hindbrain, understanding only struggle or escape, flushed his smooth skin, making his already brilliant colors painful to the eyes. The small yellow patches on his upper arms flared, sweating the deadly poison his species was named for. He turned back to Dunn's tank, grief-stricken.

How could he tell her? What would he say?

His mind heard her answering song as clearly as if it trembled against his flat, round tympanic membrane. "We still have our other children."

Yes. Their other children....

Silently, he padded over to the facing rows of sleepers.

Side by side they slept, even as the Chosen did, separated by rank and species, even as the Chosen were. He peered into the first tank, at the handsome, still form folded there.

Despite the Chosen's careful tending of their ecosystems and vital resources, breeding inevitably meant children. To control the population, the Government had decreed over a hundred years ago that the first two surviving children of every female were her own, and were Chosen. But every child after that would be born in the Government's hospital, and immediately taken so that the forebrain could be chemically stunted. These retarded, androgynous children were called "Industrious," and were wards of the State, though the Chosen could take them home if they wished.

Atle had never sired children with any female but his wife, though he could have had his pick. Four children had been enough for them--two Chosen, now dead, and two Industrious, who lay here on the
Flood,
opposite their parents.

Embracing the tank of his last living son, the dull-witted, gentle Arvis, he sang bitterly. This child had his father's wrestler's physique, but not his heart or cleverness, nor could his temper be roused enough to make his poison patches sweat. But he was a tireless and willing worker, and his parents took pride in his simple accomplishments.

His daughter, Sine, lay beside her brother. They were forever children, these two, if hardworking.

Atle pulled himself together. He was still the First. Stepping away from the tanks, he returned, aged and heavy-footed, to the patiently waiting computer.

4

"I am grateful for my Government's sympathy," he sang halfheartedly, the notes sticking in his throat pouch.

"You were not roused for that," the computer intoned.

Of course not,
Atle realized dazedly. "Well, what then? Have we lost more probes?" They did not have many left.

All for nothing, this insane search for a new Home.

In spite of all their planning, their nurturing of their beloved planet, they were still overrunning their Home, their solar system, their space stations and free-space colonies.

That was why Atle, his children, and the
Deluge's
First had been sent on this hopeless, futile mission--to find a new Home. Only the State's most popular heroes could fill the public with enough hope to convince them to pay the enormous expense.

Each ship, the Government had promised, would find a planet as rich as their own, planets with their own native peoples to conquer. Atle had once shared this hope, dreaming of the day the Industrious could be phased out.

He believed the deliberate stunting of their children was eroding his people's spirit, their virtues, their heart--the genius that had made them conquerors in the old days. But the truth was they had no evidence that there were any other beings--never mind intelligent ones--in all the universe but them.

"You were roused, Glorious First," the computer announced, 'because one probe has found a planet of promise."

Atle refused to rejoice. There had been too much lost already. "How much promise?" he sang desultorily.

Information began marching down the console's tank, then the tank's fluid shifted beside the column of information, coalescing into an image of a solar system.

So many planets!
he thought, as they slid by the robot.

A red dwarf sun sat like an angry god on the system's outermost fringes, and the probe narrowly escaped being bombarded by its powerful X-rays.

Planetoids whizzed past, radiated to a cinder as they spun in the shadow of the violent dwarf. A ringed gas giant swam into view, was analyzed, then ignored. Then another gas giant--the largest the computer had ever encountered-- loomed ahead, monstrous and threatening with its squadron of captured moons, many of which were planets themselves, but none suitable.

More lifeless worlds followed until finally, closer to the heart of this system--a bright yellow dwarf sun--Atle saw it.

Data marched beneath its image as fleecy clouds drifted across the surface of the beautiful, blue-green orb. The air was good,

5

the water real, pure water! Three lustrous moons circled its girth, pulling at its tides. The gravity was acceptable, if light. Scattered continents and islands teemed with plant life, surrounded by living seas. Animals moved everywhere, flying, swimming, running across land split by twisting rivers, land sodden with ponds and marshes.

Atle had never permitted himself to believe another planet like Home existed, yet here it was, spinning silently, waiting for him. A planet full of life.

Complicated, organic life.

"The probe," he demanded, "has it landed safely?"

"It has, Glorious First."

"Give me the rest of the information, the pictures. .. ." Everything. He wanted to see everything.

"There is one concern," the computer interrupted.

"What is that?" he sang flatly, not wanting to be pulled from the sight of the place he'd already thought of as New Home, the place where the Chosen could breed freely again.

The picture in the tank shifted, pulling back through the planet's atmosphere, back into orbit, until it focused on an object glimmering above the "cloud-filled sphere. The computer drew a circle around the spark, then enlarged it.

"An artificial satellite orbits this planet, First."

Atle touched the pads of his fingers to his chest, feeling his three-chambered heart tremble. What mad flurry of computations had this new sight inspired in the computer?

"Just one?" he asked. The tiny space station looked almost silly alone in the vastness of space.

"Just this one. There are fourteen small satellites scattered through the orbital plane that appear to be scientific monitoring devices. The probe easily evaded them."

"Where are the ships to protect this station?"

"Only one ship sits in its bays. The station's orbit is maintained automatically. There are no inhabitants, other than plants."

Plants. They could be used for oxygen, for food. It had to be a dream to find not just a suitable planet but a race of space-faring plant eaters waiting for him.

"But... where are the owners?" Atle wondered aloud.

"I cannot answer. If the owners are planetside, there are too many life-forms to identify them without further data."

Too many life-forms. That was a problem he would enjoy solving. His heart filled with sorrow and joy.

"We have the planet's coordinates?" he asked.

"Yes, Glorious First, and our course is already adjusted."

6

[

6

"Good. Speed us on our way."

"One more item, First. This message is being broadcast from the space station." The computer emitted bizarre alien sounds.

Wincing, he deliberately dulled his sensitive hearing until the sound was barely discernible. "What is it, a warning?"

"Unknown. It is repeated in different tones and patterns that might indicate a variety of languages."

BOOK: Silent Songs
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