by Zachary Ash
Part 1, Part 2|
appear in this issue.
On the eve of summer solstice forty youngsters boarded the Ariel, along with their instruments, and in the next two weeks we toured the celestial sights. Many had never before been off-world.
First flight, I’ve often noted, astounds creative minds the most and accelerates their growth. On this trip students became artists. The star-strewn vistas and zero-g cabins inspired them. Those young musicians wrote sonatas on dark, vagrant sunspots; sang madrigals to the rings of Voltron; improvised jazz riffs in syncopated time to a comet’s whirling arc; played duets of quark pipe and zither in the shadow of the Twelve Gray Moons; composed chamber work as grand and eerie as the drifting Ice Crypts; and arranged a symphony for the iridescent sails darting past us in the thousands on the season’s last solar wind regatta.
In an exuberance of airs and melodies, then, we toured our double-sun’s domain. And on the way back the children, their soft voices raised as one, serenaded the Ariel’s long sure glide to sky and land and home.
The children, I learned later, called this song Starfire’s End. Elegant and sad, a child’s farewell to infinite wonders, the song was passed down afterward from class to class, generation to generation, across the centuries, taking its place in time in the school’s tradition.
Ages passed; I forgot the music school. But they didn’t forget us. Our holiday jaunt the students enshrined in lore: Starfire’s End was — forevermore — the song of Bells Hall. And on the dunes of Sandfar, the day Ilyishia died, I heard it one last time.
On those dunes the Shriekers feasted and the reek of blood choked the badlands. Meanwhile, inside a bunker near the blast pit, my passengers huddled. The massacre I witnessed gave us a chance to launch; but did I have enough time to get the lottery winners aboard?
I fought down panic and ran through the calculations. It was hard to think. Howls and moans drifting in from the desert shook my resolve. On the sands I saw a jumbled, steaming tableau of bones and entrails and meat. I felt sick. Honor fled from my thoughts. I didn’t want to die in a demon’s jaws.
Sandfar. Why was it so familiar? I hadn’t been here in centuries and yet something about this desert tolled in my mind like a half-forgotten tune. I strained to hear and remember. Something about a holiday.
But there was no time for such things — our retreat was in jeopardy.
I barked orders.
“Start the launch protocol,” I told Ariel, “and broadcast my orders to the port bunker. I want those four hundred on board now. Prime the rockets.”
“Maya, there’s room for more. If we wait —”
Ariel never lies. In spite of the tickets we sold and the berths we set aside, our ship still had room. How much? We could have squeezed into the cryo hold, I think, ten or twenty more adults. Or forty children.
Who knows? In truth, that morning, I was too scared to see things clearly. Too scared to keep a vow. I ached for flight.
Out of the bunker scrambled our passengers. They raced across the tarmac and down into the fire-blackened blast pit and on to the gantry that rose like a huge glimmering skeleton beside the Ariel. Inside the gantry was an elevator shaft. It took a cargo car fifty stories up to the ship’s hatch; a car held two hundred people. We’d need two trips.
I kept my sight on the desert and clocked the embarkation. It’d be close. The Shriekers’ howls shook Sandfar and soon, I knew, those ghouls would come stalking after us. My guts clenched.
“Ariel, give me a countdown,” I ordered.
“Yes, captain,” said the ship. “One minute to launch...”
Slowly, the passengers rode the elevator up. In the cargo car they cursed and hollered. In the Ariel’s hatch they ranted. In the corridors winding like a rescue rope to the ship’s interior they yelled and spat and rioted. Get us off this planet, they said. Hurry! Forget the damn mob! This hullabaloo was the only music I heard as the Ariel’s last mission began. A shameful noise.
I hate a coward.
And for this lot I waited? Reclaiming lost honor, I learned, has a price. Still, I had them on board now, all four hundred, the panic-mad lottery winners, bawling and screaming. They made their way down to the ship’s hold and into the cryo chambers. There in ghostly, kelp-scented Time Mist they wallowed like pigs in slop, greedily, minds already numb, memories blank. Ilyisha’s last.
“...thirty seconds to launch...”
I pulled back the thruster, gripping hard the steely control, and uncapped the ignition button. On it my thumb rested. Pressing it would fire the rockets, unleashing a sun-hot inferno and bolting us into space. Never before had I been so tense, so afraid. I watched the dim, crowded sands awhirl in the dawn with wings and talons and tails. Devils were coming.
“All systems go,” I said.
“...twenty seconds to launch...”
“Ariel, shift all controls to manual. I’m taking us up.”
“Maya, is that wise?” said the ship, “On manual I can’t stop the launch.”
“Stop it and we die,” I said. “There’s no second chance. Do it.”
The colossal engines rumbled and the reactor glowed. Inside the Ariel’s bowels atoms split into fire and rage, spilling into the rockets, pressure building like a hurricane set to crash on a darkened coast. I held the thruster. I waited.
In Sandfar’s blast pit, its crater walls transmuted — as if by alchemy — into hard black glass by a thousand ships’ atomic exhaust, shuddered and hummed the Ariel, our world’s last hope, slender as a sundial, its outer skin a fountain of brushed steel and titanium, its innumerable plates riveted with quark-fast bolts, its three long rockets sleek as daggers and lined with sail fins. Inside I sank into my command chair and braced for lift-off. I felt the gantry fall away. In moments we’d be safe. My thumb was poised above the red button, itching to press. I gulped fear.
“... ten seconds to launch...”
I glanced one more time out the cockpit window. Then recoiled. The Doom Shriekers had abandoned their ravaged corpses on the sand and come at last for the Ariel. They pounced on the spaceport. Yet this is not what turned my blood cold. Looking down on the launch site, I saw something else. Something worse. I saw children.
Where had they come from? I asked myself. Forty schoolchildren. Their small faces were turned up as they ran to the ship, beseeching us to save them. They waved. I heard their cries. They carried instruments. Ariel’s microphones and closed-circuit cameras recorded the scene; later, it would play in my mind for a hundred years.
Lost and frightened, these children dashed across the tarmac, dropping as they ran their trombones and lutes, their piccolos and drums, their bagpipes and harps, and scrambled down the crater to the fallen gantry. There they banged tiny fists on the elevator door. Some began climbing. Others shouted. A few brave ones stood proud playing airs and grace notes to the end. Who were they? Nobody had survived the massacre on the sand; the mob was dead.
And then I remembered. It was here in Sandfar, centuries ago, on the day I graduated from the academy that a music school hired me and gave me my first mission. A holiday jaunt into space. Forty children. Bells Hall.
It all came back. I saw the tunnel that exits in a kiosk in front of the space bunker a few hundred yards beyond where the Ariel stood. It led down to catacombs under the sand, a whole city beneath the dunes, one empty now and dark.
In the confusion of the last days its citizens — Sandfar’s dreamworkers — had fled. Artists. Merchants. Teachers. And somewhere in that subterranean darkness, I knew, was a music school. A school I saw once a thousand years ago. Ilyishia’s finest. Its students had been left behind.
This answer flashed in my mind in nanoseconds. The children had been huddling down there for days, frightened and alone, waiting for rescue. In those dim echoing caverns I heard them, I imagined, cheer one another with song and recital. And when they heard the Ariel rumbling above the dark labyrinth, they must have thought rescue had come. So they ran to daylight. They ran to me.
I saw the children and I heard the Doom Shriekers. My cybernetic senses reeled. Ilyisha’s young ones cried to come aboard; Ilyisha’s invaders howled for meat. The sentries kept the ravening things back for a time. Lasers and claws fought in a whirlwind of fury. I clutched the thruster. Time to decide.
“Maya, we must abort,” said Ariel. “The children are under the rockets. If we launch...”
I heard, yet, something worse than a howl. Below, a small boy stood alone. As if in prayer, calmly, he kneeled and took into his arms a friend’s fallen pipes. And then in wistful Celtic majesty, on his feet, he played. It was a song elegant and sad. He played Starfire’s End.
“No, no,” I said.
“Maya, we have room. The gantry...”
“Those claws,” I said. “What’s the countdown? They’re outside!”
“...two seconds to launch... one second...”
I had time. Time to scrub the launch; to save the children; and to imagine — fangs and blood and obscenities. I had too much time.
“Maya, please no...”
I fired the rockets.
The roar silenced the monsters’ howls outside and Ariel’s wail in the cockpit. Until this late summer’s morning, my old freighter had never killed. And now, at once, it killed forty children. A holocaust.
The three rockets vomited gales of atomic flame, a hellish maelstrom, and instantly the blast pit turned into a crucible of star-hot fire. The children burned.
In a thunderous arrow’s arc the Ariel shot upward and raced to the sky. Flames danced around us, falling to earth, incinerating all they touched. I felt the heat. A cremation of innocents had set us free. We rocketed to safety and on to the stars still unseen in the early morning’s inferno. The Ariel shrieked. We had become monsters fleeing monsters. Outcasts. Below us fell away, impossibly fast, our home. A world of ashes. Ilyisha was gone. Soon darkness took us — and then it held us for a hundred years.
* * *
So I am the last, then, to fly from a ruined world. Ilyishia’s last captain. Always awake and always alone. And never once have I forgotten our last day’s atrocity. How can I? Escape, no less than capture, is a kind of horror.
“There is still time,” says Ariel, mournful and lost, “to change our course.”
“Hold steady. This is the way,” I answer. “The only way.”
We cannot go on. A sin beyond atonement haunts us, monstrous and everlasting, a sin that can be purged only in fire. We cannot be forgiven, but at least we can forget. I’ve set our course. The Ariel rockets to oblivion.
“Ariel, drop us into the gravity well,” I say, “and set sail for the corona. Fire all engines.”
“Engines engaged, captain. We’re going in.”
How long, I wonder, till a memory burns? In these last hours I feel a tempest’s rage and hear a child’s song. Flames touch this old, heartsick freighter. We’re home.
“Then,” I whisper, “to the elements be free.”
“Together to the end we dream.”
No world orbits the star ahead, no moon, no colony craft. There is only a welcoming radiance. We race toward fire.
Copyright © 2007 by Zachary Ash