The Siren’s Song
It was not the first time the boy heard an Orphean dirge.
It began with a whispered cadence, the softest of consonants drifting in the air. The rumbling of orbital artillery punctuated each repetition as the rhythm of words began to assert itself, assonant syllables accented by poignant pause. The chemical fire to the boy’s right crackled loudly for a moment as a gust of wind buffeted it; he could taste the acrid smoke coating his nose and throat.
What seemed like mere moments before, the air had buzzed with a thousand martial sounds, screams of the dying mingling with the hellish shuddering whine of railguns. The boy lay behind crumbling printcrete, shaking as each massive round tore the air with fierce cracks. He hadn’t fired his rifle; it seemed futile, even vulgar. In the sky above, the thick black clouds roiled angrily and suddenly split asunder as a series of shots streaked down from orbit. A building vanished into an expanding cloud of debris; a moment later, the thunderclap reached him, punching him in the chest and driving him closer to his slab. He shut his eyes tightly to hide the images of anguished figures silhouetted against the flames. In the eternal purple twilight, the scurrying humanoid shapes seemed more wraith than man.
Oh father! We war against spirits, not men; how can we kill a ghost?
* * *
It was only two years before that an Orphean delegation had first returned to their ancestral home. Sons and daughters of the Arks, their ancestors had left the Earth behind. Some were religious visionaries, yearning for a new world to birth their utopian dreams; some were political dissidents, fleeing their oppressors; some were wanderers, desperate to sate that all-consuming evolutionary urge to crest the next hill. The world they chose as their own was barren and cold, atmospheres thin and sunlight weak. Years passed as the terraformers worked their craft, while the thousands of colonists waited in the ships, confined by harsh corridors of metal, segregated into ghettoes of distrustful factions. Patiently they waited, and while they waited they sang. Their songs brought them through their tribulation; their songs gave their new home its name: Orphea. And when the air grew warm enough and the rivers grew large enough and the plants grew strong enough they left their orbiting prisons and came to Orphea, their feet touching new rock and their lungs breathing new air. But they never forgot their songs—a living memory of the suffering they had endured.
A century passed before the men of Earth stumbled across Orphea, so isolated was she by vast clouds of interstellar dust and the sun’s potent radiation. Some among the decadent nations of Earth, burdened by often-unprofitable colonies, resolved that Orphea would provide them with their salvation. Brasilia dispatched a cruiser to carry a delegation back to Earth, eager to impress upon the Orpheans the benefits of submitting to the paternal wisdom of the Federation.
And so it was by this chance collision of peoples that the boy found himself standing amongst a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Inside the National Congress, the Orpheans spoke in secret with the vast array of senators and deputies; outside, the crowd remained strangely hushed.
When the doors of the Congress opened, even the barest whispers of the crowd died. Three Orpheans appeared, two women and one man, dressed in stately silver robes which caught the sun like wavelets in a pond. The foremost woman walked with a gait both proud and tired, and her straight black hair starkly contrasted against her white-pale skin. Her eyes betrayed a lifetime lived in darkness and twilight, and tears sprang from them as she resolutely resisted the impulse to shield herself from the unfamiliar sun. The Orpheans never showed sign of weakness.
The woman clasped her hands before her and said nothing as she descended the long ramp, flanked now by security officers. The crowd watched her careful descent in an eerie stillness, cowed before her powerful presence and the solemnity of her gaze. Finally, at the bottom of the ramp, she halted and spread her arms wide, palms upturned and eyes closed. Tears, now of emotion rather than the assault of the sun, dropped from her cheeks to the sides of her slender neck. She opened her mouth and the boy’s world dissolved into her song.
The crowd seemed to vanish before him, leaving nothing in his vision but the Orpheans—or rather, her. The song that emerged from her lips defied language: to call it music would pervert it. Her mournful sweeping tonality wove a world into being, as real as the fabric of her robes, and he felt its strands crystallize into images in his mind. He saw Orphea laid before him like an ochre gem, narrow winding rivers tracing the surface like veins in marble. His toes scratched the planet’s gray-brown dust; his eyes drank in meandering ribbons of shimmering and giggling color framed by starless sky. He wept as he saw dim twilight turn to murky dusk and back again, and he laughed with joy as he saw the indomitable Orpheans beat back the night with glistening cities, scattered oases of light. He did not know how long she sang, or what words she spoke. The Orpheans knew that she mourned the end of peace between their long-lost cousin peoples; the boy heard an irresistible song of love.
His mother wept when he told her that he would enlist to join the military invasion of Orphea; his father grudgingly accepted that his son might yet prove a man. Neither would have understood had he explained his reason: he alone could comprehend the intense yearning to hear that melody again. And so he endured the brutality of training, the arduous voyage aboard a crowded fleet carrier, the eternal twilight of Orphea, the murderous fury of the resistance—all with the hope that perhaps he would again experience that glorious sound. The only song he heard was the wailing of the dying.
* * *
The boy pressed his cheek against the dirty street and shut his eyes, trying to forget the visions of devastation. One of his friends lay nearby, sightless eyes staring into the Stygian darkness. The buzzing rounds and echoing thumps of the orbital barrage had faded away; the railguns had one by one fallen silent as soldiers died at their posts. Several large vehicles burned ferociously nearby, fiery tongues licking the purple sky and spewing angry clouds of smoke. It was quiet now, but for the first murmurings of the song.
A new voice joined, raw emotion accenting the soaring tones. The very notes seemed to ache with grief and with loss; she seemed to hold back tears with every breath. He could not understand the words, but he knew exactly what she said. Grief needs no translation.
The boy’s dark, wet blood seeped down the road in slow rivulets.
A muscle spasm shook his whole body with convulsions, and when it ended, he felt weak, so weak that he could barely keep his eyes open. His vision slowly dulled, the dim twilight above him growing darker with each passing moment. The ragged wound in his abdomen hurt less than he expected. He found that he could not move his arms, and so with effort he lolled his head to the side to look down the street. More of his platoon lay strewn across the pavement, their remains littered with blood-slick debris. And walking among the dead were the wraith-like forms of Orpheans.
Their pale skin contrasted sharply with their dark coats, and they seemed to fade in and out of clouds of smoke that twisted in the harsh wind. They knelt at each of the fallen, pausing for a moment before continuing, while others lifted weapons from where they lay. One figure detached from the group and approached the boy, face hidden by a dark mask. Horrified, he tried to defend his presence on their soil, shouting aloud that he was there out of love, that he did not want a war any more than they did—but all that emerged from his mouth was a wheezing cry that ended in a choking cough. As the ghostly form approached, it resolved into the graceful curves of a woman; as she lifted her mask, he saw a face lined with sorrow. She knelt by his side, glancing at his mortal wound, and brushed her fingers across his cheek with motherly compassion. He wept.
And suddenly, a new song emerged, escaping from the woman’s throat like an uncaged dove. The song enveloped him and lifted him away from soot-stained slab of printcrete. He could taste the soul of Orphea itself. The auroras danced, and he danced with them. Hikaru opened his eyes and gazed into the vibrant face of the singer. A slow smile crossed his lips as the last, quivering breath left his lungs.
This time, she sang for him.