Song of Dead Suns

by Deranged Kitsune
Poem by Darren Hall


The sound echoed through the halls of the ship despite thick bulkhead construction. It was an almost whistling sound, not quite pipes and not quite birds. That it was music she had no doubt, for the pattern was too structured and the whistles were shortly joined by the deep reverberation of a drum, then of several drums, then of several instruments she couldn't identify. They sounded like string instruments, but they way they resonated into and out of her hearing range, she could tell no human had ever played
them. By the time she reached the door, the chorus had swelled to the upper limit of her hearing, causing her to grimace in near pain, before fading to frequencies beyond the spectrum of her hearing. As she pressed the admittance buzzer the melody quickly returned, falling down the musical scale like a mountain goat that had lost its footing, bottoming out in a low throb that was more felt in the bones than heard with the ears. Shuddering, she jabbed at the button repeatedly.

Eventually the doors slid open and the full sound of the music washed over her. While the rhythm was not as jarring as it had been, the odd fluctuations in the near liquid sound was making her uneasy. "Captain, could I have a word with you?" she called out.

Her captain was sitting at the desk in his ready room, his back to the door and looking out at the window. As Campbell looked on, the window polarized in response to the suns peaking out from behind the station they were docked to. The system they were currently in was a binary system, a large blue star and a smaller white one. Even diminished by the polarized glass, the sunlight caused Curnow's fur to shine. His elbows rested on the arms of his chair, his paws held out and waving in time with the haunting
music as though he were playing at being a conductor. His four tails were draped out the large hole on the chair's back.

"Of course, Campbell, speak away," he said, his tone as idle as the rest of him.

"I would sir, but it's a bit difficult over the music." In truth, the music was starting to make her queasy. That probably had something at the lower end of the spectrum, something she couldn't quite hear blended in with the rest of it.

"Just give it a few moments," replied her captain, "it's almost done."

Campbell might have argued the point, but the song reached its crescendo, rising sharply, trying to attain some seemingly unattainable height, before falling back. It gave two final, halting notes, almost like a
dying animal in the final spasms of death before the music dropped off to the subsonic and finally silence.

With a sigh, the Captain lowered his arms out of sight behind the chair. With a light kick, he turned himself around and pressed part of the touch sensitive surface of the desk, ending the strange new melody that was starting. The deep amber of Captain Curnow's eyes rose and took in second in
command. "Better?"

"Um, yes, Sir. Much. Sir, we've finally been contacted by the Ungala, or rather their representative, and they've set negotiations aboard the station in another half hour."

Curnow nodded. "Very good, I'll meet you in the airlock then."

Campbell was about to leave when curiosity got the better of her. "Sir, permission to speak freely?"

Leaning back in his chair, Curnow cracked his knuckles and folded his paws behind his head. "Always, commander. Have a seat. What's on your mind?"

Campbell sat and regarded her captain a moment. For Campbell it was always the differences that her eye picked up, the differences that drew her attention. Curnow was an Enki, a being with a full body coat of fur, a narrow muzzle, mobile ears, and four large, furry tails. While his fur was predominately a rich gold, it did lighten in places to near white, such as under his chin and neck, just above his eyes, and at his paws. Despite all her time in space, Campbell was still not used to dealing with alien races.

She finally realized that Curnow had cocked his head to the side, his ears fully erect, regarding her with a combination of curiosity at what she might want to ask and annoyance that it was taking her so damned long to do so.

"The music you were listening to when I first came in, where was it from?" she finally managed.

Curnow leaded forward and rubbed at his face before he began to type at the console. "That little piece? Oh, I haven't listened to that one in ages..." His voice trailed off and he cocked his head, examining the screen at his crooked angle. Campbell watched as his eyes dart back and forth across the line of characters. "Yeah, yeah, that's right," he muttered before straightening up and resuming a normal tone. He began to read from the screen. "To answer your question, that recording was found about three
hundred years ago on the fourth planet of a small binary system about a quarter of the way from the galactic core. The planet was designated XH-496-B by a Bruni survey expedition. Standard features for a planet that supported carbon based life. Dead a little over eight thousand years before the surveyors arrived."

Campbell blinked. "Dead?"

"Dead. Bereft of life. Dead. Essentially one giant ball of dust in space. The race that lived there had achieved a moderate level of basic technology, but it says there is no evidence they ever left their planet.
This and a few other samples were found in the ruins of one of their cities. The planet itself was worthless, so no one has ever been back for more."

"Captain, if I may ask, where did you come across something like that?"

"Of course you may," said Curnow as he leaned back in his chair. He picked up a random PADD from the pile on his deck, idly turning it about between his fingers. "I got it from a friend on a Taiva battle cruiser. Where zie got it, I don't know."

Curnow flipped his paw in her direction, the PADD bobbing between his fingers. "As you know, in space anything is for trade. Minerals, technology, biology, information, the sciences in general. But there are some beings out there who will pay just as high for the arts, the subjective products of any
race. Especially dead ones."

Campbell had to frown at that. "But why? By your own admission art is subjective. It is also as much a product of the time and place as it is of the people. If the time has past, and the people moved on, why should it hold any value to us? We have enough of our own creativity and inspiration to contend with. Yes, the Empire I came from is isolationist by its own policy. But the works we have done... by drawing from within," she emphasised this by curling her hands into claws and pulling them away from her chest, "we have produced pieces that have surpassed all in our recorded histories."

"And there you have almost proven my point!" Curnow shot back, his ears perked up at full attention. A memory of a pet she used to possess flashed through Campbell's mind at the image. "Art is collected because it is unique! Because you cannot copy art! To each individual being it is different, none viewing any given piece in quite the same way. I have countless paintings and pictures of sunrises, moon rises, eclipses, forests, seas and lakes, anything else you can name in nature, all recorded. And all are different. The abstractions are a particular love of mine. Even the AI races are able to produce art, and more logical and practical beings you are not liable to find in the universe."

Her captain's whiskers lifted as he leaned forward in his chair, his muzzle hanging open as he regarded her across the table. She could hear his tails swishing against the deck behind him. "I am familiar enough with the views of your Empire. Most of the rest of the galaxy knows better, though. You see, any idiot race can discover scientific facts like the speed of light, or that hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. But what does it take to compose a piece of music that is considered a masterpiece?
Especially by other sentient species? Or a sculpture, or a painting, or the design of something. For that matter, have you ever seen two separate species create a piece of art that was the same? What can be learned of ourselves and our universe unless we know of other ways to see it?"

"Again, I think you're ignoring something," Campbell said as she leaned back in her chair, much the opposite pose as the Enki Captain. "I can agree with alternate perspective, but it must have some bearing on the viewer. Learning facts from alien races is one thing, as you said. They have universality, they require only a similar background. But when you get into entirely different world views, then you lose any ability to communicate true intention. A painting made by a tri-ocular race will not hold the same
impression for me."

"Really? One extreme counter example removes all objectivity? Take this piece, for instance," said Curnow, motioning to the monitor on his desk. "Tell me what it means to you."

Campbell looked and saw that it was a piece of poetry. She only made out a few of the lines in her brief glance at it.

... like songs of dead suns that have one last beam of hope, warmth and light to
impart upon our blossomed minds, our callow hearts, our slipping souls, and
if you stop and listen like we do by the river...

"What about it?" she asked, turning back.

"That was a little piece I found just a few months ago. The world was a third planet of a G-type star. That world was a little peculiar. Are you familiar with Gillespie's Hypothesis for the Propagation of Sentient Life?"

Campbell thought about that one for a moment. "If I remember right, he stated that no sentient race would ever intentionally annihilate itself."

"Indeed he did," said Curnow nodding. He pointed a finger at the words on the screen. "But these people disproved that. Between war, pollution, overpopulation, uncontrolled genetic tampering, and a possibly religiously induced irrational hatred of each other -- based on what the landing teams found -- they managed to render their whole world uninhabitable to anything short of a few bugs and lichens. Relics like this," he pointed at the screen again, "are all that's left of a civilization that advanced itself to a high level of sophistication in one of the shortest time spans recorded."

"And that's all it is," said Campbell as she folded her arms across her chest. "Salvage from the grave of some poor, stupid race." She could not believe Curnow's attachment to something so... trivial!

Curnow licked his nose and nodded sadly at her. "That it just might be. But do you know what I see in this, what the others who collect and trade on the arts of dead worlds and civilizations see in all this?"

Campbell could only shake her head.

"We see these pieces as the echoes of what once was. The difference between these races and our own is not really their differing perspectives, it's that there can never be anything more from them. What they had is ended. Their unique perspective on the universe has been lost forever. We can still go on making our songs, and our little verses and our little pictures, and we may improve over our kind who have gone before, but they never will. You should ask yourself, Campbell, what that great and mighty Empire of yours is going to leave behind when it's finally gone the way of all the others before it. Because all things come to an end sooner or later. And when it's all gone, will there be anyone to sit around a table like we
are now and discuss the wonders and mystery of how you saw the universe?"

Sitting back once more, Curnow let her digest that. And it was definitely not the most pleasant thing for Campbell to swallow. Why, the Empire would be around forever! Wouldn't it? They knew the mistakes made by those before them, they were correcting for that. They were always saying that they had isolated themselves, stuck to their own kind and only their own kind, because to mingle with other races was what led to the destruction of beings as a race. There would be contamination of the culture,
destruction of their purity.

But still, everything did die.

And her own Empire admitted that it had countless experiences in its past from which to draw on. So how would they succeed where the others failed?

What would scavengers, surveyors, archaeologists find of her Empire when it was so much dust and bone?

"Well, enough of that," said Curnow, interrupting her brooding. "Are you familiar enough with the species involved to handle negotiations?"

"Um, I think so, sir," Campbell said. She gave her head a slight shake to clear it. "There is one thing I was wondering, though. Our contact, the Agatar; what about his name? What do we call him? I never saw mention of a name in the brief on this trade or in the communications."

"Nothing, really." His ear flicked in an Enki version of a shrug. "They've never used names for their kind. They always know when they're being spoken to or about by another."

"Must make for interesting literature."

Curnow let out a barking laugh. "It might, were anyone able to translate it. That's sometimes as sticky a problem with live races as it is with dead ones. The Agatar have mastered enough Standard to allow them to trade and little more. I hear one university way out in one of the galactic arms on the other side of the galaxy has a standing reward to the first person able to conclusively translate Agatar."

"But their translator units..?"

"...Are made by either them or some race that does not want us to know about it. Perhaps the Ungala, perhaps not."

"That was another thing I was curious about. Who, or what, are the Ungala? Why can't they do this negotiation face to face, or at least with an encounter suit or suite?"

Curnow shrugged, the tips of his tails twitching with the motion. "No idea. They're a very secretive race. We know a little about them, though. First, that they are one of the oldest spacefaring races. And second, that no one has run across a world, station, or satellite that they call their own. No one in the
recorded history of all known worlds has definitely seen one. In fact, many think that the Ungala are a smoke screen, a front used by some aliens to get better trade deals."

Campbell blinked. "So no one knows? You're telling me that all this time they've been out here, and no one knows?"

"That's exactly what I'm telling you," Curnow replied. "But before you ask, you can usually tell if they're legit by what they buy. The list varies slightly, but what we have now looks real enough. Besides, they only use a small host of species as negotiators. Anyone else claiming to represent the Ungala is a complete liar."

"Captain... it's just...." Campbell sputtered to a halt. "That all seems a little much. In all known galactic history, no one has encountered one of that race for certain?"

"I wouldn't concern yourself too much," said Curnow, his ears laid back as he rubbed at his forehead. "My own suspicion is that the universe is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose. Whether the Ungala are real or the stuff of spacer legend isn't what's important. What
is important is that their business is real."

"So would they be some of your exotics customers, by chance?"

Curnow's yipping chuckle greeted her. "No, I'm afraid that they're your average, mundane customers. But they do tend to pay exceedingly well." He placed his paws on his knees and stood. "Let us not keep them any longer than we have to, shall we?"

Campbell stood also and they departed.


The double-sealed doors to her quarters slid open before her, the interior lights coming on automatically. Campbell immediately took off her uniform jacket and flung it towards the room's chair before collapsing into her bed. At least D'Amico didn't give her any flack about the cargo and was loudly rousting the crew to get to work offloading the stuff.

Despite the toll the day had taken on her, Campbell only lay there for a few minutes before turning onto her stomach and glaring at the computer interface on the other side of her room. What Curnow had said to her -- about how it all passes on, but to those who treated the pieces of the past not as sacred, but almost as trinkets to be examined and collected at will. She thought of the current races: those that engaged in open trade, those -- like hers -- that isolated themselves from the rest of the galaxy, and those that just plain hid from the rest of it. She again thought of what her kind would leave behind when they should finally pass from the face of the galaxy. And there seemed to be a good chance that none of it would be as fondly remembered as the material in her captain's computer banks. Art, song, literature, all was directed for the sole good of the Empire. All of it was controlled to ensure that no radical ideas crept into the mainstream. But almost invariably it was all material that praised the government and the military. Anything that would take people away from its awesome control was crushed.

But in spite of the totalitarian state that had ruled the Empire and the world where she grew up, Campbell knew of a few people who had practised the old religions, lived the old ways, in direct
disregard to the law enforced by the government. She remembered seeing once, when she was still quite young, an old couple taken into the centre of the city and executed. Her mother later told her that those people had been found to be practising believers of The Elders. Campbell could never remember the names of the beings her people called their gods, only that her mother called them The Elders. In her later years she came across historical records that said once magnificent temples had been constructed to these vanquished gods, that innumerable songs and poems were dedicated to them. But all were destroyed in the wake of the military takeover.

Campbell had never understood much of art, poetry, song, literature. It was not her place. Yet both the music Curnow had been listening to when she walked in, and that fragment of verse on the monitor, had stuck a chord with her, had caused something inside to hunger for more. She finally got up and went to the terminal.

Finding the database holding the pieces of dead worlds was simple enough. Finding the piece she desired was not. But in the end, she had managed to locate it. Folding her legs up upon the stool, resting her arms across, her head cradled in her hands, she read.

Songs of Dead Suns

a feather floats in the air as if it has somewhere it has to go,
we watch, wondering why each dance of mother's pretty things is so different
and beautifully various,
we wrap ourselves in this precious hive where a sense or two has been
elevated for just a speck of time,
for perhaps a twig to be broken from the wisdom tree, to keep under pillows
and over dreams
like songs of dead suns that have one last beam of hope, warmth and light to
impart upon
our blossomed minds, our callow hearts, our slipping souls
and if you stop and listen like we do by the river,
you can hear a slow trust in the music, a calm to shivers,
as if a beautiful lullaby singing that she will keep you warm, keep the yarn
between breaths strong,
and keep things for us to have
things of beauty : medicine for the bored eye : a smile for the tired
lachrymal : a feeling again like you're a child and not a thing in the whole
world could stop your thoughts from bursting like
in the great, grand heavens above.

The End

Copyright 2002 by Deranged Kitsune. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask the author for permission first. Thank you.

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