By THOMAS STEVENSON
For years I’d wondered what lanky, bug-eyed Pyrrhen actually did for a living. We were about the same age but had first met as adults, after he moved over from New Kuala Lumpur. Once he tried explaining his field of expertise, but I’d become lost in jargon. All I could gather was that it involved plenty of mountain hopping and occasionally borrowing a hydrogen balloon. As it turned out, he was a curator of ancient musical instruments, and upon this day his enormous balloon had a special delivery for us.
“Yip yip, just hold it there. That’s good! Hand underneath this bit, it’ll be heavy.” Since my parents were preoccupied with their own jobs, I was out helping this man offload his cargo. The object was about the size of a table but had the mass of a church. A handful of onlookers looked on and, I imagined, tried to justify the need for the ten-metre-high balloon whose deck it was strapped to. Extravagant though they looked, hydrogen balloons were the only way to carry such weight between mountains.
“Annnnnnnnnd… LIFT!” Pyrrhen and I strained with our wire-thin arms, but we managed to get the object off the deck and set it down on the grass. Having regained its buoyancy, the balloon began to drift downhill, but my boot was enough to stop its meandering.
“Is it okay just to sit like that?” I asked.
“Yes sir, it has a protective layer of Vaa-Neesh on the outside to repel water. Only other thing to watch out for would be the sound. You know how much this place echoes.” With the church de-spired, there hadn’t been much echoing lately. “I suppose I’ll leave you to it. Yip, yip!”
Pyrrhen left for his den of mysterious noise-makers, humming like a bird, while I went to retrieve Chiara. We were in early morning and she hadn’t yet come outside. The day before, some debris had fallen on the shop; the fragments of a boulder that split off the bottom of New Honolulu. What goes down comes back, you know. She’d been understandably rattled, but I hoped her present would bring her around.
Bringing her to the shop door was easy enough. “Oh, Chiaaaaara! There’s something you should see.”
Without a word, she strode past the Regulars queued up inside and gazed imploringly.
“Close your eyes,” I ordered.
“Please? It’s meant to be a surprise until the last second.” Normally folks were very accepting of surprises, but Chiara looked at me like I was trying to feed her a tainted whiskerbean.
“Can’t you just tell me what it is?”
“But the surprise-“
“Come on, Kopra. What is it you want to show me?” Today she was in one of those hard-to-gauge moods. I couldn’t tell if she was curious or just really annoyed to be pulled away from her reading or writing, or whatever else women do when they’re alone.
I stepped out of the doorway so she could see, then pointed at the special delivery sitting on the ground. Her reaction was immediate. “OH MY GOD, is that a piano? A real one?!” What followed was a sound like an overheating fuel cell, you know, when it gets so hot steam bursts out. Then I found I couldn’t breathe as her arms gripped me like an orca’s jaws. Sometimes I was more afraid of Chiara when she was happy than when she was anxious.
There I felt a completely different woman to the one I’d fastened a jetpack to the previous week. When she finally broke off the embrace, she skipped – and I mean skipped, feet leaving the ground and everything – to the piano and laid her hands upon it. She cried, “I never thought I’d see one of these again. This is the best day EVER!!”
For a moment I was fighting for air, but I managed to follow her. “Before you get too carried away,” I spluttered, “the man who dropped it off wanted me to tell you that it’s, er… ‘out of toon.’ Do you know what he means?”
“Out of tune,” she corrected. “That’s no problem, I like tuning! It’s so therapeutic.” Chiara’s fingers traced circular patterns across the flat, wooden top of the piano. Her movements were slow and deliberate, but I could hear no sound that I’d call music. Then it hit me; she wasn’t playing the thing yet, she was falling in love with it. Eww.
When she lifted a panel on the front and clicked it into position, I started to understand the workings of this instrument. An array of multi-coloured cuboids was revealed, each labelled with a letter. Their alphabet was a curious one, as the letters only went between B and H, then repeated. “There aren’t even any scratches on the keys,” said Chiara, her smile growing even more lustrous. At this point I wondered if her head would actually explode from excitement.
Tapping one of the keys labelled “C” produced a tone much like a knock on polished granite. With one finger, she twiddled the key so it bounced up and down rapidly, sustaining the note. It wasn’t like any music I’d ever heard, but it wasn’t ear vomit either. My friend tried some of the neighbouring keys, then said, “He wasn’t kidding, it’s almost a whole octave out of tune. Awesome!”
For just a second her grin flickered, like a light globe questioning its own integrity. She turned back toward me. “Did you bring it all the way here just for me?”
“Technically no, my pal Pyrrhen did. He’s our resident music expert, you’d really like him!” That was a guess; Pyrrhen was very shy and reclusive, which is why he hadn’t hung around to meet Chiara. “And it was Father who suggested I talk to him about getting it. Team effort, you could say it was.”
“You’re the only part of the ‘team’ that’s here, so…” Again I was in a vice and again I hadn’t expected it. This was a whole new iteration of the cuddly mood.
Much as I liked hugs, I valued breathing just as much. “My lungs…” I thought. We broke it off, Chiara giggling pleasantly.
Tools were the next priority – tools to return the piano to working order. After some prompting, she gave me a list of equipment typically used for this tuning task. By good fortune, they were all things I’d heard of, with the exception of some two-pronged fork. Despite being the son of the majestically imaginative Lead Engineer, I struggled to envision the use of a redundant piece of cutlery in fixing pianos.
The work took about an hour and a half of key-tapping, screw-driving and spring-dampening. While the expert did her thing, I endeavoured to do something I was competent at. For a while I stayed indoors, haggling with customers and helping Mother repair a torn flight suit. By all accounts, its wearer had been taken to the infirmary after scraping himself against New Honolulu’s peak. He would be okay. The nurses there were very good with skin grafts.
Before long there was a lull, by which I mean one Puddle-maker to serve between the three of us. I therefore returned to Chiara with a bowl of cornplant extract, hoping she was hungry. She wasn’t. All this time she’d been ducking around the piano, cramped underneath it one minute, stretching out over the keys the next. Her body and limbs made all kinds of interesting angles as she scuttled about. Finally she tried the keys again, then gave a satisfied nod and a sharp, “Done.”
“’Tis a fine thing, lassie. What’s it do?” Only Rutalis scratched the pinna like that and sure enough, when I looked behind, the hook-handed man was approaching. His single eye flicked rapidly between Chiara and I.
She replied, “Plays music. It’s very old though… probably not the kind of music you would like.” Her speech slowed down even in that one sentence. Chiara was trying not to look at Rutalis’ disfigured face or the group of teenagers watching from behind him. Instead she looked at me, then down at her bootlaces. Was she afraid to play?
“Hey,” I murmured, “we’d all love to hear it. Please, will you show us your talent?”
For a second she frowned as if to say, “What talent?” But then her face relaxed and she nodded.
“Tha’s the spirit! Le’see watcha got, eh? What’re ye goin’ to play fer us?”
Chiara scratched her chin and said, “Something I hope you’ll like!” Her fingers returned to the piano keys as Rutalis and I knelt on the grass beside her. I still clutched that bowl of veggie matter – maybe she’d need it after the performance. My hopes were high. I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t every day you got to hear old Earth tunes.
Those teenagers on the path had been chatting away merrily, but they quietened when Chiara cleared her throat and pressed five keys in quick succession. A brief pause, then the song began proper. There was a soft, resonating and regular rhythm. I had no idea what to make of it at first. Nothing in the Void sounded like this. It wasn’t like the metallic tinking of our machines or the gilded rapping I normally associated with a giant wooden box. This was truly an alien sound – but it was soothing and I liked it.
Then she began to sing. I’d never heard Chiara’s singing voice before, as she hadn’t yet participated in a hymn at church. It made the tune so much more pleasing. Once my ears had adjusted to her slow, orotund words, I could make out the lyrics perfectly. Hope seemed to be the theme of the song – hope for the future, that everything would turn out okay, no matter how bad things grew. Very appropriate, given what was going on in New Auckland. Even if we had nothing else, we’d always have hope.
As the performance continued, more and more locals gathered behind us. When I looked over at Rutalis I saw he’d closed his eyes, so I did the same. With no visual stimulus I could let the sound wash through me like water through a pipe. Chiara heightened her pitch and worked harder at the keys, the tune becoming louder and more vigorous. It made me think of the water spilling into a tank and splashing everywhere, an increasingly turbulent cascade. Faster and faster she made the beat. Faster and faster the current in my mind flowed, until her voice was lost in a bubbling pool of pure energy.
Suddenly, it stopped. My eyes opened just before Chiara played the final notes. Somebody nearby applauded. I turned around; it was Father. How long had he been there, smiling at us from the shop door? It didn’t matter. One by one, the others gathered started clapping in turn, a supreme gesture of honour. Rutalis and I joined in, creating a much more vociferous noise that echoed across the mountain.
Chiara herself finally realised how many people there were. She blushed and waved timidly at the crowd, now totalling almost forty. In a breathy whisper she asked me, “How did I do?”
“Are you kidding? It was brilliant! Different, but brilliant.” I meant that; it had been quite an experience. Recalling the cornplant extract I carried, I held the bowl up to her. “Need some energy? It’s about lunch time now.”
“Ummm… I’m fine, thank you.” Perhaps she found the look of the viscous, yellowish extract unappealing. I offered it to Rutalis and he gratefully accepted, balancing the bowl on his hooks and drinking straight from its rim.
One of those teenagers, a befreckled boy, called out to us: “Sooooooo… any chance of another one?” That got a lot of enthusiastic responses, so I encouraged Chiara to play us another song. She didn’t take much convincing.
By the time the impromptu concert was over, we’d been treated to twelve rapturous melodies, each a centuries-old classic. Even Vicar Duval showed up to the performance – he should probably have been working on his next sermon. It left Chiara more than hungry. Next time I displayed a portion of cornplant, she wolfed it down and asked for seconds!
Our chronometer had ticked along to the end of another week, the onset of the natural night. As the sky turned violet, my parents, Chiara and I hurried underground and shared in a prayer. We prayed for the safety of our friends in New Auckland and the end of their Lockdown state. We talked briefly about the events of the week. Resistance was pointless against the hugs Chiara delivered every time somebody mentioned the piano. Finally we ate a few crackers and crawled into our hammocks, drowsy and very much satisfied.
Satisfied, except for Father. When I entered the sleeping chamber, he was alone in there. By this time there was almost no light reaching inside, so I struggled to make out his horizontal form. However, my eyes were quick to adjust. I could make out a hand covering his eyes and his mouth twisted into some kind of snarl. This wasn’t the look of a contented man. More like somebody with a headache bigger than the head could handle.
“Is something bothering you, Father?”
“Oh no… it’s okay!” He was a horrible liar. “Good night son.”
“Father, please. You can tell me.”
Twisting around in the darkness, he faced me and said, “Everything will be okay, don’t worry. I just hope we get a peaceful night, that’s all.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing… nothing at all.” He paused, letting out something between a sigh and a moan. Then, “You know I love you, don’t you son?”
“Good God, you sound like you’re on your deathbed. Is it cancer? Dekovirus? Temporal dissociation?”
Father chuckled. That was a relief to hear. “Sorry, I guess I’m just in that kind of a mood. Let’s be off to sleep now, shall we?”
“Sure thing.” We were still alone. Mother and Chiara were still doing mysterious woman stuff in the neighbouring room. I took the chance and whispered, “I love you too, Father.”
“I know. Good night!”
It was a good night for about three hours. I knew this because I slept with my face right in front of the chronometer, hanging below Mother. When I woke up my first instinct was to hit a button on the top, which made its face light up neon green. My ears were being assaulted by a weird, dissonant noise from upstairs. What horrid instruments of the Devil could possibly produce such an uproar? Such a disturbance I’d heard once in my life, but it took me a moment to deduce the source.
It wasn’t the Devil. It was an alarm.
Not just any alarm, either. We had a direct connection to the one place in New Honolulu worth protecting – the Guild of Engineers. Somebody or something was trying to force their door open. That was definitely something to be alarmed by.
Mother and Chiara were also stirring, but it took some shaking to wake Father. Soon he snapped to attention, seizing his walking stick and hobbling through the dark, not even bothering to put his boots on. We did our best to follow him up and into the shop. It was difficult getting through the trapdoor, but once we penetrated the upstairs space, the going was easier.
Father had already wrenched the shop door open and we could hear his feet swishing through grass. There was a faint, blue light outside. Somebody else was rushing to the basalt peak and had found a portable globe to illuminate the way. Upon reaching the path, I saw Duval. “How inconsiderate,” he was muttering. He wore an exquisite robe made of iridescent silk that looked somewhat regal, but was actually just his dressing gown.
More folks came running toward us as we approached the site of disruption. Everybody within earshot was there. Somehow Gafra found me even as I failed to hear the prangs from her heel springs. That hideous siren grew louder and louder. The one at home was just a relay specifically to alert Father to any breach. From the tunnel leading to the engineers’ den came a far more piercing alarm to tear through the shadows and tell us trouble was afoot.
Those at the front of the growing mass stopped in their tracks and froze. As I sprinted toward them, my heart hammering and my legs burning, I came to understand what had happened. Three hours between nightfall and being woken up. What was significant about three hours? It was the amount of time needed to fly between New Auckland and New Honolulu. There could be no doubt. We were seals and the orcas had come.
The Order of Silence.
Just as Gafra and I crashed into the folks gawking at the top of the hill, a harsh red light flooded our eyes. More lights flashed on all around the peak. We were momentarily blinded, but I didn’t need to see to know what the light was coming from. There were screams and shrieks all around. Somebody else knocked me over and I nearly tripped up Chiara. Chaos subsided though, as our vision adapted to the crimson wash.
Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. To my relief, no explosions either. What was happening? I looked around and immediately wished I hadn’t. An army stood assembled before us. Not an army like the massive, glacier-tramping battalions you read about in historical books, but an army nonetheless. Our enemies were hooded and wearing various dark shades of brown, grey and green. However, I was far more offended by the coilguns they aimed at us.
No longer inert chunks of metal and plastic, the guns glowed orange in their hands. Some of the invaders had tied ropes and cords around their weapons to sling them over their shoulders. As I stared in shock at them, I tried to remember the facts Father had provided. Capacitor-powered. Able to shoot projectiles at six times the speed of sound. And for reinforcements, they had jet-propelled “spaceships” capable of reducing buildings to rock dust.
Yep, we were pretty stuffed at this point.
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