Enchanted Spark

Writing Inspirations
Congratulations to our June Winner Nolan Archer!

The Performance

by Nolan Archer

The bomb was planted, and all Ignace could do now was stand still and eat hors d'oeuvres. He kept himself solitary but amongst the crowd of the vast reception hall, conspicuously distant but still a member of the delegation. His eyes fell on gold statues of Roman deities and elaborate chandeliers grown from crystal. It was enough unchecked opulence to make the thin slices of bruschetta rise in his throat. Along the wall were windows out into space, two of the other Jovian moons easily visible. There was even a Balcony of the Heavens, a bubble constructed entirely of transparent material. Stepping onto it was like stepping out into nothingness, losing one’s self among the stars and the planets.

The only thing at odds with the extravagance of the setting was the centerpiece: A large, circular object covered in a grey shroud. He had mingled earlier in the evening, trying to find out what lay underneath. Some said it was precious metals and gems, a peace offering to the squids. Others said it was some new kind of medical technology. Nobody knew for sure.

The reception was taking place in the Versailles wing of the Lux in Tenebris, an old luxury resort orbiting Europa, reactivated for the congress. There were three other wings, all themed after palaces on Earth. It hadn't been used in over five decades, since before the Contact War had even started. Its position away from prying eyes, and its robust facilities, had made it a logical candidate to hold a peace conference. They had worked overtime to get it working, although there was still a twinge of staleness to the recirculated air. The historical irony of a peace conference being held in good faith among a replica of the Hall of Mirrors appeared to elude everyone. Although some guests could be forgiven, if only for ignorance of humanity's past.

Ignace stared at the Lightwalker ambassador, trying to hide his disgust. Its pale white limbs seemed jointless for the moment, but in motion they would snap in and out of place with a sickening crunch. It had no face, nothing to gauge emotion from, just a forward-facing sensory pod, and strange orifices that opened and closed independently of one another. The aliens had no ears, no way to detect sounds. They communicated to humans through screens that converted light patterns into sounds. Humans, likewise, had small orbs on their shoulders that swirled with colour as they spoke. They were called squids in military circles and in the refugee camps, though truthfully they resembled no terrestrial creature.

They wore clothes, at least. Gaudy, awful things so colourful they almost hurt to look at. It made them look like clowns, or comical caricatures of old-world aristocrats. Their ambassador was the brightest of all, wearing a dozen reflective baubles and ornaments on his bright red cloak. It conversed with its human counterpart, a pudgy man whose name had come to be conflated with the alien collaborators: Kolstads. People who thought that humanity should give in to the aliens. Just...roll over, and surrender.

Ignace thought of all the people killed by the squids’ devastating weapons. Planet-killers were little more than rocks with engines, but their effectiveness was unmistakable. Fragile colonies turned to cinder by a towering fireball brighter than the sun, earthquakes exceeding the Richter Scale, and choking plumes of dust and ash shrouding sky and killing photosynthetic life. The planet would be effectively uninhabitable until the smoke dissipated, slowly shrinking humanity’s grasp on the cosmos.

But for every planet the squids had ruined, humans had ruined another. Lightwalker worlds were bitter things. Cold, damp, with thick carpets of motile vegetation. They lived in rural cities, complexes that spanned hundreds of kilometres of sparsely populated farms, factories, and communal living quarters. All vapourized in moments when a fastball launched from the Oort Cloud slammed into the crust.

The missile that waited out in space had nowhere near that destructive capacity. It was a relic of a simpler time, when human being fought human being, and the greatest destructive capacity lay in the splitting of atoms. Ignace had never met the captain of the modified orbital tug that would launch the device. Only that she had lost her whole family when the Lightwalkers had hit the Tau Ceti system, and that she had picked this assignment knowing full well the consequences if she were caught.

His attention was caught by the clinking of glass. Kolstad was tapping his sparkling wine with a spoon, trying to obtain the attention of the room. The display in Ignace's eye said he had half an hour left. Half an hour before everyone on this station, including him, would be dead.

"In commemoration of this new beginning," the human ambassador began, "The Lightwalker delegation has prepared a performance." He pointed his hand palm up to the door, where another alien entered the hall. This one wore no finery, no ostentatious colours. Its body was wrapped in a simple white cloak. Humans and aliens stepped out of its way. The chatter had fallen to scattered whispering.

Its upper forelimbs struck out and threw the large dull grey shroud off the object in the center of the room. It wasn't gold, or technology. It was an instrument. A cylindrical dais lined with piano keys, installed in paneling made of what appeared to be orange wood. Above the dais, holographic emitters hung from an almost organic web of tendrils.

"A team of artists and engineers from both our cultures have worked tirelessly to create this. It has no name, yet, but it’s a combination of musical instruments from Earth and Forest of Plenty. I'd explain how it works, but I think it would be best if the Artist shows us."

It started with a single tone, echoing from both the instrument and a dozen hidden speakers. Above the keys, a puddle of blue light flashed into existence, only to disappear after a moment. Another tone, lower than the first, was accompanied by an orange colour. The pace picked up, and slowly a melody began to emerge. At the same time, the colours above the instrument began to blur together. They swirled and pooled, separated and mingled.

As the artist moved, its slender limbs began to glow. Ignace never knew that the aliens were bioluminescent, so it shocked him momentarily. But it made sense. How else could their race have communicated before they had developed technology? As if to punctuate the point, the white cloak that had wrapped the Artist's body fell away, and its whole body turned an iridescent green. Its strange appendages began to sway, and its legs soon joined its arm-equivalents.

A dance!

The dancer had an ethereal grace, like water in a gentle breeze, moving along the dais of keys, digits sweeping across and tapping methodically, gently, and without hesitation. The colours of its body slowly fell in sync to the musical apparatus, and for a moment, the Artist and the instrument were one.

The music itself was nothing like he had ever heard. It sounded like piano, yes, but its tempo was unmoored, switching meter and scale with little hesitation or warning. But there was something in the song, something that came through the visual display as well. It was…sadness. Not just sadness. It was sorrowful, deeply and utterly. This was a dirge. A funeral march for the millions killed by both sides. Yes, he was sure of it. It was an expression of pure regret. One so captivating that he forgot where he was, and what he was about to do.

Eventually, the Artist finished its dance. The lights faded, and the music followed. His eyes watered, and he swept his sleeve across his face. It was impossible to him, that something so beautiful could come from something so...

The bomb. He was here to kill them all. The realization spiked his adrenalin. The countdown in his eye had reached its final minute. Somehow during the performance, half an hour had passed. He got a horrible feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. What if he was wrong? What if this peace conference could end the war?

He could run for it, Ignace thought. Run to the maintenance junction, disable the lock he'd put on the door, burn through the sealant and key in the emergency abort code. He shook his head. Not enough time. What's done is done.

He stepped onto the transparent balcony, feet seemingly floating in space. He looked into the dark, trying to see the glimmer of a metal fuselage against the field of starlight. But it was impossible.

The station shook, and the sound of alarms blocked out whatever further speech the human ambassador had tried to give. The bomb had gone off early. The captain of the missile craft must have gotten impatient and triggered the remote detonation fail-safe.

The shield, normally an invisible barrier surrounding the station, began to flicker. The gangling stalks that projected it outward visibly lost power, the blue haze that illuminated them against the dark fading until there was nothing but the black of space.

And against this darkness, a single star exploded. It burned a trail from a low orbit of Io, streaking towards the station at fifteen kilometres per second. It carried a yield of about twelve megatons. Something that small would bounce harmlessly off a shielded station. But without a shield generator, Lux in Tenebris would be incinerated. And then the war would resume. One species would die, or both. Nobody else would ever hear that instrument again. He wept.

The last thing Ignace saw was light.


Nolan Archer is a student in the icy wastes of Canada. In his spare time he writes, hoping to one day see his book in a musty old pile on someone's shelf.


1 comment | Add a New Comment
1. Holly Jennings | July 12, 2014 at 08:14 PM EDT

Amazing first line, fellow Canadian. Loved your story. Keep writing!

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