BCALLI, SINGER OF THE STRING
So there I was, mothering the eight hundred thousand planetesimals in my sector of the inner edge of the Öpik-Oort Cloud encasing the solar system. It took millennia to get them all out past the heliopause and stop their games of space crash and orbit-escape and set them spinning seriously. I almost lost my gravity out of frustration. But at last most stood watch for centuries at a time without giggling over the interstellar, the FTL commo we soldiers call the String.
Our mission: The third planet in this solar system was infected. Emerging by evolutionary accident, one of its species, called humans, carried war. We noncoms referred to them as germs and their laughable spacecraft as sperms and secretly didn’t deem them a threat. But Command did, and that’s what matters. We were deployed to keep the germs’ madness quarantined until they blew up their world.
My superior, First Sergeant 10-8 Ruufus, was constantly checking up on me. When God created Rock Force planetoids, She let us choose our own names. I don’t think 10-8 Ruufus thought it through.
He would comm me on the String. He was twice my size and a major hub in the network of guard posts. My section of the String would twang like this: “You sleeping, Ben?”
“Always awake, me, First Sergeant. On watch.”
“Keep up the good work. If the humans try to make a break through this sector, your team will take the brunt of it.”
“Aware of that, me, First Sergeant. Koo-riiit! But you know, the germs have only just begun walking upright.”
“Humans, Ben. You will refer to them as humans. And it’s never too early to prepare. We’ve got to be on our toes, Ben.”
His insults bristled my furred ice. As if I slept, me! I didn’t know what sleeping was, aside from being 10-8 Ruufus’s second greatest fear, the first being escape of infected beings under his watch.
As First Sergeant, he received intel the rest of us were not privy to. I suppose that’s how he learned about toes. One planetoid dared ask what toes were and was given duty in the Deep Dark, length unspecified. Whatever toes were, our sector stayed on them. If we had any.
And so we patrolled for transports into inter-system space, as humans slowly discovered hitting rocks together made pretty sparks.
Always on our toes and never sleeping, millennia passed quietly, as it does on watch, just an occasional comet shooting off toward the inner system. Then came a song. On the String.
It fluttered across my ice, tickling me like a solar wind. I thought it was the system’s star, emitting one of its occasional outbursts. But no.
10-8 Ruufus commed me. “You awake, Ben?”
“Always awake, me, First Sergeant. Always on watch.”
“What in the name of Our Lord Inseparable is going on in your sector?”
“Going on, First Sergeant?”
“Ta-tata-ta. Like that.”
“You heard it too?”
“I hear everything, me, that goes on in your sector!”
“I shall look into it posthaste, me, First Sergeant. Koo-riiit.” Then, out of feigned respect, I added, “Koo-roo.”
I asked around on our social comms. (10-8 Ruufus did not hear everything.)
No one had a clue.
The song returned. Like the warble and woof of the cosmos undulating along the String. Which of our trillions had sung?
It lasted only an instant, yet it burrowed through my ice and briefly heated my hardcore. A novel sensation, and not an altogether unpleasant one, Koo-riiit!
When the song ended, I turned it over and over in my mantle and minerals. I fought the sensation, for Command had given Us a Mission, and we must not falter in it for a single Planck unit. (I at times have blasphemously considered this an excessively stringent requirement.)
The third time the song returned, I knew it was no accident.
Always the same. Ta-tata-ta. Like that. With melody and harmony, rising, falling, and blending. It was mesmerizing. I began to feel time as integers rather than unremitting progress into the infinite future. Integers counting the wait between one song and the next. I found myself searching not for the enemy, but for the song.
I began to sing it in my mantle and minerals. Koo-roo! It flowed through my ice and stood up the frost that furred me. It spiraled down deep through my hardcore.
It was the dozenth singing when I located the source – Bcalli, a planetesimal just within the edge of my sector.
There was a feminine beauty to her unwavering orbit. The ultimate planetesimal. When she daylight-timed, pale though daylight is out here, the shadows fled from her mountains like a pulling away of cosmic dark, revealing her majesty. She was rugged for a planetesimal: peaks that spired into space like tines of a crown. The sun pinked her ice and, because her rotations were rapid, set it twinkling faster than that of the Quasars among Our Ladies the Stars. If I might be so bold as to say so, me.
The Cloud had been enough for me – our collective voice, thoughts, ingenuities, all that the Us has discerned or deduced. Now, a feeling of wondrous completeness set deep and full within my mantle. I had found something beside the orders of God and Command for which I might give up my existence.
Which was blasphemy. Punishable by destruction.
I worked up nerve and called her on an individualized channel to tell her I knew she was the singer of the String.
“Bcalli.” I thought that a great way to begin.
“Yes, Staff Sergeant?”
“Do you know the sun colors your ice?”
“Does it offend you or interfere with my duties, Staff Sergeant?”
“It heightens my watchfulness, Bcalli. I signaled, me, to thank you.”
“I am honored, me, Staff Sergeant. I live for the String.”
“You live, we all live, for the Lord Inseparable, Bcalli.”
“That goes without saying, Staff Sergeant. My soul belongs to the Lord Inseparable.”
My doubt slipped out. “If there is a soul, Bcalli.”
Hesitation. I thought the signal disrupted. During the interminable time that followed, I imagined her surprise at my offense. It was like putting Us on the level of the germs. Soulless. Without nuclei.
“Am I in line for promotion?” she asked. “Is this a test, Staff Sergeant?”
“Just thinking several thoughts, me. Why do we not protect the other planets of this system? We could have scouts in the Kuiper Belt, or even the asteroid belt.”
“Do you question my allegiance, Staff Sergeant?”
“Not at all. Just wondering, me, if Earthlings are infected, who allowed them to become so? If Our Lord Inseparable made this universe, why did She create one that allows infections to exist?”
“These words are nowhere in the Regulations.”
“And why do we stand posts when She could destroy the infection with a cosmic breath?”
Bcalli broke off the signal, violating protocol. The higher rank always ends comm first. But I think, me, she should be forgiven, given my blasphemy.
Time passed. Many integers of it. Then… First Sergeant 10-8 Ruufus was selected to comet.
10-8 Ruufus? I could abide him because my sector kept him out of our loop. The strings connecting him to his subordinates often produced static – this planetesimal would slow his signal, that planetoid would defray it.
But to comet? To ride the perpendicular? To sweep past the sun, shedding ice, ablaze, then, completing the elliptical, swoop past the sun again, sublimating in the ferocious heat, and, passing Earth, check to see if the germs were approaching capability to launch vectors of infection?
Was 10-8 Ruufus, given the negative status of his intellect, capable of mining intel at all?
Yet he was to comet, and I was promoted to first sergeant.
My new position gave me access to confidential information. None of which helped me with my existential questions, but at least I learned what toes and sleeping were.
And I would be rid of 10-8 Ruufus. For a few hundred thousand years, anyway. With any luck, on his return he would miscalculate and pass on out through the Cloud, into the Deep Dark.
He passed close to Bcalli on his journey toward the Sun.
And her ice pinked.
Comets have little control over the trajectory chosen for them, but with 10-8 Ruufus I’m not so sure. I think he altered an algorithm. Because on his return he would pass close to her again. The same trajectory, coming and going, even accounting for orbital progressions? It had no precedent.
The millennia passed quietly. As he neared the Cloud once more, 10-8 Ruufus refurred with ice, a returning hero. Bcalli pinked so brightly she looked rouged.
All in the Us heard her break protocol and signal him directly.
Yet that was not the worst part.
She sang to him.
Sang to 10-8 Ruufus!
I tried not to wish her separated from the Us, me. Tried not to wish him a new orbit ending in a close encounter with the Sun. But something cooked in my core and cracked my ice. I reveled when Command took out its ire on 10-8 Ruufus, extending his elliptical and sending him spiraling out of the Öpik-Oort and into endless, friendless Dark. By the time 10-8 Ruufus returned, there likely would be no Sun in this system to circumnavigate.
Bcalli stopped singing.
The Sun still pinked her peaks as she rotated, but there seemed no joy in it. Color rolled across her and was gone. Was it only I who saw it? My hints to others brought no answer.
My mind went cold in my mantle and circled down among my minerals. I stopped chatting on social channels. I stopped worrying about cosmic dust. The solar winds became nuisance rather than caress.
Why, I wondered, had Command extended 10-8 Ruufus’s elliptical to near the point of eternal exile, when Bcalli was at fault? Was someone in Command as enthralled with her as I and wanted to keep 10-8 Ruufus away?
The answer came soon enough.
The germs had launched a craft. 10-8 Ruufus had passed it, oblivious to its existence. Our optics and heat sensors spotted no germs aboard, but who knew how many infectious objects the spermcraft might contain!
The comm came alive with chatter about what a vector of disease the transport might be. And about what a fool 10-8 Ruufus surely was – all this waiting, and he had passed the first breakout attempt without sensing it.
Voyager One, as the germs called it, approached slowly. A tail was evident, the head was parabolic, and two shorter tails trailed the head. Claws, Command wondered, to help it grab onto some hapless planetesimal and ride it out into the Deep Dark?
My sector went on alert. We drilled every scenario.
When the thing neared the inner ring of the Cloud, Bcalli again sang.
And faster, the closer the danger drew.
Ta-tata-ta. Ta-tata-ta. Ta-tata-ta. Ta-tata-ta.
Ta-tata-ta ta-tata-ta ta-tata-ta ta-tata-ta.
Her spires glistened in the Sun. Her pinks pulsed. Shadows spilled from valleys as though bowls and valleys tipped at acute angles. My core heated so much my ice sheared off and flung into space. I shut down as much comm as I could, trying to block her voice, but her singing pervaded my mind even as pieces of my mantle sheared off and floated away.
Then Transcription deciphered the song.
Come to me darling, come to me darling, come to me darling, come.
Voyager was headed toward Bcalli. And Bcalli was edging towards Voyager.
It was not First Sergeant 10-8 Ruufus she craved! Nor the comets, which many of us in the Us hoped to become. Bcalli craved whatever had been close to the Sun. She sang not for me, or 10-8 Ruufus, or the Öpik-Oort. Or Command. Or God. She sang for that distant light she wished would melt her ice and warm her core.
She was as heartless as 10-8 Ruufus was stupid. She betrayed Us. Betrayed Command. Betrayed Our Lord Inseparable. Betrayed me.
As the craft neared, Bcalli’s pink bloomed like a cosmic blossom. Her song winged upon the String and melded deeper, deeper, with my mind. God, or Command, would wring wrath on her – crush her to dust or fling her out into the Deep Dark, where 10-8 Ruufus now spun – alone, forlorn, forgotten. But her song kept on:
I felt her alive and adrive in me. I refined and redesigned. I could not lose her. Not just for her song. For her. She would be punished. Demoted. But I vowed not to see her severed from the String or cut from the Cloud.
Had 10-8 Ruufus done his job, we would have had time to proceed according to protocol. Alter orbits an iota here, an arcsecond there, and one or some of us would intercept the intruder. But no time now – the spermcraft’s trajectory would pass it close to Bcalli and send it on through the Cloud, missing every guard post.
What to do what to do what to do.
An idea arose in my core so powerful, so pristine, that, reaching my mantle, it defied my gravity and threatened to lift like a great cloud of helium off into space.
What if I could persuade the craft to alter course and collide with one of us?
I would send Bcalli’s song.
As first sergeant, I could access a special section of the String that Command says creates a call for help to the cosmos. A cry to Our Lord Inseparable.
I would aim that special section at the intruder. Hopefully, controls in the ship or germs back on Earth would rise to the precarious position of being on toes and alter course. How superb and sublime! I’d entice the threat into a crash course, and like any good soldier, take the hit.
I sent Bcalli’s song to Voyager and to Earth over the String, and a voice soon came back.
“You’re calling, Bcalli?”
She called me Ben. I should berate or report her, but I rejoiced. She called me Ben.
I expected her to be angry. Instead, her voice was cool, calm. “Your idea won’t work, First Sergeant Ben B Three Divisible.”
“What won’t work?”
“If I may be so bold, me, First Sergeant. You know well what idea. Sending my song.”
“I did that?”
“You did that.”
“And you know that how?” I never was good at lying.
“The entire Cloud knows it, First Sergeant. You were indiscreet.”
Does indiscreet mean stupid? I suspected her vocabulary was much larger than mine.
“I’m calling so the intruder collides with me,” I said.
“Why not crash it into me, First Sergeant?”
“I’m a galactic, professional soldier. It’s my duty as a planetoid. You’re a conscript. A local.”
“Even conscripts can serve God and Command.”
I hesitated. Finally, I said, “I didn’t want to…”
“Didn’t want to what, Ben?” she asked softly.
Her voice hummed through my ice. And she’d called me Ben again. I couldn’t hold back. “I didn’t want to see you destroyed, Bcalli.”
There followed such a long silence I wondered if she’d broken off comm.
“How sweet,” she said.
Sweet. Whatever that was, she made it sound delicious.
“You’ll need a clearer transmission, something humans will not mistake for ice cracking or fluctuations in the solar wind. If I may be so bold, me, First Sergeant, a song sung by two of us, a duet, would help dispel misinterpretation.”
Voyager turned out to be infection free – and intact after it had propelled itself into me.
As I’d hoped, it had changed course. I felt no fear as it filled my scanners. Eventually it was a few hundred kilometers from my surface and responding to the pull of my gravity.
It slowed little. There was too much velocity. It would hit me hard.
We both would explode into cosmic dust.
I tensed my ice and my rock interior, hummed Bcalli’s song a final time, and awaited the collision.
It never happened.
Some force swept up Voyager and set it down deftly on a flat space between my mountains.
Who had done that? Most planetesimals thought Command had, though the techies among them scoffed and insisted the vessel had slowed and turned itself with self-evolving technology. But we noncom planetoids, having witnessed miracles during duty in other systems, knew it was Our Lord Inseparable, She of the Orbit Divine.
Command seemed to have a change of heart after that, or a change of orders. There was no disciplinary action. In fact, within only a few hundred years, Bcalli and I were chosen to comet – together. When we came close to Earth, I followed orders and loosed Voyager from my surface and let it orbit its original sphere.
Within the craft’s little computer system Command had implanted Bcalli’s song and an information packet showing the germs their solar system was surrounded by an armed and sentient Öpik-Oort Cloud that could destroy Earth at will. Command also made Balli’s song a key algorithm to precious information – nonmilitary, obviously, they were still a violent species – that would enable humans to transform, to rid themselves of infection. If they could decipher the code and work to make it happen. Then a peaceful technology component would release.
I expected only smoking ruins when Bcalli and I returned centuries later.
Instead, they greeted us with –
I asked Command’s permission, and Bcalli responded with –
She and the germs, no, I guess, the humans, sang to one another as long as possible as we voyaged to and then through the Öpik-Oort Cloud, during which time we transmitted our reports. Koo-riiit.
I left out what I have learned in my earlier deployments: That it was my impression there are two types of beings in the universe. Those without souls, and those who stand guard.
We entered the Deep Dark filled with wonders, and Bcalli revealed a song meant only for her and me.
Come with me darling, come with me darling, come with me darling, come.
“Bcalli, Singer of the String”, © George Guthridge. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, January 31, 2023
Dr. George Guthridge has twice been internationally lauded for his work on indigenous cognition and for his successes teaching Alaska Native youth. He has taught writing and writing pedagogy full-time for 48 years, including 39 on the university level. In 1994 he was named as one of the top 78 teachers in America. He has sold six novels and about 70 stories, including 22 to Amazing, Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF, and has twice been a Nebula finalist and once a Hugo finalist. He and coauthor Janet Berliner won the Bram Stoker Award for the year’s best horror novel. He is from rural Alaska but lives in rural Thailand and works in northern Italy.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann, using stock from NASA.
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