Doctor Sedric Ah-Val reached for the comm. switch on the console before him, opening a channel to the other vehicles of the small convoy.
"OK, we're far enough. Everybody stop. We'll make camp here." The four massive all-terrain rovers pulled to a stop, a hundred feet from the edge of the tree line. Men and women hopped out of their vehicles, hastily unloading equipment. Dr. Ah-Val climbed down from the lead rover onto the soft soil still moist with the morning dew, watching the bustle of activity around him.
Convincing the University to fund the research expedition to the Zakku-Al-Rada Forest on New Gideon had taken five years of his life and far more work than he'd ever dreamed of, but now he was here at last. He, his group of students, and a small attachment of military personnel would be the first to humans to ever explore the strange and mystical place.
"Zakku-Al-Rada," the name given to this forest by the now extinct race known as the Shreal, roughly translated to "The Winds of the Fey". It was said that another race never encountered by humanity existed within this place, never emerging from within the boundaries of the trees, though New Gideon had been colonized by mankind for over three decades. It was Dr. Ah-Val's hope to find these beings and reach out to them. If the legends were true, the Fey were far more advanced than the Shreal had been, even in their last days before the war with the human colonists forced them into extinction. The Fey could perhaps be persuaded to co exist peacefully with humanity, and teach mankind how to channel the meta-energy, ripe for the taking all throughout the atmosphere of the world. Thus, ending the search for a new and desperately needed source of power for the Earth Government and the whole of the Terran Republic.
A young student, Robert, wearing the standard grey university issued uniform approached the doctor smiling. "We should have base camp set up with the hour, sir," he informed Dr. Ah-Val.
Sergeant Wilkins, a burly and hardened man not much older than Ah Val himself, followed in Robert's footsteps. Ah-Val noted the sergeant's loathing expression, hating EarthGov for insisting the military be involved with a research expedition such as this.
"My men are at your disposal, Doc. How far inside the tree line do you want the sensor set up?" the sergeant asked.
"No more than a mile for now," Ah-Val answered, staring at the high powered combat rifle the soldier carried. "Sergeant, is it really necessary to carry those things around in broad daylight. If the Fey are watching us they may consider it to be a hostile act. I have no intentions of starting a second genocidal war on New Gideon."
The sergeant shrugged, "Doc, for all we know, these 'Fey' of yours may be the worst threat ever faced by the Terran Republic. My reports say that the Shreal never came to this place. They were terrified of it and if the Fey can truly harness the meta-energy of the planet, they would have the resources to drive us from New Gideon forever. I'm here to make sure that doesn't happen."
"Oh really, Sergeant? And how would you do that?"
"Look, I'm here to protect your pathetic little group of bookworms but if it came down to it, Doc, I'm willing to sacrifice us all. EarthGov. sent along a ten Mega-ton nuclear device to burn the forest to the ground with if these Fey turn out to be like the Shreal, and you better be damn sure from the get-go, I'll use it if I have to."
Sergeant Wilkins stormed away toward his squad of Marines, to begin placing the sensor modules inside the tree line. Ah-Val gritted his teeth trying to control his rage at the man's ignorant view of Zakku-Al-Rada supposing a certain degree of stupidity was a prerequisite for being an officer in the Corps. Putting his thoughts aside, Ah-Val hurried to help his students assemble the control terminal of the remote sensor units.
The day passed uneventfully, enviro-tents were erected and top of the line military surveillance sensors, capable of recording images in numerous spectrums, as well as motion detectors were scattered throughout the outer reaches of the forest and tree line itself. Ah-Val's six graduate students chatted among themselves excitedly as night fell, sipping coffee and building a campfire, though it was not needed. The weather was warm and New Gideon's trio of moons provided ample light, casting long shadows across the camp.
Wilkins and his group of five Marines kept to themselves, cleaning their weapons and watching the trees nervously. An air of paranoia hung about their section of the camp. Wilkins assigned two of the soldiers to keep watch. They paced the perimeter of the encampment alert and seemingly anxious to blow the hell out of anything that poked its head out of the trees.
Nights on New Gideon were much longer than the Earth standard, lasting a full eighteen hours, and as the night dragged on the students' excitement began to wane. At some point, each cast a longing glance at Ah-Val, hoping the doctor would hurry the hell up and do what he had promised them he would.
Finally, Sedric closed the copy of The Myths of Ancient Ireland and rose from where he leaned against the lead rover's tracks. He rubbed his back, as he stared up at the stars. A deep and profound silence fell over the camp, as everyone gathered watched him make his way toward the sensor control module. When he reached the device he flipped open a panel Wilkins had never seen before. A tiny replica of a Shreal Xenoox slid outward. A Xenoox was very similar in design to an earth piano in the shape of its keys; though its sound was so alien earlier human scholars had taken years to recognize it for what it was.
Wilkins leapt to his feet, rifle in hand, hurrying to stand beside the doctor. "What the hell are you doing, Doc?" he asked angrily.
Ah-Val turned calmly to confront the man, "My job, Sergeant."
Ah-Val's fingers stroked the keys gently as an eerie series of chords erupted from the sensor modules inside the forest.
The other soldiers were on their feet and the perimeter guards withdrew closer into the camp. "Jesus Christ," Wilkins muttered.
"I took the liberty of modifying your equipment, Sergeant," Ah-Val explained as he played. "We needed a way to draw the Fey out and a week before we left Earth I happened to stumble upon an old Shreal text which described this melody. You were wrong when you said the Shreal never came here, Sergeant. They made a kind of religious pilgrimage to Zakku Al-Rada once every ten years and this piece of music was an integral part of the ceremonies they performed on this very spot."
As Ah-Val continued to play and Wilkins stood at his side horrified, a gentle breeze seemed to start from nowhere, blowing through the leaves of the trees, making them shimmer and dance, reflecting the moonlight like millions of tiny prisms. The gathered students cheered, in awe of the beauty cast upon the night.
Wilkins slapped Ah-Val's hands away from the keys. "This was not part of the plan."
"Sergeant, our goal is to contact the Fey is it not? Unless you plan to reduce the chances of an encounter to random luck, I suggest you let me continue."
Wilkins brooded for a moment before replying, "no one authorized you to tamper with the equipment. I'll need to inform EarthGov of what you've done here. If they approve, then you can continue tomorrow night."
"But . . . "
"No buts, Doctor. The decision isn't yours or mine to make."
As the broken-hearted student and Dr. Ah-Val retired for the night, Sgt. Wilkins and Pvt. Thompson prepared a message drone. It would be launched before dawn, travelling through Void space, at speeds far beyond that of light, to central command on Mars. If all went well, the sergeant should have a reply in less than twenty-four hours.
Privates Thompson and Jones were chosen to keep the night watch with Robert, who sat leaning in a foldout chair by the sensor control terminal observing the data from the remote units.
Robert was the Doctor's most astute and energetic student. He knew almost as much as Ah-Val about the 'Fey' and their legend. Though tensions ran high between the students and the soldiers, Robert was glad to have their company. He injected a stimulant into his bloodstream to help fight his growing exhaustion and left the terminal operating by its A.I. alone, to join the soldiers where they stood by the tree line. Thompson was busy lighting a cigarette and failed to notice the student's approach. Jones, however, did not, and said, "Your boss is quite a character."
Thompson glanced up at Robert, adding, "A madman's more like it. What the hell was trying to do? Does he have any idea how much that equipment cost?" Robert laughed, "Sometimes risks are necessary. The doctor knows that."
"Was that crap supposed to be music?" Thompson snickered.
"Shreal aesthetics were far different from our own, to them it was probably as beautiful as one of Bach's concertos is to us."
"Never had a taste for classical music anyway," Thompson replied, returning his gaze to the trees. "Do you think the Fey heard that shit?"
"I'm sure they did," Robert beamed, "But it may take several tries before they respond. The music is ancient and hard to decipher. I'm not sure Dr. Ah-Val translated it correctly, but eventually they will answer all the same."
Doctor Ah-Val lay comfortably on the sleeping pallet of his enviro-tent dreaming of the days before mankind set foot on Gideon. In his mind, the Shreal danced to the music of the Xenoox with a passionate zeal both wild and fierce. The trees moved in time with the winds of Fey. A lone figure, angelic and regal, stepped from the trees, standing eleven feet tall. Sleek and radiant like the elves of Terran lore. White feathered wings stretched from its back, beating lightly. The creature looked upon the Shreal as a father would his children, fond and affectionate. The Shreal ceased their dance, kneeling before it. They offered it the treasures of Gideon: spices, cooked meats, bejeweled golden statues carved in its image. The creature nodded, leaving the offering untouched and moved with an unbelievable grace among their numbers. Ah-Val turned in his sleep, nearly snapping awake as its blue feline eyes turned upon his ethereal presence. In perfect Terran, it spoke to his mind. "You've slaughtered our descendants and now you come to us seeking friendship and our knowledge. It will not be given. Leave our world, our forest, for we will tolerate your intrusion no longer." The scene of Ah-Val's dream changed quickly. It became a nightmarish mass of energy storms purging human life from New Gideon in a fiery tempest that swept the entire planet's surface reaching even the Terran stations in orbit around the world, engulfing them. Ah-Val awoke with a start; sweat covered his body, his eyes wide with terror. Hours passed before he could put the images from his mind and sleep once more.
Soon after New Gideon's sun rose above the mountains, a message drone dropped out of Void space streaking into the camp. The message it carried gave Ah-Val new hope and determination despite his dreams. EarthGov not only pardoned him of his crime but also endorsed the use of the Xenoox in contacting the Fey. It appeared that the bureaucrats back home understood the importance of the expedition. Robert clapped Ah Val on the shoulder supportively. It seemed the young student was about to burst with excitement. The day rushed by with even the Republic Marines in a good mood. Wilkins had given the OK for a small celebration because of the news even though he himself was not pleased with the EarthGov's decision. Ah-Val spent the day studying the Shreal composition intently making sure every note to be played after nightfall was as correct as it could be.
As the sun set, the weather took a turn for the worse. A heavy downpour erupted from the ominous clouds that had gathered through the day, dampening the rays of New Gideon's sun in the late afternoon. None of the three moons could be seen through their thickness and true dark came with the night.
There was a brief debate as to whether the Xenoox was to be played or if the group should wait for the weather to change but the earlier optimism prevailed. Dr. Ah-Val readied the terminal, gathering his cloak together about his body to help fight off the chill. Everyone waited expectantly for him to begin. Ah-Val hesitated, his fingers touching the keys as he recalled his nightmares, but he managed to overcome his fear, writing the dream off as paranoid delusion induced by the attitude of Wilkins and his men. He played the Xenoox as if he were Shreal, all his inhibitions abandoned. His heart and soul went into and cried out with each note.
The leaves of the forest began their shimmering rapture as the Wind of Fey blew across the camp, growing in its intensity. Robert stared as Ah Val banged the keys so fiercely that the student wondered if the instrument could withstand the beating.
Wilkins gestured to his men, yelling over the roar of the wind, "Be ready!" he shouted, his knuckles white from his grip on his own weapon. He flicked the safety off and loaded a round into the chamber.
A sudden gust of wind struck so powerful it caught Pvt. Thompson off guard and flung him from his feet into the air like a rag doll. His body smashed against a rover and bounced, rolling along the clearing away from the camp. Students and soldiers alike fought desperately to avoid a similar fate, grabbing onto anything they could.
Only Ah-Val seemed unaffected by the gale force winds. He seemed to exist in almost a separate reality, suffering a far worse fate. His hair grew longer, dropping far below his shoulders, as his afternoon shadow grew into a beard, before turning grey. His skin withered with freshly formed wrinkles as his fingernails sprouted into long, curling monstrosities, hampering his ability to play. Then as quickly as they began the winds ceased to blow. Silence fell over the forest. Dr. Sedric Ah-Val's emaciated and aged corpse toppled to the ground.
Wilkins scurried about the camp screaming questions and barking orders to cover his fear as Robert stood beside Ah-Val's remains, mourning his mentor.
A light brighter than the midday sun erupted within the forest. At first, Wilkins thought perhaps a lightening bolt, unseen in the chaos of the windstorm, might have started a fire but as the sphere of light and flame hurled toward the camp he realized this was no ordinary blaze. Assault rifles chattered, spraying the forest with projectiles as the Marines panicked. The sphere expanded into an explosion of heat as it left the tree line, vaporizing everyone within the camp. A solitary figure stood in its wake amongst the trees, its feline eyes wet with tears. It stared at the blackened hulls of the human vehicles and the scorched remnants of the enviro-tents, and said a prayer for those who had passed on. A gentle breeze arose in the stillness stirring the ashes of the dead, as it watched and wondered how many more would die before the Terran Republic realized that it was not ready for the knowledge the Fey and its kin possessed. It prayed for those who would come across the stars to avenge the death of the colony in their warships. It prayed because they, too, would meet a fiery end. There would be no other choice.
Copyright © 2003 by Eric S. Brown