The Third Chair Admiral, an ursiform constellation named Red-Giant-Sacred-Chord, surveyed the occupied province from the globular cluster that was their flagship.
The province, a local group of seven galaxies, bore the signs of the most recent battle of this endless war. In the largest galaxy, a handsome barred spiral, the fierce fighting had torn countless stars to shreds; wisps of nebular gasses whirled around the galactic core. In the smaller outlying galaxies the killing had not been so brutal, but there were dozens of dead constellations from each opposing army, their individual stars lying scattered across space.
It was a tragic sight indeed. Red-Giant’s stellar core ached at the sight of such carnage. They were peaceful at their core and abhorred the violence. But the war was necessary; the enemy had defied the order of the Heavenly Choir, attempting to cast the Music of the Spheres itself into discord.
However violent the fighting had been, everything was peaceful now. Civilians whirled through their ordinary orbits, producing a tranquil melody. The Heavenly Choir Directorate peacekeeping forces, a phalanx of constellations, held their harmonious stations.
Red-Giant, emotions once more tranquil, turned to their aide.
‘What are we doing here?’
‘Um,’ sang their aide, and consulted its notes, a watery planet whose mollusc inhabitants built vast memory palaces by instinct.
‘Ah, here it is,’ it sang. ‘Two cycles ago, Understudy Admiral White-Dwarf-Swansong engaged the rebels in this province and defeated them. However, the enemy general never sang the surrender aria, and it died mysteriously before it could be captured. Since then our peacekeeping forces have suffered unexplained losses. High Command suspected guerilla activity from unsurrendered rebel troops, but no enemy forces have yet been sighted.’
‘Hmmm,’ hummed Red-Giant-Sacred-Chord, a sound that reverberated into the nearest galaxies and merged seamlessly with the chorus already underway. One didn’t command fleets of the Heavenly Choir Directorate without perfect pitch.
It certainly seemed suspicious. But how could the enemy be striking in secret? Their soldiers were star-made, the same as Red-Giant; and a star cannot sneak up on anybody. It’s quite impossible.
But whatever was afoot, it was Red-Giant’s job to get to the bottom of it.
‘Very well. Send a squadron of constellations to each galaxy and deploy the scout systems.’
‘I hear and obey,’ responded the aide, and the fleet leapt into motion. Constellations the shapes of gryphons and myrmidons and conchoids and butterflies slid past the command cluster, saluting the Admiral, and then sailed to their respective assignments, searching across the seven galaxies, interrogating civilians, and burrowing into nebular hideaways.
Red-Giant oversaw them closely, pleased by the diligence and harmony of the troops. And then the admiral heard a noise.
They ignored it. It came again, a low pulse from a small lenticular galaxy.
‘What was that?’ they sang to their aide.
‘What was what?’
‘A sort of thumping sound—’
A green gryphon in the third galaxy died screaming discordantly. Nothing could be heard over the unbearable racket of it being dismembered, individual stars torn out of the constellation until the whole thing lost coherency and died.
‘What!’ shouted Red-Giant when the cacophony finally stopped. There were barely any stars left from the gryphon at all.
‘I couldn’t see—’ began the aide but then the sound of a butterfly’s wings being pulled apart interrupted them. This time Red-Giant watched more intently. But there was still nothing to see. By ones and twos and tens the stars of the butterfly constellations swirled away into darkness. Red-Giant had never seen anything like it. It acted almost like a disease, like the symptoms of—
‘Black holes!’ belted the admiral urgently, louder even than the butterfly’s screams of pain. ‘Look at the accretion disk; look at the ejecta. They’re being eaten by black holes!’
‘But that’s just a freak disaster!’
‘This isn’t wild, lone black holes. Look at the pattern of gravitation! The enemy must have collapsed their own stellar bodies! The rebels still live, formed from dark singularities!’
‘By the Heavenly Chorus—’
For the aide could now see just what the admiral had seen. In the voids between the stars stood silent constellations, dark and watchful. Panthers, vipers, obsidian knives.
The admiral and aide joined their voices and sang a song of warning, a command to retreat, but before the fleet could hear its commanding officer, the enemy struck. They struck from everywhere at once. The dark and silent fleet of rebels slew every constellation of the Heavenly Directorate forces in just a handful of orbits.
Until all that was left was the Third Chair Admiral, Red-Giant-Sacred-Chord, and their aide, waiting in the dark as the thumping sounds of black hole orbits grew closer and closer, parsec by parsec. Beating through the void from the rebel galaxies to Red-Giant’s helpless flagship.
As the enemy closed its fateful jaws upon them, Red-Giant, suddenly understanding, almost smiled at the sound. It was not the heavenly choir, no proper music of the spheres they had ever heard, but it had a beat you could move to. And so, in those final moments, in the face of their death, Red-Giant tossed aside propriety and harmony. They did not sing the mannerly, honorable aria of defeat. They began, instead, to dance. Inexpertly at first, but with real feeling, shaking their stars and systems in time with that deep bass beat ringing out through the void.
And they were dancing still, waiting to be struck down, when the enemy’s rhythmic gyrations enfolded them in a wordless welcoming embrace. ∎
Louis Evans loves to dance – which is not to say he’s any good at it. His work has previously appeared in Interzone, as well as Vice, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and many more. He’s online at evanslouis.com and on mastodon at @email@example.com.
Martin Hanford lives in Ledbury and has been an illustrator for over 25 years, mainly sci-fi and fantasy, although he was once asked to draw a cow! As well as illustrations, Martin has produced numerous album covers and novel covers, and doesn’t get mistaken for the Where’s Wally guy too often.
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