Subscribe to our newsletter!

 

* indicates required

Google Plus

You are here

Home » Blogs » editor's blog

The Nightingale of Planet 12

 

A haunting and beautiful scifi short story for Christmas by Paul Magrs, author of Lost on Mars, The Martian Girl and The Heart of Mars, coming in March 2018. 

 

The Nightingale of Planet 12

 

There wasn’t much to listen to on Planet 12.

It was mostly a howling wilderness and the settlers stayed inside protective domes most days. Not because it was deadly, but because it was deadly dull.

            The atmospheric conditions crackled and buzzed, filling everyone’s ears with harsh static. Communications anywhere beyond the valley were sporadic and dreadful with interference.

            The distant mountains were beautiful, though, and the skies were spectacularly colourful. Scarlet and golden.

            But pretty skies and gorgeous landscapes didn’t keep you fed and they couldn’t make you happy forever.

            The settlers were bored.

            Their captain – he called himself Emperor Smith these days, just to cheer himself up – became an impatient and tetchy old man.

            ‘Why did we come here? Why did we ever volunteer?’

            His wife scowled. ‘Stop going on! Shut up! Stop talking!’

            His wife had had the most awful headache, ever since their arrival on Planet 12 thirty-three years ago.

            Everyone – even the Emperor – tiptoed around her.

            Then... one day…

            They heard the nightingale.

*

They knew there were birds on this world but no one had ever seen them. Long-range sensors showed that there were verdant forests and woodlands on the other side of the planet, far away beyond the gorgeously craggy mountains… and presumably that’s where all the avian life was concentrated.

            The settlers had plonked themselves down in the least hospitable spot, of course.

            ‘I know, I know,’ the Emperor sighed, when someone pointed this out for the millionth time. ‘But how were we to know? We decided on this valley because of the mineral deposits.’ All the fuel they’d ever need was concentrated here, and it came in the form of many-hued jewels littering the valley floor.

            Their Starship had been irreparably damaged in landing, and it would never lift itself into the skies again.

            Parties had set out on foot from this valley, in an attempt to spread out across Planet 12 to explore… but they had never been heard from since.

            All in all, a bit of a mistake, landing here, all that time ago. They might have enough energy, and lots of pretty jewels, but it was boring. They scraped along, merely existing… getting on each other’s nerves. Two-hundred and twenty human beings… having a terrible time on a barely-habitable alien world.

            Occasionally they got messages from Earth, where things were much worse. But even dreadful news cheered up the Emperor only slightly.

*

Then one day the nightingale came to sing outside his private dome.

            Emperor Smith raised his head from his silken pillow and his eyes bulged out in amazement. ‘What is that..?’

            It was a whisper of music. A gentle, fluting breeze.

            He got out of bed and followed it…

 It was a bubbling, mellifluous stream of music. It was like nothing the Emperor had ever heard… At least, perhaps, he had once heard something like it a very long time ago. Back on Earth, maybe, when he was a child…

            It was a still, warm day. It was safe to emerge from the dome.

            The Emperor Smith stepped into the private garden that had been built in order to please his wife. Such a lot of careful, dedicated work had gone into creating this garden of jeweled stones. Pathways and rockeries had been carefully arranged and tended. But the Empress rarely bothered to sit out here, even when the weather was fine. She preferred to stay indoors listening to old recordings of what life had been like on her home planet. She locked herself away wearing a huge set of earphones, pining for the life they had left far behind.

            The Emperor rather enjoyed the peacefulness of the little garden, however.

            And, so, it seemed, did the nightingale, who had, for some reason, chosen to pay a visit.

*

The Emperor dashed and fluttered around his closest advisors. ‘Come and see, come and hear… You won’t believe it…!’

            None of them had seen their leader as excited as this in years. He shuffled and twitched and beetled about.

            ‘Come with me… out here! Out in the garden..!’

            His most trusted team of advisors. There were three of them, each almost as old as he was himself. They had been together so long. They had dreamed and hoped together. They had despaired in deep space and shivered together through meteor showers and solar flares. They had braved long nights on an alien world when they had no idea if there’d be a new dawn for them to greet. Gradually they had grown old together, getting used to the idea that their adopted world was a let-down. They had already exhausted all the novelty it had to offer.

            ‘But listen to this…!’ urged Emperor Smith, and they went out into the pleasant morning, crunching over the gravel lawn.

            A single, leafless tree. Gnarled and twisted. It was rare and precious in the valley. It was a wonder it was even alive.

            It was the only perch for about a hundred thousand miles in any one direction.

            And the nightingale had found it.

            The bird blinked at its audience.

            ‘Please,’ said the Emperor, and his advisors were surprised by his pleading tone. ‘Please… sing for them, like you sang for me.’

            ‘It’s such a dowdy, drab little thing,’ thought the Emperor’s chief advisor. ‘Why, if we cooked and roasted it, there’d be slim pickings indeed…’

            And the bird opened his beak to sing.

*

‘Sweetheart, sweetheart,’ gabbled the old man. He reached out and tried to take his wife’s headphones from her ears.

            She shrieked like he was stabbing her. ‘What are you doing?’ She batted him away. ‘Get off me, you old fool!’

            ‘You must come and hear…’ he gasped. ‘Come and listen to this bird…’

            She seized hold of her headphones and sighed. What was he talking about? Why was he angling for her attention now? She glared at him, up and down.

            How strange. She’d never seen him looking so animated in years. Something had clearly happened.

            Which was very odd. Because nothing ever happened on Planet 12. They had spent thirty-three years absorbing this fact.

            ‘A bird is singing in our garden… so beautifully…!’

            ‘A bird?’ she said, and the idea was so intriguing that she left her Earth recordings behind, for just a few minutes. Probably the old man had it all wrong. His mind was addled, obviously.

*

But he was quite correct.

            The Empress of Planet 12 stood there in raptures.

            ‘Oh, listen! Just listen…!’

            None of them had ever heard anything quite like it.

            Trilling. Warbling. So high, so pure. It made them feel heavy, debased. It made them feel claylike and cloddy. That something so delicate and airy and perfect could exist within reach of their ears. That it was happy to sit there and air its song for them like this… for nothing. Just for nothing. It wasn’t gaining a thing. It was simply passing on delight.

            The Empress stood there for some minutes with her mouth wide open.

            Then her eyes blazed and she sprang into action.

            ‘What are you doing? All of you? Are you all frozen? Are you dumbstruck?’

            The advisors and lackeys looked at her.

            ‘Recording equipment! Fetch it at once! Bring out the very best equipment we have! Get this wonderful music onto tape! It’s wasting away! It’s leaking into the air and will soon be gone forever! Oh, quickly! Quickly! Before it’s too late..!’

            The men hastened into action, and the bird went on singing, and the Emperor Smith was in two minds about what his wife was saying. All her panic and kerfuffle was disturbing the mood somewhat. She was agitated. She was flummoxing. He’d asked her to come out here and listen, quietly, just as he was doing. Surely they could stand here, listening quietly? Why was she being so noisy?

*

Minutes later the advisors returned, all of a-stumble, with recording equipment on a squeaking trolley. They came lumbering and lurching. Shoving each other. All of them were keen to please the bad-tempered Empress.

            Hmm, thought Emperor Smith vaguely. Time was, everyone tried to please me.

            He shut out all their hullaballoo, and turned back to look at the nightingale.

            The bird had paused in its song.

            The noise had alarmed it.

            The bird blinked at the Emperor once.

            And then it took off.

            It shot into the beautiful skies and was gone.

            ‘Gaaagghhh!’ shrieked the Empress. A very ugly noise. She whirled round and accused the advisors. ‘You took too long! You scared it with all your noise! Did you record any of that? Did you get a single second of it?’

            They shook their heads and mumbled.

            ‘Typical!’ she roared.

*

The Emperor kept listening.

While the rest of his people went about their daily work, he kept patient and somehow he knew that if he was quiet the bird would come back again and sing for him.

            Not for the others, though. He had seen the startled look in the nightingale’s eye when the others were carrying on…

            The Empress went back to her room and put her headphones back on, transporting herself back into the crackles and murmurs that hailed from many light years away.

            The Emperor sat in his garden of stones, waiting.

            Days passed.

            Comments were passed.

            Questions were asked.

            The Emperor… could he possibly be losing his marbles, sitting outside the domes at all hours?

            The Empress was past caring. They didn’t share their lives any more, not really. That spark had gone out, a long time ago.

            But she thought about that snatch of song she had heard.

            It played upon her, even as she immersed herself in otherworldly sounds.

            She asked the advisors… could there be… somewhere… in all the many thousands of hours of recordings in the archive… just a snippet of nightingale song? Or something like it?

            She couldn’t sleep. She was agitated. It would soothe her, she thought. Just that little bit she had heard in the garden of stones… it was the most lovely thing she had ever experienced. It made her feel calm. Made her feel less disappointed in everything.

            And meanwhile her husband sat quietly listening as the nightingale came back and sang to him.

His heart leapt with joy when it did so.

A fine reunion.

He hardly dared breathe as he watched it alight on the branch beside him.

It trilled, it sang, it unfolded a song so bright and perfect it made the old man weep silent tears.

It was just as beautiful as the first visit.

            Somehow… it was true… and the Emperor never quite knew how this was so… but the nightingale was telling him about the world beyond this pebble garden, beyond these plastic domes and far beyond this valley of jewels.         Somehow the bird was telling him about the whole of Planet 12.

            Lands. Cities. History. Fables.

Whole vistas opened up before the Emperor.

            Not a word was spoken.

            Tears streamed down his face.

            How long did he sit there?

            No one came to interrupt. No one dared.

            At length the nightingale broke off, and flew away.

            The Emperor jumped to his feet: ‘No, don’t… not yet! Not yet…!’

            There was never enough time.

Never enough song.

*

That evening. Eating rubber cubes of artificial food in their dome. Emperor and Empress chewing away, as on so many nights before. Drawing sustenance, sharing what might have been quality time. But he was in another world. Thinking of all he had experienced. And she was eaten up with furious envy.

            ‘It came back, didn’t it? It sang to you?’

            He looked at his Empress and nodded.

            ‘Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you sit there alone?’

            He had no answer for her. There was no answer. Only: I didn’t want to share that little bird’s song with you. I wanted it for myself alone.

*

So his wife made other plans.

            They were talented people, those who lived in the domes. They had talents going to waste in the hardscrabble of everyday endurance on Planet 12. What about art and artifacts? What about fashioning stuff of exquisite beauty? What about making something lovely for a change?

            She asked her subjects to make her a nightingale of her very own.

            ‘But don’t tell the Emperor,’ she warned them. ‘He doesn’t like to think of anyone else spending time in idle pleasures…’

            And so the robotic experts and the geniuses with tiny, tricky bits of electronics set to work… and they created her a perfect bird of her very own.

            Bigger, flashier, more gorgeous than anything that had ever set foot in the garden of stones.

            They encrusted it with jewels of every colour, handpicked from the valley.

            It was all gold and silver and sparkling crystals.

            And it trilled and it sang…

            Endlessly.

Perpetually.

Forevermore.

            Some clever soul in the Empress’s staff had found a recording of a  nightingale from Planet Earth. A bird that had been dead for many hundreds of years. And yet its song was just as bright and colourful.

            And when it was piped through the open beak of that artificial bird… Why, how convincing it was!

            The Emperor didn’t think so, though.

            ‘That thing? Pitiful!’

            He laughed hollowly and walked away. He shook his head and tutted.

            The Empress fumed.

            The Emperor sat in the stone garden and waited for his real nightingale to return. There could be no simulacrum. Only the real thing would do.

            But nights were colder now, as the seasons of Planet 12 were changing. Ice crept into the garden of stones. It wasn’t wise to stay out of the domes too late. But the Emperor wouldn’t listen to his advisors.

            His nightingale still came. Less regularly, and staying fewer minutes each time it visited. It seemed distracted, eager to be off, perhaps.

            Its songs spoke of warmer climes elsewhere. The songs were about travelling farther afield on Planet 12.

            The Emperor hoped that his bird would stay close. He hoped and hoped, but he knew what was going to happen.

            And whenever he stepped back inside his domed palace all he could hear was the mindless, chiming nonsense of the Empress’s artificial bird.

            How hollow. How callow.

            How wrong.

            And then, once day, his nightingale failed to show up.

            And the next it didn’t appear either.

            And the next.

            An awful, chilling thought plagued the Emperor. The nightingale has heard the false song within the dome. He has learned that my people are enthralled by the Empress’s ersatz nightingale.

            And it was true that they – with their cheaper tastes – seemed to prefer that gold and silver bird with rubies, sapphires and diamonds stuck all over it. A bird that sang to order. Who sang the same sweet song again and again, never tiring, never flagging. Never taking it upon itself to fly away.

            A biddable bird, who sang with cloying sweetness.

            Of course they preferred such a wondrous toy.

            The Empress was most satisfied.

            Her husband wept privately over the loss of his drab, exquisite visitor.

            Then he took to his bed and felt like dying.

            And he almost did.

*

His wife saw what was happening to him. He was losing hope. He was giving up the ghost. The thought that she might lose him filled her with remorse.

            ‘I have neglected him,’ she confided to her nightingale. ‘All these years I have let us grow apart. I have let my impatience show. I made no secret of the dissatisfaction I have felt in our shared life… And now I feel ashamed.’

            The old man was listless. He lay on his satin pillows in his little cabin and nothing could tempt him out.

            The Empress’s nightingale listened to her woes with its head cocked. But it didn’t suggest anything. It didn’t have any ideas. It just sang its song. The same song over, endlessly, exactly.

            The Empress commanded that the rarest and fanciest of their food supplies be opened up. She would tempt her husband into eating again. Real food. Tinned stuffs from earth. Meat and vegetables. Pickles and brine preserving all kinds of wonderful delicacies. ‘What were we saving all this for, anyhow?’ she wondered. ‘A celebration on a happier day? What was it all for?’

           He was fading away. His skin was translucent. She tried to count up on her fingers how old he was, and she was and how old they all were. But they had been through space warps and time wefts and all manner of distortions on the way to Planet 12. The Empress didn’t understand any of it. Perhaps they were all too old, now. Perhaps their time was over?

            Another winter advanced and came calling on their cluster of plastic domes. The Earth people battened down the hatches and sealed themselves tight. The stone garden was raked away by the claws of the freezing winds.

            The Emperor woke in the night, screaming and sobbing. He clung to her when she went to calm him down. He said he would never be warm, never feel safe. He would never know peace again. All he could hear was the screeching of the wind through the mountain passes.

            The advisors tutted and shook their heads. Emperor Smith was in a bad way. The should have seen this coming. That strange attachment he had, earlier this year… listening to that bird. Sitting in the garden. Why had none of them realized? His mind was gone.

            But the Empress wouldn’t believe that. She thought they were ungrateful.

            ‘None of us would be alive without him,’ she reminded them. ‘His leadership. His knowledge. His determination… We all owe him so much…’

            And she went to sit by his bedside as he turned over and over, gibbering and moaning.

            She took her false nightingale with her and wound it up so it would sing to the Emperor.

            He sat up, staring in wonder at the gorgeous effigy.

            ‘How very kind you are,’ he told her. ‘To share your toy with me. To let me hear its music.’

            His eyes and voice were earnest. There wasn’t a trace of sarcasm there.

            ‘I do like it,’ he told her. ‘I do. It’s a lovely song. It’s really delightful.’

            She smiled. She was glad to have pleased him. ‘Then I’ll leave it with you through the night. Perhaps its song will drown out the howling wind and the noise of the storm…’

            He smiled at her. How strange and wonderful. For the two of them to be kind to each other like this, so late in the day. Kinder than they had been to each other for years. She tiptoed away and he listened to the chiming and ticking of the toy bird’s song. He watched its crystal feathers gleaming as it twitched and flinched. Not a single thought in its head.

            ‘Forgive me,’ he told the nightingale that belonged to his wife. ‘I know you’re trying your best. And so is she, perhaps.’

            He got out of bed shakily, unsteadily making his way out of his room and through his private dome.

            No one was about. No one stayed awake in the night.

            Sensors monitored the storms, raging outside above the mountains.

            The million separate, delicate instruments of the domes quivered and traced every particle of what went on outside, and collated the information into wonderfully colourful graphs. Someone might look at them in a few days’ time, and pass a jaundiced, expert eye over them. All very interesting. Chilly and noisy and not very hospitable.

            The dome dwellers would see the winter through by popping on their headphones and listening to recordings from home. There were many thousands of hours to get through. Someone had done the sums. Even if you lived to be one hundred and seventy-three, you’d never run out of recordings from Earth.

            It just so happened that was almost exactly Emperor Smith’s age.

            What if I let myself out of my dome, he wondered? What if, when no one was watching, I opened this door and slipped away into the storm?

            How long would I last?

            The wind might tear me apart. The noise of the storm might deafen me.

            I’d surely perish on the mountain slopes.

            But somewhere north, over the mountains, we know there are woods. We’ve seen them. We’ve detected them. Even if we’ve never actually been there.

            Why didn’t we ever go there? When we were younger and strong and capable? What stopped us going to look?

            He couldn’t even remember why that was.

            We should have gone.

            ‘Sweetheart..?’

            It was the Empress.

            She’d not called him that for a long time.

            ‘It’s all right,’ he told her.

            ‘W-why are you standing by the door?’

            She thought he was going to leave. She thought he was going to act on his impulse and totter out into the storm.

            ‘Nowhere, my dear. Honestly. I just had to get up for a moment… but now, I’m, ready to return to sleep.’

            ‘Let me help you,’ she said, leading him away from the doors and danger. ‘Let me put you back to bed. And let me wind up the bird. Let’s hear his song again. It seems to calm you… it seems to make you happy…’

            ‘It does,’ he smiled and nodded. ‘It really does. You know, I think it’s just about as good as the real thing…’

*