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Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Symphony of the Sword No. 1
Das Lied von der Erde

Prelude II: The Art of Noise

by Benjamin D. Hutchins

© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Wedesday, March 17, 2404
Worcester, Massachusetts
Earth, Centaurus sector

Spring was in the air, and welcome too, after another ironclad New England winter. On the campus of the Worcester Preparatory Institute, students were beginning to look forward to the end of another school year. Some - those disappointed with the school's quirky archaism (especially in the realm of creature comforts), its slightly compressed term schedule, its defiantly deliberate lack of social cachet, or its rather ruthless academic standards - had long since taken to calling the school "Worst Place Imaginable" and were plotting their escapes to other, more suitable schools after final exams in June. Others - those who took a certain perverse pride in all of the above and knew the school as The W (sometimes with extraneous "Big" added for emphasis) - were watching that first group plot and scheme and thinking with satisfaction, You guys just don't get it.

Azalynn dv'Ir Natashkan - fourteen Standard years old, a native of Dantrov in the Bacchus sector - counted herself in the second group and proudly. So the place didn't have personal whirlpool baths for every student and matter transposition between classes, or whatever those spoiled pukes from the Core Sectors assumed a Decent School would have. It had everything Azalynn needed and lacked a good many things she, for one, didn't care to want. She played the oboe in the student orchestra; she ran on the cross-country team in the fall; she had a good circle of friends and the food wasn't that bad, especially if you'd ever endured a Terzayyl on which no pudding was available and you'd had to make do with puréed splineworm.

Today, with the last of her classes finished and nothing much to do until supper, she sat on the steps of Alden Memorial Hall, the performing arts building, and watched her fellow students come and go, mentally tagging each one.

Gets it, she thought. Doesn't get it. Gets it. Gets it. Really doesn't get it...

Then a schoolmate went by whose status Azalynn had, until recently, been entirely unable to figure out. She liked figuring people out, not because she looked to gain an advantage from it, but simply because it was something she was generally good at and she liked being good at things. This girl, though... for the longest time Azalynn couldn't decide whether she got it, didn't get it, or just... sort of existed beyond it.

Her name was Kaitlyn; Azalynn knew that because she'd gone up and introduced herself on the first day of orchestra rehearsals, back in September. She'd done that with everybody in the orchestra, with varying degrees of success. In this case, she'd gotten a shy look that wasn't quite a smile and a hushed, halting one-word reply, and that was pretty much it. She'd spent the first week or so of A-term in a mild dudgeon before she realized, based on further observation, that the girl wasn't standoffish so much as... well, vaguely terrified of everyone around her.

That struck Azalynn as an odd frame of mind to bring to a boarding school, especially one many parsecs from one's home star - a home star, indeed, that wasn't on particularly good terms with Earth. A little research in the student directory had turned up that Kaitlyn (last name Hutchins, which had meant nothing to Azalynn at the time) was from New Avalon, in the Republic of Zeta Cygni. She was a very long way from home, almost as long a way as Azalynn herself. Normally that would have spoken of an adventurous spirit, but Kaitlyn just seemed frightened much of the time.

It was a shame, too, because she was obviously a very talented musician. She played several different instruments in the student orchestra, depending on the needs of the particular piece they were playing; she was by far the finest pianist on campus, better even than Professor Curran. She composed music, as well, and beautiful music at that, if Azalynn was any judge. Only while playing did she come close to emerging from the armored shell she drew around herself, and at the moments when she verged closest to that edge, Kaitlyn seemed to notice and draw back again. It was, Azalynn knew, keeping her from reaching her full potential, and both Curran and Kieran Calloway, the senior who held the post of student orchestra director, clearly knew it; but neither of them seemed able to penetrate her reserve and reach her.

She never socialized with other students either, never hung around lecture halls after class, never appeared in the Wedge (WPI's rudimentary student center, derided by the don'tgetits as little more than a bus station lobby) of an evening. Half the time she didn't even turn up for meals in the Morgan Hall dining commons, though Azalynn knew she lived in that very dorm, on the second floor. Most students didn't think of her at all; those few who did thought of her as a sort of recluse and chalked it up to the terrible speech impediment she betrayed on the rare occasions when she was called upon in class.

Azalynn, though, was more observant than most. She had a few advantages in that department over the average WPI student, to be fair. A member of a species both arboreal and nocturnal, she had exceptional vision and hearing by human standards and no fear of heights, and she required only an hour or two of sleep a night, all of which meant that she often occupied herself by prowling the dark and quiet corners of the campus when everyone else was asleep, or climbing the buildings to explore the rooftops just for something to do.

From this unique vantage point, she had learned that there was more to this Kaitlyn girl than most people assumed. She'd seen her roaming the darkened streets and lanes of the campus and the neighborhood beyond long after the normal, rules-abiding students were in bed with lights out. It was no great mystery why she did it: Everyone on campus knew that her roommate was hard to share space with. Hiroe Ogawa's strange and tragic condition was the scandal of the school year. What intrigued Azalynn, and caused her to invest many an evening hour in silently shadowing her schoolmate from above, was how she did it.

For all that she seemed to harbor a deep-seated terror of social contact with her fellow students, Kaitlyn clearly had no fear of nighttime encounters with strangers. The WPI area was not without a certain criminal element, which was part of the reason for the residence halls' curfew, but she ignored it, just as Azalynn did, and never seemed at all concerned. She slipped through the darkened city like a ghost, coming and going with impunity. Azalynn, watching from roofs and trees, had seen her walk right past dimly lit doorways staffed by obvious muggers without giving them so much as a glance - nor getting one in return. It was like they didn't even see her.

All this made Azalynn intensely curious. She wanted - she had - to learn more about this strange and fascinating creature.

"Who knows?" her roommate, Amanda Dessler (who just happened to be princess of Gamilon, not that she was one to stand on ceremony), replied when Azalynn asked her about their schoolmate's peculiar behavior.

"Well, that's just it," Azalynn said. "Someone must, and I want to. It's going to drive me crazy otherwise. And the semester's ending soon!"

Amanda shrugged. "Her parents are a couple of the founders of the old Wedge Defense Force. The people who blew up the original version of this city, as it happens."

Azalynn blinked. "Amanda Elektra Dessler. You've been holding out on me."

"It's common knowledge," Amanda said. "It's not my fault you don't pay attention in history class."

"You know very well we're not going to get to anything like that until next year. What else do you know that you haven't told me?"

"Incalculable things," Amanda replied dryly. "But, on this particular subject, nothing much. It's not as if I've ever met these people, though I think Father has."

"Hmm. They must be well off."

Amanda snorted. "A bit like saying Gamilon must have an army. Her father founded the International Police. Pretty much paid for it out of his own pocket, from what I hear. You have to figure that wasn't cheap."

"I wonder why she's here, then? I mean, not that WPI isn't a good school, but they have good schools in New Avalon. We've met people from some of them at music festivals and sports meets."

"Who knows?" Amanda repeated, her tone indicating that she was tiring of Azalynn's dogged pursuit of the topic. "If you're that curious, why not just ask her? We see her every day."

That was in December, a couple of weeks before the Christmas break. Azalynn hadn't asked. There never seemed to be an opportunity. Instead, she'd taken to observing her odd schoolmate more closely, more carefully. She didn't follow her, except occasionally at night, unobserved, but she paid closer attention during classes and orchestra rehearsals... and late one night in early March, she finally, at last, believed she understood.

She was in the Higgins House garden, a carefully maintained greenspot in the corner of campus, behind a building that had once been the private residence of a neighbor and benefactor of the school and was now the alumni affairs office. Azalynn went there often to sing in the night, when she didn't feel like wandering further afield. She'd never been spotted there, but students passing the area in the evening - on their way back to the Quad dorms from the computer center in Fuller Labs, usually - had heard her, and the legend that was forming about the singing ghost of the Higgins garden amused her.

That night, when Azalynn arrived, she found the open area in the middle of the garden already occupied. She didn't realize it at first, but before she could descend from the big chestnut tree at the garden's edge, she spotted the other figure, dressed in dark clothes, kneeling in the grass in the exact center of the garden. It was a chilly night - fragments of snowbanks still lingered in the corners and shady areas of the garden - and she could just make out the faint grey cloud of the person's breath.

Azalynn was just wondering if she should make some sign of her presence, or possibly call the campus police and report a prowler (ha! And just how would she explain why she'd been here to see it?), when the figure stood up and Azalynn's night-sensitive eyes made out her face. It was Kaitlyn, and she looked... angry? No... just unusually intense, Azalynn decided, with her jaw set and an uncharacteristic hardness in her eyes.

What's she doing out here? Azalynn wondered.

A moment later, as Kaitlyn's hands moved and a glittering length of steel emerged from dark wood, she had her answer.

Azalynn had always vaguely wondered why Kaitlyn carried a walking stick wherever she went when she had no apparent need of one, but it was such a minor curiosity compared to all the other things she wondered about Kaitlyn that it never really bubbled to the very top of her consciousness. Now, though, the answer was obvious. It was a sword, and the strange girl from New Avalon was clearly well-trained in its use.

Well, now I know why she was never particularly worried about muggers, Azalynn mused.

What she crouched in the tree and watched for the next half-hour was a breathtaking display, not just of skill, but also of emotion, emotion so strong Azalynn fancied that she could feel it from her perch. It rolled off Kaitlyn in waves that were practically visible, waves of aggression, of barely-contained fury so intense that Azalynn imagined them bending the dry, spring-dead blades of the grass and rustling the leafless boughs of the trees as the girl practiced ever- more-intricate kata, her sword hissing through the air like a living, angry thing.

Eventually she finished, her solitary dance of steel peaking and ebbing. At the end she struck down one last invisible foe, sheathed her weapon, bowed to some equally invisible master, and then, after a few moments' self-collection, vanished into the darkness beyond the garden's walls. Not until she had gone did Azalynn realize what, in retrospect, struck her as the strangest thing of all about the whole display.

Not once at any point in the exercise had Kaitlyn made a single sound. The entire furious display took place in utter silence.

Dvhil nazhai, Kaitlyn, thought Azalynn. What happened to you?


... what can I do to help you?

Azalynn spent the next couple of weeks mulling that second question over in her head. It ran through her mind once more on the afternoon of March 17, as she sat on the steps of Alden Memorial and watched Kaitlyn go by, her expression shrouded as always, that harmless-looking brown walking stick in hand, but she still didn't have an answer. Sighing and feeling unaccustomedly glum herself, she got up and walked the short distance to Sanford Riley Hall and the room she shared with Amanda Dessler.

Two hours later, after supper, the answer - like most of Azalynn's most important answers - came to her in prayer.

"I understand," she said aloud. "Thank you, elo'thanai."

"Huh?" Amanda Dessler mumbled from the uppermost frontier of sleep.

"Wake up," Azalynn said, shaking her by the shoulder. "And go get Devlin."

It was a bit after ten PM - when the dorms locked up for the night and all the students were supposed to be, if not in bed, at least in their rooms - when Kaitlyn entered Alden Memorial. She wasn't really supposed to be able to get in, of course, but the locks were simple and the security monitoring system ... well, Kate wasn't her younger sister Priss, a charter member of the New Avalon Urban Spelunking Society, but her parents had taught her a few tricks, all the same. Journeymen of the Asagiri Katsujinkenryuu didn't make a habit of letting people lock them into or out of buildings.

Anyway, she wasn't here to get up to anything, and even if she ran into a faculty member - or even the campus police - they were all quite sympathetic to the reasons for her nocturnal wanderings. They knew she wasn't looking to steal or damage anything. She just liked - in some ways, she needed - to be by herself, and using a facility after it was supposed to be locked up and dark was a pretty good way of ensuring that.

She walked silently into the hall's main auditorium and up onto the stage. The room was lit but dimly, by the illuminated signs over the exits (a sure sign she wasn't in her childhood hometown; all such signs in Avalon said WAY OUT) and some low house lighting. She could make out the familiar shapes of band equipment clustered near the front of the stage: a drum kit, some amplifier stacks. Rock band stuff. She wondered which of the various student bands had left their gear set up; probably had a rehearsal block slated for first thing in the morning, between breakfast and first-period classes.

What Kate was interested in was the grand piano that hulked on the proscenium. She seated herself and uncovered the keyboard, then noticed another shape above that. Switching on the tiny light above the piano's built-in music stand, she saw that it had an electronic keyboard set up on top of the casing, the school's Ono-Sendai sequencing synthesizer. It was a fairly primitive piece of kit, as those things went - Kaitlyn had much more sophisticated equipment of her own at home - but she was familiar with it. Hell, she'd designed the bracket it was attached to the top of the Steinway with.

Somebody had set it up and left it standing by; it responded to the turning-on of the music light by coming out of sleep mode, its holokeys and config panels glowing faintly. That same person (she supposed) had also left some sheet music in the stand next to it. She scanned it and felt a faint smile slip onto her face, for it was a song she knew well. It wasn't what she'd come to play, but what the hell... for old times' sake, perhaps.

She reached out, placed her fingers on the Steinway's keys, took a moment to collect herself, and then started playing. Bassline with the left hand, simple repeated harmony with the right, in a familiar, soothing pattern. Repeat it twice, then come in with the vocal, words as familiar as the opening lines of her father's favorite poem. (It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags... )

It would have shocked almost all of Kaitlyn's schoolmates, to say nothing of her teachers, to hear her sing. After all, she could barely speak, being afflicted with a stutter of - as her student file tactlessly but accurately put it - epic intensity that diminished only when addressing a select few, virtually none of whom were at WPI (or anywhere in the Centaurus sector, for that matter). But, as she would've explained if she'd cared to invest the time and effort in it, that was speaking. Singing was another matter altogether.

Just a small-town girl
Livin' in a lonely world
She took the midnight train goin' anywhere

Her singing voice was clear, beautiful, and highly versatile; a chorus teacher would have pegged her as a contralto, but her range actually reached from mezzo-soprano territory at its height down to the upper strata of tenor. On the relatively rare occasions when she relaxed enough to let herself sing, even quietly and alone as she was now, she put all her concentration into it, focusing on the task with the same sort of intensity she gave to her kenjutsu practice... which is why she at first failed to notice that she had been joined in the accompaniment for the second part of the first verse.

Just a city boy
Born and raised in South Detroit
He took the midnight train going anywhere

It was when she reached the end of that line that it dawned on her: someone was playing a bass guitar, playing along with the bassline she was putting down with the piano, making the sound richer and darker. At first she thought the Ono-Sendai was sequencing it, but a glance at the displays showed that it wasn't configured to do anything when no one was playing it; it was just sitting there waiting for instructions.

This was the most delicate part of the operation, and Azalynn had known it when she set it up. If she'd gauged Kaitlyn's reaction to the music wrong, the girl would freeze now, stop playing, and either confront her mysterious accompanier or just leave. The moment would be lost, probably forever.

But if the song was doing its job, if she understood that the hands playing the bass only wanted to share the joy of the music with her... then they had a chance.

In fact, though Kaitlyn was clearly surprised, she felt only a microsecond pulse of worry before the song swept it away, and when a third instrument - a guitar, naturally - joined in during the next gap in the lyrics, she took it as natural. That was, after all, exactly where the guitar was supposed to come in. She knew, on some level, that she should be upset. These people, whoever they were, had sneaked up on her - something that wasn't supposed to be possible, or at least not easy - and were intruding on what she had intended to be a private moment. She should have been shocked, maybe even angry. She should have stopped playing, turned, and demanded to know who they were and what they thought they were doing.

But that would have ruined the song, and for whatever reason, she simply couldn't bring herself to do that.

A singer in a smoky room
A smell of wine and cheap perfume
For a smile they can share the night
It goes on and on and on and on

There came the drums, right on schedule, and other voices joining her own. She hadn't sung harmony with another living being in months, not since leaving New Avalon last fall, not since her last jam session with Marty and his band. It was an odd sensation, but by now the music had her in its grip, and she played and sang on almost in a trance.

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin' just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the night...

Now she switched to the Ono-Sendai, knowing before she touched the holokeys that it was set up for the right pseudo-strings voice, for hadn't this whole thing been left here as a kind of... well, a kind of trap, really? And damn, that bassist knew his job, whoever he was. They all did. The four of them were a little ragged, but that was to be expected; at least one of them was a total stranger to the other three, and indeed, Kaitlyn hadn't even looked around to see who or where her musical interlocutors were. It might break the spell, and she decided as they pulled together and swept toward the next verse that she very much didn't want to do that.

She gave her voice full rein now, no longer a fearful, timid girl singing quietly to herself in an empty auditorium. Kaitlyn's voice was her favorite instrument out of all the many she could play, and, empty house or no, this was a performance now. By the time she reached the end of the chorus, with that sustained note that had always been her very favorite part of the song, she could hold nothing back.

Workin' hard to get my fill
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin' anything to roll the dice just one more time
Some win
Some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh the movie never ends it goes on and on and on and on

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin' just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the niiiiiight!

And there came that fifth instrument she'd been waiting for, the lead guitar, its solo line soaring above even her voice. Swept along, Kaitlyn finally glanced to her left and saw the two guitarists. Playing rhythm guitar - on a Gibson Flying V, no less! - was the Gamilon girl she'd seen around the school, the one who played the Arcturan horn in the orchestra... and on the lead part was... what was her name, she'd introduced herself on the first day... Azalynn! Yes, that was it.

I never knew she played guitar, some part of Kaitlyn's mind mused, and then there was no more time for musing, because Azalynn was reaching the end of the solo. She and the Gamilon were sharing a standing mic - something very rock 'n roll about that, Kaitlyn thought - and they struck the harmony effortlessly with Kate.

When they had started the second verse, they were just five people playing the same song.

After Kate's second chorus and Azalynn's solo, they dove into the outro as a band.

Don't stop believin'
Hold on to that feeling
Streetlight people...

Don't stop believin'
Hold on -
Streetlight people...

Don't stop believin'
Hold on to that feeling
Streetlight people...

Don't stop!

And just like that, it was over. The original version of the song faded out, it didn't have a proper ending; how all five of them had known to finish in the same place was one of those phenomena Kaitlyn chose not to investigate too closely. She sat at the Steinway, her hands still hovering over the Ono-Sendai's holokeys, for a few seconds, eyes closed, face flushed and a little sweaty. The whole thing was a bit dreamlike, and she wondered for an instant if she would find herself alone in an empty room when she opened her eyes and turned around on the bench.

Instead, she found four people smiling at her: Azalynn grinning broadly; the Gamilon girl with a small, almost conspiratorial smile; the blond guy behind the drum kit a bit hesitant and tentative; the enormous black guy with the bass looking contented but not smug.

Kaitlyn stared at the four of them for several long seconds before finally mustering her wits and her courage enough to say,

"Uh... h-h-h-hi. I'm... um... K-K-K-K-Kaitl-l-l-l-lyn."

The black guy put his bass on a stand and bowed deeply at the waist, which was quite an achievement and quite a sight, given that he was roughly spherical. In a voice not too far removed from what Kaitlyn had always fancifully imagined the voice of Marty Rose's God would sound like, he said,

"The Hon'rable J. Maurice MacEchearn the Fourth, at your service." Then, with a grin that split his round, pleasantly ugly face nearly in two, he added, "Call me Moose."

The drummer saluted jauntily with one of his drumsticks and said in a reedy voice with a pronounced English accent, "Carter Devlin, good lady. Or Devlin Carter. Take your pick, it don't matter."

"I am Amanda Elektra Dessler," said the Gamilon calmly, her faintly glowing scarlet eyes flicking a nanosecond unreadable look at the drummer.

"And I'm Azalynn," said Azalynn. "I hope you don't mind that we joined you. Only I've been wanting to get to know you better, and... well, I couldn't think of any other way to start."

Kaitlyn looked as if she had no idea how to respond to that for a moment, then colored slightly and gave a shy smile.

"I-i-i-i-it's ok-k-k-k-kay," she said. Then, with a regretful look, she said, "I'm s-s-s-s-s-sorry ab-b-b-bout... "

"Bah," said Moose, waving a basketball-sized hand dismissively. "Don't worry about a thing."

"O... ok-k-k-kay. Um... " Kaitlyn steeled herself for a long and difficult interrogative. "W... w-w-w... w-what's the n-n-n-n-name of y- y-y-your b-b-b-band?"

Azalynn grinned once more.

"It doesn't have one yet, on account of we just formed it about five minutes ago." Then, with an even brighter smile and a complete lack of guile, she added, "We were hoping you'd think of one."

"Don't Stop Believin'"
Escape (1981)

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Symphony of the Sword No. 1
Das Lied von der Erde

Prelude II: The Art of Noise

by Benjamin D. Hutchins

"Don't Stop Believin'"
by Jonathan Cain, Steve Perry, and Neal Schon

Excerpt from "Ulysses"
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

E P U (colour) 2008