Well, it took a few weeks, all told, but we’ve finally reached the conclusion to The Stars That Sing, and I’m excited to hear what you all think. If you want to re-read previous chapters (or arrived at this page without having done so), you can start over with Chapters 1 and 2 here, and then follow the links at the bottom of each post to progress through the story.
And now, on with the tale. Remember; feedback is always welcome!
The Stars That Sing
Their escort of Eyes topped out at six, the last one arriving as they passed through the territories of Pod 16 and 9. Most of the neighborhoods were in the same state of semi-disrepair that CJ was used to, but here and there was evidence of recent demolition. A pair of old street signs still somehow remained upright even though the buildings behind them had been reduced to rubble. One of the signs read “St. Paul St”. The other, “E. Madison.”
CJ didn’t see a soul as they hiked south. Either the pods were still asleep or their members had seen the convoy of Eyes in the sky and wisely gotten out of the way.
Within forty or so minutes, they were well past any area of the city that CJ had seen before, but William followed the road without hesitation. The clicking of his cane on the worn asphalt played counterpoint to the hum of the Eyes’ circuitry and the whir of their rotors.
Half an hour after that, they reached the Harbor.
The buildings here were all new; gleaming edifices of glass and steel. The street-level windows were tinted black and reflective. CJ couldn’t tell if they were dormitories for the city guards, the factories where the Eyes and Hands were created, or… He shook his head. They could be anything, really. Only a handful of people in Old Baltimore knew what happened in the heart of Lord Legion’s domain, and he definitely wasn’t one of them.
Past the gleaming new buildings, they came to a wall, half again as high as the nearest rooftop and constructed of a black metal that seemed to absorb the light around it. For the first time in over an hour, William came to a stop. “This is new.”
“Lord Legion’s castle.” CJ’s words were a whisper, almost lost beneath the noise of the Eyes and the wind that had picked up as they neared the harbor. “It must be.”
“Lincoln always did think big.” William looked both ways and then nodded to the left. “Looks like there’s a gate over there.”
“Maybe this was a bad idea.” CJ had heard stories of the fortress at the harbor. Everyone had. He just hadn’t expected the real thing to be quite so intimidating. Suddenly, the idea of persuading Lord Legion to do anything at all seemed suicidal.
“Almost certainly. Does that mean you want to go back?”
CJ shook his head. Samara was somewhere in that castle, counting on him.
“Good man.” William reached out with his free hand and patted CJ’s shoulder. “Whatever happens, I need you to stay behind me and down. Can you do that?”
“What?” If it came to a battle, they were so dead that not even a Crow would be able to resurrect them. “I mean… I guess so, but why?”
William was already headed toward the gate, paced by his escort of Eyes. “Remember what I told you about the music of the universe?”
CJ frowned and thought back. “You said the planet had a heartbeat and some stars knew how to sing.”
“What does that have to do with us?” Or anything else, for that matter, CJ very carefully didn’t add. Maybe he’d have been better off talking to Lord Legion by himself.
“Only this, Cornelius James.” William looked back over one shoulder, and his dark eyes had gone cold and bottomless, like gaping holes into a place that had never experienced light or humanity. “The stars are not the only ones who sing.”
The entry to Lord Legion’s castle was twelve feet high, with a portcullis of the same light-devouring metal hanging above it like the teeth of an angry god, but it wasn’t the gate that brought CJ up short. It wasn’t even the fact that the old man he’d come to think of as a friend had disappeared somewhere over the course of the last thirty blocks, replaced by someone scarier than Red Two could have ever hoped to be.
No, what stopped CJ in his tracks was the fact that the gate was guarded. On either side of its cavernous opening was an equally large Hand.
Much like the vastly smaller Eyes that watched the city, every Hand was different. The one on the left was a hodgepodge of organic material and armor, nine feet tall and bristling with weaponry. The one on the right was larger even than the gate. In place of legs, it had enormous treads, and a bulbous armored midsection that hung slightly open, like a toothless mouth.
CJ had heard of Hands. He’d even seen a couple, when they were on their way back from eliminating Pod 7, but that had been from far away, through the dubious safety of an upstairs window. These were right in front of him, looming like hideous, destructive gods.
He was shamefully grateful when William motioned to him to stay put and stepped forward on his own. He wasn’t sure his legs would have willingly carried him closer to the Hands, not with every part of his brain screaming that he should run in the opposite direction.
William was ten feet from the gate when Lord Legion’s mechanical voice issued from the nearest Hand.
“That’s far enough.”
Obediently, the old man came to a halt. He eyed the Hand that had spoken. “I thought your flying creations were hideous, but these… you’ve outdone yourself, Lincoln.”
“I have already told you that I no longer answer to that name.”
“What are you doing here, old man? My generous offer of three weeks’ grace was not permission for you to start trouble.”
“I’m not here for trouble.” William’s voice was almost as empty as the Hand’s. “I am here for a girl.”
“The world is full of girls.”
“Samara. The Druid you brought in last night.”
“Ah.” This time, the voice came from the second Hand. “The Pod 24 fledgling, I assume. Strange how each pod leader, in their own way, insists on giving names to their charges.”
“Why wouldn’t they have names? They’re people, Legion. Samara has friends. Please, let me return her to them.”
“I think not.” The Hand rolled forward a pace, asphalt crunching beneath its treads. “I had almost given up hope on that particular strain. The female is the first to exhibit any trace of power. Her genetic material will be utilized for the next batch.”
“Is what this is all about? These pods? The lack of parents? What are you doing, brother?”
“I am bringing order to chaos. I am unlocking the secrets of the gifts we were given, and breeding my own strain of humanity. A better man to create a better world.”
“And these?” William waved a hand to encompass the Hands in front of him and the Eyes above. “Is this what you do with your failed experiments?”
“Nothing goes to waste, William. We each learned that lesson, living on the street, back before age and sickness stole your courage.”
CJ’s eyes went wide as the meaning of their conversation finally struck home. Every Eye… every Hand… part of them had once been a person? One of Lord Legion’s own citizens?
“How many people has it been?” pressed William, something like horror leaking into his empty voice. “Forty years, fifty pods, and other than the pod leaders, there isn’t a soul over twenty in Baltimore except for us. How many generations of people have died for your breeding experiments… or even just to increase the operating efficiency of these monstrosities by twenty percent?”
“Sixty-five percent,” the voice corrected. “Slightly more than that, but I am rounding down in deference to your deteriorated intellect.”
William was shaking his head. “What happened to you?”
“I succeeded. I took control of this city and brought order to it.”
“This isn’t order. We wanted to make the city safe. You’ve turned it into a petri dish.”
One of the six Eyes dropped down a dozen feet to hover between the two Hands. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Too weak to stay and fight. Too weak to do anything but run from me.”
William sighed, his shoulders sagging. “I didn’t run because I was weak, Lincoln. I ran because I was getting stronger. I didn’t want to kill you.”
Several of the Eyes settled into a semi-circle behind William.
“And now you can run again,” said Legion. “Go waste what little life you have remaining. You have six hours to reach the city’s border. After that, you will see just what my monstrosities are capable of.”
“I’m not leaving without—”
Crouched far behind the old man, forgotten by everyone involved, CJ was the only one who saw it coming. “William, look out!”
The old man ducked to the side, but the Eye behind him had already fired. The single shot struck him in the shoulder instead of dead-center, but even that was enough to toss him face first to the ground. He clutched that wounded arm, his muttered words too low to be heard.
It didn’t matter whether those words were curses or prayers. Cornelius James knew it was already over. In the pre-Break days, bullets had supposedly been simple projectiles. They traveled through you or ricocheted off a bone inside of you, and that was all.
Automatons weren’t the only things Lord Legion had improved upon over the past half-century.
From its point of impact, the bullet wound spread outward, like fire eating through paper, going from a pinprick to a hole the size of CJ’s thumb in the span of a second. The leader of Pod 7 had died to a bullet just like that; a single shot that devoured his entire body before he could take three steps. William had a second or two at most before it ate through his entire arm, a handful of additional seconds before…
CJ frowned. Impossibly, the wound had stopped spreading, leaving little more than a small hole through the old man’s shoulder. Even more astonishingly, William was moving.
It wasn’t until William lifted his head off of the street that CJ realized one other thing. The old man wasn’t cursing and he wasn’t praying.
He was singing.
Years later, when asked to tell the story of the Singer’s song, Cornelius James would fall back on a half-dozen well-worn adjectives; mournful, distant, and overpowering. He’d say the song sounded like it came from the sky and the earth at the same time, that the trees wove their melody and the stars sang with the old man as one universe gave way to another. He would weave his tale for the children, his own and others, and when he sent them away afterward, every one of them would be wide-eyed and excited, thrilled to once again hear the story of the last day of Old Baltimore.
None of them would know that every word he’d told them was a lie.
The truth was CJ couldn’t remember the song. He could remember the dry rasp of William’s voice, could remember the first deep notes that echoed through the air… but every moment after that was a still-frame in his mind, a slice of memory loosely connected to that which came before and that which came after.
The six Eyes spewed forth bullets and fire issued from the open mouth of the first Hand but nothing reached the old man, standing in the center of his song. Bullets passed through the song and simply disappeared. White-hot flames went colorless, then translucent, before finally fading entirely. Even the wind stopped tugging at William’s old and worn clothing.
His song swelled around him like an expanding bubble of music, reaching upwards, reaching outwards. The widening perimeter caught the nearest Eye, and just like the bullets it had fired, that Eye shimmered and faded and then was gone entirely. The other Eyes followed, and then William was stepping forward, and the Hands were moving ponderously, seeking to move aside even as they brought their heavy weaponry to bear.
The song grew, and both Hands were gone like they had never existed.
The portcullis slammed down to the asphalt, but the sound of its impact was lost in the song like everything else. William paused at the gate and looked back over at CJ, and for one moment, his song was again a quiet murmur; a lullaby from a universe only one man had ever seen. The old man’s eyes were empty scars of shadow, his mouth moving in ways biology didn’t allow, his face a bleak tapestry of endless desolation.
Somewhere beneath his fear, beneath the song that warped the world around them like a black wind tearing through the trees, Cornelius James found the courage to meet those mad, sad eyes, to look into the face that bore no resemblance to his wrinkled friend’s, and nod.
William returned the nod, and turned back to the gate.
The song rose in volume again.
The gate fell away, taking pieces of wall with it.
Still singing, the old man disappeared into the castle.
With William gone into the castle, CJ felt exposed standing in front of the gate that no longer was. He retreated to one of the shining steel and glass houses across the street, and found a doorway to hide in.
All around him, Old Baltimore rose to defend its master.
Dozens of Hands rolled, ran, or oozed down every street toward the castle, trailed by the merely human guards whose faces had gone white with fear and confusion. Eyes abandoned their unsleeping watch on the city’s border to streak through the air or along the rooftops. They filled the sky like ten thousand ravens, each successive wave dropping down into the castle’s unseen courtyard, firing a vast assortment of weaponry as they did.
William had been gone for twenty minutes and they were still coming, a horde that seemingly outnumbered the entire city’s human population.
CJ didn’t go into the castle. He stayed behind and quiet, like William had instructed. Because of that, he couldn’t say for sure how long the old man searched, or where he went, or even what words were said, if any, when the brothers finally met, face to face. He couldn’t even say what Lord Legion looked like, in the end, although he always made up something suitably grotesque for the little ones.
The only thing Cornelius James knew for sure was when it ended.
The first sign was the Hands grinding to a halt in mid-stride. Immediately after, Eyes began to rain from the sky, dropping like hail stones of flesh and metal as their rotors suddenly ceased to spin. Within seconds, the street was full of the broken shells of automatons. Within a minute, the only sounds were CJ’s own breathing, and, too far away to hear, yet too close not to feel, William’s song.
Then the song itself went quiet.
It was another forty minutes before William appeared at the gate. His cane was gone, and his good hand was wrapped around the shoulders of a young woman whose arms and legs were too long for her pod’s springtime uniform, whose hair was, for once, free of its braids, spreading outward like a cloud around her head.
CJ was ten feet away when his feet slowed of their own accord. He studied William’s face, looking for the true face of the Singer, but found only wrinkles, warm brown eyes, and a mouth that twisted into a smile almost too sad to hold its shape.
On seeing that smile, CJ rushed forward to hug them both. “Is she okay?”
“She’s tired,” answered William.
“But alive,” came Samara’s own voice, faint but firm.
“And you?” he asked the old man.
“The same, I guess.”
“Are you still going away, after all of this?”
This time, William’s smile had a trace of genuine warmth. “No, Cornelius James. I plan to stay.”
Twenty-seven months later, the people of New Baltimore met for a funeral. Members from every remaining pod gathered to say goodbye to William Green, a man who had saved the city, doomed it, and then, forty years later, saved it one last time before succumbing to the brain tumor that had brought him home.
The members of the newly-formed council led the eulogy. Samara was the last to speak. She told the crowd a story most of them had already heard, how she and CJ had first met William on the Hill. She told them of the vision the old man had once had for their city, a vision that their collective efforts were slowly transforming into reality, before finishing with a quote from one of the philosophy books she’d studied with William. At the very end, she looked for CJ, to see if he had anything to add.
Though there were few things he liked better than looking at and listening to Sammie, Cornelius James wasn’t in the crowd. In fact, he wasn’t at the funeral at all. He was almost a mile away, lying flat on his back on the roof of a decrepit old library, hands clasped behind his head. He was looking upward, past wisps of clouds disappearing into darkness, to a night sky slowly revealing itself. He was watching for the distant, dancing stars, looking for the few… the very few… who long ago had learned to sing.