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Echo Recovery

Gyen, whose warm claws I grasp as the shuttle doors open onto the snowfields, had a song twin named Digne, who was human. Together they could entwine any audience in awe. They would stand in the center of the stage, Digne's black hair like falling water, Gyen's snakelike neck swaying as his sibilant susurrus entwined with her rising notes. It was as if they sang to the stars themselves.
But Digne died last week: a sudden illness. No one saw it coming. And as Songmaster of the Great Theater at Noti Station, where the music called Hissharl--twins--is sung only by our two races, it is my duty to accompany Gyen to his hibernation. But my own heart quails with grief, for Gyen is also my friend.
We walk together from the lander. Outside, instead of the regular howling gale, a rare stillness like a held breath. Above, the high gray sky. Spread out before us, stretching to the distant mountains, is the hibernation field of Khor. White against the white snow, the smooth spheres of the hibernation cases appear as scattered stones, twice again as tall as I am. I take a few steps, stop. The silence presses on my ears.
When Gyen does not lead, I take him by the claws and walk until I find an open spot in the snow. A few white flakes drift down.
"I'll miss you," I say, and my voice cracks on it. I'd known that I would be losing both of them, but now that the moment has come I clutch Gyen's claws more tightly.
"And I, you," he says. He embraces me; then, without dropping my hand, crouches in the snow. He's not wearing any suit. Loose snow sifts over his toes, the hairlike scales on his elongated neck fold in close to the skin, and I know we must hurry or he'll freeze too soon.
"I would like to say a few words," Gyen says.
The formalities have begun. "I shall record them for the people."
He coils his neck atop his body, and as he does so his snakelikeness vanishes. He now seems enduring, solid. I feel I don't know him.
"Digne," he begins, "was all that the stars could desire a singer to be."
Motes of snow drift down.
"But I don't care. Curse them to darkness. It is not right for them to shine when Digne's light has gone out for all eternity."
My lips tremble.
"It is not right." He crouches lower, and I see that he's begun to extrude the hibernation case. It grows like a woven basket beneath him, swiftly.
"I pity you," he says. "You must watch the stars mock your grief every day until you die. I shut them out! I will go where they cannot harm me. I will see only darkness and hear only silence." I watch the case rise up around him. It covers his legs, his torso. He lets go of my hand.
"I know you loved her," he says. "Many years I waited for her to love you back."
There is a long pause, but I do not speak. Humans may make no sound after the parting words are begun.
"I am sorry she never did."
The case rises over his head, and now his words echo, distorted weirdly across the plain.
"When I wake again, may I find Digne's echo in my new singer. May we stand once more in the hall, our two voices in one song, my grief slept away."
The case seals itself at the top, seamless. I stand alone on the plain, the hollow in my chest filled with silence.
To be Songmaster is to be exposed. I am by turns composer, record keeper, envoy, recognized everywhere on the station. My grief exists as a public event. Now, as I hurry back from the hangar to my own quarters, a human stranger approaches. He is dressed in a fine tunic, with gold at his ears and throat.
"Songmaster," he says, and I nod. I hate this, this formality of solace, and for a moment I see myself as he must: my red-rimmed eyes, my shoulders hunched as if against a blow.
"I've brought you a grief-gift, and I express my deepest sorrow."
I take the cloth-wrapped bundle, feel its softness and weight. I open it. Inside rests a carved figurine of Digne in ebony, her mouth closed, her eyes averted from my face.
The choir tries to comfort me. But they are grieving, too; I cannot bear them. I flee to my rooms and lock myself in my study. There, I struggle to compose Digne's eulogy. Although I wish it could be anyone else's duty, it is mine alone.
I want Gyen to sing it. Sitting there, the fury that he has run away from this vibrates in my clenched teeth until my jaw aches. I'm holding the stylus and I hear him, his murmuring whisper, familiar as my own breath. That it is the Vhatian way, since the beginning of time, to hibernate after the loss of a partner only makes it worse. In my dreams he laughs at me. He thinks--all Vhatians think--that human grief is a bad trick of evolution. They pity us.
Finally I go down to the Great Theater, with its hanging drapes dyed indigo and scarlet, its Vhatian wood carved into scrollwork by human hands, and stare at the empty stage.
I don't know why I loved her.
I don't know why, not when it was so clear she didn't feel the same. I admired her quiet dignity. Her serious face, that seldom smiled except when she was performing. Her eyes, which seemed to see out past the station to something I couldn't understand. It shames me, but perhaps I loved her because I didn't understand her, the way humans love the remote vista of the stars.
I land a shuttle on Khor in a blasting ice storm. When I exit the ship with Tamal, our new human singer, I can't see farther than the end of my own arm. For a brief moment I imagine myself, lost and freezing, dying beside Gyen's hibernation case in the snow. Then I bow my head against the onslaught and shoulder my way forward. "This way," I tell him. It's been six months since Gyen and I came, and I've lost track of which sphere holds him.
Despite the storm, it doesn't take us long to reach the Vhatian we've been sent to retrieve. When we arrive he looks like all the others: a featureless sphere on a featureless plain.
"Put your hand on the case," I say, but Tamal is already reaching forward, as if he recognizes him. As he's been trained to, he sings.
The wind picks up the notes and carries them away. Still, I know he hears them, this Vhatian, and in a few minutes the hibernation case thins, strands and then great hunks of it whipping away in the gale. When it's gone the Vhatian is curled in the fetal position in the snow, but his eyes are wide, watching us.
"We greet you," I say and, hurrying to beat the cold, yank him to his feet and drag him, unresisting, back to the lander. Only when he's dressed and warm and lucid do we ask his name.
"Eleyk," he says. He has been in hibernation for one hundred forty-three years--almost longer than I've been alive. He is different from Gyen--his voice lower, his neck hairs like soft gray down. For a moment I allow myself to hate him, but it feels so bad I nearly choke on it.
He and Tamal curl up on the couch like lovers. I'm preparing the ship for takeoff when a great crush of grief seizes me. It is as if no time had passed at all; I miss them so much I can't breathe. It is only by terrible force of will that I am able to lift the shuttle away, towards home.
On the anniversary of her death, the eulogy for Digne is performed with a full chorus. Between the resonant notes of the humans and the whispering hiss of the Vhatians: lacunae where her voice should have carried. The absent notes resonate the hollow ache of loss.
After the last hiss has faded, and the silent audience has filed out onto the spillway, I stay behind in the theater and let my tears fall.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 5th, 2021
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