OUR LADY OF 47 URSAE MAJORIS
Sonny MacAdam was an old man and, as such, he considered the indulgence of maudlin sentiment his God‑given right. It was the main reason he came to this desolate place, long after the other scholars and xenobiologists and anyone else with reason to be interested in the Lady had long since abandoned her study for more penetrable mysteries. Yet the Lady herself remained, aloof, mysterious, unfathomable.
Sonny was, by his own admission, hopelessly smitten.
He eased back on the throttle as the dark fissure came into view at the edge of a flat, mostly red‑brown plateau. His breath froze for a moment when something else came into view; a landing pod, sitting right near the entrance to Bloody Crack Canyon.
No one comes here anymore.
Not quite true, and Sonny knew it. He didn’t want to think about the others likely to appear, but they were the reason he kept his stun pads and ballgun fully charged. This, however, was something else. Sonny slowed his hoverflit and dipped lower for a closer look.
The pod was a near‑perfect sphere sitting on four flat round feet. The hatch was hard to spot but, even if the pod was fairly new and advanced, most Treaty World craft shared a common pool of generally available technology and Sonny was pretty sure where the hatch had to be. Another moment and he was barely able to make out the seams, so long as he was staring straight at them. He looked at the sandy desert floor, but there were no tracks, either footprints or of machinery, and the pod wasn’t big enough to hold a hoverflit or the equivalent, and even a Gan wouldn’t be foolish enough to take a flightsuit into the crevice…
Sonny had a sudden, horrible suspicion. He landed the hoverflit nearby and settled down to wait. It didn’t take long. The hatch opened and his suspicion was confirmed.
“Greetings, animal-person.” The synthesized voice was metallic‑sounding and had little inflection.
A big-headed pink runt of ambiguous gender stood in the open hatchway, smiling the same condescending smile that the entire species seemed to share. Sonny shook his head in disgust. It was a Gan. And the reason it was using a voice synthesizer was not that it couldn’t talk; it just refused to do so to a lesser being as a matter of principle. Since all non-Gans were lesser beings this obviously made commerce very difficult, so the voiceboxes were the obvious solution. A hundred stock phrases, ready for use, and nothing like a real conversation in the lot of them, though the Gan could manually enter text for the box to translate at need.
“What do you want here, Gan? This is a human colony.”
“The Gan desire nothing from the humans.”
Sonny could almost hear the indexing software click into place. “Standard stock phrase number seventy-three?”
“Eighty-seven,” the Gan corrected.
“Then why are you here?”
This took a little longer, since the Gan had to actually input the codes for something like a real answer. “I have come to see what is called ‘The Lady.'”
Another pause. “So that I will have done so.”
Clear as mud, but Sonny didn’t expect much else. He had spent fifteen years dealing with Gan and most of the other non‑Terran races in the Outworld Archeological Ministry at Procyon Colony. To this day he had never met a Gan that he didn’t want to punch in the nose. If the thing had a nose. Which, being a Gan, it did not. Just one more reason to be irritated with them as a species. Sonny idly wondered if their collective personality was some sort of defense mechanism; they honored their obligations under Treaty World Charter to the letter, so there was no excuse for open aggression. The alternative, almost universal, was that all the other races avoided the Gan religiously.
“Fine,” Sonny said. He locked down his hoverflit and started for the crevice. The Gan followed him. Sonny picked up his pace, and so did the Gan. He slowed down, and the Gan slowed to match him. Sonny finally stopped. “Are you following me?”
“A Gan doesn’t follow a human. I am merely going where you’re going.”
“That is your perception, not mine.”
Sonny shrugged. If there was a more pointless exercise in all creation than arguing with a Gan, he had yet to find it. Besides, he wondered what the Gan’s real business was. Sonny wondered if the thing might wind up harming the Lady. Not that it would intend such; Gans, despite their quirks, weren’t a particular destructive race. Yet they tended to be careless with things they did not value, and Gans had zero appreciation and respect for anything not Gan, including technology and art. Especially art. Sonny decided the Gan wanted watching. He started walking again and this time didn’t protest when the Gan kept pace with him, though he couldn’t resist stretching out his longer legs a bit to make the Gan hurry.
Big Bloody Crack Canyon was a deep and narrow box canyon; once well inside it Sonny and the Gan were out of the wind and the flying grit, and the howling wind was dampened into near silence. In the shade of the rock walls the walk was almost pleasant, except for the company. This was really the part that Sonny liked best: a good walk with building anticipation. At his age he didn’t anticipate very much in life. The Lady was one of the very few things that could still create that feeling in him. The Gan, for its part, just looked left and right and straight ahead with equal indifference.
“How much further?” it asked.
“This isn’t a tour and I’m not your guide,” Sonny said.
“You do not like Gans,” it said. It wasn’t a question.
“Nobody likes Gans; that’s one of the few things all Treaty World signatories agree on,” Sonny said. “I sometimes wonder if Gans even like each other, once they’re past the fact that they all love the idea of being Gans.”
The Gan made no response to this. Maybe it thought this was all obvious. Maybe despite its comment it just wasn’t listening. Sonny kept walking, and the Gan kept following. The floor of the canyon was rocky but fairly level; Sonny and his unwelcome companion made good time. Even so, Sonny eventually had to stop to rest. Sonny thought the Gan’s pink face was also showing more pink than normal. Sonny sat down on a rock and had some water. The Gan sat down on a rock and pulled out something red in a small tube, which he first broke in half and then ate, tube and all. Kerkic. Sonny remembered the substance from his Ministry days. It smelled like rancid butter but to a Gan it was apparently good stuff.
Different biology, different perspective.
It was true for all the known intelligent species. It’s just that the Gan had turned it into their highest virtue.
“How much farther?” the Gan asked again, as if the earlier conversation hadn’t happened at all.
“I’ll tell you, if you’ll answer a question of mine.”
“The Gan will trade,” it said. Sonny wondered which stock phrase that was.
“Who did the Gan look down on before they knew about the other species?”
“Gan have always known about the other species.”
Sonny wondered if he believed the Gan, decided it didn’t matter. He had no doubt the Gan believed it.
He sighed. “Thirty minutes… about seven ko, for you.”
Pause for tapping the studs on its translator. “Seven point five.”
After a few minutes rest Sonny checked the display on his wristwidget. There was enough time, but not a lot. Sonny hooked the water flask back to his belt, got off the rock and resumed walking. The Gan resumed following. As the approached the end of the box canyon the gap between the sheer rock walls widened a bit so that Bloody Crack Canyon was actually more like a canyon and not just a long crevice in the rock. The walls were now far enough apart that direct sunlight shone on the far wall at the end of the canyon and there, highlighted by the glow, was The Lady.
She was about forty meters of carved rock. Her body was humanoid so far as anyone could see; she’d been carved wearing some sort of robe that made any further guesses as to her biology rather problematic. Even her sex wasn’t really certain; the face had characteristics that, in a human, would certainly suggest a female. Yet, as the xenobiologists first on the site were quick to point out, The Lady was not and could not be human. She’d been created, as best anyone could calculate, when humans were still hunting the plains of Earth with stone‑tipped spears and their greatest invention was probably the atlatl. Such that she was, The Lady was the last survivor of her kind. Extensive digs of the canyon floor ‑‑ Sonny could still see rotting timbers and stepped excavation areas ‑‑ had revealed surprisingly little and so far no other major sites had been discovered. Sonny was certain they would be, sooner or later, but for now The Lady was pretty much it.
Not that this had anything to do with why Sonny came to visit her. He checked the wristwidget again, and smiled. He hadn’t missed it. He went to his favorite spot, a boulder with a natural depression that made a good seat, and settled back to wait. The Gan stood staring, first at The Lady, then at Sonny, then back again.
“Why you come?” it asked through the voicebox.
Sonny put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh.”
Just in time. The Lady began to sing.
“Hmm?” The sound actually came out of the Gan’s mouth, and not the synthesizer. Sonny assumed that was because the Gan was surprised, but mostly because he wasn’t talking to Sonny directly. Either way, he didn’t think about it for long. He was too busy listening.
There weren’t any words. The song started as a low‑pitched hum that slowly rose in pitch and volume, more like a chant. It reached its highest point, then diminished, then rose again. Sonny thought then what he had thought the first time he’d ever heard The Lady sing ‑‑ it was the sweetest sound in the universe.
The song faded to the same pitch in which it had begun, then faded out entirely. Sonny sat on his rock, a smile of pure bliss on his face. “Thank you,” he said aloud.
The Gan was still looking at Sonny and The Lady, one after another. His face was alternately flushing red and mauve which, in a Gan, indicated utter confusion. It tapped the studs on its synthesizer. “What just happened?”
“The Lady sang. She almost always sings at this time.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Which part? The time or the singing?”
“To a Gan, I don’t suppose either would. Why did you come?”
“To have done so. To see, to hear. Told you.”
That piqued Sonny’s curiosity, just a bit. “And you have done both. What is your conclusion?”
“This object you call ‘The Lady’ is not Gan.”
Sonny sighed gustily. “I could have told you that. Hell, any decent C-Lib guide to 47 Ursae Majoris could have told you that.”
“This one had to come for himself.”
“Fine. Now what?”
“I leave. This is not Gan. This great beauty of which I heard does not affect me. This great art of which I heard is not great art. There is no reason to remain, and none to return.”
“Fine,” Sonny said, totally unperturbed. He would have been surprised if it had said anything else.
“So. Now what?” it asked, echoing his own words back.
“Now what? We leave, as you said.”
“You will return?”
Sonny nodded. “Of course.”
“I am leaving,” it said.
Sonny smiled at it then. “Goodbye, then.”
Sonny turned to leave himself. Again, the Gan was following him. Sonny didn’t mind so much this time. He felt uneasy about the Gan being there alone, though he couldn’t say why. When he reached the opening to the crevice he waited until the Gan had returned to his landing pod and lifted off before he took his own hoverflit back home.
When Sonny next returned to Bloody Crack Canyon the Gan’s landing pod was there, too. Sonny waited for a little while, frowning, but the Gan didn’t appear. Sonny had a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach when he realized why this was probably the case. He set off and kept as quick a pace as he could through the canyon, not stopping to rest even though his legs were aching and his breath came short.
The Gan was already there. Sonny found him pointing an unfamiliar object right at The Lady. Sonny almost tackled the alien before he realized that the Gan didn’t have a weapon, but rather a variation of a standard ranging and measurement device. He watched the Gan for a few moments before shrugging and going to his seat. The Lady started singing again, and he listened in quiet reverence until she was done. The Gan waited until the song ended before he spoke, through the synthesizer.
“You have returned,” the Gan said.
“So have you. Unlike myself, however, You said you wouldn’t.”
The Gan didn’t respond to that. He whispered something to the Gan equivalent of a wrist widget.
“What are you doing?” Sonny asked.
“Measuring,” the Gan tapped out.
“I can see that. Why?”
The Gan hesitated. “To solve the riddle,” it said finally.
Now the Gan looked at him, and Sonny saw the returning red and mauve flush indicating confusion. “Wrong word? ‘Mystery,’ perhaps?”
Sonny nodded. “Ah, I think I understand. You want to know why The Lady sings?”
“You do not?” the Gan returned.
“I’d be just as happy not knowing,” Sonny said, nodding. “Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.”
More confusion, but it faded after a moment. “Metaphorical allusion. Which implies you already know?”
Sonny chuckled. “Even the Gan recognize that creatures other than Gan may sometimes have understanding,” he said. “Our scientists sorted that out years ago. There’s a large rock crystal inside the hollow of her mouth. When the sun warms the stone to a certain point it starts to vibrate which, with the acoustics within the chamber, creates the sound. There’s a dampening effect from non‑sympathetic vibration from other crystals on the inner surface which kicks in when the sound reaches a certain decibel level. That’s why the pitch changes. Ursae is only shining on the rock face for a relatively brief time. When the planet rotates out of position, she stops singing.”
The Gan just looked at him. “Clouds? Rain?”
Sonny nodded. “She doesn’t sing on cloudy days.”
The Gan looked confused again. “That’s all?”
Sonny shrugged. “Why? What did you expect?”
“Mystery,” it repeated.
“The only mystery is who created The Lady in the first place, and why. No culture of this level vanishes with no other traces, so they’ll find the first answer sooner or later. We may never know the second.”
“The ones who are looking for the answer. My brother archeologists. Xenobiologists. That lot.”
More confusion. “You?”
“I used to be an archeologist. Now I just come to hear her sing, and watch over her. Why are you here? You said you were done. The Lady isn’t of Gan origin. She doesn’t conform to Gan esthetics, whatever those are. She doesn’t concern the Gan.”
“All correct. Yet she is not human. Why does she concern you?”
“I just like to hear her sing.”
The Gan clearly did not understand. It wandered off to examine the base of the statue, and poke about within the excavations. Sonny just sat back on his rock and waited. The Gan finally noticed him again.
“The Lady is not singing.”
“You’re right,” Sonny said.
“You should leave.”
“So should you.”
Sonny smiled. “I am cautious. The Lady doesn’t attract too much attention these days. The other scientists are done with her for the moment and the colonists are too busy, for the most part, to come here. There are a few exceptions, usually vandals. Fortunately, they haven’t done more than graffiti, easily removed.”
“I am no vandal. I am Gan.”
“One doesn’t preclude the other. Though I honestly don’t think that you’d harm The Lady.” Sonny wasn’t sure why he’d said that, except that he knew it was true.
“I will not harm The Lady in any way,” the Gan confirmed.
Sonny let out a sigh. “Assuming that is so, you still haven’t said why you’re hanging around. You know why she sings, or rather how. She’s not Gan. No mystery, nothing to keep you here. Why don’t you leave?”
“I do not know. I think I am insane.”
Stunned silence was all Sonny could muster for several long moments. The Gan found himself a shorter rock near Sonny’s and sat down, looking miserable. Sonny could not remember a time when he had seen a Gan miserable; he doubted if any non-Gan had seen this before. He’d have enjoyed the sight except it made him distinctly uneasy. “Look…” he finally managed speech again. “Since when does a Gan care about anything that is not Gan?”
The Gan’s fingers poised above the studs of his synthesizer, hesitated. It finally lowered its hands to his small, knobby knees. “Since now,” it said, and it said it with its own voice. A rather high, reedy tone, which Sonny had heard before but always in the case of Gan speaking among Gan, and never in Standard. Now here was a Gan, speaking to a human with its own voice. As far as Sonny knew, the event was unprecedented in Treaty World history. There was also a new color flush to the Gan’s skin. More blue than mauve. Almost indigo. Sonny mentally searched his briefings on Gan physiology and his own memories, but found nothing on that particular skin hue.
Sonny shook his head. “I don’t know what to say to that. It’s serious.”
The Gan blushed affirmation. “I care about things that are not‑Gan. I am lost to the Gan. I am lost to myself.”
“I’m sorry,” Sonny said, and was a little surprised to realize he meant it.
“You could help me…if you wish. You could tell me why you come here. You know how she sings, so there is no mystery. You say you like her song. Is this all?”
“Well…no. Maybe not all. I know how she sings; everyone does. Yet we still don’t know why, as I said. I still have to wonder about that, after all these years.”
“Why?” Confusion again. “Doesn’t she sing because of physics? How can she not sing?”
Sonny shook his head again. “She was made to sing, true. Why? Who made her? Why is she here? Did she have religious significance? Is her song a call to prayer? A lament over a tomb we have yet to find? The local version of mid-day clock tower? None of the above? That’s the mystery, not how she sings.”
The Gan appeared to consider this, or at least his skin showed blotches of orange and green. “How can we solve this by listening?”
It was a small word, but Sonny didn’t miss it. We. The idea of a Gan sharing anything with a human other than air was almost beyond his comprehension.
“The answer is: we don’t. I’ve been coming here for more than thirty years and I’m no closer to knowing. Yet I still come. I can’t explain it any better than that.” Sonny paused, realizing in that moment that he felt sympathy for the Gan. Which was only slightly less ridiculous, in his view, than a Gan speaking to a human in the first place. He didn’t know whether to sigh or laugh. “She’s got you too, hasn’t she?”
Again the flush of blue. What was it? Embarrassment? No, that was rumored to be yellow, though Sonny had never seen it. “I have no time for this,” it said. “I have responsibilities.”
“Then leave,” Sonny said. “Leave, don’t come back. Simple enough.”
“Why don’t you?”
Sonny did laugh then. “I’ve tried. Dozens of times. Didn’t work.”
“Destroy the image,” it said.
Sonny didn’t say anything for several moments. “I actually thought of that. Several times.”
“Why not do it then?”
“The truth? Because it wouldn’t work. Even if she was gone forever…well, I’d remember. I’d still come back. Only without the song. Why would I do that to her? Why would I do that to me? Do you really think it would work for you?”
“I do not know,” the Gan said.
“Something a Gan does not know? I am astonished.”
“A Gan does know sarcasm, human.”
Sonny bowed his head slightly. “So they do, and my comment was uncalled for. I apologize.”
“A Gan should not care about things not-Gan,” it said.
“You make it sound like a matter of faith,” Sonny said, as if it had not heard.
“It is,” the Gan said, quietly. “This one has lost faith. Perhaps even before I came here. The Gan believe in the Gan. For this one that was not enough.”
“Wow,” was all Sonny could say.
“I will not ‑‑ would not — destroy the Lady, as I know it would not solve the problem. It was just a thought.”
Sonny smiled. “I know.”
When next Sonny returned to the canyon, he wasn’t surprised to see the Gan’s landing pod there also. He was a little surprised to see that the pod wasn’t the only vehicle present: three new model hoverflits were settled right by the canyon entrance.
Sonny checked his ballgun and stunpads, making sure all were fully charged. Then he hurried through the canyon. He didn’t stop to rest, and he arrived wheezing and soaked with sweat.
He saw the rock chipper first, lying casually on the ground where someone had dropped it. It was a small model, barely more than an etcher. There was only one thing such a device could be used for here, and Sonny felt a chill in the pit of his stomach. He hurried around the last turn of the crevice and was greeting by an astonishing sight.
The Gan was calmly sitting on the same small rock where it had sat the day before. To its left, three young humans were plastered high against the rock wall in various undignified positions, their expressions alternating between pain, anger, and terror in rapid succession. Sonny glanced at the base of the Lady, saw where the three had apparently been merrily carving their contributions to the edifice of immortality before the Gan interrupted them. Sonny shook his head in disgust, then glared up at the three.
“‘Spatbear was here’? You defaced a protected planetary historical site for that?”
“Get us down! We didn’t do nothing wrong…”
“Shut up,” Sonny said. Whether it was his voice or the fire in his eyes that did it, the effect was immediate. They shut up.
Sonny sat down beside the Gan on his own rock. “Controlled static charge?” he asked.
The Gan nodded. “It seemed best. I thought of killing them but wondered if it was appropriate.”
“I think so personally,” Sonny said. “But there are proper forms to follow. And as Colony Curator of Antiquities for this area I’ll see that the forms are followed to the letter.”
The Gan blinked. “Your title? I did not know that.”
Sonny shrugged. “It’s not really why I come here. But it has been useful now and then.”
The Gan glanced up at the three furious vandals. “What will happen to them?”
“They’ll spend the next six weeks filling in the damage with matching syncrete under the direction of a competent field archeologist — me, in this case. I guarantee the Lady will have her pound of flesh, and then some.”
The Gan turned a thoughtful shade of blue as he looked at the damaged area, small though it was. “Will it take so long?”
“I will see that it does,” Sonny said.
The Gan showed confusion. “Why would anyone do this silly, pointless thing? Even an animal?”
“The capacity to be moved by the Lady or any art or image implies the possibility that one will not be so moved. The ability to believe in something beyond yourself implies the freedom to not so believe. Boredom is the root of all evil. I don’t know. Pick one.”
“I envy them,” the Gan said, looking up at the three. “At least in this one regard: they are free of the burden of emotional attachment to things beyond themselves.”
Sonny smiled a wry smile. “So do I. Just a little bit, mind you, but that’s another thing they’re going to pay for.” Sonny checked his watch. Almost time.”
“Almost,” the Gan agreed.
“Get us down!” one of the three repeated, finally. “Dammit, this hurts!”
“Good,” Sonny said. “Say, you three losers ever hear the Lady sing before?” The silence told Sonny everything he needed to know.
“Get us down!” the boy repeated, finally.
“Later. Right now, shut up and listen.”
“Do you think this will make any difference?” the Gan asked.
“Not likely, but they’re going to hear it anyway…” Sonny hesitated, considering. Then, for some reason he could not name, he had a sudden, vivid image of the Lady smiling.
Your imagination, old son. Getting away with your aging brain.
More than likely it was. Yet it was enough; more than he’d ever had before. He turned to the Gan. “Say, I need an assistant, and you’re pretty good at this. You say you lost your faith. Would you like a new purpose in life?”
“One must believe in something,” the Gan said. “Yet it isn’t why I came here.”
“Nor me. Yet here I am, and here you are.”
The Gan nodded. “Yes.”
Later they would deal with the vandals. Later yet they would finally get around to exchanging names. Not just yet. Now it was time for greater matters and yet again, if not for them alone, the Lady sang. When the song was done Sonny glanced up at the hapless vandals and got a mild surprise. Two of them stuck where they were, splayed flat against the rock wall, fuming. The third had turned himself with great difficulty to look at the Lady. Sonny peered closer, though he had to bring up an ocular to get a proper look.
There were tears on the kid’s face.
First time, eh? Should have listened before you followed your friends so blindly.
Sonny thought about it for a moment, then let out a gusty sigh. He turned to the Gan, and pointed up at the rockface. “Let that one down.”
Sonny smiled. “Because, despite all expectation, sometimes what we do makes a difference. Perhaps it’s the real reason I come here. Not faith, exactly, but something like it. It could be the same for you.”
Sonny nodded. “No. But, for now, it will have to do.”
©2008 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.