Ares’ twin moons had just risen; their light lending crimson hues to the night’s performance. The show’s brightest star greeted her audience, in a figure hugging velvet dress that accentuated every curve. Maestra Giulietta Tamassia bore the title Diva as if born to it, the highest earning singer in five generations and the only one with full Swettenham range. She waited until the room fell silent and the watching elite barely dared breathe. Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria had never been sung with such brilliance; every crystal note resonating against sonic panels so that the air changed colour. An assistant left the wings as the music died, holding a visual pattern generator visor, the virtual reality device set in true-silver. She helped the diva position it correctly and guided her centre stage for the second half. Visual stimuli did its work and the brain produced an electrical signal; gamma oscillation separated into rippling harmonics. Any amateur could ride sound waves to modify between four and nine notes. Giulietta’s range went all the way up to twelve and she was now at the height of her career, could fill a concert hall from Ares to Zenobia.
In the beginning, the research was never intended for entertainment. She had studied the original science at the Academy; all theory exams passed with honours before she was allowed near a functional visor. The basic explanation would stay with her forever even if she lived to the current span of one hundred and fifty. In 2009, scientists proved that studying how a human brain ‘sings’ improved understanding of epilepsy and schizophrenia.
They were the first ones, the pioneers, their statues given pride of place in the Heroes Hall: Drs. Muthukumaraswamy, Edden, Swettenham and Professors Jones and Singh. Their work at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre discovered that each human brain produced a unique electrical signal – a gamma oscillation at a particular frequency when shown a visual pattern. The concentration of a neurotransmitter chemical GABA in the visual cortex determined oscillation frequency. Each brain ‘sang’ different notes in the 40-70 Hertz range; similar to notes in the lowest octaves of a piano keyboard or lower notes on a bass guitar; high concentrations of this chemical led to higher oscillation frequency and note. The study of gamma oscillation frequency offered a new window into the action of neurotransmitters such as GABA and how their function was compromised in diseases such as epilepsy and schizophrenia. It helped develop effective drugs to treat these and other neurological conditions.
The scientists who made the discovery never lived to see what the next century did with it but they were remembered: the notes split into five groups, one named for each of the research team. Gods bless their descendants and those who made a good living from their work. Giulietta gave the audience one last curtain call before the stage hard air screens came back on.
She looked at the panic on her assistant’s face and knew something was wrong. There is a problem, the young Singh novice said without going into detail. You only had to listen to the noise of conflict outside the concert hall to realize that, but the Diva went anyway. A tall man in a severe black uniform who held death in his eyes met her on the steps, snarling at one of the braver security guards to keep the stage doors unlocked. Wild eyed and clearly deranged, a teenager lurched down Main Street shouting that his brain was filled with molten lead. A woman went mad as if the psychosis was infectious. She tore at her hair and threw the baby she had held so tenderly high into the air. It would have fallen onto unforgiving cobbles if the one sane man left had not braved the lunatic mob to catch it. Giulietta moved to help as her bodyguard touched her elbow, the touch feather light but it made her pause.
“Be careful,” Kair said in a voice designed not to carry. “Remember Arachne?”
Only last month; that had been a riot worthy of the name; half the city in flames, a hundred dead and the Company arrested for being in the middle of it. Mind Singers were not immune from prosecution if charges came.
“This is different. Can’t you feel it?” She hit one of the mad with a bouquet of roses and the shipping box they came in.
“That is madness,” her assistant whined, “think of the negative publicity.”
“Hell with that,” sometimes, the only way to release post-performance adrenaline was to release a pent-up berserker controlled for too long.
“Maestra,” he said; careful not to give advice. “This is not a good time to meet your fans.” A strong Ares burr to his speech, Kair Raven fell into step behind his employer and made the mob think twice. The people storming the concert hall drifted away to go mad again somewhere else. She watched the assistant bolt to the safety of the hall and turned to her bodyguard, friend and lover. “Shall we dance?”
His ice-blue eyes did not waver, a dangerous stillness in a face made for playing poker. “Nice night for it.”
They stepped out, as if on a moonlight stroll. One, two, three –counting was a charm, helping him ease the situation. Four, five and, by seven, everything was alright until the next time. Close, but he had given his word not to kill anyone. In the early years of their arrangement, when she was a rising star and he an out of work soldier no-one would hire, they had barely spoken to each other. He needed a job and she had too many enemies to worry how he did it. Now, all his demons were tightly controlled, but occasionally they roared to the surface.
On those days she declared a sudden interest in going to the worst part of town where they were sure to find a fight. In the time they had been together, she learned she liked tavern brawls as a relaxation aid.
“Gods, I need a drink,” he spat blood from a split lip and winced when an AA-chip triggered at the sentiment. Three years ago, when post traumatic stress left over from the war and drinking to forget got too much, Giulietta was there to pick up the pieces. They needed each other, completed the circle but his reputation scared people, the top ranked personal attack dog for the top ranked singer. He had stopped killing if it could be avoided but there were times when fans needed a lesson. They cut their way through the mayhem before control squads arrived, the first riot gas beginning to blow on an indifferent breeze. Closed the villa gates on the night and went straight to bed, easily ignoring twenty messages left by an agent in danger of turning obsessive.
Giulietta held out a visor watching the tension lift. “You promised me a duet,” she said.
Kair had no family and lost his last friend years ago. Where he went when they were apart was a mystery and he discouraged anyone from trying to find out. There were rumours and an alcohol problem – the one shrouded in half truth and speculations, the other openly on file. Two years sober now, he had enough sense to know he could never drink again. He saved her life more than once and, in a way, she did the same for him – giving him a way back to sanity and the light.
The amplifier magnified notes and separated them into constituent harmonics. In his days of drug and alcohol schizophrenia, GABA concentrations made his note high in the scale; now he ‘sang’ a pleasant Jones tenor. It contrasted nicely with her cerebral voice, a compatible joining of minds, but they sang together rarely. He had no wish to perform in public but his mind had a power and rare clarity in someone not trained to use it. She responded easily; the harmonies of her Swettenham tones rippling as she crafted them. Free composition allowed a much needed relief after four sell out performances in as many nights. Kair instinctively followed her lead, running two harmonies together until they twisted through each other like silver threads. The music they made together remained in their memories, repertoires expanded forever.
Giulietta traced the scars across his ribs, moved on to a cluster of starbursts – each one a healed bullet wound. He worked his way up from the ranks of the Ares Militia from private to Sergeant-at-Arms, from Sergeant to acting Lieutenant; every scar a memento of the time of war. When Earth decided it wanted its colony back, it sent superior numbers and firepower and fought a three year campaign. While he continued to fight after the final invasion, the Mind Singers Academy remained neutral. It refused to take sides and that neutrality was respected. Giulietta graduated on the day of the last battle, the final notes of her master song dying away at the same time as the ceasefire. They made love at dawn and forgot about their war stories. It was late morning when her assistant met her at the doors of her private study.
“You have visitors. They are waiting inside.”
She whispered the Muthukumaraswamy name as if it was a dirty word, one eye still swollen from the riot when a complete stranger punched her for belonging to the Singer’s Guild.
“Thank you,” the Maestra gathered her thoughts as the doors slid into place behind her.
Ash and Willow Darien were old friends, close in age but different as fire and ice: one a risk taker, the other deeper with more self control. They bickered offstage but came together in performance with a unity that made them unbeatable. Both trained at the Academy a year after Giulietta’s master song, but they had been friends from early years spent career building. Polite greetings exchanged; the reason for their visit became apparent – they did not bring good news.
“Garret Mac died this morning,” Willow said, barely able to keep back the tears.
Willow glanced around the room to check that Kair Raven was not there.
“You are still frightened of my bodyguard?” Giulietta asked, seeing the truth.
She gave an embarrassed half-nod and admitted it.
“He is a scary guy.”
“Who has absolutely no reason to hurt you,” Giulietta said but that did not seem to help.
Ash nudged his sister, urging her to get to the point. “We heard two hours ago – the investigating team found him with a visor set on offensive.”
“He wasn’t the type to fight a duel.”
She barely remembered Garret McGowan even though they were on the same intake, shared classes and got drunk together more than once. A poet and a dreamer, he had been a hopeless romantic without the means or family connections to make that a practical lifestyle choice.
“He lost one.” There was a note of triumph in Darien’s voice, reminding her that the two never liked each other. Brother and sister excused themselves for she had an afternoon performance and needed to prepare. She sang as well as ever but left the stage thinking there was something lacking. The near-riot that followed the last encore did not help. She travelled through a ravaged city and wondered what the hell was happening. One man might know, even if he was a Seller and the lowest of the low – a scum peddler of information who was not picky about where he sold it. During the time of war, he dealt with both sides and made a good living. Now he ruled a sector and held court in one of Ares’ most notorious nightclubs. Even with Kair by her side, she did not enjoy walking into The Rings to ask for audience. Permission came, granted as if it were a great favour. The man had a handshake so damp you wanted to wear gloves just to touch him. The remains of last week’s dinner stuck to his shirt and he was always counting down the hours to his next meal. Vargas was a slob, but had useful connections.
The waitress brought ice cold water and three bottles of beer, put them down on the table and moved away as if trying to escape the smell. Grossly overweight during the war, he had ballooned to a spherical shape. He bathed once a year on his birthday and that had been nine months ago. She watched Kair disappear in search of fresher air and forced herself to smile. Vargas leered at her performance gown, a long train of brushed feather silk stirring sawdust from the floor. He wiped showed all three of his remaining teeth.
“Julie. My songbird.” he still refused to use her proper name. “What can we do for you today?”
“I need some information, and please take your hand off my thigh. What is going on?”
“I heard it from reliable sources that a splinter faction is plotting something big.” He stopped; a typical Seller’s gambit to press for more money.” She laid a gold credit on the table and cursed when he shook his head. All four chins wobbled their disapproval at such a low offer, taking it as a personal insult. A handful of coins loosened his flabby tongue and he continued: “Some of the Muthuk want true independence for Ares instead of the compromise the powers that be worked out after the war. I guess that they got tired of sharing.”
Giulietta felt sick, waves of sudden nausea washed over her until she almost drowned in the back wash. Muthukumaraswamy Singers were rare now but had the most powerful cerebral voice – potentially a deadly weapon. Illegal, immoral, it was unthinkable that someone could use their Science given gifts for evil. She cleared the thought from her mind. One question left. “Someone I trained has just been killed in a duel.”
“He must have got in their way.” Vargas shrugged. “Aye, Garret was part of the plot, a true patriot and too stupid to know that they were using him. Unfortunately my source has disappeared without trace so I don’t think I can tell you anything else.”
He leered again and patted the chair next to his massive bulk, his hand spider-like crawling up her leg as if she would not notice. She looked down at her glass of iced water with regret. On a world where bottled water was far more expensive than alcohol, it seemed like such a waste. It would take an ocean to wash him clean and so she threw the beer at him instead and finished her drink. She swept out of the bar with all the dignity of her profession and then spoilt it all by having to vomit in a back alley.
Next morning, she threw up three times before breakfast and waited a week before admitting she had a problem. Mother’s House offered a discrete consultation; fiercely protective of favourite clients. She waited in the well scrubbed reception room, enjoying the mingled scent of burning frankincense and pine resin until the healers came in to see her. They treated her with the respect due to her profession, their gentle voices asking questions while the scan array did its work.
“Your child has the Muthukumaraswamy range,” the older Healer said, showing her an image on hard air screens. “There is a clear signal, unusual at this early stage of development”. She paused. “You didn’t know?”
Giulietta shook her head, the news hitting hard but it was not unwelcome. “I had no idea. Is that what all this is about – the spreading madness wherever I go?”
“There is a battle in your belly. The medical people call it Contrary Foetal Syndrome where a mother and child’s brain sings out of harmony – two notes trying to sound from the same body and it will only get worse.”
“But it is treatable?” She had no wish to cause riots anymore; those wild student days were long gone. “Please tell me you can help.”
The healer held out a wrinkled hand and smiled, her face like an afal-lime kept too long in storage. “There is a way to realign frequencies, stop the harmonic fractures from affecting everything else. No risk to either mind and I can do the procedure now.”
She smiled again as Giulietta hesitated. “It doesn’t hurt. I promise you that. Close your eyes and count down from ten to one, concentrate on the flow of breath.”
A medical visor lay on the table, a functional grey frame interwoven with copper wire and panels of psychic glass. The healer reached for it and laid a hand on her patient’s stomach; she sang notes of realignment with her true voice and then used her mind; a simple children’s nursery rhyme that enveloped and soothed.
“There will be no more riots.”
Giulietta opened her eyes and watched violent energy spikes that surrounded the projected image fade to a normal colour. Her unborn child smiled as it sucked what would soon be its thumb. She left Mother’s House with the scan burnt into psycho-responsive film and tried to reshuffle her engagements. The streets were busy, dawdling market-day crowds and traders made progress slow but she was content to walk with her own thoughts. Infant wranglers corralled their charges while parents shopped in peace or left the city. All unclaimed babies went to the next stall after three days, sold on to couples who could afford an adoption license.
She stopped to watch a virtual cockfight; pairs of brightly coloured computer generated holograms battling to simulated death on the cobbles. Gambling was strictly illegal, but nobody had told that to the crowd. A triumphant roar went up as the losing ‘bird’ vanished in a puff of exploding pixels and money changed hands, bets placed openly before the next bout started.
“Never had you down as a betting woman,” Ash Darien said, his sister not far behind. Her delicate face was slightly flushed by the bitter weather, the pale reflective beauty given more warmth when she smiled. Ash bent to pick up the foetal scan when it dropped to the floor, a secretive smile marring his perfect features. “Looks like someone is keeping things from us?” he said and reverted once more to the friend she had trusted for a decade.
“I would have told you sooner or later,” Giulietta retrieved the precious image, seeing that Willow at least was genuinely pleased to hear the news. “Who else will cover my engagements while I take a break?”
“Congratulations,” Ash said and almost meant it.
They promised to keep what they knew private, but she had not wanted to tell anyone. No help for it now; the secret already shared. She arrived at the ident-coded gates of her private villa and punched in the password, remembering to reset the scan for two. From the look on her assistant’s face, the young woman was about to burst with excitement.
Rowena blurted the latest news out before she was asked, “Another Swettenham top rank died last night. No witnesses, no physical evidence except a broken visor clutched in her hand.”
“Who was it?” She felt sick again, the ginger root tablets offering only a short-lived relief. She started singing to the child in her womb, using mind song and true voice in a subtle combination that had never been more private. It eased the nausea, something more positive to do than just sit all day with her head held low over a sanitation vortex.
“The latest news feed said that her name was Maestra Elena Mesaroli. I think you knew her. She had a power and a range almost equal to your own, but she died in the gutter. Somebody is targeting us.”
Rowena made a face. “The citadel forces have put three sectors under curfew – patrols with orders to shoot first and ask questions through a psychic afterwards.”
“There must be something you have to do?”
For a novice due to make her first public performance to a paying audience in only a few weeks, Rowena showed little inclination to practice. She preferred to exchange news, gossip and scandal and practised only when she could not avoid it. Watching Kair Raven increase the villa’s security field from amber to double then triple red, Giulietta thought that it was more like living in a fortress than ever.
“No-one gets in or out without invitation,” he said, competent as ever. “I put people I trust on the door, more on the inside. Do you still want to do tonight?”
“You know I can’t pull out.” The very thought was impossible. In her entire career, she had never cancelled a concert and did not intend to start now. Even five months pregnant, she had standards to maintain and there were many singers who would be only too happy to take her place on the stage. Once they took one performance from her, they would never let it be forgotten. They would not rest until they replaced her and took top billing. “I will not hide away like a frightened child in the middle of solar wind season.”
“Of course not“, he was non committal. Transport arranged he called a favour from the Guard Commander so they had an armed escort. In the end, even that was not enough. The concert passed off without incident, her performance as flawless as ever. Watched by the First Speaker and his glamorous consort in their floating private box, she sent her mind voice to new heights of brilliance and forgot all about the murders. She walked into the dressing room after her last song, still full of adrenaline from the rapturous applause as she called her assistant’s name. Only a watchful silence greeted that sound, the warm room in darkness until a sensor registered her presence and brightened the glow orbs. She called out again and then saw the aide seated at the corner desk. Rowena looked as if she was asleep, her head bent low over a musical score, but what had taken her was more permanent than sleep. Still warm, a trickle of blood at her mouth the only sign of a struggle. Giulietta did not scream. Someone shut her eyes, she thought as the hooded shapes closed in from all sides. They covered their faces, black shadow screen obscuring every feature.
The first one reached for her and she kicked out, using concentrated rage as a weapon. A seventeen year old girl lay dead for absolutely no reason – Rowena never deserved such an end to what might have been a promising career.
As the door burst open, Giulietta Tamassia wanted to kill them all. She shouted a diva’s battle cry and embraced the inner berserker that was never far from the surface. Kair Raven was at her side in a heartbeat and he never needed an excuse. They flowed together in the fighting style he had taught her; Capoeira, every controlled movement more like a dance than martial art.
Even though purists thought that using the hands was inelegant, she hit one of her attackers over the head with an antique lamp brought from Earth a century ago. Converted to glow sphere power instead of electricity, the heavy marble base made an effective weapon.
Kair killed two, rendered a third unconscious in a heartbeat but there were still too many of them. The advantage of numbers, a pair of red robed figures waited for minions to get the job done but they were growing impatient. One of them raised a hand in an all too familiar gesture: adjusting a pattern generator visor set as a weapon instead of mind music. The taller red robe made a contemptuous flick and the wind song slammed Kair against the back wall. He crumpled to the floor and did not move again.
“Hello,” the shrouded figure whispered in her ear before she could react. Darkness took her, the needle kiss of hypodermic dreamless sleep but the voice was all too familiar. She regained consciousness but still could not move; an acrid fog clouding her mind to keep her paralyzed. A wall loomed at her back but offered no clear suggestion where she was; the only clue the smell of salt in the air and the cry of the Sea Mews. When she opened her eyes, a familiar face greeted her; one she had called a good friend.
“How did you sleep?”
She blinked, the only option open to her, but tried to make the blink sarcastic.
He did not seem to care. “The Irish Bards had a sleep strain to their harp music. That was thousands of years ago and Earth is a long way from here, but they could kill enemies just by playing one particular song.” Ash paused in the ancient history lesson, his eyes shining with a true believer’s light. “In the beginning, Mind Singing began as a treatment for Schizophrenia or Epilepsy but we have come a long way from that. Now it is an art form, used to entertain people who can afford to listen. Most of those who go to our concerts were not born on Ares. We fought a war but Earth still pulls the strings. Muthukumaraswamy has a powerful weapon at its disposal even if it has forgotten that for money. Your baby is the key to it all, which is why you are still alive. We need you. The only way for Ares to be truly free is to take back what was stolen from us at Wyvern’s Ridge.”
His voice trailed off as he noticed the chain around his captive’s neck for the first time; a red light blinking from the pendant like an accusing eye.
Kair Raven had come up behind him, silent as any wraith, holding a locator device.
The necklace looked like a simple piece of jewellery, undetectable in any scan, but it could pinpoint location to the nearest city block and building. He was bleeding heavily, one arm hanging broken and useless, but he was used to pain.
“A lot of people died at Wyvern,” he never sounded more dangerous. “I never saw you there. You talk about freedom for Ares but never fought for her when it still mattered.”
Other people would have been dead already but he had always been stubborn. He made no secret that he hated the new movement to keep Ares only for those born and bred there.
His own people were there long before official settlers came from Earth – never any talk of giving the planet back to them. The bloody war for independence had almost ruined his life. When the ink dried on the Articles of Settlement, all such dreams should have gone with it. People who still thought they had a cause to fight for reopened old wounds but did little else.
Ash whirled and sent out a blast of mind song, every note tempered to cause maximum damage, but he had not taken the time to build a proper Kill Strain. The bodyguard moved too quickly and ignored all rules of fair combat. He did not stay still, making the fanatic expend ever greater bursts of energy to ward off attack.
Giulietta revived when Willow Darien broke smelling salts under her nose. It chased away the last of the paralyzing agent. She stood up, in a filthy mood, and decided the best way to change it was a small amount of controlled violence. The scheming bastard tried to use her unborn child to take over the world and such liberties had to be paid for. She reached for the travel case as the other woman held it out to her, recognizing her performance visor.
Willow spoke in a small voice. “Please believe me – I wanted no part in this.” Conscience overrode family loyalty even though it hurt her deeply. Tears ran down her face as she apologized again and ran away without a backward glance. The door closed behind her, her retreating footsteps dying away to silence.
Giulietta gathered her power; the breathing exercises centred a mind unused to combat but trained for it. Kair sensed what she was about to do, distracting the Muthuk singer long enough for a systems check. She pulled the visor in place and trusted the visual pattern generator to work its magic as the baby kicked. Ash turned a fraction too late, unable to stop the siren song as a diva’s brain sent notes into attack formation. She crafted each and pictured them deadly as her tutors in the ‘Singing Brain as weapon – advanced duelling’ class taught her. The baby kicked and she heard its song, twisting around her own and making the inner voice stronger.
Her opponent recoiled as the sound wave hit, not expecting it to be so powerful. She saw Kair Raven stagger to his feet; a nod of acknowledgement that he would let her finish this battle alone.
Ash wiped blood from his mouth and tried one last appeal. “I thought we were friends.”
“We were friends once,” she said and did not speak to him again.
She knocked him back with a vicious aria, holding notes for maximum effect only the Swettenham strain could offer. A second aria increased GABA concentration in her enemy’s brain so that he sang higher, fractured notes, slapping him out of the Muthukumaraswamy Range that might have been an advantage.
He reeled, responding with a weak counter that barely touched her. She smiled and sang a long duet with her unborn child.
The mind music would have enthralled an audience, but this was not meant for others.
They sang a private song that had no beginning or end.
Mother’s love swelled the notes into a weapon.
It had no happy ending, nor did Ash have any right to expect any.
R. S. Pyne is a freelance writer and science journalist from West Wales. She has published thirty short stories in UK, Irish and US print and electronic magazines and is also the Ancient Tree Verifier for Ceredigion; on behalf of the Woodland Trust. Publication credits include: Albedo One, Apollo’s Lyre, Aurora Wolf, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Christmas is Dead – Again, Crimson Highway, Delivered, Fifth Di, Hungur, Lacuna –Journal of Historical Fiction, Macabre Cadaver, Midnight Horror, Neo-opsis, Orphan Leaf Review, Pen Cambria, Silver Blade, SMG Horror Magazine, Spook City, Star Stepping Anthology, Tainted – Anthology of Terror and the Supernatural and others. Seven stories are available on the Anthology Builder website.