This short story is part of Galactic Chronicles, an ongoing space opera based on our multiplayer campaign in Paradox’s space grand strategy game, Stellaris. Events and characters, while embellished heavily in some cases, are based on actual events and characters encountered during gameplay. These entries do not have to be experienced in a specific order, but the “Earth Standardized Solar Date” header will indicate where in the galactic timeline a particular entry falls.
This story concerns the Athirova, a spiritualist, warrior monk-ruled culture originating on the planet Ayaal. Learn more about them here.
[EARTH STANDARDIZED SOLAR DATE 2247.02.04]
The music was neverending, not even as Katarina slept. The sacred spaces of the Athirova, so she had been taught, were sanctified by their sonic landscape just as much as by the look of the sweeping, delicate architecture and the earthy smell of the incense. The monks took shifts, and there was never to be a moment with less than three musicians playing in harmony. The hook-plucked string instruments and low whistles gave their sacred music a calming, distinctive sound that was inescapable within the temple grounds. It was considered a great honor to be selected for this duty.
At first, it had kept her up at night and left her drowsy for the days of intense, physical training. But after a time, the notes simply became a part of the place. It was like the rustle of leaves or the blowing of the wind on the high, chilly mountaintop. She had begun to feel, after all these weeks, that it would bother her more were the playing ever to stop.
Four other human girls and three boys, all between the ages of fourteen and twenty, shared a simple but elegant living space on one wing of the temple’s ground floor. Through floor-to-ceiling windows trimmed in sloping lines, the dormitory overlooked a precipitous drop down the mountainside to the small village where they had provisioned for the all-day hike to their new home.
What she still had not acclimated to was the pace and strenuousness of the training. On earth, monks were often seen as calm and contemplative keepers of peace. Their Athirovan counterparts added to this a discipline and enthusiasm for excellence in combat that would rival the greatest of the UGA’s special forces. The physical conditioning was relentless, though the girls were having a slightly easier time due to having comparable flexibility to their avian instructors. Especially difficult for the human initiates was learning to safely handle the weighted staves and curved-bladed poleswords the Athirova favored, which had to be modified for use with hands rather than talons.
Most difficult of all, however, was attempting to assimilate into a culture that was quite totally alien from the one Katarina had grown up in. The traditions of the Athirova had evolved with a different species, on a different world, with different needs, outlooks, and drives. There was no common history, no innate understanding of morals, idioms, or customs. No human had ever been put in such a situation before. She hoped that maybe generations to follow her would assimilate seamlessly with their new way of life, but the transition was doomed to be a rocky one for her and her fellow expatriates.
Never was this made more clear than the day Deng fell to his death from a high pillar during a training exercise. The human boy had been only 17. Strong, cheerful, and eager. But he was uncoordinated as well, and overconfident in his own abilities. Katarina had sat him on his ass with a staff sweep multiple times. Despite the fact that he could have probably lifted her over his head, he seemed ill-suited to the Athirovan way of fighting. She watched him slip and plummet. She watched his neck bend at a sickening angle, and he went limp instantly.
There was no great uproar over his death from the teachers. Lorelei, a girl even younger than Katarina, hid beneath her bedcovers and cried for a long time. The other humans just seemed dour and in shock. But the monks merely carried away his body with the same unbreakable calm with which they did everything else. That made Katarina angry. It was wrong of them, in her mind, to not do more to keep their students safe. It was wrong of them to seem so unphased by the death of a young person. On Earth, there would have been news stories and lawsuits. Justice, or at least recognition, for the loss of a young, promising life. She and the other humans were almost shaking in its absence.
But that evening, the tone of the temple music changed. It dropped into a lower key, and became beautifully, touchingly mournful. Katarina found herself wiping tears from her eyes when Tavnatha, one of the combat teachers, came into the room carrying a small circlet through which some of Deng’s hair had been threaded. Tapping the pale, silvery metal with a talon made it ring out in harmony with the playing of the other monks. He handed it, still vibrating, to a stunned Katarina.
“We usually use a feather, but your kind do not have those,” Tavnatha began with somberness, but also seemingly attempting to use humor to lighten the mood. He had the attention of the entire room. “Athirova have been dying to preserve Harmony for thousands of years. Even on Ayaal, not all who climb the mountain ever come back down whole. Some of you sitting here may yet share your brother’s fate. And knowing that, we must offer you a chance to go. Just be certain in your choice, as there is no returning to the mountain once you’ve turned your back on it.”
After a momentous pause, a tall, thin boy named Jerod, the oldest of their group and the one who had spent more time with Deng than anyone, stood angrily and stormed out into the cool air.
“Fuck this,” he spat, though Tavnatha seemed to have only a detached understanding of the anger in his choice of words. “We never should have come here.”
A fair-haired girl around Katarina’s age, Eileen, followed only moments after him. One boy remained now. Kal was both the youngest and smallest of the group. He sat in absolute silence, eyes locked on the floor. The two sharp-featured twin sisters, Zina and Ruby, were highly competitive, and Katarina suspected they were kept sitting partly because neither of them was willing to be the first to give up on something. Lorelei looked to the two of them, and then to Katarina, for some sign of what they would do.
Katarina contemplated how freeing and empowering it would feel to follow the two departing students in anger. If nothing else, it would provide catharsis for the grief and rage and confusion building inside of her after Deng’s death. But she had come here for a reason. She had been given an opportunity no human ever had. She was furious, but she was unafraid. Seeking the Harmony within herself, she took in a deep breath, let it out, and gave Lorelei as much of a calming look as she could muster.
When Tavnatha seemed convinced no one else was planning to leave, he bowed his head and strode over to the window to look out at the twilit sky of Nerthika.
“Silence is a state considered by our Truths to be far worse than Disharmony,” he spoke. “It is better to have many voices singing out in dissonance than it is to have no music at all. And while our lack of expressiveness in the face of death, we understand, may seem… bizarre to you, you must know that we abhor loss of life just as much. It is a terrible fate to have one’s song ended before it has even built to its crescendo.”
Lorelei was actively trying to hold back tears again. Katarina made a point of not looking at her, so she could cry with some amount of privacy if she wished.
“It would be cruel and false of me to promise you that this will not happen again,” the teacher continued. “And you must know that even if you complete the preparation before you, you may one day be asked to take up arms against the foes of Harmony. That is the path of true Athirova. Those who are lost to us along the way will always be remembered, for devoting themselves to the noblest of all tasks in the galaxy. For centuries to come, the notes we play will remind future generations that Deng of Earth was here, and that he fell in the pursuit of protecting us all. As will be the case for any of us who meet a similar fate.”
The room had grown so somber that when Tavnatha finished speaking, only the sound of the monks weaving their heart-deep dirge on the strings could be heard. The music was neverending.
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