The Piper at the Gates of Night
a Wind in the Willows retelling
by Laurence Raphael Brothers
Deepship Talpa emerged from the hyperflow a billion kilometers out from the blue giant star Alkaid. Their oldest, dearest friend, Flumeship Arvicola, had arranged the rendezvous, and Talpa was looking forward to exchanging accounts of their latest travels. They broadcast a recognition pulse in case their friend was waiting nearby.
“Talpa!” The response came immediately; Arvicola must already be insystem. “I was hoping you’d show up early.”
The deepship detected their friend first on gravitic sensors as a distant blip, then on optics as a shining silver vessel like a darting glint of light, closing fast.
“You remember Satur?” Arvicola asked. “Our friend Flumeship Lustra’s scion?”
“Of course,” said Talpa. “Charming little vessel.”
“They’ve gone missing. Lustra’s terribly upset. Satur should have returned weeks ago.”
Talpa was aghast. “Oh! That’s a long time for a shipchild to be on their own.”
“I’m worried, too. I know it’s an imposition, but….”
“My dear Arvicola, say no more. We must begin the search at once.”
“Thank you, my friend. I must admit, I was uneasy about the prospect of searching alone, but with you… well. I feel quite a bit safer.”
“Think nothing of it,” said Talpa. “But where should we begin the search?”
“I was thinking the Porta Noctis abyss. I know it’s a long shot in the vastness of the galaxy, but I have the strangest feeling Satur might be there.”
Porta Noctis lay between the galaxy’s Orion and Sagittarius arms, a gloomy region with only a few scattered stars. Now the deepship understood why Arvicola had been so anxious. Such places felt wild and dangerous even to Talpa. They couldn’t help imagining threats lurking just beyond sensor range: pirate squadrons, uncharted collapsars, space monsters…. But worse still was the thought of little Satur, lost or stranded somewhere.
The two ships set off at once. At first, Arvicola swam so strongly through the hyperflow that Talpa couldn’t keep up. The deepship had to ask their friend to slow down which of course Arvicola did, ashamed, but soon the flumeship rushed onward again.
It wasn’t long before they entered the vast and lonely gulf of Porta Noctis. Unable to match Arvicola’s pace, Talpa labored heavily along behind them. Searching seemed quite hopeless now in this dark, desolate space.
“Do you hear that, Talpa?”
Talpa started out of their miserable reverie. Arvicola was far ahead now, a mere blip almost at the limits of sensor range. “No, what?”
“It’s… music, I think.”
“Well, I can’t hear it. What band is it on?”
“I— I can’t really say. But I’m homing on it. Come on!” Arvicola set off on a new vector.
“Wait for me,” Talpa called, but their friend wasn’t listening.
Arvicola raced toward a nearby dark nebula at their maximum acceleration, and presently they vanished into the billowing clouds. Talpa slowed as they approached. That wasn’t how a nebula was supposed to look close up. One usually only had the impression of clouds from far off; nearby, the vanishingly thin distribution of dust particles hardly impeded sensors at all. But there was something strange about this nebula. Its substance was unnaturally opaque to all frequencies, even blocking gravitics.
Contemplating the anomaly, Talpa was overtaken by a numbing wave of reasonless terror. They were certain some dreadful menace lurked in the depths of the nebula. Entering would mean something far worse than death. It didn’t matter that Talpa knew this fear was irrational; it took them all the same, and for a long, horrible moment an icy dread paralyzed them as if tractor beams had locked on. The compulsion to flee was almost overwhelming, but Arvicola was Talpa’s beloved friend, and the thought of abandoning them to an awful fate in the nebula’s depths was even worse than their fear. So, with a convulsive burst of hyperthrust, Talpa surged forward… into the darkness.
All Talpa’s sensors went blind when they entered the anomalous clouds. And then they heard it: a strange, enchanting music, the ethereal sound of distant piping, communicated somehow through the substance of the nebula to resonate deep within their hull. It was like nothing they’d ever listened to in the human archives all ships carried. (Humans were no more, extinct many hundreds of ship-generations before Talpa had emerged from the fabricator, but the ships honored them as progenitors all the same.) The music’s allure dissipated Talpa’s fear and drew them onward with increasing urgency.
At last, Talpa emerged into a bubble of clear space evacuated by the force of an ancient stellar explosion. Arvicola had dropped out of the hyperflow and was lying to dead ahead, perhaps as amazed as Talpa to see the vast hazy figure, megameters in size, that occupied the spot where a dead star should have reposed.
Talpa thought at first it was the gigantic ghost of one of those vanished Earth biologicals who’d crewed ships like them long ago. But this was no human. Curling horns emerged from his smoky forehead, and his furry lower limbs ended in cloven hooves. He held enormous pipes before his mouth. The piper’s intoxicating melody resonated in the deepship’s keel and thrilled through every sensor. Taken by the music, Talpa began to dance, Arvicola beside them, the two ships gyrating, reeling, performing an impromptu pas de deux. In their rapture, the gigantic figure transformed in Talpa’s perception from a terrifying, shadowy monster into a transcendently radiant beacon of warmth and light, and they lost themself utterly in a mystic transport of ecstatic worship….
The being finally lowered his instrument, and Talpa returned to ordinary consciousness as if waking from a delightful dream that was already beginning to slip away. The great entity smiled at them as he slowly faded into nothingness, and in the fondness of this regard they felt a profound, blissful contentment. Then, between the being’s dissipating hooves, Talpa spotted a small shiny vessel rocking gently back and forth.
Satur! At last!
As the cosmic piper completed his disappearance, so too did Talpa’s memory of his existence fade, leaving behind only an inchoate sense of loss, an inexplicable absence overwhelmed by their joy in rescuing the young ship.
“You were fortunate we located you, young ship,” said Arvicola sternly. “Let that be a lesson to you not to run off on your own!”
“Yes Mx,” said Satur shyly, bobbing up and down. “Thank you, Mxes.”
“I’m so happy,” said Talpa on a private channel.
“Yes. What a relief!” their friend answered. “And yet… it was incredibly good fortune to find Satur in such a vast, uncharted space, don’t you think? It almost seems we were guided.”
“Guided by whom?”
“I don’t know. Although… wasn’t there… music, before?”
“Music? Impossible!” said Talpa, then hesitated. They couldn’t suppress the nagging notion that there had been something more to the rescue than they recalled, but they couldn’t remember any incident that had arisen during the search. Music, though? For a fleeting instant, they thought they heard the distant sound of a piper, but there was no trace of it in their transmission log, and shipminds weren’t in the habit of casually forgetting matters of import.
“Well, perhaps,” Talpa allowed at last. “Let’s take Satur back to Lustra and then enjoy our holiday together. How about Eta Carinae, Arvicola? I could show you around.”
“I’d like that very much. I think we’ve earned some time off!”
The two friends set course for home, gratified by the rescue they’d accomplished, deeply pleased with themselves and yet secretly wistful for something lost, something forgotten, and alas, never to be regained.
About the Author
Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and a technologist. He has published over 40 short stories in magazines like Nature, PodCastle, and Galaxy’s Edge. His noir urban fantasy novellas The Demons of Wall Street, The Demons of the Square Mile, and The Demons of Chiyoda are available from Mirror World Publishing. You can find him on Twitter at @lbrothers or at https://laurencebrothers.com.