Stars Are Wild

I opened the door to the ship’s studio and waved frantically for Gracie to stop playing the omniboard. She lifted her fingers and the beautiful music echoed into silence. Her glare scorched me. I wasn’t supposed to interrupt her when she was composing, but this was too important.

“Gracie,” I said, leaning down to give her a kiss. “I’ve got news. We have to cancel all your shows for the next month. Something better has come up.”

She narrowed her eyes. Her latest song, Stars Are Wild, was number one on six of the fifty worlds, and we were in the middle of a multi-world tour to promote it. The entire year was booked solid, and she was playing at the best venues known. What could possibly be better than that?

I sat down and activated the HV, enjoying Gracie’s confusion. “Just watch,” I said.

A woman newscaster began talking. She stood before a large grove of trees, each one covered with striking violet-colored leaves. In the distance, an ethereal yet familiar tune played.

“What is this?” Gracie asked, looking at me, then back to the holo.

“Watch,” I said.

The newscaster spoke: “Something amazing is happening on the little known planet, Autumn. The Music Trees have woken up. This is how they used to sound.”

A low, hollow fluting sound filled the cabin. It was an eerie, haunting echo that froze my blood. I had heard variations of it many times. Gracie’s song, Stars Are Wild, had been inspired by those same tones, but she had heard them in her dreams.

“Corris,” she squeaked. “My song.”

I grinned from ear to ear. “I know. Just shut up and keep watching.”

“And this is how they sound now,” the newscaster said.

I watched Gracie. The music that poured forth paralyzed her: a thunderous multi-tonal orchestra with delicious melodic curls and waves of harmonics. Tears poured from her eyes as the music carried her away.

“She’s calling to me,” she whispered, gazing at me. “She wants to me to visit her and sing to her.”

I stifled my own tears. “Keep watching. There’s more.”

The newscaster began to speak. “To this date no one has been able to decipher any meaning behind the tree-songs. And until just a few days ago, nobody has been able to make them change their tune. Millions of tourists visit here each year and sing to the Music Trees. They have never reacted like this. The secret apparently lies with the new hit song, ‘Stars Are Wild,’ by the phenomenally successful young musician, Gracie Megan Sparks. A visitor was playing her song when the trees began to sing back. He turned it off and they became silent. Mind you, the trees have never been silent before. He turned it back on, and they began singing again. Even now, the trees will not sing unless Sparks’ song is playing. So far, no word from Sparks’ camp. But she should know that her song is not only popular among humans. The Music Trees like it too.”

“I don’t believe it,” she said. “All this time, that’s what I’ve been hearing.” She trembled as she leaned against me.

I wrapped my arms around her. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. I mean, why me? Why my song?” She looked at me dolefully.

“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “But I guess we’ll find out. We’ve already got an invitation from Autumn to go visit. I was waiting for you before I answered.” I hoped she said yes. I was tired of touring. We could use a rest–if I had my way, a nice long rest.

“Her name is Oora, Corris,” she blurted. “I shouldn’t know that, but I do. How is it I can hear her?”

“You’re a musical genius, love,” I said. “I’m not the least bit surprised. Now, stop worrying. Let’s go to bed and sleep on it. I’ll tell Carlos to navigate a new course to Autumn and we’ll figure out what’s going on.”

She nodded, looking again at the image of the purple trees on the holo. They were incredibly beautiful. What, I wondered, had we gotten ourselves into? Gracie writes one hit song, and now suddenly she’s communicating with a mysterious tree-like creature on the other side of the galaxy. The question was: Why?

“What’s wrong?” I asked with concern. I knew my wife, and Gracie was clearly more than nervous; something else was bothering her. “We don’t have to do this. We can go home right now.”

“No,” she said, gently freeing herself from my embrace. “I’m fine. I can do this. I need to.”

We stood before the grove of trees, now utterly silent. In front of Gracie rested her omniboard, charged and ready. The speakers were set up. Most of the crew surrounded us, everyone except Carlos who remained in the ship, parked only a few miles away in our private berth at the starport.

Next to us stood the caretakers, a group of ten men and ten women who lived on Autumn, each of them dressed in the mauve robes that marked them as the guardians of the Music Trees. None of them looked happy. Why should they, I thought. Because of Gracie, their trees were silent for the first time in history. What if they never sang again?

Further behind us (and floating above us) the media hovered with their recorders posed to transmit this momentous event to every corner of the galaxy. Beyond them thousands of spectators had gathered. Billions of people were watching us at this moment. All fifty worlds, they told us, which meant Gracie’s fame and popularity would probably skyrocket, and I would never get the time with my wife that I craved.

The small grove was just a few yards away–Oora, as Gracie had called her. Smooth tan trunks rose up to long lithe branches, each exploding with wild bunches of fluted, purple leaves–or what looked like leaves. Only on closer examination was it clear that the Music Trees were not trees at all.

I had studied all I could before we arrived, but there was little to learn. The Music Trees were unique to Autumn. Attempts to re-grow them elsewhere had failed. They had been there for as long as recorded history. Their biology was a mishmash of plant and animal–not particularly unusual, other than it was the only known specimen of a unique species. Some believed it was sentient, though there was no real evidence other than the songs themselves. It made the songs by pumping air up hollow stems and through cylindrical-shaped leaves. The song itself was a variation of seemingly random tones that combined in a way to create the complex haunting sounds that made the trees so famous.

I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Who was Oora? What did this creature want with my wife?

Gracie flashed me a smile and composing herself.

A hush fell over the crowd as she placed her fingers over the omniboard. She took a few deep breaths and drifted slowly into a trance. Instantly, her fingers began to dance and the music rolled forth, the notes tripping over one another in their haste to be released.

Calm down, girl, I thought. Relax and flow.

I studied my beautiful wife as she played her song. She quickly lost herself in the music. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, head tilted forward, Gracie played as though possessed. Her body swayed rhythmically as the music poured from her mind and heart, down her arms, through her fingers and out to the worlds.

No sooner had she begun when Oora joined her with a crescendo of intertwining melodies and harmonies. The audience behind us gasped as the new tree-song swept over them.

The two melodies joined, combining and dancing around each other like lovers. Gracie played a series of chords. Oora responded with spears of sounds that seemed to predict Gracie’s next tones. They were having a conversation, I realized.

The music increased in volume, now with discordant tones. I looked over at the trees. The leaves were trembling and the trunks swayed back and forth. It seemed more creature than plant.

I looked back at Gracie and nearly rushed forward. She was crying and appeared almost angry. She pounded the keys of her omniboard, responding to another volley of notes from the trees. Were they arguing?

The music continued, until suddenly Gracie released a series of descending notes, then abruptly lifted her fingers from the omniboard. At the same moment, Oora stopped singing, and the air echoed into silence.

Gracie pulled out of her trance and opened her eyes.

Without warning the Music Trees erupted into flames, wailing and shrieking.

Gracie dashed around her omniboard and sprinted toward Oora. I dropped everything and dashed after her. Chaos erupted around us as everyone reacted.

Gracie disappeared into the flames. As I followed her in, I realized that they weren’t flames at all; it was light. The leaves glowed with a fiery orange-red brilliance, each one emitting a shrill sound, then slowly curling and withering to fine dust. A sweet burnt odor choked my breath.

“Gracie!” I shouted. She was climbing between the trunks now. The grove was larger than it appeared, and Gracie quickly disappeared inside it. I turned and saw that the caretakers rushing forward with expressions of confusion, fear and anger.

A pinkish mist or ash filled the air, making it very difficult to see. Chaos reigned as everyone ran back and forth. Above it all, the shrieking continued.

Finally I found Gracie creeping sneakily from behind the grove, which was quickly shrinking and burning away.

I gasped when I saw her expression of utter urgency.

“Get me to the ship,” she said. “Now!”

The light from the trees began to dim. Almost all the leaves were gone and the trunks were beginning to fall.

I held Gracie by the shoulders as we dodged back and forth through the crowd. We found the crew quickly packing up the gear.

“Leave it!” I said. “To the ship!”

I led Gracie through the mob of people, dodging the media, caretakers and security personnel. Soon we climbed out of the vale that held the Music Trees and onto the roadways. I saw one of the caretakers watching us. He began shouting frantically, running toward us, his purple robe flapping. We dived into a floater and took off to the starport. Heath drove while Gracie and I sat in the backseat. Two of our crew were missing. Hopefully, they would find their own way.

I looked behind us, no sign of being followed yet, but it was only a matter of time.

“Are you okay?” I asked Gracie. “What happened back there?” I had never seen her so upset. Tears poured down her face. She looked up at me and buried her face in my chest. I held her tightly. When she was ready to speak, she’d let me know.

We pulled up to the airport and scrambled towards our ship. Carlos, to his credit, saw us coming and was already opening the hatchway and lowering down the elevator. No sooner had we climbed inside and it started to rise when I heard sirens.

In a few seconds, we were onboard. Gracie turned to Carlos. “If you can, get us out of here,” she said. “If not, other than Tony or Melika, don’t let anyone else on this ship. I need twenty minutes.”

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just give me twenty minutes!” she snapped, and disappeared down the corridor.

Twenty minutes? What was she up to? I didn’t have time to question. I followed Carlos to the engine room and prepared to take off. We could have Tony and Melika picked up later.

When I arrived in the control room, Carlos was already seated and ready to go. Bright flashing lights on the dash indicated that the engine was primed. “Let’s go,” I said.

Carlos shook his head and pointed to the view screen. It showed the outside of our ship, which was now surrounded by security vehicles. “Too late. We’re being hailed,” he said. “They are forbidding us to take off. Do you want to answer?”

I hadn’t expected anything less. “Put them through,” I said. Time to do some stalling. If Gracie wanted twenty minutes, I’d give her thirty.

Jansen Ortis, the head of the security team that had overseen the concert came online. “Your ship is surrounded,” he said. “You are forbidden to depart. Any attempts to leave Autumn will be considered a hostile act and will be responded to accordingly. Open the doors immediately.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We have done nothing wrong. You have no right to keep us here. We will be taking off shortly. If you open fire on us, you should know that our ship is not without its defenses.”

“Open the doors immediately, or we will board your ship by force.” He motioned to his crew, which moved toward our ship with their cutting tools ready. I couldn’t believe it. Did they have any idea who my wife was, or the value of this ship?

“Touch my ship,” I said, “and I will have lawyers from all fifty planets here to sue you for everything you’ve got.”

They ignored me, moved forward and situated themselves around the door. This was not the first time people had tried to force themselves onboard one of the ships. This latest model was built to prevent any unwanted visitors. It wouldn’t be easy for them.

“Wait,” I said. “I’m coming down. Give me a second.”

I went to the bottom level and the elevator. Gracie had asked for twenty minutes. Only about five or ten had passed since we boarded. I couldn’t give her much more than that. Where was she? What was she doing?

I flicked on the in-ship comm. “Carlos, tell them I’m here. Tell them I’m opening the door now. But that I’m going to ask for a condition.”

“Yes, Boss!” he said. I heard him repeat my message. The truth was, I had no conditions. It was just another stalling tactic.

“They’re asking for the condition,” said Carlos.

“Tell them that I need all of them to put down their weapons. Only then will I open the door.”

“They’re ignoring your condition, Boss. They’re starting to cut into the ship.”

I stepped into the elevator and lowered it down.

A group of security personnel moved forward to get on board. I blocked their entrance.

“By what right are you boarding my ship!” I shouted.

Ortis stepped forward until we were face to face. “You destroyed the music trees. Your wife, where is she?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “Somewhere on the ship.”

“Tell her to exit immediately.”

“Tell her yourself.”

They held the guns up and I stepped aside. My stomach dropped as the armed guards marched onboard. There, I gave her almost fifteen minutes. Hopefully it was enough.

I followed them. The main guy was directing the other guards to search everything.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Whatever you used to destroy the trees.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Where is she? Why did she flee so quickly.”

“You’ll have to ask her.”

“Well you better get her now.”

“I’m right here,” said Gracie. “What seems to be the problem?”

I gasped. She looked stunning. She had changed her outfit to a beautiful mauve-colored dress with purple trim. A beautiful necklace with large pink stones draped around her neck. Strange, I had never seen that before, but I could see why she chose them. She was dressed up in all the colors of the Music Trees, the same colors as the robes of the Caretakers. I swelled with pride; I knew exactly what she was up to. My wife was a clever lady.

“You’re under arrest,” said Ortis, and he lunged at Gracie.

“No way!” I shouted barring his path.

The security forces pointed their stunners at me and ordered me to step aside. When I refused, they fired.

As I fell, I saw my entire crew rush to protect Gracie. Then darkness.

“I’m not answering any questions until I get to see my wife,” I told the investigator for the hundredth time. “We haven’t done anything wrong. You have no right to take us from our ship and keep us here.” I had already told them everything, how Megan had heard the tree-song in her dreams, how it had inspired her latest song. I didn’t share the Music Tree’s name was Oora. Gracie could tell them if she wanted.

“Nothing wrong?” he said. “Mr. Sparks, are you aware that there are no other known Music Trees on any of the fifty planets? This is the only one. Your wife has destroyed a galactic treasure. There are a lot of people who are very angry at her.”

“She didn’t do anything!”

“Why did she run into the trees?”

“If I know her, she was probably trying to save them.”

“Why did she flee so quickly?”

“I don’t know? Ask her. Maybe she was scared. Maybe she knew that you’d all react this way.”

“How did she kill the trees?”

“She didn’t,” I said.

“Just tell us why she did it,” said the investigator.

“You’re not listening!” I roared. “She didn’t do anything. She didn’t destroy your precious trees. You must have seen what happened. They just combusted by themselves. She didn’t hurt anybody. Let me see me wife!”

Back and forth it went, first one investigator and then another. Thankfully, with Gracie’s recent success, we were not without resources. Nor was this the first time we’ve had trouble with authorities. I had already contacted our legal team, who arrived immediately. Normally we would have been freed by now, so it looked like we were in real trouble. I knew that the Music Trees were dead, but there was no way they could blame Gracie. After all, the Music Trees had called her. She had been invited here.

I was just about ready to snap when the door opened and I was ushered out.

I was taken to another room. Inside was Gracie. Next to her was Silas, our main lawyer.

“Corris,” he said, standing up. “I’m sorry it took so long.”

“Just tell me what’s going on.” I hooked my arm around Gracie’s waist. A strange light danced in her eyes. I knew that look; she was up to something, and I was not going to like it.

“Good news. You can leave Autumn.”

“Let’s go then.”

Silas winced. “There are a few conditions. You can leave, but Gracie must stay.”

“No way! Absolutely not!”

Silas and Gracie shared a knowing glance. I instantly realized what was happening. They had expected this reaction and were gearing to tag-team me. I braced myself.

Silas began. “I advise leaving,” he said. “Gracie will follow you. But right now, we need you to go.”

I turned to Gracie. Her plea was short and simple. “Please, Corris,” she said. “For me. I need you to do this.”

I shook my head. There was no way I would leave her to these people. “They can’t keep you here. They have no right.”

“They can and they do,” said Silas. “Besides murdering the trees, they believe Gracie may have stolen something and hidden it on the ship.”

This was new to me. “Did you?” I asked, remembering the way she had rushed toward the flames and sneaked around in the haze.

“Of course not,” she said. “Let them search the ship. They won’t find a thing, because there’s nothing to find.”

I knew when my wife was lying, and she wasn’t, but she was hiding something. When she was ready, she would tell me. Still, it infuriated me that she was keeping something secret from me.

“There’s going to be an arbitration hearing,” Silas explained. “Your wife has been accused of murder. We’ve managed to negotiate your release. But Megan has to stay.”

“I’m not leaving,” I said. “There’s nothing you can say that would convince me she’s guilty of murder.”

“She already confessed.”

“What?” I asked, looking at Gracie.

She stared at me levelly. “It’s true. I know you’re angry, but this was the only way to guarantee your freedom. They wanted to arrest all of us. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“Fine? You’re pleading guilty to murder.”

She grabbed my hand and covered it with hers. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing.” I knew it! She had a plan. I groaned. Once Gracie had her mind set on something, nothing would sway her.

“Now you see,” said Silas. “It’s best you leave. The hearing will be in a few days. I’ll make sure you’re there.”

“What if it goes bad? What’s the punishment?”

“In a nutshell, if we don’t agree to the results of the arbitration, they will press official murder charges. As far as what they’re looking for, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m guessing they want compensation for loss of future income, which should make them open to a financial settlement. However, they might ask for more, it’s hard to say.”

“More?” I asked. I was beginning to doubt my dear lawyer’s ability. He had failed to do the one thing I paid him for: protect my wife. “What more?”

Silas shrugged. “Public service, maybe a period of confinement. The rules are different on each planet. Our team is learning everything we can about how things work around here, and we’re going by the book. I’m sorry, Corris, but you have to go now. Everything has already been decided.”

The guards at the door motioned for us to end the meeting.

I turned to Silas. I regretted my words even as I said them. “Get Gracie out of here, Silas, or we’re done.”

I turned to Gracie, gave her a long kiss.

“Don’t be angry, Corris,” she said. “Just trust me.”

“Do I have a choice?”

She laughed. She knew that my love for her left me with no option. I never could say no to her. “I’ll see you soon,” she said. She looked amazing in her purple-hues. I hoped the outfit would have the desired effect.

I smiled at Gracie, glared daggers at Silas and stormed from the room. Armed guards led me out of the confinement center. I was put in the back of a floater and driven directly to the starport and my ship.

Back onboard, I quickly became even more angry. Not only had I been forcibly separated from my wife, but now it looked like the entire ship had been ransacked.

“Sorry, Boss,” said Carlos. “They kicked us all off and searched every inch of the ship. We’ve been cleaning up as best as we could before you arrived.” He looked at me with the hint of a grimace. “Where’s Gracie?”

I told him what happened.

“Doesn’t sound so bad,” he said. “We’ll just pay them and get out of here. The recording of what happened is already number one on most music charts. Gracie is more famous now than ever.”

“But pay them for what?” I said. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Well, you have to admit, something happened. The trees are gone. And not everybody is singing Gracie’s praises.”

“You know as well as I, Gracie wouldn’t hurt anybody ever. Not on purpose.”

Carlos nodded. “What’s going to happen to her?”

I shrugged. “She has a plan.”

“Oh, no,” Carlos said. We all knew what that meant.

I just wished I knew what she was up to. I had to retire to our bedroom to calm down. Gracie and I hadn’t spent more than one night apart in the six years since we’d been married. Even so, I got to spend precious little time with her. With her success, everybody wanted a piece of Gracie Megan Sparks. Too often, there was little left for me. How I loved her! Being apart was physically painful. If the authorities decided to confine her here, I wasn’t sure what I would do. But I knew one thing: it wouldn’t be pretty.

“I told you,” said Silas. “Each planet is different. This is how disputes are settled here. Just sit down and be quiet. I was barely able to convince them that you belonged here. Don’t give them a reason otherwise.”

“But this is a joke,” I said, gesturing to the table where Gracie sat with our lawyers facing a group of three angry-looking Caretakers. At the head of the table was the lead Caretaker and, as it turned out, the only arbiter. The room itself was tiny. Other than the table and chairs, there was a computer screen on one wall and recorders on either side. I sat in the rear section with about thirty other people, most of them caretakers. A row of five security personnel divided the audience from the arbitration section. “How can a caretaker be the person who decides her fate? How is that fair?”

“I’m not going to lecture you on the laws of Autumn. Just keep quiet for once, will you? I’m having enough trouble with Gracie. Between the two of you–never mind. Just don’t make a scene, okay? Promise me.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Just get Gracie out of here.”

“I’m doing my best,” he said. “Just keep quiet.” He walked over and took his place next to Gracie.

The arbiter spoke, introducing himself as Brother Garrin Tolo, then introduced each other caretaker at the table and then Gracie, Silas and Thornton, another one of our lawyers.

“Who will be speaking for the Music Trees?” asked Tolo.

One of the caretakers stood. “I, Nevik Reeva will speak for the Music Trees.”

“And who will speak for Gracie Megan Sparks?”

Silas stood and was about to speak when Gracie jumped up and said: “I, Gracie Megan Sparks, will speak for myself.”

Silas looked at her in shock, then sunk to his seat and put his face in his hands. I chuckled to myself. We both knew Gracie. Now the Caretakers were about to get a taste of her.

“First,” said the arbiter, “we will review the recording of the incident. Then each party will be allowed to give a statement and a rebuttal. I shall then make my decision.”

The room darkened, and the scene that had been played hundreds of times on all fifty worlds for the past three days–the scene that played endlessly in my mind–appeared once again in full color on the screen. There stood Gracie, looking tiny but captivating as she perched before her instrument and gazed upward at the trees. She began to play and the trees responded. The music echoed through the room and once again, I was struck by the feeling that some sort of conversation was taking place between my wife and Oora.

I looked over at Gracie sitting at the table. I wasn’t surprised to see that her eyes were closed. Even though I knew what happened next, I watched the screen as the grove erupted into apparent flames. I saw Gracie dash immediately for the grove, followed by myself. I felt no guilt as I watched myself lead Gracie surreptitiously away from the chaos and out of view.

The screen darkened and the room came to light. The arbiter turned to Gracie. “Gracie Megan Sparks, you have been accused of taking actions which led directly to the demise of the Music Trees. Normally, this would have led to a trial. As you have agreed that you are guilty, the purpose of this arbitration is to decide how you should be punished. First, we would like you to explain what happened, and why you killed the Music Trees.”

Looking almost mystical in her violet colors, Gracie stood and spoke. “Her name is Oora,” said Gracie. “She called to me. She is the one who brought me to your planet. She is the one who asked me to come. I speak for Oora.”

All three caretakers on the other side of the table rose to their feet and opened their mouths beginning to protest. To his credit, the arbiter motioned them to remain seated. He turned to Gracie. “Please, continue.”

“My name is Gracie Megan Sparks. Only a few years ago, I was a semi-successful musician on Cora. Then, around February 503 New, I began to have dreams in which I heard strange and beautiful melodies. Powerful and clear, I knew that these melodies had meaning, and that were calling out to me. Yet I didn’t understand what they were saying. I felt certain that the tones were coming from somewhere outside of myself, but I couldn’t imagine where. My song, Stars Are Wild, was inspired by the songs I heard in my dreams. I never dreamed it would become so popular, or that it would cause the Music Trees to stop singing. Where I lived on Cora, the Music Trees were virtually unknown and way out of reach for somebody like me. Stars Are Wild opened doors for me, and I began a multi-world tour to perform the song.

“When my husband showed me the Music Trees, I was shocked. The music from my dreams had a source, and finally I had found it. Then I learned that the trees had stopped singing because of my song, and that’s when I knew that she had heard me. My song had spoken to her just as hers had spoken to me. We became connected. And that’s when she told me her name.

“We came to Autumn at your gracious invitation, for which I thank you. Meeting Oora will always be one of the highlights of my life. The song I played was my greeting to her. I told her what an honor it was to meet her and asked her why she had called to me from so far away. She told me I was the only person who she had been able to reach, and that I reminded her of the original caretakers.”

At that last statement, several of the caretakers looked extremely nervous.

Gracie continued: “Oora told me that when she heard my song, she knew the time had come for her to leave this planet. She had lived out her lifespan and was ready to die. I, of course, became upset and argued with her. I tried to get her to change her mind. She refused, and insisted that I play her Death Song with her. I asked her why she felt her time was done, and she gave me the answer, but only on the condition that I would never reveal it to anyone. I reluctantly agreed, and she began her Death Song. And I joined her. It was the least I could do for her after all the songs she had sung to me in my dreams.

“Despite my protests, Oora chose to end her own life. When I saw she was dying, I instinctively rushed over to help her. Seeing how upset I was, my husband, Corris, rushed me to the safety of our ship.

“When I came to Autumn, I had no idea this would happen. I never hurt Oora, nor did I have any intention to do so. I was here by your invitation, and more importantly hers. I did only what Oora asked. That is Oora’s message.”

Gracie sat down, and a low grumbling swept through the crowd. I had to force myself not to jump up and clap. Gracie had practically knocked the caretakers off their feet. They shook visibly with anger and struggled to remain calm. Now I saw her plan. She was setting herself up as one of them. Not only did she wear the purple uniform of the caretakers, she claimed to speak for Oora. The kicker was, she actually did, which meant the Caretakers had been replaced, and now that Oora was gone, they were no longer needed. No wonder they were angry. I almost looked forward to their response.

One thing concerned me. I knew Gracie well enough to see when she was lying. As she spoke, several times I could see that she wasn’t telling the entire truth. She was keeping more than a few things secret. But what?

The arbiter motioned at the Caretakers.

One of them rose. “My name is Nevik Reeva, and I am an ordained Caretaker for the Music Trees. The Caretakers have guarded the Loroola Grove for nearly seven hundred years, since they were first discovered. Never in the entire record of their existence, have they ever stopped playing their sacred songs. And then, without warning, they stop singing. Why? Apparently because of the song from an unknown musician light years away: Gracie Megan Sparks. I’d like to repeat this point. The trees have been singing for as long as we’ve known them. Sparks’ song silenced them. I think we can all agree on this unfortunate turn of events.

“Now Gracie arrives. Yes, we had invited her in the hopes that she could make the trees sing again. Instead, no sooner does Sparks produce her music when the Music Trees erupt into flames and perish. This time Sparks’ song didn’t only harm the trees, it killed them. She killed them. Now they shall never play again. Sparks has admitted her own role in the entire affair. I see no reason to listen to her nonsense that she speaks for the trees. We have no proof of such a thing. How dare she say the Music Trees wished for death? And then she has the audacity to keep the reason a secret? The truth is, she killed the Music Trees, and now she profanes the order of Caretakers by dressing like one of us and mocking our uniforms. Lies, I say. She is only trying to protect herself. Her songs first harmed the Music Trees, then killed them. She destroyed a unique and intelligent species. I see no reason for leniency simply because she admits her guilt. She has no choice. She tried to run away and we caught her. This is genocide of an entire species and should be punished accordingly. That’s my statement.”

“Does Sparks have any response?” asked the arbiter.

Gracie stood. “I have nothing to add. I will abide by the arbiter’s decision.”

Silas began to protest, but she patted his hand and forced him to remain silent. The caretakers looked shocked. They had clearly expected a fight from Gracie, and were now disarmed. I couldn’t believe it; had Gracie given up? What was going on?

Reeva stood and said, “We will abide by the arbiter’s decision.”

The arbiter was silent for a moment. He looked at the Caretakers, then over at Gracie and our lawyers, and finally at the audience.

Finally he spoke: “I have reached a decision. I find Sparks’ claims to speak for the Music Trees to be unconvincing. She claims to have received a message from the trees and then refuses to reveal it. She claims to understand the tree-songs, and yet, as Reevas has shown–and as the recordings have proved–Sparks was directly involved in the death of the Music Trees. Furthermore, her actions have caused considerable financial damage to Autumn and the Order of Caretakers.

“Both parties have agreed to abide by the punishment given by myself, the arbiter of this case. I hereby declare that Sparks shall be required to reimburse the income that would have been received by the Order of Caretakers had the Music Trees lived. In addition, Sparks shall be confined on Autumn for a period of no less than five years, during which time she will be required to perform community service. That is all. Meeting adjourned.”

I jumped up and made a dash toward Gracie who was whispering in Silas’ ear. He did not look happy. Not surprisingly, the security guards blocked me. “Gracie!” I screamed.

She looked up and blew me a kiss. “Don’t worry,” she mouthed, and she was escorted from the room.

Silas approached me. I had to restrain myself from tackling him. “How could you let her speak for herself? Five years? There’s no way. And we’re not paying these crooks anything! This is a disaster.”

“Calm down,” said Silas, grabbing my elbow and leading me from the room. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

“It’s exactly the time and place. They’re taking away my wife at this very moment.”

“Give me a chance to explain,” he said. “I didn’t think she was going to speak for herself. But you know your wife, she does what she wants.”

“What did she tell you just now?” I asked. “She was whispering to you.”

Silas got a pained expression. “She said she had a plan. She assured me that she has everything under control, and she’ll be back with you in three days. She also said she has a little surprise.”

I threw my hands up. “That woman is going to drive me crazy!”

“Yes,” said Silas. “She does seem to have that effect on people.”

I seethed, but allowed myself to be led away. Once back on the ship, however, I refused to leave. Three days wasn’t very long. I had no idea what Gracie was up to, but I wasn’t about to wait five years. I managed to convince the Starport that our ship needed repairs. After three days, I would be forced leave Gracie behind.

I should never have shown her that damn vid. I should never have brought her to this cursed planet. Now she might be stuck here forever, and it was entirely my fault.

Four days had elapsed and still no word from Gracie or Silas. The authorities were demanding that I leave Autumn and I refused. I was now being given one last choice. Leave Autumn or face fines and imprisonment. There was no choice. I wasn’t leaving my wife.

I made no effort to resist as authorities boarded our ship and took me into custody. I told Carlos to take care of the ship and I prepared to go battle the authorities and fight to see my wife.

Silas arrived at the police station to find me cuffed and in confinement. He didn’t look the least bit surprised. “Really, Corris?” he said. “Do you think this is what Gracie wants?”

“You said three days. I waited. I had to do something. I’m not going to leave her.”

“You won’t have to. She’s just been released. The Caretakers have agreed to drop all charges. You’re both free to go home.”

“What?” I asked, disbelieving. “Is this true? Where is she?”

“It’s true,” said Silas. “I’ll let her tell you. She’s waiting at the Starport, and so is Carlos. She was almost on her way when you pulled this silly stunt of yours. If you had only waited a few hours longer.”

“You said three days,” I grumbled.

“Your wife said that,” Silas said. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s get you of here before you do something else stupid. Between the two of you, I have no idea how I’ve managed to remain sane. Just follow me and please, just keep quiet until you’re away from Autumn. Then you can do whatever you want.”

“Fine,” I said. I was too excited to argue. I was about to see Gracie again. I could hardly wait.

I looked through the view screen and felt a surge of delight as Autumn shrank into the distance. Only minutes earlier, Gracie–still looking beautiful in her purple dress–had breezily entered the ship with no sign of the ordeal she had just endured. She gave me a quick peck. I began to bombard her with questions.

“Sorry, luv, but I need to record a quick session in the ship’s studio. You understand.” She winked at me and strode quickly down the corridor. “Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”

“I’ll be in our cabin,” I shouted after her.

Two hours later, Gracie entered our cabin. She fell into my arms and gave me a prolonged hug. “Am I glad to see you!” she said, perching on her toes to kiss me.

I refused. “Not so fast,” I said. “First tell me what happened. How did you get free? What’s going on? And would you please get out of that dress?”

Gracie laughed and I nearly gave up on all my demands. Thankfully she removed her dress. “Hold these would you?” she handed me the necklace with the large purple stones.

“Where did you get this?” I asked.

She raised her eyebrows. “You really don’t know?”

“Know what? Come on, Gracie, what’s going on? How did you get free?”

“It’s really very simple. I decided to break Oora’s promise and tell them everything she said.”

“I thought they didn’t believe you.”

“Oh, after I told them what Oora said, they had no choice.”

“Really? What did she say? What did you tell them?”

“Well, I promised never to repeat it to anyone,” she said. “That was the condition of my release. But seeing that it’s you, I guess I can say.”

“You guess?” I said.

“Calm down, Corris. I’ll tell you. Oora told me everything. She told me that the Order of Caretakers was a corrupt organization, that they had lost the ability to communicate her with her years ago, and were only interested in the money that she brought in. She knew everything they had done. She talked about all the times the Caretakers had tried to steal branches from her, trying to reproduce her. She was an incredibly intelligent being, and she had little love for her so-called Caretakers.”

“But that doesn’t explain why they set you free. Why not just label you as a liar and keep you on Autumn forever?”

“You forget,” she said, “my music is very popular right now. I told them about a little song I was planning to write, a song that would reveal the truth about Oora, who she was and how the Caretakers had abused her and treated her like a commodity. She said that she’d rather end her life than continue to live under the Caretaker’s guardianship. That’s all it took. As long as I don’t write that song, they agreed to forgive me of all charges.”

“Even the money?” I asked, incredulous.

“Especially the money. You see, Oora was extremely telepathic. While the Caretakers couldn’t read her mind, she could read theirs, and the minds of anyone she focused on. She knew every ugly thing the Caretakers had done, and she shared it all with me. It’s a vile corrupt organization, and she knew all of its machinations. She told me never to reveal any of it, until the last moment. The power of her mind is way beyond ours. She told me quite a bit about how you feel about me, how much you love me.”

“I do,” I said. “More than ever. So, you basically blackmailed them.”

Gracie shrugged. “It was Oora’s idea. She orchestrated the entire event from beginning to end.”

“That’s all?” I asked. “There’s nothing else you’re not telling me?”

“Well, there is one thing,” she said. “It’s about that necklace you’re holding.”

“This?” I said, gazing at the strange dull stones. And suddenly I knew why she had run into the grove as it burned down. I knew why she had fled to the ship and asked for twenty minutes.

“That’s right,” she said, seeing my widening eyes. “They’re seeds.”

“I don’t believe it! This is what you took from the grove. This is what they were looking for, and they were in plain view the entire time.”

“I didn’t take them,” said Gracie, snatching the necklace back. “Oora gave them to me. That’s not stealing. That’s a gift.”

I looked at her with astonishment and a growing respect.

“Close your mouth,” said Gracie. “I told you I had a plan.”

“I didn’t doubt you for a second.”

“Of course you did,” she said, smiling as she curled her body against mine.

“Fine, I did. But I don’t now. And you’ll be happy to know, your song sales have sky-rocketed. We’ve got enough gigs lined up to keep you busy for the rest of your life.”

“Cancel them all,” she said. “I’m taking a break from music. At least for a while.”

“Really?” I asked, not daring to believe.

“Yes, Corris, really. I know you’ve wanted this. Well, now it’s time. Besides, we have to take care of these.” She dangled the necklace.

“What are you saying? I asked.

“Oora asked me to plant them,” she said. “She even told me where.”


“You’ll see,” she said. “I’ve already told Carlos. We’ll be there in a couple of days. I’m sure you’ll love it. It’s very private.”

“I’m sure I will,” I said, and I scooped Gracie up and carried her giggling into our bed.

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