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Green Hills (A Bedtime Story)

This story originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller.

Long ago, my child, at the tail end of the First Imperium, the Solomani came, and they colonized many worlds.

One of them had no sophonts, but there were birds and animals and trees, and beautiful wide hills covered with the most amazingly emerald green grass. When the mild breezes of the place ran across them, the grass would shimmer, its tiny parsley-like leaves catching the wind, and making it look—from a distance—like a gently rolling sea.

The Solomani remembered a poem written years before by one of their greatest authors, and called the world “Green Hills” and settled there.

Their Ramshackle Empire fell, of course, and when it did, the colony on Green Hills backslid. The grav-vehicles went away, replaced by what the locals called a ‘horse’. Gone were the huge gravships that carried goods around the world, but they build dirigibles and sailing ships.

They managed to keep a decent amount of agriculture, and they kept some machining, and some electrical knowledge. They knew things were backsliding, and they printed as many books as they could from the computers they could no longer maintain, and re-printed them on old manually operated presses. On the whole, they slid back to around TL4 or 5.

One thing they agonized over losing was music—they had no way to preserve the vast recordings of music in their failing computers. They printed sheet music for the songs they could play on the guitars and drums and flutes they had, but without synths and electrics, there were many songs that would never sound right, and they knew they would miss them. This made music a very important thing in their society, through all of the Long Night.

Finally, the Sylean Scouts came, the beginnings of the Third Imperium. They landed at the airport, putting their Type-S next to an airship… and were welcomed gladly.

Long talks followed, and the people of Green Hills admitted their lack of communications technology. They barely had radio, no radar, no lidar, no... none of the things that you need to run a port, and they didn’t really have the infrastructure to support upgrading.

So, an arrangement was made that incoming ships would call, at full power, on the local frequencies listened to by people using crystal sets, and that the airships, on hearing the “incoming!” call, would move to avoid the port until after the starship landed or, when lifting, cleared the traffic zone of the port.

With that, the merchants started coming every few months. One of them, short handed, decided to just push an audio file to his transmitter during descent, the captain’s favorite song. The people of Green Hills, who so loved music and missed the songs they’d lost, loved it. The trader’s profits were much higher than expected, and part of it was because so many people came to visit and find out more about his ship’s song.

Word got around—“when landing there, play music”. And so the Jabberwock blared “The Final Countdown” as she landed and lifted, and the Liverpool Enterprise played “Money”, and Mechanical Journey played “Silent Running” and… a hundred other songs of long ago. Vilani tunes, the words unknown, or the howls and snarls and barks of Vargar vocals, would announce the arrival of another contact from the Imperium.

Two young boys, ages 12 and 10 when the first ship landed, loved the songs from the sky. They’d listen to the local broadcast, weak and wavering, and then when the ship came in, the solid, loud, signal of some long-lost song would flood from the earphones of the crystal radio they shared. We’ll call these two lads “Orville” and “Wilbur”…

As they grew up, Orville knew he would inherit the family farm, and was duty bound to it. His brother Wilbur, though, hungered to see the places those wonderful ships came from, and even more, he was determined that some day, some how, a ship would land playing one of the songs from home, and it would ply space and represent their homeworld. That no longer would their world not be known elsewhere, but that there would be at least one ship that carried their honor.

When Wilbur turned 18, he waited for the annual IISS visit, and asked to join. He was granted it, and for 12 years the only contact Orville had with his brother was the occasional letter—literally, letter, since Green Hills had no computer network, and there was no way to have a ship passing through just retransmit email and move on. Thus, the letters were passed from ship captain to ship captain, and eventually they arrived.

Twelve years went by, and one evening, Orville was sitting at his desk after a long day on the farm. He had his prized radio—a tube-radio, with vacuum tubes—playing. It was a top of the line radio for his world, and even if it would be judged a piece of junk on others, the workmanship and functionality was all that could be expected of his world. It brought in the weak AM station in the city 15 miles away , and this evening Orville listened to the scratchy tunes of a teen aged girl singing of unrequited love as he opened the mail that a farmhand had brought from town that morning.

Suddenly, the girls voice was drowned out, and he heard—

“I pray to land once more,
On the world that gave me birth,
And walk across the Green Hills,
to return to home and hearth.”

The words were in a familiar voice, spoken with a pleasant, quiet, calm guitar background—none of the usual rock music or synth.

As he listened, puzzled, he opened the last letter on his desk—dated four months ago, it was an IISS envelope...

“Brother—I’m being mustered out, and put on detached duty in 90 days. Best of all, I’m being allowed to keep the ‘S’ I’ve been aboard all this time. I’ll be home in the fall…”

There was more to the letter, but those first lines were enough to prompt Orville’s memory, and he recognized the voice he’d not heard in over a decade.

He jumped up, saddled his best horse, and rode to the airport…