The music box won't play at first, but Alison keeps trying... (Beyond Centauri)
The box looked out of place, wedged in a rocky outcropping overlooking the windswept dune grass. Alison didn't notice it at first, and even when she did, she was too busy pretending to be a seagull to stop and investigate. She soared up to the top of the dunes, then swooped back down in a rush, her bare feet dodging expertly around the sharp blades of grass. She imagined looking down on the island from above, watching for fishing boats with flocks of her friends, diving and shrieking for their share of the catch.
Up and down she flew, carried aloft by the boundless energy of youth, and borne earthward again with the relentless pull of gravity. Finally, tired and sweaty, she threw herself down on the hot sand and let the sea breeze blow across her, hidden in the field of stalky grass for only the dragonflies to see. Her attention was once again drawn to the object stuck precariously between the rocks like a small boat doomed to wait for the fickle tide to rise again and set it free.
Alison hopped up, ran to the rocks and inspected the box. It didn't look like much, but it did seem out of place. It was not quite wood, not quite metal, and she wasn't sure it had any opening, but there were swirls and shapes on the sides. Suddenly, the seagull was gone, and in her place was an intrepid treasure hunter, searching the deepest jungles for ancient artifacts.
The treasure hunter scratched her freckled nose and stared at her find. She tapped the side, and it made a hollow sound. Alison tried to pry the box free, but it was wedged quite firmly, so she crawled around to see the back side, for she was aware that ancient artifacts require careful study. Sure enough, on the back were more markings and a small handle which looked as if it should turn. Despite her jiggling, the handle would not move.
Alison peered at the markings. They didn't appear to be words, and they certainly weren't just decoration. They reminded her of shapes on the architectural drawings her dad would sometimes bring home from the office, where each different shape would mean a door or a window or a fireplace. She traced the markings and the patterns tickled her fingertips. Her eyes grew wide in wonder when the handle, so solid before, turned the tiniest bit, all by itself. She gripped the handle, and this time it moved. As it did, three notes sounded from deep inside.
"A music box!" Alison gasped. Her grandmother had one which she kept tucked away in a drawer, and last summer she had let Alison turn the handle and play Pachelbel's "Canon" until the repetition drove everybody crazy. Alison wondered what tune this might play, but despite her efforts, the handle would only turn that same tiny amount and play those same three notes, which just weren't enough to tell.
Frustrated, Alison considered giving up on being a treasure hunter and running back over the dunes to the beach to see if her older brother, Tim, would help her search for interesting driftwood. Then she remembered how busy Tim had been earlier, collecting mussel shells and stomping on them, and decided it was better not to bother him. She looked again at the markings, and noticed that some were smaller than others, and that the shapes seemed to grow in a pattern across the sides of the box. She traced the smallest marking first, then each of the larger marks in order, then back down again. Nothing seemed to happen, but when she grasped the handle, it turned further this time, playing an eerie but intriguing tune that she didn't remember hearing before.
Alison traced the marks again, this time going from smaller to larger with the circular marks first, then the rectangles, and finally the squiggly triangles, patiently sorting out the different shapes and sizes. When she did this, a snapping sound came from inside. Alison was afraid she might have broken something. She waited a moment, but nothing further happened. She reached out and grasped the handle again. Now it turned effortlessly, with the full tune playing out across the field, rising and falling with a melody that was strange but somehow compelling. It wasn't as pretty as Pachelbel's "Canon", but Alison kept playing it, turning and turning the handle. She only stopped when she heard her mother calling her for lunch.
Remembering that even treasure hunters get hungry, Alison hurried back across the sand. The wind was picking up, and she didn't notice that the little box kept playing its tune, even though she was no longer there to turn its small handle.
Silence swept through the conference room like the tail of a comet, its icy plume enveloping each officer in turn as all turned to stare at the intruder. The commander sat utterly still at the far side of the chamber, azure feathers unruffled but with her angular tail raised perceptibly as she waited for an explanation of the interruption.
"Commander! I am terribly sorry to disturb you, but we have received an alert signal from one of our A-S probes in the Y27 galaxy. A continuous signal!" The crewman was slightly breathless and had clearly rushed to be the first to report the news. Feathered ridges on both sides of his head pulsed and rippled, signaling his extreme excitement and agitation.
The commander remained in her seat, although several of the lesser officers jumped up. Years of command had led her to mistrust the excited exclamations of her subordinates. Too often they were simply false alarms, registered by those too inexperienced to understand how very unlikely such an alert was. Nonetheless, after a long pause, during which the crewman crouched in a painful pose of respect, she tapped on the table. "Let's hear it" she said. Leaping to attention, and gazing with fear at her tail, the crewman hurried to the table. He drew a small oblong disk from his vest and slipped it into the receptacle at the center of the table. Without waiting for the signal to begin, he rushed back and resumed his humble stance.
At first, the signal was intermittent, and the officers looked dubiously at each other. Then it grew more regular and strengthened, finally becoming continuous. There was only one conclusion to be drawn, and the officers looked expectantly at their silent commander.
Rubbing her forehead thoughtfully, she reflected on how close she had come to retiring early and missing this day. Silently thanking Azorni that she had waited, the commander stood and led her officers out, down the short hall to the ship's command center. All eyes looked up at her as she stood in the doorway, exultant and fierce. She savored the moment, then raised a feathered blue arm.
"Notify the fleet commander that our Awareness-Seeker probe may have detected alien intelligence, and that I am leading an expedition to eliminate the threat." As one, the ridges of her crew started to pulse with her, feathered arms raised in assent. The odor of battle was thick in the air. After a long moment of silence and anticipation, the crew scattered to battle stations. The Starship Tyrannid IV was made ready to fulfill its destiny.
Alison waited, trying not to show her impatience. Telling her brother about the music box might have been a mistake, but she really wanted to show off her discovery. Now, she had to wait while Tim thought about following her back over the dunes, deciding whether it was "worth bothering." Finally, with an exaggerated shrug, Tim relented, "Okay, I'll come see your stupid music box."
Alison turned to lead Tim to her find, but he ran ahead and was up and over the hill before she could catch up. She chased after, yelling, "Wait for me!" By the time she caught up, Tim was examining the music box, which kept playing and playing the eerie tune. He wrestled to lift the object, but it wouldn't budge.
"There must be some way to open this thing." Tim looked around for a moment, then picked up a heavy piece of rock off the ledge nearby and started hitting the bottom edge of the box, harder and harder.
"No, stop!" Alison shouted, tears coming to her eyes, but it was too late. The sharp edge of the stone caved in the side near the handle, and must have broken something inside. As the handle fell off onto the dune grass, the tune died out, its last few notes whipping away in the wind.
"Uh, sorry, Alison. I didn't mean to." Tim looked apologetic, but just for a moment, then peered in the hole he had made. "Hey, there's nothing in there. Hello, hello, hello!" he called into the box, but nothing happened. Losing interest, he raced back to the beach.
Alison couldn't even find the words to yell after him. She just looked at the music box, still wedged in place, but now crumpled and silent. Her tears fell freely onto the sand. Brothers ruin everything! she thought, and ran back toward the beach and her parents.
Standing at her console, consumed with the details of readying a full scale invasion force, the commander was pleased to see the crewman who had delivered the original alert recording. His diligence had been rewarded handsomely, as he was given the singular honor of determining the exact location and nature of the target. She turned to him, eagerly awaiting the mission objective, but was disturbed to see his downcast expression.
"I have terrible news, commander. The signal stopped before we could determine where it was located. We tried..." The crewman did not finish, as his head went spinning across the floor and rolled under a blinking console. His wide eyes hadn't even had time to register surprise, and now stared blankly at the wall.
The commander retracted her sharp tail, and glared at the decapitated crewman. Incompetent subordinates ruin everything! she thought, and trudged back to her cabin to go through travel brochures, suddenly looking forward to her retirement.