In a gaudy music club, tricked out with video screens and laser effects, the final notes of a soaring melody lingered in the air. Their fragile reverberation wavered a moment longer before a cascade of applause broke the spell. Hands clapped or thumped half-filled tumblers into narrow table tops. The band bowed to a chorus of whoops and whistles. As the house lights flickered on, the band bowed again and several audience members jumped to their feet.
The slender bandleader clutched his emerald green, breath-activated Oscillot, waved ceremoniously at the audience, and spoke into his microphone.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thanks. Good night.”
His name was Ignatius Tomlin — or “Natius” to everyone except his deeply religious parents. With a pair of green eyes, chestnut brown hair and trim physique, he was hard to miss. Aside from his odd name, Natius’ parents had given him innate musical talent. His facility with several instruments had earned him a scholarship to the top music conservatory on his home world, where his early compositions marked him for greatness.
Soon after graduation, however, he started a pop band on a dare, and recorded Star Love, a hit song that blazed across the music nets. His band, Second Meson was in demand — with not enough music for a club date. Intrigued, Natius wrote a dozen new songs in a month and was out on tour soon after. He never looked back.
Racing from planet to planet gave him a liberating jolt and the proceeds from Star Love put his life on a new track. For a short time, he enjoyed being a celebrity. That is, until Lydia Parish put her foot down.
“I fell for a composer,” she said, “not a tune junkie.”
Forced to choose, Natius decided there was more to life than Lydia’s approval. Had he made the right decision? At first, the exhilaration he felt on stage was confirmation enough. Yet reality has a nasty habit of seeping in where it’s not welcome. He felt the touring musician’s daily grind of commercial space liners and second-rate orbital habitats. His friendships were few, his love affairs fleeting — and his health compromised by a steady diet of freeze-dried meals.
At age thirty-two, his bold, new life had started to feel like one too many orbits around the same gilded sun.
Now on this particular night, the music club audience lingered a bit. Though they hoped for an encore, the band backed off the small, ovoid club stage, nodding and waving. Behind the scenes, a pale blue, lizard-like club manager greeted Natius with a toothy frown.
“You couldn’t give them something extra?” she asked. “They loved you out there.”
The bandleader clacked a few random keys on his Oscillot.
“I could‘ve invited them home for dinner, too,” he said. “Strangely, I didn’t.”
“That’s not how this business works, Natius,” said the manager. “We look out for each other.”
“I’ll tell you how it works, Dezilon,” said Natius. “I play another half set for free, you sell a hundred liters more booze and all I get is ‘things are tight this season’ when we negotiate my fee.”
Dezilon stalked off, which left Natius in a foul mood. Until that night, he thought he was done haggling with club owners. So as his band mates packed up and slipped out into the bracing night air on New Canberra, he was eager to join them.
The clomp of hard-soled boots in the near distance made him look up from his instrument case. Natius watched, wide-eyed, as a well-groomed human in a crisp black military uniform walked right toward him. Sweat beaded up on the bandleader’s neck — as the officer’s stiff stride seemed to spell out “arrest warrant” in Morse Code.
“Mr. Tomlin?” said the officer. “Lieutenant Sasso of TellusCorps. You put on a rousing show tonight.”
“I don’t do ‘shows,’ Lieutenant,” said Natius. “But thanks, I guess. Now I really gotta…..”
“One moment, please, Mr. Tomlin,” said Sasso. “I represent Commodore Stetson of the Tellus ship Encounter. He’s a big fan and requests your presence for a ship-wide celebration, starting this coming Saturday. Here, have a look at the details.”
The Lieutenant fished a sealed gray envelope out of his spotless jacket and slapped it into the musician’s broad palm. Natius opened the envelope as if it were the most fragile object in two galaxies and forced himself not to laugh.
Commodore who? he thought.
Then he caught the “fee for service” line of the elaborately formal contract and the cynicism drained out of his body. It was more credits than he typically earned in a year. Despite Sasso’s intense gaze, he nevertheless paused to look at the detailed list of “suggested repertoire.”
“Hey,” he said. “We haven’t played half of these songs in years.”
“As I told you,” said Sasso, “the Commodore is a big fan. He knows your entire catalogue by heart. He’d be very disappointed, for example, it you didn’t play Star Love.”
Natius heard the sincerity in Sasso’s voice, even if the words sounded too far-fetched by half.
“Probably told you not to take no for an answer,” he said.
Sasso’s spine stiffened.
“Nothing of the sort,” Mr. Tomlin. “I imagine you would like to discuss this matter with your bandmates, wouldn’t you?”
Natius folded the contract, returned it to the gray envelope and nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s say I discuss this first.”
“Of course,” said the Lieutenant. “I’ll be at the Sidereal until 1100 tomorrow. Let me know by then, so I can make other arrangements if necessary.’
“One question,” said Natius. “What kind of event would make the Commodore so generous?”
“Make no mistake, Mr. Tomlin,” said Sasso. “The contract reflects the Commodore’s respect for your talent and the abrupt nature of this invitation. I’m sure you’ll have to cancel several engagements to free up the required week.”
“A week?” asked Natius.
“As spelled out in the contract,” said Sasso. “The Commodore is leading the first manned tour of the Welles sector with a crack team of astrophysicists. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dr. Phineas Acorn.”
Natius’ eyebrows shot up. Phineas Acorn lived in the popular imagination as the exemplar of scientific genius. He had developed the first viable means of entering and leaving an event horizon unscathed.
“And he wants a week’s worth of … me … to pass the time after work?” asked Natius.
“Yes,” said Sasso. “Though you should know that there will be other entertainers onboard. And, as it turns out, the Commodore knows that Acorn himself is also a big fan of yours.”
“Never heard of entertainment on a scientific mission,” said Natius.
“Mr. Tomlin,” said Sasso. “Try to understand. Though I cannot reveal the nature of our mission at this time, know that it will make great physical and psychological demands on the entire crew. The idea is to offer several hours of R&R between each assignment, in order to maintain morale.”
Natius looked at the floor.
“Must be something kinda weird going on out there,’ he said. “Can’t you tell me anything? If there are gonna be risks I have to level with the band.”
The Lieutenant frowned.
“I warned the Commodore that you’d be curious,” he said. “So he authorized me to say this much:The Encounter will be the first human ship to make contact with the Ghilostri. Make of that what you will. I must report in. Now be sure to give me your answer….”
“By 1100 tomorrow,” said Natius, “got it.” Faster than he could put out his hand, Lieutenant Sasso had already spun around and was walking swiftly toward the nearest backstage exit.
Natius shook his head. How in the twenty-nine known galaxies could he explain this to the band, let alone sell them on it? Not to mention that the Ghilostri were easily the most mysterious alien species that humanity had met since it developed interstellar flight. The next second, his comlink sounded. A one-eighth-scale hologram of his bandmates materialized. it showed them seated around a large table in a darkened bar. The drummer, Quincy Seikes, brushed his shiny blonde hair out of his suntanned face and spoke for all of them.
“Hey Natius,” he said. “What’s up with this humungous contract that popped up on our scanners? Are they serious? You said ‘Yes,’ didn’t you? Tell me you said ‘Yes,’ Natius.”
To be continued…. Read the next episode here.
A new Episode of Anomaly appears every other Monday.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.
Image by Steven S. Drachman