by Bruce Golden
He stepped through the pandemonium of vines and hulking, water-rich leaves, as if walking on shards of glass, planting each step with caution, straining to see beyond the wall of vegetation. Shadows mocked his imagination. Every gargantuan outgrowth became another monster in his path.
Ignoring the pain, as another barbed branch reminded him of the wound in his thigh, he scanned the foliage and listened to the distant but crisp sounds of battle. Through a break in the emerald canopy, he saw a burst of crimson light streak across the cloud-covered sky like the herald of some great storm.
What was he doing here? He, Willie Solman, who used to go out of his way not to step on even a garden snail. What the hell was he doing here, in the astromarines, trying to kill creatures he’d never even seen, except in some grainy vids? It was crazy. The whole thing was crazy–the hate, the killing, a war over some godforsaken sector of the galaxy. It had nothing to do with him. It was none of his business; at least, it hadn’t been until the government dusted off an antiquated conscription act and snatched him away from his life. He didn’t belong here. He belonged back home, on stage at The Bad Penny, playing the blues.
Instead he was, well, he didn’t know exactly where he was. They didn’t bother to tell grunts where they were going, but he’d heard through the grapevine they were headed to a system known as Gliese 581 in the Libra constellation. Where that was, he had no idea. And now, he was lost on this planet where they’d dropped him.
An ambush had separated him from his platoon. The chaotic images still blazed fiercely in his brain. Blood everywhere. Weapons’ fire punctuated by screams. Meaningless shouted commands. Gilmore and Fitzgerald and little Jose all fell with the first blasts; holes burned through their flesh and bones. He’d dropped to the ground and scrambled for cover at the first sound of attack. Rigid with fear, he hadn’t moved until he heard an order to withdraw. But withdraw to where?
So he crawled—the fighting all around him—crawled over the dead, burnt body of Doc McGee, crawled until he collapsed from exhaustion. He didn’t realize he was wounded until later. His first firefight and he hadn’t even taken the safety off. For all he knew, everyone else was dead, and he still hadn’t seen whatever he was supposed to be fighting.
He’d heard stories, though. Stories like the ones Sergeant Bortman told about killing slugs on Vega 7. He called it “exterminating.” He described their blue-slime blood and hideous features and how they would eat their own dead. Willie didn’t know how much of what Bortman had told them was true, but the stories alone had been enough to make him want to go AWOL. But where could you go in the dead of space?
The tactical com in his helmet had been spitting nothing but static for a while, so he’d switched it off. His visor display was inoperative, as was his GPS. The heft of the M-190 in his hands didn’t make him feel any more secure, but at least he’d taken the safety off now. If only he could be sure which direction to go. Toward the sounds of combat or away from them? He wasn’t even sure if he could tell where the sounds were coming from, but anything was better than just sitting and waiting—waiting for God knows what.
Another ragged flicker illuminated the sky, and the ground beneath him trembled with a distant rumble. A moldy stench saturated the air, and Willie’s mouth tasted of the sweat lathering his face. The humidity clung to him like a second skin, and with each step, green mud clutched at his boots, as if to pull him down into the bowels of this alien world.
He pushed aside another elephantine leaf with the barrel of his weapon and stretched to step over a rotting log. His thigh was growing numb. He hoped that was a good sign.
Before he could swing his other leg over the log, something lashed out at him. Only reflex prevented him from getting hit. He swung his weapon around, ready to blast whatever it was, and saw a long, purplish whip recoil like a party favor. The tendril vanished inside a hulking, frog-like creature the size of a cow and as green as its environs. It had no visible eyes or legs, just a bizarre crown of prickly thorns atop what appeared to be its head. Willie wasn’t sure if it was animal, vegetable, or enemy booby trap.
He kept his weapon poised as he edged around the mysterious threat, staying what he hoped was out of range of its tentacle-like tongue. It made no other movement, and although it was soon behind him, he was wary of running into one of its cousins.
The distant battle sounds had faded, only to render the pounding of his heart louder. He found a relatively dry patch of ground and squatted to rest. He even let his eyes close for a few seconds. That’s when he heard it. His fatigue vanished, and his eyes opened with the alertness fear provokes. He didn’t move; he just listened. There it was again—music!
A hallucination? Had an alien virus infected his wound? They’d been warned of the high risk of infection and the possibility of delirium as a result. Willie shook his head and listened again. Still there—distant but real. The strangest sounding melody he’d ever heard. Light and airy, like he imagined the pipes of Pan to be, yet hauntingly sad. At first, it sounded like a flute. Then, he could have sworn it was a throaty sax.
The tune reverberated through the jungle, each note creating its own echo. Willie found it both beautiful and bewitching. He didn’t hesitate. He stood and began tracking the sound like he was tracking game back in Louisiana. He was drawn to it, no longer concerned with the danger of his environment. Music was the only thing that still made sense to him, and he didn’t care if the devil himself was playing it.
It grew louder, convincing him he was moving in the right direction. When he stepped out of the tangle of thick bush into a small clearing, he saw the thing.
It was leaning against a twisted tree and playing a queer-looking instrument shaped like a trio of snakes, intertwined at a single mouthpiece but separating into three distinctly different tubular openings. The instrument’s oddity, however, couldn’t compete with the thing that played it.
It stood on two legs, manlike, and was even dressed in military garb similar to his own. But that’s where the similarities ended. Its face was a discolored, gelatinous mass with two bulbous eyes that seemed ready to burst from bloated, quivering cheeks. Even several yards away, Willie could see veins pulsing through its nearly translucent skin. The creature had no real nose, but instead three cavernous nostrils where a nose should have been. The thing was hairless, as far as he could tell, and its mouth was a lipless orifice that wrapped obscenely around the base of the instrument.
Willie comprehended all this the instant he stepped into the clearing—the same instant he froze, paralyzed by fear, enticed by the music—the same moment the alien thing saw him.
Its own shock was evident. It ceased playing, lowered the instrument, and stared. Reality replaced wonderment in a heartbeat, as the creature dropped its instrument, and both soldiers took aim with their weapons.
Willie knew, even as he gripped his weapon, that he should squeeze the trigger, get off the first burst, and dive for cover. It had been drilled into him over weeks of intensive, shove-it-down-your-throat training. He knew he should fire…but he didn’t. So he waited—waited for death to flash at him. Yet death didn’t come. The creature held its weapon ready to fire…but didn’t.
Willie decided to take advantage of the moment. Moving as slowly as he could, he lowered his weapon. Almost simultaneously, the thing standing across from him lowered its own. They stood looking at each other, examining more closely their dissimilarities.
Willie wanted to speak, to say he hadn’t fired because he had no stomach for killing, and because…because of the music. He wanted to ask the creature why it had not burned him, and what was the strange instrument called? Instead, he reached carefully into his shirt pocket. When he pulled out his harmonica, the thing reacted by raising its weapon.
Cautiously, Willie lifted the harmonica to his lips and began playing. At the first note, the alien relaxed. It propped its weapon against the tree and listened.
Willie played a slow, sad blues number that mingled easily with the dreary rainforest, the small clearing containing it like a living amphitheater. Partway through, Willie stopped, looked at his adversary and grinned. The alien retrieved its own queer instrument and began the same seductively eerie melody it had played before. Willie was amazed at how the creature’s flabby puce fingers squirmed up and down the instrument’s shafts, as if it were playing some three-dimensional game. Watching the performance, Willie’s eyes were as mesmerized as his ears. He listened a while longer, trying to decipher the notes, the melody, then joined in with his harmonica. He played softly and tried to follow along. Just as he seemed to be getting it, the alien stopped. Willie stopped, too, and let loose with a big grin. He wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn the thing smiled back at him.
The creature took a few plodding steps closer and motioned towards Willie with its triple-pronged instrument. It wanted him to do something. A noise escaped its mouth, but it was gibberish to Willie.
“I haven’t a clue what you’re saying, bub.”
It kept pointing at him as it lumbered closer. Willie realized it wasn’t pointing at him but at his harmonica. It held out its own instrument, and he understood.
As they made the exchange, Willie’s hand brushed the creature’s, and the clamminess of its skin filled him momentarily with revulsion. The sensation faded as he ran his fingers over the smooth finish of the alien contraption. He couldn’t tell if it was made of highly-polished wood or some synthetic polymer.
Willie raised it to his lips, hesitated before touching it, then shrugged off any worry of alien germs and tried to play. The noise that squeaked forth was anything but harmonious. After two audibly painful attempts, he stopped.
Meanwhile, the alien had fastened its own wide mouth onto the harmonica, but it took several attempts before any sound came out at all. When the creature finally discovered the proper method, the discordant notes it created made them both laugh. At least, it sounded to Willie like the thing was laughing.
Before the echo of their laughter faded, an explosion rocked the jungle clearing and knocked them both to the ground. The alien scrambled to its feet first and headed for its weapon. Stunned, Willie struggled to sit up as an armored juggernaut lumbered through the thick growth and emerged into the clearing. Behind it, swarmed a platoon of marines. Like angry insects, they opened fire. Blasts of red-yellow heat crackled around the alien in its ungainly dash for cover.
Willie staggered to his feet and looked at his fellow marines through a daze of colliding emotions. Before he could think to call out, the alien disappeared into the bush. Then the jungle exploded in a concussion of shredded leaves and flying mud. The creature’s weapon twirled end over end through the air in dreamlike slow motion within the shower of debris.
“Keep moving! Stay alert, stay close!” The platoon leader added a wave of his arm to his commands and moved in behind the treads of the still rolling vehicle.
Willie stood mute; a stupefied gaze plastered his face. His arms hung limp, his weapon in one hand, the alien instrument in the other.
“Hey! You okay?” A baby-faced marine tried to get his attention. “I said, are you okay?”
Willie nodded in the affirmative, and the marine moved on. As quickly as it had stormed the clearing, the attack force moved out; the only evidence of its passing was the mangled vegetation.
Still standing, still staring off towards the jungle where the alien soldier had disappeared, likely blown to shreds, Willie tried to breach the haze clouding his brain. He lifted the strange instrument in his hand, astonished to discover he was still holding it. His other hand opened, and his M-190 fell to the mud. With both hands, he raised the queer mouthpiece to his lips and…
…He played. He played it with the familiarity of an old friend. His hands were a pair of hummingbirds that fluttered up and down its shafts. The piece was one of his own creation—a fusion of scalding jazz licks that steamed to a crescendo, then cooled and precipitated a more classical interlude. Rising, then falling, then rising again. By the time he had driven the tune to its summit, even the full orchestra backing him had fallen into respectful silence.
He played it like no man had ever played it, because no man ever had. No one else on Earth had an instrument like it. Others had made copies after his fame had grown, but no one had come close to duplicating its unique resonance. He was the one man with the one-and-only sound.
The finale came all too soon for the audience. They stood en masse and applauded with fervor. Willie bowed slightly in recognition of their appreciation and blew a kiss. After six years, he’d become accustomed to the adoration—jaded, really. He brushed back his long hair, styled at extravagant prices but graying at the temples, and waved to the audience. Those in the first few rows could see the forced smile he flashed them, but the stage lights washed out the wrinkles.
He backed off stage with the applause still thundering in his ears and wasted no time heading for his dressing room. Close on his heels was a short, heavyset man, who smelled of cigars. He had a hard time keeping pace with Willie.
“Great show, Willie,” he huffed, “just fabulous. They’re going crazy out there.”
Passing through the dressing room door, Willie pulled at the tie around his neck. He plopped down in front of his makeup mirror. An older woman handed him a towel and took his tripet.
“You sounded just lovely tonight, Willie,” she said as she helped him off with his coat.
Willie wiped the perspiration from his face and began unbuttoning his shirt.
“Yeah, they love you, Willie,” said the fat man, having caught his breath from the brisk walk. “Listen, you can still hear them. What about an encore?”
“Not tonight, R.J. I got nothing left.”
Georgeanne brought Willie a glass of water, and he took a long drink.
There was a knock on the door. A stagehand stuck his head in the room and inquired, “Is he coming out again?”
“No, he’s not,” Georgeanne told him firmly.
Before retreating, the intruder took a quick look at Willie, who offered him no solace.
“That’s okay, Willie,” said his manager, clapping him on the back, “save it for Sunday. Sunday’s the big one. The whole world will be listening. Hell’s bells, more than the whole world. You’re going to be hooked up to every station and colony in the system. It’ll be the biggest show of the decade, or my name isn’t Robert Joshua Bottfeld.” He pulled out a big cigar, flashed open a platinum-plated lighter, and lit up.
No sooner was the cigar smoking away, than Georgeanne snatched it from his mouth and extinguished it in the water. “Not around Willie!” she snapped with a piercing stare.
Willie ignored the exchange, oblivious to everything but the face that stared back at him from the mirror. Success had put him in this chair, a preposterous kind of success that exceeded his wildest dreams. So why was the face in the mirror so sullen? How could he spread so much joy with his music, yet find so little himself?
“Guess what, Willie,” said R.J., twitching excitedly. “I heard from DreamWorks again today. They still want to do the movie. Did you hear me?”
“Yeah, I heard you. Look, you’re a great manager. You’ve always done me right, but I told you before, I’m a musician, not an actor.”
“Hey, for seven mil plus a soundtrack deal, you can be ham and eggs on toast!”
“It’s not about the money, R.J. It’s about the music. You’ve never understood that.”
“I understand, all right. I understand you like your limos and your ladies, your house on the Riviera, and all your toys. It’s always about the money, Willie, and this movie gig will give your lagging music sales the boost they need.”
“I’ll think about it,” replied Willie, as if he wouldn’t. Before his manager could argue, Willie changed the subject.
“How’s your boy, Georgeanne?”
Her matronly smile dissolved into worry. “Not too good. He heard they’re going to start drafting young people into the military again, and he wants to go to school and study engineering.”
“Yeah, looks like the government’s gearing up for another fight with them slugs,” said Bottfeld.
“But there’s been no fighting for years,” said Willie. “We’ve got a treaty and—”
“Treaty-shmeaty. Those alien bugs are up to no good. Don’t you keep up with the news? We should have wiped out every last one of them instead of letting them surrender. Hell’s bells, they even let the slimy things on Earth now. Shoot, Willie, you know. You were out there fighting them yourself, back before the treaty.”
Willie didn’t reply.
“Maybe Georgeanne’s boy will go back and finish the job you started. Good riddance, I say.”
Georgeanne looked even more worried. “Willie, do you think…?”
But Willie wasn’t listening. He fled to the bathroom, closed the door behind him, and stood over the sink.
Another war? More people dying? For what? For territorial rights? For steaming jungle planets? We were more civilized when we just raised our legs and pissed on trees.
He felt bad about Georgeanne’s son. The kid probably didn’t have any idea what he was in for. But Willie knew. His own memories were vivid, always close to the surface.
Still, he couldn’t change the past, so why not just enjoy his success? He activated the faucet sensor. He’d made it—he’d made the big time. Did it matter how? He scrubbed his hands with soap and splashed water on his face. Call it chance, fate, karma, whatever you wanted; it wasn’t his fault, was it? It was time to move on.
Willie grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his face. He sat on the toilet lid, leaned his head back, and tried to empty his mind. He relaxed, endeavoring to unburden himself of all emotion. He needed a rest. Maybe after this next concert, he’d take a vacation—no matter what R.J. had planned.
Then he heard it. That song he’d first heard nearly seven years ago. He didn’t hear it with his ears; he heard it in his head. Forlorn and ephemeral—the same tune that had called to him in that faraway jungle. He’d never played it himself. He didn’t even want to try. But lately, he’d been hearing it more and more, until he wasn’t sure what was real and what was only a ghostly recollection.
He yanked off the towel and shook his head. He thought of other songs, other instruments. He hoped it would go away. It wasn’t his fault. Why was he…? Then, it was gone as suddenly as it began.
Willie exited the bathroom, his hands shaking.
“Are you all right?” asked Georgeanne.
“Yeah, you look a little pale there,” added Bottfeld. “Come on. Let’s get going to the party.”
“I’m not feeling much like a party tonight, R.J. I’ve got a headache. You go ahead without me. I’m going for a walk to get some air.”
“But, Willie, there’s going to be…” Before Bottfeld could even finish, Willie was out the door.
“He’s been getting those headaches more and more lately,” spoke up Georgeanne, “and nightmares, too.”
“Nightmares? What kind of nightmares?”
“I don’t know. He won’t talk about it. I wonder if it has to do with what you were saying. You know, about when he was in the war.”
“That was years ago,” said Bottfeld, reaching into his pocket for another cigar. “Why would it start bothering him now?” He lit the cigar and exhaled. “Of course those damn slugs would give anybody nightmares. It’s not enough they’ve got to invade our part of the galaxy. Now they’re messing my golden boy’s head.”
“There’s something else,” Georgeanne said hesitantly. “I don’t know if I should be saying this, but you being his manager and all…”
“What is it?”
“I overheard him once, talking to himself. I think he’s hearing things…in his head.”
Bottfeld exhaled a large blue-gray cloud and replied with a hint of derision, “Let’s hope it’s material for a new album.”
It was cold and damp out, but he didn’t care. He had wandered into a familiar neighborhood, but didn’t notice a group of derelicts sizing him up. He also paid no attention to some late-night revelers who ridiculed him for sport. He focused on the bottle in his hand and not much else. He knew how to get rid of uncertainty—drown it.
He’d always thought being rich and famous was the end-all, but now that he had more than he needed of both, he wasn’t so sure. It had been great at first, but what did it all mean? Was he happy? Was he satisfied? Damn that tripet, anyway. He hadn’t asked for it. Now he had it though, and…he realized too late that thinking about it had been a mistake. That tune that wouldn’t let him forget slipped back into his head. It began softly, like a gentle breeze. But it steadily grew until it was a howling gale lashing his tattered brain. That song, that memory. It was so real.
“No!” howled Willie, flinging the half-empty bottle against a wall. The shattering glass and his own rage silenced the haunting melody.
He felt exhausted and drunk, but not drunk enough. He looked around, noticing for the first time where he was. He remembered a dive nearby. A place he used to play, long ago, back before it had all gotten out of control. He could go full circle, finish himself off there. The idea appealed to him.
The rest of the night was a drunken haze. He did recall a band. Willie remembered them because one guy, a strange-looking dude, was playing the harmonica and not doing too badly at all. He remembered the guy looking funny, because—in addition to a long overcoat and a big floppy hat—he wore gloves. Musicians don’t wear gloves, especially harmonica players. Willie also remembered falling out of his chair and arguing with the waitress over how much more he should drink. A tip of significant denomination convinced her he was right, but after she brought the drink, he didn’t want it.
Some time after the band stopped for a break, Willie passed out. It wasn’t until the music started up again that he came to. Something familiar about the song woke him. Something…
A chill ran through him. At first, he thought he was dreaming, because the melody wasn’t just in his head anymore. And it wasn’t a tripet he heard; it was the sound of a harmonica.
He opened his bleary eyes. The harmonica player stood alone onstage, performing that tune which had become a tempest in Willie’s head. He listened intently to every note, every inflection, and still couldn’t believe his ears. It wasn’t possible.
Determined to know for sure, he got to his feet when the song ended. He could barely focus, let alone walk. He took half a dozen erratic steps towards the stage, collided with someone, and went sprawling. Before he knew which way was up, someone had grabbed hold of his shirt and hit him. There was much yelling and confusion. Willie felt himself being pulled away.
“You’re out of here, buddy. I don’t care how much dough you got.”
Willie saw that the bartender had come around to help the bouncer restore order. He reached into his pocket and tossed him a wad of bills, then looked to the stage. It was empty. The harmonica player was gone.
They hustled him outside and pushed him towards the street. He fell and didn’t try to get up. He lay there wondering—wondering what was real and what wasn’t, and whether it even mattered anymore.
People poured into the concert hall like the streams from a mountain thaw. Even backstage, Willie found their discordant murmurings deafening. Tripet in hand, he paced his dressing room. He paused to massage his throbbing temples and paced some more.
“Willie boy, settle down,” said Bottfeld, when he saw his client’s nervous look. “Save it for the show. You know they’re going to love you. They always do.”
“Yeah, but am I going to love me?”
Bottfeld’s phone beeped for attention.
“Yeah…what? Well make sure security clears him out.”
“Problem?” asked Willie.
“Nothing for you to worry about. Security had to chase off some old guy playing his harmonica out by the rear exit near your limo.”
“Don’t get excited. It’s no big—hey! Where you going?”
Willie, tripet in hand, was already out the door. He called back, “I’m going for some air.”
“Wait!” called Bottfeld. “Hell’s bells! Don’t be too long, Willie. You go on in twenty.”
Willie exchanged nods with the security guard at the rear exit and started down the alley. There was another guard next to his limo.
“Do you want me to go with you, Mr. Solman?” said the second man.
“No thanks, I’m just stretching my legs a minute.”
He didn’t walk far before he heard it—that phantom song that wouldn’t go away. For some reason, the sound didn’t terrify him anymore. It had become inevitable. He accepted it calmly, like an old friend who came to visit and wouldn’t leave. He continued down the starlit alley, following it. Only when it faded away, did he stop. He listened, lost because it wasn’t there anymore. The silence was filled with uncertainty, and he was momentarily overwhelmed by apprehension. What should he do? Which…?
Then he heard something else: the very real, very ordinary sound of someone playing the blues.
He didn’t have to go far to find the harmonica player, dressed as he had been two nights before. Half-hidden in the shadows, covered in clothing, Willie couldn’t really see the fellow. But he didn’t have to. The stranger stopped playing, and Willie lifted the tripet to his lips. He began the same, slow, sad song the stranger had been playing, stopping after only a few bars. The harmonica player responded in kind.
“It’s you,” said Willie. “You’re alive.”
The stranger limped, stiff-legged, a few steps closer.
“Yes, it is me.” The voice had a lisp that wasn’t quite human.
“I thought you died. There was an explosion, and then…”
The stranger limped closer as if to demonstrate his disability and removed his hat.
“Only part of me died there.”
The creased, rubbery features of the alien startled Willie momentarily, even though he’d known exactly what to expect beneath the hat. “How did you know where to find me?”
“The great Willie Solman? Who on this planet has not heard of you? Tonight’s performance has been well promoted. ‘Songs of the Galaxy’ I believe they’re billing it.” The alien made a sound that was part belch, part cough, then continued. “You have mastered the ‘tripet,’ as you call it, quite well. Much better than I ever did.”
Willie lifted the instrument. “I always wondered what it was really called.”
The creature made a weird-sounding noise that welled up from deep inside it, “Hgs-doushk.”
“I don’t think I could pronounce that,” said Willie. “You know, you haven’t done too badly yourself with that mouth organ. I heard you the other night. Those were some mean blues you belted out. I bet you’ve got quite a following where you come from.”
“I am afraid the victors are more tolerant than the defeated,” the alien said, then spit and coughed roughly. “After your military drove us off our settlement on Klidcki-sh, your kind became the scourge of my world’s existence.”
The alien held up the harmonica.
“Yes, I learned to play it. I was fascinated with it. But my people hated anything remotely connected to humans with a passion. I doubt you could understand. Your race, your technology, your culture, your music, even, became anathema.” The creature hesitated, remembering. “The more I played the harmonica, the more of a disgrace I became. I loved the sound, but I had no audience. They tolerated the crazy, wounded ‘war hero’ only so long, then…”
“How long have you been on Earth?”
“A few years. Ever since they began allowing my kind here. The reception—for the most part—has not been very warm. But at least here I could play my music. Carnivals, sideshows, roadhouses. I played wherever I could. The locals are never fond of my staying too long, but I have my music, like you have yours…or is it the other way around?”
Willie laughed, and the creature responded until its own unearthly chuckle ended in a vile cough. When the cough subsided Willie held out the tripet. “I guess this belongs to you.”
“Not anymore,” the alien said and held up the harmonica. “After all, it was a fair trade.” A non-human smile formed on its quivering face, only to be interrupted by another uncontrollable fit of coughing. It gagged and gasped for air.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
“I am dying.”
It paused for a moment as if composing its inner self and gathering strength.
“The greater force of your planet’s gravity, its fouled atmosphere have taken their toll on my life force. That is why I came. I hoped to see you before I—”
Another spasm interrupted, and Willie knew it was fighting for control of its own body.
“Look, I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. There must be a doctor who can—”
“No, there is no doctor on your world or mine who can alter what is to be. My race recognizes the end when it comes. It is instinctive. We prepare for it.”
“It’s not right. None of it,” said Willie angrily. “I’m sorry, I…”
“Do not play the blues for me, Willie Solman. I meet death with no regrets. I lived for my music and shall die for it, as shall you some day. But our music will live on. Maybe one day, our two races will make music together.”
Another wheezing attack staggered the creature. Willie caught it before it fell.
“Willie! There you are.”
Willie turned to see Bottfeld huffing down the alley like he was three strides from a heart attack.
“For cripes sake, Willie, hurry up. You’re on in thirty seconds.”
“Guess what. I’m going to be late. Go tell them I’m on my way. Go on,” he said, waving his manager away.
The alien stood on its own, gesturing to Willie that it was okay.
Willie lifted the tripet and tried to sound upbeat. “Come on. I’ll show you how to really play this thing.”
The creature put its floppy hat back on its head, pulled the collar of its overcoat up closer to its face, and said,
“Certainly, for Cripe’s sake.”
The crescendo of applause reached new heights as Willie walked onstage. Smiling to the audience, he put his hands up, pretending their adoration was unexpected. He bowed, held out his tripet to the multitude, and encouraged more applause for the instrument. Then, laughing, he raised his other hand to signal for quiet. The ovation died stubbornly.
“I want to…” Willie started, then waited for the noise to fade. “Since this concert is titled ‘Songs of the Galaxy’ and is being broadcast systemwide, I want to dedicate tonight’s music to galactic peace. Peace among all races, all beings.”
The call for peace was met by enthusiastic applause.
“Now, I’ve got a special treat for you. Backstage is the musician who gave me my first lesson on this thing,” he said, holding up the tripet once more. “Let’s bring him out here and see if he remembers how to play it.”
Willie clapped to start a polite round of applause and motioned for the creature to join him. It hesitated, pulling its collar up as high as it would go. With Willie still encouraging, and the audience still clapping, the shrouded alien hobbled onstage. Its weather-beaten wardrobe inspired a few chuckles, and Willie heard someone in the audience call out, “It looks like a slug. I think it is!” He had no doubt the bright lights had revealed his mystery guest’s identity to those nearest the stage and to the cameras feeding the satellite uplinks. He didn’t know for sure how they’d react, and he didn’t care. He handed the tripet to the alien, and its gloved hands fondled the instrument with familiarity. Willie gave it an encouraging nod, and the creature began to play.
It played the same seductive melody that had led Willie through the jungle to his encounter with destiny. The same song which had haunted him since that day. Only now, for the first time since then, it was beautiful again—no longer a specter of guilt.
When it came to a natural pause in the piece, the creature reached into its pocket and handed Willie the harmonica. Then, to the audience’s delight, and a smattering of applause, they played together. Two musicians, in a world of their own, oblivious to everything but their music…until the sounds of choking brought Willie back to reality.
The alien clutched futilely at its chest, as if trying to rip itself open as it fell to the stage floor. Its hat rolled off, and a collective gasp rose from those in the audience who hadn’t already seen its features.
Willie knelt down and cradled the grotesque head in his lap. The thing sputtered and coughed before it was able to speak.
“They liked my music, did they not?”
“You were sensational. They loved you.”
The alien handed the tripet to Willie then held out its gloved hand in expectation. Willie looked unsure, started to ask, and finally realized what it wanted. He handed over the harmonica, and the creature clasped it close to its chest.
“I don’t even know your name,” said Willie, fighting unexpected tears.
“You could not pronounce it.”
“That’s a funny-looking case you’ve got there.”
“What you got in there?”
“Just an old instrument.”
“I have a reservation in the name of Solman.”
“Okay, one moment please.” The purser completed his file search, raising his eyebrows in surprise as he did. “You’re going all the way to the Outlands?”
“That’s dangerous territory, mister, what with them slugs on the warpath. You’ve got all the necessary permits and travel visas, so I guess you must know what you’re getting into. I don’t know why you’d want to go way out there though, unless you’ve got some kind of death wish.”
“Not a death wish. Let’s just say I want to see how good I really am, and there’s only one place to find out. Can I go aboard now?”
“Yes, sir. Your stateroom has been prepared and personally coded for you. Enjoy your trip.”
“Thanks. I will.”