by Paul Levinson
Sam’s Requests is a science fiction short story that explores the legacy of music and its endurance in the distant future. It even reaches one whose symbiotic relationship with her spacecraft was probably not even imagined by the musician whose work inspires her.
The sepia-toned 45 turned on the table, twisting souls—I know—and mashing potatoes.
The ship operated on sheer thought. This was a big advantage—no fuel was needed—but the thinker had to be awake and focused. If there were no enemies or obstacles ahead, she could doze, even sleep, and the ship would coast as her eyes floated under her rippling lids. But today was not such a day.
She had been imagining herself under a small dogwood, newly in bloom, sunlight shining through the petals, and that gave the ship a pink speed, somewhere between the fastest and slowest it could go.
Donal entered and cleared his throat. “Lianna?”
She smiled. She could talk and move the ship at the same time. She could also choose which of her thoughts moved the ship. “I gather from your tone that there’s a problem?”
Donal nodded. “An enemy vessel is tracking us. So precisely, it seems to see where we’re going, before we even start to move in that direction.”
Lianna lifted an eyebrow. “How? Can it read my mind?”
“Is that possible?”
Lianna shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but that doesn’t mean no one else can. What do you propose I do—think of something else, so we change our course, and see if the enemy ship changes its course before our change is observable?”
Donal nodded. “That’s a start.”
Lianna saw herself standing on a shore, her feet rinsed by frothy, rhythmic waves. The ship turned left, at a gradual angle, then in reverse to the right—
“She’s mirroring your motion,” Donal said about the enemy vessel.
Lianna envisioned a pair of cardinals darting overhead in different directions. Then a torrential downpour, tall pines swaying in the wind, followed by dappled sunlight on a wet bed of lavender hyacinths.
“She’s dancing the same ballet as you,” Donal reported, unhappily.
“At least she’s not approaching us,” Lianna replied. “I assume she hasn’t drawn weapons on us yet, or you would have mentioned that.”
“Not yet, no,” Donal said.
Lianna, on impulse, thought of a sandpaper sky. This caused her ship to undulate slightly.
“She’s doing the same,” Donal said, even more unhappily.
“So it’s not just movement from one place to the next,” Lianna said. “She mirrors even motion in place.”
“Yes,” Donal said. “My usual instinct would be to get out of here as fast as possible, to one of our bases, where we can mount some sort of counterattack. But I’m afraid she’ll just come along with us, and attack the base before we’ve properly prepared them.”
“What about the opposite, lunging right at her?” Lianna started to think of a dive into a deep, cold lake, but held off completing the thought until she received a response from Donal.
“That would likely result in her coming point-blank right at us,” Donal said. “So your plan is what? We speed right at her, she speeds right back at us, and we hope she pulls away at the last moment? There was a game called Chicken that worked like that, in some primitive societies on half a dozen worlds.”
“Yes,” Lianna said. “That was my idea.”
“There’s also an ancient tradition of suicide missions,” Donal said. “She might be willing to destroy her own vessel if it destroys ours in the process.”
“That’s a fair point,” Lianna said. “How about this, then? I lunge at her, but I twist away in the last moment.”
“In other words, you don’t play total Chicken,” Donal said.
“Yes,” Lianna said.
Donal considered. “What do we have to lose? Try it.”
Lianna thought of the dive into a lake, and then an ancient song came into her mind. It was an instrumental, no words, by a King with a saxophone.
A great thinker once said, “I think, therefore I am.” Where would “I know” bring you? If thinking was proof of your existence, if it made you real, what would knowing something—anything—make real?
These thoughts raced through Lianna’s mind, a different part of her mind from the part that was thinking of the dive into the lake, as her ship hurtled toward the enemy ship—which was mirroring her actions and was now hurtling right toward her.
“At these speeds, the two of you will crash in 3.621178 minutes,” Donal reported.
Lianna’s thinking made her ship move in a certain way. It also made the enemy ship move in a certain way, a reciprocal way, since that ship was copying her thoughts and her own ship’s actions. So, in effect, Lianna was now making two ships move, hers and the enemy’s. But there was still an open question: was the enemy’s mimicking of Lianna’s ship’s movements voluntary, or uncontrollable and inevitable? Because if it was voluntary, then the enemy might not twist away when Lianna did.
It didn’t matter now, Lianna realized. Even if the enemy ship decided to follow her, the ship Lianna was propelling would be in no more danger than it had been before she had taken this plunge.
“Fifteen seconds to impact,” Donal advised,
Lianna began humming the instrumental. It began with a bass instrument, then the saxophone. She knew it very well. Her brother, who played another ancient instrument, the clarinet, used to play the song all the time when he was a boy.
“It’s both jazz and rock ’n’ roll,” her brother once told her.
“I know,” Lianna said.
But she didn’t know, could not completely predict, what would happen now, as her ship pulled wildly away. Her relationship with her ship, she knew, was something like love, perhaps even a mutual love. If she put her ship in danger, and that resulted in her ship’s destruction, would the ship’s last thought be that Lianna didn’t love her anymore? Another song came into her head, by a singer with a male and a female name, a yin and a yang. A piano started to play.
And that made her think of something else.
The problem with all things mental is that they require a physical agent to have an effect on the world. The same for digital. You need a flesh-and-blood being, or at least a tool, for a thought or digital file to make a mark of any kind in the physical world. The proof of the digital pudding is in the eating. Not only can’t you eat your cake and have it, you can’t eat an idea or an image of a cake in the first place. An idea doesn’t even exist in the physical world until it is written on paper, or on a screen. And it doesn’t become fully real until it’s enacted.
The enemy ship did not enact Lianna’s thoughts the way she had planned. Instead, it continued on its course, increased its speed, after Lianna’s ship suddenly twisted away.
“She’ll be closing on us soon,” Donal said. “Do you think she chose not to copy you deliberately, or for some reason was unable to mirror your last action?”
“Impossible to say,” Lianna said. “We can’t even be completely sure that my thoughts were ever the fuel that made her ship move the way it did, in mimicry of me.”
“True,” Donal said. “But that gets us back to reading your mind, mental telepathy at a distance. That’s unknown as far as I know.”
“Is it all that different from how I am pushing and pulling this ship, via telekinesis, or the mental moving the physical?” Lianna asked.
“I once heard someone, down a planet, remark that his motor vehicle was so sensitive, it felt to him as if it were responding to his very thoughts,” Donal observed.
“That was an illusion, or maybe an allusion,” Lianna said. “What I’m doing with our ship is real. My thoughts are actually stirring the pudding.” A third song announced itself in her head. A song of songs, different songs mashed together, a prehistoric mash-up of lines and riffs from other songs.
One stuck especially in her brain. Deliver the letter. And soon. And suddenly she had a new plan.
Donal looked at her, aware that some new thought was animating his engine Lianna.
“The enemy thinks I’m making decisions about where and how to travel,” Lianna said, “which is exactly what I’ve been doing. But now I’m going to do something else—stop, turn, and suggest that you fire our weapons upon the approaching ship.”
“She’ll no doubt stop and turn, too,” Donal said. “And if not, she’ll be upon us even faster.”
“Correct,” Lianna said. “But she won’t be able to foresee your firing of our weapons, because that has nothing to do with moving the ship via my thoughts.”
Donal considered for a moment, nodded, and entered the command for the weapons to be fired at the oncoming ship as soon as Lianna had gotten her ship to stop and turn.
Lianna felt confident that this world work. She felt almost as if she had been following some plan, some ancient plan at that, since this encounter with the enemy ship had begun. And that gave her confidence in her decisions.
Lianna stopped the ship and had it turn. The enemy ship continued its approach. The weapons on Lianna’s ship fired at the enemy ship and blew it out of existence.
Lianna and Donal appeared in holographic form before the review judge the next day, as protocol required for all aggressive interactions with enemy vessels.
“Lianna Cooke and Donal Jax, let me note your names and presence for the record,” the judge intoned. “I have reviewed your report on the incident, and it seems in order. I guess what interests me most is how you came upon your successful strategy, and to what extent it could be generalized to help other vessels in similar duress.”
“It’s intuitive and very personal—the way I decide how to guide the ship,” Lianna replied softly. “I almost feel as if I am being guided by a muse.”
“A muse?” the judge asked.
“Some of the ancients believed we receive our poetic visions from the ‘muses’—the gods,” Donal explained.
“There is a religious basis to your guidance of the ship?” the judge asked Lianna, dubiously.
“No, not religious,” Lianna replied. “I didn’t feel I was being guided in yesterday’s encounter by any gods or God. It was rather … as if an ancestor of mine, a sleeping lion from the past, was sending me clues about how to proceed.”
“Was your ancestor a poet?” the judge asked. “Are her works still known?”
“Don’t know much about history,” Lianna said, suddenly dreamily.
“What?” the judge asked sharply.
“Apologies,” Lianna said. “That just came into my head. It may be from another song.”
“Lianna and I have discussed this,” Donal jumped in, to save Lianna from further non sequiturs. “We believe the ancestor was masculine.”
“Yes,” Lianna said, appreciating the assist. “I think his works are not well-known today, but music and poetry are not my specialties.”
“We believe her ancestor was very popular,” Donal said, “in the deep past, for a very short period of time. One of his songs mentioned three other songs, and the third of those songs in turn mentioned several other songs.”
“Like nested dolls?” the judge asked. “Another ancient tradition.”
“Yes,” Donal replied. “A good description of our very situation. Worlds within worlds within worlds.”
“Do you think this was his intention—that his song would somehow help us now?” the judge asked.
“His songs were intended as good news,” Lianna replied, “to brighten the lives of the people in his time. I don’t know if he saw the future. He didn’t foresee his own violent death.”
“How did he die?” the judge asked.
“By gunshot,” Lianna said. “Horrible weapon.”
“Yet the two of you used the equivalent of an ancient gun to destroy the enemy ship,” the judge said.
“Yes,” Donal said, “in self-defense.”
“He wrote a song about a change coming—a change to a better way of life,” Lianna said. “His recording of that song was released to his world just eleven days after his death.”
“I guess when it comes to killing each other, we haven’t changed much at all,” the judge said somberly.
“No, we haven’t changed at all,” Lianna said. “Regardless of what he or anyone wanted, we’re forever chained to the past.”
And a strange song came into her head, of clanking iron, of men heaving tools in backbreaking, heartbreaking labor. But she pushed it out of her mind. She wanted to keep it open for thoughts more gossamer to guide her ship.
Sam’s voice sang out, smooth as silk. Lou was there, too. Havin’ a party, calling out requests to a DJ somewhere, cookin’ in another wonderful world, in a different time.
It was 1962, in the California of the cosmos. Fun was in the airwaves. And the distant future, too.
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