Fiction by Charmaine Anne Li
Josquin fell awake when the music ended. The needle lifted and he lifted his eyes. He glanced out the window: nothing.
Yawning, Josquin proceeded to perform his checks: navigation, oxygen levels, fuel, artificial air pressure and gravity. He looked at what little data the MatScan had picked up in the last forty minutes—again: a whole lot of nothing.
Josquin was pleased. He made the necessary notes, sent out a normal signal, and turned his attention to the old milk crate next to his pilot’s seat. After wiping oil-stained hands against tattered denim overalls, he fingered through the decaying cardboard squares, teeth kneading his bottom lip, before pulling up an album. With a practiced motion he slid out the sleeve, and with an even more practiced motion teased out the record. Holding it by the edges, he flipped it to the A-side and popped it onto the platter, stifling a private grin. Lowered the needle, and, after a few foregrounding crackles, the familiar lilting flute announced the opening theme of Bedřich Smetana’s “Die Moldau” and rushed the entire rusting steel inside of the aging ship with sound.
A single flute, urged by the pizzicato of supporting strings, was a tributary dancing, playful but imminent, through the Czech countryside…1As an addition to the online publication of this piece, the author wishes to acknowledge and direct readers to more information about the background to the Smetana piece then joined by a second flute, harmonizing, before they became one. Water side by side, water flowing together, now pushed from the depths by the rumbling undercurrents of deep cellos. And then, the pronouncement of the main theme, lifted by strings above a country landscape green and golden. Alive generations and generations gone.
Josquin leaned back and closed his eyes, letting the ancient sounds submerge him for another twenty minutes, when the side would end and he’d have to do his checks again.
Just as the minor was modulating into the major during the climax of the piece, a nagging beeping sound cut across the music. Slightly irritated, Josquin flailed around for the telecom and pressed the green button until the screen fizzled on and a black-and-white portrait of Greg, knitted forehead and all, stared back at him. It was a recorded message.
“Hello, Jos,” Greg said, sounding more like he was talking to an employer rather than a relative. He wore a white lab coat with a copper pin on it that read Dr. Gregor Prest, Ph.D., DeLaria Astrophysics, New Hawaii. Josquin grabbed a half-empty bag of pretzels on the dashboard and stuffed more dryness into his already space-dry mouth.
“Just wanted to give you a little update here. You probably won’t get it, so I’ll spare you the scientific details, but it’s been good on our end. New, um, findings everyday.” He cleared his throat and paused as if wondering what to say next. “It must be lonely up there. But we all have our jobs to do, all got our patriotism to hold up. The fellows and I down here, trying to find an alternative to the solution you and the, um, muscle are hunting for. Even if it seems futile, even if it’s as impossible as looking for a needle in a haystack, keep going, Josquin. Keep looking for a new place we might call home.”
Josquin chewed his pretzels, humming.
“Also, brother.” Here Greg loudly cleared his throat again. “I visited home on Thanksgiving. Mother and William are doing well; the Texas border has been pretty quiet lately, so they don’t have to move to the moon cabins like Uncle Jamie. Anyway, back to my point: the milk crates in the attic are gone.” He sighed. “Now, I know they tend to trust pilots, Jos, and I will keep mum, but please—if someone starts questioning you just chuck those goddamn things into orbit. Mus—things like that aren’t going to find us a habitable alterna—”
Josquin pressed the red hang-up button and tipped the rest of the pretzels into his mouth, humming.
Josquin’s eyes flew open to flashing red. The album had ended and the flashing was coming from the MatScan. It whirred with humanlike excitability, coughing up a roll of paper with letters and numbers. Code for unusual matter. Adding to the chaos, the telecom started to ring shrilly, meaning it was an urgent real-time message from headquarters. Josquin fought through the vomitting papers to reach the green pick-up button. “Hello?”
A face fizzled onto the screen: clean-shaven, buzz-cut, and firm. “This is Captain Gleeson speaking from Baton Island. Please identify yourself and your vessel and confirm your code.”
“Uh, Sergeant Josquin Prest, sir. Fleet Aquarius. Vessel’s Phoenix Two Charlie Victor Nine. Code Amoeba, sir.”
“Aquarius, eh? Roger that. As for your orders, Sergeant, listen carefully.” Captain Gleeson cleared his throat deeply. “Our scientists have run preliminary tests on your scans and we have, erm, confirmed that what you picked up is, in actuality, organic matter.”
Josquin sat forward.
“However—though you’re not a scientist, Sergeant—you should know that not all organic matter is equal. And this…matter you have found—well, we only have preliminary scans of course and no samples but it’s definitely abnormal.”
“’Fraid that’s all I can say, Sergeant. Anyway, we need you to go in there. It’s a moon body, strangely. Gravity similar to our own. Collect some real samples and send ’em over, yeah?”
“Good. Godspeed, Prest. May your patriotism be with you.”
A few hours later, Josquin floated down onto the moon body in a silent cloud of dust. A few mountainous craters rose in front of him, and behind that was the organic matter, according to the MatScan. Pointing in the right direction, Josquin jettisoned himself towards the crags, the silence pressing on his ears from all around.
Slowly now, he floated over the top of the rock.
Josquin breathed. What he saw wasn’t anything he’d expected. It was way bigger, for starters. An enormous landfill. He drifted closer. Light was absent, so he shined the penlight that was attached to his glove onto the nearest specimen that formed a jutting sharp arm. He put his face right up to it, and for the longest time, couldn’t fathom what it was. Like a finger, curled in a “come hither” position, but…was that wood? Yes. He followed the vesicle; an arm, black, and wiry strings—just two, but there was space for more once upon a time—floating off it. Josquin stepped back in surprise: the scroll, the pegbox, fingerboard, bridge, cracked and barely-visible F-holes. A violin.
And it was thrust in…the soundhole of a guitar. Resting atop two double bases. This was the organic matter anomaly: musical instruments. Orchestras of them. Not just wooden ones; here and there, his penlight glinted off metal. Twisted clarinets. Bent oboes. Half a snapped-off bassoon. A silent tuba, piled on top of one of the mountains. Still fat and regal.
Then for a brief moment Josquin forgot about his orders. About patriotism. He floated there and closed his eyes and imagined, in his mind’s ear, these instruments alive, about to expand with sound, and then the raise of the baton pushing forth a single note. Concert A, perhaps, a sound his biological father once remarked as “the most beautiful song in the world.” The last time he heard it: eight years old. 2103 CE. Dad was visiting. It was the austerity period, but he’d pocketed a few extra dollars and taken his son to one of the few universities left, where they had an orchestra in the basement. Quasi-legal glasses of wine, quasi-legal sounds. They think that by destroying art we will live, unencumbered by excesses, pushed to pursue pure science. Anything to save us. The acne-spotted eighteen year-olds in shoddy thrift store suits sat down, and the concertmaster played an A on the keyboard, and the violinists lifted their bows and matched pitch, followed by the winds and the brass and everyone else, the deeper instruments underlining a fifth below. His father placed a labour-weathered hand on his knee, half a smile playing on his face.
His portable telecom crackled. “Sergeant Prest.”
“We’re seeing pictures from your camera and it ain’t looking good. We got new orders for you, do you copy?”
“Yes sir, roger that.”
“We need you to use one of the explosives on board your ship to destroy this—this blasphemy.”
Josquin’s eyes fell on the rosette inlay of a guitar. He could still make out the burgundy paint.
“Sergeant Prest! Do you copy that?”
“Oh, uh, um—you want me to blow these mu—blow this stuff all up?”
“Yes, Prest. Before any cultural rebels get here, before whoever stowed this mess here returns for it. Godspeed, do you copy?”
So Josquin took one last look at the instruments and maneuvered himself back to the ship. Inside, he fought through dehydrated food packets, yellowed-paper manuals, and rusty toolboxes to find the explosives at the very back. They looked like the bright red helium tanks he used to encounter at neighbourhood birthday parties, the kind that pumped flying animal balloons for children.
He hefted one up and placed it in the launch pod.
He went back to the bridge and sat at the helm and fired up the engines. But his hand paused above the gearstick. Instead of pulling, it drifted to his turntable, where it lowered the arm and needle again, and the record crackled to life. He kneaded his bottom lip, contemplating.
The telecom in the ship buzzed. A surprised and puzzled Captain Gleeson flickered onto the screen. “Yes, Sergeant? Problem?”
“Sir, I can’t do this.”
“Something wrong with your equipment, Sergeant? You have a spare—”
“No, all systems are good, sir.”
“Then what’s the hold-up? Headquarters wants this done pronto—”
“I can’t do it, sir.”
They stared at each other through the screen for a while. Smetana’s theme swelled, and as it did, Gleeson’s eyebrows cut deeper into his frown.
“Um, Sergeant Prest?”
“Is that—what is that I’m hearing in the background of your ship?”
Josquin pursed his mouth into a straight line. “Nothing, sir.”
“Sergeant, I demand to know what the hell is playing in the background of your vessel.”
“It’s nothing, sir.”
The screen flashed to black. It remained black for almost exactly a minute, and then it flashed on again, and Gleeson appeared, sitting straighter, sitting tighter.
“Sergeant Prest, I have spoken to the Commander of the base and you have two courses of action: launch the explosive yourself, or we launch it remotely from here, which we can and will do if you refuse. Either way, the mus—everything gets destroyed. And either way, you are required to report back to Nevada Island immediately. Any questions?” Josquin shook his head. “You have ten minutes.”
Josquin checked his fuel and flicked a few switches around. He pointed the first explosive at an upward angle away from the instruments and fired it into goddamn oblivion. He pointed the other one towards a random direction but just as he was about to press the button of good riddance, the screen crackled on and there again was Captain Gleeson.
“Sergeant Prest,” he said with a tired sigh, “that will not be necessary.”
And without any of his doing, Josquin heard the launchpod whirring and turning as it righted itself. He pressed the red hang-up button on the telecom repeatedly and all the red buttons for all the com machines, but nothing turned off.
“Like I said, Sergeant, everything can be remotely accessed from our end. We will destroy this blasphemy.”
So Josquin zipped up his suit. “Not if I’m there.” He jumped out of the ship and drove himself back to the instruments.
“Sergeant, you will stop this moment,” Gleeson’s voice snarled in his ear.
The suit whined as Josquin pushed the jets harder.
“Sergeant, you are making a very bad decision.”
Finally, in this empty hole of vastness, he could hear something.
“Sergeant, we will not hesitate—”
It was real, then. It had really happened. Those kids in that basement weren’t a dream.
“This is your last warning, Sergeant, or I’ll—”
Centuries ago, a dancing river, a motorless country.
“Commencing launch in ten, nine—”
Years ago, a hand on his knee.
But they are wrong, son. Because by destroying what we create, we destroy ourselves all the faster.
He couldn’t hear anymore. He had nothing, he was nothing. Was he even falling? But he could listen. Falling with him, falling on him, the sound of the old Czech Republic echoed in his mind’s ears.
|↩1||As an addition to the online publication of this piece, the author wishes to acknowledge and direct readers to more information about the background to the Smetana piece|