The deadline for nominations for the Aurora Awards, for the best Canadian speculative fiction, is just two weeks away (April 15)…so naturally I’m only now getting around to making my only Aurora eligible work of the year available online for potential nominators to read.
Still, ’tis better to have posted the story and not be nominated than never to have posted the story at all, so without further ado, my humorous SF story “A Little Space Music,” which appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of On Spec magazine (the cover art for which, posted at left, is by P. John Burden.)
Should you wish to nominate it for an Aurora Award, just go here and follow the instructions.
But whether you choose (or are eligible) to nominate it or not, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
A Little Space Music
By Edward Willett
Dripping viscous green slime onto the brushed-steel plates of the recreation room floor, the pulsating blue slug reared until it towered a full metre above my head.
Its mouth peeled open like a gaping wound. Strings of mucus like pus-colored rubber bands stretched between the upper and lower palates, stretched, stretched–then snapped and fell toward the already fouled floor like slow-motion bungee jumpers.
Three eyes the color of old blood reared up on black stalks, somehow remaining focused one me even as they weaved and dodged like demented cobras in thrall to acid jazz played by a drunken snake charmer.
Then…then came the ultimate horror. The monstrosity made a noise like a saber-toothed tiger coughing up a hairball…and began to sing.
“Midnight…not a sound from the pavement…”
Oh, no. No!
“Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me…”
That which does not kill me makes me stronger, I reminded myself. I felt very strong indeed by the time Lloyd Weber’s oft-abused “classic” ground to its inevitable conclusion.
“Thank you, Mr…Urkh(cough)lisssss(choke). That was very…interesting. We’ll be letting…people…know in about a shipday.”
The slug grunted something that might have been “Thank you,” or might have just been a correction of my pronunciation of his–I checked the information sheet–oops, its–name, and slithered out, leaving a trail of green goop a metre wide in its wake.
Groaning, I rested my aching head in hands, twitched my jaw sideways to activate my implanted commbug, and croaked out, “Next!”
This nightmare had begun the moment I boarded the XX Mendel, rushing down the loading ramp as though the hounds of hell were after me–which wasn’t too far from the truth, considering Governor Feldercarb’s minions sported long black fur, long blue teeth, and bioluminescent eyes that radiated heavily in the longer wavelengths of visible light.
One thing neither of the two possessed, however, was a boarding pass for the Mendel. The security tanglefield stopped them in their tracks at the top of the ramp. My elation evaporated two seconds later when, at the bottom of the ramp, the tanglefield likewise wrapped me in molasses and hardened to amber. Immobilized, I watched the ship’s security hatch open, revealing a stocky, auburn-haired-and-bearded man in a bright-red uniform liberally adorned with gold buttons and brain. He looked like he’d just stepped offstage from playing the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance. “Professor Peak, I presume?” he said.
I found myself rather breathless, though probably due more to the tanglefield’s compression of my lungs than the sudden outbreak of alliteration. “You have…the advantage…of me…sir.”.
“Forgive me. Robert Robespierre Robinson, Captain of the multi-species capable luxury liner XX Mendel, pride of the Blue Nebula Line, at your service.” The captain inclined his head slightly. “My friends call me Redbeard. You can call me Captain. Or ‘sir.’“ He looked over his shoulder and made an abrupt cutting-his-own-throat gesture, which alarmed me until the tanglefield suddenly shut off and I realized it hadn’t been a signal for summary execution. I staggered. The captain caught me and straightened me up, then released me.
I took a couple of deep breaths. “I’m honored you felt it necessary to greet me in person…sir.”
“I’m sure.” The Captain looked up the ramp. Feldercarb’s hellhounds snarled at him. He turned on his heel. “Come with me, ‘Professor.’ We have matters to discuss.”
Relieved and alarmed at the same time, I followed the Captain through corridors paneled with pearl and carpeted in plush pale pink to his spacious stateroom. From the platinum-floored foyer he led me into an office, and pointed me to a gray blob of pseudoleather facing a desk of black metal, topped with glass. He eased himself down on the identical gray blob on the other side of the desk; it swelled and puffed into a comfortable-looking armchair. I sat down on my gray blob, and it instantly sprang into a rigid, straight-backed shape with all the give of a block of steel. Okay, then, I thought. At least I know where I stand…er, sit.
The Captain steepled his fingers under his chin and looked at me. “You’re a wanted man, Professor. And not just by your friends on the loading dock.” He tapped the desktop, and the faint glow of a holodisplay, illegible from where I sat, sprang into existence above the desk. “There are outstanding warrants for your apprehension on half a dozen different planets.”
I cleared my throat. “Cultural misunderstandings. I’m a businessman trying to make an honest living, that’s all..”
Captain Robinson barked. It took me a moment to recognize the sound as a laugh. “You’re a con man. ‘Professor Peter Peak’ is not you’re real name. Too alliterative, for one thing.”
Despite myself, I felt my left eyebrow lift. The captain didn’t miss it. “I never said Robert Robespierre “Redbeard” Robinson was my real name either, did I? But we’re discussing your past, not mine.”
“With all due respect, I’d rather talk about my future.”
“In good time.” The Captain tapped the desktop again. “Before you became Professor Peter Peak, purveyor of programmable paramours, you went by the name Aristotle Atkinson, and sold subscriptions to Encyclopedia Galactic…until someone realized there’s no such thing. Before that, you were Dr. Schroeder Petering, sole authorized human sales agent for life-extension nanomachines from Tofuni Secundus…quite a feat, since the Tofuni system has no planets.”
“An unfortunate accident involving a planet-eating nanoswarm,” I said. “Hardly my fault. As I explained.”
“And yet, your customers tried to lynch you just the same,” the Captain said. “People can be so unreasonable.” He tapped again. “But never mind. The version of you I’m interested in is the original.”
I stiffened. No!
“Jerry Smith,” he said (and the sound of my birth name made my heart skip a beat), “this is your life.” He tapped, and the holodisplay suddenly became visible to me, too, revealing all the sordid details of my past, including birthplace (Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, United States of Alberta), birthdate (much longer ago than I liked to admit), parents, education–and, most tellingly, something I had thought long-since lost in the mists of decaying data storage: a head-and-shoulders shot of a much-younger me, attached to a press release from Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, announcing I would be playing the role of Bobby in the upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
“You’re not just a con man,” Captain Robinson said. “You’re an actor, singer–and dancer. You are, in short, a musical theatre performer.” He made it sound like a sentence of execution…and I knew it very well could be.
But I couldn’t argue with the evidence. “Was. For about five years. You know what the difference is between a stage actor and a pizza?”
“A pizza can feed a family of four. Yes, I know the joke. “ He leaned forward, reminding me of a predator about to strike. “But that was on Earth, ‘Professor.’ You’re not in Kansas any more.”
“Actually, I’ve never been to–”
“Here on the XX Mendel, you can make enough money to feed a family of four. Not as an actor, perhaps, but certainly as–” He actually had the nerve to smile. “A director.”
I suddenly had a very bad feeling the destination of our little chat. “Contrary to cliché, all I’ve ever really wanted to do is avoid directing.”
The Captain pointed at the holodisplay. “You’ve directed at least five shows.”
“That resumé is twenty years out of date.”
“It’s like riding a bicycle.”
“I can’t ride a bike.”
The Captain frowned. “Professor Peak, I really don’t have time for this. You’ve been in space a long time. You know as well as I do that of all the culture Earth has produced, all the artwork, all the novels, all the symphonies, only one thing holds the slightest interest for any of our alien neighbors.”
I did know. But I still hoped…
“You tell me.”
“Musical theatre, Professor.” The Captain tapped the desktop, and every wall lit up, as previously opaque screens suddenly displayed…theatre posters. Oklahoma. Oliver! The Sound of Music. Sweeney Todd. My Fair Lady. The Most Happy Fella. Candide. West Side Story. Chicago. Cats. Starlight Express, for God’s sake. Wicked. The Light in the Piazza. Avenue Q. Passion. Mary Had A Little Lamb. Thunder in the Night. Jimi! Apollo 13: The Musical. The posters kept changing; by the time I’d looked through them once, there was a new batch on display.
“I collect them,” said the Captain. “I have a poster from almost every musical that ran on Broadway from Show Boat in 1927 to The Singularity in 2024, the last new Broadway musical produced…”
“Because a Squill spaceship the size of Yankee Stadium suddenly appeared over Times Square and mysteriously transported the casts of every show then on stage…somewhere,” I snarled, suddenly furious. “And over the next week, any actor who dared to step out on stage and burst into song anywhere on the planet followed them. Which is why Jerry Smith disappeared, too–into a different line of work.”
“A criminal line of work.”
“I was an actor. I wasn’t suited for honest work.”
“My Squill passengers are hungry for musical theatre, Professor Peak.” He gestured at the walls. “As am I.”
“Squill!” I stared at him. “You have Squill on board?”
He had the nerve to smile. “Didn’t you know? Most of the vessel is currently occupied by Squill on a…pilgrimage, I suppose you’d call it…to their homeworld.”
Worse and worse. “We’re going to the Squill homeworld?” I hadn’t had time, what with hellhounds after me and all, to check exactly where the only ship in port would take me. “And you want me to direct musical theatre?”
“I told you, my passengers are hungry for it.”
“Maybe literally! We still don’t know where all those actors went. Maybe the Squill are serving up ham sandwiches–with bits of real ham!–on their homeworld right now.”
“They don’t eat people, they eat algae and the occasional sulfurous rock,” the Captain said. “And anyway, they said they were sorry. And they gave us the spacetime drive by way of reparation. If not for Broadway, we’d still be stuck puttering around the Earth and Moon, Professor. We owe musical theatre a huge debt of gratitude.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, and stood up. “Now, if that’s all you wanted–”
“I want you to direct a musical, Professor,” the Captain said. “The first live musical to hit the boards since the sad but profitable demise of Broadway. And I want you to cast my passengers.”
I sat down again heavily. It was worse than I thought. “Oh, God. You want me to direct Squill.” No, it was even worse than that. “Amateur Squill!”
“Squill this time,” the Captain said. “But next time, who knows? It could be Hellhounds. Skitterings. Even humans. And as for being amateurs…well, Professor, remember that amateurs are those who do something because they love it. Presumably you first went into theater because you loved it, Professor. Reach down deep into your heart, if you still have one, and…” His grin widened. “Feel the love.”
“Scripts…orchestra…stagehands…” Like a drowning man, I grasped at straws.
“Scripts are in the ship database. The computer will provide the accompaniment. And I’m sure, in time-honored community theatre tradition, that those not cast for roles will be happy to serve as stagehands.”
“I’m not the only former musical theatre actor in hiding,” I said. “And there must be others with more directing experience. Why me?”
“You’re here. And you…” He waved at the holodisplay. “…have an incentive they do not.”
“This is blackmail.”
“Of course it is! Feel free to complain to the local constabulary.” He flicked a finger, and the holodisplay showed a sudden close-up of the red-eyed, slavering visage of one of Feldercarb’s hellhounds. “Oh, look! There’s a peace officer now.”
I looked. I knew when I was beaten. “How long do I have?”
“It’s four weeks to the Squill Homeworld. I’m looking forward to seeing your production on the penultimate evening of our voyage. It will be a wonderful treat for our passengers on the eve of their big festival.”
“Festival?” I couldn’t imagine Squill partying. “What kind of Festival do giant slugs gather for?”
“It’s a religious festival, Professor. I told you they were on pilgrimage.”
I groaned. Not just Squill, but religious Squill. “We apologize for the action of our religionists,” had been the message from the second giant spaceship, which had entered Earth orbit shortly after the Broadway-eating one had departed. “We offer reparations.”
For a moment I seriously considered taking my chances with the hellhounds…but only for a moment. I doubted I’d still be in one piece two minutes after they had me out of sight.
I glared at the Captain. “I hope, when I’m spirited away by Squill fanatics, you at least have the grace to feel guilty.”
“Should that happen, I’ll do my best.”
I sighed. “When do we start auditions?”
We started auditions, it turned out, at once. Captain Robinson had been very sure of himself, I thought sourly, as I read the in-ship newsfeed, The Mendellian Factor, in my cabin an hour later. Even before I’d run down the ramp into the tanglefield, early arrivals on the ship had been reading, “Auditions for The Sound of Music, the premiere production of the Mendel Amateur Musical Entertainment Society (MAMES), will be held in Multipurpose Recreation Space 7 tonight beginning at 1900 shiptime. MAMES is pleased to announce that Professor Peter Peak, a genuine surviving musical theatre professional from Earth itself, will direct. Bring a song that shows off your voice; computer accompaniment will be provided.”
Auditions were every bit as horrifying as I’d anticipated. The “Memory”-warbler was perhaps the worst…but perhaps not. “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No” sung by an elderly female Squill with bladder–or something–control problems sticks in my mind as well. And the less said about “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” the better.
Unable to cast by appearance, I could only go by vocal skills. Fortunately, some of the Squill actually had some. I chose the best of the bunch as my leads, relegated most of the rest to chorus, and suggested a few hopeless cases join the stage crew–which they seemed thrilled to do.
In fact, everyone in my cast seemed thrilled about every single thing we did. As the XX Mendel left orbit on its four-week-subjective journey to the Squill home world, I was feeling pretty good about the show’s prospects–assuming the cast didn’t eat the director, of course, the possibility of which, despite the Captain’s assurances, I thought the jury was still out on.
Staging was simplified by the complete absence of dancing ability–or legs–among the cast, and by the fact that humans are quite incapable of reading the emotional content of a Squill’s “face.” (Indeed, the ship’s computer informed me, “some scientists believe the color of the mucus they exude is a better indicator of emotional state. When asked, the Squill change the subject.”) With no choreography either possible or desirable, I only had to come up with simple blocking. And my being unable to read their expressions just meant that if they were acting badly, I couldn’t tell–so I just pretended they were acting well.
Their memories were prodigious; most of them had their music and dialogue note- and word-perfect at the first rehearsal. The movement, limited though it was, was more challenging for them, and the set I’d programmed the ship’s fabricators to make had to be modified after the first on-set rehearsal of “So Long, Farewell,” when my entire group of “children” ended up in sickbay with nasty fluorescent bruises. Squill don’t do stairs, apparently. Who knew?
Squill don’t wear clothes, either, so our only costumes were hats: wimples, Nazi caps, sailor hats–and a couple of wigs. Maria looked terrifying in a long brown one; Gretl looked cute, in a nightmarish sort of way, in blonde pigtails.
After the first few days, my fear that I would be summarily transported to wherever the rest of my ex-profession had gone began to fade. No Squill ever threatened me or was anything but friendly…which was more than I could say of all the human actors I’d worked with.
And I began to learn more about my cast. The Squill playing the Mother Superior turned out to be an elderly “it” (the Squill have three sexes–that we know of), but it didn’t seem to mind. The “children” were, in most cases, twice as old as me (three times, in the case of Gretl) but again, no one complained.
They were all very curious about my acting past, and as the rehearsals proceeded and my risk of evaporation seemed to be receding, I relaxed and told them the usual stories actors tell–tales of forgotten lines, collapsing sets, drunks, hecklers, and the occasional wardrobe malfunction…
We were a week shy of Squill Prime, and hence still four days from our opening (and closing) performance, when the one matter I’d been very careful not to mention suddenly came up.
I was sitting in the ship’s main lounge with “Captain Von Trapp,” “Maria,” “Liesl” and “Rolf,” and had just told an entirely apocryphal story about a producer, a director, a writer and an actor walking into a bar when Rolf, probably the youngest member of the cast at 65 Earth years (only recently released from his mandatory adolescent confinement), put down his third glass of what I privately called Smoking Green Goo, burped, and slurred, “Prophet Matthew Broderick tellsh that shtory better, Professhor.”
Sudden and absolute silence. I stared around; the voices of the rest of Squill and humans in the lounge were no longer audible. I glanced down and saw that Von Trapp had suddenly slapped down on the table a little golden egg (exactly where he had had it hidden, in the absence of clothes, I preferred not to think about). A sound-dampener, obviously.
My heart jumped, then raced, but Rolf, gulping the last of his Goo, blundered on. “Hish lecture at the sheminary lasht year was the besht thing I ever…” his voice trailed off. The trio of googling eyes on either side of his slobbering maw suddenly widened, and his mouth slapped shut so suddenly gobs of mucus spattered across the table.
The slime oozing from his flanks suddenly took on a pinkish hue.
I looked around at the others. They were all staring at Rolf; but then, one by one, they looked at me.
My blood ran cold. But I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t heard. And we knew that Squill “religionists” had been behind the theft of Broadway. It wasn’t really a secret…
What had happened to all the actors, though, had been.
Heart still pounding, I said, as casually as I could, “Matthew Broderick is still alive? Wasn’t he playing Henry in Old Fool, that awful musical version of On Golden Pond, back when…um…”
I couldn’t keep talking. My mouth was too dry.
I winced as high-pitched squealing erupted around me. Squills talking their own language sound like seagulls on helium being tortured in an echo chamber.
The sound cut off as suddenly as it had begun. “We would like to tell you something,” Von Trapp said. “We had discussed doing so earlier, but had not made up our minds. Now, however…” Two of his eyes swiveled toward Rolf, whose eyestalks drooped in response, “…the matter has been settled for us.”
“Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know!” I said. “Much as I’d like to meet some of the great old Broadway performers in the flesh, I’m not that keen…”
“Only a Rapturer—a priest of the Order of Religious Insight Collection—would or could transport you,” Maria said. “It is unlikely any of them are aboard.”
“Reasonably,” Liesl said. “They do sometimes travel incognito.”
“Knowing the truth does not make it any more likely you will be raptured,” said Von Trapp. “If a Rapturer is on board, you are already marked simply for being a prophet.”
“Of Musical Theatre.”
A prophet of Musical Theatre? Musical-theatre actors had been called many things over the decades, but rarely that…I didn’t like the sound of it.
I drained my beer and called for another…to no effect. Damn sound-dampener. For a moment I eyed the remnants of Rolf’s Smoking Green Goo, but I wasn’t that desperate…yet. I sighed, and met Von Trapp’s disconcerting gaze. “Fire away,” I said. “I’m all ears…”
Two hours later I staggered back to my cabin (having made up for the initial lack of drink several times over once the Squill departed). I fell into my bed, looked up at the slowly spinning ceiling, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or throw up.
The decision was suddenly made for me, I staggered into the bathroom and vomited up everything I had eaten for the last twenty-four hours or so–but not, alas, everything I had drunk.
Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to spend the next hour or so on the bathroom floor. I had little else to do in that position but reflect on what I had heard.
The Squill religionists, it seemed, had “raptured” Broadway in order to get closer to God.
Considering how far from God, in my experience, most people in the acting profession considered themselves, the irony was rich. But if you could wrap your head around the Squill point of view, it almost made sense.
The Squill Church, unlike its human counterparts, did not pretend to know the truth…about God, or how to best please/serve/placate/worship He/She/Them/It. Instead, the Church’s purpose was to seek for the Truth. It did so by conducting a cosmic opinion poll: it gathered various takes on the truth from all over the galaxy, then learned everything it could from them.
Along the way, it had spawned innumerable sub-cults, as various factions of religious Squill decided that the latest “truth” was THE TRUTH, and stopped searching. However, the Great Church Fluorescent (really, that’s how Von Trapp translated it) carried on, collecting bits of alien cultures from all over the galaxy.
The secular government of the Squill, while officially against the practice, made no move to stop it. Instead, its ships trailed the Church’s Rapture ships at a respectable distance, apologizing and reimbursing…and, in the process, opening up lucrative trade routes. It seemed a recipe for disaster if the Squill ever came up against a culture that could match their technological capabilities–but so far, they hadn’t, and probably the Church had enough sense of self-preservation not to attempt rapturing part of such a culture if it did turn up.
Because the Church was essentially conducting a poll, the Rapturers collected religious insights at random, and used a very broad definition of “religious.” In each culture, it simply identified activities that drew crowds, then picked one to collect. On Earth, the “winner” had been musical theatre (professional hockey had apparently been a close second).
But something had happened with musical theatre that had never happened before: the Great Church Fluorescent as a whole had declared, after much study, that there was no longer need for collection–musical theatre provided THE TRUTH.
An so, Von Trapp had told me, the musical theatre performers who had been raptured from Earth, though forbidden from leaving Squill or contacting their human counterparts, now formed a thriving, pampered human colony, a kind of Vatican City, on Squill. Not only did they produce incredible musicals–the special effects alone, thanks to Squill technology, were literally out of this world–but they sent “missionaries” around the planet, instructing everyone in the newly discovered Way.
Which meant that The Sound of Music—my Sound of Music–was, for the Squill, a worship service.
It made a strange sort of sense, I thought as the bathroom’s spinning started to slow. Like religions, musicals present neat little packages of supposed insight, wrapped up in pleasing tunes and eye-candy. To coin of phrase, they’re the “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.”
Nothing had come up for a while. I staggered back to my bed and collapsed on it, and as darkness descended, I felt a faint frisson of fear as I recalled being told it was “unlikely” I would be raptured.
“How unlikely?” I asked again, but got no answer.
I was not at my best for dress rehearsal the next day. But the Squill were, and if you closed your eyes and ignored the multicolored trails of slime all over the stage, you had to admit that the show really was in solid shape. Maybe not Broadway-caliber, but as good as some regional productions, amateur or professional.
The next day we entered orbit around Squill Prime. After a one-Squill-day (29-hour) quarantine, the pilgrims would disembark to worship at the feet of the Broadway Prophets, Original Cast. And that meant it was showtime.
I gave the traditional Pep Talk Before Opening. “You’re ready,” I told them. “You’re good. I admit I had my doubts going in, especially with such a short rehearsal time, but you’ve all done a terrific job, and I’m proud of you all. And if Rodgers and Hammerstein were here–” And not busy spinning in their graves… “they’d be proud of you, too. Break a…” I hesitated, looking at the sea of slugs before me. “…um, good luck.”
The stage manager’s voice squealed over the monitor. I still couldn’t understand Squill, but I knew what he had just said: “Places.”
The audience of humans, non-performing Squill and one or two non-Squill aliens watched raptly, completely caught up in a tale that should have been incomprehensible to them. Squill don’t applaud; if they see something they like, they pay it the honor of being silent, while their slime turns bright blue. Our audience paid us the greatest compliment of all: a Silent Blue Departure.
Like they’re leaving church, I thought, watching from the wings.
The ear-splitting cast party more than made up for the audience’s silence. Enormous quantities of Smoking Green Goo disappeared down gaping maws, and even larger quantities of squirming blobs of shapeless protoplasm, the Squill equivalent of potato chips.
Still feeling alcohol-shy, I confined myself to a glass of the champagne sent to my dressing room by Captain Robinson. I was sipping the second of those when “Redbeard” himself appeared. He seized my hand and pumped it. “Fabulous! Bravo! I admit I had my doubts about you when you first came aboard, but you’ve proven them groundless.”
I looked around. The Squill had congregated in the furthest corner of the large banquet room, watching a holorecording of the Liesl warbling “I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”
“Thank you for the champagne, Captain,” I said. “Can I pour you a glass?”
“I’d be honored.”
I filled one for him, and a second one for myself. “Tell me, Captain,” I said casually as I handed it to him, “have you ever heard of the Rapturers?”
Did his glass hesitate, ever-so-slightly, on its way to his mouth?
“What an…odd question. Why do you ask?”
I looked around again; the Squill were still engrossed in watching their own performances, but I lowered my voice anyway. “Someone in the cast let it slip…Captain, I know what happened to Broadway!”
“Really?” He sipped his champagne, sharp blue eyes focused on me over the rim of the flute. “What?”
I told him what I’d heard. He said nothing until I was finished, then drained his glass and set it down. “Interesting,” he said. “Well, Professor, I must prepare for disembarkation…”
“Interesting!” I grabbed his arm. “Didn’t you hear what I said, Captain? There are humans being held prisoner on Squill! Shouldn’t you…tell someone? Shouldn’t there be government protests? A rescue, even?”
The Captain removed my hand from his arm as though lifting damp garbage from a pristine floor. “Professor, I run a liner, not a battleship. If you are truly concerned, I suggest you report to the human authorities at our next port of call after Squill Prime.” He gave me a cold smile. “For now, enjoy your success.”
I poured a third glass of wine. I seemed to be losing my brief distaste for alcohol.
In the morning, not quite hung over, I went to the shuttle bay to watch the disembarkation, and say goodbye to my cast. Captain Robinson was already there; he nodded to me, then stood at ease, watching the line of departing slugs.
Von Trapp was the last of my performers to board the shuttle. “Farewell, Professor,” he said. “We are most grateful for the insights you have shared with us. The cast has asked me to give you a token of our appreciation.”
He extruded a manipulator tentacle. It held an egg-shaped, multifaceted crystal, fiery as a diamond, but with a pulsing spark of blue fire somewhere deep within. Bits of green slime clinging to it couldn’t dim its beauty…well, not much.
“Thank you,” I said…
…and Captain Robinson’s hand suddenly snaked out and seized Captain von Trapp’s manipulator. I stared at him; I’d never seen a human willingly touch a Squill before. Von Trapp seemed just as shocked: all three of his eyes had whipped around to focus on Robinson’s hand. Now they lifted and focused intently on his face. “Explain yourself!” he barked.
“You explain yourself,” Robinson said. “On what authority do you do this?”
Authority? I looked back and forth from Von Trapp to Robinson like a spectator at a tennis match–except I had the distinct feeling I was the ball.
Von Trapp hissed, spattering mucus. “The Director commanded–”
“The Director?” Robinson let go of Von Trapp’s tentacle and straightened. “Don’t speak to me of the Director. I am the Producer!”
Von Trapp goggled at him, his eyes forming the points of an equilateral triangle, every stalk stiff. “The Producer? Himself?”
Von Trapp’s slime went gray. “There are theological disagreements over the role of the Producer. The Director claims–”
Robinson pointed at me. “He is a Director. A Director. One of several possible Directors. But I am the Producer. I choose Directors. I have the power of life and death over Directors. Would you challenge my authority?”
Von Trapp’s maw opened and shut a couple of time slowly, strings of mucus looping from it. “The Director must decide this,” he said finally. “It is beyond me. But for the moment–for the moment–we will leave matters as they are.” His mouth snapped shut, and he slithered aboard the shuttle, his slime trail now an inky black. Captain Robinson made a chopping motion at a crewman standing by the door controls, and the door slid shut, clunking and hissing as it sealed. A moment later the ship shuddered as the shuttle disconnected and began its descent to the planet.
Captain Robinson turned to me. “I think perhaps we should have a talk, Professor,” he said.
I couldn’t talk…again. I just nodded.
“Let’s adjourn to my office.”
The Captain’s looked exactly the same as it had when he first dragooned me into directing The Sound of Music. Robinson tapped his desktop to light up his collection of Broadway posters, then tapped it again; a panel slid open beneath a poster from the original production of Gigi, revealing a wet bar. “Drink?”
“Scotch.” Beer just didn’t seem up to the task of preparing me to face whatever might be coming…though I already had my suspicions.
“I have some information related to your…suspicions,” Robinson said, pouring me a double of…I squinted. Oban? Nice! “Ice?”
Robinson handed me the drink, then sat down at his desk. “I believe the time has come to tell you the truth,” he said.
“You were a Broadway producer,” I said.
“Myron Summerfeld, at your service,” he said.
I gaped at him. “You produced The Singularity. I almost auditioned for that show…”
“I made the mistake of hanging around backstage during that…final performance. When the rapture came, right in the middle of the big ‘Exponential Existentialism’ dance number, there was a flash of light, but that was all we noticed until the bows—which is when the illusory theatre vanished and we discovered we were actually on an alien spaceship populated by giant slugs…and the cast of every other musical theatre production then in production on Broadway.
“Some people reacted badly, but I’ve always prided myself on being a quick thinker. Somebody needed to take charge, and who better than a producer? The actors were happy to let me do that talking to the Squill priests. So…”
“…so when the Church Fluorescent decided it had finally found Ultimate Truth in musical theatre, you were the Pope.”
“Something like that.” Robinson shrugged. “The Squill have been very good to us. First-class digs. Fabulous food. And Squill Prime is heaven for actors and directors: no budget constraints, literally out-of-this-world special effects, freedom to perform any musical ever written, and audiences that love everything because they see the actors as preachers, priests and teachers. Matthew Broderick is head of the new seminary, you know. And if the insights on offer seem banal to us–’Always leave them wanting more,’ ‘Never act with children or animals,’ ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard,’–that doesn’t matter to them.
“But for a producer…well, once the Church Fluorescent signed on to the whole Musical Theatre is the Ultimate Truth thing, there wasn’t much for me to do. The Church’s hierarchy takes care of the sorts of things producers usually do. And there’s no chance of producing anything new: the Musical Canon has hardened into dogma, and woe betide he who shall alter a jot or a tittle of it.” Captain Robinson sipped his Scotch, then set it down on the desk. “So I made a proposal. I pointed out that now that the Church has discovered Ultimate Truth, it needed to share that truth with other races.”
I took a largish gulp of Scotch, and had to overcome a fit of coughing before I could choke out, “You made them evangelical!”
He shrugged. “Proselytizing had never occurred to them before, but they quite liked the idea. So…they gave me this ship, and sent me out into the galaxy. I told them the first thing I needed to find was a director.” He pointed at me. “They already knew about you, Professor. If I hadn’t made sure Governor Feldercarb herded you—”
“—to my ship, the Rapturers would have taken you. But I did get you on my ship. Von Trapp had no business—” Robinson bit off what he was going to say. “Never mind. I’ll take that up with the Church hierarchy.
“It’s now up to you to make a decision, Professor. Will you stay on this ship and continue directing for the Mendel Amateur Musical Entertainment Society, or…” he reached out of my sight behind the desk, and pulled out an egg-shaped, blue-pulsing crystal identical to the one Von Trapp had offered me. “…will you join your counterparts on Squill Prime?”
“You want me to be a missionary!”
Robinson shrugged. “Why not? You’ve been everything else. What better way to make your living than spread the joy of musical theatre around the galaxy? And remember, Professor, I don’t just transport Squill. You’ll get to work with all kinds of aliens…maybe even humans.”
I looked deep into my Scotch glass, thinking. A life spent directing musicals featuring amateur casts with uncertain vocal abilities and a varying array of body parts…or a life spent surrounded by aging Broadway actors whose egos were constantly fed by vast seas of worshipping slugs.
Put that way, it was no decision at all.
I looked up at Robinson. “What’s our next show, Mr. Producer?” I said.
So here I am, halfway between Squill Prime and Arbus, trying to teach six-legged felinoids the finer points of choreography.
The show? Cats, of course.
We’re saving a fortune on makeup.