Escape Pod 784: Annotated Setlist of the Mikaela Cole Jazz Quintet
Annotated Setlist of the Mikaela Cole Jazz Quintet
by Catherine George
That solo! Art blowing so hard and so hot, jumping out like a solar flare. Art, the only one of us with a real instrument, a beat-up old brass thing with the spit of two hundred years of play in it—and, well, sometimes we thought you could hear the difference. Oh, people said the three-d printers could make horns that sounded just as good, blew just as pure, and Mikaela said it was worth it to have anti-grav, so she could tow the piano behind her wheelchair—but still, there was something about knowing the horn had been on Earth, that there might be red clay or Terran bacteria gummed up under the keys. Every note heavy with the weight of time.
We never asked Art where he’d gotten a real Earth tenor sax, but there must have been a doozy of a story there.
This one we came up with the first time the five of us ever played together, on a Tenthday night down at that bar Lee Jae-jin ran on the lower deck of the Ship’s outer ring.
The bar was squashed between a bot maintenance stall and a grey-water recycler, and across the ring was a shop that specialized in VR experiences of life planet-side, even though those were thirty-odd years out of fashion. The whole quadrant smelled like seaweed from the algae synthesizers down-deck. It was a terrible spot for a bar, anybody could see that! Jae-jin didn’t care, though. He just wanted a place where he could take rice or barley or potatoes and make drinks like they had back on Earth, drinks with names like uisghe and makgeolli and ouzo, drinks that didn’t taste much like synthanol and didn’t sell like it either. He liked to say they were acquired tastes, but of course nobody on board had ever acquired them.
And, well, maybe it was the drinks list or maybe it was the neighborhood, but after 1900 hours the bar was always empty. When Mikaela fixed on starting a band she figured she’d ask her old pod-mate Jae-jin about practicing down there, because it seemed like the perfect place for a newborn jazz quartet.
Jae-jin said yes, just so long as he could come and play his trumpet.
“You play the trumpet?” Mikaela said, surprised. She’d never heard him play in the three years they’d shared a pod.
Jae-jin said, looking away: “Sure, sure! I’ve been playing a long time, friend.”
He’d played trumpet on music nights in crèche, alright. Sometimes, after the group got rolling, we’d go down to the bar and spy him hiding out back, long black hair spilling loose, warm blush of exertion rising under tawny skin as he chased the solos on old recordings, trying to wrest control of the melody back from the horn. He worked hard at it, he did, but jazz wasn’t a passion for him like it was for some of us. We figured he must really need the culture credits.
So there we were, that first night: Mikaela at the baby grand, the rest of us revolving around her like moons in synchronous orbit. We’d already played some classics, Monk and Coltrane, Akiyoshi and Washington, Glasper and Onwuachimba — not too shabby, we thought, for our first time together — when Mikaela suggested we jam, see what came of it.
“Alright, what about this, something real simple,” she said, long brown fingers spooling out chords into a loose, sparkly melody: something with a little swing, not too show-offy. After she’d played it a few times, everybody else—drums, bass, sax, trumpet—eased in, shy and tentative, like new pod-mates. We slipped behind while the piano raced ahead, laughing, urging us on. Then Mikaela nodded to Art, the saxophone leapt out into a solo, and finally things began to simmer, the music mixing on the air with the old-sock smell of Jae-jin’s bubbling brews.
From there it was easy; we fell into the melody like meteors, the piano and the sax trading lines until we wound the tune up tight.
As a name, sure, it was a bit old-fashioned, smelling of Earth like it did. But then we figured a jazz quintet could hardly be anything else, so we didn’t mind too much. And there was a story to the name—
It was early in the band’s history; we’d just finished the song, a dizzy, exuberant little thing, and there was back-slapping, a loud call for drinks. Gigs, festivals, five-ring tours: all that was pinwheeling through our heads. We lined up at the low glossy slab of plasti-crete that served as a bar, below the shelf filled with bottles of Jae-jin’s strange brews. In the backlight, they glowed like so many red suns.
Jae-jin, seeing we were curious, pulled one down and began to pour.
“Try it, try it,” he said, eager. (On work rotation he was in chemistry, trying to improve the texture and flavor of synth food; he was always foisting his creations on us. Sometimes we liked them, and sometimes … well, sometimes not.) “I aged it in a barrel. A real wood barrel, if you can believe it—oak, real Earth oak”— and we figured then we knew why he needed extra credits.
Whatever-it-was tasted like burnt toast and scorched our throats like the afterburn from a rocket. Some of us wondered, silently, whether he’d gotten the process quite right, if the recipe in the databanks had left out some steps. Art, too old to keep quiet, put down his glass, and said, confused: “Is this how it’s supposed to taste?”
Jae-jin laughed, but when he said, quiet, “I don’t know,” we hurried to push our glasses across the bar for refills.
After that we turned to business: the song needed a name.
“Old Drones,” Fe suggested. We thought that was pretty much the worst name we’d ever heard, and said so.
“But it’s got that clanking bit! Like gears, right?” Fe said, and when we shook our heads they sighed and pouted into their drink, melodramatic as any episode of Farthest Star.
“The Experimental Blues?” That was Jae-jin.
“It’s not exactly experimental,” Mikaela pointed out, rolling a little sphere of green-and-blue glass—a marble, she said it was called, something she’d pocketed from the archives—into the shadowed valleys between her knuckles and back up onto the cool brown flat of her hand. She was always moving her hands, Mikaela was, playing with something, a credit chip or a chew sphere or a child’s toy.
“It’s pretty standard bebop. Nineteen fifties stuff.”
“Ah. I suppose not, then,” Jae-jin muttered.
If we hadn’t gotten it already, that Jae-jin didn’t know much about jazz, we got it then. Mikaela was our expert, our bandleader. There was no jazz in the databanks she hadn’t heard, nothing about the history of jazz she didn’t know. She’d played solo for a long time, and tried to tour around, but the fashion then was for bands—nobody wanted to hear a musician play by themselves, it was anti-communal.
Romy, just out of crèche, had been taking lessons on the bass since she was a child. She knew her vamp from her walk, her broken time from her break. Fe, well, they always said they had bossa nova in their blood; and we knew they had rhythm.
And Art? We didn’t know much about him, except his age, and we could read that on his face: the papery white skin lined in grey, like the bark of the aspens circling the Commons. But we knew he could blow; we figured he must have been playing for years, long before any of us were born. He’d never said a damn thing about his experience with jazz, but we figured he probably knew everything we did, and more.
There was a pause for drinks. It grew on you a bit, Jae-jin’s stuff did.
Romy had pushed her glass across the bar for a refill a couple times, and after a bit she began to look a little queasy, beads of sweat prickling all over the ochre of her upper lip, normally spiky purple hair wilting under one restless hand.
“Okay, I am thinking: Planetfall,” she said, after the fourth glass.
We remembered, then, that she really was that young—just out of childhood. There was a moment of silence while we all looked away, into the bottom of our drinks, or out the port at the back of the bar, to the distant view of bots harvesting rice from the verdant emerald curve of the ship’s inner hull.
“Nobody wants to hear a song called Planetfall,” Art said, gently, in his growl of a voice.
“Let’s play it again,” Mikaela suggested, a distraction before we all got too close to the abyss, to thinking about things it was better not to think about.
It sounded strange the second go—and not just in the way a song does when you’re improvising, playing into the solos—but we kept bashing our way through: Art, face serious under the swoop of his remaining silver hair; Fe, gloriously fat, bobbing with the rhythm, light gleaming off the dark gold of their head like the reflection off Art’s sax; Jae-jin, lurking at the back, glasses slipping down his nose, trumpet barely keeping up; and Mikaela, the mound of her box braids swaying side to side as she carried us through, professional as always. It wasn’t until the end that we noticed Romy: she was leaning on her instrument like a crutch, sweat streaming down her face and dripping into the belly of the bass, rolling around in there like the saltiest of seas.
“You okay?” Fe asked, poking her with a drumstick. Romy blinked, tried to straighten up.
“Oui, oui, c’est tiguidou,” she murmured, blinking. We mostly stuck to Common Shipboard, but get a few rounds in Romy and she lapsed into her crèche-mother’s lullaby tongue.
“You weren’t playing, friend,” Mikaela said.
There was a pause as she visibly pulled herself back together.
“We’re playing which one?” she said, thick-tongued.
We were lucky to get her to the head before she bellowed like a moose. When she came back out, wiping the awful residue off her face, she said she had it: “Fifth Wheel.”
“Why?” Mikaela said, cautious, not hating it.
“Well,” she said, “Nobody minded that I was not playing. The song, it’s complete without the bass. Like a fifth wheel, yes?”
A bouncy, looping rhythm, horns blaring like the crowd at a shipball game, the piano holding it all together until, crashing, it fell apart again… a souvenir, this one. A souvenir of those long afternoons in Jae-jin’s bar, of the jazz-brain fever we got after a couple hours chewing coca and sucking back synth brew, feeling like forever was a Ninthday afternoon.
In those days, we’d started coming down three, four times each tenthday, sometimes practicing, and sometimes doing shows that felt more like jumped-up rehearsals than anything else, with an audience that mostly couldn’t say no to an invite—oh, there were a smattering of friends and acquaintances, some fans of Mikaela’s from her time playing solo, but the mainstays were Jae-jin’s bond-circle, Romy’s crèche-sibs, Mikaela’s triad and Fe’s wife, Geneviève. (Art never invited anybody, not that we saw.)
The bar was a good place to play, though, even when attendance was sparse. Jae-jin had it done up like something from Earth, and we thought it looked good considering the space used to be an Office of Colony Establishment, back when we thought there would be a colony to establish. There were incandescent filters on the lights, to give it an old-time look, so that every time we came in we had to adjust to being steeped in gold, marinated in amber. There was even something called a “pool table.” Jae-jin’d had the equipment printed and a few times, when we were relaxing after practice, Mikaela tried to teach us to play. She’d seen a video in the databanks, she said.
Well! None of us could figure it out, though Art came the closest, sinking a few balls every time we played.
“You should toss it,” Fe said to Jae-jin after another of their balls hit the edge and bounced out, suspending mid-air for a moment before slamming to the floor. The gravity wobbles that close to the bottom of the ship didn’t make it any easier. “It’s broken, yeah?”
But the pool table stayed. He liked to the get the details right, our Jae-jin did.
Everybody Else (Can Do, Can Do)
The closest we ever got to avant-jazz. The name was a joke, from one night spent listening to random cuts Mikaela had pulled from databanks; and Jae-jin, after hearing something atonal, all sprawling dissonance, complained that “Everybody else can do whatever they want, but I switch to the key of D and Mikaela says it’s not jazz.”
Ah, this song! This was where Jae-jin had his first real successful solo.
One night he’d gotten us tangled up in a real train wreck, the trumpet going off the rails and taking the rest of us with it, and afterwards he was sitting morosely behind the bar, sipping a glass of the drink called whiskey.
“These things take time,” Mikaela said. “You’ve got a good ear, thank Ship. But you know it won’t happen at the speed of light.”
“Like your barrels, eh?” Romy said, gesturing to the backroom that housed Jae-jin’s experiments. “The drinks spend a long time in there, or they are no good, yes?”
Jae-jin swirled the liquid in his glass. “You know, the whole time it’s in there, it’s evaporating? The longer it’s in the barrels, the more that’s lost.” He took a small sip. “On Earth they called the part that was lost the angels’ share.”
And the next night, when Mikaela put down a pensive melody, the piano asking some question we couldn’t quite name, Jae-jin picked it up and blew a slow, foggy response, and in it we heard the story of how long we’d been in here, and how long we would be still, and what things had been lost and might still be lost before we set foot on some distant planet.
1957 Overture (Pata Pata)
A riff on a song that was popular on the livestreams back then, a thing made of mashed-up old Earth tunes, a woman’s joyful voice soaring above the blare of cannons and strings. Ours had the horns coming in hard, like asteroids exploding on the hull shield, but when we put our version on the livestreams it didn’t get so many ears.
Why not, though? Gen, Fe’s wife, signed, one night after we’d played a show in a Sichuan restaurant. That was the sort of place we got gigs: out-ring bars and down-level diners, places where they were trying things the way Jae-jin was trying things, not synth food at all. And once we’d played a VR party set in old-time New Orleans, but only once—we had to draw the line somewhere.
I like your music. It feels right, like it belongs here on the Ship.
We all looked to Mikaela, and Romy got hurriedly up and went to watch a low-grav dance troupe on the vidscreen in the corner, and Jae-jin took off for the kitchen to talk to the chef—
“We’re out of fashion,” Mikaela said, smashing her drink down on the table. We’d all heard this rant before.
Fe interpreted, hands flashing ahead of familiar words.
“There’s only two things people want to hear these days, and we’re not playing either of them. I mean, thank Ship we’re not playing that horrible star stuff”—the big thing in music then was people turning the vibrational frequencies of the stars, the billowing of gas giants, into strange atonal symphonies—“because I’ve heard more melody from a malfunctioning synth bot.”
Mikaela was on work rotation in the archives, helping decide when new music should go into the databanks, to act as an official representation of who we’d been in our shipboard years. She couldn’t vote against the star music—too popular—“but I wish people would stop listening to it, so I could stop, too.”
That was the way of things, we always told her. There were those on the Ship that wanted to look forward, not back, even if they weren’t sure what there was to look forward to. We could forgive them the impulse, mostly, even if it meant hearing a three-hour dirge composed using the sound of water sloshing beneath the surface of an icy moon.
Yes, Gen signed, having sat patiently through Mikaela’s tirade about the transmission of culture, the de-valuation of traditional forms and the solo instrumentalist. But I’ve seen string quartets and pop bands and rappers playing the Commons. Right?
Mikaela sighed and nodded, signed Yes, right. There were always those that performed the old ways, and some of those things made it into the great Ship concerts on the Commons, and then into the databanks, if they were good enough, popular enough. That was what Mikaela wanted, we knew—to be in the databanks. Sometimes we’d see her fingers going, going, going on the edge of the table, playing through more imaginary riffs than you could ever need in one career. She was looking for something, a song that could write her name into memory: Mikaela Cole, jazz pianist. Part, however small, of the story we told ourselves.
How do they get there?
“Luck. Playing in front of the right people. You know the Council picks acts for the Commons?”
“Well, they’re not coming down here for mapo doufu. At least not on the nights we’re playing.”
There was a recording, in the databanks, of the last broadcast from the drones on Gliese-786. We didn’t know what it sounded like, but we knew it was in there. It was part of our story, however much we might have wanted to forget. Nobody ever made music from that, though.
Fe had started to show up later and later for practice.
“Fire,” we heard Fe say, when Mikaela took them out into the ring to talk about it. “I didn’t know.”
“You’re an hour late,” Mikaela said.
“I didn’t realize.”
Mikaela gave up on it, and we got busy coming up with a new song. Mikaela had written out a lead sheet, like she sometimes did, but that night it was Fe that led us out, with an advancing wall of rhythm that rattled us all around in an old tin can. Everyone else just had to pick their moments, if they wanted to be heard.
“Ship, Fe,” Mikaela said, when it was done. “Where did that come from?”
“You like it?” Fe said.
Now normally they were the bright light in our group, in their neon silkex jumpsuits, bare head painted with great galactic blasts of colour, always with the big laugh and gap-toothed smile. (To see them you’d hardly believe the stories of their troubled youth—oh, nothing terrible, no anti-Ship behaviours; just the games lost kids play, hacking VRs and burning credits, and they’d clawed their way out of it, settled down to married life and a work rotation in credit reg, structuring our communal systems to keep us all on course, from falling into our own unmapped spaces.) But that night they were different: far away, quiet.
Mikaela wavered a hand above the keys, striking a few sharps. “Maybe. It’s got energy.”
With that we were down around the table, throwing around song names, except Fe, who sat with eyes closed, one hand slipping down the sweating surface of their glass.
“Fe?” Jae-jin touched their wrist, softly, and the drummer’s eyes snapped open. “You alright?”
We razzed them a bit, called them old for falling asleep in the bar, and finally, maybe just to shut us all up, they came out with it.
“Gen and I, we’re trying to have a baby.”
Well, that sure did shut us up. That was something we didn’t talk about much, the question of whether it was right to tie new generations to this journey of ours; once, late, Mikaela had started to talk about it, asking why—“why? We have it good, don’t we? No hunger, no real violence, a roof over our heads… isn’t this a good life?” And she was right, especially when we thought about what we knew of the years before Launch—but there it was; it scared us, and she’d stopped when no-one responded. Privately, Mikaela had chosen to contribute to the genetic pool, and so maybe in a crèche somewhere there were children out of artificial wombs who looked like her; but she didn’t want to know. Jae-jin had decided against it, flat out; and Romy was glad, in theory, that the medics could keep a trans woman fertile through transition, so she could make that choice someday, but beyond that she felt she was too young to think any more about it.
Art, well, a lot more people had raised their own children when he’d been young, but we’d never asked him, and he didn’t say anything to Fe’s revelation. In fact, when we thought back on it, some of us remembered that he got up, and went over to the bar, and poured himself a shot of soju.
“The thing is,” Fe said, “it’s constant, you know? Like, if we miss one chance, it might have been the right time.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Mikaela said, with a nervous laugh.
Fe shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe. But it’s all the time. I’m tired. I’m late because she says, ‘How about now?’ And sometimes it’s like, I don’t think I can do it…”
We murmured what we thought was consolation, and a moon later they’d get their reward, when Gen announced she was pregnant and Fe began their habit of drumming their fingers on their wife’s belly, to ensure the kid would come out a drummer. That night, though, it was an easy decision: we called the song Trying.
Unmade Constellations (For Mary Lou)
The longest solo Mikaela ever had; she kept coming back, searching, to a moment of silence, then breaking it.
One night she’d brought something to show us, a thin black disk apparently imprinted with music in some way—a record, it was called—that she’d taken from the archives. It was Mary Lou Williams, Zodiac Suite, and the songs weren’t in the databanks. But there was no record player in the archives, and so the music was trapped there forever, unheard.
She sat looking at it for a long time, tracing one finger over the thin rings on the disc, and then she took it away with her, after. Sometimes we wondered if she’d broken it, too.
A Handful of Dust
A slight, misty thing, all the notes shivering and breaking apart, seeming to trickle away from the listener, but still warm, somehow; like the feeling we got, when we were playing together. When Romy laid something down on the bass, a rumbling, slapping run of notes, and Mikaela picked it up, carried it, tossed it in the air with a rattle of her hand on the high end of the piano—well, that was a great feeling. It was like someone reading your mind. It left a warm feeling in our stomachs that couldn’t be matched by any damn synthanol.
“But what is the point, if nobody is listening?” Romy said, one night, wandering over to the viewport and staring down into the dark expanse of the inner hull. Out the window the growth lights had dimmed for the dark hours, and only the twinkling lights on the bot control panels, like tiny roving stars, were visible.
She had started to say things like that, a lot. And she had started to talk about other things, too, about Earth things—oh, she’d always talked, dreamily, about Earth, and earth, the soil, the dirt, the dust, the sand, “the weight of it, you understand? the feeling of it under your fingers?” and what clay might feel like in water, what the stars might look like if you weren’t on a ship moving five psol—but we just thought it was nostalgia, and who were we to judge?
But one night she missed practice, and the next time she said, casual enough, that she’d gotten in with a group that was practicing survival skills, taking sessions in VR and getting on the list for shifts in the biome cylinders at the core of the ship, so they could try living off the land, learn to build a world from scratch. Fire from flint, fishing with a spear, shelter hacked from a jungle. That wasn’t any nostalgia. That was the dream of life on rock, steady and stable, not shooting through space towards unknown destinations.
“We’ll never need to do things like that,” Mikaela said, sharp, when she heard. If she wasn’t going to make a splash with us, she’d probably never make it, and she knew it; there weren’t too many jazz bassists onboard, not good ones—so it mattered. For that, and for other reasons. “You know that, right? We won’t need to start from scratch, we’ve got all the tech we need, we’ve got the manual for starting society again, whenever we—”
“Leave it alone, Mikaela,” Fe said, watching Romy, who was plucking a little low melody, sad and spare.
But Mikaela wasn’t done. “And anyway even if we didn’t have all that, it wouldn’t be you doing it, would it? It wouldn’t even be your children’s children.”
“So what?” Romy said, smacking an open hand against the strings, so the bass seemed to thrum with anger. “So what, and so instead I should do jazz? You think this matters? That we will need this jazz, wherever it is we are going?”
“Yes!” Mikaela said, nearly shouting now. “Of course we’ll need jazz. We’ll always need jazz—”
“But it will not be you doing it, it will not be your children,” Romy said. “You all know we are going nowhere, but no-one wants to say it, so you all just pretend. This jazz business? This is just marking time.”
“Enough,” Art said, heavy. “That’s enough.”
All the Things We’ve Never Seen
Never seen sunrise, never seen sunset, never seen summertime. Never been caught in a rainstorm, or slipped into the springtime sea. Never been alone, truly alone, with miles to go till the next human: even near the end you could do that, on Earth. Never set out to walk with no destination, or stayed up late to watch a meteor shower. Never seen a flock of starlings startled from rest, to swirl and dive against a blue-grey sky. Sky—what was that? We had the ceiling above our heads, and then, out there—space. A vacuum. Never seen our loved ones in the light of the moon. Never gotten lost.
We thought about how we should have put down roots by now, gone beyond steel horizons to find feet on soil and wide open spaces. How the ship hadn’t been designed to go so long, and neither had we. We all dreamed of things we’d never truly seen, never truly heard. Like the wind: in our dreams, we heard the wind, and the sound of birds, and we’d wake up with tears, our bodies remembering an impossible world.
“She’s too young for that,” Mikaela said, speaking of the thing nobody wanted to name. Romy had left early, that night, again. “The kids who were born after—”
“She’s not,” Fe said, who had a closer eye on these things than the rest of us. “It still happens. She needs a distraction—if this, if we could just …” They sighed, and shrugged, and we knew what they meant. If we could just make something of ourselves …
Art, nursing his one glass of synth brew, put it down hard on the table. “Think I’ll be heading out now,” he said, and went; and off we went, too, quiet and bitter, to our pods to rest—
But warming up for our next show we found Mikaela grinning, riffing on C Jam Blues in one hand, pointing with the other to three people sitting at a back table, sipping uncertainly from glasses of Jae-jin’s latest: the Council, in the flesh.
We left it all on the table that night, playing like we could condense our whole lives into song: the babble of the Commons, the Babel of a dining hall, the wailing of a wake, voices raised in harmony and cacophony, drums like a lover’s heartbeat under your ear, at night in the sleep-tubes. It was everything we’d wanted to say: the Shipboard life, its loves and its losses, in music.
“Thank you,” Jae-jin said, to Fe, as we packed things up that night, a bit giddy. The Council had liked us, we thought — and we were right: not a tenthday went by before we got the embossed invite to play on the Commons, the first time some of us had ever seen real paper.
“For what?” Fe said.
Jae-jin shrugged towards the three councilors, chatting in one corner with Mikaela.
Fe shook their head. “You think I’ve got this type of pull? That’s not how credit reg works.”
And that was how we realized that Art had gotten us in front of the Council. Art! What a mystery he was. We looked at the old saxophonist, and wondered.
Sometimes, at the end of a session, when the rest of us were pulling up to the bar, Art would linger behind and play a little tune. If it hadn’t been on a sax, we might have said it sounded folksy; and once Fe said it sounded like a lullaby, but Art didn’t say anything back.
Late on the night before our gig on the Commons, just before we packed it in for the night, Mikaela picked out a version of the tune, simple, just in the right hand, and Jae-jin took it up, real quiet, and suddenly everyone was in except Art. We thought maybe he wouldn’t join—he could be stubborn like that—but suddenly, out of the warm ring of the repeated tune, he broke into this golden, chaotic riff, ripping through the tune too fast, and then too slow, and then just right, repeating it like we were playing a round. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. He was pulling us up there, into some sort of hallowed, golden space, like the dream of sunlight, and for once, we all went there.
When we came back down, nobody said anything. We just nodded, once. It was too late to talk names; but that night on the Commons, when Mikaela said, “Let’s play that song,” we all knew which one she meant. When we played it that night, we were great: not just good, but great. We could hear it, the audience could hear it. At the end they stood up for us.
Our quietest song, and our slowest. It opened with a bass solo, played arco, a shadowy melody exhaling beneath Romy’s bow. We can still picture her, all these years later, leaning into that airy hum as if pressing into an imaginary wind. Out beyond her, under the gleaming lights, the Ship transformed by the act of listening into a temple, a hallowed place…
Well. The things you remember.
Two hours after that show on the Commons we found ourselves deep in the archives, jubilant, swirling in Mikaela’s determined wake.
“You’ll see,” she said, when we asked what she was looking for.
The archives were perpetually dim, like the time of day on Earth known as dusk, and hushed, as if someone had wrapped the rooms in a quilt. (A quilt was one of those things we had in the archives, back then. Maybe we don’t anymore, we don’t know; as the years pass there will be less and less space for what we were, all of that pushed out by whatever we become. They were only built for a hundred and fifty years of remembering, and so things will be jettisoned out into space, leaving a trail of human footprints across the galaxy.)
“Here,” Mikaela said, finally, pulling something out of a drawer. It was a bottle of gleaming spirits. “It’s whiskey,” she said to Jae-jin, and opened it, casual. From somewhere on her chair she pulled out five little glasses, and began to pour.
“Are we… are we allowed to drink it?” Jae-jin asked, awed.
Mikaela shrugged. “No-one’s going to come looking for it for, what, five hundred years? And by then, well… I figure we drink some of it now, while we know someone might appreciate it.”
The first sip was sweet liquid starlight; Jae-jin’s efforts had more in common with synthanol than they did with this. He looked crestfallen for a moment, but then, buoyed: “I probably need to barrel mine for longer,” he said.
Then Mikaela said, “We need a name for that song,” knowing that it would go into the databanks, join the music we carried with us. “I’ve got a few ideas —”
We cut her off. The honors for this one belonged to Art.
“Alright,” Art murmured. “We’ll call it Amy, then.”
Sure, we said. That sounded fine. Then someone — memory serves, it was Jae-jin — went and said it. “Why that? Why Amy?”
“Amy’s my daughter,” he said. “Amy was my daughter.”
After that we got real quiet.
“When she was little she slept real badly,” he said. “And I had this song I’d hum to her, and sometimes it would help. Then, when she was older, she wouldn’t have any other lullaby. She’d say, ‘No, Daddy. I want your song.’ And then she grew up, and, you know, she could get to sleep by herself. But I never forgot that song.” He paused and took a slow, cautious sip of his drink. It was the longest speech we’d ever heard him make.
“It was the guitar, with her,” he said, gesturing to his saxophone case, on the floor beside him. “She said she was going to play jazz with her feet in the dirt, hear the sound of jazz in atmosphere.
“The night the news came about Gliese, she was performing on the Commons with a trio she’d started. She had this solo that night… I’ve never heard better. She came home and said ‘I’m a hit, Daddy.’” He paused, and looked thoughtful. “It might be in the databanks. I don’t know. Probably not. There were other things to listen to, that day.”
Romy and Fe were too young to remember that night when the news came. Mikaela had been seven, and Jae-jin four; they could remember the vidcasts, the sad robotic voice repeating over and over: Error in calculations. Catastrophic change in orbital mechanics in target system … Orbital mechanics: what an innocuous sounding phrase.
“What does it mean?” Jae-jin had whispered, to his father, because his mother was in a fugue state, unspeaking. His mother, who he remembered as a musical presence, a song just out of sight, humming while she worked; now she was silent.
“It means we don’t have a home anymore,” his father had said.
“She was fifteen, when we got the news,” Art said. “And eighteen, when she died.”
All of us knew people who’d died of it, died of the Gliese flu—the flu! What a thing to call it, when it wasn’t a flu at all; the doctors, watching people carry in their loved ones, those first waves of hundreds, listless and immobile, they said it was called psychogenic death. Dying because we’d lost the idea of home, and the next habitable planet was six hundred years out. Jae-jin’s mother had died of it when he was still a child; and Mikaela had lost an older sister, and Fe her grandfather, and Romy two friends in one of the later waves, striking after we’d already been decimated.
“Maybe it was our fault,” Art said, low. “There was a recording, back then, of the sound of the wind on Gliese. Made by one of the advance drones. We played it for Amy, my wife and I, right from the day she was born. And every time we’d say ‘This is it, this is the sound the wind makes in your new home.’” In his raw old voice we heard, briefly, a sobbing song, and then he swallowed it, and seemed calm again.
“A couple years later I realized I couldn’t really remember what Amy looked like anymore. Oh, she had black hair, brown eyes, I knew that … but I couldn’t picture her in my head. It was like I had forgotten Amy. But somehow, even though it’s been years and years, I haven’t forgotten that song.”
He didn’t say anything else, and finished his whiskey in a burning gulp. The evening broke off soon after. A few of us would look into it, later, and find out that Art and his wife had split, after Amy died; she’d thrown herself into community organizing, into establishing the crèches and the credit regs, and we had some sense then who he’d appealed to in order to get the Council to our show.
Art had lived in the temporary pods ever since, and playing jazz was pretty much the only thing he did. It had been half a century since he’d first hummed his lullaby, we realized. But he still remembered that song.
Angel’s Share (Reprise)
That was our last show, that night on the Commons.
Oh, we came back with good intentions; we were gonna be big, we thought. But somehow, over the next few tenthdays, some of us found that the reasons for being in a jazz band didn’t seem so compelling any more. Fe, with a newborn, was the first to go; the late nights were too much. And before we could find another drummer, Romy got busy with other things. She stopped talking about dirt after that night, and started making historical VRs about our Shipboard history. They were good, too—they still show them in all the crèches. It was nice, we agreed, to see ourselves as making history, and not just—what had she said? Not just marking time.
After that it didn’t seem like there was much point, and so when Jae-jin told Mikaela that he was giving up the bar, it wasn’t a real blow. He wanted to try something new, he said, apologetic. He went on to wine-making, with synth grapes, and made a drink that was very popular for a while. Ever had wine labelled with a picture of a trumpet spilling out roses? That’s Jae-jin.
And Art—well, none of us ever saw him again, after the band’s last practice. And a few years later, when we looked up Artur Wisniewski in the ship directory, we found it said not listed.
Most of the songs died with the band. You lose them, after a while, we all agreed on that; when you don’t play, they seep out of you, in puddles of sweat, in tears while you sleep. Even Mikaela, back playing solo and touring the deep-ship dives, said she couldn’t recall the songs we’d once played. There was no record anywhere with those tunes inscribed in its grooves; they’d just disappeared, like they’d never been. All that was left was the names.
That last song is the databanks, though, if you want to hear it. Mikaela was right about that. Afterwards, when the band was done, she went in and labelled it Amy, but she couldn’t listen to it. None of us could.
It didn’t matter, though; that was the one song each of us would always know. Sometimes, before a show, Mikaela would catch herself warming up with that particular refrain, and flinch; and Jae-jin would find his fingers pressing down a certain run of imaginary keys in moments when he was feeling a little unnerved. Romy found herself humming it as she scrolled the databanks, looking for bits of history to unearth. Fe, late at night, when they were feeling weary, would tap a certain rhythm on the pod roof.
There was one song that wouldn’t grow out of us. We never did forget how to play that song, that song for forgotten Amy.
by Benjamin C. Kinney
According to some theories, music is the origin of language. The origin of intelligence. We took sounds, and we changed them. Mixed them, recombined them, making new things with new and unknown meanings. Language came later, a new branch from that same root: the ability to take pieces, and create.
Generation ship stories feel just as primordial, in the universe of science fiction. People on the long haul between worlds, hundreds of years or more. Generation ships that will work, someday; or generation ships that have failed in some way, but the people live on. Maybe they’re so appealing because they’re so familiar. We’re all living our lives one step at a time, trapped by the grand and desperate decisions of our ancestors. If there’s a still a goal, we can’t see it. But we know who we’ve left behind.
Music as the origin of language. Creativity as how we find our own meaning. And the right words, the right notes, can make a life worth living. Long after the song’s been played and the story’s been heard, we remember it. And maybe we never grow out of it, no matter where it takes us.
But. Hold on a minute. Is music really the origin of language? The eden, the homeworld, from which our lives descend? According to some theories. But evolutionary biology is full of untestable just-so stories. My little theory sounds convincing, but I could’ve told you a different theory, paired it with a different story, and made it sound just as compelling. This idea that music is the origin is language – maybe it’s real. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s the melody we’re playing now, our own creation, a new assembly from all the pieces we carry with us.
Thank you for listening, reading, or following Escape Pod.
Our closing quotation this week is from Miles Davis:
“The session was about improvisation, and that’s what makes jazz so fabulous. Anytime the weather changes it’s going to change your whole attitude about something, and so a musician will play differently… A musician’s attitude is the music he plays.”
Thanks for listening and reading, and fly safe out there.
About the Author
Catherine is a lawyer who lives in Vancouver, BC, with her partner and two young children. In 2018 she returned to writing fiction after ten years away and now writes short speculative fiction of all types.
About the Narrator
Abra Staffin-Wiebe loves optimistic science fiction, cheerful horror, and dark fantasy. Dozens of her short stories have appeared at publications including Tor.com, F&SF, Escape Pod, and Odyssey Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, where she wrangles her children, pets, and the mad scientist she keeps in the attic. When not writing or wrangling, she collects folk tales and photographs whatever stands still long enough to allow it. Her most recent book, The Unkindness of Ravens, is an epic fantasy coming-of-age novella about trickster gods and favors owed. Enjoy an excerpt here: http://www.aswiebe.com/moreunkindness.html