by Michelle M. Welch
The drumfish weren’t so bad. Yes, they were the size of a building, amphibious, incredibly sensitive to noise, and could crush a living unit by sitting on it, but they were fairly peaceful if they were kept calm. With the music going they were much less inclined to thump-slither out onto land in search of the nearest settlers to squash. Of course, the music had to keep going, Andy thought with a frown, which meant you had to come in at your entrance when you were supposed to. “Thompson, you’re going to miss your cue.”
The old man at the keyboard console next to Andy’s shook himself and toggled his video display back over to the music score. “Oh, oh, right. Hey Andrews, did you see the news…”
“Three and four and now!” Andy uttered through a clenched jaw, bobbing his chin in Thompson’s direction. He slowed his part down a bit, playing the ascending line up his keyboard until Thompson took over on the higher register. It was very important that they play in sync. The station had to be operational and harmonious, two musicians working together perfectly, coordinating their notes and their timing, counting together, breathing together. Paying attention and not getting distracted. The drumfish could tell when it wasn’t going right, just like they could tell when it was a recording. At least he took his job seriously, Andy said to himself, careful not to pound the notes too hard in his annoyance.
Out on the shoreline, a hundred meters or so from the music station and its array of speakers pointed earthward to transmit their vibrations into the sand, the leathery, ridge-backed, unwieldy drumfish bobbed their heads from the water and back down again. The day was wearing into afternoon, the tide was going out, and the drumfish were swimming away. Thompson’s part wound through its variation, recapitulating into the main theme, and Andy would take the melody back next, a final tune for the drumfish to listen to as they swam off, singing to one another, Andy imagined. Back to the deep, back to our home. We’ll listen to the music again another day. Just a few measures and…
“They’re gone,” blared the speaker over their heads. Andy missed a beat and stumbled his way back to place, but Thompson lifted his hands from his keyboard in the middle of a measure, not even caring about the chord he left unresolved, and flipped his vidscreen back to whatever he’d been watching before. Andy lamely noodled his way to the end, counting the silent beats of Thompson’s missing part out loud. Andy was, he had to admit, a rather indifferent musician. But he understood how to play a duet, and that was what was important. He glared at Thompson from the corner of his eye, glared at the ceiling where the guard’s boots thumped on the observation deck overhead. She could have waited just a few minutes before turning on her radio and making her announcement. But no, other people never got it. Musicians were sensitive to discordant and unresolved sounds. Andy understood the drumfish more every day.
“Hey, look at this!” Thompson shouted again, and Andy was about to say that he didn’t care the first time, he wasn’t going to care now, when Thompson raised himself creakily off of his stool and reached for the button on the speaker. His knobby hand couldn’t stretch that far, so he knocked on the window to get the guard’s attention. The boots thumped down the metal grating of the outside stairs and Andy sighed as he brought the music to a cadence, unheard over the racket.
The guard – Jones or something like that; he rarely looked at anything but her awful thudding boots – opened the door to Thompson’s “Look at this, look at this!” Her bland face brightened within the straps of her standard-issue helmet and she reached over to punch up the volume on the vidscreen. Andy spun himself off his stool and darted out the door before it swung closed. The afternoon wind kicked sand into his face and he had to squint and shade his eyes with an upraised arm, but he dug his heels in and walked into the wind as far as he could, closer to the shore, where the last drumfish dove beneath the waves and swam out to sea. You’ll come back and listen to me tomorrow, won’t you? he thought, calling out to their retreating tails. They could hear him, probably. You’ll take me with you tomorrow, won’t you?
It was later that afternoon and Andy was at his second job, farther from the shore than he liked but still not too close to the settlement. The water filtration plant was at the edge of a thicket of sneeze-inducing plants but at least no one bothered him there. Most of the time. Unless he was doing something awkward like crouching under the pipes.
Andy started upright so fast he dropped the filter cylinder he was holding and knocked his head on a pipe. He turned to frown at whoever had interrupted him and saw a woman with bouncy blonde hair and a khaki jacket slung over her shoulder walking in his direction, grinning as if she knew him. She didn’t look the least bit familiar and Andy rubbed his head in confusion.
“What are you doing, working on your day off?” She whirled her jacket away from her shoulder and draped it over the pipe in one movement too fast for Andy to stop. JONES, said the tag over the pocket. This was Jones? If Andy had imagined any hair on her at all, it wouldn’t have been that mass of yellow curls.
“The drumfish don’t take a day off.” Andy bent down to pick up the filter cylinder and tried to shake the dirt from it.
Jones made an annoyed sigh that Andy thought was rather rude. “Tell me about it. We’re the only ones who don’t get a day off to sleep in. But we get an afternoon at least. Aren’t you coming to the party?”
Andy raised his head and knocked it on the pipe again. Jones flinched and reached out a hand, closer and closer to him, as if she were actually about to touch him. Andy shrank back against the equipment and shook the cylinder at her. “Party? The water isn’t going to filter itself. All this sand, all the pollen…” He shook the filter again and some sticky residue globbed out to demonstrate.
This didn’t dissuade Jones, and she put her hand on his head anyway. “No kidding. I sneezed for a week when I first landed on this planet, even after the shots. Now, are you okay? You should come out from under there before you give yourself a concussion.”
Andy was going to protest, but he had to admit he couldn’t. He really had given himself a concussion once, crawling around under a computer bank back on the ship. It had been the big joke of the medical deck for weeks. He narrowed his eyes at Jones to see if she was making fun of him, but her face looked more wide and open than mean and mocking. She probably hadn’t even heard about the incident, probably never went to the medical deck except for her three rounds of inoculations before coming down to the drumfish planet. It had been more than seven years ago, anyway. “Once I finish cleaning…”
“Here.” Jones took the filter from his hand and went to the water output, using a horrifying amount to rinse the cylinder out. “That’s crazy, how you have to wash these things out by hand. I don’t understand why we can’t put more stuff on auto. Like the drumfish. Why can’t you just play recordings?”
“Oh, that won’t work at all.” Andy jumped forward to explain, catching his hands on the pipe just before he knocked his head again and swinging out in a clumsy tumble. It wasn’t often he had a chance to explain things, to appear smart. “I mean, if we have to, if someone’s sick, but it doesn’t work nearly as well. You know what happened during the first landing, don’t you?”
“Twenty-one years ago? Some jarhead freaked when he saw one of those big fish come out on land and started shooting, and then hundreds of them came out and started stomping on things.”
Andy waved his hands excitedly. “Well, of course they did. All that noise! They’re very sensitive to noise, you know. That’s why they call them drumfish – stupid name, they’re not even fish, they have legs – but their skulls are full of membranes like drumheads. The least vibration and they start echoing, poor things, and we landed two double-engine transport shuttles right on top of them. And then started shooting. What would you do if people started shooting at you?”
Jones set her head sideways, the bouncing curls ruining the effect of her doubtful frown. “But how did they know what weapons were, if they’d never seen humans before?”
“Wait!” Andy prompted, holding out a finger and almost smiling. “So the settlers got back into the shuttles and started the engines. There were two people on board who had a bad case of takeoff nerves and they started reciting – oh, I don’t remember, poems or prayers or the checklist or something, and what happened?” Andy paused, bouncing with anticipation. “The drumfish stopped. They went quiet and started listening.”
Jones turned off the water. “Listening to what? How could they hear two people inside the shuttle?”
Andy leaned in and whispered loudly, “Telepathy!”
Jones handed back the filter with a skeptical look, and then the look started to shift. “Wait… That’s how they knew about the weapons. One of them got hurt and the others knew. That’s how so many of them came out of the water all at once. That’s why they all get anxious any time the machinery goes to work, even if it’s on the other side of the landmass. They know because the other drumfish tell them.”
“Right, right!” Andy wished Thompson would pay attention to him like this, rather than just showing up and playing because he had orders to do so, and doing as little of it as possible. “And that’s why just music won’t do. What really calms them down isn’t sound or vibration. If it was they would have gone docile when the shuttles started their engines. What really calms them down is harmony. Not just musical harmony, but two people working together: collaboration, consonance. A duet.” Andy beamed with pride.
Jones looked at him, her eyes focusing somewhere over his shoulder, with a wrinkled brow. “So that’s why they only clear a new piece of land for settlers every seven years. I kept wondering why they didn’t move out some of the families with new kids, as crowded as it’s getting. They have to wait for the next flyover to drop two more musicians.” She turned her eyes back on him, disconcertingly, and grinned. “Well, we won’t be living on top of each other here much longer. They’re opening Settlement D. That’s what the party’s about! The geology team relayed their data on the northeast quadrant and the ship sent back the OK. They’re en route to drop off more settlers. And – hey! – more musicians. Anyone you know, do you think?”
Andy had just shaken off the shiver he got when she looked him in the eye and here it came again, not just a shiver but a horrible cold weight in the pit of his stomach. He turned and crouched under the pipe, fumbling the filter back into its slot and not quite getting it place.
A squawk from the box clipped at Jones’s collar interrupted her and Andy sighed his relief. Settlement D, northeast quadrant, a hundred kilometers away across the most nasty, scratchy, allergenic foliage known to man. Maybe more than a hundred kilometers. Even if one of the new musicians was him – and well, really, how could it be anyone other than him – Andy was unlikely to see him, ever. “Yeah, we’re on our way,” Jones shouted into her radio. “Right, Andrews? You’re coming too?”
Maybe if he tagged along she would leave him alone. He could go to the party and get a cup of that green stuff they called Beverage #2: Optional Calories, stand in the corner and be ignored. He could hum to himself and imagine that the drumfish could hear him, far out to sea in their evening retreat and dreaming of music. You’ll take me with you next time, won’t you? He managed to back out from under the pipe without braining himself and joined Jones.
“Okay, see you there.” The radio clicked off with a cacophony of static and Jones reached for her jacket. “Hey Andrews, there’s a light still on. You need to reset something?”
Andy felt his face go hot. He jumped back to the console before Jones could see how red he was and turned off the manual override. The orange warning light went out and Andy could see his face faintly reflected in the dark readout, the same shameful face that had been scolded at least a dozen times back on the ship for leaving things logged in and powered on. It was him, obviously. That intruder was messing up Andy’s life again and he hadn’t even landed yet. Andy’s head started to throb like it was filled with drum membranes, all of them beating together in a sickening echo, but he fell in line behind Jones and shuffled his feet toward the party anyway.
He should have just gone back to his sleeping unit, taken a painkiller, and lain down. The party was exactly the fiasco he’d expected. All the people whom he usually avoided, all the techs who had made fun of him on the ship, all the soldiers who called him fish-boy, all the scientists who ignored him until someone mentioned that he was one of the musicians, and then they looked at him carefully as if he were a particularly interesting new fungus, they were utterly unavoidable. The nicest of them still laughed at his name: Andy Andrews, the most hilarious thing they’d ever heard. Again. Thompson made a half-hearted effort to defend him – “Hey, these quota kids, cut them some slack. They’re born in a lab, they never find out who their donor parents were, and they only get assigned one name. He had to come up with something for a first name. At least he didn’t call himself And.” Then Thompson laughed as if that were the most hilarious thing he’d ever heard, again, just like every time he introduced Andy to someone. Andy spent the whole evening staring into his cup of Beverage #2 and wishing he’d had more of it so he could splash people with it. If he had a tail and they were on the shore he could splash everyone, soak them, drown them.
It wasn’t surprising that everyone was late the next morning. Jones drove her rover to Andy’s door two-tenths of an hour after they should have left, and Thompson wasn’t ready to go at all by the time they got to his unit. “Someone has to get started before the tide comes in,” Andy grumbled, swinging his legs out over the rover’s bulky tire. “I’ll walk.”
“You can’t walk!” Jones was bland-faced again with her hair tethered under her helmet. “Come on, Andrews, you know the protocol.”
“We only have an armed escort in case the drumfish get aggressive. And they’re more likely to get aggressive if there’s no music. I’m getting over there.” He covered his face with his sleeved elbow as he dropped from the seat of the transport and kicked his way through the sand. Jones didn’t follow him.
Just as he thought, there was a big drumfish with a red ridge on its back standing out on the shore when Andy, huffing and spitting sand and clutching a knit in his side, clambered down the bluff to the music station. Four or five more heads had popped up from the water behind the red-ridge like a backdrop, gazing toward the station expectantly. Andy stumbled toward the door and realized he didn’t have a key. “Wait, wait!” he panted anxiously, lumbering up the clanky metal stairs to the observation deck. He hung over the rail and started singing, half a duet in an atonal solfège. The dark heads in the water melted back down, but the red-ridge stayed where he was, tall and alert, staring at Andy with large, ink-black eyes, surely meeting Andy’s own over the distance.
I’m sorry, he said in his head, over the warbling music. Really. But something deeper in him answered that he wasn’t sorry, not sorry at all. The notes stuck in his throat. Where had that come from? He really was sorry about being late. He really was…
A weird roar startled Andy so badly he had to grasp at the handrail to keep from tumbling off the deck. The red-ridge had raised its head toward the sky, its long neck extended, and again it let out a hollow, bell-like call. The metal grate under Andy’s feet seemed to vibrate with it, or maybe his trembling had set it clattering.
“Damn, I didn’t know they made noise!” There was a terrible rustling and screeching of brakes as Jones’s rover arrived, skidding back and forth through the switchback down the bluff, and came to a noisy halt next to the music station. Thompson’s wordless shouts followed Jones’s profanity and Andy hissed at them over his shoulder to be quiet, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the red-ridge. The call died out on the air, the drumfish lowered its head, and it caught Andy up with that inky gaze once more. Andy was utterly paralyzed until he heard the sudden muffled blast of a keyboard from the speaker inside the station, part of a duet started in the middle, where Thompson’s line came in with the melody. Andy scrambled down the stairs to get to his console before the old man got completely lost and messed up the music.
They made it through the first hour and Thompson complained about needing a bathroom break. “Jones’ll keep an eye on Big Red out there,” he said, punching a button to start the backup recording.
“But…” Andy blurted, as the old man hobbled his way out the door. He turned wide eyes back on the red-ridge, which sat on the shore with its stubby legs folded under it, staring at Andy through the windows of the music station. No, of course it couldn’t actually see through the windows, blackened on the outside with the glare of the midday sun, but Andy was sure it was still looking at him. He lifted his right hand from the keyboard and reached for the speaker button, had to shift his left-hand part up two octaves to reach it, and punched it with a syncopated click. “Jones, get in here!”
She answered with a staticky buzz. “What?”
“Just get in here!”
The thump of her boots threw off his rhythm and he struggled to play in time with the screech of the swinging door. “Help me. That one on the shore is too keyed up for a recording. I need to play a duet.”
“But I can’t play.”
Andy took his eyes off the screen and stared at her. “You’ve got to play something! Look at them! Just look at them! They’re getting anxious!”
In an echoing counterpoint the red-ridge stretched his throat and trumpeted again. Jones started back toward the door, pressing something on her uniform that made a dissonant hum. The battery pack or whatever it was slung on her back, powering up the weapon at her belt. Andy didn’t know what kind of weapon it was and he didn’t want to see how it worked.
“Just hit middle C. You know where that is, right? White key just left of the two black ones?”
She looked at him like he was a lunatic but she dropped onto Thompson’s stool anyway. A deep line formed in her helmet-shadowed forehead as she examined the keyboard, and she finally found the note. It was the right one. Andy sighed and touched the score ahead to where it modulated into the key of C.
Outside the red-ridge’s voice echoed into silence. “Good, good,” Andy stuttered. “Can you find another C?”
Jones screwed her face up in concentration, pressed a second key, and smiled at the unison. Concentration, that was good. Two people concentrating. Not like Thompson most of the time. It was almost a duet. Other drumfish poked their heads out and swam around placidly, and the red-ridge lowered itself back onto its haunches. After a moment it turned in a slow arc and slipped back into the water.
“Hey, you want to take over from me, Jones?” Thompson entered with an out-of-tune door squeal and Jones hopped up from his stool. “I’ve been trying to retire for years, go live with my daughter in Settlement C. This kid won’t let me go!” Thompson gave Andy a light punch on the shoulder, coming from behind him so Andy couldn’t move out of the way, and returned to his seat. Then he toggled his vidscreen back to the news reports.
“Thompson, we’ve still got the second hour to go.”
“Yeah, but the fish are gone. Look at ’em, just swimming around out there. They don’t care about us anymore.” The old man squinted at the screen, flicking a finger to page through the reports. “Flyover in ten days. Seventy-five settlers coming in the first transport. They’re dropping the musicians the day before everyone else, it says. Here’s the manifest. Hey Andy, anyone you know? Ali, Jonathan. Carson, Maria…”
Andy’s fingers slipped and landed on an ugly chord. “Thompson, please, I’m trying to finish the piece.” But he muddled through it badly, even though Thompson stopped reading the list out loud. Out in the water, the red-ridge lifted its head.
Andy was at the water filtering plant eight days later when Thompson came to give him the good news. That was what he called it. Good news.
“I’m moving to settlement C! They approved my transfer!” The old man was shaking hands with everyone in sight, and Andy could hear him crooning half a kilometer away, almost. “I’m going to see my daughter!”
Andy watched the water run over the filter he was cleaning, liter after liter of fresh H2O wasted, and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. “How are they going to do that?” he mouthed when Thompson was in range, his voice so hollow in his head he wasn’t sure it would carry. “There are two musicians in settlement C already.”
Thompson nodded and energetically shook Andy’s hand, taking it right from under the water and not caring about getting wet. “Jane Rhys and Bill something, I know. Rhys is going to settlement D, to join one of the new guys. New girl, actually. They’re sisters or cousins, I don’t remember. The other new guy’s coming here.”
Of course he was, Andy thought. Of course he was. “I took lessons with Sara Rhys in the deck 3 VR suite,” Andy uttered. “Decent duet player.”
“Sara, that was it. And the other guy is Tony something.”
“Antonio. Antonio Worth.”
“That was it!” Thompson slapped Andy on the back and the filter slipped out of his hands. “See, you musicians really do all know each other.” He walked away to shake someone else’s hand damply. Andy didn’t see if it was a guard or a scientist at the plant, didn’t pick up the now-dusty filter, didn’t turn off the water. Before Thompson got any further Andy rushed after him, actually grabbing his arm to stop him. “You’ve got to take me with you. I’ll take the other position at station C. Send Bill Something over here.”
“Why? You don’t have family over there, do you?”
As if he’d know if he had family. Both his parents were anonymized codes in the fertility clinic database. “Look, just take me with you. I can’t play with Worth.”
Thompson raised his eyebrows. “Oh, sure you can. You played with me all these years, didn’t you? Drumfish don’t care if the musicians aren’t very good, just as long as there’s a duet.” He was interrupted by a rumble as a rover pulled up next to him and a square-jawed guard shouted out a greeting. “There’s my ride. I’ve got to go pack my stuff up.”
“You’re going today?” The sand felt like it was shifting under Andy’s feet, threatening to topple him or swallow him up.
“Of course! Remember, they’re landing the musicians first, to set things up before the rest of the transports come down. Can’t have the drumfish act up again when they hear all those noisy engines.” He beamed at Andy for a moment with an expression that must have been fatherly, then patted him on the shoulder again. “Gotta go. Good luck!”
Andy barely remembered to turn off the water and switch the system back to automatic before stumbling back to his living unit.
He wasn’t certain how he ended up in his sleeping bag, staring up at the ceiling of his living unit as the sun came up. He wasn’t certain how long he lay there, watching the thermal fabric turn lighter shades of silver before there was a knock on the door and a click as someone badged in. A guard, of course, with an override badge. Andy looked up at the bland, upside-down face and the tag that said JONES. “You okay, Andrews? You didn’t report to work. Are you sick?”
The drumfish were as bothered by lying as they were by discord and aggression, Andy knew now, but he figured he was far enough away from the shore to keep them from sensing it. He nodded.
Jones fidgeted with the strap of her helmet. “Okay, but Big Red is out of the water again. That Worth guy showed up and he’s playing with the recording, but the drumfish know something’s wrong.”
Andy squeezed his eyes shut. He knew how to play a duet. He might not be the best musician in the world but he knew how to play a duet. He knew what the drumfish needed and they understood him. He squeezed his eyes a little tighter, wondering how he could wish away Antonio Worth so it wasn’t him that Andy had to play the duet with. But he opened his eyes and Jones was still standing there, looking down at him with her blankly worried face. “Fine. Give me a minute.”
The rover ride to the music station was so bumpy that Andy thought he’d actually be sick. Jones parked and Andy swung his weak legs out of the passenger compartment, swiveling to face the rear window of the station. There, in front of the right-hand console, barely visible in the small window, a familiar sweep of dark hair, a shoulder swaying as the man worked the keyboard. Andy hunched over with a wave of nausea. He had no idea how he was even going to play with his hands shaking so badly.
Jones cut the engine and came around to pat Andy roughly on the back. “Gonna make it, Andrews?” Andy didn’t even pull away but he didn’t answer, either. He leaned against the rover with his eyes closed, listening to the faint sounds that were audible from the monitors inside the station and the earthward-facing speakers out on the shoreline. “Wow,” Jones said after a few minutes. “He’s really tearing up that keyboard, isn’t he?”
Andy spat on the ground and opened his eyes. “That’s the problem with him. Too flashy. He’s a soloist. He’s a primadonna. You can’t be like that when you’re playing duets. Too self-centered. You’ve got to give a little, quit showing off.” Every word tasted like acid and Andy wanted to spit again. When he looked up at Jones he found she was staring at him.
“You really have it in for this guy. Did he steal your girlfriend or what?”
Stole his girlfriend. What an easy answer. Trite, but effective. And even better – what a rumor to get around. Watch out for Antonio Worth. He steals people’s girlfriends. Andy cautiously craned his head to see around the building, looking for the red-ridged drumfish. Maybe it wouldn’t notice that Andy was lying. Maybe it would believe him, too.
And as his eyes scanned across the building, past the window, he saw that all the lights on his console were glowing. “What?” he hissed. “He turned my console on.” Clutching his stomach, he ran to the building and burst through the door.
Words were ready on his sour mouth. What are you doing? Are you trying to get me in trouble? There’s a ration on power – you were trying to get me written up by making it look like I left my console on all night! But the words were gone when Andy reached Worth’s side.
Worth looked up and smiled. “Andrews!” he said, as brightly as if they’d been friends all their lives. Then he lifted his right hand from the keyboard, all the while maintaining a continuo in his left hand under the flourishes in the recording, and reached across to shake Andy’s hand.
Andy wanted to ignore the offered hand. He wanted to criticize Worth for being so showy, for risking missing his cue. He wanted to believe that Worth really had turned the console on. But he couldn’t do it. He’d been so distracted yesterday, with the red-ridge lingering on the shore so long that he and Thompson had been forced to play an extra hour, he must have forgotten to power down. That was what had happened, he was sure. He did that kind of thing all the time back on the ship. Meekly he pressed a few fingers into Worth’s palm, a limp little acknowledgment before withdrawing to his stool. He reached up and pressed the button to silence the recording, put the score on the display, and tried to find his way into Worth’s melody.
“So,” Worth said a few measures later, speaking in time. “We both made it. It took seven years but I finally got here.” He looked over his shoulder, never missing a note, and spoke to Jones, who had positioned herself in the doorway. To listen to Worth, of course. “We both auditioned for this opening.”
Jones made a little burst of noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “And you…” The confusion in her voice was obvious, that desire to ask how the hell Worth had come in second place to Andy.
“Missed my last round of inoculations.”
Jones huffed out a laugh, a little too loudly. She probably thought Worth was handsome, too. “Oh, no wonder. I got mine a whole year before I came down – I was afraid of missing the landing window.”
“Right.” The music paged ahead on the display, to a complex bit of fugue. Andy never would have chosen such a virtuoso piece; the drumfish didn’t care about that. He bit his lip and tried to tune out the voices so he could concentrate. Worth kept talking without missing a beat. “I thought I had mine done six months before the auditions, but apparently I missed the last round.”
Out on the shore, the red-ridge raised its head. Andy stumbled over a downward passage and Worth dropped out of his own line to follow Andy’s. Andy fumed silently and looked out to meet the drumfish’s ink-black stare. You see what he did there, the show-off.
“I always mess that part up, too,” Worth said, though he didn’t. He was lying and he was going to make the fish very angry. Andy recovered himself and banged out his part in an unwritten fortissimo, and Worth went back to his own line and his previous topic. “I could have sworn I got that last round of shots. But you looked them up, Andrews, and they weren’t there.”
The notes blurred in front of Andy’s eyes.
“That’s right!” Jones blurted. “Andrews, you used to work in the med lab back on the ship.”
Andy bit his lip and put all his focus on keeping his fingers moving, staying in the right key. Concentration. That would calm the drumfish. Wouldn’t it?
“Worse,” said Worth. “Medical records. Can you imagine a more tedious job for a creative person? I always thought you were completely wasted there, Andrews.”
“Quiet! You’ll miss your entrance!” Andy knew he wouldn’t, but Worth fell silent anyway. Andy struggled to blink the score back into focus. Out on the shore, the red-ridge undulated on its powerful legs, back and forth, a slow zigzag bringing it closer.
Landing day came with a whole row of guards on the shore, kicking up the sand between the music station and the waterline. “What’s going on?” Worth asked, leaning out of the rover as Jones pulled up to the station, craning his neck for a better look. He had to reach a hand behind him, grasping for the seat bench to balance himself so he didn’t pitch out, and Andy squeezed himself as far away as he could without tumbling out the other side, trying to avoid being touched.
“The landing at Settlement D is really stirring up the drumfish,” Jones said. Andy strained to hear some lilt in her voice, some lighter note, something that would suggest she liked Worth. That would take it all, wouldn’t it? “They had some kind of trouble with one of the transports, no one hurt or anything, no drumfish either, but it got the fish upset over there and that got them upset over here.”
“Well, we’d better get playing, then!” Worth turned a grin on Andy and didn’t seem bothered that he didn’t get one in return before bounding out of the rover.
The red-ridge was on the shore, a mass that Andy could barely see through the cluster of uniformed shoulders in front of the windows. A few of the guards were shouting loudly at the drumfish, waving their bulky weapons threateningly, and Andy could imagine the red-ridge taking a run at them.
“They’re not really going to shoot them, are they?” Worth murmured, standing half out of his stool as his fingers danced automatically through their warm-up exercises. Automatically – Andy thought with a scowl – the drumfish hated automatic things. Between khaki shoulders Andy could see the red-ridge stand higher, its long neck towering in the distance, and it swung its head back and forth.
“They’re not real bullets,” Jones said from the doorway. Funny she hadn’t taken her position on the observation deck. Obviously she wanted to be closer to Worth. Andy pounded out a few loud arpeggios but that didn’t interrupt her. “We learned our lesson last time. Bullets make the drumfish mad, and the resonance attracts them from miles around. These weapons are pulse disruptors. They emit high-frequency sound waves. They disrupt the drumfishes’ auditory membranes and disable them.”
That was the worst thing Andy had ever heard. His mouth tasted metallic and his fingers got clumsier. Out on the shore, the red-ridge undulated and paced, its bulk swaying ever closer. Andy punched up a score on the vidscreen and rushed into his half of the duet. Worth trailed him, picking out the melody from memory as he flicked the vidscreen controls with his left hand in search of his part. He got distracted in the process, though. “Amazing,” he murmured, and the line of his melody fell out of time.
Alarmed, Andy pounded his accompaniment with metronomic regularity, trying to force Worth back into the duet. The drumfish opened its wide mouth and let out a dull sound, too faint to be heard inside the station, but the guards in front of the windows started shouting and scrambling. Jones tensed and flicked the humming switch on her weapon. Worth suddenly shook himself with a lame-sounding “Sorry” and found his way back to the tempo. The red-ridge fell quiet and the guards stood down warily. That was close, Andy fumed to himself.
“Sorry,” Worth said again. “I was just thinking. All these amazing things – generation ships that can transport us to new worlds, inoculations that keep us from being poisoned by our surroundings, these weapons… So amazing, and so flawed. Do you know that someone hacked into the medical system when my mother was in for lab work, switched the gas intake and output and filled the whole clinic up with CO2? Five people died. My mother was lucky, only a little brain damage, and fortunately she was senile enough by then it was hard to notice. You remember that, don’t you? It must have been seven, eight years ago. That would’ve been before you left the ship.”
Worth made some kind of bitter laugh but Andy could hardly hear it over the blood pounding in his ears. “Worth, pay attention.” But Worth was back on the melody now, and it was Andy who was missing his entrances.
“Hackers. They caught them, didn’t they? Protestors, I don’t even remember what they were protesting. People get tense, living on those generation ships. Funny thing was, none of them had the passwords to get into the system. Someone probably left a console on.”
Andy’s throat tightened and the music blurred in front of his eyes. The red-ridge raised its head again and let out another bellow, louder this time. Behind the creature, others lifted themselves ponderously from the water, echoing its cry. The guards shouted and switched on their guns again, rooting in their pockets for thick blue plugs that they crammed clumsily into their ears. Jones elbowed the door open as she started her own weapon humming. Andy knew he should run out there and stop them from firing the terrible guns. He knew he should listen more carefully to Worth, to try to line his notes up and play a better duet, to calm the drumfish down. But his fingers couldn’t find their way around the keys anymore. Somebody probably left a console on – was there any chance at all that it wasn’t him, the person who’d been cited for leaving his console on more times than anyone else on the medical deck?
Then another shout, a trill over a percussion of footfalls. The drumfish were moving.
They ran surprisingly fast. The whole shore thudded under their heavy feet. Worth rose halfway from his stool, his eyes wide and his face blank, his fingers still moving on the keyboard. One of the guards finally took aim and fired, and two of the drumfish fell with a horrible, keening cry. Several others slowed, turning in confused circles. The rest of them kept running, two or three or four, toward the music station. Andy couldn’t count them because he saw only the red-ridge. He looked into its inky eyes, staring straight ahead as it ran. Staring straight at him. Andy’s hands fell from the keys. He spun off of his stool and tripped toward the door.
“Andrews, what are you doing?” shrieked Jones, blocking him.
“One of you get over here,” Worth called. Jones looked up, and in that instant of hesitation Andy pushed past her and through the door. Before it swung closed Andy heard Worth shout, “It doesn’t matter if you can’t play, just play something.”
The guards took down another drumfish before Andy ran through their line, making one of them shout crazily, “Civilian! Hold your fire!” Only two of the creatures were running now, the red-ridge and a blue-black one following him. Andy ran straight into their path. You understand, he wanted to tell them. You, red-ridge, you’ve been listening to me, haven’t you? You understand. I had to get off the ship. I couldn’t get in trouble again. What if they found out the CO2 problem was because of me? I’d have been locked up. I couldn’t risk failing that audition. And with Worth up for the same post, there was no way I could have gotten it.
The blue-black drumfish took off in a different direction, followed by a little echo of guards chasing it. Then the speakers kicked in, some simple melody, four hands playing the same notes, two of them staggering and hesitant. The blue-black slowed as it ran past one of the speakers. Andy didn’t notice whether the guards fired at it anyway.
You understand, Andy said. The red-ridge would hear what he said in his mind. I deleted the records of Worth’s last round of shots. He passed the audition, he got the post, but he was disqualified. He couldn’t leave the ship without proof of inoculation. I left him up there. And I’m not sorry – I’m not, I’m not sorry.
Andy stopped running. The drumfish lumbered to a halt a few yards away from him, close enough that Andy could see his reflection in that ink-black eye. Behind him voices were shouting for him to get out of the way, an out-of-tune clamor that Andy ignored. Yes, Andy said. You do understand.
Behind him a voice shouted in a deafened monotone, “Aim at its head!”
“No!” Andy jumped forward, panting, running toward the water line, under the drumfish’s shadow, so close he could feel its heavy breath. He kept running. It took longer for the big creature to turn around and follow him, but finally he felt the throb of its gait shaking the earth. It ran in time with the speakers, Andy thought wildly. He kept running. That’s it, that’s it. Follow me. Into the water together. That’s where we’re going. Back to the deep, back to our home. We’ll listen to the music again another day. Andy splashed into the tide and felt the wave of the drumfish diving in beside him, the undercurrent pulling his feet out from under him, and he swam into the depths, as if he could dance in the water with the drumfish in some kind of duet.
Michelle M. Welch is a fan of speculative fiction, music, history, and dessert. Her musical interest dates back to childhood and she briefly attended music school before deciding, like Andy, that she wasn’t the best musician. She is the author of the fantasy novel Confidence Game and her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy and M-BRANE SF. She lives in Arizona with two cats, one husband, and too many musical instruments.