DP FICTION #70A: “‘My Legs Can Fell Trees’ and Other Songs for a Hungry Raptor” by Matthew Schickele

Hundreds of little eyes stared at her.

The junction of tunnels here had a rich sound, and the soft buzz of her bagpipes echoed in every direction. Just like yesterday, and the day before, she relaxed on a pile of stones, lost in the music, sifting her memory for favorite tunes from the timeworn canon. The bellows for the pipes was a ballooned mammal-skin bag on the floor, massaged by her large clawed feet; her small front claws tickled melodies on the chanter. Leathered intestines connected all the parts, snaking along her feathers from the bag up to her massive jaw.

The little eyes belonged to the lengs⁠—she named them that when she arrived, months ago. Like her they were raptors, quick and sharp-toothed, but the lengs were short, while her head often scraped the tops of the tunnels. Also, they were kind of dumb.

But unlike her, they belonged here.

What she missed most was the company of poets, and her fellow musicians: her friends. She was so far from home.

The lengs were bright yellow and green and had no language or culture; no need for anything beyond insects to chase and devour. They rushed about, up and down the rocky corridors, ducking in and out of cracks and fissures in the walls.

But when she played her bagpipes, their scurry paused. They gathered and listened, transfixed.

As always, today their attention was so complete that as she finished her concert, not a leng flinched when she reached out with her clawed foot and gently squeezed the nearest audience member until its neck snapped. Her dinner. The price of admission. This technique was much easier than hunting them on foot, as she had in the first days after she fell⁠—fell into the crevasse, into this dark maze.

Her claws tik tik tikked on the stone as she carried the dead leng back to the Mouth. This was her routine. The Mouth was where she ate, where she slept, where she dreamed and remembered⁠—but she refused to call it home. A home was lined with leaves and bursting with family. The Mouth was just a hole in the wall.

But it had a view. The only view. The single place, in all her exploring, where she could see the sky.

The tunnel widened and abruptly ended in air. She settled into her chipped-away crook, right at the edge, where the cave gave way to cliff and dropped down to the sea of clouds far below.

She took her time with her meal, carefully pulling the leng’s feathers away before each bite. The taste wasn’t really worth savoring⁠—in the early days she had swallowed them whole. But rituals were valuable, to fill the hours, to keep her sane.

A scrape echoed from somewhere down the dark hallway, quiet, but distinct from the low fluting of the wind across the cave mouth. She looked up from her dinner and peered into the black; the luminescent moss on the walls glowed, but her eyes had adjusted for the sky.

The shift of movement was brief, if it was there at all.

*

After touring some of the smaller tunnels the next day⁠—she still sometimes found new junctions she hadn’t yet explored⁠—she returned to her concert spot. The bagpipes were there, awaiting their daily workout, hung high to keep safe from the nibbling lengs. Her performance schedule varied with her hunger. Generally, curtain was in the late-afternoon, allowing time for the return trip to the Mouth, then eating and digesting while the sun set beyond the sea of clouds.

A few of the smarter lengs had figured out what her arrival and bagpipe prep meant; their eyes glazed over before the music even began. Then one by one, as the melodic buzz filled the caverns, the others gathered and pressed in close.

While playing the song “My Legs Can Fell Trees”, something down the corridor caught her eye, half-hidden behind a boulder. A mammal⁠—an ape in clothes, at least a head shorter than she was. It stared right at her, as motionless as the lengs. She only noticed it because its glasses caught the light of the moss.

Without skipping a note she opened her mouth and tilted her head, allowing the ape to see her tongue and teeth⁠—a friendly greeting which, judging from its immediate disappearance, the ape did not understand. Nevertheless, clothing and eyewear suggested intelligence, perhaps even civilization.

She had seen one or two of these apes when she first arrived.

In her confusion after her ship crash-landed, she slowly, groggily became aware they were watching from the bushes. As soon as she could stand up and think straight, they darted away, and she gave chase awkwardly, with bagpipes in claw. She wanted to ask them if they knew the name of this world.

Then she fell into the crevasse.

Judging by the apes’ movements, she now suspected they knew the chasm was there. They ducked and dodged, leading her straight to the opening. But she couldn’t be sure, and she always preferred to give the benefit of the doubt.

After the fall she waited for her wounds to heal, passing the time by repairing her bagpipes. When she could finally move again she was ravenous, hunting as many lengs as she could manage on her sore legs, eating the luminous moss when the hunt failed.

*

She saw it again the next day. It was in the same spot, behind the boulder; this time it watched from the beginning of the concert as the lengs gathered, squeezed in, and got comfy.

Civilized or not, she did consider whether the ape would be good to eat. It would certainly fill her belly for days. And it would be easy enough to kill. (Judging from the way it gripped its knife when she looked over, this possibility had occurred to the ape as well.)

As she neared the end of the final tune⁠—a classic called “The Poet’s Silver Jaw”⁠—she slid her leg out and grabbed a nice fat leng. When she looked up again, the ape was gone.

*

It was tiring, keeping her claws pulled up to avoid the tik tik tik that would surely alert the ape to her scouting. She was gambling she knew the tunnels better than the ape, but concert time was approaching, and she had yet to find it.

She chose her hiding place carefully.

Eventually the ape arrived. It peeked around its boulder, realized no performance was imminent, and scratched its chin. After a deep breath, it glanced up and down the dark hallways and wandered off.

She followed. There was no rush; she had already guessed where it was going. That tunnel led to an area she had named the Remains.

Geology wasn’t her strongest subject in school; even as an adolescent she devoted most of her energy to practicing her pipes. She was pretty sure, though, most of these tunnels and caves were old lava tubes. It was also obvious that the lava, in many places, had flowed over things: roads, houses⁠—a little piece of someone’s civilization. But, if she had ever been taught the skills to figure out the age of the lava flows, she hadn’t paid attention that day.

The Remains was the area of least destruction. It was once some sort of building, and many of the rooms still had books and furniture and office machines. Anything not made of rock showed nibble damage from the lengs. The little raptors were everywhere in the Remains, gnawing holes in walls, unafraid of the light, and their squeaks and noisy bustle made quietly sneaking around easy.

She found the clothed ape, in a large room apparently undamaged by lava, lit by makeshift lanterns. It was swiping at lengs with a broom, trying to keep them away from its food stores. She hid behind a large metal box by the door.

The room was filled with evidence of the ape’s battles with the lengs. Holes in walls were boarded up, and chewed open again, dishes were repaired with tape, furniture was riddled with nibbles. The clever ape had even killed a few⁠—one of the dead lengs was on the ground, near the door. She reached out, curled her claws around the limp body, popped it in her mouth and swallowed.

She didn’t know whether her newfound neighbor lived in the maze of caves by choice or, like her, wanted to escape. The Remains was clearly not its natural habitat, since there were no others of its kind to be seen. She could try communicating⁠—just the thought of a conversation was a thrill⁠—but she decided to retreat, and wait. Her first experience with the apes was fresh in mind.

Her tummy was satisfied by the dead leng; there was no need to hypnotize one for dinner.

She played her bagpipes anyway. The little lengies really seemed to enjoy it.

*

A few days passed with no clothed ape. She busied herself with her routine, evenings at the Mouth, days exploring the maze. But she steered clear of the Remains. The ape was a conundrum, a delicate puzzle that discouraged rash moves.

When it appeared again at the start of an afternoon concert, it held a box: black with metal highlights, about half a head in size. The now-fearless ape waded in among the lengs, and held the box in the air for several tunes before slinking away again. She tried to add this behavior to the ape-puzzle, but was unsure what the box was, how it fit.

She wasn’t concerned⁠—until the next day when she arrived at the concert junction and her bagpipes were gone from their hook.

Only one other creature in the tunnels could reach that high. Furious, and hungry, she tik tikked past the ape’s boulder and toward the Remains.

Then she stopped.

The sound of distant bagpipes droned through the halls. The tune was familiar⁠—”The Engineer’s Lament”, she had played it yesterday⁠—but it was hard to tell where it was coming from. All the lengs stopped to listen too. They cocked their heads, back and forth.

Slowly, a few of them started inching in one direction. The others cautiously followed⁠—then suddenly they were moving as one, fast, reaching full speed in seconds.

She joined the wave of lengs, at first trusting their instincts at every junction turn, then her own ears, as the music got louder. Her tik tik tik mixed with the lengs’ rainstorm of tiny claws.

They were headed for the Mouth.

Her legs were made for sprinting, and were beginning to tire when she turned the final corner and saw sky at the end of the tunnel. The lengs pulled ahead. The circle of sunlight grew, but she saw no one⁠—no ape, no piper. Only when she was closer did she notice the ape’s black box. It was hanging from a long stick, jutting out from the cliff like a fishing pole ready to drop its bait into the endless sea of clouds, far below. The bagpipe music was coming from the box.

Helplessly she roared a warning as the lengs streamed to the edge. They were too dumb to stop, too focused on the sound to notice the danger. The front line of lengs jumped, and the rest followed.

Then something unexpected happened.

The moment the lengs hit the air, their arms stretched out, spreading open little folds of skin. The tiny creatures almost seemed confused by their newfound skill: they couldn’t fly, but they could glide⁠—awkwardly, and with a rather rapid descent.

She collapsed and peered over the edge, watching them drift down to the clouds. They disappeared like dots of mist into fog.

The recorded sound of the pipes was head-splittingly loud.

And she was angry.

*

When she stomped into the Remains the ape was surprised⁠—it had no idea she knew where to find it. The bagpipes were on a table. There were no lengs to be seen. The ape was sweeping up and it dropped the broom and backed into a corner, speaking in a muddy language. She tik tikked into the room.

The ape glanced at the bagpipes⁠—no, the knife on the table next to them. With a swift swipe of her powerful leg she smashed the knife to the floor and the blade broke. She opened her massive jaw and roared at the cowering animal.

Killing the only other civilized creature hadn’t been the plan. She recognized its intelligence and respected it. But the ape, by callously destroying her source of food⁠—her audience, her little lengies⁠—didn’t reciprocate that respect. Death was a reasonable punishment.

Moaning its muddy words, the ape held up one hand and, with the other, pointed at the metal cabinet next to it. In a final show of respect before the kill, she hesitated.

Keeping its eyes on her, the ape opened the cabinet door and pointed to the two eggs inside. They were striped yellow and green, the same color as the lengs. The ape tapped its head, then waved towards the hallway.

It had found the leng hatchery.

This bid for survival impressed her. She had never found where the lengs nested, and she certainly wanted to.

She backed off and tilted her head, opening her jaw to reveal tongue and teeth⁠—a friendly sign of agreement that, for some reason, made the ape twitch.

*

The hatchery wasn’t far from the concert junction. She had tikked by it a dozen times and never noticed the small gap below the stone. The ape got down on all fours and squeezed in. Moving the stone took all her strength, but she followed.

The breach opened into to an enormous cavern, the largest she’d seen, and the ground was entirely covered with nests and eggs. The brightness surprised her; when her eyes adjusted, she looked up and saw a crack high above in the ceiling⁠—through it, she could see the sky.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs; plenty of food to last until she could find a way to reach the opening, and escape. Some eggs were recently hatched, and the quiet squeaks of newborns chasing bugs echoed off the walls.

*

She had a new routine now. It revolved around building the scaffold higher and higher, closer and closer to the sky, and playing her bagpipes for the leng chicks. The music was no longer necessary to catch them⁠—they were completely unafraid of her. They even followed her around as she scavenged building materials from the Remains. But she liked playing for the little lengies. They really seemed to enjoy it.

The ape⁠—that reckless, imprudent ape⁠—had held up its side of the bargain. She ate it anyway. It tasted like mammal.


© 2020 by Matthew Schickele

Matthew Schickele is a Queens-based writer of music and words: chamber music, songs, speculative fiction, opera, and electronic music.  @Squidocto www.MatthewSchickele.com


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The Horowitz Method: A Metrics-Based Approach to Rank-Ordering Musical Groups

written by David Steffen (and no one else, alas)

INTRODUCTION

Since time immemorial, one of the perennial topics of humankind has been to compare music.  Whether pop is better than country, whether this band is better than that band, or this song better than that song.  Before the invention of writing, one can imagine heated arguments about who was the best drummer.

(ANGELICA, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. For everything. But most of all I’m especially sorry for taking what we had for granted. Don’t worry, the parts that are bold-and-italicized are only visible to you, keyed off of your IP address. I can only hope that even though you’ve changed your number and email address that you might have left this one thing unchanged. I know you would be mortified if this were public, and wouldn’t hear the end of it from Maurice. I wouldn’t do that to you!)

Arguments are powerful things.  Relationships have formed and relationships have ended over this subject matter (because some of us become complete assholes on the topic and don’t think about other people), and we believe that many relationships can be saved if we can apply some elements of scientific rigor.  The subject matter as it has been historically framed is inherently too subjective and therefore is a breeding ground for disputes and hard feelings.  Even scientists, we who pride ourselves on being able to set aside our emotions and think rationally, have been known to make this mistake, though we of all people should know better. 

We posit that our mistake has been rushing into the discussion without agreeing upon criteria (and also about using absolute statements in combination with invectives, statements like “Anyone who likes 98 Degrees more than The Four Seasons is a complete @*&@#$ @#*@! have no place in a laboratory”. I was not lying, but I should have considered your feelings. I didn’t know how hard you would take that until you replied to say that One Direction was better than Third Eye Blind. That still stings.), and so have entered the debate in bad faith with the conclusion in mind ahead of the evidence.  We considered what criteria might be used for the judging of musical bands.  As with the objective comparison of so many other types of subject matter, we have come to the conclusion that the answer lies in mathematics.  When we sent Voyager to journey beyond our solar system, we wrote our message to the universe in the languages of music and mathematics.  If it’s good enough for aliens, it’s good enough for resolving disputes with our fellow music-loving humans. (I would send you a gold record!)

PROPOSAL

Therefore, I propose The Horowitz Method (I hope you’re not upset that I named it after you. I know it’s traditional for the founder/inventor of a scientific method or discovery to be its namesake, and while you didn’t propose the method nor write this article to propose it to the public, I wanted to acknowledge the role that you played in its instantiation. You are the best research partner that I’ve ever had, so rigorous and well-spoken and hilarious when you want to be, and while yes I have at times been jealous of your success, that success was earned and anyone is lucky to work with you. I also admit that another factor in choosing your name was that I hoped you would hear about the proposed method via mutual colleagues and would be curious enough to visit this page where you could read these messages. If you’re upset about the naming, I promise I am willing to change it), an objective method of rank-ordering musical groups in a metric-based approach that is thus subject to peer review.


But what mathematical measure?  If we were talking about comparing one song with another, it might be easier, for the music itself is inherently mathematical–meter, tempo, time, number of notes, pitches.  But a single musical group could have any number of songs, and the number could grow every day–what particular songs would one use to judge a group?  Their newest?  The whole body of their work?  And some bands release songs so regularly that any conclusion drawn would have to be re-examined very frequently. And that’s not even to speak about what particular measure to use which, we know from personal experience, becomes a dispute of its own.

No, if we are going to compare musical groups and expect a somewhat stable outcome, we must not compare their songs, we must compare traits of the group themselves.  The genre?  The style?  Again, too subjective, one could argue that a group is one or another or maybe both or something entirely new.  We need to focus in on something entirely indisputable. 

The band name.  (Please hear me out and look at the data. And I look forward to seeing your refutation in a prestigious journal instead of publishing it on your own site)

And, in order to apply mathematical rigor to it, the dataset we will work with will be band names with numbers in them. (yeah, I know, but I figured we had to start somewhere)

“My favorite musical group doesn’t have a number in it,” (Black-Eyed Peas) some of you are declaring at this very moment (Faust, Lionel Richie, Adele).  Then take heart in knowing that your favorite band is incomparable, in the mathematical sense.  If you want to compare your group with others, I’m afraid you’re out of luck, at least for the time being.  You may as well try compare (8/0) to (10/0), or compare a walrus to a the clock speed of Pentium processor, or a raven to a writing desk, the question inherently has no meaning, and if you don’t like the system, propose an alternative. (I dare you. You know you want to!)

By using a mathematical system, we can define and rank and draw some mathematical conclusions about the dataset.  This system doesn’t define which band is the “best” because that is an inherently subjective concept, but it does define which is the GREATEST, mathematically speaking. (That’s right, that’s how sorry I am, I am resorting to PUNS . In PUBLIC. May the Flying Spaghetti Monster forgive me. )

CORNER CASES

Even in something so simple as numerical ordering, there were some corner cases that are worth noting, especially when other researchers consider peer review.

Only groups that had a number clearly as part of the name were included in the dataset. Groups that clearly had numerical etymology but did not contain what we would recognize as the word we commonly use for the number were not included. This excluded, for instance, Pentatonix, which was a corner case in itself, but if we included root words then we felt it would have to include any other names that include root words, which might not always be easy to determine in every word that it may not be common knowledge that they are numerically based, such as “quarantine”.

But a number may be part of a larger word and still be included as long as the number itself is clearly visible and appears to clearly refer to the number. So, Sixpence None the Richer was included as the number 6 and Oneohtrix Point Never was included as the number 1, but Bone Thugs and Harmony was not included because “Bone” clearly is not meant to refer to the number “one” even though it contains the letter sequence.

At first, ordinal were included, like Third Eye Blind, as its integer number (in this case, 3). But, after considering the earlier decisions about not allowing words with number etymology in them, this seemed inconsistent with that. In an attempt at greater consistency, these were still included in the dataset, but as fractions whenever the word was correct–so Third Eye Blind was included as 1/3 rather than as 3. We expect that this will be a point of contention in peer review and we welcome the debate. (Note that I didn’t do this just so that One Direction would be greater than Third Eye Blind, and how dare you suggest I would undermine my own scientific integrity)

Roman numerals were included, but only when the numeral clearly referred to a number. So, King’s X was excluded even though the X might be considered a 10, because that doesn’t appear to be how it’s used. But Boyz II Men was included, because it is spoken as the number representation, rather than being pronounced “Boyz Eye Eye Men”.

Musical groups with more than one number in their name, like The 5,6,7,8’s, or Seven Mary Three, were treated as a dataset, included once for each number. This means that Seven Mary Three is both greater than and less than The Four Tops.

STATISTICAL RESULTS

Many of the results of this dataset are illustrative of the problems inherent in trying to summarize a dataset with extreme outliers. At the same time, the usual methods for excluding outliers seemed inappropriate for this particular application, because if we are to determine which band is greater than another, but exclude the greatest bands in the dataset, this would undermine. Note that, among other things, this means that the GREATEST band is also the ONLY band that’s above average.

The Greatest (Maximum): Six Billion Monkeys

The Least (Minimum): Minus Five

Average: 28,846,316.88

Standard Deviation: 416,025,135.8

Median: 5 (see data list below to see the bands with value 5)

Mode: 3

Again, note how the average and standard deviation in particular were skewed very high by the high outliers in the dataset, particularly the number of 6,000,000,000, when the majority of the rest of the numbers were less than 100.

HISTOGRAM

While the dataset as a whole is very spread out to make a displayable histogram, since 90% of the datapoints are between the values of 0 and 100, that a histogram of the data within this range could be interesting.

FURTHER STUDY

If this measure were widely adopted, it is possible that it would have the consequence of encouraging musical groups to be more likely to pick names with numbers in them, or to add numbers to existing names. We see this as a positive result in itself, though it could make future results require more peer reviews as bands try to pick the greatest number to improve their placement, which may bias the data.

Although we explicitly avoided ranking individual songs here, the same method has potential for that as well as albums or movie titles or books (i.e. 1984 is greater than Slaughterhouse Five) or really anything else that has titles that might include numbers in them.

(And the most important under the topic of further study is whether you will see this as the olive branch it is meant to be. My research is lesser without you, and I hope you feel the same way about me. You know how to reach me, and I hope you do contact me. Most of all, and you know that I’m not good at the touchy-feely stuff, is that I miss you as a person. You are an incredible human being.)

THE DATA

Here is a list of the complete set of datapoints used in this study. While this is meant to be as complete a list as possible, it is recognized that this is likely not a comprehensive list, as with the Internet publishing where it is it can be hard to define whether a band is a band or not–i.e. what if there is a musical YouTube channel with a numerical username, or what if someone self-publishes a CD on their own website that no one has heard of. Further studies can propose methods of defining what exact musical groups should be included and which ones should not.

Six Billion Monkeys
10,000 Maniacs
Powerman 5000 (Yeah, I know, but numbers don’t lie)
Andre 3000
B2K
Death From Above 1979
The 1975
1349
1000 Homo DJs
999
MC 900 Foot Jesus
702
Galaxie 500
Appollo 440
311
Front 242
Blink 182
112
Zuco 103
The 101ers
100 Flowers
Haircut One Hundred
Ho99o9
98 Degrees
Old 97’s
Revenge 88
Combat 84
M83
Link 80
EA80
Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80
Resistance 77
JJ72
SR-71
69 Eyes
Sham 69
65daysofstatic
Eiffel 65
The Dead 60s
Ol ’55
2:54
The B-52’s
50 Cent
45 Grave
Loaded 44
*44
June of 44
Level 42
Sum 41
UB40
E-40
38
36 Crazyfists
Thirty Seconds To Mars
Apartment 26
Section 25
23 Skidoo
22-Pistepirkko
Catch 22
Twenty One Pilots
Matchbox Twenty
East 17
Heaven 17
16 Horsepower
13 & God
Thirteen Senses
13 Enginers
Thirteen Senses
d12
12 Stones
Finger Eleven
T-11
Ten Seconds Over Tokyo
Ten Years After
10cc
10 Years
Nine Inch Nails
Sound Tribe Sector 9
Ho99o9
The 5,6,7,8’s
DT8
The 5,6,7,8’s
Seven Mary Three
Zero 7
School of Seven Bells
Avenged Sevenfold
School of Seven Bells
L7
7 Seconds
7 Year Bitch
Shed Seven
The 5,6,7,8’s
Six Organs of Admittance
Slow Six
Appollonia 6
Eve 6
Sixpence None the Richer
Three Six Mafia
Sixx:AM
Six Feet Under
Nikki Sixx
Vanity 6
V6
Delta 5
The 5,6,7,8’s
Five
Pizzicato Five
Five Finger Death Punch
Maroon 5
Five Iron Frenzy
Ben Folds Five
The Jackson Five
MC5
Family Force 5
US5
Dave Clark Five
Section 5
B5
Count Five
5 Seconds of Summer
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Jurassic 5
John 5
We Five
The Five Satins
five star
Gang of Four
Four Tet
The Four Seasons
The Four Tops
The Brothers Four
The 4-Skins
The Four Pennies
The Fourmost
4 Non Blondes
4 Jacks and a Jill
Funky 4*1
Unit 4 + 2
The Three O’Clock
Dirty Three
Fun Boy Three
Seven Mary Three
3 Leg Torso
Bike For Three!
Three Mile Pilot
Dirty Three
Mojave 3
Opus III
Alabama 3
Three Dog Night
Three Doors Down
3 Mustaphas 3
3 Mustaphas 3
Three Six Mafia
Three Days Grace
3LW
The Three Degrees
Spacemen 3
Timbuk 3
The Juliana Hatfield Three
3T
Fun Boy Three
The Big Three
3 Colours Red
Secret Chiefs 3
Two and a Half Brains
Boyz II Men
Two Gallants
U2 (Sorry Bono)
Soul II Soul
Two Door Cinema Club
The Other Two
Aztec Two-Step
M2M
Two Man Sound
2 Live Crew
Unit 4 + 2
2 Chainz
Secondhand Serenade
2 Minutos
1-2 Trio
2wo
RJD2
The Other Two
2:54
Faith + 1
Oneohtrix Point Never
Doseone
One Republic
One Night Only
One Direction
KRS-1
The Only Ones
The Lively Ones
Funky 4*1
1-2 Trio
One Dove
Third Eye Blind
Third Ear Band
The Sixths
Eleventh Dream Day
13th Floor Elevators
Zero 7
Remy Zero
Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros
Authority Zero
Zero Boys
The Minus Five

DP FICTION #2: “Virtual Blues” by Lee Budar-Danoff

Gray fog condensed on the slate roofs of City College and the surrounding town, dripping onto oblivious students and Salvatore Vega. Sal hunched against the damp. Drops slid down his ponytail and under the collar of his second-hand leather jacket. A gust of wind from a passing aircar banged Sal’s guitar case against his knee. Fine way to start a Saturday night of busking. His fingers itched to play. Sal ducked through a door.

The first location overflowed with wireheads. No audience to hear him with the wireds jacked in to their virtual realities, hair cut short to show off silver or gold disks gleaming with bling at the back of their necks. Desire clenched Sal’s gut for the ability to be online 24/7. His former wired audiences loved his digital concerts which had combined spontaneous mixes of music with improvised online looping and unlimited effects options. Instant access to a complete history of blues had allowed him to pull inspiration from Muddy Waters, Bonamassa or Paz-Moreno for melody lines and licks. Now he had to rely on old-fashioned methods of making music.

Someone laughed aloud in the otherwise quiet bar. Probably the old joke about real beer tasting better than virtual crap. The college kids spurned conversation in favor of virtual chat, which allowed them to drink without interruption. If he played, they’d complain that his live-only music interfered with their internal playlists. He sighed, rubbed the scarred skin hidden by his long hair, and moved on.

At the Holo-Moon Pub, the barman waved. “You got maybe an hour,” he said, skinny finger pointing to a corner. No stage, but a mic and an ancient Peavey amp sat ready. Sal tuned his vintage Martin and strummed a few chords to calm his gig nerves. He buried himself in his blues. When a large group of wireds arrived, Sal packed up and left, accepting the fifty the barman offered with a grateful nod.

Bouncers turned Sal away at the next few bars already jammed with wireheads.  Each was eerie with silence unless a beer bottle was opened or glasses clinked under the draft taps. But Sensation Cafe’s owner had an unwired daughter who worked weekends; she smiled and handed Sal a free brew. “Take a spot under the outer awning.”

Wireheads passed by. Some paused near Sal, but their eyes twitched, the tell-tale indication of online activity. At best he provided background music while they completed their research papers or engaged in virtual chemistry labs. A few others, unwired like Sal, stopped to listen and tossed the odd bill into his open case. One older man dropped a folded twenty. Deep creases surrounded his eyes.

Gracias,” Sal said between lyrics.

By midnight Sal counted his take and blew out a breath. He’d collected enough to pay the hostel for another week and then some. Enough to live on, with a little left for savings and another shot at being wired. The research hospital connected to the college was testing experimental anti-rejection drugs. While he qualified for the drugs, he still had to foot the bill for the wiring itself.

As he packed his guitar a woman walked up to him. Green eyes sparkled at Sal. She had cropped pink hair. No one with short hair ever displayed interest in Sal.

“You sound so good, Satan himself must have tuned your guitar.” Her tone, full and rich, sounded like that of a trained singer.

He unclipped an old LED tuner from his headstock. “I wish,” he said. If El Diablo showed up and offered surgery for his soul, he might take the deal.

“Want to get paid to play for an appreciative audience?”

, definitely.” He was down to his last spare B-string. The cost of new titanium alloy strings would be easier to bear with income from a bonus performance. The blues might ease his loss, but real-world needs called for cash. “I’m Sal.”

“Melusine.”

Sal followed her past his usual haunts and down damp side streets. She stopped in front of a building Sal hadn’t noticed before, a Victorian with delicate scrollwork, bay windows, and turrets. The windows were blacked out and no sign hung by the door. If this was a bar it must do lousy business. So much for new strings.

The oak door swung inward. A stocky woman with curly blond hair piled on top of her head stepped out and hugged Melusine.

“You found him?”

Melusine grinned. “Sal, meet Stella Johnson, owner of Unplugged.”

Stella looked him over. “Turn around.”

Stella probed the scar under his ponytail. He flinched.

“You’ll want to cut your hair or change the style. No one on staff hides their neck.”

“Wait,” Sal said, “I’m not your employee. Melusine offered me a paying gig.” He raised his guitar case.

Stella said, “Don’t freak. The gig’s yours. If it goes well, we’re hiring.” She pushed the door wide and beckoned Sal and Melusine inside.

Hiring?

The well-lit interior of Unplugged bore little resemblance to a bar. The mahogany floor was too clean. A fresh citrus scent permeated the air. Canned music played in the background. A variety of people, unwired and wired, sat at cozy tables talking and laughing. In the back rose a grand double staircase. Cubicles with hands-on net access equipment filled the left third of the room.

A teenage girl, neon-green bob bouncing, brought water to Sal and the others.

“What is this place?” Sal clutched the bottle, uneasy.

“Unplugged is a counseling center for unwireds,” Stella said.

“Many retreat from life,” Melusine said. “Therapy is the first step toward recovery. Look.”

A white-coated counselor escorted a young woman down the stairs. The woman clutched a braid to her chest. Sal watched her tuck newly-cut hair behind an ear. Tears stained her cheeks, but her eyes were filled with steel determination. She wiped her face and joined a table where everyone offered a smile or a hug.

Sal frowned, confused. This place, so bright and positive, was nothing like the clinic in Mexico. The doctors and psychologists there couldn’t help him. He used the blues to deal with his emotions and did his best to get along without breaking down. Sal gulped down his water. He should leave.

Before he could get out, Stella pointed to her own neck and asked, “How long since you lost your connection with the common mind of humanity?”

The last thing Sal wanted to do was talk about it. His connection had functioned for seventeen months before the anti-rejection drugs failed. “Five years,” he said, compelled to honesty by Stella’s loss, his words clipped, rude.

“I sense your pain, your frustration. But you aren’t alone.” Stella stared at the people around her. “We all struggle, marginalized, in a society that lives online.”

“Balance,” Melusine said, “is what we need. Between 24/7 access to the net, and interaction with the real world. Stella helped me and can help you too.”

“You’re wired,” said Sal. “Wired life is real, necessary to get along.”

“Sure,” she said, tapping the gold at the back of her neck. “But once I had it, I never disconnected.” She bit her lip and blushed. “I ignored people unless we interacted online, even if we were in the same room. After my boyfriend broke up with me, I almost got rid of my wiring.”

Voluntarily give up being wired? “That’s loco, chica. Not everyone has that problem.”

“Most of us wish wiring our brains had worked, or wish it hadn’t stopped working. But we still have online access.” Stella pointed to the cubicles, then to the phone in a client’s hand. “We have to concentrate on the positive. Your music can make a difference.”

“You don’t understand,” said Sal.  “I don’t need grief counseling. I want to be wired.” He shoved his water bottle at Stella and headed for the door. He’d find a different job.

Melusine grabbed his hand and stopped him. Her touch, so warm, so soft, held Sal frozen in place. When she drew him to a platform with a stool, he didn’t resist.

“Play, Sal.”

He could rationalize his decision, tell himself he was only changing his mind because they’d offered to pay him. No one had even told him how much. But that wasn’t it. He wanted to play for her.

Sal set his case down. “What should I sing?”

Melusine patted his cheek. “Anything. Improvise. You’re the blues player.”

He sat in front of the clients and employees of Unplugged. With the warm wood of his Martin snug against his body, he played around a scale for inspiration. The A minor blues flowed from Sal to his audience, throbbing syncopation emphasizing gritty lyrics:

“My guitar sings the blues, of virtuality
Yeah she cries the blues of virtuality
You’ll miss her when she’s gone, lost reality.”

Chairs creaked as people shifted to face him. Conversations stopped. Sal opened up, allowing every minor chord to expose his failure, the anger and denial his audience shared over the lack of connection. Every person was riveted to his performance, their eyes clear and focused. So many people absorbed in his song. Like they wanted something. Nerves gave way to an endorphin rush.

Melusine walked behind him and skimmed her fingertips along his neck. Despite the instinct to pull away, conscious of his scar, a ripple of pleasure flowed across his skin. Sal’s fingers slipped. He played a dominant seventh, then shifted into his song’s relative major key. The brighter notes changed his melody, major chords evoking images of what the unwireds gained: the slow caress of a raindrop, the lush sweetness of a ripe strawberry, or the mesmerizing sound of a live guitar performance.

When Sal shifted to his minor blues progression, Melusine joined in, singing harmony.

“My love sings the blues, of virtuality,
But there’s more to life, than virtuality,
Hold me in your arms, flesh reality.”

The audience tapped their toes and rocked to the beat, in sync with Sal, Melusine, and each other. Sal absorbed their energy and gave it back, sweat beading his forehead, notes ringing out.

This was different from playing in the bars or on the street, earning the casual attention of those few who could hear him. Back when he could combine virtual tracks with a live performance in the privacy of his own studio, his attention was split between playing and programming. His rapport with those tuned in to his shows was digital, not visceral. But nothing came between Sal and this audience. The music created a bond intense as a deep kiss.

After the last note faded, the audience stood to clap, many with glistening eyes.

“You’re better now than you ever were online,” said Melusine.

“You remember my concerts?” Sal hadn’t known the identities behind the majority of avatars that applauded in cyberspace.

Her soft laugh answered. “How do you think I chose you for Unplugged? When you were wired, you borrowed the form of the music. Now, the blues are in your blood, deep, personal. Share your pain. Help us. Help yourself.”

“I don’t know if this changes anything,” he said. “About the surgery.”

“I know,” she whispered, her lips brushing his ear. “But you’re already changing things.”

Sal shivered at her touch, at the applause. On the edge of the crowd, Stella gave him a thumbs up. The steady gig was his; all he had to do was make a choice. His ponytail lay heavy against his scar. Sal plucked opening notes and everyone quieted, intent on him. Ironic, that playing here could pay his way out of needing the services they’d insist on offering him.

The tear-stained woman leaned forward, smiling, braid no longer clutched in her hand. She needed proof that unwired life wasn’t just worth living, but offered moments like this, real with sorrow and bliss. Sal nodded to her, to Melusine, and to Stella. The intense sensation of this performance outshone anything in his past. He wanted this.

Sal played on.


© 2015 by Lee Budar-Danoff

Author’s Note: At the current rate of technological progress, it isn’t hard to believe one day we’ll be able to directly access the Internet through wireless brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Yet, as with organ transplants, there is no guarantee that every person who wants a BCI will be able to use one without side effects, or even experience rejection. How will people react and cope with rejection, isolated as a have-not among the haves? As a guitar player, I already use online resources for my music. What would happen to a musician who experiences and then loses the ability to create the music he hears in his head?

 

LeeHeadshotLee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland.

 

 

 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to read DP Fiction #1: “Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak or to visit our Support Page.