THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
The Exemplar of Contemplation
Dear Reader, two whitsuns orbit the planet Uranus; one is called Puck, the other, Bottom. They burn just above the swirling clouds of that giant planet, and with the help of the planet’s soft green light they illuminate all that dark corner of the solar system. Basking in the green glow of this trio are a host of worlds—little worlds, to be sure, worlds no bigger (and many smaller) than the asteroid Vesta—but worlds, nevertheless, each of them encased in a clear sphere of air like little villages in glass paperweights, and each of them a culture and society unto itself. These worlds orbit in ellipses just outside the narrow white bands of Uranus’s rings; you might say that the band of worlds forms a new ring in the planet’s old girdle: the first dozen made of ice chunks held in smooth planes, the newest made of an irregular string of soap bubbles, filled with life. And what holds all these various worlds together, what is their lingua franca? Music.
Our story, then, has its beginning—one of its beginnings—on one of these worlds, the one called Holland. Holland is a somewhat irregular moonlet, verdant in its lowlands, bare and moorish on its hilltops, which the locals call tors. And in a heather-floored dell, near a pebble-bottomed stream, under one of the tallest of these tors, there stands a lone cottage, sheltered by a single yew tree. Over this cottage, in the spring of the year 3229, a clear dawn pulsed with a pure light; a shaft of this dawn, a Puckish gleam, peered in the cottage window, and inside Dent Ios awoke.
Dent came to consciousness still entangled in a dream, and so he sat up groggy and apprehensive. He had been dreaming that Holland had caught fire, and that it was his job to warn all his neighbors. He had run down the path with a big club in his hands, shouting like Paul Revere and tripping over every stone and root; pounding on doors until they opened and his final blows struck the inhabitants; running from the angry victims, and calling out to houses that they passed as they ran; grabbing canisters to quench small patches of the blaze, and finding he had picked up gasoline; until at last he was felled by a low blow from his own club, so that he sprawled panting in the dust, surrounded by fire.
Cursing the random neuronal firing that produced such visions, Dent climbed out of bed and doused his head under the kitchen tap. Still on the stove top was a big black pan, caked with a layer of hardened bacon grease. Dent wrinkled his nose. It was cool; he stepped into pants, and pulled a thick blouse over his head. Returning from his outhouse, he heard music from the path leading up the dell to his house. Someone was coming. He hurried inside to clean up a bit.
His cottage was a mess. Dirty dishes were stacked on every surface of the kitchen nook, discarded clothing covered the floor, and books and holo cubes were scattered everywhere. Dent was one of those on Holland who affected the pastoral style of life popular there, although a close look at his home, crowded as it was with books, musical instruments, sheet music, prints, holo cubes, and computer consoles, revealed his many refined (some on Holland would say over-refined) interests. Though his cottage was nominally a farm, no sign of farming marked its interior—and few signs of farming marked its exterior, if the truth were told. Unlike most of his neighbors, Dent hiked to the local village and bought most of his food, and his neglected tomato patch struggled under an onslaught of weeds. Now he stumbled hastily around his unmade bed, and despaired of ordering the place in time to greet his visitors properly. He resolved to meet them in the yard.
Over the shadowed hills to the east Puck gleamed from the very center of Uranus, so that the planet seemed an immense opal around the diamond chip of the whitsun. This added to the yellow dawn a touch of green that made the dewy heather glow. From the last set of switchbacks on the trail up the dell came the sound of voices. Dent took his long moustaches between soft delicate fingers, and pulled on them desperately: uninvited guests—and in the morning! A crisis!
Three figures appeared over the steepest part of the trail, and Dent relaxed. Approaching were three of his good friends: June Winthrop, Irdar Komin, and Andrew Allendale. June was playing a piano bar, and Irdar and Andrew sang with her. When they saw Dent standing in his yard they waved. “Hill dweller!” June sang. “Three wise ones approach, bearing news!” And the two men flanking her sang peals of harmonized laughter.
Dent led them to the benches under the yew tree, and rubbed dew into the planking. “What brings you here so early? You must have left the village before sunrise.”
“Well,” June said, “you missed last night’s meeting!” And Andrew and Irdar laughed. All four of them were part of the collective that published Thistledown, a monthly journal of music criticism and commentary that was considered the best in the Uranus system; the collective met at irregular intervals in the village nestling in the valley below Dent’s little dell.
“I’m sorry,” Dent said, at a loss. “One of my tapirs was calving.”
June laughed sardonically. “I hope you had some assistance! I was with Dent the last time one of his ewes birthed,” she told the others, “and he had a vet come and do everything, while he hopped about white as a sheet!”
“I suppose your many past and future marriages make you a qualified midwife,” Dent said, to the groans of his friends. “Anyway, I’m sorry about the meeting. I hope I didn’t miss anything important?”
And his three friends burst into gales of laughter! Annoyed, Dent said, “Please! What happened?”
June played the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth: Fate knocking at the door. “After a long discussion it was decided that Thistledown should have a correspondent covering the Grand Tour of Holywelkin’s Orchestra.”
“Oh my,” Dent said distastefully. “I should have thought it beneath us.…” Then he saw the looks on his friends’ faces, and came to a halt. “Wait a minute—you don’t mean—” He stood up. “You don’t mean you want me—”
June nodded. “We decided unanimously that you would do the best job.”
“No!” Dent cried. He circled the yew in agitation, said simply, “I won’t do it.”
“You must!” said Andrew cheerfully. “It’s just like the presidency—whoever isn’t at the meeting gets stuck with it.”
“But this is far worse,” Dent said. “No, no. It won’t do. I simply couldn’t.” He appealed to June, who currently served as the collective’s president. “That Orchestra is nothing but a toy, really, a bauble used to take money away from the ignorant. Why should we cover any sort of tour made with such a thing?”
“There’s a new Master of the Orchestra,” Irdar said. “Haven’t you followed his work?”
“As I say, I have no interest whatsoever in Holywelkin’s Orchestra.”
“But this Wright is something different. He has been the Master for five years now, and in all that time he hasn’t made a single public performance.”
“Very wise of him, I’m sure.”
“He has only published compositions—etudes, he calls them.”
June said, “You reviewed one of them yourself, Dent. I looked it up last night. One of Wright’s etudes was published in the Lowell Piano Guild journal, and you praised it highly. Original and strange, you called it.”
“Ah,” said Dent, remembering the piece. “That was Wright? How unfortunate that he is yoked to such a monstrous instrument.”
“But he may change the instrument,” Andrew said.
“No,” Dent said, “the Institute that owns it will make sure that nothing but light classics are played on it. That’s its business. The Master is just the lackey of the board of directors—”
“Not true,” June objected. “The Masters are responsible for the repertory. It’s just that Yablonski and his predecessor played what the board of directors suggested. But that may change as well. I’ve heard rumors of friction between Wright and the board, and our Lowell correspondent tells me that Wright was pressured into making this Grand Tour, and that he agreed to only when promised complete artistic control.”
“Irrelevant, with that thing,” Dent said contemptuously. “What is it after all, some sort of player piano? An orchestrionetta, didn’t they call them in Europe? It’s preposterous.”
June sighed. “You’re not being fair. Like it or not, Holywelkin’s Orchestra is one of the most famous musical…phenomena in all the solar system—in all of history, for that matter. These Grand Tours are one of the few times that music from the outer worlds is performed for the inner planets, so during them modern music is revealed to cultures that are centuries behind, musically. And the results are always interesting. Thistledown is the best journal of modern music, and so it follows we must cover this tour.”
“And you’re the best man for the job,” Andrew exclaimed.
“Nonsense,” Dent replied angrily. “My tapir calves, and I am cast across the solar system.”
“But that should be an attraction for you,” June said. “Have you visited the inner planets?”
“No. And I don’t want to.”
“Have you ever visited Pluto?” Irdar asked.
June shook her head. “Where have you traveled?”
Dent tucked his chin down defensively. “I’ve been to Titania and Oberon—”
But he was interrupted by his friends’ laughter. “How old are you?” June inquired.
“I am twenty-six.”
“Twenty-six, and already an old homebody! Dent. Don’t be silly. The chance to travel downsystem doesn’t come often.”
“But I like it here.”
“You’re the same age as Johannes Wright,” Andrew said. “That should make it especially interesting for you.”
“At least leaving Holland would get me away from your smirk,” Dent said, irritated. “What if they had asked you to leave your home for months and months?”
“Come now,” June said. “The collective has decided, and we know you are a true Thistledowner, willing to abide by the will of the majority. Go get yourself an instrument, and we’ll play some music. You’ll get used to the idea, and then you’ll be excited by it.”
“I will not,” Dent said stiffly, and walked up to his cottage to collect himself. Abstractedly he picked up a voicebox, and returned to the yew tree. Puck’s light bounced from the lumpy, dewy grass, giving his untended lawn a gray sheen. A flock of New Guinea lories descended on the yew and landed in it, transforming the tree into a statue filled with multi-colored ornaments. Dent looked around his high little valley and groaned.
Sullenly he sat on one of the benches and tuned up with the others. Andrew and Irdar both had flutes, and they blew up and down the C scale merrily. June played a set of seed chords on the piano bar, and they began to improvise a quartet. For all of them music was a language as subtle and expressive as any collection of words, and as they played within the simple sonata form Dent’s three friends attempted to create a mood of lightness, of harmony, encouragement and enthusiasm. But as everyone knows, harmony is a matter of consensus; one dissenter, and all is discord. And Dent had the instrumental advantage as well. Over the pleasant clear tones of the piano bar and the two flutes, he cast a hoarse, high voice, keening “noooooo, oh noooooo, nooooo, nooooooooooooo,” until the others were laughing too hard to continue.
“We’ll try again later,” June said. “Now Dent, the Grand Tour begins in Lowell during the Outer Worlds May Festival, which is only a month away. You should be off as soon as possible—by tomorrow, in fact. So you’d better start packing. We’ll come by later this afternoon with a cart, and help you carry your bags over to the spaceport. And cheer up! I’ve been downsystem myself, and I know it will be good for you.” Irdar and Andrew added their mocking congratulations, and the three of them departed.
Muttering to himself Dent re-entered his cottage, which had suddenly taken on an indescribable charm, and for a while he just stood in it, stunned. Then he went to the sink and scraped bacon grease from his pan. The smell of it filled his nostrils; out his east window, on the green hillside across the creek, a stand of eucalyptus trees blinked olive and rust and gold. Above them the sky was the color named Holland blue. His tapirs were hooting for feed—he would have to get the collective to care for them—
“Damn!” he said, and smacked the pan on the stove, clang!
the third millennium: a symphony
First movement: Allegro. Colonists landed on Mars in 2052. Most of them came from America and the Soviet Union, and the tension generated by this fusion of the terran empires helped give the colony its driving energy, its ceaseless conflicts, its utopian spirit. The colonists found enough water to make Mars an independent world, and that became the colony’s ultimate goal. The terraforming engineers were given tasks that would take generations to accomplish, and the rest of Martian society structured itself to do what was necessary to forward the great project. No colony in history ever exhibited such initiative; it was a society with a dream.
Ritard: moderato. In 2175 the first permanent settlement was built on and under the ice of Europa. Again the colonists went at the task of making a home with a will; but they had less light, less gravity, and fewer resources of every kind, including the spiritual. The colonies on Europa, Callisto, Ganymede and Io never lost the character of outposts, habitats on the edge of the possible. This character was even more pronounced in the colonies of the Saturnian system. A settlement was established on Iapetus in 2220, and the other moons were soon colonized as well. But these colonies resembled grounded spaceships, and their cultures grew strange. Further expansion to the outer planets seemed a fruitless enterprise; the Jovian and Saturnian colonies turned inward, and music, the most abstract of the arts, became the center of their lives.
Second movement: Adagissimo. Meanwhile, Earth entered a new dark age of upheaval and disaster, famine and conflict. This immense crisis threatened all humanity, as the crushing overpopulation of the home world stressed the resources of the entire solar system. Even with the cooperative efforts of all the nations it was impossible to avoid devastating famines. All the energy of humanity had to be devoted to saving Earth’s billions. This was no simple project, and it required centuries of grim retrenchment. The world economic system had to be restructured to more closely resemble a closed ecology; this entailed severe hardships for all. And so the race hunkered down for survival, and the space colonies anxiously watched the dark age plod on. Only Mars, continually working at its great project, made any significant progress.
Third movement: Intermezzo agitato. All during this long dark age, however, science advanced, particularly on Mercury. There the physicists of the rolling city of Terminator provided an immense influx of energy to Earth and Mars, and in the orbit of Mercury subatomic studies were advancing toward the construction of the Great Synchrotron. The Synchrotron and the Orbital Gevatron yielded uncanny results which left the physicists in a confused, excited ferment of theory.…
Fourth movement: Accelerando. Arthur Holywelkin wrote his Ten Forms of Change, a grand unified theory that proved to be tremendously powerful. Physicists took his work and applied it to the unprecedented amounts of energy available just above the coronal flare zone of the sun. And they found that with their new understanding they could concentrate and transfer that energy from one point to another. And they could contract it to singularities that, within the confines of a spherical discontinuity, pulled inward with gravitational force beyond their apparent mass. Discontinuity physics was the key; the door to the solar system was unlocked. One gee colonies illuminated by projected flares of the sun were established on hundreds of moons and asteroids, and the organic world bloomed everywhere. Millions of people left Earth and Mars for the new worlds, and the age known as the Accelerando began.
Come then, Reader, whose spirit I love for embarking on this voyage, and follow Dent Ios across the vacuum to Pluto, the ninth planet. The plane of the planets is divided into three hundred and sixty degrees, with 0 degrees lying in the direction of Pisces. In the spring of 3229, Uranus is at 188 degrees, Pluto at 225. (Neptune and its great satellite Triton are across the system at 110 degrees, and therefore will not be visited by this Grand Tour.) So we have a voyage of over twelve astronomical units to make, in less than a month: accelerate, dear Reader! Dent Ios travels on the spaceliner Pauline; we trail behind, pure spirits in the impure vacuum.
As we approach Pluto we must dodge hundreds of ships like the Pauline, for the Outer Worlds May Festival has begun, and as the outer planets (except for Neptune), and therefore many of the outer terras, are in the same quadrant this year, there are many celebrants attending. Spaceships orbit the planet in broad strings, following the moon Charon; shuttle craft descend to the black crater-shocked surface of Pluto, and then rise again. The planet seems at first to display only its bleak, primordial surface, but there against the black horizon, see a greenish hemisphere of light. There a Holywelkin sphere extends half above, half below the surface; and there under the upper half of the invisible discontinuity is air, light, warmth, and all the bustle of human existence; a city under a clear dome, there on the dead surface of Pluto. Further inspection reveals a number of these green bulbs of life, some set on high plateaus, some set in craters so that crater walls serve as a low “foundation” for their bubble domes, others set in rift valleys, in strings of hemispheres so that short rivers can run. The largest of these cities, tucked under a set of hemispheres on the Tartarus Planitia, is Lowell, the home of the festival. Down there, when we cross the discontinuity, we will find a million celebrants, a thousand stages; we will find the Holywelkin Institute of Music, and Holywelkin’s Orchestra, and the Orchestra’s board of directors and its chairman Ernst Ekern, and the road crew for the Orchestra’s Grand Tour, and Johannes Wright; and, although currently he is delayed and orbiting outside Charon, we will soon find Dent Ios. Let us descend and break into that soap bubble of a world.
the exemplar of action
Lowell, the largest city on Pluto, is a rough and scattered place, once described as “five hundred concrete blocks dropped on a cow pasture.” On the roof of Lowell’s power plant—the tallest building in the city—the road crew for the Grand Tour scrambled to ready the Orchestra for its first concert. Margaret Nevis, crew manager, discussed the city’s acoustic problems with Delia Rosario, her sound chief; each city’s combination of overlapping hemispheres, like a multi-domed cathedral, had resonances all its own, and the amplifiers had to be adjusted accordingly.
Margaret brushed long black hair out of her eyes, and wiped the sweat from her brow onto her workpants. She was a tall woman, broad-shouldered and strong. When a bank of Collidoscope lights beside her burst on, bathing the Orchestra in its disorienting patchwork of colors, annihilating distances, she shouted, “Turn that off!” She originated from Saturn’s moon Iapetus, where Russian is the primary language, and her English was idiomatic but harshly accented. “How are we supposed to see?”
“But Margaret,” a voice whined peevishly. It was Anton Vaccero, her new lighting chief. In the light his red hair looked like a crown of flame. “How will I know what the show will look like?”
“You’d better know already,” Margaret said. “Now turn those off. Other people have work to do.” She walked over to the thin plastic partitions that had been set up around the perimeter of the roof to hide the Orchestra from the crowd below. Anton followed her, and pointed between two panels. There one segment of Lowell pulsed under banks of lazed light, packed light, bent light, broken light…Margaret disliked the effect. “It hurts the eyes,” she said.
“You’d better get used to it.”
“I will never get used to it. Look at all those people.” The city below shifted and heaved like a honeycomb under bees: people everywhere. Each rooftop patio was packed, and the grassy open land between the clumps of buildings was mobbed.
“Have you been to the May festival before?” Anton asked.
“Yes. I was the manager for Yablonski’s last tour. But I liked it no better then.”
“You don’t have crowds like this on Iapetus?”
“I suppose. But they are different. You Plutonians are strange edgefolk. Even your cities show this. On the terras you can forget where you are—all is green, the sky is blue—they are like little Earths. Iapetus is different, but even there great continents of life have been created. Here, every town is like an oasis, overlooking some black abyss.”
“It’s deliberate,” Anton said. “We do it to remind ourselves where we really are.”
Margaret gestured out at the city’s edge, where the hemisphere of air and light ended abruptly and the crater-ringed surface of Tartarus began. “And that is strange.”
The Planck Double Reed squawked loudly. “There’s something wrong with that amp,” Margaret said.
“Or with the Orchestra.”
“No—there’s seldom a problem with the Orchestra itself, I’ve found.” Margaret called for Delia, fitting her shouts in between squawks. “Delia!” EhhnnnnnRAHN!—“Delia!”
Then there was a flurry at the elevator door, and several people appeared there. Anton stepped back against the panel. Margaret walked over to greet Karnasingh Godavari, her security chief. He smiled at her briefly, then looked about the roof, frowning slightly at the dark and the bustle. He was as tall as Margaret, black-haired and dark-skinned. As his people spread out to search the roof the two of them conferred. “How does it look?” Margaret said.
Karna shook his head nervously and didn’t reply. Margaret had hired him as security chief for her last four tours, and she knew that his silence meant he was at work. He gestured at the elevator.
Two of his employees emerged, flanking a short, slight man. A certain hush fell over the workers, so that the din from the city below was more evident. There was a smattering of applause, and Margaret said loudly, “Get to work.” Johannes Wright did not appear to notice either the applause or her command. He headed straight for the Orchestra, tilted his head back to peer into it. Margaret went to his side and he looked up at her.
“Hello, Margaret. Will we be ready on time?”
“We’re ready now, almost. But Delia is having trouble with the Double Reed’s amp. Maybe you could help her.”
He nodded. The photoptic cells that had replaced his eyes glinted, reflecting Anton’s enprism lights. They did a good job with the cells, Margaret thought, they looked like real eyes; still, when you are looking into the face of a man with two artificial eyes, you know it.
Delia appeared and Wright led her into the Orchestra. Around Margaret people were arguing over electrical connections, pounding with hammers, firing away with staple guns. She wiped sweat from her forehead and grinned, enjoying the work. She returned to Karna’s side.
“How did he seem to you?” she asked.
Karna shrugged. “Quiet. I don’t know what that means. Do you know him well?”
“No. I met him when I managed Yablonski’s last tour, but only briefly. As apprentice he didn’t come along.”
“Ah.” Karna was distracted. “Listen, Margaret.” He guided her to a corner of the roof. Frowning, he said, “My people have heard things down on the street that I don’t like. Someone said that Wright will be killed on this tour.”
“I know. It’s bad news. It makes me nervous.”
“But it’s absurd!”
“Yes. It may just be part of the festival craziness—nothing to it. But Marie-Jeanne was on the street when a man came up to her and said, ‘The Greys are going to kill the Master this time.’ ”
The Double Reed honked mournfully, like a foghorn. “The Greys,” Margaret said. She knew little of them; they were one of the more obscure religions, and tended, she thought, to congregate downsystem. “But how would anybody but a Grey know about it?”
Karna shrugged. “True.”
“And someone just said this out of the vacuum to Marie-Jeanne?”
“It was probably just nonsense. But …”
“We’ll have to keep an eye out,” Margaret said.
“Yes.” Karna peered anxiously up into the glass arms of the Orchestra, which under the lights were an autumn blaze of gold and red, brown and silver.
Ernst Ekern stood on the roof of the Holywelkin Institute, apart from the small group of acquaintances who had joined him for the concert. Some of his guests were members of the Orchestra’s board of directors; others were fellows of his secret order, and they mingled with the unknowing board members with ease, as if to mock Ekern with the incongruity. He ignored them and peered out over the commons below. The banks of light set on certain public rooftops around the city were conspiring to make the rooftops appear islands in a wave-filled sea of light, a rainbow ocean. The heads of the people rippled like sea-cabbage under a surging tide. All manner of bizarre and pathetic hopes were represented in those drowned heads below. And on the rooftop islands in that sea of madness stood concert parties, chattering in their gardens—the aristocracy, waiting for his Orchestra to be revealed. Between the two crowds patterns of relationship swirled; shouts exchanged could be jovial or insulting. In his group the tangled pattern of relationship shifted continuously as fellows of his order circled the roof and engaged board members in conversation. The Magus herself explained to the board’s senior vice president the nature of her friendship with Ekern; all a complex lie. And Atargatis stood alone in the corner by a lemon tree, his bright eyes observing all. Diana might be the Magus, but it was Atargatis whom Ekern respected (and therefore feared)—Atargatis of the bright looks and the subtle mind.
But, he thought, it was Ekern who controlled all the patterns that swirled around him: the concert and the crowd, the garden party and his fellows. He stared across the town through disorienting light to the top of the power plant. There an octet of panels lowered like a blossom unfolding, and standing like the complex pistil of the flower was Holywelkin’s Orchestra. It began very slowly to rotate, and the crowd roared. Interwoven with the roar was the beginning of the music, an imitation of the crowd’s shouting that rose out of it into song. Chromatic clickings crossed and crossed again, and Ekern’s company stopped talking. Many of them fell into the half trance necessary to follow the intricacies of the typically thick Plutonian musical style, a polymelodic mesh of sound in which one had to seek for the patterns in a weave as dense as chaos.… Almost automatically Ekern began to fall into this listening trance, although he did not want to; he wanted to observe his party and the whole city, to see the effect of the music on them, and so he struggled back up from the impact of the music’s beginning as from a sudden immersion under water. Clear of it now, and with that freedom came the usual surge of elation, at the feeling of control; for he controlled not only his own mind, but also that omphalos of the city that everyone else now helplessly attended: he was the true Master of the Orchestra. And yet—the music, there—and there—and there—the phrases were like premonitions in sound, they were the forms of premonitions without the content, and Ekern shuddered as his memory was brushed ever so lightly by images of the end of the concert—of concerts to come.… He shook off these vague impressions and regained control by forcing the music into a single thing, a lump of inchoate sound irrevocably outside him. There: success. His power was greater than Wright’s—and yet listen to that!—a sudden wash of music over him; he shook himself free of it again. Emotions roiled in him, forming a wild confluence. He was in control, the power to conduct, to point at the crowd and say move now, shout now, cry now was his, his and no one else’s. (And yet—) He determined all the conditions that had created this music, and the puppet in the machine was only playing what he, Ekern, maneuvered him to. (A great falling screech from the Planck Reed) but to think of Wright instantly brought to Ekern’s flailing imagination the image of Wright in the Orchestra, at that moment, playing before all: and the terror of performance raced through his blood. In this panic Atargatis’s steady eye pierced him most acutely. The great live oak tree spun, throwing out running clicking tension, strands of melody melting away the moment his ear acknowledged them … keeping a stoic front for Atargatis helped him to resist this assault, as it tended to distract him entirely. Must show nothing, must display complete control … not an easy thing to do in this tempest of sound. That Wright was a bad one, all right. Ekern had opposed him all down the line, his original investiture, the decision to keep him after he destroyed his eyes, the suicidal fool—and since then.… But there! Down in the streets the masses were battling! A tall figure in a green coat darted through the crowd like a bottom fish, leaving swirls of anger, shouts that fit the music’s powerful pulse. All sound was stripped away to the wail of the godzilla, the low ominous canon of basses and triple basses. His guests stood like statues of Lot’s wife, all but Atargatis, who like Ekern himself now paced the garden in a nervous, undirected walk. Bass waves flirted with the subsonic, twenty hertz oscillating in the stomach, and all of Ekern’s fierce resistance disappeared: this music was terror. Each new basal distortion rent the air, struck at the swirling crowd, brought Ekern to such peaks of fear and despair that he had to pace about to counter them, thinking it’s only music, only sound. But there … “No!” he cried out, and immediately felt humiliated. But no one could hear him. Then he saw that while the directors of the Institute still stood frozen at attention, all the members of his order were free of the music, it was just noise to them now, they were from downsystem and didn’t understand; and as he saw this his own understanding fell away as well, the sounds became only an unnatural rapid tumbling of bass tones. The storm-tossed crowd shrieked and screamed, the fellows of the order watched him and he met their eyes, he nodded, feeling his control return in an exhilarating rush, he pointed up at the Orchestra, saying against the din, Yes, yes, this is the start of it. This is the start of my performance in the art without a stage. The opening act. The others attempted no response; there was none to make. Ekern’s conception was gigantic, his execution flawless. Groups in the mass below jumped up and down rhythmically. Fists pummelled bodies frozen in the strobe of broken light. All on their own Ekern’s fists clenched as well, and he longed to leap into the crowd and flail away, oh, this Johannes Wright was evil! His music was dangerous—destructive—worthy of destruction. It was fitting to Ekern’s higher art, the art that would contain it; it made a stunning opening burst to the play that his order was here to witness. How the Magus rolled her eyes! How the others shivered, plugged their ears, glanced in awe toward Ekern! Great storm waves pulsed in the crowd below, the noise was a force battering at all, it was an ambient fluid they swam in, Atargatis spoke to Ekern and Ekern saw only the ironic mouth, moving. One could shriek like the damned in this assault and it would mean nothing to the man beside you. Ekern ignored Atargatis’s disturbing mouth, he said, “I will end you. I will finish you,” as if thinking to himself. Turning his back on all the rooftop audience he burst into strained laughter. The rainbow ocean made its tidal surge, the lights turned everywhere upward, lazing, splitting, prisming, chroming the air; the coda of Wright’s formless roar echoed from the discontinuity of the spheres. Ekern’s senses were overwhelmed, he burned in a blaze of triumph; he held onto the roof patio railing for support, feeling like Iago on the battlements of Cyprus.
Unfortunately for Dent Ios, there was a mistake in the scheduling of the shuttle flight from the transCharon orbits to Lowell, and a subsequent delay of an hour or two. When the shuttle came to a halt Dent ran down the tunnel to Lowell’s terminal and hurried to a small festival information booth.
“When will Holywelkin’s Orchestra perform?” he asked.
The guide in the booth looked surprised. “It’s just over, friend. You’re late.”
“Ended half an hour ago.”
Dent struck his head with the palm of his hand. “Late! Late! Damn this tour!” Dent cursed June and his collective, his spaceliner and the shuttle crews, Johannes Wright and his stupid Orchestra: “Exiled to Pluto to witness this spectacle, and then kept from seeing it! And the next concert of the Grand Tour is right back home on Titania.” It was too much.
Still seething, Dent walked down a corridor to the spaceport’s tall entrance, where it opened out onto a broad boulevard of some sort. Altered light of all kind pulsed over the city, making it a jumble of color. And it was very noisy. “Oh my,” Dent said. “Impossible. I’m not going out there.” He returned to the information booth. “When does the next shuttle leave for the transCharon orbits?”
The guide consulted a schedule. “At about six tomorrow morning, sir. That’s about eight hours from now.”
“Yes. The last one just left, so it’ll be a while before the next one goes.”
“Of course.” Dent stormed off to a waiting room adjacent to the corridor. “I will wait here,” he declared to the empty room. “I’ll be damned if I go out into that chaos when the whole reason for being here is gone.” And he plumped down in a thickly upholstered chair.
Nearly an hour passed. From outside came faint shouts and howls of revelry; bent light bounced around the corners and bathed the chamber from time to time in its ghastly blue glow; and the seconds on the wall clock made their slow plod round to sixty, again and again. Dent had nothing to read, and his nails were already tended to. Boredom crept up on him. And from outside came brief snatches of music, conflicting strains from what he assumed were competing concerts. Slowly but surely Dent’s curiosity overcame his fastidiousness; besides, if he toured the streets after Wright’s concert, he could reproach his collective with whatever meager news he could gather.
So he got up and went outside. The air was warm and humid, thick with the smoke of bonfires and the smell of sweat. Packed light dazzled his vision and shouts struck his eardrums like fists. “My,” he said, blood stirring. “This is awful!”
He started walking toward what appeared to be the center of town, where the buildings were the tallest. The irregular streets of Lowell were paved with a tough grass, and they were flanked by oddly spaced three- and four-story buildings; most of the streets were as wide as boulevards, and seemed to function as parks, at least during the festival. Big pits in certain intersections held bonfires, and everywhere parties of people stood or sat in clumps and circles, so that Dent had to weave his way through the crowd, slipping into streams of celebrants taking the same route. Eventually they led him to what someone said was Tombaugh Square, a big park in the city’s center; the utilities building stood on one side of this square, and apparently the Orchestra had been placed on it during the concert, so that the park was still jammed. In all the commotion Dent didn’t know what to do next. A very large woman ran into him, knocking him down. As he got up he cried, “What was the concert like?” The woman only
laughed, revealing teeth that had been stained bright red. “Too drugged to remember it, are you?” she shouted. “No!” Dent replied, but she was gone. He cursed her back angrily.
Still, the exchange had given him a method. He wandered between groups, looking for single individuals who appeared congenial. In the altered light it was difficult to tell; shafts of packed inthrob light made people appear living flames, clothed in leaves of fire. Dent walked on. Across the park two oak trees bracketed a small bonfire; in the light of the blaze it might be possible to distinguish real features. Keeping his hands out as bumpers, Dent slowly crossed the square. Beams of spectralite, ultra, rodercone, and enprism assaulted him; even with his eyes closed he saw some of these lights, and walked through a kaleidoscope of shattered color.
Beyond the oak trees a brace of water buffalo lowed uneasily, tugging at their tethers. The bonfire between the trees was rendered invisible by a sudden burst of inthrob. A friendly looking man with a beard stood contemplating the phenomenon. “What did you think of the performance?” Dent asked him.
The man pulled his beard and grinned. “Sir, that young man lazed us! He packed us, he lazed us, he bent us, and then he shattered us!”
“You’re a light technician, I take it.”
“Not at all. But that young Master certainly is. And he’ll bring us all back to the white light of the godhead, you mark my words.”
Dent walked away, shaking his head. Perhaps these interviews were not going to be of help after all.
Suddenly he noticed a curious thing. There was no music being played anywhere in the square. This was so unusual as to be freakish. Typically after a concert of this sort soloists or small groups would be recreating by memory various parts of the performance, transposing them for the instrument they played; at a festival like this there would be so many street groups that the competition for sound spheres would be fierce. But tonight…nothing. The oscillant chatter of hundreds of voices in conversation—but no music. Dent bit his lip, stared about uncomfortably. What had Wright played, to cause such silence?
He approached a smallish woman standing alone. “What did you think of the concert?”
A bank of polychrom lights snapped on and suddenly the woman’s round face and long braids were broken into primary colors, as if Dent had stepped too close to a pointillist painting. She looked awful, and Dent supposed he looked the same. “Truly a disgrace to the Orchestra,” the woman said. “Wright’s technique was sloppy and he overused the tape systems dreadfully. It’s a sad contrast to Yablonski, who played every instrument live. And the music was no more than reworked De Bruikian polyphony.” She nodded emphatically, shifting her facial colors in a way that made Dent almost sick. He marvelled that there was so much green in flesh tone.
A trio of Martian bagpipers ran from the building behind the trees, skreeling like banshees. With a howl members of the crowd raced after them, chasing them around the trees and into Dent and the woman. Dent leaped back. The trio’s assailants were attempting to stop them, but the Martians were half again as tall as their hunters, and they kicked out in a Highland dance made martial art, keeping the crowd at bay. Then one was tackled and the other two went to his aid, and the piping stopped. A woman in a long red coat broke into a wild Arabic ululation, and dove into the melee swinging her fists. “My God!” Dent cried, and skittered away, startled by the violence. Something was wrong with this festival—he bumped into someone and turned, ready to run. He was facing a tall skinny man with a bony face, on which were painted red “whiskers.” The man grinned wolfishly and the red lines across his cheeks folded in.
Dent stepped back nervously. “What did you think of the concert, sir?”
“Why do you want to know?” the man said.
“Well—I missed it, and it’s left me in sort of a gray area. I am a correspondent—”
“You are not,” the man growled. “Why do you want to know!” he shouted, and pushed Dent hard in the chest.
Dent tumbled backwards onto the grass. “Excuse me,” he said, crawling rapidly away. “Just curious—I have a right to ask—”
And was shoved off his knees onto his side. A kick to the midriff and his breath was gone. While he lay gasping rough hands pulled at his coat, searched the pockets, tore his wallet away. “We’ll find out who you are right enough.” “Gaaa—” Another kick and he was beyond speech.
After a while he sat up. Enprism lights scattered the scene before him into several illusory dimensions. The oak trees seemed leaved with emeralds. Someone was pulling at his arm. “Are you all right?”
“Need police,” Dent said.
“There are no police on Lowell,” said the bearded man he had spoken to earlier.
“But—how do you get help?”
“I’m helping you, aren’t I?”
“But what if you’re attacked?”
“Then you defend yourself. What, lose a fight?”
“I was robbed.”
“Ah.” The man pulled him up by his elbow, and Dent stood, hunched over. “That’s bad. Here, need a hand somewhere?”
“Thanks. I’m all right.” Dent took a few exploratory steps.
“They’ll be able to identify you at the spaceport. You shouldn’t have any problem. You weren’t carrying anything valuable?”
“No. Thanks again.” Dent hobbled off. He tacked back down the boulevard like a boat in a storm: voices howled like the wind, shouts cracked like thunder, banks of light burst over him like bolts of lightning. A Martian in a purple dress loomed over him and chanted, “Holywelkin didn’t mold it for play, there’s too much chance in music today!” A man behind her pointed at Dent and shouted, “He’s the one who did it! He’s the one!”
“Not me,” Dent bleated, and staggered into a side street. Here alleys were coiled like the tracks of positrons, and he lost himself. It seemed hours of walking and dodging passed before he could relocate the boulevard. By the time he saw the spaceport entrance he could barely walk. Persephone, Pluto’s whitsun, broke over the eastern horizon like another bank of lights. Suddenly the air of the city glowed a real blue, and one by one the banks of altered light were shut down. Looking north Dent could see all the way to Tombaugh Square. Everyone around him spoke in a language he didn’t recognize. It was dawn: only bonfires and the limpid blue sky lit the town now. A great roar of protesting voices washed over them all. Exhausted, hurt, Dent hobbled to the spaceport; its facade flickered under the dusky yellow light of a dying bonfire. In the doorway he turned for one last look. The shouting was like the roar of high seas on a beach.
Johannes Wright—remember him, dear Reader?—the musician who glimpsed his destiny?—Johannes Wright was tired. He sank back into the couch against the wall of a lounge in the power plant, and let everything wash over him. Voices of Marie-Jeanne and Rudyard, chatting quietly with Margaret. His old friend Anton Vaccero, laughing nervously over a game of cups, played with two of Karna’s security people. Grainy texture of light as he allowed the photoptic cells to unfocus. He looked at the blur that was Margaret: raven blue-black hair tossed in a reflexive gesture over a shoulder. The ophthalmologists had told him the photoptic cells would enable him to distinguish about a thousand colors, as opposed to the six million gradations visible to the natural eye. The cell was as sensitive as the retina, they said, but the connection to the optic nerve was inferior. A poster world: it could be beautiful. Even if seven or eight hundred of the thousand colors were some shade of blue. He faded into the grainy blue-out drowsily. The wall behind Margaret yellow, yellow-green, aquamarine, and yet on it a dark blue stain…her shadow, of course. A certain processing problem there. Some time during his seven months of blindness, he thought, he had forgotten how to see; and now eyes meant nothing to him, sight was an alien sense. What if you could suddenly distinguish the gases in the air around you, or feel magnetism like static electricity, or see the gravity created at the center of a sphere? It wouldn’t do you any good, not without a teacher. Looking at the world of the wall Johannes saw that inanimate objects were formed always as false parallels, while all living things were stacks of intersected ellipses. Or else he had been reading too much Mauring geometry in his attempt to understand Holywelkin. Margaret’s powerful shoulders, a field of ellipses, slumped against the couch back: in the extremity of blue-out he felt he could see all her veins. He drifted off toward sleep, the shutter of all the senses.
Anton’s familiar laugh cut off abruptly. Wright focused his eyes.
Ernst Ekern stood in the doorway. The room was silent. Wright struggled up out of the couch and stood. “Yes?”
Ekern stepped farther into the room, looked around. He was nearly as short as Wright, a thick man running to fat. To Johannes he jumped out of the grainy blue because of his coloring: curly white hair on top of his head shaded to white-gray curls at the back, and whitish sideburns shaded to a reddish-brown beard. Redbeard, Johannes had called him in the days of his apprenticeship. Round puffy nose, sharp intelligent brown eyes.
Redbeard said, “I want to speak with you, Johannes.”
His crew roused themselves as if to leave. “No,” Ekern said to them. “Stay here.” He said to Johannes, “There’s another lounge across the hall.”
Johannes followed him, and together they entered an empty, dim lounge. A rustle came from behind a large mirror and in his poster vision, blue on blue, he saw clearly that it was a window as well. He turned to face Ekern. He was too tired for the passions, and their stormy history seemed silly to him now, the squabbling of children for dominance. He had never understood Ekern’s dislike of him; it had no cause, no motive. Ekern paced the other side of the room, wall to wall, slowly as if to some adagio march. All his ellipses were squashed to a near perfect circularity, the effect of tremendous control exerted. Yet such an effort could never be successful, and Johannes almost laughed: hernia as the elliptical result of crushing ellipses to roundness. Then Ekern stopped and faced him, and smiled. And that smile was the crack in the wall, it split all the pretenses of civility; through it seeped all Ekern’s long-tended hatred. Johannes stiffened and woke up fully at last.
“So you have begun your first Grand Tour,” Ekern said quietly, and commenced pacing again. His voice was a fine baritone, exquisitely modulated, with a touch of roughness in its timbre. It had the sound of a great cat’s purr.
“Yes,” Johannes said, fumbling. “Yes.”
“And it was quite a beginning.”
Meaning what? Johannes shook his head. Fragments, the barest part of the whole. He had a lot of work to do. It would take more study, and some sort of … key. Yet even now he pushed at the edge of his understanding.
“You were not satisfied?” Ekern asked.
“Then we have something in common,” Ekern purred, and paced. In the dim blue light his red beard glowed. Johannes felt a draft, and shivered. What was this man in the shadows after?
“You play only your own compositions,” Ekern said, with a quick glance.
“That is what the Orchestra is for.”
“You play only your own compositions. Work unknown to the public. You base your compositions on Holywelkin’s mathematics—on his Ten Forms of Change, in fact.”
“Yes,” said Johannes, surprised. “How did you know?”
“I have studied you.” Ekern stopped pacing, stared at Johannes curiously. “I have had to study you, Johannes Wright, to know what to do with you. And now I know more about you than you do.”
Johannes shook his head, annoyed and fearful. “You know nothing,” he said. “No one knows anything of me.” Yet he had thought the basis of his work was known to himself alone. His notes—Ekern must have had his notebooks searched. There the broken twigs of his passage could be found, but what would they signify to an outsider? Nothing.
“So you attempt what De Bruik attempted, in her Free Radical Binds to Macromolecule.”
“We all attempt what De Bruik attempted, in one way or another.” In Free Radical De Bruik had represented the macromolecule, an RNA strand, as a passacaglia, a ground base repeated again and again, in patterns of four that alternated regularly. This was a simple icon, a metaphor in which the repeated ground base stood for the repeated proteins in the RNA; fine. And the free radical’s part was a test for any trumpet player. But the problem always returned to the question of how to yoke together the two terms of the metaphor. What was the analogy between certain pitches of a certain duration, and strings of protein molecules? For De Bruik it had been no more than an impression, an instinctive metaphor made from scattered readings of, and the one crucial meeting with, the elderly Holywelkin—a matter of feeling. But Johannes was convinced it was possible to be more exact; he wanted to make a musical analogy for the world that was precisely accurate.…
“… Music based on physics,” Ekern said. He had been speaking for some time, but Johannes had been distracted, and now he was at a loss. “It certainly sounds disturbing enough,” Ekern said. “It drove the crowd mad.” He cocked his head, as if understanding the music by that remark. “And here you are commencing a Grand Tour. With nothing familiar in your repertory. An unprecedented program.”
“Hull the third Master and Mayaklosov the sixth Master played only their own work,” Johannes said. From behind the mirror-window, a rustle, a muffled cough.
“Every third a sport, eh? But those were considered nadirs in the Orchestra’s history.”
“Not by me.”
Ekern smiled; another crack, another seepage. Johannes shook his head apprehensively. What did he want?
Again Ekern paced. “You make your first Grand Tour. The Orchestra is famous everywhere, people will flock to hear you. Through the layers of history back to ancient Earth you will travel, playing your new composition, changing it as you go along, revising and completing it. On Mars there will be a festival to make Lowell’s look like a tea party; all the planet will gather at Olympus Mons for their Areology. And you will play music they have never heard. Then to ancient Earth and the awe of those capitals, in the homes of our minds; a triumph, certainly. But for whom? What will they make of you? What will become of the Grand Tours to come, of Holywelkin’s Orchestra?”
Johannes shrugged, stepped toward the door, away from the darkness surrounding Ekern, red patch in the blues. “I choose the music played,” he said, feeling Ekern’s message in the oblique description.
“So you do,” Ekern said. “You choose it. You compose it, and not the spirit of Holywelkin. Not the spirit of Holywelkin, do you understand me?”
“No,” Johannes said, feeling a stab of fear.
“Holywelkin’s influence would change your mind.”
“No!” Johannes said. “I know Holywelkin better than you.”
“Ah!” And Ekern paced in the gloom, back and forth, back and forth. Johannes felt the ominous silence. Shivering, he tensed his eye muscles to try to see his foe better. Red beard dull in the dark.
“You have studied Holywelkin, then?” said the rough baritone voice.
“Then you know.”
A long pause, two turns, a sudden stop. Redbeard staring straight at him, shadowed eyes intent. “You know.”
A shiver rippled up the skin over Johannes’s spine. What had he missed? What did Ekern mean, what did he know, thus to assume Johannes’s understanding? Holywelkin had been a strange man, secretive, eccentric, unpredictable—the Kepler of the Thirtieth century; everything one knew about him contradicted some other fact of his biography. It could be anything—
Unless he meant the heart of things. The meaning of Holywelkin’s work.
Johannes came to and saw that in the course of his pacing Ekern had approached him. He took a step back. Moved to the mirror, touched it. In the mirror world Ekern’s beard was a dull green, the room was flattened and the air was gray. Too much obscurity—he turned—
Ekern pointed at him, finger like a gun. “I will change you,” he said, and hopped past Johannes out the door.
Heart pulsing like a knock at the door. Johannes rubbed a cold hand over his chest. The dim room still seemed quite occupied. He left it with a shudder and walked down the hall, unwilling to face his road crew in this state of amorphous dread. Hallways, quiet and dim. All those years of dissension with Ekern … from the very first meeting he had been a bitter antagonist. Yablonski had introduced him, and Ekern had sneered: “So this is your apprentice.” And for no reason. There had been no cause for his hostility. The memory of it was so disturbing that Johannes willed himself to think of something else.
He recalled his evening’s performance. He had programmed into the Orchestra’s computer the equations of two of Holywelkin’s ten forms, and then chosen tones in the bass to represent lazed glints, leaving the singularity sphere of one of the power stations orbiting the sun. The effect of two of the forms of change on these glints, scored for the bass instruments: inversion and retrogradation, vertical and horizontal reversals, made repeatedly until the score was sufficiently complicated. And very important forms of change they were, too. But until all of the forms were brought to bear simultaneously—as they were in reality—he would not be satisfied. There had been too many centuries of partial music already. Holywelkin had struggled with this problem before him; in his last notebook he had written, in the complete glint mechanics all apparent motion must be taken into account.…
Considering these matters Johannes walked by the door to the storage room, where the Orchestra waited for the voyage to Uranus. He paused, but did not enter.
the orchestra’s song
And by not entering, missed what occurred inside: such turns, such unnoticed forks in unnoticed paths, determine all our lives.
It was almost dark in the storage room; only a red light high on one wall illuminated the Orchestra, which nearly filled the chamber. Against the door stood a tall figure, limbs taut and ready for flight. When the footsteps in the hall outside receded, the figure moved into the room, toward the Orchestra. The red light accentuated the color of his curly hair; it was Anton Vaccero, the lighting chief for the tour. In his left hand was a small bag, and on his face was a blank expression. He circled the Orchestra warily, found the entrance through the piano bench gap. Up and inside, then, and following the glass steps that made a twisting path to the control booth. But once there he continued to climb, past the row of saxophones, and the quartet of tympanis, up into the twisting glass branches where people rarely visited. At that height there were few steps, and Vaccero’s long, lithe arms and legs served him well as he stretched from foothold to foothold, spreadeagling as he climbed higher. The cloud of violas formed an obstacle that was difficult to get past; the big brown fiddles rested in delicate glassy carriages composed of bow-arms, finger tabs, pizzicatta pluckers, and tuning dials, so that they appeared oddly shaped fruit encased in a rime of reddish frost. Vaccero descended, took an easier path up. He shifted the bag from hand to hand according to need, and grasped the thick clear struts carefully. He was wearing thin gloves.
Eventually he came to the celesta, with its white soundbox and its elegant ivory keyboard, encrusted with glass finger tabs. The arms holding the instrument were thick, and Vaccero stood on two of them to complete his work. The top panel of the soundbox rose easily, revealing the narrow steel plates that the instrument’s hammers struck. Vaccero put the bag on the plates and drew from it a pair of brackets and a short hammer. From his blouse pocket he took nails just bigger than tacks, and reaching into the soundbox he tapped away awkwardly until the brackets were nailed to the inside of the box. Then he took from the bag a small notebook, with stiff plastic covers. He glanced at the pages with a quick riffle; they were filled with a spidery handwriting. He slid the notebook into the brackets, shook it to make sure it was firmly in place. Then he let the top of the soundbox down, and descended as quickly as he could through the maze of glass.
The door was a test; what to say, if he emerged and somebody saw him? Screw your courage to the sticking place: a musical metaphor, referring to the mandolin. Holding his breath he slipped out. No one saw him.
And the Orchestra was alone. A glass tree ten meters high, growing in a dim red room. See it now, dear Reader, from top to bottom: five flutes, five clarinets, two Ganymede bugles, five oboes, three balloon flutes, two piccolos, five bassoons, two saxophones at each pitch; six trumpets, a balilaika, bagpipes, a choirbox, three guitarps, six French horns, the celesta, a harpsichord; thirty violins, ten violas, six trombones, two alto clarinets, a digeree-doo, two baritones, fifteen cellos, two bass trombones, two tubas; (note the glass arms and fingers on the wind instruments, the airhoses, the plastic-and-wire lips enveloping every mouthpiece); around the control booth in the middle, a piano, the spiral of organ pipes, two harps, four mandolins, four tympanis, snare drum, bass drum, wood blocks, several guitars, a banjo, the godzilla, the mercury drum, eight double basses; then near the bottom, the big boxes: the master computer, a Planck Double Reed, four Klein bottle-drums, and an aeolia, all forming a broad base for the rest. All held in glassy arms, or set on glassy struts; all wired to the control booth, the cocoon at the heart of the tree.
See it now as the storage room jerks and then slowly drops down the shaft in the center of the power plant; the room is an elevator. Thus begins the laborious process of moving the Orchestra to the site of its next performance; workers wait on the ground floor to shift the statue onto an equipment bus that will take it to the spaceport. As the Orchestra was not made to be moved, it is a delicate operation. Even the slow stop of the elevator room causes a slight stress in the many branches of the glass tree; some of them bend millimeters, then return to their rightful positions; and by this movement small sounds are created, little clinks, and creaks, and bings, a tiny tintinnabulation that is the Orchestra’s own song.…
Onward, Reader, out of the darkness and silence.
Copyright © 1985 by Kim Stanley Robinson