THE SECOND CONCERT
Perry wishes he had someone to share the view with. The storm cloud surges around the peak of the moon’s mountains, pooling against the green sky and traced with the red glow of the setting sun. He strokes his beard and opens another prepackaged carton of ale from Emergency Ration Box 382. With a long satisfied chug he lets that empty part of him fill back up.
ERB 382 had all the good stuff: chocolate cake, 3D printed steak, caviar, freeze-dried prosciutto. Intended as the last ration box, a celebration for 2000 lucky survivors as the welcome tones of daring rescue crews crackled over the receiver. But, as the bland bureaucrat Perry finally managed to hail told him, the rescue of a sole survivor was not “economically feasible”. So box 382 had kept one lonely man comfortably stoned for close to forty years.
The storm pushes over the horizon and absently Perry smooths the silver crinkles on his spacesuit sleeves. From deep inside the silver shell, a whiff of ancient vomit curls out of the collar and brings tears to the corners of his eyes. The suit’s fishbowl helmet sits overturned next to the rotting lounge chair he had pulled out onto the mesa; his drumsticks stick out of it into the open air.
Forty years. Forty years of freeze dried space food and beer loaded with so many preservatives it went flat two minutes after you opened it. Survival guaranteed, prepackaged, and rationed out.
It was going to be his big break. The band’s drummer chickened out of a tour of backwater colonies and Perry was the second fastest backup on the shortlist. So he crammed his meagre possessions into a suitcase, went through a stepped-up conditioning process, and took off for a tour of the colonies. The first stop was the last. One stop, one set in front of an audience that hadn’t heard live music in years. The music and crowd roar surging around him. One set and he’d been electrified, doing what he loved in front of 2000 people loving what he did. Rolling out of bed today, he was an old man drinking beer.
The sun sets and the green sky is overtaken by a black one laden with so many stars counting constellations would take all night. The gas giant the moon orbits looms huge in the sky like an angry god. All except the storm’s dark hole punched in over the valley. Stripes of lightning draw sizzling new colours upon the storm’s surface as it prowls forward. Perry absently pads at the ice in the cooler, looking for an excuse to slink back into the walls of the colony and spend the rest of his days wandering its halls never seeing the sky again. Wondering forever what was hanging overhead.
He couldn’t remember whose idea it had been to put the silver life suit on. The band had found it in an emergency closet. Enamoured with its fluid mirrored surface and with themselves, they took turns trying it on. They spent the better part of their last hour alive breaking bottles over each others’ helmeted heads. As backup of a backup Perry got to go last. A situation made funnier for his band mates by the fact the guitarist had vomited into the suit. They pushed him in, protesting and fearful, another bad joke capped by sealing the helmet. He choked and hacked, fighting back his own vomit as laughter rang all around him. He didn’t notice the laughter ending. He looked up from a coughing fit, eyes streaming with tears, to a room filled with sparking mist. Suddenly it was just hands, all hands clawing at him through the mist, his band mates and more just clawing at the safety of the suit.
It had taken him years to bury all of them. So many years that by the time he dragged the last victim into the last grave the body was nothing but sun-dried bones coming apart in his hands. Endless rows and rows carved into the earth, each topped with a cairn of stones. Perry had told himself he’d do as much as he could before he died, but when he placed the last stone on one grave there had always been time to do the next. If he had known it would not actually take the rest of his life to bury the world he would have made markers for each grave. So he carved a marker for the whole graveyard and told himself that would be the last thing. And so it went. One last thing after another until he was an old man tucking an unkempt beard down the front of his spacesuit.
Perry snaps the clear glass helmet over his head and listens to the hiss of valves opening and pressurizing seals. Smells the stale air from the tank mix with the stink of the suit.
The storm was nearly on top of him. There was only one last thing to do now.
He spins the drumsticks around stiff gloved fingers and almost drops them in the dust. Years to practice and he hadn’t thought of that. Practising in the colony sensor room watching the storm swirl around the planet on the monitor. Making its long way back to him. Sometimes in the red and green of the storm tracker seeing faces watching him back.
Steps heavy, drunkenness settling, he makes his way to his drum set and drops into his throne. The set is pristine, just as shockingly beautiful as he remembered it climbing onto the stage as a young man. This time he faces away from the colony, out into the vast alien desert as it’s swallowed by the storm. It’s close now and he can see its true self. Its electric light show plays across the chrome trim of his set and in the maelstrom every flash of lightning reveals writhing figures. Uncanny beings, shaped like twists of molten glass pulled half finished from the kiln, stretched and burning and breaking. The figures form in the rain long enough to be seen, dissipate back into mist and recoalesce anew. Perry reaches up and checks the clasps of his helmet.
The mist arrives and envelops him with a sensation of crawling hands and prodding spiders. The rain doesn’t fall, it pulses rhythmically and Perry feels his own heart beating along with it. He feels the burn of the rain right through the insulation of the suit but it’s gentle against his helmet, softer than his own panicked breathing. Finding no purchase the storm retreats, the rain sliding off his suit and crawling back to the mass of the anomaly, snaking like running rivers.
Perry stares hard into his meteorological audience. He takes the moment for his own, a deep breath in, a deep breath out. He lifts his sticks and wills his hands to stay steady. He snaps the sticks together in a countdown. Thunderclaps of his own.
He plays lightly at first. It’s a complicated beat with a natural easy sophistication to it. Something he’d learned in school long before he learned of interstellar tours and the lure of rock and roll. It was jazz, or it was what jazz had become, or what jazz had never decided not to be. It was older than him and he couldn’t remember if it had been twisted and made old like he had or if it was as timeless and unchanging as the night sky.
Perry rolls the beat into a rising tempo played on the snare and high hat. Anticipation is given aural form as the beat becomes faster and faster. Eyes closed, he feels the hair on his head stand on end and hears the buzz of electric crackle ripple through the storm. He breathes in sharply.
Crash! He pounds the double bass and with a lick shifts to the beat of common time. Perry snaps open his eyes and sees the entire liquid civilization wilt backwards. Does it fear? No. He still sees sparks in the stillness. It takes it a moment to realize it’s matching his beat. A smile curls at the edges of his mouth. Doubling down he slams the drums with a fury and excitement he hasn’t felt since he last saw the storm. He reaches the crescendo, the storm begins to writhe, and he cuts the beat abruptly.
Perry lets the beat disperse, playing ghost notes so softly he can’t hear them through the thickness of glass between him and the world. Only tremors in his hands betray that the notes are even there at all. The storm moves closer, stopping just short of the drum set. Perry lets the phantom percussion go on a long time, too long. And when too long comes and goes he waits even longer. Tears began to well in the corners of his eyes and run down his cheeks until his beard begins to soak and the smell of salt fills his nostrils. The storm draws closer and he feels the warmth of its embrace again. That’s when he really hammers it home.
Perry plays harder and faster than he ever had during his life or ever dreamed in the forty years of sleepwalking that followed. He hadn’t practised this part. It was the drum roll of fear mixed into the pounding of satisfaction. Around him the alien nimbus roiled through roll after roll of his solo. Shots of green and black and yellow and dozens of colours that only appeared to survivors of lightning strikes race their way through the storm. The figures linger longer in the folds of the cloud. Their bizarre bodies becoming stranger and more abstract under the force of the moment.
This moment, the fear of the storm drummed out, the hatred of this vast meteorological intelligence, Perry’s hatred of himself and the planet he was marooned on. Twined together with quiet beautiful moments basking in the light of a green sun. Moments he would never get to share with anyone but this thing that had caused it all. Moments dead and buried in neat holes that seemed so important until they were filled in. Perry the drummer died between those graves, he fell to one knee and Perry the gravedigger lifted the body back up to use it.
The storm had taken everything from him, but it was the only living thing he would ever meet again. So he drums his life to this living thing because that’s all he had ever learned to do. He plays it his life right up until the moment he plays a concert for a life form measured in leagues, and then he plays it again. This moment is all he has left of Perry the drummer, of Perry the gravedigger too.
Then the moment passes. He lets one final cymbal crash reverberate through the valley before reaching up and gently stopping the ringing between thumb and forefinger. He keeps his eyes fixed on the mist as he lowers his drumsticks and sets them onto the floor tom. He feels a silent agreement in the air that neither of them knows what to do next.
So he bites back on his anxiety. He reaches up and unclasps the edges of his helmet, beard spilling out like a wild prophet. He knows who he is here, the last survivor of colony 11A-something something. He sits on the drum throne and waits for the crowd to turn on him.
“You guys…” He says in a voice he hasn’t heard outside of his head in at least ten years. It scrapes across his teeth like a needle scratch on vinyl. “None of you guys bought tickets and I don’t think you deserve an encore.”
His chest burns as he tries to catch his breath between wheezing puffs of fear and exhaustion. The storm churns and cat’s eye glass figures reemerge, their faces a smashed Picasso facsimile. They regard him through multitudes of electric eyes spinning like sparking pinwheels. Thunder crashes, and crashes. Again. Again. The vibrations shake through Perry’s body. The creatures speak to him with their own deafening concert.
Perry knew what the colonists had done to this planet, not specifically, but he wasn’t stupid. Perfectly inhabitable moons don’t just have nothing inhabiting them. The next expansion of the human race is always just a clear cut away. But with each crash of thunder he learns more and more and feels more a stranger in this land that would become his grave. He sees great living oceans forced to the sky by toxic invaders. Storm systems that mingled for moments joined and recombined and changed until there was only one great all-storm left. A life raft for billions of hydroelectric minds buffeted around the planet in jet streams. He knew this moon had had its own name before being labelled with a human number and that name had been spoken in the crash of storms and the petrichor of dust.
The second concert is over. Burning eyes fold back into the rain and dissipate as the downpour becomes a fog bank. The whole system thins and retreats, revealing the night sky of endless nameless stars alien but familiar. Perry watches the storm drift into the darkness until only an occasional flash from its depths distinguishes it from the shining stars of the sky. He resists the urge to call out to it. He considers walking back to his rotting lounge chair but settles down further at his drum set. He slips off the gloves of the space suit and gently feels for the hardwood of his drumsticks. Feels the peeling varnish in the grooves of the wood. He taps another beat, gentler, more peaceful. Perry tries to hold onto Perry the drummer. Tries to play without fear or guilt or anger. If only for a moment.
“THE SECOND CONCERT” © Brian Blanchenot. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on December 12, 2022
Brian Blanchenot is a long-time lover of Science Fiction from Ontario Canada. The Second Concert is his first published piece.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann