by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
Everyone calls it the Center. It has another name, a long one, that gets listed in government appropriations and has its derivation analyzed in encyclopedias, but no one uses it. From Bombay to Lima, from Spitsbergen to the mines of Antarctica, from the solitary outpost on Pluto to that on Mercury, it is—the Center. You can emerge from the rolling mists of the Amazon, or the cutting dry winds of the Sahara, or the lunar vacuum, elbow your way up to a bar, and begin, “When I was at the Center—” and every stranger within hearing will listen attentively.
It isn't possible to explain the Center, and it isn't necessary. From the babe in arms to the centenarian looking forward to retirement, everyone has been there, and plans to go again next year, and the year after that. It is the vacation land of the Solar System. It is square miles of undulating American Middle West farm land, transfigured by ingenious planning and relentless labor and incredible expense. It is a monumental summary of man's cultural heritage, and like a phoenix, it has emerged suddenly, inexplicably, at the end of the twenty-fourth century, from the corroded ashes of an appalling cultural decay.
The Center is colossal, spectacular and magnificent. It is inspiring, edifying and amazing. It is awesome, it is overpowering, it is—everything.
And though few of its visitors know about this, or care, it is also haunted. You are standing in the observation gallery of the towering Bach Monument. Off to the left, on the slope of a hill, you see the tense spectators who crowd the Grecian Theater for Euripides. Sunlight plays on their brightly-colored clothing. They watch eagerly, delighted to see in person what millions are watching on visiscope.
Beyond the theater, the tree-lined Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard curves into the distance, past the Dante Monument and the Michelangelo Institute. The twin towers of a facsimile of the Rheims Cathedral rise above the horizon. Directly below, you see the curious landscaping of an eighteenth-century French jardin and, nearby, the Moliere Theater.
A hand clutches your sleeve, and you turn suddenly, irritably, and find yourself face to face with an old man.
The leathery face is scarred and wrinkled, the thin strands of hair glistening white. The hand on your arm is a gnarled claw. You stare, take in the slumping contortion of one crippled shoulder and the hideous scar of a missing ear, and back away in alarm.
The sunken eyes follow you. The hand extends in a sweeping gesture that embraces the far horizon, and you notice that the fingers are maimed or missing. The voice is a harsh cackle. “Like it?” he says, and eyes you expectantly.
Startled, you mutter, “Why, yes. Of course.”
He takes a step forward, and his eyes are eager, pleading. “I say, do you like it?”
In your perplexity you can do no more than nod as you turn away—but your nod brings a strange response. A strident laugh, an innocent, childish smile of pleasure, a triumphant shout. “I did it! I did it all!”
Or you stand in resplendent Plato Avenue, between the Wagnerian Theater, where the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen is performed daily, and the reconstruction of the sixteenth-century Globe Theatre, where Shakespearean drama is presented morning, afternoon and evening.
A hand paws at you. “Like it?”
If you respond with a torrent of ecstatic praise, the old man eyes you impatiently and only waits until you have finished to ask again, “I say, do you like it?”
But a smile and a nod is met with beaming pride, a gesture, a shout.
In the lobby of one of the thousand spacious hotels, in the waiting room of the remarkable library where a copy of any book you request is reproduced for you free of charge, in the eleventh balcony of Beethoven Hall, a ghost shuffles haltingly, clutches an arm, asks a question.
And shouts proudly, “I did it!”
Erlin Baque sensed her presence behind him, but he did not turn. Instead he leaned forward, his left hand tearing a rumbling bass figure from the multichord while his right hand fingered a solemn melody. With a lightning flip of his hand he touched a button, and the thin treble tones were suddenly fuller, more resonant, almost clarinetlike. (“But God, how preposterously unlike a clarinet!” he thought.)
“Must we go through all that again, Val?” he asked.
“The landlord was here this morning.”
He hesitated, touched a button, touched several buttons, and wove weird harmonies out of the booming tones of a brass choir. (But what a feeble, distorted brass choir!)
“How long does he give us this time?”
“Two days. And the food synthesizer's broken down again.”
“Good. Run down and buy some fresh meat.”
Baque slammed his fists down and shouted above the shattering dissonance. “I will not rent a harmonizer. I will not turn my arranging over to hacks. If a Com goes out with my name on it, it's going to be composed. It may be idiotic, and it may be sickening, but it's going to be done right. It isn't much, God knows, but it's all I have left.”
He turned slowly and glared at her, this pale, drooping, worn-out woman who'd been his wife for twenty-five years. Then he looked away, telling himself stubbornly that he was no more to be blamed than she. When sponsors paid the same rates for good Coms that they paid for hackwork…
“Is Hulsey coming today?” she asked.
“He told me he was coming.”
“If we could get some money for the landlord—”
“And the food synthesizer. And a new visiscope. And new clothes. There's a limit to what can be done with one Com.”
He heard her move away, heard the door open, and waited. It did not close.
“Walter-Walter called,” she said. “You're the featured tunesmith on today's She Case.”
“So? There's no money in that.”
“I thought you wouldn't want to watch, so I told Mrs. Rennik I'd watch with her.”
“Sure. Go ahead. Have fun.” The door closed.
Baque got to his feet and stood looking down at his chaos-strewn worktable. Music paper, Com-lyric releases, pencils, sketches, half-finished manuscripts were cluttered together in untidy heaps. Baque cleared a corner for himself and sat down wearily, stretching his long legs out under the table.
“Damn Hulsey,” he muttered. “Damn sponsors. Damn visiscope. Damn Coms.” Compose something, he told himself. You're not a hack, like the other tunesmiths. You don't punch out silly tunes on a harmonizer's keyboard and let a machine complete them for you. You're a musician, not a melody monger. Write some music. Write a—a sonata, for multichord. Take the time now, and compose something.
His eyes fell on the first lines of a Com-lyric release. “If your flyer jerks and clowns, if it has its ups and downs—”
“Damn landlord,” he muttered, reaching for a pencil.
The tiny wall clock tinkled the hour, and Baque leaned over to turn on the visiscope. A cherub-faced master of ceremonies smiled out at him ingratiatingly. “Walter-Walter again, ladies and gentlemen. It's Com time on today's Show Case. Thirty minutes of Commercials by one of today's most talented tunesmiths. Our Com spotlight is on—”
A noisy brass fanfare rang out, the tainted brass tones of a multichord. “Erlin Baque!”
The multichord swung into an odd, dipsey melody Baque had done five years before, for Tamper Cheese, and a scattering of applause sounded in the background. A nasal soprano voice mouthed the words, and Baque groaned unhappily. “We age our cheese, and age it, age it, age it, age it, age it the old-fashioned way…”
Walter-Walter cavorted about the stage, moving in time with the melody, darting down into the audience to kiss some sedate housewife-on-a-holiday, and beaming at the howls of laughter.
The multichord sounded another fanfare, and Walter-Walter leaped back onto the stage, both arms extended over his head. “Now listen to this, all you beautiful people. Here's your Walter-Walter exclusive on Erlin Baque.” He glanced secretively over his shoulder, tiptoed a few steps closer to the audience, placed his finger on his lips, and then called out loudly, “Once upon a time there was another composer named Baque, spelled B-A-C-H, but pronounced Baque. He was a real atomic propelled tunesmith, the boy with the go, according to them that know. He lived some five or six or seven hundred years ago, so we can't exactly say that that Baque and our Baque were Baque to Baque. But we don't have to go Baque to hear Baque. We like the Baque we've got. Are you with me?”
Cheers. Applause. Baque turned away, hands trembling, a choking disgust nauseating him.
“We start off our Coms by Baque with that little masterpiece Baque did for Foam Soap. Art work by Bruce Combs. Stop, look—and listen!”
Baque managed to turn off the visiscope just as the first bar of soap jet-propelled itself across the screen. He picked up the Com lyric again, and his mind began to shape the thread of a melody.
“If your flyer jerks and clowns, if it has its ups and downs, ups and downs, ups and downs, you need a WARING!”
He hummed softly to himself, sketching a musical line that swooped and jerked like an erratic flyer. Word painting, it was called, back when words and tones meant something. Back when the B-A-C-H Baque was underscoring such grandiose concepts as Heaven and Hell.
Baque worked slowly, now and then trying a harmonic progression at the multichord and rejecting it, straining his mind for some fluttering accompaniment pattern that would simulate the sound of a flyer. But then—no. The Waring people wouldn't like that. They advertised that their flyers were noiseless.
Urgent-sounding door chimes shattered his concentration. He walked over to flip on the scanner, and Hulsey's pudgy face grinned out at him.
“Come on up,” Baque told him. Hulsey nodded and disappeared.
Five minutes later he waddled through the door, sank into a chair that sagged dangerously under his bulky figure, plunked his briefcase onto the floor, and mopped his face. “Whew! Wish you'd get yourself a place lower down. Or into a building with modern conveniences. Elevators scare me to death!”
“I'm thinking of moving,” Baque said.
“Good. It's about time.”
“But it'll probably be somewhere higher up. The landlord has given me two days' notice.”
Hulsey winced and shook his head sadly. “I see. Well, I won't keep you in suspense. Here's the check for the Sana-Soap Com.”
Baque took the card, glanced at it, and scowled.
“You were behind in your guild dues,” Hulsey said. “Have to deduct them, you know.”
“Yes. I'd forgotten.”
“I like to do business with Sana-Soap. Cash right on the line. Too many companies wait until the end of the month. Sana-Soap wants a couple of changes, but they paid anyway.” He unsealed the briefcase and pulled out a folder. “You've got some sly bits in this one, Erlin my boy. They like it. Particularly this 'sudsy, sudsy, sudsy' thing in the bass. They kicked on the number of singers at first, but not after they heard it. Now right here they want a break for a straight announcement.”
Baque nodded thoughtfully. “How about keeping the 'sudsy, sudsy' ostinato going as a background to the announcement?”
“Sounds good. That's a sly bit, that—what'd you call it?” “Ostinato.”
“Ah—yes. Wonder why the other tunesmiths don't work in bits like that.”
“A harmonizer doesn't produce effects,” Baque said dryly. “It just—harmonizes.”
“You give them about thirty seconds of that 'sudsy' for background. They can cut it if they don't like it.”
Baque nodded, scribbling a note on the manuscript.
“And the arrangement,” Hulsey went on. “Sorry, Erlin, but we can't get a French horn player. You'll have to do something else with that part.”
“No horn player? What's wrong with Rankin?”
“Blacklisted. The Performers' Guild nixed him permanently. He went out to the West Coast and played for nothing. Even paid his own expenses. The guild can't tolerate that sort of thing.”
“I remember,” Baque said softly. “The Monuments of Art Society. He played a Mozart horn concerto for them. Their final concert, too. Wish I could have heard it, even if it was with multichord.”
“He can play it all he wants to now, but he'll never get paid for playing again. You can work that horn part into the multichord line, or I might be able to get you a trumpet player. He could use a converter.”
“It'll ruin the effect.”
Hulsey chuckled. “Sounds the same to everyone but you, my boy. I can't tell the difference. We got your violins and a cello player. What more do you want?”
“Doesn't the London Guild have a horn player?”
“You want me to bring him over for one three-minute Com? Be reasonable, Erlin! Can I pick this up tomorrow?”
“Yes. I'll have it ready in the morning.”
Hulsey reached for his briefcase, dropped it again, leaned forward scowling. “Erlin, I'm worried about you. I have twenty-seven tunesmiths in my agency. You're the best by far. Hell, you're the best in the world, and you make the least money of any of them. Your net last year was twenty-two hundred. None of the others netted less than eleven thousand.”
“That isn't news to me,” Baque said.
“This may be. You have as many accounts as any of them. Did you know that?”
Baque shook his head. “No, I didn't know that.”
“You have as many accounts, but you don't make any money. Want to know why? Two reasons. You spend too much time on a Com, and you write it too well. Sponsors can use one of your Coms for months—or sometimes even years, like that Tamper Cheese thing. People like to hear them. Now if you just didn't write so damned well, you could work faster, and the sponsors would have to use more of your Coms, and you could turn out more.”
“I've thought about that. Even if I didn't, Val would keep reminding me. But it's no use. That's the way I have to work. If there was some way to get the sponsors to pay more for a good Com—”
“There isn't. The guild wouldn't stand for it, because good Coms mean less work, and most tunesmiths couldn't write a really good Com. Now don't think I'm concerned about my agency. Of course I make more money when you make more, but I'm doing well enough with my other tunesmiths. I just hate to see my best man making so little money. You're a throwback, Erlin. You waste time and money collecting those antique—what do you call them?”
“Yes. And those moldy old books about music. I don't doubt that you know more about music than anyone alive, and what does it get you? Not money, certainly. You're the best there is, and you keep trying to be better, and the better you get the less money you make. Your income drops lower every year. Couldn't you manage just an average Com now and then?”
“No,” Baque said brusquely. “I couldn't manage it.”
“Think it over.”
“These accounts I have. Some of the sponsors really like my work. They'd pay more if the guild would let them. Supposing I left the guild?”
“You can't, my boy. I couldn't handle your stuff—not and stay in business long. The Tunesmiths' Guild would turn on the pressure, and the Performers' and Lyric Writers' Guilds would blacklist you. Jimmy Denton plays along with the guilds and he'd bar your stuff from visiscope. You'd lose all your accounts, and fast. No sponsor is big enough to fight all that trouble, and none of them would want to bother. So just try to be average now and then. Think about it.”
Baque sat staring at the floor. “I'll think about it.”
Hulsey struggled to his feet, clasped Baque's hand briefly, and waddled out. Baque closed the door behind him and went to the drawer where he kept his meager collection of old phonograph records. Strange and wonderful music.
Three times in his career Baque had written Coms that were a full half-hour in length. On rare occasions he got an order for fifteen minutes. Usually he was limited to five or less. But composers like the B-A-C-H Baque wrote things that lasted an hour or more—even wrote them without lyrics.
And they wrote for real instruments, among them amazing-sounding things that no one played anymore, like bassoons, piccolos and pianos.
“Damn Denton. Damn visiscope. Damn guilds.”
Baque rummaged tenderly among the discs until he found one bearing Bach's name. Magnificat. Then, because he felt too despondent to listen, he pushed it away.
Earlier that year the Performers' Guild had blacklisted its last oboe player. Now its last horn player, and there just weren't any young people learning to play instruments. Why should they, when there were so many marvelous contraptions that ground out the Coms without any effort on the part of the performer? Even multichord players were becoming scarce, and if one wasn't particular about how well it was done, a multichord could practically play itself.
The door jerked open, and Val hurried in. “Did Hulsey—”
Baque handed her the check. She took it eagerly, glanced at it, and looked up in dismay.
“My guild dues,” he said. “I was behind.”
“Oh. Well, it's a help, anyway.” Her voice was flat, emotionless, as though one more disappointment really didn't matter. They stood facing each other awkwardly.
“I watched part of Morning with Marigold,” Val said. “She talked about your Coms.”
“I should hear soon on that Slo-Smoke Com,” Baque said. “Maybe we can hold the landlord off for another week. Right now I'm going to walk around a little.”
“You should get out more—”
He closed the door behind him, slicing her sentence off neatly. He knew what followed. Get a job somewhere. It'd be good for your health to get out of the apartment a few hours a day. Write Coms in your spare time—they don't bring in more than a part-time income anyway. At least do it until we get caught up. All right, if you won't, I will.
But she never did. A prospective employer never wanted more than one look at her slight body and her worn, sullen face. And Baque doubted that he would receive any better treatment.
He could get work as a multichord player and make a good income—but if he did he'd have to join the Performers' Guild, which meant that he'd have to resign from the Tunesmiths' Guild. So the choice was between performing and composing; the guilds wouldn't let him do both. “Damn the guilds! Damn Coms!”
When he reached the street, he stood for a moment watching the crowds shooting past on the swiftly moving conveyer. A few people glanced at him and saw a tall, gawky, balding man in a frayed, badly fitting suit. They would consider him just another derelict from a shabby neighborhood, he knew, and they would quickly look the other way while they hummed a snatch from one of his Coms.
He hunched up his shoulders and walked awkwardly along the stationary sidewalk. At a crowded restaurant he turned in, found a table at one side, and ordered beer. On the rear wall was an enormous visiscope screen where the Coms followed each other without interruption. Around him the other customers watched and listened while they ate. Some nodded their heads jerkily in time with the music. A few young couples were dancing on the small dance floor, skillfully changing steps as the music shifted from one Com to another.
Baque watched them sadly and thought about the way things had changed. At one time, he knew, there had been special music for dancing and special groups of instruments to play it. And people had gone to concerts by the thousands, sitting in seats with nothing to look at but the performers.
All of it had vanished. Not only the music, but art and literature and poetry. The plays he once read in his grandfather's school books were forgotten.
James Denton's Visiscope International decreed that people must look and listen at the same time, and that the public attention span wouldn't tolerate long programs. So there were Coms.
When Val returned to the apartment an hour later, Baque was sitting in the corner staring at the battered plastic cabinet that held the crumbling volumes he had collected from the days when books were still printed on paper—a scattering of biographies, books on music history, and technical books about music theory and composition. Val looked twice about the room before she noticed him, and then she confronted him anxiously, stark tragedy etching her wan face.
“The man's coming to fix the food synthesizer.”
“Good,“ Baque said.
“But the landlord won't wait. If we don't pay him day after tomorrow—pay him everything—we're out.”
“So we're out.”
“Where will we go? We can't get in anywhere without paying something in advance.”
“So we won't get in anywhere.”
She fled sobbing into the bedroom.
The next morning Baque resigned from the Tunesmiths' Guild and joined the Performers' Guild. Hulsey's round face drooped mournfully when he heard the news. He loaned Baque enough money to pay his guild registration fee and quiet the landlord, and he expressed his sorrow in eloquent terms as he hurried Baque out of his office. He would, Baque knew, waste no time in assigning Baque's clients to his other tunesmiths—to men who worked faster and not so well.
Baque went to the Guild Hall, where he sat for five hours waiting for a multichord assignment. He was finally summoned to the secretary's office and brusquely motioned into a chair. The secretary eyed him suspiciously.
“You belonged to the Performers' Guild twenty years ago, and you left it to become a tunesmith. Right?”
“Right,” Baque said.
“You lost your seniority after three years. You knew that, didn't you?”
“I did, but I didn't think it mattered. There aren't many good multichord players around.”
“There aren't many good jobs around, either. You'll have to start at the bottom.” He scribbled on a slip of paper and thrust it at Baque. “This one pays well, but we have a hard time keeping a man there. Lankey isn't easy to work for. If you don't irritate him too much—well, then we'll see.”
Baque rode the conveyer out to the New Jersey Space Port, wandered through a rattletrap slum area getting his directions hopelessly confused, and finally found the place almost within radiation distance of the port. The sprawling building had burned at some time in the remote past. Stubbly remnants of walls rose out of the weed-choked rubble. A wall curved toward a dimly lit cavity at one corner, where steps led uncertainly downward. Overhead, an enormous sign pointed its flowing colors in the direction of the port. The LANKEY-PANK OUT.
Baque stepped through the door and faltered at the onslaught of extraterrestrial odors. Lavender-tinted tobacco smoke, the product of the enormous leaves grown in bot-domes in the Lunar Mare Crisium, hung like a limp blanket midway between floor and ceiling. The revolting, cutting fumes of blast, a whisky blended with a product of Martian lichens, staggered him. He had a glimpse of a scattered gathering of tough spacers and tougher prostitutes before the doorman planted his bulky figure and scarred caricature of a face in front of him. “You looking for someone?”
The doorman jerked a thumb in the direction of the bar and noisily stumbled back into the shadows. Baque walked toward the bar.
He had no trouble in picking out Lankey. The proprietor sat on a tall stool behind the bar. In the dim, smoke-streaked light his taut pale face had a spectral grimness. He leaned an elbow on the bar, fingered his flattened stump of a nose with the two remaining fingers on his hairy hand, and as Baque approached he thrust his bald head forward and eyed him coldly.
“I'm Erlin Baque,” Baque said.
“Yeah. The multichord player. Can you play that multichord, fellow?”
“Why, yes, I can play—”
“That's what they all say, and I've had maybe two in the last ten years that could really play. Most of them come out here figuring they'll set the thing on automatic and fuss around with one finger. I want that multichord played, fellow, and I'll tell you right now—if you can't play you might as well jet for home. There isn't any automatic on my multichord. I had it disconnected.”
“I can play,” Baque told him.
“All right. It doesn't take more than one Com to find out. The guild rates this place as Class Four, but I pay Class One rates if you can play. If you can really play, I'll slip you some bonuses the guild won't know about. Hours are six P.M. to six A.M., but you get plenty of breaks, and if you get hungry or thirsty just ask for what you want. Only go easy on the hot stuff. I won't go along with a drunk multichord player no matter how good he is. Rose!”
He bellowed the name a second time, and a woman stepped from a door at the side of the room. She wore a faded dressing gown, and her tangled hair hung untidily about her shoulders. She turned a small, pretty face toward Baque and studied him boldly.
“Multichord,” Lankey said. “Show him.”
Rose beckoned, and Baque followed her toward the rear of the room. Suddenly he halted in amazement.
“What's the matter?” Rose asked.
“No. Lankey says the spacers want better things to look at than soapsuds and flyers.” She giggled. “Something like me, for example.”
“I never heard of a restaurant without visiscope.”
“Neither did I, until I came here. But Lankey's got three of us to sing the Coms, and you're to do the multichord with us. I hope you make the grade. We haven't had a multichord player for a week, and it's hard singing without one.”
“I'll make out all right,” Baque said.
A narrow platform stretched across the end of the room where any other restaurant would have had its visiscope screen. Baque could see the unpatched scars in the wall where the screen had been torn out.
“Lankey ran a joint at Port Mars back when the colony didn't have visiscope,” Rose said. “He has his own ideas about how to entertain customers. Want to see your room?”
Baque was examining the multichord. It was a battered old instrument, and it bore the marks of more than one brawl. He fingered the filter buttons and swore softly to himself. Only the flute and violin filters clicked into place properly. So he would have to spend twelve hours a day with the twanging tones of an unfiltered multichord.
“Want to see your room?” Rose asked again. “It's only five. You might as well relax until we have to go to work.”
Rose showed him a cramped enclosure behind the bar. He stretched out on a hard cot and tried to relax, and suddenly it was six o'clock and Lankey stood in the door beckoning to him.
He took his place at the multichord and fingered the keys impatiently. He felt no nervousness. There wasn't anything he didn't know about Coms, and he knew he wouldn't have trouble with the music, but the atmosphere disturbed him. The haze of smoke was thicker, and he blinked his smarting eyes and felt the whisky fumes tear at his nostrils when he took a deep breath.
There was still only a scattering of customers. The men were mechanics in grimy work suits, swaggering pilots, and a few civilians who liked their liquor strong and didn't mind the surroundings. The women were—women; two of them, he guessed, for every man in the room.
Suddenly the men began an unrestrained stomping of feet accented with yelps of approval. Lankey was crossing the platform with Rose and the other singers. Baque's first horrified impression was that the girls were nude, but as they came closer he made out their brief plastic costumes. Lankey was right, he thought. The spacers would much prefer that kind of scenery to animated Coms on a visiscope screen. “You met Rose,” Lankey said. “This is Zanna and Mae. Let's get going.” He walked away, and the girls gathered about the multichord. “What Coms do you know?” Rose asked.
“I know them all.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “We sing together, and then we take turns. Are you sure you know them all?”
Baque flipped on the power and sounded a chord. “Sing any Com you want—I can handle it.”
“Well—we'll start out with a Tasty-Malt Com. It goes like this.” She hummed softly. “Know that one?”
“I wrote it,” Baque said.
They sang better than he had expected. He followed them easily, and while he played he kept his eyes on the customers. Heads were jerking in time with the music, and he quickly caught the mood and began to experiment. His fingers shaped a rolling rhythm in the bass, fumbled with it tentatively, and then expanded it. He abandoned the melodic line, leaving the girls to carry on by themselves while he searched the entire keyboard to ornament the driving rhythm.
Feet began to stomp. The girls' bodies were swaying wildly, and Baque felt himself rocking back and forth as the music swept on recklessly. The girls finished their lyrics, and when he did not stop playing they began again. Spacers were on their feet, now, clapping and swaying. Some seized their women and began dancing in the narrow spaces between the tables. Finally Baque forced a cadence and slumped forward, panting and mopping his forehead. One of the girls collapsed onto the stage. The others hauled her to her feet, and the three of them fled to a frenzy of applause.
Baque felt a hand on his shoulder. Lankey. His ugly, expressionless face eyed Baque, turned to study the wildly enthusiastic customers, turned back to Baque. He nodded and walked away.
Rose returned alone, still breathing heavily. “How about a Sally Ann Perfume Com?”
Baque searched his memory and was chagrined to find no recollection of Sally Ann's Coms. “Tell me the words,” he said. She recited them tonelessly—a tragic little story about the shattered romance of a girl who did not use Sally Ann. “Now I remember,” Baque told her. “Shall we make them cry? Just concentrate on that. It's a sad story, and we're going to make them cry.”
She stood by the multichord and sang plaintively. Baque fashioned a muted, tremulous accompaniment, and when the second verse started he improvised a drooping countermelody. The spacers sat in hushed suspense. The men did not cry, but some of the women sniffed audibly, and when Rose finished there was a taut silence.
“Quick!” Baque hissed. “Let's brighten things up. Sing another Com—anything!”
She launched into a Puffed Bread Com, and Baque brought the spacers to their feet with the driving rhythm of his accompaniment.
The other girls took their turns, and Baque watched the customers detachedly, bewildered at the power that surged in his fingers. He carried them from one emotional extreme to the other and back again, improvising, experimenting. And his mind fumbled haltingly with an idea.
“Time for a break,” Rose said finally. “Better get something to eat.”
An hour and a half of continuous playing had left Baque drained of strength and emotion, and he accepted his dinner tray indifferently and took it to the enclosure they called his room. He did not feel hungry. He sniffed doubtfully at the food, tasted it—and ate ravenously. Real food, after months of synthetics!
When he'd finished he sat for a time on his cot, wondering how long the girls took between appearances, and then he went looking for Lankey.
“I don't like sitting around,” he said. “Any objection to my playing?”
“Without the girls?”
Lankey planted both elbows on the bar, cupped his chin in one fist, and sat looking absently at the far wall. “You going to sing yourself?” he asked finally.
“No. Just play.”
“Without any singing? Without words?”
“What'll you play?”
“Coms. Or I might improvise something.”
A long silence. Then—“Think you could keep things moving while the girls are out?”
“Of course I could.”
Lankey continued to concentrate on the far wall. His eyebrows contracted, relaxed, contracted again. “All right,” he said. “I was just wondering why I never thought of it.”
Unnoticed, Baque took his place at the multichord. He began softly, making the music an unobtrusive background to the rollicking conversation that filled the room. As he increased the volume, faces turned in his direction.
He wondered what these people were thinking as they heard for the first time music that was not a Com, music without words. He watched intently and satisfied himself that he was holding their attention. Now—could he bring them out of their seats with nothing more than the sterile tones of a multichord? He gave the melody a rhythmic snap, and the stomping began.
As he increased the volume again, Rose came stumbling out of a doorway and hurried across the stage, perplexity written on her pert face.
“It's all right,” Baque told her. “I'm just playing to amuse myself. Don't come back until you're ready.”
She nodded and walked away. A red-faced spacer near the platform looked up at the revealed outline of her young body and leered. Fascinated, Baque studied the coarse, demanding lust in his face and searched the keyboard to express it. This? Or—this? Or—
He had it. He felt himself caught up in the relentless rhythm. His foot tightened on the volume control, and he turned to watch the customers.
Every pair of eyes stared hypnotically at his corner of the room. A bartender stood at a half crouch, mouth agape. There was uneasiness, a strained shuffling of feet, a restless scraping of chairs. Baque's foot dug harder at the volume control.
His hands played on hypnotically, and he stared in horror at the scene that erupted below him. Lasciviousness twisted every face. Men were on their feet, reaching for the women, clutching, pawing. A chair crashed to the floor, and a table, and no one noticed. A woman's dress fluttered crazily downward, and the pursued were pursuers while Baque helplessly allowed his fingers to race onward, out of control.
With a violent effort he wrenched his hands from the keys, and the ensuing silence crashed the room like a clap of thunder. Fingers trembling, Baque began to play softly, indifferently. Order was restored when he looked again, the chair and table were upright, and the customers were seated in apparent relaxation except for one woman who struggled back into her dress in obvious embarrassment.
Baque continued to play quietly until the girls returned.
At six A.M., his body wracked with weariness, his hands aching, his legs cramped, Baque climbed down from the multichord. Lankey stood waiting for him. “Class One rates,” he said. “You've got a job with me as long as you want it. But take it a little easy with that stuff, will you?”
Baque remembered Val, alone in their dreary apartment and eating synthetic food. “Would I be out of order to ask for an advance?”
“No,” Lankey said. “Not out of order. I told the cashier to give you a hundred on your way out. Call it a bonus.”
Weary from his long conveyer ride, Baque walked quietly into his dim apartment and looked about. There was no sign of Val—she would still be sleeping. He sat down at his own multichord and touched the keys.
He felt awed and humble and disbelieving. Music without Coms, without words, could make people laugh and cry, and dance and cavort madly.
And it could turn them into lewd animals.
Wonderingly he played the music that had incited such unconcealed lust, played it louder, and louder—
And felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to look into Val's passion-twisted face.
He asked Hulsey to come and hear him that night, and later Hulsey sat slumped on the cot in his room and shuddered. “It isn't right. No man should have that power over people. How do you do it?”
“I don't know,” Baque said. “I saw that young couple sitting there, and they were happy, and I felt their happiness. And as I played everyone in the room was happy. And then another couple came in quarreling, and the next thing I knew I had everyone mad.”
“Almost started a fight at the next table,” Hulsey said. “And what you did after that—”
“Yes. But not as much as I did last night. You should have seen it last night.”
Hulsey shuddered again.
“I have a book about ancient Greek music,” Baque said. “They had something they called ethos. They thought that the different musical scales affected people in different ways—could make them sad, or happy, or even drive them crazy. They claimed that a musician named Orpheus could move trees and soften rocks with his music. Now listen. I've had a chance to experiment, and I've noticed that my playing is most effective when I don't use the filters. There are only two filters that work on that multichord anyway—flute and violin—but when I use either of them the people don't react so strongly. I'm wondering if maybe the effects the Greeks talk about were produced by their instruments, rather than their scales. I'm wondering if the tone of an unfiltered multichord might have something in common with the tones of the ancient Greek kithara or aulos.”
Hulsey grunted. “I don't think it's the instrument, or the scales either. I think it’s Baque, and I don't like it. You should have stayed a tunesmith.”
“I want you to help me,” Baque said. “I want to find a place where we can put a lot of people—a thousand, at least—not to eat, or watch Coms, but just to listen to one man play on a multichord.”
Hulsey got up abruptly. “Baque, you're a dangerous man. I'm damned if I'll trust any man who can make me feel the way you made me feel tonight. I don't know what you're trying to do, but I won't have any part of it.”
He stomped away in the manner of a man about to slam a door, but the room of a male multichordist at the Lankey-Pank Out did not rate that luxury. Hulsey paused uncertainly in the doorway, gave Baque a parting glare, and disappeared. Baque followed him as far as the main room and stood watching him weave his way impatiently past the tables to the exit.
From his place behind the bar, Lankey looked at Baque and then glanced after the disappearing Hulsey. “Troubles?” he asked.
Baque turned away wearily. “I've known that man for twenty years. I never thought he was my friend. But then—I never thought he was my enemy, either.”
“Sometimes it works out that way,” Lankey said.
Baque shook his head. “I'd like to try some Martian whisky. I've never tasted the stuff.”
Two weeks made Baque an institution, and the Lankey-Pank Out was jammed to capacity from the time he went to work until he left the next morning. When he performed alone, he forgot about Coms and played whatever he wanted. He even performed short pieces by Bach for the customers, and received generous applause, but the reaction was nothing like the tumultuous enthusiasm that followed his improvisations.
Sitting behind the bar, eating his evening meal and watching the impacted mass of customers, Baque felt vaguely happy. He was enjoying the work he was doing. For the first time in his life he had more money than he needed.
For the first time in his life he had a definite goal and a vague notion of a plan that would accomplish it—would eliminate the Coms altogether.
As Baque pushed his tray aside, he saw Biff the doorman step forward to greet a pair of newcomers, halt suddenly, and back away in stupefied amazement. And no wonder—evening clothes at the Lankey-Pank Out!
The couple halted near the door, blinking uncertainly in the dim, smoke-tinted light. The man was bronzed and handsome, but no one noticed him. The woman's beauty flashed like a meteor against the drab surroundings. She moved in an aura of shining loveliness, with her hair gleaming golden, her shimmering, flowing gown clinging seductively to her voluptuous figure, and her fragrance routing the foul tobacco and whisky odors.
In an instant all eyes were fixed on her, and a collective gasp encircled the room. Baque stared with the others and finally recognized her: Marigold, of Morning with Marigold. Worshiped around the Solar System by the millions of devotees to her visiscope program. Mistress, it was said, to James Denton, the czar of visiscope. Marigold Manning.
She raised a hand to her mouth in mock horror, and the bright tones of her laughter dropped tantalizingly among the spellbound spacers. “What an odd place! Where'd you ever hear about a place like this?”
“I need some Martian whisky, damn it,” the man said.
“So stupid of the port bar to run out. With all those ships from Mars coming in, too. Are you sure we can get back in time? Jimmy'll raise hell if we aren't there when he lands.”
Lankey touched Baque's arm. “After six,” he said, without taking his eyes from Marigold Manning. “They'll be getting impatient.”
Baque nodded and started for the multichord. The tumult began the moment the customers saw him. They abandoned Marigold Manning, leaped to their feet, and began a stomping, howling ovation. When Baque paused to acknowledge it, Marigold and her escort were staring openmouthed at the nondescript man who could inspire such undignified enthusiasm.
Her exclamation rang out sharply as Baque seated himself at the multichord and the ovation faded to an expectant silence. “What the hell!”
Baque shrugged and started to play. When Marigold finally left, after a brief conference with Lankey, her escort still hadn't got his Martian whisky.
The next evening Lankey greeted Baque with both fists full of telenotes. “What a hell of a mess this is! You see this Marigold dame's program this morning?”
Baque shook his head. “I haven't watched visiscope since I came to work here.”
“In case it interests you, you were—what does she call it?—a 'Marigold Exclusive' on visiscope this morning. Erlin Baque, the famous tunesmith, is now playing the multichord in a queer little restaurant called the Lankey-Pank Out. If you want to hear some amazing music, wander out to the New Jersey Space Port and listen to Baque. Don't miss it. The experience of a lifetime.” Lankey swore and waved the telenotes. “Queer, she calls us. Now I've got ten thousand requests for reservations, some from as far away as Budapest and Shanghai. And our capacity is five hundred, counting standing room. Damn that woman! We already had all the business we could handle.”
“You need a bigger place,” Baque said.
“Yes. Well, confidentially, I've got my eye on a big warehouse. It'll seat a thousand, at least. We'll clean up. I'll give you a contract to take charge of the music.”
Baque shook his head. “How about opening a big place uptown? Attract people that have more money to spend. You run it, and I'll bring in the customers.”
Lankey caressed his flattened nose thoughtfully. “How do we split?”
“Fifty-fifty,” Baque said.
“No,” Lankey said, shaking his head slowly. “I play fair, Baque, but fifty-fifty wouldn't be right on a deal like that. I'd have to put up all the money myself. I'll give you one-third to handle the music.”
They had a lawyer draw up a contract. Baque's lawyer. Lankey insisted on that.
In the bleak gray of early morning Baque sleepily rode the crowded conveyer toward his apartment. It was the peak rush load, when commuters jammed against each other and snarled grumpily when a neighbor shifted his feet. The crowd seemed even heavier than usual, but Baque shrugged off the jostling and elbowing and lost himself in thought.
It was time that he found a better place to live. He hadn't minded the dumpy apartment as long as he could afford nothing better, but Val had been complaining for years. And now when they could move, when they could have a luxury apartment or even a small home over in Pennsylvania, Val refused to go. Didn't want to leave her friends, she said.
Mulling over this problem in feminine contrariness, Baque realized suddenly that he was approaching his own stop. He attempted to move toward a deceleration strip—he shoved firmly, he tried to step between his fellow riders, he applied his elbows, first gently and then viciously. The crowd about him did not yield.
“I beg your pardon,” Baque said, making another attempt. “I get off here.” This time a pair of brawny arms barred his way. “Not this morning, Baque. You got an appointment uptown.”
Baque flung a glance at the circle of hard, grinning faces that surrounded him. With a sudden effort he hurled himself sideways, fighting with all of his strength. The arms hauled him back roughly.
“Uptown, Baque. If you want to go dead, that's your affair.”
“Uptown,” Baque agreed.
At a public parking strip they left the conveyer. A flyer was waiting for them, a plush, private job that displayed a high-priority X registration number. They flew swiftly toward Manhattan, cutting across air lanes with a monumental contempt for regulations, and they veered in for a landing on the towering Visiscope International building. Baque was bundled down an anti-grav shaft, led through a labyrinth of corridors, and finally prodded none too gently into an office.
It was a huge room, and its sparse furnishings made it look more enormous than it was. It contained only a desk, a few chairs, a bar in the far corner, an enormous visiscope screen—and a multichord. The desk was occupied, but it was the group of men about the bar that caught Baque's attention. His gaze swept the blur effaces and found one that he recognized: Hulsey.
The plump agent took two steps forward and stood glaring at Baque. “Day of reckoning, Erlin,” he said coldly.
A hand rapped sharply on the desk. “I take care of any reckoning that's done around here, Hulsey. Please sit down, Mr. Baque.”
A chair was thrust forward, and Baque seated himself and waited nervously, his eyes on the man behind the desk.
“My name is James Denton. Does my fame extend to such a remote place as the Lankey-Pank Out?”
“No,” Baque said. “But I've heard of you.”
James Denton. Czar of Visiscope International. Ruthless arbiter of public taste. He was no more than forty, with a swarthy, handsome face, flashing eyes, and a ready smile.
He tapped a cigar on the edge of his desk and carefully placed it in his mouth. Men sprang forward with lighters extended, and he chose one without looking up, puffed deeply, and nodded.
“I won't bore you with introductions to this gathering, Baque. Some of these men are here for professional reasons. Some are here because they're curious. I heard about you for the first time yesterday, and what I heard made me want to find out whether you're a potential asset that might be made use of, or a potential nuisance that should be eliminated, or a nonentity that can be ignored. When I want to know something, Baque, I waste no time about it.” He chuckled. “As you can see from the fact that I had you brought in at the earliest moment you were—shall we say—available.”
“The man's dangerous, Denton!” Hulsey blurted.
Denton flashed his smile. “I like dangerous men, Hulsey. They're useful to have around. If I can use whatever it is Mr. Baque has, I'll make him an attractive offer. I'm sure he'll accept it gratefully. If I can't use it, I aim to make damned certain that he won't be inconveniencing me. Do I make myself clear, Baque?”
Baque, looking past Denton to avoid his eyes, said nothing.
Denton leaned forward. His smile did not waver, but his eyes narrowed and his voice was suddenly icy. “Do I make myself clear, Baque?”
“Yes,” Baque muttered weakly.
Denton jerked a thumb toward the door, and half of those present, including Hulsey, solemnly filed out. The others waited, talking in whispers, while Denton puffed steadily on his cigar. Finally an intercom rasped a single word. “Ready!”
Denton pointed at the multichord. “We crave a demonstration of your skill, Mr. Baque. And take care that it's a good demonstration. Hulsey is listening, and he can tell us if you try to stall.”
Baque nodded and took his place at the multichord. He sat with fingers poised, timidly looking up at a circle of staring faces. Overlords of business, they were, and of science and industry, and never in their lives had they heard real music. As for Hulsey—yes, Hulsey would be listening, but over Denton's intercom, over a communication system designed to carry voices.
And Hulsey had a terrible ear for music.
Baque grinned contemptuously, touched the violin filter, touched it again, and faltered.
Denton chuckled dryly. “I neglected to inform you, Mr. Baque. On Hulsey's advice, we've had the filters disconnected.”
Anger surged within Baque. He jammed his foot down hard on the volume control, insolently tapped out a visiscope fanfare, and started to play his Tamper Cheese Com. Denton, his own anger evident in his flushed face, leaned forward and snarled something. The men around him stirred uneasily. Baque shifted to another Com, improvised some variations, and began to watch the circle of faces. Overlords of industry, science and business. It would be amusing, he thought, to make them stomp their feet. His fingers shaped a compelling rhythm, and they began to sway restlessly.
He forgot his resolution to play cautiously. Laughing silently to himself, he released an overpowering torrent of sound that set the men dancing and brought Denton to his feet. He froze them in ridiculous postures with an outburst of surging emotion. He made them stomp recklessly, he brought tears to their eyes, and he finished off with the pounding force that Lankey called, “Sex Music.”
Then he slumped over the keyboard, terrified at what he had done.
Denton stood behind his desk, face pale, hands clenching and unclenching. “Good God!” he muttered.
He snarled a word at his intercom. “Reaction?”
“Negative,” came the prompt answer.
“Let's wind it up.”
Denton sat down, passed his hands across his face, and turned to Baque with a bland smile. “An impressive performance, Mr. Baque. We'll know in a few minutes—ah, here they are.”
Those who had left earlier filed back into the room, and several men huddled together in a whispered conference. Denton left his desk and paced the floor meditatively. The other men in the room, including Hulsey, gravitated toward the bar.
Baque kept his place at the multichord and watched the conference uneasily. Once he accidentally touched a key, and the single tone shattered the poise of the conferees, halted Denton in midstride, and startled Hulsey into spilling his drink.
“Mr. Baque is getting impatient,” Denton called. “Can't we finish this?”
“One moment, sir.”
Finally they filed toward Denton's desk. The spokesman, a white-haired, scholarly-looking man with a delicate pink complexion, cleared his throat self-consciously and waited until Denton had returned to his chair.
“It is established,” he said, “that those in this room were powerfully affected by the music. Those listening on the intercom experienced no reaction except a mild boredom.”
“I didn't call you in here to state the obvious,” Denton snapped. “How does he do it?”
“We can only offer a working hypothesis.”
“So you're guessing. Let's have it.”
“Erlin Baque has the ability to telepathically project his emotional experience. When the projection is subtly reinforced by his multichord playing, those in his immediate presence share that experience intensely. The projection has no effect upon those listening to his music at a distance.”
“He could not project his emotions by way of visiscope.”
“I see,” Denton said. A meditative scowl twisted his face. “What about his long-term effectiveness?”
“It's difficult to predict—”
“Predict, damn it!”
“The novelty of his playing would attract attention, at first. While the novelty lasted he might become a kind of fad. By the time his public lost interest he would probably have a small group of followers who would use the emotional experience of his playing as… a narcotic.”
“Thank you, gentlemen. That will be all.”
The room emptied quickly. Hulsey paused in the doorway, glared hatefully at Baque, and then walked out meekly.
“Obviously you're no nonentity,” Denton said, “but whatever it is you have is of no use to me. Unfortunately. If you could project on visiscope, you'd be worth a billion an hour in advertising revenue. Fortunately for you, your nuisance rating is fairly low. I know what you and Lankey are up to. If I say the word, you'll never in this lifetime find a place for your new restaurant. I could have the Lankey-Pank Out closed down within an hour, but it would hardly be worth the trouble. If you can develop a cult for yourself, why—perhaps it will keep the members out of worse mischief. I'm feeling so generous this morning that I won't even insist on a visiscope screen in your new restaurant. Now you'd better leave, Baque, before I change my mind.”
Baque got to his feet. At that moment Marigold Manning swept into the room, radiantly lovely, exotically perfumed, her glistening blonde hair swept up into a new and tantalizing hair style.
“Jimmy, darling—oh!” She stared at Baque, stared at the multichord, and stammered, “Why, you're—you're—Erlin Baque! Jimmy, why didn't you tell me?”
“Mr. Baque has been favoring me with a private performance,” Denton said brusquely. “I think we understand each other, Baque. Good morning.”
“You're going to put him on visiscope!” Marigold exclaimed. “Jimmy, that's wonderful. May I have him first? I can work him in this morning.”
Denton shook his head. “Sorry, darling. We've decided that Mr. Baque's talent is not quite suitable for visiscope.”
“At least I can have him for a guest. You'll be my guest, won't you, Mr. Baque? There's nothing wrong with giving him a guest spot, is there, Jimmy?”
Denton chuckled. “No. After all the fuss you stirred up, it might be a good idea for you to guest him. It'll serve you right when he bombs.”
“He won't bomb. He'll be wonderful on visiscope. Will you come in this morning, Mr. Baque?”
“Well—” Baque began. Denton was nodding at him emphatically. “We'll be opening a new restaurant soon. I wouldn't mind being your guest on opening day.”
“A new restaurant? That's wonderful. Does anyone know? I'll give it out this morning as an exclusive!”
“It isn't exactly settled, yet,” Baque said apologetically. “We haven't found a place yet.”
“Lankey found a place yesterday,” Denton said. “He's having a contractor check it over this morning, and if no snags develop he'll sign a lease. Just let Miss Manning know your opening date, Baque, and she'll arrange a spot for you. Now if you don't mind—”
It took Baque half an hour to find his way out of the building, but he plodded aimlessly along the corridors and disdained asking directions. He hummed happily to himself, and now and then he broke into a laugh.
The overlords of business and industry—and their scientists—knew nothing about overtones.
“So that's the way it is,” Lankey said. “You seem to have no notion of how lucky you were—how lucky we were. Denton should have made his move when he had a chance. Now we know what to expect, and when he finally wises up it'll be too late.”
“What could we do if he decided to put us out of business?”
“I have a few connections myself, Baque. They don't run in high society, like Denton, but they're every bit as dishonest, and Denton has a lot of enemies who'll be happy to back us. Said he could close me down in an hour, eh? Unfortunately there's not much we could do that would hurt Denton, but there's plenty we can do to keep him from hurting us.”
“I think we're going to hurt Denton,” Baque said.
Lankey moved over to the bar and came back with a tall glass of pink, foaming liquid. “Drink it,” he said. “You've had a long day, and you're getting delirious. How could we hurt Denton?”
“Visiscope depends on Coms. We'll show the people they can have entertainment without Coms. We'll make our motto NO COMS AT LANKEY'S!”
“Great,” Lankey drawled. “I invest a thousand in fancy new costumes for the girls—they can't wear those plastic things in our new place, you know—and you decide not to let them sing.”
“Certainly they're going to sing.”
Lankey leaned forward, caressing his nose. “And no Coms. Then what are they going to sing?”
“I took some lyrics out of an old school book my grandfather had. Back in those days they were called poems. I'm setting them to music. I was going to try them out here, but Denton might hear about it, and there's no use starting trouble before it's necessary.”
“No. Save all the trouble for the new place—after opening day we'll be important enough to be able to handle it. And you'll be on Morning with Marigold. Are you certain about this overtones business, Baque? You really could be projecting emotions, you know. Not that it makes any difference in the restaurant, but on visiscope—”
“I'm certain. How soon can we open?”
“I got three shifts remodeling the place. We'll seat twelve hundred and still have room for a nice dance floor. Should be ready in two weeks. Baque, I'm not sure this visiscope thing is wise.”
“I want to do it.”
Lankey went back to the bar and got a drink for himself. “All right. You do it. If your stuff comes over, all hell is going to break loose, and I might as well start getting ready for it.” He grinned. “Damned if it won't be good for business!”
Marigold Manning had changed her hair styling to a spiraled creation by Zann of Hong Kong, and she dallied for ten minutes in deciding which profile she would present to the cameras. Baque waited patiently, his awkward feeling wholly derived from the fact that his dress suit was the most expensive clothing he had ever owned. He kept telling himself to stop wondering if perhaps he really did project emotions.
“I'll have it this way,” Marigold said finally, waving a hand screen in front of her face for a last, searching look. “And you, Mr. Baque? What shall we do with you?”
“Just put me at the multichord,” Baque said.
“But you can't just play. You'll have to say something. I've been announcing this every day for a week, and we'll have the biggest audience in years, and you'll just have to say something.”
“Gladly,” Baque said, “if I can talk about Lankey's.”
“But of course, you silly man. That's why you're here. You talk about Lankey's, and I'll talk about Erlin Baque.”
“Five minutes,” a voice announced crisply.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “I'm always so nervous just before.”
“Be happy you're not nervous during,” Baque said.
“That's so right. Jimmy makes fun of me, but it takes an artist to understand another artist. Do you get nervous?”
“When I'm playing, I'm much too busy.”
“That's just the way it is with me. Once my program starts, I'm much too busy.”
“Oh, bother!” She seized the hand screen again. “Maybe I would be better the other way.”
Baque seated himself at the multichord. “You're perfect the way you are.”
“Do you really think so? It's a nice thing to say, anyway. I wonder if Jimmy will take the time to watch.”
“I'm sure he will.”
Baque switched on the power and sounded a chord. Now he was nervous. He had no idea what he would play. He'd intentionally refrained from preparing anything because it was his improvisations that affected people so strangely. The one thing he had to avoid was the Sex Music. Lankey had been emphatic about that.
He lost himself in thought, failed to hear the final warning, and looked up startled at Marigold's cheerful, “Good morning, everyone. It's Morning with Marigold!”
Her bright voice wandered on and on. Erlin Baque. His career as a tunesmith. Her amazing discovery of him playing in the Lankey-Pank Out. She asked the engineers to run the Tamper Cheese Com. Finally she finished her remajks and risked the distortion of her lovely profile to glance in his direction. “Ladies and gentlemen, with admiration, with pride, with pleasure, I give you a Marigold Exclusive, Erlin Baque!”
Baque grinned nervously and tapped out a scale with one finger. “This is my first speech. Probably it'll be my last. The new restaurant opens tonight. Lankey's, on Broadway. Unfortunately I can't invite you to join us, because thanks to Miss Manning's generous comments this past week all space is reserved for the next two months. After that we'll be setting aside a limited number of reservations for visitors from distant places. Jet over and see us!
“You'll find something different at Lankey's. There is no visiscope screen. Maybe you've heard about that. We have attractive young ladies to sing for you. I play the multichord. We know you'll enjoy our music. We know you'll enjoy it because you'll hear no Coms at Lankey's. Remember that—no Coms at Lankey's. No soap with your soup. No air cars with your steaks. No shirts with your desserts. No Coms! Just good food, with good music played exclusively for your enjoyment—like this.”
He brought his hands down onto the keyboard.
Immediately he knew that something was wrong. He'd always had a throng of faces to watch, he'd paced his playing according to their reactions. Now he had only Miss Manning and the visiscope engineers, and he was suddenly apprehensive that his success had been wholly due to his audiences. People were listening throughout the Western Hemisphere. Would they clap and stomp, would they think awesomely, “So that's how music sounds without words, without Coms!” Or would they turn away in boredom?
Baque caught a glimpse of Marigold's pale face, of the engineers watching with mouths agape, and thought perhaps everything was all right. He lost himself in the music and played fervently.
He continued to play even after the pilot screen went blank. Miss Manning leaped to her feet and hurried toward him, and the engineers were moving about confusedly. Finally Baque brought his playing to a halt.
“We were cut off,” Miss Manning said tearfully. “Who would do such a thing to me? Never, never, in all the time I've been on visiscope—George, who cut us off?”
“My orders!” James Denton strode toward them, lips tight, face pale, eyes gleaming violence and sudden death. He spat words at Baque. “I don't know how you worked that trick, but no man fools James Denton more than once. Now you've made yourself a nuisance that has to be eliminated.”
“Jimmy!” Miss Manning wailed. “My program—cut off. How could you?”
“Shut up, damn it! I just passed the word, Baque. Lankey's doesn't open tonight. Not that it'll make any difference to you.”
Baque smiled gently. “I think you've lost, Denton. I think enough music got through to beat you. By tomorrow you'll have a million complaints. So will the government, and then you'll find out who really runs Visiscope International.”
“I run Visiscope International.”
“No, Denton. It belongs to the people. They've let things slide for a long time, and they've taken anything you'd give them. But if they know what they want, they'll get it. I gave them at least three minutes of what they want. That was more than I'd hoped for.”
“How'd you work that trick in my office?”
“That wasn't my trick, Denton—it was yours. You transmitted the music on a voice intercom. It didn't carry the overtones, the upper frequencies, so the multichord sounded dead to the men in the other room. Visiscope has the full frequency range of live sound.”
Denton nodded. “I'll have the heads of some scientists for that. I'll also have your head, though I regret the waste. If you'd played square with me I'd have made you a live billionaire. The only alternative is a dead musician.”
He stalked away, and as the automatic door closed behind him, Marigold Manning clutched Baque's arm. “Quick! Follow me!” Baque hesitated, and she hissed, “Don't stand there like an idiot! He's going to have you killed!”
She led him through a control room and out into a small corridor. They raced the length of it, darted through a reception room and passed a startled secretary without a word, and burst through a rear door into another corridor. She jerked Baque after her into an anti-grav lift, and they shot upward. At the top of the building she hurried him to an air car strip and left him standing in a doorway. “When I give you a signal, you walk out,” she said. “Don't run, just walk.”
She calmly approached an attendant, and Baque heard his surprised greeting. “Through early this morning, Miss Manning?”
“We're running a lot of Coms,” she said. “I want the big Waring.”
“Coming right up.”
Peering around the corner, Baque saw her step into the flyer. As soon as the attendant's back was turned, she waved frantically. Baque walked carefully toward her, keeping the flyer between the attendant and himself. A moment later they were airborne, and far below them a siren was sounding faintly.
“We did it!” she gasped. “If you hadn't got away before that alarm sounded, you wouldn't have left the building alive.”
“Well, thanks,” Baque said, looking back at the Visiscope International building. “But surely this wasn't necessary. Earth is a civilized planet.”
“Visiscope International is not civilized!” she snapped.
He looked at her wonderingly. Her face was flushed, her eyes wide with fear, and for the first time Baque saw her as a human bejrig, a woman, a lovely woman. As he looked, she turned away and burst into tears.
“Now Jimmy'll have me killed, too. And where can we go?”
“Lankey's,” Baque said. “Look—you can see it from here.” She pointed the flyer at the freshly painted letters on the strip above the new restaurant, and Baque, looking backward, saw a crowd forming in the street by Visiscope International.
Lankey floated his desk over to the wall and leaned back comfortably. He wore a trim dress suit, and he'd carefully groomed himself for the role of a jovial host, but in his office he was the same ungainly Lankey that Baque had first seen leaning over a bar.
“I told you all hell would break loose,” he said, grinning. “There are five thousand people over by Visiscope International, and they're screaming for Erlin Baque. And the crowd is growing.”
“I didn't play for more than three minutes,” Baque said. “I thought a lot of people might write in to complain about Denton cutting me off, but I didn't expect anything like this.”
“You didn't, eh? Five thousand people—maybe ten thousand by now—and Miss Manning risks her neck to get you out of the place. Ask her why, Baque.”
“Yes,” Baque said. “Why go to all that trouble for me?”
She shuddered. “Your music does things to me.”
“It sure does,” Lankey said. “Baque, you fool, you gave a quarter of Earth's population three minutes of Sex Music!”
Lankey's opened on schedule that evening, with crowds filling the street outside and struggling through the doors as long as there was standing room. The shrewd Lankey had instituted an admission charge. The standees bought no food, and Lankey saw no point in furnishing free music, even if people were willing to stand to hear it.
He made one last-minute change in plans. Astutely reasoning that the customers would prefer a glamorous hostess to a flat-nosed elderly host, he hired Marigold Manning. She moved about gracefully, the deep blue of her flowing gown offsetting her golden hair.
When Baque took his place at the multichord, the frenzied ovation lasted for twenty minutes.
Midway through the evening Baque sought out Lankey. “Has Denton tried anything?”
“Nothing that I've noticed. Everything is running smoothly.”
“That seems odd. He swore we wouldn't open tonight.”
Lankey chuckled. “He's had troubles of his own to worry about. The authorities are on his neck about the rioting. I was afraid they'd blame you, but they didn't. Denton put you on visiscope, and then he cut you off, and they figure he's responsible. And according to my last report, Visiscope International has had more than ten million complaints. Don't worry, Baque. We'll hear from Denton soon enough, and the guilds, too.”
“The guilds? Why the guilds?”
“The Tunesmiths' Guild will be damned furious aboiut your dropping the Coms. The Lyric Writers' Guild will go along with them on account of the Coms and because you're using music without words. The Performers' Guild already has it in for you because not many of its members can play worth a damn, and of course it'll support the other guilds. By tomorrow morning, Baque, you'll be the most popular man in the Solar System, and the sponsors, and the visiscope people, and the guilds are going to hate your guts. I'm giving you a twenty-four-hour bodyguard. Miss Manning, too. I want both of you to come out of this alive.”
“Do you really think Denton would—”
The next morning the Performers' Guild blacklisted Lankey's and ordered all the musicians, including Baque, to sever relations. Rose and the other singers joined Baque in respectfully declining, and they found themselves blacklisted before noon. Lankey called in an attorney, the most sinister, furtive, disreputable-looking individual Baque had ever seen.
“They're supposed to give us a week's notice,” Lankey said, “and another week if we decide to appeal. I'll sue them for five million.”
The Commissioner of Public Safety called, and on his heels came the Health Commissioner and the Liquor Commissioner. All three conferred briefly with Lankey and departed grim-faced.
“Denton's moving too late,” Lankey said gleefully. “I got to all of them a week ago and recorded our conversations. They don't dare take any action.”
A riot broke out in front of Lankey's that night. Lankey had his own riot squad ready for action, and the customers never noticed the disturbance. Lankey's informants estimated that more than fifty million complaints had been received by Visiscope International, and a dozen governmental agencies had scheduled investigations. Anti-Com demonstrations began to errupt spontaneously, and five hundred visiscope screens were smashed in Manhattan restaurants.
Lankey's finished its first week unmolested, entertaining capacity crowds daily. Reservations were pouring in from as far away as Pluto, where a returning space detachment voted to spend its first night of leave at Lankey's. Baque sent to Berlin for a multichordist to understudy him, and Lankey hoped by the end of the month to have the restaurant open twenty-four hours a day.
At the beginning of the second week, Lankey told Baque, “We've got Denton licked. I've countered every move he's made, and now we're going to make a few moves. You're going on visiscope again. I'm making application today. We're a legitimate business, and we've got as much right to buy time as anyone else. If he won't give it to us, I'll sue. But he won't dare refuse.”
“Where do you get the money for this?” Baque asked.
Lankey grinned. “I saved it up—a little of it. Mostly I've had help from people who don't like Denton.”
Denton didn't refuse. Baque did an Earth-wide program direct from Lankey's, with Marigold Manning introducing him. He omitted only the Sex Music.
Quitting time at Lankey's. Baque was in his dressing room, wearily changing. Lankey had already left for an early-morning conference with his attorney. They were speculating on Denton's next move.
Baque was uneasy. He was, he told himself, only a dumb musician. He didn't understand legal problems or the tangled web of connections and influence that Lankey negotiated so easily. He knew James Denton was evil incarnate, and he also knew that Denton had enough money to buy Lankey a thousand times over, or to buy the murder of anyone who got in his way. What was he waiting for? Given enough time, Baque might deliver a deathblow to the entire institution of Coms. Surely Denton would know that.
So what was he waiting for?
The door burst open, and Marigold Manning stumbled in half undressed, her pale face the bleached whiteness of her plastic breast cups. She slammed the door and leaned against it, sobs shaking her body.
“Jimmy,” she gasped. “I got a note from Carol—that's his secretary. She was a good friend of mine. She says Jimmy's bribed our guards, and they're going to kill us on the way home this morning. Or let Jimmy's men kill us.”
“I'll call Lankey,” Baque said. “There's nothing to worry about.”
“No! If they suspect anything they won't wait. We won't have a chance.”
“Then we'll just wait until Lankey gets back.”
“Do you think it's safe to wait? They know we're getting ready to leave.”
Baque sat down heavily. It was the sort of move he expected Denton to make. Lankey picked his men carefully, he knew, but Denton had enough money to buy any man. And yet—
“Maybe it's a trap. Maybe that note's a fake.”
“No. I saw that fat little snake Hulsey talking with one of your guards last night, and I knew then that Jimmy was up to something.”
“What do you want to do?” Baque asked.
“Could we go out the back way?”
“I don't know. We'd have to get past at least one guard.”
“Couldn't we try?”
Baque hesitated. She was frightened—she was sick with fright—but she knew far more about this sort of thing than he did, and she knew James Denton. Without her help he'd never have got out of the Visiscope International building.
“If you think that's the thing to do, we'll try it.”
“I'll have to finish changing.”
“Go ahead. Let me know when you're ready.”
She opened the door a crack and looked out cautiously. “No. You come with me.”
Minutes later, Baque and Miss Manning walked leisurely along the corridor at the back of the building, nodded to the two guards on duty there, and with a sudden movement were through the door. Running. A shout of surprise came from behind them, but no one followed. They dashed frantically down an alley, turned off, reached another intersection, and hesitated.
“The conveyer is that way,” she gasped. “If we can reach the conveyer—”
They ran on, hand in hand. Far ahead of them the alley opened onto a street. Baque glanced anxiously upward for air cars and saw none. Exactly where they were he did not know.
“Are we—being followed?” she asked.
“I don't think so,” Baque panted. “There aren't any air cars, and I didn't see anyone behind us when we stopped.”
“Then we got away!”
A man stepped abruptly out of the dawn shadows thirty feet ahead. As they halted, stricken dumb with panic, he walked slowly toward them. A hat was pulled low over his face, but there was no mistaking the smile. James Denton.
“Good morning, Beautiful,” he said. “Visiscope International hasn't been the same without your lovely presence. And a good morning to you, Mr. Baque.”
They stood silently, Miss Manning's hand clutching Baque's arm, her nails cutting through his shirt and into his flesh. He did not move.
“I thought you'd fall for that little gag, Beautiful. I thought you'd be just frightened enough, by now, to fall for it. I have every exit blocked, but I'm grateful to you for picking this one. Very grateful. I like to settle a double cross in person.”
Suddenly he whirled on Baque, his voice an angry snarl. “Get going, Baque. It isn't your turn. I have other plans for you.” Baque stood rooted to the damp pavement. “Move, Baque, before I change my mind.”
Miss Manning released his arm. Her voice was a choking whisper. “Go!”
“Baque!” Denton snarled.
“Go, quickly!” she whispered again. Baque took two hesitant steps.
“Run!” Denton shouted.
Baque ran. Behind him there was the evil crack of a gun, a scream, and silence. Baque faltered, saw Denton looking after him, and ran on.
“So I'M A coward,” Baque said.
“No, Baque.” Lankey shook his head slowly. “You're a brave man, or you wouldn't have got into this. Trying something there would have been foolishness, not bravery. It's my fault, for thinking he'd move first against the restaurant. I owe Denton something for this, and I'm a man who pays his debts.”
A troubled frown creased Lankey's ugly face. He looked perplexedly at Baque. “She was a brave and beautiful woman, Baque,” he said, absently caressing his flat nose. “But I wonder why Denton let you go.”
The air of tragedy that hung heavily over Lankey's that night did not affect its customers. They gave Baque a thunderous ovation as he moved toward the multichord. As he paused for a halfhearted acknowledgement, three policemen closed in on him.
“You're under arrest.”
Baque faced them grimly. “What's the charge?” he asked.
The murder of Marigold Manning.
Lankey pressed his mournful face against the bars and talked unhurriedly. “They have some witnesses,” he said. “Honest witnesses, who saw you run out of that alley. They have several dishonest witnesses who claim they saw you fire the shot. One of them is your friend Hulsey, who just happened to be taking an early-morning stroll along that alley—or so he'll testify. Denton would probably spend a million to convict you, but he won't have to. He won't even have to bribe the jury. The case against you is that good.”
“What about the gun?” Baque asked.
“They'll have a witness who'll claim he sold it to you.”
Baque nodded. Things were out of his hands, now. He'd worked for a cause that no one understood—perhaps he hadn't understood himself what he was trying to do. And he'd lost.
“What happens next?” he asked.
Lankey shook his head sadly. “I'm not one to hold back bad news. It means life. They're going to send you to the Ganymede rock pits for life.”
“I see,” Baque said. He added anxiously, “You're going to carry on?”
“Just what were you trying to do, Baque? You weren't only working for Lankey's. I couldn't figure it out, but I went along with you because I like you. And I like your music. What was it?”
“I don't know. Music, I suppose. People listening to music. Getting rid of the Coms, or some of them. Perhaps if I'd known what I wanted to do—”
“Yes. Yes, I think I understand. Lankey's will carry on, Baque, as long as I have any breath left, and I'm not just being noble. Business is tremendous. That new multichord player isn't bad at all. He's nothing like you were, but there'll never be another one like you. We could be sold out for the next five years if we wanted to book reservations that far ahead. The other restaurants are doing away with visiscope and trying to imitate us, but we have a big head start. We'll carry on the way you had things set up, and your one-third still stands. I'll have it put in trust for you. You be a wealthy man when you get back.”
“When I get back!”
“Well—a life sentence doesn't necessarily mean life. See that you behave yourself.”
“She'll be taken care of. I'll give her a job of some kind to keep her occupied.”
“Maybe I can send you music for the restaurant,” Baque said. “I should have plenty of time.”
“I'm afraid not. It's music they want to keep you away from. So—no writing of music. And they won't let you near a multichord. They think you could hypnotize the guards and turn all the prisoners loose.”
“Would they—let me have my record collection?”
“I'm afraid not.”
“I see. Well, if that's the way it is—”
“It is. Now I owe Denton two debts.”
The unemotional Lankey had tears in his eyes as he turned away.
The jury deliberated for eight minutes and brought in a verdict of guilty. Baque was sentenced to life imprisonment. There was some editorial grumbling on visiscope, because life in the Ganymede rock pits was frequently a very short life.
And there was a swelling undertone of whispering among the little people that the verdict had been bought and paid for by the sponsors, by visiscope. Erlin Baque was framed, it was said, because he gave the people music.
And on the day Baque left for Ganymede, announcement was made of a public exhibition, by H. Vail, multichordist, and B. Johnson, violinist. Admission one dollar.
Lankey collected evidence with painstaking care, rebribed one of the bribed witnesses, and petitioned for a new trial. The petition was denied, and the long years limped past.
The New York Symphony Orchestra was organized, with twenty members. One of James Denton's plush air cars crashed, and he was instantly killed. An unfortunate accident. A millionaire who once heard Erlin Baque play on visiscope endowed a dozen conservatories of music. They were to be called the Baque Conservatories, but a musical historian who had never heard of Baque got the name changed to Bach.
Lankey died, and a son-in-law carried on his efforts as a family trust. A subscription was launched to build a new hall for the New York Symphony, which now numbered forty members. The project gathered force like an avalanche, and a site was finally chosen in Ohio, where the hall would be within easier commuting distance of all parts of the North American continent. Beethoven Hall was erected, seating forty thousand people. The first concert series was fully subscribed forty-eight hours after tickets went on sale.
Opera was given on visiscope for the first time in two hundred years. An opera house was built on the Ohio site, and then an art institute. The Center grew, first by private subscription and then under governmental sponsorship. Lankey's son-in-law died, and a nephew took over the management of Lankey's—and the campaign to free Erlin Baque. Thirty years passed, and then forty.
And forty-nine years, seven months and nineteen days after Baque received his life sentence, he was paroled. He still owned a third interest in Manhattan's most prosperous restaurant, and the profits that had accrued over the years made him an extremely wealthy man. He was ninety-six years old.
Another capacity crowd at Beethoven Hall. Vacationists from all parts of the Solar System, music lovers who commuted for the concerts, old people who had retired to the Center, young people on educational excursions, forty thousand of them, stirred restlessly and searched the wings for the conductor. Applause thundered down from the twelve balconies as he strode forward.
Erlin Baque sat in his permanent seat at the rear of the main floor. He adjusted his binoculars and peered at the orchestra, wondering again what a contrabassoon sounded like. His bitterness he had left behind on Ganymede. His life at the Center was an unending revelation of miracles.
Of course no one remembered Erlin Baque, tunesmith and murderer. Whole generations of people could not even remember the Coms. And yet Baque felt that he had accomplished all of this just as assuredly as though he had built this building—built the Center—with his own hands. He spread his hands before him, hands deformed by the years in the rock pits, fingers and tips of fingers crushed off, his body maimed by cascading rocks. He had no regrets. He had done his work well.
Two ushers stood in the aisle behind him. One jerked a thumb in his direction and whispered, “Now there's a character for you. Comes to every concert. Never misses one. And he just sits there in the back row watching people. They say he was one of the old tunesmiths, years and years ago.”
“Maybe he likes music,” the other said.
“Naw. Those old tunesmiths never knew anything about music. Besides—he's deaf.”