1200 words, short story
Rondo for Strings and Lasergun
While the main theme of Quispe’s Rondo for Cello and Orchestra hugs the shoreline of Romanticism, the episodes between refrains climb the Andes to harvest the folk music of the composer’s youth, returning richer for each excursion.
Chasca Huapaya loses herself in the performance. Her bow glides, skitters, bounces, grinds. She uses the body of the instrument as a drum. She strums the strings with her fingernails like a street-corner charango player. Her black hair flies free from its pins to cling to her youthful cheeks. Her fingers strike with perfect precision.
When the piece crashes to a close, the audience’s applause thunders her from her trance. The conductor pulls her to her feet. She reminds herself to smile.
The Argentine-Bolivian Curate pins the performance to the top of their newsfeed: “Sixteen-year-old Prodigy Electrifies International Music Competition.” People craving hopeful news see “the tiny girl playing with nuclear fury” and make it the most viewed holovid in the world for an entire week, more popular even than updates on the war or the latest speculations about the Phages.
Nineteen months later, a high-speed skimmer derails in the Andes, scattering its passengers over kilometers of frozen mountainside. There are many tragedies in the world, however, and this one is merely a blip in the newsfeeds. Some viewers half recall the name Chasca Huapaya when she is listed among the survivors, but between all the wartime rationing and the horrifying videos of the Miami Incursion, few care that a promising musician has lost all feeling in her hands to frostbite.
There is a treatment, but it is, like most cutting-edge procedures, reserved for members of the Terran Protectorate.
“Your small size will be perfect for piloting a Laserlance,” says the recruiter. “Play your music later, when you’re a hero. For now, sign up, get healed, and save the earth from the Phages.”
Four years’ service seems a small price for fingers that can once again strike with perfect precision.
“Play your music later,” Chasca sings to herself through surgery and recovery.
“Play your music later,” she whispers under her breath during basic training and first deployment.
“Play your music later,” she curses through gritted teeth as she strafes the amoeba-like Phages, slicing them apart around the moons of Uranus.
There is no room in the nest of a Laserlance for anything but its pilot.
Sometimes, though, Chasca dances her fingers along the feeding tube like it’s the neck of a cello.
Chasca uses half a year’s pay to print an electric cello at the fabrication depot on Oberon, but it feels wrong. The fingerboard and body are one continuous piece—a long, flat board without a hint of curve. With the push of a button, the artificial strings retract into the pegboard so the entire thing can fold down to the size of Chasca’s forearm. It sounds lifeless, no matter the reverb setting.
Even more troubling: whenever she tries to play, her attention spins off into the void like bits of detritus. A# is particularly problematic. It’s the exact pitch used to scramble the pilots to their lances. When she holds an A#, Chasca’s bowing arm trembles.
Often, after practice sessions, she vows to recycle the hateful thing. But, the truth is, whenever she wakes at night in a panic, she detaches the instrument from the wall of her sleeping tube and hugs its ugly efficiency to her chest.
“We are both of us a mocking shadow,” she whispers to it.
Tears gather upon the eyeballs in zero-G.
She cries, but her tears refuse to leave.
Three years into her tour of duty, Chasca has become addicted to an illicit mix of anxiety pills and sleep aids. She doesn’t wake when the A# sounds.
It saves her life.
A Class 9 Phage, the largest kind, gloms onto the launch bay of her station and rips off the entire node before a single Laserlance deploys. People spew into space amongst crates and twisted metal, or, worse, stick to the body of the beast to be absorbed into its mass.
Chasca only wakes when the alarm modulates from A# to a strident E–E–E–E. Her sleeping tube has automatically sealed itself, meaning there’s no pressure on the other side of the door. She’s stuck. The cameras still working display her coming fate, the Phage devouring the defenseless station piece by piece.
Chasca’s screams seem very loud inside the sleeping tube, which is barely larger than a coffin.
In the sight of inescapable death, Chasca looks for a refrain, and as she does, she hears the recruiter’s voice as if his clean-shaven face is right next to her ear: “Play you music later.”
But there is no more later, is there?
There is only now, only trembling fingers that never quite healed right and a cello made from the same fabrication beads as the water bottle velcroed to the bulkhead. Her desire to sail away from this horrid reality becomes a faltering rendition of Quispe’s Rondo. Her memory is flawless even if her fingers fail. She barely feels her bloodied elbow slamming into the wall for want of bowing room.
Halfway through, Chasca realizes the Phage has frozen, sound waves vibrating through the hull, into its body.
Can it be?
The cello plays through the audio system of the sleeping tube. She flashes out a hand to turn up the volume, and continues.
She stumbles through the finale to the single quavering note at the end, an A#. There is no orchestra behind her, no thunderous applause waiting.
It is simply her and the monster.
She holds that A# for seconds that mount to minutes, convinced that the moment she stops, the Phage will rampage on. The shaking in her arm spreads to her entire body. Sweat slicks her fingers on the strings, the bow in her hand.
The pitch scoops
Like she will.
She hugs the cello to herself like a mother holds a stillborn infant. Her life is an unrealized possibility.
She watches the viewscreen.
The Phage remains still.
Then, it retreats, disgorging the station as it backs away.
Chasca watches with ragged breath as the Phage disappears into the black.
She is still shivering uncontrollably when she remembers to call for rescue.
Sound does not travel in the void. It needs a medium to carry the vibration.
It can be a metal piece of hull attached to a gutted space station.
Or a small speaker, sheathed in metal like a warhead and shot into the body of a Phage.
Either way, Chasca’s recording of Quispe’s Rondo is the most popular piece of music to deter the Phages. Though anything above a certain complexity seems to work, warriors are a superstitious people.
In this way, Chasca patrols space still, forever a sixteen-year-old prodigy playing with nuclear fury.
But in the other way, the way that really matters, she is back home in Argentine-Bolivia, teaching cello to children who do not mind that she sometimes falls still during lessons, or that her hand trembles on A#s.
They care only that her smile shines like the sun when their fingers strike with perfect precision.
Jared Oliver Adams lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he writes, explores, and dabbles in things better left alone. He holds two degrees in music performance, a third degree in elementary education, and is utterly incapable of passing a doorway without checking to see if it leads to Narnia.