Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
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Concerto For Spies

by D. J. Rout

A Mare Inebrium story
(Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield)

Captain Arshawsky sat at the bar and ordered another rye. He hated rye and for the fiftieth time wished he had volunteered his services to the British. They didn't go in for these sorts of theatrics. You never saw Lieutenant Commander Fleming sitting at a bar drinking whiskey he hated, waiting for something to happen that he knew in advance would happen, and without even the minute pleasure of being able to get drunk on the stuff.

He watched a silver goblet in the mirror. It lifted itself from the bar, moved away from it slightly, tilted and then settled back on the long cedar bar, its shiny sides misted with condensation, chilled to prevent clotting... He studiously avoided looking anywhere but the mirror, lest he offend. Max the barman, who seemed to be everywhere in Mare Inebrium and very possibly, was, ambled easily up and wiped up a spill that wasn't there.

"Another?” he asked.

"Hm?” Arshawsky said. "Oh, yes. Hit me...again.” He did not roll his eyes in exasperation but Max certainly seemed like he knew how Arshawsky felt. He'd probably seen it a million times before – and that was no exaggeration. He was back in a moment, put the glass down in front of his customer, hesitated just a moment to see if he wanted to talk then walked casually out of sight. He didn't seem to go through a door or even around a corner and if Artie looked around for him he'd probably find him somewhere in the Small Ballroom of Bethdish's finest estaminet.

"He'll be sitting in the Small Ballroom drinking rye,” someone had told his contact, so here he was. Clowns at the OSS. He spun his glass desultorily, knowing he'd have to take a drink of it eventually to keep up his cover, hating it. He noticed his left hand on the bar was going through fingering exercises. A tune began to shape itself and in his mind's eye he saw staves and notes forming. The tune was one of his own devising, he saw and not an arrangement of a popular number. He liked arranging but he loved composing and he wished now that his cover let him take along some notepaper with him so he could write this one down. He never forgot tunes, but still, just in case. He took a drink of the rye to stop his left hand and stared at himself in the mirror behind the bar.

A dark-haired Jewish boy in his mid-thirties stared back at him morosely in his captain's uniform. Come on, Artie he told himself, cheer up. You're saving the Earth.

In the mirror he could see couples and the occasional triple moving across the parquet dance floor. As he watched a group of half a dozen or so starfishes tumbled off to his left in time to the music. He thought back to his first look at an alien in, when was it – the '36 Olympics? – yes. Something like a big carrot with feelers instead of leaves, supported in mid air by a flying belt. It had been in Berlin receiving instructions to set up a spy ring in the United States. Artie hadn't killed it, but he'd seen it die. Then he'd got the hell out of Germany and back home to New York, where it was safe.

Safe. Well, here was safe, 1900 years in the future and sixty-five light years from a kosher deli. He couldn't even hear the music the crowd was dancing to. The bar at the Small Ballroom was excellently soundproofed. Artie had only to walk a couple of yards onto the dance floor to hear it, but he was supposed to wait here, drinking this crap until his contact arrived.

What would it hurt, though, if he walked those few yards? After all, he surely wasn't expected to not visit the bathroom in the course of a night at a bar? If his contact didn't see a US Navy uniform at the bar he'd surely wait until he did. Besides which, it would be suspicious for a human not to visit the men's room. It might give whoever was watching the wrong idea. So, there it was. Off the stool, around the edge of the dance floor to the men's room. He turned to his left, studiously avoiding seeing whoever held the silver goblet and looked around for the exit. He found it on the far side of the dance floor and was happy that he could just cut through the crowd, listen to the music and all would look above board.

The sound washed over him as he passed through a sort of non-moving breeze. It was an area or line of air that didn't pass sound – a sort of fixed pressure area. What was that called? A force field. Dodging between the dancers he made a beeline for the band, which was playing just to the right of the exit to the lavatories. There were two wind instruments played by one four-armed two-headed monster, a percussion set played by some kind of furry brown octopus and, startlingly, what couldn't possibly be an upright piano played by an ordinary human. Artie watched the human. He seemed to have the requisite ten fingers but it was hard to tell, because they moved ln a blur across four manuals and his feet, when Artie looked, did a tap dance both Nicholas brothers couldn't match on the pedals. So, not human. He just looked human.

The band was just finishing up a set and Artie put all thought of pretence and bathrooms aside to go and talk to this pianist. He ignored the percussion and horn players – they'd stand out in a crowd. Behind him, dancers were moving off the floor and the group of starfishes rolled off to the conveniences. Artie wrenched his mind away from trying to work out what theirs would look like. "Hi,” he said, sticking out his hand. "Artie Shaw.” "Hi, Captain,” said the pianist, shaking Artie's hand with a gentle cool grip. "I'm Fatool.” "Ah,” said Artie sadly. "Not human.” "I'm afraid not.” "How long can you hold that shape?” "Seven or eight hours.” "Ever been to Earth?” "Oh, you're from Earth? Sorry. Thirty-five to forty hours. No, I've never been. Why?” "I've got a band back there. Mid-twentieth century. Only thing is, I've got music I can write but that they'd find hard to play. Impossible to play. So, you know, I'm offering you a job.” "Mid-twentieth century, eh? What's that like?” "Radio, dynamic lift flight, rudimentary knowledge of atomic power.” "How rudimentary?” "It only blows up when they want it to.” Fatool laughed. "I don't know. I've got a job I like here and if all their atomic power is just for blowing up, that sounds a little primitive to me. You're offering me a life surrounded by humans for how long?” "Four, maybe five years. Earth years.” "So you're a native, an Earth native?”

"Yes. Thirty-four years into a ninety-three year lifespan, they tell me.”

"Hmm. Is there any obligation on me to have that sort of lifespan? Once our agreement runs its course, I mean.”

"No, no. Faking your death is easy on Earth in those days. You just drop out of sight and go wherever you like.”

"No questions asked?”

"None. Contemporary to me we've been in a global conflict that will end with two atomic explosions – yes, there it is again – but even after that death and disappearance is commonplace.”

"So, you're inviting me to come to a world in lethal conflict, presumably lethal to me if I hold human form, and there I would be playing music? Music too complicated for a human to play?”

"Yes,” said Artie. "You're right. Twentieth century Earth isn't the Mare Inebrium.” He turned away, momentarily undecided about bathroom or bar. "Only – " He whirled on Fatool. "Are you a telepath?”

"Yes,” said Fatool.

"This! To play this!”

Artie had the tune in his head and he imagined, as clearly as he could with his eyes closed, the arrangement for clarinet, trombone, strings and especially piano. He could see it, around ten minutes of complicated melody, counterpoint and harmony in swing time – no lyrics, for what could words say that the music didn't? – and after a few seconds thought he could hear the music coming from the band. He opened his eyes and the music soon came to an end.

"You name your songs, don't you?” said Fatool. "What do you call that?”

"I don't know. A concerto for clarinet and piano. I play clarinet.” Not as well as Fatool played keyboards, but Artie wasn't going to admit that even to himself.

"I could happily play that,” said Fatool.

"You accept?” asked Artie.

"Yes, I accept. I would accept for my fellows, too, but they cannot hold human shape and I gather that Earth in the twentieth century of the Christian epoch had no space flight or extraplanetaries.”

"You ‘gather' that, huh?” said Artie.

Fatool smiled, a very human smile to start with, but ending rather too wide. "If you gather it, I gather it.”

You'd make a good spy, Artie thought and saw Fatool nod.

"That's how I knew you were a Captain,” he said. "Your identity is nearly always at the forefront of your mind, even though it might not seem like it to you. I haven't enquired into your mission, though. We just don't do that where I come from.”

"Glad to hear it,” Artie said. "See you on Earth, say twenty-five years after the invention of radio.”

"I'll find you.”

Artie went off to the bathroom then, anyway, more to see how they were arranged than to use them. Along a corridor he found a door labelled ‘Human' in English and was pleased when the door opened automatically. To his left was the Ladies Lounge and to the right the Gents'. Two doors labelled ‘Cogenitors' and ‘Incubi' didn't interest him. He was back at the bar in five minutes.

"Can you spare a dime for a fellow American who's down on his luck?” said a familiar, Midwestern accent.

"Sure,” he answered without taking his eyes off the mirror. "Have a seat. Name your poison.”

"Brandy,” the US Air Force captain said, sitting down.

"I'm a wry man, myself,” said Artie making a pun out of the recognition phrase. Max went off to get rye and brandy.

"Maybe I ought to try that.”

‘Ought to' had been the difference between the coded phrase and what an American would normally say – ‘oughta' – and Artie knew this was his ‘man'. "If you were an American, maybe so.”

"You know I'm not,” the captain admitted.

"Yeah, I know.” Their drinks arrived and Artie turned to face Captain Miller for a toast. "Here's to this stupid bloody game,” he toasted. They clinked glasses.

"Of all the gin joints in all the worlds, I had to walk into this one,” said Glenn Miller.


"Sorry. I thought they'd picked you up from 1942. It's from a very popular movie, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart.”


"Never mind. So, they picked you to do this – this thing.”

"Yeah. I didn't volunteer, if that's what you're thinking. I suppose they thought – hell, Glenn, I don't know what they think. Mine not to reason why, you know. You're going back, Glenn. Nobody's here to kill you.”

"If I don't want to go back?”

"I don't think you have a choice. They've planned a good fake death for you, though. Shot down over the English Channel in '44, returning from some aerial spy mission. It's a hero's death, Glenn. Not bad for an alien trombonist.”

"So I go in '44 and you get to own the field.”

"I'm not interested in owning the field, Glenn, "Artie said. "Goodman can have that if he wants, and he does. I compete with myself. You know that. Anyway, I don't think swing is going to outlast the war. It's going to get too pricey to carry bands around the country and with so many of our boys killed who're the girls going to dance with? I'm thinking of getting out of it, anyway. Hell, a horn player who can't live up to his own expectations oughta be doing something else.”

"From where I stand it looks like the big band sound is here to stay. You know, Chattanooga Choo Choo sold a million records.”

"You're kidding!”

"Nope. A million records. So, you know, you won't blame me for thinking that you want a share of that hot wax.”

Artie paused a moment to wonder. His Concerto would be too long to fit on a single disk and who was going to buy a multi disk recording of a concerto? Not a million people, that was for sure. Oh, the sheet music might sell well, but fewer people played now than before the first World War and that number would only drop.

"It wasn't my decision, Glenn. Hell, maybe you and I and Goodman and Dorsey too could keep the big band sound around for another thirty years. Who knows? We both know who knows, don't we?”

"Yeah,” said Glenn dully, fingering his glass of brandy. Suddenly he tossed it back in one gulp, smiling at his urge to cough. "Yeah.”

"If this war goes on against the Germans, sooner or later one side or the other will use atomic power and sooner or later somebody is going to put atomic power in rockets. Sooner or later you're going to help them do it.”

"And that can't be tolerated,” said Glenn, waving at Max for another round. Max came over and without asking, put a brandy in front of Miller and a tall glass of black liquid in front of Artie. Artie sipped it and smiled – rum and Coca-Cola.

"No, it can't. In such a situation, the Earth would have to be eliminated and you know such power exists.”

"No Earth, no Terran Federation.”

"Exactly. So the Office of Strategic Services gets a command, maybe from the Federation, I don't know but they get me to come here and wait for you to tell you. I do it, too, because I follow orders.”

"You know, I get back to Earth in '44 and I'm due to fly out in three local days.”

"There's no hurry, though. Stay as long as you like.”

"No, Artie. I don't want to drink with my executioner.”

"They're not – I'm not killing you! You're just being sent home.”

"Home. Hive Triple Zero, Planet Five, System Six in the Pleiades Array. That is killing me. Enjoy your drink. You've earned your Yankee dollar.”

Artie watched him leave with the taste of rye, rum and remorse on his tongue.


© 2011 D. J. Rout

Bio: D. J. Rout was born in Rhodesia, not Zimbabwe, in 1962. He moved to Australia with his parents shortly after Australia went decimal and just before the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. He now lives in the rainy, heritage-rich city of Ballarat where he spends too little of his well-earnt retirement writing and doing the housework and probably too much of it drinking, but he feels that a heart attack is just around the corner and he doesn't want to meet that standing up sober. He dabbles occasionally in NaNoWriMo and you can see some of that at www.captlychee.com His other website, www.users.on.net/~hippy/default.htm has so much that is now deprecated in HTML that the World Wide Web Consortium regards it as a crime against humanity.

E-mail: D. J. Rout

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