DRIPPING VISCOUS GREEN SLIME onto the brushed-steel plates of the recreation room floor, the pulsating blue slug reared until it towered a full meter above my head. Three eyes the colour of old blood reared up on black stalks, somehow remaining focused on me even as they weaved like demented cobras in thrall to acid jazz played by a drunken snake charmer. Its mouth peeled open like a gaping wound.
Then came the ultimate horror.
It began to sing.
Oh, no. No!
That which does not kill me makes me stronger, I reminded myself. I felt very strong indeed by the time Lloyd Webber’s oft-abused “classic” ground to its inevitable conclusion.
“Thank you, Mr...Urkh(cough)lisssss(choke). That was very...interesting. We’ll be letting...people...know in about a shipday.”
The slug grunted something that might have been “Thank you,” or might have just been a correction of my pronunciation of his—I checked the information sheet—oops, its—name, and slithered out, leaving a trail of green goop a meter wide in its wake. A cleaning robot scurried after it on clicking insectoid legs, its elephant-like nose-hose swinging back and forth, slurping up the surplus mucus for recycling in the galley.
Groaning, I rested my aching head in my hands, twitched my jaw sideways three times to activate my implanted commbug, and croaked, “Next!”
This nightmare had begun the moment I boarded the L.S.S. Mendel, rushing down the loading ramp as though the hounds of hell were after me—not far from the truth, considering Governor Fexeldub’s minions sported long black fur, long blue teeth, and bioluminescent eyes that radiated heavily in the longer wavelengths of visible light.
One thing neither of the two possessed, however, was a boarding pass for the Mendel. The security tanglefield stopped them in their tracks at the top of the ramp. My elation evaporated two seconds later when, at the bottom of the ramp, the tanglefield likewise wrapped me in molasses, and hardened to amber. Immobilized, I watched the ship’s security hatch open, revealing a stocky, auburn-haired-and-bearded man wearing a bright-red uniform liberally adorned with gold buttons and braid. He looked like he’d just stepped offstage from playing the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance. “Professor Peak, I presume?” he said.
I found myself rather breathless, though probably due more to the tanglefield’s compression of my lungs than the sudden outbreak of alliteration. “You have...the advantage...of me...sir.”
“Forgive me. Robert Robespierre Robinson, Captain of the multi-species-capable luxury liner L.S.S. Mendel, pride of the Blue Nebula Line, at your service.” The Captain inclined his head slightly. “My friends call me Redbeard. You can call me Captain. Or ‘sir.’” He looked back at the security hatch and made a cutting-his-own-throat gesture, which alarmed me until the tanglefield suddenly shut off and I realized it hadn’t been a signal for summary execution. I staggered. The Captain caught me and straightened me up, then released me.
I took a couple of deep breaths. “I’m honoured you felt it necessary to greet me in person...sir.”
“I’m sure.” The Captain looked up the ramp. Fexeldub’s hellhounds snarled at him. He turned on his heel. “Come with me, ‘Professor.’ We have matters to discuss.”
Relieved but alarmed, I followed the Captain, through corridors panelled with pearl and carpeted in pink, to his spacious stateroom. From the platinum-floored foyer he led me into an office, and pointed me to a grey blob of pseudoleather facing a desk of black metal, topped with glass. He eased himself down on the identical grey blob on the other side of the desk; it swelled and puffed into a comfortable-looking armchair. I sat down on my blob, and it instantly sprang into a rigid, straight-backed shape with all the give of a block of steel. Okay, then, I thought. At least I know where I stand...er, sit.
The Captain steepled his fingers under his chin and looked at me. “You’re a wanted man, Professor. And not just by your friends on the loading dock.” He tapped the desktop, and the faint glow of a holodisplay, indecipherable from where I sat, sprang into existence above the desk. “There are outstanding warrants for your apprehension on half a dozen different planets.”
I cleared my throat. “Cultural misunderstandings. I’m a businessman trying to make an honest living, that’s all.”
Captain Robinson barked a laugh. “You’re a con man. ‘Professor Peter Peak’ is not your real name. Too alliterative, for one thing.”
I felt my left eyebrow lift. The Captain noticed. “I never said Robert Robespierre ‘Redbeard’ Robinson was my real name either, did I? But we’re discussing your past, not mine.”
“With all due respect, I’d rather talk about my future.”
“In good time.” The Captain tapped the desktop again. “Before you became Professor Peter Peak, purveyor of programmable paramours, you went by the name Aristotle Atkinson, and sold life-long subscriptions to Encyclopedia Galactica...until someone realized there’s no such thing. Before that, you were Dr. Schroeder Petering, sole authorized human sales agent for life-extension nanomachines from Tofuni Secundus...quite a feat, since Tofuni has no planets.”
“An unfortunate accident involving a planet-eating nanoswarm,” I said. “Hardly my fault. As I explained.”
“And yet, your customers tried to lynch you just the same. People can be so unreasonable.” He shook his head. “But never mind. The version of you I’m interested in is the original.”
“Jerry Smith,” he said (and the sound of my birth name made my heart skip a beat), “this is your life.” He tapped, and the holodisplay suddenly became visible to me, revealing all the sordid details of my past, including birthplace (Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan), birthdate (much longer ago than I liked to admit), parents, and education. But what terrified me was something I had thought long-since lost in the mists of decaying data storage: a head-and-shoulders shot of a much-younger me. The Captain pointed at it, and the computer began reading the text of a press release: “Persephone Theatre is pleased to announce that Saskatchewan’s own Jerry Smith will be playing the leading role of Bobby in this fall’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Smith, originally from Moose Jaw—”
Captain Robinson pointed again, and the computer’s voice cut off. “You’re not just a con man,” the Captain said. “You’re an actor, singer, and dancer—in short, a musical theatre performer. A triple threat, in fact.” He made it sound like a sentence of execution...and I knew it very well could be.
But I couldn’t argue with the evidence. “Was. For about eight years. You know the difference between a stage actor and a pizza?”
“A pizza can feed a family of four. Yes, I’ve heard the joke.” He leaned forward, like a cat tensing to leap at a mouse. “But that was on Earth, ‘Professor.’ You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Actually, I’ve never been to—”
“Here on the L.S.S. Mendel, you can make enough money to feed a family of four. Not as an actor, perhaps, but certainly as...a director.”
Uh-oh. “Contrary to cliché, all I’ve ever really wanted to do is avoid directing.”
The Captain pointed at the holodisplay. “You’ve directed at least five shows.”
“That résumé is twenty years out of date.”
“It’s like riding a bicycle.”
“I can’t ride a bike.”
The Captain sighed. “Professor Peak, I really don’t have time for this. You’ve been in space a long time. You know as well as I do that of all the culture Earth has produced, all the artwork, all the novels, all the symphonies, only one thing holds the slightest interest for any of our alien neighbours.”
I decided to try playing dumb. “You tell me.”
“Musical theatre, Professor.” The Captain tapped the desktop, and on every wall, previously opaque screens suddenly displayed...theatre posters. Oklahoma. Oliver! The Sound of Music. Sweeney Todd. My Fair Lady. The Most Happy Fella. Candide. West Side Story. Chicago. Cats. Starlight Express, for God’s sake. Wicked. The Light in the Piazza. Avenue Q. Passion. Hamilton. Dear Evan Hansen. Thunder in the Night. What the Cat Dragged In. Jimi! Apollo 13: The Musical. The posters kept changing; by the time I’d looked through them once, there was a new batch on display.
“I collect them,” said the Captain. “I have a poster from every musical that ran on Broadway from Show Boat in 1927 to The Singularity in 2024, the last new Broadway musical produced...”
Suddenly furious, I forgot about playing dumb. “Yeah, because a Squill spaceship the size of Yankee Stadium appeared over Times Square one Saturday night and mysteriously vanished the casts of every show,” I snarled. “And because over the next week, any actor who dared to step out on stage and burst into song vanished, too. Which is why Jerry Smith disappeared, too—into a different line of work.”
“A criminal line of work.”
“I was an actor. I wasn’t suited for honest work.”
“My Squill passengers are hungry for musical theatre, Professor Peak.” He gestured at the walls. “As am I.”
“Squill!” My voice actually squeaked. “You have Squill on board?”
He had the nerve to smile. “Didn’t you know? Most of the vessel is currently occupied by Squill on a...pilgrimage, I suppose you’d call it...to their homeworld.”
Worse and worse. “We’re going to Squill Primus?” I hadn’t had time, what with hellhounds after me, to check exactly where the only ship in port would take me. “And you want me to direct musical theatre?”
“I told you, my passengers are hungry for it.”
“Maybe literally! We still don’t know where all those actors went. Maybe the Squill are serving up ham sandwiches—with bits of real ham!—on their homeworld right now.”
“They don’t eat people, they eat algae and the occasional sulphurous rock,” the Captain said. “And anyway, they said they were sorry. And they gave us the spacetime drive by way of reparation. If not for Broadway, we’d still be stuck puttering around the Earth and Moon, Professor. We owe musical theatre a huge debt of gratitude.”
“You’re welcome.” I stood up. “Now, if that’s all you wanted—”
“I want you to direct a musical, Professor,” the Captain said. “The first live musical to hit the boards since the sad but profitable demise of Broadway. And I want you to cast my passengers.”
My knees buckled and I hit the pseudoleather hard. “Oh, God. You want me to direct Squill.” No, it was worse than that. “Amateur Squill!”
“Squill this time. But next time...” He spread his hands. “Who knows? It could be Hellhounds. Skitterings. Even humans. And as for being amateurs...well, Professor, remember that amateurs are those who do something because they love it. Presumably you first went into theatre because you loved it, Professor. Reach down deep into your heart, if you still have one, and...” His grin widened. “Feel the love.”
“Scripts...orchestra...stagehands...” Like a drowning man, I grasped at straws.
“Scripts are in the ship’s database. The computer will provide the accompaniment. And I’m sure, in time-honoured community theatre tradition, that those not cast for roles will be happy to serve as stagehands.”
“I’m not the only performer in hiding,” I said. “There must be others with more directing experience. Why me?”
“You’re here. And you…” He waved at the holodisplay. “...have an incentive they do not.”
“This is blackmail.”
“Of course it is! Feel free to complain to the local constabulary.” He flicked a finger, and the holodisplay showed a sudden close-up of the red-eyed, slavering visage of one of Fexeldub’s hellhounds. “Oh, look! There’s a peace officer now.”
I knew when I was beaten. “How long do I have?”
“It’s four weeks, ship-time, to Squill Primus. I’m looking forward to seeing your production on the penultimate evening of our voyage. It will be a wonderful treat for our passengers on the eve of their big festival.”
“Festival?” I couldn’t imagine Squill partying. “What kind of Festival do giant slugs gather for?”
“It’s a religious festival, Professor. I told you they were on pilgrimage.”
I groaned. Not just Squill, but religious Squill. “We apologize for the action of our religionists,” had been the message from the second giant spaceship, which had entered Earth orbit shortly after the performer-eating one had departed. “We offer reparations.”
For a moment I seriously considered taking my chances with the hellhounds...but only for a moment. I doubted I’d still be in one piece two minutes after they dragged me out of sight.
I glared at the Captain. “I hope, when I’m spirited away by Squill fanatics, you’ll at least have the grace to feel guilty.”
“Should that happen, I’ll do my best.”
I sighed. “When do we start auditions?”
Captain Robinson had been very sure of himself, I thought sourly, as I read the in-ship newsfeed, The Mendelian Factor, in my cabin an hour later. Before I’d even run down the ramp into the tanglefield, early arrivals on the ship had been reading, “Auditions for The Sound of Music, the premiere production of the Mendel Amateur Musical Entertainment Society (MAMES), will be held in Multipurpose Recreation Space 7 tonight beginning at 1900. MAMES is pleased to announce that Professor Peter Peak, a musical theatre professional from Earth itself, will direct. Bring a song that shows off your voice; computer accompaniment will be provided.”
Auditions were every bit as horrifying as I’d anticipated. The “Memory”-warbler was perhaps the worst...but perhaps not. “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No” sung by an elderly female Squill with bladder—or something—control problems sticks in my mind as well. And the less said about “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” the better.
Unable to cast by appearance, I could only go by vocal skills. Fortunately, some of the Squill actually had some. I chose the best as my leads, relegated most of the rest to chorus, and suggested that a few hopeless cases join the stage crew—which they seemed thrilled to do.
In fact, all the Squill seemed permanently thrilled about everything. As the Mendel left orbit on its four-week-subjective journey to Squill Primus, I felt pretty good about the show’s prospects—assuming the cast didn’t eat the director.
Staging was simplified by the complete absence of dancing ability—or legs—among the cast, and by the fact that humans can’t read the emotional content of a Squill’s “face.” (Indeed, the computer informed me, “some scientists believe the colour of a Squill’s mucus is a better indicator of emotional state. When asked, the Squill change the subject.”) With choreography impossible, I only had to come up with simple blocking. And my being unable to read my actors’ expressions meant that if they were acting badly, I couldn’t tell—so I just pretended they were acting well.
Memorization was no problem; all of them had their music and dialogue note- and word-perfect at the first rehearsal. The movement, limited though it was, posed more of a challenge. I had to modify the set after the first on-stage rehearsal of “So Long, Farewell,” when my entire group of “children” ended up in sickbay with nasty fluorescent bruises. Squill don’t do stairs, apparently. Who knew?
Squill don’t wear clothes, either, so our only costumes were hats—wimples, Nazi caps, sailor hats—and a couple of wigs. Maria looked terrifying in a long brown one; Gretl looked cute, in a nightmarish sort of way, in blonde pigtails.
After the first few days, my fear of sudden disintegration began to fade. No Squill ever threatened me or was anything but friendly...which was more than I could say of all the human actors I’d worked with.
And I began to learn more about my cast—and just how badly I had miscast some of them. The Squill playing the Mother Superior turned out to be an elderly “it” (the Squill have three sexes that we know of). The “children” were mostly twice as old as me (three times as old, in the case of Gretl).
They were all very curious about my acting past, and we took to meeting in the main lounge after rehearsal for drinks. (The Squill drink a lot; their prodigious mucus production requires constant replenishment of fluids. Their staterooms looked more like indoor swamps, with thick black mud on the floor and a constant spray of fine mist in the air.) There I would regale them with the traditional actor-stories of forgotten lines, collapsing sets, drunks, hecklers, and wardrobe malfunctions.
It was at one of those get-togethers, four days from our opening (and closing) performance, that the matter I’d been very careful not to mention suddenly came up.
I was sitting with “Captain Von Trapp,” “Maria,” “Liesl,” and “Rolf,” and had just told a joke about a producer, a director, a writer, and an actor walking into a bar, when Rolf, the youngest member of the cast at 65 Earth years (he’d only recently been released from his mandatory adolescent confinement), put down his third glass of what I privately called Smoking Green Goo, burped, and slurred, “Prophet Matthew Broderick tellsh that shtory better, Professhor.”
Sudden, absolute silence as the babble of Squill and human voices from all around us abruptly ceased...even though I could still see mouths moving. I glanced down. Von Trapp had hurriedly slapped down on the table a little golden egg (exactly where he had had it hidden, in the absence of clothes, I preferred not to think about). A sound-dampener, presumably.
My heart jumped, then raced. Rolf blundered on. “Hash lecture at the sheminary lasht year was the besht thing I ever...” his voice trailed off at last. All three of his eyes widened, and his mouth slapped shut so suddenly gobs of mucus spattered the table. The slime oozing from his flanks took on a pinkish hue.
I looked around at the others. They were all staring at Rolf; but then, one by one, they looked at me.
My blood ran cold. But I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t heard. And we knew Squill “religionists” had stolen musical theatre. It wasn’t really a secret...
What had happened to all the actors, though, had been.
Heart still pounding, I said, as casually as I could, “Matthew Broderick? Wasn’t he playing Henry in Old Fool, that awful musical version of On Golden Pond, back when...um...” My voice failed.
I winced as high-pitched squealing erupted around me. Squills talking their own language sound like seagulls on helium being tortured in an echo chamber.
The sound cut off as suddenly as it had begun. “We would like to tell you something,” Von Trapp said. “We had discussed doing so earlier, but had not made up our minds. Now, however…,” two of his eyes swiveled toward Rolf, whose eyestalks drooped in response, “...the matter has been settled for us.”
“Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know!” I said. (Squeaked, if we’re being perfectly honest.) “Much as I’d like to meet some of the great old Broadway performers in the flesh, I’m not that keen...”
“Only a Rapturer—a priest of the Order of Religious Insight Collection—would or could transport you,” Maria said. “It is unlikely any of them are aboard.”
“Reasonably,” Liesl said. “They do sometimes travel incognito.”
“Knowing the truth does not make it any more likely you will be raptured,” said Von Trapp. “If a Rapturer is on board, you are already marked simply because you are a prophet.”
“Of musical theatre.”
A prophet of musical theatre? Musical-theatre actors had been called many things over the decades, but prophets? I didn’t like the sound of it.
I drained my beer and called for another...to no effect. Damn sound-dampener. For a moment I eyed the remnants of Rolf’s Smoking Green Goo, but I wasn’t that desperate...yet. I sighed, and met Von Trapp’s disconcerting gaze. “I’m all ears.”
Two hours later I staggered back to my cabin (having made up for the initial lack of drink several times over once the Squill departed). I fell into bed, looked up at the slowly spinning ceiling, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or throw up.
The decision was suddenly made for me. I staggered into the bathroom and vomited up everything I had eaten for the last twenty-four hours or so—but not, alas, everything I had drunk.
Discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to spend the next hour or so on the bathroom floor. I had little else to do in that position but reflect on what I had heard.
The Squill religionists, it seemed, had “raptured” Broadway in order to get closer to God.
In view of how far from God, in my experience, most people in the acting profession considered themselves (an opinion shared by most of those in the God-bothering business), the irony was rich. But if you could wrap your head around the Squill point of view, it almost made sense.
The Squill Church, unlike its human counterparts, did not pretend to know the Truth about God and/or the gods, or how to best please/serve/placate/worship He/She/It/Them. Instead, the Church’s purpose was to seek the Truth. It did so by conducting a cosmic opinion poll: it gathered various “Truths” from all over the galaxy to see what could be gleaned from them.
Along the way, the Church had spawned innumerable sub-cults, as various factions decided that the latest “Truth” was THE TRUTH, and stopped searching. But the Great Church Fluorescent and Iridescent (really, that’s how Von Trapp translated it) carried on, collecting bits of alien cultures from all over the galaxy.
The secular government of Squill Primus, while condemning the practice, made no move to stop it. Instead, its ships trailed the Church’s Rapture ships at a respectable distance, apologizing to and reimbursing the affected planets...and, in the process, opening up lucrative trade routes. It seemed a recipe for disaster if the Squill ever met their technological match. But so far they hadn’t, and probably even the Great Church Fluorescent and Iridescent had enough sense of self-preservation not to rapture members of a technologically superior race.
The Rapturers, being essentially pollsters, sought a random sample of religious insights—and used a very broad definition of religious that boiled down to “activities that draw crowds.” On Earth, the “winner” had been musical theatre (with professional hockey a close second).
But something had happened with musical theatre that had never happened before: the Great Church Fluorescent and Iridescent had declared, after watching the actors perform their shows, that there would be no further collecting of religious insight—musical theatre provided THE TRUTH.
The musical theatre performers raptured from Earth, Von Trapp had told me, though forbidden from leaving Squill or contacting their human counterparts, now formed a thriving, pampered human colony, a kind of Vatican City, on Squill. Not only did they produce incredible musicals—the special effects alone, thanks to Squill technology, were literally out of this world—but they sent “missionaries” around the planet, instructing everyone in the newly discovered Great White Way.
Which meant that The Sound of Music—my Sound of Music—was, for the Squill, a worship service.
It made a strange sort of sense, I thought as the bathroom’s spinning finally slowed. Like religions, most musicals present neat little packages of supposed insight, wrapped up in pleasing tunes and eye-candy. To coin a phrase, they’re the “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.”
Nothing had come up for a while. I crawled back to my bed and climbed into it. But as darkness descended, I felt a faint frisson of fear as I recalled being told it was “unlikely” I would be raptured.
“How unlikely?” I asked the dark, but got no answer.
I was not at my best for dress rehearsal the next day. But the Squill were, and if you closed your eyes and ignored the multicoloured trails of slime all over the stage (the cleaner ’bots just couldn’t keep up) you could imagine you were hearing, if not a Broadway show, at least a good-quality regional production.
The next day we entered orbit around Squill Primus. After a one-Squill-day (29-hour) quarantine, the pilgrims would disembark to worship at the feet of the Broadway Prophets, Original Cast.
And that meant it was show time.
I gave the traditional Pre-Opening Pep Talk. “You’re ready,” I informed the cast. “You’re good. I admit I had my doubts going in, especially with such a short rehearsal time, but you’ve all done a terrific job. I’m proud of you all. And if Rogers and Hammerstein were here—” And not busy spinning in their graves... “they’d be proud of you, too. Break a...” I hesitated, looking at the sea of slugs before me. “Um, good luck.”
The stage manager’s voice squealed over the monitor. I still couldn’t understand Squill, but I knew what he had just said: “Places.”
I made my way out front. The audience of humans, non-performing Squill, and one or two non-Squill aliens quieted as the lights went down. “Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sede a dextris meis,” sang eight Squill in wimples as they slithered up the aisle onto the stage, and we were off. Scene followed scene, and if “I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen” looked more like a nature documentary about the mating of garden slugs than a touching musical tribute to young love in troubled times, no one seemed to care. The audience watched raptly, completely caught up in a tale whose historical elements must have been incomprehensible to most of them. By the time the family slithered off, leaving a rainbow of slime behind them, to “Climb Every Mountain,” there wasn’t a dry...well, much of anything, considering the preponderance of Squill...in the house.
Squill don’t applaud; if they see something they like, they pay it the honour of being silent, while their slime turns bright blue. Our audience paid us the greatest compliment of all: a Silent Blue Departure.
Like they’re leaving church, I thought.
The ear-splitting cast party more than made up for the audience’s silence. Enormous quantities of Smoking Green Goo disappeared down gaping maws, and even larger quantities of squirming blobs of shapeless protoplasm, the Squill equivalent of potato chips.
Still a little alcohol-shy, I confined myself to a glass of the champagne sent to my dressing room by Captain Robinson. I was just finishing it when “Redbeard” himself appeared. He seized my free hand and pumped it. “Fabulous! Bravo! Bravissimo! I admit I had my doubts about you when you first came aboard, but you’ve proven them groundless.”
I looked around. The Squill had congregated in the furthest corner of the large banquet room, watching a holorecording of “The Lonely Goatherd.” For some reason, puppets fascinated them.
“Thank you for the champagne, Captain,” I said. “Can I pour you a glass?”
“I’d be honoured.”
I filled one for him, and decided to risk a second one for myself. “Tell me, Captain,” I said casually as I handed him his drink, “have you ever heard of the Rapturers?”
Did his glass hesitate, ever-so-slightly, on its way to his lips? He took a sip, lowered the glass, and said, “What an...odd question. Why do you ask?”
The Squill were still engrossed, but I lowered my voice anyway. “Someone in the cast let it slip. Captain, I know what happened to Broadway!”
“Really? What?” He took another sip of champagne, sharp blue eyes focused on me over the rim of the flute.
I recounted what Von Trapp and the others had told me. He said nothing until I was finished, then set down his now-empty glass. “Interesting. Well, Professor, I must prepare for disembarkation...”
“Interesting!” I grabbed his arm. “Didn’t you hear what I said, Captain? There are humans being held prisoner on Squill! Shouldn’t you...tell someone? Shouldn’t there be government protests? A rescue, even?”
The Captain removed my hand from his arm as though lifting damp garbage from a pristine floor. “Professor, I run a liner, not a battleship. I suggest you make a report to the human authorities at our next port of call after Squill Primus.” He gave me a cold smile. “For now, enjoy your success.”
I poured a third glass of champagne. I seemed to have regained my taste for alcohol.
In the morning, not quite hung over, I went to the shuttle bay to say goodbye to my cast. Captain Robinson was already there; he nodded to me, then stood at ease, watching the line of departing slugs.
Von Trapp was the last of my performers to board the shuttle. “Farewell, Professor,” he said. “We are most grateful for the insights you have shared with us. The cast has asked me to give you a token of our appreciation.”
He extruded a manipulator tentacle from...somewhere. It held an egg-shaped, multifaceted crystal, fiery as a diamond, but with a pulsing spark of blue fire deep within. The bits of green slime clinging to it couldn’t dim its beauty...well, not much.
“Thank you,” I said...
...and Captain Robinson’s hand snaked out and seized Von Trapp’s manipulator. I stared at him; I’d never seen a human willingly touch a Squill before. All three of Von Trapp’s eyes whipped around: they focused first on Robinson’s hand, then on his face. “Explain yourself!” he barked.
“You explain yourself,” Robinson said. “On what authority do you do this?”
Authority? I looked back and forth from Von Trapp to Robinson like a spectator at a tennis match—except I had the distinct feeling I was the ball.
Von Trapp hissed, spattering mucus. “The Director commanded—”
“The Director?” Robinson let go of Von Trapp’s tentacle and straightened. “Don’t speak to me of the Director. I am the Producer!”
Von Trapp goggled at him, his eyes forming the points of an equilateral triangle, every stalk stiff. “The Producer? Himself?”
Von Trapp’s slime went grey. “There are theological disagreements over the role of the Producer. The Director claims—”
Robinson pointed at me. “He is also a Director. A Director. One of several possible Directors. But I am the Producer. I choose Directors. I hire and fire Directors. Would you challenge my authority?”
Von Trapp’s maw opened and shut a couple of time slowly, strings of mucus looping from it. “The Director must decide this,” he said finally. “It is beyond me. But for the moment—for the moment—we will leave matters as they are.” His mouth snapped shut, the crystal egg went back into whatever orifice he had taken it from, and he slithered aboard the shuttle, his slime trail now an inky black. Captain Robinson made a chopping motion at a crewman standing by the door controls, and the door slid shut, clunking and hissing as it sealed. A moment later the ship shuddered as the shuttle disconnected and began its descent to the planet, and cleaner ’bots moved in to hoover up the accumulated Squill mucus.
Captain Robinson turned to me. “I think perhaps we should have a talk, Professor.”
I licked dry lips, and nodded.
“Let’s adjourn to my office.”
Once there, Robinson tapped his desktop to light up his collection of Broadway posters, then tapped it again; a panel slid open beneath a poster from the original production of Follies, revealing a wet bar. “Drink?”
“Scotch.” Beer just didn’t seem up to the task of preparing me to face whatever might be coming...though I already had my suspicions.
“I have some information related to the...concerns...you voiced last night,” Robinson said, pouring me a double of...I squinted. Oban? Nice! “Ice?”
Robinson handed me the drink, then sat down at his desk. “I believe the time has come to tell you the truth,” he said.
“You were a Broadway producer,” I said.
He inclined his head. “Myron Summerfeld, at your service.”
I gaped at him. “You produced The Singularity. I almost auditioned for that show...”
“I made the mistake of hanging around backstage during that...final performance. When the rapture came, right in the middle of the big ‘Exponential Existentialism’ dance number at the top of Act 2, there was a flash of light. We thought someone had sneaked a flash photograph. It wasn’t until the holographic theatre they had transported us to vanished that we discovered we—and the cast of every other show then on Broadway—were actually on an alien spaceship populated by giant slugs.
“Some people reacted badly, but I’ve always prided myself on being a quick thinker. Somebody needed to take charge, and who better than a producer? The actors were happy to let me do the talking to the Squill priests. So...”
“...so when the Church Fluorescent and Iridescent decided it had finally found Ultimate Truth in musical theatre, you were the Pope.”
“Something like that.” Robinson shrugged. ““The Church is led by a three-Squill supreme council. They’re now calling themselves the Production Manager, the Stage Manager—and the Director. But for the moment at least, I’m still the only Producer. Lucky for you, or I never would have gotten around Von Trapp like that.”
“What would they have done with me?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing bad. The Squill have been very good to everyone. First-class digs. Fabulous food. And Squill Prime is heaven for actors and directors: no budget or technical constraints, freedom to perform any musical ever written, and audiences that literally worship you. Matthew Broderick is head of the new seminary, you know. And if the insights on offer seem banal to us—‘Always leave them wanting more,’ ‘Never act with children or animals,’ ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard,’—they seem to be new to the Squill.”
“So why aren’t you down there right now?” I demanded.
“I’m a producer,” Robinson said. “Once the Church signed on to the whole Musical Theatre is the Ultimate Truth thing, there wasn’t much for me to do. The Church’s hierarchy does all the stuff I’d normally be responsible for. And there’s no chance of producing anything new: the Musical Canon has hardened into dogma, and woe betide he who shall alter a jot or a tittle of it.” Captain Robinson sipped his Scotch, then set it down on the desk. “So I made a proposal. I pointed out that now that the Church has discovered Ultimate Truth, it needed to share that truth with other races.”
I took a largish gulp of Scotch, and had to overcome a fit of coughing before I could choke out, “You made them evangelical!”
He shrugged. “Proselytizing had never occurred to them before, but they quite liked the idea. So...they gave me this ship, and sent me out into the galaxy. I told them the first thing I needed to find was a director.” He pointed at me. “They already knew about you, Professor. If I hadn’t made sure Governor Fexeldub herded you—”
“—to my ship, the Rapturers would have taken you. But the deal was, if I succeeded in getting you on my ship—Von Trapp had no business—” Robinson bit off what he was going to say. “Never mind. I’ll take that up with the Director itself, when I see it.
“Now you have to make a decision, Professor. Will you stay here and continue directing for the Mendel Amateur Musical Entertainment Society, or...” he reached out of my sight behind the desk, and pulled out an egg-shaped, blue-pulsing crystal identical to the one Von Trapp had offered me. “...will you join your counterparts on Squill Primus?”
“You want me to be a missionary!”
“Why not? You’ve been everything else. What better way to make your living than spreading the joy of musical theatre around the galaxy? And remember, Professor, I don’t just transport Squill. You’ll get to work with all kinds of aliens...maybe even humans.”
I looked deep into my Scotch glass, thinking. A life spent directing musicals featuring amateur casts with uncertain vocal abilities and a varying array of body parts...or a life spent surrounded by aging Broadway actors whose egos were constantly fed by seas of worshipping slugs.
Put that way, it was no decision at all.
I looked up at Robinson. “What’s our next show, Mr. Producer?”
So here I am, halfway between Squill Primus and Arbus Tertius, trying to teach six-legged felinoids to dance.
The show? Cats, of course.
We’re saving a fortune on makeup.
This story originally appeared in On spec.
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Edward Willett is the award-winning author of more than sixty books of fantasy, science fiction, and non-fiction for adults, young adults and children. Willett won the Aurora Award (honoring the best in Canadian science fiction and fantasy) for Best Long-Form Work in English in 2009 for Marseguro (DAW Books); the sequel, Terra Insegura, was also short-listed, and he has been short-listed twice since then for two books in his five-book Shards of Excalibur young adult fantasy series (published by Regina's Coteau Books). His young adult fantasy Spirit Singer (Earthling Press) won the City of Regina Book Award at the 2002 Saskatchewan Book Awards, and he's been short-listed for Saskatchewan Book Awards half a dozen times. As E.C. Blake, Willett is the author of the fantasy trilogy The Mask of Aygrima (Masks, Shadows, and Faces) from DAW Books, and as Lee Arthur Chane he pinned the stand-alone fantasy novel Magebane. His most recent title is the stand-along science fiction novel The Cityborn. September 2018 will see the release of Worldshaper, his ninth novel for DAW Books, which starts a new science fiction/fantasy series. Other novels include the two-book Peregrine Rising adult science fiction series (Bundoran Press), and the young adult fantasy Flames of Nevyana (Rebelight). Due out this year: I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust (Your Nickels' Worth Press), a collection of science-fiction and fantasy poems illustrated by Alberta artist Wendi Nordell, and a short-story collection, Paths to the Stars. Willett's non-fiction books run the gamut from science books for children (e.g., What is the Milky Way? [Rosen Publishing]), young adults (e.g., Disease-Hunting Scientists [Enslow Publishers]) and adults (e.g., Genetics Demystified [McGraw-Hill]) to children's biographies (of people as diverse as Angela Merkel, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, and J.R.R. Tolkien) to histories of the mutiny on the Bounty, the Iran-Iraq War, and Saskatchewan institutions such as the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Land Surveyor's Association, the Saskatchewan Mining Association, and Government House. Willett holds a B.A. in journalism from Harding University in Searcy, AR, and began his career as a reporter/photographer/columnist, and eventually news editor, of the weekly Weyburn Review. He moved to Regina in 1988 as communications officer for the then-fledgling Saskatchewan Science Centre. In 1993 he became a fulltime freelance writer. He continues to live in Regina with his wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, P.Eng., a past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, their teenaged daughter, Alice, and their black Siberian cat, Shadowpaw. You can find him online at www.edwardwillett.com.