Science Fiction Historical Strange

Lou's Seventh Cylinder

By Marc Levinthal
Aug 8, 2018 · 3,829 words · 14 minutes

Lou’s Seventh Cylinder

by Marc Levinthal   


The final reverberations died away; the cylinder stopped spinning and the word "End" appeared on the glowing blue cathode screen. Lou lifted the cover of the tightbeam player and took the cylinder out, stared into the rainbow facets on the shiny surface as he put it back into its cardboard tube.

“That’s a jiv melo, com,” Bernie said, voice constricted, holding hashish smoke. He exhaled and started to refill the Turkish hookah. “What is it? That guy you’re crazed for, what? Mozart?”

“Yeah,” Lou said, staring, “Late Period. 200th Symphony. Jesus, Bern, can you imagine? Two hundred! Kept writing into his eighties. He was still writing on his deathbed. Where does it come from, com?”

Lou grabbed his beerbulb from the table and turned his roundish, brooding face to look out the window. The pale, full moon was rising, wisps of incandescent clouds crossing the disc. He pushed beer up into the straw and swallowed some.       

"I'm sure I don't know." Bernie got up to stretch. He was tall, six feet plus, like a hooptoss player, dark and hawklike, a product of the Uhuru Homeland/Cherokee Nation genepool.   

"I just play the bass," Bernie said, "but you - you've got some of it. Whatever it is, wherever it comes from. Maybe a lot. So stop worrying about it. Just enjoy it!"  He looked at his watch. "Anyway, we must flare. It's five to eight."

"Shit! And I need to flip a fresh battery into the horseless; the charge is gone. Let's go."  

Santini was waiting on the front walkway, arms folded across his burly chest, his dark face a mask of impatience, balding forehead wrinkling.

"It's the fifteenth, Lou," he said. "Rent's due on the first.”

A nervous cackle came out of Lou. Bernie stood aside, embarrassed.

"Heh - Tony - listen - as I've explained, this is not a problem. No problem! Tomorrow - well, no later than Monday - I will have a huge royalty check, which I will promptly cash -"

"You told me ‘Monday’ last Friday."    

"I called to check on it. It's definitely in the post."    

Santini shook his head and scowled. "Alright, this time. Look, this can't go on. I got bills to pay, too. Next time, you're out on your ass!"                                         

Bernie and Lou hefted their guitar cases and hurried down the walk.     

"Monday," Lou called back. "I promise!"   

"The bastard," he hissed to Bernie, "He's bluffing, of course."     

After flipping in the spare battery, Lou moved the triangular six-wheeler out into the Sunrise Avenue traffic. The Friday night cruzados were already out in force; the lines of bright fluorescent-painted electrocarriages rolled slowly toward Vine Street.    

"Shit! I should have taken Hitler Boulevard and cut over." Lou let out a sigh. "Too late now. What time is it?"   

Bernie showed him his watch. Ten after eight.       

The Vaao'k captain wriggled through the jellylike medium that filled the slipship, pausing occasionally to extend a pseudopod to reach a pocket of the smoke that was his food. Outside the transparent hull of the ship, spectral shapes, amorphous, shifted within blasts of arhythmic color-pulsing.

"Nearly there," pulsed the navigator, immediately retracting his radio stalk as soon as he'd said it, causing a faint burst of static.

The captain didn't read this as anger; he knew that the navigator was quite preoccupied.

The Human Ambassador sat encapsulated in an egg of regenerating atmosphere. The captain repressed a wave of nausea as he watched the ambassador ingest a solid material through his main head-orifice. The spongy, white object was called a "sandwich."

Fighting back his distaste, the captain pulsed, "Are you well? Comfortable? We have almost arrived." The ambassador moved the same orifice that he used for ingestion, causing molecules of the surrounding atmosphere to compress and rarify. This odd disturbance was interpreted by the ship intelligence and converted to comprehensible radio pulses.

"Very well, Captain," came the reply. "Your people have provided me with wonderful food. Remarkable, considering that you have no direct knowledge of it.” The computer noted an expression of humor. "That's good news - I'm anxious to start the observations. As you know, one of the central catalysts of this anomaly is a hero of mine. A great composer of music."

"Yes," the captain pulsed, "this display of abstract relationships through the manipulation of the surrounding gaseous envelope. How I wish I could directly experience this - unfortunately, the voltage-fluctuation analog does not translate properly. I know that your race is deeply affected by it, hence the importance of this individual."

"It moves us in much the same way as the mathematical flow-poetry does the Vaao'k."

"He must be a great one," said the captain. "It must distress you to contemplate what may happen."

The ambassador dabbed at his ingestion/speech orifice with a piece of soft material. "Well, I can't claim to fathom the mechanics of the Probability Slipstream - even the most gifted human physicists find it hard to comprehend. But I was led to understand that the worlds and the peoples created in a Continuum Whiplash Effect were not well, real, precisely …"

"No not precisely real " The captain rippled spasmodically, causing slow waves to propagate through the aspic.

"President Buonaparte said today that no new troops would be sent to Bosnia as the fighting continues in Europe "

They pulled into the parking space outside the recording salon, and Lou hit the "off" button. The turbine whined as it ran down. The wireless went silent. He pulled his codecard out of the dash and popped the baggage compartment open as Bernie went around to grab the guitars.

Sylvie and Jake, the two keyboard players, were standing in the open back door of the studio, smoking pipes of tobacco, laughing about some obscure private joke.

"Glad you could make it," Sylvie said, her voice full of mock indignation. She waved a hand. "It's jiv, com. They're just starting to get sounds on the Turkish kit." She smiled prettily, nodding toward the thudding repeat of a tom-tom sounding within. Shook her red-brown hair out of her face.

Lou smiled back, for a moment taking in a picture of her. So attractive, he thought, in a witchy sort of way … tall, lithe … well, best to think of other things, since the attraction doesn't seem to be mutual. The music, for instance. We should be able to do this in two or three tries; everyone knows the material pretty well. If we fuck up, we'll just pick it up from there, and I'll edit it on the strand recorder …

He and Bernie entered the studio and faced the area where the thudding was coming from. They raised their fists in rhythm with the pounding, parodying the salute traditionally given by Blockheads to their favorite Screech bands.

"Fuck yourself!" yelled Tommy, smiling. The drummer was already shirtless, sweat pouring down from his long, blonde hair.

"Woo! You roll it, com!” Lou shouted back at him. “In the spiral!"

"Do you think we have time to roll out for some more beers?" Bernie asked no one in particular, as he leaned his guitar case against the wall.

A voice boomed out of the studio loudspeakers. "About twenty minutes more with the drums should do it." It was Michael Peters, the engineer. "You have my blessings, O Nubian Prince." They could see him through the glass partition, making the sign of the cross in the air.

"Go ahead," said Lou, "I'll set up your gear. Sir Michael  sounds as if he dearly needs one. Twenty minutes - plenty of time." Let's hope it's not more like ninety minutes before the drums sound right, he thought. Time slips by like nothing …

Three, two, one, and phase resumption, and the unnerving sensations that accompanied it. The ambassador felt as if his body had been about to implode, but had thought better of it at the last nanosecond.

He peered out from his life-support bubble at the vague, blurred shapes of the Vaao'k. Even after years of diplomatic work for Solsystem, the remnants of the old prejudices still remained. It was sometimes difficult to think of these amorphous blobs as the intelligent, aesthetic, empathetic beings that they were.

He ran his fingers through his spiky gray hair and yawned. He glanced at the floppy screen in his lap, still baffled by his having been selected by the Vaao'k over the few hundred qualified scientists who had practically drooled at the prospect of a slipship voyage. Well, I've come as an observer, he thought. I'd better try to understand what it is I'm observing. He tapped at the screen and read his notes.

The vacuum anomaly had whip-snapped into being synced to Galactic Standard Cycle 307 - or the Earth-year A.D. 1993. History had been buffeted and warped; certain elements remained constant, while other features, including historically significant individuals, twisted backward or forward like disturbed swirls of cream in a coffee cup. This left holes for other features to fill, or to knock into other resonances, forming new, strange harmonics and dissonances. The initial time fluctuation front, which was centered somewhere near the end of the eighteenth century, had slammed solidly up against the twenty-first in this ghost-universe.

The paradox and mystery involved baffled him. The anomaly sprang into being, and history seemingly wrote itself into the intervening unsettled lapses. Here the psyche seemed to be inextricably meshed with and integral to the substance of spacetime: people who had not existed moments before remembered a shared history that had - what? Not actually occurred? Or occurred elsewhere? Furthermore, the Vaao'k had never observed this phenomenon as separate from intelligence: a sentient species had, without exception, been found in the "eye of the hurricane." The implications were astounding. Scientific evidence of a transpersonal consciousness? Overmind? The dreaming of God?

What did it mean to exist? To remember? The questions, perhaps unanswerable, that sentient races had been asking since there was such a thing as self-reflection. Maybe the folly was in even asking, but encounters like these brought them tantalizingly close to an answer.

The material gleaned from the findings of the remote probe indicated a level of technology and culture roughly parallel to the "real" one. The ambassador touched the screen to get biographical material on the individual in question - the "rewritten" historical perspective. Born 1958, not 1770. Parents refugees - father well-known "Musique Bleu" pianist (jazz?). Fled to America to escape the Anarchist Russian invasion of Europe. (Allied Liberation, led by another first generation American, General Adolph Hitler, came in '52. German Imperial government restored. Chancellor Eisenhower?) Too much to take in. Just too much.   He touched again, this time time to hear some of the strange music - so alien, yet so familiar...

     “All right - again from the - shut up while somebody’s talking! From the pickup to the B section. One, two, three, and -”

     Heavy fuzztone minor. Lou played a melody on oscillator guitar that seared deep into the heart - keyboard strings chorded figure underneath it. A few bars later, the two clarinophons joined into the pounding, slow march with a complimentary melody, joined seamlessly so that it was hard to tell where the guitar melody ended and the new one began. Then the trumpet, another  magic color for the endless sound spiral. And another ...                                                                          The engineer, Michael - gaunt, unshaven - sat in the darkened control room, transfixed. He had never heard - there had never been music like this. It touched some still, remote part of him that stood beyond the mundane, money-grubbing day-to-day, a place that witnessed only timeless beauty and strangeness. He was crying - embarrassed, exhilarated, glad that no one could see him.

The melodies thundered now, intertwined and bloomed. The amplified sound level had risen dangerously, almost painfully, then suddenly dropped to pianissimo - for the final, aethereal minor chord the piece had begun with …

He pressed a button on the console and the racks of tandem recording cylinders stopped moving. He heard Lou faintly through the studio microphones: "Fine. I'll edit that to the first half when we mix to the strand recorder."

Michael hit the speakout switch. "Yeah ... um - do you want to come in and listen?" he asked weakly.

"No," Lou said, "let's go on to number three. Why, did you hear something wrong in there?"

"Wrong? No, nothing wrong."

Lou pulled the foam earplugs out of his ears; he wouldn't need them for the mixdown session. He liked to record playing loud, to feel the sound pressure level, but after having to have surgery to correct problems with his hearing … That had been a close call. The experience had made him value what he had. He'd hear it well enough now on playback.

I love this, he thought as he came through the double doors of the control room, the chemical smell of the recording cylinders, the lights and readouts from the processing gear and the Babbage boxes, all of it.    He'd loved it from the first time his poppa had let him into one of his Bleu sessions with Uncle Louis, his namesake (though Momma had insisted upon the proper German version of the name). He remembered sitting in a big chair in the corner, listening to Satchmo wail … It had always seemed like the inside of a rocket from some space romance, like you could do magic inside it, like anything was possible …

Michael was lining up all of the cylinders, each containing a recording of an individual instrument or component sound, to the head of the start beep. Once aligned, they would all be driven in tandem from the same motor. Each one could also be offset to play behind or ahead of the rest of the cylinders, a feature that facilitated all manner of tricks and special effects.

"Michael," Lou said, "can I put this on?" He held up a tightbeam cylinder box. "Wanna get used to the speakers."

Michael took the cylinder and popped it into the player on the wall. He hit a switch on the board, and electric dance music boomed through the air: last year's Gershwin record, "Syncopated City." Good choice, he thought. Everybody's heard this about a zillion times by now.

Lou sat before the sound-mixing board, between and in front of the two tulip-shaped speakers, trying his damnedest to  concentrate on the sound, his eyes drifting to Sylvie's reflection in the glass. She was curled up on the couch behind him, reading a paperback.

Suddenly she looked up, caught him staring, smiled. Busted. His face started to heat up.

“What’s that book?” he asked, completely embarrassed. “Looks pretty interesting.”

“Spec fiction,” she said. "Philip Dick. Yeah, interesting. It's based on things that supposedly really happened to him. He says he had an epiphany - was directly contacted by God, or something godlike, and was shown that the universe we inhabit is phony.

“That part's pretty vague - like - what we see is some kind of echo of what's really there." She shook her head. "I don't know. But some things did happen to him that are pretty hard to dismiss."

"Like to read it." He stared. Sylvie was back into the book.

What if I just told her how I felt? he wondered. That letter I wrote - I couldn't ever really give it to her. What if I just said all that to her? Yeah, and what if she laughed, thought I was just fooling around, or was repulsed, or angry …  you're no handsome, skinny, young croonsinger, Lou. Still, how will I ever know? Well, he thought, deal with it later, because right now you're on the clock and over budget, this indie label isn't going to come through with any more cash, and you've got to pay the rent with what's coming.

"Let's do this," he said to Michael. "I'm ready."

The Vaao'k sense units poured forth from an aperture in the ship's side, huffing outward into the void like scattering dandelion spores, small dullish-gray inflated triangles, each burrowing underspace to its predetermined mapping path, or falling into the ghost-earth's gravity well, safely concealed in electromagnetic camouflage.

Within minutes, an elaborate picture was building up within ship intelligence, one showing the dimensions and properties of the tiny bubble-universe. Less than a thousand light years across, its elapsed interior time was just under two standard cycles. The light from the occulted "disappeared" stars continued to travel; terrestrial observers would detect nothing unusual for a millenium. That was, if …

The ambassador toyed with the holo suspended before him, calling up multihued specifics. This new information would give the Vaao'k details concerning the stability of this place: until now (based on data collected on previous expeditions), the safety of the slipship could only be reasonably guaranteed for approximately forty-eight Earth-hours. After that …  he imagined  it would be painless at least. Just - gone.

One of the protoplasmic Vaao'k was half-pressed against the life-support bubble. The rest of it gently undulated. Ship intelligence identified it as the captain.

"Hello, Ambassador," a mild AI voice said. "The prognosis is poor, I am afraid. We can reasonably predict, using the latest information, that the continuum will collapse back into vacuum at some time between one and one hundred years. I am very sorry - it is quite unstable. I had hoped - you must feel great sorrow."

"I - don't quite know how to feel …" the ambassador replied, "All of those lives. Winking into being, existing for a moment … winking into nothing again - do you believe it? Aren't they real down there? Don't they love? Create beautiful things? Feel pain? What are they?"

"I … I … " came from the computer, incongruously, "I … " Then a different voice, emotionless: "Unable to code for proper semantic transfer."

"Couldn't I see for myself? I mean - what would happen if I went down there? Talked to someone?"

There was silence for a moment.

"If great care is taken," the captain said, "direct contact can be made. In fact, Ambassador, you were chosen for this mission in the hope that you would volunteer to perform this service for us. It's not in our nature to ask such a thing. Yes, clearly, the data collected by our probes is significant and informative. And in the last millenium, we Vaao'k have come far in our understanding of these 'whiplash universes' - yet the central mystery remains. We are as baffled as you are: what essentially constitutes reality? Your direct, subjective experiences could prove invaluable to us in this respect.

“This sort of thing has only been attempted four times before - it is rare that a suitable member of the sentient race being observed is both present on the slipship and willing to attempt a field observation."

The ambassador felt an adrenaline surge at the prospect of a visit to this otherworld. "Well - what would you have me observe?"

"It does not matter," the cool, smooth voice said. "The very act will be enough." The captain paused. "It may well be a futile exercise. There is so much that we don't know. Your Zen poets and quantum physicists, among others, have spoken of the complexities of such a study - the observer becoming one with the system observed.

"Your musical composer - a conversation with him would interest you, would it not?" The shapeless form fluttered. "We will prepare sensory recorders and an atmospheric craft for your journey."

Two other Vaao'k flanked the captain. The ambassador took a deep breath as he watched them flow away in a broad, sinusoidal curve toward a dim blur of machine lights.

Into the night, one by one, the mixes slowly materialized. They weren't that difficult, all things considered. The hardest part was mixing the short transitional sound collages that went in between the main tracks. It was four o'clock, and the last of these was nearly finished: a Babbage manipulation of the voice of early hommebleu Jamie Hendrix, from the Lomax archives recordings …

"Lookjustlikalookjustlikalookjustlika -" The track faded out; after a few seconds, Michael stopped the cylinders. He picked up the box for the strandspool, started writing on it with a marker.

"What are you calling this album, anyway?"

"Just 'Seventh Cylinder'," Lou said, I've never been particularly fond of naming things."

"Yeah." Michael wrote more. "Somebody told me you had a cat named 'Cat'."

Lou turned around, reached over to re-spool the stereo strand recorder, and stopped short.

The other musicians had gone (Bernie had gotten a ride with one of the clarinophon players, Joel) except for Sylvie, who was sound asleep on the couch. She still held the open book limply in her hands. Now he remembered Jake coming in and trying to wake her - must've gotten tired of waiting. Lou hit the rewind button, then got up and gently started to shake her shoulder. Sylvie's eyes opened - nobody home for a second - then she smiled.

"What time is it?" she whispered hoarsely.

"A little after four. Yeah, you were shelved, com. We're just about over here."

She sat up, stretched, came awake. She inhaled deeply, let it out. "How am I gonna get all of my shit home now?"

"You can leave it here today if you want to," Michael offered, "nobody in here until tomorrow night. It's jivvy."

"I'll help you get it," Lou blurted out. He hesitated. "Uh- Sylvie - could I come by tomorrow and borrow some books by that - Dick guy? I mean - give you a ride and uh -" He was flustered, red faced.

"Yeah - hey - I've got a few bulbs of beer in the fridge; we could watch the televisor or something." She stifled a laugh. "You're so weird, Lou."

As usual, a panhandler was standing outside in the shadow of the doorway. They all knew Lou as an easy mark.

"Mr. Beethoven? Ludwig van Beethoven?"

Van Beethoven? Even knows my full name, he thought. Strange.

"Yeah, I think I've got something for you, no challenge, com."

He reached into his pocket, handed the older man a Stevenson dollar. The man scrutinized the coin as if he'd never seen one before. Lou and Sylvie continued to walk to the horseless.

"Who's that guy?” Sylvie asked. “He's a new one, what?"

For the first time, Lou turned to look at the oddly-dressed, gray-haired man standing over by the wall. The man now stared straight at him - as if awe-struck, or enraptured - or saddened?

"I dunno," he said. "I dunno. A ghost, maybe."

They laughed together - sleep deprived giggling - and got into the electrocarriage.

This story originally appeared in Aboriginal Science Fiction.