by R. Overwater
A lobster trap. Beaten by a lobster trap. One of the few things that could have possibly ruined tonight. Beaten by a black-and-white photo of a crustacean peering through a row of wooden slats, one salt-bleached strip protruding from its soulless black eye. To quote the overly ornate reporter, “its antennae still waved, its pincers still clacked and it sat rooted there, transfixed, unaware of the abomination it had become.”
Tomorrow, both Helen and the closing gala would be back-page news. No matter how well she played tonight. No matter how hard she’d worked to get everything into place.
She slapped the newspaper onto the white linen between her teacup and the dirtied cutlery Josephine consistently pushed onto her half of the table. The butter knife bore a faux-heirloom filigree around the edges, the kind you’d find at lesser stores like Macy’s.
She looked up to see Josephine eyeing her. “Aw, honey.” Josephine reached across the table, cupping Helen’s hand beneath hers. “I know that editor promised you. When I saw the paper this morning, I didn’t even have to read it. I knew how you’d be.”
Outside the spotless front window, the sky had already taken on a sickly hue. The way it began in Berlin and Amsterdam, the newspaper story noted, just before the Miasma thickened in the atmosphere.
A waiter materialized at Josephine’s elbow, depositing a plate of crepes. Josephine leaned over them, severing the end of one with her fork and popping it into her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully and then dabbed her lips with a linen serviette. “Just because one conductor might not be wowed by the kimby—the—”
“Kimball,” Helen said. “Kimball theatre organ.”
“Yes. Played by a dazzling honey-haired beauty, toast of the young avant-garde.”
Helen pushed her chair back as another waiter slid a plate in front of her. “Please. I’m classically trained for God’s sake.”
“Yes. Forget people your age. You want to be famous among windy old men.”
“I do if they conduct philharmonic orchestras.”
Across the table, Josephine’s pretty, wide lips curled upwards into a smile but her eyes had a hard glint.
‘What?” Helen asked.
Josephine swallowed a bite of crepe before answering. “You’re my dearest friend. But you drive me mad.” She tapped the newspaper on the table. “Don’t you see? It’s going to happen here now. You have bigger problems than just sweet-talking some stuffy old conductor into letting you into the New York Philharmonic.”
Helen looked out the window. Maybe the air was greener than when she last looked, maybe it was just her imagination. “I’ll bet it doesn’t get any worse than Prague,” she said. “Just that one man, remember? When it struck the Dvorak concert hall.”
“Just one man,” Josephine said. “Millions dead in other countries, or needing amputation because there’s a house key embedded in their hand. Or joined at the shoulder to some god-awful sweaty man they had the misfortune to sit beside.”
Josephine leaned in. “We should get out of this town. At least until we know everything is going to be all right. Then you’ll be safe to pursue your fame and fortune.” She brightened. “Look at Berlin—practically in full swing again.”
Helen motioned to a waiter for more coffee. No need for Josephine to ever hear her say it out loud, but Helen had, in the past—occasionally—regretted ignoring her advice. Could New York suffer a similar fate as Berlin? She had to admit it could. And eventually New York would recover too, the same as Berlin. But, here, the opening for first chair or featured pianist and the chance to sway Maestro Samuel Whittaker into being the first orchestra with a full pipe organ, would be gone.
If Helen could dazzle Whitaker tonight, make her final convincing argument at their lunch meeting tomorrow, then she could depart the city, wait things out.
“You’re probably right,” Helen said. “We’ll skip the alumni luncheon. We’ll get on a train first thing tomorrow.”
Josephine’s face lit up. “Truly?”
There had to be some way to get Josephine out of town without Helen herself having to leave right away. She’d figure that maneuver out later.
“I’ll send our regrets to the alumni officer at Vassar and call you after rehearsal. I can’t stand Roy up.”
“Yes,” Josephine said. “Whatever you do, don’t stand up your boyfriend.”
“That, he will most certainly never, ever be,” Helen said. “But that doesn’t mean he deserves the snide things you always say.”
“Perhaps,” Josephine said. “But he’s so lacking in social graces, he doesn’t even know he should be offended.”
“I’ll catch up with you this afternoon,” Helen said.
Outside The Rivoli, people hailed more cabs than usual. Pedestrians hurried down the sidewalk. Thick, organized circles of airplanes flew above the distant harbor and a sickly green tinge permeated the clouds. There was no sense in worrying about it. Today’s agenda was just too important.
Helen stepped into the projectionist booth and stubbed her toe on a monkey wrench lying in the middle of the floor. It clinked. A prosthetic arm waved out from under the massive bank of foot pedals. “Darlin’—not quite ready for you, sorry.”
“I’m early,” Helen said. “I was going to have a cup of tea at Schroeder’s, but I turned around. You can cut the tension in there with a knife.”
“Can ya blame ’em? That green gas might be coming.”
Roy slithered from under the keyboard and wiped a greasy hand down the front of his work shirt. He pointed at the ripples of purple blotch running down the side of his neck. “I saw the worst gas the Huns could make—and they were the masters until this new stuff settled their hash. I read a science journal where they think it fuses you at the molecular level. But they ain’t sure how. Scares the hell out of me.”
Roy refused to call it “the Miasma,” like the papers and the reels. Nonetheless, his obsession with the phenomena was as bad as Daddy’s.
“Dear,” Helen said. “Tonight is the big night, remember?”
“Talking pictures ain’t gonna take over in one night.” Roy pulled a rag from his pocket. “Either way, here ya go. The big overhaul you fussed about.” He wiped a grease speck off the organ’s side.” I wouldn’t have bothered—in two weeks they’re breaking all of this down.” He pointed at the projector. “This is getting replaced by one hell of a system. Imagine! Wire and magnets transmitting human speech!”
The Vassar alumni luncheon was in three hours.
“Roy, Helen said. “We need to get rehearsing.”
Tonight’s closing gala was a triple feature beginning with an old Buster Keaton classic. She practiced the tricky bit where Keaton deposited his derrière wrong-way on a bench and, discovering his error, remained in place but spun his hat so that it faced in the right direction.
Lifting herself off the bench, she extended her left leg as far as it would reach to catch the slide-whistle pedal, dance-shimmied into position for a downward flurry of notes on the xylophone and then shot her right foot all the way back to catch the bicycle bell. All while her hands flawlessly played a buoyant Strauss piece. She smiled. There was no other player who could add so much to a scene’s humor, bring the house down the way Helen could.
But that was how she’d unwittingly pigeonholed herself. The queen of a dying art form. On the verge of being trapped on the outside of the world’s truly important music, forever looking in.
Roy had the organ in tip-top condition and Helen felt like taking a light run through the pieces she’d play in front of Whittaker. Absentmindedly, she peppered in small sound effects as if it was a film soundtrack. Door knocks, heavy footfalls, someone tumbling down the stairs, she seamlessly blended them among the flute passages, horn flourishes, and bits of percussion.
“That’s the music that’s supposed to wow ’em tonight, right?” Roy stood by the projector, rubbing a knuckle against his stubbled jaw. “The big-deal number by that Horst guy.”
“Holst. Gustav Holst.”
“I doubt ol’ Gustav put slide-whistle in it.” Roy grinned and shook his head.
He tapped the mother-of-pearl keyboard top. “You always give me a hard time for getting excited about this old girl. But your heart’s in her more than you’ll admit.”
Helen looked at Roy. The grease. The loose-hanging clothes. The matted clumps of sandy-colored hair.
“You keep that same suit jacket you wear to every single opening night here at the theatre, right?”
They entered the stone archway of Madison Hall only to learn the Vassar alumni luncheon was canceled. So much for introducing Roy to Alice Tarnigan. Woefully unmarried and not completely unattractive, like Roy, Alice would likely welcome the chance to meet a single war hero. Once her hooks were into him, it would solve a ton of Helen’s problems.
Outside, the sky toward the distant harbor was an unmistakable olive green. Mottled wisps hung high in the air, randomly scattered above the cityscape. Roy stared upward and Helen knew by the way he set his jaw that he was disgruntled about needlessly dressing up for a sweaty streetcar ride with half-panicked New Yorkers.
“Roy, after this, I want you to pack up and leave town until we’re sure the Miasma isn’t coming,” she said.
“You’re going with me,” Roy said. “I know your folks are away in Washington right now.”
Helen could just guess what he was thinking. This might be his one last shot at the woman he adored—and who adored him back, but in a way that would be fruitless for the disheveled engineer. It was doubtful the fool would go without her.
And then there was Josephine. She’d be livid that Helen had fibbed about skipping the alumni luncheon. Before Helen could determine a way to talk herself out of that lie, she bumped into Gertrude Whittaker, the conductor’s wife. Gertrude was chair of the Vassar alumni committee. Helen couldn’t resist probing for information on Gertrude’s husband in his capacity as philharmonic leader.
“Yes, he did mention he’d be seeing you,” Gertrude said, drawing labored breaths that made Helen wonder if the woman’s overstuffed girdle would endure the strain. “I overheard David Rosso say he didn’t think you had the right qualifications.”
Rosso. The outgoing pianist, always a sixteenth-note late on the una corda pedal. Doubted her qualifications. In her third year, Helen had been in contention for first chair clarinet with Margite Olafson and Peter Humphries. Peter took it. She auditioned for the same chair in her final year, this time against Susan Jones and Clara Donner. After an unusually long wait, all three of them were told the position was going to Michael Conte, a last-minute transfer from Cambridge and “only a second-year student but he’s exceptionally gifted and a real boon to this program.” She knew quite well what qualifications she lacked.
Traffic jammed the streets as Helen and Roy struggled to shoehorn themselves into another packed, noisy streetcar. They stayed silent until stepping onto the block they lived on. Before Helen could say a word, the buzz of powerful engines filled the air and everyone around them craned their necks toward the sky.
Roy looked up, wide-eyed. “The new Curtiss N-5s!” he yelled.
A line of low-flying biplanes, almost wingtip-to-wingtip, crossed the sky, a gauzy blur forming beneath their bellies. The planes’ air-force green paint blended with the sky but she could still distinguish between the two enough to see a forest-colored wisp brush the black speck at the far end of the aircraft formation. The speck broke off, becoming the tiny silhouette of a cartwheeling plane as it tumbled closer, forcing other planes into steep, banking turns to avoid collision.
The gauzy blur beneath the aircraft turned into dots that widened into small rectangles and suddenly became a snowstorm of leaflets blanketing the street and plastering themselves against the streetcar windows in the closest plane’s propeller wash. It careened frighteningly close to the ground. Then, righting itself, it sped upward. Helen and Roy nearly bumped heads as they stooped to pick up a leaflet.
Roy frowned as he read it. Over his shoulder, Helen caught the words “immediate evacuation.”
He reached out with his good hand, grabbing her arm. “We need to get out of the city right now.” He surveyed the scene around them, the street littered with paper, people milling about, shouting in the aftermath of the leaflet bombing. Above, the sky, darker than spruce needles, pressed lower, flashing with ripples. His face was grim. “If we can even find a way out.”
Daddy was only ever one phone call away from President Wilson. It was the last card she’d ever play but she had to admit the fear permeating the atmosphere had begun to coil in the bottom of her stomach. “As soon as the gala is over tonight, we’ll call—”
“Jesus Christ, Helen!” Roy ducked his head down, making eye-to-eye contact. “There’s not going to be a gala.” He stepped back. “You’d better stick with me, okay?”
“Fine,” she said.
Nothing about this was fine. Josephine would be at home, stewing, growing impatient, waiting to hear from Helen. And now Roy would complicate things further, trying to make his play.
He studied her intently. “I know what you’re thinking. This is not that.” The sheepish boy-man she knew reappeared. “Look. I know you know how I feel about you. He tugged the lapel of his suit jacket. “But I also know the kind of man for you wears one of these every damn day. So just let me keep you alive and then you can forget about me after.”
“Oh, please. I’m not going to forget you. I’m just not ever going to marry you.”
“Fair enough. I suppose I only—”
“Just go home and get ready, Roy.”
She cried so hard she could barely get her key in the apartment building’s door. The newspaper attention she needed to get her name on everyone’s lips was never going to come. Her stunning one-woman performance of The Planets would not happen. The only man who would appreciate it and save her from some B-movie house, junior orchestra or, even worse, having everyone see her prostrate herself before Daddy’s fortune to get by—would never hear her stunning playing. No one would care.
Her apartment door was slightly ajar. Only one person had a key to it.
“Oh, thank God.”
Her father rose and embraced her as she closed the door. He grabbed her by the shoulders, spun her about and looked her up and down. “Very good,” he said. He settled back into the velour chair. Bags drooped beneath his eyes and his hair was thinner than Helen remembered.
“Why are you here?”
His smile was wan. “My little girl. Always so direct. The Miasma hit London this afternoon.” He teased a gold pocket watch out from his coat side-pocket, opened it, glanced at it, snapped the cover shut, and redeposited it. “We don’t know when they found that damn lobster trap here in New York, we likely have about twelve hours. But we know almost to the precise minute when it will strike England.”
Helen cocked her head.
“It struck during the first note of that big premiere, the London Symphony Orchestra performing that composer you prattle on about.”
It took a second to sink in. The much-celebrated premiere she’d used as a conversation starter with Whittaker, a publicly acknowledged Holst aficionado. She composed herself. “Holst. It’s the first ever complete performance of The Planets.”
“It would have been.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in Washington?”
The old man fished into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a fistful of rectangular papers with the United States flag on one end and the presidential seal on the other. “You’re coming with me. The army has a designated rail car. It leaves in two hours.”
He handed her the paper rectangle. It was a train ticket with a large watermark that stated Priority Passenger.
She pointed at the sheaf of papers in his hand. “Can you spare two more?”
“Roy and Josephine. They’re getting ready to leave with me. I promised them.”
“Your oily workmate and that widow Gertrude Whittaker spreads rumours about?” He stuffed the papers back into his inside breast pocket. “There’s a reason I didn’t simply send for you. I needed to ensure you were away from the theatre district.” He sat forward, lowering his voice. “The Miasma, to the best of our knowledge, has only appeared on a land base, instead of moving in from the water, three times. Each of those was near a concert hall.”
Helen recalled now, the Prague concert-goer with the glass through his face. The papers had indeed said it was the first time the green mist had originated on land.
“There’s always high-ranking targets at those big to-dos,” her father said. “President Wilson believes Russia secretly perfected those awful gasses the Huns used. We don’t know why they usually attack from the water, but thank God they hit the Rhine first. If we were still fighting Germany, we’d be at a complete disadvantage.”
He sat back, folding his arms. “So you see: your natural haunts put you in even graver danger. Now be a dear and hurry and pack.”
“Give me two more tickets or I won’t go.”
He leapt up and for one moment became the stern patriarch who’d raised her. “You most certainly will, young lady. I’m dropping one of these off up the block and you will be ready for me when I return. “If—” He looked down at Helen with a measured gaze, watching her stand there.
He sighed and dipped his hand back into his coat.
Roy leaned against his open doorframe, a pained expression on his face. “Josephine doesn’t like me. I don’t particularly like her, either.”
Helen held up a small envelope. “Give her this note.”
Roy looked at the tickets in his good hand. “And you’ll be waiting for us in Washington? Why can’t we all ride together?”
“I have to ride with Daddy in the special dignitary car.”
He thrust his chin forward as the decision clicked into place. “I’ve seen a thing or two, Helen.” He gripped the doorknob as he stepped back. “I can smell when we’re going to lose. Please, please be there when we arrive.”
The streetcars were no longer running and Helen began to sweat from the brisk pace as she hustled toward the theatre district. Whittaker maintained an office about halfway between The Rivoli and Carnegie Hall and kept regular business hours on days when he did not have an evening performance. There was a chance the stodgy, habitual old curmudgeon might still be there.
Helen had Whittaker just where she wanted him now. When he learned the London performance was canceled and the New York Philharmonic could quickly beat the London Symphony to the punch and perform the world-wide premiere of The Planets, he wouldn’t be able to resist.
Not enamored with the organ to begin with, he wouldn’t begrudge Helen the position. When Holst composed OP 32:8, naming it “Neptune,” after the most recently discovered planet, he’d decided it was too mysterious for traditional piano and scored the keyboard melodies entirely for organ. And how many classically trained organists were there who could already play arrangements for “Neptune,” never mind the other six movements?
She could hear it, the glorious timbre of breath across reeds, enveloping her, the ominous brass drifting in from the left, the steady meter of the tympani as they thundered out the early measures of the opening movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War.”
This was what Roy and Josephine didn’t understand as they counseled her to try to continue making a name for herself with the Kimball. To be in the middle of an ensemble, playing with her eyes closed, was to be immersed in the music itself. Soon she could revisit that feeling, finally, as she played the debut of what would surely become one of the century’s great compositions.
Daddy, Roy and Josephine would be apoplectic when they discovered her absent in the train car. Only Daddy’s sense of public decorum would keep him from erupting. But Helen knew that when Josephine inevitably cried, he’d feel compelled to look after them on Helen’s behalf. When Roy and Josephine returned, she’d share news of her victory and they’d understand.
She rounded the corner, looking for Whittaker’s automobile on the street in front of his office. It was there.
But a green fog started midway down the sidewalk and extended to the clouds. Inside it, a woman lay on her stomach, the back of her head protruding from the sidewalk.
Helen turned to flee. Mere feet away, green mist had rolled in behind her. A wisp snaked toward her and she sidestepped it, searching for a clear path to the unobscured air across the street. But an octopus-cyclone of vaporous tendrils circled down around her and then her skin was burning and her eyes stung and an acidic rotten-egg smell filled her nostrils. Dizziness pulled her down to the sidewalk. Her vision blurred and the world shattered into a kaleidoscope of fractured images.
Years ago, in Helen’s first week at The Rivoli, the projectionist had made some sort of error, unspooling a roll of film onto the floor. There, in a fascinating jumble, was the magic of Charlie Chaplin, all of his antics visible in one momentary glance. An entire hour of motion captured in a blink, one enormous pile of simultaneous still photos, each frame minutely different from the other. This vision now before her recalled that, but was a myriad of different scenes, all moving.
She focused and saw blackness, stars, the void of space. Helen had never seen an image of the Earth but knew that was what she was looking at as it appeared, followed in succession by Mars, Jupiter, all the planets she knew and some she did not. And then the air was clear and she was sitting upright.
Miraculously, she wasn’t part of the sidewalk. A perfect cylinder of green encircled her, pulsing with a familiar rhythm. A gentle hum modulated in familiar pitch. The realization struck like lightning.
The pulsing was in 5/4 time; the hum was undeniably F minor. The time signature and correct key of Op. 32:1 by Holst: “Mars, the Bringer of War.” She tapped in time and then integrated the syncopated beat of the movement’s percussion. The green rippled and the pulsing grew louder. Other tones began to modulate beneath the hum, like the horn harmonies at bar 54 of the movement. An idea sprang up before she could think it through.
Tapping the sidewalk in 5/4 time, she hummed the first ominous cello strains of Op. 32: “Mars, the Bringer of War.” She leaned suddenly, menacingly, toward the haze, humming the drastic, piercing horn line that came in at bar 17. A long thin streak of green corkscrewed out from the cylinder into her eye, burning furiously. Through the tears, she saw her apartment, the score of The Planets on the piano bench. And she knew what the green mist wanted.
This was not some weapon, invented by petty men to wield against one another. It was not the Russians. This was something else, intelligent and of unknown intent, the scope of its power beyond anything here on Earth. Somehow, it had planted a conduit to its cold presence in Helen’s mind and she could still see bits and pieces of what it perceived. It communicated through pitch and timed intervals, adjusted by tempo. Music.
That was perhaps a too-simplistic explanation. But music was definitely a component of its language, the part Helen could comprehend. She wasn’t sure how she knew this. But most assuredly, she did.
A shoe lay in the middle of one step as Helen pounded up the stairs to her apartment. Her heart plummeted.
There, around the next corner to the top was the bare, pink sole of a foot. She recognized Josephine’s perfect, alabaster ankle. Josephine’s other leg dropped into the wooden stairwell and she lay askew against the accordion shape of the hallway radiator, Roy half atop of her. He’d come to rest with his prosthetic arm beneath him and it erupted from the small of his back like a harpoon. The two were cheek to cheek, Roy’s open mouth showing a row of bare teeth that now joined the side of Josephine’s once-gorgeous mouth, forming a hideous two-jawed zigzag of teeth like some sort of bony zipper.
Roy’s eyes were closed but he was still breathing. Helen leaned in, listening. He wheezed in perfect 4/4 time. Josephine’s left eye, emerging just above Roy’s forehead, was grey and filmy. But her right eye was visible just above the demarcation line where the radiator fused with her face. Steam drifted up from the join, keeping the eye wet and shiny, alive looking, in perfect juxtaposition to the dull, lifeless orb on the other side of her dainty nose. Perhaps Josephine had tried to catch herself as she fell, because her arms were wrapped around the radiator. She resembled something from illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, a hellish apparition, a distended harpy playing a concertina that sprang from her own chest. Helen leaned over the stairway railing and retched.
On her kitchen table was a note in Josephine’s handwriting.
It was a clever ploy, honey, but do you think we don’t know you? Roy is going to search for you at that conductor’s place of business. Your father’s car is parked in front of that diplomat’s flat over by Dunby street and I’m going to get him and tell him what you’re up to. If you get this, stay put. We’re not leaving without you.
Love, Josephine and Roy.
Love, Josephine and Roy. A most unlikely partnership. All his life, Roy had probably dreamed of laying by a woman as lovely as Josephine. And now he did.
The sun was setting as she trotted back toward The Rivoli. Helen knew what the Miasma expected of her now; to play music in such a way the thinkers of this world would recognize it as patterns, consider the known composition choices, and grasp that it was communication. That the first compositions played would be the other-worldly Planets opus was ironic, merely well-fitting happenstance. What it had really been searching for was someone who both spoke their language and could summon the right breadth of sounds—like an orchestra. Or a machine like the Kimball.
Fragments of the film-stock-style frames, jagged images of memory and knowledge not yet grasped by mortal men flickered before her eyes as she entered the theatre district. She could feel deep in her bones that the Miasma— not truly a gas, the vaporous home of something more they than it—was here to stay. From the continual assault of dancing images, she could see how it had something to do with the Great War. It did not please them.
It would communicate that, and more, through music. If she could just make it through this task safely, she’d have done more than just debut Holst’s great composition to the globe. She’d be known for solving a great scientific mystery, ending suspicions that still lingered post-war. She’d garner approval from the president that even Daddy couldn’t earn.
As the frame fragments appeared, Helen looked to see how exactly it was that the world would hear this. The Rivoli had no electromagnetic speakers like the new talkies used, and as loud as the Kimball’s massive pipes were, you’d at best hear it up the block with the theatre’s doors and windows open.
She saw one frame containing a younger version of Daddy, skin pink and taut, spinning while holding an infant aloft. In the corner of her eye, she spotted Roy, bug-eyed, scrambling through the mud of a trench, frantically pulling a rubber gas mask across his face. Thick coils of brown gas wafted around him and men fell into the scene from the trench lip above, screaming, vomiting, convulsing in increasingly smaller paroxysms until all the men except Roy lay still.
She looked past the horrific scene, searching for clues to how her performance would unfold. She saw only blank, blatant absences. Not even the void of space.
In front of The Rivoli, a light breeze held a leaflet pinned across the face of a young man sprawled over the curb. Other bodies lay half in, half out of the sidewalk concrete. Leaflets floated in the breeze among them, the only mobile participants in a scene more horrific than her stairwell.
The Miasma had struck during the afternoon matinee. Clearly, the army’s warning had not fallen in time. Ushers lay across the lobby, one with a garbage bin bisecting his torso. The coat-check girl lay with the arm of a little girl through her shoulder. A spilled popcorn carton jutted from her neck and she lay still. But the child whimpered and writhed, tugging, trying to crawl away in her delirium.
Everywhere, people lay in piles, men and women who’d tried to flee now slumped near the doorway in twitching mounds of fused flesh.
From within the theatre, moans and pleas for help drifted through the double-doors. Helen turned to go in and look. Her legs locked, her back stiffened, and she was frozen. Invisible, the Miasma was still here. It compelled her: she must go to the Kimball and play.
The daytime projectionist lay collapsed over a stack of film canisters, one protruding from her back edge-first like a metallic shark fin. She wheezed, punctuating short gasps with a loud, hacking cough. Her head was twisted toward Helen, no recognition in her vacant eyes.
Helen set the musical score on its stand and pulled out the piano bench. She attempted to sit down but her arms went rigid and then involuntarily pushed the bench away.
No. Oh please, no! The blank frames she’d searched for answers filled with new images and her limbs turned to jelly as she saw the Miasma’s intentions.
Helen turned to run but found herself spinning to face in the opposite direction. She stopped and felt the forces arresting her slacken, returning control of her body. She tried again and this time suddenly she was in a green haze, eyes stinging, lungs burning. As she lurched back up to the keyboard, it subsided, allowing her breaths of clear air.
Sobbing, Helen pleaded. “Please. I’m begging you.” In vain, she searched for a response among the image frames; family memories, wartime atrocities, strange machines and otherworldly vistas she didn’t recognize. She lay down on the keys, feeling the ivory grow slick with tears as she pressed her face onto them.
The mist swelled up. The acrid stench of sulphur was now that of fresh rosin on violin bows and perhaps even, she thought for a fleeting second, a tinge of Josephine’s perfume.
Her spine itched and blackness crowded the edges of her vision, narrowing it to the brink of unconsciousness. Vertigo seized her. She fought to maintain her equilibrium and began running through a G major scale to warm up. The projectionist shrieked a pitch-perfect imitation of the first note and flipped onto her back, limbs writhing like an impaled crab.
Not just the projectionist. The note Helen had just heard was also a mélange of other sounds. She ran up and down the scale. When she struck a note, the wounded in the theatre cried, coughed and moaned in that exact key, their hoarse voices pushed to the breaking point in a choir of living instruments.
Taking a deep breath, she plunged into “Mars” knowing the world would freeze in instantaneous fear as every semi-living creature touched by the Miasma cried out in song, bellowing the notes of one of the most ominous pieces ever written. Around the world, cracked larynxes issued perfect notes. But they sang with the tortured tones of flesh on the verge of failing, pushed to imitate near-dissonant strings and flutes that rose in dizzying, arpeggiating crescendos that cascaded ever higher. If fear and dread had a sound, “Mars,” OP 32 was it.
As the final notes culminated in the movement’s last, staccato declaration of awe and power, Helen wondered what agency she still might possess. She attempted to pause instead of segueing into the next piece and found she could. Voices filled the air now, those still cognizant crying out loud, begging to know what was happening to them, others screaming from pain as their already wracked bodies were forced to shout at full volume. And outside the window, other sounds, the unafflicted gathering on the street, the voices of a mob, confused in the aftermath of the most terrifying thing they’d ever seen and heard.
She could feel now where the reflexive commands of her new masters began and free will ended and knew the next piece she played would be “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” no matter what.
She also knew what this initial attempt at communication meant. First, a dire warning. And then reassurance all could be well. In the edge of her vision, Helen had watched the projectionist, back arched, limbs flailing, veins popping in her neck. Her face had grown beet red and her voice increasingly raw as she screamed an entire movement in perfect pitch. Helen doubted anyone witnessing something like that would find it at all reassuring. She decided to play “Venus” twice in a row for emphasis. Her ear, now better attuned, could hear outside that it was not just human voices relaying the music, but also afflicted animals. Dogs sporting leashes through their necks. Birds impaled on branches. The rubbing legs of fused crickets and the croaks of embedded frogs.
By the time she drifted into “Neptune,” the arrangement she’d developed so carefully on this very instrument, all she perceived was the notes. She drifted into darkness where there was nothing but music. She swam in it, breathed it, felt the surety of her playing in her fingers, her legs, in her cantilevers and hinges and pipes, in every tiny pin and screw binding her together. Music coursed through the wires and pneumatic tubes of her body, reaching through the rooms of the upper theatre and into the world beyond.
She played and played and played. When she wondered how long this might go on for, an oval symbol with crosshairs through it manifested before her. Coda. Signifying to musicians that when they reached the end of a segment, they were to begin it again.
After an hour, a week, a year, ten seconds, she drifted into a semblance of consciousness, aware of activity in the projection room. She recognized Mother’s wedding ring as a fingertip touched the black organ key adjoining Helen’s innermost eye, heard the terse murmuring of Daddy. Camera flashbulbs popped. The casters of a metal cart squeaked as it wheeled up to her. In the reflection cast by its polished frame, she saw cracked, scabbed lips curled back where the ivory keys entered her gum-line, an eerie, distorted, eighty-eight-toothed leer in the bursting glare of the flashbulbs.
Her left hand hung off the keyboard, withered greying flesh curled into a claw that was now vestigial to her true self. Probably, it would rot and fall off.
And then the scene dematerialized. Helen swam back into the music, conductor of the only symphony that mattered now, each continent an orchestra before her. From now on, the whole world would have no choice but to listen.
R. Overwater is a sci-fi, fantasy and crime writer based in Calgary, Alberta. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, enjoys craft beer, and wishes he owned more guitars. His graphic novel Futility: Orange Planet Horror, was nominated for a 2019 Aurora award by The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.