Flying the Flannel
I fused the identities of two local bands, Miracle Legion and Small
Factory, whose drummers I both know, to form the "Miracle Factory" of this
story, where once again rock music (and beer) lend propulsive drive to the
plot, much as jazz (and Prohibition) might have once flavored a Thorne
Smith tale. I was particularly pleased that the Interzone illustrator for
this story, working only from my words, exactly replicated the appearance
of real-life Phoebe in his drawing, confirming my sometimes wavering faith
that anything I write has any basis in reality.
Points will be awarded for spotting all the pop song allusions.
Any resemblance between Master Blaster and Whammer Jammer's van
Bullwinkle, and the Econoline herein dubbed Zed Leper is strictly familial.
1. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
Phoebe Summersquall flopped down on the spring-shot,
beer-, tear-, sweat- and other-miscellaneous-exudates-stained couch backstage in what passed for the "performer's
lounge" at Slime Time. The wall above the spavined sofa was
covered with layers of grafitti: names of bands never
famous and now long dust; injunctions to kill one despised
performer or another; proclamations of musicological godhood
or ineptitude; scabrous invective about the club's
"Jesus, I'm totally wiped," said the thin woman. Behind
her outsized round black-plastic-framed glasses, her dark
eyes loomed bigger than life. Dressed in a Goodwill-bin
tulle skirt layered over frayed jeans, a skintight lycra
polka-dotted top and suede clogs, her long black hair caught
up in back with one of the thinner bungee cords normally
reserved for lashing down the band's amps during transport,
she resembled a tired cleaning lady, addled ballerina or
unusually neat street person.
Raising a hand to wipe sweat from her brow, she found
herself still unconsciously clutching her drumsticks.
Wearily, she dropped them, and a frosty bottle of Sam Adams
manifested itself within reach.
"You deserve it, Pheeb. You were awesome."
Scott Bluebottle, round of face and wirerim-bespectacled, occupied tentatively, as was his way, a
folding chair. He scraped at the label of his own bottle
with a guitar pick. On the two remaining heterogenous lumps
of furniture sprawled the other members of Miracle Factory:
Mark the Snark and Frank Difficult. The former long-haired
and stocky, the latter with the wolf-lean, hot-eyed,
gaunt-cheeked look of one of the less well-known German
"Yeah," agreed Mark in a resonant singer's voice.
"Especially on the last tune."
Frank chimed in. "I'm extremely proud to have a song
of mine that I cherish as much as I do 'Eat the Shame'
performed by such a talented drummer."
Phoebe felt herself blushing. "Gee, guys, I bet you'd
say that to anyone who replaced someone who sucked as bad as
your last drummer."
Mark chuckled ruefully. "Lonnie was mighty awful."
"Remember the night he fell backwards off the riser?"
Frank lifted the admonitory hand of a reluctant leader.
"Let us not slag the departed. The thing to concentrate on
is how good we were tonight."
"Agreed," said Mark, threading his fingers through his
mane in an eloquent, practiced Hair Lofting that was second
nature to him. "It's too bad there weren't more than ten
people here to see us."
"It is a Monday night...," said Scott weakly.
"Every night seems to be a Monday night lately," Mark
The four bandmates sat silently for a time,
contemplating the fickleness, bad taste and inexplicable
immunity to the charms of Miracle Factory, as exhibited by
the club-going public. Then Frank spoke.
"It's Tuesday morning actually. Almost three. And
we've got a gig scheduled five hundred miles from here, with
a soundcheck in just a little over twenty-four hours."
"Are you trying to tell us we should start humping
equipment?" asked Scott.
"Can we afford a motel?" ventured Phoebe.
"Everyone who wants to use tonight's money to eat and
put gas in our noble transport, raise your hand," replied
"Oh, well, guess we sleep in the van again. Anyway,
it's kinda getting to where I can't drop off without the
smell of exhaust and a row of rivets in my back...."
Quickly finishing their beers, the four trooped out
onto the small stage. Phoebe removed her extraneous skirt,
the better to work. With lackluster motions, watched over
by the impatient owner, their activity causing ghostly
echoes in the empty Slime Time, they struck their equipment
and loaded it into their rotting '79 Econoline dubbed Zed
On the road, Mark driving, Frank riding shotgun, Phoebe
and Scott in the back, several miles passed wordlessly,
until Scott spoke.
"That guy was there again tonight."
Phoebe stiffened. "No way."
"Where? I didn't see him."
"You were zoned out on playing. But I spotted him
right away. He hung out at the bar all night, never came
out on the floor. Had half a dozen empty longnecks lined up
in front of him by the time we finished our set. Never
smiled that I could see, never spoke to anyone."
The memory of the stony-faced older stranger who had
haunted their last five appearances across as many states
welled up in Phoebe. Materializing only since her arrival in
the group, he had plainly set his sights on her, focusing a
piercing stare on her throughout each performance.
"This really creeps me out," said Phoebe nervously.
"Maybe he's a bigshot A & R guy, sizing us up before
offering us a huge juicy contract...," said Frank
"Yeah, and I'm Sinatra," replied Mark.
Phoebe turned on Scott, who sat next to her on a
mattress placed on the narrow floor space between the ranked
equipment. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Scott shrugged. "Didn't want to spook you. Besides,
there's three of us watching out for you."
"That's right, Pheeb," said Mark. "We'll protect you."
"My sentiments exactly," added Frank.
Phoebe restrained an impulse to shout "bullshit!"
Guys.... What was it about them? They meant well, but it
was up to her to educate them.
"Well, next time, how about letting me in on what I'm
being protected from, okay?"
"It shall be as you wish, oh Mistress of Snares and
Phoebe stretched out on her back and rested her head on
"For not telling me, you've got first shift as pillow."
"Cramp city, man!" said Scott good-naturedly.
Within minutes, Phoebe was so soundly asleep that even
when, an hour later, the vector of their van changed
abruptly from horizontal to vertical and they were engulfed
by the spacecraft which had silently paced them since their
departure, it took a whole ten seconds before the shouts of
the others woke her up.
2. Put a Little Birdhouse in Your Soul
A pearly opalescence flooded the grungy interior of the
van known as Zed Leper. The air was perfumed with strange
scents: acid, electricity, brine and ginger.
Phoebe leaped to her feet, careful of the low Econoline
Around her was utter confusion.
Scott was holding his head and moaning, having
whacked his noggin on the van's ceiling in the tumult. Behind the wheel,
Mark was activating every control on the dashboard in a desperate attempt
to regain command of the stalled van. Windshield wipers batted futilely at
streams of washer fluid. Frank was rifling furiously in the
trash on the floor at his feet, saying, "The nunchuks, where
are those goddamn nunchuks!"
Quickly deciding that her bandmates had plainly lost
their scanty marbles, Phoebe asserted herself.
"Everybody shut up! Right now!"
Silence dropped, thick as a brick.
"Okay. That's better. Now--what happened?"
"We--we were just tooling along," said Mark, "when
suddenly I could feel the wheels leave the ground. But I
wasn't even sleepy, honest!"
"I thought we had gone over a cliff," said Scott.
"I stuck my head out the window," said Frank, "and
something made me look up. There was a huge dark shadow
blocking the stars. Then a square of white opened in it. It
got bigger and bigger, then swallowed us."
"Where are we now?"
"Inside the freakin' UFO, I guess," ventured Mark.
"Heading who the hell knows where," added Scott
Phoebe considered, noting the van's open windows. "We
can breathe and we can walk. Air and gravity.... Let's get
She threw open the rear doors and jumped down.
Timorously, the others followed.
The van sat in the middle of an enormous space. Walls
and ceilings, if any, were lost in the pearly radiance that
flowed from every direction.
Phoebe looked at the floor.
Her feet vanished at the ankles in the tenuous, hazy
oyster-colored substance, which seemed to offer spongy
support at some unknown depth. Lifting a foot, Phoebe was
relieved to find her clog-shod extremity apparently intact.
Reaching down, she brushed the rarefied material.
"It's soft, with a nap, like, like--flannel."
Mark snorted. "Great. Probably built in Seattle then.
Maybe something new from Boeing. Used to kidnap any
competitors to the Northwest scene."
Scott was shielding his eyes against the mild glare and
scanning the distance. Suddenly, he yelped.
The four huddled closer together as a figure approached
out of the foggy glowing remoteness.
It was the stranger who had stalked them across five
states. Dressed in nondescript Earth clothing, his face so
blank and inhospitable as to make Harry Dean Stanton look
like Marcel Marceau, he seemed an unlikely starship pilot.
Perhaps, Phoebe thought, Mark had been right about this
being a ship of human design, however unlikely that seemed.
Or perhaps the stalker was a fellow prisoner....
Phoebe stepped bravely forward. "Did--did the aliens
get you too, Mister?"
The man regarded Phoebe with the same unwavering fixity
that had unnerved her onstage. Then he spoke.
"I am the owner of this vessel. You may call me
Their captor's insouciance was the final straw for the
impetuous Mark the Snark.
"We'll be calling you dead meat in a minute, sucker!
Let's get him, guys!"
Before Phoebe could do more than shout an objection,
the three men had pinioned the UFO captain without much of a
"Okay," said Mark, facing the stranger while Scott and
Frank held his arms, "are you gonna take us back home, or do
I have to get rough with you?"
"No, please, you do not understand. I am bringing you
someplace where your skills will be appreciated...."
Mark polished the knuckles of his fist on his worn
denim shirt. "Don't say I didn't give you a chance."
"I must warn you, this shell is fragile--"
Mark popped the stranger a good one on the jaw.
The alien's head split open with a sound like the
ripping of cooked turkey skin. A jagged crack ran up the
middle of his face and down the back of his skull.
Horrified, Frank and Scott dropped him, and Mark
Up from out of the lifeless cracked shell fluttered a
small agile bird. It resembled a canary--as much as a Lexus
resembled a Stutz Bearcat--except that it was colored bright
The supercharged blue canary landed on Phoebe's left
"I did warn you," it said.
3. Is That You, Modine?
Oh-so-slowly, Phoebe swivelled her head to the left.
The little streamlined bird was still there, its claws
gripping the fabric of her shirt. It did not weigh much. A
hardly perceptible mass, actually. But Phoebe felt her
shoulder muscles quivering from the alien's presence.
Regarding her with a questioning expression, the azure
avian dipped its head to peck at the feathers of its breast,
then resumed eye contact. Plainly, it was waiting for Phoebe
"Are you--I mean, can it be--"
The bird was not helping her, and she suddenly grew
"Damn it, is that you, Modine?"
"I am glad to see that you can accept the reality of my
appearance. Races as primitive as yours generally deny the
possibility of sentience in unfamiliar or unlikely forms."
The canary's tones became prideful. "Yes, it is I, Modine,
interstellar voyager and captain of the Dustbath. The
artificial human shape you heedlessly destroyed--which was
on the point of disintegrating soon anyway--was merely a
camouflaged transport, a means of mingling with the natives.
At that moment, Mark lunged angrily for Modine. But
the bird easily evaded his grasp, fluttering up to alight
atop the van. Phoebe was relieved, both to straighten her
neck and no longer to be functioning as perch to an alien
"Please," advised Modine. "Restrain yourselves. It is
almost impossible for you to harm me. And even if you
could, where would that leave you? You could not possibly
learn how to operate the Dustbath, nor how to navigate in
twelve-space. You would be stranded at our programmed
destination or--even worse, if you managed to interfere with
the controls--in some nameless fractal dimension between
Earth and the Planet of Sound."
"Planet of Sound?" echoed Scott. "What's that? And
why are you taking us there?"
"I shall explain all," promised Modine. "Let us
adjourn to the bridge, however. Unlike the cargo hold, it
offers seats and refreshments, as well as a view."
Modine rocketed off, leaving the humans with no choice
except to follow.
Phoebe took the lead, trotting to catch up with the
speedy bird. It was weird to watch her feet disappear into
the floor and re-emerge with each step, and she wondered
again what the flannel-simulating substance of the ship was.
Just before the foursome caught up with their host,
Frank used the opportunity to whisper to Phoebe.
"This uncanny bird is fixated on you, Pheeb. When it
was stalking us on Earth, it always watched you. It landed
on your shoulder. And it chose you for the test of
appreciating its intelligence. If anyone is going to be
able to get us out of this jam, it'll have to be you."
"Any other reassuring words?"
"We'll be there to back your every move," chimed in
"I thought not," said Phoebe.
Now they were in what seemed to be a straight and level
corridor of luminescent walls. Modine flew on ahead. Then
Phoebe and the guys stopped.
"Modine?" Phoebe ventured tentatively.
The bird stuck its head out of the seemingly solid
ceiling. "We'll be landing in a few hours," it said
peevishly. "There's not much time to waste."
"But how do we get up there?"
"Just continue to walk."
Shrugging, Phoebe took a step forward, then another,
and a third--
There had been no sense of climbing, nor was she now
experiencing any disorientation. But Phoebe appeared now to
be standing on the corridor ceiling, her head pointing
downward at the guys.
"You goofs are hanging upside down," said Phoebe,
smiling at their shocked expressions.
"No, you are," said Mark.
"Well, my way is Modine's way."
"This is true," said Frank.
"Let's follow her!" said Scott.
Phoebe took another step, and disappeared.
She found herself in a medium-sized glowing room.
Elevated mushroom-like cushions of the flannel-stuff
sprouted from the floor. One wall appeared to be
transparent, and gave a startling view: the Dustbath was
apparently rushing through a medium that resembled an
infinite sea of knotted multihued threads, ropes and cables
twisting and contorting throughout colorless depths.
Modine was perched on a ledge in front of the
view-wall. "Ah," sighed the bird, "the glorious vistas of
twelve-space never fail to stimulate and enlighten!"
Behind Phoebe, the guys popped into existence out of
"Please, be seated," Modine said. "And I will serve
The humans complied, and Phoebe decided to use the
moment to ask a question.
"Modine, what is this ship made of?"
"This craft is more of a mathematical construct than a
solid vessel. It is composed of Cantor dust. Hence its
rather punning name."
"But what's Cantor dust?"
"One takes an appropriate exotic material, and from it
removes every tenth atom. Then from that mass, one removes
every tenth atom again. This process is repeated
approximately ten to the twentieth times."
Frank spoke up. "But that would leave almost nothing
"Almost, but not quite," said Modine. "The resulting
substance has some intriguing and useful properties."
A floating platter appeared. On it were five bottles
of Sam Adams. Opened. One with a straw.
"One of Earth's finest products. Although I've taken a
few liberties with its composition...."
Phoebe took a bottle and sipped cautiously.
The first swallow washed away a bone-tiredness and a
sleepiness, awareness of which her mind had been
The second swallow left her feeling as if she had won a
Grammy, a platinum record and an MTV award simultaneously.
Modine, claws gripping the lip of his bottle, sipping
from time to time at his own drink, began to lecture.
"I come from a mighty race. Our name for ourselves is
unpronounceable in your language, but you may call us the
Bowerbirds. From the primitive tool-using and contruction
instincts of my ancestors, who reared their bowers on rocky
shores, arose intelligence and a highly sophisticated
civilization. When we discovered faster-than-light space
travel, however, we were unprepared to compete in galactic
society on one very important level.
"You see, we could not sing or otherwise perform music.
Always a minimal skill with us, it had finally been bred out
of us, in favor of intelligence."
Ignoring the paradox of a songless bird species, Phoebe
asked, "But why was that so important?"
Modine slurped up the last of its beer. "Interstellar
cooperation and competition is based on music. It's the one
arena in which all the multiform and multiskilled sophonts
can find common ground. For thousands of millennia, musical
competitions have determined status and trade alliances,
friendships and enmities, and hundreds of other
relationships for which you have no terms.
"Luckily, we Bowerbirds were able to take advantage of
a clause that allowed a client race to substitute for us.
After much perusal of many Earth musical assemblages, I
picked you to participate in the latest round. Your nearest
competitor was a tribe of Pygmies, but I judged that their
culture shock would be insuperable. You must all feel very
honored. Frankly, you were almost out of contention at one
point. It was only when you added this one"--Modine pointed
a wing at Phoebe--"that your sound and gestalt became
Mark glared at the bird. "Let me get this straight.
We're going to play in some kind of Star Wars battle of the
bands, but you freakin' Bowerbirds are going to get all the
"Well, that is basically a correct summation of our
respective duties and rewards. But I do hereby promise to
take you straight back home if you win."
"And if we lose?" asked Phoebe.
"Most unfortunate. It happened to our last surrogate
entry. They still have a century of indenture in the clubs
of the Planet of Sound to while away. However, they are
members of a long-lived species. And I understand that the
free drinks served in most clubs to the performers are
almost as good as Earth's beer."
4. Three Strange Days
Phoebe gazed out the window of their private guest
quarters on the Planet of Sound. Alone, she was waiting for
the guys to return.
She leaned on the window sill; it squeaked and
accomodated itself to her elbows. Scanning the crowded
plaza below, its decorative subsurface chaotic animations
obscured by numberless creeping, crawling, hopping,
strolling, rolling aliens, Phoebe thought she saw her
bandmates at some distance-- But no, not unless they had
all grown tails. Which was not entirely impossible here. Was
that them riding the millipede transport? No, the riders
were too furry, even for Mark. Perhaps this huge
approaching manta-flyer carried them? Whoops! The manta-ray
shape had broken up into a flock of butterfly-sized
self-similar components, each of which flew off in a
Phoebe turned away from the window, which bleated in
relief. The diversity of the Planet of Sound oppressed her.
She felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices and the
shifting montage of skins and limbs and faces. It was
seductive, yet repulsive at the same time. All she wanted
was the familiar comforts of Earth. Even the ratty lounges
of Slime Time and its cousins would be a welcome sight.
Feeling this way, when the others had wanted to go out
exploring on their first free day since their arrival, she
had begged off.
Damn that Terwilliger anyway! He should have known
better. What kind of manager was he, running his charges
ragged the day before the big performance?
Especially a performance with such high stakes.
They had to rehearse. They were getting overconfident
and that would surely lead to sloppiness. She did not think
the judges would much credit sloppiness, despite its
respectable terrestial lineage. No, chops and riffs and
invention, wringing the most from one's equipment, were the
musical currency here.
Two early easy victories had elated them. Modine's
praise--not to mention a steady flow of doctored Sam
Adams--had slackened their vigilance. The final crucial
round, Phoebe was sure, would present them with some unique
She hoped that Terwilliger would not become tearful
before the show, as he had prior to the others.
Phoebe had enough to worry about, without consoling an
Weren't cold-blooded creatures supposed to be stolid
Moving to her drum kit, Phoebe resolved that she would
polish a few licks, even if the others weren't here.
And of course, just as she lifted her sticks, they all
Leading the group was Terwilliger. Basically, the
alien was indistinguishable from an eight-foot-long walking
catfish, from the tip of its broad tail to its stubby
locomotive fins to the end of its barbels. However, no
earthly catfish of whatever size had ever been constantly
attended by a cloud of telefactored waldoes, ranging in size
from microscopic to human-scale. The horde of manipulators
formed and reformed to the fish's will.
Behind their guide, Mark, Scott and Frank were whooping
and chattering. Plainly flushed with the excitement of
their expedition, the guys were oblivious of Phoebe's
"Man, what a trip!" exulted Scott.
"Sailing the Seas of Time-Cheese!" Mark explained for
Phoebe's sake. "With Captain Toad Sprocket!"
"A most intriguing voyage," Frank thoughtfully added.
"I was particularly impressed by the Captain's explanation
of the formation and function of wormholes."
Terwilliger (whose real name was closer to
T'-[blop]-woll-[splork]-grrr) spoke now in perfect English.
"Luckily, we did not engender any shadow duplicates in our
chrono-travels. Metacausality is a field well beyond my
As Phoebe remained silent, the guys eventually wore
down. Finally she bit out a question, her voice stern.
"What are those things on your heads?"
Frank reached up to touch what appeared to be a wig
made of purple polyester spaghetti. Even Terwilliger wore
"Oh, these are souvenirs of a famous winning group from
many millennia past. Their trademark, apparently. Don't they
look kinda like Beatle wigs?"
"An example of convergent evolution, from what the
fellows have told me," said Terwilliger.
Phoebe threw down her sticks in disgust. "I've had it!
Our entire future is on the line, and you guys are out
sticking your heads or--or your things, for all I know!--in
wormholes or something! Don't you have any sense of what's
at risk here!"
The argument started the big catfish crying; huge tears
plopped down onto the living carpet, which quickly absorbed
them. Phoebe felt awful. But she had to slam some sense
into them all....
Mark approached Phoebe and tried to soothe her.
"Listen, Pheeb. Didn't we blow those first two acts off the
stage? What have we got to worry about?"
"We can't assume anything!" Phoebe argued. "Those guys
were jokers! The next race could still have an ace up their
The early competitors had been surprisingly amateurish.
THey wouldn't have lasted a week on the demanding club
circuit that had honed Miracle Factory. First had come the
Balloon Men, spherical bipeds with pipecleaner limbs.
Informed of their defeat, they had explosively
self-destructed, splattering Miracle Factory and much of the
audience with what appeared to be hummus, tomato paste and
strips of skin. Next up had been a double-headed
ambidextrous race, each of whose members had been able to
play two instruments at once. They had been a little
stiffer competition. But Miracle Factory, playing as they
never had before, had triumphed, thanks to their unique
blend of Earth's hidden treasure of rock 'n' roll.
Now Scott came forward. "What difference is one day's
practice going to make, Pheeb? If we don't have our sound
down by now, we never will. We were just trying to relax,
you know? And if we don't see these sights now, when are we
ever gonna get a chance to? I mean, we'll be back on Earth
"You hope," said Phoebe. "Oh, hell."
She came out from behind her drums and kneeled down
"I'm sorry I yelled. It wasn't you. Stop crying,
As she was dabbing at the fish's eyes with the hem of
her shirt, the door opened and Modine flew in.
"Tomorrow's matches have been posted," said the
Bowerbird. "Your opponent is a one-man band, so to speak.
Phoebe stood, and fixed the bird with a determined
look. "Now that the competition is almost over, will you
tell us exactly what your race stands to gain if we win? I
think we deserve to know."
The blue canary was quiet for a few seconds. When it
spoke, its voice was respectful.
"You are a strange and forceful individual, Phoebe
Summersquall. I have noted something puzzling about you
ever since Earth, but I can't lay a feather on it.... Very
well, since you ask what the ultimate prize is in this
contest, I will tell you.
"Depending on who wins, either the Bombardyx or the
Bowerbirds will be allowed to colonize Earth."
5. Close Your Eyes, Here We Go, Playing At The Talent Show
There was something extra in the sky, but none of the
humans were quite sure it was a second sun. It had the
apparent diameter of a sun, and gave out enough visible
light to make staring at it painful. But the orb--whatever
it was--also had a tendency to dart about disconcertingly.
Terwilliger noticed them looking. "One of the larger
intelligences in this galaxy," the fish explained.
"Constrained by its size to remain well outside the thicker
atmosphere, it nonetheless wishes to watch the show. Their
kind are notorious bettors."
"Oh, Lord," said Phoebe. "People are betting on us?"
"Yes," agreed Terwilliger. "But the stakes are low,
commensurate with the prize you are contesting for. No more
than a single planet will be won or lost by any individual."
"What are the odds on us?" asked Scott.
"Even," replied the catfish. "But subject to
The members of Miracle Factory, along with many of the
other variegated contestants, milled about next to the
stage: a simple hexagonal affair, roughly half an acre in
extent, empty at the moment. The stage stood in the middle
of an enormous plaza, much bigger than the one visible from
their quarters. There were no bleachers or other seating,
no roof or walls to define the limits of the arena.
"Let's have an equipment check," said Frank. Their
leader was visibly nervous. For that matter, so were they
all. Scott was polishing and repolishing his eyeglasses,
and Phoebe had to fight to restrain herself from doing the
same with hers. Mark was subjecting his hair to such
vigorous manipulation that she feared for its roots.
"A sound idea," said Terwilliger proudly. "This, I
believe, qualifies as a tension-relieving pun...?"
"Just get busy," said Frank brusquely.
Terwilliger directed his manipulators around and, in
the case of the micros, actually into the guitars, drums and
keyboards belonging to Miracle Factory, as well as their
various speakers and microphones and boards.
"All is fine. I did detect a slight weakness in one of
Phoebe's membranes, but it is now repaired."
"I didn't know you still had that membrane, Pheeb,"
said Mark the Snark with mock innnocence.
Phoebe punched him in the shoulder. "Jerk!"
But she didn't really mind. For the joke had served to
diffuse their anxiety a bit. And just in time.
The virtual arena was assembling itself.
From every quadrant came floating platforms of all
sizes. Those carrying species which could tolerate the
Planet of Sound environment were open to the air; others
were closed and transparent; some were opaque. (For the
benefit of shy riders--or easily frightened onlookers?
Within a short time, the stage was nearly englobed by a
mosaic of hovering spectators: snouted, scaled, tendrilled;
puckered and peppered with pseudopods. Automated cameras
took up positions closer in. Although Phoebe had witnessed
this assembly twice before, she was still impressed.
"Who'd ever think we'd get to play a stadium tour
before we even got signed?" asked Scott with forced whimsy.
"Quiet!" said Phoebe. "We should be scoping out the
level of talent."
"It's only the Bombardyx we have to worry about," said
Mark. "Whoever he might be out of all these freaks."
"May I remind everyone," said Frank, "that we still
haven't decided what we're going to do once we get
Their choices were pitifully few. To throw the
contest, dooming themselves to an indefinite term of
servitude and handing Earth over to the unknown Bombardyx.
Or to go all out for a victory, gaining a return trip to a
planet soon to become a Bowerbird fiefdom--whatever that
entailed. And any refusal to play would count as a
surrender, Terwilliger had told them.
"Yes," the fish had continued, "your options are not
many. But this comes from being a lowly client race. If
only you could claim consanguinity with one of the
full-status species, things would be different."
Frank's reminder went unheeded now, for the first band
had taken the stage.
A dozen impish creatures clad in rubbery unitards
unfolded a large mat. Each took up a marked position. Then
they began to perform incredible acrobatics. Their movements
evoked a wild spacey wailing that soared and keened.
"It's like a theremin," said Frank. "They're
modulating some kind of energy field by their leaps and
The imps finished, and their rival took the stage: a
flock of pterodactyl lookalikes whose long boney beaks were
pierced with holes and played flutelike: musician and
instrument as one.
Voting now took place. Results were flashed as
hieroglyphic holograms in the air. Although the humans
could not interpret the signs, the attitude of the imps told
all: they had lost. Led away by robotic guards, they
trudged gloomily along, showing none of the easy movements
they had exhibited onstage.
"Tough crowd," said Mark weakly.
The battle of the bands continued, fast and furious.
Unimaginable sounds, amplified or natural, filled the air.
Melodious or screechy, atonal or pentatonic, brief snatches
or long intricate sequences, the music swelled, roared,
murmured and cascaded over the listeners. Winners exulted
and losers slumped as the audience displayed their
approbation or disapproval with various noises of their
Phoebe began to grow disoriented. The alien musics
were almost succeeding in making her forget all she knew
about playing Earth music! She wished for earplugs, but the
band had never used them....
There was moment of silence. Phoebe spotted
robo-roadies carrying Miracle Factory's equipment into
place. She prepared to ascend the ramp leading onstage.
Modine flew up then. Behind him tagged along a tray of
"I brought along some refreshment to toast your
success," said the blue canary.
Numbly, Phoebe took her beer, but did not drink it. She
addressed the Bowerbird.
"We hate you, Modine."
The canary seemed somehow to shrug. "This is an
understandable reaction. But I in return do not hate you
personally, or your species. Our close contact during the
past few days has led me to believe that we Bowerbirds might
have made a mistake in seeking to acquire Earth, which
appears to have more potential for self-development than we
"Then call off the show!" shouted Phoebe.
"It is rather too late for that. However, I urge you
to play your best, and retain the hope that all will be
Modine flew away.
The four humans took the stage.
Strapping on his guitar, Scott said, "I still can't get
used to no cords."
Terwilliger had modified their equipment to use onboard
powerpaks and digital transmission.
"Thank God he didn't mess with my drums," said Phoebe.
She set her beer down within reach, and hung her extra
sticks in their stick bag within easy reach. Hate to break
one and not have a replacement during such a crucial
His bass in place, Frank stepped up to mike.
"Hello, uh, fellow sophonts. We're Miracle Factory,
from Earth. And we're here to play you some, ah, 'modern'
rock 'n' roll."
Mark ripped off the opening to "Dirty Dawg" on his
keyboard and began to sing. The band took off.
By the fourth song, Phoebe could tell they were playing
as well as they ever had. She only hoped it was good
By the end of the set, she was drenched in sweat. As
the last notes of "Lost in Hilbert Space" rang out, she felt
that no one could possibly beat them.
Then the Bombardyx appeared.
It was as big as a four-story building, an irregular
block of oddly protuberant devices mounted on treads. It
moved slowly up the stage-ramp. When it attained the stage
itself, Phoebe could feel the structure creak.
Terwilliger had stumped up to be with them. Phoebe
turned to the fish.
"What--what is it?"
"The Bombardyx is a type of hermit-crab creature,
a small organic slug. This one appears to have taken up
residence in a leftover Symphonium device from the
Disintegral Era of the Lesser Splenetics."
"Is this within the rules?"
Now the Bombardyx began to perform.
It started by duplicating Miracle Factory's entire set,
note for note. Then, like a master jazz improviser, it
elaborated on all the tunes, reconfiguring them into a whole
When the hidden creature was finished, Phoebe knew that
they had lost.
Glyphs burned in the air. Terwilliger gasped.
"It is a tie! The Bombardyx lost points by stealing
your compositions. You both must perform again!"
Phoebe had not an ounce of energy left in her. Looking
at her sagging friends, she knew that they did not either.
Her eye fell on the bottle of Sam Adams.
She lifted it, and the others brightened. The guys
grabbed theirs, and everyone chugged them down.
The familiar invigorating spell cast by Modine's
adaptation of the Earth brew swept through Phoebe's limbs.
Miracle Factory began their encore.
As Phoebe drummed, she felt strange changes overtaking
her: swellings and tentative writhings along her midriff.
Things were growing beneath her shirt!
There came a ripping sound, as her shirt seams popped.
She looked down at herself.
She had sprouted four extra arms, two on each side.
Fully formed limbs, apparently--yes!--under her complete
Without hesitation, she grabbed up her extra sticks.
The guys missed a beat, then recovered.
"You go, girl!"
Phoebe began to drum. Really drum. For the first time
in her life, she could do everything she had ever
envisioned--with sticks, anyhow.
The others had stopped now.
It was just Phoebe, drumming up a storm.
It was the longest drum solo in history. Not to
mention the most complex.
An hour later, she was done.
Phoebe collapsed. The guys clustered around her,
lifting her up. She clung to them with all her hands.
Unimpressed, the Bombardyx began to vent its reply.
A platform swooped down on the stage, interrupting the
building-sized creature. Out of the vehicle stepped a
One with six arms.
The alien turned and faced the audience, and began to
Terwilliger translated. "He says you are plainly a
lost larval form of his race, the Sextuples. As such, you
cannot be clients. This contest must be deemed null and
Phoebe couldn't believe it. Getting to her feet, she
let the guys help her from the stage.
Modine was waiting for them.
"I told you, did I not, to hope for the best?"
Phoebe drew herself up. "You did this, didn't you?
We're not any relation to that race."
"The Sextuples happened to owe the Bowerbirds a favor.
A simple cell-potentiator with morphic overlays and some
neuronal enhancers in your drink did the rest."
"Now we can go home!" said Scott.
"And Earth is saved!" said Mark.
"Thanks to Pheeb!" said Frank.
Lifting Phoebe to their shoulders, the guys paraded her
around, Terwilliger frolicking at their feet and Modine
flapping around Phoebe's head.
"I assume these extra arms can be gotten rid of fairly
easily?" said Phoebe sternly to the canary.
"Yes. A simple resorptive--"
"I'll have it now, if you don't mind, Mister Bird."
"As you wish."
"But I'll use it when I'm good and ready!"