Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Fiction

When Every Song Reminds You of a Dead Universe
by Karl Johanson

Side Effects of Yeah- Yeah Pills
by A.J. Kirby

A Breederax for Dalia
by Janett L. Grady

Cola
by Byron Barton

One of Our Starships Is Missing
by Terry Savage

Help Desk
by Robert J. Mendenhall

Toca la Guitarra
by Wayne Helge

How to Travel Through Time & Space
by Allen Quintana

Foreclosure
by Kevin Gordon

Articles

Bracing for a Brave New World
by Hunter Liguore

Sizing Things Up
by Eric M. Jones


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Addenda

 

Toca la Guitarra

By Wayne Helge

RHINO ESPERZA, HOUSE GUITARIST for The Albino Monkey, received three requests for a Thompson Tucker song before he lost his shit. All three requests came from a sauced young couple at a table up front. Rhino rejected the first quietly, and ignored the second. But after the third, he responded using the house mic.

“Tucker’s playing The Black Jack Heart Attack tomorrow,” he said while lowering his guitar in insult. He sipped his water, knowing that he was about to offend ninety percent of his audience but unable to stop. “If you want to hear shitty robot music, Tucker’s your man. Not me.”

With that, the Monkey’s energy dropped from the peak it’d reached during the sing-along chorus of “Sweet Caroline,” and Rhino knew it was gone for good. Scattered tables began to clear. He played to those who remained. “What about U2? I know ‘The Joshua Tree’ forward and backwards. Best album of the 1980s.”

“How about Zevon?” said a guy standing back near the bar.

“I only know one,” Rhino said, rolling his eyes.

“Tucker could play them all,” announced the woman from the table up front. Rhino let it go.

Minutes later, as the remaining crowd howled along with ripe beer breath over the repeating D-C-G chord progression, Rhino couldn’t help but wonder whether Tucker’s bio-mech arms ever complained about playing a song for what seemed like the thousandth time.

***

Rhino had the next night off. After a small dinner alone, he practiced the solo from Pearl Jam’s “Alive.” There was a finger-slide in it that he wasn’t hitting. Each time, his ring finger either got stuck or flew past the fret. Usually he didn’t mind practicing and would keep at it, but tonight something else was on his mind.

Thompson Tucker, he thought. Rhino usually described Tucker as a player piano, and he wasn’t far off. Tucker’s bio-mech arms could download anything, play anything, recreate any style. Chords that exceeded the finger-stretching abilities of mortal players were within his grasp. Bio-mech arms never missed a note. But for Rhino’s money, they had the emotional depth of a wet spot on the sheets.

And yet, despite Rhino’s arguments for analog performances, the growing robo-player movement had continued unabated. Rhino feared the logical conclusion. Once the musicians replaced the business ends of their bodies with robotic parts, what was to stop club owners from dropping live performance all together?

On his next run through the “Alive” solo, Rhino missed the slide again. Frustrated, he stood and dropped his guitar onto its stand. It was nearly nine o’clock. Tucker was probably on stage at Black Jack’s already. And Rhino needed a drink.

Minutes later, he had his coat on and was out his front door.

***

Thompson Tucker kicked serious ass.

He performed from a stool on the otherwise-empty stage. His wardrobe included a pair of faded blue jeans and a solid grey, long-sleeved t-shirt. Rather than hiding his bio-mech arms, Tucker displayed them like a trophy. His sleeves were rolled up onto mechanical forearms, from which flexible hands and long, dexterous fingers extended. When he wasn’t playing guitar, his fingers moved: stretching and waving like the legs of a tarantula taking its next step.

And unlike Rhino, Tucker touched on all sorts of styles. One minute he was nailing Lindsey Buckingham’s finger-picking through “Never Going Back Again”; the next he was mimicking Clapton’s electric version of “Layla.” Rhino closed his eyes, listening for a missed note, truncated phrasing, any sign that Tucker was not perfectly recreating the original music.

He couldn’t even find one.

***

After the show, Rhino sat at the end of the bar, nursing his second beer. When Thompson came off the stage to a standing ovation, guitar case in hand, Rhino motioned him over. Thompson tucked the guitar case between the bar and the foot rail, and ordered a double scotch, neat. When the drink came and the bartender asked for the money, Thompson nodded toward Rhino. “I think it’s on him, Dave.”

“Yeah, I got this one,” Rhino said, digging into his pocket for the cash. Dropping three bills on the bar, he said, “Keep the extra.”

“Cheers,” Thompson said, holding up the glass in his mechanical arm. “To the living arts.”

Rhino hoisted his beer bottle into the air and clinked with Thompson. They both drank, Rhino barely wetting his lips, but Thompson tossed back a healthy mouthful. “You good for one more?” he asked.

Rhino shrugged. “Drink up.”

Thompson drained another mouthful and popped the glass onto the bar. Rhino could hear the servos of Thompson’s fingers whir as his hand released the glass.

“You like the music?” Thompson said.

“Is that what that was?” Rhino said. “Sounded like a copy-paste job to me.”

“So you’re one of those people,” Thompson said. He finished the rest of his drink and called Dave back over. “One more. This one for the road.”

“Ok with you?” Dave said to Rhino, who nodded.

Thompson looked over the bottles behind the bar, seemingly done with this conversation. Rhino turned to face him.

“I’m Rhino Esperza. I play the Albino Monkey, four nights a week, three hours a night. One hundred percent natural. And I don’t like what you’re doing.”

Thompson’s drink arrived and he sipped it. “Let’s see your calluses, brother.”

Rhino presented his hands. Even in the dim light of the bar, thick layers of white skin could be seen covering the fingertips of his left hand. On his right, the picking fingers had long nails like vampire claws. Only the pinky was neatly trimmed.

“Your fingers are too stubby to drive a good walking blues,” Thompson said, “but I’d kill for calluses again. You should’ve seen my natural fingers. I could stretch this pinky nearly five frets from the barre.” At this, he held up his left hand and stretched his mechanical pinky out from the index finger. Just when it seemed to bend as far as it would go, the tip extended, lengthening the digit.

“You want to hear about these?” Thompson said, turning his hands over. He pulled up each sleeve beyond the elbow, exposing the joints where metal fastened to flesh. “Your camp thinks there’s no skill in what I’m doing. But you’ll follow suit, just wait. It’s a matter of survival in our business.”

“Bullshit.”

Thompson downed the rest of his drink and ran the edge of one hand across the other bicep. “What they do is slice the skin, down near the elbow, and then roll it up like a condom in reverse, toward the shoulder. Then they drill small holes in the bone for the bio-rivets, which expand so they won’t twist when you move. Did you know the rivets create micro-cracks in the bone? These cracks need to heal and fuse together with scar tissue to secure the rivets.”

“So it hurts,” said Rhino.

“Intensely,” said Thompson. “For a while.”

“Sometimes art hurts,” Rhino said.

“Yeah. But what’s worse is the itching. I can still feel restless joints and fingers that need to be cracked. It drives me nuts. God, what I wouldn’t give to be able to stretch out my arms.”

Thompson did so right there in the bar, but then shook his head. “Just not the same. It’s the ultimate in unscratchable itches.” He picked up another drink which Dave had delivered during the story, and sipped again. Thompson’s face now looked like an old washed-out photograph.

“Don’t get the wrong impression,” Thompson said. “You don’t stay in the game as a guitarist unless you go through the surgery. And after that, you don’t stay in if you can get out.”

Rhino shrugged. “So get out. Another set of robotic arms can step up and do the same job. You won’t be missed.”

Thompson swished the scotch and swallowed. “There’s another piece to that puzzle. Maybe you can help. How about a wager?”

Thompson lifted the guitar case onto his barstool and opened it. Inside sat his Taylor 900-series guitar, with the body cut out so his left hand could reach the higher frets. “It has the pickup installed on the underside of the bridge. Plug goes into the strap knob. No exposed electronics. This guitar probably costs more than you make in a month at the Monk club.”

“Monkey,” Rhino said, not acknowledging that Thompson’s guitar might actually cost more than he made in six months. “The Albino Monkey.”

“Whatever,” Thompson said, his attention focused on the guitar. “So I’m putting my guitar on the table. These are not small stakes for a guy like you, a player who could increase his take if he just added a few more styles and arrangements. You need more and you know it. But you don’t have the time or the talent to do it on your own. Not an old dog like you.”

Rhino just sat, staring at the Taylor guitar. “What do you want from me?”

“Your arms,” Thompson said.

Rhino looked up, his eyes narrowing.

Thompson said, “A swap, an arm for an arm. Or in our case, a pair for a pair. I think your toned forearms would look very nice sticking out of my shirts. And I could finally scratch that itch.”

“What’s the bet?” Rhino said.

“A contest,” Thompson said. “We have a whole bar full of aficionados, ready to lend an ear.” The guitar was out of the case, the strap around his neck now. “A song each, the crowd votes through applause, winner to be determined by Dave. Pick any song. I’ll do the same.”

Rhino cracked his fingers and thought about the alcohol. He’d had fewer than two drinks. His usual intake during a nightly gig at the Monkey was at least three. Tucker already drank two doubles and was working on a fifth. The question, Rhino wondered, was how the booze affected Tucker’s playing. Sadly, he suspected it had no affect on the arms. The only question: who was better?

Rhino was fifty-fifty on the whole idea, and then he looked at the guitar again. Music had been his life, yet the best guitar he had been able to afford was his Jumbo 1970s Japanese-model Epiphone, with the big body and big sound. It was good, and did its job at the Monkey just fine, yet it was little better than a student’s model. More importantly, to Rhino, this was a chance to put the whole debate to rest.

Not realizing that Rhino’s mind was nearly made up, Thompson made the hard sell. “You win, you get my guitar. You lose, you get my bio-mech arms. So in a way, you win regardless.”

Rhino slapped the bar. “Let’s do it.”

***

Thompson led the way onto the stage, with Rhino following a good distance behind. As Thompson tapped at the microphone, the crowd quieted, then applauded at what appeared to be a delayed encore.

Plugging in, Thompson explained that both he and Rhino would be performing one song, with the audience to decide the victor.

Thompson turned to Rhino, standing just outside the spotlight’s range. “What’s your song?”

Rhino stepped forward to the microphone and didn’t hesitate. He had known back at the bar what he would play. “U2, ‘With or Without You.’ An arrangement of my own.” What he didn’t say was that he had stolen the arrangement from a virtuoso who had popularized it earlier in the century. It was a tough piece, powerful.

Thompson nodded but retained the guitar. A smirk crept in, and Rhino realized what Thompson planned to do.

“Really amazing. That’s exactly what I was thinking,” said Thompson. “Beautiful song.”

Thompson retuned the guitar to open G. After checking the sound by picking each string in turn, he thumbed the low D string over and over, to set the bass line. And then he was off.

Rhino closed his eyes and listened. Of course, Thompson played the same arrangement that Rhino had intended to play. Better, Thompson played it exactly as it sounded on the video Rhino had seen of the virtuoso. There were no notes missed, not even a fret buzz from a finger slightly out of position. Simply put, Thompson played it the way it might have sounded had Rhino played it a hundred times, then spliced only the best parts together into a single performance. And Rhino knew that that was beyond his abilities, tonight or any other night. It was perfection. It was impossible.

As the chorus returned for the second time, Rhino thought of the lyrics, of how he too would be giving a part of himself away.

And then Thompson finished the song. Strings hummed harmoniously for just an instant before he deadened them. Then the sound of applause, of cheering, of whistling and yelping and howling hit the stage like a wave, forcing Rhino to catch his breath.

Amidst it all, Thompson removed the guitar from around his neck and beckoned Rhino forward. He shouted into Rhino’s ear as he handed off the instrument, but had to shout again to be heard over the noise. “It should still be in tune.”

Donning the instrument, Rhino plucked each string, hearing them each ring true, and waited for the noise to die down. If this was going to be his last performance with these arms, it would be done right.

“Freebird,” somebody yelled from the back, and a few people laughed. But then Thompson held up his hands for quiet, and his subjects abided.

To get ready, Rhino ran his fingers up and over the fretboard, playing scales and then arpeggios. The notes sounded clean, his finger-picking precise.

“Boring,” Thompson said from the edge of the stage. Unlike Rhino, he remained inside the spotlight to see this through.

Rhino’s deep exhalation was picked up by the mic, sending a rustle into the crowd. Then he inhaled and began.

As with Thompson, Rhino thumbed out the bass line first. If he couldn’t keep proper rhythm, he had no chance at defeating Thompson.

But it wasn’t rhythm that caused the first gaffe. There was a flourish that had to be done up near the seventh fret, halfway through the first verse, and Rhino went for it. But just like at home, with the “Alive” solo, his ring-finger didn’t stick the fret. He adjusted quickly, but not before a missed note and a buzz sounded out over the crowd. And then, while he was wondering whether they had heard it, he missed the stick when he slid his hand back down toward the frets near the neck. Shit.

Right then, barely into the first chorus, he knew it was over. He could stop right now. And after that mess, why keep going? Why not simply admit that at his level of playing the bio-mech arms were, indeed, the best choice? Why not simply admit that he had been wrong all along?

And yet, he didn’t stop. The second verse came out solid, if functionally uninspired, and Rhino began to wonder whether he could finish solidly. At least he could lose with some pride remaining.

But then the second chorus gave him hell. One missed note. Another note held too long. His thumb hit three uneven notes in the bass line, sending his rhythm to shit. And when he sped back up, he got going too fast. Now the song was cooking like a jazz trio’s hi-hat.

Or a rock song.

Still knocking out the bass line, Rhino walked over to Thompson and yelled for a pick. Thompson handed one over, clearly unsure of what Rhino had in mind.

Hadn’t Rhino said it would be an arrangement of his own?

What Rhino had in mind was the end solo of “Alive,” the most mind-fucking bad-assery he could muster. And it was fresh enough in his head that he could adjust for the retuning on the fly. Sure, he’d miss notes. Lots of them, maybe. But if he could get the crowd caught up in the emotion of it, he had this wrapped up.

Rhino timed his bass line strum to the right speed. He let the crowd know what was coming with a “yeah! yeah! yeah!” into the mic.

And then he burned that motherfucker down.

When the song ended, he didn’t know if he’d won. Frankly, he didn’t care.

***

Three months later, Rhino sat on stage in The Albino Monkey, accepting requests. A voice called out, “Zevon!”

“It’s becoming a nightly feature,” Rhino said, rolling his eyes and earning a laugh from the crowd. The three-chord structure rang out from his 1970s Epiphone, which sounded as good as it ever had. The Taylor had been a beauty, but Rhino had sold it for just enough to cover the cost of his two new toys.

Confident that the song would be well-taken care of, Rhino closed his eyes, opened his ears, and went on autopilot.

Ahhooo. infinity

Wayne Helge was in the Coast Guard for a dozen years, but resigned in 2005 and now works and writes in Northern Virginia. He has been published in a number of markets, including anthologies from “Damnation Press” and “Permuted Press.” He is an alumnus of the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop.