(Go back to Part 2)
There was a boy on the bandstand when she came back.
He was small, brown-skinned, and definitely not a Kolanth. His hands and eyes were too big for the rest of his body, and his body was too small for the bass. He sat on a stool and pulled the end pin all the way in to reach the tuning pegs.
She said one word. “Pfrancing.” It was a blues from an old Miles Davis recording, one of the first transmitted via FTL communicator to Klio after The Accident. The Ministry of Historical Culture had pulled it up for her after a liberal application of palm grease.
The boy nodded and said nothing.
She played the first 12 bars solo, thinking of Wynton Kelly playing the same tune six centuries ago. Wynton Kelly sounded great. This was going to be shit.
Sal came in on the second chorus. Tariq joined him, hesitant, playing so softly that Carla had to strain to hear him. His time wavered; he dropped a beat. Sal covered for him. She sighed, but was mostly beyond caring.
Carla banged out a dissonant chord on the piano at the end of the form, and then launched into the melody for a third time. She wanted to get Tariq’s attention. “Just play, dammit!” was what she would’ve yelled if there weren’t paying customers sitting a few feet from the piano bench.
“Enough,” Sal was saying with his playing as they neared the end of the third time through the melody. He could feel her frustration, but he was going to push her off of the melody whether she liked it or not—whether Tariq was ready for it or not. The drum fill built up, a press roll hissing like escaping steam or a wave cresting above the beach.
That’s when in happened. Carla actually saw it; Tariq heard something in the fill, or in her playing, or in his imagination. His eyes closed, he stood up on the bottom rungs of the stool, and when the fill crested–
The tempo immediately jumped up. It was like an electric shock to the base of Carla’s spine. Surprisingly, Sal didn’t try and rein the youngster in. He let him have his head, leaving Carla to either catch up or get run over. She recovered, playing something bluesy to find her feet in the new tempo.
Tariq was playing. The bassline drove forward like a boulder rolling down a hill, inexorable and undeniable. It had power and poise. In some distant part of her that wasn’t trying desperately to play something halfway decent, she could hear Sam Jones driving Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet like a force of nature. The ghost image of Tariq’s hypothetical record collection started to fill itself out in her mind, but the greater mystery remained:
How was that sound coming out of a fifteen year old?
There was no time to wonder. The music was happening, and she had to either get on board or get run over. She got on board, and she felt the swing deepening, the pocket spreading and sucking their three instruments deep inside.
The band stayed there for a while, like unfamiliar lovers finding their rhythm for the first time and hesitating to abandon it for something else. The crowd in the Emerald Room perked up. Heads turned their way. Conversation stopped. Feet started to tap under tables. The music was good.
But there was more. Carla could feel it lurking under the surface. Every time they got to the end of the form and were about to go back again, Tariq hesitated. There was something else that needed to come out, somewhere he wanted to go. Carla tried to get his attention, to nod that it was okay, but his eyes were closed.
Eventually it happened anyway. Tariq went down low on the instrument for a pedal point and never came back. He was somewhere else, somewhere totally different, playing some kind of long drone across multiple strings. It had its own rhythm, a heavy loping uneven thing, slow against Sal’s frantic forward drive. The music felt like it had suddenly downshifted into a new, deeper, more powerful gear that Carla hadn’t known existed.
And . . . Tariq was singing. It was a wordless song, full of jagged intervals and long held notes. It was a prayer, Carla realized later, something that she’d heard coming from the marble halls and tower spires of old alien temples in the city. It was not a song that a human was supposed to know.
The form had been left in tatters somewhere far behind them. She had a foot in either boat, now – one in Sal’s furious drumming (he was drenched in sweat—how long had they been playing?) and another in Tariq’s rich droning prayer. And she had no idea what she was playing, but it was something jagged and smooth and melodic and rhythmic all at once. Tariq was playing notes on some quarter-tone scale that she just didn’t have in the piano, and she wanted to tear out clumps of keys and throw them at him. Instead she played great circular clusters of notes that rolled and writhed within the changes around them.
She didn’t know what they were playing, but they were playing. And, maybe for the first time in 600 years, they were playing something new.
“Come here tomorrow afternoon, and we’ll learn some tunes. Skip school if you have to,” Carla told him. The set was over. They were drenched in sweat. She was exhausted.
Tariq nodded. He still hadn’t said anything. Carla looked around for Bernard.
The Kolanth appeared from the back of the room. “What, you can’t even stick around to hear your brother play some music?” she ribbed him.
“I heard some of it. It was good,” said Bernard. He seemed distracted. “Come with me, Tariq.”
“Yes,” said Carla, “it was good.” She watched the “brothers” leave together. Bernard was moving a little funny; she’d have to ask him about it later.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” asked the bartender. He was wiping down glasses and stacking them. The room was nearly empty.
“What?” asked Carla.
“Letting him and Bernard leave together. Isn’t that what happened to the other guy, the night he got shot?”
“What do you mean?” asked Carla.
“Oh . . uh . . . I thought you knew.” The bartender was nervous now.
“Thought. I. Knew. What?” asked Carla, more distinctly this time.
“You must’ve been gone already. Bernard got your old bass player drunk and talked him into going down to the Viceroy. You know, the–”
“–the whorehouse. Where he got shot. Right.”
The bartender said no more, and made a tactful withdrawal. Sal joined her at the bar.
“Well?” asked Sal.
Carla shrugged. “Some people just want to hear good music, I guess.”