On Saturday morning, Elias found himself standing before a faded red door in a clean but spartan hallway.
“Well, this is the place,” Corbin said. “It ain’t much, but I figure it’s better than a boardin’ house.”
“It’s on a main road with street-lighting,” Elias said. “That’s a step up in my books.”
Out of his hazmat suit, Corbin was tall, and had a muscular upper body and a barrel chest. He wore low slung jeans and a short sleeve shirt over an old white T-shirt, and indeed, his entire look was a bit 20th century throwback, except for his shoes, which were top of the line extra padded MC42s from Micah Black. Clearly, the man dressed for comfort. Right now, he swiped his omni-tool across the lock and the door swung open, revealing a simple interior that was both cluttered and spacious. By human standards, it would be considered cramped, with a tiny living cum dining room with a kitchenette off to one side. Three doors led off the lounge behind the couch and although the floor was clean and the benchtops immaculate—or possibly unused—there was a light jumper thrown over the couch, a pile of books and a few datapads next to the couch and the shelves near the entertainment unit were filled with trinkets from around the universe.
“Where’d you get all of that?” Elias asked.
“The extranet mostly,” Corbin said, his face flushing. “I got that from an asari doctor who was stationed in London for a spell,” he said, pointing to a small greenish crystal that glimmered in the sunlight coming through the window. One day I’m hopin’ to see the universe, but the idea of hopping on a ship and leaving this all behind…”
“You can always come back,” Elias said. “That’s the point isn’t it? You leave and go off so that one day you can go back. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next month. Maybe it won’t be in your lifetime even, but one day.”
Corbin looked up at him, the small cardboard box that held Elias’ possessions in his hands. “Sorry. I forgot that you didn’t have a home planet until a few years ago.”
Elias shrugged. “That’s all right. I had the fleet, cramped and overcrowded as it was. Even the rooming house was spacious in comparison.”
“Really? Wow,” Corbin shook his head. “I saw that place and I don’t think I could live there. Admittedly my spare room ain’t that much bigger, but that’s probably why no-one’s wanted to rent it off me so far.”
“What, no one?”
“No one I’d be comfortable rentin’ to, I guess,” Corbin said, leading the way across the room to the door on the far right. “Well, this is it.”
The room was probably a bit over two square metres in dimension, and had a single bed, a desk and a built in closet and not much else bar an old ceiling fan. Used to worlds of ducted airflow, he stared up at it quizzically.
“I think it looks pretty,” Corbin said placing the cardboard box on the desk. “Plus the ducts in this place can rattle something awful. This really all you got?” he asked, patting the box.
Elias nodded. “When you’re not used to a lot of space you don’t keep many things. It took me a while to get my head around credits, to be honest.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t use currency,” Elias said. “On the fleet all food and resources are communal to ensure we all survive. When I have something I don’t need I take it to a plaza and leave it so that someone else can have it and vice versa. If we don’t all pull our weight our people…it’s odd to think we’ll have an economy one day.”
“Sounds to me like you all look out for one another,” Corbin said. “Wish more folk around here did that.”
When Elias took the small A4 poster from his first gig out and hung it from the wall, Corbin snapped his fingers. “Hey, I’ve read about you. La Ville gave you five stars and said you were one to watch out for.
Elias paused. “You got that from my poster?”
“The print of your face…um…mask,” Corbin said. “I didn’t get your name that time.”
Stepping back from the wall, Elias pulled out his databook and a small potted iris from the box and put them onto the desk, and carefully hung the string of red Mardi-Gras beads around the corner post of the metal bedhead.
“Well that’s me unpacked,” he said.
“Good,” Corbin said with a grin. “Now we’re gettin’ you a gig.”
The thing Elias quickly came to realise about Corbin was that the man was enthusiasm personified and within the hour he was standing by a battered black piano with a microphone in his hand. Apparently it was open mic night at one of Corbin’s favourite hangouts: Jupiter’s. It had an old world feel mixed with some industrial flavour. The floors were old wooden boards, the walls a mix of dark metal panels and a deep green paint that had probably been the height of fashion in years gone by. There were brass railings that were still polished regularly, and the crowd appeared to be regulars who knew each other, and although he got a few glances, he could see enough alien faces in the crowd to be comfortable as he walked in next to the doctor. Over on a sidetable near the piano was a number of piles of sheet music and Corbin steered him over and left him with an admonition to pick a good song while he got some drinks.
It took a while to find something that he knew, but when he brought the creased, yellowing paper up to the pianist, the wizened man smiled at him, blue eyes twinkling with a youthfulness that Elias sometimes didn’t see in people his own age.
“I don’t think anyone’s sung that number in ten years,” he said. “And up you pop. I hope you’ve got a good voice on you lad. This song deserves a good outing.”
Behind his mask, Elias smiled. “I hope I have a good voice as well. Otherwise I’ll be letting a friend down.” Over by the bar, Corbin had pushed his way to the front and was leaning over the bar to chat to the barman—and Elias was certain the front of his t-shirt would have a wet mark where the front of the bar had pressed into his abdomen.
“You’re with the Doc?” The pianist asked, adjusting his spectacles. “Well, I always did wonder.”
In his helmet the blue light that Pi used flickered. “If my analysis of human syntax is accurate, I believe the old musician believes you and your new flatmate are romantically involved.”
Elias was glad the tint of his helmet hid his blush.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” the pianist said. “I’m just rambling. The name’s Jacques and I’m the ivory tinkler in this here bar. Been doing it when it was a Japanese restaurant called Hong’s.”
Grateful for the subject change, Elias’ mind came to a shuddering halt. “Isn’t Hong’s a…Chinese name?” he ventured.
Jacques grinned, the lines on his face creasing into a wreath of happiness and his white teeth contrasting with his dark skin. “That it is. Was still the best tempura in town for near on a decade. Need a key change?”
“Key change?” Jacques asked, pointing at the music which he’d spread out over the piano’s music desk. “Or are you good with D major?”
Oh Danny boy, the pipes the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.
It took a moment to adjust to the microphone and the speakers, which although old by galactic standards, still produced a clear, clean sound. The initial nerves and concerns that Elias had about his health and his voice and the strangeness of his location was swept away as Jaque’s fingers flew across the piano keys and there was something undeniably right about being in this old style bar with its brass and wood and non-electronic pianoforte.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
‘Tis you, ‘tis you, must go and I must bide
As he closed his eyes and let the music carry him along, Elias dimly heard the room still around him. Conversations petered out, the clinking of glasses stopped as they were placed on tables and when he opened his eyes he found himself at the pointy end of the room’s collective stares. It was somehow different to Le Alligator, where he primarily provided background music, sitting on a stool next to the pianist, an Asari maiden who typically wore dresses of red to match the decor in the bar, which appeared to be styled along the lines of a French Bordello, which was a word Elias had had to look up, and then blushed when he’d found out what it meant. It certainly explained the pictures of women in various stages of undress that adorned the wall, even if there wasn’t any hanky panky on the premises. There, people went to drink and chat and the music was background noise, much the way that the constant creak of bulkheads and the pumping rattle of old air ducts had been on the Ashru. At Jupiter’s people seemed to take their music seriously, even if most of the singers typically performed current pop songs or whatever big musical was currently playing on Broadway. Maybe he should go to New York at some point.
But come ye back, when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
On the other hand, the older songs spoke to him in a way that newer human music just didn’t. Maybe it was the autotune or the carefully manufactured life of the pop star, churning out predictable hit after predictable hit and being seen at all the right places with a trail of media hyped relationships behind them. Sometimes he wondered if those were even real. He remembered a documentary about the celebrity machine where the human heartthrob Lance Bakkar had enlisted the help of Asari Diva and heiress Aisha Parralli to see if they could manufacture relationship rumours. All they did was go out for dinner and get in and out of the same car and they’d received two weeks of press coverage. Such was the price of celebrity.
For I’ll be here, in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.
Was it? Was it possible to be a celebrity with integrity? Was it really only the music that mattered, or was there a cost that you paid to the machine that enabled you to make and sell enough to get to where you needed to be in order to make the music that you wanted. And if you paid too much would you ever be able to go back to the simple nights when it was just you and the piano in a dingy bar with nothing between you and the audience.
But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
If he hadn’t been singing, Elias would have laughed at himself. No quarian had ever become a big recording artist. Best he could hope for was doing small gigs that would allow him to keep travelling the universe and doing what he loved. And maybe afford to stay somewhere where he wouldn’t get jumped in alleyways for no apparent reason. It was nice to dream, but then, the dream was scary. Idly, he wondered what he’d do if he ever came face to face with the choices of fame, but pushed it out of his head. He had a song to perform. Really perform, and not just stand and sing on autopilot.
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.
Opening his eyes, Elias glanced around the room, and felt a warm glow as he saw a clusters of rapt faces watching him, most people sitting quietly at tables. Some had music in front of them, one or two were still flipping through stacks of musical scores, much as he had earlier, but they were the exception. Over by the bar, Corbin was standing with a drink in each hand, one in a red glass which typically signified a dextro-friendly drink. He was staring up at Elias with a strange look on his face and his mouth was hanging open. When the last note faded and the music stopped the silence at the end of the song was almost painful and he clipped the microphone back into its stand to hide the shaking in his hands and stepped back, blinking as the room erupted into applause.
“Elias with Danny Boy ladies and gentlemen,” the host said, a voluptuous black woman with short dreadlocks and a silver nose piercing. “Give it up folks!”
Elias raised a hand, and then ducked his head in an awkward half bow and then walked as fast as he dared off the stage.
“Hey, Elias, lad,” Jacques said.
“You did the song proud.”
“If you like the old stuff, you should check out the library. That’s about the only place you can find music like that these days. You bring it in, and I’ll play it for you.”
That was how it started, but as Corbin descended upon him with a grin that was nearly as broad as the man’s shoulders, Elias knew the future was going to have to wait. It seemed he’d made a friend.