Darquin stepped into the observation room, pinned between the hellish panorama of hyperspace writhing outside the ship and the band setting up their gear. Going there might have been a mistake.
He took note of them one by one. Flame-haired pilot Eddie Kriechbaum’s quest to get him to a rehearsal had been a thorn in Darquin’s side for months, a veritable cactus farm in the last few weeks. Maybe he was desperate for band members. Several people from his squadron were gone.
But with Darquin’s workload, to drop everything and make a public spectacle of himself? It wasn’t possible…at least until they jumped into hyperspace.
Brenda Mawarra was locking down her drum kit. He didn’t know much about her, except she was a good pilot and Kriechbaum’s girlfriend: skill, longevity, and a hell of a lot more patience than he had, apparently.
Behind them, trying a series of riffs on a bass guitar, was Paul Maxwell, lead maintenance tech for Storm Squadron. Darquin used to pal around a lot with him and swap their favorite Starfury tweaks. The promotion to Security had eaten a lot of Darquin’s free time, so they couldn’t pal around like they used to. He’d always felt bad about that.
Then his eyes widened as he saw Yoshino, sitting on her heels in a meditative pose, the last person he’d expected in a rock band. He didn’t know she was even musical. This band was really something to coax her–psychic scar tissue and cherry blossoms held together by Japanese and Minbari tradition–out of her shell.
“Hi, Chief,” Kriechbaum called out to him. The rest of the band was gathering around to greet him. “I’m really glad you could make it.”
Darquin looked back at the boiled void outside. Rangers were supposed to stand their ground, regardless of the odds. He was beginning to question that policy.
“So.” He shrugged and sighed. “Where’s this wicked gorgeous ax you want me to see?”
“Here!” Maxwell lifted a guitar case and set it down gently at Darquin’s feet. “I found it on Abbai and we all pitched in to buy it. It’s a custom-built job, nice replica.”
Darquin knelt and opened the case, hesitating as if it was going to bite his head off. The guitar within gleamed, a black jewel nestled in burgundy velvet. “It’s just like a Les Paul.”
“Yeah,” Maxwell said. “A Les Paul Studio Gothic.”
“They stopped making those in the late 2K’s.”
“Right. Nice finish, huh?”
He didn’t answer Maxwell. Instead he was running his fingertips over the satin black finish. He expected it to ripple at his touch. It was a classic Les Paul body all right–luscious curves and unassuming in size and shape, not the popular modified jobs of the last century. The fittings and pick-ups gleamed silver. The crescent moon and splash of stars just above the seventh fret seemed to twinkle at him.
“Whaddaya think?” Kriechbaum asked.
Gingerly he took the guitar by the neck, turning with it as if shielding it. “Light.” A nervous chuckle stumbled out of him. “Every time I hold one, it always seems lighter than I think.”
Yoshino offered him a scarlet guitar pick, darker than the fire-thread discharges flashing outside in hyperspace. He gave her a quizzical glance. “It’s for you,” she said quietly.
Looking at the pick made him turn back to the guitar. And he gaped. He fumbled his initial protest, stammering between thanks and no thanks, uncertain which one he really wanted.
She leaned closer. “A gift. Please, try it.”
He gulped. The last time he did that was in Tokyo 15 years ago. But there were worse omens. “Okay.” He let Yoshino put it in his open palm.
He pulled out of his pocket a pair of wireless headphone buds. He usually kept spares on him in case he ever had the time to pop a data crystal into his datapad. Letting them sit on his open palm, he brought them close to the guitar as if letting the devices get each other’s scent, and slipped them into his ears. After he fiddled with the dials and switches all about the guitar’s jet face, hesitating, he ran the guitar pick over the strings once. He adjusted a dial and tried again, cocking his head as he listened. Turning another dial seemed to satisfy him.
“Okay,” he muttered to himself, “E, A…D.”
The band watched as he tried a guitar riff, listened, and frowned at the result before he tried again. And again. Then he expanded on it, fingering the frets to form a chord, shifting to another.
Eddie frowned. “The least he could do is let us hear–”
Darquin pulled his hands away from the guitar as if bitten. “Whoa….”
Eddie and his bandmates exchanged a rapid progression of worried glances.
“It…seemed well built,” Yoshino whispered.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“Nothing, it’s these Abbai pickups!” Smiling, Darquin pointed at the chrome plate where the strings met the body of the guitar. “Like a Theremin.” He strummed the strings and rolled his fingers in the air over them. “They–lookit that! They respond to movement. With my hand up like this, I got the fade and sustain. With a little practice, I think I can work a delay–” He studied the guitar in his hands, in awe. “You don’t even need a stomp box on this.”
Eddie turned to the rest of the band, all of them more hopeful now. “You like it then?”
Darquin looked up as if hearing a trap spring. A spark of resentment trickled through him, but he shrugged it off. “I guess you got me. But good this time. You’re gonna pay for that, y’know.”
“Tell me about it,” Brenda sighed.
Eddie shushed her as Paul and Yoshino threw glares, but Darquin caught it all the same. “I’ll make good on it.” He twirled the Les Paul, one hand still holding the neck. “Even if it’s just in ax time. After all the effort, you oughta get something out of it.”
Eddie beamed. “Y-you’re in?”
“If I’m any good on this thing. I haven’t practiced in years, and I’m not exactly Robert Johnson to start with!”
“How about what you were doing there?” he said, pointing at the guitar.
“Just a little BOC.” He smiled at the confused looks from the band. “Blue Oyster Cult. Sorry.”
“Oh, okay! ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper?'”
“What was that other one? ‘Burnin’ For You,'” Brenda said.
“No. Right band, though.”
“I know!” Yoshino chimed in. “‘Godzilla!'”
“Er, no.” The guitar pick still in his hand, he rubbed one of his temples with the side of his fist. “Something else. Completely.”
Maxwell scratched his head. “Which one, then?”
“‘Dance on Stilts.'” He closed his eyes and shook his head as the others exchanged glances. No one remembered the classics anymore. “Sort of a bluesy number. My aunt–my aunt and uncle raised me- -she used to teach me to play all sorts of oldies. The meter on this one….” He put the headphones down on a nearby chair. “Oh screw it, I’ll just show you.”
Darquin watched one of the band’s amplifiers until its indicator light came on red and anxious. His first guitar lick was a short, lazy buzz simmering with lowdown blues, pausing for a half-beat. He repeated it and ended on an angry, upswept hard rock hook. He nodded gently in time with a nimble refrain of the start, concentrating only on the adolescent sound.
As he went into the last third of his riff, Eddie waved to the rest of the band to take their instruments. Brenda bolted to her drum kit, watching Darquin’s head keep the time. It was easy to follow; a simple blues statement, refrain, and the next two lines of the verse. One, one, two, three. So at the end of his next refrain, she led the band as they underscored it with a dramatic crash.
He turned to the band and smirked. Not missing a beat, he telegraphed the next cue with an instinctive nod. He was deeper into their trap, in no need of escape. Framed against the dimensional blaze, he took his guitar right back to the start, reaching for an arrogant grace to match the indolent strut of the tempo as he snapped off lyrics.
"On the outside I'm in the high rise Headin' for a meeting Shining up my greeting See me in a white suit--"
He held his pick hand over the strings, allowing for the necessary half-beat. Brenda on the drums was catching on, delivering a cymbal smash as he continued.
"With a mirror tie--"
Another half-beat pause. Then he started a spiraling bridge, letting the wail of his guitar fade out as he finished the chorus.
"And you Elevate me You throw off the shame And you dance on stilts with me"
He took them back to the start, this time trading peacock pride for howling world-weariness as he called out a verse of pain and struggle. The Les Paul was counting off the miseries, only of a fraction of which were spoken. He broke back into the hope and gratitude of the chorus, and the band was catching on. Brenda was delivering cymbal smashes in key moments. Yoshino helped Eddie pick out a pipe organ sound on his keyboard that went perfectly with blues.
As they closed the end of the chorus and the bridge, his guitar tore into a mournful cry, gliding from rapid-fire declarations and electrical weeping and back again. The hopeful upswings of chrome- plated guitar hooks marked the road to release.
He brought it back down to the start and the next verse, rebelling, warning lost people in search of an outbound train, calling for change through someone else’s words. He led the band into the bridge and chorus one last time as if determined to persevere.
Then he changed the tune in mid-stream. The band stopped to hear as he eased into something joyful, a slightly quicker time full of sunshine. With a dramatic nod, he telegraphed another crash and took them into jubilation.
"Yoooou elevate meeeee Yoooou elevate meeeee Yoooou elevate meeeee...."
It suddenly resembled a prairie hymn. In whose temple, in praise of which faith, nobody knew. Yoshino had already been singing along, matching the lyrics when she could, a wordless harmony when she couldn’t. Hesitantly Brenda joined in, then Paul and Eddie. Nodding enthusiastically, Darquin urged them on in song:
"C'mon, baby, dance on stilts, dance on stilts with meeeee!"
After another round of the new chorus, he went another solo, full of energy, like a bell-ringing contest gone mad. Now he was putting himself and his guitar through its paces.
And the band was determined to keep up with him. Brenda set off a percussive cannonade that was shaking her loose braid apart. Maxwell was busy keeping the beat on bass, sneaking in a warbly flourish of his own here and there.
Eddie leaned over his keyboard and called out, “Darquin! What do you say?”
He took a moment to take the guitar into a spiraling upswing. “So it sounds okay?”
“Can’t you tell?!” Brenda added a loud crash from her drum kit for emphasis as Yoshino laughed and nodded in agreement.
“Okay! I can handle this!” Darquin tore his guitar out of its siren spin.
He’d already begun to think of it as his. That alone gave him pause.
Phoenix–“Dance on Stilts” © 2002 Jamie Lawson & Joe Medina
Babylon 5 tm and © 2002 Warner Bros.
“Dance on Stilts”
by Donald Roeser and John Shirley
©2001 Triceratops Music