The Spider and the Contrabass

by J.F. Peterson


Bliss had seen enough spiders to know what it was. His hand tightened over the ring box in his pocket. "What's that doing here?"

"My surprise." Mai smiled. "Kurzweil gave me a job. I got my orientation today. Watch, I'll set it up."

The spider unfolded like a flower, powder blue legs raising the mass of it upward. A rod emerged like a long brass stamen, up which slid an assembly of synthetic muscles secured to a shiny brass skeleton. The assembly rolled up and down the rod, as if testing to make sure it could move freely. At the tips of the brass, blue fingering pads waggled as if it were a musician loosening her fingers.

Watching the thing ready itself here, in Mai's home, in the room where they had practiced together, sent a shudder through him. As if it had spun a web over something precious. "I don't want to see this, Mai."

Mai wore a distracted lopsided smile, the one she wore when they played together: focused, intent, happy. "I know you don't like having to play with them, but at least now you'll be able to practice with one."

She lifted her cello and the spider wrapped itself around the neck, sliding up and down experimentally, tapping the strings. "I'm training it to myself. That'll be the first thing. I'm going to work on Rabakov next. Then Ma."

Bliss turned away. He surreptitiously pulled the ring box from his pocket, holding it in callused and lined fingers. Then he slid it back deep into his pocket.  "Carrot juice," he said to the refrigerator and it took his glass and got him another. When he turned back, skeletal brassy arms hung out from the spider, holding the bow in its two-ended grip. Another arm hung poised over the strings for pizzicato. Another held a block of resin.

"Get rid of it, Mai. Please. We need to--I want to talk."

A small smile touched Mai's lips, and she did not notice his distress. "Listen."

The spider played. At the first leaping notes, it already sounded something like Mai.

Bliss stepped forward and yanked the bow from its grip. The spider immediately stilled. "I need you to listen, Mai. I've seen these things replace every friend I have in the orchestra. They replaced you, Mai. And now I come here to ask you to--" His voice caught. He drank the rest of his carrot juice. "And you want me to listen to this thing."

Mai blinked. "Bliss, I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier. I wanted it to be a surprise." She straightened and laid a hand on his arm. "You know how hard it's been for me these months. After Ling replaced us, I didn't know what I'd do. If you hadn't helped with the bills. . ." She shrugged. "It's been hard, Bliss. But you don't have to worry about me. About the money."

"It's not about money, Mai. I never played to make lots of money, I didn't think you did either. If I wanted to make lots of money, why would I be playing bass? Why would I be playing bass for an orchestra?"

"Bliss, the spiders play better than you or I ever could. I'll be more true to the music training them than trying to play it myself."

Anger stiffened his back and shook his hands, but his face remained still. "Mai, I can't stand here and listen while you tell me you're going to start training more of those things to replace musicians. You remember what happened to New York? You want that coming here? Tanglewood is the last, Mai. The last major orchestra with human performers. Working on this thing, you're going to help kill that too."

Mai flinched. She tried to keep her voice level, but an edge of emotion had crept in. "Bliss, that hurt. I don't understand why you're acting like this."

Bliss tossed the bow toward the cello. "How many trainers do you think an orchestra needs, Mai? We had six cellists. One trainer. And you'll never play with a real orchestra again. Even if it's you, what happens to the rest? Chlapowski? Luvisi? Carolyn? Ping? Steinberg?  What about them?"

Mai shook her head. "They'll be all right."

He muttered something, but Mai did not hear it clearly. He went and looked out the window, through the blinds into the night.

A pink and purple-striped Tyrannosaurian a foot high scuttled out from near the building, a ginger-haired cat in pursuit. The pair raced down the street, disappearing into darkness.

Mai said, "You didn't even ask how I got the job. I met Kurzweil's--"

"I said I know you'll be all right." He turned partway toward her and the light highlighted the white of his beard. "But I don't know about us."

"Bliss." She stood and came to him, turned his face fully toward her. "What do you mean?"

"I'll be out there competing against those things. Against you."

Mai had to reach up to wrap her arms around him and pull him down so she could hug him. "You poor big silly bear. I love you."

He ground his teeth before speaking again. "Soon it won't just be the big orchestras. They'll work on small cities and towns next. Bars, restaurants. The cost'll go down and down, and everyone will have their own spider for the piano at home, or the old guitar grandma used to play. College orchestras will disappear until you've only got conductors left. You, me, Wolf, Chlapowski, we'll become anachronisms from another time, performing at renaissance fairs and street corners."

"It doesn't have to be like that." She smiled up at him. "Kurzweil's starting work on the bass. I'm sure they'd hire you. We'll work together."

He pulled away. "Music was made for people, Mai. Not machines." His thoughts itched desperately in the back of his skull. His eyes hurt from wanting to cry. He made a frustrated sound and cleared his throat. "You've always been a good friend, Mai.  I was a fool to think we could be anything more." The box in his pocket felt large and heavy.

She took a step toward him, but he put up a hand. The sky outside brightened with the streak of a suborbital descending across the sky toward Logan, then returned to darkness.

Mai's mouth opened. A tear slid down her cheek. "No." She shook her head, moved past his hand and leaned into him. "It'll be all right." She repeated the words again, quietly, as if to reassure herself.

 "I don't think so." A smile stretched the corners of his mouth, crinkling his face into bleak crevasses. "I'll always feel as if you chose security over the music, Mai. Over me. That betrayal, I don't think it will ever go away." He walked to the door.

"Bliss." Mai reached toward his retreating figure, holding her hands out long after he had passed away into the night.

#

Sparrows swooped under the eaves of The Shell. Bliss watched them, absently stroking resin across his bow, then set bow and resin both down and opened the clamshell case that held his double bass. He kept a resin rag across her strings and stroked it over the wood to smooth away powder. Then he lifted the bass free, extended the peg, and climbed onto his stool.

He was the only human left in the orchestra, other than Ling, the conductor. When Bliss left, the machines wouldn't need anyone on stage anymore, just someone to coordinate performance programming. They'd add human soloists for color, to attract crowds. But that would stop eventually too. They'd go the way of the other performance orchestras, with the machines dancing and fluttering and generally performing in ways humans never could. And, Bliss knew, the music would only get better as well. Even if they lost the crowds, the big money was in recordings and arrangements anyway, not live entertainment. Bliss expected the performing orchestra to die long before he did.

Somehow, though, he already felt dead.

He looked out. Early morning at Tanglewood, and dew in the grass beyond The Shed scattered pinprick rainbows. Beams of sunlight hung in the hazy air, swirls of humidity visible in their brightness.

He saw movement and a border collie raced across the lawn, chasing a Tyrannosaurian with bright red stripes on a black back and a purple-furred elephant not even a foot high which trumpeted and waved its trunk.

The dinosaur reminded him of the night he had said goodbye to Mai. A year past now. Her name was in the message Ling had sent, listing today's audition schedule, as the trainer for Kurzweil's bass spider.

Bliss watched the little dinosaur's legs pumping, its tiny arms waving feebly, as the collie cut it off and shepherded it back toward an RV pulling a trailer of cages. The elephant ran in the opposite direction, into the bushes. It poked its head out, watching its companion be herded into a cage. It gave a long, plaintive wailing trumpet, then disappeared into the leaves.

Once upon a time, the dogs chased geese, clearing the grounds before visitors came. Now it chased little dinosaurs and elephants, escaped pets flourishing in freedom.

"Changing times. Story of my career."

It had come to seem as if he were the stranger here, not the machines. The orchestra was their realm now, in which they tolerated his presence. Ling coordinated programming the sections of spiders with their various specialist trainers, and Bliss practiced, either alone or with recordings. The last human in the orchestra. Today might end that distinction, but somehow the thought did not trouble him as much as he'd thought it would.

He plucked each string. Deep notes shivered in the morning air, then faded into the background noise of songbirds. He took up the bow and tuned, strumming pairs of strings and listening to the harmonics. Then he tapped the data cache in his implants, musical scores rising up before his mind's eye. He played.

Long notes carried across the empty building and its rows of seats, and beyond them to the grass and outbuildings. It was a solitary sound, deep and powerful, as he moved his way through a warm up of Beethoven's Two Part Inventions, and into the repertoire for the audition. The music thrummed across Tanglewood, carrying through the vacant parking lot, out among the low Berkshire hills. Resin drifted in puffs from the strings and a rich scent flavored the air. To Bliss, the world reduced itself to a series of notes, and the instrument vibrating beneath his hands. He felt the music through the double bass leaned against him, feeling it as much a part of him as his own limbs. His head bowed toward the music stand. He played.

"Early today, Bliss."

The bow faltered and let out a discordant note. "Mai." Bliss blinked at the sight of her, as if waking from a dream.

She smiled, round face crinkling up, her glossy black hair reflecting sunlight. "You remember me." Mai stepped up onto the stage, long and tall and powerful, moving like a great cat. "You always were the early bird."

Bliss dropped his bow into the holster mounted on the bass. "Mai." He shook his head, as if to clear the thoughts away. "From what I've heard, you got the worm. Congratulations on heading the bass team." His eyes narrowed, and his hands curled involuntarily. "But why the switch? Your cello spiders got contracts, I thought you'd stick with them."

"Kurzweil's bass team had trouble."

"Zotz and Marcus. A couple of hacks."

"They're decent bassists, Bliss. Just not great. And not so good trainers. Or they weren't. Kurzweil brought me in. I managed to get things working the way they should." She stepped closer. "Kurzweil would have hired you, Bliss. I told them to offer it to you, that you were the best. You should have taken the job. This," she gestured around the stage. "There's no hope for you in this."

Bliss grunted. "No hope for you and I either, apparently."

Her lips thinned to a line. "You never returned my calls."

She was right, he had never called back. Instead, on the lonely hours of the night, he listened to her messages, savoring the sound of her voice even as he told himself he had been a fool to consider marrying a woman who cared more about a job than for him.

"We said all we had to, Mai. I'm not changing, and neither are you. Besides, you're better at training those things than I'd ever be."

She shook her head but said nothing. They stared at each other. The unspoken words and thoughts of the lost year apart moved between them. Her lips pursed. "I wanted to play with you. Before everything happens."

He looked at her a moment, then gave a short sharp nod.

A grin broke across her face, like sunlight through clouds. "I'll be back."

He watched her run out of The Shed, across the grass. A large part of him wanted to run after, to tell her how alone he felt, both on the stage and off, and to ask her to come back. Instead, he turned his attention to his bow, applying resin, and tried to ignore his feelings.

She returned with her old cello, a Cremona with an adjustable bridge and an Opal harmonizer glittering in the f-holes. It had faint wear marks from where a spider would clamp to it. "What shall we play?"

Their instruments sang out over the lawn, two rich voices twisting and drawing against each other. They played Beethoven and Bach, Copland and Lee, Joplin and Emerson. The sky brightened, and the groundskeepers' machines rolled out onto the lawn to tend grass and trees.

"You're better than I remember, Bliss."

He shrugged. "You've been keeping up."

She laughed. "Hardly. You pulled me along. But I appreciate it." Her face passed through a flurry of expressions, finally settling on a tightening about the eyes and mouth. "I want you to know, Bliss. I've got nothing but respect for you. You've always been a better musician than me, we both know it. So whatever happens today--"

"Save it." He waved aside her comments.

She shook her head. "No. Let me say it. Whatever happens today, I want you to know I never wanted to hurt you." She hesitated. "And I want you to know I still care very deeply about you. I wish we could just forget--" She clenched her jaw, biting off the words, and his heart gave an involuntary leap. "You're a great player, Bliss. The best bassist I've ever heard. But my spider is better than you."

His throat tightened, and his eyes burned. He swallowed back a year's worth of tears, and raised an eyebrow. "Your spider?" He cleared his throat. "I thought you worked for Kurzweil."

Her mouth worked, but then she closed it. She started again: "I've tried to train it to imitate you, from recordings. And what I remember." She smiled. "It's a good performer, Bliss."

He nodded. "I expect nothing less than excellence from you, Mai."

"I wanted to tell you. Because it will win. And afterward, I'd hoped, maybe. . ." Her eyes never left his, but her voice trailed off.

"You hoped we could try again? Leave what's happened behind us." He nodded.

Her cheeks dimpled. "And no hard feelings."

A cold weight had dropped into his stomach. He shook his head. "I won't say that. And I won't say what I feel is right. I still feel a sort of betrayal over this, Mai. I told you that a year ago and it's still true. Playing together won't erase it. Neither will losing my job to a machine. I don't know what would. The audition today will only cement those feelings."

Her face fell. She opened her mouth to speak. "I--"

Bliss cut her off. "Don't. Let me remember you from the time we were together, the music we played. Those other feelings, I'll get past them. In time. Maybe there's hope for us one day. I don't see how, but maybe. Just not today. I'm going to have breakfast. And then I'm going to show your spider how to play."

#

Ling unfolded his long arms across the backs of the adjoining seats and kicked up his feet. Others gathered around the conductor, women and men in suits setting up recording instruments.

Beyond the partition keeping the public from entering The Shell, an assortment of people had gathered, mainly trainers from the orchestra, but also others who had performed until spiders replaced them.

Four double basses lay on the stage, other than Bliss's. Each bass and spider had its handler, a trainer unfolding the spiders from their cases and attaching them to the instruments. There was an empty spot where the Kurzweil unit was supposed to be, but Mai hadn't shown up yet.

Bliss kept glancing at the empty spot.

Although there were differences, the basic designs of the spiders were the same. Each had a sort of tripod to hold the instrument upright, and mechanical fingers that hung over the strings and could slide up and down the neck on a rolling assembly attached to the wood, looking something like a spider on a web. Separate devices clamped to the instrument and held the bow over the strings.

To Bliss, the instruments appeared to be insects caught in a web.

Ling stood. "Thank you all for coming. I'll be listening to each of you, using the same set of music. Mr. Stone will audition Sanyo's competitor first. Then Han Koenig for Coda. Mr. Light with Polyphony and Miss Fong with Yamaha. And then. . .has anyone seen Mai Lin? She's supposed to be here for Kurzweil."

There was muttering, but no one knew where Mai was.

Bliss wondered if something had happened to her. Then another thought intruded, that perhaps she had decided not to come. He shook his head and his mouth thinned to a line.

"Perhaps delayed. If she shows, we'll slot her in. And we'll finish with you, Bliss. Now, shall we begin? The equipment's prepared?" He looked toward the suited men and women, who nodded at him. "Then any time you're ready, Mr. Stone."

The Sanyo and the Coda units did well, but there was a certain stiffness to their performances. As was typical for an audition, and certainly for listening to a machine, there was no clapping afterward.

The Polyphony spider did much better, improvising occasionally and bringing a resonance and timbre to the instrument that the others had not. Bliss heard a sort of hollowness, though, and a metallic resonance that seemed to come from the rod that the fingering unit ran up and down while playing. Ling smiled slightly when it finished.

The Yamaha came next. It flew through the music. Notes rose and fell and Bliss felt his heart lifting with the sounds, the performance, felt the notes resonating within him. When the spider stilled, and the double bass fell silent, there was a quiet moment, then clapping from Ling. He smiled. "Excellent, Miss Fong."

Fong smiled and bowed slightly with a nod toward the spider, as if expecting the machine to acknowledge the praise. Bliss knew Eileen Fong. She had played with Cincinnati before working with Yamaha. She glanced at Bliss quickly, the smile deepening.

"All right then," Ling said. "Any time you're ready, Bliss."

Bliss glanced at Mai's empty spot. He stared at it a long moment. She had not come. She had chosen not to come. With that realization solidifying into a certainty, all the shadows of the last year lifted.

"Bliss?  Are you ready?"

He glanced at Ling. "Yes." He flexed his fingers and took up his bow.

Where the Yamaha spider had flown, Bliss soared. His double bass shivered with music, vibrating through painfully reached notes that quivered with purity in the curved walls of The Shed. He cast aural petals that hung a moment before settling and falling away. The air filled with music, the resonant thrum of the double bass seeming to make the place, the world around them, somehow larger and more complete. Bliss played and the music carried his new hope to all who heard. He drew out the last expectant stroke, and then his instrument fell silent.

He closed his eyes, and so did not see Ling come to his feet, or the trainers standing and clapping. Sweat shook off of him. He wiped at his brow, then straightened, opened his eyes and slid off his stool.

Ling had come up on the stage. "Bliss. That was wonderful." He clapped Bliss on the shoulder, then turned toward the trainers on the other basses. "Ladies and gentlemen, I think you'll all agree we don't need your services quite yet. Please thank your corporate sponsors, and thank you for coming. Do let us know--"

"I'm done, Charles," Bliss said.

Ling spun back toward him. "What?"

"I'm done, Charles. Retiring."

Ling's smile slid away in an instant. "Bliss, you're kidding. You're clearly the better. Didn't you hear? Let me play the recording for you, hear the difference. You cannot quit. Why would you quit?"

Bliss wasn't looking at Ling, though, but at the empty spot on the stage where the Kurzweil unit was not.

"Is it the pay, Bliss? Did someone make you an offer?" He glanced at the other trainers. "We can pay you more than any of them. Just think what it'll mean. The only orchestra with a man better than a spider. People will come by the thousands. You can write your own ticket."

Bliss forced himself to look at Ling. The man's skin had pulled tight across his face, making him appear skeletal. "Charles, eventually, one of those things will better me. I'm not going to live benchmarking myself to a machine. It makes as much sense as a runner comparing himself to a car. No," he shook his head, "no, I'm done, Charles." He set his bow in the holster and took out the rag to wipe resin from his instrument. "I'll put something in writing for you today."

"Bliss, please."

Bliss replaced his instrument in its case, and slid his bow into place. "Take care, Ling. You're a good conductor. I'm sure you'll do fine, whether you work with machines or humans."

Bliss hefted his instrument case and left.

#

Bliss found her in the Tanglewood gardens. He passed beneath a trellis with hanging grape vines, and descended grassy stairs where a circular opening held curved benches upon which Mai sat. Her face turned to watch him enter. Tears lined her cheeks. "Kurzweil fired me. I told them I wouldn't compete against you."

Bliss went over to Mai, where she sat, watching him. He set down the case and opened it to pull out his resin rag. He wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I know."

She sobbed and rubbed at her nose. "I don't know what I'll do now, Bliss. I don't have anything."

He ran callused fingers across the softness of her cheek. "Maybe we both have more than we know. We just let other things get in the way. Less important things." When her eyes lifted to meet his, he smiled. "I quit the orchestra. I just told Charles."

Her mouth opened and closed several times. "But--"

"I realized something, standing up there, playing. I'd rather be with you and not playing than alone up on that stage. When you didn't come, I knew you felt the same."

She reached out for him, and they held each other.

"Come with me." He took her hand and they stood. "I have something I meant to give you a while ago. A box."

The sound of music rose from The Shed in the distance.

# # #