Excerpt from The Sound of Sweet Strings

Grantville, December 1633

The music came to an end. Atwood flipped a switch on the board and leaned forward to the microphone on the table.

“And that was the beautiful ‘Nimrod’ movement from Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, Opus 36, called the ‘Enigma’ Variations, by Edward Elgar. That was a foretaste of things to come. We will play the work in its entirety some time next month. I think you will like it.”

Atwood had a smooth bass voice, and he had put it to use over the years from time to time serving as a radio disc jockey. He’d never expected to be doing it in this situation, however, over three hundred years before he had been born. But he’d been assured that there were plenty of crystal radios out there in Thuringia to tune into his show, so he’d agreed to do it.

He looked down at his notes. “To close out this evening’s program, we’re going to play a very different piece of music in a very different musical style. It’s what we call ‘blue grass’ music. Those of you who listen to Reverend Fischer’s morning devotionals have already heard music like this. This particular piece features an instrument that wasn’t invented for close to another two hundred years, called the banjo. This is ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ ”

Atwood cued up the CD. After a moment the music began to sound. He leaned back and just listened to Earl Scruggs’ picking. Atwood could play the banjo, but it wasn’t his best instrument and he enjoyed hearing it played by a master.

All too soon the music was over, and he leaned forward again. “That was ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ and I hope you enjoyed it.

“Thank you for being with us this Sunday evening for Adventures in Great Music on the Voice of America Radio Network, sponsored by the Burke Wish Book, where you can order anything you need or want. I look forward to joining you next Sunday evening.

“I’m Atwood Cochran, and good night.”

 

A few weeks later

Lucille Cochran turned from the front door’s peep hole. “It’s for you, dear.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, there’s only one of him, he’s a down-timer, and he’s carrying something that looks like one of your old gig bags. He doesn’t look like a lawyer, so I don’t think he came to see the probate judge. That leaves you.”

Atwood levered himself from his recliner, muttering something about people coming around on Saturday evening when a man should be able enjoy some peace and quiet. He opened the door. “Yes?”

“Herr Cochran?” The man on the doorstep was short, dark-haired, dressed in reasonably fine but not new clothing, including a large hat with a bedraggled feather. And he did have what looked for all the world like one of Atwood’s old soft-sided guitar gig bags on his back. Atwood guessed it had a lute in it. The man appeared to be in his forties, and by his accent he was not from the Germanies.

“That’s me.”

“I am Giouan Battista Veraldi. I was in Magdeburg when I heard your radio program with the music of the…banjo?” He pronounced the last word with care, as if he wasn’t sure how it should sound.

“Come in, Signor Veraldi.” Atwood opened the door wider. The Italian beamed at the up-timer’s recognition and stepped through the door. Lucille appeared in the door to the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Dear, this is Signor Giouan Battista Veraldi…did I get that right?” The still beaming Italian swept his hat from his head and made a very courtly bow to Lucille. “Signor Veraldi, this is my wife, Lucille.”

“I am very pleased to meet you, Frau Cochran.”

“So, at a guess you would like to know more about the banjo.” Atwood’s curiosity was piqued.

“Yes, please.” Veraldi’s smile widened.

“Come with me, then.” Atwood led the way through the kitchen and opened the door into what used to be the garage. Veraldi sniffed in appreciation as he passed by the stew simmering on the stove. Atwood followed his guest down the step into his studio.

The late afternoon light flooded through the windows at the end of the room. There were posters of famous guitars and famous guitarists on the walls. The room was furnished with a couple of stools and music stands, plus a table under the windows and another at the other end of the room. There was a black cabinet in one corner, and leaning up against it were several odd-shaped cases.

“Where are you from, Signor Veraldi?”

Atwood gestured to one of the stools, but the Italian stood looking around with eyes wide. After a moment, he started and replied, “As you guessed, I am from Italy originally, but I was a lutenist at the Swedish court for a number of years. I left not long ago. The pay was good, but the weather…” He shivered, and they both laughed. “I have been working my way back to Italy. I’m not in a hurry, but it will not be long now before I am back in the land of fine music and olives. I miss olives…”

Veraldi’s German was better than his own, Atwood decided. His accent gave it a lilt that neither up-timers nor native down-timers gave it. “It is always good to return home,” Atwood said.

“True; and I have been gone for a long time,” Veraldi replied. His eyes had by now gravitated to the open case lying on one of the tables. “Such a large vihuela I have never seen,” he breathed.

“Vihuela?” Atwood asked.

“Do you know guitarra, or guiterne?” Veraldi replied without looking around.

“Oh, guitar. Sure. It’s a classical guitar.”

Veraldi caressed the guitar with his eyes, then turned to Atwood. “May I…”

Atwood gestured in reply. Veraldi set the instrument bag he was carrying down on the table and picked up the guitar. He held it up to the light and peered at it closely, then ran his hand all over the body. At last he plucked a string, and his eyebrows rose at the strong resonant sound. With a sigh he replaced the guitar in its case.

“Very fine vihuela; very fine guitar.”

“Thank you. Please, have a seat.” Atwood waved at one of the stools and sat on the other. Instead of doing so, Veraldi opened his bag and took out a lute, which he handed to Atwood.

Atwood hadn’t handled a lute since a class in Renaissance instruments during his college days. He received it gingerly, holding it in his two hands as if it were a baby. It was a beautiful instrument. The spruce sound board was unvarnished and had darkened a bit from its original white. The ribs of the bowl-shaped body gleamed with a satin patina. And the neck—now there was a joy. The neck was short and wide, supporting ten courses of two strings each. The head bent back from the neck at right angles. He plucked a string, and nodded at the sound. Not as deep and resonant as the guitar, but louder than he had thought it would be.

All in all, it was an excellent example of the luthier’s art. And it was a living instrument with signs of use on it, but nonetheless lovingly cared for. Veraldi’s pride in it was obvious.

“Very fine lute,” Atwood said, handing it back.

“Thank you,” came the response. “It was made for me by Master Matteo Sellas, of Venice. The Sellas family are the finest luthiers in Italy.”

“It is a fine instrument,” Atwood repeated. “Would you like to see the rest of mine?”

Veraldi nodded with eagerness, wiping his hands on his pants.

Atwood started pulling cases out of the stack and opening them up in the tables. “Steel string guitar, twelve string guitar, and of course,” opening the final case with a flourish, “the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar.”

His guest looked around with a dazed look on his face, not understanding what he was seeing.

“Sit, sit,” Atwood said, pointing to the stool. Veraldi sat. The up-timer picked up the classical guitar, and thought for a moment about what to play. After a moment, the perfect song came to him. He wrapped himself around the guitar, and played the opening bars to “Hotel California.”

Veraldi was intent, watching Atwood’s fingers, drinking in the sound. The delicate tapestry of the music wove through the air of the small room, seeming to bring light with it. Atwood stopped at the place where the vocals would have begun.

The Italian sighed. Then he pointed at the other instruments. “Please?”

Atwood smiled. “Sure.” He set the classical back in its case and picked up the steel-string guitar. He settled back onto the stool, then played the same piece of music. Veraldi’s eyes widened at the difference in timbre between the two instruments, so similar in size and shape.

The performance was repeated with the twelve-string guitar. This time Veraldi’s eyes closed, but Atwood could have sworn he saw the man’s ears twitching in time with the music. He smiled a little at the thought.

Once again the excerpt drew to a close. Atwood set the twelve-string back in its case and turned back to his guest.

“You will not play the other guitar?” Veraldi pointed to the Gibson.

“Later,” Atwood laughed. “That one takes a different song. But there is one more for you to see.” He closed a couple of cases, then set another on top of them and opened it. “This is a banjo.”

Atwood picked the banjo up and handed it to Veraldi, whose eyebrows immediately shot up to their limit at the sight of the round flat body. He turned it this way and that, peering at it closely as he took in all the details. After several minutes, Veraldi sat back. “I do not know what I expected to see, but it was not…this. This almost looks like the bastard child of a vihuela and a tambour.”

“You’re not far off,” Atwood laughed. He took the banjo back, and cradled it in his arms. He’d already decided what to play here, so he took off with “Herod’s Song” from Jesus Christ Superstar. The rollicking beat made it a fun song to play.

When he finished, he looked up to see Veraldi smiling. “Yes,” the Italian said, “that is what I heard through the radio in Magdeburg. That sound; that very unique sound. How can I get a banjo? I must take one back to Italy with me.”

“Well,” Atwood replied, “I won’t sell mine. And there’s not very many of them in Grantville. However, Ingram Bledsoe might have one or two. I’ll check with him tomorrow.”

“Then may I return tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow afternoon, certainly. Say, middle of the afternoon.”

Veraldi stood from his stool and held out his hand. “I will return then,” he said. “Thank you for your time, Herr Cochran. It was very good to meet you.”

Atwood ushered his guest to the front door, where they shook hands again and exchanged good evenings.

“Well,” Lucille said, coming out of the dining room, “dinner’s ready. What did your Signor Veraldi want?”

“Mostly to talk about instruments,” Atwood said. “I have a feeling that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him. I suspect he’s going to want to drain me dry of everything I can tell him.”

* * *

Giouan muttered to himself all the way back to the hotel. Mother of heaven, what he had just discovered. The banjo alone would be a prize to take back to Italy, but the up-time vihuelas! The sounds they could make. He knew he had had only a taste tonight. He must hear more. He must learn more. He must find a way to take these things home with him.

Excerpt from The Quiet Man


The spaceship settled on the Washington Mall, nose pointed toward the Capitol. The crowds seemed to coalesce around the police barricades almost immediately. Despite the risk, no one wanted to miss out on the first visit from extra-terrestrials.

Every news channel world-wide was devoting 100% of its time to this event. There were cameras all around the perimeter of the mall. The feeds were competing with each other for the eye of the viewing public. The news anchors, cool, controlled manners notwithstanding, seemed somewhat strained while they discussed the import of the event.

The craft was lean and rakish. It looked dangerous, whether or not it really was. The Secret Service and other security agencies didn't miss the import of the orientation of the nose. The Capitol and nearby buildings were evacuated immediately.

The crowds continued to swell. Banners with all the UFO cult labels began to appear. The police perimeter lines were being pushed in by the inexorable pressure of the people gathering.

Clang!

The noise echoed between the buildings. The lower half of the spaceship nose split into clamshell doors and began to open. The crowd recoiled for a moment, then pressed forward when a ramp descended to ground level. A figure strode down the ramp into the sunlight and was greeted by a collective “Aah.”

Leonine was the only word that described him. Tall, somewhat cat-like, with a blocky head and a huge mane of reddish-gold hair, he was impressive. The TV anchors were uniformly silent, unable to muster words to capture and frame the moment. He moved out away from the craft, until even the shadow of it was some distance behind him. Everyone watched while he reached up and touched something on his collar.

“I am Commander Khuran.” No speakers were in sight, but his voice resonated and reverberated throughout the space. “We are the Sha’Chá. These are our children.” Six giant holograms sprang into being above the Mall, rotating and circling so that all could see them clearly. If the commander was leonine, these were more feline. Different colors, different patterns, different clothing. “We have tracked them here. Take us to them, bring them here, or tell us what happened. We await them.” With that, he touched his collar again, clasped his hands behind his back, and settled in to wait.

When the response came, it was not from the government. A man in a black uniform pushed his way to the front of the crowd. People got out of his way as quickly as they could. The rather large rifle he was carrying may have had something to do with that. Before the nearest policemen could get to him, he ducked under the tape and jumped the barricade. When the cops tried to follow him, they found themselves blocked by something no one could see.

Everyone watched while he strode across the grass toward Commander Khuran. The news anchors broke into almost apoplectic commentaries.

The man stopped when he was perhaps twenty feet from the commander. He laid the rifle down on the ground, dropped his pistol belt on top of it, then unfastened and shrugged off his body armor and equipment vest. He discarded the cap, so that he stood bareheaded in the sunlight, blond hair stirring in the breeze. He gave a bow to the commander, then assumed a similar posture.

Commander Khuran beckoned to the man. He straightened. When he spoke, his voice was heard as well as the commander’s had been previously.

“I can tell you what has happened to them. I will tell you what has happened to them.”

At that, the crowd went nuts. The police had their hands full dealing with the crowd, but they were pushed back until they encountered an unseen barrier around the craft, the commander and the man in black.

Slowly, the noise began to die down. Cameras began to turn again to the two figures standing facing each other within the cleared area. Commander Khuran beckoned again, waving a hand at the ship in obvious invitation. The figure in black stood still for a moment, then began walking, almost marching, toward the ramp. The commander fell in beside him, and together they entered the spaceship. The ramp retracted. The doors closed. And everyone in the world was left wondering.

****

Ten years later

Rowf was doing his dog thing, sniffing everything in sight and watering every tree and bush we passed by. I swear, that dog’s bladder proved that the outside of something can be smaller than the inside.

I was walking along and looking at the stars, something I do a lot of. The sky was really black, and the stars just glittered in it. Beautiful. One of the things that makes me believe God is an artist. I find that a calming thought.

Rowf stopped so suddenly I just about fell over him. “What’s up, dog?” I laid my hand on his neck, feeling the hair rise. His ears were perked forward. I could hear the slow rumble of a warning growl coming from his throat. After a moment, I could hear what he heard—someone crashing through the brush.

I like my privacy—I have my reasons for that—so my property is very clearly posted No Trespassing. The fact that someone was blundering around on it in the dark lifted my hackles along with Rowf’s. It also stirred some memories that had lain quiet for a lot of years. I headed in the direction of the noise, Rowf trailing along behind.

The crashing grew closer and closer. Someone with no woods sense was running hard in the dark, risking a fall and a broken limb or worse. I stopped where I was, waiting. After a moment, I could see her. Light clothing, long hair, looking back over her shoulder when she burst through the brush and ran headlong into my chest with an “Oof”.

Excerpt from Command Performance

Magdeburg
Friday, October 14, 1633

Franz knocked on the door, and waited impatiently for someone to answer. Marla made a slight grunt, and her hold on his arm became a fierce clutch. He leaned over to her bowed head, and said, "But a moment more, and you will be out of the rain and able to sit." She nodded her head slightly, and he straightened.

At that moment, the door opened and a young woman looked out at them. "Yes?" she said in accented English.

"Fraulein Marla Linder, come at Frau Simpson's invitation," Franz replied.

The young woman opened the door wide. "Please, come in. Wilkommen."

Franz led Marla into the house. The comparative warmth of the sitting room was a very welcome change from the liquid ice of the October rain, and he heard her sigh. Another woman swept into the room from a side door as the maid shut the front door behind them.

"Miss Linder, I am so glad to finally meet you face to face," the newcomer exclaimed.

Franz was in no doubt as to who this was, although he had never seen her before in his life. Even in Grantville they had begun to hear of Mary Simpson, the Dame of Magdeburg, whose grace and courtesy had charmed even the young myrmidons of the Committees of Correspondence.

Marla's fingers clenched on his arm again. "Your pardon, Frau Simpson," Franz hastily interjected, "but it would be a kindness if Marla could sit down."

Mrs. Simpson's beaming smile shifted to an expression of concern, and her eyes widened as she took Marla's hands. "Dear, your hands are like ice! You poor thing." Mary released Marla's hand and began unfastening buttons. "At the end of a long journey, and you're soaking wet and cold. Hilde, help take her coat." With the maid's help, the drenched coat was removed and hung up. "Come with us, and we'll get you warm and dry."

The serving woman led Marla out of the sitting room as Mary turned to Franz. "Please, make yourself at home, while we take care of Miss Linder. Tell me, Mr. . . ." she looked at him in inquiry.

"Franz Sylwester, Frau Simpson," he responded with a slight bow.

Mary smiled. "Oh, good, I was hoping to meet you. We'll talk later, but for right now, do you know if Marla gets like this often? How long has she been hurting?"

"Never have I seen her like this," Franz said, his worry coming to the fore. "She has been suffering for over two days now, since after the rain started."

Mary nodded. "As I thought. If we get her dry and warm, it should ease up. Please, Franz, be seated, and we'll be back with you before long." She turned and hurried out of the room.

Franz took his violin in its bag and Marla's flute in its case from the plastic bags that had protected them from the rain. He set the instruments on a nearby table, then hung the precious bags to dry on a peg next to Marla's coat near the door. He stopped for a moment to look at the bags, and marvel at the stuff they were made from. How plastic was made still seemed like magic to him, but there was no denying how useful the stuff was. Take these bags—they weighed next to nothing, could be folded and stuck into a pocket, yet at a moment's notice they could be taken out and used to shield anything they would contain from moisture. Truly, the future must be a marvelous place if it could produce Marla, the music he was coming to love so strongly, and plastic.

With a smile he started on his own buttons, and moments later his own very wet coat was hung on the next peg in the wall. Finally shed of his various burdens, he took a seat in one of the most comfortable chairs it had ever been his pleasure to sit in. The warmth radiating from the stove soaked into him and the chill left his own extremities. He felt his body relaxing for the first time since the trip from Grantville had begun.

Traveling in Thuringia in the late fall and early winter was unpleasant at best, and arduous at worst. Rain or early snow could turn what roads there were into muddy bogs. Shepherding a grand piano from Grantville to Magdeburg in early October had been . . . interesting, Franz mused.