The Middle Rages
by Joseph L. Kellogg
Cale twirled his drumstick morosely as the last of the reverb from the guitars died out.
“We vent,” he finally declared, tossing the sticks down onto the snare with a clatter. He leaned against the back of the couch and crossed his arms over his ample stomach.
“No, come on,” Bendrick replied, turning toward the drums as he brushed the hair from his eyes. “That was good, we’re definitely getting better. We’ve just gotta-” He stumbled as he stepped on the cord and pulled the plug sharply from his guitar. “We’ve gotta keep practicing.”
“What for, Benny?” asked Jillan, plopping down on an amp and resting her head in her hands. “It’s not like we can ever sign a big record contract, or go on a world tour. There aren’t any opportunities on the ship, no matter how good we are.”
“Don’t you see?” Bendrick said, pulling the guitar strap over his head and setting it down. He pointed at the crude letters formed from strips of electrical tape on the base drum. “We’re The Middle Rages! It’s not about the money or the fame, it’s about the rage, the emotion. It’s about the art.”
“The Arts Commission thinks we vent too,” Cale said. “We can’t get any shows booked in the auditorium, and they won’t even let us play at the school dances. We might as well just give up, and do something more productive with our lives.”
“Like what, Cale?” asked Bendrick, crouching down to look him in the eye with mock interest. “You’re gonna go run the dumpling shop like your parents did, and their parents did, and like your kids will do for the next two hundred years until they get to T-Prime? And Jillan, are you just going to get your engineering degree and be another tiny cog in the machine that runs this ship, which can get on fine without you? Or are we going to create something new, something amazing? Future generations here could be proud, not just because they’re going to colonize a new planet later, but because of what we did here right now. So are you guys in or what?” He panted slightly and brushed the hair back out of his eyes as he waited for an answer.
“You can create art if you want,” Jillan said, dropping her bass guitar roughly into its case. “I’m going to go create a sandwich.” Cale shrugged and patted his stomach in agreement before getting up from behind the drums.
“Come on, guys,” Bendrick groaned as they left, “can’t you at least-” His words were cut short as the steel door slid closed behind them and left him standing alone in his parents’ living room. “Help me clean up?”
The room went quiet with the others gone, and Bendrick began hauling the drums into the storage closet. He stopped before taking his guitar into his own room, and leaned against the back of the couch. Across the room sat the kitchen table, and on the wall behind it was a row of portraits stretching halfway across. Each one held a young couple, his direct ancestors on his father’s side, until the last one, which showed his own parents. Someday, when he got married and took over these quarters, his picture would be up there. Then his children and grandchildren and so on, until the wall was neatly filled up when they finally landed and started the colony. Just as planned.
With a sigh, he shoved the rest of the equipment into his room and left it in a pile on the floor to be cleaned up later. Right now, he had to get out and get some fresh air.
Bendrick stopped by the burrito stand in the observation deck food court. The back-lit menu hanging on the wall was faded, full of washed-out colors and barely readable text. A bored-looking teenager from one of Bendrick’s classes tossed the lukewarm, paper-wrapped burrito onto a red plastic tray and gave it a half-hearted slide toward Bendrick. He picked it up, unwrapped one end, and bit into the bland meat and processed cheese. He didn’t even really taste it, and had ordered it more out of habit than any real desire for the flavor.
As he ate, he wandered through the bustling crowds of the main observation deck, watching the people around him. Couples of all ages drifted dreamily by, holding hands and gazing at the stars like every couple had for the last two hundred years, and would keep doing for the next two hundred, until they finally landed. Until then it was a waiting game, and Bendrick was stuck right in the middle.
A pudgy kid on a worn tricycle blazed by, hollow plastic wheels roaring on the metal floor, and Bendrick squeezed against the smooth wooden railing to get out of his way. He decided to stay there, and looked out at the stars himself. He munched on his burrito, but the it passed over his tongue like cardboard, even with the hottest sauce they had. Toward the bridge, in the gap between the body of the ship and the slowly spinning gravity ring, a single star burned a bit brighter than the others. Bendrick gulped down the last bite of burrito, fished his mobile from his pocket, and held it up like a camera, capturing the image. The computer compared it to their astronomical database, and told him it was the site of their upcoming fly-by, four months journey away. Passing that close to a star only happened every decade or two; he was a baby for the last one, and he’d be a married working stiff for the next one. But this was the biggie. It marked the approximate half-way point of their journey, and it promised to be the highlight of their lifetimes.
A small button tap brought up all the information on the fly-by, both scientific and social. Bendrick quickly scanned the information, and his eye stopped on one of the digital fliers, reading it intently. That was his chance. Shoving the mobile back in his pocket and tossing the burrito wrapper in a nearby trash port, he jogged toward the nearest elevator to get back home. The rest of the band wouldn’t be able to resist this.
Bendrick waited outside the door to the engineering classroom as the students filed out. Other students poured out of a dozen doors along the hallway, chattering excitedly about weekend plans and short-lived romances. When Jillan came out, slipping her arm through the straps of her backpack, Bendrick jumped up and walked up alongside her.
“Hey,” he said, “I need to talk to you.”
“Is this about the band again?” she asked. She reached back and pulled a scrunchie from a side pocket on her backpack, and began pulling her black hair into a ponytail, revealing more of her dark face and neck.
“Yeah, just hear me out. Are you still there Cale?” He lifted up his mobile in front of them as they walked, and Cale’s face stared back at them. His hair was covered with a food service net, and steam occasionally billowed from pots behind him as they were opened.
“I’m here, and I’ve already spent five minutes of my break waiting for you. Get on with it.”
“You guys know about the fly-by coming up, right?”
“What about it?” Cale asked.
“The Entertainment Commission is holding a big gala in the main observation deck. And you know what else they’re holding?” Bendrick paused for dramatic effect, looking back and forth between the blank faces of his friends. Finally Jillan sighed and rolled her eyes
“What else?” she asked.
“Open auditions! Anybody who wants can come and audition to provide the entertainment for the gala. What do you think?”
“You realize that the ‘open’ auditions are just a show, right?” asked Jillan. “This is a high-class event; the captain and all the other officers are going to be there. Nobody but the orchestra even has a shot at playing.” Cale nodded in agreement.
“Come on guys,” Bendrick pleaded. “Let’s at least give it a try. Even if this ship wears us down in the end, shouldn’t we go out fighting?”
“It would be a waste of time,” Cale said.
“Alright,” Bendrick replied, “I didn’t want to do this, but you forced my hand. What if I guarantee you that we can play at the gala. If you guys buckle down and practice with me, I promise that we will play.”
“I can’t,” Jillan said. “I’ve got a wiring test and practical this weekend. My classes are really starting to pick up this year. Besides, why should I believe your promise? You can’t guarantee something like that.”
“Because if we don’t play, I’ll… do your homework.”
“That’s called cheating,” Jillan said. “And a bad idea besides. I get better grades than you already. Any other ideas?”
Bendrick had another idea, but he hesitated, unsure if he dared to go through with it. Finally, he took a deep breath. “If we don’t play, then I won’t ever bother you about the band again.”
“For real?” Cale asked.
“For real. The Middle Rages will die an agonizing death in the pages of history, and you can go on with your boring, humdrum lives that no one will ever care about.”
Cale and Jillan answered in unison. “Deal.”
For the next three months they practiced every day after school. Bendrick went to bed every night with his ears ringing from the clash of symbols and squeal of electric riffs. His fingers throbbed during class, making it hard to take notes, but he was always right back practicing afterward. The lectures washed over him without making an impression, and his teachers’ words formed themselves into melodies in his mind. His grades slipped a little, but he didn’t really care; he would graduate just the same, and no one would care then.
On the day of the auditions. Bendrick rubbed his fingers together, still not used to the new callouses he’d developed. The auditorium was dark, and through the floor lights on the stage he could just barely see the red velvet of the first row of seats. Back in the middle, illuminated by the warm glow of a reading lamp, Arts Commissioner Pendleton tapped her pen impatiently against her notebook. She was a short, squat woman with dyed hair and an expensive watch that she kept checking.
“Anytime you’re ready,” she said, stifling a yawn.
Bendrick looked at his bandmates, decked out in hand-me-down formal wear that they’d augmented with tears, patches, and mismatched ties and cummerbunds. They nodded.
“Um…” Bendrick said into the microphone. It squealed with feedback, and he paused to let it subside. “We’re The Middle Rages.”
“I know that already,” shouted Pendleton. “Just get on with it.”
Cale tapped his drumsticks in time, and Bendrick tapped his foot along with it. The drums started their rhythm, and Jillan joined in with her bass riff. Bendrick nodded his head with the beat, feeling the tension rising in his body as he prepared to join in. Finally he blasted a single power cord through the auditorium, causing Pendleton to recoil visibly in her seat. He smiled as he continued on to the lightning-fast shredding. The bass thumped in his chest, and it felt as though the rhythm of the song was taking over his heartbeat. Finally he leaned forward into the microphone, his lips brushing the head as he belted out the lyrics.
Do you remember where we’re from?
Do you remember where we’re going?
If we could touch the stars outside,
Do you think they would keep on glowing?
For two hundred years,
We’ve lived with our fears,
And our children will,
For two hundred still!
They kept going through the chorus and the verses, building the tempo to a fever pitch. With one last scream, they all struck a final note, and the sound died down to just the faint electric whine of the amps.
“Let me guess,” Pendleton said, “you wrote that yourself?”
“Yes,” Bendrick replied. “We have our own material, and we also cover a lot of the classics-”
“I think we’re going to have to pass on this,” Pendleton said, rubbing her temples. “Better luck next time.”
“With all due respect Commissioner,” Bendrick barked, surprising himself. He glanced at Cale and Jillan, who watched him with wide eyes. “With all due respect,” he repeated demurely, “we’re flying by a star. It’s a gigantic mass of burning, fusing gas, swelled with the energy that powers the universe itself. You can’t do justice to that with a… a… minuet. That kind of a spectacle demands music with power. It demands music that rocks!”
His voice echoed in the cavernous auditorium, and Pendleton stared back at him, unperturbed. “Right,” she said. “Can you please clear the stage? I need to see another act quick, to get the bad taste out of my mouth.”
Bendrick tore the plug from his guitar and threw it down on the stage. “This vents!” he cried. The microphone was already turned off, and his voice felt weak in the open space. “How can she do that to us?”
“Get over it,” Jillan said. “Life goes on.”
“Yeah, it goes on and on and on forever. Some life.”
“I have to say though,” Cale said, “the last few months were fun. I’m almost sad to see it over with. Almost.”
“Who said anything about it being over?” Bendrick asked.
“You did,” Jillan replied. “You said that if we didn’t make it in the audition, the band was done for.”
“No, no, no,” Bendrick said with a smile as he hauled one of the amps backstage. “I said that the band would be over if we didn’t play at the gala. That’s still a month away, and I have a plan.”
“OK,” Jillan said, “what’s this big plan?”
Bendrick held up a finger to quiet her, then fastened his parents’ full-size mobile to hang from the wall. With a tap of his finger, the blank screen sprang into digital luminescence, casting a diffuse white glow over the room as it displayed a wiring diagram. He flourished his arms in a gesture of enthusiasm that wasn’t reciprocated.
“Ta-da! Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“It’s about two grade levels above what I have to take, that’s what,” said Cale.
Jillan peered more closely at it, tracing the lines with her fingers. “Those are A/V feeds…” she mumbled. “This is the wiring for the communication terminals. What’s this for?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Bendrick asked. “With a little creative rearranging, we can get into the system and broadcast from here. So what if they won’t let us play at the gala? We’ve got our own stage!”
He picked up a screwdriver from between the wrinkles of the covers on his bed, spinning it into the air and catching it again. Humming to himself, he took it to the screws on the video panel in the wall, extracting them slowly, one by one. When all the screws were safely in his pocket, he slid the screwdriver in the crack between the panel and the brushed metal surface of the wall, and with a little leverage, popped the panel out of place, trailing a rainbow of wires behind it that were tied off into bundles as they snaked into the wall.
“How’s this for an engineering exam, right?” he asked with a smile as Jillan looked on, biting her nails. He set down the screwdriver and picked up a pair of wire cutters, brushing the hair from his eyes and waving it enticingly in front of Jillan.
“I don’t feel right about this,” she said. “We could get in a lot of trouble.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?” Bendrick asked, consulting the diagram and carefully clipping one of the wires.
“We could get thrown in prison for life, Benny. Tampering with the ship’s systems is treason.”
“Essential systems. Tampering with essential systems is treason. That’s like the engines and life support and stuff. The communication system isn’t considered essential; I looked it up.”
“OK,” said Cale, “but they could still put us in prison for years and years.”
“So what? We’re already stuck in this box, and they’re going to stick us in a slightly smaller box? Who cares?”
“I’m sure the captain will care. And all the arbitrators.”
“The captain can go vent himself!” Bendrick yelled. The others stared slack-jawed at his outburst. “We were born on this ship with our whole lives planned out for us. Go to school, go to work, get old and die. We’re stuck in the middle of this mission that a bunch of dead people signed up for, and that a bunch of people that haven’t been born yet will finish. That doesn’t make you want to scream at the stars, and break out all the windows, and take a stand? I don’t want to be a footnote in the history books because of whose ancestor I am. I want my life to be something other than filler. Are you with me or not?”
Jillan looked into his eyes for a few excruciating moments. Then she reached into her backpack and pulled out her electronics kit, throwing it on the bed with a defiant smile. Cale nodded solemnly. “Let’s do this.”
Wispy strains of a subdued classical melody floated above the din of a murmuring crowd in the observation deck, as well-dressed high society figures mingled and snacked on hors d’oeuvres. All the movers and shakers aboard the ship were on the main deck, which stretched all the way to the large windows, while the rest of the teeming masses watched from the balconies of the two decks above. In the viewing window burned Midway Star; Bendrick couldn’t remember the proper scientific name.
It was a decently large star, a bit to the upper left of Sol on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, blazing pale yellow in the distance. They would still be several astronomical units away, even at their closest approach, so it was just barely large enough to have a noticeable diameter from where they sat. But compared to the scenery they usually had, it was a marvel. The rest of the stars surrounding it sparkled in the sky, most of them in exactly the same place for as long as Bendrick could remember. The black expanse behind them sat hungrily across the expansive window.
Bendrick tore his gaze away from it to scan the crowd for his parents. They were nowhere to be seen at this point, and he took the opportunity to slip through the teeming masses back to the elevator. The steel doors closed around him, cutting off the noise of the party, and he tapped his foot impatiently as it worked its way toward the living quarters. Finally the door opened with a ding, and he stepped out into the corridor.
All of the hallways, the same hallways he had walked his entire life, seemed to sparkle with possibility now. The well-worn spots on the door buttons, the children’s toys that littered the doorsteps, they all seemed bearable, at least for a little while. The door to his parents’ quarters whispered open on its bearings, revealing Cale and Jillan in the living room adjusting their instruments. The furniture was all pressed to the walls, and a camera was set up on a tripod in front of them, with spliced wires running into the gaping hole in the wall. Bendrick grabbed his tattered tuxedo jacket from the coat rack and slipped on the rest of his outfit.
“I was getting worried,” Jillan said. “What took you so long?”
“Sorry,” he replied, setting his bow tie askew. “My parents kept introducing me to people. I couldn’t get away.”
Cale spoke up. “You guys realize that we’re going to miss the closest part of the fly-by? We’re not going to come this close again in our lifetimes.”
“There will be videos of the fly-by,” Bendrick said, strapping on his guitar and brushing the hair from his eyes. “Besides, everybody’s seen plenty of stars. We’re going to show them something they’ve never seen before.”
“Everyone ready then?” asked Jillan.
“Alright,” Bendrick said. “Let’s give ’em a show.”
He picked up his mobile and pressed a button to turn on the camera and patch it through the ships public address system. Outside, he could hear the squeal of feedback, and on the video screen crowds of people in formal wear looked up at the speakers in the ceiling.
“Hello, everyone. We interrupt your regularly scheduled entertainment for a special message.” On the video, the captain and other uniformed crew members scurried off to investigate the hijacked system. The other guests looked around at each other, confused. “Everybody better hold on to something, because this ship is about to start rocking.”
Cale raised his arms straight over his head, crossing his drumsticks in the air. “We are The Middle Rages! One! Two! Three!”
About the Author
Joseph L. Kellogg is an environmental chemist by day and SF writer by night. He has been published in venues such as Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and has work upcoming in Space and Time magazine and Lakeside Circus. He lives in Northeast Tennessee with his wife, and absolutely, positively no cats. You can find him on Twitter.
About the Narrator
John is an infectious diseases physician in Baltimore who splits his time between treating horrors such as syphilis, and molding the next generation of doctors, while repeatedly washing his hands in between. When not herding his five cats or going fanboy over the space endeavors of his wife Moon Ranger Laura, John infectious various podcast and radio projects with his voice. He is the Chief Medical Officer and Bad Doctor in Residence at his personal blog, where he consults and ruminates over all manner of things at Saint Nickanuck.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.