Cast of Wonders 177: Foggy Planet Breakdown
Hello everyone, sorry we’ve been away for a while. Make sure you listen to the story for that important announcement we mentioned.
Foggy Planet Breakdown
by Peter Wood
Bill Holt rushed into the star ship’s meeting room thirty minutes late and set his banjo down on the metal conference table. “Sorry to keep y’all waiting, “ he panted to the half dozen people. “Earl didn’t show up today.”
Skaggs, the top official from Galactic Mining, took a long slow sip of coffee. “Who’s Earl?”
Bill adjusted a couple of strings. Banjos were temperamental and had to be tuned constantly especially in the constant heat and humidity of this alien world. “Earl Scruggs. Greatest banjo player of all time. Bluegrass legend. Flatt and Scruggs.”
Skaggs responded with a blank stare.
Captain Beth McNeil had been listening. “That’s what Bill named the alien who comes to see him every once in a while.”
“Every day,” Bill said, not looking up from the instrument. “Until today. Doesn’t make any sense.“
“You’re late,” Skaggs snorted.
Bill was weary of the contempt company men like Skaggs shoed him. Even though the U.N. was supposedly running this mission the entire crew knew that Galactic pulled the strings. “I hope y’all didn’t wait for me.”
“Don’t worry. We didn’t,” Skaggs grunted. He turned to the Captain. “Continue. I’m sure the professor will figure out what he missed.”
Beth was the only one present who showed concern about Earl. “I’m sorry you can’t find Earl, Bill. I know he’s a friend of yours.”
Bill pulled out his battered laptop from his backpack to brief the Captain. Fifty light-years from Earth and he still couldn’t escape committee meetings. Listening to Skaggs posturing was worse than the anthropology department meetings at Appalachian State University. “Thanks, Beth. I hope Earl’s okay.”
Skaggs slurped the last of his coffee. “Waste of time, working with aliens.”
“Dr. Holt, can you tell us about your progress with the natives?” Beth asked.
Bill knew Beth was just being polite. The mission’s real point was to assess mineral deposits on the distant planet of Carnegie. He lapsed into the dry language of academia. “The natives are at least as intelligent as us. Carbon dating shows their civilization is half a million years older than ours. Yet, they are pretty much stuck in a hunting and gathering society. And we have a galactic empire with a star drive.”
Skaggs yawned. “We heard all about these cavemen yesterday.”
“They don’t live in caves,” Bill snapped. “Earl picked up English in two weeks. He was learning the banjo.”
Skaggs smirked. “You came all the way out here to teach cavemen country and western?”
Laughter erupted around the table.
“It’s bluegrass,” Bill muttered. He only agreed to come to Carnegie, because it bought him forgiveness of his student loans. Some academics went to prison for defaulting.
“Thank you, Bill.” Beth turned to Skaggs. “So, you think it will take another six or eight weeks to finish preliminary probing of the substrata?”
“Yep. My engineers tell me we can drill several more test shafts. This planet looks promising for satorium, cadmium, gold and a dozen other marketable metals. The company should be very happy.” Skaggs almost salivated. “There should be some nice bonuses for everybody. Especially if Galactic strip mines the planet.” He pointed to Bill. “Well, that is everybody who contributes in some way to resource development.”
“My job is to work with the natives,” Bill said. He studied Skaggs. They were both about the same age, but Skaggs was a high ranking executive with money and clout. Ten years after his Ph.D. Bill was still struggling to survive.
“And I’m sure you’ll get a nice bonus for that,” Skaggs said. “Maybe you can pay off your student loans someday, eh doctor?” He let out a harsh laugh.
“My personnel file is none of your business,” Bill said.
“I didn’t look at your file,” Skaggs said. “Every damned professor I’ve ever met has student loans. Just throwing money down the drain, pal.”
“Mr. Skaggs, I’m running this briefing,” Beth said in a firm voice.
Skaggs chuckled. “Sure, Captain, sure.”
Bill cringed. They had been here half a year, months longer than any previous expedition. Every time he thought they might go home Corporate extended the stay. “Is our departure date definitely in two months then?”
Beth shook her head. “No. Our departure date is contingent on data analysis.”
On what Galactic wanted, Bill thought.
“I should mention, Captain that my engineers have some concerns about some unusual electromagnetic readings. They’ve been persistent for months. Last night they were off the charts and spiked ten thousandfold for a few seconds,” Skaggs said.
“Is there any danger?” Beth asked.
Skaggs shrugged. “I doubt it.” He rose and poured himself another cup of coffee.
Bill walked down the gangway into the knee high grass that surrounded the ship. Monstrous tendrils of what resembled ivy snaked halfway up the massive ship supports. He wondered how long it would take the plants to cover the ship.
He couldn’t see more than twenty or thirty feet ahead of him through the shroud of mist. It was hot like every other day on Carnegie. This place was worse than North Carolina in August. It must be ninety degrees already and the day had barely started. He wiped sweat off his face and sludged towards the village to find Earl.
Bill stepped on the slick mossy trail to Jugtown. He didn’t know the real name of the settlement, if there even was one, because he couldn’t decipher the natives clucking and chirping language. Bill named the village Jugtown after the largest building that housed hundreds of hollowed out gourds. He suspected the building might be some sort of church.
Giant hairy vines slithered from trees higher than the tallest skyscrapers on Earth. He heard thrashing from the jungle that smothered both sides of the path.
A figure gradually came into focus through the fog. An old Carnegian hobbled down the trail. She sang an ancient Earth folk song, one that Bill had played for Earl many times. “My Uncle Mort is sawed off and short. He stands ‘bout four foot two. But he thinks he’s a giant if you give him a pint of that good old mountain dew.” She cackled. “They call it that good old mountain dew. Them that refuse it are few…” She saw Bill and her cat-like ears perked up. She was happy to see him.
“How do you know that song?” Bill asked. The only native who ever seemed interested in learning English was Earl.
The old woman’s eyes opened wide. “Good morning, Bill. You taught me. I am Earl.”
Earl was a young man, little more than a teenager. “Is Earl hurt? Why didn’t he come to the ship?”
The woman clucked her tongue. “You don’t believe me? Fine. I will show you what I once was.”
She winced several times on the trek through the woods. She seemed to be in a great deal of pain.
They came to the village. Jugtown wasn’t much of a settlement by Earth standards. It had a handful of simple communal buildings, constructed of rocks with dried vines for roofs. From what Bill had gathered over the months, the Carnegians had no sense of individual property. They shared everything. There was no family structure that he could detect.
Earl sat by himself near the church. Bill ran up to him and held out the banjo. “Are you okay, bossman?”
Earl just stared.
“He does not understand your words,” a voice behind Bill said.
Bill turned around to face the old woman. “Of course he can. I taught him.”
“You taught me,” the woman corrected. She pointed to Earl. “Someday I may be back in there. Perhaps never.” She touched her chest. “Now I am in here. I may die in here.”
“I don’t understand,” Bill said.
The old woman sat cross-legged on thick moss. She wheezed. “Pardon me, but I am not used to this old skin.”
A strange truth began to dawn on Bill. “Are you saying that your mind has somehow changed bodies?”
The old woman paused to suck in a deep breath. “The storm did it. The storm comes every few moons, or every few years. Once I saw it twice in one day. Who is to say? But, it comes. It always comes.”
“It brings the change. For some it brings youth. For some death. A baby may become an old man. An old woman may be granted a new life. At least until the next storm.”
“I do not know that word. Last night I changed from the form you knew into this ancient body. We all changed. I hope I can survive until the next storm.”
Bill sat down on a rock and plucked out Cripple Creek on the banjo. It was one of Earl’s favorite songs.
The old woman hummed along in a wavering voice while the shell of Earl, the younger body, wandered off.
“Beth, we need to leave immediately,” Bill urged as he and the Captain sat in the conference room.
Beth showed professional concern. “Bill, we’d all love to go home, but the mining tests aren’t conclusive.”
“Carnegie is dangerous.”
Beth leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. “Bill, what are you getting at? I have a seasoned crew here. Nobody sees any problems.”
“It’s about Earl.”
Beth massaged her temples. “You found him?”
“More or less.”
Beth let out a little laugh. “Explain something to me. I thought that anthropologists were supposed to learn about other cultures. So, aren’t you contaminating the natives by teaching them about country and western?’
“Bluegrass,” Bill said.
Beth rolled her eyes. “Fine. Bluegrass. Shouldn’t you be learning about their music?”
“They seem more interested in ours.” He cleared his throat. Beth, you know that electromagnetic disturbance last night?”
“Yes,” she murmured.
“The natives call it a storm. This is going to sound nuts, but the storm affects the natives. It makes their spirits, minds, souls, whatever the hell you want to call them, switch. Earl jumped from his body and is now an old woman.”
“That’s really hard to believe.”
“Earl was the only one who could speak English. Now the old woman is fluent.”
Beth sat up straight. “So, he taught her.”
“I think Earl is telling the truth.”
Beth smiled. “Bill, listen to me. The natives are probably playing a joke on you. Or maybe they’re trying to con you. Maybe they want something.”
“They don’t want anything. I could never figure why their culture hasn’t advanced. Why they don’t have need of any possessions. Now I understand. They don’t even own their own bodies. It would be a nightmare trying to keep track of who owns what. Family units would be moving constantly from house to house, if they had homes. It’s just easier for everybody to own everything.”
“Okay, Bill, maybe they don’t need any possessions. They might just want us to leave.”
The Captain might have a point. If Skaggs had his way, Galactic would lay waste to the planet. “I don’t think that’s Earl’s motive.”
She moved an errant strand of hair out of her eyes. “So why didn’t this storm affect us?”
“Maybe we’re shielded in the ship.”
“Bill, I think you’re being conned. However, I do have concerns about the electromagnetism. I’ll order everybody confined to the ship if the electromagnetism reaches a certain level. But, we’re staying until Galactic Mining has finished their tests.”
Bill leaned back on a couple of stacked pillows on his bed and plucked away at Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Earl Scruggs had written the bluegrass song for a movie years ago. Bill tried to remember the name. It was about Robin Hood bank robbers stealing from crooked banks.
He practiced his picking as much as his banjo stance. The seasoned banjo player didn’t prance about, drawing attention to himself. His fingers worked at lightning speed, like a summer cloudburst. But, the player’s genteel posture remained calm and polite, like a warm morning in North Carolina.
The airlock hissed open. Skaggs stormed inside. “Why in the hell did you get my miners confined to the ship at night? They have work to do.”
Bill put down the banjo. “I wanted to go back to Earth. Confining people to the ship was the Captain’s idea.”
Skaggs sneered. “What a surprise. The big brave professor wants to go home.”
Bill shrugged. “Go complain to the Captain.”
“My problem’s with you. Listen, professor, you better convince the Captain to change her mind or I’ll file a report about you.”
Bill sat up on the edge of the bed. “Report?”
Skaggs smiled. “Yeah, pal. You probably didn’t know it, but Galactic wants me to report on everybody. Troublemakers aren’t allowed back on another Galactic ship.”
“I’m not a troublemaker.”
“Galactic wants these trips to make money. Losing hours of work every day because some fraidy cat thinks we’re in danger from electromagnetism is trouble Galactic doesn’t want.”
“The electromagnetism is dangerous.”
Skaggs rolled his eyes. “The engineers say it isn’t.”
Bill knew it would be a waste of time to reveal what he knew. Skaggs would just ridicule him. Instead he pointed to his laptop. “I write reports too. Maybe I’ll say you’re the problem.”
Skaggs snorted. “You think I really care what a bunch of d**** intellectuals at some college think of me? If I had my way they’d shut those crapholes down.”
Bill didn’t doubt Skaggs had no use for education. “Since you don’t care, I’ll just write it anyway.”
“Yeah, well if I write enough about you, maybe you won’t get any credit for being here at all. That happened a few missions back. Some long-haired college type came back and got arrested for not paying his student loans. Seems he wasn’t taking his research duties on the ship seriously enough.”
“Get out of my room,” Bill said.
Bill sat on a boulder that served as the front stoop for the church of Jugtown and played Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
Old Earl rested beside him and did her best to keep up with the hambone that Bill had taught her. She did not have the energy of her younger self. She slapped her hands against her legs and chest, trying to maintain the beat of the tune, but it wasn’t as good as a few days before.
A young boy stopped in front of Earl and clicked his tongue and made a sound like a long low belch.
Earl clucked back and nodded.
The boy marched into the church and sat cross-legged. He picked up a gourd and blew into it, making a high pitched squeak.
Then with increased speed the boy picked up gourd after gourd, blowing into each one, making a range of sounds. The boy was playing a Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
When Bill switched chords, the boy followed. It was a jam session. And then the boy started to lead, jumping quickly from chord to chord, almost too fast for Bill. The notes were strange, but deep in the music’s roots.
Bill wondered what it would be like to listen to music with elfen ears like the Carnegians. How much fuller and richer it must sound.
Like most banjo pickers, Bill played fast, because the plucky notes faded quickly with little resonance. One had to be replaced by another or there would be a break in the song. The noise of the gourds lingered, creating a rich tapestry of sound.
Finally Bill had to rest. He put the banjo on his lap and wiped sweat off his brow. He laughed. “What a hootenanny!” He ran up to the boy and stuck out his hand. “Nice playing, son.”
The boy stood up and walked away.
“That boy’s got some talent,” Bill said to Earl. “I didn’t know y’all could play.”
Earl smiled. “That boy is the oldest among us.”
“Sweet Jesus,” Bill whispered. “How old are you, Earl.”
Earl picked up the banjo and strummed it gently. “Old enough to know it would not be unjust for me to die in this form. I have lived several lives, far longer than I should.” She crinkled her nose. “A storm is coming.”
Bill looked up at the sky. Today there was not much fog, just blazing sun. He could see no clouds, just brilliant blue. “It looks fine.”
She pointed. “There.”
Bill squinted. He could see the faintest hint of color on the horizon. Tiny pops of red and blue and green shot up into the sky, like sparks from a burning log. The flashes were growing. The storm must be coming closer. Bill pointed to the communal building behind them. “Should we go inside?”
“Return to your ship. Unless you want to switch. You might end up like me.”
Bill grabbed the banjo and ran onto the pathway.
A football field’s length from the ship, Skaggs blocked Bill’s way. He held a laptop. “Thought you might be coming back, you son of a bitch.”
Bill panted. “We need to get on the ship. It’s not safe out here.”
“Yeah, I know all about the electromagnetism. Captain ordered us all on board. Like I give a crap what a Captain has to say.”
The sky was a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors that seemed to push the extremes of the spectrum. Ocean blue. Sapphire. Blood red. “I don’t have time for this.” Bill tried to step around Skaggs.
The Galactic stooge stepped in front of him. “I’m been looking at your report.”
A flash of indigo lightning pierced the jungle. “Give me back my laptop,” Bill demanded.
Skaggs taunted him by holding it over his head. “Can’t say I like what you say about me.”
The sky was a montage of dancing colors. Trees as tall as skyscrapers swayed. “I don’t care what you think,” Bill yelled over the roar of the wind.
“You ain’t gonna ruin my rep, pal.” Skaggs heaved the computer against some rocks. The device cracked. Skaggs grabbed it before Bill could get to it. He smashed it several times.
Bill knew the machine was useless. Without his notes, he couldn’t get student loan forgiveness. “Bastard!”
Skaggs smirked. “Guess you’ll be going to jail, pal.”
Bill wanted to hit Skaggs. Before he could do anything he heard a loud crack of thunder. The sky filled with a blinding tangerine light. Then he was overcome with nausea. He blacked out.
He woke up and saw himself. He must be dead. But he felt queasy and his head ached worse than a hangover after a college drinking binge. Dead people couldn’t feel pain, could they?. God, he hoped not.
He stood up on wobbly legs.
He saw his body move.
Looking down, Bill realized the storm had affected him. He was in Skaggs’s body. Which could only mean Skaggs was in his. “Skaggs, you okay?” Bill called up.
Bill’s old body groaned.
Bill leaned back in the leather chair in Skaggs’s quarters and played The Ballad of Jed Clampett. His fingers still hurt. It would take him a few weeks to build up the calluses that experienced banjo players needed. It would take many months to work off Skaggs’ sizable gut.
The airlock hissed. Beth entered. “I didn’t know you played the banjo.”
Bill grinned in his new body. “I’m pickin’ it up.”
“Isn’t that Bill’s banjo?’
Bill put the instrument down. “”I bought it from him.” When he realized he and Skaggs might never switch back he had arranged for Galactic to give his old body a share of the bonus. Then he had paid off all the student loans with Skaggs’s money.
Beth sighed. “I guess he doesn’t want it anymore. The professor still says he’s you. That you stole his body.”
Bill felt sorry for Skaggs. He didn’t ask to switch bodies, but there was no reasoning with him. Skaggs just threatened Bill every time they spoke. “It’s really sad.”
“I’m recommending that we quarantine this planet,” Beth said. “We just don’t know enough about that electromagnetism. Look how it affected Bill.”
“My report says the same thing,” Bill said. He hoped that would keep Galactic away. He wished he could see Earl again. Maybe in a hundred years the whole planet would be playing bluegrass if Earl kept switching bodies.
“We put Bill back under sedation. He’s dangerous. You know, he told me this crazy story that we were all in danger of switching bodies.”
Bill tightened a string. “Crazy.”
“He was a nice guy.”
“What’s going to happen to him?” Bill asked.
“I don’t know. Psychologists on Earth will check him out.”
“You know, Beth, I’m thinking of retiring. I’m going to go to school. Maybe I’ll get a graduate degree.”
Beth cocked an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that interested you.”
Bill picked up the banjo and plucked a few chords.
“What is that song?” Beth asked. “It sounds familiar.”
“The Ballad of Jed Clampett. It’s about a poor old country boy who becomes rich beyond his dreams after he finds oil on his land.”
“Sounds like a fairy tale,“ Beth said.
Bill laughed. “Yep.” He picked up the banjo and started back up.
About the Author
Peter Wood (author)
Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, NC where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Asimov’s, Bull Spec, and Daily Science Fiction.
About the Narrator
John Hornor Jacobs
John Hornor Jacobs has worked in advertising for the last fifteen years, played in bands, and pursued art in various forms.
He is also, in his copious spare time, an excellent novelist. His first novel, Southern Gods, was published by Night Shade Books and shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award. His young adult series is called The Incarcerado Trilogy. And if you like fantasy, westerns, or even better, fantasy westerns, you owe it to yourself to check out The Incorruptibles and its sequel, Foreign Devils. And if that wasn’t enough, he also has a quartet of horror stories, Fierce As The Grave, available through Amazon