As you’ll hear in the outro, Jamieson’s inspiration for this story is the episode art for this week, a fair-haired young girl piloting a large mechanical fish. This arresting image was created by the exceptional artist Jasmine Becket-Griffith. You can find her work online here. Please go check it out! It’s well worth your time, and she has our thanks for allowing us to use the piece as this week’s episode art.
Captain Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret vs. The Goblins of Vishnu 6
By Jamieson Ridenhour
Load-in is always a bitch on a gas giant gig, but the moisture off the methane sea on Vamana really played havoc with my drum heads. The city, Upendra, was a big, domed thing with old-school terra-forming and flora-powered atmos that amounted to a human-made jungle in the midst of the rocky moon. We were playing the Municipal Amphitheatre, a screamingly Corporate name that was typically boring and grandiose all at once. That we got booked at all is probably due more to the backwater status of Vishnu 6’s fifth moon than any real thought about whether we’d be a good fit—we were a hell of a lot cheaper than the big CorpMuses who played closer to Earth.
Not that any of this mattered, mind you. A gig’s a gig, and this one was if anything a little bigger than we usually pulled. I’m just saying that for the all the “professionalism” of the local staff and the “modern ease” with which the intra-dome transfer was supposed to run, we might as well have been playing a dive bar in the Pleiades. But we did get the equipment set up, ‘cause you always do, and we did get what could technically be called a sound-check before we were hustled off the stage so the other two bands on the roster could do the same.
I’m telling the story like I’m a veteran, but truth be told that gig was only my third or fourth with Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret, even though the Neverending Tour was a full decade old by that point. This is right after they started using the mechanical fish during “Nearer to Land,” the one Kimmy would pilot out of the wings on invisible filaments when Peter began his guitar solo.
That’s right. Peter Van Conklin was still with the band at this point. The core of the group in those days was Peter Van Conklin on guitar, K’tehx McMahon on bass, and Sammy the Hoover on keyboards, auxiliary percussion, and Organism. The Clone Brothers were on brass, and Belle Swain played double violin and a slew of other strings. Kimmy Thistle danced, sang back-up, drove the fish, and was in charge of all Steampowered Effects and Trickery. And of course, the heart of the group was, as it is still, Captain Cleveland Grackle, singing his heart out while strumming away on his vintage harp-guitar or squeezing the mangalon as he capered and trilled.
So to say I was in elite company was understatement. Having played in a handful of small-time bands in and around New Ireland, I had built up my chops pretty well, but I would never have thought myself worthy of the Cabaret. When they played my hometown in County Centauri, my band Gripe Water had scored the coveted opening slot. That happened to be the day that the Cabaret’s previous drummer was taken down by goblins before the show even started, and Captain Grackle had asked me to sit in, sight unseen. I don’t like to brag, but I owned that gig, and there wasn’t even any discussion after that. I just loaded my stuff into their ship after the show and we took off.
The show began in a fairly mundane manner. The Vamana audience was big and rowdy. Big, as in numerous, but also as in gobsmackingly huge. Gas miners, mostly, with all the biogged biceps you’d expect. I couldn’t see any goblins from where I was standing backstage, but then I could only glimpse a small slice of the crowd through the edge of the scrim, and I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, anyway. One of the opening acts was on, some local group doing covers. The mix was bad, unsurprisingly The Upendra crew working the boards looked half-lit during load-in four hours ago, there was no telling what kind of condition they were in now. The Cabaret always had its own sound guy, a time-jumped earthling named Stewie Jensen. He was every bit as big as the locals, and he didn’t need whatever they smoked or snorted on Vamana to stay mean. But the guy had serious ears.
I heard the Captain talking with Petey V. and sauntered over to join them. Pete was scruffy and paunchy, perpetual four-day salt and pepper beard, the lines on his face a road-map to the history of rock and roll he had seen. You probably know all about Peter Van Conklin—lead guitarist for an elite prog outfit in the 1970s, descent into madness and drugs, partial rehab before settling into an alcoholic holding pattern. I heard he was homeless in London when Cleveland Grackle gave him a new lease on life by time-jumping him two hundred years into the Cabaret.
“…under conditions like these, I wouldn’t bet on it,” Pete was saying. “You can’t count on things running that smoothly, Cleveland.”
“You are always the gloom,” said the Captain. “This is a glorious stage for a glorious show. The reports, I think, were off by a light-year.” Both men looked at me as I walked up.
“Ah! Young Dunnigan! How fares the crowd?” Captain Grackle clapped me on the back.
“It’s filling up,” I said. “Miners, mainly. Some women.”
“Nothing besides men and women?”
“Nothing I could see. A few extra-Corps guys, the ones with the blue skin.”
The Captain made a “see, I told you” face at Pete.
“That doesn’t mean anything, Cleveland,” said the older man. “Tommy, do you even know what a goblin looks like?”
“Of course,” I said.
Peter did a little “pfft” of air. “You’re lying.”
“Doesn’t matter if he is,” said the Captain. “You know as well as I do, Petey my friend. Can’t miss a goblin when you see it, whether you’ve ever seen one before or not.”
“What…what do they look like?” I asked. I had wanted to know ever since Sammy the Hoover had told me about the Cabaret’s unofficial commission, but I had been sort of afraid to ask. This was the first time the conversation had moved directly there.
“They look like Hell’s younger brother,” said Peter.
“That don’t mean anything at all,” I said.
“What the good Mr. Van Conklin means,” said Captain Grackle, “is you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em. They’re all different, and they’re all bad.”
“And they’re here?”
“I haven’t smelled any.”
“The information felt pretty solid,” said Peter. “Our Captain is feeling optimistic.”
“Not optimistic—disappointed,” said the Captain. “I’d prefer to find ‘em and dispatch ‘em as quick as we can. It just feels like a clear venue.”
I must have looked disappointed, because he added as he walked away, “Keep your eyes open, Tommy. You’ll get to see one yet—and closer than you’d like, I’d bet my boots.”
I got antsier the closer time came to our set. I could see Kimmy putting the finishing touches on the S.E.T. pieces, her elfin face set in concentration as she worked the steamdrill and the wrenches. Fifteen minutes before we were due to begin, I was standing in the tiny hallway outside the greenroom with K’tehx, running through the opening of “Bramblecakes” in my head.
K’tehx McMahon is a hell of a bass player, and a really nice guy. If you can handle the strange name (it’s pronounced “mac-man”) and the horn-rimmed goggles, you’ve found a guy as loyal and stalwart as they come. The third arm allows him to do some truly amazing things with his bass, giving us the most impressive low end in the galaxy. K’tehx was smoking a long, thin carcino with one hand and flipping through a Girls of the Corporation mag with the other two, slender fingers sliding across the screen, when Belle Swain came down the hallway from the outside door.
Belle was dead, but that didn’t stop her from being about the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I don’t know what all she had in her genes, but surely the wild black hair and pale eyes said Coronadic gypsy. I got tongue-tied whenever she was around, which I hoped made me seem surly and mysterious instead of a stuttering schoolboy. I began tapping my sticks against my legs as she glided past. She was wearing a loose cottony shirt over tight denim pants. Her legs ended mid-thigh, but I could imagine they looked good all the way down.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she said. She disappeared into the green room and emerged a moment later with her violin, holding it by the upper of its two necks. “Are you ready to tear it up?”
“Ready as I’ll get,” said K’tehx while I mumbled some inane thing.
“It’s a big crowd,” she said, and began to float away.
“The Captain says there aren’t any goblins here,” I managed to blurt out, and was rewarded by the full weight of those eyes.
Belle twisted her mouth. “Oh, the place is swarming with goblins. We’ll see serious action tonight.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“No,” she said, smiling fully now. “I don’t need to. Trust me. It’s goblin city out there.” She poked me in the chest with her bow. I could feel the cold coming off her. “You be careful, Tom. Best to just watch and learn your first time.”
K’tehx and I watched her drift down the hallway towards the stage, where the band was starting to assemble. “Is she right, K’tehx? Are we in for an Encounter?” I asked, using the official Corporation phrasing.
“Aw, hell, I don’t know,” said the bassist. “I just play the gig, you know? If there’s goblins, you know how we do.” He didn’t look up from the Miss Mars spread he was perusing.
“Almost time,” I said.
He thumbed the mag off. “Suppose so. We’d better get the Clone Brothers out of the box.”
The second band was filing off stage by now, accompanied by the cheers of the increasingly raucous crowd. I had never heard of these guys, but Kimmy said they were some mildly famous old-timers doing a reunion tour. They were pretty good—solid groove, good look—but we were the Cabaret. The crowd had an inkling of what was coming, was even now beginning to chant: “Grack-le! Grack-le! Grack-le!” The chant had almost certainly been started by the Cabaret Cadets, the rag-tag collection of groupies and hangers-on who followed us from planet to planet, but once the chant got started it spread across the audience like influenza. By the time the roadies had changed over the equipment, the noise from the crowd was deafening. Sammy was feeding the Organism the small rodent algae that made it musical, Peter and K’tehx were checking their tuning one last time against Belle’s violin, the Clone Brothers were finally awake and clutching their horns in the eerie silence that marked them as old-model embryots.
We walked on the stage in black-out, and I took my place behind the kit. The Captain crowed into the darkness, “Upendra Municipal Auditorium! Prepare for boarding!” I clicked off four on the high-hat, Kimmy detonated the first starburst, and the lights blazed out as we thundered into “Phrenology.”
Playing with the Cabaret was unlike any other experience I’d had. Some people—critics, or younger punters who like to slag the older groups just because they’re not following the latest trend—say that Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret was no real band. They would say that the S.E.T. pieces were all that we had going for us, that it was all spectacle and show. And I’ll admit that Kimmy’s art certainly made us stand out visually. A Cabaret show could include a boxing match between eight foot tall automata, or a Shakespearean tragedy performed by brass marionettes. We used to surprise audiences during the old Titus Groan tune “Into the Gloaming” by releasing a cloud of mechanical fairies into the crowd. And that doesn’t even cover the theatricality of our own performance—Kimmy gyrating while Belle floated above the drum risers, Pete playing the opening guitar riff of “Terra Spiritus” while standing on the Captain’s shoulders. And the Captain himself: running, tumbling, flourishing instruments, lewdly squatting at the edge of the stage before leaping away over the keyboard stand.
But those critics could never have actually seen us play. The musicianship on that stage steamrolled any lesser group who dared challenge us. Peter Van Conklin alone was formidable enough to warrant our reputation, but when you factored in Belle and Sammy, K’tehx’s muscular basslines, and the Captain’s voice and songwriting, you had a true “force to be reckoned with,” as the Daily Earth had called us on one occasion. We could play anything—any style, any tempo, from the simplest three-chord anthem to the most complex faux-classical Andorrian sex jingle. The Captain had a series of hand signals he would use to indicate styles: twirling a finger by his head meant reggae, a fist-pump with thrusting hips announced a twenty-first century love ballad. He would throw these gestures out randomly during the show, and we’d adjust whatever song we were in the middle of accordingly. We never got bored, and we sometimes missed a step, but we never sucked. Of course, all that was complicated by the goblins.
We had just finished “Into the Gloaming” (most of the crowd not even hip to the fact that Peter had played on the original recording over two hundred years ago), and Kimmy Thistle was collecting the mechanical fairies as they flew back to their box on the edge of the stage. I had started the steady bass drum beat that heralded Belle’s “Ghost Girl.” Belle Swain hung in the spotlight, drawing minor key moans from her double-violin. The music had unkilled her for over half an hour at this point, and she was as solid as she could get, her hands pinking on the strings and her legs visible almost to the ankle. We were into the second verse when I saw the Captain lean over and clutch his belly, wrinkling his nose and looking into the crowd. Without stopping the music, he head-motioned to Kimmy, who was watching him. She gave a quick nod and worked the little S.E.T. control panel the hung next to her mic stand. Big lights sprang to life on either side of the stage, and Kimmy used her levers to swivel them out onto the crowd, illuminating the gloom of the stalls like a sun.
The place was lousy with goblins. They were climbing over the seats, jumping between audience members, moshing among and between and beneath the crowd. Grey ropy arms and great flat heads. Feet with three toes, or eight toes, or no toes. Skin scaly and smooth, flaky dry and swamp slimy. Rattlesnake eyes and curved clutching hands. When the lights hit them, they turned as one and swarmed toward the stage.
Three weeks before, when I had just begun rehearsals with the Cabaret, Sammy the Hoover had pulled me to the side one afternoon while the Captain was overseeing the Clone Brothers’ recalibration. Sammy was smoking one of those fat Delrinican fobies, his eyebrows prehensile in the smoke. He had told me that aside from playing music, the band had other duties to perform. “We don’t just rock the face off the galaxy,” he had said. “We also kill all the goblins the ‘verse sends.” I bet you thought Goblin Hunter was just a concept album. The Captain apparently got an unofficial subsidy for cleansing goblins from the places we played. I was a little taken aback, not because it confirmed the rumors—goblins were supposedly just a snopes to scare children and naïve college girls off-planet for the first time—but because it sounded like the Captain was working for the Corporation. Sammy corrected that view quickly. “Captain Grackle don’t work for no stinking Corporation,” he had said. “This is through a private firm, somebody in the Sol system. I don’t know the deets. I just know that the nasty buggers are out there, and we take ‘em out.” I had since gleaned that part of the subsidy was the fact that the Cabaret usually flew under the radar of the Priestial Arbiters. Which is how we got away with some of the things we did, in both content and execution. Rarely did the Cabaret pay Homage, and we were never required to Worship.
The foul things were near the lip of the stage now. “Ghost Girl” had slid to its conclusion, and Belle had floated back down to where Sammy was stroking the Organism into the next song, “Nearer to Land.” As you know, it’s a fast tune, driving and raucous and frenetic. This was going to be tough. My first goblin raid and it was during a long up-tempo number. There was only one rule to the goblin skirmishes, I’d been told by the Captain. The gig goes on.
The first one climbed the barrier and leapt onto the stage, squatting horribly next to the monitors. Now that I could get a good look at them, it was obvious why the average dude ignored them. No way it was a perception shield, this was good old cognitive disconnect. Your basic brain doesn’t want to accept something like a goblin, so it makes it not there. That’s why the buggers were such a rutting nuisance. It’s also why they charge us when we turn the orclights on them—they hate being noticed. The one on stage tensed up to launch itself at the Captain, four feet away. The Captain was singing, focused on the microphone, and therefore not well-prepared to meet the attack.
K’tehx took it out, pulling a metal shiv from his boot and stabbing the thing with his third arm while still pumping out his furious slap-fest of a bassline. The goblin shuddered and burst, sliming the stage with a viscous green goop.
Two more made it up together, bounding over the monitors and charging right toward me. The kit was between me and the things, but it would offer little shelter once they got to me. They swung across the stage on ape-like arms, all tooth and bulge. I was trying to figure out how to defend myself without dropping the relentless rhythm of the song when Peter Van Conklin came to my rescue. You know the part where “Nearer to Land” goes into that sweet organ break? When we hit that, Pete was able to quit playing for eight bars. He pulled the strap over his head and swung his axe by the neck in one smooth motion, baseballing the front goblin back into the second one with a popping concussion that burst them both. He followed through the swing and used the momentum to slip the strap back over his head and hit the first chord of the middle eight on the downstroke. It was the most badass thing I’d ever seen a guitarist do, and that’s including the Finals of the Vai Olympics on Satrianus 12.
They kept coming, and the Cabaret kept kicking their collective ass. Belle Swain used the sharpened end of her bow to skewer them as they clambered onto the platform, and the Captain had an assortment of weapons stuck through his bandolier; since he was unencumbered by a guitar for this tune, he could dispatch missiles or fire an audible while singing if he saw them coming. Like Belle had told me, I watched and learned, mainly because I was trapped behind the kit. I was able to get one: a goblin climbed up onto the floor tom, clacking its teeth at me and reaching for my throat. I improvised a funky fill on the toms, battering the thing to mucus with my sticks.
Even with the full-on rock and roll carnage that the Cabaret was doling out, the goblins were still coming in numbers. There were a couple of dozen left, and they were moving in larger groups. We were gonna have to stop the song, or else we were gonna be over-run. I saw it coming, a wave of warty flesh and grasping claws. I looked at K’thex, wondering what to do. And then Kimmy Thistle piloted the big clockwork fish on stage.
Her timing was dictated by the song, of course; the fish was scheduled to swim in the air over the Clone Brothers as “Nearer to Land” swelled in to the final vamp under the long outro guitar/violin duet. As the Organism’s howls reached a crescendo, Kimmy levered and pulleyed the thing into the midst of the goblin horde, steam jets screaming. The crowd, still under the impression that we were simply putting on an unusually athletic performance, was going absolutely compost. Her brow creased as if considering a mildly difficult math problem, Kimmy worked the control panel in the fish’s cockpit, opening the great brass jaws to reveal rows of gleaming metal teeth, sharp and glinting in the spotlights.
A steam-driven feeding frenzy. Titanium teeth splitting through goblin flesh, the great sweeping tail battering the foul things as they attempted to assault her from behind. The music crashing to finale, Peter and Belle transcendent over the cacophony. The final goblin fell to Kimmy Thistle’s great gear fish just as we hit the last, big chord. We held it, swelling the ending into ecstasy. Cheers of joy from the crowd as we bowed and breathed.
And then, in the midst of the relief and release, I saw a goblin. A small, sharp thing that had escaped both the fish and our notice. It was crouching behind Kimmy as she climbed down from the fish just at the edge of the wings stage left. The thing spread its claws and tensed to leap. No one saw it but me.
I didn’t think. I yanked the sixteen-inch crash cymbal from its stand in front of me, and frisbeed it across the stage towards Kimmy and the goblin. It was a high-end hand-made instrument from Istanbul 4, a clear and beautiful thing. The leading edge caught the goblin as it leaped, neatly beheading the little monster before clanging harmlessly off the side of the big brass fish. Kimmy looked back, saw the bifurcated beastie, and gave me a smirk and a thumbs-up.
Is it ironic that the next, and final, song of the set was the title track from Goblin Hunter? Who cares? It rocked, and even the sticky blood on the edge of my crash didn’t dull the bright falling menace of our performance. After the last notes faded we sprinted for the wings while the crowd lost its collective mind.
There was much whooping and hollering behind the tab curtains. Captain Grackle was slapping backs like a politician, and even Peter Van Conklin had a grim little smile lodged in his stubble. There were many handshakes and congratulations to me on my first kill. I got a smile from Belle Swain, which warmed me like a torch, and a surprisingly tight full-on hug from Kimmy Thistle, who jumped her slight frame into the air to hang on me for a full thirty seconds. She smelled like grease and steam. When she dropped back to the floor there was an awkward pause that was broken when the Captain pulled a flare derringer from his waistcoat and fired it into the rafters with a shout.
“That’s showing the bastards what rock and roll is all about,” quoth the Captain.
I looked around at these people. We were sweaty, exhausted, bleeding, and covered with various unholy fluids. Smiling. My band. My tribe.
“What now?” I asked.
Cleveland Grackle surveyed the band and the stage. “Have we got a tally?”
One of the Clone Brothers, I think it was Trombonio, spit a punch card from its neck and held it up like a trophy. It tapped the side of its head, indicating that its headcam had captured visuals of the skirmish for confirmation.
“Just so,” said the Captain. “Then there is only one item left.” He gestured towards the stage, from whence we could hear the chant beginning anew. “Ladies and gentlemen, after you. Encore!”
We hit the stage, embraced by the roar of the crowd.