The Melodic Travels of a Man Selling Lives by Dennish Mombauer
Marcus was a smiler and had been since adulthood, since he found his first job and acquired smiling as a tool. He smiled when he was happy and also when he was sad—he smiled when he made people laugh and when he made them cry. Every day at work, he changed people’s lives with a smile: when he sold them new costumes to slip into, consisting not of seams and fabric, but of intangible concepts, of personal histories, routines and patterns.
“Do you want to be a craftsman whose hands love the wood,” he would suggest to a customer, moving along shelves of bottled holograms, “or maybe an educator to whom children look up to? Are you looking for a slight adjustment or for radical change? We can offer you all you ever dreamt of, the happiness you thought you couldn’t buy: a new path to take, the cocoon from which you will be born anew.”
Marcus smiled when Paligenesis Inc., his employer, began to decline, operated in the red, and finally went bankrupt. He watched his own life collapse around him even while he offered new lives to others; then, he collected his last paycheck, smiled, and sold his belongings. With the money, he bought a one-way ticket to another world—any other world—and never stopped to look back.
“All passengers for interstellar flight 781, please check in at gate 19.” The artificial voice reverberated through the spaceport, high in orbit above Earth, and Marcus made his way through the security checkpoints. Giant display panels listed hundreds of flights, all of them to destinations Marcus had never felt a reason to visit. His own ticket said “Farsight,” and after he had passed all inspections, he crammed himself inside one of the bigger commercial spaceships.
“Welcome aboard flight 781 to Farsight. Please be reminded that we will break the light barrier and travel through foldspace for five hours. After we have cleared lunar orbit, no electronic devices, cybernetic enhancements or drugs may be active. Our crew will now demonstrate safety and emergency procedures to you—please pay attention.”
Marcus watched with concentration, not because he cared, but because his mind had nothing to drift off to. It was a curious feeling, as if he were leaving something behind that he had never possessed in the first place. He flashed a smile, which had always come naturally to him, and received a slightly irritated look from his seatmate.
“Our flight will now undock from Earth spaceport and begin acceleration toward the outer solar system.” The grey, washed-out plastic of the seat shell began to envelop Marcus and fill up with body-warm goo.
“Ten minutes until we break the light barrier…five minutes…one minute and counting…30 seconds…10 seconds…”
Marcus closed his eyes at the ten-second mark and immediately opened them again when he heard something unexpected: a faint, eerie melody, like the sound of an unearthly music box. He couldn’t locate its source—certainly not the ship’s speaker system, and no one else showed a reaction to it—but as weak and distant as it seemed, it was undeniably there.
Another note, a turn in the rhythm—and then, just as Marcus thought he might recognize it—the ship broke into
Farsight was, at best, a fool’s paradise. Why it had been colonized, Marcus couldn’t fathom: the greenish-yellow, chlorine-rich atmosphere made it look like a low-budget hell, with highly acidic oceans and almost no indigenous lifeforms. Toxic fog hung low over a landscape of jagged rocks, and the domed cities were connected only through a spiderweb of glass tunnels.
When the shuttle touched down in one of the central urban hubs, Marcus could smell something like wet plastic and insecticide in the air, a stench that easily penetrated the protective layers shielding the city.
He stepped on the street, smiled habitually at passersby and tried to find something—or someone—to hold on to. His money was all but used up, he had no place to sleep, no work and no connections. He closed his eyes to listen to the ghostly tune in his memory, already too faded to recollect completely, and knew that he wanted one thing and one thing only: to hear it to the end.
He had no idea where it had come from and why only he had heard it, and to find out, he would need funds. The man at the bank looked doubtful when Marcus entered, but Marcus’ clothes were businesslike enough, and his face radiated confidence when he asked for a loan.
“What guarantees can you offer? What can you do?”
“I used to sell lives to people.”
“What kind of trade is that?”
“I worked for Paligenesis Inc., the biggest firm in the business. We gave new lives to people who had enough of their old ones…you know, men and women wondering what could have been, what still could be, what never would’ve been possible for them.” Marcus smiled at the bank clerk, and a recollection of the melody passed through his mind.
“Is this marketing speak for publicity service or something?”
“It’s much more than that: it is rebirth. So many people want new lives, second chances, fresh starts; and I can make all those things possible. People want to reinvent themselves, but they need someone to help them—someone like me.”
Customers were few at first, but Marcus’ reputation soon began to grow. He established contacts for all the things he needed: realtors, movers, accountants, cosmetic surgeons, stylists, speech and movement trainers, and also for the shadier aspects, money launderers and ID forgers, people to close the curtains after the play had been staged.
His early clients were desperate: criminals who needed to disappear, husbands and wives stuck in loveless marriages, high-powered businessmen wanting to escape the corporate treadmill. Then, after Marcus had helped all of them, there came the super-rich thrill-seekers, who had seen everything and needed new excitement; the merely wealthy who wanted to imitate the super-rich; and at last, ordinary people who were not particularly unhappy, but still wanted to try anew, maybe hoping to become wealthy or super-rich in the process, maybe searching for a life of adventure, maybe just for a slightly greater satisfaction.
The smell of Farsight, that inescapable odor that was strongest after the acidic rainstorms, never left Marcus, but he buried it under work and constant smiles. His business grew larger, first with a few assistants, then with branch offices in all the major domed cities.
After a few years, everyone who wanted a new life could start to get one within a few hours of glass tube transportation, and Marcus’ bank accounts swelled. Still, when he paused to look in the mirror, he felt something missing, an emptiness beneath his smile that he couldn’t fill.
Sometimes, he informed himself about the developments back on Earth, where apparently a surge of strange madness had been spreading for a while. It had befallen a large number of victims and compelled them to attack travelers arriving from the spaceport, all the while chanting a sing-song of gibberish…which sounded like music to some.
Marcus had poured himself into the job and provided other people with the things they wanted most, but he wasn’t any closer to hearing the music again, to learning about its origin. He had traveled Farsight through the glass tunnels, inside one of the giant cruise centipedes, with hoverships, atmospheric shuttles and even dragonfly copters, but there had never been a moment like on his journey here, just before the entry into foldspace.
He had experienced great success on this world, but he longed to hear the music again, a longing that had grown more painful with every passing year. Maybe the melody had marked the end of his first life and the beginning of his second, just like one of the artificial rites of passage he invented for his customers—or maybe it had just been coincidence, a one-time malfunction of his brain that would never repeat again.
When the opportunity presented itself, Marcus was ready: powerful people had heard of his flourishing company from across the gulf of space, and they wanted his services to be performed for them. Despite his own drive to travel to their world, Marcus spent the next months negotiating with their emissaries and sorting his affairs on Farsight—and only then, after he had ensured his business would continue to run, Marcus booked a flight to Iscathea.
The spaceport seemed smaller than it had been on his arrival, and Marcus gave the security personnel a broad and confident smile. He boarded the flight, a smaller, more luxurious interstellar craft, and relaxed into the seat. The noise of the engines, the chatter of the other passengers and the safety instructions washed over him, like the acidic waves of Farsight’s oceans washed over its black reefs—but when the ship left orbit and accelerated, Marcus’ focus shifted.
Farsight glowed in the darkness behind him, a spectacular sight even miniaturized in the seat’s monitor. The countdown began, the shell enveloped Marcus—and all of a sudden, softly and without warning, he heard the music again, the exact same melody, in the exact same moment before the entry into foldspace.
There were no shuttles or ferries this time: the immense ports of Iscathea were connected to the surface through incredibly smooth-moving elevators, powered by iridescent arrays of solar satellites that unfolded like synthetic flowers.
Where Farsight’s environment had been rough and untamed, Iscathea’s was almost completely artificial: sprawling arcologies towered up around the space elevators, and large agricultural areas stretched between them, intensely worked by specialized machinery and underground irrigation systems.
This world was ancient and powerful, seat to multistellar corporations and aristocratic families: from its springs, money and technology welled up, refined goods and highly-trained specialists. Marcus was greeted at the elevator by servants and armed guards, then brought to an enormous estate that floated in the center of a man-made caldera.
“Welcome to Iscathea. I trust your journey has been without disturbance?” The woman was one of the powerful people that had summoned Marcus here, and she reached out to him with a gloved hand.
His smile had gotten bigger, so big that it made his jaw hurt, but he couldn’t stop it, not after all the years developing the habit. The melody had given him fresh energy, a new drive, and when he replayed it in his head, no matter how long he had been up, all fatigue left him.
Neither the woman nor her associates were interested in merely vanishing—it was easy enough to get lost in the underbelly of their planet—and they didn’t share the mundane fantasies of Farsight’s elites. What they wanted was more than being someplace else or with another person, more than dreams of becoming adventurers, daredevils or spies. They truly wanted to get new lives, right down to the details: they wanted different hobbies, different habits, a different personality.
If someone had been a coffee man, he didn’t want to be a coffee man again, maybe a bugjuice man or someone who only drank liquid dust. If they had been well-read, they wanted to be uncultivated. If they had been into old Earth philosophy or magnetic plate arrangements, they wanted to be into Koskavian art or optic lens technology. They wanted new friends, new dreams, new fears and new memories—they wanted reincarnation in the fullest, most complete sense.
As Marcus soon discovered, his smile so big that it might have frightened lesser people than his new clients, Iscathea provided him with the perfect tools to meet these requirements. The methods available here were infinitely more refined than on Farsight or even Earth: there was pheromonic conditioning, somatom indoctrination, cellular hypertrophy, metamorphic procedures, chrysalis rejuvenation, subconscious behavioral planting, SVTX, BODT, LAB, a list that went on and on and steadily grew larger.
Everything was already in place to give those people new lives, it just had to be put together by someone with a smile and confidence. There were many scientists and service companies, but none of them in Marcus’ field, none who sold lives.
On some nights, he heard the music again, very distinctly and clearly, sometimes even longer than in the spaceship—but the additional notes were never right, always a fabrication. His subconscious tried to complete the melody with fragments of other songs, but the results never seemed to fit and never got Marcus anywhere.
As rich as he was now, he couldn’t pay anyone to solve the riddle of his melody: not musicians or composers, not spaceflight engineers or pilots, not neurologists, psychologists, philosophers or monks. They all had their theories, of course, but not one of them made sense to Marcus.
The news covered a story about a cult mind-controlling its members with hypnotic music, and it was speculated that it had come from Earth, the ancient cradle of mankind—but all of Marcus’ research into this proved to be fruitless, just as his wealth, his power, and all the experts hadn’t brought him any closer to the melody.
From time to time, Marcus traveled back to Farsight on business trips, but neither on the flight there nor the flight back did the music manifest, not a single note. Maybe it was because he had visited both worlds before, and the music only played the first time; maybe it was because there was no turning point in his life, no end and no beginning.
Eventually, the market was saturated, and there was no more building up to be done. Marcus’ offices had become well-oiled machines, his employees capable of handling both day-to-day affairs and extraordinary cases.
Marcus sensed that there was nothing left for him to do here. He had established a company on Farsight, and he had expanded it into an empire on Iscathea, but it hadn’t helped him with the one thing he cared about—the only thing that mattered.
Maybe it was time for him to get a new life himself, to start fresh and hope for the best: for the complete music. Once more, Marcus sorted his affairs, picked a destination and boarded a private charter flight. He was waved through at the port, high above Iscathea’s glittering sea of lights, and hardly felt the ergonomically tailored shell embrace him.
This time, his eyes and ears stayed open as the countdown approached ten, approached eight, seven, six—and there it was, playing in his head, one perfect note after another, as eerily familiar as the first time—and just as incomplete.
Duobunia was a planet of endless plains, of grass-covered prairies and savannahs with scattered trees. To get to the surface, Marcus had to fall down in an engineless capsule that burned through the atmosphere and unfolded its parachute just above the ground. There were ways to get up again, of course, but only once a month with archaic rockets, a far cry from Iscathea’s space elevators or the easy shuttle transfers of Farsight or Earth.
Marcus wasn’t sure why he had chosen this world, but he knew that his business had brought him no closer to the melody, that maybe it couldn’t be explored from the outside, only by diving into his own recollection of it. On Duobunia, there was nothing to distract him, no markets, no money, no politics—and Marcus traveled the plains to concentrate on his memories, becoming a hermit, an outsider to society.
He found a house in a ghost town on the shores of a forgotten oasis, and from its windows, he watched the endless grass sway in the wind. His beard grew large enough to almost hide his smile, and when a woman came along, another traveler in search of salvation, she stayed with him.
It was a reluctant relationship in the beginning, but when the woman, under the fluorescent light curtains that lit up the nocturnal sky, first kissed Marcus, he heard the melody again. A few months later, Marcus married her and started a family, delivering a daughter, then a son. Their life developed a routine, but still, he could sense the strange tune when they made love—and for a short while, he was content with these distant reverberations.
The smile on Marcus’ face grew bigger and bigger with every year, with every time the inexplicable melody was played inside the concert hall of his mind. His teeth were pushed to the sides by the slow deformation of his jaw, his ears stuck out further and the skin stretched more and more, first unpleasantly, then painfully.
People began staring at him, and he had to start renewing passports and permits with increasing frequency, because officials wouldn’t believe that he was the man in the picture. For some time, he was hounded by the press and curiosity-seekers, until the novelty wore off; then, finally, his wife issued an ultimatum.
Marcus hired doctors to solve the problem, but as he tried to bring in specialists from off-world, he discovered that his corporate empire had renounced him and terminated most of his accounts. He collected as much information as possible, even watched a few advertisements about how the company was going to revive the legacy of Paligenesis Inc. on Earth, but his board of directors had been thorough, and there was no legal way of getting it back.
The local physicians tried their best, but were unable to contain the monstrous smile while Marcus’ wife increasingly avoided him. There were tears, fights, and ultimately divorce. Marcus drained his last personal account, a little secret he had hidden away—just enough for a rocket into orbit and a flight to the neighboring system. The spaceship was old and decrepit, a former resource freighter modified for passenger transport, with primitive seat shells installed throughout the cargo hold.
Marcus didn’t care, just as he hadn’t cared for the luxury on the flight from Iscathea, because there was only one thing to care about. When the jump into foldspace was close, he heard note after note come back to him, like a childhood friend who had moved away but was still remembered vividly…and if Marcus’ tear ducts hadn’t dried up, he might have wept.
Uspire was a world that had once been Earth-like, with civilization rising, peaking in early space age and collapsing under its own inadequacies. A ring of dead satellites and metal junk drifted around the planet in a steady orbit, and post-nuclear wasteland stretched over most of the landmass beneath.
Marcus was ferried down to one of the budding seeds of re-colonization, Lenov spaceport, and wandered aimlessly through the surrounding settlement. His hair had turned grey and his wrinkled hands showed age marks, but his smile was fresher than it had been on the day he left Earth.
He had felt so tired when he departed Duobunia, but the melody filled him with a new surge of vitality, as if he had just been reborn. All that he built was lost to him, but he could always do it again, even now, even here.
It wasn’t as easy to find customers this time, because most people came to Uspire with their old skins already shed, approaching the onset of new roads; but Marcus had mastered his trade, and he could convince many that they wanted more.
He didn’t care what exactly he offered them, as long as they paid for it—and very slowly, his fledgling business grew. It would never be as big as the corporation he founded on Farsight, let alone his empire on Iscathea, but it was enough to afford basic commodities, and, eventually, everything else sold on this world. Everything, except for the melody…
People shuddered when they looked at Marcus, but in the radiation-poisoned deserts, many had seen worse. Marcus didn’t try to integrate himself into Uspire’s society beyond his professional needs, and his life of solitude afforded him a certain level of peace—until the nightmares started.
Death had always been something that happened to other people, often as an inconvenience to Marcus. Now, images of his own sudden demise haunted him at night, robbing him of the complete melody, of any chance that his innermost wish might be fulfilled.
A traveler from Earth told him the recent news: about political developments, the economy and a man who was celebrated as the greatest musician ever born. He could play any instrument to perfection, it was said, and compose music that moved people beyond belief, that could compel them not just to feel, but to act.
Was this Marcus’ chance for deliverance, his final chance? Maybe this musician could be the key to the melody, maybe he could find a way to complete it…to conjure the missing notes from his mind and play them. It was worth a try; and Marcus had to do something, to journey somewhere else again, to a place where he might find answers.
After the long years he had spent on Farsight, Iscathea and Duobunia, Marcus’ time on Uspire had been comparatively short, but he still left behind a sizeable legacy. After he was gone, his business would continue to sell new lives to people, just as the corporation still sold lives—but he would not be there to see it.
They told him a mutant couldn’t leave this world, that he carried radiation with him, even though their tests wouldn’t confirm it; they told him that a private ship was something unheard of in these parts, that it couldn’t be hired, that it was far too expensive, that no one would fly it for him.
Marcus found a pilot with a ship, paid his price and smuggled himself through the patrols of Lenov spaceport. As they accelerated out of orbit, he had already closed his seat shell and tuned out all external noises, just counting down in his head and listening for the one thing he knew would come: the background
Almost nothing remained of Marcus’ face except for his smile. He could see only to a limited extent over his grotesquely enlarged mouth, his sense of smell was gone, and he had great difficulty in recognizing sounds with his displaced ears.
The people at the spaceport made no attempt at hiding their stares when Marcus and his smile crossed the arrivals hall, and children began crying. There was music in the air, at least: the ghostly tune played over and over in Marcus’ head, sometimes louder, sometimes almost inaudible, as if an invisible artist would play it anew each time, stopping right before the finale.
“Wel…welcome to Earth, mister. Is this…” The shuttle stewardess broke down and wiped tears from her eyes. “Is this your first visit?”
“I was born here,” he wanted to say, but between his missing teeth and the monstrous mouth, all that came out was an animalistic gurgle.
Marcus set foot on the planet for the first time in decades, and as far as he could see, it hadn’t changed. The great musician, it turned out, had died while Marcus traveled through foldspace, assassinated by the sing-songing member of some cult, an artistic fanatic who wanted to protect “the secret harmony.”
Marcus wandered along Earth’s ancient boulevards until he reached a neighborhood familiar to him, a reminiscence of his first life. His former home had been bought by someone else, but with the money left from Uspire, Marcus made an offer the new owner was unable to refuse, anxious to get Marcus out of his sight.
The house looked almost nothing like he remembered: it had been refurnished, lived-in, sold, refurnished again, partially burnt down, rebuilt, sold a second time, modified, and once more sold and refurnished.
Marcus wandered through the corridors, the living room, bedroom and kitchen, but it felt empty and unfulfilling until he reached the bathroom. His face trembled in the mirror before him, just a giant smile with tiny eyes, and the music swelled to a crescendo to underscore the moment.
If he could just hear the final notes to complete the tune…if he could just find out where he knew it from, what it was, why it played in his head… The thing in the mirror seemed to wink at him, even though Marcus hadn’t consciously moved a muscle in his face.
Was this the moment the nightmares had shown him on Uspire? The melody was still with him, but much fainter than before, almost inaudible, like it had been the first time, on his departure from Earth. It trickled into Marcus’ veins, but it was dry, used-up, making him weaker with every moment.
He had excelled at everything he had tried, had built up large businesses from the ground and accumulated material wealth beyond measure—but all his smiling explanations of the new lives he had to offer, all the costumes he himself had slipped into, what had they left him with?
All those years, he had pursued the melody, and whenever he heard it, he had gained fresh energy…but had this energy come from some distant, half-remembered notes? Someone else was standing before him, and even though the mirror was clean and spotless, this someone appeared blurred, a hideous alien creature that had replaced Marcus’ own reflection.
A lot of people on their deathbeds had asked if he could give them a new life, allow them to start over, and there had always been unwarranted hope glimmering in their eyes. Marcus hadn’t been able to prolong their lives, of course, just as he couldn’t prolong or start over his own—and with this thought, faltering into nothingness like the last notes of the haunting music, he stopped breathing.
Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo as a freelance researcher and writer of speculative fiction, textual experiments, and poetry. His research is focused on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as other climate change-related topics. He is co-publisher of a German magazine for experimental fiction, Die Novelle—Magazine for Experimentalism, and has published fiction and non-fiction in various magazines and anthologies. His first English novel, The Fertile Clay, will be published by Nightscape Press in late 2019. Find his work at his website or Twitter.