You want me to tell the story from the beginning, right? I’ll tell you as far back as I know.
My name is Calvin Jubal; I usually go by Cal. I’m a freshman at New Gilead University.
This all started on a night last fall, when I went up to Sigma Xi to see my brother Dan. We’re twins, but I’m a year behind in school because I had to repeat a year. Dan’s everything I’m not: handsome, smooth, and loved by everyone. When we were kids, everyone wanted to look at Dan, and I was there too, the “heir and the spare,” as the press called us.
We’ve been famous even before we were born. My Dad is Jordan Jubal, the new Prime Minister of the Rhomia Empire, and the richest man on Cronus.
When we were born, the press immediately dubbed us the Princes, Gold and Silver. He was gold, never a bad day in his life. I was silver because my hair is so blonde it’s white – and I was always worried.
Dan has everything come easily to him. He has an internship at Abattech this summer, a prize spot with the top capital punishment firm. Dan’s a natural successor to my Dad.
He’s majoring in finance and history. His thesis, “Propaganda, Intimidation, and the theater of the Guillotine,” is already in contact with Sharp and Wesson for publication. His team of researchers and writers sends him drafts weekly.
I’m a pianist, and it suits me. I spend most of my day by myself in my practice at Santhorne, the music department at New Gilead, when I’m not in classes. I performed throughout Cuahalan during my adolescence, and coming to college is to be my chance to act normal for awhile before becoming a mega-star pianist, or so my Dad says.
My albums weren’t selling, and my manager couldn’t book any concerts. A child prodigy only sells tickets when they look like a kid and play like a seasoned pro. When I hit my growth spurt and my voice cracked, my career was finished.
What I was left with was a mind built on the premise that intense, consistent work could make something beautiful. And there’s a moment when the music isn’t just the notes on the page, when it takes off, and I’m in the background somewhere, and the written music is gone, and another dimension has opened; emotions, colors, memories unbidden return. I wasn’t a musician, I was a gateway to another realm of being. Every other part of my life is just me trying to act like a regular person.
On the night this all started, I was standing outside Heinrik’s room, chatting with a young vocalist named Angela. I was talking about my composition work, and she was clearly bored. “I want to bring fire back to the people, give them a sense of life and independence, everything they’ve given up in the day to day.” She yawned, nodded.
From behind me, Heinrik shouted: “Who wants margaritas!” Angela started cheering and left me behind, holding my beer.
Next door, I stopped into Rastus’ room. He was playing a video game on the monitor, and Morrigan is sitting next to him on the couch; their games took place side by side on the screen. August, watching and nursing a beer in a chair by the door, nods hello to me. “Hey Augie,” I said, “what are they playing?”
“You don’t know what this is?” He smiled.
“I’m not much of a game player.” I shrugged.
“You’ve got to get out of Santhorne more often. Pretty much everyone on the planet plays this game. It’s called ‘BTK.’”
“Bind-Torture-Kill. You design and play as a serial killer – you get points for depravity/blasphemy, notoriety, and unsettling the conviction of the populace that life is worth living. Bonus points for copycats.”
Rastus didn’t look up, “I play as Willy the Wretch, and my gimmick is that I kill whole families, bottom to top, and send representative body parts back to their parents and other loved ones, until I reach the oldest living member of the family, and leave them alive knowing that everyone they’ve ever loved died in terror.”
Morrigan chimed in, “Jealous Jensen is mine – I like to systematically kill all the lovers of beautiful young women, until no one will even go near them, and they’re desolate and alone. Then I kidnap them and keep them in my torture dungeon.”
August looked at me with his eyebrows raised, watching my reaction, smiling all the more with my dawning horror. “That’s what you guys do for fun?”
“It’s just a game, Cal, nobody’s getting hurt.” Morrigan was shaving a prostitute’s head as she sobbed.
“Yeah, it’s not like we invented it or anything. It’s just to pass the time.” Rastus was setting up his drying rack of skin.
August nudged me. “You know the funny part, Cal? You really didn’t know about this game?”
“I’m behind the times- I spend most of my time playing the piano. You guys know that.” I was getting upset.
“BTK is produced by Garotte Studios, a subdivision of Abattech.”
I cleared my throat. “That means…”
“Your Dad owns Abattech, and so every time someone buys this game, it helps pay for your fancy lifestyle.” The guys started chuckling.
“I’m going to have to think about this.” I turned and headed down the hallway.
“Cal, come back, man! You can have a turn! You’ll love it!” Rastus called behind me.
I walked down the hall and tossed my beer into the huge trash can by the door. I opened the door to the stairs and found Aramisa sitting on the step, crying. Her makeup was running down her face, and she was sobbing.
I sat down next to her on the stairs and put my arm around her. She turned and started crying into my shoulder.
“Hey, what happened? Do you want me to get Fahroud?”
She started sobbing more. “He’s cheating on me, Cal.”
“Where did you hear that?” Fahroud was cheating on her, and was probably hooking up with another girl in his room even as we had this conversation. I’m not good at lying, and she probably knew everything.
“I found used condoms stuck to his laundry when I was folding it. They’re not from us! We don’t even use condoms!”
I gulped. “Look, let’s get you back to your dorm. This isn’t a good place to be right now.” She nodded, and I slipped a hand under her shoulders and helped her to walk down the stairs.
Dan and Carmelia were coming in through the first floor entryway as Aramisa and I were descending. “Hey, what’s happening?”
Aramisa saw Carmelia and they embraced, Carmelia cradling her in her arms. “She’s having a bad night.”
“Carm, why don’t you drive her home?” Dan offered her his keys from the pocket of his well tailored suit, dark and silver, with narrow lapels. Carmelia nodded and the two of them walked out.
“She found out Heinrik’s cheating on her.”
“Pish, she was bound to find out some time.”
“I guess.” We stood opposite one another. We were roughly the same height – everyone commented that for twins, we looked nothing alike.
“What are you wearing?”
I looked down at my clothes. I had on a hooded sweatshirt, unzipped, t-shirt from a theater performance in high school, cargo pants, and sandals. “What? It’s not like this is a performance night.”
“Every night’s a performance, Cal. Can I take you to buy clothes, like soon? Are you even wearing a belt with your t-shirt tucked in?”
I untucked my shirt. He liked to nit-pick me. “You want to play some pool?”
“Why not?” We walked through the entryway, to where the billiards table sat in the trophy room. Bannister and Tarun were just racking up the balls, so we stood to watch. “You know about this BTK?” I asked Dan.
“BTK? Cal, I went to the premiere. I’m the character model for Jealous Jensen.”
“How did I not know this?”
“You keep your head stuck in the music world, and there’s a whole world outside you’re missing, Cal. BTK is a huge hit for us. Dad loves that game – he’s even played it when we haven’t been home.”
“Isn’t it monstrous?”
“Monstrous?” Bannister and Tarun looked up. “People love that stuff. Why do you think serial killers were popular in the first place?”
“Yeah, but aren’t you profiting off people’s worst instincts? Doesn’t art have a role in raising the consciousness of the viewer?”
“It’s satire, Cal, it’s about a media obsessed with violence. People need a pressure release, and it helps them to work through their fear of the unknown. No one’s turning into a serial killer just because they play BTK.”
Bannister broke in. “Are we going to see a twinfight? Because if so, we should text the other guys. They haven’t seen one.”
I rolled my eyes. My brother and I are nationally ranked martial artists. Dad insisted on it when we were growing up, and we still keep in training, even with our opposite schedules.
“This is a $6000 suit, Banister,” Dan grimaced, “and I’m not in the mood to ruin it with Sir Tears-a-lot over here.”
“We’ll let you know, Banny,” and I started to turn around, so we could continue to conversation in the library.
“I didn’t even know Dad owned Garotte.”
“It was an offshoot. Jubal Unlimited started Abattech as a way to expedite the mass executions from its prison complexes, and that turned into an entertainment division that was immensely profitable. We publicized and televised the criminal’s death matches, and the televisual expertise for those presentations made Garotte a natural extension of the business.”
“And you want to do all this? Run these killing shows?”
“If you ask Dad, who is an excellent judge of character, he would tell you two things sell, sex and death. If you can put them together, you’ve got a hit. That’s BTK in a nutshell.”
“You should start sex-ecuting the prisoners, if that’s your strategy.”
“That’s a good idea. Want to make a video game?” He hummed a descending tritone, F3# to C, back and forth, and my hair stood on end. Dan had perfect pitch, like me, and used it to make me crazy. He smiled, knowing I couldn’t tolerate the unresolved sixth. I hummed B2 to complete the sequence.
“I’m not comfortable with this stuff, Dan, I’m not a killer like you. I just like to play my piano.”
“Look, there’s plenty of room for you in the family business, Cal. I didn’t write BTK, but I had a hand in in the development, and I’m paid in stock options for the company. I’m using that money to help families here in Arcadia, the low income families. Our Adopt-a-home project is funded by Garotte donations – mostly, my stock.
“If you want to engage, instead of standing on the sidelines and criticizing, why don’t you help write some music, or even pitch a game that services your aesthetic vision? Symphonic music has long taken a backseat to visual immersive representations – most people our age only hear music in games or movies. You can write your magnum opus and work with our designers to create a game to go along with it, and probably reach a lot more young people than you could performing for the aged and decrepit, like you do now.” He put his hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes, like he did when he was closing a deal.
“Let me think about it, OK? I like to do my own thing – I might be a natural performer, but there’s worlds within worlds I don’t know about music, and I don’t want to lose my focus.”
“Sure, sure.” He looked over his shoulder, and leaned closer. “Have you been taking your medication?”
“What?” I stepped back. “Why?”
“You’re coming here, confronting me in the middle of the night about business stuff that was part of a national ad campaign, and it just seems like what you’d do if you weren’t taking your meds.”
“I hate taking my meds, Dan.”
“I knew it!” He clapped his hands, looking like a child for a moment.
“They make me feel fat, I eat more, I can’t concentrate . . . I’m better without them.”
“I just don’t want to see you wear yourself out on stuff the rest of the world accepts – the meds help you cope with things you can’t change. Remember when we went to therapy?”
I shuddered. “That was awful.”
“Think about going to your psychiatrist if you don’t like the side effects. But I don’t want us to end up back in group therapy – I think we’ve suffered enough.” He moved to my side, and put his arm around my shoulder. “I want to show you something.”
We walked through the library and up to the fireplace in the living room, with the seal of Sigma Xi. “What do you see here, Cal?”
I looked at the symbol above the fireplace, carved in stone. “I see the ram at the top, the twin serpents on either side below, with an unrolled scroll in the center in script I can’t read. Below that is a chalice, and beneath that are the inscribed words Sigma Xi.”
“And what do you think it means?”
“I’m not really sure. Life, and knowledge, and skill?”
“Definitely, those are themes. Here’s what I see. The Ram at the top is Dad, and you and I are the serpents, protecting him and the structure that society rests on. Together we’ll bring life to many.” He nodded with his interpretation, and I had a sense he had described this scene many times.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because tomorrow night is bid night, and I want you to join. I think it would be good for you, and I think it will bring us closer together. You have to engage with the world if you want to change anything, Cal.”
I stepped back. “That’s a big commitment. I have a lot of projects I’m working on right now. Can I think about it?”
“Sure, sure, take your time. We need your decision by tomorrow night. Bid acceptance is at 9 PM sharp. We can come to you to give you your bid, but you can just come here for acceptance if you’re tied up somewhere.”
“Thank you for this, Dan. I know this house means the world to you.”
“Maybe someday it will for you too.”
I grabbed my coat from the coatroom, and pulled it on. “Call your psychiatrist, will you?”
“Yes!” I called back as I walked out of the house.
A layer of snow had covered the fraternity hill while I’d been inside, and it seemed silent. I checked my watch, 2 A.M. I made my way back across the Delta Epsilon backyard, crunching snow-covered beer cans. I walked down the hill and regarded the specialty houses, older homes converted into student housing, with themes around subject areas. I passed the Green House, for environmental students, and Statecraft, for those interested in political administration. The old observatory marked the boundary of student housing to the west. I descended the steep staircase on the side of the hill and crossed the street to Santhorne Hall, the music building. As a performance major, I had privileges to enter the building to practice at all hours of the night. I entered the security code. This being a music hall, it wasn’t the numbers that mattered, but the tune – Open the Gates, by Sergey Krim.
Santhorne was dark and unsettling at night. I felt eyes on me when I walked through the hallways, I flipped on lights as I went. The ground floor had boarded off entries to tunnels connecting to the surrounding buildings, like the residence Quinson Manor, where I lived. They were closed after a student was raped and murdered there, as the story goes. According to University official recounting, they were in a poor state of repair and weren’t utilized enough to justify their upkeep. Ghost stories… this school lives on them.
For four hundred years, New Gilead had trained the elite of the world, even as it occupied the former Rhomia colony, now known as the Rebel States of Cuahualan.
My ancestor, Orlando Jubal, was the first in our line to journey from Caledonia to the newly discovered continent. He became a planter in Arcadia, and helped to found the University as a training site for priests.
The Jubals have been a major family in Cuahualan for its entire history, from the bloody war of Incorporation, to the scorched earth Famines, to the Purges and the Unification. The seal of Sigma Xi, the ram ringed with twin serpents, is based on our family crest. Twins run in our family – we’ve had one in each generation, and my father is himself a twin, with my aunt Margaret.
Portraits of their famous alumni lined the walls. While the great composers, the ones of the past ages, seem to have all been claimed by Aithne, Rhomia, and Kaerlud, many fiery personages of the past hundred years have spent time among the creaking corridors of Sandthorne. Pschorr, Deshields, Wainwright, Vogelsang, Milton, all spent their formative years here. When I first arrived on campus, I would sit and study beneath their portraits, but their gaze unsettles me, and I avoid their portraits as much as I can. Walking down the halls, I walk more quickly as I pass Deshield’s portrait, feeling his judgment on me. I can hear his words in my ear. “You have all the fuel of the great poets and heroes, pain and suffering and humiliation, the fruit of years of life on this earth, yet still you haven’t written your song, still you sing the song of others.” I would write it, I will write the song. I will not leave this world without singing my song.
Lining the hallway on the ground floor were organ practice rooms, which had lain vacant for years, before New Gilead had started enrolling more and more organ majors, so that now the ten practice organs needed scheduling in order for the majors to have sufficient practice time. Throughout Cuahalan, event production companies were searching for and recovering the organs of years past. Desolate, abandoned churches were purchased and refurbished into performance halls. Barns where organs had been housed in preservation efforts were reopened, the organ pipes shipped one by one to major cities that they might be reassembled. New stone cathedrals were under construction, in the classic Kaerlud style, so that the acoustics and resonances of the old masters, Evagrius and Corneille, might be reclaimed.
What led this resurgence of interest in the symphonic, in these most ancient musical forms? I’d like to say it was my own career, but I can’t claim credit. People are seeking this music because they find the studio produced beats of the modern day vacuous, banal and empty, urging them only to Eat and Foin and Die, as the dance music instructs its listeners.
There seems to be an unending stream of composers who will write the songs exactly as directed by the advertising and brand managers. What we suffer from, as a culture, is an acute need for passionate expressions of life, loss, rebirth and victory; the sentiments of a mythic past, now required if this dying world is to be saved.
I took the elevator to the third floor of Santhorne. It’s a rickety old elevator, with a glass door and a metal cage. Every ride seemed like my last. Good practice for my work tonight.
The third floor of Santhorne is for pianos. There’s an outer ring of practice rooms with windows, where the air pours in and out, warping the sounding boards. These pianos are for the non-music majors to practice with. The music majors have pianos in the inner ring of rooms, sealed off from the outside and air conditioned. They hold their sound much better than the others, and so the majors get crisper, better quality sound with which to train their ears, while the non-majors struggle with harmonics that are just a bit mistuned. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
Humidity needs to be absolutely controlled in maintaining a piano. Too much water in the air will make the wood of the sounding board swell, and the metal pegs won’t hold the strings any longer. It’s said that the best pianos are designed to take the true shape under the conflicting pressure of expansion and contraction over time, that their sound reaches a peak. and their sound gets better over time nothing is static it is a living instrument. Evagrius famously had thirty six pianos which he alternated between to create his work, which may explain why his work is so difficult to interpret – the brightness and depth of his sounds would have varied according to his practice instrument. Those old masters, they didn’t set themselves to be followed. They wanted to be the only ones who could perform their work.
My professors have always made the masters out to be divine figures, lent to the world briefly, and delivering a glimpse into another world. I can’t compare with them – whatever I do will always be an imitation, and a copy.
My career, my life so far has been like these pianos: I’m an expensive piece of artifice, maintained by my father to show his wealth and elegance. I’m not allowed to grow and change based on my circumstances; I’m meant to stay exactly the same, to perform the same old works again and again, and be content.
It’s not me. I can, and maybe I could be happy that way, but it’s not my way. One day I’m going to have to kill my heroes and destroy their work if I’m going to make anything of my own.
I stepped out of the elevator, and headed down the hall to my practice room. It’s kept locked, and I have one of the two keys. This is the result of a contractual agreement with the university and my management company – the intellectual property attorneys are wary of listening devices, recording which could produce bootleg Calvin Jubal records, and undo their exclusive control of my creative output. A security firm visits on a weekly basis, rotating through different days of the week, to sweep through the practice room, the concert halls, my teacher’s studio, and my apartment at Ringston manner for any listening devices. It’s pretty disruptive – I get awakened by a knock at the door every now and then when they come through, and I usually just leave and go to another side of campus so I don’t have to be there while they root through my things.
My piano’s was waiting for me, and I could almost hear the strings purring as the light from the hallway lit the warm mahogany cover. It’s a Brodstadt, built 350 years ago in Kaerlud, and it’s worth more than my brother’s entire wardrobe and fleet of cars. I’m not flashy about clothes or jewelry like Dan, but I like nice things.
I sat down, and began to warm up the strings, getting a Corneille melody out of my head, letting the sounds reverberate throughout the silent room and the building. Spending the evenings among crowds, like my night at Sigma, leaves me overstimulated and confused, and getting to work on my piano really helps to sort things out.
Next I began Evagrius’ preludes – I liked to play through a few key signatures, and get a sense of the tones before I went to work on my own compositions in those key signatures. Our ear, our brain is attuned to harmonies as they travel through various forms, and the further I could distance the resolution from the theme, the longer I kept the listener on the hook, keeping them emotionally invested in the music.
Creating new music is difficult, because I hate dissonance – so much of the new work, even Milton’s concerti sound like they’re the product of disturbed instruments and minds. Composition feels like it’s come to an end – we either recreate the past or we make noise.
I played for hours that morning. I was worn out and ready for sleep.
Around 11 in the morning, I stumbled out the front door of Santhorne, blinking in the sunlight, and made my way across the garden that stood in the foundations of the former Ochard Hall, burned to the ground fifty years before I started classes. I reached the back of Ringston Manor, and climbed the stair to my third floor apartment.
Mrs. Alphonse was returning from church as I fumbled with my keys. Ringston was a mixed community house, with senior citizens sharing apartment space with college students. “Calvin!” she said to me as she crept down the hallway, a cane in either hand. “Have you slept?”
“No Mrs. Alphonse. I was hanging out with my brother, then I had to get caught up with my music.”
She shook her head. “It’s terrible what happened to that boy.”
I had finally inserted the right key into the lock. “What boy?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“I’ve been in my practice room since 2:30 this morning.”
“That strange boy, the one who was your roommate, they found him this morning.” She shook her head again as she approached my door.
“Bo?” I hadn’t seen him in three weeks. We had known each since high school, and had roomed together first semester.
“That’s the one.”
I turned away from the door, leaving the key in the lock. “Where is he, Mrs. Alphonse?”
She stood up from her walker, looking at me through her thick glasses. “He’s dead, Calvin. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, I thought you knew.”
I started breathing faster, gagging. I have this disorder, when I get anxious or I’m under stress, I start coughing and gagging, my face gets red, and I start throwing up whatever’s in my stomach. It’s absolutely awful to experience, and probably even worse to watch.
Mrs. Alphonse got this look of horror on her face as she watched me.
“I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m sorry, !HURRKKK!” I started trying to fight my retching, and trying to get into my apartment before I threw up all over her, and the hallway.
She stepped back. Then she dropped her walker and started to stamp on the floor, growing in size. Smoke rose from her head.
“Hatred, that’s what I feel, I’ve spent my whole life fretting, worrying about little things, and now I have nothing left. You young people out there,” her face had turned black and horns were growing from her face, “you think you understand love and fear and death, but you know nothing.”
I had dropped to my hands and knees now, and crawled my way back to my door and flipped my key around. “My life is worthless, everything I’ve ever done is pointless.” I made it to the toilet, and retched my stomach contents into the toilet.
I slammed the door as the devil stood outside my door, giant, and ran back to my bedroom, where my medication sat, right by my bed. I threw back three pills, and ran to the kitchen for a bottle of water. I sat down at the table, taking it in sips as the retching subsided.
My hallucinations came on when I didn’t take my medication. I usually knew what was real and what wasn’t, but it’s hard to predict. I washed my face in my bathroom, and made my way back to my bedroom.
Bo’s dead. I didn’t want to believe it. I could have turned on my radio, or called someone, but I didn’t want to know. If I went to sleep now, I could wake up lucid, and keep this moment for myself, this uncertainty whether he was alive or dead. I took off my shoes, laid back in my bed, and fell into sleep.