Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fusion [Short Story]

Fusion
by Grant Gougler


Originally published in Interstellar Fiction, August 2012

We were staying at the Lisboa Casino in New Macao. Despite the sweeping lights and augmented reality, which filled the air around the resort like a laser light show, it appeared to be the offspring of a slum and a skyscraper. I'd gone to bed earlier than the rest of the band and for once I didn’t wake up to find my hand soaking in a bowl of warm water.

I walked the strip alone, looking for breakfast. I was passing the Mandarin Oriental when a limousine the color of brushed nickel pulled up to the curb. The rear door swung open and a bald man climbed out. He was wearing built-in lenses, just as black as the windows of the limo, and a wire-net which looked like multi-colored cornrows.

He poised himself beside the car, arms crossed against his body, one hand holding the wrist of the other. I noticed the unmistakable bulge of a pistol in the flank of his tuxedo. That’s how I knew it wasn't just a group of high school kids trying to go to prom in style. So I stopped and rubber-necked with a growing group of pedestrians.

I’m not sure what it is about the careless way celebrities get out of vehicles, but the first thing I noticed about Sandra Savvy was her panties: she wasn’t wearing any. Then I noticed she was staring at me.

The stream of tourists on the sidewalk congested around us as she approached me. I looked around to make absolutely certain it was me she was looking at.

It was.

“Hi,” I said. In the span of that short syllable I actually heard my voice crack.

She wet her thumb with her tongue, then placed it on my forehead. And my breath caught. Was this some sort of mating ritual? Was she marking me? If so, would I care?

Absolutely not. I was ready to pack my things right then, leave my friends and family behind, and live as her slave whether it entailed sex or not. Look, I've seen celebrities before—you could barely throw a rock without hitting one in New Macao—but this was Sandra Savvy.

Then she removed her thumb from my forehead and showed it to me. It was smudged with ink.

“Someone,” she said, “drew a cock on your forehead.”

My shoulders slumped and I frantically rubbed my palm against my forehead. “Did I get it?”

“I can still see the nards.”

Nards! I hadn’t heard that word since middle school! It was so wonderful hearing it again, from a beautiful woman, no less—a pop star whose record sales made my band look like a karaoke act. I never had a crush on a celebrity until then. Meanwhile, the crowd of onlookers were demanding pictures and autographs, but all that shit seemed to melt away.

“What’s your name?” she asked with a crooked but oh-so devilishly cute smile. She had to raise her voice above the commotion. So did I.

“Max!” I shouted and aimed an ear in her direction.

“So why did you have a penis on your forehead, Max?” she asked, aiming her ear at me, then. Our conversation continued in this manner, like some kind of long lost communication protocol.

“My band mates always play a prank on the first person who passes out!”

“You’re in a band?”

“Yeah! We're playing the Lisboa for the rest of the week!”

“Huh! Maybe I’ll check it out!”

“Really?”

She smiled at me. “See ya around, Max!”

Her bodyguard ushered her into a fancy restaurant which was crammed between The Oriental and yet another demolition site. I lost sight of her in the bright lights of high society.

***

After finishing our last set at the Lisboa, me and the band had a drink at the bar on the hundredth floor. David and Tonya were still making fun of me, sure that my encounter with the pop star was a fabrication. As I reached for my rum and coke, a hand intercepted my wrist.

“This one’s on me,” said the owner of the hand. His voice was as severe as his grip. “Would you mind joining Ms. Savvy in the VIP room?”

My eyes followed the arm upwards and I instantly recognized the cornrow wire-net. It was Sandra's bodyguard.

“Oh, hey,” I said, and I swallowed nervously. “Um yeah, sure.”

David and Tonya glanced at each other and absolutely lost it. They still thought I was somehow making it all up.

Sandra’s guard carried my drink to the VIP area. It was shrouded by fiberoptics, which were draped from a suspended grid. It was like a club within the club.

Most of the guests looked as if they had been born to walk red carpets. And there I was, wearing a pearl-snap shirt and cut-off khakis. I suddenly felt self-conscious of the tiny bald patch where my neural transceiver had been implanted. It was like the twenty-first century’s version of a chicken pox scar.

Sandra waved me over to join her group of friends near a wrap-around couch. One of her friends was a ghost. See, rich people don't die anymore. They just go digital so they can continue to lurk among us and, you know, ensure living people don't become as rich as them.

“Max!” Sandra said, kissing me on each cheek. “I’m so glad you could join us!”

“Sorry I’m not exactly dressed for the occasion.”

“Nonsense,” the ghost said in a posh accent. “You’re in a band. Only insufferable business types like myself are expected to play dress-up.”

“Not that getting dressed takes much time for you,” Sandra teased.

“Oh, how I hated physical life’s dull routines. Meatheads never understand the accumulated consequences of your daily actions. Did you know that brushing your teeth effectively removes an entire day from your life every year? I ‘lived’ to be eighty-seven years old—” the ghost didn’t look a day over thirty-five, by the way “—which means I wasted nearly three months of my life simply brushing my teeth.” He leaned forward to shake my hand. I wouldn't be able to feel it as I couldn't afford the kind of neuralware that simulated physical feedback, but the illusion looked real enough. "My name's Peter Dexsung. I trust you recognize the name.”

“And the face,” I said, unintentionally mimicking his smooth tone of voice. Still, I was better at keeping my cool in the presence of male celebrities than Sandra. Dexsung had been—still was, really—one of those music legends who had never picked up an instrument in his life. The man behind the curtain, so to say. The Phil Spector of our times. Thanks to modern technology, he would be the Phil Spector for many generations to come. “Glad to meet you."

“Sandra wanted to stop by and check your band out. I must say I'm impressed.”

“No kidding?”

“I would very much like to work with you, Max.”

He spoke about getting my band into the studio. Then I shook his hand eagerly, grinning like an idiot. I'm not sure how much I retained during that initial meeting. It was all too much of a shock to think my big break could be so easy.

Then I spent several hours mingling with the guests—or trying to, anyway—laughing and drinking it up. The cruelest paradox, it turns out, is that people who can actually afford to drink all night don't have to pay for drinks.

When the party finally fizzled I took a breather on the couch. By then my cheeks were hurting from all the smiling I'd done. Sandra collapsed next to me and playfully bumped my shoulder with hers. At this point, the DJ was playing slow oldies like "My Humps" in an effort to get people to leave.

“Head swimming yet?” she asked.

“You have no idea.”

“Actually, I do. I’m going to be perfectly frank with you, Max, mostly because of my schedule and the fact that most people like me are severely lacking in the social department. I think you’re cute.”

“You do?”

“I do.”

“Wow. I mean… my mind’s blown here in so many different ways. I don’t even—”

She kissed me on the cheek, but immediately seemed apologetic. “I’m drunk, Max.”

“Me, too.”

“I don’t meet many normal people.”

“Me either.”

“Would you put your arm around me?”

I put my arm around her. I remember thinking, How can I convince David and Tonya this actually happened?

***

So much of what happened over the course of two years was only because of my affiliation with Sandra. I still hadn't gotten used to seeing my face crop up repeatedly on the gossip feeds and celebrity sites. Still couldn't believe people were lying in ambush to get vids of me and Sandra walking down the street or grabbing a bite to eat. To be honest, they really only gave a shit about Sandra. I was little more than a pop cultural aside, a name journalists mentioned just to prove they'd done their research.

There wasn't a designated paparazzi anymore. The entire world was the papparazzi—any and everyone equipped with two eyes and a neural transceiver. I loved Sandra to death, but our relationship didn't seem to belong to us. It belonged to everyone but us. We didn't have ups and downs. We had trends and slumps.

Then, a day before my twentieth birthday, Peter Dexsung had arranged for my band to play the 2089 MTV Music Awards. It was a our big break. At least in the sense that most of the billion people watching couldn't wait for me to choke on stage so they could all make fun of the the douchebag the great and talented Sandra Savvy was dating. Because nothing was more reassuring than seeing someone fail and, if Sandra herself wasn't going to do it, my failure would be the next best thing.

But the trendwatchers—the artificial intelligences Peter Dexsung employed at the studio—had reduced hit-making to an exact science. They knew, in ways humans could never understand, exactly what humans wanted. They could even deliver it long before we even knew we wanted it. More importantly, they knew exactly when and where to give it to us.

The best place for me, they deigned, was the 2089 MTV Music Awards.

Our first album went diamond.

***

A few weeks after I finished the first tour, Sandra and I found some alone time in her New York City loft, high and dry above the seemingly eternal riots. We were sitting on her bed, looking out at the noticeable curve of the Earth from two hundred stories up. 

There’s a lot I don't remember about that time in my life. The days had fused together in the haze of overworked exhaustion. I never hit the booze, though. That was too cliche, too expected. So what if Keith Richards was still rocking hard into his 150s? That guy was and always would be a freak of nature. Besides, me and Sandra weren’t like the rockstars who preceded us. Instead of drugs and alcohol, it was retro games and junk food. Although I did learn the inexplicable depression of rock stardom was still there. So was the guilt of being depressed when you literally had nothing to be depressed about.

So I sat on the edge of the bed, head buried in my hands as Sandra flipped through page after page of lyrics I’d scrawled down earlier. I warned her I’d lost my touch, but told her not to go easy on me. I only wanted confirmation of my inability to be anything more than a one-hit wonder.

“Jesus, Max. This stuff is dark.

“Yeah.”

“It’s good, though.”

Despite the way I felt, I smiled. “Don’t fuck with me. It’s shit.”

“It’s not shit. It’s just not very palpable. Not sure you could get the trendwatchers to go for it. What do David and Tonya think?”

“They couldn’t care less as long as it means more money.”

“You have to show this to Peter. See what he thinks."

I summoned Peter’s ghost on the holly in the living room.

“Just an idea I'm toying with," I told him. "Some not-very-commercial stuff that got into my head and I'm not sure I can do the usual stuff until I get it out."

"I'll show it to the trendwatchers. See what they think." But I could tell by his tone he thought they wouldn't go for it at all. 

They did.

***

We wrapped in a few weeks and released the album a month later. We called it Fusion.

Rolling Stone readers ranked it the worst album of the decade.

Soon after that I put a pistol in my mouth and blew my brains out.

***
Peter’s ghost was pacing the hospital room when I woke up.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You bloody shot yourself. What do you think happened, Max?”

“Why am I not dead?”

“Same reason I’m not dead: the studio thought you were too valuable not to back up.”

“You digitized me without my permission?”

“Hell, they digitized me without my knowing it, too. You really ought to read the small print, you know.”

“Why am I happy?" I asked. "What'd you do to my brain?”

Peter glanced at my heart monitor, which looked normal, I guess. “They fixed you, Max. You were sick.”

“I wanted to die.”

“Which is all the more reason to believe me when I say you were sick. Healthy people don’t very well take their own lives.”

I touched my head and didn't find any holes. “But I'm still here... not like you. I'm still physical."

“State of the art surgery, Max, believe you me. We used to get rockstars dope and boner pills. Now it’s brain reboots and new bodies. Wasn’t cheap, either, not by a long shot. Forget all that for now. The real question is how did the trendsetters miscalculate Fusion so badly? Christ, it'll be decades before your career will recover from that."

"I don't mind taking a break for a while," I offered sheepishly.

"Ha! Are you kidding? We have got to get you back into the studio as soon as possible. Remember, you are under contract and because Fusion was such a personal project, it didn't fulfill the terms for your second album.”

I closed my eyes and asked, “Who found me, anyway?”

“Sandra. Poor thing’s traumatized, too.”

I sighed. “Do David and Tonya know?”

“No, and listen to me, Max. No one else will know. Your death never happened. From this point forward, you’re a rehabilitated man. Don't squander your second chance.”

***

Sandra was back on tour when I got home. She’d flown out to London shortly after learning I’d been repackaged with a healthy brain.

“I’m not sure when I’m coming back,” Sandra told me over the phone. “Finding you the way I did… I don’t know. It got to me.”

I knew she was breaking up with me, but unwritten social conventions would probably frown with putting it so bluntly following my death and resurrection. I could hear it in her voice just the same: Max and Sandra was over. She never would come back.

This, I was somehow fine with, though. My heart didn’t so much as miss a beat. Peter Dexsung was right: they fixed me in such a way I'd never feel pain or depression again.

C’est la vie, I thought.

***

Nor was I particularly concerned when Tonya announced she was leaving the band some months later. This left David and me in the tight spot of finding a new drummer. The trendwatchers were adamant that the public would respond positively to “a redhead with black-rimmed glasses and tattoos.” Who were we to argue with the powers who gave us life as a band, even if they had severely miscalculated Fusion's release?

Our third album was right on schedule. The critics found it to be mediocre, but the masses loved it. It sold well, but not as well as the first album. This is how it went for our next five albums, with a gradual decline in returns on each one. Our sales eventually declined to the point there was no reason to do another. 

I decided to hang it up. I decided it happily.

David went on to work on the production side of the industry while I got fat and retired. 

***
Several years later, I blinked my eyes. Peter and a couple of featureless humanoids were standing before me in the hospital room.

"Ah, shit,” I said. “Did I suicide again?”

“Figuratively,” Peter said. “The previous version of you drove your career off a fuckin’ cliff.”

I glanced down the length of my body. I was thin again. I'd later find they'd done nothing about my graying hair, but for every other part of me they'd turned back the clock a decade or so.

“Who are they?” I asked Peter, nodding at the featureless human-shapes.

Peter glanced at the avatars. “These are the trendsetters, Max. Not many humans get the honor to meet them in person.”

I nodded a greeting to the trendsetters. They returned the gesture.

“I don’t know if you’ve been following the news," Peter said, "but Fusion is on its way to going diamond. Rolling Stone just named it the most underrated album of the century.” He shook his head and smiled. “I guess the trendsetters were right about that one, after all.”

I pulled myself to a sitting position. “So the sad album’s selling now, huh?”

"And what's more is you're primed for a comeback." Then he diverted his eyes and said, "There's one catch."

"What's that?"

"Well, although you're here, you're also...."

I knew exactly what he meant. "You want me to kill myself again."

Peter wouldn't say as much in words, but the trendsetters would.

***

“How did you get in here?” Max shouted.

He took a step backwards and tripped over the ottoman. He fell into the cushions of his couch, but couldn't quite rock his impressive mass up above his feet despite a lot of flailing. The sight of his fat body—my fat body—made me sick. When he realized the sirens weren't coming, he decided to stop trying to run when he saw me draw my pistol and point it at him.

“No,” he whispered.

I took a moment look around his house. It was so bright and colorful. Like something out of a fucking catalog.

“God, your taste,” I said. “No wonder you had to retire, you fuckin’ slob.” I looked at him again. “You can’t even cry anymore, can you? You’ve got all the emotion of someone looking at a dog turd, not a loaded gun.”

“Can you at least tell me why you’re doing this?”

“No, I can’t.”

I shot him in the face, then shot him in the belly. Just as the trendsetters had instructed. Then I stuffed the body into the trash decompiler and redecorated my home with a baseball bat.

How's that for a comeback?

***
 
The perky blonde hostess of the show asked me why I decided to come out of retirement after all these years. I took my shades off and balanced them on my leg.

“I suppose I shouldn’t have retired in the first place. That’s what my new album’s about: the things we do that we shouldn’t do.” That was all bullshit, an answer concocted by the trendsetters. The question, by the way, had been concocted by them, too. “I’m sorry to be so vague, but I think it’s best to let people hear it for themselves.”

“So, I understand you're going to perform something for us today?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What are you going to perform for us, Max?”

“It’s a song called ‘Sandra.’”

Based on a work at http://www.gougblog.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.gougblog.com.

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