by Vaughan Stanger
Curled up tight as an ammonite, Mira unwound in slow motion before leaping into the air with her limbs spread like a starfish. Bass notes thundered as her feet hit the floor, drawing a nod of approval from me.
Glancing at her mind’s eye display, I saw a monstrous wave on the brink of rolling over — a credible match to her moves. Yet as she breast-stroked to the front of the stage, setting off ripples of percussion, her amplified vocals in no way resembled the powerful soprano of her downloads. Studio trickery had evidently worked wonders. But if she couldn’t deliver the goods live, she was no use to Dusk ’til Dawn.
Dali delivered his verdict by killing the sound. Mira turned to me as I stepped out of the v-drum zone. I shook my head.
“Sorry love, the band needs a new singer, not a new drummer.”
Drumming was my job; had been ever since Dusk ’til Dawn got started. Back then, Kerrang! ridiculed us as “Muse crossed with Led Zeppelin fronted by Amy Winehouse’s bad sister, with added ballet.” But we managed to build a huge fan base, probably because we didn’t sound like a bunch of Eighties throwbacks. Now, of course, we were just another prog-metal-ballet band (but hey, we were the first!) reforming for one last ride on the gravy train, or The Tour to End All Tours as our publicist dubbed it. But unless we could find a new singer-cum-dancer, we were going nowhere.
Mira gave me an imploring look, but I mouthed “sorry” before she could beg for another try.
“Well, fuck you then!” She plucked the ME reader from her forehead and threw it at me, just missing, before stomping off towards the nearest exit, her rainbow dreadlocks shaking like wheat in a gale.
Cute arse, decent head-stuff and some competent incidental percussion, I said to myself, but the voice wasn’t a patch on Diva’s.
I turned round to find Dali looming over me like a Bronte hero crossed with a praying mantis. He ran lace-clad fingers through lank, shoulder-length hair before prodding me in the chest. Tattoos flickered over his exquisitely chiselled cheekbones, coding for some emotional state I couldn’t quite figure.
“Toad, this was your goddam idea!”
“Toad” as in short, fat and ugly: the warty guy standing at the back, pounding four-four out of thin air like the Devil’s own blacksmith while Dali conjured up the frills and flourishes. But the band needed a soul, not just its head and heart. And in Dusk ’til Dawn’s case that meant Diva. No way could some wannabe rock chick fresh out of art school fill her thigh-length boots.
“True,” I said, “but you signed on the dotted line.”
“I should’ve known better!”
I shrugged but said nothing. We were in this together; Dali knew that.
“Okay,” he said, “so who else have you got lined up?”
I punched his chest, but gently like we were two mates joshing. “You know, I could fix our problem, if you’d just let me try.”
Dali knew precisely what I meant and it got to him precisely how I intended.
“No way!” Dali said, his mirrored eyes blazing. “No bloody way does that woman sneak back into my band!”
“So, do we pull out of the tour?”
I picked the dirt out of my fingernails while waiting for Dali to cave in, which I knew he would ‘cos he hated the vanilla life, same as I did. Sure, he’d carved out a lucrative niche building gizmos for the Music Industry — the mind’s eye reader was his latest invention — but backroom boys don’t get the acclaim, hence his willingness to reform the band.
Dali sighed his acquiescence. “Okay, do it your way, but tell me, how long is it since anyone actually clapped eyes on her?”
“Five years, give or take.”
Dali shook his head like he thought the project was doomed from the start.
“Even if she hasn’t flat-lined, she’ll have stealthed herself to the max. You’ll never distinguish her from a JoPub.”
Relieved that I’d worked a chink in Dali’s armour, I offered him an inducement.
“Then I’ll need your help, won’t I?”
I’ve always known how to appeal to his vanity.
“Okay, Toad,” Dali said with a sigh, “Go fetch.”
But first, find.
After squandering enough carbon credits to ensure boredom wasn’t my only reason for reforming the band, a third-hand rumour saw me fly into LA.
The woman leaning over a toilet bowl in Bar Fusion’s restroom didn’t look much like Diva, what with the razor-bobbed platinum hairdo, Nordic cheekbones and big tits, but Dali’s latest gizmo had confirmed her identity shortly after I fed it a sample of her saliva.
She turned her head and blinked at me. “Huh?”
I couldn’t tell whether she’d had her voice re-coded, but right now the fact that her eyes were focused someplace north of nowhere concerned me more. So I tugged her upright and frog-marched her into the bar. She slumped over the counter, resting her head on her arms.
“What’ll it be?”
The bartender was resting his forearms on the aquarium countertop, his biceps bulging like lotto balls in a silk bag. He looked so what’s-his-face the surgery must have cost a fortune.
I grabbed a menu. Gaining Diva’s cooperation meant getting on her wavelength, which meant taking the same drugs, only not quite as many. I scrolled through the list of cocktails, all of them unfamiliar to me. So what was it to be, a Rigel or an Antares, a Sirius or a Betelgeuse? An Omicron what, for Odin’s sake?
Biceps grinned at me in a way doubtless meant to encourage the uninitiated. “I’d start with a Sol, if I were you.”
Before I could ask what went into one of those, Diva elbowed me in the ribs. “Wanna try an Albeiro.”
The words were slurred but her voice sounded sultry, imperious, irresistible — just like the Diva of old.
Biceps blinked up a holo-tab. “You don’t have the credit, doll.”
Diva turned to me, eyes flaring wide. “Pay the man, Toad.”
Biceps grinned like a rattlesnake eyeing its prey. I held out my right hand, and jerked it back the instant I felt the confirmatory tingle. The man possessed a clammy grip.
“Got somewhere private?” I asked, quickly adding: “Just me and the girl.”
Biceps indicated a door opposite the restroom. “Booth Five, through there. Make yourselves comfortable while I’ll fix your Albeiro.”
I imagined a Victorian opium den. Bar Fusion’s update on the theme didn’t disappoint. After settling Diva on the mouth-shaped couch, I patched in the data link to Dali. Moments later, Biceps appeared holding a tray of coloured ampoules and a transparent cocktail shaker. He placed the equipment on the aquarium table with a gentleness that suggested a replacement might be hard to find. After pouring the contents of two ampoules into the jug, he flicked a toggle switch on its base. The teeth-jarring vibration caused the table’s aquatic residents to scatter. The mixture frothed into a creamy fog. Biceps tapped his remote control, plunging the booth into darkness.
Twin sparks flared inside the cocktail shaker, one golden-hued the other eggshell blue, both dazzlingly bright. Peering through a fence of fingers, I counted to ten before the sparks winked out.
“Okay,” I said, all low and slow, impressed but nervous too.
Biceps whispered the booth lights up a notch so I could see him pour the mix into a pair of shot glasses. After taking hers, Diva cuddled up to me, which made me tremble for more than one reason. That’s unrequited love for you, I guess.
“This one’s for you, Diva,” I said.
We clinked glasses and downed our shots.
The cocktail hit low, mean and dirty. It felt like I had a chilli-coated spider scuttling around my stomach. Sweat beaded my face. I gulped down hard as bile surged up my throat.
The bartender leaned over the table and chuckled.
“Now, close your-“
In my mind’s eye, I saw a sphere of blue-green incandescence. Hot and brilliant, dazzling and dangerous, the star in my head shone on me, only me. But I was a star too, bigger and brighter than my companion. I bathed her with my golden rays. We loved each other with our light.
Wow, like fucking wow!
I could have worshipped that star forever.
“Time to wake up, Toad.”
Dali’s prompting sounded urgent, but I felt too nauseous to respond, so I tongue-clicked the link to “off”. I blinked open gummy eyes, but closed them again on seeing the booth’s walls revolve. I vomited, narrowly missing the aquarium table. After wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, I glanced at my wristwatch tattoo. An hour had passed.
Wow, I thought. That really was a stellar head-fuck-and-a-half.
Feeling weak as a newborn, I lay back on the sofa and gazed at Diva. Her remodelled features looked relaxed and serene, and her cheeks held some colour. She definitely looked better than when I’d found her. Was that a side effect of the drug?
“How’re you doing?” I asked when her eyelids fluttered open.
Diva rocked her head to indicate “not so bad”. A moment later her grimace dissolved into a wicked grin. “So, now you’ve broken your duck, how about trying another?”
I shook my head, well aware that I couldn’t match her legendary stamina. Instead, I tongue-clicked the link back on.
“About bloody time!” Dali’s voice fizzed with anger.
“Okay, we’re out of here.”
As I helped Diva out of the booth, I thanked Odin that I’d never managed to get myself addicted to anything genuinely harmful. Granted, I’d enjoyed satisfying the usual rock-star appetites, but unlike Diva I’d always known when to say “no”.
“Poor, self-deluding Toad,” Dali said as if he’d read my mind. I wanted to yell “You hateful shit” back at him but thought better of it. Now more than ever, I needed him on my side. So instead I settled for, “I could use some help here!”
“Just bring her home,” Dali said, sounding resigned. “I’ve cleared things with the authorities.”
“Got to fly,” I said to Biceps as I hustled Diva towards the exit.
“Pity you can’t stay,” he said, grinning so solicitously I wanted to punch him. “I have this amazing….”
I shook my head. And punched him anyway.
Two weeks after flying back into London, I delivered a transformed but only superficially cleaned up Diva to Dali’s rehearsal space. One glance at his face while he sized her up was enough to tell me that a storm was brewing.
As for me, well I tried not to drool. Those violet-flecked eyes, that milk chocolate skin, that jet-black hair falling all the way to her skinny backside…. Diva’s retrofit had cost me a small fortune, but I reckoned the results easily justified the outlay. She looked stunning, wrong side of forty or not.
Frowning, Dali turned to me. “Is she ready to audition?”
Diva snarled a vicious obscenity and flounced off-stage, trailing finger gestures that left nothing to the imagination.
I gaped at Dali. “For fuck’s sake, you don’t audition Diva!”
I grabbed his chin with my left hand and tugged real hard so that he bent his knees. With our eyes now level, I said, “You just don’t, right?”
He jerked his head free. “I honestly hoped you wouldn’t find her.”
To be frank, I could see where he was coming from. Watching Diva blow her talent the first time around had been hard enough for me, but so much worse for Dali, because while I’d lusted at her from afar he’d been her lover for real. Still, retrieving Diva had cost me a lot of time and money, so I wasn’t about to let Dali squirm out of our agreement.
“Just give her a chance,” I said.
“But she’s still an addict!”
I wasn’t about to argue with him, having spent a fortnight fending off a legion of pushers.
“I can sort her out,” I said. In truth, I’d never told a bigger lie.
Dali gave me a pitying look. “Do you know anything about this new shit she’s into?”
“No,” I said, certain that I’d get a lecture from him whether I wanted one or not.
“Ever heard of sonoluminescence?”
Dali fired up TrustWiki on the nearest screen. “See for yourself.”
So I did.
Sonoluminescence: the light radiated by a bubble of gas when compressed by an isotropic supersonic sound wave.
“Otherwise known as the star in a glass,” Dali said over my shoulder.
I kept reading.
Back in 2002, a physicist named Taleyarkhan claimed that his sonoluminescence experiments proved the existence of cold fusion. The techie rags briefly got all frothy at the prospect of cheap, clean energy in a bottle, but those scientists who repeated his experiments failed to detect the excess neutrons that would have proved Taleyarkhan’s fusion hypothesis. Despite his protestations, the verdict was “fairytale” not “fusion”.
So how had a mere bartender managed to obtain the sono-shaker kit? His cocktails had generated a fair bit of comment in the blogosphere, but I could find no evidence of a commercial supplier. The consensus was “grad student prank”.
Dali chuckled evilly in my right ear. “Anyone Jacko enough to drink the byproducts of a failed lab experiment deserves to get their head sunburnt on the inside.”
He meant Diva, of course, but I’d glimpsed that fat old sun too. How long, I wondered, before I needed another fix?
I gave Dali a look that I hoped was argument-proof.
“One chance, that’s all she needs.”
Dali’s nod was a long time coming.
Diva stood centre-stage, her fingers tickling wind chimes out of thin air. Twenty years after we’d last played it, the opening to Snowbound sounded wondrously spectral, but when Dali cued up Diva’s vocal with a flourish of church organ she sang the first notes so flat it hurt. With a sigh of despair, she sank to the floor. The bass generator rumbled like indigestion.
“This is hopeless,” she said.
I sighed inwardly. If Diva couldn’t sing Snowbound then Dusk ’til Dawn was in deep trouble, ‘cos that was one of our simplest pieces.
Dali fired up Diva’s ME display. The screen showed a solitary star: small and white. It faded perceptibly while I watched.
Dali’s voice crackled in my earpiece. “Yeah, that figures.”
“How do you mean?”
“From a cosmic standpoint, she’s a white dwarf.”
I didn’t recognise the term but I assumed he meant a burnt-out case, in which case his verdict was hard to refute. If we’d had ME-tech fifteen years ago, Diva’s inner star would surely have shone brighter than the Tehran Nuke.
As Dali emerged from behind his nest of keyboards, I glanced at Diva, who was only now getting to her feet. She squared her shoulders in a display of self-possession.
“I could try again,” she said.
Dali snorted derisively. “Please don’t bother!”
Diva turned to me, her expression ferocious. “Thanks for nothing, Toad.”
I stared at my warty hands, ashamed that I had coerced Diva to “audition” before her unforgiving ex-lover.
Dali shouted “Timewaster!” as she stomped off stage. I shot him a look almost as vicious as Diva’s.
“Any chance you could shut it while I sort this out?”
I ignored his muttered reply.
I gave Diva a few minutes to compose herself before I entered her dressing room, where I found her staring blankly at the mirror. It was obvious she needed another fix — and soon. As I had no intention of sending her back to LA, I’d have to find a local source of the drug. If only I’d had the foresight to steal the cocktail kit from Bar Fusion I wouldn’t now have to persuade Dali to construct a homegrown version. But he would demand a cast iron guarantee that Dusk ’til Dawn would get back on track in time for the tour. But that meant sorting out Diva, which meant …
My mind reeled with the circularity of it all.
Diva’s drug habit lay at the heart of our problem, but might it not also offer a solution? After all, the double cocktail we had shared in Bar Fusion had definitely made her feel better, if only briefly. And hadn’t Biceps hinted at the existence of even more potent concoctions?
Convinced that I finally had a fix on how to get Diva’s mojo rising again, I trotted back to the stage, where Dali had begun packing up. He tried to shrug me off, but I had him cornered.
“What if I guarantee to get Diva sorted out?”
Dali closed his eyes and shook his head, like we’d had this conversation a dozen times before, which was close enough true.
“She’s no bloody use to herself, never mind us. She’d rather die than do detox.” Dali had never majored in forgiveness and it didn’t sound like he planned to change his ways now.
“In that case, we have to exploit her addiction.”
Dali’s forehead furrowed, which I took to be a good sign. “And how do you propose to do that?”
“Remember what it was like before we made it big? How we used to share everything: our digs, our money, even our drugs?”
Back then we’d lived in each other’s pockets, just so we could make it to the next stop on the Toilet Circuit. Now, twenty years on, we’d have to learn how to share everything again. I took a deep breath and explained my plan.
When I finished, he said, “It’s risky as hell.”
“It’s my risk to take,” I said, “but I’ll need you to build the sono-shaker.”
The gleam in Dali’s eyes confirmed my ploy had worked. I thanked Odin that I’d asked Dali to collect data from Bar Fusion while I collected Diva.
“Okay, give me a week and I’ll replicate the kit for you.” Dali’s grin set a new benchmark for smug. “Just let me know what ingredients you need.”
But that was the problem, ‘cos I didn’t know yet. Decrypting the bartender’s recipes would be child’s play for Dali, but I didn’t relish the prospect of sampling every one of them while searching for Diva’s sweet spot. That would really do my head in.
So instead, I decided to learn more about stars.
Reading TrustWiki’s article on stellar evolution, I discovered that the Sun will play nicely for another billion years before it bloats into a red giant and fries whatever vermin outlive Humanity. After that, it’ll shed its outer layers like an old suit, leaving behind a nub of star-stuff growing cold. A white dwarf: the star that’s dead but doesn’t know it yet.
Just like Diva.
But that’s not necessarily the end, ‘cos if a white dwarf orbits a bloated companion, its gravity can sometimes steal enough star-stuff to generate a nuclear flash. The huge outpouring of energy makes the dying star shine brightly again, for a while.
So, could I make Diva go nova?
I puffed out my chest and paradiddled the air with my fists. Virtual tom-toms rattled the stage like an earthquake. Fat old Toad still had energy to spare.
Grinning like a fool, I began cross-referencing Dali’s decrypt of the bartender’s recipes with TrustWiki’s descriptions of star types. My search for the perfect cocktail took a while, but eventually, I found a match.
Yes, a shot of RS Ophiuci ought to do the trick.
One week later, as promised, Dali unboxed his version of the sono-shaker.
“Will it work?” I asked, frowning at the bulky-looking device.
Dali rolled his eyes. “Of course, it’ll bloody work!”
I asked the question not because I doubted his engineering skills, but rather that his sono-shaker’s byproducts presumably remained untested, Dali having given up drugs shortly after Dusk ’til Dawn hit the Big Time. Indeed, it was a furious row sparked by Diva playing under the influence that heralded the band’s break up. Knowing that I couldn’t avoid a lecture from Dali on the subject, I decided to pre-empt it by feigning curiosity.
“So, have you figured out how the drug works?”
Dali grinned like a pub bore invited to expound on his pet subject. “The cocktail you consumed in LA was a twin-payload sono-drug. The first component boosts the empathic centre of your brain, while the second makes you sweat so much that a pheromone-mediated pathway is established.” My frown forced Dali into hand-waving simplification. “In layman’s terms: the drug opens a channel that allows the transfer of mental energy.”
“Which only works one way,” I said, recalling my Bar Fusion experience.
Dali shrugged. “I suppose some people are suppliers and others consumers.” He paused, presumably to let me ponder the implications. “Still want to proceed?”
Dali glanced at Diva. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing away from him. “Is she ready?”
I sat down beside her and gave her leather-clad left knee a squeeze. “How about trying Fire in the Deep?”
Dali whistled. With good reason, ‘cos Fire was the most complicated piece on our set-list: the track that earned us the ‘prog-metal-ballet’ tag. If Diva could perform it, we’d be on to something; if not, then no one would pay to see us.
“I can do this,” she said, seemingly for her own benefit rather than Dali’s or mine.
With a little help from me, I said to myself. That, plus the venue’s air conditioning set to sauna-like levels. I was sweating already.
While Diva began mapping out her dance moves, I double-checked the RS Ophiuci recipe. Satisfied that I had it right, I tore open the ampoules and poured their contents into the shaker. After receiving a nod from Dali, I flicked the switch on its base. On the count of three, twin sparks of red and white flared. When they guttered out, I poured the contents of the shaker into two shot glasses. Dali began playing Fire’s opening riff.
Standing centre-stage, Diva tipped her head so that her hair veiled her face. Her fingers fluttered while Dali’s organ chords rolled over us like the aftermath of the Big Bang. As the overture faded, Diva flicked a smile at me. I handed her a glass, which she clinked against mine. We downed our shots together. Chilli heat seeped from my every pore, this time without the side order of nausea. After slinging my glass, I gave Diva a hug that should have got me arrested. Our sweat mingled. Finally, regretfully, I let go of her, closed my eyes and began pummelling the air with my fists.
Inside my head, I saw a feeble, pallid, dying star. What Diva needed was a jolly red giant: fat old Toad radiating his life force. I felt the light pouring out of me. Here Diva, take a piece of me, I said to myself, shaking beads of sweat from my body while I drove Fire in the Deep forward.
To my relief, I saw Diva’s star brighten as she started singing the first verse. Her voice sounded clear and true.
“Fire in the deep,
adrift in your zone.
Stars in your eyes,
love in my own.
Destined to fly,
lest Humanity die,
Singing of freedom and home.”
I paradiddled like John Bonham, propelling the song towards its climax, which Dali heralded with a typically bombastic fanfare. As the electronic storm faded towards ambient, Diva began singing her acappella section, but she sliced the high notes horribly before stuttering into silence. Inside my mind, I watched her star fade.
When I opened my eyes I saw Diva standing with her head lowered; a mute witness to a stupid plan.
Dali strode across the stage towards me, waggling his forefinger like an irate schoolteacher. “I told you so!”
“It was worth a try, dammit!”
“No, it fucking wasn’t!”
I raised my fists. Thumping Dali wouldn’t help Diva, but I’d feel better. He took a step back, then another. I followed him.
“We’re a trio, dammit!”
That was Diva. I turned to face her, likewise Dali. She stood before us, her eyes burning with accusation.
“What?” Dali and I said in unison.
“We’re supposed to be a trio!” Her voice dripped accusation.
Dali kicked Diva’s discarded glass across the stage. “I’ve had enough of this farce,” he said, turning his back on Diva – and the band too, or so I feared.
“Come on, Dali. You have to admit we were a bit untogether just now.”
Dali rolled his eyes. “It’s Diva who’s untogether!”
“That’s rich coming from you!” Diva jabbed a forefinger at Dali’s chest. “Were you deliberately trying to put me off or what?”
I let them snarl at each other while I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Thinking back, it felt like we’d been too busy doing our own thing to feed on each other’s inspiration. To conjure up the old musical alchemy we would have to play for each other, which meant that Dali would really have to join in — and not just musically.
I stepped between my warring bandmates. “What we need,” I said, “is a treble.”
Dali shook his head. “No — fucking — way!”
I gave him my fiercest look, ‘cos I wasn’t about to let him off the hook. I waved away his protests while flicking through the recipe book in search of a suitable cocktail.
When we resumed rehearsals, I made sure I was calling the shots and not just pouring them. I placed a glass on top of Dali’s Hammond organ and pushed it towards him. His scowl could have struck sparks from a bar of soap.
“Just drink it!” I said.
Dali shook his head. “No chance.”
I followed him into his keyboard-filled sanctum, which provoked the intended look of horror. Doing my usual looming-from-below thing, I poked his chest good and hard. He recoiled but could not escape.
“Look, we both need this to work,” I said, “‘cos without Diva, we’re done. What’s more, if you don’t help me sort out Diva, you’ll need a new drummer.” I grabbed Dali’s portable Roland, which he rarely used, and dangled it from the strap. “Come on, we need you on stage!”
My heart skipped a beat when Dali picked up the glass and sloshed the contents, then threatened to stop working altogether when he put it back undrained. I gave him a stare and turned away. There was still time.
“The guy’s a prick,” I said to Diva, loudly enough for Dali to hear. She whispered “Thanks for trying,” before sinking her own shot. I followed suit, gritting my teeth against the burn while reaching for Diva. She felt hot and slippery in my arms. When I released her I stepped back just enough to give her room to dance, while ensuring we would spatter each other with our sweat. I began hammering out the beat to Fire in the Deep.
In my mind’s eye, I saw a single star, floating in the blackness. I radiated crimson rays towards my companion while trying to re-direct my trajectory towards her.
But for all my exertions, Diva’s vocals quavered when they should have soared. And Dali’s prissy keyboard fills weren’t helping one bit. Second time around was panning out no better than the first — and I knew Dali wouldn’t give her another chance.
So I flipped up my lip microphone and said, “Dali, you’re a selfish, arrogant, son-of-a…”
New light burst in my head: dazzling, brilliant, eye-searingly blue.
Dali was a star!
Big Blue flashed past me ripping out gouts of star-stuff that spiralled towards my companion. I looked on in awe as Diva flared so bright she outshone Dali, never mind me.
Now, at last, Diva sang with the power of old. Her voice soared and swooped, every note pitch-perfect, every drop of emotion wrung from her soul, while Dali fired off riffs that rolled over the stage like a tsunami. This was how Fire in the Deep was supposed to sound!
I opened my eyes. Dali was standing between Diva and me, grinning like a madman while conjuring cosmos-shaking sounds from his Roland. My arms felt heavy as logs, but I pummelled the air with all the energy I could muster.
During one of the quieter passages, I sneaked a glance at Diva’s mind’s eye display. The screen showed three stars dancing an orbital ballet: a pair of bobby-dazzlers accompanied by a dull red giant.
As Fire in the Deep’s coda faded towards ambient, I swung my left fist to close out the piece with the sound of a gong. When the echoes had died down, I glanced at Diva. She was sitting on her heels with her arms wrapped around her knees. Her shoulders were shaking, but whether from exertion or the release of pent-up emotion, I couldn’t tell.
What happened next made my jaw drop. I hadn’t expected Dali to acknowledge Diva’s performance with more than a cursory nod. Instead, he knelt down beside her, whispered something in her ear and helped her to her feet. But it was the passionate embrace that shocked me. The band appeared to be reforming in more ways than one. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about that.
“Diva, that was amazing,” Dali said as he released her. But the look he gave me was kind of distant.
We rehearsed three more songs that day. Diva played a blinder, superbly accompanied by Dali. As for me, well, the band had got its soul back, and its head had never stopped working, but the heart wasn’t pumping like it should. Fuelling Diva’s nova had burned me out. She knew it — and judging by his expression, so did Dali.
As I packed away my drum lasers, Dali manoeuvred Diva to one side. I didn’t hear what either of them said, but I could read her lips.
Okay, I’ll tell him.
Diva walked over and gave me a hug. “I’m so, so sorry, dearest Toad,” she said, her voice muffled by my shoulder, “but we need to bring in someone younger.”
She somehow managed to make rejection seem like a kindness.
The next two days passed in a blur. I began by drinking a crate of beer and followed up with a couple of bottles of Jack. When I finally sobered up enough to return to the rehearsal hall, intending only to collect my equipment, what I saw made Dali hugging Diva seem like the most predictable event in the history of music.
Dusk ’til Dawn was rehearsing as a trio, with Mira, the dreadlocked wannabe who had failed to emulate Diva, filling in for me. Like me, Dali had observed that she could play virtual percussion. Unlike me, he had considered how he could make use of that talent.
After I got over the shock, which took most of the band’s run-through of Snowbound, it occurred to me that there was one thing Mira didn’t know how to do — and that was how to keep Diva fuelled and flaring. Having exhausted me, Diva would soon need a top-up.
Unnoticed by the band, I made my way backstage and grabbed the cocktail shaker. As I ran out in front of Mira, the music faltered. She looked aghast. Diva’s expression mixed pity with irritation, whereas Dali didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. Shaking with anger, I stomped over to his eyrie, accompanied by a series of juddering bass notes, and hurled the shaker to the floor. It shattered into a satisfyingly large number of pieces.
Dali sighed. “I can replace that too, you know.”
I nodded. “Sure you can, but I’d start now if I were you, ‘cos I’ve learnt enough astrophysics to know that a nova fades once it has exhausted its fuel.” I waved a fistful of ampoules under his nose. “I reckon the sono-drug ‘trip’ works in exactly the same way. So Diva will burn brightly, just not for very long.”
She’d begin by feeding off Mira, I reckoned, but sooner rather than later she’d turn to Dali, which would kill Dusk ’til Dawn, ‘cos you can replace a band’s heart, as I’d found out the hard way, but not its head. So, if she couldn’t live off the band, that just left the fans. It seemed we needed them every bit as much as they needed us; more, if anything.
I stood on tiptoe, reached over Dali’s keyboard stack and slapped him on both shoulders. “Dali my old mate, I reckon you’re gonna need a much bigger cocktail shaker.”
His expression would have slaughtered Mira, but was no match for Toad. When Dali looked to Diva for support she responded with a shrug.
“He’s right, you know.”
And that is how I became Dusk ’til Dawn’s road manager.
If the Kyoto gig hadn’t been the opening night of the tour, I’d have cancelled as soon as I saw the advance sales, ‘cos playing to a half-empty hall usually spells doom for a rock band. To justify continuing we’d need to generate some awesome word-of-mouth. So I took a leaf out of Dali’s book and prepared accordingly, with the result that every punter who bought the band’s merchandise received a complementary squeeze tube of sono-cocktail.
“Yes, sir-” In my mind, I bowed politely, imitating the counter staff, “-you can take your drink into the hall. But don’t try to open it yet, because the tear strip is word-locked.”
I’d tested that particular feature to my satisfaction, but the same couldn’t be said for the sono-drug. To improve the odds that Praesepe would work, I’d arranged to have the balcony closed. With the air conditioning turned off, the JoPubs would swelter in the moshpit.
Watching the band walk out onto the stage I felt a pang of regret though not of jealousy. Mira had proved herself a highly capable v-drummer — and it no longer hurt me to admit it. Better still, she looked the part: youthful, confident and brimming with energy. I particularly liked the fact that she shared a name with a star. Unlike her celestial counterpart, our Mira showed no signs of extreme variability.
If only the same could be said of Diva. She stood centre-stage with her head bowed, her hair veiling the fearful look I’d seen in her eyes. She knew full well whose performance would make or break the tour.
Feeling no less jittery, I took a deep breath and followed the trio out onto the stage. A single spotlight picked me out as I strode forward.
“Kyoto, are you ready to ROCK?”
That drew a muted roar of approval but not a single chant of “We want Toad!”
How quickly the fans forgot.
I held up a squeeze tube. “Kyoto, are you ready to DRINK?” This time the yells were deafening.
Holographic numerals floated above the stage as I began the countdown. The JoPubs counted with me, many in English. A communally roared “Zero!” was the cue for everyone to tear open their squeeze tubes. I swigged my shot while running to the side of the stage. Dali began soundscaping and I closed my eyes.
The light from a myriad stars blazed inside my head. Brightest of all was a triple star system comprising the familiar combo of blue giant and white dwarf, but now escorted by a pretty yellow companion. I orbited further out, separating the trio from the remainder of the cluster.
Mira began hammering her virtual tom-toms as if punishing the air that we breathed, while Dali jabbed organ notes that made my guts vibrate. But as Diva began singing the first verse of Snowbound, her voice wavered. She continued to muff the high notes throughout the song. As Snowbound petered out into sonic sleet, I heard a smattering of boos.
I opened my eyes and glanced at Dali, who responded with a tight-lipped nod. As he began playing the opening chords of Fire in the Deep, I muttered a prayer to Odin, ran to the edge of the stage and belly-flopped onto a sea of raised hands. Surfing the mosh pit, I harvested the fans’ sweat, energy and adoration, heedless of the cuts and bruises inflicted on me. While in my mind’s eye, I navigated a sea of stars, gaining energy from each encounter, while gradually following a trajectory back to the triple system.
A glancing blow to my head forced me to open my eyes. I saw Mira waving at me, splashing virtual cymbals into Dali’s live mix.
Come on, she mouthed. Join us!
The fans at the front of the moshpit roared: “We want Toad!” as I clambered onto the stage. I grinned as Mira made room for me. I took over on virtual drums while she danced a bass line, stamping out notes with her bare feet. Our partnership worked perfectly, driving Dali to even greater heights of virtuosity. He danced around the stage, dabbing sampled guitar riffs from his keyboard. The air felt sticky with sweat: Mira’s and mine, Dali’s and Diva’s. I closed my eyes.
After re-establishing my celestial bearings, I performed a slingshot manoeuvre around Diva’s companions and settled into orbit around her. Gravity immediately began stripping me of my star-stuff. Yet, despite the intensity of Diva’s hunger, I felt no fear. I would gladly have given all of me to see her flare into life again. But would all of me be enough?
Just as my flow began to fail, I witnessed a burst of light so brilliant it made the rest of the star cluster look like fireflies. Overwhelmed by Diva’s luminosity, I opened my eyes, blinking until my vision cleared.
Now, at last, Diva really sang. She pitched her voice so high it seemed to bounce off the mirrorball, and growled so low she was molesting Mira’s bass line. And did she ever dance! To see her pirouette for the first time in fifteen years, her elbows firing off salvos of incidental percussion … well, tears trickled down my cheeks, that’s for sure.
As we brought Fire in the Deep to a close, a thousand JoPubs erupted with the loudest applause I’d ever heard. The stage invasion during the encore was the icing on the cake.
Needless to say, we got awesome word-of-mouth.
When Dusk ’til Dawn set out on The Tour to End All Tours, we didn’t expect to finish with five nights at The Brixton Academy, never mind that the final gig would climax with one of those “Where were you when…?” moments.
How terrible, then, that it was a moment of pure horror.
By the time we commenced the UK leg of the tour, we had ploughed the profits from merchandising into a whole lotta ME-tech. We installed screens everywhere: behind the stage, along the sidewalls and balcony, suspended from the gantries. Dali had decided to let our fans drive the visuals. Before every gig, we handed out headsets to a couple of dozen lucky competition winners. Most newbies didn’t generate anything better than psychedelic noise, so we let them carry sponsor vids as well. Kudos to those JoPubs who hacked the news feeds, though! Even Dali was impressed.
Best of all, I no longer had to stoke up Diva. Fuelled with my latest sono-cocktail, which I’d christened Messier 13, she could feed off the crowd’s euphoria without my help. But I still took a swig when Dali started playing the intro to Fire in the Deep. My crowd surfing had become an established part of our act.
The stars in my head sure looked bright that night. Little did I know that even Diva was about to be eclipsed.
After Security helped me back onto the stage, I looked out over the mosh pit and raised my fists in triumph. I was about to resume pounding my v-drums when eye-searing incandescence flooded the hall like someone had collected the light from every supernova since the dawn of time and beamed it straight into the Academy. I stood there and gawped, the music forgotten.
The screams began in the mosh pit and spread like wildfire. Within seconds every phone, every screen, was showing vid-streams of the LA Nuke. Diva was the last to hear what had happened. When Dali whispered in her ear, she sank to her knees and wept.
As for me, I felt a pang of relief that I hadn’t sent her back to Bar Fusion.
Needless to say, Dame Amy Winehouse and her mates organised a series of charity concerts for the survivors. It took a bit of arm-twisting, but I got Dusk ’til Dawn added to the line-up for Wembley. A mid-afternoon slot wasn’t so great, but we made the best of it. We played a shorter set than usual but didn’t compromise on the sono-fusion stuff. It’s what our fans had come to expect — and it’s our fans that have kept us going.
Dali wrote a new song called Stoned Cold Fusion, which we debuted at the gig. I dedicated it to the LA barman with the big biceps.
I figured we owed him one.
First published in:
Mark Harding (ed.): Music For Another World: An Anthology Of Strange Fiction (2010)
Vaughan Stanger originally trained as an astronomer before moving into the defence and aerospace sector, where he led R&D projects. Nowadays, he writes speculative fiction full-time. He has seen over fifty short stories published, including in Best of British Science Fiction, Nature Futures, and Interzone. His most recent collection is The Last Moonshot & Other Stories. Vaughan posts about his writing adventures at vaughanstanger.com