Rock and Roll Will Never Die
by Terry Madden
Esme found Mick perched on the edge of the heated recovery bunk, tattoos sagging with his breasts. A little positive pressure on the sub-dermal body shapers would fix him up.
Mick sucked oxygen from the wall unit and pointed at the wastebasket in her hand. Right on cue, he upchucked the purple regen slime.
“You know stasis and vodka don’t mix,” Esme said.
“You want me to wake up with the fucking DT’s?” Mick wiped at his mouth with a trembling hand. “I’m too old for this shit.”
“The boys have already found the local pub. Better catch up. Or we could always go home.” Esme wasn’t sure what she enjoyed about provoking Mick when he was so vulnerable, but at least it got his blood pumping.
“Home?” he said. “You out of your mind? There are tribute bands back on Earth, playing my music.”
“Not anymore,” she said under her breath.
“I say . . . probably not anymore. Tribute bands only play legends.”
“We been forgot, is that what you’re saying?”
In response, she pushed his head back so he was looking at the faux sky then held his eyelids open for the drops. For the past eight months, ship time, the band had been playing frontier cities in the Orion Arm. But this stopover didn’t even qualify as a city. She wasn’t even sure they had a theater here, but it was the best she could do.
Mick blinked and squeezed the liquid wakeup out of his eyes. As if reading her mind, he said, “Where the fuck are we?”
“Woden-165. Orbiting outpost.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s frontier. A black hole jet mine--palladium, gold. Huge gravity time dilation. I thought you’d like that.”
“Since when did you start thinking for me, Esme?”
Since we left Earth. “I do the booking, you play. That was the deal.”
“And the only gig you could get is a mining station? What happened to the show at Cygnus-7?”
He wasn’t supposed to remember the last gig. Esme glared at the tech who shrugged.
“You already played Cygnus-7,” she told Mick, “remember? Twice.”
“They got a stage here?”
“A small amphitheater.” Could she even fill that? The people who staffed these outposts had left Earth at least ninety years after Forced Entry had hit the top of the charts. Probably no more than a handful had ever heard of Mick Hudson.
She handed him his tunic and trousers. “I’ll get you an appointment with a stylist--”
“Bring me some auntie em and don’t tell me they don’t have none in this shithole.”
She left him with a glass of vodka and pheromones and headed out in search of the necessities. Carl and Splinter, bass and drums, wouldn’t return her messages which could only mean they’d already started spending Esme’s credit.
Waiting for the lift at the customs gate, their ship appeared on the view screen. Four supertransports, all bound for different systems, sandwiched the little luxury cruiser Mick had dubbed Time’s Tail. The supers would be carrying local news with their cargo, because that’s all the news there was here. Esme was ready to give them something fabulous.
The slow rotation of the station’s torus brought into view bright jets of plasma that twisted from an invisible source. A red dwarf companion star bulged like a garnet teardrop, the outer layers feeding the black hole as it whipped around the singularity.
“Monsters, aren’t they?”
She turned to find their ship’s captain, a middle-aged man comfortable with the idea of ceaseless travel, standing with crossed arms and a painted smile. His chumminess now was merely a reminder for Esme. She hadn’t paid him for the last jump, and after paying for fuel here, she doubted she could afford the next one.
Before he could bring it up, she pointed at two graceless ships with gilded mesh arrays and asked, “What are those things?”
“Magnetic ore rakes. They send them into the jets and scoop up the rare metals and sift them. Like a whale feeding on krill. I’ve been meaning to talk to you, Esme.”
She headed for the open lift, saying, “Maybe we can sift some money out of this place, eh Captain?”
Some say rock and roll will never die, but Esme knew death throes when she saw them. Of course, people still listened to Mozart. But here, now--at least the “now” defined by their current port of call--few had ever heard of the Beatles let alone Forced Entry.
Having left the band in a salon in the shopping mall, Esme discovered the small amphitheater where booking Forced Entry required giving up fifty percent of their take. She fully anticipated the tantrum Mick would throw when she met him outside the salon two hours later.
Every shaft of every hair on his head had been newly-plated with gold, radiating in spikes of various lengths that caught the simulated sunlight in blinding glints.
She said, “I see gold is cheap here.”
“There were people watching!” He pointed back at the salon with his new tiger claws. “And look at these lips for fuck sake.” He pointed at what appeared to be the work of an exuberant stylist.
A crowd of shoppers had gathered and Esme steered Mick away from their mocking titters. They probably listened to neo-soul or that Mongolian throat singing so popular a few decades back.
“Good PR, Mick,” she said. “You’re one of the hoi polloi.”
“More like a shop manikin.”
“Some chick watched me get me crotch waxed,” Carl moaned.
“But did you sell her any tickets?”
He gave Esme the stink eye, saying, “Not my job.”
As the band’s drummer, Carl was usually happy with nothing more than food and booze, and none too picky about the specifics. Mick must have stirred him up.
“I don’t care if they watch me take a shit.” Splinter was the newest addition to the band. His green hair was sculpted into a forest of trees. He had taken over for Mick’s school mate when the two of them overdosed after the show on Hypatia Prime. Esme had bankrupted them to restore Mick; encoding him to an ego chip. But after the news coverage of the mess, they’d seen a nice uptick in sales and Esme’s new marketing scheme was born.
The truth was hard to accept, Mick was a star who wanted nothing more than to sputter into darkness. But Esme couldn’t let that happen. It was in her contract.
Esme handed Mick exactly a tenth of a gram of auntie em.
He held up the baggie in the chemoluminescent light of the Oslyrian restaurant. “What do you expect me to do with this? Sprinkle it on me salad?”
“It’s time to cut back. On everything.”
“Are you me mum now?”
“I’m your manager, and I’m saying you’re broke.” She’d learn to deliver those words with conviction.
He seemed genuinely surprised. This talk always started the same way, and with any luck, ended the same way.
“And whose bloody fault would that be, Esme?”
She feigned calculating what she already knew. Twenty light speed jumps to varying gravity wells meant that approximately five hundred years had passed on Earth, give or take a hundred, depending on the variation in gravitational dilation.
“Your fans have returned to stardust, Mick. And the truth is, Forced Entry was a name, but it’s no legend. You understand what I’m saying?”
His jaw was hanging slack, his new lips looking rather dry and puffy. “That was the whole fucking idea, Esme. Play forever. One day only, then hit the freezer and move on.”
“But we didn’t consider the low interest.”
“You didn’t consider. You.” He opened the baggie and emptied the red powder onto a saucer. It was gone before Esme saw him take out the straw.
“What’s it like?” he asked, wiping his nose. “That personal universe inside that overly educated head of yours, eh?” He glared with a bunched up brow, saying, “Never been high I’d wager, never been wrong, never been funny, never been famous, never been arrested, never been happy. . . never been.”
“Never been rich, either.” He usually hit that note, and the one questioning whether she’d ever been laid. “I’m not spending an eternity travelling at the speed of drug-induced numbness. Fuck that and fuck you, Mick Hudson.”
“What are you proposing then, your royal highness?”
That was the door she was looking for.
“We have enough money to refuel,” she said. “But I haven’t paid the captain for the last jump.”
“Maybe we play two shows here,” he mused. Always best to make it his idea.
“Two shows. And the second one will splash your name all over every signal within ten light years.”
Mick leaned back and draped his arms over the cushions of the velvet booth, grinning. “Do tell, Lady Esme.”
“Here’s the nut of it, Mick. Legends don’t retire to leisure resorts. They go out with a bang.”
Three hours before show time, Esme had sold thirteen tickets. The theatre held three hundred. She uploaded new ads on the Woden-165 intranet, “See Mick Hudson and Forced Entry! Today Only! Tickets half price!”
This station wasn’t that big. What else did people have to do while living at the edge of a black hole?
With a cappuccino warming her hands, she sat on a terrace overlooking a busy tram stop. It had sounded so adventurous--leave Earth and the mess behind to be a cosmic roadie, knowing full well that everyone and everything she knew and loathed would be dust when she returned. If she returned. A few more shows and she’d have stashed away enough to have some options. That was all she wanted now.
Her job was to make sure Mick was a rock star forever. She intended to do exactly that. One or two jumps to more populated systems would clinch it, and then Mick could float off to his auntie em nirvana. But this finale would cost a penny or two.
Stalking the mall, Esme approached anyone who would listen. With an hour till show time, she had only sold a few dozen seats, so she gave them away. That theater would be full if she had to pay people to come with borrowed money.
She successfully packed that first show with non-paying customers, and by the end of it, they were all fighting to get to the mosh pit. Mick was ready to hit the freezer and move on, but Esme reminded him he had agreed to do a second show.
This was it. The tickets sold out within an hour. In one day, the rumor of Forced Entry’s comeback fueled a frenzy of Mick look-a-likes and girls in scanty faux leather and headbands, fringed and beaded like they’d stepped right out of the twentieth century.
This would be a show to remember. And she had the sales receipts to prove it.
When she finally made it backstage, a look of relief crossed Mick’s face.
“Where you been Esme? Do you see that crowd? Carl, show Esme.”
Carl took her hand, giving it an uncomfortable squeeze as he led her to a peep hole. She peered out at the sea of faces.
“Why don’t you let him go this time?” Carl asked her. He was soft, believed that Mick had been cheated out of his chosen final act back on Hypatia Prime.
“To him, this is his final show. That’s all that really matters.”
“How many times you think you can get away with it before the news reaches a system ahead of you?” He walked away.
Maybe he was right. It had taken some time to outrun their last show. But there were a few more left to farm out here on the frontier. She wasn’t ready to call it quits.
She found Mick in the green room snorting his last bit of bravado. He slipped the guitar strap over his neck and gave the ancient instrument a thrum.
Handing him the gift box, she said, “I got you a little something. Seeing it’s your last show.”
“A pretty for me? Gee, Esme. You shouldn’t ‘ave.” He opened the box and held up the necklace. The bauble looked like a chess piece. A pawn. It’s eyes glowed green as copper plasma.
“It looks a tad familiar,” he said. “You give me one of these before?”
From over Mick’s shoulder, Carl glowered.
“I’ve given you plenty of baubles, Mick. And what do I have to show for it, eh?”
“Cute little fella,” he said, and draped it around his neck.
“Glad you like it.”
“Make sure you time your aerial,” she reminded him. Rigging this finale had cost a bundle. But it would pay off in days with music sales. “Your last encore. Make it super.”
The show opened as it always did, in a cloud of fog, the spotlights strafing the crowd. Mick led the way with his signature hand jive, tapping the rhythm out on his oiled chest while Carl picked up the beat on the drums. Splinter joined in with some long notes until Mick hit the opening riff of Iron Slaughterhouse. Esme was certain no one in this audience had ever heard anything like it, nor would they ever again. Maybe rock and roll wasn’t quite dead yet.
After the first set, the crowd was on their feet, hands in the air, dancing to the relentless rhythm of Forced Entry.
Esme checked the cameras and the sound techs. It was looking fabulous, they said, live stream spewing out of the station like starlight.
Mick moved through the playlist with the precision of a machine until Carl’s solo marked his first break.
Backstage, Esme met him with a towel. The pawn cast its random glances as Mick dragged the towel down his face. He met her with a smile that was false and yet so measured.
“I know what this is.” He pointed at the green-eyed pawn around his neck. “Make this the last time, Esme.”
She was unable to reply. He’d never remembered before.
“Do you promise?” he said.
She nodded. With a little wink, he headed back to the blaze of lights, arms held high over his head, basking in the adoration of a crowd born centuries after him.
Esme made her way to the balcony. A guy in a mech’s red jumpsuit was pogo-ing, his hands limp, his armpits a swamp, and the rest just like him, dancing, trying to sing along with a song they’d never heard before. They knew it now. And they wouldn’t forget it.
First encore. Security had to drag two girls off the stage, but not before Mick gave them a kiss and clutched their asses.
The outer skin of the station slid away revealing nothing but space. Mick had found his mark and as the platform began to rise, it looked like he was walking on the stars that appeared beneath his feet. He never missed a note, working through a long improvised guitar solo that was nothing Esme had ever heard before. Transcendent, Mick was leaving the way he wanted to leave. He was the crowd and the crowd was him, and all were lifted on his music to become the expanse of space swelling beyond him.
Esme fingered the transmitter in her pocket, unlocked the safety and felt the concave button under her thumb. Maybe this would be the last time. Would he feel anything? Would this moment be recorded in pain and nothing else? Maybe she could make good on her promise. Maybe the payoff this time would be enough.
Mick’s platform had reached the force field that formed a barrier between the theater and space. He let the last note rebound through the bodies of every fan, and then he pointed, as if cuing her. It’s what he wanted, every time. To live forever in the shower of his sparks.
She pressed the transmitter.
And the green-eyed pawn ignited. The reaction began in his chest, like green-gold starlight radiating from his heart. It sizzled to his arms and his eyes, magnified by the lens of his magnetic field. He showed no pain, just ecstasy.
The audience remained on their feet, some weeping, some huddled together in a mutual embrace long after Carl and Splinter had left the stage. Unlike Mick, they would never forget.
The replica of his ancient Stratocaster would be the last thing to burn in this slow fusion. Mick’s brilliance was encased in a magnetic bubble, the skin of which arced with webs of plasma discharge.
When the bubble penetrated the force field and exited the station, the exterior camera had it in view. Surely Mick was long dead before he was captured by the tidal forces of the black hole, but the telephoto lens watched for as long as possible.
The frequency of his last note rang like an afterimage that stayed with Esme through the investigator’s questioning. The Ego Chip was enough to prove it was nothing more than a stunt, but buying the guy’s silence was more costly than ever.
The chromosphere of the red dwarf dragged a radiant ribbon from the event horizon of the black hole. Protons of stardust stirred with those of Mick Hudson.
The lights of Woden-165 had begun to merge with the star. The cameras had uploaded their coverage to the ship as instructed and Esme would edit and send the video out to local producers before she hit the freezer.
“He remembered this time,” she told the regen technician. He was readying the data banks for reconstruction of the next Mick, warming amino acid baths and neural regulators.
“You don’t want him to remember?” The tech was new to the crew. She’d cut him some slack.
“He should never remember his finales, he might back out.”
“Where are we headed?” The technician asked.
“Some place that’s forgotten rock and roll.”