by Sam Tovey

Drew leans over his microphone and grins at the crowd. “You didn’t think we were finished, did you?”

They cheer back at him; a sea of faces stretching as far as he can see, beneath an iron sky filled with searchlights and lasers and a swarm of video-drones. The stage throbs like a heartbeat as his band roars into action: seventy thousand people sing along, jumping up and down. Drew hits the chorus like he’s never done before, every beat tight and brimming with purpose, and as he sails through the high notes he thinks this could be the greatest moment of his life.

Until the crowd glitches.

It’s just a shimmer at first; a green mist rising from the festival-goers as they start to bleed code. Then a mechanical screech rips through the air, the crowd freezes, and everything goes black.

Drew opens his eyes and looks up into the surly young face of an attendant with purple hair and a lip ring.

“Sorry, dude,” she says. “Overloaded the CPU. Hang tight while I get the sim up and running again.”

He realises he’s lying down, and as he blinks at the harsh overhead light it all floods back to him: the reality he now inhabits. The accident.

“How long was I under?” he rasps, his throat dry and raw. Always raw.

“Half an hour?” She shrugs, heading over to the stack of silicon piled almost to the ceiling. “I’ve stopped the clock so you won’t lose any time. I’ll roll it back some, too. Free of charge. Just don’t tell my boss, alright?”

Drew tries to look down at his body, but his head is fixed in place by the neural plug at the top of his spine. Not that it matters. He already knows what he would see: frail limbs wasted by time and neglect. A stranger’s body, no longer his own.

“You’re new,” he wheezes. It’s not a question; he comes often enough to know all the staff by name, trades his dwindling retirement fund so he can lie here and loop through old memories.

The attendant nods. “I’ve heard of you, though,” she says, hesitantly. Drew could almost mistake the tone in her voice for a fan’s hushed reverence.

She turns to the console and flips switches, presses keycodes. In the background there’s a thump of bass and a wailing guitar. Music from the wall-speaker. She bobs her head along to the beat and smiles when she catches him looking.

“You like it?” she asks. “It’s my buddy’s algorithm. He’s playing the Ciderhouse tonight. Got a retro vibe, might be your kinda thing.”

Drew wrinkles his nose. That’s all they’re into these days: procedural generation. A machine behind the instruments. No passion, no soul.

“I prefer it when humans are playing the music,” he says, his throat struggling to form the words. “It’s purer. More honest.”

She gives him a look, like, okay, grandpa, then carries on tinkering with the interface. He lies in silence, wishing he could show her how good it used to be. When he played to thousands, when he was in his prime.

The attendant clacks a few keys. “There,” she says. “I’ve fixed it. Had to reduce the body count. There were too many people in the crowd--CPU couldn’t draw them all at once.”

Drew frowns. “But that’s how big the crowd really was.” He stops. Swallows. “How big it would have been.”

She gives him a look full of pity that shreds him inside. The crash happened days before his first big show. A glitch in the tour bus’ driving AI. He doesn’t need virtual to help him remember the smoke burning his lungs, the weeks in recovery or the doctors giving bad news. His one chance at glory snatched away.

Drew blinks through the tears, and for a moment he’s not sure if he wants to go back under. Maybe he could stay here for a few minutes and talk to the girl about music. Before he can say anything, she breaks the silence.

“I bet you would have been really something.” There’s a tone to her words that rankles him.

“I still am.” He taps his temple, defensive. So what if some of his memories aren’t real? They feel real to him; they are real, as far as he is concerned.

The attendant avoids his gaze. “Of course,” she says.

It stings, but only for a moment and then he’s back on stage, ready to play out the crowd one more time.