“You shouldn’t fuck crazy,” James started. “I know you’re young, you’re all dick and balls – fuck anything that moves, but crazy’s off limits.”
Luke rubbed his black beanie and flicked his cigarette’s ash onto the black tarmac outside Ipswich Hi-Fi. “You didn’t say that yesterday.”
“You weren’t fucking two girls yesterday.”
Luke swallowed and nervously readjusted his long, rectangular body. He flicked his cigarette once more.
“Look,” James said in his fatherly voice. “Mandy’s got shit parents, just had a shit boyfriend. She’s got her own issues.”
“She’s not crazy,” Luke snapped as neon lights reflected off his brand name sunglasses.
“Didn’t say she was.”
Silence crept between the summoner and his manager. The cigarette burned, hover cars slid past them, and the tarmac collected more ash until Luke coldly asked, “What you trying to say James? What you want to say?”
“I’m saying there’s two ass cheeks – one of them’s Mandy, one of them’s our connector. And in the middle there’s a hole. A dirty brown fucking hole.” He rolled his shoulders and glared at Luke. “Know what I mean?”
Luke did, but he didn’t give the comment any extra thought. Instead, he imagined himself swinging a punch and seeing if his left hook was faster than his manager’s bionics’ auto-tracking system. He’d seen them beaten on the U.S. vid networks, fights where the human defeats the adjusted in a thrilling death match.
But Luke had also seen what happened to those who weren’t quick enough, watched them twitch and die of blood loss as the crowd cheered; so he didn’t. Instead, he just snarled and stormed away from Ipswich Hi-Fi in a sulky rage.
He didn’t go very far though, not even past the corner-visual display with its bullet-proof glass before he shouted, “Why’d you tell him?” at the shadows.
“Why’d you fuck her?” a woman’s voice responded.
“Makes you happy?” Mandy – black-haired, angular-faced Mandy – walked into the glow of the screen. “Makes you feel good?”
“That so bad?”
“Yeah,” she aggressively retorted. “Yeah it is. There’s the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and there’s yours: Ten centimetres wide and failing.” Switching her tone from anger to compassion, she continued, “What happens if you lose this gig Luke? You’ve been on the other side.”
“I’ll get a job, I’ll get sponsors,” he defiantly replied.
“With your vids? With the shit you’ve done? Baldev doesn’t forget. You’ll be purged first.”
Luke turned away from her and stared at the darkness around them.
Mandy continued, “You got lucky with your band. Don’t throw that away.”
“So I can never be happy? That’s the trade?”
Her left eye twitched twice, and then a third time. “We pay our price Luke.”
“Your band is famous.” Anger crept back into her voice. “You’re a shit summoner. A sex-god with a small dick. And an asshole.”
“You call me…”
“What? An asshole?” Mandy laughed. “Or say your dick’s small? Cause it is.”
She grabbed his black t-shirt and yanked him down before he could continue. “You’re not in Happy fucking Tunes. You’re in a death band. You’re a summoner in a death band who can’t produce the goods when his dick’s wet.”
“Let go of me,” Luck stated with fury rippling beneath every syllable as he clenched his fist tight.
“Only good when you hate fuck. What kind of shit is that? What type of man are you?”
Luke pushed her backwards and threw the hardest punch he could with his eyes closed. ‘Tooong’ went the plastic screen as it bounced back into position. ‘Toong, toong, toong.’
“Fuck you,” he replied to his girlfriend. “Fuck you.”
“That’s it? You’re done?” When Luke didn’t reply, Mandy continued, “Fantastic, let’s get this fucking show toasted.”
Terza hated clearings. She hated assessments, deleverages and fluctuation balancing. But most of all, she hated resonance concerts. It didn’t matter if it was an angelic calling, a sex-god humming or a death spiral – she just hated the idea of people using their souls as barter chips to make music.
Yet, she did it. Night after night, limb amputation after limb amputation, she protected band after band because Baldev commanded it. Because, as she told herself when every musician nervously entered her mini-sanctuary, “All decisions must be paid.”
“What’d you say?” James asked as he closed the curtain to her circular room.
“Just wondering if you’re anxious,” Terza replied as she opened her third eye.
“No more than usual.”
“You’re lying.” She signalled for Bill, their unifier, to lean in. “I won’t tell anybody though. Not after all we’ve gone through.”
James assumed his blocking position in front of the exit and then replied with a thankful head nod.
“You’re clear,” she said to Bill as she placed a clearing seal on his forehead with a kiss. “I won’t bite Cogan,” she told their projector. “Not tonight.”
He smiled, faintly, and opened his bright blue eyes. Eyes which went deeper than his emotional barriers, deeper than his childhood trauma, and deep enough Terza could see into the diamond of his soul.
“You’ve got a quiver,” The Clearer stated after looking in them. She turned and looked at Scarz’s band manager. “He’s got a quiver. It’s a mild one; you want to use a sub?”
“He’ll be right,” James replied with a fake smile etched across his face. “We’re in good hands here.”
For a moment, a fraction of a second after seeing the band manager’s expression, Terza thought about shutting the whole show down. If Ipswich Hi-Fi wouldn’t have fired her, if Baldev wouldn’t have taken more months of her life, she would’ve. But they would, and so she told Cogan to take it easy.
Risa – gorgeous, stunning Risa who men in thirty-three zones lusted after – was next. She didn’t need any
prompting and opened her eyes wide for her friend.
Terza felt the fracture long before she saw it – it was too much of disruption for anyone with spiritual training to miss. Anyone.
“How have you been hiding this?” she whispered in her friend’s ear so only they could hear.
Terza shifted backwards and stared at the woman in front of her, “They know you’re in love? They know their connector’s in love?”
When no one immediately replied, Terza yelled, “Out, everyone except Risa. Out!”
All the men, Luke included, didn’t need any more encouragement and slid through the curtain into the dirty and piss-stained band-prep area.
“I made a choice,” Risa replied to her friend’s dumb-founded look. “I made it last night.”
“With Luke? You sold Luke out? Does he even know what you’ve done?”
“Not just Luke. I got the God’s price. Thirty-three souls and an ounce of love. I’ll be free soon.”
“Free?” Terza slapped her. “Free?” She slapped her second time. “You don’t barter with The God of Vision. We shouldn’t even be down there. None of us should.”
Risa rose to her full height, six-foot, and stared down the mousy-haired Clearer. “It’s been done.”
“In Athie circles, in stories. Risa…”
“It’s been done,” she repeated defiantly.
Terza sighed. “You’ve been talking to him. Talking to Death.” She shook her head in disbelief. “You’ve already made a trade.”
“You can’t tell Luke,” Risa inched closer to her friend. “He can’t know. It’s just an arm. I traded sex and happiness for an arm. My happiness. I’m never getting that back.”
“You’ve implanted him? Thirty-three times?” Terza collapsed onto her brown Lazboy. “You’ve put their radiance in his arm? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? For him?”
“He’s an asshole.” Risa glanced around the room nervously. “Please? I’ve made my decision.”
Terza pointed to the ground. “Sit.” Her friend did. “If you’ve lied to me, I swear… I’ll tell Baldev. I’ll tell them everything.”
“I haven’t. Please.”
She didn’t reply; instead she kissed her friend on the forehead and cleared her for the performance even though the only visions she kept having were ones of destruction and doom.
Death Spirals, like all good Data Songs, had a blueprint. Firstly, they would start late with large laser screens and holographic projectors serving the thousand-strong audience a whirlwind of audio-visual stimulation. Fearsome beasts and burning monsters would fight to their mortal end on imagined backgrounds with fans yelling and screaming at the display as if they were possessed.
For the industry insider this stage was called ‘Entrancement’. Its sole purpose, and reason for its relatively extravagant expense, was to fool the entrants into believing what came next was a lie. A fiction. And totally harmless.
Then came the summoner – usually a man, but sometimes a woman – who would work the crowd by performing a seductive striptease. Not a complete one, just one which took the stripper to their undergarments. And when everyone was in a frenzy, and the psychic energy was at its peak, they would slash their arms with a knife and let their blood drip onto the floor. The room would then go dark, projectors would be turned off and artificial smoke would be pumped in.
The audience, now in the grip of an irrational fear, would look on as the summoner drew a symbol on the stage and flames flickered and licked at the building’s walls. To the ticket-holders they were projected, to the technicians and clearers channelling the crowd’s collective psychic energy into a spiritual force field, they were real.
Down, down, down the room would go. Down past Hades, down past the dark lords and the evil ones. Down to the lowest realm the summoner could manage. Luke, a fourth-level, could only make it as far as Death: The God of Vision. The God who lived in a black hut with a white door and red handle, and who saw all the threads of time weaving across the infinite in a single glance.
If this had been a traditional Scarz show, Risa and Cogan would have then come out with their serious faces on. Cogan, the projector, would have meditated and sent his fox into the alternate kingdom. He would have knocked on Death’s door until the monster – a constantly re-arranging mass of shadow and void – exited and raged against their protective barrier.
People would have screamed, Terza would have channelled their energy into the shield and all would have been safe as the ticket-holders listened to Death’s music and felt it stir their souls.
And, at the height of darkness, at the pinnacle of the abyss, Risa would have projected herself into the other world and kissed the enraged shadow and void with a peck of love and happiness. He would’ve recoiled at the experience of those emotions – angry, furious – and been ready to do battle until Bill had saved them with his closing meditation.
Except tonight was not like any other night, Risa kissed Luke instead and broke the summoner’s concentration. She broke the barrier with a kiss, a friendly tickle and a laugh.
Death did not need a second invitation and ripped three souls from people’s bodies before turning on his target – Luke.
It took Terza two seconds to realise what had happened – Risa had lied. And she needed to save all she could. “Who’s a level four?” she yelled into her microphone. “Who’s a level four?”
“I am,” a squeaky, high-pitched female voice replied.
“Well cast a barrier spell. Grow it.” Terza didn’t wait for a reply and started speaking to the other technicians, “Hold for the spell. When it’s started, turn the lights on and let them out. Let them all out so we can capture their relief energy. It’ll be enough.”
It has to be enough, she thought as a shimmering, silver barrier started to glow and the Hi-Fi’s lights flicked on. When another four people went down, the crowd went from angry about the technical difficulties to scared. And then – when a fifth one collapsed with a vacant stare –no one could have stopped the public. Shrieks, yells, and punching became the order of things.
“Hold,” Terza whispered into her radio. “Hold, keep holding and…” She watched as the last person dashed out of the room, “Let it go.”
The projection barrier flickered, sizzled like a laser and pushed against the God of Vision. He retaliated, he encompassed the whole circle and dropped all his power on it, but it held. It held because Terza called down the last few favours she was owed by the Glow and asked it to keep the balance. And so it did. It did until Death was back beyond the veil and Bill could perform the closing meditation.
Seconds after they had split the connection, Terza closed her third eye and slid down the command pole. “Where’s she?” Terza yelled at them. “Where’s Risa?”
James swallowed nervously. “I don’t know, she’s gone.”
“Gone? She’s gone? You let her off stage? She sold us out. Luke, you, me. An arm,” she chuckled hysterically, “an arm! That’s all.”
“I don’t… I don’t know.”
“Well she’s gone. Like Luke. Gone, gone, gone.”
Cogan’s deep voice replied, “That’s not so bad, right? A few deaths, we’ll be OK. We didn’t know.”
Terza stopped, took a deep breath and then told them the bad news, “They’re not dead. None of them are dead. They’re just open portals for the other side to come through now.”
“So?” Bill asked as he finished his drink of water.