I never spoke within three hours of any performance. A silly ritual of mine, I know, but it helped clear the mind chatter and prepared my fingertips for their magic dance. It worked, so who cares? I’ll jump to the point: no one cared. That’s who. The entire lead-up to my big moment was a total shit-show, tripling the pressure to be nothing but exceptional.
And I felt like I was ruining everything; no idea how to fix it, or if it were possible. Still, I had to try.
Kaivon wasn’t at his usual haunts, resigning me to wait until dayrise to hunt him down and clear things up. Or maybe he’d still come to the after-party, despite what he said. I didn’t try calling him, either, maybe I was scared. He never voiced it, but I knew: he was getting tired of all the games, same as everyone else. Tired of how they messed me up. All the late nights and unproductive mornings. Now he’d seen the character hangover, I usually hid that so well…
I’d be lucky if he would listen this time. Wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t. I get it, Kaivon fell in love with a talent star. I wasn’t acting like a star.
Whatever, probably for the best. Couldn’t risk getting into a fight that could affect my performance. After the last show’s fiasco, I was on thin glass with the higher ups. Nano thin. I had no more chances; it took too long to work my way up toward Rainbow deck. I’d come so far. No way was I going back down this close to the finish line.
I went home and had our medibot synthesize some Calm-eez, but slipped right back out because mother kept bugging me about the after-party. I swear that woman was incapable of making a single decision alone…
And on the way to the implant store some crazy old bat jumped in front of me and yelled, “This isn’t real! Nothing here is real! We are all their food. We’re in a zoo! A livestock zoo!” Clearly she had synthesized some of the blacklisted stuff, but I hadn’t the energy to alert Authority. I took some more of the Calm-eez I had stashed.
Then the implant store was busier than usual, and I nearly went full Karen on the repair bot because I had just started my silent treatment and every time it asked me a question, I’d have to project the answer from my bangle’s holographic screen. It kept complaining that my font was too stylish and not enough contrast from the background, basically illegible. Finally it scanned my chip and said nothing was wrong, then asked for an autograph. Some of the more humanoid bots tend to do that. After my sulky oblige, I slunked out, not prepared to have a full meltdown over fancy text.
So great, I’d have to do the show with a faulty chip or just turn it off completely. Both options were risky. I had never played without the implant, what if I needed it? What if it was the true source of my talent? (A question that would never leave my lips.) I didn’t know who to talk to about it… or, text to, whatever. I only had an hour and a half to decide.
The bots in my dressing room were top notch: two personal chefs, just in case I brought a guest, a total-body masseuse (and I do mean total, I had to turn off the inner massage settings because I always get so ticklish and it might would make me use my voice), and a medibot in case I wasn’t relaxed, or hyped, enough. A hair and makeup bot showed up half an hour before my performance, and that’s when things really started going downhill.
“Madame Alexis, I think you should try this color.” It was a bot I’d used before, “The Hairy Fairy.” Ours at home was just a normal drone stylist, but they do go all out for us stars. It looked like metal Tinkerbell with a hairdryer for one hand. I always figured everyone on Rainbow has one of these. She flew up into my face and projected a vision of me with sky blue hair, styled in a tall beehive like Marie Antoinette.
These bots were smart, but not smart enough to know I can’t play the piano top-heavy. What if I were to really lean into the music and my hair falls into the hammerstrings? From what I heard, they were having me play on a relic, one of the last traditional Yamaha pianos ever made. I didn’t know how old it was, but I could just imagine a 3D printed wig would gum up the sound.
When I waved that away, the bot offered to style my own hair, despite it being “too short to do anything very creative.” I typed to ask if it had any gold holo-dye, and it did, so we decided upon a honeycomb bun with little fairy lights peeking through. Sure, it was partly copying a look the famous singer Maya Boolne wore last season, but time was short and I was out of options. Luckily style didn’t matter as much, only talent.
Now I just needed to decide what to do about the brain chip. It’s true I’d used it in the past to enhance my performance, but I stopped that long ago when I started getting real good, working our tiny family up the ladder.
In fact, one of my best friends was caught using her chip to aim better in an archery match, and was sent straight back down to Scarlet, the lowest residential deck, slapped with a 5 year ban from competing. It’s much worse than it sounds, timing is everything around here. I never used mine in a show since, no, not so close to Rainbow. Straight and narrow from there on out.
That said, I had never turned it off. Did it have any baseline mental enhancement I wasn’t aware of? Maybe not enough that the chips would be banned (because that would be an uprising, for sure) but there could be something, perhaps something that sparks my connection to the source of creativity when I played? Did I really want to spend this performance to find out?
But to play with a faulty chip… Who knew what that could do. It could have glitched into an accidental performance enhancement, or worse, maybe that stupid game character wasn’t fully buried yet. Ever since that night, I’d had this irresistible urge to play something called “Nintendo.” It sounded familiar, but when I looked that up in the directory, there were no Nintendo games for the implant.
—No, Nintendo is the system. You play Mario on it, dummy! It’s like the best game ever made!-–
Fu**. She’s back.
That’s it, I turned it off.
By the time I stepped onto the glistening stage, I had found it: my zen, my inner mojo, that invigorating peace of confidence in my talent. It was necessary for a good performance, and I’d be damned if anything, especially an implant glitch, was going to ruin my current standings. I’d worked too hard for the opportunity to screw it up on my own, thank you very much.
The dress my reflection wore was a bit out of my comfort zone, and seeing it now in the floor’s silver shine, perhaps this sapphire disco ball mermaid dress was a bit too flashy. I was nervous as hell about it, but I wanted to make an impression and my tailor bot thought I was ready.
Looking up, head high and proud, I began the slow march to the piano. At these performances, it was customary to wave at the audiences like there’s something wrong with my wrist. I hated doing that, but everyone knows that the moment the very first cell of one’s body appears on stage, we’re being judged. That the opening ritual is just as important as the performance itself. So I waved my little heart out.
It was the usual audience, all the higher ups, dark hooded and speechless, filling most of the velvet red seats in a global pattern all around the stage. Some were much larger than human; I always wondered if they were modified humans, or something else entirely. (Maybe I didn’t want to know.) For the viewers at home, six little drone bots followed me around the stage to project the show in full spectrum inside their tele-cubez.
Sometimes these performances felt more like a casting call than a proper show; for whatever reason I would never receive any critique. Just play my heart out for an anonymous audience and wait to see if I’ve moved up or down a level. Afterwards, mother would do her best to give feedback, but what I craved–what I really needed– was someone who wasn’t afraid to speak their mind. Tell me like it is. How I could improve. How to stop screwing up. What I really needed was someone to save me from my own stupidity. I kept on waving.
The piano was a beauty, golden and sleen, with a bejeweled kickstand to prop up a gleaming harp-shaped hood. I’d played traditional pianos before, of course, but they weren’t my favorite. I preferred the synth kind that tracks eye movements to enhance the score. No matter, I told myself that everything was fine, and that I’d impress the judges and everything would be OK. Dandy as Candy, as mother would say. Don’t worry, I was pretty good at believing my own desperate lies.
I did my little unspoken greeting, blinded by the spotlights that were projecting the theme of tonight’s performance across the stage. I couldn’t see it, but was told earlier in the dressing room by an automated stage assistant. I was never a fan of this stuff myself, but as we learned in music school, “Star Wars spurned some of the most influential melodies and advances in musical technology, that it is still a favorite amongst classical filmography enthusiasts to this day.”
Yeah, I’m playing for a bunch of classical entertainment nerds.
Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind the music, it reminded me of Beethoven on drugs, especially that later stuff. I just couldn’t quite understand the lore of the movies, probably way over my head, or something.* They were just kind of boring, to be honest. I took my seat, placed my freshly pampered money makers across the piano keys, and sent my mind to a place where I loved Star Wars music and felt it flowing through me, just like the force, come to think of it. (*Ah, now I get it!)
For some reason my fingers didn’t place on the correct keys, so I moved them up a few spots… With the odd sensation of them wanting to go back down–
No you dummy! Star Wars starts with Eb, it goes– dum dum, da da da dum! dum! da da da dum! dum! You Dumb dumb! Get out of my way, you wouldn’t know good music if it bit you in the ass.
I was me again. You know, me. Grew up in the early nineties, crazy neurotic mom, Nintendo fan girl. All that stuff came rushing back in. The real me. Back in this twisted place. I had no idea why I was sitting at a piano, but I also had no desire to get up and leave. This felt important. Something I had to do. Still, memories of that other life, here on Babylon, lingered.
I’m Alex. I’m Alex… The real Alex….
Visions of my life tickled my mind’s eye. I remembered driving through Uncle Johnny’s back 90, searching for a dead man, too afraid to tell mom my beliefs about his demise. She wouldn’t have heard me anyway. We searched his cave with that Dr. Pepper man, and then… and then…
“BEGIN!” a voice boomed across the stadium.
“No! What the hell am I doing here? I need to find my mom! A-and I think Uncle Johnny’s been arrested. Maybe if I find a police station, they might help me!”
A voice in my mind arose. It sounded like mine, but super pissed–
No, you’re not going anywhere! How dare you screw this up for me? As hard as I’ve worked! And what idiot speaks before a performance? For the love of Earth and everything holy! Get out of my head!
I couldn’t get up. It was like the other version of myself, the one who belonged in this life, wouldn’t let me.
I loved Star Wars. It was just another geeky thing I did with dad; we’d hum the songs together in the car, or when washing dishes, or simply bored. He was the one who taught me how to play it by ear. Mom had me in lessons the moment she saw that I had some natural talent, but I eventually grew bored of the structured learning and just resigned to tinkering around on grandma’s old piano, the one I inherited.
“Fine. For dad. I’ll just do it and then split,” I figured. “Uncle Johnny’s already halfway found, and mom couldn’t be far off. She’s smart enough to keep herself out of trouble. (The sarcasm was thick with that one.) Ok, yeah, I’ll just wing it. Might be fun.” My fingers found their positions and…
Star Wars it wasn’t. The song that flowed from my hands sounded nice, but also foreign to my ears. It was weird, I could hear the Main Theme’s melody quite firmly in my mind, but the fingers danced a different tune. Simple and pretty. I really lent in, connecting to how I was feeling, like for example, how I had no idea where I was and why I was playing the piano. Or why I felt so compelled to continue. I sort of knew, based off memories from a life I’d never lived, but those were starting to fade.
What the hell? This sucks– the other me butted in– I can’t believe this is happening… Oh my God, they’re going to kick me down…
“Stop it, this is good stuff.” I said, and played on. “Here, I’ll see if I can do the Imperial March.”
This is the most amateur bullshit I’ve ever heard. I’m doomed. That’s it, there’s nothing I can do. Whatever happens, I deserve it…
Ok, that hurt my feelings. Sure, I wasn’t Liberace, but I knew my way around the piano, thank you. I didn’t know what this other part of me expected, the one buried deep within but clawing her way out; all I knew was I felt crazy again, and perhaps that might had poured into the music with steep, moody dissonance. My other side roared–
Get the hell out of my head! You have no idea what’s at stake here!
Suddenly it felt like my hands had been possessed; the other me was taking over, getting back on track of the main Star Wars theme, with all these little extra flourishes I wouldn’t have considered. She had this way of skimming a few notes here and there which mimicked brass horns. Genius.
“Dang, the other me’s good!” I said, watching my hands come alive. But the moment I said it, I had full control again and the song began to slip back into a strange, heartfelt original melody. It made me think of mom. “I have to find her.”
For f***’s sake, STOP TALKING!
The other me was kind of a bitch. And a total potty-mouth; I was no saint myself but I usually thought twice before dropping f-bombs. Whatever, I just relaxed back into things and let her hands take over. Back to Star Wars, back to her surprisingly genius interpretation. I became the silent observer into another life. A strange life. A cruel one, it seemed, unless you’re super talented, like her. Then they pamper you like the freakin’ queen of Babylon.
To be honest, I was a little jealous.
She ended the performance with an epic grand finale; I was humming along until the last part that sounded like fireworks. No wonder I was famous here. If I could have played half as good as this back home, money would have never been a problem, guaranteed. Seriously, I couldn’t believe that masterpiece just came out of my own two hands.
“BOW!” The booming voice commanded.
To be continued…