by Lucas Church
From Fall 2016
I awake for the first time, one-quarter Freddie Mercury and three-quarters lab-grown anthropoid carriage, a blank adult body. Soon I will look and move like Him on stage, but for now I am seventy-five percent vacant space, waiting.
My first memory: the assistant-head lab tech, Kharli, stickler for rules, order, and lists—she fusses over me while rinsing my body of the nanojellies, telling me my very being was spurred exclusively to tour the dozen major factory cities where unrest and unhappiness are rampant. “Bad working conditions, low pay,” she says. “So they say.”
Then came Deet, with a swagger that will wake something in me I’ll come to know as hunger. “But the Prime Minister, bless him, says we depend so heavily on these manufacturing and raw element extraction hubs.” Deet, he’s the head tech who will later love me, he with eyes the color of cream. He adds, “They make the cars, the guns, the bullets, the screens, the butter, blah blah blah. Everything we need. Your orders are to make them forget their problems for a little while, you know? Let them sing their filthy little hearts out with you.”
I try to talk, but only cough. Kharli looks at me with contempt and leaves.
“Voice capability kicks in a few hours after emergence,” he says. “I’ll be back when you’ve rested. Take this in the meantime.” He hands me a slate—its glowing screen makes my fresh eyes hurt—and it tells me tomorrow is our first show; we’ll be in New Aberdeen, a centuries-old mining operation with a town attached.
When Deet comes back at midnight, I ask him what shows he’s talking aboutand what I’m supposed to sing. Who am I? What’s going on? My new voice embarrasses me, like I’m doing a poor impersonation of Deet, the only voice I’ve heard so far.
He says, after a pause, “You’ll know what to do and who you are when you get out there in front of an audience. Besides, it’s your raison d’etre, if you will. It’s why you’re here: You’re under orders to perform.”
“Who’s orders?” I wheeze.
Deet laughs and shakes his head, switching on what I will come to know as my feedtube. The syrup I eat, specially formulated to minimize bodily waste, tastes fermented and laced with the bitter mineral overlay of cheap vitamins.
“So many questions,” he says. “You’re a feisty one. Not like the others. Something different about you, I think. Just focus on making the crowd think of you and not their lousy lives.” He gets up and turns off the light. “It won’t be hard, I promise.” He closes the door and leaves me in the dark.
My handheld computer tells me attendance for the denizens of New Aberdeen is mandatory. I also learn the other members of the band are not like me. They are sophisticated machines made to look and act like Queen, a glam uncanny valley.
I learn that they are programmed with only a small cache of stock phrases. Before we go on stage, Roger, the drummer, smacks his lips as if chewing gum.
“Are you nervous?” I ask him. “Or are you used to things like this?”
“Rock on, Freddie!” he yells without looking at me. Brian says the same thing. John says nothing and just nods. In their company, I hear the faint whirr of gears.
When I go out, I can’t see the crowd. They are there—I can hear their calls, and some even sing along to the choruses (choruses which I’ve never sat down to learn, but know by heart). Before me, under the bright lights, they’re a dark mass. Soon He takes over, and I barely remember a thing.
Three days of travel after New Aberdeen we come to a crater I can’t see the bottom of and descend into darkness. This isn’t really a town, just an outpost north of anything listed on government maps. The miners’ acetylene torches only work for twenty minute stretches—or else, Deet tells me, they risk sparking and reacting with pockets of concentrated methane in the air—and as we near the landing pad, I see lights flashing on and off like fireflies down the crater walls.
We will do two shows today, so we get here early. Bored, I walk the tour pod back and forth, snapping my fingers and, without thinking, I do His signature strut, followed by His hip pivot, invisible mic stand in hand.
“Nice,” Deet says, walking in. Even though I’m made to do this—and look just like Him—I’m still slightly embarrassed to have been caught, though I can’t quite say why.
He busies himself preparing my daily tests. I like Deet. I’ve met other techs, but none of them treat me like I’m anything worth looking at. Deet talks to me like I belong here. There is another tech named Kharli. She takes my temperature, logs it in a computer. She never meets my eyes. I start to ask what’s so interesting about my temperature, and she tells me to put on my stage outfit.
I put on the winged jumpsuit—we’re doing Hammersmith ‘74 tonight—thinking of what I haven’t told Deet, Kharli, or anyone: that His memories are seeping through. Memories, or maybe inherited memories. Could memories be a porous thing? Or am I the thing that’s weak with permeable borders? I can taste the roti and daal they would feed us at St. Peter’s for lunch, His old friends, all dead, their faces too real to be my invention. These are not always dreams and I don’t fall asleep, but I do awake sometimes, Deet has told me, in tears, asking for His parents, who are long dead. But when I said it, I said my parents, not His parents. I crossed some line. I don’t think I have parents—they haven’t told me exactly how I was made—but I make a mental note to ask Deet his thoughts on the subject.
It is a wonder to learn about someone you are. I sit in the glow of the handheld, gnawing on His history records until I can sometimes believe they are my own, but, I find, there is a difference. Freddie was born to be the thing he was. There was nothing else in the world for Him to do—can you imagine Him as a lawyer? A pharmacologist? An acetylene-torch bearing prole?
No. He was meant to be the singer for a rock band.
So there is our dividing line. He was meant to be the thing he was, and I am the echo of a person I’m not. What the thing I’m here for is, other than this daily pantomime, I still need to find out.
Cambersole Park is a community of out-families, the government-approved term for feral communes of damaged human goods. The air has a gamey sweet scent, like rotting fruit, and all their lawns are dead. This is where the Empire gets its cheap liquor, and the crowd is soporific, and we play to, at most, polite smatterings of applause.
Lower Brumbledick: white jeans; white sneakers; moustache; slicked back, short hair. Kharli hands me dark glasses she calls aviators. I get sleepy wearing them, so I hide them in a fake potted plant next to the lavatory.
Deet finds me in my room. On his handheld, he pulls up an image, a statue of Him with arm triumphant in the air in what used to be Switzerland. “It’s still there,” he says, “but the lunatics pulled it down during some protest. They wrecked the head, so the rest of the body is in storage.”
“Why were they protesting?”
Deet looks at me expectantly.
I sigh with the burden of performance and trot out the best Freddie I can. “Why were they protesting, dahling?”
“Who knows? Always something. I don’t know. Sometimes I think they probably know deep down how hopeless it is, how impossible it would be to change anything now.” He looks around and leans in, his voice lowered to a whisper. “Keep it to yourself, but I…I respect them for it, you know? They’re trying to change things! I’m not. If they knew who I was, they’d think of me as one of the bad guys. But they don’t know me at all.”
He’s come in here like this before, to show me random things about Him and then change the subject. I think he’s trying to tell me something, but I haven’t quite figured out what.
But I have heard things, things about what’s brewing out there in the real world. Just chatter, whispers. Techs mostly talking about What if they organize? What if they fight back? Kharli called them all worthless jellyfish, and after that I knew I was right not to like her.
There are two robots for each band member: the main and the back-up. Main Brian, our guitar player, was compromised when a group of unruly workers at 5211 set his curly dark hair on fire with their torches. The back-up Brian model is older, fewer bells and whistles, and a couple problems that need fixing. One of his eyes is stuck on a slow counterclockwise spin.
We’re at ConRamp, a sparsely populated deep-sea oil platform off of where Guernsey used to be, before the tsunami clusters of ‘68 cleared it from the satellite maps. My handheld says there are 117 workers here. I ask Deet why we’d come to such a desolate spot after we’ve been playing to thousands.
“These are special workers, real special,” is all he says. When I ask for more information, he just says not to worry my pretty little head. I should be angry at his dismissal, but I think, when I catch his sideways glances, that he means for me to be happy, not to focus on the dark churn of anger outside.
What I concentrate on instead is remembering. Like His memories that bleed into my dreams, I start my push to be conscious—at least aware—during the shows. His movements I feel; the sweat; the throb in our temples; the sound of our voice in our head; the hot lights; the stretch, the pressure, of the polyester unitard across my hips, crotch, ass; and afterward I can’t sleep for hours because I’m pulsing with adrenaline. Deet tells me that Freddie couldn’t either, that the stories say that after shows one would see a crowd of good looking young men and women filing into his dressing room, each lining up for their turn. The energy must be dispensed with somehow.
What I learn: life at ConRamp is dull. Everything smells of sea salt and grease, even in our bunks. The metal walls and floors are slick with it. The band logo looms embarrassingly large, nearly twice the size of the tiny stage floor. As if to remind everyone that there is something untrustable about everything we’re doing, like we make our motions through a blurred photocopy of reality. The small crowd mills about and without warning there is a crash and before I can see what’s happening, Deet and the other techs run to break up a fight at the front line with their tasers. I’m just backstage looking out at the action, my heart racing—I’ve never seen such behavior in person!—and I feel a tug.
Behind me stands a young woman. She’s dark-skinned, tall, and thick-shouldered; whatever they do here must make a body nothing but muscle. She calls me by His name. She looks around. Brian, John, and Roger don’t sense her. They only stare dead-eyed unless their automated program kicks in.
“Do you think you could get this to Rofeshire?” She hands me a tiny piece of plastic, smooth, pitch black, and egg-shaped. It’s heavier than it looks.
“What is this?” I ask. Her hands are so much rougher than mine. I go blank for a moment, not sure exactly what to do.
“We’re fighting back,” she says. “It’s awful everywhere. Do you know how we all live out here? The misery we endure for the sake of, of what? This perverted progress?” She closes my hand around the object. “This has the weapon. It’ll free us, free our parents and our babies from all this horror.”
I shake my head. “I’m just the entertainer, just a, a,” I falter and can’t quite figure out how to finish that thought.
She whispers, “I have to believe you’ll do it. He’d do it, so you’ll do it too, right?”
Before I can reply she runs into the darkness behind the stage.
Back-up Brian speaks up. “We’re gonna rock them until they can’t feel their asses with their own two hands!”
When Deet comes back, he’s sweaty and red-faced. I see blood on his collar, smell his fear, but I say nothing. Instead I ask why this place was so important that we come. I glance around to make sure the girl isn’t within earshot and say, “We’re in the middle of the ocean surrounded by thugs.”
Deet pulls out a handkerchief and wipes his forehead. “This is the last working oil platform in the Northern Hemisphere, right?” he says. His breath is labored from the exertion. “They threatened to stop drilling unless we gave in to their demands for more liquor shipments and for you. They wanted to see you play. So here we are. So go play.”
I nod, knowing he’s angry. He turns his back and I push the plastic egg-thing down into my underpants. It feels like lead.
I go in and out of wakefulness, not really sleeping. More like I suddenly turn off and flip back on. Once I come back, I’m Him and there is just an echo of me.
In that lack of space, I feel our death, how it happened. And this is what is it like to die:
I am weak, cannot lift my arms. It is as if my bones are hollowed out, my chest full of sand. I can’t stop shitting myself, and the pain comes from so many places—my red hot lungs, my fiery throat, my shriveled, raw gonads, the lesions on my arms and back.
There is weight on my chest. I cannot escape it. The heat and the weight seem to be inching toward each other, two forces where I am the terrain. I never feel them meet.
Dave Clark of all people called my parents to tell them I was dead. Dave fucking Clark.
No, that’s not right. I do feel the heat and the weight meet. And I feel terror like I’ve never felt, and I wake up thinking I can’t do this dying thing all over again.
I miss my cats. His cats.
This show’s on what looks like an orange aircraft carrier. I try to hide from Kharli, who won’t stop talking about the brewing rebellion, all the bombings attributed to the resistance, all the near assassinations of key ministers. “You’d think with all the time on their hands the proles would have invested in a little target practice,” she sniffs. Walking with her slate in hand, she spots me behind a white plastic lounger. “Where are your aviators?”
She says that we’ll need to debrief before the last tour date, an exit interview about my experience. I promise to, as she says, “calendar” it.
For the Swerdlowe show, my mustache has been shaven, my hair artificially grown through hypersteroid shots injected at the back of my skull. Deet dresses me in the unitard with the chest exposed, complete with leather jacket.
“Go get ‘em, kid,” he says. I don’t meet his eyes; I feel guilty about not telling him about the egg-shaped thing from the ConRamp girl. There’s no privacy in my sleep quarters, so I stashed it in the potted plant with the aviators. I check on it every few hours, just to make sure. Its weight makes me feel like I’m the one with gravity, with purpose.
During the show, I’m able to get a few words of my own out, a few bits of stage patter not lifted verbatim from a show over a century old. The crowd laps it up, and every time I’m up there, the walls break down some more, and I can remember longer stretches of what it’s like on stage.
Otherwise: Swerdlowe is a barren parking lot with twenty thousand screaming fans. It smells like static electricity feels. After the encore, after my feeding tube session, it will be the place where Deet comes to my room, takes off his clothes, and slips into my bed.
Deet hands me a cigarette. He woke next to me hours ago, but this is his first attempt at communication. ”Where did you get these?” I ask. “I thought they were banned.”
“Not in the Estonian zones. I smuggle them in—no one looks at my luggage anymore. I bring them on every tour, but I haven’t touched them until now. I was saving them for something special. Someone special.” I feel my cheeks and heart prickle with embarrassment, and I place my hand on his. He shyly looks to the foot of the bed and waits for me to say something meaningful.
My slate tells me Haverswitch II was built when the original got swallowed up by a sinkhole no one saw coming. Engineers have assured the government it would be highly unlikely for it to happen again, lightning striking twice, etc. I’m hit with the same inherited memory I get whenever a tech drops a tray of glass pipettes (often): By the fall of 1990, He started to avoid mirrors. His face marked with lesions, the makeup needed to go out into public was thick, pancake white, corrective.
I want to tell Deet what He saw when He died. That I wake up and wake up and wake up. I don’t remember going to sleep. The dream I wake from: I had just taken fistfuls of pills that a man I knew in my dream was Jim had given me. He’d read the labels on the bottles to me, telling me what combinations of drugs would make the cocktail to keep me living a few more days. Jim, my love, will nurse me to the end.
Deet waits for me to say something. I smile. “For the show, I’m going to paint my nails black.”
In His old songs, He wrote about witches, fairies, dirty beggars, Lewis Carroll-fucked queens: a fantasy land, a Tolkien-damaged board game of ragged chess pieces. There was a surprising amount of anger there, too, in those early songs. I think they came from a very dark, very hurt place he never shared with anyone else. But something, something I don’t have a memory of, happened, and as the 80s neared, the songs became more vague, more about fun, about fucking, about dancing, about having undefined good times, about friends, about love and lovers of no particular sort, about concepts, big themes that didn’t ever need explanation, themes that could travel across borders without need of a translator, something a bindi boy in Kulkatta could love as much as a Manchester housewife; songs a young German queer bed hopping his way through Bavaria could connect with just as easily as a lonely Japanese girl, pining for some sweet, sweet ai no matter who it’s from.
Like everywhere else, Gyre is a shithole, the crowd listless and rank. Deet comes to my room every night. Tonight he tells me the other tours he’s worked. “My first was the Beatles. That’s when we decided the one anthropoid to three robots rule. Much quieter that way. I can’t remember who started stabbing who first, but I do remember finding Paul with his own severed fingers in his mouth.” He pauses. “And other places as well.”
I contemplate my exit strategy. I ponder going new wave. I can feel the electricity from the crowds. I hear shots outside the transport, screams. Never sure if I’m seeing fire from protests in the distance or just refinery top-out burning.
My guess is the egg holds some information that would expose the government, create a weakness, a vulnerability in the monolith of order. The Rofeshirians are working with the drones from ConRamp to know if they stand a chance if the revolt happens, if revolution takes hold, if this could be something to exploit.
But that, my dears, that’s only a guess.
On the topic of revolt, Deet says, “It’s like a fire, but you don’t know where the tinder is, you don’t know where the flames are coming from.” He stops and smokes for a moment, reflexively spraying air neutralizer as he exhales, and continues. “You might think you’ve put it out, but the flames just pop up somewhere else.”
He shows me his hearing aids, which are translucent and the size and shape of a human tear. “So many tours, we go on and on through this awful country, band after band playing to these lower classes, and it takes a toll. I’m practically deaf without them.” He smiles, his face looking older than he is, lined with a real life of memories I can’t quite fathom.
You do nothing but sleep and wake up and sleep and wake up on tour. Deet lies next to me. We’ve just finished fucking, but he’s out of Estonian fags. He stares into space, quiet and unprovoked by my attempts at small talk, and eventually dresses slowly and leaves, forgetting a sock I find under the pillow.
He seems sad today. “Over halfway through the tour,” he sighs later, while fixing my long dark hair like it was in 1973, just before Rhapsody. “I hate endings. We’ll be done before you know it.”
My slate only gives me basic information about the next stop on the tour. To make the silence go away, I ask him, “Did you know that Clyde was founded by a group of polygamist neo-socialists? And it burned down twelve different times in the last eighty years?”
He shakes his head and tells me we’ve been such a hit the government suits have added an extra date in what’s left of the North Country. Maybe more to come.
I know this is a love story. Me, Him, and Deet. It’s a triangle, in a way. Also, did I tell you, I found my purpose?
Every time I’m on stage I’ve been practicing, pushing Him down so I could control myself, my own body. I think, if He were in my position, He would understand. Maybe even do the same thing. I wonder if he’s been fighting just as hard to break through when I’m just walking around, talking, eating from my feedtube, watching Deet sleep while I count his gray hairs. I make myself forget the words to We Are the Champions and plunge into the crowd, the wretched little egg in hand. Like the girl who passed it to me, I trust the right person will be there. I think they are. It’s snatched from my open palm as if part of the plan.
The tears come, and I feel a great ballooning of my heart. This is what it must be like to be a person. Now I can say I was part of a good thing for once.
I have faith sometimes, too.
We know what will happen at Rofeshire. The tour will end early. Many will die. I will die again, probably. Deet will die, for the first time.
I’m pulled back onstage, and the power goes out; the emergency lights come up. The arena—something like twenty thousand tonight?—seems confused until there is a single voice screaming that it is on, that the motherfuckers are going down. One voice becomes many, and they start tearing at the stage, the walls, and I fall back farther.
I see Deet, a baton in each hand and rifle strapped to his back, wading into the crowd with the other techs. Already they know. Or he already knew. Maybe he knew this whole time and let me do what I wanted to do. Maybe he wanted to trap these poor bastards. Or maybe he really loved me? It’s a shame, to see him for the last time like this, a man that I know could be so tender and kind smashing faces of people who just want to see something like sunlight again.
The electricity flares back and God Save the Queen starts playing on the PA. I pull Roger, Brian, and John around me. They say nothing, unprogrammed for this. People are on the stage, I can feel them, hear them, I know they are there. I touch some of their hands. They are hot, they grab me, and I’m nearly sucked into the whirlpool churn of angry bodies. They scream for me, for Him, for us both. I see Him, but it’s not real, just a vision that breaks when another stage light crashes to the ground.
I scream for Deet. The audience is a mountain range, each man and woman a distinct peak raised, fists and knives and guns in the air. I can’t blame them for acting this way. I know what they want. They want the same thing I do, to be counted.
They call His name again and again, as if He’d join them. I want to correct them, to tell them I’m not Him, that He’s long gone and I’m going soon, that we’re all probably going soon by the looks of things. But I don’t try. Not because they wouldn’t hear, amid the screams and pops and flashes of stage lights being stoned and stomped, but because the cacophony is now the song, and I let it envelope me until I can only hear the vaguest of sounds, until all I can do is weep for my poor Deet and the man I look like, listening for the far off beating of all our hearts as they try to find each other in the darkness beyond.
I reach for the microphone one last time.
Thank you, you’ve been a lovely crowd.