Radio Freefall

Matthew Jarpe

Tor Books

Chapter One
There’s an old man, looking backward,
At the dreams he used to have,
At the life he thought he’d lead,
At the young man he once was, looking forward . . .
Aqualung sat in the pit, surrounded by computers, engineering boards, keyboards both alphanumeric and musical, little winking lights, dials, buttons, rocker switches, and sliders. He had a bottle of twenty-five-year-old single-malt Scotch nestled between his legs. There was no one else in the room. The only sound was the hum of the air handlers, and somewhere, in a distant hallway, the opening chords to “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.
As Aqualung settled the vidimask on his face, he got his first look at the Undersea Arena, where forty thousand souls had come to hear him play. It took a few seconds to get used to the compressed fish-eye view the cameras fed him, but he had designed the interface to be interpretable by the human mind. He toggled sound. He loved the sound of a crowd anticipating a show.
The Undersea Arena was a plastic dome under the Pacific. Light from the westering sun filtered dimly to these depths. Powerful spotlights stabbed through the murky waters, occasionally glinting off a fishy shape. Inside the dome, molded plastic seats marched halfway up the curving walls. The sound system was central, needing only the perfect acoustics of an inverted dome to reach the cheap seats. The bass was fed right through the struts and plastic shell.
Aqualung’s view was limited to the seats themselves, now slowly filling with warm bodies. He kept the zoom down to the minimum, taking the shape and feel and sound of the crowd. The vidimask made it feel like they were taking their seats inside his head. In a way they were. Very soon, he would be inside their heads, and they inside his, the greatest connection between audience and performer that had ever been. It had been twenty years since he first had this idea, twenty years to make it happen. And it almost hadn’t.
This was the Snake Vendors’ first really big gig. They had played for seven hundred in a smoky, run-down theater just a week ago, and now they were here, in front of forty thousand in the Undersea. Aqualung had convinced Thrasher Records and Stop Making Sense Productions they could pull it off, but now people were getting nervous.
Just an hour ago, Aqualung emerged from the pit and saw the record company guy yapping around the band, who were lounging on a sectional sofa. They weren’t dressed for the show. Or maybe they were; they hadn’t decided on a look yet. The record company had. They had some outfits designed by some Italian froufrou all lined up for the band to wear. Right now the band was dressed the way they always were, which was probably how they would end up going out. Fenner was always with the black. Black Doc Martens, black jeans, black T, and black leather jacket. Sandra’s thin shoulders held up a paisley sundress as she leaned on Fenner’s shoulder. Lalo wore running shorts and a tank top, his knobby knees and skinny elbows sticking out all over the place. Sticks tried to meld country bumpkin and hipster without much success. Britta filled out a silver spandex top and a red leather miniskirt. Tonight, she was trying out her own contribution to fashion: a home sexually transmitted disease test card hung on a cord around her neck. All negative results, natch.
They looked like five people who wouldn’t have anything to do with one another under ordinary circumstances. And then there was Aqualung, who didn’t look like he belonged anywhere near a band like this. He was in his mid-fifties, overweight, hairy, wearing torn jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. There was a guitar pick stuck in his beard. He looked as though he should be a roadie for the senior has-been/comeback circuit, not fronting for L.A.’s band of the moment. But he moved like a man thirty years and thirty pounds to the right side of hip, and he always seemed to be having a hell of a time.
The record guy was a little early to be on them about wardrobe, it seemed. Oswald, that was his name, Aqualung remembered. He was pretty much just a chew toy the record company threw to the band. He acted as the bearer of bad news between the talent and the fat cats. For now, he knew his place, but these guys never lasted. Sooner or later he would develop one of two illusions: that he was the boss of the band, or he was one of them. Either way, he would be toast.
“Aq,” he said, “you haven’t given us a playlist yet. We’re on in two hours.”
“We? Are you going up there with us, Oswald?”
“We need that playlist.”
Aqualung had thought about telling him the real story a few times in the last couple of days. He knew they could pull off the actual concert. He knew the Snake Vendors had what it took to play a room this big. It was the Machine he wasn’t sure of, the opening act. He didn’t know what songs he was going to play in what order for a very good reason. He didn’t know how the opening act would go. If it killed, there would have to be a breather. A concert was like a roller coaster ride. There was up and there was down. Too much of either and the ride was over.
Now, if the opening act stunk, the show would have to open big. They had two or three potential singles and a couple of kick-ass covers from the teens to throw out. They had no bigger opening than “Mojo Motorbike.” If the opener stunk so badly that the forty thousand were calling for blood, their hit single might not even save them. But Aqualung didn’t want to tell Oswald any of this because the fat cats would pull the plug on the opener.
“Relax, Oswald, I’ll give you a list.”
Fenner got up off the couch. “I thought we weren’t going to do a list, man.”
“Oswald wants a list, he’ll get a list. Now,” he said to Oswald, “don’t expect us to stick with this a hundred percent. You see, we like to feel out the mood of the crowd and play what comes to us naturally. It’s an organic process. . . .” He had given this lecture dozens of times, and Oswald’s eyes glazed over quickly. He snagged Oswald’s think pad and jotted down a list of songs off the top of his head, and took the liberty of scanning a few files while he held the thing. Forty thousand was conservative, by the look of it. The record company had done a good job of promoting this gig. They stood to make a lot of money, as long as they didn’t pay people to come as part of the promotion. Aqualung had enough experience to know what a bad idea that was.
“How are we coming on my console, Oswald?”
“Look, Aqualung, I know you think the opening act is going to be something special, but our top priority right now is the concert.”
“All that is required, Oswald, is that it be delivered, and unpacked, and plugged in. Now, concentrate before you answer this question, Oswald. Is it here?”
“It’s on the next train, I promise. . . .” He held up his hand. “Only, KYGI had more gear to load up than we thought, and we have to let them go ahead.”
“You’re an eater of broken meats, Oswald.”
“One whom I will beat into clamorous whining. Little Shakespeare for you. That’s your culture for the day. I want to tell you about my top priority. The only reason I’m doing this underwater concert is so I can test out my equipment. This is going to be something that has never been heard in the history of music, and we are all going to be a part of it tonight. You are going to be there, and you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren, if they let people like you reproduce, that you were there at its birth. Tonight, we are not only going to launch the 2032 Pacific Rim Tour of the Snake Vendors, but we are going to launch ourselves into history. And the forty thousand in this arena are going to go home tonight, stunned and amazed, and they’re going to buy lots of records. And the critics are not going to believe their ears, and we will make the cover of Spin magazine. And you, Oswald, will be rewarded by your superiors as befits a lackey in your fortunate position with a new electric Lexus and a Malibu beach house. Are you with me, Oswald? Are we all agreed that some radio station can wait for the next train so that my masterpiece can arrive here safely and on time?”
Oswald had just enough imagination to be moved by this speech. “I’ll make a call.”
Copyright © 2007 by Matthew Jarpe. All rights reserved.