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EP463: Rockwork

by R.M. Graves
read by Angi Shearstone

author R.M. Graves

about the author…

I am an illustrator and fiction writer based in London, England.

This is the list of my published work so far:

“Ever Before Me”, on Everyday Fiction.

You might like to hear the Samuel Sebastian Wesley hymn that inspired it:  Wash Me Throughly.

“More Crackle Than Music”, upcoming on Stupefying Stories.

“Simulation”, appearing in July’sFlash Fiction Online. 

If you are interested in the science behind this, check out Silas Beane’s research   as well as  Matchright’s virtual babies.

narrator Angi Shearstone

about the narrator…
Angi Shearstone is an award-winning professional artist with an MFA in comics, a small herd of cats, strong geek tendencies and a fondness for ska-core.  She’s worked in children’s books with Mercer Mayer, in comics on Batman: Gotham County Line with Scott Hampton, collaborated with Mur Lafferty on Beyond the Storm: Shadows of the Big Easy, and otherwise has self-published a handful of comic book projects, two of which with Joe Sutliff Sanders.

She currently teaches nifty computer stuff to keep the bills paid while trying to get this epic-sized fully painted comic book series off the ground.  Pitches have been made, grants have been applied for, BloodDreams is to be released sometime in the unspecified but not-too-distant future.

 

Rockwork
by RM Graves

Dog sat at her kit, in the cavernous dark at the back of the stage, with Meg’s kiss chilling on her lips. That hadn’t fixed her nerves at all. Now Dog’s chest shook worse than her hands, jacked up on the worry of letting her girlfriend down, again.

The crowd didn’t see or care. As Meg took her spot out front, they thrummed the darkness with their chanting, “Rock… Work! Rock… Work!”

Dog’s sticks were already slick in her palms as she snapped rubber bands around them. She shuffled in her seat, checked contacts, toggled switches and sensed Meg’s impatience, standing in the dark between the drums and hungry fans. Dog brushed trembling fingers over the kit and it twitched around her, jittery. It hated gigs.

“Come on, Rocky,” she whispered and cogs whirred back at her. She shook her head. “Purring? Seriously?”

The kit’s blind trust made Dog gulp an urge to up and run. No. This time. This time Meg would be proud of her. Proud of them. No screw-ups. No zoning out.

She took a deep breath and kicked a volley of hard thumps into the black. The audience hushed. Cannon-shot beats echoed, overlapped, and swelled like an approaching army. A machine-gun of rimshots and the lights, and the crowd, exploded.

Dog scowled into the glare of spotlights as the ‘Rockwork’ burst into life around her; a kit stretched beyond drums to form an entire robotic band. Butchered musical instruments twitched and writhed in a hellish chromed engine of noise. Cogs spun plectrums at wire. Hammers rapped on the broken teeth of piano keys. Thumbscrews wrenched raw electric scales out of strangled frets.

Dog set her features into maniacal control, sweat already trickling over her bald head, pooling in her eyebrows; her arms gleaming pistons at the snare and toms.

Meg swayed her hips to Dog’s driving cacophony; her playful nonchalance creating a tantalizing silhouette to the audience, but taunting Dog behind. Hinting at what she had to lose. The music press were in tonight, but there was more than the band at stake.

The Rockwork was autonomous to a point, but it relied on Dog to keep it in line. Left unchecked it would spin off on its own groove without regard to Meg. Or the audience. Dog pressed her lips, rolled an extravagant fill across the toms, thrashed out her anxiety in the splash and crash. Meg’s cue.

The fans bounced along with the opening bars. Meg tossed Dog a warning frown, the gobo’s lit her up, and her voice rang out. The crowd, already jumping, flung its hands in the air like antennae for more and howled in pleasure.

Now the lights were up, the thuggish presence of their manager, Bill, haunted Dog’s peripheral vision. Suited arms folded, he smirked at Meg’s lithe form. Nodding along like he cared. Dog glared at him. Their eyes locked. Dog snarled.

She ached and pushed, arms and legs flailing and kicking, powering the performance even though she would be invisible now. All eyes would be on Meg, darkly radiant at the mike, poised on one hip, holding back a black curtain of hair and wailing. Tiny yet monumental.

Two tracks in and the sticks became new bone, warm and alive in Dog’s hands. She shut her eyes and gave herself over to the illusion. Blood and energy shooting back and forth between her body and the Rockwork. A rising bliss of noise and fluid, pumping movement.

This was going to be an epic gig.

#

A spanner in the works.

One day punk will return to save our souls. Smash up the entire inbred industry of software-driven download porridge. I believed London’s ‘Rockwork’ to be that Messiah. I am a sucker for punishment. This band is so on the edge of greatness it’s bleeding.

They don’t do downloads, they don’t even record. They are strictly a live act that -– believe it or not –- encourages their audience to record the gigs. If that’s not anarchy, I don’t know what is.

Think prog punk. That you can dance to. Have to dance to. A Discopalypse. Dog’s elemental noise makes Meg’s roaring kitten of a vocal so bewitching you want to tear your heart out and offer it to her.

How can a band this raw, this primal, be half robotics? Not even the hi-tech ‘let’s explore mars’ kind, the build it in your garage kind. These girls are kids of the internet-of-everything age, as comfortable with a screwdriver and code as a plectrum and a paradiddle. Well, Dog is.

And therein lies the problem.

I have been to every single Rockwork gig, and never seen a whole one. A succession of screw-ups, every one. Twenty minutes, like clockwork, third song in. Dog, and the machinery, badly, baldly, wig out. Think dentist drill. Think grandpa’s dial-up modem. Last night was no exception.

They say that those who get it -– ‘real fans’ — embrace the chaos. For them, Dog is a high-priestess at the altar of fuckup and they worship her. For me, and the other grown-ups, Meg is too good for that Dog of a band. She needs an upgrade.

Until then. Avoid.

“Oh.” Dog handed the tablet back to Bill, who — despite the news — seemed to be enjoying a told-you-so face. He slid her another glass of Jack, and she necked it before clicking her fingers at his phone.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you, Babe.” Bill folded his arms, bulging the tight, shiny fabric. He noticed her clocking the body language and sighed, shoving hands in pockets. “Dog. You gotta get-”

“Help?” Dog crunched on an ice-cube.

“What’s the problem? Rockwork is about to make it. A few tweaks to the kit. Get some geeks, you know, sort out the bugs…”

“No.” Dog didn’t look up. Bugs.

Bill put his arm round her. He smelt of suit-freshener. “Come on darlin’, think about the act…”

Dog made a fist. “It’s no act,” she said to her glass, “it’s real.”

Bill raised his hands in defeat. “Christ’s sake,” he said, walking away. “Grow up.”

#

Back at their squat, Dog’s head reeled with the whisky and a dizzying sense of being in deep trouble. The derelict factory was empty and, being too big to heat, freezing. Dog kept her smart-hood up against the cold, but also ready if Meg called.

The roadies had brought Rocky home at least. Curled in its corner, it twitched in robotic dreams, radiating deep sleep after the stress of the gig. At peace, as if nothing had fallen apart.

Meg’s rejected outfits littered the squat, some removed so quickly they lay stiff in shock, still clinging to the ghost of her shape. In a dark mood, Dog left the lights off and started clearing the mess by a shaft of streetlight.

Before the gig, Meg had been narky. Dog had laughed. In her role as ‘the rock,’ she had kissed Meg’s forehead and reminded her how pre-gig nerves always made her catastrophize. Meg had gripped her tight, too tight, “Let me down again, Dog, and… I just don’t know,” she said. Dog had mumbled something about a sexy voice.

Now, in the cold dark, Dog sagged to the floor and buried her face in her hands. The rapture of the gig, how it lit Meg up. All hope and happiness. Then the dreadful… unravelling. Rockwork crashing. Meg’s slumped, shameful walk off the stage. The confused clapping. Meg ramming her forehead into Bill’s chest, into the cage of his embrace.

A sob shook Dog’s chest. One lead to another, and tears popped and rolled down her cheeks. Bill’s expression tortured her, biting back a smile as he stroked Meg’s hair.

Dog kicked at a table and sent it tumbling. At the far end of the room, silhouetted by the streetlights through glass bricks, Rockwork stirred.

“Rocky, damn, I’m sorry, sweetie. Did I wake you?”

Servo’s wound, gears clicked and a plaintive note rang out. A musical, “?”

Dog wiped her face. “You hungry eh? You need to eat?”

“!”

“Course you do.”

Off stage, without all the glittering show-cogs and hammers, Rocky was a simpler beast. Just a drum kit, guitar bits, synth circuits and toy robot parts. It rattled its cradle and twanged its rising three-note-phrase. Dog liked to think this tune, played whenever it saw them, meant “Meg And Dog.” Meg insisted on “Feed Me Now!” and was probably right. Rocky was a creature of pure appetite and it would eat itself into a coma given half a chance.

Winking into her hoodie and clicking her fingers, Dog hooked Rocky online. “Twenty minutes ok?” she said. More excited twangs and it was off, rummaging through all its favourite online music databases.

Dog flicked the browser on Rocky’s snare and watched it surf, as if peering into its head. It flipped between pages, highlighting tracks and dropping them into its ‘belly’. This always made her smile. It had no taste, as happy to chow down on fast-food pop pap as rich angst-ridden rock. “Congratulations, Dog,” Meg had said, when she first saw Rocky snuffling through sixties cereal adds and nineties cyberpop, “you’ve invented Artificial Unintelligence.”

Dog stroked the drum and it shuddered a purr. She had made Rocky for Meg. A token of her love. An undying serenade. So why always take the piss?

Her ache wouldn’t sigh out. She watched the front door, but as hard as she tried to will it open — to conjure Meg skipping through — it stayed shut.

The Rockwork had gobbled all it could and toyed with its new sounds. While gnarly electric birdsong filled the squat, Dog probed at the swollen memory of an afternoon spent playing name-that-tune with Meg. Cackling with ‘Theme from Rocky’ puns as they lay tangled on the couch.

She knuckled bleary eye sockets, then saw the envelope. Sticking out of a jacket Meg had tossed in a last minute panic as they left. Dog pulled it out, surprised to find it addressed to her in Meg’s most decorative handwriting. Inside was a note.

Darling Dog,

Well done! I knew you could do it, pull yourself together and finish a gig. For me.

I made a secret promise to myself. The day I knew, for sure, someone cared about me above anything else. I would give them everything.

So.

Don’t ever forget, I made it for you.

All my soul,

Mx

Ignoring the uneasy feeling that, having screwed up the gig, the note wasn’t for her after all, Dog’s fingers probed inside the envelope. A tiny, antique key, mounted on a chain. She covered her mouth and bit down on the urge to burst.

Meg didn’t believe in possessions. Apart from clothes, all she owned was a clockwork jewellery-box her mum had given her. A junk-shop find from the 1950’s. When you opened the lid, it played Brahms Lullaby and a little plastic ballerina flipped up and spun around. Meg blubbed every time she opened it, but could never explain why. So she kept it locked. She called it her ‘soul box’, and this was the key.

Dog had really blown it, this time.

Rockwork looped a refrain, nudging her for attention. Bored with maudlin, it wanted to chase the ball. Rock out. Dog was lost in morose fantasies and kicked along on the bass, making a heavy heart of it. Rocky was boisterous, tugging at the tempo until the beat stirred her like a calling. She sighed, picked up her sticks, and slotted in.

Before long, the knot of regret eased, along with her gig-stiffened limbs and music replaced her fug with expectancy. Then they were working. She let her body take over, pounding out a galloping backbeat, Rocky speeding along beside her on keyboard and guitars.

Time evaporated with her breath and the sweat off her limbs in the icy squat. The light dimmed, giving over to sound, recycling Rocky’s devoured titbits into something unrecognizable. Something new. Something… good?

Was it her mood or was this piece as perfect as it seemed? She shivered; her skin had become electric fur. Her mouth plugged thickly with the fuzz of it. Light as light, her nerves flexed out into Rocky’s noise. She pulsed beat, music humming straight from the tuning fork of her bones. From their bones. This was beyond good. This was important. This wasn’t music, it was…

“Dog. You are mythically sacked.” A dark blob resolved, backed by daylight. Meg. “I warned you. I told you. Embarrass me…”

Dog lifted her head from the drum, wiping drool from the corner of her mouth. Rocky twanged its rising three notes and nudged a machine-head at Meg in excitement. She batted it away and it hushed. Despite a flushed glower, Meg looked immaculate and smelt of soap and bike leathers. Bill road a Harley. The dick.

Dog blinked the world into focus, “Meg, love, I’ll change. Promise. Next time-” A stinging slap across Dog’s face snapped everything sharp.

“It’s not about the gig!” Meg clawed at her hair. “It’s about you and… this!” She hurled a cymbal stand, yelling over its clash and clattering. “Did you come to see me last night? No. Did you call? No! You came here, to your… sodding…” She made claws, her glossy black nails looking deadly. Dog flinched. Meg gasped.

“Out.” She jerked her thumb at the open door, where Bill lurked. Dog glowered at him. He shook his head.

“Love.” Dog reached out, the shape of Meg’s fingers still throbbing on her cheek. Meg stepped back, pressing her lips into a bloodless line and folding her arms.

“Out.” Meg’s voice cracked. “I don’t want you seeing this.”

Rocky folded itself up, cowering small as it could, sensing the danger first. The browser display fluttered in panic on the snare. Dog sprawled across it. “Please, no,” she said.

“It’s… not… real!” Three kicks put Meg’s boot through the Bass drum, “I am!” She swiped a tear from her cheek. “You made your choice. This is for your own good.” She spun to the door, to Bill. “Do it,” she said and he nodded four men in with sledgehammers.

The sounds Rocky made as they bludgeoned it to death turned Dog inside out. Literally. Heaving all over herself as they dragged her off the kit. Unable to bear it, she sprinted out of the squat. Out of their home.

#

Two days later, wretched, sodden and reeking, Dog lay in the park in a drizzle of blood-warm rain. She wanted another bottle but couldn’t even find the inspiration to sit up. Crushed by a grim hangover and sickening flashes of Meg’s face, kicking poor Rocky; then the throbbing aftershock and gnawing reality of her girlfriend with Bill.

Why had she not seen it coming? Bill was Meg’s dealer, before he bullied them into letting him manage them. They went way back. His perving always obvious, hilarious even. To Dog. Meg indulged it, she thought, for them.

A whimper escaped her throat, feeding back on itself and resonating in her skull. Into Rocky’s insane, terrified squeal. She wrapped her arms over her head.

“Dog, innit?”

Something trickled on her lips, fiery on her tongue, then a warm breeze ran through her insides. Booze. She unwrapped to find a skinny bloke in a studded hoodie, its rim glowing. “Angel,” she croaked.

“Fan,” he said. “It’s shit what they done.” He tipped the bottle again, Dog suckled. A flash made her blink and cough. Someone had taken a picture.

“Get it?” The fan said to the photographer.

“Yep. Miserable. See?” A woman’s voice, bubbling with laughter.

The fan sniggered, tossed the bottle onto Dog’s chest and patted her head. “You need a shave, girl. See ya.”

Anger flared in Dog’s stomach, born of vanity but enough to sit her up. She lobbed the bottle after the retreating black figures and they doubled up in laughter.

Dog rolled to her feet, the sodden grass soaking through bare socks and — with a rush of shame — she realised she had lost her boots. She checked herself over, her head thick and banging. Jacket, jeans. Hoodie, at least. Meg’s key still hung around her neck. Dog seized it, ready to tear it off, fling it away, but couldn’t find the will.

She had slumped at the top of a hill, London spread out below. In the gloomy, grey dusk with a fresh gloss of rain, it shimmered like the glitzy prize in a game show. A world for the beautiful and ruthless. For Meg and Bill. She wanted to turn her back, walk away from it. She balled her fists and marched toward it.

Emerging from the park into the lights of the surrounding streets, reminded her too much of walking on stage to a curious, but disapproving crowd. Without Meg to divert their gaze, without Rocky to hide behind, her skin crawled. She pulled her hood up and over, hiding herself and checking her messages on its lining.

Her credit was red, she had blown all her money. A long string of missed calls, some from the press, most from Meg. Her heart leapt and sank simultaneously. The woman was still in her blood, like it or not, whatever she’d done to Rocky. Dog deleted the press messages and chose Meg’s most recent.

No reconciliation or forgiveness there. Just random clicks and squeaks. All of them, accidental calls. Dog deflated. Typical. Meg must be stoned.

Dog stopped, blinking at her toes, curled in soggy socks on the gummy, glistening pavement. The thought of returning to the squat made her nauseous, but she needed boots.

It was almost dark when she arrived at their factory. An initial spike of excitement at its glittering windows, soon troughed when close enough to make out the mirage of shut steel-shutters, glinting in yellow streetlights.

She skirted puddles and broken glass and peered through a crack to find the interior dead. Worse, a container of death. A flash of Rocky’s ruined body had her ramming her fist noisily against the metal, then again, and again. That could not be Meg’s doing. She was passionate, aggressive even, but her partner could never kill anything.  Dog punched and kicked at the shutters, at glass, at anything she could get a noise from, until sound and pain fused into an image. Bill.

His club, ‘Gents’, was not (even) as classy as it sounds. An old bingo-hall sectioned into themed rooms in which a variety of women got their kit off for baying stags or ironic dykes. Under the glare of an LED portico stood two apes in monkey suits.

Dog approached their animal-blank gazes with a yearning for Meg’s charm. She could always reduce the big men to giggles and blushes. They never even noticed Dog. She scowled, puffed out her chest and strode toward the entrance as if they weren’t there.

“Whoa, there, love. Not in a million,” one said, barring her from the door.

“Staff,” Dog said and shouldered his immovable stomach.

This elicited a chuckle from the bouncer. “With respect, darling, we don’t do fetish here, know what I mean?” He waved his hand under his nose. His mate whooped and slapped his thighs. Dog made a dignified retreat.

Humiliation fanning the flames of her anger again, Dog skirted round the building toward a fire escape on the urinous alleyway behind. There was usually someone having a cigarette out the back and today was no exception.

“Eew,” squeaked a spider-lashed woman wrapped in a man’s overcoat as Dog appeared. She barged into the de-odorized, velvet cave and within seconds had her shoulder to Bill’s office door; her jaw set and fists ready. But a female voice, inside, locked her solid.

“Yes,” it said. Then again, louder, in desperation. Dog’s resolve poured away. Her legs trembled. Meg.

An urging, ecstatic howl had Dog pressing her hands to her ears and stumbling back. She blundered through dank red hallways of sweating men and slinking women, almost relieved when a burly, suited arm grabbed her.

“This way please, Madam.”

Thrown back out onto the street, someone slapped a piece of paper to her chest and laughed. A flyer for Rockwork’s next gig.

She shuffled away, staring at Meg’s photo on the advert. A combat-booted fairy, framed by musical clockwork. They’d wasted no time while Dog had lain wasted. The so-called ‘rebirth’ scheduled for that same night, performances carrying on as if they’d never dumped her.

Dog peered at the mechanism pictured behind her ex. Wouldn’t take a genius to fake Rocky if they dumped the robotics. Used a backing track. But still. The new kit looked fancy. Custom made. Way more than two days effort. How long had they been planning this? She balled the flyer and tossed it into the road. Meg would be that plastic ballerina after all.

Dog’s hood rang. Bill.

“What,” She barked into her collar.

“It’s me.” Meg, on Bill’s phone. Dog slumped in the middle of a crossing. Cars hooted and flowed around her. Neither spoke but — even over the outraged traffic — Meg’s breathing filled her hood. Despite herself, Dog’s lips trembled. Just minutes, just seconds ago that wet breath had betrayed her.

“Interesting new warm-up routine,” Dog muttered, her voice sounding childish and bitter even to her own ears.

“What?” A long, husky sigh. “Just… stop calling. Ok?”

Dog shook her head. “You called me.”

“Not me, I cut that number. Leave me alone. Deal with it.”

Then it was just Dog, the angry traffic and her absolute resolve to be at Rockwork’s rebirth. What better place to die.

#

“You again?”

Bill -– the cheap sod –- had the same bouncer outside the gig. In a hoodie rather than a suit, but the same sarky porker stuffed inside it. Dog locked him in a defiant stare. Behind her, in the queue, fans muttered. A large number wore no boots. The show of support might have heartened her, if it didn’t creep her out so much being spied on.

“You got no shame, love?” the bouncer said, “Bugger off. You’ve had your fifteen minutes.”

“Wanker!” a bloke shouted. Dog spun to face the taunt, but found the queue glaring at the bouncer, not her. The crowd surged forward and the porker stammered into his collar but it was too late. A girl shoulder-dived on to him and merry hell broke loose. The bouncer stumbled under the weight of fists and be-socked kicks, while Dog edged past into the hall.

The crowd and deep thump of the sound-system comforted her, but still her thoughts ran black. She’d scrounge some booze, drink herself numb then do it. Up there on stage, in front of everyone. Leap off the gantry or open a vein with a broken bottle.

That’s when she saw Bill, holding court at a booth. His four spudheads leant low over a glowing table, frowning in concentration as they listened to their master’s voice. He passed each a black sack and they fanned out into the crowd. Dog watched as one set up stall near her, handing out little glowing packets for high-fiving credit-claps.

Dog crashed Bill’s booth and if he was shocked to see her, he didn’t show it. Didn’t react at all in fact, right up until she had him by the throat.

Bill waved someone down behind her, and took her hands. He dragged her across the table and held her down in the chair beside him, her fists clasped to her lap in one meaty hand. He even smiled, the sod. The PA banged. He shouted into Dog’s ear.

“Stupid Bitch,” he said, then leant back and nodded at her as if to say, “Hear that?” She tried to nut him, but he pushed her back, she wanted to spit but her mouth was paper. He pushed his mouth to her ear again. “She loved you,” he shouted and reached into his jacket. He pulled something out and pressed it into her hands.

“Do us all a favour,” he bellowed and let go of her, then shot his cuffs and smiled at someone over Dog’s head.

A little glowing bag. Inside, a plate of pills, labelled ‘Godspeed’. Bill schmoozed off.

Is this all it came down to? Rockworks? A way to sell more drugs? No wonder they were giving the music away. Pointless. All of it. She pressed the entire plate into her palm and slapped the lot into her mouth. Do them all a favour.

Her hood buzzed. Yet again, Meg’s number. Dog took the call.

“Who is this?”

Crackle, garbled distant noise. She pressed her hood to her ears, cursing the venue’s sound-system.

“Hello? Whoever this is-”

Something about the noise. It looped, three distinct tones to it. Distorted but familiar. She whacked up the volume and pressed the hood phones harder to her ears. An excited three-note-phrase.

“Rocky?” Dog shouted into her collar. The notes sped up, almost in desperation.

Dog stood quickly and gripped the edge of the table, her head spinning.

“Rocky,” she muttered and wanted to pass out.

The day they smashed it up, the flickering browser, Rocky was online. It could have backed itself up.

“My Love, I hear you, don’t worry,” Dog jabbered into her collar and got caught in the bodies surging toward the moshpit as the lights dimmed. It made sense, Rocky was software, deep down. Gangly and overgrown but still code. The more she considered it, the more obvious it became. Her red-credit. Rocky would be an enormous, costly, upload. Online, without its instruments, all it could do was find their numbers. Call them. And only Rocky could make music out of static.

A desolate kind of hope — along with the dissolving pills — inflated Dog with bile. She swallowed hard.

The impatient crowd chanted, “Rock… Work! Rock… Work!” and Dog didn’t know what to do. Then four cannon-shot beats rang out. Her head boggled as her own, familiar opening salvo filled the auditorium, followed by machine-gun rimshots and the stage flaring into life.

A power plant of music hardware silhouetted Meg’s sinuous form and there, in Dog’s place at the drums, was another machine. A glimmering chrome spider of drumsticks, knocking out the rhythm with industrial tirelessness.

Fed by relentless beat, the Godspeed kicked in, ramping Dog’s heart. Her brain wound up. Fast-forwarded. The tight, jumping rub of the moshpit turning syrupy, low-g and ultra-res.

The new drumbot played with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Dumb as a download. But the new Rockworks. That was a piece of work. It gleamed, intricate yet gigantic. Massively fractal. Not built, grown.

Dog smirked. All it needed was a soul.

What would happen if she hooked poor Rocky — trapped online — to this beautiful monster onstage? She called up a list of devices on the local network.  All meaningless to Dog, and all locked. One caught her eye, however, juddering about as the revellers jostled. ‘I-OfTheTiger’. Her jaw dropped. Seriously. Rocky II? Dog pinged it. Password protected.

Disappointed by the jerky machine-beat, the crowd’s cheering dissolved into bemused silence, then frowns.  A new chant started at the back of the auditorium, rolling slow and heavy. “Dog.” Stamp, stamp, “Dog.” Stamp, stamp.

There was nowhere to enter anything in I-OfTheTiger’s password box, just a button with an eye on it. Dog blinked it and her hoodie rim lit up, its cameras activated. Glyphic. The ‘password’ was a pattern, not text.

Dog’s teeth ground against the pull of Godspeed. She wanted to scream and tear everything apart. Battery-acid burnt in her veins, overclocked. She wrestled her impatience, jogging on the spot, shaking her head into focus. A pattern. Or an object?

Oblivious to the crowd’s displeasure, the new Rockworks mechanically worked its intro up to Meg’s cue. Dog twitched a glance up at the stage. Her ex’s chin tipped up, opening her lips. A deep breath.

An object. Dog jolted as her fingers found the key round her neck. The Rocky pun. The note: Don’t ever forget, I made it for you.

Meg made all this? Dog yelped and held the key up to her camera, twisted. Her hood died. Lit up on stage, Meg was ready to burst. Ready for the adulation.

Then, nothing.

The drumbot, Rockworks, everything crunched to a halt. Meg was stranded in the spotlight and despite everything that had happened, the tremble in her ex’s cheek wrenched Dog’s stomach.

“DOG!” Bang, bang, “DOG!” Bang, bang.

Dog found herself on the stage, unsure if she’d jumped up or been thrown there. The crowd screamed like rocket engines. Avoiding Meg’s crimson stare, and woozy in the slow-mo world of Godspeed, she rolled the immobile drumbot away, wrenching a couple of sticks from it.

“Rocky, you better be in there,” she muttered and kicked off her intro.

The kit sprang into life, better than ever. Fluid, smooth and powerful. Dog gulped at another rolling wave of dizziness, buried it beneath the rush of her performance. If she was going to die, she would finish this gig first.

Dog blanked Bill as he loomed in the wings, even as he spat curses. Even as Rocky lurched the drumbot into life and started thwacking him in a very rhythmic revenge.  She let it all go. Let her body fuzz into the new Rockworks. Above all, she focused.

The crowd fused into a single, multi-limbed, thrashing, organism as Meg worked it up from mere excitement to wild fever and back again. One song, two, three.

Four songs, then Dog lost count. An entire set. Finally — for the first time ever — Rockworks was faced with a finale. They had rehearsed the closing number many times, but never performed it. Their favourite song. The first one Rocky had melded for them. Out of cereal ads and cyberpop.

Dog’s skin burned, her heart would not slow down. She stretched, and the Rockworks stretched too. She flexed and it flexed. When it plucked out the opening riff of ‘Artificial Unintelligence’, phantom strings dug at the tips of her fingers.

The song played itself. She had as much control over it as over her quickening pulse. This should have been a terrifying sensation two bars before a solo, but her fears had drowned in a chemically supercharged calm.

Then the moment was on her. Solo. The Rockworks settled back to the four-four marker of a bassline. Meg spun toward her, gesturing as if to bring on a fight. On her lips an uncontainable, broad, proud grin.

Dog blinked back tears and clamped her teeth against an urge to cry out her name. She started a fill, rolling around the drums. Then another, and another. Meg swung her hair and danced like a cavewoman, goading the crowd into hysteria.

They sped up, bassline and fill, chasing, daring each other quicker. Dog’s arms pumped, her vision swam and dissolved into a waking kind of sleep. And there was Rocky. A sparkling ball of effervescence, darting around her, urging her on.

Dog’s limbs screamed as the drumroll grew inhuman. Individual beats merged into a long, low moan. Pinprick lights winked on, trembled, and burst over her.

Rocky spread inside her as if forcing blood into new wings. Unfurling. Turning her light as light and blurring her arms to smoke. The frenzied drumroll rose again in pitch. Triumphant. Into the roar of something born.

#

“Talk about a cry for help. Silly cow.”

The back of an ambulance. Her limbs limp as rope, her head inside out. Dog’s breath huffed in a mask strapped to her face. Beside her, Meg’s knuckles whitened where she held Dog’s hand.

“You’re cooked, babe. OD. Stay put,” she said.

The air fizzed. Dog tingled with pins-and-needles. She rolled her eyes and blinked but the flashing spots wouldn’t clear. Meg leant over and tipped the mask off her mouth.

“If I forgive you, will you forgive me?” she said, pressing paddy kisses to Dog’s quivering lips. Tears squeezed from Dog’s eyes and Meg plucked along their trail, erasing them.

“Stop now,” she whispered in Dog’s ear, “Darling, calm. No more humming.”

It was only then that Dog became aware of the noise. As involuntary as her heartbeat, vibrating deep in her throat. She swallowed, she shook her head, but it wouldn’t stop. Desperate, repeating.

Three notes, rising.

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