Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
No doubt, if the light of day were ever admitted, the Grotto Club's decor would have looked cheap and shoddy; but in the pulsing shadows cast by concealed blue, green and ultraviolet tubes it seemed an ideal setting for the Gas Giants. Boulder-shaped tables and chairs crouched beneath papier-mÃ¢chÃ© arches; stalactites hung from the ceiling. Aurora hesitated as she entered through the skull-shaped doorway, almost as though afraid to step inside. Then she threaded her way to a table near the stage, along the front of which was draped plastic ivy, glowing a vivid green in the hidden lighting.
The club was only half-full so earlyâit was barely ten o'clock. At the side of the stage an elderly man in evening dress was playing Top Twenty tunes from six months before on an electric organ. Lefty had told her that the guy had used to own the club when it was a much more respectable and staid affair, and had been allowed to stay on as “resident organist” as part of the deal when he was forced to sell it. The rest of the clientele secretly laughed at him, but it didn't matter. He was almost completely deaf.
On the darkened stage itself, her new friends were busily setting up their equipment, of which there seemed to be a great deal. The organist looked round in annoyance as a loudspeaker gave a loud
which even he could hear, and a sibilant, echoing voice chanted: “Testing. Testing. One-two. One-two.” The synthesizer emitted a sound that Aurora mentally likened to a constipated duck; then, as Synth moved what looked like pegs on a complicated Solitaire board, it gave forth a piercing shriek, this time more reminiscent of a cat whose tail had been yanked. This was too much for the organist, who got up and left, scowling.
The tables filled up. For a while the only sounds were the hubbub of voices and the clinking of glasses. The air became smoky, and Aurora noticed a strange, sweetish aroma which was not tobacco, but which she recognized only too well. Someone lit joss sticks near the front of the stage. Then, without warning, came a whispered “One, twoâone, two, three, four!”âfollowed this time by a staccato rattle of snare drums and a wall of sound which drowned out all conversation.
Or should have done. Looking about her, Aurora noticed that somehow most people seemed to manage to keep talking to each other as if nothing had changed.
She sat forward expectantly, but soon sank back into her seat. This was nothing but noise to her. The bass boomed, and occasionally an interesting little phrase from the lead guitar would break through, but when the synthesizer could be picked out at all it sounded like a fairground organ. The piece ground to a ragged close and received a few desultory claps from the audience. Next came a slow, turgid and apparently endless composition, throughout which the synthesizer made sounds like rushing winds or waves, but with no obvious relationship to whatever else was going on. When this dirge finally stuttered to an uncertain finish there was no applause.
And so it went on. Her mind began to wander. Lefty had remarked to her that they had started out as “pretty much your standard heavyish rock band”, and the description appeared all too accurate. He seemed certain that, when they could afford all the equipment they needed and time in a recording studio, they would take the charts by storm with a single, followed up closely by an album. “Of course, the single's only for the publicityâ
Top of the Pops
and all that, you know. And the money, of course. We'll be an albums band really.” She had gathered that he was a bit worried about Synth, who “fancies himself as a dab hand at the old electronics, but he's a pretty ordinary keyboards player really. Maybe he'll improve with practice. I hope.”
Aurora was actually leaving her seat to go when Lefty caught her eye and jerked his head back in a “come here” gesture. She walked forward and, still playing, he squatted at the front of the stage, putting his mouth close to her ear.
“It's not going too well tonightâthere's just no feedback from the audience. It's like that sometimes.” She had to strain to hear his voice. “...and Synth hasn't really got the hang of his new toy, though he's been playing with it all day. It's not helped, of course, that he's got himself half-stoned on a bottle of the old vino while we were setting up. Feel like having a go?”
“What d'you mean? Play up there?
I couldn't!” Aurora whispered, then shouted above the racket: “There's no
I could play that thing! Especially in front of an audience.”
“Come on,” ordered Lefty, grabbing her hand and abruptly standing up, so drawing her up onto the stage whether she wanted to be there or not.
“Just do what you did on the old joanna this morning. Let's face it, you couldn't make it any worse, could you?”
Synth allowed himself to be dispossessed with less objection than might have been expected, and went off to find more wine. Aurora stood in a pool of blue light, surrounded on all sides by humped black shapes with glowing, winking red eyes, some emitting, at this close range, baleful hisses or throaty hums. She wanted nothing more than to fly out of the gaping door and lose herself again, wandering as she had wandered for half her aimless life.
“I don't know what to playâI don't
any of your bloody tunes!” she wailed.
“Just play anything, but
it,” hissed Doug from behind his mountain of drums and cymbals. “âBaa Baa Black Sheep', if you like. We'll jam around it.”
Ginge played a couple of rapid scales on his guitar, establishing a key, and Acker followed him on saxophone. She tried an experimental note or two, a chord, and almost reeled at the blast of sound from the PA system around her. Herbie leaned over and touched a knob. “That's the gain control. Volume, OK? This”âhe rotated a miniature joystickâ“is for the quad effect. Quadraphonic? And this slider's the note-bender.”
Volume she understood; the other terms might as well have been Arabic. She turned down the knob, gave herself a quick private recital, then fiddled with the miniature jack-plugs on the Solitaire board for a moment. Finally she turned the knob back up, sighed resignedly, and announced: “OK. Here goes nothing.” The audience ignored her.
Within three bars not a word was being spoken in the crowded room. Glasses paused motionless on their way to lips; chicken nuggets lay congealing in baskets. The room was filled with the sound of clear, ice-cold crystals being struck by an elfin hammer in some subterranean cavern. Suddenly the tawdry artificial surroundings were real, glistening rock.
Aurora's left hand moved to the control board as if of its own volition, and the sound of a faery choir joined in, swelling and soaring.
At first the electronic notes rose alone, shivering and cascading from the fake icicles hanging from the roof. Then, tentatively, the snare drums struck up a rhythm. At first it sounded crude, clumsy, and out of place, but soon Doug was weaving an intricate tattoo with brushes and cymbals. He beamed with pleasure as he became aware of Lefty's electric bass tracing a lattice pattern of sound in and out of his own. Ginge's foot rose and fell on his wah-wah pedal as his old Fender made soft, plaintive sighs such as his fingers had never evoked before. Acker had switched to a flute, producing birdlike trills and arpeggios. As for Herbie, he stood stock-still, mouth wide open, his acoustic guitar trailing from one hand.
As the last few notes dripped from the speakers there was silence. Several women and one or two men were openly crying. Then someone began to clap, hesitantly, and the applause grew into a storm. Aurora blinked, seeming to emerge from a daze, and managed a wan smile. She looked drained.
Lefty seized a microphone and said, stumblingly: “Erâthanks. This is, um, Aurora. Give her a big hand, folksâshe's only been sittin' in with us tonight. First time in public. But we hope it won't be the last. Don't we?” He looked over at her pleadingly, his words drowned in cries of “More!”
The next melody started like a toccata, but as it progressed and the other musicians joined in it became ever more lively and happy. The audience began to participate, clapping and swaying. A few couples began to dance, until the whole room was in motion. Aurora discovered that the quad lever sent her notes swooping and circling around the room from strategically placed speakers. Herbie vanished backstage, and soon two strobe-lights began to flash, one at each side, so that the dancers' movements seemed jerky and spasmodic, as if they were stiff-jointed puppets or part of a film shown at the wrong speed.
Then, just as the music seemed about to reach a crescendo of joy, there came several jarring discords and Aurora slumped lifeless across the keyboard.
* * * *
Thousands of white-gowned people sat around the huge amphitheater, some with eyes closed, just listening, others watching entranced as the musicians played. Each musician wore his or her instrument lightly, from a cord around the neck or a belt at the waist; yet the sound filled the vast natural crater with its carved seats, and overflowed and spilled into the surrounding countryside.
In the Old People's village, those who no longer wished to travel beyond their own homes sat outside their domed houses, nodding and smiling with memories of many past MusicFests.
The sky deepened to a beautiful, transparent violet. A golden disc rose. At first it seemed like a moon, but then it evolved into a floating craft. As it rose higher it passed into shadow and darkened, as if in eclipse. On the northern horizon a glow appeared. A bright spark detached itself and ascended into the darkling sky. As Aurora watched, it dimmed to red, brightened briefly, and was obscured by vapor. From the dark disc, anxious eyes stared down at her....
* * * *
Aurora coughed slightly as Lefty exhaled smoke from his cigarette in a sigh of relief. He stubbed out its red glow in a saucer. “Cripes, we really thought we'd lost you too there for a minute,” he said.
She gazed around her. She lay on a spotlessly clean white bed. Beyond the circle of pale, anxious facesâand Lefty's dark anxious face, though even that looked paleâwas only a further white circle that she recognized after a moment or two as a hospital screen. Lefty, Ginge, Herbie, Doug, Acker. Plus a nurse and a tall man in a white coat.
“Where's Synth?” she asked, struggling to sit up. “What do you mean, lost me
“Nothing. Nothing.” Lefty made a move to light another cigarette, but the nurse caught his eye and frowned.
“If you don't mind, Mr. Clemson, I think now that you know she's all right.... In fact”âshe looked questioningly at the doctor, who noddedâ“it would be best if you all left now and let MissâermâAurora rest.”
“No!” cried Aurora sharply, “Where
Synth? I want to knowâright nowâor I won't rest. Something's happened to him, hasn't it?”
“No, he's fine,” said Lefty. “But he's left the bandâwalked out while you were still playing last night, tell you the truth. He's stripped his flat. The manager at the Grotto says Synth told him...well, that you made him look like an idiot. But that wasn't your faultâhe
Aurora hid her face in her hands. “Yes, it
my fault,” she sobbed. “I warned you, didn't I? I told you I'm always trouble and you wouldn't want me around....”
Ginge stepped forward before anyone else could speak. “You couldn't be more wrong there, gal. Something good happened while you were around us.
good. We all played better than we ever knew we could.” The circle of heads nodded vigorously. “And as for you, you were fuckin' amazing on that synthesizer, pardon my French. Jeez, we
you in the band now. Don't we, guys?” More nods. “You
join us, won't you...?”
But Aurora's eyes were flickering shut again.
“I never even got to tell her about the manager of Yes being in the audience, and wanting to book us as support band on their next tour,” complained Ginge.
* * * *
There was nothing wrong with Aurora, the doctor told Lefty when he collected her from the hospital two days later, apart from the life she had been leading. Nothing that rest, good food and vitamins couldn't fix.
She was installed in her own room in part of what had been Synth's flat. Ginge and Lefty had moved into the rest of it, since it was so much better than their previous places.
There they were all able to work out new numbers. It was almost always Aurora who took the lead in their compositions; but they quickly discovered that she found it almost impossible to play the same piece twice. This hardly seemed to matter, though, and instead they evolved a sort of code by which they knew what type of number they would play next, whether fast, slow, happy, plaintive, heavy rock, vocal or instrumental.
They also found that, while they all enjoyed playing together and almost every piece proved an emotional experience of some kind, they never reached in practice the heights they had in the Grotto Club. Even so, they deliberately avoided any further public appearances. They wanted to save themselves for the tour with Yes.
Two weeks before the first scheduled gig of the tour, in London, Herbie rushed into the flat, obviously highly excited.
“I've fixed it! A whole day in the UROK Studios! The way we've been playing lately, we should be able to record a whole album, no problem, and pick the best two tracks for our single. We can have the single into the shops while the tour's still onâand just watch it go up the charts!”
Days later Aurora found herself being pushed out of a battered, psychedelically painted minibus and helping to carry boxes, amplifiers, and guitar-cases through an ordinary-looking green door, past the dusty and flyblown window of a small office from which an elderly uniformed man peered at them suspiciously, and down a long corridor lined with doors. Through another door and down some rickety wooden steps into a litter-strewn open courtyard between high buildings; up more steps into what looked like the warehouse it had once been.