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Tragedy of the Soulless Things
Cassandra Moresi moved hesitantly through the labyrinthine backstage, navigating the litter leftovers of the concert, deconstructed drum set bones and boxy amplifiers. The Electric Chameleons, she deduced, were not fond of visitors.
She clung to the comforting, laminated press pass on the lanyard around her neck like a talisman as she balanced carefully on her new, toe-pinching high heeled shoes. She was surprised she was the only one backstage. When she’d had difficulty getting through the crowds of fans and there had been a problem with her pass, she was sure she’d find the stage swarming with journalists and all the choice interviews gone. She figured she’d get stuck with the band manager’s secretary or someone unknowledgeable like that. But no, the place was surprisingly dark and empty except for the monumental mess.
In that case, there was nothing stopping her. They’d long ago dispensed with gold stars on the doors but she’d read the report and knew which dressing room belonged to the man himself. Summoning up her courage, she knocked.
“Phil, I told you; I want to be left alone.” The voice that came from behind the door was rough from decades of singing, oddly rhythmic, and undoubtedly belonging to Aaron Krux.
“I’m not Phil. I’m – I’m from the Rock’n’Roll Report. I’d like an interview, if you can spare a minute. I’ve got a pass.” She held it up to the door and immediately felt silly.
“Press? I thought we sent you all away.”
“Not me,” she answered with forced cheer. “I was late.”
“Oh come on in,” he agreed ruefully. Cassie opened the door without a bit of hesitation. It was hard to tell what damage Krux had done so far to the dressing room; the lights were off and the surprisingly large chamber was instead lit by candle. Enough incense was burning to make Cassie cough as she entered.
Krux himself was just as she expected. A big man, charmingly unshaven, square jawed and muscular, his large green eyes were clearly those of an old man and his youthful face, though sharply realistic, had an artificial quality that no surgeon could quite banish.
“Cassandra Moresi,” she introduced herself, holding out a meticulously manicured hand. He shook it in a surprisingly small fist, but with a grip that threatened to shatter her wrist.
“Heavens; a girl reporter. A Tintinette. Go ahead and sit down if you want.” He gestured to an ugly arm chair stuffed in the corner of the room trying to go unnoticed and failing miserably. Cassie had always wondered what she’d do when meeting people as famous as Krux, but in the heat of the moment she had no time to register what a great story this would make at cocktail parties.
“Not really; I don’t fight Opium smugglers and I don’t own a white dog.” She accidentally kicked a mostly empty bottle as she sat down. Reassessment of Krux proved he was indeed not sober; he nearly tripped when he took a seat in his metal chair and didn’t seem to get her reference.
“Neither do I. We must have loads in common.” Trying to be inconspicuous, Cassie turned on the recorder at her wrist. Some people reacted badly to being recorded. “But I know what you want to ask,” he continued. “You want to know if that really was my last show.”
“No, sir. Your manager confirmed that online this morning.”
“Bastard,” Krux grumbled. In the candlelight, Cassie noticed he was dressed rather conservatively. A white, puffy sleeved blouse, a tight leather jacket, and equally form-fitting black jeans, plus boots with heels higher than hers made up the rocker’s outfit.
“You retired once before. What makes you think this time it’s for good.”
Krux laughed out loud; the room was just small enough and the chairs were close enough Cassie could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Little girl, there ain’t much more they can do for me.”
“Speaking of such, my readers want to know and excuse me if this is intrusive but-“
“Spit it out! I’ll answer.”
“How much of you is still…real?”
“Original to you.” Cassie searched in vain for proper words. “Non-artificial.”
“My brain,” he answered automatically, “though how much of that left intact isn’t clear. My right arm, except for the skin, that’s all real. Ironic since my left arm was the first to go. My feet – nope, those are different. My appendix!” he proclaimed proudly. “My appendix is my own – wait, they might have taken it out when I was ten. I honestly can’t remember. My voice box or whatever that’s called.” He rummaged around on the vanity, nearly bumping over a candle, until he found some glasses and a bottle of a dubious looking liquid that was probably wine but Cassie couldn’t be sure.
“Would you like a drink, girl reporter?”
“I’ll pass, Mr. Krux; thank you.”
“Serve yourself.” He put the glasses down and took a long swig from the bottle. “So you’re here to talk about the machines, huh? I didn’t fancy you for a scientist.”
“As I’ve read about you, I’ve found that since your comeback it’s been an essential part in marketing and performance, but I’d like to know how it affected you as a person.”
“As a person. You are my new favorite girl Cassandie Mars. Nobody’s called me a person in years. It’s always star, or rocker, or singer, or cyborg.”
“I always figured that was an outdated term.”
“Outdated term actually means insult out here in the big, bad world. Terms go outdated for a reason. My eyes!”
“I don’t follow you?” Cassie was beginning to feel quite uneasy.
“My eyes are original. They fixed ‘em up a bit, but they’re mine. They wanted to put these telescope numbers in me but I wouldn’t have that.”
“So it was your arm first. Right?”
“I just said that,” he sounded irritated and Cassie knew she’d screwed up. “Yeah, burned real bad at a party when some fool and I forgot where the gas goes in on a car, spilled it all over, and stopped for a cigarette break. Kinda stupid, don’t you think?” Cassie nodded, unsure of what response was expected of her. “Anyway, my arm got burnt just about off and the surgeons couldn’t do much anything to fix it. So there wasn’t much to do but stick on a new one. Brand new technology back then; I was a bit of a guinea pig. And this arm, it looked so young and the whole rest of my god*** body looked so d*** old. The new skin came next, totally artificial so it doesn’t actually age. Redid my face when I broke it up in a bar fight. When my liver gave out and my kidneys and my heart they just switched ‘em out again. Leaving me good as new!”
He was sure right about his eyes being real, Cassie figured. She’d seen old pictures of him when they were bottle green and sharp, but now, even though she was sure his eyesight was fine, they were faded. Even though his face was fixed in her direction she doubted he really saw her or would remember her face if he shut his eyes. His eyelids hung low, and for all his stolen youth he just looked plain old tired. It might have been the saddest thing she’d ever seen, if the world was better.
On an impulse, she reached out with her non recording hand, grasping his arm. “Can you feel me?”
“I mean can you really feel. Like you could when you were whole.” He stared at her, his reconstructed face just plain empty. “It’s like there’s a veil between us, you can feel me but distantly; the physical equivalent of someone shouting your name in a thick fog. Isn’t that right?”
He nodded, slowly. “What do you know that for, little girl?”
“You ever hear of a poet called Marcus Ashby.” Another nod. “He got in a bus crash a while back, his body almost destroyed. He nearly died, but he was hanging on when they got to him, so the doctors worked for ages fixing him, giving him new parts like they did with you. He wished they hadn’t. He wrote this book of poems, saddest thing you ever read, about how he’d died and been brought back and didn’t exist among people anymore, couldn’t connect with anything.”
“What happened to the ol’ guy anyway?” Krux asked, voice slurring obviously.
“He shot himself in the head.” Cassie had practiced saying those words without emotion and had gotten pretty good at it. “You ever feel like that? Like you don’t belong in the world anymore.”
“That’s just old age. That’s just life, getting heavier and heavier until you just want to lie down and let it crush ya’. Ya’ wanna know what to do on days like that? Ya’ drink.” He took another swig of wine.
“You paid a whole lot for that borrowed time you’re living on, didn’t you, Krux.”
“You’re one of those ‘natural life’ types, aren’t you?”
This was a little bit true, but Cassie didn’t want her political leanings to get in the way of a good story. “That doesn’t matter. You had a wife, didn’t you?”
“You bet I did. Stella Carver.”
“Can you tell me about her?” Cassie asked, knowing she was breaching a tender subject and trying to do it with compassion.
“I met her when I was still young. Before I made it big, in fact. I was just nineteen years old, at one of those dance clubs back when they had real music and not a DJ. God, she was beautiful. Slim and pale and a face like a heart; she could have been a model. This long, perfect dark hair. She could have been a movie star. I got her to dance with me, got about as close to love as I ever had and just kept getting closer. She got lost in all the fame somehow, after two years she just slipped away and I never ran after her like I should of. Three times I was married, each time a failure all because I was just looking for someone to be her and nobody could. When I retired, I went looking for her. Age had had its way with her but she was still as beautiful, even more so, than the day I had met her. So I married her. Best d*** decision I ever made.”
“And what happened to her?” There was a cruel pleasure brewing beneath the surface as she asked the question, knowing full well the answer.
“Cancer of course; we didn’t even know until the end. She never did drugs, barely drank, never smoke. She should have lived forever. Wanna know the real reason I started singing again. If I wasn’t I just thought about her. If I ever got a clear head and wasn’t writing songs or screaming into a mike, I thought about her.”
“It was like dying, wasn’t it,” she whispered, barely believing she was making it up as she went along, so easily the words came. “Dying and coming back, but losing something.”
“I know what you’re suggesting. You’re saying I ought to blow my brains out like Markie and go back to where I belong. It takes more than that to knock old Krux down.”
“One last question.”
“Go right ahead and then you get out of here. I don’t need to listen to you.”
“When did you lose it?”
“My mind? Honey, I never had one.”
“Your soul, I mean.”
“The soul is a myth disproved by science.” He gestured towards her, drunkenly, and nearly lost his balance.
“Then why can’t you think about her, why can’t you face her and let yourself accept that she’s gone? If you have a soul, why do you numb yourself up, unafraid to cut it off from oxygen? You don’t think; you don’t let yourself think or else you’d realize what you are and finally have to give in. I’ve heard your music. There’s no feeling; it’s just loud.”
“Why haven’t you looked me in the eyes this whole time? I feel sorry for you, you know.”
“You don’t look like her. I thought, if I looked hard enough, you’d look like her. But you don’t.”
“I bet you don’t even remember what she looks like. I could be her twin and you wouldn’t recognize me. I’m surprised you even remember her name.”
He stood, suddenly and without warning. On instinct, she rose too and felt his beefy hands snatch her shoulder and shove her hard. “Get out. Get the h*** out of my sight. You go and publish your interview and go on lying. I don’t want your pity, I don’t want your questions, I don’t want your advice. Jump in a creek!”
Cassie tilted her head, looking at him strangely. “What is it?” He nearly shoved her again.
“You’re crying. I didn’t think machines could cry.”
He pushed her all the way to the door. She was right; there were tears striping his cheeks in uneven, pitiful waves. “Get out!” he hissed, and barred his teeth like a wild animal.
With one turn and barely a last glance she fell against the door, turned off the recorder, and left.