I’m somewhere over the Sea of Okhotsk when the nightmare hits again. It’s five years ago, and I’m on the run after the machines went berserk. Only this time they’re not just enacting wanton, random mayhem, following the scrambled choreography of a corrupted performance program. This time they’re coming after me, all four of them, stomping their way down an ever-narrowing back alley as I try to get away, the machines too big to fit in that alley, but in the malleable logic of dreams somehow not too big, swinging axes and sticks rather than demolition balls, massive, indestructible guitars and drumsticks. I reach the end of the alley and start climbing up a metal ladder, a ladder that morphs into a steep metal staircase, but my limbs feel like they’re moving through sludge. Then one of them has me, plucking me off the staircase with steel fingers big enough to bend girders, and I’m lifted through the air and turned around, crushed but somehow not crushed, until I’m face to face with James Hetfield out of Metallica.
“You let us down, Fox,” James says, his voice a vast seismic rumble, animatronic face wide enough to headbutt a skyscraper into rubble. “You let us down, you let the fans down, and most of all you let yourself down. Hope you feel ashamed of yourself, buddy.”
“I didn’t mean . . .” I plead, pityingly, because I don’t want to be crushed to death by a massive robot version of James Hetfield.
“Buddy.” He starts shaking me, holding me in his metal fist like a limp rag doll.
“I’m sorry, man. This wasn’t how it was meant . . .”
But it’s not James Hetfield shaking me to death. It’s Jake, my partner in Morbid Management. He’s standing over my seat, JD bottle in one hand, shaking me awake with the other. Looking down at the pathetic, whimpering spectacle before him.
“Having it again, right?”
“Buddy, it’s time to let go. You fucked up big time. But no one died and no one wants to kill you about it now. Here.” And he passes me the bottle, letting me take a swig of JD to settle my nerves. Doesn’t help that I don’t like flying much. The flashbacks usually happen in the Antonov, when there’s nowhere else to run.
“Where are we?” I ask groggily.
“About three hours out.”
I perk up. “From landing?”
“From departure. Got another eight, nine in the air, depending on head-winds.”
I hand him back the bottle. “And you woke me up for that?”
“Couldn’t stand to see you suffering like that. Who was it this time? Lars?”
Jake gives this a moment’s consideration. “Figures. James is probably not the one you want to piss off. Even now.”
“You need to chill. I was talking to them last week.” Jake gave me a friendly punch on the shoulder. “They’re cool with you, buddy. Bygones be bygones. They were even talking about getting some comp seats for the next stateside show, provided we can arrange wheelchair access. Guys are keen to meet Derek. But then who isn’t?”
I think back to the previous evening’s show. The last night of a month-long residency at Tokyo’s Budokan. Rock history. And we pulled it off. Derek and the band packed every seat in the venue, for four straight weeks. We could have stayed on another month if we didn’t have bookings lined up in Europe and America.
“I guess it’s working out after all,” I say.
“You sound surprised.”
“I had my doubts. From a musical standpoint? You had me convinced from the moment I met Derek. But turning this into a show? The logistics, the sponsorship, the legal angles? Keeping the rights activists off our back? Actually making this thing turn a profit? That I wasn’t so certain about.”
“Reason I had to have you on board again, buddy. You’re the numbers man, the guy with the eye for detail. And you came through.”
“I guess.” I stir in my seat, feeling the need to stretch my legs. “You—um—checked on Derek since the show?”
Jake shoots me a too-quick nod. “Derek’s fine. Hit all his marks tonight.”
Something’s off, and I’m not sure what. It’s been like this since we boarded the Antonov. As if something’s bugging Jake and he won’t come out with whatever it was.
“Killer show, by all accounts,” I say.
“Best of all the whole residency. Everything went like clockwork. The lights, the back projection . . .”
“Not just the technical side. One of the roadies reckoned ‘Extinction Event’ was amazing.”
Jake nods enthusiastically. “As amazing as it ever is.”
“No, he meant exceptionally amazing. As in, above and beyond the performance at any previous show.”
Jake’s face tightens at the corners. “I heard it too, buddy. It was fine. On the nail. The way we like it.”
“I got the impression it was something more than . . .” But I trail off, and I’m not sure why. “You sure there’s nothing we need to talk about?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Fine.” I give an easy smile, but there’s still something unresolved, something in the air between us. “Then I guess I’ll go see how the big guy’s doing.”
“You do that, buddy.”
I unbuckle from the seat and walk along the drumming, droning length of the Antonov’s fuselage. It’s an AN-225, the largest plane ever made, built fifty years ago for the Soviet space program. There are only two of them in the world, and Morbid Management and Gladius Biomech have joint ownership of both. Putting Derek’s show together is so logistically complex that we need to be assembling one stage set when the other’s still in use. The Antonovs leapfrog the globe, crammed to the gills with scaffolding, lighting rigs, speaker stacks, instruments, screens, the whole five hundred tonne spectacle of a modern rock show. Even Derek’s cage is only a tiny part of the whole cargo.
I make my way past two guitar techs and a roadie deep into a card game, negotiate a long passage between two shipping containers, and pass the fold-down desk where Jake has his laptop set up, reviewing the concert footage, and just beyond the desk lies the cage. It’s lashed down against turbulence, scuffed and scratched from where it was loaded aboard. We touch up the yellow paint before each show so it all looks gleaming and new. I brush a hand against the tubular steel framing.
Strange to think how alarmed and impressed I was the first time, when Jake threw the switch. It’s not the same now. I know Derek a lot better than I did then, and I realise that a lot of his act is, well, just that. Act. He’s a pussycat, really. A born showman. He knows more about image and timing than almost any rock star I’ve ever worked with.
Derek’s finishing off his dinner. Always has a good appetite after a show, and at least it’s not lines of coke and underage hookers he has a taste for.
He registers my presence and fixes me with those vicious yellow eyes.
Rumbles a query, as if to say, Can I help you?
“Just stopping by, friend. I heard you went down a storm tonight. Melted some faces with ‘Extinction Event.’ Bitching ‘Rise of the Mammals,’ too. We’ll be shifting so many downloads we may even have to start charging to cover our overheads.”
Derek offers a ruminative gurgle, as if this is an angle he’s never considered before.
“Just felt I ought to,” and I rap a knuckle against the cage. “You know, give credit. Where it’s due.”
Derek looks at me for a few more seconds, then goes back to his dinner.
You can’t say I don’t try.
I’d been flying when Jake got back in touch. It was five years ago, just after the real-life events of my dream. I was grogged out from departure lounge vodka slammers, hoping to stay unconscious until the scramjet was wheels down, and I was at least one continent away from the chaos in LA. Wasn’t to be, though. The in-flight attendant insisted on waking me up and forcing me to make a choice between two meal serving options: chicken that tasted like mammoth, or mammoth that tasted like chicken.
What was it going to be?
“Give me the furry elephant,” I told him. “And another vodka.”
“Ice and water with that, sir?”
“Just the vodka.”
The mammoth really wasn’t that bad—certainly no worse than the chicken would have been—and I was doing my best to enjoy it when the incoming call icon popped into my upper right visual field. For a moment I considered ignoring it completely. What could it be about, other than the mess I’d left behind after the robots went berserk? But I guess it was my fatal weakness that I’d never been able to not take a call. I put down the cutlery and pressed a finger against the hinge of my jaw. I kept my voice low, subvocalising. Had to be my lawyer. Assuming I still had a lawyer.
“Okay, lay it on me. Who’s trying to sue me, how much are we looking at, and what am I going to have to do to get them off my case?”
“Who else. You found me on this flight, didn’t you?”
“It’s Jake, man. I learned about your recent difficulties.”
For a moment the vodka took the edge off my surprise. “You and the rest of the world.”
Jake sounded pained. “At least make an effort to sound like you’re glad to hear from me, buddy. It’s been a while.”
“Sorry, Jake. It’s just not been the best few days of my life, you understand?”
“Rock and roll, my friend. Gotta roll with it, take the rough with the smooth. Isn’t that what we always said?”
“I don’t know. Did we?” Irritation boiled up inside me. “I mean, from where I’m sitting, it’s not like we ever had much in common.”
“Cutting, buddy. Cutting. And here I am calling you out of the blue with a business proposition. A proposition that might just dig you out of the hole you now find yourself in.”
“What kind of proposition?”
“It’s time to reactivate Morbid Management.”
I let that sink in before responding, my mind scouting ahead through the possibilities. Morbid Management was defunct, and for good reason. We’d exhausted the possibilities of working together. Worse than that, our parting had left me with a very sour opinion of Jake Addison. Jake had always been the tail wagging that particular dog, and I’d always been prepared to go along with his notions. But he hadn’t been prepared to put his faith in me when I had the one brilliant idea of my career.
We’d started off signing conventional rock acts. Mostly they were manufactured, put together with an eye on image and merchandising. But the problem with conventional rock acts is that they start having ideas of their own. Thinking they know best. Get ideas in their head about creative independence, artistic credibility, solo careers. One by one we’d watched our money-spinners fly apart in a whirlwind of ego and ambition. We figured there had to be something better.
So we’d created it. Ghoul Group was the world’s first all-dead rock act. Of course you’ve heard of them: Who hasn’t? You’ve probably even heard that we dug up the bodies at night, that we sucked the brains out of a failing mid-level pop act, or that they were zombies controlled by Haitian voodoo. Completely untrue, needless to say. It was all legal, all signed off and boilerplated. We kept the bodies alive using simple brain-stem implants, and we used the same technology to operate Ghoul Group on stage. Admittedly there was something Frankensteinesque about the boys and girls on stage—the dead look in their eyes, the scars and surgical stitches added for effect, the lifeless, parodic shuffle that passed for walking—but that was sort of the point.
Kids couldn’t get enough of them. Merchandising went through the roof, and turned Morbid Management into a billion dollar enterprise.
Only trouble was it couldn’t last. Rock promotion sucked money away as fast as it brought it in, and the only way to stay ahead of the curve was to keep manufacturing new acts. The fatal weakness of Ghoul Group was that the concept was easily imitated: Anyone with access to a morgue and a good lawyer could get in on the act. We realised we had to move on.
That was when we got into robotics.
Jake and I had both been in metal acts before turning to management, and we were friendly with Metallica. The band was still successful, still touring, but they weren’t getting any younger. Meanwhile a whole raft of tribute acts fed off the desire for the fans to see younger versions of the band, the way they’d been twenty or thirty years before. Yet no matter how good they were, the tribute acts were never quite realistic enough to be completely convincing. What was needed—what might fill a niche that no one yet perceived—were tribute acts that were completely indistinguishable from their models, and which could replicate them at any point in their careers. And—most importantly—never get tired doing it, or start demanding a raise.
So we made them. Got in hock with the best Japanese robotics specialists and tooled up a slew of different incarnations of Metallica. Each robot was a life-size, hyper-realistic replica of a given member of the band at a specific point in their career. After processing thousands of hours of concert footage, motion capture software enabled these robots to behave with staggering realism. They moved like people. They sounded like people. They sweated and exhaled. Unless you got close enough to look right into their eyes, there was no way at all to tell that you were not looking at the real thing.
We commissioned enough robots to cover every market on the planet, and sent them out on tour. They were insanely successful. The real Metallica did well out of it and within months we were licensing the concept to other touring acts. The money was pumping in faster than we could account it. But at the same time, mindful of what had happened with Ghoul Group, we were thinking ahead. To the next big thing.
That was when I’d had my one original idea.
I’d been on another flight, bored out of my mind, watching some news item about robots being used to dismantle some Russian nuclear plant that had gone meltdown last century. These robots were Godzilla-sized machines, but the thing that struck me was that they were more or less humanoid in shape. They were being worked by specialist engineers from half way round the world, engineers who would zip into telepresence rigs and actually feel like they were wearing the robots; actually feel as if the reactor they were taking apart was the size of a doll’s house.
It wasn’t the reactor I cared about, of course. It was the robots. I’d had a flash, a mental image. We were already doing Robot Metallica. What was to stop us doing Giant Robot Metallica?
By the time I’d landed, I’d tracked down the company that made the demolition machines. By the time I’d checked in to my hotel and ordered room service, I’d established that they could, in principle, build them to order and incorporate the kind of animatronic realism we were already using with the life-size robots. There was, essentially, no engineering barrier to us creating a twenty metre or thirty metre high James Hetfield or Lars Ulrich. We had the technology.
Next morning, shivering with excitement, I put the idea to Jake. I figured it for an easy sell. He’d see the essential genius in it. He’d recognise the need to move beyond our existing business model.
But Jake wasn’t buying.
I’ve often wondered why he didn’t go for it. Was it not enough of a swerve for him, too much a case of simply scaling up what we were already doing? Was he shrewd enough to see the potential for disaster, should our robots malfunction and go berserk? Was it simply that it was my idea, not his?
I don’t know. Even now, after everything else that’s happened—Derek and all the rest—I can’t figure it out. All I can be sure of is that I knew then that it was curtains for Morbid Management. If Jake wasn’t going to back me the one time I’d had an idea of my own, I couldn’t keep on working with him.
So I’d split. Set up my own company. Continued negotiations with the giant demolition robot manufacturers and—somewhat sneakily, I admit—secured the rights from Metallica to all larger-than-life robotic reenactment activities.
Okay, so it hadn’t ended well. But the idea’d been sound. And stadiums can always be rebuilt.
“You still there, buddy?”
“Yeah, I’m still here.” I’d given Jake enough time to think I’d hung up on him. Let the bastard sweat a little, why not. Over the roar of the scramjet’s ballistic re-entry profile I said: “We’re gonna lose comms in a few moments. Why don’t you tell me what this is all about.”
“Not over the phone. But here’s the deal.” And he gave me an address, an industrial unit on the edge of Helsinki. “You’re flying into Copenhagen, buddy. Take the ’lev, you can be in Helsinki by evening.”
“You have to give me more than that.”
“Like you to meet the future of rock and roll, Fox. Little friend of mine by the name of Derek. You’re going to like each other.”
The bastard had me, of course.
It was winter in Helsinki, so evening came down cold and early. From the maglev I took a car straight out into the industrial sticks, a dismal warren of slab-sided warehouses and low-rise office units. Security lights blazed over fenced-off loading areas and nearly empty car parks, the asphalt still slick and reflective from afternoon rain. Beyond the immediate line of warehouses, walking cranes stomped around the docks, picking up and discarding shipping containers like they were coloured building blocks. Giant robots. I didn’t need to be reminded about giant fucking robots, not when I was expecting an Interpol arrest warrant to be declared in my name at any moment. But at least they wouldn’t come looking here too quickly, I thought. On the edge of Helsinki, with even the car now departed on some other errand, I felt like the last man alive, wandering the airless boulevards of some huge abandoned moonbase.
The unit Jake had told me to go to was locked from the road, with a heavy-duty barrier slid across the entrance. Through the fence, it looked semi-abandoned: weeds licking at its base, no lights on in the few visible windows, some of the security lights around it broken or switched off. Maybe I’d been set up. It wouldn’t be like Jake, but time had passed and I still wasn’t ready to place absolute, unconditional trust in my old partner. All the same, if Jake did want to get back at me for something, stranding me in a bleak industrial development was a very elaborate way of going about it.
I pressed the intercom buzzer in the panel next to the barrier. I was half expecting no one to answer it and, if they did, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to explain my presence. But the voice that crackled through the grille was familiar and unfazed.
“Glad you could make it, buddy. Stroll on inside and take a seat. I’ll be down in a minute. I can’t wait to show Derek off to you.”
“I hope Derek’s worth the journey.”
The barrier slid back. I walked across the damp concrete of the loading area to the service entrance. Now that I paid proper attention, the place wasn’t as derelict as I’d assumed. Cameras tracked me, moving stealthily under their rain hoods. I ascended a step, pushed against a door—which opened easily—and found myself entering some kind of lobby or waiting room. Beyond a fire door, a dimly illuminated corridor led away into the depths of the building. No lights on in the annex, save for the red eye of a coffee machine burbling away next to a small table and a set of chairs. I poured a cup, spooned in creamer, and sat down. As my vision adjusted to the gloom, I made out some of the glossy brochures lying on the table. Most of them were for Gladius Biomech. I’d heard of the firm and recognised their swordfish logo. Most of what they did creeped me out. Once you started messing with genetics, the world was your walking, talking, tap-dancing oyster. I stroked one of the moving images and watched a cat sitting on a high chair and eating its dinner with a knife and fork, holding the cutlery in little furry human-like hands, while the family dined around it. Now your pet can share in your mealtimes—hygienically!
The fire door swung open. I put down the brochure hastily, as ashamed as if I’d been caught leafing through hardcore porn. Jake stood silhouetted in the dim lights of the corridor, knee-length leather jacket, hair still down to his collar.
I put on my best laconic, deadpan voice. “So I guess we’re going into the pet business.”
“Not quite,” Jake answered. “Although there may be merchandising options in that direction at some point. For now, though, it’s still rock and roll all the way.” He gestured back at the door he’d come through. “You want to meet Derek?”
I tipped the coffee dregs into the waste bin. “Guess we don’t want to keep him waiting.”
“Don’t worry about him. He’s not going anywhere.”
I followed Jake into the corridor. He had changed a bit in the two years since we’d split the firm, but not by much. The hair was a little grayer, maybe not as thick as it used to be. Jake still had the soul patch under his lip and the carefully tended stubble on his cheeks. Still wore snakeskin cowboy boots without any measurable irony.
“So what’s this all about?”
“What I said. A new business opportunity. Time to put Morbid Management back on the road. Question is, are we ready to take things to the next level?”
I smiled. “We. Like it’s a done deal already.”
“It will be when you see Derek.”
We’d reached a side door: sheet metal with no window in it. Jake pressed his hand against a reader, submitted to an iris scan, then pushed open the door. Hard light spilled through the widening gap.
“You keep this locked, but I’m able to walk in through the front door? Who are you worried about breaking in?”
“It’s not about anyone breaking in,” Jake said.
We were in a room large enough to hold a dozen semi-trucks. Strip lights ran the length of the low, white-tiled ceiling. There were no windows, and most of the wall space was taken up with grey metal cabinets and what appeared to be industrial-size freezer units. There were many freestanding cabinets and cupboards, with benches laid out in long rows. The benches held computers and glassware and neat, toy-like robotic things. Centrifuges whirred, ovens and chromatographs clicked and beeped. I watched a mechanical arm dip a pipette into a rack of test tubes, sampling or dosing each in quick sequence. The swordfish logo on the side of the robot was for Gladius Biomech.
“Either you’re richer than I think,” I said, “or there’s some kind of deal going on here.”
“Gladius fronts the equipment and expertise,” Jake said. “It’s a risk for them, obviously. But they’re banking on a high capital return.”
“You’re running a biotech lab on your own?”
“Buddy, I can barely work out a bar tip. You were always the one with the head for figures. Every few days, someone from Gladius stops by to make sure it’s all running to plan. But it doesn’t take much tinkering. Stuff’s mostly automated. Which is cool, because the fewer people know about this, the better.”
“Guess I’m one of them now. Want to show me what this is actually all about, or am I meant to figure it out on my own?”
“Over here,” Jake said, strolling over to one of the freestanding cabinets. It was a white cube about the size of a domestic washing machine, and had a similar looking control panel on the front. But it wasn’t a washing machine, obviously. Jake entered a keypad code then slid back the lid. “Go on,” he said, inviting me closer. “Take a look.”
I peered into the cabinet, figuring it was some kind of incubator. Blue, UV-tinged lights ran around the inside of the rim. I could feel the warmth coming off it. Straw and dirt were packed around the floor, and there was a clutch of eggs in the middle. They were big eggs, almost football sized, and one of them was quivering gently.
“Looks like we’ve got a hatcher coming through,” Jake said. “Reason I had to be here, actually. System alerts me when one of those babies gets ready to pop. They need to be hand-reared for a few days, until they can stand on their feet and forage for themselves.”
“Until what can stand on their feet and forage for themselves?”
“Baby dinosaurs, buddy. What else?” Jake slid the cover back on the incubator, then locked it with a touch on the keypad. “T-Rexes, actually. You ever eaten Rex?”
“Kind of out of my price range.”
“Well, take it from me, you’re not missing much. Pretty much everything tastes the same once you’ve added steak sauce, anyway.”
“So we’re diversifying into dinosaur foodstuffs. Is that what you dragged me out here to see?”
“Not exactly.” Jake moved to the next cabinet along—it was the same kind of white incubator—and keyed open the lid. He unhooked a floral-patterned oven glove from the side of the cabinet and slipped it on his right hand, then dipped into the blue-lit interior. I heard a squeak and a scuffling sound and watched as Jake came out with a baby dinosaur in his hand, clutched gently in the oven glove. It was about the size of a plastic bath toy, the same kind of day-glo green, but it was very definitely alive. It squirmed in the glove, trying to escape. The tail whipped back and forth. The huge hind legs thrashed at air. The little forelimbs scrabbled uselessly against the oven glove’s thumb. The head, with its tiny pin-sized teeth already budding through, tried to bite into the glove. The eyes were wide and white-rimmed and charmingly belligerent.
“Already got some fight in it, as you can see,” Jake said, using his ungloved hand to stroke the top of the Rex’s head. “And those teeth’ll give you a nasty cut even now. Couple of weeks, they’ll have your finger off.”
“Nice. But I’m still sort of missing the point here. And why is that thing so green?”
“Tweaked the pigmentation a bit, that’s all. Made it luminous, too. Real things are kind of drab. Not so hot for merchandising.”
“Jesus, Fox. Take a look at the forelimbs. Maybe it’ll clue you in.”
I took a look at the forelimbs and felt a shiver of I wasn’t exactly sure what. Not quite revulsion, not quite awe. Something that came in at right angles to both.
“I’m no expert on dinosaurs,” I said slowly. “Even less on Rexes. But are those things meant to have four fingers and a thumb?”
“Not the way nature intended. But then, nature wasn’t thinking ahead.” Jake stroked the dinosaur’s head again. It seemed to be calming gradually. “Gladius tells me it’s pretty simple stuff. There are these things called Hox genes, which show up in pretty much everything, from fruit flies to monkeys. They’re like a big bank of switches that control limb development, right out to the number of digits on the end. We just flipped a few of those switches, and got us dinosaurs with human hands.”
The hands were like exquisite little plastic extrudings, moulded in the same biohazard green as the rest of the T-Rex. They even had tiny little fingernails.
“Okay, that’s a pretty neat trick,” I said. “If a little on the creepy side. But I’m still not quite seeing the point.”
“The point, buddy, is that without little fingers and thumbs it’s kind of difficult to play rock guitar.”
“You’re shitting me. You bred this thing to make music?”
“He’s got a way to go, obviously. And it doesn’t stop with the fingers. You ever seen a motor homunculus, Fox? Map of human brain function, according to how much volume’s given over to a specific task. Looks like a little man with huge fucking hands. Just operating a pair of hands takes up way more cells than you’d think. Well, there’s no point giving a dinosaur four fingers and an opposable thumb if you don’t give him the mental wiring to go along with it. So we’re in there right from the start, manipulating brain development all the way, messing with the architecture when everything’s nice and plastic. This baby’s two weeks old and he already has thirty per cent more neural volume than a normal Rex. Starting to see some real hierarchical layering of brain modules, too. Your average lizard has a brain like a peanut, but this one’s already got something like a mammalian limbic system. Hell, I’d be scared if it wasn’t me doing this.”
“And for such a noble purpose.”
“Don’t get all moral on me, buddy.” Jake lowered the T-Rex back into the incubator. “We eat these things. We pay to go out into a big park and shoot them with anti-tank guns. I’m giving them the chance to rock. Is that so very wrong?”
“I guess it depends on how much choice the dinosaur has in the matter.”
“When you force a five-year-old kid to take piano lessons, does the kid have a choice?”
“Yeah, because it’s cruel and unusual to force someone to play the piano. I agree. But electric guitar? That’s liberation, my friend. That’s like handing someone the keys to the cosmos.”
“It’s a goddamned reptile, Jake.”
“Right. And how is that different than making corpses or giant robots play music?”
He had me there, and from the look of quiet self-satisfaction on his face, he knew it.
“Okay. I accept that you have a baby dinosaur that could, theoretically, play the guitar, if anyone made a guitar that small. But that’s not the same thing as actually playing it. What are you going to do, just sit around and wait?”
“We train it,” Jake said. “Just like training a dog to do tricks. Slowly, one element at a time. Little rewards. Building up the repertoire a part at a time. It doesn’t need to understand music. It just needs to make a sequence of noises. You think we can’t do this?”
“I’d need persuasion.”
“You’ll get it. Dinosaurs live for meat. It doesn’t have to understand what it’s doing, it just has to associate the one with the other. And this is heavy metal we’re talking about here, not Rachmaninov. Not a big ask, even for a reptile.”
“You’ve thought it all through.”
“You think Gladius was going to get on board if there wasn’t a business plan? This is going to work, Fox. It’s going to work, and you’re going to be a part of it. All the way down the line. We’re going to promote a rock tour with an actual carnivorous theropod dinosaur on lead guitar and vocal.”
I couldn’t deny that Jake’s enthusiasm was infectious. Always had been. But when I’d needed him—when I’d taken a big idea to him—he hadn’t been there for me. Even now the pain of that betrayal still stung, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to get over it that quickly.
“Maybe some other time,” I said, shaking my head with a regretful smile. “After all, you’ve got a ways to go yet. I don’t know how fast these things grow, but no one’s going to be blown away by a knee-high rock star, even if they are carnivorous. Maybe when Derek’s a bit older, and he can actually play something”
Jake gave me an odd glance. “Dude, we need to clear something up. You haven’t met Derek yet.”
I looked into his eyes. “Then who—what—was that?”
“Part of the next wave. Same with the eggs. Aren’t enough venues in the world for all the people who’ll want to see Derek. So we make more Dereks. Until we hit market saturation.”
“And you think Derek’ll be cool with that?”
“It’s not like Derek’s ever going to have an opinion on the matter.” Jake looked me up and down, maybe trying to judge exactly how much I could be trusted. “So: You ready to meet the big guy?”
I gave a noncommittal shrug. “Guess I’ve come this far.”
Jake stopped at another white cabinet—this one turned out to be a fridge—and came out with a thigh-sized haunch of freezer-wrapped meat. “Carry this for me, buddy,” he said.
I took the meat, cradling it in both arms. We went out of the laboratory by a different door, then walked down a short corridor until a second door opened out into a dark, echoey space, like the inside of an aircraft hangar.
“Wait here,’ Jake said, and his footsteps veered off to one side. I heard a clunk, as of some huge trip-switch being thrown and, one by one, huge banks of suspended ceiling lights came on. Even as I had to squint against the glare, I mentally applauded the way Jake was managing the presentation. He’d known I was coming, so he could easily have left those lights on until now. But the impresario in him wouldn’t be denied. These weren’t simple spotlights, either. They were computer controlled, steerable, variable-colour stage lights. Jake had a whole routine programmed in. The lights gimballed and gyred, throwing shifting patterns across the walls, floor and ceiling of the vast space. Yet, until the last moment, they studiously avoided illuminating the thing in the middle. When they fell on it, I could almost imagine the crowd going apeshit.
This was how the show would open. This was how the show had to open.
I was looking at Derek.
Derek was in a bright yellow cage, about the size of four shipping containers arranged into a block. I was glad about the cage; glad too that it appeared to have been engineered to generous tolerances. Electrical cables snaked into it, thick as pythons. Orange strobe beacons had just come on, rotating on the top of the cage, for no obvious reason other than that it looked cool. And there was Derek, standing up in the middle.
I’d had a toy T-Rex as a kid, handed down from my dad, and some part of me still expected them to look the way that toy did: standing with the body more or less vertical, forming a tripod with two legs and the tail taking the creature’s weight. That wasn’t how they worked, though. Derek—like every resurrected Rex that ever lived—stood with his body arranged in a horizontal line, with the tail counterbalancing the weight of his forebody and skull. Somehow that just never looked right to me. And the two little arms looked even more pathetic and useless in this posture.
Derek wasn’t the same luminous green as the baby dinosaur; he was a more plausible dark muddy brown. I guess at some point Jake had decided that colouration wasn’t spectacular enough for the second batch. In fact, apart from the human hands on the ends of his forearms, he didn’t look in any way remarkable. Just another meat-eating dinosaur.
Derek was awake, too. He was looking at us and I could hear the rasp of his breathing, like an industrial bellows being worked very slowly. In proportion to his body, his eyes were much smaller than the baby’s. Not so cute now. This was an instinctive predator, big enough to swallow me whole.
“He’s pretty big.”
“Actually he’s pretty small,” Jake said. “Rex development isn’t a straight line thing. They grow fast from babies then stick at two tonnes until they’re about fourteen. Then they get another growth spurt, which can take them anywhere up to six tonnes. Of course with the newer Dereks we should be able to dial things up a bit.” Then he took the haunch off me and whispered: “Watch the neural display. We’ve had implants in him since he hatched—we’re gonna work the imaging into the live show.” He raised his voice. “Hey! Meat-brain! Look what I got for you!”
Derek was visibly interested in the haunch. His head tracked it as Jake walked up to the cage, the little yellow-tinged eyes moving with the smooth vigilance of surveillance cameras. Saliva dribbled between his teeth. The forearms made a futile grabbing gesture, as if Derek somehow didn’t fully comprehend that there was a cage and a quite a lot of air between the haunch and him.
I watched a pink blotch form on the neural display. “Hunter-killer mode kicking in,” Jake said, grinning. “He’s like a heat-seeking missile now. Nothing getting between him and his dinner except maybe another Rex.”
“Maybe you should feed him more often.”
“There’s no such thing as a sated Rex. And I do feed him. How else do you think I get him to work for me?” He raised his voice again. “You know the deal, ain’t no free lunches around here.” He put the haunch down on the ground, then reached for something that I hadn’t seen until then: a remote control unit hanging down from above. It was a grubby yellow box with a set of mushroom-sized buttons on it. Jake depressed one of the buttons and an overhead gantry clanked and whined into view, sliding along rails suspended from the ceiling. The gantry positioned itself over the cage, then began to lower its cargo. It was a flame red Gibson Flying V guitar, bolted to a telescopic frame from the rear of the body. The guitar came down from a gap in the top of the cage (too small for Derek to have escaped through), lowered until it was in front of him, then telescoped back until the guitar was suspended within reach of his arms. At the same time, a microphone had come down to just in front of Derek’s mouth.
Jake released the remote control unit, then picked up the haunch again. “Okay, buddy, you know what you need to do.” Then he pressed one of the other buttons and fast, riffing heavy metal blasted out of speakers somewhere in the room. It wasn’t stadium-level wattage—that, presumably, would have drawn too much attention—but it was still loud enough to impress, to give me some idea of how the show would work in reality.
And then Derek started playing. His hands were on that guitar, and they were making—well, you couldn’t call it music, in the absolutely strict sense of the word. It was noise, basically. Squealing, agonising bursts of sheet-metal sound, none of which bore any kind of harmonic relationship to what had gone before. But the one thing I couldn’t deny was that it worked. With the backing tape, and the light show, and the fact that this was an actual dinosaur playing a Gibson Flying V guitar, it was possible to make certain allowances.
Hell, I didn’t even have to try. I was smitten. And that was before Derek opened his mouth and started singing. Actually it would be best described as a sustained, blood-curdling roar—but that was exactly what it needed to be, and it counterpointed the guitar perfectly. Different parts of his brain were lighting up now; the hunter-killer region was much less bright than it had been before he started playing.
And there was, now that I paid attention to it, more than just migraine-inducing squeals of guitar and monstrous interludes of guttural roaring. Derek might not be playing specific notes and chords, and his vocalisations were no more structured or musical, but they were timed to fit in around the rest of the music, the bass runs and drum fills and second guitar solos. It wasn’t completely random. Derek was playing along, judging his contributions, letting the rest of the band share the limelight.
As a front man, I’d seen a lot worse.
“Okay, that’ll do,” Jake said, killing the music, pressing another button to retract the guitar and mike. “Way to go, Derek. Way to fucking go.”
“Does that constitute your seal of approval?”
“He can rock. I’ll give him that.”
“He doesn’t just rock,” Jake said. “He is rock.” Then he turned around and smiled. “So. Buddy. We back in business, or what?”
Yeah, I thought to myself. I guess we’re back in business.
I’m making my way back down the Antonov, thinking of the long hours of subsonic cruising ahead. I pass Jake’s desk again, and this time something on the ancient, battered, desert-sand camouflaged ex-military surplus laptop catches my eye.
The laptop’s running some generic movie editing software, and in one of the windows is a freezeframe from tonight’s show. Beneath the freezeframe is a timeline and soundtrack. I click the cursor and slide it back along to the left, watching Derek run in reverse on the window, hands whipping around the guitar in manic thrash overdrive. The set list is the same from night to night, so I know exactly when “Extinction Event” would have kicked in. I don’t feel guilty about missing it—someone had to take care of the Budokan accounts—but now that we’re airborne and there’s time to kill, I’m at least semi-curious about hearing it properly. What exactly was so great about it tonight, compared to the previous show, and the one before that?
Why was it that Jake didn’t want to hear that “Extinction Event” was even more awesome than usual?
I need earphones to hear anything over the six-engine drone of the Antonov. I’m reaching for them when Jake looms behind me.
“Thought you were checking on the big guy.”
I look around. He’s still got the bottle of JD with him.
“I was. Told him I heard he’d done a good job. Now I’m just checking it out for myself. If I can just find the point where . . .”
He reaches over and takes my hand off the laptop. “You don’t need to. Got it all cued up already.”
He hands me the JD, punches a few keys—they’re so worn the numbers and letters are barely visible now—and up pops Derek again. From the purple-red tinge of the lighting, and the back-projection footage of crashing asteroids and erupting volcanoes, I know we’ve hit the start of “Extinction Event.”
“So what’s the big deal?” I ask.
“Put the phones on.”
I put the phones on. Jake spools through the track until we hit the bridge between the second and third verse. He lets the movie play on at normal speed. Drums pounding like jackhammers, bass so heavy it could shatter bone, and then Derek lets rip on the Flying V, unleashing a squall of demented sound, arching his neck back as he plays, eyes narrowing to venomous slits, and then belching out a humungous, larynx-shredding roar of pure theropod rage.
We go into the third verse. Jake hits pause.
“So you see,” he says.
I pull out the phones. “I’m not sure I do.”
“Then you need to go back and listen to the previous performance. And the one before that. And every goddamned rendition of that song he’s ever done before tonight.”
“Yes. Because then you’d understand.” And Jake looks at me with an expression of the utmost gravity on his face, as if he’s about to disclose one of the darkest, most mystical secrets of the universe. “It was different tonight. He came in early. Jumped his usual cue. And when he did come in it was for longer than usual and he added that vocal flourish.”
I nod, but I’m still not seeing the big picture. “Okay. He screwed up. Shit happens. Gotta roll with it, remember? It was still a good show. Everyone said so.”
But he shakes his head. “You’re not getting it, buddy. That wasn’t a mistake. That was something much worse. That was an improvement. That was him improvising.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“I can be sure.” He punches another key and a slice of Derek’s neural activity pops up. “Extracted this from the performance,” he says. “Right around the time he started going off-script.” His finger traces three bright blotches. “You see these hotspots? They’ve come on in ones and twos before. But they’ve never once lit up at the same time.”
“And this means something?”
He taps his finger against the blotches in turn. “Dorsal premotor cortex. That’s associated with the brain planning a sequence of body movements. You slip on ice, that’s the part that gets you flapping your arms so you don’t you fall over.” Next blotch. “Anterior cingulate. That’s your basic complex resolution, decision-making module, right. Do I chase after that meal, or go after that one?” He moves his finger again. “Interior frontal gyrus/ventral premotor cortex. We’re deep into mammal brain structure here—a normal Rex wouldn’t have anything you could even stick a label on here. You know when this area lights up, in you and me?”
“I’m not, strangely enough, a neuroscientist.”
“Nor was I until I got involved with Derek. This is the sweet spot, buddy. This is what lights up when you hear language or music. And all three of these areas going off at once? That’s a pretty unique signature. It doesn’t just mean he’s playing music. It means he’s making shit up as he goes along.”
For a moment I don’t know what to say. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s right. He knows the show—and Derek’s brain—inside out. He knows every cue Derek’s meant to hit. Derek missing his mark—or coming in early—just isn’t meant to happen. And Derek somehow finding a way to deviate from the program and make the song sound better is, well . . . not exactly the way Jake likes things to happen.
“I don’t like improvisation,” he says. “It’s a sign of creative restlessness. Before you know it . . .”
“It’s solo recording deals, expensive riders, and private tour buses.”
“I thought we got away from this shit,” Jake says mournfully. “I mean, dead bodies, man. Then robots. Then dinosaurs. And still it’s coming back to bite us. Talent always thinks it knows best.”
“Maybe it does.”
“You gave him just enough of a mind to rock. Unfortunately, that’s already more than enough to not want to take orders.” I take a sip from the JD. “But look on the bright side. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“He escapes and eats us.”
“Apart from that.”
“I don’t know. If he starts showing signs of . . . creativity . . . then we’re fucked six ways from Tuesday. We’ll have animal rights activists pulling the plug on every show.”
“Unless we just . . . roll with it. Let him decide what he does. I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t want to perform, is it? You’ve seen him out there. This is what he was born for. Hell, why stop there? This is what he was evolved for.”
“I wish I had your optimism.”
I look back at the cage. Derek’s watching us, following the conversation. I wonder how much of it he’s capable of understanding. Maybe more than we realise.
“Maybe we keep control of him, maybe we don’t. Either way, we’ve done something beautiful.” I hand him the bottle. “You, mainly. It was your idea, not mine.”
“Took the two of us to make it fly,” Jake says, before taking a gulp. “And hell, maybe you’re right. That’s the glorious thing about rock and roll. It’s alchemy. Holy fire. The moment you control it, it ain’t rock and roll no more. So maybe the thing we should be doing here is celebrating.”
“All the way.” And I snatch back the JD and take my own swig. Then I raise the bottle and toast Derek, who’s still watching us. Hard to tell what’s going on behind those eyes, but one thing I’m sure of is that it’s not nothing. And for a brief, marvellous instant, I’m glad not only to be alive, but to be alive in a universe that has room in it for beautiful monsters.
And heavy metal, of course.
© 2010 by Alastair Reynolds.
Originally published in Shine,
edited by Jetse De Vries.
Reprinted by permission of the author.