AND THE GLORY

This story originally appeared in Palo Alto Review, Fall 2009. They called it a “fable.” I thought of it as soft science-fiction or surreal fantasy. It occurs to me now that it might be a slipstream story. I meant for it to a have an element of satire, too. It benefitted from critiques from Rich Chwedyk and Tom Bracken.

AND
THE GLORY

 

          In a fiery arc Starship XVI roars off, high above to its orbit.  Outside with the rest Elaine watches and returns then to the pavilion to share in the bread and wine that waiters in black carry through the multitudes.  She only sips at her wine; it’s a night for revelry, but she needs her wits.  Is she not to conduct the Last Interview?                                                               

          The still air is hot, and a full moon hangs above the horizon.  She stands at the edge of the tables, by the open floor, where the crowd has begun to mill around.  On the huge screen across the floor, blackness appears and distant stars, live from Starship XVI’s external cameras. From speakers flanking the screen floats a ballad by The Superstar: over moderato minor chords, he croons in falsetto.  As she stares into the screen, imagines thousands at similar pavilions, millions watching in theaters and on home screens, vertigo rocks her.  At that instant, who she is thrills her.

          She turns to Kelvin, who wears a burgundy sports coat over a black turtleneck.  He shakes back his brown hair and grins. “Tonight’s the night.”

            “ Tonight’s the night,” she agrees.  “Would you like to do an interview?”

          “For the documentary?  Or live?”

          “For the documentary.”   She smiles and rolls her eyes.  He pouts, and she lays her hand on his arm.  “Kelvin, I love you.  But tonight belongs to The Superstar.”  Again she smiles.  “Anyway people are going to flock to the documentary.  My footage from the world tour is incredible: the high points from a over a hundred concerts.”

          Kelvin agrees to the interview, Elaine motions, and her cameraman scuttles over and falls to one knee, giving him a shot of Elaine and Kelvin framed by the screen, where pale stars float on a dark sea.  As the crowd mills and jostles around them, Elaine says, “I’m here with Senator Kelvin Howard, singer/songwriter for Ultimate Reality, and as you were just saying, Kelvin, tonight’s the night.”

          “That’s right,” he answers, his voice husky, “ The last seven years culminate–one way or the other.  And this is a Last Fling we won’t forget.  This Superstar has always delivered.”

          “True,” Elaine says “I first saw him in a little club down south.  And he was on fire.”  Then in four short years, she thinks, he was Superstar.

          Kelvin nods.  “I saw him just days before he succeeded his predecessor.  The most powerful music I’ve heard, ever.”

          And troubling, thinks Elaine, his music troubles you.  She says,  “Well, you’re not alone among musicians he’s influenced.”  She makes a sign, and the cameraman cuts.

          That was quick, and almost bland, but no matter.  Given the right context, it will work in the documentary.  If she wants real emotion she can interview Kelvin later on whether a Superstar is necessary.  On that Kelvin is impassioned, calling the tradition an abomination:  Why select a new Superstar every seven years?  Why have the Fame Machine whip up such adulation?  It gave The Superstar undue influence over world consciousness.   But most of all, Kelvin argued, the night of The Last Fling was barbaric, and must end.  Next term in the Senate, he would introduce legislation to abolish it.  Which should prove interesting.  The tradition was time-honored, but Kelvin was persuasive.  Even Elaine has found herself wondering.

          At that moment stars and darkness dissolve on screen, and a view fades in from on ship, where The Superstar and band wail, dancers writhing before them.  The band brings the song to an end, and The Superstar runs a hand through golden locks and asks, “Are you ready down there?”  Yes, yes, shouts the crowd, knowing all the planet echoes them here at Prime Pavilion.

          The drummer launches into the countoff, and the band rolls, playing with a ferocity almost sinister.  Around Elaine the crowd is beginning to match the passion of the dancers on Starship XVI, where even Crazy Jimmy dances with a serpentine energy.  What chemicals course his blood stream?  Will he be coherent later? Does it matter?

          Kelvin, a tall man, reaches over the crowd, plucks two goblets from a waiter’s tray, and hands one to Elaine.  He glances around, then at the screen and says quietly, “I dislike this song.”

          It’s a cut from the Superstar’s last album, its drone voodoo-like, and The Superstar chants its final verse, green eyes gleaming like a lunatic’s:

                   I am Superstar; soon I’m not

                   I am Superstar; soon I’m not

                   Goin’ Nova now; ooh, I am white hot

                   Can’t bring me down when my time is through

                   Can’t bring me down when my time is through

                   Goin’ Nova now; ain’t nothin’ you can do

          The band ends the song with an extended jam, volume, tempo, intensity increasing, while with eyes closed, The Superstar stands entranced, swaying slightly, until as the music climaxes, he raises both arms above his head, and throwing them down, stops the music.  The view inside Starship dissolves, and blackness and glimmering stars fill the screen.  Elaine inclines her head toward the Broadcast Center, and Kelvin sets their half-empty goblets on a table nearby.  Hand in hand they begin to weave their way through the crowd.

          Inside Broadcast Center the face of Crazy Jimmy appears on a screen, musicians and dancers milling about behind him, and Elaine’s aquiline face framed by her long black hair, fills the monitor. She smoothes the back of her velvet jacket down over her skirt.  A voice sounds over the speakers, saying they will be on in five seconds.

          On the air Elaine wastes no time, “To our viewers, good evening.  This is Elaine Mitchell, and I am to take you aboard Starship XVI tonight.  I’ll be speaking with Jimmy Bolan, recording engineer, road manager, and confidant to The Superstar.”

          Crazy Jimmy’s round face smirks and bobs on the screen, eyes glassy behind glinting lenses, diamond studs in his lower lip and nose.

          “Jimmy, how did a man with a masters degree in physics, by all reports a brilliant scientific mind, end up a recording engineer and soundman, riding the Starship tonight?”

          “Luck,” Jimmy says.  He grins.  “ I met The Superstar when he was working clubs, and I was finishing school.  Started out doing sound.  Things took on a momentum of their own.”  He leers.  “But you knew that Elaine.  You know all about The Superstar, right?  Those articles of yours were his first break.  I mean, I know how well you researched him,”  Jimmy says and now smiles innocently.

          “Our careers have been intertwined,” Elaine agrees. “That’s why I’m doing the interviews tonight.  I only wish I was doing them from on board–”

          “Oh, do you?” Jimmy asks.  He laughs derisively.  “Really?”

          “And how about you, Jimmy?”  Elaine asks, her smooth voice taking on a edge.  “What are your feelings tonight?  Do you regret that the seventh year has passed?”

          A strong arm slides around Jimmy’s shoulder, and into the picture a lean handsome face ducks.  As the camera adjusts, The Superstar raises his head.  “What’s to regret?” he asks, towering over Jimmy.  “If the power and the glory lasted forever, they’d lose their thrill.  Hey, right, Jimmy?”  The two slap hands, laughing like ten-year-olds.  “But what excites me is this:  It’s been seven hot years, and tonight it ends in flames of glory, and we don’t come down.”

          Elaine can’t help glancing across the room at Kelvin, who frowns and cocks his head.  Recovering, she asks,  “But how can you know that? The odds are fifty/fifty.”

          The Superstar raises his shoulders and turns up his palms.  “Well, yeah, those are the rules.”  He smiles sheepishly.  “But we cheated.”  He pats Jimmy on the shoulder, as Jimmy smiles vacuously.  “Jimmy rigged the detonator, changed the odds.  For suspense we left a two percent chance against it, but the odds in favor of detonation tonight are overwhelming.”  He waves amiably into the camera, and strides off toward the stage, Jimmy trailing behind.

          All around Elaine a hubbub arises, and as outer space again darkens the screen, her thoughts race.  Unheard of.  A scandal.  But then it certainly lends her documentary a sensational twist:  The Superstar who seized his destiny from the grasp of chance, and rather than life, chose glory. . . Kelvin’s hand clasps her elbow, and she turns.

          “I just spoke with Mission Control,”  he says, his voice strained.  “He’s not lying.  The detonator on Starship has been rigged, and they can’t reset it.  Somehow Jimmy’s put it beyond their control.”                                

          Back in the Pavilion, as Kelvin and Elaine wade through the crowd, people’s eyes glitter feverishly, and the laughter is shrill.  On screen The Superstar and his band wail and scream, and Crazy Jimmy dances sinuously among the dancing women.  Changing hues flash on screen, the air shimmering, while the crowd dances with eyes fixed on The Superstar.

          Kelvin’s jaw is clenched.  Elaine thinks how he calls the Last Fling barbaric.  Well, maybe it is, but people need more than the daily grind.  More than work.  More even than romance or relationships.  The Superstar fulfills a need for some transcendence, and without the Last Fling, the custom would lack the same impact.  Fulfills a need for transcendence, she admits to herself, and a lingering blood-thirst.

          As the last chord of the band’s song resounds, the screen goes dark, and then The Superstar’s face fills it.  “Well, thrill-seekers, Crazy Jimmy just made the odds ninety-nine to one.”  He laughs.  “Oh, yeah, I felt the excitement rise down there.  I mean all the way up here, I felt it.  But then that’s why we did it.  Tonight’s the night.  You’ve waited seven years.  And what a let-down when the Starship doesn’t erupt.  Everybody says how glad they are.  But, I mean, what a letdown.

          He throws one arm wide, and the camera pans band, dancers, Crazy Jimmy.  In a rising voice The Superstar cries,  “The time is almost nigh, and we would rather die than disappoint you.  We have no fear.  Right?” And heads nod, shoulders shrug.  “Jimmy,” he cries,  “make the odds for detonation one hundred percent.”  Jimmy scampers from the room.  Quietly guitar, bass, and drums begin a minor riff.  And The Superstar speaks in synch with its rhythm.  “Tonight The Superstar goes Nova.  And I do it for you gladly.  To give your self-destructive hearts a vicarious thrill.”

          He pauses.  “Or not so vicarious, maybe.  You know, much has been made of our world tour this last year.  A hundred and eight cities. And over the years, a lot’s been written about Jimmy’s background.  I mean rigging the detonator, that was easy for someone like Jimmy.”  The camera flashes on Jimmy’s smug countenance as he returns to the room.

          “Why, a person like Jimmy could make thermo-nuclear devices, leave one in every city we visited this year.”

          On Earth in the Pavilion, a chill grips Elaine’s heart as she glances from the screen to Kelvin, whose face is ashen.

         “Jimmy, he could even arrange that when we detonate, they all detonate.”  The minor riff has grown wild; guitar and synthesizer scream.  “And arrange so it can’t be stopped.  So all you down below, tonight –”

 

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About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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