Do it for the music - Editor
The Oath of Brutus
by Betsy Dornbusch
...the state of liberty still fresh upon their tongues, swear a solemn oath never to allow any man to be king in Rome...
Raff Voque sat on his side of the screen. The chair wobbled beneath him. Out of habit, he rolled the casters to a more stable position. He heard similar adjustment from the dotgov handler on the other side, a clearing throat. Grime blackened the cracks in the counter and the scratches on the floor. Voque’s communal processor implant registered his same old still-shot projected on the dingy wall: No Smoking or Synthetica.
“Lieutenant." The handler was a female this time - or at least her avatar was. It showed her as a mid-twenties Hispanic with a buttoned up collar, military embeds glittering in her brown eyes, and lips tattooed crimson.
Voque snapped a quick salute and wondered if he ought to update his avatar.
“Mace Mayhem,” said the handler. “Familiar with him?”
Voque nodded. “Singer. I seen his ‘tubes."
A little hatch flipped open and a hand pushed two holo cards through. One sparkly, dotcom. One plain, dotgov. “Pit pass for tonight’s show and intel.”
The handler bit her nails, and brown spots seeped through her last round of laser treatments.
“How long have I got?” Voque asked.
“A month, two on the outside. Give the fans time to forget you’re new. But we’re under pressure from higher-ups to see it done. Elections are in eleven weeks and we need the airwaves cleared for the senators.”
“Yes ma’am." Voque started to salute again, but dropped his hand as the handler spoke again.
Voque watched people watch him as he stood in line. His pit pass dangled from his wrist and his syrup-shirt crawled over his skin. The fabric felt like a massage as it revealed a nipple, a slice of shoulder. The new ware in his CPI purred.
Beyond, thousands of fans writhed to the music. It wasn’t bad, actually. Had a good beat, and something else, too, a harmonic sincerity in Mace’s voice that buzzed through Voque’s CPI right down to his groin.
The lyrics were the usual fare, even a remix of one of Cam’s tracks. Cam would have been pleased. He thought of her laughter, her body relaxing against him as she died. Her death paved the way for Mace’s current lead on the Net, which blew all records for hits. Small wonder dotgov called him out.
Voque switched on a smile and held up his wrist. The security goon scanned the pass with the embed in his eye and let him in. Voque’s CPI registered the goon's attention on him as he walked away.
It’s all good, his CPI told him.
Dotgov completed his ware upload to his CPI that afternoon: the latest military communication and bio-maintenance programs, translation, even chat. Voque was glad to have it, but a talking CPI took some getting used to.
The amphitheatre looked as old as the dotgov office where Voque received his orders. The fusty scent of sweat had soaked into the walls. Backstage deadened the music, but Voque turned it up on his CPI as he scanned the site. All best-of for Mace. Directional amps. Implanted mikes. A rack of guitars, some so old they had strings. Voque’s fingers twitched a couple of air-chords along with the music.
The entourage, arms crossed and hips hitched to one side, watched Mace rant and dance from the sideline. He bled from little cuts lacing his chest. Another lyric, another cut. And there was that harmony again, burning its way through Voque’s body.
Voque tried his new CPI-chat on Mace. Hey. You.
Mace glanced his way. Can’t see. Glare.
The entourage caught the chat and they looked at Voque. The music died. Voque’s ears felt stuffed with lead without the drums pounding, and then Mace stood in front of him with a full-wattage smile. Voque batted and blinked in the glare from Mace’s teeth.
"Raff Voque,” Mace said.
Voque nodded. He was a ghost. He could use his real name.
Mace backed a step. Looked Voque up and down. He reached out to catch a slice of skin.
Voque had to raise his voice to be heard over the roar of a hundred thousand fans shouting over the replays on their CPIs. It echoed against the amphitheatre ceiling. The building trembled with the din. Made it feel like the old thing would come down on their heads.
“You want the shirt?” Voque asked.
Mace gave him a look, a twist of his eyebrow. Maybe it was too early to offer a gift, but it was just a shirt. Voque switched the shirt off and pulled the collar from his neck.
Mace stepped forward so Voque could snap it on. It was too loose; he leaned toward devil-thin. Dried tributaries of blood wound down his chest. He smelled like copper and stale cologne.
“Switch it to my CPI,” Mace said.
Voque shook his head and let his teeth sneak into his smile as he flipped a mental switch in his own CPI. The syrup started crawling over Mace’s skin, breaking scabs. His irises morphed with the changing colors in the syrup: purple, blue, green, a startling gold. Delirium crossed his face as he glazed.
Voque made a mental note: Mace was into the sting. He takes Mace’s hand. “Keep it,” he said. “I won’t need it back.”
The simplicity between them wouldn’t last. It never did. But even in his drug infused glaze, Voque knew tonight set the tone for Mace going easy or going hard. And Voque really wanted it to be easy. Mace made a nice guy once the blood washed off.
Voque strummed one of Mace’s guitars as the singer shooed away the entourage. The strings nipped his fingers as he coaxed a song to life.
Mace leaned his back against the door, tight against it like he was scared the entourage would rush back in, and he smiled at Voque. Not glazed, but direct. Must have hosed out his bios.
“You’re good,” he said. "You play old school. I like it."
“High praise,” Voque said. “Thanks.”
“I’ve seen you around, haven’t I? With Cam, I think, and Flip Murph?”
A vague worry buzzed through Voque’s glaze. He was around. A lot. Just maybe not why Mace thought. “A sad day,” he said. “Losing Flip.”
Mace nodded, distracted by the Net monitor where dotcnn tickers rage. The sub-screen spat replays from Mace’s concert. Dotgov hits plummeted while Mace’s status graphs morphed into screen savers across the world. Tweets ran by too fast to read. The Net smoldered with six hundred million users and counting. The night was young.
Mace pushed off the door and crossed the room to fold himself up on the seat next to Voque. A fire - a real one with logs and everything - burned nearby. Mace had thrown his psychotropic trash in it all night.
“You like all this?” Voque asked him.
“Life. Singing. All this." Voque waved a hand, his wrist loose. It left a trail in the air. Too glazed. He click-clacked mental buttons and his CPI hosed out his bios. His vision cleared.
“Well enough,” Mace said, unsmiling. “I play my music and they make a god of me. What’s not to like?”
Mace was warmer in person than his digitals in Rolling Stone, with his firewalls dropped and his teeth turned off. His earnest eyes blazed with the color of the hot fire at their backs. They sought Voque, his lips, his throat, maybe even his essence.
Mace burned with an intensity Voque knew too well, only this time it was different. It was more, like his voice was more.
It’s all good. The CPI’s hot, hushed whisper made Voque’s trousers get tight. He shifted slightly. Dotgov had his CPI tuned to hi-sex.
Mace’s gaze slid back to the corner. Dotcnn broke through to fullscreen for a few seconds to show a clip of Voque entering the hotel elevator with Mace. Ratings skyrocketted as crawlerbots announced Voque’s association to living and dead musicians. A new chatroom focused on Mace’s cutting during the show crashed in seconds as users flooded the gates.
Voque’s CPI registered Mace’s tight throat and rising heart rate. Sad, sad, sad. Like Voque doesn’t have eyes in his head.
"Crazy hits, huh?" Voque asked.
Mace didn’t answer, just watched the hits on his pages climb into billions. Voque strummed the strings of the century-old guitar and it was trillions. Demographics couldn’t be pinned, Mace’s audience was so big.
Mace muted the monitor and closed his eyes.
Voque tried again. “’Tubes don’t do your voice justice.”
“You should know...” Mace said, clenching his eyes tighter. “I turned down my CPI, Raff. Much as I could anyway. It’s why I couldn’t hear that well you when you chatted me.”
Voque reached out and touched Mace’s hand. “Why?”
Mace opened his chameleon eyes. A beat. Two. “I just want to be real again. For a little while.”
He operated on lo-CPI? It was really him singing out there, night after night.
Tears painted shiny tracks down Maces cheeks, the saddest thing Voque ever saw, psychedelic tears falling from those golden, opalescent eyes.
Sad sad sad. His CPI reminded him he had a job to do.
Voque couldn’t speak, couldn’t answer.
And then, like Voque’s the one with problems, Mace pulled him forward and hugged him against his sliced-up chest.
“Raff,” Mace whispered. “It’ll be all right.”
Four days later they were ten cities away. The entourage forgot Voque hadn’t always been there. Mace and Voque appeared in Rolling Stone when they were clubbing, hair dyed and cut the same. Voque was reinstated on the Net, hashtag #riffraff. Chatrooms pondered how Voque managed to bed all the top rockers.
Mace and Voque did fall into the same bed most nights, but Mace was hetero. Even so, Voque often woke in the night with Mace’s fingers curled around his arm. The CPI misunderstood. He wants you.
Waking hours, Mace wouldn’t let Voque out of his sight. They talked, mostly Mace, mostly about nothing, while Voque strummed guitars. His fingers recalled chords and he played with the confidence of a phoenix.
Scheduled order prompt: T minus 15 days, 8 hours, 16 seconds.
Voque sobered. Affirmative. Received.
“Tell me what you’re writing now, Macey,” he said.
Mace blinked his chameleon eyes. “How do you know I’m writing?”
“You got up early. Come on. Tell me.”
Mace looked away. “An oeuvre.”
Voque straightened, quit strumming. “What? What did you say?”
“Nothin, Raff." Mace turned his attention to the monitor. “Net’s worse than drugs, isn’t it? Turn that off and let's go out.”
Speculation ran the gamut from “Who Is This New Lover?” to “Mace Courts Raff’s New Band!” all accompanied by ‘tubes of Voque throwing himself into a glaze over Mace’s music. Dotgov tried to rattle the graphs with some warnings about world affairs and the coming election, but the Net always boomeranged back to Mace. His label released a remix of the new track, heard only a handful of times live,the song dramatized by the cutting. Teens and twens started slicing their chests. Bloodstained shirts become all the rage. The trend lasted an unprecedented week.
Voque took jibes about his new Net superstar status in stride while privately reckoning dotgov doctored the mill, installing his numbers on a rocket fueled by falsehoods. Dotgov couldn’t break in for longer than ten-second riffs. Mission prompts came hourly. He tried to ignore, then to explain - Mace was a delicate situation - until he got called in to dotgov. In person. Shaking the fans, much less Mace, wasn't easy. They had 24/7 protection - six rent-a-slabs who proved themselves by killing a rabid fan their first day.
“What the hell, Lieutenant?” This one had black hair like a raven and lips Voque would pay well to kiss. His voice was gravely. A Synthetica user.
Voque lifted his hands from the blackened counter. “Timing is tricky with this one. Sir.”
“End it. Now. The election is in a month for crissake, and Mace is still tying up all the airwaves.”
“All right, sir. I just - ”
“One week, Lieutenant. I want the man dead. We need him gone and forgotten.”
“Sir. Yes, sir." Voque saluted the screen.
“Just do your job."
Voque turned to leave and felt a twinge. Time to have his hip worked on again, when the job was through. The replacement was failing.
“Can I have that towel, Raff?” Mace asked as he washed after a show. He sounded a little hoarse from performing so often.
Voque tossed it to him. It tinged pink from the bloody water sluicing off Mace’s body.
“You got to turn up your CPI,” Voque said. “The scars are sticking.”
“Doesn’t matter." Mace leaned over and scrubbed his head dry. When he pulled the towel away, a fine coating of bleached hair matted it.
Voque blinked at him.
“Yeah,” Mace said. “Wanna go bald? Start a new trend?” He dried his chest and started bleeding again.
“Why doesn’t it matter?” Voque asked softly.
“I have to admit, the anticipation is killing me." Mace flickered a grin; it widened to evil. “Sorry. Figure of speech.”
Voque buckled under that smile. “How long you known?”
“Almost since the beginning. You show up out of nowhere like you’re a special pick for me." Mace shrugged and walked naked toward Voque, reached past him for trousers. “Little do I know, you are a special pick for me.”
He wore his scars like a shirt. His thighs undulated with finely-tuned muscle. He pulled on the trousers, but stopped fastening them as he caught Voque’s eye. “Shit. Raff. I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s all right. Like I told you when I met you, it’s all right. I knew it was coming.”
Voque glanced around the room. Secure, his CPI announced. “How?”
“Dotgov...you're from dotgov, right?” At Voque’s nod, Mace carried on fastening and talking. “Seems like every election, some celebrity dies. And I'm big - bigger than Cam, even. But it’s not like I planned it, you know. I just wanted to sing my songs.”
“But your voice...”
“Yeah. I know."
Mace dropped down next to Voque and stared at his knees, bony through the striped silk. “It’s real. All mine. They wanted to enhance it more. I wouldn’t let them." Mace sounded like he was giving an interview, but his tenor changed. “The songs, that’s all me, too. You know I write my own."
Water dripped from the spigot against the tile floor, stained crimson in a little circle around the drain. Voque had no idea what to say. His fingers twitched without a guitar.
"I know I could have kept quiet, let it go when I first hit the status graphs,” Mace said softly. “It seemed game. Until you turned up.”
Voque nodded and turned his face away.
“Hey.” Mace reached out and nudged Voque’s shoulder. “Hey, Raff. You’re just doing your job.”
“Dotgov thinks it’s secret.”
“Dotgov can go fuck themselves. No, you’re right. It is a secret. I had time to piece it together on the road. Cam, then Flip. There were more back there, probably before your time."
"I'm older than I look," Voque said.
Mace nodded. "Well, nobody suspects murder for more than a day unless they get the gunner. And Dotgov are careful bastards. I thought I might be clear, especially when you stuck around for so long and nothing happened. Then you took your walk the other day. I know you went to dotgov.”
I won’t, Voque chatted him. I won’t do it.
“Don’t lie to me. They’ll probably kill you if you don’t. You didn’t sign up to die. I did, though.”
Voque swallowed and nodded. He couldn’t meet the chameleon eyes.
“My voice being real - I figured that was my ticket. I thought they’d just discredit me or injure me.”
Voque shook his head. “The election’s this year, and they never anticipated your rise.”
“Disappear me, then.”
“The fans will find you. And if I don't do you, dotgov’ll get someone else. Only death dies on the Net." Practically his unit's Semper Fi. Voque bit his bottom lip.
Mace reached out and pulled it loose with a finger calloused from strumming. “When?”
“They told me a week,” Voque said. “Five days ago.”
Mace drew a breath. Voque was close enough to hear it tremble in his lungs. “Tonight, then.”
“But - ”
“It’s your gig. This was mine." His voice harmonized dread and bravado as he stood and turned away. “Do me tonight."
“Wait,” Voque said. “I’m coming with you.”
Mace’s bony spine stiffened. He nodded. The trousers rode low around his narrow hips. His ribs jabbed out beneath his skin.
He’s not eating, Voque realized. I’ve never seen him eat.
Broken white hairs dander the air as Mace walked on, Voque hurrying to catch up.
They stretched out together, properly glazed with Mace’s best. Voque’s CPI cleared his bios all along, but in the soft bed with Mace’s warm body next to him, he longed to sink into sleep.
The Net ran in the corner on mute. The pillows shuddered; Mace had the shakes.
Voque turned his head. “It’s just CPI interference, Macey. Put you to sleep and stop your heart. Painless.”
“You would know, right?” Mace was trying to joke, but his voice was flat. Already dead.
“I’m with you the whole time, Macey.”
“Until the end.”
“Past the end. We’re going down together, remember?”
“Why are you doing this?” Mace’s eyes took too long between blinks, fixed on Voque’s face. “I know dotgov will chase me down if you don’t do me. But you don’t have to die. I—I kind of don’t want you to. You’re good. You should play. You should live.”
Voque’s hip ached. Sleep burned the back of his eyelids. His fingertips stung from the last song he played. “I told you. I’m older than I look, Macey, and I’m really fucking tired.”
Mace reached out to take Voque’s hand. “Do it then.”
Voque chatted death in Mace’s direction.
The fire popped.
Mace squeezed Voque’s hand and Voque squeezed back.
Mace’s lo-CPI took longer than most. “Give it a minute."
Their hands sweated together, the fire crackled, breathing came slower and deeper. One last harmonic gasp. “Raff...?”
“I got you." Voque had to force the words from his swollen throat. He shoved the suicide command through his CPI and stopped his bio cleansing app so the glaze can take him.
Mace’s hand slipped from his. He died without a sigh
Dotgov were right. Voque felt no pain. He was only sleepy, so sleepy. He turned his head, slow, let it fall toward the monitor. He could barely see through the blur of tears.
“Look at that, Macey,” he whispered. “We were kings.”
Voque drummed his grimy fingers on the blackened countertop.
“Lieutenant? What took you so long?”
Must be what Mace was wondering, if souls wondered.
“I told you he was tricky." Voque took a breath and waited until his voice was steady. “I had to go suicide pact.”
“You never lied to them before,” the handler said.
Who said I lied? But his thoughts were his own. His chat was disabled. The screen before him was endlessly white. The handlers wouldn’t even show him avatars now. His clearance was erased.
He wanted to scream, to rant, to puke the injustice all over the Net. But it was too late. The new ware replaced his suicide with a nap, and hits on the Senators were already climbing, and he grieved alone. The whole world has already forgotten Mace.
“And?” the handler asked.
“And nothing. I done my time for dotgov."
The handler didn’t answer.
Voque waited. No advice from his sleeping CPI. The surgeon couldn’t remove it, but she severed most of the synapse connections. He reached up to touch the hard planes of his new face. Not Mace’s, but the same angles, the same flavor.
“Fair enough,” the handler finally said. “What are you going to do?”
Raff Voque pushed away from the table. “Music. I played. Before all this.”
“It’s why we chose you,” the handler said.
“You’re starting from ground zero with that new face and bios. We cleared your identity, your numbers. You’re nobody.”
“Maybe I should keep it that way.”
The voice leaned in close behind the screen. “I’ll remind you of the non-disclosure embed, lieutenant. It’s tuned to termination if you breathe a word.”
Maybe dotgov didn't realize what a favor that was - access to a quick, painless death should the need arise.
“I got to go. I got an audition.”
“Good luck, then,” the handler said.
Voque slung Mace’s guitar over his shoulder. “No doubt you’ll be in touch.”