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Space Opera, Page 2

Catherynne M. Valente

  Decibel Jones left the planet.

  Life as an ethereal glamtrash satyr had never been simple. It hadn’t been restful. It hadn’t been recommended as part of a healthy and complete breakfast. But Decibel Jones was made for the thing. Kick-starting the whole lunar-powered pyrotechnic stained-glass orgasm of his career had been as easy as going home from a dodgy pop-up nightclub in Shoreditch with a girl who could sing like a novelty motion-activated Halloween witch and a boy with neon lavender hair.

  Rock wants to happen. It can’t stand not happening.

  Decibel Jones was ready to go again at a moment’s notice with no refractory period at all, rolling back and forth between the soon-to-be Absolute Zeros—drummer, serial keyboard assaulter, and “girlfraud” Mira Wonderful Star and instantaneously gratifying man-of-all-instruments “boyfrack” Oort St. Ultraviolet—like the future could wait forever. Of course, they never made a real go of it much beyond that first night. Oort was mostly straight and hardworking, Mira was mostly monogamous and militantly cynical, and Decibel was mostly none of those things, except when he thought they’d look good with a paisley coat. But they agreed to keep up the pretenses of an android-alien-demigod orgiastic musical-erotic triad for the studio label.

  By the time their double-platinum album Spacecrumpet came out, they were living the electric sheep dream. You could tune any radio to any station and hear Decibel and Mira shouting out their hit “Raggedy Dandy” while Oort thundered through the verses on guitar, accordion, cello, electric hurdy-gurdy, theremin, and Moog—all of which, plus the tuba, he eventually combined into the iconic Oortophone. The ticket prices were high, high, high. U-Pick-Em neon-lit hotel rooms, a dollar a bag! Buy-one-get-one specials on attractive and/or menacing opening acts! Booze! Drugs! Costumes! Stagecraft! Quiz shows! Christmas album! Hot! Hot! Hot! And, of course, all the groupies you can eat. They spun up overnight, hit the charts, and rode the Laser-Comet Demolition Derby Glamasaurus Rex till the gas ran dry and the flames went dark and the colored lights guttered out like old birthday candles.

  Lather, rinse, but probably never to repeat.

  Yes, music is the food of love, but the industry chews up the rare and precious and horks it up off the side of the balcony to make room for more. It’s a predictable story. It’s cold and depressing. It has all the cheeky imagination of a man standing alone at a bus stop watching the rain soak through a paper bag in the road, but it is, unfortunately, the story of Decibel Jones up until a certain Thursday in April, and its explicitly foreshadowed and rather obvious end would have gravely disappointed his poor grandmother and her bags of lemons and butter and seitan dropped all over Piccadilly Square if only she paid a bit more attention to the music industry.

  Yet, for a while, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros loved nothing more than showing off. Give them the soggiest cast-off thigh-high stocking’s worth of a tune and the most obnoxiously Campari-drunk open-mic-night-reject half-sucked raspberry lolly of a lyric, and in one night, Dess and Mira and Oort would turn around a glamgrind anthem perfectly crystallizing the despair of the young enslaved by the London real estate market crossbred with the desperate futuro-cosmic hope of murdering a Martian catwalk in a satin slip while guzzling a rubbish bin full of cheap ruby port, as sung by the comet-pummeled ghost of Oscar Wilde snorting stars like meth. Give them a hostile, empty stage with a lighting rig left over from a lesser-known BBC period drama, a putrefying zombie of a soundboard, and a room with more cigarette butts than people, and before you could say no, stop, don’t, why? the place would be a new planet crawling with gorgeous post-postmodern broke-down fashion-wraiths filled with the unfaceable existential horror of all unpaid interns, the pent-up sexuality of unwalloped piñatas, and cheap, quasi-infinite lager.

  It wouldn’t have been so bad if Decibel and Mira and Oort were merely the endearing dandies they pretended to be, enthusiastic tinkerers with tradesman skills to fall back on and a near-matrimonial commitment to an aesthetic that could, at best, be called, and was, by the Guardian, “a continuously detonating carnival-cum-Bollywood-dream-sequence in which you may, at any moment, be knocked sideways by a piece of dismembered French clown or tenderly made love to by a prize Neptunian show-horse behind the lyrical equivalent of the fairy floss cart” and, at worst, by NME, “an incomprehensible and humiliating radioactive bukkake show of genres, styles, and vocals akin to a peacock vomiting forever into the howling void without one single note of merit, true innovation, or even a nodding acquaintance with the concept of depth in art—but you can dance to it. If you hate yourself.”

  It wouldn’t have been so bad if Spacecrumpet had been just slightly less of a rocket ship to everywhere they’d ever wanted to go. If Mira hadn’t made a reverberating hypersonic beeline straight for heroin junction and total dysfunction. If Decibel hadn’t tried to act. If Oort had known a little more about studio accounting. If their tireless manager, good old brilliant bloody Lila Poole, hadn’t been quite so good at fulfilling their every need in every city at every hour, tucking their chemical diversions of choice into their suitcases like a mum packing her babies’ school lunches without saying a word about where she’d gotten the dodgy ham for Mira’s sandwich. If their follow-up to Spacecrumpet, that cautionary tale dressed as a concept album titled The Vibro-Tragical Adventures of Ultraponce, hadn’t been called “muddled” (the Guardian again), “punishable by law” (Spin), “unfit to be used as potpourri in Bowie’s least-frequented sock drawer” (Mojo), and “so seemingly perplexed by the fact of its existence as to recoil in mincing horror from its own reflection in a hallway mirror and repeatedly punch itself in the face while calling itself a series of unprintable nineteenth-century slurs” (the New Yorker). If Oort hadn’t gotten that nice hotel manager pregnant. If the world hadn’t gotten so grim and serious that it didn’t want to hear any more from a gang of dandies rolled in glitter and ganache.

  If, one awful night in Edinburgh after a half-empty festival show, Mira Wonderful Star hadn’t suggested they get married for tax purposes, and Decibel Jones hadn’t laughed.

  If Mira’s uncle hadn’t spent her whole childhood taking her on long country drives when she was upset at the usual plot twists of the full surround-sound teenage theatrical experience, driving and driving through soft hills and stone walls and dumb-faced sheep that probably never got rejected or failed a test or got sent home for uniform violations just because none of the recognized Catholic saints ever had pink hair, driving until heated seats and potholes passing by underneath her like drumbeats had gotten her so calm and comfortable that she forgot what awful thing had happened in the first place, so that in the face of any subsequent trauma, Mira bolted for the nearest car and unlit road.

  If Lila Poole hadn’t left the keys to her rented van on top of the cut-rate minibar.

  If a certain suburban badger hadn’t had a vicious tussle with his cubs and wandered out onto the highway to Stirling complaining to himself about the slovenly habits and terrible taste of young badgers today who had no respect for the rights and privileges of their elders.

  If Mira hadn’t had so much respect for the rights and privileges of all living creatures that she swerved hard rather than add to the tally of furry roadside suffering in the United Kingdom, and smashed windshield-first into a completely horrified Scottish moor.

  If a reporter hadn’t asked when they were going to get a new drummer less than a month afterward. If Decibel hadn’t broken the guy’s nose and cheekbone. If that reporter hadn’t been employed by a rag with enough bored lawyers on retainer to choke a humpback whale.

  But, like the slender, silver bombs of the postatomic age, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros blew up far too hot and wide and fast. All those “ifs” became “whens,” one by one by one, and there was no detour around them that joined up again to a reasonable facsimile of happiness but through. Neither Decibel nor Oort nor poor dead Mira ever imagined the power of the ordinary to gum up the works of the epic. They never bothered checking the studio�
�s numbers. They always agreed that tomorrow was the day they’d stop acting like kids at a beach arcade where you never ran out of coins and get organized, drink responsibly, start doing this thing right and rocking like adults. They thought that the only battle was making it, and after that, nothing would ever really be hard again. They never calculated the unforgiving algebra of three as opposed to the simple arithmetic of two or one. They never counted on the depravity of young highland badgers and the depth of their hostility toward their long-suffering fathers.

  Worst of all, they really believed that the magic they made together could keep them safe from the predatory world, no matter how much evidence against piled up dustily in the corners of secondhand vinyl shops. But through every if and when, Decibel Jones remained a cosmic constant. He could hardly help it. He could no more put on a gray flannel suit and hide from the utter core of his being than he could go back in time and take Mira seriously, take her in his arms, and take her home.

  Life is beautiful. And life is stupid.

  Yes, Decibel Jones was absolutely riddled with unrepentant, self-igniting, full-blown, arena-filling glam. Even as the friendly, bouncing disco ball of this story finds him, fifteen years and three failed solo albums down the track, snoring through a recurring dream of stained-glass sex scorpions, infinitely filled arenas, and rental vans made entirely out of marshmallows, down pillows, and the stuff of airline black boxes on the tea-and-biohazard-stained floor of an unfurnished, utilities-not-included, shared-bathroom garret in Croydon, glam poured out of him in rivers of glitter-jammed tears, over-rouged sweat, and drool that could get up and play an F chord all by itself.

  So where was everybody?

  Well, just then, just at the moment when Decibel Jones was waking after a long night of pretending he was still twenty years old again, chatting with middle-aged respectables who used to love him when they were in school, discussing the recent rash of sullen young pop stars and how those “aliens” the blind-drunk farmers over in Cornwall kept flapping their jaws about had probably only come to England looking for a better life that didn’t include regular aerial bombardment by foreign powers, just then, when the morning sun was so obnoxiously bright and ignorant of the whole concept of personal space that for once Decibel was glad that these days he could only afford a flat with one window that faced the side of a greeting card company’s head offices, just then, when he opened his eyes onto a midlife blistering with emptiness and wondered why it should be quite as empty as all that, just at that moment, and, in fact, up until the events of that afternoon, everybody was terribly distracted by the seemingly unending, white-hot, existential, logistical, mostly mundane troubles of their own day-to-day lives.

  Shall we stop? Is the lesson clear?

  The story of the galaxy is the story of a single person in it. A cover version, overproduced, remastered, with the volume cranked up way past eleven and into the infinite.

  Or at least it’s the story of Decibel Jones and the Sudden and Conspicuous Conquest of Earth by Space Flamingos.


  Take Me to Your Heaven

  Decibel Jones was lying passed out on the floor of his flat in a vintage bronze-black McQueen bodysuit surrounded by kebab wrappers, four hundred copies of his last solo album, Auto-Erotic Transubstantiation, bought back from the studio for pennies on the pound, and half-empty bottles of rosé when the aliens invaded.

  Somehow, he always thought it would be different—and Decibel had thought about it rather a lot. His family had lived above a video rental shop in Blackpool during those delicate prepubescent years when any idle passing moonbeam, pigeon, or discarded air hockey puck can swell and shine with meaning on its way toward becoming a lifelong fetish. For his part, little Danesh inhaled a heady, unleavened diet of science fiction films, despite his grandmother’s insistence that they were neither halal nor anywhere near as good as Mr. Looney of the Tunes, as she called her favorite American program. He had spent many afternoons, surrounded by siblings slaloming through the furniture, trying to convince his nani, the very one who would drop her lemons in Piccadilly Square years later, that Alien was far, far better than Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, far more serious and meaningful than a goofy, dumb cartoon, only to be hushed by a wave of her hand and a brief lecture on her personal philosophy of pop culture criticism.

  “Jee haan, but they are the same! One hunts, one runs; one chews the carrot, one chews the Sir John Hurt. One makes eggs that go BANG! One makes Acme traps that go BANG! See? Sameful. Only Mr. Looney of the Tunes is more actual, on account of how aliens live in your big Danesh-head and bunny rabbits live in Coventry. Also, mine is bright and happy and makes a colorful noise, so I put it on top of yours that is droopy and leaky and makes a noise like the dishwasher. Double also, if aliens were real like bunny rabbits and talkbacking grandsons, they would never be so ugly, because God would not allow such a one to get to the stars when beautiful people are being stuck on Blackpool. I am right, I win, point to Nani.”

  Danesh had never won an argument with his grandmother. Somehow, Nani-logic acted on Dani-logic like base on acid, leaving him to ponder the nature of xenomorphs and lagomorphs without his usual astringent sizzle.

  And then there had been that first, perfect night with Mira and Oort, well past any witch’s hour, when the bells in Greenwich struck Truth O’Clock. She’d leaned over his chest to light her cigarette on a votive candle of St. Jude and said:

  “It’s perfectly absurd to think we’re alone in the universe. But if they ever do come, Danesh—it is Danesh, isn’t it? Well, Danny Boy, if they ever do come, it won’t be anything like The Thing or Predator or any of that Doctor X-Files rot. They’ll be better than the best of us. They’ll have art and poetry and music.” Then she’d remembered she was supposed to be a punk, and her voice changed. “The Thing don’t curl up in a rainstorm and listen to the White Album of Thing-World because Thing-World don’t do nuffink but Thing about, all twenty-four/seven slaughterparties and exploding blood and shit like that.” She’d blown out her smoke and put the end between Oort’s lovely lips, still smeared with violet lipstick, and Decibel had nodded along amiably like he always did, taking whatever Mira and Oort thought up and giving it a boost into the ionosphere:

  “Think about it, mate: How could a species like that develop the massive technology you need to achieve faster-than-light interstellar travel, yeah? All they do is hunt and eat. They’re just stupid murderlumps or killbots supreme with a side of zombie-mayonnaise. Where’s the nerdy shy Predator scientist who figured out how to build a spaceship while all the big jock Predators were down the pub ripping one another’s spines out, eh? Nowhere, because she don’t exist. You don’t see great white sharks fiddling with nuclear fusion or whatever. Scorpions don’t go to the moon. We got nothing to worry about down here.”

  And Mira Wonderful Star had nuzzled down cozily between them like a big lanky cat, content for probably the last time in her life, and sighed out: “When the aliens come, there’ll be one queue to fight them and one queue to fuck them, and the second one’ll be longer by light-years.”

  Dess had stroked her long hair, mesmerizingly dyed all the colors of an oil slick. He was still working at Mr. Five Star in those days, a howling void-in-the-wall chip shop that seemed determined to deep-fry his soul and serve it with tomato sauce. Her petroleum-hair smelled like smoke and the artificial strawberry scent of cheap shampoo. His fingers smelled like potatoes and oil. Like Blackpool and the boardwalk and his greasepaper past becoming a greasepaper future at the horrifyingly breakneck speed of one second per second. He hated it. No matter who he wanted to be, that smell under his fingernails told the world the truth.

  “Maybe,” he’d murmured as the sky turned ultramarine outside a narrow window Dess would’ve cleaned if that wouldn’t mean admitting he actually lived here. “Maybe it’ll be like that part in the old cartoon where the coyote’s been hunting and chasing and starving and working his machines so hard that he doesn’t even notice wh
en he’s already run off the road, over the cliff, and out into the open air. When he just looks at the camera with helpless doggy fear on his crooked old face before gravity kicks in and he loses everything, which, really, if he was paying any kind of attention, he must’ve known he would all along.”

  “All right, Eeyore,” Oort had said, grabbing one of Decibel’s shirts off the floor instead of his own. “There’s only one thing for dismal donkeys, and that’s ice cream for breakfast.”

  “Come on, up you get,” Mira had said, laughing, groping for her bra under his crappy bed. “Let’s get that tail nailed back on, Mr. Thing of Thing-World.”

  She hadn’t known the effect her phraseology would have on him, she’d just said the perfect words without trying. She was just perfect, without trying.

  They’d only been able to find gelato at that hour, but one pistachio, one coconut, and one mango madness turned them from hungover kids into a cozy nation with a population of three, their Magna Carta signed in sugar and dairy under the improbably auspicious half-burned-out electric sign of Mackimmie’s Remarkable Gelato, which, due to Mrs. Mackimmie’s reluctance to throw out anything that still worked by the vaguest of definitions, read only: ACME ARKABLE GELATO.

  A decade and a half later, ten pounds (pounds that he rather needed, really) lighter, with “Moon Scorpion Mega Disco” having had its day on the Spacecrumpet B-side and the encore of “Alien Sexqueue” improbably blowing out the sound system in the Royal Albert Hall that Christmas Eve, Decibel Jones still thought any interstellar contact would look just like his beloved flickies. The business would proceed, given the bent of governments everywhere, more or less instantaneously from first contact to all-out war, Do Not Pass Diplomacy, all stern gray manly ships and even manlier military mustering and one-piece identical futuro-communist uniforms and ray guns that meant business and stoic, long-faced generals facing off against stoic worm-farm-faced extraterrestrials like it was bloody laser-light-show Waterloo, and all of it just waiting for one sexy, sexy human hero to sort it all out for them.