“Rock Song” by Aliya Whiteley

Johann had a pathological fear of furniture.

No, that’s not true. That was the joke that went around the office. It was the thing I got told on my first day, when I walked into that penthouse filled with instruments and asked where I could put my tablet. Gee told me — you don’t put your tablet anywhere. You sit on the floor if you have to sit, but you’ll soon get used to standing. We all stand if Johann’s standing.

Open plan in Melocom meant no stillness. Nothing but Johann and nine employees, walking, thinking, playing and recording and sometimes dancing when someone hit on a good lick. It was a raw experience, raw like meat, waiting every day to be seared on a barbecue, the open, smoldering coals of utterly brilliant music.

That’s how it was. We cooked up stuff, and some days it was smoking hot. Musically speaking, we were on fire. No one person came up with the perfect piece. Everything that we produced was touched by all of us. Kenny could write lyrics, so sweet, so edgy, whatever it needed, right on the money. Buzz could harmonize like he had one ear tuned into the music of the spheres. One day, Gee was playing this hook over and over on the harpsichord, and Buzz picked it up with his balalaika and the counterpoint was extreme, like surfing waves of syncopation to music heaven. Beautiful.

I’m not good with words. It sounds stupid, when I tell it. I can’t talk about it, but give me an instrument and I could sing it to you like you wouldn’t believe. Golden voice, they called me. I sang “The Ballad of Bugly Wug.” That’s my voice. Yeah, that was me: me, Johann, and eight other guys. It may be Johann’s name on the tin, but we were all there, and it was my vocal chords that sang out about the woodlice getting high and eating their own legs. It the biggest download of all time. Before “The Song of Unfinished Business” came along.

I also sang on absolute classics such “Tempest Splat” and “How Can I Let You Go Free After What You Did to My Mother Part IV.” And Johann split the royalties just as we split the music — we were all rich men, the richest on the planet. Some of the guys gave it all up, moved down south to The Brazilian Bubbles, and spent their days under those soft yellow domes with the other millionaires, doing yoga, eating organic. But I could never see the point. Yvonne wanted to go, for the sake of the kids more than anything — the Bubble Schools were meant to be amazing and there was no crime or poverty on show outside your plexi windows. But I couldn’t give up the music. Not when it had become so important, and we’d been commissioned to come up with the theme tune for the Global Thinkathon. It was our job to inspire the greatest minds in the world, so that they could come up with a solution to save humankind, and we all did our part. We were so happy when we finished recording “What Exactly Is the Point, Marvin?” We knew we’d made something special. And my voice was so sweet, so clear; it had never been better as I sang out those lyrics, those brilliant, wonderful words:

What’s going on?
Why are we here?
What is the point
if we live in fear?
Come take my paw –
Come hold me near;
Let’s have a beer
But let’s not get drunk
There’s dreams to be dreamed
There’s thoughts to be thunk.
Marvin, Marvin,
Let’s all be friends
Before the big space rock
Brings the world to an end.

Yeah, we were pretty proud of it.

Of course, the Global Thinkathon didn’t work. For three days the artists, the scientists, the philosophers and the businessmen put their heads together with our song playing on a continuous loop, and all they could come up with was that old chestnut about firing a nuclear missile at it and hoping it would spin off-course. I could have come up with that.

So we all had to wait until the Rock was close enough to fire the missile, and that was a pretty bad time in the cities. Yvonne took the kids and left for the Bubbles anyway, and I couldn’t blame her. The streets were dangerous, but more than that, there was the feeling everywhere that it wasn’t going to work. People sensed it, and they started to think — why should we be kind to each other? Why shouldn’t we just take what we want, do what we want? Maybe if people had still believed in an afterlife it would have been different; I mean, thinking you might have to pay for your sins could have kept everyone in line, but now there was nothing to hold on to.

I don’t know why I stayed, at first. I moved into the penthouse. Six of us ate and slept there, on the floor, high in the sky, away from the pain and fear below, and we made music all day, all night, without agenda, without hope. There was Kenny and Buzz, Peter and Gee, and, of course, Johann was there. I wouldn’t have expected him to be anywhere else. He paced the floor, humming, his white hair sticking out around his famous scowl. We didn’t make anything amazing, not right away. It was after we heard that the missile had failed, and we would all be dead in two hours, that was when Johann stopped pacing, threw up his arms, and sang one word, deep and real as a space whale calling for a mate across the wilds of endless nothingness:

NOW

And that word became the start of our greatest work and the last song the human race ever created.

“The Song of Unfinished Business.”

Now the end is near
and so we face the final song
we never had that beer
we never got along
we never liked the other guy
we never fed the starving
we never saved the animals
we never heard out Marvin
so turn to your neighbor,
Bob or Tim or Nick,
shake his paw and tell him
so sorry I’m a dick
now we are,
at the very end,
a planet of morons
who never made friends

It was the culmination of everything we’d been working for. Perhaps it was because we all knew it was our last chance. And the last chance for the whole human race to look at itself honestly and say, strong and proud — we suck.

Johann uploaded it and contacted a few friends and it was pretty much everywhere immediately. People in the streets sang along and held hands and finally, for the first time, everyone was united through music in one giant syncopated tsunami of love. People began to talk on the open channels about the raw power of that love. We all felt it. Maybe, since “The Song of Unfinished Business” had changed humanity, it could change our fate, too. Maybe the sheer power of music, the pure clear waves of a billion voices raised as one instrument to the skies, could use the eternal NOW to shake the very atoms of the space rock to dust — yes! We believed it. Anything was possible.

We all sang at once, the whole human race, on that final day. We looked up at the rock, our hearts bursting with hope, and we sang.

It was a stupid idea, looking back at it.

But it was a nice way to end my career in music. You could say I went out with a bang as well as an enormous splat. The rock landed directly on top of Johann’s penthouse. Maybe it was drawn to the source of the music. Well, it won’t hurt to believe that now. It doesn’t hurt to do anything anymore.

It turns out there is an afterlife. And it is like existential skydiving. There’s the sensation of falling, falling through layers of white meaning, clouds of cognition clearing and thinning away to nothing. Except there’s no sense of time, no urgency to pull the cord and come back to Earth with a bump. Nothing needs to be done, no notes need to be played.

I went skydiving once, and as I plummeted downwards I could only think of two things: when I should release my parachute, and what a great song I could write about the experience. “The G Force Jitterbug,” or “Is This a Good time to Admit to Suicidal Thoughts?” I came up with some excellent titles that day.

But in death I find I don’t want to write songs anymore. I don’t hear music, and that gives me peace. The desire to be heard — that was a desire of the body, not of the soul. I never realized that. I thought music was eternal. But it turns out, after death, the rest is skydiving and silence.


Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon, UK, in 1974. Her first two novels were published by Macmillan and her first collection of fantasy short stories, Witchcraft in the Harem, was published by Dog Horn Publishing in 2013. Her stories have appeared in publications as diverse as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Guardian, Drabblecast, Strange Horizons, Word Riot, Per Contra, and Smokelong. For more information visit her website at aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com or go to Twitter: @AliyaWhiteley.
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