The following is from my new book, a short story collection entitled 7 or 8 Ways to End the World.
“No, that’s not quite right. Let’s give it another go.”
DJ SquidHound pressed his fingers to his temples and rubbed them in small circles, doing his best to alleviate the headache that had slowly grown like a particularly hardy desert weed behind his eyes over the past four hours. After a few moments, he pulled his fingers away from his head and placed them back on his deck. He opened his eyes, focusing them on the human-shaped outline in the sound booth a few feet and an inch-or-so of glass away.
“I’ve got a date tonight, Hound. I gotta jet in a few minutes. Taking ‘Lotte from the Shifty Turtle out for drinks. Can’t be late with a gal like that, man.”
So Hugo had finally mustered the courage to ask Charlotte out. SquidHound’s mouth cracked a small smile before he caught himself and curved it back down into his more professionally acceptable scowl. The gal was high-class, that’s for sure, and if Hugo struck out, he’d be inconsolable for the next several months. “Go ahead and split now, man. You’ll need all the help you can get with that one, and showing up late would be the first nail in your coffin.”
Hugo muttered a comeback, but it was lost when he didn’t push down the mic button in the booth. Instead of correcting his mistake and repeating his jab into the mic, he gave a quick salute to SquidHound through the glass, pulled on his jacket, and left the studio.
I work better alone, anyway, SquidHound told himself. This pro-level shit is what’s been messing with my flow in the first place.
The past few months had been a whirlwind for DJ SquidHound. His work, unnoticed by all but the most dedicated remix-distortion-rave-music enthusiasts, hit the big time when a celebrity who was seeking street-cred tweeted a link, directing his several million followers to SquidHound’s newest album, a mashed-up, two-hour-long orchestra of sorts, cobbled together from the Top 40 songs of the past year, archived anthropological recordings of Cambodian throat-singers, and SquidHound’s own specially-concocted distortions, lovingly built over the span of the eight years since he graduated from college.
School. What a waste of money, SquidHound thought as he started to take apart his setup for the night, pulling out a cord here, covering a sensitive touch-panel there. Strange that it’s my worst work that gets all the attention and that everything produced beforehand will forever remain outside the public consciousness. All that work, and now all anyone can talk about is my next big hit.
SquidHound thought of his agent, Gary, and the conversation they’d had the week before.
“This is your moment, big guy,” he’d said, clapping SquidHound on the shoulder with one of his big, meaty hands. “This is your time to shine. You’ve got something good, and people recognize that. They’re playing your stuff in movies and putting it on rave compilations. Your worldwide single sales are booming, and all you need to do is ride that wave to your next success. Make that sucker a tsunami, and you’re going to make us both a lot of money, amigo. Believe you me, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for your entire life. Enjoy it.”
But he wasn’t. In fact, SquidHound had never been less happy.
It seems to be a sick societal rule that one’s worst work is what everyone else enjoys. All one can hope for at that point is a well-publicized overdose. Or career reboot. Or or or a time machine or something. Anything that would allow him to go back and throw a stick in the spokes of time. To prevent the unpolishable tarnishing of his good name.
It’s never too late, though, thought SquidHound. What the hell am I whining about? I’ve got money for the first time ever. I don’t need to worry about paying the rent. I don’t need to worry about finding a girl to take out — they’re lined up around the block! Why don’t I use this moment to take my work the way I want it to go? Why don’t I evolve the way I want to evolve, rather than letting the music world genetically modify me into some kind of pop-underground, domesticated species?
Why don’t I throw a big fuck-you in the face of this newfound responsibility and make some goddamn music worth listening to?
Before the thought had fully manifested in his brain, DJ SquidHound was already plugging his gear back into the panel of outlets positioned around his deck. His hands moved with the expert familiarity of a chef in his kitchen.
Unwind. Plug. Flip the switch. Vroooom. The multicolored lights flickered to life across his operating-table-like deck of buttons and swiveling dials and touchscreen panels and augmented whammy bars. He raised his hands a few inches above the deck and closed his eyes, breathing in the familiar heat of his instrument and easing himself into the creative zone he had been desperately reaching for all day long.
His hands moved as if on their own, first pulling out a bass beat and then a secondary rhythm and a subtle, brassy guitar-string-pluck he’d harvested from a friend’s recent recording session at the studio. SquidHound paused momentarily and absorbed the vibrations that were emitting from the massive speakers lining the studio walls. It needed something, and after a few seconds, he could feel exactly what that something was.
As he spun his fingers across one panel, eased a few switches into an optimal spot, and brought in two current Top 40 tracks to pull apart for instrumental scraps, he allowed himself to be sucked into the zone, feeling the music in his bones, syncing his heartbeat with the bass. He opened his eyes, looked up, and froze. His mouth once again pulled down from the beginning of a smile into a semi-threatening scowl. Moment ruined. SquidHound killed the music and stared at the unfamiliar man in the booth for a moment before saying, “You could not have worse timing, Whoever The Fuck You Are.”
The man in the booth was dressed similarly to Hugo — same splatter-graphic t-shirt, same semi-ironic derby hat, same torn up, indigo-blue jeans — but had a face that was quite…‘average’ was the first word that came to SquidHound’s mind. The kind of guy you’d have trouble describing to a friend. The kind that you’d lose track of in a crowd of three.
The booth-man smiled and said, “I’ve been told that before, actually. It’s my penchant for seeing the process itself, rather than simply showing up during the aftermath. Most of my colleagues are fine just showing up, giving instructions, and leaving, but I have a passion for my work. I am truly sorry to have interrupted you right before you completed the Work, however. It was not only quite rude of me to distract you mid-sentence, but also horrible of me to have ruined your concentration in such a dramatic way. My apologies.”
SquidHound noted that the man’s tone was perfectly polite, and was in fact calmed by his quite proper apology. Must be from the label, SquidHound thought. At least they found someone who digs the process as much as I do this time. That last guy they sent was more confused than anything and messed with my method. I’ll bet this guy stays out of my way, even when I go freeform.
SquidHound was about to test his assertion, laying his hands back over the deck, when an uncomfortable thought tickled the back of his mind.
“What do you mean ‘mid-sentence’? Is that some kind of corporate slang for music?”
The man in the booth had settled back against Hugo’s chair, but leaned forward and pressed the microphone button to answer. “I mean the sentence you’re extrapolating audibly. The equation you’re expressing so elegantly, using your computing device.” The man leaned back once more, crossed one leg over the other, and folded his hands over his knee. The perfect picture of a man waiting patiently.
More confused, DJ SquidHound started to speak and pulled back his words, stuttering twice before settling on a concise, “What?”
Microphone static. Then, “You understand what I mean, surely. After all, you’re the one projecting the Solution for review by the Union. I imagine you and your species have been preparing for this day for many thousands of years.”
This guy is batshit crazy, thought SquidHound. But he is well-spoken and doesn’t have any telltale signs of somebody off his rocker or tripped out of his mind. Maybe this is some kind of prank? SquidHound said, “Listen, man, I don’t know who put you up to this, or if this is for some kind of reality TV show or what, but I’m busy here, and you’re keeping me from doing what I need to do. So scram, or I’ll call the cops or something.”
The man in the booth remained calm, but his voice through the microphone took on a hint of authority as he responded to SquidHound’s threat. “You do realize,” he said, “that if a certified Viewer isn’t present for the delivery of the Solution, your species will not be granted the Answer in return.” His face contorted into a caricature of puzzlement. “Certainly you must be aware of this, having made it this far along the Path. The requirements are stated clearly in the missives you’ve received, and your past work clearly states that you will adhere to those requirements as they’ve been described to you. There shouldn’t be any room for misinterpretation. This is an incredibly well-tested process. The current methodology is over four generations — our generations — old. We’ve had time to perfect it.”
“I have no idea what you’re babbling on about, man, but I don’t have anything to do with solutions, species, answers, or methodologies, and I don’t want to, either. I’m making my music and you’re keeping me from that. I’ve got my phone right here, and I’m going to call the goddamn cops if you’re not out of here in ten seconds.”
“This is quite irregular,” said the man in the control booth. “We’ve seen instances of this ‘music’ in other species, of course, but it’s never become so quantifiable as to be misconstrued as mathematics. I suppose it could be that the solutions you’re presenting are not in fact solutions, but only coincidentally aligned with the frequencies we watch for in response to our broadcasts — but the possibility is almost too astronomically unfathomable as to be…” the man thought for a moment. “But it seems this may be the case. That would mean our current systems are in vital need of updating. If you submit your final response, under the current processes you’ll receive resources that are not meant for you or for your species.”
The man took out a small, black, rock-shaped object from the pocket of his jeans. He pressed his index fingers and thumbs on four sides of it. “I must go, and I highly recommend you don’t complete the Solution you were presenting earlier — musically or otherwise — until we get this matter sorted out and change our methods accordingly. Good day.”
With that, the man disappeared, his final words hanging in the air as if caught mid-flight in the circuits of the microphone.
DJ SquidHound quickly stepped off the stand behind his deck and ran to the window of the booth, pressing his face and hands against the glass, trying to figure out where the man had disappeared to. As he pulled away, he looked at his own reflection in the mirror, and then down at his own hands. Finally, he looked back at his deck.
“That,” he said to no one, “is pretty fucked up. I must be working too hard.” He walked back to his deck, staring at the blinking lights for a moment before shaking his head to clear away the mental cobwebs. “I must have really been in the zone to space out like that.”
Switches flipped, speakers on, dials and screens and lights all glowing appropriately, DJ SquidHound closed his eyes and raised his hands just above the deck, feeling its heat.
“Time to make some magic,” he said.
His hands came down, and the world changed forever.