Through a crack in the timber slatted fence I caught a glimpse of her. She was the most beautiful girl in the whole world. Long, flowing golden hair framed her sparkling green eyes, as her voice, sweet as honey, cried out to the heavens with song, holding an angelic high note. I could swear that her voice skipped up an octave as she caught my eyes. But surely she could not have seen me, not from across the gathering crowd and through the battered fence. Then all was silent as she flickered and her hologram collapsed back into the digital aether. Leon tapped me on my shoulder, jolting me out of my reverie.
“Wake up, bud. You’re leaving a gap in the line,” he barked.
“Oh, sorry,” I replied, and hurried forward to Leon’s side. The baggy faux-military fatigues hung loosely off his bulky frame. But his tough-guy affect was broken by a fuzzy moustache and kindly eyes, as he clapped me gently on the back.
“Plenty of time to take in Maia later, eh Ethan?” he offered. Only a dozen people stood in the queue between us and the biggest event Belview had seen in a decade. The hometown girl made good, the one who found her way out of this hole and into a better life. Back for a special gig in the crumbling outdoor theatre where she made her debut, ten years ago. Our little backwater, beamed live to fifty million viewers across the globe.
“I hope she plays Everlasting Dawn,” I replied.
A cashier beckoned us forward to a ticketing window, a cracked gash in the concrete, sliding the yellowing perspex sheeting aside. Behind a plastic smile she repeated, rote and emotionless, “Welcome to another Pepsico experience. Please deposit 7,500 Pepsicoins using the QR code provided.”
Two weeks wages, more or less. Leon and I had been saving up our tips from the last six months of dodging traffic on Pepsicourier runs for this. But she was worth it. I raised my phone and scanned the QR code stamped on the side of the window, the only legacy of the plague long past. My phone offered a beep, and my balance rapidly scrolled down, all the way down to 63 Pepsicoins. I hoped I could pick up an extra shift or two before rent was due. Leon ruffled my hair affectionately, grinning as he led us through the rusty turnstile.
Grass crept up through cracks in the concrete slabs beneath my feet. People milled around, gathering in conversational groups or lining up at the bar. A handful of diehards clustered close to the stage, waiting patiently for the best view, though the main event wasn’t due to start for a couple of hours yet. The sun still hung low in the sky, casting the scene in dim yellows and oranges, long shadows cast by the decrepit chain and slat fencing which separated the Chartreuse Theatre from the post-industrial wreckage surrounding it. For one night, this wasn’t just a decaying slum, a corporate town whose masters had long since forgotten it even existed. It was the centre of the world, heralded by the shining angel Maia.
We followed the hubbub of conversation to our left toward the bar. A gaggle of fans gathered in little groups, clasping tacky plastic cups of beer, wine, or more colourful concoctions. Most of those keen enough to get here this early were my age, in their teens or early twenties, though a handful of more serious men gathered in the corner. Fashions ranged from stern, pressed military fatigues echoing the Fourth Afghan War through to flamboyant leather punk gear and the simple, like my black T-shirt and jeans.
Though the bar had been here since the Reconstruction, it still looked improvised, a simple wooden table rigged with elaborate pipes and cables to the drinks below. Above the bar she – no, they – smiled at me. The bartender’s black hair was clopped close, matching their loose-fitting tank top, which displayed a prominent Pepsi logo on their chest. Their nose ring glinted in the twilight as they offered a curt smile.
“What can I get you boys tonight?” they asked. “We’ve got Pepsilager, Pepshiraz, a wide range of cocktails,” they said, motioning to a several page long booklet on the bar, before continuing, “And of course, Pepsijuana, or Pepsamphetimine, if you want something a bit stronger,” I snuck a glance at my phone and account balance. 63 Pepsicoins wouldn’t buy much.
Leon caught me looking and took a half step forward, “I’ll take a couple of lagers, please.”
“Champ,” I whispered.
He scanned his phone at the terminal on the bar, making the transaction from his crypto wallet.
“Here you go, two Pepsilagers. Have a spectacular night,” said the bartender with a smile.
Leon handed one to me and we turned away. “Thanks for the lagers, mate,” he offered with a wave to the bartender. “But I didn’t get your name, or your number,” he tried as the bartender turned to their next customer, a lady in a deep black jacket.
“The name is Alex,” they called back. “And you’re handsome enough, but my number is Pepsi Zero.”
“Bloody corporate shill,” Leon muttered under his breath. He always seemed weird about Pepsico, like he thought their name was a magic curse to avoid. He took a sip, paused and said, “Plenty more fish in the sea, I guess. Or in the beer, and this one’s nice.”
I chuckled, and offered diplomatically, “If you keep trying, one’s bound to bite eventually.” He was always much more forward with real girls and guys than I was. Maia was enough for me, anyway. “What’s your problem with Pepsi, anyway?”
“A beer’s a beer. It doesn’t need to be Pepsi presents a crisp, refreshing lager, does it?” he replied, as we made our way through the crowd toward the stage.
“I guess not.”
The crowd thickened, and we had to jostle into position at the side of the stage, with a nod to the camera crew, who fussed about with their livestream connection at the digital control panel. I’d only ever seen Maia through their digital eyes, but today would be different.
“It’s going to be a hell of a show tonight,” speculated a woman to my right, striking up conversation. I turned and saw her leaning on the barricade, her severe features cast into relief by the spotlights of the stage. Her head was shaved close on both sides, with a short covering on top. It was as jet black as the jacket she wore, lending her an intensity which was matched in her eyes.
“I can’t wait,” I offered, and asked this stranger, “Have you seen Maia live before?”
“I haven’t seen her before, but you could say I’ve been watching closely,” she replied with a smirk which lifted the corner of her mouth just a little, showing a glint of white teeth.
“Oh boy, me too. I’m Ethan, and this is my buddy Leon,” I said, and gave Leon a light punch in the shoulder to draw his attention away from the livestreamers. He gave a grunt and a wave.
“Charmed. I’m Rose, like the flower,” She reminded me much more of the thorns than the colourful petals – sharp and intent. Intent on what, I couldn’t tell.
From the stage, a sharp guitar tone echoed out, as one of the support bands came out, complete with physical instruments. I settled in to watch the show.