We were crammed in tight by the side of the stage. The crowd was like a school of fish, full of nervous energy as we waited for the headliner.
Then, with the thump of a bass drop, Maia appeared, materialising from the air at the centre of the stage. No band, no backup dancers, just pure unfiltered Maia, her hologram projected from a tiny plate which zoomed around the stage. The electronic rhythms pulsed and jived, settling into the groove from her most recent album,The Revolution of Joy. Then her pure voice rose to the heavens and completed the melody. The crowd went wild, people jostling to open up a dance floor at the front of the stage, and others trying to match Maia’s ethereal tones. They could only fail.
With a microphone projected in her hand, she danced across the stage with perfect speed and grace, twirling, jumping and spinning like a trained gymnast to the pulsing beats. She matched the athletic performance with a vocal range unmatched, hardly seeming to breathe between lines, as she sang of the dazzling possibilities of being young and free.
Leon stood up at the stage barriers, shaking his fist with the beat and beaming. Behind us, the crowd had formed its own dynamics, with dancers flitting to and fro like a murmuration of birds, driven to a kind of collective consciousness by the pulsing rhythms and ecstasy of performance. All my worries slipped away, the past and future collapsing into this present moment.
Then with a rising soprano cry of “And when we sing together; the future belongs to joy!” and a dramatic, graceful backflip, she landed in a crouch on the last beat, microphone in hand and not a hair out of place. With a wink to the livestream drone floating above the crowd to my right, she rose and saluted the crowd. She looked radiant in a white dress with green highlights to match her eyes, long blond hair cascading down her back, and not an imperfection to be found. Flesh and blood performers couldn’t hold a candle to Maia. The mass cheered as one.
“Thank you, Belview!” she called out over the roar. “It’s so special to be back here, my home town. I’d like to give a special shout out to all my wonderful fans watching across the world. But today, the world comes to you, out there in the audience. The world comes to Belview, the centre of the universe!”
Then, she flickered, and disappeared. The crowd went deathly silent. I figured this could only be a special trick for the hometown audience.
From the silence came a slow clap in the dark. The stage lights searched, and found a figure at the front of the stage. Black jacket, short cropped hair, and a smirk beneath intense eyes, still clapping slowly with crisp white gloves. Rose.
With a wavering voice, she shouted out, “Home town girl made good? Don’t make me laugh.” The crowd still seemed caught in shock, but gaps had formed around Rose, as people sought the safety of distance from this intruder. She was an island isolated from the flowing mass of humanity. Rose continued, “The machine you call Maia wasn’t born here. She wasn’t born anywhere. But she can die.”
This shocked the crowd out of its reverie. I cried out in unconscious anguish. Rose sidestepped a thrown bottle and continued, growing in confidence, “One of my comrades has your electronic angel’s core, ripped from the stage system here. We ask only for fair payment and it will be returned. Ten thousand Bitcoin, no less.” She grinned, seemingly feeding off the disquiet of her audience. “Oh, and if we don’t get the payment by midnight tomorrow, we wipe her.”
With an awkward twirl of her own, Rose turned away from the crowd, several of whom were preparing to respond to this intruder. She took quick, precise steps, then planted her lead foot and leapt with a grunt of effort into the air.
Then the world went white, and a cacophonous ringing filled my ears. I groped out, feeling the stiff cotton of Leon’s jacket and cowering from the shock of what I could only assume was a flashbang. I’d seen them on the web and in games, but could never have expected that such a weapon would come home to Belview. Gradually, the ringing receded, replaced by anxious screams from the surprised crowd.
A quiet voice carried below them, speaking into my ear as he held my hand tight, “Easy, it’ll be alright. I’m here, bud.”
I gave his hand a quick squeeze, blinking rapidly to try and get some vision back. Though we weren’t related by blood, Leon had always been like an older brother to me, and never more than in this moment. As I blinked, a scene started to come back into focus.
Rose was long gone. Around us, people clung together for comfort, all the heady celebratory vibes extinguished. The theatre felt more like a refugee camp than the gaudy outdoor concert hall that it had been just a few minutes ago.
Leon cracked a smile, as he tried to break the tension, “Well, that’s the biggest thing to happen in Belview since, what, the riot of ‘52?”
“How can you be so nonchalant about this?” I replied. This wasn’t just a newsworthy event, this was the abduction of Maia, the most beautiful girl in the world. “We’ve got to stop these terrorists, and get Maia back, or she’ll be wiped!”
“You can’t chase terrorists yourself, Ethan. Let the police handle it,” he offered, slapping me on the back heartily. “They’ll get your idol back safe and sound.”
“The cops don’t know Belview like we do. Have you ever seen an officer of the law outside the station around here? Come on, we can’t let the bad guys win. Let’s go right after them!” I demanded.
“Well, maybe it’ll be fun. I’ve got your back, buddy.”