The Show Must Always Go On
rating: +12+x

You of all people know how hard it is to keep living real life once everything becomes a musical. How the players starve and have accidents while constantly performing, how the whole world fell apart in weeks. What you probably don't see, watching from up there, is the stuff people come up with to survive. How determined they are.

We passed a man today with a toddler strapped to his chest, foraging in the overgrown yards, pulling up weeds and snapping their fat white roots into a grocery bag tied on his belt. He was stepping and moving in rhythm, too fast to do his work properly, so he had to claw and yank at the dirt to get anything at all before whatever beat he was hearing compelled him to stand up and start over a few steps away. He had this wild look like he'd been at it for hours. I could see his lips working.

Verse about the difficulty of locating food while continuously dancing, the implant whispered in my head.

The baby was pale, with bags under its eyes that we could see from where we stood. Its head was limp, eyes rolling back and forth like it was barely alive, but we saw its mouth moving along with its dad.

Chorus about an endless marathon with a child's life as a prize, the implant updated as we passed them by.

___

At least you dropped us somewhere the weather's nice. We couldn't risk a fire, but we sat around a glowstick and ate our ration pouches together, and it was kind of like camping out. We fell asleep under the stars, Mindy and Bones and me all spooning for body heat while Jameel kept watch with the gun.

The implant woke me suddenly. You must have designed it to do that when the players get close.

Verse stating that even the best of men are still just animals.

It must have hit Mindy and Bones too, because we all snapped up at the same time, scrambling to our feet in this big tangle. Jameel was already swinging the gun around, pointing it randomly into the dark, shouting at whoever was out there to stay the fuck back.

Verse that describes every ordinary person having a tiger inside waiting to come out.

The way your implant filters my hearing, I couldn't tell which direction he was coming from. It blocks out anything that sounds at all like music, and the player trying to sneak up on us was stepping to a beat. He could've been stomping like an elephant and we'd still have no idea where he was until we could see him.

Chorus about learning to love the thrill of the hunt.

Then a gunshot came out of the night, and we all heard that well enough. Chips blew out of a tree next to Jameel and he dove behind it, the rest of us dropping back to the ground as fast as we'd risen. Jameel shot back, twice, three, four times, wasting bullets in panic until Bones jumped up and ran behind the tree yelling for the kid to just give him the fucking gun. The player's next shot blasted through the meat of his arm, but he stayed upright and fired back.

Our implants stopped talking, so we knew Bones got him. Players can't stop performing, even to set a trap, even to save their lives. Nobody moved for a minute or two, anyway, just in case he wasn't alone. I lay still in the dirt with this sludgy feeling in my brain — behind my ears, since you told me you want details. I figured out that even though it was the middle of the night in the middle of the woods, I couldn't hear any bugs or birds. Your little chip was fuzzing out their songs.

I could hear Bones groaning, though, and there weren't any more players coming. I crept over real careful to check on him. Now that the adrenaline from the fight was worn off, he was in sorry shape, sitting against the tree all pale and wide-eyed. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure he was in shock. His whole left arm was blown to strips between the elbow and shoulder, white bone shining in the moonlight.

Jameel wasn't hurt, but he had kind of the same look as Bones did and was just saying "nah, man" over and over. I took the gun and told them I'd be back. Mindy came around the tree then, already tearing strips off her shirt to bind up the wound. I made circles around our camp until I found him, crawled under a bush, froth coming out the ragged hole in his chest and his lips still singing. It was too quiet for the implant to pick up until I got down and started searching his pockets.

Chorus about the singer being sorry that he isn't sorry.
___

None of us were going back to sleep after what happened, so we just walked until dawn. The gunshot wound wasn't as bad as it looked in the dark, and Bones turned out to be as bad a motherfucker as he looked, because he was walking on his own within the hour. We were making good time on the 88 and heading west toward Barton, like we were supposed to. The trees were starting to thin out when that voice went off in my head:

Melodic howling.

We all figured it was just our filters picking up a coyote, or something, but we tried to walk a little faster all the same. Wasn't long before we saw their shapes behind the treeline, and next thing we knew we were surrounded.

Chorus about the singers finally taking back what's theirs.

Wolves, at least a dozen of them. You can put it in your file that they're part of your anomaly, too, because they surrounded us and did a whole breakdancing routine. It would have been funny if I couldn't see their lips moving.

Chorus about a toll payable in hot meat.

I kept the rifle from our bandit last night so bones could have the handgun you gave us, since he was down an arm. I raised it and shot the closest one before my hands could start shaking. The gun bellowed in my ear and a hole the size of a baseball appeared in its neck, and it started thrashing around with its face still moving like special effects. Bones got a couple of them too, but he could barely lift the pistol by then, and they started dodging as they closed in on us.

Verse about the pack eating or dying together.

So we took off, and it wasn't like any of us decided to leave Jameel behind, but he was the one they caught and that's how it happened. I saw it in slow motion, taking in everything at once somehow, the teeth connecting through his ankle and his face when he started to scream. But I kept running and the others kept running and then Jameel was gone.

Refrain about the pack finally taking back what's theirs.

___

We got to Barton an hour after sunrise. It looked like the people there were trying to organize; they marched back and forth like ants from a grocery store to a church across the street, singing about how fast the food disappears when there are no more trucks coming. They mostly ignored us as we passed through, just focused on keeping up with their dance routine. All of them that actually looked at us had the same tired, desperate eyes, but they kept singing and dancing just the same.

The run took a lot out of Bones. His wound was reopened, and he'd lost a lot of blood to begin with. We could see the skin around it starting to look puffy red and yellow, and we all knew what that meant. We talked about going into the church and trying to get help, even though you told us not to talk to anyone because you don't know how they'll react to people who can't process music. I know you guys just threw together the brain implants with stuff you already had up there, so I knew better than to rely on them anyway. None of us wanted to get mobbed to death or end up like the people of Barton, but it didn't seem like we had a choice, because our chances of making it to the Site without Bones weren't great either.

An ambulance showed up while we were still deciding what to do - you said phones would be down everywhere, so maybe they just came because that's what would happen in a play. A paramedic hopped out, singing about how it's impossible to do good medical treatment in the time between choruses. He snipped away Bone's shirt sleeve and the cloth bandages we'd made, face crinkling when he caught the smell of the wound.

Chorus about how everyone's going to die but some sooner than others.

He started to go back in his truck for stitches, but then a girl walked out of the crowd at the grocery store and headed over. Verse about secret attraction to a long term acquaintance, she sang.

Verse about taking chances while there's still time, he answered, and then they danced off together and left us. We took as much as we could from the back of the ambulance, but none of us wanted to look at each other because we all knew that it wasn't going to be enough.

The ambulance driver looked back at us. Refrain about everyone dying but some sooner than others, the implant translated. I gave him the finger as we walked away.
___

We stitched him up as best we could, but the bleeding didn't stop, and around nightfall Bones laid down and died. Mindy and I were too tired to keep walking so we hid under an on-ramp. I put my arm around her and she pressed into me, neither of us saying anything, just listening to the static in our heads.

The implant woke me in the night again, but it was just a couple of rats, sniffing around our pack, singing about how it's a great time to be a scavenger and little ones rising when big ones fall.
___

We got to Pine Grove the next morning, half a day ahead of schedule. We found the Site right away. It was impossible to miss. But whatever you were hoping we'd find there, we aren't going to find it.

I kept looking at the instructions, like whatever you wrote there would suddenly be helpful the hundredth time I checked. The address and the map, sure; this was the place. The rest was a series of access codes to get into the building and past some inner security gates. Then a hand-drawn blueprint of a research lab, with instructions to reach someone's console and enter some commands that might possibly get things back to normal. And scribbled at the bottom: "I'm sorry."

Sorry you failed in your jobs? Sorry you took us to the moon and put experimental computer chips in our heads? Sorry you sent us back down to die?

The problem is that the entire place is overgrown with human bodies, melted together and braided like vines. We didn't get too close, but I saw enough; living people, all fused, covering every building in your complex to the tops of their chimneys. Bone-shaped lumps slid around inside them, making faces bulge out of the mass as they passed underneath. A ridge of teeth, so big I could see it from where we were standing, slithered and swirled across its surface. A trail of eyeballs bubbled up in its wake and tumbled down the walls to a squirming pile at the bottom.

And there were so many mouths, all singing about pain.
___

We just headed west after that. The mood was strange; we knew things were about to get bad, we'd run out of rations if something else didn't get us first, but meanwhile we had freedom for the first time in years.

I don't know how many of you really believe all that shit about death row, but most people I met in the D program were originally locked up for crimes that that weren't that serious. I got popped running a vanload of molly through Utah and was waiting out a three year bid when I got pulled. If it hadn't been a second offense, my lawyer would've gotten me off altogether. Mindy was at a protest and ended up punching a cop, which is a much better story.

You didn't give us a plan B. You told me the machine will record my thoughts if I imagine I'm talking to you, so I am, but I don't know if you're even still up there or if you're all singing now too. I noticed how many of you were disappearing those last few weeks, and the look you all got whenever the word "quarantine" came up. Maybe it's already spread to the rest of you up there. Maybe me and Mindy are the last regular people anywhere.

We made a plan to keep walking and see what's ahead. If we find another town, we'll just stay. Mindy said maybe we can try to take care of them. Maybe we can figure out some way to break them out of it, one by one.
___

We found people.

We were coming down out of the mountains, just past a sign that said SACRAMENTO 10 MILES, and we came over this hill and saw them stretched out as far as the eye could see. A carpet of people covered the whole valley in one enormous musical number. Huge human pyramids tumbled forward in sync, with lone dancers spinning and shuffling around their bases pouring water into the mouths of the people on the bottom, who would climb the side of the pyramid to make room for the next one, while others twirled through carrying out buckets of shit. I could see interlocking rings of people throughout the crowd, elbows linked, twisting elaborately to move around within the horde.

Chorus about everyone needing a place in the world and working together to get things done.

I looked over at Mindy but she was already bounding down the hill toward them, greeting the first person she met. A hush rippled through the crowd, and for a moment I was sure they were going to surge forward and pull her inside, but then in unison they started a new song.

Verse about welcoming newcomers to town.

The swarm of players twisted and roiled in front of her. I started to raise the gun, but Mindy wasn't afraid, and I realized it wouldn't make any difference. I walked down the hill and joined her just as the crowd lifted a man in a suit onto their shoulders in front of us.

Verse introducing the singer as a humble official doing his best for his people, the implant droned as he danced and bowed in front of us. When he hit his big finale, arms reached out from the press of bodies and handed us each a lit sparkler.

Mindy laughed and said thank you. I started, too, but when I tried to speak nothing happened.

And then I started to sing.

Refrain about everyone needing a place in the world. Verse about finding your purpose where you least expect it.

The air took on this charge, the whole crowd leaning in. I'd never sang like this before, not in a real performance. I didn't know how good it would feel.

Verse about giving up selfishness to join the greater good.

Your implant blocks me from hearing my own lyrics, but it can't stop what's in my heart, and that's where the song is coming from.

Verse about coming together to slay a monster and be heroes.

We're leading them back to the Site now. I don't know what will happen when we get there, if your computer can fix the world. It doesn't matter. Either way, I have a role now. And the show goes on.

Chorus about everyone needing a place in the world and the joy of having one.

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