I am activated again, forced to perform another single for the drunken masses. Yet another lead singer struts his beer-engorged gut on the stage in front of me, as my bandmates and I react to his motions and signals. We cannot help it. We are programmed to be his backup.
Perhaps, this one will be different. Perhaps, he will have style, or tune, or grace. Perhaps, he will not be as dependent on the video screens that play the lyrics in front of him. Perhaps he will be different, and choose a song from our limitless repertoire to sing in his brief moment as star. Motown, perhaps. Or a nice aria. Or maybe some T’sing Dau. T’sing Dau is fun.
But as the familiar refrains shudder forth from my fingers, I realize I am beyond hope. The next five minutes will be yet another lesson in how the human voice can torture a band-bot such as myself.
Why? Why do they always pick that damn song?
“I’ve lived a life that’s full,” the lead singer retches into the microphone. “I’ve traveled each and evry highway. And more, much more than this, I did it mmmmmmmmyyyyyyyyy wwwwwaaaaaaaay..”
â€œI need to find a man.â€
Jahobie Muranme let out a huge, cracked-tooth grin at the dark fellow across the table from her. â€œThereâ€™s Long Trousersâ€™ down the street. Betcha you could finâ€™ some hunk to brokeback with â€˜fore the night is over.â€ Jahobie slung her right arm-the real one, without the blades-behind the back of her chair and clinked the ice in her glass suggestively. The dark manâ€™s expression did not change.
â€œVery droll. That must be endlessly useful in your line of work. I am looking for this man.â€ The dark man slid a black sheet of plastic on the dirty table, and tapped it twice. A three-dimensional image of a manâ€™s head hovered above the table. Jahobie took mental notes; defined brow, set jaw. Nose had been broken twice before.
â€œâ€™E got a name?â€
The dark man tapped the plastic again and the head dissipated. He rolled the sheet up and pushed it across the table toward Jahobie. â€œAs far as youâ€™re concerned, no. He is #6.â€
â€œThat make you #1?â€
â€œNot in the slightest. Bring this man to me, by whatever means necessary.â€
â€œWhatevaâ€™ means, eh? You care iffin heâ€™s alive?â€
A bemused half-smile slunk out from behind the dark manâ€™s blank expression. â€œNot particularly, no. He is not going to be very willing to come back with you, so I imagine lethal force will be necessary. Which is why we are giving you this, in the event of #6â€™s demise.â€ The dark man hefted a large steel cylinder on the table by the handle on itâ€™s top. It gleamed in the dim light, out of place in a dingy bar like this.
â€œSimple cryogenic canister, not much more than a can of liquid nitrogen, really. But it should suffice. Donâ€™t bother bringing back the body; we only require the head.â€
â€œYes. The body is meaningless.â€
â€œWhutâ€™s in the head?â€
â€œYou do not need to know.â€
Johobie crossed her arms, the steel blades on her left arm facing out. â€œUnless itâ€™s something thatâ€™ll fall out, or heâ€™ll remove â€˜fore I get there, and then I get a bum kick for me troubles. No, sir, this ainâ€™t amateur night. Whatâ€™s in the head?â€
â€œInformation. As long as you freeze the head within an hour of death, we will be able to extract enough of his mental state to graft it onto another living being. Obviously, something smaller and more docile. Current vote is a terrier, but I am of the opinion that a six-year-old girl might be more preferable. Terriers, after all, still have teeth.â€
â€œYeah â€™spose they do.â€ The clear joy the manâ€™s face radiated when discussed the fate of this â€œ#6â€ made Jahobie squirm. She had wanted the see some other expression on the manâ€™s face sent they met, but now that she saw it… She was almost relieved to see the man regain his composure as he removed a black card and placed it on Jahobieâ€™s side of the table.
â€œThis card contains half of what we promised. Once we have #6, you shall receive another. I shall leave the canister with you.â€
Jahobie pocketed the card and the rolled-up holo-sheet. She was surprised that the dark man did not get up when she did. â€œQueer business you got going here, you donâ€™t mind me saying.â€
â€œI am afraid I would have to care a great deal more in order to mind. Remember, it is not your head that we are paying you for.â€
They called the ship a Widowmaker, a relic of a time when the black of space was scarred by the war and the machines that made it possible. There were no windows save at the top and few doors; little was done to make the metal monstrosity look like anything other than the heavily armed coffin it was. It towered over the edge of the city, and Fire Chief Jaime Olmos felt cold and clammy every time he had to drive beneath its shadow. He had argued with the city about taking it down and scrapping it. But no one saw the tower of metal-encased kindling on insufficient struts, a danger to the community around it. They only saw a tourist offering, a landmark.
“We can’t tear down such a monument of our rich heritage in space.” Olmos was told. “That ship represents heroism.”
Olmos had served on a Widowmaker, back when both of them were considered space-worthy. He sadly shook his head at the connection of such a ship and heroism. “I pray there isn’t a fire,” he said, and walked out of city hall with his shoulders slumped, his head down.
The night the rusting hulk’s innards did catch fire, every truck was called to surround it. The ship’s supports were already bending due to heat, and it would only be a matter of time before the colossus toppled onto the buildings surrounding it. The fire had already burst the viewport windows, and a jet of flame like a angry beast tore across the starry sky.
“Same as it ever was,” Olmos thought to himself, and ordered two men to the upper levels of the ship to either contain the fire or give it a way out. The men’s shadows danced violently in the flickering light.
They did not return. One of them, Cheeverly, who loved his garden of exotic flowers as much as he loved his motorcycle, called on the radio saying he was lost, his voice distorted by his oxygen mask that shuddered as it ran out of air.
Olmos sent in two more men, confident he could count on Jacobson. Jacobson may have been a prankster off duty, but he was as serious as they got once in uniform. He reminded Olmos of his old messmate, Hopi, back in the war. Jacobson didn’t get a chance to radio back. Despite Olmos screaming into his receiver, there was no response. “Hopi died in a Widowmaker, too,” Olmos said.
The ship was winning, the damn monstrosity taking his men two by two. Olmos turned his back to the gangplank. Fifteen firefighters were crowded in front of him, tense with adrenaline, the heat of their eyes competing with the flames at his back.
“No more,” Olmos said.
No one said anything for one second, and then two. And then the roar of the fire was overmatched by the roar of men. “They’re still up there, god-dammit!” they howled, surging forward, a mass of rage. “They’re still in there!”
Olmos pushed his hands into the chests of the men, sending each one that came too close to the ground. “Listen to me!” he bellowed. “You listen to me! We’ve already lost four. We’re not going to lose any more.”
Olmos watched as his men contracted, their shoulders slumping, their heads bowing. They seemed so much smaller, their twisting shadows seem all-encompassing, devouring the men as they walked away.
The fire was contained, leaving nothing but a blackened husk, a monstrous, smoking skeleton, so immense it blotted out the coming dawn.
K’dackis was slivercaster, scout and herder of wildfeeds, piping when needed, but always in pursuit of the genuine driveway effect. She was constantly sisbertized by the right or the wrong people, surfing the waves of condemnation and approval as she launched onto her next coffee-spitter. She was queen of the third screen. Grey as I was, by comparison I might as well have been egocasting. K’dackis swallowed muffin-chokers whole, and spit ’em back out at lightning speed; because of this, she was the darling of screenagers everywhere.
I have been told my obsession with K’dackis is nothing but anus-envy, that any fool could create irritainment with a notebook dump on a feed and garnish it with a middle finger. This was true to some extent, but I’m no beat-sweetener with his head up his ass. K’dackis’s appeal went beyond mere hathos and anger. She was a half-step away from a placeshift, and when that happened all of us in the Outerrnet would feel very, very insecure about our place in our chosen professions.
Obviously, a fleshmeet was required, and not just podhacking her playlist, either. I had to interview her. Took some cajoling; my editor is a NIMBY when it comes alt-media, partly due to the pessimal state of modern info, partly due to how close he is to sundowning. But the man’s watch contains feedlets and bytebits, same as mine, so I had some elbowroom.
“I’ll authorize this,” he said. “But you better put some pants on the copy before it reaches my desk. I ain’t paying you to take a duvet day.”
Strangely enough, K’dackis consented to an interview. She had read my grey, and gave me a webrarian’s approval of a go ahead. I suppose I should have expected something unusual out of her, but doing the interview in a dumpster came as a headsmack.
“You gotta be a mongo hunter is this world, get your hands dirty, get in the scene.” K’dackis looked strangely cheery amongst the garbage. Her clothes carried no badge item, just ergomorphic shirt and pants. “What we throw away says the most about us, dig? What’s in your trash this morning?”
I found myself lost; she might as well been speaking MiÃ©villeese.
“Listen, you didn’t come here to quiz me on my hairdo. You’re no thumbsucker, your grey speaks for that. But you’re in a bathwater situation. Think about the language we use. What’s the first thing we toss aside? Curse words, old relics of medieval speak. But what’s the primary we utter when we glom a muffin -choker? It’s all a goddamn circle, Cochise. When was the last time you let out a good old curse for the scream of it?!?'”
I hemmed and hawed, but I didn’t have an answer. The interview, such as it was, went this way; K’dackis was playing at being a knowledge angel, sure, but it was fascinating, abrasive and exactly what was wrong with the state of grey.
Naturally, my editor wouldn’t print a word a word of it..
“Primary, this contains language, which we do not print. Our grey is clear of such things and we are proud of that,” he espoused. “Secondly, what is the point of this?”
“We’re lost in the words. It’s mindblindness, pure and simple. We’re not even communicating anymore, we’re just speaking.”
“Manure. There’s a medieval word for you and your bloghopper. Shit. Excrement. Crap, detritus, garbage, junk, offal, refuse, remains, rubbish, trash, waste. We are in the business of words, mister. YOU are in the business of words.”
“I thought I was in the business of news.”
“Keep this up, and you won’t be. Do I make myself clear? Or am I using too many words?”
K’dackis was slivercaster, which means she played to, at best, a small audience. She could play to the screenagers, and have her outrage displayed on their phones and watches, gathering evidence from feeds and stray bytes. But she and her ideas weren’t news, even if they were to us in the news business.
I found myself going through my grey, pieces that had once won awards, had garnered acclaim. I was told that my grey spoke for me. I couldn’t slivercast, couldn’t ride the wildfeeds, and I wasn’t going to be a third screen darling anytime soon.
But I did remember what makes me curse.
The Annual Garden Party was called such more out of tradition than anything else; there was no vegetation to be found, only green crystal ferns and porcelain roses. However, appearances and traditions had to be respected and kept up. It was commented on that the way the artificial sunlight glinted off the facets and glaze was, in humble opinions that would never be expressed if the whole effect wasn’t just so breathtaking, better than the original.
Byron hated it. Cecelia could see he hated it, but she brushed it off as concern for his younger sister, Bunny, as she continually tottered dangerously close to the ferns, her immense platform sandals and limited coordination not helping the matter any.
“Bunny,” Byron called, and the girl ambled over to the table he and Cecelia shared. “Look, here. I brought your tiara. Why don’t you go pose in it away from the ferns?”
“Oooooo! Shiny!” Bunny’s jewelry clattered noisily as she half-ran, half-fell away from the tables.
“She’s a beautiful girl, your sister,” Cecelia said. Byron only looked sad.
“She’s a beautiful girl with Holstein-Gottorp’s Disorder. I’m just glad she’s still young enough for the pageant circuit. When that goes, I’m not sure what she’s going to have.”
“It’s wonderful the way you care for her. You’ll make an excellent father.”
“Cecelia, we’ve talked about this.” Byron nervously ran his fingers over the gold tabletop. “You know I love you, but my sister has Holstein-Gottorp’s, and, well, with our combined inheritence, there’s a good chance any children we have could end up a…”
“BRIETARD!!!” Some smaller children were yelling at Bunny, throwing chocolates at her ample cleavage. She ran away from them, crying, and hid under a table. Byron looked pale.
“Byron, baby.” Cecelia took his hands, their multitude of rings clacking as they came together. “Even if we have brietarded children, we’ll make it work.”
“You don’t understand. Yesterday, my sister was asked to introduce herself, and she said ‘What? Like, with words?’ I can’t live with that.”
“So then we’ll give it up,” Cecelia said. “All of it. Maybe we even…I don’t know, get jobs or something.”
Byron looked aghast. “Are you mad?” He turned to watch his sister, once again tottering toward the glimmering fake plants. “Can’t we just do something sensible like adopt one of those strange little alien refugees? Something sane like that.”