In a cyber-enhanced, futuristic Chicago, Sonata knows near-immortality is achievable through downloading her mind into a cyborg body after death. But this young artist wants to prove that living forever isn’t the same as living a beautiful life.
Exposition: Allegro Impetuoso
Sonata James was twenty-three years old when she decided what she wanted to do with her life and her iterations to come. She sought out her friend Dante to tell first. It was noon and the sun was bright, but not warming. Her cheeks and hands stung with the brisk autumn air off the lake as she made her way from her mom’s house on South Dorchester to Dante’s usual spot on Ellis Avenue. As she entered the coffee shop, the crisp chill was instantly replaced by cozy aromas of fresh-brewed beans and wood. She ordered a large French roast, paused to dose it liberally with milk, then held it high as she threaded among the crowded tables, mostly occupied by singles drawn to the free Wi-Fi. At last she arrived at the back near the emergency exit and unisex restroom, where Dante occupied the only high-backed booth in the place, a leftover from when this had been a bar or maybe an ice cream parlor. His gaze was locked on his screen as she approached, the glow accentuating his profile and projecting bursts of color onto his black-on-black athletic suit and hoodie.
She slid into the seat opposite him, a little coffee slopping onto the tabletop as she did so. She sat cupping the steaming drink between her hands until Dante looked up from his screen. The way his eyes shone betrayed how happy he was to see her, but he played it down.
“I was reading about fine art photography back before digital,” she began.
He slipped his headphones down off his ears, and Sonata heard a few strains of Missy Elliott haranguing about a “one minute man” before Dante punched the pause button. After she repeated her sentence, his brows drew together. “And this is exciting news because—?”
She grinned. “People would buy one of a hundred copies or so of a photo. They could print however many they wanted with the same negative, but it was the artist’s choice to limit the number of prints. Even at the beginning of digital, a photographer would decide to make only so many hard copies to sell. To make it more special.”
Dante took a sip of his own drink and grimaced. It had likely gone cold long ago. “To drive the price of the art up, you mean.”
She drummed her fingers impatiently on the tabletop. “And to make it more special. A statement. Come on, don’t ruin this.”
“Ruin what?” He’d gone back to his screen. It was impossible for him to unplug for even a few moments. Three-dimensional reality was just another frame opened to his awareness.
She was brimming with the news. “Because I’m going to be a limited edition.”
His fingers twitched over the sense pad, but he remained the picture of coolness.
“I just decided today. This is going to define me. It’s my thing.”
He actually closed his computer. He sat back, not looking at her but at some point on the table between them. “If you don’t upload . . .”
His voice cracked and she put a hand on his, suddenly realizing how much he cared about her. “I will upload,” she said. “If I don’t, I’ll be like any other person who can’t afford it or doesn’t want to for whatever reason. It won’t be special.”
His lower lip drew inward, and he jerked his hand away. “So you’re just going to let your newbody crash? That’s whacked.”
Several patrons—whites, blacks, and newbies alike—turned to stare at the shout. The way the newbies, especially, regarded her made her face grow hot. She sat up straighter and kept her own voice quiet. “It’s a statement. If you pulled your head out of the Internet once in a while, you’d notice how crowded we’re getting. Only the poor are having babies anymore. Everyone else is hanging on to their money for themselves, for their newbodies.”
Dante folded his arms and slouched back in the booth, his long legs bumping her feet as he stretched them out. “Am I now going to hear the antitech rant? Because I don’t need you to run that down for me. I can tune into it anytime. Ironically, it’s all over the web.”
She sighed. “No antitech. Promise.” She stared at her coffee. “I need you to hear me.”
Dante let out a long breath, deflating. “I hear you. I just don’t get you. Have you told your mother yet?”
She shook her head and laughed without humor. “I wanted to tell you first. A friend who would understand.”
He snorted. They sat looking at each other. Again, Sonata sensed a deeper caring emanating from Dante than she’d thought was there. Maybe he was just realizing it, too, as they spoke of her eventual mortality.
Dante nodded slightly, and for a split second Sonata wondered if he’d read her mind. But he said, “Okay, so you’re a limited edition. I suppose I can get used to the idea you’ll only have a hundred iterations or so.”
“Not one hundred,” she said. “That won’t hold the public interest.” She saw the storm clouds gathering around Dante again and pressed on. “And I don’t want to get lumped in with the newbodies who didn’t plan ahead and are out of cash already. They’ll do any crummy job in order to afford an upgrade before their software becomes so old it’s unsupported. I want everyone to know I’m doing this on purpose.”
Dante’s face had become an unreadable mask. “So how many of you are there going to be, Sonata?”
“Three iterations, because there are three movements in a sonata. Me here now, and two newbies.”
Dante glowered. “Your mom is going to kill you.”
“It’s my body.” She realized she was rehearsing now, for when her mother was back from work. “I want to make my existence really count, to push myself to express and achieve in a way I don’t think would be possible if I had all the time in the world. I want to dedicate my iterations as a reminder that we can only understand ourselves—understand life itself—within the context of a finite existence. People are unbearably bored with literally everything now. I want to show people what it’s like to live.”
Dante leaned forward and grasped her right hand in both of his. His palms trembled. “You’re whacked,” he whispered. “Damned philosophy major.”
“I love you, too.” She’d meant to tease, but the words hung in the air between them. Their hands clasped tighter, as if separate small animals. Dante swallowed hard, then nodded and released his grip. She rose, feeling buoyant, and stammered her way through a casual farewell.
As she wended her way toward the door she passed a table where two newbies sat. One turned his silvery face toward her. “Sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing. Have you considered man is something to be overcome?”
She recognized the reference from Nietzsche. She tossed her head and shot back, “‘What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.’ Yes, I’ve read Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
The other newbie, androgynous and blue skinned, regarded her with curiosity as Sonata moved on.
She breathed a sigh as she reemerged onto the streets of Hyde Park. Bolstered against the wind by the warm milk and coffee in her belly, she flowed along with the crowd, thinking ahead to the conversation with her mother. There wasn’t any question she would share her news. The two of them were very close. As she rounded a corner into an even thicker mass of humanity, she thought how her mother was not likely to get angry like Dante. Instead, she’d pull her signature line: You’ll change your mind about that when you’re older. It was what had been unspoken in the newbie’s stare, back at the coffee shop.
“And just how old will I be when I’m supposed to change my mind about everything?” she muttered to herself. The crowd had slowed to a crawl. There were too many people these days. Exasperated, she pushed forward, not caring that she was bumping people. She was nearly at the end of the block, and up ahead through the sea of bodies she saw the green light. Anyone could see it was time to walk, yet no one was. It was like they were waiting to be herded. She shoved forward in exasperation, hearing horns blaring from different directions, and stepped out into the street where there was some space to move at last—
She felt a jolt along her left side just as she heard a whoop of siren from the same direction, and then she was floating. Distantly, she heard the screech of brakes and a scream not her own. She saw rust-colored leaves blow from the tree across the street and go fluttering in slow motion against blue sky. Then her head slammed into pavement, which normally didn’t happen when one was flying. The world was atilt. She saw the face of a little boy, his mouth shaped in the exact oval of his head. Then the sun was in her eyes, or not the sun but a blinding stab from behind her eyes. The pain shot down her side even as her head felt stuffed like a pillow. Everything became a blur. Even the sounds seemed to smear together. Then all collapsed inward upon itself, contracting until the entire universe was but a single point. Then nothingness.
Sonata opened her eyes to find the kind and intelligent faces of three newbies gazing down upon her. Then she recognized two of them and sat up quickly with a gasp. Or at least, she tried to gasp, but she couldn’t draw in any air. She tried again to breathe, and then panic set in. She clawed at her throat but no one moved to help her. It was her worst nightmare. She flashed back to being in the water at the Washington Park Pool, ten years old, holding on to the edge as she followed her girlfriend Lana around the perimeter. There were two men in their way, and Lana went around them. Sonata let go of the edge too, realizing too late she was toward the deep end. She couldn’t swim. Her eyes went wide as she fell back in the water and slipped under. One of the men had reached out to pull her up—
The newbie with the silvery face, who had said something to her in the coffee shop earlier—and who she would come to know as Miller—was speaking to her in calm tones. “Become aware of your body,” he repeated.
Sonata answered with a scream. At least she could still do that.
The blue-skinned newbie who had also been there stood beside a shorter newbie whose form closely resembled a man’s body. They nodded in encouragement at her efforts. Later she would know them as Satchya and Kent.
Miller continued with beatific patience. “Observe your own distress. Feel your body. Is your heart racing?”
She couldn’t stop clawing at her throat. She couldn’t feel anything but her inability to breathe.
Miller answered for her. “No, your heart is not racing. There is no heart to beat. You are not sweating. Notice how calm your body is. It’s operating exactly as it should. Your panic is in your mind only.”
Newbody. Sonata forced the word past her animal reflexes. With great effort, she removed her hands from her throat. That’s when she noticed her new hands. She stared at them. They were black like polished onyx, and gorgeous. But what mesmerized her was the slowly moving musical score that wound silently around her fingers and wrists before proceeding at a stately pace up her arms.
“That’s right,” Miller cooed. “See? They call us newbies, but that’s short for NBs. Non-breathers.”
She saw it was true. She laughed her new laugh, without needing to fuel it with breath. Just like her scream had been without breath.
The musical score wound gracefully around her torso as well, and down her legs, where it appeared to pool before it reversed course. “How did you know? I didn’t have time to record any plans.”
The blue-skinned newbie she would soon learn was called Satchya made a low chuckling noise. “Everything about you is captured in the upload.”
It took a moment to put it all together. “This is my sonata.” She heard the tinge of awe in her voice.
Satchya regarded her approvingly. “We wanted to give you a form that reflected your intentions and desires for yourself.”
“It’s perfect. Thank you.” She wondered if it was appropriate to thank them. She pointed at Miller and Satchya. “You two were at the coffee shop just now.” Then she stared at Kent, the newbie she did not know.
“Your accident occurred close by,” Satchya said. “When your bio-alert signaled the emergency, we responded and brought you in.”
“I’m the technician,” Kent said, a touch of shyness in his voice.
“How long . . . ?”
“It’s seven p.m.,” Kent said. “Same day as your death.”
“She’s waiting down the hall,” Satchya said. “I’m sure she’ll be relieved to see you functioning.”
Sonata rose from the table where she’d been created. Her movements were effortlessly smooth, without core muscles clenching in the belly or the dull thud of feet striking the floor. She was suddenly embarrassed her mother might not approve of how black she was, nor care for the musical embellishments on her surface. Her face didn’t grow hot with emotion, however, so she let her concern slide away.
Miller touched her arm lightly, a sensation of coolness against coolness, slightly metallic yet yielding. “Come meet us tonight, after your mother goes to bed.”
They were all going to be friends, then. She smiled. “Where?”
There was an instant transfer of data through the touch. Miller’s name and salutary information, as well as coordinates for where to meet and when. Satchya and Kent touched her as well, transferring their salutary information. It took fewer than ten seconds, she noted with her inner clock. Then she was out the door, accessing the virtual map that showed her the way to the waiting room to greet her mother.
Sonata spent the night in Lake Michigan. She’d met Miller, Satchya, and Kent by Shedd Aquarium at twelve thirty.
Miller’s silvery face shone in the moonlight. “Ready to face your inmost fears?”
Kent slapped her on the back. Again she felt that yielding, slightly metal sensation. “Tag. You’re it.” Then he ran full-speed into the harbor waters. Sonata hesitated, watching as Miller and Satchya bolted as well, then splashed and hooted at her.
Sonata closed her eyes and focused on her body. It was utterly still and calm. The fear was all in her mind, then, once again. She opened her eyes and challenged herself in the language of childhood: Geronimo! She ran toward the group.
The nightlong odyssey was full of self-discovery. Not only did Sonata overcome her fear of drowning, reveling in the fact she didn’t have to breathe, she could also swim, and quickly, nearly keeping up with a northern pike they’d surprised as they glided in the relative calm several yards beneath the choppy surface. They navigated by their internal maps, used GPS to track one another, and communicated by way of subvocal messaging protocol. The latter Sonata fancied was akin to ESP, and she pretended they were psychic secret agents on an espionage mission.
As they finished their frolic, emerging from the waters by the Navy Pier, she felt a deep tranquility settle into her titanium bones. She regarded the huge skeleton of the Ferris wheel looming in the night and wondered how negative emotions like fear sloughed away while this transcendent feeling lingered. Epicurus himself would’ve been jealous of her attainment, she thought, this newfound peacefulness born of an absence of bodily pain. Most people who hadn’t taken philosophy didn’t get what hedonism was really all about, and until tonight, she had had book knowledge only.
Kent tumbled onto the dock with a soft clatter, a technological Adonis, and stretched out his arms. “This night is fermenting in the veins of God.”
Sonata looked up the quote and saw it was part of a poem that had been cited on the first page of a sonata written by a woman named Rebecca Clarke. Only then did she consider she could activate the song coursing over her body. She did, and her new friends gathered around to listen to her soul’s sound. It was grounded in the modern but reached back across the centuries, hinting at classical keys even as it played with new tonalities.
Two days later, Sonata entered the coffee shop on Ellis again, shutting the glass door quickly against the wind, conscious of patrons who would feel the bracing chill. She felt a pang of guilt as she spotted Dante slouching over his computer in the back booth. It was as if he’d never left it. He was even wearing the same black athletic suit, although this time a Chicago Bears scarf hung loosely around his neck.
The barista cleared her throat loudly. Sonata remembered the rules and complied, scanning her palm and watching as five dollars were deducted from her sky account. There was no longer a need to eat or drink, but an NB took up space. It was only fair to pay.
“Dante,” she said when she was seven feet away and approaching the boundary of his personal space. He was wearing his earbuds, though, so she slid unnoticed into the seat opposite him. Now that she was completely integrated, the appendages of technology on breathers looked clunky and sad. It was strange to be living in the future, amidst the past.
He nearly catapulted from the booth. The earbuds jerked from their lodgings and fell to the tabletop. Sonata could hear tinny strains of old R&B weaving inside a hip-hop mix.
“What the . . .” He stopped and stared at her white tattoos of musical notes floating against their midnight backdrop. He caught his breath. “Sonata, that better be you.”
“It is.” Surprising him made her pleased.
“You. Are. Awesome. Not kidding.” He reached out and touched one of the notes on her arm, but of course it maintained its uninterrupted glide toward her wrist.
“Like it?” She basked in his admiration.
He huffed out a breath, and she could see a tear glistening at the corner of one eye. “I am so glad to see you, you have no idea. Now look at you. I didn’t think you’d go this radical. I love it, don’t get me wrong. It’s perfect. Tell me.”
“What do you want to know?” She considered. “Not sleeping is great.”
He nodded. “I’d wondered about that. There’s this old science-fiction book about some people not needing to sleep. They have all that extra time to do things.”
“Not just the time,” she said. “It’s the integration. I’m continuously in touch with myself, consciously.”
His expression went momentarily blank, uncomprehending. He went back to admiring her form. That quickly, they’d come to the divide. Kent had explained it simply to her before she’d come here. We occupy the same space, but we live in different worlds. No relationships can last across that gulf.
She didn’t know what to say, so she stared at Dante’s computer. It was like looking into an archeological find. Dante suddenly seemed fragile, like a fragment of a child’s collarbone from Homo naledi. He would’ve drowned in Lake Michigan that first night of her new life. Even if he could swim, he wouldn’t have had the stamina, nor could he have remained underwater with her without special equipment.
“I’ll admit I’m jealous,” he was saying. “And sure, I’m sad, too. I thought we’d be closer in age when we went into our next iterations. But hey, we’re still here.”
He was hoping against hope for friendship. A deep sadness suddenly seized her, but her body remained unaffected, so the emotion faded quickly. “Still here,” she agreed.
Dante reached out and touched her hand. It felt different from when her NB friends touched her. It felt flat, like nothing. She didn’t know what it felt like to him, but he withdrew and placed his hand on his computer. He frowned. “It must be painful for you, having your life cut off so suddenly.”
She could have laughed, but didn’t. “Oh, I’m really not sorry I had the accident. It’s like my real life is just beginning. I’d understand it if someone wanted to commit suicide to become an NB sooner.”
He blinked. “You think I’d commit suicide? To be with you?”
“What? No!” Why was he jumping to such a wild interpretation? Her NB friends knew how to just listen. “Never mind. I guess I was trying to be philosophical.”
Dante’s eyes narrowed as he appraised her, his gaze following her gliding musical notations. She could tell he’d already forgotten what she’d said. “I didn’t take you for someone who’d design their newbody this far ahead of time.”
She deflected the comment so she wouldn’t have to explain particulars. “If Mother had had her way, I’d be in some screwed-up form that looked like me in life.”
Dante laughed. “Instead you’re cutting-edge.”
She smiled. “I went so young, I got top dollar for my body parts. Nine million. They gave me all the latest enhancements, and I only used a fraction of my worth.”
His hand traced a pattern across the top of his computer in a way that made her wonder what she’d felt like to him. “Are you still set on this limited-edition idea for yourself?”
She could hear the longing in his voice, and the unspoken question: Would she still be in an iteration by the time he uploaded, decades from now? She held out an arm for him to see. “It’s written in my skin. This is my second movement.” Seeing his face fall, she quickly added, “It’s a luxury model, though. Modular design and completely updateable. Kent says it’ll last more than a hundred years, easy.”
There was an awkward silence at the mention of another man’s name. They tried to recover an amicable conversation, but Sonata became so utterly exhausted with the effort, she made a polite excuse and left.
As she made her way to the door, she saw she commanded the gazes of the breathers in the coffee shop. Some expressions were admiring, but several frowned, and as she passed a young man with a goatee standing at the counter, he turned and sneered.
Sonata had also come to the great divide with her mother. The house itself, although its tall windows let in ample light, felt confining to her now. She marveled at how she used to be able to find things to do inside houses for hours at a time. Yet what did she need a house for now? A bedroom? She never slept. A kitchen? She didn’t cook or eat. A bathroom? Useless to her now. She didn’t own clothes that she had to store in a closet. All the technology she required was built-in. None of her new friends lived in homes. They didn’t live with breathers. What had Miller said to her that last day of her own breathing life, in the coffee shop? That man is something to be overcome?
She sat straight and unmoving in the chair opposite her mother, watching the soft, aging woman sip coffee before rushing off to her job in the urban development office. Sonata had used to like the smell of coffee. Instead she was mentally removed from the scene, running the most likely scenario in a background routine. She would make the announcement that it was time for her to leave and go live with her kind. Her mother would look up, her face registering relief, fleetingly. Then she would stage a drama of surprise and hurt feelings, which would transition into sadness and tears. Her mother would then get up from the table and Sonata would rise as well. They would embrace. Her mother would say she would worry about Sonata every day.
Sonata halted the scenario and made her announcement. Her mother looked up, her face registering relief so briefly that Sonata might have missed it if she hadn’t run the simulation first. Everything played out similarly, in real time, ending with them hugging in the sunlit dining room.
“Be careful,” her mother whispered. “You never know what can happen out there on the streets. There are stories. Not everyone approves of newbodies.”
Her mother moved away and picked up the coat hanging on the spare chair where her purse and keys rested efficiently on the seat. “Your home is always here if you need it,” she said, pulling on the wrap. She picked up her purse and keys and left, at that point on a trajectory to be a mere fifteen minutes late for work. As the door closed, Sonata noted the efficiency with which her mother had handled the news. It was a final sign they had both been ready for this change.
Sonata waited till the sound of her mother’s car blended into the rest of the traffic. Then she stepped out of the house. She could no longer smell, but the very air seemed to carry the fresh scent of freedom.
She spent that first day of her true independence as an iteration celebrating with Miller, Satchya, and Kent, avoiding the crowds by diving to the floor of Lake Michigan where they watched the myriad forms of sea life and experimented with the new subvocal language the NBs were inventing that expressed in symbols, colors, and mathematics rather than words. They were like babies struggling to learn. Sonata caught glimpses of a deeper reality to explore. It was thrilling being at the beginning of a new development in the NB world.
An hour before dawn they all emerged from the lake by Grant Park. Miller and Satchya went their ways while Sonata and Kent visited the Cloud Gate. They lay side-by-side under the omphalos of the silvery sculpture, where they observed their forms repeated within it, as if time had ceased to exist and the myriad future iterations were laid out before them. Sonata activated the song of her body that her moving tattoos represented, and told Kent her plans of coming out publicly as a limited edition.
“The problem is, I didn’t have a chance to become known for this when I was a breather,” she said as regret passed fleetingly through her mind. “I’m in my second iteration already.”
“Really, dear,” Kent replied, “your vision was formed before you had all the data. No one will hold you to it.”
She frowned up at their distorted reflections in the sculpture. “But I want it. Kent, no one understands me. They think I’ll grow up and change my mind.” She thumped the concrete with a fist. “I hate when people say that.” She would’ve been crying by now if she could.
Kent sat up and looked down at her. “Go say your piece, then, if you want. But just be aware . . .” His gaze wandered over Millennium Park.
“I’m sure you already know there are haters amongst the breathers.”
“Well, you know the cliché about haters.” She grabbed his arm playfully. “I prefer to say that lovers gonna love.”
Her Adonis lay back down beside her, and they accessed an intimacy protocol together, where their minds entwined in an ecstasy of togetherness she had never experienced during her sweaty biological grapplings with fellow breathers in her old life.
One of the breathers’ videocasts was enthusiastic about having her as a guest. A young man with long red hair and a spiral tattoo on his forehead listened raptly as she related her vision for her life and iterations. She found herself opening up in a way she hadn’t before, sharing her personal disappointment. “I was going to use this iteration as a means to further explore what I’d made of myself in my first life,” she admitted. “Now it’s like I need to discover who that young woman was who died. I need to invent her future.”
The man’s eyes gleamed. “Are you admitting the you that’s sitting here is not the same as the woman who lived?”
She smiled and shook her head. “Oh, no. I know there’s a fringe out there that disbelieves in the continuity of awareness from the life to the iteration.”
The interviewer stared at the camera. “Fringe?”
She nodded. “Most everyone knows that’s an incorrect belief born of suspicion and antitech sentiment. The continuity of consciousness within iterations is well documented in the research. And personally, I can vouch that I’m still me.” She refrained from saying she was actually better now.
The man chuckled. “Okay, but still, I can’t believe you’re going to give up living forever after going through the procedure for it. I’ve never heard an iteration say they wanted to die. I know you’ve told us why, from a philosophical perspective. But what about you, personally? What’s going on inside that titanium casing of yours?”
He was mocking her. Sonata was starting to wish the show would end. “I’m committed to my vision,” she explained as patiently as she could. She was going to elaborate, but the man cut her off.
“And you no longer have the human will to live, now.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say—”
“But I’m saying. That’s the truth. There’s something missing in you, and that’s your human core.”
She had a curious desire to reach out and separate the man’s head from the rest of his body. She’d unwittingly become a tool in the hands of a hater. “I think this interview is over.”
As she rose to leave, she heard the man wrap up. “There you have it, everyone. What would it take for all the other iterations to want to shut themselves off? How do we make that happen? You’ve been listening to New Forum. And remember: actions speak louder than words.”
How unoriginal, she thought as she shut the door of the studio behind her. And what a liar that young man was. She could detect the hum of his bio-alert—in nonemergency mode of course—the entire time. When his breathing life ran out, he would become just like her, by choice.
A group of over thirty NBs sat along the stately gazing pool leading up to the steps of the Bahá’í temple. It was shortly after midnight in mid March, a week after that awful interview on the Forum. The sky was moonless and stars were everywhere, even seeming to be winking up from the spring-thawed water, emanations from some companion universe. Sonata sat between Kent and Satchya as the group conversed in the new language. There was a lot of discussion around the new concept of beyond centeredness, a simultaneous experience inward and outward or the micro/macro linkage of all things.
She gazed into the starry waters and remembered how as a breather she’d dedicated her limited, preaccident life to display the beautiful meaning that she thought at the time could only exist within the context of a finite existence. Now, after that awful interview with the hater, and amid the excitement of exploring new concepts in an invented language, her attitude had transformed. She replayed her mother’s signature line to herself: You’ll change your mind about that when you’re older. She smiled ruefully. Her mother had been right. Kent had been right, too, to point out she’d made that pact without fully knowing what it was like to be a non-breather. How NBs not only lived; they thrived.
She looked over at Kent, her Adonis. Yes, they were higher forms of being, just as Miller had said that day in the coffee shop after she’d told Dante her plans. A pang of old emotion stabbed her emotional center as she recalled the way Dante had looked at her, their clasped hands gripped tight on the tabletop. She averted her eyes from her perfect lover to the sky and waited for the feelings to slide away, as they always did.
A black bird glided across the stars within the deep. No, not a bird. Sonata tracked the drone across her line of vision and watched it bank and turn.
“Hey,” she said. “Someone’s shooting video of us.”
Satchya followed her gaze, and then leapt to her feet, emitting a siren blast.
Everywhere, iterations leapt upright. Sonata’s newbody responded automatically as well. Kent touched her lightly on the shoulder and indicated a direction. “Run.” His touch transmitted his plan to her.
There was a flash of light, and Kent’s arm went flying. Sonata saw another drone scoop low, tracking after a small group fleeing for the parking lot. Everyone was scattering. Kent followed her as she ran toward Sheridan Road. Satchya caught up with them and passed them just as they ran across the road, heading for a stand of trees. Her blue-skinned friend’s body was in an erratic hyperdrive. Smoke curled from the side of Satchya’s neck, then her form suddenly jerked and crumpled at the base of a trunk.
Sonata felt fear in her mind, but she moved with efficient confidence. With Kent on her heels she headed under the cover of the trees, and they made their way through to the far edge of the tree line, where they saw their goal within reach. They paused to locate the drone’s position and calculate when they could make their final move with the least amount of risk. Then on Kent’s subvocalized signal they burst through into the open again on the other side of the grove, sped across a short span of lawn, leapt a hedge, and landed on the sand leading to the safety of the lake.
As they entered the water and submerged, Sonata subvocalized to Kent. What was that?
Attack of the idiots, he replied. Anti-NB sentiment has bloomed into terrorism, my dear.
Everything suddenly fell into place. From her mother’s voiced worries the day Sonata had left her home, to the distasteful moues on the street, to the Forum interview, and up to this moment, she’d been so into herself she’d been oblivious to what was going on in the world. That damned interview had played into the anti-NB sentiment.
Satchya. The subvocal protocol couldn’t convey the grief she felt, nor the sense she’d contributed to her friend’s destruction.
Kent reached out with his one arm and touched her shoulder with tenderness. I’ll restore her from backup when things calm down. They can’t annihilate us. We’re their future.
Yet Sonata recalled how she’d felt the day she’d pushed impatiently through the crowds. When any species is confined to an overcrowded space, the stress can cause them to attack one another. The haters were acting on emotions she’d once experienced herself. The interviewer who had mocked her knew he would eventually become an iteration. Every day, 150,000 breathers died, and over 25 percent now went into iterations. The birth rate was starting to decline, but not quickly enough. At some future point there would be no more breathers—or at least so few their breeding would not matter—and population would stabilize. There was a long time till then, however. What would happen in the meantime? She refused to run those scenarios.
A long, hot summer night was succumbing to a predawn rain bringing cooling northern winds when Sonata burst in the door of her mother’s house, slammed it behind her, and drew the dead bolt into place. She’d shut off her tattoos so she could blend into the shadows unseen. Looking around the living room for something to use as a weapon, she noticed the old couch had been replaced with matching loveseats facing each other across a sleek glass cocktail table. A chilling thought crossed her mind. Maybe her mother had moved. Maybe Sonata was standing in someone else’s house now. She felt a wave of deep regret wash through her mind, but her body remained calm and functional, so she let the feeling pass.
She heard a movement, and then a light went on, illuminating her mother standing at the top of the stairs. Her hand lingered on the switch, then fell away. Slowly, using the railing as support, the older woman made her way down the stairs and stopped, staring at Sonata.
Sonata remembered her tattoos were off, and turned them on again so her mother would recognize her.
“Yes.” They stood there, neither one moving. “The iteration hospital is gone, mother.”
“Burned.” In her mind, she felt deep grief. “I have friends who are no more. They got the backups.”
“Oh, baby.” Her mother approached, and they hugged. “I’m so sorry.”
With effort, Sonata pushed her mother away. “I could be endangering you, coming here.”
“Don’t talk nonsense.” Her mother suddenly seemed energetic, in charge. This was her mother’s working self. She motioned for Sonata to follow her up the stairs, which she scaled herself at a quick trot. “We’ll put you in your old room till this settles,” she said, heading down the hall. “There are good people left who won’t let this go away. I know who to talk to. People have rights, and that includes iterations.”
The door to Sonata’s room stood open. Her mother threw on a light and crossed to the window where she drew the drapes. The room had been converted into a media center, with a large flat-screen facing a couch. Sonata stayed in that room for a full week, convinced any glimpse of her through a window would jeopardize her mother’s safety. Finally, she realized her mother could take care of herself, and allowed herself freedom to roam the rest of the house, though she avoided standing at the windows. Her mother worked longer hours now and was meeting with the alderman of the ward and other officials after work, pushing for a solution.
During her seclusion, Sonata was in touch with her own kind over their secure network. Driven into hiding, they communicated exclusively in the new language of symbols and mathematics. Sonata discovered some of her friends, including Miller, had fled into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Others had spread out to midsized urban centers relatively untouched by the unrest. When she learned at last that Kent and Satchya were gone forever, their bodies destroyed and their backups burned in the fire, she mourned for them terribly until the emotion slid away.
There were hundreds of attempts to bring down the NB network, or to infect it—and the NBs—with one virus or another. But the NBs had superior technology, and the system stood. With the new language, they could conceive of technological developments much more rapidly than ever before. Planning went forward at a new supercomputing pace.
The breathers were busy as well. There were citywide protests, arrests, negotiations, and, finally, a formal agreement that became a model for the nation. When Sonata left her mother’s house at last, it was to go live in a special area set aside for NBs, where they were guaranteed to live free of harassment, and where they would be allowed to build their technological Eden. It wasn’t far from where the Cabrini-Green projects had once stood, and where a mixed income neighborhood had struggled to become viable but had failed just as miserably. And now? The non-breathers called it the tech ghetto.
Not trusting the truce, they erected a virtual security fence guarded by the most sophisticated anti-intruder system yet devised. The bodies of the elderly and near dead were delivered to the perimeter to receive newbodies, but the rate of new NBs had slowed markedly. The unrest had left people wary, and the prospect of leaving their communities for an unknown, isolated existence was a profound deterrent. The NBs turned their attentions to perfecting the longevity of their forms.
It was during this time that Sonata was called to her mother’s deathbed. She received an emergency pass to make the trip beyond the tech ghetto to a hospice center off the Eisenhower Expressway. It was eerie: leaving the NB environment, seeing cars again, hearing spoken English.
“Mom,” she said, holding the dying woman’s hand and feeling a wave of loss course through her mind. “Why aren’t you going to join me? Why did you cancel your iteration?”
“Oh . . . child.” She struggled to form words. “That nonsense. Not for me.” She relaxed back in the bed, smiling. “I saved you, though. You made it.”
Sonata didn’t leave her mother’s side until the old woman breathed her last breath. As she held the husk of her mother’s hand, Sonata relived the memory of her own death, long ago. She wished she could cry for her, and for Kent and Satchya, but she was beyond that now. She focused on the calm of her body, and let the emotions of her mind slip away.
Sonata lived three hundred more years. After her mother’s death, she threw her energies into work for her community, just as her mother had worked for hers. It turned out her multimillion-dollar newbody was well equipped to last. She saw the breather population decline due to a combination of war, infertility, and devastating new strains of MRSA and flu. With overcrowding no longer an issue, the aging virtual security fence was disabled and NBs were once again welcomed to mingle with breathers. Walking the old streets of Hyde Park, Sonata saw the breathers were enjoying a boom of abundance after their trials. There were no homeless, no beggars. Strollers of babies were numerous, and older children huddled in groups, sharing texts and laughing, looking up to watch her with curious eyes.
Sonata traveled to many cities, giving lectures to mixed crowds of breathers and NBs. They listened with interest as she let her body play the music of her soul. The composition had grown richer over time, and multilayered. After the concert she spoke about philosophy, about her intention to have one more iteration after her current one ended.
Eventually her newbody began to wear down and malfunction. She had to stop traveling. Occasionally she would be invited to appear on a podcast, but as she continued to display erratic functioning, the invitations ceased. To the dismay of her technician, Randall, she refused another iteration.
“There’s no such thing as an old folks’ home for NBs,” he said. “I can’t continue to fix you.”
She tried to reach out and touch his hand but hers flopped ineffectually. She could no longer subvocalize. Yet the young woman of ancient times would’ve been proud of her. Didn’t Socrates himself declare that philosophy is the preparation for death? “It’s time,” she agreed. “Keep my backup, but not for another iteration.”
He cocked his head at her. “Then what are we to do with your stored data?”
“Wait till there’s something new. A breakthrough of some kind. You’ll know when.”
Word spread that Sonata James was coming to the end of her second movement. A documentary crew of NBs arrived.
She lay on a table for the shutdown procedure that would capture her data for storage. One of the NBs on the documentary crew leaned close over her. She squinted up into a set of violet eyes that whirled in spiral patterns. The eyes were set in a bronze face whose features were only vaguely human. It was more like the face of a bird. Was there an Egyptian god that looked like this?
“I don’t know why I stayed away all these years,” the stranger said. She felt the NB attempt to subvocalize to her, in vain. He went on speaking. “I think it was because you had a century’s head start. You were well established in your new life.”
“Who . . . do I know you?”
There was a hint of sadness in the stranger’s smile. “Likely not now. We knew each other a lifetime ago, but not for very long.”
Sonata wanted to talk to the stranger some more, but the proceedings were underway. With a pang of regret, she relaxed back into the shutdown sequence.
Sonata was pulled to her feet by many hands. “You nearly got yourself killed,” a bystander chided. She looked across the street and saw a boy, his mouth agape at the close call. A gust of wind whipped up, pulling orange and red leaves from the trees and sending them on a final journey, dancing across the face of the midday sun high overhead.
Then Dante was suddenly there, hood thrown back, his face twisted with concern. “I was just leaving the coffee shop when I heard the commotion.” She was suddenly engulfed in his embrace. Her hands touched the hardness of his computer backpack, but it was the warmth of his flesh that gave her joy. She burrowed her face in his neck.
“I love you, Dante,” she said, realizing the truth of her words as they cascaded unbidden from her lips.
“Easy there,” he said. But when he nudged his face around to meet her gaze, she saw the delight in his eyes. “I’m just glad you’re okay. How about you come over to my place? Rest up a bit from your near miss.”
“I should tell my mom . . .” She trailed off, suddenly disoriented. She looked around at the street, at the throngs of people that had gathered on the sidewalks and were even now moving on. There were fewer people around than she expected to see, and not one of them was a newbie.
She drew in a deep breath, and let it out. Tears sprang to her eyes. She was crying, weeping tears of relief but also mourning what was lost, which she was incapable of putting into words.
“Hey now,” Dante cooed, and took her chin in his fingers. “Can’t have that. Come to my place and rest awhile.”
She nodded. Dante slung a reassuring arm around her shoulders as they walked eastward, toward the lake. The scenery was simpler in a way that could only be explained by way of virtual reality. Bits of memory brushed her hair like blowing leaves and moved on, borne on a biting autumn wind that brought fresh smells. Somewhere inside her core she knew there would be no mother here, but that the friend walking at her side was really Dante. The fleeting image of an Egyptian god with whirling eyes passed through her mind, but finding no purchase, no reality within her current frame of reference, it moved on to whatever land the leaves were going to. She tried to track it in her mind, but couldn’t. She’d lost some of her memory in her fall, then. The phantoms that were even now quickly dissipating . . . Were they shreds from her past? Or were they the mind’s attempt to fill in what was lost with a backstory that was false? She was certain there had been a conversation about Nietzsche, but all that came to mind was her favorite quote of his. “This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things: and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon.”
She touched her brow, aware she had paused on the sidewalk. She felt emotionally raw from the near accident. She could’ve died. She pressed against Dante’s side, and he tightened his grip on her shoulder and bent to kiss the top of her head. As they walked on, she pledged to make something of her life.
“The Three Lives of Sonata James” copyright © 2016 by Lettie Prell
Art copyright © 2016 by Kevin Hong