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. The Three Lives of Sonata James, a Tor.com Original from science fiction author Lettie Prell.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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The Three Lives of Sonata James
By Lettie Prell, Kevin Hong
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Lettie Prell
All rights reserved.
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.
Excerpted from The Three Lives of Sonata James by Lettie Prell, Kevin Hong. Copyright © 2016 Lettie Prell. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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