Jason Stoddard’s “Changing The Tune” is a wistful story about youth and regrets, and how techno-utopia fails to live up to its hype.
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Changing The Tune
by Jason Stoddard
“Dan, no!” Carolin said.
“You aren’t!” Keith said.
I waved them silent and looked down into the Northridge mall bandchise pit. Several hundred almighties had packed themselves in to see the premiere of Anna Baby No. 137. She was grinding through her rendition of “Always Pure.” Grey heads, bald heads, and newly brown and blonde and black heads were bobbing in time to the simple rhythm.
My handscreen showed all green. No sprites latched to my stream. No visigods watching. No Eyes or Ears tuned to our location.
I thumbed the icon and the music changed.
At first subtly, because half the fun was watching the almighties realize that they had been taken. Anna Baby’s 40-year-old lies about virginity were slowly replaced by Avisa’s provable purity, monitored by Eyes and Ears and truthtests for all to see.
I smiled as Avisa’s raging edge slowly replaced Anna Baby’s ancient, bubbly happiness. Even played on instruments that were not quite right by people who were little more than automatons of flesh and blood, the music had a raw power that made me want to run through the crowd with blades, to race through Willow Springs in an old car at a hundred a sixty, to change and shred and tear. I’d discovered her at a shitty little bar on old Melrose, far off the paths of the metrorail and autobuses, far away from the grey bandchise copies and the top 108 band brands. The place had been quiet, almost deserted, but when she began to sing, people had drifted in off the street to watch and wonder. Most like me. A few almighties – boomers and xers rich and established, their empires secure, their children fat and cosseted, guaranteed a place in daddy’s great edifice, their faces confused and even a bit worried as they listened to the words and fingered their Fridays, wondering if it was worth serving a microsuit. Then looking at the crowd, paying Kash to avoid the Taxman, wearing thift-store psychedelia and talking about everything from beef to guns, and deciding that this was not their fight. Not this time.
Avisa saw all this, saw me watching, and when the boomers and xers left, she turned to me and gave me a secret wink. I’d started, and tried to remember to smile. But she had already turned away. I thought about seeking her out after the show, but I saw myself standing in the ancient hallway outside her tiny prep room with a dozen other hangers-on and leghumpers, and saw in that moment how pathetic I would look. I’d walked out of the bar, secretly hoping to hear her call to me from the open door, never daring to turn around.
Carolin and Keith brought me back. “Look,” they said, pointing down into the bandchise pit. Some of the groove had stopped. Some of the almighties were riveted in place, eyes darting from side to side as they tried to figure out who to sue.
A roar of frustration and disapproval rose out of the pit. The music ground to a halt as the musicians realized what they’d been playing. There was a stuttering apology over the microphone, which only drove the roar higher, drowning any other attempts at glossing it over.
Carolin laughed a silent, open-mouthed laugh. She was a pretty blonde girl, a little thick for my taste but definitely a good match for Keith, who cared more about business savvy than visual delight. Keith watched the show in the pit below with bright eyes that flickered in the reflected light.
And you didn’t want me to do this, I thought. But I said nothing.
Just a trio of just-outta-college kids, bemused by the show, Mr. Oversight. Caused it? No, not us. Oversight “knew” that whoever had spiked the stream would be in the crowd watching. It would scour all the data from its Eyes and Ears. With luck, it wouldn’t find anything.
“They’re irritated,” I said. “They don’t know who to sue.”
“Nothing to sue about,” Keith said. “They didn’t pay for the concert. There’s no transactional contract.”
“Pain and suffering,” I said. “Moral outrage.”
“Targeted at who?” Keith said.
“Whoever did this,” I said.
“Or Bandchise, Inc.,” Carolin said. “For insufficient datastream security.”
I laughed. Just three kids, youthful rebellion, that’s still permitted, I thought, trying to think like Oversight.
But Carolin was right. There were probably two dozen microsuits being served to Bandchise right now, and maybe even a real lawsuit or two perking. Or maybe not. Maybe the entire audience owned stock. Maybe Bandchise Inc. was owned by one of their friends.
“Let’s get a drink,” I said.
Keith nodded. “Best idea of the night.”
We ended up in PJ O’Rourkes, a Irish/Political themed bar with 50-year-old articles posted on the walls, relics of an earlier, simpler time. I puzzled over the one hung above our table, trying to puzzle out its meaning. It was entitled, “Turn Your Hat Around, Pull Up Your Pants, and Get a Job.” I think it was supposed to be funny, but I couldn’t imagine anywhere in the real world where you could dress like that and not get served with a microsuit or two before the night was out. I was risking it with my mustard-yellow shirt, a bit too bright for some people. Keith had already been served for his “I Love” shirt that night, just a five-hundred-dollar microtransaction, for Poor Taste/Offense Compensation, but something that had to be acknowledged and accepted. He’d turned his shirt inside-out after that. Better to be thought an idiot than someone who wants to make a statement.
The waitress came and took our order, then waited as the Taxman chanted our tax rates out of her slate. Mine was 44%. Carolin’s was 24%. Keith’s was 98%. His dad, I believe, had been an alcoholic. Keith never knew him, but got to pay the price for his legacy.
“We live in an age of regulation,” Keith said, after she’d left.
“Careful,” Carolin said.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Keith said. “I’m just, uh . . . frustrated with getting the business up and running. All the stuff you have to comply with – handicapped access to the home office, visibility and compatibility on the net, all that stuff. What I don’t understand is why anyone who can’t see or hear would have any interest in found media.”
“What is it you’re doing again?” he’d told me one night before we left the UCLA dorms, but I’d only been half-sober and half-listening. I was more interested in how he was rolling his student loans into a small business loan that was 50 times larger, without ever having made a payment. What if the debt collectors find out?
“Found media,” he said. “Phonecam pix, IM threads, MPEG captures, all that stuff from the dawn of the media age. We track down where you appear, put it together into a coherent format, do enhancement or repair work on it, and even storyboard it.”
“Yeah, usually. But it’s interesting, all the stuff that’s got caught in the net.”
“And how many boomers have had their saggy breasts bouncing on some VGA-res screen,” I added.
Keith nodded. “Yeah, and that, too. Some of them like it, some of them don’t. You let them pick and choose.”
Working with wrinkly old fucksters all day, greedy grubby bastards always trying to see how they can forgo payment, or even fuck you with a suit, I thought. No thanks.
Carolin must have seen it in my eyes. “It’s not so bad,” she said. “Lots of money in it. Huge. Retro media is big, big.”
The waitress returned and dropped our Sam Adamses on the table. I picked mine up and took a big drink. “Great,” I said. “Need an afferent processor code-jockey?”
Keith shook his head. “Can’t afford you, man,” he said.
“I’ll work on the cheap.”
“Nope. Not a chance. You’re trained for the big stuff. The serious stuff.”
“Which is why he spends his time hacking the bandchise channels,” Carolin said. “Like a big kid.”
“Keeps me in practice.”
“You’re gonna get caught. We’re out in the real world, now.”
“Nope,” I said. But she was right. I thought back to all the pranks we had played in school. I’d shared a room with Keith for three years, then Keith and Carolin for one. We were in the third floor with a line-of-sight that included most of UCLA and Westwood, and there were few nights that went by without us tapping the ether in some unlawful way. But UCLA was a school. They expected it. Westwood had special easements in city, state, and federal law to allow for rambunctious youth. And even then, my student loans were several tens of thousands of dollars richer than they would have been, had I been a heads-down straight-shooter.
“Dan just doesn’t want to work for Oversight,” Carolin said.
I sighed and nodded. The real software growth, other than media, was control. And I wasn’t a media geek. I hadn’t a creative bone in my body.
“Why not?” Keith asked. “It’s great money. And steady.”
I shook my head. Yeah, but, I thought. It’s always the yeah, but.
From the front of the bar, shouts. Saved by the bell. We turned to look.
“I can take him wherever I want!” A woman was holding a baby, wrapped in a blanket. I could just see his chubby tan face, collapsed in sleep, looking like nothing more than an old man, sanded smooth again. Her (husband? SO?) pulled at her arm, trying to get her to leave. Half a dozen almighties were keying in microsuits to their Fridays. Child endangerment. Incitement to envy. Unintentional harassment. I could name half a dozen off the top of my head thanks to the Civics class I had dodged till senior year. The rejuved almighties who came out capable of making babies were notoriously protective. How many kids would come of age in VR environments, I wondered, once we had the bugs worked out of the headwires?
We watched as the couple backed out, no doubt thousands or tens of thousands of dollars lighter from the swarm of microsuits, judged and adjudicated in real time by non-intellects vast and cold and unsympathetic.
“Dumb,” Carolin said, looking down at the table. Keith squeezed her hand and she looked up at him with bright eyes. I could almost see the calculation there, the implied question: what about when we want to have kids?
“Could be worse,” Keith said. “You could be running your own business.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t want your problems.”
He looked away, to where the couple had left. “The worst part is employees,” he said.
Carolin shuddered. “Yeah.”
“So it may be worth hiring me,” I said.
“Or going to a brainbank where everyone’s anonymous,” Carolin said.
“I’m hurt.” I said.
Keith was looking distant. “It wasn’t always like this,” he said. “People used to be thankful for a job.”
“Stop,” Carolin said.
But he went on, as if she had said nothing. “A job wasn’t a ticket to microsuit or macrosuit your employer into submission. Hell, when Ford started his production lines, there were people lined up as far as the eye could see. You should have seen the pictures!”
“They were starving,” Carolin said.
“Maybe they need to starve a little more today. Make them thankful for . . .”
“Stop!” Carolin hissed.
Keith grumbled a bit and downed his beer. “Nobody heard.”
“You don’t know that.”
The waitress came by and took our orders. Another Sam for me, a Sam and a shot for Keith, nothing for Carolin.
“We need to go,” Carolin said.
“After my drink.”
“Then keep it down.”
He looked at her, but said nothing. It was that wordless stuff I’d seen old married couples do. My mom and dad weren’t married, but they had stayed together, and I’d seen them doing it all the time.
We’re growing apart, I thought. I’m losing them. They’re going to sink into the faceless masses, bland and boring and dull, safe and insulated and secure. With any luck, they will be the next almighties, building an empire to pass down to their kids. While I . . . what? Worked for Oversight? Threw away my funfile and found someone and settled down?
Keith’s handscreen sounded a low-toned beep. He dragged it out of his pocket and frowned at it without comprehension, as if it had just delivered a message in Swahili.
“Microsuit?” Carolin asked, sounding smug.
“No . . .”
“What is it?” I asked.
He held it out for me to see. The screen was full of blocky capital letters and intricate pixelwork. It took me a long while to realize what it was.
“Oh, shit,” I said, mindless of who heard.
“What is it!” Carolin asked. Keith turned the screen to show her.
“Macrosuit,” he said. “Employment rights subversion.”
I looked around. Far away, across the room, a thin silver-haired man in a full suit and tie was looking at us. His face held just the hint of a grin, which twitched upwards when he saw me looking.
“Fuck,” I said.
“It’s nothing,” Keith said. “Probably get thrown out.” And in the long, drawn-out macrosuit process, full of messy flesh-and-blood lawyers and emotion and drama, he was probably right. We went back to our beer. The silver-haired man spared us one more glance and went back to his.
“Fuck,” I said again.
I got a crappy contract job at an employment anonymizer and ended up doing a bit of illicit code for Hollywood, the stuff that makes you go “ooh” and “aah” in really bad interactives and linears. It wasn’t really enough to make ends meet, even living in a tiny studio apartment in run-down, half-abandoned Santa Clarita, so I was able to start using Kash. There were half a hundred small businesses that needed more automation than they could afford or understand, and at a hundred Kash here and five hundred Kash there, I was able to keep my credit balances from increasing. I even found a little time to go out and spike the bandchise feed, but the bandchise in Santa Clarita was a small thing, sparsely attended, and the victories seemed hollow without Keith and Carolin. Perhaps they were right — it was just a childish prank, best left behind with my college days.
Keith and Carolin called from time to time to let me know about the lawsuit, at first laughing nervously like it was no big deal, then with more seriousness after it locked up the remaining balance in their small business loan account.
“We have to show positive cashflow,” Keith said, his eyes big and darty and nervous on the wallscreen. “We don’t have the cushion anymore.”
“So charge more.”
He laughed, but it came out as a desperate hacking. “Then they’ll go somewhere else.”
Carolin leaned into the camera’s viewpoint and kissed Keith on the cheek. “Yes, and you have to be nice to them.”
“Tell him about the guy, the other day,” Carolin said.
Keith rolled his eyes. “The worst customer in the world. Wiped out a whole week’s profits. Came in wanting our free search special. Yeah, no prob, we do a light probe and show them some of their old pix, then they usually get real interested and buy. This guy seems disappointed, says he has a lot more history than that, his life is epic in scope and breadth, you youngsters won’t really understand, blah blah. So we go ahead and run the deep probe. Takes an hour, and we got this grumpy old scary guy hanging around the home office — did I tell you he came in person — drinking our tea and complaining we don’t have coffee, but finally we get it done and throw up the files. He seems pretty happy then, and I see some shots of him working on a movie set, and think, cool, he’s an entertainment guy, he may want the whole scripted deal. So I let him have the workstation in the corner to play. An hour, two hours he’s there. We’re getting ready to pack it in, go have dinner, and don’t really wanna have it with this guy sitting there, so I go over to see how it’s going. And he’s been capturing the whole thing with one of those pixelmapping microcams — stealing our work! I get pissed and tell him to stop, and he just looks up at me and smiles. Now, I know I can’t lay a hand on him, but I do call the Mining Company, the guys who supply the code for our searches, and let them know. Oh, they ain’t happy. They shut down that workstation and hit him with a microsuit that’s almost macro. That’s when his software goes nuts, though, and starts serving Mining and us with a bunch of suits, invasion of privacy and coercive selling and all that crap, most of which were taken care of by my defense software, but half-dozen got through and ate up a week’s profit. Cost us a hundred thou to get him out of there.”
“And then there’s Kash,” I said, holding up the gaudily-printed bills. “Only the best for summa cum laude.”
They paused a little, then, and I saw them taking in the tiny ragged apartment, the hand-me-down furniture, the gimme-clothes, and comparing it to their little house in gentrified Northridge.
Doesn’t seem so bad now, does it? I thought.
“Take the Oversight job,” Carolin said, crossing her arms, sudden in her certainty.
I sighed. “Give in to your suit.”
“It’s the same thing. I’ll give into my destiny, and you’ll give in to . . . whatever they want from you.”
Carolin frowned, but Keith spoke without looking up. “The line of credit,” he said. “They want the line of SBA credit.”
“Why?” I asked. “It’s not real money, is it? It’s debt.”
“The capability to spend money is money,” said Keith, head down. “There’s no real positive money anymore, just exchange of debt.”
A month later, I came home from the anonymizer job to a recorded message. It was Keith. He was drunk. He stood too close to the camera, and his overbright, distorted face lunged at me from the wallscreen.
“They took it,” he said. “They got it. The SBA line.”
“We’re not broke,” Carolin said. She said it hopefully, in the tones and cadences of someone chanting a spell, or desperately wishing it to be so. “We just have to keep our cashflow positive, and we’ll be OK.”
The solution to drink is more drink, and I had invited them out to the little bar on Melrose where Avisa sang and the drinks were grown and the preferred currency was Kash, that nontaxable barter enabler protected by Federal law.
“This is a weird place,” Keith said.
“Yeah,” I said. I could be polite and say it had a certain rumpled charm, or I could be honest and say it was run-down and strewn with the half-broken detritus of half a dozen 20th- and 21st-century styles. A midcentury-modern boomerang bar was done in light birch veneer, as pocked and cratered as the surface of the moon. The walls were alternately painted orange and purple, with swathes of alternating foil-and-felt striped wallpaper. The floor was polished concrete, with live cables friction-taped here and there seemingly at random. UFO lights hung from the deconstructed suspended ceiling, incongruously modern. None of the tables and chairs matched. We were sitting at a 60’s tulip-chair plexi original, and next to us was a heavy oak plank table with wicker chairs. All of it heavily stained and scratched and chipped with a patina of grease and fingerprints. It smelled of beer and farts and plastic and the green growing smell of the drinkplants in back, doing their mindless chemical gyrations.
“He doesn’t come here for the atmosphere,” Carolin said. “He comes here for her.” She pointed at a poster of Avisa, done in one of those retro-rock styles. She grasped the microphone like a lover, while actinic rays shot up from behind where the band played. The figures moved slowly, as if caught in a bad movie.
Keith looked at me and waggled his eyebrows.
“I like her,” I admitted.
“Ask her out.”
“You’re already giving her free publicity.”
I just shook my head. They would never understand. Even if she wasn’t the slim and angular picture of the age, her music would still call to me. She sang in a high, pure voice about an impossible perfect world, letting her anger slash strains of edged beauty that ended in melodies so perfect that they only accentuated the longing. It made you believe.
I was going to tell them wait for the show, see what you think, but Carolin had already turned her attention to three scruffy guys sitting beside us, dressed in shaggy green clothes and arguing loudly about biotech in the volume-augmented certainty of deep drunkenness.
“ . . . fuck it, go plant a house!”
“Rather plant a single-malt and a cornucopia tree.”
“Where do you get the water?”
“Water’s from internal condensation, check the design of the stalk.”
“Does this need augmented solar?”
“Nah, plant it anywhere. Fuck off, take a walk, plant your house, flip everyone off.”
Carolin looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Are they talking about what I think they are?”
I listened for a moment, as they talked about semipermeability and gene suppression and growthstates. “Radical biotech?” I guessed.
“Aren’t they worried?”
“See any almighties?” I asked, waving at the crowd. “This isn’t a place for suits.”
“What about Oversight?” Keith asked.
“It’s a young crowd,” I said. “They expect subversive talk here.”
“But . . .”
“Drink,” I said, and ordered another pitcher of beer. No-name here, just a clone grown in a semi-legal plant in back, but still cold and malty and good.
For a while we sat and listened to other people talk. For me, it was like those first heady years at UCLA, where we were taught to think and question and argue, safe within the protective walls of the university.
Within earshot, two guys were arguing whether or not to sign the Mutual Cooperation Framework, that home-brew weirdness from the biohackers in Ohio, the agreement that was supposed to end all the lawsuits. You signed it and agreed to never sue anyone, to always work for what you got, to never try to cheat and deceive, and your payback was having a software agent monitor your life until the end of time. Madness.
“How would we survive without our defense software?” Keith said, overhearing this. He said it softly, so only we could hear.
At another table, a group of down-and-out girls were talking about the greening desert and saying they needed to take a hike out to Mojave, it was empty because of the recentralization, squat a house, or buy it Kash, or hell just bid on the whole thing at eBay because it was so damn cheap, they knew someone who bought this whole town in Nevada and they took Kash . . . dreams and visions, but ones that plucked at my mind.
“So you’re doing OK,” I said, finally, when the drunken circular arguments had circulated one too many times.
“As long as nobody has any tantrums,” Carolin said, looking at Keith.
“You have to be nice to the customers.”
“Not all the time.”
“But . . .”
“Drink,” I said. “Tonight isn’t about arguing. Tonight is about forgetting our problems. Everything’s fine, everything’s alright.”
Carolin looked at me. “Yeah,” she said. She hoisted her mug and we clanked them together. “To having good friends.”
“To friends. The only thing that really matters,” I said.
We sipped for a while, thinking lonely thoughts. Then:
“So how you doing?” Keith asked.
“Ok,” I said. “Poor.”
“Why don’t you take the Oversight job?”
I sighed. I wanted to scream at him, tell him this night was just for getting plastered, nothing more, why did he ruin it.
But he was right. He deserved an answer.
“Yvette,” I said.
“That’s why,” I said. And I told them. The year they were off in Mexico learning about our new brother nation, I stayed behind in UCLA. And met Yvette. Never knew why she was there. Never got that far. She had a funny lilting accent that she told me was Australian. To this day, I can still see her pretty oval face looking up at me, big green eyes and loose brown curls. She was an endless mystery, from an anarchic land on the other side of the globe. I don’t know how she ever got her Oversight visa. Maybe she never did. Maybe she just showed up here on a lark. Perhaps that was the point.
I’d been questioned by Oversight before. Not a big deal. You fit the profile of someone who was in the right place when a crime was committed, you got to talk to Oversight. You got too many subversion microsuits, you got to talk to Oversight. It was part of college life.
We’d just come back from a weekend at the beach, where Yvette was telling me all about the white-sand beaches of Australia, making it seem like the most beautiful place in the world. We’d talked about their anarchy, about Oversight, about how the United States needed to look at what was going on around the world, or it might be left behind.
I remember the summons.
I don’t remember the questioning. I woke on my bed in the lonely dorm room and looked down where she usually put her bag and knew she was gone. A storm was raging in the empty room behind my eyes.
I tried to find her. I even made a very expensive call to Australia that landed me one last interview with Oversight. Another one I didn’t remember.
She was gone.
“You never found her?” Carolin asked. Her eyes were soft and moist.
“That’s cloak-and-dagger crap,” Keith said. “What, did Oversight kill her? You’ve been programming too many cheap linears.”
I shook my head. Yvette had probably just been deported, and had figured her fling with the American was something best forgotten. I knew that’s how it had to be. Because Oversight was here to protect us.
But every once in a while, on those lonely nights . . .
“I don’t . . .” Keith began.
The curtain at the back of the bar made its way into the ceiling. The lights dimmed. The first haunting chords of Breaking Through pulsed through the sound-system. Avisa walked onto the stage, as calm as a cat. Her cool, intense blue eyes flickered across the crowd, seemingly lingering on me for a moment.
Did she remember? I wondered, knowing it couldn’t be true.
She began to sing. The words went through me like a dagger. Even Keith sat up straighter, rapt, totally focused on her. The music was almost alien. Simple. Good. Better. It made me shiver.
“She reminds you of her,” Carolin said, about halfway through the set.
“She reminds me to dream,” I said. “Yeah.”
A month later. Kash had been tight. I’d harvested the low-hanging fruit, so it seemed, and I needed to start fishing out of the area. I was looking at the Oversight job boards, trying to see through the job descriptions to determing what the jobs actually were, trying to see if the jobs were clean, or if they had some hidden evil. But the corpspeak swam and danced in front of me, tantalizing and slippery.
The little green call icon danced across the screen. Keith and Carolin.
Oh, crap, I thought, punching the icon to life.
But they looked OK, tired but happy. “How goes it?” I asked.
“Good,” Keith said, allowing a little bit of righteous satisfaction to warm his eyes. “We’re floating. In fact, we’re growing. I guess all it takes is the right incentive.”
Carolin smiled at me and nodded. “How are you?”
“Looking at the Oversight jobs.”
“Oh, no,” Carolin said.
We talked a bit about how tough it was to sustain odd jobs, how sometimes the most promising stuff turned into a swarm of microsuits, how you never knew where the next K would come from, and I pleaded that they hire me once again and they begged off once again, the hidden fear in their eyes shouting the old litany, A friend hired is an enemy fired.
I didn’t blame them. But it hurt nonetheless.
After we hung up, I took one more look at the Oversight jobs and flicked the wallscreen off. Tomorrow, I would look longer and harder for Kash jobs. That was it. That’s what I would do.
I’d come back from my first Oversight interview, shivering from the memory of cold hallways and bright button eyes like polished lead, sweating in the almost-forgotten confines of my interview-suit.
Keith and Carolin were sitting at the security gate to my apartment, surrounded by a half-dozen brightly-colored travel bags.
“No,” I said.
Keith just looked at the ground. Carolin shook her head. “Yes.”
I got them upstairs and got the story out of them. It was the first time anyone had been in my apartment besides myself, and I realized for the first time just how cramped it was. With the two of them and six bags, it was claustrophobic, impossible.
They’d hired their first employee. Had to. Didn’t have the deposit for the anonymous employee networks. Had to get a real person, with all the risk that went along with that. So they advertised, they interviewed, they hired. Problem was, disclosure meant they had to tell their hire about their previous suit. She quit after orientation on the first day, and filed another macrosuit against them for hiring her under false pretenses. That suit metastasized and grew, roping in thirty-two microsuits from all the previous interviewees and state and local agency control of their funds. Their accounts were frozen. Their assets seized.
When it was all over, they came to me.
“You can stay as long as you like,” I told them, looking around the tiny apartment.
Carolin saw the look and smiled.
“Actually, we’re just passing through,” she said, with a strange secret smile.
“We’re going to Mojave,” Keith said.
He shrugged. “What else? We have nothing. We’re not rich like some of you Kash-kings.”
I laughed. I had maybe a hundred bucks Kash left, and rent of nine hundred kash or eight thousand dollars due in a week.
“I got nothin,” I said. “Negative nothin. Why do you think I’m wearing this monkeysuit?”
Carolin seemed to look at me for the first time. Her eyes widened, and she shook her head. “You can’t.”
“I have to.”
“No you don’t,” Keith said. “Come with us. We have friends with a Jeep. They’re gonna meet us at the Metrolink station.”
“But . . . that’s crazy.”
“No, it isn’t,” Keith said. He’d been reading up on it. Mojave was deserted, too far out for sustainable infrastructure (and out of Oversight’s reach, I thought). It had marginal wireless coverage, lots of solar power, even an old windmill farm we might be able to get running again. The hills above it were going yellow-green with the growth of new gengineered plants, and the grow-a-house thing was not a dream. They had already bought two small and apocalyptic lots outside of town on eBay, so it was even semi-legal.
“You’ll get caught,” I said.
Keith sighed and looked up at me. In that moment, I saw the fatigue in his eyes, the total and complete desire for it to all end. The microsuits, the regulations, the tiny things that bled us and bled us and bled us from the day when we first toddled out of the front door of our parents’ apartments. The grinding-down that made it impossible simply to pick up and go, to think for yourself.
And in that moment, I made my decision.
The rest of the night was busy. A trip onto eBay. Some accounts closed. A note left for Mom and Dad on their perpetually-disconnected IM account. And one last message, one important message, one where I shooed Keith and Carolin out onto the street again, so I could do sound and video and speak from my heart. The message to Avisa. I didn’t think she would recognize me, but she might believe in what we were doing. She needed to know. Maybe it would tilt her edge towards the melodic. Maybe it would quiet some of her own rage.
And then it was morning, and time to go.
We set out in a 50-year-old Jeep, stinking of gas and oil, brush-painted in sloppy camoflague. Overloaded with six people, it swerved and rocked on tired springs through the sideroads that paralleled the privatized parts of the 14. Sierra Highway. Old Road. 60th street. Seemingly ancient names that curved through hills silent in summer heat, crackling dry and brown. Names that passed abandoned homes on the flat, broken windows like dusty eyes, roofs fallen in. Roads disappearing under the wash of sand, sprouting hardy weeds, paint fading to white, asphalt fading to grey. There were times when I didn’t even know we were on the road.
We made it to Mojave as the sun set. We came around from the back, through the field of windmills, bright white streaked with rust, some still turning noisily. The flicker of light below showed we were not the only ones there.
Pioneers like us? I wondered.
My handscreen bleeped on and a feeble wireless signal showed yellow on the screen. Only about 150k, but doable. The handscreen did its handshakes and protocols and beeped once more.
Avisa looked out at me. I hunched down as best I could in the back of the Jeep and drank in her message, wanting to keep it only to me. I ran it through three more times, just to try and believe what I was hearing.
“What’s that?” Carolin said.
“She’s coming,” I said. “She’ll play.”
It was only one concert, but I could see it as we bumped in over the final rise and the dead grid of Mojave spread out in front of us. Those harsh angry chords, those strange and haunting melodies of pure beauty, echoing off the greening hills. Breaking Through. New Dawn. Long Perfect Days. The flash of lights and the warm heat of the desert as the ground gave up its solar burden. The jury-rigged stage, her perfect angular form.
We had so many problems ahead of us.
But for the moment, that one vision was all I needed.
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