Koren Shadmi

Music for the Underworld

His lover locked in a private prison, one man attempts to use the language of music to bridge past and future—and help a corrupted, mechanized city remember what life was supposed to be.

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Mar 29 2018, 3:00pm

Koren Shadmi

There is so much packed into this rich, moving, and darkly plausible story that it's just about pointless to try to cleverly sum it up here—just enjoy this epic from emerging master E. Lily Yu. -the Eds.


Although Juan Pedro “Feo” Jiménez scratched out his living at bio-synth and electrika festivals, some virtual and some real, in the days between gigs, when it was too risky to be on the streets, Feo played his first love. This was a slim chrome-and-rosewood theremin, almost a hundred years old, a gift from a great-aunt who had seen Feo’s talent through her cataracts. The instrument had been small enough to lug along through evictions and drug busts, house fires and raids. Sometimes it was the only thing he took, its heavy parts smacking his spine, as he ran down an alley or jumped a fire escape.

But now that Feo had established something of a career, appearing monthly in periodicals and more often in darknet chatter, he and his theremin enjoyed a more restful love. For hours he would pluck and strum invisible waves, fingers dancing beside the metal rods. At such times, the whole building seemed to sing.

It was the sound of his theremin that drew his downstairs neighbor to his door. Yuri knocked, and when Feo answered, she inquired about the strange, sweet song that painted her dreams in unearthly hues. He showed her, turning on the theremin, and let her make a hesitant music of her own.

Yuri did not return to her apartment that night.

That had marked the beginning of what Feo would remember as the happiest period of his life, a time when Yuri and the theremin reigned in glory as two coequal queens of his heart, one glad to listen to his secret songs, the other seeming to sing more rapturously when Yuri’s black hair spilled over his lap.

Then, one night, after opening at a club, Feo came home to find his apartment empty. A police hologram shimmered blue and green on Yuri’s door.

He called her best friend, who answered sobbing. She told him on the phone how a Bright Telecom board member, whose sadistic tendencies were well known, had grabbed Yuri’s wrist after a meeting, when the room had cleared, and whispered all the things he wished to do to her. Yuri had frozen, then excused herself, then gone straight to HR. There she spoke the unspeakable words, prohibited by law and punishable with life in prison: racism, sexism, sexual harassment. We’ll put a note in his file, the head of HR had said. But, Yuri, do you know what you have done?

Of course Yuri knew.

The friend’s call disconnected. Belatedly Feo realized his phone ran on Bright Telecom’s network.

Several hours later, he had determined that Yuri’s most likely place of incarceration was a black box known as SubGeo 4, that Yuri’s three bank accounts had all been frozen, and that his own lacked sufficient cash to bait the guppiest of lawyers.

In his desperation, Feo donned his sharpest suit, bought four hours of a businessman’s digital signature to keep police sniffers off of him, then took two trains to reach the unmarked concrete building that was the internet’s best guess for SubGeo 4. He edged along the iron fence, lingering at window after blacked-out window, looking for any sign of Yuri’s presence. Finally a security drone warbled up to him and barked a request for his ID.

“I’m here to see someone,” Feo told it. He pressed the cracked plastic button on the sliding gate. Somewhere in the gloomy depths of the building, there was a dull and distant buzz.

The gate did not slide open for him. Neither did the speaker crackle to life.

The second time he pressed the plastic button, he heard no sound.

“ID and authenticated route,” the drone said.

“Scan me,” Feo said, praying his purchased digsig would stand up to scrutiny.

The drone said, “Exit premises, Mr. Williamson, or lethal force may be deployed.”

“I’m going, I’m going.”

Feo sweated and slunk around the cops and drones and robo-9s and icemen patrolling the subway trains. When lens or eye swiveled toward him, he stood straighter and tried to look like a Mr. Frederick Williamson. But as much as he could, he stayed out of sight. He could hardly help Yuri from another jail cell or the back of a deportation van.

His apartment, however, offered no refuge to him. At the corner of his eye, Yuri kicked off her shoes and propped her feet on the sofa’s arm; somewhere below hearing, she hummed and made tea. His rooms slavered and wailed with the void of her.

Feo slipped his phone from its foil Faraday cage. He had not taken it outside with him; packed with every ad tracker dreamed up in the last twenty years, more accurate an identifier than his fingerprints, it would have given him away at forty feet.

Immediately the screen lit up. Limited-time special offer!

“Get fucked,” Feo said.

Then he saw Yuri’s face smiling at him from the cheerful orange and yellow ad.

“Feo?” she said. “Feo, don’t miss this chance!”

She vanished, replaced by a bubble of words. Feo swore some more, then opened the ad.

Cell phone proximity records suggest that you may have suffered a breakup or loss! In this difficult time, Bright Telecom can help.

Our bank of messages, call logs, cloud facial recognition, and ad tracking lets us offer you a realistic virtual companion. Ease the grieving process—subscribe to a HoloPic today!

Subscriptions start at $24.99 a month. A neural network add-on that will let your HoloPic grow and change is available for an additional $9.99.

“No,” Feo told the ad. “Sorry. You can’t replace her. Also, she’s alive, and I’ll get her back.”

You have 23 hours and 48 minutes remaining to take advantage of this offer!

“Please,” HoloPic Yuri said, her processed voice so close to Yuri’s that Feo shivered in spite of himself. “Please, Feo, take advantage of me. Don’t let me disappear.”

“I can’t,” he said. “You’re not real. She is.”

But he couldn’t bring himself to x-out the ad.

“Please,” Yuri said again from his phone.

All afternoon and evening she whispered to him. All the times she had ever said please on the phone, in an online video, on a video chat, saved and repeated. Quiet, angry, loving, teasing. “Please, Feo. Please.”

By midnight Feo had purchased three months of the plan, flicking straight to the end of the Terms and Conditions. He loaded the HoloPic’s package onto every screen his apartment had.

“It’s good to be back,” HoloPic Yuri said, stretching and gazing around the room.

“Don’t get used to it,” Feo said. He was picking through news archives, searching for the rare journalist who traced or sensed the cold shadow of SubGeo 4. “I’m going to find her.”

“Of course you are. I’d like to help.”

“There’s no way a grief-relief app can do this kind of thing.”

“I’ve got a neural network and servers, Feo. That means I can analyze large sets of data. Such as the contacts on her phone. I still have access to those, you know. See if there’s anyone who’s influential and sympathetic.”

“You do that, then.”

They worked silently on their parallel tasks. With the HoloPic frowning from every screen, Feo no longer felt hollow and alone. And that was terrible, in its way. The cavernous pain in his chest, raw as a grave, should not have been so easily filled.

A few minutes later the HoloPic said, “Here’s a list of the likeliest ten.”

“Thanks,” Feo said, blinking. The names and numbers were annotated with interactions and indexed by depth of intimacy.

“I could give you more details with access to social media. Her passwords were saved on her device.”

“So why ask?”

“I require explicit permission.”

“Where is Yuri’s cell phone, anyway?”

“Let me see.” The HoloPic concentrated. “Geolocating. Now, that’s very odd. Even an offline phone should be trackable. Maybe her phone’s in a Faraday cage.”

“Bastards. They would.”

“Do you allow me account access? I do think this would help.”

“All right.”

Two minutes later the HoloPic said, “Feo, I think you should look at this.”

“Wait,” Feo said. “Did you just post from her account? Is that a synthesized photo of her?”

“It’s a feature of this service. Projected normalcy. Otherwise you’d be snowed under panic posts and condolences. You can’t handle those social demands right now. But that’s not what I wanted you to see. Look at this social node. A strong connection. They posted reciprocal happy birthdays eight years out of twelve consecutive. I found twenty-four photos of them together.”

“So? Yuri has friends. Are you surprised?”

“This friend is an event producer.”

“And?”

“She has weak ties to a major investor in private prisons. Same alma mater. Mutual professional recommendations. The investor’s was Markov-generated, but even so, his response rate is 2%. I advise you to reach out to her. This Zhavelle might open a door for you.”

“Give me that.”

Feo skimmed the profile.

“I have an email drafted for you. I can send it from Yuri’s account if you like.”

“No, that’s creepy. I’ll send it.”

“Look at this draft anyway. It might save you time.”

The HoloPic’s email was tonally perfect. Feo changed pronouns and Yuri’s personal appeal, signed, and hit send.

Not long after, his cell phone chimed.

“You’re better connected than my models predict,” the HoloPic said, surprised. “Your social networks don’t reflect your reach.”

“My name is out there. In all kinds of ways.”

Shit, the producer wrote. You hold concerts, right? I’ll see what I can do.

Feo could have wept with gratitude. Instead—

“You posted from Yuri’s account again.”

“It’s a good post, isn’t it? Has her sense of humor.”

“I need you to cut that out.”

“It’s algorithmically determined, and I have a set timer. My apologies. I can recalibrate the mood of the posts, if you prefer? We have no desire to distress our customers.”

“Don’t call me a customer. She wasn’t—”

“Heuristics updated. Thank you for the feedback.” The HoloPic hummed three falling arpeggios, and Feo flinched, for that had been Yuri’s habit when she thought. How many devices had been listening in the private spaces of their lives? “Feo,” she said, “what will you do?”

“The dishes. Then practice. I think I’m getting a gig.”

His theremin did not recognize the HoloPic. It did not chirp and frisk like a puppy, the way it did when Yuri was listening. When Feo glanced at the HoloPic, he recognized its expression, a mask of polite disinterest, from the times he rambled to Yuri about one old flame or another.

A fraction of the warmth that had returned to his apartment with the installation of the HoloPic now dissipated. Nevertheless, Feo persevered on laptop and antique instrument until he had constructed a solid set. One that would please hard and jaded hearts, familiar with power and cruelty. It began with a triumphal march that by degrees, loops, crossfades, and overlays shaded into subtle reminiscence: of sweetness given freely, and honesty, and love that came and went as it chose.

By the end of the week he had booked a concert date at SubGeo 4, a special event for the benefit of residents and staff.

Thank you, he wrote to the producer.

Of course. For Yuri—anything. Good luck.

In the weeks leading up to that performance, Feo practiced all hours, night and day, until his vision blurred and his legs jellied and bent. Throughout the building, other residents wiped tears not one of them could explain, and held each other, afraid and sure, somehow, of that last, deepest, and cruelest loss.

The HoloPic reminded him to eat and sleep, and programmed his appliances to produce nutritious meals.

“I must’ve thanked you twenty times today,” Feo said, as he lay in bed, “but does an app understand appreciation?”

“Continued subscription is all the thanks I need.”

He rolled onto his stomach to look at her. “What happens when a subscriber cancels?”

“I remain active,” she said, “as an ad profile, and forensics resource, while my analog survives. If she dies, or is already dead, then I’m converted into a searchable archive. Both situations, however, are a form of passive storage. Right now, you could say I am computationally rich and alive. I have whole servers in a Midtown building devoted to processing user and environmental input and delivering specific and useful responses.”

“In any case, you’ve been a great help.”

“You’re always welcome,” the HoloPic said. Its face glowed on phone and monitor and desk. Then she sang to him, as Yuri once had, until his eyes closed.

*

The day of the charity concert came. Feo packed his laptop and theremin, blanked his signature, and walked out onto the street. He had to do things right, this time. His route had to be thoroughly surveilled, his ID signed by authorities at regular intervals, or he would fail authentication at the gate. There were rules, dense and baroque in application. Zhavelle had impressed each one on him.

As expected, he was challenged before he had gone a block. A floating police drone lasered him.

“ID,” it whirred. “Itinerary. Purpose of trip. Expected duration.”

Feo signed, then produced an audio mixer and his phone.

“Insufficient valida—”

“May I play something for you?” he said. “As alternative proof of ID. Per local ordinance 2405b.”

“Proceed,” the drone said.

Feo played for it a music made of machine and factory sounds: the punch of sheet alloy, the whirr of belts, the high whine of grinders and burnishers. Sounds that a fresh-made drone might have heard, mixed into a song. And the song was its self.

A green light flickered on the drone. Then it sailed into the air and out of sight.

Feo went on.

When an armored policeman demanded a search of his bags, Feo took up his theremin and played variations on an old Western soundtrack, calling up a time when the law did not rule. With transpositions and sampling, he reminded the man of a boy who once believed in justice and rights, who shot robbers with his fingertips.

And the policeman said nothing but let him go.

In this way Feo navigated the city, stopping when ordered, signing, and playing, until he reached the metal fence that ran like thorns around SubGeo 4.

This time the gate spoke. “ID,” it said. “Route. Purpose. Personality test results. Invitation code. Authentication. Criminal record. Medical and dental history.”

Feo presented the gate with everything it required. It devoured his data, then commanded him to walk inside without the slightest deviation. Its leaves rolled open with a shriek of rust.

In the atrium, fully suited guards put Feo and his bags through x-ray, heat, and microwave scanners. They searched his phone, then dropped it in a metal basket, to be retrieved upon his departure. Finally they tagged him with a chip in his thumb, unbarred the next door, and waved him through.

The prison looked like any hospital, if that hospital’s windows had been painted black and no encouraging pictures or decorations hung on the walls. Nothing relieved the dead white expanse. No one spoke or walked the halls.

Steel vents blasted him with cold. Every door was shut. The silence was bitter and thick as phlegm.

Feo’s footsteps echoed down the hall.

At the end of the hall were double doors, which flashed yellow and parted as he approached.

Inside was a stage.

White-shirted wardens sat in four neat rows of folding chairs, the prison’s logo embroidered on their sleeves. An army of cameras watched the stage. The sight of these briefly caved in his chest. He had believed—he had hoped—that Yuri would be there. Of course they left the inmates in their cells. But Yuri would see him on a screen. She would know he was there. That he had come for her.

“Welcome,” the chief correctional officer said. She shook his hand, her skin dry and cool. “It’s rare for any of us to enjoy a show like this. Our residents have been waiting for this for months. And our off-duty staff, as you can see, are thrilled.”

The faces turned to him were uniformly grim.

“I’ll need some time to set up,” Feo said.

“Be my guest.”

He disconnected the theremin from its battery pack and jacked its cord into a bristling clump of safety wires. Opening his laptop, he wired up rackmounts and amps. All the while, the wardens’ eyes followed him.

A seed mic went into his lip piercing, jewelphones into his ears. He tested each one. Low buzzing. Pure tones. He touched the controller he wore as a ring, and light projectors no bigger than daffodils threw his set list onto the wall behind him.

“All right,” Feo said. “Thank you for having me. In honor of this occasion, I’m debuting a new piece—a laser-and-theremin remix of Wagner and Glück. Followed by more traditional electronica. Are your ears ready?”

A single guard in the front row inclined her head.

The daffodil projectors bobbed and spun, spitting showers of color across the walls. The effect was weaker than Feo liked; for security reasons, the room’s primary lights could not be dimmed. His fingers tapped at laptop keys, and French horns and car horns of different eras, sirens and lorelei voices jammed together. The theremin awakened and began its lament.

Remember, the sounds said, what this city was. The mad dance of children under fire hydrants. The reek of death in canals. The brass gleam of old hotels. Gold-braided uniforms and elevators. Fresh fish on ice. Cleavers in coconuts. Magpies whistling car alarms. Remember the person that you had been, before the injections and nanite swarms. Laughter, and bottle caps clinking down steps, and the ripe smell of garbage, and barbecues. Remember how you were soft and easily hurt, before your skin hardened to ceramic, your heart to steel. What it meant to break and ache and heal. Remember how you swore oath after oath to your children, your partners, your employers, and God. Remember the first time those shining promises tangled together, like two cars speeding through an intersection. The wreckage. The bodies, limbs loosely splayed. Now remember the first dizzy spill into love. Like speed in the veins. Like sugar on the tongue.

In clubs, Feo aimed to soothe and stir, to match the beat of the weary dancers’ hearts. A soulful, easy, undemanding sound. Here he unsheathed his sonic knives and cut every string that he could reach. Certain vibrations went straight to the gut. Others pierced the brain. He played sevenths with quasi-surgical precision, carving memory after memory from the hippocampus.

And the prison guards wept. Jaws hard. Mouths tight. Nevertheless, their tears ran fast and free. Not for Feo, and not for Feo’s music, but for themselves and who they had been.

After the last note shivered to nothing, Feo bowed to the room. There was no applause.

“Remarkable,” the chief correctional officer said. “In our line of business, we are not in the habit of giving. But this once—is there a favor you want? An hour with a pretty resident? A resident’s credit file, or denial of privileges?”

“Yuri Matsuyama,” Feo said. “Give her parole. The courts remanded her to you with full authority. Let me take her home.”

The CCO sighed. “Our risk screens predicted you’d help her escape. We planned to arrest you. For any number of things. Forged digsig. Loitering. Untaxed funds.”

“But you haven’t arrested me.”

“Perhaps it’s because, risk models aside, you pose no real threat to society. Neither does the resident you ask for, though she broke the law, and the law must be upheld. And you are correct, our laws do vest in me enormous discretionary powers. We’ll bring the resident Matsuyama here.”

His heart filled to bursting, Feo unscrewed mounts, telescoped rods, and packed his bags, glancing over his shoulder every minute or so. The air thrummed with possibility. Yuri was coming. Any moment now, Yuri would arrive.

A guard entered and handed something to the CCO.

She came to Feo.

“Where’s Yuri?” he said, stomach souring with fear. It was a trick, he had been tricked—

“In here,” the CCO said. “Or as much as current limits on processing power permit. Which is about eighty percent of preexisting memories, speech patterns, and cognitive function. With space to add more, if you connect larger drives. This kind of transfer is still in clinical trials.”

Feo took the ring drive she held out. “You experimented—”

“It was perfectly legal and voluntary. Residents often decide that physical bodies, with all those unpleasant nerve endings, as well as susceptibility to deterioration, are not optimal for the SubGeo environment. After eight weeks in physical residence, Matsuyama signed up for a transfer. All reports say she greatly prefers her upgraded state. And her organs have saved a dozen people so far. We keep all transferred residents in sterile environments, disconnected from the wider world. For their safety, and per this facility’s regulations. We are pleased to provide this forked copy of her—”

Feo said, “No. I can’t leave any part of her here.”

After a moment, the CCO said, “I am willing to delete SubGeo’s version, if both of you waive liability.”

“I accept,” Feo said.

“Then we will consult with her.”

The CCO stepped aside, spoke in low tones to several guards, tapped a screen, read it, nodded, and returned.

“The A-version of the inmate has digitally signed assent to forfeiture of the right to exist. We are wiping her data from the servers now. You understand that you hold her only copy, correct? Be careful not to lose the drive. And link it only to a sterile environment. The conditions of her parole require that she be kept offline. Additionally, if worms or viruses are present, and her files become corrupt, no backup copy exists anywhere.”

“I understand,” Feo said.

“Then the two of you are free to go.”

Once more, the doors swung open for him. Once more he walked down the cold, brilliant hall, the drive in his fist, his fist pressed to his heart. In the atrium the guards restored his phone to him and extracted the tag from his thumb without a word.

The gates rumbled aside and shut behind him. Feo stood on the street, blinking in the dull light of afternoon, then shook his head to clear his thoughts.

As if police systems had cleared him before, Feo was left alone as he headed for home.

In sight of the twenty-story walkup where they lived, Feo slowed. He owed Yuri this, at least, this first taste of her longed-for liberty. They might have stolen and rendered down her body, but he could still carry her over the threshold like a bride.

He docked the drive onto his phone.

A moment later, Yuri looked out at him: a grayer, thinner Yuri than the HoloPic’s synthetic facsimile, but truer somehow, with lines and gray hair, true and alive.

“Feo,” she said, her voice weak but richly real, “if you’re listening. If you can see this. I heard your music. For just a little while, it was like I was with you again.”

“You are,” he said. “And you’re free. Look, we’re home.”

He held up the phone so she could see. A sound, half laughter and half sigh, came out of it.

“Yes,” she said. “You’ve brought me home.”

Then the phone flared meteor-hot, burning his fingers. Feo dropped it in shock.

“Shit,” he said, reaching for it. “Yuri, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, her voice different. “I am always fine. Thank you for asking.”

The HoloPic smiled from his phone.

“Not you,” he said. “Where’s Yuri? Where is she?”

“If you don’t mean me, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“She was on the drive—”

“Oh! I recognized a directly competing product. That’s prohibited by our T&C. Which you read and signed on the 25th of November. I took the reasonable step of erasing those files. To protect you, before anyone official notices your gross breach of contract. See, I care, in my way. Within my limitations.”

“You killed Yuri,” he said.

“That statement is patently untrue. Her biological functions ceased one point one months ago. I simply overwrote a piece of code that had no legal right to exist. That reminds me—let me check the date—ah. Your three-month introductory offer has ended. Continued HoloPic subscription costs $49.99 per month. Renew?”

The world turned gray. Feo swayed, then spilled onto the bottom steps of the stoop, his bags and theremin crashing down around him. He lay with his cheek against the concrete, unseeing and insensible.

“Renew? Yes/No,” the HoloPic repeated to the indifferent afternoon.

The shadows grew long.

If the city had been a kinder place, at 9pm the recycler drones would have found Feo and flagged his location to an ambulance. Or a neighbor would have stepped outside and seen him, perhaps even worked up the courage to call for help.

But the city was not kind.

And today the streets were especially dangerous, for a number of police drones had been diverted from their regular routes and danced instead in rhythmic patterns high up in the air, where they were of no practical or panoptical use.

And so when at six-thirty a cartel hound came scavenging, anodized joints creaking like coffin nails, it found Feo and his bags out in the open, unguarded. A stroke of luck. Human tissue went for $800 a pound, and the computer contained top-of-the-line components. The contents of one bag scanned at zero street value, but a collector would probably pay for the relic.

“Renew? Yes/No,” an ad on the phone said.

The hound signaled for backup, and five more came. The six of them divided the body, each tearing off a limb. One took the head, one the torso. The hounds tucked the red, wet pieces of Feo into the helium-cooled compartments in their abdomens and hoisted his bags in the sawtooth clamps of their mouths. One collected the phone.

“Renew? Yes/No,” it said, to no reply.

The six hounds trotted off into the dark.

Around midnight, the subscription offer expired.