A tale about the future of love, war, and music, as told by a decapitated android.
Illustration by Gustavo Torres.
Science fiction is the art of the future, yet we rarely come across a story that so cogently expresses the future of art as this one. Here, Jennifer Marie Brissett makes a real effort to imagine how beauty, and not just technology, will evolve along with our species. What does the music of tomorrow sound like, and can we still be moved by a song, even when it's torn from the lips of a brokenhearted android? - the Eds.
The ripples carried the head further up the river. Gently it drifted, impeded here and there by the side of some stone, only to be pushed along again by the rush of the flow. It finally found a resting place on the shore where the water ran quiet into a brown muddy clay. By the appearance of the stem, it was clear that it had been ripped away from some handsome body. The eyes remained peacefully closed, though, as if it were a young man only lightly asleep. What seemed like blood streamed from its veins and a kind of flesh dragged from its neck. There, if one was careful to look, were the remains of some circuitry, a line or two of wire, and a glowing diode still blinking lime green.
Little Maya, a child of no more than six or seven, played her weeping willow game nearby, a pastime of imaginings that allowed her to run and hide among the trees and rocks scattered across her father's land. She curved her back to imitate the low-hanging branches lining the river and swayed her body as if by the breeze. Then she envisioned herself large and able to lift root and trunk to stomp about and replant herself elsewhere. Her mother had long ago given up on the idea that her child would ever remain clean throughout the day. Into the wash her dress would go as soon as Maya returned home, as well as Maya herself into the bath for a long scrub. But for now it was all adventure and discovery. And such a discovery she would make this day.
She heard singing by the river and ran to the edge and there she found the head pushed up into the mud.
"Hello," Maya said.
The head opened its eyes and stared back at the little girl standing above it and replied, "Hello."
"Where's your body?" Maya asked, lifting her arms to the sky as if the answer could be found there.
"I don't suppose I have one anymore," the head answered.
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Thank you," it said. "It's not your fault."
Then she poked gently at its nose with her index finger. The eyes moved slightly and fluttered.
"May I move you away from the water? You don't look that comfortable there."
"Yes, I would quite appreciate that."
And so Maya gently lifted the head into the front part of her skirt and carried it to a dry place in the woods where soft pine needles blanketed the ground. She lay the head softly near a stone and positioned it upright to face her. Its mouth moved, opening wide into the shape of an 'O,' giving it a surprised look, then stretched into a smile then a frown then back into an expressionless line.
"What happened to your body?" Maya asked as she sat down in front of it.
"That is a long story."
"Tell me. I like stories."
The head stared at her with a countenance the child would see again when she became older on the face of her own mother who while dying wanted to speak her last words. The head remained silent for a long moment and said, "Perhaps, it is time."
Maya folded her legs and readied herself to listen.
My existence began in an organic soup of protein and integrated circuitry chips, swirling to form a harmony of life and machine. I remember hanging in my gestation sack, lined up in a room full of others doing the same, when I heard sound for the first time. A single drip. I, of course, had no idea what it was. So I looked all around, for I had been able to see for many days by this time, but sound…sound was new.
I heard it again. One single drip. After some considerable time I finally located the source. A faucet that had not been entirely closed produced rhythmic pearls of water that fell delicately into a silver sink. Pa-lunk...Pa-lunk…Pa-lunk…
I listened for hours, maybe days, inventing in my mind alternate reflections to the constant pattern of the eventual pa-lunk of the drips and the momentary pauses between each falling dot. I didn't know it then, but I eventually learned that this rhythm and the empty silences that followed were my first exposure to music.
In the time of the selection, when our personality programming is installed and our final circuitry patterns are set, we are asked what designation we would prefer. I chose acoustic engineer, to the surprise of the technician. It was so specific, he said, and asked if I was sure because most chose more general professions and became specified over time. I told him that I was sure. He looked at me with a question still resting on his lips, shrugged, then wrote down my request.
I was eventually assigned to a small ship called the Calliope that had a regular manifest of about fifteen people and was stationed just above our planet's second moon. I performed routine maintenance and carried out support tasks for the crew. No one was unkind to me on the ship, but no one was kind either. I was a tool to them, a thing. Which I was, I know. Only I wished that they would talk to me. I was perfectly capable of carrying a conversation and was interested in their thoughts. But none of them ever did until Eura came on board.
Eura was my friend, or at least I'd like to think so. She was the only one on the ship that spoke to me like a person. She said that it helped her while away the time and that she thought that I was funny. She said it was my innocence that made her laugh. And I liked the sound of her laugh.
One day I discovered that we had a rodent living loose within the walls, chewing on the lines. I had to replace several faulty harmonic relays because of it. Eura and I attempted for hours to track down the culprit when it occurred to me to use a harmonic to lull the creature out. There was a family of frequencies I was developing that I thought might work. I emitted the waves through my oral cavity and to my surprise the creature emerged and lay before me as if in a trance.
Eura struggled to contain her laughter—and as I said before, I liked the sound of her laugh—and begged me not to harm the creature as I put it into a container. I reminded her that my programming included a directive to bring no harm to any living thing, this creature included. She nodded and smiled and patted me on the shoulder. It was the first time she had physically touched me. So for her, I cared for the rodent for the remainder of my time on the Calliope.
If it wasn't for Eura I would never have known a war might be coming. She told me a war would be bad because the enemy was strong and many. And worse, our technology was no match for theirs. I should have guessed something was happening from looking out the window. Where there had been only a few ships weeks before, now a multitude scattered about like dry rice on a plate. It felt as if it were possible to walk straight to the surface of the moon only by walking across their hulls. Eura told me that she was sure things would calm down, but I could tell from the inflection of her voice that she didn't believe her own words.
The child yawned widely and a dimness had fallen on the woods. Behind the trees the light of the sun oranged as if the forest had been set afire. So the head suggested that maybe it was time for her to go home. Maya nodded in agreement and vowed to return. She walked home covered in fresh dirt, as her mother had expected, spinning tales of a talking head she found in the river. Her mother put her child to bed wondering how it could be that she had given birth to one with such an imagination.
Maya returned the next day as promised to find the head exactly where she had left it only covered with leaves and pine needles because of the night wind. She carefully removed the debris and caressed its forehead with her open palm. It was cold to the touch. Then she wiped its cheek with the edge of her skirt.
"Please tell me more of your story," she asked, and the head replied that it would.
When we finished fixing the damaged lines, Eura asked me to sing for her. I didn't understand what she meant and told her so. The sounds that I had emitted, Eura said, were beautiful. I told her that they were only basic harmonics. She insisted that it was music and asked me do it again at mealtime.
So that night, after the crew had finished consuming their protein rations, I played a series of acoustic waves from my subprocessor for them. I designed a composition by sampling some harmonics to mimic rain patterns, the drips of falling water. The crew remained remarkably still after I completed my piece. I didn't know what to make of it. Then I saw that one or two of them were weeping. They clapped their hands to my relief and many of them told me that what I had played was good.
Our evenings went on like this for many long days and months. After their meal, I would play a new song for them. I began to also add lyrics. I found a long-dead language in the ship's database that I was sure no one onboard would understand and composed songs with it. Many of the songs were about Eura and how beautiful she was, how kind and wonderful. I wanted to tell her without really telling her. I didn't want to embarrass her.
"Because you loved her," Maya interrupted.
"Yes, I suppose I did," the head answered.
In time, the peace we had come to know came to an end. I never understood the conflict. It all seemed so senseless to me and still does to this day. Fire and smoke filled the decks during the fighting. Many sections of the ship were exposed to open space as large irreparable holes ripped open in the hull. We struggled hard to keep the ship in one piece. And we lost many crew members. Eventually it came down to defending our homeworld on the ground; the enemy was that close. The capital had to be defended so we were ordered to the surface. What was left of my crew and I dug in behind trench lines along a border surrounding our main headquarters. They would fight hand to hand if necessary. I supported them by bringing them food and medical supplies.
Eura remained beautiful even covered in dirt and blood. I stayed with her, protecting her as best I could. The days were dark and the nights lit with flames of yellow and the thunder of explosions. We all knew that it was only a matter of time before the end.
It was hard on Eura, seeing her people die all around her, some of them dragged away screaming by an enemy rumored to keep lairs where they experimented on our people and maybe feasted on their flesh. I didn't fear death because I've never really been alive, but I could see that Eura was afraid.
She talked of what she thought it would be like to not exist anymore. She suggested sometimes that she believed death to be a black nothingness. Other times she spoke of a place where it would be warm and light and she would see her friends and family again.
When she was most afraid she would ask me to sing for her and I would, keeping my voice soft so as not to reveal our position. Then she would fold herself into my arms as if I were a real man and fall asleep and I would hold her. I know that I am not a man. I am only made to look like one. Yet these were the times that I regretted it most.
I returned from one of my regular trips to collect supplies to find that the trench had been attacked and my Eura was gone. I looked everywhere for her. If they had killed her, I would have found some of her remains. The faces of the survivors told me that our enemy had taken her.
Determined to find Eura, I searched for days through the rubble and the mud until I found a lair made of some biogenetic material, a kind of secreted resin alien to this world. It formed a cave-like structure buried far down into the soil. I went inside, climbing deep, deep below the surface, down and down and down. It smelled rank with the flesh of my people. The bodies of the dead and dying lay piled to one side. I watched quietly for a while as the aliens diligently took them, one by one, to a platform to wrap them in a dark material and string them throughout the lair. The dead hung from the ceilings and walls like shadows.
The enemy moved only slightly as I entered. I think they recognized me as an artificial life form and were curious and unafraid. I located Eura. I touched her face and felt that she was still warm. She opened her eyes. They were glassy white.
"Follow me," I told her. She stood unsteadily at first and then she walked behind me as if in a daze. I hurried to guide her towards the exit. The enemy moved in. I said that I had no quarrel with them, that I was not human, that I meant them no harm and that I only wanted the girl. They didn't seem to understand and continued to surround us. It occurred to me then to sing. I don't know why, but it did.
I sang a song that I had composed for Eura that I had never sung before. I improvised harmonics that I could not repeat even now. It was a song that said how I truly felt about her and I sang as if all of creation was at stake, because for me it was. When I finished, they were still. It was as if they were weeping.
While they remained motionless, Eura and I began our ascent out of the lair. I climbed and climbed, hearing her echoing footsteps behind me. I continued until I saw the light of the opening. I turned around to say we were almost out but nobody was there. I would have sworn that she was right behind me. But Eura was gone.
Just as I had learned to play music, I learned to hate. I killed every creature I could get my hands on for days and days. I needed no rest. I needed no sleep. I needed no comfort. I only needed to kill. I fought not for my people, not for the war, but for Eura and, yes, for myself. When the enemy finally caught me they were not as merciful as they had been before. They ripped me apart, tearing off my arms and legs and torso and leaving only my head, as you see here, and threw me into the waters. I floated for I don't know how many years, drifting buoyant along the seaways and rivers until I finally made my way here to this place where I tell this tale to you.
Maya was silent. So the head sang a song for her soft and low. After the song ended she said, "Maybe my father can get a new body for you."
The head considered this and said, "No, I would not like that. But thank you. You are kind. Though, there is something that you can do for me."
"What?" Maya asked.
"Please, reach inside of me to where the wires still connect and pull them out."
Maya shook her head and cried, "No! That would make you dead."
"Yes, it would be as if I were dead. But remember, I was never truly alive."
"Don't ask me to."
"Please, this endless existence is too much for me, the memories too hard. Please," it said. "be my friend and do this for me."
"No!" Maya stood up. "I won't."
And she covered the head with leaves and dirt and stomped away.
From then on Maya avoided the area of the woods where the head lay and played her games elsewhere. Occasionally she would hear its singing voice, so beautiful and clear over the whispers of the wind. She closed her ears to it and tried not to listen. The backyard of friends who lived a walking distance away became her new playground. To her mother's relief, Maya left behind her solitary imagined world but she also found the suddenness of it curious. When questioned Maya never really explained why. She only said that she liked her new friends better which seemed to satisfy the subject well enough.
Yet Maya became more melancholy as she grew up. Bouts with a grieving sadness plagued her teenaged years. She occasionally found herself staring off into the distance, lost in her thoughts, feeling deep pangs of guilt for something she forgot to remember. As the years passed she was almost able to tell herself that the head was only a game that she had played, something silly best left in childhood. Maya eventually grew into young adulthood, remembering the head as only a dream.
Her education and familial status allowed her to enter into the service division where she quickly rose in rank to become a leader in artifact recovery. Every day on her job she helped to examine and catalog a variety of objects found in various locations that helped to advance her theories that an intelligent indigenous life form inhabited their world long before its colonization. The finest examples of her discoveries remained on display in the district museum of antiquities. She loved her profession and became well known and respected in the field of ancient indigenous studies. In many ways, the dream she believed she had of a singing head inspired her work. She was away at the capitol to deliver a paper when she received the message that her mother had fallen ill.
Maya returned home to care for her dying mother. She spent her days alone watching the strong woman who had raised her wither away. Wiping her mother's forehead with a damp cloth reminded her of the game of the singing head in the woods behind the house. She wondered how real the memory was or if it was only the imagination of a child. But in her heart, she knew the truth.
So she made her way out to the place where she used to play. The land had changed so little since her childhood. There, under leaves and dirt and debris lay the head, just as she had left it all those years ago.
"So, you have returned," it said with no hint of malice.
"Yes," Maya said and sat down before it.
"A little," she replied.
"Have you thought about what I asked of you?"
"Not really," Maya said. Then thought for a moment and said, "I still would rather not."
Then she cried. She cried for her mother. She cried for the head. And she cried for her own guilt. The head watched and said nothing. It had long ago let go of hatred and anger. When all her tears were spent, the head sang for Maya a composition it had been working on for all those years waiting for her to return as it somehow knew eventually she would.
When the song was done Maya looked down and said, "My mother will soon be making her journey to the ancestor lair. It's how we bury our dead and dying." Then she looked up and said, "I'm sure they meant no disrespect to your friend."
The head closed its eyes and a fluid seeped from its synthetic ocular glands.
"Thank you for telling me that," it said, and after a pause, "Will you help me now?"
Maya nodded yes, wiping her face with the back of her sleeve.
Then, with shaking hands, she reached into the head through its neck, passed the substance that was so much like blood and the synthetic organic solids of its flesh, felt around for the wires, and pulled. The head screamed in beautiful harmonic agony, which made Maya stop. Its eyes pleaded for her to continue and so she did. She pulled and pulled until the connecting wires let loose and fell away into her hand. Then its eyes slowly closed and the head seemed peaceful, as though it had only fallen into a very light sleep.
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.