Featured April 23, 2020 Horror Science Fiction poverty industrial androids sadness music betrayal punk consciousness transfer hacking Health Insurance

Music for an Electronic Body

By R. K. Duncan
Apr 23, 2020 · 3,952 words · 15 minutes

Dirty Hands

Photo by Photos Hobby via Unsplash.

From the editor:

Transference to a robot body may have saved his life, but it left Rob without much to live for, once music lost its luster. But when a mysterious underground band called Procedural Generation promises to bring back what he’s been missing, he’ll plug in, no questions asked. 

Author R. K. Duncan is a 2019 graduate of Viable Paradise, and writes fantasy, horror, and science fiction with a sharp edge of hope from his home in West Philadelphia.


From the author: A story about music, health insurance, hacking, and what you'll do to get back what you lost.


There’s a lot they don’t tell you about transferring. They tell you how you won’t get sick, how it will be just like your body: same sensitivity, same range of hearing, of color in your vision. How it will look just like you do now. They tell you that, with the broken ribs, your twisted spine, the piece of bike frame driven through your arm, and with your family history of colon cancer on top; the insurance will pay for this, but not for rebuilding the organic trash you lived in your first twenty six years.

They don’t tell you how strange sitting perfectly still feels, or the way a low battery can feel like dying from the inside out. They don’t mention the blankness where you used to dream, when you still have to stop thinking every night because a human mind goes crazy without turning off, even when the hardware’s silicon and wire.

“They don’t tell you that music won’t work for you anymore. I used to love music, Deutsche Härte, Industrial, classic electronica, punk, lots of stuff. It still sounds the same, I guess. They didn’t lie about that, but it’s just noise now. I don’t feel anything when I hear it. You know?”

Rob let himself trail off. He never really liked speaking at sad robot club, the support group the insurance made him attend until they were sure he wasn’t going to wreck the new body they bought him.

Jason stood up to answer. You didn’t have to stand if you were just responding to someone else’s share, but Jason always did. He looked like a professor, with his sport coat and round, balding head.

“I’m sorry you don’t enjoy things you used to, Rob. For myself, I find music easier to appreciate now. I can hear so much more of the nuance of Mozart or Berlioz now. I listen every night. Maybe you can find a different kind of music that you’ll enjoy.”

“Oh it’s so hard, losing stuff you really like before, isn’t it? I know just how you feel.”

Linda tucked a strand of bleached-blonde hair that had escaped her soccer-mom ponytail behind her ear. How fucking obnoxious the transfer rules were, to give her the same artificial blonde she had before instead of something that looked natural.

“I know what you mean, man.” Tori patted his stomach and found nothing but a loose shirt. He always did that. You could tell he’d been fat before the transfer and never bought new clothes. “I used to go to shows, ragers, mosh pits, that kind of thing. Can’t do that anymore.”

Of course not. He’d hurt someone, and put a few thousand dollars’ worth of damage on his skin. “And it’s like you said. The music’s just noise, but what can you do?”

Everyone nodded. That was their refrain. What can you do? This is your life now. Your body would last for fifty, maybe a hundred years before you got a new one. No upgrade unless you made enough to buy it yourself, so everything that wasn’t quite right was your life for good.

Sad robot club always broke up fast. They didn’t eat or drink, so there was no small talk over coffee and supermarket donuts. They just left. Tonight, Tori caught Rob’s eye on the way out, but he didn’t say anything, and it was hard to read intentions under the resting neutral face a bottom-tier chassis fell into if you didn’t strain for an expression.

* * *

Friday morning, Rob woke to a DM from Greg. He had a job today. Rob set up holo-projection rigs and showed the renters how to run them, whenever Greg wanted an extra body or not to go himself. Rob fished an inoffensive button-down from the dresser and stepped to the bathroom mirror, hands going for his ears. After six months, he still had the reflex to take out his rings before going to work, but there was no need. Piercing the skin would void his warranty, so he was already sanitized and professional.

Biking was easier post-transfer. He could keep pumping at top speed for the whole ride with nothing more than a blinking indicator for high battery drain to stop him. He didn’t even sweat. Today, an SUV swerved close, crowding him against the parked cars, but there was no panic flash, just processors kicking into overload. He braked perfectly. If he’d been artificial to begin with, he’d never have gotten in the crash.

Greg’s van was a piece of shit, old and cheap enough that Rob had to drive it manually, both hands on the wheel and everything. It was twice as slow as summoning a self-driver, since Rob couldn’t connect to the traffic grid, but Greg wouldn’t spring for a commercial subscription, and Rob couldn’t carry a whole party rig on his bike. He fought his way through the seamless flow of silver vehicles to a featureless box of yellow concrete scored to look like painted bricks. He pulled into the lot and tried the service door. Locked. He tried the buzzer. No response. A quick jog round to the front showed no lights on. He pulled up his phone and called the number on the work order. Three rings.

“Hello.”

“Hi, this is Robert Wilson with Keystone Holo. You requested a setup at 6200 Fern.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m outside now. Which entrance should I use?”

“I’m back at the office. You took too long.”

The order said it was sent 45 minutes ago, and 30 of that was Rob’s drive. The client hadn’t ever been here, or he’d left as soon as he put in the order.

“I’m sorry about that, sir. I came as quickly as we were able to process the order.”

“Alright, shit. I’ll be there in a minute.”

He hung up.

The van baked in the sun. Rob’s fans whirred like dying flies. The old Rob would have been heating up with the van, ready to tear the client a new one for keeping him waiting. Now he just reviewed the order and set the rictus of a professional smile on his face. Maybe he could still get a tip. He was a little short on next month’s rent.

The client pulled up fifteen minutes after Rob’s call, stepping from a sleek corporate self-driver that slipped right back into the flow of traffic. The stubbly man, who looked like a hungover bulldog squinting in the heat, must have been travelling on an office subscription. Rob stepped out, and did his best to charm.

“Alright, Mr. Sanborn. Why don’t you show me the space and then we can talk about exactly what you need while I set up the projectors.”

“That’s not extra, is it?”

He probably wasn’t getting a tip.

“No, Mr. Sanborn, setup and a consultation on use are covered in our base rate.”

Inside was a badly carpeted box strewn with round folding tables and a stage for the band or DJ at one end. Rob unloaded. Sanborn didn’t help, but he did brag that he’d gotten a deal renting the place, and that his cousin’s band would be playing the party. He had a set list for Rob to program the holos to. He balked at the quote for personalization and looked at the brochure while Rob set up the projectors.

Rob was just getting the last one lifted into place when Sanborn came up beside him and leaned in, reaching for the projector and looking at his brochure. He knocked one of Rob’s arms loose, and the projector tumbled. Overdrive. Rob grabbed with both his arms and kicked his legs back. Not fast enough. A corner caught his shin and tore through his pants and into skin underneath.

Sanborn turned white when the lack of blood or screaming outed Rob as a synthetic, and pointedly turned away instead of offering help. Rob set the projector down and did a quick diagnostic on his leg. Function unimpaired. That was enough for now. He should finish and leave. He wrapped up fast and asked Sanborn to sign the work order.

“Get out of here, freak. And tell your boss not to send you back here.”

Before the accident, he would have bawled Sanborn out for being a bigoted shit, but it didn’t seem worth the escalation. It wasn’t like he’d badger the man into a tip.

Sanborn signed the order. Rob left.

* * *

His leg wasn’t really too bad, looking at it back in his apartment. The skin was torn, and he had to take off a patch about the size of his palm, but his case was still smooth underneath. He found a skin patch in his drawer of robot supplies and trimmed it to fit, then held it in place while it bonded to the cut edges of the hole. It felt creepily organic, the most alive thing his body did now.

He should have been upset about the tear, afraid of the potential for case damage. Cracks were expensive to fix, and he wasn’t anywhere near covering the deductible. Leaving them was worse, since it voided warranty coverage. Still, no harm, no foul.

It was Friday night, time to talk and not drink beer and laugh at bad jokes while Grant got pompously chatty on eight IPAs. It was only a couple of blocks to the Local, which had been a hipster gastropub imitating a dive bar before Rob was born, and was trending into an actual dive bar. At least they were used to Rob and didn’t make faces when he sat without ordering anything, or joke about sitting him next to an outlet.

April waved him over to an open seat at the long table in the back. He ignored Julie shifting away as he sat down. When he transferred, their almost-a-thing had turned into cold tension where she very politely didn’t explain how uncomfortable he made her. She had just been interested in his body, or in him having a body that didn’t run on alternating current. April made excuses for Cam, stuck on a late shift again, and talked about a gallery that still hadn’t sent her samples back, so maybe there was something there. Sean and Grant were next to each other on the other side of the table, splitting a towering plate of wings. They were drunk enough that they played up their reactions to the heat, huffing and puffing and sticking out their tongues for laughs, and licked each other’s finger’s occasionally. It was cute, mostly disgusting, but cute.

He leaned back to let Julie and April talk across him, just listening to Julie’s endless stories of entitled shit customers from the three coffee shops and restaurants where she picked up shifts, and to April’s about the constant rejections of a struggling artist, and the unreliability of internet buyers and galleries that did show interest. He shared his own horror story from today when April made a point of asking about his day.

About the time Grant and Sean made it through their wings, Maya crashed onto the bench beside them. She was the other synthetic in the group, and she couldn’t look more different from Rob’s generic, bottom-end body. Maya transferred by choice and modeled her body after something from an old piece of science fiction. Her hair was fire, red and orange and white, floating so much lighter than real hair would. Her skin was a galaxy, black mottled with deep blue and purple nebulas, studded with spiraling stars that glittered under the bar’s Edison bulbs.

They could chat about the woes of robot life, but not the spiraling drain of gig employment he groaned about with April and Julie. Maya owned her own car outright and had a cleaning service for her apartment. The problems she wanted to talk about were social stigma for intentional versus forced transfers. Rob only very rarely had time for problems that abstract.

He lingered until the group broke and he couldn’t justify holding down a table by himself. He drifted home, waving off Maya’s offer of an interesting show about new innovations in second-generation chassis. Her transhuman optimism stuff always made him notice how shoddy his insurance body was.

* * *

At the next sad robot club, they had an intervention for Travis. He’d been letting himself deteriorate: tears in his skin, scuff marks on the case underneath left un-buffed. He twitched, probably unpurged malware, or shorts from debris that got in through the case damage. His joints ground and squeaked when he moved, like his body was a used car he wanted to nurse along for another six months without spending money on. They called it Synthetic Transfer Ego Failure, when you failed to think of the machine as you. STEF looked bad, so they all leaned toward the center of the circle and said concerned things until Travis said he understood and that he’d take better care of himself now.

When they broke up, Tori pulled Rob out of the line shuffling into the hallway.

“Machine life’s got you down, I know. I’ve got just what you need to pick things back up.”

“Huh?”

Weird way to say it. They tried not to call themselves machines. Depersonalizing, the brochures called it. Dehumanizing, Rob would have said. Tori was usually good about that. Rob ignored it, and Tori pulled a memory stick out of his bag and handed it over. Phi-1702S was written on the label in black marker.

“What’s that?”

“Music man, music for us. That’s your audio receiver part on the label, or it should be, since Blue Cross transferred you. That’s the model they use.”

“What do you mean, music for us?”

“Robots, man. It’s this new group I found, Procedural Generation. They mix tracks for the specs of your model. It’ll feel just like music used to, like it should.”

“What kind of music?”

Too good to be true. There had to be a catch here, nothing but Raffi, or 90s bubblegum, or angst-septic indie stuff.

“Electronic, like you like. Some new stuff, and new mixes on old tracks. Just listen man. You’ll love it.”

* * *

He plugged it in and listened as soon as he got home. He’d rushed. He wasn’t sure what he’d last rushed for.

The first track was a strangely tuned remix of VNV’s Beloved, back from the beginning of the New German Hard. Rob sank into his chair and heard it, really heard it. A little pressure in his chest expanded against the casing where his ribs should be. A rock of melancholy settled itself into his throat. He thought of Julie. Tori was right. It was real. He blacked out listening, and almost dreamed that night.

* * *

The music was the best thing since he transferred. It hit him harder than his favorite songs had before. Procedural Generation were geniuses, mixing old tracks so they hit every peak and trough better than the originals. Their own stuff was raw emotional response, fist pumping adrenaline or the crash of sadness like breaking glass under his breastbone. He really felt it, like he hadn’t since the transfer. It was intense enough he started half hallucinating. On the fast tracks he could hear his heartbeat, the twitch of toes wanting to tap. The sad ones he teared up, pressure behind his eyes and tightness in his throat.

Saturday afternoon someone pounded on the door. It was Julie.

“Hi. What brings you round this way?”

She pushed in and looked around, tutting. He wasn’t sure at what. He kept things cleaner now than when she’d been a regular visitor.

“You didn’t come to the Local last night, and you didn’t answer any messages.” He’d minimized DMs and not heard the alert over the music. “I was worried you were having, I don’t know, some kind of robot breakdown.”

“No, no, nothing like that. It’s this music. A guy at my support group told me about it, and I’ve just been listening. Isn’t it fucking amazing?”

She’s always liked the same stuff he did. She’d love it.

“It’s fine. I don’t hear anything special. You’ve just been listening to this for two days straight? Have you gone out?”

“No. Why would I? It’s perfect. I’ve been missing this since I got transferred. I didn’t think it existed.”

She lingered for a little longer, but seemed to get frustrated when he didn’t have a problem other than the music.

* * *

Tori called him Monday night. It had been a rough workday. Rob wasn’t used to biking with music playing, and nearly got into an accident on the way to the office. Then Greg chewed him out for being distracted. Fascist.

Tori pinged in as Rob was settling down to listen for the evening.

“Hey man, you been listening?”

“Of course, all the time.”

“Nice. There’s a show, tomorrow. I just heard about it.”

“A show? Procedural Generation live?”

“Yeah, just a little one. No advertising, only people who get it. People who’ve transferred.”

“Where?”

Another ping and Tori sent him the address for easy navigation, and the link for tickets.

“See you there?”

“Yeah, definitely.”

He’d probably still make rent after the ticket, if work stayed steady. No question it was going to be worth the money.

* * *

The venue was just a half-converted warehouse with a stage and some plastic folding chairs. Why chairs? Rob didn’t expect to sit at a show like this. He wanted to be standing, dancing. Two towers of speakers flanked the stage. The crowd, maybe thirty people, sat in scattered clusters. He looked for Tori, saw him with a pair of rich synthetics, hard-cases done up in racing stripes and flames, the kind of thing you only wore if you could afford to change it next month. He tried to catch Tori’s eye and get a nod. Nothing. He sat alone. No worries. He was going to hear it live, have the pressure of a crowd to turn the music up, feel the floor shake from the bass.

Procedural Generation came on stage, two ordinary looking women in jeans and tank tops. They weren’t synthetic. How did they know when it worked, then?

They plugged tablets into mixing boards and started without any introduction. The first chord screamed out, metallic and discordant over a heavy bass. It made him want to stamp and pump his fist and scream. The vision came so vivid he could almost see it when the big drum boomed: the seedy rented space replaced by a huge hall, filled with his comrades, all in uniform, saluting to the stage. The song broke down into strings that tinkled ticklish against his skin like freezing rain on glass.

He stood up to applaud. The next song started after a half-breath pause, and his legs gave out. He fell back into his seat. He tried to get up and see what had gone wrong. His arms hung limp while aerial guitar and theremin washed black depression over him. He blinked the pattern for a diagnostic. It came up in distorted rainbow, flickering and dying while he drowned in cotton candy. He gasped breath into lungs he left behind on the operating table and felt like he should vomit. The melody resolved into a timpani of grasping fingers digging into the seam of his metal skull.

They played a single set, ten tracks, and he couldn’t move until it ended. Each transition he lost more, until it was all hallucinations, calling up senses he didn’t have. He felt painfully alive, like he was dying, staked out on a table and slowly peeled back, his brain unfolded in onion layers of emotions. Darkness followed him down, and he dreamed of running over snow, blood hot in his mouth, the howl of wolves or sirens all around him. He ran, and he exulted, thick-furred with blue lights flashing. He brought the runner down with blood hot in his mouth. He ran.

* * *

Rob woke, and he was moving. The two were unconnected. He woke while his body was dressing to go out. He tried to pull up a diagnostic, maybe to shock whatever stray process was running his motor system into shutting down. Nothing. He couldn’t control a thing. He must have been hacked. His almost-empty bank account came up instead of the diagnostic routine, then his contacts. It paged through them faster than he could track.

No this was wrong. Lockout hacks were clumsy, only good for trolling. They just made you shuffle around like a zombie, and they couldn’t access any of your data because they worked by bypassing your brain and messing with the motor-control firmware. This shouldn’t be happening, and anyway, he hadn’t connected to anything that could have transferred code like that. The music. It had to be the music. It had messed with his chassis somehow, even before he blacked out.

Whatever was calling the shots for his body got onto his bike. He should be feeling something: that pounding fear from last night, or anger at being trapped while his body went walking on its own initiative, but he was as flat as he’d ever been. His body biked downtown. He fell into the rhythm of his legs, and then started to really feel afraid. Trapped. He was trapped and it wasn’t him controlling these legs anymore. Stop. He froze for a moment and the bike wobbled, then the hack took over and steadied it.

Back to blank. He lost the feeling of emotion when he tried to stop pedaling and it locked him out again. His body stopped at Maya’s concierged apartment. He had a standing invitation he hadn’t used in three months. It couldn’t know that. Maybe there was another him running the whole show while he was stuck here on the wrong side of the partition.

The door recognized him. The elevator sent him straight to Maya’s floor. Her door flashed a helpful indicator, and buzzed him in to the sound of gentle wind-chimes. Maya called hello from the balcony. His body answered.

“It’s Rob.”

“Come on out. The sun’s beautiful today.”

He wanted to see her. That much he agreed with. He and the hack walked together, and his heart beat in his chest as he tried to figure how to tell her what was happening. He didn’t want to get kicked out again, to watch and not care what it did.

Maya was sunbathing, getting charged and enjoying the endorphin analog that photovoltaic bodies were designed to give under the light. She waved to an empty deck chair next to her. He felt his fingers curl around something in his pocket. That’s what it wanted. If he tried to fight it, he’d freeze up for a moment. She’d notice, and she was probably his best chance at getting out of this. Maya knew more about synthetics and code than he did, and she had the money to get him fixed, back to the way he’d been before the music broke him. That was the choice. Fix it, or spread it. They’d like Maya, if they wanted money, and she had plenty of synth friends.

“Machine life’s got you down, I know. I’ve got just what you need to pick things back up.”

It felt good in his mouth, sweet relaxation spreading from his tongue down though his chest as he agreed. He could feel the guides more gently now. No need to fight his way back into the cold indifference. He could feel great doing just what the music wanted.

 

This story originally appeared in Punk Rock Future.


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R. K. Duncan

Fantasy with darkness and a sharp edge of hope.