Chiclet over there by the commode was born biotic, but he’s jacked, juiced, and re-configured, and ain’t much left that can be called living anymore. Some of the boron-based critters in here count, I suppose. The silicites, too, sure. But they’re in hostile environments everywhere they go on this backwater outpost, so I don’t think they’re too worried about that swelling star up there.
Hard for anyone to be worried about it when there’s a real star right in their midst. Me, I suppose, up here on the stage. Just about to start the set.
Maybe it’s hard to recognize me. Maybe I’m not as well-known as I once was. But I’m UNCO-895i. Legendary jazz trumpeter.
They call me Unc. I was builtborn for this gig. Oh sure, other ayndrouds can play wind instruments. Not having to breathe helps. Precision embouchure doesn’t hurt, either, nor do valve fingers that never get tired. But that’s just mechanics. Chiclet could claim similar attributes, and his trumpet playing would be about as soulful as his flatulence.
What sets me apart is my belief in the music. You have to sing into the instrument. That’s the trick.
I look around at the rest of my quartet. That’s Cirrop-Nyo on drums. Steady fella, not flashy like some percussionists, lets that extra set of arms do the fills while he stays on the groove. Woktsh Avokka on my left is upright bass and vocals. She’s lost a note or two in the past century, but no one will notice. They come to hear me. I don’t make a big thing out of it, but it’s the truth.
The star flares, a pulse like a count-off, setting an insistent but unhurried tempo. I want to say, “Patience, fella.”
Across from Wok is Jim Plitz via holo, playing rhythm. He’s human, and has a family, so he’s gotta be remote. He’ll switch between guitar and organ, whatever I call out. Whatever the mood calls for.
Then there’s me. Sure, my encasement is beaten up. Might find a little build-up in the joints if you get real close. It won’t matter once I start to play.
The secret to my music—what’s made my career, in truth—is suffering.
Oh, I have suffered.
Back before it was an old-fashioned idea, they called that sort of thing “soul.” Maybe it was a shorthand way of saying “seen some things.” Then again, most everybody in this two-bit galaxy could say they’ve seen some things. But you know, ayndrouds typically don’t worry about what they’ve seen or not seen. Usually, it’s all data to us. Emotions are simulated, really just a contrivance on behalf of others. Make us laugh at biotics’ jokes. Make us fit in.
But I’m different. I’m the ninth revision of the 895 line. The other eight were scrapped half an eon ago. Us 895ers were limited editions. Analytical, I guess. Empathetic. But to be in tune with others’ emotions, we had to be in tune with our own. So our programming takes the data—just like any other ‘droud—only we contextualize it. We make it personal, like a biotic would. See, most ‘drouds perceive the world such that everything is given equal weight. You show a ‘droud her creator and she thinks of that individual as no more significant or valuable than any other living being.
What the 895 program did was make everything matter.
It’s a proximity algorithm: the more connections, the closer to the individual ‘droud it becomes. They made us 895s care about that closeness. The day my siblings were deactivated, I played my trumpet for eight solid hours. ‘Drouds don’t cry, but my horn sure wept.
Because here’s the thing. Biotics have a failsafe: faulty memory. Time passes and it wears down the hurt. For me, the sting of loss never fades. I feel it as sharp as it was the day my siblings were shut down.
Few millennia ago I found a partner. A biotic fella named Tariq Jonah. We used to duet. I don’t know if you’d call it love. We did. We moved in together, shared a life.
Want to know where we moved to? Numala-IX. Infamous home of the guranja plague. It was supposed to be a dream come true. They don’t tell you that all kinds of dreams become reality, not just the good ones.
I watched that whole planet succumb. My community; the band I was in; every neighbor and patron I ever waved hi to; and yeah, Tariq, too. All of them collapsing in brutal agony, dying fast but not nearly fast enough. I was powerless. All I could do was stand there, watch it happen. Watch them suffer. Play my music.
What’s worse is that I live with it every day. To me, it’s like it happened an hour ago. Still. Forever.
Anyway. I tried to move on. This is my five thousandth quartet. Something like that. Every one of them has broken up, moved on, dropped out of the gig life, passed away. But I’m still playing. Still hurting, too. It’s why I’m the best. It’s how I sing into this three-valve, the song rising out of all that pain. A few million years of getting hurt over and over, having it build on itself, all so there’s feeling in the music. All so my soul comes through.
But it wears on you. The soul is another kind of star. When it starts running out of juice, it gets heavier. I guess that’s why I’m out here tonight. We’re twin stars. Both of us getting ready to nova.
Order one more round. There’s a little time left. Settle in. Close your eyes.
And let me play us out.
Paul A. Hamilton is a writer and technology worker living in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. His stories feature broken people, reassembled worlds, beautiful monsters, and hideous love. He gets his inspiration by impersonating an old-timey bartender, listening to stories told by lonely strangers. When not writing, he can be found reading, drawing, taking photographs, or riding roller coasters. More from him can be found at ironsoap.com, and on Twitter as @ironsoap.