By Lettie Prell
In a cyber-enhanced, futuristic Chicago, Sonata knows near-immortality is achievable through downloading her mind into a cyborg body after death. But this young artist wants to prove that living forever isn’t the same as living a beautiful life.
Exposition: Allegro Impetuoso
Sonata James was twenty-three years old when she decided what she wanted to do with her life and her iterations to come. She sought out her friend Dante to tell first. It was noon and the sun was bright, but not warming. Her cheeks and hands stung with the brisk autumn air off the lake as she made her way from her mom’s house on South Dorchester to Dante’s usual spot on Ellis Avenue. As she entered the coffee shop, the crisp chill was instantly replaced by cozy aromas of fresh-brewed beans and wood. She ordered a large French roast, paused to dose it liberally with milk, then held it high as she threaded among the crowded tables, mostly occupied by singles drawn to the free Wi-Fi. At last she arrived at the back near the emergency exit and unisex restroom, where Dante occupied the only high-backed booth in the place, a leftover from when this had been a bar or maybe an ice cream parlor. His gaze was locked on his screen as she approached, the glow accentuating his profile and projecting bursts of color onto his black-on-black athletic suit and hoodie.
She slid into the seat opposite him, a little coffee slopping onto the tabletop as she did so. She sat cupping the steaming drink between her hands until Dante looked up from his screen. The way his eyes shone betrayed how happy he was to see her, but he played it down.
“I was reading about fine art photography back before digital,” she began.
He slipped his headphones down off his ears, and Sonata heard a few strains of Missy Elliott haranguing about a “one minute man” before Dante punched the pause button. After she repeated her sentence, his brows drew together. “And this is exciting news because—?”
She grinned. “People would buy one of a hundred copies or so of a photo. They could print however many they wanted with the same negative, but it was the artist’s choice to limit the number of prints. Even at the beginning of digital, a photographer would decide to make only so many hard copies to sell. To make it more special.”
Dante took a sip of his own drink and grimaced. It had likely gone cold long ago. “To drive the price of the art up, you mean.”
She drummed her fingers impatiently on the tabletop. “And to make it more special. A statement. Come on, don’t ruin this.”
“Ruin what?” He’d gone back to his screen. It was impossible for him to unplug for even a few moments. Three-dimensional reality was just another frame opened to his awareness.
She was brimming with the news. “Because I’m going to be a limited edition.”
His fingers twitched over the sense pad, but he remained the picture of coolness.
“I just decided today. This is going to define me. It’s my thing.”
He actually closed his computer. He sat back, not looking at her but at some point on the table between them. “If you don’t upload . . .”
His voice cracked and she put a hand on his, suddenly realizing how much he cared about her. “I will upload,” she said. “If I don’t, I’ll be like any other person who can’t afford it or doesn’t want to for whatever reason. It won’t be special.”
His lower lip drew inward, and he jerked his hand away. “So you’re just going to let your newbody crash? That’s whacked.”
Several patrons—whites, blacks, and newbies alike—turned to stare at the shout. The way the newbies, especially, regarded her made her face grow hot. She sat up straighter and kept her own voice quiet. “It’s a statement. If you pulled your head out of the Internet once in a while, you’d notice how crowded we’re getting. Only the poor are having babies anymore. Everyone else is hanging on to their money for themselves, for their newbodies.”
Dante folded his arms and slouched back in the booth, his long legs bumping her feet as he stretched them out. “Am I now going to hear the antitech rant? Because I don’t need you to run that down for me. I can tune into it anytime. Ironically, it’s all over the web.”
She sighed. “No antitech. Promise.” She stared at her coffee. “I need you to hear me.”
Dante let out a long breath, deflating. “I hear you. I just don’t get you. Have you told your mother yet?”
She shook her head and laughed without humor. “I wanted to tell you first. A friend who would understand.”
He snorted. They sat looking at each other. Again, Sonata sensed a deeper caring emanating from Dante than she’d thought was there. Maybe he was just realizing it, too, as they spoke of her eventual mortality.
Dante nodded slightly, and for a split second Sonata wondered if he’d read her mind. But he said, “Okay, so you’re a limited edition. I suppose I can get used to the idea you’ll only have a hundred iterations or so.”
“Not one hundred,” she said. “That won’t hold the public interest.” She saw the storm clouds gathering around Dante again and pressed on. “And I don’t want to get lumped in with the newbodies who didn’t plan ahead and are out of cash already. They’ll do any crummy job in order to afford an upgrade before their software becomes so old it’s unsupported. I want everyone to know I’m doing this on purpose.”
Dante’s face had become an unreadable mask. “So how many of you are there going to be, Sonata?”
“Three iterations, because there are three movements in a sonata. Me here now, and two newbies.”
Dante glowered. “Your mom is going to kill you.”
“It’s my body.” She realized she was rehearsing now, for when her mother was back from work. “I want to make my existence really count, to push myself to express and achieve in a way I don’t think would be possible if I had all the time in the world. I want to dedicate my iterations as a reminder that we can only understand ourselves—understand life itself—within the context of a finite existence. People are unbearably bored with literally everything now. I want to show people what it’s like to live.”
Dante leaned forward and grasped her right hand in both of his. His palms trembled. “You’re whacked,” he whispered. “Damned philosophy major.”
“I love you, too.” She’d meant to tease, but the words hung in the air between them. Their hands clasped tighter, as if separate small animals. Dante swallowed hard, then nodded and released his grip. She rose, feeling buoyant, and stammered her way through a casual farewell.
As she wended her way toward the door she passed a table where two newbies sat. One turned his silvery face toward her. “Sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing. Have you considered man is something to be overcome?”
She recognized the reference from Nietzsche. She tossed her head and shot back, “‘What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.’ Yes, I’ve read Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
The other newbie, androgynous and blue skinned, regarded her with curiosity as Sonata moved on.
She breathed a sigh as she reemerged onto the streets of Hyde Park. Bolstered against the wind by the warm milk and coffee in her belly, she flowed along with the crowd, thinking ahead to the conversation with her mother. There wasn’t any question she would share her news. The two of them were very close. As she rounded a corner into an even thicker mass of humanity, she thought how her mother was not likely to get angry like Dante. Instead, she’d pull her signature line: You’ll change your mind about that when you’re older. It was what had been unspoken in the newbie’s stare, back at the coffee shop.
“And just how old will I be when I’m supposed to change my mind about everything?” she muttered to herself. The crowd had slowed to a crawl. There were too many people these days. Exasperated, she pushed forward, not caring that she was bumping people. She was nearly at the end of the block, and up ahead through the sea of bodies she saw the green light. Anyone could see it was time to walk, yet no one was. It was like they were waiting to be herded. She shoved forward in exasperation, hearing horns blaring from different directions, and stepped out into the street where there was some space to move at last—
She felt a jolt along her left side just as she heard a whoop of siren from the same direction, and then she was floating. Distantly, she heard the screech of brakes and a scream not her own. She saw rust-colored leaves blow from the tree across the street and go fluttering in slow motion against blue sky. Then her head slammed into pavement, which normally didn’t happen when one was flying. The world was atilt. She saw the face of a little boy, his mouth shaped in the exact oval of his head. Then the sun was in her eyes, or not the sun but a blinding stab from behind her eyes. The pain shot down her side even as her head felt stuffed like a pillow. Everything became a blur. Even the sounds seemed to smear together. Then all collapsed inward upon itself, contracting until the entire universe was but a single point. Then nothingness.
Sonata opened her eyes to find the kind and intelligent faces of three newbies gazing down upon her. Then she recognized two of them and sat up quickly with a gasp. Or at least, she tried to gasp, but she couldn’t draw in any air. She tried again to breathe, and then panic set in. She clawed at her throat but no one moved to help her. It was her worst nightmare. She flashed back to being in the water at the Washington Park Pool, ten years old, holding on to the edge as she followed her girlfriend Lana around the perimeter. There were two men in their way, and Lana went around them. Sonata let go of the edge too, realizing too late she was toward the deep end. She couldn’t swim. Her eyes went wide as she fell back in the water and slipped under. One of the men had reached out to pull her up—