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Authors: H. A. Swain

Gifted

 

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For my darling, Clementine

 

“… no hypocrisy is too great when economic and financial elites are obliged to defend their interest.”

—
CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY,
Thomas Piketty, 2014

 

CHORUS

A dragonfly, perhaps
one of the last, darts downriver, searching for another of its kind. Where have the others gone? Has anyone but this dragonfly noticed the species decline or have mechanical drones, the same size and shape with cameras for eyes, obscured their slow disappearance? Bigger drones, the size of birds, lift up from the roofs of warehouses built along the meandering river and fly a predetermined path from the Corp X Complex to the City where they deposit their packages in delivery chutes like babies from storybook storks.

Down on the ground, on the path by the river, people slip by, gravel crunching under feet, voices low. None of them will notice the dragonfly, though. The sound vibrations from its iridescent green wings are lost among the willow branches and low hum of delivery drones in the sky. Only a frozard hears it. Readies itself for the hunt. Head moving side to side, zeroing in on its prey. The dragonfly drafts higher on a breeze that sends ripples like fish scales across the water down below.

All around the dragonfly, electromagnetic waves oscillate at the speed of light. With a transmitter and antenna anyone could ride these waves, although nowadays everything legit streams in zeros and ones across the digital divide. Analog broadcasts are all but dead as true radio began to fizzle a long time ago when FM and AM stations blinked out like dying stars. But there are holdouts. Old-school rabble-rousers. Like DJ HiJax, who snatches nighttime waves to play old songs, long forgotten, and reminisces in altered voices about the days when music belonged to the people.

Tonight, though, no such luck. HiJax is on the run, setting up another pirate radio station in yet another undisclosed location. And so, only the breeze disrupts the dragonfly's sound. Sound waves bend. The frozard misjudges, shooting out its tongue into nothingness. The dragonfly continues along the bend in the river, skirting around and over the people who search for a partially hidden path in the dim light of the moon.

Corp X workers come in twos and threes from the PODPlexes and warehouses built along the river a half decade ago. They are quiet. No conversation yet through black masks on these class-war criminals. What goes on out here, a mere half mile from the Complex, is risky and must stay hidden. Quietly, they slip over a crest of matted grass and down a steep embankment, like squimonks scurrying into hidey-holes, hoping to be safe and undetected for the night. They find the door (built into the side of the earth with a “Welcome to Nowhere” sign) that leads into a dank room carved out from this riverbank.

Inside, anticipation crackles like heat lightning on a humid night. There's a wooden box at the end of the bar (two boards across old sawhorses). In the back, there's a makeshift stage (wooden pallets dragged from the dump) behind a large swath of discarded canvas with a faded, defunct logo—a swish turned upside down so it looks like a cresting wave. Everyone here knows what to do: drop cash into the box (no COYN accepted), pick up a cup of local Juse (distilled from wild potatoes and dandelion greens gathered by the river), and wait. When the curtain flicks, the crowd inhales and shifts, vying to get a better look, but it's not time yet so the canvas stays closed.

“How's it look out there?” Zimri asks.

“Full, I think,” says Dorian.

Zimri's stomach tightens. She pats her pocket for the digital audio recorder and straightens the cord running to a tiny mic on her lapel. She'll capture the whole show and release it later on the waves. Then she palms a little sphere with a non-blinking eye that she uncovered in the mess of old and outdated gear her mother left behind when she took off five years ago.

“What's that?” Dorian asks.

“Might be a video camera,” she says. “It connects to this.” She points to an ancient laptop where she has preloaded all the backing tracks for tonight's show. She plays every instrument—the crappy old electric guitar and bass her mother left, a synthesizer with missing keys, and a ZimriDoo she made herself from scavenged PVC pipes and oil pans, funnels and air tubes, strings and stoppers—part drum, part fiddle, part accordion—a one-person band strapped over her shoulders. “Thought it might be fun to see what we look like up there.”

“Just as long as you don't broadcast live,” Dorian says with a nervous chuckle.

“Nah,” says Zim. “Wouldn't know how if I tried.”

*   *   *

Outside, a mere quarter-mile away, Nonda searches for Zimri. She knows the place is around here somewhere. Near the elbow in the river where the watercress is thick and raspberries sometimes still grow in summer. But the walk takes longer than she remembers. Her legs are tired and slow. Not like when she was young. She listens carefully for the music but her hearing has grown dim. Too many years in the warehouse, metal on metal on metal bouncing around the vast space under one roof where the whole town used to be. Cacophony, that's the word. Sounds like what it means.

Still, she hears music in her head. Symphonies and jazz. The old stuff. Way before her time, and she's seventy-five. She passed her love of old music down to Rainey, who liked to listen from the start. A tiny baby soothed by Haydn sonatas, Coltrane riffs, and Sarah Vaughn lullabies. Nonda filled her head with the stuff. Maybe that was the problem. Why Rainey couldn't stop. And now Nonda suspects Zimri is making music, too. Girl has it in her just like her mother, despite Nonda's best efforts to keep it tamped down. Shushed her when she hummed. Took her spoon away when she banged it in rhythm. Smacked her mouth when she matched notes on the tram. The dominant seventh chord of the horn. The dissonance of the squeaking brakes. The girl has it bad. Music is inside her and Nonda always knew it would eventually find a way out.

She'd recognize that girl's voice anywhere. It's pure and sweet like Rainey's was—a two-octave range with a little smoke around the edges. Nonda might be old, but she's not dumb. She built herself a receiver years before Tati started selling them in her Old Town shop, though she never expected to hear Zimri coming through it. Child's just like her mother, which is why Nonda must keep searching along the riverbank with her ears perked up like a frozard listening for a dragonfly to pass by.

*   *   *

For every Plebe worker out at Nowhere, there are twenty up on the Strip because what else is there to do after a twelve-hour warehouse shift? Personal Occupancy Domiciles are small, each POD only two hundred square feet with retractible furniture and one screen per family unit. But at the Strip, warehouse workers zap COYN from their HandHelds and step inside what used to be a grocery store, a bookshop, a bank, and a restaurant way back when Nonda was a kid. Individual shops have gone the way of critters that used to inhabit the riverbank. Who needs them all when you can squish them up together? A single super space for all your entertainment needs! Here the bar is large, expansive, taking up an entire wall. No cash, no masks needed. It's on the up and up. With frothy Near Beers and steaming bowls of grubworm-meal noodles in hand, Plebes flock to the three-story-tall, one-block-wide screen showing perfectly legal digital entertainment.

So far the Buzz on screen is filled with images of the richest and most beautiful Plutes posing for endless pix at tony events in the City Distract. Gallery openings. Movie premieres. Hottest ticket restaurant seatings. What more could Plebe viewers want? Those who've made it on the Buzz must be worth watching, right? Otherwise, you're a has-been or never-was and not worth anybody's time. Like Libellule, the last self-made superstar of pop, curled up beneath her duvet in a PONI apartment on the outskirts of the City, dreaming of the days when she ruled the waves.

Then the scene on the screen switches. There's a LiveStream tonight from Chanson Industries Arena. Cameras focus in on the crowd mingling at the Arena while waiting for celeb singer Geoff Joffrey to take the stage. He waits behind a curtain of finest blue silk. Melodies buzz like gnats inside his brain, so many he can't capture them all. Sometimes his head aches with so much music. He's a lucky one, though. Kept himself relevant for years. The Chanson PromoTeam gets half the credit. They've updated his look every three months, leaked preplotted stories of romantic ties to up-and-coming talent, pulled favors and made enemies to keep him in the Buzz. But he's getting tired. Wearing down. He's already twenty-two years old—five years past his Acquired Savant Ability surgery that rewired his brain for musical genius. No doubt, the ASA has paid off and set him up for life, but sometimes he dreams that he is running from a swarm of locusts, each one singing its own melody so the sound becomes overwhelming. He watches himself trip and fall and curl into a ball, knees to elbows, head covered in a feeble attempt to protect himself from ten thousand tiny sharp jaws.

“It's time,” his handler tells him. He nods and moves mothlike toward the lights as the curtain swishes open. Plutes in the Arena get to their feet while Plebes at the Strip sway and lift their cups when Geoff Joffrey takes the stage.

*   *   *

On the riverbank, Nonda slips and falls against a tree, exhausted and confused about why she's out here—was she picking greens for Rainey? A dragonfly momentarily alights on her arm. She says hello and blows on it. It lifts up to join the breeze that carries the faint vibrations of drums that Nonda feels beneath her sternum but can no longer hear.

The dragonfly follows those vibrations out past Nowhere, where inside a masked drummer has jogged on stage, smacking his sticks overhead. Hearts surge as he crashes a beat on a rickety kit (bass drum, hi-hat, snare). The hypnotic rhythm hits the masked Plebes in their chests and deep down in their guts and they begin to move like the beat has overtaken them. They stomp their feet, yell, whistle through their teeth, and lift their arms overhead, clapping hands together in unison. Fish mouths in the river begging to be fed. Zimri takes one last look from behind the curtain, then she shouts, “Now!” and hits record on her devices.

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