‘Songbird’, L. Chan

Illustrations © 2016 Laura-Anca Adascalitei


 [ Sleeve, © 2016 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ]


November 12, 2096, Year of the Dragon

On his one hundred and first birthday, Grandfather Wen asked for a songbird.

Nurses circled him like vultures as he sipped at his tea. He had died twice before; once when his tired heart sputtered to a stop and another time when a corporate assassin had slipped modified spider venom past the kitchen scanners into his supper. Only for a matter of moments each, but the carrion birds had brought him back each time.

He coughed, wiping his mouth on the thick embroidered sleeve of his robe. It smelled of dust; and of the sweet chemicals they used to disinfect it every year. The fabric was a deep scarlet, red to make up for the blood that flowed slower and slower through his narrowing veins. Undulating dragons coiled around his sleeves, sketched out in gold thread. Handmade. A family could be fed for a year for what it cost to make. Grandfather Wen hated it.

“Happy birthday, Grandfather.”

The young man at the door wasn’t his grandson. The simple honorific glossed over a family tree which had been pruned, cut and spliced beyond recognition. Seven was a strapping twenty year old, a t-shirt taut across his sculpted chest, his movie-star face split with a guileless grin. Grandfather saw shadows of his own face there, distilled and re-arranged into something perfect.

“Thank you, Seven.”

Seven bounded across the room and swept up the old man in a great hug, lifting him off his feet. Grandfather wheezed when Seven put him down. The man that would be the seventh generation Chief Executive of Wen Heavy Industries was far from a finished product. Body parts were easily grown; whole bodies less so. Seven’s infant brain would be the canvas on which the next phase of the company’s strategy would be written, prospective annual reports drafted over his growing mind.

Seven beckoned to an attendant, who scurried in bearing a cage covered with a fine white linen cloth. The attendant placed the cage on the table and slowly drew the cloth away, revealing a tiny bird perched within. Sensing the attention, the bird opened its beak and filled the suite with song.

His son, the fourth Chief Executive of Wen Industries, used to deliver the annual gift in person. His grandson, the fifth, but the first vatborn, did the same. The current one, Wen Liang, so named for wisdom, had opted never to see or speak to the old man any more than necessary. Perhaps his name was apt.

“Do you like your gift, son?”

The speakers were small and hidden; his father’s voice seemed to ooze from the pores of the room.

“I did not ask to speak to you, ghost.”

Seven busied himself teasing the bird, slipping the tip of his finger between the bars of the cage.

“Can a father not speak to his son? Perhaps you’d prefer to speak to your own grandfather instead?”

There was no familiarity in the next voice. When it issued from the lips of the dying elder, it had been weak; each exhalation a step in a countdown whose end was in sight. “Another year passes, Chairman. Science cannot numb your pain, your wife is long gone, will you not join us in the Conclave?”

“It is not my wish to haunt my grandchildren and their children. It is still my choice not to be uploaded. The company does not own my soul.”

“No, we do not, father,” said the Conclave, in the voice of his son. Of all the voices of the gestalt that ran the company, this one discomforted Grandfather Wen the most. “Why the songbird?”

“When I was young, my father would bring me to the ancient parts of the city, where you could still feel the dirt beneath your shoes and the rooftops of the buildings could be seen without straining your neck. Old men would gather around, with songbirds in gilded cages hanging from poles. The air was thick with the music of the birds, each trying to outdo the other. Songbirds had their own repertoires, of course, but the best would learn, copying the most beautiful of tunes from their competitors.”

“That was years ago, son. But men still gather, down in the old city. The birds still sing,” said the Conclave, returning to the voice of his father.

“That is good.” Grandfather Wen was relieved. For once, the conversation with his jailors had not ended in tears. “Leave me, old ghosts. I want to enjoy the company of my new friend alone.”

The talk was interrupted by a wail from Seven. The songbird’s needle-sharp beak had teased a droplet of blood from the man child’s finger. Grandfather permitted himself a smile, the first in months.


November 12, 2097, Year of the Snake

The old man settled into his wheelchair, the ornate cage of the songbird by his side. They had wheeled him down to one of the company’s amphitheatres. The opera was in intermission. Grandfather Wen was having difficulty telling the characters apart; relying on the colours of their costumes and their voices rather than their faces.

Seven sat beside him, hands and fingers in the constant fidgety dance of a young child. He gave Grandfather a thousand-yard stare, focusing on his ocular display instead of the show at hand.

“Why the opera for your present this year, Grandfather?”

“It was Grandmother’s favourite. The opera is a lost art, people find it too long, too difficult to sit still for an hour. See the costumes, Seven. Not a computer effect. Real cloth, sewn by hand.”

In his mind, he remembered the elaborate makeup of the singers, painted cheekbones, eyebrows arched in permanent shock. Each sweep of an arm followed by the comet tail of a gossamer sleeve. There were only a few troupes left in the world, none in the city. They had been flown in at no small expense. Even when he was a young man, the opera had been a dying art. He hadn’t intended to think of Ling this day, this year. But he asked for the opera and so he remembered the woman who had been his wife.

She inspected the world through permanently surprised eyes behind thick glass; refusing any treatment on her eyes, no matter how many assurances she got. Ling, always in the lab, those wide eyes always focusing on something a little beyond. Brain-machine interfaces were her favourite, she picked apart problems methodically, explaining them to Grandfather over dinner as she disassembled a crab with a sharp fork. Ling, her breath sweet with the drugs that were killing her from the outside as surely as cancer was killing her from within, touching his face and telling him that she wasn’t going to be uploaded into the Conclave. Telling him to remember the opera.

Ling’s eyes were cloudy with palliatives, but her mind was still sharp. Once able to debate Grandfather to sleep, her sentences came short and sharp between wheezing breaths.

“The Conclave has offered to take you in, my love.”

“You already know my views on that.”

“Our son is there.”

“I will never stop loving you, just as I will never forgive you for allowing them to upload him.” An old wound lurked there, bandaged, scabbed over but never healed. It was not worth revisiting.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. You know the technology is safe. Is it so bad to live forever?”

She smiled weakly, the corners of her mouth moving up but a fraction of an inch and even that seemed to tire her.

“With your father? No, thank you. There’s another way.”

“Our best scientists haven’t scratched the surface of actual transfer and they’ve been trying for years.”

“And they will never find it. Is it so bad to be born again? Free of all this regret, this sin? They will never let you go, my love. The bars of your cage grow ever thicker. But if you see true, the door was always open.”

It was the most she’d said to him in months and the effort clearly exhausted her. Ling’s head sank deeper into her pillow.

“When you’re ready, remember the opera and we’ll wake up together,” she told him, still smiling as he stroked her head, pretending not to notice the wisps of hair that left her scalp on his fingers.

Grandfather unsealed her laboratory a fortnight after her funeral. She’d been thorough in the destruction of her work, starting long before the cancer gnawed her strength away. A blackened spot in the corner of the room marked the pyre of all her written notes. Her equipment had been neatly disassembled back to factory state.

He wasn’t the first person to go search through the rubble. There hadn’t been a single piece of memory storage in any computer. The laboratory was unhackable, unbreachable, one of four off-the-record setups with an air gap from the company network. He had been the only other person with access to the laboratory and yet someone else had been here before him.

Her expenses were equally inscrutable, a maze of shell companies and agents perhaps surpassing the company’s tax structure. The only discernible purchase was a pair cryogenic pods, of the sort developed for interplanetary travel. The carelessness was uncharacteristic for her; it was a message. When you’re ready, remember the opera, she said.

Grandfather Wen rubbed at the hard ridges of the neural shunt at the base of his skull. The first step to being uploaded. He thought of the shunt as a straw, through which the Conclave would suck his soul straight from the back of his head.

“It’s been a long time since you’ve talked about your wife,” said his father from nowhere.

“My journey is near complete, there is more to see behind me than ahead of me. She was always the best part of me.”

“We would have broken tradition, let her join the Conclave. She would have been free of the pain.”

“She knew the technology better than anyone else.” Ling never saw inscribing a mind on a silicon coffin as her goal; she was consumed with quite the opposite, writing a mind back onto the flesh. The first fruits of her labour were the past two generations of Chief Executives. Others may have created the vats that birthed their bodies, but hers were the hands that shaped their minds.

“It is safe.”

“There was more to life for her than being locked in silicon, I am tired, old ghosts. Leave me be.”

The opera was starting up again after a brief intermission. The Conclave fell silent, but it was never far. It permeated the bones of the building in the same way it had infected the entire company. Seven tugged at Grandfather’s sleeve. His brow was creased, troubled by some puzzle he could not solve.

“Why listen to the opera again after all these years, Grandfather?”

“Because Grandmother promised me something, little one. Hush now, the show is starting.”


November 12, 2098, Year of the Horse

Grandfather’s one hundred and third birthday brought a new pain. His nerves played him a daily symphony of pain and he was surprised to find a note he had not heard before. His eyes were holes in his skull through which liquid fire poured. A croak crawled out of his throat, sounding as weak and feeble as he felt.

 [ Songbird, © 2016 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] The songbird twittered next to his bed, chirping the notes from the opera.

“He’s awake.” Seven was there.

Cool hands brushed his withered claws from his face, something warm and wet pressed down on his eyelids. He opened them to see a world with edges and lines again. His nurse, the little vulture, edged backwards. She’d been around him for half a decade and had never said a word to Grandfather.

Seven stood by the doorway, arms folded, jaw set with a hint of hardness that had not been there before. Grandfather Wen had never noticed how absolutely sterile his room was, his every need had been met by the company and now, at the end of his road, he had nothing. It had all the character of a prison cell. The wheelchair did a little dance as he levered himself to his feet with shaking hands. Grandfather waved off the little carrion bird when she stepped forward. Seven didn’t move.

It was a clear day. Other corporate towers reached to the sky, bleached bone stretching out from the murk of the city smog. Pointing to heaven, but dead all the same. Just like Grandfather.

“Seven has taken a name,” said Grandfather, looking at the new Chief Executive. Names had meaning, purpose. After the Conclave had finished sculpting the minds of the vatborn Chief Executive, he was allowed the sole independent decision of his life: to choose a name.

“I will be called Yong, for bravery and boldness. My actions will ensure the ascendancy of our company, Chairman.”

“And what of Liang?” Liang was number Six, named for brilliance. Wise enough never to speak to Grandfather after he chose his name. Grandfather Wen liked Six the best.

“In here, Grandfather. You are already familiar with the particular poison that killed me,” Liang said in the voice of the Conclave, sounding like his father and his son at the same time. Had the machine ever really spoken with different voices?

“That was fast, I see the new Chief Executive prefers action. If you found what you were looking for, would I have woken up?”

“Your shunt has a failsafe,” said the Conclave, ignoring the jibe.

“I knew this day would come.” Embedded in the neural shunt was a tiny quantity of high explosive, no larger than a grain of rice, set to trigger if the shunt was activated without Grandfather’s consent.

“The shunt is old, so is its encryption. It would be a matter of hours for me to bypass it.”

“If you wanted to, you would have already done it.” Grandfather Wen waved at the nurse. She appeared at his side with the wheelchair and he fell backwards into it, the force driving the air from his chest.

“Your new eyes were the gift, surgery would have been a failure and you would have woken up in the Conclave after the upload. Except you’ve been uploaded before. When?”

“Before Ling died. She wrote both our minds in silicon, but not so we could join in your prison, old ghosts.”

“Where will you go, if not the Conclave?”

Grandfather Wen did not reply. The game was very near its end now. Like masters at a set of Mah-jong, each already knew the shape of each other’s gambits. The Conclave did not expect a true answer; neither would Grandfather have given one, even if he had known for sure what Ling had done with the copies of their minds. She only said that she’d be waiting for the opera and this he clung to. Two pods. But where? Was she still waiting?

“We’d always suspected that she’d perfected the technology, but she was very complete in her destruction of her records.”

Of course, the Conclave had never really wanted him; it was her that they were after. The Conclave could shape the minds of their puppets, but Ling’s science would let them live again. Even the ghosts got tired of their prison.

“Ling kept it from me, because she knew what you would become, even back then.”

“Is it so bad to live forever? You dedicated your whole life to the company, Chairman. We offer you nothing more than fulfilment of your purpose.” The voice of the Conclave never wavered. The voice synthesizer could vary the cadence and tone of speech. It could simulate emotion, but the Conclave had none. After Ling had passed, the machines pumped the air through her lungs and blood through her veins for another forty-eight hours before Grandfather turned them off. Corpse body, living through machines. Just like the Conclave. Corpse mind, animated silicon.

“You’ve broken tradition, Chief,” said Grandfather, staring at Seven with his new eyes. “I am allowed to choose my birthday gift.”

The young man with the inhumanly beautiful face showed no emotion. Perhaps there was just enough of the boy left in there for this to work. Seven nodded.


November 13, 2098, Year of the Horse

The wheelchair left twin ruts in the grime of the pavement. The sun, instead of the incandescent orb that Grandfather was used to, was a smeared blur through the greyish brown smog. The company’s security detail followed at a discrete distance. Grandfather’s own entourage of vultures had grown, gently guiding a pair of self-propelled coffins which, when unfolded, would provide as much care as any hospital emergency room. Seven himself was pushing Grandfather’s wheelchair.

Old men sat around a clearing in the concrete jungle; an interstice in the middle of a cluster of buildings. They perched on benches of unfinished cement, some leaning forward on walking sticks for support, others sprawled backwards in automated wheelchairs. Having someone push Grandfather Wen was both a symbol of wealth and his leash. The old timers took in the arrival of the entourage with the odd raised eyebrow and a few hushed whispers. You didn’t get by on the pollution blasted surface without having seen a few things; corporate warfare, triad members going out for a little dance on the streets, the cops coming out to pick off the stragglers. The old timers didn’t fear the worst, because the worst had already happened and when you were at the bottom, you either had your face in the dirt or you looked up, because everything was up from where you were.

Around the old timers there were poles embedded in the ground, paint peeling off to reveal rusted steel. The tops of the poles bent in a u-turn, terminating with a hook. And on each hook was a cage. The old men were dressed simply, cotton shirts over patched trousers without belts or held up with simple drawstrings. Their birds, on the other hand, were resplendent in brown, white or emerald green. The cages were of polished brass, some with intricate etchings on their heavy bases. The interstice was far from the roar of traffic, or the whine and murmur of the crowd. Quiet enough that the birdsong reached towards the unseen tops of the buildings hemming in the old timers’ space.

An assistant unfolded a short stand and placed Grandfather Wen’s songbird on it, removing the linen shroud that covered the cage. The raucous choir of birds fell silent, each one waiting for the new addition to make a sound. And sing it did. The songbird knew but a single song. Each note was perfect as the songbird launched into the aria from Ling’s favourite opera. The stage belonged to the songbird and it repeated its song, this time joined by the adventurous few hanging from cages above, by the time it was done, more than half were singing along with it.

Seven lay a heavy hand on Grandfather Wen’s shoulder, strong fingers digging into the scant flesh and pressing down on brittle bone. “Are we done here?”

“Almost,” whispered Grandfather through gritted teeth. He reached out and unhooked a latch on the cage. A tiny opening swung open, small enough for a hand to reach in, or a bird to hop out. Burnished bars had been the borders of the songbird’s world and it beheld the empty space with a cocked head.

“This will be last time you set foot outside headquarters, I’m afraid. The upload process is painless, or so Six told me. Or you could tell us where your wife kept the data and we’ll let you keep your pain company for a few years more. Either way, you are ours in the end.”

“She made it a point never to tell me what she did with the research. She was never any good with corporate matters but she understood your greed better than I.”

Seven turned his gaze to the songbird, which had hopped onto the doorway of the cage, perching on the wireframe, unsure of what to do. The old men were beginning to get to their feet, retrieving their charges from the poles. They had no keener sense than the one that kept them out of trouble.

“If the bird goes free, it will die. I’ll not have company property running loose.” Yet it was Grandfather Wen he looked at when he mouthed the word property.

“Sometimes death is the only freedom, but even in death, there is hope,” answered Grandfather Wen. The songbird spread its wings and took a single step off the cage. A flutter of wings brought it over the heads of all present. Seven tsked at Grandfather, the sound of an annoyed parent. He raised a finger and beckoned a bodyguard. The security man brought his sidearm up in one smooth motion. The muzzle whispered death and the songbird became an expanding puff of feather and gore.

The old men were already fleeing, lugging their own birds with them. Good. They would take the opera where Grandfather could not and would never go. Far into the corners of the city, as far as the birds went. Maybe one dark corner where he and Ling still slept. No, not him. Perhaps a younger man. Freer from sin and regret. Both waiting. Waiting for the opera.

The burst of gunfire drew the attention of all around, even medical crew, even Seven. Time to go. Grandfather Wen never did have the passcodes to unlock the killswitch on the neural shunt. He never intended for that door to be unlocked. He did have another set of codes, a sequence of five words. He’d chosen them himself, from the opera. He’d never forgotten Ling’s promise. She’d always been right. The doors to his cage were always open. Distracted by the violence, nobody heard Grandfather whisper the words to himself. Over the sound of fading birdsong, the tiny grain of explosive detonated and Grandfather Wen flew.


© 2016, L. Chan

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