‘Crescendo’, Omi Wilde

Illustrations © 2015 Martin Hanford

 [ Crescendo, © 2015, Martin Hanford ] Something on the list scrolling down the edge of Professor Mari Macdbwe’s vision has caught her attention. Irina Onuo’s engagement level has dropped 15 zarets. Oh certainly—it is, after all, 9pm and Onuo always finds some way to bypass the supposedly tamper-proof restrictions to the newest episode of whatever immersion is currently sweeping through the school like some prehistoric plague. Frater Martins’ engagement level has risen 2 zarets. Macdbwe clicks her tongue—how nice of Martins to emerge, ever so slightly, from the languorous slump yo has been in for the majority of the class. One would never know that Martins had been courted by three of the most prestigious musical planets, and Macdbwe thinks grimly that talent would only get yo so far. But, no, no, none of these.

Still demonstrating the kattajak technique developed by the Inuit of Nunavut, Old Earth, with primary and secondary vocal chords rising in a competitive discordant-harmony, she scrolls quickly back through the list. There! Peri Sleener’s engagement level has dropped 250 zarets. That. Is quite impossible. An obvious malfunction. She makes a small note of it to her far right peripheral vision and proceeds with the lesson. Clearly, she thinks, with a small internal sniff of satisfaction, this new engagement detection software isn’t perfect. Certainly, Etect has been a boon, but, even so, sometimes she resents it slightly. She was an excellent teacher before any of these gadgets, and she still trusts her own intuition far more than its supposedly infallible algorithms and bio-signals. She still believes that she knows better than it which student needs more help; which student could, despite immediate appearances, have dormant talent ready to be ignited; which student needs to hear a particular song. Still, this is the first actual error it’s made in the six months since the school accepted the gift of these first experimental units from one of the developers, an alumnus of the school.

It’s too late by the end of the class. Perhaps it was too late from the moment that that catastrophic plummet in engagement was noted by the Etect. Onuo, emerging from the end-credits of Slider and jauntily ignoring Prof M’s narrowed eyes—that old sour puss!—to race to the door, is the first to notice Sleener’s slack and unresponsive face. Yo waves yo implant-glittering hands in front of Sleener and bellows, with yo typical verve and volume, “Heyo Slee ’gell, wake up!”

Nothing happens.

Macdbwe, in the act of unmeshing herself from the blackboard, turns—the sixth sense of every adult who has spent far too long in charge of children already blaring an alarm deep in the pit of her stomach. She crosses the room in five long, purposeful strides, cups Sleener’s lolling head in her hands, and clicks the outer off switch to the feed protruding from Sleener’s temple, that yo parents have refused to allow yo to remove until yo 17th birthday. Still, nothing happens. Sleener is an unresponsive husk. Macdbwe’s deft fingers raise one of Sleener’s eyelids. No pupil response. There’s a tiny broken blood vessel near the tear duct. Macdbwe, maintaining a poised demeanour for the sake of the students clustered around, but with her stomach knotting, checks for a pulse in the girl’s limp neck. There is one.

Briskly, she assures the students that Sleener is alive and that a med-team has already been dispatched, and orders them to their next class. Most obey unhesitatingly—the benefit of a reputation as a dragon. Onuo and a few of Sleener’s friends attempt to stay, but Macdbwe ushers them out as the med-team arrives. Macdbwe stands back and lets them do their work, but her keen eyes note that they seem equally confused by whatever catatonia has Sleener in its grip. Eventually, having exhausted treatment protocols for seizures, Rhumbargs, and sociosomatic stupor, they strap Sleener to a gurney and take yo away.

Sleener is the first. The very next day, another student’s Etect readout plummets abruptly—this time, Macdbwe stops the class instantly, and filled with an intense surge of desperate energy, tries to perform the consciousness jumping techniques the med-team administered to Sleener, using her own implants, but it’s still too late. When the med-team finally arrives, they reprimand her for attempting to do their job, and she is unable to hold back a snarl, “Yo is my student. And so was Sleener, and yo is still—what? In a coma? Simply absent from yo body? And you don’t have the slightest clue what is really wrong, do you?”

The lead medic’s face is blank, his voice smooth. “We’re doing the very best we can, Professor. This is a difficult situation for you, I’m sure, but we are trained to deal with these situations.”

“Oh, yes, and the implication being that I’m not, and should therefore simply butt out, and watch another of my students slip into some delirium”—but Macdbwe only mutters her retort under her breath, and goes to usher her other students out, lightly touching Onuo’s shuddering shoulders, in an awkward attempt at comfort.

Macdbwe dreams that night that she can fly. Dreams that she is in fact flying. Or, perhaps not flying physically? Disembodied. Yes, and flying through data streams with something flickering on the right hand edge of her vision. She wakes tired, and with her shoulder blades itching, but her voice as she runs through her morning scales is more supple and full of emotional resonance than it has been since she was half this age. She syncs into the news-stream as she drinks her coffee, and listens to officials scoff at the suggestion that it might be some kind of viral epidemic. A representative for D.R.B.C. suggests, in a smug tone that makes the old-fashioned strip of decorative fur down her neck bristle, that it’s undoubtedly some new club drug. Macdbwe’s long fingers dig into her chair rest—she knows her students, and Sleener was not a partier. Yo might not have had the most raw talent, or the best mods and tertiary vocal chords, but yo was dedicated to music. No. Something else is happening here. She tries to tell herself that nothing will happen today. She tries to convince herself that two is not a pattern; that there is no reason to dread going in to a day at this work that she has loved for so long; that her students are not threatened by something she can’t see and can’t protect them from. And nothing happens that day.

Two days later as she traces the movements of Baggiria’s epic orchestral movement Io Turo Lee—Ygaice Tru’s engagement level has dropped 500 zarets. Slax Huper’s engagement level has dropped 300 zarets. Bey Jeffood’s engagement level has dropped 350 zarets. She reels with furious panicked energy, as three more of her students plummet, but nothing she does has any effect. This time the lead medic’s voice is not smooth, and he admits his confusion. If she didn’t feel such a desperate need for someone to blame, she would feel pity for the way his skilled hands and his first quality med tech implants simply dangle with helplessness. Instead Macdbwe feels as though she could rip those implants out with her own bare hands and put them to better use. Before she can say or do anything—Irina Onuo’s engagement level has dropped 275 zarets. She feels a new surge of grief and rage, and hurls herself across the room to the desk of the obnoxious little slacker, tears streaming down her face. Onuo is not there. Yo body is empty and Macdbwe knows it but she can’t stop herself from shaking yo, from trying everything yet again

She is granted compassionate leave for the rest of the afternoon. Too wound up with emotion to sit still in the claustrophobic ’tube she runs home, belting Orationa’s aria with more soaring sorrow than she ever was able to vocalize in her award winning 3 months on Herald’s stage. It’s when she reaches her apartment that the insight flares in her brain. Irina Onuo. Irina Onuo who has cried every time—each and every victim of this, this thing, has been one of Onuo’s closest friends. And now Onuo yoself. There is a pattern. She only has to find it. Tease and unravel it out from this central point—Irina Onuo.

That night Macdbwe dreams that she is soaring on a cloud of, what she now realizes, is not merely data, but anthropomorphized musical notes. She is pure electricity. When she wakes, she is singing a complex, slippery melody so pure and right that she leaps from bed to record it—and, as the last notes leave her mouth, is stricken with guilt that she has, in that moment of musical ecstasy, forgotten her students. Their—Deaths? Absences?—catch in her throat, and leave her retching.

And then, flooding her brain, a flash from her dream of Onuo: those glittering hands smothering yo laughter at the immerserstory yo was always watching in class. That. That is the pattern. Onuo was generous, and always shared yo back alley accesses with yo friends. Macdbwe knows that this is the solution, as clear and right as the perfect melody that still rings in her ears. It’s a virus perhaps. Something. Macdbwe has always mistrusted these new immersion methods—nothing like the simpler, more controllable forms of stories she grew up with. These integrate every sense, and allow rapid fire switching of viewpoints in mid-stream. That, alone, could cause the brain to rebel, she thinks. Surely, we weren’t meant to see a story from every angle, and all in a blazingly vivid instant.

Macdbwe wonders who to go to with this revelation. She thinks vaguely that there must be some proper authorities to contact—but something is insistently tugging at her psyche. Another song. A complex intertwining series of melodies, requiring all three of her tertiary vocal chords, and every bit of the decades she has spent perfecting her art and craft. Why, to even begin to adequately represent the refrain she will need to use all five non-standard notational systems… Hands shaking with creative intensity, she meshes back in and lets the music pour out of her. To think, that she had begun to believe herself over the creative hill. She had thought that all she had left to give Aoide was the training and cultivation of the next generation.

The next generation.

Once again she is overwhelmed with guilt that the muse has overpowered her grief and worry for her students. She is shaking, with fatigue now, but she forces herself to open a communication window. After a moment’s hesitation, she calls a former pupil. Charn was not a brilliant musician, and would never have been one but fortunately yo—no, they; she still thinks of them as a child, as her student, but they are an adult now, and have chosen the adult agender pronoun—had had the good sense to move on to a different dream. They are a doctor, now, at some prestigious hospital, she thinks. Surely, they would at least know who to inform of such a health crisis. Charn doesn’t answer, and she’s startled by their abrupt busy message—and by how much older they appear. She leaves a brief, and somewhat flustered message.

The next thing she is consciously aware of is waking from a slump in her chair to the sound of Charn’s call ringing through. It is two hours later. She is thick headed with sleep, and at first she thinks she is simply not making herself clear. But no—eventually their gentle explanations take cohesive shape in her brain, despite its best attempts to rebel against the unwelcome information.

“It can’t be the immersion stories,” Charn explains, “because billions mesh with them every day and have for years, without any such problems.”

“But,” she objects, “perhaps it’s the specific program?”

They sigh. Shake their head. “That program is immensely popular with all the uni kids, and I can assure you that there have been no other outbreaks of whatever it is that is afflicting your students… I’m sorry, prof.” At least they have the respect to not try to tell her that it was a good thought. They pause and then say slowly, carefully, “This… whatever is happening… medically speaking, it doesn’t qualify as an epidemic. It’s still well within the range of random coincidence. I know it must not look that way, but statistically…” Their voice trails off and they look down; rubbing thumb along the index knuckle as yo always did when yo was writing an exam.

Macdbwe feels a sudden rush of sympathy replace frustration and resentment, and then feels exhaustion replace everything. They say goodbye, and she sits in the dark for a few minutes before hunting through her cupboards for an old jar of instant coffee. She brews it, and as she does she thinks. She barely even bothers to consciously discard the idea of mere random happenstance. So, it must be something unique to the academy. It could be anything she supposes—something in the water system, some mold perhaps; some new and more obscure game or immersion; a cursed Egyptian statue. She almost laughs at her last thought, and then sighs. How can she, a prima donna past her prime turned teacher, hope to discover a pattern or cause when the city’s best doctors don’t even think there is one to find? The futility of it doesn’t stop her, of course.

 [ Systematic, © 2015, Martin Hanford ] She spends the next two days systematically trying to inventory everything that the victims have in common, and covers her home whiteboard in meticulous cross-referenced lists and notes. She makes no progress, except to become increasingly convinced that it must be something in the school itself. On the third day, three more of her students plummet into catatonia. She goes home screaming a Mongolian lament, and stays awake all night alternating intense bursts of creativity with equally intense planning. The next day, she approaches the headmaster.

The headmaster is obviously expecting her. She smiles sadly at Macdbwe and asks, “Yes?”

Macdbwe launches into her carefully prepared arguments—mindful of how much pressure the headmaster must be under from the board to avoid scandal, she suggests an excuse for shutting down the school. “Repairs. And upgrades. The main auditorium’s roof has leaked in the last two storms and several classrooms have outdated equipment. It would be—”

The older woman raises a small, elegant, plump hand and interrupts her, “Yes, Macdbwe. Your plan is sound, and I had been considering something similar myself. Health officials assure me that this is not an epidemic, and that while they are unsure of its cause, that it is likely coincidental that our students have been the only ones affected. However, several students have expressed fear and concern, and I think I quite agree that this would be for the best. We will, of course, continue to provide classes for our distance students, and will offer that option to our other students during the school repairs.”

Macdbwe blinks, all her arguments still assembled on the tip of her tongue. “Oh. Oh. Thank you, Headmaster.”

The headmaster sighs, and says with a mixture of gentleness and tartness, “You are not the only one distressed by recent events, Macdbwe.”

Macdbwe nods, swallowing around an ache in the back of her throat.

The headmaster makes the announcement that very day. Three days pass, and no more victims are reported. She calls Charn, worrying that perhaps other incidents could be being kept out of the media—but no, they assure her that no other cases have occurred. She rejoices. She still wishes she knew what it was that had caused it, and dreads the possibility that whatever it is will still be there when the “renovations” are completed. After a few more days, the novelty of hooky wears off, and most of her students begin signing in for virtual classes. She is sleeping well, and every morning she wakes to a new song birthed in her brain, and bursting to escape through her finger tips and vocal chords. If she were superstitious she would knock on wood, but she is not, and she doesn’t—she sings with joy.

It happens one week after the school closes. She is teaching her afternoon class. Giver Loren’s engagement level has dropped 275 zarets. She can’t believe it at first, and her thoughts are a rush of confusion. Then, quite suddenly, she thinks “not Loren.” Loren is a distance student—has always been a distance student. Yo is on asteroid patrol in the farthest edge of the system. And it hits her. Like a physical blow, it hits her, and she knows without a fragment of doubt. It is nothing within the physical school. It’s in the school’s net. It is Etect. She doesn’t know how or why, but she knows it. She knows, with a horrifying wave of nausea, that the creative spring that she has gloried in is not her own. It’s theirs.

Charn finishes the final preparations and turns to her. “You do know that this…? There’s no precedent for this. We have no idea how this happened. I… well, I’m not even sure that you’re right, and even if you are, this—this probably won’t work. I mean, there’s no reason to believe that… I know you feel… But.” They allow themselves a small unhappy shrug.

Macdbwe merely nods. “I know.”

Charn presses their lips together and then blurts out, “You won’t have very long. I reported your theory to the appropriate authorities and experts—I had to. They’ll probably be here soon and they’ll be able to… to conduct tests. And if it is… You know, I… I’m sure they’ll be able to reverse it.”

Macdbwe responds to the apology that they weren’t quite able to say, and calmly assures them, “It’s quite alright. I understand.” She shivers in the cold, sterile air and turns toward the hospital beds that their empty bodies lie on; they are arranged in a semi-circle around her. Her eyes, burning bright and tired, meet each of their vacant eyes. Her features, made even more gaunt and harsh by the fluorescent light; she looks like an Albrecht Durer martyr as she bends over the console and meshes into etect. She smiles gently at Charn, and then straightens, each vertebra perfectly aligned. Her lips part.

And she begins to sing.

© 2015 Omi Wilde

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