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How to Listen to Music

***Editor's Warning: Adult-Themed Story, for Mature Readers Only***
We sit where we happen to be and we sit together too.
Listening to music, among other pleasantries.
The process has its challenges. First, we have to reach a consensus on the specific piece as well as the performer or performers. Of course. But the experience isn't complete until one outsider is included, and that's where the process turns daunting.
Good ears are essential.
A sharp, curious mind helps.
Innocence with the tune can be wonderful. But a mind that has little experience with music will refuse to find the emotions in the notes and rhythm.
And of course, we can hope to find a golden moment in the outsider's life.
Sitting scattered around the world and in orbit, we are presently enjoying Dvorak as it passes through young ears in Uganda. Not only do we hear the music but the New World Symphony is a revelation for the boy, and we drink in the fellow's astonishment and giddy joy. Yes, we're doing a lot more than listening. Every aspect of his life and modern brain have been secretly hacked, and that includes delivering the performance through the best available sound system: Second-hand speakers once rooted in the skull of a woman in Berlin, then donated to a charity we maintain for this precise contingency.
Quite a lot of work, yes. But it isn't. Most of our considerable focus is centered on other work, the critical work. But people have always listened to music at work, and in the same vein we chat with one another and let pieces of our brains nap, and some of us eat algae cakes and cultured meats, and quite a few of us are using the bathroom. This is what we do and do and do in our lives.
To most observers, little has changed in the world. Politicians still stand behind ornate podiums, believing that governments are what shape and destroy other lives. Extranational companies still continue generating healthy profits while centers of research can't stop making new discoveries. And of course, every person sings little songs about being the owner of his own life. But the true rulers of the world? Us. There are nineteen thousand of us, or fifty trillion. Counts are subjective. Nineteen thousand human minds are thoroughly linked to servers and AIs, and working in tandem, we nourish the world's nervous system, and we maintain ecosystems that have been abused too much, and we keep open lines of production that the billions depend on for food and power and every kind of entertainment.
Meanwhile, the world entertains us.
Routine tasks have rules. The symphony's final movement begins, signaling the next search. Each of us has his turn to suggest songs and ears, or we can pass the opportunity to whoever is next. But nineteen thousand tunes, experienced at human speeds, takes a very long time. And none of us would consider giving up any power, no matter how trivial.
The next moment happens to be my moment.
This is a Wednesday in May, in 2041, and I name a pop tune of no particular importance. Then as the disdain begins, I suggest a certain old woman in Reston, Virginia. Tiny protocols dredge up her life, and an instant later, the complainers fall silent.
Each of us has strengths. In our real jobs, and in the little realms too. My greatest tiny talent is to find the perfect set of ears. This has happened three other times. (It wasn't that long ago when we were ordinary people, gifted but unwed to machines and AIs and such.) Three times playing this game, and I already have a reputation and the leeway that comes with it, and that is why the approvals outnumber the negative votes by a hundred to one.
Dvorak finishes.
And with no fuss whatsoever, I take possession of the lady.
The song concerns sex.
You might ask, "What song doesn't?"
But this melody and every word is blatant, the entire effort is superficial, and how can a woman of dignity, now deep into her eighties, care about teenage nonsense? Because of her history, of course. Because she used to be subject to infatuations and lust, perhaps not all that long ago, and because the man sitting beside her figures very much into that history.
The hospice's sound system has been hacked. Without warning, the room is flooded with the girly voice of a long-dead singer praising the merits of afternoon interludes.
The old lady laughs.
Her husband is rather less amused. After all, his wife is dying. Which is one compelling reason to select her. Not only is she in a controlled environment, but medical probes and diagnostics allow me more entry points than usual. It is easy easy easy to feel myself lying in that bed, narcotics playing well with electronic pain suppressors. But that's just the beginning. By adjusting the current, I enhance the lady's comfort and her cognitive functions. For the first time in weeks, she knows clarity as well as joy, and seeing the change, her suffering husband has to feel happy too.
The girly voice sings on, untroubled by anyone's pain.
More than once and in several public venues, the old woman has mentioned her affections for this song. And now she sings along, the wasted body thrashing its legs under the covers, attempting to dance.
"Honey," the husband says.
Purely from joy, she begins to weep. A hand lifts as far as it can, wanting to wipe at the happy tears, and he says, "Honey," again, grasping her fingers while the other hand does that small chore for her.
Watching the scene, some of us cry.
Sitting apart from one another, we can hide our emotions or parade them about. Whichever we want.
Then comes a warning to me and to everyone else. Too much is being asked of a body edging near death. And that's when I retreat from the machinery, allowing AI doctors to do their pragmatic best.
The song continues through its final bouncy verse.
The love of a man's life passes out of consciousness, and it soon becomes apparent that she won't wake again.
As it happens, they married in their thirties. This we know. Second marriages for both, and whatever connotations the song carried for her, he isn't part of any teenage pleasure.
A small sadness before the last big one.
The song ends, and some of us retreat. And some of us linger. I keep staring at the scene, counting heartbeats from both of them, and the surrounding machines labor with commendable enthusiasm, not ready to surrender until the hospice's protocols give them no choice.
New music begins. An astronaut riding into orbit listens to atonal nonsense popular last February.
I never liked that tune, which is one reason not to listen.
And also because I am being drowned by the same conversation repeated over these next few seconds.
"Did you plan for her to die?"
Managing is our first skill. And each of us can or at least should appreciate the limits of every plan. Stuff happens. Shit happens. And sometimes, despite all of our brilliant work, nothing happens. But everybody seems ready to believe that it was my hand and my will that ended that poor woman's life.
Hundreds ask.
Each one of them hears my calm, clear-headed denials.
Dozens refuse to believe me. Most are people I didn't like before this. Well, I don't like them now, and I wish I could ignore them. But there are laws and the threats of Law, and that's why I open my logs and all of the data, proving my innocence to all but the most stubborn few.
But those disbelievers aren't my biggest problem.
A friend is the worst hazard. Not immediately, no. But days later, many songs later, she approaches me with a different topic. And when I feel at ease, she ambushes me with the question, "Have you ever considered?"
She asks, "How amazing would it feel?"
Then she touches me by various means. "Hacking a couple having sex. Experiencing that."
This happens all of the time, of course.
Inside our peripherals, we remain people.
But these are private, secret indulgences, and there is another ramification that she adds to her plea.
"Sex ending with death," she whispers.
"No," I say.
"Not for everyone," she says. "This isn't music, after all. So just you and me, and maybe a few others--"
"Never," I interrupt, pushing away those warm wonderful fingers.
But I am thinking and thinking. Afterwards, I can't stop wondering. Lovers copulating in the afternoon sun, and meanwhile some very reasonable disaster unfolds. A biogas leak unnoticed by the mandatory sensors but not by one talented individual sitting in a distant room. The gas leaks, and he listens to those happy minds, and he counts the seconds before a small fan kicks awake, making sparks, and at what point in this scenario does one man's pleasure finally turn evil?
The End
This story was first published on Saturday, August 13th, 2016

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