My Noise Will Keep the Record
JULIAN k. Jarboe
My home is a witch's lung or a giant’s heart. Puckered cracks of plaster snake up the walls from a half-century-old renovation. It palpitates from the constant drum the interstate highway just beyond a courtesy swamp once planted, then neglected, as a sort of apology for the highway. The swamp thrives, reclaims detritus for the realm of bioorganisms, while I am increasingly cybertronic.
I can tell who a structure is for without signs or directions; I feel it by gut instinct, in the motors where I once had guts. In my home, I understand my environment as myself. Most of this city is not for me, and would rather I not visit or approach, even the building I work in. I discern this without a single word of law or custom, although I press my employee badge to the fob reader and am permitted inside. A body knows these kinds of things from experience. Eventually, even Pavlov found that when he heard a bell he had the overwhelming urge to feed a dog.
Most of this city is not for me, and would rather I not visit or approach, even the building I work in. I discern this without a single word of law or custom although I press my employee badge to the fob reader and am permitted inside.
I can see my house, a faint dark spot on the horizon, from the top floor of the high-rise where my job is headquartered. It’s a bulbous wand of brushed steel and tinted fiberglass, carving a shadow out of the sunlight on the surrounding blocks, standing for progress. Progress looks like Godzilla’s vibrator.
I’m standing before the south-facing conference room window and looking for calm in the river that bisects the city. It’s a rainy afternoon and there’s only a dedicated few joggers along the riverside walkways, some of them wearing the personal assistant devices that we manufacture. It looks like a necklace―a collar, really, but officially a “token” on a “smart strap”―but you train it to your speech patterns and can ask it anything, give it a name, and it tracks your vitals and sleep and finances and shopping preferences, things like that. Lots of other companies make similar products. Full-flesh people buy them at great cost and wear them around, voluntarily, and their stats come to me and the hundreds of other temps who process it.
Progress looks like Godzilla’s vibrator.
I am going to lose my job. I’ve taken too much sick time and our contracts have terms, even though the project seems to have no deadline. I asked one of the data scientists―the real employees with advanced degrees―how long it would take to use all the information we’ve received since the launch, if we all worked our hardest on it, and he laughed and said four thousand years and counting.
My supervisor enters the conference room behind me and closes the door. Her engagement ring catches the light and I can’t look away from it even when she starts talking. It’s a princess-cut Martian diamond. It’s not even that beautiful, but it is distinct, and cannot be mistaken for an easier, commoner, or more earthly stone.
My supervisor cornered me on my first day and said that we had to stick together as “diversity hires.” She gently uptalks as she enumerates my failures to stay healthy, so that I cannot refute them without seeming like a hothead or a liar.
In general, I say that I love difficult people.
In general, I say that I love difficult people. I am protective of us and will rationalize our survival tactics. It seems very subversive until I’m beneath it.
Now she is asking me if I understand the finality of the terms and conditions. I say yes, I do, and I thank her for her time, and leave the conference room to return to my workstation.
There, I dip my hands beneath a laser switch and my stenotype hums and flickers to standby. I set to work on my transcription queue, already behind because of the meeting. I clamp the audiochaw between my teeth and minute-long sound clips play off the server and resonate inside my skull with perfect clarity. Some are silence or background noise and I mark them as such in the metadata. What interests the company most is human speech. I listen to shards of conversations, arguments, bedtime stories, foreplay and climax. I transcribe them verbatim, with screenplay notes for tone. Each hand-tailored recalibration improves the software’s algorithm. Our devices are always, always listening to their users.
The raw files are chopped and shuffled in the queue to limit our investment and knowledge of their origin. Schizophonia in lieu of eavesdropping. I type the words but I barely comprehend them. The process is half automatic, like a polite conversation or a prayer or a pledge of allegiance.
The process is half-automatic, like a polite conversation or a prayer or a pledge of allegiance.
At the end of this day I come home to a handwritten letter from my landlady, inviting me to her unit for her eighty-fifth birthday, and to let me know she’s retiring. The house is for sale.
I will attend the party. I will even bake the cake. She let me stay after my parents were gone, after my accidents and augments; welcomed my friends and lovers as they became my roommates, never asked when there was turnover. I will feel grateful to have been permitted to remain for so long. I’ll wish I could love her in a vacuum where that sentiment exists apart from the facts of ownership and non-ownership.
Suppose the new management company is polite and offers me dibs after the demolish and renewal, three times the most money I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ll ask if I can pay in my remaining organs until I’m an appliance with a face and they won’t find that very funny. Full flesh never do. They’ll skip straight to the terse legalese. I’ll keep telling jokes because my grief is all dried up. I’ll even say my grief has been replaced with a synthetic and they’ll see me out the door to the sidewalk where the whole block is turning inside out. A pair of full flesh will move into the new building with their personal assistant devices. No matter how vulgar their throat strings, their voices produce valuable data while my own just makes noise.
The body is plastic, remembers long after it’s grown, severed, augmented. You can have that phantom sensation for a whole neighborhood. A cityzen is one who keeps the memory of a specific place long after it’s been demolished for high rises. My noise will keep the record, with nowhere else to go.
Julian K. Jarboe is a writer and sound designer from Boston. They are a recent alum of a "Science Fiction and the Human Condition" themed residency at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Their other work can be found on their website, toomanyfeelings.com, and they tweet @JulianKJarboe.
Illustrated by Meghan Murphy