Kill-Switch

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2012.

Jo was in the middle of a saxophone solo when she made the decision to go phenotypically male. She was playing a quartet gig in a fantastic venue, a month-long summer retreat so far gone in the California redwoods that you got there on an asphalt road with a yellow line down the middle, just like in the old movies.

Almost everyone in the audience was a hardcore jazz fanatic, or was at least giving a good simulation — it was hard to tell whether some of the folks with goatees, berets, and sandals intended them ironically. Some seemed to be history buffs who'd been influenced by the jazz craze to switch from Civil War reenactments to smoking authentic reefer and trying to talk like Cab Calloway.

Regardless, they were a blast to play for. There was an older contingent, but also a lot of people Jo's age or younger who'd been genemodded for music. In a solo, she could slip in a quote from some old Art Blakey tune, and if she did it artfully enough they'd all recognize it and laugh and clap. On a Latin number with mad-scientist cross-rhythms, you'd see a kid beating out the syncopations on the picnic table with a plastic fork in one hand and a soda straw in the other, all while patting a foot three-against-four. The old couples — some of them looked like they might be old enough to have seen Art Blakey — made up for their natural chromosomes with extra enthusiasm, clapping on two and four and lindy-hopping in the aisles as if their calcium-boosted bones were made of titanium.

The band came down sweet and soft on a sandpapery dissonance at the end of “Lonely Woman,” and then Jo switched horns from soprano to tenor and gave a crazy-fast count for “Cherokee.” They blazed through the head of the old standard, and then the drummer catapulted Jo into her solo with a roll like a well-oiled machine gun. A redheaded old broad in the front, whose perky little boobs made her look like a walking ad for anageriatrics, started pumping a bony fist in the air and yelling “Go! Go!” Jo made eye contact with her and built up to a bluesy squeal as they got to the bridge.

Then Bud, the piano player, a big, hairy ultra-male pheno, landed on a wrong chord. Jo bit into the same beat on a screaming A-sharp, and the clash with Bud's A-natural was about as subtle as two sumo wrestlers colliding. You could see the shock wave going out through the crowd. As the changes whizzed by like a chain of firecrackers, it became obvious that this wasn't just a wrong note, it was Bud telling a whole different harmonic story than Jo — Othello walking away from the bed while Desdemona pretends to struggle under the pillow. Now Jo's solo was a train wreck that she had to clean up.

She turned to Bud, smiled around her mouthpiece, and fit a huge, obvious arpeggio into her solo to spell out the next chord. Jo was the soloist, Bud was only comping, so even if Jo had been wrong — which she wasn't — it would be Bud's job to mesh with her. But he stuck to his guns. The crowd was confused. They all knew the tune, an old warhorse, and the music-modded ones could chart every twist in the two contradictory chord progressions unwinding on top of each other. Did the band reharmonize the bridge? Who's out, the horn player or the piano player? Now Bud was moving his lips. The son of a bitch was mouthing the chords to her, as if she was the screw-up, and doing it so the audience could see.

You can't argue with hormones. Jazz had always been a male world, born in the whorehouses of New Orleans. Jo fired Bud that night and finished the festival with her quartet cut down to a trio. Then she drove back through the redwoods to San Francisco, tubed home to New York, and checked in to a clinic for the flip to male.

Hormones.

It was a Friday night less than a month after Jo got out of the clinic, and he was between sets at a hole-in-the-wall in Jackson Heights that was wedged between a laundromat and an automated Chinese take-out. Only briefly, for a couple of years in high school, had Jo been a boy, and the years since then had dulled the first-person memories of maleness. Now he found himself in the corridor outside the bathroom, wrestling like a Neanderthal with a drunken customer who'd insisted on pawing a waitress.

After the bouncer and a Public Peace waldo arrived to get rid of the guy, Jo went out in the alley with the waitress to chill out. It didn't occur to him until then that the wrestling hadn't been a completely necessary part of the solution to the problem — or that the waitress had actually been handling the situation pretty effectively on her own. But that was how it was with testosterone. Something happened, and you said to yourself, Did I just do that?

The waitress's name was Chris. She shared a 'lectric of synthweed with him, and as he was heading back in for the next set she kissed him on the cheek.

Saturday morning, in the very small kitchen of his very large apartment in Bed-Stuy, there he was trying to make her giggle by flipping pancakes while simultaneously trying to dance a Fred Astaire tap routine from Top Hat. Instead of giggling she got a serious look on her face.

“You must have been modded.”

“A little,” Jo admitted. “Just for music. My folks didn't have a lot of money. You?”

“My moms are both grade-school teachers. I was an off-the-shelf combo, math and music. Minored in composition in college. I do arrangements for a few of the local salsa bands.”

Jo nodded sympathetically. Unless Chris had chosen to look older than she was, she was a first-gen mod, just like him. Back then, nobody had really known how gengineering would play out. These days everybody realized that if you wanted your kid to be a professional mathematician, you needed to be able to afford top-of-the-line gene work. Live music, on the other hand, was booming. So many people had minor mods for music that you couldn't entertain them by streaming the same recording at them over and over. If you could play jazz, the world was your oyster in a way that it hadn't been since two hundred years ago, in the era of Jim Crow and smoke-filled nightclubs.

While they ate their pancakes Jo noticed Chris tapping a ragtimey rhythm against the table leg with her big toes. He pretended not to notice. By the time they finished breakfast it was ten o'clock. Chris saw the keyboard in the corner with a bath towel draped over it. Jo got out his tenor and they played a couple of Chano Pozo songs together. Her playing was a little stiff and square, but serviceable.

“I'm supposed to pick up the tail end of the lunch shift at noon,” Chris said.

“You've got to go?”

She laughed. He must have looked like a crestfallen puppy. “I could use some clothes that don't smell like yesterday.”

“Um, I guess I never mentioned, but I just pulled a flip three weeks ago. Got a whole closet full of fem clothes, and I think we're the same size.”

Chris looked sad and put her hand on his cheek. “That's not the only thing. I didn't quite tell you the truth about my mods. My parents started with an off-the-shelf, but then they got someone to do some unlicensed work on top of that. Kind of a botch. I've got this thing where ... when I was four, I spent a week singing the Ode to Joy, nonstop. I've got pills I take for it. If I don't get home and pop one before my shift — what?”

“Tonalexa? Hundred-milligram tabs?”

“Three-hundreds. Four times daily with water.”

“Help yourself, plenty in the medicine cabinet.”

After Jo got back from her shift, neither of them had to work until Tuesday. They took a medication vacation together. It wasn't completely safe to go on or off Tonalexa abruptly, but each of them promised to watch for the danger signs in the other.

When Jo woke up Sunday morning, Chris was already out of bed. He checked the clock: nine a.m. They'd both been off their meds for over 24 hours. As he slid out of bed, he could tell from the shissss that the sheets were freshly washed. In the bathroom, he brushed his teeth in a drawn-out accelerando. Chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga. The locomotive sloooowly built up a head of steam until it was whistling down the tracks.

Thirty-seven years of taking his meds religiously. A week ago, if anyone had asked, he would have volunteered a list of all their positive effects, starting in fourth grade, when he was finally able to sit still in school and not use his desk as a drum set. Now he felt more like he'd spent thirty-seven years being deaf.

August in Prospect Park was hot and sticky. One person singing the Hallelujah Chorus would have made passersby turn away and hurry their steps. Two doing it in harmony and counterpoint made people clap and look for a hat where they could toss their coin-cards.

Jo switched the social wall in the living room to do-not-disturb mode, showing a holo of a meadow in the Swiss Alps. There was nobody around to judge their behavior. By Monday they both knew at which point in the cycle the herd of goats wandered across the meadow. Messages from his friends piled up, and then messages from Chris's once they figured out where she was.

Three months later they were talking about babies.

Jo's flip to fem had exhausted both his deductible and his savings. Chris used her insurance to set up an initial consultation with a repro tech. Ten minutes before the appointed time, they sat fidgeting on Jo's couch, trying not to stare at the ticking clock on the social. Not only were they nervous, they were both back on full meds, and to Jo the world was as cold and muffled as Atlantis at the bottom of the ocean.

“The last time I felt this fluttery was when my mom was dragging me to chess matches,” Chris said. “Do we have any dissolvies left?”

“I don't know,” Jo said. He'd never liked nicotine. “We're going to have to be careful to keep those out of reach once the baby is crawling around.”

A window finally popped up on the social. You'll be meeting with your personal adviser Susan. Please click OK to acknowledge that Susan is not a doctor. They clicked through the preliminaries and waited until the screen lit up with a picture of a woman with a portly, middle-aged pheno.

“Hi, I'm Sasithorn Jungrungreangkit, but please call me Susan.” There was a flat picture on her desk of her with two teenage kids. Jo and Chris introduced themselves.

“I understand that you two are thinking of having a baby.”

“Right,” Jo said. Did his voice sound as robotic to other people as it did to him right now? “The thing is, it's kind of complicated, because we want our kid to be real strong in music, but we both have these first-gen mods where they messed up the work.”

“Yes, I can see that on your charts. Actually these aren't as bad as some I've seen from that period.” Her lips didn't quite match her words. Maybe there was a filter daemon cleaning up her accent, or maybe the damn pills were blurring time. “Do you take Tonalexa for it?”

“Yeah, but it's like we have to choose whether to feel dead musically or ...”

“Jo functions okay, but when I'm off my meds even my friends can't stand me.”

“I think I can set your minds at ease about the baby. You didn't know that your mods both had kill-switches?”

“They have what?” Jo asked.

“My parents never liked it when I asked questions about that kind of thing,” Chris said. “The job obviously wasn't totally legit, and I think they were afraid they'd get in trouble, or I would.”

“You're in the U.S.? You can't get in legal trouble there for your own genes. Anyhow, what a kill-switch means is that you have a master gene that switches on a big set of your artificial music genes. It's recessive, so unless you'd both had exactly the same mods, there's no way your kids would express it. It's a routine precaution for a mod that hasn't been tested in humans, and you also see it in a lot of well-tested mods these days, because it's a form of job security for the engineers. They don't want to optimize the gene pool in a single generation and then be out of work forever.”

“Wait,” Chris said, “you mean if we just had kids with no gene work at all, they wouldn't be musical?”

“No, I'm sure they'd be quite musical because of their environment. And genetically ... your parents, were they musicians?”

“One of mine,” Chris said.

“Both of mine,” Jo said.

“So it's very likely your child will be talented.”

“You mean,” Chris said, “if we just ...”

“Yes, if you simply mix your chromosomes naturally. I see that Chris is geno-male, so you wouldn't even have to worry about whether your insurance would cover a Y chromosome if you wanted a boy.”

Chris was geno-male? How could Jo not have known that?

“But —” Jo said “— just randomly ... isn't that taking a big chance?”

“It doesn't seem safe,” Chris said. “We're not rolling in money, but it's not like we're, you know ...”

“We don't want to be irresponsible,” Jo said.

“Hmm, New York City?” Susan said. “I'm not fluent in that social context, but I suppose there would be some disapproval incurred. But I assure you, it's perfectly safe. Why, your great-great grandparents probably didn't even go to a hospital for childbirth, much less conception.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Jo wondered whether the “not a doctor” thing was really code meaning that she was a gatekeeper who was supposed to find an excuse to deny coverage. He felt Chris's fingernails dig into his palm and realized he needed to say something diplomatic before she want ballistic.

“It's really great to hear about all kinds of options,” Jo said. “That's one that we never would have thought of ourselves, and we'll definitely keep it in mind. But now let's look at some other choices.”

“All right,” Susan said. “Now you have to realize that the human brain is already pretty thoroughly optimized by evolution. We only have so many neurons, synapses, and gap junctions to allocate to different cortical modules. If we increase one thing, we have to reduce another.” She made a motion with her hands like the see-sawing pans of a balance.

“Sure,” Chris said. “I have all kinds of math mods that I don't need to pass on. I never use them myself.”

“That helps,” Susan said, “but maybe not as much as you'd think. Music is tied in with analytic and symbolic reasoning. Einstein played the violin. The trouble with music as a genetic target is that music uses so many different parts of the brain. That's why songbirds sing. It's so the male can prove to the ladies that he's an all-around stud. I have to warn you, you're getting to the point of diminishing returns. If you want to do very much better than natural mixing, the work isn't going to be cheap. ”

In three days they had a treatment plan, a cost estimate with a frightening string of zeroes on the end, and a letter from Chris's insurance company saying that Chris and Jo would have to pay the full amount out of pocket. They commiserated with each other, and when that didn't seem to be enough sympathy, they stopped neglecting their social and posted about their woes. Jo's running partner Rayy, who Jo hadn't run with in a month and a half, text-posted back: Nebraska gives incentives to keep the pop up, 30-year loan at 3%. Balloon pmt if you move out of state. Kid as collateral — not really, ha ha. Run Monday?

They took the commuter tube to Chicago, stopped for dinner and drinks and a long walk by the lake, and then picked up their rental car. When Jo woke in the morning Chris was still asleep, with her tablet in her lap showing a map, and there were endless fields of hydrogen beans outside his window. The rows swept past, always converging to a vanishing point somewhere near the rising sun. Diagonals flickered in and out of the geometry, sliding over each other. Jo had a wistful feeling that if he hadn't been back on full meds, his brain could have made the flickers into a beautiful rhythm, like the sound from a distant orchestra of guiros and washboards.

He looked over at Chris. What a mess they were. Maybe the world would have been better off if genetic engineering had been against the law from the start. What if they ended up producing a kid who was messed up in some different way than its parents? Maybe they'd be better off just playing the chromosome lottery, like the adviser had said. But that would never fly with Chris. She had everything mapped out, just like the map of Nebraska in her lap.

North Platte was small enough that it didn't really matter where they parked. They found a spot in the shade of a tree and walked up B Street, stretching their stiff limbs. They had an hour and a half until their appointment with the realtor. The state government had it set up so they could live in a house in town for a month rent-free before making a commitment. They passed a boarded-up gas station with rusting pumps that dated back to the ethanol era, then a manicured public park where a boy was peddling a tricycle.

His mother looked up from her tablet. “Morning.”

“Hi,” Jo said. “Is there someplace in town where we could get breakfast?”

“Kimmi's, around the corner on Bryan.” She hooked a thumb.

“Thanks.”

“Did you see that?” Chris murmured. “No helmet! Is that normal around here?”

They sat down at the counter and ordered eggs over well and hash browns. The waitress, who was also the cook, got the spuds started on a griddle behind the counter. She produced four white ovoids from a refrigerator, cracked them open with her bare hands, and dumped the goopy contents out onto the griddle. Jo and Chris exchanged glances. The whites weren't actually white at first. They started out transparent and then turned opaque as they cooked.

Jo decided to take a chance on the eggs. The white tasted normal. He dug around with his fork as discreetly as possible to make sure there wasn't a fuzzy baby chick hidden inside the yolk. Chris used her knife to scoot her eggs over to the lip of her plate, and then dug into her hash browns.

“What's the matter, honey? You said over well, right? I can put 'em back on to cook if you want 'em a little firmer.”

“Oh, no, I just wasn't as hungry as I thought. That's a lot of carbs there.”

Out on the street again, it was already hot and humid. Chris said, “Oh, Jesus, those poor baby birds. How could you eat that? How long until the realtor?”

“Forty-five minutes.” The pictures of the house looked incredible, especially considering the price. Outside of town, right on the river. They drifted back toward the car.

When they passed the park, the boy and his mother were gone, but there was a whitish animal digging in the sandbox.

“What's that?” Jo asked. “Do they have coyotes around here?”

“Is it a dog?”

“If someone sent it out for a walk, you'd think its bot would be with it.”

“If it poops,” Chris said, “who's going to pick up after it?”

“Or what if it bites somebody?”

“It's probably trained not to do that.”

The dog circled around as if preparing to lie down in its newly dug nest in the cool sand, but then it saw Jo and Chris. It stepped laboriously over the edge of the sandbox, wagging its tail, and walked toward them slowly, as if its joints hurt. Its coat must once have been yellow. It walked up to Chris, sat down, and looked up at her, still wagging its tail.

“It seems okay,” Jo said. No collar. He looked around again for a bot.

The old dog rolled over on its back and wiggled. Jo knelt down next to it.

“Be careful.”

“I don't think he's much of a man-eater. Kind of skinny. I can see his ribs.”

Jo scratched the dog's belly, and there was more happy wriggling. When Jo stood up, the dog dragged himself to his feet and rubbed his muzzle against Jo's leg.

Chris had her phone out. “I'll call Public Peace.”

“Don't do that. They'll put him in a cage or something.”

“Well, what are we going to do? He seems nice enough right now, but animals can be unpredictable. For all we know, he already bit that little boy and they're on the way to the hospital. She was barely even keeping an eye on him.”

“Dogs are like people,” Jo said. “Once you know how they are, they don't change for no reason. I think he's hungry. Let's go back to the cafe and get a couple hot dogs for him.”

“Jo, are you crazy? We don't have time for this.”

“Just call the car and have it meet us at the cafe. Plenty of parking in this ghost town. Come on, boy,” he said to the dog. He took a couple of steps, and it followed him.

“Excuse me, but could you address me, your partner, instead of the animal? We've got a plan for what we're doing this morning, so let's just stick to it.”

“It's not a chart for a Mozart symphony, baby. Loosen up. Nothing bad happens if the woodwinds come in a couple bars late.”

Jo got his way by continuing to put one foot in front of the other. At the cafe, he was afraid to walk through the door because the dog might follow him in, or maybe wander off. “Excuse me,” he called, “ma'am?”

The waitress smiled and came to the door. “I see you've got a new friend.”

“You don't know who his owner is, do you?”

The car showed up and parked.

“No, but the town's been slowly bleeding people. A lot of them leave their pets behind, especially if they're moving to a big city.”

“Could we buy some food to give him, a burger patty or something?”

“Yeah, sure, don't worry about paying.” She went behind the counter.

“Jo, seriously, you're going to be a father soon. You can't just wander off and chase butterflies. We need to be responsible.”

He knelt down and petted the dog. “I am being responsible. I'm being responsible for putting some food in this guy's belly, which is more than his owners seem to be doing for him right now.”

A white sports car pulled up, and an androgyne in a white suit got out. Jo recognized the realtor's face from the holo.

“Hi, I thought that looked like you guys. How are you two? Wiped out from your trip?” — handshaking while talking — “I didn't remember that you mentioned a dog? Not a problem, though. You've got a nice big yard with a fence. How in the world did you manage with this beast in New York?” Jo opened his mouth to try to explain, but the realtor moved on to addressing the dog. “You are the cutest old critter, aren't you?” — ruffing up the fur on its head — “Oh, aren't you? You are, yes you are the cutest.”

Without telling Chris, Jo cut his dosage of Tonalexa to a quarter of what he'd been taking. As they met people and tried on the town for size, he kept wondering whether the person he was introducing himself as was the real him. Maybe he should add a disclaimer: The guy you're meeting is just one version of me. It's me on a hundred milligrams a day.

The vet couldn't pick up a signal from any chip implanted under the dog's skin, and nobody responded to a local ad on the net. They named him Silver, and after strained negotiations they arrived at a compromise under which he came inside at sunset and was exiled to the back yard again every morning.

What Jo liked about Silver was that the dog didn't care about Jo's med levels. At a hundred mg, Jo could more or less keep on an even keel socially, and when he played a couple of New York gigs over the net he felt more sharp and creative than he had in years. Sometimes at the lower dose a feeling would build up like an itch or an urge to sneeze. He learned to feel it coming on, and when it did, he'd tell Chris he was taking Silver for a walk. The old dog would plod along the deserted riverside trail, looking happy to be smelling the grass and the water even when his footsteps were like adagio quarter notes. Jo would whistle the melody of “My Funny Valentine” thirty-two times in a row without variation, or cover the whole mile's walk doing the same basic fox-trot. When they got back, the itch would be gone and Chris wouldn't know that anything had been wrong.

One of the two net gigs picked up 70 thousand views by word of mouth, and people starting calling from both coasts to book him for live work, not caring that he could only do it by telepresence. He'd found a groove, and if he went back to New York, he wouldn't be able to keep it going. If he foxtrotted for a mile down Atlantic Avenue, they'd throw him in the loony bin.

On the Tuesday of their second week in Nebraska, Jo got a call for a job filling in Saturday night for a section player in a big band at a swanky San Francisco tourist restaurant. On Wednesday the leader called back again and said they'd had a lot of interest in Jo, and she wanted to put him on the bill and have him take three or four solos. Saturday afternoon he broke his Tonalexa tablet into halves and threw one in the toilet as usual. He stared at the other half in his palm for a long time and finally tossed it in after the first.

The gig went great, and with encores Jo didn't get to bed until three a.m. Nebraska time. When he woke up Sunday the light filtering through the blinds was a funny greenish color that made him think of wholetone scales and seasickness.

He said good morning to Chris, who was working in the holo volume on a big, tall score with lots of parts. He got himself a cup of coffee.

“You've got an F-sharp in the your B-flat chord where the horns come back in.”

She didn't look up from her work. “Honey, you know it drives me nuts when you kibitz.”

“Sorry.”

Silver was lying down on his belly on the back stoop under the awning. It was cloudy, and inkblots slid fast across the rectangle of sky beyond the sliding glass door. The dog had his head down between his paws as if he was trying to make himself small. Rain started to patter on the windows.

“I'll let Silver in.”

“Honey, we had a deal. I can't work with him in here.”

“It's starting to rain hard.”

“He'll track mud on the carpets. You want to lose our cleaning deposit?”

The implication took Jo by surprise. He'd picked up hints from Chris that she wasn't crazy about North Platte, but they'd agreed to avoid talking the subject to death and wait until it was time to make a final decision at the end of the month.

“I'll get a towel and make sure he's clean first.”

“Sweetie, he's fine. He's an animal. He's got fur. He's sheltered from the rain, and it's not even cold out there.”

Jo took his coffee mug outside and sat down next to Silver on the stoop. Silver's tail went thump-thump on the cool concrete. Thump-thump-thump-thump. The tempo clicked in Jo's brain. It was the same as the one they taken the night before on “Isotope.” He knew that if he went back in the house and checked, it would be between 92 and 94 beats per minute. Near the horizon there was a flash of lightning that landed a dotted sixteenth note before the downbeat. One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and. He put his hand on the dog's shoulder to keep him calm when the thunder arrived.