The low November light swept in under the clouds and flooded the wall of windows with golden light. Inez Townsend tilted her head away from the glittering sea water outside the Harpa concert hall and hoped that the reporters thought she looked interested, not squinty. She had agonized over what to wear to her first press conference and finally settled on standard concert attire, a simple black tunic, but had given a nod to her new home in Iceland by swapping a pair of knee-high black boots and leggings for her usual pumps.
The audience was a mix of high-level donors and journalists. It was easy to tell them apart, and not just because the journalists had lens augments glinting from their foreheads like third eyes, but the donors sipped champagne and wore natural fibers that made all the printed fabrics seem stiff and flat. Thank God her dress was cotton.
Next to her, Sóldís Vilhjálmsdottir was effortlessly glamorous, with her silver curls tumbling around her face as if she’d just woken up from a tryst with Odin. The Chief Conductor and Artistic Director for the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra was tall and slender and had lines that made her face seem more interesting with every one of her seventy-six years. Just sitting next to her made Inez feel like her life was finally taking off.
All she had to do now was not remind anyone that she was all of twenty-two and the least experienced person in the room.
“Here, yes, we are happy to introduce to you the results of our competition for emerging voices.” Her voice had the breathy Icelandic aspiration at the ends of each word as if the wind were snatching extra sound from between her teeth. “First, please meet our new composer in residence, Ragnhildur Leifsdottir. Ragnhildur is an Icelandic composer, of course, who had studied at the Royal College of Music in London before returning here. She has already had success in Europe with her work, Autumn Concerto. Tell them what you have written for us.’”
“It is structured in three movements, and it is for orchestra and solo piano with twelve fingers”
On her far side, Ragnhildur blushed and studied her hands, twiddling her thumb augments with obvious nerves. Her blond hair was pulled back in a bun so severe that the little tendril in the front looked like a comma. “It’s an orchestral piece with solo piano –”
Sóldís moved the microphone closer to Ragnhildur and Inez made a note to speak up when it was her turn.
Clearing her throat, Ragnhildur started again. “It is called Einhverfjöll, which for those of you without augments, translates to ‘Some Mountains.’ It is structured in three movements, Svartur or ‘Black,’ Blár or ‘Blue’ and Ljós or ‘Light,’ and it is for orchestra and solo piano with twelve fingers.”
Inez twitched, almost bodily turning to stare at Ragnhildur. Twelve fingers. That meant augments. Inez didn’t have augments. Augments were the unholy in the sight of God- No. No, she knew lots of good people with augments and-
Sóldís turned to look at her. With effort Inez kept her smile fixed and was grateful that the conductor had been turned away when Ragnhildur had said twelve fingers. But seriously. To just announce that without asking her?
“Now, please allow me to introduce our pianist, Inez Townsend, an American pianist here on scholarship to the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Inez has been a finalist in the Van Cliburn competition, and she’s been playing professionally since the age of thirteen. We especially picked her from a field of many other pianists because her approach to the piano seemed to pair naturally with Ragnhildur’s vision.”
Except for the part about twelve fingers. Inez’s smile felt frozen to rigidity as Sóldís turned the microphone to her. “Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.” They could talk about it later. Questioning her conductor in front of donors and the journalists wouldn’t win her any friends. “Ragnhildur’s other work is stunning and I’m honored to be invited to play this debut.”
The rest of the news conference passed in a blur of smiles and questions. The clouds scudded past Mt Esja, dimming the sun on the water to a bearable level, but an ache started to form between her eyes. Twelve fingers.
“Thank you all for your questions. We look forward to showing you our work in the spring.” Sóldís pushed back from the table, standing with a smile. She lowered her voice and beckoned Ragnhildur and Inez to follow her. “Now, we have champagne and I introduce you to people.”
Inez’s phone buzzed on her wrist. She looked down, keenly aware in this moment that if she were a normal person, she’d have a jewelphone in her ear. A jewelphone wasn’t a real augment and yet she’d never been able to bring herself to have that fight with her parents.
Which was who was calling. She tapped it off, knowing what they were going to say.
“Something?” Sóldís stood next to her, with her head tilted to the side as she peered through her grey curls.
“Hm? No. No.” But maybe she could get them to make a change. “Actually… well. Yes. The twelve fingers. That… that was a surprise.”
“For me as well. But it is exciting, yes?”
“Well. But… I mean, is it really necessary? To have twelve fingers, I mean.”
Sóldís steered her a little away from the table where they’d been for the press conference, leading her to face the windows so that their backs were to the room. “Is it a problem?”
Yes, of course it was a problem. Inez didn’t even have pierced ears, much less any sort of augmentation. But her heart started to push against her ribs and the large room seemed to tighten around her.
Leaning down, Sóldís’s lips were pursed as she studied Inez. “You ask if it is necessary. Surely you are not suggesting that we suppress Ragnhildur’s vision.”
“No. No, of course not.” She swallowed and sweat beaded at the back of her neck under her hair. “I was just surprised. It’s… it’s not something that I’m entirely comfortable with.”
“I can see this troubles you.” Straightening, Sóldís faced the water, fingers steepled in front of her as if she were contemplating a score. “Here is my thinking… If you feel strongly that this is something you do not wish to do, we will not, of course, force you. You can return the money and we can award it to one of the runners-up.”
“Oh. I didn’t mean… I just wish that someone had asked.”
“Yes. Of course… Of course, I also wish that you had mentioned in your interviews that you had some parameters under which you would not work.”
“I didn’t say that.” The pain between her eyes crept around to her temple. She couldn’t afford to return the money. And even if she could, the grant came with a visa and she needed that. She needed this whole thing as a stepping stone to get citizenship in Iceland. She swallowed and tried again. “The fact is that I don’t have robotic thumbs and I… I can’t afford them. Not anything that you could play a concert with.”
Beaming, Sóldís spread her hands. “Is that the only obstacle? But of course, we will provide them. We have a sponsor and you will have the very best quality thumbs.”
“Great.” Inez’s smile probably looked as ill as the sweat slicking her back. “That solves everything.”
Except her family.
Inez was crouching in front of her apartment’s tiny refrigerator with a bag of groceries on the floor when her phone rang. Her parents. Sighing, she tucked the skyr into an empty spot next to the ab-mjólk. There was only so long she could avoid her folks.
She transferred the call to the kitchen’s wall screen. “Hi, Mom and Dad.”
“Hi pumpkin!” Her father’s cheery voice made her shoulders relax. “What are you doing down there?”
“Putting away groceries.” She slid the frozen plokkfiskur into the even tinier freezer cubby.
“Show me your hands.” Her mother’s voice sounded crisp and monied and was complete artifice. It was the “I’m very angry voice.”
“Yes, of course it was a problem. Inez didn’t even have pierced ears, much less any sort of augmentation”
“Seriously?” Inez swiveled on her heels, peering up at the screen her parents were on. She lifted her hands and waved at them. Ten fingers total and only two of them were thumbs. “Happy?”
“No. I am not happy.” Her mother shook her head. “I told your grandmother to watch that news conference. The only thing saving us is that she was at bingo this morning. Twelve fingers! Do you have any idea what that would have done to her?”
“Sarah…” Her dad put his hand on her mom’s and leaned toward the camera. “We’re just confused. Twelve fingers… Is that like four hands. A second pianist plays with you or… What does that mean, exactly?”
She stood up, dragging the bag of groceries with her. She wasn’t going to look up like a child to have this conversation with them. “Solo piano. The piece requires thumb augments.”
He sighed. “I’m disappointed to hear that.”
Inez winced and put the bag on the counter. “It’s not like it’s a permanent augment. It’s just temporary.”
True and also, to really hit professional performance levels, she was going to have to wear them 24/7. They would have to become completely natural to her. She pulled the granola out of the bag and set it on the counter.
Next to the thumbs. The box was out of the line of sight of the wall unit, but she still pushed it farther back so her parents couldn’t see it.
“Sweetheart, you know that isn’t the problem.”
Inez shook her head and opened the cabinet to put away the small jar of peanut butter she’d found at the health food store. No one in this country willingly ate the stuff and it was outrageously expensive, but it reminded her of home. “How different is this, really, from wearing glasses?”
Not that she’d put the thumbs on yet. She’d had them for two days and they just hung out on her counter.
“It’s not the same at all.” Her mother leaned forward. “Augments rewrite your brain.”
“Really?” She paused with a box of pasta in one hand and stared at the camera. “Now you’re using science to make your arguments.”
Her father was an engineer so that wasn’t entirely fair and his sigh said as much. “Everything rewrites the brain. That plasticity is what makes it good at learning. You’ve spent your entire life learning to play the piano and neither your mother nor I could do more than Chopsticks. And that’s because your brain has been rewired to pla-” His image froze with his mouth half open as the internet blipped.” -can’t play without them.”
“You froze for a moment.”
He grimaced. “Sorry. We’ve been having brownouts all day.”
“It’s the electric cars.” Her mother shook her head. “They keep promising to upgrade the infrastructure in our neighborhood, but…”
“But everyone gets home from work and they all plug their cars in at the same time.” Her dad shrugged. “Progress.”
“I get it. But I’ve also read that your brain flips back to normal after about two weeks of not using an augment.”
“Really.” Her mother looked dubious. “That’s not what I’ve seen.”
“I wasn’t aware of your vast experience with augmented people.”
“When people join the church, they stop using augments. So yes, I do have experience with augmented people and their transition back to their natural gifts.” Her voice had gone icy, which meant that they were one sentence away from “don’t get snippy with me, young lady.” “There is nothing that-”
She froze mid-sentence, mouth twisted to the side and one eye half closed. Inez kept putting groceries away, waiting for her parents to start moving again.
The brownouts reminded her that this fellowship wasn’t just about the music. Iceland, with its geothermal power, never had brownouts. It had beautiful clean air and a universal living wage and socialized medicine and all the things that her home might have had but chose not to. Well, maybe not the geothermal. But windfarms could have been a thing. This wasn’t just about her career. If she could get citizenship in Iceland then she could serve as an anchor to bring her parents over.
The screen went dark. Call lost.
“Inside lay two robotic thumbs chased in silver and deep blue-green like the sun glinting on the Atlantic”
She sighed and tucked the shopping bag back into its elastic pocket to make a tidy ball for the next shopping trip. Sighing again, she grabbed the box from the counter and went into her living room where the piano was. Two pages of Einhverfjöll were sitting on the piano. Ragnhildur was still writing the rest, but SÓldís had slipped her these two pages as a sort of temptation or promise.
Even on the page, even as a sketch, it was already beautiful. It should be something that filled her with delight, but she felt trapped into playing it. They should have asked her. Biting her lower lip, Inez pushed the piano bench back with her foot and sat down. The first notes dropped down like scattered rain on stone, clear and beautiful and not quite random. Then from the left hand a gust of wind pushed up into-
She didn’t have enough fingers.
The missing notes left aching holes in the music. Fine. Fine. She grabbed the box and broke the seal on the edges. Inside, in beautiful pristine white board, lay two robotic thumbs chased in silver and deep blue-green like the sun glinting on the Atlantic. A pair of transmitters lay next to them in a flat, discreet black with a geckoskin adhesive on the surface. Those would go on her ankles.
She knew that much from having seen colleagues use them in college to extend their reach. Wetting her lips, she pulled out the instruction manual and started skimming it. There were details and there was the quick start.
For now, that would do.
Inez tugged her woolen socks down and grabbed the left ankle sensor. She placed the flat sensor on the inside of her ankle, over the bone, where it would get signals sent to her big toe. The geckoskin adjusted and hugged against her ankle like the second skin it was designed to be. The other sensor went to the matching spot on her right ankle. Both felt like manacles and she had to resist the urge to kick them off. She’d get used to the sensation.
The thumbs went on with a similar patch, but also included a structural band that went around her wrist as a safety. The deep blue was a shocking contrast to her hand. Would it be better if it matched her skin tone?
Did the obvious artifice make it more offensive or less.
She wasn’t sure and she wasn’t sure that it actually mattered. She had to learn to use them, regardless of how she felt. She touched the tips of the thumbs together and activated them.
They twitched and then waited, inert, next to the rest of her fingers. According to the quick start, she just had to move her big toe and they would respond accordingly. Concentrating, Inez tried to flex her toe. The right thumb moved.
The gorge rose in the back of her throat. Her chest tightened.
This was fine. She let out her breath. This wasn’t any different from eyeglasses or a pacemaker, all of which were totally normal things. This was just a small, temporary augment.
Carefully, she touched the thumb to each fingertip on her right hand and then tried the same on her left. It was slow and awkward, but she managed it. Theoretically, the AI on board would calibrate as she went about her day, learning what ordinary movements were from her.
She looked back at the sheet music and set her hands on the piano. The geckoskin squeezed as she rested the thumbs against the specific keys giving her haptic feedback of the contact. Wetting her lips, she tried to play a scale with this new extra spread.
Her notes were slow and clumsy as if she were four again. Under her twelve fingers, the piano had become a strange landscape. The notes on the page of Einhverfjöll seemed even farther out of reach. Before she’d just been missing a few notes. Now she couldn’t play at all.
The phone rang. Her parents again.
Inez ground her teeth together and ignored the phone. She started playing a scale. Twelve fingers. One at a time.
The cafe in Harpa was bright and cozy, even on dark days. As the calendar tipped into December, only about five hours of daylight remained and Inez tried to make certain she got daylight for at least some of them. The Christmas tree was up on the plaza outside Harpa and the lights reflected on the angled panes of the large windows. She stared past it toward the city, holding her cup of cocoa with her augmented thumb and palm while she stirred it idly with her natural thumb and index finger.
“Hallo!” Ragnhildur stopped on the broad stairs by the cafe table and held up a steaming cup. “I see we have the same idea.”
“Windowless studios are good for concentration but… I was getting a little fuzzy-headed.” Inez pushed back from the table and accidentally flexed her toe.
The mug dropped from her grasp, hitting the edge of the table and shattering. Cocoa went everywhere. She gasped as the hot liquid soaked her skirt. Her hands were clumsy as she tried to pull the cloth away from her skin.
Ragnhildur had danced back to avoid getting splashed and now darted forward, grabbing a napkin from the table. “Here! Can I help? Are you hurt?”
“Fine.” She held the fabric away from her legs and dabbed at it with the napkin, which soaked through immediately. “Fine. It wasn’t that hot.”
Her cheeks were probably hotter than the coffee at this point.
“We all drop things.” But Ragnhildur’s gaze had drifted to the thumbs.
“Yes, but this was so stupid.” Inez wanted to reassure her that this was an aberration. “All I had to do was keep my toe curled when I stood. It didn’t even need to be tightly curled, just not flexed.”
“I know.” She held up her hand, which had thumb augments that moved as naturally as if they were a part of her body. “If… I might be able to rework the piece. I know you weren’t comfor-”
“No.” She let the sodden cloth drop and straightened. “Don’t. I’ll be ready when you finish writing it.”
The main concert hall in Harpa was vast and lined with blood-red panels. The windows at the top of the seaward wall were dark oblongs of night. Inez shifted from one foot to the other while the orchestra tuned on stage. It was a familiar space. The murmur of the audience could have been in any language and still woven the same spell of anticipation.
“Her notes were slow and clumsy. Under her twelve fingers, the piano had become a strange landscape”
Sóldís stopped beside her, resplendent in her white tie and tails. Her mop of silver curls was brushed back from her face in a smooth coif that would shake free with her energy over the course of the evening. “You must introduce me to your parents after. I did not see them during the pre-show reception.”
“They aren’t here.” She stared straight ahead at the bright stage.
Beside her, she could feel Sóldís turn to regard her, probably with an eyebrow raised. “Please tell me that we did not neglect to tell you of our arrangement with Icelandair.”
“No. We’re… No, they just decided not to come.” It was just as well. She would have felt them judging her all night and the week beforehand. And on all the phone calls that she had stopped taking.
“Hm.” She faced front again. “Are you ready?”
With a nod, Sóldís Vilhjálmsdottir strode onto the stage and her orchestra rose. The audience applauded their respects as she walked to center stage and bowed. Then she turned and held out her hand to the wings.
Head high, Inez walked the distance to her piano. The audience clapped, but not with the warmth of the welcome they gave to Sóldís. It was generous and appropriate and nothing more than that. They didn’t know her.
Nodding to Sóldís, Inez sat at her piano and looked past the ebony wood into the darkness of the concert hall. The glow from the stage just picked out the front row. Ragnhildur sat, with her elbows on her knees, leaning toward the light of the stage. It was her music they played tonight, but she wasn’t up here. She had to trust Sóldís and the orchestra and Inez.
That… that was who she was playing for tonight.
Inez poised her hands over the keyboard, thumbs of her left hand spread to play that first gust of wind. She looked up to meet her conductor’s eyes and nodded that she was ready. The tempo counted in and her right hand let rain fall.
Flushed, trembling after an encore – an encore! – Inez closed the door of her dressing room and leaned against it. The music was still filling her bloodstream and pounding through the small bones in her wrists. They hadn’t planned for an encore, but the audience had kept applauding Ragnhildur’s work. That last movement, played again, with Ragnhildur on stage, surrounded by the music and carried into the light of the Ljós movement, which went from sunrise to the shifting eddies of the Northern Lights.
She wanted to play it again.
Right now. Exhausted and exhilarated, she wanted to play it again.
On the dressing table, her wrist phone rang. Even from here, she could see her parents’ photo on the screen. She closed her eyes. They called after every performance. Letting out a breath, she opened her eyes and crossed the room. Swiping the phone, she sent the call onto the dressing room’s wall screen.
“Hi Mom and Dad. Sorry that I haven’t… Sorry.”
They were beaming at the camera. Her mother leaned in close. “No, I’m sorry. We should have been there for you but, well… we weren’t sure you wanted us.”
“But we watched the stream!” Her dad pointed at the camera but probably meant their wall screen. “We’re so, so proud of you.”
“Six curtain calls! And an encore!” Her mother clapped her hands together and held them in front of her face in an almost prayer. “You were just… just splendid tonight.”
Her chest filled as the last remnants of distress ebbed away. “Thanks!” They should have been here. “I’m sorry that I kept missing your calls. The time zones and rehearsal schedules…”
Her dad waved away her lies. “You needed to concentrate. I get it.” He tilted his head to the side and cleared his throat. “So… do you have to keep wearing them?”
The warmth in her chest went cold. She opened her mouth to say that they had performances on the next three weekends. And also… she’d had the thumbs off to take showers. The five minutes it would take to have this call with her parents would be less time that that.
“The music was still filling her bloodstream and pounding through the small bones in her wrists”
“Sure. I can take them off.” She used her right thumbs to undo the strap on the left but getting the other one off was weird and clumsy. “So. There’s apparently a deal with Icelandair. Do you want to come out for one of the other weekends?”
“Oh, that would be lovely. If we won’t be in the way.”
She shook her head, rubbing the bare spot where the thumb should be. “We can do the Golden Circle.” But she would have the thumbs on. “Or maybe when we’re done with this run? Then I won’t have anything to pull me away.”
“Fantastic!” Her dad seemed to understand what she wasn’t saying. That she would have the thumbs on for most of their visit. “That’s even better.”
“Well, you go on now. I’m sure there are people who want to talk to you. We just wanted you to know that we were proud. Even if-” Her mother checked herself. “We were proud of you.”
Her heart was full and heavy with a sort of yearning to be with her parents and a relief that they were not, in fact, here. Not yet. But when she applied for citizenship, this performance tonight would help.
When she got off the call, Inez rested her hands on the piano in her dressing room. The keys felt unfamiliar and her hand placement was weird and off. She rolled up an arpeggio and it was okay not having the left thumb, but the right… it felt like a note was missing. As if she had to stretch in ways that she should not.
Which was exactly what her parents had warned her about.
They were right. She had rewired her brain. Playing the piano now without the thumbs would feel like a loss.
Someone rapped on her door. She wiped her eyes – not because she was actually crying but just that she was over-emotional after the performance. “Come in?”
Ragnhildur stuck her head around the door. “Hello favorite person! Sóldís is taking us out to celebrate. With the benefactors.” A tendril of her blonde hair had escaped its bun. “You are coming. Yes? There is talk of The Future which, I am not certain what it means, exactly, but I am certain that the immediate future involves very good cocktails at a very good club.”
“Absolutely. Just give me a minute to grab my things.” She grinned at the other woman. “Very good cocktails sounds like exactly the thing.”
“Just don’t spill it!”
“Ha!” She turned to the dressing table and picked up one of the thumbs. “I won’t.”
Inez put her thumbs back where they should be and went to find out what the future held in its twelve-fingered hands.
Hugo and Nebula-award winning author Mary Robinette Kowal’s books include The Calculating Stars, which is part of the Lady Astronaut series, and Shades of Milk and Honey
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