First appeared in ASM 93

The code danced in front of me on the screen. I typed a few more lines and hit enter.

-Select donor recipient.

I typed.

-Gabor Kovacs.

The screen asked for another input.

-Input language code.

I had done this one often enough; I knew it by heart. I typed.

-Gallo-Romance. Gaul. Frankish. 386.

The computer hummed for a moment. I glanced through the window to the operating room. Mr Kovacs was under. Various wires and sensors dangled over his body. A scanning device clicked into place, ready for my final input. I typed my name and program authorisation code:

-Sara Gresz, 23451.

I looked back at the screen. I typed the final line.

-Upload voice.

The scanner revolved on its telescoping arm and slowly advanced toward Mr Kovacs’s body, soon hovering over his head. Although it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, the monitors showed me the extra verbal sheen being added to Mr Kovacs’s vocal cords. It was a delicate covering, one-hundredth of the width of a human hair wide. The sections of his brain that lit up when he produced words and sentences were being microscopically augmented with extra attachments. It was what Voice Capture specialised in: a vocal upgrade, on a molecular level.

A few more moments of humming, and the scanner retreated into its resting cradle. The lights in the operating room clicked from red to white and two nurses entered. One of them checked Mr Kovacs’s pulse. The other went to work on his blood pressure. 

I checked the screen.

-Transfer complete.

I flipped the microphone switch. 

“Once he’s awake, please bring him in to see me.”

The nurse looked at me through the window and nodded. I stood up and exited the operating theatre.

Mr Kovacs sat across from me. He kept touching his throat as though he was expecting there to be a scar or an incision.

“It’s remarkable,” he said. “I don’t feel anything.”

I smiled. “Yes, the tech has advanced quite a bit since the clinical trials a few years ago. Back then there was a brief operation with x-rays and scopes, but it isn’t necessary anymore. It all happens now on a subatomic level.” He shook his head in amazement, twisting his neck from side to side.

“Let’s run through a couple of tests,” I said.

He nodded and sat back.

I typed a few commands on my desk monitor. The rotating image of Mr Kovacs’s brain with another image of his vocal cords revolving next to it appeared. 

“Take a look at the screen on that wall,” I said. 

He looked over at the blank screen and waited. “I want you to read the text as it appears.” The screen flickered to life.

The rabbit hopped out of its hutch,” Mr Kovacs read. “Good,” I said. “Now try this one.” New text appeared.

He cleared his throat and spoke again. This time a woman’s voice appeared in the air as his mouth moved.

Le lapin a sauté de son clapier.”

He gasped and clapped his hand against his mouth. I chuckled. He had a panicked look on his face. I held up my hands.

“Easy,” I said. “Hold on. Look back at the screen and read the English again.”

He slowly looked back at the screen. He cleared his throat and the sound of the air moving through his vocal cords adjusted through a noticeable shift from female to male. A second later, his regular, deeper voice said in English, “The rabbit hopped out of its hutch.”

He sat transfixed for a moment, massaging his throat. When he looked back at me, his composure had returned but he was still a bit shaken.

“The nurses told me it would be weird, but that was astonishing,” he said.

I nodded. “It will take some practice, but soon you won’t need the text prompt. You’ll be able to switch back and forth automatically. The brain makes those adjustments quite quickly.”

“This is probably a stupid question, but why is the voice still female?” 

“It’s not a stupid question,” I said. “The donor was female. You now have her voice. You received everything from her related to her speaking and language ability. When you received the upload, your body began using her vocal patterns exactly as she used them. So, you aren’t just speaking with the knowledge she 

possessed of the language… You are literally using her voice.”

He nodded, but I could tell he still didn’t fully understand. 

I smiled at him. “That’s all for now,” I said. “You can come back in a week for a checkup, but as of…” I checked the clock on my computer. “…3:13pm Budapest time, that voice is now officially yours.”

Mr Kovacs massaged his neck for a few moments. “Thank you, Ms Gresz,” he said. He stood to leave. Then he said, “By the way, who is the donor?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “For legal reasons the donors are handled by a different department. I never met her. You’ll never meet her.”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “She’ll never use her voice again, will she?”

I shook my head. “The donated voice is permanently yours. When she sold it to the company, the process also involved the complete deactivation of the voice on her end. No redundancies. It is necessary for a variety of reasons, like vocal identification programs.”

“How does she speak?” he asked.

I held up my hands. “Sometimes people who donate choose to go without a voice. Sometimes they just use a computer to communicate. You don’t need to worry about that. She sold it, and now it’s yours.”

Mr Kovacs paused in thought. “That seems remarkable,” he said. “I’m obviously benefitting from her choice. But why would someone sell their voice?”

“It’s become a huge market,” I said with a smile. “At least it must be, otherwise 

I wouldn’t have a job.”

“Why do you think they sell?” 

His persistence on knowing the why wasn’t out of the ordinary—most people who came in for the operation had a certain urge to understand the person they would sound like for the rest of their lives. 

I shrugged. “Lots of reasons. If they have a native language that is more expensive, then they can make a bit of money and still buy themselves a cheaper language to replace it with. That’s what our company says happens most often. But sometimes, I expect, people just need the money, and they choose to be voiceless for the cash benefit.”

Mr Kovacs nodded. He stood and extended his hand. I shook it.

“It’s been a pleasure,” I said. “Enjoy your new French.”

My father crept into the kitchen while I was putting the milk away. I was still able to hear him, though, as he was overcome with a coughing fit. I turned around just as he was about to fall to the tile and had him lean against me. 

“Stop moving around!” I said. “Whatever you need, let me get it for you.” I took his arm and slowly helped him turn back around. We headed back to the living room window where his chair was. 

“I’m fine,” he said. “Nothing to it.”

“Not true, and you know that. What did Dr Greiner say?”

My father waved his hand at me and looked out the window. “What does she know?” he said. “Isn’t she Austrian?”

I chuckled. “What does that have to do with anything?” 

“Their physique is different. Who knows whether she’s telling me things that don’t apply?”

“Even if that were true,” I said, “which it isn’t… She’s lived in Hungary for twenty years now. And it doesn’t help you to be going on and on about physique and nonsense like that. She cares about you. How long has she been your doctor? Fifteen years?”

He didn’t respond. So, I pulled out my phone and dialled Dr Greiner’s number. “Hello, Sara,” she said. I could hear a smile in her voice. “Calling about your father?”

“Hi, Dr Greiner. Thanks for understanding. He isn’t telling me much.” I heard my father grunt at this. I waved my hand without looking at him.

“Yes,” she said with a chuckle. “We had quite a discussion when I was over there earlier.” I turned and shook my head at my father, mouthing, “You are so rude.”

“The point is,” Dr Greiner said, “he needs to not overexert himself. The new medicine he’s been given should start to attack the trouble cells. If it’s going to work, he will feel it in the next few days. Lots of rest is what is best at this point.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll tell him. He’s convinced himself not to listen to you because of your dangerous Habsburg heritage.”

There was a laugh on the other end. “Take care of him,” she said. “Call me if you need anything.”

I hung up and then tucked in his blanket while he continued to stare out the window. “There is a difference,” he said with a jerk of his head. “What’s wrong with Hungarian doctors?”

Usually I let his words drift past me, but this time I was angry. “Stop it!” I said. “Do you know how many Hungarian workers from my company were just transferred to the England branch?” I gestured out the window. “It’s normal now. People live and work wherever they want. Why do you think so many people want to buy voices?”

I had touched a nerve. Father lapsed into silence and looked out the window. Then he reached for the photo on the shelf behind him but couldn’t quite reach it. 

I put the framed picture in his hands. He looked down at the wedding picture of him and Mother on the faded paper. 

“Where’s the other one?” he said.

I handed him the other photo from the shelf. He compared the two. 

“She looks quite the same, doesn’t she?” he said.

I tapped Mother’s face in the newer photo. Her hair was grey, but her face was still youthful. “Do you remember this day?” I said. “This was just after I was hired.” He nodded. “She worked too hard at the end,” he said.

I knelt down next to him. “Look at me,” I said. He finally did. “All of Mother’s work. All of what she earned. All of it put me at Voice Capture. It’s because of her I have this job. You forget that sometimes.”

He grumbled and waved the photos away. I replaced them on the shelf behind him. He stared out the window for a moment.

“Foreign companies,” he said with a grumble.

I stood. “That foreign company is paying for your medical bills.” I turned and went to the kitchen to make dinner, leaving him in silence.

I found a seat in the conference room and quickly reread the email from Dr Greiner. She wasn’t optimistic about how Father was responding to the new medicine. He had been on it for two weeks. She mentioned yet another new medicine, which was experimental and very expensive. I gave a silent sigh and dialled up my bank account on my tablet. 

Mr Levai came into the room and clapped his hands. The conference room grew silent. Everyone on staff was assembled for an announcement. It must be a big one, I thought. Usually it was just sales that were brought in for these sessions. Not this time. The entire work force was here.

Mr Levai ran through a few preliminary briefs related to his role as the company CEO. Then he rubbed his hands together with a smile and turned to the screen behind him, which showed a slideshow with several new line items. My attention perked up. When the company introduced new pricing structures, it often presented a chance for advancement or at least for bonuses. I glanced at Dr Greiner’s email again…and at my account balance. 

“This is the latest from New York,” Mr Levai said. “They’re introducing something new. They’re calling it ‘Dialect Choice’.” “What is it?” someone asked.

Mr Levai pointed at the screen, and a new promotional video started to play. 

The narrator’s voice was personable and soothing.

“The latest twist in Voice Capture: authentic dialect transmission.” 

The screen showed an image of the earth revolving in space. The narrator continued.

“With more than 6500 languages, the opportunity for growth is already skyhigh, but our latest technology has provided an unexpected sales breakthrough.”

The camera zoomed in on the rotating globe and centred in on the coast of Greece. Soon images of refugee camps filled the screen. People arrived in droves and were met by relief workers. Doctors and nurses were running around frantically, shepherding refugee families into the camp and into various tents. The narrator’s voice gave way to a cacophony of different voices and languages, all being spoken at once. 

The narrator continued, “Psychiatrists and human rights experts agree that when someone hears words spoken in their native language, their hearts respond. This benefit is compounded when the voice is pitched to reflect their specific dialect or accent. For example, it is one thing to hear Mandarin. It is quite different to hear the Fujian dialect.”

The screen now showed an orphanage in China. A care-worker spoke to the baby in her arms, and the tiny face broke into a shining smile.

“Voice Capture is rolling out a new, premiere package, priced to reflect the market standard for humanitarian aid items. We believe we can expect governments worldwide to seek out our services for several different career needs—diplomats, aid workers, refugee care, and so on.”

The screen flicked through several more places on the globe. One of them was the refugee camps in eastern Hungary and Romania. The camera zoomed out and showed the revolving earth again with the Voice Capture logo.

“There is no software to translate the human heart. Voice Capture: Real Voices. Real Change.”

I approached Mr Levai when the presentation was over and after my coworkers started to file out of the room. He snapped his laptop shut and smiled at me.

“What can I help you with, Sara?” His voice was on autocomplete. 

“Very inspiring presentation, sir,” I said. “I would like to put my name forward to learn the protocols for the new dialect option.”

“I assumed you would,” he said, putting his laptop in his briefcase. “You’re one of our best transfer technicians. I’m surprised you haven’t received any offers from abroad.”

“Well, truthfully, I have, sir. But I’m partial to staying in Budapest. It’s just my father and me now since last year.”

He stopped fidgeting with his case and looked at me. “I’ll have the paperwork sent over to you. Your training can begin tomorrow if you are ready.” I smiled. “Thank you, sir. I am.”

I found my father in his bedroom surrounded by letters and photo albums.

“What’s all this?” I asked. “You aren’t in your chair. We talked about this, Apa.”

“It’s Mrs Bocskai from next door.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the front door. “Her daughter needed something for a high school presentation. Photographs and newspaper clippings.” He twisted his mouth into a cynical smile. “Something old, she told me. They are covering the twentieth century.”

I sat down next to him on his bed and picked up a few of the faded photographs. 

I smiled despite the feelings I had brewing inside me.

“Who’s this?” I said, holding one up.

He peered at it through his bifocals. “That is me and your mother. Before you were born.”

I looked at the couple in the photo. They looked impossibly young. The smile on my father’s face was unlike anything I had seen in him recently. 

I held it before him and pointed at his younger face. “What happened to this eager young man?”

He waved me away. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“That’s not true.” I frowned. “Nothing has been the same since the funeral.”

He stopped shuffling through the photos for a moment and held up a finger in my face. “I’m tired,” he said. “There’s nothing to be happy about. You saw what happened to her in the hospital. Nothing. And she just dried up and blew away.” I sighed, but he was on a roll now.

“Look at this!” he said, holding up another faded photo. “Do you know who that is?” I squinted at the young man on the black-and-white paper. “No,” I said. “Who is it?”

“Him?” my father said. “Your great-grandfather. That was the 60s. He was the only one from that generation of our family who received a government job. There was no work for Roma citizens in Transylvania.” He shook his head as he looked at the old picture. “Over a century ago. It was his salary that allowed us to eventually move to Budapest.”

He dropped the photograph and continued rummaging in the box. Finally, he piled the photos back into an uneasy stack. “Give this to Mrs Bocskai, will you?” he said. “I’m going to bed.”

I picked up the box and closed his bedroom door. I could hear his record player click on minutes later, and the familiar sounds of gypsy music drifted through the thin wall. He was very proud of his record collection and wouldn’t hear of it when I told him all those songs could now be accessed easily online. 

I carried the box across the hall and knocked on our neighbour’s door. Mrs Bocskai opened it with a smile.

“Well, that is quite a haul,” she said, looking at the overflowing photo box. “My daughter will be overjoyed. She’s preparing a presentation on the twentieth century for class and needed visual aids.”

“I hope it’s helpful,” I said. “I’ve been meaning to thank you for looking in on him the past few weeks. You are some of the only people he likes anymore.”

“No thanks necessary,” she said. “He reminds me very much of my father. Oh, here,” she said, turning back into her kitchen. She returned and pressed a plate of homemade palacsinta into my hands. “For you and your father.”

“Thanks,” I said, “but Father can’t eat it. Dr Greiner said he needs to be confined to liquids.”

Mrs Bocskai’s face grew solemn. “I’m sorry,” she said. “There’s not much time left, is there?”

I shook my head. 

“Is there anything we can do for you?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Do you have gypsy music? He is always looking for new sounds from his homeland.”

“Where exactly was his hometown?” she said.

“Brassó,” I said. “Well, Brașov in Romanian on the maps. Actually, just outside of the city. A small village called Bácsfalu. I guess not so small anymore… There is a refugee camp that was just established there.”

She shook her head. “So much conflict. It never seems to end, does it? What does your father say when he hears the news?”

I shrugged. “He mostly ignores it. All he wants to do is remember what it used to be like. That’s why he likes the music so much.”

Mrs Bocskai had a dreamy look on her face. “Oh, I can imagine what the music from there must have been like long ago. What was their dialect like? Don’t you know about these things with your work?”

“Completely unique,” I said. “Very few people speak it anymore.”

I thanked her for the palacsinta and went back to the apartment. I could hear the needle from the record player scratching at the end of the groove. Quietly, I went into my father’s bedroom and put away the record. I stood at the foot of his bed and watched him for a moment. His breath raised and lowered his bony chest underneath the blanket. His breath wheezed slightly and sounded like the gentle whine of a fiddle in an old gypsy song.

My dialect transfer training began the next morning. Most of it was routine, but near the end of the first session there was an extended lecture on language theory. The lecture was specific for our branch in Budapest because Hungarian was one of the harder languages to learn. 

We were given current learning estimates at the start of every month. Some languages had become easier to learn as the world became more connected, languages like English and Mandarin. Hungarian, though, was still one of the most difficult. The only languages that routinely beat Hungarian in difficulty level were Basque and Navajo, but those were not usually needed for international work. Hungarian was still highly in demand.

The conflict to the east of the border was the main reason why dialect transfer was such a lucrative option for Voice Capture. Hungarian was already the highest priced item we sold, but once Hungarian was coupled with a local dialect… That is when the price became prohibitively expensive for most private citizens. Usually only well-funded non-governmental organisations had that kind of cash. And because of the ongoing military conflict in the east, there were always refugees streaming across the borders, and that meant more need for relief workers who could genuinely communicate with refugees in their heart languages. Software translation could make concepts clear, but the hearts could only truly be understood when someone spoke the native language. 

The instructor finished up the session and asked if we had any questions. I raised my hand.

“How soon will these dialects be available for purchase?

“They are up and running already,” he said. “You will probably be uploading them for clients this week.”

As the class packed up, the instructor came over to my desk. “Your numbers for this session were very good. Did you come to Voice Capture through one of the advancement scholarships?”

“No, sir,” I said. “There were no scholarships available for Roma citizens. My path was paid for.”

His eyebrows went up. “Paid? That’s an expensive way to advance. Few do that.”

I shrugged. “I had no alternatives. My mother worked for one of the governmental agencies that did linguistic work. She specialised in language revitalisation cataloguing. It’s a very painstaking process, where smaller languages facing extinction are preserved. When some of the cataloguing was computerised about twenty years ago, one of the brighter technicians realised there might be a way to merge a digital representation of Wernicke’s area in the posterior temporal lobe with the neural pathway and upload it into the human mind. This discovery led to the creation of Voice Capture. My mother was well-positioned to be an influential voice in the government startup that did preliminary research on vocal acquisition. Then Voice Capture absorbed her department through a government grant initiative. She put in a few good words, but most of my advancement came through her overtime work.”

He nodded. “She must be a remarkable woman.”

I smiled. “She was. She died two years ago.”

The instructor looked at me. “I’m very sorry.”

“Thank you,” I said. “She would have been happy to see me here.”

When I arrived home, Father was back in his chair. The window was spotted with rain drops. He looked up at me.

“I just got off the phone with Dr Greiner,” he said. 

I sat down next to him. “What did she say?”

He didn’t answer. I sighed and pulled out my phone.

“I’m so sorry, Sara,” she said after picking up. “What he has is very vicious. 

We could try the new medicine, but as you know…” Her voice trailed off.

“…it’s very expensive,” I said, finishing her thought.

She paused. Finally, she said, “Just let me know what you’d like to do. I can get you an advance on the dose if you want to try it. You can pay for it later.” “Let me talk with him,” I said. I thanked her and hung up.

I looked at Father. His cheeks were more sunken than usual. There was a slight shake in his frame as he breathed. 

I stood up. “Well,” I said. “Let’s try it. What can it hurt?” He looked up at me. “How much is it?”

“Who cares,” I said. “Besides. I got a promotion.” I playfully nudged his shoulder. “Soon we’ll be swimming in money.”

“What is your promotion?” he said. I told him about the new dialect transfer system. He listened with more interest than he usually showed toward my work.

Later in the evening, as I was tucking him into bed, he said, “Why do you want to stay here, Sari? Isn’t there more for you somewhere else?”

I smiled down at him. “I like being here. It’s where you are.” He looked at me a moment longer and then turned toward the wall. I kissed his temple and turned out the light. 

A week had passed since my training, and I was in the process of my first use of the dialect transfer system. I typed the last few lines.

-Select Donor Recipient.

I glanced through the glass at the young lady beneath the sheet in the operating room. I typed again.

-Dora Anderson.

There was a hum from the system. The transfer would take longer than usual because the dialect transfer was going to happen simultaneously with the voice upload. My heart began to beat faster, and I realised I was smiling. This donor dialect was brand new. It had just been uploaded an hour ago. I glanced at the screen.

-Input dialect code.

I wasn’t used to this part yet. I looked up the corresponding code in the manual on my right. I typed.

-Uralic. Ugric. Csángó. 445.

As I hit enter on the computer, the word “Csángó” kept repeating in my mind. I frowned and shook my head. No, not possible. I dismissed the thought.

An hour later Ms Anderson was escorted into my office. She sat down, her eyes still hazy from the anaesthesia. 

“How do you feel?” I asked.

She blinked a few times. “Good. Still getting used to being awake.”

I smiled. “Let’s run through a few tests.” I typed a few words and pointed to the screen. “Please read what you see.”

She looked up at the screen and read, “The fox ran through the pasture.”

“Good,” I said. I typed a couple of notes. “Now try this one.”

She cleared her throat and read. An elderly man’s rasp appeared in the air as she read, “A róka átfutott a füvön.” 

I stared at her. My mouth dropped open. I leapt out of my chair and grabbed her shoulders. “Again!” I said. “Say that again!” A nurse appeared in the door with a look of alarm on her face. 

Ms Anderson cried out. “Ez fáj! Stop! Állj meg!” Her voice alternated between the rasp and her normal voice. The nurse ran in. My hands were pulled away from her. The room went black.

I stared out the window, which was covered with a thin sheen of water. Raining. Again. I turned my head back into the room and looked at Dr Greiner. She smiled at me with a look of sympathy. “I’m truly sorry,” she said. “He was a caring man.” “No, he wasn’t,” I said. “You can be honest. I know you took plenty of grief from him.”

She chuckled. “It’s true, perhaps,” she said. “But I can take it. I am from Austria.” She winked at me.

I gave a tired smile. “He didn’t like anybody,” I said.

“He adored you,” she said. “Every checkup I had with him he went on and on about how his daughter was working for an international company. Making real money.”

I looked down at my lap. “It sounds weak to say it. But I wish he had told me. He wasn’t sentimental. He never said, ‘I love you.’ It would have been nice to hear it just once before he was gone. And I wish he had told me he was going to do this.” “Wouldn’t you have tried to stop him?” she said.

“Of course.”

“Well,” she said. “There’s your answer. He obviously knew what his chances for survival were. And he wanted to leave you with something going forward.”

I shook my head. “A lot. Do you know how much his dialect was worth? Hardly anyone can speak Csángó anymore. If I didn’t want to, I’d never have to work again.”

“That reminds me,” she said. “I understand you’ve been promoted. Something about a new job in the Singapore branch? Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“It was certainly a magnificent gift he gave you,” she said. “And that was just before he died, right?”

“The same day,” I said. “I discovered later that he had worked it out for a voice extraction technician to pay him a house visit. Father must have made the call after I left for work that morning. I found out about it at work because…” I didn’t finish the thought. “Anyway, I rushed home and found him on his bed. I had to hold my breath to get in. He must have turned the gas on just after the technician left the house. I didn’t find out that the money had been credited to my account until a few days later.”

She pursed her lips. “May I tell you something?” she said. I looked at her.

“Doctors aren’t usually supposed to say this, but you and your father feel like family so I feel like I can tell you. If he hadn’t ended his life, it would have likely happened in the next weeks anyway. And it would have been painful for him.”

I looked out the window. The rain was beginning to stop. A tiny slant of sunlight touched the glass and gave it a glow. “I wish I could have said goodbye,” I said.

The plane was pulling back from the terminal. The safety announcements had just ended for my flight to Singapore.

I reread the email on my phone from Ms Anderson:

No need to thank me, Ms Gresz. I understand it is not protocol for Voice Capture to reach out to customers with personal requests. In your case, however, I understand why you asked for this recording. I can sincerely tell you it was a pleasure to make it. Best wishes, Dora Anderson.

I leaned back in the chair. The plane slowly made its turn onto the runway. On my phone, I scrolled to the voice recordings. I selected the one from the top of the list. It pulled up Ms Anderson’s profile:

Dora Anderson, UN relief worker. Location: Transylvania. Aiding relief efforts for displaced Roma citizens. 

The plane accelerated and was airborne a moment later. Trails of cloud skimmed past the wings as we climbed. I clicked the play button on my phone. I leaned back and listened to Dora Anderson’s new voice, with the familiar rasp. A tear strayed down my face. I heard for the first time in my life, “Sara, you have made me so proud. Apa loves you.”