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"Superb...an exquisite saga of biological advantages."—The Denver Post
There it was. Lying on a sidewalk on Madison Avenue in the Manhattan East Enclave. Almost it could have been a fallen twig overlooked by a defective maintenance 'bot. But it wasn't a preternaturally straight twig, or a dropped laser knife, or a truncated black line drawn on the nanocoated concrete, going nowhere. It was a Change syringe.
Dr. Jackson Aranow picked it up
Empty, and no way to tell how long ago it had been used. The black alloy didn't rust or dent or decay. Jackson couldn't recall the last time he'd seen one lying around outside. Three or four years, maybe. He twirled it between his fingers like a baton, sighted along it like a telescope, pointed it at the building and said "Bang."
"Welcome," the building said back. Jackson's extended arm had brought him within sensor range. He put the syringe in his pocket and stepped into the security portico.
"Dr. Jackson Aranow, to see Ellie Lester."
"'Alf a minute, sir. There you go, all cleared, sir. 'Appy to be service, sir."
"Thank you," Jackson said, a little stiffly. He disliked affected accents on buildings.
The lobby was expensive and grotesque. A floor programmed with a yellow brick road whose bricks shifted every thirty seconds to a different path, all ending up at blank walls. A neon-green Venus with a digital clock in her belly, sitting on a beautiful antique Sheraton table beside the elevator. The elevator spoke in a high, singsong voice.
"Please to be welcome, sahib. I am being very happy you visit Memsahib Lester. Please to look this way, allow me humble retina scan…thank you, sahib. Wishing you every gracious thing."
Jackson didn't think he was going to like Ellie Lester.
Outside the apartment door, a holo of a black man materialized, wearing a faded calico shirt, barefoot. "Sho is glad you here, sir. Sho is. Miz Ellie, she waiting on y'all inside, sir." The holo shuffled, grinned, and put a translucent hand on the opening door.
The apartment echoed the lobby: a carefully arranged mix of expensive antiques and ugly, outrageous kitsch. A papier-mâché rat eating her young atop an exquisite eighteenth-century sideboard. An antique television polished to a high gleam under a diamond-filament sculpture covered densely with dust. Faux chairs, all dangerous angles and weird protuberances, impossible to sit on. "In an age of nanotech, even primitive nanotech," said the latest issue of Design magazine, "the material presence of objects becomes vulgar, even irrelevant, and only the wit of their arrangement matters." The two goldfish in the atrium were artfully dead, floating beside a small holo of a sinking Pequod.
Ellie Lester strode out of a side door. She was genemod for size, which gave Jackson her age: female children engineered to top six feet had been briefly fashionable in the late eighties, when material presence hadn't yet been irrelevant. Now that Design had decided it was, Ellie compensated for her height with wit. Over her bare breasts she wore a necklace alternating glowing laser beads with nanocoated animal turds; her draped skirt was red, white, and blue. Jackson remembered that tonight was election night.
"Doctor, where the hell have you been? I called you ten minutes ago!"
"It took me four minutes to get a go-'bot," Jackson said mildly. "And you did tell me that your grandfather was already dead."
"Great-grandfather," she said, scowling. "This way."
She walked five paces ahead, which gave Jackson a good view of her long, long legs, perfect ass, asymmetrically cut red hair. He thought of pointing the Change syringe at her and whispering "Bang." But he left the syringe in his pocket. Parody displays weren't actually as witty or intriguing as Design thought.
Coward, jeered the Cazie in his mind.
They passed through room after grotesque room. The apartment was even larger than Jackson's on Fifth Avenue. On the walls hung elaborately framed, programmed burlesques: the Mona Lisa laughing like a hyena, A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte in frantic, dot-dissolving motion.
The dead man's bedroom was much different, painted white and undecorated except for some small, predigital photographs grouped on one wall. A nursing 'bot stood silent beside the bed. The old man's lips and cheek muscles had gone slack with death. Not genemod, but he might have been handsome once. His skin was deeply lined but nonetheless had the healthy look of all those who'd received the Change syringe, without spots or lumps or rough patches or anything else caused by their abnormal cells or toxins in the body. Neither existed anymore.
Neither did illness. The Cell Cleaner, half of the Change magic, saw to that. Nanomachinery, made of genetically modified self-replicating protein, occupied one percent of everyone's cells. Like white blood cells, the tiny biocomputers had the ability to leave the bloodstream and travel freely through body tissues. Unlike white blood cells, the Cell Cleaners had the ability to compare indigenous DNA with nonstandard variations and destroy not only foreign substances but aberrant DNA variations. Viruses. Toxins. Cancers. Irregular bone cells. Furthermore, the Cell Cleaner spared a long list of preprogrammed substances that belonged in the body, such as essential minerals and symbiotic bacteria. Since the Change, no doctors carried antibiotics or antivirals. No doctor carefully monitored patients for infectious complications. No doctor needed diagnostic judgment. Jackson, who had graduated from Harvard medical School the same year that Miranda Sharifi had supplied the world with Change syringes, wasn't a specialist. He was a mechanic.
Jackson's "practice" consisted of trauma, Change syringe injections of newborns, and death certifications. As a doctor, he was as obsolete as a neon-green Venus. A parody display.
But not at this moment.
Jackson unpacked his equipment from his medical bag and turned on the official medical comlink. Ellie Lester settled herself in the room's only chair.
"Name of the deceased?"
"Harold Winthrop Wayland."
Jackson circled the dead man's skull with the cerebral monitor. No electrical activity, no blood circulation in the brain. "Citizen number and birth date?"
"AKM-92-4681-374. August 3, 2026. He was ninety-four" She almost spat the age.
Jackson placed the dermalyzer on Wayland's neck. It immediately uncoiled and spread itself in a dense net of fine synthetic neurons over his face, disappearing under the collar of his silk pajamas and reappearing over his feet. A crawling probing cocoon. Ellie Lester looked away. The monitor showed no break or other indication of intrusion anywhere on the skin, not even the smallest of puncture wound. All feeding tubules were fully functional.
"When did you discover Mr. Wayland's body?"
"Just before I called you. I went in to check on him."
"And you found him as he looks now?"
"Yes. I didn't touch him, or anything in the room."
The dermalyzer web retracted. Jackson snaked the lung hose into Wayland's left nostril. As soon as it touched the mucous membrane, the hose took over and disappeared down the bronchial tree into the lungs.
"Last lung expansion at 6:42 Eastern Standard Time," Jackson said. "No evidence of drowning. Sample tissues secured. Now, Ms. Lester, tell me and for the record everything you can remember about the deceased's behavior in the last few days."
"Nothing unusual," she said fully. "He didn't leave this room much, except to be led to the feeding room. You can access the nursing 'bot's records, or take away the whole 'bot. I tried to check on him every few days. When I came in tonight, he was dead and the 'bot was on standby."
"Without having signaled distress signs to the house system? That's not usual."
"It did signal. You can access all the house records and see for yourself. But I wasn't home, and the connection to the comlink was malfunctioning. It still is—I didn't touch it, so you could see."
Jackson said, "Then how did you call me?"
"On my mobile link. I also called the repair franchise. You can access—"
"I don't want any of your records," Jackson said. He heard his own contemptuous tone, tried to modify it. The official link was still open. "But the police might. I only certify death, Ms. Lester, not investigate it."
"But…does that mean you're going to notify the authorities? I don't understand. My great-grandfather clearly died of old age! He was ninety-four!"
"Many people are ninety-four now." Jackson looked away from her eyes. Rich genemod brown, but flat and shiny as a bird's. "Ms. Lester, what did you mean when you said that Mr. Wayland left this room only when the nurse 'led him to the feeding area'?"
Her shiny eyes widened, and then she shot a look of sly triumph at the comlink. "Why, Dr. Aranow—didn't you access your patient's records on the way over here? I told you I'd authorized your access."
"The go-'bot ride was short. I only live three blocks away."
"But you had four minutes of idle waiting for a go-'bot!" From her chair she gazed at him with brow-raised triumph. He'd bet anything she wasn't genemod for IQ.
He said calmly, "I did not access Mr. Wayland's medical records. Why did the nurse have to lead him to your feeding room?"
"Because he had Alzheimer's Dr. Aranow. He'd had it for fifteen years, long before the Change. Because your much-vaunted Cell Cleaner can't repair damage to brain cells, can it, Doctor—only destroy abnormal ones. Which left him with fewer every year. Because he couldn't find the feeding room, much less take off his own clothes and feed. Because his mind was gone and he was a drooling, vacuous, empty shell. Whose damaged brain finally just gave up and killed his body, even if it had been senselessly Changed!"
She breathed hard. Jackson knew she was goading him, daring him to say it: You killed him. Then she'd probably sue.
He didn't let himself be provoked. After marriage to—and divorce from—Cazie sanders, Ellie Lester was a stupid amateur. He said formally, "The cause of death will, of course, have to be made by the medical examiner for the City of New York, after autopsy. This preliminary report is concluded. Comlink, off."
He put the link in his bag. Ellie Lester stood up; she was an inch taller than Jackson. He guessed the autopsy would show one of the Chinese or South American inhibitors that simply make the brain forget what to do, make it stop sending signals to the heart to beat or the lungs to breathe. Or maybe the autopsy wouldn't show it, if the drug was enough ahead of the detection technology. How had she delivered it?
She said, "Perhaps our paths will cross again, Doctor."
He knew better than to answer. On his mobile he made the call to the cops and took a last look at Harold Winthrop Wayland. The wall screen came on. The house system must have been pre-set.
"…final election results! President Stephen Stanley Garrison has been reelected by a narrow margin. The most startling feature of the results, however, is the number of Americans casting ballots. Of ninety million eligible voters, only eight percent voted. This represents a drop of—"
Ellie Lester gave a sharp crack of laughter. "'Startling.' God, he's a disease. Why would anyone bother to vote anymore?"
"Maybe as an act of witty parody," Jackson said, and knew that by his saying it, she'd won after all. And it was no comfort that she was too stupid of recognize that.
She didn't see him out. Maybe Design had decided that manners, too, were irrelevant. But as he left the dead man's bedroom, he looked closely for the first time at the small framed photos on the wall. All but the last were predigital copies, faded and uneven in color. Edward Jenner. Ignaz Semmelweiss. Jonas Salk. Stephen Clark Andrews. And Mirands Sharifi.
"Yes, he was a doctor, too," Ellie Lester said maliciously "Back when you people were really necessary. And those are his heroes—four Livers and a Sleepless. Wouldn't you know?" She laughed.
Jackson let himself out. The holo of the black man had been replaced by a naked Roman slave, heavily muscled, handsome but clearly not genemod. A Liver. The slave knelt as Jackson passed, lowered his eyes, and opened his mouth. Translucent manacles of holographic gold bound him to Ellie Lester's doorknob.
• • •
"She's the far end of a bell-shaped curve, I know that," Jackson said to his sister Theresa. "So it shouldn't bother me. Actually, it doesn't bother me."
"It bothers you," Theresa said in her gentle voice. "And it should."
They sat in the atrium of their apartment, having drinks before dinner, which would be old-fashioned mouth food. The atrium wall facing the park was a transparent Y-shield. Four stories below, Central Park rioted with autumn color under its invisible energy dome. The Manhattan enclaves had recently voted to restore modified seasons, although the vote had been close. Above the shield the November sky was the color of ashes.
Theresa wore a loose flowered dress that fell in graceful folds to her ankles; Jackson had the vague impression that it was out of fashion. Her face, without makeup, was a pale oval under her silvery blonde hair. She was twelve years younger than Jackson's thirty.
Theresa was fragile. Not in her slender genemod body, but in her mind. Jackson's private belief was that something had gone wrong during her embryonic engineering, as something sometimes did. Genemod was a complicated process, and once the zygote had become blastomeres, no further permanent engineering was possible. Not, at least, by anyone on Earth.
As a child Theresa had hated to go to school and had clung, weeping in a quiet and hopeless way, to her bewildered mother. She didn't like to play with other children. For days she stayed in her room, drawing or listening to music. Sometimes she said she wanted to wrap herself in the music and melt into it until there wasn't any more Theresa. Medical tests showed high reactivity in her stress-hormone response system: high cortisol levels, enlarged adrenal glands, associated with presuicidal depression. Her threshold for limbic-hypothalamic arousal was very low; she found anything new intensely threatening.
In an age of custom-engineered biogenic amines, nobody had to stay fragile. Throughout Theresa's girlhood she had been on and off neuropharms to rebalance her brain chemistry. The cell Cleaner would have made that problematic, since it destroyed everything in the body that it decided didn't belong there, that didn't match either the DNA patterns or approved set of molecules stored in its tiny, unimaginable, protein-based computers lodged in and between human cells. But by the time the Change brought the Cell Cleaner, it no longer mattered. At thirteen Theresa announced—no, that was too strong a word for Theresa, she never "announced"—she had said that she was finished with neuropharms "for good."
By that time, their parents had both died in an aircar crash and Jackson was his sister's guardian. Jackson had argued, reasoned, begged. It had done no good. Theresa would not be helped. She didn't argue back; intellectual debate confused her. She simply refused to allow a medical solution to her medical problems.
However, at least she didn't—Jackson's secret fear—attempt suicide. She became even more reclusive and more elusive, one of those gentle pale women from an entirely different century. Theresa embroidered. She studied music. She was writing a life of the martyred Sleepless woman, Leisha Camden, of all irrelevant pursuits—another woman who had been entirely eclipsed by a different generation of far more ruthless females.
When the Change occurred, Theresa was the only person Jackson knew who refused the syringe. She could not ground-feed. She could become infected by viruses and bacteria, and did. She could be poisoned by toxins. She could get cancer.
Sometimes, in his darker moods, he thought that his sister's elusive neurological frailties, so divorced from her intelligent sweetness, were the reason he'd become a doctor. Just lately it had occurred to him that Theresa's frailties were also the reason he'd married someone like Cazie.
Watching his sister pour herself another fruit juice—she never drank sunshine, alcohol, or any of the synthetic endorphin drinks like Endorkiss—Jackson thought that it was wrong to have his life so shaped by a younger sister who was softly, stubbornly, unnecessarily crazy. That he was weak to have allowed it to happen. And that around Theresa what he felt was strong, probably in comparison, which was itself a weak way to look at it.
"People like Ellie Lester," Theresa said, "they're not whole."
"What do you mean?" He didn't really want to know—it might lead to another of Theresa's tentative, tortuous discussions on spirituality—but the sunshine in his drink was pleasantly affecting him. His bones were starting to relax, his muscles to sway, the trees below to hum in a nondemanding harmonious background. He didn't want to talk. Certainly not about the data he'd looked up on Ellie Lester when he got home, which included discovering that she would inherit control of her great-grandfather's enormous fortune. Let Tessie babble instead. He would sit in the humming twilight and not listen.
But all Theresa said was, "I don't know what I mean. I just know they're not whole. All of them. All of us."
"There's something wrong inside us. I believe that, Jackson. I do."
She didn't sound as if she believed it. She sounded unsure as always, with her hesitant soft speech and loose flowered dress. It occurred to Jackson that in an enclave where dinner parties often ended up naked for communal feeding, he hadn't actually seen the shape of his sister's body for years.
But then Theresa spoke in a sudden rush. "I read something evil today. Actually evil. I sent Thomas into the library deebees, for my book. Because of something Leisha Camden wrote in 2045."
Jackson braced himself. Theresa often sent her personal system, Thomas, trawling through historical databases, and she often misinterpreted what she found there. Or she became indignant over it. Or she cried.
"Thomas brought me a sentence from a famous doctor who knew Leisha. Hans Dietrich Lowering. He said, 'There is no such thing as the mind. There is only a collection of electrical and physiological operations we collectively call the brain.' He said that!"
Pity flooded Jackson. She looked so distressed, so ineffectually indignant, at this piece of old and nonstartling non-news. But his pity was laced with disquiet. As soon as Theresa had said the word "evil," Jackson had a sudden flash of Ellie Lester, taller than he was, teeth bared in a fury that she could not allow into the official medical comlink. She had looked evil—an evil, beautiful giantess, and under the unwrapping of sunshine Jackson could admit what he had denied before: he had wanted her. Even though she was not really evil, only greedy. Not really beautiful, only obvious. And no more a giant than the sinking miniature holo of the Pequod beside the dead goldfish in the atrium pool.
He shifted uneasily on his chair and took another sip of his drink.
"It's evil to deny the mind," Theresa was saying. "Let alone the soul."
She leaned forward, a pale insubstantial blur in the gloom, her voice close to tears. "It is evil, Jackson. We aren't just sensors and processors and wiring, like 'bots. We're humans, all of us."
"Calm down, honey. It was just a sentence written a long time ago. Musty data in an old file."
"Then people don't believe it's true anymore? Doctors don't?"
Of course they did. Only Theresa could get this upset over a clichéd statement seventy-five years old, based on other clichés two hundred years old.
"We have souls, Jackson!"
Another voice: "Oh, Christ, not another babble-on about souls!"
She came in smiling, mocking, filling the large room with her larger, five-foot-three, utterly vital presence. Cazie Sanders. His ex-wife. Who refused to depart his life, the divorce she'd taken from his just one more thing she casually disregarded now that she had it. On the excuse that she was Theresa's friend, Cazie came and went in the Aranows' apartment as she pleased, took up and discarded the Aranows as she pleased, pleased herself always.
With her were two men Jackson didn't know—was one of them her current lover? Both of them? One glance at the older man and Jackson knew he was on something stronger than sunshine or Endorkiss. Sleek, long, unmuscled, he had the deliberately androgynous body of a vid star, dressed in a rough brown cotton tunic like a pillowcase, already eaten into small holes by the feeding tubules on his skin. The younger man, whose genemod handsomeness uncomfortably reminded Jackson of Ellie Lester's slave holo, wore an opaque holosuit that appeared to be made of thousands of angry, crawling bees. His mouth curved in a permanent sneer. Would Cazie actually sleep with either of these diseases? Jackson didn't know.
It was difficult to explain why he'd married Cazie, but not very. She was beautiful, with her dark short curls, honey-gold skin, and elongated golden eyes flecked with pale green. But all genemod women were beautiful. Certainly Cazie wasn't as lovely or loyal or kind as Theresa—who, next to her ex-sister-in-law, faded. Nearly disappeared, flickered weakly like a malfunctioning holo.
Cazie burned with some vital, ungenemod force, darkly intelligent, primal and erotic as driving rain. Whenever she'd touched him—feverishly, or languorously, or tenderly, with Cazie there was no predicting—Jackson had felt something iron and cold dissolve in his center, something he usually didn't even know he was carrying around. He'd felt connected to nameless, powerful, very old longings. Sometimes during sex with Cazie, her fingernails raking him and his penis moving blind within her like a hot living missile, he would be amazed to hear himself weeping, or shouting, or chanting—another person entirely, the memory of which embarrassed him afterward. Cazie was never embarrassed. Not by anything. After two years of marriage, she had divorced Jackson for being "too passive."
He had been afraid, during the messy weeks of her moving out, that nothing in his life would ever again be as good as those two years. And nothing had.
Looking at her now, dressed in a short green-and-gold drape that left one shoulder bare, Jackson felt the familiar tightening in his neck, his chest, his scrotum, a complex of desire, and rage, and competitiveness, and humiliation that he had somehow not been strong enough to swim in the dark currents of Cazie's inner sea. He put down his drink. He needed his head clear.
"How are you feeling, Tess?" Cazie said kindly. She sat down, unasked, beside Theresa, who both shrank back minutely and put out one hand, as if to warm herself at Cazie's glow. Their friendship was inexplicable to Jackson; they were so different. But once someone had come into Theresa's life, she clung to that person forever. And Theresa brought out the protective, tender side of Cazie—as if Tess were a helpless kitten. Jackson looked away from his ex-wife, and then refused to allow himself that weakness, and looked back.
"I'm fine," Theresa whispered. She glanced at the door. Strangers increased her agitation.
"Tess, these are my friends, Landau Carson and Irv Kanzler. Jackson and Theresa Aranow. We're on our way to an exorcism."
"To a what?" Jackson said. Immediately he wished he hadn't. Irv drew an inhaler from a pocket of his consumable tunic and sniffed more of whatever was rearranging his neural chemistry. That was the problem with the more toxic recreational drugs: the Cell Cleaner busily removed them almost as soon as they entered by body, so users had to keep renewing every few minutes.
"An ex-or-cissssm," Landau drawled in a phony accent. He was the one wearing bees. "Haven't you heard of them? You must have heard of them."
"Jackson never hears of anything," Cazie said. "He doesn't leave the enclave and go down and dirty among Liver."
"I leave the enclave sometimes," Jackson said evenly.
"I'm delighted to hear it," Cazie said, helping herself to a glass of sunshine. The fingernail on her left ring finger was sheathed in a holo of a tiny chained butterfly frantically beating its wings.
"An ex-or-crisssm," Landau said with exaggerated patience, "is simply nova. A genuine brain trot. You'd die laughing."
"I doubt it," Jackson said, and vowed that was the last thing he'd say to this toxin. He folded his arms across his chest, realized that probably made him look as stuffy as Cazie had implied, and unfolded them.
Landau said, "Surely you've heard of the Mother Miranda cults? They're sort of a Liver religion—so typical. Miranda as the Virgin Mary, interceding with the Divine. And for what? Not salvation or grace or world peace or any of those dreary eternal verities. No—Mother Miranda's followers are praying for immortality. Another Change. If the SuperSleepless could deliver the first syringes, goes this risible theology, then they can just as well go deliver another miracle that makes all the grubby little Livers go on forever."
Irv laughed, a sudden bark like ice cracking, and sniffed again from his inhaler. Direct pleasure-center excitation, Jackson guessed, with hallucinogenic additives and a selective depressant to lower inhibition.
Cazie said, "God, Landau, you're such an unoriginal snob. It's not only Livers involved in the Mother Miranda cult. There are donkeys in it, too."
Theresa shifted on her chair, a small agitated gesture that was the kinesthetic equivalent of a whimper. Jackson took her hand.
Landau said, "But it's mostly Livers. Our newly self-sufficient, self-disenfranchised eighty percent. And Livers are the only ones who do ex-orcisssms."
Theresa said, so low that at first Jackson thought nobody else heard her, "Exorcising what? Demons?"
"No, of course not," Landau said. His bees buzzed fractionally louder. "Impure thoughts."
Cazie laughed. "Not exactly. More like ideologically incorrect thoughts. It's really a political check to make sure all the good little Mother Mirandites are convinced of her semi-divinity. They just call it an exorcism because they drive out wrong ideas. Then they all create yet another broadcast to beam up at Sanctuary."
"Real brain-trot entertainment," Landau said.
Jackson couldn't help himself. "And this ritual is open to the public?"
Of course not," Landau said. "We're crashers. Humble novices in search of some faith in our pointless and overprivileged lives."
Theresa's quiet agitation increased. Cazie said, "What is it, Tess?"
Theresa burst out, "You shouldn't!" Immediately she shrank back into her chair, then stumbled to her feet. Jackson, still holding her hand, felt her fingers tremble. "Good night," she whispered, and pulled free.
Cazie said, "Wait, Tessie, don't go!" But Theresa fled toward her own room.
"Nice going," Jackson said.
"I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't think she'd react like that. It's not real religion."
"She's religious? My condolences," Landau said.
"And in the immediate family, too."
"Shut up," Cazie said. "God, you bore me sometimes, Landau. Don't you ever get tired of supercilious posturing?"
"Never. What else is there, really? And may I remind you, Cassandra dear, that you too are on your way to this ex-or-cisssm, hmmmm?"
"No," Cazie snapped. "I'm not Get out!"
A sudden mood shift into anger! How exciting!"
Jackson stood. Landau touched a point on his chest; his bees buzzed louder. For the first time Jackson wondered if they were all holos, or if some of the bees were weapons. Certainly Landau would wear a personal Y-shield.
"Out!" Cazie screamed. "You heard me, you infection! Out!" Her dark eyes blazed; she looked as much a caricature as Landau. Was she posturing as well, amusing herself with the drama? Jackson realized he could no longer tell.
Landau stretched lazily, yawned ostentatiously, and rose to his feet. He drifted toward the door. Irv followed, sniffing his inhaler. He hadn't said a single word.
When Cazie returned from slamming the apartment door, Jackson said quietly, "Nice friends you have."
"They're not my friends." She was breathing hard.
You introduced them as friends."
"Yeah, well. You know how it is. I'm sorry about Tessie, Jack. I really didn't know Landau was so stupid."
If this humility was a posture, it was a new one. Jackson didn't trust it, didn't trust her. He didn't answer.
Cazie said, "Should I go after Tess?"
No. Give her some time." But from behind him came Theresa's soft voice; she must have heard the door slam and crept out.
"Did they leave?"
"Yes, pet," Cazie said. "I'm sorry I brought them here. I didn't think. They're real asses. No, not even that—just assholes. Fragments. Partial people."
Theresa said eagerly, "But that's just what I was saying earlier to Jackson! There's something…not whole about people now. Why, this afternoon Jackson saw—"
"I can't discuss a confidential medical case," Jackson said harshly, although of course he already replaced by mockery.
A murder, Jack? I can't think what else they'd need you for that you can't discuss. A little off your usual practice of the once-monthly accident and the twice-monthly newborn Change?"
He said evenly, "Don't needle me, Cazie."
"Ah, Jackson darling, why couldn't you be so assertive when we were married? Although I really do think we're better off as friends. But Tess, honey"—she turned back to his sister, suddenly kind again, while Jackson was left wanting to hit her, or convince her, or rape her—"you have point. We donkeys are just coming apart since the Change. Joining Liver cults, or doing brain-deadening neuropharms, or marrying a computer program—did you hear about that? For dependability. 'Your AI will never leave you.'" She laughed, throwing back her head. The dark curls danced, and her elongated eyes narrowed to slits.
Theresa said, "Yes, but…but we don't have to be that way!"
"Sure we do," Cazie said. "We're bred to be forth-rightly self-serving, even the best of us. Jackson, did you vote today?"
He hadn't. He tried to look condescending.
"Did you, Tess? Never mind, I know you didn't. The whole political system is dead, because everyone knows it isn't where power is anymore. The Change took care of that. The Livers don't need us, they're managing quite well in their own lawless little ground-feeding pseudo-enclaves. Or they think they are. Which is, incidentally, why I'm here. We have a crisis."
Cazie's dark eyes sparkled; she loved crises. Theresa looked frightened. Jackson said, "Theresa, did you show Cazie your new bird?"
"I'll get him," Theresa said, and escaped.
Jackson said, "Who has a crisis?"
"Us. TenTech. We have a factory break-in."
"That's impossible," Jackson said. And then, because Cazie usually had her facts straight, "Which factory?"
"The Willoughby, Pennsylvania, plant. Well, it's not exactly a break-in yet. But somebody was just outside the Y-shield this afternoon with bioelectric and crystal equipment. The sensors picked them up. If you'd check your business net, Jack, you'd know that. But oh, I forgot—you were out investigating murders."
Jackson kept his temper. Cazie had received a third of TenTech in the divorce settlement, since her money had kept the company afloat during the disastrous year when a nanodissembler plague had attacked the ubiquitous alloy duragem, and businesses had died they? Nobody can breach security on a Y-energy shield. At least, not…"
"Not Livers, you mean, and who else would be out in the wilds of central Pennsylvania? I think you're probably right. But that's why we should go have a look. If it's not Livers, who is it? Kids from Carnegie-Mellon, sharpening their datadipping skills? Industrial espionage by CanCo? SuperSleepless like—gasp!—Miranda Sharifi, obscurely interested in our little family-owned firm? What do you think, Jack? Who's messing with our factory?"
"Maybe the biosensors are malfunctioning. Another failure like duragem."
"Maybe," Cazie said. "But I checked around. Nobody else is having sensor failure. Just us. So I think we better go have a look. Okay, Jackson? Tomorrow morning?"
"Doing what? You're not busy—that's the trouble, none of us are busy enough. Here's something to do, something that impacts our finances, something with actual substance. Come with me."
She smiled at him, full voltage, her long golden eyes full of the sly pleading missing from her brash words. Jackson knew that later, when he lay in bed going over and over this conversation, he wouldn't be able to re-create the compelling quality of her. Of her eyes, her body the words themselves, without grace or subtlety, and so would curse himself for saying yes.
Cazie laughed. "Nine o'clock, then. I'll drive. Meanwhile, I'm starving. Oh, Tessie, here you are. What a pretty little genemod bird. Can you talk, cage bird? Can you say 'social dissolution'?"
Theresa held up the Y-energy cage and said, "He only sings."
"Like most of us," Cazie said. "Desperate discordant tunes. Jackson, I am hungry. And not for mouth food, either, tonight. I think we should keep Tessie company while she eats, and then you should invite me to dinner in your so-tasteful feeding ground."
"I'm going out," Jackson said quickly. Theresa looked at him in quick surprise, as quickly veiled. He never knew how much she knew, or guessed, about his feelings for Cazie. Theresa was so sensitive to distress; she must intuit that it would be impossible for Jackson to go calmly with Cazie to the dining room, take off most of his clothes, and lie on the nutrient-enriched it needed, in perfect proportions, through his feeding tubules. Jackson couldn't do it. Although the lure was powerful. To lie there under the warm lights, their changing wavelengths carefully selected for a relaxing effect on the mind, to breathe the perfumed air, to turn on one elbow to talk casually to Cazie, to watch Cazie feed, lying on her stomach, her small firm breasts bared to the earth…
He waited until his erection had subsided before he stood and stretched with elaborate nonchalance. "Well, people are waiting on me. Good night, Cazie. Theresa, I won't be late."
"Be careful, Jackson," Theresa said, as she always did, as if there could be any danger inside the Manhattan East Enclave, protected by a Y-shield from the even unwanted weather. Theresa had not left the apartment in over a year.
"Yes, be careful, Jack," Cazie mocked tenderly, and his heart caught when it seemed he heard regret mixed with the tenderness. But when he turned back, she was fussing a gain over Theresa's bird, and didn't even look at him.
There was tomorrow.
Damn tomorrow. It was business trip, to find out what was going wrong at the Willoughby plant. He owned the damn company—or at least a third of it—he should check the factories' printouts more, give orders to the AI running it, link with the TenTech chief engineer, check up on problems. He should be more responsible about his and Theresa's money. He should…
He should do a lot of things.
He walked out into the cold November night, which under the dome felt like a warm September night, and tried to think up someplace he might actually want to go to dinner besides home.
Copyright © 1996 by Nancy Kress
Posted January 20, 2010
No text was provided for this review.