This is where I bring together all the bits of my novel Biotime I’ve published on-line so far. People tell me it’s dark, funny and thought-provoking. I hope you enjoy it.
Feedback welcome: on content, frequency, style or anything else. I’d love to hear from you.
‘Death is very likely the single best invention of Life.’
Steve Jobs – Former CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios
PART 1: BREUGHEL VS. JONES
‘Why swap wives when you can swap lives?’
Sunday Times, 7 July 2031
Of course it had to be Adam who accompanied the courier bringing Lumusi Jones the letter. As a younger man, Adam Boateng had looked dashing in his police uniform. He had history with Lumusi. Even now the uniform had filled out, he still possessed a certain roguish charm.
Ghanaian market – Photo SDT
Lumusi had taken the cream-coloured envelope in her slender fingers and pressed her thumb to the glass to acknowledge receipt. Then she had closed the door, slumped at the table in her tiny kitchen, and burst into tears.
Now the letter was crumpled and stained. Lumusi picked it up and fortified herself with a sip of instant coffee while the print swam into focus. Her eyes ached from the long night.
Life was too precious, now, to waste on sleeping.
Dear Ms Jones, the letter opened. Happy Birthday! On behalf of Doktor Faustus Life Insurance Luxembourg (DFLI) I am pleased to inform you that your seven-year Termination Contract is due for redemption. Please attend the Central Contribution Centre, Castle Road, Accra, by 2000 hours today. Thank you for your co-operation.
That was all. There was no mention of what would happen if Lumusi did not go to Castle Road. But everyone knew DFLI allowed a twelve-hour grace period before enforcing the contract.
Not a second more.
The kitchen was silent. In the distance, a cock crowed. A hot square of sunlight framed by the window crept across the tiled floor. Lumusi looked at the clock on the kitchen stove, next to the cross her aunt had insisted she put up. In ten minutes they would come for her.
Flight was impossible. The $300,000 she had received from Doktor Faustus seven years earlier had long since been eaten up. Most had gone on mama’s medical bills, before she was late. Lumusi hadn’t a cent. Why should she? She would never need money again.
Adam Boateng was still at the front gate. Lumusi had invited him in for tea the evening before. The two of them had reminisced. Adam had pointed out that there were better ways for Lumusi to spend her final night than to sit alone in her kitchen. Lumusi had sent Adam back outside. Perhaps the thought of the bonus he would receive when Lumusi was safely delivered to Castle Road had helped keep him awake.
Lumusi sighed. Some of her friends had organised Termination Celebrations to make the most of their last few hours. Others had wept away the night, alone or with their families.
Outside, across the clean-swept yard, she saw Adam check the time on his police-issue timepiece. Five minutes. How would her life-swapping partner have spent the last twenty-four hours? She imagined a room full of sophisticated people, elegantly dressed, raising their glasses to the lucky recipient of her Biotime. Who was he, or she? Lumusi realised she had pictured the party guests as white people: English perhaps, or Americans. But they could be Chinese, or Indian, or even Ghanaian. She would never know.
In her bedroom the curtains were drawn. Lumusi threw them back. In the back yard, the big leaves of the banana trees gleamed in the morning light. She stripped and put on clean underclothes, an ankle-length crimson skirt and a crisply ironed white blouse which showed off her lustrous skin.
The DFLI doctor had remarked on her complexion when Lumusi went for the medical exam.
‘You are healthy, girl. Healthy!’ the doctor had said. ‘I estimate you live ’til fifty five years. You are eighteen now. Doktor Faustus pay ten thousand bucks a year. You start contribution at twenty five, that’s three hundred thousand – and seven years to spend the money, starting today if you want. You can live damn good for seven years on three hundred thousand dollars.’ His eyes sparkled. ‘Sure this Biotime thing is all new now. But in ten years time, everyone will be making the most of their lives.’
So Lumusi had signed a Termination Contract to supply DFLI with thirty grams of Biotime, starting on her twenty-fifth birthday.
It was 7.58. She stood for a moment in front of the small bedroom mirror, her trusted calfskin shoulder-bag hanging at her waist. If she had to go, she damned sure wanted to look her best.
At that moment she heard a heavy knock on the front door. Lumusi felt a flash of anger. After seven years, eleven hours and fifty eight minutes, they had come to collect her life two minutes early.
Snow was falling on the Bakenessergracht. It settled on the ice which clung to the brick-built walls of the canal which bisected the street, offering a foothold to a pair of stoic ducks. A cyclist in a rain-cape trundled down the cobbles.
Hans Breughel felt the damp penetrate his worn leather soles. He had travelled a great deal, in his youth. It was a fact that nowhere on earth felt colder than a Dutch canal-side in February.
The heating at his home had been cut off months ago. Walking back from his visits to Lotte in the hospital helped stir his tired old blood. But the trembling of his limbs made his gait so ponderous he sometimes wondered if his blood was flowing at all. Today it had taken an hour to complete the half-mile journey. Now, with the wind whistling through the narrow streets of Haarlem, it felt as though his very heart had frozen.
He scrabbled in his pocket for the key. To close his fingers around the chilled metal required patience and concentration. The front door of the house was like a bank-vault; the windows were thickly barred from the days when he had kept the stones here. There was only one copy of the key, its high-security shaft longer than Breughel’s middle finger. A lifetime of mistrust made a second copy unthinkable. In any case, most of Breughel’s friends had died long ago.
That had been his secret: trust no-one. The only way to judge a diamond was to see it and hold it yourself. The day you listened to someone else’s opinion, you were finished. He grimaced as he struggled to guide the key into the lock and turn it. How ironic it would be if he had now fallen victim to the biggest swindle of all.
The narrow hallway was icy. Breughel left the damp shoes by the door and padded down the hall still wearing his outdoor jacket. They had promised an update at 10 o’clock.
He entered the bedsit. Long ago, this space had been a dining room: he and Lotte had hosted gala dinners here for his fellow diamond merchants and their wives. A picture of Lotte on their wedding day stood next to a wooden cross on the mantelpiece, lit by a night-light Breughel strove never to allow to go out. He had not ventured up the steep stairs to the upper storeys for two years, since a deterioration in his early-onset Parkinson’s had led to depression, dizziness and, inevitably, a fall and a broken hip. It was a reminder, he had joked with his doctor, that death was nature’s way of telling you to slow down.
Not necessarily, nowadays, she had replied.
The IKEA clock showed 9.55. Time for a cup of tea. Breughel shuffled into the kitchen and put on the kettle. Lotte smiled at him from the mantelpiece.
Would she have saved him from Doktor Faustus? He blinked, then took off his bifocals and polished the thick lenses on a piece of kitchen-towel. No. If the experimental new procedure called Biotime had been available before Lotte entered her coma, he would have paid everything he had to keep Lotte conscious for a single day longer, let alone the ten years he had purchased for them to share now.
Without Biotime, Lotte could die any day. Every day Breughel lived on without her after that would be a torment.
Ten years of Biotime would change everything.
Breughel had never trusted the middlemen who sprang up when Biotime first appeared. So many old people had fallen prey to fraudsters that they’d coined a term for them. Time-Expired Dotards. TEDs. People at death’s door would pay anything to stay alive. When a life-swapping agent promised to put you in touch with a Biotime donor, usually in a distant country where life was cheap, few TEDs could resist.
The kettle boiled. Breughel concentrated as he poured. Nearly as much water seemed to slop onto the cracked granite work-top as ended up in the pot.
When Breughel had first considered buying Biotime, he’d applied the lessons of a lifetime of caution. He had sought advice from men he trusted. The recommendation of DFLI from the President of the Dutch Diamond Guild had come shortly after Breughel broke his hip. Within six months, Breughel had signed a Life-Swapping contract with the Luxemburg-based company.
The tea was ready. Breughel added a dried-up slice of lemon from a saucer in the fridge and checked his messages. It was 10 o’clock.
Any moment now, Doktor Faustus would confirm that the Biotime reserved for him had come on tap.
Then everything would change.
Once Breughel’s donor had produced his or her first cent of Biotime, DFLI would air-freight the product direct to the Haarlem Life Extension Clinic. The instant Breughel or Lotte consumed it, each would cease to age for 3.65 days. Better still, the progress of his Parkinson’s would be arrested: given enough Biotime, a terminally ill patient could live forever.
Perhaps Lotte might even recover consciousness.
He prodded the screen with the tip of his finger.
It was 10.05. Could Doktor Faustus have ripped him off again?
Was he himself a desperate TED?
The price of Breughel’s Biotime had been nine hundred and eighty thousand dollars a gram, plus DFLI’s commission of 1% of the value of the contract. The terms had seemed reasonable. Without Biotime, he would be dead; and his money would be worth nothing to either him or Lotte.
Breughel’s fortune from a lifetime in the diamond trade had been nearly twelve million dollars. He had calculated that he could buy ten grams and have enough to live on. DFLI had insisted on payment in advance. The donor, they explained, would sign a Termination Contract, and would need the money now. The Biotime would be provided once the donor entered contribution in seven years’ time. Breughel had transferred to DFLI nearly ten million dollars.
Then he had sat back to wait.
The nightmare had lasted seven years.
Almost at once, Breughel’s Life-Swapping partner had demanded more money. Doktor Faustus had been clear that this was illegal. But enforcing the contract with a donor who, they hinted, lived in a country with a corrupt judiciary, had taken sixteen months. Legal costs of over a million dollars had fallen to Breughel.
Each year, costly new complications had arisen. Breughel’s health had declined. Three months ago, the doctor had told Breughel that without access to Biotime he had no more than twelve months to live.
He looked at the screen and saw his breath clouding the air. Why was there no news?
Suddenly, text appeared on the screen.
URGENT INFORMATION FROM DOKTOR FAUSTUS, the heading said.
Breughel frowned as he slowly made out the words.
WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT A SERIOUS PROBLEM HAS ARISEN WITH YOUR LIFE-SWAPPING PARTNER.
In Accra, the front door shook as someone pounded on the flimsy wooden panels.
Two minutes early.
Lumusi Jones hesitated. Suddenly, the thought of skulking within her house seemed intolerable. She would open the door. Perhaps she would stand on the threshold for those two minutes, and look up and down the street, to show she was still mistress of her own destiny.
She took a deep breath; gripped the handle; stood up straight; and threw the door open.
‘It is not yet time,’ she said.
‘No,’ the woman standing outside said. ‘It is not.’
Lumusi saw eight nuns in her front yard, clad in identical blue-and-cream habits. ‘Who are you?’ she said.
‘I am Mother Hope, from the Church of Christ is Risen. The priest at your aunt’s church says you have a problem.’ The woman reached out a hand as black as Lumusi’s own, but criss-crossed with deep wrinkles. ‘Come with me, child.’
Lumusi took a step back.
‘You want to rescue me? From what? And why do you call me your child? I never met you before in my life.’
The nun smiled. ‘You are full of spirit. Come with us.’
Lumusi examined the nuns. Their eyes seemed friendly. Several of them were tall and broad enough to be more than a match for Adam Boateng. But what was God’s position was on breaking a contract Lumusi had signed of her own free will?
She saw movement across the road. Adam was making a call. He covered his mouth with his hand as he spoke.
Then she saw them. Behind the nuns were camera crews. Two had their lenses trained on Lumusi. The third was filming Adam.
The presence of the media made Lumusi bold. She stepped forward and addressed Mother Hope.
‘How am I doing right if I come with you?’ she said. ‘If I do not go with Adam, he will be in trouble; and I will be breaking the law.’
‘The law is wrong, my child.’ The nun bowed her head. ‘Many people in our country are cheated by these companies. Maybe your life swapping partner is paying more than you are receiving.’
Lumusi frowned. Three hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money. But she knew nothing about the person buying her Biotime. She looked at the cameras. Then she reached out and embraced Mother Hope.
‘I am ready to shelter with you,’ Lumusi whispered. ‘But only if you stop calling me your child. And only until we find out if this contract is fair or not.’
‘Bless you, my – Lumusi.’ Mother Hope smelt of soap. ‘I think you will find that the contract is not very fair at all.’
Hans Breughel looked out of the aircraft window and saw a strip of sand where the lush green forest met the blue of the ocean.
He felt ready to die.
In front of him on the fold-out tray, bubbles rose lazily in a flute of Champagne. The cold liquid had frosted the sides of the glass. Breughel had neither ordered it nor touched it.
‘You ever noticed that? Since they invented Biotime, planes are getting slower?’ Wilhelm was in the seat beside him, his microphone in his lap. ‘They say it’s because rich people aren’t in a hurry any more.’
‘I am in a hurry,’ Breughel said. ‘But I am not rich.’
‘Elegant.’ The journalist picked up the mike. ‘So, let’s do the final piece.’
Breughel shook his head.
‘Mr Breughel. Don’t forget who is paying for this flight.’
Breughel said nothing. Was the contract he had signed to sell his story more harmful than the one he had agreed with Lumusi Jones? Both felt like they were killing him. But without the media he could never have afforded the journey.
The microphone was in his face. ‘What are your feelings as you look down on the country of the thief who has stolen your Biotime?’
Breughel’s neck ached from sitting still. His stomach was bloated from the low air pressure and the airline food.
‘Lumusi has not stolen my Biotime,’ Breughel said. ‘She is refusing to enter contribution until she has talked to me.’
‘What do you think about the rumours that the nuns at the Church may be armed?’
‘They are nuns. I will not criticise them.’
‘Of course, you are a practicing Christian. How do you square that with buying someone else’s life expectancy?’
‘Maybe it is wrong. I don’t know. But my wife needs the Biotime. I need it too. And the contract says that Lumusi Jones sold it willingly.’
‘What about the refusal of the police to enter the church to take Miss Jones into custody? Will you criticise that?’
‘I do not advocate policemen storming churches.’
‘Very worthy.’ Wilhelm shook his head. ‘So are you optimistic that Lumusi Jones will hand over your Biotime when she sees how you and your wife are suffering?’
Breughel felt nausea rising in him.
‘I cannot see how either Lumusi Jones or I can emerge from this sequence of events with any dignity.’
‘That is so powerful.’ Another journalist, sitting across the aisle, had risen to her feet. ‘Could we film you saying it again?’ She nodded to a colleague, who began to wrestle a video-camera out of an overhead locker. ‘We’d better move that Champagne out of shot.’
Breughel was hemmed in by the window and betrayed by his body. Two other camera crews were closing in. When Breughel tried to remove the unwanted glass of Champagne, his hand shook and the chilled liquid splashed the trousers of his best suit.
He saw the cameraman smile.
The recording light was on.
What would the viewers see? A Time-Expired Dotard spilling his drink in the business-class cabin of an airliner as he flew to confront the beautiful, vibrant woman who controlled his Biotime.
Could humiliation be any worse than this?
Two hours later, Breughel was beginning to understand that his humiliation had barely begun. In the sweltering minibus on the way to the Church, Wilhelm explained what he called the paradigm of his channel’s coverage.
‘We are casting you as the victim. So it is good if you are arriving at the church looking weak and exhausted. It is also good if your suit makes you sweat, or if your disease is making you tremble. If you were looking like a rich Dutch businessman coming to enforce a contract against a poor Ghanaian girl, our viewers would hate you. Actually, everyone would hate you.’
‘I have nothing. But people hate me anyway,’ Breughel said.
‘That is why we are calling you the Dying Dutchman. When we reach the church, people must see you suffer.’
The Church of Christ is Risen was a modern concrete structure with a tall, angular spire which reminded Breughel of his own church in Amsterdam. News crews crammed the road. A row of nuns sat blocking the stairs up to the entrance, singing hymns and ululating.
The music was beautiful.
Close to the nun-barrier a group of police officers sat under an awning, fortified with a cold-box full of drinks. A news team was interviewing a cheerful fellow holding up an empty leather holster.
When Breughel climbed down from the minibus and leaned his weight on his stick, the heat hit him like a hammer. He staggered. A dozen cameras turned towards him.
They sensed fresh meat.
Journalists surged forwards, yelling questions. The nuns on the stairs sang louder.
Breughel’s suit, made for the Haarlem winters of twenty years earlier, felt intolerably hot. His legs were sticky from the spilled drink.
He closed his eyes. How good it would be to die here, now. To retreat forever to a place of peace. To leave Lotte to a dignified end in her hospital bed.
To confront the nuns seemed unthinkable. Yet to walk away was impossible.
He opened his eyes. Everyone was still shouting questions at him.
Then he realised. He did not need to answer.
He took a step forward, leaning on his cane. Then another. The crowd of camera crews parted. Hunched and trembling, he approached the nuns on the steps, who were singing and swaying to the rhythm.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I wish to see Lumusi Jones.’
One of the nuns rose to her feet. A dark mountain of a woman, she towered over Breughel.
‘I am Sister Truth,’ she said. ‘I am sorry, old man. No-one can pass.’
Breughel fingered the cross around his neck. ‘Tell Lumusi that Hans Breughel has come to see her.’
‘I will tell her that.’ The nun turned and whispered to a girl standing behind her, who ran up the steps into the church. For a long moment, nothing happened.
Sister Truth reached out a hand and held Breughel’s bony shoulder. ‘This Biotime is a terrible thing,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ Breughel said.
‘It is too strong. It can destroy you.’ The nun squeezed his shoulder. ‘But it exists. We must learn to live with it.’
‘Let him in!’ There was movement by the church. An older nun, her face as creased as Breughel’s own, stepped into the sunshine. ‘It is time.’
She spread her arms and the nuns gave way. Breughel struggled up the first step, then felt merciful support as Sister Truth put her huge arm around him. He sensed a hubbub on all sides as camera-crews forced their way up the stairs.
Breughel entered the Church. News teams swarmed in behind him. Ahead, the nave was full of people, staring at him with anger in their eyes.
Then he saw her.
Lumusi Jones stood facing the altar. She wore a white blouse and a long red skirt, with a simple black bag over her shoulder. Breughel took a few steps down the aisle, still supported by the burly nun. A sigh went up from the congregation.
Lumusi Jones turned.
Breughel saw that her face was wet with tears. Her fists were clenched. Yet he could only think how beautiful she was. And how young.
At first, Lumusi Jones did not see the old man. Ever since she had arrived here, crowds had been gathering. At first, Mother Hope had placed her with three other “children” the Church had persuaded to renege on their Termination Contracts. But since this so-called Dying Dutchman, Breughel, had announced he was flying to Ghana, it seemed every man, woman and child in Accra wanted to see the scandalous and exciting Lumusi Jones.
Sometimes Lumusi was not sure she had been right to let The Church of Christ is Risen embrace her. Sometimes she felt it would all be simpler to lie down on the slab and give Mr Breughel his Biotime. How could all this end well?
Lumusi had turned because she sensed something happening. But in the crowd of well-wishers, journalists, priests, lawyers, nuns and all the others who had crammed into the church, she could not see what it was. Behind her, someone who called himself a One Lifer was shouting at a camera about the virtues of life without Biotime.
Then she saw him. The pale, shrunken bundle of bones was barely visible, tucked under the mighty arm of Sister Truth. Only when the nun had dragged the old man almost to the altar rail could Lumusi see him properly.
Could this really be Hans Breughel? He looked older than Lumusi would have thought possible. The sagging skin of his face was sheathed in sweat. A dribble of spittle hung at the corner of his mouth. How could this man have afforded to buy her Biotime? His ancient, soiled clothes seemed to have been made for a bigger man.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Is it you? I am so sorry.’
The man stared at her. His mouth was open. When a dozen camera teams jostling on a pew crashed backwards onto the concrete floor, he did not seem to hear it.
Lumusi saw flies were settling around the old man’s eyes, as though he were dead already. Sister Truth waved them away.
Breughel’s silence triggered a stir among the media.
‘Come on, granddad! Say something!’ a journalist shouted. ‘Cat got your tongue?’
‘Let him be,’ Lumusi said. ‘He is sick.’
Breughel took another step forward, his hand quivering on a walking stick. He peered up at Lumusi. ‘Are you her? Do you have it?’
‘I am Lumusi Jones,’ she said. ‘Yes. I have your life. You have purchased it.’
‘I thought I was buying only the part you did not want.’
‘Yes. But now I find I do not want to give it to you.’
Lumusi stood up straight and was blinded by a blaze of camera flashes. Her words rang harsh in her ears.
‘I need your Biotime or I and my wife will die,’ the old man said. ‘Is it true they paid you only three hundred thousand dollars?’
He shook his head. ‘But how old are you? Surely you have more than ten years left to live?’
‘Of course. I am twenty-five years old. I have sold you thirty years of my life for ten thousand dollars a gram.’
‘Thirty years?’ For a moment Breughel looked as though he would slump to the ground, but Sister Truth held him firm. Instead, the old man opened his mouth and wailed. His voice rose, thin and shrill. There was madness in it, Lumusi thought. Was it possible that she had sold thirty years of her life to Doktor Faustus and that Breughel had paid for only ten?
This was not life-swapping. It was robbery.
But to whom could she turn?
She looked around the church. Hundreds of lenses were pointing at the old man as he howled out his hurt. It was as if every news channel on earth had put out a tendril to suck the life out of Hans Breughel – and to paint her as a thief.
Lumusi felt tears in her eyes. If she kept the Biotime, the world would hate her. If Breughel took it, the media would crucify him.
She looked again at the cameras.
Perhaps there was a way to make good come of this.
She might get Adam Boateng into trouble.
But Adam had always been good at explaining why he could not be held responsible for anything.
She would break the old man’s heart.
But Hans Breughel’s heart had already been smashed to pieces.
She would show the world the evil of Biotime.
And Doktor Faustus Life Insurance could do nothing about it.
She lifted the soft leather flap of her shoulder bag and reached inside.
Hans Breughel felt the darkness begin to lift. DFLI had robbed everyone. He had paid the Luxembourg-based swindlers nearly a million dollars a gram for ten years of Biotime; they had given this beautiful, helpless girl a fraction of that sum for thirty years of her life. But he would not take his share, now. He and Lotte would die with dignity. All that remained was to return his poor old body to Haarlem. He would pass his final days there, then lie in peace with Lotte.
‘I do not want your Biotime,’ he began to say.
But no-one was listening. A gasp echoed round the church, followed by an avalanche of noise as cameras clattered to re-focus.
Breughel turned to see where they were pointing.
Lumusi Jones had taken a handgun from the bag at her waist. It was a squat, stub-nosed weapon, almost an antique. Yet the bulbous magazine was heavy with menace.
She looked down at Breughel and shook her head.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said again. ‘But Biotime should be illegal. I must do what I can to make this happen.’ And without waiting for a response, she lifted the barrel of the gun to her head and pulled the trigger.
In the enclosed space the explosion of the revolver was immense. A gout of gore shot sideways from the head of Lumusi Jones, spattering the altar and some of the camera crews who had taken up position there. The sound resonated as she fell to the ground. Her slender fingers still clasped the pistol grip.
Breughel could see her face. Her beauty had been obliterated by a massive wound where her left eye had been. He felt the pressure ease around his shoulders as Sister Truth rushed to aid the girl.
So many camera crews were converging on the altar that there was no space for all of them. A team who had been crowded out saw Breughel leaning on his stick.
‘So,’ a red-haired interviewer said. ‘There goes your Biotime. What will you do now?’
‘I’m going to go to hell,’ Breughel said. He paused, aware of other camera crews closing in. ‘Because I killed her. She was going to die so I could live. But now she’s gone and I’m going to follow her. She’s gone to heaven. I’m going to hell. For ever and ever, amen. I’m going to die, and go to hell.’
PART 2: PAX VOBISCUM
‘For most people, the word “progress” implies forward motion. But “progress” doesn’t always take you forwards.’
One Lifer Hope Deadman
Roland Nelson was a friend of mine.
It is so.
I know you’re thinking, sure, everyone says they were friends of Roland’s. Nearly every cop in Harlem used to brag about it, in the days after Pax.
Guggenheim Museum, New York City – Photo Robert Pimm
The difference is, I was one of the guys Roland asked, “Are you in?”
I knew Roland Nelson even before he talked to me that day about Morningside. He was older than the rest of us. Before we rolled up at the police academy he’d taken a six-year span of contribution to purchase the finest college education money could buy. Six years. The rest of us figured education couldn’t be worth that much, right? But you could see it in his eyes, he knew where he was at and where he fixed to aim for. Mostly, he worked 24/7 trying to provide for his wife Marlene and his four year-old son, Rocky.
He was crazy about Rocky.
Roland’s real top prize, his number one goal, his ultimate aim, was that little Rocky should never have to contribute, like other black kids in Harlem did – like Roland had himself. It was an ambition so big I felt kind of sorry for him. How else was a young man in Harlem going to get his start in life but by donating a year or two? But you couldn’t help liking a good cop who wanted a better life for his kid.
I’d just pulled into the precinct that day at the end of my shift when I saw Roland coming. He was a huge guy – sure, the movies big him up a little, but he did play college football, and he worked out, and he moved like a panther. When I saw him walking my way, swinging those big shoulders with his jaw set, I felt like backing right on out again. It’s the truth.
He pulled open the passenger door and climbed in.
‘Dev Ray,’ he said, ‘I want you to take this piece of shit up to St Nicholas.’ He patted the dashboard of the squad car, his voice low and slow. ‘We need to talk.’
That was it. It wasn’t until I’d parked up outside the old Arts High School and we struck off on foot across the park that he opened his mouth again.
‘You ever notice that? Automobiles look and steer worse each year? Ten years ago no New York City cop would have been seen dead in that junker.’
‘It’s the safety features,’ I said. ‘I got this year’s model.’
‘It’s not the safety features, Dev. It’s the system. The whole country is going to crap.’
I never had heard Roland talk that way. I laid my hand on his arm. ‘What is it, man? What happened?’
Roland took a little glance around us, like he was checking for a tail, before he answered. ‘I’ve quit Morningside,’ he said. ‘I’ve asked for Traffic.’ His eyes were burning.
‘You quit Morningside? But that’s a goldmine. What the hell happened?’
‘It’s a goldmine, is what happened. NYPD set up Morningside because we knew someone had figured how to make a killing in Biotime. The bad guys had too much cash to launder. Nothing added up. We put together a team of New York’s finest. But have we ID’d the scam? No way.’
Roland leaned in close as he continued. ‘But I did ID something. What I see after six months is that half the cops on the Morningside team look younger than they should. And the only two guys I trust in the squad both tell me they’re quitting. It’s like the bad guys ain’t winning the game no more. They’re playing in a different league.’
‘Someone offer you something?’
I looked at Roland. Right there, on a path winding through St Nicholas Park, with kids playing ball and the sun shining, I saw tears well up in his eyes. Man, in Roland Nelson, that was the scariest thing I seen, before or since.
I didn’t speak. I stared at him and waited.
‘Dev. It’s Rocky,’ Roland said at last.
The tears were flowing now, but he started walking faster, with these big strides.
‘Yeah, I had offers,’ he said. ‘First it was cash. Then ‘Time. Cents at first. Then whole grams. The final offer was five G to lay off of them.’
‘They offered you five grams of ‘Time? That’s – ‘ I did the math ‘ – that’s one hundred and fifty gross salaries, man. Twice the budget of Morningside. All for you.’
‘So I figured we must be closing in on something. I told them to go to hell.’
‘Too right.’ While I was saying this, I was figuring that whatever Roland Nelson had gone and got mixed up in, it was way over my pay-grade, and the best thing I could do was to climb back in my junker and make haste back to the precinct. But Roland had this way of looking at you that kind of reached out and grabbed your soul, so I held off while he finished his story. He hadn’t done grabbing yet.
‘I figured the worst thing that could happen was I’d be a few bucks lighter or a couple years older,’ he said. ‘Instead, what happens that same day is, I come back to the apartment and they’re gone. Marlene and Rocky.’
I stopped walking. ‘Gone? What do you mean, gone?’
‘I found a note. If I wanted to see Marlene again I should quit Morningside. But – ‘ Roland took a deep breath. ‘They said they’d keep Rocky. Like a hostage. For twenty years. Twenty years. The note said – get this – during that time, he’s worth more to us than he is to you. It was signed by something called the Style Soviet.’
I stared at Roland. He’d spoken those last few words slowly, like he was laying down a trump card at the end of a hand.
Trouble was, the game was hardly started. And from what he was telling me, it sounded like this Style Soviet crew held more aces than there were cards in the deck.
I found myself glancing round the park too, wondering who was watching us and how many minutes we had left.
‘Worth more to us than he is to you?’ I said. ‘Just so we know we’re thinking the same crime, here – are you sure?’
Roland nodded slowly. Then he leaned in close again and lowered his deep dark voice. ‘Sure I’m sure. I’ll tell you why.’ And for the next fifteen minutes, that’s what he did. He ended with the famous words. ‘Are you in?’
When you see the guy playing Roland Nelson in the movies ask the fellow playing one of his new recruits, ‘Are you in?’, you can be sure that part is real. I heard him myself.
Like I said, when Roland started his pitch my strongest emotion was that it was time to run for the nearest hills. By the time he’d finished, I was thinking no mountains on earth were high enough to save me and those I loved from the enemy he described.
So – it shames me to say it now, but it’s the truth – I answered back to Lieutenant Roland Nelson: ‘I’d like to help you find Rocky. But no. I have kids, too.’
The big man didn’t seem surprised. ‘Dev, I quit Morningside the day I read that note. But that ain’t the end of the story. If you want your kids to be safe in the long run, join me.’
‘I can’t do it.’ At that moment I felt a prickling on my scalp, like five guys with hunting rifles had the back of my skull in their sights. ‘Sorry, man.’
‘No sweat.’ Roland reached out his hand and gripped mine for a second. ‘But if you change your mind, let me know.’
And with a shrug of those wide shoulders, he turned and headed back into Harlem.
Now I know you want to hear about Pax, and the organ music, and the conveyor belt. I’m coming to that. But first you’ve got to know what I was thinking as I walked back to my piece of shit, as Roland had called it.
This was before ID tabs were universal in the US. They’d had the electronics for decades without ever using it – sometimes it seemed Roland was right and technology was going backwards. But the idea of surgically implanting in the spine of every citizen a device which would check that citizen’s DNA and location one hundred times a second, and report it to a government computer, had been blocked by Chief Presidential Candidate Melanie and the New Democrats and for more than a decade. Something about civil liberties, I guess.
After Pax, everyone was begging for DNA tabs.
But before we had foolproof ID, it was commonplace for citizens simply to vanish off the face of the earth. In those days you didn’t need a data-shielded building to hide from law enforcement agencies, or from your wife, or even from cold callers. You went out of eyesight, turned off any electronic devices about your person and pouf! You were invisible.
Hard to imagine now, ain’t it?
I guess the idea that citizens should have the right to conceal their location and identity had a tradition in the US going back to the Wild West and the Pilgrim Fathers. A lot of these disappearing types were kids running away from home, hoping to make a buck in the big city, aiming to show that mom didn’t always know best. No-one made much of a fuss about it, before Pax.
Sometimes, though, mom did know best. Throughout US history, many of the missing became victims – as in, someone made them stay missing. Dismembered limbs formerly in the ownership of disappeared persons had a tendency to turn up in the garages and deep freeze cabinets of psychopaths and freaks. War veterans with blue eyes and three kids would drink too much and admit to murdering whole busloads of college co-eds. Old ladies passed away, leaving behind attics heaving with decay. But no-one wanted a police state. It seemed like freedom had its price.
Of course any black guy can tell you: the cost of one man’s liberty is often another man’s enslavement.
I sat in my piece-of-shit squad car and imagined where Roland’s son Rocky might be. Then I thought of my own two boys: one older than Rocky, one younger. My kids were black, just like Rocky, and we all lived in Harlem.
I thought: my kids could be victims, too.
I thought, if I join up with Roland, I’ll put my boys in danger. But in the long run, I’d be standing in harm’s way to save them, and maybe thousands of other kids.
I’m a cautious fellow. That’s what’s kept me alive all these years, including on the ski slopes. So I slept before I decided. Next morning, my mind was made up.
It took me two hours to track down Roland Nelson. I found him at the car pound, in a hut surrounded by towed vehicles. First thing I noticed was that many of them were crocks of shit, too. I never saw that until Roland pointed it out.
Second thing I saw was a couple of tough, lean-looking cops hanging around the pound. One of them asked me if he could assist me. When he heard who I was, he took me to the shack. Inside, Roland and a couple of other guys had huge holo projectors set up that didn’t look like anything I’d seen before in the world of traffic violations.
Roland turned round, real relaxed, when I walked in the door. I guess he trusted his team.
‘You decide yet?’ he said.
I looked at the other cops in the hut.
‘Everyone here is 100%,’ Roland said. ‘You know how I’m sure? First, I recruited them myself. Second, every guy in this room has kids. You know what chances kids have in Harlem these days? How many contribute?’
‘These Style Soviet guys have more resources than the US Army,’ I said. ‘They probably control the whole of NYPD. They offered you five grams of ‘Time. Think what they gave the Police Commissioner.’
‘Sure. It’s dangerous. But I can’t leave Rocky in their hands. Could you?’
‘No. I could not.’ I shook my head. ‘I told you. I got a family too.’
‘So are you in?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m in.’
People these days think Roland Nelson was some kind of tough guy superhero on a quest to right the wrongs of an oppressed people. Fact is, he was a hero. It’s the truth. But courage alone would never have cracked Pax. Roland also had patience; and a general’s grasp of strategy. Most of all, he wanted to save little Rocky. He figured a slow-burn assault would have the best chance of avoiding casualties. He had no idea what we were up against.
It took us four months to locate the Pax Vobiscum Funeral Parlor in Harlem as the likeliest location for the crimes we believed were being committed. During that time, Roland worked tirelessly to recruit the officers we needed to launch a surprise assault. He also spent months trying to identify a Deputy or Assistant Chief of Police he could trust, in order to gain access to the heavy weapons and resources he needed to ensure the assault was a success.
Roland Nelson could not identify a senior officer he was sure was not corrupt.
So the raid went ahead, that fateful Friday morning, with a plan relying on a few good men and a brilliant strategy, backed up by a super secret weapon the bad guys never dreamed of and could not resist.
It helped that Roland’s cover job was in traffic enforcement. The night of the raid, a dozen of us drove nearly one hundred impounded vehicles, including the most solidly-constructed trucks and vans we had available, to the perimeter of a twelve-block area surrounding the funeral parlor. An hour before we went live we adjusted the blockade to seal the streets completely with a couple dozen squad cars.
Then we sent fourteen of our guys to launch the assault on Pax. Roland, me and the rest waited by the road-blocks. By this time the city was waking up and news that something big was happening spread fast, including up the ranks of the NYPD. What happened next should have surprised none of us. But it still takes my breath away to think of it.
The assault began at 5.30 a.m, just before dawn. At 5.32, spotters told us a bunch of refrigerated trucks in the livery of a well-known beer company had exited the premises of what appeared to be a cannery close to the funeral parlor. Fourteen trucks came out, one after the other, a colossal convoy.
First of all they drove around the same few blocks a while, looking for a way to penetrate what must have looked like a pretty random bunch of cars blocking the street. But after fifteen minutes, someone must have given them orders. They tried to crash their way through.
Roland had planned for this. He wanted to ensure that what resources we had – including two TV news crews we’d sworn to secrecy – were as concentrated as possible. So he built one of the blockades to look weaker than the rest.
That was where we put the tyre shredders; the heaviest, lowest saloons; and the steel chains which, barely visible, combined the strength of maybe twenty vehicles into what we hoped would be an impenetrable obstacle.
We didn’t know how determined the drivers of those trucks would be.
Those drivers knew the stakes. They knew what the penalties would be if they and their cargoes were captured.
I was standing next to Roland when we saw the trucks turn a corner and come rumbling towards us. Fourteen eighteen-wheeler semi-trailers, building up speed in the heart of Harlem.
I never drank that brand of beer again.
The first truck hit the centre of our barrier rolling at sixty miles an hour. The truck’s tyres were gone, but the momentum carried our entire chain of vehicles half-way across the junction, opening up a space between the blockade and the street corner. Roland ordered a squad car to plug the gap. Two brave officers obeyed without hesitation.
Without those two guys, thirteen trucks might have escaped that day.
Instead, the squad car met fifty tons of truck travelling at sixty miles an hour in a head-on collision.
The two police officers died instantly. Their vehicle was flipped onto its back and the truck straddled it as it ground forward, crushing the cruiser against the asphalt.
The police cruiser and the truck were still moving when the cruiser’s gas tank exploded. I saw a ball of flame rise up and engulf the cab. The driver jumped out before the truck stopped, his hair and clothes alight. Someone who’d known the dead officers shot him down.
If we’d known more, we would have let him burn.
I guess we were lucky, someways. The two damaged trucks blocked the roadway. A couple of smart guys hemmed in the back of the convoy with police cruisers. Part of the business, it seemed, was done.
But we weren’t finished yet.
At the funeral parlor, resistance was fierce. The defenders knew how much trouble they were in. If we’d known what was happening inside, we might have intervened more decisively. The fight lasted over two hours. This was great news for the news companies: America hadn’t seen combat like that in years. Former war correspondents assigned to living death in the home news columns dusted off their designer fatigues and rushed to what had become a battle front. War raged in the streets of Harlem. A secret operation had broken cover, big time.
Roland Nelson had counted on this. While the fighting continued at the funeral parlor, and cops directed ambulances to the scene, he took a look inside a couple of undamaged truck trailers. Then, his face displaying a horror he didn’t have to fake, he unleashed the biggest weapon we had in our armoury.
He gave a press conference, within sight of the two broken trucks – and their cargoes.
Roland opened proceedings by stating that Pax Vobiscum had been a production facility for illegal Biotime, produced from donors kidnapped by an organised crime syndicate known as the Style Soviet and forced into contribution against their will. The trucks, he said, had been transporting the contents of Pax Vobiscum to another, unspecified, location. Based on an initial inspection of the trucks, he said, he believed many of the donors were teenagers, some identified as missing persons whose disappearance went back five years or more. Some were older; others, younger.
No-one asked Roland about little four year-old Rocky. No-one knew about Rocky, except us. But we were all thinking of him as we looked at the shattered remnants of the first two trucks and their trailers.
Someone asked how many people had been stored as donors in Pax. Roland said he did not know; but with fourteen trucks, each holding up to one hundred bodies, he believed the figure could be as high as fourteen hundred people, held illegally and forced to contribute against their will.
The production syndicate, Roland said, must have recognised the risk of detection. So they had kept their production facility stashed in truck trailers, ready to move out within seconds of an alarm being raised. The bodies were secured individually in steel pallets, each of which could be slotted using commercial storage technology into an alloy lattice inside the trailers. While the trailers were parked at the facility, inputs and effluents were processed externally. In transit, a storage system allowed the trucks to stay on the road for several hours before being re-connected to the equipment needed to maintain Biotime production.
Behind the press conference, an awful scene was unfolding. Hundreds of ambulances were gathering. Medical crews were picking from the wreckage the remains of those donors whose life-support machinery had suffered damage during the attempted breakout. The majority of the captives, crammed into the rear trucks, were lucky; their flow of nutrients would continue for as long as the engines continued to run. Further forward, the streets were strewn with smashed equipment and dead or dying donors, mercifully unaware of their fate.
Everyone knows those awful pictures from the holo documentaries. But it’s hard to describe what we saw that day. Fragments of flesh and bone poked through jumbled cables. Infants festooned in tubing lay placidly in broken steel baskets as their young lives dribbled forth. Rescuers with pneumatic cutters fought to disentangle bodies from the metal packed inside the trailers. This would have been grisly footage in a foreign war; but we were on Manhattan Island. Many images were edited into oblivion that morning. But many more turned up on breakfast bulletins from coast to coast.
While Roland was laying the foundations with his press conference for the regurgitation of cornflakes nationwide, the fighting continued at the Pax Vobiscum Funeral Parlor a few blocks away. Roland had guessed that as soon as it was clear a major conflict had erupted, the National Guard would be mobilised to relieve our mish-mash of lightly-armed NYPD officers. The enquiry into Pax later revealed that National Guard commanders had received orders at the highest level to hold their fire when they reached the facility. Only good fortune prevented a delay giving the defenders time to destroy more crucial evidence.
Like most soldiers, the National Guard were spoiling for a fight. When a stray shoulder-launched missile fired from the funeral parlor happened to fry up the first troop-carrier full of men to arrive on the scene, the charitable instincts of their comrades were much reduced. An ultimatum to the occupants of Pax elicited no answer. Then combat units moved in and, in a show of force, crushed all remaining resistance. Of the two hundred defenders nearly half lost their lives, and none escaped unhurt. Police losses were never announced. This, I know, was to disguise the effects on the force of later purges. In the aftermath of the raid, the mood at station level was ugly.
The rest of the nation was dismayed, too. What we discovered inside Pax was abuse of human rights on a sickening scale. The forensic teams discovered eight hundred more donors in production pallets at the site, plus the remains of over two hundred more in the parlor’s over-sized incinerator, partly consumed by fire.
Roland had been wrong when he said the Style Soviet kept the donors in trailers so they could be moved fast. That privilege was reserved for the highest-value donors. The least valuable of the syndicate’s human assets had been left behind for disposal.
“Least valuable” meant “oldest”. Infants could produce as much as 1.5 standard grams of Biotime – for which the criminal Soviet used the codename “Style” – each year. But older contributors could produce as little as 0.75 grams. That, and their lower life expectancy, meant the potential harvest of ‘Time was too low to prioritise their transfer to a new production centre. As defenders armed with automatic weapons slowed down the assault at ground level, so-called medical staff in the cellar had been unplugging one donor after another from life support and feeding them onto the conveyor belt to the incinerator.
I guess it’s no surprise the crematorium at Pax caught everyone’s imagination. It had been used occasionally to dispose of legitimate corpses taken in during the funeral parlor’s cover activities. So it was equipped with automated curtains, soft lighting, and a sound system programmed to produce popular music in a range of styles, swelling to a crescendo as each body was engulfed in flames. The assault team testified that music was still playing when they stormed the building. A scene of sweating medics seeking to erase evidence of their crime to an amplified background of the world’s favourite funeral melodies has featured in every dramatisation of that day.
The revelations didn’t end with the siege. The Fahrenheit 451 boys had also been busy at the incinerator as the NYPD closed in, and few of the facility’s records survived. In the following weeks, however, the breaking down of one hood after another in the face of enthusiastic FBI questioning made it possible to piece together a picture of a crime which had begun eight years previously.
The prisoners’ resistance was low. Of the five top Soviet leaders, known as Chairmen, only one – a psychopathic arms collector who went by the name of Chairman Nero Hatchet – had stayed to defend Pax Vobiscum. The remainder had slipped into the Harlem night. Their colleagues, most of them wounded in the siege, felt betrayed. Basing their defence on the time-honoured principle that they had only been obeying orders, they did their best to provide a water-tight case for any prosecution of the leading offenders which might take place.
Those prosecutions would have been ferocious even without what happened later that morning. At 9.25 a.m., just as TV cameras were surrounding a beaming Roland Nelson cradling in his arms the safely-rescued Rocky, one of the escaped Soviet leaders, self-styled Chairman Divine Caligula, walked into the crowd of journalists, took out a revolver, and fired six shots into Roland Nelson’s chest. Poor Roland died within minutes, despite the efforts of the medics at the scene. Little Rocky, along with his mother Marlene who had been rescued from the conveyor belt when the National Guard stormed Pax, went on to become a leader of the One Lifer movement.
The court cases produced a string of revelations about the so-called Style Soviet. The crime of the century had started off as a haphazard operation, drawing Biotime, or “Style”, from teenagers who happened to fall in with the wrong group of friends. But as the scale of the potential profitability had become apparent, the Soviet had launched a campaign of targeted head-hunting.
Rather than waiting to see what waifs and strays the wind might blow their way, the Soviet embarked on a programme of planned acquisition designed to create an efficient, secure and low-risk Biotime portfolio.
Scouts would work their way through urban neighbourhoods spying out targets. These were usually unemployed or truant young people with time on their hands. Small-time hoods known to their intended victims to be operating on the fringes of the law would approach with offers of employment, usually in an area of semi-legal activity where it might be necessary to go underground for a while. The self-confident young men – males were preferred on account of their higher body weight and slightly greater Biotime production – would deliver themselves up, conveniently making every effort to conceal their destinations from friends, families and the forces of the law.
Having latched onto a victim, the Style Soviet moved through the vacuum created by his or her absence from the scene. Bank accounts were emptied; cars sold; apartments stripped and re-let. In the course of this scavenging, other family members came to light – girlfriends, boyfriends, children and aged relatives. The Soviet realised that they could reduce the likelihood of their original felony coming to light while opening an additional seam of donors by subsuming such uninvited guests into Biotime production.
According to the confessions, the Soviet had no policy of targeting infants. But the flow of dependants left the group in possession of a growing stock of babies, some as young as a few months old. But for the intervention of New York City’s finest, they might have provided a supply of Biotime to their kidnappers for decades.
So, that’s how it happened. Of course, history is shaped by the guys with the best holo images. So the infant Biotime donors of Pax Vobiscum were sure to have repercussions. And who can forget little Rocky Nelson? When Roland appeared from the back of a truck with the child in his arms, the image was iconic. So was the picture of another black police officer cradling Little Rocky as we both looked down at the body of his slain father. That police officer was me, Devonte Ray.
You all know what came next. The idea that photogenic toddlers could spend their lives strapped unconscious in steel cages, delivering a product many establishment-minded US citizens used daily, set off a storm of revulsion. Within weeks, Biotime was prohibited in the US. Lynch mobs stormed through Mid-West towns, meting out summary justice to bootleggers. For a couple of years, it seemed like the world’s favourite product was finished for good in the United States of America. Of course, we all know now it wasn’t the case.
But that’s another story.
PART 3: BIOTIME
‘Chimeric Brain Mouse Speaks Out: ‘I WANT MY BABIES TO BE HUMAN BEINGS!”
Life Sample bit her lip as Jake’s Albuquerque Cheyenne Classic turned off Washington Boulevard. A shock of hair fell over his tanned forehead as he stepped out of the long, low, US-built convertible and fussed over the retro manual door lock. Even now after ten years on the job, he looked more like a surfer dude than a Biotime Enforcement Officer.
Santa Monica, California, 1979 – Photo Robert Pimm
He turned towards her with a half-smile.
‘Hello, Sam,’ he said. ‘Great to see you.’
‘Jake.’ She hugged him. ‘Thanks for using my One Lifer name.’
‘What are you doing here in Culver City?’
‘We need to talk.’
He checked his bracelet. ‘Is it quick? I have a stolen lifetime to repossess at ten. And I’m due at Hughes to see Ed and Abigail at noon. She’s giving birth this morning.’
‘I can’t be late for a termination contract.’ Jake cracked a smile. ‘And Ed and me go back years. Now he’s getting a kid. This could be our last beer together.’
She gestured towards the building. ‘So let’s talk while we visit.’
Many architects admired the gleaming red-and-silver tower, inscribed “Culver” on each side, which thrust upwards from the Culver City Contribution Center. For Life Sample it stirred a sense of foreboding.
In the security airlock Jake raised his sun-bleached eyebrows. ‘How’s Zoe?’ he said. ‘She must be growing up fast.’
‘The usual. Fretting about friends at school. You know she’s the only one in her class not taking the Holiday?’
‘So long as she has the choice.’
‘She has a choice, Jake. That’s the point.’
A recorded voice told them they were entering a facility licensed by the Central Authority. When the inner door slid open there was a smell of fresh paint.
Jake led the way. ‘You came all the way from Kansas to talk? Why not holo?’
‘I wanted to make sure you heard what I had to say.’ She fell silent as they approached the reception booth.
‘We’re here to see Fernando and Mary Moonrath,’ Jake said with a broad smile.
‘Certainly, sir.’ The receptionist was a smooth-skinned woman with high cheekbones and almond eyes. She looked down, as if checking the screen set in the desk. ‘Welcome to the 4Cs. You are Jake Moonrath? And you are Rose Moonrath?’ She made it sound like a question.
‘Yes,’ Jake said.
‘My name’s Life Sample,’ Life Sample said. ‘Sam for short.’
‘Your DNA tab identifies you as Rose Moonrath, daughter of Fernando and Mary Moonrath, authorised to visit those contributors,’ the receptionist said. ‘Is your ID malfunctioning? Shall I summon a law enforcement officer?’
Life Sample shook her head. ‘OK. My birth name is Rose Moonrath. I changed it to Life Sample when I became a One Lifer.’
‘She’s still Rose to me, too.’ Jake winked at the receptionist, who winked back. ‘But cut her some slack.’
The receptionist nodded. ‘Thank you. Suite 33 is in Sector F.’ Another door slid open to reveal a broad, brightly lit corridor. ‘Enjoy your visit.’
‘And you can go fuck yourself,’ Life Sample said.
The receptionist’s smile never wavered. ‘A visit to loved ones in contribution is often stressful,’ she said. ‘That is why the 4Cs provides free of charge a selection of alcoholic beverages and other approved drugs which you may enjoy responsibly at the end of your visit. Thank you. Suite 33 is in Sector F.’ She gestured again. ‘Enjoy your visit.’
‘You are stressed.’ Jake showed his perfect teeth. ‘Why mouth off at a holo?’
‘I hate this place.’ Life Sample clutched the slip of paper in her pocket. ‘It’s always Suite 33, right?’
‘Yeah, they try to keep things familiar to encourage return visits. They always put in fresh flowers, too.’
Life Sample glanced at the buttons of the surveillance system on the ceiling. ‘If they want more visitors they should employ more real people. I’ve only ever seen the security guys.’
‘That’s because you never visit.’
‘This place is like a prison.’
Jake stopped. ‘If you mention the Biotime Oppression, I’m leaving.’
‘You’re part of it, Jake.’
‘Bullshit. Do you think Mom and Dad are propping up the system too?’
‘They’re victims, obviously.’
‘They volunteered. That’s what you One Lifer conspiracy theorists all forget.’
‘Mom and Dad were brainwashed.’
‘OK.’ Jake’s gaze was intense. ‘So what is it, Sam? You’re not really here to see Mom and Dad, are you?’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘I can smell it. They don’t call me a Biotime nose for nothing.’
Life Sample hesitated. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘We’re here.’
A heavily-built security guard was waiting outside Suite 33, his Big Fright unsheathed. His black leather uniform glinted in the bright light of the corridor. The visor of his helmet was closed.
‘Two visitors,’ he said without moving. ‘Coming in now.’
‘Do you have to wave that thing around?’ Life Sample said.
The guard took a step back and raised the weapon. ‘Are you challenging my right to disable you? If so – ‘
‘Why should we be a threat? We’re visiting our parents.’
‘Contributors are vulnerable people.’
‘OK, OK.’ Life Sample looked at Jake. ‘Let’s do this.’
The door clicked open.
The viewing suite was decorated in orange and red. A vase of yellow tulips sat on a low table. Two armchairs stood by the viewing platform. A second guard was crouched in the far corner of the room, his Big Fright trained on them.
‘No sudden movements, please. If I am required to disable you, you may be charged with a Biotime offence,’ he said.
‘Sure.’ Jake moved easily towards the chairs and sat down. Life Sample settled next to him. The second guard, who had followed her inside, took up position behind them.
‘Cosy,’ she said.
‘You didn’t have to come.’
Life Sample nodded at the platform. ‘They look so old.’
‘Eight years older than last time you took the trouble to visit.’
‘I can’t bear to see them like this.’
‘They’re not OK, Jake. They’re on termination contracts. Look at Daddy.’ She pointed to the tangle of tubes which encased their father’s wrist beneath the diaphanous plastic. ‘He’s producing right now.’
‘It’s called obeying the law,’ Jake said. ‘The day people stop doing that, society collapses. That’s why I became an Enforcement Officer.’
Now. Life Sample moved her hand to hold his. ‘Jake. I know you believe in all this stuff. But if you ask me, society doesn’t look so steady on its feet right now.’
Jake turned. ‘Says who?’
‘You’re the Biotime nose. Do you think what’s been happening on the New York markets is normal? Prices have been sliding for months.’ As she spoke, she transferred the slip of paper into his hand, her eyes staring into his. ‘The country’s falling off a precipice.’
Jake said nothing. She could feel him scanning her face. ‘Maybe.’ His fingers closed around the note. ‘But ‘Time’s still over three million dollars a gram. I don’t call that a crisis.’
‘Depends how you define a crisis.’ Life Sample could feel her heart racing. ‘Are you through? I hate it in here.’
‘I’m good.’ Jake turned to the guard opposite. ‘I’m going to stand, and kiss my parents.’
‘Please keep your hands behind your back at all times,’ the guard said.
Life Sample watched Jake move to the viewing platform. His mouth was working. Jake liked to pretend he lived for his work. But to see her brother’s eyes glisten on his weekly visit to their lost parents was a reminder of why she had been right to trust him with her secret.
He bent to kiss their mother. Mary Moonrath’s nakedness emphasised her vulnerability. Her hair was grey. But there were still traces of the beauty who’d tried to make it in Hollywood thirty years ago. Their father’s once-muscular chest was beginning to slacken. His lips were curled in a faint smile, as if he recognised the absurdity of his situation. Jake touched his lips to the plastic-covered forehead. He had once told Life Sample he could feel the warmth of their parents’ bodies through the protective contribution envelopes. The thought made her nauseous.
Jake stood. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘It’s termination time.’
Life Sample nodded. ‘Jake, I know it’s hard being a little brother to a big sister. But what if your whole life’s a crime?’
Jake paused in the doorway. ‘It’s not me who’s fantasising about the end of the so-called Biotime Oppression.’
‘Holo me.’ She thought of the surveillance equipment, recording their every word. ‘I’ll be in Kansas.’
‘Sure.’ For a moment, he smiled. ‘And remember. You don’t know everything about me. Don’t ask me how I know the Biotime Oppression is a myth. But trust me. I know.’
EXTREME SUFFERING JUSTIFIES EXTREME MEASURES
One Life Army atrocity verification code
Sue Phu looked out at the rain and sighed. Three days into her confinement and still no sign of a break in the weather. From her front door the Mekong stretched, shimmering in the downpour. What kind of welcome was this for the new baby? Between her breasts a drop of sweat rolled down, a cool tickle which melted into warmth where her swollen belly rose against her dress. She yelled to her daughter, Last Chance.
‘Last Chance! Is the water still hot?’
‘Come and try it.’
Last Chance was crouched over an open fire in the corner of the hut, watching steam rise from a cauldron. She had helped deliver two of her mother’s children. The first time, the water had been too cold and Sue Phu had nearly died. Water-borne hepatitis, the man in the boat had said when he came for the baby. Neither Sue Phu nor Last Chance had dissented. No-one argued with the man in the boat.
The man had left lucky charms after that, to help Sue Phu. Now they had glass bottles full of powder to sprinkle around the hut; pills to swallow before and after the stud-boys came; and red pellets which fizzed and boiled in the river water Sue Phu and Last Chance drank when the bottles they bought from the supply boat were all empty.
Sue Phu stepped into the hut, touching the metal box over the door for luck. The box was smooth and cool; the man in the boat brought one whenever a woman in the village bled for the first time. A black dish on the roof stored up the sun in the box and shone it out during the night, from a glass eye on the front. The man in the boat said the box helped him know if Sue Phu needed anything.
Sue Phu had mixed feelings about the man in the boat. He never bargained. The prices he paid were falling. Sue Phu had even toyed with the thought of keeping the new baby. But she couldn’t afford it. It was good that the man in the boat supplied for free the stud-boys without whom nothing would have been possible. All the women were serviced thus. There were no other fathers to be had.
Not since the time of Sue Phu’s great-grandmother had men lived in the village. What had happened to them was a subject of dispute. Some said the Americans had killed them when they lost the great war, long ago. Others said the invaders had taken the men with them to work as slaves. Some of the younger women said men had never lived in the village. How could they, when the man in the boat took every male child away with him? The man in the boat, when people dared to ask him, smiled and said nothing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from my novel “Biotime”. If you’re interested in hearing about further episodes, follow this blog by e-mail (top right, “click here”); or follow me on Twitter @RobertPimm (left hand side). I can promise you a fun ride.
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