This page is where I bring together the excerpts of my novel Biotime I’ve published on-line.
Biotime begins with two prologues: Breughel vs. Jones; and Pax Vobiscum.
The main part of the novel, Biotime, begins thereafter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two days later the rain stopped and Sue Phu delivered with the help of Last Chance a yelling, healthy baby boy. Last Chance said the new baby was crying so loud the man in the boat would hear. Sue Phu was delighted. She had never given birth to a boy. The first four babies she had sold had all been girls. Holding on to Last Chance, her fifth, had been an act of superstitious folly, as though such a demonstration might persuade the gods of her indifference to the gender of her progeny. Penury had been averted only by the fascination which the child exerted on the rest of the village as women crowded in to take turns holding the infant, bringing small gifts of food. But the gods had paid scant attention: Sue Phu had gone on to produce three more baby girls, one after another.
A few days after each birth the man in the boat would call, examine the child, and shake Sue Phu’s hand. That meant the baby was OK. He would give Sue Phu a small case wrapped in a pink ribbon – for a girl – containing a number of dollar tokens. Then he would leave with the baby. There were fewer tokens for a girl than for a boy. This time it would be different.
Sue Phu was nursing the child outside her front door when the boat came. She knew the sound well: the roar of the engines rising to a scream as the boat hit a patch of open water, then dropping to a burble as it toiled between the river houses, vulnerable on their bamboo stilts. The man in the boat looked after the women of the village. He had an interest in them, for sure. She held the child to her breast.
The boat came to rest in front of the house, rolling in the dark, calm water. Last Chance peered round the door. The vessel, longer than any two houses in the village and streaked with the rain of a hundred summers, was the most beautiful thing in creation. Life would have ceased without it. Yet its attraction was tinged with dread.
Sometimes, when Last Chance misbehaved, Sue Phu threatened to sell her to the man in the boat. In fact, the man in the boat had several times offered Sue Phu a cash payment in return for being allowed to take her daughter on board. He told her that as Last Chance grew older the price would be less; and that when the girl first bled, the price would fall to nil. Sue Phu had always declined.
On the boat a door opened and the man came out, blinking in the sunshine. He was tall, with long fair hair falling down over his shoulders, and wore only a sarong. The word “Peace” was tattooed on his left breast, above a small white bird. Although the man in the boat had been coming to the village for as long as anyone could remember, he looked younger than Sue Phu.
‘Good morning, Sue Phu,’ he said. ‘I hear you got something good for me.’
Sue Phu nodded. The man was always polite. His face was permanently set in a smile of friendship. Yet there was something about the man in the boat which made her afraid. Not his eyes, which sparkled when he caught her glance. Nor his walk and posture, both of them humility itself. The stalking gait of the boat crew – short, hard men who spoke a language she did not understand – was far more overtly inimical. Rather, it was as if the man in the boat was gazing at her from a place far away, where Sue Phu’s life had no more meaning than the scurrying of an ant on the forest floor.
Many years ago, after a glass of rice wine, Sue Phu’s mother had told her the boat crew were angry because they were incomplete.
‘They’re not like the stud-boys. They are smooth down there.’ Sue Phu’s mother had touched herself between the legs. ‘There is nothing hanging down. Or sticking up. It is the price they pay. It makes them irritable.’
‘Price?’ Sue Phu had frowned. ‘What price?’
‘The price of freedom. They want to ride on the boat, they pay. So they cannot bother us. Simple.’
‘But what if they don’t want to ride on the boat? What happens to them then?’
Sue Phu’s mother had gathered her up and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I don’t know. Maybe one day you can ask the man in the boat.’
But Sue Phu had never dared.
Now the man had taken an envelope from one of his grim-faced crew and was tearing it open to extract a damp, filmy-thin white plastic sheet. He spread this on the cane matting in front of Sue Phu and knelt down next to her. The ritual was beginning.
‘May I see the baby, Sue Phu?’ the man in the boat asked.
The tiny boy began to cry. The man laid the infant gently on the white sheet. Sue Phu saw a fat tear well up on the baby’s cheek and trickle down onto the plastic. She longed to wipe it away. But instead she watched, expressionless, her hands folded in her lap, as the man tickled the baby’s toes, examined its eyes, and, using a disposable syringe, extracted a sample of blood, which he passed down to the boat. Sue Phu bit her lip as the crewman took the blood inside, slamming the door behind him.
Everyone said they tested the blood to check that the father was one of the stud-boys. If the results came out wrong, the man in the boat would still take the child but would pay nothing. Sue Phu could not remember this happening. How could it, with no other men in the village? But they always took blood into the boat before any baby was passed fit for dollars.
The door stayed closed for what seemed like hours. The man in the boat knelt next to Sue Phu, ignoring both her and the baby, contemplating the river. Nearby, Last Chance was staring at the door into which the crewman had disappeared. There was something painted on it, faded by rain and sunshine. It looked like a severed hand, transfixed by a knife. A lizard ran out from under the house onto the floor matting and stopped dead, its eyes rotating comically as it tried to decide whether to stay frozen or run away. Further down the riverbank, beneath the overhanging trees, something splashed into the water.
At last the boat door opened and the crewman emerged. His face revealed nothing. He said a few words in his guttural language. The man in the boat continued to gaze at the river. As if he had all the time in the world. Then he turned to Sue Phu and stretched out his hand.
‘Shake on it,’ he said.
Sue Phu blinked. Her eyes were filling with tears. Eight times before, the man had taken her baby. It never got any easier. The man’s hand was smooth and soft. Behind her she heard a whoop. Last Chance was jumping around and yelling. Two pregnant women peeked from the doorway of the hut next door.
‘You done it, new baby,’ shrieked Last Chance. ‘You done it.’
Ignored by everyone, the baby cried. Another man appeared from the boat, carrying a cot encased in a rectangular framework of grey metal. This he placed by the baby.
‘Say goodbye?’ the man in the boat said.
Sue Phu shook her head. She had no baby now.
The man watched her for a moment, then addressed the child. ‘Say goodbye to your momma, kid.’ He lifted the baby from the sheet and placed it in the cot, where it continued to sob. From within the metal frame the man lifted a package, tied with a blue ribbon. ‘This is for you, Sue Phu.’ He handed it to her. ‘May I say that we’re grateful for all your good work. If you’re thinking of having another child, I should remind you that with eight already in our care plus little number nine here, you only need one more to retire and receive a regular payment for the rest of your life. Then you can leave all the work to Last Chance.’
Sue Phu spoke quietly. ‘You bring the stud-boys. I will be waiting.’
‘We’ll be back. As soon as we think you’re ready.’ The man picked up the cot and clambered down onto the boat, which slipped its moorings and began to move out into the channel. Sue Phu could hear the baby crying as the man opened the door and went inside. Then the door closed, and the crying was gone.
At the US embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Martha O’Leary blinked at her computer screen and wondered what to do.
‘Is something wrong?’ Across the room the locally-engaged Biotime Attaché, Toxirov Ergash Gulomovich, had stopped typing.
‘You know I’m acting Chief of Mission in the Ambassador’s absence.’ Saying the words made Martha anxious. ‘I got a service message. There’s a DECOM holo coming in.’
‘DECOM? What is that?’
Martha glanced at her assistant. Working in Biotime enforcement made you paranoid, it was a fact. But Gulomovich always seemed to focus on the most sensitive aspects of her work. He also drove a late-model Tokyo Firestorm on a pittance of a salary. She decided to play it straight.
‘It means decryption by Chief of Mission only.’ She pushed back the Alice band designed to hold in place her unruly red hair. ‘But I’m not sure I should take the call.’
‘Like you say. You are acting Chief of Mission.’
‘But it could be personal. Medical, maybe.’
‘It is serving him right for falling down steps of Timur Night Club.’ When Gulomovich leaned back, his chair squeaked in protest. ‘That is why he is in United States, getting hip fixed. He want to be Chief of Mission, he stay here in Tashkent.’
‘I guess you’re right.’ Martha frowned at the dog-eared satellite photo on the wall, supposedly showing black Biotime factories in the foothills of the Tien Shan. ‘I’ll check it out.’
‘You do that.’ Gulomovich resumed his typing, fat fingers moving with surprising speed. ‘Remember, is probably highly classified. Be sure to tell local staff nothing.’ He grinned, showing his gold teeth.
Martha grabbed a handful of papers from her desk and hurried out. She let herself through the outer metal door of the two-stage airlock which blocked the passage and waited while the locking mechanism on the inner door interrogated her DNA tab and reassured itself that no-one else was present. Then, with a wheeze, the inner door opened. Ahead lay a corridor identical to that from which she had just come, but more decrepit.
The secure zone of the embassy was off-limits to everyone except US-based diplomatic staff, of whom Martha was at present the only example in the Republic of Uzbekistan. The carpet was dusted with flakes of paint from the walls and ceiling. The only cleaners and decorators permitted to work in the secure zone were US nationals. The embassy had employed none for years.
The communications centre, known as the Holo Hutch, was protected by a second security airlock and walls of solid steel. Martha entered, sat down at a small table, and logged in. Then she worked on her papers while the computer informed the secure communications community in government agencies across the US that the embassy in Tashkent was ready to holo. For a while, nothing happened.
The wait troubled Martha. The State Department bureaucrats who handled Uzbekistan out of Washington DC were Biotime-poor. They did everything in a hurry: working, eating, even sleeping. Surely they’d want to talk as soon as Martha was ready for them. Diplomats did not have the kind of cash you needed to stock up. So who was keeping her waiting?
Martha finished reading her papers and stared at the two metre by one metre holo void opposite her. She unwrapped a piece of gum and chewed it slowly. She wondered what Gulomovich was doing while she was in the Hutch.
At last the holo void lit up. She stared at it, expecting a high-definition three-dimensional image of her interlocutor to appear. But the space remained vacant. She checked the control panel and her eyes widened.
‘Hello?’ It felt foolish, speaking to an empty space. ‘This is Martha O’Leary at the US embassy in Tashkent. I’m here to take a DECOM holo.’
‘Hello, Martha.’ A man’s voice. Kindly. Old. ‘I apologise for contacting you in such an unconventional manner. I assume this connection is secure?’
‘I’m in the Holo Hutch.’ Martha glanced again at the control panel. She could feel her heart beating. ‘Are you really calling from the Home Security Bureau? Is something wrong?’
‘I am a senior official of the Home Security Bureau of the Central Authority of the United States, yes.’ The disembodied voice spoke the words slowly, as if relishing the length of the title. ‘Something is indeed gravely wrong. A catastrophe in the making. An impending doom scenario. But I don’t know what it is. That is why I am calling you.’
‘I never dealt with the Bureau before. The Ambassador will be back in a few days.’
‘I know. It is important that he learns nothing of what I am about to tell you.’
‘You don’t trust the Ambassador?’ Martha took a deep breath. ‘How do I know if I can I trust you?’
‘An astute question.’
There was warmth in the voice. ‘You cannot be sure, except that your control panel no doubt shows that I am speaking from the Bureau headquarters here in Aspen. For you to know my identity would be dangerous. Perilous.’ The man lowered his voice. ‘Deadly.
‘Listen carefully. The head of one of the largest Biotime cartels in the world has contacted me with an interesting proposition. But it depends on us meeting him in Samarkand. I want you to do this, Martha, on behalf of the Home Security Bureau.’
‘When?’ She struggled to catch her breath. The man had mentioned the existence of Biotime cartels as though it were a known fact.
‘I do not know. He will contact you.’
‘He asked me to tell no-one. But I cannot leave Aspen without raising questions in the Bureau. I fear that your Ambassador may have been seeing the wrong people in Tashkent. That he could have chosen the dark side. Been compromised. So I am asking for your help.’
‘How will I know who this man is?
‘You will know. He will use this symbol. Take a good look, then I will sign off. Good luck, Martha. God bless.’ There was a pause. ‘I wish you well.’
A hand appeared, clutching a sheet of paper. The man in Aspen must be reaching his arm into the holo void at his end. For a moment Martha examined the hand, rather than the paper it held. The skin was that of an elderly black man. The sleeve was a soft blue woollen fabric, worn by use. She had only just focused on the paper when the image flickered out. Her interlocutor had ended the call.
Martha had a good memory. She could remember every detail of the design on the paper. Quickly, she sketched it on the back of one of the documents she had brought with her into the comcen.
It was a severed hand, transfixed by a knife.
The man in the boat’s real name was Doctor Boris Suleikin. He was an American citizen, although he had not visited the United States for over a century. He closed the door behind him as the boat drew away from Sue Phu’s house. Then he swung the crate containing her baby onto a metal trellis in the centre of the spacious cabin and snapped it into place. With practiced ease, he folded down the metal sides to make a crude table and stretched a rubber strap across the baby’s midriff to prevent it falling to the floor if the boat hit a patch of rough water. The child took a deep breath and began to scream.
Suleikin cursed and looked around the cabin. ‘Patel?’ he shouted. ‘Where are you?’
‘I am caring for the cargo, actually.’ A white-bearded man, wearing a turban and smoking a fat cigar, appeared from a staircase leading into a dimly-lit space below.
‘Move it. We need to chip and tap, fast.’
‘What is the hurry?’ Patel puffed on his cigar. ‘The way prices are going south, you may as well throw the little fellow overboard.’
‘Prices? What prices?’
‘A gram of Biotime has dipped below three million dollars on the futures markets. I do not see that a minute more or less before we chip and tap will matter either way.’
‘Three million bucks a year is still six dollars a minute.’ Suleikin picked up a vacuum-packed kit of tubes and needles. ‘Three hundred and sixty bucks an hour. Even in New York, that’s a meal out with your girlfriend. Four courses. And French wine.’ He washed his hands in a grimy sink, broke open the packaging and addressed the infant. ‘Take it easy, kid.’ He began attaching the colour-coded tubes to an array of apertures in the base of the crate. ‘You’ll feel better with some nutrients and a shot of Flurazepam.’ He pulled free two needles and gripped the baby’s arm. ‘Patel. I need you here.’
‘Relax.’ Patel rinsed his hands. ‘Personally, I think it is kinder to wait until he is unconscious before chipping him.’
Both men looked down at the baby, which was yelling lustily.
‘Sure,’ Suleikin said. ‘The important thing is to tap him right away.’
‘In order to ensure that supply outstrips demand still further.’ Patel chomped on his cigar.
Suleikin looked up at Patel. ‘Hold his arm, will you? He inserted the first needle and depressed the plunger. The infant stopped screaming for a moment, then resumed at twice the volume. ‘There’ll always be demand for Biotime.’ He slipped a second feed into the baby’s arm, and reached for a third. ‘It’s human nature.’
‘Even a Yale man must have heard of supply and demand.’ Patel, who had studied medicine at Harvard, was breaking out a thick, shrink-wrapped syringe. ‘The size of the world economy shrank in each of the last two years. Less money means less demand. Even a child knows it.’
On the metal table, the baby’s sobs were dying away as the sedative took effect. Suleikin heard the throb of the boat’s engines. He reached down and closed the infant’s eyes with his thumb. ‘I guess we’re ready.’
‘You go first.’
By now, the baby’s arm was thick with needles, each connected to a different tube and strapped into place with surgical tape. Suleikin took a cannula and eased it into a vein on the inside of the elbow. The infant did not stir. ‘Biotime is tapped at 15.43 and sixteen seconds,’ the blond doctor said. ‘Ready to ID?’
‘I am ready.’ Patel prepared the big syringe. ‘It is fortunate that this is not a US neonatal unit.’ He rubbed the small of his back. ‘The only thing harder than removing an ID chip from the spine is implanting it there in the first place. Fortunately for this fellow, any major muscle mass will do for us.’ He rolled the baby onto its side, jabbed the fat needle into its buttock and injected the contents. Finally, he passed a scanner over the child. The screen lit up with a stream of figures.
‘The boy now has an identity.’ Patel took a felt-tipped pen from his pocket and wrote three letters on the baby’s arm. ‘But to give him dignity, I name him Tho. It means longevity.’
Suleikin scowled. ‘You think that gives him dignity, writing a name on his arm? What’s wrong with Chip?’
‘I should have thought even you would tire of that joke.’ Patel picked up the crate. ‘I shall put little Tho in the fore cabin.’
The sides of the next room were fitted with a framework of metal supports. All were occupied except for a single space half-way up the stack. Patel eased the crate into the gap and pressed it downwards. He jiggled it to and fro. ‘There is no bloody contact,’ he said. ‘Ah, there we are.’
There was a click, and a green lamp blinked into life on the side of the crate. Patel beamed at Suleikin. ‘Hiep Phuoc, here we come.’
Suleikin turned off the overhead light. In the gloom, dozens of green lamps glowed from crates stacked on both sides of the cabin, rocking gently as the boat moved through the water. ‘Looks like we’re done.’
‘Good,’ Patel said. ‘Now, how about a beer?’
‘If you’re the kind of person who likes the idea of staying in bed for the rest of your life, Biotime may be just your cup of tea.’
Early Central Authority advertising, quoted in “Why Biotime Stunts Society”, Zenon Kool, Schlaraffenland Press (out of print)
Northbound on the crumbling concrete of I-405, Jake Moonrath clenched his teeth. Thanks to Rose, he was late for his meeting with ‘Time-expired Jennifer. In fact, Rose had screwed up his entire day.
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!
Jake cranked up the volume, but the music failed to lift his mood. Why? He should be full of joy for sure. Soon he’d be seeing Ed: his closest friend and a top Biotime Enforcement Officer. More than that: Jake shared a professional secret with Ed of which even Ed’s wife Abigail knew nothing. But all Jake could think of right now was the acute risk of life expectancy reduction to which he was about to expose himself.
That, and the note Rose had passed him at the Culver City Contribution Center. It was a print-off from a One Life Trust financial subscription service.
Guys. This is a confidential Platinum Client alert from your friends at the One Life Trust. The numbers continue to add up for us. But not for the rest of the financial sector! The plunging value of our un-favourite commodity means Biotime reserves held by the top ten US banks are now worth less than those banks’ financial obligations for the next twelve months. This is grave shit! A financial tsunami is out there! In the last three hundred years, the OLT has never marked Biotime a “buy” for obvious reasons. Now it’s a must-sell! In fact, we alert all Platinum Clients: get out your financial life preservers and inflate! Those are some big waves coming in!
Across the bottom, Rose – or Sam – had scribbled:
Something weird is happening, Jake. Sure, I always hated the system. But now it’s falling apart. Even the OLT is worried. Be careful, little brother. Something awful is heading our way. LS.
Jake sighed. The One Life Trust was America’s most successful investment bank. But it was, by definition, run by One Lifers who believed that eschewing the use of Biotime gave them an intellectual edge, greater creativity and stronger emotions than people who used the precious life-extension fluid to live beyond their years. So the Trust had always opposed the way Biotime had become a de facto reserve currency for the US financial system.
Rose must be spooked to come all the way to California to hand him her little note. But what could go wrong? People would always want Biotime. The US had been stable, if maybe a little sluggish, for centuries. Most One Lifers were conspiracy theorists, or paranoid, or both.
He smoothed the paper between his fingers, and read it again. Be careful, little brother. Jake’s line of work meant he was careful every day. Sometimes – like the Man Without a Past case – he took risks. But they always paid off.
Jake fought the urge to hit the gas. The Cheyenne could no more exceed forty miles an hour than any other vehicle on the sparsely-populated highway – there seemed to be less traffic each year – and he was locked a safe distance behind the Nagasaki Commemoration up front. He eyed the Korean car’s smooth lines. A classic roadster, much favoured by women. ‘Time-expired Jennifer herself owned one, as it happened. But not for much longer.
Jake had been turned on to the case of ‘Time-expired Jennifer by the Chattanooga Life Exchange Foundation (“CLEF – your key to a better life”) two days before. He’d strolled into his office, hung his shades on the hat stand, and settled down at the desk. Immediately a man with a grey moustache and dark-rimmed glasses had appeared opposite Jake, leaning forward over a second desk which had materialised with him.
‘Baker 309, CLEF, Chattanooga,’ the recorded holo had opened. ‘Case for you.’
It was routine: a cash-poor, mid-aged woman going nowhere, forty years actuarially-certified life expectancy in hand, deciding to cash in her assets.
‘So,’ Baker 309 had said, biting the end off each word as if the CLEF couldn’t afford the holo charges, ‘she takes out a generous Termination Contract with us here in Chattanooga and becomes, maybe for the first and certainly for the last time in her life, rich enough to live in style. Which she then does, with gusto. Nothing wrong with that.’ Baker 309 coughed and wiped his moustache with a handkerchief.
‘However. Following much indulgence in moon-gazing, fancy vacations and so forth, she meets the usual younger man, who says, as young men do – ‘ Baker had coughed again ‘ – beautiful mother, please don’t leave me. Pay no heed, precious angel, to the Biotime-obsessive grey-suits at the CLEF, oh, no. Termination Contract or no, I’ll hide you away in a little house in the big city, and we’ll make love ’til the day we die.’ At last Baker had smiled. ‘Whenever that may be. Well, Mr Moonrath, we’d like you to enforce the contract. The usual commission will be payable.’ So saying, Baker 309 had disappeared.
Jake felt the Cheyenne slow for the Beverley Hills turn-off. The streets grew wider. Houses retreated beyond swathes of shrubs and lawns. Upmarket malls stretched for block after block.
It felt safe and prosperous. Yet according to Rose, this was all about to come crashing down.
The pulse tracker on his bracelet was red. His chest tightened as he imagined Jennifer and her boyfriend waiting to ambush him. He turned to face the back of the car and closed his eyes. Time for calm. Time to remind himself why he knew more about Biotime than Rose could ever imagine.
When Jake had become a licensed Enforcement Officer ten years earlier, he had sworn to fight Biotime crime and uphold the Central Authority Constitution. He wished his parents could have been there to see him as he raised his hand to take the oath. Enforcement had given him the best years of his life. To support the Central Authority and hunt down Biotime criminals was both thrilling and rewarding – even if it sometimes scared him senseless. The bonuses from ‘Time seizures kept him in classic cars. And he always kept a little extra to top up the secret ‘Time stash for his parents. If it ever became legal to buy out Termination Contracts, Jake would be ready.
Then, three months ago, everything had changed. That was when he had been recruited to follow in the footsteps of the great Roland Nelson and join the Home Security Bureau – a tiny cadre of elite officers within the Central Authority so secret that even the crime it had been set up to combat did not officially exist. That day, Jake had become an Informal.
Jake’s eyes blinked open. There were just twelve HSB Informals in the United States. Their identity was classified: the only one Jake knew, because they operated in the same state, was Ed Zipper.
Four more minutes to South Clark. Then seventy-nine minutes to repossess Jennifer’s lifetime, collect evidence, and drive to Santa Monica. Should he tell Ed he might be late? There was no time to holo. But Jake could at least check out the Birth Channel. He punched it in on his bracelet, and left the music playing.
…All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings
The Birth Channel was a misconceived Central Authority initiative to encourage reproduction by publicising the joys of childbirth. The programmers had trouble finding content: today, Abigail was the only birth on-air. She lay under the covers, her dark hair spread out over the pillow. Ed stood at the head of the bed. A young doctor with a green face-mask stood at the foot. A display showed the baby’s heart-rate: pow, pow, pow, firm and strong.
Jake blinked and smiled. Soon he’d be in Santa Monica, sharing Ed and Abigail’s big day. But first, he had a job to do. To bring to justice a woman who was trying to steal something of immense value, which belonged to someone else: her own lifetime.
The Cheyenne coasted to a halt. Jake turned to face the front and switched to the Crime Channel. He’d be broadcasting himself in a few minutes.
A Neon-Glo blue Nagasaki stood in the driveway of 137 South Clark. All polished up and maybe now someplace to go. Jake recognised the mix of artificial bushes and flowers in the yard, Tropical Medley it was called. Only the super-rich had time for a real garden these days. The tab scanner in Jake’s bracelet showed no sign of life. The house must be data-shielded. The Crime Channel was chattering away behind him.
‘So, Jim, the clones were actually born with no livers?’
‘That is correct. And the brains of these poor babies are – I want to put this in a way which won’t shock our viewers – terribly malformed. The Reproductive Ethics Committee has ruled that they should be placed in terminal contribution.’
‘So at least some good comes of this?’
‘More Biotime for the Central Authority, yes.’
‘Isn’t deformity a constant problem with cloning?’
‘It is. All cloning carries a high risk of miscarriage, organ abnormality or premature death. And that’s without irresponsible germ-line engineering – ‘
Jake sat motionless in the car, watching the house where ‘Time-expired Jennifer had taken refuge. In a decade of Biotime enforcement he had never come across a cloning case. And yet the news was full of horror stories. He reached to open the car door. It was time to show the world what happened when the law caught up with a couple of Biotime criminals.
Ed Zipper was delighted with the birthing room at the Hughes Procreation Center. A picture window framed a band of glittering ocean above a row of palm trees. The ceiling was awash with sea-reflected light. Ed forced a smile as Abigail settled back amidst the crisp white sheets, her hands clasped over her taut belly. He could hear music drifting in from the cafés along Santa Monica Beach.
Why did he feel so nervous?
The staff at Hughes were professionals. The midwife had been in at nine a.m. to start Abigail’s contractions. The Senior Obstetrician, Dr Alan Beasdale 110, was booked for 11.45. Their baby boy would be born a few minutes later. What could go wrong?
Abigail smiled up at him. Her face was pale but beautiful. ‘Is something the matter, honey?’
‘In a couple of hours you’ll be a daddy.’
‘Yeah.’ Ed stepped towards the window and looked out. Something was wrong. But what?
Abigail took a sip of water. ‘It’s not the birth you’re worried about, is it?’
‘These guys know what they’re doing. Our baby will be wonderful.’
‘Sure he will.’ Abigail’s eyes were warm. ‘All new daddies are nervous, honey. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘Who says I’m nervous?’
‘Every new daddy thinks it’ll be diapers and nights in and no more wild and crazy times. It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why I asked Jake to drop by at 12. To see you, I guess. Not the baby.’
‘You fixed up with Jake to come down here?’ Ed’s mouth twisted into a crooked smile. ‘Thanks, sweetheart.’
‘Maybe he can take you to the Feeding Frenzy for a beer. You’ll need one by the time the baby’s here.’
‘Sure will. Though Jake doesn’t drink alcohol. Says it shortens life expectancy. You know, underneath that tan he’s as ambitious as hell.’
‘No wonder you guys get along.’ Abigail lay back. ‘Anyways, he can take you out for a little R&R. Why not call him?’
Ed shook his head. ‘He could be on an operation. Jake is never late. He’s practically obsessive.’
‘Call him. You know you want to.’ She closed her eyes. ‘It’s going to be hard enough for me caring for the baby, honey. I don’t want to be looking after you, too.’
Across the road from the Hughes perimeter fence, a blonde woman stood outside the Feeding Frenzy milk bar, inspecting her face in the mirror of a scratched, pale-blue powder compact. It was a bright, clear morning, and few people were about. No-one saw that the woman wore no powder, or indeed make-up of any kind; her face was perfect already. When the breeze sent a strand of her hair curling up into the cool moist air she frowned as if troubled by some personal anxiety and snapped the compact shut.
It was nearly time.
Long ago, in another existence, the woman had been trained to ask little, and to give everything. It did not trouble her that only one person would ever know the greatness of what she was about to achieve. It was enough to know that she, Athena, was mistress of her own destiny. She entered the Feeding Frenzy.
The owner of the milk bar was a One Lifer, whose conviction that music should be played loud was classified in most theological reference works as a religious belief. When he saw Athena enter his establishment he at once dried his hands on a towel woven from recycled fibres by Native American artisans and hurried out from behind the counter. The tall blonde woman was his first customer of the day. Her DNA tab registered on his till. Her credit record showed that when she visited cafes, she normally consumed only a single health drink and never left a tip. But when he saw her shift her hips to pass between the tables, and caught her scent as she threw her jacket over a chair, he forgot about tips. It made a nice change from the usual beach bums and health workers who hung out at the milk bar. In fact, he couldn’t help feeling pleased that the cafe was so empty. Perhaps he could strike up a conversation with her.
He had no idea that for the rest of the day it would be standing room only in the Feeding Frenzy.
In Beverly Hills, Jake stepped out of the Cheyenne. The house seemed quiet. But it was hard to be certain. Enforcing Termination Contracts was a delicate business. Many offenders were crazed with fear. None had anything to live for. So they were liable to take their own lives, which legally didn’t belong to them, at the slightest provocation. The whole house might be wired and ready to blow. Even if a million dollars’ worth of ‘Time said otherwise. Open curtains in the front room should place ‘Time-expired Jennifer asleep in bed. Perhaps with a passionthriller or two the night before to weigh down any errant eyelids. That was what Jake had suggested to Jennifer’s boyfriend, Franco Ardizzione.
Jake ran across the fake lawn. Speed was vital.
Right now, his bracelet would be interrogating the tab in his spine to compare the DNA of the blood surrounding it with his identity. The match confirmed, the bracelet would announce, loud and clear, “Biotime Enforcement Officer”.
Not so anyone could hear it, except for the home security system at number 137. As the intruder alarm and data shielding switched themselves off, a stream of data appeared on Jake’s bracelet. ‘Time-expired Jennifer, biological and chronological age both 54, was inside the house. So was Franco Ardizzione, biological 18, chronological 31. Jake frowned. The discrepancy was large for a small-time conman. Could that be significant? Something to check out later. Any moment now… there. The front door of the house swung open as Jake stepped through it.
Into the heart of a gigolo’s gin palace. Everything screamed gloss, from the phosphorescent Outlive-U carpeting to the nozzles of the Dis-Arm/Dat-Arm anti-intruder complex at the angles of the hall. Straight ahead, the wall was playing a tropical beach, waves breaking silently in the rays of a dying sunset. Probably a direct feed wallpaper, Jake thought, a real-time image of a landscape half-way round the world. Soon it would be dark there, night falling at noon in LA.
This one’s for you, Jennifer.
Jake crept towards the bedroom, sneaker-soft on the Outlive-U. He hadn’t felt this nervous since the raid on the West California Access Facility in the Man Without a Past case. If only he could take some Biotime. Contrary to all the scientific evidence, Jake found the precious fluid calmed his nerves. But he’d sworn not to consume another cent before his parents were revived. He gripped his Big Fright scare-o-matic to stop his hand shaking.
Jake’s fringe had fallen forward; when he pushed it back he felt his face slick with sweat. Franco shouldn’t be a problem. But ‘Time-expired Jennifer might do anything. Silently, Jake cursed the red tape which prevented him immobilising her without issuing an oral warning. The Chattanooga court had already declared her ‘Time-expired, had they not?
A groan came from the next room. Jake slowly raised the Big Fright. Disabler: ready. The old men in Washington had been procrastinating over changing the Criminal Justice Act for decades. Hands: steady. So the guys on the front line had to creep around risking their lives (valuable) and those of their targets (value actuarially assessed) to preserve someone’s precious civil liberties. Civil liabilities, more like. Taking two steps back, Jake launched himself into the bedroom.
Jake had only one thought as he rolled twice across the floor, leapt to his feet, and waved his Big Fright at the two very naked people on the bed. He should have known what the targets were doing. His bracelet could tell. But the Biotime-dependent veterans on the Hill didn’t allow Enforcement Officers to exploit the potential of the equipment, did they? So Jake hadn’t known that ‘Time-expired Jennifer and Franco Ardizzione were making love. If you could call it that.
Jennifer was old. Jake had imagined someone more glamorous, more full of life. He felt a pulse of pity at the sight of her knobbly knees, her bony feet, and Franco’s hairy ass.
‘Biotime Enforcement Officer!’ Jake yelled. ‘Any movement and I open fire.’ He brandished the scare-o-matic. Its hideous mass performed no function except to house the tab-disabler which, having issued the prescribed oral warning, he was now entitled to use. He could no more do actual bodily harm to either of these two than he could fly: she alone was worth over a hundred million dollars alive, and a load of lawsuits dead. But research had shown that people responded better to instructions when facing a perceived threat of pain, injury or death. Most Enforcement Officers agreed it felt good to have a scare-o-matic under your belt. People respected you more.
‘Stand up. I need to see you.’ Behind the bed, the walls glowed orange with exposed flesh, some part of the human anatomy so enlarged that Jake could not immediately recognise what it was. ‘That’s it.’
They were both standing now, bodies pasty in the glow of the screens. Next to Jennifer, Franco looked like a child: short, with a firmly-muscled body. The little man was alert, watching Jake with a disconcerting familiarity. Who was this guy?
‘Have you anything to say before you are disabled?’ Jake activated his bracelet, as required by law, and held it towards them. The transmit light twinkled. The arrests were now going out live on the Biotime Enforcement Channel.
Jake had addressed Jennifer. Her soft green eyes might have been beautiful had they not been full of sadness. So many times he’d seen it, the despair of the endless night to come. Once he put her under she’d spend the rest of her life on the slab at CLEF. But it was Franco who answered.
‘You’re late,’ he said. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’
‘I make it my job to be lucky.’
Franco shook his head, but said nothing. He seemed unnaturally calm for someone looking down the muzzle of a Big Fright.
Jennifer was staring at her lover. ‘This is who you were waiting for? Are you crazy? He’s a Biotime Enforcement Officer.’
Jake had a sense of something slipping away. ‘I promised you a third of a gram bounty to bring her in, Franco,’ he said. ‘One million bucks’ worth. But I’m taking you in too, for Biotime theft.’
Franco’s gaze was still fixed on Jake. ‘I heard you were always on time. So when you didn’t show, I figured you’d gone to see your friend. That would do the job. I thought I’d use the time to say goodbye to Jennifer.’
He knew about Ed. How was that possible? And what did he mean, that would do the job?
But ‘Time-expired Jennifer had heard something else.
‘Franco! A bounty? Can’t you see we’re in this together, sweetheart, you and I? Look at yourself. In it. Right up to here.’ Her hands being in the air, she jerked her chin up to indicate submersion. ‘He’ll take you down for helping me evade my contract. That’s a Biotime crime. Your penalty is half what you were trying to steal. Did he give you anything in writing? Like hell. So I’m on the block for 30 actuarial, you get 15 years.’ She looked back at Jake. ‘And what’s your bonus, mister?’
‘One per cent of Biotime recovered.’ Jake frowned at Franco.
‘So if I’m worth thirty and Franco’s going down for fifteen, that’s zero point four five grams for you. Nearly six months of ‘Time.’ Jennifer looked older every second as the colour rose to her face. ‘Nice day’s work.’
‘It’s my job to return stolen Biotime to its owners.’ If only he could tell her about his parents. But she wouldn’t understand. Jake turned to Franco. ‘How the hell do you know about me?’
Suddenly, the little man’s composure cracked. ‘All I know is, you’re the meanest double-crossing bastard I ever set eyes on and… ‘ he slumped to his knees on the Outlive-U. ‘Don’t put me under, man, I’ll do anything, I got ‘Time. Please? I don’t want to wake up 15 years older.’
Jake stepped back. The mood-swing was wrong. ‘Away from the bed, Franco.’
‘I beg you.’ Franco’s voice had dwindled to a whine. His hand was under the bed.
‘Stand up now. Last warning – ‘
Jake flicked off the safety on the Big Fright. In the same instant he saw Franco’s hand emerge, holding something. Instinctively, Jake pulled the trigger. There was a deafening explosion. Something warm spattered his face.
Franco lay on the Outlive-U. In his hand was an ancient handgun, a primitive thing made to fire metal bullets.
‘What was that noise?’ Jennifer stared down at Franco’s body. ‘Is he OK?’
‘He’s sleeping.’ On Jake’s bracelet, the red light burned. ‘I disabled him. He was threatening me.’
‘He’s injured.’ Jennifer pointed. ‘His head.’
She was right. A dark pool was spreading round Franco Ardizzione. Something was trickling down Jake’s cheek. He wiped his face and his hand came away red. A chunk of Franco’s head was missing. Jake knelt down and checked the man’s pulse. Then he stood, senses reeling.
A suspect had died resisting arrest. His death had been broadcast live. Franco would have been facing termination both for ownership of a deadly weapon and, Jake suspected, for other crimes he had yet to investigate. Franco’s biological age was 18. He would have had years to live. All that Biotime would have been the property of the Central Authority. An inquiry was inevitable. It would focus on whether Jake Moonrath could have prevented the squandering of a public asset worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
None of it made sense. The man had only had time for one shot. He’d used it to kill himself.
Jennifer was shaking her head.
‘Franco would never harm himself,’ she said. ‘Or anyone else.’
‘He’s a con-man! He wanted your money. He was ready to sell you out for a million bucks of ‘Time.’
‘He was more than that.’
‘Maybe.’ Jake sighed. ‘But not the way you think.’ If you see anything strange, Rose had said. Well, he wasn’t flying to Kansas to discuss Franco Ardizzione with a bunch of One Lifers. It was time to regain control. He nodded at the transmit light on his bracelet. ”Time-expired Jennifer. You have the right to make a statement before your sentence is carried out.’
‘Don’t call me that.’ Jennifer’s face was pale. ‘You want me to say something on-air? Now?’
‘It’s up to you.’ He wanted to tell the woman she had nothing to fear. But she was a convicted Biotime criminal.
‘OK.’ Jennifer glanced down at Franco’s body, then began to speak, her voice wavering. ‘As an ex-member of the Confederation of US Journalists about to lose the right to life, I’d like to put on record my view that the Central Authority should outlaw the practice of Termination Contracts at once. I also want to declare my support for the One Life movement, although not of course the One Life Army.’
‘Thank you, Jennifer.’ Everyone due for termination wished they’d been a One Lifer. ‘Now back on the bed, please, and I’ll put you out. Relax.’ It was vital she did not injure herself as she lost consciousness. ‘Easy, now.’
Again he released the safety on his Big Fright and pulled the trigger. In an orgasm of rapid data exchange her bracelet responded, checking separately her DNA tab, her security status on the Central Authority’s Federal Unitary Control Computer in Washington (lest she, like Jake, should be registered as disability-immune) and lastly Jake’s own ID – a precaution against the scare-o-matic passing into the wrong hands.
It was done.
For a moment, Jake gazed down at the limp, naked body. It was almost as if she were the victim, not the perpetrator, of a crime.
Then he terminated the holo.
Who the hell was Franco Ardizzione? CLEF in Chattanooga had identified him as a small-time crook who preyed on cash-rich women near their termination dates.
But he’d known about Ed Zipper.
He’d been waiting with a handgun to kill Jake.
He’d killed himself rather than face arrest and questioning.
He’d even admitted another crime, infinitely more egregious than Jennifer’s misappropriation of a single, worn-out lifetime.
Jake checked the time. Now he really had a problem.
Across the road from the Hughes Procreation Center, the blonde woman in the Feeding Frenzy summoned an audio connection on her bracelet and began to talk. The communications link thus established was, by dint of superior processing power, twenty billion times more secure than anything the US government’s security agencies were capable of decrypting. But the organisation she worked for was not short of money; and what was left of the US government had just about given up trying.
‘I am ready,’ she said. ‘Time is 11.45.’
‘Good.’ A man’s voice. ‘Latest figures show over ten thousand inside.’
There was a silence.
‘Ten thousand about the minimum we need, actually,’ the woman said.
‘Yeah. Any problems?’
‘No problems. But we cannot be sure if both Informals – Moonrath and Zipper – are here.’
‘Right. So wait until 12.15, then go ahead.’
The woman rang off. Then she paid four dollars 66 cents precisely for her medlar and loganberry high-energy yoghurt beverage, and went outside to watch.
Abigail Zipper looked up into the face of Senior Obstetrician Alan Beasdale 110. Since he’d started her contractions she couldn’t see properly. Her eyes were stinging with sweat and it was hard to talk to a man whose face was covered by a mask. All she could see was bright blue eyes and a fringe of dark hair so thick it looked unnatural.
‘Abigail my dear! Be calm!’ Beasdale 110 gestured at a display showing Abigail’s vital signs. ‘Birth is in twenty minutes. Everything is fine. So why is your pulse on a roller-coaster?’
‘It’s not me.’ Abigail’s mouth seemed unable to form the words. ‘I’m worried about my husband. His friend Jake is late. I need him here to keep Ed calm.’
‘I’m afraid we can’t delay the birth.’
‘Sure.’ Ed was still gazing out of the window. ‘Don’t worry about me.’ His fists were clenched.
The obstetrician pursed his lips. ‘Who is this fellow Jake?’
‘He’s a friend. A brilliant young Biotime enforcement agent,’ Ed said. ‘He’s repossessing a stolen lifetime.’
‘That’s important work. But a delay wouldn’t be good for your baby.’ Beasdale 110 peered at Abigail. ‘Birthing is in progress.’
‘Bad for my baby?’ Abigail turned to Ed. ‘I’m sorry, my darling. We can’t do it.’
‘Also,’ the doctor said, I have another delivery at 12.30.’ When he raised his eyebrows Kate saw the skin around his eyes was perfectly smooth. ‘I can’t start juggling expectant mums.’
‘No. Of course.’ Abigail groaned. ‘Thank you, doctor.’
‘No problem.’ Beasdale nodded as a nurse entered the room. ‘In a few minutes, you’ll have a wonderful baby boy. He’ll have a whole lifetime to meet your friend Jake.’
Jake ran out of 137 South Clark to find a mobile contribution unit waiting in the street. Hurry. The medical officer, a corpulent man in an off-white apron, was watching a gladiator holo he’d set up on the roof of the cab.
‘Take receipt of ‘Time-expired Jennifer, disabled felon bound for Anaheim Contribution Facility?’ Jake said.
‘What about Ardizzione?’ The medic watched as a miniature bear charged out from behind the hazard light and ripped the intestines from a handsome, sweat-streaked gladiator.
‘Suicide. Big mess.’
‘CA won’t like that.’ The medic relaxed as a second gladiator, in a studded leather G-string, strode forward and transfixed the bear with a javelin. ‘Care to check the berths?’
‘What’s the rush?’ On the cab roof two lions were emerging from a gate. ‘Good-looking bunch of kids today. Mostly for the Holiday.’
‘My friend’s wife’s having a baby. In Santa Monica. He needs me there.’ And I need to talk to Ed about what the hell’s going on.
‘At Hughes? You can be there in twenty minutes.’
‘But there’s something I have to do first.’
‘What’s that?’ The two lions were engaging with a Christian.
‘I have to check the house for evidence.’
‘The recovery team will be here soon. Leave it to them.’
‘I can’t. This is special evidence.’
‘Sure. Special evidence. So that means you’re late for your friend?’
‘Get the stiff, will you? Hurry.’
‘Hey. Take it easy.’ The medic shut down the holo and slouched towards the house. ‘Want to speed things up? Open the back.’
Jake threw open the contribution bay and peered inside. Big day in Beverly Hills: nearly every slot was filled with the body of a dormant teenager. As the medic had said, most would be on their way to three years’ qualifying contribution at the nearest Central Authority facility. Others would have completed a spell inside, heading home to happy families and wild coming of age parties. Jake shook his head. Rich kids. They didn’t know what sacrifice was.
The medic, moving with infuriating slowness, carried the body of ‘Time-expired Jennifer out of the house. Then he laid her on an empty berth in the contribution bay and tapped her for Biotime. Jake watched in an agony of impatience. At last the truck pulled away down the street. If he left now, Jake could reach Ed and Abigail at Santa Monica only a few minutes late. But Franco had made that impossible.
Jake had no option but to re-enter the house. If the Central Authority recovery team were to find what Jake believed was concealed inside, news would leak immediately. That would spook Biotime users across the United States.
The front door gaped open. Would Ed ever forgive him for showing up late? As a friend, Ed would be gutted. But as a fellow Informal, he’d understand what Jake had to do now.
Franco Ardizzione’s body lay motionless beside the bed. It took Jake seconds to transmit the contents of Franco’s bracelet to the Home Security Bureau. The experts in Aspen would analyse every detail of the dead man’s credit, purchase and employment records, travel, communications and health. If they wanted, they could access his pulse, blood pressure and drug consumption record since the day was born. Soon they would know Franco better than the little man had ever known himself.
But Jake hadn’t come for Franco’s bracelet.
He checked the bedroom and the holo chamber, where he was distracted to find girl triplets from a romance weepy, undisturbed by the past hour’s events, still plotting their revenge on the cad who’d jilted all three of them. The hygiene area offered little scope for hiding anything; but the kitchen was a favourite place, packed with bulky electrical appliances. An inspection of an antique food processor revealed nothing untoward. The circuitry of the US-manufactured Dial-Eze ordering terminal seemed no messier than usual, and the home laundry center had obviously not been shifted since the house was built.
Jake stood in the centre of the kitchen. It was mid-day. The CA recovery team would be here any moment. “I got ‘Time,” Franco had said. Where did he keep it?
Jake opened the fridge. It contained, in addition to a half-eaten pack of European Company cheese spread, a tube of après-sun lotion and one beer: a Chinese brand. Jake peered at the bottle. He never drank beer himself. Many brands contained alcohol. That stuff aged you fast. But the bottle was interesting. He looked around the discoloured plastic of the fridge interior for any kind of alarm system. Nothing. Then, holding his breath, he reached out, ran his fingers gently down the glass and eased the base of the bottle off the shelf. Inside, he could see liquid moving. But the bottle was too light to be full of beer. Eureka.
In his hand, tilted, the top half of the bottle swung smoothly aside, an exquisite gravity-powered lo-tech design. It had to be Chinese: nothing so elegant had been made in the US for years. Within, nestling in a honeycomb of black insulation like so many chicks in a nest, were ten glass phials: centigrams worth about $30,000 apiece at market rates. Each contained enough Biotime to supply one lucky individual for 3.65 days. Jake’s fingers trembled as he withdrew one from its sheath and held it up to the light. The glass was clear. No manufacturer’s ID and date stamp as required by US law. And no CA logo – the coat of arms purchased from the British royal family centuries ago in return for the “eternal supply” of Biotime which the royals, now resident in Hawaii, were said still to be enjoying.
Standing alone by the refrigerator, Jake punched the air. Maybe this would help make up for Franco’s death. The last time he’d seen Black Biotime had been in the Rave case, two years before. The stuff was incredibly rare. That was hardly surprising, when possession was a terminable offence.
The fake beer bottle was just the job for getting your stash home discreetly. All the phials were full. What was the market price for Black Biotime? And where had it come from? All Biotime was identical. But once Jake shipped it to the Home Security Bureau HQ, the analysts in Aspen might be able to pin down the origin of the sample from traces of dust or pollen in the foam, or impurities in the fake beer in the neck of the bottle. He slipped the container into his pocket and sprinted out of the house. Next stop, Santa Monica.
Jake directed the Cheyenne to the Hughes Procreation Center. It was 12.15. He’d be less than half an hour late. As the car moved off, a convoy of CA recovery vehicles pulled up at the house. Another hour, and 137 South Clark would have been stripped bare, every surface dusted and recorded, a thousand artefacts prepared for evidence or resale when the house and contents were auctioned off. Jake smiled. It all helped meet the cost of crime prevention.
Would Ed take a holo from him now? Jake swivelled round to the darkened rear of the Cheyenne’s interior. But the unit had defaulted back to the Crime Channel.
On the back seat, ‘Time-expired Jennifer stood naked by the bed.
‘The Central Authority should outlaw the practice of Termination Contracts at once,‘ she said. There was a flicker. ‘The Central Authority should outlaw the practice of Termination Contracts at once.’
The anchor’s face was grave. ‘An assault from a sentenced Biotime criminal on one of the central planks of the CA Constitution,‘ she said. ‘Fritz?’
‘Well, Amber, Termination Contracts have been controversial since Breughel vs Jones.’ A man appeared, hovering above the words “Dr Fritz Kroene. Biotime Market Analyst”. His grey hair was interrupted by shiny bald spots above each ear. ‘It’s all very well allowing Biotime traders to buy someone’s remaining life from a fixed date in the future in exchange for a lump-sum cash payment for the donor to enjoy right away, but – ‘
‘Hold it.’ The anchor spoke over him. ‘We have reports coming in… a breaking news story.’
The holo split: Kroene vanished, the anchor moved to one side, and the rest of the rear seat was filled with pictures taken from a helicopter. Ambulances. Sea-front. Some kind of natural disaster. The scene switched to ground level: fluorescent jackets, churned-up mud, photogenic witnesses.
Jake searched for points of reference. The hubbub noise soundtrack was standard: sirens, pompous men barking futile orders, a snatch of inappropriate music from somewhere off-cam. The only thing missing from the recipe was the leavening of stoic survivors. Where was this? Beyond some palm trees, the ocean sparkled. Like Santa Monica without the Hughes Center.
Santa Monica. The Feeding Frenzy Milk Bar had its door wide open, music blaring forth. What had happened? Where was the Hughes Center? Where were Ed and Abigail?
In a corner of the holo, Jake saw the anchor shaking her head. Her image disappeared for a few long seconds. When it reappeared, her cheeks and nose were red.
‘This is an announcement from the Central Authority.’ She paused, and took a deep breath.
‘At 12.15 Pacific Standard Time, an event took place at the Hughes Procreation Center in Santa Monica, California. It is not yet clear whether this was an accident, or a One Life Army atrocity; but the Center appears to have suffered catastrophic damage.’ The announcer swallowed. ‘According to DNA tab data, there were ten thousand, two hundred and ninety people in the Hughes Center at the time of the event, not including pre-natal or unchipped infants. Initial indications are that there are no survivors.’
‘My first impression? Like a gigantic dried-up clam and tomato dip, spiced with Tabasco.’
Schlaraffenland Broadcast News reporter Dusty Oldman describing the remains of the Hughes Procreation Center
‘Speak to me, Jake. Speak.’
Jake raised his head. Devonte Ray, head of the Home Security Bureau, appeared to be sitting on the black plastic of the Cheyenne’s rear seat. His short, tightly-curled hair was pure white. His lips were chapped. A line of sun-block ran down the centre of his nose. He looked way older than his 65 biological, Jake thought. If Dev Ray hadn’t known the great Roland Nelson personally, you’d have thought he was a One Lifer.
‘You know?’ It was all Jake could manage.
‘Yes. I know.’
There was a silence.
At last Jake spoke. ‘Is Ed really dead?’
‘Everyone on-site.’ When Devonte Ray frowned, the wrinkles which crowded his face collapsed into one another. ‘Each person. Without exception.’
‘We do not yet know.’
Jake leaned forward. ‘I’m on my way to Santa Monica now. But you’re not calling about Ed and Abigail, are you, Dev?’
‘Are you OK, Jake?’
‘There’s only one way I’ll get any better.’ Saying it, Jake felt stronger.
‘I know how hard this must be for you.’
‘This is a job for the Home Security Bureau. I feel it. This isn’t the One Life Army. This is a Biotime crime.’
The white-capped head tipped forward. ‘You are reminding me why you are our most promising Informal, Jake. A number one sleuth. An ace Biotime nose. Tell me why you think this is a Biotime crime.’
‘You know the OLA’s slogan?’
‘Extreme suffering justifies extreme measures. Are you telling me Hughes is not extreme?’
‘It’s extreme. But remember the history. The OLA have that slogan because they were founded after the massacre at Pax. The OLA pledged to stop it happening again. They can’t have killed thousands of people at Santa Monica.’
‘So who was it?’
Jake rubbed his eyes. If you see anything strange, let me know. Again he had a sense of the ground beneath his feet shifting. Rose was a One Lifer. She’d said the world was on the brink of a cataclysm. Could she have known this was about to happen? Could she even know something about the One Life Army? He put his hand on his bracelet, which was blazing red, and looked at Dev. ‘Does the Bureau have any leads?’
‘Hughes is inexplicable.’ Devonte Ray peered back at Jake through thick, glass spectacles. ‘To take one life is a terminable offence. To take ten thousand lives is beyond crime. Beyond reason. Out of order.’ After centuries as a bureaucrat, Dev had a tendency not only to speak extremely slowly, but to say everything in triplicate. He was also the only centenarian Jake had ever heard of who did not use his age tag.
‘Who’s on the case?’
‘Just you and me, Jake. We are the HSB.’
‘The purpose of the Home Security Bureau is to fight illegal Biotime. Black Biotime. ‘Time produced without the permission of the Central Authority. Such Biotime does not, so far as the general public is aware, exist.’
‘What do you mean, we are the HSB?’
‘Calm down, Jake. Steady. Take it easy.’ Jake’s boss removed his glasses and polished them on his ancient jumper, rumoured to have been hand-knitted for him by a deceased One Lifer lover. There was a clump of melting snow on his shoulder.
‘I’m as calm as I can be.’ Jake clenched his teeth.
‘You are aware of the upsurge in small-scale seizures of Black Biotime in recent months. This has been absorbing more and more HSB resources.’
‘How can you and me be the Home Security Bureau? There’s just one Informal bracelet out of use, right? That means eleven officers.’
Dev ignored him. ‘One of the mysteries surrounding these seizures has been the quality of the infrastructure associated with them. I’m talking about the absence of forensic traces on evidence. High-grade communications equipment. Advanced – ‘
‘I found some Black ‘Time today,’ Jake interrupted. ‘It was stored in a fake beer bottle. Beautiful thing.’ He hauled the container from his pocket. ‘I’ll send it to Aspen.’
‘From the house of Franco Ardizzione?’ Devonte Ray said. ‘A case in point. His tab data showed no connection between Ardizzione and any known producers or consumers of Black Biotime. No leads whatsoever. The trail goes dead. It is as if we are up against a criminal organisation with resources greater than our own. Yet the quantities of Black Biotime we have seized are tiny. It’s a discrepancy, Jake. A mismatch. A dissonance.’ Dev paused. ‘And don’t send the ‘Time here, Jake. Have nothing to do with us. Cut yourself off. Operate independently.’
‘What do you want me to do with it?’ Jake stared at the bottle. ‘It’s still $350,000 of ‘Time.’
‘Jake.’ Dev’s voice rose. ‘Ten thousand people died today. Ten cents of ‘Time don’t matter any more. Drop it. Dump it. Ditch it. You’re the only one who can avenge these people, Jake. Who can solve the crime. Start with this Franco character.’
‘Ditch it? It’s evidence, Dev. It belongs to the Central Authority.’
‘So take it with you. I don’t care.’ Dev’s voice rose further. ‘Tell me about Franco Ardizzione.’
‘OK, OK.’ Jake stuffed the bottle back in his pocket. ‘Franco was waiting for me at the house.’ Jake thought of the delay at Culver city. Had it saved his life? ‘He was meant to kill me. And he knew something was happening at Hughes.’
‘You survived, Jake. Until this morning, you were the Bureau’s least experienced Informal.’ Dev smiled grimly. ‘I guess Franco wasn’t their top man.’
‘Until this morning?’
Devonte Ray’s gravel voice sank another notch. ‘That’s the biggest mismatch of all, Jake. Our senior Informals have been following up leads on Black Biotime across the US for the past two months. This morning, in the space of four hours, nine of them were murdered. Plus Ed Zipper at Hughes, where you should have been also. You’re my last extant agent, Jake. The Bureau’s only asset. The sole survivor.’
Jake blinked at the holo image of his boss. ‘I’m on my own?’
‘If you don’t want the job – ‘
‘I want to terminate them, Dev. Whoever killed Ed and Abigail and all those people. And – ‘ Jake felt the jolt of a connection made. ‘Ten Informals killed the same day as Hughes.’
‘They executed your colleagues to prevent us striking back.’ Devonte Ray brushed the melting snow from his shoulder. ‘There must be a link. But what is the motive? Who would gain by killing ten thousand innocent people?’
Jake felt a chill. ‘They must know I’m still alive. I broadcast Franco’s death.’
‘They will know. Have you changed ID?’
‘Do it now.’
‘I never changed ID before.’
‘You have been fitted with an Informal bracelet for three months and you never changed ID? What do you think it is for, Jake?’
‘Up to now, no-one ever tried to kill me.’ Jake stared at his bracelet. When Devonte Ray had fitted him with the antique band of electronic circuitry at the Home Security Bureau HQ in Aspen three months earlier, identical in appearance to a standard bracelet, it had felt like the key to the candy store. Now it seemed like a death sentence clamped to his wrist.
‘Unless you change ID, the people who did this will find you within an hour.’ Devonte Ray touched his bracelet. ‘I’m calling Suzy Stew in the Identity Laundering Division now.’ For a moment the display froze. Then he was back. ‘There. It’s done. You are now a local government official from Orange County who entered Hughes at 10.30 this morning to visit his wife. Only a handful of people inside the Central Authority know he never left the building. But change again as soon as you can. Whoever killed our agents must have someone inside the CA. An infiltrator. A mole.’
‘OK.’ Jake glanced at his bracelet. Michael Novak, the display read. ‘But if they have access to the Federal Unitary Control Computer, they can track me whatever ID I take on.’
‘Change often,’ Devonte Ray said. ‘Stay away from the cops. Forget Jake Moonrath. Report only to me.’
‘I’ll need money.’
‘I am setting up a special account for you and your partner. You need all the help you can get, Jake.’
‘My partner? You said they were all dead.’
‘I promoted another Enforcement Agent to Informal this morning. Someone from a desk job here in Aspen. Someone I know I can trust.’
‘He’s even less experienced than me? Why not promote a few more?’
Devonte Ray shook his head. ‘We have no more bracelets.’
‘Only two are left?’
‘The number of Informal bracelets was kept to twelve when the HSB was set up after Pax Vobiscum. It was for tax reasons. The IRS wanted law enforcement officers to have ID tabs and tax codes like anyone else. I supported the restriction. I believed if we created too many, the existence of Informals would become public knowledge.’ Dev sighed. ‘The US no longer has the technology to manufacture new bracelets.’
‘Can’t you ask Thomas 469 for help?’
‘Devonte Ray smiled thinly. ‘Don’t be absurd.’
‘I can’t understand why he’s still President of the Central Authority. He hasn’t done a day’s work for two centuries.’
‘He is President, Jake, first, because he was a political appointee. Second, because there is no candidate to replace him. Third, and most important, during his time in office the Central Authority has thrived. Gone from strength to strength. A runaway success. He’s a figurehead. An icon. An institution.’
‘But why not put in someone with ideas?’
‘Never underestimate the desirability of doing nothing, Jake. Put in someone with ideas at the top, and anything can happen.’
Jake shook his head. ‘OK. So who’s my partner?’
‘No names,’ Dev said. ‘The agent will contact you.’ He looked to one side. ‘I must go.’
‘So it’s just me, and some jumped-up punk Informal. Dev, we need more back-up.’
‘No, Jake. No-one must know the Bureau are investigating. That we suspect this is a Biotime crime. Our only hope lies in secrecy. Stealth. A low profile. You are on your own, Jake. Don’t call me. I’ll call you.’ And with that, Devonte Ray vanished.
In the same instant, the navigation system announced that the Cheyenne had arrived at its destination.
Jake slumped forward. Devonte Ray had condemned him to death. How could he, a rookie Informal, defeat an crime ring – no, a veritable crime empire – which had murdered all his expert colleagues and ten thousand innocent people in a single morning?
Including Ed and Abigail.
Slowly, he raised his head. He must do what he could. He looked at his bracelet and pushed back his fringe. Michael Novak. He might have a window of a few hours before anyone could identify him. He was no longer the least experienced Informal. That distinction fell to whoever Dev Ray had promoted that morning. A desk jockey from headquarters. Some help. He stepped out of the car outside the Feeding Frenzy Milk Bar and surveyed the scene.
A deceptive air of calm lay over Santa Monica. So much so that the sea of emergency service vehicles gathered at the site entrance seemed to embody a fuss about… nothing whatsoever. Medics stood waiting beside empty red and white ambulances. Young plain-clothes officers wrote in notebooks. Someone with a pair of frying pans gestured towards a helicopter seeking a place to land. Jake joined the crowd of journalists and onlookers spilling out of the Feeding Frenzy and stared at the tumult. The futility of the exercise was clear. There could not possibly be anyone for the so-called rescue effort to rescue.
The razor-wire fence which had marked the boundary of the facility was still standing. The surrounding city sprawl had escaped unscathed. But the Hughes Procreation Center itself had utterly ceased to be. No trace remained of the classic Central Authority “accueillant” styling lines, whose supremely unexceptionable application of cottage architecture in a monumental context had played such an important role in easing the CA’s efforts to integrate very large structures into established urban settings from Anchorage to Atlanta. The fabric of the building, together with its human cargo, seemed somehow to have been liquidised into a pool of finely-textured syrup covering several blocks of prime Santa Monica real estate.
Jake stared at the smooth, flat surface. Were Ed, Abigail and ten thousand others somewhere in there? This wasn’t a Biotime crime. This was Biotime war. The thud of his heart felt so strong he half expected people to look in his direction. He exhaled to a count of twenty and took a deep breath. The best cure for loss was action.
On a traffic island by the entrance he saw a mobile office pod. Lifting cables still snaked from each corner. An outsized neon sign on the roof identified this as the RESCUE CENTER. Beyond a cordon, heavy equipment was pouring in by truck and helicopter: a forensic lab, an earth-mover, a pallet stacked with traffic cones. Beyond the stacks of equipment a media encampment had sprung up, broadcast vans topped with dishes. Holo crews stalked the scene, seeking subjects to interview.
Jake was pushing his way through the crowds of onlookers when his elbow collided with something unnaturally solid. He glanced back, rubbing his arm, and saw a blonde woman looking out over the glassy remains of Hughes. Jake stared. The woman was extraordinarily attractive. Her hair looked soft and natural; her pink lips carried a hint of vulnerability; her skin was so clear as to seem almost translucent. She had the huddled posture of someone overcome by anxiety: in other circumstances Jake might have been moved to comfort her. Yet his contact with her had hurt. He looked at his arm. Something about the woman was out of place. When he turned back, she was gone.
Two harassed traffic cops manned a gap in the crowd barrier. Jake marched up to them.
‘Where’s my wife?’ he said.
‘Have you lost someone in the gloop?’ A reporter with a microphone had materialised at Jake’s shoulder.
‘No admittance.’ The traffic cop was sweating.
‘My name’s Michael Novak. My wife and child are missing.’ Jake tapped his bracelet. ‘I’m grieving. I’m angry. And I’m coming in.’ A dozen holo crews were crowding around. Jake stepped forward. The cop hesitated, and Jake was inside. When the news teams made to follow, one of the traffic police unholstered a Big Fright, and everyone froze.
Except Jake. ‘You can’t disable me,’ he said. ‘I’m bereaved.’ He entered the rescue center before the cop had a chance to consider this further.
The interior of the pod was crammed with emergency personnel and communications equipment. There were holo images on every surface. Jake saw a huddle of men in one corner in what looked like army uniforms. Everyone seemed to be shouting.
‘Mr Novak!’ A man with a bushy moustache was approaching, wearing a bright yellow firefighter’s helmet emblazoned with the words John McNeill Chief Rescuer. ‘You’re alive! This is great news.’ He grasped Jake’s hand in a two-handed grasp and shook it vigorously. ‘You just doubled our survival ratio.’
Jake reached out for the man’s shoulder. ‘There’s another survivor? Who?’
‘I’m so sorry.’ McNeill’s moustache followed the corners of his mouth down. ‘There is no trace of any of your family. I know how hard this must be for you.’
‘Who is it? Who’s the other survivor?’
‘Hey, take it easy.’ McNeill reached up to break Jake’s grip on his shoulder. ‘It’s a medic. His name is Dr Alan Beasdale 110. He’s right here.’
Slowly, Jake turned. At the rear of the room, a young dark-haired man in a white coat sat muttering to himself. He looked oddly familiar.
McNeill nodded at the medic. ‘He’s a little confused.’
‘Whoosh,’ Beasdale said.
‘I need to talk to you,’ Jake said. The doctor did not move.
‘Press release.’ McNeill was talking to his bracelet. ‘Second survivor rescued. Name: Michael Novak. New hope for missing. Rescue efforts continue. Ends.’ He turned to Jake. ‘How did you escape?’
‘What’s wrong with him?’ Jake stared at Beasdale.
‘Alcohol trip,’ McNeill said. ‘Saw the place melt down.’ He looked at Jake’s bracelet. ‘Your blood pressure is high. You need medication.’
Jake walked to the window. What would Michael Novak have done now? Outside, two men in fluorescent jackets were prodding the surface of the site with the kind of net-on-a-pole used for cleaning swimming pools. The one with the net was skinny and tall. This made the other, who was tending to fat, seem absurdly short. The way the net was bouncing off the ground suggested that the substance had set solid.
Jake turned back to McNeill. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘We don’t know,’ the Chief Rescuer said. ‘The Hughes Center had a fire drill every ten years. But they never planned for this.’
‘Whoosh,’ Beasdale said.
‘What’s that… goo?’ Jake said.
‘Lab boys say it’s a blend of everything that was on the site at 12.17,’ McNeill said. ‘Bricks, foundations, traces of surgical steel from the instruments, insects flying by…’
McNeill nodded. ‘Unless they happened to leave the facility at 12.16.’
‘Whoosh,’ Beasdale said.
‘What is your problem?‘ Jake realised he was shouting at the medic.
At last Beasdale turned and looked up at Jake with a half-smile. ‘Alan 110. Hi. You were outside too, huh? Astute move, as it turns out.’ The doctor shook his head. ‘Like me. I had a delivery at twelve, then I was due to meet a friend in the Frenzy for coffee – ‘
‘You had a delivery at noon?’ Jake interrupted. ‘Who?’
Beasdale frowned. ‘A woman. Abigail Zipper. She wanted to birth later. But I needed a shot of caffeine.’
Jake swallowed. He was Michael Novak now. Ed and Abigail were gone. It was up to him to find their killers.
‘But…’ Jake paused. ‘What did you see after you left the building?’
Beasdale’s face was vacant. ‘I’m walking out the front gate,’ he said, ‘when when there’s this smooth whoosh, right behind me, hardly a bang at all, and this rush of real hot air, like a desert breeze in Kingman.’
‘Kingman,’ Jake said. What kind of explosive made no noise?
‘It was hot, man. I was gone, at first I didn’t even turn round, I stood there looking straight in front of me, trying to work out inside my head what’s happening. Then slowly, I turn round and there it is: nada. A whole 40-storey building has melted into a kind of peanut butter. One ex-procreation facility. I had to get a drink. Alcohol. You know why?’
‘Why?’ Jake leaned closer.
‘Because my first thought was, great! It’s my lucky day! I’m stocked up, good!’
‘You’re stocked up?’
‘I feel so embarrassed. I’m sorry for everyone who died. For their families. I’m sorry for you, Mr Novak. But that’s what I thought. I have quite a stash of ‘Time, of course. Hell, I’m in procreation. I’m one hundred and ten years old. Supplies get tight, I get richer. I just made millions of dollars. Because of this.’ Beasdale gestured around.
‘Supplies get tight?’ Jake shook his head. ‘Why does that make you richer?’
Beasdale looked at him. ‘Biotime prices. Don’t you get it? Wipe out ten thousand people – especially infants – and all the Biotime they’d have produced in their lives is destroyed for ever. Removed from the market. Do the math. Haven’t you seen what’s happening in New York City?’
‘I have a couple grams.’ McNeill’s face wore an awkward smile. His fingers were on his bracelet. ‘Hold on.’
A holo appeared on the table, bearing the rubric Biotime Investment Channel 33. A man in a brightly coloured jacket was shouting into a microphone in a room full of data holos.
‘…it’s finger-burnin’ good, a wild market day here in New York, with institutional investors piling in to safeguard supplies and Biotime spot prices soaring from 2,994k dollars a gram at the time the Santa Monica mudpie effect kicked in, to 3,885 now, and rising.’ The man’s eyes were almost popping from his head. ‘The Central Authority Reserve Price has hit two new all-time highs in the past half-hour, up 140 thousand dollars a gram to 3,600 dollars, then again a few seconds ago to 3,800. The first time the CARP has breached the psychologically-important 3.5 million dollar a gram mark, and it’s smashed it to pieces!’
‘No kidding.’ McNeill extinguished the holo. ”Time’s up 800K a gram.’ He scratched his head. ‘I guess everyone in the US just got richer.’
‘People died, and you’re talking about Biotime prices?’ Instinctively, Jake’s hand went for his Big Fright, but he had left it in the Cheyenne. He reached for a chair to steady himself.
Now he had a motive. This was a Biotime crime, all right. Who gained if what had happened at Hughes made Biotime prices rise? McNeill was right. Anyone who had ‘Time, or a few years’ life expectancy, was better off. Practically everyone in the United States.
That made roughly four hundred million suspects.
But some people had more Biotime than others. More motive.
That could narrow the field.
Rose had said ‘Time prices were falling. Now the dealer on the Biotime Investment channel said they were soaring.
It was plain where he needed to start his investigation. But first, he had to do something which whoever was trying to kill him would never expect. He must strike first.
He reached out to Beasdale. ‘Alan 110, can you come with me, please? You’ve helped me a lot. But there is one more thing.’
When Jake left the Rescue Center he saw dozens of holo crews gathered beyond the cordon. In the absence of new developments, they had formed a glittering armadillo of recording equipment focused on the two rescuers with the net-on-a-pole inside the razor-wire fence. The objects of their attention were competing to deliver the most newsworthy sound-bite.
‘Not a snowball in hell’s chance of anything coming out of this stuff alive,’ the tall man said. He had untidy grey hair and gold-framed glasses. ‘Frankly, we’re wasting our time poking around in there.’
‘Still warm.’ When the smaller man spoke, the cams had to pan down to him. ‘About the only sign of life you’ll find.’
The tall man nodded. ‘Still warm.’
Jake stepped forward. It was time to focus the attention of the whole world on Michael Novak. What had Devonte Ray said? Our only hope lies in secrecy. Jake was taking an insane risk. But if he created some pressure, whoever had destroyed the Hughes Center might react. Might make a mistake.
‘There are survivors,’ Jake said.
The armadillo convulsed as cams swung round. Beasdale, in his white coat, stood next to Jake. Strong visuals, Jake thought.
The press pack paused for a moment as journalists consulted their bracelets; then surged forward.
‘Any sign of your wife?’
‘Think it was the OLA, Alan?’
‘My wife and child died today,’ Jake said.
There was a moment of silence. Next to him, Jake heard Beasdale say “whoosh”.
‘They tell me the price of Biotime is rising because of this.’ Jake clenched the corners of his mouth. ‘And that some people are making a stack of cash.’
‘I’m stocked up.’ Beasdale grinned.
Jake stared at the cams. ‘I believe this is a Biotime crime,’ he said. ‘I believe whoever did this wanted prices to rise.’
‘The One Life Army did it,’ a journalist said. ‘Obviously.’
‘Tell us how you feel, Michael.’
‘Did you see it happen?’
‘Did you love your wife?’
‘Do you want to see the OLA punished?’
‘Why would they do this?’ Jake had to shout above the hubbub. ‘I don’t believe it was the One Life Army.’
‘Who else is against Biotime?’
‘Was your kid born yet?’
‘How did you get out?’
‘Whoosh,’ Beasdale said.
‘Hey, guys!’ Behind the razor-wire fence, the tall man with the untidy hair was waving his arm. ‘We found something truly gruesome.’ A battery of cams turned towards him.
Jake hesitated. Should he say more? Had he done enough? A seed had been planted. Someone, somewhere, would have seen him. If he was right that it wasn’t the One Life Army, whoever had destroyed Hughes and killed the other Informals was working out right now how to kill him. He turned and ducked into the crowd. It was time to become someone else again, fast. His fingers moved towards his bracelet. Nearby he heard Beasdale once again say “whoosh”.
This time followed, unmistakeably, by the chuckle of a happy man.
‘Moon Beach, Paradise. An idyll in the night. Along the shore black granite flags shelve into the waves. The ranks of viewing stools stand widely spaced, ports faced out into the dark like mute gun turrets. In each, still, breathing deep and yet not sleeping, a single witness to the passage of the moon. Sunk in reveries and deep-pile velour, these connoisseurs of night-time, superegos of the unlit hours, gaze away the hours from dusk ’til dawn. When the orb itself appears, bathed in a pale reflected light, their liquid eyes turn upwards, in fascination of a leisured kind, until at last it sinks from sight, into the distant sea.’
Advertising flyer, Moon Beach Resort
Ten minutes’ stroll from Moon Beach, by the side of an indoor swimming pool, a man lay on a sun-lounger. He had dark, wavy hair, calm eyes, and smooth olive skin. Outside, the Florida sun was frying up the down-at-heel on the public beaches. Here, artificial ‘shine from the Big Sun Corporation provided a relaxing and non-carcinogenic alternative set of rays.
The man was studying holo images projected in the void above the water. To the left, live coverage of the Hughes aftermath showed the stooped form of the President of the Central Authority, Thomas 469, visiting the site in Santa Monica. To the right an image of Jake hung over the water, beneath a banner labelled “Michael Novak: Survivor.”
‘Again,’ the man said.
‘I believe whoever did this wanted prices to rise,’ Novak said.
‘I believe whoever did this wanted prices to rise. ‘
The man climbed off the lounger and stood by the pool-side. ‘Whales next. I need to think. Please summon Bean, and Athena, in person. We need to talk privately.’
‘Yes, KY,’ a voice said.
The images from Santa Monica disappeared, to be replaced by the bow of a ship cutting through the water. A small white sun was high in the sky. In the lower left-hand corner, a mass of penguins on an ice floe waddled every few seconds into a new configuration, spelling out the latest price movements on the New York Biotime markets.
KY Sutanto walked to the edge of the pool. It would take his two associates several hours to reach Moon Beach: face-to-face meetings were rare these days. But KY wanted to touch them both. To smell them. In his business, understanding the people you worked with was the difference between life and death. He closed his eyes, lowered his chin to his chest, and began a programme of rhythmic Tai Chi movements.
By the time the door opened, the sun was low on the horizon, peeping out from behind a derrick. The surface of the swimming pool was obscured by the deck of an arctic whaler, on which teams of men in sou’westers were butchering a carcass. As the body was disassembled, streams of blood poured through openings in the sides of the deck. The penguins were gone: now a pattern of offal, mingling with the clear arctic water, showed that the price of Biotime had risen by a further six hundred thousand dollars a gram in the past five hours.
The new arrival was a stocky man whose eyes were permanently narrowed, as if confronting bad news or bright light. A black singlet exposed powerful arms, liberally endowed with the same curly red hair which sprouted from his head. Amidst the freckles which peppered his left shoulder was a tattoo of a severed hand transfixed by a hunting knife. He scratched his head and looked at KY, who was standing on one leg with his hands together at his breast as if in prayer.
‘KY. You called for me.’
‘Thank you, Bean.’ KY opened his eyes and lowered the leg which had been raised. Behind him a slab of meat fell to the deck, appearing to throw a spray of gore towards them both. ‘Come.’
They embraced by the poolside. KY felt the red-haired man’s arms hold him for a moment, strong yet gentle. Then he waved Bean away.
‘Please take a seat.’
Bean perched on one end of a lounger. ‘I’ll never understand what you see in this show. The guys in the boats get the whale, every time.’
‘This is art. Watch the Japanese with the long knife open up the passage to the main organs. Also, it is a parable. Magnificent creatures. So much power. But they never stood a chance. Did you ever see a whale?’
‘I did. Long time back.’ Bean nodded. ‘I took one of those sub cruises in the Pacific, two weeks. We tracked a blue for hours, it was deep and dark as hell. Then all of a sudden he was coming right at us, he passed so close the whole sub shook. When we put a tracing beacon in his belly, we saw fifty there already. Wasn’t long before all the whales were gone.’
On the deck, winches were hauling wedges of meat. Like slugs leaving a red trail across the corrugated steel deck, Sutanto thought. ‘Whales everywhere should have had a chance to watch this film.’ He sat down opposite Bean. ‘Give me Novak, please.’
The holo melted into a loop of the man in Santa Monica, rehearsing his thesis.
‘Tell me what you make of this morning’s events in California,’ KY said. ‘Think carefully.’
Bean scratched his head. ‘I don’t understand it,’ he said. ‘It’s too big for the OLA. Not their style.’
‘The One Life Army say that what they call the Biotime Oppression is inherently unstable.’ KY spoke slowly. ‘Now this happens, just two years after Muong Khai. Maybe the OLA are right.’
‘A mass suicide and a terrorist attack? What’s the connection?’
‘Maybe something is dying.’ KY Sutanto rose, and began pacing the poolside. ‘Or something should be allowed to die. I have been taking Biotime too long. I should stop.’
‘But KY – ‘
‘I know what will happen. But I want to feel my anger again.’ KY nodded at the holo images. ‘Great forces are at work. If we do not strike back, we will be destroyed.’
Bean stood. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I need your loyalty. Until today, I would have asked another person to perform this task. Now, I am not so sure. It concerns this man.’ KY pointed at the holo from Santa Monica.
‘You want me to kill him?’
‘No. I want you to keep him alive. But it will not be easy.’
‘What will not be easy?’
Both men turned. A tall, blonde woman with brilliant green eyes stood in the doorway wearing a silk robe. She spoke in imperfect, yet Oxford-accented, English.
KY strode forward and took her in his arms. Beneath the gown, he could feel her naked body. She seemed to flow against him, irresistible. That was her training. He stepped away, and looked her in the eye.
‘Athena. Welcome. Could we have the whales again, please?’
Santa Monica vanished. Again the bow of the ship appeared, beneath the high white sun. In an inset, the man named Novak continued to repeat himself.
‘I’ll be off.’ Bean glowered at the new arrival.
‘Still got funny tattoo on arm,’ the woman said. Her smile showed perfect teeth. ‘Should lose it.’
‘It’s a mark of loyalty,’ Bean said. ‘Beyond your ken.’
‘Mark of stupidity,’ the woman said.
‘Silence.’ KY did not raise his voice, but both Bean and Athena took a step back. ‘Bean. You have work to do. Athena. Tell me where you were this morning.’
‘What work he have to do?’
‘Answer my question. Where were you?’ KY turned to Bean. ‘Go.’
Athena watched the red-haired man leave. ‘I was in access facility,’ she said. ‘Good to practice. Make sure I please the man you sent me to.’
‘Is Collins happy?’
‘Thomas 469? When I am around, always.’ Athena did not smile.
‘He always had a weakness for female access. Is he still making avarice an art-form?’
‘It is not always weakness to know what you want.’
‘Sometimes, what you want must change.’
‘Man who not know what he want get nothing.’
‘Maybe.’ He had made her, KY thought. Now he was losing her. ‘And what do you make of this one?’ He gestured towards the man in Santa Monica.
The blonde woman turned and watched the holo image. For a long moment she was still. KY watched her. She was an extraordinary creature. An access product who had not only made the leap to the outside world, but thrived there. But the world was changing. Could she adapt? Would she want to?
At last, she turned back to him. ‘That one good-looking guy. Also, smart. He right: Hughes has increased price of ‘Time.’
‘He upset. But also angry. Maybe about family.’ Athena shrugged. ‘Lucky to have family in first place.’
‘He wants to know who did Hughes,’ KY said. ‘Think he might find out?’
The blonde woman’s face did not change. She gazed at the holo of the whaling boat, rolling towards its prey. Weathered faces appeared in close-up, eyes bent purposefully off-screen. Now the harpoon gun was in focus, explosive slung below the barb.
‘I think he no find out,’ Athena said. On the horizon a spout rose and sank into the sea. She looked from the spout to the man named Novak and back at the harpoon. ‘Whoever did Santa Monica smarter than this guy.’
‘What if – just suppose – Mr Novak were some kind of law enforcement officer? What if he went on holo to show whoever did this that he is coming after them?’
Athena nodded. ‘Only possible if he HSB Informal. If he Informal, very stupid. Crazy to show his face.’ She waved her arm towards the pool, holding up one finger. At once the water was lit by deep red spots, slopping like blood over the white border tiles. She slipped the gown from her shoulders and stood naked by the pool.
KY looked at the image of Novak. ‘Crazy. Or brave.’
‘Brave is same as crazy, if he do not know who enemy is.’ Athena raised her arms above her head. ‘To me, Mr Novak look like dead man.’ And turning towards the pool, she dived into the blood-red water.
Jake awoke outside Tucumcari to find his body dank with sweat and the arid scrub alongside the Interstate bathed in moonlight. It was 3.43 a.m. Long-distance autocabs were so safe they were permitted to travel at up to 60 miles an hour. But with refuelling stops, the trip would still take two days. Desperately slow; but like the slogan said, You’d Have to be Mad to Fly. Most life insurance companies would not allow it if you had significant life expectancy.
He’d been dreaming again. His parents’ dead bodies on a viewing platform, rotten and decayed. In the visitors’ chairs, the corpses of Ed and Abigail. Only the security guards were the same, their leather uniforms gleaming, Big Frights ready. Jake pulled himself up in the seat and rubbed his eyes. The cab’s rear window showed empty highway. The destination panel still showed New York City. He checked his bracelet. Who was he now?
Suzy Stew in the Identity Laundering Division had clucked her tongue when Jake called her from Santa Monica twenty-four hours earlier. ‘You know how much fake IDs cost?’ she’d said. ‘You already had Michael Novak. Why not use your bracelet to clone someone nearby?’
‘I just did that six times in six minutes.’ Jake had been calling from the Santa Monica sea-front, hunched next to an ice-cream kiosk, scanning the walkway for anyone following. ‘I even switched off my ID a couple of times. But without an ID I can’t enter a building, or rent a cab. And each time I copy someone, that makes two the same. The FUCC will pick it up right away.’
‘Easy, kiddo. You’re hyperventilating.’ Suzy treated all Informals like errant children, even though it was possible they could have been born before her. ‘Data from the Federal Unitary Control Computer are only available to authorised enforcement officers, on provision of a warrant. No-one will find you.’
‘Like no-one could find the ten guys murdered this morning? Someone has access to the FUCC. All they have to do is track down any duplicate IDs and kill them both.’ He had taken a deep breath and lowered his voice. ‘Listen, Suzy, I need another unique identity if I’m going to stay alive more than ten minutes. And no-one else is left to use fake IDs except me and this new rookie agent. How about I make love to you? Twice. Three times. Whatever it takes.’
‘Why, Jake, that’s a wonderful offer. Call me when you’re a little older, darling.’ Her chuckle was warm. ‘What kind of ID do you want?’
An hour later, Jake had left Los Angeles as Dr Andrew Brown, a venture capitalist from Morro Bay keen to assess the viability of expanding independent Biotime production on the West Coast. It was a robust identity designed to give him a valid reason to call on Cleo Czernin, the Central Authority’s chief Biotime economist in New York City. A credible cover story, considering no-one ever thought to think twice. The Federal Unitary Control Computer featured a full biography for Dr Brown.
‘I shouldn’t say this, since we can only use him once,’ Suzy Stew had said, ‘but don’t stay Andrew Brown for long. Keep switching. Use data-shielding. You have chosen a perilous profession, kiddo. Good luck.’
Jake looked out at the ancient metal barrier along the side of the freeway. It looked solid, as if designed to protect something. But what? Somewhere out there, Rose was asleep in her One Lifer encampment. The One Life Trust had been right about some big waves coming in. But they surely could not have anticipated an atrocity like Hughes. Rose had been right about not contacting her, too, except in person. To holo her now could be to condemn her to death. Jake shook his head. What else had his sister been right about?
He tried to relax. If the Hughes Procreation Center had been destroyed to boost Biotime prices, Cleo Czernin might have some idea who could benefit from that. She also worked inside the largest data-shielded structure in the United States, and one which offered tremendous possibilities for switching ID. Jake stared out into the night. The challenge would be to stay alive long enough to get there.
Doctor Boris Suleikin stood up as the blood-red sun sank behind the dilapidated warehouses of the Hiep Phuoc Port Industrial Park.
‘We need to start loading. Think it’s dark enough yet?’
‘No.’ Dr Patel was watching the New York Biotime markets. ‘We must wait for nightfall.’
‘The amount we pay these people, they’d see nothing if we loaded the ship in broad daylight.’
‘It is not the local authorities we need to worry about. It is the Americans. They still have a few functioning satellites.’
‘I still can’t see why Pandang want us to ship tonight, with only half a load.’
‘It is to do with prices.’ Patel looked up from the holo. ‘Have you seen what is happening in New York?’
‘Don’t tell me. You see an investment opportunity.’
‘I was simply going to point out that you were right, and I was wrong.’ Patel smiled. ‘It turns out the case for throwing production units overboard is very weak, actually. Since our last round in the Mekong Delta, prices are up twenty five percent. It seems that there will, indeed, always be a demand for Biotime.’
Suleikin shrugged. ‘Going back early suits me. They’ll have fresh access products for us to test-drive.’
‘Access products.’ Patel smoothed his moustache with a wetted finger. ‘That is one area where I defer to your expertise. Meanwhile, pending the darkness, perhaps we might check that the containers are ready for loading.’
A strip of rainwashed concrete separated the office from the wharf. The ship tied up nearby was so rust-streaked and filthy that it seemed at first sight to be derelict. Only a thin plume of smoke from the battered funnel suggested otherwise. A single gantry crane stooped over the empty cargo bays. A man in a peaked cap sat in the cabin of the crane pouring tea from a flask.
Suleikin jerked a thumb at the ship. ‘Now, that’s what I call a thing of beauty. Double hull, four new auxiliary engines, upgraded cam shaft.’
‘Come inside.’ Patel opened a heavy, insulated door in the side of a warehouse.
‘The new containers are cute, too. Self-contained for up to forty days.’
‘The point is not the containers, Boris, or the ship. The point is the cargo.’ Patel stepped inside.
The air in the warehouse was cool and fresh after the humidity of the night. Two dozen battered cargo containers stood on a floor patterned with the tyre tracks of a straddle carrier which stood at one end of the line, a steel unit already locked in place beneath it. Each container was painted with the logo of a different shipping company. All were sealed except for one, a little apart from the rest, whose doors stood open. Patel and Suleikin approached it.
‘First time we ever shipped a half-empty container,’ Suleikin said.
‘You check the left side. I’ll do the right.’
The two men pushed through the sheet of plastic which hung over the end of the container. Inside, the air was warm. The standard 2.44 metre width of the container provided space for a narrow aisle between a mass of machinery whose sophistication belied the weathered exterior. The sides of the aisle were studded with metal plates and handles, like the drawers of an immense filing cabinet. From half-way along, a green light glowed beside each handle. Patel walked quickly down the centre of the space, looking up and down the rows on the right-hand side.
‘This all seems to be in order. We might even have time to…’ His voice trailed off. He consulted his bracelet, then pulled on a handle at knee-level. A drawer slid open. ‘Ah, yes. Little Tho.’ He reached inside. ‘All ship-shape, I think.’
Suleikin turned. ‘You should wipe the marker off his arm before we seal the doors.’
‘Nonsense. A proper name will help him build identity at Pandang.’
‘Have you seen the contribution rooms there lately?’
‘Hm.’ Patel looked down. ‘Perhaps you are right.’ He reached into his pocket and broke open a wet-wipe. Then he reached into the drawer, where Sue Phu’s baby boy lay motionless amidst a confusion of tubing. Carefully, the doctor raised the tiny arm and wiped away the three letters he had written there. He took a final look at the child, and pushed the drawer closed. ‘All lights burning your side?’ he said.
‘Well, then.’ Patel pushed back through the plastic sheet. He extinguished the overhead light in the container and slid home the bolts which secured the steel doors. Finally, he entered a code on his bracelet. There was a clunk as an electronic locking mechanism deployed. For a moment, Patel watched the display on his bracelet. He turned to Suleikin.
‘You bet.’ Suleikin raised a thumb towards the straddle-carrier. There was a roar of engines and the massive vehicle trundled forwards. Simultaneously, a loading door at one end of the warehouse began to roll upwards, revealing the inky blackness of the tropical night.
‘So,’ Patel said. ‘Darkness has, indeed, fallen.’
‘If you think shit happens, park here’
Security notice, Central Authority Buildings, Harlem
Jake took a horse-drawn cab for the last part of the journey. It was his first visit to New York; he’d never seen a horse before; and he didn’t need ID to climb aboard.
He scanned the street for any threat. Where once he might have admired the luxury goods stores jostling for space between up-market bars and pool halls, now he saw only faces turned towards him. Were they watching?
He clutched his bracelet, where the pulse tracker glowed red. No-one had tried to contact him in his guise as venture capitalist Dr Andrew Brown. How could they, when no-one knew he existed? But then how could they have identified the ten Informals who had died at the instant the Hughes Procreation Center was destroyed? He sat back in the cracked leather seat and tried to make himself inconspicuous.
He’d never seen anything like Harlem. The city fabric seemed fabulously opulent. The sidewalks were filled with groups of smartly dressed men, many of them standing right next to each other, drinking or even smoking. Their behaviour defied all logic. He watched a young man stagger, then fall against his neighbour outside a showroom packed with gleaming Chinese-built limousines. The second man took a step back and began to yell.
‘You could have injured me, man! I’m gonna sue your ass.’
The first man was having difficulty remaining upright, but he managed to shout something back. Jake heard the words “negligence”, “litigation” and “motherfucker”. A crowd began to form.
Jake’s bracelet signalled an incoming call.
He stared at his wrist. Had they found him? Caller identity showed a blank. Was someone closing in? Keep calm, Devonte Ray had said. Settle down. Get a grip. Keep a cool head. Don’t panic. Sure. Suddenly Dev’s idea of a partner seemed attractive. But when would he arrive?
‘You wanna mute that, honey?’ The postilion was a wizened woman in a black waistcoat. She was sitting on the roof of the cab smoking something as the horse, evidently under some form of remote control, plodded along the street. ‘Or answer it. Or something.’
‘Sure.’ Jake killed the ring-tone and covered the red light on his bracelet with his hand, as if that might somehow hide him.
On the sidewalk, the argument had escalated. One of the young men was repeatedly pushing the other with the flat of his hand. Jake watched as the taller of the two tripped and nearly fell. Even a minor concussion could affect life expectancy, reducing the value of the man’s ‘Time by millions of dollars.
‘What’s wrong with them?’ Jake asked.
‘Don’t you have alcohol in California?’ The driver’s smile displayed strong white teeth. Behind the adversaries, two police officers had appeared with fat rolls of adhesive-backed foam. They began winding it around both men, restraining them to prevent accidental injury.
‘Don’t they care about damaging each other?’
The driver took a drag on her roll-up. ‘The fighting ain’t real, honey. Those kids ain’t got a lot of time left to hang loose. So they pretend to fight, to show it’s still their own life they’re playing with, tho’ of course it ain’t, seeing as how they’re all on contracts. Any serious damage, claims’ll be filed. Lotta money stashed away in some of those kids, high value merchandise, yes man, heading for broke at the CAB. So most guys fighting, they fight damn careful.’
‘But what if someone was injured? Or killed?’
‘Killed? Sure. We did have a killing here in Harlem a few years back, it was in the Chronicle. Young kid did it. What you never read about, but everyone here in Harlem knows, is that the Central Authority sent some real dark-suited men into town that same day, and they took that boy away. Disappeared, man. His mom went to see the cops, but they said it was more than their lives were worth to get involved. Literally. Just 18, the boy was. Lost and gone away. Ain’t no-one killing in Harlem no more, sir.’ The woman lapsed into silence, becoming animated only to raise a hand from time to time as other cabs trundled by.
Legends about the omnipotence of the Central Authority had been common in the early days of the agency. But it was true that the legalisation of Biotime had led to a massive fall in violent crime. Jake peered around. Right now, the idea of black-suited snatch-squads operating out of the CAB seemed almost welcome. Perhaps they might deter whoever was chasing him. Was that woman in the halter neck and camouflage pants keeping pace with the cab? She had beautiful bare brown shoulders. Or how about the guy with the dark glasses? Surely no-one could have tracked him down so quickly. In any case, he couldn’t ditch Dr Andrew Brown yet: he needed the thrusting young entrepreneur to access the CAB.
‘Can you go any faster?’ he asked the driver.
‘No need, my friend. We’re already there.’
Jake looked around. Trees, lawns, the usual slew of ancient New York buildings. A street sign said they were in Marcus Garvey Park.
‘Is this it?’
‘This is it.’
‘How much do I owe you?’
‘Nothing. Transport to the Central Authority Buildings is always free of charge.’
‘So where’s the CAB?’
‘Right in front of you, honey.’
Jake looked again. Then he saw it. One of the most famous structures in the United States, and one of the most self-effacing.
The Central Authority Buildings were a monument to the care with which the CA had set out to capture the hearts, minds and, ultimately, lives of the people of Harlem. The CAB also bore witness to the attention lavished on public relations in the Central Authority Constitution. The master-stroke which led the architects to sink the forty contribution rooms into a shaft, burying them outside the consciousness of would-be donors, was dictated by the constitutional requirement that contribution centers should not have a character likely to dominate local communities.
No wonder, Jake thought, he hadn’t spotted the CAB at first. The five above-ground floors, crowned by a slender office tower modelled on the Flatiron Building, gave no hint of the scale of the operation within. Rather, a variety of vernacular styles gave the impression of a period terrace, preserved from a long-forgotten era of architectural decency and truthfulness. The hidden entrances to the contribution rooms, screened by beds of trees and scrubs, were designed to reduce the likelihood of potential donors being deterred by any sensation of “crossing the threshold”. They also ensured that those who did not wish to publicise the start of their contribution could gain admittance discreetly.
Jake headed for the entrance to the office complex. The three-storey portico was crowned by the Central Authority coat of arms, picked out in red neon. Beneath it was the month’s corporate slogan: “CA: Trust US with Your Lives!” Above, the walls bristled with surveillance cams.
He watched the cab meander off towards Central Park. Then he turned towards the building. Could anyone be waiting for him? The crowds around the entrance looked no more threatening than any other random group of New Yorkers. His fingers ached for his Big Fright, left at the hotel in anticipation of the rigorous security at the CAB. Surely no-one would attack him in such a public place? He shook his head. It was impossible to second-guess an enemy capable of annihilating ten thousand lives. He ignored the vibration of his bracelet, announcing another call, and stepped inside the Central Authority Buildings. It was time to take the fight to that enemy.
At the same moment Jake entered the Central Authority Buildings, his sister Life Sample, known as Sam and christened Rose, withdrew a beer bottle from a cool-box filled with ice.
‘Are we ready yet, Sam?’ Mark Time was an immensely tall, solid One Lifer of Native American origin. He looked at the bottle in Life Sample’s hand.
‘Any moment now.’ Life Sample gestured towards the tepees from which the other competitors were emerging. ‘Wait until everyone’s here.’
‘That bottle has my name on it.’
Life Sample smiled up at him. ‘Sure it does.’
Mark Time nodded. ‘If I win, I’ll donate the prize money to the Santa Monica appeal.’
‘That’s a lot of cash.’
‘Sure. But I got all I need already.’
‘Tax efficient, huh?’
The big man shrugged. ‘So I’m a tax avoidance specialist. What do you expect?’
Life Sample watched him trudge off to join the other players. They were nearly all here, now. White-haired Tempus Fuggit, owner of the One Life Experimental Helicopter Company, had the build to make progress in a scrum: he’d been a college football player in his student days, before the sport was banned by the government on health grounds. Next to him was Spectral Way, who ran a chain of whole food bakeries from his retreat at the One Lifer encampment. With his thick glasses and short legs, he had never been successful at the beer-pitching, but entered the competition every few weeks “simply”, as he said, “for the thrill”.
Near the edge of the group stood Jean Stays, the One Life Trust analyst who sometimes flew in from Grassy Butte for the competition. For the beer-pitching she changed out of her business suit into combat trousers and a sleeveless T-shirt which showed off her slim build and brown skin. Her black hair hung in twin pigtails, secured with camouflage-effect rubber bands. Her slender build and black-framed spectacles made others underestimate her as a competitor in the contest. But Jean, a German who before becoming a One Lifer had been named Ulrike Hams, had surprising talents. Life Sample knew that when Jean put her mind to it, she was an unstoppable force.
In total, there were over thirty competitors. Each had paid ten thousand dollars to take part.
The beer bottle in Life Sample’s hand was refreshingly cold. She looked beyond the crowd of players and spectators to the holocams waiting to broadcast the event. One Lifer beer-pitching attracted huge audiences because it was harder to predict results than in major sports leagues, where the elite players had been ensconced at the top for decades. With beer-pitching there were always new players coming up and old ones retiring. There was also a good chance of violence or physical injury, both anathema to normal citizens but a matter of indifference or even pride to One Lifers and great for ratings. The result was a flood of sponsorship, with the networks multiplying fifty-fold the prize money the competitors put forward.
Today the stakes were higher. At the last moment a mystery donor had offered to double the total prize money again, in return for a private meeting with Life Sample. She’d accepted the offer without hesitation. That was how she always made decisions: it was a One Lifer axiom that gut instinct was the sister of wisdom. But what did the mystery sponsor want to talk about? That, she thought, would depend on how much he knew about her. That was why she’d called Jean Stays down from Grassy Butte to take part in today’s beer-pitching.
Life Sample took a step forward.
‘All right!’ she shouted to the assembled crowd. ‘Get ready for the pitch!’
The spectators fell silent. There was an outbreak of jostling amongst the players in the centre of the pack; in an instant, fists were flying. Life Sample saw Jean Stays watching intently from the edge of the group. The sky was pale blue. Around the limit of the clearing, an unbroken wall of maize formed the horizon in every direction.
Life Sample threw the bottle from one hand to the other.
‘Are you ready?’ she yelled.
‘Ready!’ the crowd responded.
‘Are you steady?’
There was an outburst of responses.
‘Just throw it!’
She lowered her arm. Then, with a mighty effort, she hurled the bottle up into the air, as high as she could. It spun and sparkled in the prairie sunshine.
The players roared as they surged towards where they thought the bottle would land, with one exception. Strange Daze, the virtuoso violinist, was high on something as usual. The little woman had not moved with the pack but was jumping up and down clapping her hands in the air. It was almost as if she were applauding the crowd of yelling, brightly-dressed competitors.
‘Out my way.’ Mark Time was wading into the melee, two metres ten and solid.
‘Hey,’ Tempus Fuggit yelled as Mark Time pushed him aside. ‘Take it easy.’
Mark’s elbow caught him in the face and Tempus went down like a flour sack. Broken nose, Life Sample thought.
High above the crowd, the bottle was still climbing. It seemed to hesitate before tumbling down. The crowd had coalesced into a cone of outstretched hands, with Mark Time at its apex. His big banana fingers clawed the air as the bottle fell.
There was a scamper of rushing feet. A lithe figure was running, scaling the side of the cone, climbing literally onto Mark Time’s back and snatching the bottle out of the air. It was a woman with twin black pigtails. For a moment she held the bottle aloft, grinning wildly, then disappeared from view as Mark Time swatted her from his back.
Jean Stays rolled twice across the dusty grass, then jumped up. She tugged at one of her pigtails.
‘I think that the prize is mine.’
Life Sample strode across the field, conscious of the cams following her every move. She held out her arms to Jean and embraced her.
‘Congratulations. Will you donate the prize to Santa Monica?’
‘Of course.’ The winner frowned. ‘How could I not?’
‘And do you really want that beer?’
‘It is true. I’m not that thirsty, actually.’ The brown-skinned woman looked around. Medics were already treating several competitors at the first aid tent. Mark Time and the remaining able-bodied players seemed mesmerised by the bottle.
‘Throw it,’ Life Sample said. Then she leaned forward, as if to kiss the other woman. ‘I need to see you,’ she said. ‘In private.’
‘I am ready.’ Jean took a step back. Then she smiled at the other players, glanced at the cams, and weighed the bottle in her hand.
‘WHO WANTS MY BEER?’ she shouted.
Already the bottle was arcing through the air. Fights broke out as competitors surged towards it. The spectators broke into spontaneous applause.
Outside a nearby tepee, Life Sample held open the flap.
‘We need to talk urgently,’ she said to Jean Stays. ‘It’s about the One Life Army.’
‘Harlem’s cocktail of indolence and frenzy owes much to the presence of the Central Authority Buildings. Several factors led the Authority to locate here its first foray into large-scale Biotime manufacture. Most important were the low Absolute Wealth Levels, immortalised in the famous Harlem refrain, “What we got? We got fuck AWL”.’
Kool’s New York – Zenon Kool, Schlaraffenland Press (out of print)
When Jake entered the Central Authority Buildings, the audible warning that he was now inside a shielded facility was followed by a stream of New York State legal disclaimers. These notified him that any harm which might arise from his bracelet being unable to communicate with external medical monitoring services, bookmakers and stockbrokers would not be the responsibility of the Central Authority. Jake had to smile. For most citizens, being cut off from the outside world was uncomfortable. For Jake, incommunicado was where he wanted to be.
Cleo Czernin 480 occupied a corner office on the 45th floor of the tower, looking out over the fashionable brownstones of the city. Jake entered the room slowly. Could someone searching for Home Security Bureau Informal Jake Moonrath have zeroed in on Dr Andrew Brown’s meeting with the Central Authority’s top Biotime economist? But the only person in the room was a small, bright-eyed, dark-haired woman, biological mid-40s, standing behind a massive old wooden desk. When he entered, she hurried forward to greet him.
‘I’m so glad you could make it, Dr Brown.’ She spoke in a high, birdlike voice. ‘Come in, come in.’ She waved him into an office chair of angular construction. ‘So. This new Morro Bay facility. You must be some kind of smart guy. Hughes melts down, ‘Time spikes up, and you have a proposal ready two days later? Tell me how you moved so fast.’
Jake hesitated. Cleo Czernin was by no means beautiful. Yet the way her face lit up with intellectual curiosity intrigued him. This ancient being knew as much as anyone alive about the relationship between ‘Time and money. ‘Tell me about that beautiful desk,’ he said.
A smile softened Czernin’s face. She ran her finger-tips across the pitted leather set into the surface.
‘I was allocated that piece,’ she said, ‘the day I moved into this job. One hell of a long time ago. Continuity of office, continuity of office furniture, I guess. It was an antique even then. One of the pet theories I hold, if you’ll forgive me taking it out for a walk, is that the political and technological stability of the Biotime era should lead to increased life-expectancy for manufactured products.’
Jake stared at the desk. His Cheyenne was only two years old, and was already due for replacement.
‘Wealthy people with hundreds of years of life expectancy,’ Czernin said, ‘should be able to surround themselves with a perfect environment. Technology is stagnating, hell, in the US it’s going backwards. There’s nothing new to buy. That should mean beautiful consumer durables fit to last forever, like these Wassily chairs. Instead, all we see is the same old mass-produced trash.’ She was staring at Jake’s tie. ‘So.’ There was a blip of energy as she refocused her attention. ‘Morro Bay.’
Jake began to describe the investment potential of a fictitious 500-berth contribution facility north of San Luis Obispo. Long-term price trends were crucial to profitability. That made the Central Authority, with its remit to stabilise prices, a key player. How, he asked, had the CA reacted to Hughes?
‘That scene at Santa Monica, I saw it on the news holo.’ Czernin shook her head and stared at Jake.
Jake looked back. Might she recognise him from his cameo as Michael Novak? It was unlikely: if his bracelet identified him as Dr Andrew Brown, that was who she would see.
But the economist was seeing something else entirely. ‘It was horrible,’ she said. ‘So many lives destroyed. A huge financial resource transformed into the most expensive mudpack in history. And yet we kept the system stable. Without the Central Authority, everything would fall apart.’
Without the Central Authority, everything would fall apart. Jake nodded at the little economist. ‘You intervened?’
‘Big-time. The CA holds Biotime reserves so that it can smooth the troubled waters of the ‘Time markets when conditions are rough. I can’t give you details; for us to manage the markets it’s in everyone’s interests for us to leave the other players in the dark about what we’re doing. But we’ve been active.’
‘Did Hughes cost the CA money?’
‘Excellent question.’ Cleo Czernin touched her bracelet and blocks of figures appeared, hovering over her head like fireflies. ‘You don’t have to be Einstein to see that the direct loss to the Central Authority is 3 years’ contribution for each of the four thousand infants lost. That’s what we would have made on their Puberty Holidays. If a healthy teenager produces around one point three five grams of ‘Time a year, the loss to the CA from Hughes is around 16,000 grams. At today’s opening batch price, that’s 55 billion dollars. Straight off the Central Authority’s bottom line. If we had one.’
‘But prices have risen. So the CA’s stocks of Biotime must be worth more.’
‘Correct. And the US public lost far more Biotime at Hughes than the Central Authority. From age 18 to expiry, which we now see averaging a hypothetical 83, that’s 65 years times four thousand individual infants, plus adult victims, all times a multiplier representing future price rises – something the analysts on Wall Street spend a lot of time trying to forecast.’ As she said the word “forecast”, a further swarm of figures began circling her head. ‘In short, a huge quantity of Biotime has been taken permanently off the market. What’s more, everyone knows it’s gone: they all saw the Hughes clam dip live on holo. So they’re buying like crazy.’
Jake nodded. ‘A long-term increase in Biotime prices would strengthen the case for investing in my new production facility in Morro Bay.’
‘Economic theory would indicate that. It’s no longer strictly true that in the long term we’re all dead. But prices should stay firm for a while.’
‘You think in theory someone with a lot of ‘Time could have destroyed Hughes? To increase prices?’
Czernin looked at him. ‘I thought it was the One Life Army.’
‘That’s what they say. But – ‘ Jake remembered the One Life Trust print-out Rose had given him and licked his lips. ‘Does anything about Biotime price movements over the past few days strike you as odd?’
‘Well.’ Czernin sat back in her chair and gazed at a point above Jake’s head. ‘Most of the market reactions have been predictable. With one exception. Prices have risen on the international ‘Time markets. Shanghai, Tokyo, London. Particularly London.’
‘Why is that, do you think?’ Jake leaned forward.
‘It makes no economic sense. The London Treaty prohibits international trade in Biotime. So price developments in the US should have no impact on the rest of the world.’
‘I’ve heard rumours about Biotime smuggling.’ Jake remembered Franco Ardizzione’s tiny stash.
‘Forget it.’ Czernin shook her head. ‘The media always fantasise about Black Biotime. But do you know how much the Home Security Bureau has actually found in the past five years? I’ll tell you. Less than ten grams. Ten years of ‘Time. There’s no significant smuggling of Biotime into the United States.’
I know, Jake thought. ‘Maybe I should talk to someone in London,’ he said.
‘Sure. You could holo them. Or fly over there.’ Cleo Czernin laughed.
‘Fly.’ Jake laughed, too. But was sweating already. What if he did have to go to London? How would he get there?
‘Do you suffer from high blood pressure?’ The economist was looking at Jake’s bracelet.
Jake glanced down. The red light was showing. ‘Yes.’
‘You should see someone about that.’
‘Yes.’ Jake tried to focus on Dr Andrew Brown. ‘What else could affect Biotime prices?’
‘Nothing, compared with what we’ve seen in the past few days. It’s hard to imagine further supply fluctuations on the scale of what happened in Santa Monica.’
‘Some CA facilities are bigger than Hughes, aren’t they?’
Czernin nodded. ‘The Central Authority Buildings have a capacity thirty times greater than that the Hughes Procreation Center. We have two hundred and sixty five thousand donors on tap right now. That’s why the security of this installation is so crucial.’ She looked at Jake. ‘Have you been on the tour? You can see how we look after our customers.’
‘I like security. And I’d like to meet some of your contributors.’ Jake rested his hand on his bracelet. ‘Biotime was born in Harlem, right?’
‘We don’t like to talk about Pax Vobiscum around here.’ When Cleo Czernin frowned, she looked older. ‘But you’re right, the Central Authority Buildings was the world’s first purpose-built contribution center. You might pick up some tips for your new facility.’ She took Jake by the elbow and guided him towards the door. ‘Ask for Sylvester. He’s been doing the tours for over a hundred years.’
Devonte Ray brushed the snow from his cap as he stepped off the slopes onto the brown fibre-pile carpet of the Central Authority HQ at Aspen 4000. Then he bent and brushed the snow from his arms and legs, before undoing his jacket and shaking free from his shirt and belt the snow that had somehow lodged there. It had been another fine morning’s powder in the Montezuma Basin.
It was a constant source of pleasure to Dev Ray that the Central Authority, as a comparatively new arrival on the bureaucratic scene, had been able to locate its HQ untrammelled by the historical hang-ups which had stranded other federal institutions in the squalor of Washington DC.
He had never known the first President of the CA, a winter sports enthusiast who had justified her decision to site the new headquarters above the snowline near Aspen, Colorado in terms of staff morale, team-building and a dozen other management mantras. She, like most of the original staff, had died in ski-ing accidents in the decades that followed. But the senior management of the Central Authority had continued to attract more than its fair share of ski bums.
Dev sighed as he placed his ski-boots on the heated rack by the door to the slopes. What would Roland Nelson have done now? It would even have been good to talk to Roland’s son Rocky, who in his later years had become something of a sage in the One Lifer movement. Dev remembered the old man smiling as he sat in a simple adobe dwelling and advocating the joys of Biotime abstinence. “There’s something natural about dyin’ when you get old,” he had said. Well, Rocky Nelson had died soon enough. That left nobody in the world, apart from poor Jake Moonrath, with whom Dev could discuss the case; and the less Jake knew, the better.
Back when they’d launched the assault on Pax, Roland Nelson had been unable to involve senior police officers in the raid because he believed them all to be corrupt. Now, Devonte Ray could not seek support in the Santa Monica case because he knew his boss to be more incompetent than even a political appointee had any right to be.
Thomas 469, the President of the Central Authority, was not exactly stupid. Rather, over a career spanning several centuries, he had become semi-detached from his responsibilities as head of the most powerful institution in the United States. That suited Washington fine: if the CA was not broken, there was no need to fix it. It would in any case have been impossible to secure bipartisan support for a new appointment in a Congress which had not taken an important decision for decades. That meant that today, Dev’s mission was to update Thomas 469 on progress in the investigation without telling his boss anything he might inadvertently let slip to someone else.
The first two doors Dev passed after leaving the airlock led to the bar and the executive sauna. The third, situated to take advantage of what the real estate agents had advertised as the best view on the planet, was the Presidential suite: bedroom, bathroom, and a 180 square metre study looking down the valley. The study doubled as a boardroom, where such of the CA board as could be dragged in off the slopes might in theory get together. But such a meeting had not taken place for years. These days, it seemed, the room’s main function was to provide Thomas 469 with a venue to gather together the prettiest and most witless of his staff of both sexes and set them to work partying as blizzards swept the mountain. The President was fond of pointing out that the station was over two miles high.
Dev Ray knocked and waited. Forty eight hours had passed since he had despatched Jake Moonrath and his partner on a mission whose likeliest outcome would be to deprive the Home Security Bureau of its last two Informal agents. The only advantage Jake had was his pathological risk aversion. He was not exactly a coward. When pursuing a Biotime crime, Jake could show bravery verging on the reckless. But in the intervals between active duty, he tended to avoid any activity which could reduce his life expectancy. Dev smiled and knocked again. On this mission, self-preservation could be an asset.
Aspen 4000 had been built at a time when carpeting on the walls and even on the ceiling had seemed like a neat idea. The corridor was as silent as a fresh fall of snow. Dev pictured a party under way beyond the sound-proof door, lithe young bodies spurred on to acts of gross depravity by a spaced-out Thomas 469; and knocked again, with feeling.
The door was opened at last by Thomas Collins himself. He did not look well. The white light from the picture window was unkind to the most flawless of complexions. It did nothing at all for Collins, whose gaunt features resembled the “after” image from a tobacco products Beneficial Effects Display.
Dev stepped inside. ‘Looking great, Tom. You wanted a word?’
‘C’mon in, out of the cold.’ The room was sweltering. Collins was wearing only boxer shorts. ‘Can I fix you anything? I’m having a Passchendaele.’
‘My Lai, thanks, Tom.’
Taking their cocktails, the two men sank into adjacent armchairs facing a mighty picture window formed from a single sheet of plate glass. Dev sipped his drink and gazed down the mountain-side, waiting for his boss to speak. Far below, an eagle soared.
Thomas 469, however, seemed to have nothing to say. He downed half his drink in one, slurping down the deep red liquid and throwing on the carpet the poppy perched on the edge of the glass. Then he began fiddling with something caught in the fly-button of his boxer shorts. Dev tried not to look. Was that a blonde hair?
At last, Dev broke the silence.
‘I saw you visited Santa Monica, sir,’ he said. ‘How was it?’
The President did not look up. ‘It’s a mess,’ he said.
‘Uh-huh.’ Dev could see only the ice-cap of dandruff which crowned his boss’s head.
‘Any progress on the weapon?’
‘It’s a puzzle, sir. A conundrum. A bit of a riddle.’ Dev watched the wind buffet the pine trees in the valley. ‘The resin at the site was homogeneous. No more chance of rebuilding whatever was responsible than reassembling the remains of the victims. We’re working on it. But Forensics aren’t optimistic.’
Thomas 469 abandoned his shorts; scratched his armpit; then sniffed at his finger-tips. ‘The dead Informal agents?’
‘We’re concentrating on Santa Monica for now, sir.’
‘Good.’ The DG raised his gaze. His eyes were bloodshot. ‘I have a lot to do.’ His hand was at his fly-button again. ‘Don’t tell me who you’ve assigned to the case. We need rigorous operational security.’
‘Mum’s the word, sir. Need to know.’ Dev nodded. ‘Eat before reading.’
‘You got the resources you need?’ Now Thomas 469 was reaching inside his boxer shorts.
‘All I can use.’ Dev wondered about briefing the DG on the shortage of Informal bracelets. He decided to say nothing; gazed out of the window; and relished his drink.
Two centuries earlier, Collins had published a book of his own cocktail recipes, “Tom Collins Slaughtered”, each named after a famous massacre. The exclusivity of the My Lai was its magic ingredient: a shake of Biotime, “which should be sufficient”, the author had suggested, “to ensure that both the cocktail, and if possible the after-effects, are enjoyed in an instant of perfect timelessness”.
An instant of perfect timelessness. Dev watched as his boss fiddled inside his shorts. It was as if a more brilliant man had somehow lost his way.
‘Good.’ Thomas Collins spoke at last. He blinked, and a flake of dry matter fell into his lap. He looked down; picked it up on the end of a wet forefinger; and lifted it to his lips. Then he pointed the same finger, still glistening, at Devonte Ray. ‘I may not be smart, Dev,’ he said. ‘But I can tell you one thing. Whoever destroyed the Hughes Procreation Center and killed your agents represents the biggest threat we have ever known to the continued existence of the Central Authority. I have doubled security at all CA installations across the country. The Director of the FBI tells me they have taken into custody three hundred One Life Army activists and sympathisers in the last forty-eight hours. That’s good. But if I had to bet on the terrorists’ next target, Dev, I wouldn’t be looking at contribution centers.’
Devonte Ray stared at his boss. It was the most he’d heard him say for years.
‘What would you be looking at, sir?’
‘My guess is that before they do anything else, the people who did Hughes will want to deal with whatever second string Informal agents the Home Security Bureau has managed to put on their tail.’
Martha O’Leary wasn’t used to lying. She typed a few words on her antique computer. She tried to steady her breathing. Then she spoke.
‘I have to go away for a few days.’
‘Really?’ Toxirov Gulomovich looked up. ‘Where to?’
‘I have a meeting in Samarkand.’ Martha had read that it was best to embroider a fib with truth. Yet her voice seemed hollow and unconvincing.
‘Maybe better to wait until ambassador is back from States. Otherwise you must leave me in charge of embassy. All on my own.’ Gulomovich smirked. ‘What is meeting about?’
‘You should be pleased to be left in charge. It’s a career opportunity.’ Martha wondered if he had noticed she had not answered his question.
Gulomovich sighed. ‘Sure. Opportunity.’ He stretched his arms above his head. ‘But frankly, this work we are doing. It is pointless. Everyone is knowing this.’
‘That’s not true. I – ‘
‘No-one is smuggling Biotime,’ Gulomovich interrupted, ‘because London Treaty forbids transfer of Biotime across international borders, and each country enforces this. Uzbek government founder signatory of Treaty. It is in interests of all Uzbek people, and government, to prevent illegal exports. A matter of life and death, actually. Or maybe you think Uzbek people are stupid?’
‘No. Of course not.’ Martha’s heart was pounding. Every word spoken during working hours was recorded for security purposes. The logs were also admissible as evidence for employment tribunals. ‘But countries don’t always act in their own best interests when it comes to dealing with Biotime. When did you last meet a Ugandan?’
‘Uganda exported its human capital before London Treaty. Now, every remaining country except Poland signed up to comprehensive controls. Safe conditions for production and consumption of Biotime worldwide. Even in United States.’ Gulomovich looked at her slyly. ‘Or maybe you are One Lifer?’
Martha bit her lip.
‘Are you suggesting I look old?’
‘Of course not.’ Gulomovich had the grace to colour slightly. Maybe he was worried about employment tribunals too. ‘You are hardly ageing all the time I know you. I guess you have your own supply of top-quality US Biotime here in embassy.’
Martha frowned. Gulomovich surely knew that an embassy second secretary could not possibly afford Biotime. ‘I’m not a One Lifer,’ she said. ‘But it does seem wrong the way ‘Time lets rich people live longer than poor ones.’
‘Is normal. Through all of history, rich people live longer than poor people.’
‘Plus, I don’t care many studies have shown Biotime doesn’t affect your intellect or emotions. All the great artists have been One Lifers. It’s like Peter Pan. You can’t have real feelings if you live forever.’
‘But Biotime means no-one is poor any more.’ Suddenly Gulomovich was speaking with conviction. ‘Do you know how many people are starving today in the world? Not one. A man has no money, he sells some life. Straightaway he is rich. The Biotime he produces will prevent someone more productive from ageing. A scientist, maybe. A political leader. Anyone who can afford to pay. Without poverty, we have no need for social security. Taxes fall. Everything is better.’
‘Well.’ Martha stood. ‘I have to go to Samarkand.’ She wondered how old Gulomovich really was.
‘And you are cleverly avoiding to tell me what meeting is for.’ Gulomovich tapped a fat forefinger on the desk. ‘Is OK, is not my business. But what should I tell ambassador, if he returns from US?’
‘I’ll brief him when I get back.’
‘OK.’ He looked at her with a thin smile. ‘Martha. Be careful in Samarkand. I understand you do not want to say who you are meeting. But I must warn you. Criminal organisations are strong in Uzbekistan.’ His hand moved to his bracelet. ‘You want me to tell Samarkand authorities you are coming? Chief of Police is friend of mine.’
‘No!’ The word came out too loud. ‘Please don’t.’
‘Tell me, Martha. Are you meeting with someone who claims to represent criminal organisation? Is very dangerous.’
Martha stared at her assistant. What did he know? The piece of paper she had found on her breakfast table at home that morning had named a time and a place. That was all. If her anonymous informant from the Home Security Bureau had been correct, she was meeting the head of a Biotime cartel. Who could be more dangerous than that?
Maybe the Samarkand Chief of Police.
‘I’ll be all right,’ she said. ‘Please. Don’t tell anyone. It’s – ‘ she searched for a word, ‘ – sensitive.’
‘I understand. Is up to you. This is my advice: be vigilant.’
‘Thank you.’ Martha moved away. ‘Excuse me one moment.’
Down the corridor, she stopped at a door decorated with a plastic silhouette of a woman in a long dress.
Martha never wore dresses or skirts to work. But she liked the silhouette because it kept out men. The ladies’ room had been designed in an era when the staff of the US embassy in Tashkent had been far larger. When she had arrived three years earlier and discovered she was the only female officer, she had equipped the room with an armchair, a reading light and a fridge. She washed her hands in cold water, inspecting her pale, freckled features in the mirror above the sink. Then she opened a bottle of iced water and moved to the window.
The street below was deserted. In the distance, mountains soared. The sight calmed her; but she could still feel her heart pounding in her breast.
Gulomovich was right. What she was about to do was dangerous. She knew nothing of the mystery man who had called her from the HSB except that he had a frayed cuff and a reassuring voice. Was that enough for her to endanger her life? How would she explain her undeclared mission to the ambassador? From the pouch around her neck she unfolded the sketch she had made of the sign she was to watch for in Samarkand. A severed hand, transfixed by a knife. What kind of organisation had a symbol like that?
Martha O’Leary stood at the window and breathed deeply. A dangerous path lay ahead. But what did she have to lose? A dead-end job. A few grey hairs. No sign of a man, or any kind of relationship which might transform her life. What was the worst thing that could happen in Samarkand? Surely the boss of a Biotime cartel would have better things to do than to arrange a complicated operation against the second secretary at the US embassy in Uzbekistan. And if he did kidnap her and put her into contribution in some illegal Biotime production lab – if such places really existed – well, she wouldn’t have to worry about Toxirov Ergash Gulomovich any more.
She took another sip of water, then replaced the empty bottle in a crate by the door.
“Build Your Future on a Rock Biotime Futures PortfolioTM. Warning: Biotime prices can go down as well as up”
Rock Savings Corporation: advertising brochure
The moment Jake stepped out of Cleo Czernin’s office he began to plan his new ID. Dr Andrew Brown was compromised. He must leave the Central Authority Buildings as someone else. Nowhere was safe. But the numerous exits of the CAB were designed to offer visitors maximum privacy – coming in or going out. There were also at least two hundred and sixty five thousand identities available downstairs, many of whom would not be leaving the data-shielded structure for years, if ever. The challenge was to reach them before someone else reached him.
Security within the CAB was overwhelming. Jake had to pass through four ID-operated doors between Ms Czernin’s office and the emergency staircase. Each one would be transmitting to the CAB’s security log the fact that authorised visitor Dr Andrew Brown had just passed through. But who had access to that information? When he reached the stairs he used his Informal bracelet to turn off his ID, and began to run down. It felt a futile gesture: he had to become Dr Brown again when a set of security doors blocked his path every ten storeys. But you had to do what you could.
Jake found the security comforting. The Central Authority, at least, was still in perfect working order. His parents would be safe, slumbering in Culver City. But it was too late for Ed and Abigail. He stopped at the foot of the stairs to catch his breath. He, Jake Moonrath, was still alive. Whoever had destroyed Hughes and murdered the other ten Informal agents hadn’t reckoned with that.
The receptionist at the CAB visitors’ entrance was a pretty young black woman with long straight hair. She seemed delighted when Jake appeared. He couldn’t help returning her gaze, however pointless it might be.
‘Dr Brown, welcome,’ she said. ‘Do you need a viewing suite?’ She waved towards a series of doorways. ‘Give me the name you’d like to check on, I’ll pick them right out for you. Or you can hook up a screen and browse. Many visitors drop by just to check out who’s in. You might see someone famous entering contribution.’ The receptionist beamed. ‘It happens all the time.’
‘I’d like to see Sylvester. For a tour.’
‘You want to go inside? No problem.’ She leaned forward and yelled into a microphone. ‘Sylvester! Visitor for you!’ She winked at Jake. ‘He’ll be along in no time. Please make yourself at home.’
Jake nodded. He was thinking about what Cleo Czernin had said.
‘What’s the weather forecast for this morning? In London?’
‘I can do that. Although it’s afternoon in London, as I’m sure you’re aware.’ She nodded. ‘Cloudy, mild, with a 46 per cent chance of precipitation in the next four hours. Better pack an umbrella.’
Jake heard a footfall behind him and spun round. But there was no-one there. How stupid was he being, talking about London? He turned back to her. ‘OK, how about snow conditions? In Tibet? Mount Kailash area?’
‘Perfect. Two metres on the lower slopes. Up to twelve metres on the glacier.’
‘Thanks. I’m ski-ing later this week.’ Jake smiled again and looked around the lobby. He felt exposed, standing by the desk. The door to a viewing suite stood open. He ducked inside. The lighting was so dim that at first he could see nothing. There was a powerful smell of unwashed bodies. As his eyes adjusted he became aware of dozens of men lounging in armchairs, illuminated only by the holos they were viewing. Most featured naked female bodies, swathed in transparent plastic. It wasn’t like any viewing suite he’d ever seen in California.
‘Welcome to Harlem Central Authority Buildings!’
Jake spun round. In the hush, the voice was nerve-jangling. One or two men looked up from their delectations.
‘I am sorry. Did I disturb your viewing experience?’ Sylvester was short, with a thick bull neck and large, powerful hands. He didn’t look sorry at all.
‘My name is Dr Andrew Brown from Morro Bay, California,’ Jake said. ‘I’d like to visit the contribution rooms.’
‘It’s a privilege to meet you, Dr Brown. It’ll be my pleasure to show you round.’
‘When’s the tour?’
‘Any time you like.’
‘Only you, and you alone. You’re the first tour-ist today. In fact, you’re the first guy this month wanted to look around inside, in person that is. Most folks are happy with the holos.’ He gestured to a nearby chair, where a man seemed to be examining a magnified image of the inner thighs of a sleeping woman. The viewer had set the holo parameters to project the display in the air above his face, so that he appeared at first glance in danger of death by suffocation. But when Jake looked more closely he saw that the man, too, was asleep.
‘What are they looking at?’
‘Well, now. Are we starting the tour?’ Sylvester folded his hands behind his back as if beginning a speech. But his face was set in a sardonic smirk. ‘The purpose of these viewing suites is to allow friends and relatives of contributors to check that their loved ones‘ – Sylvester made the description sound somehow degrading – ‘are alive and well. This was the first ever CA facility, remember. So they built in every so-called confidence- and security-building measure they could think of, then added some more.’ He lowered his voice and winked. ‘Strange, ain’t it, that so many men should call to check up on their daughters, wives and sisters at one time? We have a thousand viewing suites here at the CAB, and you know what? Some people use it as free entertainment.’
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 (Homepage: top right, “click here”); or follow me on Twitter @RobertPimm (Homepage left hand side). I can promise you a fun ride.
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