“I’m given to understand you’re a buttonhead, Mister Reynolds.” Ryan sat back and sipped his drink. “Show me. I believe I’ve paid for the privilege.”
We were in the Adventure Capitalist, a bar dating back to when we still had an economy. The corner booth was a wood-panelled cocoon, designed for privacy. Even so, I hesitated before removing the wig to expose the cranial interface sockets. “Satisfied?”
He smiled, although the revulsion in his eyes was obvious. “And the hardwiring, it gives you a significant edge over a headset? It’s not just blarney?”
“Good enough to be ranked first player in Grumman Coldplay. So, if this is an unofficial endorsement approach ahead of the Seoul semi-finals, forget it. I know we’re firm favourites to beat Weyland Aspiration, but my contract is cast iron, zero loopholes. You’ll have to go through the team agent just like everyone else.”
“Your exclusive contract didn’t prevent you accepting my offer of a quiet drink.”
“A grand in cash just to show up?” Now it was my turn to sit back and take a sip. “We’re just two guys talking, is all.”
Scientists worked out a way to stop murders altogether. They had a fancy name for it, some ridiculous sounding thing that I can’t remember, but everybody else refers to it as a soul swap. If you kill someone, you swap souls. You’re now dead and somebody else inhabits your body. Shocks all round.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sort of. I mean, you didn’t really have to worry about it unless you were a murderer.
Things went a little wrong, though, as things often do when they’re not tested enough. The soul swap didn’t just work for murders. I remember reading about the first case – a doctor lost a patient on the table. The patient, little old dear called Susan Smith, found herself staring at her own corpse with a scalpel in her hand. There was probably lots of screaming, but they never mentioned that on Now the News.
Then there were the car accidents. A plane crash. That weird one where a toddler accidently murdered his Grandpa with a shotgun – now little Jonny has the mind of a ninety year old and is off the breastmilk.
People freaked. Like, totally freaked out. For quite a while some people just refused to leave their houses. Say you were driving your car to work one day, and somebody decided to step out in front of you? That’d be the end of you.
Hawthorn had two minutes.
Once she triggered the static pulse and killed the electronic security measures, Lady Mella’s personal guards would be all over the ninety-eighth floor ASAP, not to mention the hotel’s private security.
Hawthorn had been provided with Mella’s itinerary by Agent Stewart after the deal they’d made, a necessary evil when Interpol caught her in Prague trying to sell the mythical Isabella Stewart Gardner Thirteen.
“We need a solar-class art thief with no nanos—one hundred percent human—for a job,” he’d said, smirking across the cheap plastic interrogation room table. “And you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a penal colony on Europa. So, what do you say?”
Five days later, she was a maid at Boston’s Hotel Buckminster.
The gig had let her chat up one of Mella’s guards in the hotel bar, where she’d kept him distracted enough to rip a copy of his security code for the private lift.
Now she was riding that lift, alone, in her maid’s uniform, watching the seconds tick away on her silver Dent pocket watch.
Self is on the Tuo River, among the reeds and the cold stream. A good river, from where the people and the organic animal specimens gain their daily needs. Self is its guardian. Self is the last line of defence against those who wish to harm the creatures who live on its shores and swim through its stream.
All is quiet on the Tuo River this early in the morning. The Baiji-02 dolphins forage for food among the algae. A select number of code blue humans from the village wash their clothes before they go out into their fields to care for the rice. With no need for a gun or a sword at this time, Self can rest in sleep mode. And when in sleep mode, Self researches its parent model: Organism #3455-D-x: tuojiangosaurus.
To quote author of Sauropedia-7 Michelle Xuan, PhD: “The tuojiangosaurus, a stegosaurid from the late Jurassic period was a gentle forager of low-grown vegetation. With its smaller dorsal fins (compared to its more renowned cousin, the stegosaurus), it mostly lived on riverbanks. It is believed that in the event of an encounter with predators, the tuojiangosaurus would flee into nearby bodies of water and use the currents to evade its pursuers, avoiding direct conflict at all costs. A true gentle giant.“Gentle giant,” it says. Giant? Yes. Gentle? On basic mode, yes. In mode three? No, Self is not. Self’s frame resembles the parent model, but Self is hardly similar to it. Too many adjustments to counter the more “gentle” nature of the parent model.
The Council’s vote was in. It was a tie. She, being the Chair, has the casting vote and a devastating decision to make. A responsibility she definitely does not want but cannot now avoid. She rereads the summary for the umpteenth time, though she knows it by heart. With all the Council’s eyes, ears, noses, quanta readers and sub-quanta sensors on her, she just wants some breathing space.
Planet Orion-Arm-485-3 has followed the usual Gloop, Moved, Anchored, Extenders, Rovers, Makers, Enlightened, and Transcendent (GMAERMET) process, but is now stalled in the Makers stage. Below is a summary of its history, current situation, and available options. A decision is urgently required.
Our galactic sub-quanta spider-net picked up the normal signal of the Gloop’s chemical reactions to form the microorganisms of the Moved 3,900 million years ago. We followed procedure to set up a sentinel to watch for changes in the fractal dimensions of surface features, which would prove the planet’s surface had evolved from Anchored microorganisms to the plant life of the Extenders. This happened 470 million years ago, later than normal, but still within the expected time tolerance. We re-evaluated our time span probabilities for achieving the next stages accordingly and upgraded the sentinel to watch for the surface movements of the Rovers.
Now they’ve gone, I’m bored. I sit alone in a darkened room, drumming my fingers on my knees.
Although, I’m not entirely on my own. It’s there, staring at me but not seeing anything. It will see, if I want it to. But I can’t … I can’t let it see me. It will judge me, just like they all did.
The smack came so hard to the back of my head that my nose hit the desk. I didn’t make a sound, but everyone laughed. I looked down at my notebook. There was blood on it now.
“Loser,” I heard.
I ignored the voice and dipped a pen into my own blood, trailing it across the page. I heard more sniggering and then a clatter of chairs as everybody rushed to take their seats when the teacher entered the room.
Bree lay on the ground, head aching, as they talked over her. She hated those pious cows. Why had they brought her outside? She wanted another bottle of vodka, not rescuing.
“I’m still not sure why you’re doing it,” said Denna Kinjiun, the resident elderly busy-body, talking to someone Bree couldn’t see.
“I know,” that someone replied. Ann Teranu, cast in much in the same mould as her friend Denna. “But what else have we got but work and hoping the sun still rises?”
Their voices were like thunder in Bree’s head. “Don’t want the sun to rise,” she mumbled. If the sun didn’t rise so much, they wouldn’t be living under a dome in one of the new deserts, for God’s sake.
Ann bent down and glared at her. “We made you coffee. It might improve your mood.” She placed a mug on the ground, just out of Bree’s reach.
Screw fake instant coffee. She didn’t want anything.
“It’s a good start, I suppose,” Denna said.
We’re halfway through dinner when the implant malfunctions.
The dining room smells like roast chicken, garlic mash, and mushroom gravy as our father, drunk off one beer thanks to the cocktail of medications he’s on, tells us about the time he stabbed his brother with a fork over a potato.
“God, I miss Frank.” He wipes his eyes, and it doesn’t matter that we’ve heard the same sentimental tale a thousand times. “Your grandmother worked so hard, and there was never enough food in the early years after the oil crash. But we stuck together.”
That’s when my sister, Marie, takes a swallow from her third glass of wine and the colour drains from her face. “Mom?”
We all look. Mom’s expression is frozen, her breathing quick, her pupils dilated.
“Look at her hands,” Marie says. “How can this be happening? It’s been years!”
“Mom,” I say tentatively, “are you okay?” But we all recognize the typing motions of her left hand, the way her right curls around a non-existent control stick. We’ve all heard the story.
What do you get someone who has everything? I have everything I ever wanted – the swanky apartment in the City, the fast cars, the racing bike, the expensive holidays. I don’t go to work because I don’t have to; I could employ someone else to do it all for me. My parents were rich. They died. They left me everything.
Money doesn’t make you happy. That’s what people with no money say. Money made me very happy.
I grew bored, though. After I had travelled the world, I base-jumped. I scuba-dived. I climbed the highest mountains. I went into space. I did it all. I experienced everything, even things I didn’t like very much just for something to do. I had relationships with men as well as women. I’m pretty sure I was the modern-day equivalent of Dorian Gray.
But God, I was bored.
That’s when I heard about Dream Box. The vast majority of drugs have been legal for so long now that nobody really bothers with them anymore, but the Dream Box was something else.
When Mike McMurphy injected the serum into his arm, he had no idea that he was bringing all the world’s suffering to an end. He’d spent less than two weeks developing the virus: a simple bundle of protein with barely the complexity to be covered by US copyright law. The syringe caused no pain – and Mike had used the oldest, bluntest needle he could find – but he could feel the serum spreading through his blood.
It was a simple virus, spreading a rash across his chest and raising a slight fever, but it dwindled away after a couple of hours.
The mutation, of course, did not.
The mutation developed in the third-floor men’s room of the Old Chemistry Building. More aptly, the mutation developed in Mike, but it was of no consequence until he released it, mostly in the urinal and on the floor, but the mutation spread through the plumbing and into the air. Perhaps if the bio-pollutant detection system had been better honed … but it wasn’t. The tightwads who oversaw the university’s budgetary committee had sealed the fate of humanity.