DEVIL'S WEEK

Here we have an extra-special treat, Freezine aficionados. Because just this last Halloween, the Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction proudly presented a brand new, never-before-published short story from veteran author John Shirley. So if you're ready to be taken to an extremely dark place right now, then be sure to read on for our final tale for this autumnal season, THE SOFTEST PILLOW, by John Shirley.


Cemetery Art above by Shaun Lawton


Sunday, April 1, 2012

ELDER CRUISER: I

© 2012 by John Shirley


art by Shasta Lawton










Leonard Winniver was dying, mostly of old age; Zachary Winniver sat at his hospice bedside.

“We come and we go,” said Len, “and that’s how it is.”

“Sooner or later,” Zach agreed—and then he winced.

Len Winniver gave his grand-nephew a sympathetic smile. He knew it was hard to be a young man sitting patiently with a dying old man, trying to say just the right thing—trying not to be insensitive. Len remembered feeling the same way when he’d visited his dying father, long years ago.

Zach had come out of nowhere. Just walked in, smiling, saying he was Len’s grand-nephew. Hi, I’m Zach. Your Grand nephew? Zach Winniver. This was his second visit—they’d only met the week before. Certainly looked like a close relative. Best to assume that this really was his grand-nephew; that he really was here for the right reasons...Len stretched out a bit more on the smart bed; felt it minutely adjust to support him better. He glanced out the window of the high rise hospice. The Los Angeles monsoons had finally ended, and the sky seemed bright blue, fresh scrubbed.

Across the way was another high rise, for farming—“Vertical Farming.” He’d purposefully arranged to have a hospice room with a view on the spiraling green lushness of the vertical farm, amidst all the other high rises of Westwood. He’d worked in vertical farming for decades, helped to develop it—a lifesaver in the age of climate-change. He’d been an engineer, not a board member; no stock options, no getting wealthy as the business grew. Just a decent salary and retirement, benefits that put him right where he was now. Len’s dad, a moderately successful Hollywood actor, had squandered all the B-list movie-star money, leaving Len nothing much to invest. And here was Len Winniver dying, in his turn.

“This audition has got me nervous,” Zach was saying. “I don’t know why. It’s not like I haven’t had auditions...”

Len caught a movement outside, glimpsed something metallic flashing by, flying between the buildings; controlled by remote guidance, the vehicle’s movement was remarkably precise, completely without wasted motion. “See that?” Len raised a shaking hand, to point out the window. “A flying car. When I was just middle-aged, like thirty-five years ago, we used to kid around, ‘Where’s my flying car, dammit?’ Because when we were kids all the futuristic guys promised us flying cars. And there it finally is, forty or so years behind schedule.”

“Only the super rich and the cops have ‘em,” Zach murmured, glancing out the window. “And a few of those upscale tourist outfits.”

Len took in the young man’s splendid profile, so like Len’s father: The Actor, Barry Winniver. Len’s father, Zach claimed, was one of his heroes—Zach being an aspiring actor.

Does Zach here think I have showbiz connections that’ll help him, because of Dad? Bad call, kid.

“Only the really rich,” Zach repeated, softly.

Maybe he was hinting of an inheritance, with this talk of money—knowing Len had no children of his own. Is that why Zach was here? He could have gotten in touch years ago, and hadn’t.

“More important things—same situation,” Zach sighed. “Only the wealthy. Or you’d have gotten a new heart, new lungs, Uncle Len...”

Len chuckled, though he didn’t really think it was funny. “Big process to grow a heart in a vat, Zach—expensive. If they do it for everyone, the world’ll have triple the nine billion people we’ve got now, in a generation or so. Anyway it’s the brain that matters. Can’t regrow your self-hood, Zach. Can’t regrow all those brain cells. Real youth...real rejuvenation...it’s not happening.” He gestured around the little hospice room, with its beeping monitors—and the auto-nurse, humming softly, waiting in the corner. “My insurance, my retirement—got me this far. But it’s just another comfortable waiting room for...”

He shrugged. Deciding not to say, For death. Realizing he was slipping into obvious self-pity—which quite naturally made young eyes glaze over.

“Anyhow...” Zach turned a focused gaze into the middle distance—meaning he was looking at the treated-air projection that only he could see, where messages, reminders and digital faces reeled by. How could they concentrate on anything? He’d never wanted one of those implants.

“You’d better get to that audition, boy.”

Zach nodded apologetically, and stood up, adjusting his designer shoulder grip—the sleek little carrybag gripped his ribcage like a marsupial. He was a tall straight-backed, vigorous young man in a clingsuit, the fabric showing off his muscles. The dove-gray material showed subtly iridescent highlights when Zach moved. A young man’s garment. Len had managed to have his eyes replaced—the only real organ replacement his insurance covered, except for hip joints—and his eyesight was sharp. Looking at Zach he wondered again, How’d I miss knowing about this kid?

A grand nephew, grandson of his late brother Andy. Yeah there’d been a grandkid—but hadn’t he been seriously ill or something, lost long ago? He wasn’t sure. Len’s brother Andy and his wife Beth had lived in Australia, though—and Andy had held grudges. Like over dad’s money, and Len’s refusing to join the lawsuit—good old Andy had loved lawsuits. So they’d been a long time out of touch.

“Break a leg on that audition, Zach,” Len said, ready for the young man to leave. Len was tired already, and it was not even noon. Zach started for the door—then turned back, his expression oddly serious. “You—weren’t interested in acting, Uncle Len? Not following in your dad’s footsteps?”

Len shook his head. “Not really. My dad was a kind of minor movie star, but...” He shrugged. The motion hurt. No point in getting more joints replaced now, even if he could afford it. “I just didn’t like what it did to him. He had talent—but he was too self involved to really get in touch with it. But you—you’ve got character! Probably you’ll do great. Don’t let the whole thing....well...” Len didn’t want to slag his father, in front of Zach—dad had been Zach’s great grand-uncle, after all.

“Anyway...nap time for the ol’ geezer now. Off with you.”

Zach smiled. That familiar Winniver smile, like starlight through a break in the clouds. “Okay. I’ll be back...let you know how the audition went.”

Zach breezed out, and Len said, “Lay back, bed.”

It sighed, as if weary itself, and reclined, keeping his head up a little just the way he liked. He switched on telenet, the depth-image appearing on the wall across from his bed. It was a music video channel. Michael Costin, Jr, in skintight silver lame, was singing about a mirror in his heart. “MC Junior”—the reclusive child of the famous singer, the late Michael Costin—popping out of obscurity for his debut performance. Pretty girls in edgy costumes capered rhythmically behind him on stage; a song composed by some pop-program called out poignantly to Len’s nervous system. Then the bedside interface panel chimed, and he switched off the telenet sound. “Go ahead, phone,” he said, yawning.

His sister-in-law Beth appeared on the panel—just a photo. A flat image of her, a little younger than now, accompanied her voicemail as she said, “Hi Len, hope you’re feeling better. It’s funny to hear you ask about Zach. You’re talking about my grandson Zach right? Only one I know! My grandson—your grand nephew—died when he was thirteen. Lymphatic cancer. He was misdiagnosed, or they’d have caught it in time, and there was the lawsuit against the doctor and all that misery. Maybe the only reasonable lawsuit Andy ever invested in. I guess Andy wasn’t talking to you then, but I thought he’d sent out a notice to everyone...So this Zach who’s coming to see you—has to be some other Zach. He’s not Andy’s kid—I don’t know who he is. Feel better! ‘Bye!” Her image vanished. I don’t know who he is.

“I don’t either,” Len muttered, closing his eyes. But he couldn’t sleep. Not yet. He touched a tab on his bedside, looked up the original message he’d gotten from Zach, and copied the smiling picture of the young man from it...

Len awoke from a murky dream of his father and his brother, the two of them shouting at him at once, so he couldn’t hear what either was saying. It took him a moment to realize he’d been awakened by a chime from the interface. “Answer,” he said, his voice gravelly, and it projected a live holographic image of Belinda Streeson, from the shoulders up, into the activated air over his bed. She was Chief of CyberSecurity for Vertical Farming Ltd, a middle aged woman with a little cap of silver-black streaked hair, a snub nose and Eurasian eyes. She was married to Elaine Streeson, the company’s CFO. A mobile tattoo shifted through several Japanese-style pastoral scenes down the left side of her face. She gave him a wry smile. “You there, Len?”

“Yeah, I’m just not showing myself. I’m in a hospice bed.”

Belinda frowned. “I heard something about you and toxic bio-persistence...”

“That’s one factor. That and getting old.”

“The TPB is ironic, considering all the work Remington did on pthalate removal, groundwater cleanses, all that stuff...”

Len sighed. “Yeah.” Remington Cleanses International had bought out Vertical Farming with the big profits from their water-cleansing microorganisms. And Remington hadn’t seen fit to give him a real interest in the new company. Another reason he was living off retirement, and nothing else; another reason he was dying at a mere eighty-seven. He should have been good for
a hundred-ten.

She gave him a deadpan look of accusation. “So you’re extorting me, Len, demanding I check out this nephew of yours?”

Len laughed softly. “I just said you owed me, Belinda. Did I not get you the job there? Did I not push for you to be Chief of Security? Did I not introduce you to Elaine, knowing she’d go for you?”

“Okay so I do owe you. And—I checked him out.” She twitched her shoulders apologetically. “His name doesn’t bring up much. There was someone by that name in the place, time, with the relations you give, Perth Australia—and he died.”

“He died—right. But the picture I sent...”

“Legal gray area, my running checks on a message photo. But owed is owed. Your Zach didn’t look like this Australia Zach, not really. Way off. When I do matches for your Zach’s face, you know who I get? You! I mean, when you were young.”

“I already know he looks like I did. But what about passport ID matches, that kinda thing?”

Belinda shook her head. “Couldn’t find a match. But people can alter their face almost like their hair now. You’re supposed to get a special UNicop permit for a face-up, but...you can find people to grow you a new face without the permit.”

“So—you don’t think that’s his real face...”

“It’s a possibility. That’s all I’m saying. He ‘frauding you? We need the cops?”

“Don’t worry about it right now. I just wanted...I was just curious. Anyway—thanks. You get back to work. Stop lazing about, chattering to me.”

“Why, you...” She laughed and broke the connection, her translucent image vanishing like a popped soap bubble.

So. This young man was lying. Wasn’t who he said he was. This was disturbing. Wasn’t it? Shouldn’t it be? But that’s not how it made him feel. It made him feel something else entirely. Excited, stimulated. Interested, for the first time in a long while...

The kid was coming back tomorrow—to use up another half hour of Len’s life talking about mostly nothing...

Why? Who was he? Some hustler after an imaginary inheritance? He could confront him, and simply ask. But “Zach” would have a lie ready.

Maybe Len could find out something the old fashioned way...Why not. He was sure as hell old fashioned.



“Maybe the next audition’ll go better, Zach,” Len said, trying not to show how nervous he was. He shifted restlessly in his bed. First time he really felt like getting out of the bed, for a long while. The kid hadn’t seemed to notice Len was wearing a regular button up shirt, now. He wore his physical therapy sweatpants, under the sheet, and slippers.

“Yeah.” A flicker of misery passed over Zach’s face, instantly suppressed—like a man suffering from chronic stomach problems. “Maybe it will. Not so sure anymore.” He stood up, stretched, adjusted his designer shoulder bag with that familiar motion; it clung to him as he smoothed his hair. Smiling that familiar smile. “Got an appointment with a lady...”

“Wouldn’t want to keep you from that. Do your duty, keep the bloodline going!”

Zach laughed politely. “Doubt it’ll be that productive. See you, Uncle Len.”

Hope not, Len thought, as the young man walked out.

He waited a thirty count, then forced himself to climb out of his bed, and stand. A few seconds more till the vertigo passed, then he hobbled to the Elder Cruiser waiting in the corner. An intelligent wheelchair with flexible skeletal support, waste elimination when needed, the cruiser enclosed Len up to the breastbone, leaving his arms free—a sort of comfortable riding bot.

They were going to be surprised, at the nurse’s station.



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for Part II


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