Monday, April 2, 2012


© 2012 by John Shirley

“Mr. Winniver? Where exactly do you imagine you’re going?”

It was the Nursing Caretaker himself, Mahela—in person, a hulking physical presence right there in the hallway, blocking the Elder Cruiser. Mahela was a wide-bodied, dark skinned man, a slight South Asian accent. He wore the traditional white uniform but he had melanin-fades of family scenes printed on his neck and forearms, silhouette images woven into a lacework of faces and gestures. Moving tattoos and melanin fades were among the things Len had finally gotten used to—like flying police cars and The Execution Channel. Getting old was increasingly like moving to another country entirely, one that made up new customs every couple of years.

“Going for a spin in my elder cruiser,” Len said. “Cruise the young women. The usual salacious old man thing. I’ll behave. ‘Look, don’t touch.’”

Mahela shook his head emphatically. “You haven’t got the strength to be driving around in that thing for any reason. Certainly not that reason! Your heart is giving out, Mr.Winniver. We want you to be comfortable when...if anything...” Mahela pursed his lips, looking for a delicate way to phrase it.

Len snorted. “You should have all your euphemisms down by now, Mahela. But then you’ve only been at this job a few weeks—so maybe you don’t know which patient’s got a legal right to leave whenever they want. That’d be me. I’ve taken my meds...” The ones that didn’t make him feel tired. He’d skipped the others. “And some energizers, and I’m feeling pretty good...”

“You’re not supposed to take energizers at all! And if the doctor says you can’t go on this little jaunt, you’re not going!”

“Yeah. Try seeing the doctor in person to ask. Good luck with that.” He had to get out of here fast or he was going to lose Zach. “’scuse me. Cruiser, proceed around obstacle. Rapidly. Next elevator down.” The cruiser was voice activated, or manual—his insurance company wouldn’t pay for cerebral control.

The elder cruiser whipped around Mahela, making him gasp with indignation. It went with pert responsiveness to the elevators.

Mahela called after the cruiser, yelled at it to stop—but it was Len’s, bought when his circulation problems got bad, and it obeyed only him. The elder cruiser drove into the elevator, turned neatly around, a moment before the doors pinched off Mahela’s outraged expression.

Escape! Amused at his own childish gleefulness, Len watched the indicators till the elevator reached the bottom floor. “Straight ahead, when the doors open, medium fast...”

The doors opened, and Len rolled across the big, airy, glass-walled lobby, looking for Zach, aware of his heart pounding laboriously and hoping he didn’t black out. People hummed past him on self guided scritters or tramped by on foot, talking to no one visible, some of them using sensors to help them walk without crashing into things as they chatted on socials. A couple of black guys talking earnestly to one another stuck out in the crowd because they were talking face to face.

The cruiser took him out through the front doors, into the reflective sunshine of a faux-marble courtyard. The sunlight was always young.

There was Zach, at the corner, paused to talk to someone who wasn’t visibly there; frowning, maybe arguing.

Len muttered, “Hold on, cruiser.” And the cruiser stopped. Zach turned—and for a moment Len was afraid the young man would look through the mind’s eye projection and see him. But Zach was focused on the seemingly empty air in front of him. Parked to one side were a number of small motorbikes, including an old-style Vespa. The engine was electric, but the retro body was the same. On one of its numerous mirrors someone had hung an electric-blue helmet.

“Ease over slow to the right,” he told the elder cruiser. It edged up to the scooter, and he scooped up the helmet. He instantly put it on his head, lowered the visor. The helmet would look funny with an elder cruiser but so what, people’d think he was an over-cautious old geezer.

He grinned to himself, thinking, Good Lord, I stole something, right out in public! He couldn’t remember ever stealing anything before. “Follow the person directly ahead,” he told the cruiser. Zach glanced disinterestedly at him as the light changed and started across the street. The helmet worked as camouflage.

Sneaking out of hospice, using energizers, stealing things—was this some childish manifestation of advancing senility? Not enough blood to the brain?

Better than being indoors; better than dying in a hospice. It was May, and not too hot. Through the visor, the sky seemed candy blue. In the distance, between buildings, he glimpsed the ocean that had swallowed up Santa Monica, in the aftermath of climate change.

Zach was striding on, and the elder cruiser droned audibly as it strove to keep up. Then Zach turned left, and Len followed into a pedestrians-only side street lined with delicate looking little trees. Small open-air cafés were crowded with bright faced young late-lunchers. An elderly woman with a young woman’s face breezed past Len in her own cruiser, staring curiously at his helmet. He knew she was elderly from signs in her hands; her eyes.

Zach walked through the gate of a sidewalk café, and up to a table, waving at a woman who was clearly waiting for him—a kind of light switched on in her face when she saw Zach. She was older than Zach, at least twice as old. Maybe more. And she was...Len felt a visceral shock, seeing her. But it couldn’t really be her.

Still, it was amazing how much she looked like his Anne...

He rolled past the café, watching her stand up to be kissed on the cheek. Zach sat down across from her. It wasn’t until Len was passing them by, that he was sure. It was Anne. Anne was as old as he was. This woman looked thirty or forty years younger than that. Late forties, early fifties. Was she some daughter of Anne’s he didn’t know about? No. He’d lived with Anne Feldman for two years. They’d almost gotten married. There could be no mistake...

It was Anne. And she was holding Zach’s hand.

How many decades ago? Four and a half? When—2014? The early days of vertical farming. It came back with aching clarity...

She’s holding Len’s hand as they walk up a ramp, in the vertical farm, wearing their light green inspector’s coats. It is the third farm he and Anne have inspected this week. This is VF #11, part of a new complex along the coastline in San Diego. Pipes of white bioplas run from the sea, which glints like polished steel beyond the glass walls, drawing briny water to be desalinated for the packed-in crops—tier on tier of corn and rice and high-yield grains, terracing up in stairway spirals. No pesticides needed, in this precisely insulated environment. Another ten such buildings line up over the waterline nearby. New ones are being completed offshore, west of Catalina, their next stop.

They feel a special connection to every vertical farm they inspect. The smell of greenery, earth, blossoms; the exactly-modulated warmth of the reflected sun through mirroring skylights; the musing hum of the bees, the soft swishing of the artificial creeks, the splash of fish ladders winding through the crops, the feel of mist carrying the yeasty perfumes of is all quite personal to them. Anne doesn’t have to be here—she’s an important researcher, increasing fish and plant yields, a gift for doing it without genetic-engineering risks. But she likes doing the inspections with him, when she can. They’re both in early middle age. Been together for years. They’re both aware they have to deepen their bond or lose one another. And lately...He glances at her, somehow enjoying the fact that she’s almost a head taller than he is. Wondering why that is. He’d always liked a tall, willowy woman.

He stops to look at the artificial creek, the specially engineered fish swimming, jumping, imagining themselves to be emigrating long distances, but going round and round in the building till they spawn or are harvested. The fish had been his idea—well, partly his idea. Taking their nutrition from the plants, and earthworms, their waste becoming fertilizer; putting out CO2 for the plants, eventually becoming meat. Such a great idea—and it hadn’t paid him personally. Maybe now was the time to talk to Anne about it. He’d been waiting his moment. “You know, Anne—I should have taken profit participation, instead of the higher salary,” Len admits. He feels a nagging torment, at times, thinking of the fortune his father had thrown away—so now deferring money comes hard to him. He likes to see it appear in his account every two weeks. “But—they could make me a partner...the fish fertility exchange, the specialized bees—my ideas. Initially, anyhow. You know they’re gonna make billions from the fish, when they get more of these places up.” He looks at her sidelong. It was his oblique way of asking...

She sighs and he knows the news isn’t good. “I did ask about it. Gary just flat said no. He said he’d have to give a partnership to all kinds of people who contributed if he gave one to you. He said you have good benefits, good retirement, you got a bonus.” She shrugs. “I don’t think they’re going for it, Leonard. Not their fault you spent the bonus...”

He feels his face flush. “You could stand up for me, Anne. I mean—we’re engaged, for Chrissakes. You don’t have to just blow the whole thing off.”

She looks at him, hurt. He can feel the tension in her hand. “We’ve been engaged for so long—but somehow we never go the next step. Is this what it’s about—competition? What differences does it make who has the partnership? I can take care of us, Len. I’ll have extra money. So we’ll both have it.” She shakes her head. “Males are so primeval.”

Len tugs at her hand. “It’s just that—we should be partners in everything. If they’re not standing by me you shouldn’t stand by them. You could tell them, ‘Make him a partner or I quit.’” Len hesitates—then says something he regrets ever afterwards. “You don’t stand by me now—why should I stand by you, Anne? It’s like you’re not committed...”

Anne looks at him in shock. “So if I don’t threaten them—you’ll leave me?”

He should say, No, I’d never do that.

But he fails to say it. He simply scowls, and looks away.

They stayed together for awhile. But Anne seemed to drift away from him after that. Till at last they broke up entirely...

Len shook his head, now, as he directed the elder cruiser to the Social Access shop across from the café. The vividness of the memory seemed to underscore his failure to do the right thing, that day in the high rise. The day he’d lost her. He could scarcely remember last week but this memory from decades ago was as intense as an icy wind.

Running through it yet again, he winced at his own remembered childishness. A grown man—and still an adolescent at the core, in those days. What had he expected of her? She was a real scientist, not an engineer; she was a gifted researcher, far more valuable than he was. And she was in love with her work. Of course she was a partner in Vertical. She was enormously important to them. He’d had some ideas but he’d signed them away for the cash flow...Len parked himself in the small Social Access shop, at a social-connect table facing the window, where he could use the wall charger. He could see Anne and Zach, talking earnestly in the café, across the pedestrian mall. He seemed insistent about something. She was a bit taller than Zach, too, he noticed.

He took off the helmet, deciding Zach wasn’t going to look in here, put on the rather old-fashioned headset. He was lucky it still worked—most people used either implants or nano-impregnated contact lenses.

The small headset lenses swung to fit snug over his eyes; the table activated the air above it. A Deep Digital logo appeared in the air, in throbbing three-dimensional gold: Glowing Ds gracefully switching places with one another every two seconds. He gave his billing code and then said, “Mori Redonza, search FullBody Active.” Formerly Mori Feldman, Anne’s daughter.

A holographic flickering through FBA, and then a group of people appeared over the table, miniature people moving casually about a vaguely pleasant virtual space that seemed to go on forever in some misty cyber continuum. They strolled about, waving to one another, sometimes congregating in clots. He adjusted his lenses for immersion, and the people became life sized, fully dimensioned. One of them, about to saunter past, was Anne’s daughter from her first marriage, Mori—or a somewhat idealized avatar of her, as if she were still in her thirties; she had a bob of shiny black hair, large dark eyes, pensive mouth. Her colorshift pants suit cycled through shades of beige, tawny yellow and bronze. He said, “Put up a semblance for me.”

The table checked his billing code, and he appeared in the Social. People glanced his way curiously, but no one recognized him; this was a group of Mori’s “friends”, and he hadn’t checked in with her in years. It appeared he was still “friended” though.

He waved at Mori—she frowned and walked over to him. “Len Winniver? Really?”

“Yeah. You’re seeing a semblance at least fifteen years out of date. Looks better than me in an elder cruiser. How you doing? You look good.”

“This image is just as outdated.” Her frown got deeper as she looked at him. She was Anne’s daughter and so unlike her. More like her angry, intense Latino father. “You’re wondering about Mom?”

“I am, yeah. I just saw someone who…well, it was her. That little scar on her chin I talked her out of fixing…. It’s just…She looked way too young.”

“You won’t allow her some avatar vanity?”

“It was her, in person, Mori. In a physical café. Talking to a guy who claims he’s my grand nephew. Only I don’t think he is.”

Her face became studiedly blank. Guarded. “If it was her—she might’ve had some work done.”

“It wasn’t plastic surgery, Mori. My dad was a goddamn movie star and I was around plastic surgery all my boyhood. My mother was in and out of there like Michael Jackson on a turntable.”

She blinked. “Who’s Michael Jackson?...And what’s a turntable?”

Oh come on, he thought. You’re not that much younger. “It wasn’t surgery, Mori. But even if it was—Why was she—” He broke off, seeing her face harden—realizing he was sounding belligerent, maybe paranoid. She’d be accusing him of abusing cognitive enhancers, next. “Just—could you catch me up on her? Do you know anything about this guy she’s seeing? A young guy, looks kind of like me? I’m just curious, is all.”

“No. I told you. Haven’t seen her in a while.” She looked off into the digital distance. “She came out of retirement. She works for Jensen Genetics. I don’t pretend to understand it—why this sudden interest, Len? You used her to advance your career then you dumped her…”

He shook his head. “I don’t believe she said any such thing about me.”

“I have a theory for you, Len,” Mori said suddenly. Her dark eyes glinted with anger. She made a gesture that created a bubble of privacy around their conversation—a bad sign. “She was more successful than you! So she can get more organ replacement. Which improves her health. Keeps her circulation up—all that. So she looks younger! And that bothers you. Listen—I haven’t seen her in a year myself but if she’s that much improved, she deserves it! She worked for it!”

“You haven’t seen your own mother in a year? Why?”

“I…” That guarded look again. “She’s been on a kind of...working retreat. Special projects for Jensen...”

“Well she’s sitting in an open air café in the town you’re living in, so she must be avoiding you. There’s something strange about all this. Okay. Have a good life, Mori...Billing: I’m out.”

Mori opened her mouth to get the last word—and then dissolved.

Len was sitting at the table, alone. But then he’d been there alone, in a way, the whole time. Like the woman sitting to his left, at the table across the room, smilingly talking to the air—to people no one but her could hear or see.

He took off his headset, looked out the window, and saw Zach walking out of the café, with Anne at his side, both of them conversing with the air, to someone only they could see, as they hurried off down the pedestrian mall.

Len waited a thirty count—and then he followed.

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