Artwork for
Vincent Daemon's Vietnam short story
OF CADENCE AND WEATHERED STATUES
by Kara Koma and Shaun Lawton


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

ELDER CRUISER: IV

© 2012 by John Shirley




Once more he was tempted to confrontation. He could tap Anne on the shoulder, demand to know what was going on. But if he did, all she had to do was brush a finger over a corner of the screen on her workstation, and the data would vanish. Considering the high security trappings here, the secrecy—she might well lie to him. Or shrug him off.

Len toggled the elder cruiser back, then triggered it into opening up. Trying not to groan aloud—barely managing it—he climbed out, keeping a hand on the cruiser to steady himself. Then he adjusted its manual controls, hit the GO button, sending the unoccupied elder cruiser zipping around at random as he stepped to one side of the door to the adjoining lab, leaning against the wall. Dizzy, but determined. The elder cruiser was banging into things in the lab with an apparent air of anarchistic glee. Crash, a table; thump, a wall. Crash, another table. It was making more noise than he’d intended. Going to bring the guards...

It brought Anne first, as he’d hoped. She came striding through the door, muttering—jumping back to avoid the cruiser. “What the hell is this doing in here!” She didn’t see him pressed to the wall in the corner, behind her. He slipped through the door to the adjoining lab, glancing back—seeing her trying to turn off the cruiser. It darted perversely out of her reach. She cursed, and told it to stop instantly and it ignored her. Wrong voice.

He chuckled, and limped unsteadily over to the transparent sarcophagus, a queasy suspicion forming as he looked at “Zach,” tubes feeding into his nude body. Len turned to the display in the workstation. Blocks of color floated in the air, each one holding a file. He touched the nearest. A name came up on it. He squinted, read the name over three times, and his heart seemed to crash around in his chest like the elder cruiser in the lab.

He touched another block labeled restoration unit maintenance. He flicked a finger into End Program. A window popped up.

Warning. Your Subject Will Awaken. Continue? Yes/No

Kind of reckless of him to press yes. So...Yes.

The high-tech sarcophagus clicked, and whirred, and a series of lights along its base went yellow. Its upper half tilted slowly back, opening, releasing a cryptic smell—a concentration of that background smell mixing the humanly organic with chemical harshness. The man in the translucent sarcophagus stirred, slowly waking.

Len watched, keeping a hand on the workstation for balance. Vaguely aware the banging had stopped in the other room.

The vertigo was returning...black dots swarmed and receded...his knees wobbled...He’d pushed it too hard. He felt close to collapse. Another energizer would probably kill him.

“I’ve called security...” Anne’s voice, behind him.

Len turned—saw her standing there clumsily holding a high-end taser in her hand.

Pointing it at him. He shook his head. “You ever fire one of those, Anne? The one time I wanted to take you shooting, when we lived together, you wouldn’t go. ‘Course, that was actual guns. You remember I had a rifle? You always hated it...”

She stared—and lowered the taser. “Leonard?

“What’s left of me.”

She let her mouth drop open. Then she raised the taser again. “No—you’re not.” She nodded toward Zach. “That’s Leonard...So who the hell are you?”

His turn to gape. He stared at Zach. The kid did look like him.

Zach was pretending to be him.

He shook his head at her. Felt his heart trying to knock its way from his ribcage. “Anne...that’s—he said he was my nephew. He’s—if you think he’s me, then he’s pretending to be me...He’s...I don’t know, a clone of me, uploaded or something.”

“Oh yes?” She snorted. “A clone? When he came to me first he was an old man. He’s a retread now. That is Leonard Winniver—rejuvenated. It’s...”

Oh, no. “He was old, when he came to you?” Rejuvenated...

Len hobbled closer to the sarcophagus. He looked closely at “Zach”—and thought about his childhood. Picturing his father’s face. “Oh Lord. He’s made some facial changes so it’s not too obvious, but...”

His father’s funeral had been closed coffin. They’d thought it was vanity...

She lowered the taser again, turned to look at Len. She gasped, put a hand over her mouth. “You are Len. You are! Oh my god, you have to be. Look at you.” She pointed at ‘Zach.’ “So...who’s that?”

He had to steady himself on the edge of the workstation. “That’s...I think it’s my father. A pretty damned good actor, after all. Pretending to be me, for you, because he knew...about us. And...” Len had to take a long, steadying breath.

She reached out and touched his face, making him shiver. A pleasant shiver. “You have blood on your face!”

“Do I? Oh yes. A little...mishap. Nothing serious.”

“How’d you ever get in?”

Len shrugged. “The roof and.... Anne—this man...”

“You don’t really think it’s your father...Your father is dead.”

“I never saw him die. He wanted to be alone, when he went. He said. Which—seemed strange to me. And then—this guy turned up in my hospice. He said he was my nephew—and I saw him as my nephew. Because—he was acting. Anne—” He touched the sarcophagus. “What is this thing he’s in?”

She seemed to vacillate. Then her shoulders sagged. “That ‘thing’ he’s in...Um—is a nano immersion unit. MicroRNA ‘walkers’—the unit guides cell repair nanos. Telomerase rebuilds, cell regeneration, RNA reset. Cell by cell repair.”

The supine man groaned, and muttered. The man’s voice a croak. “Lenny...”

She stared at Len, trying to process it. “You’re Lenny...and he’s...”

Len nodded. “My father...”

She stepped closer, absently touched her tongue, used the tip of her finger to wipe blood off Len’s face. “Lenny...”

Len turned to look at the open “sarcophagus.” The man in the immersion unit opened his eyes. He looked at Len, his gaze clearing, sharpening. They knew one another. He cleared his throat. “Thought I heard your voice.”

“Dad?” Len shook his head. “Oh Jesus. What did you do?”

Blinking rapidly, the man who’d played the part of Zach Winniver sat up in the sarcophagus. Plastic tubes disconnected themselves from his limbs, and slithered away. Where they’d connected to him his skin looked slightly bruised but unbroken. He swallowed. “Oh God. I feel sick...” His voice was froggish.

“You may as well get out of the unit, Barry,” Anne said leadenly. “The process is interrupted. It’s a mess now. Going to take time to reset. If it can be done at all. You’re going to feel shitty for awhile.” Her lips trembled. “You seemed so much like Lenny. You really are a lying son of a bitch.”

Barry Winniver grimaced. “I guess I am.”

“He’s an actor,” Len said, ruefully. “You study video of me from late in my life, dad?”

His father smiled faintly and shrugged. “Yeah.”

Len felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. “You had to be hiding a hell of a lot of money. You faked your death—you let me shrivel up so you could...” Len blinked away tears. “You know, dad—that’s not the arrangement people usually have with nature.”

Anne sighed, opened the lower panel on the sarcophagus, helped Barry Winniver out. He seemed as unsteady as a very old man, though he appeared physically young, perfectly formed.

“I...nearly did die,” dad said. “I was sick, genuinely sick, close to dying.”

“He was in semi-suspension for years,” Anne said. She found a white bathrobe in a metal drawer under the sarcophagus, and helped Barry into it. She moved about methodically. As if she had to do something, keep busy.

Len tried to imagine his father engineering the whole thing. “Semi-suspension...” The technology slowed the body down to less than a crawl. Iced but not frozen, chemically treated, a suspended animation so people could wait for medical breakthroughs. And it seemed the ultimate breakthrough had come—for those with the money. “He had some kind of deposit with this company?”

She nodded. “Jensen brought him out of it,” she went on, methodically massaging Barry’s arms. “When it was ready for him.”

“But—what name was it under? Barry? Leonard? Zach? What?”

“Um—Suspension Patient three thousand...something. Their original names are commonly fudged. Just, you know, special bank numbers, that sort of thing. People slated for rejuvenation often don’t want it out. You find out though—I mean, I recognized Donald Trump because my aunt used to work for him, and when I was a kid—”

“Who? You mean the guy with ‘that thing on his head’? Had some casinos, a TV show?”

“Yeah. Pretended to die. Like...” She gave Barry a look of mild disgust. “...and, you know, they come back young as someone else or someone related. Like your ‘nephew’ here or like Bloomberg did. Or Donald Rudock—”

“No way. Rudock? The creepy old multimedia billionaire? Come on, he died years ago!”

She shook her head. “Rejuvenated. He’s a retread under another name...”

“But—” Len shook his head in sick disbelief. “I mean, Bloomberg wasn’t…isn’t…a bad guy...but Costin and Rudock…it sounds as if some of the worst people get rejuvenated.”

Barry and Anne nodded, simultaneously—Barry with a look of mild regret. “You got that right,” Anne said sadly. “Who can afford rejuvenation? Some of the worst people around. Michael Costin “junior”—what a jerk he was to work with. The most commercial, narcissistic entertainers. The greediest tycoons. They don’t want average people to know about it, demanding rejuvenation so they come back...as someone slightly different. But the same.”

“So...” Len rubbed his throbbing head. He badly wanted a tall glass of beer, right then. With a whiskey chaser. Though it might kill him. “So we’ll have some of the worst people from big media and politics and business—around for hundreds of years, maybe thousands? Just getting worse and worse...”

She whined. “When you put it like that...”

Barry chuckled. “It was Don Rudock who told me about it when I did some work for Tox News. All this...” He waved at the lab. “This has been quietly in the works for a long time...Retreads, Lenny,” added Len’s dad sadly, voice still hoarse. His dad, Barry Winniver.

Who was a hundred-and-seven—who looked like a young man in his twenties. “That’s the slang.”

Dad put a hand to his mouth, looking like he was trying to keep from throwing up. “Starting over, like me. I’m starting over as Zach Winniver.” He smiled ruefully. “The ‘young actor.’ My own grand-nephew.”

Len looked at Anne—and saw she was silently crying. But she was looking at him as she wept—not at his father.

“I’m sorry, Len,” his father said, finally. “I thought about arranging it for you. But it was you or me.”

“Yep, that would have decided it right there,” Len said, his head whirling.

“The money wasn’t there for us both and—I just couldn’t face what was coming. It was a chance to do my life right. Do my career right... And—I wanted to see you off. Say goodbye. As Zach. Least I could do.”

“So guilt brought you to me. Visiting me in the hospice. Pretending to be Zach.” Len squeezed his eyes shut, and opened them again, trying to clear his vision. Those leaping black dots leapt away, and back again. “Was it maybe a little penitence, dad? Punishing yourself? You were going to just let me die. I might have said okay, anyhow, if you’d talked to me about it, asked if I minded you getting the treatment and not me...”

“I couldn’t talk about it. We’re all sworn to secrecy. The whole thing is...not quite legal. It’s unlicensed, and it’s just a big, fat secret. If people knew, in a crowded world....and—Len—the process is unbelievably expensive. Astronomical. A billion for most people. I had to use every last dollar...”

“And when you woke up—there still wasn’t quite enough money. You found out Anne was here...and you played her...” Len gazed in dull amazement at his father.

Barry Winniver nodded. “I didn’t have the whole fee, but...I thought she might help me...She got me the suspension and...”

Len looked at her with a sudden shock. “You’ve had the treatment too...”

She shrugged, wiping away tears. “Only one stage. I’m not fully rejuvenated. The company won’t let us do stage two without paying. I can age normally from here but—if I wanted to be any younger...physically younger...there’s stage three—it’s got to be done right. Or you don’t stay that young for long. Your dad needed to finish that one, Len—and you interrupted it! You can go one stage without a second but if you do two stages...” She fluttered her hands. “There are risks if you go that far. Big risks.” Her lips buckled. “Len— I really, really thought he was you. I wanted... I just felt...you were the love of my life and you got so distant from me, and you just—let me go. And he seemed so much like you. He acted so much like you, but...nicer.”

“He acted.” The room was spinning, faster and faster. “Oh God. Dad—you seduced her! You—”

The door to the hall clicked, and swung inward, and two big, heavily armed men in private security uniforms came in, one of them looking like he was from Tonga, the other one palely blond and tanned. “That’s him, Charlie,” the Tongan said. “From the roof.”

The cloud of black spots was swarming angrily through the room. A buzzing noise became a roar in Len’s ears. He felt profoundly weak. Empty. The black speckles formed into one enormous cloud that consumed the world.

As he fell face down, Len thought, Is this what dying’s like?



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