Tuesday, April 3, 2012


© 2012 by John Shirley

Jensen Genetics was a sprawling ten story building in Century City, made mostly of translucent panels that showed only human silhouettes inside, up to the ninth floor. The tenth floor, though glassy, was entirely opaque. Shadows of people moved about the first nine floors. Len watched from across the street as Zach and Anne joined the shadows, vanishing into their translucent box, quickly indistinguishable from the other shades. The obese were few now—everyone was about the same shape, except for height and voluptuousness. Anne didn’t bother with breast enhancement. Her sensuality was somehow always exactly modulated, at one with her intelligence. He saw her, in his mind’s eye, a young woman...

I’m living in the past. That was so long ago. He was getting all mixed up about then and now. Not a good sign.

And Len was tired. He’d have to risk another energizer, if he was going to continue with this. He took the little prescription vial out of a medical panel on the side of the cruiser, lifted his visor, drank the citrusy fluid down. He felt lighter, more optimistic, almost immediately. But then came a heaviness in his chest, an attenuated streak of pain in his left arm. Just a warning—his heart was laboring to keep up with the designer stimulants.

What of it? Suppose he did die, bopping around in his cruiser? Wasn’t that better than gasping goodbye to some stranger in the cotton-lined box of a hospice room?

No turning back, Len. He directed the elder cruiser up to the front door. It opened for him and he rolled inside.

The lobby had been some architect’s experiment with unsymmetrical angles; it reminded him of “the crazy-walls room” of a funhouse he’d been in as a boy. Which he hadn’t thought about in years. Another descent into the past...

To his surprise, a living person was sitting at the reception desk. A stocky black man in a security guard’s uniform, a pleasant expression. “Help you, sir?”

“A real person, at the Jensen front desk,” Len said, rolling nearer. “Classy.”

“I’m as real as they come, sir.”

“As real as they come. We won’t digress into the ambiguity of that. I’d like to see Anne Feldman...”

“You have an appointment, sir?”

“Not exactly.”

The security guard grunted doubtfully. “I can call up, but she’s in Research and when they’re in Research they pretty much don’t see anybody outside the department. Your name, sir?”

Len opened his mouth to tell him—then closed it again. He’d been clandestine till now. If she was with Zach, she’d mention it to him. This is weird, my ex is downstairs, I haven’t seen him for years. And Zack would have a chance to smokescreen whatever he was up to.

More senescent paranoia. Dramatizing. He should go back to the hospice and get some rest. Len said, “I’ll just call her. See you later, ‘real deal’.”

The guard smirked—just a flicker of that, Poor confused old character look. “Yes, sir. Later on.”

Len wheeled around, glanced at the directory on the wall. RESEARCH was on the tenth floor. Naturally that was the opaque one.

He trundled out the door, down the street, still feeling energized, renewed, more alive than he had in years. Tempted to get out of the elder cruiser and walk around. He wasn’t supposed to walk more than a few feet except with the physical therapists. Too dangerous, they said. And he was slow and stiff and brittle. Maybe fall over and break something. He’d had his bones re-knit a few years ago but he’d probably lost calcium since then...Old age is absurd, he thought. Why did nature bother with it? Why the slow fade? Why didn’t the rose simply drop its petals all in one instant?

He looked up at a soft droning sound from overhead—and saw a group of Asian tourists flying over in a convertible Casimir Car. The car drove itself, whipping by, the tourists waving, probably on their way to look at the sunken city of Santa Monica...

More than an hour getting the private Casimir tour car, setting up his elder cruiser in the back of the vehicle. Zach might’ve left Jensen by now. The tourist grid guided the sleek, glossy white, wheelless car about two hundred feet over Santa Monica Boulevard, heading west at a moderate speed. The convertible was open; the wind fluttered Len’s thin gray hair. It was chilly up here—he enjoyed that. They were protected from temperature variations in the hospice.

He was distantly aware of the car’s telenet chattering. “The Army Corps of Engineers denies that the dike around Manhattan is likely to break in the coming New York monsoons...” The city unreeled slowly beneath him and he thought: Going to need another energizer soon. It might kill you. Yeah, what’s your point? Got to die somewhere. Might be a good thing to check out floating above the city, the car carrying his dead body slowly over Los Angeles. Finally running low on power, settling in some random place on the tourist grid. Perhaps on Hollywood Boulevard, where his dad had a star on the sidewalk...

“On your left,” said the car, “is Jensen Genetics...ahead on the right—”

“Slow down!” he told the car. “Independent course...” He was restricted on how far he could take the vehicle off the pre-set tourist grid—the manual said it would divert only two hundred yards. “Uh....north, due north...now a few degrees east...slow down...very slow...”

The car turned, edged over to the roof of the Jensen building. He saw no surveillance cameras on the roof, but they could be there; hard to tell with all the solar panels, the glare off the spray-metal roofing, and some sort of air conditioning unit bulking in the center of the roof. “Due south, two miles per hour,” he told the car. It obediently drifted slowly south, bobbing a little on its cushion of Casimir force as it sensed the resistance of the roof about eight feet below. “Good. Right here—set down on the roof.”

“I’m sorry, that is against the rules of the rental,” the car told him, its voice human and friendly and reasonable.

Hell. You couldn’t argue with them. “Can we get lower?”

“That is against the...”

“Okay, okay—we’ll just pass slowly over the roof...keep going.” The door of the car wouldn’t open high above the street—but it might mistake a roof for the ground.

Len clicked off the restraint holding his cruiser in place, and looked over the side. The car was passing over the external air conditioning unit. His heart was thudding painfully. His hands felt numb. You senile old dope. Don’t do it. You’ll be a laughing stock, if you live...or if you don’t. He hesitated, licking his peeling lips...

On the dashboard telenet, a small 3D figure gestured from a podium. “Mark Bloomberg, the new, fresh-faced mayor of New York City, a young man who is closely related to the Michael Bloomberg who was mayor at the start of the 21st Century...

No more stalling. Do it or get out of here.

He thumbed the elder cruiser onto manual, opened the car door, and pressed forward. The cruiser whirred, as if anxious, but obediently rolled out of the car—falling for a split second, clanging onto the top of the big boxy air conditioning unit—a bone-rattling thump. His jaws clacked painfully together, his back whiplashed in the cruiser. But it stayed upright on the air conditioner box.

The car drifted on, murmuring about unauthorized exits, seeking a parking space. His elder cruiser wobbled in place. The air conditioner had a slanting duct on one side, angling like a ramp down into the building. But damned steep... and he was rolling very slowly toward it. He thought of telling the cruiser to stop. But then what? Stay up here till someone found him?

The edge came closer and he saw way down was steeper than he’d thought. This wasn’t going to work. This—The cruiser tipped over forward, the metal-sheathed roof rushed up at him.

Couldn’t have been unconscious more than a few moments, really. Could he? Painfully lifting his head, Len made out that he was still in the cruiser, lying face down on the roof—but tilted, the back of the cruiser still partly on the air conditioner.

His nose was bleeding. He could taste the blood.

The cruiser could straighten up from horizontal—but not angled this way, with its wheels higher than his head. Too much weight pushing downward. He was going to have to get out. He looked for the flying car—couldn’t see it. The car would report “misuse” and they’d be out looking for him. Laughingstock.

“Cruiser, open up.” No response. Then he remembered it was on manual. He felt along the chassis, found the tab, clicked it over to responsive. “Cruiser, open up!” Something clicked, and loosened around his middle. He reached out, grabbed a bit of vertical vent piping, and pulled himself forward. “Shit!” The movement hurt like a son of a bitch. He hoped he hadn’t smashed a disk. He was pretty sure his insurance wouldn’t cover this.

He laughed, and winced at the pain of laughing, and kept inching forward. Pulling up onto his elbows, doing a feeble push-up, dragging his legs out of the cruiser, getting to his knees, pausing to rest.

The pain throbbed, reverberating in his joints. But no bones were broken or he’d never have gotten this far.

Feeling dizzy, Len took a deep breath, and the dizziness cleared. He crept around on his hands and knees to the cruiser, and got a grip on it, used it to lever himself up, just managing to stand. Only one groan escaped him as he stood there, trembling on his wobbly legs. He’d really let himself go. Eighty-seven was supposed to be the new sixty or something, wasn’t it? But with the toxic load of his generation, lots of elderly people were barely maintaining...

He found himself swung about in another wave of dizziness. He steadied himself against the whirlpool tug of vertigo. The pain was mostly in his neck. Odd how the twinge almost seemed to support him—as if it were keeping him awake.

“Okay, cruiser. Let’s see if you’re broken,” he told it. “Restore to vertical.”

“Everyone nearby stand clear,” it said.

A panel opened in its front section; its wheels shifted and locked. It extruded a strut, did its own pushup, then jerked upright. The panel closed; the front section hummed invitingly open. He eased himself into it, and reached for the medicine...

Thinking: Suppose there’s no door into the building from up here?

But there was.

The cruiser could go down stairs, the articulated wheels doing a lock-and-walk. But at the bottom of the stairs, it stopped, flummoxed by the small space. The door handle was to his left, not easily in reach. The cruiser couldn’t turn in this cramped space—nor could this model turn a doorknob.

Len nearly pulled his left arm from its socket, straining out to twist the handle, but at last got the door open, and the cruiser drove into the warm, carpeted hallway of the tenth floor. He felt light-headed from the painkillers, and it was a good thing he wasn’t having to drive the cruiser himself. It smelled of raw chemicals in here, and something else; something mysteriously organic. This would be the top floor—and that’s where Research was. A door on the left was marked only 1023. He heard faint voices from the other side—couldn’t make out what they said.

He stopped at the door, pushed at it. Locked. There was no knob on the door—there was a badge scanner, and a combination pad. He had neither badge nor combination...

“I don’t know, just some kind of alert from the roof,” someone said, down the blank white hall.

“Crap,” Len muttered, under his breath. He drove the cruiser to another door across from the lab, this one with a knob. It opened—it was a large, long utility closet. He rolled in, closed the door behind him, was suddenly in deep darkness. In a closet...

If Mahela could see me now, he thought, he’d put me in advanced dementia watch.

Footsteps were barely audible on the carpet outside the door. He sat there, breathing hard, suddenly very much aware that his vertigo was back, and the aches were still there, just muted. The darkness seemed to thicken and whirl around him. His stomach twitched.

“Door to the roof’s open...” came a voice from the hall.

“So we’ll check up there.”

He waited a full minute, then said, “Night lights.” The lights on his elder cruiser came on, near the floor. The long rectangular closet was empty—no, there was something in the shadows off to his right. After a moment his adjusting eyes delineated a janitor bot. It was outdated, bulky, shaped like a saltshaker, with a cluster of clumsy jointed metal arms—prompting another memory from his childhood—some wicked television robot. Not exactly but...almost.

He could just make out the brand name on the bottom. Grist Industries. Outdated tech—someone was cutting corners at Jansen. Basically the same bot they’d had doing basic maintenance at Vertical when he’d retired.

The same? He muttered to the cruiser, rolled over to the bot. He said, “Janitor: activate, maintenance.”

No response. He reached around the janitor’s back. There it was—he flicked the switch, and a diode winked on like a green star on the front of the bot. A fuzzy, plainly artificial voice—very out-of-date indeed—said, “Un-scheduled wo-ork?”

“Yes,” he said. “Room ten-twenty-three needs maintenance.”

“There is an ob-struct-ion.”

“That would be me. You’re not the only one who thinks so. Cruiser—back up, wait till I open the door, then into the hall.”

The cruiser backed up to the door, he opened it and rolled through, looking for the security guards. No one there. The janitor followed, then rolled briskly past him to Room 1023, and made a humming sound within itself. The door clicked, and swung open.

Len just managed to follow the janitor into Research 1023 before the door shut.

As he entered the lab, looking around at the arcane equipment, he felt dreamlike, surveying the murmuring consoles, the colorful DNA-decodes unfurling in holotanks, brushed steel panels holding up what seemed milkily-transparent, high-tech sarcophagi—deliberately styled to be reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture.

There was an adjoining lab room, the door standing open; someone, just out of sight, was humming a vague tune in there. Didn’t he know that tune? Wasn’t it Trust me, Always Trust Me, by “The Whispers”? Anne had loved that band.

Len put his cruiser on manual, and rolled it slowly, very slowly, toward that open door.

He got close enough to see Anne, in a long white lab coat, her back to him, standing about four yards away, close beside another semi-transparent sarcophagus, fingers fluttering over a small workstation; alternating between a keyboard and flicking her hands in the air over its sensors to move blocks of data.

He could see through the slightly glazed, transparent material of the sarcophagus-like container. A man lay naked in it, stretched out on his back, apparently unconscious. The man was his grand-nephew. Or the person who claimed to be his grand-nephew. The man calling himself Zachary Winniver.

The family resemblance was stronger than ever. It made him shiver. Too much like seeing himself in a coffin.

Cloning, maybe? And was “Zach” his clone?


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