Aug 2011 26

by Steven-Elliot Altman (SG Member: Steven_Altman)

Our Fiction Friday serialized novel, The Killswitch Review, is a futuristic murder mystery with killer sociopolitical commentary (and some of the best sex scenes we’ve ever read!). Written by bestselling sci-fi author Steven-Elliot Altman (with Diane DeKelb-Rittenhouse), it offers a terrifying postmodern vision in the tradition of Blade Runner and Brave New World

By the year 2156, stem cell therapy has triumphed over aging and disease, extending the human lifespan indefinitely. But only for those who have achieved Conscientious Citizen Status. To combat overpopulation, the U.S. has sealed its borders, instituted compulsory contraception and a strict one child per couple policy for those who are permitted to breed, and made technology-assisted suicide readily available. But in a world where the old can remain vital forever, America’s youth have little hope of prosperity.

Jason Haggerty is an investigator for Black Buttons Inc, the government agency responsible for dispensing personal handheld Kevorkian devices, which afford the only legal form of suicide. An armed “Killswitch” monitors and records a citizen’s final moments — up to the point where they press a button and peacefully die. Post-press review agents — “button collectors” — are dispatched to review and judge these final recordings to rule out foul play.

When three teens stage an illegal public suicide, Haggerty suspects their deaths may have been murders. Now his race is on to uncover proof and prevent a nationwide epidemic of copycat suicides. Trouble is, for the first time in history, an entire generation might just decide they’re better off dead.

(Catch up with the previous installments of Killswitch – see parts ONE, TWO, and THREE – then continue reading after the jump…)



[Previous Chapter / Next Chapter]

Tanner gave them the high sign when they got back to BBI, and reminded Haggerty that a staff report was due upstairs. Haggerty looked at the clock and nodded, keying in his pass code to the mausoleum. The meeting was due to start momentarily. He didn’t really have time for his planned detour to the men’s room to dose a celtrex; lateness was something that was sure to have the Dragon breathing fire at him. Then again, a man about to press didn’t have much to fear from those flames. The meeting could start without him. Haggerty stepped forward, allowing the scanner to pan his retinas, and waited as four sets of interlocking gates disengaged and slid back into the floor and ceiling, revealing a permaglass wall with one narrow concave section forming an access port. Once the hypersteel gates had disappeared, Haggerty glanced back at the control panel, stamping his thumbprint against the flatscreen to turn off the remaining electronic wards, before pulling on the pair of black duratex gloves Elsa handed him. When the system sent the green light clearing him for access, Haggerty took the minthizine cases and biohazard bag from her and stood on the pressure plate in front of the access port. There was just enough room for one person to stand within its circumference. Once in place, the concavity slid open around the access port, effectively bringing Haggerty inside the room while ensuring no one else entered with him. The shield’s permaglass construction ensured that his actions would be observable by any duly assigned witnesses. Originally, two were mandated, usually the on-duty dispatcher, the reviewer’s assistant, or another reviewer. These days, little actual observation was ever done. Tanner didn’t even bother to turn his attention from his own console, though Elsa managed to keep Haggerty in her line of sight even as she headed over to a nearby decontamination sink to wash her hands and run the requisite sterilization protocols on her internal systems.

The discharged KV unit storage room was the highest security area in the building; only state-registered review agents could enter. Somewhere in this same facility a similar room held thousands of brand-new, uncalibrated units — Haggerty had been there once, his first day on the job, when he’d signed for his own — boxes without namescreens housing buttons without printscans. But the mausoleum, with its stone floor and vaulted ceilings, held only discharged black boxes: row after row and shelf after shelf of dead units. T. J. Sovereign, the man who’d designed the first box, had suggested they be recycled. This was quickly vetoed on the grounds that no one wanted a device that had been discharged. In order for it to be safe and unthreatening, it had to be clean, untarnished, sterile — and unique.

Haggerty stepped to the console, uttered the command, and waited for the program to identify his vocal pattern. A few seconds later, a pair of narrow panels slid aside, revealing freshly sterilized containment slots. He deposited the units within — evidence in the unlikely event of future challenge — and watched as the panels automatically sealed shut. Most likely, those seals would never be broken, the units’ evidence never required.

Haggerty headed for the exit sink and coded open the appropriate secure waste container beside it. He dropped the biohazard bag inside, stripped off his gloves and sent them after, then coded the container closed. Though the minthizine cases and duratex gloves made it virtually impossible for him to have picked up a single spore of contamination, he followed protocol, washing his hands once more, then returned to the access port to leave the mausoleum. He stepped from the pressure plate and the mausoleum’s four pairs of gates closed behind him for the last time.

Elsa sat at a console, sorting through data streams. She smiled at him as he made his way out of the storage room.

“I have a staff meeting,” he said.

“I’ll keep myself busy,” she replied.

* * *

“Welcome, Mr. Haggerty,” said Consuela Pitcairn, the division director, referred to in whispers as the Dragon. The sole person at the table not wearing grays, she was dressed in a stylish business suit of pale gold that featured an elegant straight skirt ending demurely at the knee, over a cream-colored synthesilk blouse. She had been with BBI since before Haggerty, and had to be nearing the century mark, but like almost every one else looked no older than thirty. Right now, she also looked annoyed.

Haggerty didn’t bother trying to excuse his lateness. He headed for the only seat available at the large round black onyx table, between Tanner and O’Connell, directly across from the new kid, Corbin, who was chewing one of her irritating cubes of gum. She had been recruited two months ago, after the union complained that three retired agents’ positions had gone unfilled far beyond contractual time limits. Management had successfully argued that there wasn’t enough work for three new agents, but the arbitrator upheld the union’s position that the contract required that at least one job be filled. Thus BBI acquired Corbin to take up the nonexistent slack and Consuela acquired a devoutly loyal agent. Because Corbin was the minimum legal employable age, thirty. This made her two decades younger than the national average for initial employment in any job, let alone this highly sought-after field. No doubt Corbin’s loyalty was also due to the fact that the field still skewed heavily toward the male demographic.

Corbin had smooth, clear skin, short dark hair, and piercing blue eyes Haggerty figured were natural. Like every other Conscientious Citizen, she was good-looking — most would probably say beautiful. But something about her left Haggerty slightly repulsed. She was smart-mouthed, certain she knew more than the experienced agents, much like Haggerty when he first joined BBI. But Corbin was hard, smug, unlikable. Her not so subtle hints that BBI would be better off if she were to take over Haggerty’s position didn’t help to foster a good working relationship, either. Haggerty’s biggest gripe was that Corbin acted as if she were doing everyone a favor by being there, that she was just killing time until something more worthy of her talents came along. Even at his most callow, Haggerty had never done that. Corbin was clearly unhappy about having to attend this meeting, her eyes darting from one object to the next; she was barely able to sit still.

“Clean presses, I assume?” Consuela said as Haggerty took his seat.

He nodded.

“Good,” she said. “Let’s get started then. Most of you know that pressage is markedly down these past few months, following a pattern that’s been growing for several years.” She smiled provocatively. “Which means some of you may be advantageously positioned for early retirement.”

Haggerty could feel Corbin’s too-blue eyes burn into his flesh. That meant Haggerty’s name was probably on the list. In most industries, the youngest employees were the first to be cut during lean times, but like the police, BBI agents suffered high burnout rates, which worked in favor of younger colleagues. No matter. She could have his job tomorrow.

“With full pension and continued benefits, of course,” Consuela went on. “BBI doesn’t forget its own.”

Tanner leaned in to whisper, “We’d benefit more from her early retirement.”

“Fat chance,” O’Connell whispered back, past Haggerty.

“I realize you’re all in perfect physical condition,” Consuela said calmly, attributing the murmuring to a mix of excitement and apprehension about her news, “but I’m calling for psychevals on each of you later this afternoon. You’ll go down alphabetically.”

“So sayeth the Dragon,” Tanner echoed, loud enough for Haggerty to overhear. Corbin’s eyes continued to target him. Haggerty gave her a thin smile. Relax, kid, you won’t have to wait much longer for my post.

“Are there any questions? Gupta?” Raj Gupta, the only person with more seniority than Haggerty, shook his head no. “O’Connell?” Another head shake. “What about you, Haggerty?”

“Nothing immediate comes to mind,” he said, leaning back in his chair and scratching his neck. “I’ll digest what you’ve told us. Maybe later I’ll have questions.”

Corbin’s eyes narrowed slightly. Was Haggerty willing to fade away quietly, without a fuss? He smiled at her, amused when she scowled back. He was tempted to make up something, just to yank Corbin’s chain, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

No one else had questions. The rest of the meeting was routine reporting of clean presses by mature clients — mature being defined as having reached the century mark.

An hour later, Haggerty found himself in a chair under psycheval by someone who probably knew more about him than any test could ever reveal. But conducting the evaluation was part of his job, and Haggerty knew that Doug Zabrowski never slacked off. Though that didn’t mean he liked running evaluations on his friends. His incessantly puffing on a cigalite was a clear sign he was distressed. Doug only smoked when something was bothering him.

“In my day, those things would have done serious damage to your lungs, Doug,” Haggerty said.

“In your day, anyone taking the equivalent of what you take in celtrex would be on suspension until he’d completed a detox program,” Doug retorted.

Doug Zabrowski was living proof that there was only so much plastiche could achieve. He was as good-looking as everyone else, and every bit as youthful, but there was something worn about him, something tired and solemn that caused him to close in on himself, pinching his attractive features and making them ever so slightly less so. The smoking, at least in Haggerty’s opinion, didn’t help, a fact of which he’d tried to warn his friend, off and on for the past fifty years.

Doug saw it differently. “Cigalites are safe enough for a baby, Jason, and you know it,” he said, fiddling with his setup programs.

He was right, of course. Tobacco had been detoxified decades ago, its natural poisons genetically engineered out of existence. And even had they not been, Haggerty understood that the lungs of a fully geno-immunized body could easily tolerate the abuse, and the annual stem-cell therapy all Conscientious Citizens underwent would repair any tissue damage. In the rare instance where deterioration occurred, there was always the option of having an afflicted organ regrown. No one found smoking offensive these days, whereas Haggerty’s prescription for celtrex had raised the eyebrow of his pharmacist on more than one occasion — which struck Haggerty as exceedingly unfair.

“It’s not as if I’m dosing on something recreational,” he said, unpleasant images of Tanner at his worst coming to mind. “Everyone who’s had stem therapy takes celtrex.”

“Not in the doses you use,” Doug said. “It’s meant as a telemor maintenance drug, not a sedative.”

“I don’t use it as a sedative,” Haggerty protested. “If anything, just the opposite. It clears my mind, helps me focus, stay keen. It takes the edge off.”

“Listen to yourself,” Doug said as he adjusted dials with perhaps a shade more vigor than required. “If something is taking the edge off, by definition it’s making you less keen, not more so. You think you’re focusing and clearing your mind, but what you’re really doing is pacifying yourself. Your mind doesn’t clear, it becomes dull, latching on to the first solution that presents itself and clinging to it, whether it’s the best solution or not.”

“It helps me get the job done,” Haggerty persisted.

“Really? Look, Jason, the fact is we’re not designed to live forever. The things we do to ourselves, to extend our lives beyond what our healthiest ancestors could ever have dreamed of, aren’t natural. Our bodies know that, try as we might to fool them.”

“You’ve lost me,” Haggerty said.

“I may have lost myself,” Doug said ruefully. “What I’m getting at is, your reaction to celtrex, the way you’re abusing it — ” He held up a hand to stop Haggerty’s protest. “I think your body may be resisting the artificial attempt to make it live longer. Your need for celtrex may be tied to an instinct to die, to make room for the next generation, continue the life of the species rather than the life of the individual.”

Haggerty had never heard this particular theory before.

“You think celtrex is making me suicidal?”

“I think maybe it’s exacerbating something in the telemor treatments that your body is rebelling against.”

“Is that possible?” Haggerty asked.

“Oh, Jason, my friend,” Doug smirked. “The more science learns about the body and the brain, the more we realize we don’t know.”

Doug grunted satisfaction as the last setup program flashed ready. He threw a switch. An inkblot engulfed the room.

“Tell me what you see in this image.”

Haggerty got up and walked around the black, flowing globules.

“This part looks like an old steamship,” he observed. “Those globs look like buoys. The centerpiece seems like a giant spider, spinning . . .”

Haggerty knew each word was being recorded, analyzed by patterns of semantics and symbol, each syllable and pause and inflection compared to the dozen other times he’d taken this test. There was no way to cheat. The machine would detect that he was stressed. It might even factor in the significance this date held for him. The results would get sent upstairs; he’d never see them.

Apparently, some results didn’t take long to analyze. Haggerty watched with interest as Doug consulted his screen and sat back.

“Anything interesting?”

“Nothing I hadn’t already figured out,” Doug said. “But I had hoped . . .”

“What’s the bad news, Doc?” Not that it mattered. Haggerty wondered if Doug knew. Maybe that was why he’d invited Haggerty to dinner this evening with himself and Mandy, remembering the anniversary, figuring he’d help Haggerty get through the day. But Haggerty had declined the invitation, and Doug was enough of a friend to understand that some things couldn’t be helped — and enough of a friend to dislike his own helplessness.

“You know what the bad news is,” Doug said quietly. “I could see it in your eyes when you turned me down for dinner. You used to beg me to invite you over for Mandy’s famous cream cheese cakes.”

“Doug. . . .”

“That isn’t all,” he went on brusquely. “The other bit of bad news the analysis has come up with . . .” He looked at the reading again, and Haggerty was surprised to see a smile break out on his face. “Well, maybe it isn’t bad news, although I’m sure you’ll consider it a disaster.”

“What is it?” Haggerty said sourly.

“Your response arc to the celtrex is baseline lethargic.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means that your body is no longer responding to the higher dosage. You’d get the same therapeutic effect, as far as telemor maintenance properties go, from a smaller dose.”

Haggerty frowned. It didn’t matter a damn. But the surest way to rouse Doug’s suspicions and subject himself to a well-meaning, futile attempt at intervention was to let this go without protest.

“That can’t be right, Doug,” he said, making the argument he would have made had he not intended to press. “I feel the difference with the higher dose. I don’t know why the analysis says it isn’t working. I guarantee that it is.”

“Jason, old boy, you are in no condition to guarantee a damned thing. Not according to these readings. Trust me on this.” Doug was clearly enjoying himself. “The higher dose isn’t helping. It might even be making things worse. I’m decreasing your dosage of celtrex.”

Haggerty shook his head. When he recorded his press tonight, he’d have to remember to include an apology to Doug. “Trying to counter my instinct to die?” he said, knowing that in his case, the instinct was too deeply ingrained to be negated.

Doug didn’t know that, though. He flashed Haggerty a wicked grin.

“God, I hope so.”

* * *

Excerpt from The Killswitch Review, published by Yard Dog Press. Copyright 2011 Steven-Elliot Altman.

Steven-Elliot Altman is a bestselling author, screenwriter, and videogame developer. He won multiple awards for his online role playing game, 9Dragons. His novels include Captain America is Dead, Zen in the Art of Slaying Vampires, Batman: Fear Itself, Batman: Infinite Mirror, The Killswitch Review, The Irregulars, and Deprivers. His writing has been compared to that of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton and Philip K. Dick, and he has collaborated with world class writers such as Neil Gaiman, Michael Reaves, Harry Turtledove and Dr. Janet Asimov. He’s also the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology The Touch, and a contributor to Shadows Over Baker Street, a Hugo Award winning anthology of Sherlock Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft stories.

Steven also bares ink on his body, and is bi, as in bi-coastal, between NYC and LA. He’s currently hard at work writing and directing his latest videogame Cursed Love, an online free to play gothic horror RPG from Dark Hermit Studios, set in Victorian London. Think Sherlock Holmes, Jack The Ripper and Dorian Gray mercilessly exploit the cast of Twilight. Friend Cursed Love (Official Closed Beta) on facebook and you can have fun playing out this tawdry, tragic romance with Steven while the game is being beta tested!

Diane DeKelb-Rittehouse spent several years in Manhattan as an actress before marrying her college sweetheart and returning to the Philadelphia area where she had been born. Diane first worked with Steven-Elliot Altman when they created the acclaimed, Publisher’s Weekly Starred-Review anthology The Touch: Epidemic of the Millennium, in which her story “Gifted” appeared. Diane has published a number of critically acclaimed short stories, most notably in the science fiction, murder, and horror genres. Her young adult fantasy novel, Fareie Rings: The Book of Forests, is now available in stores or online.

Interested in buying a printed copy of The Killswitch Review? Well, Steve’s publisher Yard Dog Press was kind enough to put up a special page where SuicideGirls can get a special discount and watch a sexy trailer. Just follow this link to and click on the SG logo.

* * *
Related Posts:
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter One
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter One, Part Two
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter One, Part Three
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Two, Part One