Aug 2011 12

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 first installment of Killswitch, then continue reading after the jump…)



[Previous Chapter / Next Chapter]

Elsa waited patiently in the lobby. She was exquisitely beautiful, in a way that had gone out of fashion at least fifty years before. Petite and curvaceous blue-eyed blondes with what had once been called “classic” features were the goddesses of a bygone day. Now the rage was for cream-skinned brunettes standing a minimum of five-feet-ten, with the lean lines of well-bred greyhounds. Still, of the dozen people passing through the lobby, not one failed to look at Elsa just a bit longer than was polite.

Haggerty suggested they use the Ojai beltway. It took a little longer than the superbelts but was more scenic and a lot less jammed at this hour (which, at this time of day in a city the size of NewVada, simply meant that it wasn’t standing-room-only with people packed six deep).

Elsa cocked her head. “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable driving?” she said. “Air quality and visibility are both very good this morning, but the heat index is above normal for this time of year.”

“I’m not getting behind the wheel of a car,” Haggerty said. “Not today.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” she conceded. “I am aware of the date, Jason. You shouldn’t…”

“Let it go, Elsa,” Haggerty said firmly, knowing she had no choice. Nodding acquiescence, she followed him outside.

Despite the cooling fabric of his regulation grays — a nonthreatening, neutral color meant to reassure adjusters and surviving next of kin present at press sites — the heat of the city slammed into him as soon as the door opened, before he’d crossed the threshold. Used to its impact, Haggerty kept moving. Elsa was enviably unaffected, her smooth skin unmarred by perspiration, her long blonde hair untouched by anything so vulgar as sweat.

The street outside Haggerty’s complex was packed with thousands of lower-status citizens on their daily commute, who had to use public transport. Haggerty and Elsa fell in step among them and were jostled along by the slowly moving crowd. In less than ten minutes they reached the silvery column of hypersteel that would transport them to the beltplatform. They tubed up and quickly made their way to the on-loops, moving forward with the crowd to the entrance turnstiles. Most people used their thumbprints for access, though a few individuals scanned voucher strips or identiplates to charge the cost of transportation to a corporation or government agency, rather than to their individual private accounts as happened with thumbprints. Someone had been pulled aside by security, drawing the attention of passers-by; the lines to the turnstiles nearest the altercation slowed as people turned to gawk. A guard frowned intently at the strip of plasticine that a slightly paunchy, gray-haired man had tried to feed into the system. Outside the immigrant enclaves or the Vegas Black Light district, it was rare to see an adult whose true age was so painfully obvious. The man, clearly not a Conscientious Citizen, spoke slowly, his English awkward and not easily intelligible as he tried to convince the guard that his employer had given him the voucher to run an errand. The guard wasn’t buying his story.

The line at Turnstile Number Three is moving quickly. Elsa’s words projected into Haggerty’s mind via a neural transmitter link implanted at the base of his skull. The link, allowing review agents and their assistants to communicate silently within a hundred yards of each other, to hold private conversations in public situations, had once been a closely guarded industry secret, a crucial factor in BBI’s, and Haggerty’s, success. Now, it mainly helped him avoid traffic jams and social faux pas. Elsa sent another message: There’s a pylon obscuring the view of what’s going on here, so there’s no rubbernecking beyond it.

Let’s go, then, he linked back, moving toward the line Elsa had indicated. He flashed his BBI identiplate at the reader and stepped through the turnstile to the on-loop, Elsa following behind.

The loop fed them quickly onto the Ojai, thousands of feet above ground level, and they were soon being conveyed through the city. The belt was pretty full, but there were a few marginally comfortable bench seats available for those who wanted them. The trip was short enough for Haggerty to prefer standing. Elsa stood quietly beside him as the moving path ushered them along, correctly reading his mood to be that he preferred silence.

Looking over the rail, Haggerty thought he could make out the terminus of the Crutzfield-Jacob Building, but it was too far down to see without lenses. He considered what falling from such a great height might feel like, the rough, hot wind on his face. But a last thrill before termination was not for him, even if he could overcome the programmed safeguards and throw himself over the edge. He was simply admiring the view. Tired as he was of his life, he could still be awed by the cityscape of towers rising from the floor of barren desert to challenge the distant mountains for supremacy.

Until the end of the last century, most of NewVada had been part of California. Politics, and the need to build a city that straddled the old state lines, had redrawn the map. Though Haggerty had a distant memory of when this part of the Nevada/California border had been nothing but miles of scrub, sage, and sand, that memory was hard to reconcile with the current reality. Because that memory was the world of his childhood, when the human body was subject to incurable diseases and the encroaching debilitation of old age. Aggressive funding had fueled stem-cell research, and death from age or illness was relegated to the past, until overpopulation became the most pressing concern facing America and every other industrialized country in the world. The increased demand for living space, coupled with the need to conserve land that could be productively farmed, forced governments to carve cities out of terrain previously deemed uninhabitable.

Now, buildings packed tightly together covered the desert, rising into the clouds, interwoven with massive twelve-lane elevated beltways for those rich enough to afford cars, and, a few stories beneath them, pay-as-you-go pedestrian belts for the masses. The higher up you lived and traveled, the higher your status. All belts circled and offered multiple offramps to Downtown, the heart of the city, which housed most of the city’s government infrastructure: City Hall, Police Headquarters, Central Morgue, and Haggerty’s own agency, BBI. Transfer between belts was possible at any number of junctions, and all of the city’s belts converged at four different locations, North, South, East and West, the beltwheels acting as transfer points so that riders could get anywhere in the city, no matter from which belt they started.

NewVada had been one of the first megapolitan cities built, its twenty-three-million population crammed into a hundred square miles of the hottest land on earth. Temperatures in excess of 130 degrees Fahrenheit were common, at least at ground level. But only those with no other option lived and traveled at ground level: immigrants awaiting Provisional Citizen Status; denizens of the Vegas Black Light District; those on the fringes of society. Most NewVadans rarely had to deal with such extremes, and in theory could go from one climate-controlled environment to another — compartments to transportation to offices, hotels, public buildings or private residences and back again — their entire lives spent without ever experiencing the raw power of the untempered heat suffusing the city around them. Even so, some vital system always broke down or wore out, causing people to swelter uncomfortably for an hour or a day or a month until climate control was restored. Like anything else, if you lived in NewVada long enough, you got used to the heat, or at least enough used to it to take the occasional shortcut out of doors. And after tonight, Haggerty thought as they approached their transfer point off the Ojai, there would be one less person putting out heat.

Haggerty and Elsa merged onto the Northside beltwheel, where practically the entire cityscape came into view: the Northside heavenscrapers, home to the uber-rich, where Haggerty lived; the Westside slums, refuge of the ultra-poor; the Southside, an uneasy blend of those who struggled in between. And the Eastside, dominated by Vegas, the world-renowned Black Light District, the place where one’s monetary status could change for better or worse with a single roll of dice.

A group of teens sporting garish skinpaint and stickjewel artwork on the visible portions of their bodies sped up on airboards to Haggerty and Elsa, surfing several feet above belt level, the hovering boards the latest end-run by Junior Citizens around the law prohibiting those without full CC status from setting foot on privileged belts during rush hour. Legally, the kids couldn’t even apply to be CCs until they were of employment age. Haggerty wasn’t sure how they got past the entrance turnstiles, unless they airboarded from the floor of the terminal to the maintenance catwalks, along those to the overpasses, then dropped a hundred feet to belt level. Just the kind of dangerous, brain-dead stunt typical of JCs. They thought they could come away unscathed from any outrageous stunt. He couldn’t deny that they were skilled as they maneuvered their boards deftly between annoyed CCs without causing accidents. Still, the belt wasn’t wide enough to leave much margin for error; Elsa had to step aside quickly to avoid being hit.

“Sorry,” one of the teens called back in a voice of indeterminate gender.

“Reckless,” Haggerty said as he watched them weave in and around ducking pedestrians, the stickjeweled words CLONE JESUS! flashing on one JC’s bare back.

“What’s Clone Jesus?” he asked Elsa, not bothering to link. “A new religious movement?”

After a moment, she answered, “It’s a band of musicians. They have the number-one song on the current Indranet download charts. Would you like to hear it?”

“No, thanks,” Haggerty said. He didn’t like the music popular with JCs these days. He was happy to let Elsa keep track of such cultural trends, along with all the other bits of trivia she tracked as part of her assigned duties.

A buildingboard-sized cityscreen flashed the morning news as they belted along, repeating a story Haggerty had seen last night depicting dozens of illegal ships off the California coast, filled with hopeful immigrants, fired upon relentlessly by the American Coast Guard. Their tiny boats were no match for the gargantuan U.S. gunships. Those that did not capsize fled back toward the free zone, their dreams of the Promised Land never to become reality. There was simply no room for them here.

“Poor bastards,” Haggerty said to Elsa. “Do they have enough rations for a return trip, or even homes to go back to?”

Elsa considered his question, then shook her head. “Unlikely,” she said softly. “Space is at a premium on the pirate ships smuggling illegals into the country. More cargo means fewer passengers and less profit. When a ship fails to make landfall here, mortality rates increase rapidly after the first few days of the return journey. For those who do make it back to their homelands, there is a very high probability that any property they left behind has already been confiscated.”

Haggerty nodded, not really surprised. He knew that for most illegals, the journey was all or nothing. He could only imagine the sufferings they’d face upon return.

“Keeping America’s borders safe for Americans,” the board stated, and then displayed a five-second advertisement from BBI of a smiling man reclining in a hammock with the latest unit model by his side. “KV. The choice is yours,” the advertisement droned.

Haggerty and Elsa stepped onto the exit belt that would take them to BBI’s platform. Haggerty scanned his identiplate at the gate, which obligingly rose out of their way, and they headed toward the building’s main entrance.

They heard shouting. Haggerty grimaced. Another protest must be underway. The Religious Right had more or less set up a permanent camp on the BBI quad. Maybe a hundred people hoisted flashbanners demanding NATURE FIRST and DISARM YOUR SWITCH! And, inevitably, HEAVEN WON’T TAKE THOSE WHO PRESS!

“Do you want to go around back to avoid them?” Elsa asked.

“Tempting,” Haggerty admitted. “But I’m already running late. Not like we haven’t run the gauntlet before.”

It was, in fact, almost a daily occurrence. They pushed past the protesters with practiced ease, but as they reached the marble archway flanked by six bull-faced guards wearing crash gear and holding multi-burst autostuns, a girl with long, sandy-brown hair rushed to block their path.

“Don’t go in there and fit for a button,” she pleaded. “You don’t need a Killswitch. Life and death are decisions meant for God, not for you!”

Her eyes caught Haggerty, their green depths so earnest he couldn’t simply walk past, as he had walked past a thousand protesters before her. He allowed himself to be stopped, and returned her intense gaze. Judging anyone’s age by physical appearance alone was always dicey. She was wearing the kind of clothing popular among Junior Citizens — loose-fitting pants that started at the hip and ended just below the knee, a half-tee that truncated right beneath her breasts, both in a mossy green that matched her eyes, and the backpack no one but students ever seemed to carry. Skinpainting of a purple iris bloomed on her torso. But Haggerty had long ago trained himself to read more subtle, almost subliminal, signs to figure out how old someone really was. Usually, there were clues — the way people spoke or dressed, the specific films or music or books they enjoyed, the sports playoffs they talked about, the politicians they admired — something that revealed when they’d grown up. No clues were needed now. The girl’s unlined face had a rawness that plastiche would have smoothed away, all the more attractive for its lack of perfection. Haggerty was sure that she wasn’t much older than the twenty or so she appeared.

“I’ll make my own choices, thank you,” he said, not unkindly, and tried to move past her. She mirrored his action, continuing to block the path. He sensed Elsa tensing for action, and hastily sent reassurance across their link.

“Pressing is a mistake,” the girl said vehemently. “And it’s one you can’t fix. There are no second thoughts with a Killswitch.” She all but spat out the derogatory slang for the Kevorkian unit.

She was so young, Haggerty thought. Too young for this much intensity. Then again, maybe only the young could feel so intensely about life anymore. He guessed she had lost someone recently, maybe a parent, someone she wasn’t ready to let go. He might feel pity or compassion, even empathy, for her, but he still had to do his job.

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” he said truthfully. “Now, if you’ll excuse us.”

She remained in their path. Haggerty tried to force his way past her.

The girl grasped his arm. “Don’t do this,” she pleaded.

There was nothing particularly aggressive about the way she’d reached for him. If anything, her hold was tentative, a gesture to get his attention, nothing that could really have prevented him from moving. But her effort did not go down well with security. Elsa grabbed the girl by the wrists as the nearby guards swooped in. Exasperated by everyone’s overreaction, Haggerty raised a hand.

“It’s okay,” he said.

The guards lowered their weapons and at Haggerty’s linked command, Elsa let the girl go.

Haggerty stared her in the eye. The girl returned his gaze with defiance, even pride. But he had the edge on her, the weight of age and grief and the sheer length of time he’d gone on living enabling him to face her down as long as it might take. After a moment, her gaze faltered. Haggerty gave the girl a grim smile and continued walking. Elsa threw her a disapproving look before falling into step behind him.

As they entered the BBI building, the girl came forward once more. “Go ahead, then,” she cried out angrily. “Cough and die if it suits you! Press your Killswitch!”

There was no point in telling her he planned to.

* * *
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.

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Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter One