Aug 2011 05

by Steven-Elliot Altman (SG Member: Steven_Altman)

Our new 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.

In the year 2156, stem cell therapy has triumphed over all forms of disease, extending the human lifespan indefinitely. Americans who have been granted Conscientious Citizen status now live healthy, youthful lives well beyond the century mark.

To combat overpopulation and depletion of resources, America has sealed her borders and instituted strict measures of birth and death control. Families are now restricted to one child per couple, and the leading cause of death in the U.S. has become technology-assisted suicide.

BLACK BUTTONS, INC. is the government authority responsible for dispensing Kevorkian units — handheld 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.



[Next Chapter]

Haggerty had his finger on the button. The black onyx set in the gunmetal casing felt cool beneath his touch. There were millions of registered buttons just like it, hundreds of millions, in fact. No one knew that better than he did, but this one was his, tailor-made. His name glowed across its base: JASON P. HAGGERTY.

He looked around the living room of his spacious compartment, remembering the pride and excitement with which he had made every acquisition it held. His plasma dome viewscreen cost more than most people made in a decade. The glass-topped bar was stocked with premium liquors, not cheap bar brands. A replitext that could become any book he’d ever read or ever wanted to read rested on an elegant simumarble pedestal. Those were just the most obvious of the niceties of life he had been afforded. He called the outer wall into full transparency mode. It cleared instantly, revealing the cityscape outside: close-packed stalk-like buildings stretching to the blazing blue sky dappled with wisps of clouds above distant snow-capped mountains. That view had been the main reason he chose to live here. All these luxuries, so casually on display, never failed to impress the few friends he kept or the even fewer women he’d brought here since Lorraine had left him. The pain that came with his job had once seemed a small price to pay for such wealth. No longer. The compartment and everything it held was too big, too luxurious. Too empty.

All week long he’d contemplated the act. He planned on pressing around midnight. There was a certain poetry to a midnight press on a Saturday night, a certain feeling of closure, pressing as the week ended, before a new one could start. He’d always been a man who saw things through to the end, no matter how difficult the task. He’d worked to be a true Conscientious Citizen, someone who made a positive contribution to society, who unfailingly honored his commitments, who promptly and thoroughly discharged his obligations, and who brought all his skill and ability to his chosen profession. If he were still that man, he’d be getting into his uniform and preparing for his final shift, making sure that when he pressed, he left no loose ends for someone else to clean up. Instead, his finger was on the button, fifteen hours early.

It would take so little, just a light push, to gain release. Why wait? It was unlikely anything earth-shattering would require his presence at work today. Black Buttons, Inc. could manage without him. Haggerty could barely recall the last time a Kevorkian unit had been tampered with, or a press coerced. These days there were no surprises in the reviews he conducted, rendering them largely a formality. Let his successor deal with the unclosed files in his office. No fortunes would be reversed, no futures altered. The outcome of no case would be affected by his passing.

Nor would any thing outside of work. Or anyone. He had no family left, and most of his friends had drifted away long ago. Only two remained who might regret his passing. Doug, the company doctor, who’d likely be pissed as hell, and Elsa, Haggerty’s personal assistant. He didn’t know how she would react. He wasn’t sure she was capable of comprehending the depth of the loss he’d suffered, or to feel loss herself. Any regrets she had would likely center around not having noticed what he was about to do and not acting to stop him. But Elsa would not wallow in self-recrimination or prolonged grief. Most likely she would pragmatically accept that there was nothing she could do to change things and move on to serve whichever reviewer was next in line for a new assistant. Haggerty had no final words for her or for Doug, nothing that mattered enough to say. All his affairs were in order, and if the only duty left to him was to rubberstamp some paperwork, well, that was one obligation his successor at BBI could discharge.

So easy, he thought. The cool metal drew heat from his finger — that exchange seemed reasonable. He could trade the inertia of routine for the act of pressing, trade the anesthetizing drug of work, duty, and obligation for the anesthetic spray on his thumb, the unfelt injection of tailored toxin that would deaden his pain centers as life drained from his body.

A fine tremor ran through his hands. He sat back, letting go of the unit. He felt old, tired, done.

He reached for his button once more. Just one push, he thought, one tiny exertion of pressure and it would be over — much as his father must have thought a year earlier, Haggerty suspected, as his thumb tensed on the trigger of the registered antique, double-barrel shotgun illegally restored to working order. Haggerty drew a deep breath and flipped the ARM switch.

“Recording,” announced the soft feminine electronic voice he’d selected years ago from a dozen options. “Eighth March, Twenty-one-fifty-six, oh-nine twenty-four.” The pale amber light he’d chosen came on beneath the button.

It was customary to say something. But nothing came to mind—no Forgive me or Not without you or Since I am ruined or Just done it all like he’d seen in so many reviews. So he merely said, “Enough . . . it’s been enough,” wondering who the agency would send to do the post-press, hoping it wasn’t Corbin. The Dragon owed him that much, at least.

A bead of sweat made its way through his hairline and down, stinging, into one eye. The climate control system silently switched on, no doubt registering his rise in body temperature, pumping cool air. His compartment was more alive than he was. Haggerty circled the button with the tip of his middle finger with hesitant tenderness, like a man exploring the nipple of a new lover, certain now. He couldn’t stand to face another day. He stared at his unit, ready to press.

The phone chimed an incoming call.

“Damn it!” he grunted, laughing mirthlessly. “Answer, visual off!” he barked, and disarmed his KV unit.

A small, clear light appeared in the air a few feet in front of him, began spinning fast, acquiring color, depth, texture, expanding outward until a life-size holographic representation of Elsa floated in the center of his living room.

“I’m downstairs, Jason,” she said. “Why is your visual off?”

“I’m naked,” Haggerty lied, stowing his KV unit in the drawer of an end table. “Still interested in seeing me?”

“Do you want me to see you?” she asked with polite disinterest.

Elsa was dressed in regulation BBI grays. The jumpsuit, though neither fashionable nor flattering, did little to hide her physical perfection. When she’d first been assigned to him, Haggerty had been married only fifteen years, and Lorraine had teased him, claiming to be jealous of his beautiful, supportive, fiercely loyal assistant. After all, flesh was flesh, and most reviewers did end up taking their assistants to bed, Haggerty included. But that was before Lorraine, and no matter how adult Elsa looked, she reminded him of a child.

“I thought you might like to ride to work together,” she said. Meaning she had concluded that his behavior over the last few days was worrisome, and she wanted to keep an eye on him.

“Go in without me,” Haggerty said. “I’m debating calling in sick.”

“Are you seriously ill, Jason?” Elsa asked. “What sort of symptoms are you — You’d better let me come up immediately.”

“Wait there, I’ll be down in five,” Haggerty said. He snapped off the connection, glanced at the end table drawer and headed for the master bathroom just off his bedroom. The lights flared awake as he entered. “Cold,” he said, and the basin tap came on.

Haggerty popped open his pillcase and extracted a celtrex. The translucent, faint green gelcap sat in the palm of his hand like a drop of seawater. Sometimes he wished it were more than a drop, wished it were enough to drown his sorrows. He reached into a cabinet for a disposable cup. His hand came into contact with something soft. He frowned, pulled out the unexpected object, then froze, staring down at one of the bejeweled fabric ribbons Lorraine had used to tie back her long black hair. How had this one escaped his notice? He’d thought he got rid of them all. Haggerty lifted the ribbon slowly to his face. It was still there, ever so faint, the scent of jasmine and Lorraine.

He gripped the sink, closed his eyes, got himself enough under control to put the scrap of cloth back into the cabinet and grab for a cup. He filled it with water and swallowed the pill, calming instantly — a psychological reaction; it would be three or four minutes before the drug could do the job it was intended for, if not the job he needed done. He bent over the sink, splashed his face, then stared into the mirror and waited for the celtrex to take effect.

The mirror continued to lie, proclaiming him to be exactly as he had appeared on his thirtieth birthday, sixty years ago. His hair was still dark, his chin still cleft, still the most notable feature in what might be called a boyishly attractive face. Only his gray eyes revealed the truth: Haggerty had seen too damned much, too damned often. His eyes would always be haunted.

It appeared that he would be discharging his final obligations, after all. Maybe he should request that as his epitaph: A Conscientious Citizen to the End. With another mirthless laugh, Haggerty left the bathroom, pulled on his uniform, slid his pillcase into a pocket, grabbed his com from where he’d left it on the nightstand, and headed out for what he decided would be his last day of work.

* * *
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, Part Two