Sep 2011 30

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 links below – then continue reading after the jump…)



[Previous Chapter / Next Chapter]

“NOOOOOOOO! No, no, no, no, no!

Regina’s screams woke him abruptly. Haggerty threw on his robe and rushed into the living room, catching her as her legs began to buckle.

On the viewscreen Haggerty saw a thin-lipped viewcaster in mid-sentence.

“. . . during a concert where three as yet unidentified teenagers apparently committed simultaneous suicide live on global television.”

On the replay, Clone Jesus strummed their guitars and pounded their syncdrums; Haggerty felt he could touch the bass player’s branded arm, the definition of the telecast was so real. Fireworks erupted off the stage as the song ended. The lead singer came forward and bowed. He was shirtless and, unlike the rest of the band, his blisterbrands were not limited to his arms. Brands were raised along his chest, his back, and his shoulders, and a single weal curved from just beneath his left eye to the corner of his lip. The singer rose up, spread his arms, and signaled backstage.

Two boys and a girl in Clone Jesus jackets, all teenagers looking younger than Regina, rushed to his side. Staring at him in evident adoration, they pulled out three KV units, armed and flashing, and displayed them proudly.

Haggerty caught his breath as Regina wailed and buried her face against his chest.

The crowd went silent as the youths pressed their black buttons in unison, than crumpled to the stage.

The transmission abruptly cut back to the newscaster.

It’s a hoax, Haggerty thought. Dear God, let it just be a hoax.

The chime sounded an incoming call.

“Answer, visual off!” Haggerty barked, muting the telemonitor.

Elsa’s image appeared. She was still in the BBI viewing room.

“Jason,” she said calmly, “we have three lights on board. They appear to originate from the Clone Jesus concert site at Death Valley Commemorative Park.”

Regina’s screams escalated into uncontrollable sobbing. She collapsed to the floor, hands to her face.

“Jason, who is that with you?” Elsa queried.

“Never mind,” he shouted. “Who’s the agent on call?”

“Corbin,” she said. The last name Haggerty wanted to hear. It figured the agent with the least experience would be assigned to cover this potential publicity nightmare.

“Connect me to dispatch,” Haggerty said.

Tanner came on immediately. “Jeez Haggerty, you see that on the news?”

“Listen Mitch,” Haggerty said. “You can’t assign this to someone as inexperienced as Corbin. The agency’s about to get slammed.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Tanner quipped. “You wanna take it? It’s in your jurisdiction and you’ve got seniority. Corbin’s on the other line now, requesting assignment and warrants, but I can’t reach the Dragon.”

Haggerty felt torn. Why now? he thought. He glanced at the black box waiting on his coffee table, then down at Regina’s crumpled form on the floor, moaning at fever pitch. Don’t do it, he thought, pass it on. But the call to duty roared within him.

“I’m on my way,” he said.

But first he had to deal with Regina. Nothing he did or said seemed capable of calming her. She wailed and gasped, struggling for breath. Haggerty managed to get a celtrex down her throat, and carried her back to bed. The drug would soon exhaust her — the enhanced effect on someone who hadn’t gone through the therapy. He murmured something soothing, placed a box of tissues within her reach, and fetched a glass of water for the nightstand as her eyelids fluttered shut. It wouldn’t be good if she woke up alone and panicked, so he bent over and spoke quietly, his tone reluctant.

“I need to leave . . .”

Regina’s eyes flew open, all confidence leached from her expression, and she grabbed his arm. “Don’t!” she cried.

She looked so pale, so vulnerable, so young.

“Just for a little while,” he said soothingly, gently extricating himself. “I shouldn’t be more than an hour. Get some rest. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She closed her eyes and turned her face into the pillow as Haggerty backed quietly out of the room, grabbing his uniform on his way.

Regina’s renewed sobs echoed in his ears. He hated leaving her alone, although he couldn’t imagine why her reaction was so extreme, even given her abhorrence of the black boxes. There had been worse disasters caught on live viewcasts over the years. But if BBI had ever faced a crisis, this was it.

He had to get to the press scene as quickly as possible, and there was only one way to do it. Donning his grays, he ordered his car from the garage.

* * *

“I was beginning to wonder if you forgot you owned a car,” the valet greeted Haggerty cheerfully as he stepped out of the autolift and handed him a tip. “It’s been so long since you’ve used it, I was thinking of offering to buy it from you.”

Apparently he was unaware of the public tragedy that had just unfolded on the airwaves.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Haggerty said pleasantly.

He slugged into his vehicle and powered it on. The thrusters engaged. Firing into the long downgrade sloop that fed into the intercity slotway, he punched the comlink to BBI.

“Elsa, please feed me the coordinates of the triple press and give me any pertinent news commentary.”

“Coming through to you now, Jason,” she said.

“Thanks,” he replied. “Now code me warrants for those three units, check status on all related police warrants, and meet me there as soon as you can.”

Sirens ablaze, the car shifted into autodrive. Elsa had set its coordinates onto a priority track, past the stopped traffic. Haggerty swiveled his seat to bring up the latest coverage on a small plasma console. The thin-lipped viewcaster offered, “Following the alleged triple suicides, the entire entourage of the chart-topping musical group Clone Jesus, including the band members themselves and their manager, entertainment magnate Shintag Lake, are being held for questioning. . . .”

Haggerty’s car slotted into the exitway for Death Valley Commemorative Park. He saw ambulance lights near the stage, where police forced throngs of spectators away from the press site. The sirens allowed him to park reasonably close by.

Climate control in outdoor venues wasn’t impossible but it was costly, and not designed to last more than a few hours. The system was beginning to fail, and the oppressive heat had begun to seep into the area. Haggerty found himself loosening the top of his uniform. The huge field was packed tightly with crying and shouting JCs. Many seemed dazed. Flashing his identiplate, he forced his way through the mob, past security, to the lip of the stage where JCs pushed and shuffled for a better view, and hoisted himself upward with a grunt.

He was unprepared for the sight of the crumpled teens being prepared for transport by gloved Med Techs. Usually by the time he reached a press scene the bodies had been removed. Detective Woyzeck was calling the shots, his badge slung from his neck and a frown on his dark, leathery face. Haggerty had worked with Woyzeck for years, and knew him to be thorough and focused. If anyone could keep this press scene from turning into a circus, it was Woyzeck.

“Fucked up, huh?” the detective said as Haggerty came to his side. Sweat trickled down Woyzeck’s face; he mopped it away with a handkerchief already limp with moisture.

Haggerty looked at one of the teens, her blonde curls splayed against the stage, her eyes blank. On her cheek was a small blisterbrand in the shape of a teardrop.

“Have they been certified?” he asked Woyzeck.

“The coroner hasn’t arrived yet. But I was told to remove the bodies immediately. Normally I’d make you wait for your boxes, but if you promise to get back to me on the contents over drinks sometime, you can have ’em now. Just wait till the bodies get lifted.”

It was a break in procedure to take the boxes prior to certification of death and removal of the bodies. Haggerty knew of cases where reviewers had been docked pay, or worse, for such infractions. But this situation wasn’t normal. Haggerty hoped there’d be something on the recordings that would help him make sense of this tragedy.

“Deal,” he said.

He gloved up and moved toward the girl as two techs rolled her body onto a stretcher and lifted her in unison, then excused themselves. Haggerty watched them move past him toward the foot of the stage. He knelt down to retrieve her KV unit and stared at the popped tab, then glanced back to where she had fallen and saw that she’d dropped something else — a white plasticine keycard.

Haggerty looked around for Woyzeck, but the detective had gone to speak to one of the cops working crowd control and it would be several minutes before Haggerty could get his attention. He glanced from the keycard to the black box.

The casing of the Kevorkian unit was gouged and abraded where the alphanumeric code should have been, the name and serial number completely scrubbed from the unit.

Haggerty went cold. An unheard-of triple press in a public venue, a higher-up ordering a break in protocol to remove bodies before their deaths could be certified, and now this. The wrongness factor had increased exponentially.

Haggerty had never seen anything like it. The only reason for removing the means of identification was that the unit wasn’t hers. But that was impossible. Only the person to whom a unit was registered could successfully press it. If somehow this girl had got hold of someone else’s box and broken through the safeguards, the registration files for the unit would be useless. Unless the recordings on the box identified her, or someone who recognized her from the broadcast stepped forward, it could take weeks, even months to determine who she was. The information they could obtain from a thumbprint — largely transit and consumer purchase data — might prove useful. But again it could take months to navigate the maze of constitutional protections and procure a warrant that would allow them to get an ident that way.

The right thing to do was to alert Detective Woyzeck to the problem. Woyzeck had been a by-the-book guy as long as Haggerty had known him. Surely he would tag the keycard as evidence and ensure that it was properly processed. Unless someone ordered him to break protocol on that, too…

Haggerty looked around. Another M.T. headed toward the next body. Heart racing, Haggerty placed his boot over the card, suddenly wary of everyone. He forced himself to follow procedure, concentrating on the need to secure the unit in the minthizine case, to insure against contamination.

“You okay, Haggerty? You look a little tweaked.” Detective Woyzeck was beside him again. “Maybe you’d better hang back with me until they clear the bodies.”

Woyzeck took Haggerty by the elbow. As Haggerty began to step away, the plasticine card scraped beneath his boot.

“Don’t touch me,” Haggerty said, disengaging his arm. “I’ve got hazardous chemicals on me from the box.”

Woyzeck pulled his hand back. “I forgot.”

“Wash your hands at one of the M.T. units,” Haggerty advised.

Both men turned as sirens whirred close to the stage. Haggerty used the distraction to bend down and pocket the keycard, mindful that having touched it with his glove it was now potentially toxic. The vehicle pulled in almost at their feet, and a moment later its doors extended upward, the BBI logo clearly displayed. Elsa stepped from the driver’s side, with Corbin emerging from the passenger door, her uniform half unfastened against the rising heat, revealing more of her ample cleavage than was professional. Woyzeck gave the exposed flesh a fleeting glance, then turned to Haggerty.

“They with you?”

Haggerty nodded. “Give me a second alone with them. The new kid’s a little green about procedure.”

“Sure thing,” Woyzeck said with a wink. “I gotta go wash my hands, remember? But call me later.”

They watched Corbin and Elsa trot to the lip of the stage and bound up and onto their level.

“You got it,” Haggerty told Woyzeck as the others arrived. Woyzeck nodded to Corbin, then stepped away to the nearest M.T. unit to clean his hands before overseeing the removal of the second body, a teen with a shock of blue hair in a white pleather jacket with CLONE JESUS embroidered in red on the back.

“I want this assignment,” Corbin told Haggerty.

“It’s my assignment,” Haggerty stated flatly.

I tried to stop her from coming, Elsa linked to him. But she’s been cleared by the Director.

“I’ve got training in youth counsel,” Corbin retorted, turning to survey the stage. “And you don’t.”

“There aren’t any youths to counsel,” Haggerty said.

“Maybe not here, but less than twenty minutes ago there was another press — a teenage girl, right in front of the viewscreen as her parents watched. And that’s my assignment.”

Sounds like a copycat, Haggerty thought. While it was ridiculous for Corbin to assert that the connection justified her taking over the triple press, it was sufficient for Haggerty to let her in on it in a subordinate position.

But Corbin wasn’t finished. “I believe your little cryppie’s got inside information. Remember this?”

Corbin held up a crumpled piece of paper. Haggerty recognized the Java Joint logo and Regina’s hand-drawn timeline of Old Testament names. He tried to mask his surprise as he reached for Regina’s discarded napkin.

Corbin pulled it back and folded it into her jacket. “You’re not the only one with a taste for the finer things in life,” she said.

Haggerty handed Elsa the minthizine case with the girl’s unit and told her to retrieve the other two after making sure that the bodies had been moved and the units remained where they’d fallen.

“I don’t know what you were doing at the Java Joint or why you swiped that from my table,” he told Corbin, “but the person you refer to as my cryppie has no connection to what happened here.”

“What do you know about her?” Corbin said smugly. Clearly she had information and intended to make him ask for it.

“Not a lot,” he said. “We only met a few hours ago. What makes you think she’s involved?” Brief as the time he’d spent with her had been, he couldn’t believe Regina had anything to do with this tragedy.

Corbin produced a photograph of the protesters Haggerty had encountered that morning outside BBI. There was Regina, standing next to the girl who had moments earlier lain dead on the stage at his feet. Both girls had their arms raised in protest.

“Like it or not I’m in on this one,” Corbin stated. “And we’d better get answers off those KV’s fast before any more go off. The Dragon’s authorized a media conference in one hour.”

Elsa stepped up. “Do you want to review here?” she asked Haggerty.

“Yes,” Corbin answered.

Elsa ignored her, awaiting Haggerty’s instructions. Corbin glared at his assistant.

God bless whoever forgot to remove Elsa’s chip, Haggerty thought. Sixty years ago, review agents working with the first androids assigned to BBI discovered that their new assistants were frighteningly narrow in interpreting company policy and frighteningly zealous in enforcing it. After a few “unfortunate accidents,” the union demanded the installation of Personal Loyalty Chips to combat the problem. Ultimately, design improvements and continuous upgrades rendered the chips unnecessary and BBI directed that all PLCs be removed. It was hardly Haggerty’s fault that a clerical error incorrectly recorded the removal of Elsa’s chip.

“I don’t want to do the review here,” Haggerty said. “We need someplace more private.”

* * *

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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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 One, Part Four
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Two, Part One
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Two, Part Two
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Two, Part Three
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Three, Part One