Sep 2011 16

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, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, and SIX – then continue reading after the jump…)



[Previous Chapter / Next Chapter]

Night was no cooler in NewVada than the day had been, and the climate control on the crowded beltway wasn’t working. It was well past rush hour. While a number of Conscientious Citizens still went about their business, younger, somewhat rowdy JCs were in the majority, taking advantage of the time to legally belt around the city. Too many conversations were going on around them for Haggerty to continue his discussion with Regina, so he sweltered along until she tugged him toward the exit loop that ramped them off at Fremont Boulevard, on the edge of the Vegas Black Light District. When Haggerty queried Regina as to how far they were going, she grinned.

“It’s actually pretty far inside,” she said as they were deposited onto street level. “Not scared, are you? I promise I’ll protect you.”

Haggerty shook his head. BBI frowned upon agents openly visiting the area of the city with most of the unlicensed vice dealerships and the least surveillance. What happened in the Black Light typically stayed in the Black Light. The Triads, NewVada’s last organized crime leagues, had seen to that with regular police payoffs. Haggerty knew that the platform surveillance scanners prevalent throughout most of NewVada would record his arrival, but given his plans he was not worried about being called in for questioning simply for entering the area.

“Actually, I’m surprised you’d come to Vegas,” he told Regina.

“Because they used to call it Sin City?” she said. “I’m not planning to do anything particularly sinful.”

“Most folks on the Religious Right feel that even supporting the legitimate businesses in Vegas somehow furthers an immoral agenda.”

She surprised him again. “But I’m not on the Religious Right. The two words don’t automatically go together.”

“That wasn’t you at the Ban the Box rally today?”

“That’s the only issue I agree with them on. Doesn’t mean there are others. For instance, as far as I’m concerned, Conscientious Citizens can do whatever they like in their own bedrooms. Saint Paul said that love is of God, so how can human lawmakers dictate the way people express their God-given love for one another? And when it comes to teaching intelligent design and sex ed, I’m about as far left as you can get. Yes, I believe in God and have strong ideas about His will — for my life and for humankind. And while I may not approve of everything that goes on in Vegas, I understand why people come here. As long as laws aren’t being broken, if people need a place where they can party hard to find relief, where’s the harm?”

Haggerty drew her attention to a huge pyramid fronted by a replica of the Sphinx. “That place used to be one of the most famous casinos in Vegas, back in the days when the worst you could lose here was your shirt and there were plenty of counselors from Gamblers Anonymous and the like to help minimize the damage. Now it’s mainly a residence for people who never got off the strip. This place isn’t as harmless as you seem to think. In the new casinos, damage seems to be the whole point.

“Things are difficult for a lot of NewVadans,” Haggerty continued. “And the dicier casinos prey on that. People are lured with the promise of dramatically improving their lives by chance, but more often than not, they wind up being driven deeper into poverty. And poverty all too often equals death.

“I had a case here a few years back, involving an unlicensed casino where people could bet their lives for a mere one thousand credits. It’s completely illegal, but that didn’t stop it from happening. The man involved had been driven to take those odds, and he lost. The establishment called in his debt, and he was encouraged to press in front of a paying audience of so-called CCs, who enthusiastically cheered him on. My review led to some arrests — observers whose images were captured on the recording as well as the management of the casino — all of whom got off on a technicality. The man had made his bet of his own free will, and then pressed of his own free will. Aside from a fine for running an unlicensed gambling parlor — the cost of which could be made up in an hour or two of play — no one but the man who pressed and the family he left behind suffered any losses.”

“So they got away with it,” Regina said glumly.

“I suppose so,” Haggerty admitted. “But that case and a few uncovered by other reviewers inspired a number of legislative actions statewide, and got our wonderful City Council off its collective butt long enough to pass an ordinance prohibiting organizing or profiting from a press done as public entertainment.”

“That’s something, at least.”

Gambling was not the only thing for which Vegas was known. Garish signs and glitzy holograph projections boasted an array of services in lurid, multicolored lights as they made their way down the old strip — CHANGE YOUR FACE WITH YOUR MOOD! 30 MINUTE MAKEOVERS! (a plastiche parlor); HIDDEN SEXCAMS INSIDE THE HOMES OF YOUR FAVORITE CELEBS! FREE PRIVATE INTERFACE! (a cybercafe) — outrageous promises of quicker and cheaper diversions than those offered by their legitimate counterparts outside the Black Light, and less picky about legalities. Shooting galleries guaranteed their drugs rivaled the quality of anything offered in Amsterdam, OR YOUR CREDITS BACK! As if their patrons were in any position to go to Holland and compare, then file a complaint at home that they’d been victims of false advertising.

Regina turned off the boulevard, into a dark alley.

Haggerty stopped in his tracks. “Where exactly are you taking me?” he called after her.

She trotted back. “It’s just a few doors down,” she said, playfully taking his hand. “I promise it’s safe.”

Haggerty considered tapping his com and putting a pulse out to Elsa, just in case, then decided not to. If Regina meant to kill and rob him, well death was what he wanted so why did the how matter? Haggerty relaxed.

Not far into the alley they came to a large hypersteel door set into a faux concrete wall, the only marking a sprawl of glowfitti above it that read ORPHANAGE. Barely audible retro-trance music blasted into a din as Regina pulled open the door. The sheer volume was enough to make Haggerty wish he’d declined her invitation. She tugged him down a poorly lit, crusty staircase lined with faux velvet.

The place was actually an oversized boiler room, packed with underage Junior Citizens — all beautiful and half-naked, their flesh and hair stained and stickjeweled in fantastic colors and patterns, their fists hammering up and down to the backbeat.

“Don’t worry,” Regina said into his ear, her small hand still cupped around his. “There’s nothing illegal here, no alcohol or drugs. Even if there were, no one could afford them. Don’t sweat your CC status.”

“That’s not what makes me sweat,” he said. If possible, the room was hotter than the night outside, where it had to be over a hundred degrees.

Regina led him across what felt like hard, coarse pavement — it was too dark and crowded to see the floor beneath them. Haggerty glimpsed something odd, set up beside the boilers. He craned his neck to get a better look as Regina pulled him along. There in an overcrowded basement in the middle of the desert, a young boy, his golden-orange hair streaked with red and spiked to resemble a bloody, exploding sun, stoked glowing embers with a hand trough in a makeshift forge, the kind ironworkers used when there was still iron to be worked!

Regina released him as they reached the dance floor, raising her arms and swaying to the music as she led him through the throng of JCs to the bar, such as it was. Looking at the crowd around them, Haggerty realized that a lot of the skinpainted designs weren’t at all garish or bright. Many were black, white, or gray deathheads and gargoyles, worms and ravens, rather than Regina’s fanciful iris. She leaned across the rough planks that served as the counter and spoke to a shirtless boy with sweat dripping down the spider painted in the center of the web inked across his chest. He reached below and extracted two plastic bottles from a cooler.

Regina turned to Haggerty and called, “Six creds.”

Haggerty handed her the credits and accepted one of the bottles. The label read Cafblast, but the liquid inside was clear.

“It’s just water,” she told him. “They recycle the bottles themselves.”

“Tap water?” he asked apprehensively.

“Yeah, don’t be such a snob,” she teased. “You’re fully geno-immunized, I’m sure.” Regina unsealed her bottle and took a long pull, then recapped it and licked stray drops of moisture from her lips. “None of us are, and we’re drinking it.”

Haggerty took a swig. Why should he care about pollutants? The taste was unpleasant, but it soothed the stifling heat, however momentarily.

“Whattaya think about this place?” Regina asked him.

“It’s a dump,” he said.

“Exactly,” she said. “A dump in the worst part of town. And it’s the only type of place Gen-Ohs can afford.”


“Short for Generation Zero,” she said bitterly. “If you do the math on CC status achievement rates and factor population control curbs, it’s clear we’re gonna be the first American generation that has basically no chance of reproducing ourselves one-for-one.”

“And less than one is zero,” Haggerty said.

Regina saluted him with her water bottle and took another deep drink. “Add to that the fact that data farmers and code monkeys don’t earn a helluva lot, and you wind up with this.”

Haggerty recalled a recent viewcast about the aftermath of birth restrictions in China during the previous century. The circumstances, the narrator reported dispassionately, were of course vastly different in China from anything facing Junior Citizens in present-day America, and such horrors were unlikely to be repeated. Looking at the JCs around him, Haggerty wondered.

“Do you have kids?” Regina asked him. “Frightened they’re hanging out in places like this?”

“No,” Haggerty answered, scratching the back of his neck before finishing his water.

She gave him a speculative look, and he braced himself for another brazen interrogation. He was about to change the subject when a shrill cry of pain pierced through the roar of the music. His training as an official triggered; he cut a swath through the crowd to investigate, pushing kids out of his way until he arrived at the source of the scream, then stood still, shocked.

A girl several years Regina’s junior stood leaning next to the forge, hands splayed against the wall as the orange-haired boy pulled a smoldering branding iron away from the bare flesh of her back, leaving her skin blackened. The acrid stink assaulted Haggerty. The girl moaned, looking behind her with glazed eyes at the boy with the brand, her face dripping sweat. There was no blood loss along the weltmarks left by the iron, the brand having at once caused and cauterized the wound.

Haggerty was about to step forward when Regina caught his arm, moving close and saying, “That’s blisterbranding. It’s legal. Didn’t you know how it was done?”

“Who’s next?” the boy said, pointing the brand at Haggerty. “How ’bout you, oldster?”

Kids queued up by the forge. Haggerty suddenly understood why none of the JCs had seemed distressed or tried to intercede. They regarded this spectacle as normal, unremarkable. That some legislative body had actually condoned such a practice appalled Haggerty. He took one more look at the girl’s burns, then pushed past Regina and headed for the bathroom he’d noted earlier.

He stood trembling at the sink, grasping the edges, his eyes swimming with silverfish, then twisted the ancient manual faucet marked COLD. A thin stream of lukewarm water trickled into the basin. He splashed water against his face, pale in the pockmarked mirror.

“You okay there?” a voice beside him said. It belonged to a well-dressed young man with ash-colored hair slicked back off his forehead, who held out a handkerchief to Haggerty.

Haggerty’s fingers brushed the edge. The handkerchief didn’t have the usual slick synthetic feel. It was soft, with a subtle sheen to the fabric. He took a closer look. It was silk, probably as costly as his viewscreen. He pulled his hand back.

“Go on, take it,” the young man urged. “There’s no paper in here and the jetdrier’s broken. Just trash it when you’re through. I’ve got a drawerful of ’em at home.”

The kid appeared whipped on Sky or some similar drug. Haggerty accepted the handkerchief. If the kid’s parents could afford to supply him with a drawer full of them, they weren’t apt to harangue him if he misplaced one. The silk felt cool and soothing against his face. “Thanks,” he said, clearing his mouth with tap water then wiping his face again.

In the mirror he saw the young man relieving himself at the urinal. His clothing set him apart from the other Orphanage patrons half-naked and sweating on the dance floor. He seemed cool, despite the heat of the place and the contemptuous opulence of a jacket made of real leather that ought to have been intolerably warm. If he was in any way uncomfortable, nothing in his manner betrayed it. Perhaps this could be attributed to the Sky, or some similar drug, that Haggerty detected in his eyes. Whatever the reason, he looked almost as out of place here as Haggerty felt.

“Wanna hear a funny story?” the kid asked when he’d finished his business.

“Sure,” Haggerty said.

“Once upon a time we were warned that Four Horsemen would deliver the Apocalypse.” He counted them on his fingers. “War, Famine, Pestilence, Death. We insulated ourselves from War, then did away with Famine and Pestilence, and that let us get the better of Death — we kicked his ass and made him our bitch. But you know what?”

“What?” Haggerty asked, throwing the ruined piece of silk into the bin.

“I think Death’s a sore loser, and he’s red as hell, and he’s about to get back on that horse — and make everyone his bitch,” the kid said as he washed his hands in the sink and pulled another bit of silk from his back pocket to dry them with. “And you’ll be surprised at how happy we are to have him back.”

He smiled a wasted smile and waved as Haggerty pushed open the door and left the restroom. Haggerty considered the kid’s Sky-whipped fantasies as morbid as the death-themed skinpaintings sported by the other JCs and their horrific self-mutilations. He’d had enough of the Orphanage.

Fortunately, Regina was where he’d left her in the dimly lit room. She was talking to a too-thin girl around her own age, who was trying to hand her something. Regina shook her head no, refusing the offering. The other girl shrugged and headed toward a table a few yards away, where someone large and obviously male waited for her, but that was all Haggerty could discern. Regina turned and, seeing Haggerty, smiled, then frowned as she got a closer look at him.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m leaving, you do as you wish,” he said, waving the question aside. “What was that all about?” he asked as she gripped his arm and ushered him back toward the stairs.

“Traci? She’s one of my roommates,” Regina explained. “Someone’s giving away tickets to the game tomorrow, and she thought I should have some plasticine strips.

“Free tickets to the most anticipated Superbowl in years?” Haggerty said skeptically. “They gotta be counterfeit.”

“Probably,” Regina agreed. “Since Gen-Ohs can’t afford the real thing, someone’s always producing counterfeits to one event or another. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.”

They were passing the forge now, where a boy screamed to the kiss of burning metal. Haggerty clenched his teeth and moved away quickly. Up the strip and onto the beltway, he said nothing. He breathed deeply, trying to get the stench of burned meat out of his lungs, to purge it from his mind. Regina respected his silence.

“Why would they brand themselves?” he finally asked.

Regina was thoughtful. “They’re fucked, and they know they’re fucked,” she began. “The odds are against them, for jobs, children, even happiness. That has a sort of numbing effect, ya know?”

Haggerty did know.

“And when you’re numb to the world, to yourself, and you’re not feeling anything — feeling nothing at all — you go to extremes. You hurt yourself until the pain rushes in and tells you you’re alive.” Her tone turned flippant. “Besides, it’s the latest in celebrity fashion. No more dangerous than getting pierced or tattooed.”

He looked at this pretty young stranger beside him who was part of a generation he clearly did not understand. He considered telling her that even oldsters with jobs they’d held for decades, not making way for younger folks, didn’t always have it easy. That not everyone gets a break making it possible to afford a huge compartment with a god-awful big viewscreen. That he had only been so rewarded after a long, difficult apprenticeship. But what was the point? She’d find out for herself.

“You haven’t — ”

“No way,” she said. “Skinpainting like this” — she indicated her iris, stickjewels meant to represent dewdrops twinkling in the light — “can be removed with plastiche in less than an hour. But burns that require surgical procedures to repair? No, thanks. My body’s a temple.”

“Good,” he said, unaccountably relieved.

“But I have to say,” she went on wistfully, “when done right it looks really cool.”

They approached the intersection dividing West. “You’ll be safe here,” Haggerty said. “It was a pleasure — ”

“Can I see your place?” she asked.

“Regina — ”

He was wavering, and they both knew it.

“This is the only chance I’ll ever get to see how your half lives,” she cajoled. “I’ll stay five minutes and then you can send me home in a taxi. I promise.”

* * *

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