Oct 2011 21

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]

“That proves she’s involved,” Corbin said triumphantly as they fired out of the tunnel slot and back onto the BBI offramp.

For reasons he would not share, Haggerty knew that this was not necessarily true. Regina had her own motives for taking his unit, motives that had nothing to do with this case.

Corbin flipped on the comlink for an incoming call.

“This is Corbin.”

“Haggerty with you?” Tanner asked.

“I’m here,” Haggerty said.

“Protesters are all over the place,” Tanner warned. “Better come in through the back entrance. You’ve also got the parents of one of the kids waiting in reception. The Dragon herself wants to be present when you interview them.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” Haggerty said.

If he’d pressed that morning, all this would be someone else’s problem. Procuring a new unit could prove embarrassing and would take time. But he wasn’t going to let this last assignment hinder his plan to press. At least now they’d have a positive ident on one, if not all, of the children.

“Taking us around back,” Elsa said.

The usual crowd of protesters that milled about the front steps had more than doubled. They made it from the garage to the viewing room without incident. Elsa took her seat at a console while Corbin went to file her report on Pamela DeLongpre. Haggerty was prevented from handing the keycard to Elsa to pull up its data by the arrival of the Dragon.

“Don’t get comfortable,” she ordered. “We have to speak with some parents.”

Consuela had traded her usual dress suit for her division director uniform, a savvy choice conveying both her authority and respect for the gravity of the situation without a word having to be said.

“Who are the parents and why are they here instead of down at the precinct with Woyzeck?” Haggerty asked, falling into step beside her. “Those kids weren’t clients. Their units were black market.”

“But they were our units, at some point,” Consuela said, “and the parents want to know how one of them got into the hands of their son. Frankly, so do I.”

“Which boy was their son?” Haggerty said.

“The darker one. His name was Tyler Stelwyn. The only son of Antonio Stelwyn, who owns half this city.”

Now Haggerty knew why the image of the beautiful boy with shaved hair and golden bronze skin who liked to experiment with his unit had seemed familiar when he reviewed the press recordings. Stelwyn, the African-American industrialist, known to everyone in the country was a bit taller, more heavily muscled, his skin tone a few shades darker, but the shape of the face, the line of the jaw, and the cast of the mouth were identical to his son’s. If a triple press with illegal boxes viewcast around the world hadn’t been bad enough, the fact that Antonio Stelwyn’s only son was one of the victims increased the gravity of the situation. The Indran’s voice sounded mockingly in Haggerty’s head: You have a difficult night coming.

“Do we have ident on the other two kids?” he asked Consuela.

“Nothing yet from the police. I was hoping you’d have something.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t.” Haggerty scratched the back of his neck.

“Quite unfortunate,” the Dragon agreed, reaching for the reception room door.

“Finally,” Antonio Stelwyn spat when they stepped inside. A powerfully built man used to giving orders and having them obeyed, faced with the one situation he could not control he lashed out with a vengeance. “Are public triple presses so goddamned common you can take your goddamned time investigating them?”

A woman seated at a small table sobbed softly: Sylvia Marchand, the legendary supermodel who had dominated the annual Most Beautiful lists of all the major e-zines and viewcasts for over fifty years. Even before her marriage, she’d been a celebrity in her own right. But at the moment, she was merely a grieving mother with her head buried in her hands as she wept, and Haggerty knew her only by the heartbreaking sobs she couldn’t control. He could not help but reflect on the different treatment the Stelwyns would receive, compared to the DeLongpres.

Haggerty was surprised to see Primrose, making ineffectual efforts to comfort the bereaved couple. Of all the adjusters in NewVada, what were the chances of the same one being involved in two back-to-back, unrelated multiple-press cases the same day? One more thing about this case that didn’t feel right. Primrose looked up as they entered, whispered a final soothing platitude to Mrs. Stelwyn, and approached Haggerty and Consuela, extending his hand.

“Oliver Primrose, adjusting agent for the insurance firm of Cromwell and Sons,” he said as he shook Consuela’s hand. “Sorry to be meeting you under these circumstances.”

“Mr. Primrose,” Consuela acknowledged.

Primrose nodded a greeting to Haggerty, then turned to the Stelwyns and surprised Haggerty again by performing the introductions.

“Mr. and Mrs. Stelwyn, this is Consuela Pitcairn, the director of BBI NewVada, and Jason Haggerty, the agent in charge of the BBI portion of the investigation.”

Antonio Stelwyn had no interest in social niceties. “I’m about to sue your company out of existence,” he snarled.

“Mr. Stelwyn, I understand both your anger and your grief,” the Dragon responded calmly. “You have my deepest sympathies for your loss. However, before we begin, I must remind you that your son’s possession of one of our unregistered KV units was not authorized, and as such is not our responsibility.”

Mrs. Stelwyn raised her head, her tear-streamed face contorted with anguish. When her career began to take off, her agent had insured her eyes for a billion dollars, stating that they were the main reason for her appeal. Other celebrities had been insuring their body parts for centuries, and Haggerty had never given the matter much thought. It was just the usual celebrity hype. But Sylvia Stelwyn’s eyes were indeed the most striking feature in a collection of extraordinarily striking features. And her son Tyler had inherited those eyes.

“Then whose responsibility is it?” she demanded. “It was your unit. How did our son get the damned thing, if not from you?”

“We’re working on that,” Consuela said.

Antonio raged. “My assistant wakes us up to tell us she thinks she just saw Tyler kill himself on television, prompting me to call that imbecile Woyzeck, who tells me to come to the morgue to identify our son’s body, and then you keep me waiting here all this time to tell me what? You’re working on it?

“My client has every reason to be outraged,” Primrose interjected. “As a government agency, BBI is fully accountable for its hardware. If the box was originally in the possession of BBI, some sort of security breach led to its being in the hands of an unauthorized user. And that breach of security, Director Pitcairn, is your responsibility.”

“I’m well aware of that, Mr. Primrose,” the Dragon said.

Haggerty finally stepped in.

“Please allow me to explain,” he said. “We are doing our best to find out how the boxes came into the possession of these three young people, but there are impediments to our investigation. The serial number on the unit your son used was filed off, then scrubbed with acid. Whoever effaced it was very thorough. If our techs can’t raise an image of the original number, it will be difficult to ascertain exactly where the unit came from.”

“You mean you might not be able to find out how Tyler got that box?” Sylvia Stelwyn asked.

“I mean it’s going to take time,” Haggerty said gently, then addressed both parents. “I know you want answers as quickly as we can get them. Believe me, we’ll do our best to provide them to you. But we have to explore several avenues to figure out which codes we’re looking for. BBI is only responsible for the units in our possession. The box your son used could have belonged to any one of several million duly registered BBI clients, for whose units we are not legally responsible. The investigation might take only a few hours or it could take as much as weeks.”

“Are you telling me that no one’s responsible for a registered box that gets lost or sold on the black market?” Stelwyn seethed.

“No, sir, I’m not,” Haggerty assured him. “Registered clients sign an agreement to notify us if a box is stolen or misplaced. The boxes themselves can be globally tracked on our systems. Possession of an unauthorized box is a felony. Incidents in which a box is either lost or stolen and goes missing for more than a few hours are rare, but they do occur. For that very reason, there are safeguards to prevent anyone but the registered owner from discharging a KV unit. Even if an unauthorized user manages to figure out a way around those safeguards, the toxin in the unit is matched to the body chemistry of the registered user. Rarely is it fatal to anyone else.”

“It proved fatal enough to my son!”

“Actually, the situation is more complex,” Haggerty began, keeping his voice soothing and deferential. No matter the power Stelwyn wielded outside this room, he was still a father grieving a terrible loss. Haggerty was keenly aware of the pain the man must be in, and that what he was going to say next would only make it worse. “Whoever tampered with that unit found a way around the toxin specificity issue. With the serial number obliterated, it’s going to take time to track it down, but we will identify where it came from. And once we’ve done that, I give you my word that we will do everything in our power to find out who tampered with it and gave it to your son.”

“And we wish you every success in that investigation,” Primrose said. “But what you said doesn’t change the fact that BBI can’t deny its responsibility in this.”

“That remains to be seen,” Haggerty said. “It’s one thing if the unit was taken directly from BBI, and another if it was taken from a registered client. In either event, a preliminary analysis indicates that the toxin in the unit was not our serum—”

“Your gun, but not your bullets?” Primrose sneered.

“Mr. Primrose,” the Dragon cut in. “I assume your presence here means there’s an insurance policy involved, but I doubt that it was against an illegal form of suicide.”

Pressing a KV unit was a legal option entitling the survivors to whatever insurance benefits had been arranged, provided that the press wasn’t performed until at least six months after the policy was issued. It was probable that Tyler Stelwyn had been insured from birth and the statutory limitation was not a problem. But killing yourself in any way other than with a properly registered KV unit voided most insurance claims. Unless Tyler had registered for a unit and it could be proved that someone had switched it for another without his knowledge, his actions had voided whatever policy his parents had purchased. Haggerty chose not to think about the pressing-as-public-entertainment aspect. Not until he had to.

Stelwyn probably didn’t care if the policy ever paid out. No amount of money could make up for the loss of his son. He’d likely considered it an investment for his future grandchildren and never imagined he’d find himself in a position to collect. Cromwell and Sons, however, would be pleased if the boy’s suicide was illegal, thus saving them from having to pay out a huge number of credits.

“Tyler wouldn’t do that to himself,” Stelwyn insisted. “If anything, he was coerced by that band and those other kids.”

In which case, the courts might find the policy valid. It was easy to understand why Primrose was here. Haggerty braced himself for what he had to say next, knowing the devastating blow he was about to deliver.

“I’ve reviewed the recording, Mr. Stelwyn. I’m very sorry, but your son appears to have been a willing participant.”

“Impossible!” Stelwyn bellowed.

“There’s a recording?” his wife asked, her voice breaking.

“I want to see it now,” Stelwyn demanded.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible at this point without a legal warrant,” Consuela said. “It’s part of a state criminal investigation that, I might add, could become federal at any moment.”

“You viewed that recording without an adjuster present,” Primrose snapped.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Consuela said tiredly. “An adjuster for an unregistered unit in what appears, for the present, to be an illegal suicide? You know you have no standing in such a case. In any event, I assure you we used proper procedure and had the required warrants.”

She eyed Haggerty for confirmation. He nodded. Except for the keycard, he’d followed protocol every step of the way after Woyzeck gave him permission to remove the boxes before certification.

“Since no identity had been confirmed,” Consuela continued, “and the device was judged to be stolen property, viewing the recording was a necessary measure to assist the police in identifying the victim.”

“Forgive me if I challenge that all the way to the Supreme Court,” Primrose said.

“Be my guest,” Consuela retorted. “Now I must ask the Stelwyns: Do either of you have any information on the other two children? Were they friends of Tyler’s? Had you seen either of them before?”

Stelwyn and his wife indicated they had no such knowledge.

“In that case, I extend my condolences, Mr. and Mrs. Stelwyn. As Mr. Haggerty promised, BBI will do everything in our power to find out how that unit got into your son’s hands and bring those responsible to justice. But he and I are now required by law to attend another meeting.”

“Of course,” Stelwyn said bitterly. “We wouldn’t want to let a probable murder interfere with the bureaucracy, would we?”

“There’s no evidence of murder,” the Dragon said, her ire finally roused. “Criminal conspiracy, perhaps. But while you prepare to sue us out of existence, as I believe you put it, let me offer a final thought. Because your son, a minor, was in the willing, illegal possession of one of our units, the courts may find you to be at fault here, not us.”

“I’ll have you dismissed, Director. That’s a promise. And I’ll have that recording.”

“I’m just doing my job, Mr. Stelwyn,” Consuela said, attempting to be conciliatory. “I’m a representative of a subsidiary of the United States government. Believe me, we’ll get to the bottom of this. Again, please accept my condolences.”

She turned to Haggerty. “Let’s go.”

Outside in the hall, Consuela was less sure of herself. “That man has tremendous power and influence,” she told Haggerty. “We may very well be held responsible, whether we are or not.”

“Scapegoated, you mean,” Haggerty said. He’d been aware of the possibility as soon as Tyler Stelwyn’s identity had been revealed. Pressure would certainly be brought to blame someone for what had happened, and the BBI agents responsible for the investigation would get it if they couldn’t place it elsewhere. “I admired the way you handled that,” he told Consuela.

“Duly noted, Mr. Haggerty,” she replied. “Now tell me what was on that recording.”

“Tyler was with the band for some time, probably taking narcotics,” he said. “He recorded himself in some embarrassing acts. We’ll want to clean that up, edit it into something for the mother to view down the road. But there’s no doubt. He was a willing participant.”

“There’s something you probably don’t know,” Consuela said. “While you were out, O’Connell fielded three more copycats, all minors with black market boxes.”

Haggerty thought he should be shocked; instead he felt numb.

“Here’s what I want you to do,” Consuela continued, her confidence restored. “Speak with your friend Woyzeck and get him to allow you access to the band members and their manager.”

“They’re out of our jurisdiction now,” Haggerty responded. “Their testimony is part of the police investigation. You just told the parents—”

“Jason,” she said, stopping him. “How long have we worked together?”

“Nearly sixty years,” he said, bewildered at her first use of his given name since she welcomed him into the agency.

“In all that time, have you ever known me to break with procedure?”

Haggerty shook his head no.

“Well, then,” she said, “you can judge that this matter is of singular importance. The motives behind the presses in this case are secondary to me. We need to know where those kids got their hands on those black boxes before this thing spins out of control. Or this agency’s days may be numbered. Are you on board?”

How simple it would be to say no and walk away, but a lifetime of loyalty to the agency, an agency that not long ago had bent over backward on his own behalf, coupled with his deep-seated desire to know the truth, wouldn’t let him.

“Count me in,” he told her.

“Thank you, Jason,” Consuela said. “Your efforts will be well rewarded.”

The promise was moot. “We’d better get ready to meet the media,” he reminded her.

“I’ll handle that,” she said, to Haggerty’s relief. “You have more important tasks to tend 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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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
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Three, Part Two
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Three, Part Three
Fiction Friday: The Killswitch Review – Chapter Four, Part One