Altered Carbon and Looking Back at Cyberpunk’s Heyday

Copyright © 2018 by Netflix

It’s never been a secret that one of my favorite genres is cyberpunk. It’s the best of two worlds: film noir and science fiction. It’s holographic adverts overloading giant, rain-drenched skyscrapers, where private eyes go chasing androids and console cowboys get shanghaied into unraveling megacorporate conspiracies in virtual reality zones. And while I regret never getting into the original books by Richard K. Morgan, I was excited to learn that his first Takeshi Kovacs story, Altered Carbon, was being brought onto Netflix.

The year is 2384. Takeshi Kovacs, a former terrorist, is revived in a new body 250 years after his arrest. His new client, the ultra-rich Laurens Bancroft, has a job for him: solve the murder of Bancroft’s last body. Now stuck in far-future San Francisco, Kovacs has to contend with mercenaries, possessive AI hotel owners, femme fatales, and the relentless police lieutenant Kristin Ortega. Every new encounter is another opportunity for Kovacs to come to terms with the crimes he’s committed in the distant past, to put his elite skills as an Envoy to use, and to dig deeper into the labyrinthe world of “Meths” (as in, Methuselahs). As his onetime mentor Quell keeps reminding him, “Nothing is what it seems.

It’s interesting to have the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, played by both an Asian actor (Will Yun Lee) in flashbacks and a white actor (Joel Kinnaman) in the present. On the one hand, it’s a neat trick of showing off our multicultural future, even race is something to be changed with a simple “resleeve.” On the other hand, I kind of would’ve liked to have seen Lee stay in the lead role, but Kinnaman does the job well enough as our typical hardboiled detective with elite combat skills and a supernatural attention to detail.

Now, as a fan of all things cyberpunk, I love the visuals (and as someone who wants to make cyberpunk fiction, I’m jealous I didn’t get to do this first). Bay City is a beautiful mess of heavy rainfall, omnipresent holographic ads, flying cars, cybernetic neck and eye implants, and massive skyscrapers reaching into the clouds. It’s like we’re getting to see the Sprawl that Gibson envisioned back in ’84, since that’s basically the archetype that Richard K. Morgan and Laeta Kalogridis are using in this series. This is the sci-fi world I want to see: not just “What happens if we only changed one thing, like not dying?” but the world of “What if we changed everything in society, on every level? What would humanity even look like?”

I will admit, though, that the first 8 minutes from the first episode did leave me a little too lacking in context. Much as I love how works like Neuromancer and The Diamond Age throw their readers right into the deep end, I did feel a little impatient with the fast editing of images between one version of Kovacs (pre-death) and the other (waking up in a new body), with no real sense of what I was seeing or why I should even care about what’s happening. As fun as that can be in a book, I think TV is something audiences a little more leeway before getting tossed into a random world.

I’m also not a huge fan of the way exposition is sometimes dropped clunkily into the middle of conversations. Even if Kovacs is still adapting to the new world, the way charaters like Ortega suddenly have to rattle off banal facts about AI hotels and other commonplace lore is a bit jarring.

This felt most egregious in the first episode, where Kovacs and Ortega have a drink and a chat inside a strip club. Their rattled-off exposition is taking place right next to a mostly nude dancing girl on the stage. It’s a little hard not to want to make a “sexposition” joke straight out of the first season of Games of Thrones. As much as Netflix gets to play with sex and violence in a way that network TV can’t, I do think that sometimes there’s a little too much emphasis on sex for titillation’s sake, especially if it’s trying to keep the audience engaged for learning key plot points.

Even with some of the bumpy nature of the show’s pacing, I do enjoy it overall. It’s colorful and gritty, it has plenty of film noir throwbacks, and there’s a real sense of the search for identity and meaning in a world that seemingly cares about neither.

Altered Carbon is currently available for viewing on Netflix.


Bibliography: Altered Carbon (series). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan. Produced by John G. Lenic. Perf. Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Connor, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, and Renee Elise Goldberry. Virago Productions; Mythology Entertainment; Phoenix Pictures; Skydance Television. Netflix (distributor). Original broadcast: February 2, 2018 – present.

Future Forecasts from 1992: What Snow Crash Got Right

snow-crash
Copyright © 1992 by Neal Stephenson

After one very crazy year, I’ve decided to seek solace in a few familiar titles from the science fiction genre. For me, I’d usually jump straight back into reading Neuromancer for the 30th time or so, but this month I wanted to go back to a novel that I’ve only ever finished once before. A novel that belongs to the same cyberpunk category as Gibson’s literary debut, but from a different angle.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a classic in my mind. It takes all the cheese that then-contemporary gritty sci-fi could conjure up and serves it on a hot pizza delivered at 100 miles per hour by a badass katana-wielding deliveryman. With concepts like the Metaverse, it showed us a glimpse of Internet culture before the World Wide Web was anywhere near as integrated into our lives as it is today.

Since I’ve already reviewed the novel, what I’d like to focus on this time around is what Snow Crash is prophetic about in the year 1992. Let’s see how good of a guide to our modern day this book really is.

1) Avatars and social activities through the Web

Neal Stephenson definitely got how social (and perverted) the Internet could become. In his model, the Metaverse is a virtual reality simulation where everyone can interact using cheap or custom-designed avatars for every kind of interaction, from dating to live-streaming rock concerts to basic business negotiations. Reading about Hiro’s swordfights in the Verse or his dialogue with other users wouldn’t be out of place to anyone who’s ever played an MMORPG or logged several hours on Facebook. When we can stay in touch on our daily commute via smartphone, reading about Hiro using the Metaverse while sitting in traffic doesn’t seem too farfetched for us.

2) The rise of online databases and searches

Even though virtual reality isn’t as big a deal in our world as it is in Stephenson’s, he did nail how our ability to access and organize information through the Web would evolve. In the book, Hiro is a freelance contributor to an online encyclopedia called the CIC, he’s able to use a geographic mapping program called Earth, and he spends half his time feeding queries for information into a semantic search engine called the Librarian. Anyone today would recognize these early precursors to Wikipedia, Google Earth, and Google in a heartbeat, but it’s uncanny how well our perception of such software fits into what Stephenson wrote.

3) Privatization gone wild

Even in 1992, privitizing or deregulating sectors of the economy was nothing new thanks to the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. What is surprising is how well the themes of privitization in Snow Crash fit the modern realities that we face.

Snow Crash features a booming housing market and the explosion of surburban enclaves (literally known as “Burbclaves”), as well as a cultural shift toward private security forces and increased competition in the global economy. With all manufacturing jobs overseas, it’s no surprise that the United States in Snow Crash has learned to adapt and focus on being the best at “music, movies, microcode (software)” and, of course, “high-speed pizza delivery.” It’s practically a forecast of the impact that trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP could bring.

4) Strong multiculturalism

Tying into globalization, the world of Snow Crash has a very diverse cast of characters and even side characters, highlighting how immigration patterns change on a mundane level. Hiro is a mixed-race protagonist (half-black, half-Japanese), while his opponent Raven hails from the indigenous Aleut people. And the sheer number of  migrants from the Middle East working as taxi drivers and pizza delivery managers that Hiro encounters would be no surprise to anyone living today in North America or Europe (even if they are treated as one big stereotype in the book).

5) Rising evangelicals

And speaking of the Middle East, religious fervor and evangelicalism plays a huge role in the plot of Snow Crash, as Hiro and Y.T. team up to take down a pseudo-Christian televangelist who wants to take over the world using the Metaverse and a drug known as Snow Crash. Obviously, there’s no real-world counterpart to Rife, but the threat of Islamic terrorism (especially ISIS at the time of this writing) does match the same blanket of dread that Rife’s Infopocalypse movement evokes. We see today how terror networks can prey upon impressionable minds and attract thousands to a single hotbed of violence, much like how Rife’s followers flock to “The Raft” in the novel.

Of course, Snow Crash is as much an anachronism in our time as it is a useful predictor of what’s commonplace in the 2010’s. Technology is far less clunky than it was in Neal Stephenson’s day and the Web allows some of us to avoid the corporate dominance that most cyberpunk authors believed was just around the corner. Its plot and style might not be for everyone’s liking, but if you have the patience for it, this book can be a fun and informative read, no matter what generation you belong to.

Snow Crash is available through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Flash Fiction: “Code Blue, Call It In”

I should warn my readers that this next installment in the “Stories from Cal Metro” series contains a discussion of suicide and depression. If you feel like this story would be upsetting or traumatic for you, please do not feel obliged to continue reading.

If you need someone to talk with, there are resources and call centers ready to help you in your time of need. Always remember, you are not alone.


Code Blue, Call It In, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 1,420

Blazing down Veteran Avenue at near sixty miles an hour, Grace felt the world slide in and out of focus around her. Seated low on her autocycle, her body shifted in slight degrees left and right as she wove a deadly pattern through traffic. Thankfully, her side-mounted amber lights were doing most of the work for her. Trucks and sedans pulled to the right, with only a few stragglers to slip around on her path.

Grace, it’s confirmed.” Taylor’s voice was sharp in her ear. She gritted her teeth against the feedback emanating from her neural intercom; the implant was more trouble than it was worth on cloudy nights like this one. “His note went live on the hotboards two minutes ago.

“Shit on me.” Grace pulled back on the autocycle, turning what would have been a hard right onto Wilshire into a softer curve that barely missed hitting the nearest street corner. “What’s his status look like?”

Code Blue. Lab boys can’t find any trace of a desire to take anyone else along for the ride.

Another speed bump came and went, sending a shockwave through the auto-cycle. Grace hardly noticed it. “Got a location yet?”

Uploading it to your HUD now.

A translucent color scheme rippled into view across the interior of her rider’s helmet. Grace saw a grid map of Cal Metro take shape in the space between her eyes and the plastic windshield. When she blinked her left eye, the map auto-focused into a multi-block overview of Wilshire. A golden line highlighted the road ahead for her, complete with a moving dot. ETA and velocity metrics scrolled by on the right-hand side of her vision, just out of view to avoid distracting her.

Grace muttered another curse under her breath. Her hands tightened on the throttle as she completed a turn on the next side street. “Okay. Prep for medical evac and cleanup crew. I’ll be there in five.”

Godspeed, Grace.

***

At the height of the Crash, emergency services had fallen apart across the entire Los Angeles-San Francisco Metropolitan Corridor. While this normally meant disaster and widespread human suffering, it was fortunate that human beings could produce their own solutions given enough time and imagination.

To help survivors and refugees find a haven from the worst flooded coastlines and droughts in the Central Valley, some cities had become Enclaves. Self-governing, self-sustaining communities that pooled together the skills of its inhabitants during the long downturn. Whether governed by the latest AI or old-fashioned human consensus-building, these cities had become a beacon of hope in a failing culture.

But not every refugee found their peace and prosperity in the Enclaves. They faced the darkness around them and within them, with no respite around. And when they couldn’t contribute, they faced a crisis worse than any Crash that the country could experience.

Enter Saint Juliana Sobrino, the founder of the Minerva Corps. Within a few years, she and her team of guardian angels had caused a massive downturn in the country’s suicide rate. Inside of five years, everyone up and down the Metro Corridor knew to steer clear of a pair of amber lights mounted on a motorcycle in the dead of night.

And so,” as the group’s charter read, “let every rider be equipped with a blanket for comfort, water for nourishment, open hands for peace, and the blessings of Saint Dymphna.

If you were a rider of the Minerva Corps, you knew what was in your kit. Every time the call came in, you crossed yourself and hoped to fly fast enough to make a difference.

Grace Lee Anderson had been a Minerva rider for six years straight. And she wasn’t about to let another soul slip away tonight.

***

By the time she made it to San Vincente, the crowd had already gathered on the sidewalk below. A single CMPD cruiser was parked out front, with officers attempting to hold the pedestrians back. Grace didn’t even bother with the formalities of her entrance. Yanking hard on the brakes, she came to a halt and parked her autocycle a few feet away from the cruiser.

She left the amber lights on a constant blink, which gave her some space from the crowd. Grace unbuttoned the top of her jacket and removed her helmet, tucking it under one arm.

When she looked up, she caught a glimpse of the boy in question. Her HUD was still active, flashing all the relevant details across her right eye in virtual space. Date of birth, hometown, favorite hobbies, social media posts, and so on.

After a burst of static, Taylor’s voice came back on. “Okay, I’ve got a back channel to his comm implant. You’re good to go.

Grace didn’t answer him. After all, he wasn’t the one who needed help.

Taking a deep, quiet breath, she held it and waited two seconds. Enough time to clear away the jitters and let her instincts take over.

“Michael?” She lifted a hand to silence the nearby police and bystanders. “Can you hear me?”

H-hello?” From this far below the apartment rooftop, Grace couldn’t see the kid so clearly. A small, quivering silhouette. Nothing more. “Who is this?

“My name’s Grace. I’m a friend.”

Bullshit. I don’t have any friends.

“Yes, you do. You’ve got me.”

Lady, you don’t even know me. Nobody does. I’m a fucking idiot—

“I read your note. The one you left on the hotboards.”

He paused. The silhouette at the top of the building went still, and her muscles tensed in response.

It’s just a note,” he finally said. “Doesn’t mean anything.

“It means something to me,” Grace insisted. The more she spoke, the easier it became to keep the fear out of her voice. She’d done this so many times now. Talked to so many kids, so many adults and elderly over their troubles.

Tonight was not going to be another failure.

“I’m not here to bullshit you. I came here for one reason, Michael. To meet you. To talk to you.” She paused for a second, long enough to scan her memory of the datasheet that Taylor had pulled for her earlier. “I understand that you’ve been out of work for a while now. And your family disowned you because of what happened with Fredo.”

A sob broke out from the other end of the channel. “He… Jesus, he was too good for me. And my mother… she wouldn’t even look me in the eye! What did I ever do to her?

“Nothing.” Grace twitched her left eyelid up and down in a single precise motion. “Michael, can you do me a favor? Would you please look at the datastream I’m sharing with you?”

Why? Are you gonna give me more of that Christian propaganda, too? Tell me suicide’s a sin? I already knew that—

“Please, just look for me. All right?”

He fell quiet, which was always the worst part of the work. Grace rattled off a pair of Hail Marys in her head in the time it took Michael to absorb the information on his Scout. If she recalled correctly, he was wearing a MadisonTech B211 Scout visor. It had been a Christmas present from his sister Kelly.

How did you get this?” he asked. “You couldn’t possibly have known about us.

“Fredo gave me these,” Grace answered. “He’s sorry about what happened, too. I think, if you gave him another chance, you two might find a way to be happy together.”

Even as she lied without missing a beat, heat rose in her cheeks. Lately, Taylor was pulling private user information too quickly from all the right sources, consent forms be damned. One of these days, his antics were going to get the entire Corps in serious trouble with the CMPD Network Security Unit.

But until then, she thanked God for daredevils like him.

Oh, Jesus…” Michael’s voice was shaky. She could feel the tipping point inside him. “I… what do I do now?

“Listen carefully. Take a step back from the rooftop, Michael.” She paused to check a stream of updates in her HUD. “There are two EMTs on their way upstairs as we speak. All you need to do is wait for them and you’ll be fine. I promise.”

Okay. Okay, I…” Michael swallowed; a sound that was louder than Grace’s fast-beating heart. “Can I keep talking to you, Grace? I’m really, really sorry about all this…

Closing her eyes, Grace smiled. “You sure can, Michael. I’m listening.”


Acknowledgements

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon, including Josh Powlinson, for their contributions that make stories like this one possible.

To see more content like this, please visit my Patreon page and become a proud donor today.

Flash Fiction: “In the Eyes of Almighty Rah”

Continuing my series “Stories from Cal Metro,” I wanted to explore a little more about the city’s criminal element and its impact on technology and street culture.

Enjoy.


In the Eyes of Almighty Rah, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 1,354

When you entered the presence of Moses McGill, you followed protocol. Drop to one knee if you were one of his suppliers and runners, but if you came from outside the family, you had to bend both knees to get his respect.

Unless you were Dom Harker. In which case, you’d screwed up big time.

***

They dragged him into McGill’s parlor late on a Thursday night. Covered in bruises and his ripped-up blazer, Dom was dropped face first onto the white tile floor. He stayed low as the two musclemen flanked him on either side. One false move and they’d crush his windpipe before any hint of an insult—or an apology—could be uttered.

From behind the porcelain bar, McGill dropped a pair of ice cubes into his glass. Dom stayed on the floor and shivered. He listened to the whiskey being poured out, imagining its taste. Of course, it’d be a good label. Rah’s Boys always found the best products on the market, no matter their price.

Or their original owner, for that matter.

“I’d offer you a drink,” McGill said. His voice had a rheumy, gargling edge; a little soft-spoken, but it never failed to draw the whole room’s attention. “But I get the feeling you’ve had a few already. It’s the only way I figure how you’ve done something so stupid.”

Dom said nothing. He closed his eyes and pushed himself onto his knees.

“Easy,” one of the musclemen behind him rumbled. “Don’t try nothin’ now.”

Opening his eyes, Dom looked over at McGill. Old Kingman had seated himself on a stool in front of the bar, giving his longtime associate on the floor a contemplative smile. That saintly image of the old man with ebony skin and a cloud-white beard was the one true icon that every one of Rah’s Boys knew by heart. Their raison d’etre.

Why believe in a God who may or may not exist when good old Rah himself was available? And had easy money, no less?

After a sip of his whiskey, McGill nodded to himself. “Brother Tommy went and told me the whole story about that action in Donetsk. Mighty shameful, that is. And that accounts for poor old Brett”—he stopped and lifted his glass in salute—“may he rest in peace.”

“May he rest in peace,” the musclemen chanted in response.

McGill swirled around the ice in his glass with one finger, lazily regarding Dom. “But that doesn’t let you off the hook, my good Dominic. Now suppose you tell us what went down.”

Dom stayed perfectly still. He kept his hands on the lap, palms up, so his two guards could see them perfectly. When he looked up at McGill, he forgot all the bruises and scrapes he’d taken from Donetsk to Fairview. The pain subsided long enough for him to pull himself together.

“The deal went south,” he said in a clear, calm voice. “Brett told me our contact Tymoshenko would be waiting for us at the hotel. We scoped out the place, made all the arrangements with security and staff, and then…” He shrugged. “Well, then it all went to shit.”

“And how do you figure that happened?” McGill took another drink, slow and certain.

That was the clincher. One false move, one inaccuracy in the story, and Dom would be breathing his last very shortly.

But he’d prepared. He’d made a promise to get it right.

“Tymoshenko was acting strange when we met him. Like he was being watched. Brett thought it was just his own boss keeping tabs, but my instinct told me it was the heat coming down on us.” Dom licked at his lips, trying to remember the last drink he’d had since before his beating and his summons to Rah’s court. “When I saw the sirens outside, I pulled Brett away. Our guy starts cursing at us, saying we’re doomed no matter what, and then—”

He fell silent. In his mind, he saw the scene perfectly. Tymoshenko grabbing his comm and punching in a code to his boss, ready to call in the hit. And then the explosion ripped apart the hotel bar, spraying glass and blood in all directions. Brett screamed, Dom tripped, and poor Tymoshenko became a pile of raw meat on their table.

“Yeah, yeah,” said McGill. He waved off the story with his free hand. “Local left-wing nutjobs bomb the hotel. Hundreds wounded, very sad. But that don’t explain why you couldn’t make the trade. I lost money on the deal and Poltorak’s raising Cain about his missing flash fuel.”

Again, Dom replayed the scene from the hotel over in his head. It would’ve been easier if he was wearing his Scout visor, with instant playback guaranteed. But even in his head, he could make a few judicious edits.

Blink. There was Tymoshenko again, but instead of grabbing his comm, he took out a datapad. Instead of screaming about his boss, he was punching in a different code altogether. That sinister grin on his face, as the bomb went off, was too good to be true—or so Dom hoped.

“Except Poltorak didn’t know what his guy was proposing,” he told McGill. “Tymoshenko was ambitious. He tells me and Brett he wants a bigger cut. Offers to get us more flash fuel to bring into the States without his boss even knowing about it.”

“Yeah? What then?”

“I tell him I need a moment to think it over. Let Brett sit and hear out the rest of his story. But as soon as I get into the men’s room…” Dom grimaced. “Well, you know the rest, Kingman.”

If all had gone according to plan, the surviving security footage from the Donbass Hotel would prove that story out. A simple financial transaction to a code boy in Minsk ensured that someone who strongly resembled Dom Harker had left at the time that he specified, so only Brett and Tymoshenko were seen sitting together when the bomb went off.

A risky game, but he had no other recourse except to play it through.

“So you’re saying you all fucked up, that right?” McGill frowned and finished the rest of his drink. When he set the glass down on the bar, he shook his head. “Unbelievable. And I thought you and Brett were my best runners. Abso-fucking-lutely disgraceful.”

Dom bowed his head, still following protocol. “You’re right, Rah. I accept whatever judgment you prescribe.”

***

Two months and a few broken ribs later, Dom Harker sat inside a virtual café on Mission Street. He pulled off his earphones, still swaying his shoulders to the soft, electronic jazz of DJ Bricolage and Harmony Xena. Something about the melody was supposed to be good for his recovery, but he never gave those clinic techs much heed. If he had, he wouldn’t have ordered another round of drinks and fries for the evening.

On the touchscreen at his table, a soft chime rang, followed by a glowing message notification. Dom looked from one side to the other. When he saw no one else was watching, he hit the notice with his finger.

New message from AmicusCuriae771:

Yo, we’re cool now.

Here’s your cut.

Pleasure doing business with you.

Dom swallowed. When he opened a fresh tab on his screen and checked his bank account, he nearly did a double-take.

The transfer was still pending, but he’d be set for life.

With a smile, he tapped at the first screen and drafted a short message back.

Reply from Venator47-A:

You still owe me for the facelift, B.

Yeah, we’re cool.

Don’t ever contact me again.

As he hit “Send” and watched the message disappear into the Net, Dom leaned back in his chair with a grin. He almost expected his good moment to fall apart, complete with flashing sirens or an ambush by some of Rah’s Boys.

When the trouble didn’t occur after a few minutes, he waved over the waitress and ordered a white wine. The buzz would play hell on his nanomeds, but that was fine.

He could afford it, at least.

Flash Fiction: “Second Skin”

It’s been a while since I’ve written some new Flash Fiction for the site, so I’m trying something new. My writing partner and I have developed a fictional setting called Cal Metro, which we’re exploring in scripts and short stories. In that spirit, I’m producing a few short stories set in our shared universe.

Enjoy.


Second Skin, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 1,512

When we discovered the breakthrough, I was ecstatic to say the least. But I never imagined that he’d be the one to take the spotlight for himself.

Not for long, though.

***

When the media storm hit its peak, Giovanni held a party at his home in Surfside Heights. Even with all that had come between us, I still received a last-minute invitation in my inbox. A tiny green textbox that popped up on my Scout visor, scrolling over my field of vision as I rode the south tram line across Fairview.

You are cordially invited to the Miracle Celebration!

Drinks and hors d’oeuvres will be served at nine p.m.

RSVP (Please disregard if this is a Platinum invite)

Bloody marvelous. Few things sounded worse to me than an evening spent with Olympian athletes and bodymod aristocracy. I could’ve easily gone to a nightclub in the Lower East and gotten the experience at half the price.

Yet go I did. Not because I enjoyed Giovanni’s company, but because I knew this night would be the last thing he’d enjoy for a while.

While he’d been basking in the limelight, I’d been busy in the shadows.

***

The glitterati were out in force at Surfside Heights that evening. I went unnoticed in the throngs of men, women, and androgynes that passed underneath the golden arch out front. My skin tingled when the overhead security and media scanners trained their cameras on me. As designed, they would spend the next twelve picoseconds examining every flaw in my skin, every line and cut in my little black dress and Armani clutch. All in a vain attempt to guess my tailor, my retailer, and the HMO for my plastic surgery and gene therapies.

I allowed myself a tiny smile. No such luck tonight. All the surgery and gene mods were in-house, unlisted as far as the Coastal Register was concerned.

When I had made it to the front steps, I greeted the android at the door with a cheerful grin. He looked rather smart in his tuxedo. His attire would have been unnecessary in any other field, but there was an image of prestige that had to be cultivated at Surfside Heights.

“Good evening,” said the server bot. He executed a precise half-bow and extended his right index finger toward me. “Your credentials, please.”

Double-layered security. I’d expected as much at a gathering of the Coastal Elite. I smiled at the droid and extended my index finger back.

When my identichip touched his finger’s receptor node, I saw a familiar burst of data in my Scout visor.

Elizabeth-Marie Crowley (female identified)

Genetic researcher – Lapis Philo Enterprises

Contact code: 5XT-990-A, ClaveNet No. 334

I waited until I saw Giovanni’s invitation flash across my eyes. As I dropped my finger, I watched the droid’s behavior change as well. He straightened his posture, his photoreceptors shifting from sea green to sky blue. Even the synthetic voice had turned soft and pleasant.

“Welcome to Surfside Heights, Miss Crowley,” the doorbot declared, transmitting its prerecorded message as crisply as it had been programmed. “Please enjoy your evening. Refreshments and hors d’ouevres are available on the second floor. Our esteemed host will be speaking later this evening at a quarter to midnight.”

“Thank you,” I said and swept past the automaton. He swiveled back into place and greeted the next guest in line while I proceeded into the grand golden atrium.

I wasn’t surprised when no one recognized me or asked for me by name. That was rather the point. If I’d gotten the credit that Giovanni had stolen away, I’d be hosting the Miracle of Miracles alongside him. Instead, I was another face in the crowd, while viewscreens of his smug grin and his baby blue eyes lined every available inch of wall space in the atrium.

And underneath every photo or streaming video ran the same headline:

Giovanni Delcourt, The Father of Eternal Youth

***

At eleven-thirty, I was alone on the eastern portico of the mansion, sipping slowly from a flute of champagne. My eyes were focused on the navy blue night sky, watching for the faintest gleams of starlight. A lot easier to see the stars in East Fairview, where the light pollution stayed to a minimum at the residents’ request.

It was easier than listening to my ex-husband ramble on all evening.

“…And you never know, you just never know,” he insisted from behind me, “how these media pros will turn on you. One minute, you’re discussing telomere extension protocols, and the next, you’re being ripped to shreds because a Vatican theologian is questioning your faith in God!” He laughed and took another sip of his drink. “Honestly, you should be glad you’re not in my shoes right now. They’d be raking you over the coals on account of your gender, Liz.”

I made a point of shrugging and glancing over my shoulder at him. “Well, it’s not like I’ll ever get the chance to find out.”

Giovanni fell silent. I watched him swirl the champagne around his glass and contemplate the bubbles rising inside it.

“We could’ve been great together,” he murmured. “I love what our research pulled off, but—”

“Oh, so it’s ours, then?”

“Don’t be like that, Liz.” Giovanni’s blue eyes flash over my face. He never could read me as well as he thought he did. “You know what these Elites are like. Give them something to play with and the world is yours for the taking. If we’d done what you’d proposed, we’d still be waiting for endless FDA trials and international inquiry boards. This is the only way we’d get it out there. The only way we’d share our gift with the world.”

I gave him an understanding nod, even while I let loose a sigh deep inside. Classic Giovanni. He had such a way of making we still sound like I, even when he was sincere.

I almost hated having to spoil his evening.

***

At a quarter to midnight, the main event was due. Giovanni took center-stage on the first floor, with thousands of eyes fixed on his every move. I kept to the edge of the crowd, watching through the live-feed that streamed across my visor.

“…And within minutes, you’ll see the numbers jump on Mrs. Wonderley’s monitor,” Giovanni was saying to the crowd. He swept his hand back toward the touchscreen. “And you all know what that means, I’m sure!”

That earned him a ripple of laughs and light applause from the audience.

My smile sharpened.

“Sir,” said one of the white-suited techs to his left. The young man waved for Giovanni’s attention. “Will you take a look, please?”

“In a minute…”

“No, sir. Please.”

Giovanni turned and glanced at the technician’s datapad. My grin only grew wider when his eyes bulged in horror.

“This can’t be right,” he hissed, just loud enough for the airborne microphones to pick up.

“Sir, we need to stop the protocol. She’s reached the Hayflick limit. Any more and she’ll—”

Whatever else the young fellow might’ve said was cut off. A bloodcurdling scream split the air. All eyes turned from Giovanni to the poor frail woman sitting in the chair to his right. She gasped and swatted at the tubes running out from her biceps, looking paler by the second.

Only I knew what the poor old thing was going through. Distasteful as it was, I swore to stand and watch every minute.

Her skin had begun to deteriorate, accelerating past metastasis and into the transplant phase. I stood and watched with over two hundred other guests as Mrs. Madison Wonderley’s eyes rolled back into her head, and her body began to convulse with multiple points of organ failure. The numbers on her monitor did jump as Giovanni had promised—but far into the negative range.

Death was never pretty to watch, but after so many lab trials, I wasn’t as terrified to witness it.

“No, no, no!” Backhanding the techs away, Giovanni whirled onto the crowd. “My friends, I must apologize for this… this incident! It was never… I never intended to… to…!”

His voice trailed off into a sad howl, and he turned back to the pump controls at his station, even while Mrs. Wonderley’s face twisted into a horrible mask of tears and agony.

Around me, the crowd broke out into murmurs of disbelief. I hid my smile behind my hand as one well-dressed androgyne in a rainbow hue evening gown muttered, “Revolting. You’d think the old boy would’ve had the decency to leave his gene glitches at home.”

“It’s last year’s Angel’s Banquet all over again,” their date, a stunning blonde, whispered back.

My work was done. I allowed myself one last look at poor Giovanni’s haggard face before I switched off the live-feed and slid back toward the entrance.

The android at the door took my half-finished champagne with a courteous bow. “Shall I call an autocab, Miss?”

“No need,” I replied, giving him a curtsy in return. “I’ll find my own way home.”