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The following text is an excerpt from TECH-HEAVEN by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 1995 by Linda Nagata. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
Chapter 1–To Live Forever
Katie Kishida rode into the little Andean village of La Cruz on the back of a bony black steel mannequin. Through her VR suit she directed each crunching step along the mineral soil of the village’s lone street. A freezing wind whistled through the mannequin’s external joints and soughed past the rim of her VR helmet. She clung to the mannequin’s back, studying the helmet’s video display, anxiously searching the village for signs of life. But there was nothing–not a wisp of smoke or a scrounging bird, or even a cat slinking through the cluster of worn, wood-frame buildings.
She commanded the remotely controlled unit to stop. The village made a neat frame for an imposing line of white peaks supporting a heavy ceiling of storm clouds. Bass thunder rumbled there, arriving almost below the range of hearing, a deep vibration that set Katie’s slight, sixty four year old body trembling, and snapped the brittle tethers she’d placed upon her fear.
The Voice cops had forgotten her!
She didn’t want to believe it. Certainly in Panama they’d tried to stop her. Failing that, they’d seized her holding company, Kishida-Hunt. They’d confiscated her assets, declared her a criminal, and then… nothing. She’d journeyed south for weeks with no sign of pursuit, and that worried her most of all, because the Voice cops wouldn’t give up unless they thought she was dead… or disarmed. Maybe they knew about her bootleg copy of the Cure. Maybe they’d seized it before it could be shipped to La Cruz. Or maybe the life extension schedule was a fraud, and there had been no pursuit since Panama because there was no Cure–and no way to restore life to the cryonic suspension patients hidden in a clandestine mausoleum in the mountains above La Cruz.
Fear had become her default emotion.
She shut down the remote, then slid from her perch on its back to stand on her own stiff legs. Her lean muscles ached and her ass was forever sore. She lifted the video helmet off her head. The wind streamed past her cheeks, its bitter touch oddly familiar. She thought she could feel Tom’s presence in the mountains’ unremitting cold. Tom had been dead thirty years. Or maybe he’d just become a crystalline lifeform when his heart had stopped, his body and their marriage both immersed in liquid nitrogen, -196 degrees C, a cold that had haunted her life.
A child’s laughter suddenly broke through her reverie. Katie looked up quickly. Motion caught her eye, drawing her gaze up the street to a single-story building slightly larger than all the others, with a hand-lettered sign by the door declaring Provisiones. Katie remembered. This was the same store where she’d bought a cup of hot coffee fifteen years ago. Back then, the building had been painted a shade of blue that matched the sky. But time had bleached and chipped away the paint until now there was only a hint of color left between the cracks. The walls were further abused with rusty staples, a few still clenching the tattered corners of handbills that had long since blown away. A little girl was peering past the partly opened door, bouncing up and down in excitement as she exclaimed in lilting Spanish over the skeletal aspect of the remote.
In her eagerness, Katie dropped the helmet in the street, forgetting it before it hit the ground. She hobbled toward the store, fighting muscle cramps in her legs. If the Cure had been successfully shipped from Vancouver, then it would be here, in the mercantile. She could claim her package and push on, higher still into the mountains, to the hidden mausoleum where Tom waited. If she could get to that quiet place, with the Cure in hand and no cops on her trail, then perhaps she could finally confront the ghost that had haunted her for thirty years.
The little girl smiled at her. From inside the store, a woman shouted. The girl glanced over her shoulder, then turned back to Katie with a grin. She opened the door wider. “Hola, Senora. Entre usted, por favor.”
Inside the store the air was warm with electric heat and light. Katie began to perspire under her many layers of clothing, even before the door had closed behind her. She felt disoriented as she pulled off her gloves and stuffed them in a pocket. The physical comfort of the store’s interior seemed alien, bold and fragile at once. Outside, the frigid wind gusted hard past the roofline. The building seemed to inflate, and then it shuddered. It was only a matter of time, Katie thought. The wind would penetrate this bubble of warmth, cool it, slow it, stretch it out in time, arresting the process while preserving the structure.
There wasn’t much left in the store beyond structure anyway. Most of the shelves and ceiling hooks were bare, as if the owners had already finished their going out of business sale. Near the back though, Katie discovered a couple of beautiful woven blankets, and some food and modern camping supplies. Behind a yellowed linoleum counter an old woman, dressed in native woolens, watched with stern eyes.
Katie browsed self-consciously through the meager selection, gathering a supply of food–beans and rice and aseptic juice cartons. A blanket. A pair of heavy woolen socks. Her heart raced; her pulse felt thready. Was the package here? Was it? She piled the items on the counter, then produced a false I.D.
Her jaw worked for a few seconds as she tried to introduce saliva into the terribly dry cavity of her mouth. If the package wasn’t here than it was over. All over. And she could climb up into the mountains or wander down to the sea and it wouldn’t matter. Tom would remain on ice. And she would have to endure his ghost every time she closed her eyes.
She passed the old woman an I.D. card bearing the fictitious name of Theresa Myers. Then asked, in Spanish, as if it were something of small importance, “Do you have a package for me?”
The woman squinted at the I.D. Then her eyebrows shot up. She looked at Katie with a kind of awe. “Theresa Myers? Theresa Myers? Ah, you have come. At last, at last.” And she ducked down under the counter and pulled out a cardboard box that was no larger than a briefcase. “All the other villagers have gone to Arica or even beyond. But I swore to remain until you came. My granddaughter and I. Now we can follow.” She took Katie’s I.D. and entered it on her phone while Katie cautiously touched the box. The woman handed her back the card. “I’m a wealthy woman now, Senora. I’ll buy a home in Arica. This village has always been my home, but now the mountains are at war with the sun and people are no longer welcome here….”
Katie nodded, only half-listening as she used a knife to open the package. Inside was an unlocked ceramic case whose top slid back, curving, to disappear into the liner. Nested in the padded interior was a collection of nearly two hundred sealed ampules and a cyberbook.
She ran trembling fingers across the ampules; touched the buttons on the cyberbook, scarcely breathing. This was supposed to be a general rejuvenation therapy, developed in her own European labs. It hardly seemed possible.
Be young again. Raise the dead. Neat and easy.
The market value of this kit would be incalculable… if it worked.
Where were the Voice cops?
She wondered again if she’d gambled away her life and fortune on a fraud.
Then her lips set in a stubborn line. Silently, she chastised herself. She’d come so far, given up so much. She was not going to succumb to pessimism now. The Voice cops were not omniscient. It was still possible to move beneath their gaze without being seen.
She reclosed the case, then pulled on her gloves. Nodding her thanks to the old woman, she tucked the case under one arm, grabbed the sack of groceries with the other, and went outside.
The wind had grown in strength. It tugged angrily at the hood of her parka, and as she watched, it unbalanced the remote, sending it toppling to the unpaved street where it lay humped around the supply pack strapped to its chest.
“Shit.” Not an auspicious sign.
She tramped over to it, and set her booty on the ground.
The bipedal remote unit had been designed to function as a full body prosthesis. Its legs and arms were slender and well-braced at the joints, like reconstructed bones. Its torso was narrow, sitting in a swivel joint on the pelvic girdle. Its head was a smooth model of a human skull, with glass lenses where the eyes should be and a blank surface instead of a mouth and nose. It was controlled through the VR, giving its user a physical presence in remote locations. But it required constant guidance.
Picking up the helmet, Katie dusted it off and set it back on her head, pulling it down over her hood. She flicked it on. A video image appeared on a screen just inches before her eyes. She frowned, then realized the remote was looking straight up into a roiling ceiling of heavy gray clouds. Well. At least the satellite eyes of the Voice cops wouldn’t be witnessing this scene.
A finger-width plug dangled from the helmet. She grabbed it, then felt beneath her collar for the socket. Close to the skin, beneath her many layers of clothing, she wore a wired suit. Sensors in the suit’s fabric picked up every flexion, every muscle twitch of her body. Processors, working from experience, weighed the validity of the motion, culling the random stretches, the cramps, the sighs, the farts, while sending the purposeful signals on to the steel body of the remote unit. In the process, the scale of motion was amplified. A tiny twitch in Katie’s thigh and calf translated into a four foot stride for the mannequin. A slight shift of her weight caused it to turn.
Now she guided it carefully to a standing position, feet set wide and torso leaning slightly into the wind. As always, its metal hands were locked behind its hips, palms spread flat to create her seat.
She felt a lull in the wind and switched out of the remote’s sensorium. Grabbing the case that contained the Cure, she stuffed that and her groceries into the pack on the remote’s chest. Then she hurried around to its back and climbed on. She could feel it rocking under her as a gust of wind shot down the village street. Quickly, she switched back into the remote, and suddenly she felt balanced, strong. She lifted her head; looked with glass eyes toward the peaks. Lightning played there. Thunder grumbled. A wholly appropriate setting for bringing the dead back to life. She grinned, and started the remote unit running up the road.
Fifteen years ago, the cryonics company, Forward Futures, had established a hidden mausoleum high in the Chilean Andes. They’d chosen a nineteenth century copper mine for the site. Katie had been part of the team that had come down from California to settle in the cryonic suspension patients, set up the compact distillation facility that would manufacture liquid nitrogen from the atmosphere, and finally, to help seal the mausoleum.
The abandoned mine had been situated at the bottom of a steep slope laden with snow. The crew had concealed the entrance behind a huge slab of rock that had flaked off the mountain. The activity generated a small avalanche, leaving the slab half-buried–a natural looking stone lean-to that shielded the outer steel door from casual observation. A scree slope facsimile netting, manufactured in California for landscaping purposes and guaranteed for twenty years of use, had been hung over the door as further camouflage. Finally, the crew had closed the road behind them with a few sticks of dynamite.
Fog shrouded the slope as Katie clambered over the rocky debris that blocked the road, and then walked the remote past the mine’s huge pile of tailings. Using her video display, she gazed through the streaming mists, straining for a sight of the tiny mining village that had already been abandoned when she’d made her first visit here. At last she saw the bell tower of the church, a dark edifice in the fog. A few steps more, and she was saddened to see that the weight of snow and time had caused the church roof to collapse, though the walls still stood. Three other structures had been part of this village too, but all now lay crushed on the ground, like detritus found in the footprint of a mountain god.
She looked around. There was not a scrap of vegetation. Patches of snow lingered on the leeward side of every tumbled rock. The air was dry and thin and bitterly cold and the only sounds were the rush of the wind as it curled past her helmet and the crunch of the remote’s worn feet against the sterile ground.
She passed the church and wandered another half mile, around the foot of a ridge that flanked the village. The abandoned mine had been used as a mausoleum even before Forward Futures took it over. Fifteen years ago there had still been a cross fixed over the entrance.
She rounded the last rock outcropping. A natural terrace fronted the mine. She saw the slab just beyond. Carefully negotiating a field of tumbled rock, she worked her way to the slab and squeezed behind it. Her remote eyes immediately adjusted to the semi-darkness and she caught her breath in concern. The cross was gone. And the facsimile netting had been pulled off the door. It lay crumpled on the frozen ground. She stared at it a moment through the remote’s camera eyes, and then she disconnected herself from the machine and dismounted, removing her helmet with arms stiff from the cold. How long ago had the vandals been here? Years? Or days?
Her gaze turned to the door. It was still intact. She crouched in front of it, studying the lock, her breath coming fast and deep in the thin atmosphere. The lock’s protective cover had been torn away and the keypad had been bashed with rocks or bullets. But when she pushed on the door, it held. That brought her momentary relief. Probably the vandals hadn’t gotten inside.
She worked at the broken stubs of the buttons, running the combination through while thunder boomed and wisps of fog swept past on a bitter wind. She completed the combination, but the door failed to open. She stared at the lock in consternation. The day was starting to fade. Though she had a tent and a sleeping bag and heating rods, the thought of camping at this elevation, in this weather, frightened her. She suspected it wouldn’t be hard to fall asleep and never wake up again.
So she ran the combination again, going slowly this time, pressing each button hard. Still the door failed to open. She stripped off her gloves and ran the combination again. Four times. Five. Cursing. Fingers fumbling; really feeling the altitude; hardly able to think. Six times. Or was it eight? And then she had it. Something rumbled inside the steel door. She pushed. The door gave a little. She pushed harder, and slowly, the heavy panel swung in on its hinge.
Inside was a dark passage through the native stone, no more than six feet long, and then another door. Slowly, carefully, she entered the second combination, grinning in overdone triumph when she got it right the first time.
She shoved the door open, releasing a puff of supercold air bearing a faint, earthy smell. The interior was pitch black. But it wasn’t silent. A soft machine whir filled the air like an ethereal hum. She could hear the drip of liquid, the click of automatic equipment, the distant howl of wind as it clawed through turbines mounted in the airshafts that ventilated the caverns of this former copper mine.
She put her helmet back on and re-established the electronic link with the remote. Its skeletal body became her body; its steely hands, her own. She walked it into the mausoleum, making it turn and close the doors behind it. Then she slipped the helmet off, blinking into the frozen darkness. “Hark: lights on,” she said softly, and the primitive AI that resided here obeyed.
Fixtures deeper in the cavern flicked on. The light spilled out over the chiseled rock of the first chamber, revealing niches that held frail human figures wrapped in colorful woolens. These were the Indians who’d been interred here after the mine played out.
Forward Futures had secured its own dead in the second and third chambers. They’d brought them here, seeking to protect them from the turbulence of politics as well as the assaults of time. But the patients were owed more than protection. Katie’s gloveless hand slipped into the pocket of her parka, tightening around the cool weight of the pistol she carried. Forward Futures had an obligation to bring their suspension patients back to life… even in defiance of the law. She didn’t trust them to do it. Her fellows on the Board of Directors were a cautious lot. They would have told her to wait. As if waiting was a safe option. Hesitate now, and their only chance to revive the patients might be sealed permanently in the past. So Katie had made her own decision. She’d refused a political appointment to the Voice colony on Mars to come here herself.
She left the gun in her pocket. Turning back to the remote, she opened the chest pack and retrieved the sack that held her groceries, and the satchel that contained the Cure. Leaving the remote to stand sentinel at the door, she set off across the rough stone floor of the first chamber. The walls narrowed, then expanded again into the second chamber. Here, florescent light fixtures shone down on silver-bright steel cylinders, twin rows of them, standing shoulder to shoulder and more than man-high. They lined both sides of the passage, towering over her head like crowded columns in some futuristic temple. On the ceiling, the glowing florescent light tubes were interspersed with ceramic tracks that criss-crossed the rock. A small robot rolled slowly along the tracks. It had two manipulator arms and camera eyes and it looked like a crab as it moved stolidly from one storage cylinder to another, monitoring the levels of liquid nitrogen in each. These were the cryogenic habitats of the new dead. No colorful woolens for them. Their bodies were wrapped in plastic and immersed in liquid nitrogen. All biological processes stopped at -196 degrees C.
She passed under a ventilation shaft. The howl of the turbine grew louder. Cables dropped out of the shaft like a tree’s black roots. They hugged the ceiling, and she followed them to the third chamber. Here there were cylinders on only one side, and a vast collection of black-boxed batteries on the other. She counted carefully down the line of cylinders, two, three, four, five from the door. There. In the front row. That one had Tom.
With her gloved hand she touched the steel surface. Traced the stenciled number. It had been so long.
She turned, and with her back pressed against the cylinder, slid to the ground. Her legs bent reluctantly, and she winced against a dull ache in her hips. She was sixty four and could no longer deny that age was catching her, despite the rigorous diet, the constant exercise. Her eyes closed, and again she felt the clutch of fear, like a black-hooded figure rattling the bars of her rib cage, warning her that she was running out of time.
Suddenly, the howl of the turbines rose in pitch as the wind outside heightened, and she distinctly heard Tom’s voice calling her, distant, almost angry. Her eyes snapped open. Dry and gritty eyes, accustomed to facing unpleasant scenes.
Tom does not want to come back.
She could hear his spirit twisting through the turbines. Staring straight ahead at the stacked black boxes of the batteries, she tried to ignore the cold howl of his demands. “It’s not like I’m offering you a choice,” she muttered. “So shut up.”
She pulled the satchel onto her lap and opened it. Amidst the vials was a spindle of clear plastic, longer than her hand but no wider than her little finger. She picked it up and held it to the light. The soft plastic squished a little within her grip.
Embedded inside the transparent spindle was a glittery white shaft, as fine as a human hair. She tipped the spindle back and forth and watched the shaft sparkle like a thread of fresh snow. It was a hypodermic needle, encased in protective plastic. Six inches long, the ceramic needle was sharp enough to penetrate a human skull–even a skull that had been frozen for thirty years.
“See this, Tom?” she asked softly. “I’m going to use this to drag you back–whether you want to come or not. Because you owe me. Dammit, Tom, you owe me plenty, and I’m going to collect.”
She looked up expectantly, waiting to hear the roar of his protest in the humming voice of the turbine. But there was nothing beyond the mindless howl of the gale.
A Prequel to the Nanotech Succession
by Linda Nagata
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-0-9831100-0-2