a short story
How does anybody find anybody else in this world?
Search engines! OK, I was googling myself, although I think it was well
before google was in her prime. Whatever the search engine, it turned
up, I think it was Simon Ings' review of my Weird Women collection,
and believe me, I was stoked. I got in touch with Keith, we back-and-forthed
by e, and I put him in touch with Terry Bisson and a couple of others
who were happy to have their work posted on I-Plus and the site grew.
Keith and I met in London, I sent more stuff; we met in London and I
told him about my online community at StoryMOO and voila, he sat in
as resident critic for a term, reading and responding to kids' stuff
both in notes and in our online workshops; then he came to Wesleyan
in the States where all this was happening in meatspace. Then Wesleyan
paid my way to do a gig in the UK and during this period I realized
that StoryMoo was a terrific place to do realtime online interviews--
first I talked to Geoff Ryman about
Air and other matters, then Keith
on Genetopia, both of which you will find posted on the ancient
and honorable I-Plus. It's all been tremendous fun. But/and, like any
thriving organism, I-plus grew exponentially until it hit what seems
to be the ideal optimum size. I can only hope some hard-copy publisher
will find a way to collect and publish all the treasures collected here
for posterity -- and people like me. Meanwhile, a farewell story, to
mark my final contribution to the final chapter. Ave atque vale,
cheers and all that. Oh, and excelsior!
Everybody wants to live forever, but in order to do this,
Barry Whittimore has arranged to pre-die. He wants to do this while
he is still young and good looking, because he is rich enough to afford
the process and pay for maintenance into the next millennium, if that's
what it takes.
Besides, why wait until you get cancer or some other gross disease
that medicine may never figure out how to cure? Think young. Stay young.
Go while you're still buff and attractive, just the way you are! Isn't
that much, much better? Go out before you get too feeble to restore.
Do it while you're on a roll and come back when improved technology
in the areas of cosmetic surgery and, ahem, masculine enhancement catches
up with your needs.
Barry is a handsome, sexy, vital seventy-five. He is a rich, fit and
versatile CEO, one of the world's movers and shakers, lucky man! He's
also a gifted amateur painter in the outsider vein, in his spare time
Barry does Florida landscapes on driftwood planks his assistants go
out before dawn to collect before the tide catches them or the beach
sweepers carry them away. He especially loves art openings; the tourists
are crazy about his paintings, partly because he comes on like a romantic
beachcomber who lives in a palmetto shack instead of the witty, wealthy
man that he is.
They have no idea that he goes home at night to a waterfront villa
he picked up for a song. It's valued in the mid-seven figures, now that
he's fixed it up. He's brought home some lovely women from those sidewalk
art shows. House is filled with and cold running girlfriends, arrayed
around the indoor-outdoor pool and draped on overstuffed sofas, slow
dancing on the terrazzo floors. He loves to come upon his girls wandering
the halls in their thongs and tankinis, chattering and giggling as they
run around enhancing the decor. And they love it when he wanders out
and bumps into them, except lately he's seen his girls' expressions
change when they see him coming and they don't wriggle and laugh the
way they used to when he pounces on them.
One thing his father the company president taught him was, always
leave the meeting while it's going well.
As a prospect for Vitality Eternal, Barry is a natural. Besides, and
this is a dead secret. After a lifetime of being Mr. Super Happy Fun
Guy on top of all the stress that comes with running a megacorporation,
Barry is, frankly, a little tired.
He has, furthermore, made a very special arrangement here.
Usually Vitality Eternal expects its clients to be legally dead before
they touch them, in order to avoid trouble with the law. Of course they
intervene at the exact moment when the important parts of you are still
functional, but according to the law anybody they touch had better be
legally dead. Why, that's dangerously close to being a corpse! No cliff-hangers
for this chicken. He only plays games he can win.
Barry knows better than anybody how loud money talks and he's convinced
the good people at Vitality Eternal to begin the process while his physical
assets are still intact.
Which is what they are doing at this very moment, as in a semi-drugged
state which the director advised him is the prelude to suspending his
functions without turning him to ice, he wonders why instead of being
lulled, he is tense and alert. He is on a table in the Center for Operations
in this unique facility in a location which, for security purposes,
has never been disclosed.
"You understand," the director told him at their last conference
before the signing, "this makes you one of the chosen few. You're
part of our very, very special pilot project," he went on. He dressed
too much like an undertaker to suit Barry, but he offset it with that
reassuring, essential winners'-circle smile. "Only a very few strong,
exceptional, directed people are willing to make the assurances
necessary for us to allow them to pre-die."
At the time, Barry was flattered. When he wakes up, he'll be with
people like himself. Hard driving. Exceptional. Special. That's
"No underground storage tanks for our premium clients,"
the director said, without saying exactly how many there are. "For
you and others like you," he concluded, "We have designed
luxury accommodations in a very, very special place."
Now Barry is at the heart of the operation. He is strapped to the
suspension table in the great central dome in a massive underground
installation whose location is so secret that instead of having the
chauffeur drop him or letting him take one last run in his breezy convertible
to get here, Vitality Eternal came for him in a closed car. Of the gigantic
buried complex, only the dome protrudes. The inverted teacup where he
is lying, he's relieved to see, is designed to provide the suspended
with reflected views of the tips of palm trees and the gorgeous, constantly
changing Florida skies.
"We can't tell you," the director said when Barry finally
signed the papers, "exactly how much the suspended perceive,
but we have made the environment as pleasant as possible for our very
few, very special clients who have the wits and the will to pre-die.
We can't know whether they are alert or even aware once we have completed
the process, or in healthy stasis until the next phase. What we can
tell you is that you'll never be alone at Vitality Eternal, and you'll
never be un-tended. As long as you're here at V.E. you will receive
excellent, excellent care in surroundings designed to keep you happy
and edified. At night, whether or not you can see them, we will keep
non-stop motion pictures running in our three dozen suspension pods,
all the latest movies showing on our three dozen individual frostproof
screens. Now, if you're ready..."
He's beyond ready. When he woke up this morning his left arm had frozen
so he couldn't bend it and when he looked back at his pillow it was
matted with fallen hair. The girls don't know it but his Mr. Funboy
hasn't spoken to him in weeks.
Barry is ready in other ways as well. When you plan to pre-die, you
also need to pre-plan. His staff has stored a thousand books and hours
and hours of music in his Megapod for easy listening, in case he can
hear anything, and if he can't... It will be more like a long nap, which
is what the facilitator promised. No, Barry is no sucker ripe for the
plucking. Before he acted, Barnett Whittimore researched this thing
and V.E. is definitely the best provider, with longterm plans for preservative
suspension and continued care and staff lined up into the next five
generations to back it up. On top of which he extracted certain guarantees
from the director before he signed.
"You will never be alone," the director said. Barry cut
him a check to guarantee that. Then, because every C.E.O. knows to smile
at everyone and trust no one, he cut another check to guarantee the
services of several generations of his personal staff to make sure everything
goes right. Annual payment contingent on fulfillment of obligations
in the year prior and annual renewal of vows. Then he hired a slew of
Pinkertons to follow up on that.
Now he is, as they say in the V.E. suspension business, ready to roll.
Beyond ready, with his half-million hours of books and music and his
outfit ready for the great day when he wakes up in the new world. Several
outfits, in fact, because life may be eternal but high fashion changes
every week. If he turns his head he can see them hanging on their rack
outside the cylinder where he will spend the next part of his life.
Hard, perhaps, being deprived of so many things he's used to but restful.
Even the most loving women are untrustworthy and every year after thirty
personal maintenance is a terrible, geometrically progressing chore.
Barry's girlfriend isn't necessarily pleased by this but it isn't
really a problem. Amy's barely thirty but her body has begun to sag
that first (predictive) bit. Another few months and she'll be flabby
enough to fail the pencil test. Her face is cobwebbed with beginning
lines and face it, he was over her anyway. He'd just as soon forget
her, he'll pick up in the near future with somebody fresh and new when
everything's curable, by which time Amy will be either too old to talk
to or many years dead. When they bring Barry back and they fix him up
he will walk into a whole new generation of beauties waiting-- whenever
that is. He can afford to be patient.
In addition to plenty of money, Barry has nothing but time. Before
he came in here he cleared his calendar and liquidated his assets. Not
counting the emergency cache of Krugerrands, his money will go on making
money for the next thousand years. As a fail-safe, he arranged for the
place where he will sleep until his caretakers wake him to be fitted
with a pay-by-the-day cash dispenser of his own design.
Around him, the curved operating theater is banked with glass cylinders
designed to contain human... he doesn't want to think bodies.
As nearly as he can see, through the thicket of tubes and drains and
busy personnel surrounding him, the tubes look empty, but you never
know. Of course they aren't empty, the others he's joining are probably
surrounded by protective fog; soothing vapors, maybe, perfume or some
absolutely amazing psychotropic drug that brings unendurable pleasure
indefinitely prolonged. There will be others. Otherwise the director
could not have made the assurances he made. The pre-dead are actually
still living. Imagine a gentle, hibernative state. Those glass cylinders
are filled with other humans, Barry concludes, wondering why when they
guaranteed round-the-clock monitoring for as long as he's out of commission,
there are no living arrangements for support staff in the room.
Right. Before they go too far with this, Barry needs to ask a few
more hard questions. In life as in business, you never go to a meeting
unprepared, but you understand that no CEO is ever perfectly prepared.
Things happen. Circumstances change. Better sort this out before I do
this... Wait a minute, he says and is surprised to discover that
nothing about him moves. His lips aren't moving. There is no vibration
in his larynx. No air pushing out of his lungs to power the voice. Wait,
he cries, but no sound comes out.
He sits up and begins waving his arms, shouting. Hold up a minute,
he cries desperately. Stop! And like a soul floating toward the
white light he sees the whole thing from a fresh vantage point at the
apex of the dome: figures working over his inert body on the table,
silent and intent in their lavender scrubs.
Cold, he realizes. And trapped. He is not feeling peaceful, as the
company promised, something's gone wrong with the anesthesia. He isn't
feeling liberated; he's just tired. Tireder than he's been, and instead
of the thrill of euphoria the brochure promised would come as the V.S.
recycling pumps chill Barry's blood and combine it with elements he
should have studied more carefully, he is bushwhacked by encroaching
Mercifully, unless this too is part of the process, he shudders when
his body temperature drops below acceptable levels, and passes out.
You don't get to be a rich, successful man like Barry Whittimore without
being a positive person, and in the last second of his past life as
he knew it, as the bright strains of Vivaldi pour into his head, Barry
tells himself, the worst is over. Now sleep. You'll be young and
raunchy and good as new when they wake you up. But there is running
along underneath a chord of chagrin. This is nothing like I thought.
The first thing he knows when he wakes up is that you're
not supposed to wake up. There are V.E. attendants orgying in every
scrap of his coming-out wardrobe, even the gold leather Fiorucci flares.
The next generation, he thinks, judging from the air of abandon, the
long cobwebs trailing from the operating arena lights. Their hair and
some of the makeup is surprising but they all seem to have two ears,
a nose, ten toes and ten fingers, just like him. That's all they have
in common, he can tell by the lolling tongues and the idiotic grins.
The second thing he knows when he wakes up is that you're not supposed
to hear. By this time the orgiasts are singing and dancing in a ring-around-the-rosey
pattern, circling the operating table on which miniature goats cavort
and miniature monkeys play. When is this, anyway? Where are the
director and his dependable staff? "Corpsickle, corpsickle,"
they sing, as if they get this loaded and sing this song every night,
which as he'll find out soon enough, they do, "we love you. We
love all your clothes and the paychecks too..."
The third thing he knows is that a tremendous amount of time has passed.
All the music and all the novels and self-help books stored in his megapod
have played themselves out and expired, all while he was too zonked
or whatever that was they did to him to enjoy a single chapter or a
single tune. Note to self, he thinks, clicking, clicking, clicking.
Next time arrange backup player, plus regular re-load of megapod.
Night clouds rush across the sky outside the dome, streaking it with
eerily unfamiliar colors. In the movie, Barry thinks, remembering
the last remake of "The Time Machine" or something very like
it, This is where you look up for the first time and see two moons.
In a way, it would be a relief. A supernatural explanation would open
the door to an unnatural escape. When did he first understand that he
needs to escape? Immediately, he thinks, as outside his cylinder the
party goes on. But there is only one moon up there that Barry can see
in the reflector conveniently positioned so even the suspended
ones can enjoy the view, the director explained in laying out the plan.
The sky is just the same and he is just as stuck.
By this time the partiers have broken up into twos and threes and
passed out or arranged themselves in compromising positions on the floor,
all but one, who wanders up to the cylinder, giving Barry a fisheye
close-up of his nostrils as he taps on the glass with hairy knuckles
and says, "Yo, corpsicle!"
In spite of everything he has just learned about his condition, Barry
screams and screams.
Outside the cylinder, his hope for escape leans closer and blinks.
"You in there?"
Good, Barry thinks. I've got his attention. It's been an
interesting experiment, but it's time to call it to a halt.
Thinking and action are two different things when you are in a biochemically
altered state. Barry writhes and contorts his face, at least he thinks
"Heh," the boy outside the cylinder says, accidentally rubbing
glitter into one eye and then blinking it away. "Colder than a
mackerel, just like they want."
When he understands that he can't speak and he can't get down from
this armature much less break out of his guaranteed shatterproof cylinder
because he is suspended not in vapor but in some cold, mysteriously
viscous fluid that resists his every attempt, Barry reconciles himself
to a long night and settles down to think. He thinks while the orgiasts
party themselves into insensibility and the swing shift takes over and
he thinks while the sun rises above the dome and the morning shift pours
ice water on them all to shake them and night and swing shifts punch
their time cards and take the cash from the EZ dispenser Barry himself
designed to keep his care continuous, and shamble out.
It's clear that no matter what promises the director made when Barry
checked in here, the whole operation has gone to hell. Best money says,
and Barry knows everything there is to know about money, make them wake
you up and turn you loose as you are, hell with whether they've cured
male pattern baldness and sexual problems while you were out, you can't
just hang here waiting. It's time to get warmed up and get back into
At the moment, however, and the inconvenience seems to be permanent,
he can neither move nor speak.
You don't get to be a CEO and a megamillionaire by cutting your losses
and yielding to the status quo and you don't give up easily. He has
to figure out how to communicate.
It takes him weeks to think it through. What difference will a few
weeks make, he thinks. When you have years. To accomplish what he has
to, to get their attention and make clear he's ready to end this, will
take the better part of a year.
In the end, Barry does what he has to do through mind control. When
your mind is the only thing about you that's still working, you can
make it do amazing things. As the night shift relieves the day shift
and the swing shift comes in, all in relentlessly predictable rotation,
Barry concentrates on purifying his consciousness, bringing his brain
down to pure alpha waves which, when played right, have their own resonance.
In time, in more time than he would care to measure, the giant cylinder
moves. In the still, quiet time beyond time as Barry used to know it,
his protective prison slides closer and closer to the edge of the platform
where it stands while outside, the party goes on.
It will be years before it crashes but when it does, Barry enjoys
one joyful surge of triumph as the cylinder tips off the platform and
hits the floor in the still, silent moment after the nightly orgy ends
and the dawn shift rolls in.
The noise is stupendous. Even the drunkest of them sits up. A woman
cries, "What was that?"
"You want to check?"
"Naw, you check."
"Randy, Randy will check."
An attendant comes. Fate, which is either generous or extremely cruel,
has twisted Barry's cords and tubes so that, alert and excited, bursting
with grateful speeches he'll make as soon as they come and bring him
out of this, he is suspended face up.
The boy leans over. Stares in.
With a superhuman effort, Barry blinks.
"Holy fuck," the attendant says. "This one's awake."
A girl shouts, "Get the supe!"
His supervisor comes running. "I dunno, looks like any other
corpsicle to me."
"Special case, boss. It says so right here on the tank. Instructions.
See? He's waking up!"
"Not on my watch, he isn't."
With a superhuman effort hyped by desperation, Barry blinks again.
"We can't have that." The supervisor turns away with a shrug.
"Who'd meet our payroll then?"
"What are we going to do?"
There is a long spell during which nobody speaks. It is exciting and
disturbing to Barry, lying here alert but immobile, on his back in his
cylinder on the floor.
The two exchange looks that belly up and helpless in his cylinder,
Barry is too wild and distracted to read. Quick gestures that could
mean anything. Nods.
"No S.O.P. for this," the supervisor says brusquely, "Only
one thing to do."
"You want to do it, or shall I?"
"Get the others," the supervisor says. He is more intelligent
than the others, which is why he is the supervisor. "Orient Express
kind of thing, in case something goes wrong. If they catch us, everybody's
guilty so everybody can deny it."
There is a long wait while the day shift and the swing shift come
filing in. They are massed around the cylinder where, terrified and
hopeful, Barry waits.
Together, they pull the plug. By the time they right the cylinder
and roll it back into place, their payroll and their meal ticket, CEO,
man about town and womanizing outsider artist Barry is well and truly
© Kit Reed 2006, 2007.
This story was first published in Gargoyle #51, 2006.
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