A Feast of Crows
By KC Chase
Ander eyed the silver-slick Identacard as it danced across the seller's lean fingers. His gaze roamed greedily across the twining salamander coils of the double-helix that flowed across the card's pristine surface. Quite of it's own volition, his tongue slid delicately to the cusp of his lips and peeped out, pink and wet as a boiled sweet.
"Do ya or don't ya?" the seller's voice, harsh and crumbly, jattered through the dank air. "Ya know the penalty, risky-risky."
Bright black eyes flashing in the gloom of the storeroom, the seller tipped his sharp chin at Ander with a crocodile's canny smile. "It's late for second thoughts. Credit or geddit." One brown thumb jerked in the direction of the door to illustrate.
Ander shook his head violently. "No, I want it. I know the penalties for... I want it...please."
Shrugging indifferently at Ander's sudden passion, the seller's hand produced a bancskan, magician's fingers nimbly thumbing the matte black module to life.
"Ya know the price..."
Trembling, Ander fumbled his own bancskan from his pocket and grasped its butt in his sweaty palm until he was able to force his hand to stillness and allow the two tiny displays to come into contact. A bare whisper of sound issued from the devices, a soft green glow flashing as the credit transfer was approved, draining the lion's share of his life savings into the seller's account.
Back in the fresh air, Ander caught a whiff of enviro-scent peaches and thought it the most wonderfully inviting aroma he had ever smelled. His expression of dazed wonder melted years off his appearance. In the 20th century he would have passed for twenty-four years old. In the shimmering glass-front window of a Health Shake shoppe his reflection gazed wetly back. Typically handsome, of average height and weight, he was a standard prototype variant. Darkly tousled hair and moderately athletic build, his parents had chosen well. His shade-3 ice-blue eyes glittered with sudden moisture. "Long-Timer again...." he told the wind, and laughed.
A small group of business people, splendid in their colorful plumage, crushed past him on the sidewalk, forcing him to step out of the way. Their bright-eyed gaiety and obvious health for once didn't sting him. He was one of them now. A card-carrying member of society once again.
Not a Short-Timer. Not a liability.
He had time to spare...and time again...or so it would seem to anyone viewing his Identacard. His birthday, his 438th, had been wiped from the system by the ratty little life-dealer.
During the thousand years before Ander's birth, the genetic slipstream had been forever altered. Biochemists had tapped the wellspring of continuing youth in the form of a single chromosome that could be artificially replaced and replaced again, lasting each human a span of close to five hundred years, each year enjoyed in perfect health. A single critical fragment of genetic code could be duped by the constant infusion of a nutritional supplement--duped into preserving the human algorithm in the blush of youth. It wasn't "forever," but it was Time.
But now, while Ander might actually only have a maximum of sixty years of youthful perfection remaining before complete cellular breakdown, his Identacard boasted that he had only just passed his second century.
No longer an outcast.
It wasn't the law that prevented an aging Ander from the full benefits of citizenship. The law didn't go to any lengths to protect or prosecute Short-Timers; it simply looked the other way. But who would want to enter contract-love or marriage with someone who might only have a few decades left? Why would a company invest in a short-time employee, wasting valuable time training someone on his way out the door? And what could be more embarrassing than to have a Short-Timer shuffle off the mortal coil in a flurry of convulsions during a board meeting or merger deal. The final breakdown wasn't pretty.
The Civil Rights Act of 2690 provided that Short-Timers could not be passed over for hire or promotion or dismissed without cause, but in the last three weeks before his "planned retirement" (planned by who? Ander had thought bitterly on more than one occasion), he had often felt the fearful glances of his co-workers, as if he had caught something that might be contagious. After 157 years of service, he was neatly and quietly pushed out of his job. Better for everyone this way. More efficient. Disposable humans. Best if used before 400 years.
They had met two weeks earlier at a small cafe overlooking a nature-node park. A dazzling sunny day with enviro-scented air ripe with the tang of new-mown grass. The scent lent a charming nostalgia to the day. The previous day's enviro-scent was pineapple, and Ander had spent the entire day with a crushing headache from its cloying sweetness. Buoyed by the sunshine and the scent of grass, he had stopped at the cafe for a Health Shake, taking a seat on the breezy deck overlooking the precisely manicured grounds. The measured spaces between the trees were filled with prototype variants of all sizes, shapes and colors, both male and female, the only commonality being their ages, concealed on carefully-tucked-away Identacards as they moved between the trees, sporting their activist signs and chanting slogans in unison: a sanctioned Short-Timer rights rally. He had considered attending, a kernel of fear and hope lodged in his belly like a granite pellet. Just a quick stop to get a Health Shake and he would join the other Short-Timers, make a difference. The cafe's deck was crowded. The rally was a spectacle for these people, like a car wreck, you couldn't help but look.
Not us. Certainly not us.
Twenty minutes into the sludgy sweetness of the Health Shake, his body trapped by the plastic contours of the deck chair, he heard a voice nearby. "Look at them all... So many... Did you know there were so many?"
Ander turned and smiled and was rewarded with a matching expression, perfectly shaped pearls. Not a standard prototype. Something more exotic hinting at family money or political connections. Burgundy hair, soft river of wine in a casual twist laid across slim olive-tanned shoulders. Wide dark eyes with thick-fringe lashes streaked with gold. "Nova. Nova 4591 Dresden." She extended a delicate hand. Ander set down his Health Shake and brushed the cool beads of condensation onto his napkin before accepting it in his own. "Ander 4508 McCaffe." He glanced around the crowded deck, then indicated the empty chair at his table "Sit down?"
She smiled, sinking a dimple deep into the flawless skin of her cheek. "Love to. Zero-eight? I know that one... Isn't that Scotland?" Her Health Shake nestled next to his on the table. Ander's noted her own flavor choice: Rose Synergy. He wondered if his Spice Stamina seemed posturing. "Scotland, that's right. I don't know 91."
"No one does. New Vargo. Just recolonized."
She stuck out her tongue, and they both laughed together. Recolonization--another way to make a chunk of a resource-poor country look new again. Burn out some old colonists, new flag, new government, new re-tax programs and tougher requirements for residence and birth permits.
A comfortable silence fell between them as they watched the rally. "So many..." she said again, softly.
They had known each other scarcely five minutes, but in a few moments she would ask. She would produce her own Identacard and smile sweetly, ask him for another meeting, something with food or entertainment involved where she, as asker, would pay...assuming his Identacard met with her approval. Blood types would be compared, IQs exchanged. Assuming he wasn't defective or a Short-Timer, things could move forward. One of her lovely hands slipped into her purse, her expression confident. But her expression abruptly changed as a thin wail spiked above the lunch-time conversation, shredding the pre-recorded bird song.
A tall prototype variant, blond-green, stood at the railing, pointing across the nature-node to a frenetic cluster of Short-Timers. Many of the other lunchtime patrons rose from their seats to gawk. Ander's jaw tightened as his eyes located the cause of the disturbance. A short figure surrounded by other Short-Timers had come to his or her end. Tough to judge the sex from this distance. Light-skinned, dressed in a snowy-white jumper, the figure was having some kind of convulsion, writhing on the pristine turf of the nature-node. Limbs flailed as the body sunfished and shook, its cellular construction breaking down at the most basic levels. The other Short-Timers watched in silent sympathy. Nothing to do, nothing could be done. There was nothing now but the cleanup. Faux bird calls once more claimed the air.
"Exactly," the tall variant said, strutting back to his chair. "And they want more rights? They want better jobs when that is what is going to happen and who knows when?" A few patrons nodded agreement. A woman's cultivated voice carried above the whisper of conversations. "So unsightly. It's not as if there aren't facilities. They have places to go. Running about in the streets, going out like animals in gutters. Dreadful."
Ander worked at unclenching his fists beneath the table, rubbing them against the soft fabric of his pants until they were only hands again. Across the table Nova's dark eyes filled with a kind of sadness that hurt his head to look at. He should say something. He should say the right thing. "It's...a fact of life."
"Doesn't make it any easier to watch. Have you...?" she faltered, her gaze fixed on the sunset of her Health Shake.
"No, never anyone close to me."
She shook her head. "Can you imagine...?"
He felt bitterness swelling in his mouth, thick and chalky. Charming, her ersatz sympathy. She had plenty of time left herself.
"What's the point?" She rose to her feet and fumbled with the strap of her purse. "I'm late."
His mouth became fluid again. "Wait. I'm sorry. It's a terrible thing to have happen at a first meeting. Will you see me again?"
She hesitated. Protocol had not been followed. Without the exchange of Identacards, she would be taking a risk. "Yes. All right." Her eyes were bright with pleasure as she scribbled some numbers for him and then left the cafe. *
After two weeks, Nova was still unable to broach the subject of Identacards. They had followed all the other requisite rituals. She had treated him to holo shows piped into her luxurious loft straight from Broadway theaters and had ordered unpronounceable delicacies for them to eat. For his part, he had procured lab-grown trinkets and genetically altered hot-house blooms to match her hair and complexion, insuring that each item was delivered at her workplace or when she was among her friends or family. The mating dance was, by all accounts, going well but for a growing seed of discomfort between them whenever Time was mentioned.
The Broadway holo was a romance, two lovers thwarted only by the selfish desires of the ingenue's Short-Time mother. The mother's death scene was played to grisly perfection. From across the vast desert of the designer sofa he felt Nova stiffen as the actress twitched in her final throes. Nova slipped her hand into his. He could feel her eyes on him in the semidarkness of the flickering holo scene. And he could feel the questions.
Tell me. Show me. Reassure me. His jaw tightened.
In the ebony-tile landscape of his bathroom he confronted his reflection, his even white teeth and taut skin. His shade-3 ice-blue eyes were clear and bright. The reflection offered him a glossy magazine smile. He returned it. Things were better now that he was no longer a Short-Timer. He could go to Nova free of fear. Let her ask. Let her ask aloud for the card, and he would show it. He could also work again, and at the top of his field. He would buy a better, more expensive loft and order dinners and holos, and soon he would execute contract-love with Nova. Twenty years, sixty years, plenty of Time.
The mood fountain's misty violet light painted Nova's heart-shaped face with celestial colors. They exchanged Identacards to the fountain's liquid, gurgling accompaniment. Ander watched her fingers slide across the surface of his card, almost caress it, until the moment dragged on so long that he wanted to ask for it back.
Then she flung her arms around him, firm and warm. Her breath whispered against his neck. He could feel the bubbling of joyous laughter inside her chest. It was she who had orchestrated their first meeting and therefore it was her choice whether to initiate a request for contract love. She would do so. He was sure of it. He put the card carefully back into his wallet. Her silken, olive hands laced through his. "I can have the paperwork ready by this afternoon."
"I have a business meeting."
"Another?" she pouted.
"We'll celebrate afterward. For both occasions. I'll make the arrangements. Transmit your guest list?"
"Tomorrow," he promised.
Contract love brought with it permits for more spacious living arrangements. Ander purchased a comfortable flat in a prestigious area just across from the metro. The whiz of transport tubes was all but inaudible through their walls, and from their windows they could look across a large nature-node preserve complete with holo wildlife and artificial bird song.
After work they curled up on the sofa, Nova's back socketed gently against his chest, arms twined and fingers laced. The catchy music and flashing logos of the evening news flowed through the flat. A standard prototype, only her stiff-styled lemon locks to distinguish her from other protos, ran cheerfully through the evening's fare: an illegal-birth ring, a recolonization in the Alaskan territories, the standard run of congressional sex scandals, all issued without distinction from the pretty newscaster's perfect mouth as Ander's thoughts wandered to the next day's work.
His attention returned only when he felt Nova's delicate shiver, her flesh tingling against the skin of his arms. The newscaster's expression altered effortlessly from muted shock to unspoken disapproval as the visual cut away to live vid of a man in a dark suit surrounded by an entourage of EnForce officers. As the man was marched up the wide stairway at Central Justice by his blank-faced escort, the voice-over reported, "Horror and shock are the reactions of employers, family and contract spouse as Dylin 4123 Barrett is brought to justice. A Short-Timer of 461 documented years, 4123 Barrett purchased a forged Indentacard on the black market which reduced his indicated his age to 200 years." During the anchor's calculated pause, Ander heard Nova suck her breath in distress. Meanwhile, the vid followed Barrett's progress into the Justice Chamber.
"His true age concealed, 4123 Barrett willfully sought employment, defrauding the Taslon Corporation of thousands of credits of training and wages. Displaying no regard for his fellow citizens or any sense of human decency, 4123 Barrett contracted love with a woman of only 186 years, forcing himself into her life and the lives of her family members. 4123 Barrett, found guilty of one count of Felony Identa-Forgery and six counts of Malicious Fraud, has reaped a nightmare of pain and suffering for those around him."
They watched in silence as the vid displayed a woman in Center grays administering the sentence to Barrett as he lay helpless in full restraints. The injection took only seconds. Barrett's face, a bleach-white smear on the vid, became instantly flushed crimson as convulsions shook his body. His eyes bulged from their sockets, his mouth gaping open in a silent scream. His fingers scrabbling vainly at the smooth arm rests, he let out a final ragged hiss and died.
Ander punched the off button before the anchor could launch into her wrap-up. It was Nova who broke the silence. "Horrible. Just horrible."
He did not trust himself to speak. His mouth was dry, the tart flavor of fear on his tongue. He felt what she felt. They were one now, caught in a nightmare together.
She faced him with wide doe-black eyes, a hectic color in her cheeks. "What he did to her, his contract spouse. How could someone betray another person like that?"
"Her?" he heard himself say, his voice hard and accusatory. "What about him? He still had Life, and the Justice Center took it. There was still Time left for him."
The space between them suddenly yawned like a chasm. He hated her, hated her for the Time she had left.
"But he took what wasn't his. He was a Short-Timer. He should have..."
"...should have just checked into a Retirement Facility and died quietly? He had forty years left. Forty! So much Time."
But she didn't seem to hear. "What will she do," she said, twisting her hands around each other. "My god, what will she do?"
He got up, walked over to the window and pressed his forehead against the cool surface. His shade-3 ice-blue eyes did not see the holos of flamebirds dancing in the nature-node across the street.
He was at his job when they came for him. An EnForce officer in immaculate dress uniform accompanied by a woman in anonymous Center grays. He saw them through the transparent office walls. Neat, economical people striding down the hallway, brusquely waving away his secretary, they rode the floor-trac to his office door. His body pulsed with the desperate instinct for fight or flight. Instead, he sat quietly waiting for his judgment. His Time had run out. Fifty years, was all he could think. I could have had fifty more years.
The EnForce officer's finely chiseled features bespoke privilege and good family connections. His tailored genes were expressed in rich mahogany skin tones and startling silver-white eyes.
"Ander 4508 McCaffe?"
He croaked an affirmative. Why aren't there more of them? An army of EnForce to take me down like a rabid criminal. Where are the newscams, he wondered, his eyes drawn to the shiny sidearm at the EnForce officer's hip. The Center woman made a clucking sound and stepped forward. Crouched down in his chair, the desk his last line of defense, he waited for her to put the restraints on him. Her cool fingers stroked his shirt sleeve as his hands lay open and helpless on his lap. They simply would not turn into fists. His body would not obey his command to grab a chair and smash it against them. He sat imprisoned in his flesh, waiting like a condemned animal. The EnForce officer's full lips parted, his pale eyes betraying nothing. "If you will please come with us. I'm afraid there has been an accident."
The funeral procession wound slowly through the nature-node. Mourners moved ceremoniously through the trees, their footsteps swiftly erased as the fat blades of simugrass sprung back to attention. The gleaming container that held Nova's ashes stood on a dais in the center of the small park as the mourners arranged themselves beneath a dark pavilion. Ander had stopped trying to put names to faces.
His tone ringing with pious feeling, the minister began the eulogy. His voice trembled with emotion as he described Nova's unkind fate.
Ander was sitting in the front row with no one to give him comfort, his grief represented only by the presence of his co-workers. Avoiding the phalanx of Nova's friends, relatives and colleagues, he kept his focus on the dais.
The minister extolled Nova's exemplary work ethic and the importance of ComTrend's work in metro business. Then his voice rose in a slow-rising anger that became contagious throughout the assembly as he began to speak about Nova's co-worker, Reynold 4452 Fairweather. A Short-Timer in the process of his planned retirement, Reynold had come to work that day with a briefcase packed with two shiny full-auto handguns and seven boxes of ammunition. He started his fateful day's work by walking through the building blowing neat holes in his co-workers. He killed or wounded everyone in his path on his way to his supervisor's corner office. Undaunted by Nova's presence there, he shot her twice in the chest before pumping twelve rounds into the supervisor. Then he reloaded and fired several shots at the computer terminal before turning the gun on himself.
Ander sat quietly, his eyes fixed on the dais as the mourners rose and began to cluster around the food tables under the pavilion, picking at the buffet like a flock of dark-feathered birds over carrion. He remained motionless as a stone amidst the munching and guzzling, the youthful bodies moving in ever-shifting, sinuous groups, exchanging pleasantries and knowing glances. They either imagined him deaf or so completely in shock that he could not hear them.
"What will he do now?"
"What can he do?"
"Such a nice man. How could this happen to him?"
The enviro-scent of lavender mixed with the smells of the different kinds of food turned his stomach, hemming him in from every direction. It was too much to bear. He would climb up on his chair, startle the complacency from their faces and send them winging across the nature-node in panic. His cries would echo throughout the city. He would not wait meekly for his turn to be cut from the herd. He would not accept his fate complacent and accepting. But as tears coursed down his cheeks, they seemed to seal his lips shut with their salt, and he merely sat silently rebuking his beloved...for running out of Time.
(Made in Japan and born in California, KC Chase spent several years in the military before finally coming to the realization that it's difficult to write in a
foxhole. Between writing and assorted eclectic pursuits, KC rarely finds time
to eat or sleep but spares enough energy to shout at traffic lights and chase