If you don’t yet have a copy of Luck and Death at the Edge of the World and you’re thinking of picking one up, I’m sure you want to do what you’d do in a book store: open it and read a little bit to see if you like it.
You can do that on Amazon or any of the other online sites that sell it (listed below), but their preview options tend to cut off at an arbitrary point — sometimes in the middle of a chapter.
This section is gives you the prologue and three full chapters of the book. If you read that much of a book in a store they’d probably start looking at you funny, but online no one’s looking over your shoulder, so go ahead — take your time, read as much as you like, and then decide.
Luck and Death, like all my books, is available through these outlets:
- Kindle format: Amazon.com (U.S., Canada, India), Amazon.de, Amazon.es, Amazon.fr, and Amazon.it.
- Epub format: Kobo (Canada, U.S., Australia, New Zealand, UK, Japan, Hong Kong, Europe) and WH Smith (UK).
So read on and decide for yourself if you want to buy a copy.
Prologue: Instructions for Use
*** transmission initiated, protocols set, broadcast at my mark… and… mark ***
Welcome. You’re tuned to L-U-X-E, the station that caters to all your senses – the station that dares to ask the question: why? Why should guilty pleasures be guilty? Why submit to the oppressive weight of high culture when you can have candy instead? This broadcast has intrigue, sex, violence, glamour, and euphoria. So why?
Of course, you’ll need to be inoculated against the dreariness of reality and the dry dust of cultural inertia. Our medical team has therefore prepared a vitamin elixir of bright colors, deep bass notes, brash futuristic notions, and funky riffs that will shake you until you dance. Hold still, it’ll only sting for a moment – there. That wasn’t so bad, was it? And well worth it.
My name is Nas Hedron, and I’ll be your host for the duration of the program. I wrote the text for this broadcast, which was composed, by and large, in the food courts of my favorite malls. That’s where it would be best enjoyed, surrounded by flirting teenagers and steeped in the aromas of fried food and cheap perfume. The beach is a good alternative, but it can’t be a quiet, lonely, grey, rainy beach – it must be a beach full of bikinis, palm trees, sunshine, and the smell of sun-screen. If you live in a funky enough neighborhood you can read it on your stoop, with music leaking from the passing cars, and you can look up once in a while to watch the human circus go by. Whatever you do, surround yourself with life.
Our video feed is being transmitted directly to your primary visual cortex and was recorded in the brilliant, garish, saturated color of comic books, pulp magazine covers, and Hawaiian shirts. Please be aware that unauthorized muting of the colors may cause headaches and/or broadcast interruptions.
This program was also created on a steady diet of music from Greater Mexico, which is not just a geographical place but a set of orientations defined by language, by blood ties, by family recipes, by letters back to your grandma in Mérida, by one’s state of mind. It incorporates not only the Estados Unidos Mexicanos, but former Mexican territories in Texas, New Mexico, California, and elsewhere. It also includes members of the Mexican diaspora living in far-flung places like Montreal, Berlin, and Stockholm. It was to the music of this Mexico – distributed, amorphous, and sometimes surreal – that this broadcast was created, and listening to it will enhance your enjoyment of the show.
Unfortunately we are experiencing difficulties with our audio feed at this time, likely as a result of government signal jamming. Our strong recommendation is that you obtain recordings of at least the following: Oaxaca powerhouse Lila Downs, the multifaceted and multitalented Plastilina Mosh, musical surrealist deluxe Juan Garcia Esquivel, and the incomparable Flaco Jiménez, and lay these down over a solid foundation of mariachi and ranchera.
Please note that we at L-U-X-E submit to no government or institutional controls regarding format and content. We are operating outside licensed bandwidth, bringing unfettered imagination directly to you. It is your nerves we are aiming for. We apologize for nothing.
So now: turn up the volume, tune in to your instincts, and turn the page. We begin.
Nas Hedron, Programming Director
One: Brace and Erase
We Brace while we’re still in the Jenny, its twin rotors beating a heavy rhythm in the night air about twenty minutes outside Tijuana, and when the wave of Brace crests inside me I think to myself: so this is what it feels like to be a sociopath.
Each of us has inhaled deeply and abruptly, the way they tell you to do, holding a disposable applicator mask over nose and mouth. The interior of the Jenny is utterly dark in the visual spectrum for stealth, but our visors are tuned to an expanded EM range and the ultraviolet lamps make the inside of the hold gleam a pale whitish purple. We sit facing each other on benches that run down each side of the hold. On the floor in between us there is a small pile of crumpled applicator masks, a California National Forces logo fluorescing on each one.
The Brace has a harsh chemical tang in my nose and throat, reminiscent of burning plastic, but that’s quickly forgotten as the drug rushes up the inside of my face and explodes in my frontal cortex, then lies there sizzling, lighting up my brain from the inside with an intense white light, like the weaponized phosphorus of Angelfire.
I feel several things at once, none of it quite what I imagined.
My entire body is engorged with a carnal joy that I am suddenly too inhuman to express in words.
I am refreshed, reborn, re-energized – I could run, run, run forever and never run down. Despite my energy, I am filled with an ecstatic peace, a sense of being exactly where I belong, free of conscience, worry, or human sympathy.
I am blissfully awash in evil, in a profound lust for violence, unrestrained by anything like love, all empathy junked in a rush of pure kinetic bliss with the sweet taste of sin in the back of my throat.
Or maybe that’s not sin – in the first rush I bit the inside of my cheek and it’s bleeding.
I look across the aisle at Yarborough. Because of the reflection on his visor I can’t make out his eyes, but I can see his mouth. He is grinning uncontrollably, and I feel my face pull into the same rictus – not a smile, but a manic baring of the teeth, something inherited from our predator ancestors who hunted with their teeth, fought with their teeth and killed with their teeth.
He tilts his head slightly and his eyes become visible. He looks back at me and we know each other, the way monsters know each other. Next to me Macchia begins stomping his feet, first one and then the other, in a slow rhythm. I can feel his left leg against my right as he raises it up and stomps it down, over and over. I can feel the vibrations of his footfalls through the metal plating of the floor. After a moment Yarborough falls into step with him, and then I do, and then we all do, as though the entire squad is marching while sitting down. The beat is out of time with the Jenny’s rotors, setting up a jazzy syncopation. Someone down the aisle starts ratcheting their flechette launchers with a sound that is eerily like a güiro.
Wired on Brace, we’re not a very disciplined force, but then we don’t have to be. This isn’t a strategic infiltration like Boulder, or a covert intel op like New York. This is strictly civilian control, a euphemism for stomping on everyone and everything so painfully that for the rest of their lives they will keep their heads down, cause no trouble, and be grateful to simply be left alone. Guiterrez is a hard man and normally keeps his city under control, but lately he’s been distracted by local affairs – ambitious lieutenants, pleasures of the flesh – and the some isolated pockets of resistance have developed. Sacramento wants the place disinfected before isolated resistance comes together into something like insurrection.
The brass may call this civilian control, but we call this kind of mission what it is: deploy and destroy, burn and return. The Jenny’s floor begins to sink perceptibly, signaling our imminent arrival at the drop zone. Almost time.
Whatever we do down there, we won’t even remember it once the Brace wears off. It’s been coupled with a GABA agonist marketed under the trade name Erase, which temporarily prevents the formation of long-term memory. Like a bunch of blind drunks, when our consciences return in the morning we’ll be unaware of the atrocious things we did the night before. Hell, I can’t even remember boarding the Jenny.
Except that’s not right.
The Brace and Erase were administered simultaneously in the mask, which I only used once we were in flight. There’s no reason for me not to remember what happened before that. I check my memory, but I don’t remember boarding, or even being briefed, which is when I realize this has to be a dream. And if it’s a dream it must be based on memories – the very memories that the Erase was supposed to prevent from forming in the first place, buried somewhere deep in my head but excavated during sleep.
I feel panic rising because I know where the dream must be headed and despite being a mental fiction it feels real. I look at my hand, at the elapsed mission time displayed on my chronometer, at the equipment in the Jenny. Everything is detailed, precise, real. I bite the inside of my cheek again where it’s bleeding and it hurts.
Like so many things, I have training to deal with dreams. The Forces prepare us to take counter-measures against things like psychic driving and induced trance states. We know the Texans have used trance techniques on prisoners and we suspect that the Brazilians have too, so we’re prepared.
I force my breathing to slow and check my Alpha and Omega. Alpha: is there consistency between what I see now and what I normally see in the waking world, what the boffins call consistency of perception with established facts? And Omega: is there internal logical consistency within what I’m seeing?
At the moment the Omega seems intact. The situation remains consistent from one moment to the next, the people present don’t turn into other people, our actions are consistent with the mission, our behavior is consistent with having taken Brace.
And the Alpha? Only now that I’ve asked myself the question do I remember that Yarborough’s dead. Meeks and Kuzui are here and they went AWOL before the squad was ever deployed. Dreams have a way of obscuring facts like that until you scrutinize the situation detail by detail.
So I am dreaming. The problem is that knowing I’m dreaming doesn’t help me as long as I’m still trapped in a dream that’s carrying me into the heart of Tijuana. I can moderate my psychological responses a little, though I can’t control them completely – my practice isn’t evolved enough for that. But controlling my physiological responses is way beyond my grasp. If we actually get to the city my body will overdose on adrenaline no matter how clearly I recognize that the things I’m seeing, the things we’re doing, aren’t real, and that will begin to erode my psychological control. Even a lifetime of meditation probably wouldn’t get me safely through reliving Tijuana.
If I could wake up I could put an end to it, and my Forces training is supposed to let me do exactly that, but it’s not working. I try shouting loudly and abruptly. I try suddenly kicking out at Macchia beside me, but he just grins at me. Abrupt, startling actions like these usually allow a sleeping person to briefly overcome the REM atonia that keeps them paralyzed while they’re dreaming so that they don’t end up running around the bedroom acting out their dreams. Then when their sleeping body kicks or shouts, it wakes them up. The problem is that it’s not working. Nothing is working and Tijuana is getting closer. I’d jump out of the Jenny – that would almost certainly wake me up – but the hold is sealed until we land.
I need a new approach. I ignore the logic of the dream, ignore the other people, and get off the bench, sweeping aside the pile of masks and seating myself cross-legged on the floor. No one says anything about it. I rest my hands on my knees, close my eyes, and focus on my breath.
One, two. Inhale, exhale. One, two.
I get distracted by the guys stomping around me, by the vibrations of the engine that I can feel through the deck, but I bring my mind back to my breath. One, two. Inhale, exhale. I feel the Jenny settle onto the ground and as the doors crack open the familiar smell of the Mexican desert washes over me, making me lose focus again, but I bring my mind back to my breath.
One, two. One, two. One, two.
The details of the dream and my dread of it keep tugging at my attention and I lose my grip, lose my focus, again and again, and have to bring it back.
The doors slide open wide and the guys tumble out in an undisciplined, drugged gaggle, laughing and hooting, like a pile of evil puppies. I know what they’re about to do. I know every unspeakable detail and those details bang on the door of my attention, but I keep my eyes closed and force myself to re-focus on my breath.
Felon approaches me and bellows over the sound of the rotors, which are slowing now but haven’t completely stopped.
“Burroughs, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
I ignore him and remain where I am.
“Burroughs!” He grabs my arm and tries to pull me upright, screaming in my ear. I focus on my breath. “Goddamn it, what the hell is the matter with you?” One, two. One, two. “This is dereliction Burroughs – you know the penalty for dereliction in the field?”
I feel my adrenaline kick up a notch when he ratchets one of his flechette launchers. The situation still feels entirely real and I begin to doubt myself, which is when the thing I’ve been waiting for finally happens: my alarm goes off.
The intermittent buzzing of the alarm goes on for a while before the dream finally begins to disintegrate, Felon’s voice crackling and spitting like bad comm as his apparition comes apart. I allow my eyes to open an instant too soon and out the door of the Jenny I see the desert for a moment, glowing green through the nightvision filter of my visor, before it’s replaced by my bedroom.
I look at the clock: 6:00 a.m. I say “I’m awake” and the alarm stops. I sit up in bed feeling shaky, covered in sweat. I throw the covers off and strip off my t-shirt and underwear, walking to the mat in the corner.
I’ll shower later. I’ve got a new client to meet today – a big one – and work to do. I need to collect myself. I sit down naked on the mat and re-start the process of meditation that I began inside the dream. I begin the Mosquito Meditation – nothing less is going to do the trick today.
Two: Mad, Fat, and Dangerous to Know
Who would want to kill him? Even I don’t actually give a damn if he lives or dies and I’m paid a lot of money to care. I’ll try to keep him alive because it’s my job, because I have a reputation to protect, but about his death itself I would feel nothing, truly nothing. The attempt on his life must have been about money because I can’t imagine him arousing anyone’s passion.
He’s tall, but fat. His receding hairline gives his face a round, moonish look, eyes buried deep within folds of skin. His hair would be grey except that in a quaint, old-fashioned touch of vanity he dies it pitch black. By turns he stalks around the manse like a ghost, totters like the drunk he is, or charges like a stumbling bull, bellowing his head off. This is Max Prince in the flesh – the doughy, pale, puffy flesh. His T-shirts can barely contain his belly, like a ham shoved into a pair of panty hose. Sometimes he forgets to dress at all and wanders around in his pajamas or, on one occasion, a white dress shirt and nothing else. His hair is inevitably in disarray and his nails are always dirty. His breath is noxious.
But his eyes are still bright blue and clear, even if you can barely make them out through the sponge-like flesh that surrounds them. Blue like jewels, just like they always were. In a bygone era he was slim, sexy, and famous – an actor and singer at the top of the entertainment industry. Now he resembles one of those antique pornos that are printed on paper. If you cut away all the intellectual bullshit about how a three-hundred-year-old copy of Hustler represents a form of authentic American folk art, what you have in your hands is a well-thumbed nudie magazine with the sheen coming off the pages. He’s like that. Once he was beguiling in a trashy way, now you don’t want to touch him without gloves. Once he got people sweaty, now he’s just greasy and unpleasant.
Four decades ago Max Prince was known as the Mad Prince because of his outrageous conduct, especially his prodigious appetite for expensive drugs and disposable women. The women were starlets, debutantes, and cashiers from the local corner store. They were the mothers, daughters, and sisters of his business partners and friends.
There was no end to it. Screwing six women a day, he ingested every drug known to man – from natural psychedelics to hyped-up synthetic amphetamines – in quantities that would have killed an ordinary man, and washed it all down with vodka straight from the bottle. No matter what he did, though, he remained charming in his raffish way, and he never forgot his lines or was late on the set. His singing never suffered. On talk sims, chatting with the host and flirting with the other guests, he was sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes entertainingly arrogant, sometimes seemingly candid. Mostly he was funny and good looking and as a result we forgave him everything.
He destroyed stuff. He would trash a hotel room, tearing down the drapes and using the curtain rod to smash everything that was breakable. He would take offence at the color of someone’s parked car for reasons no sober person could interpret and use the heavy decorative cane he affected in those days to knock out all the windows, finishing with powerful blows to the hood that would make it buckle and cave. His keepers and managers would cheerfully pay for everything, sweeping up in his wake. They paid off the girls too, as well as their parents, abortionists, and psychiatrists, and greased the palms of the law so that the drugs he took never became a career-threatening issue. A good parasite – that is to say a well-adapted one – does everything it can to ensure the survival of its host, and his staff were good parasites, smoothing the way for him and keeping him out of trouble while drawing outrageous salaries.
Now he’s a has-been. He’s still known as the Mad Prince, but for more literal reasons and only to his staff since almost no one else bothers to talk about him. He’s used drugs and alcohol for so long and to such a degree that his emotions, his personality, and his thought processes have been deformed into something monstrous, alien, unknowable. And he continues to get wrecked, every day, all day. He’s paranoid and isolates himself in his estate, Cloud City. He’s certain that they are after him, after his famous self, after his money, after his very skeleton if they can get it.
He never appears in public, not that the public would care anyway, and spends most of his time reliving old escapades in the sims, jacked into a full-sensory replay of what he once was. Sometimes he uses the commercial studio productions he acted in, romantic comedies and action dramas, but more often he plays home-made recordings, recreating his drunken hijinx and his encounters with women. Time and again, stoned out of what’s left of his mind, he solves the same crimes, woos the same starlet, or fucks the same groupie. He is a man going in circles, his body bloating and inflating like a parade balloon while his mind dwindles away, shriveling to a barely functional, raisin-like core of irrational thought.
You may wonder why Fat Max is fat at all, why he’s a chronic alcoholic, why he’s even getting old. There are surgical solutions for all of those problems, after all. It would take less than a day at a price he wouldn’t even notice. The fact is, though, that Max is too paranoid to let anyone near him with a knife or a laser. He won’t allow his ka to be decanted because he believes that someone (he’s not sure who – them!) will erase it before he’s safe in his new shell. Or they’ll tamper with the shell in some insidious way, rewire the nerves or screw with the glands, in order to sap his will and turn him into a celebrity zombie who hands over his money and property to his new masters. So, ironically, one of the richest men in the world, one of those most able to afford immortality, is so afraid of someone else killing him that he’s killing himself by refusing to take advantage of modern medicine. My head hurts just thinking about how easily he could buy what I want so badly. I can’t allow that to distract me, though. For some unfathomable reason someone really has tried to kill him and he still has plenty of money to buy big-time protection.
All the income he made when he was younger has been carefully invested and this nest-egg produces more wealth in a week than most people will ever see in a lifetime. He has teams of brokers and market analysts and lawyers who work long hours to keep it that way, all while taking a healthy percentage for themselves. It’s in everyone’s interests that he continues to prosper. My job, like everyone else’s, is to make sure that he does.
I’m not sure where he’s wandered off to now, but when I first arrived and Cyril Dancey, the head of the day staff, introduced us, Max looked me up and down with a critical, bleary eye. I couldn’t decide if he liked what he saw or not and Dancey didn’t decode his master’s scrutiny for me, if in fact he had any idea what Prince was thinking.
There’s a cachet about military service in the security business. Not amongst professionals, but the clients eat it up. For that reason I’m out here at Cloud City dressed as I always am when I’m on assignment. I’m wearing California National Forces green cargo pants and military boots – the same ones I wore in combat, in fact, just in case anyone asks. My hair is still cut so short it’s almost shaved. I’m carrying a sidearm and I have a flechette-launcher on the underside of each forearm. The only difference in my appearance from when I was in the service is that I’m not wearing a jacket. Instead I have on what we used to call, back in my childhood, a wife-beater – a sleeveless T-shirt, also that distinctive shade of Forces green.
The point of the shirt is not to show off my physique, although that doesn’t hurt, it’s to show off my tattoos. They are my pedigree, and they are the thing the customers most want to see. Down my right bicep are my unit and rank insignias, rising as high as Captain. Down my left are the skill insignias: personal combat, light and heavy weapons combat, infiltration, counter-infiltration, intelligence management, and all the rest. On my forearms are the ones that really count, though, the battle insignias: the Boulder Colorado recon, the San Diego uprising, two New York infiltrations, and on and on, down to the one I wish wasn’t there – Tijuana. That’s the one that always grabs them. What was it like? That must have been amazing! That’s civilians for you. The veterans just turn away. They don’t like to think about it any more than I do, especially the ones who were there. Max may have noticed all of this or none of it – he regarded me, his face unreadable, and then walked away without speaking.
Dancey’s noticed the tattoos, though. He’s a formal, discreet man, but his eyes repeatedly flick back to them when he thinks I’m not looking. He’s young, maybe thirty at the outside, but he gives the impression of being old. He’s dressed in a dark suit, crisp white shirt, and a blue-grey tie that matches the colour of his eyes. His face is thin and pale, almost grey, although his features have clear African-American markers. As I follow him deeper into the house, I notice that his gait is strangely stiff, adding to the impression of premature senescence.
“Get the fuck out of my fucking house!” There goes Max now, interrupting my thoughts as Dancey leads me in the direction of the garden.
“That’s Saul, one of the cooks,” Dancey says, identifying the target of Max’s rage. He lowers his voice politely, but he needn’t have bothered. Max’s attention, all bluster and apoplexy, is focused on Saul like a spotlight, to the exclusion of anything else.
“What’d he do?” I ask.
Dancey just shrugs.
“Maybe nothing. Max imagines things.” He states this matter-of-factly, fully acclimated to his boss’s quirks.
I turn and watch the show with everyone else.
“You are finished, fired. You’re lucky I don’t have you assassinated.”
Max’s huge bulk stumbles down the hall from the kitchen, rebounding off the walls as Saul retreats in front of him.
“Okay, man, I’m going.” Saul doesn’t look unduly concerned, nor do any of the staff, most of whom watch for a moment and then go back to whatever they were doing.
“How often does he actually fire people?” I ask.
Dancey is expressionless.
“Saul will arrive for work tomorrow morning and Max won’t remember a thing – it’s the alcohol, the drugs. They wipe the slate clean. In effect, all he’s done is give Saul the day off. Since Max won’t remember, I won’t even bother docking Saul’s pay. No one actually loses their job in these dramas.”
As Saul goes out the door, Max follows him with a parting volley.
“Watch your back, you treasonous fuck. You aren’t safe!”
The last few staff members go back to work and I return to following Dancey and thinking about the defenses for Max’s house. These consist of a high-end security system and now my company, Burroughs Oversight. I was only hired after the attempt on his life, but the security system has been in place forever. Carmen, my tech guru, got here before me to examine it and called me with the details .
I’d expected her to find an expensive off-the-shelf package that would need serious re-strategizing, or at least technical upgrading. But what do you know? With his irrational sense of his own worth, his imaginary star-power, and his sheer paranoia, he has all the bells and whistles laid out in a lean, effective security ecology.
There are cameras, of course, but there are also sensors for sound and light, including infra-red for body heat. There are motion sensors that detect changes in air pressure and sensors for the bioelectromagentic field produced by a living being’s nervous system. All the sensors have been coded to filter out staff members, as well as non-humans like chipmunks, insects, and stray cats. The entire array of artificial eyes, ears, and nerves scans an area that extends at least a half a click beyond the boundaries of Cloud City without a centimeter left unsurveilled.
The equipment is orchestrated by, and the sensory data streamed through, a top-grade AI which maps the output to known stalking and kidnapping cases, as well as to hypothetical scenarios dreamed up by experts. On top of that, the AI’s templates are updated daily with reports from police forces around the world, from top security research centers at universities and private think-tanks, and from boots-on-the-ground civilian security companies like mine.
He even has the dogs, for god’s sake, and they aren’t supposed to be available for civilian use. Dogware is a military anti-infiltration system. Its ‘dogs’ look vaguely like real dogs, just very large and abstract ones. They could have been made to look like anything at all, but the researchers who designed the system studied visceral fear responses using a variety of candidate designs and dogs turned out to work the best. They didn’t necessarily provoke the most fear in a particular subject, but dogs are so universally known from direct personal experience – not just from the sims or vicarious accounts – that a dog attack will produce a powerful panic reaction in just about anyone.
They are built with faux fur over a buckytube skeleton and stand about three feet high at the shoulder. Their claws and teeth are razor-sharp and their reflexes are faster than any human’s, except maybe a Tic’s. They are extremely powerful, feel no pain, and it’s virtually impossible to inflict damage on them. Even if they remain materialized, their core construction is impervious to almost anything: fists, kicks, blows from an iron rod, gunshots, being run over by an earth-mover. The thing is, though, that if you try to hit one, it won’t remain materialized. Instead it will disappear and, before you can draw a breath, it’ll reappear behind you, punch its paw through your back, and pull out your heart. That’s because the dogs are actually nanoswarms – vast armies of molecule-sized robotic devices that can assemble into any material in any form. They can also disassemble and disperse invisibly into the surrounding air in less time than it takes you to blink. In their downtime they float like motes of dust in the air, invisible.
The trouble is that despite the elegance of Max’s system, despite even the dogware, someone got in. Past the cameras, the motion sensors, and all the other high-end equipment, without setting off the alarm or leaving any recorded image. They took a shot at Max, then fled when he slapped one of the house’s ubiquitous alarm plates. Apparently the would-be assassin didn’t have the stomach to confront the L.A.P.D. Having seen the P.D. in action I didn’t wonder why – I think I’d rather fight the dogs.
The bullet hit Max in the shoulder, probably a failed head shot – maybe he moved unexpectedly just as they fired, all the assassin’s high-tech expertise foiled by the twitching and shaking of an addict. He roared in pain, flailing and screaming and bleeding all over the furniture, but he lived. Unfortunately he was, as always, drunk and stoned at the time, and by the time he was revived at the hospital he had no memory of the actual shooting at all. The last thing he remembered was the failure of the dogware. In a rare moment of lucidity and sobriety – enforced by his hospitalization – he told me about it as an extremely attractive private nurse puttered around us.
“Fucking things were at each others’ throats man. I mean fuck. There were hundreds of them out on the lawn, disappearing and appearing all over the place, attacking each other and making these berserk sounds like shrieks. Most fucked up thing I ever saw.”
Carmen has been trying to trace the problem back to the source, but whoever caused the dogs to turn on themselves burned up their code as they went. All she’s found is randomized gibberish. So whoever attacked Max, whoever I’m supposed to protect him from, is good enough to hack the latest military equipment while protecting their identity at the same time. It gives me a cold feeling.
I wasn’t hired to investigate, to actually find out who attacked Max or why, just to improve his security architecture, to make it effective against any more attempts on his life. The thing is that as I look at his state of the art counter-intrusion apparatus and think about the person who simply walked past all of it, pitting the dogs against each other as they went, I don’t believe there’s a system in the world that can protect him. The killer failed once, but just barely, and there’s no reason to think they’ll fail again. The more I think about it, the more it seems that the only way to protect Max is to find that killer – that enchanted ghost who could laugh off the dogs – and take them out. The only way to protect him effectively is to understand and then to eradicate.
“The garden,” Dancey announces, taking me out of my thoughts, then turns quietly to leave me to my business. I look through a broad green arch at the garden. I leave the carpeted hallway and gravel crunches under my feet.
Three: A Sixteen Year Old Cheerleader Crossed With a Porn Queen
Cloud City is a paradise. The swooping lines of the main house shine, crisp and white in the Cali sunshine. There are also at least twelve smaller buildings to house staff and guests, plus two small lakes. There is a small but well-stocked art museum, with exhibits borrowed on a rotating basis from major museums around the world. There’s a stable, a horseracing track, a large forested area. The staff uses motorized carts, like miniature convertibles, to get around.
Despite all of this, it’s forlorn. The vast green spaces are empty except for the staff who tend them. The staff houses are full, but the guest houses are empty. Without guests, and with Max withdrawn into his fantasy world, there’s no one to view the art except the guys who hang the pictures, no one to ride the horses except their grooms, and no one to swim in the lakes at all. Attendants clear the forest floor regularly so you can stroll through it unmolested by underbrush, but no one ever does.
The main house is a spooky place haunted by a living man. It’d be beautiful if it belonged to anyone else. The furniture is tasteful and subdued. The art is original, varied, and imaginative, and isn’t limited to paintings or photographs hanging on the walls. There are sculptures that are enjoyed as much with the fingertips as with the eyes and there are holo installations by some of L.A.’s brightest young stars. Dancey occasionally identified a piece or an artist as he led me through the house, but I only half listened – my attention was focused on the art itself. Even the air is filled with a subtle fragrance, carried on an aerosol through the ventilation system. Dancey says it’s different every day, usually floral, but today it’s a citrus combination of lime and tangerine, while tomorrow it might be a blend amber and vanilla.
The carpet is lush and spotlessly white. It has a thick nap, which not only lends a spring to your step, but also apparently helps when Max spills things or throws up, both of which he regularly does. The stained patch can be removed and replaced, the nap of the new piece combed into that of the old, and the appearance of an unbroken expanse of snow-like whiteness is restored with no visible seams.
The front door opens directly into a huge living room, and one progresses downward by stages through several clusters of furniture. In some places the floor is stepped, in others one glides down a smooth, ramp-like structure. Overall it’s like entering an artficial and immaculate sand dune, an impression enhanced by large, potted tropical plants. In the background, almost as subtle as the house’s scent, is a soundtrack of Max’s own music, mostly soft ballads. In this way the young, sane, sexy Max haunts the house too, but unlike the old, frothing, ugly Max, the young one really is dead.
The house has a kitchen, which is rare these days for someone with Max’s money. I’d asked Dancey about it and he’d answered expressionlessly, without betraying his own thoughts.
“Max would rather mistrust a staff of chefs and sous-chefs than a machine. He can spy on people, yell at them. You can’t bully a machine. If someone is going to try to poison him, he wants it to be a human being – he feels he has a better chance of catching them.”
After entering through the front door, one can descend into the dune of the living room, or instead one can pass to the right or the left. In either direction there are hallways discreetly hidden by the curvature of the walls. The passage to the left leads to the sleeping quarters, Max’s music studio, and his unused personal gymnasium. The one to the right – the one along which Dancey had taken me – leads to the kitchen, the security office, and the garden.
It’s not a garden in the usual sense, but a large, indoor, tropical overgrowth, bursting with flowers, ferns, and even medium-sized trees, all contained beneath a high ceiling of glass panels. There are gravel paths and park benches in some areas, while other areas are carpeted and have clusters of more comfortable furniture: sofas and armchairs. It’s a strange combination of outdoors and indoors which Max created at least two decades ago but never visits anymore and it’s here that I’ll interview Porsche.
Porsche Prince is Max’s granddaughter. Max picked the name – Porsche’s mother Selena, his only child, was in rehab at the time. Max was never the kind of actor to dabble in the classics. He’s probably never heard of Shakespeare and, if he has, he hasn’t read him or acted in any of his plays, so she’s not “Portia.” She’s named after the car.
On the surface Porsche seems to be my prime suspect for all the obvious reasons. Max’s fortune is vast to the point of immeasurability. Selena was his only child, and she drowned long ago in her own bathtub, maxed out on vodka and overproof barbiturates while riding the visions of Sunday Best, a hallucinogen known for producing beatific visions. Suicide, not suicide? Who knows? Selena had been an unpredictable wreck from childhood, so it could have been either. Since she’s dead and her ex-husband was cut out of the action with a prenuptial agreement, that leaves Porsche as Max’s sole heir. He could write her out of his will, maybe donate his fortune to charity, but he’s too self-regarding for that. He clings to the notion that something of him lives on in her and therefore his empire must devolve to her. It’s a pathetic miscalculation borne of egotism. There is nothing of Max in Porsche, neither his early artistry nor his later foolish bumbling.
Nor does Porsche resemble her aimless, self-destructive mother – not at all. She’s focused, ludicrously ambitious, self-controlled, and controlling of others. She uses her father’s name as a key to open doors to innumerable deals – sim roles, recording contracts, product endorsements – which inevitably fall apart before they’ve begun or stutter to an abortive end partway through because her talent at anything artistic is inversely proportional to her greed. All she has going for her, apart from naked avarice, is her looks.
She was born beautiful, but that isn’t enough for her. She’s had herself enhanced to the point that it’s hard to believe she’s a real person and not an erotic cartoon character. She is stacked and wasp-waisted, with shimmering blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and perfect skin. At twenty-four – not exactly ancient to begin with – she has the body of a sixteen year old cheerleader crossed with a porn queen. The only flaw in her appearance is her face: it should be beautiful, but it betrays her soul a little too openly. Her lips are thin, and usually wear an expression that is either haughty or overtly cruel. Her eyes are narrow and piercing. She looks like what she is, a spoiled little rich girl for whom nothing is ever enough.
Her face makes things difficult for me. I’ve met some beautiful women in my work, and been tempted by a few, but for whatever perverse reason it’s precisely this kind – the manipulative, selfish, shallow kind – that attracts me the most. I’ve never thought long enough about this to work out why it should be so. Maybe I’m a masochist. Or maybe the sheer transparency of women like that, the openness of their self-promotion, makes them seem more naked than other women can ever be. Or maybe I’m just fucked up. I could see a shrink, but introspection is not my forte. I sometimes indulge in self-analysis for a moment here and there, particularly after being fucked over by someone like Porsche who’s traded me in for a richer or better looking guy, but I can never stick with it. Maybe the real secret is that I’m just as shallow as they are.
In any event, that face is a problem, because she’s a suspect and I can’t afford to allow my perceptions to be clouded by my hormones. To make matters worse, her appearance isn’t the only thing she’s had augmented. Porsche Prince is dedicated to living the life her body is suited to. Her nerves have been finely tuned to enhance her responsiveness during sex, turning ordinary parts of her body into erogenous zones, and her erogenous zones into roiling seas of erotic sensitivity. I know this because everyone knows it. She makes no bones about her inclinations or the delicate surgical enhancements she’s undergone to allow her to indulge them with as much abandon as possible.
I’m examining some flowers I can’t identify when Porsche enters through the garden arch. She’s wearing jeans and a cut-off T-shirt that displays her tight midriff and rides high on the tide of her breasts, their undersides just visible. She throws herself full-length onto a sofa and lies on her side, one arm bent so that her hand supports her head. I sit in an armchair.
“So are you going to arrest me?” she chides. Her expression is somewhere between an amused smile and a sneer. “I’m not a cop,” I remind her.
“Oh, right, I forgot. You’re hired muscle.”
“Actually, it’s my brain Max is paying for.”
She says this in a non-committal way that could mean anything. It’s hard to know what to say in response to such an ambiguous sound.
“Anyway, arresting you isn’t an issue just now.”
She squints and adjusts herself on the sofa, her breasts bobbing and shifting. I swear I can smell the sex of her. I don’t mean perfume, but sex – funky, deep, and slick.
“You think it was me though.”
That’s one thing I love about bitchy women – directness. Sometimes it’s directness to the point of rudeness, or even cruelty, but at least they say what they mean. “I haven’t decided what I think yet, but yeah, you’re on the list. High up there.” She sits up and sighs as though she’s suddenly bored. “Well, let me save you some trouble so we can both get on with other things. It can’t be me.”
“Why is that?”
“You haven’t done your homework, have you?”
“I just got here. My first job was to check house security.”
“Look, Max is too brain-dead to talk to, but if you ask James – the lawyer? – he’ll tell you. I’ve had augmentation.”
“I know that. Everyone knows that. I don’t see how it’s relevant.” I have every intention of talking to James Jerome, Max’s lawyer, but he’s out of town this morning. I have an appointment with him later today.
“What you don’t know is that not all of the augmentation was by choice. Max started getting paranoid long before he went totally wacko, you know. He’s always been worried about people coming after his money. My mom was no threat – she was too wasted to tie her own shoes, much less pull off some kind of palace coup – but he thought I might be trouble eventually, so one day when I was seven years old he bullied her into having me wired up.”
She lets that sink in for a moment. The invasiveness of forced neural controls, her young age, the ineffectual mother, the absent father, and the paranoid, manipulative grandfather. It’s an unthinkably ugly scenario.
“He’s a gross old fuck and he makes me sick and yes, I want all his money. I can’t wait until he pops one pill too many and his greasy heart bursts in his chest.” She pauses here to smile sweetly at me. “But the wiring they put in me won’t let me do anything about it. If he hit me – which he never does, I don’t even think he remembers I exist half the time – but if he ever did hit me, I wouldn’t be able to hit him back. I couldn’t even ask someone else to hit him for me. I can barely think the thought of hitting him without starting to feel nauseous. And if I ever held the thought long enough to get past the nausea, it would turn into pain, then whole-body muscle cramping, then complete paralysis, then unconsciousness. And that’s just the thought of slapping him. You can imagine what it’d be like if I thought something worse.”
I nod, not saying anything. I act as though I accept her explanation at face value, but the truth is that there are sometimes ways to get around that kind of nerve-job, especially if you have an allowance as generous as Porsche’s. You can even have it put back to its original state afterward so that no one will know it’s been tampered with.
Porsche stands and brushes imaginary dirt off her perfect ass. The pale light of the garden, filtered through the foliage, plays across her skin and, for a moment, I can’t prevent myself from thinking about what that skin would feel like. She starts out of the garden then, walking past me as she goes. On the way she stops and runs her finger along my forearm, letting it hesitate at the last tattoo.
“Tijuana,” she says, leaving it at that.
I nod, not trusting myself to say anything. Porsche gazes at the tattoo, stroking it with two fingers.
“So was it a rush, Tijuana?”
“It was a Brace and Erase. I don’t remember.”
It’s a lie, of course, and my traitor brain punishes me by allowing a little taste of Tijuana to seep in around the edges of reality. The heavy, almost gentle thup – thup – thup of helicopter rotors slowly bleeds into my world, blending with the rustle of the leaves in the garden. I don’t see the past just yet, but I can hear it and I can smell it – the heavy, soft air of Mexico. It smells like heaven as long as you’re upwind of the dead.
“Hmmm, Brace.” Porsche says, almost chuckling. “Pharmacological sociopathy.” She enunciates the last words slowly, rhythmically, as if she’s tasting them as she says them. “I wonder what that would be like.”
“Along with Erase,” I manage to say, trying to ignore the shouts of the imaginary squad rushing out of the hallucinated Jenny, boots thumping to the ground. “You don’t remember afterward.”
She flicks her eyes up to meet mine, smiles a little.
“You never remember? Not even a little?”
I must hesitate fractionally before I answer, or maybe my intonation is off. I can see in her eyes that she doesn’t believe me.
“Nothing? I would have thought that it wasn’t possible to forget something like that, not completely. All that mayhem?” The expression on her face is serious, but the undertow in her voice is appreciative, like someone at a wine tasting.
“It’s not a matter of forgetting.” I force myself to focus on Porsche’s face and the sounds of the Tijuana deployment retreat a little, although I can still smell the night desert. “Erase prevents you from forming long-term memory in the first place. There’s nothing to remember.”
“And it works every time, all the time?”
I don’t bother to lie this time, just shake my head. I say nothing, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Porsche’s very practiced at reading people and right now she’s reading my shame.
“Oh come on,” she says matter of factly. “Pangs of conscience? Seriously? I mean, you enlisted. You’re not going to tell me you didn’t know what you were getting into.”
“James tell you how old I am?”
She shakes her head.
“I was born in seventy-one.”
She gets it quickly and her face lights up.
“You’re a revenant!”
Her glee seems as real and guileless as a child’s. The sunshine of it dispels the last of the Mexican memories. It’s a relief to see and hear and smell nothing but the garden around me.
“Yes, I am.”
“That’s, like, a hundred and fifty years?”
She’s canny, but math is not her strong point.
“Closer to one-seventy-five.”
“So – what? – when you were growing up California was just some state? Did you actually go through the Fall?”
“No,” I shrug. “I flatlined in a car accident and they stuck me in stasis. We didn’t have shells yet, so that was the best they could do. I missed everything.”
It’s clear that Porsche lives for novelty. Before I had bored her, but meeting someone who was alive during the American Empire has her wide awake and full of questions.
I laugh despite myself.
Porsche looks at me for a long moment. I didn’t raise the topic of my stasis just to entertain her – I had a point and I’m thinking about how to navigate toward it, but she bypasses all the details and jumps straight to the conclusion.
“You’re afraid of dying.”
I back away from the point a little.
Her hair moves when she shakes her head.
“Not like you.” She takes a step toward me, closer than most people would stand. “You’re no soldier. I’d smell it on you.” She manages to make her judgment sound disdainful and sweet at the same time. “You died, more or less, right? Lost everything. You woke up and found yourself here.” She tilts her head. “Your family’s gone, dead. Everything in your world gone, dead. You were dead.”
I don’t answer, but she’s caught my scent all right and she knows it. She pokes me in the chest with her finger and drops her voice to a scratchy whisper.
“But death’s not going to get you again, am I right? Not if you can hold it off. So you join the Forces and you get this shell.” Her hand moves up and down me, casually brushing my military-issue body with her fingertips. “You could never have afforded this. You have skills two centuries old, what kind of a job are you going to get?”
“No job at all. Without the Forces I’d have been krill.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the point. Without the Forces you’d have been mortal,” she says, poking me again, but grinning at me this time, grinning at her own deductions, hateful and playful. “Now you have a top of the line shell and skills that might just let you buy a new one when this one ages out. But to get it you had to stomp on the peasants, cause pain, ruin lives, end lives, tear up families.” She’s still grinning. “What was so important in Tijuana anyway? It’s not like they have anything.”
“They have the border. Guiterrez was losing control of the population – too much rebellion. You can’t have that on the border. To Sacramento the border is like its own skin – you don’t want things happening that close. You could get an infection.”
“So you guys, what? Restored order? Disinfected?”
“That’s the way Sacramento talks about it. Look, your father must have other people who hate him, who want his money.”
I can’t talk any more about Tijuana, I need to change the subject back to the task at hand, but she waves my words away. The investigation bores her, but apparently I no longer do.
“What are you doing later?””
“Do you ever stop working?”
“When I go to bed.”
“Bed? Perfect!” she says cheerily, and finally walks past me, leaving a trail of pheromones in her wake. My body stays where it is, ninety-nine percent certain she’s doing no more than toying with me, but my lust follows her out of the room anyway.
And here ends the excerpt. Interested in reading more? Here are the links again — these will take you to all of my books.
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