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The future should have been perfect. Microscopic robots known as nans could repair any damage to your body, keep you young by resetting your cellular clocks, and allow you to download upgrades like intelligence, muscle strength, and eyesight. You were supposed to be able to have anything you wanted with a simple thought, to be able to fly without the aid of a machine, to be able to live forever. But when a small group of five terraformers working on Venus return to Earth, they discover that every other human in the solar system has been gruesomely murdered. Now, James Keats and his four companions must discover what happened to the rest of humanity and fight back if they wish to avoid the same, horrifying fate. Welcome to the post-human era.
WAKING UP was not something that one had to work very hard to accomplish these days; like most things, it was done for you. The nanobots, also known as nans, were set to awaken their host at whatever time he or she desired. They would always, how- ever, awaken their host just before the end of the most recent REM sleep, so that the host would arise alert and feeling well rested. It was usually easy to remember one’s dreams too, and recounting dreams to friends, loved ones, and co-workers had become a universal pre-noon activity (after noon was a different story, as by that point it was a faux pas to continue discussing a dream—best just to let it go and focus on the real world). Sleep was hardly death’s counterfeit any longer, as Shakespeare had suggested, but an important source of entertainment. These early morning remembrances of fantastic dreams, in addition to one’s high level of alertness, made it difficult to wake up feeling any- thing other than optimistic—difficult, but not impossible.
James Keats opened his eyes and sat up in bed. He turned to his right, looked out of his window and saw that the sun had risen, but the summer sky was blotted out by low hanging gray clouds above the city. He turned to his left and saw his wife, Katherine, still fast asleep. She wouldn’t awake for another hour, just after he would have already left for work. She could have set herself to wake up with him. This was her plan—deafening silence. When would his punishment end? He knew it never would. Their love was over.
James turned from her and sighed as he lifted the heated blanket from his legs and stepped out onto the heated carpet of his bedroom. Just a few short steps away were his bathroom and the promise of his morning shower. He opened his mind’s eye and selected a soft spray at 45 degrees Celsius. When he stepped into the shower, the spray hit him from four directions and he relaxed against the kneading fingers of the water.
People in the industrialized world had been enjoying their morning showers for two centuries now. There were more efficient ways of cleaning oneself; on Mars, James had used a micro- wave shower that detected any foreign substances in a matter of a few seconds and removed them from the body. The process of removing dirt and oil was over just as quickly as it began, but James hated it. The technology had been available for years but it had never caught on with the general population. A traditional shower was just too valuable to give up. Even if it took a few extra minutes in the morning, the hot water and massaging jets were like an old friend to humanity.
People were funny that way—the way they would resist the future and cling to the past. It was like how the concept of a God had never left the species. Very few people alive believed in a God—there was no longer a need to, yet the phrases, oh my God or dear God, etc. were still commonly used. It was as if people needed these phrases, these concepts from the past, to help them understand the future.
As James shampooed his hair, he reactivated his mind’s eye and checked his phone messages—there were none. He quickly checked his e-mail, but there was nothing interesting. His older brother had sent him some pornographic holoprograms to keep him company but he didn’t open them—maybe later. Right now he wasn’t in the mood. He set the shower to end in five seconds and selected a towel-off of 40 degrees Celsius that was to begin the moment the shower stopped. As warm air replaced the water, blowing through the vents and quickly drying him, his thoughts drifted back to Katherine. Why wouldn’t she listen? He had done nothing wrong; at least nothing physically wrong. It’s what you wanted to do that hurts me, James, she said. But I can’t control what I want to do—I can only control what I actually do, he told her. And we both know why you didn’t ‘actually’ do anything, don’t we? Don’t we? She had a point.
After he finished in the shower, James dressed quickly. It was his standard issue black uniform. He pulled on the t-shirt and the flight pants and slipped on his flight jacket with the NASA emblem emblazoned on the right shoulder. He walked out of the bedroom with one last look at the back of his wife’s head, the blonde hair the only evidence of an actual person in the room with him. He floated down to the first floor gently and hovered into the kitchen, setting down lightly onto the linoleum floor. He opened his mind’s eye once again and activated his food replicator. After he took a look at the breakfast menu, he selected a poached egg on a bagel, served hot, and a large orange juice served cold. The food was ready in an instant and he gulped down his orange juice. The bagel he could eat on the way. He slipped on his flight boots and selected the door open icon in his mind’s eye. Then, he stepped onto his front lawn and gazed across the water at the downtown core of Vancouver. It was rush hour and the thousands of bodies buzzed above the city. On a good day, he would look at that sight and think of honeybees working on the comb. Today, the sight reminded him of flies buzzing around a pile of shit or a rotting corpse. The sky was brown above the massive skyscrapers and all across the horizon. It was as though a painter had soiled his thumb and rubbed it across the expanse of what could have been his masterpiece. James took two quick bites of his bagel and placed the rest in the pocket of his jacket. He pulled on his helmet and looked skyward as he lifted off from his lawn and slowly approached the low hanging clouds. He liked to take a moment or two before activating his magnetic field. He enjoyed the way the wind felt as he picked up speed on his ascent. As he entered the clouds and began to feel the temperature dropping, he activated the protective field; it produced a greenish light that encapsulated his body. Once the magnetic field was in place, he was free to bolt upward, unhindered by friction, air pressure, temperature, or anything else. In seconds he was above the stratosphere, using his mind’s eye to plot an automatic course for Venus.
The trip to Venus usually took just under an hour; it was still one of the longest commutes in all of humanity. People regularly commuted between hemispheres on Earth, some even commuted between the Earth and the Moon, but very few commuted interplanetarily. After plotting his course, he bolted forward once again, this time at an even faster rate than before.
As he passed by the Moon and breathed the compressed air released by his flight suit, he surfed the net. This was his regular commuting routine. First he would check the sports—the Vancouver Canucks had lost to an expansion team on Mars—the players blamed the difference in gravity and promised a better performance back on Earth. “Shit. Lost that bet,” James cursed to himself. Next he checked the mainstream news. MSNBC was interviewing James’s boss, Inua Colbe, the executive assistant to the president of A.I. governance. The interviewer was sitting across from Colbe, dangling her pointed dress shoe from her foot and smiling as she asked him questions in front of a welcoming fireplace.
“There have been a lot of questions about the wait between upgrades, Dr. Colbe. Can you tell us why it has taken over five years for this latest upgrade to be approved?” Colbe smiled as he answered. The camera closed in on his smiling face; his pearly white teeth could distract anyone from what was being said, putting them at ease. “The simple fact is that this upgrade is far better than any upgrades that have been uploaded in the past. There is more disease resistance, there is an increase in muscle tone, improvements to the cardiovascular system that should increase energy and, of course, what everyone is talking about, the 8 point jump in IQ. This is the largest jump of any in history.” IQ measurements had been based on the num- bers from before the nans had first started slowly improving the population’s intelligence. An IQ of 100 was no longer the aver- age IQ of a population, since almost everyone alive was now at the same level. There were only a few people who were naturally above the standard level.
“I think people are very much looking forward to the IQ portion of the download, I certainly know that I am...” “Aren’t we all?” Colbe interjected. “... but why not increase the IQ slowly? We’ve been used to annual improvements of a point or two. Why suddenly a five year gap followed by this huge leap forward?” Colbe smiled again, this time nodding to show that he under- stood the concerns of the general public. ‘He’s a great P.R. man,’ thought James, ‘because he’s a phony bastard.’ “Well, Keiko, what people have to understand is that as the IQ of the general public increases, it becomes more and more difficult to provide upgrades—not impossible, mind you, but more difficult. In the early days, it was very easy to find countless bright subjects who we could study so that we could learn a great deal about what makes an intelligent person. However, once we start getting into the number we are entering now, where the IQ of the general public is 149 and about to reach 157, the number of subjects who are naturally this intelligent and on whom we can model the upgrades diminishes significantly. This particular upgrade isn’t based on a large number of people, but is actually based on one person, a man named James Keats who is the com- mander of the terraforming project on Venus and who happens to have an IQ above 200.” James opened his mouth in shock. ‘He screwed me. He... screwed me.’ “My goodness! An IQ above 200 naturally! That is astounding!” “He is an astounding individual, Keiko. He is only 36 years old and is commanding a team of scientists, some of whom are three times his age, on one of the most important projects of our time. He played an integral part in the terraforming of Mars and he was the only real candidate for the job on Venus. In addition, he was generous enough to offer scans of his brain to the A.I. so that this latest upgrade could be modeled on him. He is a great citizen.” James blinked, still shocked to be listening to Colbe talk about him during a live broadcast. “That asshole,” he said out loud before using his mind’s eye to dial Colbe’s phone. Obviously Colbe wouldn’t answer as he was busy being Judas, so James waited for Colbe’s answering message to appear. An old message popped up; it was probably recorded several years ago judging by the passé clothes Colbe was wearing. He looked the same though—the nans had kept him young—if anything, he might have actually looked a little better now. When the image on Inua’s machine stopped speaking and the beep indicated that James was free to leave his message, he spoke in as cordial a tone as he could muster—but he was pissed.
“Inua, I am watching you tell the populated solar system that their new brains are going to be modeled on mine. I thought we had a deal, Inua. I thought you said I would be anonymous. I don’t want reporters asking me questions. I don’t want everyone in the solar system looking at me like I’m related to them. Was I not clear about this?” He terminated the message and stopped the broadcast. He thought of surfing the net some more to take his mind off of his massive irritation but he decided not to. Instead, he would work. He opened the file containing the computer model of today’s experiment. He ran it through, from beginning to end, but paid no attention to it. He was trying to convince himself not to be angry. ‘There’s no reason to be this upset’ he told himself, but yet there it was. Why was he so angry? Why didn’t he want people to know about him? What was it about today’s upgrade that was upsetting him so much? Why was he afraid of connection? ***
With a 600 degree Celsius surface, Venus might have been hell, and James wouldn’t have had it any other way. His favorite part of the day was his approach to the planet and subsequent descent into the atmosphere.
It was roughly the same size as Earth with only a few hundred kilometers separating them in diameter, but that was one of the few similarities it shared with its sister planet. Its atmosphere consisted almost entirely of carbon dioxide and the resulting greenhouse effect made it the hottest planet in the solar system. The deadly heat made the existence of water on the planet impossible, but there was rain—a deadly sulphuric acid that combined with the heat to make Venus as inhospitable a place as any in the solar system—just the sort of challenge that James wanted. Once he had reached the Venusian stratosphere, James set a course for the research lab on the surface. He smiled as he entered the thick, dark clouds and blasted through the acid and heat.
On the surface, in the research lab not-so-affectionately referred to as “the oven” by the workers who inhabited it, Thel Cleland looked up from her work on the magnetic propeller and watched a tiny blue dot in her mind’s eye that signified the approach of Commander Keats. She had taken it upon herself to greet him when he arrived this morning and had been watching out for him for the last ten minutes. “Look sharp, everybody! The boss is coming!” she announced to Rich Borges and Djanet Dove, the other workers that populated the lab and who were also making preparations for the morning’s experiment.
“The boss... ” replied Djanet, smiling to herself. Everyone in the lab smiled. It was hard to think of Commander Keats as a boss. He was young, friendly, caring, a pleasure to work with.
Thel stood and floated gently up toward the air lock. She was a tall, slender, dark haired woman with a strong, athletic build. There was a certain self-confidence in every move, every gesture, every stance she ever took that was unmistakable. At fifty, she felt that she finally knew how to live, and that she had earned her self-assurance. Of course, as with everyone else, the nans had kept her young—she was biologically 29 and men of all ages pursued her relentlessly. She knew what she was looking for though—she knew exactly what she was looking for.
The greenish glow of James’s magnetic field was visible for an instant before he emerged from out of the cloud cover. The weather moved slowly on Venus—there was rarely anything to obscure one’s view on the surface and Thel was able to watch Commander Keats, James, unobscured as he approached the outer magnetic doors. Once inside, he disengaged his magnetic field and opened the airlock door. Thel floated before him, smiling as James removed his helmet. She laughed and covered her mouth. “What?” James asked, surprised. Thel reached out and wiped the corner of his lip with the tip of her finger. “Had egg for breakfast this morning?” “Oh... thanks,” he said, coloring quickly. “No problem, Commander.” James struggled to look into her eyes; it was hard to look at her—she seemed to be able to look right through him, right into his soul. Did she know what he was thinking? But I can’t control what I want to do—I can only control what I actually do.
He turned away for a moment and noticed Rich and Djanet watching—not working—watching. “Ah... preparations are going okay, I hope?” Thel noticed the changed look on James’s face and turned to see her co-workers as they snuck quick glances upwards, trying to look as though they weren’t looking. She just smiled even more. “Just fine, Commander. We’ll be ready.” “Good. Good. I... uh... I better go get ready.”
James began to float across the lab towards the second story doorway to his office but stopped when he noticed another greenish light emerging from the clouds. “Hey... it’s Old-timer!” Old-timer, formerly known as Craig Emilson, arrived on the exact same trajectory as James had one minute earlier. He was dressed in an identical flight suit, all the researchers were, and only his extra 10 centimeters in height prevented dizzying déjà vu. When Old-timer had entered the airlock and slipped off his helmet, he smiled at Thel, kissed her on the cheek, and vigorously shook hands with James.
“Hey, good buddy!” Old-timer said, offering his usual, very familiar greeting. “Good morning, pal!” replied James. Old-timer had the polar opposite effect on James that Thel did—he put the younger man at ease, somehow. He was self-assured, just as Thel was, but there was something different. “Too bad about those Canucks of yours, eh Jimmy?” “I’m impressed, Old-timer—it took you all of four seconds to bring that up.” “Well, I’m not one for beating around the bush, especially when it comes to collecting on a wager. You owe me.” “I know, I know. I didn’t forget.” “What did you bet?” Thel inquired. Old-timer and James exchanged glances. “Would you like to tell her, or shall I?” asked Old-timer. “I wouldn’t dare deprive you of your chance to gloat. The honour is yours.” “Thank you, sir” Old-timer responded as he performed an exaggerated bow. “Commander Keats has agreed to join me this evening for... are you ready Thel? For a beer!” Thel gasped in mock astonishment. “I can’t believe it! You got him to drink! I’ve been trying to get him to have a drink with me for three years!” “Well, we can thank a certain Martian expansion hockey team for this miracle!” “I still can’t believe they lost,” James said. “Oh, don’t look so down, champ! You’ll enjoy it! The nans will fix up those brain cells overnight! I promise you won’t do a speck of damage to that noggin of yours.” “Is that why you don’t drink, Commander? Afraid you might lose an IQ point?” Thel asked in jest. “I just don’t see the appeal. I like thinking. I enjoy it. Why would anyone purposefully impair their ability to do it?” Old-timer and Thel looked at each other for a moment before they burst out laughing. “Hopefully you’ll find out at the pub with me tonight,” Old-timer replied before adding, “You ready to fire up the Zeus this morning?” “Can’t wait for it.”
Old-timer, like everyone else, was 29 biologically, but he was chronologically 110—the only centurion on the team. He moved like a young man, he had the libido of a young man, but one could tell after only a few moments in his presence that he was a senior. Something seemed to happen to people once they reached a certain age—they seemed to recapture their joy of life, and they often got along best with the younger generations. “Are you ready, Old-timer?” Thel asked. “You know I am always ready for an-y-thing,” he replied, leaning in towards the younger woman, putting his arm around her and raising his eyebrow saucily. Only Old-timer could take these liberties. “Well, I’ll leave you two alone,” James said, smiling. “I’ll be in my office for a few minutes—we’ll commence at 9:30 am Pacific time, okay? Let everyone know.” James met Thel’s eyes one last time. She could still see through him. Inside his office, James removed his flight jacket and set his helmet down next to his desk. The office was sparsely decorated, just a desk in the middle of the room and a couple of chairs. He had meant to replicate a plant but kept forgetting—maybe Thel would pick one out for him? A sudden flash appeared in the corner of his vision, activating his mind’s eye. It was Inua Colbe, returning his call. James sighed when he saw the other man and took a moment to collect himself before responding. “Keats here.” “James. James, I just watched a rather unpleasant message on my phone. What’s the matter with you?” “I might ask you the same thing. You used my name on a broadcast.” “And?” “I know how they think, Inua. I know how the mind works. I know how it works better than anyone. They’ll feel a connection to me! I don’t want that.” “Calm down, James. Calm.” James folded his arms. Inua reassessed. “How long has it been since we’ve been golfing together?” “Two years,” James replied, sitting down behind his desk. “Two years? Two years? Holy—that time with our wives in Arizona? That was...” “Yes, two years.” “My, how time flies. Listen, we should go golfing again...” “Golf? Please tell me you have something better to offer than this.” “I’m not offering anything. Remember, James, I’m the guy that got you Venus.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “You know there are still a lot of prominent people down here that want you removed? There is a faction in the Governing Council that thinks the Hektor plan is more practical than yours.” 12 James smiled. “I agree. Without question, the Hektor plan is a much more practical way of blowing up Venus. On the other hand, if you want to terraform her...” “You’re being belligerent.” “Then fire me, Inua.” “Look, all I am saying is there are a lot of people down here with multiple PhD’s who disagree with you.” “But you agree with me. The Hektor plan is lunacy and you know it. Smashing an asteroid into Venus to get rid of the atmosphere isn’t going to accomplish anything other than destroying the planet. You have to have a little more finesse than that, Inua. Jesus Christ. You know this.” “I did you a favor. Don’t bust my balls just because I needed you to do me a favor in return.” “I’ve done enough favors. All I asked was that I be anonymous.” A new strategy flashed into Inua’s eyes. “What are you afraid of, James? You’re afraid you’ll be famous for a little while?” “Exactly.” “Let me let you in on a little secret. Fame is a sham. It’s a total sham. It’s spectacle. No one who is famous deserves it. They’re only famous because the public needs to believe that there are people worth idolizing—it’s the malady of the herd.” “I know this, Inua.” “Do you? That’s interesting. And do you also know that we’re forecasting a 210 IQ for the general public within a decade?” James did not respond. “That’s right. 210. The people will have reached your level.” “Based on my model?” “Based on your model. You. The man who knows fame is a sham. Do you think the general public will care about you then, once you are just like them?” For the first time in his life, James felt the need to throw up. 13 “You are going to live forever, James. Up against forever, ten years of fame won’t seem like much.” “No. No it won’t.” “There, you see?” Inua was smiling now. “Even with that big soppy brain of yours, old Inua can still teach you a thing or two. Now try to relax my friend, and try to enjoy the notoriety, okay? And let’s make sure we get together for some golf soon... maybe next week, once people are used to the new upgrade and the P.R. tour is over? What do you say?” “I... I hate golf. I’ll take you to a hockey game.” Inua laughed—it was hollow—a salesman’s laugh. “Okay old friend. Okay. Goodbye.” The connection was severed. James swiveled his chair around and faced the glass wall behind his desk. Outside was dark, hot hell. ***