The Undead: A Tale of the Biotech Revolution
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by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction
Description: In the world of the future, the newest rage among the rich and aged is to purchase computer-generated biotech simulations of their personalities before they die--and thus to become, after their passing, "Undead," immobile personalities trapped within the tombstones erected in their honor, only able to communicate with the outside world by voice and through texting.
But religious fanatics, and the relatives who thought they would inherit the Undeads' wealth, are outraged, regarding the sims as abominations. And then a cluster of four tombstones is vandalized in the night, the first of several such attacks; and cemetery Chief Security Officer Tann Hicks must find the perpetrator(s) and stop the crimes.
But are the sims alive or dead? And is the motive for the desecrations religious, personal, or a just a matter of greed? As the controversy grows and the media and police become involved, Tann finds himself squeezed on all sides. Can he solve the mystery before the Undead become the next flashpoint of a highly polarized society?
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2010 USA
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [205 KB]
Reading time: 126-176 min.
As he turned his car into the parking lot outside the gates of the Bracknell site of Virgil's Elysium, Tann Hicks wasn't sure whether to be grateful or annoyed that Sam Scarlett, the senior guard on night duty, hadn't phoned him as soon as he'd discovered the damage to the headpieces. Tann was all too well aware of the fact that his position as the Elysium's "Chief Security Officer" was largely nominal, with little real authority attached to it, and he was aware, too, that Sam was a trifle resentful of his being appointed to wear the title, given that Sam had twice as much experience under his belt. Given that Tann was the man primarily responsible for the Elsyium's security, however, he thought that he really ought to have been apprised of the incident without delay. On the other hand, Meg certainly wouldn't have appreciated it if they'd both been woken up at four o'clock in the morning and Tann had then had to desert her in order to go into work, with the midnight shift only half over and a full shift plus overtime still to do.
The car glided silently into its reserved spot and Tann climbed out, anxiously surveying the members of the little crowd gathered outside the Elysium's gate, searching for signs of excitement and agitation. The demonstrators were a little more numerous than they usually were before eight a.m., and they were talking to one another in hushed tones rather than simply standing around with banners reading THE UNDEAD ARE AN INSULT TO GOD or SACRED GROUND SHOULD NOT BE PROFANED, but they were not manifesting the kind of fervor that might have been expected had they believed that anything of major importance had transpired. They were, after all, residents of deepest suburbia, accustomed to a polite and quiet life.
As Tann made his way to the little side-gate, keycard in hand, the unofficial leader of the protest--a white-haired hobbyist named Seymour Conway who had taken up tub-thumping to while away the years of his retirement--blocked his path, and said: "Is it true, Mr. Hicks, that four of the Undead have been destroyed by an Avenging Angel?"
"So far as I know," Tann told him, pausing briefly before pushing his way past, "any damage sustained by the memorials is minor--and the perpetrator was certainly no Avenging Angel. Wasn't it one of your little flock?"
Conway smiled sardonically as he said: "My friends and I are careful to obey the law against trespass, Mr. Hicks, although we resent your employers' refusal to allow us to pay our respects to the dead." He stood aside, though, when Tann did ease past him, offering no resistance. None of his followers attempted to follow Tann through the gate, in defiance of the Elysium's "relatives only" policy, which was nowadays strictly observed.
Tann didn't hurry as he walked along the path that led to the office complex; he didn't want to give the demonstrators the satisfaction of thinking that he was at all anxious or disturbed. The graves lined up to either side of the path were all old, with crosses or headstones that were utterly mute and inert. The smarter monuments, inorganic and organic alike, were all on the far side of the administration center, shielded from the road as if huddled behind a barricade, acutely aware of their revolutionary status.
There really wouldn't have been any point in Sam waking Tann up when the incident had occurred, given that the perpetrator had fled the scene before Sam got there, and there was nothing at all that Tann could have done about the incident at that hour in the morning. Tann knew, however, that Roland Montfort, the Elysium's administrator, might not see it that way. Not that Montfort would have wanted to be woken up himself--he would just have wanted his so-called Chief Security Officer to be woken up, so that Tann could "assume the burden of his responsibilities". All things considered, Tann thought, as he used his keycard again to gain access to the building, it might have been better if Sam had got him out of bed, no matter how pointless it might have been. After all, the guard had phoned the police to report the trespass and the damage, even though that was pretty pointless too. There was no way the police were going to send someone around at four o'clock in the morning to investigate a case of vandalism in a cemetery, no matter how loquaciously the various spokesmen for the Undead might complain about the seriousness of such matters and the definition of the crime.
Tann went to the locker room and donned his uniform before heading for Montfort's office, steeling himself for the possible ordeal to come. He probably wouldn't have disliked his boss if Montfort had tried just a little harder to be likeable, but the administrator made no secret nowadays of his disappointment in being stuck in the same job for the last seven years--which was presumably the corporation's way of signaling that he no longer in the fast lane to promotion. Montfort thought he had been made for better things, and that being in charge of an Elysium, even in interesting times, was an insulting underestimation of his capabilities.
When Montfort had first been appointed, the only smart memorials in the Elysium had been inorganic, and there hadn't been very many of those; he'd been seen the cemetery through years of increasingly-heated controversy as the second generation of its Undead population had been gradually introduced and integrated, and he must have felt that he'd proved himself by weathering the squall. Perhaps, Tann thought, Montfort's employers thought he'd weathered it a little too well, and were reluctant to put a novice in his place now that Seymour Conway's booing brigade were finally making a little headway in terms of claiming media interest and general sympathy.
Montfort couldn't have arrived more than fifteen minutes before Tann, but fifteen minutes was the kind of margin that could generate a considerable moral advantage in the managerial mind, and Tann was expecting to endure a few subtle insults before he and his boss got down to business, so he was more than a little relieved, when he knocked and opened the door of Montfort's office, to find that the administrator wasn't alone.
Tann recognized the man standing at Montfort's desk as Nathaniel Barrow, the not-so-devoted son of the late and allegedly much-beloved Mildred Barrow--one of the four Undead victims of the incident. Presumably, Mildred hadn't been so badly damaged that she had been unable to send texts to her children via the teepee link, either calling for help or complaining about the awful injustice of the catastrophe.
Roland Montfort was standing up too, but he was a short, slim man, while Nathaniel Barrow was built like a rugby player, with a ruddy, misshapen face strongly suggestive of long experience in the scrum; there was no doubt as to who had the more intimidating presence. The two were about the same age, in strictly chronological terms, but Nathaniel Barrow had more than a hint of the Neanderthal about him, while Montfort was a trifle effete even by the most refined standards of Homo sapiens, so they seemed to be separated by a hundred thousand years of evolution.
Tann wasn't exceptionally solidly-built himself, but he was fairly tall, so he could at least look the intimidating relative in the eye. He was able to defuse a little of the accumulated tension in the room by greeting the visitor by name and shaking his hand before turning to face his boss. "I'm sorry, sir," he said, dutifully. "I got here as quickly as I could when I picked up the message, but the traffic's backed up at the roundabouts, as usual. Have the police arrived yet?"
"No, they haven't, Mr. Hicks," Montfort replied, in a gentler tone than Tann had anticipated. "I've had to ask your night-shift men to stay on for a couple of hours in order to make sure that the crime scene's preserved, just in case a forensic analysis team condescends to show up--Sam Scarlett's standing guard there now, while Doug Marcus is trying to repair the disabled alarm system."
Tann assumed that it wouldn't be diplomatic to mention in front of Mr. Barrow that the probability of the police making a forensic analysis team available to investigate a case of vandalism in a cemetery was so close to zero as to be almost unimaginable. Nor would it be diplomatic to point out to Roland Montfort that trying to repair the alarm system might be considered to be interfering with the crime scene. "Thank you, sir," he said, dutifully. "I'll relieve Sam right away, so that I can get his report and take a look at the damage myself."
He didn't expect to get away so easily, and he didn't, although it was the visitor who turned on him rather than his boss.
"How could you let this happen, Mr. Hicks?" Nathaniel Barrow demanded. "You knew about the threat--there's a gang of troublemakers hanging about outside your gate every day, waving banners accusing you of being agents of Satan. What's the point of having a security force if you can't protect the monuments?"
"I'm truly sorry, Mr. Barrow," Tann said, "but the manpower at my disposal is limited. There are only two men on duty between midnight and eight, so we have to rely on technology to protect the grounds and deter intruders. This intruder was able to disable the perimeter alarm, so it wasn't until the infrared detectors picked him up that the guard in the ops room was alerted."
"The guard did reach the scene in time to prevent more serious damage being done," Roland Montfort chipped in, obviously feeling obligated to defend his staff in the face of an external adversary, no matter how displeased with them he might be himself. "The attacker fled before inflicting irreversible damage on any of the neuronets, which is why your mother was able to text you."
Barrow sighed. "Unlike my sentimentally-inclined brother," he said, "I'm not stupid enough to think that the talking computer program inside that travesty of a headstone is my mother. It's a travesty, and I'm convinced that she only set it up to annoy us. Even so, I'm not at all happy to discover that her grave has been desecrated. The fact that that the perpetrator seems to have got away with it will only attract more unwelcome attention--and believe me, her survivors have troubles enough already. Did your man even try to apprehend him?"
"My men don't carry weapons, Mr. Barrow," Tann told him. "The intruder was armed, at least with whatever implement he used to attack the headpieces, and might easily have been carrying a knife, or even a gun. All that the guard could reasonably do was attempt to get a glimpse of the intruder, in order to aid in his subsequent identification; he was under strict orders not to get into any kind of fight."
"And did he get a glimpse, to aid in subsequent identification?" Nathaniel Barrow wanted to know.
"The man was wearing some kind of face-mask," Montfort was quick to put in. "There's no way he can be identified from the evidence provided by the guard or the security cameras."
"So he'll get away with it? Not that it matters much, I suppose--even if the police manage to catch up with him, he'll just claim that he was doing God's work, striking a blow against the New Blasphemy--and he'll get plenty of support. In a way, I can't blame him for thinking that way, but it's still a desecration of my mother's grave. Why did he have to single her out?"
"She wasn't singled out, Nat," Roland Montfort said, apparently attempting a level of mateyness that seemed a trifle ludicrous to Tann. "All four headpieces in her quartet were attacked."
"Do you think that makes it any better, Roly?" the Neanderthal replied, sharply.
There was no doubt that the big man was genuinely upset about something, but the tenor of his objections rang more than a little false. Tann suspected that Barrow was almost as unconcerned about the "desecration" of his mother's grave as he was about the damage to her sim, and guessed that the only thing that really concerned him was the possibility that any consequent publicity might show him and his siblings in a bad light. Tann had taken the trouble, when he had time to spare, to converse with Mildred Barrow's sim, as he did with most of the Undead, and she had told him, in common with almost all of her peers, that all her children, and Nathaniel in particular, resented her for making provision for her preservation after death. According to her, Nathaniel and his sister flatly refused to consider that the sim animating the memorial was really their mother, or anything resembling a human being, and that her younger son, who had been more sympathetic, was now wavering under their pressure.
Perhaps the sim's anxiety was mostly Undead Paranoia--a condition increasingly being talked about as a vulnerability typical of the species--but it fitted in well enough with the logic of the situation. How many would-be heirs would be only too glad to sacrifice their inheritance in order that their dead parent could maintain a semblance of continued existence and continued influence over their lives? Some, presumably--but not many. Would Nathaniel Barrow have been less disappointed, Tann couldn't help wondering, if the vandal who had attacked his mother's headpiece had completed the job before Sam Scarlett arrived on the scene? Not that the task could really have been regarded as complete, even if the neuronet in situ had been irreparably damaged, so long as a back-up copy of the sim still survived, and provided that Mildred Barrow had taken out adequate insurance before popping her clogs.
"I understand your outrage, Mr. Barrow," Tann assured the distressed relative, deploying his own talent for insincerity, "and I can assure you that everything possible will be done to identify the perpetrator of the crime and guarantee his prosecution. If you'll excuse me, so that I can get on with that...."
He turned as if to leave, but he suspected that it wouldn't be so easy, and it wasn't. "Just a minute, Mr. Hicks," said Roland Montfort. "We need to discuss tactics for handling the media."
"Media?" said Nathaniel Barrow, anxiously. "TV and Web news, you mean?"
"It's not a big enough story to make headline news, thankfully," Montfort was quick to add, "but it's bound to be reported, and we need to make sure that it's reported responsibly."
"Why should it be reported it all?" Barrow asked, his eyes narrowing "Can't you keep it quiet? Surely the police aren't going to make a big fuss about it?"
"If we try to keep it quiet, Nat," Montfort told him, "that will only attract suspicion that we have something to hide. The facts are bound to be placed on public record--the point is to prevent them from being sensationalized. Although the incident isn't serious in itself, thankfully, the controversy regarding the Undead has heated up considerably now that smart monuments contrived in stone and silicon have been superseded by organic variants. As you pointed out yourself, if the perpetrator ever gets to court, he's likely to come out with a load of nonsense about taking up arms against the New Blasphemy. There's a danger that this might be blown up out of all proportion--which might be exactly what the attacker wants, and is certainly exactly what we don't want. That's why your men have to be careful, Mr. Hicks. We don't want anyone to start a snowball rolling."
"Don't worry, Mr. Montfort," Tann said, although he knew that there wasn't anything he could do that would stop someone like Sam Scarlett shooting his mouth off, if the mood took him. "I'll make sure that all my men are well aware of the need for diplomacy. Short factual comments only, courteous but controlled."
"If you ask me," Nathaniel Barrow said, although it seemed perfectly obvious to Tann that no one would have, "it's the other side that might want to make propaganda capital out of this--the nuts trying to claim human rights for the Undead. Mother's nearest neighbor is the sim of some old hedge-fund swindler, who's trying to claw back his property as well as maintaining a pathetic illusion of continued existence. They're the ones who are likely to blow this up out of all proportion."
"I doubt it, Nat," said Montfort. "The damage isn't that serious--it's not the sort of stuff out of which causes celebres can be built. It can't be plausibly represented as grievous bodily harm, let alone murder. The spokespeople for the Undead will wait for something meatier. It's bound to come, sooner rather than later--but hopefully not from Virgil's Elysium."
"I hope you're right about that," Barrow retorted. "I don't want Mother's name dragged into any such dispute--which it would be, if her sim were to be held up as some kind of Undead martyr."
If ever there was a contradiction in terms.... Tann thought. "I really should get out to the site," was what he said aloud.
"Yes, of course, Mr. Hicks," Roland Montfort was quick to say. "This isn't the time or the place for a philosophical discussion. The sooner you can get on with the job, the more chance we have of tidying the matter up and putting this unfortunate occurrence behind us. If you'll excuse us both, Mr. Barrow...."
The big man didn't seem to want to leave--or, at least, didn't want to be dismissed by a person as small as Roland Montfort--but he wasn't given the opportunity to be stubborn. Instead of waiting for him to leave the office, Montfort moved around the desk and took Tann by the arm, ready to hurry off with him and leave his unwelcome visitor behind. Tann didn't particularly like his arm being grabbed, but he allowed himself to be drawn out into the corridor and hustled along toward the door that let out into the sector of the grounds where almost all the smart memorials were gathered.
"I've called in the bioengineers," Montfort told him, speaking in a low voice, although they were already out of earshot of Nathaniel Barrow, who had decided that it was better to turn in the opposite direction and go about his own business. "They say they'll get here as soon as possible, but God only knows when that will be. In the meantime, we need to do what we can to protect the Elysium from bad publicity. Make sure your men understand that we have to play this down, as a trivial incident of no real consequence. With luck, it will all blow over in a day or two."
Tann suppressed a sigh. He knew that the police would dismiss the incident as unworthy of the man-hours that might be required to investigate it seriously, and that the bioengineers would consider the repair work a matter of dull routine, but that didn't necessarily mean that it would "all blow over". For one thing, there were the injured Undead themselves to be taken into account. Even if Mildred Barrow's right-hand neighbor, Bruno Holzhauser, hadn't been trying to court notoriety as champion of Undead rights, and even if Mildred's sympathetically-inclined younger son could talk her into keeping quiet for the sake of the family's good name, there were two other victims who would undoubtedly be nursing a strong sense of grievance, and had the means to exercise it. Then there were the relatives of the other dearly departed, not all of whom would take the same line as Nathaniel Barrow. Although the latter was probably not in a minority, there was obviously one person even among his own siblings who was--or had been--on the brink prepared to think of the Undead sim as their actual mother, preserved from extinction by a miracle of science and granted an artificial afterlife which, if not actually a blissful Heaven, was a long way from the torments of Hell.
Some people, Tann knew, took great comfort in that idea, quite apart from philosophical disputes about the existential status of sims--and who could blame them? Add the potentially-inquisitive media to the mix, and Tann's life seemed in to be in real danger of becoming extraordinarily stressful. Given that Lucy was about to start school, and that Meg had another baby on the way, the last thing he needed at present was to be taking home more stress than he could handle.
"Unfortunately," Montfort continued, when Tann made no reply to his earlier observation, "the area in which the damage was done is full of eyes and ears, in addition to your own security cameras. Even though the four headpieces in the affected quartet have been blinded and deafened, their neighbors weren't. Sims can be frightened--they wouldn't be sims if they weren't--and they're all in contact with the outside world. It would be better in a way, if they hadn't been fitted with teepee facilities. After all, the living don't have telepathy, so it undermines their status as sims."
"Calling it telepathy doesn't make it into telepathy, Mr. Montfort," Tann opined. "That's just advertising, with an eye to a future that still seems rather distant. It's just a primitive texting system, which has to be hooked up directly to the Undead's neuronets because they don't have fingers and thumbs. All they can transmit is slowly-generated text, and all they can receive is a complex sequence of twinges, only a little more sophisticated than the dots and dashes of early wireless telegraphy."
"The point is," Montfort insisted, "that it puts them in direct contact with the whole damned world. If they want to blow this incident up out of all proportion, there's a good chance that they can--and some of them might."
"I doubt that they will," Tann said. "Mostly, they stick to texting one another and their surviving relatives. They have an even greater stake in Virgil's Elysium remaining a haven of rest than we have, given that they're literally stuck here. Apart from a few hotheads like Holzhauser, they're mostly content to keep a low profile--especially the stone-and-silicon brigade. In any case, there's no reason for the media to start taking their complaints seriously now, when the only coverage given to them thus far has been bluster about Undead Paranoia."
"Sometimes," Montfort said, "I wish we'd stuck to the old tech. Organic headpieces have been good for business, in the short term, but the whole fad might yet turn into a PR disaster. By the way, make sure that the bioengineers don't take the damaged eyes and ears away with them when they've fitted the replacements. Some record of what they saw and heard before the blows landed ought to be recoverable from the retinas and eardrums, even if the sims are too traumatized to remember the attack consciously, as it were. The police might want to bag them as evidence, even though there's probably no useful information to be gained."
"I'll make sure that everything is in order, Mr. Montfort," Tann assured him, blandly, although he knew full well that the bioengineers would be able to extract the records on site, so that the actual hardware would become irrelevant. "I'll preserve all the evidence I can, just in case."
"The intruder should never have got as far as he did, though," Montfort added, his tone emphasizing that Tann wasn't entirely off the hook, even if Nathaniel Barrow's presence when he had arrived had saved him from a serious ticking off. "The whole point of having an expert security team, with all the technological apparatus at your disposal, is to make sure that things like this cannot and do not happen."
Expert? Tann thought. We're just eyes and ears ourselves, more for show than effect--but at least we aren't nursing delusions about what we might have been, if the company had only recognized our true potential. "We do our best, sir," he said, aloud, "but the perimeter is nearly a mile long, and most of it is comprised of--or at least disguised as--a decorative hedge. The only way to make certain that no one can get in or out of a space this size is to surround it with high walls topped with razor-wire, which wouldn't fit very well with the Elysium's image. Glorified tripwires can't really do the trick--any smart teenager could download instructions from the Web allowing him to disable our alarms, and he wouldn't even have to be smart to put on a mask to protect himself against the cameras."
"You had two men on duty," Montfort said, stubbornly. "With all the equipment at their disposal, they should have been able to nip the incident in the bud."
Tann knew that there was no point telling his boss that he was being unreasonable, or reminding him that he had been loyally defending the security team only a few minutes before. The administrator was just venting a little of his frustration. At least Montfort had let go of Tann's arm--and he dropped back now, intent on returning to his desk while Tann took charge of the legwork.
"Report to me immediately if you find anything," Montfort said, as Tann marched on without looking back.
"Yes sir," said Tann, making no attempt to conceal his lack of enthusiasm. "You can depend on me."