After New California’s founder commits suicide, two men struggle to fill the power vacuum in colony world politics.
- Ashwin George, supported by the colony’s elite and Tián Quán, the Chinese company whose hyperdrive ships and intelligent robots dominate half the settled galaxy.
- Desmond Park, nanotechnology engineer, armed with a shrewd intellect, the loyalty of the colony’s disaffected youth, and the most formidable weapon of all.
A single idea.
Colony world politics, selfish gene theory, Chinese and Mexican-Spanish slang, and high-tech religion combine in this memorable science fiction novel.
Sample of “New California”
New California Date 92:65
14 November 2093
On a breezy early evening near to shore on the Western Sea, when K-Nought’s last rays from below the horizon banded thin clouds orange, red, and purple, and the night’s first lights of the coastal suburbs of San Lazaro glittered on the mesas to the east, when waves quietly splashed the yacht’s hull and the colony’s elite partied at the bow and below deck, while both lumpy, bone-white moons looked down, the governor of New California committed suicide for the third time.
The party had started with an airmobile ride, like most others Desmond Park had attended in his forty Earth-years on the planet. In the garage of his mansion at the edge of Fremont Mesa, he strapped into his sportster and gave it coordinates encrypted by Governor Watkins’ security system to foil party-crashers. The sportster launched and banked over the pedestrian avenues of San Lazaro’s lowland districts, then headed northwest. The airmobile cast a jittering shadow on hills blue-green with chaparral. From his line of flight, Desmond guessed his destination, and his sportster confirmed it when it descended a few minutes later.
From above, the town of Clearwater Beach showed Spanish tile roofs around the tricolumnar basalt bulk of a Buddhist Kabbalah meditation center. A T-shaped marina jutted into the sea at the northern end of the black strand that gave the town its name. Desmond’s airmobile pivoted its jets and joined a dozen others on a parking lot twenty yards from a pale blue pavilion erected in the sand near the marina.
The sea breeze ruffled Desmond’s black hair and untucked linen shirt, and the obsidian sand slumped under his topsiders between the parking lot and the pavilion. Security was subtle, but thicker than usual. Miniature robots on oversized tires rolled across the sand and swung cameras and microphones toward him. The robot bartenders under the pavilion intently watched the people around them.
In the cool shade mingled the usual crowd, many of them, like Desmond, first colonists. The tang of Acapulco gold, and a muscular fellow’s brag about the work just done to him at the rejuvenation clinic, clogged the air. Desmond nodded a few greetings, then opened a mindlink channel to the robots to order a drink.
When he stepped back from the bar, his vodka tonic tart with fresh lime, Gov. Cameron Watkins opened wide arms. “Nihao, esé! Thanks for coming!” He chest-bumped Desmond and thumped his right palm on the back of Desmond’s shoulder.
Desmond returned the bro-hug. “Nihao. Thanks for the invitation, Cam.” The governor insisted those from the first ship use the nickname. Desmond opened his mouth to utter some small talk, what’s new or how are you today, but he hesitated, suddenly conscious that twice in the past local year the governor had been stealthily rushed to the clinic on Fremont Mesa for acute rejuvenation with partial neural reconstruction. Small talk might sound forced, avoiding the elephant under the pavilion, but so too might his hesitation.
Cam’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and Desmond hurriedly said, “Today’s immigration ceremony went well.”
Cam brightened. “Everyone could tell this was special. Only our second immigrant wave from the UN occupation zone—”
”Fourth.” Desmond’s mindlink had given him the correction. Cam’s would have too, if the governor had listened to it. Cam’s brows furrowed. “But our first in five years,” Desmond added. “Definitely special.”
Cam’s face relaxed. “The word’s getting out. New Cal is the best place for Americans to build new lives. We’re a beacon of opportunity.” He put on a confident, genial smile and lifted his drink to take in the beach, the ocean, and the partygoers. “Look how good we have it.”
Desmond looked. Everyone under the pavilion had immigrated more than thirty Earth-years ago, except for two lithe nativeborn women, each on an older man’s arm. Most recent immigrants and their native-born children lived off citizen’s stipends and ad-supported media in lowland San Lazaro, with many of the rest in isolated communes scattered across the continent’s rugged interior. “A beacon, you’re right.”
”And they’re Asian,” Cam said, meaning the hundred-twenty new arrivals, Vietnamese-Americans from Texas. “I know that’s unimportant to you—”
”It is,” Desmond said. Especially since the new arrivals weren’t Korean like him, but he kept annoyance off his face and changed the subject. ”The speeches by the college students were a great addition to the usual ceremony. I’ll let Justin know he shouldn’t have missed it.”
”Just because he’s the hefé at New Cal Mol Fab doesn’t make you second banana. I appreciate you representing NCMF. Your operations department set up our new citizens, ma?”
”My best field team emplaced a standard mol fab facility for their settlement size. I flew down to San José del Bandera Oso two days ago for a final inspection.”
Cam looked wistful. “San José. Someday it will be a bigger city than its namesake.”
Its namesake was the patron saint of Vietnam, not the city at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, but this time Desmond kept the correction to himself. “Absolutely, Cam.”
”It’s almost time to set sail. Take your drink on board.” Cam angled his head at the pier leading to the marina’s ranked boats. “The Golden Gate. All the way to the tee-junction, then last boat on the right.”
Desmond gave Cam a final glance with as much scrutiny as could go unnoticed. Not enough to read his thoughts. “See you there.” Desmond cradled his glass by the rim and mulled their conversation as the boards flexed underfoot. Boats bobbed on the waves and rubbed against their bumpers. After two suicide attempts, had neurotropics and cognitive therapy healed Cam?
At the end of the pier, Desmond hesitated. A dry, cottony taste filled his mouth. Here the security was thick and blatant. The rui shi were robots like giant bulldogs, the male on the right and the female on the left. Snarls stood frozen on both their faces. A livery collar draped over each rui shi’s shoulders and chest. The collars’ bright yellow contrasted with their matte-black nanotube pelts.
A line of red hanzi characters stood on each collar. Desmond’s mindlink overlaid on his vision an English translation, auspicious lions guarding all of heaven. Under the male’s right paw, a globe swirled with clouds over the continent of New California. A cub lay on its back under the female’s left paw, writhing and playfully snapping at its mother’s claws, but when it became aware of Desmond it twisted onto its feet and leaned forward, unafraid, to face him. Cooling bristles stood up on their napes and the backs of their heads.
Desmond inhaled to mask his fear and dislike. The translation of the livery collar mocked him and every gweilao with a lie. The rui shi did not guard all of heaven, tián quán; instead, they guarded the interests of Tián Quán Discovery Co. Ltd., master of more than half the settled galaxy. He passed between them as impassively as he could. The heat from their cooling bristles drew sweat from his brow and made him squint.
Desmond climbed up the ramp to an open gate in the yacht’s deck railing near the stern. The Golden Gate was sixty yards long and twenty abeam, far larger than his speedboat docked on the riverfront in the city. Oak decking sealed against salt and spray ringed the midcastle. Behind the midcastle’s glass walls, now transparent, stood billiard and ping-pong tables, a robotic kitchenette, and sternward, a fitness room filled with yoga mats, stability balls, stretch ropes, and a rack of cast iron kettlebells. The bottom of the rack held a few hundred-pounders no normal person would ever swing or press. Below deck, Desmond saw in his mind’s eye, through his mindlink, three sitting areas, a banquet hall, a bar sprouting twenty beer taps, and a walk-in smoking lounge.
Stairs led from the stern deck down to the banquet space. Two pony walls flanked the stairwell, each hiding an ell-shaped banquette poised for conversation and views out to sea. Desmond leaned over the far railing, his back to the ramp and any new arrivals.
High above, the wind herded clouds across the indigo sky. K-Nought’s fat orange disc hung a third of the way past the zenith and the smaller, closer moon, San Francisco, showed a narrow crescent halfway through its retrograde crawl to the eastern horizon. On the western horizon, lapping against the buoy line, the turquoise ocean glimmered with unicellular photosynthesizers, New Cal’s pinnacle of indigenous evolution. On the Earthlife side, a flock of petrels floated on the sea breeze. Twenty yards in from the buoy line a long low black shape glistened at the surface: one of EnvE’s seahyenas, giant robots that broke down Terran biomolecules and, in concert with the buoy line, protected the native life from contamination.
Speaking of EnvE, Secretary of Environmental Engineering Ashwin George’s smooth baritone voice came from the ramp. “Ellen, is Buddhist Kabbalah compatible with one’s pursuit of his TruSelf?”
”Any religion can be,” came the reply, “except for fundamentalist Christianity.” Ellen was Ellen Sakamoto, Prime Teacher of the TruSelf Foundation of New California.
”Of course,” another woman said softly. Priya, an English professor at UNewCal and Ashwin’s life partner.
Ellen went on. “However, even though almost any religion can be compatible, if it encourages excessive mysticism, it’s a distraction from our pursuits of our TruSelves.”
Desmond leaned further over the rail. Most of the passengers for the party cruise were nearly an E-century old: we’ll find our TruSelves any day now.
”So are the Buddhist Kabbalists excessively mystical?” Ashwin asked. After a moment, he said brightly, “Desmond, you can help us for a second, ma?”
Desmond gritted his teeth but released the tension before turning. He knew exactly how this would go. “Nihao.”
Ashwin’s fleshy face wore a perpetual gloat. He was the second most powerful man on the planet, far more powerful than the lieutenant governor. “Would you mindlink for us whether Buddhist Kabbalah is excessively mystical?”
Desmond couldn’t even tell him to look it up himself: the question lacked any settled answer. Desmond’s search sense would only give him the biases and cherry-pickings of Buddhist Kabbalists, their business rivals, and their past and current lovers. “No. It’s too subjective a question. But I’ll wager it isn’t.”
Ashwin frowned. It gladdened Desmond to befuddle his expectations. His conversation with Cam Watkins came back to mind. “Buddhist Kabbalah is like most things,” Desmond added. “The passion of youth congeals into the habit of middle age.”
Ashwin’s frown deepened. Ellen stared down at the ocean, her face naked with delight at Ashwin’s discomfit before her usual polite mask returned. “Thank you, Desmond. If you’ll excuse us?” She started for the stairs down to the banquet deck. Ashwin and Priya followed Ellen. Desmond returned to the railing and lifted his glass.
A gust buffeted his ears but in the ensuing lull he heard Priya quietly say, “Awas,” be careful. Desmond borrowed public camera and microphone feeds from the top of the stairs. In his mind’s eye, Priya raised her eyebrows to admonish Ashwin.
Ashwin’s tone of voice revealed amusement at an overreaction. “What?”
”‘Give me sleek-headed men,’“ she whispered, “‘and such as sleep a-nights.’“ She held the admonishing gaze for a moment, then descended the stairs.
Ashwin followed her. “Honey…” he said, plea and annoyance in his tone.
It took Desmond’s mindlink a moment to finish her quote. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, scene II. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
He stared at the resting seahyena’s dorsal carapace while chatty, perfumed guests boarded behind him. After a time, the gate in the aft railing clanged shut and the yacht’s paddles, like immense black duck-feet, kicked away from the dock. He tilted back the rest of his vodka tonic, then tossed the empty glass to a custodial robot, a dwarf centaur with recycling bags slung over its flanks. K-nought suddenly seemed too bright, the ocean too unfathomable. Desmond went below.
An appetizer table bore platters with sunchoke samosas and peeled kiwi wrapped in wine-cured prosciutto. The robot bartenders scanned their databases for the attendees’ preferences and Desmond found a second vodka tonic waiting for him on the bar. He sipped and smiled weakly. Same faces, same actions. As he led a cluster of people forward, Cam talked about the two-month-old news from Earth, brought by the same Tián Quán ship as the new immigrants. Ellen bragged about her latest furniture purchase, hand-made by a sawdust-covered artisan in Schwarzenegger City. Carl Yaeger, chancellor of UNewCal, turned his narrow blue eyes toward the youngest woman at the party.
Selene Alvarez attended Golden State U, eight hundred miles up the coast, and had won a speaking slot in the immigration ceremony in a planetwide college communications contest. Her demeanor had been earnest, her speech a regurgitation of conventional wisdom, praising Cam and the founders’ generation for enriching nativeborns’ lives with diversity. Did she really believe that sentiment, or deep down did she try to convince herself? You’re projecting your own pessimism onto her, Desmond thought. Whether she’s idealistic or naïve, let her be young.
Selene wore a sheer peasant blouse and purple eyeliner. The lights recessed in the ceiling glossed her thick black hair. Desmond blinked in surprise at a datum uncovered by his mindlink: she wasn’t the youngest woman here. A twenty-year-old UNewCal student named Tethys attended the party. Ah, it would violate university policy for Yaeger to have sex with a current student.
Desmond suddenly felt glad both his daughters had attended UNewCal.
”So are the rumors true?” Selene asked Yaeger.
”Rumors?” Yaeger replied. Desmond leaned his left ear toward them, ignoring small talk accreting around him.
She lowered her voice. “About the governor.”
”Oh, they aren’t rumors. He really is a horrible tennis player.”
She saw through that. Smart starchild. “I heard from someone who’s dating an intern at the rejuvenation clinic on Fremont Mesa the governor was rushed there a couple of months ago in really bad shape.” Her voice became even more quiet. “They said it was self-inflicted.”
Desmond masked his next motion with a sip of his vodka tonic. He glanced out the picture windows and saw a reflection of Yaeger. His eyes looked even narrower, like pinholes of Earth sky in his tanned face. “You’re too smart a girl to believe silly rumors.”
”I knew it had to be a rumor.” She sounded relieved. “It didn’t make sense to me. Our genes built us to strive for success and status, so how could someone who has a lot of both attempt suicide?”
Her question was like a lever wedged under a boulder. Thoughts recurring to Desmond over E-decades followed well-worn paths in his mind. Because our genes are blind fools rolling down gradients toward local optima. Because nucleic acid sequences can’t predict the system dynamics resulting from the actions of thirty thousand of their peers.
Because our genes built us for their benefit, not ours.
An urge pooled in Desmond’s gut. Abandon the people around him, barge in, earning Yaeger’s enmity for a few decades, and tell the girl the truth. His heart thudded. Yaeger and Ashwin’s crowd already kept him at a distance, respecting him for being on the first ship, tolerating him as the man who kept them in material excess, but nothing more. He had too few bridges to burn. He shut his eyes and pulled in a breath until the urge left him light-headed.
”I need some air,” he said as a polite explanation to the people around him. In case he would gulp his first drink soon, he detoured past the bar to pick up another on his way to the foredeck.
The wind over the speeding yacht whipped back Desmond’s hair. At the bow, Cam spoke to a cluster of people about the need for donations to the New Cal Settlement Fund. The latest arrivals showed there hundreds of thousands of potential immigrants lived, not just in California or rest of the Pacific Republic of America, but in the UN occupation zone as well. His listeners’ feet shuffled and their mouths froze in half-smiles.
Desmond turned to the midcastle. The other college student, Tethys Broniatowski, stood within. At the ceremony, he had pegged her as just another earnest starchild in a skirt-suit and pinned-back hair. Now, though, her sandy brown hair loose around her shoulders, her tall, buxom curves reminded him of Jennifer, the girlfriend he’d let get away after graduating from UC Davis. Why hadn’t he seen the resemblance before? Unless he saw it now groundlessly, fleeing from the sense of wrongness hanging over the cruise into a private nostalgia he projected onto this zaftig starchild.
She played eight-ball and clearly didn’t enjoy herself. She hunched her shoulders and clutched her cue in front of her with both hands. Her opponent, a deputy director at EnvE named Maltby, stalked around the table, his gaze alternately gauging the sharp angles of a bank shot and the soft swells masked by her royal blue, polka-dotted sundress. No accident evolution had tuned the same hormone to drive both sex and violence.
The midcastle door opened for Desmond and he strode in, distracting Maltby into banking the cue ball into a corner pocket. As the other man glowered, Desmond raised the still-full of his two vodka tonics to Tethys. “Sweetie, here’s your drink.”
She hesitated a moment, then unwrapped her left hand from the cue stick. ”It took a long time.”
”The bartending database doesn’t know your preferences.” Desmond pretended to notice the other man for the first time. “Nihao.”
The bureaucrat folded his thick arms in front of his chest and gave Desmond a surly look. “Have some manners next time.”
”I assumed it was a friendly game. You look like the kind of man whose TruSelf keeps things in perspective.” Actually, Maltby didn’t, but the surly look blunted. “Were you playing for money? Oh, not yet…”
Tethys stood taller now and brushed bangs from her eyes. She gave Desmond a chiding look. “I’m trying to sandbag a mark here.”
Maltby racked his stick, saw Cam asking for donations on the foredeck, and headed aft. After the door closed behind him, Tethys said, “Thanks.”
”Everyone should be able to enjoy the party.”
”And thanks for the drink.” She sipped and winced at the quinine in the tonic water. “It’s the thought that counts.”
Desmond laughed, but as he did, he saw the path he’d committed himself to for the next few hours. He took in her rouged cheeks and saw again bits of Jennifer in her. He had no better paths to tread, no better destination to reach, than a tryst after sunset belowdeck or back in the city.
They chatted as K-Nought sank toward the western horizon. Tethys majored in journalism and planned to work for New Cal Broadcasting Corporation after graduation. She underestimated the number of resumes flowing into NCBC’s sapient resources expert system, but he let her keep her hopes.
Tethys would be a classmate of his youngest daughter, but asking if she knew her would derail their journey down the seduction track. It relieved him that if she did know his daughter, Tethys wanted to be danced down the same path enough to leave it unspoken.
As they chatted, he remembered her presentation at the ceremony. She had expressed at least one profound thought. “I liked your comment that immigrants remind the native-born of your good fortune.”
”I wouldn’t lie.”
She glanced out to sea. The seahyena to starboard, halfway to the buoy line, effortlessly kept pace with the yacht. “From the moment I started designing my presentation, I was afraid the, ah, Earthborn would realize just how much us starchildren take everything you’ve done for granted.”
”You can call us rucos. I won’t take offense.” She looked unsure how to respond. He lightly pressed his fingertips to her forearm. “Be glad you’re nativeborn. You wouldn’t want a ruco’s baggage.”
She frowned. “What’s important about your luggage on the trip out?”
”It’s an idiom. However you might take TruSelf—” He lifted an eyebrow and lilted his voice enough to imply he could understand if she held TruSelf in very low esteem. “—you’ve heard the term cruft for all the psychological damage that scars over.” Memories of President Fletcher’s nuclear strike on China, the ensuing United States civil war, and the Sino-UN joint occupation lurked beneath Desmond’s consciousness, like the seahyena abreast of the yacht. “Be glad you don’t have ours.”
”I know a lot happened the E-decades before the governor founded New California, but I don’t know what those events mean to the people who lived through them….”
Desmond waved his hand. “We don’t need to talk about it. Tell me more about you.”
”We know all about cruft.” She wanted to talk up to him, he read from her words and tone. “Many of us nativeborn have our own psychological damage.”
”It’s not your generation that interests me. Tell me more about you.”
She did, but soon found an opening to turn the conversation to the glamour and power of running NCMF’s operations. He played it up; she wanted to hear it as part of their dance. Yet he was glad when their mindlinks forwarded to their consciousnesses the yacht’s invitation to dinner.
They left the midcastle and descended to the party deck to find the appetizers gone and buffet tables in their place. Even though no new immigrants had been invited, the menu honored their exotic heritage. Not with phở or bún or ham sandwiches on baguettes—any kitchen on New Cal could assemble four courses of Vietnamese cuisine—but with Texas recipes culled from the planetary internet. Shredded chicken enchiladas smothered in tomatillo sauce and sour cream at one station, brisket mesquite smoked for eighteen hours at another. Cam worked the room and urged people to drink frozen margaritas and bock beers. A dark pink smoke ring showed on Desmond’s brisket slices, and his beer bottle dewed in the sea air. Tethys enjoyed the enchiladas and a margarita so sweet its tequila was untasteable. The dim light and her smile reminded him of a spring evening in Jennifer’s room in her rental house near campus, listening to decades-old songs played from the original CDs by a dedicated music player she’d bought at a garage sale, the windows open to the smell of cow manure from the University farm.
By the time the robots picked up their empty plates, the windows showed K-Nought had nearly set. Time for the next step down the path. “Let’s take in the sunset,” he said.
”I’d like that.”
With gentle touches to her shoulder, he guided her aft. Yet when they rounded the last corner before the stairs, Desmond’s mood deflated. Ashwin emerged from the head and malice flowed into his face when he saw Desmond.
”Desmond! I heard Annalise broke up with you. Such a shame. You seemed to hold a torch for her for a long time.”
Tethys stiffened her fleshy limbs. Desmond’s heart pounded in his ears, but he pushed the ball of his left foot against the floor until his rage softened. “It’s been so long since then, I don’t even remember when that happened. Look it up for me through mindlink, would you? Pardon us, Ash.”
Tethys stiffly climbed the aft stairs. The door to her boudoir might now be irrevocably closed. Piyan indio. Yet as they reached the aft deck, her head jerked up, her eyes widening and her mouth gasping, and Desmond forgot about Ashwin George.
The male rui shi sat serenely on the aft deck, like a lion surveying its territory. It had docked its globe in a socket in its chest. The setting sun on the globe’s left curve and the newly-risen moon Los Angeles on its right framed Tethys’ stunned reflection in its center. Some time in the hours since he’d last seen the rui shi, the hanzi characters on its livery collar had changed. No longer auspicious lion, the hanzi now read indomitable blue stubborn water pig.
Desmond breathed in. His chest and abdomen swelled and squished out part of his fear. He stepped forward and slightly bowed his head. ”Jiŭyăng.” A polite, formal greeting, with an implication of equality between them.
”Wăn ān,” it replied in a deep bass voice. In a flat American accent it added, “Good evening.” It rose to its four feet and padded forward along the port side of the ship.
No one occupied the sitting area to starboard, facing the sunset. ”Here’s a good view,” he said.
Tethys hesitated. He guided her with his hand on her shoulder blade. She shuffled her feet but kept staring after the rui shi. Only after he led her to the sitting area, and her knees folded to land her on the banquette with her head below the pony wall did she turn to him. “Those things can speak?”
”That’s the first I’ve ever heard one.”
”Is it a special model? It must have extra hardware.”
”Not hardware, I don’t think, or software either,” Desmond said. She looked confused. “It’s like the way we can use our mindlink to look through cameras and hear through microphones. I’m sure something can act through them.”
”Something?” Her eyes widened in shock. “Tián Quán’s AIs?” She lifted her gaze to San Francisco, its half-moon high overheard like a shrunken white pea. Her breath sounded ragged. “Is that thing here to protect the governor?” She paled, then whispered, “To kill him?”
”I don’t think either one.”
Tethys studied his eyes. “I’ve heard the rumors. Mysterious events involving the governor and all the Fremont Mesa generation closing ranks around it. What’s happening? Tián Quán? Domestic politics?”
Desmond took a deep breath to calm her, not himself. An oblique way to say it came to mind. She seemed smart enough to take his meaning. ”‘Against boredom, even the gods themselves struggle in vain.’“
”Gods?” She frowned.
He hid his disappointment behind a casual tone of voice. “Nietzsche. He lived a couple hundred years ago. He’s the guy who said ‘God is dead.’“
Understanding flowed into her face. “Oh, it’s a metaphor.” Tethys blinked, her eyes suddenly moist. “Oh.” She leaned toward him, put her arm around him, rested her cheek on his shoulder. He remembered holding his children when toddlers. He worked his arm behind her back and palmed her waist above the hip.
K-Nought smeared reds and purples across the horizon and the first stars came out overhead. Conan’s eye glinted at Thulsa Doom’s severed head, and the bowlegged Tramp clicked his heels. “Are the constellations different on Earth?” she asked.
Twelve thousand light years away. “Even the stars are different.”
For a few seconds, the only sound came from the twenty-foot-long paddles behind the stern, gravely working to hold the yacht’s position against the strong southerly current. From the flash of her wrists to her coy up-angled smile, he read she’d gotten over Ashwin’s attempted cockblock and expected him to take the next step down the mating path.
Yet what would he gain? Half an hour of pleasure in the warm folds of her flesh. What would she gain? A feeling of being desired by a ruco on Cam’s guest list. They would run programs coded in DNA and compiled by protein every animal generation for the past five hundred million years.
Yet his body and brain fit that rut. He remembered a ruse he had tried on several other starchild girls with good effect. The memory of Jennifer’s room and her old CDs came to him, reminding him of the ruse’s source in an ‘80s college rock song and dogging his next words with guilt. “I remember late one night, when I was a child, lying in the rear seat of my parents’ car. The wheeled kind, it traveled on roads. I was falling asleep, and the car motor’s sound would cut out of my hearing for a moment at a time, as if all the clocks in the world had stopped. My last waking thought was I’d never seen anything so great as all the stars.”
She shifted to look up at him, her eyes wide in the fading twilight. ”That’s beautiful.” She closed her eyes and angled her mouth toward his when a sound distracted them. Someone inside the dark fitness room clanged equipment together. Both he and Tethys looked over the top of the banquette, but the fitness room remained dark. Turn on the light, he thought, but he chose not to send the message. Maybe blind kettlebell swings were a new training fad. Then the fitness room fell silent, and Desmond decided a couple inside wanted stealthy sex.
From the starboard side of the midcastle came a quiet woosh: the door opened. Desmond almost said Someone’s here already to give the couple a chance to turn away, but instead he held his silence.
A single figure came past the corner of the midcastle and strode straight toward the stern. Cam, a purposeful set to his shoulders and a hundred-twenty pound kettlebell against his body, racked to his chest with both hands on the handle. Perfect form, Desmond remembered later, wrists straight and forearms pressed to his ribcage. Cam remained oblivious to both the fading sunset and Desmond and Tethys. His upper body and the backs of his shoulders showed resolute purpose. His strides lengthened as he went to the railing.
Tethys gasped. Desmond untangled from her arm and lurched to his feet. ”Cam!”
Cam’s shoulders hunched a moment, but he lifted them as he turned his head. He hadn’t come on deck to do kettlebell swings. “What do you want, Desmond?”
Desmond held out his hands. “You don’t have to do this, Cam.”
”I know I don’t have to.”
”Don’t choose this. There’s so much to live for.” Wodema. The clichéd words sounded ludicrous. “Colonists from the UN occupation zone, San José will be bigger than its namesake—”
Cam peered at him. “I know you too well, Desmond. You don’t believe there’s so much to live for. You don’t believe in anything. There’s nothing else for me. I can’t go back to Earth. I can’t resign my office. I need to do this.”
Gooseflesh stippled Desmond’s cheeks. The colony needed room to grow, and to gain that room, Cam needed to be out of the picture. But suicide? Cam’s forearms shivered under the weight still racked against his chest. A thin rope lashed the kettlebell’s handle to his left hand, and Desmond realized he’d planned this attempt for months. “You know what you’re choosing?” Desmond asked.
Relief filled Cam’s face. “Thank you for seeing that.”
”Then go,” Desmond said, “with New California’s blessing.”
Cam turned to face the railing, and lifted the kettlebell straight up. His head eclipsed the black iron cannonball from Desmond’s view. He strode to the railing. The kettlebell cleared it. Cam bent over the railing from the middle of his back, held his grip on the kettlebell, but dropped his arms and kicked both his legs backward. The combined momentum of his rotating body and the falling kettlebell whipped him headfirst over the railing. A loud splash, a dull thunk through the hull of the ship from the massive paddles; then silence.
Tethys’ breaths came shallowly, raggedly. “You let him….”
”He chose it. You saw that.”
Her face showed no sign of hearing him. “Governor!” she shouted. She opened a public mindlink channel, top priority, and shouted again. She ran to the stern and Desmond ambled after. Girl, let him go, for all our sakes. He peered at the murky water, his gaze caught by moonslight glinting the surface. Over the public channel, the party’s hubbub faded as Tethys shouted again, —Governor! Someone, help him!—
Later, the silence seemed to last for hours, though the yacht took action a couple of heartbeats after her final call. Below the waterline, robots looking like pygmy dolphins with grafted arms propelled themselves out rescue hatches, and bright white lamps lit up the subsurface, so bright the black paddles appeared gray. On the starboard paddle, a shadow showed a fresh dent close to its hinged connection to the hull. Through his mindlink, the yacht’s subsurface spectrophotometers told him excess heme iron enriched the water around the dent.
The silvery school of rescue robots darted into the darkness beyond the lamps’ reach. From a few dozen yards to starboard came a gurgle of water. A silvery ripple on the surface showed where the seahyena dived.
People reacted next. Virtual avatars popped into Desmond’s vision, projected there by his mindlink. Ashwin’s avatar manifested at the railing next to Desmond. Anxious surprise had replaced his usual arrogance. —What happened?—
—He weighted himself down and jumped, right here. He hit the paddle hard enough to draw blood.— Footsteps pounded up the stairs from the banquet level. Ashwin’s avatar shifted as Desmond turned his head to the new arrival. Flesh-and-blood Ashwin ran to the railing while the avatar mapped itself to its owner’s body and disappeared.
Ashwin stared into the water while he caught his breath. Now he looked thoughtful. “Cam wanted to leave the rejuve clinic nothing to work with. Unless he thought Tián Quán would build a new body for his archived brain scan.”
Tián Quán would never, and Cam had been clear-eyed about what the company permitted its protectorates. “He knew what he was doing.”
Ashwin sneered at the water. “Pimping blonde topless dancers to the People’s Liberation Army, and paying a few billion yuán for the settlement rights, didn’t earn him that much gratitude.”
More avatars and people filled the deck and looked over the railing. ”Cam fell off the boat?” Ellen Sakamoto asked.
Her attempt to cover up Cam’s intent from the starchildren present annoyed Desmond. “He jumped with a hundred-twenty pound kettlebell tied to his hands.”
”How do you know? You saw this?” She angled her head. “You saw him in danger and did nothing to stop him?”
”No. I let him do what he most wanted.”
”It’s true,” Tethys said. “He didn’t try to stop him.”
Ellen noticed her for the first time. “You sounded the alarm?”
”When? Before or after he went over?”
Tethys hesitated. “After.”
”After? After the yacht could have preemptively launched its rescue robots? After several men could have hurried up here to block him?”
Tethys quailed, and though Desmond had lost the urge to seduce her the moment he’d divined Cam’s intention, he took her side. “She was stunned by what she saw. We’ve covered up Cam’s recent suicide attempts so well she didn’t know it was real.”
”There’s no time for this!” Carl Yaeger shouted. He stood next to the railing and bounced his fist against it. “Cam is down there! Ashwin, I’m sure you’ve already told the seahyena to go to rescue mode—”
”There is no rescue mode,” Ashwin replied.
”—but it has to bring him up soon! What? No rescue mode?” Yaeger’s lower lip sagged and his head slowly oscillated from side to side. “It will leave him alone if he’s moving under his own power, but turn it off while there’s still a chance for the rescue robots to save him!”
Ashwin turned from the railing and squared his shoulders to the crowd. ”The seahyenas preserve the sanctity of two biospheres. That’s more important than any one man. Even Cam.”
The crowd looked confused, frightened. The girl Selene looked ready to burst with tears. Only one face showed an emotion dissonant with the crowd’s. Priya Varghese gave her life partner a knowing, cautioning look.
”But we have to save him!” shouted someone in the mass of people.
Desmond glanced at Ashwin and their gazes met. Desmond still loathed the other, and he read incompletely-disguised ambition in Ashwin’s features. But Desmond knew the other agreed letting Cam stay dead was in the colony’s best interest. Tomorrow would be time enough to renew their rivalry.
Desmond nodded to Ashwin and raised his voice. “We do? This is the third time he’s done something like this!” The Earthborns shot him warning looks. Timid rucos, afraid of losing face to the starchildren. “The first time, when he hanged himself in a closet in the governor’s mansion, we could all pretend it was accidental autoerotic asphyxiation. And the second time, obviously someone adulterated his ecstasy with pentobarbitol, and we packed that someone off to criminal psychiatric reprogramming at Los Robles to serve justice.”
Desmond flourished his hand toward the water. “But now? We can’t delude ourselves any longer. Cameron Watkins wanted to kill himself! He could have tried drowning in a swimming pool or in the river, but he realized someone would jump in to save him. The river is deep, maybe a heavy weight would have worked, but he would’ve attracted notice carrying one to the riverside. Not one of us thought twice about the kettlebells on board.” He chopped his hand toward the midcastle. “He waited until we were all full with dinner and moving on to the evening’s other entertainments, then he slipped away from each and every one of you.” Desmond stared at Ellen Sakamoto until she ducked her gaze. “And he knew out here a seahyena would keep us from recovering his brain and breathing more life back into it.” Four minutes since Cam jumped came from Desmond’s mindlink. If the seahyena had not yet crushed Cam’s skull, anoxia would soon pulp its contents. “Review the yacht’s camera feeds. Watch how intently Cam went over the edge. We know what he wanted. He’s found it. Let him keep it.”
Desmond surveyed the crowd. His words had dislodged the desire to save Cam from many of their faces. Not all; a few betrayed private doubts about the apparent consensus Desmond and Ashwin had forged by forceful words and resolute demeanors, but from their expressions, those few people clearly felt alone. They would not protest. He had carried the day.
”We agree,” Ashwin said. “We’ll let Cam go.” A few of the crowd nodded, but most seemed numb. Their world had turned upside down.
Confidence buoyed Desmond’s chest. Cam would stay dead and the people left behind in New California’s tiny bubble of earthlife could free themselves from the dead hand of the past. Then he glanced up.
The rui shi family, once again auspicious lions guarding all of heaven, sat on the midcastle’s roof, serenely watching the crowd through their snarling faces. To port, the cub sat between its mother’s front legs. To starboard, the male’s paw rested on the globe. In the globe, gray swirls smeared the reflections of the coastal settlements and the moon Los Angeles. Whatever the rui shi and the AIs working through them thought about the petty lives played out this night, they kept to themselves.
A chime in his mind’s ear told Desmond that Ashwin wanted to privately speak. —I’ll remember how you’ve helped me,— Ashwin said.
Desmond swallowed. Tomorrow started now. —When the time comes, I’ll remind you.— After Ashwin hung up, Desmond turned his face to the empty sea. He’s so arrogant he thinks I did it for him.
The crowd milled around the aft deck for a time. A few leaned over the railing and stared into the ocean, as if their biological eyes could pierce the murk and lift Cam to acute rejuvenation. Many shuffled across the deck and averted empty faces from their peers.
Someone cried. The urge from the party deck a few hours earlier returned to Desmond, this time tinged with shame at having kept years of insight to himself. He followed the sound. In the corner of the port sitting area, a woman sat with her knees pulled to her chest and her black hair over her face. Selene. Sobs convulsed her torso. The people nearest her stood in an awkward semicircle a few yards away.
Desmond went to her and Yaeger stepped in his way. “What do you think you’re doing?”
”Comforting? Like you comforted her by recounting Cam’s other suicide attempts?”
Desmond privately said, —Once Cam went over the side, she wasn’t going to spread her legs for you tonight.— He pushed past Yaeger with his forearm and thought at a lounge chair to roll close to Selene.
He sat, lowering his head to the same height as hers. “You’re hurting.” Behind him, Yaeger snorted.
After a moment, her sobs subsided. “Yes.” Her buried face muffled her mucus-thickened voice.
”Tell me about it.”
”You know. The governor.”
”I know Cameron Watkins committed suicide earlier tonight. Tell me how that hurts you.”
Selene lifted her head. Her bloodshot, puffy eyes and contorted mouth showed fresh anguish. “I don’t know,” she said. Her face clenched, squeezing out more tears. “But it does.” She buried her face and gave muffled cries.
”You don’t understand why he did it.” She breathed raggedly and rocked back and forth. Desmond read her motion as a nod. “You were right, he had everything his genes could want for him. Wealth? In old California, the Chinese occupation forces made him rich enough to buy the rights to this planet. Power. Fame. Status. He had all those, plus everything those coins could buy. Imported luxuries, rich food, excellent physical health. Sex, too. Seven children by five women. His genes could want nothing more.”
He lightly touched her shoulder. “But he could. You see, his genes, like yours, like mine, don’t know what they’re doing. They build yearning brains, but the yearning remains after all our desires are sated. They build curious brains, but the curiosity eventually wonders if our lives have any purpose. They build brains seeking meaning, but often either failing to find it or, on finding it, discovering it hollow. Our genes are not geniuses. Our genes are not angels. Our genes are evil crippled godlings who built half-formed creatures good enough, and loyal enough, and programmed well enough to serve them. They don’t care about us. But they don’t know we can set ourselves free of them.”
Selene looked up. Her tears had faded and longing tinged by hope shone in her face. “Tell me more,” she said. She glanced around. “We all want to hear more.”
Desmond stole a look to left, to right. Many of the people around him, from Earth- to native-born, from female to male, listened to him. Nods, affirming words, supportive body language. Ellen looked unconvinced, but even so, encouragement lifted him until he glanced up.
The rui shi cub’s front paws hung over the edge of the midcastle’s roof and it watched him with what seemed an inquisitive look on its squashed snarled face. A water pig now, just like its father earlier. What did this thing want?
”No, we’ve heard enough,” Yaeger said. “Cam is dead for one simple reason.”
”Just one?” Desmond asked.
”His TruSelf teachers failed to find the right combination of psychotropics and self-talk in time.”
Ellen frowned, but kept silent. Yaeger turned to another Earthborn standing nearby. “Ashwin, what do you think?”
Ashwin’s habitual smirk soon formed. “I think Desmond spends too much time alone with the scribblings of dead men. Free ourselves from our genes? How the hell are you going to do that, Des?” His tone grew more mocking. “Start a religion?”