Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2009: Carpe Mañana

Carpe Mañana

by Richard A. Lovett

 

I. Tabitha in the Box

Drew Sweetland had barely stepped through the door when his wife complained that Tabitha was back in the box.

“She’s your daughter,” she said, in the tone that always made him wish he’d found an excuse to stay at work. At the best of times, stepmom was a role Elaine assumed or discarded at will, based more on her attitude about him than anything Tabitha had or hadn’t done. And these weren’t the best of times.

“I knew we shouldn’t have gotten that thing,” she added, which wasn’t at all what she’d said when she’d talked him into it when the refrigerator broke. Refrigerators are passé, she’d said back then. You might as well just take out an ad saying you don’t need to make partner because you’re not bothering to spend everything they’re paying you now.

It had been Drew, though, who’d suggested upgrading to a walk-in. He’d never been a morning person and despite the indignity of hiding out with the vegetables, being able to time-shift his most productive hours to the morning vastly improved his stature at work. While others slaved unseen, Drew could pop home, grab dinner, and hop in the box: dressed, showered, and ready to go. The next morning, he’d be in the office, hours ahead of anyone else, still at his industrious best when the partners (who rarely worked odd hours) arrived to see. Of course, the next day he’d crash early, but once you’ve got a reputation as the hardest worker in the office, nobody cares. It was also a great way to prep for client meetings. If you crammed to just the right edge, the box kept you from losing it overnight, something he’d never managed in his student-exam days.

In a world designed for morning people, Drew was no longer at a disadvantage. Partnership followed soon enough, though the need to sleep sometime wrecked two years of weekends — and Elaine’s ensuing spending spree meant he’d never quite managed to relax, afterward.

Now it seemed, his daughter had discovered the box as a cure for her latest case of can’t-waits.

“Did she say why?” he asked. As though fast-forwarding through the frosty silences and not-so-frosty non-silences between her father and stepmom wasn’t reason enough.

“I think she’s waiting for Santa.”

Drew sighed. If Elaine didn’t want to even attempt being a parent, why had she married him? “She’s a bit old for that. Besides, Christmas is still two weeks away.” He tried to remember what it had been last week. Something to do with the online release party for a new record, or whatever it was they called those programmable earplug things the kids bought these days. The week before, it had been a trip to the VR emporium with her friend Sandi.

Elaine studied her nails. “Whatever. Just get her out, so she’s not all grumpy tomorrow.”

Drew sighed again and finished hanging up his coat. Elaine was right about one thing. Unlike her father, Tabitha was not an evening person, nor did she easily handle time lag. If she spent too long in the box, she’d be a basket case tomorrow.

The upgrade had forced them to put the unit in what had once been a broom closet: the only space both large enough to crowd into and close enough to the kitchen for food storage. A red telltale glowed beside the door and the timer indicated that it had been programmed to open at 7:15 Monday morning. Tabitha apparently intended to spend not just tonight in the box, but the whole weekend.

Drew raised his hand to knock, then checked himself. Until recently, he’d been the only one to use the closet for anything but storage. Knowing it was occupied, he found it hard not to knock, even though there was no way Tabitha could hear him when the stasis field was running.

He opened the door and waited as the field collapsed. According to the owner’s manual, there was no reason to wait, but the weird rubbery texture of the boundary layer had dissuaded him long ago, when he’d been hurrying to get steaks for one of those rare evenings when he’d had time to fire up the grill.

The field had caught Tabitha standing at the inside control panel. Momentarily she remained frozen. Then, like an antique wind-up toy coming to life, she lowered her hand and looked up.

“Hi, Dad,” she said. As always, he was stunned by how fast she was growing. At twelve, she already looked him nearly in the eye, but was so thin and willowy she seemed made of nothing but limbs and wispy hair. How much of her life had he missed — not just by his long work hours, but by his cumulative days, weeks, and months in the box? The downside of Drew’s time-shifted chase for partnership, money, and Elaine-avoidance was that someday, he’d discover that Tabitha had grown up when he wasn’t looking. Now, he had an irrational desire to shut the door and program the box to keep her unchanged until he had time to watch her grow, as a father should. Not that he could, even if he really wanted to. The box would have safeties that wouldn’t let him lock her away for long enough to matter. From inside, it wasn’t possible to program a stay of longer than a week. During one particularly bad patch with Elaine, he’d tried.

“Hi, baby,” he said. “Your mother’s worried.”

“Tell her I’m okay. And she’s not my mother.” Unfortunately, her real mother was so long gone she might as well have gotten in a box with no safeties. Drew hadn’t heard from her since she’d walked out a few hours after giving Tabitha a kitten for her sixth birthday. As though she thought the kitten might somehow compensate.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Something big coming up at school?”

Tabitha shook her head. “Sandi’s out of town.”

It took Drew a moment to realize that one of the reasons he’d not seen much of Tabitha of late was that she was always with Sandi. Usually at Sandi’s, not here. “So I guess you’ll have to find something else to do,” he said.

“Like what? Watch you and mother fight? Face it Dad, she’s no better than mom was.”

“At least she’s still around,” Drew said without thinking. He’d always feared that Tabitha might think her real mother’s departure had been her own, six-year-old’s fault. For months, she and the kitten had been inseparable. Then Elaine had moved in and pronounced herself allergic.

“How can you tell?”

That stung. “I do what I have to.” Though the moment he said it he knew it wasn’t true. “C’mon.” He gestured toward the door. “We’re letting in a lot of warm air.” For vegetables and leftovers, it didn’t really matter. And most other foods were still in their insulated boxes. But it paid to reduce their exposure to real time. Passé or not, the refrigerator’d had some advantages. Especially for ice cream. Once upon a time, he and Tabitha had been addicted to the stuff. Now, you had to eat the whole package all at once, because each time you took it out, it got softer.

With nobody inside, the box went into storage mode and came back to life the moment the door clicked shut. “Okay,” Drew said. “Talk to me.”

His daughter shrugged. “There’s nothing to do around here. I just want to get to Monday. It’s boring. You’re going to work all weekend and Elaine’s just going to . . . She’s going to do what Elaine does.”

“Which is what?” Drew had only the vaguest idea how his wife kept herself occupied when she wasn’t spending money. The only thing he was sure of was that she didn’t use the box for anything but storage. For good or for ill, Elaine was very much a person who lived in the now.

Tabitha had been studying her feet. Now she looked up. “Check her netphone log. If you really want to know.”

Drew’s heart froze. When he’d met Elaine, she’d been trapped in a bad marriage. At the time she moved in, she’d barely started the divorce. It had made him uncomfortable, but sometimes hearts shift more rapidly than legal machinery. The trouble with starting a relationship that way, though, was you always knew how it could end.

Drew considered his options. He had no doubt Tabitha was right. Now that he thought about it, the signs had been there for months. He wondered if they met here, while Tabitha was at school and he at work. Probably not, but in his imagination, he saw himself coming home early, nearly catching them in the act. They’d hear him and hide — and where better than the stasis closet? He’d yank open the door, and there they’d be, Elaine defiantly naked, the man holding a ball of clothes. For a moment the tableau would hold. Then Drew would explode. You were the one who wanted it all! he’d shout, then slam the door and shove them as far into the future as the safeties would allow.

Except that confrontation wasn’t his style. Besides, he almost felt relieved. Let Elaine leave. If she didn’t, maybe he’d file for divorce himself. It would be costly, but he’d keep Tabitha and his job — and with those, the house. And without Elaine, he wouldn’t need to work such long hours.

In high school, Drew had played the Stage Manager in “Our Town.” He’d forgotten most of it, but now, Emily’s plaintive line came back to him: “It goes so fast!”

In the play, she’d been talking about ordinary life, about missing the good stuff because you were too busy dealing with everything at once, too busy thinking about the future to live in the present.

That was exactly what he’d been doing with the stasis box: skipping the good stuff to focus on money he didn’t even have time to enjoy. Tabitha’d found a better approach — not an avoidance of ordinary life, but an improvement. The box offered life with the dull spots, bad spots, and waiting-for-tomorrow-spots removed. Like the vegetables, you didn’t even age in the process.

“Is your homework done?”

Tabitha nodded.

“Okay, then you can have until Sunday afternoon. Then I’ll take you to the emporium.”

He thought about the weekend that awaited him: Elaine or work that wasn’t really all that pressing — forty-eight hours of life that could be banked for a sunnier time.

He held the closet door open for her. “I’ll join you.”

#

 

II. Night and Day

Nicolas Mayer had seasonal affective disorder.

It began each October, as the autumn nights snapped his suburban Seattle maples into brief memories of their Vermont heritage. When everyone else saw beauty, all he saw was darkness.

Halloween to Christmas was worse: a steady, depressing slide into gloom. It wasn’t the weather; he’d grown up in the three-hundred-day sunshine east of the Cascades, and it had been much the same there. He’d tried everything: melatonin, light boxes, drugs, noon-hour jogs. The only thing that had truly helped was a hiking trip to Chilean Patagonia, but the moment he got home the depression hit with rebound fury.

He’d even tried living in Hawaii. There hadn’t been any winter blues, but neither had there been summer highs, and the endless months of feeling merely “okay” were just too tranquil. What he needed was a way to summer in Alaska, winter in New Zealand, and simmer away the transitions somewhere between.

Such jobs existed, but you needed an advanced degree in write-your-own-ticketology to get one. Nicolas’s niece was a wildlife biologist who’d managed it: banding summer hawks in Nevada, counting Guatemalan parrots in the fall, and waddling with the penguins in January. But not only did she have six years of college, she was willing to work for peanuts and live out of a backpack. Nicolas was an electrician who made decent money and enjoyed spending it on things that weren’t so portable.

It hadn’t been as bad when he was young. But each successive winter gripped more strongly. At thirty-five, Nicolas had twice found himself staring down the barrel of a gun and was drinking enough to get through the darkness that he was finding it hard to quit in the light. At the rate he was going, he wouldn’t make it another thirty-five years. Probably not even half that many.

Then, Macy’s had an after-Christmas sale on stasis cabinets. They still cost more than a new car, but Nicolas had expensive taste in booze. If he could get off the slosh, he could make the payments on the savings in his bar tab alone.

He bought a low-end unit, installing it in the downstairs bathroom, which was small enough that the field generator wouldn’t be too great a power hog. He would have liked a unit with a recharging field-collector that worked like the brakes on his hybrid car. But given the fact he could do it himself, it was cheaper to rewire the bathroom with a fifty-amp line and accept that the thing was going to take a minute or two, interior subjective, to power up. Thankfully, once it was at full strength, the field didn’t take a lot of power. Otherwise, the electric bill would rival his bar tab.

For the next five days, he lived only in daylight. By the weekend, his mood had noticeably lifted. There was only one problem. He hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours. Worse, he’d worked forty and spent the rest commuting. When Saturday came, he was too tired to do anything but sleep.

Still, the box got him through January. As the days lengthened, there was more time for living between stints in the converted bathroom, though with nine and then ten hours of daylight, it was harder and harder to make it to the weekend. One week he tried coming out at night to nap, but even in the brief mental twilight between waking and sleeping, he could feel the darkness trying to reclaim him. Some choices are easy: he’d rather be exhausted than depressed.

By February, he was pulling sixty-hour waking shifts, followed by enough weekend sleeping that he barely got to enjoy the returning daylight. In March, he eased off, and hid in stasis only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. In April, he cut it to Wednesdays only. By May he was out of the woods. He was thirty-six and had weathered another winter.

#

 

For the next few months, Nicolas was a creature of summer. Even though the longest days came in June, it was as though he stored daylight, just as in the winter he stored darkness, and it carried him through August and September. Then the maples again blazed farewell to summer and he faced another stint of nothing but work/eat/box.

He nearly rebelled. Avoiding darkness was great, but the price in exhaustion and lost social life wasn’t all that much better than a bar tab bigger than his mortgage payment.

Then he met Erin.

It wasn’t entirely by accident. He’d had all summer to think. He didn’t have to work full time to pay his winter bills. Not if he spent most of his time in the box. Nor did he need to work much to keep his job; winter was slack time and someone else would be thrilled to pick up the hours. He could meet his needs by cutting to half-time and using the box to time-shift onto a three- or four-day week. But it was still a weird way to live. So, in September he took out an ad.

What he wanted was a housemate to help with the bills and look after things while he spent most of the winter in the box, coming out occasionally to check up on things and maybe put in a few hours’ work. What he got was a ski instructor. It didn’t hurt that she was young, cute, and not averse to experimental relationships. But what really mattered was that she lived for winter. She didn’t dread summers the way he dreaded winters, but she did see them mostly as wasted time. Time-sharing the box, she could flit from ski season to ski season, stretching her pay and rationing her youth for the life she loved.

Still, it wasn’t quite ideal. Thanks to global warming, the ski season seldom ramped up before December and was over in March. Nicolas’s favorite months were May through August. For a few years, he and Erin split the other months amicably enough, occasionally sharing one, testing the waters of off-season romance.

But there was another alternative, and Erin was the one who introduced him to it one spring, when he came out of his first-ever full-winter hibernation.

“Hi Nick,” she said, as he stepped out of the box. While she could always just open the door if she wanted to talk, their unspoken accord was to wait. It was like greeting an airplane, except guaranteed to be on time.

But she’d never before had company.

“This is Groton Harada,” she said, as Nicolas struggled with the implications. “I met him skiing, and he’s a got a proposal.”

Groton extended his hand. He was young — younger even than Erin – with the hearty handshake and conservative dress of a salesman on the make. “Hi,” he said. “I’m an investment-fund manager.” Then he grinned, shattering the salesman façade with a flash of genuine charm. “Of course, it’s a small fund. Just me and a few friends. There are twelve of us, and our goal is to retire young.”

“Groton took lessons from me almost every week this winter,” Erin said. Nothing in her tone indicated it had been anything but business, and she moved to Nicolas’s side in a manner that suggested that their on-and-off relationship had at least one more season of “on” remaining in it. “I told him about sharing your stasis room.”

“It sounded like you might be open to some additional timeshares,” Groton said. “My friends and I want to take turns managing our fund — a month or so at a crack, living cheaply in the interim. Even if we’re conservative, in twenty or thirty rotations, we should do pretty well. We can either pay you rent or let you buy in.” He looked at the bathroom. “Think we could all fit in there?”

Nicolas looked back inside. It wasn’t large, but he could make a lot more room by pulling out the tub, toilet, sink, and cabinets. “Yeah. As long as nobody wants to sit down. Let me think about it.”

Thinking largely meant checking references and talking to Erin. He was surprised to realize that even though they only saw each other a few dozen days a year, he didn’t want to go on a cycle where they’d never meet at all except when someone opened the cabinet. Happily, she thought so too. A couple of winters ago, she told him, one of her friends had gotten married, even while insisting on keeping her own, separate, home. Erin had no interest in marrying anyone, but she liked her friend’s at-your-convenience relationship. When it was good, it was good; when it wasn’t, well, come back tomorrow. Or next spring. To make it work, what she and Nicolas had to do was make sure they scheduled some together time. “There’s good spring skiing in the southern Andes,” she added with a grin. “Of course, that’s their November. But there’s got to be someplace we can both go. Kilimanjaro?”

Meanwhile, Nicolas upgraded his stasis box. Even with the fixtures removed, the bathroom was a bit cramped for standing around through too many cycles of the slow-building stasis field. So he finally bought a fast-cycling field-collector. While he was at it, he upgraded to an uninterruptible power supply with a super-battery that would run for weeks if the external power failed. The upgrade included an inside door lock that allowed the unit to be used as a safe room in the event of a burglary, but he disabled it. The risk of being unreachable in an emergency was a lot higher than being murdered by a burglar — let alone having time to run for the box if you heard a prowler.

Better was the fact that the super-battery allowed the box to function as an impregnable storm shelter. They probably sold a lot of those in the tornado belt.

He also talked to a security expert. Nicolas had long ago disabled the box’s safeties because he had no fear Erin would try to zap him off to the indefinite future. And she could rescue him if he inadvertently did it to himself. He had no particular reason to be suspicious of the others, but neither did he know them that well. They themselves had a protocol to protect their joint account, so Nicolas and the consultant created one for the box, in which it would reset if everyone didn’t log in every few months.

#

 

For a long time, things went well. Groton and his associates invested wisely and within a few dozen cycles, all were wealthy, though they decided to hold out to see if another couple dozen cycles would add another zero to their holdings. Nicolas suspected they’d go for yet another zero after that, but he was happy to cash out when they gave him the chance.

Then the earthquake hit. Nicolas was in the box and knew nothing of it until one of the investors, a woman named April who to avoid the inevitable jokes had drawn the September shift, yanked open the door. Her blonde hair was caked with blood and plaster, and the room behind was a shambles. Blood dripped from her chin and she was hugging her right arm to her chest.

Nicolas had seen more than a few injuries in his career, but Erin was quicker to react. In seconds, she was out the door, looking at the gash on April’s head. “Can you remember what happened?”

April managed a wincing nod. “Bookcase. Then I got under a table. Didn’t think it would ever quit.”

Erin nodded in turn. “Good. If you can remember, you probably don’t have a concussion. Let’s get some pressure on that scalp wound, then take a look at your arm.”

Nicolas’s mind was finally coming back to life. “No,” he said. “Save it. Put her in the box. Like they do on ambulances.”

There was panic in April’s eyes, and Nicolas was struck by how young Groton and his friends suddenly seemed. At a one-to-three time ratio, he and Erin had aged a decade since the group had joined them. At one-to-twelve, the others had barely aged at all. Each time he saw them, they looked younger, not older.

Not that it mattered. At the moment, they had an earthquake to deal with. Erin calmed April enough to get her in the box, promising to be back soon — not that April would notice the difference between minutes and days.

The house turned out to be damaged but livable. There were no gas leaks and nothing nearby was on fire. Of course, the power was out. But the satphone worked and the box was good for at least a dozen cycles before the super-battery gave out.

Things could be worse. In the garage was an old gas-powered generator that Nicolas was able to coax into life with a few hours’ tinkering. He didn’t have a lot of fuel, but it was enough to provide computers and a bit of light, and to top off the super-battery so they could eke more cycles out of the stasis cabinet.

Then Nicolas set the others to cleaning up, and called in to work. He wasn’t a utility lineman, but there’d be lots to do, he figured, once the initial cleanup was over.

#

 

Oddly, it didn’t work out that way.

At first, Nicolas didn’t care because he was busy enough tending to his own problems. Most of the roads were at least quasi-passable, but home-repair supplies were hard to find. Not because there was a huge run on them; rather, most of the stores were closed. The same went for supermarkets, though when he did find one that was open, there was virtually no line and he was able to stock up enough supplies to feed everyone for several weeks, subjective time.

Meanwhile, despite Erin’s promise, Nicolas left April in stasis. She would keep. The house was the priority. Luckily, the weather stayed dry until the roof was patched and the house snug, if not tidy. Then the heavens opened, making up for lost time.

The next big hint that things weren’t right came when he and Erin took April to an emergency room. It had been four days since the quake, but other than plastic over holes in the roofs and some boarded-up windows, there weren’t many signs of activity.

He’d waited so long partly because he was concentrating on repairs, and partly because he’d figured it was the best way to avoid crowds. But apparently a lot of other people had thought the same way. This time, there was a line. Nor was the emergency room running at anything close to full staff.

That was when he realized that nobody’d called him in to work. He checked in again, and was reassured that everything was under control. Most folks, he was told, were doing minimal repairs, then settling into stasis until the city was running better. Which might take a while because rumor had it that a lot of city workers were doing the same.

The emergency-room wait was endless and they couldn’t even get anything for April’s pain. After five hours, he and Erin took her home and popped her back into stasis for a month, until the line abated. Then, of course, there was the problem that she didn’t really want to be out during the healing period, which was silly because nothing was going to happen unless she waited out the weeks of real time it would take for her arm to mend. Eventually, she decided to spread the process out over her next couple of rotations. Who cared if she wasn’t healed for years, real time? Subjectively, it was the same, now or later.

Nicolas’s job was similar. There wasn’t much to do in the fall, and when he came out of stasis in the spring, there still wasn’t. Business wasn’t merely not-booming, it was in a decided slump.

Luckily, he’d made enough money from Groton’s investment club that it didn’t matter. He woke Erin, and they actually went to Kilimanjaro. Not that there was any skiing, but climbing the peak was a great substitute, and he wasn’t yet so old he couldn’t make the summit.

From there, they went to Alaska, then booked a ski trip in Greenland. It was the first time he’d ever spent a summer without work, and it felt grand.

The next year was more of the same. People had fixed their roofs and windows well enough to stop the leaks, then retired to stasis cabinets to wait it out. Even churches had joined the act, providing stasis services for thousands of poor and homeless.

The third year, he and Erin had a long talk. The local ski areas hadn’t been damaged in the quake, but with most of their customers in stasis, she’d had to go to Idaho for work.

For Groton’s investors, it didn’t matter. Their funds were scattered around the globe, and with Nicolas’s generator supplying their computers until power was finally restored, nothing much had changed. But for Nicolas and Erin, it was decision time. While Erin had been in Idaho, a late-season hurricane had crippled Miami. Rebuilding there was slower than in Seattle. The message was clear: Erin and Nicolas either had to relocate or go back into stasis for a very long time.

It wasn’t a hard choice. Nicolas was too old to imagine a lifestyle like Groton’s. Erin could, but global warming was steadily eating away at her winters, and an extended stay in stasis wasn’t going to help. So they used a computer map to do the equivalent of spinning the globe and stopping it randomly, somewhere in the north.

The first attempt hit the Aleutian Islands. Not a place either wanted to go. The second wound up in Mongolia. The third landed in Norway. Long summer days and lots of snow. “I can do that,” Erin said.

“Me too,” said Nicolas. “As long as we’ve got a stasis box.”

#

 

III. Justice Delayed

Death Row wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. There were no barred cages, no “row” at all, in fact. Just a shed, fenced off from the prison yard beneath the watchful guns of the guard tower. Cheap and utilitarian — that was about all Caddy Ford had time to think before he was thrust inside. There wasn’t even a light, though there wasn’t much need for one.

He had a brief moment to determine that he had the hut to himself, then the door shut and the darkness hiccupped. It opened again and another man was shoved in. Another hiccup and then another man, and then another. Then a woman. And so it went: darkness-hiccup-door; darkness-hiccup-door. The field generator must have been powerful because instead of the slow-down-and-start-back-up sensation you got with the consumer units, it compressed life into staccato blinks until soon (or maybe not so soon) there were twenty people unceremoniously stored in the Death Row shed. It had to be saving the taxpayers a bunch of money, Caddy thought during one of the longer interludes, when a reluctant prisoner had to be frog-marched inside by a pair of burly guards. No food, no water. Not much need for guards except when the box was opened.

Sometimes, people would be taken out. “Smith,” a guard would say. “The rest of you stay put.” Then, not unkindly, “Every second’s on the clock. Waste ’em now, and you won’t have ’em later.” Then the door would shut. The world would hiccup, the door would reopen, and Smith or whoever would be back. On the outside, probably only a few minutes had passed, but even that was denied those on the inside.

When his sentence had been handed down, the bailiff had given Caddy a watch, set for a twenty-four-hour countdown. The prosecutor had objected, but the judge overruled him. “If we’re going to do this,” he’d said, “the prisoner should know where he stands.” To Caddy he added: “That’s not the official time, but it should be close. Trying to reset it won’t do you any good.”

So far, the watch had ticked off thirty-seven minutes. Only two hours before that the judge had read the jury’s finding. Caddy could still feel the weakness in his knees from hearing the words “death,” “lethal injection,” and his name strung together in a single sentence.

“Don’t worry,” his lawyer had whispered, his hand supporting Caddy’s elbow enough that maybe nobody else could see him tremble. “You’ve got so many appeals my grandkids will be in college before they can possibly get around to it. You’ll die of old age.”

But the prosecutor must have been thinking the same thing, because even as Caddy’s lawyer was attempting to reassure him, she rose and asked that the sentence be undertaken “with all due haste.”

“What’s that mean?” Caddy had asked desperately, but his lawyer waved him off.

“I don’t know.” Then in a louder voice: “Your Honor?”

There followed one of those whispered conversations that lawyers do, with the judge’s hand over the microphone so that only occasional syllables escape in a susurration of nonsense. Then the judge told the jury it was dismissed, thank you, and ordered the lawyers into his chambers, leaving Caddy alone with a bunch of cops, vid-reporters, and a couple of the old lady’s surviving grandkids.

It had to have been the grandkids who’d swung the jury against him. Sitting there throughout the trial, trying to be brave and not succeeding, they were a lot more charming than the macho crap that had gotten Caddy into this mess in the first place. But if your daddy gives you a name like Cadillac, and you grow up to be only five-and-a-half feet tall, you sure as hell learn not to back down from anything, stupid or not. You had to be the toughest in the ‘hood.

Up until the final moments, his lawyer’d had him convinced that that argument would keep him alive. That and the fact his ‘hood was upper Alameda Ridge — not exactly the mean streets. But the prosecutor twisted it around, arguing that equal justice was meaningless if folks like Caddy weren’t just as likely to be executed as anyone else.

Nobody had been supposed to die. Nobody’d even been supposed to get hurt. It was supposed to be an exercise in what Stormi had called “research.” Scare the old lady a bit, maybe even take a piece of jewelry or something and see if they could pawn it: just so they knew what it felt like, for the vidplay they were writing about rich-kid gang-bangers. Then Stormi had tried to pin it all on him — and the prosecutor had bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Probably some kind of chick-loyalty thing.

It was all Stormi’s fault. That and the old lady’s. Who’d have believed the old woman would have a damned heart attack? Yeah, she did wake rather suddenly, with Caddy’s hand over her mouth and Stormi waving around the gun Caddy’d borrowed from his father’s nightstand. But they’d been watching her for weeks, and she’d seemed hale and hearty.

She was also supposed to be alone.

The big mistake had been when Caddy had turned and run. You can’t see much through panty hose, even if you’re not in a panic. That was how he discovered the old lady’s visitors, by tripping over some damn kid’s robotoy in the hallway. He went down hard, yelping and barking his shin badly enough to leave DNA evidence all over the place. Then someone was coming at him with a fireplace poker, and someone else had a knife. Then there were gunshots and it all got rather confused.

#

 

And now, while Caddy was still reeling from the sentence, he found he had twenty-four hours either to win his appeal or die. Subjective hours, that is. On the outside, it would take however long it took. The moment the judge granted the prosecution’s motion and handed him his watch, they’d hustled him off to a stasis vehicle — a damned hearse of all things — and held him there while the prison cobbled together his present accommodations.

“Don’t worry,” his lawyer had idiotically repeated as the bailiff frog-marched him out of the courtroom. “You’re the test case. This just gives us one more thing to appeal.”

#

 

The first time his attorney visited, it had been five years, but for Caddy it was barely an hour.

“Round one went to the state,” the attorney said briskly. “We were trying to overturn the stasis sentence, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. But I’m afraid we lost. There’s nothing cruel and unusual about stasis, the justices ruled. After all, people do it to themselves, every day. I tried to argue that you need more time to consult your attorney, but sadly there’s not much new you can tell me.”

The attorney glanced at his watch. “We’d better get you back. I think they’re going to stick to twenty-four hours, and we’ve just used up seventeen minutes. We might want ’em later. Don’t worry. That was just round one. All you need to do is win once.”

#

 

His next visitor was his father. The man had never been handsome, but now, with knife-like features caving in on a sunken pallor, he looked old, visibly shrunken — a death’s head on twig limbs.

Caddy detested him. He was an insecure bastard who’d struck it — well, not rich, but comfortably close — when he and six of his dockyard buddies shared a winning lottery ticket. He’d never been truly mean: just a man out of his element, desperate for his son to prove the family deserved its luck.

He’d never come to the trial and Caddy hadn’t seen him since the night the police had taken him away.

“Where’s mom?” he asked.

“She died, musta’ been four years ago. They called it cancer, but . . . “

Caddy was accustomed to his father’s hanging accusations. He’d not really cared about the old man’s absence at the trial. His mother was a different matter, and it was only now that Caddy realized she should have visited at least once in the years, minutes, whatever-they-were since he’d been assigned to this place. He wondered how many of his twenty-four hours he’d have spent with her. More than he was going to waste with the old man. He rose to go.

“Wait. Before I die, I just want to know one thing. Why? Why did you do it? Your mother and me, we raised you right. We wanted you to make something of yourself, but you always . . . ”

Caddy’s father had aged, but he was going to die a natural death. Soon, from the look of it. Caddy tried to sympathize, but couldn’t. The old man seemed to have forgotten that he was still eighteen, barely two hours into processing the fact that they wanted to kill him “with haste.” Unless he won an appeal, time was something Caddy had in very short supply.

“Guard!” he called. “Take me back. Now.”

#

 

Sometime later, they gave him an exercise break.

“What’s that?” one of the other prisoners asked.

“That’s when you all get to go out at once,” a guard said. He was the same one who’d been kind before, but salt-and-pepper now speckled his hair and his belly bulged over his belt. “Sixty minutes, to enjoy some sunshine. Judge’s orders.”

“Rain’s what they deserve,” one of the other guards muttered. “Or maybe last month’s sleet storm. It’s not like anyone’s got time to die of pneumonia.”

The prisoners milled into the yard. A few really did exercise, jogging in circles or doing calisthenics, as though they thought it mattered. Caddy found a dust-free spot and sat down, leaning against the wall of the shed, thinking about his father’s question. It wasn’t as though he’d not asked himself in jail, waiting for the trial. But mostly, he’d just been mad at Stormi — and focused first on trying to convince the jury that he wasn’t really to blame for what happened, then that he didn’t deserve to die. Then, all of a sudden, he’d only had twenty-four hours to figure it out.

He could still taste the fear, feel the shock. How could he think, when he was facing imminent death? There wasn’t time to think. There wasn’t time for anything. He stood up and began to pace. Was that the point? To deprive him even of the dignity of coming to grips with what he’d done?

#

 

Before the next exercise break, he lost two more appeals and learned that his father had died. Attorney conferences and other prisoners’ comings and goings had eaten another three hours out of his life, and even though his thoughts ran unbroken each time the field hiccupped and the door opened, the constant interruptions were jarring.

This time, he decided that exercise wasn’t so silly. He had a boatload of adrenaline to burn off. “All due haste,” hell. “Maximum terror” was more like it. Or maybe “maximum confusion.” He wondered if anyone on the outside had an inkling what it was like. Most likely, they didn’t care. Like his father, they probably had trouble not thinking of him as proceeding in real time, while the wheels of justice, slow to them, to him ground at frenetic pace.

The appeals came and went. Attorney visits were brief, much shorter than exercise periods. Sometimes, prisoners were taken away and didn’t return. Had they won an appeal? Or run out of options and died? He asked the others, but nobody knew.

Then, on his fourth exercise period, with his life-clock now somewhere below twelve hours, one of the newer prisoners, a kid hardly old enough to be tried as an adult, told him that he’d been slapped into stasis the moment the prosecutor announced he was pursuing the death penalty. For him, it had barely been a week since he’d been arrested, less than two since he’d robbed a convenience store and panicked when the clerk tried to grab the gun. “It wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone; all I wanted was the money.”

Caddy recognized the kid’s despair. He also knew denial when he heard it. There was more to the kid’s story than he was admitting, even to himself. Just like Caddy’s.

And still, the damned watch ticked down the time. Seven hours. Six. Five.

#

 

Then it was Caddy’s turn to leave the cell for the final time. His lawyer hadn’t quite put his grandkids through college, but like the guard he’d gone gray and paunchy. At least he didn’t look like Caddy’s father. That death’s-head visage haunted him more than he cared to admit: a too-direct intimation of what lay in his own not-to-distant future.

“I’m sorry,” the lawyer said. “We gave it all we could. But it’s just not a time when anyone cares about civil rights or much of anything else. Half of them are in stasis, waiting for something: the economy, medical research, good times, a winning season for the home team. Who knows? When this is over, I think I’m going to join them for a while.”

They offered him a priest. Or a minister, rabbi, imam, or gnugru, whatever that was. Caddy had never thought much about religion. He’d presumed he had many years to work that out. Now, all of a sudden, he didn’t, and there wasn’t time even to figure out the right questions.

Worse, he was desperately tired. Here they were offering him his last meal, and all he could think was that he’d barely slept the night before the sentencing, and that now, sleeping seemed an incredibly silly way to spend his last hours. And then, amazingly, waiting for the meal he didn’t really want because they’d fed him on his last exercise stint, he dozed.

He dreamed, of course. Or maybe it was a daydream. He saw the old lady as though it were yesterday. When she’d had her heart attack, why hadn’t they called an ambulance? She might have lived. Hell, she probably would have lived. Then he’d be facing only a few years for armed robbery. At least that way he would have salvaged something from the mess he’d made of his life. Lots of ex-cons had done so, especially in vids, where there was plenty of room for someone with a story to tell and a message to deliver. But for that, you had to someday get out of jail. Or at least have time to tell it from your cell.

Then the guard was back and he realized he’d not even touched his food.

“Too late,” the guard said. “Because you were one of the early ones, you’ve been in and out a lot. Twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes, according to the computers. It’s more than my job is worth to let you go overtime.” Another guard stepped in, and then another — beefy, young, determined. “I see here that you were sentenced to death by lethal injection. We no longer do that. Too cumbersome. You can hang, or go with the guillotine. Your choice. Do you want a hood?”

#

 

IV. A Hundred Billion and Counting

Dobson James’ cabinet was getting full. Actually, it wasn’t his cabinet; it was his uncle’s. Dobson had a timeshare along with his wife, daughters, and a bunch of people he barely knew. Even so, the long stints in the box were eating up a good part of his finances. If it weren’t for the luxury of not having to apartment shop each time he came out, he might long ago have opted for a public box.

This time, the family had only been in stasis for fifty-two years. Last rotation, some of his box-mates hadn’t liked the political situation and had sold him their next couple of turns. Dobson couldn’t care less about politics, and besides, in most matters, he was a great believer in pendulums. Wait too long, and you just get back the thing you didn’t like.

The apartment had barely changed in half a century — fresh paint, new carpets, and refinished woodwork, of course, but the colors were the same; that was all part of the agreement. Even the furniture was as little altered as fifty-two years would allow.

This time Dobson was the first to emerge. He and his wife took turns coming out a week before the rest of the family, so they could see how things had (or hadn’t) changed and prepare accordingly. Recently the changes had been minor; continuity, not innovation, is the priority when only a fraction of the world’s population is active in any given year.

Now, from one of the stasis drawers that held what few belongings he and his family carried forward, Dobson found his neural inducer and took it to the net terminal. As always, there was an assortment of adaptors, but he located one that worked and jacked up to find out what had happened to the world. Not much, it turned out, other than an attempted coup twenty-seven years ago in New Zealand. Rebels had tried to take over the country by bombing stasis cabinets. It hadn’t worked — the new cabinets were more or less indestructible — and any threat to stasis was a threat to the entire world. Aid rushed in and the surviving rebels were now in permanent detention.

The only other significant change was an international treaty that cut to a billion the number of people allowed out at any given time. Dobson wondered if that was the political decision his box-mates had disliked. Not that it should matter. Fifty-year cycles, hundred-year cycles: there wasn’t really any reason to worry unless it got extended so long you might see the sun go nova, and that wasn’t likely unless you joined one of those fringe groups who voluntarily time-warped themselves into the far future. They hoped for miracles, but Dobson figured they’d be disappointed.

Still, he found himself pausing to calculate. With the world population edging above ninety-five billion, his family would get a year’s rotation roughly every four hundred years unless a lot of people sold their turns as cheaply as his box-mates had done, this time. At least the wonks had finally gotten the climate under control; when Dobson was a kid, rotations that long would have been enough to produce some nasty shocks each time you came out.

But those triple-digit waits were disconcerting, especially because they might lead to quadruple digits sometime in the future. Maybe he and Julianne needed to think about whether they wanted more kids. She’d grown up in an enormous Resource Renaissance family that wholeheartedly believed there was plenty for all, if you were but willing to wait for it. But what if the government decided to reduce the waking population even further? Dobson could remember when three billion was cut to two. Now it was one. Perhaps stasis time, not resources, was the new limiting factor.

As a kid, Dobson had grown up camping in the desert east of the mountains. It was the dawn of the Resource Renaissance, when people were just realizing that stasis was the key to providing an abundant life for all, and a few rotations before his birth, they’d made the first drastic population cuts. Dobson could remember his grandfather, who’d been old enough to recall a life before stasis, teaching him the stars and telling him of the bad times when smog spilled over the mountains and you could only see the brightest. Now, Dobson wondered if he’d live so long he’d see his grandfather’s stars shift in the sky.

Meanwhile, his uncle was going to have to double the size of his box or start renting his apartment to outsiders. And Dobson needed a job.

With the inducer, he updated his technical skills and looked for suitable positions coming open, both for himself and his wife. Not surprisingly there were several. As usual, it was a tradeoff between getting something now and waiting for the perfect position when its present occupant went into stasis.

It wasn’t a decision he had to make instantly, which was good because Dobson was itching to get outdoors. He always felt this way coming out of stasis, even though it made no sense. After all, it wasn’t as though he’d actually been cooped up for all that long. In fact, the last thing he’d done before going into stasis was to hit the gym for a farewell game of FasbBall with a buddy he might not see again for a good many rotations. Afterwards, he’d barely had time to shower before going into the box.

Now, he stepped into a perfect March day: crisp, green-and-blue, the Los Angeles skyline not perceptibly different from fifty-two years before. To the east the peaks of the San Gabriels arced the horizon, white-streaked against a pastel sky.

The neighborhood hadn’t changed much, either, though perhaps there was a touch less traffic. The population constriction wouldn’t take full effect until next rotation, and Dobson lived close enough in that things wouldn’t change much, anyway, except for a new crop of stasis-mates, displaced from decaying suburbs. Julianne would love it. In college she’d done a paper on the ancients’ urban sprawl. She’d concluded it was simply the flip side of today’s suburban flight — part of an inverse relationship between the number of folks up and about at any given time and the need to carve out your own space, remote from everyone else. It had gotten her an A+ and a bunch of grad school offers, but sociology was a dying field, so she’d shifted to economics. “We’ll always need that,” she’d said, “Whether the world changes or not.”

The FasbBall court had been hot, and the game intense. It had gone into double overtime and when he hurried home, Dobson had had to choose between the shower and lunch. That meant he was now hungry, and even though the clock read only 10 a.m., he stopped in the corner market for sandwich makings.

A few minutes later he settled onto a park bench to pile cheese and cold cuts on a baguette, sipping at a half-liter bulb of star fruit/papaya juice.

A crowd was assembling on the opposite side of the park. At first, he thought they were waiting for the PeopleMover, but the tram station was two streets over. Instead, they were in front of the public box that served Dobson’s neighborhood.

Curious, he ambled over to see what was going on.

What he found was a demonstration. But before he got there, an advert from the stasis center blipped him, immersing him in a holo-projection of improbably beautiful people, flying cars, and delicate, spindly towers. “Take a trip to the future,” a soothing voice urged. “Help achieve the new population limit and stretch your own life to the max.”

“Not now,” Dobson said. He made a shooing motion with his hand, looking for the pop-up’s go-away button. He found it, and the ad politely receded.

The demonstrators had obviously not been persuaded.

“Reclaim the time!” one shouted. “Carpe diem!”

Someone else produced a placard. “More life, NOW!”

Another placard cited scripture. “Awaken sleepers!” it proclaimed. “The Lord is coming like a thief in the night.”

“Are you a registered voter?” A pretty young girl handed him a newsboard, which sprouted an earnest-looking talking head urging him not to put off to tomorrow the living he could do today.

“Help us bring back shorter rotations,” the girl said. She pointed to the board’s registration pad. “You can be my first thumbscan.”

He handed it back to her. “I’ll think about it.”

Across the street, a counterdemonstration was forming.

“Save resources, see the future!” one sign read.

Another tried for cute: “Even a billion is one zero too many. Don’t let your life count for NAUGHT!!!”

And, of course, “The best is yet to come!”

Then someone spotted him and hurried over with another newsboard, whose head breathlessly extolled the benefits of opting out of his next TWO(!), FIVE(!!), or even TEN(!!!) rotations. It wasn’t as slick as the advert, but the message was the same: the future’s a big place, and there’s room enough for all.

By now, the demonstrations had drawn a small crowd and Dobson withdrew to his park bench to finish his lunch.

Passers-by waved to one group, and then the other. It was all quite civilized, devoid of passion. What was the point of getting too excited about politics, when you could just fast-forward to the future and see how it all resolved? Vaguely, he wondered what was the opposite of carpe diem. Carpe Mañana? Close enough.

That brought him back to the question of children and the longer rotations a larger family implied. He had no illusion the demonstrators were going to achieve anything. Some policy shifts are pendulums, some aren’t, and Dobson was pretty sure this was among the aren’ts. Even if a few of his box-mates appeared to agree with the demonstrators, most people preferred their world uncrowded. It might even be the right choice. Dobson’s grandfather had died a dozen rotations ago, but he would never forget the man’s stories of smog stretching all the way to his beloved deserts.

With luck, Dobson would live to be a hundred — maybe more if medicine really produced the miracles the fringe groups hoped for. He wasn’t sure when the sun would expand and burn up the Earth, but it was at least a billion years away.

He picked up a twig and drew a one, followed by nine zeros, in the dirt. Then he started scratching out zeros. Even if he lived to be a thousand, he could handle million-year rotations and die of old age before the world did. With 100,000-year rotations, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandkids would all have that much time.

Even if the counter-demonstrators got their way and the population was cut to a hundred million, it really didn’t matter — there was no way he’d live long enough to see rotations in the hundred-thousand year range unless he and Julianne chose to take a peek at the super-distant future.

Carpe diem, carpe mañana — either way, he had all the time in the world.

 


Richard A. Lovett is the author of 35 science fiction stories (one coming soon in Analog) and more than 2700 nonfiction articles. A prolific contributor to Analog, he has won five AnLab Awards and one Sigma (Russian translation) award. He has written nearly as many science articles for Analog as he has science fiction stories. In “real” life, he writes for a living for a publication list that includes New Scientist, Science, Psychology Today, National Geographic News, and many large newspapers. A veteran of Greenland’s 100–mile Arctic Circle (cross-country ski) Race, he has also coauthored a book on cross-country skiing.


 

 

Story © 2009 Richard A. Lovett. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing. 





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