Authors: Cleland Smith
Published by Gauge
© 2013 Angela Elizabeth Smith
All rights reserved
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Mark Waters
Acknowledgements are due to Gary Gibson and Hal Duncan; without their encouragement and advice, this book might never have seen the light of day. My family and friends have been endlessly encouraging – thanks for your enthusiasm and support. Special thanks go to my Mum and my Mother-in-Law who both helped by giving me baby-free time at crucial points in the writing and editing process. Finally, the biggest thank you of all goes to my husband, Matthew, who has been an invaluable reader and sounding board throughout the writing process.
the long term effect of a disease.
any complication of a disease.
When Farrell opened her mouth to speak, her tongue was black. Kester glanced at the two male members of the interview panel to see if they were wearing the same symptoms, but both had their mouths closed. As he looked back to Farrell, she raised her chin, revealing two lines of sores that stretched down from beneath each ear and disappeared under the band of her broad-knotted cravat.
the patterning: she was wearing Emerna-B, a mod of a street STV, cultured in-house to provide a more focused patterning. It had been commissioned by the MD of V Global in New York and had only been spotted on two or three wearers since. All were internal to V and all were high-worth individuals. It was evidence of Farrell's selective promiscuity and she was wearing it like a diseased peacock tail, her feathers raised and shuddering.
Kester tried his best to look impressed – Farrell was clearly powerful. Within a few months the mod would make it back down the shag chain to the streets, perfect evidence of the desirability and ambition of everyone in its infectious family tree. Along the way it would cement relationships, ease promotions and secure interviews. When the MD's exclusive contract ran out, wearers would rush to buy it from the Pigs in the hope people would think they'd caught it from a prestigious individual, but for now it was the equivalent of a catwalk disease. Farrell was the principal interviewer and Kester's prospective new boss. She would expect him to want it.
Kester attempted a smile. The collar of his shirt was getting tighter. He wasn't used to wearing a suit and tie, and could feel little raw patches developing at the sides of his neck. He pushed from his mind the image of the fukpunk he had seen shooting up under Waterloo Bridge, Emerna-A sores weeping where his studded necklet was rubbing. It was the heat; the sweat. The sun was blazing in from the glass wall to Kester's left and he was trapped in a wedge of sweltering light. The air-conditioning blew over him every few seconds, but only served to remind him how hot he was. He wanted to bare himself and stand beneath the unit, or open his shirt and press his chest and cheek to a cool, shaded portion of the giant window before him.
The three panel members sat in the shade, protected from the sunlight by a tall partition, backs to more glass. Looking at them was tiring. Avoid their visible skin and he had to look at their clothes. Their corporate clothing line was as busy with adverts and logos as any in the City. Kester wasn't used to holding conversations with people who were dressed this way, never mind who wore, though he saw people who did either or both all the time down by the Embankment. His eye was constantly drawn to the seams, pockets and panels that were given over to advertising: Brinkov, Virgin, Herschel, Sony, Smith & Smith.
He shifted his focus to the space between two of the interviewers, a slice of simple clear sky.
V's London headquarters was the tallest building in the City and seated as they were on the top floor, there may as well have been nothing out there. They could have been sitting in a skyscraper in the desert.
Kester struggled to remember the questions he had noted down before the interview. Would V be the first company to produce wholly designer STVs? Would they continue to produce street-mods? Where was the growth in what was currently a niche market? How many wearable STVs did they hope to release within the department's first year?
'I'm interested to know a bit more about your motivation, Doctor Lowe.' Mrs Farrell's black tongue flashed as she spoke. 'There's a lot of money being poured into this new department and I need to know that the person running it is 100% behind V. Why do you want to work for us? This is a big move for an academic.'
'Yes, it is a big move. But then V is an extremely…by which I mean to say V is an extraordinarily…' Kester wished he'd had more time to prepare. This wasn't the informal chat he had been expecting. Department head was a senior role, but he felt like a grad trying to claw his way into an internship.
'I understand that scientists who move from the public to the private sector can sometimes come under scrutiny from their peers.'
'It's true. The truth is, Mrs Farrell, I'm a bit tired of – a bit dissatisfied with the package. I've spent seven years at the Institute and, put it this way, I'm currently working on a research project developing new viruses and…'
'Exactly what you trained for, I believe.'
'Yes and no. It's true my thesis was on viral design, I'm a virology expert, so yes they're my thing, but the viruses I'm developing now are…' Kester stopped himself. Many of the viruses were destined for the military arena or for social control. To explain his distaste for them would be to break the Official Secrets Act and risk court action or worse. 'They're boring…it's not what I wanted to do really.'
'Boring? Working at the Institute?' The fat man to Mrs Farrell's left finally broke his silence. 'I understand. Discretion is something we prize in our employees.'
His name and the name of the third panel member had slid through Kester's brain without leaving a trail, not a first letter, not a sound. Mrs Farrell, on the other hand, had stuck with Kester from the moment he had seen her image online. She was highly made up so that her age was hard to judge, but her picture was attractive, in an artificial sort of way. In person, in motion, she looked as if she had a stolen sweet in her mouth and was sucking on it, toying with it. If you could see past the logos, her tailored suit flattered her angular figure. From what Kester had heard about interviewing in the big City firms, he had better start seeing the sexy side of her quickly. If the rumours were true – he stopped and reined in his runaway thoughts – the rumours probably weren't true, but at least he had come prepared. And after all her hair was nice; her lips did look experienced.
'I notice you aren't wearing any viruses,' the third panel member said, running his eyes across Kester's visible surfaces. 'Not that I can see.'
'No. It's not really done in academia.'
'I know, I know. Just never understood it. Why wouldn't you? Nice international pool of ambitious people given the perfect excuse to shag.'
'To be honest, most people think it's vulgar to crack your nanoscreens.' Kester watched the thinner man to see his reactions. He betrayed none; just stared. 'And nobody uses the delay function on the latest generation screens. It's just not seen as attractive, so I suppose it's not worth the risks or the looking…diseased.'
This wasn't the right thing to be saying to a panel of habitual wearers. Mrs Farrell laughed.
'Some people,' Kester said, swallowing.
'Vulgar? To wear a street virus, perhaps, but to wear an exclusive, something that demonstrates that you're moving in the right circles…' Mrs Farrell smiled, shaking her head. 'How, then, would you demonstrate your success? By wearing an expensive suit? Surely that wouldn't be vulgar?'
She must know as well as him that academics couldn't afford to wear expensive clothes – not by her standards. Now that she was facing Kester head-on again, mouth closed, he wouldn't have known she was wearing. He stifled a bitter laugh and looked down into the lap of his weddings-and-funerals suit.
'No. I mean no, I wouldn't wear expensive clothes to show my status. In academia it's all about citations. Some of the super-competitive profs wear citation clickers round their necks – I don't suppose it's really fashion though and to be honest…'
'You wouldn't do that either?' the fat man asked.
'To be honest, sir, it's only impressive once you reach a certain stage in your career. If you find that sort of thing impressive.'
The fat man laughed to himself. He was wearing too. His eye-sockets were dark, purplish, a symptom of one of the newest mods out there. He was completely bald, must have alopecia Kester guessed, and the virus he was wearing had the unfortunate effect of making him look like a corpse, albeit a reasonably fresh one. Kester swallowed a shudder. The virus was too new for the interviewer to have gone to the Pigs to get it, which meant someone down the short chain from the commissioner must have actually slept with him. You had to give it to the new high-flyers; they were blind to beauty where power was involved. Of course he may have paid for it. Kester felt suddenly uneasy for thinking this right in front of the man. Don't judge, he thought; maybe he's a nice guy, a legend in the sack.
'So money is your motivator, Doctor Lowe,' Mrs Farrell said.
'Mostly.' She nodded slowly. 'Well, money isn't a bad motivator. It certainly means good performance in my experience.'
'It's not just money,' Kester added and shifted in his seat, drawing himself up, trying again to remember the notes he had scrawled the night before, 'it's the achievement.' All three of the interviewers seemed to speak only in perfectly-formed, polished sentences and it was making Kester feel like a madman on the rant, struggling with fractured theories. He took a deep breath and tried to explain. 'I've always liked making things, fiddling and adapting the existing to improve it or change it in interesting ways – and it's a big achievement when it works. Even those who are opposed to the current trends in biotechnology and soft nano are fascinated by what we are doing with disease. It may seem foreign to them, even wrong somehow, but that doesn't mean they don't appreciate the science behind it, the art of making it work – their faces…it's like seeing your father's Savile Row tailor looking at the latest Haute Couture Brinkov. They don't "get it" but they can still admire the artistry.'
'You've found your voice, Doctor Lowe. You get quite passionate when you're being honest, don't you?'
'Well, I enjoy success as much as anyone and, you know, the challenge of…creating something new.' Kester tensed. That was a lousy answer. He'd lost it again; he should have just said
. Next time he'd just say
'Let's take a break,' Mrs Farrell said. 'I want to make a phone call.'
Kester smiled to contain his surprise as Farrell left the room. He sat squeezing his hands for a few minutes while the interviewers took some lazy notes on the panels in front of them. She wasn't making a call at all: he could hear her small-talking with someone in the open plan office beyond the sliding doors. Was he supposed to be able to hear her? She had him on a spit, had left him over the fire to see what happened. He took a deep breath to calm himself. He had to get out of his seat, had to get to the window. It was the closest he could get to leaving the room.
'May I?' he asked, leaning forward in his chair and indicating the window.
'Of course,' the large man replied with a smile. 'Hot, isn't it? You must excuse Alexis, by the way – interviews are a sort of hobby for her.'
'Not at all.' Kester got up from his chair and walked to the window. 'She wants to make sure I'm the right man for the job. That's fair enough.'
London rose up before Kester. He had never seen it this way except in pictures and was struck by its geometry: concentric circles of ever taller buildings rippling out from the palace, a pebble dropped in the centre of the city. The buildings rose outwards and upwards from it, shaped into a scoop by line-of-sight laws and planning restrictions, and stopped at their highest point in a ring where the Green Belt began. London was a splintered splash of metal, stone and glass contained in a beaker.
The further out you came, the newer the buildings and the higher the towers. Laid out at Kester's feet was 'the City', London's finance and big business district. Here, there was evidence of frenetic building work, with the effect of the Green Belt multiplied by the constraints of the City's secure perimeter. Cranes leaned out from halfway up buildings, corseted in place, stratifying, building across and on top of existing structures; skeletons of buildings reached spindly into empty space, waiting to be fleshed. Canary Wharf, the Shard, the CloudCatcher had long since been swallowed into the illusion and the building bias towards the City set London on an eerie tilt.
As it extended outwards and upwards, the architecture grew more ostentatious in colour and form, jostling for attention. Each building strove to be unmistakeable in the skyline, some crafted into physical representations of logos, others so distinctive that they stood themselves as the company's identifier, many failing and becoming just another ledge in the bowl of construction, empty folding seats swallowed in the crowd. On a cloudy day it would resemble a renaissance vision of hell, but in today's raw sunshine it was a fabulous glittering stadium with towering stands and Kester was standing in the sponsor's box.
'Doctor Lowe.' Farrell was back.
Kester returned to his seat holding the City inside him, enlarged by it. Once Farrell had taken her seat, he smiled his most convincing smile, looking only at her. If he was to signal anything, now was the time. He hoped she couldn't see him bracing himself as he set to unbuttoning his cuffs. The two men craned forward and watched with greedy eyes as he rolled up his sleeves, doubtless expecting to see the symptom of some new virus. There was nothing. Pale, blue-veined flesh on the underside of each arm; delicate fair hair and freckles on the other. Kester was suddenly aware of his relative youth, his appearance – dishevelled hair, left its natural brown, soft-looking compared to the slick manes of the two hirsute panel members: cold silver, lion blonde; power colours. If only he had a strong nose, less button-like – he thought of his mother.