Featured July 5, 2019 Science Fiction dystopia nanotechnology BSFA nominee

The Lady Macbeth Blues

By Stephen Dedman
Jul 4, 2019 · 6,890 words · 26 minutes

Photo by wu yi via Unsplash.

From the editor:

As jobs are automated away, a rising tide of “traditional values” groups erodes the rights of women to hold jobs or leave marriages. But as they’re poised to cement their control with longevity-increasing nanotechnology, just one woman stands in their way. This BSFA Award-nominated story was originally published in Interzone.

Author Stephen Dedman has been publishing short stories and novels for more than twenty years. He’s been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and many more. Content warning: racism, misogyny.

From the author: After the Levin Act makes it illegal for married women to take any job that a man can do, is there anything technology can still do to improve women's lives? Nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award.


by Stephen Dedman

            Bianca was watching Crystal dissecting a rat, carefully wielding the scalpel so as not to nick the intestines; the reek of preserved dead animal was nauseating enough that four girls and two boys had already bailed out. It was the second week of semester, and not too late for the squeamish to transfer to another class. Bianca had decided to tough it out, despite having little love or talent for science. Biotech was one of the few growth industries this side of the Mississippi, and with social security non-existent in fourteen states, the companies could afford to pick and choose. She stared as Crystal pinned the hide down to the ancient wax tray; when she dissected something, it actually looked the way it did in the textbook, as though it were nouvelle cuisine rather than a splattermovie shot. Crystal looked up as though she'd heard her thinking, flashed a quick grin, and then froze. Bianca turned her head to see Mrs Hickey, her economics teacher, standing in the doorway. She looked so stricken that Bianca wondered who had died. Mrs Fish also turned to face the door.

            "The Levin Bill has passed through the Senate," said Mrs Hickey, quietly. "It's just come over the net. Unless the President vetoes it, it'll become law by next January."

            Bianca turned to Crystal, who had paled to a sickly yellow-grey. Mrs Fish nodded, then turned to the class. "I'll be back in a few minutes," she said, then walked - a little unsteadily - out of the room. Even after the two teachers had disappeared from sight, the room remained uncannily quiet until someone cheered. Crystal flinched.

            "Come on, let's party!" said the boy who'd cheered. "Hunt's not going to veto it, and you know what that means? More jobs for all of us!"

            "It means," said Crystal, coldly, "that we're going to lose some of our best teachers just because they're female and married." She knew there wasn't much chance that the President would act; the Levin Bill was too popular with the Promise Keepers and other traditional values groups, employers tired of paying for maternity leave and childcare, and many blue-collar unions. Hunt hadn't even protested when South Carolina passed laws preventing couples with children under sixteen (including first-trimester unborns) becoming divorced. Tough times, he'd muttered, required tough measures.

            The boy hesitated, then shook his head. "Nah. The bill only prohibits government departments hiring married women, not - "

            "That includes re-hiring," said Crystal. "And most teachers are on one- or two-year contracts, as are a lot of other workers. And it's not just government departments; it includes any company with more than ten full-time employees, or any employer who has or wants a government contract."

            "Yeah, well," the boy blustered, his face reddening to match his hair, "that's good, too. Spreads the work around more. I'm not going to miss Hickey, or the Fish, and it's not my fault your father cut and run. You have to look at the big picture."

            Bianca reached out and grabbed her friend's wrist, scared that she was going to throw the scalpel. "He's a stupid, ignorant pig," she said, softly.

            "Sure," said the girl sitting behind her, "but now he's an employable stupid ignorant pig."

            Crystal shrugged and smiled - a smile that was as technically perfect as the dissected rat on the tray, and just as dead. "What about your mother?" Bianca asked.

            "Casual," Crystal replied, quietly. "They can fire her at any time, they always could, but there was always the prospect of her getting another job. I guess we'll have to move to some state that still has welfare."

            "It's only an emergency measure," said Bianca. "If unemployment drops back below fifteen percent -"

            "Which it never will," said Crystal. "How many jobs are there left that can't be done more cheaply and more efficiently by machines - or by one person and a few machines instead of five, ten, a dozen human workers? Not many, and next year, there'll be even fewer, at lower wages, and people will fight even harder to get them. Before you know it, men'll be shooting each other for the right to clean the sewers, and the government will say it's what we need to do to compete with the Asian economies, when what we really need to do is change the way we think."

            No-one else in the room spoke, and Crystal realised that she'd raised her voice until it was audible throughout the room, and probably the corridor outside.

            "You'll be okay," Bianca reassured her. "You won't have any trouble getting into college, and the supernationals will always need scientists..."

            "Sure," said Crystal, sourly. "What the fuck, I never expected to get married anyway."


*   *   *


            Getting out of her antique wedding dress wasn't as difficult as getting in, but it was still a job for at least two people, and Bianca was glad that Crystal was still around; she wasn't ready to face Simon yet, and had asked him to wait in another room while she changed. "I think I've just discovered how medieval knights must have felt. Thank Christ they don't expect me to wear it on the plane."

            Crystal, who was none too comfortable in her bridesmaid's dress, laughed. "At least you'll never have to wear it again."

            "No, but I'm already feeling sorry for my daughters. Ahhh!" She took a deep breath as Crystal unlaced her corset. "What's the point of making a dress that only gets worn once, anyway? Do you think we could give it to a museum?"

            "Not while your in-laws are alive. What else did they give you, apart from the honeymoon?"

            "Barrington House."

            Crystal's face fell. "Oh, Gods. Do they expect you to live in it?"

            "You've seen it?"

            "Simon took me there, once. The place is a museum, and they won't let you change any of it. Sleeping in a slave-owner's bed is one thing - but they won't even let you have a cat, for fear it might scratch the furniture, and honey, trying to cook in an antebellum kitchen... You can't persuade Simon to ask for a transfer?"

            Bianca shook her head as she struggled to remove her panty-girdle. Simon had studied and schemed too long to be given his position in R&D, and wasn't about to give it up. "It'd be like begging to be disinherited. Besides, he couldn't take you."

            "Yeah, well..."

            "And I'd miss you, too." She looked at the clothes draped over the bed. "You know, it's hard to believe anyone except Jack the Ripper ever hated women enough to design shit like that. It wouldn't do any good, Crys. The family, the company - they own all of us."

            "They don't own me."

            "They own your work, and what're they doing with it?"

            Crystal looked at the crossed Civil War (War Between the States, she corrected herself automatically) cavalry sabres on the bedroom wall, and grimaced. "Touche. Did they give you anything else?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.

            "A GeneSafe. It's being put in tomorrow."

            A second hit; Crystal bit her lip. The GeneSafe was Sanderson MedTech's profitable spin-off from the money-losing nanotech-based AIDS cure she'd helped develop. It was rapidly becoming a traditional wedding gift or sixteenth birthday present among the few wealthy enough to afford it; it was programmed with the genetic codes of the person in whom it was implanted, and usually one other - in most cases, the recipient's husband. Nanomachines would then constantly scan the body (except for the digestive tract) for foreign genetic material, which would trigger a very visible immune response. Reprogramming was possible, but required minor surgery. It served as a smart contraceptive, and was as effective against sexually transmitted diseases as condoms but without the inconvenience to the male.

            Crystal remembered the lecture she received after she'd designed her prototype machine. Society, her supervisor had told her, wanted a HIV vaccine, not an AIDS cure; transmission by blood transfusion and organ donation had been stopped so long ago that all those unfortunates were dead, and all new AIDS cases were regarded as self-inflicted. If they were to be cured, the diseased should at least be made to pay for the privilege. Crystal had looked into his face, and resisted the urge to spit in it. "By 'society'," she said, sweetly, "I presume you mean that elite group that you and I will never be permitted to join?"

            Her super, Adams, had flushed visibly despite his dark skin. "That 'elite' has paid for your work, babe, and has yet to get any visible return for that. You're lucky Old Man Sanderson believes in basic research, even if his spawn don't."

            "That's because he's the only one who's lived long enough to see how it pays off," Crystal retorted. "How much has the company made out of the new lie detectors? That wouldn't have happened if they hadn't sponsored Elzanowski's pheremone research, and -"

            "I know, I know," Adams had replied, wearily. It was an old argument for him, and he was usually defending the other side. "Your work will pay off eventually, and not just financially. Old Man Sanderson wants something that'll eat cancers, clean his lungs and livers and arteries, let him live the way he wants but for twice as long. That's what nanotech is going to give him, what you're going to give him... but that doesn't mean you're indispensable. There's a genius born every day somewhere, babe, but people with the money to pay for this sort of research - they're real rare."

            Crystal snapped out of her reverie. "Anything else?" she asked Bianca, weakly.

            "Not from Simon's parents. The rest of the family gave us - what did they call it in The Lord of the Rings? Something like mammoths?"

            "Mathoms," replied Crystal, with a faint smile. "You'll probably get mammoths for your anniversary." Sanderson MedTech had managed to clone mammoths from frozen remains, but the embryos were still in the freezer pending a decision on who owned the copyright. The Siberian government needed the money and was expected to settle out of court eventually, but it seemed to enjoy making Americans wait.

            "Albino ones, most likely," Bianca grumped. "Big hungry white elephants with perfect pedigrees. Jesus, Crys, almost everything they gave us is a registered antique, as though they expected me to try to sell some of them and run. The only new and remotely practical thing was a set of kitchen knives from Simon's grandparents. Good ones, sharp as scalpels, but isn't it supposed to be bad luck to give knives as a wedding present?"

            "I don't know."

            "Uh-huh." Bianca sniffed at her armpits. "Ugh. The House isn't air-conditioned either, is it?"

            "Climate controlled," Crystal assured her. "It was the only way to preserve the fabrics. If anything, it's too cold."

            Bianca nodded, and headed for the en-suite bathroom. "How often did you go there?"

            "Once was enough. He's not a bad man, honey."

            "No, I guess not." She sighed. "I just wish he'd stand up to his parents occasionally."

            "He will."

            "Then why didn't he marry you?" Bianca turned the shower on full blast, drowning out any possible reply Crystal might have made. Three minutes later, she stepped out of the tub, her eyebrows raised. Crystal shook her head. "They own him," said Bianca. "They own you. They own most of the fucking state, and they went to school with the people who own the other fucking states and a few other fucking countries. And now they own me. Did you see the pre-nup I had to sign?" She dried her face, and sighed. "Oh, fuck it, they say slavery's better than starving."

            "They won't live forever."

            "Won't they? I thought that's what you were working on?"

            Crystal winced again. "If it works, it'll extend their life expectancy, but it won't do more than double it. The brain can't last any longer than that - 160, 180, 200 years tops."

            "Their brains are already 200 years old," said Bianca, sourly. "They think it's still 1850-something, and Abraham Lincoln's just an impertinent nobody with no future." She wiped the mist off the mirror, and stared at her face. "God, I look like shit."

            "You look gorgeous."

            "Thanks. You're beautiful. Crys..." She wrapped the towel around herself, and drew a deep breath. "You're right; Simon's not a bad man, I wouldn't have married him if he were, and you wouldn't have...  uh… but I don't want to see his parents turn him into one. Will you help me?"

            "Any way I can."

            "Thanks." She finished drying herself, dressed for the flight, and freshened up her make-up. "Okay, let's go."

            Simon and his best man were sitting in the den watching one of the news channels. A PR flack was defending the use of Sanderson MedTech's new lie detectors in screening job applicants. "These machines are ninety-nine percent reliable," he blustered, while a split screen shot showed the detector's needle unquavering. "They use nanotech to detect minute quantities of certain pheremones which are only emitted when somebody lies. We have to check our workers out thoroughly; even minor acts of negligence or sabotage can cost the -" Simon reached for the remote and muted the 3V as he heard the women walked in. "Ready?" Bianca, unable to speak, merely nodded.

            Simon stood, and looked at both of them. "You're beautiful," he said, smiling broadly. "Rick, can you take Crystal home?"


*   *   *


            Bianca zipped her dress closed and tried to smile. "I'm sorry," said Rick.

            "Hey," she said, trying a little harder, "if condoms never failed, I probably wouldn't exist."

            His mouth quirked slightly. "You have an implant, don't you?"

            Bianca nodded. "A GeneSafe."

            "You sound worried. Is there a problem?"

            "I hope not," she said, sitting back on the bed. "It's just that... if it's been triggered, it's fairly obvious."

            "How obvious?" 

            She sighed softly as she searched for her shoes. Rick, one of Sanderson MedTech's battalion of lawyers, seemed to take care to learn only what he needed to know at the time. "Iridescent blue patches inside the eyelids, in the lymph nodes, and any places my skin's thin enough for veins to be visible. If there was enough of your semen to activate the nanos, it'll start showing in an hour or two."

            Rick sat up slowly. "How long does it last?"

            "Two or three days."

            "And when's Simon due back?"

            "Tuesday, but Simon isn't the problem. I told him about us months ago." Rick blinked. "It's his parents."

            "You told him?"

            "Of course."


            "Why not? I don't like lying. I was fairly sure he wouldn't mind, and he doesn't. He married me mostly to get his parents off his back, and maybe keep the Sanderson empire running for another generation, though he hasn't shown much sign of that. I thought you knew that?"

            Rick rubbed his face, and climbed out of the bed. "No. I don't get to talk to him as much as I used to. Does he have someone else?"

            "Yes," she said, neutrally.


            "If he hasn't told you, I'd rather not," she replied. She finished dressing, and leaned over to kiss him. "Look, it'll be okay. If anything does happen, I'll let the computer screen my calls."

            "I don't know," said Rick. "The Old Man has a lot of spies... Does he know about Simon and..."

            "I'm sure he does - it's been going on for years - but they don't know about us."

            "What do you think they'll do if they find out?"

            She looked at Rick sadly. Nothing to you, she thought. Nothing to Simon, either. Something to me, maybe something to Crystal... but probably not, she's too useful to them. "They won't find out," she said, kissed him goodbye, and hurried home.


*   *   *


            Bianca stared at the blue spot on her wrist, then plunged her hands back into the soapy water to hide it. She stood there for nearly a minute before looking at her wrist again, in the faint hope that it was something she'd imagined.

            It wasn't. It was still small and pale, and she might not have noticed it if she hadn't been looking for it, but she was sure that the spot would fluoresce faintly if she examined it under black light. It wasn't as though she hadn't been expecting it. She swore softly, and plunged her hands back into the dishwater, wishing again her in-laws had given her something practical - or at least less malicious - as a wedding present. An autochef, maybe, or even a dishwasher... but the ancient kitchen would have earned an approving nod from an Amish woman. Most of the dishes she was washing were genuine breakable antiques, and while some of the knives had monatomic edges, they were otherwise ordinary knives.

            She left the dishes in the sink, wiped her hands on her apron, and walked into the bathroom to stare at her face in the mirror. Nothing yet. The silence of the dark, empty house was beginning to get on her nerves, so she reached for the 3V remote. The Chief Justice was defending the Supreme Court's decision that unmarried women could not claim damages for sexual harassment unless the alleged harasser was married. "We can't criminalise courtship behaviour," he sound-bit. A newsreader, aided by gory computer graphics, told the story of a man who'd turned up for a job interview armed with an Uzi and fired at those ahead of him in the queue. Eleven had died, three of them because they'd hesitated too long before running. Bianca shook her head and channel-hopped. Baseball, cartoons, basketball, soaps, low-g gymnastics from Mars, het softcore, het hardcore... she watched with dull amusement as the couple on the screen lit up cigarettes. Tobacco advertising had been banned everywhere but the adults only channels; she was surprised that the cigarette companies still bothered with the domestic market. More basketball, music videos, gaymale softcore, the Star Trek channel, more soaps. She switched back to the news channel, and walked back to the kitchen, rubbing at the spot on her wrist. Jesus, she thought, it's not as though that pre-nup gives them the right to both my kidneys or anything. I can leave if I want...

            And go where? she asked herself. Unemployment was still rising, Levin Act or no Levin Act, and the price of a divorce had been increased to more than most people made in a year. Even if she'd been single, her chances of finding a job at twenty-seven were minimal. Social Security had been scrapped in every state except Alaska, Canada was deporting illegal immigrants by the truckload, her parents were living in a retirement home thanks to her income, and that only left the re-training camps. Shivering, she plunged her hands back into the water, half-wishing that Simon had gotten her pregnant. It might have mollified his parents; his mother was constantly buying gifts for the prospective grandchild, and she might even have done something to make her life less miserable if she became the mother of the Sanderson heir, though she doubted that they'd leave her in charge of her child for very long. But Simon was content to wait for his parents to die, as long as he had Crystal, and she knew she couldn't rely on Rick... and Crystal was apparently still determined to make his parents as near-immortal as possible. Bianca clenched her fists in the water, cutting her fingers on the monatomic edge of a kitchen knife. She withdrew her right hand, watching with little more than mild intellectual curiosity as blood dripped from the incredibly fine cut into the water. She stood there for several seconds, then wrapped a tea-towel around her wounded hand and walked to the bathroom.

            The phone rang. She ignored it, letting the computer answer. "Bianca, dear," said her mother-in-law's sour syrupy voice, as Bianca fumbled in the cabinet for the first aid kit. "I need to come around some time before Saturday. The insurance company needs to check on the paintings, to make sure they're being maintained according to their dreary little agreement. I don't know precisely when, but I'll try to call you beforehand. Goodbye."

            Bianca stood in the bathroom, staring into the mirror and trying to stop herself shaking. Simon's family found an excuse to visit and examine some part of the antique collection nearly every time Simon was out of town for more than a few days - as though they suspected her of stealing items or replacing them with forgeries. She attempted to bandage her fingers with her left hand, but after less than a minute, she dropped the kit in anger and stalked back into the kitchen and grabbed one of the knives. I'll show you bad luck, she thought, as she walked back into the sitting room and looked around at the paintings, wondering which one to start on.

            She looked down at her bleeding hand. The mark on her wrist was now bright blue. She glanced at her left wrist; the mark there was smaller, but just as distinct - maybe even a little brighter. With a shriek, she stabbed at it with the knife, slicing across the vein and into the tendon. The mark remained. She drew a deep breath, and began systematically cutting along the vein. The monatomic blade sliced through the flesh easily, with almost no pain. She looked at the incision with faint approval, and then grabbed the bloody knife with her left hand and attempted to make an identical incision on her right wrist. A few seconds later, she dropped the knife at her feet, and staggered towards the phone.

            "Crystal? It's Bianca. Look, I've... I need your help."


*   *   *


            The doctor looked down at the woman on the stretcher. "What happened?" she asked.

            Crystal and the paramedic looked at each other. "We're not sure," said Crystal, cautiously. "She was unconscious when I arrived. The cut to the fingers might have been accidental - she was washing dishes by hand, including some sharp knives - but the injuries to the wrists look self-inflicted."

            "You found her first?"

            "Yes. She called me; her husband's in New York. I stitched her up and bandaged her as best I could with a first aid kit."

            "You're a medic?"

            "Geneticist, but I've had medical training."

            The doctor nodded, and reached for Bianca's throat, taking her pulse, then pulled down her eyelids to look at her eyes. "This blue..."

            "She has a GeneSafe," said Crystal.

            "I thought so. Do you know what's triggered it?"

            "It must have been the transfusion," replied Crystal. "She'd lost a lot of blood by the time I arrived; I had the paramedics give her a transfusion as soon as possible. Sometimes the GeneSafe reacts to the leucocytes, but the reaction is harmless." The doctor blinked. "I work for Sanderson MedTech. I wasn't on the team that designed this device, and I don't have one myself, but I know the principle."

            The doctor nodded. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think you've saved this woman's life. Lucky you knew what to do."

            "Yes," said Crystal softly. "Yes, it was."


*   *   *


            Bianca lay in the bed with her eyes closed, feigning unconsciousness. The silence, the smells of flowers and antiseptics, and the ache of the drip into her arm, was enough to tell her she was in a soundproofed private hospital room; she didn't need to see it. "Interfering nigger dyke bitch," muttered her mother-in-law. "We ought to send her to Malaysia, that'd teach her how easy she's got it here."

            "We can't," replied her husband, whispering the way most people do around a sleeper or a corpse. "Adams has convinced the Old Man that she's going to make him immortal."

            "Good a reason as any; the sooner he's dead, the sooner we inherit. Christ, Bobby, you could at least stand up to him behind his back, if you can't do it to his face."

            "The longer he lives, the more we inherit," Bobby Sanderson said. "He has a real gift for making money; I know, part of it's reputation, but not all of it. When he dies - if he dies, come to that - Sanderson MedTech's stock is going to take a dive. We'll lose millions, maybe billions. Besides, if Adams is right, what do you think immortality is worth?" His wife stared at him blankly. "We can charge whatever we like for it - the government can't stop us - but it's worth a lot more than money. This is the fucking power of life and death! And while we hold the patent, we decide who lives and dies! Imagine what that'll mean to those assholes in Washington - or overseas. What do you think al-Sauds and the Kuwaiti sheikhs would give us for it? Or any other emperor, king, or President-for-Life? Now what do you think of the nigger dyke bitch?"

            Bianca could almost hear her mother-in-law smiling. "I think we can put up with her for a little longer, in that case," she muttered. "But what happens if she decides to leave the company, and take her secrets with her?"

            "Why should she? Adams swears she works harder than anybody else in the lab, on the same salary she started on; your hairdresser makes more than she does. And she hardly even goes home, except to feed her cats; she has a bed set up in her lab instead."

            "What if she wants to live forever, too? Are you going to give her that?"

            "It's not my decision, but if she's still useful to us, the Old Man might... and why not?"

            "What if another company offers her a better deal?"

            "Why would they? How would they know what she's done; we're not telling anybody. Look, we'll find a way to keep her here - why are you so worried, anyway?"

            "Simon spends too much time in that lab."

            Sanderson laughed. "What's wrong with that? The more he knows about R&D, the better."

            "What if he's sleeping with her?"

            "Droit de seigneur," replied Sanderson, drily. "Or is it de rigeur? Anyway, it's as old as - well, I'm not a historian, but Jesus, all work and no play... or are you scared she's going to bring a pup along to one of your D.A.R. meetings? They both have more sense than that." He always tried to be out of town whenever his wife and her Daughters of the American Revolution cronies gathered; marrying an aristocrat hadn't been his idea. The Old Man had arranged the wedding to win favour with her father, then the state's junior senator and heir to a dwindling but still prestigious tobacco empire. Bobby Sanderson sometimes wondered why she'd co-operated; it was obvious that neither of them had married for love.

            "What about you?" she asked.


            "How much have you been exercising your droit de seigneur?"
            "Jesus, you've got a suspicious mind lately! None since we were married," he lied. "Before that, I didn't keep count." He glanced at his Rolex rather than meet her eyes. "Where the fuck is Simon? He should've been here half an hour ago. I'm going out for a smoke; call me when he comes in, or when she wakes up, whichever comes first."


*   *   *


            Adams looked nervously around the boardroom, suddenly conscious that his best suit probably cost less than most of the neckties he could see, and cleared his throat. "I'm not sure what rumours you've heard, but we do not have the secret of immortality, nor have we discovered the fountain of youth. What we have is a nanotechnology-based device similar to the GeneSafe, but far more sophisticated. It prevents and reverses the growth of cancers, removes blockages from arteries, fat from around the heart, tar and other crap from the lungs, and so on. It may even be able to prevent or at least delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease, though we haven't done enough testing on human subjects to be sure." He decided not to mention that most of their test subjects had been chimps, pigs and hamsters; few of the directors knew enough biology to understand the ways in which these animals were similar to humans. "It won't repair all types of existing damage, users won't look any younger though they should feel healthier, and some of us may already have over-stressed our bodies beyond it's power to heal, but barring accidents it should increase normal life expectancy by about a century." Silence suddenly fell over the room. Adams glanced at the Old Man, who was sitting at his left. "We haven't told marketing about this, of course, but in the meantime, we're calling it the Centurion."

            "Thank you, Dr Adams," said the Old Man, as Adams sat down. "Of course, gentlemen, we can't just release a device like this onto the market ad hoc. The country is already paying too much in benefits to unproductive retirees; they just have too many votes." There were a few loyal chuckles from around the great oaken table. "What would happen to the economy if all of these people were to live for another hundred years? We're paying too much damn tax already! No, this has to be kept secret. It will, of course, be available to all of you gentlemen, and your families, for the bargain basement cost of a quarter million per, plus a check-up every five years at half the going rate. Note that this price will not be offered to anybody else; Dr Adams and I have worked out a scale based on five percent of the buyer's net worth, with a minimum price of half a million, and a top of twenty million. Obviously there are many potential clients who could pay much more, but there are more important considerations than short term profit. Despite Dr Adams's understandable caution, this might be immortality; who knows how medtech might improve over the next century? There are many people who could afford a Centurion, at any price we might set, that we may not want around for that long, overpaid entertainers and similar parasites, as well as some heads of state." He smiled frostily. "It's imperative that we use it carefully, selectively. I suggest we start with a maximum of one thousand, to be implanted over the next four years, and then reduce production to fewer than a hundred a year. It would, for example, be of no advantage to us to sell one to the President when he has only three years left to serve. But senators, congressmen, judges, other politicians and administrators who can continue to serve well into the next century..." he showed his transplanted teeth in a grin, "whose interests and concerns are parallel to ours, and whose gratitude can be depended upon, thanks at least in part to the need for regular check-ups..." He paused again, watching smiles break out across the room as the directors began thinking. "Thanks to Dr Adams's team, we need no longer be tied to short-term goals, we can make plans for the next century in the hope of seeing them come to fruition. We can be sure of stable government, not the current chaos. We can choose the next century's leaders now."

            He took a deep breath. "For too long, cheap medical care has enabled less productive members of our society to survive into their second century, while the world's elite, the decision-makers, have been overworking and overstressing ourselves into early graves, wasting all that experience and learning. History has been rewritten by those too young to remember it, dishonouring great men and fine traditions..." He coughed; his face was turning red, and Adams watched him with genuine alarm, wondering if he was going to have a heart attack before they'd had a chance to implant his Centurion. The Old Man grabbed a glass of water, sipped it slowly, and continued more quietly. "Of course, there's another, more immediate advantage. You'll now be working for yourselves, getting what you deserve, instead of it going to your widows or your ungrateful heirs. Now -" He tried to laugh, but it became another coughing fit. "Sorry. Now, Dr Adams and I have prepared a list of potential clients, which I'll now hand around for everybody's approval - but for God's sake, remember that we have to keep this as quiet as possible! I know the rumours are already circulating; lie, if you have to. We can implant up to two of these a day without breaching security. The sooner I have your cheque, the sooner you get onto Dr Adams's list. Any questions?"


*   *   *


            Bianca spent two weeks in the hospital before she was discharged, and had been home for five days when Crystal visited. "Sorry I couldn't get here sooner," said her friend. "We've been completely snowed under at the lab..."

            "I know," Bianca replied levelly, as Crystal collapsed into a rocking chair that had once belonged to Jefferson Davis. "Simon told me. Do you want a drink?"


            "Fine." She walked into the antiquated kitchen. "Simon's told me about the... what are they calling it? The Centurion? Was that your project?"

            "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa."


            "Most of it, yes. Why?"

            "He told me they add about a hundred years to your life expectancy. Is that true?"

            "In some cases. They haven't given you one, have they?"

            "No," replied Bianca, dully. "Simon's father said I'm too young to need one, and his mother told him they wouldn't waste it on someone who'd already tried to kill herself. Maybe after a few years." She poured boiling water over the coffee bags, and waited for them to brew. "What about you?"

            "Too young, like you, and I can't afford one. Anyone under fifty either pays ten million plus or waits in line. You wouldn't believe the people who've visited the lab this week." She chuckled.

            "No, probably not," said Bianca. She placed the coffee mugs on a silver tray, removed a small revolver from a drawer and slipped it into her apron pocket, then headed back towards the sitting room.

            "Thanks," said Crystal, as she took her mug. "So, how're you feeling?"

            Bianca sat opposite her, put the tray down on a small table, and drew the pistol. Crystal stared at it, her eyes wide. "You know," said Bianca, sourly, "before I went to hospital, none of the guns in this place were loaded? I made sure. I knew they hadn't been plugged or anything, the Old Man wouldn't let anyone do that to a firearm, but when I come back, surprise! Loaded firearms everywhere. They didn't bother with the old black powder weapons, but there's still enough for a modest massacre. I guess someone's trying to send me some sort of message." She looked at the pistol sadly, then pointed it at Crystal's face. "You stupid fuck, do you know what you've done?"

            "Put the gun down."

            "The fuck I will! You sold out! You sold out to them! Thanks to you, those monsters are going to live for centuries like fat fireproof leeches, until they own or control everything and no-one else can remember a world without them!"

            Crystal shook her head, and wondered if she could tip the chair backwards far enough to get out of the line of fire. Probably not. "I thought you knew me better than that. Jesus, Senator Levin's getting his Centurion next week; do you think I want him to live for another hundred years? Put the gun down, and I'll explain." Bianca didn't move. "Okay. To answer your question, yes, I know exactly what I've done - much better than anyone else does. Oh, the Centurions do what Adams has been telling people they do - but more. You know those new lie detectors the company is making?"

            Bianca blinked, then grimaced. "Yes. They're using them to screen job applicants and anyone who needs legal aid."

            "Yeah, I know. Do you know how they work?"

            "They detect some pheromone that people only emit when they're lying, right?"

            "Right. So does the Centurion; it's an extra feature I didn't bother telling anyone about. When the nanos detect this pheremone, they head for the brain. Enough nanos in the brain, and they cause aneurysms. You also get the same blue patches inside the eyelids and in the lymph nodes that you have when a GeneSafe is activated. If you ignore this warning and keep lying, the aneurysms will rupture, causing massive hemorrhagic strokes, which should be fatal in seventy to ninety percent of cases." Bianca stared at her, horrified. "Of course, you have to lie a lot to cause this degree of build-up; consistently, and over quite a long period. I'm not expecting the first deaths for more than a year, and most of the Old Man's pet politicians should survive until the primaries. Longer, maybe, if they notice the warning signs, assume they're sick, and pull out of the race. It should increase life expectancy at least slightly for some users, though not too many, and if there's anyone on the list who's rich and honest, anyone who wouldn't secretly sell poison baby food if there was a buck in it, they might even live for the full two hundred years."

            The pistol wavered slightly. "Fortunately," Crystal continued, "most of the people buying Centurions are already old enough that it'll take a long time for anyone to guess that the device may be causing the strokes, even if they can cross-reference the deaths with a list of clients - Adams is bright enough, but we can trust him not to stick his neck out or jump to any conclusions, and the Old Man probably won't live long enough to detect a pattern himself. Even if someone becomes suspicious, there's no known way - yet - to remove enough of the nanos to prevent this happening, so the only other safety measure possible is not to lie. Besides, the company will publicly deny that any such device exists... can't you just imagine the Board of Directors sitting in some Congressional hearing, swearing that their product is perfectly safe until they literally turn blue in the face? I wonder if any of them will have the grace to drop dead with their hands still on the Bible? Gives a new meaning to laying them in the aisles."

            Bianca stared at her, her face dead white - then she carefully placed the pistol on the table so that it pointed away from both of them. "Is this true?"

            "Get a lie detector and I'll say exactly the same thing," Crystal replied, more calmly than she felt. She waited for several seconds - it felt like hours - until Bianca nodded. "Okay. I'm sorry I doubted you, Crys."

            "Forget it. I knew I'd fooled nearly everyone, but I didn't expect to fool you. Jesus, you had me scared." She began laughing, nervously at first, and then more heartily as Bianca joined in. Suddenly, Bianca stopped laughing, and her face turned pale again. "What about Simon?" she asked.


            "He's on the list for a Centurion - a fair way down the list, but he's a Sanderson, and he turns forty next year. Are we going to tell him?"

            "Oh Jesus," Crystal said. "Do you think he'd tell his parents if we did?"

            "I think he would," whispered Bianca. "He lies to them about you, but this... I think he'd tell everyone." Crystal nodded, her expression bleak. "What do we do? Do we let him get a Centurion? Do we ask him to keep this a secret, too, even if it means lying? Do we wait until he puts us on the list for Centurions, too? What the fuck do we do?"

            "I don't know, honey," said Crystal. She looked around the dingy antique-littered room, and then shook her head. "I just don't know."


This story originally appeared in Interzone.