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Aftermath
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Aftermath

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Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 1998
Series: Aftermath: Book 1

1. Aftermath
2. Starfire

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

It's 2026, and the Alpha Centauri supernova has risen like a second sun, rushing Earth toward its last summer. Floods, fires, starvation and disease paralyze the planet. A flash of gamma rays has destroyed all microchips worldwide, leaving an already devastated Earth without communications, transportation, weaponry or medicine.

The disaster sets three groups of survivors on separate quests. A militant cult seizes the opportunity to free their leader from her long court-mandated coma. Three cancer patients also search for a man in judicial sleep: the brilliant scientist - and monstrous criminal - who alone can continue the experimental treatment that keeps them alive. From a far greater distance come the survivors of the first manned Mars expedition, struggling homeward to a world that has changed far beyond their darkest fears. And standing at the crossroads is one man, U.S. President Saul Steinmetz, who faces a crucial decision that will affect the fate of his own people... and the world.


Excerpt

PROLOGUE

From the secret diary of Oliver Guest.

Entry date: June 14, 2026

The day I died: July 6, 2021. I remember it like yesterday.

I woke up a little after seven, though it might he more accurate to say that in the final night of dreams I never slept. Sometimes I was with my darlings, all my darlings. They were the same age at the same time, as they had never been in life. They would be fourteen years old forever. I would see to that.

But I traveled into nightmares, too, whenever my thoughts drifted forward half a day to imagine my final minutes. No Death Row, of course, and no march to the scaffold, not in these enlightened times; rather, we would stroll together, I and the observers and reporters and admirers and guards, to the Chamber of Morpheus.

What wonderful things words are. Three-quarters of a century ago the suicide flights of the Japanese Air Force became the kamikaze, the Heavenly Wind; today the death cell and sleep without end become the Chamber of Morpheus.

But back to reality. I woke around seven on the morning of my last day, and by eight they were at me again.

This time it was a short, neatly dressed man with a dark beard and a balding, wrinkled brow. He entered the room where I struggled to swallow coffee and toast--this condemned man, at least, ate no hearty breakfast--and he began, "Oliver Guest--"

"Do I know you?"

"We have never met, no. I am Father Carmelo Diaz."

"I specifically said, no priests. I was promised no priests."

"I know. It is not as a priest that I come here."

An obvious falsehood. A true priest can no more decide to be a nonpriest than a fish can decide to live out of water. But he went on with something of greater possible interest, "I carry with me an offer from the Governor."

"Let me see it."

He shook his head. "Although I have the offer with me in writing, I would rather first discuss it with you orally."

"No. Let me look at it. Then maybe we will talk."

With apparent reluctance, he reached into an inside pocket and handed over a thin packet of papers. Official state seal. Governor's official letterhead, and below it a certification that Carmelo Diaz was empowered to meet with Oliver Guest and negotiate on behalf of the state. And, finally, an outline of the terms of the offer.

While I was reading, I felt sure that Carmelo Diaz's eyes were in constant motion, flickering from me to walls, to floor, to ceiling, and finally-- irresistibly--back to me.

I didn't have to watch Diaz to know this. I had seen the same behavior in a hundred visitors. They were intrigued--and some offended--by the apparent opulence of my living quarters. The furnishings were massive, immovably attached to the floor, and finished in soft and expensive leather. The walls, all the way up to the ten-foot ceiling, were covered in rich dark red velvet. Shoes sank deep into the pile of the soft carpet. The lamps, all ceiling inlaid, could dim or brighten at the touch of a button.

Less obvious--not obvious at all to me, until I did my own experiments--was the room's harmless nature. Harmless, in the specific sense that a person in the room would find nothing to permit self-damage or self-slaughter. Left to explore the room, as I had been free to explore it, any visitor would finally conclude that everything was innocuous with the exception--the eyes of Carmelo Diaz, ever and always, came back to me--of the occupant.

I had no pen, of course, to sign anything. Nor would he have. Guards would be brought in to provide a writing instrument if we reached some kind of agreement.

That was a large if. I folded the three sheets of paper and handed them back to Diaz.

"A model of vagueness, if you don't mind my saying so. The state wishes me to give certain specific information. If I provide it, then certain vague concessions will be offered to me as a quid pro quo."

"It was written that way at my request." Given the setting, Carmelo Diaz seemed too much at ease. I wondered if he had been here before, dealing with others on the threshold of the Chamber of Morpheus. The innocent blue eyes in that rounded Celtish skull told me nothing. Apparent innocence itself meant less than nothing, and all first impressions based on appearances alone are likely to be deceiving. I, for instance, have features and build that appear somewhat coarse, even loutish, while my nature is both sensitive and finicky.

"No two humans are identical," he went on. "Your needs and wishes do not match those of the next man. You and I need room to maneuver, a freedom to negotiate."

"Freedom is hardly a term that I would apply to my situation. Can you offer me freedom?"

"You know that I cannot." There was a certain blunt charm to Father Carmelo Diaz. I could imagine that, under other circumstances, he might make a fine dinner companion. It must be one factor in his presumed successes.

"So what can you offer me?"

"Why don't we first confirm what the state asks of you?" And, when I said nothing, "It is really very little. Your trial provided overwhelming evidence that you murdered fifteen people. We wish to know if there were more."

"What makes you think there might be?"

"The chronological pattern. There are anomalously long gaps between cases five and six, between eight and nine, and between twelve and thirteen."

"Perhaps I was busy with other matters. I had to earn a living, you know. A man can't just go on having fun all the time."

It was said to test him, and I was pleased to see that he did not wince.

"Do you have other suggested victims?" I went on. "It is hardly useful to propose gaps, unless you have people to fill them."

"I suspect that you, Dr. Guest, know these statistics far better than I do. But let me state them for the record." It was his first suggestion that we were being recorded, though I of course had assumed it.

"Confining ourselves to this population area alone," he went on, "an average of thirty thousand fourteen-year-olds run away each year. Most return home in due course, but close to one-sixth of them remain unaccounted for. Of those, let us assume that only one child in a thousand possesses that standard of physical beauty which satisfies your apparent need. There would still be a suitable candidate, every couple of months, whose permanent disappearance would be indistinguishable from all the rest."

The thing I liked about Carmelo Diaz was his matter-of-fact manner. No weeping and wailing and accusations from him about the "poor, helpless doomed children." No suggestions that I was the devil incarnate. It made me wonder if, deep inside, he carried the same needs. He was deliberately, and successfully, matching his speech patterns to my own.

I didn't let any of this influence me. I learned, long ago, how easy it is to find in others a false resemblance to oneself.

"That's all you are asking?" I said. "If there were others?"

"Well, not quite." He hesitated. "You chose such beautiful children, such models of physical perfection. We would like to know who the others were, and where their bodies can be found."

So far it had all been one-sided. Time to change that. "You have told me what you want," I said. "Now tell me what you can offer in return, were I to give it to you."

"If you provide the names of the others whom you killed, and tell us where their bodies are hidden, I will seek a reduction in your sentence."

And then, of course, it was my turn to smile. "A reduction. Very fine. Father Diaz, I am thirty-six years old. What would be your estimate of my life expectancy?"

"Fifty years. Maybe as long as seventy."

"Very good. I agree with that. But I was sentenced to fifteen consecutive sentences of forty years each. That's a total of six hundred years of judicial sleep, a coma during which I will age at my normal rate. I will not live to serve even two of those fifteen sentences. So what are you telling me? That you can commute the total to twenty years? That you can arrange for all the terms to be served concurrently?"

"I can do neither one."

"So what can you do?"

"I can try to arrange for you to be placed in abyssal rather than judicial sleep. I can make no absolute guarantees, but at the reduced body temperature your rate of aging will decrease." He paused. "Or so I am told."

I felt almost sorry for the man. They had sent him to me so inadequately briefed.

And then my sense of caution cut in. He was too innocent, too poorly informed.

"Father Diaz, how much do you know about my professional line of work?"

"Very little." He was sensitive, exceptionally so, and his voice suggested that somewhere in the last few seconds the conversation had turned, and he knew it. "Before your arrest you were a medical doctor. One, I gather, of high reputation."

"Perhaps. But not as a physician who treated sick patients. I have always been in research--and my particular line of research is in life-extension procedures. Although my primary thrust is not the study of abyssal sleep, I have done work in that field. I can assure you that the rate of aging of a subject in abyssal sleep, under optimal circumstances, is reduced by a factor of at most three. Even in AS I would die of old age before my sentence was one-third over."

His eyebrows raised, and he looked not at me, but up at the ceiling.

"That is AS as you know it today," he said at last. "But in twenty years time, or thirty, who knows? Do you not have faith in science? Science advances."

"And sometimes, it retreats. As you say, who knows? In twenty years, civilization itself may collapse. In thirty years, the world could be unrecognizable."

I make no claim of prophecy with those statements. I was just making conversation, keeping my mind away from the subject of the close of day and the beginning of endless night.

Father Diaz, a Jesuit by training if ever I saw one, did not allow himself to be diverted. "Science advances," he repeated. "You are a logical man, Dr. Guest. You understand the odds. On the one hand, we have possible progress in AS that grants you a chance--albeit a small one--of living through your entire sentence and beyond. On the other hand, without some kind of negotiated settlement you face mandated judicial sleep until your body expires of natural old age."

On most matters I was, as he said, a logical man. I was also a man with no alternative offer. At the very least, I would see this through the next stage.

I nodded. "Let us obtain writing materials."

"There are others?"

"There are. Three, as you surmised. I will provide you with names, and with locations, and with dates."

I had my own agenda. Father Diaz was tolerable company. If he left, I would be open to invasion by others more doubtfully acceptable.

* * *

I gave him what he had asked, names and places and dates. He stayed, as the hours wore on. At my request, a chess set was brought in and we played three games. One win, one loss, and one draw. A fair reflection, I thought, of the result from our other game.

We ate a simple lunch of cheese and onion sandwiches. I, to my surprise, had a fair appetite.

And then, sooner than I thought possible, two o'clock was approaching.

"Do you propose to stay to the end?" I asked.

He nodded. "Unless you have an objection."

"No prayers, then. No last-minute attempts to save my soul."

"I cannot save another's soul. Only the person can do so."

It was the closest he had come to priest talk, and a good thing, too. He seemed resigned to the fact that I was not about to discuss the logic of my choice of victims.

"We must soon be going," Diaz continued. He gestured toward the door of my room, where a face was visible at the grille. "It will be better if you leave this room voluntarily, and are able to walk without assistance or coercion."

"Certainly."

I was, in fact, preternaturally calm. In retrospect, a sense of the unreality of events had surely overtaken me. Who can accept the idea, viscerally rather than intellectually, that this is to be the last conscious half hour ever, in a universe destined to endure for tens of billions of years? Carmelo Diaz had promised to do his best on my behalf, but I put no stock in his success--either intellectually or viscerally.

We walked, side by side but far from alone. All the way along the corridor, with its dull gray walls and infrequent locked doors of bright blue, others paced before and behind us.

No one spoke. The whole building was as quiet within as it would be without. Judicial sleep, which killed no one until they expired of natural causes, had ended the long rhetoric about capital punishment. No one would be outside, chanting their scripted slogans.

Actually, I am not sure there would have been any sad songs for me, even in the good old days of Sparky and Slippery Sam. So far as most people were concerned I deserved the electric chair or the lethal injection--probably both. After my capture I had followed the news reports. I was a child killer, the worst one in decades.

All a perversion of reality, and quite unfair.

The door of the Chamber of Morpheus stood open. It was flanked by guards, all unarmed. Should I prove violent, no one wanted to kill me accidentally and destroy the notion that this was a civilized and even kindly proceeding.

I walked forward and sat down on the soft black cushions of the room's single chair. Leg and arm braces clicked into position. Everyone remained at a respectful fifteen feet, until at last one woman moved forward to stand in front of me. Much to my surprise, I recognized the Governor.

"Do you," she asked, "wish to make any final statement?"

I shook my head.

"I am told that you were a man with great gifts, Oliver Guest," she went on. "You had the power to do great good, and you did great evil from choice. Your punishment does not begin to match the dreadful nature of your offense. God have mercy on your soul."

She stepped back to join the ring of people, while I wondered what that was all about. Then I had it. We were just two months away from elections. For Governor Jensen this was just another media opportunity. Her comments made a brief nod to the scientific community, pointed out that she was strong on law and order, and reassured the religious that she was one of them.

It was tempting to speak my thoughts--what had I to lose? But beside her, Carmelo Diaz watched intently. Without Governor Jensen's blessing, there was no way he could keep his end of the bargain.

On with the show.

* * *

I survey the room. Even without a special reason for knowledge I would be familiar with this chamber. It is a nightmare from everyone's childhood. I stare at the big clock. One fifty-five. The gray circular wall and the white sky of the ceiling is as distant to me now as the remotest galaxies. Above me, a silver hoop slowly descends to encircle my seated body at midchest. Everything is done automatically, without human involvement.

"He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone." So no one will be responsible for what comes next. The cool injection carrying me to the undiscovered country is controlled by the Chamber of Morpheus's central computer, a device close to human in intelligence but untroubled by human doubts or conscience.

One fifty-seven. Most condemned prisoners, I had learned, close their eyes as the hoop settles into position. I stare, unblinking, as the green syringe extends itself and sits waiting by my upper left arm.

One fifty-eight. Everything can begin, I am ready. But procedure must be followed. I watch the slow sweep of the second hand, marking the countdown to the end of the universe. There ought to be music, the sound of trumpets or perhaps a Dies Irae. But music is not permitted in the Chamber of Morpheus. Instead there is total silence, the audience hushed and rigid.

Twenty seconds. The end of the needle, so fine that it fades to invisibility, touches my arm. I flinch. The descent into judicial sleep is supposed to be painless--but on whose testimony?

The clock readout reaches two o'clock--and moves past it. Five seconds. Ten. I sit a little straighter, convinced that something has gone wrong and the journey to Lethe is delayed.

And then I realize that the injection was made exactly on schedule. I had not felt it, but I am moving, expanding, ascending on pink clouds of glory. The chamber, far below me, fades out of sight.

The forever sleep has begun.

Copyright © 1998 by Charles Sheffield


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