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Beggars Ride

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Beggars Ride

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Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tor, 1996
Series: The Sleepless: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
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(37 reads / 15 ratings)


Now the trilogy is completed in Beggars Ride, a compelling novel of science fiction that raises one of the most ambitious and large-scale works of the decade to the status of finished masterpiece. Kress, a writer who had been appropriately compared to H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, deals with evolutionary forces, genetic engineering, technological progress, and social and class conflict, confronting enduring issues that face human society in this century and the next.

The Sleepless and the SuperSleepless, two generations of genetically modified superhumans, are now in conflict with each other, and with the spectrum of normal humanity, whose radical division into the rich and poor has made a parody of democracy in the twenty-second century. Human civilization has been transformed. Now it may be destroyed. And if it falls, what kind of world is left, what kind of humanity?



There it was. Lying on a sidewalk on Madison Avenue in the Manhattan East Enclave. Almost it could have been a fallen twig overlooked by a defective maintenance 'bot. But it wasn't a preternaturally straight twig, or a dropped laser knife, or a truncated black line drawn on the nanocoated concrete, going nowhere. It was a Change syringe.

Dr. Jackson Aranow picked it up

Empty, and no way to tell how long ago it had been used. The black alloy didn't rust or dent or decay. Jackson couldn't recall the last time he'd seen one lying around outside. Three or four years, maybe. He twirled it between his fingers like a baton, sighted along it like a telescope, pointed it at the building and said "Bang."

"Welcome," the building said back. Jackson's extended arm had brought him within sensor range. He put the syringe in his pocket and stepped into the security portico.

"Dr. Jackson Aranow, to see Ellie Lester."

"'Alf a minute, sir. There you go, all cleared, sir. 'Appy to be service, sir."

"Thank you," Jackson said, a little stiffly. He disliked affected accents on buildings.

The lobby was expensive and grotesque. A floor programmed with a yellow brick road whose bricks shifted every thirty seconds to a different path, all ending up at blank walls. A neon-green Venus with a digital clock in her belly, sitting on a beautiful antique Sheraton table beside the elevator. The elevator spoke in a high, singsong voice.

"Please to be welcome, sahib. I am being very happy you visit Memsahib Lester. Please to look this way, allow me humble retina scan…thank you, sahib. Wishing you every gracious thing."

Jackson didn't think he was going to like Ellie Lester.

Outside the apartment door, a holo of a black man materialized, wearing a faded calico shirt, barefoot. "Sho is glad you here, sir. Sho is. Miz Ellie, she waiting on y'all inside, sir." The holo shuffled, grinned, and put a translucent hand on the opening door.

The apartment echoed the lobby: a carefully arranged mix of expensive antiques and ugly, outrageous kitsch. A papier-mâché rat eating her young atop an exquisite eighteenth-century sideboard. An antique television polished to a high gleam under a diamond-filament sculpture covered densely with dust. Faux chairs, all dangerous angles and weird protuberances, impossible to sit on. "In an age of nanotech, even primitive nanotech," said the latest issue of Design magazine, "the material presence of objects becomes vulgar, even irrelevant, and only the wit of their arrangement matters." The two goldfish in the atrium were artfully dead, floating beside a small holo of a sinking Pequod.

Ellie Lester strode out of a side door. She was genemod for size, which gave Jackson her age: female children engineered to top six feet had been briefly fashionable in the late eighties, when material presence hadn't yet been irrelevant. Now that Design had decided it was, Ellie compensated for her height with wit. Over her bare breasts she wore a necklace alternating glowing laser beads with nanocoated animal turds; her draped skirt was red, white, and blue. Jackson remembered that tonight was election night.

"Doctor, where the hell have you been? I called you ten minutes ago!"

"It took me four minutes to get a go-'bot," Jackson said mildly. "And you did tell me that your grandfather was already dead."

"Great-grandfather," she said, scowling. "This way."

She walked five paces ahead, which gave Jackson a good view of her long, long legs, perfect ass, asymmetrically cut red hair. He thought of pointing the Change syringe at her and whispering "Bang." But he left the syringe in his pocket. Parody displays weren't actually as witty or intriguing as Design thought.

Coward, jeered the Cazie in his mind.

They passed through room after grotesque room. The apartment was even larger than Jackson's on Fifth Avenue. On the walls hung elaborately framed, programmed burlesques: the Mona Lisa laughing like a hyena, A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte in frantic, dot-dissolving motion.

The dead man's bedroom was much different, painted white and undecorated except for some small, predigital photographs grouped on one wall. A nursing 'bot stood silent beside the bed. The old man's lips and cheek muscles had gone slack with death. Not genemod, but he might have been handsome once. His skin was deeply lined but nonetheless had the healthy look of all those who'd received the Change syringe, without spots or lumps or rough patches or anything else caused by their abnormal cells or toxins in the body. Neither existed anymore.

Neither did illness. The Cell Cleaner, half of the Change magic, saw to that. Nanomachinery, made of genetically modified self-replicating protein, occupied one percent of everyone's cells. Like white blood cells, the tiny biocomputers had the ability to leave the bloodstream and travel freely through body tissues. Unlike white blood cells, the Cell Cleaners had the ability to compare indigenous DNA with nonstandard variations and destroy not only foreign substances but aberrant DNA variations. Viruses. Toxins. Cancers. Irregular bone cells. Furthermore, the Cell Cleaner spared a long list of preprogrammed substances that belonged in the body, such as essential minerals and symbiotic bacteria. Since the Change, no doctors carried antibiotics or antivirals. No doctor carefully monitored patients for infectious complications. No doctor needed diagnostic judgment. Jackson, who had graduated from Harvard medical School the same year that Miranda Sharifi had supplied the world with Change syringes, wasn't a specialist. He was a mechanic.

Jackson's "practice" consisted of trauma, Change syringe injections of newborns, and death certifications. As a doctor, he was as obsolete as a neon-green Venus. A parody display.

But not at this moment.

Jackson unpacked his equipment from his medical bag and turned on the official medical comlink. Ellie Lester settled herself in the room's only chair.

"Name of the deceased?"

"Harold Winthrop Wayland."

Jackson circled the dead man's skull with the cerebral monitor. No electrical activity, no blood circulation in the brain. "Citizen number and birth date?"

"AKM-92-4681-374. August 3, 2026. He was ninety-four" She almost spat the age.

Jackson placed the dermalyzer on Wayland's neck. It immediately uncoiled and spread itself in a dense net of fine synthetic neurons over his face, disappearing under the collar of his silk pajamas and reappearing over his feet. A crawling probing cocoon. Ellie Lester looked away. The monitor showed no break or other indication of intrusion anywhere on the skin, not even the smallest of puncture wound. All feeding tubules were fully functional.

"When did you discover Mr. Wayland's body?"

"Just before I called you. I went in to check on him."

"And you found him as he looks now?"

"Yes. I didn't touch him, or anything in the room."

The dermalyzer web retracted. Jackson snaked the lung hose into Wayland's left nostril. As soon as it touched the mucous membrane, the hose took over and disappeared down the bronchial tree into the lungs.

"Last lung expansion at 6:42 Eastern Standard Time," Jackson said. "No evidence of drowning. Sample tissues secured. Now, Ms. Lester, tell me and for the record everything you can remember about the deceased's behavior in the last few days."

"Nothing unusual," she said fully. "He didn't leave this room much, except to be led to the feeding room. You can access the nursing 'bot's records, or take away the whole 'bot. I tried to check on him every few days. When I came in tonight, he was dead and the 'bot was on standby."

"Without having signaled distress signs to the house system? That's not usual."

"It did signal. You can access all the house records and see for yourself. But I wasn't home, and the connection to the comlink was malfunctioning. It still is—I didn't touch it, so you could see."

Jackson said, "Then how did you call me?"

"On my mobile link. I also called the repair franchise. You can access—"

"I don't want any of your records," Jackson said. He heard his own contemptuous tone, tried to modify it. The official link was still open. "But the police might. I only certify death, Ms. Lester, not investigate it."

"But…does that mean you're going to notify the authorities? I don't understand. My great-grandfather clearly died of old age! He was ninety-four!"

"Many people are ninety-four now." Jackson looked away from her eyes. Rich genemod brown, but flat and shiny as a bird's. "Ms. Lester, what did you mean when you said that Mr. Wayland left this room only when the nurse ‘led him to the feeding area'?"

Her shiny eyes widened, and then she shot a look of sly triumph at the comlink. "Why, Dr. Aranow—didn't you access your patient's records on the way over here? I told you I'd authorized your access."

"The go-'bot ride was short. I only live three blocks away."

"But you had four minutes of idle waiting for a go-'bot!" From her chair she gazed at him with brow-raised triumph. He'd bet anything she wasn't genemod for IQ.

Copyright © 1996 by Nancy Kress


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