23. Rob

Central Park was alive with joggers, loungers, buskers, chess players, hustlers. As Rob crossed Strawberry Field toward the steps to High Town, he barely noticed anyone. He was deep in thought, thinking about how much his life had changed since the accident. It was as if he himself had died, and had been revived into an entirely different, far more unforgiving existence. When people asked what he did for a living, he couldn’t honestly answer that he was a musician, so he answered that he was a manual worker. He didn’t feel the swell of pride he used to feel telling people he was a musician. What friends he had were new as well. When he’d moved in with Lorelei in High Town, her friends had become his friends. He’d kept in touch with his burb friends, but if friendships took place primarily via screen, they tended to atrophy, because you don’t talk about core things, intimate things, via screen. When he broke up with Lorelei and moved back home, he lost most of his new High Town friends, and because he’d given up his music, he lost touch with the friends he’d made playing Low Town clubs. What little time he had to socialize now he spent with Nathan and Veronika. They were High Towners, but they’d gone out of their way to cultivate a friendship with Rob. He was also friendly with some of the people at work, people on the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Nathan and Veronika, but besides Vince, he wasn’t sure he’d call them friends.

And then, of course, there was Winter.

He reached the bottom of the endless, twisting staircase leading up to High Town, grasped the railing, craned his neck to look up at High Town, and took a deep breath. His legs were going to be jelly. Still, part of him was looking forward to the climb. Saving the eighty-dollar elevator charge was his primary motivation for hoofing it, but as he took his first springing steps, he felt a strange freedom, like a raw-lifer living among the techies.

He got raw-lifers—he understood why someone might forsake all but the most basic tech, even though he wouldn’t willingly do so himself. You did gain something, always seeing things as they really were, being forced to stand face-to-face with someone every time you had something to say to them, even something trivial. People questioned whether there really was such a thing as technomie, if it did flatten out your emotions, dull your senses, to be wired all the time. He didn’t doubt it. What always tripped him up about raw-lifers was how they could choose to live without modern medicine. Rob had lived without it for most of his life, but not by choice. As far as Rob could see, medicine was the one area where there were no minuses to balance out the pluses. There was no downside whatsoever to having access to all that modern medicine had to offer.

In school, Rob had been taught that Chan-juan Yang was the greatest person of the past century, a trillionaire who selflessly funneled her entire fortune into the medical research that ultimately conquered death. As an adult, he’d read a biography of Yang that was less laudatory. It depicted her as a selfish shut-in whose only concern was extending her own life. The book had been far kinder to Yo Wen Chan, the researcher who actually discovered how to revive the dead.

When he reached the halfway mark, winded but still feeling good, he cut through Brandywine Park, though it was a roundabout route to Park Avenue High and Zuckerberg, where he was meeting Veronika and Nathan, and an additional toll charge to boot. He’d be damned if he was going to climb to High Town and not see Brandywine Park, though.

Three dollars rolled off his account as he passed through the gate. It was a pittance; it took him five minutes of plucking parts at the reclamation center to earn that much, but in the new order of his life every expenditure was a defeat.

If anything was worth it, though, it was Brandywine Park. Rob chose a song from Six Anonymous to accompany his climb, wished he had a system to give him the full effect. With a system, the semitransparent pedestrium vanished, and you walked on air, six hundred feet above the roofs and streets of Low Town, passing islands of wilderness—copses of trees and vegetation set among winding staircases that looked to be made of silk thread—far too delicate to support a person.

Rob tried to ignore the readout on his handheld as he stepped onto a staircase and was charged another dollar and a half. As he climbed, the vista expanded farther. He found the patchwork of buildings, roads, parking lots, and parks that stretched to the horizons pleasing to the eye, the contrast between the busy ground and the silent, open sky in beautiful balance.

When he finally reached street level in High Town, he realized the climb hadn’t been as bad as he’d anticipated. He was barely winded, actually. Having neither a vehicle nor money for public transport meant he was walking everywhere, and the muscles in his thighs felt harder and stronger because of it. There were upsides to living raw. Maybe one day he’d even stop missing his system.

Heading east, Rob suddenly felt like he was crawling as people soared by in their High Town shoes. He slowed further as he passed Backstreets on Fifth Avenue, recalling how he’d once told Lorelei that Backstreets was going to be the first club he played in High Town. He’d been so certain of how his life was going to unfold.

He spotted Nathan and Veronika up ahead. Nathan saw him, waved a greeting.

“Good to see you, Cousin.” Nathan squeezed Rob’s hand, looking at him like you would an old, dear friend you haven’t seen in a long time.

As usual, Veronika seemed nervous, ill at ease. Something about her gave Rob the impression she was always ill at ease.

They took an elevator toward the skywalks. Rob didn’t complain as fifteen dollars rolled off of his account balance—Nathan and Veronika seemed to keep track of what he spent when he was with them, and later dropped it into his account. Today that was a good thing, given that eating dinner in High Town with Nathan and his friends would cost two hundred easy, even if Rob drank nothing but water. While they rode, Nathan and Veronika resumed the debate they’d evidently been having when they met up with Rob.

“L-Dat’s algorithm pegged us at point eight-nine compatibility,” Nathan said. He looked to Rob. “Not that I put a lot of stock in those scores, because they assume everyone’s telling the truth in their profiles, but still, point eight-nine! It seemed so promising until the first face-to-face.”

Rob nodded sagely. He had no idea what point eight-nine compatibility was, but didn’t want to seem ignorant.

“You just can’t tell through screens. The intangibles don’t come through,” Nathan said.

“Which intangibles are those?” Rob asked, mostly to be part of the conversation. “You mean like chemistry?”

“Yeah, chemistry, whatever that is.” Nathan waved his hands before returning them to his system, and whatever supplemental conversation he was having. “The thing is, compatibility algorithms are fairly effective for most people, despite their flaws. For me, they’re useless. Worse than useless—they’re counterproductive. I’m much more likely to click with a woman I meet in the wild. Take Winter, for example. I met Winter at work, when I went to her class to give a presentation on L-Dat.”

Rob felt a jolt of adrenaline at the mention of Winter’s name. He wanted to learn more about her, so he would have more substantial things to say the next time he visited, and Nathan was the person who could help him there, yet he was painfully aware of how Veronika glanced his way at the mention of Winter’s name, curious of how he would react, and how the half-dozen screens watching the action from a distance (friends of Nathan’s, he’d guessed) crept closer, not wanting to miss anything. He decided not to say anything; he’d wait for a less public moment to ask Nathan what Winter was like, and if Nathan seemed amenable, maybe ask to view some recordings of time they’d spent together. Rob had no doubt Nathan, who seemed like a true techie, recorded all of his waking moments. Of course in recent years who didn’t, besides people who didn’t own systems?

“You know, if the algorithms are misfiring that badly, I wonder if there’s a disconnect between the characteristics you’re attracted to in a woman and the characteristics that would lead you to a healthy relationship,” Veronika said.

“Oh, is that it?” Nathan raised his eyebrows.

“Either that,” Veronika went on, “or you’ve become so overwhelmed with all the possibilities, you’re incapable of settling for any one real, and therefore imperfect, woman. It’s a common problem; I see it in my clients all the time.”

“So do I,” Nathan said.

They stepped off the elevator, onto a skywalk, neither of them missing a beat.

“That doesn’t mean you’re immune to it. Just because we do this for a living doesn’t mean we’re aware of our own weaknesses.”

Rob sensed a subtext here. He wondered if Veronika and Nathan had gone out at some point. They didn’t seem like a good match—Nathan was suave and charming, Veronika kind of goofy—but he’d seen odder couples.

“And by ‘we,’ you mean me,” Nathan said. He was sporting an easy smile, enjoying himself. Actually, they both looked like they were enjoying it. “You’re certainly aware of your weaknesses.”

“Yes, I am. I’m neurotic as hell,” Veronika said without missing a beat. “That’s why most of my relationships last a couple of months—it’s how long it takes me to start driving a guy crazy.” She rolled her wrist, flicked an accusing finger in Nathan’s direction. “Your relationships, on the other hand, tend to last a couple of weeks. You hop from woman to woman like they’re gelato flavors.” She looked at Rob as if she’d just remembered he was there. “Now you.”

Nathan laughed delightedly. “You’ve met Rob a grand total of, what, four times, but you’ve already got him pegged?”

Veronika stepped in front of Nathan, forcing him to stop. She pushed her face right up close to Nathan’s—close enough for a kiss. “You doubt me, do you?”

Nathan grinned, looked toward Rob. “Not at all. Let’s hear about Rob’s love life.”

They went on walking as Veronika offered her assessment of Rob. “Most of your relationships have lasted more than a year, and when you’re not seeing someone, you don’t see too many women a second time. If you’re not feeling it, you move on.”

Rob smiled, shrugged. “You got me.”

Veronika rolled her eyes toward the sky. “It’s so obvious that you’re disgustingly well adjusted. You’ll be trolling the listings one day, discover a woman who’s a point nine-two match, fall in love, and be completely faithful to her for the rest of your life. And you’ll do it all without a coach. Makes me sick.”

Rob held up his finger. “Ah, you missed there. I don’t use dating services.”

Dual cries of surprise lit the air.

“Don’t tell me, you’re a closet raw-lifer,” Veronika said.

“Not at all. I never took my system off, when I had one. I’m just old-fashioned when it comes to love.” It was the one realm where he had completely turned his back on the modern approach. Somehow it was important to him that he meet a woman in the course of his day-to-day life. “In the wild,” as Nathan put it. Technology felt like cheating.

Veronika smiled. She had a peculiar smile—her lips all but jumped from her teeth, forming a big Sardonicus grin. “I’m going to fix you up.”

“No, I don’t—”

Veronika waved away his protest. “I’m going to find the perfect woman for you, on the house. The honor of my trade is at stake.”

Rob wasn’t the least bit interested in meeting a woman at this particular juncture, but it seemed rude to refuse when Veronika was being so insistent. Hopefully she’d forget about it.

Up ahead, a bunch of screens that hadn’t been there a moment earlier caught Rob’s eye. He pointed. “What’s going on?” More and more were popping up between the Second Life Building and the Hilton.

The screens were swirling, trying to organize into a pattern, but having trouble. Rob searched the net for information as the three of them jogged out to get a better angle, but he couldn’t find anything. Maybe they didn’t have a permit to gather in such large numbers, so they hadn’t posted any public info that might tip off the police.

“Look at that—they’re spelling something,” Veronika said.

They were. The first word was Save. That much was clear. The rest was an indecipherable mess of swirling screens.

They watched as some of the letters formed. The third word was long, and started with a B.

“‘Save the bumpercrops,’ ‘Save the bicycles,’” Nathan said.

“‘Save the bicycles.’ Yeah. That’s probably it,” Veronika said.

An r and a d fell into place, and with a jolt, Rob got it. “‘Save the bridesicles.’”

They watched as the remaining letters formed.

“‘Save the bridesicles’?” Nathan said. “I didn’t realize they needed saving.”

The skywalks were filling with people coming out of towers to watch.

“I’ve always wondered why there are no groomsicles,” Nathan said.

Veronika clicked her tongue. “And you call yourself a dating coach? There were, early on, but the program folded from lack of business.”

“I didn’t know that,” Nathan said. “I wonder why it folded?”

“My guess is it’s the same reason there aren’t many hetero male prostitutes: women just aren’t into the sort of power and dominance that keeps the bridesicle program going.”

“They’re not?” Nathan asked, eyebrows raised.

A chant was rising up from the screens, intentionally low at first, slowly building.

“What about gay men? And gay women, for that matter?” Nathan asked.

Veronika shrugged. “Probably just too small a market. The straight program is relatively small as it is—a niche industry with a limited but extremely wealthy clientele. I also doubt gay women have any more interest in that sort of setup than straight women do.”

“What are they chanting?” Rob asked.

Veronika stopped talking. They listened, and soon it became clear: “Women aren’t salvage. Women aren’t salvage.”

“Not sure what that’s supposed to mean,” Rob said.

Rob spoke the phrase into his pathetic little handheld, feeling self-conscious as he manually sorted the results. The group was called Bridesicle Watch. He brought up their site, and was met by a familiar face. It was Lorelei’s stepmother, Sunali. He laughed out loud. “Oh, you’re shitting me.”

“What?” Nathan asked.

Rob externalized the image so Nathan and Veronika could see it as well. A crawling line of text beneath Sunali identified her as a founding member of Bridesicle Watch, and a bridesicle herself. Nathan and Veronika were looking from the clip to Rob, trying to understand his reaction.

“Look at the name,” Rob said, highlighting it for them.

“Van Kampen. Is that Lorelei’s mother?” Veronika asked.

“Her stepmother,” Rob said. After considering whether he wanted to go into a long explanation, he reluctantly added, “And her great-grandmother.”

“Come again?” Nathan said.

Rob took a deep breath. “Sunali was a bridesicle for something like seventy years. In the meantime, her son, Kilo, became a trillionaire techie, but wouldn’t revive Sunali, because he hated her guts. Kilo’s daughter went through an ugly divorce, and to spite her and Kilo, her ex-husband revived Sunali. And married her.”

It wasn’t surprising that Lorelei was a little fucked up, when you laid out her family’s story in a nutshell like that. Not that it excused what she’d done.

More screens were joining the protest. Rob couldn’t believe Sunali was one of the people behind this. Not that it was out of character—she was as brash and blunt and tough as nails—but this was a big event; they’d convinced thousands of people to join an illegal protest that would probably cost each of them an instant two-hundred-dollar fine.

“So what are they protesting?” Nathan asked. “At least bridesicles have a fighting chance to be revived, which is more than you can say for most people in the minus eighty.”

Rob pulled up Bridesicle Watch’s goals and read: “‘We want the dead to be afforded the same rights as the living. We want marriage contracts that are nothing short of indentured servitude banned. We want Cryomed’s outrageous upcharges on revivification abolished so that reviving people is more affordable. Most importantly, once a human being is put in the minus eighty, we demand regulations that make it the equivalent of murder to remove her.’”

Rob felt a chill as he read the last part. “They can remove people?”

“I read about that in a magazine somewhere,” Veronika said. “If a bridesicle doesn’t draw enough paying suitors, they pull her from the program.”

“But if they move them back to the main cryo facility, aren’t they paying just as much to maintain them?”

Veronika hesitated. “No, I mean the women who don’t have freezing insurance.” Like Winter. Veronika didn’t say it, but Rob could tell she was thinking it.

“I assumed you already knew that,” Veronika said as Rob searched deeper into the Bridesicle Watch site.

I didn’t know that,” Nathan said.

Rob read aloud: “‘Cryomed charges a great deal for bridesicle visits because they want to create an atmosphere of exclusivity that will encourage men who can actually afford to revive bridesicles to visit. Loved ones crying over lost daughters and mothers is bad for business—’”

“They should stop referring to them as ‘bridesicles.’ It’s derogatory,” Veronika said.

“It would have taken a lot more screens to write ‘cryogenic dating center resident’ over the city,” Nathan said. “Plus, no one would have known who they were talking about.”

Rob was only half listening. He scrolled farther, until he found what he was looking for. “What’s less well advertised by Cryomed is their barbaric policy on what they refer to inside the organization as ‘salvage.’ ‘Salvage’ refers to women who don’t have cryogenic insurance. While only attractive women under forty are recruited into the bridesicle program from the main storage facility, Cryomed incurs very little extra cost, because these women must be stored in the minus eighty in any case. Women without cryogenic insurance are selected for the program only if they’re especially young and beautiful. If a salvage case doesn’t prove profitable because not enough men are visiting, she’s ‘Released from the Program’—Cryomed’s euphemism for thawed and buried.”

Rob felt like he’d been punched in the stomach.

“We treat our stray dogs better than that,” Veronika said.

On the website, Sunali’s picture grew ghostly pale, her lips tinged blue, her hair and eyelashes frosted over. Her eyes welled with tears.

How long was it before they pulled the plug on an unprofitable salvage case? Decades? Years? Months? Rob was paying to visit her, so she was bringing in some income, but was it enough? Was anyone else visiting her?

Rob felt a hand on his shoulder, turned to find Nathan at his side. “Holy, holy, shit. I’m sorry, Cousin.”

“I have to find out how long she has,” Rob said.

Veronika worked her system, after a moment shook her head. “I can’t find any numbers.”

Rob could barely feel his feet. Despite the dizzying view and wide-open sky, he felt as if walls were closing in around him. She was going into the ground. If no one wanted her, she was going into the ground.

It was not solely guilt that caused that image to shake him to the bones. He knew her now.

“I have to go,” he said. “I’m sorry. I have to find out.” Before they could answer, he turned and jogged toward the elevator.

Sunali might know, or be able to find out. As he ran along the crosswalk, he tried to contact Sunali on his handheld. She had a complete block in place—no visitors, no messages, no info on her current location.

He tried the public address for Bridesicle Watch, and was told Sunali was out of the office for a few days, on personal business. He left a message for her.

Shit.” He wanted to punch something, or scream at someone. How could they simply bury someone? It wasn’t murder, because Winter was already dead, but surely it was something.

Lorelei would be able to get in touch with Sunali, but God, he didn’t want to contact Lorelei, especially about this. Maybe there was some other way to get the information. In the meantime, he’d keep trying Sunali.