Eleanor K. Starke, one of the world's leading citizens is assassinated, and her daughter, Ellen, is mortally wounded. Only Ellen, the heir to her mother's financial empire, is capable of saving Earth from complete domination plotted by the cynical, selfish, immortal rich, that is if she survives. Her cryonically frozen head is in the hands of her family's enemies. A ragtag ensemble of unlikely heroes join forces to rescue Ellen's head, all for their own purposes.
Counting Heads arrives as a science fiction novel like a bolt of electricity, galvanizing readers with an entirely new vision of the future.
About the Author
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On March 30, 2092, the Department of Health and Human Services issued Eleanor and me a permit. The undersecretary of the Population Division called with the news and official congratulations. We were stunned by our good fortune. The undersecretary instructed us to contact the National Orphanage. There was a baby in a drawer in Jersey with our names on it. We were out of our minds with joy.
Eleanor and I had been together a year by then. We’d met at a reception in Higher Soho, which I attended in realbody. A friend of a friend, who was holoing in from Seattle, said, “Sammy Harger, is that really you? What luck! There’s a woman here who wants to meet you.”
I told him thanks but no thanks. I wasn’t in the mood. Not even sure why I’d come. I was recovering from a week-long stint of design work in my Chicago studio. In those days I was in the habit of bolting my studio door and immersing myself in the heady universe of packaging design. It was my true creative calling, and I could lose all sense of time, even forgetting to eat or sleep. Henry knew to hold my calls. Henry was my belt valet system and technical assistant, and he alone attended me. I could go three or four days at a time like that, or until my Muse surrendered up another award-winning design.
My latest bout had lasted a week but yielded nothing, not even a third-rate inspiration, and I was a little depressed as I leaned over the buffet table to fill my plate.
“There you are,” my persistent friend said. “Eleanor Starke, this is the famous Samson Harger. Sam, El.”
An attractive woman stood on a patch of berber carpet from some other room and sipped coffee from a delicate china cup. She said hello and raised her hand in a holo greeting. I raised my own hand and noticed how filthy my fingernails were. Unshaven and disheveled, I had come straight from my cave. But the woman chose to ignore this.
“I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time,” she said brightly. “I was just telling Lindsey about admiring a canvas of yours yesterday in the museum here.”
A canvas? She’d had to go back over a century to find something of mine to admire? “Is that right?” I said. “And where is here?”
A hint of amusement flickered across the woman’s remarkable face. “I’m in Budapest,” she said.
Budapest, Henry said inside my head. Sorry, Sam, but her valet system won’t talk to me. I have gone to public sources. Eleanor K. Starke is a noted corporate prosecutor. I’m digesting bios now.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” I told the woman standing halfway around the globe. “My valet is an artist’s assistant, not an investigator.” If her holo persona was anything like her real self, this Eleanor K. Starke was a pretty woman, mid-twenties, slight build. She had reddish blond hair, a disarmingly freckled face, and very heavy eyebrows. Too sunny a face for a prosecutor, I thought, except for the eyes. Her eyes peered out at you like eels in coral. “I understand you’re a corporate prosecutor,” I said.
Her bushy eyebrows rose in mock surprise. “Why, yes, I am!”
Sam, Henry whispered, no two published bios agree on even the most basic data. She’s between 180 and 204 years old. She earns over a million a year, no living offspring, degrees in History, Biochemistry, and Law. Hobbies include fencing, chess, and recreational matrimony. She’s been dating a procession of noted artists, composers, and dancers in the last dozen months. And her celebrity futures are trading at 9.7 cents.
I snorted. Nine point seven cents. Anything below ten cents on the celebrity market was nothing to crow about. Of course, my own shares had sunk over the years to below a penny, somewhere down in the has-been to wannabe range.
Eleanor nibbled at the corner of a pastry. “This is breakfast for me. I wish I could share it with you. It’s marvelous.” She brushed crumbs from the corner of her mouth. “By the way, your assistant-Henry, is it?-sounds rather priggish.” She set her cup down on something outside her holo frame before continuing. “Oh, don’t be offended, Sam. I’m not snooping. Your Henry’s encryption stinks-it’s practically broadcasting your every thought.”
“Then you already know how charmed I am,” I said.
She laughed. “I’m really botching this, aren’t I? I’m trying to pick you up, Samson Harger. Do you want me to pick you up, or should I wait until you’ve had a chance to shower and take a nap?”
I considered this brash young/old woman and her awkward advances. Warning bells were going off inside my head, but that was probably just Henry, who does tend to be a bit of a prig, and though Eleanor Starke seemed too cocky for my tastes and too full of herself to be much fun, I was intrigued. Not by anything she said, but by her eyebrows. They were vast and disturbingly expressive. As she spoke, they arched and plunged to accentuate her words, and I couldn’t imagine why she didn’t have them tamed. They fascinated me, and like Henry’s parade of artist types before me, I took the bait.
Over the next few weeks, Eleanor and I became acquainted with each other’s bedrooms and gardens up and down the Eastern Seaboard. We stole moments between her incessant business trips and obligations. Eventually, the novelty wore off. She stopped calling me, and I stopped calling her. We had moved on, or so I thought. A month passed when I received a call from Hong Kong. Her Calendar asked if I would care to hololunch the next day. Her late lunch in China would coincide with my midnight brandy in Buffalo.
I holoed at the appointed time. She had already begun her meal and was expertly freighting a morsel of water chestnut to her mouth by chopstick. “Hi,” she said when she noticed me. “Welcome. I’m so glad you could make it.” She sat at a richly lacquered table next to a scarlet wall with golden filigree trim. “Unfortunately, I can’t stay,” she said, placing the chopsticks on her plate. “Last-minute program change. So sorry. How’ve you been?”
“Fine,” I said.
She wore a loose green silk suit, and her hair was neatly stacked on top of her head. “Can we reschedule for tomorrow?” she asked.
I was surprised by how disappointed I felt at the cancellation. I hadn’t realized that I’d missed her. “Sure, tomorrow.”
That night and the whole next day was colored with anticipation. At midnight I said, “Henry, take me to the Hong Kong Excelsior.”
“She’s not there,” he replied. “She’s at the Takamatsu Tokyo tonight.”
Sure enough, the scarlet walls were replaced by paper screens. “There you are,” she said. “God, I’m famished.” She uncovered a bowl and scooped steamy sticky rice onto her plate while telling me in broad terms about a case she was brokering. “They asked me to stay on, you know. Join the firm.”
I sipped my drink. “Are you going to?”
She glanced at me, curious. “I get offers like that all the time.”
We began to meet for a half hour or so each day and talked about whatever came to mind. El’s interests were deep and broad; everything seemed to fascinate her. She told me, while choking back laughter, ribald anecdotes of famous people caught in embarrassing situations. She revealed curious truths behind the day’s news stories and pointed out related investment opportunities. She teased out of me all sorts of opinions, gossip, and jokes. Her half of the room changed daily and reflected her hectic itinerary: jade, bamboo, and teak. My half of the room never varied. It was the atrium of my hillside house in Santa Barbara where I had gone in order to be three hours closer to her. As we talked I looked down the yucca- and chaparral-choked canyon to the university campus and beach below, to the channel islands, and beyond them, to the blue-green Pacific that separated us.
Weeks later, when again we met in realbody, I was shy. I didn’t know quite what to do with my hands when we talked. We sat close together in my living room and tried to pick any number of conversational threads. With no success. Her body, so close, befuddled me. I thought I knew her body-hadn’t I undressed it a dozen times before? But it was different now, occupied, as it was, by El. I wanted to make love to El, if ever I could get started.
“Nervous, are we?” she teased.
Fortunately, before we went completely off the deep end, the self-involved parts of our personalities bobbed to the surface. The promise of happiness can be daunting. El snapped first. We were at her Maine town house when her security chief holoed into the room. Until then the only member of her valet system-what she called her Cabinet-that I had met was her chief of staff.
“I have something to show you,” the security chief said, glowering at me from under his bushy eyebrows. I glanced at Eleanor, who made no attempt to explain or excuse the intrusion. “This was a live feed earlier,” the chief continued and turned to watch as Eleanor’s living room was overlaid with the studio lounge of the SEE Show. It was from their “Trolling” feature, and cohosts Chirp and Ditz were serving up breathless speculation on hapless couples caught by holoeye in public places.
The scene changed to the Baltimore restaurant where Eleanor and I had dined that evening. A couple emerged from a taxi. He had a black mustache and silver hair and looked like the champion of boredom. She had a vampish hatchet of a face, limp black hair, and vacant eyes.
“Whoodeeze tinguished gentry?” said Ditz to Chirp.
“Carefuh watwesay, lipsome. Dizde ruthless Eleanor K. Starke and’er lately dildude, Samsamson Harger.”
I did a double take. The couple on the curb had our bodies and wore our evening clothes, but our facial features had been morphed beyond recognition.
Eleanor stepped into the holoscape and examined them closely. “Good. Good job.”
“Thank you,” said her security chief. “If that’s everything-”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “It’s not everything.”
Eleanor arched an eyebrow in my direction.
Those eyebrows were beginning to annoy me. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” I said. “You altered a pointcast feed while it was being transmitted?”
She looked at me as though I were simple. “Why, yes, Sam, I did,” she said.
“Is that even possible? I never heard of that. Is it legal?”
She only looked blankly at me.
“All right then. Forget I said that, but you altered my image along with yours. Did you ever stop to wonder if I want my image fooled with?”
She turned to her security chief. “Thank you.” The security chief dissolved. Eleanor put her arms around my neck and looked me in the eye. “I value our privacy, Sam.”
A week later, Eleanor and I were in my Buffalo apartment. Out of the blue she asked me to order a copy of the newly released memoir installment of a certain best-selling author. She said he was a predecessor of mine, a recent lover, who against her wishes had included several paragraphs about their affair in his latest reading. I told Henry to fetch the reading, but Eleanor said no, that it would be better to order it through the houseputer. When I did so, the houseputer froze up. It just stopped working and wouldn’t respond. That had never happened before. My apartment’s comfort support failed. Lights went out, the kitchen quit, and the doors all sprang open. Eleanor giggled. “How many copies of that do you think he’ll be able to sell?” she said.
I was getting the point, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. The last straw came when I discovered that her Cabinet was messing with Henry. I had asked Henry for his bimonthly report on my finances, and he said, Please stand by.
“Is there a problem?”
My processing capabilities are currently overloaded. Please stand by.
Overloaded? My finances were convoluted, but they’d never been that bad. “Henry, what’s going on?”
There was no response for a while, then he said in a tiny voice, Take me to Chicago.
Chicago. My studio. That was where his container was. I left immediately, worried sick. Between outages, Henry was able to assure me that he was essentially sound, but that he was preoccupied in warding off a series of security breaches.
“From where? Henry, tell me who’s doing this to you.”
It’s trying again. No, it’s in. It’s gone. Here it comes again. Please stand by.
Suddenly my mouth began to water, and my saliva tasted like machine oil: Henry-or someone-had initiated a terminus purge. I was excreting my interface with Henry. Over the next dozen hours I spat, sweat, pissed, and shit the millions of slave nanoprocessors that resided in the vacuoles of my fat cells and linked me to Henry’s box in Chicago. Until I reached my studio, we were out of contact and I was on my own. Without a belt valet to navigate the labyrinthine Slipstream tube, I undershot Illinois altogether and had to backtrack from Toronto. Chicago cabs still respond to voice command, but as I had no way to transfer credit, I was forced to walk the ten blocks to the Drexler Building.
Once inside my studio, I rushed to the little ceramic container tucked between a cabinet and the wall. “Are you there?” Henry existed as a pleasant voice in my head. He existed as data streams through space and fiber. He existed as an uroboros signal in a Swiss loopvault. But if Henry existed as a physical being at all, it was as the gelatinous paste inside this box. “Henry?”
The box’s ready light blinked on.
“The bitch! How dare she?”
“Actually, it makes perfect sense.”
“Shut up, Henry.”
Henry was safe as long as he remained a netless stand-alone. He couldn’t even answer the phone for me. He was a prisoner; we were both prisoners in my Chicago studio. Eleanor’s security chief had breached Henry’s shell millions of times, near continuously since the moment I met her at my friend’s reception. Henry’s shell was an off-the-shelf module I had purchased years ago for protection against garden-variety espionage. I had rarely updated it, and it was long obsolete.
“Her Cabinet is a diplomat-class unit,” Henry argued. “What did you expect?”
“I don’t want to hear it, Henry.”
At first the invasion was so subtle and Henry so unskilled that he was unaware of the foreign presence inside his shell. When he became aware, he mounted the standard defense, but Eleanor’s system flowed through its gates like water. So he set about studying each breach, learning and building ever more effective countermeasures. As the attacks escalated to epic proportions, Henry’s self-defense consumed his full attention.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did, Sam, several times.”
“That’s not true. I don’t remember you telling me once.”
“You have been somewhat distracted lately.”
The question was, how much damage had been done, not to me, but to Henry. I doubted that Eleanor was after my personal records, and there was little in my past anyone could use to harm me. I was an artist, after all, not a judge. But if Eleanor had damaged Henry, that would be the end. I had owned Henry since the days of keyboards and pointing devices. He was the repository of my life’s work and memory. I could not replace him. He did my bookkeeping, sure, and my taxes, appointments, and legal tasks. He monitored my health, my domiciles, my investments, etc., etc. These functions I could replace. It was his personality bud that was irreplaceable. I had been growing it for eighty years. It was a unique design tool that amplified my mind perfectly. I depended on it, on Henry, to read my mind, to engineer the materials I used, and to test my ideas against the tastes of world culture. We worked as a team. I had taught him to play the devil’s advocate. He provided me feedback and insight.
“Eleanor’s Cabinet was interested neither in your records nor in my personality bud. It simply needed to ascertain, on a continuing basis, that I was still Henry and that no one else had corrupted me.”
“Couldn’t it just ask?”
“If I were corrupted, do you think I would tell?”
“Are you corrupted?”
“Of course not.”
I cringed at the thought of installing Henry back into my body not knowing if he were someone’s dirty little spy.
“Henry, you have a complete backup here, right?”
“One that predates my first encounter with Eleanor?”
“And its seal is intact?”
Of course, if Henry was corrupted and told me the seal was intact, how would I know otherwise? I didn’t know seals from sea lions.
“You can use any houseputer,” he said, reading me as he always had, “to verify the seal, and to delete and reset me. It would take a couple of hours, but I suggest you don’t.”
“Oh yeah? Why not?”
“Because we would lose all I’ve learned since we met Eleanor. I was getting good, Sam. Their breaches were taking exponentially longer to achieve.”
“And meanwhile you couldn’t function.”
“So buy me more paste. A lot more paste. We have the money. Think about it. Eleanor’s system is aggressive and dominant. It’s always in crisis mode. But it’s the good guys. If I can learn how to lock it out, I’ll be better prepared to meet the bad guys who’ll soon be trying to get to Eleanor through you.”
“Good, Henry, except for one essential fact. There is no Eleanor and me. I’ve dropped her.”
“I see. Tell me, Sam, how many women have you been with since I’ve known you?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“Well, I do. In the 82.6 years I’ve associated with you, you’ve been with 343 women. Your archives reveal at least a hundred more before I was installed.”
“If you say so, Henry.”
“You doubt my numbers? Do you want me to list them by name?”
“No. What good are names I’ve forgotten, Henry?” More and more, my own life seemed like a Russian novel-too many characters, not enough car chases.
“My point exactly, no one has so affected you as Eleanor Starke. Your bio-response has gone off the scale.”
“This is more than a case of biology,” I said, but I knew he was right, or nearly so. The only other woman who had had such an effect on me was my first love, Jean Scholero, who was a century and a quarter gone. All the rest were gentle waves in a warm feminine sea. But how to explain this to Henry?
Until I could figure out how to verify Henry, I decided to isolate him in his container. I told the houseputer to display “Do Not Disturb-Artist at Work” and take messages. I did, in fact, attempt to work, but was too busy obsessing. I mostly watched the nets or paced the studio arguing with Henry. In the evenings I had Henry load a belt-I kept a few old Henry interfaces in a drawer-with enough functionality so that I could go out and drink. I avoided my usual haunts and all familiar faces.
In the first message she recorded on my houseputer, El said, “Good for you. Call when you’re done.” In the second she said, “It’s been over a week-must be a masterpiece.” In the third, “Tell me what’s wrong. You’re entirely too sensitive. This is ridiculous. Grow up!”
I tried to tell her what was wrong. I recorded a message for her, a long seething litany of accusations, but was too angry to post it.
In her fourth message, El said, “It’s about Henry, isn’t it? My security chief told me all about it. Don’t worry; they frisk everyone I meet, nothing personal, and they don’t rewrite anything. It’s their standing orders, and it’s meant to protect me. You have no idea, Sam, how many times I’d be dead if it weren’t for my protocol.
“Anyway, I’ve told them to lay off Henry. They said they could install a dead-man trigger in Henry’s personality bud, something I do for my own systems, but I said no. Complete hands off. All right? Is that enough?
“Call me, Sam. Let me know you’re all right at least. I-miss you.”
In the meantime I could find no trace of a foreign personality in Henry. I knew my Henry just as well as he knew me. His thought process was like a familiar tune to me, and at no time during our weeks of incessant conversation did he strike a false note.
El sent her fifth message from bed where she lay between iridescent sheets (of my design). She said nothing. She looked directly at the holocam, propped herself up, letting the sheet fall to her waist, and brushed her hair. Her chest above her breasts, as I had discovered, was spangled with freckles.
Bouquets of real flowers began to arrive at my door with notes that said simply, “Call.”
The best-selling memoirs that had stymied my Buffalo houseputer arrived on datapin with the section about Eleanor extant. The author’s simulacrum, seated in a cane-backed chair and reading from a leather-bound book, described Eleanor in his soft southern drawl as a “perfumed vulvoid whose bush has somehow migrated to her forehead, a lithe misander with the emotional range of a homcom slug.” I asked the sim to stop and elaborate. He flashed me his trademark smirk and said, “In her relations with men, Eleanor Starke is not interested in emotional communion. She prefers entertainment of a more childish variety, like poking frogs with a stick. She is a woman of brittle patience with no time for fluffy feelings or fuzzy thoughts. Except in bed. In bed Eleanor Starke likes her men half-baked. The gooier the better. That’s why she likes to toy with artists. The higher an opinion a man has of himself, the more painfully sensitive he is, the more polished his hubris, the more fun it is to poke him open and see all the runny mess inside.”
What he said enraged me, regardless of how well it hit the mark. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I yelled at the sim. “El’s not like that at all. You obviously never knew her. She’s no saint, but she has a heart, and affection and-to hell with you!”
“Thank you for your comments,” the author said. “May we quote you? Be on the lookout for our companion volume to this memoir installment, The Skewered Lash Back, due out in September from Pageturner Productions.”
I had been around for 147 years and was happy with my life. I had successfully navigated several careers and amassed a fortune that even Henry had trouble charting. Still, I jumped out of bed each day with a renewed sense of interest and adventure. I would have been pleased to live the next 147 years in exactly the same manner. And yet, when El sent her final message-a glum El sitting in the Museum of Art and Science, a wall-sized early canvas of mine behind her-I knew my life to be ashes and dirt.
Seventy-two thick candles in man-sized golden stands flanked me like sentries as I waited and fretted in my tuxedo at the altar rail. The guttering beeswax flames filled the cathedral with the fragrance of clover. Look proclaimed our wedding to be the “Wedding of the Hour” and it was streamed live on the Wedding Channel. A castrati choir, hidden in the gloom beneath the giant bronze pipes of the organ, challenged all to submit to the mercy of Goodness. Their sweet soprano threaded through miles of stone vaults, collecting odd echoes and unexpected harmony. More than a million subscribers fidgeted in wooden pews that stretched, it seemed, to the horizon. And each subscriber occupied an aisle seat at the front.
In the network’s New York studio, El and I, wearing keyblue body suits, stood at opposite ends of a bare sound stage. On cue, El began the slow march toward me. In Wawel Castle overlooking ancient Cracow, however, she marched through giant cathedral doors, her ivory linen gown awash in morning light. The organ boomed Mendelssohn’s march, amplified by acres of marble. Two girls strewed rose petals at Eleanor’s feet, while another tended her long train. A gauzy veil hid El’s face from all eyes except mine. No man walked at her side; a two-hundred-year-old bride, Eleanor usually preferred to give herself away.
By the time of the wedding, El and I had been living together for six months. We had moved in together partly out of curiosity, partly out of desperation. Whatever was going on between us was mounting. It was spreading and sinking roots. We talked about it, always “it,” not sure what else to call it. It complicated our lives, especially El’s. We agreed we’d be better off without it and tried to remember, from experiences in our youth, how to fix the feelings we were feeling. The one sure cure, guaranteed to make a man and a woman wish they’d never met, was for them to cohabitate. If there was one thing humankind had learned in four million years of evolution, it was that man and woman were not meant to live in the same hut.
So, we co-purchased a town house in Connecticut. Something small but comfortable. It wasn’t difficult at all for us to stake out our separate bedrooms and work spaces, but decorating the common areas required diplomacy and compromise. Once in and settled, we agreed to open our house on Wednesday evenings to begin the arduous task of melding our friends and colleagues.
We came to prefer her bedroom for watching the nets and mine for making love. When it came to sleeping, I was a snuggler, but she preferred to sleep alone. Good, we thought, here was a crack we could wedge open. We surveyed each other for more incompatibilities. She was a late-night person, while I rose early. She liked to travel and go out a lot, while I was a stay-at-homer. She loved classical music; I could stand only neu-noise. She worked nonstop; I worked in fits and starts. She was never generous to strangers; I simply could not be practical in personal matters. She could get snippy; I could be silent for a long, long time. She had a maniacal need for total organization in all things, while for me a cluttered mind was a fruitful mind. Alas, our differences, far from estranging us, seemed only to endear us to each other.
Despite El’s penchant for privacy, our affair and wedding had caused our celebrity futures to spike. The network logged 1.325 million billable hours of wedding viewership, and the guest book collected some pretty important sigs. Confetti rained down for weeks. We planned a five-day honeymoon on the Moon.
Eleanor booked three seats on the Moon shuttle, not the best portent for a successful honeymoon. She assigned me the window seat, took the aisle seat for herself, and into the seat between us she projected her Cabinet members one after another. All during the flight, she took their reports, issued orders, and strategized, not even pausing for liftoff or docking. Her Cabinet consisted of about a dozen officials, and except for her security chief, they were all women. They all appeared older than El’s apparent age, and they all bore a distinct Starke family resemblance: reddish blond hair, slender build, the eyebrows. If they were real people, rather than the personas of El’s valet system, they could have been her sisters and brother, and she the spoiled baby of the brood.
Two Cabinet officers especially impressed me, the attorney general, a smartly dressed woman in her forties with a pinched expression, and the chief of staff, who was the eldest of the lot. This chief of staff coordinated the activities of the rest and was second in command after El. She looked and spoke remarkably like El. She was not El’s eldest sister, but El, herself, at seventy. She intrigued me. She was my Eleanor stripped of meat, a stick figure of angles and knobs, her eyebrows gone colorless and thin. But her eyes had the same predatory glint as El’s. All in all, it was no wonder that Henry, a mere voice in my head, admired El’s Cabinet.
The Pan Am flight attendants aboard the shuttle were all penelopes, one of the newly introduced iterant types who were gengineered for work in microgravity. That is, they had stubby legs with grasping feet. They floated gracefully about the cabin in smartly tailored flight suits, attending to passenger needs. The one assigned to our row-Ginnie, according to her name patch-treated Eleanor’s Cabinet members as though they were real flesh and blood. I wondered if I shouldn’t follow her example.
“Those penelopes are Applied People, right?” El asked her chief of staff. “Or are they McPeople?”
“Right the first time,” her chief of staff replied.
“Do we own any shares in Applied People?”
“No, AP isn’t publicly traded.”
“Who owns it?”
“Sole proprietor-Zoranna Albleitor.”
“Hmm,” El said. “Add it to the watch list.”
So the flight, so the honeymoon. Within hours of checking into the Sweetheart Suite of the Lunar Princess, Eleanor was conducting business meetings of a dozen or more holofied attendees. She apologized, but claimed there was nothing she could do to lighten her workload. I was left to take bounding strolls through the warren of interconnected habs by myself. I didn’t mind. I treasured my solitude.
On the third day of our so-called honeymoon, I happened to be in our suite when Eleanor received “the call.” Her Calendar informed her of an incoming message from the Tri-Discipline Council.
Copyright © 2005 by David Marusek