QSFer R.W.W. Greene has a new queer apocalyptic cyberpunk book out: Twenty-Five To Life.
Life goes on for the billions left behind after the humanity-saving colony mission to Proxima Centauri leaves Earth orbit … but what’s the point?
Julie Riley is two years too young to get out from under her mother’s thumb, and what does it matter? She’s over-educated, under-employed, and kept mostly numb by her pharma emplant. Her best friend, who she’s mostly been interacting with via virtual reality for the past decade, is part of the colony mission to Proxima Centauri. Plus, the world is coming to an end. So, there’s that.
When Julie’s mother decides it’s time to let go of the family home in a failing suburb and move to the city to be closer to work and her new beau, Julie decides to take matters into her own hands.
She runs, illegally, hoping to find and hide with the Volksgeist, a loose-knit culture of tramps, hoboes, senior citizens, artists, and never-do-wells who have elected to ride out the end of the world in their campers and converted vans, constantly on the move over the back roads of America.
Julie’s eyes rolled. It was the end of the world, and the DJ had no better response to it than industrial techno.
The invitation Ben had slipped her the week before described the fete as “The Party to End Everything” and promised twelve hours of music and madness. After all, the font screamed, “It’s all downhill from here!!!”
All week, Ben had been referring to it as “The PEE.”
Whatever direction the hill was headed, the music was too fucking loud. A migraine bass line, a rattle of synth-snare, choral loops, robot-assembler clashes, dark notes, and washtub thumps. Instinct demanded Julie crouch and cover her head, and she might have done had she been alone and had Ben given her room. “Quit stepping on my heels!” she said again.
Ben shuffled back an inch or two. It had been years since either of them had seen so many people – real sweating, laughing, body-heat people – crowded into one place, and his sense of security seemed to hinge on how close to her he could stand, his cinnamon-scented breath puffing against the side of her face.
“Great party,” he said. “Really glad we came.”
“This was your idea.”
His idea, sure, but Julie had agreed to go and gotten her mother to sign the release. Two more years lay ahead of her twenty-fifth birthday, which meant asking Mommy for permission to have fun. “I don’t care if you drink and have sex and raise hell, but, for god’s sake, don’t let anyone get it on camera!” Julie’s mother had warned and authorized the robocab that carried them to the event.
“We’ll get some drinks and relax,” Julie said. “If we don’t like it we can leave early.” And then what? Spend the end of the world in ThirdEye or in front of the vid? Break into Mom’s medicine cabinet again for some happy patches?
When they reached the head of the line, Ben showed his invitation to a woman sitting at a table beneath a banner advertising Mela-Tonic, the party’s corporate sponsor. She smiled. Some of her sliver-glitter lipstick had come off on her teeth. “Come get mellow, guys!” She reached below the table and came out with a Mela-Tonic swag bag for each of them. Julie waived hers off.
His own bag in hand, Ben joined Julie at the doorway of the ballroom. She grimaced. The PEE was an under-25 event hosted by a soft-drink company, so it was about as grassroots hip as the McDonald’s Birthday Bash Julie’s parents had organized for her ninth. Still, the organizers could have made an effort, rented out an old warehouse or mall space rather than the ballroom at the highway Marriott. The three-sided video unit overhead hardly bothered to cover the garish chandelier it surrounded. Instead, it alternated showing parti-colored rhythmscapes, Mela-Tonic commercials, and a mover of PorQ Pig saying, “That’s it, folks!” in Hindi.
A girl in tribal bodypaint slunk up beside Julie. “What do you have?” she said.
“What?” Julie said.
The woman patted her left clavicle. “Apple, Tronic?
“Oh!” Julie flushed. “It’s a Tronic. Is there a mod?”
The girl handed Julie a plastic card.
“Can I get one?” Ben said.
“It only works if you have a pharma emplant,” Bodypaint said. “Won’t do shit if you don’t.” She drifted back into the shadows near the door. Her partner was there, pointing a scanner at people as they came in.
Julie ran her right index finger over the raised design on the card and made a fist to send the scan to the miniature computer under her clavicle. The emplant flashed a warning and grudgingly surrendered. The mod took an inventory of Julie’s pharma implant and forced it to it spit something more interesting than usual into her bloodstream.
Ben gazed at the girl in the bodypaint, who was now handing out cards to a group of three. “Do you think she’s really naked?”
He pulled his eyes back to Julie. “Are you feeling the mod yet?”
“Yep.” The hack was doing something lovely to Julie’s endorphin and serotonin levels. She felt good, warm, loose. She took Ben’s hand. “Let’s get a drink.”
The refreshment tables were loaded with Mela-Tonics, six flavors of carbonated water chock full of melatonin, valerian root, and seventeen other mood-altering herbs and spices! Ben opened a Lemon Lowdown. Julie picked a Strawberry Siesta. “Sip and chill,” it said on the aluminum bottle.
“How do they expect people to dance after drinking these?” Ben said.
“They’re mostly swaying,” Julie said. A couple of dozen brave souls had taken to the dance floor. The rest of the party-goers were at the tables, barely looking at each other and playing holo games on their emplants.
“This is lame. I’m sorry,” Ben said.
Julie ran her hand up and down the back of his shirt sleeve. It was incredibly smooth, but at the same time it seemed like she could feel every fiber. “I love you, Ben.”
He shook his head sorrowfully. “That’s just the drugs talking.”
“Yeah, it is.” She drained her drink. “Do you want to dance?”
“You go ahead. I’ll just hang out over there.” He gestured at one of the empty tables.
“Benjamin Esposito, you are such a slug.” She grabbed his arm and dragged him back toward the entrance. Bodypaint’s partner had left her standing alone looking bored. “Hey. My friend’s brain is too normal to need a pharma. Do you have anything else?”
“Like real drugs?”
The girl spread her arms and turned in a slow circle. She’d done the do-you-have-an-emplant? pantomime so many times she had a bare spot above her left breast. She also had a denuded place on her ass from where she’d been leaning against the wall. Otherwise, it was just her and the paint against the end of the world. “Do I look like I’m holding anything?”
Julie blinked owlishly. “Nope. You are definitely naked. What about the guy you were with?”
“My brother. Do you know how much trouble we could get into selling drugs at an under-age party?”
“So don’t sell it.” Julie held out her hand. “Give. It’s the end of fucking everything.”
R.W.W. Greene is a New Hampshire, USA writer. He’s the author of “The Light Years” (2020), “Twenty-Five to Life” (2021),” and “Mercury Rising” (2022), all from Angry Robot Books.