Small, wispy clouds drift across the blue sky. Jack lies on his back, on the green rooftop of his townhouse, in shadow atop a bed of grass. The canopy overhead keeps his pale skin safe from the vengeful blare of the sun.
This year is set to be warmer than last year, which was warmer than the year before. The deserts grow and the plains recede. The oceans continue to claim more and more of the coasts and riverbanks of regions incapable of thwarting the inexorable rise. The terraformed islands, including Nova Spes, displaced metric tons of water, further eroding the existing coasts.
The slate-blue waters of Broad’s Bay froth far below the cliffs of Klippeborg. The liquid had once been an unobstructed swath of the North Atlantic. Jack’s townhouse nearly abuts the edge. He, his home, and everything else around him stands upon land summoned from the seafloor by human whim. He often muses that, someday, his house will fall into the bay. It is not a concern, for him. Sometimes, he wishes it would.
A wide promenade acts as a buffer between his property and the sheer drop. The popular public space would fall first, along with its tourists, joggers, dog walkers, vendors, buskers, and countless other sources of din that compete to disrupt the peace Jack seeks on his rooftop sanctuary.
He wonders if he could buy the promenade and privatize it, or maybe hire a few toughs to do some light muggings and gentle assaults to scare away the congregants. He knows that such thoughts mean it’s time to get out of the city. The density always wears on him after a while. Then, after being somewhere quiet for too long, he craves the city again and its people and their bustle.
Jack picks up his cup of tea, now cold from sitting unattended for the past hour. He goes to take a sip and notices a little bug has drowned in the mug.
“Really?” he asks, frowning.
He fishes out the gnat and drinks the tea anyway.
He looks at his right arm and rolls up the cuff of his tailored, navy blue dress shirt. From afar, the shirt’s pattern looks like misshapen white dots but, up close, the dots reveal themselves to be tiny elephants. His arm appears bare but for the thin rings around his wrist and near his elbow. The rings map the surface of his arm and communicate with each other, using his flesh as its screen. At his glance, a deep-blue, barely translucent overlay appears, showing him the time, his agenda, and a list of notifications.
“Your move with Pietro Maravelli Al-Majrit,” says his Chess application. He dismisses it with a flick of his left hand. He ignores the emails and instant messages. He’s interested in the time. He must get up.
He grouses as he rises and runs his left hand over his shaved head. Despite his significant efforts to stave off senescence through natural means, the knees he inherited from his mother still pain him. His mother and father imparted no shortage of worthwhile traits and characteristics, but both parents—both deceased—handed down plenty of bad with the considerable good.
More than enough to humble me, Jack thinks. He knows he can get them both replaced with significant cybernetic upgrades, but he stubbornly resists mechanical modification.
He picks up his empty mug and retreats down a small staircase onto a terrace and then into his bedroom. Light pours in through the south-facing windows. The view of the bay is infinite and beautiful but Jack ignores it, inured to its charms. His bed is unmade, but the room is otherwise clean. It’s somewhat of a miracle, as Jack likes to throw things wherever, and rarely puts things away.
Looking at the bed, Jack imagines Sabine asking him for the nth time: “Why don’t you hire a maid? You’re rich, you know. Rich people hire people to do things for them.”
Jack always frowns in response. “I don’t like people in my house. I’d rather do it myself.”
“But you don’t do it,” Sabine would say.
He smiles with rue at the thought of her. The pillows each bear impressions, but the other dent is not Sabine’s. He wonders where she is. He misses her, but he misses physical affection, too, and he makes sure to assuage that with company.
He climbs down two more levels to the giant kitchen that takes up most of the third floor and sets his empty mug upon the counter.
Sitting at the table, framed in the light from the street-facing windows, is a young woman. Much younger than Jack. Younger even than Sabine. She is wearing only her panties while reading the arctic white tabletop, which doubles as an interactive touchscreen. An empty bowl and its idle spoon sit nearby, the screen adapts around it. Her slender left arm is bent at the elbow. In her hand is a half-eaten peach.
“Don’t you have to be somewhere?” he asks.
She looks over at him. Her expression says: Don’t be a jerk.
He smiles at her and leans against the counter, admiring her flawless brown skin and her light brown eyes. Her hair is twisted in locs that fall to just below her delicate shoulders. Some of them are bleached close to blonde, but most of them are a natural Van Dyke brown. She is thin but not bony. He looks at her small breasts that care nothing about gravity and at the natural cushion upon which she sits. She is perfect.
He considers his own body and is grateful that he has stayed lean and muscular, though it takes more effort each year just to maintain his physique, let alone enhance it. He assumes that the luxury she gleans from their association is enough of an incentive for her to be with him. He never lacked for company before he became “someone,” but it became much easier once he did.
He no need to try anymore. It irks him, a little. He doesn’t want feminine attention because the woman wants to benefit from his wealth. He wants to matter to her, as a person, but that kind of partner is hard to find. Jack is content to be objectified, so long as the exchange feels commensurate. He knows that Amina appreciates his body as a very nice bonus to his wealth. There are ugly rich men. Fat ones. Fat and ugly ones. He wonders if she would like him if he were neither wealthy nor handsome nor fit, but then discards it as a stupid thought; he is all those things.
With available gene therapy cures, he doesn’t have to be bald, but he doesn’t want his hair back. There’s still a pretty good head of it, but he hates the fuss, and doesn’t want some compromised version of his original hairline. He never knew what to do with his hair, anyway, even when it was full; it was unstyleable and didn’t suit him at all.
He had the follicles on his scalp limited to offer barely the faintest hint of stubble. In acts of vanity, he had the follicles on his nape, back and shoulders shut off completely. The rest of his body hair doesn’t bother him. He lets it be. Both Amina and Sabine claim to love his chest hair, and they’re not alone.
He runs his left hand from his brow, up his forehead and down the side of his face. He scratches his beard and thinks about his dislike of having people in his house. But Amina is not “people.” Not anymore. She is no longer just anyone, because she’s proven herself to be sweet and loving, whatever her actual motives might be for sticking around. And it’s a treat to come home and find her in his bed on surprise occasions. She’s been constant enough that he gave her access to his house. No one else but Sabine has that.
His trust in Amina surprises him. Sabine even likes her. Sabine has never given the slightest indication she cares who is in bed with Jack when she isn’t, but it isn’t every day that she actually approves of the woman warming her side of the bed.
Jack tries not to think about who is warming Sabine.
Amina gets up, keeping her arm bent and the peach in hand She walks over to Jack.
Most days, he feels old, but the sight of her moving toward him, perfect and unspoiled by the ravages of time, wearing nothing but lilac underwear vibrant against her dark skin, he feels much younger.
She takes a bite of the peach and then kisses him, standing on her toes to reach his mouth. He puts his arms around her little waist and feels large relative to her diminutive frame. Sabine is barely taller than Amina but, where Amina is dark and thin and delicate, Sabine is lighter-skinned, bombshell curvy and sturdy. He thinks of them both at once and he loves them both for being nothing alike.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Amina asks, throwing his own question back at him. She is almost twenty years younger, but her voice is unmistakably adult.
Jack plucks the peach from her hand, takes a big bite from it and puts it on the counter.
“Not just yet,” he answers.
He kisses her.
Jack enters the small two-meters-square room on the floor above the kitchen. It’s stark white and empty of furniture but for a single ergonomic white chair.
“Marine,” he says, speaking the name with a French inflection, “put me through.”
The computer replies with a pleasant charm, inferring that his command coincides with his scheduled meeting. The white walls of the room come to life, depicting a small conference room with floor to ceiling windows. Copious indirect sunlight pours in through the metalliglass, revealing the intricate wood-grain of the table at which three men sit. The illusion is nearly perfect.
Perturbed looks crease the faces of two of the men at the conference table.
“Nice of you to join us, Mason,” one of the angry men says.
He is pale-skinned and in his sixties, with brown hair gone gray at the temples. He is clean shaven and smartly dressed in a suit custom tailored for his large, but not fat, frame. His equally annoyed counterpart is golden brown and has alopecia.
Jack grabs the back of his chair and moves towards the table. The floor of his small room moves like a treadmill, allowing him to interact with the holographic projection as if he were present. Only his lawyer, Amadou Faye, is present in the actual conference room. The other two men are projecting from their own location, farther south in Orchard City, another of the Nova Spes city-states.
Jack positions the chair as if to sit, but then thinks better of it.
“My apologies, Mr. Dorance,” he says with a smile. “I had … a personal matter that demanded my attention.” Jack strokes his brown beard; it’s still slightly damp. “Surely Mr. Faye has shown you that your claims are baseless and this meeting is pointless.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Jack,” says Dorance.
Jack smiles. “Come on, Mike. Let’s be civilized ...”
“Civilized, you ungrateful shit? If you weren’t a hologram I’d wring your fucking neck.”
Jack used to anger easily. When he worked for Dorance, he was younger, impetuous and hot-headed. Not unlike Dorance himself right now, excluding the youth. Jack had been easy to provoke, ready and willing to explode at any insult, real or perceived. Over time, he achieved greater mastery of himself. If he wanted to punch Dorance in his jowly old face, he gave no outward indication of it.
“Well, then how lucky for me that I am,” says Jack. “Although, imagining you in prison is a pretty picture. Shall we set an in-person meeting?” He smiles.
Dorance turns red like an old cartoon about to blow steam from its ears. “You stole from me, Jack. You and that piece of shit Petri Marvelous Al-Maggot...”
“Pietro Maravelli Al-Majrit,” says Jack.
“Fuck him,” Dorance replies. “And fuck you. You don’t get to stand on the shoulders of giants and not give due credit.”
Jack closes his eyes and rolls them. He opens them again. They are shockingly blue and the hologram renders him in realistic detail.
Dorance’s own blue eyes are shrewd, and he regards Jack with the anger of a frustrated parent whose incorrigible child simply won’t stop misbehaving.
Jack knows that Dorance is feeling his age, despite his gene therapy treatments, despite that he will probably live another sixty-five years. He has been superseded by his protege and he doesn’t like it. Jack does not excuse the big man’s insults, however. He catalogues them.
“You’re a big man, Michael, that’s true, but let’s not get haughty. We both stand on Harmon’s shoulders as much as I stand on yours. I’ve given both of you credit at every turn, wherever due. It is no secret that he mentored me. Without either of you, I wouldn’t be the man I am today—”
“You’re goddamned right!”
“—I value you, Mike. I care deeply for you. And I do wish you would stop with these pathetic displays of unbridled anger that are so far beneath your dignity.” Jack directs his attention to his lawyer. “Mr. Faye, have you provided Mr. Dorance with all the relevant documents?”
“Yes, Mr. Mason,” Amadou replied.
He keeps his cool, but he hates sitting through these meetings. Many people dislike Jack. They think he’s an asshole. Amadou understands the many reasons why, but Jack treats him with such care and respect that what other people think doesn’t matter. Were he a violent man, he might punch Mr. Dorance for his boss, champion and benefactor. But Amadou Faye is not a violent man.
“Have your flim-flam man look over our terms and let’s put this behind us,” Jack says.
Dorance’s lawyer’s face curdles at the insult.
“Sabine will be back soon,” Jack continues. “Maybe we could have dinn—”
Dorance and his lawyer’s holograms wink out of view.
Amadou looks at Jack and offers and apologetic smile and a shrug.
“Yeah, well, fuck him anyway,” says Jack.