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? We’re delighted to reveal the cover of R.W.W Greene’s upcoming sci-fi Twenty-Five To Life and not only that, but we are giving you a taster of what’s to come with an excerpt of Chapter One!
In Twenty-Five To Life, 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.
Can’t wait until Twenty-Five to Life’s release to discover more about Julie and Proxima Centauri? Read Chapter One here…
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.”
The girl started to scratch her neck but caught herself. “He’s in the bathroom. Send Mr Normal in there and tell him Cassandra says it’s okay.”
Julie waited outside the bathroom while Ben went in to negotiate. He came out slowly, holding his fist at waist level.
“What did you get?”
Ben opened his hand to reveal a single green pill. “No idea. Could be twelvemolly, could be a laxative.”
“Either one will help you get rid of some of that shit you’re packing.” Julie handed him a fresh Lemon Lowdown. “Take.”
Sixty minutes later, Ben and his drug dealer’s little sister were in the corner messing up her paint job. Julie was on the dance floor. The techno tracks and her dance partners blended into each other in a wave of colored lights, rhythm, and touch. She was a hot, sticky mess and liked that just fine. When her high started to fade, she did the thing with the card again and let her mind go. She might pay for it later, but how much later was there, really?
The music stopped at 1:09 am. The overhead screens played a short film designed to sell Mela-Tonic, then the view flipped to the news channels. The president gave a speech about hope and the future. A rabbi said a prayer. A newshead did an interview with three of “America’s best and brightest,” a scientist, a kindergarten teacher, and a famous cello player. There was a montage of faces and goodbyes.
Two-hundred and fifty-four miles up, rockets fired, moving the six colony ships out of low-Earth orbit and beginning an eighty-six-year voyage to Proxima Centauri, humanity’s new home, leaving ten billion people to die on the old one.
In spite of the mods and the gallons of Mela-Tonic consumed, some of the partygoers were crying. Ben slung a sweaty arm around Julie’s shoulders. His hand smelled like bodypaint and foreplay. “Are you okay?”
Julie bit her lip. “Am I supposed to feel good knowing Anji’s up there? That she has a chance? I don’t think I do.”
Ben snorted. “She’ll be an old woman before they even get close to the place.”
The screens showed the big ships moving away from the second International Space Station. The point-of-view switched, and the cameras on the ships looked back at Earth. More newsheads. Suicide rates were expected to spike again. Tech stocks – especially aerospace and VR – were surging.
The American Dream, Julie thought. Escape or die.
“What’s the opposite of survivor guilt?” one newshead said.
His partner chuckled. “Resentment of the doomed?”
The deejay cut the feeds and started in with the industrial techno again. More ads for Mela-Tonic flickered on the screens.
Julie couldn’t move. No one was.
The three-way screen cut back to PorQ Pig. That’s it, folks!
Julie’s head was starting to clear when the autocab dropped her home around 2:30 a.m. She changed into sweats and slippers and went to the kitchen for a snack. The smart screen embedded in the fridge door recognized her and began playing her mother’s theme music. Julie squeezed her left eye shut and tried to focus on the fridge, which was showing a recut of a piece her mother had done the month prior.
Julie’s mom, “Carson S Riley,” the top-rated newshead in the third-largest American market, smiled for the camera. She looked at least thirty years younger than she should. “They’re off! Everyone’s favorite family, the O’Briens – Mom, Dad, sister Anjali and little brother Deshi – have left Earth. Next stop: Proxima Centauri!”
Julie couldn’t tell if her mother had recorded the alternate introduction or if the news crew had just faked it with an AI. It hardly mattered. She’d been at the O’Brien’s going-away party, too, but had studiously avoided her mother’s camera. The video cut to Anji’s father, Chuck. A drone hung behind him, flashing a game company’s logo. Brian Case, one of Ben’s friends, had a sponsorship and had to get the logo out in front of people whenever he could. “We were as surprised as anyone to be picked,” Anji’s father said, oblivious to the marketing going on behind him, “but we’ve spent the last fifteen years getting ready.”
The next cut was to Deshi, Anji’s adopted little brother. “It’s so cool!” he said. “I’m going to live on a spaceship!” He began listing all the generation ship’s technical specifications.
“Will it be hard to leave all your friends?” Carson asked Anji when her turn came.
Anji rubbed at a pimple on her forehead Another journalist might have edited the blemish out, but Carson S Riley was hoping for a few more hard-news laurels before she retired.
“I wish I could take them all with me,” Anji said. “It feels like there’s nothing here for them anymore.”
The story editor let Anji’s mom Upasana have the last word. “It’s difficult, of course, to be leaving so much and so many behind.” She smiled. “We’ll just have to work hard to make the mission a success.”
The segment cut to the studio. Carson S and her co-anchor Dr Owen Wang faced each other over a low coffee table.
“What do you think of that, Owen?”
Owen Wang was the prototypical cuddly conservative. He spread his hands. “It’s a long shot, Carson. I’ve always said it. Nearly a century of travel and then what? Who knows what they’ll find there? Who knows if they’ll find anything? It’s a crying shame that it’s come to this.”
Julie had a T-shirt with Wang’s tagline, “It’s a crying shame,” printed on it. He said it at least once every broadcast. The sterilization of Mexico City. The water wars in southern Europe. The HIV-Too epidemic. The North Korean missile launch on Seoul. COVID-90. The failure of the latest generation of antibiotics. Crying shames, all of them. People like Wang and his pals were the reason the ecosystem was dying, and that was a crying shame, too.
Julie waved the screen off. There’d be nothing else on the news she wanted to see. Short of deistic intervention or the invention of time travel, there wasn’t much that could catch her eye anymore. Her chest felt hollow. Before she was tempted to put a name to the feeling growing there, she pulled the plastic card out of her pocket and traced the mod again. She swayed, momentarily dizzy from the sudden change in brain chemistry. Everything was fine. She took the feeling to bed before it faded.
Twenty-Five to Life by R.W.W Greene is out later in the year from Angry Robot.