1 Le Morte d’Arthur
The room was kept dark on purpose, a soft pin spot here and there, because at the age of 127, the creature that had once been Arthur Vogel couldn’t stand bright light. It hurt his eyes, his skin, the tiny blisters that had formed at the top of his skull. Also, he couldn’t tolerate being seen clearly by anybody but Sallie, not even by himself. Hence the absence of mirrors, the proscription against implements that had the capacity to record video.
A while back, at the age of 103 or so, Arthur had retired from public view almost entirely. There he nestled on his vast estate in the pastoral heart of the urban sprawl that stretched from Santa Barbara to San Diego: by day, on his vast outside patio soaking in the vitamin D that he believed would keep him alive forever; after sunset, retreating to his private study to feed the lizards, toads, and spiders that inhabited his massive assemblage of terrariums; and throughout, at all hours, constantly, incessantly doing business through the wireless communications implant that ran beneath the wafer-thin layer of his skull.
Yet as powerful a digital presence as he still might be, he had for some time not actually been seen by human or inhuman eyes; he who had once been the most visible mogul in his coterie of behemoths, the center of a prodigious entourage whose dissolute hijinks had become the stuff of legend, the subject of more ridiculous scandal than Emperor
Tiberius in his prime. Orgies! Bottomless onslaughts of willing, wily gold diggers! More ex-wives than the sultan of Brunei! Yachts! Private islands steeped in unpardonable sins! And now—nothing. This absence led to some speculation about his whereabouts, his health overall, and his ability to manage the enormous empire that was currently valued at $63.1 trillion in global operations alone—and that didn’t count the growing hydroponic farm now being built under the surface of the planet of Musk, formerly known as Mars, where he had been first to strike water back in 2034.
Physically, he was all right, as far as it went. But it couldn’t go on like this for much longer. Arthur himself knew that. There were limits to the art of life extension, and he had reached them.
He began every day the same way. At three thirty in the morning, his eyes popped open as if a starting gun had gone off inside his head, and there was no more sleep after that. This was the hard time. The vast beyond beckoned to him then: the possibility that he would not exist; that this magnificent edifice he had built would have the temerity to go on without him. It was then that he was most human; the least fortified with the armature of fame and wealth and technology. It was then that he felt the terror of what most certainly lay ahead if his plan did not succeed and he did not find a permanent solution to the problem of death.
A solution was clearly called for, that was for fucking sure.
So Arthur, who had once been known to friends and enemies alike as the “Mighty Vog,” faced up to the darkness that gripped his heart like a vise in the dead middle of each night and did what he had done since he was a little boy back in the lost, long-ago twentieth century: he got busy.
There was always a lot to do. First, he had to put himself together, which was no inconsiderable task. For more than a year, even Sallie had not seen him in his raw self—what he was before the application of implants, cyberware, and wetware, which were brought to bear each day upon the desiccated nugget of flesh that remained of his original body.
First came the eye, which was the beginning of all things. The eye was loaded with hardware and software that interfaced directly with all the original neurostructure that lay behind it and was the link between his brain and the rest of the intelligent objects that would be added on and expected to obey his unspoken commands. The communications hookups were already loaded into his head, of course, as they were with the superelite that had gotten tired, some twenty years before, of carrying around all those stupid smartphones and, without much trouble, given the limitless human and financial assets at their disposal, figured out a way to place all the necessary electronics into the hard bone that sat right behind the earlobe. Put the eye and the implant together, and you had a pretty fair operating platform suitable for just about any support function.
The thing about the eye, though, was that it was very, very delicate. The least little jostle of the tiny gelatinous orb brought down the whole mechanism. Since each new one took months to build, program, and field-test, this was a verifiable fucking pain in the neck for sure. Not that cost was any real issue, but he still got a little pang when he was forced to shell out more than $2.5 million for a backup that he knew would work 100 percent without fail, hopefully. The thing itself was pretty disgusting, too, he thought as he gently inserted it in its socket and heard the soft click that indicated it was seated correctly in position. Like tenderly placing two fingers of frog guts into your head. He would be glad when he didn’t have to do it anymore. That day was coming.
The rest was a little easier. Propped by the side of his bed was the hip-and-leg assembly that made his limited mobility possible. It was very strong and supple, a welcome addition since—What was it? Six? Ten years ago?—they had pretty much written off the right side of his body completely. Fine, he said. Then he invented the fucking thing himself. Made the sketches. Called in Bob. Had the entire assembly printed—bones, muscles, veins, arteries and capillaries, the knee and all its delicate cartilage, the joints, whatever. That was no big deal; they had been able to print just about anything for years. Implementing
an installation process he could accomplish by himself—now, that had been a real bear. That was when a guy like Bob really came in handy. Patient. Brilliant in his own way. Willing to do anything if the science of it presented a challenge to him. Very valuable guy, Bob. Key guy, really. Now more than ever. Had to watch him, though. Motherfucker could get the idea in his head that it was he who was running things.
Arthur put the $6 billion leg in place and felt the pulse kick in on the cyborg ankle. He rose to his feet and carefully walked to the door of his bedroom, which whispered open as he approached.
“Diego,” he said into the murky dark that lay outside his threshold.
In a beat or two, there was a small rustling not far off and then a pleasant hum, which grew modestly in volume until its source materialized in the doorway. The object in question was a circular, Frisbee-sized platter, perhaps eight inches thick, glowing about its edges, that could be described as a cross between a nineteenth-generation Roomba and a late-century Hoverboard. It floated in midair about chest high. This was Diego, Arthur’s virtual manservant. Imbued with modest AI, Diego was capable of performing many household functions: carrying messages, making simple reservations and appointments and audio/video calls, and, of course, cleaning carpets and doing some light dusting. The original human Diego, who had served Arthur for more than thirty years, had expired due to old age some years prior. Arthur, missing his amanuensis and friend, had downloaded a wide variety of messages and responses into the little android that the original Diego had been kind enough to record in advance of his demise. And so Diego, in a sense, lived on—not in his own consciousness, because he was dead—but in that of his master. It was insufficient as a source of comfort and companionship that the real Diego had provided. But it was something.
“Good morning, Diego,” said Arthur to the floating Roomba. “I’m up. I know it’s early. I hope I didn’t disturb your slumber.”
“Not at all,” said Diego. “I’m always awake at this hour. Come to think of it, I’m awake at every hour.”
Arthur recognized that this was not one of the prerecorded responses the nonvirtual Diego had provided to the database. It was clear that the machine was learning as it went along, adding to its trove of potential replies with new rejoinders assembled by its rudimentary artificial intelligence. This was either amusing or not, Arthur thought. With originality of thought came a host of other possibilities, not all of them congenial to servitude.
“I’ll have my breakfast now,” said Arthur.
“What will you have, sir?” asked Diego, hovering in the air before his face, but tilting a little bit, as a dog will do when it strikes a position of inquiry.
“I want a big fat steak,” said Arthur truculently.
“I will bring you a bowl of berries and a small portion of synthetic yogurt.”
“Okay, goddamn it,” said Arthur. It was true that the massive T-bone in his imagination, if he ate even a small portion of its crusty, salty, fatty magnificence, would kill him: stick in his ancient craw and choke him to death. He also felt very strongly that it was more than worth dying for. Steak! God, to eat a steak! Chew it with a strong, working set of teeth and feel its delectable juices slide down his powerful, muscular gullet and into a resilient stomach that could process a tin can if such was required. But no. Those days were over. Anything more dense than a raspberry or a bowl of gruel was to him as potentially lethal as a schuss down one of the black diamond slopes he used to run with ease at Gstaad. This was no life, no life at all. He would not tolerate it one second longer than was required. Call Bob, he thought. Nail down the timetable. “And tell Sallie she can come in now,” Arthur added, slipping his day teeth into his mouth.
“Thank you, sir,” said Diego. “And may I say you look your best today,” he added, and left. What did a compliment mean from a floating Roomba? When he was a boy, the talking elevator had made its
appearance. He remembered the first time one had told him to “Have a nice day.” Well-wishing mechanical entities had proliferated since then. He still didn’t find them convincing, but the penalty for failure to embrace what was defined as progress was severe—not just socially but economically as well. So he had chosen to lead the parade rather than resist it. And now he would do so again.
The defeat of death was no small achievement, after all. It could be considered the crowning achievement of a life, particularly if that life were established to be of a very high quality—and without end.
There was much to do. While even the earliest birds were still huddled in their cold, dark nests at this hour on the verge of the continent, it was a bright day on the East Coast, late morning in London, and tomorrow in Mumbai and Macao. And in all these locations, there were his people, hard at work doing whatever it was they were supposed to do in pursuit of corporate profit, each of them trembling with fear at the possibility that if Arthur got it in his mind to call them, they would not be on hand to greet him with shiny noses and bushy tails. So he did what he always did to fend off the despair that comes with early wakefulness. He contacted people at every corner of the globe and frightened them to death.
Arthur didn’t have to scream and yell anymore to give them a hot blast of motivation. His low, almost imperceptible rasp was enough to throw even the heartiest two-star general into anal rictus. “Are you aware, Mr. Georgikashvili, that it is almost February, and the pylons have yet to be put into place?” he would whisper to the manager of a project designed to redefine the function of the Black Sea, which was now all but empty. “I’m hoping I interpreted the launch schedule wrong, Dick,” he barked very quietly at the engineer in charge of the interplanetary space station shuttle. Quiet barking was a skill one developed over time, particularly when it became a necessity. It was hard to achieve volume when the sound was being generated by artificial vocal cords, even very good ones. A final call was made to a small island off the coast of Vanuatu, in the South Seas, which he
had owned since his early seventies, when his wealth had grown so extreme that it shocked even him.
How in the world could one person get so rich? He wondered about it every day. It seemed to him that his life had been an unending pageant of relatively ordinary events, each of them taking up time, but, in the end, he had been granted no time at all. Where had it all gone? For instance, back in the day (as they used to say back in the day), Arthur had attended something called Woodstock: a concert that had, at the time, embodied the chaotic hopes and ideals of his peers. Jettisoning those as soon as he reached manhood, he plunged with his customary focus into his true calling: making money. He had been in finance for about a decade, made a plump bundle, and retired by the time he was thirty-five to tinker around in a small laboratory he maintained in his garage. There he pursued dark studies, working for weeks at a time without food or sleep, delving deep into the practical applications on the leading edge of science. Synthetic viruses, for example, were then all the rage, along with other entities that bridged the gap between organic and inorganic. The gray area between life and death—that was his hobby, his obsession. At one point, he had a wife and a couple of children, but at about this time, they fell away from him, and nothing had been heard of them for many years. They were not part of the necessary database.
In the early part of the current century, Arthur had invented a tiny nanomagnetic switch based on quantum electronics that was capable of being both on and off at the same time. Nobody could think of a use for it until it was discovered to be essential in constructing the first generation of machines that could truly think in a meaningful, human sense of the term. The ability to sustain two conflicting thoughts simultaneously appeared to be a fundamental part of genuine cognition. The nanomag relay made this possible. It had yet to be supplanted by any subsequent design, and Arthur was now worth several trillion dollars—an amount that seemed large but, in truth, didn’t go as far as it used to. There were at least a dozen trillionaires
on the Forbes list, although he was the leading one. Virtually limitless resources were at his disposal. There was nothing he couldn’t afford or do if he got the idea into his head. Now he had gotten it into his head to call Vanuatu.
“Hello, Eddie,” he said into the air in front of his face. His utterance was picked up by the infinitely tiny wire that ran up his mandible and into the wireless pod that nestled in the mastoid bone behind his right ear. “Tell me about the sunrise,” he said wistfully. Of course, Arthur could pick up a live hologram of the rising sun itself from the setup he had installed on the island, but this was better: one real, nonvirtual human being to another. There is no better sight than that which is provided by your mind’s eye, properly stimulated. Eddie was surprisingly good at that.
Eddie had been born on the island when there were people there. Now there was just him—all four hundred pounds of him, usually in a sarong, because that was all that would fit him. He was accompanied by six dogs and a giant Komodo dragon that might have been one of the original residents of the place. His job was to take care of things on Vanuatu in anticipation of the day when Arthur would arrive and greet the sunset of his life. Eddie would do so until he died and then would be replaced by a new Eddie. He was fine with the solitude. He was a poet by nature and had a trove of the best weed in the world. His descriptions of the sun, the moon, the rain, the stars, were a little different every day, but, then, so was nature. He spoke to Arthur about that for a while. Arthur sat there, watching his terrariums, and listened.
After some time, there was a change in the density of the air in the room, and a very mild scent of something ineffably beautiful crept in, and Arthur knew that quietly, in the darkness, Sallie had arrived.
“Hi, Artie,” she said. He turned off his head and felt her presence.
“Where the fuck have you been?” he said, not impolitely.
“Asleep,” said Sallie. “Like most normal people.”
She came close and sat on the bed. She was in her morning caftan, which was bright orange and very roomy. Her hair was tousled high
on her head, tied into a giant exclamation point by a ribbon. Sallie appeared to be a rather youngish forty, but that could mean anything. Tall—way taller than Arthur. High cheekbones. Lovely bottom. Not a big nose for the size of her face, but not a small one, either. A little bit of a button on the end. A few freckles, if you looked close.
“I missed you, teacup,” said Arthur.
“Take your medicine?” asked Sallie.
She disappeared into the massive bathroom suite that lay beyond the bedroom.
“I want you,” he said quietly.
“We can have a very good time if you take all your meds,” came the voice from the dark beyond.
“Fuck,” said Arthur. “I hate this shit.”
Sallie came back with a tray that held a variety of bottles, tubes, and poultices, and a big glass of water. She handed him a large brown pill, scored in two. “Your Denamarin Chewable for your liver.” He took it. She presented another: this one small and light yellow. “Now your Renagel, for your phosphorus.” He took that, too. “Eat this little water cracker,” she said, offering him a pale wafer. “You’re supposed to take the Renagel with a little food and water.” He took it and munched on it for a few moments with an expression of mild disgust.
“It’s dry,” he said, with a little tang of complaint in his voice.
“I’m sorry, Snooks,” said Sallie. “Put out your palm.” He did so. From a weekly medication organizer, she removed a fistful of tablets and capsules. “Heart . . . kidneys . . . lungs . . . arthritis . . . vitamins,” she intoned as she extracted pills from the med strip, each of its compartments embossed with an initial for its name of the week. Then she placed each into his waiting hand.
“Tumil-K,” she said. “Furosemide. Vetmedin. Enacard. A half tab of spironolactone. Half tab of Rimadyl. One tab Welactin.” He took each without comment but with a little bit of water. At the end, he said, “Pathetic,” to nobody in particular.
“Put your head back,” said Sallie. He did so. From her little tray,
she selected a succession of very small plastic bottles, dispensing one drop of each into Arthur’s original working eye. “Dexasporin,” she said, “one drop . . . cyclosporine, one drop . . . tacrolimus once daily . . . one, two . . . and your Opticare. There.”
She put away the bottles on the tray and placed the tray on the night table. “Okay, now, Artie. Roll over.”
“Goddamn it,” he said. “Motherfucker.”
She gently lifted Arthur’s bathrobe and pulled his silken jammies down a little bit, exposing one very elderly cheek. She kissed it. Then she removed a small pneumatic hypo from her caftan and expertly administered an infusion. “Stay still, Artie. Daily subcutaneous fluids. You know.”
“I want you to call Bob. Call this morning. I don’t want to wait anymore.”
“Artie. You can’t rush this. They say he won’t be ready for another month, maybe two.”
“Oh,” said Arthur. “Right. Right.” But he had stopped listening, because he had made a decision, and once you’ve made a decision, that’s the time you stop listening. After a while, he rolled over again and looked at her. She accepted his gaze.
“You look very juicy, Buttercup,” he said, feasting both his analog and cybernetic eye at her with tremendous appreciation. “You are so beautiful. I can’t believe how beautiful you are.”
She had put away all the paraphernalia of old age now, and she leaned over him as he lay in bed, his tiny, slightly artificial head resting lightly on the pillow. “I love you the way you are, Artie, you know that, I hope,” she said, quite serious now. “All this stuff you’re going to do to yourself, it’s for you, honey. It’s not for me.”
“That’s nice,” said Arthur, “but you’re deluded.”
“It’s the human condition, Artie. There’s something okay about just being human, you know? Going with that flow.”
“Fuck that,” said Arthur. He put his arms around her and kissed her, and she kissed him back.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Print one out.”
Sallie patted the top of his mottled, shiny head. “You are one horndog,” she added, moving over to the dresser, where she addressed a small printer that rested unobtrusively next to a houseplant. She made sure the readouts were appropriate, and then she pressed a button and went into the bathroom. Turned on the shower. A bit of humming.
Arthur lay back on the bed, his hands behind his head. Profits were good. His businesses enjoyed a 78 percent market share in every single space in which they operated. That was not particularly unusual. Amazon and its subsidiaries controlled 87 percent of all online retail. The global conglomerate that was once Facebook now held a 92 percent market share of all online advertising. He listened to the sound of Sallie in the shower. Gonna get laid soon, he thought. That’s one thing that never gets old.
Sallie came in, still wearing her flowing caftan. “Ah, here we go,” she said. She gently removed the brand-new penis from the 3-D printer and placed it on the little plate of bone-white china that rested on the night table by the side of his bed. “Now I’ll leave you for a minute,” she said demurely, and once again went into the bathroom, the sound of running water coming from the sink.
On the way out, she had dimmed the lights. It was nice in the room. The shades were closed but the sunlight was streaming in; it was still early! Lots of time for all the great things you could do in a day if you weren’t dead. Arthur looked at the freshly created penis. It was a decent size, but not ridiculous. Quite attractive, actually. Much nicer than what had become of his original, when he considered it.
She came back in just a few minutes later, without the caftan. “You ready?” she said, smiling.
“Baby,” said Arthur, snapping the new appendage into place with a soft and reassuring click. “I’m always ready.”