Science fiction is often pretty bad at predicting the future: rather, it’s a better barometer of the present. But every now and again, an author establishes a reputation for insight into what the future might hold. One such author is Canadian writer and futurist Karl Schroeder, whose new book The Million comes out this summer.
In this far future tale, Earth is populated and ruled exclusively by super-rich individuals — one million of them, to be exact. Every 30 years they allow the rest of humankind to return to the planet for a single month, but the rest of the time they forbid the presence of outsiders in their fabulous utopia. One such outsider is Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee, an illegal child raised in secret. After his adoptive father is murdered, Gavin takes on the identity of a dead boy — only to learn that his new identity has just joined the dreaded secret police force of The Million. In order to survive, he’ll have to infiltrate their ranks and stay focused on finding the people who destroyed his life.
The book hits stores on August 14th, 2018, and you can read an excerpt here:
Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee smacked his brother’s shoulder. “And what’ll you do if they mob you?”
“Focus on one at a time,” said Bernard through clenched teeth.
“And if somebody moves to cut you out of the pack?”
“And if you have the sudden urge to hit somebody upside the head?”
Gavin scowled and gave his brother a critical once-over. “Okay, you’re all set. Knock ’em dead.”
“Don’t say that if you don’t mean it,” warned Bernie. He took a deep breath, stepped up to the big pair of intricately carved, powder blue doors, and signaled the bots on either side to open them. Bernie stepped through the doorway into light and noise, and Gavin stepped back into the shadows. The doors swung shut, and Gavin’s shoulders slumped.
Now for the hard part.
He walked through the pitch-dark sitting room at speed; though he rarely came down here, he knew exactly where every table and chair was. When he opened the door at the far end, it was to the exact same sight that had met him through the ones that Bernie had used. The vast ballroom Gavin strode into was packed with men in tuxedos and women wearing all manner of gowns, dresses, and visual confections. They were chatting, eating snacks off the trays of passing bots, raising glasses to this or that proposition, and, way too often, leaning together to eye Bernie and mutter as he passed by. They could have been holographic projections from the real ballroom, but they weren’t; like the rest of the Million, Gavin had been raised to think of digital simulation as uncouth. Instead, this was a real double to the other room, and the “people” in it were fakes: bots made to look like the people visiting the Chaffee estate.
The one difference was that there were floor-to-ceiling windows in that other room, whereas here, hidden in the heart of the main building, the walls were blank.
Gavin watched the fake that was imitating his brother long enough to be sure that he wasn’t about to bolt in terror. The bot not only looked like Bernie, it mimicked his expressions down to the finest detail, and repeated in his voice what he’d said in the other room. All looked good so far: he’d started a conversation with that girl in the lemon-yellow dress. Seeing this, Gavin turned away and closed his eyes.
Conversations, music, the tinkling of glasses, and the swish of skirts along the floor washed over him like a calming sea. Light laughter sang from his left, and he smiled; a dance started up and he listened to the music echoing off the walls and the squeak of new shoes on the parquet floor. He tried to forget that this was Bernie’s party and not his. He tried to imagine all these people gathering here to celebrate him.
But no, that was too much. He had no idea what such a moment would feel like.
There were more people at the Chaffee estate tonight than Gavin had ever seen gathered in one place. On any given day he might wander outside and face a vista of rolling hills and grasslands that never changed. Buffalo came by, sometimes wolves. Unless you owned a city, say, Paris or New York, this was all any of the Million normally saw. If he was bored, Gavin could summon the powers of his personal economy to build things of interest—palaces, flocks of autonomous skywriting aircraft, dungeons with fake dragons in them, mechs that he and Bernie could battle. He could re-create some historical city on the grasslands of central North America, fill it with fakes, and live like the ancients did for a day or a week or until he lost interest. In that way, his had been an ordinary life.
He listened as two women greeted each other just behind him, and he pictured himself standing next to one of them, her fingers wrapped around his arm. He could open his eyes and entwine his arm in that of one of the fakes and pretend he was actually in that other room, actually among those people.
. . . And that would just be creepy, and sad, and wrong; spying on them this way was already a mistake. He should be in his own chambers, in his own wing of the house, curled up with a good book. The only reason he’d done this was to keep a brotherly eye on Bernie. But he had to let go sometime. Dejected, he walked to the door and raised his hand to dismiss the fakes.
Despite himself, he turned for one last look. There were quite a few young people in the crowd. What would it be like to walk among them? To talk to them? Bernie’s guests were intimidating, all of them beautiful or handsome, perfectly dressed, and perfectly poised. Like most of the scions of the Million, these ones were intensely focused, serious, and cautious around their elders. They should be—all of human civilization rested on their shoulders. Each was doubtless determined to become the greatest composer, pilot, scientist, or philosopher of this generation. All knew that if there were only one million people alive in the whole world, then those million had a responsibility to be equal to all who had come before.
“Stop skulking about, Neal,” snapped an older man’s voice. “This is a party, not one of your hunts.”
The speaker was an older man, his face eclipsed by the head of a youth who was turned away from Gavin. All Gavin could see of the pair was their shared shaggy hair and hulking shoulders. Then the younger one looked around and sneered at the crowd, and Gavin froze.
He knew that face.
Gavin had been eleven or twelve years old. There was a party—not like this one, much more relaxed and friendly-sounding—and some of the neighbors had been there. As usual, Father had told Gavin to stay hidden, but he couldn’t resist peeking around a doorjamb to see the guests with his own eyes. That’s when one of the Makhav boys had spotted him.
It was just a meeting of the eyes, no words had been exchanged, yet Gavin would always remember that face. It was the only time in his entire life that he’d locked gazes with someone outside his own family.
Neal Makhav-of-Winter-Park had grown up, was in fact a young man now. That would make Gavin one, too, he supposed. Little good that it did him.
Neal’s fake stepped away from the older one and said, “You’re one to talk, Father. You’re just here to laugh at the gimp, like everybody else!”
“Don’t use such language,” warned Neal’s father. “You knew Bernie before the accident. He was a great kid.”
Neal gave a contemptuous snort. “Yeah, but he zigged when he should have zagged. Getting that iron bar through the head scrambled his brains, so what’s he good for now? Somebody should put him out of his misery.”
You could strike a fake without consequences, but Gavin’s father had always warned him never to do it. “You might get used to hitting them, and that would make you used to hitting people,” he’d said. So Gavin kept his clenched fists at his sides. It was little consolation that Neal’s father had stepped in front of his son and was glaring into his face.
“Don’t you even think of trumping up some sort of duel with Bernard Chaffee,” he hissed. His eyes widened as Neal glanced away. “You were thinking of it!”
“Come on, Father, it’s not like I haven’t put down wounded animals before. And look at this place! Six thousand square kilometers of land, and just the two of them to take care of it? Old man Chaffee’s got no heir now, it’s just a matter of time before he admits defeat. Should have done so before now. Everybody says so.”
Neal’s father crossed his arms and turned away. “The Chaffee lands are thriving. And Bernie’s no idiot. The injury didn’t affect his intellect, only his self-control.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you’d consider such a thing.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have killed the guy. But this party is pathetic; it’s a sham and it needs to be exposed. I mean, do they really think that one of those girls is going to take to him? . . . And anyway”—and here Neal looked everywhere but at his father’s eyes—“I still say Bernie’s had help running the place.”
“This again? You swear you saw another boy here once and now you’re convinced they’re hiding a visitor on the property! That’s ridiculous.”
“I know what I saw,” said Neal, and his fake turned its head and looked straight through Gavin.
The illusion was so startling that for a second Gavin was sure that Neal could really see him.
Oh, he did remember that night. After he and Neal Makhav locked eyes, Neal had kicked up a fuss, asking who the other boy in the house was, but by that time Gavin had hidden himself, and ordered his bots to do the same with any evidence that there was a third person in the house. Father had laughed and given the nosy boy a chance to search the whole place, just to prove there was nobody here. Neal had done so, much to the embarrassment of his father and uncle.
“—not a fit profession for a Makhav,” Neal’s father was saying. “It’s not an honorable use of the hunting skills I gave you.”
Neal snorted in contempt. “I knew you’d say something like that. But my mind is made up.”
“This isn’t the time or place for this,” said his father. “We’ll talk about it when we get home.”
Neal Makhav took several steps away from his father, then turned and sent him an aloof look. “No, we won’t, Father. You see, after we’re done here, I’m not going home.” He walked away.
Before he could follow Neal, another man stepped up to Neal’s father. He was gray haired though still powerfully built, and here, too, the family resemblance was plain. Gavin had seen photos of Eli Makhav; Father made sure he knew about all the important players in the region. Eli was the brother of the Makhav clan’s patriarch, and Father said it was really Eli who ran the household, childless though he was.
“Made up his mind, has he?” said Eli, as both men stared at Neal’s retreating back.
“He’ll come around. This thing about joining the auditors . . . it’s just youthful restlessness,” said Neal’s father.
“I’m not so sure about that. And what’s he up to now?” Neal was nudging one of the ballroom’s marble statues (also faithfully reproduced in the room where Gavin stood) as if trying to make it fall off its pedestal.
Eli sighed and walked over to him. Gavin followed; he just had to hear this.
Eli came to a halt next to his nephew. Without looking at him, he said, “Break it and I’ll crack your head wide open.”
Neal looked startled, then guilty, and then began to slink away. Suddenly Eli’s hand was clamped on his wrist.
“That goes double for Bernard Chaffee,” he said. Neal pulled away but couldn’t even get the older man’s arm to quiver.
Eli let go, and Neal stepped back, snarling as he rubbed his bruised wrist. Then suddenly he laughed.
“I don’t have to do anything, old man,” he said. “Look!”
Eli turned, and Gavin turned, and so just managed to catch the moment when Bernie’s hard-won self-control failed.
He’d clearly been trying to hold a conversation with one of the girls, but others had gathered around, perhaps reassured by his calmness. They were curious. Later, Gavin would forgive them for it, but now they pressed close, trying to hear, and Gavin could see it all become too much for Bernie. The unfamiliar people, the babble of voices and moving bodies, the pressure to be at his best, anxiety at meeting the girls . . . Any of these could have pushed Bernard Chaffee over the edge, and right now they were all present at once. Father reminded him to keep Bernie’s exposure to strangers short, but the problem was, Bernie always seemed fine, right up until that moment when he—
“No!” Bernie swung his drink and champagne sprayed those nearest him. “Get away, I can’t, I don’t wanna, I—”
“Aw, no, Bern,” said Gavin. He took two steps toward his brother, but this wasn’t really Bernie, just a robotic actor faithfully playing out a drama to which Gavin wasn’t invited.
He ran out of the utility room and through the darkened lounge, and put his hand on the door to the real ballroom. He could hear Bernie’s panicked voice through the thick wood of the door.
It wasn’t too late. He knew what to do, the words to say to back Bernie off and settle him again. He knew how to do it. But he couldn’t go in there.
If he did, everyone would learn that Martin Chaffee was harboring an illegal visitor. That wasn’t necessarily a capital crime, but Father had always acted as if Gavin’s case was different. There was some dire reason for his remaining hidden here—and that reason trumped all other considerations.
He let go of the knob but pressed his ear to the door.
“All right, Bernard, son,” Father was saying in a soothing tone. Didn’t he know that never worked? “Excuse us, everyone,” he said in a louder tone. “It’s all been a bit too much for Bernard, I’m afraid.”
Don’t talk about him like he’s not there! Gavin raised his fists, and though he would never actually smack his—no, Bernie’s—father alongside the head, Gavin made the gesture here in the safety of the darkness.
Bernard’s not stupid, he’s as smart as you are! That’s why he’s so frustrated.
You couldn’t think your way around a brain injury. Gavin had seen Bernie try, many times. He knew perfectly well how he should be behaving; it was just that he literally didn’t have it in him to do it.
Bernie was shouting now, and the guests were muttering. Gavin heard a flapping noise and pictured Father trying to keep Bernie’s flailing fists down. He couldn’t summon a bot to subdue his own son, that sort of thing just wasn’t done. He was going to get hit.
Gavin threw open the door.
Everything was exactly as he’d pictured it would be. Bernie was bigger than Martin Chaffee, and he’d just gotten in a roundhouse blow that had sent Father reeling. Some of the guests stood in a semicircle, shocked by the scene, while others were making for the door.
“Wait, wait,” Father shouted after them. “It’s all right, he’s just nervous.”
“Can we help?” Two big-shouldered young men (more Makhavs, maybe?) stepped forward. They looked eager to tackle Bernie, but Eli Makhav moved surprisingly quickly, putting himself between them and Gavin’s brother.
“This is a family matter,” he grated. “Stand down.”
Gavin spotted Neal Makhav. He was standing near one of the big glass doors that led outside, his arms crossed, a contemptuous smile on his face.
Nobody had seen Gavin yet, and when a face did turn his way, it was his father’s. When he spotted Gavin, his eyes widened and his face flickered through a whole host of emotions—fury, shame, resignation. Right there, in one second, Gavin read the past sixteen years of Martin Chaffee’s life. Then Father tilted his chin up in an unmistakable gesture: Get back!
Gavin stepped into the shadowed lounge and eased the door shut. Through the curtained windows off to the right, he could hear somebody laughing on the front lawn. It wasn’t a nice laugh.
It took ten minutes for Bernie to calm down enough that Father could haul him out of the room. By that time most of the guests had left. Gavin heard his brother and father coming—a gathering storm of argument and thudding footsteps—and then the door burst open and Bernie stumbled into the lounge. He was disheveled and tearstained in the fan of light from the ballroom.
Martin Chaffee slumped against the door like a broken doll, his face empty of expression. Gavin went to him and said, “Go,” pointing out the door. “Salvage what you can.” The Makhavs were still here, along with some other stalwart friends who’d known Bernie since before the accident. They would help his Father recover some of his shredded dignity.
Martin nodded wearily and left. Gavin turned to Bernie.
“It happened,” Bernie said. He banged his fists against his temples, not softly. “Again, again, again. It’s always going to happen, I can’t stop it.”
This was threatening to be a repeat of thousands of similar conversations. Gavin had tried as many ways of deflating Bernie’s self-pity and none had worked. Suddenly weary of even trying, he barked a humorless laugh and said, “And why should you?”
Bernie blinked at him. “What?”
“Well, it’s their problem if they can’t deal with you.” He threw a hand out to indicate the curtains and the grounds beyond, where aircars like confections of light were lifting off. “Would you really want to be friends with somebody who couldn’t accept you for who you are?”
Bernie seemed at a loss as to how to answer that. Finally, he went to sit in an overstuffed leather armchair under a portrait of one of his ancestors. Douglas Penn-of-Chaffee seemed to glower disapprovingly at Bernie; Gavin was convinced that Bernie was aware of this effect and sat there specifically to cause it.
He looked up at Gavin. “Then why do we try?”
Gavin crossed his arms. “Because your real friends are out there somewhere. They’ve gotta be. But we’re not gonna find them if we don’t look.”
“Gotta be?” Bernie croaked contemptuously. “There’s only a million people in the whole world. It took more than a billion before there could be a Picasso.”
“It doesn’t take genius to like you, Bernie.”
“It takes something.” Bernie wasn’t looking at him anymore, and Gavin, embarrassed, went to the window to twitch back the curtain. Sometimes Bernie’s intelligence startled even Gavin, and he’d known Bernie his whole life. It takes family, he thought to himself—but that was useless because the Chaffees were not like the Makhavs. There were nearly a hundred Makhavs—fractious, quarreling, mutually suspicious though they might be. But here, there were only Martin Chaffee and his sons, one of whom wasn’t supposed to exist, and one who didn’t want to.
Neither of them said anything for a long time. All they had ever said to each other hung in the air between them. One of the things Bernie had said, and more than once, was, “I should have died.” Gavin’s answer to that was always the same: “But then I’d be alone.” A thin argument, but sometimes it was all he had.
There was a polite knock on the door and a bot opened it. “The last of the guests have left, sirs,” it said.
Gavin left the lounge, then looked back. Bernie hadn’t moved. “Are you just going to sit in the dark?” he asked.
“Yes,” Bernie said. There wasn’t any anger or sullenness in the way he said it; his voice sounded almost like he was laughing. Gavin sighed and finally remembered the fakes in the other room. He practically ran back to the utility room to dismiss them before either Father or Bernie found them.
Back in the ballroom, Father was slumped in an armchair, swirling red wine in a crystal glass and pressing a cold rag against his cheekbone. Quite a bruise was developing around Martin Penn-of-Chaffee’s left eye. Two bots hovered in the background, eager to provide assistance. He ignored them, but sent a glance at Gavin as he came to lean against the arm of a velvet-chased couch nearby.
Neither spoke, and a few minutes later Bernie emerged from the lounge. He, too, was subdued, but he walked up to his father and said, “I’ve been giving it some thought.”
He blew out a heavy sigh. “I think it’s time for Plan B.”
Their father closed his eyes, an expression of such pain that Gavin hopped up from his slouch. “What?” he said. “What’s Plan B?”
Father and Bernie looked at each other, then both turned to gaze quietly at Gavin. The look on their faces was almost identical—eloquent and sad, but Gavin didn’t know what it meant.
“Tell me,” Gavin insisted.
“Not now,” said Father. He glared at Bernie. “We’ll talk about it in the morning. We’re all a little too . . . ragged . . . right now.”
Gavin looked from one to the other. “But what—”
“In the morning. That’s an order,” Martin said directly to Bernie. Bernie ducked his head and walked away.
“Go to bed, Gavin,” said his father. Gavin shifted from one foot to the other, wondering whether he should press the issue. He was so weary, though, and so much had happened. Finally, he nodded just like Bernie had and stumbled off to his room, where images and snatches of conversation from the evening rolled around and around in his head for what seemed like hours, defying sleep.