Book Excerpt: ReInception by Sarena Straus

A hundred years in the future, ReInception is used to modify the brain and eliminate unwanted behaviors- everything from overeating to the worst criminal impulses. Unmodified 20-year-old Leandrea Justus feels ordinary compared to her perfect friends who like living in a ReInception-regulated world. Not everyone is in favor of modification- some remain quiet, while others are outwardly insubordinate. After a protest turns violent, a rogue member of the serving class known as The Prole saves Leandrea and exposes a new reality to her: The true purpose of ReInception may be far more nefarious than advertised. Now, her free will may be her greatest asset. But Leandrea’s discoveries about ReInception are putting her life at stake. Can she save society or will the secrets she uncovers start a Civil War?

Excerpt:

[T]ranscranial magnetic stimulation beams targeted magnetic pulses deep inside patients’ brains — an approach that has been likened to rewiring a computer. “We are actually changing how the brain circuits are arranged, how they talk to each other…”

“UCLA NEWSROOM,” JUNE 12, 2017

November 11, 2126: New York City

Taking her index finger out of her mouth, Leandrea looked at the nail she’d gnawed down to the quick. She could get rid of the habit. In under an hour, she could “change her mind with ReInception,” just like the ads said.

It was her twentieth birthday, after all—the day she could modify without parental consent. She could eliminate all of her undesirable behaviors. A boost of willpower to help her say no to one more bite of cake. A suggestion that she put exercising and studying ahead of a night out with friends. Three minutes into a seminar, her legs would no longer jiggle uncontrollably. Small adjustments that were so common as to be ubiquitous could change her life for the better. No one would ever have to know, especially not her parents or Hallyn.

She stared out at Manhattan from the glass walkway where she stood, shifting from foot to foot as she waited for her friends. Vibrant green roof farms gave way to a pink-orange glow as the setting sun reflected off the crop domes, making it appear as if the whole city were on fire. Far below her, the empty, dirt pathways of The Catacombs were coated with a pristine blanket of fresh-fallen snow, while south, in The Floods, frozen canals between the buildings glistened, flat and calm like mirrors. In the distance, she could just make out the marshes and fisheries surrounding the point of the island, extending all the way out to the horizon. In summer, they were vivid green and full of life, but during the winter, they went gray and silent as graves.

In the skies above Midtown, where the rally would be, throbbing ruby lights of Authority drones cut through the cloud cover. Bright white lights strobed through the fog in pulses, scanning the ground below.

She started biting her nail again.

A tap on her wrist drew her attention. Lifting her arm, she activated her wrist chip comm. A hologram appeared, hovering just above her forearm, instantly displaying her vital signs, waiting messages, required tasks, and pinging her location on a map with a small, throbbing silver dot.

A soothing feminine voice from the microscopic comm chip implanted in her ear told her, Hallyn is attempting to locate you.

“Permission granted,” she responded.

A second silver dot lit, showing where Hallyn was. A flashing line indicated the fastest path between them. His dot moved toward hers, and she lowered her arm.

She wanted a moment to experience The Catacombs alone, so she took the pod down ahead of their arrival. It was the first time she’d be there in her three and a half years at Columbia. Technically, she was rarely at ground level except to lounge under the vast domed and perennially grassy quad near the Alma Mater. Otherwise, she traveled in The Above from class to dorm to monorail.

Of course, she’d been in the open in other places—before Uni, when walking from her apartment to the monorail each day for school. There were also those visits to Ohio that her parents called vacations, which were fraught with the stress of her grandparents nagging them about “remaining in a city on the verge of extinction.” Meanwhile, their decision to live on the giant, mosquito-ridden algae bloom of Lake Erie nearly cost her her life.

A couple of Prole approached from across the street, massive and anonymous in their hooded cloaks. “Evening!” Leandrea called, trying to sound normal despite the flutter in her stomach. As they continued in her direction, her heart sped up. Adrenaline flared in her legs. Her breathing quickened.

The Prole glanced at her but then quickly averted their eyes. Picking up their pace, they kept walking, giving her wide berth, and continuing their way.

She heard things about Prole in The Above—a population that co-existed with her own, yet was a complete enigma. The government claimed they were treated with kindness and given a life far better than the harsh world outside these borders would have afforded them. But in the darkest corners where the Prole dwelled, in places that surveillance didn’t reach, horrible things were rumored to be happening to these people. She had a responsibility to find out the truth.

Fingers twitching, eyes wide in the darkness, she scanned her surroundings. Once, this had been the thriving Upper West Side. Now, all around her were empty, dirt pathways. With gas lamps in the windows and the deep quiet of a place that is empty but not abandoned, she imagined this was how the city must have looked long ago. But the silence unnerved her, making her think again of tales told in darkness of Prole that would steal her away in the night. Horrors that ReInception said they could prevent once and for all if only the government would approve mandatory modification of the Prole.

Her friends couldn’t arrive soon enough.

Glancing up toward the glass walkways, she caught sight of them, from this distance, tiny ants scurrying toward the pod entrance. The weight crushing her chest eased a bit, and she unclenched her fists.

Moments later, the pod doors slipped open, casting a beam of light onto the sparkling whiteness. Hallyn, Kammeo, and Andromeda stepped out, Hallyn flashing a wide, toothy smile. He was the perfect blend of his mixed ancestry; black hair contrasting the olive skin, and his bright blue eyes, narrow and tipped up in the corners, like his Vietnamese grandfather’s. A boy who could have his pick of any girl he wanted, but he’d wanted Leandrea because she was the only person he knew who hadn’t been touched by ReInception.

Kammeo, dark-haired, dark-skinned, and dour, gave her a wave and said, “Oi Lea,” in a bored monotone, while Andromeda, a curvy, voluptuous force of nature, groaned, “How did I ever let you convince me to do this!” Today, her skin was chestnut brown with a swirling pattern emerging from her jumpsuit, sweeping over her right shoulder and looping around her neck. A whole-body tone change was as cheap and easy as swallowing a pill, but patterns like this required that a skilled hand prepare the skin so that the melanin would take with differing intensity. It was something Leandrea admired but couldn’t afford. For her hair and eyes, Andromeda had picked a costly metallic selection and a political one: gold to mark herself as allied with ReInception.

Reaching Leandrea, Hallyn pulled her into a kiss, lifting her by the waist with one arm and swinging her around, her legs and hair flying out behind her. She laughed, feeling like a kid.

Kammeo’s lip curled. “You could get those urges suppressed, you know.”

“Yeah,” Hallyn laughed, “but who’d want to?”

Pulling Leandrea closer, he kissed her again. “Happy twentieth,” he whispered.

Warmth radiated from where he’d touched her, followed by a wave of regret. Kammeo was only partly right about him. His sexual desire wasn’t suppressed, like Kammeo’s, but his parents had installed consent protocols. When they were intimate, there were always the pauses and questions—are you sure…is this okay…would you rather wait until—even when they were far past the point where it was clear she’d acquiesced.

And then there were his influence and sobriety protocols. If she also had such protocols, neither of them could be under the influence while they were intimate. But since she didn’t, only she had to be under legal limit to consent. Hallyn could do whatever he wanted. If they were together and intoxicated and things got sexual, she had to take a sobriety pill. She never asked him to do the same. Sometimes he did anyhow. Usually, he didn’t.

She understood the rationale behind the protocols, but it always left her wanting and, somehow, feeling less wanted. Two months from now, Hallyn would be twenty as well. His parents wanted him to keep the protocols in place until he was married, but she’d asked him to remove them. She wasn’t sure how she’d react if he didn’t. Removing the protocols wasn’t removing a mod, but it was close. His willingness to step out into a void that she navigated each time they were alone together—that would mean something real.

He broke their embrace and grabbed Leandrea’s hand. “Ready?”

Bottling up her desire and uncertainty, she nodded.

“I’m a total flesh head, letting you convince me to go to an Anti-ReInception rally,” Kammeo whined. “And Andy, you, of all people, are completely brute to go along with it! If your father found out…”

“I’m not going for the politics, you Prole. I’m going because it’s Lea’s birthday wish, and because it’s going to be the party of the century. And, of course, to stage my silent protest.” Andromeda laughed, shaking a golden curl. “Besides, Hallyn’s still holding out hope that he can ‘educate’ us, and we wouldn’t want to disappoint him, would we?” She batted her eyelashes at Kammeo, hinting at the crush they all knew Kammeo had on the boy, even though he was dating her friend.

Hallyn looked at Kammeo. “No one’s making anyone go. Come or don’t, but I think it’ll be exciting. We’ll have a couple of drinks.”

“At a Prole bar!” Kammeo squeaked.

“Which will relax you,” he continued.

Kammeo shook her head. “Which is insane.”

“My idea!” Andromeda raised her hand and grinned. “It be bang, slumming wit’ de buhay.”

Wrinkling her nose, Kammeo pulled up her jumpsuit hood. “Don’t talk like them. You just sound lowQ.”

“Whatever.” Andromeda started walking toward the bar. “Yala.”

As they began following, Leandrea’s smile slipped away. She was edgy: overcome by a twisted combination of excitement, fear, and trepidation. Her friends weren’t smiling anymore either, but peering ahead, eyes wide and chins jutting forward. Grabbing Hallyn’s hand, she squeezed hard.

“Floods, it’s so empty here. Where is everyone?”

“Probably know better than to play in toxic snow,” Kammeo replied.

“Or, unlike us Unis, they have to work,” Hallyn retorted.

Blushing, Kammeo looked at her feet. She often didn’t agree with Hallyn, but she also never challenged him as she would have if Leandrea’d made the comment. Instead, she changed the subject:

“Why’s it so dark down here?”

“Electricity’s rationed,” Hallyn explained. “Between that and the smog and The Above, even in daytime, not much light penetrates.”

“Here we go.” Andromeda groaned and rolled her eyes. “The lecture about the evils of The Above.”

“I’m not saying it’s evil. But building over a problem doesn’t make it go away. Maybe we should fix our issues instead of…”

Spying a glow ahead and hearing faint voices muffled behind closed doors, Leandrea quickened her pace. “That must be it!” Happy to avert what was sure to devolve into his usual political tirade, she nudged Hallyn in the ribs. “Let’s get inside!”

Opening the door, they stepped into a vast, crowded bar with several adjoining rooms and thick pillars scattered throughout. Oxblood brick walls framed a space filled with ancient chairs and tables made of actual wood, deep brown paneling and chipping, painted metal ceilings.

The rhythmic cadence of Prole Patois washed over Leandrea in a thrumming hum. The place smelled of unwashed bodies and the brine of the Marshes overlaid with heady, malty alcohol and crisp snow. Music thumped in the background; a deep bass beat layered with a woman’s voice singing in a guttural language she didn’t understand.

It was nothing like the pristine and antiseptic places Leandrea frequented in The Above, all glass, metal, and light. Being here made her pulse with such energy that she thought she might come apart at the seams.

She’d never seen so many Prole in one place. They towered over her. Moved past each other in their deep blue jumpsuits like a vast ocean with crisscrossing waves. Servers held trays full of drinks high in the air, and a group of orange-jumpsuited Crims huddled at a table in the back corner, heads bent toward each other in conversation. Leandrea couldn’t make out any of their designations, but on their left breasts, each would have a number and their crime—rape, drugs, battery—worn like a scarlet letter.

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” Kammeo whispered, eyes wide and clinging to Hallyn’s arm, like a Prole might grab her at any moment. But Leandrea ran her fingers over everything she could reach. The wood, smooth and glossy from the touch of thousands of fingers over hundreds of years; the metal, pitted and covered with decades of layers of peeling paint; hooks on the walls that had held clothing back when you could choose to wear whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted; from a time when people could buy and throw away like it wouldn’t ever matter.

But the Prole in this place…she shivered, resisting the urge to wrap her arms around herself. She was around them all the time. They cleaned the toilets, built the buildings, served the food. In singles and pairs, it was easy to believe that they were misjudged. But she’d never been so close to so many all at once and never when they were at their ease. She could lie to Kammeo—lying to herself wasn’t quite so easy. But how she felt and how she behaved didn’t have to be the same thing.

She forced herself think about it, just for a second. Sinking into the darkness, lungs and belly searing like they were being filled with lava, hands grabbing desperately for air until, finally, something grabbed her back.

She took a deep breath. “It’s a great idea.” She stepped inside, leading her trio through the crowd like she belonged there just as much as anyone else.

The Prole grew quiet. Everyone turned to stare.

Kammeo’s voice shook. “You certain of that?”

Leandrea’s eyes moved from Prole to Prole as she tried to meet their gazes, but they shuttered their eyes and turned away. She couldn’t read those blank stares, the same faces they put on everywhere she encountered them. It radiated an unwelcomeness that she hadn’t anticipated. She’d expected some wariness, but not this suffocating blanket of hostility, like scorching heat radiating off too-hot ground.

She swallowed hard, stomach doing strange turns as she tried to assure herself that it would pass once the Prole saw that they meant no harm. They were here for a bump, and then they’d be gone.

The intrusive, calm voice of her comm made her jump. Heartrate elevated. Respiration elevated.

She scanned for a space where they could move to the side, but she couldn’t see over the wall of blue-clad bodies. Her heart sped up. This had seemed like a great plan when she’d suggested it, but right then, if she could have left without Andy and Kammeo gloating about it, she’d have done so.

Would you like to engage in relaxation techniques?

A tall, androgynous person pushed their way through the crowd and toward her. She noted the status and number embroidered on their breast: “Server 23,698 Manhattan.” Their tone was terse and didn’t allow for discussion when the Server told them, “Follow me.”

The Server led them toward the table full of Crims, shooing the group away and indicating to Leandrea and her friends that they should sit down.

“Thank you. You didn’t need to do that.” Hallyn was average to tallish for a non-Prole, but he had to look upwards to meet the Server’s gaze. It was hard not to stare at them. Between the genetic and physical modifications, they were built like mythical Amazons—solid and full of curves and muscles. Of course, there were people of all genders, sexual identities, and preferences in the Upper caste. But being other than the gender you were assigned at birth was much more common amongst the Prole; no one knew why.

The Server stared at Hallyn with unblinking eyes; a strange, dark purple, fringed with thick, black lashes that regarded him in an unnerving way. “We both know that’s not true.”

They wiped down the table with a grungy rag and then walked away.

Kammeo looked down at the plank of thick, dirty wood, uneven and worn shiny-smooth from centuries of oily hands. Lip curling, she pulled her sleeves over her fists. “I bet there’s diseases on that table that were eradicated a century ago.”

“Give it a chance.” Leandrea said, feeling calmer and braver now that they were surrounded on three sides by the thick panels of the booth.

“Yeah,” added Hallyn, “The Prole just need to get used to us.”

But Hallyn wasn’t much of an actor, and Leandrea could tell he was uncertain too. Maybe they hadn’t taken Kammeo here to prove something to her after all. Maybe they’d come to prove it to themselves.

She bit her nails, watching Andromeda—the only one of them who seemed at ease. Maybe it was the certainty of her own superiority. Maybe she loved anything forbidden. Perhaps she was a better faker than the rest of them. Whatever the case, she bounced into the booth, bringing up the holomenu. It glitched, then faded away.

“What pock,” Andromeda mumbled, tapping at the device, and then hitting it harder. It shook back into existence long enough for them to order and then, with a crackling noise, faded away again.

“Nice place, Lea,” Andromeda said.

Moments later, the Server returned with four glasses filled with neon green liquid. Leandrea took a careful sip. It was warm, tasting leafy and slightly chemical, and burned on the way down. She didn’t have alcohol often, only at Bar in the Sky with other Unis. There, drinks were cold, minty, and delicious. This tasted completely different: slightly rank and seedy, as if it fermented too long. It was wonderful.

She took another sip, then three more swallows until the glass was empty. Her head swam, and her trepidation seeped away as the warmth spread through her limbs.

Hallyn eyed Kammeo’s full glass. “Aren’t you going to have any?”

The girl wrinkled her nose. “You know I don’t drink.”

Leandrea wondered whether Kammeo was programmed not to crave drink.

“Don’t or can’t?” It was a question she’d never dared ask before—it was distasteful to inquire about a person’s modifications. But she was already a little bent and the question slipped out.

“I can if I want to,” Kammeo snipped defensively.

“Prove it.” Andromeda pushed the drink toward Kammeo, a malicious grin spreading across her face.

Picking up her glass, Kammeo wrinkled her nose again and took a small sip. She immediately gagged, almost throwing up.

“Can’t,” Andromeda confirmed.

“See,” said Hallyn, “you let those flesh heads mess with your mind too much. You’ve no free will.”

“I’ve so free will.” Kammeo’s voice quavered. “It’s only the things that are bad for us, right Andy?”

“Don’t look at me,” Andromeda scoffed. “My parents only took stuff like getting fat. ReInception is supposed to help us, not spoil all the fun.” She sipped her drink. “Funny. You can’t have things because your parents modded it out of you. Lea can’t have things because she refuses the cure. Somehow, at opposite ends of the spectrum, you’ve met in the middle.”

Leandrea looked up, her eyes meeting Kammeo’s. She suddenly felt terrible because Kammeo clearly wanted the drink. She wondered how parents could make those choices for their children and whether it made Kammeo feel less loved that she hadn’t been enough the way she was.

“Right,” Leandrea held Kammeo’s gaze. “Hilarious.”

For so long, Leandrea had wanted life to be a little easier and for people not to look at her as a curiosity. Often, she’d felt she had more in common with the Prole than with all the modified, model-perfect kids around her who never wiggled in their seats or blurted things out in class, and always got their homework done on time.

She’d begrudged her parents for making her an outsider. But now, it made her feel profoundly loved that her parents hadn’t wanted to change her. Then again, maybe in Kammeo’s mind, Leandrea’s parents didn’t care enough to modify her. Beliefs were a complicated thing.

She considered the variations at their table. Hallyn’s parents had picked and chosen, putting in consent protocols and academic modifications. When he was small, he’d gotten an attention mod. There’d also been one that had something to do with his eating habits and athletics that he was not so clear about. But they allowed him to drink, and he could have premarital sex—so long as his partner passed the consent gauntlet.

And the consent protocols were not ReInception; they were an optional comm program, not a mind modification. Technically, you could ignore them—if you could enjoy the moment while both your comms were blaring in your ears, buzzing on your arms, and recording everything you were doing.

Kammeo’s parents had wanted a firmer grip on their daughter. They’d made alcohol unpalatable to her. They’d taken away her sexual desire until she was married. There were, Leandrea presumed, extensive academic and behavioral mods, too.

Andromeda was the hardest to figure out. One would imagine she’d be the most altered of the group, her father being who he was. She was a decent but not excellent student, so it was unclear what her academic mods were. She seemed to eat what she wanted, yet maintain a perfect figure, so maybe she had eating mods. But Andy could also afford any physical mod she wanted, so restraining her eating might not have been how she kept her figure. She was allowed to drink, and she was one of the most sexually adventurous people Leandrea knew. She had no consent mods. No gender preference. ReInception held most people back from something, but Andromeda seemed freed by it. Like, if she shouldn’t do it, surely her parents would have programmed it out of her. And if she could, it must be okay.

Kammeo continued to look at Leandrea. “Well, now that you’re twenty, you must be thinking about some mods yourself.”

“Of course, she’s not,” Hallyn answered for her.

Andromeda crossed her arms over her chest. “Shut it, Hallyn. She gets to decide, not her parents and certainly not you. You’re not the one who had to do the hard work all these years. Why shouldn’t Lea make her life easier?”

Leandrea kept her uncertainty to herself. It was hard not to be tempted—like opening a box full of treasure, being told it’s all yours, and then not taking any. Maybe she was overanalyzing the whole modification thing. Worrying about what might happen if she let the Corporation in her head instead of about what was not happening because her parents had refused to. And it’s not like she would contemplate revision to her core character. Changing gender identity or sexual preference, what the government claimed was un-brainwashing terrorists—the mods that change who you are instead of what you do—those were the ones that the rumors were about.

Her parents and Hallyn rejected ReInception later in life, after they were modified. They didn’t understand how hard it was to face life’s obstacles without any help, especially when everyone around her had taken the quick fix. It was easy for them to stand by “the cause”—they didn’t have to live it.

If it came down to it, would her parents or Hallyn be willing to undo what had already been done to them if that were an option? They claimed they would, but like the ads said, “ReInception: Safe and permanent.”

This slogan is what gave her the most pause. Once she made the choice, there was no going back.

Reaching across Leandrea, Hallyn grabbed Kammeo’s cocktail.

“Lea won’t let those flesh heads mess with her brain.” He downed the drink in three gulps. “Second one’s much better. Isn’t that something you’d like to know for yourself, Kam?”

Leandrea got up from the table. Let her friends keep debating her future. She needed some space. “I’ll get the next.”

When she stood, the drink hit her hard. She swayed as she walked, feeling like the marsh grasses surrounding The Floods. Prole towered over her, yet she was conspicuous—small and silver-bodied, like a tiny minnow slipping through a dangerous, churning sea. They parted as she walked toward the bar, making a lane for her. She could feel their glares as she passed, burning embers on her back.

The long, u-shaped bar looked ancient, practically petrified. A long, pitted mirror rose above it allowing her to see herself—tiny, pale, barely reaching the shoulders of the Prole flanking her. The girl reflected back seemed shockingly ordinary in a world where all you needed to be perfect was mods, and all you needed for mods was money.

She felt too short, too pale, too soft. And as had become apparent this evening, too cowardly. Her sole vanity was her wild, curly, naturally red hair—a rarity left now in less than one-eighth of one percent of the world population. It was deep red and velvety. She wished to vanish behind it, like a theater curtain.

The Keep came over right away, ignoring a three-deep stack of Prole who’d been waiting for service. Flicking his eyes toward her left breast, he read the “Justus 3L” that identified her as a third-year student, making sure she was old enough to be served. If she’d been a Prole, he might not have cared. But if something happened to a Uni, he’d end up in trouble.

“What’s your poison?” he asked.

“My…” she shook her head, confused. “Why would I want poison?”

He shrunk in on himself, and it looked strange on the big man. He could crush her with one hand if he wanted to, but she’d made him nervous. For the first time, she was regretting coming here, not for her own sake, but for the sake of the Prole. She’d only wanted to understand them better, but clearly, she made them miserable.

“What do you want to drink?” he asked.

“Oh. Whatever you reckon. And three, please.”

He shrugged, turning his back on her.

Suddenly, she sensed someone staring at her. She turned to look at the man to her left. He was bent over the bar, shoulder-length brown hair, thick and wavy, hanging forward, masking his face. His thick, muscular arm flexed, pulling his jumpsuit fabric taut as he lifted a mug to his lips, taking a drink and putting it back down on the bar.

Standing to his full height, he turned to face her. He was young—close to her age, maybe younger, yet he towered over her, a least a foot and a half taller and twice as wide. His voice came, deep and unwelcoming:

“Fly home, canary.”

 

Sarena’s author site: https://sarenastraus.com/

Source: Auto Draft

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