I met Claudia in Rome. She was an attractive twenty-something girl browsing a book store on Christmas day. She recognized a few phrases of English and Italian, and I found my Church Latin being put to the test when I found it was the only thing she spoke that I could make out.

An uncountably long time ago, the founding races of the Republic had independently discovered “Element Zero”, or “eezo”. Eezo is a unique form of matter capable of creating what was once called the “mass effect”, which facilitated interstellar travel, antigravity, and other wonders. Living beings whose nervous systems had traces of eezo developed unusual capabilities. Those beings who traveled into space met other lifeforms, some similar, some not. Together they created an interstellar government called the Republic. And for a thousand generations, it stood as the torch of civilization across the entire galaxy.

My name’s Macdonald, Charlie Macdonald. I am - or was - the general manager of Highlander Construction. You’ve seen our signs if you’ve been downtown in the last year. I take pride in the quality of our work. Employers expect, and pay for, the reliability of our product. Our unofficial motto is “our buildings will outlast your company”.

“Vice is the spice of life, reverend,” said Sutherland, smiling around his cigar like a Cheshire cat. The black-clad minister sighed and slid a weathered pamphlet across the table, and Sutherland toyed with it for a few moments.

They say that the soul chooses its own destination after death - if you feel you belong in Heaven, then that’s where you go. If you condemn yourself to Hell, your mind makes it real. I hate to imagine that it’s true. Too many mass murderers have been convinced they were doing God’s work, and too many people have struggled with crippling neuroses and taken a suicide attempt to a successful conclusion.

The Green Man was a welcome sight to the people of Crosswind Plateau. He would come and go as he pleased, staying long enough to swap stories, sell seeds, and dispense invariably accurate advice on the growing of crops or the tending of illnesses. His leather knapsack was packed full of all manner of strange things: exotic herbs flattened with care into paper packages, glass retorts full of faintly luminous liquids, a leather-bound tome marked with a curious foreign symbol, a small rectangular object tough as rock but flexible like a tree branch. Even when he would smack a child’s hand away before it touched some of the more dangerous contents, there was never malice.

Lucky’s been directing movies for 30 years. I’ve been acting in them for eight. So when Lucky asks me to try something new for the fifth David Dark movie, I go along with it.

"David’s been backed up by CGI for too long," Lucky told me over lunch, waving asparagus crepe in my face with his fork. “The fans are getting tired of seeing this stuff. They want reality.”

I shook my head. “David Dark can do all that stuff. I can’t. I’m on egg whites and rice every day, in the gym every day, but I can’t break the laws of physics.”

Lucky just grinned at me. “Leave that to me.”

The device was called the Moravec-Marchal Wave Selection Prototype. It was experimental. When Lucky took me to his scientist friend to have it fitted, I asked what it did.

"Basically, it’s a device that provides quantum immortality." Noticing my blank stare, he went on. “Your heartbeat is measured by the device and broadcast backward in time, via probability wave. The device selects for futures where your heart rate stays below a pre-set interval. No worse than hard cardiovascular exercise. In situations where multiple outcomes are possible, the device constrains your wave function to those where the heartbeat remains under this threshold.”

I stared. “You mean I can’t be killed as long as I wear this thing?”

“That’s the idea.”

The assistant director was with me in the airplane. The device was humming away on my chest, tucked neatly beneath my tuxedo. Below the airplane were the Alps. Behind us was the camera crew in a helicopter.

“The script is very specific. In this scene, you’re going to leap out of the plane,” yelled the A.D. over the roar of the engines. “David’s going to leap out of the plane, shoot out the right engine, and come down on the mountain in the snow while the plane crashes. We’re not doing any CGI here, so you have to follow the script. Okay?”

“That’s great, but what about you guys?” I joked. My nervousness made the joke fall flat, but the A.D. didn’t seem to notice.

“All you have to do is jump. Just jump when you feel like it, pop a couple rounds at the plane. The second unit is handling the engine failure and crash. Don’t worry about it!”

Worrying about it was all I could do. I made sure the harness was on for the fifteenth time, looked at the steady green light for comfort, and got a grip on the prop guns. The open door was waiting for me. After a few moments, my gut twisted - this felt right. So I dove out, and unloaded.

I came down in the thickest snow on the mountain. I could see the chopper spiraling in for a close-up, with Lucky giving me a big thumbs-up through the transparent canopy. As I pulled myself out of the snowbank, I let my disgust with him play out on my face, using it in place of David’s contempt for the bad guys on the downed plane. “Cut and print!” called Lucky over the megaphone. Then came the rope ladder and my ride home.

“I have to keep wearing it?” I demanded.

Lucky looked apologetic. “The insurance company, once they heard about this, were very specific. On-set accidents are a big deal. You know last year, Tom Cruise was almost killed by falling lumber? Tom Cruise. Imagine what we’d do without a real actor like you, Ed. The movie industry just can’t afford to lose you.”

“Literally,” I grumbled. “Is ‘afford’ all they care about? All you care about? I thought we were friends, Lucky. Now you’re clamping this thing around me like a ball and chain.”

“It’s just until post-production,” he begged. “Please, Ed, please understand. Look, you aren’t the only one. They’re making Kate wear it, and she’s not even doing her own stunts. They had to throw out all the old gowns for the Prague scene. We’re ordering new ones to hide the device. You aren’t the only one suffering, believe me. Look, it’s a good script. A great one. The best David Dark we’ve ever done. And we’re working with some really good people, like Chris and Kate. Come on, you always told me you wanted a good script, that you didn’t want a bunch of mindless action movies. Think how far we’ve come, and do it for the script.”

“Fine. But just until post.”

Lucky found me staring down a pile of white powder.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he demanded. I’d never heard his voice pitch so high. Then again, if he had any idea how much I’d paid for this crap…

“I thought I was overdosing on cocaine,” I explained, and quite calmly I thought. The look on his face wasn’t encouraging, but I plowed ahead anyway. He deserved to know what he’d unleashed on the world.

“I paid a fair street price to a dealer for this cocaine. I bought out his entire supply. All of it. Then I started snorting.”

He couldn’t cope. He needed the implications assembled for him.

“Lucky, this isn’t cocaine. It’s flour. White flour. I’ve been snorting bread.”

He breathed a huge sigh of relief. I saw the line of reasoning, clear as crystal, and cut him off quickly before his mind could latch onto the safe conclusion and call it truth.

“No, this isn’t a joke, Lucky. I’m deadly serious. I intended to buy cocaine. I intended to kill myself – if I could. The fact that it wasn’t cocaine, that it was not cocaine, was not part of my plan. This caused it.” And I tapped the device strapped to my chest, still operating at peak efficiency.

“What?” He was slowly coming round to it, but he needed that extra push.

"Lucky. I can’t kill myself while your friend’s device is working. It retroactively changed the world around me to keep me alive." I pulled the blanket off the dozen or so pistols I’d been hiding from lot security and showed them to him. “What are the odds that all of these would jam as well, eh? One hundred percent.”

I could see him rallying, finally. Maybe I was getting through. The next few words removed that faint hope.

“Ed, thank goodness. Trying to kill yourself is crazy. The device saved your life!”

“It saved my existence, Lucky. My life is out of my hands.”

I still remember the headline. “Congress mandates immortality device”. I remember testifying at the hearings. Mainly I remember all the letters people wrote to me, thanking me for being a pioneer in testing a device that would save every life on the planet. More like every life in America, or every life that could afford to buy one of these things. I remember these things every time I get up in the morning and check the settings on my Moravec-Marchal Wave Selection Production model.

There’s no more unexpected violence. There’s no accidents. People go to work, they come home. Brake lines don’t fail on the highway. Kids don’t pull guns out of their parents’ closets and play with them. Salmonella outbreaks are caught before they happen. The President is already talking about deploying troops to the Middle East, and the opposition is already blasting him over intelligence that Iran is researching their own prototype. But if they succeed, great. Doesn’t that mean the end of war?

I remember when I met my wife. My heart rate shot way up, and stayed there the whole time she was in the room. Given the calibrations mandated by the insurance industry, I wonder. Does that mean love at first sight isn’t happening any more? The possibility of meeting your soul mate, washed away by quantum wave collapse?

It’s the beginning of the end for free will. What you’re allowed to do is dictated by a piece of ceramic and metal strapped to your chest. That’s a small price to pay for world peace, they keep telling me.

At the end of the day, I guess things aren’t that different for me. Just follow the script. It’s a good script.

Old Drosselmeyer straightens out his doll on the workbench. He surveys her gears and clockwork with pride. He attaches her skin carefully, mindful of the folds and creases. It must look natural, after all, but still beautiful. He winds her with pride. The doll’s voice creaks out from hidden speakers; the mouth moves. “H… he…l…l…o… f…a…t…h…e…r…”

When the City’s human population exceeds the capacity of the mist to provide for, certain citizens are extended an invitation: forego their corporeal existence and lock their minds away in storage. The City will resurrect them at some later time, when their skills and personalities are more suited to the times. In return, they’ll be given a suitable economic and political consideration.

The City’s inhabitants are numerous. Among them, living humans are perhaps the most acceptable minority.