Printed from WriteWords -


by  Fredja

Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Word Count: 3235

Methuselah (3220 words)
They had ridden the rides, hooked ducks, rolled pennies and now, as evening made the lights of the fair brighter they headed for the story tent, the last ritual of their annual treat. Anna, Diego and their children bought toffee apples and sugared almonds and squeezed together near the front.

There was eager shuffling in the seats as the lights dimmed and a tall figure dressed in black walked to the comfortable chair at the centre of the stage. It was a man of about 35 with dark thickly curling hair just beginning to grey at the temples. He gave a small bow to acknowledge the scatter of applause and settled himself in the chair. He began to speak. ‘Our story begins here many hundreds of years ago on a bright summer’s morning such as we hope to see tomorrow. A young man awakes.’

Zac yawned, stretched and smiled as soft sunlight filtered through the curtains and filled the room with a golden glow. As he rose and showered his mood became more sombre. His Choosing day was approaching and, with the same inevitability, his mother’s Deathday. She seemed cheerful enough and quite ready, as well she might be as she known the day for the last forty years. They were meeting for coffee that morning.

The café overlooked the beach and you could just see the curved roof of the Passing Place where his mother would go at the end of her Deathday party. He arranged the seats so she would face the opposite way.

‘Zac, darling how nice to see you.’ The beautiful young woman tousled his dark hair and took the seat he had arranged.
‘Hi Mum, I’ve ordered the coffee. How do you feel?’
‘How do I look?’ she tossed a mane of black hair back from her tanned, smooth skinned face.
Zac smiled ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Ah, you are a lovely boy Zac but you should be thinking of how you should choose, not my decision of forty years ago.’
‘I can’t help it. In a couple of weeks you’ll walk down to the passing place and I’ll never see you again. We’ll never go sailing, talk about a book we’ve read or even just have a coffee.’
‘Look Zac. I knew what the deal was – just the way you do – take the drug and have the next forty years in your 25 year old body, but knowing you will die on your 65th birthday.’
Zac nodded ‘yes, but now your Deathday is in a couple of weeks. That thing that would happen forty years on is here.’
‘Do you think I’d forgotten? Look Zac, I’ve had a good life, plenty of fun and I’ve done the things I wanted to do. Believe me having a Deathday concentrates the mind. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine, just don’t be a wet blanket at my party.’

Zac said no more but wondered how he would feel. What would it be like at the end? To know you had seen your last rainbow, felt the last summer breeze on your face, would never know about next year’s great discovery. And the Passing Places made him feel creepy. White and gold shell-like buildings along the coast. People entered and were simply never seen again. He shivered.

Of course he didn’t have to Choose and he could even go to Ireland where it was deemed that God alone could decide how long people should live. So only Decliners now lived in Ireland and the 66th birthday was much celebrated.

From his work as a microbiologist Zac knew all efforts so far had shown up no significant difference between the metabolisms of Choosers and Decliners. They could both catch diseases, break bones, die in accidents – but only Choosers did not age. No one had access to the anti-ageing drug. A World Health Commission had ruled that the drug was a public good and should be strictly controlled. Why not? What was the problem? The answer, he felt, was somewhere in those gleaming halls and an idea began to suggest itself.

Back at his apartment Zac scanned the net for upcoming Deathday parties. The tradition amongst Choosers was to hold a party on your 65th birthday and at the end go alone to the Passing Place. He searched the photographs of the smiling youths whose 65th was due in the next few days. Illya Chetkin looked a likely candidate – Deathday party tomorrow – Zac made a note of the place and at work the next day he spent quite a while in the pharmacy.

That night Illya Chetkin left his party and took the road down to the parkland that surrounded the entrance to the Passing Place. Pleasant lawns and shrubs lined the discreetly lit pathways. Zac stood back in the shadows and let the man pass him. After a moment or two he stepped out and started to run calling ‘Illya, Illya wait.’ Chetkin turned and screwed up his eyes to see who it was ‘Er, do I know…?’
Zac interrupted ‘Sorry, I was late and I didn’t want to miss you. I just wanted to say goodbye.’ He held out his hand and as Illya went to accept the greeting Zac raised a drug soaked pad and held it to his face for a second. Illya’s eyes looked startled, angry, then glazed and closed. Zac dragged him into the bushes, took the small ID card from his breast pocket and made his way towards the tall doors of the Passing Place.

He scanned the pass across the reader and the door swung open. A smiling man approached. ‘Hello Illya. I’m Spencer please follow me.’ He turned and led Zac into the room which had a single, comfortable looking recliner chair near the centre. ‘Take a seat.’ Spencer waited until Zac was settled into the chair. ‘Make yourself comfortable and I’ll be back in just a moment.’

As soon as Spencer closed the door Zac heard a faint hiss and his nose began to run. He sniffed loudly then realised the chair was moving. It began to straighten and the arms turned to stop him dropping off the sides. Zac tensed ready to jump and when part of the ceiling slid back to reveal a grab arm descending towards him he put the thought into action and shot off the chair. The arm scooped up the air where Zac had been lying, moved to the side of the room, waited until a section of the wall dropped forward to form a chute, then opened its jaws to drop its non-existent cargo into the cavity. He ran across to see what was down the tunnel but only glimpsed a conveyor belt moving across the base of the chute.

Zac looked around for an exit other than the door he had come through. The walls were blank but he saw an access panel in the floor and pulled open a small hatch. A steel ladder took him onto a gantry looking across some form of factory floor. With a clang a chute opened above him and a woman’s body slid down onto a silvery conveyor. It was swiftly carried to a white slab encircled by what looked like the gigantic claws of a robotic praying mantis. They delicately danced across the woman, slicing away her clothes. Finally and carefully rings, a bracelet and locket were removed.

Zac watched wanting to run but held by the sight before him. Then the delicacy disappeared. A steel chain was wrapped tightly round her ankles and she was hauled, swaying into the air. A cascade of dark hair reminding Zac of his mother. The body was lowered into a chamber and clouds of freezing gas billowed over the rim. After a few seconds the frozen corpse was replaced on the slab where the robot arms sliced off the limbs and placed them in deep bins.

Zac saw two figures enter the chamber and start towards him as, transfixed, he watched the torso, stiff and frozen plucked from the slab. Relentlessly, oblivious to him and the others, the claw moved forward and as it did so the top of a huge, hoar frosted container opened. Zac saw it was piled with frozen mutilated corpses. He began to run.

A corridor lead away from the butchery. He found a door and stumbled into what seemed to be a storage facility for work clothes. He slid amongst a row of hanging overalls as someone entered and switched on a light. Zac turned to try and see the searchers and almost cried out in shock. Spencer was standing right next to him. There was a moment of terror as Zac looked into the blank eyes. Then he realised it was a dummy of some sort and he looked along a row of Spencers. He knew his suspicions were right. Now all he needed to do was get out and tell the world.

As his pursuers moved into the room Zac slipped back out. Which way to go? The way he had come would surely be sealed off by now. He looked into the gloom further down the corridor. It was the only option.

The passage ended at another door. He opened it and stepped through. He was in a comfortably furnished room, a desk in one corner, a bookcase, small table, sofa and two armchairs. In one of the armchairs sat an olive skinned young woman holding a comms screen. She smiled at Zac. Despite everything he couldn’t help thinking how beautiful she was.

‘Hello, I’m Mahala, I don’t think we’ve met.’ She stood and held out a hand. Zac returned the smile, stepped forward and hit her as hard as he could. As she fell back into the chair he reached for an ornamental paperweight on the desk and smashed it into the side of her head. He knew the control mechanism might be anywhere but he thought the head was as good a place to start as any. It was only as he brought the ball of glass down for the third time that he took in the blood, splintered bone and twitching limbs. He dropped the paperweight and turned away. He thought he was going to be sick. After a moment he looked around but there seemed to be no other exit. Why hadn’t he been followed?

As if in answer the handle turned and Zac gathered himself for a fight. But it wasn’t Spencer. A huge frame almost filled the doorway. A muscular giant stepped into the light. He looked down at the broken body. ‘What a pity’ he said ‘I rather liked being Mahala but I’m hoping this frame will persuade you not to try force again.’ He raised his arms and flexed the muscles until the seams of his black t-shirt almost split. ‘You can call me Max’ he said.

Zac was frightened and yet the whole thing felt surreal. The change from soulless factory to quiet, almost cosy room. The cool, acceptance of Mahala’s murder and this man talking as if he had been her. Zac managed to speak.
‘What’s going to happen? Are you going to feed me to the freezer?’
The giant’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you going to be reasonable?’
Zac gave Max a defiant look ‘Do I have a choice?’
‘Only one that’s sensible.’ Max gestured to two ‘Spencer’ robots which came into the room and swiftly cleared away Mahala’s body.
‘Sit down. Would you like a drink?’
‘Wait a minute. I’ve just killed that woman aren’t you going to call the police or something?’
‘Well, Mahala had been dead for about 100 years but she was a very convenient disguise for moving about the planet.’
‘It’s the best way I can think of to describe it. This is another disguise, useful in different circumstances.’ He smiled and rippled the muscles in his shoulders.
Zac shook his head and dropped into a chair. ‘I’ll have that drink.’
Max took a bottle of whisky from a cupboard then found a glass and as he put them on the low table Zac leant forward and took his hand. ‘You’re warm – do you bleed?’
‘Yes and yes. These are, or were, real people that reached the end of their lives but with a neural net I made use of their physical remains.’
Zac let this sink in. ‘So what are you saying? You’re an alien?’

Max looked hard at Zac for a moment then nodded ‘Yes. Your gravity and atmosphere are difficult for us so this enables me to experience the planet without actually being here.’

Zac shook his head in disbelief and shakily poured a drink. ‘I’m not sure I believe you. Is this some sort of scam? You’re harvesting organs – is that it?’

Max smiled. ‘No. If we were an earthly organisation I think selling a drug that keeps you young for forty years would be enough of a money spinner.’

‘So what is it, what’s the angle? Don’t tell me you’re doing it out of the goodness of your heart – if you have such a thing.’

Max said nothing for several moments. Zac poured another drink. ‘Come on – what’s to think about?’

‘Not thinking, consulting.’ Max eased into a chair opposite Zac. ‘Our time here is coming to an end. There are issues on our home planet that mean this operation is to be closed down.’

‘Operation? What are you doing?’

‘Well Zac’ there was a long pause ‘we eat you.’ Zac spluttered into his drink.

‘What?’ Zac got up. ‘That’s barbaric! Are you going to kill me for supper?’

‘No, no. Relax. I’d never be allowed to do that. And I don’t know about barbaric. You have to understand that we are far more intelligent than humans. Very roughly a chicken to a human is about the same as a human to us.’

Zac sat down again. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘Well you eat chickens don’t you? In fact you eat pigs and cattle and sheep all of which are much nearer in intelligence to you that you are to us. We’re simply farmers. Human flesh is a great delicacy – very expensive.’

Zac took time and another drink to let this sink in. ‘So why aren’t you allowed to kill me?’

‘Regulations. You haven’t Chosen yet.’

Zac looked bemused. ‘But Choosing is about the forty years of quality life. There’s no “and by the way at the end of it we eat you.”’

‘Yes, that’s the problem. We have groups who say that we shouldn’t eat anything other than low level species on our own planet. Now there’s a new edict that sets a maximum intelligence level below yours. So we are going to have to pull out.’

‘You’re talking about regulations when you’ve been murdering millions of us. You’re monsters.’

‘Oh, that’s harsh coming from humans that have wiped out dozens of species and feast on a whole range of sentient animals. We had to follow strict rules about harvesting you. When we found you the Alien Welfare Committee said that we had to make sure we did not endanger the continuation of the species and that farming methods ensured a full, good quality of life for the human.’

‘How could you do this? We’re thinking, active social beings.’

Max was dismissive ‘Well, so are whales but you happily hunted them almost to extinction.’

‘But we didn’t in the end.’

‘Exactly – you made some rules!’ Max smiled broadly. ‘We find human meat to be at its best when taken from a 25 year old. It has just the right amount of structure but is not yet tough and stringy. But if we just cull people at 25 then the future of the species would be threatened and we would break our rules about allowing you a reasonable length of quality life.’

Zac shook his head ‘so you held a few meetings, consulted some experts and came up with a plan – just like that?’

‘Well, yes, more or less. We engineered nanobots that raise your body’s capability to repair damaged cells. If they are introduced when you are 25 then it maintains your physical status at about that level. In fact they do not halt ageing entirely but slow it so that 40 years only has the effect of one on your physique. We thought that 65 years was a reasonable life span if forty years were in a 25 year old’s body. The bots are programed to stop after four decades and the accumulated ageing process will quickly cause bodily deterioration and death.’

Zac had his head in his hands ‘so you have the Passing Places to make sure you get prime meat before it goes off. Wonderful.’

‘It’s quick and painless. The small amount of gas you noticed tells some of the nanobots to shut off the heart.’

‘What if I tell everyone what’s going on? Get people down to open up the Passing Places? Maybe we can get hold of the technology. Your ‘rules’ will stop you killing us – how ironic is that?’

‘The technology is too advanced. But it would be psychologically bad to know that there was an intelligence far in advance of you. Perhaps watching you, laughing at your feeble attempts to travel in space, or to cure your many illnesses. No, it is better if we simply fade away leaving only a few old stories and some derelict buildings.’

Zac was torn between wanting to expose the whole gory business and the force of Max’s argument. He could feel himself wilting at the thought of years of research to achieve what these people had been able to do millennia ago. How would others feel? Could there be a lapse into apathy that would crush the human spirit?’

‘Listen.’ Max reached out and put his hand on Zac’s shoulder. ‘This is how it will be. We will announce that a virus is destroying the source of the Choice drug. We will stop delivery to new humans. At the same time we will reprogram the nanobots to slowly reduce their activity until people reach their natural age. The equipment in the Passing Places will be removed. We will go.’

Zac sighed ‘what about me?’

‘Well, you have shown a lot of initiative. And I believe you are keen to see how things develop over the long term. Perhaps we can help you with that. A parting gift.’

The storyteller’s gaze swept across the audience as he said quietly ‘And there are those today who believe the fables of old and search for an elixir of youth in crumbling old buildings around the world. But you now know why their search is fruitless. As for Zac, knowledge of his fate is lost, only his story lives on.’ After a moment the tall figure rose, swept up his cloak, paused for a moment to acknowledge the applause then left the stage.

As the crowds spilled into the night Diego smiled at his wife. ‘I like these old legends’ he said ‘you know when my great-grandfather was here a few years ago he swore that the storyteller looked identical to the man he had heard as a child. It must be handed down from father to son.’

The End