by Regina Clarke
“I want to be young forever,” Deirdre announced to the Decider, when her turn to enter the room finally came.
He looked up from his terminal but finished tapping a few more keys before giving her his full attention.
“Yes, that’s what we usually hear,” he said in a flat voice. She thought she detected some sarcasm, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t there to enjoy his personality.
“You understand that access to Thules 7 is limited. I’ll need some additional information. Have a seat,” he said, indicating a high chair in front of the desk. It was surprisingly comfortable, and enabled her to see him eye-to-eye.
“Have you been a Decider long?” she asked, to make conversation and appear interested in the man. Maybe that would soften him up.
He was sitting in front of her, leaning to the side, and as she spoke he stared out the window at the city and the river that ran through it, slate-gray under an overcast sky.
“Coffee?” he asked, abruptly, swiveling in his chair to face her.
Deirdre tapped her foot impatiently, but forced herself to smile. “No, thank you. I’m really anxious to get started.” A small sigh seemed to echo in the room.
“Of course. You understand how it works, obviously,” he said, watching her.
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise, would I! If I’m selected, I can join the next flight. Presto, no side effects, no strings attached,” Deirdre stated with assurance.
“Hm-m. I meant, actually, are you familiar with what the selection process entails, what it requires, from you?” Again he stared at her, and Deirdre found his gaze unsettling, as if he could read her mind, perhaps, his eyes so dark. He only blinked occasionally, and she found herself anticipating the next one, counting out how many times it happened in a single minute. The distraction bothered her.
“A lot of my friends have applied here. They’ve pretty much described it all, the ones who didn’t make it. I’ve got a good idea.”
“Not everyone can be selected, it’s true. Not yet, anyway,” he added. “They’ve made an adjustment, these friends of yours?”
“Sort of. Yes, I think so. Nobody’s gone off the deep end, if that’s what you mean. They’re just resigned to getting old soon. What else can they do?” Deirdre said. The room seemed stuffy to her, and she realized there was no air conditioner.
“Everyone gets old—or I should say, reaches a point of mortality. We extend that, most of the time, for two hundred years. If you expect more than—”
“I know that already. But I’ll look and feel just the way I do now until the end, right?”
He didn’t seem to be listening to her. She waited a moment, finding his silence irritating, but holding her tongue. When three more minutes had passed she spoke to him again, more sharply than she’d intended. “So what are you telling me—I’m not eligible or something?”
With a sudden, brisk movement the Decider keyed in something at length on his computer. He hit the Enter key and faced her once more. “You say you want to stay young. I need some specific data. First, what exactly do you mean by ‘young’?”
Deirdre was shocked. “What? Why, like I am now, of course. I don’t want to ever be another day older if I can help it!”
“I see. We have several models assembled. At least one of them should match your desire. Come with me.” He stood up and walked to the door, holding it open for her. “Let’s see what you prefer,” he said, and gestured ahead of him.
They entered a long corridor filled with plants and light that filtered in from the roof. She heard running water, like a country brook, somewhere behind them. People were sitting on plastic benches, none of them talking.
“They’ve been rejected. We give them some time alone, to get used to it. People come here with such hope. It’s very hard for us to have to turn them away,” said the Decider.
She wasn’t going to end up on one of those benches, Deirdre was certain of that. An arched doorway lay ahead of them and the Decider ducked down to enter a small room filled with glass cases of vials in all kinds of colors. They looked like Christmas ornaments to her, like the old-fashioned lights her mother had found in an antique market and put on the tree when she was very young. The room also contained five life-sized models, each one placed on a polished stone pedestal. A young woman about her own age was just closing one of the cases.
“Ah, good. Jami’s here. She’ll give you the overall picture, and you can let me know what you want. I’ll be waiting,” and with that the Decider left.
Deirdre gave a quick glance at all the selections. One of them would be hers. Yes. Finally.
“Hi, there. I’m glad you want to see what we’ve developed,” Jami said. “A lot of folks just choose blindly, and they don’t even think about the consequences! Here, this is one of the first we created. It isn’t too much in demand anymore.” Jami moved over to a silver mold that stood five and a half feet tall. “However, this one is the easiest to modify—that is, you’ll undergo the least amount of change, internally. I think that’s what people liked in the beginning—not risky. Of course,” she added, concerned, “none of them are really risky. I don’t want to frighten you. But the effects are irreversible, so this one doesn’t cause a really radical transformation.”
“I don’t want to reverse anything,” Deirdre answered, feeling her impatience returning. Why didn’t they all just get on with it?
“Good. Well, just so you know, with this one your mind retains a ‘young-at-heart’ outlook, but you do experience physiological aging, though without severe effects. You’ll maintain a basic mobility until death. You’ll live a carefree life, essentially living in the moment, enjoying what comes your way. Mortality will never give you anxiety. We call her Madelyn.” Jami looked with fondness at the silver model.
Deirdre was bored. Who would want to look old? Jami walked toward another one that stood in a far corner.
“Here we have an interesting concept. You will retain a youthful appearance, but the mind will age; that is, you’ll experience life in its natural sequence, the pain and joy, acquiring the inevitable wisdom and knowledge of a lifetime, aware always of your own mortality, but at least appearing young, so you’ll never have to cope with physiological defects. I had a lot to do with this model, so they named it after me,” Jami added shyly. Deirdre didn’t respond, so she moved on to the next.
“Ah, this one is named Anna, a variant of the one I just showed you. There is aging, but only a range of it, between ten and fifteen years. The mind will advance until the equivalent age of between forty-five and fifty. This gives you some leeway in learning about life, accumulating knowledge, without having to constantly worry about losing it all to impediments of a physical nature. Some graying of the hair occurs—no cover-up is allowed for this. But the effect is distinguished, on both men and women, since gray, white, or silver hair is a sign of both experience and wisdom. Thus, you gain a certain respect and deference in society. More men seem to select this one, I think, though I’m not sure why.”
“I am,” Deirdre stated flatly. “No self-respecting woman would opt for gray hair, and men think their lives are over by fifty.”
Jami turned to her, a curious expression of regard and concern on her face.
“That’s very interesting. What you say. I hadn’t looked at it like that, but it’s worth bringing up to the others. It’s true, isn’t it—some women do seem to prefer the visual over the knowledge as a gain—appearance, I mean, over inner development. And many men do seem to be emotionally unprepared for the prospect of growing old. They have those mid-life crises rather often. Yes. Interesting.” Yet Deirdre had the feeling Jami was studying her more closely.
“Show me the other two,” she said bluntly.
“Okay. Now here we have one in which you really simply go on as you are right now—grow old, I mean, both in appearance, mind, and body. The special aspect is that you always embrace this. You welcome life in all its phases with absolute joy. We give you the ability to switch into one of the other models should you want to do so later on. No one who chooses this model ever does that, however, a fact that has always interested us.”
“Oh, sure,” Deirdre said, sarcastically. “That’d be my choice.”
“Perhaps what you want is this last one,” Jami said, her voice softer. She went to the center of the room. Fingering the edge of the molded form before them, Jami looked at Deirdre, the worried expression back in her face.
“In this body, you stay twenty-five forever, just as you are now, young in body and in mind, eternally unchanging—for the duration of your life. Nothing will interfere with that state. You won’t absorb anything new, ever. You do understand we don’t offer actual eternal life, although this model is what you will be for a very long time.” Her intensity struck Deirdre as odd, almost as if it was warning her off. It didn’t matter. She knew what she wanted.
“Two hundred years. I know. That’s the one!” she responded. “That’s exactly what I want!”
“Very well.” Jami let out a small sigh as she tapped something into the electronic notepad she carried, went over to one of the cases and removed a blue vial. She guided Deirdre back to the room where the Decider waited. She didn’t say anything to him, only nodded and handed him the small bottle. With a last glance at Deirdre, Jami went back along the corridor, shutting the door behind her. Deirdre sat down and waited expectantly while the Decider tapped on his computer.
“So you want the Essence model,” he stated, turning to look at her.
“If that’s what it’s called,” Deirdre answered. “It’s the one where I’m always twenty-five, in every way, forever.”
“Yes. I thought it might be your choice, but we wanted you to see other possibilities. It tends to be the most frequent choice, however. You will have a lot of company in this one.”
He fiddled some more with her folder and made another entry into the computer. Then he hit a button on his intercom. A woman immediately entered the office and walked toward Deirdre, smiling and holding out her hand. She looked to be about fifty-five, very self-assured and gracious.
“Hi, I’m Tessa Winlak, glad to have you aboard,” she said kindly.
The Decider handed the woman the blue vial. “Tessa will get you situated. Good luck, Deirdre.” He didn’t hold out his hand at all, but merely nodded in her direction, and turned back to his computer. Yet as she left the room, Deirdre was sure he was watching her again, and thought she heard him sigh.
“We’ll acclimate you to everything,” Tessa told her as they walked along the corridor. The dim light softened the aging lines on the older woman’s face. At least I’ll never have those, Deirdre thought with relief. I’ll never have to worry about light at all.
On the voyage out she was indifferent to the port windows that showed the dazzling starfields beyond their small ship. Like her, all the passengers were focused on the prospects that lay ahead. Not everyone had chosen the same model, of course, but one of the rules of the journey was that no one should reveal their choices, and it was a rule that was strictly enforced, even requiring each of them to wear small devices that monitored their conversations and activities.
Deirdre had no interest in what anyone else had chosen. It didn’t matter. The alternatives seemed futile ones to her, anyway. She waited impatiently for the arrival at Thules 7. The injection of whatever was in the vial had had no effect on her that she could see. She had to trust it would work. She’d paid enough for it.
When the voyage did finally end, she was thrust into a room alone and left there for several hours. It was a beautifully decorated place, and food was supplied to her, but no explanations. For a moment Deirdre felt worried, but then dismissed the feeling. Thules 7 was well-known and in good repute. Still, at the opening of the door she found her irritation resurging, and she wanted to tell someone about it.
“Before you say anything, Deirdre, let me thank you for waiting so long in this room. We normally don’t have to put people off even a few minutes. I’m afraid we had a small incident that disrupted everything,” the soothing voice went on. The man who owned it was in his fifties.
“Wait a minute,” Deirdre said, “I’m supposed to be with the 25-Ground group—you aren’t—”
“Good heavens, no, I’m just part of the welcoming committee for all of Thules 7. I meet every ship. You’ll be with your own kind shortly. I’m Gaonit, at your service,” he added, smiling.
“When do I get started?” Deirdre asked. The man studied her just as the Decider and Jami had done. She wished they’d all stop doing that. It made her so uncomfortable.
“Right now,” he answered, opening the door once more and gesturing her to follow.
It was her first look at the terrain. Pre-viewing holograms were banned by the Decider, so that for all newcomers the experience was entirely a surprise. Deirdre wasn’t disappointed. The closest the land resembled, she thought, was her visit to Zanzibar, with the rich, luscious vegetation and the sweet smell of the air. In the distance she saw waterfalls cascading into an inland lake. Across empty fields she watched a flock of birds rise and descend in a gliding path. Her guide led her slowly through the landscape, pointing out the various locations where different groups lived, according to the mold selected.
“How do they see each other?” she asked, surprised into the question. Each group seemed to exist in its own enclave and no one was on the transport with her and Gaonit.
“They don’t. Absolutely not,” he answered. “It isn’t allowed or even possible. We discovered in the first year that it was the communication among groups that caused most of our problems. It almost destroyed the purpose of Thules 7. No, the groups remain separate. We enforce that using various radiation barriers. The Decider handles the administration of all that.”
“But—that means everyone in my group will be the same as me?” The idea had never occurred to her before, and she felt a vague distress.
“Why, yes—you’ll be much happier that way, as I said—it’s been proven, and the way we’ve run things for over ten years now. Anything wrong?” He looked concernedly at her. “Do you feel ill?”
“No,” she answered, forcing herself to look alert. “It’s just that, well … I assumed I’d be twenty-five so others would, um,—”
“Oh, of course!” Gaonit responded, laughing. “I always forget. It’s the comparison you expected, right? Beauty lives only in contrast, is that it? Don’t worry. That idea caused most of our initial problems, as a matter of fact—people kept defining themselves by a ranking system. After all, that’s precisely what we didn’t want to happen, what Thules 7 was built to avoid. You’ll see” he added gently, to offset his amusement. “It’ll be delightful. You have nothing to worry about. Let’s find your own people, shall we?”
With that, Gaonit veered sharply to the right. The transport was little more than an enclosed tire tread, to her eyes, but it held them solidly in the air. He led her around the curve of a mountain that rose some miles outside the central city, and ahead of her she saw what seemed to be another city, only smaller, laid out across several square miles. It was filled with peculiar angles and occasional dome-shaped structures, but in the sunlight it all made her gasp, for the buildings were covered with a shimmering kaleidoscope of hues, creating the effect of a garden in the wilderness. As they drew closer a wave of sound washed over them.
“There’s your city, Deirdre, your new home!” Gaonit called, stretching out his arm.
“What’s all the noise?” she called back.
“Let me show you.”
He set them off at a faster pace, only to bring them both to an abrupt stop beneath a gate that led into the city. With an exaggerated sweep of his arm, Gaonit bowed beside her and entreated her to go through.
The sound doubled in volume and Deirdre recoiled. The streets converged from all angles to the gate itself, and it was the voices of the people she could hear, a tangle of men and women calling out to one another in passing.
“This is the friendliest part of Thules 7,” Gaonit offered. “Everyone has something to say.”
For a moment Deirdre stood very still, overwhelmed by the color and noise surrounding her. Then she noticed directly ahead a display that reiterated the geography of where she was, and moved slowly toward it.
“What is this place called?” she asked Gaonit.
“I’ll let you think about it awhile,” he said, smiling. “My guess is you’ll discover the name for yourself!”
She studied the display, which gave specific directions to each of the courtyards that comprised the city, all of which could be reached by surface transport, but also by a maze of underground rivers. With increasing interest she noticed that the entertainment options were vast. No one would be bored in the place, and no one laid down rules for enjoyment. It was where she wanted to be, after all. The momentary dismay was just that, Deirdre thought. A moment of cold feet. Already she felt the old anxieties washing away. She was twenty-five. There was nothing to stop her now, not ever!
“I’ll leave you, then,” Gaonit said, tapping her on the shoulder.
“Wait! How often will I see you?”
“Why—Deirdre, you’re here now. We’ll have no need to meet again. Besides, I’m not part of this group. My own city lies two thousand miles away. As I said, only a few of us ever leave our own enclaves—it’s better that way.”
“But I can come and visit you there,” she persisted, a vague discomfort prickling at her again.
“I thought they made it clear to you. We can’t have your age group running around freely, Deirdre. After all, you all tend to be a little reckless, I’m afraid. I mean, you can’t deny that, can you? And you can’t contribute very much, due to your lack of experience and development. There are implications here that—well, enough of that. A problem of my own, ruminations when no one wants to listen,” Gaonit added diffidently. “Take care. You’ll always be twenty-five now. Enjoy every moment, Deirdre—it’s a perfect time of life.”
The next moment he was gone. Behind her she saw no evidence of the gate they had entered, but a woman her own age came up, smiling.
“Hi there, welcome! You look like a newbie. You’ve come to the best of all possible worlds. What’s your name?”
“Can I call you Dee? I’m Jan. Let me show you around. There are some friends over in the bar you should meet, and later we can all go out on the lake. I think the Cateris is giving an all-night party for new arrivals, and the current crop of men are delicious to see. You’re going to have a marvelous time!” The woman took Deirdre’s small case and walked quickly through a throng of people dressed for the beach. They were all her own age.
“Come on,” Jan called back to Deirdre.
“What’s this place called?” Deirdre asked as she finally joined her at the entrance to a spacious lounge. A crowd of young men and women surged around them.
“Here? Why, this is just one of all kinds of bars in the Cateris, our biggest hotel and spa combo—it’ll take you ages to see everything it’s got for us.”
“No—I mean where am I—this city—what is it called?” At which Jan began to laugh and went up to some of the others, talking rapidly. They laughed spiritedly with her and looked over at Deirdre with friendly indulgence as Jan returned.
“Sorry, hon, couldn’t resist. An in-joke. It’s easy. The name’s just right. The Decider gave it to us. He should have told you. Welcome, Dee. You’re in the Playground, hon, that’s where you are.”
Regina Clarke writes about the origin of this story, … Someone observed to me that growing old was unfair. She was fast approaching 30 at the time and thought she needed plastic surgery. When I told her she looked absolutely fine, she showed me an incipient laugh line (miniscule if it was there at all) as proof she was doomed.
Regina Clarke follows her passions for reading mysteries, watching film noir and 1950s science fiction B-grade (sometimes C-grade) movies, absorbing biographies of writers like a sponge, exploring metaphysics, and feeling reverence for Nature and all wildlife. She now calls the Hudson River Valley her home, and it pleases her no end to live not very far from where Rod Serling grew up and Jane Roberts encountered Seth.
Her stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Subtle Fiction, Mad Scientist Journal, and NewMyths, among others. She has written ten novels. In the spring of 2012 she was a finalist in the Hollywood SCRIPTOID Screenwriter’s Feature Challenge for her script about a mother seeking the disabled child she had abandoned, in “Second Chances.”