She broke the silence, “Jared went in last week.”
“Where?” I knew, but I was being difficult.
“You know where: the clinic.”
Our living room was always small, but today it felt particularly cramped. We sat on opposite sides of the white microfiber couch. I stared at the TV.
“Is he good?” I asked.
“Yup. Got the dose yesterday. He’s recovering at home.”
When we got tested, I watched them take her blood. She was calm; I was a fucking wreck. The one thing our species wants and it comes down to a genetic lottery: if your mitochondria objects, get in line for the grave; if not, you’ve got a lot of living to do.
“Good. I hope that he and Gail have a long, happy life together,” I said.
She ignored my joke, leaned over the side of the couch, and fished her purse off the dark wooden floor. It rattled. “Turn off the TV. I want to talk to you about something,” she said.
I did as commanded. With the light gone from the screen, the room became dark and silent. There was a loud rushing in my ears.
She turned on a little lamp, and started looking through her bag. Even with the light, the room was small and cold and the faint marbling in the walls made it even more tomblike. The rushing grew louder.
“I went to the hospice-- to the clinic,” she corrected herself, “the other day, for my session with the counselor.” She pulled a small orange bottle from her purse.
“The hospice is a fucking waste of time... something we don’t have too much of, remember?” I spat the words.
She ignored my tantrum. “Look. We have as much time as we always had, just like before. It’s no one’s fault other people have more.”
“More is addition. More is multiplication. More is a few extra years. They don’t have more. They don’t have finite or infinite. They have a number divided by zero. It’s impossible for us to understand. Time doesn’t exist for them anymore. We’re the ones with time. Don’t you see?”
I realized how loud I was. Every time she tried to help, I’d go off. “So the counselor?” I asked, softly.
She rattled the bottle. “The counselor gave me this prescription. It’s for both of us.”
“No. I’m not doing that.” I was shouting again. “I may not outlive the universe, but I’m not gonna-”
“It’s not that. That’s only if you take too many. At small doses, it’s the opposite. It’s an in. He said it slowed things down. Time times two. Time times twenty.”
“I don’t fucking want time times twenty. I want time forever.”
She slammed the pills on the coffee table. “And my great desire is to sit here and watch everyone else stay young and stay perfect, while the two of us get old and broken and fat and diseased and wrinkled, incontinent, blind and fucking useless. You think that’s my choice, you selfish shit?”
We sat in silence. The rushing, gone during our argument, roared back. Between the fake marble walls, the thundering quiet, and the overwhelming closeness and whiteness, the room felt more tomblike than ever. I moved to turn on the TV.
She spoke, calmly. “We can’t have time forever. At least we can have this...” She grabbed my hand. “We can manage. Together.”
Life. Terminal, but manageable. I stared at the marbling, imagining the veins pulse. She continued to stare at me, holding my limp hand.
“So the drugs?” I asked, giving her hand a little shake, and pulling mine away.
“The counselor said that you can either take them daily, or you can take them when you start getting... when you start feeling it’s all... slipping away.”
“What do you mean ‘slipping away’?”
“Like when you’re having a good day, and suddenly you realize that the day has just... gone. If you take it while you’re having a good time, it slows everything down. Makes you more aware. Makes you more in-the-now.”
I ought to be grateful that both of us didn’t check out. At least the immortals made our lives comfortable. A pension; an apartment. Bribes to make us feel better until old age, decrepitude, and decay stole our teeth, our bones, our skin, our minds. We’d get older and older. They wouldn’t. A small gift to those of us with numbered days, from the host who’d see the sun explode in fifty million of what I still called a lifetime.
I tore my eyes off the marble walls and looked at her. She was still watching me.
“This is a now I wish I was less in.” I said. “I want to be in everybody else’s now,”
“No one said life would be easy.”
“Fuck easy. This is unfair.”
She sighed. “No one said it’d be fair either.”
“You know why can’t I live forever? Two billion years ago, some fucking bacteria crawled into my great-great-whatever-grandmother. He became my mitochondria. That little bastard can’t take the dose. If it had been the bug right next to him, I’d be through the gates of paradise right now. Instead of here.”
“You think maybe they made a mistake, that your letter was wrong?” she said, in a patronizing way. “You want to try your luck and take the dose anyway? Go down to Canal. That’s where all the counterfeit shit is. You’ll have your shot in ten minutes. It might be a needle full of saline, gasoline, or amphetamine. Or it might be the real deal. But you better hope that letter was wrong. Otherwise you won’t even get the time you do have left.
“You know what else that little bastard of yours gave you? He sealed your place in history. You know who you are? You’re one of the last men. We’re it. We’re the ancients now! We’ll be the heroes of their new stories. There’s your eternity. We’ll be myths.”
“I don’t want to be a fucking myth.” I slammed my fist on the couch arm. The impact raised a tiny puff of dust. “I want to be a god.”
We sat in silence for a while. She stared at the wall above the TV. The bottle of pills glowed from the cheap lamp light , turning it into a sickly orange star. I picked it up. The label was covered with a half-dozen warning stickers.
She broke the quiet. “You know, it’s not going to be easy for them. Think about how quickly they’re going to fill up the planet? Where will we put them all?”
“They’re already building colony ships. They’ll see other worlds. They’ll see all the worlds the universe has. I’ll see only this one, until the day I die.”
“So what? A forever, floating through emptiness, hoping to find somewhere to land? Some of them will be out there for millions of years. You can’t understand that. No one can. I hope they’re ready for it.”
Her sympathy jarred me. Just because our bodies can handle infinity, doesn’t mean our minds can. Still, it’d be a nice trouble to have.
“Champagne problems,” I said, with mock disdain, waving my hand. “Besides, the journey is more important than the destination, right?”
I laughed. She laughed too. This was a moment worth having. As soon as I thought it, the moment slipped away.
“This is what those pills were made for, right?”
“Yup. Capture time. Slow it down. Get every detail.”
“Time times two.” I said, wondering.
“Time times twenty.” She smiled, dropped my hand, and turned on the TV.
I looked at her, imagining her growing old, hair greying, skin mottling, eyes dulling. I wondered which of us would die first and what saying goodbye would be like. That letter was a constant reminder of our mortality. If you checked out, and got the dose, you had to surrender it. But despite that bureaucratic certificate assuring me of my own doom, I still thought of the moment like a scene out of a movie... unreal.
“Come here,” she commanded. I obeyed and put my head in her lap. The TV kept playing, but all I thought about were her warm, soft thighs. The rushing in my head was gone. I was calm.
When I woke, my legs were so stiff that it was clear I’d been asleep for a long time. Another reminder of my impending collapse. She’d gone off to the bedroom. The TV and lamp were off. I filled the kettle and, next to the jar of loose tea, found the orange bottle of pills. She knew where to leave them so they’d be the first thing I saw when I woke up. Very clever. The clock above the range told me it was a little before seven. I sat back down on the couch, in the darkness, with my cup. There was no way I’d get back to sleep now. Time to start another day.
Six weeks ago I came home and found her sitting on the couch, with the two letters in her hands. The sight of those envelopes, bright white against her olive skin, made me feel like I was going to shit myself. She had suggested that I open hers, and she open mine. I said that all men die alone and took my fate from her hands.
I didn’t want to see her letter in case both of us didn’t have the same results. I tore mine open before she had a chance to open hers. I didn’t have to read the whole thing. The first two words said it all.
I felt... nothing. All my fear and uncertainty disappeared and my bowels stopped gurgling. I felt exactly like I had, moments earlier, before I opened the door and saw what was in her lap. Nothing had changed. I managed a quiet “Damn.”
I saw her face as she looked at me after opening hers. I knew what it said. Nature duck-duck-goosed right past both of us in the game of immortality.
The anger came later.
“Of course it’s unfair,” she’d said. “Life is unfair. It’s always been unfair and it will continue being unfair long after we’ve rotted away back to starstuff and the people on the street are thirty million years old.”
It was the first time I’d heard her be bitter about anything. She was always so level. I guess even the steadiest of people have their limits.
We didn’t talk much that night. Just sat on the white couch, eyes on the wall, watching TV.
I thought about what she’d said last night, about her sympathy for the immortals. They had their future. They’d scatter like dandelion puffs across the universe. They’d be subject to rules she and I would never have to deal with. New forms of government. New ethics. New aesthetics. And there’s very little that the right mitochondria can do for you if your colony ship plunges into a sun. Their certainty was one of uncertainty.
I had a certainty. I will die. That gave me time. The immortals didn’t have time; they had a coordinate for locating things in the past and the future. I... we... had a finite resource. And we could use it however we wanted. Who’s going to tell a dying man what to do, where to go, what to eat, what to read, think, or feel? Our time was freedom.
For a little while at least.
I finally understood why I’d felt nothing when I opened my letter. I had felt nothing, because nothing had changed.
I was still the same man I was the moment before I opened that letter, with exactly as much time left. My life was still my life.
I was wasting it being selfish.
Time to live, to share the life we’d dreamed of, been excited about, before. We’d experience life, aging, dying, and death, together. Almost nobody else would have that. I wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyway. Let’s make the sun chase us.
I looked out the window. The sun was coming up. I hadn’t realized it, but the trees were bare, and there was a trace of snow on the sidewalk. When had it become winter? All down the street, in the little apartment windows, lights were coming on. A car drove by, illuminating the small snow drifts that were blowing about. It looked cheery and cold outside. I liked that.
I turned on the lights. She’d be up soon. For the first time in months I was excited.
There was a bottle of champagne in the fridge. We were meant to take it over to Jared and Gail’s to celebrate, but this seemed much more important. I popped it open, and poured into two small stemless glasses. I sipped mine. It tasted mineral and sharp: perfect for the morning. I shook two pills out of the bottle and placed them beside each glass.
Time for a grand gesture. Something poetic and symbolic and beautiful to toast the rest of our lives.
I went over to the bookshelf and started scanning. The poem was her favorite, but I could never stand the damn thing. She could consider this a peace offering. My finger stopped. Andrew Marvell. The book was well-thumbed enough that I opened straight to it. Sometimes you need to hear words aloud.
“‘Had we but world enough, and time...’” I said to the empty living room.
A letter slipped from the back pages of the book, landing on the floor. It had the letterhead that almost everyone on the planet loved. I didn’t have to read the whole thing. The first two words said it all.
What was it the counselor said? Time times two. Time times twenty.
I think if I take the whole bottle, I can give her time forever.
• Leo Vladimirsky writes commercial truths and science fictions in New York City. You can find more of his work at leovladimirsky.com.
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