Saturday, April 4, 2009

Light Years

This week's challenge: "A married couple sets out on a six-month adventure, living on their boat while sailing from port city to port city. By the fifth city, they are thoroughly sick of each other and their relationship takes a serious turn for the worse."

Liv gasped, “faster” and pushed her new body to keep pace. Wind cooled her sweat drenched body as it swept past, leaving faint traces of crushed grass and dew laden earth. She looked up and saw the clouds parting above her and the path in front of her lightening in the weak dappled light. Every nerve in her body screamed, she’d long ago hit the wall and had the rush of endorphins that followed. She needed to stop but she ploughed on. Running was the only thing that kept her mind clear, that gave her a sense of freedom. It allowed her to use the boundless energy that youth infused her body with.

This time it was so different and she was struggling to cope. She didn’t want to think about why she wasn’t coping. Jarred told her that she thought too much - she needed to relax. After all the intention of this trip, was to have fun. The last hurrah.

But it was all false.


The word was barely audible but the running simulator recognised it and the treadmill came to an immediate halt. Liv ran two faltering steps and then hunched over, each gulp of air searing her throat and her lungs.

The lights flickered on and she was standing in a small bare room. Like everything else on the ship, running was just a replica of the real thing; an expensive fake.

Liv crumpled into a sobbing heap, her tears merging with the perspiration to flow in thick rivulets over her flushed cheeks and down her neck. Tears she had tried to run from. Tears she had to hide.

Running was no longer a salve for the imprisonment she felt. You couldn’t simulate freedom – no matter how hard Jarred had tried to make it like the real thing for her. The dream had died and she didn’t have the heart to tell Jarred. He was busy ensconced by day in his book lined den and by night in the home theatre.

She wanted to go home.

But she was never sure. After almost 400 years she could not be certain of her own mind any more and it was disturbing. She had read voraciously about the Methuselah Method before they had agreed to take it for the first time and she had made it her responsibility to keep abreast of the latest developments – not just the scientific research by also the anthropological studies. She knew in the final stages that there was often significant degeneration of the mental faculties before physical deterioration began. That was why she kept her anxiety, her disenchantment and her yearning for home from Jarred. It was uncharacteristic and it would make Jarred suspicious first; then he’d worry.

Jarred deserved better from her.

This was their last time together. Finally they were perusing the dream they had had so many centuries ago conjured, wrapped in each others arms spent from making love and working 18 hours days between uni and part time jobs. Fantastised of when they were living on two minute noodles in run down share houses. They had dreamed of having the money to travel in style around the world. But almost four centuries the world had expanded out into the solar system and beyond.

The body could only take six treatments. Despite the technological advances in her extended life time, age regression therapy still only opened six windows of opportunity before the body rejected the manipulation. The body held stasis for a shorter period each time and the aging process hastened.

She and Jarred had six months maximum enjoying the youth and vigour of being 21 before they would slip into an accelerated aging process. They would both be dead in two years. Liv had always liked the idea that she would not live forever that biology would always put science back in its place. Now she wished for more time. She’d never imagined she’d be wasting the last of her youth like this.More and more she was preoccupied with how long it would last; days wasted stuck on the luxury interstellar cruiser Catalina.

Jarred laughed and dismissed the end with a churlish grin. He took it in his stride, like he did everything. Every case was different. There was no set forumulae to determine individual deterioration. Even the two year cap was a pie in the sky mark, with many patients dying well before the two years and many more after.

But they had wasted no time after the final treatment. Jarred suggested a six month voyage, taking in eight different space ports and without giving it a second thought she’d agreed.

Liv picked herself up off the floor of the simulators, grabbing a towel from a hook by the door and wiping her face and arms as she walked back to the sumptuous bedroom suite. It was all a masquerade though, the canopied four posted bed, the dresser and its accompanying ornate mirror, another chaise lounge and the immense wardrobe that took up one whole wall.

Punching a code into the wall a concealed door opened to the side of the mirror. The safe housed the holographic passports and travel documents of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, the marriage certificate of Lombard and Gable and the identification chips of Liv and Jarred Greene.

On the black market outpost of Sinope, a tiny moon of Jupiter, they’d had their identification chips removed and refitted, and passports and travel documents procured. Liv remembered the thrill of doing something illegal at her age – it was the same rush as smoking pot for the first time at uni with Jarred. They stayed on Sinope long enough to indulge in some cosmetic changes before jetting to Elara to be remarried as their Hollywood idols on a dramatic outcrop over looking the largest crater of the tiny moon..

It seemed insane now, to do have allowed herself to be swept up in the romance and spontaneity, without giving any thought to what six months in space would be really like. And it was crazy to do what she now intended to do, if Jarred found out there would be day’s long argument. But she had to know.

Right at the back was the tiny Methuselah chip.

In a drawer, beneath piles of bright, expensive lingerie, Liv found her hand held computer and eased the minute titanium chip into the dock at the rear, waiting as the computer accessed the chip. She touched the screen and brought up her treatments, transferring the data into a mathematical modelling programme. It was only then that she saw the discrepancy.

There were only five treatments logged.

Liv reverted to the original screen and stared in disbelief. Beside each treatment was the date, the name of the processor and the clinic and an estimated return date. Beside the latest entry was a return date seven years into the future.

Leaning into the mirror above the dresser Liv searched her face. Tracing her finger around the smooth skin around her eyes, where a month earlier there had been deeply etched crows feet. Her tawny eyes were bright and clear – gone the shadow of age. Her lips were full and plump and the flesh around devoid of laughter crevices; the skin on the back of her hands and throat tight and clear of liver spots. She had thought this was the last time she would be 25. Jarred had told her this was their last time.

Accessing Jarred’s information Liv wasn’t surprised to find the same discrepancy. How was it possible that Jarred, as meticulous as he was, had made such a grave error?

Returning the Methuselah chip to its protective covering and replacing it in the safe Liv tried to keep her mind focused on logic; the irrational threatened to run the gauntlet of her mental processes and destroy any hope she had of thinking, rather than reacting. While she had the wisdom of someone nearly 400 years old, she had the impulses of a 21 year old. It took all her self control not to fly into the library and slap her husband, demand an explanation.

She needed time to process her discovery before she confronted him.

After a hot shower Liv dressed and made her way down the long central corridor to her study. She paused at the portal of Jarred’s study to find him sprawled on his back across a chaise lounge with an ancient paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov clutched in one hand and his other arm folded under his head. He was the yang of her yin. Without saying a word she continued on.

At her desk she pulled out the fountain pen, heavy grade paper and bottle of green ink Jarred had given her on Europa as they’d both laughed that writing had come back into fashion after falling out of favour 350 years earlier. The retro revival of every 21st century made it a good time to be young again.

Liv wondered now if Jarred had not sabotaged the Com Deck and purposely but them out of contact. She scribbled a quick note to her best friend Marla and sealed it in the off white enveloped, then locking it in the top drawer.

They were headed for Reitsema, the exotic capital outpost of Larissa. Liv’s head was clustered with conspiracy theories about the trip, and counter conspiracy theories. She saw Jarred’s aloofness in a whole new light. Cold dread ran down her back. Three hundred and eight one years of marriage, one of the longest recorded nuptial arrangements and she felt like she didn’t know her husband at all.

How foolishly she had slued off her identity, readily disappearing into the shady genetics lounge on Sinope to have her thick lustrous black locks converted to the honey curls of her idol Lombard. And Jarred with his slicked black hair and dashing moustache. She’d been caught up in the romance that she’d missed the details.

She wondered about their hasty departure from Europa, then the sudden destination change from Phoebe to Hyperion. Then there was the moment on Pandora where she was certain the woman sitting at the bar had been taking more than a casual interest in them. Finally there was the decision to abandon the rest of the scheduled trip to strike out for the next solar Perseus arm of the Milky Way.

Warm lips caressing the throbbing carotid pulse on her neck snapped Liv back to the present. She contained the impulse to shudder realising she hadn’t heard Jarred enter the room.

“You seem stressed darling.”
“Cabin fever. How long until we reach Reitsema?”
“If the conditions hold up we should be docking in time for martinis at the Pelagus Bar.”

He pulled her to her feet and wound his arms around her.
“I’ve been elsewhere since we left Phobos. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to be retired from Greene Environments so suddenly and I’ve treated you abominably in the process. Let me make it up to you. We’ll drink martinis and dance until the sun comes up. I’ll buy you a new dress and a string of diamonds. And we will go to Ceres. I’ll take you horse back riding, we’ll camp out.”

He flipped her back into one arm and looked deep into Liv’s eyes and in his best Gable impersonation. "You're a woman after my own heart. Tougher than wagon leather, smarter than spit, and colder than January." Liv tried not to recoil when she remembered that line was from The King and Four Queens.

As Jarred slept off the martinis, Liv pulled a red trench coat on, stuffing a packet into an inside pocket. She hurried through marina, scanning the back of her hand at the gate and stepping out into the busy street.

The internal argument continued to rage as to what she should do, even though the letter in her pocket to Marla outlined exactly what she was going to do. The post office was easy enough to find and Liv lined up with other early morning customers, tapping the envelope against the side of her hand. The line moved slowly and she cast an eye over the paraphernalia that was straight of out a 2009 post office, back when she and Jarred were first dating.

When it was her turn she smiled and placed the envelope on the counter. I’d like to send this to the Moon please?
“That’s cute. Which moon love?”
“The Earth’s moon.”
“Ahh yea, the Moon. Sorry love, just had to double check. We get lots of smart arses in here.”

The elderly woman processed the transaction, scanning the back of Liv’s hand before she threw the letter into a bag behind her.
“How long will it take to get back to the Moon?”

The old woman laughed.
“Love this ‘aint a real post office like in them old days. We take your letters out the back, open, scan and send a digital impression to the recipient.”

The NewFeed screens above the counter had caught her attention as she was leaving.


A man beside her muttered under his breathe as Liv pushed past him in the narrow isle between the kids books and the game CDs. Her eyes were glued to the screen as she stumbled along in disbelief. Numerous photos of Jarred through the last three centuries as the building and development magnate were flashed up on the screen.


Shocked, Liv saw a current shot of her, appear next to one of Jarred was her photo. She was old in it. There was a moment of animated suspension where she could not will her legs to move and she braced for someone in the post office to knock her to the ground and perform a citizen’s arrest. Then the man beside her said, “Terrible business that.” “How so?” She turned, immediately defensive and then getting a hold of herself. He looked at her bemused, then smiled into her gorgeous face.
“You been livin’ under a rock? The entire residential dome development at Hellas Planitia imploded killing more than two million people at the start of the month. They say it was substandard building…”

But Liv didn’t hear anymore as she turned away from him and propelled herself out of the claustrophobic shop and back into the flotsam of the street, sucking in huge lung fulls of the sweet atmosformed air. She wished Jarred had a secret lover, even a lover in every port. She even wished that the trip had been a plot to kill her.

The vomit caught in the bottom of her throat when she thought of all the dead refugees and the work that she’d done to bring them to the safe haven of Hellas Planitia from war zones across the galaxy. Jarred - he had personally backed the project - bankrolled and built it from the ground up. She stopped walking for a moment. Jarred had lent his support despite his protectionst beliefs and his long abiding distrust of the galaxy’s jetsam.

So much for believing in a love that could ride out several life times.

Liv wasn’t going home to Phobos, like she had planned, too late to retrieve her letter to Marla. She wasn’t going back aboard the Catalina either.

Carole Lombard knew she’d be OK eventually - she was tougher than wagon leather, smarter than spit and colder than January.

Author's Note: Please feel free to offer up some constructive criticism as this is a piece I will be reworking for magazine submission.


James Ashelford said...

Loved it. You sketch in your future world and enough of your future history to make it live without over-burdening the reader with information.

As you've asked for construtive criticism I give this and apologise if I overstep my bounds, I'm rather new to this:

My only note would be that the main character's past as a philanthropist could be played up more. Perhaps introduce in the opening section as an active life to counterpoint her current feelings of enclosure or during her conversation with her husband. In that section you play on his past employment which comes back at the same time as her philanthropist past is revealed.

You could even tie the two backstories together thematically: his crime and her philanthropy. Either have her an unknowing accomplise (fraud, embezzlement through "her" charities) or play up the that his actions are so far the opposite of her desire to help people and bring them a better life.

James Ashelford said...

P.S. Much thanks for the suggestions. Got them after a long day at work and they made me smile.

Especially the Tour de Itali one. Cheers, Jodi, please convey my thanks to your partner.

Paul said...

Jodi, thanks for your comment. Yes, I've just rescued your mail from my spam box. To be honest, I'm a bit disappointed at what you say but I'm definitely still interested in future possibilities.

M. D. Benoit said...

Wow, you must be the fastest typist in the universe. Lots of text for five minutes. LOL.

Nice SF twist to the beginning teaser and well written. I wasn't quite sure where the story was going, however.

Aden said...

(I would like to type even a fraction of the speed you must type.)

This was a fun read, I love the ideas that are coming across and yay for science fiction! :)

Hedge Monkey said...

Hi Jodi, I like your slant on the done to death immortality gig. It will be well worth a visit for the swift descent into decrepitude after the sixth treatment. Can 6 lifetimes prepare you for the End or is that when things get truly desperate? Also the juxtaposition of 2 Golden Age film idols out in space rocks.

Now, as for the concept of 381 years of marriage ... surely that's a theme for more fitting for a nightmarish, claustrophobic horror novel than sci-fiction ... or is that just me? ho-hum ...

Annie Evett said...

as always- perfectly crafted, great rhythm that carries the reader along.