Disclaimer: This is a story I wrote very early in my “let’s do this writing thing” plans. I don’t think that it’s my best work, but that’s okay. Some day I may go back and edit it to be a little more coherent, less cliche, and a handful of other things. But sometimes you just need to finish something, whether it turns out really good or really terrible. It’s better to complete it and see where it went and own the fact that sometimes things aren’t at your best. I’m okay with that, because I learn new things every time. Sometimes it’s nice to read back and cringe at things that I find just terrible now, because I get to compare it with other things that seemed to turn out so much better. With that said…
Henry had always assumed that science wasn’t sexy. Indeed, it had taken a very special woman to fall for Henry as he was, this thin, disheveled and absent-minded man. Most of the time it seemed that love was not even on his mind. Most nights he brought his work home with him, sometimes staring at charts and screens and samples well into the morning. But there was always that spark that brought her back. It was the way that his eyes brightened when he came back from a deep thought and seemed to just remember that she was there with him, or the way that her name came off his lips more beautifully than anyone else’s. There were only two things that had ever seemed to hold Henry’s interest longer than a few minutes. His work was one, the other Michelle. And only she understood how rare it could be to occupy the mind of this strange man in the midst of the torrent of thoughts that swirled there.
Tonight he was especially engrossed in the problems he brought back from the lab, but it was different somehow. Of course, disease prevention and treatment was a demanding field. If success gives life to those who might otherwise die, it must follow that delay only steals it back from those who might have lived. Somewhere each night, Henry had to draw the line and close his eyes, of course, but there were always a thousand problems in front of him and a few extra each day can turn into lives saved each year. Michelle had gotten used to falling asleep next to him on the sofa, with Henry’s nails lightly running through her hair as he read over some recent study, then gone again as he scribbled some notes and flicked through some pages. But tonight was different. He wasn’t working through some rigorous formula or puzzling out the cause of some failure from the day. Perhaps it was a remnant of a spat they shared the previous night. Love him though she did, Henry’s distance could be trying at times. It might be as dramatic as a forgotten anniversary or as simple as the way he could walk through the door and sit down at his desk to finish some notes before finding a moment to kiss her hello, but occasionally it boiled over and they fought. It was always plain in his eyes when he knew that he had crossed a line, but the cold war leading up to that moment was never pleasant.
Though anger and silent contemplation in Henry often seemed much the same on the outside, this still felt different. Suddenly, which was not a common way for him to do anything, Henry placed his pen down and went to the kitchen sink for a glass of water.
A drink of water? Henry mulled the thought over in his head. How many thousands had he taken in his life, without the faintest idea of the significance it was about to have. He sipped it slowly, pondering the day. Yes, today he had brought the lab home with him again, but it was not his work that was on his mind. The idea had come to him by chance, an odd firing of his neurons that had no business happening at the time. Since then, he had spent hours dissecting the problem, checking the sources, running through equations over and over. It would take some physical trials to verify, but by 11PM he had convinced himself that the science checked out.
He turned from the sink and looked around their small home. Thinking about life was an unfamiliar activity for his brain, which was usually lost in the details, but tonight he found it easy. Perspective overwhelmed him as he pondered the room. From here he could see his desk strewn with papers and miscellaneous electronics beside a small workbench. It was almost too sparse to even be called that, but it served its purpose well enough when he actually needed to put his hands on some samples. On the right side was a running purple stain down the side of the leg where he had once knocked over a chemical that he had eventually maneuvered into a vaccine for a strain of the black-blood virus. Michelle had come over for a kiss and to ask him if he would like something to eat, and startled, he flipped his hand across the workbench a bit too quickly. How angry he had been at the time! And now looking back on it how foolish he felt. The sample could be remade in a couple of hours, but you can’t unmake words spoken.
Across the room, Michelle lay on the sofa, breathing softly. She may have thought that he didn’t pay attention, but he knew the subtleties of his love enough to know that she was not asleep. Surely she senses some change in me as well, he thought. She never failed to notice the miniscule changes he evoked when something troubled him. Her patience with ignorance far exceeds my own. I could never hope for such self-control. His mind made up, he glanced at the remaining water in his glass. With one last gulp he walked quietly to the sofa, sat down, and brushed her cheek gently.
Michelle’s eyes opened slowly, and a sheepish smile pushed its way onto her face to meet his peaceful gaze. “Describe your love for me.” Henry asked quietly.
“Describe it?” She wasn’t fully asleep when he came over, but the question was odd, out of character for Henry. “It’s… complete, unconditional. It’s made my life into something wonderful.” His face looked tired. “What are you thinking about?”
“I want to know that I’m still the only one for you, that you can keep a secret with only me, no matter what it may be.”
“Of course. Henry, what is going on?” She pushed herself into a sitting position and met his eyes. When he stayed silent an instant too long she added, “You can tell me. What is it?”
“What would you do with the power to save every life?” Her puzzled face only gazed back at him. “What would you do if you could never die?”
Michelle’s skeptical side forced her to play this like a hypothetical game. “Why, I’d live with you forever,” she said. “We would travel the world and beyond, learn the secrets of the universe, hold each other every night for eternity. What would you do?”
Henry gave a small sigh that confused her. “I can do it,” he said softly, and like a waterfall it came out of him, steadily at first then with growing force and feeling. “At least, I think I can. The details are complex, but the product is extremely simple. I can stop a person from aging, and it only takes a glass of water.” Michelle opened her mouth, but there was no room for her words this time. “This compound that I’ve devised bonds to ordinary water in a most amazing way. Not only will it use water as a transport, but it is self-replicating. The only energy it needs to continue replication is available water molecules and light. A few drops of already bonded molecules in a glass of water left in the sun for a couple of hours and the whole glass will be full of it. But more than this, it repairs aging tissue.”
The details really were fantastic to hear. Water was the most common substance on earth, and used by nearly every cell in the body. A glass of this every day was enough to repair and rejuvenate a day’s worth of physical tolls. In effect, supply was limitless and death need not be feared. “Of course,” Henry said, “Death is not impossible. Once life processes have ceased, this cannot bring them back. We’re merely adding more wax to our candle. It can still be snuffed out at any time.”
“But Henry, this is the greatest discovery in the history of our world! If what you say is true, it will change everything! The life of every person on the planet will never be the same! Should we… I don’t know… buy a hybrid?” She smiled.
He had to chuckle briefly. It was almost embarrassing to think how selfish one’s decisions could be when there was a definite end to life somewhere looming in the distance.
Michelle watched his face dim from the scientific excitement until it was almost strained with anguish. “What if we can’t share it?” he said. The question seemed to betray a dark side that Michelle had never seen before, but the way he said it pulled her back. “Not ‘will not’, but ‘cannot’. Think about what that would cause, Michelle. What does that bring? Our population already grows with dangerous speed. At the current rate we have only a few hundred years before the surface will be completely inhabited. Natural resources are dwindling by the day. What happens when we remove the primary limiting factor?”
It was a troubling thought even to consider. This wasn’t an elixir of immortality. World-wide famine was a disturbing thing to consider as a consequence of conquering death. “But we cannot keep it a secret…” she muttered. “In effect, we’d be serving a death sentence to half a million people every single day. How can we do that?”
“I don’t know. But what is the solution otherwise? Space travel is a curiosity at best. We have yet to reach a point of technological power to send one person from the solar system, much less relocate entire populations. The rise in population would overwhelm the planet long before we could ever hope to reach such a stage. How many people do we condemn then?”
“It’s just so distasteful. How could we hope to live with such a secret? The selfishness of even having this conversation is already gnawing at me. So who can we tell? Our families perhaps, and close friends…”
“No one!” Michelle frowned. “What do you mean ‘no one’? The world will not be over-crowded by a few people living too long.”
“No one,” Henry repeated. “I asked if you could keep a secret only with me, if I was the only one you needed. We can tell no one. Think about it again now. How can that possibly be controlled? Sure, we have a dozen people that we could say are important enough to share this with, but what of those people? What would they do with this knowledge? Certainly they would feel that their families and friends deserved the honor as well. And the pattern continues. How far does this go before it stops? We may as well package it up and sell it in convenience stores. It is no different than before.”
She sat silent for some time thinking about his words. The logic made sense, but she was beginning to understand why he had not come to her with energetic glee. The weight of one decision might save or destroy everyone who might ever live. “And there’s no going back,” she mused. “Once it’s out, it can never be contained.” Henry nodded. She met his gaze once more. “I love you.”
Elegant wine glasses bumped each other, sending a bright ring through the room. The clear liquid in them was not wine, of course, but it was a much more fitting toast considering the circumstances. To look back two hundred years was nearly impossible, it seemed. The human brain simply never needed nor was capable of such feats. Henry and Michelle had taken to using a decade as a memory marker. Too much longer than that and important things became hazy and distant. At the half-century mark of their new lives, they had realized that it was almost hard to remember where it had begun. Since then, every ten years they made a determined effort to document the recent past and study the strangely unfamiliar distant history.
The first few decades were almost sad to read. The young couple frozen in time had no special means, and the necessities of life did not go away easily. “We gained new perspective on life,” Michelle read aloud, “but had no way to seize it. In the first year, it was impossible to spend our days working a tiring job. We vowed to make ends meet any way they must, but the world would be ours to explore”. The screen flicked on to the next page as her eyes passed over the last words. The word ‘screen’ was really just a hold-over from a time ages ago when it wasn’t just a translucent projection in front of her face. “A year of struggling to survive was enough to reset our priorities, and we spent the next decade regaining a semblance of stability in life. Days were bleak and depressing for a time. It was unexpected to see the monotony of daily life stretch on forever, instead of the beauty of possibility that forever holds, but we had no grasp of time. A year was still a massive milestone to cross, and our best projections said that we should continue that same path for dozens more before having the resources to live as we desired.”
Henry stared off in quiet reflection. That man in the story held little identity for him anymore, but it was still important to reflect on the fact that it had been him once. He thought about the bite of carrot in his mouth. Agricultural land was so scarce now that it took quite a lot of money to eat them even occasionally. If only that poor man in the story knew that his pauper’s meal would turn to a delicacy one day. Perspective, he mused.
“…taken to reading books, dozens per year, in an attempt to learn all we could about a world we could not yet explore,” Michelle continued. He had missed a bit, but not enough to be lost. “By our thirtieth year of the new life, friends and family began to die. The pain and heartache was significant, and we nearly lost our resolve to keep the secret many times over. But in all cases, by the time we would have given in, the person was too far gone to live a full life. Our secret would only let them linger as they were, which would be no life at all. By our 100th year, all original friends and family had died. We considered suicide many times. There seemed to be no end to the struggle and no chance of salvation. But hope and love endured. Alone we might have sunk into despair, but it was never possible to bring about the end when we could find one more moment of comfort in each other.”
The timeline was slowly creeping back into the realm of his memory. Their rise to affluence as they neared 130 years old was vaguely familiar, though not as much as he might have expected for such a significant event. He looked around the cramped apartment and reflected on how expensive such a place was. Impressive feats of medical science had spurred population growth far greater than any projections, and even for their significant means it was small. The carrots and peas on his plate were bright against the nutrient mash that was his main sustenance for the day.
“Our fifteenth decade found us again breaking all ties and moving to a new city. It was still difficult to leave friends of 15 years or more, but our lack of aging becomes apparent eventually, and even slight suspicion can’t be overlooked. But as the world’s population grew ever faster, it became plainer every year that our decision was correct. The human race would have been extinguished many years previously if left completely unchecked. Our only hope now is that a solution can be found in time as things run their natural course.”
“I’m glad you’re with me,” Henry interrupted gently. Michelle peered through the screen at him and smiled. The years had been hard, but reading about the past reminded her that life could still be worth living, with the right motivations.
The human race had been lucky, it seemed. At a time of almost complete despair, with resources and social conditions at an all time low, a technological breakthrough had enabled interstellar travel in a way that had been deemed impossible only years before. There was now a steady flow of people off of Earth and onto a variety of other planets in nearby systems. Henry and Michelle had been able to afford transport to a reasonably comfortable, though by no means luxurious, planet in their fifth century. They sat together on a windy beach facing a small setting sun, but neither was really watching it. The years had grown from painful struggle, to feverish excitement and lately to boredom. The records showed nearly six thousand years of their history, and they had taken to watching it together in large segments. Before the recorded history there was some written work that chronicled the before-time, but they rarely looked at that any more. Now they were watching some mundane activities from their past, reading a newspaper or building a house of cards. Even the highlights of their life had become tedious after watching them so many times over. They had explored their new world as best they could, but that could only satisfy for a few hundred years before there was not much left to see. They often dreamed of the day when space travel would be cheap and common, but lately it had begun to seem like that would never happen. The best they could do now was to buy memories from other planets and experience them together, but it felt alien and somewhat hollow, so they always ended up back with their own lives, dull as some of it may be.
The random selection of memories shot forward, and Henry’s anticipation built a bit as he recalled an upcoming scene he liked quite well, even still. Here they were trekking across the south pole of this new world, the only one he still had any true memories of. Upon reaching the very tip of the planet, they pulled down their masks briefly. The kiss lasted only a moment, but they almost froze together all the same. Laughing and pulling back into their masks, Henry and Michelle held each other close. They were utterly alone for thousands of miles, and the kiss said more than words could. Put in perspective, immortality simply was being alone. All else must fade away, and they only had each other to hold on to forever.
In the end, they could not really have prevented the secret from escaping. Thrust into strange new planets, the pace of human evolution was vigorous. Where before the environment had been somewhat stable, uncountable new forces pushed and pulled at the race, and 50,000 years into their lives Henry and Michelle began to have trouble blending in. Their gene-signature became more than an anomaly, and attempts to stay away from civilization became futile. It was not a surprise when they were charged with high-murder for withholding their life-saving secret, and long before allowing themselves to be separated by force they came together for the last time.
Henry gazed at her face, the only constant in his long, long life. He knew every line, the shape of her cheeks, the warmth of her lips. There is a special intimacy between two who have no recollection of a past without each other, however distant. How to put into words a farewell to the woman who kept him sane and made life worth living this long? Perhaps some sentimental recollection of their wedding vows, but which? Any time they had lost one into the haze of distant memory they planned another. It almost seemed a lie to reminisce about memories that were only available because they had been recorded and made available to his brain artificially.
As he started to open his mouth, she stopped him. Of course, she knew him as deeply as he did himself, and nothing needed to be said. As they prepared to take a final drink, modified of course this time, she said only, “I love you.” The words had new meaning after the eons together, meaning that only comes from a thousand lifetimes of intimacy.
As they drifted away together, he noticed how much the darkness reminded him of ‘forever’. Holding her close with a mind that could not even fathom a time without Michelle, he knew what forever felt like. His last words were quiet, simple, and no more than they needed to be. “I love you forever.”