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by Ryan McSwain, © 2017
As the woman enters the bar, every eye drinks her in. I smile, noticing she’s tried to dress down for the occasion. But there’s no hiding her money. Her body is perfect, but that applies to everyone here. What betrays her is the tasteful gray streak in her hair, and those smile lines belong in the movies. A girl in the corner booth starts whispering like she’s never seen anyone over the age of twenty-three before. Maybe she hasn’t.
I’m deciding how to describe her for the other boys on the job site when she sits on the stool next to me. Her working-class duds are a nice touch, but she still smells like jasmine and roses. For the first time tonight, for the first time in a long while, I’m self-conscious of my shirt, stained with Braycote grease and graphene dust from repairing space elevators. But there’s nothing I can do about that, so I finish off my beer and signal Joe for another round. Above us, a blurry woman on the television reads the news.
“More of the same?” Joe asks.
He’s showing off for his wealthy guest. “You know what I drink,” I say. “Same thing I’ve had every night for sixty-five years.”
“Let me get that,” the woman says. “And bring me one of the same.”
Joe fills the spotted glasses. I notice the heads on the beers are half their usual size. “That’s kind of you, ma’am.” I extend my hand. “Name’s Jared Noch.”
The handshake gives her the giggles, and it sounds like wind chimes in autumn. This is her first time slumming it. “I’m Dabria. Have you really been coming here for sixty-five years?”
“That’s how long I’ve been drinking Yuengling. Been coming here a lot longer than that.”
“How old are you, Jared?”
I bump my shoulder against hers. “Twenty-three, same as everyone else in this place. You know that.”
Dabria scoots her stool closer to mine. “You know what I mean. How long have you been twenty-three?”
I put my fingers to my temples and allow the question to slosh around my skull. She rolls her eyes at the perceived theatrics, but the math is tricky after four drinks. “I’ve been twenty-three for three hundred and forty-seven years. Give or take.”
“That’s a long time.”
“Is it?” I nod toward one of the boys playing darts. “Billy over there, he’s been twenty-three for over nine centuries.”
His opponent pops off, “Still sucks ass at darts!” Everyone in earshot laughs, Dabria included.
As the rest of the bar falls back into routine, I turn the tables on her. “How about you?”
She traces a line on my arm with her manicured fingernail. “Are you asking a lady her age? Isn’t that a rude question?”
“Maybe once upon a time. But it’s the question every boy and girl here wants to ask you.”
She rests her hand on my thigh, and I decide the question can wait. The news anchor on the cracked television screen moves to the next headline. “Noted trillionaire Andrew Dee reached the end of his life today. His biological age was ninety-six. The date of his passing was known in advance to his family and the members of the board at Dee Aerospace Solutions, which holds a majority stake in mining the Kepler belt. It is unknown at this time—”
I politely ask Joe to turn that shit off, and he complies. Dabria continues to stare at the black, humming screen. Her expression reveals more than morbid curiosity.
“You okay?” I ask.
“My father worked with him. On occasion. Always strange to hear about someone passing on, isn’t it?”
I take another drink. Sometimes I dream about having the money to purchase a death, but that’s a wild fantasy.
“What about you?” She holds my gaze, but I can’t read her intention. “Do you want to get older? Lose that handsome, youthful shine?”
“Sometimes.” It’s not an admission I would usually make, but this isn’t my usual conversation. “I can barely afford a few beers a night. I’ve got savings, sure, but I’d need two millennium to save enough to turn off the nanites that keep me at a hard-working twenty-three years of age.”
Dabria looks confused. “Aren’t there other options? What about the lotteries? People win a chance to grow older all the time.”
Joe smirks; he’s always been a terrible eavesdropper. I give him a dirty look as I ask her, “You mean the game shows? You have to know they’re a scam. All those people are actors.”
She falls silent, tearing pieces off her cardboard coaster, and I realize this is news to her. I put my arm around her shoulders and draw her close. “I’m sorry,” I whisper in her ear. “I thought everyone knew.”
She downs the last of her beer. “Doesn’t matter. It’s stupid anyway. Anyone who wants to grow older can travel to one of the colonies, can’t they?”
The regulars around us stop pretending to enjoy their conversations. Billy throws his last dart, and it misses the board by a hand’s width. “Lady,” he asks, “do you think we’d be here if the colonies were sunshine and buttermilk? Those old cargo ships they pass off as passenger ships are death traps. What’s the point of growing older if you die before you reach your new home? No, the lowly worker is doomed if he stays or if he goes. We’ve been doomed ever since they realized immortal humans were cheaper than self-repairing machines. The boss man doesn’t even have to pay for fuel—damn nanites take everything we need out of the environment. Ever wonder how hungry you can get when you can’t starve to death?”
Dabria’s cheeks flush. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“Billy,” I say, “Go back to your game. She didn’t mean anything by it. Next round’s on me, okay?”
“You don’t have to do that,” the old boy says. “My apologies, ma’am.” He pulls the stray dart from the wall, and the game resumes.
Dabria pushes back from the bar. “This was a mistake.” She starts to stand, but I take her arm and pull her back onto the seat.
“You don’t need to leave. Billy makes that rant three nights a week. Sometimes three times a night.” I take her small hand in mine. “Stay.”
She relents, and Joe brings us another round. I decide the situation can’t be much more awkward, so I ask my question. “Why’d you come here tonight?”
“Because of my husband, Jeffrey.” Seeing my eyes widen, she gives me a playful shove. “My ex-husband. He cheated one time too many, and I lost it. I left him two months ago.”
“That must be tough. Any kids?”
Dabria looks wistful. “One. But she’s grown now. She has a few years before she decides whether she’ll continue to age. I think she’ll probably pause for at least a few decades. That girl loves to travel, so I’ve made my peace. Once she leaves the planet that first time, our timelines will never match up again. Ever been married?”
“No. Marriage is for growing old together, not for growing apart. So, only the one kid?” They could legally have a second.
“My husband—sorry—Jeffrey didn’t want another. Wanted to keep his options open, he said. It scared him to totally shut the door on eternal youth. Not me, though. It’s worth it to have a child. Did you know your parents?”
“They left for the outer ring shortly after my sis and I were born. I saved up enough to send them a few messages, but I’ve never heard back. No telling where they ended up.”
She gives my arm a long squeeze. “It’s fine,” I say. “Hard to miss someone you never knew.” Lowering my voice, I ask, “So, is this how you’re getting back at your ex-husband? Not saying I’m not down for it, I’d just like to know what I’m getting into.”
Her laughter is more intoxicating than anything behind the bar. “Oh, Jeffrey would hate my coming here. The man is terrified of people who work with their hands. What do you do with your hands?”
“Sure, Romeo. What do you for a living?”
“I keep the elevators moving.”
“I’ve heard the graphene is terrible.”
“No one’s singing down in the pits, but it’s got nothing on the black lung the old miners lived with. My nanites take care of me, and they can handle anything except the most severe injury. A cable snapped last week, and they had to take a few men into the hospital for reattachments. One guy even had a scar. Been a long time since I’d seen one of those.” I notice Dabria shudder. “Sorry, I’m used to talking to roughnecks.”
“It’s not that,” she says. “It’s just so strange to hear someone who looks so young talk as if they’re so old.”
I look into her face, at the tiny wrinkles around her eyes. “You’re exactly as old as you look, aren’t you?”
She only smiles. I shake my head, saying, “Oh, my sweet summer child. You’d better watch out. You’re the youngest human being for miles.”
We laugh together. “Is there anywhere you’d like to go?” she asks. “Away from Earth, I mean.”
“Tau Ceti. It gets hot working on those damn cables, and I hear the fourth planet is cool and comfortable all year.”
“That sounds nice. Like it’s always fall.” We sit together for a time, her arm wrapped around mine, her cheek on my shoulder. “I have a crazy idea. Let’s go there.”
“You’re right, that is crazy. I could never afford it.”
“I’ll pay your way. If we have problems, it won’t be currency.”
“You don’t even know me. What if you can’t stand me tomorrow?”
“I’m not thinking past tonight. It will be a big ship. I’ll make you a deal. Come with me. I’ll buy you out of your contract. Since we’ll be off-planet, I can pause my age for the journey. If we decide to part company before reaching our destination, no harm, no foul. And if you want to start aging on arrival, I’ll still pay for it.”
“I’m not looking to be anyone’s pet, not even if I get to sit on a golden pillow.”
“I don’t want a pet. Everyone in my life takes what we have for granted. I want someone who can appreciate change.”
“When would we leave?”
“Right now. I told you, I’m not thinking past tonight.”
“I need some time to think about it.”
She stands and lays a bill on the table to cover our tab. “I’ll be outside in the car. If you’re not outside in five minutes . . . Like I said, no harm, no foul.”
“That’s not much time.”
“You only live once.” The front door closes behind her.
I look around Joe’s Place. I’ve been coming here every night for over a century. Beside me, Billy loses another game of darts. Joe turns the television back on and gives it a slap to stop the rolling picture. I can almost hear the nanites working in the bar, constantly rebuilding the walls, the wooden bar top. They’ll repair anything organic indefinitely, and I can feel them in my blood, keeping me young, keeping me just as I am.
I finish my beer. “Goodbye, Joe.”
He’s drying a glass and doesn’t look up. “See you around, Jared.”
It’s raining outside. I breathe a sigh of relief to see Dabria still waiting in the back seat of her luxury car. The door rises, and I slide in beside her. As the door hisses shut, she leans against me. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“That makes two of us. Why did you sit by me tonight?”
“When I walked in, you were the only one who smiled. Do you need to stop anywhere? Pack some clothes?”
“No. Thought I might try something new.”
She tells the car where to take us, and we drift away.