It was an unseasonably warm spring evening in the city of Quagum when Themysa found him at his home, sitting just outside his house and enjoying a glass of fermented rice wine as had been his wont as of late.
Although he was at least twenty cycles her senior, they had formed a close friendship ever since he had been her tutor in civics and political study at the university. It had begun, like many of those things do, as a romantic relationship, with her being attracted to his intellect and he had been smitten with her energy and enthusiasm.
But they had both quickly learned that those initial feelings were borne out of passion rather than genuine affection and they had decided to remain friends rather than to carry on with a relationship that was destined to fizzle out and fail.
He had remained her mentor and confidant even after she had left school to pursue a career in politics. It had helped that he too had moved back into that field, quickly rising to the highest levels of the planetary government.
They’ve had their disagreements over the years, they certainly didn’t see eye to eye on several important issues, but she had been more than a little surprised to hear about his most recent vote in an assembly session just a couple of days earlier.
“I had not taken you, of all people, as a sleever,” she said even as she approached him sitting on the porch of his rather modest single-story home located in one of the more affluent parts of the city.
He afforded her with one of his beaming smiles that she had found so irresistible in her younger days when she had spent countless hours in his company speaking with him about anything and everything, from her childhood spent in the hill country, to her upbringing in the city and her dreams of becoming an assemblywoman someday. He’d had an almost uncanny ability to listen to her speak, oftentimes hearing things she hadn’t even said, always with that inspiring smile decorating his lips and never really noticing until much later that while she routinely bared her soul to him, he never once talked about his own past.
“I don’t believe that is the preferred term,” he said to her as he had another sip of his wine with one hand, and gently stroked his white and bony protrusions that ran lengthwise down his bald, dark-skinned head in neat rows all the way to the back of his neck. Then he raised the bottle as if to offer her a drink.
She shook her head. “I don’t care what they call themselves. But the idea of simply shrugging off your body to replace it with an artificial shell when it no longer suits you just feels unnatural. Our resources would have been so much better spent on more worthwhile pursuits, such as the space program.”
He looked past her and toward the city behind her. Although his home was modest, the location he had chosen for it most certainly was not. Positioned on top of one of the taller hills, it afforded a splendid view of the metropolis, currently lit up in bright colors. “If you were to ask our forefathers about vehicles driving themselves or robots carrying out menial tasks to make our lives easier, things we take so much for granted now, I am certain there would have been some among them who would have considered such innovations unnatural as well.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” she said calmly. She had long since moved past her early habits of arguing her points with a great passion, having learned to temper herself with rationality instead. A lesson he had taught her. “Perhaps the problem is that the Assembly is composed of old men and women, scared of the prospect of dying of old age and desperate to cling to any hope to artificially prolong their lives. Perhaps what the Assembly requires is an infusion of youth and vision.”
At that, he smiled good-naturedly at her. “That, my dear, I do not doubt at all.”
“I cannot believe you did that.”
Themysa was thoroughly astounded when she had found him sitting by himself at a table in the far corner of the restaurant, the leftovers of his recent meal mostly forgotten in favor of a half-emptied bottle of spiced rice wine.
But it wasn’t that he had ordered an entire bottle for himself that had her so completely flabbergasted, it was the fact that he possessed only a passing resemblance to the man she had known for almost her entire adult life. He looked like himself, except years younger, as if he was the son she knew he had never had.
Most disturbingly perhaps, he now looked younger than she did.
“Was it true after all? You just wanted to live forever?” she said as she wiped the sweat off her brow.
He looked up at her briefly without paying her much attention. “This isn’t a good time.”
“You’ve been avoiding me for the last ten cycles, I’ve barely seen you more than a handful of occasions during all that time, and trying to contact you has become increasingly difficult. Now I’ve learned you’ve resigned from your assembly role and I find you hiding in here, wearing your brand-new shell that makes you practically look like a child.”
He took another sip from his beverage. “The technology is really quite remarkable. You should try it.”
She shook her head. “I am quite happy with my body the way it is, thank you very much.”
“You’d be amazed by the results. I thought I knew what I had lost in old age. Turns out, I was only half right,” he said, although he sounded somewhat flat, his tone not quite matching the enthusiasm his words seemed to imply.
“Is that what you’ve become? A cheerleader of sleeves?”
He finished his drink and toggled the payment sensor at his table before he stood and headed for the doors. “I wish I had time for that.”
She was not willing to give up so quickly. She had spent a significant amount of time and effort to track him down, had been surprised to be told that he was no longer working for the Assembly, it had almost been as if he had dropped off the face of Celerias altogether until she had heard of rumors that somebody matching his description, albeit loosely, had been seen frequenting this establishment.
Now that she had found him, she was not willing to give up so easily. “Pray tell me what’s been keeping you so busy for the last few cycles if it is not working for your new masters at the sleeve builders?”
They stepped outside and he stopped for a moment, looking skyward. “Hot day we’re having.”
“It’s called a heatwave,” she said, not willing to change the subject
He nodded and then glanced at her.
“You were telling me what you’ve been working on.”
“Do you recall our conversations back at the university about trying to make a real impact on the world we live in?”
“It’s how you convinced me to go into politics,” she said, recalling those conversations quite vividly. She had been so optimistic and eager in those days, barely able to wait to graduate and start tackling the greatest issues facing their society.
“I was wrong,” he said.
A large skimmer pulled up next to them. It was white and sleek with no visible markings, like the ones people of affluence liked to ride in, those who had suddenly found themselves able to use their wealth to purchase new bodies as if they were suits of clothing.
It was a fad, she had decided, a new fixation of the rich and famous to spend their money on. Rather than invest in houses or boats, they could now get younger and stronger, and more beautiful for the right price.
Without another word, he slipped into the vehicle and drove off, leaving her to look after him.
“What happened to you?”