Winner of TuckerCon
9th North American Science Fiction Convention
2007 Writers Contest
Free ebook format available at AllRomance
"Remember how your growing bones ached?"
I tried to remember but maybe I was just too distracted. I’m a visual person and it was taking a lot of effort to keep from staring rudely at Jorge’s leathery, wrinkled face. Tufts of coarse brown hair jutted over his dark eyes, which were almost hidden in the cavernous space beneath his bulging eyebrow ridge.
"That’s not a trick question," he said. "You can remember if you try."
It was about seventy years ago when I went through puberty. Still, I could recall the knocks and bruises from being out-of-sync with my growing body. But bones aching? "Sorry, Mr. Jorge," I said, throwing my hands up and smiling.
"Just Jorge," he said for the second time.
I felt almost like a kid again and, comparatively, it wasn’t far from the truth. At four hundred eleven years old, Jorge92A2020 was the only survivor of the first dozen longevity pioneers.
“Each time I've gotten a Treatment, it's been like starting at puberty all over again," he said. "You can’t know how you will transform, except that it won't be from child to adult."
I chafed at the familiarity of his tone. He spoke to me like I was his daughter instead of a professional. I couldn’t complain, though, because he’d gotten me past Security into the family waiting area with no questions asked. I guess that was one of the perks of being Jorge. Jorge got what Jorge wanted. I still wondered why he wanted me to interview him instead of one of the more famous reporters who'd hounded him, including some on our own staff.
We sat facing each other in a pale green booth that was big enough to seat four, his hands resting on the tabletop over the Renu Center’s familiar Tree of Life insignia. The symbol was repeated on the blue-green doors to the Advanced Treatment room, its entwined double DNA helixes portrayed as a gnarled trunk with the ends of the ladders stylized into the tree’s canopy. Jorge was wearing a loose wrap of the same aqua color.
"How old were you when you took the First Treatment?" I had to get him back on track.
"Only ninety-two, though it was considered quite old at the time." Large, protruding teeth flashed as he carefully enunciated each syllable.
I figured I would be twice that age before getting my First Treatment here, a leap in longevity due largely to Renu’s annual screening process. Most of us used home monitors to do our own annual testing, then chose from among a handful of generic booster packages. Across the hall, I could see some of the pampered few who were wealthy enough for personalized boosters here at the Center.
"Before I had my First Treatment, I hadn't thought about puberty in years,” he said. “Why would I have?"
I smiled, but didn't say anything. He was back on the puberty thing again.
"Funny how some things come back to you at times like that,” he said. “Before I hit puberty the first time, I had a moment of perfect clarity when I realized I wasn't going to be a child anymore. I was like the mythical figure -- Peter Pan, wasn't it? -- who didn't want to grow up."
"I don't know that story," I said. "You were talking about the First Treatment?"
"Well, Andrea, that year I played like a little kid, riding my bicycle around and around the giant oak tree my dad used for a hoist to lift engines out of his trucks," Jorge continued, as if I hadn’t spoken. “That was back when trucks still had rubber tires and dirt was dirt.”
“You were twelve then?" I asked, hopefully sounding less perturbed at his digressions than I felt. I needed for this interview to go well. I checked the time again. Jorge's appointment was in thirty minutes and we were only to the First Treatment.
"Yes. That summer, I got my period. I grew four inches taller, and my breasts developed. Things were never the same after that."
"You were female until your Second Treatment, right?"
"Right. They thought they knew what the treatment would do to our bodies. Of course, they were wrong." Jorge shifted positions, his badly curved spine a poor fit in the booth despite its ergonomic cushioning.
He was certainly right about the physical changes. In my research for the interview, I’d been lucky to find one pixilated hologram that had somehow managed to escape deletion in the online wars. The wide-angle shot taken in front of Renu’s Ogden Research Center showed all twelve who’d taken that historic First Treatment. I couldn’t determine much about what Jorge actually looked like. Even so, I was unsettled by the comparison to how he looked now.
A doc-tech emerged from the blue-green doors, stopped near the glass wall that encircled the room and began arranging the injectors for Jorge’s procedure.
“Anyway, I'd been a major investor in Renu from the beginning and closely followed the research, so I was the first to ensure myself a slot when the longevity treatment trials finally began. They said the Treatment would regenerate the body I had at forty," he said, “and that sounded good to me.”
"It was everything you imagined it would be?"
"You have to realize, Andrea, this had never been done before. The quest for immortality had gone on for centuries, and no one knew if we could truly reverse aging. It wasn’t like it is now with the annual boosters. When we finally did the Treatment, I was old and tired. I probably would’ve died in a decade or two.
“You probably know most of the hype about how we were the pioneers of the longevity revolution, but it was much more than that. Yes, the age reversal was everything we’d imagined,” he said, ”and there were side effects no one had imagined. All my life I'd been heterosexual. Almost immediately after the Treatment, however, I found myself attracted to women as well as men."
"But we have heterosexual partners now," I said, thinking of my own male partner. I was puzzled.
"I mean exclusively, Andrea. Our relationships were generally with only one person of the opposite sex at a time. Now I can barely remember when same-sex mating was considered odd. Or what it was like to be attracted to just one gender."
I'd heard of heterosexual societies, but what must it have been like to actually live in one? I thought about how my life had been like before my partners and I joined. Now it took all three of us to just keep the family running, and we were hoping to soon find a fourth. I couldn’t imagine just being with one person.
"You’re saying that the First Treatment was responsible for changing the entire social structure?" That certainly wasn’t in the histories.
“For almost a century, without even realizing it, my sexuality had set limits on the way I related to the world. Becoming free from that part of my old self after the First Treatment gave me more of life to explore. All twelve of us took full advantage of this new freedom, and, as we opened more Treatment centers, it wasn’t long before others adopted our lifestyle."
I felt something next to me and turned around. My arm almost bumped into the shiny, steel tube of the doc-tech, which had silently approached from behind.
"Jorge92A2020?" it asked, its sensors blinking red and green as it moved past me.
"Yes," Jorge replied.
Slender black and silver automated hoses snaked around him, first to scrape skin cells for a DNA identity samples and suction his forearm to check vital signs, followed by a swishing sound as the first prep drugs were injected. It glided back across the room.
“Before we go on, let me check my facts – you were one of eight from the original group who took the Second Treatment?” I was getting more anxious with only ten minutes left before Jorge's Fourth Treatment began.
“Yes, one decided she'd already lived long enough,” he said, “and three of the others had died in accidents of one sort or another."
“Then two of you became male following that Treatment?"
"Almost immediately I realized my body chemistry was changing radically,” he said. “Within a year, my female breasts atrophied to nubs. Within five years of the Second Treatment, I'd grown a penis and become a fully functioning male."
"What caused your gender switch?"
"After years of testing, they still don't have all the answers. It occurs about twenty percent of the time following the Second Treatment."
"What was the change like?"
"As I said, start by thinking of what your bones growing felt like. This was worse, because I was older."
"Then you were male for a century?"
"A feminist, turned male," he said, shaking his head. "I was a mother for the first time at age fifty, and a father at two-fifty. By that time, we had learned that longevity treatments don't work as well on men, so I wasn’t complaining about the change," he said. I laughed like I understood the joke.
"We had no way to know until then that ‘born’ males wouldn't rejuvenate as well as ‘born’ females,” he explained. “Eventually, that meant too many females.”
Doors hissed behind me and a gurney bearing a sleeping woman in a yellow wrap floated down the corridor along the sensor track outside our glass-walled room toward the bright yellow doors of the adjoining Life Treatment room.
"Why isn't any of your family here today?"
He sat motionless for a moment, then sighed.
"Since the Third Treatment, I've become something of an embarrassment. A freak. One of the things about living a long time is that as you reveal different expressions of yourself, you discover how alone you are,” he said. “You can also discover how much you’re part of everything."
The doc-tech interrupted, wrapping a hose around Jorge’s arm to pump in more drugs. I checked the time again. Five minutes until he would be leaving.
"Okay," I said, when the doc-tech left, "back to the Third Treatment. I saw that five of the original twelve made it to the three-hundred-year mark.”
"Yes, but only three of us took the Treatment that did this," he pointed to his face. “By that time, the rest had either died or decided the live the rest of the life unchanged. Within days after the Third Treatment, we had excruciating headaches that lasted weeks at a time. I would’ve done anything to stop the pain. We required constant monitoring and they even strapped us to our beds, otherwise none of us would've survived.”
I watched his ancient face closely, caught up in the transformation as he relived it.
"The doctors' measurements soon confirmed what the mirror already showed us,” he said. “Our brains reconfigured to the new shapes of our skulls -- the front lobes shrinking and the rear portions growing. Our body hair also grew coarser and longer, and covered more of our bodies. The whole skeletal system was affected. Within three tortuous years, all our teeth were pushed out by these things." He bared his yellowed incisors.
"You became Neo-Neanderthals."
"An unfortunate nickname," he said. "People obviously saw the physical resemblance, but for some it seemed more ominous than just appearances because of a prank. An intern at the Treatment Center took one of the handhelds and convinced a nearby museum’s administrator to allow him to scan a Neanderthal skull. He superimposed it on a scan of my skull from the medical files. We could've been brothers."
"How did you deal with that comparison?"
"It wasn't always easy, I think because so many people equate the past with devolution," he said, looking me in the eyes, challenging me to deny it.
I looked down and fiddled with the scanner controls. I didn’t know where he was going with this.
“You know, whether humans and Neanderthals had a common ancestor is not the issue. My physical appearance doesn’t prove it either way if you accept that only minute genetic differences separate all the species on the planet. Besides, the research is inconsistent. Every decade or so, research proves conclusively that Homo sapiens are descendents of Neanderthals, only to be reversed by other evidence. It’s been an ongoing controversy for as long as I’ve been alive.”
"What happened to the others who took the Third Treatment?"
"Supposedly accidents," he said, examining the wiry hair on the backs of his thick-skinned hands. "When they found out what we’d become, they didn't survive the decades it took to recover from the shock and anger."
"How was it for you?"
"I think the hardest part was looking at the others and knowing that’s what I looked like to them. It was nothing like the reality of who I was. It wasn’t until after the others died that I decided I’d have to do something differently to survive. Nothing in my three hundred years of experience had prepared me for being so different, so alienated. I felt there had to be something I was uniquely suited to do to make sense of why I was the way I was. I began to realize that with each of my transformations, I'd become less of who I was when I was born, but more of what my genes remember of who I am as a human."
"You mean you see yourself as more human now than before?" I asked, checking his primitive features to see if he was joking again, but he wasn’t smiling.
"You think being human is all in the body?" Jorge asked.
"Where else could it be?" I asked.
"The mind,” he said. “The soul. Humanity is more than physical attributes."
"What do you think will happen to you now?"
"Who can say? Maybe I'll become telepathic. Or asexual,” he said, with a wink I found disconcerting. “Maybe I'll become who I always was."
"Jorge, why are you going ahead with this? After what you went through, now no one ever goes beyond the Second Treatment." The doc-tech returned, this time ready to escort Jorge 92A2020 to his Fourth Treatment.
"Wait," he told it. “You’ll have to be curious enough to find the answer,” Jorge said, as he reached over with a thick-skinned hand to gently pat me on the shoulder. I guess he could hear the panic in my voice. “After all, it’s nothing more than puberty, and you remember what that’s like.” As he stood, he reached inside his wrap and handed me an image cube. “I know you were having some problems with your research. I hope these help.”
My media scanner whirred and followed Jorge’s stooped form as he crossed the room, recording even the muffled sounds his cloth slippers made on the granite floor. The final shot was a zoom-in on the gnarled trunk of the Renu Tree of Life as the Advanced Treatment room doors hissed shut behind him. I remained sitting in the booth, examining the four rare images on the cube he handed me. One showed the Neo-Neanderthal Jorge was today, another was him as a round-faced man. The oldest image was of him as a smiling young girl on her bicycle. The fourth image was a close-up of Jorge sometime before his Second Treatment -- a slender Eurasian woman with almond-shaped brown eyes and long, strawberry blonde hair. She looked a lot like me.
I could almost feel my bones aching.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: A sequel to this story, "Origins of the Species," won second place in the 2011 Writer's Digest Horror Competition.