Universe 8 - [Anthology], page 1
* * * *
Edited By Terry Carr
Proofed By MadMaxAU
* * * *
Old Folks at Home
David and Lindy
The Ecologically Correct House
Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies
R. A. LAFFERTY
* * * *
Science fiction has usually dealt with the adventures of young people, and that’s not surprising, since youth is a time of vigor and imagination. But the human life span is steadily increasing, so shouldn’t we be giving some thought to what life will be like for the long-lived people of the future? Especially since, if we’re lucky, they’ll be us?
Michael Bishop, who is currently in his thirties and one of science fiction’s best “young authors,” here considers a new life style for the seniors of tomorrow. They’ll be people who remember our time but who must adjust to future changes: it will give them a unique perspective on the world of the twenty-first century.
* * * *
OLD FOLKS AT HOME
1 “sold down the river”
At a stilly six o’clock in the morning Lannie sat looking at the face of her visicom console in their sleeper-cove, Concourse B-11, Door 47, Level 3. Nausea was doing its stuff somewhere down in her plumbing: bubbles and fizzes and musical flip-flops. And Sanders—Sanders, her blue-jowled lummox—he lay sprawled snoring on their bed; if Levels 1 and 2 fell in on them, he’d still sleep, and he didn’t have to get up for another hour. But Lannie intended to fight it; she wasn’t going to the bath booth yet, no matter how tickly sick she began to feel.
That would wake Zoe, and she wasn’t ready for Zoe yet, maybe not for the rest of the day.
Putting her arms across her stomach, Lannie leaned over the glowing console and tapped into the Journal/Constitution newstapes. Day 13 of Winter, 2040, New Calendar designation. Front page, editorials, sports: peoplenews, advertisements, funnies.
Then, in among the police calls and obituaries, a boxed notice:
WANTED: Persons over sixty to take part in the second phase of a five-year-old gerontological study funded by the URNU HUMAN DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION. Health and sex of applicants of no consequence; our selections will be based on a consideration of both need and the individual interest of each case. Remuneration for the families of those applicants who are selected. Contact DR. LELAND TANNER, or his representative, UrNu Human Development Tower.
Lannie, still clutching her robe to her middle, held this “page” on the console. After two or three read-throughs she sat back and gazed at the room’s darkened ceiling. “Eureka,” she whispered at the acoustical punctures up there. “Eureka.”
Sanders, turning his mouth to the pillow, replied with a beluga-like whistling.
* * * *
She wasn’t deceived, Zoe wasn’t. She read the news-tapes, too, maybe even more closely than they did, and if Melanie and Sanders thought they could wool-eye her with this casual trip to the UrNu Human Development Tower, they needed to rethink their clunky thinking. I wasn’t born yesterday, Zoe thought. Which was so ludicrous a musing that right there in the quadrangle, on the gravel path among the boxed begonias and day lilies, Sanders craning his head around like a thief and Melanie drawing circles in the gravel with the toe of her slipper, Zoe chuckled: Clucka-clucka-cluck.
“ ‘Scuse me, Lannie, ‘scuse me for living.” Which was also reasonably funny. So she clucka-clucked again.
Sanders said, “What does he want to meet us out here for? How come he can’t conduct this in a businesslike fashion?” Sanders was a freshman investment broker. He had had to take the afternoon off.
“Not everyone runs their business like you do,” Melanie answered. She was a wardrobe model for Consolidated Rich’s.
It was 2:10 in the afternoon, and the city’s technicians had dialed up a summery 23° C. in spite of its being the month Winter. The grass in the quadrangle, as Zoe had already discovered by stepping off the path, was Astro-turf; and for sky the young Nobles and Melanie’s mother had the bright, distant geometry of Atlanta’s geodesic dome. On every side, the white towers of that sector of the Human Development complex called the Geriatrics Hostel. Many of the rooms had balconies fronting on the garden, and at various levels, on every side but one (the intensive-care ward), curious faces atop attenuated or bloated bodies stared down on them, two or three residents precariously standing but many more seated in wheel chairs or aluminum rockers. Except for these faces, the Nobles and the old woman had the carefully landscaped inner court to themselves.
“Home, sweet home,” Zoe said, surveying her counterparts on the balconies. Then: “Sold down the river, sold down the river.”
“Mother, for God’s sake, stop it!”
“Call it what you want to, Lannie, I know what it is.”
“Leland Tanner,” a young man said, surprising them. It was as if he had been lying in wait for them behind a bend in the path, the concealing frond of a tub-rooted palm.
Leland Tanner smiled. More than two meters tall, he had a horsy face and wore a pair of blue-tinted glasses whose stems disappeared into shaggy gray hair. A pleasant-looking fellow. “You’re Zoe Breedlove,” he said to her. “And you’re the Nobles. ... I thought our discussion might be more comfortable out here in the courtyard.” He led them to a ginkgo-shaded arbor on one of the pathways and motioned the family to a stone bench opposite the one he himself took up. Here, they were secure against the inquisitive eyes of the balcony-sitters.
“Zoe,” the young man said, stretching out his long legs, “we’re thinking of accepting you into our community.”
“Dr. Tanner, we’re very—” Melanie began.
“Which means I’m being sold down the river.”
“Damn it, Mother!”
The young man’s eyes, which she could see like clear drops of sapphire behind the colored lenses, turned toward her. “I don’t know what your daughter and your son-in-law’s motives are, Zoe, but it may be that—on down the Chattahoochee, so to speak—you’ll find life a little better than it was on the old plantation. You may be freer here.”
“She’s as free as she wants to be with us,” Sanders said, mounting his high horse. “And I don’t think this plantation metaphor’s a bit necessary.” His foot always got caught in that wide, loose stirrup: his mouth.
Only the young doctor’s eyes moved. “That may be true, Mr. Noble,” he said. “In the Urban Nucleus everyone’s freedoms are proscribed equally.”
“The reason they’re doing it,” Zoe said, putting her hands on her papery knees (she was wearing a disposable gown with clip-on circlets of lace at sleeves and collar), “is ‘cause Lannie’s gone and got pregnant and they want me out of the cubicle. They’re not gonna get off Level 3 anytime soon, and four rooms we’ve got. So they did this to get me out.”
“Mother, we didn’t do it to get you out.”
“I don’t know why we did it,” Sanders said, staring at the gravel.
Zoe appealed to the intent, gracefully lounging young doctor. “It could sleep in my room, too, that’s the shame of it: it could sleep in my room.” Then, chuckling again, “And they may be sorry they didn’t think of that before hauling me up here. Like two sneaky Simon Legreedies, Lannie and Sandy.”
“Money,” Zoe said, rubbing her fingers against her thumb like a usurer. “I read that box in the newstapes, you know. You’re auditioning for old people, aren’t you?”
“Sort of like that,” Leland Tanner said, standing. “Anyway, Zoe, I’ve made up my mind about you.” Under a canopy of ginkgo leaves he stared down at the group huddled before him, his eyes powerful surrogates for the myopic ones on the balconies.
“Don’t take me,” Zoe said, “it’ll serve them right.”
“From now on,” the young man said, “we’re going to be more interested in serving you right. And in permitting you to serve.”
Sanders, her son-in-law, lifted his head and squinted through the rents in the foliage. “It’s supposed to be Winter,” he said. “I wish they’d make it rain.” But an even, monochromatic afternoon light poured down, and it was 23° C.
* * * *
2 to marry with the phoenix
She was alone with young Leland in a room opening onto the garden, and he had pulled the curtain back so that she could see out while they talked. A wingback chair for her, with muted floral-print upholstery. Her feet went down into a pepper-and-salt shag carpet. Tea things on a mahogany coffee table, all of the pieces a dainty robin’s-egg blue except for the silver serving tray.
Melanie and Sanders had been gone thirty minutes, but she didn’t miss them. It didn’t even disturb her that it might be a long while—a good long while—before she saw them again. The ginkgo trees in the garden turned their curious oriental leaves for her examination, and the young man was looking at her like a lover, although a cautious one.
“This is a pretty room,” she said.
“Well, actually,” he said, “it’s a kind of decompression chamber, or air-lock, no matter what the comfortable trappings suggest. Usually I’m not so candid in my explanation of its function; most prospective residents of the Geriatrics Hostel must be introduced into their new environment slowly, without even a hint that a change is occurring. But you, Zoe, not only realize from the outset what’s going on, you’ve also got the wit to assimilate the change as if it were no more significant than putting on a new pair of socks.”
“That’s not so easy any more, either.”
He tilted his head. “Your response illustrates what I’m saying. I judge you to be a resilient woman; that, along with my interview with your family, induces me to select you as a candidate for the second stage of our study. I can use a term like air-lock to describe this sitting room without flustering you. Because, Zoe, if you decide to stay with us, and to press your candidacy, you’ll be very much like an astronaut going from the cramped interior of a capsule—via this room, your air-lock—into the alien, but very liberated realm of outer space.”
“First a sold-down-the-river darkie. Now a spaceman.” Zoe shook her head and looked at the damp ring her teacup had made on the knee of her gown. “Well, I’m old, Mr. Leland, but I’m still around. More than you can say for slaves and astronauts, thank goodness in the one case, too bad in the other.”
Young Mr. Leland’s violet eyes (he had taken those hideous glasses off), twinkled like St. Nick’s, but he didn’t laugh, not with his voice. Instead he said, “How old are you, Zoe?”
“Sixty-seven. Didn’t they tell you?”
“They told me. I wanted to see if you would.”
“Well, that’s correct. I was born in 1973, before the domes ever was, and I came into Atlanta from Winder, Georgia, during the First Evacuation Lottery. Barely twenty-two, virgin and unmarried, though in those days you’d best not admit to the first condition any more than you had now. Met my husband, Rabon Breedlove, when the dome wasn’t even a third finished. But a third of my life—my entire youth, really—I spent in the Open, not even realizing it was dangerous, the city politicians even said traitorous, to be out there.” A few bitter, black leaves adhered to the robin’s-egg-blue china as she turned her empty cup.
“And how old is Melanie, then?”
“Twenty-eight or -nine. Let’s see.” She computed. “Born in 2011, a late child and an only one. Rabon and me had tried before, though. Four times I miscarried, and once I delivered of a stillborn who went into the waste converters before we had a chance to put a name on it. Boy or girl, they didn’t tell us. Then Melanie, a winter baby, when we thought we’d never have one. All the other times was forgotten, a pink and living tadpole we had then, Rabon and me.”
“Your husband died when she was eight?”
Young Mr. Leland stood up and went to the window drapes. She saw how the shag lapped over his work slippers, even though his feet were big: good and big. “The Geriatrics Hostel has two parts, Zoe, one a nursing home and hospital, the other an autonomous community run by the residents themselves. You don’t need the first, but you can choose to be a candidate for the second.”
“I got a choice, huh?”
“We coerce no one to stay here—but in the case of those committed to the hostel’s nursing sector it’s often impossible for the residents to indicate choice. Their families make the decisions for them, and we then do the best we can to restore their capacity for reasoned, self-willed choice.”
“What does it mean, I’m a ‘candidate’?”
“If you so decide, you’ll go into one of our self-contained communities. Whether you remain with that group, however, is finally up to you and the members of the group themselves.”
“S’pose the old fuddy-duddies don’t like me?”
“I view that as unlikely. If so, we find you another family or permit you to form one of your own. No losers here, Zoe.”
Very quietly she said, “Hot damn.” Young Mr. Leland’s eyebrows went up. “An expression of my daddy’s.”
And came down again into an expression amusingly earnest. “Your husband’s been dead twenty years. How would you like to get married again?”
Well, he could laugh- With his voice as well as his eyes. She was hearing him. “No? no,” he said, “not for myself. For the first septigamic unit we want to introduce you to. Or for the six remaining members of it, that is. You’ll have six mates instead of one, Zoe. Three husbands and three wives, if those terms mean anything at all in such a marriage covenant. The family name of the unit is Phoenix. And if you join them your legal name will be Zoe Breedlove-Phoenix, at least within the confines of the Geriatrics Hostel itself. Elsewhere, too, if things work out as we wish.”
“Sounds like a bridge group that’s one short for two tables.”
“You’ll be doing more than playing bridge with these people, Zoe. No false modesty, no societally dictated inhibitions. And the odd number is a purposive stipulation, not merely a capricious way of messing up card games. It prevents pairing, which can sometimes occur on an extremely arbitrary basis. The old NASA programmers recognized this when they assigned three men to the Apollo missions. The same principle guides us here.”
“Well, that’s fine, Mr. Leland. But even with those astronauts, you’ll remember, only two of ‘em went down honeymooning.”
His horsy face went blank, then all his cheek- and jawbones and teeth worked together to split the horsiness with a naughty-boy grin. He scratched his unkempt hair: shag on top, shag around his shoes. “Maybe I ought to renege on the Phoenix offer and propose for myself, Mrs. Breedlove. All I can say to answer you is that honeymooning needn’t be what tradition only decrees. For the most part, the septigamic covenant has worked pretty well these last five years at the hostel. And your own wit and resilience make me believe that you can bring off your candidacy and marry with the Phoenix. Do you wish to become a candidate, Zoe?”
Zoe put her cup on the silver serving tray. “You know, Mr. Leland, you shoulda been a comedy straight man.” By which she didn’t mean to imply that he was even half so humorless as Sanders Noble. No, sir. That S
“Missed my calling. But do you want to?”
“Oh, I do,” Zoe said, taking what he’d served up. “I do.”
* * * *
3 helen, and the others
Dr. Leland Tanner made a call on an intercom unit in the sitting room. Then, leaning over Zoe so that she could smell the sharp cologne on him, he kissed her on the forehead. “I’m going out now, Zoe. If you decide to stay, you’ll see me only infrequently; your new family will occupy your time and your attention. There’s no interdict, however, on associating with the culturally immature. If you like, you can see me or anyone else younger than yourself. Just let me know.”
“Then I s’pose I shall, Mr. Leland.”
Other author's books:
- Universe 1 - [Anthology]Universe 2 - [Anthology]Universe 8 - [Anthology]Universe 11 - [Anthology]Universe 6 - [Anthology]Universe 14 - [Anthology]
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