Jamie was old. He was just old. He didn't feel old, at least not on the inside. But his body would not let him forget his century plus of living. Drugs, surgery, prosthetics, good genes and a lifetime of athletics had kept him alive all these years, but they could not win against the inevitable decay and decrepitude.
Jamie felt like a 17-year-old trapped in the body of a 117-year-old. He still wanted to play ball like he had as a kid, but except for the cerebral interface with his virtual Gamechamp, the best he could do was watch the young people play. Gamechamp was a poor substitute for reality; you could manipulate the bat, ball, and glove, view the field as you virtually ran the bases, hear the synthesized crowd cheer. But you couldn't smell the grass, you never got out of breath, didn't feel the ache in your muscles, and you couldn't get hurt. Where was the risk, the triumph, the fun? Virtual baseball was a poor substitute for reality.
Where had his life gone? How had it slipped by so fast?
When he was young he saw a film in which old men chased after pretty young girls. It was funny to see the wrinkled old perverts leer and snicker, and to see the girls flirt and tease and always stay out of their slow clumsy grasps. He saw no tragedy then, only comedy, yet underlying great comedy is great tragedy. Jamie didn't understand then, but he did now.
He vividly remembered his first love; the heat that built up inside him, the feeling in his palms, his stomach, and especially his loins when he was close to her. All that was gone-no heat, no feeling, no nothing. Remembering only made it worse. He knew now the tragedy of those foolish old men in the film. Young and virile inside, old, hoary and impotent on the outside. Even if some young women would have them, they could do nothing about it but leer. These days there was a Gamechamp for sex as well, but it was too little like a woman and much like an automatic milking machine.
It's depressing to get old. You see the signs while you are still young, and you make allowances, cover up the evidence with cosmetics, rage, rage against the dying of the light as best you can. Then one day you realize that you are closer to the end than the beginning. You find yourself talking about your infirmities more than anything else. You look back more than you look forward. You remember more than plan.
It's depressing to see all your friends die before you, all those people you shared a common culture, a common history with. You can't reminisce with someone twenty, thirty, fifty years younger than yourself.
Of course he had outlived Clare. She was six years older than he, and didn't have the Southard genes on her side. And while she always had a slim figure, she was never an athlete. Clare was a city girl; the most ghastly thing to her was being more than a few miles from a shopping mall. But she was loyal to the end. Jamie thought of her often, could almost smell the lavender scent she always wore, woke up in the middle of the night hearing her snore, just to remember she'd been gone almost twenty years.
Twenty years. Never mind the years-where had the decades gone? Where had the century gone?
One thing about growing immensely old: you can perfect curmudgeonliness to a high art. Maybe it's endemic of old people that they see each subsequent generation as soft and lazy. "In my day, we had it hard...walked ten miles barefoot in the snow...my neighborhood was so rough that...". But Jamie had seen five generations grow up and grow old, each less capable than the last. The population had not divided, in 50 years of a hot, free economy, into the haves and the have-nots. It bifurcated into the knows and the know-nots. And the scale seemed to be tipping more and more onto the know-not side as populations grew and grew.
As a professor he had seen each brigade of students emerge from public education with less and less critical thinking ability or even rote knowledge. Simple algebra escaped just about everybody. No one had a clue as to the physical world around him. He actually had an adult student ask him "what happens to the Sun when it rains?" It had pushed Jamie toward early retirement.
The arts too had deteriorated. Singing and playing instruments had grown to be too daunting a task for most popular musical "artists," and form and attitude grew dominant over substance. Art music had all but disappeared-the few concerts were hi-fidelity broadcasts of recordings made fifty years or more in the past. Of the 500+ satellite channels, maybe 3 had any intellectual content, the rest being either vapid entertainment or science, art, and history repackaged into 5 or 10 second trifles with accuracy and veracity thrown to the four winds. Films had degenerated into amusement park rides.
Technology and medicine had advanced greatly while other human endeavors had dwindled, primarily because there was money to be made. Some state-sponsored big-science projects had continued, but most progress was made in the consumer arena. The know-nots had the cash, and those few knows who could excel in the Universities went on to push human knowledge wherever there was a market. Remember, the know-nots were still the haves, (and their numbers were huge!) and with all their new toys they were occupied and content. Furthermore, the vast elderly population made gerontology a fertile, lucrative field. Yet the impotence of age ultimately could not be denied.
Jamie hated the dependencies. He depended on 22 pills a day, 4 nurses a week, and 3 doctors a month. He needed mechanisms to get out of his chair, to climb the stairs, and to see and to hear. His mind was as sharp as ever-Alzheimer's had been cured while he was still working-but the strong body he had come to depend on had finally let him down. He felt betrayed.
Yes, it's depressing to get old, but Jamie had an ace up his sleeve. One advantage of living longer than most was his ability to accumulate wealth. Since retiring from the University 60 years earlier, Jamie had had little to do but play with his investments, and he had piled up a nice stock portfolio, a dozen condominiums, open land in several states, and some healthy savings. Even the expense of the 22 pills, 4 nurses and 3 doctors couldn't dent his resources. Jamie had an ace, and this ace required considerable "grease" to slide easily down the sleeve.
In the late 20th century the Soviet Union, as it was then called, experimented with freezing cosmonauts (such a grand term!) for long space flights. Back then there were only chemical rockets, and a trip to Mars would take almost a year, so the Soviets looked into ways of cutting down on shipboard life-support. Suspended animation was the euphemism, but it really amounted to making an ice block out of a living creature. They did manage to freeze a dog and a couple of goats, but the Soviets were never able to thaw a higher life form. The cell damage caused by ice crystals was too great, and they never experimented on a human. So they said.
In the Capitalist West however, a way had been found to avoid the problem with the thawing process: freeze the subject, then wait for someone else to figure out the thawing. Wait for years if necessary. This obviously wouldn't be suitable for space travel, but it was a way to extend life into the future. A company was established, SoCal Cryonics, with the following service. Let's say a customer had a terminal disease, something that hadn't been successfully cured. Perhaps the disease was a cancer, heart malfunction or even old age. Near the time of passing the customer would have him or herself frozen, either just the head or the entire body, with the hope of staying preserved until such time as the disease was curable and the customer could be safely thawed. Those who had only their head frozen (an "economy option") had the greater hope that future genetic research could regrow their body, and then transplant their thawed brain into a new young self. Hence a life may be extended; more than that, it was a form of time travel.
The whole procedure was not cheap. Generally the customer, financially stable to begin with, deeded almost all of his or her estate to SoCal Cryonics in perpetuity, presumably saving some resources for their new life. At even modest interest rates an average investment could outstrip inflation nicely.
The amount of faith needed to believe that a company would be solvent for decades or even centuries was unusual. The belief that countries and economic systems would be stable for such a long time frame was borderline fanaticism. However, these leaps of faith were somewhat mitigated by the reality that death was imminent, so what was there to lose?
Now, Jamie wasn't afraid of dying. He had an agnostic attitude about it, figuring whatever happened after death it was probably interesting. But he had had a good life, at least for the first 75 years, and he missed it. He hadn't done all he wanted to do, hadn't seen all he had wanted to see, hadn't been as much as he could have been. He didn't hate being alive; he hated being old. He deserved another chance; he'd been a good teacher, a good husband, and a good citizen. Jamie had accumulated enough wealth, and even though the drugs and prosthetics could keep him alive several more years at least, he was ready to give SoCal Cryo his business.
It was a tough decision to make. Despite his old-age grumpiness, Jamie the curmudgeon still wanted to see the future, whatever lay ahead. He'd now seen the lunar colony started, the Mars expeditions, the first planned robotic mission to Proxima Centauri. SETI had confirmed an intelligent radio source from space, but were no closer to understanding it than they had been 15 years ago when they first received it.
Yes, Jamie had seen some of the future, and he could see more of it. The choice was, see a little more of it definitely, or take that chance and see the far future, thanks to SoCal Cryo. He had agonized over this for several years; he wasn't dead yet, not really dying either, just decaying. Thanks to the Libertarian Revolution of 2016, a person in America again had the right to do with his body what he wished, so choosing to be frozen before he was medically dead was a viable option.
The event that finally helped him make up his mind was the successful thawing of a laboratory animal which had been frozen 20 years ago. The rat still remembered the maze training it had received, indicating that brain functions were normal, and the rat was healthy. There still was no way to have himself cloned so that a new body would be waiting, nor had brain transplants been successfully performed. Humans had not been thawed out either, but the time was right. Progress was being made, so Jamie made arrangements.
Getting his affairs in order took some time. Which asset does one keep over the stretch of time? The stock market could vary considerably; buildings could be razed or otherwise destroyed. Besides, there was SoCal Cryo to pay. At last he decided on keeping his open land; SoCal would prefer more liquid assets anyway, and at least he would have a place to go, then, whenever. Anything that was not a serious asset he gave away, save for some personal mementos and other items which may be collectibles in the future (his Lionel electric trains from the last century would bring big bucks, if he could part with them, if they even used bucks).
Getting anywhere when you are 117 years old was difficult. Jamie's first stroke at 86 had impaired his walking, his broken hip at 97 had removed the rest of his ambulating ability, despite the implants. His wheelchair had remotes for everything in his house, and he could at one time even drive his car with it, but it was too dangerous now. Reflexes at 117 weren't exactly lightning quick. His doctors didn't agree with his decision, being a conservative lot, but finally assented to getting him transported out to Riverside for the final preparations to be made. (He found the double meaning of final preparation humorous.)
The trip along the freeway was uneventful. Jamie brought two of his four nurses with him. He had provided for all of them with a year's salary, although he was sure they would find work if they wanted, even in their sixth decade. These two were a reassurance that, on this last trip, he'd make it in one piece.
His car was one of those with automatic controls, one that the highway could command. He and his entourage were in a car-train: dozens of cars moving along quickly with not one meter of space between them. Jamie glanced at the older manual lanes, and saw hundreds of fast-looking cars moving at no more than 20kph. Strange, he thought. Don't they get it? In all his years as a student of life, so many things had seemed self-evident: physics, high technology, and most of all the fallacies that most people take as truths (like fast-looking cars go fast). The appearances foisted by marketing onto the masses to increase sales, or the images thrown out over the networks to sway opinion one way or another. Vagueness to cover lies. Spin, they used to call it.
The facades behind facades behind facades-why can't people see the way it really is? And why do they have the most trouble reasoning out the most basic of problems? Ruled by emotion, I guess, thought Jamie, not by intellect. As long as they are comfortable, as long as they have the illusion of a fast car, or just a stable life, (and as long as there are enough knows to give them their illusions and keep everything running!), most people are happy.
Ignorance is bliss, ran the old saw, and some are more blissful than others. Is it a linear function? Are the more ignorant happier? Probably so, if the ignorant are comfortable. So long as their bodily and emotional needs are met, as they are in abundance today, the vast numbers of know-nots are content and enjoy life. So what if the great intellectual achievements of science and art escape them? So what if they can't see beyond their noses, or behind the facades? Happiness is good, Jamie thought, no matter how you obtain it. He was not happy as a withered old man, despite his lifetime membership in the know fraternity. But he was going to do something about that.
Nothing focuses the mind as the hangman's noose, he thought. While he wasn't necessarily going to see the hangman, he was facing the great unknown, the "big chill" in more ways than one. But it was ultimately a quest for happiness, no different than the illusion of a fast car. His happiness lay in the vim and vigor of youth, but more importantly, a chance to see the future, to expand his ever-inquisitive mind. And his mind was now racing.
Here at the end of his life, on a trip leading to who knows where, Jamie had a revelation, maybe even an epiphany. A cool blue calm settled over him, reality faded, the pain and depression of age evaporated. Resignation and acceptance revealed themselves like a reunion with two old friends. And in a great mental sigh he realized he shouldn't be too hard on the know-nots, because in the end they are all looking for the same thing he was. If you find happiness, real or imagined, maybe that's enough.
In his mild euphoria Jamie idly watched the Chino hills go by. Seems like every square inch of Southern California land had been plowed and made into a tract mansion subdivision in the last 20 years. The natural flora was mowed down, and sticks which would one day be trees stood hopeful in every postage stamp yard.
They finally arrived at SoCal Cryo. It was a single new professional building with a small parking lot and the obligatory sticks-that-would-be-trees lining the freshly paved driveway. His nurses guided him into the customer reception area-brightly lit, with motivational posters on the wall and the ever-present video screen-where he didn't have long to wait. One never kept such a financial asset twiddling his thumbs! When they came for him, he bid farewell to his nurses, who cried a bit, having been with him for 20 some-odd years. Jamie too felt the loss, but the impending adventure quickly commanded his attention. A youngish man stood up from his expensive and expansive wooden desk;
"Mr. Southard, so pleased to meet you" said Dr. Bayer, chief administrator of SoCal Cryonics. "I must say up front, you understand that there are no guaranties as to when, or even if, we can thaw you. We've been flooded with calls ever since the Mexican team thawed out that rat. Moreover, your decision to freeze only your head, while understandable, is far more speculative, as far as reviving you in any real sense of the word."
"Call me Jamie, everybody does. The way I look at it, I don't want to be revived like this. If doctors haven't figured out how to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, then I might as well stay frozen and become someone's science project. I'm already willing my body, what's left of it, to the University. Anyway, this is my chance to see the future."
Jamie thought of a line from a movie he saw as a youth, an innocent question asked by a self-aware computer. "Will I dream?"
"We've never recorded any electrical activity in a frozen brain, nor have any other research groups. So I'd guess no. But then again, no-one has ever been revived to tell us otherwise."
"So what will happen?"
"Well, to put it bluntly, first we kill you. Then we take a tissue sample and administer a new drug, arresticine, to painlessly stop your metabolic functions without doing damage. It's not a toxin, just sort of a chemical off-switch. When your heartbeat and breathing cease naturally, we'll artificially maintain your respiration and cool your body slowly, treating your blood to prevent ice crystals from forming. When your body reaches 260K we'll amputate your head; veins, arteries, nerves and tissue being frozen, the damage will be minimal. Ultimately we'll take your head's temperature down to 77K. Ghoulish, isn't it?"
"Maybe from your point of view. I'll be way out of it by then. What about revival?"
"Ah, you see, that's what we don't know about for certain. Presumably we'll (or whoever has taken over the business-I may be a customer by then!) take your DNA sample and grow a new body for you. It'll be without a brain, so we'll, they'll have to maintain it artificially for many years while it develops. You can see why this is an expensive process! Next I imagine they'll thaw your brain slowly and perform a brain transplant. I would guess you'd need extensive therapy, both physical and emotional, as well as reeducation. The world may be a very different place by the time you awaken, no, by the time you are reborn."
Dr. Bayer looked carefully at Jamie. "Your nurses are gone, and we don't have overnight facilities here. Now's the time to back out."
Jamie cast him dim gaze around the room. He was feeling everything about his age at this moment; the fuzzy vision, the aches and pains, the helplessness. He wasn't happy, but he wasn't afraid.
"Let's do it!"