“Days are very explosive.”
“Were, my ass. Bodies are the only packaging.”
“Merely the most convenient. No longer the only.” Mico rose from his seated position—crosslegged on the carpet—and walked with unfaltering steps to the ancient whiteboard that covered two walls of his office. He had rigged up the microphones for his communication system himself; had systematically adjusted the soundproofing, the distortion levels, so that those with whom he spoke could have no inkling of his movements around his office—and yet again he reached up to the system controls above the whiteboard, touched them with a finger, compared the settings with a black-inked schema scribbled on the wall.
The disembodied voice spoke again, from the speakers in the ceiling. “Don’t you remember Yuyu?”
As Mico remembered every gamble he lost. “The island.”
“Whatever.” A pause like a silent wink. “I wasn’t alive then.”
Another pause. Mico briefly imagined his partner and opponent in the blank office a continent away, weighing greed and risk. If he strained, he thought he could almost hear the skritch, skritch of his partner’s thumb and ring finger tugging on an ear, a nervous habit that the years had not erased. Or was he fooling himself? Was it static? Nevertheless, he knew the other’s mind well enough. It was calculating. Desiring.
Temptation thrived in the blank spaces between words, the white lines between paragraphs. Mico would not disturb its growth.
Yargretta eyed the door open and entered the compact apartment. She immediately stepped out of her patent heels, scraping them with a stockinged foot into a pile of similar spiked shoes.
Mico emerged from his study, pulling the door shut behind him. Two months a year, the apartment received eight minutes of sunlight just before sunset; one of those segments was starting now, and it lit up the woman in the doorway. He smiled at the glowing vision of his lovely wife de-businessing. “You’re looking particularly young this evening.”
“Yes.” Yargretta unpinned her fashionably large, stiff canvas hat and threw it with some force onto the loveseat. Down came her too-tight bun, the hairpins tossed in the chipped pink saucer on the felted table. Her fingers ran along her scalp, loosening her hair from its memorized constraint. “They finally replaced Jarcy at the office. I can go back to doing two people’s work instead of four.”
“So work finally made you happy.”
“It’s all relative.”
“I know you understand that…I want to finance this. Would want to. If.”
“If you can be sure.”
The deep voice was stern. “I can’t afford any more negative publicity.”
All publicity is good, Mico said, in lip movements only, subvocalizing even though the microphones were not sensitive enough to pick up even a loud whisper. The conversation was sliding smoothly along the chosen orbit; criticism would only draw it off course.
But for Mico, the pause was a caesura; time enough for his gaze to be drawn from the controls to the whiteboard. Down, past where the word “Fourier?” had been scribbled, years ago, down past that initial waveform analysis to where an “X” marked the start of Mico’s calculations of the past two years.
Even alone in his office he should not give into such a compulsion. The obsession to check and re-check, the urge to pace—the obvious displays of fear must be eliminated. It took all Mico’s self-control to maintain the poker face in public, to play the games the way they should be played. But here, in the office—even though he should still thwart his addictions, here—here, his long fingers stiffened and twitched with tension. His right calf tensed, strained and expanded—and then as suddenly, relaxed.
Mico began going through the calculations one more time.
Yargretta picked up a grease-stained deck of cards from their square, felted table. Idly shuffled it with one hand, set it back down. Picked up a celluloid die and rolled it around in her fingers.
Mico watched this old sign of Yargretta’s nervousness and could not decide whether it was unconscious, or intentional. Either possibility quickened his heartbeat. He’d helped her eliminate such displays long ago.
“Do you remember how we met?” she said.
It was always on his mind: the beginning of their passion, the beginning of his double life. A thread, a shock of excitement, shivered across the back of his head and another jolted down his right calf. She was introducing this subject. His heart jumped; he was more awake than he’d been in weeks. He denied the temptation to tap his right foot, and instead slowly lowered his eyelids and played a casual smile of fond recollection. “Protesting the day trade.”
“Yes. That was a long time ago.”
“Yes.” There was not enough air for that one word. It came out too clipped. But her eyes did not flicker; she did not appear to notice. Even through the adrenaline rush, Mico filed that clue: whatever else her knowledge was, it was important to her. Something she was about to lay on the line, without prefatory games. Something she either did not expect to win concessions for, or was not prepared to give concessions on. His own secrets made him certain it was the latter.
“The old system works…except for those damned bleeding-heart groups. AGE has blown up five of my company’s clinics this year. Five! Boulud gets them all sent to death row to become receivers themselves—justice, that—”
Mico was up to the halfway point of his proof, re-examining a set of integrations. “They mean well,” he said casually. At least he could always control his voice.
“Do you mean that?”
“And they’ll like my new invention. If days can be disposed of without using the indigent, moved by way of the fifth dimension—AGE can’t complain about that.”
“The panhandlers won’t like it. Growing old makes them rich.”
“So the liberals will still have someone to coddle.”
“And we’ll lose the prison kickbacks.”
“Which is it, kickbacks or clinics?”
A pause. Then: “The fifth dimension?”
Mico grinned inwardly. His partner professed to understand nearly as much math and physics as Mico, and it suited Mico to pretend it was true, but his old colleagues would have roared to hear the tales he spun. Now he said, “Actually, there’s a funny story—many years ago I was explaining the basic theory to a student of mine—”
“Is this the really dumb student?”
“This should be good.”
Mico went back to solving the proof with one part of his brain, spinning the story for his partner with another. “So I’m trying to explain Eurykat’s second theorem to Willybub, that 3-D spaces can—and in fact, are—moved to other 3-D spaces by way of the 4th dimension—time. And he just doesn’t get it. So then I say, take it to a simpler level. Imagine how a two-dimensional plane can be moved to another plane by way of the third dimension: i.e, you move a piece of paper from the desk to the floor. And he still doesn’t get it.” Mico was at the top of the second whiteboard now, speeding to the end.
“Certainly. So then I say, go read Flatland. And he comes back and says, ‘Gee professor, I didn’t know we had all those alien species living among us. Why, there could be a circle in my home right now.’”
There was silence a moment, and then the listener said, “Wow. That’s rough.”
Mico allowed himself a silent chuckle as he rechecked his usage of the quadratic.
“So the days—”
“Can now be moved into a non-contiguous fourth by way of the fifth, yes.”
Another pause, and then the voice went rumbling on the offensive. “It was bad PR to call them ‘days,’” he said. “It was used against us.”
But this was familiar territory, not a true attack, and they both knew it. “I didn’t. I don’t remember who did first. Some reporter, probably. It’s certainly more catchy than the term we had.” Mico was nearing the end now, the proof re-affirmed, the obsession momentarily calmed.
“Some great big Latinate mouthful, wasn’t it?”
“And the correspondence is quite close—one physical ‘day’ in the human body builds up about the rate of about 1.0002 of a day on the calendar.”
Another pause, and then the deep voice stated the obvious: “It all comes down to the risk.”
Yes, it did. Mico turned away from the final notation, sat down at the computer cluster that filled the other two walls, and started the simulation. Again.
Yargretta let the die fall from her hand. Mico automatically catalogued the number—two, unusual for a die weighted to fall on five. Yargretta’s skill.
“I’m getting old, Mico.”
“No, you’re not.” If he deliberately looked for signs of age he saw the faint wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, the laugh lines around her mouth, but he loved her far too much to think her any less beautiful because of them.
“I’m twenty-nine. Next week I’ll be thirty, and all the hats and makeup and the best clothes in the city can’t hide it. They look at me with disgust.”
“Yes. I’ve been thinking about it. That’s the real reason work’s been so awful the past two years: I’m getting old, and they can see. Everyone can see. People avert their eyes when they talk to me. They look at the floor, my hats—everywhere but at me.”
“Isn’t there anyone else at the company with your beliefs?”
“No. It’s arch-conservative. All these perfectly-turned out boys and girls, not one over 23. I could pass for a while, but now….”
“Surely they’ve seen an adult before?”
“Sure. Begging on the street. Working in the cafeteria. Mopping the floors. And every time they go to the clinic to take advantage of those poor desperate humans, turning them into trashcans for their lives… Sure, there they see adults. But not in the offices, where we all get paid well enough to live in the right apartments and wear the right clothes and own the right toys and be the right age. We’re paid to conform, aren’t we. And I don’t.”
Mico’s mind was now running on a very different track, derailed by her words. She was not on the attack after all; she was apologizing for her imaginary shortcomings, her crise de conscience. She had not uncovered his secrets, then, did not know his true career—she did not know what he hid from her, for her. His toes uncurled within his shoes, and he said soothingly, as she might expect of him, “Doesn’t it give you satisfaction to do what you know is right?”
“Not anymore.” She took a breath and looked squarely at Mico. “I’m sorry to… let you down. I’m sorry I’ve changed…. I guess… it’s one thing to be sixteen and have grand ideals of growing old together. It’s another thing altogether when you’re actually getting old.” She laughed, quietly. “We all become conservatives in the end.”
“But can you find anyone willing to be the first? Or, could we run the first tests on an animal this time?”
Familiar ground again. Now his partner was showing his hand, unable to set the answered questions aside, retreading the same concerns. Pressing for a more comforting answer than Mico could give. Mico said, “It’s the same now as it was then. We can theorize that a similar lifeform might have had a similar buildup—but without any near-human relatives left, there’s no way to test it. Day buildup in other mammals is completely different, the transfer is different, the procedure would be different—if it were even thoroughly understood. We could spend twenty years researching it, then running tests—and it still wouldn’t tell us anything about the human body.”
“But to make the public feel better.”
There was really nothing to say to that, so Mico let it pass in silence.
“You’ve done your usual tests, I assume?”
“Yes.” Mico stepped back from the screen, letting the code run, watching the flickering punctuation of its intermittent displays.
“But a human. Someone willing to risk the procedure without a receiver. Everyone knows how explosive days are without a container. Without packaging. Everyone knows about—”
“Yuyu. Yes.” Mico backed away from his keyboard, his back nearly touching the whiteboard. The muscles of his right calf began to pulse.
“Who would risk being first? Why bother? The day trade is a well-oiled machine. This new procedure of yours—how even to do it? The first one will have to be in secret. You couldn’t get approval from congress else. They’re run by the people, and the people remember—”
“I know what they remember.”
“Who would risk it?”
“I found someone fifty years ago, didn’t I?”
“Lucky thing you found two.”
A pause. “I apologize. I forgot; she was a friend of yours, wasn’t she?”
Mico began to pace.
A giddy new future was expanding in Mico’s mind, a future free of secrets, his identity openly acknowledged—at home, anyway, his dear wife proud of his genius. A future where he could stop working against himself. “But our work with AGE?”
Yargretta’s shoulders jerked a sharp tight shrug, painful for him to watch. “They’ll have to get someone else to campaign and picket. The number of days I’ve spent working there—ironic. If I could just have those… but no. I’d just want it again. It’s a drug… and I’m no more immune than everyone I always despised.”
“You’ve thought it through?”
“Yes. I want to pay some day trader a huge file of cash and get rid of four thousand days. Transfer them into some poor starved body who’ll do anything for money. Give them up. Suck them out of me. Let someone else grow wrinkly and frail and die. Not me.”
Yargretta choked back a cry. “Do you? You’re so strong. I was so sure I’d never break.” Her fingers convulsed around the die. “I might break anyway. I mean. I’ve decided I can’t live with the physical decay—what if, after I do it, I can’t live with the guilt? The moral decay.” Clutch. Release. Clutch. “Entropy will get me in the end.”
Mico realized he was holding his breath in sympathy, and he let it loose with a shuddered sigh. The moment he’d worked for was at hand. He would never have driven himself to find the alternative, if not for Yargretta. Bodies were the perfect package by design, day trading the logical solution. The supply of the indigent and the criminal willing (or condemned) to accept days was apparently never-ending, no matter how fast you aged them into the crematory, whereas the explosion at Yuyu—unthinkable.
But Mico loved Yargretta, and Yargretta loved justice. During his runs of obsessive self-reflection, he sometimes felt himself to be comprised of no morality, no ethics—just one tight shimmer of love for Yargretta. It crowded out every other stricture set, left no other deity the room to grow. But now—her ideals and his love had combined to bring their lives to the present moment, when, through his unflagging perseverance and occasional genius, he could offer her the solution she needed. He had won. He would have it all.
“Bodies are no longer the only packaging,” he said.
The distortion would hide the hoarseness of his voice, interrupting the other. “Are you in?”
“Yes. I’m in.”
“The same percentages as last time?”
“Yes. And you? What will you ante up? What are you risking?”
Wheel and turn, wheel and turn. The tracks of his addiction showed plainly on the carpet. “Everything, my old friend. Everything.”
Outside, the sounds of daytime traffic had been replaced by those of nighttime construction. The whirr of a lone jackhammer was faintly audible through the battened walls.
“No bodies anymore. No more day trade….”
“Not as we know it.”
“And no Yuyu?”
“No Yuyu. No risk.”
The clear eyes held him steadily. Her cheeks pinkened with a sudden swell of emotion—love, and pride, he interpreted. A faint smile played around the corner of her lips. Mico almost didn’t catch it.
Yargretta rose from the table, letting the die fall seemingly carelessly from her hand. It rolled across the green felt and stopped in front of him with a gentle thud, two white eyes staring up at him out of the watery red cube. He yanked his eyes back to hers, and she smiled for him for the first time that evening, the laugh lines deepening, the fine lines at the corners of her eyes crinkling. Her arms reached to embrace him.
Mico looked into her dark eyes, glassy and slightly wet, and for a moment his heart caught, and he felt outside of himself, felt that he saw himself as she must see him. Unwrinkled. Unlined. Two guileless blue eyes staring back from smooth skin.
The skin of a twenty year old boy.
Yargretta tilted her head to kiss him, and the illusion vanished. God, he loved her.