It’s 2125. Aging is a thing of the past but personal memories and desires are now under corporate management. Jenda Swain is a youthful 111 years old, content with her professional career, when a disturbing encounter with an old woman forces her to question her own identity, to begin searching for the woman she once was and might yet become. Her journey takes her into the arms of an activist artist who has a quest of his own; answers come together as their world falls apart.
Donna Dechen Birdwell has created a dystopian world as only an anthropologist can, with sensitivity and insight deriving from years of observation and dedicated study of the human condition. Donna is deeply convinced that storytelling is essential to our nature and that imagination is our most precious human trait. Donna is also an artist and former journalist and a native Texan.
The café was down a couple of side streets, in an area of Dallas Jenda never went to, but she thought she might have been there once before. She couldn't remember. Without looking at the menu, she ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with fried potatoes and sweet tea. It was plain food. She was halfway through her meal, savoring the anonymity afforded by this out-of-the-way eatery as much as the greasy fare, when she noticed the woman who had turned on her stool at the café’s counter to stare.
The woman was old. That in itself was disturbing. Nobody got old anymore, not since Chulel – the drug that prevented aging – had come on the market a hundred years ago. Jenda, at 111, was as fresh and vigorous as she had been in 2035 when, at the age of 22, she had received her first annual Chulel treatment. Jenda’s grandmother was 165, but appeared no older than she had been when she began taking Chulel in her mid-sixties. What was this old woman doing in Jenda’s world?
Jenda turned away, but she could still feel the woman’s dark eyes boring into her, probing. Jenda couldn't help herself; she looked again. When the woman saw her looking, she smiled.
“Zujo!” Jenda swore, quickly returning her attention to her unfinished sandwich. It was too late. Taking the look as an invitation, the woman dropped down from her counter stool and shuffled over to Jenda's table.
“You're Jenda Swain,” she said, cocking her head to one side and narrowing her eyes. “God, you look the same as you did in high school.”
“Excuse me?” Jenda sat up straighter and used her best business voice.
“Of course you don't remember,” the woman said, dragging out the chair across from Jenda and sitting down heavily. “Nobody remembers much of anything anymore.” She shrugged and looked down at her hands. Jenda looked, too. The woman's hands were wrinkled, misshapen, and covered in brown and red splotches. “I remember you, though,” she continued, looking up into Jenda’s face. “My god, you were a firebrand back then. I idolized you and your boyfriend, you know. Such temerity! The things you did...” The woman refused to turn away. “Do you still paint? You always had your mom's gift for art.”
“I think you must have made some mistake,” Jenda said quietly, fighting to modulate her voice against the tightening in her throat. “You may know my name, but you clearly don't know me. Nothing you are saying makes any sense at all.” Jenda felt her cheeks warm as she flashed on an image of herself with an easel and paintbrush. Her last bite of sandwich seemed to have lodged somewhere near the base of her esophagus. “Now, would you please go on your way? Leave me alone.” Jenda blinked, shuttering herself away from this intrusive presence.
The woman's face clouded and she leaned forward, looking Jenda squarely in the eye. “You need to ask more questions.” She spoke the words clearly and forcefully. Then she pushed her chair away from the table with a loud scraping noise. As she leaned over to pick up the leather bag she had dropped under the chair, the pendant around her neck clanked on the tabletop. It was an old fashioned timepiece, the kind with a round face with numbers and moving hands. Jenda reflexively reached up to grasp her own necklace, a cluster of plexiform flowers in the latest style from her favorite recyclables boutique. The woman took in a deep breath, as if rising from the chair had taxed her strength. She looked at Jenda again. “You’re the one who doesn't know who Jenda Swain is.” Her voice was gentle, maybe sad. Then she turned and walked out the front door.
Jenda’s impulse to run after the woman and ask her name was unexpected. Holding it in check, she sat rigidly, staring at her cold, greasy food. She swallowed hard, trying to dislodge that last bite of sandwich. Her hands trembled. She quickly finished her dilute, not-so-sweet tea. Looking up and down the street as she exited, she saw no sign of the woman.
Jenda looked back over her shoulder as she made her way back to the main street, back to reality. What possessed me to go to that café anyway? she scolded herself, shoving her fists deeper into the pockets of her fashionable jacket.
All afternoon at her desk in the Dallas offices of Your Journal, Jenda’s mind wandered, pacing back and forth across the odd feelings, trying to tamp them down. How did the old woman know Jenda’s name? What was that about idolizing her in high school? What boyfriend? Firebrand? Ridiculous. Jenda’s personal records with Your Journal clearly indicated that her high school career had been quietly unremarkable. She had been a good student with good marks who never made trouble. The woman must have gotten Jenda mixed up with someone else. That was it. Old people did that sometimes, didn't they? But Jenda had enjoyed painting in high school. And her mother had been a sculptor of some note before the accident.
“Are you okay, Jenda?” It was her office mate, Weldon.
“What?” Jenda started, “No, no, I'm fine,” she said. “Maybe something I had at lunch disagreed with me.” She gave Weldon a wan smile. It was nearly quitting time.
Jenda’s discomfort followed her home. It’s just an attack of cognitive dissonance, she told herself. There was a pill for that. But when she got home, she didn't take the pill. Instead she poured a glass of wine and pulled up Your Journal on her home screen, accessing her high school years. There wasn't much, but the pictures were all precisely as Jenda remembered them – she had the same golden blond hair, the same flawless fair skin. She stopped for a moment to examine the picture of herself with an easel and paintbrush. Why had she ever stopped painting? To make a living, she reminded herself, and a contribution. She had majored in art at Perry University, but her course of study focused on digital design and graphic psychology. With that, she had secured her position at Your Journal. That was ninety years ago.
Jenda loved her job with Your Journal, loved being part of such an important corporate institution. Everybody relied on Your Journal as a secure repository of their personal photos, stories, thoughts and feelings. People interacted with it every day, experiencing pangs of guilt if they failed to respond to the reminders on their digilets. You could also put photos and comments on LifeBook, but those were shared with everyone in your loop. YJ was personal and people often referred to their YJ files as their “exomemories”.
Jenda was due for her next sabbatical in a couple of months and she had already booked into a resort in the Republic of California. The social order under Chulel had done away with retirement, moving instead to a system in which every worker received a one-year sabbatical every ten years. Technically, of course, a “sabbatical” should occur every seven years, but the term had a nice feel. Nobody questioned such verbal technicalities.
Jenda pulled up some pictures of the resort, which suddenly struck her as mundane and boring and not somewhere she wanted to spend an entire year of her life. Maybe she should try something different. Maybe she should try painting again. Jenda vaguely recalled a place where her mother had gone a few times, a place that used to be considered something of an artists’ colony. Maybe in Mexico. Jenda searched through various mediazones and finally came up with a town in central Mexico called San Miguel de Allende. She wasn't sure that was it, but she decided that was where she would go. She did check to verify that there would be tennis courts. She always said tennis was her favorite activity.
Within a few minutes Jenda had cancelled her reservations for California and made new ones for San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Then she drafted a memo to her supervisor, asking to begin her sabbatical early. She would lose a few weeks of leave, but she felt an odd exhilaration arising from these rash decisions. It felt good.
2125 marked the centenary of the entry of the miracle age prophylaxis Chulel into the marketplace. The occasion probably should have been marked by a celebration of some sort, but so few people remembered what life was like before Chulel that it would have seemed rather like commemorating the invention of water or air. So the year would come and go without fanfare.
Two people who did remember life before Chulel were the inventors of the drug, Drs. Max and Emily Feldman, who had lost their only child to Hutchinson-Guilford progeria syndrome (HGPS) back in 1977. “Progeria” referred to a set of diseases that caused premature aging due to a genetic anomaly; HGPS had been its most common (though still extremely rare) form.
The Feldmans had delayed “having a family” as people used to say, until after they both completed med school. Following their daughter’s death, they had devoted their careers to finding a cure for progeria. It had been a long haul. The first significant advance had come from another lab, which announced a promising new avenue of research in 2014. Pharmakon Corporation, and specifically the Drs. Feldman, built on this and in 2017 published preliminary results of a drug they named according to its active chemical components. Nobody now remembers that name.
The drug was ready for human trials by early 2018, and a dozen or so families from around the world came forward, traveling to the Pharmakon headquarters in Atlanta to let the Feldmans try out the drug on their afflicted sons and daughters, who had been diagnosed with either HGPS or one of the other, even rarer, forms of progeria.
What nobody knew was that Max Feldman was also testing the drug on himself. Even Emily didn’t know. Max Feldman was already 78 and although he checked out healthy enough, he had a family history of heart disease and atherosclerosis and there were certain aspects of the lab tests on the new drug as well as its effects on a small test group of bonobos that had irresistibly piqued his curiosity.
By the time the tests on human progeria patients were declared unequivocally successful in 2021, the people closest to him were beginning to notice something about Max. One of those people was the Feldmans’ lab assistant, Winslow Morris.
In the third month of the trials, Winslow noted that there seemed to be a couple of vials of the drug missing. He questioned Dr. Max about it, and was told it must be a mistake. When Winslow re-counted the next day against the numbers in the computer, he found no discrepancy. It happened again a couple of months later and this time Winslow kept his observation to himself. Again, the numbers mysteriously rectified themselves within a matter of hours. Then one day Winslow thought he saw Dr. Max slipping a vial of the medicine into the pocket of his lab coat. That’s when it clicked. Winslow started observing Dr. Max more closely. On the day before the results of the progeria field tests were formally announced, Winslow missed work. And then he disappeared altogether.
Winslow hadn't needed to steal any of the medicine. He knew how to make it. His destination was China and within six months a new drug started showing up on the streets. It was called “Fontana” and it was touted as the “fountain of youth”. It was outrageously expensive and sold mainly to customer lists Winslow compiled by irrupting into databases of dermatologists specializing in cosmetic surgery. He was an instant millionaire.
Winslow did not know that Dr. Feldman had altered the dosage for his own use. Fontana consumers were overdosing, and before the drug had been on the street for a full year, its reputation went into free fall. People who were self-medicating with this black market miracle potion started to develop strange skin disorders, unexplained neuropathies, and a vulnerability to infection, all of which ended up on the list of warnings regarding possible side effects when the first generation of the real drug went on the market in 2025 under the name “Chulel.”
Winslow was sorry about all this. It cut his income stream down to nothing. But he took his multi millions and his remaining stocks of Fontana and fled.