Rejuvenation

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This is a story by Ben presented at the 2014 Spring Equinox Storytelling Celebration.

He woke to the familiar buzz of the alarm and the familiar sight of the clockscreen staring him in the face:

5:30 AM
Treatment Day 238
Your Biological Age Is 31
Your Mental Age Is 23
Your Name Is Jack Kent

The last line represented a bit of paranoia on Jack’s part. After all, none of the forty-seven mental 15-year-olds from the previous cohort had forgotten their names, and before that, only one of the ninety-two illegally tested chimpanzees had lost the ability to spell its name in sign language. Still, it gave Jack a sense of security to know that if the treatment went too far, his name would be there on the clockscreen, like a life preserver to hold onto in the sea of amnesia – assuming he could still read.

As he levered himself out of bed (a far easier task than it had been just a few months ago) and staggered down the curving concrete corridor toward the communal washroom, Jack reviewed what remained of his basic memories. Born in Anchorage 84 years ago to Mary and Allen Kent. Got mediocre grades in everything except History and Civics. Moved around a lot, first due to his father’s military service, then due to having enlisted in the Continental Peacekeeping Forces himself.

But he couldn’t bring to mind any details of the bases he’d served at, not even their names – unless you counted the facility where he’d lived for the past fifteen years, and would remain for perhaps another eighty years or even longer: the Holocaust Vault. (That was a nickname, of course, but no one really remembered its official designation.) Staring at his own barely-familiar face in the washroom mirror, he couldn’t help wondering where he’d lived and what he’d been doing the last time he’d had so much hair and so few wrinkles.

Thankfully the hardened cynicism of a sixty-year veteran was dissolving away along with his memories of military incompetence and corruption, revealing the idealistic commitment underneath, forged in his early teens and never completely lost, to do everything in his power to prevent a Fourth World War and a Third Medieval Age. He wondered how he would cope once that commitment too had vanished, leaving no real justification for the harsh fact that unless the secrecy policies here got markedly less stringent, he faced another whole lifetime spent in the confines of a well-appointed bunker. “But I don’t remember any of the secrets anymore!” he imagined his future mentally-four-year-old self whining to Base Commander Lauren Adelson, who would never be satisfied that every relevant synapse had been completely unburned.

Even now, there were days when Jack couldn’t help but rage against the unstoppable nanites gradually “rejuvenating” his brain by eating away his memories, personality, and sense of self. Despite all Dr. Silva’s assurances that “subjective continuity” would be preserved, Jack sometimes wondered if near-total amnesia would really be any different from death. All he would have left, according to Dr. Silva, was his name, a four-year-old’s basic skill set (no potty training this time around, thank goodness), and, for the sake of “continuity,” a basic mental picture of how he’d gotten himself into this mess.


“Lauren, are you serious about letting this guy in here?” had been the first words out of his mouth on entering her office that fateful day. “I know you saw his history and personality profile. You could be up on treason charges for this.”

“I know the regs better than you do, Jack,” she’d replied, unflappable as always, “and they allow wide latitude for base commander’s judgment in special cases. Dr. Silva here is a very special case, and in my judgment his ideological tendencies do not pose a significant risk to the data quarantine. And since he is offering you a shot at real, honest-to-goodness biological immortality here, I think you owe it to yourself to hear him out.”

“All right. It’s your funeral.” Jack shrugged and sat down in front of the secure vid console displaying Dr. Miguel Silva’s craggy brown face, which wore an amused expression; he’d evidently heard the whole exchange.

“Admittedly, eleven years ago I was doing nanotech research that the Holocaust Vault’s field agents found highly questionable,” Silva began, “but I convinced them to hire me on, and I’ve been working to suppress similar projects around the world for almost a decade now. It’s not an easy job, though, and it’s only going to get harder. The immortality genie isn’t quite out of the bottle yet, but it’s really just a matter of time. And part of the Vault’s mission is to take dangerous technologies whose time has come and find some way to render them approximately harmless. I assume you’ve heard of the Four Laws of Nanorobotics, which were developed inside the Vault and disseminated to labs like mine twenty years ago, in an effort to ensure that any outbreaks of gray goo could be contained.”

“Okay, so the Vault’s field agents are assuming that an outbreak of immortality could also lead to global catastrophe, but clearly you didn’t think that way eleven years ago,” Jack countered. “What changed your mind?”

“Talking with parents,” Silva said simply. “I never married or had children myself, and my closest research associates were likewise married to their work. But all three of the agents who apprehended me had families. After lengthy conversations with them and their spouses, I finally got it through my head that most humans will never give up the desire to raise children. Which means that if an immortality treatment is distributed broadly to the global population, it will lead to a population explosion, twenty-first-century-style resource wars, and a very probable collapse of civilization.”

“And if it’s not distributed broadly?”

Silva snorted. “I guess you Holeys have no idea just how hard it is to keep information from spreading everywhere once it’s released outside your walls. And even if the code for the nanites never got leaked by some disgruntled doctor, the nanites themselves would. It just takes one would-be immortal in the middle of their treatment leaving one eyelash or skin flake where someone smart could find it.

“Now luckily for us, population explosions take decades to get really serious, so we don’t need a solution next week. But the research itself will also take decades, so it would be a good idea to start now. And besides,” Silva grinned at Jack in a transparent and useless attempt to establish a rapport, “on some level, doesn’t everyone wish they could be a kid again?”


6:00 AM
Treatment Day 271
Your Biological Age Is 20
Your Mental Age Is 13
Your Name Is Jack Kent

On his way to the washroom, Jack detoured to the next ring out to get a look at the latest progress on the playground. Built on a lavish scale (North America’s tax dollars at work, Jack thought with sincere appreciation), the play structures were clearly designed with adult-sized people in mind. Dr. Silva’s long-term plan included technology to shrink the body to four-year-old size and then kick off a second childhood growth spurt, but that was still at the testing-on-mice stage, and apparently running into obscure technical difficulties. Jack harbored a half-serious suspicion that the real problem was simply keeping track of the tiny research subjects; a juvenile mouse must be easy to misplace, he thought.

A streak of cynicism still lingered among his childish thoughts. He had come up with a strange idea last month, forming a mental image too strong for the nanites to quickly erase: maybe there ought to be toy sticks of dynamite scattered among the jungle gyms, to symbolize the massive unknown risks the rejuvenation project entailed. (Entailed, get it, like a mouse? That one ought to be good for some groans from his fellow mental teens.) He didn’t really worry about actual medical difficulties anymore; after all, the treatment they were using on him had passed the mouse test, the pig test, and the illegal chimp test, and his pals in the first and second human cohorts seemed to be doing fine. (Animal rights violations weren’t the problem either; no one from the outside world would ever find out what had happened to those chimpanzees.) As for the slight worry he could vaguely remember having early on about being a four-year-old brain in a teenager's body with a teenager's sex obsession—well, by now he barely remembered what sex was, much less why he would want it. In other words, the hormone removal treatments were clearly working perfectly.

But those treatments hadn't quite gotten rid of his facial hair yet. Staring at his smooth but stubbled face in the washroom mirror, frozen in the act of picking up his razor, he tried to recollect the derailed and scattered cars of his so-called train of thought. (Should they be passenger cars or box cars, or what were the other kinds? He couldn’t remember.) No, the reason we’re like children playing with dynamite, he finally resumed, is because Dr. Silva is exactly the kind of person the Vault’s rigorous personality screening process was designed to keep out: a True Believer.


“I want you to be clear about the motivation for my work before you trust me with your life,” Silva said sharply, trying to recapture Jack’s wavering attention. Jack had been sitting at Commander Adelson’s vid console listening to Silva drone on about medical nanotech for two hours now; she’d left him with strict orders to get “the whole story,” whatever that meant. Also with a full pot of excellent coffee, despite which Jack was only catching every other sentence and seriously considering mutiny. This is why I dropped out of biology class, he thought.

Just like his vaguely recalled Bio 101 professor, Silva had paused meaningfully, clearly expecting a response of some kind. “Mm hm?” Jack said for the umpteenth time, hoping against hope that Silva was finally coming to a conclusion of some kind.

“This is not just about finding a way to satisfy the parental urge so immortals will accept the need to stop reproducing,” Silva continued in the same passionate tone – almost as passionate as when he was talking about telomerase enzyme or whatever it was called, Jack thought. “This is about the future of evolution and of life itself.”

“Mm hm?” Jack was starting to think this might be one of the few interesting parts of Silva’s obviously pre-prepared monologue.

“Natural evolution is totally dependent on reproduction and death to enable old forms to be recycled into new ones. By abolishing both factors in humans, we will effectively be declaring a halt to our species’ evolution, destroying a huge amount of potential for genetic advancement and diversification.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Jake was desperately trying to parse Silva’s bizarre statement. “Did you just say we ought to let humanity evolve into some other species?”

“Certainly. To believe otherwise is to assert that Homo sapiens in its present form is perfect and cannot be improved, which is clearly absurd. However, I can understand your objection to letting natural evolution take its course, which I do not advocate in the slightest. On the contrary, a belief in applying a ‘survival of the fittest’ regime to human society was a major factor in the political madness that produced all three World Wars.”

Jack’s eighty-four-year-old brain still struggling to catch up. “Um, okay, so what do you advocate then?”

“Simply that we must find a replacement for natural evolution that preserves its benefits without paying an unconscionable moral cost. This has been a problem for centuries, ever since natural selection was slowed to a near halt in societies that provided safety and social support to enable a large majority of people to live full lifespans, as opposed to a state of nature where most animals don’t survive long enough to reproduce. In previous eras, the main solution was to move evolution into the realm of ideas and social movements, where ‘survival of the fittest’ theoretically need not entail actual killing and dying, although sadly it often does anyway. But now that biological immortality is within reach, many philosophers are asserting that allowing any further human deaths to occur will soon become morally indefensible.”

“Philosophers, right. Sounds like you’re a bit of a philosopher yourself.” Jack sighed. He had dropped out of a philosophy class in college too. An interest in philosophy was also one of the key indicators suggesting that Dr. Silva should never be allowed to set foot in the Holocaust Vault.

“All right, I’ll try to keep it concrete,” said Silva. “As I mentioned, everyone who participates in the human trials will write down a list of memories, beliefs, plans, ideas – anything you would like your future self to know. These documents will be locked for fifteen years and then made available to you again, after you’ve discovered the world anew through a child’s eyes. This union of your old and new selves will enable your mind to evolve and diversify in ways that were never possible before.”

“Still sounds pretty abstract to me,” Jack said, but his mind was suddenly whirling. He’d often wondered what life outside the military would be like, and whether there might be better ways to protect the world from terrible wars than from within an organization designed mainly to fight those wars. At his present age those thoughts seemed trite and superficial, without substance; he’d have no idea where to start, and in any case he was committed now, unable to leave the Vault except in a body bag, lest his dangerous knowledge fall into the wrong hands. But if he could forget all the secrets, have his ‘documents’ rigorously screened for ideas related to hyper-deadly weapon technologies, and then combine a restored youthful idealism with his hard-won knowledge about how the world worked . . .

Later, when his natural cynicism had restored itself, he chalked it up to an attack of senility. Assuming that an experimental memory-wiping procedure would be accepted as grounds for the first-ever clearance of a committed Holey to leave the Vault? What nonsense! Even if Lauren was willing to approve it, her commanding officer was a by-the-book bureaucrat who would hold her personally responsible for starting World War Four even if said war showed no sign of actually occurring.

But by the time he reached this conclusion, it was far too late; the lying bastards had been keeping him sectioned off (a standard Vault practice) and they injected him with the inactive nanites within minutes of his signing the paperwork, granting him one month to write his letter to the future and wind down his current job responsibilities before the treatment began. “What do you mean I’m in the second human test cohort?” he demanded, eyes skipping back and forth over the summary report he’d just been cleared to read. Commander Adelson stared at him across her desk, impassive as usual. He looked down at the tablet screen again, still reeling in disbelief. He’d known there were parts of the Vault he wasn’t cleared to access, of course, but – “Really? Silva’s already been in here working on this for six years? . . . And what’s this about pigs?”


7:00 AM
Treatment Day 354
Your Biological Age Is 18
Your Mental Age Is 4
Your Name Is Jack Kent

Jack had chosen his mom and dad. He remembered that much from “the time before,” although all the details were fuzzy – a blur of faces, the smell of that warm brown liquid that his parents were now drinking (he thought it was icky), and lots of long words. Anyway, he seemed to have chosen well. His parents were certainly enthusiastic in their praise of his crayon drawing of the Incredible Shrinking Pigs from the lab. They had finally brought him to see the pigs after he’d driven them crazy for days with questions about why he wasn’t small like the kids in the picture books.

“See? They’re just like me,” he proclaimed, waving the pig drawing around like a flag. “They’re gonna get to grow up all over again!”

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