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Bewildering Stories


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The Big Insomnia

by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson

The president had retired many decades before, and yet a TV crew was coming to say hello to him on his birthday. This might be considered strange at first, but only at first. Once all the facts came together, it wasn’t a wonder the TV visited him still, after all these years out of office: the man was 237 years old.

For more than a century now, he’d resided in his apartment at the Aun clinic in Smoky Bay. It was just a glorified retirement home, and subject to all rules and regulations concerning such establishments. But it differed from ordinary retirement homes, not just by the elegance of it, but by the fact that its denizens sported uncanny longevity, with only one recorded death over the last eighty years; and that was accidental: the man wandered out of the area and got hit by a car.

The former president had been there the longest. He was the first to go there, in fact. He starred in all the ads, tempting people to come. But few could afford it. In fact, most of the patients were former presidents, paying for their stay with their annuity, which was a lot of money. Full pay, in fact, putting retired presidents at a higher income-level than some CEO’s.

The president had been the only resident at the facility for the first fifteen years, benefitting from excellent service all the time. He was never lonely, surrounded by both the staff and an occasional member of the press coming to interview him on his really uneventful presidency. He had access to a golf course, but he hadn’t used it since he was 97. That year he lost his ability to walk, and a decade later, he lost his power of speech. Now, he was blind, deaf, mute, and incapable of movement, but still alive, at least according to the heart and respiratory monitors attached to him.

He got visited every year, like clockwork, on his birthday after he became 105 years old, by the press and his family, and by the press only after he became 140, his closest relatives having died off by then. There had been a celebration on his 123rd birthday, when he became officially the oldest man in the world, a record that was still standing, of course. He had opened his eyes for a second to celebrate. The crowd had cheered.

The president didn’t move when the TV crew snuck in behind the nurse. The nurse checked the vital signs, and made sure the man’s skin was whole. It had shown a tendency to tear for the last three decades. His teeth had long since fallen out, the blood vessels in the gums having rotted away years ago. His eye sockets were likewise empty, now glued shut, for the same reason, and there was talk recently of amputating both his legs, as they were turning purple. Inserting new eyes had been attempted, through cloning and surgery, many years back, but the nerves didn’t connect. They were just too old.

The TV crew set up their equipment, and the reporter sat beside the corpse-like former president, now the world’s oldest man. The nurse sat down beside him, and after a brief introduction, they started:

“Once again, we are here at the Aun clinic, visiting the oldest man in the world, our own former president, at his 237th birthday.” The reporter turned to the nurse:

“Nurse Laura, how does the president feel today at this happy occasion”

“I’m sure he feels fine. His vitals are steady, and he is picking up colour from the sun now. As you see, we have him close to the window.” Said Nurse Laura.

“How does he celebrate his birthday? Does he get presents, or any special diet?” asked the reporter.

“Well, his grandchildren used to come here, but they died before I was born. But we make it up to him; as you see, we here at the clinic always decorate his monitors both at his birthday and around Christmas.” She pointed toward the heart rate monitor, which had been decorated with some blinking lights and colourful ribbons. She continued: “For dinner, we think it’s only appropriate hat we celebrate by giving him an extra dose of intravenous nutrition. It’s like overeating, we’re sure he loves it.”

“Now, I’ve been told that men lose their brain cells as they get older. Has that been a problem?” asked the reporter.

“No, no, it hasn’t. Men start with a billion more brain cells than women, you know, and at the normal rate I guess he’s had a young woman’s allowance of brains for at least 150 years. Anyway, the rate of loss isn’t universal, so he might have a lot left,” said the nurse.

“Do you think this might be his final birthday?”

“What a rude question! And on his birthday! Of course not! He’s got at least another century,” said the nurse, turning toward the president as she continued: “you’re gonna be here a long time yet, aren’t you?” she said, stroking the man’s forehead.

The TV crew shot some material of the man, where he lay still, being cooed and petted by the nurse. Then they left his large apartment.

“This dead guy has a bigger apartment than me. That’s not fair,” said the driver.

“This dead guy, as you call him, has more money than you do,” said the cameraman.

“Yes. But have you ever wondered what he does with his money?” said the reporter.

“Maybe he just gives them to his ancestors. You know, his great-great great-great grandchildren” said the driver.

“Maybe we should just ask” said the camera-man.

“Ask whom?” asked the driver. “I notice the prez ain’t exactly talkative”.

“The head doctor, I would guess” said the reporter, adding: “We should ask him. It could make an interesting story.”

So they went to the head doctor’s office, set up the stuff and had an interview with him. There were a few introductory questions, but finally they came to it: “What does the president and other immobile patients at the clinic do with all their money?” asked the reporter.

“Well, most of it goes into paying for their stay here, but they do get an allotment they can use to buy whatever they want.”

“But does the money that’s left benefit them?”

“Honestly, no. But it’s their money, and they’re free to do with it as they please.”

“Where do they access it?”

“All that’s left, we transfer to a checking account in their bank.”

It took a week to convince the bank to divulge information on the former president’s checking account, information leading back over one and a half centuries. But when it came, it was informative. For 138 years, nothing had been withdrawn from the account; but every month, like clockwork, the Aun clinic had deposited his spending money, a sum that changed according to interest, exchange rates, inflation and rules and regulations concerning government annuities. The sum itself was petty, to be expected of any common worker after taxes, but it had accumulated over the last 138 years, and was a very respectable sum indeed. Enough to buy a decent house, a car, and to live for five years in riches.

Some 157 years ago, when he’d originally gone to the clinic, the man had sold most his real estate or given it to his descendants, which made him rich, for about a month. Going to the clinic had cost bigtime back then, emptying his account completely even with government subsidies, and after that the deposits began coming in through the clinic. Enough for a taxi downtown and back, a trip to the movies and ten beers. That sum had started to accumulate 138 years ago, when the president stopped withdrawing money.

He paid for the luxurious apartment he still resided in; at 250 square meters it was larger than most houses in the city. He had a great view, access to a pool, an indoor tennis court and a golf course; there was a restaurant at the premises, and a very diligent staff to clean and cater to his every needs.

But it still seemed inordinately expensive. The president’s daughters, for example, couldn’t afford it and had to die like all others. Currently there were forty-two people there enjoying a long life. They all had one thing in common: a huge pension. Most had been high-ranking in the government, but there were three private parties there. The reason was, it seemed, that only cabinet-ministers and presidents had the life-long pensions needed to sustain treatment. Private parties tended to become broke after they finished tending to their riches or leaving them to their offspring to live off of, whereas state annuity kept coming no matter what.

The reporter wondered about this, and decided to check himself in, and see if he had what it took.

He met the head doctor, with his recorder in his pocket, and said he was interested in going to the clinic when he retired.

The doctor welcomed him politely, and showed him around: the tennis court, the golf course, the pool, and they finally had steak at the restaurant. Afterwards the doctor took him on a quick tour of the medical facilities:

“This is where we make you live longer” he said as they approached the building, a two-storey structure at the corner of the complex, hidden from sight by some pine trees.

“First, you have to give us a pint of blood, so we can clone spares for you” said the doctor as they went in, and he showed the reporter the room where they took the blood and stored it for later use.

“In there is where we operate on our guests, if they have problems,” said the doctor, pointing inside an operating room. “If your organs fail, which they always do eventually, we replace them with cloned ones. Our first guest has used up three livers, five lungs, seven kidneys and is now living with a mechanical heart. No donors. It’s all cloned from his own genetic material.”

They went upstairs, and the doctor showed the reporter around: “There’s where we make the organs; there’s where we store them for later use; and there... there’s where we slow down aging. You’ll have to go there sometime in your first year, and after that, every other year. Let me show you.” The doctor opened the door, and showed the reporter in.

A machine was situated in the middle of the room. The machine looked like an Egyptian sarcophagus, and when it was opened up, the reporter saw it had a man-shaped groove inside it.

“Neat, isn’t it? Do you want to try it? Of course, it won’t work unless you take our medications every day, too. But I guarantee you’ll feel five years younger.”

The reporter looked at the doctor in disbelief. The doctor smiled back at him, waiting for an answer. He finally agreed for sake of curiosity, and the doctor had him strip down and lie in the groove.

The sarcophagus closed, and the reporter began wondering how wise his decision had been. Having himself trapped in a box like that, what a horrible error. He was beginning to worry that the doctor might find his recorder, become offended by his spying and make good use of his disadvantage.

But all of a sudden it was like it didn’t matter. Something was happening. A low hum emanated from somewhere around him, he couldn’t tell from where, and a tickling feeling spread from his abdomen to his limbs. He began seeing lights flicker before him, like the aurora, flowing, dancing and waving around in the dark, yet he saw nothing else.

He felt numb. The sound was increasing, although it didn’t seem to strain his ears as it passed far beyond the boundary of pain and the aurora fluctuated more brightly and more violently before his senses. He must have passed out, but he wasn’t sure. When he woke up, he was in his car, driving home, as if nothing had happened.

He felt healthy, that was for sure. A pain in his back had gone, and his ulcer had healed. That saved him the pepto-bismol for the day.

A week later he received a letter from the Aun clinic:

He wasn’t accepted. They had looked into his income, and judging from that, he’d never be able to pay for treatment. The drugs, they said, were expensive, for one thing; keeping staff was expensive, for another; and third, he could never afford an apartment within the complex. Not at his current rate of income and expenses. Not unless he sold his car and quit eating ten years ago. And that would be just to get the apartment.

He thought it over while listening to the recording. He was most interested in the part that came after he emerged from the sarcophagus:

The doctor had seemed oblivious to his state, and continued showing him around the grounds. He had apparently met with all the individual guests. The oldest ones were silent, apart from the constant bleep of the machines that kept them alive and receiving pension from the government. The ones between 100 and 150 years old were the worst, their senseless ululations as they felt the pain of internal organs failing, organs that should have stopped working years ago. It was pain without understanding, because their brains were bleeding from the inside said the doctor; but he explained that it was all right: they could inject gel to minimize damage. It was all right. They had ways of keeping the guests alive. As long as the inmates were alive, they earned pensions, which generated capital for the clinic. Life was good.

The most interesting fact about the Aun clinic, as the doctor explained near the end of their conversation, was that its founder had died a long time ago. Of old age.

Copyright © 2004 by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson
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