by Mike Jansen
“What will you be when you grow up?”
It was a question I needed to ponder while I watched out over the green roof of Garden Village, the place where senior normals spent their final years. “What exactly do you mean? Physically grown up, or mentally?” Nena and I had been given longevity serum while still in the womb and our aging had been slowed by a factor of five or more. Our life expectancy was centuries.
“Physically of course, Vaz. We know each other fifteen years.”
I smiled. “Best friends forever, Nena.” We had been ever since our first classes in college where we sat next to each other, on chairs much too big for our preschooler bodies.
“So, what will you be?”
The advantages of long life: being able to think through perfectly what you wanted, what your affinities were. This did not make it any easier. Somehow asking the question had become something of a taboo. Of course, best friends were allowed to ask. “I’m not sure yet. I thought the visit to ISS3 was impressive.”
Nena seemed surprised. “That did not impress me at all.”
“Well I was. I wish I could be out there right now.” I nodded at the sky. “Asteroids, the outer planets, the stars.”
“Oh, Vaz. Hhumans aren’t built for that.”
I nodded slowly. “Not yet, Nena, not yet.”
A soft breeze carried the scent of freshly mown grass. My retina projector showed me my next college class, astrophysics, my favorite. “Gotta go. Class.”
“Me too.” She opened her old fashioned notebook. “Biolab.”
Nena hugged me. Our conversation still fresh in my mind, I thought: such a grown-up gesture. Yet we both look like barely teenage girls.
While she walked in the direction of her lab, I called out to her: “What about you?”
She looked back. “Something with people. Mankind. Later!”
My professor’s name was Jan Peter van Zandwijk. He was really old, at least seventy. He had lived through the turbulent first decades of the 21st century and contributed to humanity’s first steps in the solar system.
“Gents!” He usually started his colleges like that. “And lady, of course.” He nodded at me with a friendly smile.
It took some getting used to at first. The pace was challenging and I needed to study hard to keep up. Sleeping through five years of elementary and middle school does not really prepare you for university and the daily study that’s required to absorb all the material. The first trimester we studied the – archaic, I know – equivalent of fifty kilograms of books. And that was just the start. The pace only increased and now, in the second year, only a half dozen students remained of the initial two hundred in the first year.
I often talked about him with Nena. Not about his lessons. Those were just to explain the content of the books and answering questions. No, at the end of each lesson he usually spent half an hour philosophizing about the future of mankind in space, not just in our solar system, but really out there. That’s what I came for, that vision, his ideas, explanations and solutions.
Nena smiled while I talked fervently. “I wish my chemistry and nanolab teachers were such capable storytellers.” She shrugged. “My own fault, really. I shouldn’t have taken the boring road.”
I knew better. “You’re just not yet doing what you really love.”
She gestured impatiently with her hand. “It’s all taking too long. So much to do, so much to learn, so much to improve.” She took a deep breath and suddenly seemed sad. “I have so many plans. I’m just not sure if I will manage it all on my own.”
I took her hand. “You know I’ll always be there for you, Nena.”
“Thanks, Vaz.” She pulled me close and hugged me. “We’ll do great things, you and me, together.”
Nena and I graduated simultaneously. She had finished twelve studies and doctorates in genetics and man-machine communications. My career was heading into space, like I had always wanted.
“Summa cum laude in everything. I expected nothing less, Nena.”
She hugged me. “Well, you’re going on an adventure right away. A sun dive, no less. Very exciting.”
I held her carefully. The new polymers in my muscles could be somewhat unpredictable at times. “I’ll miss you.”
Nena looked at me. Her eyes were moist. “I’ll miss you too. Fortunately we have hundreds of years to visit each other. There’s no hurry.”
I grinned. “Gossip will also be somewhat slow, I’m afraid.” ‘Gossip’ was our code word for the plans we came up with and executed sometimes. They helped us take small steps towards our goals and our vision for mankind in the coming centuries.
“Again, no hurry, Vaz. And plenty of challenges. I’ve been asked to head a research lab in advanced genetics.”
“That’s really your thing.”
Our group was somewhat removed from the others, the normals. They were all younger than we, the improved ones, but they were physically mature. We looked like young girls, although mentally we were light-years ahead. There was a divide and meaningful communication was … uneasy, clumsy, slow and useless.
“Fewer each year,” Nena said.
“Are you reading my mind?”
Nena smiled. “You’re easy to read, Vaz.”
I nodded. “You’re right, though. Not enough challenge, too much automation. That’s why I need to go into space. To clear the way for the rest of mankind.”
“Such a noble goal,” Nena said. “Mine is quite different. No new challenges, no unreachable goals, no excesses. Satisfaction, the realization by mankind of its logical place in the natural cycle, eudaimonia.”
“You think mankind can regain that?”
“Not yet, Vaz, not yet.”
After the ceremony and the reception I reported to the director of the university.
“Congratulations, Vaz,” she began. She was a short woman, solid, with shoulder length dark hair that showed a few gray strands.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“I know you discussed this with Jan Peter. I mean professor Van Zandwijk.” She placed her left hand on a small wooden box on her desk.
I nodded. A single tear passed my eyelids and slid ponderously across my cheek.
The director smiled. “I miss him too. Old grumpy head.”
Jan Peter van Zandwijk’s funeral, nearly two years ago, had been sad and remarkably crowded. For someone his age his circle of friends and acquaintances was impressive, their loyalty obvious, a reflection of his true, warm personality.
The thought of his cremation also brought back the memory of our conversation regarding his dying wish.
“Vaz, you’re going into space. That’s obvious. I spoke to some colleagues who are working on new propulsion systems and next generation space craft. Are you interested?”
My smile told him everything.
“I also have one favor to ask,” he continued.
“How can I refuse that?”
He laughed; a shaky sound that transformed into a nasty cough. He first needed to regain his breath before he continued talking. “My body is deteriorating,” he said. “It’ll be over soon. I guess I’m ready for it.”
“We’re all stardust,” I said.
“Yes, we are. And I would like to return to them, to our own sun, to be exact. It so happens the first mission my colleagues are planning, is to fly through the Sun’s atmosphere … They’ve already reserved a spot for me next to the telemetry pod.”
All I could do was nod.
One month later he passed away.
“Vaz, come in? Over.” Nena’s voice was tinny.
“Loud and clear, Nena. Sorry I can’t get any closer. I’ve been made responsible for setting up the next mining operation in the asteroid belt. No visits for the foreseeable future.”
Forty seconds later her answer arrived. “That’s ok. I’ve handed your avatar the specific information, read it at your leisure. Especially the three filoviruses I would like to see tested in weightless conditions.”
My retina projector showed me the huge freight containers approaching from the moon surface and I adjusted speed and course to align my tug perfectly for the rendezvous. At the same time I double-checked the encryption on our signal to see if no one was tampering with it. The punishment for creating filoviruses was extreme, everywhere in the solar system, but necessary since the advent of the portable equipment with the ‘my-first-virus-construction-kit’ software.
“Apologies for the delay, Nena; I was docking a ship. You’re playing with fire, dear. Improved humans are continuously monitored since the Rio coup attempt, ten years ago.”
Money was no longer an issue. Our cooperation had made us both wealthy and given us influence that we sometimes used. It helped us achieve goals. We did whatever we liked and we still dared the dream of a harmonious future for mankind, despite the sometimes self-destructive tendencies of our near-kindred.
Forty seconds later her answer arrived. “I sometimes think ‘just let it all burn, they don’t deserve it.’ You keep me sane, Vaz. Thank you.”
“If only there were more of us, things might improve. Over and out.”
Six weeks later I opened the cargo holds and deployed the mining swarm. My neural interface saw communication networks come into existence. The swarm started to move as one, all scanners working hard to find the building blocks we needed near Earth to build new ships, habitats and hydroponic stations. One of my own goals was to get more people into space and this assignment helped me work towards that.
Satisfied I settled in for a stay of almost a year, until the swarm could operate fully autonomous and send, without supervision, a continuous stream of raw materials to the inner planets.
These assignments also provided me with sufficient time to consider Nena’s words and to think about the course we had laid out. I worried about her words and her situation. Like no other I understood the difficulties of having to live between the ‘normals’, to see life happening around you in slow motion because your brain functions so much faster. At least here in space I could work without interruption on the machines surrounding me and communicate with them at the speed I liked. I wondered who the lonelier one was.
Once a year I visited Earth. Not because I needed it, like the ‘normals’ with their brittle bodies. No, I wanted to experience a sea breeze, the scent of the rain forest of the enchantment of snow in a pine grove.
At the foot of the Kilimanjaro I met Nena in the primate lab she had built there. She was positively glowing.
“Vaz, so good of you to visit. Please sit.” She pointed at a chair in front of her desk. “I thought you were out finalizing the Ganymede station?”
I sat down. “Finished it two months ago. I read your mail. Are you sure this is wise?”
“What, having a baby at fifty three?” She shook her head. “Rules for ‘normals’ do not apply to us. You know that. Our bodies can take up to forty years to become fertile.”
“I know that. I also know only girls were ever improved. So which ‘normal’ is the father?”
Nena smiled. “You ask the wrong question. You know what I’m about.”
I tapped the fingers of my prosthetic left hand on her desk. “OK, I’ll play along. Who supplied the base material and what were the extras?”
“Only the best. I’ve made many breakthroughs the past years.”
“Like this?” I held up my left hand. “I saw your name in the specifications. Why your own womb?”
Nena shrugged. She seemed bitter. “Politics. Religious madness. Limited intellect. Ancient laws. Like this it seems … more natural.” She looked through the window, just a little longer than strictly necessary.
Outside on the slopes were groups of mountain gorillas. My neural interface identified patterns and activities and correlated behavior with scientific treatises on the Net. “They’re all pregnant?”
“You know what you’re doing?”
“Sometimes I think I’m the only one. I understand if you disagree. Even if you gave me the idea. Remember?”
“Yes, but it was just wishful thinking.”
“Maybe, but I can make that reality.”
“It’s not how I work. There will be trouble. Anyway, my home is out there. You have to live with it. My next project will be the creation of huge space stations, habitats for millions of people.”
“Good, Earth needs more depopulation.”
“Take care of it.”
Nena’s smile was bitter. “Working on it. Anything else?”
“Yes, a station near Pluto. Just to get us into the Oort Cloud. And then the stars.”
“Humans do not evolve that fast. So we won’t be there to witness it.”
I kept quiet. Our goodbyes were cool.
Being in space hurt my body. I could withstand much more than ‘normals’, yet I sometimes ran into problems, whether through hard radiation or nano meteorites passing through my limbs at near relativistic speeds.
My left hand had already been replaced by a prosthetic that worked much better than the original. Getting used to it through training took almost a year. Yet I was sure I wanted all my limbs replaced.
With ubiquitous electronic surveillance of improved ones it was nearly impossible to arrange. But I had time and waited for the moment when clear and irreparable damage had occurred that required replacement.
It took almost twenty years to replace my arms, legs and most of my skin. I was most proud of my titanium lips that always looked like I was wearing a golden bronze lipstick.
Whoever looked at my career would at best be surprised by the number of dangerous missions I had performed.
Satisfied I let my ship drift towards Earth. Glistening, regularly placed dots in the darkness weren’t stars but enormous, spinning space stations, home to millions of humans each. Improved ones and normals living with each other, although the normals were oblivious, thanks to some genetic reprogramming Nena had done on a sizeable portion of the population.
Pretty impressive, Nena. Our contact had grown more intermittent, but never ceased altogether. We just could not resist gossiping.
Beyond the Moon was my target, a huge ship that had been under construction for years with thousands of printers working to create my design. It would have to be fit to travel for two thousand years through interstellar space to Proxima Centauri. I did not care about a few years more.
I met Nena at the Luna IV Base. She was accompanied by two boys, each less than ten years old. More than meets the eye. I noticed she looked mature, no, middle-aged even.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“I need a few more parts.” My neural interface sent her the data.
The two boys simultaneously spoke: “Those are still experimental.”
“Then I’ll wait until they are not. I will make this journey to the end.”
“Humans can’t live that long, Vaz. You know that,” Nena said.
My titanium lips formed a smile. “Not much of that left in me anymore, Nena.”
Back on Ganymede I visited the bionic lab I had built. The researchers working there produced the best quality prosthetic limbs humanity had ever come up with.
“Have my models been approved?”
The director of the lab was a second generation improved, born from a gorilla mother through an in vitro fertilized egg belonging to Nena. Hard to believe, but Nena had managed to keep her offspring a secret and spread them out over the Earth. Ever so slowly opinion on the improved ones changed, influenced by thousands of Nena’s children who now lived among the normals. They had even come to space, like many normals before them.
He nodded. His eyes were silver marbles, cybernetic implants. “Yes. I contacted some of my people and there’s a market forming in the Belt already.”
“Not for everything I assume?”
He shook his head. “We haven’t found anyone yet to do a full replacement of limbs, skin, skeleton and organs.”
“I’ll be your first customer then. When can you start?”
“Are you serious?”
I smiled. “Don’t you see there’s very little of my original self left?”
He grinned sardonically, a grin I recognized all too well.
“You look like your mother.”
“I never knew her.”
“Believe me, you look just like her.”
“Congrats, Nena.” My best friend was surrounded by politicians and dignitaries, but she immediately recognized my voice.
“Vaz!” She nodded at the people around her and carefully walked through the crowd towards me. When she was near me she had to look up to see my face. “You’ve grown,” she said.
“Maybe. Or you’ve shrunk. And I see gray hairs, Nena.”
“Worries. Secretary-General for the United Earth and its Colonies is a demanding job.”
“Finally the power and influence you needed. I’ve followed your rise to power over the last decade.
Nena gestured around her. The view from the arcology over the surrounding green landscape was impressive. Far away snow-covered mountains were just visible. “There is a balance now. Earth is recuperating. Citizens are happy.”
“So you won’t tell them about your experiments?”
Nena smirked. She still had that rogue-like twinkling in her eyes. “Sleeping dogs, Vaz. All is well, people are feeling good. Why create unrest? Besides, you helped me, remember?”
“Our shared illegal activities? That I never saw the actual, final results of?” I shrugged. “You have to sleep at night. Can you?”
“We all have our goals, Vaz.” Nena’s face clouded over. “I just have less time than you.”
“I was wondering about that, too.”
“I will be here for hundreds of years. Don’t worry about me.” She hugged me. “It’s good to see you again.”
Carefully I held her and felt her fragile bone through the fabric of her dress.
Not hundreds of years, I thought.
I opened the freight doors of the cargo hold and deployed fresh swarms of printers. The time of adjusting and optimizing had now passed. The project needed to be finalized. And soon.
An endless stream of raw materials flew like small, glowing dots towards the magnetic traps that provided the printer swarms with building blocks.
One of my avatars reported that the building time had been reduced from over three hundred to less than fifty years. It would not be faster due to supply lines, parts production and placement, all of which cost time. The printers had reached the point where they were faster than materials could be prepared and supplied.
I sent my tug to the front of the ship. The smooth plates had been designed to withstand the kind of ultra fast particles we might encounter. However, I could still change their colors.
I took out the three dimensional maps and selected the plates I wanted to have changed with different colored plates. The image in my mind showed the characters I wanted to form with them: NENA.
It was finished. The cargo bays held complete biotopes, seed banks, incubators, all necessities to seed Earthly life. But no humans.
I descended to Earth and found Nena on a tropical beach beneath a reed lean-to. She had become old, gray and weak. A medical drone floated unobtrusively behind her. The view of the reefs was magnificent.
“I’m about to leave,” I said to her. “My team is ready.”
“All the best.” Even her voice was old, hoarse. “I just had your human base material delivered.”
“Only the best?”
Nena smiled a brittle smile. “You know me.”
“Sooner than expected. The serum did not work equally on everyone.”
“Are you happy?”
Nena sighed. She swallowed with difficulty and closed her eyes. “I have my eudaimonia.” The medical drone inched a bit closer.
I took her hand, carefully, and folded it open. Next I took a sample of her skin.
Nena noticed. “What are you doing?”
“Taking a few cells.”
“To see you again, in two thousand years.”
She smiled and closed her eyes.
The medical drone gave a warning signal and landed on Nena’s chest.
As I ascended I whispered. “Because we’re best friends, Nena. Forever. Farewell. I’ll see you again soon.”
Mike Jansen has published in Dutch, German, Romanian, Estonian, Polish, Chinese, French, Finnish, Russian, Swedish, Catalan, Spanish and English anthologies and magazines. Since 2011 he has published over 100 English language stories in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. In addition, three fantasy novels, two story collections and several novellas in Dutch, a novel and a short story collection in English. He has won the Dutch King Kong Award 1992, an honorable mention for the Australian 1998 Altair Magazine launch competition, in 2012 the Baarn Literary Prize and the prestigious Dutch Fantastels award, in 2020 the GP Scifi/Fantasy Award and in 2021 the Mossy Statue prize for best promoter of Dutch SF, F and H. Since 2016 Mike organizes the Dutch EdgeZero awards, an attempt to get the best stories from Dutch language genre contests and magazines of the previous year collected and published in a year’s best anthology. So far eight anthologies have been published. In addition he publishes themed anthologies showcasing the best Dutch authors. Some of his recent work has appeared in Samovar and Strange Horizons.