Ephemeral: Chapter 12
Clara didn't say much at dinner that night. Her trip back to Mother Alden's house – like her trip back to the Sapphire Hotel – had been characterized by a strained silence as she'd arm-wrestled her prejudices in her striving to be an objective observer. From her cradle, Clara had learned the three cardinal rules for social success: education, efficiency, and image-maintenance. Applied to a well-balanced life, such ideals led to health, wealth, and prestige – and Earth had prospered for generations as a result. So why would one of its colonies toss out its cultural foundations? It made no sense.
Despite her attempts to be tolerant, Clara found the colony's allowance for age-induced deterioration repulsive. Nor could she imagine a bridge big enough to span the chasm between Almitian social mores and those of the Vitae Conglomerate. She simply could not understand why a society would pander to those who could no longer contribute to it – those who were, in fact, draining their community's socioeconomic resources without sanction. Like parasites, Clara thought with a scowl.
And yet …
Something about how Aaric had treated Granna Kate haunted her. There was an incongruent beauty in the meeting of strength and frailty, youth and age, reason and madness. She'd never seen anything like it. As much as Clara hated the no-passing practice, she could not deny she found Aaric's unusual kindness intriguing. Most people on Earth lacked such kindness because most people on Earth lacked such need … though Clara could think of one notable exception of someone who'd required similar unusual care.
“... this place is a paradise!” Darian declared with a hearty slap on the dinner table. He'd been sharing his day's adventures while Clara had picked at her garlic whipped potatoes. “Wouldn't you agree, Clarity? Clara!”
The sound of her name startled her from her internal reverie. Her fork and knife clattered onto her plate. She looked up and became acutely aware she had been mentally absent for the majority of the conversation. She cleared her throat. “Sorry, could you repeat the question?”
Darian looked annoyed that part of his audience had not been paying proper attention. “I said this place is a paradise! Did you know you could literally apply for a loan in the morning, whisk through permitting by midday meal, open your doors in the afternoon, and turn a profit by quitting time? I don't know how they do it! And the photopetrium mine – talk about a gem of engineering! They can dig, process, and build a tower with the stuff all in the same day. It defies any sort of assembly line I've encountered. Bottom line, you could get rich real fast on this little planet. I should transfer to Agilis University.”
“You're not serious!” Tristan set his forkful of portobello mushroom down. “What of your obligations to the V.C.? This internship cost them a pretty penny. You could get arrested if you defected.”
“Could I?” Darian grinned wickedly. “They let the colonists leave Earth ...”
“Only because they got approval first and paid their own expenses,” Aliyah reminded with a toss of her ebony curls.
“But that's just it! Instead of learning about business, I could actually start one!”
“Really?” Raven said, lifting her wine glass with a bemused expression. “And what would you sell to the Silexians?”
“I'd figure out details later,” Darian batted her question away. “Meanwhile, why couldn't you all cover for me and say I didn't make it back to the ship before the return sequence started? People get stranded all the time. Any one of my friends or family would totally buy it.”
“You're probably right,” Raven said as she looked at Clara with an insider smile.
Clara grinned back and remembered the time she'd spent all night cramming and had accidentally overslept her alarm on the morning of college senior finals. But for Raven telling the professor she'd seen Clara in the restroom (a ruse which bought her three precious minutes), Clara would never have made it to class before the standardized timer started the examination. But she doubted the V. C. would be so easily duped.
“On second thought,” Darian said, “say I had an accident and didn't make it – period. Then I wouldn't have to worry about anyone coming here to find me.”
“Or fine you,” Tristan said, as he pushed his glasses up his nose.
“We could say you got attacked by a snarlek,” Clara offered as she pierced a blanched carrot with her fork.
All eyes turned to her.
“What's a snarlek?” Raven asked before sipping her red wine.
Clara put the carrot back on the plate; she wasn't hungry, anyway. “It's a predator that attacks livestock. Something like a wolf and a bear according to the Almitian locals.”
“Good thing I don't look like livestock!” Darian chuckled. “I guess even paradise is bound to have a mosquito or two. But all in all, this colony is so much better than I'd hoped.”
“Well, you couldn't pay me to stay,” Aliyah said as she swirled the crimson drink in her cup. “I'm missing my father's Passing Ceremony for this. And I promised I'd take over the family business once I got back. So I don't have time to muck about. This is an internship, not a vacation.”
“Bravo,” Darian said, raising a glass to Aliyah. “Keeping your eye on the prize. You're a better person than I.”
“That said ...” Aliyah looked wistfully out the wall-window at Agilis' sparkling blue lights, “the medicine here is pretty incredible ...”
“How so?” Raven asked as she cut into her braised lamb.
“It's practically instantaneous!” Aliyah exclaimed. “You know how on Earth it takes about a week to get over a cold?”
Everyone around the table nodded.
“Well here, the patient takes a pill and within seconds – seconds! – their congestion disappears! Infection totally cleared! Now how the heck do you figure?”
“I had some surprises, too,” Tristan said as he mulled over a bite of mushroom. “I visited Dr. Eckleston's greenhouses. She's got over a thousand local specimens, and the rate of growth I saw was astounding – almost disconcerting. I mean, going from seed to setting fruit in a matter of hours!”
“I saw that in Almitas!” Clara said. “Only it took less than a minute!”
Tristan's eyes widened. “You did?!”
“Yes! When I was in the Rutgers' field with Aaric ...”
“Time out! Who's Aaric?” Darian interrupted, upending his glass of wine.
Clara hesitated. “He's … he's my mentor's grandson.” She regretted her explanation the moment she gave it; she had inadvertently removed her finger from the dike, and a flood was sure to follow.
“Grandson?” Raven asked, her fork in midair. “What's a grandson?”
Everyone looked at Clara blankly as if their internal hard drives kept coming back with, “File not found.”
Oh, boy … Clara braced herself; she already felt tired. “A grandson is a third generation; Aaric is my mentor's son's son.”
That killed the conversation entirely. Everyone sat in silence as Clara's announcement sank in. Earth had not allowed three generations to coexist since the Vitae Conglomerate Revolution. Couples had to provide certification of their parents' Passings before applying for a progeny license. Thus, a child's parents' parents had as little bearing on their lives as their ancient ancestors; most people didn't even know their names.
Darian wrinkled his brow. “Did you say her son's son?”
“Yes.” Clara wrapped her fingers around the cool crystal stem of her wine glass; she'd want a drink soon.
“But how could he be her son's son?!” Darian protested. “Is it even physically possible to have a third generation before age forty-eight? I mean, on Earth you have to be at least twenty-five to apply for a license … or is the Rite of Passing set at a higher age here?”
Clara took a swing of wine, then set her glass on the table. She knew there was no gentle way to detonate the bomb. “They don't observe the Rite of Passing here.”
“WHAT?!” Darian, Raven, and Aliyah said in unison.
Tristan started choking on his mushroom.
Aliyah whacked him on the back. “Easy, Tris!”
Raven's complexion paled. Clara could see the vein in her neck throbbing. “H-how can that be? It's societal suicide not to observe the Rite! What happens when people pass the age of Passing?”
Clara took a deep breath. “The Almitians seem to have a complex communal system to help share the burden of geriatric care, and I'm assuming the other clans have some similar provision.” She met eyes with Raven. “It's not all laid on just one person.”
Raven averted her eyes and poured herself another glass red to the brim.
Aliyah had finally gotten over her shock, but looked like she'd just swallowed a raw snail. “Don't these people know gerontology is a discontinued field of medicine?!”
“What's gerontology?” Darian and Tristan asked together.
“The study of old people,” Aliyah said. “We learned about it in our medical history class. But like I said, gerontology is extinct! Finding a geriatrician would be like finding a doctor who still does blood-letting. And you said the other tribes don't observe the Rite, either?”
“It's … it's my understanding that no one in the colony does,” Clara said.
“That can't be!” Tristan said, sliding his glasses up his nose. “I haven't seen any old people. But then again … Dr. Eckleston looked grayer around the temples than anyone I'd seen back home. And now I think about it, it must have taken ages for her to gather all those specimens. But I never considered a colonist could be older than forty-eight. My assumption must have skewed my interpretation of the evidence ...”
“It's still absurd!” Aliyah protested. “We all know where geriatric care leads. Haven't these colonists read their own history?”
Clara leaped at the chance to change the subject. “Speaking of colonial history, Aaric asked me an interesting question about the original forty colonists. Do any of you know the exact reason why they left Earth?”
Darian shrugged. “Why does anyone emigrate? For a new start and the chance to get ahead.”
“That's what I said, but Aaric acted like there was another reason.”
Tristan frowned. “What other reason could there be? Earth has a dozen colonies across the universe and great trading relationships with them all. If these people think the original colonists had a specific problem with Earth, why not say so outright? And speaking of the first forty colonists, where are they now? The only one we've met is His Eminence. Where did all the other people come from?”
Clara crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “I can't seem to get a straight answer from anyone regarding those things. It's as if the whole topic of colonial origins is taboo. Granna Kate would have told me, I think, but Aaric interrupted before she could say anything.”
“Who's Granna Kate?” Raven asked.
Clara flushed. Idiot! Why did you bring her up?! “P-perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned her ...”
“Too late!” Darian said. “You already did. So spill it!”
Clara put a hand to her forehead; she was getting a headache. “She's the elderly woman I saw today.”
“You SAW one?!” Darian asked as if she'd encountered a unicorn. The hypothetical now substantiated, he leaned forward and asked, “Did you get any footage?”
Clara glanced at Raven. How she wanted to lie! But Raven could always tell. So she nodded slightly.
“Then let's see it!” Darian said, rising to his feet. “Is that your device?” He pointed to the counter where Clara had set her tablet to recharge.
“Wait a second!” Clara had dropped the snowball, and now the avalanche was gaining speed. “I don't think it's a good idea ... It was a pretty disturbing experience.”
But Darian paid her no mind as he crossed the room, grabbed her screen, and scrolled through her recorded files.
Clara glanced apprehensively at Raven, her green eyes pleading for Raven to keep Pandora's box shut.
Raven cleared her throat. “Darian, if Clara doesn't want us to see it, she probably has a good reason. Why don't you respect her wishes?”
Darian continued scrolling; he clearly valued his own wishes above all else. “If her professors are going to see it, I see no reason why we shouldn't. We're all adults here. This is academic research – not a porno. Besides, I've never seen a person beyond the age of Passing. It's like a new discovery or something. So here we go.”
Darian tapped a few commands on the screen and held the tablet toward one of the few opaque photopetrium walls. An image of Aaric currying his horse projected onto it. He wiped his brown locks out of his face, looked into the device with his ocean-gray eyes, then bent down to pick up his horse's hoof.
Darian whistled. “So this is what you spent your day studying, naughty girl! But he doesn't look a day past twenty-four.”
“He's gorgeous!” Aliyah exclaimed, then toned down her enthusiasm at Darian's raised eyebrows. “In a country-cowboy sort of way,” she modified.
“Alright, alright.” Clara could feel the blood pulsing in her ears. “Granna Kate is in the next segment. But I should probably warn you ...”
“I'll skip to it,” Darian interrupted.
The images on the wall sped up until the scenery changed and Aaric was kneeling on the grass before the white-haired wrinkled figure in the wheeled chair. Granna Kate struck a pose and bared those horrid-looking yellow teeth.
Darian nearly dropped the device. He swore. The image fell, then rose again on the wall as Darian re-adjusted his grip.
A meteor rending the ceiling would have had much the same effect on everyone. They sat transfixed, unable to tear their eyes from the old woman. Shock, horror, disbelief, and anger registered on the interns' faces. Clara felt herself sweating under her armpits. She stole a glance at Raven; her friend was crushing her blue cloth napkin into a tight little ball by her plate.
“Is ...” Darian faltered, “is that actually a human?!” The footage shook a bit as he fought to steady his trembling fingers.
“Yes,” Clara answered. “That's Granna Kate.”
“What's wrong with her?” Aliyah asked. “Is there a local disease that turns hair white and makes skin sag like that?”
Clara shook her head. “Apparently, that happens when you live beyond the age of Passing.”
“How far beyond Passing is she?” Tristan quavered, pushing his specs up his red-freckled nose.
“I'm not sure, but my mentor told me some people live to be a hundred.”
A collective gasp went around the table. To live so long seemed a fate worse than death.
Darian swallowed hard. “I know I said this place was paradise. But this woman looks like hell! What's the point of living if you can't ...”
Darian paused as the scene showed Granna Kate knocking the glass from Mary's hands. The old woman started shrieking. Her calls echoed against the photopetrium walls. Everyone sat stunned – except for Clara who stared down at her uneaten lamb and mashed potatoes. She wished she could shrink and hide herself in the warm, fluffy spuds. Her only comfort was that she'd stopped the recording before Granna Kate had started insulting her.
“That's enough!” Raven stood and threw her napkin down on the table.
Everyone started at her outburst, though Darian was happy to comply without argument.
Raven drained her Merlot. “I think I've had enough research for one day.” She turned and walked toward the girls' suite.
“Raven,” Clara called from her seat. “Are you oka –?”
“I'm fine!” Raven snapped. She slammed the door behind her with more force than expected, making the other interns jump.
Darian soberly returned the device to its charging station and returned to the table. He took a deep drought of wine, then exhaled slowly. “My apologies, Clara. That was something else … and I've never seen Raven ruffled before. Not even when they surrounded our ship or marched us to His Eminence. What's her deal?”
Again, all eyes turned to Clara.
She sighed. It's going to come out sooner or later. “Raven's dad was one of the V. C.'s top heart surgeons. Received gold at his Passing ceremony.”
“Wow,” Darian said while the others looked duly impressed.
“But before he Passed,” Clara continued, “he got PTPD syndrome.”
“Oh, no!” Aliyah moaned, putting a hand to her forehead.
“Why? What's PTPD syndrome?” Darian asked.
“It stands for 'Prior to Passing Decline,'” Aliyah said soberly. “It's extremely rare. There have only been about a dozen or so cases reported worldwide in the last generation. And there's no cure or treatment. It's a cruel demise.”
“What does it do?” Tristan asked quietly as he polished his spectacles with the corner of his blue napkin.
“It basically makes you lose your mind,” Aliyah explained. “People with PTPD aren't in touch with themselves or reality. Their brains are literally dying in their skulls. They see things that aren't there and forget who they are. Sometimes they turn violent or start acting like small children. But eventually, they lose body function and degenerate into a subhuman state. It's agonizing for everyone involved … which is why the V.C. instituted the Passing Ceremony in the first place.” Aliyah upended her own glass.
“Sheesh.” Darian shook his head. “And Raven's dad got that?”
“During our senior year of high school,” Clara said. “Her mom tried to help him, but it drove her to depression to see her husband deteriorate. Raven was the only one with enough focus to hold things together. But she had to miss so many classes helping with both parents that she nearly lost her perfect GPA. That was a really hard year for her. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.”
“Why didn't the V. C. Regent do anything about it?” Tristan asked. “He should have scheduled an earlier Passing Ceremony.”
“Yes, but Dr. Ulric was famous for his medical work. All the reservations and invitations had been sent out with everything paid for over a year in advance. It was going to be the most lavish Passing Ceremony in the history of our region. There was no way it could be rescheduled without a public outcry.”
“What about the V. C. medical system? Where were they!?” Darian demanded.
“And what would you have had them do?” Aliyah said, her hackles rising in defense of her field. “Like I said, no one practices gerontology anymore. You can hardly expect healthcare workers to neglect patients who will actually recover to tend to a hopeless case! It's basic triage. But I'm surprised his predisposition to the syndrome wasn't caught during his prenatal genetic screening. I certainly wouldn't have missed the markers, and all this suffering could have been prevented!”
Clara winced as she considered how different the world would have been if Dr. Ulric had never been born. Aliyah had never known him of course, but her judgment against the good doctor seemed rather harsh. True, his PTPD had been exhausting in his last years, but what about the hundreds of patients Dr. Ulric had helped during his twenty-year career? Wouldn't they all have passed before their time without him? Clara knew how much that stung.
And what about Raven? Without Dr. Ulric, her best friend would never have been born! That would have changed Clara's entire childhood. She shivered as she realized genetic counselors had prenatal humanity down to a rubric, and it had been one such counselor's oversight which had made Dr. Ulric's life with all its ripple effects possible. For the first time in her life, Clara wondered if her wonderfully-regulated reality on Earth was as flawless as it had seemed. Deep down, she suspected a crack in her cultural foundation, and now felt decidedly unsettled.
“What about you?” Darian asked Clara, jarring her from her musings. “What did you do to help?”
Clara frowned. “I was seventeen! I could barely keep up with my own extra-curriculars and exams. But I did help Raven study to pass hers. And I'd occasionally pick up and drop off the groceries Raven preordered.”
“Why didn't they just get delivery?” Tristan asked. “Or better yet, hire a domestic support worker to make things easier?”
“Because you can't receive an inheritance from your spouse or father while he's still living. And – like Aliyah said – PTPD is so rare, the V. C. health system doesn't have a provision for it. When his Passing Ceremony did finally arrive, Dr. Ulric was too out-of-it to participate which made things awkward for everyone else. The whole ordeal was pretty awful.”
“Do you think Granna Kate has PTPD?” Darian asked Aliyah.
The genetics counselor nodded. “Or something quite like it; most of the symptoms were there. Clara, do you know if this kind of thing is wide-spread?”
“I've been told not everyone gets to be like that,” Clara answered, “but it's a common enough condition for the clan to support the care givers.”
“So you're saying, they volunteer for this kind of torture?!” Darian looked aghast.
“That's absolutely insane! Why on earth would an entire colony agree to sign up for that?”
Clara sat a little taller. “I think that's going to be the subject for my master's thesis.”
Darian looked hard at Clara. “Don't take this the wrong way, Clarity. But you must either be the most dedicated graduate student in the history of humankind, or a glutton for punishment.” He raised his glass to her. “Best wishes in trying to rationalize insanity.” Then he shook his head and drained the wine.
So what do you think?
Not everyone is ignorant about their forebears. Do you have any interesting stories about a distant ancestor? Anything that predates your grandparents’ generation is allowed. Share in the comments below.