This story is by Kathi Stait and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A Difficult Decision
Sophie strolled along the empty corridor at Bioresearch. She enjoyed being first into the lab. The quiet, stillness and uninterrupted concentration of early morning was the most productive time of her day.
Stretching and relaxing, she entered the tearoom. Whoever drinks tea nowadays, she thought. Pensive, she reached for the coffee jar and her large mug.
“Good morning, Dr Murray,” she heard from behind her. She spun, startled, to see her CEO, BJ Carpenter. “I’m surprised to see you here so early. I’ve wanted to catch up with you for a while.”
“It was a glorious morning today, BJ. All of my family was ready quickly. Even the cats dutifully ate their breakfast without negotiating alternatives.”
“Yes, the sky is clear, with a warm breeze. Life is good. I guess you gave the cats their favourite?” he said.
She smiled. “Of course.”
BJ turned, gazing into his own distant reality. “I’d like to run something past you about our latest development. Bring your coffee into my office and we can talk.”
“Yes, sir.” She straightened, searching his face and body language for signs of his motivation, then followed him down the plush carpet into his office and sank into the luxurious pillows of his visitor’s chair.
“Getting straight to the point,” he said, “you know we’ve been working on an important project?”
The staff throughout Bioresearch had been quiet and tense lately, and it seemed that most workers regarded the pervasive atmosphere as busy, isolated, and secretive. And very unusual. About six months ago, the guys from Development stopped complaining about testing problems. Now, they only talked about family, weather, and cars. Maybe they were distracted by a new project. Of course Sophie had wondered what’s going on.
“Yes, I’d guessed something important is happening.”
Sophie sat and saw a range of emotions cross BJ’s face. She watched him preparing what he would say next.
“There have been exciting developments here. We’d like you to be involved in the testing phase. How do you feel about helping us test our body improvement products?”
“It depends on side-effects and other risks, but I’d like to know about the test,” she said.
“Okay. In a nutshell, we have developed an immortality solution, administered orally and intravenously, with no known side-effects. It uses nanotechnology to monitor all the human body and corrects any malfunction. You’re young enough, bright and have a quick mind, which is what we’re looking for. You could benefit from this breakthrough. Do you want to take advantage of this opportunity?”
“I’m interested. Are we talking extra years, decades, or centuries?”
“We think at least centuries, but most likely more than that,” he said.
At least centuries, she thought. I could travel: see Rome and all of Italy; visit and explore the pyramids. I could develop better research procedures. There’s so much more I could do, given more time. I could even play with my ever-so-great grandkids.
“But if we all become immortal, how will the population be affected?”
“We can’t use it on everyone because the government is concerned about unsustainable population explosions. Later, if this development is approved for general use, our lawmakers will have to address this issue.”
“Have they suggested measures to put in place?” she asked.
“The population will be more stable if this procedure is only for childless people who consent to sterilisation. Some government members have said that the cost of immortality should be the death of a mortal. This’ll normally occur through natural attrition, or the deceased’s family will be reimbursed for their sacrifice. Details aren’t available yet. No-one will die for test subjects, though.”
Her face fell as she realised potential costs of her acceptance, thinking of the consequences of a procedure that may not work.
“And what if anything goes wrong during the test?” she asked.
“All test participants will have full health insurance at our expense. We’ve done the feasibility studies, and we truly don’t expect side-effects.”
BJ looked as though he hadn’t told her everything yet.
She asked, “Is there a test team: a few of us to undergo your procedure?”
“There’s a small number.”
“So, if I am included in this test, Richard will die long before I do. My girls won’t outlive me?”
“Unless they also receive the treatment, that is true.”
“Could they receive the treatment?”
BJ didn’t reply. Maybe he wasn’t sure whether they could include families in the test group, or possibly he knew they would not.
“That’s a tough decision. May I discuss this with Richard?” she asked, determined to decline BJ’s offer if her boss wouldn’t permit this tiny breech of security.
“Yes, but only your husband.”
Somehow, the morning’s work was productive, although submerged in successive flurries of hope, apprehension, longing, and doubt. She couldn’t remember anything she had done during this time. Richard was at work, but he will be affected by her decision. She needed to know his take on the proposal. At lunch, she took Family Leave and called him.
“Hi! I need to see you. Now,” she said, agitated. “I can’t talk about this at home: the girls can’t hear this. Please, could you meet me at our favourite bushwalking track? We should be alone there.”
“Bad day, huh?”
“Yes, and no. I’ll tell you when I see you, in about 30 minutes.”
Richard said, “I can do that. See you there and then.”
After she explained BJ’s offer, she asked Richard what he thought she should do.
He stared into the distance, processing Sophie’s question for what seemed an eternity, and then said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. There are so many questions, so many what-ifs. If I’m understanding this offer, you will live forever. This is amazing!”
A smile creased his face underneath his concern-riddled eyes. “We could explore the catacombs together, marvel at Tutankhamen’s tomb. We could spend so much time together and realise many more of our dreams.”
“But, Richard, you may not. The girls may not. I don’t want to see you go through life knowing you will be gone so soon. I don’t want to see you sick and helpless, while I am healthy and still in a body that won’t age or decay.”
“What’s the chance the girls and I can have the treatment, too?”
Torn into fragments at having to answer this sad question, she said, “I so hope that you and the girls can join me, but I don’t know. It’s nowhere near certain.”
Sophie thought about the people she loves. She didn’t want to live without them, almost forever. She thought of watching her family members wither and struggle with illnesses and diseases while she continued unscathed. Many, many times over.
She clutched him to her as though she couldn’t bear being without him. She was sure he would tell her to go ahead with the procedure if she wished, but she didn’t want to do so without him and the girls. Successive waves of confused emotions submerged all thought.
“Let’s go for a walk, and think, and talk when we get to the top. We could do The Rollercoaster Track, and lose some of this panic.”
They climbed the steep entry to the track, clambering over dolerite boulders and fallen gum trees. Then they crossed a creek bounding a gentler grassy hillside and climbed steps leading up the summit. They arrived at a breathtaking view overlooking the estuary and their hometown.
“Whew, made it!” she said, and they relaxed in the beauty of their surroundings.
“Richard, if I, or you, or even the girls have this treatment, I will torture myself over the deaths or sterilisations permitting these extended lifelines.”
“Yes, I will, too.”
“And we would have to watch loved ones, friends and acquaintances degenerate and die for maybe millennia.”
“Mmm. That’s what gets me most, Soph. It could be such a long time, and our losses would continue forever.”
Transfixing him with her most emphatic stare, and seeing a calm reassurance in his eyes, she said, “I don’t want to do this.”
At the same time, he said, “It wouldn’t be a good life, and there would be so much of it. I wouldn’t stand in your way if you want to, but I won’t become immortal.
Sofie was certain that they understood the churning turmoil of each other’s thoughts and the pain this decision caused. They remained on the mountain top, healing in the peace of a firm decision.
“Are you okay, Soph? I’m sad that you don’t want to accept this offer; that you won’t live forever.”
“Yes, Richard. I’m happy as we are.”
“Me, too. Let’s continue on as before, then.”
They descended the mountain, glad to restrict their ever after to its already allotted span, happy that their girls would never know. They preferred to live as they had planned – for decades only. Together.