Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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The Oldest Man Alive

by Lachlan Walter




I-patchV1517.01/ANDERSON,OWEN-MATTHEW/23-11-2731/06-57/INITIATE


And I’m awake – another morning, another day. I’m lying in the same bed as always, in the same room as always, looking out the window at the same view as always, the same rolling fields of pasture and grassland and scrub, the same thick forest behind them.

I need a holiday, somewhere I’ve never been before. But where? When you’re as old as I am, when you’ve seen as much as I’ve seen, there’s not really anywhere or anything new.

I have to go to the toilet.


*****



I’m being interviewed this afternoon, something that hasn’t happened in 30 or 40 years. I just got sick of them – once you’ve given seven or eight hundred, you start to lose interest. As well, the questions always ended up the same: Why? Why You? Why not me?

But the kid I’ve agreed to talk to has offered me something different: Questions I’ve never been asked before.

After reading the research team’s analysis and summary of him, I said yes to his request. He’s the real deal, as we used to say – he doesn’t seem to have a particular agenda or make himself the star of the show, and writes a weekly blog called What Keeps the Interesting Interested where he interviews everyone from the newest avatar singers to old-fashioned rock-star scientists to digital warlords to obscure eccentrics to half-forgotten recluses. He treats them all with as much dignity as they deserve, which is good – I don’t have much time for brownnoses.

I was so intrigued by his offer that I didn’t even ask to pre-read these ‘new’ questions.

Intrigued is probably the wrong word. ‘Excited’ is more like it.

The kid’s approach was actually well timed: I’ve been feeling like putting myself out there again. It’s not just interviews that have become rare – I’ve only appeared in public a handful of times over the last decade or two. There are so many better things to do with my time than feed the celebrity beast. But I think it’d be good for me to reconnect.

I need a coffee. I’m hungry. I have to go the toilet again. I guess I’d better get out of bed.


*****



Where are my pyjamas? Goddamn, I’m so forgetful sometimes…


*****



A mix of classic rock from the twentieth keeps me company during breakfast: The Beatles, The Stones, Janis and Joni, Talking Heads, Devo, The B-52s and Blondie, The Clash, Nirvana, Ween. It’s the music of my youth, the music I grew up with, the music that made me love music.

I know it makes me seem like an old fogey, but I am what I am. Anyway, I sometimes listen to new music, sometimes try and keep up with the kids. But most of what they listen to just seems like white noise to me. That’s not a figure-of-speech: When I listen to it, it usually just sounds likes the hiss and hum of static. And don’t get me started on that rock-crush that’s all the rage on Venus, or that disco-metal that’s pumping in the pubs here on Earth.

As I eat, I alternately stare out the window and flip through today’s entertainment pack. I’ll have to remember to give the overnight team a bonus – they’ve done some stellar work. In fact, I bookmark most of the articles, filing them away to read later.

Apart from the music and the clink of cutlery on crockery, the dining room is silent. I mop up the last of my egg with a perfectly toasted slice of bread. I push my plate away.

Frank – my longest serving day-to-day guy – picks up the empty plate and takes it to the kitchen. He comes back with a fresh cup of coffee. He does all this wordlessly, accustomed to my preferences – I don’t really like engaging with people until I’ve completed my wake-up ritual of coffee-breakfast-coffee.

The coffee is delicious. He’s outdone himself, yet again.

“Nice one.”

I reach into the pocket of my dressing gown, grab a coin, slip it into his hand. Even though he earns a good wage, he deserves a tip.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t you ‘sir’ me,” I say with a smile.

His eyebrows arch in mock-shock.

“Thanks, boss.”

“No, Frank – thank you.”

We laugh.

“How are things, anyway?”

“They’re as good as can be,” he says. “And thanks.”

He’s been having some personal problems, or so the story goes. I don’t like to pry, and when he’s here he keeps his mind on the job. Although I did set up a fund for him and his family.

“I mean it – thanks, boss,” he says. “I appreciate everything you’ve done.”

“No worries.”

He gives me that look he gives me when I slip in a bit of vernacular from the twentieth. I smile – I like it when an employee feels comfortable enough to give me some static every now and then.

I sip at my coffee. Somehow, this one is even better than the last.

Frank makes a show of looking at his watch, reminding me what time it is: In about half an hour, he and I are due to sit down with the head builder and a couple of people from the financial staff.

I have another sip of coffee. I suppose I should get dressed.


*****



The mix of classic rock is now playing in my walk-in wardrobe. Isn’t technology wonderful? The Stones are halfway through ‘Satisfaction.’ No matter how many times I hear it, I’ll never get sick of it.

I’m bopping along. I turn it up a bit. Now Devo are playing ‘Satisfaction.’ I smile to myself – it’s exactly what I wanted to hear. It’s a bit weird, though. The music changes, and Johnny Cash starts playing his version of ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails.

Now I remember: The stereo is controlled by my I-patch.

I play some air-guitar. Even though I’m not embarrassed by my behaviour, I’m still glad that no one is watching me dance around in my underwear. I use the hairbrush as a microphone. I strike a pose.

I wonder what I should wear to the meeting?

It would make a certain kind of sense if I wore something that showed my real age: My leather jacket, my loud shirt, my flares. It would definitely lend me some unusual gravitas.

Alright, alright, I can’t lie to myself – I didn’t actually wear these things back then, but they were all the rage when I was a kid.

On the other hand, I could always go with something classic: A smart suit, a button-up shirt, a tie, shiny shoes. Something like that never goes out of style, and would still deliver the gravitas that they expect me to carry. Or I could go with something a bit more contemporary – something made from synthetics and steel, something blocky and square, something shiny and space-age.

I choose the second option.

I’m halfway through tying a Windsor knot when someone knocks on the door. The music automatically quietens in response. It’s a neat trick.

“Sorry to disturb you,” says a muffled voice, “but it’s time.”

“Five more minutes.”

They can wait. I pay them enough, after all.

“Right you are.”


*****



I have to go to the toilet again. I might not look my age and I might not physically be my age – that would be impossible – but sometimes my body just forgets.


*****



Ugh, this meeting is so boring – all the builders and the financial staff do is drone on and on. I don’t even know why I’m here – the builders have enough authority to spend their budget without needing to consult me, and the financial staff know that I hate sitting through the nitty-gritty.

“Sir? Did you hear me?” one of the builders asks, a new employee whose name I haven’t memorised yet.

I zoned out for a bit, and realise that I’m just staring at him.

“No, I didn’t hear you,” I say, deciding to answer truthfully.

I’m amused by the look of shock and anger on his face, and the look of panic that follows as he realises how he’s acting towards me. I feel bad about being amused. I still smile sympathetically, to let him know that I was just messing around. I almost instantly squash my smile, deciding on the spot to keep messing with him.

I’m not a bad guy, but I do like to stir the pot.

“I wasn’t really paying attention,” I say. “You should be more… interesting.”

The new builder’s jaw drops open in surprise, his mouth forming a perfect capital-O. He looks a bit upset. Frank leans forward, as if he’s about to apologise for my behaviour.

I catch his eye, shake my head and then look back at the new builder.

“Sorry, I’m just mucking around,” I say. “Please, continue.”

He looks confused, but to his credit he quickly composes himself.

“We’ve run into a snag and need to reassess the budget, otherwise we’ll never finish the build on schedule.”

“Fair enough, these things happen. What’s the problem?”

He starts droning on as well, and just like that I zone out again. Not that it really matters – I’ll get a written report to go through at my leisure.

I’m hungry. I hope Gina is making something substantial for lunch.

“Have you got any idea how much more money you’ll need?” I ask the new builder, cutting him off.

I ask this not because I’m particularly worried about the cost, but as a way of distracting myself from my hunger.

“We’ve got a rough estimate right here, sir,” he says, passing me a data-pad.

I raise an eyebrow at his use of ‘sir’ but I don’t hassle him about it – he’s had enough for one morning.

“Give me a minute,” I say.

The estimates are just a jumble of figures to my barely-interested eyes, and so I use the data-pad as a pretext to access my bookmarks and read this morning’s articles on my I-patch. They’ll provide a better distraction than this numerical jargon.

It’s a bit dodgy and a bit rude, but if I keep it subtle they won’t know.

The new builder starts droning on again. Somewhat patronisingly, he’s explaining certain parts of the estimates in great depth. I nod or grunt at the appropriate times, most of my attention fixed on the article open in my mind’s eye.

Its headline: More than 1000 new species discovered in the ruins of Rome. I must remember to get in touch with whoever organised the expedition – it sounds like a venture worth backing.

I bring up a new article.

Its headline: First birth on Saturn a success. I feel a flush of pride at the part I played in making it happen. I’ll have to get in touch and congratulate the new team.

I bring up a new article.

Its headline: Lost in the ether: digital refugees and the disembodied poor. I start reading; it fascinates me.

Someone coughs. A moment of silence follows, and then they cough again. I look around the room. Everyone is staring at me.

Whoops…

“Does that make sense, sir?” the new builder asks.

I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Sir? Do you understand the problem?”

I don’t know what to say. I can’t look at him. I finally get it together.

“Um, give all the necessary documents and reports to Frank,” I say. “I’ll check them out later and get back to you.”

His shoulders drop, obviously disappointed that he won’t get an immediate answer. But I don’t really care – I’m a bit embarrassed, I want this meeting to be over.

“Same time tomorrow?” I ask the room as I get to my feet.

No-one answers.

“Take it easy ‘til then.”

I’m out of here.


*****



I scurry off to my bolthole: My library cum listening room cum study. I hang an antique ‘do not disturb’ sign on the doorknob. It’s an old joke that’s lost on the staff, but they understand the meaning. I flop down on one of the ratty old couches. I stare at the ceiling. I stare at the overflowing bookcases lining the walls, at the shelves stuff with paperbacks and knick-knacks.

I need a minute away from all that day-to-day and the rudeness it brings out in me.

I hate myself sometimes. I don’t mean to be impolite or inattentive, but all that stuff is such a drag and I’ve been there and done it so often that I can’t be bothered anymore.

I need a distraction.

I pick up the remote and bring the stereo to life. It was custom built, made from a combination of state-of-the-art parts and analogue valves. It cost more than I’m willing to admit, but its sound is warm and thick and worth every dollar. And I can’t take those dollars with me, so why the hell not?

Some music starts playing, some acoustic blues from the dawn of the twentieth, music that’s older than I am. It’s just what I wanted to hear – blues always calms me down, especially when it’s my own behaviour that has me worked up. Those long-dead singers had tough lives and real problems. I guess that helps put mine in perspective.

I still hate myself a bit.

I try and shake this thought away, but the music just changed and now Blind Willie McTell is singing ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine.’ How apt: Thanks, I-patch, thanks.

I stare out the window, at the sunshine and the rolling fields and the thick forest. The view doesn’t really make me feel any better.

I wonder if it’s too early to smoke a joint.


*****



Someone’s knocking on the door. They’ve been knocking for a while. Being a bit stoned, I thought it was simply part of the music.

But the song just changed and, well, the knocking’s still going.

“Hang on!” I yell.

I get to my feet and reluctantly say goodbye to the balcony. I cross the bolthole and stop at the door. I’m a bit wobbly. I look in the peephole.

It’s Frank.

“What is it?”

My voice is thick. I’m thirsty. My head is fuzzy.

“Sorry to disturb you, but you’ve got that interview in half an hour,” Frank says, stifling a smile. “And I thought you might want a heads up.”

What I want is a coffee. Scratch that – I don’t want one, I need one.

“I’ll be out in a minute. Tell the cook to get lunch ready. And have a coffee waiting.”

“Okay, you’re the boss.”

The interview! I completely forgot!


*****



I watch Frank walk away. As soon as he rounds the corner, I leave my bolthole and beeline for the nearest bathroom.

I don’t feel up for the interview, but it’s too late to politely cancel and to do otherwise would just be rude. I feel bad enough as it is. To tell the truth, I don’t feel like doing anything but hiding away in my bolthole. It’s so cosy and snug; if it had an ensuite and a kitchenette and a cot, some days I wouldn’t leave at all.

Maybe that’s what I should I do for a holiday – find some piece of out-of-the-way wilderness and build a studio apartment right in the middle of it, a home away from home.

I’d better get it together.

I splash some water on my face. I dry off. I go to the toilet. I wash my hands. I splash some more water on my face. I start to feel a bit better.

With a fresh coffee inside me, I’ll be just about there.


*****



I eat lunch in a hurry, barely even tasting it, alternating mouthfuls of perfectly greasy pizza with slurps of coffee.

Right now, it’s fuel rather than food.

When my plate is empty and my cup is dry, Frank returns them to the kitchen. He brings back a fresh coffee, without needing to be asked. I take it from him, slipping him a coin in the process.

“He’s at the gate, boss,” Frank says.

Considering the size of the property, I’ve got a good fifteen or twenty minutes before he knocks on the door, depending on how much of a hard time the guards give him. He wouldn’t be the first person to contact me under false pretences in an effort to discover my supposed secret.

You can never be too careful.

“I’ll think I’ll wait outside.”

“Right you are.”

“Thanks for the coffee,” I say. “You’ve outdone yourself once again.”

Frank smiles.

I get to my feet and head to the outdoor lounge-room at the back of the house. It’s probably my second favourite room, even if it isn’t technically a room – a sprawling courtyard lined with couches and comfy chairs, with pot-plants scattered everywhere and a retractable roof that provides shade or lets the sunshine in or keeps the rain out.

Best off all: A perfect view of the pasture, grassland, scrub and forest.

I flop out on one of the couches. I sip at my coffee. The sun is so bright that I have to close my eyes. I put my feet up. I think idle thoughts. I’m in heaven.

“You nervous, boss?”

I reluctantly open my eyes. Frank has his arms crossed over his chest. He’s looking at me with concern, a slight frown tugging at the corners of his lips. He knows me well. When you work with someone for a long time, the line between employer and employee can become blurred.

Sometimes I love that; sometimes I hate it.

“I’m alright,” I say. “Maybe a little bit nervous – it’s been a while, after all – but not too bad.”

“You need anything?”

“Thanks, but I’m okay.”

Frank smiles.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it. Good luck, holler if you need me.”

“Will do.”

“No worries,” he says, his imitation of my accent almost flawless.

I close my eyes and bask in the sun some more.


*****



It’s time, so I walk around to the front of the house to meet the interviewer. From here, I can see straight down the driveway: It’s bordered on both sides by dense conifers, from end to end. Twenty-feet in front me, at the driveway mouth, the conifers curve away to the left and right, forming a living fence that encircles this side of the house.

I came up with the layout a long time ago, during a pompous decade, hoping to giving the place as much ‘wow’ factor as I could.

It’s actually a bit embarrassing.


*****



The interviewer is shorter and younger than I expected. He’s swarthier, too – judging by his name, I’d assumed that he would be whiter-than-white. But no. I guess that I’m showing my age…

It’s not that I mind; it’s just that it’s nice to avoid having a look a surprise misinterpreted as something else, something more hostile, more hateful. I guess I should have asked the research team for a photo.

I’m getting more and more forgetful, even with my I-patch to help me out.

It looks he had a shave this morning, judging by that knick that’s still sporting a smear of blood, and yet jet-black stubble is already shadowing his face. His skin is a shade somewhere between olive and light brown. He could be Mediterranean, Sub-Continental, Middle Eastern, Balkan, North African. Hell, he could be a mix of all of the above.

Modern Westerners – you never know what you’re going to get.

He looks around. He whistles under his breath. We introduce ourselves. He shakes my hand, which is a nice old-fashioned gesture.

His eyes glaze, just for a second.

No, not even a second: A half-second, a quarter-second, a millisecond, a microsecond. It’s not long at all, but if you know what to look for, then it sticks out like the dog’s proverbial: He’s wearing an I-patch as well.

I shouldn’t be surprised – they’re basically mandatory nowadays. Mine’s a much more recent version, though, even if it is a bit buggy.

It’s the ‘glaze’ that gives it away: He doesn’t have the digital memory or the bio-organic processing power needed to record every moment and every thought of every day of his life. He must have to decide mid-thought whether it’s a thought that he wants to preserve – he must have to decide mid-image, mid-moment – rather than capture the lot and let the AI narrative/context-driver cherry pick everything that’s relevant to the theme of the day and then string it together to create a semi-coherent narrative.

< The poor guy…

He really should get an upgrade. Especially when you consider his line-of-work. This new version is the perfect tool for anyone who has to take notes for a living, as well as for the ridiculously forgetful and the indulgently, compulsively narcissistic.

I open the front doors. I wave him inside.


*****



I lead him to the study. We make a bit of small talk as we walk. Nothing serious, nothing that you would call part of the interview. We just chat about the weather, ask after each other’s health, that sort of thing. Even so, his eyes glaze over a couple of times.

I open the door to the study and wave him inside. For a moment, he stands there, unmoving, fascinated.

The study is basically a fancier, more pretentious version of my bolthole. I don’t particularly like it that much, but it’s a good room to use if you want to create an impression. It’s compact, lined with bookshelves, a desk at one end with two chairs facing it.

It’s what all these things are made of that lends the room its weight – wood and leather, wood and leather everywhere.

He finally enters, his eyes bulging. I doubt that’s because of its old-fashioned feeling. It’s always like this with young people – I guess seeing something sacred reduced to nothing more than furniture and decoration is a bit weird.

I wave him towards one of the wood and leather chairs facing the wooden desk. On his way, he inspects the wooden bookshelves lining the walls, which are filled with leather-bound books I’ll never read. He traces his finger along their spines. He grimaces. His eyes glaze.

I take the seat behind the desk. Built into its face is a controller for the stereo; I bring it to life, choosing some really old jazz, some perfect background music.

His ears prick, but he doesn’t say anything.

He takes the seat opposite mine. He sits down gingerly, as if being asked to sit on an unclean toilet. I frown. He catches it, his eyes glazing over again.

“How do you want to start?”

He smiles.

“I have my own particular style. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll start with some questions that might seem a little banal at first.”

That’s an odd approach.

“Fire away.”

“Can I have your name, please?”

“Owen Matthew Anderson.”

His eyes glaze.

“Your date of birth?”

Huh. I haven’t been asked that in a long time.

“June the 20th, 1973.”

His eyes glaze.

“And how old does that make you?”

This I have to think about. Ugh, math…

“Seven hundred and fifty eight.”

“Do you know the current life expectancy of someone in your demographic?”

“Um… No, I don’t.”

“One hundred and five. So, you being seven hundred and fifty eight is, if you’ll excuse any presumptuousness, a bit weird, wouldn’t you say?”

“Duh, obviously.”

His eyes glaze. I think I know what he’s trying to do…

“And how did you come to live so long?”

His eyes glaze. He’s trying to rattle me, to provoke me, to get me to reveal something beyond mere words.

I’ve just about had enough.

“Really? You’re really asking me that? After everything that’s out there on the public record, that’s the question you choose. Come on, kid, you can do better than that.”

I emphasise the kid. He bristles, frowns momentarily. But to give him credit, he quickly gets back on track.

“Let me try a different approach, then. If that’s alright with you.”

“Sure.”

“Okay, then. What would you say you ‘do’?”

“What do I do?”

“That’s correct.”

His eyes glaze. You’ve got to be kidding. I’m pretty disappointed, and that’s pretty obvious.

“I’m in-between things at the moment,” I say with a nasty smile. “The last decade or so has been a bit of a blow-off.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

I’ve had enough. I get to my feet.

“Follow me, kid.”

He frowns. His eyes glaze.


*****



I give him the tour. He follows me out of my office, follows me down the long hallways, follows me into the cellar, follows me into a fancy version of a tunnel exiting through one of the cellar’s walls.

We stop in front a tall set of doors that seal off a building the staff call the ‘museum.’

“Wow,” he says.

It’s hard to tell if his ‘wow’ is genuine or ironic.

I fumble with the doors. They’re stiff, almost stuck in their jambs. It’s no surprise – the last time I opened them was over a decade ago, and the automated cleaning systems mean that no-one else has visited in that time either.

The doors yawn open. I expect the air to be stale, but it’s cool and dry. I wave the kid in.

“After you.”

“Thanks,” he says.

I follow him. He looks a bit unimpressed, but then we are only in the lobby. It’s lavish, for what it is: Wood-panelled walls and a crystal chandelier; leather couches and armchairs, accompanied by art-deco coffee tables and ashtrays; an oversized fireplace lined with red brick, a pool of ash still sitting in the base; paintings and statuary and sculptures; a long reception desk leftover from my narcissistic days, when I used to open the place up to the public.

But all lobbies are pretty-much the same; what really matters are the things tucked away behind them. In his case, it’s what lies behind five identical doors lining the far wall that really matters. To me, it’s just stuff.

“Pick a door, any door,” I say.

He frowns. He doesn’t understand my reference. I let it go. I wave him on.

“Please, after you.”

He smiles but says nothing, steps forward and opens the middle door. The lights in the hallway beyond flicker to life. The hallway itself stretches on and on, lined with numbered doors. He enters the hallway, opens the closest door, strides inside.

I stay in the hallway. I’m not sure why. It’s weird being back in here.


*****



A few seconds later, I follow him into the room.

“Shit,” I say as the lights come on.

I had completely forgotten about what’s in here. Someone once christened it Celebrity Central – at the time, I took the joke in my stride and embraced the name, but now it’s just embarrassing.

Absolutely filling all four walls are photos of me shaking hands with people or embracing them or accepting a gift or a title or medal from them, or bestowing a gift or a title or medal upon them. Some of them are ordinary people, but most of them aren’t. Instead, they’re politicians and rock stars, religious figures and actors, CEOs and artists, emperors and monarchs and writers and filmmakers, warlords and bloggers and journalists and humanitarians, activists and philanthropists and the filthy rich and the born to rule.

The kid’s eyes glaze for a second as he sees the expression on my face. Why did this room have to be the first that he chose?

“You get the picture,” I mutter.

He tries and fails to hide his smirk.

“Shall we?” I say, gesturing at the door.

“Sure.”

His ‘sure’ is a little dismissive, but I don’t really mind – Celebrity Central just screams ‘brag.’

He leads the way, leaving the room, taking the handle of a door further along the hallway. He’s stopped smirking, which is nice. I just hope that this room contains something I can be proud of.

We’re in the university room. At first, it’s not much to look at: Waist-high filing cabinets fill almost all the floor-space, with just enough space left between them for someone skinny to squeeze through. It’s what lines the wall that’s interesting.

“Wow,” he says as the lights come on.

This time, he says it without a hint of irony. I appreciate that.

“These are all yours?” he asks, gesturing at the walls.

“Yep.”

I don’t elaborate. I don’t need to – he did his homework, he knows my story. But there’s something about seeing the proof with your own eyes that can’t be replicated.

“Wow,” he says again.

Lining the walls are graduation certificates. There are hundreds of them – I gave up keeping track a long time ago. There are a couple of hundred Bachelors Degrees alone; long ago, if some random subject took my fancy, I went and studied it. If that subject especially interested me, I would continue on and do my Honours and my Masters. If the subject still interested me by the end of those studies, a PhD it was.

I had the time and I had the money, so why not?

“How many?” the kid asks.

“Too many to count.”

I say this with a straight face. I’m pride of what I’ve done. His eyes glaze over for a second. It is what it is. I just hope that he’s metaphorically saying something nice.

“Shall we move along?”

“Sure,” he says, his voice soft.

He looks at me with something approaching admiration. How quickly things change.


*****



The more of the museum that he sees, the quieter he becomes. He’s less snarky now, less smug. He’s still working his I-patch though, his eyes glazing over every couple of minutes. But that’s all part of the job, I guess.

He’s stopped asking questions, too. Instead, he just drinks each room in. I’ve stopped introducing them – I don’t see the point anymore.

I think I’m wearing him out.


*****



I show him the music room, whose walls are lined with gold records and photos of me hanging out with genuine rock-stars, from my days as a record producer. I show him the recording studio cum jam room next door, dusty though it is.

I show him the holiday room, which is crammed to overflowing with souvenirs, postcards, parochial knick-knacks and what we used to call ‘happy snaps.’

I show him the history room. It displays my collection of stuff marking significant moments in the history I’ve lived: From the first home computer to a piece of the Berlin wall, from the first affordable mobile phone to a jar of dust from the ruins of 9/11, from the first iphone to spent ammunition from the Syrian civil war, from the first reliable domestic robot to an intact translator left behind after first contact, from the first commercially available laser-pistol to a bio-lab that was originally erected on Mercury.

Just looking at all this junk makes me feel old.

I show him the games room, which is filled with, well, analogue games. Board, card, table-top and roleplaying – in there somewhere is at least one copy of every single type ever made.

I show him the lab and the workshop and the clean room. They’re basically empty – anything interesting was stored somewhere safer a long time ago – but they’re sheer size is pretty impressive.

We stop outside a door emblazoned with an enormous red X. I freeze. Up until right now, I had completely forgotten about what’s behind it.

Shit.

“Do you mind me asking?” the kid says.

He’s polite enough to resist reaching for the doorknob. I try to find the words. I finally get there.

“It’s the room of mistakes,” I say, hoping it doesn’t sound too pompous.

I think about it a bit more.

“Maybe ‘memories’ is a better word. It’s where I keep all the stuff that reminds me of everyone I’ve known.”

He looks at me squarely. His eyes don’t glaze, which is actually quite polite of him.

“Why ‘mistakes’ then?”

I don’t answer.

“Are you okay?”

He sounds sincere, but I still snap.

“Of course I’m not. What are you, an idiot or something? I mean, think about it.”

He says nothing. His eyes glaze. I suppose that he wants me to really answer his question.

I give in.

“I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I’m going to – they’re all dead, every single one of them, everyone I’ve ever loved. And I’m still here.”

His eyes clear.

“Sorry,” he says, almost inaudibly.

“Just drop it.”


*****



I don’t want to be in here anywhere. I don’t want to keep wallowing in these memories. That’s why all this stuff is locked away out of sight.

“I’m done.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said that I’m done.”

He frowns, and looks a bit embarrassed. I shouldn’t snap at him – it’s not his fault, he’s just doing his job.

“Sorry,” I say.

“No worries.”

He says it with a smile. He’s obviously done his homework.

“Shall we head back and continue the interview?”

“Sure.”

His eyes glaze. I don’t mind anymore. Like I said, he’s just doing his job.


*****



Instead of returning to the study, I lead him to the outdoor lounge room. Why stay inside when the sun is shining?

Frank is waiting for us – he knows my habits well. I smile at him, silently telling him that everything’s alright. I ask him to get a couple of coffees for the kid and I, and slip him a tip.

“Thanks, boss,” he says as he hurries away.

I take a seat. The kid settles into the chair opposite. He wriggles around a bit, keeps looking over his shoulder.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer. I look at him squarely. His eyes are clear, his I-patch and job forgotten. He’s probably never seen so much open space before, modern life being what it is. I can’t help but laugh a little.

“Relax, kid. You’re safe out here.”

He tries to smile.

“Thanks.”

“No worries.”

Frank appears suddenly, bearing a tray laden with our coffees. He nods at the kid.

“Same as all the others, eh?” he asks.

“Yep.”

“Then you owe me a fifty.”

It’s a running bet we conduct whenever people visit for the first time. I always seem to end up losing.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say as I pass him his money.

“Yell out if you need anything,” he says as he departs.

“Will do.”


*****



I turn back to the kid. He’s sipping his coffee, an expression of bliss on his face. That’s barely a surprise – he’s probably never had real coffee before.

“Not bad, eh?”

“Thank you,” he says with sincerity.

“You’re very welcome. So, are you alright?”

He takes a moment to compose himself.

“I owe you an apology,” he says. “You see, I requested an interview because I wanted to know whether or not you were the real deal. I wanted to know if you can walk the walk like you talk the talk.”

I know that all these references and clichés from the twentieth are purely for my benefit, but even so, I appreciate them.

“It’s what I do,” he continues. “That’s why I only seek out the most interesting sounding people I can find. In your case, I figured I had a dunker.”

“Sorry?”

“From a certain angle, you could be seen as just another rich dilettante who lazes around telling other people how to spend his money so that he’ll look like a good person.”

That’s some nerve…

“Ugh, sorry.”

I must have frowned or something. Whoops.

“It’s okay,” I say.

And it really is, because he looks dead-keen to get it all out. Besides, I’ve been called worse.

“Go on.”

“Well, I was convinced that I was right, and so I came up with the perfect question to expose you. And I do my homework, I’m good at my job – I knew that a question you had never been asked would prove too good to resist.”

I smile. He’s got me.

“But then I turned up and saw all this stuff, this record of the things you’ve done, the things you’ve seen, the people you’ve met and helped. I saw how you treat your staff, how you all get along. And then I realised that you are the real deal, at least as far as I can tell – it looks to me like you never stopped getting involved, like you never stopped getting your hands dirty.”

I look at my hands. Right now, they’re clean and smooth. I can’t actually remember the last time I picked up a saw or a shovel, a hammer or a garden fork. And I can’t remember the last time I picked up my guitar or my sax or a pair of drumsticks. Without wanting to, I think about what I’ve been doing with myself for the last twenty-odd years.

Without a warning, something inside me seems to shift.

“I’m man enough to admit it when I’m wrong,” the kid says, oblivious to my current state of embarrassed guilt. “So, I’m sorry.”

I’m barely listening. I’m almost lost. I stare out at the sprawl of pasture and grassland and scrub, at the forest beyond them. I can’t even remember when I last hiked out that way.

Jesus…

“Are you okay?” the kid asks.

I want to bring it up, but I don’t want to bring it up.

“You said you had a question.”

“Sorry?”

“A question for me. The question.”

“Oh, that.”

“Will you ask it?”

He doesn’t say anything.

“Well?”

“Are you sure?”

“Just get on with it.”

This is too serious to worry about sounding harsh. He knows it too – he takes a deep breath, as if summoning some reserve of strength.

“Um, aren’t you bored?”

Shit.

That’s it, I’ve had enough – I need some time out.


I-patchV1517.01/ANDERSON,OWEN-MATTHEW/23-11-2731/15-08/SHUTDOWN


THE END


© 2019 Lachlan Walter

Bio: Lachlan Walter is a writer, science-fiction critic and nursery-hand (the garden kind, not the baby kind), and is the author of two books: the deeply Australian post-apocalyptic tale The Rain Never Came, and the giant-monster story-cycle We Call It Monster. He also writes science fiction criticism for Aurealis magazine and reviews for the independent ‘weird music’ website Cyclic Defrost, his short fiction can be found floating around online, and he has completed a PhD that critically and creatively explored the relationship between Australian post-apocalyptic fiction and Australian notions of national identity. He loves all things music-related, the Australian environment, overlooked genres and playing in the garden, and he hopes that you’re having a nice day. For more information, check out www.lachlanwalter.com.

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