"Sixty-three out. Uh, seventeen in."
The operator shook his head. "Sorry, kid. You're just past the threshold. If you're older than sixty ain't a thing we can do for you."
He pleaded, "Can't you make an exception?"
"Kid, I'm sorry. I can't do it. It's not just policy or nothing, it flat won't work on you." He saw the wrinkled grimace on the kid's face. "Kid..."
In the year 1995, a medical science company started up, and it called itself Vivixtend. That was also the name of the major product it offered: the opportunity for a human to rewind their biological clock. It was costly and accessible only to the very wealthy. It was also claimed as a trade secret instead of patented; Vivixtend had no intention of ever letting go of their monopoly. The company simultaneously started a program in destitute cities called Vivixchange. It offered tens of thousands of dollars per year to anyone willing to advance their natural age. The youth bought from the willing was resold to the wealthy.
Seventy-five-year-old Martin Cooper flitted from one side of the tennis court to the other as he volleyed with his wife, who was by a single year his elder. Only three years previous, Martin's wife, Rossa, had been declared by Time magazine to be the sixth-sexiest person alive. Incidentally, the couple was the wealthiest in the world.
A butler approached the court. "Sir," he shouted. "Sir!" His voice echoed in the cool air of the building.
"Give me a moment, Chives."
The ball sailed over the court, then it was batted back to Rossa by a flick of the wrist. It flew toward the corner and Rossa dived to make contact with it. It ricocheted off her racket but traveled low and found itself blocked by the net. The ball dropped to the ground and lolled. Martin did a fist-pump and Rossa snarled. "Advantage mine," proclaimed Martin.
Chives fidgeted impatiently. "Sir?"
"One more point, Chives."
Rossa retrieved the ball. She taunted, "Don't think this'll be over so quickly!" She served in a high arch. Martin smacked it back with a backhand; Rossa returned it with a tricky spin; Martin lunged but found empty air. He stumbled forward and caught his balance.
Martin dropped his racket, wiped his arm across his forehead, and said, "What was it, Chives?" In response to Rossa's jovial barks of "Coward!" and "Chicken!": "Oh hush up, I would've won anyway!"
"Sir, one of your acquaintances has come personally to see you. She says that it's a matter of pressing importance."
"Alright, go let her in. Who is it, anyway? What's she want?"
Chives' voice reverberated while he walked away. "Ms. Jenn LaPelle. She resisted my questions but was very assertive about seeing you."
Martin and Rossa bantered while they waited for Chives to return with the guest. "I would've beat you," Martin insisted.
"I love you, darling, but you simply don't know what you're talking about."
Footsteps interrupted them and they found Chives with Jenn following. Chives wrinkled his nose, trying to ignore the stench of sweat coming from Martin and his wife.
Rossa's eyes grew wide with astonishment. "Jenn! You look ten years older since I last saw you! Have you been alright?"
Jenn looked at the couple, exhaustion eroding at her features. "Money's been tight. I haven't been able to afford Vivixtend lately... that's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Oh dear," Rossa sighed. She said to Martin, "Darling, we've got to help her."
"I can't even say how ashamed I feel asking. But I'm getting fearfully close to sixty-out, now, and I just don't know what to do..." There was a silence, and then she began to sob. "Oh god, I don't want to die!"
Martin put his hand on her shoulder. "We'll pay for a five-year reversal, but that's all we can do." He opined, "You're resourceful! That's what we've all known you for, isn't it? I'm sure you'll be back on your feet in no time."
Jenn nodded and wiped her face with a tissue. "Thank you, oh, thank you!" She grabbed Martin for a hug. Chives winced, imagining the smell.
Kara Benedict cradled her infant son in her arms. Mucus leaked from her ragged nostrils while she hummed a lullaby and drunkenly assured the baby that it was the most beautiful she had ever seen. A man behind her shoved and grumbled, "The line's movin'. Pay 'tention."
Kara looked up and saw that it was finally her turn. She wobbled to the kiosk where a man asked her, "Have you used our service 'efore, ma'am?"
She nodded. "Tho' I'm here for the bab', not myself." Her son curled and whined.
"Right, follow me."
The man let Kara into the kiosk and led her to a screen, where she tapped it to enter information about herself and her son. She set the years counter to ten and smirked. She murmured, "You're be useful to me yet, bab'."
The man poked a finger toward her son and cooed. "What's his name?"
"Lil' fugger's name's Vincent."
"Cute guy, 'll do grand with the ladies, won't he?" He grinned, "Oh, yes 'e will!"
The man said to Kara, "Right, now put 'im in that seat, o'er there, and help me set the buckles."
They put Vincent in a tiny metallic chair with wires running off everywhere. They placed several straps to keep the baby still and a pacifier in his mouth to quiet him, then the man lowered a contraption over Vincent's trembling head. He placed an IV in each of Vincent's small arms. He stepped to a control panel and tapped an array of options. He said, "Ready?"
Kara replied, "'E's ready."
The contraption above Vincent's head rotated slowly and glowed violet. After a few seconds the pacifier tumbled from his mouth and he began screaming. The man led Kara behind a transparent wall and tapped on the control panel. He laughed, "Good thing they keep a sound dampener in here." Vincent's mouth lay open in agony.
His body writhed and contorted within the bounds of the straps. His arms and legs extended and hair flowed out from his scalp and over his shoulders. His pupils grew obscenely large and retreated up into his head. Kara shivered and looked away.
After forty seconds, almost exactly, Vincent stilled and the contraption ceased to rotate. The man returned to the chair and removed the needles and straps. Kara held Vincent's cheeks and searched his eyes. They were filled with inexpressible terror and Kara soothed him, "Don't you worry, Vincent, 'sall over." A bead of drool fell from his chin and onto Kara's thumb. She grimaced and picked him up out of the chair, and held him in her arms.
The man read the screen and said, "Four-hundred-thousand dollars!" He smiled and led Kara out of the kiosk. "It'll be all deposited at your account by mornin'." He shouted, "Next!"
Kara carried her eleven-out-year-old son into a dank apartment, slammed the door shut and chained the lock, and scrambled to a corner. She assured her son, "What you felt ain't half what I gone thru' birthin' you." She snorted a powder, laid on a worn matress, and slept.
Vincent's eigth birthday was celebrated with another trip to the Vivixchsnge kiosk. Kara had finally exhausted all of the money she'd won by aging him. She hadn't worked any, because who would hire a junkie? She snickered to herself while she stood in line and held her eighteen-out son's hand. She was the only one in the line with the deviousness to get money for someone else's years. She shielded herself from the judging glares of the others with her well-nurtured sense of superiority.
They left the kiosk; Vincent had gained another ten-out years and Kara had gained another Three-eighty-thousand dollars. She grinned while she rubbed her withdrawn son's leathering skin and toyed with his new beard. "You 'served ev'ry second of that pain, bastard. It'll show you what you put me thru'. Least you got me money."
Kara passed out in her corner of the dank apartment. Vincent sat clutching his knees to his chest and tried to push the recent memory of excruciating pain out of his mind. He shut his eyes tightly and moaned.
He stood up and waved his arms in an attempt to keep balance on his new, old legs. He moved toward his mother's unconscious form, dedicating an immense effort to each step. He slid the single pillow out from underneath her head and began to smother her with it. "I hate you!" He screamed, "I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!"
Kara squirmed under the weight of Vincent's twenty-eight-out arms. She rasped, "Get off me!" Her kicking and clawing lost its strength until her limbs relaxed. Vincent continued to push down, his tears licking against the face of the pillow.
He panicked and fled the apartment.
"You're how old?"
"Thirty-three out and nine in."
"I don't know if you qualify."
Vincent begged the man. "Please!" His eyes were glazed with sleeplessness.
The man wore a suit, a beard, and a scarlet tie. He sat at a simple metal desk. He sighed. "Are you at least literate? If you are, perhaps you've a chance."
"No," Vincent admitted. "But I'll learn!"
"This isn't a school," said the man. He massaged his temples. "Look, I'm sorry, but this is a business, not a charity. I can tell you where to find some places that might be able to use you, though."
The man showed Vincent on a map where to find businesses that would hire people regardless of in-age and education. Vincent cried, "Thank you!" The man shook his head while the boy left. He pitied Vincent, but more than anything else he was thankful to be more fortunate.
Vincent hurried to the first location, an old-style store. He entered and stared in wonder at all the physical goods. He found the manager, who was also the owner, and asked immediately for employment.
"Heh, you don't beat around the bush, d'you?" The generously overweight man tugged at his overalls and chirped, "Well. You've came just the right time, sir! We been low on hands recently." He led him to his cramped office in the back of the store.
"Well," the man said following the interview, "Barely legal for me to hire you, y'know. But you'll do! And I couldn't live with myself should I turn 'way such a handsome face." He slapped his gut and chuckled.
Randy, the manager, gave Vincent a hard pat on the back. "I'm off to better things now, boy."
"You sure, Randy? It's so nice here at the store."
"Ah, Vincent, there ain't no hope for me here, now." He sighed and leaned back against the shelves. "I'm sixty tomorrow. Don'cha know? Only reason I keep running this damn shop was 'cause I hoped it get me rich someday." He laughed, "What a stupid dream."
"It's a nice store!"
"Nah, kid. Don't you get it?" He shook his head. "Anyway, well, I'm retiring. You ain't gonna change my mind. Gonna live out the last of my life in peace. Out someplace colder, y'know?"
Vincent frowned. "But I don't want you to go."
"Bah, don't look so sad! I'm puttin' you as manager. Yeah, yeah, don't gimme that look. You the one been here longest of anyone but me. The numbers might be confusin' but you can always get someone to help with 'em."
Vincent accepted the deeds to the building and responsibility for the store. He floundered trying to keep up with everything for the first year, but after that he began to transform the individual store into something much more successful. He stopped selling generic foods and started selling perishables; stopped merely selling clothing and started allowing customers to see how they looked in things before buying them. His cleverness made a profitable establishment out of what barely eked by before, and did it before he was twelve-in. The downside was how he invested many of his out-years to get the money he needed to make all the changes.
Randy's Convenience Store was renamed Presence and got a face-lift as a national chain. Vincent, the owner, saw a steady income without needing to intervene. He finally reached a point where he could convince a bank to loan him enough money to give him back some of his youth.
He walked into a Vivixtend clinic at sixty-three out and begged for an exception. He walked out no younger.
Vincent consulted Martin and Rossa, the richest couple in the world.
"You want us to do what?"
"Please," said Vincent. "Please see how it hurts so many others."
Rossa screeched, "I will not give up my youth! My beauty! How could you?"
Martin rested his hand on her shoulder. He looked at her gravely. "We've lived so long, dear. Maybe it's the right thing."
Rossa shook him off and stood up, off the sofa. "The right thing is what keeps us going! Why should we care about a bunch of... vagrants! Or what this hideous old-child has to say, anyway?" She stared at the sagging skin of Vincent's face then spun on a heel and stormed out of the room.
Sunlight flooded the sitting space from large windows on one wall. Martin frowned. He said, "I'm sorry how she's acting. We'll help you, I promise."
Vincent thanked him. "The whole system, it's so messy, and causes so much pain. I know what I'm asking you to sacrifice."
"You've gone through so much. It'd be unfair for us to decline." Martin shook his head. "No, it'd be cruel." He stood and said, "I'm sure my wife will come around eventually. But you've got to know that not everyone's going to."
"I've been advised that if even one-third of Vivixtend's customer base boycotted, the entire system'd be doomed to collapse." He added, "If they go down hard enough there's a good chance the technology'll get out. And if it does, then maybe it can be capitalized upon properly, without so much opportunity for exploitation. If that happens quickly enough... Well, you would be able to get your youth back without consequence."
They shook hands. The Cooper family, one of Vivixtend's most dedicated customers, stopped their yearly visits to the clinic. So did many of their friends. The age-reversion procedure quickly became prohibitively expensive in an attempt to compensate for lost profits - the Coopers would no longer be able to afford regular visits, even if they wanted.
Vivixtend went bankrupt in 2031. Another corporation, Cooper Enterprises, bought the Vivixtend and Vivixchange technologies and started reselling them to a score of other companies. It was only three years later before they were publicly available again, and thanks to clauses in the contracts between Cooper Enterprises and those it sold to, more careful and humane practices were implemented when dealing with the new Vivixchanges. Competitive prices drove up the amounts that people got for giving their youth and reduced the cost for those who would reclaim it.
Vincent claimed that the system was unstable, and still unfair, but Rossa held her half of Cooper Enterprises hostage to ensure that Vivixtend would survive. Martin insisted, though, that funds be poured into R&D to search for better technology.
In 2037, there was a breakthrough that made it both possible and economical to wind back the clock of one person without needing to fast-forward the clock of another. It was a marvel! And it rapidly became cheap enough that essentially anyone could have it done perpetually.
"I'm sorry, Vincent, but it just can't happen. We might be able to ignore the cap by, say, a year or two - but even then any patient would be taking a huge risk." Martin could see the years taking their toll on the man. Vincent's skin had become like a rugged landscape, dried and torn by ravines.
Rossa sat beside Vincent and held his hand She whispered to herself, "This is what old age is like? Thank god I've avoided it..."
Vincent looked at the figures seated around the long table. Some of them were businesspeople, who had the money to make things happen, but most of them were scientists and engineers. It was the committee for Vincent's life. Exuberant resources had been dedicated to saving Vincent from the decrepitude of age. But the out-age cap of sixty would not shake, no matter how much ingenuity was poured into it. Vincent held his face in his hands and groaned. "All my work, all my riches. Might as well be for nothing," he said. He banged his fist on the table, ignoring the shooting pain of it. The others tried to comfort him, to point at the good that came of his struggles, but he would find no solace.
Vincent, ever above the out-age cap, died alone and cursing his mother, aged ninety-one out, forty-four in.