Science Fiction by Avi Bar-Zeev
“Gracie,” I called down the valley.
Where had that old vine wandered off? She hadn’t gone anywhere physically, at least not in a day. She was probably just engrossed in some juicy gossip with the neighbors.
“Gracie,” I called again. She was about to miss the evening spectacle. She always said it was her favorite, and it was already starting.
Across the valley, a great wave of clouds splashed over the western mountain wall from the sea. White-capped wisps swirled high into the air, but the core of it clung to the rocky contours. It flowed quickly, smoothing over the lesser ridges and skirting only the highest peaks. The remains crashed down and began to flood the fields below. The quiet Olio valley — our fortress against the ravages of wind, sea, and time — would soon be concealed for the night in an ocean-born blanket of white.
The whole affair took only a few moments from my perspective, high on the eastern rim of the valley. But it wasn’t the location of our chateau balcony that had so affected my sense of time. It certainly wasn’t some relativistic hangover from all our former travels.
It was my age.
I sighed. I remembered the age of twelve seeming to take forever, where a training bra was a lifetime achievement. Thirty years later, after a thousand sleepless newborn-nights, I woke one day to find my children had all but grown up overnight. Now, more than a thousand years after I’d laid my last child to rest, whole days blurred as mere hours or even minutes.
It was like taking a long trip and realizing at the very end that you’d forgotten the details of the journey. Except that everything was like this now, the waking moments strung together like time-lapse photography. Except that it was real. It was my life.
At this rate, I was afraid that if I took a nap I’d wake up at the end of time, having missed all the fun. But maybe this was all for the best. Who could pay attention for every moment of sixteen hundred and sixty-seven years? Not me, that’s for sure. And besides, I’d found all sorts of slow-time friends to listen to now. The grape vines, for example, had just welcomed the advancing clouds, sighing with relief from the day’s oppressive heat.
Below me, an army of clouds rolled across our vineyards with reckless abandon, racing to the east towards some destination only clouds could know. The vines rolled too, but with laughter. The clouds rarely had the strength to surpass the eastern mountain wall. With nowhere to run, this once mighty army would soon surrender and settle in for the night, utterly unprepared for the dawn’s burning light.
Unlike the vines, the clouds never learned.
As the sun fell behind silhouetted peaks, it took the temperature down with it. My ancient bones utterly disliked the cold. My own little army — this one of microscopic soldiers swimming through my veins — hadn’t conquered every aspect of aging. I wrapped my bare shoulders in my favorite sweater, but I decided to let the grande dame enjoy her evening chill a little while longer.
“I’m getting cold,” Gracie called up to me, rather presumptuously I thought. But that was Gracie for you. So much for that evening chill.
“Already?” I said. “The sun set just a moment ago.”
“Have a heart, Gwen,” she said in her old wavering voice. “My old limbs, you know. You don’t want me to catch brucitis, do you dear?”
“Gracie,” I complained. That was not how brucitis worked and she knew it. But it was of little use arguing. Gracie hadn’t changed much in the last five hundred years. She was as demanding as the day we grafted her.
I cast a mental command to the environmental controls to begin the evening cycle. Why Gracie refused to do this herself, I didn’t know. She was networked in just like the rest of us.
Pretty soon, a release of heated air would lift the clouds up as high as our chateau and the evening show would be over, at least until tomorrow night. For the most part, nothing ever changed on Galaden. It was as if time simply had no business here. And that was exactly how we liked it.
“Ah,” Gracie sighed. It wasn’t a literal sigh as much as a rustling and relaxing of a million leaves. The computer usually translated her words for me, but in this case I understood directly. With her thousands of kilometers of single-bodied — certainly single-minded — vine and root, her comforting craggy old voice carried nearly everywhere I went.
“Gwen,” Gracie announced, “I heard a rumor today.”
“What is it this time?” I asked. “Masterson sugaring his Riesling again?”
“No, Dropolis, across the valley. He’s finally giving up the vineyard.”
“No,” I said, astonished.
“Yes,” she insisted. “Pan-Solar made him a final offer. And after that last harvest…”
“Pan-Solar,” I said with disgust. “Is he going to keep the Red Label at least?”
“That’s what I wondered. Dolma said she’d check tomorrow.”
Dolma — that Dropolis had some nerve naming his best vine after stuffed grape-leaves. That’s like naming a cow ‘Sirloin,’ for heavens sake. I almost didn’t feel sorry for him bugging out. Well, not really. We’d been friends, or at least friendly neighbors, for so many centuries, I’d miss him dearly. I shuddered at the thought of losing yet another friend to the conglomerate.
“But the other day, I saw the Pan-Solar men talking to your Ronnie too,” Gracie added, as if an afterthought. “You two aren’t going to sell out too?”
“No, of course not. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure Ron sent them running home.” My Ronnie, I thought. I wished he and Gracie would stop their bickering. It wasn’t fun being the middle all the time.
“I’m so sorry about the last batch of Cab,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
I did. It was old age. Gracie was the best vine we’d ever raised. But she was well past her prime and the last harvest showed it. Ron and I hadn’t dared discuss replacement. She might have overheard and god knew what she’d do. Shed her bark most likely. Actually, that was a little presumptuous of me. She’d probably piss vinegar.
With the clouds now swelling all around me, even my sweater wasn’t enough to forstall the deep feeling of chill in my bones. I turned to go back inside. But first, I had to say goodnight.
“I’m going to get a few minutes sleep,” I said. “Say goodnight, Gracie…”
“Goodnight Gracie,” she said as always.
I loved that old vine.
I slid inside and closed the balcony door behind me. Ron sat in his usual pose, floating on his stratolounger by the fire, reading the monthly news summary. The dancing firelight cast a warm orange glow across the living and dining rooms that I enjoyed immensely just then.
“Those Earthers are fighting again,” he said, not even looking up from the page. “That makes three wars this century. And why not? There’s always more people where they came from.”
I sat in my rocking chair and picked up my knife and etchings. A fine blue plasma flame glowed from its tip. The glass plate swirled beneath the blade and quickly cooled. In a moment, I’d completed another branch of my decorative vine.
“I hear Dropolis is selling out,” I said.
Ron’s right eyebrow raised slightly. His eyes remained fixed on the single thick page of news, but the book went dark with his lack of genuine attention.
“Where’d you hear that?” he asked, sedate and infinitely pragmatic. “From that old grapevine, I’ll bet. Did it say what he’s going to do with his Red Label?”
“She’ll check with one of his vines tomorrow.”
“With his vines,” he mumbled. The page illuminated again.
“What bug crawled up your ass, Ronnie?”
“Huh? What’s that?” he said, pretending not to hear.
“You heard me,” I said. “Why are you so down on Gracie?”
As I said it, I wished I hadn’t. I knew the answer. We were overdue for that discussion. It was time for us to decide.
“We can keep the reserve stock an extra year in the barrel,” he said, turning briefly to face me. “Blend it with the younger stuff off new vines.”
I shook my head. “No. It’ll take at least ten seasons to train new vines. Gracie knows all the routines. She can run the whole operation.”
“Gracie’s past her prime,” he said matter-of-factly.
“So? She’s still making decent Cabernet and Riesling. You don’t throw someone out just because she’s past her prime.”
“Gwen, you’ll get just as attached to the next vine. I know you.”
“The next vine,” I complained. “We’ve had Gracie for over five centuries. How much longer do you think we’ve got?”
“Ah, so that’s what all this fuss is about,” he said, finally putting down the book and turning to regard me for a long moment.
“What?” I said.
Ron shook his head. “You’re still thinking about Earth and the damn youthanasia. You’re obsessed!”
I shook my head. The ‘youthanasia’ was what they called it, euphamistically. In reality, it meant that Earth was a place only for the young. Old folks, no matter how able, were expected to just keel over and die for the sake of their damn population limits. Well, not exactly. Nobody threw you out into space. But with picoferrets and other life extenders completely banned on Earth, it had the same result. Immortality was against the law, for heavens sake. So if Ronnie and I ever went back, we’d have to get ourselves purged. We’d have to age and die.
“Ronnie,” I finally said, “you don’t expect to out-live your own great grand children. It’s just not natural.”
“That’s their choice to stay on Earth,” he said. “They could’ve become settlers like us. Prima was all virgin. And they just added another billion acres to the Ring. But who wants to live on a damn ring?” he said, his voice trailing off. But then he got back on track. “Or maybe we could’ve stayed on Earth?”
I looked him gently but directly in the eye. “No. We’ve settled, what, six worlds now? It’s been a wonderful time. You and me. All those old family and friends scattered who knows where. So many generations.”
“You’re not lonely again, are you?”
I shook my head. “I’m feeling anxious, I think. But not lonely. How could I be, with you around?”
“Is that a compliment or an insult?” he said gruffly.
“A compliment, you old fool. I wouldn’t trade you for the world.”
He smiled. “Ah, well. In that case, I think I know a cure for that anxiety.” He winked at me.
“What? Tonight?” I asked, strangely embarrassed.
“Come on now, it’s only been…”
“One hundred and twenty years,” I said, laughing. “Not that I’ve been counting. Are you sure you still can?”
“Of course I’m sure!” he said, nearly rising in his seat. “I ordered up some fresh picos from the pharmacy. Should arrive tomorrow. My old cheap clones were starting to go all funky on me. My hearing’s out again. I thought I told you that. Maybe my memory’s finally going too.”
“Well, I suppose I could use some fresh ones myself. My bones have been a little cranky lately.”
“Nonsense,” he smiled. “You look as beautiful as the day I married you. Maybe more so. Are you getting younger, woman? You know I might get arrested.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “You mean your heart might get arrested. The new picoferrets won’t be here till tomorrow.”
“That’s tomorrow…” he said, looking out the window at the new dawn. “Damn, where does the time go? It’s already tomorrow today. Well, I think I can manage on my own.”
He stood and graciously took my arm.
“Come on,” I said, laughing. “Let’s see if you still remember what to do.”
A day or two later — it’s hard to always know — I found myself in the juicing room. The trip down from the house was more or less a blur. I must have taken all morning; my skin glowed so warmly from the afternoon sun. The Galadean sunlight wasn’t exactly like Earth’s. It was much harder on the skin and whiter on the eyes, I thought. And our picoferrets had to work extra hard to repair the damage that wrought. However, for some reason, the extra UV only helped the grapes. Some of the finest wines came from Galaden. Grapes seemed to love adversity.
I knew I was looking for something, but for the moment I just couldn’t remember what it was. For me, that wasn’t a sign of old age. I’d been doing that since I was twenty.
The start key, I recalled. Why Ronnie insisted on the security of an actual start key with all our networked controls was simply beyond me. I found it, soon enough, on the old control panel — which was strange since I suddenly distinctly remembered leaving it in the cabinet with the others. Had it moved?
“So much for security,” I mumbled.
“I have a present for you,” Gracie said.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. I hadn’t expected her inside the winery anymore. I caught my breath and looked up. A single vine swung freely from an old pipe.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” she said. “I can grow wherever I want. I think I’m old enough.”
“I’m sorry. I was just startled.”
“Behind you,” she said.
“The present,” she insisted. “Look behind you.”
I turned around and found a single bottle of wine sitting on the conveyer belt, straight up from the automated storage pits.
“Gracie, Ronnie doesn’t like it when you operate the machinery anymore.”
“Ronnie doesn’t like,” she said. “I used to run this whole plant! Why do you think they called it a plant in the first place?”
I frowned, but Gracie continued before I could correct her. “Ronnie,” she repeated mindlessly. “I think a single bottle of four hundred year old Cabernet would be easy enough.”
“Four hundred? Wow. Isn’t it past its prime?”
“I do this for a living, you know,” she said. “I was hiding this for a special occasion. It should be just about ready.”
“What special occasion?”
“It’s my graft-day,” Gracie said proudly.
“You’re kidding! How could I have forgotten? I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “We celebrate the harvest, not silly anniversaries. At least not all the way to five hundred and sixty-seven. It would get rather repetitive after a while.”
“Has it really been that long?” I said. “Well, then, I agree. It’s time we celebrate again.”
“Now you’re talking,” she said. “So you and Ronnie will make a nice dinner tonight. Not Greek. If I smell another stuffed grape leaf, I’ll die. I’ll just watch from outside, okay?”
A thought occurred to me. “Gracie, you don’t have any sort of ulterior motive, do you?”
“Me?” she said. “Heavens no.”
“You didn’t hear me and Ronnie talking last night?”
“Last night?” she said. “No, I was talking to Fern all night. We got in such a giggle. I shed a whole bushel of leaves.”
“You’re lying. Your leaves are turning glossy.”
“Okay,” she said. “I heard you.”
“And you’re trying to get Ronnie to change his mind.”
Gracie was silent for a moment. “No,” she said.
“No,” she said seriously. “I think he’s right.”
“Gracie, you’re not depressed again? Do you need a vitamin?”
“No,” she said. “It’s time for me to move on. A grafted vine can only live for so many centuries.”
“Don’t be silly, Gracie. You can live as long as you want.”
“I know,” she said. “But why would I want to?”
“I don’t know. To enjoy life. To be together. Curiosity?”
“Curiosity,” she said dryly. “To see what price this year’s wines will fetch?”
“You don’t care about the wine anymore?” I asked, astonished. “You are depressed.”
“No, of course I care. I was grown to care for the wine, wasn’t I? I can hardly do anything else.”
“But you’re not happy,” I said.
Gracie didn’t respond.
“So what can we do for you?” I said.
“I think…” she said, “I think I want to do some traveling.”
I laughed out loud before I covered my mouth. “Gracie, even I don’t travel anymore. And I don’t have any roots to worry about.”
Gracie sighed. “It’s not like I want to go sailing, deary. I just want to grow over the western ridge. To see the sunset for myself. To feel the ocean wind on my old leaves.”
“Gracie, you’ll freeze or get salt-rot.”
“Eventually. But it won’t hurt.”
I shook my head, more confused than ever. “It’s like the damn youthenasia,” I mumbled. “Why is everyone in such a hurry to die all the time?”
“Funny, I see it as being in such a hurry to live. Wine is just the short but wonderful time between fresh juice and vinegar. And even with the most carefully preserved wine, the best vintage, if you don’t drink it, all you have is expensive old vinegar. I’d think with sixteen hundred years you’d know that by now.”
I sighed and departed, not even pausing to notice the chilly evening air that had come so quickly. Neighbors selling out to greedy conglomerates. Vines wanting to travel, going on about vinegar. This world was getting to be as bad as Earth.
“This wine is delicious,” Ronnie said, placing the bottle back on the dinner table as if it was the rarest of jewels. The dinner he’d prepared for us was delicious too. But I’d already told him that, several times.
“See, Gracie hasn’t lost her touch,” I said.
Ron shook his head. “This was bottled four hundred years ago,” he said. “Things change.”
“Not that again,” I groaned.
Ron paused to swallow. I knew he had something to say.
“Pan-Solar came by again today,” he said. “My mind’s made up this time, Gwen. No more sweet-talking me out of it. She’s got to go. This season.”
“Your mind,” I said through gritted teeth. But I stopped and took a deep breath. You don’t survive a thousand years of marriage with a hot temper. “Well, if it makes any difference, she agrees with you.”
“How about that,” he mumbled.
“Yeah. Well, the least you could do is thank her for the wine,” I said, taking another angry bite.
“Gwen, I’m thankful for every bottle of wine she makes. And this is her finest ever.” He held up the glass, as if to toast. “Thank you Gracie.”
“Ronnie?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Yep,” he said, savoring a long smell and then another sip.
“Maybe we should take a trip somewhere,” I said.
“Where do you want to go?” he said, laughing quite insensitively, I thought. “We’ve been nearly everywhere.”
“I don’t know.” I replaced my fork and stood. “I just don’t know.”
My glass followed me out onto the balcony. The clouds were just beginning their daily invasion from the sea. The sun hung just above the tallest peak, ready to disappear for the night.
Ronnie followed, a few beats behind in unknown time.
“Okay,” he said, more gently this time. “Maybe we could find another virgin planet. Like the old days. Rough and tumble. Just you and me. We’re not too old yet.”
I thought about it for a while. It was true that elderfolk were generally the ones who ventured out to settle the new worlds. Kids were far too absorbed with themselves. And parents, well, had kids to look after. So that left us — people with lots of free time, energy, and a nice investment income.
But if you really think about it, who better to assume the risks and deal with the dangers of colonization than people with centuries of experience under their belts. Besides, it wasn’t like playing astronauts and aliens. It was more like farming — all patience and perseverance. So who better?
The problem was, I’d already had almost a thousand years of that. And many hundred more reaping the benefits of all that hard work. Enough was enough.
I finally knew what I wanted.
“I want to go home,” I said, looking out at the sunset.
Ronnie knew exactly to which home I meant.
“Gwendelyn, you can’t be serious. You’re always going on and on about that damn youthenasia. Earth, for you and me, means death. No more picoferrets.”
“So we’ll live without the picos and just go naturally. The Youth Authority won’t touch us if we’re dying anyway, right? And,” I said, tapping the taught veins on my wrist, “I’m sure we’ve still got another ten or twenty years left in us without those damn bugs in our blood. I want to see our family. It’s been, what, thirty generations since we’ve been on Earth. Thirty generations. Ronnie, can you even imagine how many relatives we must have now?”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” he said. “Gwen Rogers wanting to return to Earth. After all this time.”
I frowned. Ronnie was being so obstinate. “Are you saying you don’t want to go?”
“Yes,” he said, absent-mindedly. “No. I mean I’d love to go back once more before we pass on. I can’t hardly remember what Earth is like anymore.” Then he smiled with a memory, as if he’d suddenly discovered lost gold. “I bet that little bistro is still there. Remember the little village near Neuf du Pape with all the flowers…”
“Good,” I said, nodding my head. “Then it’s settled. We’ll sell the vineyard and claim that long thin plot by the ocean.”
“What for? You can’t grow good grapes right on the shore.”
“It’s not for wine, dear,” I said, pointing out at our vineyard and making little walking gestures with my fingers. “Someone wants to do a little colonization of her own. I think she’s earned it.”
“Ah, what’s the harm in it? Let Pan-Solar grow their own brain-dead vines.”
I faced west to watch the last bit of sunset. Despite my insistence, I was feeling a little reticent. “I suppose that’s what they said about us old farts going out from Earth. ‘What’s the harm in it?’”
Ronnie came up behind me with a soft embrace. “Well, we’ll show ‘em,” he said.
“What? You mean colonize Earth?” I laughed.
“Sure. Why not? Maybe we can get the kiddies to move out here. Invite the other millenials back home for a big party, maybe even shake things up some. Earth could use a little maturity for a change.”
Thousand-year old men and women, millions of them, all returning home at once — now there was an idea. I smiled at my Ronnie. I truly loved this man.
“You know, Ronnie,” I said, finishing the last of the wine. “This wine is making me, well, a little…”
“I know, me too.” He flexed his eyebrows almost comically.
“Shall we?” I said.
“What? Two nights in a row? At our age?”
I smiled. “We’ll have a grand old time, won’t we?”
“We sure will,” he said, offering his arm. “We’ll show those kids a thing or two.”
I took Ronnie by the arm and lead him towards the door, but we stopped briefly before we re-entered the chateau. There was one last thing I had to do before we retired.
“Say Goodnight Gracie,” I said smiling.
“Goodnight Gracie,” she whispered softly. “Goodnight.”
© Avi Bar-Zeev, all rights reserved.