A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollbacka hugely expensive experimental rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.
While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between him and his wife, Sarah heroically struggles to figure out what a signal from the stars contains before she dies.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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By Robert J. Sawyer
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2007 Robert J. Sawyer
All rights reserved.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2048
IT HAD BEEN a good life.
Donald Halifax looked around the living room of the modest house that he and his wife Sarah had shared for sixty years now, and that thought kept coming back to him. Oh, there had been ups and downs, and the downs had seemed excursions into the flames of hell at the time — the lingering death of his mother, Sarah's battle with breast cancer, the rough periods their marriage had gone through — but, on balance, when all was said and done, it had been a good life.
When all was said and done.
Don shook his head, but it wasn't in sadness. He'd always been a realist, a pragmatist, and he knew there was nothing left now but summing up and looking back. At the age of eighty-seven, that's all anyone had.
The living room was narrow. A fireplace was built into the middle of one of the long walls, flanked by autopolarizing windows, but he couldn't remember the last time they'd actually had a fire. It was too much work getting one going and then cleaning up afterward.
The mantel held framed photos, including one of Sarah and Don on their wedding day, back in 1988. She was wearing white, and he was in a tuxedo that had been black in reality but looked gray here, having faded, along with the rest of the photograph. Other photos showed their son Carl as a toddler and again graduating with his M.B.A. from McGill, and there were two pictures of their daughter Emily, one when she was in her twenties, and another, holographic one, from her early forties. And there were several holos of their two grandchildren.
There were also a few trophies: a pair of small ones that Don had won in Scrabble tournaments, and the big one Sarah had been given by the International Astronomical Union. He couldn't remember the wording on that one, so he walked over, taking small steps, and had a look:
For Sarah Halifax
Who Figured It Out
1 March 2010
He nodded, remembering how proud he'd been that day, even if her fame had briefly turned their lives upside down.
A magphotic flatscreen was mounted above the mantel, and when they weren't watching anything it displayed the time in boxy red numerals a foot high, big enough that Sarah could see them from across the room; as she'd often quipped, it was a good thing that she hadn't been an optical astronomer. It was now 3:17 in the afternoon. As Don watched, the remaining segments in the rightmost digit lit up; 3:18. The party was supposed to have begun at 3:00, but no one was here yet, and Sarah was still upstairs getting ready.
Don made a mental vow to try to not be short with the grandchildren. He never meant to snap at them, but somehow, he always did; there was a constant background level of pain at his age, and it frayed his temper.
He heard the front door opening. The house knew the kids' biometrics, and they always let themselves in without ringing the bell. The living room had a short staircase at one end that led down to the entryway and a taller one at the other going up to the bedrooms. Don walked over to the base of the one going up. "Sarah!" he called. "They're here!"
He then made his way to the other end of the room, each footfall punctuated by a tiny jab of pain. No one had come up yet — this was Toronto in February, and, global warming be damned, there were still boots and jackets to be removed. Before he reached the top of the stairs, he'd sorted out the mêlée of voices; it was Carl's crew.
He looked at them from his elevated vantage point and felt himself smiling. His son, his daughter-in-law, his grandson, and his granddaughter — part of his immortality. Carl was bent over in a way Don would have found excruciating, pulling off one of his boots. From this angle, Don could clearly see his son's considerable bald spot — trivial to correct, had Carl been vain, but neither Don nor his son, who was now fifty-four, could ever be accused of that.
Angela, Carl's blond wife, was ten years younger than her husband. She was working to get the boots off little Cassie, who was seated on the one chair in the entryway. Cassie, who took no active role in this, looked up and saw Don, and a huge grin spread across her little round face. "Grampa!"
He waved at her. Once all the outerwear was removed, everyone came upstairs. Angela kissed him on the cheek as she passed, carrying a rectangular cake box. She went into the kitchen. Twelve-year-old Percy was up next, then came Cassie, pulling on the banister, which she could barely reach, to help her get up the six steps.
Don bent low, feeling twinges in his back as he did so. He wanted to lift Cassie up, but that was impossible. He settled for letting her get her little arms around his neck and giving him a squeeze. Cassie was oblivious to the fact that she was hurting him, and he endured it until she let go. She then scampered through the living room and followed her mother to the kitchen. He turned to watch her and saw Sarah coming down from upstairs, one painful step at a time, gripping the banister with both hands as she did so.
By the time she reached the bottom step, Don heard the front door opening again, and his daughter Emily — divorced, no kids — coming in. Soon enough, everyone was crowded into the living room. With his cochlear implants, Don's hearing wasn't bad under normal circumstances, but he couldn't really pick out any one thread of conversation from the hubbub that now filled the air. Still, it was his family, all together. He was happy about that, but —
But it might be the last time. They'd gathered just six weeks ago for Christmas at Carl's place, in Ajax. His children and grandchildren wouldn't normally all get together again until next Christmas, but —
But he couldn't count on there being a next Christmas; not at his age ...
No; that wasn't what he should be dwelling on. Today was a party, a celebration. He should enjoy it, and —
And suddenly there was a champagne flute in his hand. Emily was circling the room, handing them out to the adults, while Carl presented plastic tumblers of juice to the children.
"Dad, go stand by Mom," Carl said. And he did so, making his way across the room to where she was — not standing; she couldn't stand for long. Rather, she was seated in the old La-Z-Boy. Neither of them ever reclined it anymore, although the grandkids loved to operate the mechanism. He stood next to Sarah, looking down on her thinning snow-white hair. She craned her neck as much as she could to look up at him, and a smile crossed her face, one more line in a landscape of creases and folds.
"Everybody, everybody!" shouted Carl. He was the elder of Don and Sarah's kids and always took charge. "Your attention, please!" The conversation and laughter died down quickly, and Don watched as Carl raised his own champagne flute. "I'd like to propose a toast. To Mom and Dad, on their sixtieth wedding anniversary!"
The adults all raised their glasses, and, after a moment, the kids imitated them with their tumblers. "To Don and Sarah!" said Emily, and, "To Grandma and Grandpa," declared Percy.
Don took a sip of the champagne, the first alcohol he'd had since New Year's Eve. He noted his hand was shaking even more than it normally did, not from age but with emotion.
"So, Dad, what do you say?" asked Carl. He was grinning from ear to ear. Emily, for her part, was recording everything with her datacom. "Would you do it all over again?"
Carl had asked the question, but Don's answer was really for Sarah. He set his glass on a little tea table next to the La-Z-Boy, then slowly, painfully, lowered himself onto one knee, so that he was at eye level with his seated wife. He reached over, took her hand, feeling the thin, almost translucent skin sliding over the swollen joints, and looked into her pale blue eyes. "In a heartbeat," he said softly.
Emily let out a long, theatrical, "Awwww ..."
Sarah squeezed his hand, and she smiled at him, the same wry smile he'd fallen for back when they were both in their twenties, and she said, with a steadiness that her voice almost never managed these days, "Me, too."
Carl's exuberance got the better of him. "To another sixty years!" he said, lifting his glass again, and Don found himself laughing at the ridiculousness of the proposition.
"Why not?" he said, slowly rising again, then reaching for his glass. "Why the heck not?"
The phone rang. He knew his kids thought the voice-only phones were quaint, but neither he nor Sarah had any desire to have 2-D picture phones, let alone holophones. His first thought was not to answer; let whoever it was leave a message. But it was probably a well-wisher — maybe even his brother Bill calling from Florida, where he wintered.
The cordless handset was on the other side of the room. Don lifted his eyebrows and nodded at Percy, who looked delighted to be charged with such a task. He raced across the room, and rather than just bringing over the handset, he activated it and very politely said, "Halifax residence."
It was possible that Emily, standing near Percy, could hear the person on the other end of the line, but Don couldn't make out anything. After a moment, he heard Percy say, "Just a sec," and the boy started walking across the room. Don held out his hand to take the handset, but Percy shook his head. "It's for Grandma."
Sarah looked surprised as she took the handset, which, upon recognizing her fingerprints, automatically cranked up its volume. "Hello?" she said.
Don looked on with interest, but Carl was talking to Emily while Angela was making sure her children were being careful with their drinks, and —
"Oh, my God!" exclaimed Sarah.
"What is it?" asked Don.
"Are you sure?" Sarah said, into the mouthpiece. "Are you positive it's not — No, no, of course you'd check. Sorry. But — my God!"
"Sarah," said Don, "what is it?"
"Hang on, Lenore," Sarah said into the phone, then she covered the mouthpiece with a trembling hand. "It's Lenore Darby," she said, looking up at him. He gathered he should know the name, but couldn't place it immediately — the story of his life, these days — and his face must have conveyed that. "You know," said Sarah. "She's doing her master's; you met her at the last astro-department Christmas party."
"Well," said Sarah, sounding as though she couldn't believe that she was uttering these words, "Lenore says a reply has been received."
"What?" said Carl, now standing on the other side of her chair.
Sarah turned to face her son, but Don knew what she meant before she spoke again; he knew precisely what she meant, and he staggered a half-pace backward, groping for the edge of a bookcase for support. "A reply has been received," repeated Sarah. "The aliens from Sigma Draconis have responded to the radio message my team sent all those years ago."CHAPTER 2
MOST JOKES GET tired with repetition, but some become old friends, causing a smile whenever they come to mind. For Don Halifax, one such was a quip Conan O'Brien had made decades ago. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones had just announced the birth of their baby girl. "Congratulations," O'Brien had said. "And if she's anything like her mother, right now her future husband is in his mid-forties."
There was no such age gap between Don and Sarah. They'd both been born in 1960 and had gone through life in lockstep. They'd both been twenty-seven when they'd gotten married; thirty-two when Carl, their first child, had been born; and forty-eight when —
As Don stood, looking at Sarah, the moment came back to him, and he shook his head in amazement. It had been front-page news, back when there were front pages, all over the world. On March first, 2009, a radio message had been received from a planet orbiting the star Sigma Draconis.
The world had puzzled over the message for months, trying to make sense of what the aliens had said. And then, finally, Sarah Halifax herself had figured out what they were getting at, and it was she who had led the team composing the official reply that had been sent on the one-year anniversary of the receipt of the original signal.
The public had initially been hungry for more news, but Sigma Draconis was 18.8 light-years from Earth, meaning the reply wouldn't reach there until 2028, and any response the Dracons might make couldn't have gotten here until October 2047 at the earliest.
And a few TV shows and webcasts had dutifully done little pieces last fall noting that a response could be received "any day now." But none was. Not in October, not in November, not in December, not in January, not ...
Not until right now.
No sooner had Sarah gotten off the phone with Lenore than it rang again. The call, as she revealed in a stage whisper while holding her hand over the mouthpiece, was from CNN. Don remembered the pandemonium the last time, when she had figured out the purpose of the first message — God, where had the decades gone?
Everyone was now standing or sitting in a semicircle, looking at Sarah. Even the children had recognized that something major was going on, although they had no idea what.
"No," Sarah was saying. "No, I have no comment. No, you can't. It's my anniversary today. I'm not going to let it be ruined by strangers in the house. What? No, no. Look, I really have to go. All right, then. All right, then. Yes, yes. Good-bye." She pushed the button that terminated the call, then looked up at Don, and lifted her frail shoulders a bit. "Sorry for all the bother," she said. "It's —"
The phone rang again, an electronic bleeping that Don disliked at the best of times. Carl, taking command, took the handset from his mother and flicked off the ringer. "They can leave a message if they like."
Sarah frowned. "But what if somebody needs help?"
Carl spread his arms. "Your whole family is here. Who else would call for help? Relax, Mom. Let's enjoy the rest of the party."
Don looked around the room. Carl had been sixteen when his mother had been briefly famous, but Emily had been just ten, and hadn't really understood what had been going on. She was staring at Sarah with astonishment on her narrow face.
Phones in the other rooms were ringing, but they were easy enough to ignore. "So," he said, "did — what was her name? Lenore? Did she say anything about the message's content?"
Sarah shook her head. "No. Just that it was definitely from Sigma Draconis, and seems to begin, at least, with the same symbol set used last time."
Angela said, "Aren't you dying to know what the reply says?"
Sarah reached out her arms in a way that said "help me up." Carl stepped forward and did just that, gently bringing his mother to her feet. "Sure, I'd like to know," she said. "But it's still coming in." She looked at her daughter-in-law. "So let's get started making dinner."
THE KIDS AND grandkids left around 9:00 p.m. Carl, Angela, and Emily had done all the work cleaning up after dinner, and so Don and Sarah simply sat on the living-room couch, enjoying the restored calm. Emily had gone around at one point, shutting off all the other ringers on the phones, and they were still off. But the answering machine's digital display kept changing every few minutes. Don was reminded of another old joke, this one from his teenage years, about the guy who liked to follow Elizabeth Taylor to McDonald's so he could watch the numbers change. Those signs had been stuck at "Over 99 Billion Served" for decades, but he remembered the hoopla when they'd all finally been replaced with new ones that read, "Over 1 Trillion Served."
Sometimes it was better to just stop counting, he thought — especially when it's a counting down instead of a counting up. They'd both made it to eighty-seven, and to sixty years together. But they surely wouldn't be around for a seventieth anniversary; that just wasn't in the cards. In fact ...
In fact, he was surprised they'd lived this long, but maybe they'd been holding on, striving to reach the diamond milestone.
All his life, he'd read about people who died just days after their eightieth, ninetieth, or hundredth birthdays. They'd clung to life, literally by the force of their wills, until the big day had been reached, and then they'd just let go.
Don had turned eighty-seven three months ago, and Sarah had done so five months before that. That hadn't been what they'd been holding on for. But a sixtieth wedding anniversary! How rare that was!
He would have liked to put his arm around Sarah's shoulders as they sat side by side on the couch, but it pained him to rotate his own shoulder that much, and —
Excerpted from Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer. Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Sawyer. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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