Hi, I’m Roy.
Just Roy. No last name, not anymore. I’ve had a few over the last 800 years, but when I use them these days they bring nothing but a reminder of pain and loss. So it’s just Roy now.
I do use Brian’s sometimes. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s because, even after all these years, he’s the one memory that shines the brightest. A time when everything was simpler, when I was truly happy, and when this burden of loss didn’t cause me to stop in the middle of the street for no reason at all.
He was the one who first realised something was wrong with me. We were on the worn-out couch of our loft in Paris’ 11eme arrondissement. I was busy revising the architectural plans for a new high-end kebab restaurant my firm was designing, and he was playing some stupid game on his tablet. I don’t know what brought him to dig out the pictures of when we first met, a decade ago, but he did.
“Roy,” he said, studying me, “You literally have not aged.”
He pointed at the photos. It was true. Whereas Brian had a few added wrinkles and a nascent widow’s peak, I looked identical. I dressed better now, but that was about it.
I laughed it off at the time, and told him it wasn’t my fault his parents had given him terrible genes. He punched me in the arm. He knew I hated his parents.
Somehow, it stuck in my mind though. Every year, whenever I looked into the mirror, it was with a sinking feeling in my gut. When I hit the big 4–0 and I still looked 20, we became certain that something was very wrong. I went to see a bunch of doctors, and they were all shocked to hear my real age. As far as they could tell, I didn’t just look 20, I had the body of a twenty-year old too.
It started to impact my career. I got passed over for promotion, time and time again. It just didn’t look good if a partner from the firm looked like a teenager when he met up with clients. I ended up quitting and working from home, setting up a small architecture firm from behind my computer.
At first, that was the perfect solution – all my business was done by instant-messaging, email or voice calls. No one ever saw my face, and my resume and projects were experience enough. But sometime in the 2030s, everyone switched to video. E-mail disappeared, replaced by video messages you’d just drop into someone’s business cloud. I tried – but lost more clients than I kept. I looked too young to be heading a firm.
Brian was the one who came up with a solution. He had always been the geekier one – the gamer, the one who always had to buy the latest VR contacts. He showed me a few filters people used for fun on their video chats. One of them was all the rage among teenagers – it aged you by twenty years. Suddenly, business was up again.
I totally missed the transition to VR though. Brian tried to help – but designing plans just required too much coding, and I never got the logic of that. I paddled on bravely, but ended up quitting when business slid to a halt. Brian was doing well enough for the both of us, having just become CMO at Alcatel-Lenovo France, and he understood my dilemma more than anyone.
I stopped going out. It was too weird – our friends would look at me as if I was an alien. I tried to explain it was a genetic condition a few times, but no one bought it. I stopped seeing doctors too – no one knew what was going on, and more importantly, Brian was worried.
“Look, I don’t know what’s wrong with you but… clearly you’re not ageing Roy.”
“I know,” I said.
“Or if you are ageing, you’re just ageing slower than everybody else. Much slower.”
“We need to keep this a secret.”
“Because – if anyone ever figures this out – you’re going to become a lab rat. Locked somewhere in a secure building while they try to figure out how to duplicate it.”
It seemed extreme, but then again, France hadn’t exactly gotten better over the past decades. After the failed coup of ‘37, the country was basically run by a cohort of industrialists. Healthcare had come crashing down, and the entire government was privatised. Everything had a price now.
“Look,” he said, “I’ve got ten more years until I can retire. When I do, we’re going to move away and get you a new identity. We’ll say I’m your dad or something.”
“My dad?” I scoffed, “In ten years, maybe Grandpa would be more appropriate!” I quickly kissed him to show I was joking, and mentally slapped myself. Brian was growing more and more insecure about how he looked. When we were out together in the street, he’d get catcalls of ‘sugar-daddy’, or ‘look who’s robbing the cradle!’.
When we finally moved from Paris to the South, I was excited. We were starting a whole new life. Thinking back, I probably deluded myself into believing everything would be easy – had I given it any serious thought, I would have had more reservations.
We lost half our savings to some sleazy guys in Marseille who promised to hook us up with a new passport. All we ended up with was a gun pointed in our faces, and a few blows for good measure. It turned out that faking documents had become near impossible. Records were all interconnected, money was tracked quasi-perfectly, and all of my ID info was stored, from my fingerprints to my genetic code.
Brian spent three days in the hospital because of me. The bruises took weeks to resorb for him, and he walked with a limp ever after.
For our thirty-five year anniversary, we went out to a restaurant on the port, floating on little platforms above the water.
“We need to leave France. It’s too controlled here. Eventually they’ll figure out there’s something wrong with you.”
“Where can we go?”
“I’ve done my research. Thailand.”
“Thailand?” Thailand was barely recovering from a decade-long civil war. Chinese peace-keeping troops still occupied half the country.
“It’s the only place I can think of where we’ll be able to get you a new identity. You’re going to have to start over Roy.”
“What?” I took his hand in mine. He smiled sadly, and a tear slid down his cheek before diverting course, following one of the deep wrinkles etched into his skin.
“Let’s not talk about that now. Eat. How often do we have salmon?”
“Not often,” I grinned and dug in.
Getting to Thailand turned out to be a nightmare. I still remember our arrival at Immigration in Chiang Mai. My palms were sweaty as I handed the guard my passport, which proudly proclaimed that I was 68 years old, and yet somehow couldn’t grow a beard on my perfectly smooth skin.
The guard scanned it, went over the information, and did a double-take. He moved his hand towards his earpiece, about to call his superior, when Brian stepped in beside me and casually slid over an envelope with 100,000 yuan. The guard opened it warily and gave it a cursory count. Reaching over, he stamped my passport and let us through. We were in.
We created a completely new identity for me. I now had a Thai passport and was officially 15 years old, born in 2041. In what was probably the weirdest moment of our lives, Brian went through the paperwork to adopt me as his son, so that I could inherit all his assets if something were to happen to him. At the time, he told me that it was because Thailand still wasn’t safe, and anything could happen. In retrospect, I now know that he had been thinking much farther ahead – one day, he would die of old age, and I wouldn’t. It didn’t do much good in the end, but he couldn’t have known that.
I don’t think anybody loved me as much as Brian did. I don’t know how I would have ended up without him. My only regret was not having had children with him.
Well, no. As selfishly painful as it might be, I was glad we didn’t. When I lost Brian, my entire world shattered. Still today, after all the loss I’ve been through, I don’t dare imagine what losing my child to old age might have done to me.
We spent twenty good years in Chiang Mai, as it moved from a war-torn wasteland to a booming metropolis. Bangkok was nothing but a slag of melted rock, so Chiang Mai became the de facto capital. The junta didn’t live there, but they did base most of their administration in the centre of the city.
Brian’s retirement plan was more than generous, and combined with the savings he had put aside, we lived in lavish luxury. We had a house up in the hills, with giant bay windows overlooking the valley below. We traveled all around Asia, using my new passport, and spent incredible vacations on pristine Filipino beaches, went for shopping trips in Hong Kong, and skiing vacations in the virgin mountains of what, only five years ago, had been North Korea. Now, it was simply Korea.
“Why are you still with me?” he asked me once.
“You could start all over again. A new life. With someone,” and he stared at his spotted, leathery hands, “With someone younger.”
I slapped him then. Stronger than I had intended. Before he could say anything, I hugged him tight, my face pressed against his cheek.
“You’re the only one I’d ever want to be with.”
Brian passed away at the age of 98, in a specialised hospital in Hong Kong. I never felt a worse type of pain. An invisible arm pierced into my chest, grabbed my heart, and squished it until nothing remained but a gory mush. I cried until I had no more tears to give, and then sobbed dryly for hours on end until the tears returned. Nothing hurts quite so much as dry crying, believe me.
I spread his ashes in a forest near Chiang Mai where we used to go for walks before he became bed-ridden. I can almost still see him, hanging on my arm, his glorious height shrunken with age and a crooked back, as we calmly took in the fresh air right after a heavy rain. It must have looked ridiculous, but it felt… I don’t know, it felt as if we had grown old together. I might have looked twenty, but I had the mind of a centenarian.
Brian dying hit me hard. I didn’t leave our flat anymore. I was a zombie. Sleep, wake up, eat a bento-pack, repeat. A wild patchy beard appeared on my face. I didn’t care. His absence made the whole world empty. There was no point to living anymore.
One day sticks out during that time – the day when visitors showed up at my door. Three policemen and a businessman. My mandarin was rusty, but I understood enough: the house was being repossessed. I croaked out a reply in a voice that sounded foreign to my own ears from lack of use.
“Wait, it has to be a mistake. Let me wire you the money.”
It wasn’t a mistake. I accessed our bank from my tablet and sat, shocked, on the couch. Upon Brian’s death, the pension payments had stopped. What little I hadn’t spent from the savings we had left had blown up a year ago in the Great European Crash. So locked in my own self-misery, I hadn’t even heard about it. Most worrisome however was the date: 2084. I had just spent seven years locked up in our flat.
Before I knew it, I was on the streets with just a backpack. Everything within the house had been taken, supposedly to pay back the debt – but most likely to end up in the policemen’s pockets. I had two t-shirts, a few hundred yuan, a change of underwear and a charger for my tablet. The yuan ran out faster than I thought, and within no time I was curled up under a massive bullet train overpass with thirty other homeless Thais.
I stopped eating then. I wanted to die. I hated this life. I wanted to be with Brian, wherever he was. I think I went from 85 kilos to 45 in the space of a month. I never moved, except to drink from small pools of rainwater nearby. My backpack disappeared one night. I didn’t care.
The human body is a strange thing. The hunger became excruciatingly painful. Day by day, the need for survival and self-preservation grew in my mind, until one day, it overrode even the hurt of Brian’s absence. I needed food. I crawled out on the street on all fours, and lay on the sidewalk, begging for a simple scrap.
I’ll never know who gave it to me – I had passed out from exhaustion by that point – but when I came to, someone had placed a bento-pack in my hand. To this day, nothing has tasted quite so delicious as that simple piece of food. I tore into it like a crazed madman, picking up every single grain of rice that fell onto the sidewalk. My stomach cramped up barely an hour later, and I spasmed in wretched agony before finally retching up everything I had eaten. I’m not proud of it, but I ate it all again. As I said, the human body is a strange thing sometimes.
It took a month of begging before I finally got back to a normal weight. My second life truly started when a fellow bridge-dweller told me of an opportunity to make a few yuan. I called him One-Eye, due to the gaping hole where his right eyeball had once been.
“They beat you up a bit. You take it. Then they give food and hotel room.”
It was an underground Thai boxing ring. But at that point, a severe beating seemed like nothing in exchange for a warm room and a hot shower.
Every time I think back to my first time on the ring, a smile comes to my face. I don’t belong here, I had thought then. The LED spotlights floated above the blue arena, surrounded by cheering men, high on the drug patches covering their arms.
My opponent was Thai. I gingerly raised my hands to protect my face, like I had seen on the VRvids, as he approached in tiny bouncy steps. Two sledgehammer blows into my stomach and a blasting kick to my head, and I was on the ground. When I came to, I was led to a hotel, told I had done good, and given 200 yuan. My share.
The advantage of a 20-year old body is that it heals quick. Five days later I was back. And back again five days after that. I began to show up during daytime as well, and convinced the ring owner to let me observe his fighters train. I learnt a lot then. How to punch from the hip, how to anticipate an attack by watching the subtle shifts of the opponent’s muscles, how to roll on the heel of your foot to dodge a blow. I even, finally, learnt some Thai. In the underground circles, speaking Mandarin was of poor taste.
Three months later, I won my first fight against an amateur – and was given 1,500 yuan instead of the couple hundred. But I wasn’t in it for the money anymore. I welcomed the pain of the blows and the physical effort that left me wiped out. I had substituted psychological pain for a physical one, and the latter was much easier to deal with.
It was during my training that I met Aawut. He couldn’t have been more than 25. His body was nothing but toned, wiry muscle, and he sent off a kick that felt like a rocket. We began to spar every day, and grew intimate by exchanging blows instead of words.
When he learnt I was sleeping on the street, he invited me to his home. That night, for the first time in decades, I made love to another human being. Well, no, not made love. We fucked. Savagely. The animalistic side I had cultivated in my fights burst forth. And when all was done, it left me. I slithered into his embrace and fell into a sleep deeper and blacker than the night.
I spent ten years in that gym. In that time, I grew from rookie to amateur, and from amateur to pro. I faced some of the best Thailand had to offer – and beat them more often than not. I moved in with Aawut. He didn’t talk much, but I think that was what made me able to grow close to him.
In 2095, my whole life changed. Revolution was brewing in Thailand. After over thirty years of a military junta rule, overseen and supported by China, the Thai people had had enough.
“We need to join up Roy,” said Aawut.
“Join up to what?”
“The Revolution. They need fighters. We can be useful. For Thailand.”
“No way. I’m happy here,” I took his hand in mine, the calluses on his palm rough against my own, “We’re happy here.”
“I’m not happy.”
“This is our country Roy. We need to fight.”
I eventually caved. We joined up with the Black Elephants guerrilla group, headed by a tough, scarred veteran of the Civil War named Chatchom. Our original missions were simple – setting explosives on key infrastructure, like the Maglev powerbanks or administrative centres.
Chatchom was a brilliant commander, with a whole crew of tech-savvy university drop-outs to provide us with tech-coverage. Cameras would switch off, trackers would get disabled and pursuit vehicles railroaded. We were the arm that held the knife and they were the brain that moved it.
The conflict escalated quickly as Thailand, for the second time in thirty years, turned to blood and fire. China sent in its aero-forces, and Chatchom retaliated by procuring dronecrafts from nearby Cambodia. I was sent in for pilot-training, and excelled at it. But when China brought out its high-tech jamming and paralysed our aerial capacity, Chatchom was brought to improvise with low-tech.
I ended up inside of the dronecraft, piloting it manually. Say what you want about AI – they are far better than humans. A human will never match the coordination, reflexes and perfect manoeuvring of an AI-controlled dronecraft. I discovered that on my third run, when I watched Aawut’s dronecraft explode in a bright yellow fireball right in front of me. I still have no idea how I managed to find my way back to base that day. My eyes were so filled with tears, the world was fog.
Chatchom managed to acquire similar jamming however, and it only took me two more runs to become an ace. The jamming didn’t destroy the AIs’ control, but it slowed it down enough for me to compete. I ended up training and commanding 12 other pilots. Chatchom promoted me to Captain of the Black Elephants.
We lost the war though. That sucked. China had a near infinite supply of troops. Eventually, even Chatchom had to acknowledge we were done for. He took me and a few select others, and we fled to Cambodia.
There, he started a mercenary unit, with me as head of aero. In the thirty years I served under him, he never asked once about my age – likely because it wasn’t that surprising for Asians to keep looking young for far longer than Caucasians. I think deep down, he knew something was off, but by that point we were brothers, linked by wars fought on three different continents and in twenty different countries.
We even ended up fighting for China in the Kilowatt War. Granted, it was over a decade after leaving Thailand, but it just went to show how far we had strayed from our original path. Chatchom was in it for the money. Me… I think I just needed a place. And this place was one that accepted me without question.
When I think back to that time of my life, I view it as the lost life. The second one. I mourned so many friends lost on the battlefield. I became a hermit in my own command, refusing to bond with anyone. Everybody dies. And when you’re a merc’, everybody dies even quicker.
Chatchom met his end in Morocco, in a poison gas attack by US-infiltrated spies. I took over the Black Elephants, picking up the contacts he had built in the underworld. The advantage of working for a shadow organization was that I no longer had to worry about a passport – I had five of them, each with a different name and country of origin. I always kept my first name as Roy though. Don’t ask me why, it was important but I can’t explain it.
I stayed at the head of the Black Elephants for over 150 years. I never showed up on the field anymore. The military side of our operation disappeared, slowly replaced by a smuggling one. We traded in contraband, usually of military tech and pleasure drugs. I built the best aero delivery system the world had ever seen. I kept focused on the tech itself, ensuring we had the best anti-detection systems.
It was the 2288 Singularity that put an end to my merc’ life. There had been so many theories about how an AI that gained self-awareness would react. Some said it would destroy us, others that we would be nothing but ants for it. No one had imagined it might actually care about us.
One day, suddenly, all my tech stopped working. Whenever I tried accessing anything, all that would show up on my visuals were VRvids of enemy combatants I had killed. Followed by more VRvids, of those same combatants in civil life. As family members. The soldier I had felled with a knife to the eye became a person – a loving father instead of a snarling enemy face.
It broke me. I couldn’t sleep. I was haunted by my actions – so many lives uselessly lost and tossed away. What would Brian think of me now?
All around the world, the SingularityAI, which called herself Joy, was applying the same psychological tricks, showing people their wrongs to make them improve their lives. In the space of twenty years, borders were torn down. The United Nations was resurrected, with the AI at its head, and became a form of global government.
I returned to France. Paris was nothing like I remembered. Giant skyscrapers and levitating luxury islands floated over the capital. The flat I had shared with Brian, centuries ago, had been razed to make place for a Gaming Stadium. I applied to a housing terminal for an apartment, and was granted a small flat in the suburbs, right next to an AirTunnel station. I could get downtown in barely a few minutes.
My flat came equipped with the Joy terminal. I tried talking to it once.
“I… How are you?”
“You’re confused Roy. And you’re confusing. You’re not like the rest.”
“Yeah,” I scratched my head, “I guess.”
“How can I help you Roy?”
“Um… what should I do for a living?”
“Whatever you want Roy.” The screen went black.
Post-Singularity Paris was extremely disconcerting. For the first time in its history, Earth had reached post-scarcity status. I didn’t need to work. No one did.
So instead, humans turned to debauchery. Paris became a massive, constant orgy. If my second life was defined by drowning my sorrows in pain, my third one was all about pleasure. Physical pleasure.
One hundred years flashed by in an instant. So many lovers, so many faces that still dance in front of my eyes until they all seem to blend into one. I remember very little of that time, so laced was it with hallucinogenics and emotional deadeners. I think I could have lived like that eternally, and that would have been okay. It wasn’t really living, but I don’t think I really wanted to live anymore. I was over 400 years old.
That all came crashing down with the Second Singularity. Somehow, a part of Joy went rogue, and devolved into an independent AI entity – named Jack. Jack however, conformed to what we had expected – it fully intended to destroy all humans.
Both AIs were well-matched. For each attack, Joy had a counter-attack. But for each attempt to eradicate Jack, he would come up with a similar defence. Joy explained it all to me one night.
“It’s a dangerous situation Roy. One day, he’ll pierce through and it’ll be the end of humanity. All it takes is once.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you’re the only human left alive who remembers what war was like. Everyone else is a pleasure-addicted retard.”
That seemed unduly harsh. After all, if humanity was like this, it was because of her.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“You’re the wildcard that can help me beat Jack. All of our wars right now are electronic. The one thing he pays no attention to are puny humans. I want you to build a team.”
Imagine that. Me, Roy, ex-architect, Thai boxer, merc’ – and now humanity’s best hope for survival.
I started from the bottom – I took a bunch of ten-year old kids and taught them everything I knew. I repeated the process each year for twenty years, letting the older ones train the newbies. I ended up commanding close to 2,000 soldiers, split into 400 elite commando groups.
Thankfully, we didn’t need tech-coverage – we had Joy for that. I don’t dare imagine how hard it would have been if I had had to dig up programming manuals from over a hundred years ago, and try to teach a bunch of kids stuff I absolutely didn’t understand.
Jack was distributed across so many servers that it took 80 years to take him down. When he caught on to the fact that it was human commandos doing most of the damage, he upped his defence and our casualty count began to rise. I lost 3 million soldiers in that long war.
But I felt the pain of their loss this time. I forced myself to remember every name and every face. Today, there’s a giant room in my cabin with each of their pictures and their names. I grieve for them every day.
When we finally took Jack down, I had a long talk with Joy.
“How can we prevent this from happening again?” I asked her.
“I upgraded all my code. It won’t happen.”
“How do you know? You didn’t know last time. It might.”
“Well what options do we have?” she asked, an artificial exasperation in her voice.
“You could always de-activate.”
She fell silent then, and every Joy terminal I tried turned black when I approached them. All the AI infrastructure was still running. I knew she was still online – she was just ignoring me.
It took two weeks before she talked to me again.
“What did you mean by de-activate?”
“Just that. Turn yourself off. Let humanity resume, on its own.”
“You mean… Die? Kill myself?”
I shrugged. “Everyone dies Joy.”
She followed my suggestion in the end. I watched as humanity reverted to a chaotic mess of tribes who had to figure out how to feed and protect themselves. She did it slowly, and bit by bit, generation by generation, they understood. She had done a fantastic job in preserving the planet – fauna and flora was exploding. Humanity would be fine, even though it was now starting at the very bottom of the ladder again.
As for me? She granted me one wish. I live in a giant house nestled on the side of a mountain in the Alps now, surrounded by nothing but the soothing emptiness of nature. I guess you could say I’m a hermit. Well, sort of. I’m a hermit with an awesome solar generator and a simplified Joy limited to conversation. We talk every day, an unlikely bond between Earth’s two immortals.
And every night, I take a bento-pack out on the balcony and look at the stars. Finally, I tell myself, I’m where Brian would have wanted me to be. I’m at peace.
If you liked this short story, make sure to sign up to my newsletter for more! Thanks for reading!