Second Childhood

by Clifford D. Simak

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Achieving immortality is only half of the problem. The other half is knowing how to live with it once it's been made possible--and inescapable!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

You did not die.

There was no normal way to die.

You lived as carelessly and as recklessly as you could and you hoped that you would be lucky and be accidentally killed.

You kept on living and you got tired of living.

“God, how tired a man can get of living!” Andrew Young said.

John Riggs, chairman of the immortality commission, cleared his throat.

“You realize,” he said to Andrew Young, “that this petition is a highly irregular procedure to bring to our attention.”

He picked up the sheaf of papers off the table and ruffled through them rapidly.

“There is no precedent,” he added.

“I had hoped,” said Andrew Young, “to establish precedent.”

Commissioner Stanford said, “I must admit that you have made a good case, Ancestor Young. Yet you must realize that this commission has no possible jurisdiction over the life of any person, except to see that everyone is assured of all the benefits of immortality and to work out any kinks that may show up.”

“I am well aware of that,” answered Young, “and it seems to me that my case is one of the kinks you mention.”

He stood silently, watching the faces of the members of the board. They are afraid, he thought. Every one of them. Afraid of the day they will face the thing I am facing now. They have sought an answer and there is no answer yet except the pitifully basic answer, the brutally fundamental answer that I have given them.

“My request is simple,” he told them, calmly. “I have asked for permission to discontinue life. And since suicide has been made psychologically impossible, I have asked that this commission appoint a panel of next-friends to make the necessary and somewhat distasteful arrangements to bring about the discontinuance of my life.”

“If we did,” said Riggs, “we would destroy everything we have. There is no virtue in a life of only five thousand years. No more than in a life of only a hundred years. If Man is to be immortal, he must be genuinely immortal. He cannot compromise.”

“And yet,” said Young, “my friends are gone.”

He gestured at the papers Riggs held in his hands. “I have them listed there,” he said. “Their names and when and where and how they died. Take a look at them. More than two hundred names. People of my own generation and of the generations closely following mine. Their names and the photo-copies of their death certificates.”

He put both of his hands upon the table, palms flat against the table, and leaned his weight upon his arms.

“Take a look at how they died,” he said. “Every one involves accidental violence. Some of them drove their vehicles too fast and, more than likely, very recklessly. One fell off a cliff when he reached down to pick a flower that was growing on its edge. A case of deliberately poor judgment, to my mind. One got stinking drunk and took a bath and passed out in the tub. He drowned...”

“Ancestor Young,” Riggs said sharply, “you are surely not implying these folks were suicides.”

“No,” Andrew Young said bitterly. “We abolished suicide three thousand years ago, cleared it clean out of human minds. How could they have killed themselves?”

Stanford said, peering up at Young, “I believe, sir, you sat on the board that resolved that problem.”

Andrew Young nodded. “It was after the first wave of suicides. I remember it quite well. It took years of work. We had to change human perspective, shift certain facets of human nature. We had to condition human reasoning by education and propaganda and instill a new set of moral values. I think we did a good job of it. Perhaps too good a job. Today a man can no more think of deliberately committing suicide than he could think of overthrowing our government. The very idea, the very word is repulsive, instinctively repulsive. You can come a long way, gentlemen, in three thousand years.”

He leaned across the table and tapped the sheaf of papers with a lean, tense finger.

“They didn’t kill themselves,” he said. “They did not commit suicide. They just didn’t give a damn. They were tired of living ... as I am tired of living. So they lived recklessly in every way. Perhaps there always was a secret hope that they would drown while drunk or their car would hit a tree or...”

He straightened up and faced them. “Gentlemen,” he said. “I am 5,786 years of age. I was born at Lancaster, Maine, on the planet Earth on September 21, 1968. I have served humankind well in those fifty-seven centuries. My record is there for you to see. Boards, commissions, legislative posts, diplomatic missions. No one can say that I have shirked my duty. I submit that I have paid any debt I owe humanity ... even the well-intentioned debt for a chance at immortality.”

“We wish,” said Riggs, “that you would reconsider.”

“I am a lonely man,” replied Young. “A lonely man and tired. I have no friends. There is nothing any longer that holds my interest. It is my hope that I can make you see the desirability of assuming jurisdiction in cases such as mine. Someday you may find a solution to the problem, but until that time arrives, I ask you, in the name of mercy, to give us relief from life.”

“The problem, as we see it,” said Riggs, “is to find some way to wipe out mental perspective. When a man lives as you have, sir, for fifty centuries, he has too long a memory. The memories add up to the disadvantage of present realities and prospects for the future.”

“I know,” said Young. “I remember we used to talk about that in the early days. It was one of the problems which was recognized when immortality first became practical. But we always thought that memory would erase itself, that the brain could accommodate only so many memories, that when it got full up it would dump the old ones. It hasn’t worked that way.”

He made a savage gesture. “Gentlemen, I can recall my childhood much more vividly than I recall anything that happened yesterday.”

“Memories are buried,” said Riggs, “and in the old days, when men lived no longer than a hundred years at most, it was thought those buried memories were forgotten. Life, Man told himself, is a process of forgetting. So Man wasn’t too worried over memories when he became immortal. He thought he would forget them.”

“He should have known,” argued Young. “I can remember my father, and I remember him much more intimately than I will remember you gentlemen once I leave this room ... I can remember my father telling me that, in his later years, he could recall things which happened in his childhood that had been forgotten all his younger years. And that, alone, should have tipped us off. The brain buries only the newer memories deeply ... they are not available; they do not rise to bother one, because they are not sorted or oriented or correlated or whatever it is that the brain may do with them. But once they are all nicely docketed and filed, they pop up in an instant.”

Riggs nodded agreement. “There’s a lag of a good many years in the brain’s bookkeeping. We will overcome it in time.”

“We have tried,” said Stanford. “We tried conditioning, the same solution that worked with suicides. But in this, it didn’t work. For a man’s life is built upon his memories. There are certain basic memories that must remain intact. With conditioning, you could not be selective. You could not keep the structural memories and winnow out the trash. It didn’t work that way.”

“There was one machine that worked,” Riggs put in. “It got rid of memories. I don’t understand exactly how it worked, but it did the job all right. It did too good a job. It swept the mind as clean as an empty room. It didn’t leave a thing. It took all memories and it left no capacity to build a new set. A man went in a human being and came out a vegetable.”

“Suspended animation,” said Stanford, “would be a solution. If we had suspended animation. Simply stack a man away until we found the answer, then revive and recondition him.”

“Be that as it may,” Young told them, “I should like your most earnest consideration of my petition. I do not feel quite equal to waiting until you have the answer solved.”

Riggs said, harshly, “You are asking us to legalize death.”

Young nodded. “If you wish to phrase it that way. I’m asking it in the name of common decency.”

Commissioner Stanford said, “We can ill afford to lose you, Ancestor.”

Young sighed. “There is that damned attitude again. Immortality pays all debts. When a man is made immortal, he has received full compensation for everything that he may endure. I have lived longer than any man could be expected to live and still I am denied the dignity of old age. A man’s desires are few, and quickly sated, and yet he is expected to continue living with desires burned up and blown away to ash. He gets to a point where nothing has a value ... even to a point where his own personal values are no more than shadows. Gentlemen, there was a time when I could not have committed murder ... literally could not have forced myself to kill another man ... but today I could, without a second thought. Disillusion and cynicism have crept in upon me and I have no conscience.”

“There are compensations,” Riggs said. “Your family...”

“They get in my hair,” said Young disgustedly. “Thousands upon thousands of young squirts calling me Grandsire and Ancestor and coming to me for advice they practically never follow. I don’t know even a fraction of them and I listen to them carefully explain a relationship so tangled and trivial that it makes me yawn in their faces. It’s all new to them and so old, so damned and damnably old to me.”

“Ancestor Young,” said Stanford, “you have seen Man spread out from Earth to distant stellar systems. You have seen the human race expand from one planet to several thousand planets. You have had a part in this. Is there not some satisfaction...”

“You’re talking in abstracts,” Young cut in. “What I am concerned about is myself ... a certain specific mass of protoplasm shaped in biped form and tagged by the designation, ironic as it may seem, of Andrew Young. I have been unselfish all my life. I’ve asked little for myself. Now I am being utterly and entirely selfish and I ask that this matter be regarded as a personal problem rather than as a racial abstraction.”

“Whether you’ll admit it or not,” said Stanford, “it is more than a personal problem. It is a problem which some day must be solved for the salvation of the race.”

“That is what I am trying to impress upon you,” Young snapped. “It is a problem that you must face. Some day you will solve it, but until you do, you must make provisions for those who face the unsolved problem.”

“Wait a while,” counseled Chairman Riggs. “Who knows? Today, tomorrow.”

“Or a million years from now,” Young told him bitterly and left, a tall, vigorous-looking man whose step was swift in anger where normally it was slow with weariness and despair.

There was yet a chance, of course.

But there was little hope.

How can a man go back almost six thousand years and snare a thing he never understood?

And yet Andrew Young remembered it. Remembered it as clearly as if it had been a thing that had happened in the morning of this very day.

It was a shining thing, a bright thing, a happiness that was brand-new and fresh as a bluebird’s wing of an April morning or a shy woods flower after sudden rain.

He had been a boy and he had seen the bluebird and he had no words to say the thing he felt, but he had held up his tiny fingers and pointed and shaped his lips to coo.

Once, he thought, I had it in my very fingers and I did not have the experience to know what it was, nor the value of it. And now I know the value, but it has escaped me--it escaped me on the day that I began to think like a human being. The first adult thought pushed it just a little and the next one pushed it farther and finally it was gone entirely and I didn’t even know that it had gone.

He sat in the chair on the flagstone patio and felt the Sun upon him, filtering through the branches of trees misty with the breaking leaves of Spring.

Something else, thought Andrew Young. Something that was not human--yet. A tiny animal that had many ways to choose, many roads to walk. And, of course, I chose the wrong way. I chose the human way. But there was another way. I know there must have been. A fairy way--or a brownie way, or maybe even pixie. That sounds foolish and childish now, but it wasn’t always.

I chose the human way because I was guided into it. I was pushed and shoved, like a herded sheep.

I grew up and I lost the thing I held.

He sat and made his mind go hard and tried to analyze what it was he sought and there was no name for it. Except happiness. And happiness was a state of being, not a thing to regain and grasp.

But he could remember how it felt. With his eyes open in the present, he could remember the brightness of the day of the past, the clean-washed goodness of it, the wonder of the colors that were more brilliant than he ever since had seen--as if it were the first second after Creation and the world was still shiningly new.

It was that new, of course. It would be that new to a child.

But that didn’t explain it all.

It didn’t explain the bottomless capacity for seeing and knowing and believing in the beauty and the goodness of a clean new world. It didn’t explain the almost non-human elation of knowing that there were colors to see and scents to smell and soft green grass to touch.

I’m insane, Andrew Young said to himself. Insane, or going insane. But if insanity will take me back to an understanding of the strange perception I had when I was a child, and lost, I’ll take insanity.

He leaned back in his chair and let his eyes go shut and his mind drift back.

He was crouching in a corner of a garden and the leaves were drifting down from the walnut trees like a rain of saffron gold. He lifted one of the leaves and it slipped from his fingers, for his hands were chubby still and not too sure in grasping. But he tried again and he clutched it by the stem in one stubby fist and he saw that it was not just a blob of yellowness, but delicate, with many little veins. When he held it so that the Sun struck it, he imagined that he could almost see through it, the gold was spun so fine.

He crouched with the leaf clutched tightly in his hand and for a moment there was a silence that held him motionless. Then he heard the frost-loosened leaves pattering all around him, pattering as they fell, talking in little whispers as they sailed down through the air and found themselves a bed with their golden fellows.

In that moment he knew that he was one with the leaves and the whispers that they made, one with the gold and the autumn sunshine and the far blue mist upon the hill above the apple orchard.

A foot crunched stone behind him and his eyes came open and the golden leaves were gone.

“I am sorry if I disturbed you, Ancestor,” said the man. “I had an appointment for this hour, but I would not have disturbed you if I had known.”

Young stared at him reproachfully without answering.

“I am kin,” the man told him.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” said Andrew Young. “The Galaxy is cluttered up with descendants of mine.”

The man was very humble. “Of course, you must resent us sometimes. But we are proud of you, sir. I might almost say that we revere you. No other family--”

“I know,” interrupted Andrew Young. “No other family has any fossil quite so old as I am.”

“Nor as wise,” said the man.

Andrew Young snorted. “Cut out that nonsense. Let’s hear what you have to say and get it over with.”

The technician was harassed and worried and very frankly puzzled. But he stayed respectful, for one always was respectful to an ancestor, whoever he might be. Today there were mighty few left who had been born into a mortal world.

Not that Andrew Young looked old. He looked like all adults, a fine figure of a person in the early twenties.

The technician shifted uneasily. “But, sir, this ... this...”

“Teddy bear,” said Young.

“Yes, of course. An extinct terrestrial subspecies of animal?”

“It’s a toy,” Young told him. “A very ancient toy. All children used to have them five thousand years ago. They took them to bed.”

The technician shuddered. “A deplorable custom. Primitive.”

“Depends on the viewpoint,” said Young. “I’ve slept with them many a time. There’s a world of comfort in one, I can personally assure you.”

The technician saw that it was no use to argue. He might as well fabricate the thing and get it over with.

“I can build you a fine model, sir,” he said, trying to work up some enthusiasm. “I’ll build in a response mechanism so that it can give simple answers to certain keyed questions and, of course, I’ll fix it so it’ll walk, either on two legs or four...”

“No,” said Andrew Young.

The technician looked surprised and hurt. “No?”

“No,” repeated Andrew Young. “I don’t want it fancied up. I want it a simple lump of make-believe. No wonder the children of today have no imagination. Modern toys entertain them with a bag of tricks that leave the young’uns no room for imagination. They couldn’t possibly think up, on their own, all the screwy things these new toys do. Built-in responses and implied consciousness and all such mechanical trivia...”

“You just want a stuffed fabric,” said the technician, sadly, “with jointed arms and legs.”

“Precisely,” agreed Young.

“You’re sure you want fabric, sir? I could do a neater job in plastics.”

“Fabric,” Young insisted firmly, “and it must be scratchy.”

“Scratchy, sir?”

“Sure. You know. Bristly. So it scratches when you rub your face against it.”

“But no one in his right mind would want to rub his face...”

“I would,” said Andrew Young. “I fully intend to do so.”

“As you wish, sir,” the technician answered, beaten now.

“When you get it done,” said Young, “I have some other things in mind.”

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