The Life Everlasting

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Jacob worked on the farm, as his father had, and as his father had.

His grandfather had bought the farm in 1911 as a young man fresh out of New York. He'd reared cattle there until the day he died. That had been 1954, after he'd seen a lot of changes. No more Indians and a lot more competition. The Depression had been tough, but he'd managed to cling on. He was good at that.

He'd married a girl from Iowa. He'd loved her dearly, but she died in the 30s, and he'd become harder and colder after that. He was typical in a great many ways; just another person trying to do the best for their family.

Sometimes he'd lie on his back outside, in the hard days, the dark days, his sons overseas and his daughters hungry, and stare at the sky. It was so vast and distant, all cold lights flickering in the dark. Endless vistas of gas and stone, exploding and reconstituting so far away. In some ways, it felt like it could be a new frontier, where a man could remake himself again. But in other ways, it felt… stranger.

Jacob's father had been weak, with debts and vices. It took Jacob years to get all of the farm back and free himself from the wretch's shadow. By 2020 he was prospering, an old man of dignity and renowned for his kindness. He worried about his family's future - none of his children were farmers, but he knew they'd fetch a good price for the land when the time came.

His eldest daughter, Simone, and his son, Martin lived out east, in Manhattan. Jacob had called it "returning to the family estate", which had been met with an unpleasant silence. They were both good folks, but they didn't visit as often as Jacob liked. His middle daughter, Alice, lived out west in California, and he heard things about her. Snide comments in the family emails. Mentions of disagreements with restaurant managers and two-bit lawsuits. It distressed him.

His youngest, Sarah, lived in Chicago. She visited more. She was divorced, a single mother scraping by. She had always been the brightest, and it saddened Jacob to think of the things she had to endure. She always found time to talk, though. This awakened a little streak of bitterness in Jacob. If she was around, why weren't the others? What was keeping them from coming by a bit more often?

But despite all this, Jacob was happy. He would sit on his porch and drink fine whisky. Sometimes his wife would join him, and they'd talk about old times. He'd remember when he was young, and his grandfather was old, and taught him to shoot cans in the yard. His grandfather's expression was serious, full of concentration.

That expression was gone now. The old man's bones had been dust for decades. But that was OK. That was fine. It was how life went. Jacob would look up at the stars, day by day, feeling his life gradually wrap up to completion. Those stars seemed a little closer now, a little more familiar. There were satellites up there, pushed by man into farther and farther reaches of reality.

One day, they'd touch down on another world, and a new frontier would truly open. This was the dream he had for his children, or their children, or their children. One day at a time, the world would grow smaller, and one fine evening a thousand years from now, another Jacob would sit on another porch, under a far-distant sun, remembering his own grandfather.

It would have been perfect, if everything hadn't gone wrong.

What Jacob remembered most about the first years after death stopped was the pain and confusion. Aging didn't end, and sooner or later it was impossible to feel anything but the omnipresent ache. Simone and Martin had some money put aside, and suggested that he get the transplant, but he didn't want to. He couldn't help but think of the people who suffered. Martin didn't understand, scoffing at his "20th-century morality" and urging him to understand how the world "really worked". But Jacob had heard words like that before.

He kept the farm, though. Sarah had returned to education late in life, and had managed to pass the bar a year before it happened. She made sure he wasn't cheated out of his land, despite the best intentions of Simone and the worst intentions of Alice. That had upset him. Didn't they know what it meant to him? At least wait until he was in the ground! What kind of life was Alice living out there, on that shining coast? He'd never been to California. The place still smacked of the Gold Rush and Dust Bowl refugees in his mind.

But these thoughts eventually slowed and left him. His mind ground to a halt, grinding over and over again, and he spent over a century sitting on his bed and moaning. Alice moved back, sat there and sponged his head. Eventually, to his surprise, Martin did too, and became just as tender and patient.

His wife left. It didn't take so long. "Until death do us part" didn't mean as much to people anymore. She got a transplant, he heard, and was living as a - well, his son used the word "honoured guest", but he got the idea. That had hurt, but he couldn't blame her. He'd never been able to blame her.

He remembered when they were young. In all the decades of terror, as his mind crumbled into itself forever, her face was a comfort. The spring dance in '66, a crown of flowers in her hair. He rambled about that a lot, and what little of him remained wondered if it broke his childrens' hearts.

He wanted them to be happy. That's all he'd ever wanted. He saw their stressed faces and wanted to reach out and make it all better again, but he couldn't. When he was able to perceive his dreams, they seemed so far off. There wasn't a narrative any more. There wasn't a sense of family, community, the bonds of life and a shared destiny. The story had been knocked off course. He could, in these lucid moments, see himself as one chain in a great chain, stretching from past to future, and now cast to the floor and forgotten.

Would they ever sit upon the stars? Would they ever dream again? Who would be left to lie on the grass and stare at the heavens? An apocalypse would have been better than this. How could you move forward when you were all stuck in a picture of your lives, unmoving and frozen?

Things got better. Eventually, when all the tumult and dust of change settles, things always get better. Stability returns, grooves and moods harden, and everyone finds a tolerable tenor of life. Synthetic bodies became possible; crudely at first, but then better and more human.

Simone managed to get him one quite early on. She didn't say how. Jacob was ecstatic. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been able to think like this, to understand what was going on. So what if he had to sacrifice some base sensations? They weren't often Christian anyway. And he was alive again.

There was so much he'd missed. When he'd stepped outside for the first time, he could see distant cities. So much of the plains, lost! The world seemed new and fresh, and he didn't want to go back into the dark again.

He met his grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren. Thirty-four descendants all bearing the family name. He made a point of memorising each and every one of their hopes and ambitions. He spent the most time with Clarissa, one of the youngest. She dreamt of colonising Mars and would go on long, didactic rambles about doing just that. She grinned and leapt and made strange stories about space and time and aliens, out on the farthest rim, and how she'd discover them. He laughed along with her. It was a rare privilege to see one's dreams come true.

There were other things, though, which made him less happy. His children didn't want synthetic bodies. They were happy replacing themselves with a newer, fresher youth every few decades. He shamed Alice into at least giving it more time, but the older two seemed addicted. They had built a psychological armour that could not be pierced.

Jacob hadn't heard from Alice in over a century.

Things got better still. Synthetic bodies became copies of human flesh. Science advanced to the point where even brains could be repaired, in a manner of speaking. Knitting, they called it. He breathed a sigh of relief as his descendents all freed themselves from their predatory behaviour, admitting they were wrong, trying to make amends. To his surprise, the one with the guiltiest feelings was Simone. She abandoned her career and dedicated every waking hour to restoring and helping those "left behind", becoming a ferocious advocate for the knitting process.

Jacob was happier than he'd been in centuries. His farm was surrounded on all sides by great metal spires, maglevs and flying vehicles. Some days the stars were blocked out - but if you looked, between the criss-crossed strands of metal and wire, you could see them winking.

Clarissa was far out there now. She'd led the marches into space, the early colonies, the great leaps through the solar system and beyond. They said an empire was forming; new lands with strange names, Celestria and New Scutari, were forming. They'd discovered a huge hole in space and were plunging into it, mining strange new secrets.

Jacob heard from Clarissa often and always wrote back promptly. Clarissa had laughed at his old wooden desk and his paper letters, but she loved them too, or so he thought. In his new and human body, a young man's body, he'd scrawl page after page, telling her about the old days and the struggles of a mortal life.

One story that kept coming to mind was about the farm. One night in the late '40s, when Jacob had only been six or seven, his grandfather had got drunk on bourbon and told him about the very first days. He'd bought a few cheap acres of land and had got to work, building the house, getting cattle from a local trader. He told him about the Reservation and how the Indians starved, and about the strange shudders that still made him feel. He had talked, with a strange and tender fire in his eyes, about the coldest winter he'd ever known.

Jacob kept these memories locked tight in his head. The new bodies had mechanical aids for that now, but he still repeated mantras and techniques to keep them safe, keep them secure. He didn't want them to ever go.

And then things changed again. The vast city around him was, slowly, torn down, and the plains lay bare once more. People were moving off world. The Empire had new cities, new palaces, new arenas for the battle of life to go on. Jacob was left once again to sit on his porch and stare upwards. There were so many more stars than there had ever been before.

Clarissa was so far away. They often video-called now. She had many children of her own, under an alien sun, beneath a far-off star. She often hinted that he should sell up and come out there. Start over again. A new farm, a new life. Quite a few of his descendants were there now, but so many generations meant that even his new body couldn't remember them all.

Once, he'd have balked at the idea of ever leaving. But now, even as he could run and dance and sing again, his bones still felt old. He wanted his children and his grandchildren and all the rest to sit by his knees and listen to his stories. He wanted family.

It had been some few years since his wife had returned. There had been no tearful reunion, no sorrowful recriminations. It had been millenia, and they'd tried every permutation of life except each other. Eventually, once experience has tempered every desperate desire and crisis, there were always those who found their place and wanted nothing more than to live in it, to sit on a porch and watch the setting sun, talking of old times.

After some time, he finally packed up. So well-preserved and ancient a house was considered important, so a historical trust took possession of it. Their things were loaded up, and placed on a great liner that plied the dark of night. His wife went on ahead to set things up; he spent one last night lying on the ground as his grandfather had done, and staring up at the sky.

Things weren't perfect. He often thought of Alice. The last he'd heard, she was engaging in petty piracy across the Embargo Line, devoid of family or friends. He wondered if she even remembered his name. And some hurts could not be forgotten - the decades stewing in filth still haunted him at night.

His dreams had taken longer than he thought, and he had not imagined being the one to fulfil them. But there was movement again. It may not have been the story he was born with, but it was still a story. And at last, on that little ball of light - just there, just across from Orion, do you see? - at last, a Jacob would sit on another porch, under a far-distant sun, remembering his grandfather.

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