Way of the Serpent – Chapter 4

MakeRoom

Amid mounting evidence of the success of their Chulel formula in 2040 – the year Max and Emily Feldman both turned 100 – the two researchers had decided to retire. It would be another decade before the concept of retirement gave way to the ten-year sabbatical.

The Drs. Feldman watched from afar the unfolding of the new world they had helped to create. When people had started turning 120, it was kind of a big deal. When their offspring started turning 100 it was an even bigger deal. When people were still around to celebrate their grandchildren’s century mark, they began to wonder where it would all end. As the Drs. Feldman began to think that they would easily reach their 200th birthdays, they started having second thoughts about the great gift they had bestowed on humankind.

The big question that began to occur to observant and thoughtful people like the Feldmans was whether this present trajectory would end at all. It wasn’t that people had become immortal; they were still vulnerable to physical violence and the few remaining infectious diseases that could kill you if not treated in time. But the medical professions were as diligent as ever in defending against all of these potential calamities. If anything, they had become even more adept at keeping people from dying of all kinds of things. Even violence, whether intentional or accidental, rarely resulted in death. Many of the tragically mutilated survivors of the last great wars were still alive, reminders of an incomprehensible time most people preferred to forget. Increasingly, death required deliberate intent. The new normal – the kind with Chulel – was for all the intact cells and organs of the body to continue regenerating in an orderly and reliable fashion, staying perfectly healthy and youthful indefinitely. The decline of cancer had been a pleasant side effect.

Reproduction had declined. As the generations piled up one after another, it seemed unnecessary. Or at least it had seemed unnecessary to the plutocrats. Fertility was near zero in all the primary corporate hub regions. The few children who were produced were seldom seem, being generally sent away to boarding colonies where they could be raised by professionals.

The pharmaceutical industry had been impacted rather severely by the decline in demand for the lucrative drugs that had addressed the chronic maladies of old age. There was a concomitant uptick in demand for mood drugs, and then after the so-called “War on Drugs” was finally brought to an end with the legalization of almost everything, big pharma found its new calling in the manufacture of all kinds of designer recreational drugs, which merged imperceptibly with the mood enhancers.

The Feldmans closely monitored their own health as well as that of the small colony of bonobos that had been receiving Chulel treatments longer than any humans, even Max. The bonobos occupied a forested reserve near the Pharmakon labs outside Atlanta, where they were cared for by one of the Feldmans’ former assistants. The bonobos had been largely forgotten by Pharmakon, but the assistant continued to faithfully cater to all their needs and to provide their annual Chulel infusions and physical checkups. It was in the bonobos that Max and Emily first noted the slight deterioration in the beta chains of hemoglobin. A few years later, they detected the same deterioration in their own blood. The changes were very small, but they bore an odd similarity to sickle cell disease. Max and Emily also noted that the effects were cumulative and that they were most pronounced immediately after an infusion of Chulel.

The health and demographic implications of the new order had been superseded in the Feldmans’ minds by concern over an apparent side trip into memory management via cognitive photonic therapy. Max and Emily knew perfectly well that the widely touted memory loss that had come to be associated with Chulel was a fabrication. They had been taking the drug longer than anyone else – entirely self-administered – and they knew exactly what its effects and side effects were. Memory loss was not among them. And yet, in 2045 there had been a worldwide panic as FlixNews and Corporate News Network suddenly began reporting alarming memory loss associated with Chulel, stampeding people into enrolling in a digital media corporation called Your Journal and receiving Chulel exclusively in spa-like clinics that promised memory maintenance and restoration. Max and Emily knew that Chulel maintained the brain in peak health, the same as any other physical organ. Their own memories of both distant events and recent occurrences remained remarkably clear. However, their interactions with people who were availing themselves of the “memory restoration” treatments that were offered at the Chulel spas caused them growing concern. It seemed to be producing some form of collective dementia.

The Feldmans had been more than happy to leave Pharmakon behind. They had felt some solidarity back in the early 2000s with what was originally called the “Occupy” movement, which had briefly tried to rally people against the domination of society, culture, and politics by big corporations and plutocrats. There were rumors that their movement had precipitated a clandestine reaction within the corporate world under the code word “Preoccupied.” If it was real, it would indeed have been a clever tag for a project designed to keep people so self-absorbed and emotionally dependent on entertainment, novel material goods, and selected, media-hyped “causes” that they had no interest in real political involvement. They might even be convinced (as indeed they had been) that less government was best government. It was easily recognized by anyone who paid attention to such things that corporations and corporate alliances had become the only meaningful centers of power. Most people complacently accepted the idea that corporations were more reliable than governments in giving them what they wanted and needed for happy lives. As the true elites had become fewer and more powerful, they also had become more brazen. The advent of Chulel and, fortuitously, cognitive photonic therapy had been all they needed to solidify their hold.

There had been a campaign back in the late 21st century: “The best days of your life haven’t happened yet. Make room for what’s to come!” This had encouraged people to get rid of their last remaining boxes of mementos and artifacts from past eras. It was a cooperative venture between Your Journal and the recyclables manufacturers. The real estate corporations were also on board, as they were squeezing more and smaller residential units into limited urban space. Naturally, these smaller residential units had less and less storage space. The leading home décor company had followed up with their own campaign: “Why live in the past when you can have today’s most gorgeous home?” So people had tossed out the last of the Tiffany lamps and the Hepplewhite dining room sets in favor of the latest limited-lifetime items from 3Dec.

The leading 22nd-century economic sectors entailed the manufacture of recyclables, renewable energy (which had been wrested away from the off-grid delusionists and placed safely in the hands of the plutocrats who knew how to make it generate wealth), entertainment providers of all kinds (a category that included foodstuff producers and pharmaceuticals), and advertising. Of course all of it was done in the context of electronic/ digital/ computerized wizardry, but that had ceased to be considered an industry in itself. It was simply how corporations did business. And really, the less the populace knew about how it worked the better. Digital communications and information sharing had been on a dangerous trajectory around the start of the 21st century, with ordinary workers having access to almost everything across what was called the internet, as well as the ability to communicate with one another in an unregulated manner. They had tried to argue that this was their right. Heroes had risen up, disclosing the ways in which corporations and governments were attempting to manipulate and intrude upon these communications. Fortunately, the corporations had been able to consolidate their control by convincing people it was the governments that were the greatest threat. Before long, governments became practically irrelevant, conceding all authority to the corporations.

Max and Emily Feldman’s first stop post-retirement had been Buenos Aires, where they intended to indulge their lifelong love of the tango and other things Argentinian. They had a fondness for old paintings and books and owned a couple of small works by Argentine painters such as Carlos Alonso and Xul Solar as well as books – physical books printed on paper – by Argentine writers including Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Silvina Ocampo. In Buenos Aires, they discreetly pursued the possibility of acquiring a few more precious books and possibly even a new painting or two. They adored Buenos Aires and, although they lived briefly in many more places over the next seven decades, they kept returning to Argentina. They thought they just might stay this time. They had well and truly fallen in love with the porteños of Buenos Aires.

By the time they settled there for good in 2125, Max and Emily had been witness to many changes in their beautiful city. For one thing, the underground tranvía subterraneo or “subte” had been closed after the devastating floods of 2077, replaced by a solar powered elevated monorail winding its silent, serpentine way through the city. Its exterior was of an alloy that reflected back the colors and forms of its surroundings, but never the glare of the sun. The buses known as colectivos had been done away with. The corporate-owned tranvía alta was much more satisfactory, generating wealth as it did for the corporations and the plutocrats.

Max and Emily were pleased to find that their favorite little Buenos Aires art gallery – the Galería Picaflor – was still in existence, occupying a modest store front on a side street near where the now defunct Contemporary Art Museum had been.

All the public museums had disappeared. As weakened governments found it increasingly difficult to extract revenue from the globally peripatetic corporations that monopolized wealth, public institutions were put on austere budgets. Naturally, the corporations had come to the rescue. National parks went first. In Texas, California, and the USA, park lands had been sold off to corporate interests. Then the artworks of the major public museums, including the once venerated collections of the Musées de France, had been “deaccessioned” at cut rates as even corporate collectors and plutocrats lost interest in the so-called “old masters.” The great libraries had been corporatized and subsequently reduced to mere facades for digital collections.

When Max and Emily first encountered the Galería Picaflor in the 2040s, many of the paintings were already being printed in unlimited editions on the increasingly popular recycled and recyclable canvases, but there also had been some traditional oils and even a few bronze sculptures. Now the gallery’s inventory of paintings and sculptures appeared to be entirely of the recyclable type. Max and Emily were delighted to find that the woman who had taken over the Galería Picaflor shortly before the Feldmans’ last visit to Buenos Aires in 2105 was still there. She was a sprightly woman by the name of Isabel Hernandez.

Isabel’s English was as fluent as her Spanish and Emily’s conversations with her tended to make use of both languages in about equal measure. “Where did you learn to speak such good English?” Emily asked one day, as she watched Isabel hanging some new pictures for an exhibit.

“Oh, you know,” Isabel answered brightly. “Just around.”

“No, really, Isabel. Your English syntax is far more sophisticated, your vocabulary much more extensive than what we hear from people who have learned from casual interaction with tourists and sabbaticos. Did you attend University in an English speaking country? You have a bit of a North American accent, you know. Kind of California even,” Emily said. Languages and dialects were a hobby of hers.

Isabel’s shoulders dropped a bit and she spoke without turning toward Emily. “I honestly don’t know,” she said quietly. “I guess I’ve just… forgotten.”

“Oh, well,” Emily said. “Probably not important. I was only curious.”

Isabel finished straightening the painting she had just hung and turned to face Emily. “Actually, it is important. I wish I knew. They say it’s the Chulel. I’ve never been able to get the treatments at the clinic where they give you the memory restoration. Some foreigners seem surprised that I haven’t lost my memories altogether.”

Isabel took a few steps back to look at the paintings she had hung. She shook her head. “Estas pinturas que se reciclen… ¡Que mierda!” Isabel glanced quickly over her shoulder at Emily, although she was pretty sure Emily would not judge her for this outburst.

Emily was laughing. “You used to have some real paintings, too,” she said softly. “¿Que pasó?”

“Oh, I still have some. I’ll show you once we get this exhibit over with.”

That evening, over their usual restaurant dinner, Emily told Max what she had learned on her visit with Isabel. “The woman has always self-administered Chulel,” she told him. “And yet she seems to have some huge memory gaps. What do you think that’s about?”

Max looked thoughtful. “You know, there were rumors back in – oh, maybe around 2030 or so? – about some experimentation with photonic memory restructuring going on here in Argentina. Do you think maybe she could have got mixed up with that?”

“Could be,” Emily replied. “I think she might be amenable to some assistance in finding out where she lost her memories.” Max nodded thoughtfully, and Emily could see that he had already begun plotting a research strategy.

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Way of the Serpent – Chapter 3

Jenda’s spontaneously rescheduled sabbatical began on the first of May, 2125. Her grandmother had issued dire warnings about the risks of traveling anywhere other than to the purpose built resort centers, but Jenda was resolute. She was going to the old artist colony of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.

The nearest airport was in León and it wasn’t exactly up to 22nd-century standards, but Jenda found the ambience pleasant and the staff friendly and helpful. She accessed an autocar to navigate the remaining 150 km from León to San Miguel.

The older model autocar bounced uncomfortably over potholes. The attendant at the airport had apologized for these in advance, blaming recent heavy rains. As the car hit an especially large hole, Jenda began to doubt the wisdom of her choice of destination, wondering if San Miguel de Allende might indeed be as unpleasant as Granny El had predicted. A part of Jenda felt excited, thrilled by a sense of impending adventure; but another part of her kept wondering, “Why ever would you want to do anything so silly?” That thought came in her grandmother’s voice. I can always leave and go somewhere else if I don’t like it, Jenda reassured herself.

The road was awful, but Jenda found the views enchanting and, traveling by autocar, she could give the views her full attention. Jenda watched the landscape as it slid by, like a series of pictures on a digiscreen – fields and small lakes, hills and valleys. She passed through a few villages that would have been picturesque if not for the disturbing aspect of dogs and children on the streets. In the primary corporate population hubs, nobody kept pets anymore; they had such short life spans and could carry disease. Efforts to come up with a veterinary form of Chulel had failed. As for the children – through Gen5, they had been considered a rather charming novelty. By Gen7 they were frowned upon as a thoughtless aberration.

Jenda awoke from a brief nap just as the town of San Miguel de Allende was coming into view. She could discern on the near horizon the outline of the iconic old neo-Gothic church. In the distance was a line of mountains. She knew that the town was not nearly as prosperous as it had been in its heyday, but she hoped it still had its charms. These were not apparent on the main artery into town, where the usual corporate recharge stations, quick meal establishments, and roadsteads predominated. But as the autocar slowed into the center of town the streets narrowed and these generic institutions gave way to antique brick and stone facades, adorned with digital skins advertising small cafés, bars, and shops with old Spanish names.

Jenda had booked a room at a small hotel near the Jardín Allende. The autocar stopped at the specified location and its service arm hefted her large suitcase out of the trunk, setting it upright on its little wheels on the pavement. The autocar pulled away and Jenda watched with some trepidation as the bulky case navigated over the old paving stones that led to the main hotel entrance.

A quarter hour later, as Jenda began unpacking her clothes in a spacious courtyard-view room, she reflected on exactly why she was here. Her distressing encounter with the woman in the café had aroused a yearning to reconnect with art and to try painting again. I’m here to paint, Jenda told herself. Then she went through a checklist of her impressions of San Miguel. The roads – it was worth repeating – were awful. The town was attractive enough in a quirky sort of way. The hotel seemed pleasant, despite its limited amenities. The staff were friendly, although their English was eccentric. She’d heard them speaking Spanish with one another. Jenda knew that the use of any language other than English or Chinese was discouraged in the major population hubs. On balance, Jenda decided to leave some of her things in the suitcase, which she zipped closed and slid under the bed. I should try the food, she decided.

At the recommendation of the receptionist cum concierge at the front desk, Jenda walked a few blocks to a restaurant called La Mazorca Loca, which supposedly had “the best huitlacoche tamales in all of San Miguel.” Jenda studied the menu intently and then ordered the huitlacoche tamales with pipian sauce, green chile rice, and a cold beer. Jenda noted that she was one of only a few patrons in the establishment.

While she waited for her food, she unfurled the digilet that she always wore on her left wrist. Granny El called it her “slap bracelet”, insisting that there had once been an accessory much like the digilet that had been marketed to children. Of course, it hadn’t had a flexible digiscreen or a whole computer with colloidal drive inside. “Hi, Gran. Just want you to know I arrived safely,” Jenda spoke into the digilet as it turned her words into syllabic symbols to pulse to her grandmother’s digilet, where they could either be read from the screen or re-formed into speech. “Love the place so far. Exclamation.” That was somewhere between a slight exaggeration and a lie – Jenda hadn’t decided yet – but there was no point in worrying Granny El. Or, worse, giving her reason to pulse back “I told you so.”

After finishing her meal – which Jenda mentally awarded four stars – and a second three-star ice-cold beer, Jenda decided to take a walk through what her NaviGiz claimed was the primary arts district of San Miguel. The street was shaded by ficus trees, most of which looked to Jenda like the fabricated variety, which had become popular after the droughts that devastated much of the planet in the late 21st century. A fabricated ficus only required an occasional shower of water to remove dust, making no demands on dwindling underground water tables. The newest models even had miniaturized 3-D printing devices that produced new leaves according to a convenient timetable, letting fall the old ones in coordination with the schedule of cleanup crews.

Jenda located the first street of art galleries easily enough and went inside a few. She was not impressed. The work was nice but seemed hardly different from what she could have had printed up in Dallas at 3Dec, the three-dimensional printing company that dominated the interior décor industry.

She was on her way back to her hotel, on the verge of disillusionment, when a building down a side street caught her eye. The storefront, instead of exhibiting the popular digital skin with color-changing geometrics, looked as if it were hand painted with something like a surrealist landscape. The sign read “Galería Kukulcan.”

The door to the gallery opened to the tinkling of small bells and Jenda found herself alone and surrounded by paintings that, although clearly recyclable 3-D facsimiles, were a departure from the boring scripted fractals and formulaic abstract landscapes that prevailed in most of the commercial galleries. As Jenda examined each painting first from a distance and then close up, she became aware of someone else entering the room from a rear door.

“These are nice,” she said casually, without turning around. “Do you ship internationally?”

“Nice.” The answering voice was deep and resonant, but the tone was flat, perhaps sarcastic.

Jenda turned to see who was there. He looked like a native, with his tan skin and dark hair and eyes, but he was taller and more muscular than most of the Mexicans Jenda knew in Dallas. He was clean-shaven, but his longish hair made him look a little unkempt. What caught Jenda’s attention, though, was the streak of blue paint on the side of his white shirt. That and the fact that he was stunningly handsome.

“Yes, we ship to most places,” he said, answering the question that Jenda had forgotten she asked. “Where did you have in mind?”

“Oh, I’m from Dallas. Texas. But I may be around for a while. Sabbatical, you know. No rush.”

“Hmph.” The man folded his arms and leaned against the door frame. “Not many people come here for sabbaticals. What made you choose San Miguel?”

“Well, the art I guess.” Jenda paused. “I paint… a little. Or I used to. And I like to be around art. My mother was a sculptor.” She was surprised that she had added that last statement.

“Really?”

“She worked in plexiform and plastimold, of course, but also in bronze. Quite a lot in bronze.” Jenda was being somewhat reckless in disclosing her mother’s penchant for bronze sculpture in an era when making things with intentionally limited lifespans was much preferred, keeping the economy ticking along as it did with recycling and remanufacturing.

“Bronze sculpture is hard to come by these days,” the man responded.

“I really do like these paintings,” Jenda said. “Who is the artist?”

“That would be me,” he replied, with a slight bow. “Luis-Martín Zenobia, à la orden.”

“I suspected as much,” Jenda chuckled, turning to smile at Luis-Martín Zenobia.

“What gave me away?” he asked, returning Jenda’s smile with one of those full-on smiles that crinkled his cheeks and lit up his eyes and made Jenda blush. “Was it my scruffy artist hair?” He ran his hand through his hair, looking like a mischievous schoolboy.

“Well, maybe that. But mainly it was that streak of blue paint on your shirt. Probably Phthalo blue.”

“Argh! I thought I’d found one shirt with no paint on it, but it seems I failed.” He looked down and scrubbed at the paint stain as if this might make it go away. “How long have you been in our beautiful little city?”

“I’ve only arrived today.”

“And the first thing you did was come to the art galleries? That shows a bit of dedication,” he said. “Maybe you would let me show you around to some of my favorite galleries.”

Jenda cocked her head to one side, looking at the painting but seeing in her mind the captivating smile of Luis-Martín Zenobia. “That might be nice.”

“How about Monday? The gallery will be closed then. About eleven?”

They said goodbye and Jenda went back to the hotel and finished unpacking her suitcase.

It turned out that Luis-Martín was an artist of some note, although his first career had been in anthropology, studying the traditional arts and crafts of the few surviving native populations of Mexico. As people had lost interest in adding to their burden of knowledge about the past, he had abandoned anthropology to devote himself to painting.

Luis-Martín produced a constant stream of novel images in the recyclable materials that society and the economy demanded. Some of his best customers were ready to buy a new piece at least once a month, blithely submitting one of the old pieces for recycling as they hung the new in its place. Luis-Martín had a finely tuned sense of what colors and shapes and patterns were most popular from week to week. He also had a finely tuned sense of how to please a woman, which was something Jenda discovered before she had been in San Miguel for a full week.

Jenda had always found a companion, a lover, on each of her previous eight sabbaticals. The first was the only serious one, leading, as it had, to her marriage to Benjamin Cohen. That marriage had lasted only until Ben’s next leave. All of Jenda’s subsequent sabbatical relationships had been carefully circumscribed. In light of this experience, Jenda was finding Luis-Martín Zenobia unnerving.

Luis invited Jenda to dinner at a restaurant that he promised would be much better than La Mazorca Loca. “Did you know the receptionist at your hotel is the son-in-law of the owner of Mazorca Loca?” he asked.

Jenda recalled having awarded that meal four stars. The restaurant Luis took her to, however, made her wish she had given Mazorca Loca only three stars, so the five she wanted to give El Piñal would be more meaningful. During dinner, Luis kept her entertained with stories about the history and culture of San Miguel, interspersed with jokes and personal tales of the local populace. Jenda loved listening to his stories. It gave her ample opportunity to study the way his eyes sparkled, the way his hands danced, the way his perfectly formed lips would suddenly part to let her glimpse his perfect teeth. Jenda felt that she had never known such a perfect man. Her mind tried to caution her about letting this potential relationship slip out of her control. But when Luis laid his hand casually over hers she yielded to a shiver of joy that passed all through her body, settling into a pleasing moistness between her legs. When Luis asked if she would like to come up to his apartment to sample some coffee liqueur he had acquired that day, Jenda’s only gesture at control came in trying not to sound too eager.

They laughed the next morning as they looked at the unopened bottle of liqueur. Jenda realized she had not taken her usual tablet of Femozem, a pill designed to facilitate and enhance the feminine sexual experience. She hadn’t had sex without it in at least forty years and had come to believe it was essential. She didn’t recall Luis having taken a pill either. She wondered how she could feel so satisfied, yet so eager for more.

This was not what was supposed to happen. Jenda needed to regain control. She hoped Luis wouldn’t notice her sudden withdrawal, her cool silence over breakfast, the flimsiness of her excuse for going back to her hotel, for not being available for lunch. She did concede to let him walk her back to the hotel. She agreed to meet him for dinner.

Jenda lunched on her own. It was only a couple of tacos from a street vendor. They were bland and she ate them while sitting on a broken park bench. Jenda didn’t know how to think about what had happened the night before, so she just let it replay. It left her – mind and body – wanting Luis. What she didn’t want was this sense of being out of control.

Jenda’s eyes settled on a woman seated at a corner of the park. The woman sat on the ground, trying to attract the attention of passers-by, trying to entice them to purchase what she was selling. Absently, Jenda rose from her bench and walked toward the woman. As Jenda approached, she saw that the woman was selling pieces of white cloth adorned with colorful stitched patterns. Embroidery. The word came to Jenda, even though she was uncertain she had ever seen such work before. She picked up one of the pieces and turned it over in her hands. She could see that it was stitched entirely by hand. It was not perfect, but it was beautiful.

“You made this?” Jenda asked. She heard the note of incredulity in her voice.

“Sí, señora,” the woman answered. “¿Lo quiere comprar?” She held up her digiscreen to show Jenda the price.

Jenda did want to buy it. She had no idea what she would do with it – it was only a piece of embroidered cloth – but she felt drawn to it. She wanted it. So she bought it and as she walked away, she studied the pattern, trying to discern some kind of meaning. All she saw was a display of flowers. Flowers and a little blue bird. But as she folded the cloth and tucked it inside her bag, she felt her mind settling and she began to look forward to dinner with Luis-Martín.

Before the end of another week, Luis invited Jenda to move into his apartment above the gallery and Jenda accepted. Luis’ apartment was spacious by contemporary Dallas standards. There was an open living area and a balcony overlooking the tree-lined street. There was a tile-surfaced table with several brightly painted chairs for sit-down dining just like in a restaurant. There was a well equipped kitchen. The bedroom had a large bed and a huge window, which unfortunately opened onto a neighbor’s rooftop terrace. Jenda insisted on hanging curtains, but contented herself with a diaphanous fabric that obscured the view without blocking the light.

A few days after Jenda settled in, Luis introduced her to what he called his “real art” studio, in the attic above his first floor commercial studio (which, he said, was really more of a factory) and his second floor apartment. Jenda didn’t know what to think. The images were no different from the ones in his commercial pieces, since they served as prototypes for the recyclable, 3-D printed replicas. But there was something about the richness of the colors, the subtle detail, the texture and sheen of the surfaces that kept drawing her more deeply into the images. She didn’t particularly like the smell of oils and turpentine, but she quickly fell in love with the work. And with Luis-Martín.

Luis was what had become known pejoratively in the commercial art world as a retrogressive, painting in real oil paints on traditional archival canvases that he carefully crafted himself. Of course, the commercial art world in 2125 only knew his 3-D replicas, which fetched premium prices. His originals were known only in an underground art world. The oil paints and rolls of natural canvas and pots of gesso Luis needed for his work were acquired from this underground network of people devoted to preserving the knowledge of how to produce durable fine arts and crafts. In a socioeconomic order in which high consumption was de rigueur, producing anything that was not intended to be readily and willingly recycled was anathema.

Jenda experimented with the oil paints in Luis’ clandestine studio and, under his loving tutelage, began to rediscover the joy of painting. She wasn’t sure whether her pleasure derived from the rich oil colors or from seeing her mental images take form on canvas. Or perhaps it came from the exhilarating sense of freedom she found spending time with this beautiful man in this secret place.

As Jenda fell into the rhythm of life in San Miguel and her new relationship, she almost forgot about the odd experience that had prompted her decision to come here. Does it really matter? she asked herself. The old woman in the café down the side street in Dallas had told her she needed to ask more questions, but when things were going so well, why should she? The only questions she felt like asking were the ones that helped her get to know Luis.

The man himself was an enchanting enigma. Jenda found his dissident tendencies exciting. He evoked something in her – a frankness, a creative assertiveness – that she found surprising. He invaded her dreams, although in her dream world Luis sometimes seemed darker and a bit shorter than her real world Luis. Once or twice he was accompanied by a lady in blue, a lady hidden in the shadows. Jenda thought she knew the lady. She thought she saw the lady beckoning her, entreating her to look behind the curtains, to find out what lay in those shadowy places. The lady in blue had a kind and tender countenance and Jenda found her terrifying. She wanted to tell Luis about this dream, but when she tried to remember it and put it into words, the images slipped away and she could think of nothing to say.

“What made you decide to do oil painting?” Jenda asked Luis one afternoon, as she stood back to examine her own small painting on the easel, trying to decide if the central image wanted a trace more Quinocrodone magenta somewhere offsetting the shadow to the right.

“It was never a decision,” Luis said. “It just happened. When I was at boarding school in the US, one of my art teachers showed me some oils and real cloth canvases one day and I felt it was something I had to do. Some of us were already finding the trend toward recycling everything – and only making things that were intended to be recycled quickly – more than a little offensive.” He paused and glanced at Jenda, as if anticipating some reaction. Then he continued. “I guess my attitude was a bit ungrateful, given that my education was being paid for by my father’s success as an engineer and product designer for one of the major recyclables manufacturers.”

“But you make recyclable paintings, too.” Jenda wondered how he reconciled this.

Luis frowned. “It supports my real art. And I’m good at it. I can give people what they want. Is it wrong to make them happy?” He paused as the frown softened into a half smile. “My secret aim is to make my consumers feel at least a tiny twinge of regret when they drop one of my paintings off for recycling.”

Jenda wasn’t entirely sure she understood. Or maybe she didn’t want to understand. Luis’ motivations were at odds with the dominant culture in which she moved so successfully back in Dallas. The whole economy in 2125 hinged on the motivation to buy lots of things, use them for a short time, surrender them for recycling and buy more. Everybody agreed it was more satisfying to design new things, build new things, and buy new things than it was to deal with a lot of old stuff sitting around needing repairs and maintenance and eventual restoration. Anything worth keeping could be digitized and stored at Your Journal.

“So you did an art degree at university?” Jenda decided there was quite enough Quinocrodone magenta on her painting and she picked up a tube of Dioxazine violet.

“No,” Luis responded. “I took lots of art classes in secondary school, but by the time I got to university I’d developed an interest in primitive and traditional arts, so I decided to do a degree in anthropology. And then one degree led to another.” He stepped back from his own large canvas and turned to look at Jenda’s painting.

“What do you think?” Jenda tilted her head side to side as she examined her work. It showed a female figure, her arms flung out, her head tilted skyward, as if dancing to a tune that emanated from the swirl of colors surrounding her.

Luis stepped closer to her easel, closer to Jenda. “I like it,” he said. “It has great emotional intensity. Your color choices are excellent. It’s a charming self-portrait, Jenda. And I like the slightly metallic quality…”

“Wait. What? Why do you say it’s a self-portrait?” But as Jenda looked again at the painting, trying to see it through Luis’ eyes, she realized there was a strong resemblance.

“Didn’t you intend it as a self-portrait?” Luis asked. “It sure looks like you – perhaps a more child-like Jenda, but I think this is definitely you.”

“Well, it wasn’t intentional. But I see what you mean.” Jenda stuck her paintbrush between her teeth to adjust the band holding back her hair. “Who knows where these images come from anyway, Luis? You’ve said yourself that sometimes they seem to well up from nowhere. I’m glad you like it.” Jenda dunked her paintbrush into the cleaning solution, deciding she was finished for the day.

“So in anthropology you had to do – what? Fieldwork? Where did you do that?” Jenda picked up the thread of their conversation, settling on the sofa.

Luis sat down next to her. He explained that he had done his doctoral dissertation fieldwork in Guatemala, working in some Mayan communities in the mountains and befriending a few contemporary Mayan artists who were practicing their ancestral arts. “One of them was also a shaman, an artist of ritual as well as a visual artist. He became my primary guide and friend.”

“You call them informants, right?” Jenda tried to recall an anthropology text she had read in an introductory class in college.

“Oh god no!” Luis shook his head vigorously. “We stopped using that term long ago. Although, when I was in graduate school, there were still some heated discussions about it. No, that term…I hate it. The way I see things, field studies have to be cooperative. The people have to be full participants in putting together the stories that naturally belong to them.” Luis paused, staring at his left hand and stretching out all its fingers, then massaging it with his right hand. “The first day I met Armando – the shaman I mentioned – he was sitting under a ceiba tree with his hand wrapped in a bloody cloth. I thought he looked like he was about to pass out, so I went over to see about him. It turns out he was trancing. I apologized for bothering him, but he laughed and said that he was taking advantage of the opportunity to make an offering to the vision serpent.”

“The what?”

“A deity among the southern Maya – southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras. In ancient times they made ritual blood offerings. And one of their most important deities was the vision serpent, which connected with the Aztec Quetzalcoatl and Kukulcan among the northern Maya.”

“So that’s where you got the name of your gallery?”

“Exactly. Kukulcan – by whatever name – is a flying snake. Literal translation is ‘feathered serpent’. I’ve always liked that image. Anyway, Armando had accidentally cut his hand on a machete in the field and decided since he was losing blood anyway, he’d just as well say the prayers of blood sacrifice. He was quite a character. I don’t know how I would have gotten through my research without him.” Luis paused, looking thoughtful. “Did you know that one of the Mayan words for the life force – which they identified with blood – was Chulel?”

Jenda hadn’t known, although she had occasionally wondered how Pharmakon came up with such an odd name for their most profitable drug. Jenda always seemed to be learning something new from (and about) Luis. She liked that. Most of the people she knew were so predictable. They had so few stories of any interest about their past – most of them trivial, although sometimes amusing. But once you had known them for a while you knew all their stories. Of course, Jenda was just getting to know Luis, but there was something about his stories, something about the way they fit together that told her he was different.

~~~

Jenda and Luis began going dancing. At first Jenda objected, claiming that she didn’t dance. But once Luis got her out on the floor, she wondered whether that was true. “I honestly didn’t think I could dance, Luis,” she said, after he insisted that she must have taken lessons. “I’ve always refused to dance, for as long as I can remember. But with you, I have to admit I’m really enjoying it.”

She also enjoyed spending time fussing over a painting and trying to comprehend that it was not going to be digitized and tossed into recycling at the end of her sabbatical. Mostly Jenda enjoyed being with Luis. They frequently shared dinner in small cafés and loved going back to El Piñal, where they first ate dinner together. Occasionally they met up with one or more of Luis’ friends for drinks. They took long evening walks through the parks. And of course there was their intimate time in bed, although Jenda was developing a predilection for sex on the studio sofa, where the scent of hers and Luis’ aroused bodies blended with the odor of oil paints, producing sheer intoxication.

“You know I’m in love with you, don’t you?” Luis said one evening, as they lay sprawled on that sofa, savoring the intoxication. He brushed back the strands of perspiration dampened hair that clung to Jenda’s forehead and cheeks.

“Then I guess,” she said, tracing the line of his jaw with her finger, “we’re in love with each other.” Luis leaned closer, his face almost touching hers. And then they kissed – a gentle, lingering kiss, expecting nothing beyond the moment.

Jenda and Luis spent many hours together in his commercial gallery and work space – Luis’ “factory”. Sometimes Jenda took the gallery’s open hours as her time to wander off on her own. Once a week an art student from the local institute came to mind the studio and Jenda and Luis could take off together. Luis also had talked Jenda into minding the gallery on her own from time to time when he went out to meet with “people”, which Jenda assumed meant clients or materials providers, although Luis didn’t always say. She liked spending time alone in the gallery and she liked listening to the admiring remarks of the not infrequent visitors. She made some good sales.

“Did I ever tell you why I decided to come to San Miguel?” Jenda asked Luis one afternoon as they sat in the commercial gallery together waiting for customers.

“You said you came for the art.”

“Well, yes, that’s true. But there’s a little more to it.” Jenda screened off the book she had been reading and rested her forearms on the worktable. “I’d made reservations to go to a resort center in California. And I was supposed to leave in July, not May.”

“You obviously changed your plans.”

“Yeah. Because… Well, I was having a sandwich in a little lunchroom. One of those cafés that professionals don’t go to, you know? Anyway, this woman – an old woman – started staring at me and then she came and sat down at my table. She knew my name. She said she knew me in high school. She asked if I still painted. And she knew my mother was an artist. But she also said other stuff – crazy stuff – about how she had idolized me and my boyfriend in high school. How we had been such… What was the word she used? ‘Firebrands’?” Jenda suddenly felt this might all sound foolish and looked up at Luis to check his reaction. He looked serious.

“Really? And you didn’t recognize her at all?”

“No. But she looked so old. How can you tell for sure when someone looks that old? But the upsetting part was when she got right in my face and said ‘You need to ask more questions.’” Jenda looked directly at Luis as she said this and the dramatization made her shiver, remembering. “And when I tried to tell her she didn’t know who I was, she said that I was the one who didn’t know who I am.”

“And on the strength of that you changed all your plans?”

“Yeah. I can’t explain why the experience affected me the way it did. It just made me want to do something different. To break out of my routines, I. Anyway, now I’m glad I did.”

“Me too, querida.”

Jenda was relieved that Luis now knew that little story. She was grateful that he hadn’t asked questions because she felt certain she had no answers.

A few days later, Jenda was once again minding the gallery by herself. She looked up from the novel she was reading on her digilet at the sound of the tinkling bells and saw that it was Luis returning from one of his meetings. He was carrying a package that bore the distinctive shape of a bottle of their favorite tequila.

“Celebration time!” he announced. “I’ve signed a contract with Marvaworld to supply their corporate offices in Texas with a regular rotation of paintings. That should keep us in oils and canvases for quite some time. And, by the way, provide ample excuses for me to travel to Texas.”

Although it was still an hour until closing time, he tasked off the “Open” sign and locked the door, grabbing Jenda’s hand and giving her a quick kiss as they headed upstairs. It took them a while to get changed to go out for dinner, because Luis had been unable to resist joining Jenda in the shower. Her hair was still damp as they headed out into the early evening to their favorite café, having already shared shots of tequila as they got dressed.

As they lingered over dinner – which entailed a couple of margaritas each – Luis told Jenda the details of his contract and how it would mean taking on a regular employee to replicate the required paintings in the required numbers at the required intervals. Luis seemed excited about the contract, but Jenda also detected an edge of contempt in his voice as he related the frequency with which Marvaworld would want the paintings to be switched out.

“You’re sure this won’t take you away from your oil painting?” Jenda asked.

“No. Oh, no, not at all!” Luis said. “God, if I thought that I’d never do it. The only reason to produce these recyclables is the fact that it supports my real work. This is going to make our life better, I’m sure of it.” And they gazed at one another, letting the fact that he had said “our life” sink in.

Both Luis and Jenda were slightly drunk as they headed back to the gallery apartment, but they decided to have one more shot of the celebratory tequila Luis had bought for the occasion. Jenda’s was more like a half shot and she put it in a glass of orange juice. They went onto the balcony. By resting her head on Luis’ shoulder, Jenda found that the world didn’t wobble quite so much.

“Tell me more about your mother the sculptor,” Luis said. There was a warm breeze and the lights from the street became fireflies amid the dancing leaves. “You told me about her that first day, but… The way you talked about her made me think…”

“My mother is dead,” Jenda said. “You remember that spate of autocar accidents back in 2080? When there was that fault in the script update? My mom was one of the fatalities.”

“I’m sorry,” Luis said. “That must have been awful.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Jenda felt the muscles of her shoulders and neck tense, as if trying to make up for the lack of mental discipline that was letting feelings about the loss of her mother bubble to the surface. “She had gone completely mad so it was possibly for the best.” Jenda heard her words slurring slightly and her voice trailed off. The bubbles of sentiment were coalescing into images, memories. “She was delusional. She would get into these rants, claiming that people she was friends with had disappeared off her LifeBook chapters and Your Journal logs. She accused my father of drugging her and lying to her. Stuff like that.” Jenda shook her head and the world wobbled. “The worst was this story she came up with about how I’d gotten pregnant in high school. We showed her all the YJ records to prove that never happened, but she got crazier and crazier.”

Jenda’s eyes were having a hard time focusing and she was unclear whether it was the tequila or the pull of resurgent memories drawing her away. Maybe it was her tears that made everything blurry. “Mom was such a good sculptor. A wonderful artist. I wonder sometimes whatever happened to all of her beautiful work. It was so stupid. Her wreck was only two days before the script fix came out. She flipped out on a curve at full speed. She never knew.” Jenda began to sob. “Poor Mommy. Why did she get so crazy? She was so good. I wanted her to know how much I loved her.” Jenda surrendered. Luis held her gently as she wept, whispering quietly that he loved her, that surely her mother knew how much Jenda loved her. “There’s nothing wrong about feeling sad,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Luis,” Jenda said, with one more jerky intake of breath as she wiped her eyes and nose with the back of her hand and searched for a tissue. “I don’t know why this suddenly hit me like this.” She wondered vaguely why she had never entered anything about it in her Your Journal files. Her files, she knew, contained only a bare mention of the circumstances of the death of Tessa Jenkins Swain and nothing at all about the descent into madness that had preceded it. “It must be the tequila.” Jenda forced a smile. “I shouldn’t drink so much.” But she couldn’t help wondering if this was the kind of thing the old woman had meant she should question.

“How about a cup of manzanilla tea before bed?” Luis said, standing up, still holding Jenda’s hand.

Jenda looked up at him. “Yes,” she said. “Thank you.” She hoped he understood she wasn’t just talking about the tea.

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Way of the Serpent – Chapter 2

RECALL08

2125 marked the centenary of the entry of the miracle age prophylaxis Chulel into the marketplace. The occasion probably should have been marked by a celebration of some sort, but so few people remembered what life was like before Chulel that it would have seemed rather like commemorating the invention of water or air. So the year would come and go without fanfare.

Two people who did remember life before Chulel were the inventors of the drug, Drs. Max and Emily Feldman, who had lost their only child to Hutchinson-Guilford progeria syndrome (HGPS) back in 1977. “Progeria” referred to a set of diseases that caused premature aging due to a genetic anomaly; HGPS had been its most common (though still extremely rare) form.

The Feldmans had delayed “having a family” as people used to say, until after they both completed med school. Following their daughter’s death, they had devoted their careers to finding a cure for progeria. It had been a long haul. The first significant advance had come from another lab, which announced a promising new avenue of research in 2014. Pharmakon Corporation, and specifically the Drs. Feldman, built on this and in 2017 published preliminary results of a drug they named according to its active chemical components. Nobody now remembers that name.

The drug was ready for human trials by early 2018, and a dozen or so families from around the world came forward, traveling to the Pharmakon headquarters in Atlanta to let the Feldmans try out the drug on their afflicted sons and daughters, who had been diagnosed with either HGPS or one of the other, even rarer, forms of progeria.

What nobody knew was that Max Feldman was also testing the drug on himself. Even Emily didn’t know. Max Feldman was already 78 and although he checked out healthy enough, he had a family history of heart disease and atherosclerosis and there were certain aspects of the lab tests on the new drug as well as its effects on a small test group of bonobos that had irresistibly piqued his curiosity.

By the time the tests on human progeria patients were declared unequivocally successful in 2021, the people closest to him were beginning to notice something about Max. One of those people was the Feldmans’ lab assistant, Winslow Morris.

In the third month of the trials, Winslow noted that there seemed to be a couple of vials of the drug missing. He questioned Dr. Max about it, and was told it must be a mistake. When Winslow re-counted the next day against the numbers in the computer, he found no discrepancy. It happened again a couple of months later and this time Winslow kept his observation to himself. Again, the numbers mysteriously rectified themselves within a matter of hours. Then one day Winslow thought he saw Dr. Max slipping a vial of the medicine into the pocket of his lab coat. That’s when it clicked. Winslow started observing Dr. Max more closely. On the day before the results of the progeria field tests were formally announced, Winslow missed work. And then he disappeared altogether.

Winslow hadn’t needed to steal any of the medicine. He knew how to make it. His destination was China and within six months a new drug started showing up on the streets. It was called “Fontana” and it was touted as the “fountain of youth”. It was outrageously expensive and sold mainly to customer lists Winslow compiled by irrupting into databases of dermatologists specializing in cosmetic surgery. He was an instant millionaire.

Winslow did not know that Dr. Feldman had altered the dosage for his own use. Fontana consumers were overdosing, and before the drug had been on the street for a full year, its reputation went into free fall. People who were self-medicating with this black market miracle potion started to develop strange skin disorders, unexplained neuropathies, and a vulnerability to infection, all of which ended up on the list of warnings regarding possible side effects when the first generation of the real drug went on the market in 2025 under the name “Chulel.”

Winslow was sorry about all this. It cut his income stream down to nothing. But he took his multi millions and his remaining stocks of Fontana and fled.

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Way of the Serpent – Chapter 1

WAY of the SERPENT ebook2016The café was down a couple of side streets, in an area of Dallas Jenda never went to, but she thought she might have been there once before. She couldn’t remember. Without looking at the menu, she ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with fried potatoes and sweet tea. It was plain food. She was halfway through her meal, savoring the anonymity afforded by this out-of-the-way eatery as much as the greasy fare, when she noticed the woman who had turned on her stool at the café’s counter to stare.

The woman was old. That in itself was disturbing. Nobody got old anymore, not since Chulel – the drug that prevented aging – had come on the market a hundred years ago. Jenda, at 111, was as fresh and vigorous as she had been in 2035 when, at the age of 22, she had received her first annual Chulel treatment. Jenda’s grandmother was 165, but appeared no older than she had been when she began taking Chulel in her mid-sixties. What was this old woman doing in Jenda’s world?

Jenda turned away, but she could still feel the woman’s dark eyes boring into her, probing. Jenda couldn’t help herself; she looked again. When the woman saw her looking, she smiled.

“Zujo!” Jenda swore, quickly returning her attention to her unfinished sandwich. It was too late. Taking the look as an invitation, the woman dropped down from her counter stool and shuffled over to Jenda’s table.

“You’re Jenda Swain,” she said, cocking her head to one side and narrowing her eyes. “God, you look the same as you did in high school.”

“Excuse me?” Jenda sat up straighter and used her best business voice.

“Of course you don’t remember,” the woman said, dragging out the chair across from Jenda and sitting down heavily. “Nobody remembers much of anything anymore.” She shrugged and looked down at her hands. Jenda looked, too. The woman’s hands were wrinkled, misshapen, and covered in brown and red splotches. “I remember you, though,” she continued, looking up into Jenda’s face. “My god, you were a firebrand back then. I idolized you and your boyfriend, you know. Such temerity! The things you did…” The woman refused to turn away. “Do you still paint? You always had your mom’s gift for art.”

“I think you must have made some mistake,” Jenda said quietly, fighting to modulate her voice against the tightening in her throat. “You may know my name, but you clearly don’t know me. Nothing you are saying makes any sense at all.” Jenda felt her cheeks warm as she flashed on an image of herself with an easel and paintbrush. Her last bite of sandwich seemed to have lodged somewhere near the base of her esophagus. “Now, would you please go on your way? Leave me alone.” Jenda blinked, shuttering herself away from this intrusive presence.

The woman’s face clouded and she leaned forward, looking Jenda squarely in the eye. “You need to ask more questions.” She spoke the words clearly and forcefully. Then she pushed her chair away from the table with a loud scraping noise. As she leaned over to pick up the leather bag she had dropped under the chair, the pendant around her neck clanked on the tabletop. It was an old fashioned timepiece, the kind with a round face with numbers and moving hands. Jenda reflexively reached up to grasp her own necklace, a cluster of plexiform flowers in the latest style from her favorite recyclables boutique. The woman took in a deep breath, as if rising from the chair had taxed her strength. She looked at Jenda again. “You’re the one who doesn’t know who Jenda Swain is.” Her voice was gentle, maybe sad. Then she turned and walked out the front door.

Jenda’s impulse to run after the woman and ask her name was unexpected. Holding it in check, she sat rigidly, staring at her cold, greasy food. She swallowed hard, trying to dislodge that last bite of sandwich. Her hands trembled. She quickly finished her dilute, not-so-sweet tea. Looking up and down the street as she exited, she saw no sign of the woman.

Jenda looked back over her shoulder as she made her way back to the main street, back to reality. What possessed me to go to that café anyway? she scolded herself, shoving her fists deeper into the pockets of her fashionable jacket.

All afternoon at her desk in the Dallas offices of Your Journal, Jenda’s mind wandered, pacing back and forth across the odd feelings, trying to tamp them down. How did the old woman know Jenda’s name? What was that about idolizing her in high school? What boyfriend? Firebrand? Ridiculous. Jenda’s personal records with Your Journal clearly indicated that her high school career had been quietly unremarkable. She had been a good student with good marks who never made trouble. The woman must have gotten Jenda mixed up with someone else. That was it. Old people did that sometimes, didn’t they? But Jenda had enjoyed painting in high school. And her mother had been a sculptor of some note before the accident.

“Are you okay, Jenda?” It was her office mate, Weldon.

“What?” Jenda started, “No, no, I’m fine,” she said. “Maybe something I had at lunch disagreed with me.” She gave Weldon a wan smile. It was nearly quitting time.

Jenda’s discomfort followed her home. It’s just an attack of cognitive dissonance, she told herself. There was a pill for that. But when she got home, she didn’t take the pill. Instead she poured a glass of wine and pulled up Your Journal on her home screen, accessing her high school years. There wasn’t much, but the pictures were all precisely as Jenda remembered them – she had the same golden blond hair, the same flawless fair skin. She stopped for a moment to examine the picture of herself with an easel and paintbrush. Why had she ever stopped painting? To make a living, she reminded herself, and a contribution. She had majored in art at Perry University, but her course of study focused on digital design and graphic psychology. With that, she had secured her position at Your Journal. That was ninety years ago.

Jenda loved her job with Your Journal, loved being part of such an important corporate institution. Everybody relied on Your Journal as a secure repository of their personal photos, stories, thoughts and feelings. People interacted with it every day, experiencing pangs of guilt if they failed to respond to the reminders on their digilets. You could also put photos and comments on LifeBook, but those were shared with everyone in your loop. YJ was personal and people often referred to their YJ files as their “exomemories”.

Jenda was due for her next sabbatical in a couple of months and she had already booked into a resort in the Republic of California. The social order under Chulel had done away with retirement, moving instead to a system in which every worker received a one-year sabbatical every ten years. Technically, of course, a “sabbatical” should occur every seven years, but the term had a nice feel. Nobody questioned such verbal technicalities.

Jenda pulled up some pictures of the resort, which suddenly struck her as mundane and boring and not somewhere she wanted to spend an entire year of her life. Maybe she should try something different. Maybe she should try painting again. Jenda vaguely recalled a place where her mother had gone a few times, a place that used to be considered something of an artists’ colony. Maybe in Mexico. Jenda searched through various mediazones and finally came up with a town in central Mexico called San Miguel de Allende. She wasn’t sure that was it, but she decided that was where she would go. She did check to verify that there would be tennis courts. She always said tennis was her favorite activity.

Within a few minutes Jenda had cancelled her reservations for California and made new ones for San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Then she drafted a memo to her supervisor, asking to begin her sabbatical early. She would lose a few weeks of leave, but she felt an odd exhilaration arising from these rash decisions. It felt good.

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