Returning to her apartment Kiri was about to unlock the door when something made her try Mark’s again. She knocked loudly.
She heard a groan and the sound of shuffling feet and eventually the door swung inward revealing Mark, dressed only in a pair of pyjama bottoms. Kiri tried to avoid staring at his muscular chest.
‘Hi come in, the place is a mess...’ he said.
Kiri stepped across the threshold with trepidation as if she was entering an alien environment. From the layout she could tell that Mark’s was identical to hers in dimensions and furnishings but nearly a year of wear and tear had obviously had an effect.
Disused pizza boxes and drinks containers littered the floor. Random paint marks spread across the walls and the edges of the sofa looked frayed and possibly singed. The partition wall between the lounge and the kitchen had a number of irregular holes in it, each about the size of a fist. Kiri tried to make out whether they had been the result of a punch.
Mark skipped ahead of Kiri and pulled a mottled pile of sheets and bedding from the sofa.
‘Sorry I fall asleep here somewhere,’ Mark said apologetically. ‘Should really make it to the bed but it’s easier sometimes.’
Kiri smiled and remembered she had napped on her couch the previous evening. Would it be long before she was living like this?
‘I didn’t do anything too embarrassing did I?’ Mark had found an old t-shirt on the floor and was pulling it over his head.
‘No – I don’t think so,’ Kiri said. ‘Not with me anyway.’
‘Good.’ Mark scratched his jaw and walked into the kitchen. ‘What I need is coffee.’
Kiri wasn’t sure whether to follow him into the kitchen or not so hung nervously beside the door.
‘You want one,’ Mark asked as he splashed his face with water from the tap in the kitchen sink then dried his face on a dirty looking tea towel.
‘Yes …I uh no I’m ok,’ Kiri said. She had no idea Mark lived like this.
‘Suit yourself,’ Mark busied himself refilling the filter of his coffee machine.
‘What happened to Liam?’ Kiri couldn’t help herself.
‘Liam?’ Mark’s face clouded over. He let out a bitter laugh ‘I don’t know.’
Once the coffee was ready they went back to the lounge and Mark turned on all the vid screens on three walls.
‘So you’ve got the itch too?’
‘Yeah the more you scratch the more you keep on scratching,’ Mark stopped, considering Kiri’s puzzled expression. ‘Its not natural to want to die, is it?’
‘No but …’ Kiri didn’t know how to continue, of course nobody wanted to unwind but she wasn’t one of those crazy people that thought there was a way to live forever. That believed healing crystals or a special diet could ward off the day when the unwinding would strike. Or that there was a sure-fire way to live to a hundred years old. She hadn’t spent all those years studying to start chasing daydreams.
‘Don’t worry I may be hungover and live in a tip but I’ve not flipped out,’ Mark spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. ‘I don’t claim to have found a way to avoid unwinding,’ he paused and looked morose, ‘Not for me anyway.’
‘Well what is it you think you’ve found,’ she couldn’t help smiling at Mark even as a touch of scepticism entering her voice. Mark stiffened slightly.
‘Its nothing solid yet but what if the unwinding is something different than we are taught?’ Mark said.
Kiri nodded her head. Every middle-ager was taught about the unwinding. It was a phase that the body went through, as it got older. When a person entered the unwinding their body’s biological clock started running faster and faster until it completely unwound.
While the machines could prevent individual diseases in younger people, the accelerated rate of decay during the unwinding meant there was practically no way to preent the body deteriorating once it took hold. After entering the unwinding it would spread rapidly and within a short period of time most people were dead.
The most advanced research showed that there was no way to stop the body’s own biological clock. It was an entirely natural process. An entirely natural part of life.
‘You remember studying GAAPs?’ Mark could see he had Kiri’s attention know.
‘Yes but you’ve seen the vids. There are millions of GAAP studies and none of them have shown any progress.’
In middle-ager school they had studied a whole module on Genetic Advanced Antitelomeretic Postponement syndrome or GAAP. It occurred very rarely but in those few people that were affected the unwinding was slowed.
When someone with GAAP, or a GAAP as people called them, entered the unwinding their clock still accelerated but at a much slower rate than normal. Instead of dying in the space of a few days or weeks the GAAPs often lived on until they were in their mid-twenties, an incredibly old age.
Although they survived they were barely alive in any real sense. Within days their hair would turn brittle and white and their skin became so thin that their bones protruded. This might have been a side effect that could be lived with if it wasn’t for the dementia that swiftly followed.
Without fail the GAAPs lost their mind within a few weeks becoming nothing more than dribbling vegetables and unable to look after themselves. They became more susceptible to disease too often suffering hideous agonies as their bodies degenerated. Kiri had watched vid footatge of them, and there was something terrifying in their eyes, something horrible, something that reminded her of the worst of the Adils.
In the rare case where someone was afflicted with GAAP they had to be cared for in hospices the same as newborn babies, year after year. Although it was possible to make drugs to induce GAAP syndrome they were widely banned because of the danger surrounding their use.
‘None of the studies have shown any progress because they’re using the wrong data,’ Mark’s eyes twinkled. ‘They’re not based on a complete data set.’
‘The wrong data?’ Mark had her attention. ‘What do you mean?’
‘There are more of them. More than we ever imagined.’
Mark and Kiri marched down the empty street as the first spits of rain landed.
‘We should have got a car,’ Mark shook out an umbrella from his pocket.
‘I like walking sometimes,’ Kiri huddled close to him as he extended the canopy above their heads.
‘You know we get priority call outs, right?’
‘Really, I thought that was just a myth? They used to say that in school but the car are sent by quads…I studied the algorithms. I don’t see how we would get a car sent out faster than anyone else.’
‘You are a smart cookie,’ Mark said with a droll smile. ‘To be honest, I don’t have a clue. I just heard that. I don’t know if they send cars out to majors faster or not but I like to believe they do.’
‘How much further is it to Jed’s?’
‘A few blocks…’
The streets in this part of town were deserted. Kiri checked her phone – there were plenty of cars available in the area to pick them up - but she wanted to carry on walking. This trip to meet Jed seemed momentous and she wanted to do it under her power rather than in the back seat of a car.
It was already late afternoon and she and Mark had spent the intervening hours since that morning poring over the data he had uncovered. She had to admit there was something there but nowhere near as much as she had at first hoped.
What it amounted was a discrepancy in the number of GAAPs occurring per head of population. The official statistics that everyone was taught in school suggested GAAP was extremely rare, a mere fraction of a millionth of a percentage point. What Mark had uncovered it might be slightly, not hugely, but slightly more common.
They arrived in front of a towering glass building.
‘I’ve been here before,’ Kiri gazed upward along the gleaming line of the building slope.
‘Probably as a junior,’ Mark said under his breath. ‘It’s one of the main Civic Management centres this side of town.’
Civic was the name for all the systems that ran the city - that kept all the cars driving, all the water pipes pumping water and the food prepared for consumption. The systems ran themselves automatically of course but every year a few of the brightest middle-agers were selected to receive extra training and join Civic Management. They mainly seemed to write and file reports but Kiri had never seen the point of these since nobody ever needed to read them.
‘And you’re sure Jed can get us in?’
‘Yeah that’s not a problem, he works in records management. I trust Jed but I don’t trust the rest of them so once we’re inside be cool ok?’
‘You think someone in Civic is covering something up?’
‘Look I don’t think anything ok. It looks like there is a slight discrepancy between the official numbers and the hospice admissions. Nothing massive but worth investigating. I’m not starting some conspiracy theory but I’m not about trusting anyone I don’t know either. Just follow me and stay cool.’
Kiri nodded. Even though Mark claimed to be calm she could see that he was nervous about going into the centre. There was something paranoid about his movements, some tension, like he was wound up tight.
‘Yeah got it.’
Kiri wasn’t sure they would find anything useful in the hospice admission records but she had always been fascinated by the GAAPs and curiosity drove her on. She had never met a GAAP in real life - obviously - and even though they repulsed her she felt that they were somehow important.
Inside the atrium of the Civic centre, Kiri and Mark were asked to scan their IDs before proceeding to the lift for the 21st floor. The lift was smooth and plush with soft black felt on the walls and bright angular LEDs that flicked through the floor numbers at surprising speed as they shot upward.
‘Mark!’ Jed greeted them the moment the doors opened. ‘Who’s your lovely friend?’
Jed was about half a head shorter than Kiri and dressed in a silky black shirt and trousers. His dark hair was cropped close and he wore shades even though the hall lights were hardly bright.
‘Kiri meet Jed. Jed meet Kiri,’ Mark stepped out of the lift and Jed shook Kiri’s hand.
‘A pleasure,’ he smiled pleasantly enough but Kiri felt there was something sleazy about him. ‘So you’re looking for everlasting life?’
‘We just wanted to check some records that’s all.’
‘Sure, sure. Follow me.’ Jed led the way down the corridor to a cavernous room buzzing with server frames.
Snaking their way through a labyrinth of corridors they finally came to a section where the frames were replaced with filing cabinets.
‘Some of the files are here. They’ve been saying they will all get digitised in the next few years,’ Jed stopped and grinned. ‘But I guess we don’t all have a few years.’
Mark glowered at him furiously.
‘I don’t know why the hospices cant upload directly but they’ve got enough problems dealing with the GAAPs I guess. Anyway there are a few cabinets of files here that are getting rehoused but most of them are in the main archive. Knock yourself out. Ill go and see if I can arrange for you to access the main section.’
Once he was gone Mark let out a long, low breath.
‘God that little jerk annoys the shit out of me.’
‘I thought you said you trust him?’
‘I do but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t annoy the shit out of me. Just because he was chosen to help out here now and again he thinks he’s better than everyone else. And the way he spoke to you...’
‘Oh yeah I didnt like him either,’ Kiri said in annoyed agreement, secretly pleased that Mark was thinking about her..
‘Why don’t you start over that end and I’ll start here.’
There were two large cabinets with files of GAAP admittances - every admission filed separately, ordered by date and region. Kiri tried to imagine what the main archive looked like if this was just a small part of it. The records probably stretched back at least thirty years maybe even a hundred. Kiri had never seen anything like it.
Although the syndrome was rare the numbers obviously added up when you looked at all the cases across the whole country year after year.
‘Let’s not start too far back or we’ll never get finished,’ Mark said. ‘If we look at admissions in the four southern regions over the last forty years that should be manageable.’
‘Ok, I’ll take the two coast regions and you can do central and mountain zone?’ Kiri felt they were going to be there quite some time.
Kiri lifted a handful of files from the North Coast region shelf and carried them to a desk that sat next to the pillar in the centre of the space.
‘If we write the hospice name and the year of admission is that enough do you think?’
‘Yes we just want to check to see if the numbers add up to what we know.’
Kiri settled down in the seat and opened the first file. Without meaning to she let out a short cry at the sight of the face staring back at her.
Stapled to the top right of the first page of the field was a small photo of a GAAP. Presumably this was the unfortunate soul that had been admitted. There was something stark and horrifying about their white, whispy hair and gaunt wrinkled skin. Their eyes looked hollowed out and yet somehow alive. There was something so real about the person staring back at her from the photo. Although the features were twisted and distorted like in a film she sensed that she was looking at a real person, a real person that had lived and suffered.
‘You ok?’ Mark called over from the nook that he had found for himself at the adjacent pillar.
‘Yes just wasn’t expecting to see the picture.’
‘Weird looking aren’t they’
Kiri grinned and nodded turning her attention back to the file.
It contained a number of official documents containing dates and background information about the individual - one Patrick Gerty. This particular file was over ten years old so Patrick was certainly dead. Somehow it relieved Kiri to know he was not alive, out there somewhere, as she spied on him.
At the back of the file she found the sheet that contained the admission date and, writing down the name of the hospice, made a note of the date in her book. Carefully, she placed the file to one side and moved on to the next.
Again she was confronted by the grotesque face of a GAAP but this time a female – Veronica Marfin. She scanned the file more rapidly this time, amazed at how many incidents and comments there were on file for someone who was apparently vegetative.
Veronica had been admitted in August, eleven years previous, and there were notes from the nurse in charge detailing an incident that had occurred when she had refused to co-operate with the registration procedure at the hospice.
As Kiri read on she became absorbed, picturing the scene as Veronica struggled to avoid admission at the hospice. It didn’t sound like anything she had heard in connection with a GAAP before. She had always thought GAAPs were barely aware of their surroundings but this almost sounded as if Veronica not only knew where she was but had a clear idea that she didn’t want to be there.
Soon the pile of checked files beside her started to swell as she picked up speed and became adept at knowing where to look. The medical records she quickly flicked over, they were the least interesting as they mainly contained a list of drugs administered for various minor illnesses but the ward records often contained fascinating comments from the duty nurses that gave her an insight into each individual.
Kiri’s pile had expanded from the desk beside her and onto the floor by the time Mark came over.
‘Cup of coffee?’ he asked, hands on his hips. ‘You’ve been busy.’
‘Yeah I know how to work when I have to.’
‘I feel a bit bad dragging you down here. You’ve just turned a major and here you are raking through files with me in a dark room instead of out enjoying life. I couldn’t have picked a more depressing task,’ Mark’s face shone with enthusiasm nonetheless.
‘I don’t mind, it’s interesting for me too,’ Kiri smiled, ‘let’s get that coffee.’
They walked in silence back to the hall where a small door led to a rest area.
The room was deserted and they ordered a coffee from the machine.
‘It’s going to take weeks,’ Mark said, apologetically. ‘I didn’t realise each file was so thick.’
‘Yes, they all seem to use different formats as well. Some have an admissions sheet and some write the date half way down a medical report. I don’t know how they cope doing everything with pieces of paper, it’s so unnatural.’
They fell silent, imagining a crazy world where there were no computers and everything had to be done by passing thousands of bits of paper around.
‘Have you ever thought what would happen if you become a GAAP?’ Mark spoke quietly.
‘No, you know, until today I think I kind of assumed it was awful. I don’t know what I imagined, I guess that you just would be in pain, lose your mind, a bit like unwinding but for longer. I’m not sure.’
‘I hope I don’t become one,’ Mark said.
Again Kiri saw that helpless childlike look in Mark’s eyes. His hair formed a shaggy halo around his face and for a moment he looked utterly lost, utterly gorgeous.
‘Have you had children?’ Kiri blurted out the question, without thinking.
The lost look vanished from Mark’s face and he straightened. For a long moment she wasn’t sure whether he was going to just walk off or not but he just stared into the distance.
‘Oh I don’t…. I’m sorry that was a stupid question...’ Suddenly Kiri felt terribly embarrassed.
‘No don’t worry its natural.’ Mark
‘I’ve never... I mean I’ve not got any,’ Kiri burst out, instantly regretting her revelation.
Mark smiled though and she instantly felt better.
‘You’ve got plenty of time, don’t worry.’
‘Oh I don’t know. Relationships seem so stupid you know, the way people talk when they’re “with” someone. I mean maybe its not right for me, I don’t feel ready yet. I just wondered… what it’s like?’
‘I’m not the right person to speak to….’ He left his words hanging in such an awkward way that Kiri avoided his eye. She was unsure how to continue the conversation and so they both turned back to their work in silence.
It was some time later that Jed burst into the room, evidently pleased with himself.
‘Alright my little researchers,’ he beamed. ‘Productive session?’
‘I… yes thanks,’ Kiri felt flustered by his short, sweaty presence.
‘I’ve bad news I’m afraid I’ve not been able to arrange your access to the main archives yet. Its in the system but it might take a couple of weeks,’ Jed said. ‘but how about you knock it on the head for the day and I take you out for dinner?’
Jed squeezed himself into the space next Kiri, placing his hand on her thigh and obviously excluding Mark from the invite.
‘No, thanks,’ Kiri shuffled away from him, trying her best to make the smile she gave him drip with insincerity.
‘We should get going’ Mark said, moving in between them and forcing Jed to remove his sweaty hand.
Kiri felt so glad that Mark was there.
‘Good idea,’ Jed was not to be dissuaded, ‘I’m finished now, I can join.’
Mark moved towards Jed, forcing him to take a step backward.
‘Jed we need to get some sleep, we’re both whacked.’
Jed looked from Mark to Kiri for a second, as if hoping for a last minute change of mind, then nodded his head and stepped back leading the way to the document room.
‘No worries,’ Jed said. ‘Well don’t be a stranger. And bring your little friend along next time too,’ Jed grinned, giving Kiri a cringeworthy wink.
Kiri barely noticed getting the elevator back to street level or the taxi ride home, her head was buzzing with a thousand and one ideas as she pieced together everything she had found out about the GAAPs.
For the first time, she started to really imagine what it might be like to live that long. To watch all your friends die and yet keep on living. To be part of a different generation. To watch your own child grow up?
She felt paralysed, but could not stop thinking, her thoughts racing, trying to unlock this secret, and at the same time dreading what she would find when she did.