This short story was written for Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2017. I was given the title WHITE SKY, the line of dialogue "Some people worship it like a god, but there’s no accounting for taste", and the optional "science" prompt of "A retro-virus drastically extends the lifespan of those who catch it. Should a cure be found?". The total word count is 1639, for a limit of 2000.
An electronic beep accompanied the creak of the front door opening, followed shortly by the sound of the automatic extractor fan turning on, greedily sucking at the foggy tendrils of smog that were spilling into the room from the road outside.
A heavy-set man with slicked black hair looked up from behind the bar, his interest piqued as he saw the tall stranger wrapped in a long coat step through the door. It wasn’t one of his regulars. The front door clicked shut as the man approached the bar.
“Hi,” he nodded, taking a seat opposite the barkeep. He was thin and pale, with sunken cheeks and a sharp nose. At a guess he was middle-aged, but that was hard to tell these days.
“You here for something?” came the cautious reply from the barkeep. Strangers weren’t a common feature in his bar. Not only was it small, cramped and unassuming, it was also pretty much the furthest out establishment in the city. Just one street over was the very edge of the outer rim, where the miles of city blocks gave out to empty scrubland. People generally had very little reason to come out here. Not legitimately, at least.
“Just passing through,” said the man.
The barkeep narrowed his eyes, and sensing the suspicion the man elaborated.
“I’m a traveller. I saw the sign outside.”
“Traveller, right. Well okay,” the barkeep shrugged. The man wasn’t immediately pointing a gun at him or trying to arrest him, so he supposed that was good enough for now.
“So what are you looking for? Synthetics? We’ve got good stuff, very pure, I can hook you up.”
The traveller shook his head.
“No, thanks. I can’t stand the stuff.”
“Suit yourself. Some people worship it like a god, but there’s no accounting for taste,” the barkeep shrugged. “So what can I get you, traveller?”
“Whiskey, please. Double.”
“Ah, a classics man. I should have guessed from that coat,” the barkeep smiled. He reached up to the shelf behind the bar, carefully lifting off an old bottle from the back. Brushing off the dust he placed a glass in front of the traveller and poured a liberal measure. The whiskey was obviously old. Cheap too, from the smell. But it was definitely whiskey.
“Sorry, no ice,” said the barkeep. He didn’t sound particularly sorry, but then who expected ice in their drink in a bar out here on the city rim? It was a small miracle that the building had power. Outside the sixth ringroad power outages were the normal state of affairs.
Quiet fell for a few moments as the traveller sipped at his drink and the barkeep busied himself with tidying his workspace. In the background the automated extractor fan fell silent as it switched off, its job deemed complete. It was a slow evening for business in the bar, like most days, and soon curiosity got the best of the barkeep as he restarted conversation.
“You don’t look like a Sixther. Where are you from, Fourth? Third?”
The barkeep’s eyes widened briefly in surprise.
“Well you’re a long way out from Central here.” He leaned closer across the bar. “Where exactly did you say you were travelling again?”
The man sipped at his whiskey.
“Outside the city.”
The barkeep’s surprise returned.
“People don’t tend to head outside the city. I mean, not Centrals anyway. And those who do don’t typically stop for a drink beforehand.”
“I’m not a criminal, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
The barkeep stood back upright, picking up a glass to wipe down with a dirty dishcloth. It was more habit than a genuine attempt at cleanliness, the traveller assumed.
“That may be, but the only people outside the rim are smugglers and wanted men. You get caught out there by a patrol and you’ll be treated the same.”
It was the traveller’s turn to shrug. He took another sip of whiskey.
“Well,” sighed the barkeep, “don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He contemplated leaving the conversation there, but now his curiosity was truly aroused.
“If I might ask, why does a man from Central want to head outside the city? There isn’t anything out there. Just empty farmland and dumb robots.”
The traveller paused, thinking for a moment, then looked directly at the barkeep.
“How old do you think I am?”
“Well, I don’t know,” started the barkeep, “I’d guess maybe forty? You Centrals are hard to read.”
The traveller smirked.
“I’m sixty three next week. You wouldn’t have thought it from looking at me right?”
The barkeep shrugged indifferently.
“We live so long now. Did you know that not so long ago people my age would be retiring? They’d actually stop working at sixty five. The government would pay them a pension to live. You would be deemed a senior citizen.”
“Sounds nice,” said the barkeep.
“Now we’re expected to work until we’re ninety,” the traveller continued. “Ninety! That’s older than the average life expectancy was back then. But now we’re here living until one hundred and twenty. What used to be retirement is now literally middle aged.”
“Right,” the barkeep interjected, “so we live longer now. Technology has progressed. What’s that got to do with travelling?”
The traveller smiled wistfully.
“It’s strange, but I realised I’ve never seen it snow.” His brow furrowed. “I mean, I’ve seen snow. I’ve seen whole mountain tops painted white, far down below me from the window of a shuttle. Short glimpses of the outside world as I’ve rocketed from one city central to another. But I’ve never been somewhere where it is actually snowing. I’ve never felt snow melting on my face. Yet I’m sixty three years old.”
“I’ll live longer than my ancestor who retired at sixty five. Technological progress as you called it. But have I really lived any more? When do you think he first ran outside in the snow? Visited a farm? Drove down a highway? I’ve not done any of those things. I could live to one hundred and twenty and never do those things. I could live twice as long and not even live half his life.”
The barkeep stopped to think.
“Life’s always been hard for us Sixthers. We used to be the farmers, you know. It was our types who came into the cities when the robots took our jobs. But I guess I always thought things were better in Central. You have all the money, all the opportunities. You can jet halfway across the world in a matter of hours.”
The traveller took another sip from his glass.
“It’s just odd I guess,” the barkeep continued, “I never expected to talk to a Central who was yearning for the past. It makes much more sense for a Sixther. I always thought we were the ones who lost something.”
There was another short period of quiet as the two strangers were lost in their respective thoughts, and then the traveller spoke up again.
“Do you know how we live so much longer now?” The traveller asked. “It’s actually a virus. A retro-virus, to be exact. It infects our cells, reprograms our DNA. Keeps us young. Don’t you find that odd? Mass infection of the population as a public health initiative.”
“I guess so,” said the barkeep. “I mean I’ve never really thought about it.”
“In the past we’d try to cure viruses, not cultivate them. Now I’m infected with one that lets me live longer but makes me live less. You asked why I’m travelling. I guess I’m travelling because I’m searching for a cure.”
The traveller took a final sip of his whiskey, finishing it.
“How much do I owe you?” He gestured at the empty glass. The barkeep smiled.
“Don’t worry, it’s on the house.”
By the time the extractor fan in the bar switched off again, the traveller was already outside the city. It was dark now, and cold, and behind him the ever present glow of the city permeated throughout the perpetual smog that hung over it. In front of him was the scrubland, gently sloping upwards, the empty expanse that surrounded the city limits before the air became clear enough for farming. Visibility was better in that direction, and in the distance he could just make out the silhouette of a drone flying above some crops, spraying them with pesticides.
Further out the traveller walked, until after some time he reached a wall of corn standing twice his height, the beginnings of the farmland. The drone that he had seen was gone now, probably already tending to more plants some miles away. With only a moment’s hesitation he stepped through, his coat snagging on the unfamiliar plants. He took it off, leaving it behind as he walked on.
Later still the traveller was still walking. It was now the early hours of the morning, and the farmland had some time ago given way to moorland as he climbed higher into the country. His breath was visible in the cold, catching the moonlight as it spread out in front of him, and beneath his feet there was now ice and snow. The first crunch under his shoes had felt foreign and exciting, but already the experience was approaching normality through repetition. The traveller was tired now, and reaching a small outcrop he stopped for a moment, looking back the way he had come.
The city was laid out below him, a shimmering oasis on the night’s horizon. Several bright lights streaked outwards in arcs from the centre, shuttles on their way to other cities in other places. The traveller wondered what those on board might see if they looked down towards him, standing upon the distant white snow. What they might think. He smiled and laughed as the first snow fell from the white sky.