He scanned his card and the door to Ziusudra Industries slid open. He stepped inside, the smog outside on Level Three billowing in after him.
"Welcome back, Chris." said the door.
"Thanks, door." said Chris. He loosened his scarf.
"You're welcome," said the door. "You know, Chris, you're the only one who appreciates me around here."
He was going to miss that door.
Chris squinted down the hall. Even after working at Ziusudra for 80 years he still found the transition to fluorescent lighting and sterile laminate floors jarring after the dim lamps and asphalt of the crowded passages outside. Though the clean air was nice.
He grabbed the folders from his mailbox, and traced the now familiar path through the labyrinthine halls to his lab.
Chris leafed through his assignments and frowned. Four clinics wanted orders today. He hadn't realistically expected management to give him a break on his last day, but there had always been hope.
He rounded another corner and collided with someone, dropping his papers.
"Oof, sorry," it was Ryan, his supervisor. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," said Chris, bending down to pick up his papers. "Thanks."
"Great," said Ryan. "As long as I've got you here, can we take a detour? The coffee machine is broken again."
Chris sighed inwardly, following Ryan down the hall. They passed windows looking in on empty labs and unattended machinery.
"Where is everyone?" said Chris.
"Hm?" said Ryan. "Anyway, I don't know what I'm going to do about this damn coffee machine once you're gone. I almost wish they'd make an exception! Maybe we should keep you around to fix it, if nothing else."
Chris bit his lip. "Well hey, you never know! You're pretty high up in the company, maybe you could put in a word for me?"
"Hey hey, watch it. I was kidding," he tutted. "There are no exceptions."
"What are they going to do," said Chris. "Kill me?"
They arrived at the break room door and Ryan pushed it open.
"Surprise!" Chris's lab mates were waiting inside. "Congratulations! You made it!" They had pushed aside the jumbled papers normally occupying the table to make room for a cake.
"So I guess the coffee machine isn't really broken?" said Chris.
"Actually it is," said Ryan. "But there's a party too."
Ana, Chris' intern, shook his hand enthusiastically before pulling him into a hug. She had been training to replace him for the past two years. They worked in the lab together. She smelled like honey.
"Whoa!" Chris laughed, "Are we hugging now?"
"It's a special occasion, sir." She held him tighter for just a moment. Chris smiled sadly over her shoulder.
"I suppose it is," he said.
"I've really enjoyed working with you." said Ana. She let go and looked him in the eyes. "You'll be sorely missed."
"Stop being such a downer, Ana!" said Ryan, clapping her on the back. "We're certainly sad to be losing a great mind, but this party is to celebrate his work!" Ryan stood on a chair and raised his hand. "During Chris's 80 years at Ziusudra, he helped make us the company we are today! His work, along with the work of those who went before him changed health forever."
"To Chris!" called the office in unison.
"To me, I guess." mumbled Chris. Leave it to middle management to give a nice speech.
"Would you like some cake?" asked Ana. He looked at the cake she was offering him.
"I'm not hungry, thanks," said Chris.
"Neither am I," she said.
Chris fixed the coffee machine while Ryan hovered around, and later, once he was sure no one would follow him, he slipped away to his lab.
The lab he and Ana oversaw was tidy. Boxes branded with the Ziusudra logo lay stacked, waiting to be filled with racks of applicators. Chris flipped some switches at his desk and the multitude of conveyor belts and robotic arms around the lab hummed to life, starting on the day's orders. He sat at his desk and gazed blankly around as the robots did his work.
The lab was now one of millions like it around the world. Though the production of STEM doses was mostly automated these days, batch size remained an issue. The cocktail of stem cells and telomere lengthening proteins had to be personalised for each patient, and thus wasn't easily scalable. Over the years Chris and the other scientists had watched step after step of their work be trusted to machines. Now they were little more than quality control, double checking the orders before they were input into the system.
He was slouched in his chair when Ana let herself in.
"Quite a party," said Chris.
She sat down on the corner of his desk. "You deserve a parade," she said.
"No, I don't. The streets on Level Three are too narrow for a parade anyway," said Chris. "Too many people."
"You deserve a parade on Level Four," she said. "I'm turning seventy this year. I've seen videos of what being seventy was like before Ziusudra, people were so frail. The whole world owes you." Chris didn't say anything. "I know it's not public information, but everyone at this office knows about you and your team, even if they won't admit it," she said.
"There are no exceptions, Ana," he said.
"Clearly," she said. "You can't even make full use of your own invention. Overpopulation be damned, one person can't hurt."
"But everyone thinks like that," said Chris. "We have the Limit for a reason."
"I know," said Ana. She strode over to her desk and produced two glasses and a bottle of gin. "Want a drink?"
Chris had never had a last day at work before. He was underwhelmed.
Ziusudra gave employees their last day off before their time ran out, which was nice. It was a policy that had come under fire from the government for being 'inefficient,' but Chris wasn't inclined to care about that at the moment. It was just noise. Ziusudra ran the government anyway.
He shouldered his way through Level Three Central. A tram pulled to a stop at the platform, sending a cloud of exhaust rolling over the crowd. He pulled his scarf tighter around his face. The particulate scarf had been bright blue when he'd bought it, and had since faded to a nondescript grey. The fact that he wore a particulate scarf at all showed his age: most people didn't bother with them anymore. Chris didn't care that it looked a little silly; just because a stem dose or two of would fix a lifetime of lung damage didn't mean that breathing the disgusting city air was pleasant.
The City E Ziusudra Offices were a few blocks away from Central, one level below the top. When he transferred to the city all those years ago he'd bought on an apartment hanging off the edge of Level Two. He still lived there. It was a two hour commute, but was worth it for a view of the sky.
The tram pulled out of the station and down into a tunnel. Lights and branching tracks passed by the window as they descended through the structure of Level Three. After a few minutes they emerged beneath it; it was as though the tram had dropped below a cloud layer. Above them the dark underside of level three stretched on for miles, and below the buildings on Level Two grew larger as they approached.
The track spiraled around one of the structural pillars bridging the gap between the levels. He could see the old town hall, sitting among the other buildings, looking regal in all its faux pillared glory. The first time he'd come to this city was to testify there. Level Two had been the top then.
When the first levels were built in cities around the world they were marvels of engineering, hallmarks of the new age of eternal youth. By the time second and third levels were a necessity it was clear that there was going to be a problem. To control population growth certain regions tried to enforce 'no child' policies or even mandatory sterilization, all to disastrous effects. People didn't like being given the opportunity to live forever, only to be told that they couldn't live the lives they wanted.
But things were becoming dire. Something had to be done, the population growth had to be stopped; wonder drug or not, people would begin starving to death. Did they cut off access to STEM after people reached a certain age, or set a hard limit, and allow them to live out their lives in their prime. Experts were called to testify at World Government hubs around the world. His team was proud of their invention, but more than anything Chris was happy to be considered an expert.
"STEM extends the human lifespan by hundreds of years," Chris has said in his testimony. "Never again does anyone have to watch their loved ones wither away, or do the same themselves. It would be cruel to inflict that upon the world again."
The people agreed, and well, here he was. A spry one hundred and twenty years, fifteen days, and six hours old. Thirty hours from the age Limit. He and his team had given the world immortality, catapulted the executives of the no-name pharmaceutical company they worked for into god-hood. And all he had to show for it now was a shabby room on the edge of a choking city, and an impending euthanization.
Chris grew increasingly angry as he stalked off the train, barely registering familiar messages written on billboards as he passed.
-'Stay healthy with STEM! Make an appointment today at your clinic of choice!'
-'Keep city E safe! If you see something, say something.'
-'There are no exceptions. Do your duty.'
Chris shoved through his front door, and dropped his bag and kicked it into the closet, collapsing a shoe rack.
A bunch of nerds in lab coats were ginning their asses off in an old photo on the wall, wielding pipettes like swords. Chris had been the youngest on the team by almost ten years. He missed them.
He ran his hands through his hair. It had been greying once, you could see it in the photo. He had really been starting to look the part of a scientist, even if it was a bit stereotypical. In a way his grey hair had made him proud: he'd worked to be a scientist his whole life and the grey hairs were a badge of the endless time and effort he'd put in. But he didn't look like a scientist anymore.
He thought about calling Ana. She lived reasonably close. He regarded the comm-link on the coffee table but didn't dial. Instead he sat on the balcony, nursing a bottle of scotch in the company of his only cactus.
"Talk about a desperate phone call," he said to the cactus. "What would I say? 'Ana, I...'" he trailed off.
Beside his apartment a little road ran all the way up to the edge as though it intended to keep right on going. It reminded Chris of a book of poems he'd read when he was a child. Where the sidewalk ended there was a barrier to stop people from going over the edge, though enough people had been undeterred that a safety net had been installed some years ago.
"What would I say?" he asked the cactus.
The cactus didn't say anything. Chris was starting to really feel the scotch now. He poured himself another glass and contemplated hurling the bottle, and himself off the edge.
Another day perhaps. Or, maybe not. He might hurt someone on level four. If he made it that far. There were nets in place anyway.
Hundreds of feet beneath the edge of his balcony the street lamps and twinkling lights on Level One stretched into the distance. Beyond that, beneath Level One, he could just make out ground level. It was beautiful.
Chris smiled sadly and brought his cactus back inside. He hoped the cleaners would take care of it after tomorrow.
The next morning came quickly with a knock at the door.
The metal doorknob knob was cold in his hand.
Two men stood on the stoop, clad in black suits. One had a beard.
"Chris?" they asked amicably.
"I'll just get my scarf," said Chris. As he moved to close the door the bearded one stuck his foot in the way.
"Ziusudra Industries has arranged transport for you. We wanted you to be as comfortable as possible," said the bearded man, opening the door again.
The other man placed a friendly hand on Chris' shoulder and firmly steered him to a waiting car. His scarf was left hanging on the wall.
As the world he'd known for one hundred and ten years was sliding by outside the window Chris was began to panic. Tunnel lights flashed by the window at a maddening pace. His escorts, his captors, though they hadn't moved, had grown impossibly large. The car became a vice around him like, squeezing the air from is lungs in quick gasps. He pinched himself hard in the leg. It hurt.
The car stopped.
A regular old clinic. Chris's clinic. He had been here many times for checkups.
They firmly eased him from the car.
The bearded man said something, but Chris couldn't hear him.
Through his tears, Chris saw his own knuckles, which had anchored him to the car door, connect with the bearded man's jaw. He stumbled.
Chris felt a stabbing pain in his arm and his vision dimmed.
"They've been expecting you, Chris," said the bearded man. "Right this way."
He was cuffed to a clinic bed with an IV in his arm. A woman was fiddling with some medical supplies on a table next to him.
"Hello Doctor Reid," he said weakly.
"Hello Chris," she said. "Did you have a comfortable ride?"
Chris tried to talk, but was having trouble controlling his mouth. He couldn't think straight. There was a blue liquid dripping down his IV.
"I hear you gave those poor boys some trouble," she continued. "That's a shame. They have a nasty job, but someone has to do it. You knew as well as anyone does that this day was coming."
Doctor Reid affixed pads to his temples with a cold gel and wired them up to a flashing machine. He should have hit that man harder.
"A lot of people think they should be able to just off the ones who struggle right there and then," said the doctor, matter of factly. "It's true, that would make the whole thing a lot simpler. But it's the law to do it the humane way." She winked at him before standing. "Alright, Chris, you've got no relations, and you haven't indicated that you'd like anyone present, so why don't we just get right to it." She reached for a switch on the wall. "This won't hurt a bit. I hope you've had a great 110 years."
Chris closed his eyes.
"Wait," he whispered.