“Jogging Club,” a short story
Lucjan found pumping his knees violently up and down completely unnatural, but he had to admit, it worked. He wasn’t sure what to do with his arms. Hold them down by his sides? Bent up to his chest? He glanced at the other club members working their way around the edge of the large room.
Royan certainly looked the fool, barely lifting his feet off the floor, hands flopping at his waist. The others were the same, all pale as ghosts, their thin frames bent forward, their skinny legs and arms thrusting ahead.
Donall had found the room for the meeting this week. The code came over Lucjan’s receptor just the day before. It was the usual, an empty warehouse in an abandoned industrial sector. Work space was being concentrated several subfloors down nowadays. The robos were perfectly happy down there.
Once used to the strange motion, Lucjan began to savor the elaborate sensations. He felt the air whispering past his ears. He felt a strange warming in his thigh muscles. He checked his chrono. He’d been jogging for nearly four minutes. Many club members had already stopped at the water table, totally spent.
A spot of dampness was forming on his shirt. He was puzzling over that when the door at the far end of the warehouse burst open. Lucjan froze in horror. Several men in white uniforms poured in and fanned out. Even from the far end of the room, Lucjan could make out the large red hearts on their uniforms, agents of the Health Police.
The agents dropped quickly to their knees and assumed firing positions. Lucjan heard the pops of the guns going off and saw the gossamer nets explode out over one jogger after another.
By sheer luck, none of the agents had targeted him with their first shots. It gave him just enough time to recover himself and step through a nearby door. He pulled the door shut and heard a net slap against the other side.
Only a week before, the jogging club meeting had ended without incident. Tired and happy, he had slipped quietly back into his home unit. But his wife Mira had appeared at once, stepping out of their pharm closet to confront him.
“You’re flushed,” she said triumphantly.
“Just from the walk over from the tube,” Lucjan replied.
She came closer, reached out and clamped her fingers around his thigh. It made him jump. “Your muscles are tight again. Don’t you lie to me. You’ve been to that club.”
Lucjan pushed past her and went into the bath area to look in the mirror. Sure enough, there was an unmistakable pink glow to his cheeks.
Mira was right behind him. “How can you do this to me?” she was saying. “Throwing your life away. For what?”
“It’s just…” Lucjan began, “it’s just…I don’t know. I can’t explain it. Jogging just makes you glad to be alive.”
“Glad to be alive?” Mira shot back. “That’s funny, when it’s killing you. You know how it works. You can’t fool the pill, Lucjan.”
In his heart, he knew she was right. The longevity capsules kept you going an extra fifty years or so but only if you lived carefully, never stressing your body, never pushing your cells to work too hard. It was the best scientists could do. The aging process could be slowed, not stopped. People learned to adjust. It wasn’t hard with robos doing all the work. Of course, sports were out. Before long, the government stepped in. People couldn’t be trusted to look after themselves, so the Health Agency was formed to enforce the regimen.
“What’ll I do when you’re gone?” Mira was saying. “All alone. No husband. No family.”
“Stars above, Mira. What do you and I do now? What difference does it make if we do nothing for fifty more years?”
Mira looked at him and shook her head. “You’re a fool,” she said. “They’ll catch you one of these days and put a stop to this.”
She went over to her recliner and flopped down. “View,” she whispered. The wall opposite her disappeared and the cast from Mira’s favorite program appeared.
Lucjan stepped into the pharm closet where his evening tablets and longevity capsules were waiting in a plastic scoop. He popped them in his mouth and felt a tiny fizz as they dissolved instantly.
He walked back out and said goodnight to Mira. She ignored him. He stood behind her for a moment and watched a bit of the program.
“Gather round everybody,” one of the actor’s was saying, “Time to give great-great-grandpa his birthday certificate. One hundred and fifty, sure is nifty!”
A large group of family members huddled around an ancient looking man reclining in an overstuffed motorized wheelchair. He was nearly pure white. His bony hand lifted unsteadily to accept the certificate.
Just then a tone sounded and everyone turned to watch as the front door slid open. A Health Agency official strode into the room with a stern look on his face.
“Come to congratulate grandpa on his birthday?” a woman who seemed to be the hostess asked.
“Afraid not, ma’am. Looking for a young man at this address, seen hurrying home from the tube this afternoon.” Everyone gasped. A boy of about eighteen was ushered forward, head down and hands in his pockets.
“Well, son,” said the official. “What did they teach you in school?”
“Cause yourself pain, long life down the drain,” the boy repeated obediently.
“That’s right. You’ve got to form the habit of non-exertion early. You want to live to see one hundred and fifty like this fellow, don’t you?”
“Sure,” the boy said glancing over at the guest of honor.
The official patted the boy on the shoulder and coaxed a smile out of him. “I believe we’re okay here,” he said to the hostess. “Enjoy your party now.” The door slid to behind him as he left.
Lucjan sighed and kissed his wife on the top of her head.
He went over to his sleeping area and rolled onto his sleeper. He thought about that day’s club meeting. Royan had brought an old sports tape. It showed a man jogging barefoot, running outdoors down an ancient street. Water poured off of the man. His lips trembled but his head was very steady. His legs and arms were skinny but his muscles were well developed. He jogged on and on and on. It was like he would never grow tired.
“I bet he was dead the next day,” Donall had said. “Using himself up like that.”
“I don’t know,” countered Royan. “There was a time when people thought it was good to jog like that. They thought the stronger you got, the better.”
Everyone laughed at that.
“Yeah, Royan,” Donall said. “And raw food beats pharms, too. Right?”
Lucjan turned on his sleeper trying to get comfortable. But he couldn’t get the man’s face out of his mind.
Lucjan had no idea which way to flee down the hallway to escape from the Health Police so he picked one way at random and hurried off. Eventually, he stumbled onto a tube stop. A handful of people were waiting there. A couple of them glanced in his direction, but there was no sign of the police.
A tube car glided to a stop in front of him. He swung inside and took a seat. The gravity of what had happened began to sink in. His club friends would be confined and monitored. Psycho-drugs would be used to adjust their attitudes.
Lucjan leaned his head against the seat rest and closed his eyes. Suddenly an idea struck him so forcefully, he gasped out loud. My stars, he thought, it’s all wrong. The Health Police, the pills, the regimen.
After two exchanges, Lucjan arrived at his home station. He hurried down the corridors to his home unit. He couldn’t wait to talk to Mira.
The panel slid open and Lucjan found Mira standing just inside the doorway. She was obviously angry but then that was understandable. She’d probably guessed he was at another club meeting. But now he could explain.
“Mira, Darling. We have to talk. This life were living, it’s no good. It’s going to sound crazy, but we have to start our own club. We have to help people get their lives back.”
She stepped aside. Lucjan caught a glimpse of a red heart on the man’s uniform before the flash from the muzzle of the pistol blinded him. He felt the sting of a net against his face. He felt his weight tottering backwards and then he crashed to the floor.
“We’ll take it from here, ma’am,” he heard the Health Agent say to his wife. “Much obliged.”