Super Crones by Vera Brook
The office was so dull that Alison wondered if her interviewer chose it on purpose to change her mind about the job. A gray metal desk and file cabinets blended with gray carpeting and gray walls, with a faded poster of the biogeochemical carbon cycle and a single window showing a view of more gray buildings. The plain metal chair she sat in was torture enough, her lower back already stiff as a board after twenty minutes of bending over a tablet.
She was literally too old for this.
Then she remembered: this was a government institute, and intramural research was chronically underfunded. Besides, she was here to use her new and sharpened mind for the greater good, not to be pampered or seduced by wasteful luxuries. She had already done that once, and how had that worked out for her?
The way she saw it, she’d been saved from the brink of annihilation and given a fresh start. A true miracle — except she owed it to science, and not some deity.
Still, she couldn’t resist comparing this eyesore of an office to the posh executive suite where her first science career had ended.
She could visualize the place in vivid detail and replay the meeting word by word, a blessing and a curse of her restored, near-perfect memory. Ironic, since at the time, the disease was already raging through her brain like a wildfire, destroying whole swathes of her professional knowledge and personal history with cruel randomness, one day snatching the name of her oldest son, the next day erasing the steps of a basic laboratory task.
Alison shuddered. Her optimized recall brought back the old feelings too: being confused, humiliated, terrified. They slammed into her, overwhelming her higher mental capacities for a moment, but she recovered swiftly, dialing the intensity way down.
The new and improved Alison could control her attentional focus with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, but once in a while, the emotions still got away from her.
To be fair, her then-boss had let her go without ever mentioning her Alzheimer’s, an unexpected kindness in a geotech corporation known for its ruthless HR practices, aggressively poaching academics from top research universities only to toss them out if they didn’t deliver. Instead, Alison’s boss presented her with a generous early retirement package while the R&D division underwent restructuring and Alison’s lab was transferred to a location overseas, where a younger chemist would take it over. She should think of it as a well-deserved rest after a productive research career, her boss had told her.
Alison had done her best to hide the sheer terror that had gripped her in that moment — a vision of her brain disintegrating inside her skull like old cheese.
Her work was the glue that had kept her mind together. A perfect balance of challenge and comfort, of stimulation and routine. She had nothing else, divorced for a decade, with grown-up kids she only saw a few times a year. What was she supposed to do with herself without research? Crawl into a hole and wait for her brain to rot?
She had managed to shake her boss’s hand and walk out of his office and into a back staircase at the far end of the hallway before collapsing to her knees and sobbing. What did she care about a fat retirement account if any day now she might forget who she was? And what productive research career? She had made her various employers a lot of money, sure. But she hadn’t accomplished anything that mattered. Not a single thing.
Now, though, thanks to the new treatment, her Alzheimer’s was gone, and her mind was stronger than ever. And she had a second chance.
In the dull government office, Alison put the tablet on the desk and got up to stretch. The poster drew her, and she walked closer. Underneath the busy, looping diagram with dozens of processes and formulas, the illustration showed fields, forests, and the ocean under a vast blue atmosphere, all lovingly painted by a nameless artist who was probably long dead by now.
A grazing cow in pasture caught her eye, and Alison squinted to see it better.
A ghostly arrow pointed from the cow’s ass up to the sky, depicting the biogenic methane emissions.
Greenhouse gases were no joke, of course. But the contrast between the formal style of the painting and the placement of that arrow tickled her.
It also cheered her up. She may have wasted a few decades, lured away from her true calling, but there was plenty of hard problems left to solve.
A loud knock on the door startled her, and she turned just in time to see her interviewer enter.
Tall, with just a hint of a potbelly, Section Director Leon Morales wore a cheap gray suit that matched the cheerless décor of his office. Alison found it impossible to guess his age. His hair was dark and his eyes sharp, but he looked faded somehow, like the poster on his wall. Mid forties? Mid fifties? Anyway — young compared to Alison. Her youngest son was fifty-one.
“I’m afraid that’s all the time we have, Dr Dobrowski.” Morales glanced at the tablet on his desk with an apologetic smile. “It’s perfectly fine if you haven’t finished the problem you chose. We just want to see your approach and your thinking process.”
“Oh, I’m done with all of them,” Alison said.
Morales blinked and reached for the tablet. “All of them? You’re done with all five problems?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. It’s not against the rules, is it?” She knew perfectly well it wasn’t.
“Oh, no. Not at all. It’s just that… applicants often run out of time to finish one.”
Alison couldn’t help a smile. “I see.”
The practical assessment was a surprise, but Alison quite enjoyed it. It took her back to her college exams. Chemistry, physics, biology, math. While some of her classmates would freeze under pressure, no matter how well prepared they were, paralyzed with worry they might get the answers wrong and flunk the course, Alison had secretly looked forward to each test. The high stakes and the ticking clock had made solving problems even more of a rush. An occasional mistake and a less-than-perfect grade didn’t matter. She loved the challenge that scientific problems presented. She had found her passion.
Morales was still reading her answers.
Impatience surged through Alison. She could practically feel the time slipping between her fingers like sand, or like ashes, each minute precious and irretrievable in a way someone a few decades younger couldn’t possibly grasp.
She cleared her throat. “Problem five was quite tricky.”
She meant it as a compliment, but Morales was frowning. “One of our division heads contributed that problem. It took his team six months to work it out. The paper was just accepted for publication.”
Six months? Alison almost laughed. They definitely needed her. “Congratulations,” she said. “Although now that I think about it, phosphorus would make a better precipitate than sulphur. Feel free to share with the authors. A follow-up paper, perhaps.” She waved her hand in the air as if to dispel fog. Best to avoid any misunderstanding. “No need to give me credit either. I don’t care about publications.”
Another gesture of good will that was completely lost on her interviewer. Morales leaned back in his chair.
“Then what do you care about, Dr. Dobrowski?”
Alison looked him straight in the eye. “The science, and nothing but the science.”
“You’re telling me you want to work at the bench again? Running experiments and crunching data? Because that’s the job.”
“That’s exactly what I want. Why, you don’t think I can handle it?”
Morales sighed. “Frankly, just the opposite. I’m surprised you’re interested at all. With your knowledge and experience, and now also the, um — ” he hesitated, his gaze moving up to her forehead, brushing the top of her head “ — cognitive benefits of the treatment, you could aim much higher.”
Alison rolled her eyes. “Oh, please.” Did he really think flattery would work on her?
But Morales pressed on. “I’m serious. Three of our chief scientists are retiring this year, and two of these positions are already listed. I doubt we’ll get any applicants who come even close to your track record in managing teams and budgets on large-scale projects.”
Alison grimaced, the thought of dealing with politics and money again was about as appealing as diving head-first in a stinking pile of cow manure.
“No offense, but I don’t want a desk job,” she said firmly. “Either you hire me for the entry job I’ve applied for, or … I’ll find something else to keep me busy.”
Morales was already opening his mouth to speak, still trying to persuade her — when a message pinged on his computer. He glanced at it and frowned.
“Excuse me, but — ”
Alison was already on her feet. “We’re out of time, and your next interview is here.”
He nodded, and Alison spun on her heel and headed out the door without waiting to be ushered out, the anticipation of facing a direct rival tingling on her skin.
In the hallway, a tall, young woman was walking toward her.
At the sight of Alison, her eyebrows rose, then knotted together. She gave a cool nod of acknowledgement but never slowed her step.
Alison’s chest tightened.
What was her granddaughter doing here?
The park, if you could call it that, was barely a patch of grass with a sidewalk that looped around it, punctuated with wooden benches and metal trash cans. Old, gnarly oak trees bent and swayed over a few recently planted saplings, their slender trunks kept upright by plastic tubes.
The park was tucked away behind the institute building, and Alison had reflexively followed the sidewalk after rushing out the door, drawn by the green. She headed for the nearest empty bench and sank onto it, her heart drumming and her thoughts racing.
Eleanor was applying for the same job? What were the odds?
But, of course, it made perfect sense. Next month would mark two years since Eleanor had defended her PhD, which meant that she was just finishing her postdoc and looking for a permanent research position. And what better career launch than the intramural program of the world’s biggest research agency with its guaranteed funding and no-hassle access to any equipment, resources, and expertise under the sun? Located right here, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Her granddaughter’s plan was perfect — and precisely how Alison had started her own research career decades ago.
Except for one crucial wrinkle.
Alison never had to compete with Super Crones.
According to Wikipedia, the term was coined in an amateur comedy skit live-streaming on YouTube. This was early on, when the first anecdotal reports of the miracle cure were just coming out. Far-gone Alzheimer’s patients waking up sharp and alert, their mental fog cleared and memories restored overnight, ready to boss their adult children and grandchildren around once more. The skit was kindhearted and over-the-top — the family’s initial annoyance giving rise to jubilation as their Super Crone grandfather won one lucrative poker tournament after another, catapulting them all into a life of luxury.
But within months, the reality surpassed fiction, and the tone of the public discourse changed.
A rush of scientific papers in Lancet, Science, and Nature, all armed with rigorous evidence, yielded the same perplexing conclusion. While the new Alzheimer’s cure was safe and effective in all the patients tested — dissolving the neurofibrillary tangles, healing the damaged axons, and restoring healthy cognition — about thirty-five percent of the patients showed cognitive gains that were simply off the charts. Photographic memory and MENSA-level analytic skills were common. This was no longer a recovery but a spectacular and unplanned cognitive enhancement.
Assume six million patients cured of their Alzheimer’s in the U.S. alone. Thirty-five percent of that makes two million Super Crones. And how many of those are lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals who may want their jobs back?
All of a sudden, the term Super Crone acquired a darker, more ominous meaning.
A bird screamed overhead, hidden in the thick foliage of the oaks, and Alison bristled, her focus momentarily broken. The park was no longer empty. People sat on other benches, eating lunch and checking their phones. A young man walked a large dog that yanked madly on the leash. Alison’s back was growing stiff again from the hard bench.
A Super Crone was still a Crone.
Alison vividly remembered the heated debates, incendiary editorials, and fear-mongering news that followed in the wake of the medical breakthrough, all poking at the same set of questions like they were a hornet nest:
How do we prevent the Super Crones from taking control?
Should the laws prohibiting age discrimination be scraped or revised to protect the young?
What about the Social Security and Medicare?
Every week brought a new and more disgusting scandal. The regional director of a major for-profit assisted-living facility ordering the staff to destroy the cure and administer placebos instead, to ensure the company stayed in business. Ultracompetitive parents stealing pre-loaded syringes from a suburban clinic and injecting their twin toddlers to turn them into geniuses. Not to mention a flurry of panicked legislative proposals accompanied by angry, barely coherent debates in both houses of Congress, none of which, thankfully, were voted into law.
Looking back, the whole thing was a ridiculous waste of mental energy, the entire country beating itself into a frenzy over a crisis that was never real, like a child throwing a temper tantrum over nothing.
Because soon, two things became apparent that should have been obvious all along. One, the Super Crones with their decades of experience could actually be useful to society. And two, most of them had no desire to rejoin the workforce and resume the daily grind anyway, and much preferred to pursue other, long-delayed interests, with travel and various artistic endeavors topping the list. Senior dating websites exploded in popularity.
At the time, after her own clarity returned like a sharp, blinding light after a semi-awake haze, Alison had her own problems to solve.
While her mind raced in twenty directions at once like some kind of massively parallel supercomputer — the experience dizzying until she learned to control it — her priority was her family.
She had cut all ties with them after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis — changed her name, moved to another continent, and checked herself into an exclusive, specialized facility for dementia patients. It was the hardest decision she had ever made, but she saw no alternative. She would rather die alone and resented by her sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren than be a burden to them. She had always been in excellent physical health and kept fit with daily yoga, weights, and swimming. Who knew how long her body would last after her mind turned to mush?
She couldn’t do it to her family — especially not to Eleanor, her favorite and most devoted grandchild.
Eleanor was bright, curious, and tenacious, and she idolized Alison, wanting to be a scientist just like her grandmother ever since she was five. The thought of her granddaughter spoon-feeding her while Alison drooled, grunted, and stared back without recognition was unbearable, humiliating, and terrifying. It was easier to never see her beloved granddaughter again.
But now Alison was herself again, and it was time to ask her family’s forgiveness and repair the rift.
Starting with Eleanor.
And stealing her granddaughter’s dream job was not the way to do it.
What if Alison accepted the position of chief scientist instead? They could work together. Alison could not only watch her granddaughter’s scientific career unfold in real time, but step in to smooth the path and remove any obstacles — a savvy mentor, a sounding board for ideas, and a fierce and powerful friend if necessary.
But no, that wouldn’t work either. Eleanor was too proud and too stubborn. She would never let her grandmother hover or interfere, and she’d rather quit than get preferential treatment.
The best thing Alison could do is get out of the way.
With a sigh, she pulled out her phone and punched in Morales’s number.
She withdrew her entry job application and politely refused the chief scientist position again. She didn’t explain her reasons, and Morales didn’t press her, although she heard the regret in his voice.
The nearest pub was only three blocks away, a quick scan of her mental map of the area told her. Alison had memorized all the businesses and landmarks on her way to the interview without even realizing it.
It was ridiculously early to have a drink, of course, barely past lunchtime. But she wasn’t ready to drive home yet, didn’t want to be alone with her overactive mind and no plan. She could use a distraction. And the name of the pub tickled her, dispelling some of the gloom that clung to her like bad smell after the phone call with Morales.
Silver Wolf Restaurant & Brewery. Perfect.
She’d expected the lunch rush to be over and the place mostly empty, but all of the booths were still occupied and several tables pushed together into what looked like an office party with champagne and cake. A retirement celebration? They all looked so young, though. Maybe an important project wrapping up, then? Or a big, new contract? Whatever the occasion, the group looked happy together, and Alison felt a sting of envy. She didn’t want to be anyone’s boss again, but she missed having colleagues and being part of a team.
She hurried to the bar and climbed on a high stool, feeling silly and out of place but strangely unwilling to leave. Why did she come here, anyway? True, she was finally free from the meds and could safely imbibe a beer or two. But she’d never been much of a drinker and hadn’t been to a pub in twenty years. Sometimes her own brain perplexed her.
“A rough day?”
The man was about her age, with white hair and a trim white beard, and his gaze pierced through her, clear and intense. Another Super Crone, she knew at once.
He had just sat down at the bar two seats to her right, a messenger bag strapped across his chest.
“You could say that,” Alison admitted, surprising herself.
The man nodded sympathetically. “Let me guess. You’re a scientist, and you came to Bethesda for a job interview. It went great; they wanted to hire you on the spot. But you changed your mind at the last moment. You couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to steal the job from some bright youngster.”
“Not just some youngster — my granddaughter,” Alison corrected.
“Ah.” Anguish crossed the man’s face, and it was like a dam burst open. Words rushed from Alison’s mouth.
“Our interviews were back-to-back, and I ran into her in the hallway. We haven’t spoken since my diagnosis. Almost five years. I miss her terribly.”
“You’ll get her back,” the man said with conviction.
Alison smiled. She liked the man. “What about you? What job did you give up for the bright youngsters?”
His name was Henry, and he started off as a budget analyst for non-profits and ended up a chief financial officer for a string of money-hungry corporations. After the cure, he did a short stint at the Social Security Administration, but the red tape and guilty looks were too much, and these days he worked freelance and pro bono, using the open data to construct detailed financial models and recommendations, which he personally delivered to key federal officials. So far, none took him up on it, but he remained hopeful.
Before Alison knew it, they were sitting elbow to elbow, sipping their Belgian ales and talking like old friends. She even told him about the poster with the farting cows in Morales’s office and confessed to her ambition to tackle the biogenic methane emissions. She didn’t have the solution yet, but when she let her thoughts drift, chemical equations flashed through her mind, and she could sense the germ of an idea taking shape.
The conversation was so engrossing, she didn’t notice the time until all of a sudden the place was packed with guests and the wait staff was calling out dinner orders.
“Is it really five o’clock already? I have to go.”
“Alison, wait.” Henry caught her hand. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Are you… hitting on me?” She laughed in disbelief, but her whole body warmed.
Henry didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely. But first I’m inviting you to dinner. I want you to meet everyone.”
“Oh, we have the best group. All the obstinate, insufferable, and absolutely brilliant Super Crones within a fifty-mile radius. You’ll fit right in.”
“Is that right?” She chuckled, and would have slapped his arm if he wasn’t still holding her hand.
“Absolutely. We all have our own projects, but it’s fun to collaborate or just brainstorm together once in a while. You never know what a dozen Super Crones will come up with. Speaking of — Brenda is a chemical engineer and used to work on odor and gas removal at NASA. She’ll be thrilled to hear about your project. And there’s a global network too, if you ever need more niche experts.” Henry squeezed Alison’s hand. “So how about it? Dinner with friends tonight? I could pick you up and drop you off afterwards. Or stay over. Whatever you want.”
Alison’s cheeks flushed. “Wow.”
Henry frowned and looked contrite. “My apologies. Was that too direct? You should know that it’s been decades since I asked anyone out, and I’m clearly out of practice.”
“You’re fine. You just surprised me. I guess I’m out of practice too.”
Henry’s face lit up. “Is that a yes then? To the dinner at least?”
Of course she wanted to come, how could she not?
She was about to say so when she remembered Eleanor. Her granddaughter might refuse to see her, but Alison had to try, and to keep trying. It was her fault the two of them had grown apart, and she couldn’t bear the separation any longer. What use was her enhanced brain if she couldn’t figure out a way to get her family back?
“I’m sorry, Henry. I’d love to. But there’s something I have to do tonight.”
“Tomorrow night then?”
Alison smiled and gently extricated her hand. “Tomorrow night.”
She couldn’t wait to meet a dozen Super Crones and pick their brilliant, back-from-the-dead-with-a-vengeance brains about their projects. But science could wait this time. Family came first.
Alison pulled out her phone and texted her granddaughter.
Originally published in the August and October 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Vera Brook is a neuroscientist turned science fiction, fantasy, and romance writer. To learn more about her writing, visit her website at verabrook.com and find her on social media.