The Price of Vanity

After watching the movie “Interstellar” about the differences in time  when astronauts spend a few hours on a planet with dense gravity, but to someone in orbit, that same amount of time translates into over a decade, I got the idea of how these differences in time might be put to trivial uses.

Specifically, if empty-headed celebrities were so obsessed about staying young through Botox and plastic surgery, what would a wealthy celebrity think of time dilation as a technique for staying young much longer?

Of course, if you tay young while your audience ages, that creates an entirely different situation for a celebrity. Hence the title of my short story poking fun at the idea of what would happen if a celebrity met time dilation. The result is a short story called “The Price of Vanity.”


The Price of Vanity

by Wallace Wang

“You don’t have a choice.”

Blake Jacobs stopped, ran his fingers over the stubble of growth on his chin, felt the deep lines of wrinkles creasing his cheeks from years, no, make that centuries, of working the Time Routes, and stared into the baby blue eyes of the freshly scrubbed, pink-cheeked punk blocking the path to his own starship. A quick glance at this young man’s chest, shoulders, and arms showed that he wore no official badge of authority over Blake other than his neatly pressed and tailored business suit that fitted him about as well as hand me downs thrown over a scarecrow in a corn field.

Blake grunted his disapproval and stepped around this young man, only to find his way blocked once again.

The young man smiled the type of grin you have when you’re holding 21 at a blackjack table. “I said, you don’t have a choice.”

Blake dropped his faded flight bag on the pitted concrete floor of the space port. How long had he been lugging this battered bag on his Time Route flights? Ten, twenty years, tops, although to the people on this planet, it must look more like a 300-year old antique by now.

The young man, who couldn’t have been many months past the legal drinking age, reached into his jacket and flipped out a business card that he handed to Blake. JON STARLIGHT, PUBLICIST TO THE STARS, the card read.

Blake refused to take the business card until Jon blinked uncomfortably and shoved it back in his jacket.

“I’m sure even a man of your status has heard the name Heidi Hakima?” Jon spat out the word “status” as the sarcastic insult that it was.

Blake grunted. Names meant little to him. The only names he bothered to memorize any more were the names of the next star systems he would visit. His whole life was devoted to piloting starships through wormholes connecting galaxies together. It was steady work and the pay was great precisely because few people wanted to deal with the drawbacks that involved watching names of people you once knew slowly fade into oblivion.

Blake grimaced and pretended to think hard. “Heidi Hakima?” he blurted out. “Isn’t she that air-headed bimbo with no talent and an equal amount of brains to match?”

Jon puffed out his chest indignantly. “Heidi Hakima is the number one reality TV celebrity in the solar system. She has the top-rated television show with over 40 billion social media followers, a multi-billion dollar fashion and fragrance product line, and numerous movie appearances to her name, not to mention a hit single that topped the pop music charts for a week.” Jon let his eyes conspicuously study the filthy overalls that Blake wore. “And she can probably buy and sell you, your starship, and everything your mother ever bought for you a million times over.”

Blake grunted. “Like I said. That air-headed bimbo who has no talent.” He tried to move around Jon but the stubborn bastard stood in his way again.

“We need your starship,” Jon said.

Now it was Blake’s turn to blink uncomfortably. “I’m sorry. For a minute there I thought you said that you needed my starship.”

Jon grinned and flashed teeth that shined an unnatural shade of white. “You’re a Time Route pilot, right?”

Blake nodded. He didn’t like the fact that Jon seemed to already know something about him.

Jon clapped both hands on Blake’s shoulders as if they were best buddies meeting at a high school reunion. “Then that’s why you don’t have a choice!”

Blake stared in confusion. “Okay. So tell me what that means?”

Jon grinned. “That means you have the privilege to be the exclusive pilot for Heidi Hakima’s next publicity stunt!”

Blake stared at Jon long and hard, then tried to walk around him but Jon inexplicably popped up to block his path again.

“It pays well,” Jon said. “Very well.”

Blake shook his head. “I don’t care if it pays off the international debt of South America. I’ve got a job to do.” Blake tried to walk around Jon and found Jon standing in front of him once more.

“You don’t understand,” Jon said. “You have the only Time Route starship on the planet.”

Blake shrugged. “There’s another one coming in ten years.”

“And Heidi Hakima will be ten years older when that happens. That’s completely unacceptable for someone of Heidi’s stature as the most popular socialite in the solar system.” Jon draped a conspiring arm around Blake’s shoulders as if to share a secret. “Celebrities don’t like aging. It makes them look old.”

“Everyone ages,” Blake said. “And everyone looks old.”

“But not Time Route pilots,” Jon corrected. “They stay young forever. Or at least as close to forever as possible. Tell me, how old are you?”

Blake had to stop and think. For some reason, he found this mental calculation harder than trying to calculate the change in fuel consumption rates when orbiting the gravitational pull of a black hole. “Forty, maybe forty-five years old?”

Jon shook his head with a silly grin. “Three hundred and twenty-nine years, eight months, seven weeks, and three days old,” he said. “Give or take a day or two.” When Blake glared at him, Jon quickly explained, “I looked up your birth certificate in the Hall of Records.”

“Well,” Blake said. “That’s the drawback of being a Time Route pilot. When we go through those wormholes, we’re aging at a different rate than everyone back home.”

“Exactly!” Jon shrieked as if Blake had just won the grand prize on a TV game show.

Blake waited for Jon to say something else, but he just stood there smiling like a mute idiot.

“That’s why most people don’t want to be Time Route pilots,” Blake added. “Who wants to go out for a week on a job and come back to find that everyone you knew at home is now twenty years older than you are? You lose a lot of friends that way.”

“I understand perfectly,” Jon said again with a stupid grin.

Blake waited for further explanation, but Jon just kept grinning that Blake started to fantasize how many of those pearly white teeth would pop out if he punched him in the mouth.

Finally, Jon spoke. “I work in show business. It’s critical, no, make that vital, that my clients look as young and attractive as possible for as long as possible, and you can’t do that when your skin starts wrinkling and draining your youth away like a fatal disease. Tell me, how sexy is a sixty-year old woman?”

“Well, there’s always some people who…”

“Not sexy at all,” Jon interrupted. “Twenty is perfect. Eighteen is better. Sixteen is just on the cusp of ripening into full sweetness while still under the age of legality.”

“You can’t stay young forever,” Blake said.

“Oh yes you can. And you are proof that it is not only possible but preferable.” Jon whipped out two pictures from his jacket and shoved them in Blake’s face.

The first picture showed a young blonde girl, obviously still a teenager, posing and smiling for the camera. The second picture showed the same young blonde in the same seductive pose, but clearly bigger, heavier, and more importantly, older.

Just as quickly, Jon yanked the pictures out of Blake’s hands and shoved them back into his jacket again. “See the difference? That only represents a five year change, but you can already tell that Heidi’s lost some of that innocent glow in her eyes and that skinny body of a raw teenager.”

“Why doesn’t she do what other celebrities do?” Blake asked. “Plastic surgery.”

Jon smiled his stupid grin and shook his head so vigorously that Blake hoped that it would fall off. “Heidi is not just any celebrity. Heidi is unique. She’s a trend setter, not a follower. Besides,” Jon added. “Plastic surgery still doesn’t look natural over time. Get too much plastic surgery and most people wind up looking like deformed monsters that scare little children on Halloween. Heidi doesn’t want to look artificially young. She needs to look naturally young and there’s no better way to do that than to stay young forever.”

“Hence the Time Route.”

Jon nodded. “Hence your lack of choice.”

“No deal.” Blake tried to move away but Jon popped up again to block his way.

“Like I said before,” Jon warned. “You don’t have a choice.”

Blake pointed in the direction of his starship. “I have plenty of choices. Nobody tells me what to do.”

Jon rubbed the fingertips of one hand together with his thumb. “Name it. Heidi’s willing to pay any price.”

Blake rubbed his fingertips together in imitation and slowly dropped all but the middle one to shove in Jon’s face. “Maybe you don’t hear very well, Mr. Starlight. I said no deal. Besides, I’m already booked on a route. You can catch me when I return and maybe by then I’ll have changed my mind.”

“That will be twenty years from now,” Jon said. “Our time. For you, it will just feel like a week.” When Blake glared at him, Jon shrugged. “I looked up your schedule. I know a little about time dilation too.”

“Well if you know so much about time dilation, you can tell Miss Hakima that she can age gracefully like everyone else or she can just go to…”

“Hell-o!” Jon turned and waved at a mob of people that suddenly flooded into the space port. At the tip of the human phalanx crowded the paparazzi photographers, falling all over themselves to snap a continuous stream of images they could hopefully sell to one of the celebrity gossip tabloids.

This rolling, undulating mass of beings reminded Blake of a swarm of mosquitoes, shapeless and formless, but looking quite solid none the less. Occasionally when the paparazzi would part ever so slightly, Blake caught a glimpse of a cheery, smiling, overly made up face of none other than Heidi Hakima.

Protecting her from the swarming mass of paparazzi were a ring of bodyguards who grimly held rank and shoved their way forward like a wall of football blockers guiding their punt return specialist downfield.

Further behind came the screaming fans who fell over themselves in a desperate attempt to touch just a fragment of Heidi’s clothes. Failing that golden prize, they satisfied themselves with reaching their outstretched hands as close to her as possible before one of her bodyguards gruffly shoved them back to make room for the next irrational fan to take his or her place.

Jon turned with a triumphant smile. “May I present Heidi Hakima.”

The phalanx of bodyguards parted like the Red Sea for Moses as the screaming fans mingled with the paparazzi to get the best view of Heidi and catch every word of wisdom that fell from her pouty red lips.

“I’m so excited just to be me,” Heidi squealed. The fans roared their approval while camera flashes burst around her like an out of control fireworks display.

“Get some shots of Heidi in the cockpit,” Jon said, directing the crowd to the open cargo door of Blake’s starship.

“Nobody gets on my starship without my permission!” Blake roared. Two beefy bodyguards quickly blocked Blake from view of the crowd and glared at him to shut his mouth or else.

As the crowd surged into the starship, Jon turned back to Blake. “As I was saying about not having a choice.” Jon reached inside his jacket and pulled out a freshly printed letter on official Star Route stationary.

Blake’s eyes scanned the embossed letterhead, the straightforward order commanding him to do what Jon Starlight asked for or risk having his pilot license revoked for eternity, and the commander’s signature scrawled at the bottom to the make the whole order valid and official.

“Heidi is always willing to pay the price for whatever she wants,” Jon explained. “And she always gets what she wants.” He gingerly plucked the letter out of Blake’s fingers and tucked it carefully back inside his jacket. “Like I said. You don’t have a choice.”

Inside the starship, everything was a mess. Actually, that wasn’t quite true. Everything that belonged to Blake was a mess because someone had tossed everything he owned into sloppy piles that had been dumped in the hallway.

“I had to move your junk out of the way,” Heidi explained as she tossed her perky head one way and then another while posing in the captain’s chair as cameras captured her every move. “It just cluttered the background of my pictures.”

Then Blake saw the broken balsa wood airplane that someone had stepped on and shoveled to the side.

“What’s this?”

Heidi barely took the time to glance in Blake’s direction as she lifted her chin and smiled for the cameras. “Oh, that piece of junk didn’t match the color of my dress so I pushed it aside.

“You broke it!”

“It’s just a stupid toy.”

“It’s not a stupid toy.” Blake tried to keep his voice steady and calm, but the air hissed through his teeth like a locomotive engine about to burst. “That was a toy from my childhood.”

“Just get another one.” Heidi flung a scarf around her neck and dangled the tip of her high heel off the painted nail of her big toe.

“It’s not the toy that’s important,” Blake hissed. “It’s the sentimental value. Let me tell you something about Time Route pilots.”

The throng of paparazzi photographers suddenly went quiet and still.

Blake rushed in front of Heidi as two burly bodyguards immediately pinned his arms behind his back and pulled him away.

“Time Route pilots don’t have a home, we don’t have a family, we don’t have any friends, and do you know why? Because we don’t belong anywhere. No matter where we go, everything changes since the last time we’ve been there. That’s why the only thing we do have are our memories, and those memories are stored in what little we own. You take those sentimental items out of our lives and it’s like cutting our lifeline to who we are and where we came from.”

Heidi rolled her eyes and twirled her fingertip against her temple to indicate a crazy man. The paparazzi tittered. Someone took a picture.

Jon Starlight immediately stepped in front of paparazzi as the two bodyguards hauled Blake away. “Be sure to get pictures of Heidi piloting the starship.”

Heidi put on a grim look and pretended to steer the starship. More camera flashes followed.

“Let’s see the Heidi Hop!” someone shouted.

Heidi made an exaggerated face as if she we’re tired of hearing this, but obediently stood up, balanced on one leg, and hopped on one foot while pursing her lips and tilting her head at an angle.

“Be-bop de-woop,” she giggled and thrust her bottom towards the crowd. The photographers went wild, especially when Heidi did her trademark Heidi Hop once more, put her hand out, and crushed a second balsa wood airplane resting on the control panel.

The words of Jon Starlight still rang in Blake’s ears. “All we want you to do is take a short hop into that wormhole of yours, circle around for a day, and come back. Do that without getting yourself killed and Heidi will pay you 500,000. That’s guaranteed money. If I’m not mistaken, that’s at least a year’s pay for a Time Route pilot like you.”

Blake wasn’t happy, but he couldn’t do anything about it with two of Heidi’s goon bodyguards protecting her at all times. In fact, there really wasn’t much of anything Blake could do once he set the starship on auto-pilot. A pilot’s whole job consisted of landing, taking off, and programming the computer to do everything else. And, he reminded himself, deal with the unexpected, which was something that computers still couldn’t do.

In Blake’s case, the unexpected was having to babysit Heidi and her two bodyguards back and forth through a wormhole while resisting the urge to open an airlock and kick all three of them out in the direction of the nearest black hole.

Despite drifting past galaxies that few humans had ever seen in history, Heidi was already bored.

She glanced at the gold and diamond watch that her fifth ex-husband had bought for her during their honeymoon that had been filmed for the finale of season 6 of her reality TV show.

“How much longer until we get back?” she whined in the tone of a little kid constantly asking her parents on a long car trip, “Are we there yet?”

Blake didn’t say anything so one of her bodyguard goons nudged him with his fist in a not so friendly manner. “Hey, the lady asked you a question. It’s a good idea if you answer it.”

Blake stared into the scarred faces of both bodyguards that looked like they’d taken a full load of shrapnel from some past war that solved nothing. He tapped a button to light up a computer screen. A swirling mass of different colors appeared that looked meaningless to anyone but an experienced Time Route pilot.

“We’re here,” Blake said, pointing to nowhere in particular. “But it will take some time before we can get home.” Another spot on the map caught his eye. Blake chanced a quick glance at both bodyguards, but none of them appeared to understand anything of what they were looking at.

“However,” Blake added suddenly. “We are closer to this planet than we are to home.” Just saying the word “home” sounded foreign to Blake’s lips, but nobody seemed to have noticed.

Heidi glanced at the other planet that Blake pointed at. “So what?”

“So?” Blake tried to imitate the phony enthusiasm that he remembered Jon Starlight’s voice had. “That means more people to see you!”

Heidi perked up. “Really?”

Blake nodded. “It’s a new colony. You could be the first celebrity to visit it. They’ll worship you.”

Heidi squealed with delight. “I’m a trend setter, not a follower,” she boasted.

Blake nodded. “That’s what I’ve heard.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Heidi nearly shrieked. “Let’s go!”

Blake held up a hand and put on the most serious expression on his face he could think of, which was when his beloved Green Bay Packers lost the Super Bowl to a last second field goal. “I have to warn you it will take time.”

“We’ve got plenty of time,” Heidi screamed. Then her voice dropped to a more dreamy tone. “An entirely new planet to worship me.”

Blake glanced at his wristwatch. “We’re supposed to be gone just for a day, but if I take you to this colony and back, that will take us a week.”

“A week, a day, whatever.” Heidi stabbed the computer map with her manicured fingernail. “I can’t let down my fans!”

“Of course not,” Blake said. “But first, we need to get approval to make our course change official.”

“I’m telling you let’s go,” Heidi screamed with joy. “How much more official can that be?”

“Well,” Blake said, “we need authorization and approval. Those things take time, you know. And money.”

Heidi jabbed the computer screen again so hard that Blake momentarily thought her finger would go right through it. “I’ll pay any price to get what I want. You tell me what we need to do and we’ll do it.”

Blake tapped a button to contact the Time Route office. “Okay, I’ll let you take it from here.”

Only later could Blake marvel at the fact that he had spent an entire week cooped up inside a starship with the vapid, pointless, and overbearing personality known throughout the galaxy as Heidi Hakima, and managed to suppress the urge to walk outside in space without a helmet. For someone used to time dilation, Blake had to admit that had been the longest week of his life, putting up with the spoiled behavior of someone who was only famous because she was already famous. It reminded Blake of one of those paradoxes in his science books about Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity.

“I can’t wait for my fans to see me come home,” Heidi squealed. Suddenly she got a worried look on her face. “How do I look?”

One bodyguard pulled out a camera and snapped a quick picture. The second bodyguard pulled out a picture they had taken a week ago. They held the two pictures side by side for Heidi to study.

“You still look the same, Miss Hakima.”

Heidi jumped up and down with joy and stood by the cargo door like a puppy anxious to be let outside before it has an accident. When Blake opened the cargo door, Heidi triumphantly stepped forward, bent one leg in a sexy pose, thrust both arms in the air, and shouted, “I’m back!”

Nobody cared. A few space port workers in greasy overalls briefly glanced in Heidi’s direction and continued on their way.

Heidi looked around in disappointment. “Where is everybody? Where’s Jon Starlight? Where are the paparazzi? Where are my fans? Hello, everyone. This is me!”

This time no space port workers bothered to pause and look in her direction.

Blake strolled by Heidi, touting his worn flight bag, and nonchalantly glanced at his wristwatch. “Right on schedule,” he said. Then he looked carefully at Heidi. “You look as young as you did the day we left.”

This seemed to soften Heidi up, but her lower lip stuck out in a pout when she saw the empty space port that greeted her. “Jon Starlight is going to hear from me about this!” She pulled out her phone and tried to make a call.

“We’re sorry,” said a computerized voice, “but this phone has been disconnected due to lack of payment.“

Blake pretended to stretch his arms. “I forgot to tell you. When you go on a Time Route, you have to make sure you leave behind enough money to pay all your bills. Why don’t you call from the Time Route office?”

Inside the Time Route office, Blake sat in a chair and propped his feet on a desk while Heidi made her call.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice of a young girl who Blake guessed was just an intern out of college, “but Mr. Starlight no longer works for the company. How may I help you?”

Heidi’s face wrinkled up in confusion, and Blake noticed that those wrinkles gave a hint to what she would look like when she would get older. “I’m Heidi Hakima,” Heidi shouted into the phone.

The girl on the other end paused for the longest time. Finally she blurted out, “Who?”

Heidi let out an exasperated sigh. “Only the most popular reality TV star in the universe. Hello?”

“Heidi Hakima?”

“Do you have a problem hearing or do I need to talk to your boss?”

Blake heard the young girl whispering something and then she said, “I’ll put you through to my supervisor right away.”

Heidi pointed to the phone and made a face. Blake shrugged his shoulders in sympathy.

A gruff man’s voice came on the line. “Hello, who am I speaking to?”

“This is Heidi Hakima. You know, the Heidi. The one with the hit reality TV show? Hello? Did everybody get hit by a case of the stupids while I was gone?”

The man was silent for a moment. “Heidi Hakima?”

Heidi let out another exasperated gasp. “Haven’t I been telling you my name for the past five minutes?”

The man went silent for a long time. “Jon Starlight no longer works for the company any more.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Heidi said. “I think your stupid secretary told me that already.”

The man on the other end of the line sucked in his breath. “Ooo boy. I don’t know how to tell you this.”

The tone of the man’s voice made Heidi pause.

“Where are you?” the man asked.

“I just landed. I’m at the space port right now.”

“Oh.” The man cleared his throat. “We were expecting you years ago.”

Heidi’s face went white. “What are you talking about? I just left a week ago.”

“You see,” the man on the other end continued, “Jon Starlight is dead. He committed suicide after the police caught him embezzling money from all of his clients. Especially you.”

Heidi frowned. Blake hummed softly to himself and pretended not to be listening.

“What do you mean, especially me?”

“You were gone for twenty years, Heidi,” the man said. “The network had to cancel your reality TV show. Once people stopped seeing you on TV everyday, there was no reason for anyone to buy any of your products so your company went out of business.”

“What about the money?” Heidi’s voice could barely speak above a whisper.

“That’s where Mr. Starlight came in. Apparently he stole from all of his clients, but when you failed to return, he basically drained all your accounts and cashed in all your assets. I hate to be the one to tell you this, Heidi, but you’ve been bankrupt for the past ten years.”

Heidi dropped the phone. Blake turned around in his chair.

“Anything wrong?” he asked.

Heidi ran out of the office. Blake followed at a leisurely pace.

Heidi stood in front of a group of space port workers checking a starship. “Hey!” she shouted and waved her hands over her head. “It’s me!”

The workers just stared at her. Finally, the oldest worker frowned and walked up to her. “You look just like Heidi Hakima.”

“I am Heidi Hakima!”

The older man laughed. “That’s impossible. She’d be about forty, maybe fifty years old by now.”

Heidi balanced on one leg, bent the other one, and hopped on one foot while pursing her lips and tilting her head to one side. “Be-bop de-woop,” she desperately giggled, and thrust her bottom out. “That’s the Heidi Hop.”

The man nodded. “You’re good. You could probably get a job in Las Vegas as a Heidi Hakima impersonator.” Then he walked away.

Heidi turned to Blake. “What’s going on?”

Blake exaggerated a yawn and glanced at his wristwatch again. “Time dilation,” he said. “We’ve been gone a week but back here, time moved much faster. If my calculations are correct, one week through the wormhole is equivalent to twenty years here.” He glanced at Heidi. “You still look young though.”

Blake started to walk away, then stopped and turned around. He fished a contract out of his pocket and held it in front of her. “By the way, I think you still owe me 500,000 bucks.”

Heidi stared at the contract in disbelief. “I don’t have any money,” she whispered.

Blake shrugged. “In that case, you’ll just have to work off what you owe me. I’ve been looking to hire a janitor for the longest time because I need someone to clean out grease traps in the kitchen, hose down the walls in the trash compactor, and scrub toilets in the bathrooms. I’ll even pay a little above minimum wage.”

Heidi collapsed in a heap on a crate and buried her face in her hands. Blake sat down next to her. He thought that if you stripped out her entitlement mentality and cauterized her immature personality, you might find a decent person inside after all. In any case, he would have the prettiest janitor in the Milky Way. Provided, of course, that she would actually work for a living, but he would find that out in the next week, or twenty years, whichever came first.