I am going to be immortal. That is what I tell myself as I strip off my clothes. My jeans first, then my T-shirt. I hesitate to remove my bra. I’ve never been comfortable showing my body to anyone. I made my first boyfriend turn out the lights and promise to close his eyes before I got naked. I made the last one do the same. But the promise of immortality compels me. The room is cold and my nipples react, making me blush. I wish my body felt nothing.
What will I feel after the procedure? Will I have feelings? I’m not sure. The Bright Company won’t release any information on how they turn a human into an immortal being, or why. But they have done it. And now it is my turn.
My mother used to tell me that there was nothing wrong with dying. Except there is. I’ve almost died twice. Twice is enough.
“I’d like to call my parents,” I tell the lady standing before me. Her white uniform reflects back under the glare of fluorescent lights. Her slicked-backed bun barely moves as she shakes her head.
“It’s important,” I tell her. “You say they won’t be able to see me after the procedure?”
The lady only shakes her head again. I turn to her compatriot, a balding man in an equally pristine uniform.
“Please. It’s important. My mother will be worried.” I should’ve told my parents that I agreed to the procedure; that I signed a waiver. That I will let these people do whatever they need to to make me impervious to death. I should’ve called before I’d entered the building. I could’ve sent them a note. It would’ve only taken a second. But I didn’t.
The man nods to the scale in front of me. “We’ll send her a written explanation.”
I step onto the scale and hear my weight confirmed: one-hundred and thirty-nine pounds. “Lots of pizza this semester,” I mumble, neglecting to mention the booze and late nights and failing out of school. “Will it hurt?” I ask the man, instead.
“Yes.” He hands me three pills, as white as his uniform, and a glass of water. “Take these.”
I pop the pills in my mouth and swallow. “Can I at least write my mother a…” I don’t finish the sentence because that’s when my body crashes to the floor.
I wake in agony. He hadn’t lied. It hurt. Whatever they did to me. It feels as if my skin has been ripped off, my muscles torn from the bone and then stitched back on with thread made of fire.
I am lying in a pool of thick liquid. The mask suctioned to my face allows me to breathe, but the air feels cold and stale. I am breathing air that has circulated through other people’s lungs. The pain is too intense and I scream. I thrash. I fight the thick liquid that surrounds me but even with all my might, I cannot hurt it and I cannot stop the pain. My nerves are vibrating, screaming, eating me alive. I feel a jab in my leg and coldness spreads through my body. A drug. They’ve drugged me. I don’t care. The pain has stopped. I lie here. Numb.
Days pass this way, or hours, maybe months. I don’t know. I lie here, anesthetized, not dreaming. I am still. Or the drugs wear off and I thrash and cry out but the mask mutes my words. In those moments, I search for something sharp. I want to stab myself in the throat or the heart. Death rather than pain.
Then, one day, I wake and the pain isn’t there. Nor the drugs. I blink and the world stays wet and blurry around me. Before, even with eyes open, I couldn’t see past my own torment into the outside world.
I try to peer through the liquid. Blurry images move on either side of me. Legs. I think they’re legs. I’m in a case. Maybe a coffin? A clear coffin. The legs move around me. My pool ends only a foot or so from my face. I raise my hand through the viscous fluid. My skin looks blue, but I can’t tell if that’s because of the jelly-like morass surrounding me or if my skin changed during the procedure. I’ve never seen the after-pictures. I’ve never met anyone who’s had it done. I could look like anything. My fingers scrape against the glass lid.
Voices murmur. Muffled. The words filter. I cannot make them out but I recognize the sound as vaguely human. I should be panicked, but I’m not. I’ve no idea what’s happened to me, but the pain is gone. That is all I care about. For now.
I hear a click and then the lid is taken off my coffin. Gloved arms reach in and grab me. I can feel their hands on my back and buttocks as they lift me from my watery womb. I am in the air. I can almost feel a draft through my gelatinous coating. Their words are still only white noise. They lay me down on a table and a chill spreads through my skin. They pull the mask from my face and for a moment I cannot breathe. I am choking. The jelly has made its way into my throat. I cough and choke and cough. They thrust a metal instrument down my throat. I choke and scream but no noise can escape my mouth. I am a blackhole of pain. They rip the metal arm from my throat and a glob of goo comes out with it. I wheeze.
Every breath feels like fire. My throat. Did they rip it when they pulled out the clog? Am I dying? I open my mouth to ask the question but they squirt liquid into my eyes before I can make a sound. Icy flames lick the membranes of my eyes. I squeeze my lids shut but they are forced open and more fire flushes away the jelly. I am left with a stinging sensation and a world that has too much definition. How did I never notice all the lines of our reality before? How did I not see the sharpness of our bodies? Cheek bones. Razor thin edges at the end of our hands.
I close my eyes and try to breathe. The fire has been dampened by chilly air. Now, it only feels like I am sucking in smoke. I cough, but I do not choke on the pain. I am growing too used to pain. My body feels heavy, so heavy. I floated in my case but I’m subject to gravity now. How did I move my limbs in my old life? They feel like cement columns attached to my body.
My eyes are forced open. I am in a lab. It’s dark, but maybe they’ve dimmed the lights for me. Or so they don’t have to look at me in the full harshness of the fluorescents. Hands poke and prod my body. They squirt liquid into my ears and voices fill them as the jelly drips out.
“She’s healed nicely,” I hear someone say.
“Took long enough.”
My eyes leap to those hovering over me. Three women, two men, all wearing the same immaculate white suits. Their hair is either slicked back or cut short. Have they chopped off my hair? Do I have hair? Anywhere? I cannot lift my head to inspect myself. It must weight sixty pounds.
I try to speak but can only manage a scratchy gurgle.
“Give her a sedative,” one of them says.
I try to shake my head. I’ve been unconscious for long enough. I want to be alive.
A needle pricks my skin. I sleep.
When I wake, I am clean. I am dressed in a tight white suit with gloves and footies. A skull cap fits tightly on my head. There is no mirror in my room, only a bed with no sheets. The walls are a dull yellow and I am happy to be somewhere that isn’t white. I sit up. I can move. I still feel heavy, but not as burdensome as before. My body is still human-shaped with arms and legs and fingers and toes. I can’t believe how happy that makes me.
The door slides open and two uniformed assistants walk in. One is a black woman with short hair and the other is an Asian man with a ponytail. He has hair. Someone here has long hair.
“It’s about time you woke up,” the man says.
“Where am I?”
“You’ve never left the building,” the woman says as she waves something that looks like a metal wand over my body.
The man takes transparent stickers from his pocket and places two on my face – one on each cheek.
“You started the process three months ago. How are you feeling?”
“Tired. Scared. Absent.”
“But no pain?”
I check in with myself just to make sure. “No.”
“Great.” He pulls several vials and a hypodermic needle from another pocket. “Sorry to use such an archaic method but we need to take some blood.”
I look down at the tight material that covers my body. “How do I get this off?”
“No need.” He jabs the needle into my arm and the first vial fills with blood. “Self guided needles. Takes out the guess work.”
I watch the blood run up into the vial. It’s red. My blood is still red. “Has anyone contacted my parents?”
A glance passes between their stern faces. They look troubled. Panic begins to creep in at the edges of my mind. Why is my heart not racing? Do I still have a heart? I must – I have blood.
The man returns his attention to the needle, refusing to look at me.
When the woman speaks, her voice is cool. “Your parents died during the riots.”
“The riots,” she says with a sneer. “The ones that broke out shortly after your surgery.”
“I don’t know what The riots are.”
“Your parents created some problems. They attempted to break in. We asked them to leave. They wouldn’t. We forced them out. They returned with friends. Trouble makers. People who’ve wanted us to fail from the start. Misguided though their attempt was, their deaths were still unfortunate.”
The world blurs before me. I picture the vial breaking and my red blood splattering the room, ruining the white walls and their impossibly clean uniforms. I picture breaking the two of them, tearing their bodies to shreds.
“Who killed them?” I ask through gritted teeth.
“Our guards.” She says this as if talking to a child or a slow adult.
I grab her by the throat, my gloved hand squeezing hard. I hear wheezing and crunching. I watch her eyes bulge. I am stronger than before. The room is red now, or at least that’s how I see it.
I feel a jab in my neck. He’s stabbed me with a needle. I sleep.
When I wake, I am lying in another pool. Now I am naked. My skin is the bluish white of milk. I look like I have never seen the sun. A vampire. A hairless mole. I lift my head and survey myself. I do not vomit. I give myself credit for that. My breasts are gone. My chest is flat and nipple-less. There are no scars. I wonder what they did with my breasts. Were they thrown into a trash heap, burned with the medical waste, or maybe recycled into a new body? It takes a moment before I can move on from my chest. What was once my stomach is now something else. Hard metal lives there now. Maybe I couldn’t throw up. I stop looking. I no longer wish to see.
I try to stand, but my arms and legs are restrained. My new pool is only a few feet deep, like a child’s pool, but half-buried in the ground. My head pokes out into the air as the rest of me lies floating like a corpse.
It is then that I see the man by the door. He is older, gray haired and dark skinned. His eyes twinkle as he stares at me.
“Immortality,” he says. “You chose to be immortal.”
“Yes,” I answer. Why does he look so happy?
“We ask thousands of young people every year if they’ll undergo the procedure and most of them say yes. Few say yes year after year. You’ve said yes for the past seven.”
“Those few usually don’t pass our exams. It takes a certain body to withstand what we do to it. And a unique mind, one that won’t be destroyed by the changes.”
“I read that in the brochure.”
“You’re immortal now.”
“And?” I wiggle my fingers. “A prisoner?”
The man shakes his head. “You’ll do your time, feeding the machine. Then we’ll let you go.”
“The machine?” That was not in the brochure.
The man squats at the edge of my pool and I see that his face is lined with wrinkles. Is he 80? 90? He lets his fingers dip into my liquid. “We’re going to pump you full of this, let it circulate through your body. It will mix with your blood.” He points to my metal stomach. “It will become…warmer, and smell vaguely human. When we take it out of you, a bit of your DNA will be encoded into the liquid. We’ll feed that to the machine.”
“The one who taught us about immortality.”
I nod, not quite knowing what he means.
The wrinkles around his lips deepen as he smiles. “The machine is one of my designs. I spent my entire life creating. Robots. Artificial Intelligence. I thought I’d leave something of myself behind.”
“You’d be immortal.”
His smile fades. “My body isn’t the right type, but my work will live on.”
“How long will I feed the machine?”
“Eighty-six years. It’s my current age. You’ll feed it for one lifetime. And then you’ll live forever.”
I glance at my body. “Will someone fix my stomach? My chest? My skin?”
He shakes his head. “We all have sacrifices to make.”
“Will it hurt?”
“Of course it will hurt.”
I don’t know when I started shaking, but the water around me stirs with my fear.
“Are you ready?” he asks, his lips quirked into the faintest of smiles. He enjoys my panic. He will enjoy my pain. Maybe he regrets not being able to be immortal himself. Maybe he wants to punish those who are.
“No. I’m not ready.”
“It doesn’t really matter.”
A door slides open and three men enter carrying hoses. The hoses connect to small spouts that have been inserted into my legs and stomach. The pool grows shallow as the liquid is pumped into me. A thousand biting snakes squirm through my body – ripping and tearing, setting my nerves on fire.
I cannot scream. The pain has stolen my voice. I am being eaten by a fireball. Consumed. Chewed. Digested. I want to die. I cannot die.
But that is all that I can do.
Eighty-six years. I have eighty-six years of this to endure. I close my eyes. Eighty six years. And then I’ll live forever.
And then I’ll live forever.
Libby Heily began writing after spending years as an obsessive reader. She’s written plays, screenplays, flash fiction, short stories and novels. Libby studied acting and playwriting at Longwood College and film production at The Seattle Film Institute. Her novel, “Welcome to Sortilege Falls,” was published by Fire and Ice YA Publishing in 2016. When not spending time in made up places with invisible friends, she enjoys reading, running, hiking and performing improv. Libby lives in Raleigh, NC with her wonderful husband. You can connect with Libby through https://libbyheily.com/ or on Twitter @LibbyHeily