Jeffery Lynch awoke to raging pain. He wasn't surprised at the pain; it had been his constant companion for the last three months. His body had fallen under the domain of a tormentor, a ravenous cancer that mercilessly chewed at his body, an unwelcome guest that no amount of radiation had been able to evict, nor morphine to subdue. What surprised him was waking at all - since he distinctly remembered dying.
Those last moments were still with him, a collage of terror: Julia hovering over him, her anguish condensing into warm tears and falling on his taunt, desiccated flesh; his heart kicking like a maddened bull as an electronic sentinel shrieked its monotone alarm; his lungs laboring beyond all reason for air that came in thin, insufficient shards, until they suddenly abandoned all effort, leaving him waiting for another breath - that never came. Poised on the edge of eternity, his panicked eyes locked with Julia's. She squeezed his hand and whispered something in his ear. Then he fell.
Dammit, he screamed to himself, why had they revived him? Dying was not something he wanted to live through again.
Pain refocused his attention. His forearms felt like they were immersed in molten lead. Jeffery opened his eyes; the world consisted of a fuzzy chiaroscuro seen through a translucent haze. A shadow fell over him and a feminine voice said something in an unknown tongue as soothing drops of oil washed over his aching eyeballs. After blinking several times, the haze began to clear.
The nurse was joined by a second figure, heavier, but no taller. Jeffery heard the high-pitched whine of machinery, and there was a sudden pain in his right knee. The odor of ozone wafted to his nostrils. From somewhere came a syllabic moaning. He finally realized it was emanating from his own mouth.
Finally, a black hole opened up. Jeffery's consciousness entered willingly.
At first, infinite nothingness. Then pieces of memory began drifting by like the torn fabric of a dream. He wanted to seize them, but couldn't; colorful but incoherent baubles, they evaded his grasp like butterflies. Finally, his dreamscape was ruptured by a blinding portal of light. The world beckoned again.
Two figures loomed over him, discussing something in the language he still couldn't understand. The heavier figure spoke in a deep, sexless voice.
"You are speak English, maybe?"
Jeffery nodded weakly.
"Is this affirmation your language?"
Jeffery nodded once more.
"Tell me...what's going on." Jeffery's paused to swallow. His throat was dry. His words had to belly crawl over broken glass to make it out. "My...my arms and legs hurt like a bitch. Where's Julia?"
"No arms. No legs. You have d' kay. Unner' stand? Arms and legs all gone. You not need. Pain will be gone in maybe minutes. We find right frequency for electrodes and make many nice endorphins."
The speaker disappeared, leaving Jeffery staring at a stark, white ceiling and trying to comprehend what he'd just been told. The cancer hadn't been in his extremities, so why...Without warning a vibration passed through him; he was 12 years old again, bare footed and touching the badly grounded dryer in the basement. His back arched involuntarily.
"Ah, try again," the voice exclaimed as he made a minor adjustment to the machinery. Jeffery felt icy pricks on his scalp. The pain vanished. The cloying medicinal smell that surrounded him disappeared, replaced by the fragrance of blooming roses, their petals wet with morning dew; from somewhere came the sound of children laughing and playing; Jeffery saw an endless azure sky, across which floated an armada of small clouds.
Pleasure. Contentment. Release.
Later, adrift in the void of his mind once again, Jeffery remembered: An office. An oncologist sitting across the desk from him, saying, "... advanced cellular mitosis...terminal...maybe, six months."
Jeffery stared at the small things on the doctor's desk - a letter opener with a caduceus for a handle, a family portrait, some brochures hawking a new treatment for skin cancer - thinking "This can't be real." It became real when he broke the news to Julia. She was devastated.
His pain intensified. Another visit to the doctor collapsed the six months into six weeks. Death had no interest in the doctor's timetable; it had its own agenda to keep. Two weeks later, he found himself in the hospice, Julia at his side, swearing she'd find a way to save him, a way for them to stay together.
Jeffery came out of his reflections to the sound of feminine voices, chatting amiably. The language was still a mystery, but the emotive content was universal. The room was a combination of lab and operating room. There were two surgical tables in the center. He was the only occupant. The room was technically opulent, filled with devices familiar and unknown. A floor to ceiling cooler occupied the wall to his left; what he assumed was a pair of oxygen tanks resided on a dolly near his bed; along a counter to his right were microscopes, a centrifuge, and other medical esoterica. The clinical decor was broken by a couple of small, framed reliefs, cork cutouts of Oriental houses in a mountainous setting. These hung on the wall just above a hot plate bearing an ornate, blue and white teapot.
It was near the tea service that the nurses congregated. Their garrulous, high-pitched chatter sounded like the language of birds to him. Their identical uniforms and the similarity of their faces reinforced the image of a rookery: All the nurses were Oriental. And no one seemed particularly interested in the fact that he was awake.
Julia must have had him transferred to a specialized clinic, maybe in Japan? Jeffery tried to grip the bed railings to lift himself up, but couldn't seem to make his hands work. Fighting a wave of vertigo, he cautiously lifted his head to survey himself. Under the sheets, his legs looked far too short. Perplexed, Jeffery lifted his arms: an inch or so below the elbows, each terminated in bandage-swathed nubs. A tube ran from his stomach, and what he presumed was a colostomy bag hung from his right side. A bad dream?
Jeffery touched the nubs of his elbows together and felt pain very much beyond the dreamer's art. Jeffery opened his mouth and screamed.
A nurse carefully set her blue china cup down, detached herself from the tea party, and approached him. "You be quiet. Now!"
But Jeffery had no concept of how to be quiet, and screaming seemed appropriate to his situation.
"All right." Frowning, she turned and flipped a switch on the machine sitting on the table next to his bed. "You go happyland."
A prickling of his scalp: The smell of roses, the sound of children laughing, an endless azure sky.
Nurses came in daily to change his bandages and observe his condition. When the pain became too intense, the monitoring band on his head triggered the machine. The result: a one way ticket to Happyland. If he complained, or persisted in asking questions, they pressed the button on him. He'd quickly learned not to interrupt their afternoon tea parties. Between their visits he had nothing to do, save watch the series of horizontal windows high on the wall opposite him. The apertures provided a narrow view of gray sky, sun, moon, occasional clouds, and, less frequently, birds. Otherwise, time passed in accordance with the repetitious pulse of the institution.
A week after his revival, a nurse opened the door and bowed in deference as a pair of chubby twins in matching suits entered the room.
Like everyone else he'd seen so far, they were Oriental. These two had large teeth, displayed in bright, insincere smiles, unctuous, patronizing manners, and exhibited an aggressive sense of self-confidence.
Jeffery could only think of the grinning twins as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
"Greetings, Artifact. We are the historians of People's Lifeatorium of the Western Republic, Sector D."
Tweedle Dum added, "Your happy compliance with us will ensure your continued existence."
Dee clapped his hands. The door opened again and a rolling table was pushed into the room. Dum picked up a clipboard and a pen and began.
"Now, Artifact, you will find our command of your heathen language excellent, no doubt. You will provide us with information about your corrupt, decadent society and..."
Jeffery drifted. He had gotten good at drifting. In the hospice, near the end, Julia said, "I've found a way. A company in Knoxville has a new method of cryogenic suspension. They inject a gas into the body that permeates and preserves the frozen cells, and protects them from corruption, so that..."
"Julia," he reached up and lightly stroked her auburn hair. The movement was painful for him. She'd gone beyond the limits of their health insurance already by hiring two additional specialists to look at his case. Honest men, they had nothing new to suggest. "Don't be foolish. Don't squander any more resources on me. You'll need..."
Her green eyes flashed angrily; her delicate porcelain face reddened. "Squander! Would you care about money if I were laying there? Jeff," her voice wavered, "I can't imagine living without you. Who knows what medical innovations might develop in a few years? This way, at least there's a chance. Don't you want to live - for me?"
He didn't, not really. He was tired, to his soul. Only his concern for her anchored him now.
"Honey," he swallowed a lump in his throat, "Life is precious because of its fragility. Love is special because of the possibility of separation. That the two of us could find each other for a time in a universe that conspires to forever rend lovers apart - that's the magic."
Jeffery believed that. Love was a nexus where two souls crossed in the ineffable depths of time. And it couldn't be captured and saved in a bottle - or preserved in a cryogenic chamber.
"Jesus, Jeff! What will I do without you?" She broke down again. Through her tears she pleaded, "This way at least there's a chance for us to be together again." She looked directly into his eyes, her customary shyness giving way to emotional intensity. "It is wrong to buy hope? Any hope at all? Don't you understand?"
He didn't want to upset her further. The guilt he felt at abandoning her was overwhelming, in its own way as painful as the cancer. And her tears were persuasive. He managed to smile. He took her hand, lifted it from the bed rail and kissed it with dry, cracked lips. "Sure, baby. Sure. I always want to be there for you. I want us to be together. Forever."
"Forever," she affirmed, returning his smile.
"...questions about your sick, materialistic culture, so that Honorable Leader may show the people the truth about Western corruptness and degradation."
The historians seemed to have a peculiar interest in sex - and displayed reactions to his answers that were more fitting to adolescents than scientists. Their misconceptions about Twentieth-century American culture were extensive. Jeffery didn't bother correcting them. They expressed only a brief interest in his personal history, instead spent the time showing him pictures of objects and peppering him with questions about them. He confirmed their opinions whenever possible, hoping his ready acquiescence would allow him to ask a question or two of his own as the interrogation proceeded. But the historians, obsessed with the useless minutiae of his former culture, didn't regard his desires as worthy of consideration. Finally, they turned off the lights and left Jeffery alone with his thoughts.
Julia. Bless her misguided heart. What kind of future had she condemned him to? His cancer had obviously been cured, or at least its course had been temporarily reversed. What would happen when the historians were finished with him? Would they build him bionic arms and legs? Surely, if they could revive him from cryogenic suspension, they had commensurate scientific abilities in other areas, like computer controlled prosthetics? Or regeneration?
Something else puzzled him. What had become of the others they'd revived? Questions grew, and filled his mind until they smothered consciousness. Jeffery drifted off to sleep.
The next morning Jeffery heard several voices beyond the door, voices speaking English with an unmistakable American accent. The door opened. Pushing a service cart, a thin man with a face lined with character like an old, brown, weathered boot paused to address two younger men, dressed in the same orange coveralls he wore. The younger men were twins, and wore a Pisces logo on their chests.
"Y'all go on ahead and start on the commissary. I'll meet you there when I finish up here." The two young black men nodded in unison and left.
Humming a tune Jeffery didn't recognize, and oblivious to his presence, the janitor began preparing a mopping solution.
"You speak English. Tell me where this is, what's happening to me. Are you American?"
Still humming, the janitor dipped his mop in the bucket and began spreading cleaning solution around the floor.
"For God's sake, man, answer me! I know you understand me."
The janitor finally paused, placed the mop in a bucket and began wringing it out. He glanced cautiously over his shoulder, then said, "'Course I understand you. Ain't supposed to talk to you, though. Could get in a lotta' trouble, old Alfee could. Don't want no trouble. I got a nice job. Fact is, I'm so good at my work I'm was made a model. See, here." He pointed to a gold star embossed on his name tag. "That's an honor, yes sir. Now you best hush up 'n let me work."
Jeffery threw questions at Alfee, but the old man studiously ignored them.
Finally, Alfee paused and leaned against his mop. "You know anything 'bout baseball?"
Alfee turned from him and resumed mopping. After a minute, he turned to face Jeffery again.
"Yo' folder says you was deceased in 1999. The nineties was a good time for baseball." Again, he paused his mopping, waiting. Jeffery said nothing.
"When I was a kid I used to go to a lot of games." His voice trailed off as he turned his back to clean under the counter.
Jeffery realized what he was doing. There was a camera on the wall.
Alfee only spoke when his back was to it.
"My sons, they never seen no baseball. Wouldn't know how to play. They don't believe the things I seen as a boy. No sir. But I told 'em about baseball. Baseball was grand. Ain't nothin'," he whispered proudly before pushing his cart toward the door, "as grand as baseball."
Tweedle Dee and Dum came twice a week, Alfee every other day. Little by little, after careful and polite prompting between Alfee's monologues on baseball, Jeffery picked up a bit of jumbled history concerning the economic collapse of the West and its eventual subjugation by China. He had been revived in the sixty-seventh year of the People's Triumph and the Great enlightenment.
"Yep. They keep it very clean here," Alfee said as he poured disinfectant on a rag and began wiping down cabinet doors. "Scientific stuff. That's good for me. You got to be very good, you see, to keep things to standard here. I had an uncle, Teddy," Alfee said, returning to his favorite subject, "he played professional baseball. He was a relief pitcher with the Red Sox. Had all kind of pitches, sliders," heedless of the camera at his back, Alfee's right hand unconsciously mimicked a tossing motion, "curve balls, sinkers."
"Why," Jeffery interrupted, "are they so careful with security?"
Alfee paused, picked up a rag and turned his back to the camera. "Don't want no bad genes gettin' lose. They also real particular 'bout cultural contamination from Artifacts. The People's Social Welfare Committee and the Occidental Historical Society had a big clash. They compromised on security." Alfee nodded at Jeffery's arms.
As Jeffery had suspected, there had been no decay in his limbs.
"What will they do with me?"
Alfee snorted. "Anything they want. To them, you just a scientific curiosity. Like a mummy. You know what a mummy is? Read about 'em in a library once."
Jeffery took this stoically. So his keepers wouldn't be returning him to society. He'd suspected as much. More than likely, he'd wind up in a zoo - or a bottle of formaldehyde.
"Artifacts," Alfee continued, "is the only legal source of Special Service. They make children from you if they find you useful in some way."
"Yeah. You know, copies. Like my sons. They don't allow no copies from General Citizens no more. But if an Artifact's got special skills, or something unique 'bout 'em, like provide a special service, then they can make children from 'em." Jeffery glanced at the freezer, where his blood samples were kept.
"Alfee, why would they bring me back - for this? I've got no skills that would be useful to them. I was a CPA."
Alfee's eyes locked on his, betrayed a depth not usually displayed. "You died from a pretty rare disease," he whispered. "Old Alfee can read a medical folder as easy as instructions on a bottle of cleaning solution. So what I reckon is they interested in studying that. They 'arrested the progress, and revived the subject,'" he quoted with a chuckle. "Best I can figure, they'll probably make some sons from you so's they can study it some more."
"Dammit! They're going to use me to make lab rats!"
Alfee grayed. "Hush now. Hush. Alfee, didn't say nuthin'. Not nuthin', you hear." The old man's hands shook as he picked up a can of floor polish.
A little later, he said, "Say, know who pitched the most shut outs in National League history?"
The next morning Jeffery was surprised to see Alfee come in, out of sequence for his regular cleaning schedule and uncharacteristically nervous.
"What's going on, Alfee?"
"Honorable Sim Sung be here this afternoon. He's the big yahoo 'round here, the Regional Director, so everything has got to be all clean for him. Honorable Sung is the patron of this Lifeatorium. He'll be staying a couple of days, most likely. He got a residence on the third floor."
Alfee resumed mopping and scrubbing, only giving terse responses when Jeffery tried to draw him out by discussing baseball.
Late in the afternoon Jeffery heard a commotion in the hall. His door opened and one of the nurses came into the room followed by a portly individual with the friendly smile of a satiated wolf, who, Jeffery presumed, was the Honorable Sim Sung. Sung nodded at appropriate points during the nurse's enthusiastic babble and continued smiling as she pointed out various things. Neither paid him any attention.
After a few minutes they turned to leave, the door still open. Sung snapped his fingers and his entourage followed him down the hall.
At the back of the train several young women followed subserviently. As the last one in line passed Jeffery's door she paused and glanced into his room. Her pale green eyes where like those of a doe moving through a tiger-infested jungle, showing fear combined with the acceptance of inevitable fate. He knew those eyes. The auburn hair was cut differently, but the profile of the porcelain face was unmistakable to him. It was the face he loved, a face that the rough winds of eternity couldn't erase from his mind.
She hesitated. Her brow furrowed as she met his gaze. Then she was gone.
Jeffery screamed, "Julia!" over and over, pleadingly, as a man maddened by thirst cries for water.
A nurse burst into the room. She wagged a finger in his face, briefly chided him in Chinese, then hit the go button on the happyland machine. Jeffery tried to fight it, but the explosion of simulated bliss was unstoppable: Roses. Children laughing. Blue sky.
The next morning Jeffery was awakened by the noise of Alfee's cumbersome entry with his cleaning cart. Alfee muttered "Good morning," then began lackadaisically cleaning, humming to mask his thoughts.
Jeffery figured that the janitor's reticence was due to his having heard about the outburst the day before.
It had been Julia. No. Julia at 18. A clone. The same flesh, though. The same fragile, loving Julia. Now the last words she whispered in his ear as he lay dying came back to him with horrible irony: "I'll see you on the other side of eternity, love."
She had decided not to be left alone.
Her love had been the one thing that made him dread his mortality. Now she had given them both a sort of immortality - at an unspeakable price: Through her clone, she would survive as a courtesan, he as a lab rat, in a cruel world that wasn't meant for them.
Tears coursed silently down Jeffery's face. His sadness coalesced into rage. His left arm shot out and knocked a glucose bottle from the tray next to his bed and to the floor. The sound of its shattering spun Alfee around.
"Hey, now, there's no need for..." Alfee bent over suddenly, hands going for a dust pan. Something slid from inside his coveralls and fell to the floor. Alfee hastily picked it up, but not before Jeffery saw that it was dog-eared copy of a baseball statistics book, the paper covers held on with layers of yellowed tape.
This was when Jeffery knew what he had to do.
"You've never been to a game, have you, Alfee?"
"Sure. Sure, I have. I was seven. My uncle was a pitcher..."
"Don't, Alfee. It's okay."
Alfee fell silent. His dark eyes shone with moisture. Quietly, he said "In 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire had a race to beat Maris' home run record. Know who won?" His hands clutched the weathered book like a protective talisman.
"Alfee. Once, I saw the Atlanta Braves play."
"Braves? Who was pitching the game?" he asked hoarsely.
"Maddox! Multiple Cy Young winner. Golden Glover. Strong batter, too. Atlanta had the strongest pitching staff in the nineties." His eyes sparkled. "Who they play?"
"Los Angeles. Tommy Lasorda. Oh, man."
"Yeah. Would you like to hear about it?"
Alfee said nothing, but his eyes danced with hope.
"First, you've got to promise me a favor."
Alfee listened raptly as Jeffery spun a tale of baseball at its finest. Jeffery didn't remember one particular game so he created one from an amalgamation of games he'd watched on TV. Alfee didn't know the difference, and Jeffery's imagination added enough details to make the game seem tangible to the old man. It was the least he could do.
Alfee listened hungrily, chuckled, muttered acclamations, made comments on the players whose records he was familiar with, and asked occasional questions until his desire was satiated. He held his breath as the rookie pinch hitter came on in the bottom of the ninth, home team down by one, two outs, runners on second and third.
The home run was a Hollywood cliche, but Alfee didn't seem to mind.
As he left the room Alfee walked by the Happyland machine. Like an after thought, he pulled his dust rag and gave it a swipe, incidentally hitting the off switch. He paused before he shut the door and gave Jeffery a conspirator's wink. Anyone monitoring the security camera wouldn't notice anything unusual. Jeffery figured the camera was more for psychological persuasion than anything else. He'd find out soon enough.
The Happyland machine being off was a necessity; what he was about to attempt would be painful. And he would only have one chance at it.
Twice the head band had become loose so that contact was broken. Within minutes a nurse appeared and adjusted it; but on the occasions when Alfee had turned the machine off to move it out of the way during his methodical cleaning, no one came.
Jeffery gathered the slack feeding tube under his right arm, pinned it with his left. After several tugs, is came free. Painful, but survivable. Not so the catheter. Jeffery leaned forward and maneuvered the catheter tube between the crook of one shortened arm, then pressed the other arm tightly over it. He took a deep breath, then pulled.
Accompanied by an effusion of blood, fluid, and pain, the tube came free. Blinking back tears, and using the rush of adrenalin from the pain to spur him on, Jeffery edged over the bed rail, hung for a moment, then dropped. An instant later the still-raw flesh where his legs terminated reacted predictably as they hit the unyielding tile floor.
Jeffery stifled his screams by biting his lip until he tasted a metallic salty liquid. Enfolded in a thick cloak of pain, he lay in a fetal ball as he waited for the anguish to subside.
Finally, having grown weary of making its stabbing licks, the pain settled into a dull throb that resonated with his pulse.
Jeffery listened: no one was coming - so far.
Like a hideous caricature of feral man, Jeffery lifted himself on his severed limbs and began crawling toward the door. Next to the door, in a recess between the cooler and the wall, was a long gaff, used to open and close the high windows. Using skill summoned from desperation, Jeffery managed to hold it in the crook of one arm. Carefully, he moved it until it was against the interior latch on the door. He pushed. The latch engaged with a click. That was the easy part. The latch wasn't strong, but it would buy him some time.
Steeling his mind to the pain, he managed to reach the next object he needed, the step stool. He braced his shoulder against the legs and began nudging it awkwardly toward the two green oxygen tanks.
After several tries, he managed to ascend to the second step, close enough to reach up and get his elbows around the T handle of one of the oxygen tanks. As he strained, one of his arms slipped, bumping the second oxygen tank. He watched in horror as the tank tilted forward in slow motion, poised indecisively in mid arc for a instant, then fell to the floor with a thunderous metallic clang.
He didn't have long now. He resumed his struggle with the handle. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran in hot rivulets down his face. The handle began to give a little. Finally, like a venomous reptile giving warning, the nozzle issued a soft, steady hiss. Jeffery put more pressure on. As the valve opened all the way, the hiss dropped in pitch until it was lost in the expanse of the room.
The door handle rattled. A nurse's voice called out, followed by the sound of footsteps hurrying down the corridor.
Somehow Jeffery made his way down without falling, then started pushing the stool toward the counter. Halfway across the floor, a fresh jolt of pain stopped him. He looked down and saw a white nub of severed bone where the bandage around his right leg had unraveled.
Someone was pounding on the door now. Frantic, angry, voices in the hall.
He thought of Julia's clone again. Had she recognized him? Was Julia's memory etched on her cells? The counter was only a few feet away now.
Each movement with his legs was agony beyond measure.
Superimposed on the walls, Julia's greens eyes implored him onward. He pushed the step stool against the counter, took a deep breath, and began his ascent.
The hot plate had a push button control on the front. Using as much finesse as he could manage, he pressed the stub of his right arm against it. The machine began moving backwards. The counter was deeper than his arms could reach. If it moved too far back...Finally, it stopped, blocked by something behind it. With nowhere else to go, the on/off switch yielded to his pressure with a click.
There was renewed shouting in the hall. Jeffery glanced at the security camera. They must have an inkling of what he intended. He maneuvered carefully to the top step of the stool. There. The last thing he needed. He leaned in as far as possible until his mouth made contact with the napkins.
Someone began pounding something heavy against the door.
He arched his head over the burner, opened his mouth and dropped the napkins. He heard a splintering crack as the door jam began to yield. Not long now.
A small whorl of black smoke rose from the center of the napkins. Should he blow gently on it to hurry it up? He wasn't sure. He might blow it out. Patiently, he waited, thinking of the haunted green eyes he'd seen in the hall. As he heard the door finally shatter, the broken latch clatter across the floor, and the rushed footsteps behind him, he saw the whorl of smoke suddenly give way to a lick of liberating, yellow flame.
"Julia," Jeffery said softly before the world exploded.
Michael tells us: "I play chess, I raise cats. When not staring at my computer screen, I sit and brood a lot. When I can, I indulge my interests, which range from iconology to physics. I tend to like anything that deals with the outer realms of human consciousness. At forty-something, I still spend my weekends playing rock ‘n roll. Writing, so far, as kept me from falling off the edge of the world."