Sophie Guan | Art by Katherine Cui
The streets awashed with warm summer rain smelled of yesterday’s filth, carried upwards by the humid air that bogged down on the pedestrians. Scurrying footsteps stirred up the mud puddles that had gathered along the paths, but no one stopped to savor the scene, save for a man who paused to survey the storm clouds gathering at the horizon.
Around him, displays anchored on the sides of skyscrapers flashed and changed again. A woman’s voice, pleasant and hollow, provided the sound for a line of government-sponsored text: The power to break limits of human potential lies in your hand. Ask your nearest Recruiter to learn how you can be a part of the world’s greatest team today.
“Hey, you!” The police standing guard noticed the man in the middle of traffic and hollered at him. “Move along!”
Carson quickly lowered his eyes from the horizon and continued his pursuit. However, he jumped when the sharp sound of broken glass pierced the air. He swung around just in time to witness a large man crashing through the glass window of a pastry shop from the inside, smashing the cakes and the glass trays beneath. Two officers chasing him were quick to lunge on top, crashing into his back and pressing his face onto the ground. When he was yanked upright again, half of his face had turned brown from the mud and pastel from the cake smeared across a good portion of his face and shirt. A cut on the other side leaked red iron into the sweet filth before the wound closed.
“You’re under arrest for first-degree destruction of property,” the officer said. “You have the right to remain silent but refusal of verdict can and will prolong your punishment in the Chamber. You have the right to request leniency, but under no circumstances is it guaranteed.”
The police car to the Chamber was parked by the sidewalk its doors opened and the man was shoved forward with a grunt. A drop of cold mud slid down the man’s cheek and made it into his mouth. He spat it out, cursed, and spat again, but a grin blossomed across his face as if he were alive. Around him, the people shuffled along.
Wiping the beads of sweat off his face, Carson spared the muddied man another glance before quickening his pace. A young—no, not young, but old with the face of youth—standing guard by the building pointed at his cheek and told him that there was blood. Carson touched his own face and his hand came away stained. The broken glass must’ve cut him, too shallow to have felt it but still deep enough that it left a sign. The wound had already closed, but he rushed to the bathroom just to make sure.
Panicking brown eyes in the mirror stared back at him. The blood had dried. Lukewarm water dripped down his face and hands, rolling over the dirt and sweat, darkening the sink. Carson had the sudden urge to rip the porcelain out of its place in the wall and smash it against the mirror, just so he could make a dent, which would undoubtedly be fixed in minutes but at least for that brief moment, there would be—
“Doctor Carson?” his aid prompted. “Doctor Windsor is waiting for you at the Chamber.”
Somehow, he’d made it to his office without breaking the glass. “Yes, yes, of course. Do you have the—”
“Right here.” He was handed a gas mask. “Dr. Windsor also wanted you to know that Subject 172 has set off for Japan this morning at the coast of California.”
Carson frowned as he took the items. “Set off? By rowboat?”
“No, she decided to swim. She wants to challenge the four-month record set by Subject 15.” The aid’s lips were pinched together as if the seamstress had decided to sew a smile onto a face too delicate for a grin. “Also, Subject 80 has been retrieved from the stomach of a whale just yesterday night. He was attempting for the record as well when a whale swallowed him.”
Carson’s lips twisted up without his control then were quickly stretched thin again. Seeing no audible response, his aid nodded and left him alone in his large, white office with a gas mask in hand. His warm hands left heat prints on the glass eyeholes of the mask.
Before heading to the Chamber, he took out his clearance badge from a drawer and hung it around his neck. The news of the subjects always unnerved him. The subjects were a courageous bunch for wanting to challenge human limits. Though courageous would be too unfitting of a word. After all, their courage was the result of their immortality.
He remembered that year when nothing was born and nothing died. The man who was stabbed in an alleyway at the dead of the night opened his eyes to the morning sky; the patient who was flatlining heard the sound of steady heartbeats from her own chamber. He remembered the child in the mother’s womb disintegrating into nothingness; the cries; the laughter; the start of something and the end of another.
The deathlessness of immortality had taken away what used to anchor them. Thus, during the first few years, they saw a lot of blood; blood splattered on the concrete, on the bed, on the wall, on the stones. Things cut off, things cut out. It was a while before the new government stepped in, built the Chamber, and put a stop to it.
“Are you ready?” Windsor asked, dragging him out of his thoughts. “Today will truly be a historical moment.”
Carson smiled out of politeness. “Of course.”
Today, the old woman at the very top of the Chamber was going to die. While time had stopped for everyone else that fateful year, it did not for her. Doctors, scientists, and people alike around the world were all holding their breath in anticipation of this moment: the death of the very last mortal.
As the media had coined it, the death of death itself.
They kept the mortal at the very top of the Chamber, which was a replacement for the old prison system that had fallen apart due to immortality—without the threat of death or the fear of losing time, there had been little authority in the old prisons. To get there, the glass elevator had to pass through eighty floors. It was quiet and cold in the elevator, but it was hardly the case outside where lava extracted from volcanoes were remelted and pooled at the center of a large man-made cavern, around which chains rattled and the prisoners shook with inhumane howls. Carson thought he saw the face of the man from the cake shop but before he could look again, Windsor noticed his expression.
“This is only befitting,” the doctor said. “As Zeus had done to Prometheus, this is an order of divine punishment.”
Carson bowed his head briefly in apologies and fixed his eyes back on the window. The subject of his pity looked back, then jerked away when Carson flinched at the contact. Against his wish, his gaze fell upon the howling prisoners being devoured and reborn in flame. The pit gurgled and laughed, the sound echoing then fading away when the elevator finally arrived at the top floor.
An old woman laid in a bed at the very end of the hall. The walls around her were as white and pristine as her skin was black and wrinkled. Two doctors handling her medications stood and left the room when Windsor strolled over, stopping just before the glass that separated the monsters from her.
“Isn’t it fascinating?” Windsor mused out loud. “We’ve watched it grow from a child into this wrinkled creature and now it’ll soon perish as if it had never lived. The cycle, this brevity, Carson, isn’t it revolting?”
In Windsor’s moment of trance, Carson had already put on his gas mask. The other doctors followed suit and they were then allowed into the large, white room wh’tere machines beeped slower and slower under the instructions of an invisible conductor. Someone had disconnected the testing machines and removed the needles that had been drawing her blood for the past century.
The old woman’s mouth struggled open. Sounds surfaced then fell with the rise and fall of her chest. It was a while before she got words out in that raspy, furious, trembling voice of hers. Her eyes found his—a jolt, like lightning.
“Rot in hell,” she said. “Rot in hell.” And then with eyes closed and hands stilled, she escaped.