Born in 1978, James Finn lives in Birmingham, England and assists psychology students with structuring essays and dissertations in between other things. He has, over the past several months, had several stories published in various webzines and has had a story selected for an anthology.
I cry out because the need to blink is incredible and my eyes refuse to shut, even though the room is dimly lit. This is my first need. The second is to escape; unable, I begin to panic. I cannot move, I'm strapped to a table. I realize soon enough that it's not the straps restricting me, it's my body's inability to assert any kind of motor function.
"It's all right," reassures a voice in the darkness. "Calm down, you're safe. Do you remember where you are?" The voice turns to shadow as it moves closer to me.
Moments pass and suddenly I do remember: I’m in the operating room. I begin to relax. My eyes are covered by a towel and the pain eases.
"There, is that better?" the doctor asks.
I swallow; my throat is dry and clicks. "Yes," I rasp. "Why can't I move my body or close my eyes?"
"It is a side effect of the procedure," he explains. "It will pass. Your body has been through a lot."
I blink. I wiggle my fingers and toes. My joints ache like never before and I groan. "You can take away the towel," I say. Suddenly my body is alive with feeling; it feels strange and tingly. The doctor removes the towel and my restraints.
"Now, just sit up, don't try to stand, give the body a chance to fill with blood. Your circulation will be a little slow."
I sit on the edge of the operating table, allowing my legs to hang. I feel the blood drain from my head as it rushes to my extremities and I momentarily go blind. Gradually my vision returns and I find the room is brighter, the overhead light has been switched on. The doctor is standing next to me with a smile on his face.
"Where is it?" I ask.
He looks across the room to a large clear tank filled with translucent fluid containing my former self, well, the skin of my former self. It floats lazily, attached to small hooks like a surreal Halloween costume. Nearly two weeks I remained in that tank, kept alive through feed pipes and God knows what else, waiting for my skin to slowly peel itself away to its most rudimentary layer. Two weeks, mercifully, I know little about.
"What will you do with it?" I ask.
"Burn it, of course. The new dermas has taken well and the muscle enhancers have reacted appropriately. Do you feel any discomfort or pain?"
I flex my hands. "My joints throb."
He puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. "Although I was able to modify your body's appearance, on a superficial level, everything beyond that is still at the mercy of your age. You'd do well to keep that in mind." He looks at me, his expression solemn. "Whatever you do, don't return home for any reason, or to any place that has had any associations with your former life," he warns. "They are looking for you and you know what that means. Head straight for the airport."
I nod. Suddenly I'm filled with disquiet, and realize the panic I'd felt earlier was not because I was restrained.
He smiles and pats me on the back. "Another Lazarus walks the earth."
Christ, I don't remember my skin ever feeling this restrictive. I feel so taut, on the verge of splitting, as though I'm slowly being baked; it's uncomfortable and I'm extremely self-conscious about my movements. Even the slightest twitch feels unnatural to me, I feel like an interloper in my own body.
I suppose it's a small price to pay in exchange for my life.
The queue edges forward and I watch the person in front of me shuffle along. I'm next. I copy his movements, feeling even more self-conscious. I feel eyes on me. I hope it's paranoia.
Jesus, it's like I've never walked before, I feel like a toddler taking his first tentative steps.
Beads of sweet run down my forehead and beneath my arms. I watch and listen to the man in front. He sounds so relaxed and casual. If only I can do the same.
Remain calm. It's so damn hot and stuffy. My heart's racing and I'm concerned I'm going to stutter or slip up and give myself away. I tell myself I shouldn't think those thoughts, but it's the truth and I cannot hide from that. The man passes the guard, goes through the metal detector, and on to the underground platform with the rest of the commuters.
It's so easy when your conscience is clear. Everything happens with very little fore-thought, and that's all that's happening inside my chaotic head: thoughts, lots of them.
Neurons on rapid fire added by adrenalin-fuelled blood. What chance do I stand? I've made a mistake, I should have let them take me and been done with it. Why put myself through this?
"You're holding up the line, pal."
My thoughts are interrupted and my mind swims in confusion. I turn to the voice behind me and am confronted by a tall man with no hair and little life in his face. He doesn't look happy.
"Move along, some of us have a job to go to."
Before I have chance to apologise I am summoned forward by the platform guard.
I stand before him and stare straight ahead as he asks for my ID. I don't want to make eye contact. I dig around in my inside jacket pocket until my fingers find the brown leather wallet. I hand it to him without as much as a glance. I freeze as he takes it from my grip and terror fills me. My old documentation! I can't remember if I removed it all.
Too late now.
"Date of birth, sir?" The guard asks.
I don't want to face the man. Reluctantly I look into his brown face, then at his gun securely strapped to his belt. I feel an aching pain run down the left side of my neck my fingers begin to tingle. I think back to what the doctor had said; all this stress is no good for me, I’m far too old to be putting myself through this. "I'm sorry?" I say, trying to sound casual.
"Your date of birth. What is it?"
Does he know? Has he already found my old documents and is now just playing along, waiting for me to trip up? "Kill on sight" is their instruction when dealing with people who've passed the Date. I try to control my breathing as the pain in my neck increases. Suddenly I'm certain I'll drop dead before he a has chance to draw his gun. His eyes reveal little and I wonder what he sees in my own. Fear? The real me? Should I just confess and ask him to kill me facing him, not like a criminal running or walking away?
The thought gives me a morbid sense of comfort. I watch his lips move as he's about to repeat the question, but I interrupt him with a smile and an answer. I'll take the chance of being shot from behind; at least that way I won't see it coming.
"And how old will that make you?"
"Thirty-eight years old next week," I reply. I wish I could read his eyes. Ah well, I've done my best under the circumstances. I didn't stumble with my words.
"You must tell me the secret."
I look at him questioningly.
He smiles. "To your youthful looks, sir."
I smile back. "I try to live a stress-free life with plenty of exercise."
And with that, I walk forward through the detector and onto the platform, counting my steps and waiting for absolute darkness. When I hear the guard ask the tall guy for his ID I breathe a sigh of relief and almost collapse. Instead, I make my way towards all the other morning commuters standing cramped side by side, waiting for the nine o’clock tube to pull into the station. I massage my neck and rub a hand over my face. It feels so different. I want to look in the mirror. Even though I've done it many times since the procedure, the urge to look again is incredible. I laughed the first time I saw myself, rolled over in hysterics. After I'd finished, my face had given me hell, as though I'd spent a year chewing gum.
In my peripheral vision I see a blurred image watching me. I turn and the face comes into focus. The woman smiles.
"Did you have a good shave this morning?" she asks playfully.
I take my hand away and flush. She moves towards the edge of the platform as the squeaking brakes of the train travel up to meet us. I wait my turn as people rush the opening doors for the best seats or positions. I'm prepared to stand.
Stepping onto the train my heart momentarily stalls as I'm faced with a picture of myself on the train video screen. Gripping the hand rail, I freeze. Everyone can see the picture of me on the countless screens in each car. It's a recent photo too, I remember it being taken a week ago, which is mandatory before the due Date.
The large scar running up the side of my left cheek, green eyes, grey hair, clean shaven. Everyone has to have all facial hair permanently removed prior to the photo, to prevent the use of facial hair as a disguise. They use some method of laser treatment; it burns pretty bad.
The sweat pours from me as I look around, waiting for someone to notice and point me out to all the others aboard, but no one does. I look at the man standing next to me and he just offers a perfunctory smile before turning away. I look at myself in window then glance back at the screen. Two different people, I think.
I watch the rest of the news and see a reward offered for my capture dead or alive. There's approximately one hundred potential executioners in this car with me. Not a comforting thought on a long journey.
I literally watch an older gentleman's anxiety grow on his face as if it were a tangible organism. He must be close to his Date. I can't help feeling sorry for the old guy, knowing what he has to face, and almost having been a victim myself, though I'm not out of the woods yet.
He looks away from the screen in a vain attempt to deny the inevitable. But the law is the law. It's all part of the population control act put into place over twenty years ago.
I feel the train coming to a stop and the movement causes my right arm, which is holding the overhead rail, to make a painful cracking noise in my shoulder joint; this attracts the stare of the woman who'd made the comment a little earlier. I offer her a weak smile. She doesn't return it, only looks un-comfortable. Shit!
The doors slide open and I'm one of the first to depart; only I wish I had remained aboard when I see the number of police officers present in the station. It is only by the impatience of the passengers eagerly pushing from behind that I move forward, otherwise I would have remained stock still and no doubt drawn unwanted attention to myself. And it is through sheer determination that I'm able to continue on towards the exit stairs, though I'm remarkably calm.
The police are holding up a picture to the passing commuters and randomly pulling people aside for quick questioning. I watch as people shake their head and utter a few words before being allowed to move on. The doctor told me to expect this to happen as I was still in my allocated living area of the city. The search has begun; my picture had been broadcasted a mere two hours after missing my Date. I've gone from being a citizen to being obsolete. I am now thought of as a disease, a cancer on the population. I've outstayed my welcome in this world.
I walk with purpose, head up, posture stiff. Confidence is key.
There's an officer less than six feet to my right, I watch as he grabs the same woman who had earlier enquired about my shaving. She glances at me and I feel a burning inside, everything seems to fade into a silent nightmare. I see her lips move, nothing else. They're slow and deliberate. And I'm absolutely positive she mouths the words: "Yeah, the guy you want is right there." The sound returns when the woman smiles, shakes her head and walks on.
A tug on my arm almost causes me to cry out; instead I bite my tongue.
"Excuse me, sir, have you seen this man?" The officer is no more than twenty, and his eyes are full of the ignorance of youth.
I look at the picture of myself he carries and shake my head. "Sorry, I haven't. Not in person."
He looks at me closer and his grip tightens. "Are you sure, sir?"
I nod my head. "Sure, I'm sure. I've looked at his mug shot all morning."
"Lift up your shirt, I want to see your stomach."
I frown. Then I understand what he's getting at. The masks, they knew about the masks, but a mask only covers the face.
"Now, sir!" His hand hovers above his gun.
I slowly lift my shirt and show him my well defined six-pack.
"Shit! How the hell did you get abs like that?"
I pat him on the shoulder and smile. "Stress. It eats you away if you have enough of it."
I'm just glad they don't do retina scans anymore, after they found vast amounts of people who had either developed tumours on the backs of their brains or suffered from bouts of temporary blindness which could last up to five years.
Stepping out the station, I survey the vehicle waiting area, and the dozens of yellow taxis idling there. I look at the numbers displayed on the doors and approach the one which has the same number as my new date of birth. Moments later I'm on my way to the airport.
"So, you're him, the wanted one." A statement. The driver glances over his shoulder at me before focusing back on the road.
A typical taxi driver, I think, though I don't say anything. The adventure this morning has left me exhausted. I lean back and close my eyes. My joints and bones groan in gratitude as the pressure is taken from them. I sigh.
"So tell me, what's it like, the operation I mean? I’ve heard it's as painful as hell, is it true?"
Still I remain silent. I was warned this guy goes off at the mouth, but that he's harmless.
"Had a guy like you in here 'bout a month ago. Told me it hurt real bad. Said the worst part is when your skin re-grows and stretches itself back out. Is that true?" He turns again and looks at me, only this time he doesn’t turn back to look at the road. He wants an answer.
"Look, I'd rather not talk about it."
Looking at the road. "It hurts though, right?"
"Yeah, it hurts like hell. Especially the face." The doctor had injected a skin colorant shortly after I'd awoken from the procedure, into my torso and face. When the new skin grows back, its pigment is almost completely pink, which would have been more than enough to spark alarm.
"Yeah, that's the colorant or something, right? I think it's fucked up. Not what you've done. What they did, the government. Population control and all that shit. Sixty-five and that's the end of the line for everyone, now. Little over twenty years before I'm put out to pasture -- if they can catch me that is." He begins laughing, a horrible cigarette-corrupted cackle. If this guy's got twenty years before his Date then I feel sorry for him; life hasn't been kind to his features. "I'm saving, you know, for the operation," he adds. "Squeeze an extra fifteen or twenty years more out if I can. One thing I don't understand though, is why they can only do the op a few days before the date. Do you know? Why not five or ten years before? Did they explain?"
I make eye contact with him in the rear view mirror and shake my head. "No, haven't got a clue. They didn't say." And that's the truth, I don't know why it's the only time the op can take place. I don't really care. It's not important; in less than seven hours I'll be starting my new life. Somewhere hot, where my body can rest in comfort.
"Some take their own life, you know? Prefer to do the deed themselves than have some doctor stick them with a needle."
"Yeah, I know."
"Did you think about doin’ the same?"
"Got any family?"
"I did have a wife."
"Her Date came round."
"Ah, shit, I'm sorry. Long ago?"
"A little over a year."
"Why the hell didn't she have the op?"
"She had her reasons and I couldn't convince her other wise. Besides, she was already ill."
I cut him off. "This is the end of the conversation," I tell him. My tone is flat and harsh.
The memory of my wife makes me feel sad, knowing she was put to sleep like some sick dog. She only had three months left anyway, why couldn’t the bastards let her see out her own biological death sentence?
He holds up a hand. "Sorry, man."
"Sure you are."
I see the sign for the airport but the driver heads straight past the exit.
"You missed the exit," I point out.
"No, don't worry, this is a short cut." He turns off at the next exit, onto a narrow dirt road leading to an abandoned industrial works.
"Where the hell are you goin'?" I ask. He pulls the car onto the side of the road and turns toward me, holding a gun.
"Sorry I have to do this, man. I need the money. I'm not going to have anywhere near enough by the time my Date comes around." He grins, the crazy bastard.
"But you've got years before--"
"Three! I've got a little under three. Now hand over your money!"
I open my wallet and hand him all my cash.
"This is all I have."
"Your credit card. Come on!" he says.
"I need this money to live," I protest.
"No. I'm all you need to live, now hand it over."
I hand him the card and he smiles. "Now what?" I ask.
"Now I turn you in and get my reward."
"But you have money, more than enough." The pain in my neck returns, but it has more to do with anger than anxiety.
"You can never have enough money," he says. "Not when you're a gambling man, and the odds look pretty good from here, wouldn't ya say?"
"The doctors trusted you."
"They have others like me; besides, I'm retiring early. Now keep your hands where I can see them. I think I'll do the job myself. Dead or alive, the reward says." He climbs out the car with the gun aimed at me. I sit with my hands in the air watching as he opens the door. He lifts the handle with his free hand. I take my chance and kick the door as he opens it. The impact sends an agonizing jolt of pain up my leg, but the door hits him in the chest. He squeezes off a shot which slams into the rear seat, missing me by mere inches. I lunge from the car before he has time to recover and begin to struggle with him for the gun.
Another shot goes off but is wild. I punch him repeatedly in the face. My entire body hurts, my chest tightens, and I feel fatigue set in, but the muscle enhancers have made me much stronger than he is. I knock him unconscious and roll onto my back, gasping, clutching my chest and arm. It takes time to recover.
When the driver finally comes round he's seated in the driver’s seat with his hands bound to the steering wheel with his own belt. He looks confused until he sees me holding the gun and my credit card.
"You're a greedy asshole," I say, waving the card. "You could have taken the money and gone."
"Look, man, I've got problems, gambling problems."
"You've got bigger problems now. How far is it to the airport from here?"
"'Bout three miles," he says.
"My mother always said to me that greed is a sin. She also said a fool and his money are easily parted," I say.
I shoot him in the face, wipe my prints from the gun and toss it. I'm determined to make it to the airport.
I stare at the front of the airport, after making the long walk unchallenged. My shoes are covered with a film of dust and all I want to do is sleep. For a short while I watch people arrive and depart, arms laden with bags and suit-cases. I have nothing but the clothes I'm standing in, my passport, and the brown leather wallet containing my new ID and credit card. The doctor hadn't allowed me to keep the small picture of me and Shelly that had been taken when we were in our teens. I might as well have died on my due Date. I feel lonely and pensive, but I have to push forward. It’s what she would have wanted.
Shouts stir me from my reverie and I turn to see three police officers running towards me with their guns drawn. They've found me! I think back to the taxi driver. Maybe he'd set me up before hand, tipped them off somehow.
I freeze as they take aim.
I almost made it, I think, and close my eyes. You can't outrun a bullet.
The reports are deafening and there's a lot of screaming. My head swims, and there's silence, but only for a hushed moment. I open my eyes. The officers are standing around a body, their guns holstered. Specks of blood mingle with the dust on my shoes.
A woman lies before me. They have shot her in the back; she's in her early thirties. A pool of blood forms around her lifeless body. One of the officers bends down and begins peeling off her face; seconds later I'm looking at an old lady with white hair. Christ!
"Move along, people," commands an officer.
I say a silent prayer for the woman and move into the terminal on jelly legs. I find the correct check-in line and while I wait I play the scene over and over in my head.
That could easily have been me.
The couple in front of me are talking about applying for a birth license. The man complains it costs too much, but the woman argues that life exceeds any value. I have to admit, I agree.
After informing the check-in clerk that I have no luggage she stamps my ticket. And after an uncomfortable hour-long wait in the lounge I'm sitting aboard the plane, staring out the window as we wait to be airborne. I find myself becoming uncomfortable inside my new skin again and wriggle in my seat. A young boy next to me watches me fidget. I smile at him and tell him I've got ants in my pants. He laughs.
I rub a hand over my smooth, line-free, perfect face. I'm sure I’ll get used to it.
As the engines rev up and the plane starts taxiing towards the runway I smile to myself.
Say in ten, or even twenty years time, if I'm lucky, I do suddenly drop dead, I wonder what the mortician will say or think when he or she performs the autopsy and find the insides of a man who is actually nearing eighty or ninety? It's an amusing and disturbing thought, one I don’t dwell on.
The plane takes off and my body aches with the pressure change. I close my eyes and memories flood my mind. I fall asleep and dream of the past. In a strange way, I never want to wake up.
copyright © 2006, James Finn