by Michael Kingswood
Some folks call dead bodies stiffs. And boy, they ain’t kidding.
Couldn’t tell you what happened before then or how I got there. But when I opened my eyes on the cold stainless steel of the medical examiner’s exam table and looked up at the bright fluorescent lights shining down on me, at first I couldn’t move a muscle.
I could feel everything, just like normal. The subtle coarseness fo the blue cloth that was draped over the rest of my body. The slight movement of the ventilation-pushed air.
Smell the subtle aroma of decay beneath the more powerful scents of disinfectants.
Hear the talk of the coroner and his assistant from somewhere off to my left. Soft words that didn’t quite register except that they both came from male baritone voices.
But I could not make myself move. Not even to blink.
I knew immediately I was dead. I wasn’t breathing, my heart wasn’t beating, and none of those small internal movements that we only register at the base of our consciousness were happening.
But if I was dead, why could I still see, and feel, and the rest? Why wasn’t I chatting with Peter up at the Pearly Gates and seeing if I got First Class for eternity or got sent down to Steerage? Not that I expected First Class; Lord knew I was no saint. But to wake up here, of all places?
It’s not like my name is Jesus. It’s Bob. So how the hell was I back from the dead anyway?
It made no sense. If I could have moved a muscle, I would have thrown up my hands and screamed, “What the hell?!”
As it was, all I could do was lie there, staring up at that really, really bright light, and wish to God I could blink even because damn was that becoming painful to look at.
The voices grew louder, more distinct.
“…ought to see results in the next few hours. If—“
A face came into view overhead, the orb of the man’s head blotting out two-thirds of the light above me, so all I could see of his face was shadow. But he was wearing a white lab coat, with a white shirt and an orange-brown tie underneath. His words cut off as he looked down at me, abruptly.
“Hot damn! Ken, check it out. I think it worked!”
Footsteps, then another face came into view above me, on the opposite side of the table from the first. The new head took out about half of the remaining light, so now I could see a little bit of their features.
The first one was older than me, in his mid fifties looked like. His hair was mostly grey, with a few streaks of gold remaining, and was long, pulled back from his face into a ponytail behind his neck. The other, Ken, was maybe thirty, darker of skin and eye, with short-cut black hair. He wore brown, round-rimmed glasses and also had a lab coat, but his was unbuttoned, revealing a Slayer t-shirt and jeans underneath.
Ken blinked, surprise showing on his face, and I envied him that ability. He bent over, looking at me carefully.
“His eyes are open, yeah, but are you sure? Could just be a reflex response, or…” He trailed off as he brought his face within a few inches of mine. His eyes squinted. Then he jerked upward and back, stepped back from the table a step so I could just barely see him, off to my right.
“Holy sh*t. His pupils just dilated a bit.” Ken sounded a mix of surprised, excited, and scared, all at once.
“I knew it.” The first man smiled, and leaned more directly overhead, so his face was all I could see, haloed by light from the overhead. “Mr. Shepherd, I’m Doctor Joseph Milar. You’re in my laboratory. Can you hear me?”
I could, but damn if I could make myself say so. Couldn’t even move my little finger, let alone nod my head. And I wasn’t breathing, so talking was right out even if I thought I could move the muscles needed to do it. So I just laid there, listening.
Milar looked me up and down, then sniffed. “I imagine you can. And if my calculations are correct, you should regain muscle control over the next couple of hours.” He grinned broadly. “You, my friend, are history in the making.” He slapped me on the shoulder lightly, but the impact of it registered like a punch in the jaw. “We’ll talk soon.”
Milar looked up from me to Ken, then nodded toward something in the direction of my feet. The two men walked away, leaving my field of view quickly.
There was the sound of a door opening, then their footsteps going through and it closing behind them.
Then I was all alone, with just the light and the chill and the smell of antiseptic.
And a whole lot of questions.
Milar was right.
Within a few hours, I found I could move first my toes, then my foot, then my entire leg.
Some time later, I was sitting upright on that cold slab of stainless steel, the blue cloth pulled up around my waist to cover my nakedness as I finally took a look around and got my bearings.
I was wrong. This wasn’t the medical examiner’s offices. It had much the same equipment as I expected the coroner would have, but the room was too small. Just room for the one examination table, and then off to the left a laboratory bench and a small metal desk with a computer terminal on top.
The door to the room was painted grey-blue and appeared solid, and had a brushed nickel door nob. There was nothing else, just cream-painted walls and the bright light overhead.
I wasn’t sure how long I sat there, not breathing but still awake and feeling. But some time later the door nob turned, and a moment later Milar and Ken walked into the room.
Milar didn’t look at all surprised to see me sitting upright like a normal, non-dead person. But Ken’s brows lifted slightly for a moment as they both stopped just inside the door.
“You’re up,” Milar said, and he grinned again. “Excellent. How do you feel, Mr. Shepherd?”
I surprised myself. I hadn’t been sure if I’d be able to speak at all; I wasn’t breathing, after all. The idea of that disability had frightened me, so I hadn’t even tried talking to myself.
But I found I was able to make my diaphragm work, and bring air into my lungs. My voice sounded gravelly to my own ears, but it worked.
“What the hell is going on?”
The two men exchanged looks.
“What do you remember, Mr. Shepherd?” Ken asked.
I shook my head. I really couldn’t remember much at all before I woke up on this exam table. Just flashes here and there. I knew who I was, but other than that…
“Not unexpected,” Milar said. “The treatment is,” he made a wave of his hand, “experimental. Side effects are unavoidable, I’m afraid.”
I looked at him levelly, didn’t say another word. He cleared his throat.
“An explanation is overdue, I suppose.” Milar clasped his hands together in front of his belt. “Ken and I head a research project on life extension techniques. An immortality serum, if you will.”
I blinked. Couldn’t say I was completely surprised, but still… I’d heard of billionaires and such investing in silly things like that. And Walt Disney’s frozen head, or whatever.
Well, maybe not so silly after all.
I gestured toward my chest, and its lack of motion. “You call this immortal?”
“You’re awake and aware, aren’t you?”
Hard to argue with that. “How?”
“That’s a long and complicated, very technical explanation. Suffice it to say we were never able to get around the problem of cell decay from DNA replication errors. Stretch a creature’s lifespan and eventually things will always…break. But what if we could find a way to suspend the cell functions. A sort of perpetual stasis. The initial results on animal tests were very promising. Except for…the side effects.” He, too gestured at my chest.
I nodded slowly. What he was saying made a certain amount of sense. But I wasn’t sure I entirely bought it. There had to be more to it than what he was letting on.
Not that it mattered. What mattered right then was how I ended up here, in this state?
He must have seen it on my face, as he nodded apologetically and continued, “We found you in a cancer support group. You had Stage IV pancreatic cancer. An extremely fast, and painful, way to die. When we approached you, you were eager to be a trial subject.” He managed to look positively self-satisfied right then, as he gestured toward me again. “And now, here we are.”
I winced. Something about what Milar said resonated within me, and I had a flash of a memory. Pain. Dreadful pain, and fear. But more than that, desperation and a desire to have it end.
But I must have had a family, friends. What about them? Did they know what I had volunteered for, or where I was now? How did this all come to be?
For that matter… “Where is this place?”
“Outside San Jose, California.”
I nodded. “Funded by Silicon Valley tech billionaires, eh?” I shook my head and forced a snort. “That figures. So now what?”
“Well now we keep you under observation. See how your body responds to the treatment, whether there are any other side effects. The usual.”
“You don’t intend to keep me cooped up here, do you?” I waved my hand around at the exam room, or whatever it was. It was not exactly what I would call comfortable.
The two of them exchanged glances. “Well…”
To hell with that. I shook my head vigorously. “No way. A real bed and some real clothes, or I’m out.”
Ken pursed his lips. “I doubt you’ll need to sleep, Mr. Shepherd. But I understand what you mean.” He raised a hand as Milar drew in a breath, to object I assumed. “He’s right, Joe. Can’t hurt to put him up in one of the rooms.”
Milar frowned, then nodded. “Very well. But I must stress the necessity that you remain in this facility, Mr. Shepherd. We don’t know what all the side effects may be, and we’ll need to have you close to record them, and help you deal with them. Plus,” he paused, then cleared his throat. “There’s no other way to say it, but I don’t think your being out in public would be a very good idea at all. People might react poorly to a walking, talking man who is apparently dead.”
That made sense, after I considered it for a minute. “Yeah. A zombie roaming through Silicon Valley might get awkward.”
Milar winced. “I wouldn’t use that word, but….yes.”
Nodding, I pushed myself off the exam table. The sheet fell away, and I felt a bit more of the room’s chill. A thought occurred to me, and I looked down. “No heartbeat. Guess that’s not going to work any more, is it?” I gestured downward.
The two men blanched, then Ken shook his head. “We don’t know. But it’s doubtful.” He sniffed and looked away. “One of the many things we need to study and record for future changes in the treatment.”
That sucked. I guess. But it beat being dead. Even though I kind of was dead. In stasis. Whatever.
“Well,” I said, grinning at them and feeling at least a little bit like I had my bearings, for the first time since I woke up. “How about those clothes?”
They gave me medical scrubs for the time being, then brought me upstairs.
The room they put me in was one hell of a lot nicer than the exam room. It was four levels above the exam room, which turned out was in the basement of their building. An elevator ran all the way up, and my room was in the corner of the square-shaped structure, with windows that faced north and west, giving me a view of a commercial block filled with parking lots and other business buildings fronted in glass or brick, ranging from five to seven or eight stories high.
I saw business signs and logos that made me think most of the businesses in those buildings were tech firms of some sort of other. No big surprise there.
The surprise was that this room was set up more as a living suite than an office space. A queen sized bed with silky-smooth white cotton sheets beneath a thick, red duvet. Black leather couch and love seat positioned around a glass-topped coffee table facing a flat screen on the wall opposite the bed. A small kitchen with dark grey granite countertops and white shaker cabinets. A metal-framed, class-topped dining table with seating for six. A black corner-style office desk off in the corner opposite the windows, complete with a computer tower and an all-in-one HP Officejet printer. Speakers in the ceiling adjacent to the recessed lighting played a light, cheerful melody that I couldn’t quite place, and the temperature was a lot more pleasant than it had been in the basement.
Overall, it didn’t suck at all.
“Not too shabby.” I glanced back at Ken and Milar from where I stopped by the windows after completing my survey. “You guys stay here a lot?”
Ken chuckled softly. “No, these rooms are for our clients. Or they will be, anyway. For now, our investors use them when they come to visit.”
“How are you feeling now that you’ve moved around a bit, Mr. Shepherd? Any fatigue, or…?” Milar made a vague gesture. I was pretty sure he had as little idea what he was asking for as I did in how to answer.
The simple fact was that I felt fine. Not a complaint at all, except for the still vague unease I felt over the lack of internal movement and sound from within my body. But I felt fit and energetic, not tired at all. And moving around had gotten the last of the kinks out. What little of the initial stiffness that had remained when we left the exam room was gone completely.
I felt better than I had in twenty years.
Though how I knew that, I couldn’t say. Something washing up from the disjointed memories in my head.
I shrugged and turned to fully face them again. “Call me Bob. I feel great. Excellent, in fact. Can you do me a favor?”
“You got a file on me? Vital statistics, name, rank, serial number, things like that? I’d like to call Mom or my wife, if I can.”
“No wife,” Ken said, “and your mother passed away five years ago. But yes, we’ll have records send up everything we have on you. The first thing we’ll want to do is work to recover your memories.” He made another of those semi-apologetic shrugs. “Last thing we’ll want is future clients not knowing who they are.”
But it was fine for me to? Intellectually, I knew that wasn’t what he meant. But still, it rubbed me the wrong way. I shoved my annoyance down, though. After all, I was here to help them with their research. Wouldn’t do any of us any good to get in a tizzy about things.
So I just nodded and said, “Thanks.”
“I’d like you to keep a log of your daily routine,” Milar said. “If you sleep. For how long. Sensations. When memories begin to come back. If you feel hunger or thirst or fatigue. Anything and everything of your biological and psychological functions. We’ll be monitoring you, but getting the inside story, if you will, is essential if we are to get this right.”
Made sense, so I nodded again.
“Excellent. I didn’t say it earlier, Bob, but thank you very much for your assistance. With your help, we are going to change history, even life itself, for every human being on the planet.”
Well, the rich ones anyway. But I appreciated the thought.
It’s weird researching yourself, and feeling like you’re learning about a completely different person.
Ken and Milar gave me the biographic information they had on met, and the internet connection on my suite’s computer was apparently unimpeded. So before too long I had an idea of who I was, if not a feeling or a true memory.
I had a degree in Finance from the University of Minnesota. I’d grown up in St. Paul and never moved away until now, apparently. Ken wasn’t entirely correct; I had an ex-wife and an eleven year old daughter named Kelly, but they had relocated to South Carolina four years back. No idea why I didn’t follow.
I worked in an investment bank as an analyst. Owned a condo in downtown St. Paul. My credit score was 753 and I had a good chunk of change squirreled away in a 401k and Roth IRA.
I played the trombone and was a hockey and football fan, more hockey.
And I was, apparently, dead.
Actually dead. I found the death certificate on file. Looked like my estate was still in probate. I imagine I left it all to the kid.
Finding out that bit of reality came as a blow. And it pissed me off. Milar’s explanation should have helped.
But it didn’t.
“You have to understand how sensitive this research is, Bob,” he said, looking up at me from behind his darkly stained wooden monstrosity of a desk two floors below my suite. “We can’t just take someone and subject them to potentially lethal effects if they’re otherwise healthy. Ethical issues aside, the liability alone would crush us.” He shook his head. “No, we picked you because you were on your way out. Only weeks to live at most. So when the time came…”
He trailed off, and I finished for him. “You faked my death and brought me here.”
Milar shook his head. “No faking about it, Bob. You died in the University of Minnesota Hospital. We injected you with the treatment and you flatlined. As far as your family and friends know, that’s where you stayed. We flew you here as soon as arrangements for your cremation had been carried out.”
“Well I’m back now, so—“
He shook his head vigorously. “There can be no contact with anyone outside this facility, Bob. You know the reasons why.”
I did. And he was right.
It still pissed me off.
But that was how I learned my internet functionality wasn’t 100% after all. Something in the computer system’s setup, or the network architecture, disabled email and internet phone calls.
Oh sure, there was undoubtably any number of websites or applications I could find and use to get around those blocks. And after I stormed out of Milar’s office following that discussion I determined to do just that. But I quickly calmed down. And I realized he was right.
Until we knew exactly how this new state of being for me worked, getting in touch was a bad idea. For all we knew I might drop dead…again…tomorrow, or in five minutes. Would it be worth subjecting Kelly to the confusion and fright of me being back just to put her through the pain of losing me all over again?
Until I knew more, the answer was no.
So I kept on keeping on, and learning more about what this new life, or whatever, was, and how it worked.
Ken was wrong, but also right. Kind of.
I don’t need to sleep. I never get the physical fatigue that I assume I’d grown used to in regular life, the inability to keep going past a certain point, and the necessity of lying down for a time.
But I’ve found that after a certain amount of time, my thoughts become sluggish and I have trouble focusing. It gets worse and worse until I simply can’t do even simple things anymore. But it’s weird because I never get physically tired during this process, so I found that it really can sneak up on me and I become useless before I even realize it.
Amusingly enough, the effects start after about eighteen to twenty hours of activity, and I become unless after about forty-eight hours if I don’t rest.
But it’s not sleep. I lie down and shut my eyes, but I don’t go unconscious. I’m awake the entire time, but it’s like a switch flips and I get into this funky awake but dreaming state. I get some seriously weird dreams now. But the cool thing is one REM cycle and I’m good. Up and running, able to kick it on for another day.
So about ninety minutes instead of six to eight hours. I’ll take that trade.
So that was one important question answered. Another was hunger and thirst, and other bodily functions.
My body isn’t functioning, but it is. My bowels and bladder voided when I died, and near as Milar could tell there is no peristalsis in my gut at all.
Gotta get energy from something, though. So it stood to reason I would need to eat. Or something.
And I did get hungry. Though hungry isn’t the right word. It’s not the hole in your stomach feeling from normal life. More like a general feeling of lethargy. Like I’m sensing my energy level, and know when I’m getting toward the end of the tank. I start moving slower, enough that I notice, and things become more difficult to do.
Cool thing is this takes longer than getting hungry did when I was living a normal life. A few days as opposed to few hours.
The problem came in figuring out what I could eat, and how. Because if the gut ain’t rolling it’s not like I can swallow and digest solid food. So we very quickly figured out it would have to be liquid.
That brought a sinking suspicion to my mind, and I found myself confronting a horrible possibility.
“Tell me I don’t have to drink blood,” I said to Milar.
He looked at me, then shook his head and chuckled. “I highly doubt you’re a vampire, Bob.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugged. “I really don’t. But blood isn’t just liquid; there are cells throughout it. If you can’t digest solids you can’t digest them either. Plus, there’s not really a lot of nutrition there.” He shook his head. “No, I’m thinking liquid energy drinks, protein shakes, things like that.”
That was a big of a comfort, but I still had that nagging, lingering dread. Until it turned out he was right. Those athletic supplement drinks and mixes seem to do the trick nicely. And it turns out I can taste still, so that’s nice.
The down side is the liquid literally runs straight through me. It takes a little while, and apparently I absorb what I need from osmosis or something. But when it comes time to go…it’s time to go and there’s no holding it back.
On the bright side, the timeframe for the flowthrough is almost always the same. About four hours from when I drink something down, it’s leaving. And because it’s not digested it’s not as messily nasty as bowel movements used to be. Still…
The other down side? I tried a shot of Jameson.
Doesn’t work. No buzz from alcohol. Dang it.
Neither does Mr. Happy. No blood flow, so no way to make things happen down there. Unless I can make like a Ninja master and learn how to control my heart and make it pump, the way I can control my other muscles somehow.
No idea how to do that, though.
Super dang it.
Oh well, not too many girls probably want to date a dead guy anyway.
The other thing we wondered about was injuries. It’s impossible to go through life without getting hurt. And if a body can’t heal, that would make immortality, or stasis, or whatever you want to call it, really sucky.
Turns out, I can heal. After a fashion. And with a bit of effort.
I don’t bleed, because no heartbeat. But I still need to put pressure on a wound, because I also don’t clot and form a scab either. Put pressure on and use that cool skin glue that doctors use now. Then wait, and drink a bunch of protein shakes.
Not sure what happens or how, but the wound knits itself back together.
Takes a long time, though. Probably twice as long as a cut would have back in normal life.
Doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, though. Not completely pain-free, but it’s a duller feeling, more easily tolerated.
So that’s nice
It took us weeks, going into months, to figure all this out. And I was starting to get a little stir crazy. Nice as my suite was, there was only so much being cooped up in the same place I was prepared to take. Especially since my “waking”, functional, days were so much longer than normal people’s, I had a lot of time without company.
Yeah, yeah. The internet.
People on the internet get old fast.
Yeah, yeah. Movies and books.
They don’t take the place of people.
So I became more and more determined to get out and stretch my legs in the world again.
We’d ordered me a fairly nice, if small, wardrobe, so it wasn’t like I was going to go running around in scrubs. And despite being dead, or in stasis, or whatever, I still looked ok. My hair had stopped growing, which was fine. And I was a little pale because of no blood flow. But I wasn’t any more hideous to look at than I ever had been.
No reason I couldn’t go mingle with normal people, except for the secrecy of the research.
Which was, of course, the rub.
Near as I could figure, the project wasn’t doing anything strictly speaking illegal. As long as the subjects truly were volunteers, anyway. But Ken, and especially Milar, were adamant about secrecy, to the point where every door in or out of the building required a magnetic keycard to open. Except for the emergency fire exits. They couldn’t legally lock those from the inside.
But those were all alarmed and monitored by cameras, and there were cameras all throughout and surrounding the building grounds.
No one was coming in our getting out without the security team knowing about it, and allowing it.
But after several months in this place, I was getting to the point where I didn’t care.
I knew how to navigate life in this new state of being now, and had given Ken and Milar a ton of data to use for the project. I bore them no ill will, but I also didn’t feel obliged to be their serving man forever, either. It was quickly nearing the point where I was going to go, whether they liked it or not.
What were the going to do, shoot me?
First of all, they wouldn’t do that.
Second of all, yeah it would hurt getting shot. But that’s all it would do. Near as we could tell from our findings, short of actually burning me to ash, not much was going to kill me besides starvation.
It would suck healing from it, but getting shot wouldn’t stop me from leaving if I really wanted to. Might not even slow me down.
But again, they wouldn’t do that.
Or so I thought.
They day I learned the falsehood of that assumption was the day I decided I was out, never to return.
It was late, almost midnight, and I was taking my normal evening stroll through the building. It was something I had gotten into the habit of doing when everyone but security was gone and I had nothing to do. A relic of my normal life, and the need to keep myself and my muscles in shape.
I’d grown to love evening walks back in the day. Or I assume I did, considering how quickly I picked up the habit.
Regardless, as I was strolling down the second floor hallway, I saw a light on just before where the corridor turned left up ahead.
Milar’s office. At first I wondered if he’d just forgotten to turn it off, but then I heard voices as I got closer and I realized no, he hadn’t yet left for the night.
It was Wednesday, and he had an early morning teleconference on Thursdays. He was going to be a hurting unit in the morning.
I thought to stick my head in and tell him to get lost for home, but as I neared the ajar door leading to his office, I recognized the other voice and realized Milar was on the phone, and he had it on speaker while he was typing away on this computer.
I’d heard the voice before. It belonged to one of the money men who managed the contributions from the patrons of Milar’s work here. Mr. Okuba, Milar had called him once in my hearing. Sounded like a Japanese name to me, but his deep bass voice didn’t have even a hint of an accent.
Okuba was speaking now, and I came to a halt as I heard his words, a shiver going up my spine.
“If you’ve learned all you can from him, when will you proceed to the next subject?”
“I don’t think we’re ready to go there yet, sir. The subject still is learning and we are gaining great data. And we haven’t finished collating what we have taken so far.”
“At this point, is there anything he can give that wouldn’t be redundant with what you already have?”
I could practically hear Milar’s shrug. “Probably not.”
“Again, after you dispose of this subject, when will you be ready to move on to the next?”
That shiver became a shard of alarm. When Milar answered without hesitation, alarm became outright fear, and outrage.
“Probably three to four months. We’ll need time to reformulate the treatment to account for the—“
“Unacceptable. Time is of the essence, Dr. Milar. You know this.”
“Yes sir, I do. But you can’t—“
“Then I suggest you proceed to the next stage. Immediately.”
A long paused, the MIlar said, “Yes, sir.” I could hear in his voice that he did not like the order he had just been given.
But he also was going to carry it out.
He was going to order the disposal of their test subject. Me. Throw me out like a piece of garbage. Except worse, because they’d be killing me.
They’d justify it in their minds by thinking I was dead already anyway, and only “living” on borrowed time due to the work they were doing. And I was legally dead, to boot. So would it really be murder?
And if it was, did one murder really matter when weighed against the benefit that could accrue to countless other human beings down the line?
It struck me then that there had likely been other test subjects before me. Maybe many others. The utterly implacable insistence on secrecy took on a whole new meaning right then.
I about rushed in and smashed Milar’s head in.
But no, I was not made of the same stuff he and Ken were. I wasn’t going to harm them just because they meant to harm me.
I simply walked away from his office to the elevator, then went to my suite and threw as many of my things as I could carry into a bag.
Then I left.
The alarm wailed as I smashed open the fire exit at the rear of the building. I could picture in my mind’s eye the security guy, drowsy from the lateness of the hour, jerking upright and flailing around as he struggled to figure out was was going on for a second.
It wouldn’t take him long to zero in on my departure, so I ran. I sprinted full out across the parking lot toward the line of trees separating this lot from the next.
Unlike when I’d run cross country in High School, my heart didn’t pound and my lungs didn’t burn, my legs didn’t wobble and my sweat didn’t pour out of me like a faucet left to run.
I just ran, mechanically pumping my legs and arms and I’m pretty sure moving faster than I ever had, even back in my prime.
It was only after the building had vanished from site behind the tree line and I turned left toward the actual woods on the far side of this next lot that I realized I had just uncovered another memory; I hadn’t discovered the Cross Country things on my Bob Shepherd research assignment. That came from within.
I smiled as I passed out of the light in the parking lot and into the shadows of the woods.
I’d uncovered more truth about myself. More would come as I continued to live this new life.
And I would uncover other truths as well. The truth of who the shadowy men who had commissioned this program were. Those men who would casually condemn me and others like me to advance their cause.
I’d find them. And I’d let the world know who—and what—they were.
Contemplating that, my smile became more grim.
And I passed on into the shadows.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: