I always thought that dying was a horrible thing until I realized what the alternative entailed.
Human beings imagine the end to be a peaceful resolve. They imagine their loved ones on the other side. Others (the cynics of the world) imagine there is only darkness when they die.
Me? I imagined a sunset, and perhaps a beach somewhere with an endless supply of margaritas.
To my ungrateful surprise, none of these endings were what waited for me. Despite all the religious promises, there were no clouds or songs of rejoice. There were no handsome men in robes and halos. I never saw any pearly gates. Who the hell came up with that idea, anyways?
I died in the same way most people who live healthy lifestyles always seem to: I got cancer.
I was alive and content and life was good, and everything seemed to be in working order. Then I got sick. Thanks, Universe. Why not throw cancer into the mix? I had just started a new and promising career. I had a beautiful young family. Hell, we had just bought a new puppy. (His name was Marvin II, if you were wondering. My daughter named him. There was no Marvin the First.)
Cancer seemed like the logical next step after all the luck I had been having. I was happy, and whoever oversaw all the cosmic happenings seemed to think that I had enough happiness for one lifetime.
So, skip ahead a few months, and there I was, lying in a hospital bed, faintly aware of my surroundings. My daughter was there. My husband. My sister. They were all in varying degrees of mourning.
I was numbed to it all.
My throat was dry and there was a thickness about me. I lacked all control over my bodily functions.
Prayers and words of encouragement drifted around me. The only warmth I felt was a stream of urine that passed through along a tube and into a bag taped around my lower abdomen.
I let it all drain away. (Not the piss. My life.) I was helpless. I was supposed to fight. That’s what I told them all I’d do. I said I would kick and curse until the bitter end.
I didn’t. I couldn’t.
This was only a short three months from the early Monday morning, when I walked out of the doctor’s office, all of it feeling strangely surreal. Now I lay prostrate, someone clutching my pockmarked hand in a stale hospital room, stroking their fingertips along mine.
I knew it was my time to go. My breaths came in low, rattling gasps.
I opened my eyes at the blurry shapes around me. I opened my mouth to speak, and sat for a moment like a fish out of water. I had to have last words. Every important person ended their life saying something great, and damned if I couldn’t think of what to say.
I love you? Remember me? Live every day to the fullest? For King and Country? It was unsettling to think this was all I had to leave behind. Well, that and my closet full of size-nine shoes.
A tunnel appeared. All sound had ceased to exist.
My brain was shutting down.
The cancer had done its job well.
Everything fell away as the singular light in my vision disappeared.
I couldn’t breathe anymore, and I was suffocating. They all sat there, friends and family, watching one of my most private moments.
I couldn’t even clench the hand that was in mine. The drugs made it impossible to resist the weight. I was so tired and so afraid and I felt sure that my heart should be beating out of my chest.
But—my heart wasn’t racing. It wasn’t beating at all.
Someone was weeping noiselessly, and then I died.
After that was Level Two.
The Second Level was much, much worse.
Chapter One: Level Two
“Dignitaries and sociopaths,” Jonathan cursed as I followed him hurriedly across the landing platform.
“Some would say you are a sociopath,” I reminded him, nearly jogging to keep up.
“Some would be right, but at least I admit to it.”
“Acknowledgement is the first step,” I agreed, tucking my hair back into the scarf tied around my head.
We reached the craft and ducked under the fuel pod. A man in a green and yellow-striped jumpsuit pulled down a stepladder and Jonathan ascended. I moved to follow him, but he motioned me back. His head skimmed the top of the doorway.
“Jonathan,” I warned him vainly, holding out a stack of papers I had been resting in the crook of my arm.
He took them and smiled wickedly. “I won’t be long.”
“I swear—” I started.
“You better not. They’ll hear it,” he warned me smilingly and disappeared into the craft. The pilot pushed the door closed behind him. I felt I wouldn’t see him for a long while. My turn underground was looming quickly ahead if I did not become more impressive. If only Jonathan would give me more opportunities to show off my talents…
I backed out of the way and watched the craft rise in the air and take off swiftly into the traffic above. I stared up at the highway blinkingly for a few minutes, contemplating the trip home, before a voice behind me, as if reading my mind, said: “you need a ride home.”
My hands dropped from my hips as I turned to the speaker. It was Acros, the bookkeeper. “I don’t,” I began, and then realizing my mistake I crossed my right hand diagonally from heart to hip and dropped to one knee.
I wasn’t religious, but I wasn’t stupid either. I knew my place, and it was far lower than the dirt between this man’s toenails.
“Peace,” he said with an upraised hand. I stood, eyeing him cautiously.
I took a slight step back and slowed my breathing, waiting for Acros to speak. He seemed content to simply look at me with chin upraised and eyebrows drawn together. I felt minuscule.
He made a slight twitch of motion, and his pupils darkened to twice their size.
I shifted uncomfortably but remained silent. He was Reading me.
I carefully withdrew my mind into a compartment and allowed safe thoughts to flood my head. These were meant to distract him, and seemed to do the trick. He sifted through them meticulously, slowing when he found a memory of Jonathan, shirtless and faced away from me, the muscles in his lower back flexing as he reached for the window. The image faded and I saw Acros smirk malevolently before continuing on. My wall remained firmly placed.
I had grown to be secretly proficient at the sacred skill of Silimency: keeping one’s mind in parts. I knew others had the ability, but to find someone willing to share their resistance was nigh impossible in the Second Level.
Jonathan had taught me. He showed me because he was in love with me. The feeling was not mutual, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. Staying with him was beneficial to my survival, and besides that, he wasn’t unbearable to be around.
Silimency kept me from the surgeries, and from the Third Level. It was more a delay than anything. Eventually everyone ended up in the Third Level. That is, except for the Proprietor.
Finally satisfied, the pale bookkeeper removed his gaze and ushered me along. I felt the distinct tug of release and mentally relaxed.
“Come. Your duties and your family await.”
I knew better than to object. I had been set aside, and my fate was chosen.
Family, I scoffed internally, following Acros slowly along the bridge with folded hands and straightened shoulders. My shoulders were one of the few things that reminded me of who I was. They maintained what little dignity I had left.
The moment I let them droop was the moment I forgot my life in the First Level.
As far as I knew, I was the only person to completely remember the First Level. If the Proprietor, or one of his bookkeepers were to find out, it would be the death of me.
Aircrafts flew along the highway above, a collection of free and enslaved peoples, each following the Proprietor’s Way. Each hardly knowing any other way.
My so-called ‘family’ was a group of conformers driven into a life of servitude for their general lack of distinctness. Each family was a unit, and each unit was given a name, but there were no relations beyond these titles. There were also no loyalties. A brother or sister would just as likely slit your throat as they would share a bite of bran meal.
We were born of the First Level, and the same blood of our former lives remained in us. We lived and worked and served together, and eventually we were either chosen for the surgeries, or left to wither and work away until the next level came to claim us. My family consisted of Seventy-Four men, women and children. It had once been a hundred.
The Afterlife, I had quickly realized, was neither heaven nor hell. The longer I lived there, the more of my First Level memories slipped away. Snippets remained, but their solidity had begun to blur. If I had clung to them more desperately in the beginning, I was certain I would have acted against the Second Level sooner.
The bookkeeper steered me into the bordercraft with a clawed hand, and left my instructions with the Tagger. Even after releasing me I could still feel his cold touch.
The mark directly beneath my right ear was scanned upon entering the bordercraft, and I was quickly fastened into one of twelve already-occupied pods. I relaxed into the restraints, knowing they would only tighten if I resisted. My head rested against the padded seat.
As the kipsmoke filled the chamber and my lungs, I saw a familiar face. Jaimie looked across at me with heavy lids. The thick scar along her temple stood out in stark contrast to her dark skin, a reminder of why I fortified my mind and kept my head down.
She was already slipping into unconsciousness, but managed a weak smile. I held on for as long as I could, returning the expression before I, too, slipped away.
“Hey, Tinker, wake up before your tagger gets set off.” Light hands gripped my shoulders, jostling me awake. I blinked up at Jaimie, who gave a nearly undetectable wink. “There we are,” she said, stepping aside as a Tagger ripped apart the belts holding me upright and let me stumble out of my pod. Kipsmoke always left a person too dizzy to walk properly, much less attempt an escape.
I pressed a hand to my eyes, waiting to regain my wits, and swallowed a bit of bile. My throat burned with the taste, and I longed for a sip of water.
By the time a person was fully awake after being gassed, all they could do was step off their craft before they rejoined their family in the dank underground.
I brushed aside the scarf on my head and scratched at my tag as I walked ahead of the group. Jaimie slapped my hand away from the side of my neck after making certain the Taggers weren’t watching. “Quit that.”
I glanced back at her with gritted teeth. “If I could only just get under it—”
A Tagger walked down the line at that moment, silencing me. My eyes dropped to the ground as she passed, her long legs striding purposefully.
Five of us had debarked from the craft, stooped and defeated. The other seven remained on the craft for the next faction. My shoulders were raised defiantly as I walked on. Our family was given only a second to glance at the setting red sun before being pushed into the tunnels that led deep into the bowels of the planet. I breathed in my last of the fresh air before descending.
In the darkness, I thought of Jonathan.
Meanwhile, the Proprietor watched everything and made his careful selections for the next round of surgeries.
To Be Continued.