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Science Fiction Adventure

This story contains sensitive content

TW: Death

The Merriam-Webster definition of thanatology is as follows: “The description or study of the phenomena of death and of psychological mechanisms for coping with them.”

2032

I wake up at 3 a.m., as is my habit. It's a cool autumn night, and a shiver goes up my spine as I pull on my sweatshirt.

However, the shiver has nothing to do with the cold. I've been having the same nightmare for weeks, and it always wakes me at 3 a.m., right as I die.

The story leading to my death is never the same: one night it's a terrible natural disaster, another it's my heroic attempt to save a drowning animal, yet another it's a sudden allergic reaction to something that has never bothered me before, like tomato or cheddar cheese.

The doctor says I'm probably having these nightmares because of last month's diagnosis. She says I have a year left at most and that nothing can stop my body from degenerating at this pace.

Tonight, though, my death was caused by something entirely different.

Tonight, I died because I chose to.

***

Light year 9846

Life in the Andromeda galaxy is not easy.

First of all, we never settle down. We hardly stay in the solar systems, never mind pick an actual planet. We're roamers, space nomads.

Second of all, no one ever dies.

Our lives are all about regeneration. We have the technology to transfer our consciousness into a new body whenever our old one dies.

You may think having immortal souls is great, but it comes with a few strings attached:

1. You never forget any of your past lives.

2. One—or many—of your regenerations may backfire, trapping your consciousness in the body of an animal or insect instead of a nomad.

3. Your dreams turn into nightmares, until, if you've regenerated enough times, you don't know anything but nightmares.

I've been transferred to a new body seven hundred and eighteen times. Exploring the same galaxy over all those centuries has become dissatisfying, to say the least. I want to explore other galaxies, like a true interstellar nomad. I want to travel to the Milky Way, a place that has always been in my dreams—and now haunts my nightmares.

Lately, every sleep cycle has brought the same nightmare: me on a planet in the Milky Way, surrounded by lush green fields and waves of rolling, endless blue, and then, without warning, someone kills me.

Dying isn't that big a deal to someone who's regenerated over seven hundred times, but being killed is an entirely different matter.

The only problem is, I can't figure out why it's always my four-fingered hand that strikes the final blow.

***

2103

In the dysfunctional country of Atarr, there is a saying: "Death is life."

I've certainly seen my fair share of death—and had nightmares about it, too—but somehow, it never seems synonymous with life. Maybe that's because every time someone dies, the government snatches their body, then experiments on them with state-of-the-art robotics. I've heard that some people come back to life, but as machines rather than humans.

Everyone has a Life Limit, a number of hours, minutes, and seconds left, that is embedded in our veins. If I flip over my wrist, I can just barely make out the numbers.

1 hr 4 mins 34 secs

As twilight falls, I jump from my perch on a rooftop. The cool rush of wind soothes my anxiety, and I try to forget about my Life Limit as I go about my usual business: finding runaways and bringing them to safety at the abandoned library on the outskirts of my home city, New Tarren.

Every night, they are different. Every night, they have the same goal: to cross the border into the neighboring country of Alonia, where it is said that death does not exist. Or, if it does, it's better than what happens here in Atarr.

The library where the Gatherers from our sector take runaways is an in-between stop, a place to rest and stock up on food, water, and first-aid supplies before heading for the next city. The hope is that people eventually make it to Alonia.

Tonight's group is a ragtag one: a boy no older than twelve, twin girls who look to be my age, and an aged woman who can barely walk. The women are bold and chatty; only the boy stays quiet.

"Thank you for your assistance, dearie," the old woman begins in a low voice. "I don't know what we'd do without Gatherers like you."

I offer her a thin smile. "All part of my job, ma'am."

She waves away my formality with a gnarled hand. "Oh, call me Margaret. You kids are so polite when you should be telling me to shut up and walk quietly."

I balk. "I would never tell you to shut up. Perhaps you could be a little quieter..."

She chuckles. "What's your name, darling?"

I hesitate, though I'm not sure why. Maybe because my life has been full of secrets, not truth. "Laila."

"What a pretty name. This here is Parker," she says, gesturing toward the boy, who ducks his head shyly. "And these lovely girls are Sasha and Dahlia." She points to the twins, who each give me a nod.

"How old are you?" one asks me, a hint of excitement and—jealousy?—in her tone. "I've always wanted to become a Gatherer, but Dahlia says we're too young." She shoots a glare at her sister.

"I'm seventeen," I reply, keeping my eyes forward and my steps light. "And while being a Gatherer is a noble job, I'd avoid it if I could. You're better off escaping while you have the chance."

"Then why don't you escape?" asks Dahlia.

The sight of the library looming ahead saves me from having to answer. The familiar sight of the wooden boards over the windows and broken glass strewn across the dry lawn calms something in me. Stars have begun to wink into existence above us, their appearance made hazy by air pollution. I resist the urge to check my Life Limit.

"Here we are," I whisper as I ease open the double doors. Their handles disappeared long ago, and now a chain links the two together. Only I and the rest of the Gatherers know the code.

"Thank you, dearie," Margaret says, reaching to shake my hand. As she does, I catch a glimpse of her Life Limit. Even though the numbers are visible only to her, I can see the faint blue glow around each digit.

I draw my hand away quickly.

Another Gatherer ushers the group deeper into the library. I rub a hand over my face and head for the basement, where the Gatherers who don't live at home—or who don’t have a home to return to—have set up tents. Most of the other Gatherers are still out searching; I must be one of the first ones back.

I check my Life Limit.

17 mins 56 secs

Enough time to gather my personal effects and leave.

I head toward my tent, placed as far away as possible from the others in a back corner. Old, battered books surround me, and I breathe in their comforting scent as I step over plastic water bottles, canned food, and the occasional hot plate.

As I run my hands over the dusty bookshelves filled with volumes in a dead language, something in my throat catches. I hadn’t realized until now—until it’s too late—how much this place has become my home over the last two years. How much I’ve enjoyed helping others after my parents died and were taken by the government.

I swallow my sob and begin to stuff my most important belongings—the photo of my parents, a friendship bracelet from a boy I'd once saved, my tattered copy of the dictionary—into my pack.

By the time I straighten, I've resolved not to say goodbye to anyone. It would hurt too much, and I need to get as far away from here as possible before—

"Laila!"

A familiar voice calls my name, the word sounding too loud and harsh in the hushed quiet of the basement. I turn, my tired expression breaking into a weak grin as I spot his freckled face and hooded green eyes. "Wes."

He nods at me, but there's something tight in his expression. "You did well tonight. Four runaways, and not a single alarm raised."

I shrug modestly.

"Listen, Laila." Wes's voice turns urgent as his eyes dart down to my full pack. "I know you don't have much time left, and I—"

"Wes," I sigh. "We've been over this—"

"I've found a way for you to avoid being turned into a machine."

I blink at him. "You...what?"

"There is a way," he says patiently. "This could be the beginning of a new rebellion. Maybe...maybe this will force the government to stop their experiments, and people won't be forced to flee anymore."

My mind is buzzing. "How...how is this possible? How have I never heard of this before?" Then it strikes me that he still hasn't told me what this is.

He reads the question in my eyes before I can ask it. "It's poison. From a plant that's known to make the body less susceptible to machinery after it dies."

I open my mouth to respond, but no words come out.

Hastily, he fishes something from his pack. A small, stoppered vial.

Instantly, I back away, my hands out. "Wes, I can't—"

"You can," he insists. "You have to. Otherwise they'll take your body, and I—I can't watch them turn you into—" His voice breaks, and my resolve breaks with it.

"Okay. Okay," I whisper. I reach for his hands, closing my fingers around his briefly before I take the vial.

He wipes his eyes. "How much time do you have left?"

I don't want to check again, but I flip my wrist over anyways. "Three minutes."

If Wes hadn't pulled me aside, I would've already been gone, running far enough away from the library that the government wouldn't find my body here. Once a Life Limit expires, it detonates with a fluid that serves as a tracker. It's part of why we have a team of Gatherers who specifically check each runaway's Life Limit to make sure they won't die here, where our cover would be blown.

But if I die before my Life Limit expires, the fluid will never be released. No one will ever know. And even if the government does somehow find my body, it will be useless to them.

My fingers tease the stopper from the vial. Wes looks at me, his expression both hopeful and sad, already grieving over my death.

I look at him, memorizing those emerald eyes, the chiseled face, the concerned yet optimistic expression I know so well.

I look at him, and I throw back the poison.

***

Light year 9846

Someone has discovered a way to avoid regeneration.

Abbott claims there is another life—one beyond simple regeneration. One that none of us has experienced before, because once you go there, there's no coming back.

"This is great news for our people," she insisted at the starship meeting where she'd first brought up the subject. "This is the future of death!"

Many had not believed her, but not all were skeptics. Some of us craved something more than regeneration, something beyond immortality.

Some of us—like me—are tired of remembering every detail of every past life. Tired of the worsening nightmares.

Now, we can die permanently—if we choose to. Only by striking the final blow ourselves can we escape the monotony of regeneration and move on to the next life.

There is a great rift among us now. Abbott has decided to invite a group of volunteers—most of them believers in the Next Life like her—to the neighboring Milky Way Galaxy. If all goes well, they will live out their lives there, as nomads, and each can choose when they want to die.

If all does not go well, they now know how to end it.

I will be going with them.

***

2032

I choose to die by taking a walk in the woods. I’m still young, and there are few outward signs that I’m sick, but it’s time. I can feel it.

Death is a part of life, but all those nightmares that used to haunt me haven't prepared me for this moment.

Twilight fades into night as I step over broken branches and slippery moss. There's a clearing up ahead, where my friends and I used to stop for a picnic when we were in the middle of a hike.

No one knows what I'm doing, except Wes. I can't keep a secret from him.

He wanted to come with me, but I insisted I do this alone. I found out I was sick by myself, and I'd like to spend my last moments in solitude as well.

I think of all the people I'm leaving behind, and my resolve falters, just for a moment. Do I really want to leave this place? Do I really want to leave all those I’ve helped, all those I’ve grown close to, on their own?

But then I think of all the goodness in this world, and the people who will continue to help others as best they can. I know that they will have a chance to make their own choices.

This is my chance to make mine.

I can't control the sickness. I can't control death. But I can control my choices, and I choose this place as my final stop on my way to the next life.

As I stare up at the stars, I am grateful for the life I've lived—and all that awaits me in death.

July 29, 2022 17:08

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2 comments

Samuel Shields
21:02 Jul 31, 2022

I love how this hopped perspectives. Loooved the tie in, very fun read!

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Jill Amari
02:47 Aug 02, 2022

Thank you so much! It was fun to write, so I'm glad you had fun reading it. :)

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