Aren’t We Beautiful?

Bethany Barthel

 

“Goddammit!”

Blood starts to fill the cavity I’m working in. This is such a delicate process. I’ve nicked an artery, but the constant loss of blood is less a problem than the fact that it makes it impossible for me to see what I’m doing. After all, this body won’t need this blood for much longer. But I can’t risk accidentally slicing through a delicate silver tendril.

“Suction.”

A clear tube enters my narrow vision and starts pumping blood out of the cavity, into a storage tank. Soon I can see the beating heart again. It is beautiful, in its own, ordinary way — a strong muscle glistening with wet blood — but it’s nothing compared to what lies beneath it. What it hides does not move, exactly. It pulses, but does not beat. A body could no more survive without it than without lungs or a spinal cord. I’ve seen many of the ethereal, luminous organs in my profession, but for some reason the awe I experience at finding it nestled within the ribcage, below the heart, never diminishes.

I remove the heart, cradling it in my palms and feeling its warmth before I let it splash into its refrigerated, fluid-filled retainment tank. It’s still good. Most of his organs are still good, and there’s no reason to let them go to waste.

“Is…is that…it? Is that…him?” My apprentice, fresh out of advanced med school, is gazing at what I have revealed, the soft, blue pulsing lights that travel along its transparent limbs reflecting off his blue-tinted goggles. He is so young, only 26 years into his first Cycle, and still so enamoured with life. Me, I am only enamoured with the essence of it.

“Yes, that would be him. This is what we all really look like.”

“Aren’t we beautiful?”

He’s right, we are. More beautiful than any aliens we ever imagined might be out there in the universe. To think we spent billions on space travel looking for almost incomprehensible beauty and equally incomprehensible answers to questions we could hardly articulate and the answer to one of the most ancient mysteries was held within our own chests. All we had to do to find it was get it to lie still.

“The textbooks don’t do it justice.”

Instead of responding to him, I carefully slip my index finger between a gently pulsing tendril and the muscle beneath it, running my finger up and down slowly along its length, relaxing it, until I fool it into trusting me enough to let go, and it coils up to its body, which is about the size of my fist.

“Now you try, very carefully. If you hurt it, it’ll retreat and hide and we’ll have to sew Mr. Howard back up and try again another time, and you can bet he won’t be happy about that.” I expose another tendril to my assistant. “Project love into your touch.” There is such wonder and adoration in his face. Which is perhaps why I chose him, instead of the fifty other eligible applicants. This job is a guaranteed ticket to another Cycle, but I didn’t want to mentor someone who only saw this job as a means to extend their life – I wanted someone with passion, which is rare in a world where Cycles have practically become currency.

The boy has no problem convincing the tendril to release its hold. Even through his goggles it looks as if he might cry. I set about revealing more silver threads, deeper into the body and farther and farther away from the centre of the organ, for him to relax. There are a couple hundred, but the boy is surprisingly quick and we are done in only a few hours and once what we came for is hibernating in its storage tank we leave the operating room to give space to the doctors who must remove the rest of the body’s organs and store them for future use.

The door closes behind me but the coppery scent of blood still lingers in my nostrils. Out in the hallway, I switch off my goggles and let them dangle about my neck. My apprentice runs off to make notes about his first Transfer before he forgets any little detail. I notice another doctor spot me from down the hall and start towards me, leaving the person she was talking to in mid-sentence.

“How did it go?’ she asks, a little before she reaches the appropriate distance to start a conversation. Her eyes are wide and alert with eagerness.

Other doctors and nurses within earshot slow or stop what they are doing without looking up, trying to look like they aren’t listening in. I am not very surprised that the whole Transfer department seems to know who I was working on today.

“As well as expected,” I reply. “You know from experience that Transfers rarely go awry anymore.”

“Well, yes, but, you know what I mean.”

Yes, I know what she means. She was just looking for an adequately polite way to start the conversation so that I couldn’t leave before she could satisfy her curiosity.

“So it was really Howard? James Howard?” she keeps going before I can answer; not that she needs me to confirm who my patient was. “I can’t believe you got to do his first Transfer. I would have given up an entire Cycle to have been chosen! Where did he want to be Implanted? Is he taking an adult body? Or does he want a Newborn?”

“I will be Implanting him in a Newborn tomorrow morning. I think he is curious to see how much he will remember of his life in an infant’s brain.”

“Oh, of course! Of course he wouldn’t want just a half Cycle in a criminal’s body, he’s way too important for that! Better to have a blank canvas, a house not lived in yet. Why not, when you can afford it!”

A snort comes from behind me and I turn to see a man in a dark blue janitor’s uniform mopping the already immaculate white tiles. “James Howard. The man who discovered the soul. He can have anything he wants.” He steps forward so that his face is only inches from mine and seems to search my face for something, his eyes squinted and the muscles around his mouth tense. His gaze falls slightly, and a little to my right, and he smirks. “Got yourself a little something right there.” He taps my white collar. “Doctor.” The word is filled with contempt. And then his smirk disappears and he turns abruptly and wheels his bucket of soapy water down the hallway.

I look down and pinch my collar between my right index-finger and thumb. Two small droplets of blood have dried onto the cloth, bright as poppies.

 

***

 

The air is chilly and damp and the sky above is a grey sheet of clouds, matching the asphalt and the concrete and steel buildings. Everything is grey in the Medical District. But it’s also orderly and immaculate, like my operation room. No colour in either one except for the bodies that walk the streets and lie on the table. However, the streets are deserted now. People don’t dilly dally in the Medical District; you go to work, and then you leave, either for home or for some other district. The only sounds are my footsteps echoing off the concrete and the swish of my slacks against the lab coat draped over my left arm. I enjoy the desertedness. I turn my wrist to check my watch and see the white cotton of my lab coat slide off my forearm and onto the ground. I stoop to try to catch it before it hits the sidewalk but what my fingers grab is not just white cloth.

I am grasping cold flesh, a skeletal arm cloaked in dark, ashen skin, the hand holding tightly to a bundle of my lab coat. I jerk away so forcefully that I stumble backwards a couple steps and drop my briefcase. There is someone mostly hidden in the shadow of a building, just a darker shape within a dark shape, stretched out to hold on to my coat. And then the shape falls over onto the pavement, its face no longer obscured.

It’s a boy.

Maybe ten years old. Cheeks sunken and eyes glazed. Decaying teeth showing between parted lips. Skin that clearly used to be a rich, deep brown now almost as grey as the asphalt. I can see all the contours of the bones in his face and arms and hands, hear his laboured breathing. He does not try to speak to me, does not ask for the coat, but he’s still holding on.

With a strangled sound from my throat I yank my coat from his thin and grimy fingers, feeling as if I might vomit or cry, or both, and I run the rest of the way down the block. Only after I round the corner do I slow to a brisk walk, occasionally looking over my shoulder, as if he even had the strength to follow me.

 

***

 

Freshly cleaned, my lab coat hangs on the hook on the back of my bedroom door. The blood didn’t come out, not completely, and somehow I feel as if the boy’s handprint cannot be washed out either. I lie down, turn off the lamp on my bedside table and shut my eyes, expecting darkness. Blank, peaceful darkness cloaked by my eyelids and the lightless room beyond. Darkness is not what I receive. When I shut my eyes, there it is. The brightness, the brilliance, of the operating room. The lights, the white, the blood. But this time there isn’t a world renowned medical scientist lying on my operating table. There is a tiny black baby, alone and malnourished, his breath hitching as if he is going to start crying, staring at me with terrified eyes.

My eyes snap open, but I see only the dim shapes and shadows in the blanketing darkness. Relieved, I close my eyes again, only to find that the image hasn’t left. It seems tattooed there, on the backs of my eyelids, in blinding clarity. I cover my face with my hands, pushing my palms against my eyes until I start to see strange lights caused by the pressure. I don’t understand what I’m feeling. This twisting in the pit of my stomach, an ache in my heart. I have never felt an emotion this strong or this negative. The world I live in is organized and controlled and straightforward, the people governed by facts, not feelings, like everyone I work with. Then what is this? It is a little like regret, but much stronger, and more painful, and I still feel that disgust from earlier.

Only the disgust is directed at myself. That boy on the street was something that I knew existed, but had never seen. Just another statistic. Not the kind of person that ever made it to my operating table. He clearly had no money, no status, and therefore no chance to ever know anyone else who had had more than one cycle, let alone have more than one himself. The pressure-lights behind my eyes morph into the Janitor’s sneering face. Doctor.

I leap out of bed and grab my goggles and lab coat before I throw open the door and race down the stairs and out onto the street. No one outside to see me of course. But still better to get this done quickly. I dash down the sidewalk, tripping and scraping my knees and palms as I go around the corner but I don’t stop moving. What if he’s already dead? What if the Herders have already taken him out of the district? But I arrive at the spot and he’s there, slumped against the wall with his eyes closed. I hold my breath to try to hear if he’s breathing, but blood is pounding in my ears and I can’t hear anything else. I notice his chest moving, only minutely, but it’s good enough for me. I drape my coat around him and scoop him into my arms. He opens his eyes halfway and then close again.

“What are you doing here?” I whisper. “At least in the Residential District people might pity you enough to feed you. But that would have been where you came from, wouldn’t it?”

He doesn’t try to answer.

I clutch him close to my chest and continue running until I reach the glass doors to enter the Transfer wing. Shit. My key card is still in my lab coat pocket. Before I can try to get the key card out without dropping the boy, a face appears just on the other side of the glass.

The janitor. He’s scowling at me. Or is he scrutinizing me?

I freeze.

His eyes flick to the boy in my arms and then return to my face. Our breath fogs up both sides of the glass. He has a choice to make right now. What I am about to do is illegal, and he is either going to aid me or get Security. Time hangs suspended, a pendulum, swaying back and forth, counting down the last moments of this boy’s life.

The janitor opens the door. “Doctor.” He nods.

I step inside and search his face for a couple seconds. I don’t know what I see. I sprint down the hallway to my operating room and lay the boy on the metal rolling table. I sterilize my hands and my equipment as quickly as I can. It’s not just the boy’s health that dangles his life over the abyss now. I inject a sedative into his arm and then the liquid that will enable me to see his soul with my goggles, which are now starting to feel like a noose hanging around my neck. I strap them on and hook the boy up to an IV. No time to hook him up to machines. I hurriedly prepare a tank in which to clean the glowing orb once I remove it from his chest.

Only one more thing to grab while I wait for the sedative to kick in.

Next door is the Newborn. Floating in its tank designed to keep it alive, attached to nutrients and monitors by an artificial umbilical cord. An empty vessel, grown in a lab. I move the tank onto a trolley and wheel it back into the OR, its fluid sloshing against the sides.

No more time to waste. I cut away the boy’s clothes and place the scalpel on his chest.

“I’m…Benjamin,” he breathes with dying lungs.

I look up at him. He stares down at me with hooded eyes.

I look away and press down on the scalpel. Glistening beads of red form as I cut, dewdrops on a spider’s web. I work faster than I ever have before, exposing each tiny thread of the soul. They let go so quickly; they were already barely holding on. Once they are all free I take the orb from the body and dunk it in the cleansing fluid to remove the blood. I pull the trolley closer to the operating table and roll the ten-year old body off to make room for the Newborn, feeding a breathing tube down its throat and detaching the umbilical cord. A few careful incisions and I can Transfer the soul into the Newborn’s tiny chest. The orb that is Benjamin quickly extends its limbs and attaches itself to all the nerves in the tiny body, to the brain.

I hear a knock on the glass window and I spin around. It’s the janitor, walking briskly past my OR. Security. They were notified when the Newborn was detached. I’m almost out of time.

I start to frantically stitch up the baby but pounding feet are running down the hall, closing in. Six people in Security uniforms come barreling into the room, yelling for me to freeze and stop what I’m doing, but three of them are already on me, two bending my arms at agonizing angles while a third sticks a needle in my neck. I hear screaming, thinking it’s the baby, even though that’s impossible.

It’s me.

I see another officer radioing for backup through my narrowing tunnel vision, the two others reaching for Benjamin. Then my vision goes black and my whole world is noise and pain.

And then it’s only silence.

 

 

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