The Mortality Complex
He looked into the mirror and saw his face, but not his soul. What he saw was not himself. Not anymore. Skin tinged blue, hair all but gone, eyes cold and mechanic. It was meant to be a triumph, what he had become. It was meant to be his legacy, but it had become his obsession and shame. How had it come to this? Where had he gone astray? His mind wandered back to the death of his wife.
It was just after the wake. Christian Yost sat in his office where only a week ago he and his wife had had spent an evening talking of what to name their child. Orlando if it were a boy, Alexandria if a girl. His black hair was only being touched by gray then, his brown eyes were red from crying. His tie lay undone, his sleeves sloppily rolled to the elbows. He sat behind his desk, turned to look out the window.
“No more funerals.” Christian said to himself. He fingered a bottle of brandy and a glass, his eyes looking out the sunny, happy midafternoon sky. He hated that sky.
“Doctor Yost?” A voice called to him, startling him out of his trance. He cast only a cursory glance backwards. Ramkumar Abad, his longtime assistant, stood, hands clasped before him. He looked concerned. He had been so young.
“What is it Ramkumar?” The Doctor spat. He regretted it instantly but never apologized.
“Are you alright?” His assistant walked to the desk and took a seat opposite.
Christian laughed. It was a bitter laugh. “My wife just committed suicide and I lost another child. Does that sound alright to you?” Ramkumar was silent. There was a pause, before Christian spoke again. “No more funerals Kumar, no more deaths. I’ve been stalked by death, mocked by it ever since I was a boy. When I was five my dog was hit by a car. My second dog ran away, so they told me. My father died of cancer when I was thirteen. That’s when I vowed to be a doctor, so I could save lives. When I was twenty-three my mother died in a car accident. She was coming to visit me and the new wife for Christmas.”
Christian eyed the bottle again, stopping his monologue. Tears welled in his eyes. Kumar opened his mouth, as if to say something to comfort his mentor, but he couldn’t come up with the words. “My son…” his voice cracked. “My Nathan… was taken from me when he was only six. Six years old! And he died! You know what he said to me?” He looked at his assistant and friend. Kumar only shook his head. Christian continued through tears. “He… He said ‘I know you’ll make me better Daddy.’ Nathan said that. The night he died. And then the miscarriage and Elisabeth committing suicide…”
Christian poured more brandy into the glass. He looked at the amber liquid through tear fogged eyes. “The last thing I said to her was ‘No Liz’. Not ‘I love you’ not ‘It wasn’t your fault’. I said ‘No Liz’. She died with the last words she ever heard being ‘No Liz’. Does that seem fair? Does that seem alright?” His voice rose to a shout before he slumped back into his chair, lips trembling. His eyes stayed on the glass.
“God works in-“ Kumar started, but he was interrupted by cruel laughter.
“God? You think there’s a ‘God’ at work here? There is no ‘God’ Kumar! At least no benevolent one. No forgiving God would let something like this happen. There is only us, and death. It is up to us to make miracles.” Christian drained his sniffer and set the glass down softly. “No more funerals my friend. I will defeat this thing we call death. This malevolent machine of sorrow that has taken everything from me. Death will become novelty.”
That had been the turning point in his life. The final stepping stone from the doctor he had worked so hard to be to the thing he had become. Closing his eyes to the image before him, he lifted a hand to the edge and ripped it from the wall. It fell with a crash of metal and the glittering sound of shattered glass. He moved away, wishing he had tears to spill.
Again his mind drifted.
He hesitated to call it a happier time. For two years, he had been fueled by the death of his wife. Frantic, exciting perhaps, but to say happy would be a stretch. He and Kumar stood over a fresh corpse. “It will work, Kumar.”
“Christian, I implore you, do not do this.”
“I have a chance- WE have a chance. Please, help me.” Looking back, perhaps Kumar thought it wouldn’t work. Was that why he finally consented?
The body was that of a sixty-year-old man. He had died of a heart attack. And now Christian would bring him back.
Using a mixture of preservatives and mechanical replacements, he endeavored to breathe life into the lifeless. And they had succeeded. The body revived, though the mind did not. Cardiovascular activity through an artificial heart commenced, but the brain had died long before. “The neurons won’t fire.” Had Kumar said that cheerfully? He couldn’t recall.
Another two years went by.
Tests with the dead proved fruitless, so Christian moved to the terminally ill. Kumar could not stay his assistant forever, he moved on. His own practice was quite successful. This left Christian by himself. He found consenting elders who wished for a bit more time, and he altered them. Vivisections, transplants of organs and marrow. The first two trials were a success, but only partial. They died within two days. Organ failure and excessive internal bleeding. The next three lived. They proved his theory right.
The balcony. That’s where he would go. That’s how it would be done. Walking with confidence, he moved to the apartments south wall. A glass door, through which the cityscape shone. Night revealed the land of stars, industrial constellations lighting the path for the meteorites that carried individuals home or away. He had moved here after his success. To hide? To celebrate? Both perhaps, or maybe neither. Now it didn’t matter.
Opening the door, he stepped into the brisk night.
“I’m asking you to stop.”
“I can’t stop. I’m so close.”
“As a friend. I’m asking you to come back.” Kumar looked at his mentor with pleading eyes. Was that what they were at the time? Pleading? Hindsight was not always perfect.
“Look at me, Kumar. Look!” Christian stepped two steps closer. “I haven’t aged one year for your five. You’re as old as me when I first took you on, and I look practically the same!” Reaching into his back pocket he took a knife. Raising his free hand, he slit his palm from pinky to thumb. Kumar cried out in shock, but no blood came. “Immediate clotting. I don’t bleed from wounds. This will heal in a few days’ time.” Clenching the wounded hand into a fist, he dropped it to his side.
“What have you done to yourself?”
“What I did to the three successes I had, only earlier.”
Kumar shook his head. “Each of those successes committed suicide, Chris. They hated what they had become- what you made them.”
“I gave them life; I can’t choose what they do with it. But I’ve perfected it further, Kumar, I can stop aging now. You want to be twenty forever? Twenty-five? I can halt the process and you will live well into your hundreds looking like you did on any day you choose.” Again, he held up his hand. “This is my gift to the world.”
Kumar shook his head. “I cannot help you, Christian. I wish I could, but you are beyond me. Good bye.”
Standing on that balcony, he watched the city in a silent reverie. Kumar had gone on to publicly denounce Christian and his work. He had vouched the dangers of immorality and a society that would never age. Christian had attended his funeral. It was then he knew death was inevitable, sometimes a curse but often a gift. A gift to ease suffering, or end a life fulfilled. Christian had denied himself that gift.
He had replaced his own marrow to produce a synthetic blood; almost all of his major organs were now artificial. For the first decade, he was a poster child for his own work. But time would have its way.
First his hair had gone. He didn’t know why, couldn’t explain it past the natural aging process. That was fine. Then his skin had paled. The synthetic blood, eventually, changed the skin tone to something matching its unnaturalness. His body became cold to the touch; his emotions dulled. The process had not become prevalent at the time, and he was quickly shunned. A pariah because of his own work.
His children had died. His wife had died. His family were gone and everyone he had known was buried or burned. At the age of ninety, he had no one. The world had forgotten his name. All he had been was reduced to a footnote in history books, maybe a chapter in the bio-sciences. A cautionary tale in chemistry. The boogeyman of medical students. Words on a page.
Is this what his wife’s death had wrought? Is this the meaning he gave it?
Doctor Christian Yost climbed the rails.
His apartment was forty stories up.
The wind whipped at his coat.
He let himself fall.
The concrete came remarkably fast.
Liz smiled at him from the hospital bed; her face red and swollen, but smiling through it all. “A boy. It’s a boy.” She whispered gleefully. He knelt by her, clutched her hand. “A boy…” She nuzzled the newborns nose.
Christian put a finger close to a tiny hand. It did nothing. Too soon to grasp? Maybe he was just exhausted. Being born can’t be a relaxing activity. “What should we name him?”
“Nathan.” Was her immediate response.
“Yes, Nathan will do nicely.” He rested his head on his wife’s shoulder. “Hello, Nate.” Christian couldn’t help but smile.
His eyes opened. He could see his light on, forty stories up. Christian let out a cry of agony, both physical and emotional.
Death? What a novel concept.