This Mortal Coil

“He’s real,” said Freddy.

“What? Who?”

“Death. The Grim Reaper.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I saw him, Dave. He was just as I pictured him.”

“The Reaper,” I said with some irritation. “Death himself.”

“Yes! He’s real! Are you listening to me?”

I was used to Freddy’s little jokes and this was not one of his better ones. When I turned to look at his face I expected his affable grin. Most of the time he can’t keep himself from laughing. He wasn’t even smiling and his face had a wild, intense look to it.

I replied, “You’re not making any sense. How did you come to this conclusion?”

“The climb, man. I was halfway up on Cannon when my carabiner malfunctioned. I was toast.”

“You fell off of Cannon? Weren’t you locked in?” I asked. Of course, I knew the answer. Fred had long ago dispensed with the safety protocols. He had been free climbing for years and this was not his first serious accident. I sat down, prepared for yet another of his narrow escapes from the jaws of death–except that there was no death anymore. There hadn’t been one in 340 years and for that reason his embellished stories were not the exception; they were fairly commonplace.

With a life expectancy of well over a thousand years, humankind had grown bored. Nobody died of old age. Our everlasting bodies were full of tiny Nanobots, their sole purpose to seek and repair cell damage at the molecular level. Accidents were rare due to electronic surveillance that reached even the most remote locations. Our microscopic caretakers operated as a single entity, communicating instantaneously over great distances. Death had been conquered, or so it seemed.

With a lifespan that stretched out infinitely before them, humanity had lost their sense of urgency. Generations of comfort had dulled our survival instincts, bringing progress and innovation to an interminable crawl.

The majority of mankind now fell into two categories, those who sleepwalked through their idyllic life seeking constant entertainment, and the StimSeekers who sought out physical risk, always on the lookout for dangerous experiences to make them feel more alive. Some of these adventurers found their way off-world, bound for the outer limits of the galaxy where unexplored planets were being colonized. As you may have surmised, Freddy was a Stimmer. He was always finding himself a new and ever more dangerous playground.

But I digress. Fred was literally bursting with energy while waiting to tell his story. “Fine,” I finally said. “Tell me the whole sordid tale.” I knew it would be a whopper.

“I was near the top of the cliff face when the carabiner snapped. I hung there for what seemed an eternity, one hand on the outcropping and the other grasping for the safety line, which, you know… I had unfortunately failed to secure. Nowhere to go, and my fingers were cramping up so I lost the grip. I must have plummeted four hundred feet, bouncing and rolling down the cliff face. I tell you, it was painful but I was still conscious!”

I interjected, “Didn’t the MediDocs get there?”

“That’s the thing,” he replied. “I struck the ground but fell into a crevasse. They knew where to find me but it took them hours to bring in a LaserScoop and carve up the mountain. The tree huggers are not going to be happy about that!”

He laughed at that and then continued with renewed fervor. “I was dead, man! Not the NearDeath. I think it was the real thing! I’ve been through the NearDeath thing a number of times. Nothing to it.”

His face took on a new expression. I would describe it as awe.

“Dave, this was different!” he almost shouted. “I was rushing through some kind of tunnel. There were frightening sounds, as if something lurked in there just out of sight. My body was different, lighter, almost as if I were made of pure energy. I was moving at a tremendous speed and, you know I love speed but this was beyond belief!”

His demeanor was beginning to frighten me but the story had me transfixed.

“Suddenly I was stopped cold. That’s when I saw him.”

“The Reaper.”

“Yes, the Grim Reaper, the whole deal with the black cloak, the hooded skull face and even the scythe!”

At this point I began to laugh. He almost had me for a minute. I really ought to know better. “Come off it, Fred. How gullible do you think I am?” His expression never changed.

“No prank this time Davey. I saw him. It was Death himself, come to take me home. He looked to be over seven feet tall–but his eyes, man–his eye sockets were like red coals. I looked into them and I felt fear like I had never experienced, a deep, crippling terror that had me rooted to the spot.”

Again, I tried to bring him back to Earth. “Freddy, it had to be an hallucination. You know that can happen under extreme duress. There have been lots of incidents like that.”

“Not like this, man. I knew this was real. I could feel it in my soul. I was dead! The real death, and he was there to claim me but something happened! Maybe the MediDocs got there in the nick of time. During that moment when he first appeared, all sound and motion ceased. It was just him and me, all alone in the universe. His universe. Then I felt a tug, as if something called to me, urging me to return. My body moved away from him.”

“That’s when he spoke! It was more of an angry roar, a deep baritone scream that scared me even more, as if that was possible. Just two words, ‘He’s mine!’ but it was too late. He reached out with the blade and almost got me but I was out of reach and gaining speed. For a moment he gave chase but he couldn’t catch up. The critter seemed angry and frustrated. As he faded into the distance I heard him cry out in rage, an unearthly sound like you couldn’t even imagine. That voice will haunt me for a thousand years.”

A chill ran up my spine. In that moment I believed Freddy, believed every word of it.

“The next thing I knew, the MediDocs were calling my name. I walked out of the Unit completely healed but I remember it, Dave. I remember it like it happened this morning. It was no vision, no drug induced fantasy. I was there and the worst part of it is, that I’ll be there again someday…and so will you.”

The more we went over his story, the greater his conviction that it had been real. At some point I considered the possibility that this was no illusion and if that were so, what would that imply–that all of the various myths and legends over the centuries had some basis in truth? There was one way to find out. If we could simulate the near-death experience with a different subject, we might be able to verify Freddy’s experience.

Fred had a number of StimSeeker friends who would probably jump at the chance for something this intense but I volunteered as the subject to ensure a more objective response. We had no trouble finding a crew to help us prepare for the experiment. Freddy’s friends were game for anything that pushed the envelope. It was just another lark to them but many were qualified professionals who excelled in their chosen fields. It took us weeks to design the experiment, one in which the conditions were perfectly controlled in order to bring me as near to death as possible and coordinate the timing of my extraction. To do this, we had to delay the emergency transponders and roving MediBots long enough to prevent my resuscitation. What we planned was illegal. Of course, that made it all the more attractive to this bunch.

Julianna Mikita, a world-renowned BioSurgeon had the task of generating the electrical current that would stop my heart and follow it up with an injection of Epinrahl-D at precisely four minutes beyond the time of death.

My goal was to disprove Freddy’s conviction that his experience had been real. Unlike Fred, I had never been through NearDeath. As I lay on the Surgeon’s table in the final moments before the event my mind was filled with apprehension, nor was Freddy his usual self. He knew what was in store for me if this actually worked.

“Dave,” said Julianna. “You’ll feel a slight vibration as we inject you with a sedative and then, the lethal dosage.”

“I’m ready, Dr. Mikita,” I replied. Within seconds the room was fading around me. My fingers and toes suddenly went stone cold and I wondered if somebody had spilled ice water on them. There was no transition. The moment I went under I found myself hurtling through the tunnel that Fred had described. I felt the same transformation, as if my body was no longer bound by gravity, or any physical limitation. I was a being of pure light. The tunnel raced on, impossibly fast and I heard–no, I felt–the other entities around me, beings born of darkness, filled with a venomous rage. I felt fear, cold, numbing fear but the mysterious creatures kept their distance.

There was a sudden shift in my perceptions. All motion ceased. Even the tunnel was gone. I was alone in a sea of nothingness when it appeared, a giant figure cloaked in black, its hooded face moving slowly toward me. Good God. It was true, all true! This fearsome apparition waited here for us, had waited over a thousand years to collect its grim fare. It raised its face and I gazed into two shadowy sockets where its eyes should have been, and those frightening cavities began to glow a deep, crimson red. I felt it looking directly into my soul. It knew me, knew of every private thought, every misguided action I had ever taken. There were no secrets from this dark, brooding demon. When it spoke, my fear elevated to panic.

“There are rules, David Schofield. You have made a grave error.”

I hovered on the precipice, perfectly balanced between life and death. Then I felt them drawing me back to life. There was a strong tug and I began to move away from the specter. He did not give chase. He merely reached out with the scythe. With a ghastly feeling of dread I knew that they had not been quick enough. I raised my arms in defense but the blade touched the tip of my finger. I quickly accelerated, praying that the wraith would not follow. He merely laughed, a malevolent cackle in a voice like gravel. The sound continued to echo in my mind as I sped back towards life. Already I felt that something had changed. It began in the fingers and slowly spread down my arm. My body raced back through the tunnel and then, oblivion.

Voices called out to me, familiar voices followed by bright lights and a tingling sensation in my limbs. Something was wrong. My right arm was completely numb.

“Dave,” shouted Freddy. “You okay, man? Can you hear me?”

It took a few moments before I could respond. I was no longer in the operating theater but on one of the aerial transports. We flew above the city in a roving MediUnit. Fred and Julianna sat beside me.

“Was it there? Did you see him?” shouted Fred. “You were screaming from the moment we awakened you.”

“I still feel like screaming. You were right. He was there. Listen! He touched me with the scythe. He touched me but I’m still alive!”

The arm was swelling and there was intense pain. I tried to close my fingers but they would not respond. I had known as soon as I felt his touch that something terrible had happened, some dark process had begun. Warning messages were plastered all over the BioMonitors. Julianna looked distressed as she studied the readouts while the MediBots did their best to stabilize me.

From the moment the MediUnit landed I was surrounded by shouting physicians. I was ushered into an emergency room and connected up to every diagnostic tool they had available. Their drawn faces registered deep confusion. No, more like shock. Within twenty minutes, the arm had turned a grayish shade of blue. The pain radiated further and I felt similar sensations in other parts of my body. Above the operating theater, I could see a second crew conferring frantically with holoscreens, very likely the top specialists from around the world. It was not a comforting sight.

“It’s spreading Dr. Mansse, faster than we can control,” shouted an attendant. “We’re losing him.”

Mansse was studying new information. The team debated hotly for a moment but soon reached a consensus. It was the Nanobots. They were attacking the cells at an alarming rate, completely reversing the process they had been designed to perform, the work of eight hundred years undone in thirty-two minutes. Mansse looked horrified. It soon got worse. Two of the specialists cried out in pain, tearing off their surgical gear and revealing skin with the same sickly hue. The rest stepped away, grave apprehension written on their faces.

Mansse literally shoved the team out of the room. “Quarantine immediately!” he barked. “I’ve never seen anything like this! Seal off this whole floor. No, the entire building. Nobody gets out!”

Stepping out of the room, he pulled off his own gloves to reveal the same greyish skin. With a gasp he turned to the Observation Team and said, “Nanobots were designed with a hive mentality. They are programmed to communicate, not only with the body but with the entire hive instantaneously. You can’t contain this; they don’t require physical contact.”

Soldiers in HazGear suits moved in and secured the lab. BioDisaster Control Bots swept the entire floor with HazMist. Robotocists and Nano specialists worked furiously to cut off the Nanobots’ communication. I knew I was doomed, the pain having spread throughout my entire body. I would last two more days lying in ZeroG isolation.

The infection spread with alarming speed. Every human body had millions of Nanobots traveling through their bloodstream. Within an hour sixty percent of the patients and employees had contracted the infection.

Android technicians took over my care and were kind enough to give me access to the NewsVid. I watched in horror as the Pandemic spread to the surrounding area, the Eastern Hemisphere and within a single day, the entire planet. Martial law was enacted but they needn’t have bothered; we were dying so quickly that there was no time for rioting. The infection took hold within hours, immobilizing those who contracted it. The world was now in the hands of the androids, who did their level-headed best to control the chaos. In the end they were reduced to undertakers with the monumental task of collecting and incinerating the bodies of twelve generations.

Spaceports were immediately shut down across our entire world. Orbiting military stations were ordered to destroy any ship that tried to leave the planet. Earth would become a tomb, our home world forever lost to the space faring colonists. Our orphaned children had miraculously been spared; the Nanobots were not introduced before full maturity. The androids would see them safely off world, where they could be absorbed into the colonies.

Nearing my last, gasping breath, I waited for the Reaper to arrive. As the moment drew near and my vision began to dim, his hulking figure loomed above my rapidly aging body, those glowing coals once again peering through my soul.

I whispered one last question, “Why, demon?”

He leaned in closer and the rasping voice replied, “I was bored.”

Barry is a fledgling writer and has only recently been published, having sold a flash story which was featured in the July issue of Bards & Sages Quarterly. He is also a part time Cartoonist who has published in a number of national magazines, including Reader’s Digest, Barrons, Prospect, and American Legion Magazine. To date Barry has written over 800 comic strips and panel cartoons and has self-published his cartoon collections in trade paperback and e-book formats.

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