by T. Eric Bakutis
When I opened my eyes on the operating table, I knew I'd been away a real long while, and not just knocked out, not unconscious or comatose. I felt like I'd fallen down a well so deep you couldn't see the bottom, landed in soft sludge. Stayed there so long that dark and time were just concepts randomly combined.
Two nurses stood over me, but there was no kindness in their eyes. They looked bored. One injected me with something that made my ears buzz and my muscles twitch, and I realized I wasn't dead anymore.
I needed answers like I needed air, but no one offered. Instead two big men walked me away. I guess there were other dead people in the queue. They locked me in a room and told me to get dressed.
The clothes were close to what I remembered, jeans and a button-down shirt, but the material felt more slick than I expected. Oily. No one spoke to me and no one offered to help.
Where was my wife? My daughter? I had those, didn't I? I wasn't sure, not right now, and while that should have bothered me it didn't. Not knowing was an annoyance, like a pebble in a shoe. I didn't remember being such an asshole.
A nurse took my vitals and I asked questions, but she just tucked a plastic card in the pocket of my shirt. Then the two men walked me out of the hospital and I ceased to be their problem. I was just some guy, resurrected on an empty street, alone in the middle of the night.
The card displayed words when I squeezed it, like an e-reader, but most looked like Chinese and half the English ones were gibberish. Had we lost a goddamn war? That's when the "sedan" pulled up, a car-sized Roomba painted black. Its gullwing door opened.
I didn't know where I was, what year it was, or how long it would be before I started craving brains, so I got in the damn car. The sedan cruised off, smooth as an air hockey puck. Then my old boss appeared, Jacob Mason. Jake to his friends. We were never friends.
"Rob," Jacob's projection said, "you'll be pleased to know we've covered your revivification payments to New Life for the next five years, and I'm certain a man as talented as you will find plenty of time to invest. Play your cards right and you might live forever!"
"New Life." I latched onto the only two words he'd said that made any sense. "Remind me what that is?"
"It's science, Rob," Jacob said, which meant he didn't have a clue how it worked, "and rest assured that revivification leaves no lingering effects. You'll have complete liberty once you fulfill your employment contract. You can see how our world has changed, start over wherever you please!"
"My employment contract." This was all starting to make a frightening amount of sense. "That gave you the legal right to raise me from the dead?" I wouldn't put that past Golden Pyramid Life Insurance, the corporate Stairmaster I'd climbed for ten years.
"I realize you weren't culpable in your accident," Jacob said. "But unfortunately, Rob, our rivals up north are using your accident, in concert with a recent change in Canadian tax law, to claim GP willfully withheld tax records for fiscal year 2024."
Right. Dealing with audits had been my job. I'd risen to GP's chief accountant for Canadian territories, and I'd found every legal loophole known to man. I'd been taking our books up to Canada for auditing when a truck hit my car on the bridge over Lake Ontario.
I'd died on that bridge. I'd died and now I was alive again. "What are you asking me to do?"
"All we need, Rob, is your sworn testimony that you kept our 2024 Canadian tax records accurate and in line with that year's tax code to the best of your knowledge. Armed with a recorded statement and a reliable witness, I'm certain GP's lawyers will make short work of the Canadian government's flimsy case."
This was ludicrous. "Can't you just send them our records?"
"Unfortunately, the only hard copies were those with you in your motor vehicle. The intense heat of the resulting flames followed by the water damage made those quite unreadable."
"Unreadable." I'd caught on fire and then driven into a lake? All I remembered was that big brown truck veering across the median.
"We did have the 2024 records archived," Jacob said, "until the flare of 2062. After that unfortunate event IT deemed their recovery unnecessary, and so here we are, facing down our balance due with forty-eight years of interest. Isn't that a pickle?"
Forty-eight years. Jesus. I'd been dead forty-eight years. I did have a family--I remembered right then, a wife named Sarah and a daughter named Lily--and we'd lost each other forever.
"Rob? You still online?"
"What?" My eyelids felt like sandpaper.
"Your sworn testimony could save our shareholders millions. That's why we brought you back. You're a valuable employee."
"You value me."
"So you let me rot for forty-eight years."
"Understand, Rob, Google only approved revivification in the last five years or so. Once we saw an opportunity to justify the expense to the shareholders, we bumped you right to the top of the list."
"There's a list?" I wondered who was on it. I wondered what it would be like to chew on Jacob Mason's brain.
"I'm archiving this call as we speak," Jacob said. "All I need is your statement about our tax records. Are you ready?"
Sarah had certainly moved on by now, if she wasn't dead. And Lily? She had a new daddy now. They didn't need me and I didn't need them. That's what finally snapped me out of my funk.
"Sure, Jacob." I smiled. "I'll give you a statement."
"Wonderful! Now, if you could start by--"
"No?" Jacob said. He sounded petulant.
I didn't care about anything or anyone, and that's how I knew I wasn't who I'd been before I died. I was something else. Something unnatural. And I was all alone.
"Rob," Jacob said, "I'm certain if you just--"
"Shut up!" Blood thumped against my temples, blood that wasn't mine. "You turned me into a goddamn science experiment!"
I wasn't Robert Sawyer. I was operating, I mean, my brain was--pumping chemicals through my body, moving limbs--but I didn't have a soul. A man with a soul would still love his family.
I supposed with enough time and enough technology it was possible to regenerate flesh, to rebuild bone, to boot up a regenerated brain like booting up a refurbished computer. But there was something missing from me deep inside, and that unending hole made me hate myself. It made me hate Jacob Mason and everyone at GP.
Jacob's projection frowned. "Some Leftist medical blogs do claim revivification results in adjustment lag. I'd expected you to deal better than most. I guess I was being optimistic."
"Don't turn this on me." Jacob snorted. "All our corporate studies resoundingly conclude that personality and person return intact upon revivification, with no ill effects. You're just experiencing adjustment lag."
"I'll sue you, Jacob! I'll sue GP!" As if it would matter.
"You need more time, I understand, but with our tax deadline two weeks away--"
"I'll chew your goddamn face off!"
Jacob laughed. "Let's try this instead of cannibalism, Rob. My sedan will drop you at a five-star hotel. Eat what you like without gaining weight, drink what you wish without getting drunk, and screw whomever you like so long as you declare your revived status first. That's the law. Next Monday, after you've adjusted--"
"You raised me from the dead to stave off your back taxes!"
"You'll learn to appreciate your new life. Enjoy your week! We'll talk soon."
My last connection to the world before I died vanished, leaving me, soulless zombie construct that was once Rob Sawyer, alone inside a man-sized Roomba. Driving to a five-star hotel. This wasn't the afterlife they told me about in Bible School.
It could have been worse. I could have been lonely or sad, but I wasn't. I had pleasant memories of my family, but I wouldn't look for them. I knew enough to spare them that pain.
Jacob wouldn't have told them I was back, of course. Jacob wasn't that type of person, the type to remember to tell a man's family you'd raised him from the dead. All he cared about was his next promotion and his bottom line.
The sedan pulled up in front of a big Hilton. I stepped out into muggy heat and the Roomba cruised away. A black man in a red suit stood by double doors. I wandered over and he smiled. "Rob Sawyer?"
"We have your suite ready, sir. If you'll just follow me--"
"Where am I?" One question at a time.
He stared like I wore a tinfoil hat. "Excuse me?"
"Where am I? What city?"
"You're in Houston, sir. The Lone Star State."
Golden Pyramid Corporate Headquarters. The muggy heat should have clued me in but it felt different to my strange skin, washed out, muted. Like I was under a thick blanket.
"Thanks." I jogged away.
"Mr. Sawyer!" He didn't come after me. That wasn't his job.
I breathed and I jogged and I realized I wasn't getting tired. I ran past high rises and down clean sidewalks and past signs floating in the air. I ran past people with glowing eyes with jacks sticking from their heads and Roombas that stopped whenever I darted in front of them, blinking lights like eyelids. Alien and wrong.
Eventually I merged onto the shoulder of I-45 as Roombas zipped past me in small convoys. Whoosh. Whoosh whoosh whoosh. Time wasn't time anymore and I didn't have anywhere to be, anyone I missed or who missed me. It might have made me sad, when I was alive, but I wasn't now. I wasn't anything.
I pondered leaping in front of a Roomba, but one look at my perfect body told me it wouldn't do any good. I'd been smashed in a car, burned alive, drowned and buried for forty-eight years, but Jacob Mason brought me back. I'd signed GP's employment contract.
* * *
Day turned to night and night turned to day and day turned to night and night turned to day. I passed a sign saying Galveston City Limits. I'd sprinted from Houston to Galveston and I'd done it without eating, without sleeping, without stopping. I decided to run down to Galveston Bay, hoping to see something beautiful, but pollution or something had turned the bay jet black.
I clambered over a metal barrier sporting a painted white skull. I waded into swirling black waves. Hot and cold all felt the same to me, just another useless sensation.
I smiled as my tireless muscles moved and let those waves wash around and over me. I drifted beneath the water until I washed up on the beach. Breathing, it seemed, was optional.
I walked out again, and once I pushed the air from my lungs staying under wasn't a problem. I didn't need to breathe and I didn't need to rest and I didn't need to eat and I didn't need to see. I wondered if Jacob had a GPS chip imbedded in my brain, if he'd send out a submersible to bring me back.
He'd never reach me in time. I'd keep walking until I sank so deep the pressure crushed me, until no submersible could dredge me up, and GP would pay its back taxes. Take that, employment contract. Choke on that and die. I didn't crave brains. I craved oblivion.
And getting there required nothing but a very long walk.
About the Author
T. Eric Bakutis is an author and professional videogame designer based in Maryland. His first fantasy novel, Glyphbinder, was a finalist for the 2014 Compton Crook Award, and its sequel, Demonkin, was released in December 2015. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Ragnarok Publications, Emby Press, Deepwood Publishing, and other markets. He would be writing his third book right now if not for the unfortunate distractions provided by X-Com 2 and Fire Emblem Fates. When not writing, he posts links to game music remixes on Twitter, blogs about gaming, virtual reality, and writing, and regularly submits short stories to the monthly Fantasy-Faction writing contest. He also enjoys potato chips.
Eric has the following works out in the wild. Check them out! More information at his website, which is linked in the previous paragraph.
Glyphbinder (adventure fantasy) and Demonkin (dark fantasy)
Short Stories (in order of publication)
“The Mumbler” (Horror) and “Heads No. 1” (Horror) – The Absent Willow Review; “Willow Grove” (Urbany Fantasy) – Fiction Vortex; “Granite and Sand” (Fantasy) – The Ways of Magic, from Deepwood Publishing; “Rum’s Daughter” (Fantasy) – Fairly Wicked Tales, from Ragnarok Publications; “Grieftaker” (Fantasy) – Inaccurate Realities Volume 3: Magic; “Demoneater” (Dark Fantasy) – Superhero Monster Hunter from Emby Press
World's Shortest Author Interview
The robot overlords have gifted you with the choice of one cybernetic module that will make one of your existing skills or traits all bionic and stuff. What do you choose to buff up, and what would be the unexpected plot twist?
Superpowerful running and jumping legs, like the Six Million Dollar Man! It would be awesome to be able to just run wherever I liked at 60 miles per hour without getting tired out, to leap tall fences, and not worry about parking. The twist, of course, would be that I couldn't turn the legs off, which means I would end up suffering from restless leg syndrome every night while trying to sleep. Which would suuuuuuck.
Who would you drive across country to see perform, and how do you think they should adjust their material to appeal to the cephalopod demographic?
Dream Theater, my favorite (and most hard working!) band of all time. They have such a wide variety of great material that they appeal to everyone from cephalopods to hemiptera, however, to truly impress a group of intelligent spacegoing squids, I'd suggest they genetically reengineer drummer Mike Mangini to have four additional arms. This would make his already impressive drumming truly legendary and allow him to effectively high five any remaining space squids after the show.
About the Artist
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does most of the Space Squid cover designs.