Immortias by James Rumpel
Immortias by James Rumpel
Thomas James Wolfe rolled over and looked at the clock. It was well past time to wake up. With a heavy sigh, he climbed over his sleeping wife. Her labored breathing sounded as if each breath would be her last. Thomas knew that was not the case.
After pulling on a drab jumpsuit from the pile next to the bed, he sat in one of the tiny apartment’s two chairs and prepared himself for the arduous commute ahead. He glanced at the bathroom area in the corner. There would not be time for a shower, which was just as well since he and Julie were dangerously close to reaching their water quota for the month. He turned on the radio, setting it to a barely audibly volume, and listened to the news while he dressed.
The reporter announced in a monotone voice, “A large fire in the old section of the city engulfed nearly a dozen large apartment buildings yesterday. There were no fatalities.”
Thomas clicked the radio off and kissed Julie on the cheek; she rolled away from him, not waking. He headed out the door, leaving the ten-foot by ten-foot apartment behind.
Even though it was early in the morning, the street was heavily crowded. It was always like that. Tens of thousands of people slowly pushed their way toward the commuter train. Very few talked and even fewer smiled. The trip to work each day was never pleasant. Thomas couldn’t blame any of them for their foul moods. It was impossible to enjoy life when you have not eaten in over a week. Food was no longer a necessity for survival; it was a very expensive and rare luxury, but the pains of hunger still gnawed at one’s soul.
The line to board the train was always an uncomfortable process. The mass of people pushed against each. Inside was worse. The crowd barely fit into the old-fashioned railway car. Everyone on the train was gaunt and emaciated, hardly more than skin and bones, but they still took up space and the cars were not designed to hold the two-hundred or so people squeezed within.
Thomas was lucky this day. He found himself pressed up against one of the windows. He would, at least, be able to see something other than the back of the person in front of him. He turned his head. His face made a slight squeaking sound as it slid along the warm glass. Eventually, he found a position from which he could see the landscape fly by the fast-moving train.
He was, as happened every time he found himself at the window, struck by how gray the world was. The sky, the asphalt, the buildings, and even the clothing of the people cramped together on the street had a dull ashen tone. He watched as the many tall structured flew past. Most were residential though a few were home to manufacturers or research companies. All were constructed of metal beams covered with thin sheets of metal. To Thomas, the buildings resembled the people he saw huddled together on the streets. Their bones were the beams and their skin the fine layer of covering.
Thomas knew the train was nearing its destination when he saw the mountainous pile of crates that was Box Area 17. Thousands of plastic boxes, seven-foot-long and three feet in width and height, were stacked on top of each other. A chain-link fence encircled the Box Area. This was the one location during the commute where Thomas did not see many people. The area was quiet, empty.
Once the train reached its destination the doors opened quickly. Thomas, once again, found himself propelled forward by the mass of humanity. This time the wave of people led him into the Savior Lab building. Inside, the crowd dissipated slightly as some proceeded to the elevators while others, Thomas included, moved to the stairwells. Thomas had no desire to spend even more time crammed into a small space with dozens of other people. Besides, the elevators did not always operate correctly. The last thing he wanted was to be stranded between floors. His lab was on the seventh floor and while the climb was not enjoyable, it wasn’t going to kill him.
In the lab, Thomas went to his work station. At least here, he had enough room to bend his elbows and stretch his aching back. He grabbed a tiny pebble from a desk drawer and popped it into his mouth. The taste of sand and grit was not the most enjoyable sensation, but it was better than nothing. It had been days since he had had the chance to taste real food.
Before he could check the daily agenda, the image of the lab director, Dr. Wilson Hubert Hughes, appeared on his computer screen.
“Researchers of Division 3B, I have a new task for you,” began the cadaverously thin, bald man. “You will immediately stop all other projects and attempt to locate a female who resided in New York during the 2020s. Her name is Ester Holman. New information has arisen that indicates that she may be the cause of Immortias.”
Thomas looked up from his monitor. His eyes met those of Amber Susan Smith who was seated at her desk two feet away. Amber met his gaze with dark, empty eyes. Her jet black wig looked odd, contrasted against her pale complexion.
Dr. Hughes continued, “We have managed to uncover this woman’s diary from the year 2021. She was twelve years old at the time and there is an entry in which she describes finding some sort of small golden pendant. The diary says that while she was holding the pendant, she had a feeling that anything she wished for would come true. The stupid girl then, according to what she wrote, wished that no one could ever die.”
Amber shook her head. “That can’t be the cause,” she said loud enough for Thomas to hear. “Whatever has caused Immortias is based in science, not some mysterious magical wish.”
Thomas shrugged, “I don’t know. We’ve tried to find a scientific explanation for nearly fifty years. I’m willing to try anything.”
Before Amber could continue the argument, Hughes resumed. “If we can find Ester Holman, we might be able to get information that will help us track down the pendant. Maybe we will be able to use it to make a new wish, one that breaks this evil curse. I know it’s a longshot, but we have to try. Nearly twenty billion people need of our help. Please give your fullest attention to finding the whereabouts of this woman. She may have already been boxed. If that is the case, we need to locate that box and have her extracted so that we can question her. This assignment is your number one priority.”
The moment Hughes signed off, the manager of Research 3B started giving orders. Thomas and Amber were to check lists of names of the people who had voluntarily had themselves boxed. The task would prove to be difficult. The world had been dealing with all sorts of problems during the last five decades. Never-ending wars, extreme shortages, and a breakdown in morals had all taken priority over record keeping. If Ester Holman was sitting in one of the millions of plastic boxes piled throughout the city, she would not be easy to locate.
“If she’s been boxed for too long,” said Amber, “she will probably have lost her mind. Can you imagine sitting alone in a coffin for years?”
“We still have to try and find her,” answered Thomas. “I have a hunch she did have herself boxed.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Think about it. If she did make that wish, even if it isn’t the cause of everything, she would think it was her fault. How could she live with that? Except, she has no choice but to live with it.”
The breakthrough came the next day. Thomas found a news story from 2047 about a woman named Ester Holman who attempted suicide by jumping off a building into the path of an oncoming train. The report said that she was severely injured, almost every bone in her body had been broken, but she had, of course, not died. She had been left to recover in a state-owned apartment. There was no need for her to be hospitalized since she could not die from the injuries.
It was Amber who found the occupancy report for that particular apartment. Ester had been removed in 2061.
“Let’s assume she went directly from the apartment into a box. That would mean she is, most likely, interred in Box Area 8.” Thomas had begun searching the computer records before he even finished his statement. “There are about ten thousand boxes in that area. Most of them have names and locations listed on file. Ester Holman is not one of them. However, there are about two-hundred unlisted boxes at the base of the stack. She might be there.”
“I don’t know,” said Amber. “That would mean tearing down the entire stack just in the hope of finding her. That’s a lot of work and a lot of angry people in those boxes.”
“Well, I’m sending what I found on to our supervisor and Dr. Hughes.”
Thomas knew a few people who should have died, but didn’t. Some were burnt beyond recognition, others cut to the point where they should have bled to death. His own family great-grandmother was over one hundred thirty years old, shriveled and twisted by age. Because of Immortias they all survived, or more accurately, they didn’t die. Like everyone else, he had seen sights that would turn his stomach into knots had it wasn’t already twisted by hunger. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to take his eyes off the floor.
Ester Holman, or more accurately the mass of deformed bones covered by loose leathery skin that once was Ester Holman lay on a bed against the wall on the opposite side of the room. It had taken expert psychologists and the best physicians available to get her to the point where she could communicate.
Thomas had been asked to attend the debriefing because his information had been instrumental in located Ester. He was more than happy to sit back and allow Dr. Hughes to try to determine the whereabouts of the magical pendant.
“Ester, please,” said Dr. Hughes. “We know it’s not your fault. You were trying to help mankind. But now, we need to find that pendant. Maybe we can use it to fix things.”
A low, almost imperceivably, mumbling came from the occupant of the bed. One of the psychologists put his ear closer to Ester’s mouth. Thomas admired the man’s fortitude. He could only peek at her for a brief second before averting his eyes. He would never have been able to get that close.
“She says she doesn’t know about any pendant,” announced the psychologist.
“Ester, we have a copy of your diary from your childhood. On May 18th, 2021 you wrote about finding a pendant on the beach near Coney Island. Try to remember. We need to find that pendant.
Again, Ester mumbled a reply. “She says, it wasn’t magic. It couldn’t have caused this.”
“We know,” said Dr. Hughes. “We need the pendant for something else. Just tell us what you did with the pendant so we can try to find it.”
“She says she will tell you, but after that, you have to return her to her box. She belongs in her box.”
“Of course. We have to find that pendant.” Thomas could hear the frustration and desperation beginning to work its way into Dr. Hughes’ voice.
This time, Ester spoke for a much longer time.
“The pendant felt wonderful when she first held it,” relayed the psychologist. “However, after she made her wish it felt different, painful to hold. She took it home and put it next to her bed. That night she experienced horrible nightmares. The pendant had to be the cause. The next morning, she threw it in the family’s fireplace and watched it melt into nothingness. The pendant is gone.”
Three months later Thomas got out of bed and prepared to head into work. Nothing had changed since the lab located Ester Holman. From the moment of conception, no one died. The world was still gray, painful, and full. His division was now working with other research divisions in the quest to find magical wish-granting device, a desperate gambit doomed to failure. The world may be doomed to this fate. No one would ever die again.
That morning the streets seemed just a bit more crowded than the day before.
Copyright James Rumpel 2020