He had planned it with a meticulous exactness. It was his intrinsic nature to be precise to a degree. To think of everything, and then some more. The devil was in the detail after all. A long forgotten quote, from a long forgotten time. Sometimes, if he allowed it, the whispers in his mind would take over. Hurried or hushed, they would rustle like Autumn leaves, colliding, colluding, discombobulating him, till he shut that trap door with a vicious thud. There was no room for doubt. The brief was clear.
He was number 398723 in the system. He couldn’t recall when he had entered his name in for the draw. Perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps it had been those shadowy figures he had called Mother and Father. Perhaps. Anyway, he was in the system, and annually, he would get a reminder that his name was being entered in the draw. He would set it aside, not sure how to feel about the message. He was 72 already. His mind was sharp and his body not too weak. In another 50 years, that would change. At that point, he could take himself up to the Hill, and join the masses who would gas themselves into oblivion. Or, he could steal another lifetime, if his number was drawn.
He had never stolen. Or perhaps he had? He could remember being electric shocked lightly, as a child. Was it a strawberry he had picked, unknowingly? The lesson had stayed with him. Therefore, this draw unnerved him ever so slightly. Stealing was stealing after all. And stealing someone else’s life years, how was that, in anyway, a good or moral thing to do?
Yet, around him were daily reminders that people did it, and lived, and thrived. If you had the money, and the luck of the draw, you could potentially live another 50 to a 150 odd years.
It must have cost him (them?) a fortune to enter the draw. With absolutely no guarantee that his number would ever come up. They must have loved him. Although he could remember very little of his spartan childhood. The Memory Enhancement Program he had tried a few years ago had failed. The technician kept talking of the psyche burying things too deep. He’d lost interest after that. Yet, that trap door would now and again,inadvertently swing open to allow a swirl of images.
The message had come two months ago. He’d seen it as soon as he opened his eyes. It was etched on the ceiling.
‘ Robert, your number has been drawn. Please contact Central Reservation at once. ‘
With his heart thudding he’d taken his place amongst the fifty other random participants in the white, sterile waiting room. He’d noticed how they all avoided each other’s gaze, choosing to stare instead at the 3D posters that adorned the walls. Monochrome Manga art designed to distract. He’d concentrated on the girl with the large, beguiling eyes. She’d blinked and flirted with him. He’d felt her giggle inside, and for a moment allowed himself the fantasy.
When he’d finally entered the Room, his nervousness had all but vanished, along with his qualms. The Motherboard (call me Mobo) had done a little psychological test, and then offered him the choice of three Time zones.
“As I see it, Robert, you are not ruthless by nature. Therefore you need a soft target. The downside, of course, is the fact that number of years you steal won’t be quite as many as those you get from a tougher Time zone. Can you live with that?”
He’d ignored the irony of that question. Mobo wouldn’t recognise irony if it stood in front of her fully disrobed.
“Why have you chosen these Time zones?”
“Well, post 2072, people started to realise what was happening. They started to build defences. To train armies, and civilians for possible future attacks. Along with increased life spans, and medical advances, people grew smarter and learned to anticipate how or where our attacks would come from. To steal lives from them is a task only for the very brave, the very smart, or the very foolhardy. You are none of those.”
He’d agreed with that assessment, and settled on 1997. He could get 80 years, give or take, if he stole from a child. A soft target. But it had to look like an accident. Or.
The Or bothered him. If it all went belly up, he would have to forfeit his own remaining years to the Mobo. To be given charitably to the Governing Body. He supposed that is how they allowed the operation to run. There was something in it for them too. How many, he wondered had forfeited their own lives in the process of stealing another’s. He didn’t want to be one of those statistics.
The Mobo had presented him with a series of targets. There were infants. There were young children. There were men. There were women. But one, in particular, caught his eye and stayed with him. She was blonde, and beautiful. Her shy smile captivated him, nudging open that trap door. The Mobo stopped at her image instantly.
” You like her Robert? She won’t be an easy one to do, and you’ll barely get 50 years out of her. Are you sure?”
“Yes”, he’d muttered, his mouth dry. To steal her years, would be like stealing her for himself. Stealing her unique beauty, her irrepressible charm and bottling it, deep inside himself. “Yes”, he’d said again. “It’s her”
“Then start planning Robert. The file will be delivered to you within the hour. You have two months to prepare. And remember, it must look like an accident.”
She had two sons. That should’ve bothered him, but strangely, it didn’t. He’d immersed himself in her story, finding parallels where none existed. In ‘Interactive mode’ he’d visited her childhood, felt her anxiety at her parents’ constant warring and subsequent separation. He’d saw her blossom into a young woman, feted for her beauty. Saw her marry young, and watched it all go dreadfully wrong. He’d felt her pain over her husband’s infidelity. Endured her wretchedness over the divorce. Every seminal moment of her life, he’d become the shadow that she could not see. And all along, he’d plotted and he’d planned her death.
He supposed there was a certain bittersweetness to the fact that he was culling her when she seemed to have found another love, another stab at happiness. Her dramas had been played out so publicly, that he envisaged there would undoubtedly be a public mourning too. It would be interesting to watch that after the fact. He wondered if Mobo would supply him those files too. It wouldn’t hurt to ask.
The evening he had picked was a warm August one. His shadow had followed her and her companion into the glitzy hotel in Paris. The meal had taken far too long, and he’d felt nauseous watching them exchange lovesick glances. Finally, they were escorted out of the rear entrance while a decoy vehicle pulled away from the main one. He’d followed their Mercedes a short distance away in his own nondescript white Fiat. He’d allowed the paparazzi to race past him. There was still time.
Just before the entrance of the tunnel, he overtook them, simultaneously triggering the time release drug in the chauffeur’s blood stream. The car gained speed. He saw her startled look as his little car passed her sleek ride. He swerved into them suddenly, causing the chauffeur to veer wildly to the left. That was all it took. The car careened off course, collided head on with the pillar at a terrible speed, spun and hit the stone wall of the tunnel backwards, finally coming to a stop.
In the ensuing panic and confusion, he slipped in as one of the bystanders. He watched her shock and distress with a smug ownership. He wondered how long before she would be his to have and to hold.
That night, back in his own bed, the whispers in his mind seemed louder, more strident. He hushed them with a ferocious virulence, secure in the knowledge that once she inhabited him, they would die down forever. He tossed and turned, wondering at what might be happening in her world, wondering how he would hear of his own reward.
The message on the ceiling next morning simply said:
‘Thank you for last night. This should cover it.’
Next to it was a number: 48.
A moment’s calm passed over him. He had gained another lifetime.
Then the buzzing started. Whispers upon whispers. Images superimposed upon images. His head felt like it would explode. His life, her life, bumped and crashed into each other, pulverising every coherent thought he held. With a growing horror, he ran out into the street, holding his head, shaking uncontrollably. Those living, thriving thieves of lives looked at him with a distant condescension. Welcome to our world, they seemed to say. You’ve checked in. You can never check out.
© Poornima Manco 2014