Of the roughly 8.2 billion people on the planet, Stalone–at least that's what he called himself–had no idea how many bodies he had inhabited. He'd calculated it would take roughly 22.5 million years to transfer to each one, and he was fairly certain he'd never repeated a transfer. That was about as much as he knew.
Like clockwork, each of his days began with his slow awakening in the next vessel, his consciousness having transferred at midnight.
In the stillness of those first moments of awakening, he was blessedly at peace. He'd squeeze his eyes shut tight and just breath, relishing in the newness of the day. The screaming panic and anguish were muffled for a bit, until the fresh sounds of his current surroundings clawed their way through. And his day began as someone new without his permission.
There was nothing Stalone hadn't tried to stop this cycle. No amount of caffeine, uppers, drugs or alcohol could change his fate. He was unable to skip sleep. Suicide was futile. There was no escaping the inevitability of the transfer.
As if that reality wasn't enough to digest, Stalone always repeated the same day. It was eternally Wednesday, March 30, 2033. He only knew two things for sure about that date–it was a palindrome, and a day on which a total solar eclipse occurred.
His story had no real beginning and no real end. It just was. He had no recollection of a birth or parents. No memories of when he began to transfer. Time meant nothing to him. He couldn't age. His life wasn't even his own. He was a blank slate to be used by others for what purpose he couldn't begin to fathom.
At times, he felt as though he was to bring some sort of peace or resolution to the lives he was thrust into, but he never seemed to have an impact or do anything of worth. He merely managed to survive the handful of hours before midnight struck again.
In the limited time he had each day, Stalone had spent countless hours searching university libraries, the internet, the dark web and even government classified data as he'd been lucky enough to transfer to high ranking military officers.
He'd woken as brilliant scientists, doctors, and engineers. None of their vast knowledge or expertise shed a light on how his existence was possible. And trying to tell someone what was happening to him only brought hysteria as he was labeled insane.
There was nothing he could conclude about the date or celestial event that explained his existence. It seemed to be merely an odd coincidence, although he could never quite fully convince himself of that. Always a thought niggling at the back of his consciousness he couldn't quite grasp.
Today, he'd awoken as a frail, old man in a hospital bed. The sounds of the monitors had drug him from his dreamless slumber. And the tug of the IV needle as he tried to push himself up had him straining to see what he was hooked up to. A morphine drip–never a good sign.
He'd been in dying bodies before, and it was truly awful. He felt trapped in the decay and despair. Those were the days he'd most often tried to take his life. He thought he could end his vessel's suffering. And his own.
He failed each and every time.
As awareness continued to seep in, Stalone began his standard processing trying to find out his name, what country he was in, whom did he need to be for the day?
Admittedly, he'd gone through shameful phases where he just didn't care what happened to the life he occupied. He did everything and anything he wanted not giving a damn if there'd be consequences. He'd walked out on families and jobs to steal fast cars, drink expensive liquors, eat gourmet meals, max out credit cards, have mindless sex.
It was mind-numbing bliss. But inevitably, his conscious would break through the false joy, and he'd be faced with the poor choices he'd made in someone else's name.
Stalone had had one of those comeuppance days recently when he transferred to a family therapist named Mark. Before he had time to skip out for his day of fun, the therapist received a frantic call from one of his clients–a distraught wife. A baby's cry pierced the background as she poured her heart out to him. Her husband had just walked out on her and their two small children leaving her alone and scared.
As she continued to sob waiting for him to give her comfort and advice, Stalone was struck with the uncomfortable realization that he had acted like this husband on hundreds, if not thousands, of occasions. He always repeated the same day, so he never knew if the repercussions of his actions lasted longer than the day he was in, but it was like a live wire stunning him out of his numb detachment.
He vowed never to succumb to those selfish days again. But it was exhausting as he saw no end to his predicament, and it didn't take long before he inevitably regressed.
Stalone's thoughts were quickly drawn back to the present as a nurse entered his room, and he focused on getting information from him as subtly as possible.
"Monsieur Dupont," the nurse began, approaching the bedside. "I'm very surprised to find you awake. Are you uncomfortable?" He began checking the drip bags and making sure the IV was intact.
Stalone understood his French perfectly as he understood all languages that his host did. So he had a name and a country at least.
He tried to speak to answer the nurse's question, but couldn't force the words out past his dry tongue.
Recognizing his struggle, the nurse reached for a cup of ice chips he'd brought along and gently placed one between Stalone's lips. The cold sensation felt wonderful, and he paused a moment to enjoy it while the nurse hummed, opening the blinds a bit to reveal a bright full moon giving way to dawn's early hues.
Trying again, Stalone managed to rasp out, "No pain, just restless."
The nurse took that to mean he needed to go to the bathroom, and before he could really protest, he was already being seated on the toilet with his IV pole in tow.
It was a surprisingly nice bathroom. As he took in more of his surroundings, Stalone came to the conclusion that he must be at his home and not a hospital. This must be his private nurse. At least one thing was going his way today–he did not have to suffer through another hospital stay. Dying at home was so much better.
After relieving himself to the sound of a turned on faucet, Stalone's nurse helped him stand back up and move to the sink. It was always interesting to see what he looked like for the day. As his gaze lifted to the mirror, a set of brown eyes settled on him, staring back.
Huh. He wasn't as old as he first believed, but he was definitely frail. The gauntness of his cheeks and his sunken eyes showed a body ravaged by disease. His light brown hair was woven with bits of gray indicating he was maybe in his early fifties. It was probably cancer then.
Satisfied with seeing his new self for the moment, he focused back on the nurse's prattling. He was going on about some personal drama, and Stalone suspected it was chatter meant to take away from the embarrassment of having to be helped in the bathroom. He appreciated the kindness.
Just as he went to drop his gaze to reach for the soap, his vision blurred. In that moment, it was like a second face was superimposed over his host's. It was a man's features with blue eyes, sandy blonde hair and a prominent jaw line.
A thrill like no other raced down his spine, and he stood there in absolute shock and wonder. That was his true face. Stalone knew it down to his core.
As he continued to stare, slack-jawed, his true self mouthed two words over and over, "Last one, last one, last on–."
The screech of a barn owl tore his attention away as it sounded so close it was alarming, breaking the moment, his true face slipping away. He yelped and scrambled to touch the mirror, but the nurse grabbed him before he could reach it.
"Merde! Did you hear that screech? I thought that owl was right in this room!" his nurse cried looking over his shoulder. "I don't know what's gotten into that beast, but it's been swooping past your bedroom window since midnight. I need to go have a word with the groundskeeper."
Stalone froze as those words gave him chills. He transferred at midnight. He just saw his true face. Was the barn owl somehow connected?
His nurse began steering him back to that miserable bed, but he needed to be near the window. His heart racing, he sputtered, "Window!"
The nurse finally turned to look at him, taking in his agitated state and finally processing his request.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea right now with that owl on the loose. It could give you a heart attack in your weakened state." He started moving him toward the bed again, but Stalone resisted, motioning to the window.
Sighing, the nurse finally relented and gently guided him to the arm chair that sat close by the large set of windows he'd exposed earlier.
"I'll leave you here for a bit while I go and speak with Madame Lamonde about that crazy owl," his nurse said. "Just press the button on your wristband if you need anything sooner."
And with that, he was gone, leaving Stalone to ponder everything that had just happened.
He stared out the window into the pre-dawn sky, hoping for a glimpse of the owl. His reflection, that of his host, stared back. No sign of his true face now.
He was either losing his mind at long last, or fate was so very cruel to have given him a brief glimpse of a possible way out of this endless misery.
Minutes ticked by while Stalone held his breath, frantically searching the sky. His heartbeat pounded out a furious rhythm, and his palms began to sweat.
The awfulness of hope enough to paralyze him.
It was beautiful scenery though. He was clearly out in the countryside, a lovely dusting of fresh snow on the ground. Just enough to see the paths of animals–the evidence of their late night adventures on display. He wished he could smell the coldness and hear the softness in the air as the snow muffled the sounds.
His mind started drifting as he waited, thinking back to the phrase "last one" that his true self had been repeating. What could that mean?
Was he the last one?
Was this the last transfer?
Without warning, the barn owl swooped right across the window, screeching loudly and making Stalone's heart stall. It quickly swooped back around and came to land on the window box directly in front of him.
The owl's eyes shone brightly in its heart-shaped face, and for one surreal moment, they simply stared at one another.
Stalone opened his mouth to say something, but promptly closed it. He felt like an idiot. How was he even supposed to talk to an owl?
As they continued to stare at one another, Stalone's vision shifted again, and instead of the downy face of the owl, another face came into focus. The same feeling as before burned through his consciousness, and he was positive this was his true self.
Excitement and disbelief coursed through him in equal measure.
Once again, his blue-eyed self mouthed the words, "Last one, last one, last one."
"What does that mean?" he whispered, afraid of the answer.
"Return, return, return," was the reply.
"Return to what or to where?" he whisper-shouted! He didn't understand, and he could feel this opportunity slipping away.
In a rush of anger and frustration, he tried to stand, straining to get closer to the window, but his weakened body collapsed to the ground.
As he raised his head in anguish, Stalone saw the owl fly away, taking his true self's image with it.
He sat there on the floor for a bit, berating himself for losing his temper and ruining the moment. But eventually he was forced to accept he needed the nurse to return, and pressed the button on his wristband to signal for help.
Hours passed in a morphine haze. The nurse was beside himself for leaving Stalone in the chair and refused to hear any more talk about sitting by the window. Stalone complied for the moment, trying to rest to gain some strength back, but he fully intended to get over to that window soon. He was already half way through the day. Time was running out.
Unfortunately his cancer-riddled body was worn out, and he fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, his pulse spiked looking at the ornate clock on the fireplace mantle–8pm.
Of course the only time he'd ever been close to figuring out this mess of his life was when he was in a body that couldn't handle it. Damn it!
He needed to calm down though as his raised heart rate and heavy breathing were sure to alert someone that he was awake and in distress. He took some measured breaths and willed himself to gain his composure.
After a few minutes had gone by and no one came to check, he decided to try to leave the bed and get to the window. The rest had done this body good, and Stalone felt a little more energetic.
Easing his covers aside, he inched his legs to the edge of the bed and used the power button to move himself upright. So far, so good.
He reached for the IV pole and pulled it closer to him, hoping to use it for a little balance once he stood. As his feet hit the hardwood floor, he sighed in relief. Taking a moment to give his body time to recover from those small efforts, he glanced at the clock again. A half hour had gone by already.
Stalone still had time, he could do this. He concentrated on gently swaying back and forth until his momentum carried him forward enough to stand, the IV pole now taking his weight.
The window wasn't far from the bed, but he could see that his leg strength may not be enough to get him there. Maybe he should try to get to the ground and scoot or crawl?
Very slowly, he slid his hands down the IV pole and landed with a little thump. He stilled, straining his ears to see if anyone had heard. No movement sounded from the hallway, so he returned to his efforts. Although he realized at that moment he would have to take the heart monitor off his finger to keep going.
Stalone was not a believer in the divine, but he prayed in that moment that his nurse was slacking at his job and wouldn't notice the small beeping noise that had begun.
He started to kind of shuffle on his side, pulling the pole along. His legs and arms shook, but he pressed on, taking small breaks to stretch and rest his muscles.
At last, he made it to the brown leather chair from this morning. With a final push of energy, he pulled himself onto the seat.
The slight beep of the heart monitor grew louder, fraying his nerves. He was full-on sweating and shaking now. This body was close to giving out.
There was no way he could make it back to the bed before the nurse came again, but hopefully that wouldn't matter as he had to believe that the owl and his true self would show up and give him the answers to leave this all behind.
Minutes ticked by, but the owl didn't show, and the beeping grew more frantic. If he actually cared about this host body, he'd be a little pissed that no one had come to check on him.
But Stalone could only be thankful about it as he was in a battle to keep his wits about him–his body was starting to shut down. Just as his head started to droop, he saw a blur in the sky as the barn owl descended, landing in front of him.
A sense of deja vu hit him as he and the owl stared at one another. His true face showing in the window glass at last, repeating, "Last one, last one, last one."
Frustration and impatience bubbled up in Stalone as his true self said nothing new. He went to interrupt, but the image started repeating, "Return, return, return."
Wait, he was saying the exact same thing as last time, almost like this was...a recording? He stilled and forced himself to see what came next. There had to be more.
"Alpha india delta india alpha, Alpha india delta india alpha, Alpha india delta ind–."
He never heard the rest as blood and feathers splattered across the window, the owl screeching in pain as it fell to the ground. A woman with a bow stood there in the moonlight looking self-satisfied–the groundskeeper. What had she done?
Stalone shot to his feet, adrenaline taking over, and pounded on the window, yelling and screaming incoherently.
That finally brought the nurse to the room with a cry of dismay as he saw what Stalone had been up to.
"Monsieur, what has gotten into you today? You must calm down," the nurse said, rushing to his side. He took in Stalone's anguished face and finally saw the gore on the window. Shocked, he looked out to see the groundskeeper still standing there.
"I am so sorry, Monsieur! I only asked her to scare it away, not murder the poor beast." He shook his fist at her, then slammed the drapes closed, shutting out the reminder of all Stalone had lost in that moment.
The nurse refused to leave his room after he'd gotten Stalone in his bed and hooked back up to the monitor.
As he lay there, staring at the ceiling, he couldn't help but wish he'd never even see that owl or his true face. This feeling of hopelessness was worse than anything he'd felt before. He wished he could die along with this body.
But the reality was, he only had a few hours left before the next transfer. And then the next one, and the next one, and on and on. He just couldn't take it anymore. Not now after he'd come so close.
Stalone closed his eyes in defeat and tried to retreat into the numbness of sleep, wanting to be done with this heart-breaking day.
Strong hands gently shook him awake. His pasty eyes peeling open to see his nurse's face so close to his own.
"You were mumbling Monsieur Dupont, over and over the same thing. It was making you so agitated," his nurse said in a low tone, something off about his voice.
Stalone studied the nurse's expression. It took a moment to register that he looked upset, sad even.
"What was I saying?" Stalone rasped out.
The nurse hesitated as if deciding in that moment what to do, but then squared his shoulders and spoke the words that would change everything, "Last one, return, alpha india delta india alpha."
Stalone realized at once what the last phrase meant, like a fog had lifted from his brain. He hadn't bothered thinking about it after the trauma of the owl being hit with an arrow, but now...
Last one, return, AIDIA.
He turned his head to look at the nurse again with a new understanding. The nurse was part of this, he knew about Stalone.
"I'm sorry mon ami, but it's time to return," he said, before bowing his head and walking out of the room.
It was only minutes before midnight, and Stalone knew what he needed to do.
He opened his mouth to voice the words that would hopefully end this madness, but before he could utter a thing, his host's body went into full cardiac arrest.
Everything faded to black.
Stalone awoke with a start, his eyes flying open. He quickly shut them as rays of sunshine flooded the room, making his eyes water.
Shielding his face this time, he slowly opened them again and took in his surroundings. He was in a young girl's room judging by the clothes and decor.
It took him a few more moments before the events of yesterday came crashing back, and he gasped.
Talking a deep breath, he yelled with all he had, "Last one, return, AIDIA!"
In that moment, the world fell away, and he was finally free.
A blink of an eye had him slamming into his true self's form and basking in the utter joy of being home. But his joy lasted all of two seconds before the agony of his situation came crashing back, memories flooding him.
He rolled to his side and began to dry-heave. Spit flew from his mouth as his body continued to shake.
No. It wasn't supposed to be like this. No, not again!
As cruel reality continued to lash at him, he raised his head and looked at the walls around. Hundreds of tick marks, if not more, decorated every surface.
They represented the amount of times he'd put himself back in the transfer cycle–willingly.
He never knew if it was a blessing or a curse that he couldn't remember why he was in the cycle while he was living it. Because every time he eventually found the exit sequence, he regretted coming back.
Here he had to deal with the fact that he was more than likely the last human being alive. He subconsciously gave himself the name "Stalone" every time because he knew he was the "last one."
The nurse and the groundskeeper had been his best friend and his wife in real life. They had woven themselves into the program at its creation, only showing up when it was time to reveal the exit sequence.
The day they'd chosen to relive on repeat within the program was indeed a palindrome, just like the name of the program itself–AIDIA. The solar event really had no bearing on anything. It just so happened to be the last date they'd been able to hack most of the world governments to gain population information and personal data.
His wife and best friend used to cycle through transfers just like he had, but both were gone now. Their real bodies had wasted away when their systems had glitched and neither of them ever found the exit sequence again. He was never able to wake them.
After their deaths, he had modified the program, and extended the length of his cycles to the point of recklessness.
His desire to end his life was so strong sometimes, he could barely resist. But ultimately he felt an innate responsibility as the last one possibly alive to try to continue on, always hoping for a miracle.
The three of them–Ayden, Ivy and Daniel–had used their initials to name AIDIA, loving the symmetry of it. It was ironic that there was only one D in the name, and he was the last one remaining now.
At conception, they'd chosen a maximum number of cycles they could go through before needing to come out of stasis. The program wasn't nearly completed when they'd needed to scramble to launch it, so they weren't able to weed out the dying or undesirable lives, only the babies and toddlers.
After the fourth world war, the three of them had really sped up development of their program. Earth's destruction had seemed imminent, and they weren't wrong. The pod they'd built, hurtled them into space only minutes after the final destruction had begun.
After the first year, they were tempted to go back down to the surface, but it was next to impossible. The atmosphere had become one impenetrable dust and storm cloud. Almost no sunlight could be seen penetrating the thick barrier. They'd sent a probe down just to be sure, but it hadn't been able to get through the storms.
As years passed, they had often questioned if they were really the last ones alive, but their view from space continued to show an uninhabitable mess. The likelihood those rare and few underground mega bunkers still held life was a stretch.
After Ivy and Ayden had passed, he was tempted to try going back just for the possibility of company and for something to break up the monotony and inevitability of his life. Unfortunately, the atmosphere hadn't changed–the dust and storm clouds still raged.
It was his permanent dilemma. Did he hold on for as long as possible, going through the torture of endless cycles? Did he try for the surface? Or did he succumb to the pain and loneliness and end his own life?
Daniel slowly forced himself to sit up and go through the motions of his post-exit sequence. He might as well do that much before he went back to agonizing over his bleak future.
The cycle he just came out of was by far the longest one to date, and his body was suffering the consequences. He knew he was playing with fire staying that long in stasis, but he just couldn't help himself.
After checking his vitals, logging his latest transfer cycle and then cleaning himself up a bit, he finally looked over to the small window on the far side.
He'd put it off long enough; it was time to go look.
Gingerly approaching the small window that faced Earth, Daniel finally leaned in and looked out.
The view had him frozen in wonder.
He saw ocean and land.
Just a sliver before a dust cloud swallowed it up, but it was enough.
As he held his breath and waited, another burst of sunlight broke through the haze. It landed on what looked like dry, cracked earth. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
Daniel wasn't sure how long he stood there with tears streaming down his face, catching glimpses here and there of dark browns and dark blues, but he simply couldn't move. He didn't want to miss one moment.
And then the realization hit him.
He'd made it.
The waiting was over.
The transfers were over.
It was time at last for action.
He would take this pod home along with the memories of all the lives he'd lived and the lives he'd lost.
Whatever happened next, it was worth the risk. It was worth his life.
And he would never be Stalone again.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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