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Mortal - Chapter 30

by Liv 5 months ago in Series
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What is life without death?

Mortal - Chapter 30
Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

Premise: In this young-adult dystopian novel, people can no longer die. But they still feel pain, and suffer--and it's maddening. Because of the chaos that ensued, the US Government created a program to figure out how to kill people. When Garrett, a teenager, falls into a coma for weeks as a result of an experiment, the Program sets its malicious sights on him.

This is the thirtieth chapter of the novel, Mortal. Click here for the beginning of the story. Or, click here to view all chapters.

Overhead lights illuminate our path when our first steps trigger the motion detectors. The ground is rough rock, jagged dips and lifts making it difficult to cross, but the ceiling and walls are a pearly steel, as if the construction workers never finished the job.

The gate closes behind us with a thundering thud, and I’m forced to release a steadying breath into the stale air.

“Creepy,” Lucy intones, looking back over her shoulder at our sealed exit, and I can’t help but agree with her, my chest tightening.

Just to be sure, I scan the wall by the door, and to my relief find a similar key slot. Good. At least we’re not trapped.

We move along the tunnel in silence, our hands still clutched together, listening to the buzzing of the lights above, and the scraping scuffle of our feet. Lucy points ahead, and following her finger with my eyes, I see a trickle of water seeping through the ceiling and sliding down the wall to form a puddle in the middle of our path.

“We must be under a lake or something,” she guesses as she stumbles against the slippery rock. My grip tightens around her wrist, pulling her to dry earth.

“We’ll be sure to notify maintenance on our way out,” I say sarcastically and with a grimace.

But the deterioration doesn’t end there. As we near the end of the tunnel, we spot large dents in the tunnel, as if someone was trying to get in, and maybe at one point someone did, for the color of a single plating of wall, is a slightly different tint than the rest.

“Some preservation mandate, huh?” I ask Lucy, lifting an eyebrow.

Lucy shrugs, non-committal. “Some things take precedence over others?” she half-heartedly suggests.

When we meet the tunnel’s end, Lucy slides the key card down its slot, and the door slowly opens.

“So what exactly should we be looking for?” I ask over the loud grinding of the door sliding open.

“Anything!” Lucy yells back.

The door stops sliding up with a resounding thud. Lucy and I exchange looks of uncertainty, before entering the pitch hole.

The lack of ventilation and the amount of dust leave us choking and hacking in the dark. With the amount of earthy particles in the air, I wouldn’t doubt that during the construction of the tunnel, they had left the doorway open wide to assault.

“Garrett!” Lucy coughs, “Try to find a light switch!”

I nod to myself and stumble to the side, arms outstretched and feeling for a wall. My fingertips reach smooth surface, and I slide my hands around until the side of my right hand runs into a knob and I flick it on.

It takes a moment for the electricity to trigger the light bulbs, but when it does, I’m speechless.

“Whoa,” Lucy sniffs, wiping a hand over her face.

The basement of VitCorp is completely covered in jade-tinted tile, the floors and walls. Six polished steel sinks stand at the back of the room, and to the left of them is a long rack of white uniforms. Some of them I can see, bringing a shiver down my spine, are coated with rusty red stains: Blood. Perpendicular from the sinks is a row of white, heavy-duty washing machines and dryers. Behind me is a line of showers with glass sliding doors. Everything in the room is coated with a thick layer of dust.

The tunnel door shuts behind us, sealing us in once again. A brief flicker of terror fills me when the thought of the key slots glitching and literally locking us in crosses my mind. I shake the thought away, quickly.

Lucy walks over to an adjacent wall and opens up a small metal box and fiddles with it until the air conditioning clicks on, and a heavy buzzing fills the room.

“Better,” she mutters before returning to my side.

Slowly, it becomes easier to breathe. I let out a puff of air, and my eyes return to the rack of Corpse suits. A blast from the past. I can still see the chaos in the streets from my apartment window, white-suited people running around trying to contain the never-ending breakouts of hysteria. Lucy must be thinking the same thing because she’s also staring at them.

“I remember one of them carrying my grandmother into their van, like it was yesterday,” she shivers, “Let’s go upstairs, yeah?”

The next floor up is just as musty as the previous, but unlike the light switch we struggle to find, the metal box Lucy played with in the basement seems to be ventilating the entire complex.

The ground floor is open and spacious. We must be in the middle of it, for we’re between two metal plated walls. One bearing a double-door entrance to the lobby of the building and the other holding an elevator and a staircase to the upper floors. The center of the first floor is an atrium, with high ceilings and strong steel arches supporting the many skylights, pooling only a meager amount of light into the room, for some of the windows seem to be covered with a black tarp. One of them is shattered, with its glinting remains lying in the center of the carpeted floor.

However, the windows on the side of the building have been sealed off with concrete, preventing intrusion. At least from that route—my eyes look back to the shattered glass on the ground.

Below the glass roof lies double-sided lines of computer desks, and to the sides of the room, are doorways that lead to the labeled destinations of Break Room, and Conference Room and Restrooms and Investigation.

Lucy leaves me and heads towards one of the groupings of computers and sits down before starting up the computer. I approach her slowly, unable to stop looking around my surroundings. It’s so different from Project Eden, so much more elegant and refined that I can’t help but wonder why Project Eden came out on top, but then I think, maybe that’s exactly why. Project Eden is unrelenting and willing to do whatever it takes.

I finally stand behind Lucy and look over her shoulder, watching her computer boot up.

“Have a seat, Garrett,” she says, without looking at me. “We have a lot of research ahead of us, and I have a feeling darling Sara won’t wait forever for her key card.”

I take my seat beside her and push the start button on the computer, and wait for it to turn on, swiveling in my chair.

Lucy gives a shuddering breath of relief, “Thank God for preservation mandates.” She taps on my arm, and I look over to see her cursor over a VitCorp icon on the home screen. She double-clicks on the logo, and the database opens up. Lucy’s eyes are bright with excitement, like we’re finally getting a bit of luck.

When my computer finishes loading, I do the same. I start randomly scrolling through the categories, noticing only some like, “Company Directory,” and “Annual Budget.”

“Anything,” Lucy repeats, scrolling furiously on the head of her mouse, “Anything that will help us get one step closer to the cure.”

“Gotcha,” I reply. I decide on the category “Gateways and Achievements” and come across an archive of digital articles to look through. I sigh. This is going to be a long day that may just amount to nothing.

I click on the top article, the most recent post dating a few years back. It shows a picture of the President of VitCorp shaking hands with the Secretary of Project Eden. The article is titled, “A Transition: Project Eden Picks Up the Gauntlet.” I hastily click out of the article, already feeling the bile crawling up my throat at the sight of Arthur Paracot.

“You think there’s anything in the vending machines?” I quirk an eyebrow and flash a smile at Lucy.

She swivels her chair towards me, “I don’t doubt it,” she says, “But anything edible?—Is the better question.”

I stare at her, pleadingly, with my smile intact.

She sighs, but she rises from her seat. “I’ll look around. But no promises,” she winks at me before shuffling towards the break room.

I turn back to the screen with a grin on my face, and continue sifting through the long list of files. The ones that look interesting, I click on, skimming down articles that document successfully contained hysteria movements in Marysville, Davenport, Los Angeles and Houston; an increase of funding from the government due to auspicious results; and supported and thoroughly reviewed confirmation that immortality is only affecting human beings for the rate of deaths for other animals remains the same.

I bite the back of my thumb, and click out of the article. I still can’t shake off how disturbing it is to know we traded VitCorp, a company focused on scientific reasoning and prevention to Project Eden, a vile sect of the government that focuses on torturing human beings. It makes no sense, but desperation never does.

A link titled, “Live Smart! Campaign Launches with Press Conference,” catches my eye, and the database soon directs me to the full article.

I scan the article half-heartedly, my eyes dry and prickling from staring at the bright screen for so long…but then my heart seizes in my chest, and I can feel the blood drain from my face, and I have to remind myself to breathe as I stare, unbelieving, into the written recap of the video link shown at the top.

About a third way though the conference meeting, Marie Simmons, wife to fellow colleague, Gregory Simmons, brings up the necessity to—

My eyes blur, and I can no longer read the words, but those two names are carved deep into my mind.

Marie Simmons.

Gregory Simmons.

My parents.

My hand trembles as it lurches for the mouse, and clicks on the video link, seeking proof, evidence, truth. I fast-forward through the beginning of the video, my heart feebly beating in my throat, until the camera zooms closer to the long table of VitCorp employees to give me a clear view of my mother beside my father. In front of them, on the table, rests their names printed onto folded card stock as if only to taunt me—Need anymore proof, hotshot?

My mouth tastes sour, and I try to swallow the thick taste, but I press play, turning up the volume on my computer.

The microphone on the table my… mother speaks into screeches, causing her to laugh, a big smile spreading out her red lips. Without the name tag and a few core features in her face, she is almost unrecognizable from the woman lying in the mental hospital. Instead of pasty flesh and hollowed cheeks with dark circles under her eyes, this woman’s complexion is warm and healthy with blushed cheeks. Instead of knotted, greasy hair this woman has thick locks of chestnut brown. Instead of that haunted glaze in her stare, her pale, blue eyes glitter with a mixture of hope and duty.

My eyes sting with tears at the sight of something I’d never thought I would see again.

Whoops.” She speaks into the microphone, feigning nervousness.

This grants a few chuckles from the crowd of journalists in front of her, and my dad, just as healthy and warm but with a slight expression of fatigue, smiles thinly and reaches for my mother’s hand. My stomach does somersaults at the sight.

Anyway,” she clears her throat, “Even though, in our current predicament, we are immortal, we are certainly not invincible, and we can’t afford to act like that’s the way it is. Because it’s not. People still contract illnesses, and whether or not they lack the potency to kill, they still will cause pain. If you cut your finger off, it will not grow back. If you inhale a lifetime of toxins, you will lose cognitive ability. Live Smart! promotes healthy and rational choices and decision-making in your life. For whether you like it or not, this is your life.”

Everyone is silent for a long time. My mother smiles toothlessly, and the hand she’s not using to hold my father’s falls to her swollen stomach. Only then do I notice the date this video was uploaded. My mother…she’s pregnant with me.

The team behind Live Smart! Is now opening the room to questions,” a feminine voice announces, outside the camera’s view.

I pause the video, and sit back in my chair, my head throbbing. I swallow hard, against my swollen throat. My parents…they worked with VitCorp before they lost their minds. And by the looks of it, they were determined and committed to the company—so why did they break? With a sickening twist in my gut, I realize the answer was most likely me.

My thoughts wander back to the words the Secretary told me after my first interview with Edward Gild.

It makes sense why they went insane and erased you from their life; they don’t need a constant reminder of their sin.

At first, I had brushed his words away as an attempt to hurt me, get inside my head. Now I’m not so sure. Now I might think he was right. It must have been hard, always trying to live smart, maintaining the strong front constantly, for the sake of me, their son, without any reprieve.

“Hey, so unless you like moldy fruit and expired chips, we might have to stick with these,” Lucy places two cans of soda in front of me, but I barely flinch out of my thoughts.

“Garrett?” She sits down in her chair and pushes at mine, so that I swivel to face her. “What’s wrong? What did you find?”

I press my lips together, shaking my head. I take a deep breath, “My parents. They…they worked for VitCorp.”

Her eyes widen, “What?”

I quickly tell her what I found, my words stumbling over each other. Lucy is quiet while I play her the clip of my mother speaking, her eyes glued to the screen. Only when I stop the video does she turn to me.

“Garrett,” she breathes, “This is so…bizarre.” She glances up to the ceiling, flustered.

“Yeah,” I agree, not even knowing where to start on my list of emotions: guilt, shock, confusion, anger, betrayal, sadness. I settle for numb.

“Do you know what this means?” she asks hesitantly, eyeing me eagerly, “Maybe this is why Corpses have been after you, working with Eden.”

That doesn’t make me feel any better. Why else would they try to kill me if not to avenge my parents’ lives? They too must think I am at fault. Maybe that’s why my parents have been trying to kill me—they blame me for their insanity. “Why?” I manage to spit out, needing to know if she thinks the same.

Her eyes narrow, looking me over critically, “I’m not sure. Maybe because since your parents are unintentionally working with Project Eden, their colleagues are acting out of loyalty? I don’t know.” She shakes her head before popping open the top of her soda can. “But although that’s an interesting find,” she says to me after taking a small sip of her drink, “It’s not entirely what we’re looking for.”

We keep searching through the database, trying to find anything that could help us end Project Eden. I can’t shake away the healthy faces of my parents from my mind. Lucy starts searching through the category of “Religion,” and reads for about ten minutes before turning to me.

“I think they were onto something here,” Lucy decides, tapping her index finger to her screen, “I think Project Eden thought so too, but it just didn’t know how expand on what VitCorp already looked into.” She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and waits for me to speak, but when I don’t, she continues with a flutter of her eyelids. “I mean…that’s how Project Eden got its name, right? Because the first humans, Adam and Eve, were immortal before God kicked them out of the Garden.”

“But they weren’t aware of pain, either,” I mildly protest. But maybe Project Eden is looking over something more important than that. Maybe VitCorp actually was going in the right direction. Never have I considered myself a religious person, but what inevitably made us mortal was knowledge, and that’s what VitCorp did. Lots and lots of research.

Lucy’s lip twists sourly, “Of course it’s not going to be an exact copy, but maybe this is exactly what it is—“

“History repeating itself?” I ask. My nose crinkles from a subtle but sharp wafting odor. I sniff. I wonder how long the ventilation system has gone without being used.

Lucy nods.

“I feel like now Eden’s just making a joke of it. Like how there’s a crucifix in every testing room,” I explain, opening my can of soda as well. A hiss of caffeine escapes the top, so I guess it’s still drinkable.

“That’s disgusting,” Lucy says, “Unless…”

The smell is getting heavier, making me dizzy. I recognize the particular stench, but its name doesn’t come to mind. “Unless what?”

Lucy’s face flashes with excitement, like she’s just pulled all the clues together, “Unless that is why they do it. Maybe they’re trying to get God mad, like Eve and Adam did. Maybe that’s why they’re torturing people—they’re trying to corrupt humanity!”

“But how are we going to stop them? We can’t just tell them they’re wrong,” I say.

“No,” she agrees, “But at least we know that both VitCorp and Eden think religion is the key. And now, maybe we can—“

“Do you smell something?” I interrupt her, shifting uneasily as my skin crawls. Something definitely isn’t right.

She frowns, pausing in her train of thought, and inhales slowly through her nose. “Shit,” her eyes widen in realization just as she loses all the color in her face. Her voice trembles, “Garrett.”

It suddenly all clicks. Gasoline. My body tenses, my stomach squirming as if cold fingers were tapping it up and down.

“Where do you think its coming from?” Lucy’s voice is tiny but pointed, harsh to the ears, “The power generator?”

I can barely hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, but I clench my fists, trying to rein in my nerves, “I…I don’t know. Maybe.”

Lucy jumps up from her seat, “I think we should go. This place probably isn’t safe. Who knows the last time it’s passed a safety regulation, and…”

Her words fall away from my focus, like drops of rain on glass. I look around the atrium, trying to see if the smell has a visible source, something that will soothe my unease. Everything seems untouched, just as it was when we entered. I glance up to the ceiling, the setting sun pouring dark orange light into the room. Water drips into the atrium from the broken window. I frown. Did it rain? But all the other windows…I focus on them, they’re completely dry. I rise from my seat, and follow the dripping water with my eyes and see where it lands.

My stomach knots and twists, and my heart rages in my chest. The water has formed a massive circle of soaked carpet. I take a step back, my head reeling, but my fingers latch on to Lucy’s arm, tight, “We have to—“ That’s when I see the single, lit match fall through the shattered window. My chest tightens against my words but I manage to force them out in a strangled shout, “Run!”

I barely pull Lucy a few feet before a hungry flame swallows up the stimulated carpet and dry oxygen, awakening a giant blast of fire. A hot rush of heat and a shuddering, life-claiming roar force us to dive behind and to the floor beneath a table as thrashing flames lick up computers causing shards of glass to fly at us.

“What’s happening?!” Lucy screams at me, gripping my hand painfully hard.

“I don’t know!” I reply, glancing over my shoulder. The fire is rippling and growing with every second, but it’s taller than it is wide, nearly reaching the glass ceiling. Wood from the desk crackles into submission as the fire crawls for us, flying embers sparking against the carpet. The acrid smell of everything burning clogs our nostrils.

“We have to get back to the tunnel!” Lucy coughs against the heavy accumulation of smoke, “Everywhere else is,” she wheezes, tears filling her eyes, “sealed!”

Together, we rise from the floor, covering our mouths and noses with the collars of our shirts. She yanks me towards the basement, but I hesitate, eyeing the approaching flames, dread filling me like this fire does the atrium in every direction I look, and I know that nowhere is safe. I stare into the fire, warmth slapping my face and sweat trickling down the back of my shirt. Therese. An image of her scarred and blistered face stares back at me.

“Garrett!” Lucy pulls at me again, her voice a wet choke within the hissing and growling flames.

Icy panic hits me straight in the heart at the thought of being burned alive, just like her. I nod my head, my mind wandering else where, as I let Lucy drag me back the way we came towards the tunnel. When we descend the tiled steps to the basement, smoke sticking to our lungs, I see four men suited in all black, blocking the tunnel’s exit. Lucy stumbles as she takes a step back in alarm, but I manage to catch her arm, my eyes still trained on the guards. Project Eden guards.

The four of them are armed at the waist with a gun but stand propping a gas mask to their side. The one nearest the center, with cold gray eyes, grins crookedly. Their leader, I assume.

I struggle to contain my terror, for Lucy’s sake, who keeps staring at me with large, questioning eyes. But these are Eden guards, and they are meant to take me back to the program. My mind buzzes, desperately trying to figure out what went wrong, and how they caught us so fast. But I realize I was a fool to ever think two teenagers could outrun the government.

We’re trapped. They’re smoking us out like rats, so that we have no choice but to come willingly. They wait, patiently, and in order to speed up the process since smoke is now floating into the room, I speak up first, “Hi.”

“Garrett,” Gray Eyes inclines his head. His voice is startlingly calm considering there’s an uncontrolled fire not feet away from him. “And you must be Lucy.” His eyes dart to her, and I can feel her shrink back towards me. My teeth clench, wanting to kill the man for looking at her like that, like prey.

“This scavenger hunt has been fun,” Gray Eyes continues, returning his gaze to me, “But we’ve come a long way to claim our prize. You’re coming with us.”

This seems to reawaken her fight, for Lucy’s back straightens, and with scrapes and smudges of ash across her cheekbones, she looks like a warrior, “The hell he is,” she grits out, eyes glinting fiercely.

Gray Eyes raises his brow, “I’m much more of a free will person myself, Lucy. I like choices, just like you.” He clears his throat, taking a step towards us, “Now either you come with us, or that pesky little fire will come to you.”

Lucy’s face reddens, but she doesn’t make a move. I can feel the radiating heat from the flames at my back, and I know we are running out of time. Gray Eyes seems to know this too, for he simply shrugs, and he and his team put on their gas masks.

I gulp against the raw flesh in my throat. The room begins to fill with a haze, and minor tremors shake through the floor as the fire ravages through, consuming everything. I stare into his gray eyes, and I know this man is not bluffing, that he will simply let the fire have its turn with me first before returning me to Eden.

I shuffle one step down, “I have to go with them,” I say quietly, glancing up at her.

“Garrett,” Lucy gasps for breath, before digging her fingernails into the back of my hand, “No.” Her brilliant green eyes are glazed in fear.

“What other choice do we have?” I ask, resigned to my fate.

She stares at me, her mouth opening and closing as if trying to form words. Her face contorts in grief, and it’s almost terrifying in the haze of smoke, and highlighted by the fire’s light. She nods curtly, and we step down the rest of the stairs in cold unison as the guards close in to greet us.

“I preferred this choice too,” Gray Eyes smiles at me, patting my shoulder.

One guard grabs Lucy from behind and pulls her arms tightly behind her back. I see her wince, triggering a bout of wheezing.

“What are you doing?” I turn back to Gray Eyes, “You can let her go. I’m coming willingly.”

“And I’m very grateful for that,” Gray Eyes replies, “But an order’s an order. The Secretary thinks it’s time to bring in an additional female specimen.”

I look at him, unblinking, feeling every organ inside me compact against my heart. No.

No, no, no.

They’re entering Lucy into the program. Project Eden.

No.

And that’s when I lunge at the man, wrapping my arms around his waist and sending us both sprawling to the ground. One of my hands squeezes tight around his throat while the other tries to rip off his mask before the smoky haze steals my breath, and Gray Eyes twists under my grip, and flips me hard onto my back. I can hear Lucy screaming and crying as Gray Eyes yanks me to my knees and another guard restrains me.

“You stupid, stupid boy,” Gray Eyes snarls before slamming me hard upside the jaw.

I grunt, closing my eyes against the splatter of white light. Before I can sift in a shaky breath of air, his boot jams into my stomach, and I double over, sputtering, drool falling from my cracked, bloodied lip, as my ribs burn like the fire nearly upon us. Gray Eyes rips my head up with a twisted grip in my hair, and a hiss of pain escapes me. I manage to see Lucy through my blurred vision, her face wet with tears and struggling weakly against the guard holding her.

Gray Eyes pulls harder, and I bite back a scream. I can feel the strands of hair tearing out of my scalp and my vision tints dark and Lucy is begging Gray Eyes to stop and she’s calling my name and—

Gray Eyes drops his hand from my head, but gently, with a finger, lifts my chin so that my eyes meet his.

“A bad choice,” he growls out, before pulling me to my feet.

We leave through the tunnel. To let VitCorp burn to the ground.

Series

About the author

Liv

Massive Nerd. Pursuing my MFA in Screenwriting!

IG and Twitter: livjoanarc

https://www.twitch.tv/livjoanarc

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