The host returned to consciousness in a flutter of dark eyelashes and dilation of pupils. Were it not for the familiar sound of his own wheezing, Gabriel would have mistaken the too-bright room for his post-death destination, wherever that lay. The realization that he was still alive gave Gabriel no comfort; it simply surprised him. Despite his doubts, however, he knew the watch–the one that remained forever on his left wrist–was always accurate. It was as if the watch was bound by the same laws as he himself: neither were allowed to shirk their duties or, in a sense, disobey. They both worked for something greater–the watch for its human creators, and the host for its human parasites.
However, unlike the watch, the host was human too.
Gabriel fished through his immediate memories and retrieved the time he saw on the watch before he sank away into an empty sleep. 06:13:45:32. That is, 6 days, 13 hours, 45 minutes, and 32 seconds. He couldn’t tell how long he had slept, for the room was always the same relentless pale yellow, so he lifted up his left wrist–the watch being conveniently placed on the arm which did not possess the massive IV port. Though his arm was spindly, characteristic of his kind at this age, Gabriel only lifted it with effort and then let it fall back to the bed once he had ingrained the numbers in his mind. 05:20:57:12. That is, there would be little more than five days before his death.
He felt unsettled–a familiar feeling, as he had technically known the day of his death for all of his eighteen years. However it was only now, in this final week, that his demise seemed so near, so tangible. He tried his best to shove the thought to the side; until the second of his death, he was to follow the normal daily schedule. Many hosts had passed before him, and more would be sucked dry after he was gone. He was no different from them, though he was always assured that he meant the world to the twenty people, the twenty formerly-sickly people, whom were well only because of the “selfless contribution” of his healthy cells and tissues. The nurses had a knack for building him up as a hero. In reality, Gabriel was drafted into his host-ship at birth and, after eighteen years of having the life literally sucked out of him via the tube connected to his arm, he was quite sure that no one would ever volunteer to make such a “contribution.”
Gabriel never rebelled though, no matter how drained or claustrophobic he felt. He had seen what happened to the mutinous, plus, he figured life was at least semi-decent at the facility. For instance, he was safe within the walls of the building, and sometimes got to experience the Outdoors Simulation room for his good behavior. He was guaranteed meals and an education, which he was reminded that many people on the Outside did not always have access to. From time to time he also had the opportunity to read about the lives of his recipients and look at pictures of them. The newsletters were intended to make the hosts feel as though they were living through twenty other people, but Gabriel’s recipients meant little more to him than fictional characters, living on the Outside: a place he had never seen before and the very existence of which he was skeptical.
Though Gabriel was never truly content to live in the facility, he was reluctant to cause trouble and jeopardize the life he was already guaranteed. He knew some rebellious spirits, however; namely, Beatrice. It was Beatrice who taught Gabriel to question what he was told, if only in his mind. It was Beatrice, that lanky, overbearing and fascinating thirteen-year-old, who claimed she had gotten a glimpse of the Outside and would sneak away when the time was right, before all of her health and youth were stripped from her. It was also Beatrice who dragged Gabriel out of the stupor his watch sent him into that morning.
She fluttered into his tiny room with an energy that eluded him, looking a bit more cunning than usual. “Gabriel, look alive. I’ve got news.” Her expression was solemn, but Gabriel could tell she was up to something.
“Good or bad?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ve spent the last two weeks digging around so either way, you’re not getting out of this, not when you’ve got five days left.” Beatrice nudged the door shut, careful not to draw attention, then rushed for Gabriel’s right arm, unfastening the tube with practiced haste.
Gabriel tried to jerk his arm away, but Beatrice held fast, for her arms were not as skeletal as his own. “Beatrice! You’re not supposed to… Can you just slow down and tell me what’s going on?”
“You don’t have time to slow down,” she stated simply yet firmly, not breaking her pace. “I found something just recently, in a room here with pipes and hot metal fixtures. On one of the walls, there’s a vent leading to a system of metal tunnels. Sit up, let me lace up your shoes.” She knelt down and her hands moved like lightning, putting on his shoes as well as the prosthetic enhancers for his legs–he hadn’t been able to walk without them for about a year.
“So I managed to loosen the vent, and I got inside.”
Gabriel shook his head.
“It’s taken me two weeks, but I’ve mapped out a route.”
“You’re crazy,” he whispered.
“I found one that leads to the Outside. You see sunlight once and you never forget it, Gabriel, and I know what I saw from that tunnel. I’m going to show you, and you’re going to get out.” She stood up and extended a hand to him, looking at him with such determination that he felt uneasy.
“Beatrice, why me? You’ve got years ahead of you, and you look more like a normal kid than any of the other hosts here. I’m only going to last a week anyway–that is, assuming I’m not caught. You should go, not me.”
For the first time since she had entered the room, the girl hesitated. “I’ll find another way,” she said, though they both knew she had been scouring the place for an exit upwards of four years, to no fruition until now. Her voice settled to a murmur. “I’ve got time, and yours is running out. You’ve got to see the world before you go; it’s the most beautiful thing.”
Gabriel finally took her hand, and her lifting him up was the closest thing to an embrace that they had ever shared. They walked nonchalantly out of the too-bright room into the almost identical hallway. In a host’s final days, weakness was expected, and he was excused from most of his daily schedule. He wouldn’t be missed for a while, but Beatrice had to keep up appearances. She could not lead him through the system herself, so as they walked she muttered directions under her breath. Gabriel drew up a rudimentary map in his head, as he struggled to mask both the anxiety and fear that nearly drove him up the wall. They reached the room Beatrice had mentioned, her final gesture being an indicative nod, as if she did not want to break the silence in the otherwise empty hallway. Gabriel, moving with more haste than he had exhibited in months, slipped into the muggy, dark room and felt around the walls for the vent, too paranoid to wait and allow his eyes time to adjust. He found it, removed the loosened cover, got on his knees, and crawled into the tunnel.
Gradually his eyes did adjust, after five minutes or so of repeating Beatrice’s directions to himself and moving accordingly. His heart pounded in his ears and overpowered the sound of his own whispering, almost as if it was working against him. Go back, it said, the world doesn’t want you, it only wants to tap into you.
The host ignored this and delved onward, also disregarding the agitation his bony kneecaps and shins felt as they crept along the hard metal. His vessel, once held in such high esteem for its health and usefulness, now seemed to him like a restriction. He had to stop to catch his breath often, trying to pin down the gasp that always seemed to escape his lungs. He went on, however, both for fear of what lay behind him and for excitement of what lay beyond.
Gabriel was not sure how much time had passed since he bade his silent farewell to Beatrice, for he had not glanced at his watch since she slinked into his room earlier. At a certain point though, near the end of his recited directions, he began to see a light filtering into the labyrinth. His spirit–and his body in turn–rekindled. Gabriel went toward the glow with newfound haste, his eyes alight with anticipation. He reached the vent, the one connecting the metal tunnel and the facility to the Outside, and although he used more effort to free its grip this time, within moments he found himself crawling out of the cramped duct, dark eyes taking in what the world was offering to him.
As he rose to his full height–for the first time in the light of day–he took in the fresh, unconditioned air and all of the sights that bombarded him. Behind him the building loomed domineeringly. Beneath his feet was warm rock. Across the street were trees–real ones. Beyond them lay a field of lush grass and flowers and birds and in the distance, a forest. Overwhelmed by the abundance of viridescent hues, Gabriel blinked compulsively and took in the beauty, sending his inaudible gratitude to Beatrice.
His spirit being ahead of his heart and his legs, Gabriel was only a split-second away from running to that charming corner of Eden. That is, until the sound of other humans pierced his eardrums, snapping him back to the present. He could hear his heartbeat too, which made the shriek–followed by shouting–seem far away. His eyes flickered over to his right, from where he first heard the harsh noise. Two humans from the Outside, normal people not from the facility, stood twenty feet away from him on the sidewalk. Gabriel was taken aback to see people in such a healthy state, who were not wearing the bright uniforms that marked them as a nurse or other staff of the facility. They wore dissimilar outfits, unlike his white clothes, and their skin had rosy touches as opposed to his, which appeared ashen. Still overcome with emotion from taking in the beauty of the nature before him, Gabriel’s first instinct was to run to meet them, too; to bask in this utopia and celebrate their health together. And then he was aware of his heart, pounding with the intensity of a drum. He then noticed the expressions of the two people: one was simply terrified and the other, the one that was yelling, seemed to be covering shock with aggression.
Upon seeing this, Gabriel was reminded of who he was to these people. He and all the other hosts he had known were the life-force of those who lived on the Outside, of these people too. However, he was not welcome on the Outside himself. Hosts outside of the facility were viewed as fugitives, and in that moment Gabriel also remembered why it was so dangerous to accept Beatrice’s offer and leave. He remembered stories and reports he had heard of hosts who attempted escape, and his heart quickened. Out of instinct, he did not run toward the gorgeous field, but instead attempted to turn and run the opposite way from the two people. To his left were smaller buildings and sidewalk, and he stumbled more than he ran. The endeavor was short-lived, however, as another group of humans from the Outside–more than just two this time–rounded a corner and appeared to be walking toward him. Once they caught sight of him, they too gave their raucous reactions of surprise, driving Gabriel to a halt.
His lips trembled and his knees shook, rattling the prosthetics. With two directions blocked and a third, the field, which seemed too far away to grasp, Gabriel turned helplessly toward the building his stumbling had put him beside.
Gabriel flinched at first, thinking he saw another spiteful person, before he realized that he was looking at a large window. He noticed none of what lay inside the building, simply his own reflection, and that of the trees behind him.
There were no mirrors, and hardly any glass back in the facility. Now, Gabriel understood why he was never allowed to see himself. The creature staring back at him, only five days from death, looked to him like a skeleton. His eyes were sunken into their sockets, and his features were pulled tightly to the bones in his face. His heart pounded ever faster, terrified at the sight of his own body. Behind him, in the reflection, he saw the vibrant green of the trees contrast with his ashen, fragile skin, and noticed how out of place he looked. His mouth hung open, and he desperately gaped at the reflection, not having the good sense to turn away, clinging to the hope that if he stared long enough, the scene would look familiar and less disturbing. He could almost see the twitch of his chest as his heart beat its protest, urging him back into the metal tunnel from which he had been born into this beautiful world which it couldn’t take, a world he wasn’t quite welcome in.
But the host was frozen. His wheezing breath suddenly grew more difficult to take with each convulsion of his chest. The watch on his left wrist, confused about the turn of events it had not foreseen, flashed random numbers and gave a sharp beeping sound that the host didn’t hear. His heart fluttered, gaining speed steadily until it finally felt as if it were simply quivering there, a frightened creature cradled within his ribs and no longer a part of him. When the host’s heart gave out, so did his lungs and his legs, and he watched his reflection mirror his fall to the concrete. In his last second of life, the host was overcome with grief, not joy, for it was not by the fluorescent light of the facility which he took his final fall, but rather by the light of day.