Ellie felt no pain when she snatched a metal needle from her temple and tossed it away from her. It skidded across a heavily glossed gray floor. It wasn’t stained red with blood, and she felt no warmth leaking from the wound in her head. Ellie stared at it, breath coming too quick to calm her nerves. She felt dizzy and sick. Then, she saw the body of a blue-haired woman on a gurney next to her, and she froze in wide-eyed shock.
She couldn’t scream. Nothing seemed to bubble out of her chest, her breath had frozen tight in her lunges. She stared in horror at the gaping, mangled, singed ruin of a wound that decorated the dead woman’s chest.
A man with black hair and seafoam green clothes rushed to her, lifting his hands in peace as he reached out to grab the sheet she’d knocked away and wrap it around her shoulders. He stepped into her view, blocking the sight of the very dead woman. “Vena Helgar,” he said with the eyes of a man who needed desperate help. They pleaded with her to be calm, she could read it as easily as if he’d held up a sign for her to read.
“I’m Immortalizer Lee,” he continued.
“Helgar?” she murmured, heart still thudding violently in her chest. Helgar was the name of her boss, the son of the company’s owner. She’d only just left him at the bus station, where she’d boarded and fallen asleep on the way home. Had there been an accident?
Her headache. Her stomach rolled.
“You died,” Immortalizer Lee explained. Immortalizer? What a strange first name. “We brought you back.”
Immortalizer Lee shook his head, his eyes staring unblinkingly. Behind him, a man dressed similarly to him paced. His step was anxious and violent.
“Did you bring back the wrong iteration? You found the wrong marker, didn’t you?” the man sneered.
“This is Vena Helgar,” Immortalizer Lee announced. As he adjusted the sheet around her shoulders, he whispered so only she could hear, “You will not say anything. You will not do anything. You are in great danger. If they realize you are not who I say you are, they will kill you. Follow my instructions completely.”
Ellie stiffened, the sickness in her belly dissipating as her entire form shuttered to a stop in cold fear. Kill her? She opened her mouth to protest, but the sharp look that Immortalizer Lee gave her closed her mouth as if his hand had physically crushed her jaw shut.
He turned back to his colleague. “It’s common for the cognition and memory of a Forge to be slow for the first few minutes, you know this.”
“Yes,” his colleague replied. “After a headshot.”
“Perhaps there was some minor brain damage from oxygen loss at death that’s affecting the cognition? I will take her to her quarters for rest and we can have her evaluated in a few hours when her wits should be at their fullest,” Immortalizer Lee said.
“We need proof,” the other man growled. “Vonan will want proof.”
Immortalizer Lee curled his hand under Ellie’s arm. She stiffened, but again his eyes pleaded with her to cooperate. The other man drew a black gun from a compartment under the computer cart he stood near. He pointed it at her. A keen electric whine filled the air. “We must start again.”
Ellie lurched off the table, her trembling legs barely able to hold her up, and she cowered behind Immortalizer Lee.
“Immortalizer Odus!” a deep male voice barked from the sky. Ellie shook with fear and Immortalize Lee drew her towards the door.
Immortalizer Odus released the harsh grip on the gun and it clattered to the floor. The keen electric hum dissipated instantly. Immortalizer Odus stepped away with his hands in the air as if the omnipresent voice had threatened him with a gun in turn.
“Give Vena her space to recover. I trust Immortalizer Lee’s judgment more than your rashness. Forges are not cheap and we are on short supply until we get back to Midas. Report to the Forgemaster to debrief. Immortalizer Lee, take my sister to her quarters and let her settle in. Call me when she’s recovered.”
Immortalizer Lee nodded, guiding Ellie to the door. She followed alongside him, her legs heavy and uncooperative. Her feet dragged across the floor, her toes scraping along the smooth polished metal. Her mind felt numb, swirling with images of a blue-haired dead woman, a gun in her face, and a voice calling her sister.
Ellie wanted to shake away from Immortalizer Lee, to beat him for answers. But, she was frightened and she’d never been one for violence or standing up for herself. It seemed like a much better decision to go along with whatever was happening until the answers arrived.
Answers always came in one form or another, right? This could all still be some strange dream. Maybe there had been a bus accident and maybe this was a fever dream or a coma dream or something of the sort.
She did not know how long they walked. It felt like a very long time. They wandered down halls and into small cylinder-like elevators that took them to different levels and ends of a seemingly endless and windowless building until, finally, they arrived down a dim-lit hallway and at a doorway at the end. This area felt a shade cozier than the rest of the ultra-modern decor. If she were awake, and if this wasn’t a dream, this had to be the most sophisticated and state-of-the-art building she’d ever been too.
Then again, if she were awake and it wasn’t a dream, then she was in a great deal of trouble or someone had decided to pull the mother of all terrible pranks.
“My name is Eliz–”
Immortalizer Lee shook his head firmly, pressing his palm against a glowing white panel near the maroon-painted door. It slid away and he ushered her inside to a heavy black leather chair, where he dumped her as the door slid closed.
The room was dark, but Immortalizer Lee fixed that just by shifting further into it. The lights dinged on, one-by-one until the space was filled with amber light.
“Now,” he said, turning to her. “I’m sure you’re confused.”
Ellie nodded. “I’m not Ven Helgar. I don’t know a Vena Helgar. I know a Michael Helgar…”
“No, you are not Vena Helgar,” Immortalizer Lee murmured, taking a stiff seat across from her in another large, black leather chair. “You are her ancient grandmother, so far down the line, I do not know how to count to greats. You are Elizabeth Porter Helgar, I know. Vena Helgar died, and I had to bring someone back in her place. I chose you.”
Ellie stared at him for a long time before she lowered her face into her hands. “What did I drink? Was I drugged? Am I dreaming or am I being pranked? Is Michael behind this? This is a terrible, terrible joke. It isn’t funny and I want it to stop, do you understand.”
“Michael Helgar died in the Decrement War of 2050, seven years before you.”
“Decrement War? What… What are you fucking talking about?” Ellie came out of her chair too quickly, and the rush to her head caused her to crash to the floor. Her knees banged hard against the metal and she collapsed onto her side, clutching the aching bone.
“Look,” Immortalizer Lee growled as he drew her back into the chair and tucked the sheet around her. She was still naked, she realized. Still vulnerable and shameful. She clutched it like a life vest and glared at him.
“I don’t know how to explain this to you, okay?” Immortalizer Lee glowered at the floor. “I am just doing what I was told. I was told to ensure Vena Helgar stayed dead and I have. I brought you back instead.”
“I’m not a Helgar!”
“Yes, you are or you would be eventually. By marriage. You married Michael Helgar, son of the founder of Heltech Industries, in the summer of 2045, the same year as the first stage of Mars terraforming.” Words began to spill out of his mouth as if his brain held all the recorded history and lineage of every life he’d ever been tasked with restoring. “A year later you gave birth to a son, Victor. The following year, you bore a daughter, Emory. A year after that, Heltech unveiled their newest goal: Forges – clones with the ability to transfer memories locked into inherited DNA… the ability to live forever. But, in 2048, with Earth nearing a breaking point with resource depletion, a war broke out between the last stable countries. They called it the Decrement war because people fought over the last of everything. The last of the lakes and rivers of clean water, the last fertile land to grow food, the last medicine to stave off disease... and in the end it destroyed the very things they fought for. Your husband died in 2050, just after securing you and your children transportation to the Mars colony. He left you and your children all the Heltech fortune, a seat on the board, and all data on Forges. You put your children on the second to last shuttle to leave Earth. But, you didn’t go. You stayed.”
Ellie was so engrossed in the story, she completely forgot that the man was telling her about the future of her own life. It didn’t seem like hers. Marrying Michael? Children? A Decrement War? Sure, Earth’s resources were depleted and the news was constantly talking End of Days, but… were they really that close? She never paid much attention to the sensational articles, preferring blissful ignorance to futile fear. Perhaps she was still groggy or confused. Perhaps she still thought she was dreaming.
“Why didn’t I go?” she asked, curious in the story now.
“You stayed to help the people left on Earth. You took your husband’s place on the Heltech Executive board, serving remotely from Earth. You provided the last bits of comfort to dying people with the resources left by the company. You were supposed to meet your children on Mars with the last transport to leave Earth, but you ultimately gave up your seat to a mother and her infant. You died from nuclear fallout after the meltdown of a local power plant. Your children lived on, grew up educated and wealthy. Your son eventually assumed a post on the Heltech board. He reopened the Forge project, determined to ensure no one ever lost a loved one again… and here we are.”
Ellie nodded as Immortalizer Lee leaned back in his seat, signaling the end of his story.
“None of that sounds like me,” Ellie told him. “Give up my seat to safety? Definitely not something I’d do. I’m quite aware of my selfishness.” She glanced around and leaned forward. “Where are the cameras?” she whispered.
“The cameras? What show is this on? You do know it’s illegal to drug someone, don’t you? How did you get it in my drink? Was it Michael? Is this how rich people have fun?”
Immortalizer Lee smacked his face with his palm and cursed in a language unfamiliar to her. He stood and went to the wall just behind her, waving his hand in a graceful, yet angry motion. The wall disappeared, faded out of view, and in its place, she saw blackness and the million colors of a dead star.
Ellie scowled. “I’ve seen better fake views on Space Mountain.”
Immortalizer Lee glowered at her. “Shall I shoot you, then, and bring you back? Will that prove what I say is true? I can do that, you know. I just have to pull another Forge from storage. I think we’ve got one more on board.” He paused, frowning. “No, better to show you your face.” He pulled her up from the chair. She screamed, smacking at his hand as he dragged her into a narrow room. The lights flashed on, amber light falling across her pale face, now reflected in a full-length mirror on three sides.
Except… that it was not her face.
Not her hair.
Not her lips or nose.
Just her blue eyes.
The woman looking back at her was no one she’d ever seen before. Familiar, but horrifyingly different from herself.
Another screen, she thought. She reached forward, touching the cold glass. A screen. There were symbols on it in the corner. Messages relaying in quick colored lines. This was just another screen projecting a lie. She pounded it with her fist. Pounded it hard and harder until it cracked. But, the reflection of a stranger’s face didn’t change when the lights in the corner dimmed. She shifted, side to side, studying it as a predator would an enemy.
Then, she stopped. Frozen and fearful, she vomited.
* * *