It shouldn't hurt. The things people say to each other.


Without words we could not have evolved from the primal grunts and growls of our ancestors. Verbal communication gave birth to civilization as we know it. Phones. Computers. Cars. Planes. Meant to bring us together, those pillars of modern life have had unforeseen consequences on humanity.


Why spare kindness for the single being in front of you when your eyes are forever facing outward? Onto the next adventure. The newest game or latest shift on the global marketing scheme. The known is abhorred. Boring. Pedestrian. It can't remove you from the drudgery of everyday life. The bills that come in. The homework that won't finish itself - not unless one has spare cash to burn.


People, all except those few who shined brighter than all the others, were no longer special, special snowflakes. And those few who shimmered with charisma, who gyrated along the global scene with wicked twists and turns that compelled you to look, to envy and to want - for them or for that secret only they knew - curved their coy lips and said nothing as they accepted the adulation as their due.

"Has been."

But even the tallest heroes must fall eventually. Looks fade. Talent is surpassed by newer, younger blood. What was once unsurpassed is swept away by that immortal enemy: Time. Billions spent on cosmetics, surgeries, even illegal transplants that leave the donor dead or living a perpetual nightmare - none could stem the flow of time. Not for very long. Never long enough.


It shouldn't hurt. The things people say to each other. But it can and does. Definitely when it's true. And only when lies can save a life does the truth hold something so terrifying it is to be suppressed at all costs. There is more out there. More to life. More than what the televisions show us. More than the internet can offer with its false promises of utopia through fantastical saturation and desertion of reality.


They aren't ready. They might never be ready. History has already shown humanity's greatest vice. What it does not have it will covet. What cannot be taken is destroyed.


I shouldn't be afraid. Yet, I am. To live forever is not such a bad thing. But to die a different way each day, only to be brought back for more by breakfast . . .

My name is Annaliese. I'm going to celebrate my sixteenth birthday next month. There will be no needles that day. The next day, however … Unless they find a way to duplicate the immortality of my genome I'm going to continue dying here just a little more every day.

FireBloom - Room 4

"I really hate it when you do that, Larry."

"Apples taste good."

"Larry, try to concentrate on the game, okay?"

"I want to shoot the turtle."

Annaliese gave up. Checkers were never quite the same after Janie succumbed to the tests a few years ago. Larry, named after the lovable second of the trio of terror 'The Three Stooges,' after his mind gave up home base and went wandering, couldn't concentrate for more than a second.

"Spot can run."

She sighed but gave her old friend a wry grin. "Yes, he can, can't he?"

Larry had fixated on the elementary primers they gave him after the last bout of tests rendered his brain to jello. He hadn't been like her. Not fully invulnerable (at least, so far as she knew she was). His mind hadn't been shielded from damage in the same way his body was. He could regenerate a limb in less than a day but couldn't handle the pain of its loss. One of the … perks … of their immortal cells. A metabolism that can't process drugs of any sort. They just sort of pass right through without stopping to say "hi," even when a visitor would be most welcome.

She wouldn't have minded a visitor or two when they took both her legs in one fell swoop. Annaliese shuddered as ghost knives skates across her tendons.

Larry grinned now, happy she agreed with him.

"Come on, Larry. Time for light's out."

He gave no sign of hearing her. Already his thoughts were on another subject. Then another and another as she carefully replaced the checkers to their bag and slid the board and pieces beneath the metal-framed bed.

Annaliese liked Larry's room. He was given a bed and a neat little table and chairs. They were standard issue for a military base - she would know after years of being shuttled from one to another. Rusted metal frame that was due for a green paint-over soon. Cushions made of sturdy material meant to survive a war or two. Even a print of Sam, the lucky dog with two ears and all four legs, posted over his bed to hide the cracks in the ceiling.

After seeing him tucked into the little bed and kissing his bald head goodnight, Annaliese slowly trudged down the gray, concrete hall to her room. Room 4.

That pretty much said it all. Just a room. Not a stick of furniture. Not even a blanket. No goofy print to talk to. She wished Larry would talk to her the way he did Sam once lights were out. He was almost coherent. But too loud. He only had one volume setting and it was full tilt. Concrete was no match for his lung capacity.

"Larry, keep it quiet, okay?" A grumble met her reminder. "Don't forget what Dr. Lucas said."

Her soft words took. After complaints from the other Dorm occupants, Dr. Lucas had threatened to remove Sam from Larry's room if he didn't learn to be more considerate of the others.

Others. Hardy, har, har, Annaliese thought. Dr. Lucas was a cruel woman who stuck them all with needles every day, hacked at limbs like they were nothing more than thorny weeds that needed pruning lest they get out of control, and delighted with each test that successfully ended one of them.

It meant she was close to a revelation. Or so she said. Personally, Annaliese doubted. Who would win? Not Dr. Lucas. It hadn't been Dr. Thomas - Dr. Lucas' predecessor who failed and was canned for it. Nor was it his mentor who met the same fate as his pupil.

Has it really been almost 8 years? she wondered. Eight years of tests. Of being locked away from the world. For her own good, of course. No telling what someone would do if they discovered her secret. Why, they might even lock her away and run all sorts of nasty tests that would make her wish she could die!

Her laughter filled the room. So what if it was a little high-pitched. She had a high voice. It was laugh or die. Not the mortal death. That was denied to her. The lingering death. The one you have to live through but don't know it. Like Larry. A little like being crazy, she supposed. You were the last one to know.

The Larry of two years ago had been a librarian named Todd. Then they found out about his secret. He was really close to four hundred years old. The internet made it so much easier to trace people. In the old days, according to Todd-Larry, all he had to do was move and maybe get a new haircut and he could live out at least ten to twenty years before having to move again. Modern times called for modern measures. Literally. The governments wanted taxes. Taxes meant they needed papers on people. Everyone who wanted to live outside of the gutters had to have papers. Papers meant evidence.

They followed the evidence and found him. Just like they found all the others. Except her. She wasn't followed. They hadn't even known she existed until her own mother turned her in.

Heh. Survive being hit by a train and you become something more than a little girl. Something scary. A monster that should be locked away.

That wasn't her little girl, her mother probably told herself. A monster had taken her baby and left behind its offspring to fool everyone before someday killing them all. Just like in the fables of olden times. The tears weren't real. The screams for her mother … fake, a lure.

Bitter memories not worth remembering, Annaliese told herself without much conviction. She couldn't escape it. The questions or the images locked deep inside her mind. They were always there. Always with her. Just like the truth, they were inescapable.

Half in dreamscape, that wonderland of roller coasters and blue skies filled with birds and cupcakes, a fantasy she cultivated after tasting just one of cook's delicacies meant for Dr. Lucas, Annaliese ruminated on the few truths she knew. Pain hurt. Sleep was nearly impossible on a concrete floor without a blanket. And if Dr. Lucas or any of the government agents ever gave up or thought they were chasing a fool's dream, she and all the other poor saps stuck here would soon be sleeping with the fishes. Literally.

It was almost enough to keep her up at night, she supposed. It was a good thing she didn't know up from down, day from night, after this stint placed her in a concrete prison without outside privileges.

It was almost enough to make her batty. The little collar around her neck kept her from succumbing to the final insanity of attempting to escape, however. The heavy explosive lining it didn't scare her. How many times had she prayed for death? She had lost count months after her first incarceration.

Of all things, it was her imagination and vanity that frightened her the most. With all the limbs she had regenerated, surely she could grow back a head or whatever else she might lose in the blast. But … She had never lost a head before. Would she get the same head back? Or would the mutation in her genome decide it would act up and perhaps, she shuddered to think of it now, she could grow back two like the mythical hydra. Or maybe three. Or four! To be a freak on the outside as surely as she was on the inside would forever alienate her from humanity, from the last of her dreams of a life outside the concrete walls with their lead and copper lining.

A monster worthy of any myth only to be slain by some flaxen-haired hero in iron underwear.

Annaliese laughed again, hard and loud. Ribs ached, mouth stretched so wide her lips cracked just a bit in the corners. She laughed and laughed and laughed. It wasn't until the tears came, piggybacking on their cousin, Guffaw, that she realized she was sad. As sad as she could ever remember being.

It wasn't the walls, she realized. It wasn't the lead or copper or threat of beheading that kept her imprisoned. She could break through the walls. They were nothing but an illusion of strength the puppet masters didn't know were false. Not yet. Not while she and all the others still struggled beneath the weight of their dreams. To be loved. To be wanted.

Monsters weren't loved. They were hunted. Reviled. At least here, she was needed. And if they can someday find a way to duplicate her genome, then they would all soon be just like her. And then maybe she would have a place to belong. Like all the rest.

So she stays. Not because she can't leave. But because she doesn't have anywhere else to go and only by staying does her dream have any sort of hope. But, she knew deep inside, it wouldn't be Dr. Lucas to find the secret.

"Sam I am! Sam has Ham!"

"Larry, be quiet!"

Annaliese squeezed her eyes shut and tried to will herself to sleep and away from those depressing thoughts. One stubbornly persisted.

How many more doctors could she survive before she ended up as just another Larry?