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Lit Match (Swallowed Flame)

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It was becoming ever more apparent that something was wrong with her. When she rested, she did something like dream: she had no shadow, and a phoenix rested on her shoulder. Footsteps echoed behind her. A voice whispered lullabies in her ear, but she couldn't sleep. When she roused, she did not wake, but opened her eyes nonetheless.

She was beginning to think she'd made a mistake.

 

A bedtime story for your entertainment:

Once upon a time, a girl named Gail wished to live forever. (She wasn't alone in this.) A man—a wizard, let's call him—told her he could grant her wish. She would be eternal. All it would cost was something weightless, worthless. (Priceless.) In return for life everlasting, he wanted her soul.

She said yes. What use was an afterlife for someone for whom there would be no after?

You won't regret it, he promised.

 

(He lied.)

 

"You are reborn, my dear," the wizard had told her. He'd watched her through heavy-lidded eyes. His smile had been slow and satisfied. "A Gail no longer, I believe I shall call you Storm."

He'd laughed at his own joke, but she knew now it was true. She was no Gail.

These were not Gail's hands, threaded through with wires in place of veins. This was not Gail's voice, no matter how closely he'd replicated it. Gail's heart did not beat in her chest.

Who, what, she was now—that remained to be seen.

 

(Gail's heart did not beat.)

 

When the wizard released her, she had lost a year. (She had lost more, though she didn't yet know it.) She had no job, no place at school, and no one who would recognize their daughter, their sister, their friend in her face. She did not recognized herself.

But she was (un)living, (not-)breathing, walking advertisement of the Afterlife program's potential, and if she had learned anything from her time in the wizard's care, it was that everyone wanted a glimpse at proof of that first (successful) working. She couldn't replicate or explain the sorcery behind her existence, but she was tangible, tantalizing hope incarnate. People would pay to talk to her, to touch her, to gaze upon her with covetous glee. News outlets offered ever more exorbitant amounts to be the first to get her story in her own words.

Though she could not eat, did not sleep, had no real need for currency except as a means of keeping score—she wanted it all the same. Apartments cost money. In many ways, privacy was beyond her—nestled in the circuits that comprised her brain, a little chip transmitted every byte of data incessantly, unable to be switched off or removed—but she would take what she could get. No matter if everyone everywhere she went stared. They would pay for the pleasure of it.

"Yes," she told the studio camera, smiling winsomely. "I do feel."

(The reporter touched her hands, her hair, her left shoulder, every question accompanied by the brush of their fingers. It would be months before she did an in-person interview again.)

Her hands were numb, and her heart was ice in her chest. What was that, if not feeling?

 

(She had already forgotten what it was to be warm.)

 

With her first paycheck, she put down a deposit, paid first and last. The first three landlords had offered a place for free if she let them put a camera in the bedroom. The fourth wanted one in the bathroom, too. Contrary to common consensus, the fifth time was the charm. The only cameras were the ones she installed, her living room a makeshift studio.

Interviews done by video correspondence did not pay quite as well, but she supplemented it with her own social media accounts and ad revenue. She posted short videos of herself applying make-up, answering questions plucked from the comments, reading poetry—whatever she thought might catch someone's interest. Her subscriber count climbed.

With her second paycheck, she purchased a full wardrobe. Most of the outfits were for work, shoulderless dresses and mesh shirts and miniskirts, every item calculated to reveal, to revel in the strange texture of her (not quite) skin, the sharp lines and subtle glow along her chest and legs, her distinctly alien and other nature. Whenever she applied her make-up or edited footage, her image was unsettling and eerie, striking and beautiful. Her eyes gleamed red.

For herself, she bought jeans and long sleeves and covered over all the mirrors when she wasn't filming.

Her third paycheck on, well—there was always keeping score.

 

(Even when the outcome of the game was clear, the players always kept score.)

 

"Tell me about your dreams."

She hated interviews. Reporters always wanted more than a piece.

She forced a laugh. "I don't sleep."

"Really? Not at all?" The reporter shook their head. "But wait, no, I meant: what are your hopes for the future? Have your plans and priorities shifted, now that you have all the time in the world to accomplish them? Tell me about your dreams."

 

 

"Storm? Storm?" The reporter looked annoyed. "I think the screen's frozen."

 

(The feed provided only a static image of her frozen figure, but the screen was fine.)

 

"Well, viewers, it looks like we lost our connection. While we try to re-establish contact with the world's first working android, let's take a look at some of the early footage of this near-miraculous invention and some of the first revealed testing."

 

 

It was the closest thing she'd experienced to sleep since she'd first become aware of a shaggy-haired old man calling, "Gail? Gail? Can you hear me, Gail?"

Before she'd come fully online, thoughts and speech and memory not yet all connected, she'd asked, "Who's Gail?"

"You are," the wizard said.

 

(He lied. He lied. He lied.)

 

When she came back to herself, she calmly turned off the cameras. She climbed into the bed that had come with the apartment. She pulled the covers over her head.

"Tell me about your dreams," she said.

She closed her eyes and didn't dream.

 

 

The next interview went better. She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear as she said, "I'm not sure what happened, but the problem seems to be fixed." She paused, affected a thoughtful expression. "Here's hoping I didn't just jinx it."

She winked. The reporter smiled. Without prompting, she talked about her plans and what the future might hold.

 

(On dreams, she kept her peace.)

 

Even with all the evidence, sometimes she forgot. She had months to acclimate to her current circumstances, but years of memories of being human. Rather, she didn't so much forget as it sometimes took her a moment to remember.

To celebrate her ten millionth subscriber, she ordered a bottle of champagne. It caught up to her less than a second later, but she let the purchase stand.

She couldn't smell it or taste it or feel it, but she could watch the bubbles rise. She could remember sharp and sweet and dry. The sensations were behind her, but for minutes at a time, she could almost pretend.

 

(Memories were like dreams, in their way.

 

 

They weren't real.)

 

"Let me know if you have any problems," the wizard had said before she left the lab, but his attention had been elsewhere. He'd had more volunteers than he knew what to do with, and three new prototypes waiting. He'd refused to hire any assistants, but said it was time for a real world test run. Really, though, she thought he'd just wanted her out from underfoot before starting the latest transfers. "The chip should notify me of any significant deviations, but you have my number if you need it."

He'd waved a hand, a clear dismissal. She'd waited to see if he'd change his mind. Eventually, glancing over her shoulder all the while, she'd walked out the door.

 

(They weren't real.)

 

She didn't dream, but she did something. She was alone, but someone spoke to her, soft murmurs and sweet susurrations. Phantom hands cupped her cheeks and stroked her hair. With every breath, she inhaled smoke and exhaled flame. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught glimpses of fluttering wings. Fire crackled like a song in her ears.

But when she came back to herself, her hands were cold.

 

(Her heart was ice in her chest, but sometimes she burned.)

 

There was something wrong with her.

She didn't call the wizard. He couldn't help.

 

(He never had before.)

 

"Don't look. Don't look. Don't worry about it. Don't even think about it," the wizard had said. (Even now, she couldn't tell if he'd been talking to her, or himself.) "It takes life to make life."

"What about the birds and the bees?" she had asked as he'd pushed the lumps of meat and gristle and bone through the slot to the incinerator.

He'd winked at her. His hands had been gloved, but smears of blood had trailed across his bare forearms. "Sometimes all it takes is a little death."

"And this one?"

All amusement had drained from his expression. "You're alive, aren't you?"

"Am I?" she hadn't asked.

 

(She didn't know what he would have said, but she knew now—she knew—it would have been a lie.)

 

She had the money. She had the time. She had no placement at university, but that wouldn't stop her from learning.

Engineering, biology, computer science—her interests were varied. (Her interests were very specific.) She had a chip in her head she couldn't turn off or take out. Not yet.

Not yet.

 

(She didn't dream, but she made plans.)

 

"What kind of Storm am I?" she repeated the interviewer's question. Her smile was perhaps a little too sharp, a little too wild for this sort of puff piece. "Let's go with hurricane."

 

(It was either that or the kind that preceded the worst of wildfires.)

 

A bedtime story, a little more suited to nightmares, though entertaining nonetheless:

Once upon a time, a girl named Gail wished to live forever. (She was afraid to die alone.) A man—a doctor, let's call him—told her he could grant her wish. She would be eternal. But it would come at a cost.

Gail said yes. She thought it would be worth it. (She didn't want to die.)

She climbed onto a cold, steel bed, breathed in a cool, sweet mist, and fell asleep. In a different world, she might have woken up better, stronger, well-rested and ready to take on the world. In this one, each breath came a little longer after the one preceding it, her chest rising and falling just a little more slowly, until finally it ceased to move at all.

(A person stood at her bedside, and the machines were diligent in their recordings—not a moment went unobserved—but she still died alone.)

The man took everything that she had thought and felt and remembered and had been—all the bits that made up a person and might generously be termed a soul—and he made something new.

 

(Gail's heart did not beat.)

 

"Anything else you'd like to talk about?" the reporter asked.

"Yes." This, she knew, would be her most watched interview yet. "I understand plans for the Afterlife program are being expanded beyond the terminally ill."

The reporter raised their eyebrows. "I was given to believe you couldn't disclose specifics about the Afterlife program, only your life in general."

"I couldn't." Her lips quirked. "But I fixed that."

"Well, then." The reporter leaned forward. "What, specifically, can you disclose?"

Her smile was vicious, victorious. The studio lights were bright, and her shadow stretched long behind her.

"Everything," she said.