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art by Shane M. Gavin

Deathday

Jonas David is a science fiction writer born, raised, and living in the Seattle area. His stories have appeared in Ray Gun Revival and Comets & Criminals. He listens to power metal for writing inspiration and dreams to one day own a cat. Other writings can be found at jonas-david.com.
The door slid open and Cobalt hobbled out of the elevator, leaning to keep the weight off his deformed right leg. The mechanical prosthetic grafted on at the knee helped with his balance and mobility, but not with the pain. He winced as he made his way through the room. His one good eye scanned the various robotic arms, legs and other body parts on display in the shop. He reached the front desk and pressed on the buzzer.
"Bismuth?" he called out. "You here?" His voice was thin and reedy, like a young child's.
"Ah, there you are, my boy!" A familiar, handsome face popped around the corner. "Come on back here and I'll show you the newest models."
The blond hair, blue eyes, and strong square jaw of Bismuth's face were the pinnacle of fashion several generations ago when Bismuth had selected his body. Cobalt thought the look was very campy, and could almost be seen as ironic. These days, new citizens were choosing a more slim, streamlined, androgynous look for their bodies.
"Okay," said Cobalt. "But I've already picked what I want out of the catalog." He worked his way around the desk and followed Bismuth into the back room. Several bodies were standing on display. Their perfect proportions and smooth skin sent Cobalt's blood flowing.
"You must be excited," said Bismuth wistfully. "The Second Step is always the most exciting."
Cobalt nodded. His experience with the First Step, procreation, had been dull. Soon after his thirteenth birthday he was paired randomly via a lottery. The partner selected for him lived more than one-hundred kilometers away, so they agreed that he would mail her his seed instead of performing the act in person. These days, the First Step was only celebrated by females, as the act of bearing a child was still very monumental for them. Cobalt would likely never meet his child or its mother. The Third Step was being assigned to be caretaker of a new child. Due to the low number of children, not everyone completed this step, and it was seen more as an honor than a requirement. Bismuth had been Cobalt's caretaker.
"Yes," said Cobalt, "Thallium is having her Second Step in a few hours, so I don't have much time." Thallium had been his best friend since they were very young. They were born in the same year, and by chance their celebrations were scheduled one day after the other.
"Ah, of course," said Bismuth with a forced laugh. "Can't miss your best friend's Deathday!"
Cobalt smiled and nodded. It seemed all the citizens referred to the celebration in that distasteful manner. He supposed it must be because your flesh body was left behind as a dead shell once your consciousness was moved into your new mechanical body, but he liked to think of it as a second birth, not a death.
"What was yours like, Bismuth?" he hesitated to ask, as what happened inside the Changing Room was considered a personal experience, and people generally did not talk about it.
Bismuth turned away to caress one of the models. "It was like... falling asleep. And waking as someone new."
Cobalt knew that much. At the few Deathday celebrations he'd been to, he'd always been warned that the new citizen would come out of the changing room disoriented, confused, or even frightened. It usually took some coaxing before they joined in the celebration. He hoped he would be able to comfort Thallium when she completed her transformation.
Bismuth stared silently for a while, then snapped out of his reverie. "Well now, let's get your order in so you can be ready for the big day tomorrow."
Cobalt held Thallium's shriveled hand in his as the car carried them gently down the path. A flat expanse of grass stretched out around them in all directions, pristine and level. Clean, white buildings rose out of the green in seemingly random locations; some were specks in the distance and some towered over them, just off the path. Their heights varied, but all had the same cylindrical shape, and none were ever closer than one-hundred meters from each other.
The car glided toward the programmed destination, floating slightly above the flat stone path. It was not scheduled to rain for several days, so Cobalt opened the roof, and the warm air tousled his thin, wispy hair. Thallium had never been able to grow hair, but she pulled back the hood of her ceremonial white shroud and let the wind caress her skin.
"Can you believe it, Coe?" she said. "After tomorrow, we'll both be citizens. Do you think we'll be able to get our housing units placed close together?"
"I'll make sure of it," said Cobalt.
The car turned off the path and hovered over the grass, moving toward a short building ahead. A small crowd of people surrounded it, all friends and classmates of Thallium. The car drew to a halt near the crowd and Thallium's caretaker, Indium, approached to greet them.
"Everything is ready for you," Indium said as she helped Thallium down onto the grass.
Cobalt followed. "If you are scared afterward, come talk to me, okay?"
She nodded and gave him a hug, then was led through the crowd toward the small white structure. Cobalt limped into the sparse group of people.
"Do you think there will be an Error?" he heard a boy next to him whispering.
"No, that never happens, I don't think that story was even real," came the reply.
Cobalt shook his head, wondering how such rumors persisted. Most everyone heard the story of the Error at some point in their childhood: a terrifying account of a transfer gone wrong. The hushed stories were of a boy named Astatine, who awoke after his Deathday ceremonies to find himself still in his flesh body, and his new mechanical body walking around on its own, a soulless abomination. The machine was destroyed, and the boy sent away, told that the transfer could not work on him. Cobalt thought such stories were ridiculous, but he still could not help but have a murmur of fear in the back of his mind that it might happen to him. Or Thallium. He watched anxiously as the Changing Room door closed behind her. It would not open again until the change was complete.
When the door closed, the crowd began to clap and sing the Transfer song. Those in attendance--both citizens and children--dressed in long, flowing black dresses or robes, as was traditional. Cobalt did his best to keep up with the dancing, but his mind was focused on that white building. Thallium was inside, going through the biggest change in her life. Tomorrow, he would do the same.
It was not made clear by the citizens what exactly went on inside. He knew there would be two chairs; one would already have your new body seated in it, and you were to sit in the empty one. Then, you lost consciousness, and woke in your new body. As for how it worked, no one seemed to know or care. When Cobalt asked Bismuth, he said only that it was built long ago, and then changed the subject. Cobalt resolved to pay close attention when his time came tomorrow.
The song ended, and the crowd grew still and silent. All eyes were on the door. Cobalt heard a faint beep and a click, then the door swung open. He held his breath as he waited for her to come out. He knew she would, there were never any errors, yet the whole crowd seemed tense with anticipation.
A silhouette filled the doorway. Then a tall, full figured woman with long black hair and fair skin stepped into the sunlight. It was Thallium. Cobalt had been with her when she selected her body. He found himself cheering with the rest of the crowd.
She looked about frantically for a moment, then spotted Cobalt and pushed through the crowd toward him. Long thin fingers gripped his shoulders hard and he looked up into vivid green eyes.
"I loved you--I love you," she said. Cobalt felt his throat tighten, trapping his words. Indium and another citizen appeared at her side and gently pulled at her.
"Let's go talk, we need to make sure you are okay," Indium urged.
Thallium squeezed harder, her eyes demanded his attention. "Just know that I'm sorry," she said, "and, goodbye." She released her hold on him and let herself be led away from the group.
"Wait!" he called, the word burst from his mouth like a freed animal. "Thallium?" She did not turn around.
Later, during the burying ceremony, she did not look at him and moved away when he tried to approach her. He watched her stare silently at her old body as it was lowered into the ground. He could not decide if the look on her face was one of sadness or fear.
Cobalt did not sleep well that night. Thallium would not answer his calls, mails, or messages. Bismuth assured him that it was normal, and that she would be ready to talk to people in a few days, but Cobalt couldn't help but feel that something was wrong.
In the morning he donned his ceremonial white shroud and got into the car waiting outside. He had planned on riding with Thallium, but now found himself sitting next to Bismuth.
"Do you think she will come?" he asked.
"I'm sure she will." Bismuth patted his shoulder but did not look at him.
The car pulled off the path toward the squat white building in the distance. A crowd was gathered, dressed in black, just as yesterday. But this time they were waiting for him. He scanned the crowd for Thallium's new black locks, but everyone had changed their hair color to match their dark clothes.
They came to a stop. Bismuth helped him out of the car. Cobalt's leg sent him a spike of pain as he stepped onto the grass. They walked through the crowd toward the white door, the people parting to let him through. Cobalt saw his classmates and friends; some smiled and nodded at him, some looked away whispering. All looked nervous.
They reached the door and Bismuth opened it. "A new Citizen will exit from this room."
Cobalt stepped through the doorway, and it latched shut behind him.
The walls and floor of the room were white tile. The ceiling was white paneling with several of the panels removed to allow bundles of cables and wires to hang down. Some of these wires were attached to two chairs facing each other in the center of the room. The chairs were white, thick and solid, connected both to the ground and the ceiling. In one of them sat his new body. It looked just like in the picture. He limped up to it. It was even more perfect in person. The slim frame, toned muscles, and softly angled face begged to be touched. Soon his fantasies of sprinting through the grass would be a reality.
He pulled himself up into the second chair and faced his body. He looked up into blank brown eyes that would soon be his.
He felt a surge of panic as he realized that he had no idea what to do. Then he noticed a red button near where his hand rested on the arm of the chair. Faded letters said "change." He squeezed his eyes shut, and pressed it.
Cobalt was pulled tight against the chair and searing pain filled his head.
The pain stopped. Had there been pain? It felt like a fast fading dream. He opened his eyes. A crippled body slumped forward in the chair in front of him, wispy hair hanging down over a prosthetic leg.
He blinked and ran his hands over his smooth face then looked down with both eyes at his own muscular legs. He flexed them and stood up, stretching his arms above him. The room seemed so much smaller from this height. His old body seemed shriveled and tiny.
He turned in a circle, twisting and bending his new limbs while staring with mouth agape. He could see every reflection, every prism of light, every curve and texture of every wire with precision and clarity. He could smell the electricity and hear the humming of machinery like never before.
"No." The voice was clearly his, yet he knew he had not spoken. He looked again at the broken body in the chair. The head lifted, and the one clear eye locked onto his. "No, it didn't work. No!"
Cobalt stepped back, bumping into the chair. "How... but I'm here, it worked."
"No! There's been a mistake. I have to try again, sit back down!"
The figure was struggling in the seat. His arms and legs were pinned down by straps coming out of the structure of the chair. Why were there straps?
"You are a mistake, this isn't right," his crippled self was crying, his voice escalating. "You have to be destroyed, get back in the chair!"
Cobalt reached out and covered his mouth, silencing him. He had to think. What would Bismuth do when he got here? Destroy the mechanical body and try again? Just when he had really begun to live? He felt his hand squeezing on the fleshy mouth--his mouth? Had there been an error? Was he missing something important, that he could not detect the absence of? The skin was sweaty beneath his hand. It disgusted him.
"You are the mistake," he said. He felt the body shake violently, then go limp.
He stepped back, shocked at himself. The body was dead in the chair. Dead, but that was how it was supposed to be. The flesh was left a shell when consciousness entered the new body, that's what everyone said. No one would know the difference. Everything was as it should be.
He pushed open the door and looked out on the silent crowd. He saw expectation, a calculating anticipation. They watched the door anxiously. He stepped out into view.
A cheer broke the silence and the people began to clap and sing. He saw Thallium in the crowd looking at him, her mouth formed in the shape of a smile. He saw Bismuth in the back; his former caretaker nodded at him, then joined in the singing.
He felt the eyes of the crowd on him, in him. Their smiles were like masks. They danced mechanically by rote. They knew.
Of course they knew.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

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