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Well Regulated

The hurricane lamp we hung overhead shed a bright and unforgiving glare over the entire garage. My shaking hands made the light shimmer on the scalpel.
"Just do it," Jamie ordered through gritted teeth. His Regulator was curbing the worst of his fear, but the exposed back of his neck gleamed with sweat. "For God's sakes, just do it, just cut it out!"
My Regulator thrummed at the base of my skull and my own panic began to steadily fade. Thank you, I thought. For once, thank you.
Jamie's blood was bright and warm on my fingers when I started to slice, but my hands were steady. His Regulator lay just beneath the skin, an ugly metal spider that stretched its legs deep into his brain. I pulled out the tendrils one by one, ignoring the blood running down my hand. Jamie moaned. His Regulator vibrated in my hand, but I had pulled loose the wire that would have blunted the edge of his pain.
"It's almost done now," I said, gripping the last, biggest wire. I yanked it. It sent a jolt of electricity up my arm. Jamie jerked, once, and fell still.
"Jamie? Jamie?" He didn't move. The blood spilling out of the incision slowed to a trickle and then stopped. I felt my heart break for precisely ten seconds, and then my Regulator buzzed, and then I felt nothing at all.
The first time I met Jamie, he was leaping off a train.
The train was crossing a tall trestle bridge over a deep river when a beaming redhead threw open my compartment door.
"'Lo. I'm Jamie. The window in my compartment is jammed. Mind if I use yours?" he asked. I nodded, mute with surprise. He crossed the compartment in a single bound, flung open the window, and swung a leg over the sill. "Thanks!" he said brightly, and toppled out into empty space. A euphoric whoop echoed after him. I raced to the open window and looked down. Why? Any moment now, my Regulator would kick in, flattening my shock and blazing curiosity into a manageable degree of mild interest. Before that happened, I leapt after him.
And then I was shrieking with terror and the wind was whistling in my ears and I couldn't breathe, I couldn't breathe, and I could feel my blood racing in my veins and my heart was beating rabbit-quick in my chest and the river was rushing up to meet me and my body was alive with fear and panic and adrenaline and nothing, nothing in my carefully Regulated life had ever felt as good as this.
By the time we both made it to shore, our Regulators had begun releasing their soothing baths of chemicals.
"Why the hell did you jump after me?" Jamie asked, shaking water from his red hair. "After having an extreme emotion spike like that, you'll be zombified for hours."
I could feel my Regulator humming, settling numbness over me, and I knew I only had time to ask one question before it stole my sense of curiosity entirely.
"Why do you do it, then? Why jump off a train if you'll feel nothing for hours, after?"
"'Cause Regulators take exactly ten seconds before they activate. And those ten seconds you're falling, before you feel nothing?" He managed a grin, not quite as bright as before. His Regulator was dulling the spark in his eyes. "You feel everything."
Jamie, I discovered, didn't just jump off trains. He also rock-climbed without a harness, swam as deeply underwater as he could without passing out, and walked across tightropes. He introduced me to riding the razor's edge between life and death, where all the strongest feelings hid.
"When I was younger, I used to sprint at walls and stop at the last minute. I'd jump off my bunk bed onto a pile of stuffed animals. Anything to break the numbness, y'know?" he told me one day.
"We're not numb. The government keeps them within certain safe limits, but we can have feelings. We're just Regulated," I argued. He laughed and adjusted the straps of his parachute.
"See if you still believe that after what we're about to do," he suggested, took a running start, and flung himself from the cliff. I followed him over the edge.
"It's not enough," I said afterwards. We lay winded, side-by-side on the ground, our Regulators buzzing busily. "These little ten-second doses. I want to be able to feel everything, all the time."
"I've been thinking the same thing, and I've got an idea. I think I can steal a scalpel when I visit Dad at work," he said. I rolled over to look at him, but my Regulator had stolen my sense of shock, and I said nothing.
Of course the government would make it impossible to remove the Regulator. What was the point, otherwise?
There are others like us. There have to be. Other people who have discovered this miracle of adrenaline, the addictive joy of ten seconds of sensation, the thrill of escaping the Regulator's leash for a breathless few moments. All I have to do is reach them.
I think broadcasting the recording we made of my attempt to remove Jamie's Regulator will do it.
The government will come for me then, of course. If they're willing to arrange the death of anyone who tries to remove their Regulator, they won't hesitate to kill me. I can already picture them hammering on my door, guns raised. I won't run. I'll sit just inside the doorway, riding that line between life and death, feeling my blood race in my veins and my heart beat rabbit-quick.
Because in those ten seconds, before I feel nothing?
I will feel everything.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 12th, 2015
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