Martin wheeled the chair forward, from courtyard to courtyard, each one with its resident patients, gliding between the yards as he was, or sitting at tables or leant up against the pillars, staring into space.
And Martin watched them as he moved among them. Smiling all, their mouths pulled up with stitches to make them look happy, their skin stretched to make them look young, their breasts wired up and their hair replaced and their hearts removed and transplanted, and every organ a replacement until nothing of themselves remained.
But was it really them standing there. It looked the same, they acted the same, the same dazed smiles, the same happy desperation to be young, to be healthy, to stay alive. And creams were rubbed into their ancient skins, and wasted muscles massaged by nurses to make their limbs lift and fall. And machines to make the lungs suck and pant, pistons in their chests and wires in their brain and plastic legs and glass eyes sparkling perfectly in those sightless heads.
Martin saw the rows of women chasing youth; their own youth wasted chasing the same fantasy. And he saw the men with stitches in their arms, their new muscles bulging as they showed off the results of the made to order bodies they’d paid for and sculpted with a doctor’s knife.
Martin realised that the fantasy sold to them blinded them to who they were, hid their bodies from their mind and all they saw was a mask of flesh they were told was beautiful. And they believed. And those too old for beauty were told to chase health at the expense of their lives. And they believed. And through it all Martin moved and saw and finally the thought in his mind that came from such a never ending parade was. Why?
The passage of time, the end nearing with every beat of the heart. Death to all, life a fatal disease that the doctors had long sought to postpone, but never truly stop. And then came Nicholas who said that postponement wasn’t and shouldn’t be the limit of their attempts.
Death could be beaten he said, humanity never had to face that degradation and despoilment that came with the rotting of the self on the stalk of old age. Nicholas had carried the Sanctuary to the height of their abilities and doctors flocked to it from the land of Acheron, fleeing the attempts to comfort the dying in the cities to the east, thinking it half-hearted, failing to see the truth of it. Grabbing hold of the hope that was offered by Nicholas.
Randolph told Martin that he had been in the sanctuary before Nicholas and he had become the great man’s fiercest supporter. Death was a foe to be beaten back with any means, he said, not a friend to be greeted warmly with relief at the end of a hard life. That was the view Charon had brought, that was the attitude he had tried to corrupt the doctor’s minds with. He had turned patients against their doctors and nothing made Randolph more upset.
Randolph admitted with clenched jaw that patients had started refusing treatment, asked to be allowed to leave. In the middle of a decades-long therapy designed to extend their lives for fifteen more years they had asked to be allowed to leave, to wait out their last few years weak and helpless in the face of the approaching desolation of their selves. Doctor Charon was a mistake, a problem.
Nicholas had had the man removed, Randolph said happily. Not a real doctor indeed. Maybe Nicholas hadn’t got a piece of paper to say he was a doctor but in Randolph’s eyes the man was more of a doctor than anyone in the Sanctuary. He refused to allow people to die, their bodies prolonged ever onwards, immortality, eternal youth, the replacement of each part again and again until finally…he turned to Martin with eyes wide and too bright, a strong smile on his face. “Finally they never have to worry again.”
And the doors opened and Martin was wheeled into the room, to face the patient installed within. And his eyes grew wide in shock as he stared in at the chair and its occupant, alone in the bare metal room.
She was seating motionless, grinning happily from the frozen sculpture of her face. The skin was plastic, a manikin’s head, the flesh-coloured material smooth and cold. A wig on the scalp and the mouth fixed closed, no longer needing to open for food or speech for no tongue lay within. Behind the sockets lay staring human eyes, the motionless orbs unconnected to any muscles to move them, staring helplessly from their prison of plastic. The tear ducts had long since been removed. The limbs were fused to the torso, hollow, the whir of machinery behind that lifeless chest the only organs she had, hissing pistons pumping fluids into the ancient carcass of the brain that was enclosed in that plastic skull.
Martin stared at her as Randolph started to brush her hair. And then he calmly turned to him.
“Alive. Immortal,” he proclaimed. “We have won.”
Was she still alive, it was impossible to say. And Martin stared, the dawning horror filling him with emotions he had tried to bury in that sterile courtyard he had been left to wait in.
Why couldn’t he find peace, why couldn’t he accept this, why reject it, this was still living. Death had been defeated. But no…It was not the truth he needed. But he wanted to rest, he couldn’t go back out there.
But rest was over now, delusion finished. It was time to face the horror that awaited. He feared it and despaired. Yet he needed to know. He was desperate to know, though it felt as though the truth would destroy him.
Martin leaped to his feet, the chair falling backwards as he stumbling over it, almost tripping in his retreat as he pressed his back against the door. And Randolph was tall and broad-shouldered and calmly brushing the wig on that frightful manikin with the human eyes.
“Alive?” he asked. How was this living. Randolph took a step forward. The brush still in his hand. “You keep people here, in this prison, turning them into that, just so they don’t have to face death.”
Randolph looked confused. “That’s why you’re here Martin. That’s why you’re all here.”
“I came here for answers,” Martin replied. Though he wasn’t sure he had.
“You came here because you couldn’t face it outside.” Randolph told him mercilessly. “You came here because couldn’t face death yourself. It was too terrible. You came here to find a way to beat it. And this is it. This is the way.”
“This is the wrong way.” Martin replied, though he wished it wasn’t. He yearned for rest, for solid ground to stand on. But there was no solid ground here. He could feel it shifting under him even as he spoke.
“She will live for ever, you can live for ever.” Randolph promised.
“No I can’t.” Martin replied. “She may last longer than she would, but how is that a victory?”
“It’s all the victory there is. She will never die. Isn’t that enough? She’ll never grow old, she’ll never have to face death. We won’t let her.”
Martin stared at him, saddened at his words, but unable to express why. “She’s already dead,” he said, and didn’t know what he was saying anymore. “She died when she put herself in your hands.”
“I don’t understand.”
Martin was just staring at him, breathing fast, not seeing the doctor any more. The walls of the Hospital were shifting as he looked at them, the tiles running with rainwater. The floor was turning black, like tarmac. “I need to go,” he said.
Randolph didn’t understand. He stared helplessly at Martin, unable to think of anything else to say. And then he turned away from him and stepped back to the manikin, his hand brushing the lifeless hair, seeking comfort in its solidity, its permanence. And Martin fled from him.