Graduating

Jones 5 comes back from his resuscitation, all smiles and high fives. 

“Headshot,” Jones 4 whispers in my ear. “Again.”

Guns are generally a 1 or a 2, if it’s a headshot. Gutshot is a whole other number. I’ve been gutshot twice—a shotgun and a 9mm. Three times if you count the crossbow. The crossbow took the longest. I curled on the floor, skewered and bleeding out, unable to move without colossal pain. It took a long time to die. I rated it a 6+. 

Based on Jones 5’s mood, it’s pretty clear this was a headshot. The bullet’s capsule, 12,000 lbs. per square inch, drills the brain. A rapid flare of bright sound and pain, then lights out. Basically painless. 

“Lucky 5 again,” Jones 4 says. “What a surprise.” 4’s got his sour look, a mouthful of mustard. Our faces are identical but I don’t think I make that expression. 

There’s a rumor Jones 5 has some sort of connection and that’s why he gets the easy sessions. Of course this rumor, like all rumors here, is unconfirmed.

 I’m philosophical when the topic of 5 comes up. We all die a certain number of sessions. What does it matter how? Focus on your own work, I always say. Give good numbers. 

“You don’t know it was a headshot,” I say to Jones 4. “Besides, pain is relative. That’s why there are seven of us.”

Jones 5 crosses to the main table to watch Jones 6 play chess with Jones 2. Jones 5 lets out a whoop—he’s the loudest of us, for sure—as 6 checkmates 2. No one has ever beaten Jones 6. I’ve come closest, almost gaining a draw, but 6 sees things we can’t. He’s moves ahead. 

Jones 5 starts talking about his session. His voice floods the room like water in a bucket. 

“New RPG,” he says. “Head exploded like a firecracker. Must have been a helluva cleanup.”

4 shoots me a lemony I told you so look. He rolls his eyes. 

“Sure. Relative,” he says. “Anyway, what do you care? You’re almost done. One session away from The Gift.”

It’s true. Only one left, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Not about my last session—after 244 of them, I can endure anything once. It’s the after that has me uneasy—what it holds and what I know it doesn’t.

Dying is all I know. 

Soon, I won’t even know that. I’ll never die again. That’s The Gift, or so the rumor goes. No brother who graduated ever came back to confirm it. 

Jones 6 calls The Gift our “ontological carrot.” I don’t know what that means.

What I know is I’ll never see my brothers again. I’ll be gone. This fact serves up a hard to pin feeling. It feels like staring at the ocean in the Beach Holo, eyes straining across an impossibly vast and empty distance. It’s loneliness, I think. But as I’ve never felt it I can’t be sure.

I’ve started paying extra attention to the things my brothers do. I don’t know what I’ll miss or what I won’t, so I try to catch everything.

How Jones 1 cries in his sleep. A sound like some bright bird in the Jungle Holo.

The way Jones 2 noisily brushes his teeth. How he spits into the sink, as if trying to lose a bad taste the brush can’t reach. 

Jones 3 and his lists of imagined future sessions: “…by helicopter blades, by bottomless holes, by rockets, by crucifixion…”

How Jones 5 jokes about being the handsomest of the bunch and how 4 always gets riled by that, though it’s absurd. The differences between us, physically anyway, are non-existent. Only Jones 6 looks older, as he’s been here the longest.

I watch 6 read in his corner and wonder if I’ll miss him. Our chess games. His cryptic comments and gruff voice. 

He looks up from his book and meets my eye, like he knows what I’m doing, how I’m memorizing. He winks then forgets me, returning to his fat book. He shakes his head, like the words he reads tickle the inside of it.

He holds the all-time record for sessions, over 700, but his pain reports are terrible. He’s rated napalm a 2 and a morphine OD a 9. He refuses to provide good data. Thus, Jones after Jones passes over him. He may never receive The Gift.

The strangest thing? He doesn’t seem to care. 

He just reads and dies and reads and dies and cooks and dies and plays chess. Like he’s perfectly happy doing sessions and staying here forever. He doesn’t even use his daily Holo visits. When I asked him why he said, “Getting rid of delusions makes us wiser than getting hold of a truth.” 

Whatever that means.

The light over my cot goes on, and I stand and put on my suit for the last time. Our white coveralls are identical except for the numbers. I trace my finger over my 7. Lucky 7. After I’m gone, Jones 5 will likely become Jones 7, skipping over 6, just as I did. Most everyone will go up a number, except for 6.

6 nods from the table. He cooked me breakfast. He always does on the day a 7 ships. Scrambled eggs and heaps of greasy bacon. The smell makes my stomach growl. I nod my appreciation and settle in across from him. 

“Graduating,” 6 says. “Moving on.”

I nod, my mouth already full of eggs. 

It always unnerves me looking at my older self. There might be a year or two difference among the rest of us, but it’s hard to detect. Everyone but 6 is a mirror. The same close-cropped, dark hair. The same narrow nose and thin lips. Identical, black coffee eyes. Jones 6 has all that, too, but his hair is gray splashed. Wrinkles graph his skin. There’s something different in his eyes, too. 

He points to the chessboard. “Last game?”

I shrug. He sets up the pieces, offers me white. 

I finish my breakfast and open my Queen’s pawn. 

“What do you think they’ll choose for your final session?” 6 asks.

I wipe bacon grease off my chin. I’ve obviously considered this question, but I don’t say anything. Conversation with 6 often feels like a trap. Like the chess game doesn’t only happen on the board. 

We trade knights. 

Jones 5 pulls up a chair and studies the board. He’s always listening, always jumping into things—something I’m certain I won’t miss. 

“I’m betting on fire,” 5 says. 

Among us it’s generally agreed that fire is one of the worst. Your skin blisters. Your blood boils. You smell your own death. Jones 1 is the lone abstainer, but he hasn’t suffered as many immolations as the rest of us. 

6 makes a mistake and leaves his bishop unprotected. I take it and he winces. 

“Not a big fan of drowning,” I say. “That moment when you can’t hold your breath, the first suck of water in the lungs. Agony.”

“Yeah, but with burning,” 5 says, “seconds feel like years.”

These are recycled conversations, old as the Holo hills, though they never grow dull. I’ll miss them. You learn a lot when you understand what session a brother most fears. 

In a little while, I’m up three pieces and have a serious position advantage. The game is mine to lose. 6 really must be getting old. 

“Whatever it is,” I say, feeling giddy about my first victory against 6, “it’s the last one. I can endure anything once. Even skinning.”

5 shudders and 6 smiles. 5 and I smile back. It’s a reflex. When one of us smiles, the others can’t help but do the same, as if to do otherwise would be to ignore the face in the mirror. Skinning is, everyone agrees, one of the worst. Easily a 9. Tedious and excruciating, it’s worse than anything except some deaths by animal. 

6 still smiles, though I’ve put him in check three times and will mate him soon. His smile is bigger than mine. Wrinkles split his face. 

“Whatever they’ve got in store,” 6 says, “is for the good of science.”

Those words have power for us. A motto. A mantra. They ease our fears and swell our chests. We all have faith in science. Science made us. Science brings us back to life. Science constructs our food from thin air. Science created the miracle of the Holos and The Gift, whatever it is.

But when 6 says the words, they sound wrong. Somehow soured.

He topples his king and I stretch my smile till it hurts, trying to match his. 

“That’s right,” I say. “For the good of science.”

None of us knows why they gave us the Holos. Some brothers believe it’s to prepare us for the outside world. Of course, since we don’t know the outside world at all, this rumor is unconfirmed and merely plausible. Others say the Holos keep us from going mad from the sessions. This rumor is also unconfirmed but seems more probable since Jones 6—the only one who skips his Holo visits—is definitely not what the rest of us consider sane.

I put on the helmet for the last Holo before my session. I’ve tried them all­—City. Driving. Swimming. Flying. All the others. But I’m partial to the nature Holos. The wonder of the outdoors. Hand in the air, I select Beach. I adjust the knobs. The test pattern sharpens.

The beach comes into view. Sun on water. My eyes squint. A white bird dangles in the breeze. I pivot my head and there’s the Holo Guy. Same as always. 

He’s one of us. Exactly the same except his coveralls are black. He smiles. I smile back. He closes his eyes, breathes in the ocean. I mirror his seated posture, bunched up knees, hands spread in the sand. I study his profile. I’m nearly sure he’s the last 7 to graduate, though there’s no way to confirm it.

I smell salt. I hear the surf’s crash like radio static, the white bird’s angry squawks. Touch is the only thing missing and, therefore, it’s the thing I spend the most time imagining in the Holos. 

What does the sand feel like? Is it wet? Sticky? The breeze that blows the face that is my face, the hair that is my hair—what does that feel like?

The Holo Guy’s eyes remain closed. He holds an expression I can’t ever read. Not yet, anyway. His skin is smooth as an ironed sheet. I wonder again if he exists when I’m not here. I wonder again if he wonders if I exist. 

He won’t respond but still I speak. “This is my last Holo. I’m graduating.”

He smiles as if he hears me. I smile back.

I ask the questions I always ask.

“Is this where we go? After The Gift? Are the Holos real? Are you?” 

He opens his eyes. Maybe he nods slightly. If I could feel in the Holos, I’d reach out and touch him. I’ve done it, of course, but it’s too weird, touching someone and feeling nothing.

 He turns away and watches a wide-winged bird circle above. Its call echoes, then cuts off as the Holo flickers and goes blank. Time’s up.

Usually I feel elated after the Holos. Most of us do, like our world has expanded. Like we’re momentarily part of something larger than our daily routine. But this time it’s different. I don’t know why.

My head sweats inside the Holo helmet. It’s a long time before I take it off.

My brothers gather around me. We shake hands. They pat me on the back. We huddle as Jones 3 says his habitual prayer, a litany of all his deaths so far: “by water, by Ebola, by snake, by strangulation…” 

The consensus is that 3 has gone mad—it happens—though we’re all silent and respectful when he prays. 

3 was always different. He came back from his first session sunny and smiling. Jones 7 (I was Jones 5 at the time) asked if it was decapitation, which is quick, barely a 1+. Decapitation leaves some guys euphoric. 

Jones 3 (who was Jones 1 then) shook his head. “Boiled alive,” he said—a 7 or 8, and a pretty harsh first session. Still, he smiled and so did we all. He spread his hands and exclaimed, “What a beautiful thing to be reborn.”

He finally finishes the prayer, “…all for the good of science.” We nod and repeat the words. My tension lifts slightly.

Jones 5 shakes my hand. “Good luck outside. We’ll keep suffering for the greater good.”

“For the good of science,” I say. My spine feels straighter, my handshake firmer.

Jones 4 rolls his eyes as 5 moves away. He whispers, “Some suffer more than others.” 

I smile, he smiles. I tell 4 to focus on his sessions. To keep his eyes on The Gift. 

Jones 6 is the last to say goodbye. He steps up and stares me in the eyes. My smile waits to spring into action, but he doesn’t draw his. His eyes burn like he wants to tell me something important, something new. Instead, he just says the same, enigmatic thing he always says when a 7 leaves. 

“There are worse things than dying.”

I feel sad he’s afraid to move on, afraid to change, but I break out my smile. “Like your eggs,” I say. “Rubbery as a shoe sole.”

He smiles back and raises both thumbs, though his eyes are gloomy, the flicker gone. Like overcast skies in the Mountain Holo. 

I stand by the door as the green light blinks. I spread my smile as wide as it can go. I wave goodbye to my six grinning brothers as the door slides open and I step into the corridor for the last time. 

They’ll have a new Jones 1 soon. I’m sure they’ll treat him well. They made me feel at home right away, an instant family, and I tried to do the same for each new arrival. 

Jones 1s are always disoriented. None of us remember anything before arrival. I always made them a cup of tea and introduced them around. I’d tell a few jokes while the others grimaced—they’d heard them too many times. I’d show the 1s the Holo machine, explain that someday we’d maybe be like the Holo Guy. Outside and free.

 I never told them what they’d have to do to get there. They discovered that on their own. It seems cruel but we all went through it. Plus, their first reading is more accurate if they don’t know what awaits. 

When they return from their first session, that’s when they truly become family. Sometimes they cry when they understand what we do. Some rage or hurt themselves. Some sit frozen, staring into space. 

We’d always hold a party. It was the only time the researchers sent in alcohol—a case of beer and bottles of whiskey. By the end of the night, drunk and singing, the new Jones 1’s tears usually mingled with laughter. 

“What we do, few can do,” we’d chant, clinking glasses across the table. 

“We’re Gods,” 3 would say, standing up and swiveling his hips. “And saints! We suffer like saints!”

“For the good of science,” I’d shout. We’d all shout.

Jones 6 would drink but hardly talk. He’d wait for the new Jones 1 to ask the question. Sometimes it came right away. Sometimes later. Eventually, they’d always ask. 

When they did, 6 would smile and therefore we all would, including the new guy. 6 would lean forward, his words a little slurred. 

“Exactly,” he’d say. “Why, my brother. The eternal question.”

The walk down the corridor is often the worst. It’s the not knowing that gets to one. Will it be a tankful of piranhas? A new type of acid in a glass beaker—a harmless looking liquid that eats off one’s face? 

Usually I focus on my breathing and conjure a scene from the Holos. I’ll imagine the Desert or the snow-covered Forest. If I concentrate, I can see snow falling, dizzying flakes piling into mounds. 

But today, as it’s my last walk, I relish the anticipation. I even wonder if I’ll miss it. I pay attention to each step down this winding corridor, marking it. Someday, all of this may be a story to tell. A thing I’ll share with someone I don’t yet know.

I reach the laboratory and the researcher—a thin man I’ve never seen—stands by his instruments, dressed in the researchers’ usual green coveralls. The only other place I’ve seen this color is in the Mountain Holo. It’s the color of the grass. 

I scan the room. I don’t see cages or smell animals, so I doubt I’ll be eaten. There’s no fire or drowning chamber either. I relax a little as the researcher pats the examination table and I hop up.

 He, like the other researchers, is not one for small talk. He rolls up my sleeve and produces a hypodermic from a numbered case. 

I raise my eyebrows. They generally don’t answer questions, but since it’s the last session, I can’t help myself. 

“Poison?”

He shakes his head and taps the air bubbles out of the syringe. 

“Some sort of neurotoxin? Straight up gasoline?” I venture.

I’ve had variations on both. Most are slow and in the mid-6 range. One neurotoxin paralyzed me but didn’t take away sensation. They lowered my immobile body into a container filled with small insects that nibbled away. Death took a long time. That was a solid 8. I swallow as he swabs my skin with an alcohol-soaked pad. 

“None of the above,” he says. “This is The Gift.”

He jabs the needle into the meat of my shoulder. The pain is less than a 1. More like a .01.

“I thought I had one more session.”

My expression must be one of alarm because he pats me on the shoulder, something a researcher has never done. Usually they’re all business. Men of few words, let alone comforting pats.

“Relax,” he says. “You’ve died your last death.”

I sit on the lab table, waiting to feel something. Some poison feels like an advancing fire, scorching its path to the heart. Others start in the gut or head, gathering storms that gust with pain. But this feels like nothing. The researcher stares at his watch and whistles. 

None of us can whistle and I’m always impressed when the researchers do. I get lost in his tune, until his head snaps up and he rolls down my sleeve. 

“That’s it,” he says.

“That’s all?”

“You were expecting something else? More technological fanfare?”

I shrug, but inside I’m nodding vigorously. 

“You might not feel different,” he says. “But you are. You can’t die. Ever. Whatever disease or accident befalls you, your body will regenerate. Here, let me demonstrate.”

He pulls out a scalpel from the pocket of his coveralls. With a swift backhand, he slices my throat. 

The cut is deep but hardly painful, maybe a 2-. After decapitation, having your throat slit is probably the easiest session. Warm blood spurts through my hands as they reflexively cover the gash.

The researcher glances at his watch. 

“Of course you’ll still feel pain,” he says. “But you’re hardly a stranger to that.” 

He smirks as I gasp for air and gurgle. This, I believe, is his attempt at a joke, though I can’t be sure. I try a face that models his, though it’s not easy as I’m choking on blood and can’t catch my breath. Still, I do my best to echo his smirk and look casual, as blood seeps through my coveralls, as I grow faint. 

He produces a hand mirror and passes it to me. I lift my bloodied hands to take it. 

“Watch,” he says. 

The crack in my throat curves like a smile. I fade, closer to death.

Then, an itching sensation stirs at my throat. I watch in the mirror as the wound pulls together, sewing itself shut. 

After another minute, there’s no sign of the injury on my skin, only my bloody coveralls. The pain drops to a 0. 

My expression in the mirror is brand new—eyes wide, mouth open. I’ve never been so amazed, not even in my first Holo sessions. 

“Neat, huh?” he says. “No more unpleasant resuscitations. You struggled with those, didn’t you?”

It’s true. Except for Jones 5, who’s perpetually cheerful, and 3—who calls the resuscitations “resurrections”—the process leaves us queasy and weak. It’s even worse than some of the sessions. “Being reborn ain’t for sissies,” 4 used to say.

“Time to go,” the researcher says.

He smiles for the first time. His teeth, unlike ours, are yellow and crooked. The imperfection of them troubles me, but I smile back. Happy to mirror his face. 

I think of my brothers as the researcher leads me down a brightly lit corridor, a part of the building I’ve never seen. What would they say if they could see me now? Immortal and dressed in black coveralls, just like the Holo Guy. 

I wonder if they’ll see me in a Holo. 

I wonder what they’re doing with the new Jones 1, whether someone tells him my worn out jokes before his first session. Or perhaps I’ve lost track of time after receiving The Gift. Maybe Jones 1 already returned from his first session, already voiced the inevitable question. Perhaps alcohol-soaked talk has turned to why we don’t know why.

 “It would influence our readings,” 5 always says. “We’d feel pain differently. They keep us in the dark or we’d screw up the data.” 

“Exactly,” I imagine Jones 4 might say, wishing him a rare moment of agreement with 5. “What does it matter whether it’s for weapons development or a pharmaceutical company? Clearly, the work is important.”

Jones 3, as always, would hold a more radical theory. “They’re making us messiahs.” Or, “They want a sense of the soul’s mass and shape. Death is not the point. The point is recording the soul’s exit and trajectory.”

“For the good of science,” they’ll all say and raise their glasses. All but 6.

I utter the words in the corridor. The researcher smiles. Of course he smiles. He is science.

We turn a corner and an even longer corridor stretches before us. The researcher stops and pulls out a touch tablet. He scrolls on it as I wait behind. Down the hallway is a series of large windows, though from here I can’t see what’s inside the rooms. Next to the windows, the vitals monitors they use for our sessions line the walls like black paintings. I know paintings from the Museum Holo—one I never thought much of, though 5 claimed it was his favorite. He said the Holo Guy has excellent taste in art, though how 5 knows this I can’t say. For me, it’s just the same Holo Guy, silent as sleep. All he does is point and smile and stare.

“Room 344,” the researcher says. “Just had to double-check. Wouldn’t want to put you in the wrong room.”

He starts whistling again and I give it another shot. After The Gift, who knows what I might be able to do?

I purse my lips and, for the first time, manage a warbled note as I follow. I suck in a breath and try again. But when we reach the first window, my mouth slackens and the air leaks out of me. 

I once had a conversation with 6, back when I was only Jones 2. My debriefers had told me my numbers were excellent, some of the best they’d seen. They told me I’d rise quickly, that I might be the fastest to ever receive The Gift. I’d come back from my resuscitation with the usual nausea, but also elated, bouncing on my toes. I’d told 6 about it as we played chess. He blitzkrieged me in ten moves, but even that couldn’t spoil my mood.

“People give gifts when they want something,” he’d said.

“They give gifts as an expression of love, too. They give gifts when they want to say thank you.”

He held my king in his hand, swinging it back and forth before letting it tumble to the board.

“Gifts are barter,” he said. “There’s always an agenda. Think about it, Jones. What’s in it for them?”

I’d remembered something he’d read to me. I served it back with a smile. “‘He that dies pays all debts.’ Pure. Simple. Truth.”

He smiled back but shook his head. “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

On the other side of the glass, a brother stands in the center of the room. He stares at me, I think, though it’s hard to tell because he’s bleeding out his eyeballs. Smoke rises off his body in waves. 

Even from this side of the glass, I know what the smoke smells like. I’ve been electrocuted enough times to memorize that odor. It’s an overcooked piece of meat. It’s rancid barbecue. 

His body vibrates with the current, though there are no wires. Glancing at his smoldering feet, I realize the electricity comes from the floor. 

The monitor by the window charts his vitals. A whole column of data scrolls down next to the jagged mountain peaks of his heartbeat. The line of his heart shudders, then finally goes flat.

The researcher steps up to watch. “This is the best part. Wait for it.”

Immediately, the monitor line spikes back up as his heart revives. His feet, that had just started to slightly pinken, blacken again as the power jolts back on. No resuscitation is necessary. The Gift prevents him from dying.

I force a smile, just to see if he can see me. He smiles back. His teeth are bloody. 

“Come on,” the researcher says, tugging at my coveralls. “You’re just down here.”

We pass a room where another brother is submerged in water. He gulps his last breath, dies, then comes alive. His face twists from my least favorite agony. 

The next room is filled with army ants. Only arms are visible as we move past, rising from the swarming insects as though he’s waving. Another room has a Jones buried to his neck in ice. I study the face. 

It’s the last Jones 7, I think, the one who graduated before me. Though I can’t be sure. The glass is frosted from the cold and his features are indistinct and blued. I smile, he smiles. Freezing isn’t so bad, I think. It’s like falling asleep. Barely a 2.

In another room, there’s a giant concrete block. No brother visible. But the monitor shows a heartbeat. One of us is in there.

I stumble on, my feet not feeling the floor, legs rubbery. 

“Here we are,” the researcher says. He presses his badge to the wall and the door to room 344 swings open. 

My brain screams run, but my legs march into the room. I stand still as a Holo tree as he affixes wireless sensors to my heart and temples. 

“You thought you’d be getting out of here, didn’t you?”

My mouth opens and closes like I’m being suffocated. 

He shakes his head. His expression is impossible to read. It’s between disgust and sadness. 

“You guys always do. They had to give you all the normal emotions for the numbers to be good. Even hope.” 

I manage to speak. “But what about the Holos?”

He makes a funny sound like a squeaky hinge. I realize he’s laughing, and I mimic it. Both of us laugh. 

His laughter dies out and he shakes his head. “Do you know what we call the Holos? ‘The Box of Hollow Hopes.’ Hope is the last thing to die in you lab rats.”

He closes the door of the room and waves from outside the window. He gives that strange look again. I know the word pity but I’ve never seen the face. Maybe this is it. Then he’s gone.

There is a stretched moment before I know what my endless session will be. Fire or acid raining from the ceiling. The ceiling itself lowering to meet the floor. Infinite hornet stings. Gassing. 

I shut my eyes. I envision the Beach Holo. Only this time my brothers are there with me. All of us, together by the sea. Even 6.

“Hell is other people,” 6 once said, and though I understand what he meant, I don’t think he’s right. Hell is something else.

 Unseen machinery whirs. With my eyes closed, the sound becomes a sea wind. A wind on my face, caressing my skin, our skin, a sea gust that blows forever. A sea wind my brothers and I can finally feel.

“For the good of science,” I say. We all say. I feel a little better. I say it again.

Michael Harris Cohen

Michael Harris Cohen has work published or forthcoming in various magazines and anthologies, including Black Candies, Fiction International, Catapult’s Tiny Crimes, The Exposition Review, and Conjunctions. He is the winner of the Modern Grimmoire Literary Prize, a Fulbright grant for literary translation, and fellowships from The Djerassi Foundation, OMI International Arts Center, Jentel, and the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen Foundation. His first book, The Eyes, was published by the once marvelous but now defunct Mixer Publishing. He lives with his wife and daughters in Sofia and teaches in the department of Literature and Theater at the American University in Bulgaria.

Enrica Angiolini

Enrica ‘Eren’ Angiolini is an illustrator and comic colourist. Raised in a family rich with creativity, she developed a deep love for art—illustration and photography, in particular. She studied foreign languages in high school and university, gaining a Bachelor’s degree in Japanese Language and Culture. In 2015 she started her career in comics, and soon after got her first full series with Titan Comics, Warhammer 40.000. Enrica is now working for them as colourist on The Thirteenth Doctor Who and The Steel Prince, and on No World for Aspen Comics. 


First Featured In: No. 12, winter 2018

The Taboo Issue

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