Forty-five

The man in the alleyway wasn’t someone you found in the White Pages, or Craig’s List, or any website for that matter. It had taken Zalia a month to track him down, but in this dank dingy corner of the city, she began to doubt the man here could save her mum.

Zalia shone her torch at him, but the cobblestoned building and industrial dumpster behind him absorbed all light.

She smelled him before she could take in his appearance. A stagnant mix of Old Spice, decaying fruit and cheap bourbon wafted towards her, inflaming her nostrils and all other senses.

“I…heard…” she stuttered, gagging on his stench. “I heard…you sell Forever.”

“That’s illegal.” The old man chuckled in a way that made Zalia want to hide in the dumpster regardless of the filth lurking there.

“Sorry. A friend told me that you could help my mum.”

He stepped out from the dark. The wrinkly man was dressed in trench coat and torn slacks and his unkempt hair was thin and wiry.

“Loosen up. I’m just messin’ with ya, my young darling.” He placed a bottle of booze on the rim of the dumpster. It fell in with a clank, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Forever don’t come cheap. Only a few people have it, you know. This came from the NASA lab tech directly.”

“The one who first discovered Forever?” Zalia was impressed.

“Dumb fool scratched his hand on a bit of old space rock and became a millionaire.” The old man smiled a semi-toothless grin. “So you got some coin, darling?”

Zalia pulled the envelope from her handbag and peered at its contents.

“That a way, love.” His eyes widened at the sight of hundreds of notes. He pulled a box from his trench coat pocket. Glass tinkled inside. He opened the lid and pulled out a vial of blood.

“What’s it going to be, darling? Ready to be infected?”

#

“Mum, please. I’ve only just found you.” Zalia sat on the armrest of the sofa. “Time is running out.”

Zalia’s birth mother looked up from her knitting. The effort of raising her head was enough to accentuate her laboured breathing.

“The time we’ve had together has been great.” Her mum took a deep breath and smiled. “I’ve loved getting to know you, but… aliens!”

“Mum, they don’t have antennae or oozy skin. It’s just a virus.”

“I don’t know,” she looked up at Zalia with wide eyes full of doubt and trepidation. She looked up with the same blue eyes that Zalia saw in the mirror each day. “I’m happy with the time I’ve had.”

“Please, Mum! I can’t lose you. Not now.”

#

Seventy

Zalia got to know her mother…well. Too well. Looking after her day after day, she knew her mother’s pains, her aches, her fading mental acuity. The ageing stopped, but she was already weary when the infection took hold. The time sickness, as scientists described it, beset her with a constant melancholy. Longevity, it seemed, was not something most humans were born to deal with.

At seventy, Zalia herself felt weary with age. Fear gripped her. Who would look after her mother when Zalia passed?

Determined, Zalia sliced her birth dad’s penknife across her palm. The blood began to pool and ominously trickled down the indent of her lifeline. Such innocent uninfected blood.

“Mum.” She walked up to her reclining chair and squatted alongside her. “I’ll be here for you. This will sting a bit but it’s for the best.” Zalia showed her mum the penknife.

“Oh, that’s Jack’s knife. You don’t want to get that dirty or else he’ll get upset when he gets home.”

Zalia sighed. She’d stopped explaining her dad’s passing to her mum long ago. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll clean it afterwards.”

#

One hundred and forty five

“Are you sure this is what you want, Mum?” Zalia squatted alongside her mother’s wheelchair.

She managed a slight nod. “I’m tired. Tired of the years.”

“I know.” Zalia kissed her mum’s forehead. “I’ll let you sleep.”

The Forever Lifers wore their usual white robes with the blue double helix logo on their breast. Zalia darted towards the door, pushing her way through the screaming crowd of protestors.

“You!” A woman thrust a stout finger in Zalia’s face. “How can you do this? It’s murder.”

Insults escalated; the “c” word and “f” word used like bullets driving deep into Zalia’s heart.

She was thankful for her mum’s poor hearing, but every insult made her question her decision.

A woman squatted next her mum’s wheelchair. She placed her hands on Zalia’s mum’s lap. “You have a gift, craved by so many. A gift from the skies. A beautiful extra-terrestrial gift we all should share.”

Zalia darted towards the sliding glass. A nurse ushered her inside and locked the door.

“They’re getting worse,” said the nurse looking towards the protestors outside.

“We have a booking,” said Zalia looking around at the sterile clinic.

The nurse brushed Zalia’s mum’s receding hair from her face and smiled. “We’ll put you to sleep and then undertake the procedure.”

Procedure? It was such a mundane word when Zalia heard it used in that fashion, yet there was nothing mundane about what she was intending to do. It was what her mum wanted. She wanted this. Zalia repeated the mantra to herself and let the truth wash over her.

“Would you like any religious leaders by your side?” asked the nurse.

“No just Jack. Is he here?”

Zalia kissed her mum’s forehead. This was the right decision. “No. But you’ll be with him soon.” Zalia followed the nurse as she pushed her mother through a swinging door.

“I’m sorry,” began the nurse. “Only patients and staff beyond this point.”

Zalia said a final goodbye before stepping out the sliding doors in a daze. She had done the right thing, hadn’t she? How could she weigh up pain versus longevity? The choice had been so clear and yet—

A force like a tidal wave hit Zalia in the back. She fell forward against the pavement. Knees cracked, gravel dug into her palms, and heat soared against her back, before everything went dark.

#

Two hundred and sixty

Zalia arrived at the brink of dawn on rations day. Two lines already spanned hundreds of citizens in length. In the distance, she could just make out the food truck: a B-triple road-train, almost a hundred and eighty feet long.

She was pleased her mum didn’t have to endure the starvation and chaos that erupted after the Forever Lifers’ attack on the clinics. She should’ve spotted the bomb the woman placed in mum’s lap, but the clinic had been so overwhelming. She wouldn’t let that happen again. She’d be vigilant.

People bustled around the two open trailers to collect their meagre supplies. In front of her, a family with a young daughter huddled together avoiding the stares. With the ballooning population, who all still needed to eat, the government had cracked down on the infected from breeding.

“They’ll just take a little blood to make sure you’re not infected. I swear it doesn’t hurt, Karlie.” The mother crouched down next to her wide-eyed daughter.

The crowd bustled up ahead; screams erupted. A guard unlocked the third trailer. Why now, wondered Zalia.

“Come on.” The mother in front took her daughter’s hand and followed the dozens of others storming towards the third trailer.

“No!” Zalia grasped at the girl’s wrist pulling her down to the ground. The old wounds along her back stung when she crouched, but something told her to get down low.

“Infected bitch! What are you―” the mother screamed at Zalia before falling as a barrage of bullets erupted. Guards stormed out of the trailer with their machine guns blazing. Half of the line fell in a mantle of blood, bone and bitter sorrow.

#

Three hundred and twenty four

On the thatched mattress of the refugee centre, Karlie looked frail. Zalia’s daughter’s body seemed to sink into the mattress as if the bedding was intent on consuming her.

Zalia had thought many times over the decades about killing herself to avoid this moment. No mother should ever have to endure this, but leaving just didn’t feel right… for her.

Karlie grabbed her mother’s hand. “You know,” she began, “I never thanked you for saving my life all those years ago. And…” Karlie coughed. The hacking tones made Zalia’s stomach ache. She handed her daughter a glass of water and lifted it to her dry lips.

“…And I never thanked you for not being selfish.”

Zalia raised an eyebrow confused by her daughter’s remarks.

“I saw you that night when I cut my knee open when we were running from the Mortal’s Militia. You thought I was asleep, but I was pretending. You sliced your finger and the drop of blood was so close to my knee. I was scared. I never wanted that. But you stopped.”

Zalia felt the grip of her daughter slacken. “Hang in there, Karlie.”

“I’m sorry, I’m making you go on alone again, but you don’t have to. You can end it.”

“I think it’s my punishment for guilt-tripping my birth mother into enduring Forever. It affected her so much…”

Zalia felt Karlie’s fingers fall from her grasp and realised she wasn’t listening anymore.

She closed her daughter’s eyes. “Don’t worry. When my penance has been paid, my time will come.”

#

Six hundred and something

Zalia sat on top of the metal struts, which were once a magnificent bridge over the fetid harbour.

Occasionally a bomb would drop upon the city, but there was little left to scorch. Some said the attacks originated from an underground movement of mortals intent on reclaiming the world and abolishing the Forever virus. Zalia had lived too many years to care anymore. Let them hit her. All she wanted to do was sleep. Time sickness lingered deep, and yet she endured. When it was meant to be, it would be. Although Zalia spent a lot of time sitting on high objects like the bridge; wondering whether a gust of wind might suddenly erupt and sweep her from her perch.

It was another dark night above the harbour. The lights of the city had ceased working long ago, but Zalia preferred it this way. Until now, she never realised how many stars there were in the sky. She wondered where the meteorite and its alien life originated from. Was it from a star system from one of those pin pricks of light she could see now?

A bright light streamed across the sky. It wasn’t the orange glare of the bombs, nor the dazzling white of a star or comet, rather an iridescent green. Nevertheless, Zalia made a wish as it fell slowly.

It grew larger and larger until it landed on the harbour. The light subsided and a shape like a torpedo became visible on the water’s surface.

Zalia hobbled down to the scummy sands surrounding the harbour and peered into the dark.

A gangly figure with six legs appeared from the depths of the water and cantered up to Zalia. It held a box near its mouth and spoke with a metallic voice: “You will be subject to our rule.”

Zalia laughed.

The creature’s eyes widened and antennae-like appendages twitched back and forth. It held the mouthpiece again. “You do not understand. We will rule.” It pulled a device that looked vaguely weapon-like and pointed it at her.

“The other alien invasion was far scarier.” She shut her eyes and spread her arms wide. “Go on then. Let it be my time.”

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