Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Unlock This Door

The End?

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

final act...or is it? (major character death)

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Fantasy - Published: 2017-08-09 - 10102 words - Complete

Author’s note:

Old Giacomo (Peter O’Toole): “Is it terribly important to you that this story have a happy ending?”

Edith: (laughing) “Can you blame me for it, sir?”

Old Giacomo: “No, I can’t. Girls your age with absolutely no experience always like to think that things turn out well.” (pauses in his pacing, turns back to face her) “Is that right, though?”

(scene from the David Tennant BBC Masterpiece Theater Casanova – perhaps ended slightly out-of-context, but you should all know where this is going…)

The personal aside for those of you who are going to be irritated with me for ending Unlock This Door the way I did:

I wrote my very first story when I was in kindergarten; the main character was very obviously a self-insert and the piece was mostly just pretty for prettiness sake. And my teacher (who I adored, who I used to go back to visit periodically until she retired and moved out-of-state), she said to me, “But [Shadow], something has to happen.” And I can remember thinking, why? Why does something have to happen to them? Why can’t they just continue on happy as they are? Why does it have to be ruined? (You will also note that I was a confirmed pessimist at age five; the thought that my characters could have a fun adventure had never occurred to me. Still…)

I have never been able to completely shake this early conviction, this discomfort. For some reason, we seem to think that human suffering makes for a better plot, go figure. Seen from the outside, the collective human condition must make for one heck of a show.

On with the show…

Chapter 8 – The End?

Life continued on as it must, but the next dozen years got progressively quieter for Sarah: she started losing contact with a sizable number of people – extended relations, friends from work – because she hadn’t felt like keeping up with the platform necessary for the new popular social media: a permanent AR that made it seem like all your friends were in the same artificial environment together, talking to each other… only the people you were seeing didn’t necessarily see each other, and many live conversations were usually going on at once; the test version had simply been too much for her to handle. Apparently the extreme level of multitasking was easy for others; the prevailing attitude seemed to be that if you weren’t on the platform, you didn’t exist. She had come to hate walking through crowds: she never felt so alone as when she was surrounded by scores of people who didn’t even see her, using their personal GPS to walk around each other, appearing to be staring into space while talking to the voices in their heads – literally. Smartphones were obsolete; even bluetooth wasn’t in use anymore. Implants were the rage – no more shutting off, connectivity 24/7, forever. Lost to the real world. Most of the small businesses she used to frequent were closed now, leaving blocks of empty retail spaces that were being turned into low-cost mini-housing; many times the developers would recycle the old structures if they was still up-to-code, and just 3D printed the necessary separations to suit the space. If anyone else around her still had unfiltered vision, they would have seen that some of the new designs were rather neat in a quirky, collage sort of way.

And it was really bothersome having to deal with these kinds of developments in her children, especially with Ethan; the last few times she had talked to him over the phone she had thought he was on speed – only to find out from Skylar that his dad had opted in for an experimental upgrade on his neural lace that increased cognitive function and performance up to five times more efficient. The boy had found the change in his dad a little annoying at first himself, but he was getting used to it and was wondering if he would be brave enough to do it himself someday – he didn’t want to be left behind by his peers; he’d been warned already the it would be tough for him to get a job. Thankfully the procedure wasn’t okayed for minors yet, and his grandmother did her best to dissuade him, reassuring him that he was intelligent already and loved for who he was, that going extra fast was no guarantee of success. He had patronizingly laughed at her (he was going into middle-school), saying that at least you got wherever you were going.

Sarah found the sentiment terrifying. She had always been determined to not turn into one of those old ladies who was constantly complaining of the present state of the world and inflicting stories of ‘the good old days’ on her children and grandchildren, but… seriously, what happened?! How had it all gotten so crazy so darn fast?! She was officially a relic because she still enjoyed nature and reading physical books!

That was the other thing that worried her: a lot of the trees in town were slowly dying – and it wasn’t just a local phenomena, either; it was happening all over the globe. And there were fewer birds, too, less animals. Western science was at a loss: industrial pollution had been eradicated completely within the last decade, and while global warming was going to be an ongoing threat for the foreseeable future, the progression had been slowed down considerably. The trees weren’t getting eaten by any kind of bug; acid rain was a thing of the past. This was something new, but what? The old ‘conspiracy theory’ was that broadcast wireless non-thermal radiation was interfering with the trees’ ability to function, to process and store nutrients, and while the opinion had been gaining volume level if not respect and credence, the scientific jury was still officially out. And if that was the cause, what then? Would anything really change? Would modern civilization and its multi-billion-dollar tech industries stop on a dime, and all of humanity spontaneously turn into nature-loving tree-huggers? Sarah tended to doubt it.

One thing she wasn’t too worried about was her own personal deterioration; for pushing eighty-five, she was still in pretty good shape, even if she was moving a little slower than she used to – life wasn’t a race. She was still living in the little old (now ancient, it seemed) two-story Victorian house she had shared with her husband for all those years; Debbie’s bedroom had been converted into a guestroom a long time ago, but she almost never had visitors.

Except for Jareth; this was a new development, and it had happened because – living by herself at her age where she was – her kids had started actively worrying about her well-being, especially since she wasn’t well-connected to the outside world digitally. What if something were to happen to her and no one was there to help? When the careful conversations started getting tactfully broached, it was all she could do not to laugh: they were all too young to know about the old ‘Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!’ ads from eons ago in the days of broadcast television. She’d had to finally concede that they had a point, though. Ethan was in favor of a wireless biometric tracking implant, of course, but his mother would have none of it. In the end, she finally agreed to a ‘classic-style’ wrap bracelet, promising never to take it off; they were designed to be left on. The thing was admittedly comfortable, visually unobtrusive, she could even wear it in the shower; she really could wear it until they buried her.

There had been just one little problem: when she disappeared Underground wearing it for the first time, she dropped out of signal range; by the time she returned home, she found that emergency crews had broken into her house and were turning the place upside-down looking for her – her children had been notified that she was missing! There was absolutely no way to explain what had happened, or how they had overlooked her in her bedroom. The grounds were rechecked for reception dead zones (there were none – how could there be any in this day and age?) and took her device to service it quickly just to make sure it wasn’t a hardware problem (it was still under factory warranty). Everything looked strangely fine. But in the brief space of time that she was at liberty again, Sarah had had to go back and tell him that she couldn’t come anymore.

“Well, it lasted longer than I thought it would,” the Goblin King had icily quipped, forming one of his crystals. “One human slave-man, coming right up.”

“Jareth!” she had the audacity to grab his arm. “Calm. Down. I’m giving you permission to visit me in my house instead. I don’t even have much time now – the service representative will be back any minute!”

He sighed, casually crushing the crystal to sparkling dust in his hand, letting it fall to the stone floor. “You know how I feel by now about letting others control you, Sarah. That thing is a leash,” he glanced down in distain at her now-bare wrist; she’d explained to him what it was before.

“It’s just not meant to handle alternate dimension travel!” she laughed. “And if wearing it is what it takes to put my children’s minds at rest about my continuing to live where I am and not moving me into an assisted living center, then I’m willing to do it. We make sacrifices for family; they’re just concerned because they love me. I’m not about to argue with that.”

“Sounds more like a tradeoff on ends,” the king wryly commented. “I suppose it is time for me to reciprocate the visiting favor; you’ve faithfully come to me here for years. Very well, but we’ll have to formalize this quickly.” He instantly reproduced their standing document of emendations. “When would suit you? What days? What times?”

She shook her head. “Just about any day, as long as it’s not ungodly late like three-in-the-morning; I don’t know about you, but I have to sleep, I’m an old lady,” she laughed. “My schedule’s wide open… except for holidays – my family usually comes over – and times that I’m out on…oh, I see your problem, it’s not like you can call and check,” she realized. “How about I just float you my appointments calendar for the month and we can work it out from there?”

He gave her an odd, depressed look.

“What? You asked me. I’m trying to be accommodating.”

He did not immediately respond, rather setting the simple statement of intent down on the parchment and initialing it, handing her the quill to do likewise. “I believe I shall call upon you once a week; if you are absent or entertaining, I shall simply call upon you later – this should not be such an inconvenience or imposition for you,” he answered a bit teasingly.

“But whose week? Your or mine?”

He half-smirked. “You’re still asking that question at this point?”

“Yours, I take it,” she signed the document yet again, putting down the implement, “but that’s meeting you more than halfway,” she coyly teased him back.

He caught her hand quickly – surprising her – and brought the backs of her fingers up to his face…but stopped short of his lips; she could feel the warmth of this breath when he spoke. “You should know better than to flirt with me by now, my dear,” he purred before relinquishing them – she’d all but forgotten how he could make her heart palpitate! “Three nights from today, your time, then. Now you’d best hurry on home to your smothering, tethering well-wishers. Honestly, I swear they’ll be putting real leashes on their children next.”

“Actually, that’s been a real practice for about half-a-century,” she answered, to his surprise and apparent disgust – and laughed at his obvious reaction. “I guess you never knew about it because I didn’t do it with mine.”

Later,” he said emphatically, and she vanished again.

The change took a little adjusting to, but aside of that one brief fiasco, their time spent together continued to run relatively smoothly. She loved getting to show off stuff her children had made or given her or left behind from when they were younger, and he tolerantly poured over her digital albums with her as she gushed about them all, about the old days. They still played their games, but she gave him the option of adding old boardgames into the mix; he had proven somewhat skeptical of this, but she had a fairly extensive collection that she still harassed her children with when they came to visit her, and he had gravitated toward ‘Lie Cheat & Steal – The Game of Politics’ (and thoroughly enjoyed ‘bilking the public’.) She pushed him to try Scrabble also, and this proved to be a more interesting intellectual challenge. He had only shown up once while someone was there – Debbie – and she had walked right past him into the kitchen without even seeing him! He simply raised his hand in silent greeting to Sarah with a smug little smile and disappeared altogether; his visibility had to be ‘at will’, too.

Or was it? Could she only see him because of their contract? Sarah never found out.

Outside of those relatively quiet nights and afternoons socially spent in the comfort of her largely outdated home, the world kept flying by; she could hardly recognize it for what it had once been. She was glad that Dan hadn’t lived long enough to see their eldest daughter throw over her long-term boyfriend for a ‘companionship’ robot! It had been hard, but Sarah had bit her tongue; there had certainly been moments when she had been a teenager in the late 80s when she had felt like giving up on boys altogether – but not like this! The ‘relationship’ did seem to better suit Debbie’s severe egotism, as much as her mother hated to think about it.

Ethan was toying with the idea of adding extra ‘special use’ robotic limbs to his own body; he was well and truly on his way to becoming an honest-to-God cyborg. The technology had been in use medically to replace lost arms and legs for years, but insurance was just starting to pay for the medically unnecessary augmentation surgeries; he wanted extra tool-arms and a set of wings with a wireless drone attachment that would follow him, like a prototype mechanical seraphim (no word yet on what his wife and son thought of this plan – he hadn’t told them yet.) He’d only been able to communicate the idea to his mother in texts – she had a hard time understanding his speech at all anymore; he’d upgraded his mental processes almost to the point to being too fast for any meaningful communication.

Ailsa felt for her mom by now – she was having a hard time with a lot of this stuff, too, and would come over to spend time with her. It had taken decades, but her youngest could finally make eye-contact (although she still had a hard time sustaining it), and on her last visit she really shocked her mother by initiating an awkward-feeling hug – and didn’t pull away when she got squeezed back! She’d been practicing: Dylan had announced that he wanted to meet up in real-life after chatting with her online for years! She was terrified of messing it up – she’d never been in this position before – but it helped knowing that he was every bit as nervous. She couldn’t wait for her mom to meet him in person. Sarah was on pins and needles for her daughter, but she was overjoyed that she had finally found a reason to try.

Sarah had gotten rather used to the autonomous car-pods; their current use sort of reminded her of how it used to feel to take the subway in New York – especially when she was going somewhere on the highway – except that she was never shoved or accosted by strangers for any number of reasons and she always got dropped off within short walking distance of her destination. The subscription was still relatively cheap because everyone used it, and a long trip was still a good time to do some reading. She was currently on her way to the airport in a two-seater instead of the teensy singles she usually ordered (you paid by space and weight) to meet and pick up Dylan; the airport was simply too sensorially overwhelming for Ailsa – thankfully her new guy didn’t seem quite as challenged that way; his major problems had been more social than environmental. She had gotten to talk to him briefly over Skype before the trip, and Sarah had instantly taken to him: he was also shy and mostly courteous, but very, very direct and blunt in a manner she had grown accustomed to with her own daughter. The effect was sometimes funny, but she had learned how to stifle laughter (it still wasn’t polite since the ‘humor’ was almost never on purpose.) He was going to be staying at a quiet, allergen-friendly B&B near the Community Center (which had once been the library) and he and Ailsa had been planning things to do; the interaction challenge for both of them was going to be exciting.

All Sarah noticed before the accident was that the tracking on the wheels had stuttered for a split-second – before the pod abruptly spun precisely 60-degrees to the left, T-boning into the pod next to it – before getting rear-ended, many times…

…she awoke feeling narc-ed, like she was on strong pain medicine, in the ICU, with an oxygen helmet over her head. She had just barely survived a phenomenon that had been plaguing the autonomous car industry for over a decade: a systems malfunction ‘flash-crash.’ As safe as these vehicles had been touted to be in the old days – because they protected the public from reckless drivers, road rage and human error – widespread grid use of them had introduced an entirely new range of problems, from sensors that didn’t work because they were covered up with just a little mud, snow or ice, to severe software and intercommunication malfunctions – some accidental, some the deliberate works of cyberterrorism. They were actually twice as likely to crash as the old gas-guzzlers, and the errors usually seemed arbitrary. As soon as Sarah was conscious, a display had come onto the big screen on the wall in front of her, angled so she could more easily see it from the bed (she could feel the electrodes ‘glued’ to her scalp – the computer must’ve just become aware that she was awake); it calmly explained in a soothing female voice, along with large-print text, where she was, what had happened to her, and what was medically necessary for her recovery.

She was both shocked and appalled: a momentary car-to-traffic-communications server glitch had triggered a spontaneous seventeen-car pileup on the highway! There had been three instantaneous deaths on the scene, eleven transported to two hospitals by AI-operated autonomous ambulance drones (ironically enough – she had been one of them; she had been flown here just like the parcels she received in the mail?!) and the others had caught functioning shared pods to the ER. She had already been treated for second-degree chemical burns from battery acid, but she still had multiple broken bones: her left arm had been shattered by the blunt impact, and her right lung, liver, and the back of her intestinal wall had been punctured by part of the lightweight fiberglass frame of the car along with other more minor lacerations (the spear-like shard had just grazed the kidney on that side), and the major organs needed to be replaced almost immediately; the poisons leaking into her body had temporarily been staunched. The good news (from an insurance point-of-view) was that a cyber-attack had been ruled out, and that the manufacturer responsible for the maintenance of the traffic interaction system along that stretch of road had already accepted the legal blame for the accident; in lieu of a group settlement they had just transferred compensatory funds to the company who owned the fleet cars involved, paid the full hospital fees of everyone who had been injured, and given considerable settlements to the families who had lost loved ones. Her own insurance would throw in a new arm, as well as the rest of the mechanical internal components – robotic replacements for all of her internal organs – as long as they were at it; a small form of insurance against future medical problems. All she had to do was to sit tight and stay calm and cooperative – everything would be fine soon.

But it’s not! she thought, trying not to cry. It wasn’t okay! She knew what that full-system robotic organ transplant meant: it was the beginning of the process of steadily replacing and augmenting her aging, failing human components with artificial ones that could last another twenty-to-thirty years! Her insurance company could pressure her to keep getting physical updates – ‘shop work’ – by jacking up her premiums to unpayable amounts if she refused! They could keep fixing what was breaking for years and years; the rich regularly lived passed 120 now – the brain was always the last thing to be transferred. They wound up turning into AI before something major would give out, like the dermal or muscular tissue that remained; there was only so long you could draw out the shortening of the telemeres in someone’s DNA. The process was still in its early stages – that was always carefully stressed – but what it was was hideous, inhuman. Even regular stem-cell-grown implants weren’t an option anymore because they weren’t ‘wasted’ on the elderly – why give them parts that would break down faster?

She was also notified that her children had all been contacted and told that there was nothing at all to be worried about, that their mother would be out of the hospital in under a week, in more robust condition than ever.

But, really, it was the beginning of the end. And there was nothing she could do about it! What had been so wrong with letting someone live a full life and then die naturally? She had come to appreciate her late husband’s viewpoint on this – and many other things. No matter how hard he worked at it, man was not God, and it seemed that the harder he tried to fill those shoes, the worse things got. Two texts came up on the screen: one from Ailsa, apologizing profusely because she blamed herself for this and stating that she would never take the highway again herself as long as she lived… Also to tell her that Dylan had made it okay on his own and they were going to go out to dinner tonight – he only had a couple of days off from work and they had to make the most of the time; when she had come to the hospital earlier, her mother had still been in surgery, but they would both be by later. The other was from Ethan, telling her not to be afraid of the change and that it was for the best; he had gotten the go-ahead from his family and the necessary time off from work for his own augmentation surgeries – they could recover together; Skylar was looking forward to his new ‘superhero’ dad, proud of how brave he was.

It was about the last thing Sarah wanted to know. Everything was just getting crazier and crazier – what was she going to do? What could she do?!

And what of Jareth? she suddenly thought out-of-the-blue: it was his night to visit and he would be coming into an empty house in a few hours, and again a few hours after that, and then a few days later! He wouldn’t know where she was, what had happened! And he couldn’t go searching for her here, either, as far as she knew!

The videoscreen started displaying soothing images of ‘natural’ scenery (it was most likely just CGI – it was too perfect) and Sarah forced herself to calm down before a nurse or a meditation therapist was sent for. There had to be a way to contact him; she could figure this out. She had to: in the top right-hand corner of the screen, the time of her collective surgery had just been displayed – midnight. It was about 4:30 p.m. now; she must’ve been out for at least two hours!

Say your right words… That was it!!!

She must’ve been too excited in spite of the painkillers – a nurse did come in then, but rather than offering her an anti-anxiety medication she ran through a fast guided visualization exercise with her that left Sarah so groggy in her present physical and mental state that she actually nodded off again…

And was gently awoken when her daughter arrived around 7:30pm; it was a genuinely nice (if short) visit. Dylan could’ve stayed longer, but Ailsa was having to wear her protectively polarized sunglasses inside the building it was so terribly bright for her; she used only low-lumen lamps at home and had the old visual filter over her computer screen. Condolences were given and received, along with Dylan’s expressed hopes of meeting again under happier circumstances. He had tentatively taken her right hand while saying goodbye before Ailsa surprised him by taking his arm, pulling him away, saying they would be back tomorrow after the procedure, if it was allowed.

Sarah had never been so horribly torn in all her life; as per usual, she knew her altruistic side would win out and she would sacrifice herself again for her family. Leaving of her own free will was simply too selfish, too many people would be hurt… or would they? No, she couldn’t go there, as much as she missed her husband and a selfish part of her wished it could just be over – she was 87, for gods sakes! None of her own grandparents had made it past 84 – and for what?! To watch her Debbie get even more messed up by the year because she had more money than she knew what to do with and no morals? To watch her quirky, smart son metamorphose himself and his family into robots, machines that couldn’t relate to anything around them and who literally spent most of their time with their heads in the ‘Cloud’? But Ailsa – Ailsa always pulled her back from these musings; her youngest still needed her in her own way, albeit less than before… but the mother’s own sense of alienation and isolation had come to mirror her daughter’s too closely for comfort. Sarah knew now what her Aspergian child had gone through at first, growing up: going through a world where no one understood her correctly, where no one even wanted to try to relate; being bombarded by mind-boggling stimuli that she was even further ostracized for not liking; being labeled ‘weird’ because she saw and interacted with the world differently than the public at large. And even Ailsa seemed to be faring better than she was! She tried not to think about it as she counted down the hours, channel-surfing with her good hand (how many online channels were there now? Did anyone know? Some of the new shows were even being written by AI programs!)

Sarah cautiously waited until she heard less traffic in the hall outside her room. No one came in to feed her – she probably had to fast for all that surgery – but she wasn’t hungry in the least; they had to be dosing her with an appetite suppressant also. An entertainment bot rolled in around 9:45 to ask if she wanted a bedtime story, but she politely turned the thing down – and it lowered the lights in the room automatically as it left, closing the door after itself. The monitor on the wall changed contrast to a warmer shade, eliminating the blue light so that she could rest.

It was probably now or never; there wasn’t going to be a better chance. Sarah swallowed, wishing she could pray this was going to work but having a sinking feeling that that proposition was out of the question.

“I wish the Goblin King would come here…right now.”

Nothing. She sighed, closing her eyes; maybe that only worked the one way – the wording for the incantation was too darn-

“Oh, Sarah,” she heard him sigh – and opened her eyes: he was standing there beside the cot, taking her hand in his own gloved ones.

“Hi,” she said quietly with a tentative smile. “Sorry about summoning you like this, but I just wasn’t going to make it back in time tonight and I didn’t want to leave you wondering where I’d run off to.”

He raised his eyebrows, giving her a once-over. “This may be the first decent excuse you’ve ever given me,” he noted dryly. “What happened?”

“Oh, nothing out of the ordinary,” she matched his own smooth style of sarcasm, mimicking his voice – making him smile, “just a little computer glitch that cost a few people their lives and sent a bunch more of us here. Shit like this happens all the time,” she gave him a grim little lip-smile of her own.

The amusement dropped off his face; he looked at her left arm, which was currently cocooned in white fabric. “How much damage did you sustain?”

“Plenty – I’m schedules to get robo-organs and a new appendage in a couple hours.”

He looked surprised. “I thought you were against this sort of thing!”

“I wasn’t exactly given a choice; this was what was paid for.” She hadn’t meant to say that so bitterly, but it had come out that way anyway.

His expression softened into something closer to pity. “And they won’t fix you up the old way? Even if you asked?”

“It isn’t cost-efficient, Jareth – it isn’t done anymore.” She paused a moment. “What am I going to do?! I…” Her heart-rate had raised slightly, but she took some deep breaths, lowering it again. “I have to be careful in here,” she explained, “all my body systems are being monitored. You wouldn’t believe the number of probes I’ve got stuck on me right now.”

He tisked. “And I thought I was a ‘control freak’.” He furrowed his brow in thought. “Was that a serious question, Sarah?”

“At this point – yeah,” she laughed a little half-heartedly.

His gaze was upon the bulges that hid the machinery and tubing beneath her soft, warm blankets, but his expression was very far away indeed. “Do you want for me to end this? I could – it would actually be very easy for me to do. But you would have to formally wish it.”

“I can’t do that!” she exclaimed. “That would be assisted suicide – it’s an unforgivable sin!”

His eyes immediately shot back up to hers, suddenly wary. “You’ve converted.”

“Hey, you try facing down old age not knowing if there’s going to be anybody waiting there to catch you on the other side!”

“You realize that makes two decent excuses in the same evening? It really did take you eighty years to mature, didn’t it?”

Silence again. It had been a bad thought in the first place, but Sarah had had a suspicion that he did have that power; she wouldn’t have ever directly brought it up herself, though – it wasn’t a viable option. When she looked back to Jareth, though, she could barely believe that it was him: he looked… different. Older, perhaps, but it was more than that. What it was suddenly dawned on her: he wasn’t hiding his true appearance from her anymore – the faerie-glamour was gone! He was still not uncomely to look at, but his features, the cast of his face, looked decidedly alien to her now, his perennially teasing dual-colored eyes rendered ageless, near-feral. It would have made her terribly uncomfortable if she hadn’t known him casually as a person for the past sixty years! He was taking off the makeup, in a manner of speaking; it was hardly necessary for either of them to be worrying about physically impressing each other anymore, she thought. Way past time, really.

He saw her muted reaction to the change – and genuinely grinned; his teeth looked sharper, too. “I had to test you, to see if you could handle the reality, before I brought this up. There is one other option, Sarah, and it is nearly as costly in regards to what you would lose in this world. I could heal you – make your body perform the repairs organically, make you young again, healthy, whole… but you would have to come Underground with me afterwards, never to return to Earth again. I can free you from this world and hold you from the next for a while; where your soul ultimately goes after you’re physically through in my realm is far beyond my jurisdiction. Those are your choices as I see them – stay or go.” He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb, looking down at it. “You still have no idea how lucky you are to have a choice, Sarah,” he whispered – did his voice just break?

She couldn’t take her eyes off of him – this was the most honest he’d ever been with her for as long as she’d known him; he trusted her this much. She squeezed his hand. “What good is having choices when you can’t even choose?” she almost cried.

He took a deep breath and playfully regarded her sideways. “You always choose your family, no matter what the cost. Are they still worth choosing, though?”

She just stared at him. “What in the world kind of question is that?!” she laughed.

He was unperturbed. “Clearly the wrong tack to take; I am trying to help, Sarah – you know my standards are not your species’. All right,” he conceded, “what about your Daniel,” he only half-taunted for a change and he threw out the name at her. “What would he want?”

Sarah looked away. “He’d be against all of this. He’d want me to ‘come home’ to him… but that’s a conscious choice I’m not allowed to make.”

He moved in closer. “Let me help you, Sarah; you don’t really want all of this junk, either – it’s an anathema to what you truly are,” he stroked her long hair that fell outside the helmet onto the sheets. “Let me take you away from here to somewhere you can actually be happy; let me set you free! You’ve given your children an entire lifetime – just this once think of yourself! If you go through with this procedure, you’re going to come to regret it and to resent who you did it for, for the rest of your unnaturally, uncomfortably long life. Will there be anything left in this place for you to love, to truly and willfully enjoy, in another twenty years? In thirty, forty even? Every time we meet you complain of it more to me, of how the changes are ruining everything, even your precious family. You really think that’s going to get better? That man will one day wake up and spontaneously decide to be a sensible, selfless being?” he archly mocked. “Take the word of someone who’s been watching this process for far longer than you have: it isn’t going to happen. Humanity will continue to be destructive until its been destroyed. I’m giving you the chance to not be a victim of this madness any longer. And I would never have brought this up had you been any younger than you are, or in any better of condition.”

“…but I can’t just disappear! What will my children think?!”

Ocean waves suddenly appeared on the screen, accompanied by the sounds of a quiet surf.

“Don’t fret so, dear human lady,” he purred – he’d never called her that! “You leave that up to me – I can arrange for everything, and more than I have yet offered.”

“Why does that make me not want to trust you?” she studied him a bit cautiously.

He shook his head in reproval. “You have more than earned my friendship, Sarah – something I would have never believed you could do at all. I am not about to abandon my best friend – yes, I said that – in her direst hour of need. Let me save you,” he breathed.

The display reverted back to screensaver and vitals.

“What would you have to do to… do this?” Sarah ventured.

He lightly stroked her inner wrist – and she gasped at the almost fantastical freefall sensation! A seductive little pout of a lip-smile overtook his features. “I would have to kiss you again, to gain temporary access to your bioelectrical field and the integrated physical systems, to will them to do what we want.”

“So that’s the real reason you want to do this,” she suddenly flirted. “I still turn you on at 87, huh? Got a thing for geriatrics?”

“Sarah, I’m being perfectly serious,” he answered her levelly, “this is no game. The process will take less than a minute to complete.”

Her jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me.”

He shook his head solemnly. “I could attempt it without the full connection, but I couldn’t guarantee the results. It would be simplicity itself with ‘full access to the control panel’, shall we say: this is literally a matter of proximity.”

“Have you done this before?”

“No,” he admitted, shrugging – his shoulders looked too thin without the glamour, his build far slighter – “but the basic principle is physically and biologically sound. It’ll work.”

He had very nearly convinced her, but Sarah was still wavering…and then that feather-light pressure of his fingertips drifted higher up the inside of her arm, and her thoughts were swept away by pleasure.

“You’re trying to seduce me into joining your side,” she lightly scolded him.

“I am fervently attempting to persuade you to make the right decision,” he easily corrected her. “Believe me, Sarah, if I was trying to seduce you, you would know.” He repeated the easy motion.

But she caught his wandering hand; she could not think straight with him doing that! “I’m not going to wind up being addicted to you again, am I?”

“No, I think not; I would be far too preoccupied this time for that to happen.”

“And I won’t be trapped in Faerie for tens of thousands of years – I never forgot that comment, J. This isn’t a personal dig, but you’re basically trying to sell me on the ‘extra-natural-lifespan-in-Faerie-versus-an-artificially-long-one-here’ plan; there aren’t any special contract clauses to this thing that I need to be aware of, are there?”

“No,” he said gently. “Well, maybe just the one, but it’s minor: I will hold your soul for as long as it takes to burn down one of my tapers when you finally do pass away – it’s just an old habit, Sarah. Is that objectionable to you? That I would want to hold your soul in my hands and take warmth and comfort from its glow before you leave?”

“…but, the other tapers…”

“Are a special case – and that’s all you need to know,” he said with finality. “You are in a very different category.” He could still see the questioning in her eyes. “Have I ever done wrong by you, Sarah, while we have been friends?” he asked sadly. “Have I ever failed you somehow? Can’t you simply have a little faith in me, that I could never bring myself to truly cause you harm?”

His plaint cut her to the quick, and Sarah looked away, ashamed. Here was the one person she had left who actually did care about her for herself, not just what they could get out of her, emotionally, financially, conveniently. Sure, it had started out that way in a very blunt (and bizarrely honest) sense, but their odd-couple really had turned into a genuine friendship right around the time that Ailsa had finally moved out – it was almost funny thinking of it now. No one else involved in this situation cared at all, about what she wanted or didn’t want. She should have the right to say what happened to her own body – no one else had that right, not while she was still sound in mind! And if she did nothing tonight – if she endured it and stayed – she would lose that right, and only God knew what would happen to her before she was finally allowed to die. If she was allowed to ever truly pass on…


She went to nod quickly before she could think about it anymore – only to find that she couldn’t bend her neck! Was she really that well numbed up? Apparently so!

“Yes,” she said instead.

Jareth’s face practically lit up. “What must I do to render this room secure? Anything I don’t know about?”

She heard the unmistakable sound of a deadbolt sliding into place in the door – when it couldn’t have even had one in the first place! “There’s an emergency oxygen robot in the closet that’ll probably activate and come out when you take my helmet off – I’m down a lung and this thing’s giving me extra air.”

He stalked over to the closet on the left-side of the room (his gait looked too long for his body in his more ‘natural’ form) and after only a moment’s concentration facing the thin sliding door, he chuckled.

“They’re far easier to manipulate now that they’re programmed to ‘think’ like humans; I just put it in a trance – it won’t disturb us,” he turned, and walked back to her. “Now, as for you…”

Carefully folding down her blankets, he could see just how hooked in she was: there were two non-invasive probes on each of her feet and another wrapped around the region of her thoracic vertebrae, along with the tubes that were feeding liquids and nutrient-rich blood into her veins and a temporary catheter since she was basically immobilized. She was heavily bandaged on the left side where those stupid burns had been (they had to have detoxed her of the compounds, too – no wonder she had been so wiped out!) as well as where the other deep wounds were on her right side; the tissues had been glued together, but it was far from a permanent fix. Other than that she really wasn’t seriously hooked into that much, relatively-speaking. Without a word, obviously concentrating, the Goblin King commenced his own delicate series of operations – first putting the bed into ‘standby’ mode so it wouldn’t recognize the extra weight – slowly, deliberately removing the non-invasive probes one by one, forcing the information they had been receiving to continue on loop so that their absence wouldn’t be missed.

“Last bathroom call before the trip?” he teased her before removing the catheter, putting down the sidebar and climbing up onto the mattress, perching beside her on the edge. The tubes in her veins only gave him slight pause: he suddenly put one hand under her back on the truck-side… and searing heat accompanied the removal of the inserted items, then stopped just as suddenly. Sarah’s eyes about popped out of her head when she saw what had happened: the skin and veins were completely healed up! And not just healed – there were no wrinkles or age discoloration for a five-inch circumference radiating from that area!

She looked back to him, both disbelieving and excited: he really could do this! Catching her look of surprised delight, he countered it with his own smug one, like saying, ‘I told you so.’ All that remained was the helmet; Sarah couldn’t sit up, so he had to adjust her pillows somewhat to remove it, doing his best not to move her; she panted a little without it. It took a while to undo all the electrodes on her scalp; he insisted on washing out the glue manually using soap and water from the sink in the room, getting her pillow all wet. Unencumbered by all the medical equipment – a glance behind him at that screen confirmed the illusion of her still-stable diagnostics – he carefully climbed over Sarah, straddling her without putting down any of his weight on her broken body, and crawled forward, leaning in close. For a moment he stroked her wrinkled face with the backs of his fingertips as he had done the fateful day they had met; he was not smiling, but his expression was tender.

“I will warn you before I begin that this accelerated healing process will not be terribly pleasant for you; you will feel itching and fire as you have never experienced in your entire life. But you have my word that I will not make you endure it any longer than absolutely necessary. This is simply the human body’s reaction to being driven in ‘high-gear’ – you remember what that means,” he briefly smiled. “Energy produces heat; that’s just basic physics. All right?”

“Yes – wait! The transportation crystal you gave me: it’s still in my house!”

“Not anymore it isn’t,” the item appeared in his hands.

“And I wish all the books I have left were in your library… right now.”

He gasped in genuine shock, his eyes widening. “Sarah… you can’t-”

“I just did,” she saucily answered, sounding much more like her old self. “They’re going to have to last us for a while. My kids don’t want them; they’ll just get recycled.”

“No more items,” he stated sternly. “That will look strange enough.”

She smiled up at him, though. “Ready when you are,” she sighed, reaching up with her right hand to run her fingers through that crazy, silky mane as he lowered to her lips.

“Whatever happens, don’t let go of me,” his strangely beautiful, inhuman eyes filled her vision. “Everything is going to be all right.”

And then he kissed her… and Sarah could swear lightning was coursing through her body! She was on fire – not from lust, but from the immense energy careening through her systems, through all her tissues! Tears flowed down her face, but he held her steady, first cupping her face to his, then supporting her head, then her back as he lowered himself onto her, absently fidgeting with undoing the wrappings on her left arm. Her breathing was normal again already – both punctures in her lung were gone! And a few seconds later she physically convulsed against him as the scar tissue from her external injuries scabbed over, itched like hell, and smoothed clear in the blink of an eye! Her left arm that would’ve been amputated as a lost cause in under two hours wrapped around his back, joining her right, pressing him to her. She was sweating and her heart was pounding from the extreme physical exertion, but the changes kept on coming – she could feel the wrinkled skin of her face going taut, her breasts filling again, her muscle tone coming back! The hair of her head was growing at an utterly insane rate – and she was suddenly hungry, starving. Thirsty. The process was still going, though, his kiss deep and methodical; it was just one long liplock. The burning was getting worse again – much worse – especially from the region of her kidneys for some strange reason. He was driving her body past any point of physical exhaustion she had ever known – dark brown hair flowed down across the side of her face in her peripheral vision! She nearly screamed from the unbearable heat - her head was throbbing from the physical commands overload - there was a sudden, violent spasm of pain that seemed to come from all of her at once - he clutched her so tightly he could’ve broken her-

And the sensation let up on a dime. The process was complete! It took her a second to realize that they were standing now, with him still supporting her, still sharing that long, languorous kiss. When he pulled away, she felt no hunger for him as she had the first time! She was so happy she could burst and she hugged him – he’d really and truly done it! They were in his tower and it was morning; she nearly laughed, seeing her piles of books everywhere all over the floor.

But then the sadness in his eyes registered as he stepped back, removing himself from her embrace, looking her over, and she looked down herself – and saw that she was dressed all in white… just like her husband had been!

‘You liar!’ she angrily screamed in his face, ready to hit him – then covered her mouth instead, her eyes wide: no sound had come out!

Jareth calmly walked over to the little table…fetching her brilliantly burning taper. “You’d be needing this to roundly scold me, dear,” he said quietly with a bittersweet little smile. “I had to – it was the only was to save you from yourself, without you being held accountable for my actions,” he answered, watching as the full implications of what he had most likely brought upon himself came over her. The voiceless concern in her eyes was worth volumes.

He shook his head. “There’s no point in troubling yourself over me,” he looked down, away. “I fell from any grace I may have had long ago. What will happen will happen. You won’t so much as remember my name in under five seconds once you get where you are going,” he teased, looking back, seeming more relaxed again – but Sarah was elated; she had been so busy worrying about others that she hadn’t even thought…

‘Daniel!’ she mouthed rapturously.

The king rolled his eyes, but nodded. The tall taper had already lost two inches and was quickly losing a third, the tallow being completely consumed, nothing lost. “You’ll be with your sainted husband soon enough. Now,” he grabbed her hand – hard – bringing her mentally back, “we haven’t much time: you never allowed me to repay your for your gifts of reading material, and now look what you’ve gone and done!” he exclaimed, sweepingly gesturing to the mess behind him with a frowning grin! “I will not be held in a dead woman’s debt for the rest of all time! I cannot grant you anything in your current state; you must pass it onto one of your descendents, blood kin, now who is it to be? Decide quickly!” The taper had lost another three inches while he spoke!

Sarah briefly thought to tease him by dragging this out… but the afterlife was too serious to tease about, and, besides, she already knew – and mouthed the name clearly.

The king sighed. “It just had to be that one.”

She smiled so brightly he actually averted his eyes, nodding. “So be it, as you wish.”

She grabbed his own arm and he looked back: her expression was terribly serious. He laughed.

“Have no fear, my Sarah, I am well-acquainted with your moral policy concerning these things: ‘firstly, do no harm.’”

She only slowly let go of him. The look remained a moment longer. The taper had just dropped to under the last two inches, and he held it out for her.

“Go on, take it, it can’t hurt you – it’s you,” he said – and she gingerly accepted it, cradling it in her left palm, watching it go down. He took her right hand, intertwining his thin, old fingers with her own newly young ones. “I shall miss our talks,” he said quietly. Then smirked. “And beating you at poker. But it is your time.”

One inch, half-an-inch… She looked up into his eyes, hers full of excited expectation-

And then her soul dissolved the temporary barrier that had caused her tentative corporality and she vanished – leaving his hand empty. He solemnly stared at the space where she had stood only moments before… then walked through it, pacing out to his balcony to take in the daylight again…

When the fire crew finally broke down the door to Sarah’s room in the ICU of the hospital and the staff was able to enter, one of the nurses – not someone new or squeamish, mind you – fainted dead away at the sight.

For there on the cot, amidst discarded sensors and tubing that was leaking biohazardous liquids all over the tile floor, was the dead body of an eighteen-year-old girl – with no physical damage whatsoever! A chaplet of pale-blue wildflowers crowned her very long, fairytale-like hair… that was abruptly steel-gray halfway down?! And she did in fact resemble very strongly the old woman who should’ve been in here, who was overdue in the operation theater for full internal transplants and a new left arm! There was no explaining it – it made absolutely no sense! DNA testing confirmed that it was indeed the frail, battered 87-year-old grandmother who had been brought in not half-a-day ago, but her metamorphosis seemed scientifically impossible…

Until they received the okay from her immediate next-of-kin to perform expeditious research on the cadaver to try to find the answer – if it was some biological fluke, they were on the brink of one of the biggest medical discoveries in human history! Her internal organs told quite a different story, however; shriveled was a good initial visual description, but that just scratched the surface of what had really happened. It seemed that the cause of death was an unnaturally accelerated entropy, one that cannibalized her vital tissues for superficial regeneration! Those organs of hers were biologically over 140-years-old! It was a freak tragedy – and there was certainly no way to ascertain what the trigger had been. The findings were kept quiet and the family was pushed to cremate her – which they didn’t. The result was simply too miraculous to mar, in an awful sort of way.

Almost as disturbing a finding as that corpse were the flowers in her hair: the species was completely unknown – not just rare, unknown. Light-blue buds with ‘pink’-like petal formations growing on a woody vine; placed in water, they kept on growing and spreading, forming roots but no leaves! Samples were sent to major horticultural biologists around the country for attempted identification: there was none. It was a new species entirely – nothing was related to it! Where had it come from? The whole scenario was straight out of an alien-abduction movie!

And it certainly made Ethan think twice about his upcoming augmentations, even questioning some of the work he’d already had done: useful progress was one thing – evolution, even – but was it all worth the risk of a premature death? Had he inherited the gene that caused this? Was there any way to know? He put off his subsequent procedures for a few months, then cancelled them altogether and started working to dissuade his son from making the same mistake (the major work was legal starting at age 21, and Skylar would be in another month.) The news didn’t affect Debbie quite as profoundly as her brother, but it still made an impact; the sudden death was far more shocking. She had come to expect that by the time she was that age, death would’ve been eradicated completely; there was no need to worry about some distant Judge in an a mythical afterlife if you never had to go there, if you could have your heaven here on Earth and eat it, too. She didn’t tell anyone, but she downgraded her companion ‘Fabio’ to the ‘platonic friendship’ setting; ‘he’ was fine with the new arrangement, of course.

Ailsa was the only one to connect the clean theft of every last reading material in her parents’ old house with their mother’s death. There was something terribly spooky about the whole thing. She couldn’t explain it, but she’d had this gut feeling pretty much her entire life that her mother had been hiding something from them; no real proof, just instinct, you would call it. As if she were protecting them – but from what? Would there ever be an answer? She knew no one would ever believe her; it would just be ‘Ailsa getting lost in her imagination again.’ But – somehow – she knew. She planted a sample cutting of those alien wildflowers by the side of the house – just to see if they would grow, a physical testament to her mother’s hidden life – and in a single season they had climbed to the roof like creeping ivy, engulfing the west wall in leafless, dead-looking vines with impossibly sweet-smelling, pale-blue blossoms. (The subsequent owners of the property could never eradicate them, even with seemingly complete soil transplants and slash-burning of the roots: it was more noxious than bindweed! Or ‘resilient’ – it all depended on how often you wanted to be pruning to be able to open your windows and find your front door!)

As for Sarah’s ethereal-seeming ‘shell’, she was given a closed-casket funeral and interred next to her husband in the church cemetery. The top-half of the lid had been briefly open for the family’s private reception before the rest of the congregation arrived and the service got started, though. And as she came up the remains of her mother – seemingly younger than she had been when even Debbie was a baby – Ailsa noticed something odd: her mother’s hands had been folded as if she was only in repose (still common practice in the funeral industry), but her perfect fingers were folded over something… Seeing that no one else was paying attention, absorbed in their devices (when weren’t they?), she carefully pried it out of her rigor-mortis-tight grasp.

It was a small crystal ball, not quite three inches in diameter, about the kind that she had seen people use to contact-juggle at the renaissance festivals that her father used to abhor – not half as much for the drinking as for the horrible historical inaccuracies perpetuated to general public! The memory made her nostalgic.

And then it hit her as to why this object had seemed so familiar, and she instantly went cold, her eyes widening. For, you see, while it is true as a general rule that small children cannot form permanent memories until they are three years of age, children with certain variants of autism can develop permanent memories much, much earlier, and Ailsa had very specific snapshot-like memories that went back as far as seven-months-old. She had just remembered

Meanwhile, the creature who had fashioned himself Goblin King, who had been calling himself Jareth for so long that he had almost convinced himself of it, was watching the interment from across the street in his ‘totem’ form (humans and their need to label everything), waiting for them to leave so that he could tail Sarah’s youngest daughter back to her apartment complex – to play her ‘fairy-godfather’ by granting her biggest wish. And hoping to begin the process of what her mother had termed ‘The Friendship Contract’ all over again, with her, starting out on his very best behavior this time in spite of the fact that she’d literally cost him one of his minions some time ago. He may have been screwed in the end, he reflected, but that didn’t mean he had to be bored in the interim. Or lonely; Sarah had inadvertently taught him that. As the correct car-pod finally pulled away, he casually took off after it, mentally readying himself to step onto the merry-go-round ride of another human life.
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