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How does it work?

Death, I mean. How does it work? That was the point of the entire study– the trial. What happens when we die, where do we go, what does it feel like, and is it even worth the hassle? Is there a heaven? A hell?

We didn’t know, but we wanted to. I suppose that’s where everything went wrong, right out of the gate. We wanted to play God, or at least learn the rules of the game. To see behind the curtain for just a moment, if only so we could know what to expect when the lights went out and we said that final goodnight.

I’m telling you now, swearing to you that we never intended for things to go wrong the way that they did. The people that lost their lives knew what they were getting into. They signed releases. Paperwork. They agreed to let us do what we did, just so long as we promised to handsomely compensate their families. And we did. We held up our end of the bargain to the tune of 13 million dollars.

But things like this, never work out the way they’re meant to. I knew that. I did. I think that on some level all of us did, but the people who were funding us had no idea. They wanted results. Be messy, they said, if that’s what it takes. Do whatever you need to do to figure out what happens in the sequel to Life, and make it snappy because this funding is running on an hourglass, and that sand is slipping.

So we cut corners. We pushed people in ways that, in retrospect, were irresponsible. Dangerous. But we did it for the common good. We did it for you– for all of us, for the benefit of future generations who could look death in the eye without the horror of not knowing what came next.

It was a good thing. It really was.

The first death went smoothly. An older woman, 87 years old and dying of liver failure was hooked up to our state-of-the-art equipment that had one job and one job only: to bring them back. To let them taste the cold kiss of death, and then tear their soul back into the land of the living long enough to give us a play-by-play of what happened while they were away. I know, I know. This has happened before. People have come back from clinical death plenty of times, haven’t they? Sure. That’s true.

But never after three days.

The three-day timeline was a tricky one because even though the corpse was dead, even though the cadaver was cold and beginning to cellularly decompose, we needed to keep it fresh enough to host life. Don’t get me wrong, the life it hosted didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough. I still remember the pulse of excitement that shot through the room when the old woman opened her eyes. Her first rancid breath drew applause.

“Agnes,” Roger, our research lead said. He stood by her bedside, craned over her wearing a toque and gloves. “Can you hear my voice?”

The woman nodded. More applause. We watched the two of them from behind a layer of one-way glass, all of us in our lab coats while Roger communed with her breathing corpse in what was practically a freezer. Their voices carried over a loudspeaker.

“Where… am I?” Agnes gasped, her throat trembling with the strain of vocalizing. “I’m… tired.”

“You’re with friends,” Roger said. “Safe.”

Roger turned to us, grinning with a thumbs up. We’d successfully brought back our first subject, and not only was she alive– she was communicating. Lucid. He turned back to her, likely knowing we had a limited window to extract the information we needed.

“Do you remember the study you agreed to be a part of?”

Agnes’ eyes opened wide, and her pupils seemed to jolt around like ping pong balls. “Death,” she muttered. “Death.”

Roger nodded, running a hand through her thinning hair. “That’s right, Agnes. We wanted to know what happens to the soul after death, and you agreed to take that journey and return to us. You’re the first human being to have done so. Congratulations.”

I’ll never forget what happened next. She gazed up at him, those rolling eyes and that absent voice, and she gripped the front of his shirt with a shuddering, frail hand. He leaned closer to her, no doubt thinking she wanted to speak into his ear.

“We belong…” she said, her chest beginning to heave. “To them.”

Roger, looked at us, his expression confused. He shook his head. “Agnes, I’m sorry. To whom are you referring?”

Her legs jerked sideways, her spine arching as she began to thrash on the slab. Blood leaked from the corners of her eyes. Roger, concerned, attempted to hold her body so she wouldn’t injure herself and compromise what little time she had left to communicate. He ordered more of us in. I hurried to his side with three others.

“We belong,” she said again, and this time her voice was stronger, as though empowered by her agony. “To the… forgotten…”

Even with four of us on her, each holding a limb she was rioting with a strength that could only be described as inhuman. It took everything I had to hold her scrawny blue wrist to the slab. Beside us the machine monitoring her vitals began to beep violently, indicating levels grossly out of range.

“What comes next,” she hissed, and smoke began to drift up from her mouth, “is worse… than any hell.”

Before we could ask further– before we could subdue her and help her pass peacefully, she went still on the slab. Her limbs fell limp. Her buzzing pupils stilled. Her mouth ceased to smoke, and her head lolled to the side.

Agnes Mick had died for the second time.

We had her corpse carted to the morgue for an autopsy and discovered that her brain showed signs of hemorrhaging, her heart had partially ruptured in her chest, and most bizarrely of all, her vocal cords had been seared. As if something had lit them aflame.

Her results were ominous, to say the least, but we were intelligent enough to know that a sample size of one does not a conclusion make, and so we eagerly awaited our second subject. This one was a young boy named Jacob. He’d been struck by a vehicle in a hit and run and fallen into a coma. His parents never had an opportunity to say goodbye, and so they agreed to allow us to perform our study so long as they were there for his revival.

The process was similar to Agnes’. Jacob lay unmoving on the slab in the freezer room, wires and diodes hooked up to his chest and temples, a white sheet draped across him. By his side stood Roger, and both of the boy’s parents, all of them clad in toques and gloves.

“Are you ready?” Roger asked.

“Yes,” they said. We all waited behind the glass with heart-pounding anticipation. Roger clicked a few keys on the computer console, and the machine began its mechanical song. A moment later and the screen flashed green as it initiated its AFTERLIFE sequence, filling Jacob’s unmoving cadaver with a myriad of electrical pulses designed to shock his brain into functioning.

The boy’s feet, dangling outside the white cloth, began to twitch. Then his fingertips. His mother and father looked at one another, grasping hands as they waited for the son to return to them. Hopeful tears leaked from the corners of their eyes, their lips mouthing silent words of affirmation as they prepared to say goodbye to their son.

Screaming filled the room.

It burst through the loudspeaker like an explosion, causing all of us watching to jump and scatter, our primal nervous systems fleeing while we attempted to uncover the source. But the source, I think, was always obvious even if we didn’t want to believe it.

It was coming from Jacob.

He lay there, his toes and fingertips twitching as his mouth hung open in an ear-splitting scream, his mother and father crowding him in horror, doing their best to calm him. Assuage his pain. His confusion. His horror.

It’s difficult to describe the sound of Jacob’s scream. I’m hesitant to say it was human, let alone the sound of a nine-year-old boy. It was most similar, I feel, to a drowning sheep. It was an anguished bleating sound, one that seemed never-ending, and yet it told a terrifying story all on its own.

Eventually, Jacob’s parents made the decision to pull the plug on their son. It was the second time they’d made the decision in a little under a week.

The last subject was the one that stuck with me. The one that haunts me to this day, and the reason I’m writing this now, sharing this with all of you. It was a woman named Charlotte. Young. Vibrant. In the prime of her life. Charlotte was an eccentric woman from a wealthy and educated family. She had spent her mid-twenties traveling the world, primarily across portions of South America as she researched content for her book The Meaning of Life.

A self-described shaman, Charlotte put great stock in the spiritual practices of different cultures. She’d participated in hundred of rituals across dozens of tribes. She’d tried everything from peyote to DMT, leveraging any drug she could get her hands on that promised psychedelic insights. Despite the heavy usage, Charlotte appeared to be perfectly clear-headed and not at all negatively impacted– to put it simply, she was as healthy as could be.

That’s why we found it strange when she approached our small project and asked to be included. When we informed her it was only for those suffering from terminal afflictions, she asked if she could be added to the list anyway. Sort of like an organ donor. We agreed.

Charlotte killed herself the following weekend.

Bullet through the skull. Quick and likely painless, though it’s impossible to know for certain. Many times such acts of suicide last longer than the subject intends. Either way, we had our third volunteer.

Charlotte’s parents were initially opposed to the idea, but we informed them that we had her written, legal consent. They asked to meet us halfway, to be there when she returned. After the situation with Jacob, however, we disallowed them from participating in the trial. The science is new, you understand. It’s possible that emotional catalysts like family figures may have an adverse effect on brains so far removed from life.

No, we said. We’ll bring her back and we’ll tell you everything that she says, and that will be that.

So they relented. No lawsuit. No drama. We were free to bring Charlotte back from death in three days’ time, and that’s exactly what we did. The scenario played out like the others before. The freezing room. The beeping machine. The diodes sprinkled across her body and the white sheet draped over her torso. Roger stood beside her, operating the machine while we monitored the readings. His fingers danced across the keyboard and the screen glowed with the words AFTERLIFE SEQUENCE INITIATED.

Once again we watched from behind the glass. Once again Roger waited patiently, a hopeful smile on his face. Twenty seconds passed and nothing occurred– not so much as a twitch of a toe or a flick of an eyelash. Charlotte’s corpse remained every bit as dead as the day we carted her in. A minute went by and we still saw no sign of resurrection.

Roger looked back to the machine, shaking his head and he removed his gloves, evidently wondering if he’d hit a wrong key with his mitts. He began the sequence again. The machine buzzed and words flashed green across the screen once more, but Charlotte lay still.

“Elliot,” he said to me, his voice ringing out over the loudspeaker. “Can you come inside and check this out? I think it might be malfunctioning.”

I swallowed. I’d triple-checked the machine and made sure it was functioning to specification, just as it had the last two times. Still, I nodded from behind the two-way glass and opened the door to the freezer. As I stepped inside the -30 room, I pulled a set of gloves and toque from the wall and began my appraisal of the system. The wires checked out. The program was running to spec. All the diodes were in the correct place.

“I don’t see any issues here,” I said, shivering.

Roger frowned, looking back to Charlotte’s cadaver. He placed his hands on his hips and cursed, wondering if somehow we’d encountered a dud. “Maybe some people can’t be brought back,” he theorized.

I opened my mouth to respond but something about Charlotte caught my eye. It was her lips. They were pulled into a thin grin, and black fluid was leaking from between them. “Have you… seen… it?” she muttered.

Roger and I exchanged looks and he slipped me a wink. “Well done,” he whispered. “Now get back behind the glass.” I did, not wanting to impact the experiment any more than I already had.

“Charlotte,” Roger said. “Do you remember the study you agreed to participate in?”

She took a deep breath, and her body rolled upwards into a sitting position. This was new. Neither of the last subjects showed anywhere near that level of physical control. Her blond hair fell down around her as her cloth slipped onto the floor. “I remember… putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger.”

Roger looked back at us uneasily, as though unsure how to proceed. “Yes,” he said after a moment. “Your parents were wondering if they had hurt you in some way or–”

“No,” she wheezed, and her head snapped sideways to look at Roger. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but looking back there was something decidedly twisted about her eyes. Much like Anges’ there were buzzing around her skull, her pupils darting about like ricocheting hockey pucks, but this time her mouth was a tight smile. This time she appeared to be in control. Aware. “I killed myself because I needed to know my nightmares… weren’t real.”

Around me, researchers were hastily recording details of her interaction– her words, her appearance, her biological readings. I gazed on in abject horror. I think that even then I knew that something awful was about to happen. I had that feeling, the one deep down in your gut that appears just before a car accident, or just before somebody’s about to fall.

“And what was that?” Roger said, his voice breaking as he stood next to Charlotte’s buzzing pupils. “What came next after you died?”

“Everything,” she muttered, sweeping a leg off of the slab, “…that I feared.” Her pale foot hit the linoleum floor with a dull slap. Then the other followed. She took a shaking breath and then pushed herself off of the table until she was standing naked in front of Roger. “What do you think happens after we die….doctor?”

Roger looked sidelong at us from behind the two-way glass, his expression somewhere between nervous and fascinated. “I’m not certain,” he said. “We all believe different things, I suppose. We were hoping you could answer that for us, Charlotte.”

Charlotte laughed, I think. It’s hard to say, but she threw back her head and started choking irregularly. “We believe… believe… believe…” she repeated the word as though tasting it. “We believe so many different things and we so desperately want them to be true, but the only truth… is that we return to the forgotten.”

The forgotten. It was a phrase we’re heard before from Agnes. One in which I’d assumed it referred to human beings, like those who died in meaningless wars or in periods of widespread misfortune, and yet the emphasis that Charlotte placed upon it…

“The forgotten?” Roger repeated, taking a step back from Charlotte’s hunched-over body. It was miraculous that she was standing at all, but that she remained living after several minutes was something neither of the other two subjects managed. “What are the forgotten?”

“Not what… but who.” Charlotte reached out, placing a pale hand on either side of Roger’s shoulders. We watched with our breath held. She lurched forward, planting her blue, decaying lips on his. They touched only for a second before Roger instinctively pushed her backward, causing her to stumble against the metal slab. She laughed again in that choking, rasping chorus, sliding onto the linoleum floor.

Roger rushed to her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to but–”

“Our minds are finely made,” she wheezed, not seeming to care. “They evolved over… millennia to mask the reality of our situation. To mask the bitter… bitter truth of the universe.” She spat black bile onto the floor, wiping at her lips with a shaking hand. “You want to know what happens… when we die, doctor? We return to the abyss that birthed us.”

The room around me began to murmur, some in interest, others in terror. I merely watched on, my heart racing and my mouth dry.

“I put a bullet through my skull,” Charlotte continued, “…because I had a vision of the end. I saw our makers, and they were dressed in… dying stars and empty space. They were hopeless. Empty. But just like us… they wanted medicine. A way to feel.”

Roger knelt beside Charlotte as her voice grew quieter with every agonizing word. “We are their medicine,” she rasped. “Our minds are primed for love, for joy, and for pleasure… and when we die, they feed on us. They leave our souls empty and rotting until we’re rebirthed into the next human, a little less whole… a little less complete.” Once again that thin smile twisted its way across her blue lips. “…a little closer to putting a bullet through our skulls.”

Roger waved at us, indicating that he wanted to make sure every second of this was being properly recorded. Then, he turned back to her. “What else can you tell us?”

“That we began with… meaning. But as they fed… and they fed, we grew emptier…more incomplete. Collectively, the human soul… withered.” Black bile poured from her lips now. It streaked down her pale body, pooling around her trembling legs like blood from a butchered lamb. “Look around you. Do you feel… the rage? The… hatred and the pain? It’s consuming the human race like a… plague, and bit by bit… we’re getting worse. Not better. Soon we’ll have nothing left to feel. No love… no joy. Just… emptiness.”

Roger’s mouth hung open. His voice stuttered as he attempted to formulate a response, to articulate why she must be wrong– at least, that’s what I had hoped for. I’d hoped for anybody to stand up and say this was all a farce, and the experiment had been compromised and none of this could be true. But nobody did.

Charlotte reached up and gripped Roger by the front of his shirt. “If you want to know what comes next… I can show you.”

Roger looked at us then through the glass, his eyes wide with shock and fear. He looked at us one last time and I think he was waiting for somebody to shake their heads, to tell him that no, that was a bad idea. That he should decline. But we were all too shaken, I think. We weren’t thinking straight.

So he nodded. He nodded and leaned into Charlotte, and then the lights flickered and the freezer and our observation room were both plunged into darkness. The blackout lasted for just a second. Maybe two. But it was long enough for everything to go wrong.

When the light returned, the glass was cracked and the machine was wailing a metallic tone. Roger lay in front of Charlotte’s naked corpse, his head face-down in the pool of bile, smoke drifting up from his slack-jawed mouth. Charlotte’s eyes were no longer buzzing. Her chest was no longer heaving. She had died for the second time. Roger had died for the first.

After that, our funding was pulled. Our donor abandoned the project and scrubbed his involvement from any and all corporate records. As far as the scientific community was concerned, the experiments never occurred, and the findings didn’t exist. But I remember. I remember because there’s simply no way I could forget the haunting look in Agnes’ eyes, the hopeless agony of Jacob’s screams, or the final message that Charlotte delivered in black bile on the linoleum floor.

It was messy and easy to miss. To the others, I think it must have looked like a common splatter, a simple side-effect of her legs spasming in the pool of dark fluid. But I know what I saw. The letters, though crooked and barely legible, were scorched into my memory like a cattle brand. They weren’t so much a warning as they were words of advice– perhaps an answer to the question we set out to ask, and the question that Charlotte had set out to answer in her book.

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