The doors slide shut behind him, and Dominic comes to a halt. The attendant ‘bot who had followed him into the room slams into his back, then hurriedly backs off.
“My apologies, Detective.”
Dominic cocks his head, considering it. The red sensors it has for eyes fix on him, and then the ‘bot quickly averts them. It’s hovering a few inches off the ground, and drifts a couple of feet away from him. It looks–uncertain, skittish.
“First day on the job?”
“No, sir.” The attendant seems to hesitate for a moment, and then says, “Fourth, actually.”
“Ah. Well, you’ll get the hang of it.” Dominic pats the attendant awkwardly on its exoskeleton, then gestures at the room at large. “Show me what you’ve got.”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. This way.”
The attendant leads him along the seemingly endless aisle. Dominic can’t see the other end of the room, but the lights in here are so bright that he has difficulty looking at anything immediately in front of him for very long. Instead, his eyes are drawn to the sides of the aisle, where every few feet there is another bed, with a fresh body laid out on it.
“This one meets your specifications, sir.” The attendant pauses at the foot of one of the beds. Dominic waits while it pulls back the sheet.
“Hm.” Dominic examines the face, the shoulders, the torso. He notes a tattoo on one shoulder, and frowns. “Pretty fresh, this one, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. It hasn’t been cleaned up yet, but I thought you might like to take a look anyway. The Refresher Team will remove the tattoo, and the scars.”
Dominic finds them rather appealing, but overall the body isn’t what he had been envisioning.
“Not the right jawline,” he says, “and a little too slim in the shoulders.”
“That can also be altered by the Refresher Team -”
“Not on my budget, it can’t,” Dominic says grimly. He needs a body that needs relatively few modifications to it. He can only afford a basic cosmetic cleanup.
“Of course, sir. Let’s take a look at another one.”
For the next hour, they do exactly that. Every body Dominic is shown meets his requirements, technically, but none of them feel like – well, like him. He can’t imagine himself walking around in any of them day after day. He can’t envision the rest of the world knowing him as this face or as that one.
He’s tired and frustrated, and the meds are wearing off. The pain is starting to creep back in, eating at the edges of his concentration. The attendant is patient with him, and shows him to the next body without complaint every time he requests it.
“Damn it,” he growls at last, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“Can I ask, sir,” the attendant ‘bot says tentatively, “what the rush is? We will be getting a new batch of bodies in a week’s time -”
“This body doesn’t have a week,” Dominic interrupts. “It has a few days, at most. I can’t wait for another shipment.”
“I see.” The attendant’s sensors dilate, and Dominic grits his teeth. He hates being scanned. He can’t feel it, of course, but the scrutiny makes him want to crawl out of his skin. “You have been poisoned.”
“No shit.” Dominic shifts uncomfortably under the attendant’s unwavering gaze. “Can we get on with it? I don’t have a lot of time.”
“Of course,” the attendant says briskly. “Come with me.”
The attendant leads him to a separate room that’s not part of the main ward. It’s dark, and cool, and Dominic’s eyes take a moment to adjust to the dim light.
“Perhaps you will find something here that is to your liking,” the attendant tells him.
“These are pretty fresh,” Dominic says blankly. It’s the only thing he can think to say. The bodies he’s staring at aren’t unlike the ones that he examines on a daily basis in his line of work. They still bear the wounds that killed them, in addition to the scars and tattoos and other injuries.
“They have not yet been processed,” the attendant agrees. “But as time is of the essence, I thought you would not mind. Here.”
It drifts over to one of the bodies and pulls back the sheet so Dominic can examine every inch of it. He pauses. It’s remarkably similar to the hypothetical body he had in mind for himself. Aside from the gaping hole in his chest, and the bullet hole through his left cheek.
“This man was murdered.”
“Yes,” the attendant says.
“I thought murder victims weren’t allowed to donate their bodies for Rebirth.”
“Under certain circumstances, it is allowed,” the attendant tells him. ” His killer has already been tried and convicted, and will be imprisoned for the rest of their life. The victim had no known living relatives, and this was his request. The body is heavily discounted, of course, though it won’t be ready for a week. Reconstruction of those wounds will take longer than usual.”
“Put a rush on it,” Dominic says. The doctors hadn’t been thrilled when he’d checked himself out of the hospital, but they’d acquiesced in the end, and sent him home with medications designed to help his body hold out for seven days. That had been four days ago. “I don’t have a week.”
“Let’s go over the contract,” Dominic interrupts, “and talk about payment.”
The body is, thankfully, within his budget. They work out a payment plan, Dominic signs a handful of documents, and the attendant ‘bot gives him some pictures to take home with him. The pictures have been touched up, of course, to cover the wounds. Victor still doesn’t look entirely pleased when Dominic presents them to him later that night.
“I’m too used to this body of yours,” Victor says ruefully, studying the new man’s face. “It will be an adjustment.”
“It’s the best I could do,” Dominic says, a tad defensively. He had more pressing concerns, like finding a body that he could afford and which would be ready in a matter of days.
“I know that.” Victor sets the pictures down and takes off his glasses, fixing Dominic with an earnest look. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just – fuck, Dominic, I’ve been terrified for days that we wouldn’t find another body in time, and I -”
“And how do you think I feel?”
Dominic passes a shaking hand over his eyes. He never used to snap like this. Victor is quiet for a moment, and then he comes over and takes Dominic by the shoulders, squeezing gently.
“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “I know this whole ordeal has been awful for you. How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been hit by a hovercar.” He’s mostly grown used to the sensation that there’s a small fire burning inside his joints, and the bone-deep pain in his muscles has largely become background noise. He can’t ignore it entirely; it’s always there, bubbling just underneath his thoughts. But the search for a new body has so consumed him that he’s largely been able to push everything else aside. Now, however, he has nothing left to distract him, and all he can do is wait.
“Sit.” Victor steers him over to the couch, helps him down with a hand under Dominic’s elbow. “I’ll get your meds. They’re in the bathroom?”
“I think I left them on my bedside table.”
Victor returns with the pill bottles and a glass of water. Dominic’s not supposed to take them on an empty stomach, but the pain is too persistent for him to wait. He takes the medicine while Victor fetches a blanket, draping it over his legs.
“Sleep for a bit,” he says. “I’ll wake you for dinner.”
He doesn’t; Dominic knew he wouldn’t. Victor never has the heart to do it. But he’s saved the meal so that when Dominic does wake, there’s something for him to eat. He hasn’t had an appetite since the poisoning,, but Victor is a force to be reckoned with when he sets his mind to something. It won’t kill Dominic to make his husband happy; won’t kill him any faster than the poison already is, at any rate.
He forces down dinner, too aware of the fact that it’s one of the last he’ll eat with this body, and goes to bed.
Victor goes with him on the morning of the procedure. It’s still dark when they leave the house, and later, Dominic watches the sun come up from the narrow window in his hospital room. He’s too ill now to enjoy it properly, only makes dim note of the fact that he’ll never see another sunrise through these eyes. He’s been grieving the loss of this body for almost a week now, and today is the first time that thought hasn’t hurt. This body is breaking down quickly, and dragging him along with it. To hell with it. If getting a new body is the price he has to pay to never feel this pain again, he’ll gladly do it.
While they wait, Victor pulls out his laptop, and Dominic finds the rhythmic typing oddly soothing. He’d drift off if he could, if the painkillers they’d given him had been strong enough to take more than just the edge off.
“You’ll call Mom?” he asks. His lips feel swollen, his tongue leaden.
If it all goes wrong, he means. If the transfer fails, if he dies on that table.
“Of course.” Victor looks up. He’s probably got the folder pulled up already, the file they had put together with all the information he’ll need if everything goes sideways today. Dominic’s will and power of attorney, the contact information for the family he has scattered around the globe, what steps Victor will have to take to ensure that he’ll get Dominic’s death benefits. “She’ll be my first call. And then your siblings, and then the precinct.”
They’d said their goodbyes to this body the night before, but Dominic is gripped with the sudden need to have Victor close, to touch him for what may be the last time. Victor sees it in his face, and is at Dominic’s side before he can say the words.
“It will be fine,” Victor says in a voice that’s more of a command than a comfort–his lawyer voice, Dominic always says. He hasn’t realized, until this moment, how utterly terrified he is. “You are going to be fine.”
When the doctors come collect him for the transfer, Victor leans over the bed and places a gentle kiss on Dominic’s lips.
“I’ll see you in a few hours,” he whispers.
They sedate him to make the transfer–not enough to put him under completely, but enough that he enters a strange twilight while they shift his consciousness from his old body to the new one. He hears voices around him, but can’t make out any of the words, until a voice in his ear urges him to, “Breathe, Dominic. Come on, you can do this for me. Breathe!”
Dominic gasps, and comes awake all at once. He lashes out, and someone grabs his wrist.
“Easy, now! Easy, Dominic, it’s only me.”
Victor gazes at him, hazel eyes full of sorrow and relief. He strokes the inside of Dominic’s wrist with his thumb and says, “It worked. You’re here, with me, and you–you have a new body. Would you like to see it?”
The Refresher Team, Dominic admits grudgingly, did an impressive job. The bullet holes have been repaired, the lacerations and bruises wiped from his face, and they even added a crop of thick, curly hair on top of what had once been a bald head. Dominic lifts the left sleeve of his hospital gown and finds the tattoo intact, though, as are all the scars. It’s fine–he didn’t pay extra for a cosmetic touch-up.
When he looks at Victor, his husband’s eyes are full of tears.
“Don’t look that bad,” he rasps, mildly indignant. Oh. He has an entirely new voice now. He hadn’t considered that, and adds it to the list of things he’ll have to get used to.
“I can’t believe we found a body in time,” Victor says roughly. “I thought I was going to lose -”
Dominic reaches for his hand. He’s touched Victor thousands of times, but never with these fingers. He rubs his thumb against a callus on Victor’s palm, marveling at the feel of it under brand-new fingers.
“Too damn stubborn to die,” he says gruffly, and Victor gives a wet laugh.
There are so many things to explore with this new body, so many new experiences to be had. The first sunrise he sees with new eyes, the first sip of coffee on a new tongue, the first night spent with his husband in a body Victor has never made love to.
Dominic learns about the man who used to inhabit this body simply by living out his normal, day-to-day life. He quickly discovers that the man must have been a vegetarian–Dominic can no longer tolerate meat. His tastes have changed in other ways as well. He’s developed an unusual fondness for chocolate, and he has to have milk and sugar in his coffee or it makes him physically ill. He learns that he now prefers fruit over vegetables. He’s taller than Victor now, too–now he’s the one that has to bend for the kiss. Broader in the shoulders as well, so none of his shirts fit anymore. His sister takes him shopping, and he tries on what feels like the contents of an entire department store before she finally selects a handful of outfits for him.
He dresses in his usual style and goes through the motions of his normal daily routine, and yet sometimes it still feels like he’s a stranger living in his own home. He carries himself differently now, given the way this body is built, so with every breath and every step he is acutely aware that he is not himself. He spends hours scouring Internet forums devoted to Rebirthers, and their stories are fascinating. Some of them have been alive for centuries, and discard bodies like they would an old pair of jeans.
Dominic knows that it won’t be easy, but even so, his first day back at the precinct is an adjustment he didn’t anticipate. His coworkers, though they all know the situation, do a double-take when they see him. They recover quickly, and no one mentions anything about the new body except to ask how he’s feeling.
“Fine, fine,” he assures them all. He pats his stomach–the previous owner of this body let it start to go soft around the middle. He’s got to work his way back up to passing the department’s physical tests, but the higher ups have given him a couple of months to get this body into shape. “Just need to put in some gym time, pass the firearms training again, that kind of thing.”
If he allows himself to think about it too much, it’s almost humiliating. He graduated the academy at the top of his class. He’s the best detective in the precinct–hell, he’s the best in the entire city. But now that he’s got a new body, he has to start from scratch. He has to take the physicals and go through training all over again, like he’s a fresh-faced cadet and not an experienced detective who nearly lost his life in service to the city.
And then there’s the matter of the man who poisoned him. They apprehend him three days after Dominic returns to full duty. He doesn’t even recognize Dominic, not until Dominic comes to interview him.
“Oh, interesting.” Samuel Johnson–such a benign name for someone who killed sixteen people and eluded the police for almost ten years–tilts his head, considering Dominic. “The poison worked after all.”
“Clearly it didn’t,” Dominic says. “I’m still here.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Johnson muses. “It’s a wonderful trick, Rebirthing, but that’s all it is. A trick, an illusion. You still died. I killed you.”
Dominic feels a muscle tighten in his jaw, but he’s too well-trained to let his anger show in his expression. He switches on his recording device and opens his folder of notes.
“This interrogation is being conducted by Detective Dominic Hargrave,” he says in the direction of the mic. “The time is 1657 hours, and the suspect is one Samuel Johnson. Mr. Johnson, can you tell me where you were the night of -”
“You wear someone else’s face now, and you speak using his voice,” Johnson says quietly. “You have the memories of your old life, certainly, but you are not him. You’re not Dominic Hargrave. I wonder, will they add your name to the list of people I’ve killed?”
Dominic stands and walks out of the room; the alternative is to punch Samuel Johnson in the face. One of his deputies has to finish the interview.
Later, when the fog of anger has cleared from his mind, a thought comes to him unbidden: that his former self would never have reacted that way, would never have let Johnson get so completely under his skin.
Samuel Johnson’s case doesn’t even go to trial. He’s sentenced immediately based on the volume of evidence against him, and the fact that he doesn’t deny any of it. He smiles through the sentencing and laughs out loud when he finds out he’ll be in the jail for the rest of his life. His lawyer blandly tells the press that Johnson won’t be filing an appeal.
Dominic checks the records after the case is closed. Johnson’s body count still stands at sixteen people. His name isn’t one of them.
He hasn’t been to his favorite coffee shop since the procedure, and he doubts he’ll ever go back. Everyone there knew him by his old face, and he’s not that man anymore. He has a new face, a new body, and a new usual coffee order. He might as well have a new coffee shop to go along with it.
Dominic chooses a coffee place that’s three blocks from the precinct. It’s only just opened after the old building that houses it was renovated, and Dominic feels it’s somehow appropriate that this should be his new usual haunt. He gets his order to go today–he’s already almost late for his monthly meeting with the Chief–and hurries back out onto the busy sidewalk.
He stops dead at the sound of the voice, which was unmistakably directed at him, and turns.
“No,” he tells the red-headed woman standing behind him, his mouth suddenly desert-dry. “My name is Dominic.”
The woman continues to stare at him like he’s upended her entire world. Then she gives a huff of sardonic laughter. “You’re a Rebirthed. Of course.”
“Did you know -” He stops short of saying me. “You knew the man who was born into this body.”
“Right.” Dominic clears his throat. “I was told he didn’t have any living relatives.”
“No living relatives,” she says, “but did they say anything about having no family?”
Oh, God. Dominic swallows hard.
“Ma’am,” he croaks, “I’m sorry, I truly am. If I’d known that he had a family -”
He can’t finish the lie. He would have chosen this body anyway. He was too desperate to not die. But none of the posts on the Rebirther forums have prepared him for this. What do you do when you’re wearing the face of a dead man, and you see yourself as one person while everyone else sees you as another?
“You couldn’t have known,” she allows grudgingly. “We split up ten years ago. He never even knew about the twins. Why should anyone else have known?”
Children. Dominic feels sick with the knowledge.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, helplessly.
“How did he die?”
“He was murdered.” Dominic can’t even bring himself to lie about that, to say instead that this body–this Charles–died peacefully in his sleep. The woman flinches like he’s punched her.
“Finally pissed off the wrong person, huh?” She shakes her head. “Oh, Charles.”
“It was quick,” Dominic says. He knows that for certain, at least. “Erm – look, I’m sorry, I have to go…”
He trails off feebly.
“Are you happy?”
Dominic doesn’t answer her–he can’t encompass everything that he’s feeling into a single thought, a lone sentence.
Her shoulders slump slightly. “Are you loved?”
“Yes.” That, at least, is easy to answer. “And I love in return.”
“Good.” She nods once, brisk. “That’s all I ever wanted for Charles, you know.”
She kisses his cheek, and he watches her walk away.
He has insomnia now. Dominic doesn’t know if it’s because this body’s former resident had insomnia, or if it’s something that he developed spontaneously. He hates that he doesn’t know, hates that every time something out of the ordinary happens, he can’t tell if it’s natural or not. Has this body always had headaches, or is that just him? Has he naturally developed this affinity for strawberries, or is that this body remembering its old life? He always used to be a morning person; now he finds himself up at all hours of the night and unable to drag himself out of bed when his alarm goes off at six. Is that a failing of this body, or of his own mind?
Up on the roof, the rushing night air is cool and refreshing. This, at least, is something that hasn’t changed–he has always loved the city. He has always loved this city. To him, there is nothing more peaceful than to be surrounded by life at all hours of the day and night. He’s always felt stifled in the country. Here, he can breathe.
“Do you regret it?”
He doesn’t turn at the sound of Victor’s voice. “No.”
Victor comes up behind him, lays his hands on the back of Dominic’s shoulders.
“Are you sure?” he asks softly.
“You should be asleep,” Dominic says. “You’ve got an early deposition tomorrow.”
“I sleep better when the man I love is next to me.”
Dominic turns around, clasping Victor’s hands as they fall away.
“The man you love is dead,” he says quietly.
“No.” Victor tugs one of his hands away and taps a finger against Dominic’s forehead. “He’s right here.”
“I’m not Dominic.” He swallows hard. “I’m not Charles, either.”
“Then who are you?” Victor asks quietly.
“I don’t know.”
“You’re a smart man. Figure it out.”
“Enough of this,” Victor says, and though his voice is gentle, now there is a thread of steel in his words. “You have not changed as much as you think you have. You are still the man I married. So what if you like chocolate now, or a different type of coffee, or you can’t get your ass out of bed at the crack of dawn anymore? You’re still the same man who taught me how to ski. The same one who let me drag him to Luna for a vacation. The same man who threw up on our wedding day.”
“Hey,” Dominic protests weakly.
Victor reaches for him, curls a hand around the back of his neck and pulls him closer.
“You haven’t become less kind, you’re sharper than anyone I’ve ever met, every joke you tell is still terrible, and we’ve shared almost twenty years together,” he whispers. “You are the same. It is still your mind inside this body. You are still Dominic.”
Dominic wishes he could believe that as easily as Victor seems to. He looks down at his husband–Christ, will he ever get used to being this tall?–and forces a smile.
“I suppose you’re right.”
Victor snorts. “I’m always right. Now come inside, it’s freezing out here.”
“In a minute.”
When Victor is gone, Dominic turns his attention back to the city lights. It’s almost curfew. There are only a handful of cars on the black stretches of highway, and all around him, the skyscrapers are going dark. As the lights go out, the sky becomes brighter, and he tilts his face to the glittering black. Against the very laws of nature and the universe, he’s cheated death–and in a way, so has Charles. His body, his idiosyncrasies, his quirks live on. Dominic is Charles, and Charles is Dominic. He’ll live the best life he can, if for no other reason than because Charles never got that chance.
It’s not his life anymore, not entirely–but then, it was never a resurrection. He’s been born anew.