Behind the Veil

Benjamin Stratford sat down at the kitchen table and wiped sleep from his eyes. His mother, Anne, promptly set a plate of breakfast in front of him that consisted of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and a large banana-nut muffin. His favorite. His father, Daniel, was reading news on a tablet while an identical plate of food gradually grew cold in front of him. Ben grabbed a fork and dug in.

“Thanks mom,” he said between mouthfuls.

“Of course.” Anne sat down. All three of them seemed identical in age. The only thing separating her son from her husband was a short beard and a few grey strands of hair. She watched her son eat, then turned toward her husband and said, “Daniel dear, I’ve got my work orders already. It seems I’m back at it tomorrow. They don’t give us a single day to ourselves, do they?”

“What’re you talking about?” Daniel said, his face still engrossed in the screen. “You had twenty years off work.”

“Where did the time go?”

“Are you saying you want another one? They won’t let you. Not until you work at least ten years.”

“I know.”

“Work will be good for you.”

“I know, but enough about that. Today is Ben’s big day. Give him some advice Daniel.”

Daniel put down the tablet and looked at his son, who had just stuffed half a pancake in his mouth. “Good luck son. You’ll do great.” Ben grinned.

Anne rolled her eyes. “Really?”

“Hmm?” Daniel was already scrolling on the tablet.

“You’ll be late for work,” she said and pulled the tablet from his hands. Daniel got up, gave his wife a kiss on the head and left.

“He loves you.”

“Sure,” Ben said as he mopped up the remaining syrup with his last bite of pancake.

Once he popped it into his mouth, Anne grabbed the plate and set it in the sink. “Ready?” she asked.

“You don’t have to take me.”

“I know. I want to. It’s your big day. You’ll be off to work tomorrow as well. What are you hoping for?”

“I don’t know. Something easy.”

“Come on Ben. You must have some idea by now. What have you been doing these past two years?”

He shrugged.

“With that attitude, you’ll end up pushing paper like your father.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. I just want you to be happy.”

They got in the transport and sat facing each other for the ride to the Academy. Everyone in his class would graduate today and move on to join the rest of the world. They would all be assigned positions in society and start working tomorrow. Tonight, in accordance with Statute 6057, he and the 49 other students will be given the procedure to halt their aging. They will become like everyone else.

Ben watched his mother looking out the window. The sunlight reflected off her pale skin. A few strands of her short hair hung across her forehead. On the outside, she seemed younger than the girls in his class. She was definitely less concerned about other people’s opinions or about following every protocol to the letter.

Ben touched the transport vidscreen and pulled up a few articles about the procedure. None of them detailed how it was done. They only suggested relaxation techniques to use prior to the event.

“How does it work?” he asked without looking up from the articles. He kept searching. Like he had the past three months. He’d only glanced through several hundred articles out of millions. He was starting to think that none of them would provide any different information.

Anne looked over at him. “What dear?”

“How does it work? The procedure?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest.”

“What was it like when you went through it?”

“I don’t remember much. I was given a shot. Then it was over.”

“That’s it?”

“I think so, but that was thirty years ago. I don’t really remember the details.”

The transport stopped and Ben continued glancing through articles until he saw his mom waving in his peripheral vision. He looked up to see she was waving back at his friend Max.

“Jeez,” he muttered. He opened the door and stepped out.

“Good luck dear,” Anne called after him.

“Bye mom,” he said as the door closed and the transport darted off.

Anne stared out the window as she was sped back to her home on the edge of the city. She was overtly aware that she had just lied to her son for the first time.

Ben headed toward the front doors and Max fell in beside him.

“Dude, your mom is a babe.”

“So is yours.”

“Dude…” Max paused, then took several large strides to catch back up. “Not cool.”

“Says the guy who greeted me by saying my mom was hot.”

“Well it’s true.”

“Shut up.”

They entered the Academy’s main hall and wound their way to the terminals where they would get their assignments for the day. They found two open that were next to each other. Ben entered his code and a small slip of paper popped out of the terminal. It was smaller than a regular schedule. He grabbed it and read: Report to Stadium Omega. He looked over to see Max staring a similarly small printout.

“What does yours say?” he asked.

“It just says go to Stadium Delta.” Max looked up at Ben.

“Mine says Omega.”

“That’s weird. Why would they split us up? The entire class can easily fit in one stadium.”

“I don’t know. You want to meet up before the ceremony and waste some time at Dizzy’s? Could be our last chance.”

“See you there as soon as I’m done with whatever this is.” Max waved the small slip of paper.

“Good luck,” Ben said before heading off toward his own designation.

It only took him about ten minutes to get to Stadium Omega. It was similar in shape to the other Stadiums at the Academy, but it was mainly used for music concerts, which Ben found strange since he barely passed the basic required courses and never touched a musical instrument again.

As he stepped inside, he saw a lone chair sitting in the center of the stadium. Next to it was a table where two men in medical scrubs were conversing. One of them saw him enter and motioned toward his friend who turned around and waved Ben over.

“Good morning,” the larger man said, “You must be Ben. My name is Peter. I’ll be administering your shot today. Garrett will be assisting me. He is completing his training. I hope you don’t mind. Have a seat.”

Peter gestured toward the chair. Ben didn’t say anything but complied. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but Peter started talking again.

“This will only take a few minutes. Garrett, would you mind prepping young Ben.”

Garrett walked over and lifted the sleeve of Ben’s left arm and wiped the skin down with some chemical that left the spot cold. It gradually grew numb. Peter turned back toward Ben. He had a syringe in one had.

“This will only take moment,” Peter said before inserting the needle. He pushed the shot into Ben’s arm, then withdrew it. Garrett pressed a cotton ball to the area the needle vacated and taped it to the skin.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Garrett smiled.

“No,” Ben forced himself to reply, “So I’m free to go?”

“We just need to observe you for ten minutes,” Peter said, “Garrett will check your vitals a few times to make sure everything is okay. Then you are free to go.”

“Okay, but….but….” Ben slipped into unconsciousness before he could finish his sentence.

“That was quick,” Garrett said casually.

“Good. I hate waiting for it to kick in. Open the arena and I’ll hook him up.”

Garrett went back to the table, which was actually a large interface, and booted up Stadium Omega. The stadium’s walls and floor opened and a large mechanical apparatus assembled itself in the middle of what had been the music hall. Peter grabbed a pair of shears from a table full of surgical tools as it rose from the floor. He cut away Ben’s clothing until Ben was fully nude. Then he pulled two of the apparatus’s arms down and fitted them around Ben’s wrists.

“Lift him.”

Garrett fiddled with the interface and Ben was lifted out of the chair. Peter fitted two more arms to Ben’s ankles.

“Good to go.”

Garrett typed in the sequence and Ben was lifted higher while the remaining thirty-eight mechanical arms whizzed around him, scanning every molecule as his unconscious body was manipulated into every possible position it could form.

Peter and Garrett watched nonchalantly.

“What are you doing after this?” Garrett asked.

“I don’t know. I might check out the new holo-film across town. I hear they’ve created a new environment program that utilizes the theater so you actually feel like you are there without physically plugging in.”

“Interesting. They showing anything good?”

“Not sure.”

The apparatus finished scanning Ben’s body and lowered him back onto the chair.

“What do you want?” Peter asked.

“I don’t care.”

“You played assistant today, so you pick.”

“Fine. I’ll take the head.”

Garrett grabbed a bone saw from the table full of surgery equipment. Peter removed the chair from underneath Ben since the machine held him in a sitting position. Garrett stepped behind the floating body and began cutting into the skull. He pulled the scalp away and tossed it to the floor away from the operating area. One of the arms of the apparatus picked up the biological matter. Another scanned it before the first disposed of it while a third arm wiped the blood from the area. Garrett then pulled away a large section of the skull and threw it across the stadium where it was swept up by the apparatus. He cut as much away as he could until on the base remained. Then he stepped away.

Peter stepped in and began cutting at the base of the spine. He removed sections of skin and muscle as he worked his way upward until the spine was fully exposed. He was careful not to sever any vital nerves.

“Scan,” Peter said, and Garrett tapped the interface. The apparatus used several arms to scan the exposed spine and open nerves.

“Scan complete. All nerves accounted for.” Garrett announced.

Peter then proceeded to cut the nerves and everything else. Blood pooled underneath Ben’s floating, unconscious body. Arms weaved in and out wiping up blood around Peter’s legs as he worked. He switched with Garrett about halfway through. Garrett continued the work until the spine was completely separated from the body.

“Grip,” Garrett called. An arm came down and Garrett inserted it between what remained of the skull and Ben’s brain. He fitted a clamp to the top of the spine, inspected his work, then looked over at Peter. “Initiate.”

Peter typed in a sequence and the apparatus pulled the body away. The brain and spine hung in place as the now empty vessel was taken away to be scanned and disposed. Arms raced around the room cleaning up the biological matter until it was spotless. The brain and spine, what remained of Benjamin Stratford, hung in the center of the stadium. Blood dripped evenly from the tip of the coccyx. Each drop wiped away milliseconds after hitting the floor. They waited. Each wondering how long it would take.

The apparatus whirred into motion. Body parts were being pulled out from hidden compartments. Freshly made mechanical pieces. 8,468 pieces were assembled in front of the floating brain and spine. Within minutes, a replica of Ben had been created.

“Lace him up,” Garrett said.

Peter made his way over to the new body and, working from the bottom up, began attaching each nerve ending to its corresponding mechanical counterpart. It was tedious work. Hours passed before he finished.

“Cap him,” he said tiredly.

Garrett got up and traded places with Peter. He slowly merged the spine and brain, now fully connected to the fabricated body, until the brain nestled into its new home. He carefully closed the skull compartment and ruffled the synthetic hair for good luck. It was a routine he picked up as he learned the job. He entered the final sequence and the apparatus completed the process by scanning the new body one last time. Garrett placed the chair beneath Ben’s new body before the arms pulled away and disappeared behind the walls and floor. The stadium was once again what it had always been. One of fifty places within the Academy that held school events.

“Okay. Wake him up,” Garrett said.

Peter stepped up to the only table in the room. The interface had gone dark. He pulled a second syringe from it and went over to Ben. He injected the shot into Ben’s arm and Garrett placed a cotton ball over the area and taped it there.

Ben’s eyes fluttered open. He looked around. He squinted in the light. “What happened?”

“You passed out there for a few hours Ben,” Peter explained, “It’s common and nothing to worry about. The shot is a shock to the system. About eighty percent of people go into a hibernation mode for a while as the solution goes to work.”

“How does it work? What does it do?”

“That’s classified I’m afraid. Even we don’t know, but you need to run along. You wouldn’t want to miss your job assignment.”

Garrett came over and handed him a slip of paper. He took it and looked it over. It read: Report to Ceremony Hall. 

Ben left Stadium Omega with a dull headache and a metallic taste in his mouth. He made his way to the Ceremony Hall. He walked in to find several of his classmates already there. Many of the viewing seats in the hall were filled with parents. All of them the same age as he was. He looked over the crowd of people who could easily be his peers. He found his mom waving to him. He waved back and took his seat to wait for the remainder of his class to join them. The entire time he waited, he couldn’t help but think about the procedure. He couldn’t remember anything after the shot. Just like his mom had said, but something in him wondered how it worked. For the first time since entering the Academy, he hoped he would be given a job in Research. Where he could find the answers no one else seemed to wonder about.

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