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Today's Story by Stuart Hopen

He injected it into himself, knowing the solution would either kill him or immortalize him.

How Immortality Killed Perpetual Man

I spent some time hanging out with Perpetual Man while he was dying of immortality at Mourningstar Memorial.  I used to smuggle in drinks.

Wearing his hospital robe like a cape, he slouched in his geri-chair and lifted his glass.  “Here’s to Perpetual Man.  I christened myself with that name in a fit of fate-defying hubris.  Back in the 1920’s, it seemed so dramatic, so appropriately descriptive.  I took the name as a dual reference to my perceived indestructibility, and to the perpetual motional like process that powered my bodily functions.  In recent years, I entertained thought about changing the old name.  But it is too late for that now.  Perpetual Man will be my name until I am gone; a name full of stirring connotations, acquired grandeur, and now, irony.”

While he was dying, and getting drunk (or pretending that alcohol affected him the way it affects us lesser beings) he admitted that he wasn’t really a space traveler from another planet.  That had been a scam he pulled off for close to two centuries.  Here’s the truth.  At a prodigious age, he discovered a substance that all but eliminated entropy from chemical reactions.  He injected it into himself, knowing the solution would either kill him or immortalize him.

When he found he’d had survived, he decided to lie about his origins.  He said, “I could not risk challenging the scientific community to reverse engineer my accomplishment.  The human population is already sufficiently dense without overrunning the planet with perpetual men.  I concede, however, that my motives were not entirely altruistic and I committed this fraud in part out of selfishness, to keep myself unique and unconquerable.”

After he discovered he could survive a vast array of assaults, he decided to take up war against crime because he needed to take up war against something.   Evil sounded like a good thing to fight.  It helped him deal with the unexpected psychological imbalance caused by his belief in his own immortality.  Danger became a kind of addiction.  “Every human must carefully tread a tightrope between the will to live and the will to rest; the life wish vs. the death wish.  The two forces tug at us equally most of the time.  When I first lost that equilibrium, it nearly drove me mad.  As a kind of therapy, I made enemies of the most dangerous species of predatory human.  I pursued a course of action that constantly threatened my life

“Even in the evenings, when I would try to relax, I would sit by the fire and drink cyanide laced cocktails; the bitter almond taste blending well with Amaretto.  I’d recommend it, but…”

“I’ll stick to scotch.”

“In the course of pursuing an elusive death, I hope that I have done some good.”

He took a hard belt of his scotch.  He seemed to be getting drunk.  Maybe the booze inspired memories of being drunk, long ago.  He said, “Now who would have thought that Perpetual Man’s most dangerous encounter would begin with a kiss?  It is strange how well I remember this particular kiss, and this particular woman, out of millions of kisses and hundreds of thousands of women.  Chris, I think her name was.

“I rescued her from a rapist.  She tensed up when I took her into my arms.  I don’t think she expected me to find her desirable.  She was older, but something there was sad and lonely about her.  She appealed to my humanitarian instincts.  When our lips touched, her skin felt rough and overly fuzzy.  Her figure was still impressive, though, despite the inky cracks of varicosity beginning to pop up along her thighs. She reminded me of a fruit about to spoil, at the precise moment when its sugars tasted most sweet, yet teetering on rottenness.

“I can not be certain it was this Chris, or whatever her name was, who infected me—and yet for some reason, out of hundreds of thousands of women, I remember her best.”

The disease killing Perpetual Man began as herpes hominis.  It became deadly when it started to evolve.

He said, “The first symptoms of rebellion manifested themselves in my groin, the first area to declare its independence.  That part of me always seemed to have a mind of its own.

“A unicellular entity crawled out of my bloodstream, broke through the fragile surface of the herpes blisters, and took up residence on my skin.  The new creatures raised themselves up on flagella and began to wander.

“During the first few months, they seemed to be more of annoyance than a danger. The infected cells underwent a radical change, shifting from reproduction by mitosis to reproduction by meiosis.  With their sexual revolution, they became killers.  They began to hunt for sustenance in my blood.  The first sign of growing sophistication came when the herpes made daggers from shards of arterial plaque and grasped the daggers with opposable cilia.  They murdered red blood cells and subsisted on raw cytoplasm.  I dubbed them Simplex Sapiens, or Simpians.  I began to hear their whispers in a chemical language, which at first began as kinesthetic binary code, consisting of two messages:  Simpians eat This, or This eats Simpians.  They advanced to synaptic and protein hieroglyphs, then to amino acid syllabaries, and then to viral and prionic alphabets.  I caught glimpses of their microscopic thoughts.  Their prayers, endlessly repeated over generations, began to penetrate my consciousness and consume my attention, even though they usually consisted of nothing more than mindless songs of praise.  These testaments to my greatness arrived at a time when I was riddled with doubt.  For the first time in my long career, I was overwhelmed by a sense of failure.  But somehow, through the communion of prayer, I could I could share the brief lives of the Simpians, and chose favorites.

“At the early stages of their development, they followed a universal religion, respecting the sanctity of each cell, worshipping the unity of the interrelated organs and systems.  They identified an infinite, absolute, eternally inscrutable being who formed the essence of all.  They referred to this entity as ‘Pahpahman.’

“Many of them migrated to my feet, where the damp sweat box of steel boots provided a fertile plain.  They began to cultivate furrows of ringworm for food. Their red crops itched like mad.

“Once they learned to control their food supply and their environment, they began to lose their sense of unification, as respects one another, and as respects their relationship to me.  They formed guilds identified with various organ systems.  Each guild worshipped its own avatar of Pahpahman, the gods they called Liva, Nephratite, ImmuNeptune, Kishnu, and Kishke, to name but a few.  They developed strict codes to enforce the segregation of the guilds, and to maintain the purity of their beliefs, and to maintain the genetic integrity of the cells associated with each organ.  But as their civilization advanced, notions of romantic love began to spread among the Simpians.  It proved an irresistible social force.

“Over generations, my immune system has evolved into an ecumenical class, fighting to preserve the status quo, and opposing the Simpian attitudes that have been destroying me.  When my t-cells failed to halt the Simpians’ ascension, the t-cells resorted to myth and dogma to urge the invaders to exercise restraint.  Generations later, these t-cell priests do not understand why they oppose the Simpians.  They don’t know any better.  They only know that things have been done in certain ways for what seems to them to be an eternity.  There is an order to their universe.

“Some of the priests intuit the way my consciousness is both expanding and diminishing.  They gather at knotty clusters of neural ganglia to pray, calling them holy places.  They fight their bloodiest battles in these so-called holy places, where it pains me the most.  There have been wars between the followers of Pancreatic Avatars and Liver Avatars over blood glucose. Followers of the Brain have gone to war with followers of the Heart over philosophical issues.

“The forces that urge conformity tug against those that urge diversity; a conflict that seems regular in its ebb and flow.  These tensions advanced their civilization and begot quirks and arts that were beyond the means of simple hunter-gatherers.

“They advanced and I began to decline.  My left toes, the most remote outpost of my body, bruised and turned cyanotic.  Within a few weeks, the circulation became so compromised, the toes auto amputated.”

He opened up his gown like a flasher, revealing geometric clusters of blisters. There, he told me, were the fragile cities his Simpians had built across his abdomen. He said, “Two years ago they were living in little huts made of nail clippings.  Now they’ve moved to needle-like spires that rise above pubic waves.  Iron from my blood plays an important part in their architecture, as does splinters of bone, and tartar facades quarried from the backs of my teeth.  The wealthy live in homes of pure enamel.”

Some of Perpetual Man’s buddies from the Invincible Troubadours had brought him to the Hospital.  He spent months lying in bed, watching his cells grown and change. He didn’t need food.  He didn’t even need air, though from time to time he would take a breath, to reassure himself it wasn’t over yet, or to sigh.  Some habits can’t be broken.

“I watch the Simpians’ brief lives flickering past.  Here’s a king of fecal valleys overseeing the execution of a thousand captured mercenaries.  Now here’s his great grandson instituting a national plan to feed the poor.  Now here’s a Simpian driven by his patriotic support of the East Kidney, a region caught up in civil war over the subjugation of the Lungs to control ph levels.  This Simpian becomes an outlaw.  Now his exploits are recorded in clumps of mutating tumor, a genetic folklore in my nerves.  Now here’s the hero of a Simpian athletic/intellectual competition, who transforms his body into elaborate sculptures to pummel his opponents.  Now here’s a scientist studying the static electrical storms crackling through the forests of my hair.  He picks up emanations from the circuitry in the wall and thinks he has discovered the infinite energy that is the sources of all creation.  There are billions of these stories.  I watch certain patterns repeating for individuals, for dynasties, for nations.  Destitution creates predatory savagery, which aids in acquisition, which leads to bourgeoisie values, which culminates in aristocracy, which degenerates into decadence, which leads to depravity, which leads to destitution.  I see the same character arc in my own life.

“As each Simpian performs some distinguishing act or acquires a notable attribute, he or she impacts my sense of self.  Where once I saw my consciousness as a unified entity, I now realize I am no more than an aggregation of tiny motes of life-force, a colony creature.  I watch my legend deconstructing into constituent incidents, and then reassembling into my biography.

“I sense that my appointment with oblivion is not far off.

“There are armies on the march up my spinal cord.  They seem attracted to my brain stem.  There are efforts underway to siphon off cardiac electricity to light up their towns.  Engineers are drilling deep into my bowels, mining the rich topsoil there, and capturing flammable gases.  Already they are building rockets that fly on methane fuel.  In ships not much larger than eyelashes, built of minerals sifted out of my salivary glands, they will carry Perpetual Man to the world, and then to the stars beyond the world.”

That was how immortality got the better of Perpetual Man.

There are nights I lie awake, thinking that immortality is trying to get me.


Stuart Hopen’s writing has been published by various comic book companies, including D.C., Marvel, Eclipse, Amazing, and Fantagraphics. His science fiction novel, Warp Angel, was published by Tor Books, and his critical writing has published in Rain Taxi Review of Books and the Comics Journal.


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