Burning. I woke to skin crackling as if needles seared out of my pores, as if my body was boiling. Able to lift only my head, and that only a little, I lay inert in a white room under white sheets. Looking down, I expected to see conflagration engulfing me, sheets of blood and fire. A gasp rattled out. The snap of a latch drew attention to a door.
“Well,” a doctor said, smiling brightly. “How are we feeling today?”
At first, I could reply only with what sounded like wet, half-swallowed clicks. The doctor signaled for a nurse and, together, they raised me upright, offering calm professional encouragement as they did.
“I bet that’s better,” said the doctor, who smiled at the nurse as she left. “Water, please, nurse. Well, it’s clear there’s still weakness, Mr. Dobbs, but do you remember anything about the accident?”
Water evaporated into the dry, hot air in my chest as I drank.
“I walked into the containment area,” I started, slowly as if explaining it to myself as well. “Everything seemed fine, but, and it was out of nowhere. I just felt so tired. So exhausted that I had to sit down.”
“That’s to be expected, Mr. Dobbs. Your body absorbed massive doses of radiation and at lethal levels,” said the doctor. “And that’s not all.”
“Oh.” Radiation poisoning: as drowning stalks a sailor, I had felt radiation as an almost physical presence since starting at the plant. “What is it, doctor? Cancer?”
“No, Mr. Dobbs.” The doctor stopped, some kind doubt in his expression. “It’s something like the opposite, but I’m not sure how, or what…”
Flames nettled Dobbs skin in the silence.
“You’ve stopped aging, Mr. Dobbs. You may never die.”
“What?” I could feel a smile tickle the corners of my mouth. “I’m not going to get old? Ever?”
“No, Mr. Dobbs, you’re not.” The doctor’s murmured, almost numbly. “But you’re also not likely to get out of that bed either. Ever.” The doctor stared hard at me as he reached into his lab coat to extract something he kept concealed. He rotated his hand to show me a syringe. “Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Dobbs, let me know.”