At the tender age of Five Hundred, Alter Barbaken learned about death.
It began with a cough and a bloodied tissue, which he found fascinating until the coughing didn’t stop and the blood kept on coming. Soon he lay on the ground, shaky and sweaty, but not afraid for his life–he didn’t think one could lose that.
The Drones arrived an hour later, summoned by Mr. Barbaken’s servants, and found the poor man unconscious. They ran the usual tests (on his blood, his lungs, his bones) and nursed him back to consciousness, which took no more than a few minutes.
Alter Barbaken awoke bewildered, demanding to know what devil had possessed him. The Drones remained impassive as he thrashed around, and once he finally settled into his bed, breathing heavily but calmly, the Drones told him that he suffered from Malaise.
There was no reaction, since Alter Barbaken had never been sick.
It took the Drones a very long while to explain it: Malaise was a terrible disease that gradually took over one’s body; no pain, no suffering beyond the occasional coughing fit, but one day, like any other, without a warning, he would cough one last time and die.
Alter Barbaken merely blinked at the last word.
If Drones could sigh, they would’ve. Instead, they explained, in a soothing tone, that dying was like sleeping, only without waking up. It was the reverse of being born, they said, and perhaps there would be something beyond, but most likely there was nothing and he wouldn’t even notice.
As the Drones left, they assured Alter Barbaken he wouldn’t live longer than One Hundred
Despaired, he leafed through the pages of his life: Five Hundred years gone to waste, not a single achievement nor fond memory. He’d spent them locked away in his glass tower, surviving on his family’s riches as he promised himself that tomorrow, always tomorrow, he would take charge of his life; he just needed one final day of freedom, that was all.
Now there would be no tomorrow.
Whatever could he do in One Hundred measly years? That was barely time enough to carve his name into the world. He couldn’t find a job or a wife so soon; he couldn’t climb the ladder of success or raise a child. He’d be rushing, always rushing, and he’d have no time left for himself.
No, he needed Two Hundred years at the very least. That was only fair, the bare minimum to leave a mark, a legacy, behind.
So Alter Barbaken lamented how unfair it all was; if only he’d had longer, if only he’d known before, he would’ve done something. Anything. But it was too late, so he locked himself in his room and cried.
He cried through winters and summers; his tears flowed during the day and dried at night; a shrill melody echoed through his glass tower, which became gradually empty and unkempt as the servants left. All punctuated, of course, by the occasional coughing fit.
Until one day, Alter Barbaken felt the need to relieve his bodily urges. With some effort, he got out of bed and dragged himself to the restroom, now ridden with flies. He swatted them away and sat on the toilet, turning a TV on so as not to grow bored. And there, on the bottom corner of the screen, he saw the date.
Two Hundred years had gone by since the Drones announced his death.
He was Seven Hundred years old now and still his life amounted to nothing. He’d had time now, more than enough to meet a wife and get a job and raise a little Barbaken. If he’d played it all right he could’ve been famous by now: a true, inspiring role model; a man who, against all odds, invented time travel or discovered a new continent or brokered world peace or anything.
But he’d done nothing, and it was his own fault. A second chance squandered. He felt a deadly rage surge through his spine, so hot that he started to sweat and shake, so powerful that he had to cast it out, lest it exploded inside him.
He punched a wall, hard enough to leave a hole behind; he punched it with his other fist, even harder, and then he looked down to find a pair of bloodied knuckles. Judging by the pain, he even suspected a broken bone. That was a good start, but not nearly punishment enough.
So Alter Barbaken smashed his head against the wall, and when he leaned back, as if emerging from a pool for breath, he saw a red, dripping splotch where his head had landed. He smashed it again and again and again, and eventually he passed out.
When he woke up, he kept on slamming his head against the wall, less mightily now, but with the same determination.
Eventually, the wall gave way, so he moved on to another one, which also crumbled. And so it went, with Alter Barbaken smashing his head against every wall he found, passing out and waking up.
He only ever stopped to cough and feel quite sorry for himself.
As more walls cracked, so did his glass tower; now it swayed with the wind and sometimes it croaked at night–it surprised Alter Barbaken, who never suspected glass could croak. The tower was almost ready to fall by the time something changed.
Alter Barbaken was banging his head against the glass door that led to the balcony when he saw a Drone fly by. It was no Medical Drone, like the ones that had announced his doom, but a Commercial one, carrying a banner for the current King of the World election.
It had a year in it, and Alter Barbaken recognized it as the year he turned Nine Hundred.
Again, he’d done it again. If only he’d–
No more laments, he decided, no more rage. It was all past him and if he’d lived this long he’d live much longer, surely long enough to accomplish all that he never had. So he pushed himself out of his own way and promised himself that it would all be different.
To prove his point, he went to the one computer in his tower that hadn’t broken down after years of negligence and, before he could think twice, purchased a bunch of tickets for a bunch of wild destinations. Timbuktu. Mount Everest. The Bermuda Triangle. Places with names he couldn’t pronounce and with people he couldn’t pin down.
The bags were packed and one foot was out the door before a dreadful thought struck him: these were all dangerous places, far away from the safety of his tower. What if he died from a heatstroke in Timbuktu? Or if he fell from the Everest? Perhaps he’d disappear while crossing the Bermuda Triangle?
Death loomed everywhere.
He backed away and closed the door. He’d be safer in the tower, where he knew what to expect and when to expect it. Death hadn’t wandered within these walls for as long as he’d lived there; it threatened to come, sure, but so far it hadn’t dared, it’d been too busy in the sort of wild places that he’d bought tickets to.
Maybe, Alter Barbaken thought, it’d be wiser to wait. Just a few years. Until he truly felt ready.
All those places would still be there. And so would he.
But he had to take some precautions if he wished to remain safe. First, he hired a private army (war veterans) to march around the tower every day and guard him every night. Then Delivery Drones brought him truckloads of food, more than he could ever eat, yet barely enough to convince him that he wouldn’t starve. Lastly, he crawled under the bed, where he hoped death wouldn’t look in case it ever came knocking.
Whenever a group of soldiers walked their daily rounds, the tower squeaked, almost like a scream; and in the pantry, where all the food was kept, the floor had sank, as if it were no stronger than silk.
Alter Barbaken hid under his bed for One Hundred years, until one day, like any other, he heard a low, cracking sound, followed by a slight tremor. But he didn’t worry–he’d taken every precaution.
The Malaise never claimed Alter Barbaken, after all. How he survived it is unknown and unimportant, and we should only concern ourselves with what did eventually claim him.
You see, a glass tower is a fragile thing. If you neglect it for two hundred years, it will weaken; if you smash it for another two hundred, it will crack; and if you burden it with unnecessary weight for a final one hundred years, it will fall down and crush its owner.
And so it was that at the ripe age of One Thousand, Alter Barbaken met death.
Santiago Pérez lives in Mexico City. His work can be found in the reject pile of several agents and publishers. He’s won a fair amount of participation trophies, which makes him weirdly proud.