CONFESSIONS OF A VAMPIRE - Chapter One - by David MacMillan

This is where I can stand on my soap box and pontificate. Don't worry, I won't take long.

Recently, I came across an interesting book - 3 MINUTES A DAY TO A 120 YEAR LIFESPAN by Robert D Willix Jr, MD, (Life LLC, Baltimore, MD). You have to understand that at 57, my joints had started to ache, I didn't have the same amount of energy I had when I was 30, etc. I wasn't ready to be old. In short, I was ready for this book.

In addition, I'm overweight. It's come from sitting in front of my computer and writing all these sexy stories - or something like that. Looking at myself in the mirror, I was reminded of the old Alfred Hitchcock television series - remember his shadowed profile on the wall? Fat! Real overhang. Hell! I'm a bloody bear - and I'm not turned on by that image (sorry, guys, but a smooth swimmer's build does it for me every time). I was ready for more than just this book.

I was fortunate that a friend of mine appeared about the same time and offered me a way to get rid of those nagging aches and pains as well as to lose that weight. In addition, I could nourish my body with a mixture of vitamins, minerals, and herbs developed by some of the best medical minds in the US (Please realise that there is just no way for a person living in North America, Europe or northern Asia to get all of the nutrition his body needs from just the food he eats - but the Asians come closer than the Caucasians).

In a fortnight, I've lost an inch and a half off my waist and 15 pounds. My knees no longer hurt when I squat. And I have as much energy as I remember myself having when I was in my 20s.

Remember, this isn't an advertisement. If you're interested in more - good nutrition, weight loss, or anti-oxidants, write me at I can give you more information and either answer your questions or find you answers.

This story begins in Switzerland and has references to Austria, so there will be some words that are difficult for an English-trained tongue to form. There will also be a few words that use Fraktur spelling - they're pretty well explained in English. Hopefully, tho, the umlauts and tseh-esses remain when Nifty posts this. It does, fairly quickly, move to Washington, DC. For the Nifty version, I did cut the 10K word prologue.

This is a gay romance. It's also a political thriller. And poor Karl ends up with something I don't envy him for - a permanent three-way. This is the gay version of this novel. I recently went thru and rewrote everything from chapter 5 on for a mainstream audience. I hope you enjoy it.

It was the beginning of September when I finally arrived in the banking capital of the world, fifty-seven years after Hitler started the war that was to change the world. I was still learning the extent of that change even after a month of steadily moving westward while skirting the Tyrol.

Zürich did not have the largest banks in the world, or the richest. It did, however, offer a stable government and account-friendly laws. The banks offered healthy interest rates. They also offered autonomy from inquisitive governments. When I first opened my account with Hauptmann's Bank in 1875, not even the Swiss government could gain access to those accounts held by foreigners. A hundred and nineteen years later, that had changed to where only those accounts with criminally-acquired money could be opened. The other government had to prove its case as effectively as it would in a British court of law.

Hauptmann's still suited my needs. All I needed was my account number, now as then. My account now held more than a billion Swiss Francs.

I took lodgings in a student section of town, on a side street between Bolleystrasse and Huttenstrasse, less than a kilometre from the Universität Zürichs. I didn't want to call attention to myself or my wealth and I appeared young enough to blend into the neighbourhood. There was too much I didn't know about this world four years away from the beginning of the second millennium. I needed identification. I needed to learn how to live in this world I found myself in.

I was satisfied with a fifth floor walk-up garret. It gave me privacy, for I had already found modern youth weren't interested in the exercise so many steps would give them. It gave me a balcony with a beautiful view of an old church, a balcony where I could remember a simpler past and contemplate the complex present.

The university. A centre of and for knowledge. And knowledge was what I needed desperately. Hitchhiking across southern Austria, I learnt of driver licenses, Bismarck's social security now available to all in Western Europe, credit cards, and Interpol - and the computers that enabled governments to maintain ever larger amounts of information about their citizens and the visitors inside their countries. Himmler and his Gestapo would have been ecstatic with such extensive knowledge about people.

I knew these things existed. I understood the need to have identification to exist comfortably and without suspicion in this new world. But I had yet to learn how I could create such information about myself so I could live in that comfort.

I understood the need; I simply did not know the how of its implementation. Someone at Universität Zürichs would, however. With money and housing already acquired, I set out to find that someone who would open the new world order up to me. I was ready to travel the infobahn - but on my terms and with a chauffeur of my choice.

* * *

"Herr Doktor Eichmann," I said to the heavy-set, balding man in the cubicle, clicked my heels, and nodded stiffly.

Small eyes, nearly hidden within folds of skin and enlarged by thick glasses, turned to peer curiously at me. I might be what I had learnt already to call computer illiterate, but I could hear the gears churning inside his head as he calculated what I assumed were my worth and probable needs without telepathic contact. He smiled slowly. "I am not yet a PhD, sir," he answered. "Another two years-" He shrugged.

He was in his forties and I wondered at a world where middle-aged men were still struggling to become whatever they would become. But, then, hardly more than a month before, I had wondered at how everyone seemed to have a motor car he drove as fast as he could on the autobahnen that were the arteries of modern Europe.

I smiled back at him, easing his surface suspicions with the touch of thought. "I have real need for a computer expert-" I deepened the smile across my face. "And I'm told you are the best in all the Schweiß."

"In all of Switzerland?" He chuckled, being very self-depreciating. "Hardly. Perhaps, here at the university-" He shrugged again.

I had been told this Eichmann was a 'hacker'. I was still unsure what all the word implied. It was both pejorative and complimentary, depending on who used it; but it did imply the man was a computer expert and most probably adept at winding his way through the labyrinth that was governmental red tape. I hoped also that it implied he was financially available. The looks of this Herr Eichmann reassured me in that hope.

"What brings you to me?" he asked, as direct as had been the few Americans I met between the wars.

"Perhaps we could discuss that over a glass of wine - or beer?" I glanced out the small window of the cubicle and was pleased to see the sun had finally set and only strands of twilight remained. I gave him an image of a large tankard of good, dark Münchener beer in his hand to speed us along the way of acquaintance.

"And perhaps dinner as well?" he added and glanced at a wrist watch. "I hadn't realised how late it has become-"

I nodded my acquiescence.

"I know just the place then." He rose and took a light jacket from a hanger behind the door. He was large - a thick German sausage - and the small room immediately became too small for the two of us.

As he led me out the building, I found myself picking up on his interest in me and shuddered. In my time, such men as he and I took pains to pretend their lack of interest. This Eichmann, however, seemed to be taking pains to let me know his. He was not the first man to do so since I had awakened, but he was the least attractive.

Unglaublich! Yes, definitely unbelievable.

Yet, I needed him. From student and professor alike, I learnt this Marcus Eichmann was the one person at Universität Zürichs who could do what I had come to know I needed done.

He smiled as he set down what had been a full stein of beer when it left the table the moment before. He glanced about for the waiter for a refill as he said: "I've heard somebody was looking for a computer whiz. The whole thing was pretty garbled-"

I certainly hoped it was garbled! The idea of a nearly 150 year old vampire who had lived through two world wars and too many smaller killings as well as having his lover murdered twice was going to leave a trail back to himself was laughable. Between indirect questions and vampiric telepathy, whatever trail there might have been should have the most jaded officers of the Gestapo or NKVD pulling their hair from their head.

"I need some things done-"

Eichmann smiled broadly, fitting his fat, peasant face. "I'd say you want to build some records or delete them from what I was able to put together, Fürst von Muribor. Most probably, the former."

I jerked in surprise. The man had traced me back through my subterfuges. He knew my name from more than fifty years ago. "Why do you so honour me?" I asked, attempting to still my heart.

"I like to know with whom I'm dealing." He leant back in his chair and studied me closely. "You were perhaps twenty years old when you acquired that title in 1935-" He smiled tightly. "I must say you carry your age very well, my Prince. Looking at you, I wouldn't think you were more than - perhaps, that same age now."

I sat very straight at the table and wondered where I would kill him. Knowledge such as his was a sentence of death. "How were you able to get that information?" I demanded in a hiss.

He grinned. "The admittedly fuzzy picture I had of you came from people you questioned, your accent being Austrian, old records from Vienna, and newspaper photographs from before the war. They don't do you justice, by the way."

"You will still help me, knowing this?" Perhaps his life could be prolonged until he provided me the records I needed to be considered alive in this modern world. How much longer I wasn't willing to guess.

Eichmann laughed. "For a price, my Prince. A very hefty price - but my world will be yours and you can move about as you wish."

"How much?" I grunted and sat back.

"A million francs - Swiss." He folded his fingers together and pursed his lips. "That will make you second-generation Swiss, a fourth cousin of the last Fürst von Muribor, a graduate of this university, the only surviving child of the heir to his chosen heir. All records duly noted in Bern and Vienna.' He shrugged. 'It will also provide you with an Austrian passport-"

"A million francs?" I calculated that against my account - it would be but a minor debit. "Is that all?"

"I also want a bout with you."

I gazed at him without comprehension. A bout? This plebeian oaf wanted to engage in fisticuffs with me under the rules established by the Englander Marquis of Queensberry?

"I want to fuck you," he explained, much too matter-of-factly for my taste.

I wanted to open my mouth, bare my fangs, and rip his throat out - in the middle of the restaurant. Instead, I counted to ten and said: "While you're listing your demands, let's hear all of them."

"There's one other thing, my Prince. I want your secret of immortality for myself." I showed no sign of emotion, but I could have jumped with joy. The bastard hadn't made the very illogical conclusion I was a vampire, even as he made so many others to know me.

I nodded. "I have no doubt becoming an instant millionaire will provide you with everything you really want-"

"I want time to enjoy it."

"Natürlich. Then, our arrangement is a million francs and the secret to long life-"

"I like what I see," he broke in, unwilling to deny his libido. "I'm going to have a piece of it before it's out of my reach."

I shuddered mentally. Talking about any body as if it were a side of beef was unpleasant, although I've been known to treat some as if they were just that. But my body? Regardless - me with him? Unnatürlich. Definitely unnatural.

Unmöglich. Definitely impossible.

"I will have to see the product of your labour before I pay you, Herr Eichmann," I answered, barely restraining my simmering anger below a tranquil surface.

"I bugger you before I do anything," he shot back.

"Why?" I gasped.

He laughed good-naturedly. "Because, my Prince, I suspect if you can disappear anywhere in the world, I shall be left standing at the altar - or dead. This way, I stay alive and have a fortune to enjoy that life with."

I shrugged. "If I wanted to kill you I could do so immediately afterwards. I'd even have good reason to do so if I acquiesce to your schedule of payments."

"Not if I install a back-up programme in the government records you want created - a virus that requires me feeding it a password six months from now to keep your identity as it will have become."

"Why six months?" I asked, past anger and simply curious.

"You're a sane man." He smiled. "You'll be over what we do now six months from now. Anger doesn't last that long in sane people. You'll be far away, and I'll be safe."

"Then, this congress you demand can wait until you have established my new identity - with your programme and its password."

"Perhaps-" He leant toward me and grinned. "But I'm horny as hell. So, that comes first."

"I need to consider this-"

"Get back to me tomorrow at the latest - otherwise, the deal's off."

"About this time would be the earliest I can make it," I offered lamely.

"See that you do, my Prince." He pushed back his chair and rose. "I have a class to teach." He smiled and said: "See you tomorrow evening."

I watched him leave before I paid the check and left, making sure I walked in the opposite direction than the one he took.

* * *

In my rooms, I raged. Marcus Eichmann had the audacity to intimidate me into sex with him. It may work with his students, but I was not some naive twenty year old lad who wanted to pass his course. I would kill him. I would tear his head off.

There were other hackers. I didn't need him. Austria, Germany, France - I could take my pick of the men who lived to ride the infobahn. People who took pleasure in thwarting governments and companies by finding their secrets in cyberspace.

I raged, but I was not insane. This Eichmann had found me out. He knew who I was or thought he did. He had traced me back to the young man I was pretending to be in 1935; he could make me almost eighty years old. At the very least, he could embarrass me. With me having no identification, I suspected he could do worse. And, without it, I could go nowhere - not France, Germany, or Austria to find another hacker. I was stuck with Herr Eichmann.

Stuck with him, yes. But, definitely not defenceless before him. I was still a vampire. I could read thoughts and direct them. I could even create false memories in a man, as long as they were mundane, simple things I was having him remember - such as sexual activity. I could build on a man's own greed and lust; I should therefore be able to build on his revulsion and fear. I smiled and ended my pacing. Marcus Eichmann was in for some surprises.

He would have his million francs. That was fair. What he would provide me was well worth that sum. I had never been filled with avarice. A new persona to accommodate my twenty-five year old appearance was worth nearly any price. He would, however, roast in hell before he had anything more.

I smiled and searched for his thoughts. If he were home alone, I was about to give him a fantasy he'd have a hard time believing.

I pulled back immediately, barely touching his thoughts, when I found him in his cubicle between a young man's legs. Even were he telepathic, I doubted he felt the brush of my mind against his. Not as strenuously as he was working the student's erection.

My face fell immediately, the nature of what I would put in Eichmann's mind forgotten as whispering, unchannelled thoughts touched mine for the first time in nearly sixty years.

Sergei's thoughts! Just as before when I found Würther. Disorganised and meaningless, but bearing my love's signature nonetheless - just as those others sixty years ago had.

Sergei was returned, calling me to reclaim him.

I collapsed in the nearest chair. Sergei come back to me? Again? Oozing through me as a lubricant was the awareness that, this time, I must protect him. No more Bloody Sundays. No more mountain plateaux in the middle of the night. He would again be a vampire and, together, we would seal our bodies off from the worst the mortal world could bring against us.

I accepted that as a given. I had been alone too long. With no Sergei to make my life miserable, yet unbelievably and permanently happy.

But where was he?

In 1935, when last I heard his soul's whisperings, he was less than twenty kilometres away at the country church servicing my gau. The year before, when I first heard him whispering to me and his soul's voice was the most faint, he was no more than a hundred kilometres away at his seminary.

His spectral voice was not faint. It was a loud, random call to me across the spectrums of telepathic thought. As loud as when Würther was a curate at the church and I was in residence at my estate. I accepted that meant he was nearby. Within twenty kilometres of where I now sat in the gathering autumn of 1996.

I shuddered as I accepted the realisation. Zürich was a city of one million residents, plus the million and more in its many suburbs. Additionally, it had sixty thousand or more students at the university and the advanced technical college living within its boundaries, young men and women the city fathers of Zürich didn't count as residents and taxpayers. How was I supposed to find him? What were the odds of walking up on him as Würther had me in the confines of my home almost sixty years ago?

Was he a student? That might well explain the loudness of his soul's whispering to me. But it was just as possible he was a forty year old butcher two blocks away, a hundred and a half kilos waiting to land on me. All I knew was, if I saw him or he saw me, we would know each other in the instant of that sighting.

That was how it had been when Father Würther entered my residence near the Jugoslav border when I still had an estate. But how could I make it possible to meet every person within twenty kilometres of where I had taken residence? Two million people, give or take a hundred thousand? Even given half the population was female and he was kind enough to come back as a male, that left a million men and boys for me to meet personally to find one man.

Unglaublich. Not to mention its impossibility.

I tried to filter his whispering from my thoughts. I would search for him now I knew he was here, but I still had things I must do, things that took precedence. The hacker especially - or I would end up like the student he was entertaining when last I touched his thoughts. Definitely not a pretty picture except perhaps for the sentient sausage who had plans for my body's use.

I forced Sergei from my thoughts and extended my mind, again searching for the thoughts of Eichmann the computer hacker.

He whistled as he strolled homeward. His thoughts languished in the aftermath of orgasm and the power he had held over the lad between whose legs he knelt to service him. I shuddered as his thoughts turned to what he'd do to me tomorrow night; then, I was stricken numb with amazement as his fantasies became more substantial.

I was laid out naked on my back along his bed, my arms stretched over my head and my hands tied to the metal posts of the headboard. He had me wearing a spiked collar as if I were a dog. And I gazed up at the nude, hirsute body with lust. I watched him grease an enormous dildo with lard. Wanting him. Wanting it.

He wanted to bind me? He wanted to put that in me? He wanted me to feel lust? I thought not.

But let him dream. I forced my pounding heart to slow. Not since the Empire's debacle to Prussian arms when I was but a nineteen year old lieutenant in the Hussars had I been bound or my honour questioned by another man. That had been war. Eichmann wasn't planning a war across the field of his bed. His fantasies would remain just that - a sexual dream. Unfulfilled.

He would believe otherwise, of course - once I was through with him.

I smiled stonily. Afterwards, he would be strangely weak for such a large man. I would liberate a litre of his blood from him. He wanted intimacy? He would have more of it than he thought to bargain for.

The thought of blood reminded me I had not yet fed. I was a slave to my body. The mere thought of food had me immediately slavering as if I were a dog in Dr. Pavlov's laboratory. No other thought dared enter my mind now the animal in me demanded gluttony. I opened a window and, changing into bat form, flew into the already chilled night.

* * *

I did not have to hunt far.

The Plattpromenade speared the onrushing Sihl River and divided it before it could become the Zürichsee eight short blocks from my student garret. Even in autumn it was a refuge for the worldly but weary young of Europe.

Young men prostituted themselves along its paths while others shot heroin into their bodies and died in the fields of poppy only they could see. Already, in the short time I lived in the neighbourhood, there had been five drug overdoses. Those young, once handsome, men become gaunt in death lay wherever Zürich interred its indigent and unknown.

I alighted in an evergreen bush and hopped to the leaf-covered ground. My body elongated, becoming larger, thicker and stronger, as I changed to wolf form. Tonight, I was hungry and I had to fill myself sufficiently I controlled myself when I met Eichmann tomorrow. There would be another corpse in this park when the sun rose again over Zürich.

I padded along the cobbled paths of the park, enjoying the sensation of the chilled, wet air on my fur, relishing the city smells that touched my snout. The thick scent of Italian salsas mingled with the aromas of German kuchen and torten. The odours reminded me of Vienna when once I lived there and a polyglot of scents greeted the visitor.

A youth knelt before me, slowly sticking his hand out to me. I sniffed his palm, then licked it. He smiled. His other hand stroked my back. I nuzzled his coat and enjoyed his smell. His thoughts told me he was a student at the university, looking to make next week's spending money by hiring out his body. He was handsome, tall, and lithe - exactly the way I liked my men.

His longish, curly hair was light-brown with reddish-gold highlights, his face thin with high cheeks and forehead, and his skin was light-complected, almost translucent under the lamps lighting the promenade.

My snout went to his crotch and sniffed his heat. He chuckled and ruffled the fur between my ears. There was no sickly sweet scent of heroin about him and his thoughts were clear as he looked past my wagging tail for sight of a possible assignation. I nuzzled him and felt his tumescence through the corduroy of his trousers.

I touched his thoughts again, moving along their surface.

He had bought his girlfriend a bracelet and now wished he had been more careful with his money. She was worth every franc he reminded himself over and over again; it was just he was left so short. He hadn't been careful with his stipend and that embarrassed him. His lack of control had forced him to come to the park and that, too, embarrassed him.

He was uncomfortable here. His girlfriend satisfied his sexual needs. He was comfortable with her and his life with her was not fraught with the dangers he sensed from the men who hunted in this park.

Memories of a tongue prying its way beneath his sensitive prepuce, lips pushing it back along his shaft. Encompassing his sex. A nose against his pubis, hot breath parting the short hairs. Those drew him even as he resisted their lure, drawing him as much as the money did.

He skirted the danger every time he returned. He wondered what it would be like to do to others what they did for him. It was a curiosity he resisted vehemently; but it was there, barely submerged beneath his surface thoughts. That and the curiosity of what it'd be like to be mounted as some of the men who hired him wanted.

Surprised, I realised my careful planning for my resurrection had held no thought of my sexual needs. Though not considered, my lust had taken care of itself by finding this lad. I would hire him to keep my libido satisfied until I once again held Sergei in my arms. I found this youth's name and where he lived among his memories.

I wanted this Emil Paulik. To worship Eros with him. To relieve his curiosity. But gently. Kindly. Without feeding. Not tonight, but another time. When we could together explore his fantasies leisurely.

He stood expectantly and I sensed a middle-aged man approaching us, a man whose thoughts were already imaging the lad's endowment. I wagged a farewell to the youth and left him to his transaction. I had my own transaction to find. My canine bowel growled in anticipation.

When the first vampire rose from the gore of his birth, he was blessed with the ability to feed on any blood, regardless of what microbes or molecules it carried. Human nor animal disease touched those of us who followed that long ago ancestor. Of course, clean, healthy blood tasted far better than dirty, diseased blood - much like the difference between a Chateaubriand and jerky.

I chose not to taste my Chateaubriand as young Emil would have been to me. I knew heroin-tainted blood would taste like soured wine. But I chose not to feed on a man who was healthy and had harmed no one. By choosing to sate my hunger on the sick and afflicted, I was only speeding them to the end they chose for themselves.

My dinner sat alone along the darkest path in the park at the northern end of the river island immediately above the lake of Zürich. He wore a thin shirt and denim trousers, his shoes had come unsewn at the toes. His hair and beard were wild, uncombed and unwashed. His thoughts were incoherent, sliding toward unconsciousness as the night's chill held him and consumed his pain.

He did not stir at my touch on his hand and his skin was already as cold as my own. I nodded to myself as I realised he would not live out the night, even if I did not end his lost life for him. I changed back into human shape, standing before him nude. I felt the bite of autumn chill in the air, but it didn't affect me as it would a mortal - I could lope across the Antarctic without fear of death.

Lifting him, I carried him into the bushes beyond the path and laid him on a bed of leaves. It was the best setting I could provide him for his encounter with the man on the white horse.

I pulled his trousers to his knees and used my preternatural sight in the darkness to find the needle tracks along the inside of his thigh. I wagged my head at how close they were to his scrotum. The man before me was in the last stages of his addiction, all but his largest veins were collapsed. Baring my teeth I plunged them into the artery at the joint.

After his heart had failed and I was gorged, I pulled his trousers back onto his hips and zipped them. He didn't deserve the indignity of being bared to the world in death, no matter how undignified his life had been.

The whispering was calling loudly to me as I flew into my room and changed into human form.

Sergei, where are you? I demanded and knew he could not, would not, answer me. The whisperings were but the mutterings of his unawakened soul, a reflexive voicing of its reemergence on the physical plane - much like the cooing and gurgling of a new-born child. He would not awaken until we were in each other's presence, when he would finally recognise me and know himself.

That recognition would trigger his reawakening. Whoever he was now would not become Sergei until that had happened. Then he would be Sergei, Würther, this person, and everyone else he had ever been.

I did not envy him his incarnations. Nearly one hundred and fifty years of memories were often too much for me; I could well imagine the paralysis caused by a deluge of memory from his first sentient moment. It had almost destroyed Würther, leaving him prostrate for two long days and fearful of himself for nearly a year afterwards.

How long had I waited for Würther from the first whispering until he walked into the estate house that evening? A year? Longer.

Gott im Himmel! Did I have to wait that long this time?

I forced him and the anticipation of him from my mind. I closed the window and dressed. And allowed myself pleasant thoughts of introducing Emil to what he feared most but was drawn toward. Several hundred francs a week would not cause me financial pain, but they would help him considerably. With them, we would both find our interludes pleasant - I would ensure that along with his wages.

* * *

I awakened to Sergei's whispers continuing within my head, a spectre haunting the corridors of my mind. But a pleasant one, promising an eternity of love when we finally met. I stretched languidly and took long moments to become aware of the uncomfortable warmth on my exposed leg. My eyes flew open.

The room was bathed in light. I yanked my leg out of the pool of sunlight on the bed and looked at the wrist watch with which I gifted myself minutes after I raided my account at Hauptmann's Bank. One o'clock! Early afternoon!

I pushed myself from the bed and hurriedly dressed behind the closet door. Gott sei Dank! It was an autumn sun whose rays lighted my bedroom and had warmed my leg. A summer sun would have cooked me.

I would definitely have to find Sergei before summer or I would be burnt to a crisp or, at least, nursing a pain no vampire dared imagine.

There was a sweet, bitter taste in my mouth from the heroin-laced gorging I indulged myself with last night. Staying within the shadows, I left the bedroom and went in search of the lavatory where both mouthwash and toothpaste waited my use.

I was awake and still had hours to go before I met with Herr Eichmann at the university. I did not particularly feel like sitting about the flat listening to Sergei's continuous, mindless dribble.

I would find him; we would meet. We would again take up our lives and I would ensure there would be no more separations. But, until then, I was not about to tear my heart out when he didn't even know it. I had already learnt that lesson and knew it well.

As Eichmann had said of himself yesterday, I was horny. The memory of young Emil Paulik beckoned. I could find him, at least. I might even set up something for later. I smiled at that thought. Finding my wide fedora and dark glasses, I was out the door and flying down five flights of stairs to begin the hunt.

I knew where to find my quarry from his thoughts the night before. It was time to reintroduce some pleasure into my life.