We filed in, laughing and talking amongst ourselves. There were ten chairs set out for us arranged in a semi-circle around a large table with some bulky object set atop it and concealed by a bedsheet.
“What’s with all the theatrics, Horace?” Dr. Paul called out. Dr. Mani said nothing. He simply turned to Dr. Paul and smiled at her. He took up a spot next to the table and cleared his throat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to thank you all for coming here tonight,” Dr. Mani said. “I don’t know many people that I would call friends, but when I try to imagine what that word means, I imagine all of you. And so here we are.” There were a few laughs at that comment (mostly nervous ones) and somebody called out, “Aw, we love you too, Dr. Mani!” Dr. Mani turned in the direction of the voice, smiled and nodded, and then turned his gaze back to the crowd as a whole.
“When I think of what it is that connects us and binds us, I think only of this: the pain of being alive.” I felt the smile disappear from my face at that. I quickly glanced around and saw similar looks of confusion and discomfort on the faces of most of the others.
Dr. Mani shook his head. “No, that’s not quite right. Being alive is, of course, painful, but that’s a symptom, not the disease. The disease is being a sensate creature. A physical creature.” Dr. Mani sniffed. Frowned.
“A being of meat.”
“Horace, what’s your point?”
Dr. Mani stopped mid-sentence and looked up at the ceiling as if he were considering the question for the first time. He shrugged his shoulders, turned towards the table, and pulled the sheet free with a great flourish. A collective gasp ran through the crowd.
A strange, alien looking device sat atop the table. There was no sense or consistency to its construction. In one spot, it was smooth curves. In another, sharp corners. It was chrome and plastic, rubber and steel. Lights blinked without rhyme or reason. It looked like nothing so much as an overwrought movie prop, one designed without any basis in reality save to look as awe-inspiring and intimidating as possible.
Dr. Mani gestured towards the hunk of metal and plastic and God only knew what else. “My point is simply this. I’ve developed a machine to liberate us from the shackles of our earthly bodies while preserving our consciousness as a form of energy.”
For his part, Dr. Mani smiled at us with infinite patience, as if we were children on the verge of grasping some complex concept. “What are you saying, Dr. Mani?” some student finally asked.
“I’m saying that we don’t have to be weak, infirm flesh. We can become beings of thought. Beings of light. We can shed our bodies like so much rotting meat and lead better lives.”
Dr. Mani grinned. “Just walk up and use the machine. It’s that simple.” Another pause. Dr. Mani’s grown slowly disappeared from his face as he considered us all. “I know that you all have suffered. I’ve been listening to you for weeks, months, years. I’ve suffered too, but together we need not suffer any longer.”
We were silent. None of us quite knew what to make of such talk. Dr. Mani was never one for joking, so there was no way that this was some kind of elaborate prank, but how could it be true? “Alright, screw it. I’ll bite,” said Dr. Simon. She stood up and walked, a bit unevenly, over to the table. She stood before Dr. Mani, folded her arms across her chest and smiled at him. “Let’s see what this fancy machine of yours does, Horace.”
“Of course, Margaret. Please, just put your hands here.”
She did so, looking for all the world like someone typing at a stand-up desk designed by H.R. Giger. “Okay. Now what?”
Dr. Mani adjusted some dial on the machine, flipped a switch, gently tapped at some buttons. Dr. Simon looked at him with an arched eyebrow, and then the machine hummed to life. A soft, warm light seemed to emanate from the machine’s joints and seams, flowing out liquid until it filled the room. Until it blinded us.
“Oh, that’s weird,” Dr. Simon said. “It feels weird. Kind of warm. It’s like–” and then she stopped. The light receded, as if it were a living thing retreating back within the confines of the machine. The humming slowed and stopped, some great engine winding down into nothingness. When we opened our eyes, we saw that Dr. Mani stood alone, smiling and wild-eyed and rubbing his hands together, the very portrait of a mad scientist.