“She’s in a better place,” Dr. Mani murmured. “She’s transcended her drunkard husband, her ungrateful children. She’s transcended her fears about breast cancer from her mother, lung cancer from smoking in her youth, of the aches and pains of growing older and watching helplessly as her body rusts and breaks like a clock winding down. She’s free! She’s free of the heartache and the thousand pains of our stupid, useless meat!”
Dr. Mani’s face was twisted up, his mouth locked in a grimace of anguish, his eyes watery, as if he were on the verge of tears. In an instant he had gone from being the man I respected most at the university to a wounded child.
“Alright, that’s enough,” Justin said. “Very clever, but this isn’t funny anymore. How’d you do it? Where she’d go?” Dr. Simon was Justin’s advisor and, I suspect, lover, and if her sudden disappearance were going to seriously unsettle any of us, it would have been him.
Dr. Mani composed himself some and said simply, “She’s gone.”
“Then bring her back!”
He shook his head. “She can’t be brought back. It would be a crime, anyway, to shackle her again.”
Justin was silent for a moment, and then he surged forward to confront Dr. Mani and his machine. He put his hands upon the device, examining it even as he began altering its settings. Dr. Mani stepped forward, nervous but tentative. “Stop, stop! It’s delicate! I can set it for you! I can set it! You’ll break it!” Dr. Mani tried to push Justin out of the way, to cover the machine with his own body as if shielding a loved one, but the frail and aged academic was no match for the angry twenty-something. Justin shoved Dr. Mani to the ground, and in that same instant, the machine began humming to life once more.
The room erupted into chaos. We moved without direction or sense, a stampede of dumb, panicking animals, uncoordinated, slamming into each other, pushing each other away. I rushed to Dr. Mani’s side and many of the others ran to help Justin. The room began to glow, but not with a warm, diffuse light as before. There was only harsh, blinding whiteness, nothingness. I raised my hands to my eyes, tried to shield them from the light, but it was no use. The others in the room were reduced to nothing but dark silhouettes against a sterile white void.
And then one of the silhouettes screamed in agony.
Justin was still clutching the machine, his shoulders heaving, his legs kick wildly beneath him, his head jerking from side to side. He seemed to be trying to escape the grasp of some unseen assailant. “Help me!” he screamed. “Help me!” He lurched forward, hunched over the table, but the shape of his body was wrong. He seemed to be disappearing into the machine, but that was, of course, impossible. There was nowhere for him to go.
Still he screamed, his voice becoming first hoarse and then wet and whispery, as if his throat and lungs and mouth were filling with liquid, or perhaps phlegm. The silhouettes that had rushed to help him pulled against him, locking their arms around his form, bracing themselves with a single foot on the table, pulling even on each other in an attempt to help in whatever way they could. It was almost cartoonish. It was almost comical.
Beneath the panic and frantic directionless action, Dr. Mani shouted, “Stop! Stop! He’s suffering! You’ll only make it worse!” But no one paid him any attention. Justin had gone silent by that point, and the rest were feverish to help him. With one last, forceful tug, they pulled him free.
The silhouette of his body was misshapen almost beyond recognition. Half of one arm was gone. The other was missing completely. His head and his chest appeared to be caved in, collapsing in on themselves more with every passing second. “Justin!” some grad student shouted. “Justin, are you okay, man?” And then a moment later, he screamed, “Oh, fuck! It hurts! It hurts!” They dropped Justin, and he hit the ground with a wet thud. The figure that had screamed held up his hands, and they too began to dissolve into nothingness. The others screamed as well, swatting at the bits of them that were disappearing, wailing in terror and pain as their flailing spread the affliction across their bodies.
“The machine! It’s the machine!”
“No,” Dr. Mani shouted. He pushed me away from him and stumbled to his feet. He rushed over to defend the machine, but it was too late. The others had already flipped the table and knocked it to the ground where it landed with the sound of glass shattering. They rushed to smash it underfoot, metal twisting and groaning as they stomped for all they were worth. Dr. Mani howled like a dying animal.
The aftermath was unpleasant in every sense of the word. Once the machine was destroyed and the unnatural light vanished, we had to confront the horror of what had transpired in that room. Everyone in the room except for Dr. Mani and me had some kind of a wound. A few had what appeared to be nothing more than burns or abscesses. More were missing chunks of flesh and possess the kind of wounds one would expect to find from severe necrosis. The worst of them were missing fingers, hands, here an ear, there an eye.
No trace of Dr. Simon or Justin was ever found.
The police got involved, of course. They ultimately concluded that Dr. Mani had recklessly exposed us to some horribly caustic chemical that had caused the disfiguring wounds. When he insisted that he had done no such thing, that the misuse of his machine had led to the mutilation of our flesh rather than our liberation from it, he was ruled insane and removed to a mental hospital.
He didn’t take this well.
I visited Dr. Mani on occasion while he was in prison and even when he was at the asylum. But I only went once after they began to keep him under constant sedation. It was too painful to me to see a man I once admired brought so low.
But I suppose in a way, he got exactly what he wanted. There is, after all, no trace of the great intellect, the gentle and sympathetic soul, in those glassy dead eyes. It has surely moved on to some other place, some other better place, and the body so hideously marred by self-mutilation enacted in the darkest depths of frustration and despair is a cage no longer.
Indeed, it is nothing more than a withered, discarded husk of meat.
So, that got away from me. But I had fun with it! Anyway, be here on Monday for a new story. I have quite a few ideas for shorter works like this, so I imagine I’ll be doing them for at least the rest of the July.