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The Fear Machine, Part 3

They’d taken another two pills each and it half-blanked out the world. Only two pink sentinels remained, but the machine was pushing through them. She felt sick and slow, disoriented. Everything was too far away when she reached for it – walking and turning were slow and awkward, and she had to strain to recognize the objects she saw. It made no difference – that sensation of foreboding, of certain doom, was inside her. She’d swallowed the last two, could feel them interrupting and rotting softly away at something inside, but their effect was insignificant in the face of the fear construct. This close to the machine, the pills didn’t matter. Taken too early or too late or not at all, the machine’s effects were still stronger. The only relief was that her thoughts were too muddy and slippery for even the adrenaline to catch, for her mind to complete even the recognition of panic.

They shambled forward like zombies, steps dragging as if they were crossing blasted, sticking earth instead of concrete. Composite was weaving uncertainly a pace ahead of her, forcing himself through the machine’s current. Its affective torrent had become physical – it pushed against them in insistent swells, driving against their bodies and overwhelming even their dulled senses with its presence. The fear machine was intervening at every touch, there at every decision, inserting itself into their body’s motions, suffocating their sense-networks.

It changed nothing – Composite stumbled on, and she followed, dragged along in the little wake he was generating with his refusal to stop. The stranger was the closest thing to her now, the only other human she could possibly imagine. She tried to wonder where Rafa was, if he was still alive, but another swell of adrenaline stripped the question from her. Ruth wanted to vomit, feeling the chemical guardian warring with the machine’s nerve-ripping triggers inside her.

Congratulations. Richard had named the stranger, but it was Composite’s earlier, lone word that she still carried. Seeing what the machine had done – feeling what it could do – drove the question towards her. She couldn’t grasp it, couldn’t think beyond the accusation to an answer. Why had they built the machine? There was guilt now, somewhere – she couldn’t connect with it either. Perhaps if they managed to stop the machine, her guilt would be assuaged before she had to come to terms with it. It could burn itself out without her.  She could come back to a reckoning already resolved for her. Perhaps.

Her card in his hand, the last door flashed a tiny green permission. Composite stepped inside, and Ruth followed.

 

They saw the construct. Magnetic plates created a regular octagon, black-plated panels dull. Within them, an irregular structure, a prism elaborated in transparent facets, contained an amorphous, ever-changing mass. It resembled boiling water, but suspended in midair, roiling in on itself furiously. It glowed, throwing sharp shadows away from it, geometrically parsing light and darkness like some nightmare flower.  Even from where she was, Ruth could feel the physical cold emanating from it. At the top of the prism, a heavy terminal cable ran into the ceiling and disappeared.

She stopped. Her legs rooted her to the ground, grounded her at the door, and she watched Composite continue, receding into the machine’s chaotic light. She wanted to speak, to tell him what to do, how to end the terrible cycle but her mouth wouldn’t open, her lips were numb now. They wouldn’t move. Composite never stopped. He approached slowly, shuffling forward, never altering his gait. Skirting the prism’s glare, he took care of the magnets first, tearing out the thin cables that led to each. The boiling fluid shot towards him the first few times he did as the forces that held it in place slackened and opened sudden spaces, sprouting complex, wicked-looking geometric barbs and elongating towards the edge of its clear prison. When the liquid touched that edge she felt it, could sense the chill it dispensed touching her. She still stood at the edge of the room – how much worse would the temperature be up close? Composite watched from an arm’s length as flash-condensation appeared on the outside of the prism, thickening immediately to ice. The ice’s own weight dragged it down as the boiling liquid went the other way and rose, spreading itself over every inch of its multi-sided prison. He continued to pull out magnetic cables. When he finished, the liquid still held, raging against its transparent confines. The air in the room was getting dry as the water in the air turned to ice on contact, shattering in small piles at his feet. Even with the demagnetization, she still felt the machine. It ate at her. She couldn’t move straight, think straight, even as she rotted in chemical numbness. Composite, on the inner edge of the machine’s influence, stumbled. She watched him fall to his knees, shaking his head. Ruth couldn’t move, couldn’t go help him. Even her thoughts were escaping her – she was barely a watcher.

She tried to yell around her numb mouth but it stayed shut and silent. The prism was the key, keeping the machine going. The magnetic forces just kept it intact, but the second line of defence would last a long time – without cutting off the fuel source, no one would make it. Ruth sank to one knee, watching the ice fall to the ground – with the superfluid touching the prism, enough had been done. At least now the machine would degrade on its own. Not enough to save them, but the radius of dead fear would fade eventually – perhaps those that came after could avoid the same mistake.

Composite fell, both hands on the floor now, and he began pulling himself towards her, arm over arm. His arms shook from the cold and bits of ice cracked off his coat as he moved. She slid further down the frame of the door. The machine was roaring in now, outpacing him. She was sitting when Composite reached her. He fumbled at her, pushed her back into the hallway, then sat up, pulled out the pistol and tried to lift it back towards the machine. Another sheet of ice fell to the floor, spraying chips towards them. He took aim at the prism, squeezed the trigger.

Nothing. A faraway bang, the smallest ping of ricochet. Ruth could feel more, now, but everything was wrong – her soul was coming out through her mouth and she wouldn’t get it back. Composite grunted, pushed her further back, around the edge of the door, then propped himself on an elbow. He lifted the gun again, slowly, willing it to stay steady. He pulled.

The shock blew him back out into the hallway. The explosion that followed blasted debris out after him and spun Composite’s body around, the pressure grinding man and wreckage into the wall, glass and metal into his coat and through it to the flesh beneath.

She felt the change immediately. Beyond her body there was suddenly nothing. No extension of sensation. A lack. Almost as if, in a perverse way, she’d been plugged in through the fear up until now. The connection was severed now, dead, leaving them all alone again. The fear network had disappeared, shooting wide of their bodies now, relegating the body’s control to it. With its lack she could move again, and Ruth dragged herself to Composite’s side.  The chemical numbness clung to her but the machine seemed to have burned most of it out – only a residual sensation remained.

Composite was moving, feebly. There was blood on his clothes, shards of glass and plastic and metal on his coat. She watched as he felt at the blood his face, watching it come away red. As he moved, a small avalanche of debris fell away, scattering on the floor. Blood ran down the side of his neck. He looked to have lost an earlobe – perhaps a whole ear. She followed the blood and found the , handed it to him without thinking. He took the flesh from her, examining it, then dropped it back to the floor. He’d already moved past it. Composite slowly pulled himself to a sitting position, wincing. Together they looked back at the fear machine.

It lay in pieces – what was inside had flashed to fill the chamber and blown the entire construct apart. Even the massive cable that had dominated the ceiling now hung crazily, frayed into thousands of needlepoint wires.

Composite was looking at her now. She no longer had the benefit of distance, and she was becoming aware of her guilt. It was coming back, not to be sidestepped. Her own complicity, and the tragedy she’d almost allowed to happen. Somewhere, somehow her fault – others, too, Rafa and Richard and the others. But also hers. Maybe hers alone, now.

“It could have worked,” she said. It was the wrong statement to make, but it escaped by itself before she could fill her mind with another phrase, push it out ahead.

Composite said nothing. He stood, slowly, sliding the gun away. Examining the piece of ear on the ground, he stepped over it and picked up the suitcase, still primed. She watched him walk back towards the door. He didn’t look back before he was gone.

 

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