The Fear Machine, Part 1


“It’s going to be alright,” Ruth said. “I’m here. It will be alright.”

Noise. She tried to inject it into the process, to disturb the small links of time that passed him closer to death. Her arm interrupted the nurse’s slow rotation. Rafa lay in the hospital bed, his body shrunken in colour-dead sheets. Even unconscious, the face was tight, locked up. No amount of noise would break his death, would make it any easier. Still, she tried.

“Can’t you do something?”

Ruth felt tightened, compressed into a new woman. A terrible new. Nails bitten to nubs. Her worry lines, usually barely-there, had invaded, claimed vast swathes of visage, digging the trenches of years into her architecture. Rafa shifted in the bed, dying. His heart improbably strong, body resilient almost beyond belief, but now ‘they’ said nothing more could be done. Watching him lying still, Ruth watched Rafa’s nervous system try to remember the procedures of deceleration. They’d been overwritten, re-thought ahead of the autonomic – every decision made found a spent axon, a dead dendrite. No signals got through, except for more speed. More speed.

The nurse broke back into motion.

“He’s sedated – for now,” she said.  “They’re monitoring him. We’ll know more when we get the tests back.”

Nothing but repetition. Stresses ignored, sidelined, following the vagary of an encounter pattern. Nurse words from a body in uniform, tracing out the minimum in bedside manner – the nurse built the world in clinical motions, in apologies, in deferrals. Meanwhile, the flesh in those crisp white clothes squirmed like her own, felt the same new stimulus as her own. Those stimuli had been robbed of recognition, and Ruth watched the nurse’s face as she hesitated, as she moved and spoke a little more slowly, reacting to the unfamiliar. Decentralized distractions. In this woman’s vision, Ruth’s features approached. They sharpened, imprinted, then passed by.

“You don’t understand-” The requisite clipboard dropped back at the edge of the bed. The circuit had begun again. Unstoppable, this time. The door opened, closed again.  The nurse was gone.

A beat passed before she noticed him. In the room. It surprised her and she grabbed at Rafa’s hand. She pulled at it, searching for responsiveness, the comfort of presence. It didn’t come, only his pulse racing wayward under her touch. The new arrival was shaven-headed or bald, wearing a hat and heavy trenchcoat. A white shirt, a red tie, a light grey suitcase – a recognition when he looked at her.

And when she looked back.

He looked the same, but he wasn’t. Without the beard and the hair, as if he was worn smooth, but made from the same mold. Richard was not so big, not quite so oppressive. This man was that. He filled the room, drew the eye. A rough gravity.

“I need to find him,” he said. Pulling the clipboard back out of its petty sheath, he flipped through it. Tables, notes, forms. The institution made clear for its members, in neat little lines. It clearly said nothing to him.

Flashing that recognition her way once again – now she wanted to dodge it, to twist away until he forgot. Attacking with his eyes, with his gaze, he made her powerless, fixing her in place and she for an instant wanted to kill him. Then no more. He lay the suitcase on the counter, studying it, and looked at the snowflakes along its edges one by one, slowly. As if they would move. Snapping the case open, he lifted them out of his way.

Ruth saw into a near universe for only a moment, then the case’s surface became opaque. Inside, liquid ate at the suitcase’s inside edge, forever-never overflowing. Dark, the surface shifted colours, running from soft ash to obsidian as it pushed at its boundaries. Movements played within. Nightmare fluid. The big man reached inside, impossibly submerging his whole arm into it, pushing into the dark oily liquid.  He waited a second, arm swallowed, then pulled.

The pistol came easily, so easily it looked as if he’d expected it, expected its weight and dependability in his hand. Bullets had that habit – very short, effective statements. He put it away without even thinking, slid danger out of sight until it became germane to reach for it. She felt a prickling along her skin and couldn’t place its source. The machine pulsed against them both, against all of them. Rafa’s breathing was getting ragged again.

More ripples spotted the liquid, its surface playing sickly and iridescent against the hospital air. Like an oil slick. He gave it his hand again and she watched the fluid try to climb him, to use him in its escape. As it happened she wondered if she could kill this strange twin if he tried to hurt them. If she could cave in his skull. The liquid was viscous around his skin, slipping away from his grip even as it pulled at his edges. It flowed through his grasp, licking his searching fingers, teasing its rough pollution. Then he pulled again, bringing out a small box. The suitcase’s contents adhered, trying to follow him out, falling loose only at the case’s snowflake-marked boundary. The retreat was reluctant, but as the contact was broken, the liquid’s surface stilled and he closed the suitcase. He opened the box and studied its contents a minute.

“Who are you?” She squeezed Rafa’s hand again, their rings overlapping, trying not to think about his pulse accelerating again, trying not to think of the reason for it, so far below their feet. Rafa didn’t notice – he was somewhere else. Face contorted, his breathing quickened. Almost gasping, now. She could even see his pulse pounding through a vein in his temple, roaring through his consciousness. Feeding his nightmares.

The stranger was watching Rafa, too, seeing what she saw. Rafa’s fear was detached here – palpable. It crawled around the room, probing – developing. It wasn’t errant. Then it touched her, multiplied along her limits, looking for connections. She ignored it, tried to shut out her sense of it.

“I need to find him,” the stranger said. She tried to focus, to answer Richard’s golem. With that gun, his violent clone. A thousand small presences crawled along her edges as Rafa’s free hand began to tremble. “What’s with him?”

“They don’t know. He won’t calm down – we can’t stop his body. At first, he just couldn’t sleep… They’ve tried for days. Beta blockers. Putting him under. It does nothing, it won’t stop. Adrenaline, norepinephrine, catecholamines, he’s producing every stress response at once. His heart is getting tired.” Exhaustion blanketed her. But even tired, the intensity that held her, that fed her inability to rest, ran along her entire body. She felt a buzzing there, trying to grab at her. She tried to drop her shoulders, to relax them, but they wouldn’t comply. They stayed on her, like angry, flightless grey wings.

“He wouldn’t stop,” she said. “Said it would just get worse if he didn’t max it out. Richard just left him. I think he ran.” She gripped even harder. “I think he left us to die.”

Her hand was shaking. No, her whole body was trembling. He looked at his suitcase as if it was too heavy in his hand and now his arms were shaking, his body now disjointed, disconnected. He hesitated, looked down at himself – and that break was enough.  The fear and anxiety they’d felt, the atmosphere that permeated the room, rushed in, flooded perception, taking over. The nurse’s studied exit, the dependability of routine – the stony vigil. The waiting room and its cycle of contact. Pent up, those slow spiders exploded inside her.

She was hyperventilating. Had been for perhaps a minute but hadn’t realized. Everything was speeding up, beating faster, drawing more oxygen, more need from her body as she became aware of her fragility. Everything had torn loose inside her. Her heart accelerated in her chest, racing out against ribs that now compressed violently, denying space. She watched him draw a deep, slow breath, then another, less slow. She wanted to tell him it wouldn’t help but he turned away from her. She tried to ignore the jump of adrenaline, the ready-rush of hypersensitivity. The sound of her heartbeat sprang to life in her skull and she felt its broken, scrambling pumps in her chest. She gasped the next breath, then the one after. Her skin was electric, too-sensing, the eternal informative rush overwhelming. The room was too bright and her senses were beating at her, pushing towards overload.

The patterns of calm weren’t working. She let go of Rafa’s hand when she fell. Somewhere beyond her the big man also fell, grabbing at his chest. She could imagine this stranger’s thoughts as her own began slipping, dodging her attempts to get them back. Nothing had happened. Nothing was wrong. But they were under attack. Something was inside them, was targeting them, was pulling at them with a visceral insistence, then feeding them their own responses. A terrible surge within her chest. The suitcase dropped from the stranger’s hand. His gun rested useless in its holster. She couldn’t move, couldn’t turn her head to look back at Rafa, could only watch a stranger’s struggle not to die and feel it mirrored within herself.

Ruth closed her eyes.

Want more? The Fear Machine – Part 2