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The Fear Machine, Part 2

 

Pulses of light warred behind Ruth’s eyelids, illuminating the inside of her head.  Swells of overperception. Her nerves were on fire, everything firing with pre-sensation, tensing so hard she might break in half. She was moving, maybe, torn and transitioning to pure information, an entity no one would ever recognize and she could feel electricity coming at her, feel her mouth being forced open when everything came pouring in. She might have swallowed the whole world’s worth of static, jaw unhinged, molecules falling away in accelerated time, too quickly to force her muscles to clamp, to lock in and isolate her. She sweated or cried or went blind.
White flashes crested at her even with eyes closed – rising, brighter and brighter, jumbled noise rushing into her ears, heartbeats escalated to wild white noise. She was off-balance, falling farther into her own body, feeling the rush of disengaged capillaries channeling electric currents below her skin.
It took another minute for the change to come. Gradual, too-slow, but she could feel it stealing over her, pulling her back. Her vision cleared, slowly.  Her edges reappeared – her hands, her legs.  Her body rematerialized as the tension receded.
He was kneeling next to her, a pillbox open in his hand. Four-by-four rows of neat pink body-soldiers. Two were missing. Her mouth was dry and the dryness was comforting in its specificity, in its rediscovery of what nerves and neurons were supposed to do. The world was slowing back down. When her arms stopped shaking, he scooped another pill into his palm and stumbled to the bed. She clung to its edge for a few seconds as he fed Rafa the pill. With all of the medication already in his system, she didn’t know what it would do, but she could feel the machine’s effects subsiding in her, ebbing away. Perhaps it would clash with the drugs he was already on. Either way it saved him the trouble of dying slowly. He helped her up as someone fell heavily in the hallway.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t – the machine, you have to turn it off. That’s where he is.”
A lie. Richard could be anywhere – but it pushed him towards the problem. Towards the wave of fear that was stealing over the entire hospital. He looked at her as she normalized – she could still feel the machine’s accelerated push, just withdrawn past her boundaries, still hovering just beyond her skin. It was an overwhelming pall, a miasma of overintensity. Even the pill just dulled her sense of it. Her guts felt like jumping. He seemed to ignore the sensation.
The new arrival wasn’t giving her any information, but she could read it easily enough. He was after Richard. If he let the machine work, without him here it would probably do the job for him. But he was driven to find him. On top of that, there was a good chance he knew she’d lied. But he was curious – and he wanted Richard. Of that, there was no doubt.
“Where is it?”
“It’s- it’s under the hospital. We work in research.”
“These attacks – this machine. How does it work?”
“It’s a corrective construct,” she said. “It collects excess and emphasizes emotion.”
“Manipulating them?”
“No! Nothing like that,” she said. “We take excessives – fear, happiness, anger. The machine stores them. Then when people act well, do good things – we recirculate the happiness. Or when they don’t, the fear, or the sadness.  Small correctives.”
“Conditioning,” He said. The tone was flat. “Control through emotions.”
“No! We’re just expanding the sense of community. Making people that tiny bit happier when they’ve done something good.”
He looked at Rafa, lying half-dead or dying in a hospital bed.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “It can’t do this! It’s just to help. For the people who need it – smoothing out the rough edges.” She wanted to defend it to him, but the waves of fear still creased around both of them, gnawing at their connections into the world. He popped another two pills out and left them on the tray for her, then snapped her pass from her belt. He opened the door to the hallway, revealing the nurse, lying on the ground with her arms around herself.  He knelt and fed her a pill as well.  Without thinking she walked out to him, joining him in the hall, tying herself to his purpose. She looked towards the waiting room. There would be people. He had his pillbox out, counting. Ten left. The room would hold double that, easily. Pressed script framed the small box – Take one per Hour as Needed. She watched him make the decision.
They took the stairs down as far as they could.

 

The world dissolved around them and they fell like stones. Their weight was rediscovered and oversettled for a slow moment, then normalized. The elevator doors opened.
The corridors had shifted from hospital whites to something heavier, the colour of iron and heavy surf. Striated greys marked the walls, the monochrome pulling them into a blended darkness. Next to her, he checked that the half-empty pillbox was still there. He’d taken another tab of pink insurance and given her another, ahead of its ordered schedule. The whole world, claustrophobic and stark, pulled around her perceptions. The pill was pushing it away from her, isolating her. She touched the wall, almost-felt its rough concrete, its underground cool. Around the sensation, beyond it, she could feel the fear machine’s effects lurking, always circling towards her body, trying to push through her numb chemical cushion. Her mind felt insulated, hidden from the machine’s heightened pressures, its accelerated fears.
Ahead of her, Composite slapped his knuckles against the concrete wall, noticing the same numbness. He pulled a pistol free, holding it in front of him as they advanced. As if he thought he’d need every bit of speed he could pull back from the chemical deceleration. As if a gun might help fight fear.
They found him sooner than he’d expected. Richard lay dying on the floor, breaths rattling awkwardly, too-quickly. His eyes were wide open.
Formalities had to be observed. Her companion pulled out the dying man’s ID card, matched Richard Lakins to his face.  A pointless gesture – aside from Richard’s long hair and beard, the two were almost exactly alike.  Their sizes were different, their demeanors – but there was a continuity there that was beyond doubt.  It must have been like looking into a strange mirror.
Her companion flipped open the pillbox, shrugged one out, and touched it to Richard’s tongue. Even hyperventilating, barely-seeing, the other convulsed, spitting the pill out. He leaned over and retched, spewing acidic gruel over the floor. She stepped back, trying to avoid the liquid, trying to dodge the sharp smell now in the air. The numbness helped with that, at least.
Richard’s rough double pulled him upright, checked to make sure she was still with him. She’d been right. His other had gone back for the machine.  She could see his surprise at that, as if he’d expected to find his reflection a coward.  Of course, in the machine’s heart they were all afraid.
He pulled another pill free, forced it into Richard’s mouth. When Richard tried to spit it out, his double punched him, stunning him, and held his mouth closed. Richard vomited again, ejecting what was left from his nose as he spasmed, leaking it down his face, over the other’s gloves. She couldn’t help it – she took a step towards them, to help or pull them apart. Richard sagged as he was held and the other let the scientist’s mouth spill open, then grabbed the pill from the spreading pool of reeking liquid and forced it back into his mouth. Richard choked, coughing, his mouth again held closed. Finally, he swallowed. Long seconds passed. Composite let go, stripped his vomit-sodden gloves off, tossed them past her, down the hallway.
She felt the pressure again now, felt her heart accelerate. Another pill was shrugged out for her, and he took another himself. Far before the instructions said to. They were at least an hour ahead on this third one. He ignored it, so she did as well, welcoming the deadening as they watched Richard Lakins’ pallor creep back towards normal. This close, the resemblance was bizarre – her colleague’s hair was long, almost luxuriously thick, his full beard hiding almost his entire face. The eyes, the brow, the cheeks, though – those were the same. Worn smooth, she’d said, and it was true. The double was prototypical, unmarked. The snowflake on his tie was an ancient analogue to the brand she’d seen on Richard’s chest, once – but that was a crazy, complex thing, burned onto his flesh, where the double’s was once again almost utilitarian in its angles, hanging on him like an afterthought. The stranger drew closer as things slowed down. The pressure deadened, equalized. Richard’s eyes opened.
“Composite. Of course it’s you,” said Richard.
Composite knelt and showed him the gun, but the scientist’s eyes were deadened, faded out with the pill and he just examined the weapon.
“Talk,” said Composite. “Why ‘of course?’”
Richard blinked.
“Figure of speech.” He moved to stand, slowly, arms searching for balance.
Composite pushed him back against the wall, pushed the gun hard up into Richard’s jugular. Rose was silent, couldn’t do more than watch. She thought she could see the dull edge of Richard’s pulse around the barrel, lethargic and stilted, pushing artificially calmed blood through his veins.
“I said talk.”
“Oh, my,” said the scientist, hand feeling at his chest. Almost absentmindedly, he took his own pulse. “Not good. Not at all.”
Composite hit him, and Richard spit pink onto his earlier puddle, rippled the stench of bile. Wiping his mouth, he laughed.
“Bit of a bully, my off-world twin.” He leaned back against the wall, took a slow breath. “You must be Central-approved.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s written on you. Your ley line.” He pointed at Composite’s chest. At the metal snowflake that adorned his tie. “A bit more variety on mine.” He pulled at his chest, grabbed his button-up shirt, dragged it apart. Two buttons popped to the floor, hit the puddle, rolling wetly. On his upper chest Richard bore an intricate brand – one she’d seen before. The skin was white and scarred in fine, even lines, thick white bands breaking into angled tributaries across his body. Symmetrical, the brand gave the impression of rising from the flesh, of breaking towards Composite.  Composite studied it before speaking.
“Why did you come back?”
Their conversation had lost Rose – what was Central? And what was a ley line? Why were both men burdened with such similar symbols?
Richard laughed at the question.
“I think… I think I’m supposed to say ‘up yours, g-man’ here,” he wheezed. Composite’s double had turned pale again, bending down as if trying to protect himself. Rose stepped forward, ducking in front of Composite, and Richard fell on to her, still trying to stand. He spoke over her shoulder, addressing Composite.
“No,” he said. “You… you don’t even realize what you are. Central’s little hunter, with his… his own little symbol.” He coughed, hard, then dragged a labored breath in – she could feel the air struggling through his chest, making only slight, ragged contact with his brachial tubes. “E-ever asked a question, little bloodhound?” Richard groaned, the pain overwhelming him. His weight on her doubled. With her free hand, Rose felt his pulse, felt it decelerating rapidly under her touch. She went to help him down, to start CPR, but now Composite had taken him away from her, grabbed him and pulled his face close.
She watched him hesitate, watched him want to speak. His mouth opened and closed again – the first real hesitation he’d shown. Lakins was fading, dying while he thought.
“Were you going for the machine?” The question seemed unimportant, almost absurd, to her. The machine was just ahead. They might have a chance to stop it, now.
Richard said nothing as he died, ignoring the question, softening in front of them. Composite watched as his double expired in front of him.
An intimate, harsh beat played in her ears. The machine was reaching in towards her again. Composite opened the pillbox, took another pill, not looking. She touched his shoulder and after a moment he gave her one.
He was looking further into the bowels of the complex, over the still and tainted puddle of ground. Towards the source of that monstrous pressure. The machine. Then he looked back. Back towards the elevator, towards the surface.
“Wait,” she said. “We have to stop it.”
“He’s dead,” Composite replied. “That was the job.”
Just like that – Richard was dead. The job was finished. Time to go.
“Please. We’re almost there.”
Composite looked in the direction of the machine. He couldn’t know it, couldn’t possibly begin to imagine it, but she tried to pull ome of its connective value free, to give him something of its shape, of the alien brutality that had taken it over. To reach into him somehow, without speaking, and compel him.
“I can’t right every wrong,” he said. “Hell. I can barely right one.”
“No- wait! You’ll kill us.”
“You created this machine yourselves, lady.” He looked at the gun in his hand, ready to put it away or use it. “You released it in your own minds. You deserve what you get.”
He looked at Lakins’ corpse, examining it. He seemed almost reluctant to leave.
“Do you think he was coming to stop it?”
She wanted so badly to lie, wanted to tell him for whatever reason that yes, Richard had come back to stop the machine, that he couldn’t have done otherwise. It was the answer he wanted, and she didn’t know how she could know it, but it was true. But this time she couldn’t lie, couldn’t explain what Richard had been doing near the machine.
“I don’t know,” she said.
The suitcase Composite had brought had activated somehow – a small light played along its top, drew around it a strange sort of aura. If he picked it up, she knew, he would be gone. He looked at the gun in his hand again.
Without a word, he began walking towards the door, pistol in hand. The suitcase stayed where it was, primed. She skirted around it, pulled in his wake, and followed him deeper into the compound.

 

 

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