The original title of Spartan Shell was "Suiphsycic Walk." Yes, it's difficult to say, not a real word and doesn't really flow articulately. It also had nothing to do with the story. There's a point in the song "More Human Than Human" by White Zombie where it almost sounds like Rob says "Sui-phsycic walk" but when you look it up on lyrics sites he actually says something different. I loved that song in my 20's, when I wrote this story and the idea of suicide, being psychic and taking a journey... I wanted to write a story about all three but what was birthed became something entirely different. However, the origin for the story which would ultimately be titled "Spartan Shell" is even more serendipitous.
My best friend Shawn Bailey, who I've known since first grade, is a gifted artist, and he gave me the picture (available for view in its entirety at the bottom of this page) when he was in one of his darker moods. What is it? An old alien? A deformed man? Some victim of a degenerative and crippling disease? I stared at it momentarily, in short bursts, for days, mesmerized by the emotion in this creature's face, and thinking that Shawn really was some artistic genius who could transmit angst and misery through a coal pencil the way Van Gogh did with a brush stroke. And so "Spartan Shell" was written with this sketch as its inspiration. The longer I looked at this man/creature/alien, the richer his back story became.
***Update 12-26-18: SPARTAN SHELL has been published in issue #13 of SANITORIUM (available on Amazon.com)
For your consideration, below I have included the first quarter of this short story...
Hawthorne restored electricity to Lab B3, allowing for reassessment of casualty ratios to: one specimen for every seventeen participants. This includes two previously unseen white-coat females (withSpartan logos on lapels) in locked stalls of women’s restroom, each with multiple 30 cal. slugs to the back. Approx. time of death: 0-200 on 7/16/82. (See Hawthorne’s addendum).
Found the following document encased in a Zip-loc bag in a mini-bar fridge, measures apparently taken to protect it from the impending explosion. I typed this copy from the cursive of a Mead spiral notebook, deleted the PDF file and burned the original. Based on Oscar’s all-black readout from thermal video scan, feel safe to conclude only living eyes on-site to see this text now include Hawthorne’s, yours and mine. Document awaits your decision to file or incinerate. Until such time hereby labeled: “Private Journal of K.C. McMantis.”
- Traveler Lima
June 6th, 2082
This morning I watched a man shatter someone’s kneecap with the heel of his foot. I’m not talking about broken bones. The knee itself spider-webbed like a windshield. But the wound drew no blood because the knee’s owner had no skin.
His attacker can’t be identified because he bears no facial features. He also has no skin.
And these two men have no protection under the law, anyway. They were, in fact, locked inside a glass cage so others might watch them kill each other. This event amounted to the first, last, and only exciting part of my day.
I’m writing this because much like a jack-ass I’ve packed nothing to read and the only books in the room they gave me are riveting page turners such as Core Concepts of Microbiology.
If not for this pen-in-hand distraction, I’d be wasting all free time in the Game Room, where I’ve now lost $40 to pool shark/scientist Byron Vescotti. Guy nets six figures and doesn’t have the decency to suck at pool. Verily, let us build Lord Byron’s altar and glorify him. I’ll need my $40 back to buy some rosewood at Home Depot.
Right, I forgot. I can’t go anywhere. No car. And even if I did have my crusty Altima, our confidentiality agreement requests no one leave until the Operation is done. Not even the one-man janitorial staff. It stipulates this as if I had a choice. As if I might somehow negotiate through the electric fencing that encapsulates every courtyard like a shell. Fencing erected to “protect us from hazardous mountain wildlife.”
So they’re full of it. So what. I can appreciate the need for secrecy, and honestly, I’ve never had better food in my life.
So even if the Lobster Thermidor and Chicken Marsala every night is meant to pacify my irritation at this confinement, so far it’s working.
June 7th, 2082
Woke up early to get the rooms cleaned fast. I wanted to call home at a reasonable hour. By now, Jocelyn probably thinks I lied about my new job and I’m on a whiskey binge in Bledsoe, Kentucky.
I got held up on my way to call, though. On the second floor, one locked room stinks of neglected meat. I tried my keys and none fit. And I’d tell the Administration about it were I not so frustrated with their latest development.
So this is new. I get downstairs to the Ex-Comm phone (Exterior Communications), and find two gas mask freaks standing beside it in full surveillance. Like it’s a bomb that needs disarming.
In the contract I signed upon hiring, one paragraph discusses the “respiration-facilitating headgear worn by security personnel,” explaining that “fragility of chemical variants in underground storage compartments necessitates constant emergency preparedness.”
Maybe. But a face of tinted glass, black leather and tubing also renders each of them anonymous.
Approaching the phone, I hear “What’s the emergency?” as one of them lays his gloved hand over the receiver. His voice chirped out of a thimble-sized speaker attached to his shoulder.
“Just calling home.”
I could feel his smile under that mask. “Must’ve missed the meeting today in Lab B3.”
I took a shot in the dark. “Emergencies only?”
He nodded. “A security breach compelled the Administration to curb civilian communications with the outside. Temporarily. This contingency is described in your contract.”
What a nice surprise. No cell. No email. Now, sealed in a vacuum. So much for VIP service.
June 8th, 2082
Today they sent me inside the “cage” I wrote about before. It’s a sterile, movie theater-sized area behind bullet proof Plexiglass (and thick as a vault door in Fort Knox). Inside, the cage is a two-way: all mirrors. So whatever exists within is oblivious to anything outside.
And for the naked man-like monstrosities locked within, a mirror on three sides is simply ridicule. I find it difficult to avert my eyes. The term “naked” just doesn’t suffice when looking inside someone’s body.
I walked in with my 409 to clean up the pulpy flesh-mess, escorted by two gas-maskers, when one of these peeled freaks blocks my path. Is there anything more grotesque than the breathing face of a skinless human? What’s holding back the intestines? And the sixty-four thousand dollar question: if I poured salt on ‘em, would they burn and squirm like snails?
Inquiring minds want to know. And how much longer will this “communication lockdown” go on? This “unanticipated contingency”? “Contingency” my ass. If the Administration wanted to cut communications, they could do it with a mouse-click. They don’t need two grunts guarding a phone, the only purpose of which would be finding out who is trying to contact the outside.
June 9th, 2082
Two guards led me into the “cage” again to clean up food remains from one of the walking meat puppets. And I discovered how they “stay together.” What I thought was no-skin is actually a porous, clear resin. What you’d see a rattlesnake’s head encased in at a novelty store. When I touched the neck of one of them, it felt like solid marble. My escorts slapped my hand away immediately.
By “food remains”, I mean the aftermath of these things feeding on live meat. And today’s encounter was the most surreal I’ve had with the skinless to date.
Throughout the hour before I entered, a trio of specimens stood fist fighting with what had to be a six-foot Diamondback gorilla. The skinless slugged the beast with left/right hooks as he lashed out with burly arms and thick fingers. And his stumbling around indicated he was quite shaken by their onslaught.
I asked Angelyne Timberg, head of R&D, what this was about. She took a deep breath that said, “Why waste time with a guy who’s on a need-to-know basis?”, then said aloud: “This exercise gauges the effect of starvation on human aggression. The specimens are fed only once every three days.”
I pictured the no-skins in there at night, biting each other like gaunt lions in the Roman Coliseum; starved into delusional hunger for an energetic, Christian-mauling spectacle.
My second question, which I kept to myself...WHY?! Given their ability to take a headshot from a mile away with a Barrett 50 cal. sniper rifle, to what end are the Armed Forces reenacting the brutality of malnourished troglodytes?
Whatever I’m not “cleared” to know can’t justify what I saw today. The abuse was merciless, detached, systematic, pummeling this outnumbered beast into a frenzy.
Near the end, with a fang-baring scream, the ape snatched one up with both hands and tossed him. I expected the specimen to collapse into hamburger upon impact with the steel floor. Instead, I heard no thud but a crack in that invisible resin on his body. A rupture like a slug blasted into a jar of honey.
He lay crumpled against the wall, eyes fixed on his reflection. A puddle of steaming, amber fluid widened beneath his “cracked” leg.
Meanwhile, as the ape fell backward and spat up blood, the specimens stamped its head with the glazed tendons of their feet. And to conclude this Salvador Dali nightmare, they suspended the beast between them and tore its battered limbs asunder. Impossible brute force, like tearing the wings off a rotisserie chicken. Each specimen took an arm or a leg, crouched down in a corner like Little Jack Horner, and fed tough, hairy flesh into a lipless mouth of white teeth. Watching those grey hands gnawed on, bitten off, I felt a rising nausea purse my lips.
Violence of such visceral intensity I haven’t seen since the car crash that killed Naomi and left my brother a widower at nineteen. The day’s brutality has brought that memory to light in vivid detail.
I remember the heat of the sun on my arms as I sat in my trashy Altima, behind her El Camino, picking little black chips off my steering wheel cover. The clunky thrum of my car engine, its blackened oil so seldom changed. Marilyn Manson’s Dried Up, Tied and Dead to the World growling from the cab’s speakers, and the stink of my own stale Swisher Sweet tobacco.
I watched Naomi pull up to the light for a right turn on red, then lean over and check the contents of her Taco Palacio takeout bag in the shotgun seat. The smiling sombrero on the front mocking her to look back at oncoming traffic. “Ay wei, senora. Check yer nine.”
She’s checking for napkins, I thought, looking on. Because if we get back to the motel and there’s no napkins, Carl’s gonna chew her ass out. One three-second glance, but long enough for the F-850 to cross my path in a white blur and broadside her, shattering the driver’s side window.
It felt like the Fahrenheit jumped five points when I got out, and I remember thinking the stream of piss running down my shaking left leg might short-circuit the cell phone in my lower cargo pants pocket.No calls to 911.
I can see my hands reaching through the jagged open space of the El Camino’s window, pulling Naomi’s twisted form back from its entanglement in the steering column. The tiny shards of glass embedded in her face glistening in the August light. A star constellation cluster of little cuts so thick they left a bloody crisscross diamond pattern on her cheek like a bruised cartoon character in the Sunday comics.
But she lived a moment, her mouth managing a stuttered “k” sound, then her eyes glazed and I felt the change in her form. The withdrawal of tension in the shoulders, braced between my palms, the slack in her neck, dropping her mutilated face to her collar. It was the rupture of a brain aneurysm arising from the shock of injury that killed her, we were told later. Loosely translated for the Proletariat: Naomi got too scared, too fast. She would not have lived anyway, but my eyes had blurred with tears upon receipt of that news, all the same.
That change that overcomes the human body when life departs. Hollywood can’t replicate it in a celluloid feed with all the CGI they can muster. A different feeling accompanies the vision of real-world death. A sixth sense of shared impermanence, of irreversibility, upon sight of what the Bard called the empty mortal coil, that they can’t touch.
That’s what I saw when the gorilla died. Even in death, it looked so human.
June 10th, 2082
I slept badly last night. An itchy heat under my scalp began around 1am. Tipped my equilibrium for hours.
Only one medic in the mansion serves the staff and not the skinless. He’s decked out like the soldiers, minus the gas mask.
When I approached him at lunch and asked him to check my head, he snapped back that he’s trained to rectify injuries, not relieve ailments. After a lot of bad noise, he agreed to stop by my room.
I waited for him there after dinner, massaging my scalp, but therapeutic pressure has no effect. It feels as if the problem is further down. I hope not. And hope is all I can do, since this medic-man never showed.
Teeth clenched in pain, I headed for the Game Room to meet Byron. Much to my chagrin he wasn’t his uplifting smart-ass self, but pale and languid. Kept forgetting who was stripes or solids.
“Hey retard,” I called across the table. His eyes shifted between the one ball and the twelve. “While we’re waiting for you to recapture the last two minutes, tell me something. That bloodbath in the cage yesterday. That business as usual or a glitch in the system?”
Byron looked up. “The cannibalism.”
I hung my cue behind my neck like a man in a pillory. “Yeah. You looked a little green leaning against the glass.”
“How’d you get this job, K.C.?"
“Stetrix Janitorial Service. Saw a listing in the trades, came to their office and they pimped me out on this contract. To this corporate monster formally known as the U.S. Army. Why?”
“Think of this job as Jury Duty,” Byron said. “We don’t discuss the case outside the courtroom until the verdict.”
“I see. Is this the next step from ‘no calls to the outside,’? ‘No conversations between colleagues’?”
“Colleagues?” he laughed. “That what we are? Why does the communication lockdown concern you?”
I squinted back at him. “I don’t know, losing contact indefinitely with my fiancé, five months pregnant? I find it strangely unsettling. What the hell do you think?”
Above, I heard the whisper of a security camera adjusting focus.
“I think it’s a matter of national security. The Administration has good reason to protect its secrecy.”
I felt my upper lip curl. “Yeah, I guess you do, too.”
I ran the table and won. A victory as thrilling as Solitaire, and when Byron reached absently for his wallet, I told him to keep it and get some sleep.
A prick thing for me to do, even if he was stonewalling me. But the burning in my scalp was maddening. Like an itch under the cast of a broken leg.
Later now. I just woke from a dream: one of the two gas-masked sentries in the Foyer beckons me to the phone they’re guarding. But instead of the standard chime, it rings out with a woman’s screaming. Sounds like childbirth.
As I lift the receiver, the tinted lenses of the sentry’s gas mask light up with a burst of static. A video sequence begins playing on each lens in an infinite loop.
It’s an eight-second clip of my fiancé, on our bed, being... unfaithful with one of those skinless things. When Jocelyn turns her face to the camera, I see this hellish intercourse is not consensual.
Where Jocelyn’s nose and the curl of her upper lip should lay, an indented gorge of sinewy, twisted cartilage streams red. Crimson stains plaster her blonde hair to her temples.
The absence of any instrument in the room, blunt or sharp, left no question as to how this wound had been inflicted.
Curly tufts of red hair litter our white bedspread. And on the bedside table, our cordless phone rings and rings.
June 11th, 2082
I awoke with a curly lock of hair lying in front of my mouth like a dead caterpillar. I’ve never lost any substantial amount of my small, fiery Mick-fro before today.
I told Medic-man about it at dinner. He rolled his eyes, like I’m some flower-toting suitor who just can’t take a hint, then said, “My function is emergency response. If you’re suffering premature balding, seek a dermatologist to check for psoriasis.”
Perhaps it’s time to follow his advice. To get out and find a “real doctor” on the outside. Even if that means forcing the Administration to fire me.
June 12th, 2082
Enough of this. This morning I found enough hair on my pillow to crochet a washcloth, and in the mirror, my freckled Irish complexion has faded into a splotchy, brownish-saffron color, as if progressing from ripe to...overripe. And the skin of my bottom eyelids is drooping, revealing a rim of bloodshot white underneath. I’ve locked myself in my room.
Two masked soldiers rapped on my door at 6am to question my absence. The medic accompanied them.
He finally looks me over and asks “how much liquor” I drink daily, explaining that he’s seen a flask on my person while I work, and I might have hepatic jaundice brought on by alcoholic liver disease.
I pulled out the flask from within my shirt. “I understand if this is grounds for termination.”
Medic-man turned back to the gas-masked faces. One of them barely shook.
“If not,” I continued, “I’m requesting leave.”
The medic packed up his satchel. “You’re under contract, McMantis. In accordance with Item 12 of your confidentiality agreement, your symptoms don’t impair you from duty. You won’t be discharged before the predetermined end of program.”
The pair of stuffed suits asked me if I was “feeling up to working now.” When I demanded that my condition be reviewed by the highest rank on site, the man on the left held up a gloved hand, paused, then said “Your inquiry has been relayed. Consider yourself reviewed.”
They headed out and Medic-man followed.
“Hey, Doc,” I said.
“You can see what’s happening to me. Does the Brass really expect I’ll wax their floors until I collapse?”
“The Administration expects you’ll remember you’re being compensated exorbitantly for manual labor. And that in return they purchased your binding loyalty to the laws of this program. No one leaves before we’re done.”
“Then I have a message for the wireless link you’ve got to the Administration upstairs: If I can’t get something to alleviate this pain, this itching, you pull your sidearm and shoot me in the head. Or I’ll push my way out of here until your masked juggernaut is forced to do exactly that.”
The medic held up one black-gloved finger, then pressed the other hand against his ear, muffling the chirping voice behind it.
“Intimidating threats, McMantis,” he smirked. “Roll up your sleeve. They have something for you.”
I complied. He injected me in the forearm with something he said was “stronger than Demerol.” Then he left, and tossed back over his shoulder: “Twelve hours absence from duties granted.”
I passed out before he shut the door. And this time, no one disturbed my slumber.
June 22nd, 2082
The burning in my head has abated, but for a week now since that injection my thoughts have been too slow and cloudy to write. Words appear in individual frames like abstract art on display. And I can’t hold a closed fist for five seconds. But I asked for this. I asked them to relieve my pain and relief comes with side effects.
Yet my appearance continues to deteriorate. I’m withering away like a scarecrow in an abandoned field, and one shot to the arm won’t keep me in here, polishing chrome for all eternity.
Approaching these lab techs is a waste of time. Any mention of “going home” and they scurry off like lemmings. I thought Byron might be different, but the conversation didn’t play out as planned. Following dinner, we had the billiard room to ourselves, and after I scratched the eight in game six, he starts in with this odd, frantic giggling. Then he picks up a chair and chucks it at the window. The glass shattered, revealing an iron grate.
Growling, Byron tore fistfuls of his hair out and dug his nails into the flesh of his cheeks, where tears streamed from his eyes.
Shocked immobile, I could see he was trying to escape. Before I could speak, a couple of gas-maskers barreled through the double doors and dragged Byron out of the room. His wails were cut short in the hall by what I hope was a sedative.
I turned the bent chair upright and sat down. Outside, wind rustled the gold-tip Bermuda grass between the mansion and its barbed-wire fortress. A brisk draft sent a tuft of Byron’s blonde hair twirling and skidding on the floor before me.
I don’t expect to see him again.
June 25th, 2082
I’d rather be dead than watch myself deteriorate any further. Cavernous wrinkles have now surfaced in my neck, common to an eighty year-old man. I decided tonight I would push my way out until the Administration was forced to shoot me.
I set my alarm for 3am, when patrols are at a minimum. But a gunshot woke me at eleven and I rushed instinctively to the Game Room.
The room’s motion detectors failed to switch on the fluorescents as I entered. But with the window shattered out, moonlight shone in through the bars of the grate in three wide streaks, illuminating a figure in a folding chair.
Angelyne Timberg. Head of R&D. Leaning against the pool table, I noticed how gaunt her face had become. Her concaved cheeks and matted, crispy-looking hair.
“You look terrible,” I said.
“I can’t keep my food down lately.”
“What happened?” I asked, lifting my eyes to the dark lamps.
“Power surge. When that chair broke the window. It killed the cameras, too. We’re alone until the patrols come through.”
“I heard a gunshot.”
“You heard Vescotti trying to escape. He feigned a stomach ache, knocked down the guards transporting him from Quarantine to Infirmary, charged up the stairs into the Foyer and through the front door. One of the sentries pulled his sidearm and shot him in the back.”
I leaned into a beam of light between the bars, compelling her to look on me in all my radiant glory. The jaundice-like discoloration of my skin, the patchy hair loss, the sagging of the eyes. “And what happened to me?”
She took my chin in one hand, turning my face. “There was a leak in the cage of Lab B3 when you were cleaning it.”
“What kind of leak?”
“The mutative gas that altered the specimens. Administration calls it Immortalis Pulpa.”
“I didn’t see anything.”
“An imperceptible amount. Not enough even to create a haze in the air. And you’re not the first.”
She nodded. “With him, the mutation didn’t manifest physically, but it’s effected his mind. The second doctor who entered the cage, Orosco, is now too sick to move.”
My heartbeat fluttered. “I inhaled the fumes that created those no-skin things? That’s what the Administration told you?”
She squinted hard at me. “You think they’d admit to that? I don’t need them to tell me. I recognize your symptoms. They’ll claim those symptoms came from anything but what happens in that cage. And those things weren’t ‘created’. A month ago, they appeared perfectly human.
Timberg told me how she’d come here. Recruited from an AIDS research facility in Kisangani with six of her colleagues. Told she was selected for her proficiency in viral analysis. They offered five times her current take-home, plus government subsidies of her independently funded Kisangani venture. A private plane trip and signed confidentiality agreement later, she rode at the helm of a seven Humvee cavalcade into New Mexico’s San Andreas Mountains, bound by law now to Operation Spartan Shell.
“And you?” Timberg asked. “How did you get here?”
“A few wrong turns.”
“Like getting fired from your teaching job for spiking your morning coffee with Amaretto? Those wrong turns?”
“Administration tell you that?” I sighed.
“They put your personnel file in the same cabinet as my lab staff.”
I gripped my temples. “Those skinless men. They volunteered to undergo that...transition?”
“They were young Infantry guys; each informed they’d been selected for a Spec-Ops training program called Exo-Numen. So yeah, they volunteered, but they didn’t know what was coming. First day here, their C.O. ordered them to strip and enter that sealed glass fortress - the ‘cage’ - for what he called ‘detox’. They did. Nudging each other on the way in, joking about firebombing bunkers in Kirkuk while their buddies at Yuma Proving were still filing memos. The gas came on, they breathed deep, collapsed. But no one let them out, even when they started pounding on the mirrored glass, and...peeling.”
“You watched that happen?”
“In its entirety. Six of them died within the hour. Snapped their own spines in convulsions. Two more gave themselves fatal concussions against the walls. The survivors achieved a kind of metamorphosis.” She leaned back. “Of course, I didn’t know that was coming, either. They told us we’d be monitoring the efficacy of performance-enhancing stimulants in an elite training program.”
“Timberg, that is what you’re monitoring.”
“Yes. Clever choice of words.”
“Why’d they change those men? What’s the point?”
“You know what a Jingoist is?”
“Right. Operation Spartan Shell was initiated by an extremist hawk faction in the Advanced Research Projects Agency, calling itself the New Jingoists. They founded themselves as a backlash against the liberalization of the Armed Forces. Such as restrictions on corporal punishment in the disciplining of subordinates. They seek to remedy the pacification, or in the circles I’ve traversed, the ‘pussificaton’ of the 21st Century soldier.”
“By mutating him?”
“That’s what you see. They see a faceless human asset. The body breathing through the bulwark of an artificial exoskeleton. Immeasurably aggressive and intimidating and therefore ideal for depopulating an area of operation. All the more convenient when they sign a waiver releasing liability.”
“Administration told you this.”
“You said they deceived you.”
“They veiled the true nature of their experiments until I was locked in here. Wouldn’t you call that deception?”
“And all that malarkey you told me about ‘gauging the effects of starvation...”
“It was partly true. What I’ve been told: that cannibalism you saw in the cage is the primary reason my staff has been brought here. So they say. The Brass wants to put the specimens in the field, but not until they can alter this tendency they have of consuming their kills.”
“Yes, if they just change that behavior they’ll blend in so well with the rest of us.”
She picked at a callus on her palm. “You asked. And I don’t think any of this is funny.”
“I don’t think any of this is true.”
“What – you think I’d sit in the dark for three hours for the amusement of lying to you?”
“I don’t know. How amusing is it to tell me what’s ‘partly true’?”
“I had my reasons.”
“Yeah, everybody in here’s got their reasons, Timberg! No shortage of that! I believe you saw what you say you did, but you’re a sheep if you think this super-soldiers crap is the true nature of their experiments. So go ahead, play cloak-and-dagger and withhold however much of this false story I’m not ‘cleared’ to know. Regurgitate what’s been offered to placate you.”
“You didn’t let me finish,” Timberg cut in, and I rolled over it.
“It’s not even cost effective. In the age of bio and chemical warfare, the Army’s perfecting this master race of monstrosities for combat? They couldn’t do the damage in one hour of a five-second napalm spread.”
Her eyes gleamed sardonically. “Well congratulations, McMantis! The last horse crosses the finish line! Don’t you think I’ve been asking myself the same goddamn thing for two months!? But by all means, share with me this divine insight you’ve got into their hidden agenda.”
“I’m not seeing it,” I sighed. “Just a feeling.”
“And I’m not working against you. I’ve got two daughters waiting in Doncaster. Haven’t called them in six weeks.”
“Why were you waiting here for me?”
“R&D staff says you keep asking when we’ll be going home.”
“Yeah, I would think they’re asking the same. Your people are getting sick. Whatever the ultimate objective, the Administration’s got a leak in the cage infecting the staff. Such an accident compromises the entire operation. Shouldn’t they put the project on hiatus?”
Timberg studied the floor. “I don’t think so.”
“Because I don’t think it was an accident. That cage is a glass slide under a microscope. Not a centimeter undetected by the Eye in the Sky. Yet three people get sick...consecutively.”
I took a moment to consider. “That’s ludicrous; you think they’d sabotage their own program? What about your research?”
“Research, of course. Because that’s why we’re here, right?”
I rubbed the stubble on my cheek. “What? The cannibalism.”
“That’s what I was told two months ago. Find genetic reasons for the cannibalism. Since then, how many times do you think the Brass has evaluated my findings?” She formed an “O” with one bird-like, emaciated hand. “They say it’s been ‘scheduled.’ Apart from two live orientations, since I got here they’ve communicated entirely through their masked soldiers. I haven’t seen them. So either the study of these specimens is the Administration’s last priority, or we were brought here for another purpose.”
I held her gaze, weighing these implications. “But when they do let us out, a doctor on the outside could fix what’s happened to me, right?”
“You’d have to first find one on the outside that could recognize what’s happened to you.”
I twisted against the rail, cursed under my breath.
“I understand your frustration.”
“You understand. You’ve been through this, then.” I clutched the wrinkled skin at the base of my neck.
Timberg leaned in close. “No. But I’ve seen where it’s headed.”
I rose and strode to the door.
“Where are you going, McMantis?”
“To the Glenlivet scotch in the pantry. Unless you have any more words of inspiration.”
“Drinking yourself into a stupor may work at home but not here. If you want out, I’m planning a disruption that will give you the chance.”
“Does this disruption involve pliers and a blow torch, or are we going to burrow under that electric fence like rodents?”
“Better. A digital insurrection. But it means you have to be ready and sober when I call on you. ‘Till then, you can stop asking my staff when we’re going home.”
I left, and grabbed the scotch from the pantry on the way back to my room. Resumed writing. But Timberg’s words are a distraction.
She’s right. I do want out. I sit here next to the buzz of my table lamp, staring at the poster of Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over Rhone, framed over my desk. Longing to be transported there. To incarnate the faceless man in the yellow hat at the bottom of the picture, escorting a woman who’s either his wife orun madeleine. Breathing the brisk shore-side air, fragrant with perch roasting on an open spit, humming along to fiddle tunes emanating from the river coast’s encapsulating taverns. Each hut lit by a single candle like jetty lighthouses. The weary traveler’s refuge for rotgut whiskey and a song from the piano man.
I wish, sitting here, that Van Gogh’s Rhone could be real and I could inhabit the picture on the wall. Or as Manson said: “while on the other side, the screen is us and we’re TV.” Wishing I could feel the heat of the gas lamps in that gorgeous city of Arles on the back of my neck as surely as Vincent had the night he painted, and this gothic watercolor of a twenty-seven year old teacher-turned-janitor, writing at a desk and decaying into a shadow of his former self was a painting on my wall at home, as hideous as Goya’sSaturn Devouring His Son. A piece I would point out to dinner guests, explaining with a sigh and a Vox martini in one hand: “Yep. That was a rough time.”
Vescotti went insane. A viable reason for forced suicide, sure. But that bull could’ve shot him in the legs and instead opted for his back like the broadside of a barn. And for what? To keep him from running head first into an electric fence?
And my deepest thanks to you Byron for giving them the perfect excuse to ramp up security and lockdown the building. Not that I had a plan for breaching the gate, but thanks, all the same.
So tired. Timberg’s theories have my head spinning. The three effects of incremental gas inhalation are bedridden sickness, psychosis, or physical metamorphosis. I haven’t lost it like Byron or succumbed to any debilitating illness. As to the third, there have been some changes.
June 26th, 2082
I’ve been officially diagnosed as “crazier than a shithouse rat.” One lab tech muttered it to another under a cupped hand today as the New England clam chowder was ladled into my soup bowl. It’s an apt description considering the avalanche of verbal feces descending on me daily.
Perhaps following Timberg’s orders, the lab staff avoids me like a Biblical leper. When I glance up from my lunch to meet their eyes, they quickly look away.
They smooth and crinkle their starched white suits, plucking at eyebrows, scratching goatees, tapping pens on tables. Appearing as though they might snap into hysteria at any moment.
But no one speaks of the elephant in the room. No one acknowledges the horrid changes manifesting in the custodian, who eats alone at a table in the corner, scribbling frantically in his notebook.
My only relief from this anxiety is in sleep. There, I’m still the redheaded Irishman who loves a chilled glass of Guinness, the dirty, taped-up grip of a Louisville Slugger, the Harley growl of my Softail Heritage Springer, my gloved hand revving the throttle, palm itchy from the vibration of blood under the skin. Jocelyn embraces me from behind, her voice muffled through a black helmet.
She beams back at me from the photo on my desk. A frozen smile under her imitation Oakleys. Below, embossed in cursive on the silver frame: I see you in my dreams.
I don’t look much like the man of her dreams now. That drab, yellow-gray color has spread throughout my body.
June 27th, 2082
I had an incident with the Administration’s peons today. It was right after I spread ammonia on the floor of D2’s west hall, forgetting to dilute it first. The fumes made me dizzy.
A gas masker caught me applying a screwdriver to the sealed window frame. “Step back,” his little lapel speaker chirped.
I wheeled on him, cheeks flushed. “I can’t breathe.” The timidity in my voice infuriated me. “If you could smell anything behind your glass and plastic, you’d know the ammonia fumes are thick as a carpet in here!”
He cocked his head down to the lapel speaker. “Increase air circulation levels, LD2.”
An order for the lab’s computer. He had a wireless link. I heard the buzz of the AC blasting through the walls.
Approaching him, I tossed the screwdriver aside. “That isn’t gonna work. You’re just gonna circulate that crap all around the room!”
“Partipant MCM-J494. Insubordination code X37. Requesting predetermined response protocol.”
Then I lost control of my hands. I gripped his upper arm, and it felt like the wide barrel of a shotgun under the camouflage.
“Insubordination? I raise my voice to you and you whine about it to your C.O.?”
My free hand trembled. I can see now I wasn’t just enraged. I was confirming a suspicion I’ve had since Byron’s death. I needed to know if the Administration was willing to injure me.
A single word crackled out from the grunt’s lapel speaker, but I was breathing so hard I scarcely understood it.
“Pursue?” I spat up into his mask. “That what your commander said?” My grip tightened and I realized it was metal, not muscle, I clutched under the cloth. Stranger still, I felt it bend like a paper clip in my grip.
“No need to pursue, Audie Murphy. I’m right here. Can your sheep’s brain take a stab at improvising, or do you want to relay that to your C.O. as well?”
“Administration requests you divert your labors to the east hallway. I’ll open the window while you’re gone.”
“Divert my labors,” I mused. “I could tell you to kiss my ass, tear off your shell and breathe on you. Give you a sample of the Brave New World I’ve contracted. Or you could escort me off the property, but you’re not going to do that, are you?”
My eyes grew blurry, my misery an ache I could feel in the joints of my fingers. “Are you!?”
I shoved him with both hands in the collarbone, and it was like pushing at an ancient, rooted oak.
“Your proposition has been relayed,” he said.
I turned and walked off. No consequences have followed this exchange and I think I know why. In my rising panic, I must’ve misinterpreted the word he got back from his commander. Not “pursue.” I’m sure I heard the low scrape of a “v” there.
Perverse? Persevere? Preserve?
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