Breaking down. A misnomer. It should be called breaking apart. Every molecule in your body suddenly antisocial and aware of its neighbours. The ever present magnetic hum that no amount of refinement has ever removed from the machine.
The Machine. Researchers and scientists from among the best the world can offer built it.
While ordinarily highly creative with titles for their creations. This once (although many ridiculous names were floated in the early days of models 1 through 8) nothing stuck.
It is called The Machine. Always with the definite article. It has one function. It breaks things down then builds them back up, only different, better.
The name of the current volunteer is Russell Yensik. He has already been in and out of the machine 5 times. He prefers to be called Russ or Rusty.
The machine has torn him apart and put him back together many times. But as he waits inside the machine for a sixth time, he wonders who it is who is being torn apart again.
Although careful not to mention it to anyone, he is convinced that since the first time, he has become a forgery of himself and with each successive experiment, he is becoming more and more a copy of a copy. As a test subject, he doesn’t know what the purpose of the experiment is, or even if each disassembly has actually taken place. Is he a real test subject or part of the control group? At the moment of disassembly, Russ is shocked unconscious. When he wakes up, it is usually in a hospital bed hooked up to so many monitors he resembles a grotesque christmas ornament.
Russ can’t know there is no control group. Russ can’t know that since he entered the experiment, he is the only subject to have ever entered the machine more than once. Every other volunteer in this third phase of the experiment vanished inside The Machine. Every molecule in their bodies shooting off at right angles to each other into the vacuum of space.
Russ is the only person to call The Machine by a nickname.
Russ calls it the Boom Box.
Russ is the only person to come back.
Nobody can say why.
“It’s got to be done.”
“It’s murder!” the last word delivered in a hiss.
“Funding’s gone, we can’t just cut him loose, there’s no telling what might happen.”
“We can’t do it!”
“Either he goes or we all go, that’s the word.”
“What happened! I order you to say something!”
The shattered operative responds to the command blankly, looking up at the faces of his interrogators without comprehension.
“I…shot him, I think…he was sleeping…I think…he’s not, he wasn’t? There? He’s gone?”
“I mean…he was there…I’m sure…I think?”
They rushed into Russ’ room on level -2, buried in a pillow still shaped by a head, a bullet hole neatly stamping the fabric cover.
Within 24 hours the entire experiment had disappeared along with all documents, funding and The Machine itself. The scientists involved were sequestered and interrogated. Warned that any mention of the project would result in disappearnces, for both themselves and their families. A single project file in hardcopy was stamped maximum top secret and all other evidence was destroyed.
The Machine itself was hidden away in a deep storage vault for hazardous waste. The research disappeared.
Russ woke slowly from dreams he couldn’t explain, of the machine, of a man with a gun. Confusion. He opened his eyes and for many moments just stared. The familiar ceiling at the project was gone. The ceiling now above him familiar, yet at the same time it was not.
This was his apartment, or had been at least. He had sublet to what he now thought of as a friend, once thought of as a wife, while he participated in the experiment.
“Aieee!” a muffled whump of someone falling out of bed still struggling in their covers.
“Shit! Gloria? Gloria! It’s me! Russ! Russ!”
Gloria gets over the edge of her panic enough to ask in violent terms and ugly grammar what is he doing sneaking in to his old flat and getting into bed with her?
Only to listen with half an ear to his explanations, staring at him.
Russ follows her gaze and notices that he is fully dressed. As certainly as he was naked in bed a moment ago. As certain as Gloria that he hadn’t been there at all only moments ago.
Russ sits down at the edge of what was once his bed and puts his head in his hands. The voice that sneaks out is weak, confused.
“Glo, what’s happening to me?”
“How’s the coffee?”
Russ smiles despite his unease, they both know it’s terrible. Russ and Gloria used to spend a lot of time in this park drinking coffee from a machine an enterprising individual left chained to the snack bar year-round. It was autumn and the snack bar was closed for the winter.
“The coffee’s great,” Russ exaggerated the word, delivered it wrapped in treacle. laughed.
“That sound’s like the old Russ,” she looked down, embarassed for a moment by her reference, however indirect, at their failed relationship three years ago. Russ pretended not to notice, but the spell was broken, his thoughts returning once again to what had happened. He shook his head to clear his thoughts.
“What are you going to do?” asked Gloria.
“Go to the institute and try and get some answers I guess.”
A frustrated Russ returned that evening dazed and alone. When Gloria pelted him with questions his replies were either unintelligible or made no sense.
What she was finally able to get out of him was the following: the building remained but the institute was gone. Having looked up the company that managed the building, he was not overly surprised to discover that there was no record of any scientific research having been conducted in the building at all. The paychecks issued to his bank account had also vanished. Without Gloria’s rent money his account would have been empty.
He felt his mind was slipping, he didn’t mention the other details. Fragments, a blur, certain that he remembered being attacked, masked men, a van, a needle. It couldn’t have happened. He was here, in his old apartment. He remembered walking here, having taken a taxi part way then abandoning it in the heavy sludge of rush hour traffic. Walking through the park.
He wanted to tell her she might be in danger, but knew it would sound melodramatic, affected. He dragged his eyes around his old apartment seeing prison bars instead of windows.
“We can’t just leave him alone! It’s too dangerous!”
“You heard the debriefing, they had him, they killed him.”
“He hasn’t any proof, papers, evidence, the ravings of a lunatic, he doesn’t even know our names!”
“Fine, we’ll just watch him for the time being, he could even be trained, a soldier who can’t be killed or captured.”
“Let’s hold fire on that idea for now okay?”
“If he can’t be killed he can’t be trusted.”
“Hm, back burner him then?”
“What else can we do?”
“Appeal to his greed? His lust? Trust me we can control him.”
“You never really understood what the machine did to him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It doesn’t take things apart, that was entirely a product of his own misunderstanding.”
“So what does it do?”
“Originally? It was just a new kind of MRI machine with greatly improved resolution, nothing unusual was detected, first and second phase trials went ahead smoothly. Third phase trials with human volunteers also went smoothly at first, then he stepped into the machine and every subsequent volunteer disappeared.”
“That’s not what you told the generals.”
“I know, but after the first disappearance, I contacted the police and almost before I put down the phone my entire research project had been appropriated by the government.”
The military scientist heard the bitterness the voice of his unwilling colleague.
“They wouldn’t believe what I told them at first so I had no choice but to change my story.”
“What did you tell them at first?”
“Russ wasn’t changed by the machine, the machine was changed by Russ. Don’t interrupt. However innocent a device it once was, whatever it did to the subsequent volunteers, all military men without a history or a future I might add, could only be guessed at from debriefings with Russ.” The military scientist wanted to urge him on but dared not intrude, his nameless collegue was losing himself in his own thoughts.
“Russ was convinced the machine did more than we told him, at the instant of maximum power, he must have believed with unbridled faith in his fixation. Without satisfactory answers from us…it was like a hard vacuum…of ignorance in his mind, that suddenly filled.”
“Filled with what!?” The military scientist couldn’t contain the frustration in his voice.
“Filled with faith.”
“Every machine using the new resolving appartus we’ve built since has done the same. People disappear. There is an entire complex of physicists living without benefit of sunlight or freedom taking apart our machines trying to decide whether our understanding of the fundamental nature of reality is either seriously flawed or else, as some jokingly suspect, has been changed.”
“It may not matter, you see? Either we’re on the brink of a polar shift in the universe or at the edge of a precipice.”
Gloria had forced Russ to stay with her. Her sublet wouldn’t run out for months and Russ did not intend to force her out, he was a gentleman, he said he could find a place to live. Gloria wouldn’t allow it, he shouldn’t be alone right now. Not with what was going on. Although he slept on the couch after the first night, they settled into a peaceful version of their married life together three years ago. He bought groceries, she did his laundry, he cooked their meals, she went to work, he didn’t feel ready to go looking for a job yet so he wrote, read, walked in the park. There were no more disturbing double memories of assault and murder. His life settled into something like normalcy.
Except for his parlour trick.
He would hold an apple in his hand, but when she tried to take it her fingers would slide right through the apple.
“Can you teach me to do that?” She had been plucking up the courage to ask for days, ever since he’d first showed her. But she’d had to overcome a lot of fears and doubts, in any other man, what Russ could do would have frightened her out of her mind. But this was Russ. Her once-upon-a-time husband who used to bring his socks all the way to the laundry hamper only to leave them on the hamper and not in the hamper. This was Russ. Goofy Russ, Boyishly charming Russ, Stupid and selfish Russ, thickheaded Russ. She turned her mind back from where it had drifted.
“Uh, I think so.” Over the weeks they’d become accustomed to the trick. Despite his efforts to keep busy, much of his day was empty. Having accepted that looking outward would not deliver answers, he’d begun looking inward, trying to discover what he suspected he could do. He rested her hand on his and placed the apple on her palm and did the trick.
“Did you feel how it kind of slipped on a funny angle? Think you can find it again on your own?”
Gloria nodded and put the apple in her other hand and felt for the odd slide in geometry she had just felt.
The apple slipped through her hand and struck the wood floor with a soft hard thump.
“Wow,” she felt giddy, it wasn’t quite what she’d had in mind but it was a step in the right direction.
“You gotta twist so that your hand stays solid and only the apple goes the other way.”
“Russ…If I twisted my whole body like that, would I slide right through the floor?”
Russ regretted showing her how easy it was. He was afraid that she wouldn’t just fall through the floor but through the one beneath it, all the way down to the center of the planet. Until he’d perfected the trick himself, he’d been terrified when going to sleep. Convinced he’d fall through the couch in the middle of the night and wake up screaming in lava.
“Uh, let’s not and say we did? You might be too successful.”
Gloria suddenly had a vision of lava.
(to be continued?)
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