Above the mix of laughter, intermittent, halting, cut the constant, recurrent peal. Breathy. Forced. False.
Again and again, the laugh rang out. Paul gritted his teeth with each wave, bad molar flaring in protest. He wiped a hand across his sweating brow.
He couldn’t make out the joke. From the sound of the others, with their embarrassed, weak additions, it can’t have been very good.
And yet it rolled on, that laugh, that laugh! Like ripping of paper, like an unending, ever-present irritation, it rolled on. Too much!
The bat cracked into the back of her head, laying her flat. Sensing violence before the blow fell, the other, more reluctant revellers, faded away. There was a look of surprise on her face as she lay on the industrial carpeted floor; a look was all there was time for before the bat was slammed down again. Her nose, the nose that dominated her face, was flattened into a mash that looked simply incorrect. A massive nose, a nose that some would call – that racists would call, Paul thought correctively – a French nose, so out of place atop the thin, parsimonious lips, was spread out over the rest of the face. The sight of it twisted his stomach. He brought the bat down a third time, and the frail body, the bird-like body, began to thrash in its death throws. The face – gone. Pulped, shards of bone and flesh and bright blood and fat and cartilage. Unrecognisable.
“Everything ok, hun? You were in there two minutes longer than average.”
“Nothing to worry about, just a tough day at the office. TGIF, right?” Paul responded ruefully, Karen looking at him with some concern in her eyes, in the hands on hips.
“Okay, if you say so. You know, if you need to see Dr. Thorn again, we can contact the hospital…”
“No!” Paul near-shouted, unusually angry, especially immediately after a session. “I don’t need to go back there – I’m healthy now, I’m alright – Thorn said so himself, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, of course, I was just saying, you know, I support you and all,” Karen said, chagrined. “You don’t need to shout at me, you know. I’m only trying to help.”
“Sorry, it’s just – just, forget it. Let me take a shower, and then we’ll head over to the Jackson’s, yeah?”
“Yeah, sounds good. You know, I’d nearly forgotten? I’ll have to figure out something to wear…” Karen responded absently, already putting aside the outburst.
Paul stared over his cubicle wall with gimlet eyes. That laugh. The nose, an echo chamber par excellence, unable to add any meat or indeed any honesty. That laugh. Even the half-hearted titters of their colleagues held more truth, were a more real, genuine emotion than that laugh. On and on it came. Sure, the face, reddened, the breath, laboured, told a story of authenticity, of candid experience – but it was all belied by that laugh. The thinness, the lie – Paul gripped his desk with both hands, and
breathed out slowly. So she felt like she needed to put on airs? What was it to him? Monday afternoon, plenty of filing to do yet. Best get down to it.
The door swept through the tight space between the frame and the wall. Stupid design. Paul understood the need for privacy, but, c’mon…Hardly any time for the thought to register. The young man stepped into the lavatory, cold grey eyes, canine eyes, piercing the older man. Alien, hostile. As ever.
“Didn’t you read the sign?” Paul demanded angrily. The young man just grunted, not breaking the scorn-filled gaze.
“Look, there’s a sign right on the wall – ‘open with care’ – you nearly bloody hit me!”
A snort, and a shoulder lowered, the young man pushed through Paul on his way to the urinals – or would have.
What the fuck? Paul thought, and threw his heavier weight into the youth, jamming him up against the tiled wall.
A flash of surprise in the grey eyes, then – hands, opened, pushed back at Paul, knocking him out the entrance and into the room proper. A fist came next, catching Paul in the jaw. His head jerked back, straining the neck. His adversary rushed in, taking advantage of the successful blow. Grappling Paul about the waist, the two crashed into the duo of stalls, cheap ply-wood door rebounding off the adjoining wall with a hollow crak, swatting the two as they fell.
Paul took their combined weight, the young man falling on top of him and knocking the wind from his lungs with a sickening rush. Recovering first, the other man grabbed Paul by the collar, and lifting his head from the ground, smashed it into the lino-ed concrete of the floor. Stars burst into Paul’s already oxygen-starved vision. A second time. A fleeting moment of distress gripped Paul’s fogged consciousness. Perhaps…this had been a mistake.
An image of his foe above him, mouth set in rictus grin, not an iota of humour contained, icy grey eyes now warmed by bloodshot veins. Bunching Paul’s shirt in his fists, he made to strike the older man a third – and last – time.
Paul’s knee connected with all the force desperation could gather. Now it was his opponent who was winded, hands releasing their rigid grasp on the colour and cupping bruised testicles. Still underneath him, Paul heaved his opponent aside, floundering to regain his feet. Still woozy, he stomped down with all his force – and a shout – on his enemy’s right ankle. It snapped under his shod heel. The youth roared. It was the first sound either had uttered.
Stamping down on the bony mess, already unsteady, Paul lost his footing and fell on top of the young man. For his part, through the pain of his shattered ankle, the other man was able to twist about, and get his thin hands on Pauls throat. Vision began to narrow, with bright white spots dancing in the middle distance. Opponent straddled above him, pinning him to the floor with knees on ripped button-down.
Paul’s own hands, sweat-slick, slid off the shaven head of the youth, unable to find purchase. Weakening. Uncontrolled fluttering in the extremities. One last thrust, before the velvety darkness – and the pain of air rushing back into over-taxed lungs.
Toppled over, the other man’s face had smacked off the toiled seat, chipping several teeth. The shock of this, the ragged pain of exposed nerves, bought a moment of respite for Paul. Knowing he only had bare seconds before his younger, quicker, adversary was back on him, he lashed out with his left leg, catching the man between the stall’s dividing wall and the foot pressing in on the diaphragm, compacting organs against unyielding bone. A grunt was pushed from bloody mouth, Paul still gasping for air as he pushed harder and more forcefully. Shocked look in the eyes. Twin trails of blood leaking from mouth of ruined, jagged teeth.
Paul let up, staggering to his feet, feeling nauseous. His adversary was doubled up, coughing, trying to regain his own breath. Paul grabbed him by the back of his own white shirt – long ago soiled – and palmed his head with the other hand. Before he could think further about it, before he let his enemy struggle free, Paul slammed the head down onto the covered toilet bowl. The cheap stainless steel cleats gave way after the second hit, and the lid of the toilet clattered to the ground. The third smack echoed dully with splintering bone-on-porcelain. The fourth broke the bowl, rending the flesh of the cheeks, of the forehead.
As Paul closed the door of the machine, he felt a twinge of…not dissatisfaction, but, something like a lacking.
“When you’re done your session, d’you, d’you ever feel like it’s, y’know, not over?” Paul asked Karen sheepishly, rubbing a hand on the back of his head.
Looking up from the lettuce she was washing, looking directly at him – “ Not over…like how? The machine is set up to give the maximum release in the shortest amount of time, you know that!” Karen responded.
“I know, I know – the diagnostics and the psychological tests and all, I get it. But, you’ve never, I dunno, felt like the arc wasn’t finished yet, like the real unloading hadn’t happened yet?”
“Not sure. Impaled mom with a broken pool cue earlier this morning, and defenestrated Sara into rush-hour traffic. Fourth floor. Felt pretty good to me,” Karen said, a smile of remembrance flashing across her face. “Maybe it’s malfunctioning? We could get the technician in next week. You sure you don’t want to see Dr. Thorn, maybe?”
“No! No Thorn!”
“Okay, jeeze! No Thorn. We’ll call the tech, then.”
The lash sank into Paul’s flesh, not deep, not deep enough to scar, but enough to break the skin and sting in the subtle breeze. When it fell again, the man strained against his bonds, the leather creaking in response. Silence. She loomed up in front of him, pvc suit screeching as she minced.
“You know, if you want me to stop, all you have to say is ‘Ich möchte das Sicherheitswort, bitte und danke , Frau Brunhilde.’ That is all, you know.” She curled the whip in her hand.
Paul could only manage an “unnnghh” through the over-size rubber ball-gag, though he was able to drool copiously over his chin.
The woman stood looking down at him, as if considering her next move. With a smirk, she turned around abruptly, placing the still-wet whip on the desk behind her, and pulled out a medium-sized case, built of surgical steel. She plopped the case down on the table by Paul’s restraints with an element of childish glee, her meaty face crinkling under the troweled make-up. Initially, she opened it facing herself, out of Paul’s regulated line of sight. She took a moment, considering, and then she turned the case around with a smooth motion, revealing row upon row of needles, arranged in ascending length and circumference on a bed of synthetic black felt. Knowing the power of the imagination was on her side, the dom allowed Paul some time to consider the assortment of appliances in front of him. She teased him, pulling out needles at random, poking them into her own finger tips and showing him the dots of bright blood. Eventually, she decided on a barbed number – not the largest of the batch, but far from being the smallest, either. The several barbs cut into a side of the three inch rod prevented the needle from being pulled back out, once it had passed the first. From there, one would be committed to sliding the full length through the flesh, or to tearing it out.
She began on the back his left arm, twisting the needle with each fresh barb submerged. A bead of sweat rolled down Paul’s forehead, dropping into his right eye. Several more needles, of various sizes and wicked design, followed the first.
After half an hour had passed, the fleshy backs of both arms, as well as the skin of the stomach and gut, had all been pierced. Madame Brunhilde left the needles where she had threaded them – some running under the skin for barely a centimetre, others for nearly their full length. The most painful, the ones that caused the most bleeding, were the needles that she crocheted through the flesh, in and out and in and out, weaving as if in a macabre cross-stitch.
Drawing back to examine her handiwork, she was pleased by the cordouroy look of the rods beneath the skin. She ran a finger over one such path, relishing the studded feel of it, the compactness of the perforations. The needles, once pushed through the skin, left Paul with only a dull ache. It was the entrance that hurt most, and when ever he should flex the muscles underneath. And when they were touched, as now. Madame Brunhilde noticed the way Paul flinched as she ran a long red nail over a row, and continued with more vigour.
“Onf an alla loftamph!” Paul uttered, gag distorting his words. The woman drew back in surprise and a creak from her body suit.
“Did you say, you wanted the Lötlampe?”
“Anth! Anth!” he replied, anger on his blotchy face.
“Well, if you’re sure…”
She left the room, squeaking with each step. Minutes passed, and Paul began to wonder where she had gone, what she was doing. How long could it take to find whatever she needing to untie him? Ah, maybe she went to get some anti-microbial ointment, for taking out the needles. That must be it.
The creak of the pvc announced her return before Paul’s restrained head could see her. It was dampened, though, as if she were wearing something on top. When she did finally enter his field of view, he understood – at least the deadened sound. Brunhilde had put on a thick leather apron, and a blast-mask sat propped open on her oiled hair.
“Die Lötlampe!” she said with pride, displaying the blowtorch and it’s fuel canister. Paul rocked against his restraints, each motion sending a flare of agony through his metal-studded flesh.
“Nomph! Nomph!” he shouted, or, tried to.
“Ya, ya, ‘Now’ ‘Now’ – Madame Brunhilde hears you. I did not think you ready for the Lötlampe, it is reserved for very experienced customers – but, who am I to deny you when you seem so set on it, hmm?”
Paul found he was getting on much better at work. The small things didn’t dig so much, the little peccadilloes of his office-mates didn’t irk him like they used to.
The second week of his incarceration, the manacles had chafed Paul’s wrists raw. The constant rubbing of the iron, the dampness of the room, it left his skin water-logged. It sloughed off at the point of contact, a white paste. Chained, sitting, his hands bound to the wall above him, he had never felt pain like this – every moment was agony. By the next week, it had died down some, but he hadn’t slept a full night – or day – through. It seemed like every time he would doze off, that sadist of a guard would throw water in his face, or smash the tin bowl they served him slop in against the crumbling brick wall, or kick him in the stomach, or…his creativity knew no bounds. Enumerating the ways, the subtle ways, in which this bland-faced, dough-ball of a man tortured him, it was a way Paul used to pass the time. Not initially, nor, even, on purpose. It was just something he stumbled on, one of those increasingly trackless days.
The start of the third month, Paul noticed something a bit odd. Through the lancing pain of his wrists, bone exposed in places and flesh starting to blacken, he realised he couldn’t feel his hands. Not that any point of his body expressed more than a dull ache, aside from the wrists, but it was more like, they were simply absent.
He shifted his head to look, this becoming ever-more difficult with each day. A wave of nausea rolled over him with the effort. Riding it out, his fogged vision began to clear. He could make out a quivering, furred object above him. A noise cut through the fog, registering as a chittering, squeaking, deeply objectionable sound.
Mustering his weakened will, Paul shifted an arm. The squeaking, hairy objects scattered, and Paul passed out. Coming to several minutes later, and several minutes more after that to collect himself, he once again looked up at his chained arms. He couldn’t make sense of what he saw. The manacle on his wrist, blood and bone, and then the palm of his hand, and then…nothing.
Not quite nothing. His vision was as a weak as his will, and it took him a moment to adjust his gaze even though he had been the dark cell an eternity. Peering a distance of several feet was an unaccustomed effort, and just as taxing as shifting his head bobbling on his thin, chicken-like neck. At last he could make out shrivelled stalks that sprouted from his hand, translucent and a dull white. Bones! His finger bones! Stripped of flesh, with only the barest of tendons keeping them tied together.
The doorbell rang, startling Paul as he towelled his shower-damp hair. Hard, insistent knocking came on its heels directly. Quickly struggling into the pair of jeans sitting rumpled on the bed, he dashed down the stairs shouting “Alright, alright, I’m coming!”
Opening the door revealed two men, suited, wearing shades despite the overcast day. One, the taller, Caucasian, flashed an indecipherable badge, while his companion, Asian, said a perfunctory “Good evening Mr. Kozlovsky…?” slight nod from Paul. “May we come in?” Before Paul had time to respond, the two shouldered passed him. The taller man took to examining the contents of the room in earnest, while the second withdrew a manilla folder from the briefcase he was carrying, examining its contents and studiously ignoring the bewildered Paul.
“Look here, what’s this all about? You can’t just come barging in…” Paul said, irate.
The Asian man looked up from the sheets of paper, gaze locked on Paul through aviators. “On the contrary, Mr. Kozlovsky, we can do just that. It says here,” he indicated a sheet of paper, “and here,” another, “that you’ve seriously breached the EULA of the Imagi Corp. product you have on lease. You’re several hours over the holo-time limit for someone of your pay-grade. And, you’ve been tampering with the specs, haven’t you?” It was just a small change, a little adjustment here, a dial turned there…how did they know?
“Over-stepping your allowed time is one thing, there’re established ways you can make that up to the Corporation,” the man continued. “It’s the unauthorised adjustments that’re the real problem.”
“That’s some real sick shit you’ve been up to, Kozlovsky,” said the white man, a surprising tenor for all his height. “Real sick.”
“You knew, explicitly, what the Corporation’s Product was for, geared specifically for someone of your position and work. You knew, explicitly, that you couldn’t just go around making your own changes to software or hardware. I’ve got your signature to it, right here,” the shorter man pulled from his case a thick sheet of papers, minute font a wash at the distance of seven feet. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us.”
“What? This is ridiculous!” shouted Paul in surprise. “I’m not going anywhere – my wife is going to be home in an hour – we have an important dinner party to attend tonight –”
“Please don’t make this any more difficult than it needs to be,” the Asian man cut in.
“You’re coming with us, Kozlovsky,” his partner continued, “whether you like it or not.”
Shocked for a bare moment, Paul set his stance, looking from one adversary to another. He’d dealt with better than the pair of them, many times. Before he changed the output on the machine, he’d won every fight it threw at him. “Come and get me, then,” he said, cheesy line feeling right for the occasion. He bunched his muscles – and the expected adrenaline didn’t arrive. All the fights he’d been in, all the experience and the hard-won neural pathways, all the muscle-memory and raw aggression – it was all false. His body was just that, his, the body of an office clerk, not overweight, but neither athletic. He was no fighter, no hero.
“Why is it always like this, eh, Xu?” the Caucasian man said, returning the taser to the under-arm holster as Paul twitched on the ground. “Makes you believe that shit they write about the Product in the papers – feeding false expectations and shit.”
Xu, standing above the prostrate Paul, said “You didn’t give ‘im too much, did you Steve? We don’t need another heart attack case on our hands. Here, help me get him to the car.”
Paul, for his part, couldn’t make out what the pair was saying, their words a mush of sound, an undulating roar then a speeding whistle. He did, however, feel the bite of the zip-tie as Steve cinched his wrists together. And it felt natural. It felt right, like something he’d been expecting for a long time. In the wash of pain, just before he lost consciousness, Paul felt happy.