17 years ago
Dr. Ermen approached the researcher at the controls for the Synthetic Multiple-Aperture Refracting Telescope and cleared his throat to get his attention.
“Oh, hello,” said the young, fair-haired man who controlled the angle and focus of the telescope’s 10,000 apertures spread across the mountaintops of Lichtenstein and neighboring countries. “No luck yet, I’m afraid. I can’t find it.”
He tugged at the corners of the black cloth draped over the monitor that displayed the image the telescope was producing, making sure it was still secure.
“Yes, well, get on that. The last of the previous batch just burned out,” Dr. Ermen said, in german. He fished around in his pocket and tossed a handful of warped plastic chips onto the desk.
“Gah!” The engineer covered his eyes with one hand while he collected the plastic chips with the other. “Proper disposal, please!”
Dr. Ermen took them back and tossed them into the trash can nearby. “They’re harmless. This is why we switched to plastic, remember?”
“Yah, I remember. I was picking glass out of my face for a week, but still…” He trailed off. “I’m not going to lie, what we’re doing here scares me.”
“Yes, of course it does!” said Ermen in a sympathetic tone, putting a hand on the back of the other man’s chair. “But think lf the good it could do! No more would we have to bow to those who are born better.”
“I understand that, yes, but what happened to Gunther and Afa-” he got choked up for a moment. “-and their families think it was a transformer explosion caused by a solar flare.”
“The public can’t know what we do here. You know that. Now, you can’t find it?”
The young engineer pulled his composure together and said, “It doesn’t follow normal orbital patterns that a rogue star its size should. It’s… erratic. When I focus the telescope on where it should be on any given day, it’s not there. I’ve narrowed it down to a patch of sky, and though the object is very large, relatively, it is very far away, and the area I’m searching can only be measured in cubic light years.”
“A massive needle in an infinite haystack,” summarized Ermen, nodding.
“Yes. space is big, and mostly empty. And it doesn’t help that I can’t see what I’m looking at.” He gestured to the cloth-draped monitor again.
“Good. Yes. Well, I need to go talk to our latest patient.”
The engineer scowled. “Please don’t tell me about your end. This is easier for me when it’s anonymous.”
“Of course. I understand.” Ermen turned and exited the room, a smile playing about the corners of his lips.
By the time he entered the neighboring room, he wore a full grin. “Good evening Jane.” The room was much smaller and more personal- a private office, rather than the technical workstation.
The well-dressed woman sitting in the armchair opposite the door said, “My name’s Ros-“
“-Unimportant. Is English fine? You don’t sound local.” In truth, her german was atrocious, but he would never tell her that; she looked wealthy.
“English is fine,” she said, switching to english.
Ermen continued. “Before the procedure, I’d like to do a basic personality profile. Please answer the questions honestly and to the best of your ability, as your answers will help us achieve your ideal results. Are you ready?” Dr. Ermen flipped through pages on his clipboard to find a fresh one and checked that his pen worked by scribbling tight circles in the margins.
She crossed her legs and placed her hands on her knees. “Go.”
“Inwards or outwards?”
“Uhh, what?” she cocked her head.
“Inwards or outwards?” Dr. Ermen repeated, insistent.
“Um, inwards, I guess?”
“Push or pull?”
“Quality or quantity?”
“Quality.” She narrowed her eyes.
“Loud or soft?”
“Would you rather be overrated or underrated?”
“Um,” she thought for a moment before responding. “Underrated.”
“Would you rather be famous, talented, or happy?”
“I can’t be all three?” she asked.
“No.” Dr. Ermen tapped his pen on the clipboard. “That is rather the point.”
“Then talented and happy.”
“Clever,” said Ermen. “We’re almost done. Would you rather be powerful or liked?”
“I thought as much. Okay, have you ever, before today, committed a crime against the state of Liechtenstein?”
“Of course. Who hasn’t?”
Dr. Ermen let out a chuckle, which he quickly stifled. She would make a frightening supervillain. Something subtle, not flashy, but powerful and subversive. A mastermind. Ermen clamped his mouth shut against another bubbling laugh and excused himself from the room, exiting via the opposite door from. “Thank you, I’ll be just a moment.”
As soon as the door was shut behind him he tucked the clipboard under one arm and broke into a sprint. In between gasping breaths, his voice took on a life of its own. “If you stare *gasp* at the sun *gasp* you’ll go blind *gasp* they said *gasp* but not *gasp* me! Not me! *gasp * I still *gasp* can see!”
He skidded to a halt in front of an unmarked door and scrabbled at the doorknob with shaking hands. “It comes from beyond comprehension, a sigil of light etched into the sky,” his voice cracked as he tried to stop his gibbering and failed. He got the door open and slipped through into the unmarked storage closet beyond.
“The Avatar of Glare shall ride a palanquin, concealed even from himself. Entropy calls from beyond the veil of time,” he said through gritted teeth. He stumbled through the closet, hands and eyes searching the shelves until he found what he was looking for.
“The sun rises, the tide rises, entropy rises,” he found the box of syringes and pulled one out, clenched in his fist to avoid dropping it. “It’s only a matter of space. Just a matter of space. The bringer of light, bringer of…” He stabbed the syringe into his thigh. No sooner had he depressed the plunger than he relaxed, tension flowing out of him. He sagged against the shelves and swore in german under his breath.
“Thought I had more time. Damn Americans.” He wiped drops of sweat off his glasses and squinted at the fine lettering on the box.
Denudine, 30 doses.
Dosage information: minimum duration 4 hrs, 2 minute less for every 1 lb above 100 lbs.
“Damn imperial standard. Use kilograms like the rest of the world.”
Ermen placed the box back on its shelf and straightened himself up. He took a deep breath to regain his composure before exiting the closet and returning to the telescope control room.
“Good news! I’ve found it,” said the engineer, gesturing towards a machine that was busy printing out sheets of plastic slides. “We should be able to get a few more sheets out before this one burns out.”
“Excellent.” Dr. Ermen hurried over to the printer and pulled on the welding mask that sat on the desk beside it. With a few practiced motions, he punched out a few of the slides and pocketed them, leaving the rest, and the welding mask, behind.
He returned to the office that the woman waited in and closed the door behind him.
“Odd,” she remarked. “Is there is a room that connects those two doors? You went out a different door than you came in.”
“Very observant, yes,” Ermen said. Of course they would have to connect. Otherwise, people would have to go through his office to get to the telescope controls, which would just be impractical. “Now, this procedure is relatively simple, but I’m going to have to give you some information before we proceed. Please follow me.” Ermen opened the door he had just entered throuh and beckoned her out of her seat. “I’ll talk while we walk.”
Jane stood and brushed off her clothes. An empty gesture. They were already quite clean. Habit, Ermen supposed. She gave him a nod as she passed through the door he held open, and he offered a small smile in return. Another empty gesture.
“I must warn you that the results of the procedure are permanent and life-changing,” Ermen said as he began leading her down the hall. Jane’s heels clacked loudly on the tile.
“I wouldn’t be here if they weren’t,” she interrupted. “I know a good many people who would pay far more than I did for this.”
Ermen smiled in truth at this. “I hope you put at least one of them on your referral sheet. We operate based on personal recommendation; I’m sure you understand why we can’t exactly advertise.” More wealthy clients would do nicely.
“Oh I do. Finding you was very difficult-” her step faltered. “Wait, you mean someone referred me by name?”
“They did, else the number you called would have been disconnected.”
“Immaterial. Now, while the procedure is relatively fast and painless, it is not without risk. You may see or experience things beyond your comprehension.”
“Yes.” Dr. Ermen’s brows lowered a bit, irritated at the constant interruptions. “And remember, whatever you see cannot harm you. Physically, at least.”
They reached their destination and Ermen once more held the door open for Jane. She stopped in the doorway when she saw what was inside.
“Woah. Is this your brainwashing room?” She stood stock still, staring at the room’s centerpiece, a metal and leather chair with straps for the arms, legs, and forehead.
“I assure you, the restraints are necessary for your safety during and immediately after the procedure,” Ermen said.
“O-okay.” Jane hesitated a moment more, then entered the room and sat in the chair, facing the blank white wall.
“Thank you,” Ermen said. As he helped her secure the straps, her hands clenched and unclenched on the ends of the armrests, expelling nervous energy. When she was secure, he walked behind her to the slide projector bolted to the table with removable metal bands and removed the plastic cap covering the lens.
He felt around with his hand for the plastic slides he’d pocketed and, after putting his other hand on the projector’s carousel, closed his eyes and slotted them into the projector.
“Are you ready?” Ermen asked, as he checked to make sure he’d gotten the slides into the right slots.
“As I’ll ever be,” Jane replied.
“Okay, try to keep your eyes open.” Dr. Ermen faced away from the blank wall the projector would project on and clenched his eyes shut one finger hovering over the power button.
He pressed the button. The projector clicked, the fans whirred up to speed, a d Ermen and counted to two under his breath. He pressed the button again and the fans cut out.
Ermen ejected the plastic slide, burning his fingers on the plastic in his haste, and threw it into the trash can nearby. Only then did he turn his attention back to Jane.
Her breathing had picked up, he noticed as he walked back towards her. She shuddered. “I could feel it scrutinizing me. Peeling me apart.”
“Can you describe it for me?” He stood in front of her, inspecting her for physical changes. She had paled, but color was rapidly returning to her skin.
“A thin line of energy, sharp as a razor, no. Sharper. An atom thick- or less.”
“Oh, that’s a new one,” Ermen commented, eyebrows rising.
Jane’s eyes snapped to Dr. Ermen as if seeing him for the first time. “You know one of your eyes is smaller than the other. You’re mildly psychopathic and you’re terrified of losing control. Oh!” She slapped a hand over her mouth, shearing away the leather strap as if it were cut with a knife.
“Looks like we have results,” Ermen said.
Jane lowered her hand. “Oh my,” she said, voice quiet. “This chair has three loose bolts and one of the straps is broken. That wall has a sandwich wrapper embedded in the concrete that makes it weak.” She giggled, covering her face with both hands, severing the other strap.
Ermen winced. “You also appear to have some physical ability,” Ermen said. “So be cautious, please.”
She looked down at the straps and her eyes widened. “Oh! Sorry.” She used her now freed hands to carefully undo the remaining straps and stood.
“If you’ll just follow me, we have another room where you can get reacquainted with yourself. I urge you to take your time. You are probably not safe to drive.”
He lead her to a large, heavily reinforced that once been part of the bunker that the telescope facility had been built around. As he left the room to give her some time alone, she extended a hand.
“It’s been a pleasure,” she said.
“It has,” Ermen replied, shaking her hand.
As she pulled away, he felt a sharp sting and looked down at his hand to see a thin line of red slashed across his palm.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. “Must have caught on my ring.”
Dr. Ermen clenched his fist against the pain and forced a smile as he closed the door.