“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
“I’m fucking telling you, Jay, this guy was…coming out of this shit,” Simon said, straining for the right word to explain what he saw, his voice tight like a wire. Giving up, he tossed a strangely light, brittle material on his boss’s desk. “It was falling off of him like he was one of the velociraptor chicks in John Hammond’s lab.”
“Jurassic Park,” Jay said approvingly. “1993. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and – of course – Jeff Goldblum. A classic.”
“Jay, focus. I need advice here!” Simon said.
Jay shrugged with the patented management gesture of Do-I-Look-Like-I-Give-A-Shit-About-Your-Problem? “Si, I’m your boss, not your therapist. Do I look like Fox Mulder to you?” He pointed his pudgy little finger at Simon, continuing their game.
“The X-Files, uh, Fox TV series….the uh? Late eighties, early nineties maybe?” Simon’s mood visibly darkening with the effort of remembering. ” David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Cancer man.”
“Gillian, our puberty thanks you,” Jay added with mock gravity, hand over his heart.
Simon folded his arms and put his chin to his chest, which Jay knew full well meant Simon was about to lose his shit. It was Simon’s go-to move; he’d used it recently when he and Jay disagreed strongly on how the server budget was to be spent.
“Emerged,” Jay said after a moment’s consideration.
“What?” Simon looked up, confused.
“You said ‘coming out of this shit’ — that’s emerged. That’s the word for it.” He was now turning the material over and over in his dusty fingers. His brow furrowed and he looked at it more closely, then wrinkled his nose. “It stinks up close. What in the hell is this shit?”
Simon laughed and shook his head. “It’s like you’re reading my mind, man.”
Duemani looked in Michael’s left ear, holding the light close, then slowly repeated the check from the other side. Michael waited patiently, looking over in Ellen’s direction; Ellen was perched in one corner of the room, arms folded and stock-still. Duemani looked up from peering deeply into Michael’s right ear, saw Ellen and said softly: “Don’t mind her. She’s a little freaked out.”
Michael smile at Ellen was disarming, but he said nothing.
Duemani pushed his stool back from the examination table. “Mr. Profit, I think you’re fine. Your blood pressure is 118/78, your resting heart rate is 78 bpm. No visible inflammation, no fever or motor control issues. No left side/right side troubles, so no stroke. Do you remember coming here to the hospital a while ago?”
Michael nodded, his gaze drifting to Dr. Duemani. “Of course.”
“You vomited when you were brought in. We can’t identify what you expectorated, though. Can you tell me what happened?”
“I was voiding the Colostrum.” Michael scratched absently at one cheek, then looked at his fingernails; his eyes seemed surprised.
“Colostrum?” Duemani said, shaking his head slowly. “Okay, let’s try again…do you remember what happened to you before you got here?”
Michael frowned. “I woke up. It was….very dark and cold. It was hard to see anything, it was so dark. But I could hear a strange noise, so I made my way to it. Then Simon was there and he brought me to you.”
“You were sleeping beside the Interstate?” Ellen questioned from the still safety of the corner.
“Not really,” Michael said, shaking his head a little. “Not beside it. ”
Duemani looked at Ellen, then at Michael. Michael smiled at them both and spread his hands out in one of the oldest human gestures, that of offering something up, a tithe, an explanation, something, his palms turned up to the ceiling. “I was under it.”
Duemani blinked. “A drainage pipe? You’re, uh…homeless?”
“Not anymore.” Looking only at Ellen. “And no…there was no pipe. I slept deep in the earth for a very long time before He called me to action.”
“He?” Ellen said. “He who?”
“The Eschaton,” Michael said earnestly. “He is coming, you know.”
Duemani changed position on the stool, deciding something that involved using a little body english. “Uh….huh,” he said softly. “Okay. Um, do you know how long you were asleep before you got this wake-up call?”
Michael grinned. “Of course! One hundred and forty-four thousand years.”
Duemani and Ellen exchanged glances.
Michael saw their discomfort and, assuming they were questioning his accuracy, amended: “Well…approximately.”
Dr. Kirk smiled when he shook Michael’s hand and said, in a voice that dripped with calm, “Hi, Mr. Profit. I’m Dr. Kirk. I’m a psychiatrist here at the Medical Center. I’d like to speak with you. Would that be all right?”
Kirk sat down on the same stool that Duemani had used. “Can you tell me the date?”
“In which calendaring system?”
Kirk looked momentarily puzzled, then took a pen from his shirt pocket, clicked the point out with his thumb. “Never mind. What’s your father’s name?”
“Oh, He has many, many names. He doesn’t really like any of them though.”
Kirk sighed. “Well, what do you call Him?”
“He instructed me to tell you that he is the Eschaton. The final being. Homo Ultimus.” Michael said simply and very earnestly. “But really, we don’t use names. Not like you’re thinking anyway.”
“I wouldn’t say he’s mentally ill,” Kirk stated tersely, glaring at Duemani. “It’s just that he’s very devout, deeply religious.”
“Uh…which religion was that again?” Duemani countered, then shrugged. “Come on, Al. We both know religious paranoia is frequent symptom of schizophrenic dissociative states–”
“He’s not dissociative. There’s no indication of that at all.” Kirk parried.
“–and this man was found stark naked by the side of the Interstate. Says he woke up there; doesn’t appear to remember anything more than that….”
“Did you check him for drugs?” Kirk said, throwing his hands up in mild irritation. “Or alcohol poisoning?”
“The blood work is still at the lab,” Duemani said. “We should admit him, involuntarily, if need be.”
“Well, that was dramatic!” Kirk responded at once, his derision brimming over. “Unfortunately, Dr. Twohands, there happen to be laws in this state about involuntarily committing someone, and most of them hinge on the necessity of danger: Is this patient a danger to himself or to others?”
Duemani stared back, but said nothing. Kirk let his hand drop.
“Hi guys,” Ellen said into their silence from the door to Duemani’s office. “I just got off the phone with the lab about where the blood work for Michael Profit was?”
“And? ” Duemani said, looking at her. “What did they find?”
“Nothing,” Ellen said, her expression deadpan and her voice soft. “They couldn’t run any tests.”
“Why not?” Duemani and Kirk said in unison.
“The vials were empty. There was nothing in them but steam.” Ellen swallowed. “This whole situation is getting very ‘alternate reality’ really quickly.”
Dr. Kirk rolled his eyes back to Duemani. “So, let’s sum up: What do we have here? A patient for which there is no evidence of mental illness nor of illicit drug or alcohol use. Lucid in conversation. No track marks. Zip.” Kirk stood up as a form of punctuation. “In my professional medical opinion, he should be discharged right away.”
Duemani looked up, eye-hating Kirk. “You forgot: He broke the law.”
Kirk made a surprised face. “If he did, then I did in fact miss that. Which law did he break?”
Ellen laughed softly. “He came in buck naked, Dr. Kirk. He must’ve broken some public decency law.” Ellen nodded at Duemani, “Right?”
Duemani allowed his triumph to show in his return nod.
Kirk shook his head. “Wow. Folks, if you’re going to use the Brick of Law to restrain someone, then at least make sure it’s a real brick.”
“Huh?” Duemani snorted. “What’s that mean?”
“It’s not against the law to be naked in public in Vermont, you flatlander,” Kirk said and, smiling smugly to himself, walked out of the office.
Ellen waited a moment, then jerked her thumb at the door. “I hate that fuckin’ guy.”
Duemani said, “All right. Discharge him.”
Ellen nodded and walked out. Duemani pushed back in his chair and looked bleakly at his very full email inbox, then noticed the time – 4:59PM – and decided that he’d had enough for one shift. He sighed, signed out and was reaching to turn off his desk lamp when he stopped, staring down at his desk from a new angle.
The desk lamp pushed a pool of white light in an oval illuminating the glossy covers of his two magazines – People and Fortune – which were in a loose pile, Fortune on top, and Duemani saw the word Michael in bright white 60 point type (a story about Michael J. Fox in People) was partially eclipsed by Fortune’s own title Profit or Loss?
“Hi,” Simon said, standing awkwardly at the ED nursing station, noticeably out-of-place. “Do you remember me?”
Ellen looked up, nodding and said: “Sure. You’re the IT guy.”
“Right,” he said. “I, uh, well….I’m back. I wanted to see how he was, if that’s okay.”
Ellen looked up. “He seemed to be fine. We discharged him a little while ago.” She returned her gaze downward.
“Oh,” Simon said, looking crestfallen. “How long ago exactly?”
Ellen didn’t look up. “Twenty minutes ago, give or take.”
Simon nodded. “Don’t suppose you know where he was headed?”
“Nope.” Still staring downward. “And I wouldn’t tell you if I did know.”
Simon nodded again. “Right. Great. Well, thanks.” He pivoted away from the nursing station and walked out. Ellen did not watch him go.
Simon was putting his right hand on the ED exit when that smooth baritone voice called to him, from the back of the waiting area, which was otherwise empty. “Simon.”
Simon drifted away from the door; Michael stood and walked slowly to him, hand extended. “You came back. How about that.”
Simon shook the man’s hand, which felt quite normal. “I did. I was worried about you. What’s, uh…sorry. What’s your name? What do I call you?”
Michael smiled and put his hand on Simon’s shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “Now that’s the first rule: There’s no need to worry any longer. About anything. Call me Michael.”
Simon’s brow wrinkled. “Do you have a place to go to? Can I drop you off somewhere or–”
“Actually, I have nowhere to stay, Simon. Can you help?”
Simon nodded a little too quickly, somehow overcome with emotion in an instant. “I can. Yes I can. Come on,” he turned toward the door. “I’m parked outside. We can go to my place. It’s nothing special, but there’s a couch you can crash on, for a few days at least.”
They pushed the glass door open into the cool Vermont spring evening, the sky cloudless and going to midnight blue. Michael turned his head up to the empty sky and said: “Actually, if we could make one stop before we go to your home, I would be most grateful.”
“Okay, sure. Where?” Simon said, heading in the general direction of the car.
“Don’t worry. It’s on the way,” Michael said.
It was almost six o’clock and the sun had started its evening traipse to down to the mountaintops. It was cold without direct sunlight and Simon shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. Michael was patiently rooting through the already tall grass just to the side of the entrance ramp to the highway, moving in slow, deliberate steps with his head down, a frown of concentration on his face, his eyes hooded, down to just slits.
“So, uh, what was it you left behind here exactly?” Simon asked above passing traffic.
“Exactly? It’s a stabilized matrix-driven molecular infusion device, tuned to something less than 7 nanometers,” Michael said without stopping or looking up.
Michael stood up and looked at Simon. “It’s a device capable of manipulating matter. A cornucopia machine. Or c-machine for short.”
Simon shook his head. It was like talking to a brick wall. This guy was just plain crazy. He had a half a mind to just get back in the car and drive away, but he didn’t. If you had asked him why he stayed, Simon honestly couldn’t have said. Michael resumed his search, until – several minutes later – he cried out and pointed triumphantly at the ground. Simon started walking from the car to to the spot where he now saw Michael was hastily disrobing. Michael bent a final time and unceremoniously pulled down the hospital scrubs, then disappeared.
Simon hustled forward and was treated to the sight of Michael’s bare ass and legs wavering up and down from a meter-wide hole in the ground that appeared to have been bored at roughly a 30 degree angle. “Jesus Christ!” Simon said, his chest thundering with alarm. “Get outta there!”
Michael said something Simon recognized as being the same speech that Charlie Brown’s teacher used, and then Michael’s legs suddenly shot forward until only his feet were exposed to the open air. The feet paused a few seconds, and then twisted, rolled, pinwheeled, and ground one against the other tirelessly.
“Uh….” Simon said, totally lost and now certain that Michael was completely insane. He felt a wave of animal revulsion rising in him, and he looked away from the grinding feet – there was something obscene about how they moved! – and looked at the ground around the hole instead. Simon’s gut clenched.
Every plant inside a three meter square was yellow and dead. Every. Single. One.
A fucking square? What kills plants in geometric shapes?
And with that Simon’s mind filled with images of poison, lab vials falling, a flickered image of a skull-and-crossbones and his father’s voice saying, “No, that’s poison…”. Simon swayed, took an unconscious step back and felt his heel crunch on something that might have been clay pottery. He looked down and said it was large piece of the (shell?) whatever-it-was that Michael had had all over him. A big piece, large enough to act as a soup bowl. Simon picked it up, his nose wrinkling at the still-harsh chemical smell, some powerful and confused blend of long-chain monomers and ammonia. He peered into the underside of the shell and in so doing rotated his left wrist toward his face, which brought Simon’s Apple watch into his view.
The watch face – a foot-tapping Minnie Mouse – flickered once, twice and died, going slowly dark except for an odd green glow. “Shit!” Simon said and reflexively dropped the shell; he began to shake. “Shit! Shit! Michael, we got to get out of here!”
From deep in the hole, something that sounded a lot like MM-TING_MF_YOU issued forth, mixed with more highway traffic. Simon edged up to the bright pink feet, squatted down and shouted: “WHAT?”
Much more clearly this time, Michael said. “I SAID I WAS WAITING FOR YOU.”
“WAITING FOR ME TO DO WHAT?”
A moment’s quiet. The feet stopped moving, and drooped in a gesture that somehow evoked a feeling of irritation.
“TO PULL ME OUT.”
“Oh right. Uh…okay,” Simon said, leaning down to the feet and grasping a bony ankle in each hand. “Ready?”
“WAIT. Let me get a better grip. Okay, pull!” Michael’s voice echoed.
Simon pulled, finding that Michael was very light and that it required surprisingly little effort to extract him from the hole. Once Michael was free of the earth, Simon dropped the feet and spun to look at him. Michael was holding a very dirty but decidedly geometric box, matte black and maybe 75 centimeters square, in his bleeding hands. It didn’t look like anything special, but Michael’s smile was very white.
“I have it.” Michael said softly. “I have it.” And the last of the sunlight died behind the Green Mountains.