“I believe in nothing,” the old man said, scowl outlined with stubborn anger. He lay prone, shivering atop a long steel table, nude except for a small dirt-colored loin cloth. The tiny underground room, no larger than a prison cell, pressed down upon him, threatening his sanity with each passing second. Only when he blinked did the drab walls recede, allowing him to breathe. He flexed atrophied muscles, clenched his fists, fidgeting against invisible restraints in some futile show of strength. For all the things he’d lost in the past week, anger and a general contempt for the world outside his bubble remained as present as ever.
“You are wasting my time, charlatan,” he rasped. “Get on with it.”
Mohammed ignored the words, continued his slow chew on the long plastic tip of the hookah pipe while staring at the collection of hieroglyphs that had been carefully etched into the cinder block wall. He understood little, his ancestors even less since their move to the West after the chaos of the Arab Spring leveled the pyramids. Centuries later and much is forgotten, lost beneath the shifting dunes. Leave it to a new generation to find interest in the old ways. His father would have rolled his eyes at the practice, diverting precious seconds of attention from the financials ticking by on iScreens layered on contact lenses that only he could view. Come to think of it, the man laying atop the table reminded him a great deal of his father. This brought a certain sense of bittersweet satisfaction that made his hands ache with anticipation.
“You must believe in something Mr. Poe. There is no salvation without belief.” Mohammed curled his lips around the pipe, sipping flavored darkness into his lungs. The underground chamber was thick with the cloyingly sweet scent of black raspberry.
“I believe in science,” Poe said, cough rattling his chest. Tried to waft away the smoke but he no longer possessed the strength. The blood-colored solution fed through the IV drip in his arm was beginning to take effect. Soon he’d lose the ability to speak, his eyes the only window into his thoughts. He angled his head down to glare at his caretaker. “I’m only here because—”
“Science failed you.” The smile on Mohammed’s face grew to cartoon proportions, surgically perfected white teeth whispering checkmate. He stood studying the old man’s face, watching the holes in his memory grow, allying with the tumors to eat his brain.
* * *
It was Christmas Eve, and Poe sat reclined at the end of the conference room table on the top floor of a newly renovated high-rise overlooking Boston Harbor. The company had once again beaten Wall Street’s expectations, not that it surprised him, given the amount of investment in foreign markets made over the past year. The new enhancements to the mind link procedure had taken off with the younger crowd, almost alarmingly so, and Poe had to double his contracts with the lobby firms to keep pace. One slip and they’d become a bullet point on some senior congressman’s reelection bid. But he also had The Church on his side, and it made him giddy to think that somewhere, someone was worshipping his intellect. The fools—nothing more than an unpaid radical sales force—and a good one at that, outpacing his own employees. The blind leading the blind.
One of his countless vice presidents was droning on about recent sales figures, but Poe couldn’t process the words. Which wasn’t uncommon once boredom took hold. He enjoyed scheduling lengthy strategy meetings with his executive team, especially around the holidays. It warmed his belly like a nice glass of aged rum to sit back and observe the growing anxiety as they crossed into the six o’clock hour, glancing at watches, silencing calls from loved ones. The meeting was unnecessary except as a display of absolute control.
His lithe secretary sat three down from him, whispering, giggling with one of the younger executives. Oh, the things he would have done to the bitch to make her pay. Just five minutes alone after the meeting and she’d regret ever opening her candied mouth. Inviting men besides him into her bed and gossiping about it. Did she think he didn’t know? He felt his cheeks flush, powerless.
Outside, the lights of the city bloomed as if covered in rain drops, flickering orange and red commuters flooding the streets around Christmas trees lit up like ice cream cones dipped in jimmies. Blinking only enhanced the blur like a set of torn windshield wipers. Poe tried to rub his vision clear but his fingers fumbled against the table, unresponsive. For a moment he sat perfectly still, taking in a deep uncomfortable breath. He heard the squeak of chairs, heads turning his direction, muffled baritone voices calling out to him. Something was wrong.
Then he clenched his teeth shut as the pain arced through his skull like a jagged tree branch, and his scrambled thoughts faded into nothing.
* * *
“You were too late.” Mohammed paced about the windowless room, sandals emitting little zip noises as he dragged his heels along the floor. The plastic sheets had been his idea, an improvement after the first operation went a little… awry. He was proud of his handiwork, even more so when he noticed the grimace on Poe’s face, a reaction to the noise like one might have at the sound of nails on a chalkboard. It was an odd, unintentional side effect, one that Mohammed mentally pocketed for later experiment.
“The brain, an organic supercomputer,” said Mohammed, tapping on the side of his head. “Introduce a little corruption, a little chaos into the mix, and the mind doesn’t perform so well, does it? Synapses misfire and cells continue to die until they riot in a surge of electrical energy. The white light—do you see it yet?”
With an index finger, Mohammed traced a vein along the top of Poe’s left foot, testing for a response to sensation. Finding none, he continued up the ankle and shin, fingernail leaving behind a thin red scratch that seemed almost to bleed in response to the stimulation.
“The procedure is cutting edge, bordering on experimental. There… wasn’t any time.”
Mohammed chuckled, wrapped his spidery fingers around the man’s calf muscle. “The technology has been around for a decade, Poe. You should know that better than anyone.”
“And I should believe you… over some of the best physicians in the world? What are you anyway… some kind of witch doctor?”
“A mortician. A practitioner of art.” He paused, then added, “A businessman.”
Poe scoffed, “Business man.”
“You’d be surprised to find out how much we have in common, Poe.”
Poe was silent for a long moment, visibly struggling to piece together a cogent thought. “I… have nothing in common… with a rat like you.”
Mohammed tightened his grip, nails digging into the emaciated flesh, drawing blood. “Entrepreneurs, engineers, tinkerers—take your pick. You may look to the future and I to the past, but we share a common goal: The never-ending search for eternal life, no?
“Still nothing? Tell me about yourself, then. Tell me what you have accomplished in your ninety plus years on this planet.”
Poe fought through a series of stuttered ums, eyeballs ping-ponging in their sockets.
“You can’t remember!” Mohammed pushed Poe’s arm out of the way, thrusting himself onto the table, pressing the weight of his upper body into the man’s chest. Jabbed two bloody fingers inches from Poe’s nose, focusing his attention.
“Children dropping like flies for a chance at immortality using the technology you invented. ‘Mind Link,” he mocked, “‘With just the push of a button you can upload your consciousness. Leave your misery behind and roam cyberspace for eternity’. Isn’t that how the commercials go?” Mohammed squeezed Poe’s lips into a pucker.
“How’d I do?”
Poe only stared at him.
“Leave the flesh behind and join your brothers and sisters in wireless heaven. I must confess, it sounds pretty good. I’ve read The Church’s propaganda and found it to be quite entertaining. Entertainment is one thing, however, and we can only let it go so far before it preys upon the weak and impressionable. But you… leave it to the man with the plan to wait too long.”
“The procedure is cutting edge, there wasn’t any time!” Poe blurted.
Mohammed hopped down for another smoke. “Now you’re just repeating yourself, old man. We better get going before there’s nothing left.”
Almost on cue, a small diode in the corner of the room flicked from red to green. The door, hidden except for a thin outline, clicked open with a hiss, vacuuming some of the sweetness from the room. Mohammed attended to Poe, pricking his stomach and ribs. With his other hand he reached under the table, brushing against a small handgun taped underneath.
“Good evening, Brother.” Janine ground the stub of a cigarette into the wall outside the room, and then dragged a suitcase in behind her. “It’s been a while.” She wore a simple knee-length white dress with a ropey gold belt that hung at an angle around her waist. It was a fashionable update for her usual formal wear.
Mohammed smiled, “Brother,” he said, taking her into his arms.
“Watch the dress,” she said with a laugh, gesturing to his bloodied fingertips. They pecked at each other’s lips like birds from a distance, before Janine let him taste her tongue. When his fingers brushed her arm, she recoiled.
“What’d I tell you? Watch the fucking dress!” Janine couldn’t hold the anger in her face for long, and after a few seconds they were both laughing again. “Set us up, will you?” He nodded and got to work removing equipment from the suitcase.
“Mr. Poe, how are you?” Her heels clicked as she approached the table. Her eyes were rimmed in dark makeup that flared outside of her sockets, reminiscent of ancient Egyptian artwork. She watched him struggle to recognize her, his face contorting in a confusion of emotions.It wasn’t until she swept a lock of black hair behind an ear, revealing a thin golden hoop earring that he spoke.
“You’re… you’re the nurse… from the hospital.”
“The one and only. Glad to see you made it here in one piece. How was the trip?”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “His mind must be worse than I thought,” she muttered to herself.
“I drugged him before we came below ground,” Mohammed said. “His understanding of the route should be vague, if any. Didn’t want to risk the chance of the memory escaping.”
“Well done, Brother.” She smiled, pleased with his growing sense of confidence.
Janine turned to a small kit Mohammed had removed from her suitcase. She snapped on latex gloves and strapped a surgical mask over her mouth and nose that to Poe, only seemed to enhance her mysterious beauty. There was more on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t put the pieces together. The room fell quiet, punctuated by a ruffling of cloth and tinkling of metal on metal. Janine circled to the left side of the table, slipping a clear plastic apron around her neck as she moved and drawing back the strings at her waist.
“Brother, if you would be so kind?” He obliged, sucking on her neck as he tied the knot.
“What’s happening to—” Poe could barely get the words out. His tongue slid into his cheek. Janine rolled his head to the side, checking to make sure the implant was clear on the back of his head, the port for the failed ejection.
“The tumors in your brain interrupted the upload,” she said, pressing her fingers into his abdomen, searching for what lay beneath. “A significant portion of your memories were scattered to the four winds. When you awoke, I simply offered you… let’s just say, another form of enlightenment.”
Mohammed wheeled a small cart alongside Janine displaying four sterile containers, varying in size. Janine waited patiently as he carefully uncapped each container and unrolled a kit of surgical equipment, laying it alongside Poe’s legs. Setup complete, he circled to the opposite side of the table, tilted Poe’s head so he faced Janine. Plugged a thin black cable into the port in the back of Poe’s head, connected to a black tablet the size of a small matchbox. Nodded to Janine that all was set.
“Your work has convinced many of our Brothers to leave us for the digital world.” She cocked her head, looking around the room. “They call it ‘ejecting.’ We call it suicide.
“In fact tonight I received word that two more had desecrated their sacred flesh in search of this ‘digital afterlife.’ They said they died for you… can you believe that? For a mere mortal?” She suppressed a laugh.
“I can hear them even now, in this room. They have no bodies and yet they still feel the pain of their mistake.” She selected a long scalpel, slit deep along the left side of his abdomen. His blood ran thick and dark across the table, dripping onto the floor.
“This procedure is sacred, one reserved for the dead.” She peeled back layers of muscle and skin, fingering sinewy intestines. “But we are making an exception. A test if you will.” She looked at him as she removed a large portion of his intestines. “The Church will pay for their heresy.”
His face drained of color, breathing turned shallow and quick. The procedure was painless, but Janine relished in the fact that he could feel her digging around, violating his insides. Mohammed held up the largest of the empty containers and she placed the organ inside. She cut into his stomach, let the acidic juices drain while she removed the liver. Mohammed returned to the hookah, expelling deep clouds of smoke to cover the foul stench of the dying man. When Janine placed Poe’s stomach inside the third container, he began to convulse.
Janine nodded to Mohammed. “We’re losing him, start the flow.” Mohammed quickly returned to the head of the table, swiped his fingers over the tablet and gave her a thumbs up. She grabbed Poe’s chin with a bloody grip. “What do you think is worse? Stuck in a box with half a brain for eternity? Or to find yourself in nether regions of Duat?”
“If you survive in the Underworld long enough to have Anubis pluck and weigh your heart, I hope he demands you watch Ammit devour your soul.”
Mohammed signaled the download nearly complete. Janine plunged her hands up under Poe’s ribs, into the chest cavity, clawed until she gripped both lungs. “Goodbye Mr. Poe.”
The tablet flashed green. She tore his lungs out with a ferocious growl.
Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s sleep for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. He is the author of Federales, as well as short stories featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey. He lives with his wife and son in Boston, Massachusetts. He is an editor at Shotgun Honey, co-host on the Antidote for the Commonplace podcast.