~Chuck Wepner, to his corner-man Al Braverman after knocking down Muhammad Ali
“You better turn around. He’s getting up and he looks pissed off.”
“GOOD AFTERNOON!” Edward called out, too loudly. “I hope you’re comfortable?”
“MmmmMhhrmnnn…” was all the patient could muster.
“Yes, I suppose I owe you some explanation for your current ill health, as it might also make you aware of the absurd futility of the mission you were assigned and with the tools you’re were given to carry it out. Before we begin… Who are you working for?”
“OK. Have it your way. Just so you know… There was no way that you could have killed me with that gun you had, no matter how many times I was hit. I’ve been shot before. Right here in the chest at point-blank range. I was healed within a day, without a lick of medical care. I’m immortal, you see. Oh… I’m sure you don’t believe that… yet anyway. But all of us are. How else would you explain a man that had been a complete invalid only a few months ago, wheelchair bound and unable to so much as wiggle his fingers, breaking your jaw? That was Henry Starling, you know. No joke. That’s who took you out. So hopefully that opens your mind a bit. I’m guessing you were told that we were no more than a bunch of academics and blogger’s, yes?” Edward’s tone darkened, “Well… reality turned out to be a bit different, didn’t it?
There’s something else, I’m sure they told you. Something along the lines of how we’re a bunch of Liberals, who don’t believe in the use of torture. And you know… that’s true , to a certain extent. I, like my comrades, vehemently oppose the use of torture as a matter of public policy. The thing is? What we have here, between you and me isn’t a matter of public policy…”
Edward moved to within an inch of the man’s face. “It’s entirely personal.”
“Now… I assume you’ve at least heard of Hank Starling? The brilliant physicist and longest living patient with Atrophic Lateral Sclerosis? Well… You two now have something in common. It seems, in my anger, I have used my power to inflict that disease on you. And no, that’s not something you can do with a simple virus or bacteria – it’s not contagious. But I cured it in him, and now you are experiencing what his life was like. And all of this I did by a sheer act of will. And just WHY did I do this to you, you might ask?
The woman you shot, after she courageously – though unnecessarily – jumped between us in a vain effort to protect me, is a dear and close friend of mine. Right now, she’s upstairs, screaming in pain. Like me, she also can’t die. Unfortunately, the source of our immortality prevents any kind of anesthetic or pain-killer from working. And I know what exactly she’s going through. Being of a smaller stature and slighter build however, not to mention having been shot three times, I estimate that she will continue to suffer for about three days. For THAT… YOU will suffer for three YEARS. One year for every day that you make her cry, you will, at absolute best, remain trapped in this ruined husk that is now your body, after which time there is no force on heaven or earth that can prevent you from dying. I sincerely hope that you are beginning, now, to understand the depths of my cruelty.
What I’m sure you cannot yet appreciate is the extent of my… creativity. So I’m going to offer you a simple choice: You can tell me who you’re working for, and spend the rest of your short-ass miserable life staring at this cement ceiling, feeling no more pain that you do right now… or, if you’d prefer, I can have the good doctor give you a quick and painless death and spare you even that; On the other hand, you can keep quiet, and I can put both my colorful imagination and my Mechanical Engineering degree to work making every single one of your remaining days on this plane of existence noticeably more horrible that the last. And I should mention, in the interest of fairness, that I can grant you the same Wolverine-like level of bodily regeneration that protects me and my companions. Oh, it’ll still run out in three years’ time, but in the meantime, I can take you parsecs beyond the limits of human bodily durability, and yet still deny you that sweet release that death would grant. And let me be perfectly clear: Until I have what I want, I will not LET you die!
Now I’m only going to ask this nicely one last time: What is the name of the person you’re working for?”
After a mighty effort, “fffffffffgggggkkkk ooooooooouuuuuuu…”
Edward laughed. A hollow sound, on the border of sanity. “Fuck me?” He shook his head, scarcely able to believe the audacity of this man, even in this state of utter vulnerability. “Fuck me?!” His now made a fist so tight that his knuckles cracked. “FUCK YOU!” And brought it down will all his might, squarely on the man’s nose, feeling not only cartilage but bone and even teeth give way under the crushing blow.
The man’s previously labored breathing was replaced by a slurping sound similar to that of shallow liquid being sucked through a straw. As he struggled against the blood running down his throat and the obstruction of the breathing tube, the man began to make a sickening, gurgling sound. His head shook slightly, and his shoulder shivered, but that was the extent of the movement his paralysis would allow.
“That sound? That’s blood backing up inside your breathing tube. Some of it, I’m sure, is also ending up in your lungs. And you’re slowly suffocating. I know what that feels like. And I know how much pain you’re in because of it. And I hope some actual fear is starting to register, because what you are feeling right now is as good as it’s going to get, and it’s never going to get this good again!
I’ll have the doctor come in a fix that – clear it out for you. Pray I don’t get sidetracked. It’s amazing how scatterbrained I get when I’m stressed. Until next time, I suggest you consider what few choices you have left a bit more carefully.”
Edward stepped back out into the old, brick corridor. West and the Doctor were still waiting there. Edward motioned for the Doctor.
“Um… You might want to check out your patient in there… something seems to up with his breathing tube.”
West stepped forward, but before could say anything Edward was striding towards the second cell, the door rattling in its tracks as he closed it behind him.
He now stood over his second prisoner. Like the first, he was shackled to the bed, but this one still had the strength to struggle against his bonds. What he was quickly losing however, was his flexibility. Edward could already see the tell-tale grin as the man’s skin was being drawn up tightly around his face, involuntarily revealing his teeth.
“You’re lucky, you know. I took out a lot of my anger on your friend in the other cell, so I’m probably going to go pretty easy on you. I should, however, probably clue you in to your present circumstance. The girl your friend shot is upstairs, crying in pain. She’ll likely be that way for three days. So I’m giving you two both three years to live, spending every single day in bodies that will quickly deteriorate to complete uselessness. I’ve afflicted him with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease, or Henry Starling’s if you’re not a sports fan. You, I’ve given Sclera Derma. Your skin, muscles, soft tissue and eventually organs are slowly hardening. Eventually they will calcify, turning almost as hard as stone. I’m sure that, in and of itself, is quite painful – I can’t imagine how hard it will be the breathe – but on top of that, unless I get what I want, you will be receiving daily visits from me, during which time I will dedicate my considerably imaginative talents to making every remaining day of your short-ass life, more miserable that the last.
Who are you working for?”
“I ain’t tellin’ you a damned thing!”
Edward just smiled. “OK, that’s fine. I’m not even going to hit you, like I did your friend. I’ll be back tomorrow. Sleep well. Oh… I should mention however that the deterioration due to Sclera Derma can be slowed significantly if you spend a lot of time moving about, stretching, exercising, those sorts of things... So, it kind of sucks to be you, seeing as how I’ve had you tightly shackled to that bed. If I were you I’d think it over carefully. After tomorrow there might not be much you can do to retain any of your mobility. Good ni-ight!”
Edward was back out in the hall. The Doctor was wearing a look of severe disapproval. “Hey, Doc, you used to work in this facility, yes?”
“Well, we both know what it was used for, so you can wipe that sanctimonious look of your face, and just do your fucking job, OK? Did you get the patient sorted out?”
“Yes, but I must insist…”
“You must DO as you are FUCKING TOLD! And if you give a damn at all about those two patients of yours, I’d suggest you keep your insistences to yourself, otherwise I’ll simply grant them three years of effective immortality, rendering your services completely unnecessary!”
The Doctor was clearly confused by what that meant, but Edward saw fear in West’s eyes for the first time since he’d know him.
“West, I’ll be back here tomorrow. I have to go get a few things. Meantime, keep this quiet. No one knows where I am, no one know these two are here. Got it?”
“What about Gretchen?” West asked.
Edward hung his head. “I’m doing all of this because of Gretchen,” he answered quietly.
“Do you think she’d want that?” he implored. Edward could not look up to face West. “Eddie, she’d be a million times happier if you’d just go upstairs and… hold her hand for Christ’s sake!”
“I… I can’t. I can’t do that, West. I can’t see her like that. I’m not that… I… I can’t. I’ll be back tomorrow. I’d like you to come as well. I’ll see you then.”
Edward went home that night just long enough to pick up a few things. He didn’t sleep at all. He spent most of the early morning hours just driving around. He anticipated having to make an effort quiet his mind, but to his surprise found his mind to be a complete blank. It took more of an effort to actually THINK of something, and he found that he couldn’t stay on any particular thought for very long. So he just drove.
At six o’clock the next morning he was once again standing outside of the dilapidated building. West had not yet arrived. He knew Gretchen was upstairs. He knew someone would probably be with her. He went downstairs. He slowly opened and closed the first cell door, so as not to wake its occupant. Walking over to the machines that kept him breathing and monitored his heart rate and other vitals, he looked down, pleased to see a single, remaining open outlet in the power strip. The plug he put into was old, the insulation on the chord brittle and cracked in places, held together with electrical tape.
Edward leaned close to the sleeping prisoner, and squeezed down with his index finger.
“VVVVVVVVVZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!” The load whir of an electric drill startled the man awake. His eyes were opened as wide as physically possible, but no other movement betrayed his sense of surprise – his paralysis was now complete.
“You like that?” Edward asked with a nearly maniacal grin. “Really purrs, doesn’t it? This was my grandfather’s drill. Circa late 1940’s, early 1950’s I’d say. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Nowadays, everything’s plastic and rechargeable… And weak. I hate battery powered drills, don’t you? This baby? She’s got TORQUE. Plus I dig how you can see the sparks shooting out the side vents, from that old-style motor. Iron-clad, my man. Yep, they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
Edward held the drill up, examining it, admiring it. He looked back to the ruined man before him, who’s eyes remained as wide as dish-plates. He leaned in close, too close, holding the bit just inches from either of their faces. “Would it relieve you to know that I DON’T plan on drilling holes in you with this? Because it shouldn’t.”
Edward stepped away, bending over to get something off of the floor. He stood up, now holding a three foot long, two-by-four plank of wood. He raised it like a baseball bat, as if he would strike the bedridden man, who was no longer capable of flinching, save for a small twitch in eyes that was not lost on Edward.
“Ha! I’m only kiddin’. Hitting you with this isn’t much different from what I did yesterday. And I’d really hate for all that posturing about my inventiveness to have been for naught.”
Edward sat down and began drilling holes in the wood.
“VVVZZZRRRT! … VVVZZZRRRT! … VVVZZZRRRT!” One after another…
“VVVZZZRRRT! … VVVZZZRRRT! … VVVZZZZZZZZZZRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrt!” Lingering a bit on the last one, before quickly grabbing the chuck and loosening the bit. He walked over and placed it on the webbing between the man’s thumb and forefinger.
“nnnnnnnggg!” he groaned.
“HOT, isn’t it? Isn’t science amazing? All that friction, as two surfaces rub together so fast? Now I could try to get it a lot hotter, but it’s kind of cheap one – just a dollar store, drill bit. Nothing special, really, and it probably would have broken soon, if I didn’t stop. But THIS…” Edward reaching into his pocket and produced a new bit. “THIS, my friend, is a tungsten alloy, cobalt-tipped masonry bit.”
Edward sat down, and started drilling holes into the concrete floor. Just as before, he lingered on the last one, letting go for almost a minute strait, and leaning the drill from side to side as he did so. Finally he pulled it out. Not even bothering with the chuck, he simply tapped the tip of it against the man’s cheek.
“nnnnn!” The cry was a bit higher pitched this time.
“OK… So you see where this is going. What to do, what to do… I could plunge this into one of your eyes? But no… Let’s save those for another day, shall we? Tell me… have you ever heard of sounding?”
No reply from the man.
Edward laughed. “Forgive me. I forgot that you can’t move, or even speak now, save to cry out involuntarily in agonizing pain. Tell you what… If you want to give me an answer, just move your eyes to the left for ‘yes’, and to the right for ‘no.’ Will that work?”
“OK. So, tell me: Have you ever heard of sounding? Do you know what that is?”
“Well, since I don’t want to squick out the audience too badly, I’ll leave them to go and look it up onWikipedia. But just so YOU know what we’re talking about…” Edward bent over and stated to whisper in the man’s ear.
“NNNNNNNGGGH! NNNNNNNN! NNNGH! NNNNNNNGGGGGHH!”
“Oh you don’t want that, huh? You don’t think that the man you’re protecting is worth going through that? Fair enough. You’re ready to tell me who he is, then? Here’s what we’re going to do to: We’re going to spell out his name. I’m going to go through the alphabet, and you’re going to tell me when I get to the next letter, OK?”
Eyes left, desperately.
By the time Edward emerged, West was outside waiting for him. “I have a name. Let’s see if thing number two will corroborate it, and then we can go and check it out ourselves, OK?”
Seeing the ancient drill in his hand and the two-by-four on shoulder, West only stared at him in shock.
“Oh, he’s FINE. You worry too much. I barely had to touch him. So relax, OK?”
Edward stepped into the second cell, and began telling the other man about his Grandfather’s drill.
An hour later, West and Edward were standing outside of the Capitol Building.
“You sure you can get us in?” Edward asked one last time.
“I’m still Secret Service. There are few places I CAN’T get into. Let’s go.”
As they walked over the marble floor, through the ornately pillared halls of power, Edward began to feel the slightest twinge of doubt. “How will we know for sure?”
“You mean, without using your drill?” West rebuked. “As in, ‘How do we know these two guys didn’t just give us some name they agreed upon ahead of time?”
“Yeah.” Edward still could not face him.
West sighed. “Actually… I’m sure we’ll know. The instant he sees you, standing there before him… We’ll know.”
A minute later they were outside of Senator Sheldon Runyon’s office. They open the door without knocking. The Senator looked up from his deck.
And as West had predicted: They knew.
“Hello, Runyon.” Edward said with a vicious sneer.
Shock and panic washed over the Senator. “H-How? Y-You…?” It would not have surprised Edward in the least to learn that the man was wetting himself.
“Your toadies cracked in less than twenty-four hours. At this time yesterday, I was looking down the barrel of a gun. And now? Figuratively, at least?” Edward eyes narrowed, staring holes into him. “YOU are.”
“I… I won’t…”
“Shut the fuck up. You listen to me: I own you now. And if you cross me now, or ever, I will do things to you that will make what happened to your two thugs looks like a picnic lunch.”
“Well, if I still had any doubts, they’re dispelled now. Yes, three. That’s right. Except the third one died in the shootout. He was the driver, if you even care, you diseased little rodent.”
Sheldon Runyon collapsed back in his chair, defeated.
“So… As I said: YOU are now MINE. You will vote as I tell you. You will legislate as I tell you. Your entire political career, all of its machinery and whatever small scraps of talent you possess are now at my disposal. And so help me God, if you ever even look like you’re thinking about doing ANYTHING independently of my express permission and good graces, you will be dead and buried before the thought is fully formed in that warped little skull of yours, do I make myself clear?!”
Without even looking up, Runyon just nodded weakly.
“Good. We’re done here. We’ll be in touch. West? Let’s go.”
As they emerged back into the sun, West asked what should be done about the other two men in custody.
“Kill them immediately. Have the Doctor give them a morphine overdose and then cremate the bodies, so that nothing but ash remains. Have their guns melted down, while you’re at it.”
“I will take care of it.” If there was any reluctance in West’s tone, Edward didn’t notice it.
That night, Edward stood alone by Gretchen’s bedside for the first time since the shooting. She was still a ways away from being fully healed, but appeared to no longer be in as much pain, seeing as how peacefully she slept.
He reached, down and took her hand in his. It was colder than he expected, but the room was as well. As it belonged to a fellow immortal, Edward was taken aback at how soft it felt, how fragile. He wanted to tell her how he had taken care of things, how she was safe now, how no one could hurt her, and how those who did were punished…
And all at once, he was horrified.
Looking down at her, the full atrocity of what he had done slammed down upon him. The torture… the threats… the murder… How could this harmless, timid creature, this person who would bear so many burdens for the sake of others, who had done nothing but give of herself, and her time, and her love… How could she possibly have wanted that?! How could she possibly CONDONE it?
That it was all done for her, how could she ever forgive him?
The white-hot rage that had been driving him was now a distant memory, replaced by feelings of shame and self-loathing. He dropped to his knees was wept openly.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, as the tears rolled down his face and onto the bed sheet. “I’m so sorry… Forgive me. Please… forgive me…”
Her hand tightened around his, ever so slightly.
Her shot upright, eyes wide, staring at her still-sleeping form, horrified at the prospect of facing her. He took off in a flash, running as hard as he could into the night.
“Ed… ward…?” she managed weakly, before drifting back to sleep.