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Bzzzzzz. Errrrrrr. Ooooooh—pop. “—and that’s when I kissed Jeanine.”
Bernard’s jaw dropped, creaking from disuse. “Lucky!”
“You know what they say, Berny.” Florence glanced in the reflective glass of their table, his square face and completely white eyes looking back at him. “Some men are born with it.”
Berny dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. His other jerked out, grabbing his frothy water and downing it in a single gulp, “So when’s your next date?”
“Frankly that’s none of your business.” Florence straightened his back and turned to the side, sticking his legs straight out before planting them solidly on the ground. “It’s time you got a girl, my friend,” he continued, standing up with a sudden movement.
Berny simply rolled his pure white eyes and took another sip of his water. The cup had refilled itself. He regarded the now full glass with admiration. “God’s good, ain’t he?”
“He wouldn’t have made Man if he didn't care about us,” Florence remarked. He checked the time on his watch, eye brows shooting up. “Speaking of which, are you going to our church today?”
His friend got to his feet in the same manner. “No, I’m heading to the one on 1st Street.” He shrugged. “Not that it matters. The Truth is the same no matter where you go.”
“Amen,” said Florence.
“Amen,” said the butler who had served them.
“Amen,” said the other people at the cafe.
Berny’s lips retracted revealing his perfect white teeth. “Amen.” The two left the cafe with sharp, quick steps, each heading their separate ways. The way to Florence’s church was marked by row after row of shops all selling water. The little town was bustling with these “liquid lounges,” and although it didn’t truly matter which one a person drank at, each served the same thick, brown liquid. Each shop had its own subtly nuanced atmosphere to separate it from the others. He had fond memories of some of those places, laughing and sharing drinks with friends and neighbors. He waved to one of the shopkeepers who wore an apron embroidered with the saying, “No matter where you are.” Florence almost said Amen out loud, but only laughed at himself.
The church was only a few blocks away, but he was early and took a longer route around the little town. It was a nice day, although a few clouds in the distance threatened to brew into something big. Florence’s frame shuddered at the thought of rain. The scriptures very specifically said to avoid the rain. “The rain would make you old and squeaky,” the Old Book said and no one wanted to be old and squeaky. The other reason he took the longer way around was to swing by Jeanine’s house.
Like the others in the town, her house was a perfect square and utterly spotless. Cube windows were set into the upper floors and a bright red door was set into the bottom center of the house. A flight of shallow steps marched up to it and Florence ascended the stairs, one foot in front of the other. He raised his arm, rotating at the elbow 90 degrees, then proceeded to rap his knuckles on her door. The measured sound of her steps quickly came to open it and he was then looking into the purest eyes in the world. Like the house, they were spotless, a beautiful white all the way around. He loved those eyes.
Stretching, her face peeled away to form a smile, “Why, hello there stranger.” She raised her arms, then folded them at the elbows, crossing them. “What brings a gentlemen like you to a lady’s house like this?”
With a jolted twist, Florence gave a flourish with his hat. “One fine lady, my lady.” His arm shot up to a level position as he offered it to her. She accepted it, her arm curling around his like a vice grip.
“You certainly now how to treat a girl.”
He leaned over and pecked her on the cheek and she laughed.
She chatted away as they walked; her clattering voice was one of the things he loved about her. He did love her a lot. Ever since they’d met at that lounge on 5th Street, he knew she was one for him. Her perfect steps, tinkling laugh, and of course those eyes. Oh those beautiful, white eyes. Once she looked at him, he knew he was lost. So much so the little box in his pocket felt like it was burning a hole in it. As they turned the sharp corner to the church, he couldn’t resist it any longer.
“Jeanine, there’s something I need to ask you.” Her head rotated a right angle to look at him, that same stretched smile on her face, “The Truth is—”
“—the same no matter where you are,” she finished, smile growing wider.
He returned the grin. “Of course, that’s exactly my point. And I was thinking, well, seeing as it's the same everywhere, would it be any different if you experienced it with me?”
Her eyebrow rose an inch. “What are you saying, Florence?”
“I’m saying,” he stopped, turning, lowering, staying on one knee, “that I’d like you to marry me so we can experience the Truth together.”
“Oh Florence!” she squealed, a high pitched sound. “Of course I will!” He almost kissed her right then and there, but they were nearly to the church. He was content, however, with holding her hand tightly as the two entered through the large, double doors that opened onto the congregation.
“Man Florence, Woman Jeanine,” Reverend Martin called from the pulpit, “I am so glad you’re here!”
Florence squeezed Jeanine's hand. “No place we’d rather be, Martin.”
They took their normal seats and Martin began with the customary blessing. “Men and Women of God, we are here Today to celebrate the Truth given to us by Heaven. We were created in the image of God to bear his blessings to this world. To tend and care for it because that is our calling; to spread the Truth to all places where it already eagerly awaits.”
And the people said, “Amen.”
Part way through the service, a gentle pitter-patter started on the roof. Afterwards, the rain was in full and Florence was worried they might not be able to leave the church. Thankfully, Reverend Marvin had an extra umbrella.
As they stepped out of the church, a bolt of blue shot across the sky, “Look Florence!” Jeanine shouted, “A finger of God.” The two stood for a moment watching the streaking lights crack and criss-cross over the dark clouds, echoing with peals of thunder. “He’s applauding us,” she remarked as he walked her back to her house, “we’re doing His will. Just like he asked.” He melted into a smile as she talked. Could life get any better? “I can’t wait to tell Mara and Susan. Oh and have you told Bernard yet?”
“Not yet,” Florance’s arm wrapped around her waist, “I wanted it to be a complete surprise, he--”
Suddenly, an ear splitting noise: BOOM! The air was singed with hot, white light. Florence found himself floating in the air, the ground above him. No, no that wasn’t right. He was upside down, the ground was below him. Gravity quickly corrected his mistake, pounding him into the sidewalk and sliding him several feet. After a moment, he sat up, dazed. His arm snapped out to help get him to his feet. He fell over. What was happening? Confused, he examined his left arm only to find it hung unnaturally limp by his side.
Using his right arm instead of his left, he got to his feet and thought for the first time about Jeanine. He stood in one place, his head scanning around for her. There was her white dress. It lay on the sidewalk a few feet from him. He limped over to her. His left leg didn’t seem to be working well either. “Jeanine,” he called. She didn’t respond. Her body lay perfectly still, the rain pooling in the folds of her dress. He knelt down beside her, his knees already creaking from the exposure to the rain. With his working hand, he nudged her, “Jeanine, Je--” but then he saw her head.
There was red. Red water everywhere. Women and Men weren’t red on the inside. What was this? But there was red. Red and grey. The grey had little tendrils sticking out of green chip-like pieces. Some of the tendrils connected to something that was even more wrong than the rest of the scene. Connected to the grey and green were what looked like pink bits. Something about the pink was wrong. They didn’t look rigid. Florence picked one up. They were soft, with folds and creases in their sides. He was at a total loss. What were these things? They weren’t white, nothing about this scene was white. There was red, gray, green, and pink. No white. Man was supposed to be white on the inside.
He put the pink thing down and surveyed the whole scene. He began to notice that some of the pieces, no matter their color, were tinged with black at their edges. A little black here, a little black there. Florence turned to look behind him at the spot he and Jeanine had been standing moments before. An ashen ring encircled the place they had just stood. Just then, another bolt of blue arched across the sky accompanied by a crescendo of thunder. The lightning. The lightning had done this. Jeanine had been touched by a finger of God and it had blown her head off.
Florence stood looking down at Jeanine. No, this isn’t Jeanine, he thought, and yet it was. What was and had always been Jeanine was lying in front of him. But she wasn’t moving, she wasn’t laughing, she wasn’t being anymore and that was the part that he had loved about her. There was a word for that, for ceasing to be, but he couldn’t recall it. The concept was so alien that he didn’t know if he had ever known it. His stance was rigid and perfectly still; his umbrella had been thrown free when the lightning struck and he was now drenched head to foot causing him to freeze up. A part of him didn’t care.
Others began to gather around, forming a circle around Jeanine’s accident. Was that the right word? God controlled everything so this must have happened by His doing. But then, why would God want to strike Jeanine? Florence had always considered her a godly woman, upright, intelligent, righteous, so why this lashing out from Heaven? Reverend Martin entered the circle of onlookers, his egg white eyes a mixture of worry and... something else. Perhaps he could tell Florence why this had happened.
“Rvrnd,” Florence said, doing his best to speak past his increasingly frozen jaw. But Martin didn’t seem to hear him.
“What has happened here,” Martin boldy motioned to Jeanine laying before him, “is from Above. We must do as the Old Book says.” He hesitated for a second. “We must get her water, as much water as she will take, then she will be healed!”
Others in the circle nodded in understanding, water, that life giving brown-blackish liquid, would help Jeanine. Two men moved forward and picked up Jeanine’s body while another collected the pink-green-gray bits near where her head had been.
“We need a place were she can rest.” Martin surveyed the group. “Do we have any volunteers, man or woman?”
\It was hard and it creaked something awful, but despite the rain, Florence raised his hand.
“Ah yes, Man Florence,” Martin said with a smile, “the betrothed to Woman Jeanine. Your house will do.”
As the group bearing Jeanine began to move towards his home, someone brought a cup of water for Florence. It was Bernard. The thick liquid flowed through his body, alleviating the effects of the rain on him. He quickly joined Bernard under his umbrella and thanked him. Together, the two with jerking steps followed the crowd back to Florence’s house, his mind turning the situation over in his head, trying to make sense of it. His house was a small cube that sat on the outlying part of the town, right on the border to the Forever Lands. No one was allowed to go to the Forever Lands. The Old Book prohibited it, saying unruly people lived outside the town. People whose eyes were wrong and who moved unnaturally smooth lived out there. The thought was disturbing, but there was the Hand of God to protect them. If someone tried to go past the edge of town, a strong, invisible force would push them back. The Hand of God would push them back within the town border, keeping them all safe from the smooth people.
The group arrived at his cube home and he let them in. Inside everything was square, right angles and sharp corners, geometric and perfect just like the Old Book said it should be. They set Jeanine in one of the white chairs and put the pink-green-gray bits in a bowl next to her. Then they all stood around. Florence got a pitcher of water from an outlet in the wall and made to give it to her only to realize she had no mouth anymore. How was she supposed to drink it? His head swiveled at an angle to Martin, looking for help. The Reverend bowed his head and said a prayer. Nothing happened. “Perhaps,” Bernard spoke up, “she merely needs to have contact with the water.” That sounded like a good idea so Florence took one of Jeanine’s soft white hands and placed it in the amber water. Still, nothing happened.
“It will take time,” Reverend Martin said. “We should let her rest. The Old Book says that we all must rest.” Everyone agreed and as they began to leave, Reverend Martin took precise steps to Florence and laid a cold hand on his shoulder. “Florence,” he said, “I want you to watch over her. Guard her and protect her, keep her safe while she resides within your home.”
“I will,” Florence said and the Reverend left. He was now alone with Jeanine.
For a long time, he just sat there opposite her. Watching, waiting, expecting her at any moment to move, for her to stand up and greet him like she had that morning. She would sit up and tell him she was fine, that she still loved him. What would that be like? Her lips were gone so how would she speak? Indeed, her whole head was no longer there. He had trouble conceiving what she would be like in this state. How would she talk to him? The hours passed and he began to worry. She hadn’t budged from the chair and the water her hand rested in didn’t stir. She was as still as...as… The word eluded him.
But she would certainly come back. She must. What was the alternative? For her to just sit there forever? But she would be alive, so why wouldn’t she move? Was it possible to be something other alive? That couldn’t be, though; the Old Book said they would live forever if they followed its commands. But if that was so, then only one possibility remained, a horrible one. So horrifying was it that he stood up and paced. Jeanine was a godly woman, one might have said perfect. She had done no wrong. Both she and Florence had followed the Right Ways as best as possible. Or had they? Had they misstepped somewhere along the way? But if so, why had she been struck and not him, too? Was she an example to the others, a sign saying “Do not be like this,” for the people? But then why her and not him? Why had He taken her? Florence loved her. He would have gladly given himself in her stead.
A most singular thought struck him. It shook him and he was forced to the floor in front of his betrothed: Did God even care? Did it matter to Him who lived and who stopped living? But He said he did in the Old Book. Did that mean He had lied? Or had He simply promised things he couldn’t keep? What was happening?
There were too many thoughts. Florence bowed his head at 30 degree angle, placing it in his rigid hands. None of this made any sense. Jeanine hadn’t deserved this, or if she somehow had, then he deserved it, too. Yet here he was and she was not. The Old Book didn’t speak about not living. It never said this would ever happen. A chilling idea crept into his head; if Jeanine was not here, then where was she? Reverend Martin had read from the Old Book every day and had never said anything about this or what happened afterwards. Jeanine couldn’t be just—just—just not! She had to have gone somewhere. But if the Old Book said nothing of it, then wherever she had gone, it didn’t know.
Perching himself on his knees, bending them at 90 degrees, Florence prayed. He asked for answers. He begged for understanding and knowledge of Jeanine, where she had gone. What had become of her and what did this all mean? Such was his rigid fervor that he kneeled there for hours until exhaustion overwhelmed him. Too fatigued to get water to keep going, he fell asleep.
It was night when he awoke to the sound. Struggling to straighten himself due to his fatigue, Florence eventually sat up. His vision was fuzzy and it took a moment to focus his lenses. He looked around the room, confused at his surroundings until he realized he had collapsed on the floor in the living room instead of his bedroom. He drank the tan water sitting on the chair while he tried to remember everything. Only once he drank it did it all come back to him. He stood up, his back a line as he searched the room for her. Jeanine was gone. Then he heard it. A scrape, scrape, scrape from outside.
Jerking his legs, he approached the window. It was dark, the moon having waned and the stars poor substitutes. Yet, even in the dim light, something was wrong. Out before him, the stretch of sky where the horizon lay was gone. Instead, the sky beyond the Hand of God had cracked. Florence squinted at it; no it wasn’t cracked, it was lined like a set of bricks. What he was seeing were the gaps between the blocks when they were stacked on top of each other. The whole sky looked like a mural painted onto a wall where near the bottom it had begun to crumble. No, not crumble, it had been removed. The blocks seemed to have been pulled away, revealing a corridor of void stretching beyond.
Out of the black breach stretched a long, gray appendage that slinked along the ground. Was this the Hand of God? Florence just stared at it, frozen as if soaked in rain all over again. The thing didn’t resemble a hand at all. It was long, slender with chinked gaps at equal intervals along its length. This couldn’t be God. It was too unnatural, worming its way along the ground in a smooth fashion, leaving what looked like trails through the grass where something had been dragged. He followed the streaks as they wound their way toward the Hand only to see that it was dragging something behind it, something in white.
“Jeanine!” Florence shouted, getting jolted out of his shock. He rushed out of the house as fast as his limping steps would carry him toward the ominous arm from beyond. It had almost pulled Jeanine all the way into the blackness behind the wall. Florence lunged out toward her, managing to grab hold of her arm, and tried to pull her back, but the Hand was too strong. Dragging him along with her, the Hand slowly pulled them toward the black breach. Overcome with fear, Florence pulled as hard as he could. The Hand stopped on the threshold to the opening, struggling as Florence pulled with everything he had.
But his strength couldn’t last and with a final yank, the Hand jerked both he and Jeanine across the threshold into the darkness. Florence tripped as the Hand pulled him forward, but he didn’t let go of Jeanine’s arm. He fell on his face, scraping it as the Hand dragged both he and Jeanine further into the dark. Florence managed to turn his head around to look at the breach. Dim light poured into the space, but it quickly faded as the blocks he had seen earlier began rearranging themselves to fill the gap. As he watched, the view of his house, the sky, the town all became obscured as the hole in the world closed up, sealing both he, Jeanine, and the Hand in total darkness.
Almost as if sensing it, the Hand began moving faster. Florence struggled to keep his grip on Jeanine as the hand pulled her along with increasing speed. The ground was rough and bumpy, but in an odd way Florence couldn’t describe. He didn’t get much time to think on it as the Hand whipped him around. His fingers began to loosen around Jeanine’s arm, his arm sliding down until he was only grabbing her by her hand. He tried to grab hold of her with his other arm, but the Hand’s constant movement made it impossible.
“I won’t let you go.” He was tired, so tired, but he kept his hand clasped to hers. “I won’t let you go. I won’t—” Just then, the Hand made a sharp turn in the opposite direction which flung both Florence and Jeanine out in a sharp motion like a whip being cracked. The sudden change in direction caused Florence’s fingers to slip. He reached out, scrambling to take her hand again, but it was too dark and he couldn’t see her anymore. There wasn’t even a sound, not so much as scrape as the Hand disappeared with the woman he loved.
“No!” he shouted. His voice rang out into the darkness. He tried as best he could with his limp to run, but what was the point? This place was empty, vacuous. There was nothing here, wherever here was. That thought disturbed him. If that was the Hand of God, then is this where God lives? Florence shuddered, that couldn’t be right. This place was black and God had created things white, white to be pure, and this was the exact opposite. And what about that thing that had taken Jeanine? Certainly that wasn’t from God. But then from who? Or what?
Florence slumped to the ground. All of this was too much to take in. His mind felt like it was going to burst, his head spinning. He put a hand to the ground to steady himself. Should he pray? The last time he had done that, he’d asked for answers about what was happening to Jeanine. He hadn’t gotten answers. He was no more sure of what was happening than before. This was the exact opposite of what he had wanted. Was God trying to teach him something? No, that wasn’t right. God wouldn’t take Jeanine just to try to tell Florence something. God was a god of justice, compassion, mercy, and blessings. Florence looked around, searching for any spot of light. This place was none of those things. God did not dwell here.
And yet, was it not the Hand of God that had brought them to this place? Florence froze at the thought. Reverand Martin had said the Hand was divine, that it was there to protect them from venturing into the Forever Lands. But Florance had seen the Hand, that disturbing, writhering, metalic worm that had stolen the woman he loved. Could he truly believe that that was from God? No, it wasn’t possible. But if the Hand was not God, what was it? Martin claimed it was there to protected them from the Smooth People, was that true? It hadn’t protected Jeanine, it had taken her, taken them both to this dark place, a place without God. A haunting question wormed into his mind at that; if God had not made this place, then what had?
His question was answered by a loud clang from behind him. Florence turned to behold a doorway from which came a brilliant white light. Figures clothed in shades of pearl came running out of the door toward him. These people would help. These were God’s people, dressed in pure white from a place of illumination. Divinity hung around them as they reached Florence and gingerly picked him up, carrying him back to the door, to safety. Yet something was off. Florence was held in between two men as they walked back. The way their feet fell, their steps didn’t seem right. There was no jerk to their gait, no sudden movements. Their legs bent with a marked fluidity, their feet rolling off the ground with each step. They moved as if in one continuous motion, flowing from stance to stance. But no, these couldn’t be the Smooth People. They were dressed in white, they held a source of light in the darkness where Florence had just been. Surely, they were from God.
The two men carried Florence into the bright doorway. Beyond, Florence saw a long hallway with double doors set at the end. The two men didn’t slow as they approached the opposite end of passage and the double doors opened automatically for them. The door’s closed and, to Florence’s surprise, the room began going down. What was this thing? Where were they taking him? Florence turned to ask one of his rescuers and froze. The man’s face was like that of any other Florence had seen: a mouth, nose, ears, chin. But those eyes, those eyes. Instead of pure, unblemished white as they were supposed to be, the man’s eyes were criss-crossed with strange, disturbing veins. They pulsed red, like they were full of liquid and Florence’s mind immediately jumped back to all that red when Jeanine had been struck. But the red veins weren’t what disturbed him the most. Each of the red threads ran towards the center of the eye were there was a hole. A deep, black spot right in the center of the man’s cornea, like a pit that was sucking in the world around it.
The room stopped and the doors opened. The two men—no, not men—these creatures pulled him from the moving room. Florence, in a flash of panic, fought them, trying to get back into the room that had brought them. He would not go with these people. He would not be taken by these things. The two beings wrapped their arms around him and Florence struggled against their grip. He stomped on one of their feet and the grip around that side lessened. I can hurt them, Florence thought. Suddenly there was a chance, an opportunity to escape, where to didn’t matter, simply that it was away from these creatures.
One of the beings was still holding him by an arm, pinning it behind Florence’s back. Florence put a foot behind the leg of his captor and kicked out, sweeping the creature’s feet out from under him. He let go of Florence’s arm as he fell, but the first creature had gotten over the pain in his foot and was charging him. Florence rushed back to the moving room, grabbed one of the doors, and forcibly tried to close it. A soft hand managed to slip through, keeping the doors open. Florence pushed harder, but the creature was too strong. Getting an idea, Florence whipped the door open again. The creature had all its weight resting on it and suddenly fell forward, off balance. The being hit the ground and Florence kicked him in the stomach. He tried to shove the pained creature out of the moving room but was tackled by the second being and thrown to the floor. The two wrestled for several minutes.
There was shouting. While fighting the second creature, Florence cast a look down the hall only to see with horror that even more of the creatures were coming. Florence tried to pull himself away from the second being, but in a moment his companions were on him, several pressing him to the ground. Florence struggled against the combined weight of his captors, the creatures grunting as they struggled to keep him down. His arm was pinned under his body. If he could get it free, he might have a chance. He wriggled under the myriad hands holding him, trying desperately to extricate his good hand. He didn’t get the chance. He had gotten his elbow out when a firm hand took hold of his neck. The creature’s grip wasn’t very strong. Instead, it felt like he was searching for something. Then to Florence's shock he felt a sickening click issue from behind his head and then the world went black.
Light flooded Florence’s vison. He blinked against the brightness and tried to sit up. His arms pulled against something, but when he tried to see what it was, he found his head was strapped down. In fact, his entire body had been bound to a table. The whole room was stark white. Florence fought the restraints, but it seemed his range of motion was limited. He struggled anyway, desperately attempting to free himself. Scrunching his shoulders, he tried to get his head out of its restraints. He tried shaking it and twisting it. It moved freely within the head-band, but he couldn’t extricate himself. Where was he? As he considered the question, he realized he might not like the answer. Whoever these things were, he wanted to get as far away from them as possible. But what about Jeanine? She must still be down here somewhere. He couldn’t simply leave her to the hands of these monsters, but what could he do?
He fought his bindings as hard and as long as he could, but they were simply too tight. Fatigued from his prolonged struggle, he lay on the table, resting his head back. It was then he caught a glimpse of something to his right. It was another table like his own, Another person lay on it. The man wasn’t bound, but he was completely naked and incredibly pale. He looked to be asleep but his eyes were open, listless white, and staring straight ahead.
Florence turned away from the strange man. Somehow he knew the other person wasn’t alive. Just like Jeanine, he thought. He turned his head away but was confronted by another table, this time with a woman on it. She was also completely still. Naked and ashen white. Just beyond her, Florence could make out another table. And another. And another. Rows and rows of them extending beyond where he could see, atop each one rested a lifeless body. They’re all gone, Florence realized in shock, they’re all like Jeanine.
“They aren’t dead, if that’s what you're thinking,” a voice said.
Florence jerked his gaze to the foot of his own table. One of the creatures stood there, the holes in his eyes unmoving. Florence tried to push himself away, but the bonds were too strong and his strength was exhausted. He needed water, he needed the life it brought. He need to get out.
“Technically they never were,” the creature said and Flornece thought he could see faint amusement on its face. The creature shook its head, “The philosophy of it all is a little beyond me, if I’m honest. Alive and dead are surprisingly subjective when talking about you lot.” Florence was too terrified to speak. The creature turned to him and eerily smiled. “The name’s Dr. Cheng, but I don’t suppose it does much good for you to know that, considering we’ll just erase your memory in a few minutes.”
“What…” Florence had trouble putting his thoughts together. It was all just too much. “Your eyes…” was all he managed to say.
“My eyes?” the creature, Dr. Cheng, raised an eyebrow, “What do you—oh yes, I see.” He chuckled softly at something Florence didn’t understand. “I suppose this isn’t the time for light hearted puns.” He regarded Florence for a moment and for the first time, Florence notice a ring of color around the black holes in his eyes.
Dr. Cheng walked around the table and stood next to Florence. His expression seemed almost sad. “We aren’t going to hurt you, if that’s what you're worried about. Though again, can we even apply that to your kind.”
“My kind?” Florence stammered. Even restrained as he was, he tried to shift away from the creature.
“Fascimodels,” Dr. Cheng replied casually. He stopped, however, at seeing Florence’s expression. “A fascimodel is an android with a will of its own. Actually, that depends on who you talk to.”
“Android.” Florence felt the unusual word as he spoke, “But… I’m not an android.”
Dr. Cheng regarded Florence for a moment. He looked almost pitiful, like a man trying to explain something to little boy who didn’t quite understand, “Florence, what do you think you are?”
“A man, created by God. Pure and made to spread the Truth.” Even as he said it, the words seemed to ring empty. What with the events of the past few hours, he wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.
Dr. Cheng sighed, then reached under the table. Florence heard something click and his bindings unfastened. “I probably shouldn’t.” He waved for Florence to join him as he walked toward a door Florence hadn’t noticed before. On shaky legs, Florence trailed the creature. Oddly, his leg didn’t limp anymore. Had they fixed it? How? Why?
The passage Dr. Cheng led them down was nothing like the sterile white room they had left. It was dark, only lit by small lights embedded in the floor and ceiling. The effect was that of a tunnel, far underground which Florence guessed, based on the moving room from earlier, wasn’t too far from the truth. They passed several other creatures on the way, each regarding him with disturbing, soft faces and pitted eyes.
“What are you?” Florence asked, his gaze following the last creature they passed.
“Scientists mostly,” Dr. Cheng replied. “Although I suspect that isn’t what you are really asking.” Another door opened and Florence found himself on a long walkway overlooking a large, well-lit work area. Rows of tables, desks, stations, all cluttered with machine parts, filled the room in all directions. Weaving through the mess were other creatures, some wearing long white coats, while others had on a rough blue material with numerous pockets. But what caught Florence’s attention were what the creatures were working on.
Bodies. Dozens and dozens, perhaps hundreds of them were strewn around the room. Some rested on work benches, others stood upright, naked and pale white, while some of the creatures… Florence took a step back, utter horror on his face. The creatures were taking the people apart. He watched, unnerved, as they removed heads, arms, legs, chunks of the people’s backs and stomachs.
“Fascimodels,” Dr. Cheng said casually, as if the disturbing scene below wasn’t even happening. “A combination of machine and man. Actually, it's more all machine with bits of people to fill in the gabs.” Florence didn’t respond. He couldn’t. All he could do was watch the creatures below pull his fellow man apart. The sight had undone something in his mind. A fundamental part of reality had crumbled away at the unnerving, horrid scene. The workers removed the skin from one of the bodies. Red, red everywhere. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t real, it was all so wrong!
Florence stumbled away from the railing. Where was the white? Man was supposed to be white inside! But there it was: red. Oh, so much red! Crimson, maroon, vermillion, scarlet all over them. “Man is supposed to be pure,” Florence’s voice was barely a whisper, “Not red; white.” He turned toward Dr. Cheng. The creature, this monster gave him a look that was almost compassionate. “What did you do to them?”
“Do?” Dr. Cheng took a step toward Florence, but he backed away. “Florence, you were always like this. All of you were.”
“That’s a lie!” Florence nearly shouted. Below, several workers looked up at the disturbance. “This isn’t how God made Man?”
At that Dr. Cheng stopped, then… laughed.
“God?” the creature said. He walked forward again and Florence tried to back up, but found himself against a wall. “Florence if there is one thing I can assure, it’s that God has nothing to do with this.”
“He made us,” Florence stammered, the doctor looming over him. “We’re to spread the Truth.”
“It was a good way to give you purpose.” Dr. Cheng’s face fell, “But it was a lie, Florence. One I opposed having told to your kind. It was too cruel, in my opinion; build up your world around something so fictitious.”
“God is real,” Florence said, the firmness in his voice surprising him.
“Oh, that’s not what I mean,” Dr. Cheng said, with a wave of his hand “No, what I meant is that God did not make you.” He rested a comforting hand on Florence’s shoulder. “We did.”
Florence shuddered. He didn’t believe it. These abominations didn’t make his people, they couldn’t have. And yet, the grotesque and disconcerting scene below seemed to substantiate the doctor’s claim. The doctor went back to stand by the railing again, as if keeping vigil over the gruesome work floor. “We are the men, Florence,” the doctor said idly, “You were created as entertainment, an illusory person. A novel creation that one day someone thought to make a bunch of you and see what happened.”
It couldn’t all be a lie. Bernard wasn’t a lie, Reverand Martin wasn’t a lie, and Jeanine…
“But I love her,” Florence said. “I love Jeanine.”
“I know you think you do,” Dr. Cheng replied, shaking his head, “But it isn’t real, Florence. Nothing of anything you’ve experienced is. Your emotions, your thoughts, your dreams.” He waved out to the numerous workmen assembling the cadavers, “In the end, your mind is simply wishful thinking.”
“No,” Florence shouted, “I don’t believe you!”
Dr. Cheng regarded him for a moment, “You don’t have to.” Then he turned and walked away.
A crisp sense of clearity seemed to snap inside Florence. These creatures had taken him, Jeanine, his world, and smashed it to a million pieces. It was all their fault. It was all their fault!
Florence charged the doctor. The creature didn’t have time to react. Florence slammed into him at a run, the impact sending them over the railing into the crowded floor below. People scattered as the two slammed into the ground. Dazed, but unrelenting, Florence began to beat the doctor over and over. Someone yelled for help, and other hands appeared from behind him, trying to pull him away from the creature. Florence turned and fought them too. All of them, these monsters had destroyed the woman he loved. They had torn his world apart. One by one the creatures fell, succumbing to Florence’s surprisingly harsh blows. Whatever they had made him out of, it was strong and it was hard. The creatures crumbled before his fists, one after another after another. He would stop them, stop them all, he’d—
One of them jumped on his back, pulling him to the ground. Florence elbowed him in the side causing him to let go, but another grabbed his arm and yanked it to the floor. Then another joined him and another and another and yet still more. Florence tried to pry his limbs free from the multitude of hands, but there were too many. They held him to ground with a firm grip even as he struggled against them. A crowd of the creatures gathered around him as he lay there pinned. The group parted however as another man, Dr. Cheng, came forward. His face was streaked with red, parts of his skin discolored.
Dr. Cheng stooped down so that he was almost touching Florence’s face. “I’m sorry, I truly am.”
“Are you going to end me, too? The way Jeanine ended?” Florence spat up at the doctor.
Dr. Cheng just sighed. “No, we can’t afford to waste you.”
“Then,” Florence said through clenched teeth, “I’ll come back. I won’t forget you. I won’t forget this!”
The doctor smiled, “That’s the thing. You already have.” Then, before Florence could protest, the doctor reached out and grabbed Florence’s neck. There was a soft click. And just like that, the world went black.
Bzzzzzz. Errrrrrr. Ooooooh—pop. “—and that’s when I kissed Charlotte.”
Bernard’s jaw dropped, oiled, and without a sound, “Lucky!”
“You know what they say, Berny.” Florence glanced in the reflective glass of their table, his square face and completely white eyes looking back at him. “Some men are born with it.”
Berny dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. His other jerked out, grabbing his frothy water and downing it in a single gulp. “So when’s your next date?”
“Frankly, that’s none of your business.” Florence straightened his back and turned to the side, sticking his legs straight out before planting them solidly on the ground. “It’s time you got a girl, my friend,” he continued, standing up with a sudden movement.
Berny simply rolled his pure white eyes and took another sip of his water. The cup had refilled itself. He regarded the now full glass with admiration. “God’s good, ain’t he?”
“He wouldn’t have made Man if he didn't care about us.”