Here sits Dr. Charles Fleischman, famed and despised inventor transformed into forgotten old man, VR headset on, wrapped in the warped projection of a beach, the waves perfectly curling into the sand. He can hear the frenzied screech of famished seagulls, the soft, nearly inaudible crunching of foot onto smooth untrodden sand.
Yet no footprints ever appear, no seaweed tumbles in and out, no man-o-war surfs in to dry on on the tide's edge. Charles’s breathing becomes slow and labored, so he presses a button on the remote.
The scene dissolves into a lush forest, Northern California redwoods each being swallowed by a mouth of ferns. The scene is lit by glowing bands of sunlight striking the ground at a contrived angle. A fat, clean squirrel shimmies up a trunk, the scratching of his claws making a pleasing, hollow noise. Charles feels that this is the sound of confident movement; of a creature intrinsically connected to the environment in which he has been thrust. The squirrel stops and stares at Charles, his nose twitching, and licks his paws. Charles returns the stare for a moment before pressing the button.
The forest fades into a city park in the spring, new leaves hanging on trees, a lingering dampness moistening the mind, smearing a numb sense of apathy and lust into all thoughts. Children run and throw a Frisbee, catching it every time, while happy families picnic in shady spots all over the inviting lawn. A woman is reading a book, sitting on a park bench. She looks up at Charles and smiles.
The woman is glistening. Charles mentally moves towards her, his body bobbing with a slightly unnatural gait. The woman’s book becomes a clump of gelatin spreading between her fingers. She gurgles a small laugh and Charles believes he laughs, too. The laughter gains intensity, until a shadow clouds his reverie, seeping in from all sides. It is provocatively shaped and penetrates the frame from every direction. It overcomes the park, the bench, even the air, pushing the woman and Charles towards a center point, concentrating all sounds to only those existing between them.
The laughter is replaced by a dripping sigh. The woman frowns and begins to slide down a dim, lengthening hallway, pulled or pushed by the shadow's crushing force. She holds out her hands to Charles as she is moved into a larger room surrounded by doors. With a cough, they burst open at once, bluish-green light glowing from each. Clones of the woman slither out from every door, gather the woman up and carry her towards a central door at the end of the room. A massive inhalation pulls the door inward and sucks all of the women inside. It slams shut after the last is taken.
Charles runs after them and, reaching the end of the hall, stops. The door is marked “Storage Bay 271.” He pushes his shoulder into the door and it gives way.
The clones are lined up in rows, hundreds deep. He calls out to them.
Robotic arms descend from the ceiling and grip each of the women. Their limbs are methodically removed and replaced with other limbs. Arms are replaced with legs, legs with arms. Some clones receive human legs, some equine, while others acquire the arms of gorillas, the wings of giant prehistoric birds, and yet, the women’s heads remain the same in this mechanized dance. And on each head, he sees the same thing: a disappointed, disinterested and glossy gaze. Charles retreats from the room and tries to run away, but he is tripped by a pack of cat-like creatures, humming and purring and gnashing at each other. Charles feels them crawling into his pant legs, pushing and yelping as they work their way up, up, up his legs. They manage to all converge on his crotch, and Charles arches his back in pain.
A familiar man appears above him, his face occluded in darkness. He stoops over Charles and smiles.
“Quit fucking around,” he says, blood flowing freely from his eyeless sockets.
The remote falls and bounces off of the floor, clicking off the VR and rousing Charles from his delusion.
“Nurse! NURSE!” He screams.
Charles rips off the headset, revealing wide, haunted eyes.
A nurse enters the room, and turns on the lights.
“Dr. Fleshman,” she softly says, bending down to pick up the headset. “What’s the matter? Dream again?”
His mouth relaxes and closes; his eyes die down into repose.
“We can stop those, you know. No reason to dream if it upsets you.”
“I’m not upset. I would like some whiskey.”
“You know we don’t have any whiskey, Doctor,” the nurse says with a smile, gently slapping Charles on the shoulder. Her dark, long hair gleams even under the pasty fluorescent light offered by the room. Her porcelain skin, ruby, full lips and short, slim nose are in keeping with the current fashion. Her beauty is lost on the man in the photograph, for he only longs to see the other one, the one she was, the one who will appear again should the young nurse decide to bear children.
“How about something to calm you?”
“No, thank you. I’m okay now. I would like to return to my room.”
The nurse pats his shoulder again and nods.
“Okay. I’ll send Elian in to assist you.”
Charles Fleishman waits in a wheelchair, staring at the plastic screen which divides his part of the room. He counts the seams between its panels and imagines taking apart the entire thing, unwrapping it and laying out the leaves on the ground. He sees a boat can be constructed from them: a small, light boat that will fit just one. A single leaf from the screen will serve as a sail, while the others will make up the body of the craft.
I’m already launching out to sea, he thinks.
“Okay, Doc, let’s roll,” Elian casually announces as he enters the room. Elian’s good looks are not as fashionable as the nurse's, recalling a mode from around a decade ago. His skin shows signs of aging, but not significant enough for Elian to swamp his finances quite yet. Charles anticipates Elian will hold out for another few years before seeking an upgrade.
“Indeed, let us roll. I have some final work I need to attend to.”
Elian wheels the chair with the doctor down the hallway of the facility. As they move through the corridors, the flourescent lights flicker, like a camera flashing over and over again, and each photograph captures some generic pastiche of life in the convalescent home, and the nurses all have dark, raven hair, gleaming prettily under the flood of that bad lighting.