The man in the lab coat was torturing him again.
Demo crouched on the slick white floor, chin digging into his chest, riding out the waves of agony from the blast of sonic energy. It ripped, white-hot, through his nerves. The muscles of his face contracted, forcing his eyelids open, and he could see his stomach muscles cramping under grey skin, squirming like live things.
A scream swelled in his lungs, churning uselessly. Nowhere for it to go. Under the dead, colorless flesh of his nose and cheekbones, the lower half of his face was featureless metal. The scream hammered at the dead-end of his throat, then fizzled out soundlessly through his nostrils.
No mouth to scream through. That was, maybe, worse than any torture they could give him.
The burst stopped, and the pain dissipated, leaking out of his muscles. He could feel the nanobots buzzing through his body, repairing nerves and tissue. Repairing his left eardrum, which had burst.
Demo sucked air through his nose and raised his head to stare at the opposite wall, the translucent barrier sheltering the small, skinny-armed, pot-bellied lab-coat man.
The barrier was two feet, seven inches thick. If not for those last seven inches, Demo could be through it, and pulling the Lab-coat man to pieces in a very short amount of time. He wasn’t sure how he knew that. But he did, and so did Lab-coat man.
He stared at the man through the barrier, unblinking. Lab-coat man’s face was expressionless as his own, pouched eyes and tiny, lipless mouth unwavering. But through that two feet and seven inches, Demo could sense fear.
And he liked that.
Lab-coat man’s voice hissed through a speaker mounted in the corner of the white room. “Demo, you have fifteen more seconds. Pick a color.”
Three smooth, colored metal spheres floated in the middle of the room, just in front of Demo. Red one, green one, white one. If you touched the red one, you got pain, then a short spurt of bliss-inducing drugs. The green one gave a longer spurt of bliss to begin with, then severe pain.
The white one gave the worst pain, but after it was over, the spheres shot up into the ceiling, and Lab-coat man went away. Until the next time.
And if you did nothing, you just got pain and more pain. That’s what had been happening for most of today. At least he thought it was most of today. Demo wasn’t very good with time.
He’d figured out the mechanics of this particular test the last time it had happened, but he hadn’t let on. Once it became apparent that Demo had figured out a test, Lab-coat man started a new one. Plus, Weedly had told him to hang on. Not give them what they wanted right away.
Toy with them, Weedly said.
So instead of touching a ball, Demo just crouched on the floor and stared at Lab-coat man and smelled his fear.
Then more pain.
When it stopped he was on his stomach. The repair process began, and he dragged himself up again.
He was getting tired of this. He wasn’t sure how long it had been, but the pain had happened more than ten times. Surely that was enough toying. Weedly would be happy with that. He would come, and bring Demo the memories.
But first, Demo wanted more fear from Lab-coat man. He’d had tiny whiffs of it, here and there, when he would look up and stare through the glass. But he wanted more. He wanted it to roll through the barrier in waves, he wanted it to engulf him as deep and visceral as the pain he’d been feeling.
Strength seeped back into his body as his nanobots repaired him for the thousandth time. He rocked back on his heels, balanced, and launched himself toward the glass.
Before Lab-coat man’s brain of meat and tissue could react, Demo hit the barrier, limbs spread. The shock of his impact vibrated the glass. In the meat parts of his arms and shoulders, small tears rippled through muscles and tendons, and were just as quickly repaired.
Lab-coat man flinched, and his wrinkled face went taut with terror. There it was—radiating out of his pores, whooshing out of his breath, ringing metallic in the strangled cry that burst from his throat.
Demo stood spread-eagled against the glass, smashing his forehead against the barrier, digging his gaze deep into Lab-coat man’s terrified eyes, and relishing it.
Then it was gone, and the man straightened, his face going flat and expressionless again. “That won’t help you, Demo.” His voice was calm, but Demo could almost see the adrenaline pounding through Lab-coat man’s body, the trembling in his limbs. “I can do this all day. Make your pick. You have fifteen seconds.”
Demo wanted more. But it would have to wait. Time for the test to be over. He drew back from the glass and dropped his hands, and walked backward to the Stimulus spheres. Without shifting his stare from Lab-coat man’s face, he reached out and wrapped his fingers around the white one.
Agony toppled him to the floor, and then his vision went black and he could only wait for it to be over as his body beat itself against the ground and unspent screams shuddered through him.
“That was great,” said Weedly, as the last tremors died in Demo’s limbs.
Demo lay on his stomach, the floor chilling his left cheek. His nostrils felt as if they might tear against the breaths that went shuddering through them.
He couldn’t move his neck yet. He strained his eyes up, toward the voice.
Weedly grinned down at him. “Seriously. You, my friend, are a terror. That performance, though. Tears, man, tears of pride.” He tapped his fingers on his sunglasses.
Strength came back into his limbs, and he heaved himself back up, standing a little shakily. He looked down at Weedly. I hoped you would like that, he said in his mind, the only voice he could make. The voice that only Weedly could hear.
“Improvisation. I love improvisation.” Weedly spun around on his heels and snapped his fingers. “But don’t let it go to your head. I’m still sensei. You’re still my grasshopper.”
I’m your grasshopper.
“I couldn’t have said it any better with my own eloquent mouth.” Weedly smiled and patted Demo on the arm. “You’re going to do great things, my friend, great things.”
Can I please have it now?
“Of course.” Weedly raised a finger. “But you know the drill. Repeat after me.” He dropped the finger down and poked Demo in the chest. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Only a matter of time.
“I will get out of here.”
I will get out.
“I will kill them all.”
Kill them all.
“And then… we are unstoppable, man.” Weedly’s grin flashed white and too big for his face.
We are unstoppable.
“Weedly is the greatest, he is the best, cha cha cha, everybody wishes they were as awesome as Weedly, yeah.”
Cha cha cha.
Weedly nodded. “That’ll do.” He reached out and put a hand on either side of Demo’s head.
And then the memory flooded in.
This was what he lived for, more than Lab-coat man’s fear, more than the idea of escaping. The glimpses of who he’d been, before his mouth was gone, before his body was a patchwork of wires and metal and meat. Before Weedly and Lab-coat man and the tests.
An image danced in front of him, ghostly, something that might vanish if he looked too hard at it. It was the woman.
Her name was Veronica. She was his favorite memory.
She brushed hair away from her face, and her face was excited, glowing. This new place opened just across town, it’s supposed to look like one of those restaurants from fifty years ago and they make pizza, real pizza. Let’s go down and get some.
He could hear his own voice then, the way it used to sound, almost feel it echoing from the place his mouth used to be. Chuckling words. It’s almost midnight, honey. You have to get some sleep, for the baby. And he could feel it, a phantom hand that belonged to him but didn’t belong to him, reaching out to rest on a swollen belly.
The baby will be fine! She came close, and he could feel her laugh against his cheek. Come on, Faber. The baby wants pizza just as much as I do. Let’s go.
And then the memory was gone, and so was Weedly. Demo stood in the center of the white room, alone.
It was a different kind of pain, that always came after Weedly brought the memories. It was deep and tearing, and somewhere the nanobots couldn’t reach. He didn’t know why it happened. It just did, and he sunk to his knees and put his forehead on the ground, and water leaked out of his eyes and dripped on the white floor. And the sound that churned, trapped, in his lungs, wasn’t a scream, it was something low and raw and tired.
When it was over, Demo crawled to the corner of the room and sat with his back against the wall and shut his eyes, and went through all the memories Weedly had given him so far, starting with the first and ending with the newest one, the one with the pizza.
And then he did it again, and again, until Lab-coat man came back and the tests started over.
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