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A skeleton-thin black man writhed atop a stainless-steel table, stretched out by restraints at his wrists and ankles. His mouth gaped open and his chest heaved with agonized screams, yet no sound escaped the room to reach the ears of Konrad Selivanov and Charlie Drenth. Neither could they hear the hiss of the oxy-acetylene blowtorch being drawn across the man’s naked skin, nor smell the odor of the burning flesh. The chamber had been dubbed “the recording studio” by Charlie and, indeed, the description was accurate enough. Selivanov and Drenth sat outside a thick glass window surrounded by blinking lights and chirping machinery, while Charlie watched the performance occurring in the room beyond.

“He won’t last much longer,” Charlie offered.

“Still, he was strong,” Selivanov said. “He’s lasted longer than most.”

“Sir?” Charlie said. “The next time, if it’s a woman, can I do it?”

“We’ll have to see, Charlie,” Selivanov said. “After all, you didn’t behave very responsibly the last time I gave you one of these beasts to play with.”

“It was an accident,” Charlie said. “I said I was sorry.”

“I know,” Selivanov said, “And I’ve forgiven you. Still, you must learn to use some restraint.”

“I didn’t expect she’d be able to run away.”

“Never underestimate their tenacity, Charlie. That cow may not have had any skin left, but she still had her legs.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ah, well. No one is perfect. And she wouldn’t have gotten very far, in any event. We’ll just call it a lesson learned.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The next time, maybe we’ll let you assist in the studio. How would that be?”

“Really?” Charlie beamed. “Thank you, sir!”

A crackle of static filled the air as the wielder of the blowtorch pressed an intercom mounted on the wall.

“Boss?” he spoke into the box.

“Yes?” Selivanov said.

“This one is dead, Boss.”

“Ah. Very good. Show yourself out and send in the janitor, then.” Selivanov reached out and laid his hand on the blinking console, feeling along until he located a large button, pressed it. The machines around him began to hum. “You know, Charlie,” Selivanov said. “I was once an atheist.”

“Yes, sir?”

“It’s true. Back in the days when I considered myself a ’serious’ scientist. What a deluded, foolish man I was, Charlie. How little I truly knew.”

“You’re the most brilliant man I ever met,” Charlie said.

“Ah, but you did not know me then, Charlie.”

A console slid open, slowly ejecting a flat, inch-thick square of clear crystal, transparent as glass, about the size of a book. Embedded within the crystal were numerous wires, like black veins coiled into various arcane symbols. Selivanov lifted it carefully.

“In those days,” Selivanov said. “I would have dubbed the measurement and collection of any non-physical energies, the very idea of it, beyond ludicrous. Yet I now hold in my hand the psychic screams of a dying soul, captured like the recording of a symphony.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll feed it into the loop,” Selivanov said. “And perhaps after lunch we’ll collect another. Soon, Charlie, we should have enough for a little ‘test firing’ of the equipment.”

“Really?” Charlie asked.

“Yes,” Selivanov said. “And I expect that, within a few short weeks, the Engines will be charged to full power. Our journey is almost at an end, Charlie.”

“Can we do the test fire today, sir?” Charlie asked. “Maybe?”

“Charlie, you’re as bad as a child at Christmas.”

“But can we? Do you think?”

“Well, we must collect a few more samples,” Selivanov said. “But that shouldn’t take too long. Perhaps tonight, Charlie.”

Charlie grinned. “Can I push the button?”

Selivanov laughed out loud. “Yes, Charlie,” he said. “You may push the button.”

TheCheezman • March 9, 2020

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