Imaginary Numbers

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Darkness

It was early afternoon. The professor had been making calls all day. Currently there was a moment of respite, and the two of them were sitting on a patio, drinking coffee. Of course, on the table there was also a jug of lemon water, which had been more appealing to Vivienne than the hot caffeine. They were waiting for their appointment at the MRI lab.

The professor was distracted. His mind was in a faraway place, solving a problem with one of his credit cards. It seemed that it was cancelled a few days ago. When he had tried using it for dinner last night, he was forced to use another card, and he promptly received a call from MasterCard, alerting him to his own attempted purchase. “But it’s me!” he said. “I am Charles William Borgiac.” The clerk told him that he had cancelled that particular card and had them reissue it to his work address. The professor had no recollection of speaking to the credit card company, and claimed that a mistake had been made; yet a few hours ago, they had played the conversation to him over the phone. On the other end of the line was a voice that sounded almost identical to his. Convinced that only Marius could impersonate him so flawlessly, he tried unsuccessfully to call him. Marius, however, was nowhere to be found.

The uncertainty of the situation lay heavy on the professor’s mind. As far as he knew, there is no one at the lab and his research has effectively been put on hold. It bothered him that he could not get a hold of Marius, who had always been his liaison in the past. But when he looked at the girl sitting in front of him, he felt happy. He determined to enjoy the moment, to simply be her guide through the world until she finds her feet. To live, like Marius always told him, in the moment.

Vivienne was watching a family sitting on the edge of the fountain in the square. The little boy, perhaps six or seven years old, was balanced on the lip, dangling his arm into the water.

“William, do you think my family is looking for me?”

“Most certainly.”

“Well, maybe I should be looking for them too.”

“My dear,” the professor placed his cappuccino down onto the porcelain saucer, rattling the tiny spoon with the resonant ceramics, “while you were in the hospital, I alerted interpol, hoping that someone would file a missing person’s report. They have my number, but I shall call them again tomorrow.”

She looked at the mother lifting the boy off the fountain and into her arms.

“Also,” he continued, “your fall was covered fairly extensively on television, so hopefully someone that knows you might have seen it.”

“I think I just miss my family,” she said resignedly. From the square, a fluttering of pigeons erupted off the ground in a feathered cloud of cooing, and in the empty space that remained, the boy could be seen swinging off both of his parents’ hands. He was giggling, and took off in an unstable sprint when he landed.

“I know how you must feel.” It was a half-hearted attempt to make her feel better, and perhaps to mask his pity. He saw her watch the family with hungry eyes. She smiled at the boy when he passed near them.

“We should go,” he said and left some money on the table. Before she stood up, she filled her glass again with water and drank it quickly. Then, looking skyward, she was awestruck by the rosé tint of dusk setting behind the cathedral spire of the old town.

“It’s so beautiful.” There was nothing she could do but stare at the orange and golden hues and the watercolour bleed of pink that stained the deep blue sky. The professor grabbed her elbow and guided her slowly towards the fountain. While she was amazed by the sunset, he opened her hand and placed a coin into her palm.

“Vivienne,” he said and looked her in the eye, “this fountain is a wishing fountain. People come here to make wishes. You have to throw this coin into the water and maybe your wish will come true.”

“Oh, wonderful!” She almost jumpsd up and down from delight. “I have just the wish!”

“Very well, but don’t tell me.”

“Why not?”

“If you tell me it might not come true.”

“So it’s a secret wish.”

“Yes, exactly.” She closed her eyes and bit her bottom lip. The professor could not look away. Her visage was bathed in twilight and from the expression forming on her face, he could tell that she was wishing for her family. Then she tossed the coin with a languid arc into the water beneath the marble dolphins. They both smile when the coin made a loud plopping sound.

“William,” she said, turning to hold the lapels of his suit, “what about you? Don’t you have a secret wish too?” He thought about it for a minute, then dug another coin out of his pocket.

“In fact, my dear, I do have a secret wish. I’ve been making the same one every time I throw a coin into a fountain. Every time for the past ten years.” Then he threw his coin, skipping it over the water so that it lands near the opposite side.

_________________________

In the professor’s laboratory, the setting sun was shining through the glass wall, illuminating a grotesque form of a baboon, lying prostrate on the centre table. The details were all there, including the animal’s long, dexterous fingers, its swollen muzzle filled with sharp fangs, and its short tail. The clay creature was sandy-hued, and in its eye sockets, tiny pools of water reflect the overhead bulbs as a series of white lines leading to a vanishing point outside the building, somewhere towards Lake Geneva.

Marius entered with a stretcher. He had made the baboon from a childhood memory.

The ape was large and heavy. It was a dead weight he needed to move into the pressure chamber. As he lifted various parts of the animal onto the stretcher, repairing whatever body part took damage from the procedure, he relived the memory that guided him to this particular form.

When he was eight years old, his parents had loaded him and his brother, Pieter into the back seat of their car. It was filled with blankets and pillows, and Marius had pretended not to wake up when his father laid him out, ready for the long road trip to the sea. It was still dark outside, slightly cold—well, cold for Africa—and the entire world was completely silent. Even the usual buzzing of cicadas seemed to be missing, leaving only the noise of his breathing.

This was one of his favourite memories. It was a happy memory amidst family troubles, unpredictable crimes against people he loved, and a regime change that would inspire both fear and pride in the nation at the tip of the continent.

On the way into Kwazulu-Natal, where sugar cane grows on the side of the road, and banana trees form a waterproof canopy over the rainforest, they stopped. Marius’ father never wanted to stop the car in a public place, afraid that someone would hijack it, leaving them to fend for themselves in a hostile environment. However, this time he stopped. They pulled into a lookout point—a rocky precipice overlooking a ribbon-thin waterfall that spilled into a tiny lake surrounded by dense jungle.

His mother gave him and his brother some candies, which they tucked into their back pockets. The picnic area was nearly empty and there they ate sandwiches and biltong, a spiced jerky. On the rocks near the waterfall, there was a number of baboons lounging around. The mother was the centre of the attention, highest up on the rock. She was surrounded by other smaller females and some tiny baby monkeys: her troop. Somehow there is just enough similarity between the two primate species that Marius and his brother could get close to the babies. The little hairy creatures were just as interested in the humans, and so after eating, the boys imitated baboons, and the baboons the boys. Marius ate a candy, unrolling it from its plastic, which made a crinkling sound that was absolutely unfamiliar to the animals. He popped it into his mouth and the baby baboons shrieked at the thought of sugary fruit.

Within a second, a sneaky ape had gone around and pickpocketed a candy from the back pocket of his jeans.

“Hey boet, he got my sweetie!” Marius yelled, warning his brother, who then took out the last remaining treat from his pocket, lest it too be stolen.

The baboon baby grabbed onto the wrapper and pulled it from Pieter’s hand. Piet, however, would not let go of his last candy so easily, and pulled back, vice-gripped onto the other end of the wrapper. Between the two fists—one hairy, one not—the lozenge spun around, twisted up in the plastic. The two primates started a tug-of-war, surrounded by screaming, cheering, and jeering. Until the candy popped out of the wrapper and bounced off the precipice, followed by a number of baboons.

It had been this memory that inspired him to make the clay baboon.

Finally, he had the entire construct curled into a fetal position on top of the stretcher. Even Marius with his powerful physique found the homunculus heavy and awkward to move into the pressure chamber between the coils of the electromagnet. When it was done he set the controls, and walked into the professor’s office to deal with the meerkat, and to make some tea.

_________________________

At the MRI lab, a technician handed her a hospital robe and told her to change in a small booth with a blue curtain. Vivienne removed her clothes and placed them in a bin. She left on her underwear, but removed her bra. The man had been adamant that she do it because the magnets would attract the metal underwire. The professor had completely forgotten to buy her underwear, but luckily the nuns had given her a six pack of generic, multicoloured panties arranged in a pastel rainbow. Today she was wearing avocado green, which matched the pale turquoise hue of the hospital garb. When she was finished, the technician walked her to a small room, filled with a massive machine. There was a single, large window from which the technician could monitor the procedure. The professor was in the waiting room, handling a volley of disgruntled phone calls.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” the technician said in flawless English. “If you start feeling claustrophobic, close your eyes. Imagine a safe place.”

“Oh! I have a tree I can go to!” She smiled and inhaled as she closed her eyes to return even briefly to her scared place inside the heart of nature.

The man in the lab coat directed her to lie down on a table, and he pinned her head into place with some soft foam pillows.

“Please try not to move at all. There will be a lot of noise.”

“Okay.” He pressed a button and the table slowly slid into the tube of the machine, a tunnel of nuclear powered magnets, which would align the molecules of her body.

_________________________

Marius was sitting on the professor’s desk. The phone rang, but he was unconcerned. The tiny meerkat had started to grow fur, and it looked much more solid. On the wall-mounted television screen, he could see the feed from the pressure chamber. It was set to the widest field with no magnification. A counter in the bottom right shows the current pressure level, and gauge determined the polarization. Marius had checked the exact procedure he used to animate the meerkat, and excitement rose up from his stomach into his chest. He wished there was music, or popcorn, something to do. He stretched his neck, rolling it from side-to-side, and the meerkat ran up his arm to sit on his shoulder.

On the screen, the surface of the clay ape seemed to bubble. A reaction had started which would be irrepressible: elements were binding in a cosmic dance, the matrix of clay was not enough to contain the expanding organelles, but the pressure was holding the form together.

Outside the wall of windows, the sun had set and the city lights created a ring of illumination around the black lake. There was no moon that night.

Inside the tiny vault of the pressure chamber, the soil, rocks, and metals struggled for dominance, while Marius had his head tilted towards the ceiling, he closed his eyes. He was imagining the press interviewing him, Dr. Borgiac, the inventor of new life. He was fantasizing about giving a press conference. It was something he has had to do a number of times in the past all under the guise of Dr. William Borgiac, and he could even predict the questions they would ask.

From somewhere down the hall, there was the sound of a small explosion and then the clangor of metal rings rolling on the floor. His eyes shot open and he glared at the television. On the screen, the surface of the baboon’s skin was moving as if worms were burrowing beneath it. Looking at it for more than a second gave him a headache, so he opened the door and walked towards the sound to investigate, meerkat still on his shoulder.

_________________________

The massive machine powered up. At first there was just a humming as electricity coursed through the MRI. Then there was a series of insect-like clicks. Vivienne already had her eyes closed. Although she was trying very hard to return down the ten steps to the wooden door where her sanctuary was, she could not do it. Her thoughts were pulled back to reality. She fleetingly wondered whether the very laws of the universe had changed since her fall. She thought about her ideal family, and considered the professor’s troubles, then she reminded herself to buy some more underwear. Next, she hoped that the results of the MRI would show a positive prognosis.

The clicking increased in volume and became more constant. With her eyes closed, she could picture the magnets spinning around her, and the fine hair on her arms stood on end. Her skin tickled. Her body felt lighter—translucent. Inside her chest, her heart pounded. It felt like it was going to explode inside her. The air became dense around her. Something was wrong.

_________________________

When Marius entered the lab, there was steam venting from the pressure chamber. The inside wall was covered with a condensed vapour; in fact, it was the very same liquid plasma at the heart of the primordial soup from which all life crawled millions of years ago. On the floor, a heated metallic ring lay in a puddle of water, steam emanating off it. He was stunned, unable to decide what to do. He closed his eyes to help him think, but only recalled the sensation of having his sweetie stolen by a monkey. What course of action is there. What would the professor do?

There was another popping sound as a rivet flew out of the sealed chamber door, rocketing across the room into the exterior glass wall. The meerkat squealed—its first vocalization—and it leapt off his shoulder onto the floor to flee the immanent disaster.

Marius glared at it, and thought “This is no disaster. Not yet anyway.” Then he noticed a small spiderweb of cracks in the window.

With the damage already done, he decided not to turn the machine off, and instead upped the pressure to maintain the differential. The baboon’s form was bubbling, forming a hideous earthy froth. In order to form some kind of seal, he covered the holes in the chamber with Gagnon’s lab coat, which always hung on the back of the door. The coat soaked up the moisture and held things together. Wide-eyed, Marius abandoned the terrified meerkat, to run down the hallway to look for more lab coats in the neighbouring rooms. As he exited, he heard a deep gargling sound from the chamber, something neither natural, nor mechanical.

_________________________

Inside the powerful magnets, Vivienne opened her eyes. She was wrapped in a plastic wall, which seemed closer than before. She wondered whether maybe she was suffering from claustrophobia, because the negative space seemed to be disappearing fast. The machine was struggling, spinning and creaking. “Perhaps,” she thought, “the empty space is being filled with the terrible noise.” But she felt that it was not just the room, but her own body that was affected.

Behind the window, the technician watched her brain scan being compiled slice-by-slice. He was concerned because almost every part lit up. He had never seen anything like it, and some of the other gauges were showing higher than normal readings. The machine seemed to be malfunctioning. Perhaps she was freaking out and that was the reason why her brain functioned in such an unusual way. He pressed the emergency power off, so that they could try again, but nothing happened. The machine just kept on going. Now he became very concerned, so he looked through the window and saw Vivienne’s bare feet lifting off the table.

Inside the tube, she felt porous, as if her body was being pulled apart, rarified and adrift in the magnetic field. She had goosebumps and an invisible force tugged at her skin, levitating her into the centre of the rings. The soft cushions that held her head in place fell away from the side of her face as she rose up. The curved wall directly in front of her moved closer, and the magnets sped up. The repetitive clicking became a buzz, and inside the tiny room, there was the crackling of raw electricity arcing from the machine’s engine.

The technician panicked. The power was still increasing, and the spin transfer became unstable, as if the water in her body interfered with the magnetic field, causing it to reverse polarity every few seconds. He desperately wanted to enter the room to shut off the power manually, but fear set in. Quickly the technician removed his watch, his belt, and emptied his pockets of anything metallic. He would have to go in and brave the powerful nuclear magnetic field inside the room.

Vivienne’s consciousness itself was being spin dried. She felt disoriented, as if she was simultaneously in the machine and outside the very fabric of reality. There was another spark of blue lighting inside the room and the lights started to flicker all over the hospital.

_________________________

Sprinting back to the lab, Marius heard a throbbing and a high-pitched screeching coming out of the room. He barged in, carrying a load of white coats, and found himself immersed in a steamy white mist. The meerkat fled under his legs into the hallway, and from the chamber where the baboon was foaming a minute earlier there was a pounding on the plexiglass. Marius felt along the wall for the emergency vent button, and when he slammed it with his hand, a fan started pumping the mist out.

The banging increased. Through the dissipating fog, Marius could make out the doors of the pressure chamber, and they burst outward, flying off the hinges, and slid across the tiled floor of the lab—a scraping sound in the opaque whiteness. A shape emerged, long, grotesque fingers wrapped over the edge of the pressure chamber, which was still spewing steam down over the gnarled form. Marius was dumbfounded, unable to move. He stared at the powerful arms of the monkey, cratered by popping bubbles, and disfigured by the inconsistent pressure.

It stepped out, turned its long, melting muzzle towards him and cried out a distorted scream somewhere between an howl and a roar. Through the cloud, it made eye contract with him, and Marius realised that unlike two primate children exploring their curious genetic neighbours, this time he was face-to-face with a powerful creature—a half elemental frankenstein monster. The exhaust fan vibrated, drawing in enough steam that only the corners of the room and the broken pressure chamber was still obscured. The baboon, jumped at Marius, knocking him back onto the wall. His powerful hands pushed the snapping jaws away from his face. Droplets of steamy soil sprayed forth onto his cheek, and the construct was tearing through his shirt with its claws.

_________________________

The door to the MRI lab burst open and the brave technician made a run for the emergency stop. The lights dimmed and between flickers of blackness, he saw Vivienne’s legs, her entire body spun like a top in the rotating magnetic field. He felt hot and dizzy as he passed through the room, and when he pounded the emergency off switch, nothing happened. The lights in the room went black. Behind the window, he saw the computer and the lights flicker and fade into a solid darkness, but the MRI machine remained on, and Vivienne was still floating at its core, spinning with tremendous speed. Lightning leapt off the machine and danced around her skin. The technician felt a ghastly shiver, an inherent animal-like fear of death. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Crawling into the farthest corner, beneath the viewing window, he could see her skin glowing, the only constant between the flashes of rogue energy.

Vivienne could not move her body, she could not even perceive her surroundings. She saw only light and a pale blue glow, which reminded her of the water in the wishing fountain. Through the flares of electricity being drawn into her body from the machine, from the hospital, from the power grid itself, she felt her consciousness travel along the lines to every place at once. She was no longer inside her own body.

The lights in the hospital flickered and died. The nurses panicked, rushing through emergency procedures as the medical equipment pumping life into patients started to fail. Outside the hospital, the city of Rouen reverted to a medieval ambience as restaurants, stores, and houses light candles to ward off the moonless night.

_________________________

Locked in a struggle for dominance, Marius faced, perhaps for the first time in his life, an opponent who could match his strength. He released his right hand from the creature’s throat and threw a right hook, knocking its face to the side. Part of the baboon’s skin peeled off with the impact, revealing a row of sharp canines. Desperately, Marius pushed his forearm on the monkey’s esophagus, freeing his left hand. The monkey’s claws drew blood from his sides, and it too started to strike at him with rocklike fists.

Marius launched a punch into the animal’s side, knocking it off him with a powerful blow. The baboon’s hind legs tore through fabric and skin at his hips. And Marius pushed himself off the wall, his cortex memory prevailed, putting his body into the motions for a long distance rugby kick, which hit the creature in its side, knocking it backwards overturning the steel table in the centre. The clay baboon bounced back, sliding on the wet floor, all four paws on the ground, leaving streaks of mud on the tile. It roared ferociously, but Marius’ imposing form, tattered and bloody, towered over it. Then with a smooth jumping arc, it crashed through the window, shattering the night itself and ran into the city of Geneva.

_________________________

Vivienne returned to her body, after having astrally travelled along the power grid. Her mind had been searching far afield, not unlike the homing instinct of a bird. Having run out of copper wire, and the nuclear power plant servicing eastern France drained, blacking out an enormous swath of Europe, she was sucked back into her body.

The MRI machine died down, dropping her body roughly onto the table. Everything was silent.

Within a few minutes the hospital’s emergency generator started up with a roar and the hospital’s emergency lights flickered on. Vivienne moaned, and the technician in shock, had already wet his pants. She crawled out of the tube, and stood in the room, radiating a blue glow. To the man, still cowering in the corner, she looked like a ghost, emerging out of a disaster. The hospital gown had burned away, falling off her form like a tattered remnant of clothing, and she stood naked and blue—a visible image of perfection, a deity charged with a thousand megawatts.

“Are you okay?” she asked the technician, who instantly started sobbing once spoken to.

_________________________

The baboon ran through the streets, jumping on cars, crunching their hoods and roofs under its immense weight. Pedestrians screamed at the sight of such a monstrosity. And the monkey, fearless and uncaring, destroyed mailboxes, motorcycles, and telephone poles in a waxing rage. It ran into an intersection, where cars swerved to avoid it, colliding with buildings and each other. A woman walking her dog crossed its path, and the canine barked, defending its master. The baboon pounced, ripping apart the dog in a splatter of blood and fur. The woman fled hysterically in the opposite direction. In its wake, it left the ringing sounds car alarms, sirens, terrified screaming, and the barking of dogs.

The baboon sprinted forwards leaving a path of destruction, until it reached a gap in the urban landscape. It sprinted through a small park, sinking heavily into the grass. When it crossed the sandlot playground, the ape paused to examine its long hands. The sand was being absorbed into its porous skin. The ape grew in size, screaming a terrible echoing wail that turned heads all across the city.

A bit farther, the baboon leapt over concrete barriers, heading to the linear lines that dissect the city. To its left was a tunnel, and across the gap a wooded area. It jumped down, and made for the wooded area. Lights shone out of the tunnel, illuminating the umber form knuckle-running over the train tracks. Despite the monkey’s supernatural speed, it didn’t make it before the train emerged from the tunnel, crashing into it. The heavy baboon exploded in an eruption of clay, and rocks, and ceramics, some of which got dragged under the train, derailing it. The long, speeding mass of iron flips off the tracks, arching up and smashing against the cement wall of the tunnel. Screams of the innocent barely penetrated the screeching and scraping of metal on concrete, and the disastrous impact of the massive train slamming onto its side; carts separate, tossed into the air, and its human cargo rattled around relentlessly inside.

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