By Pain Possessed
the itch on his front leg as his projection whirled through the A-12 sector of
the galaxy. That leg always itched just in that spot when he was about to be
lucky. There! His body jolted as a titillation of pain rewarded his cast toward
one of the sun's planets and the thrill quiver of a capture made slime ooze
between his scales.
Ponce rose from the casting chair and shook his head to clear it of the images of boiling suns against the blackness of space and the blacker emptiness of the vast psychic spaces where no life emanations bloomed for plucking. His three legs carried him quickly into the control room where Corporal Krill excitedly rotated his body weight between his three legs as he looked at the monitor. Ponce could smell Krill's thrill slime.
"What is it?" Ponce asked.
"Lucky, lucky, Ponce. You've done it. Look at what you've caught!"
The monitor showed three small, brown, fuzzy creatures in the capture room. Their heads were like fuzz balls. Little ears stuck out. They had long slender arms and legs and a longer tail that flickered behind them. The creatures huddled together, soft and fragile. Ponce ached to clasp one in his talons and feel the joy of its pain. A year of prospecting in this barren sector with nothing to show for it. And only one Miglopod a month per crew member, a meager ration from the High Principal's own supply.
"Just imagine," Krill was saying. "Could be a planet full of the things."
"What's that rug behind them?" Ponce asked.
"Rug?" Krill looked closer at the monitor. "I don't know." He reached his claw over to click the monitor switch to show the full view of the capture room.
"Eject!" Ponce screamed.
Krill stabbed at the button on the panel then remembered it was useless.
"Malfunctioning. I told you the Captain had forbidden use of the casting chair until it was repaired. But you said your lucky leg was itching."
They looked again at the monitor, the smell of their thrill slime now covered with the smell of their fear. The monster was sleeping. Its body occupied the full length of the capture room. Its toes almost touched one wall and its head the opposite. Its shoulders were brushing the ceiling. The three smaller creatures huddled together backward into its stomach.
"If that thing wakes up before the automatic return cycle trips..." Krill let the sentence hang.
"How long is the cycle set for?" Ponce asked, and wiped a few drops of nervous slime from the ridge of bone above his eyes.
"Why so long?"
"So there's time to get the High Principal down here if he wants to conduct the pain test himself. Any danger before that, the control officer just hits the eject button," Krill said and stabbed again at the useless switch.
The three small creatures started playing among themselves, rolling over each other, biting and grabbing one another's tails.
Krill switched on the speaker and they heard the deep, long breaths of the monster as it slept. The chattering of its young grew louder as their play became rougher.
"My luck will hold. If we can get them all out of here before Mommy wakes up and goes berserk, we can go back to the capture point, focus the beam narrower, and just bring back the little ones."
"Ponce! I told you the malfunction is making the computer erase the coordinates after it cycles them back. You were supposed to take the sun sightings while you were in the casting chair."
Ponce and Krill's scales were slick with the yellow slime of worry as the hour ended and the mother continued to sleep. Then they watched in horror as the tail of one of the young creatures flicked into the huge nostril of its mother.
The speaker belched a snort. Ponce and Krill watched two gigantic eyes flick open. The giant's head moved and bumped the ceiling, rocking the adjoining control room. A roar boomed through the speaker and through the walls. Arms and legs pushed up at the ceiling The whole ship shuddered as the ceiling and floor buckled against the crushing force. Alarm bells rang. The mother exerted more force and ceiling seams ripped open, metal screamed. Small lizard creatures fell from gaps in the ceiling.
"Great Gloth! The Miglopod breeding room is just overhead!' screamed Krill.
The door of the casting room burst open. Captain Garr stomped in.
"What are you two..." Captain Garr opened his jaw to ask as the hour ended and the creatures were hurled into space, back along the line from which they had been plucked.
Pools of yellow slime collected at the feet of Ponce and Krill.
Francis Hanover winced as he watched his boss fiddle with the long shard of glass, pushing the point against his palm as he spoke:
"Your work record continues to decline, Francis. Why is that?"
"I've asked to be sent back to claims, Mr. O'Brien. Investigations just aren't my, uh, forte. Working with paper is," Francis answered. Great God! The man was actually piercing his own skin the glass shard. Was he mad? A small drop of blood appeared in the man's palm and Francis felt faint.
"No openings in clerical, Francis. Need you in investigations. Why would you want to sit in the office all day? Investigations gets you outside. See the real thing. Ferret out those fakers who say they've been hurt and are just trying to rob the insurance company," his boss said, and stopped to suck the drop of blood away.
Francis looked around the office to remove his eyes from the vampirish scene. But on the walls were photos of spectacular wrecks that had cost the insurance company thousands of dollars. Francis's boss was a crack investigator. He enjoyed spying on people to see if the injuries from wrecks were really as bad as they pretended. Was the wheelchair just for public consumption, the cane an unnecessary crutch, the limp false? Francis hadn't minded those investigations so much, but a few months ago the company received a consultancy contract with the National Insurance Institute to study crash trauma. So they listened to the police scanners, went racing to wrecks, took pictures, observed bodies—dead bodies, and studied the twisted cages of metal and shattered glass. It all made Francis sick.
"I'm sorry, sir, I just don't enjoy pain."
"Enjoy pain? No one's asking you to enjoy pain. Take the professional's detached view. I remember how I acquired this shard of glass. A freak case. Windshields don't shatter in this way, but this one did. Long daggers of glass and this one entered the throat of the driver. At the morgue, I was allowed to pull it out of his neck. Manufacturing fault. We sued them. You need to acquire a detached, scientific view toward this whole business. Here," Mr. O'Brien said, "give me your hand," and grabbed it.
Francis tried to pull away, but the strength of his boss's grip was like a vice. Good God, he was bringing the glass shard closer to the captive hand.
"Make yourself experience a little pain, Francis. Brings detachment."
"No, Mr. O'Brien, really, please." Francis started to shake. He could see the joy in his boss's eyes as he brought the sharp edge of the glass against Francis's thumb.
Francis started to panic. He wanted to scream but knew he'd be fired. The shard was almost touching his thumb. His boss's grip tightened. It hurt. Pain! Oh God! Pain shivered through Francis's body as the glass shard cut a small line on the thumb and blood oozed out.
"There now, that's not so bad, is it?" Mr. O'Brien said. It was the last comment Francis heard. He had fainted.
The next morning, as Francis brushed his teeth, he worried about the incident. When Francis had come to, he had found himself on the floor with Mr. O'Brien waving smelling salts under his nose. Francis had seen the look of glee on the man's face.
"You'll find this a good experience for you, Francis," Mr. O'Brien had said as he helped Francis to the door, his arm squeezed around Francis's thin shoulders. "I want you to come back to see me tomorrow. We'll talk again."
Francis stepped nude into the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and inspected his legs. There was a small, yellow-green spot on his right leg where he had bumped the corner of his desk. He touched it lightly and found he had to press fairly hard before feeling the beginning of the terrible tingle of hurt. He was almost swamped by the memory of smashing his thigh against the corner of his desk when he went rushing to join the photographer on another crash call. He took a few deep breaths, and the feeling passed.
Francis stood up, flushed the toilet, and held the bulb of a long thermometer under the shower stream. The temperature was acceptable. He stepped into the cascade. Grabbing a bar of soap, he started the lather up and then whistled air through his teeth into his shaking mouth as the stab of pain in his thumb hit him. Stupid! He'd taken the bandage off the glass-shard cut thinking a night of open air while sleeping would promote healing. But the fine, sharp cut was still open and how the soap stung the wound! Tears started in his eyes. He thrust the thumb under the shower stream to wash off the soap. He looked closely at the cut and could see its thin line. Why had God created such a fragile protective layer for the delicate nerves below? The memory of that burning blast of pain as the glass suddenly sliced through his skin into the tender nerve structure below made him feel faint. How helpless he had been in O'Brien's grip. And what would his boss do today? He looked down at his hand and realized he must be fainting because he could see his hand, his body, fading...
The High Principal reached his gray-green claw into the bowl of Miglopods, picked one up, locked onto its simple nervous system, and let a shudder of joy climb up his spine as he crushed his nails through the squirming body and felt that special tingle when his sharpened talons met in the center of the wriggling body as it died.
Through his fluttering eyelids, the High Principal saw Captain Garr enter the room and lick his jaw as he looked at the speared Miglopod on the High Principal's claw.
"Yes," the High Principal said as he dropped the corpse of the Miglopod back into the bowl where its life juices, oozing from the talon holes, would panic the others.
"My Liege, I report a capture."
"Something promising, I trust." The High Principal held the glass bowl closer to his ear hole and listened to the Miglopods squealing in panic. "I remember the last time you wasted my time with that dull worm thing from...wherever."
Garr's voice came quiet and controlled, but the High Principal could smell the excitement in the tiny red drops of his underling's slime.
"This one, my Liege, is sentient."
The High Principal set the bowl down and looked directly into the officer's red eyes.
"Sentient? From what sector?"
"Sector 6A, my Liege."
"Sector 6A. Amazing. That's really off the beaten track. Why were we casting there?"
The High Principal was instantly alert. Now he could also smell the worry slime and knew something was amiss.
"My Liege, I am to blame. Ponce was casting..."
"Ponce! I gave orders that Ponce was never again..."
"I know, my Liege, but he's been so lucky a Quibble lately. And it's been so long since, I thought..."
"Quibble! If we wanted to staff our expeditions with lucky Quibble players, we'd recruit from the Quibble tournaments on Gloth. The point, quick, you idiot, tell me, is the capture point secure?"
"Secure, my Liege. I admit it is amazing. Although Ponce is notoriously lucky, he's also notoriously sloppy."
"That is something you needn't remind me of. Ponce almost wrecks this ship and kills us all by disobeying your order not to use the casting chair when the eject button is malfunctioning. Then, because of his disregard for safety, the Miglopod breeding room is destroyed and we are reduced—I am reduced—to only this meager bowlful. And. AND, he failed to secure an important capture point."
"Yes, my Liege, but if he had secured that capture point, then we would have returned home and not captured this sentient creature. Ponce's luck."
The High Principal allowed himself to dream of a glorious return.
"Sentient. The people of Gloth have not been provided with a sentient race for generations. Come forward. A reward for bringing good news: have a Miglopod."
The underling's slime changed to relief.
Captain Garr respectfully approached the High Principal by extending only the forward limb of his three legs and dragged the other two behind him. He had not participated in the joy pain for six months since Ponce's disaster. He reached a claw into the bowl and his body shuddered with anticipation. The eyestalks of the Miglopod swung wildly, its pathetic little jaw flapping open in an attempt to bite Captain Garr's horny claw as the officer locked onto the animal's nervous system and slowly squeezed. He could not keep the drool from dripping off his jaw as he felt the ecstasy of the creature's pain and then the death glory.
Francis Hanover found himself lying unhurt and nude on the floor of a white room made from a material he could not identify illuminated by a light source he could not find. No general alarm of pain rang through his body, so he checked slowed, limb by limb, to assure himself that all was well. Being nude disturbed him. He ran his hand over his skin to dry it and warm the goose bumps away. His mind reached a quick summation. He was either: A) dreaming; B) insane; or C) somewhere alien. He added C because he felt lighter than normal, as if the gravity had changed, although that was a state he had also felt in certain dreams, and, who knew, maybe crazy people felt lighter than normal.
He felt no pain, only the shiver of his cold skin. He vigorously rubbed his limbs to warm them.
Crazy was a definite option. His psychologist had warned him that his fear of pain could make him psychotic. Francis had argued that fear of pain, hatred of pain, avoidance of pain was normal. He had never understood how other people masked their pain. Pain hurt. That was the meaning of pain. Who wanted hurt? Now, that would be crazy.
The psychologist had partially agreed:
"Yes, your algophobia is understandable. Your sensitivity to pain is the greatest I've ever seen on the algesmeter. We don't know why people have different degrees of sensitivity to pain. But when pain hurts as much as yours does, so that our fear even thoughts of pain, then the preoccupation with your fear my occupy your mind totally. Make you psychotic."
Maybe it had. Maybe the worry about Mr. O'Brien had driven him over the line.
He was sure he wasn't dreaming because his worst nightmares were of being strapped in a chair and tortured with ice picks poking into his body. Those nightmares brought him screaming from his sleep, his body soaked in sweat. He wasn't sweating, so he wasn't dreaming. In fact, he had been wet from his shower. If he had gone insane and they had taken him to a hospital, surely they would have dried him off and given him clothing, if only a straightjacket. Dead was an option. At least it didn't hurt. He had always been afraid of dying, but not for the death itself. Dead would not hurt; dying would.
C) Alien planet? Sure, he scoffed.
The High Principal smelled the excitement of the crew members' slime in the control room. If this capture panned out, each would return home set in luxury and joy for life. The present generation of people on Gloth felt cheated by the Old Ones, who, instead of rationing the sentient population found in their time, had squandered those lives in an orgy of joy.
How intense that joy must have been! To have in your talons a creature who felt pain, understood pain, who could anticipate the fear of pain!
Was Ponce smirking? Did he feel vindicated?
The High Principal carried the bowl in which the remaining five Miglopods wriggled. It had been too long for the crew to go without experiencing the joy of pain. But the High Principal refused to return home without some sort of find. And since he'd forbidden Ponce the casting chair, there hadn't been a single nibble.
He looked at the chair. The High Principal himself took his turn there, locked his emotional system into the machine and went whirling into near regions of the universe. The experts told you to look for certain groupings of stars, certain emanations, special colors, but it was really done by feel and luck. You cast out and usually brought back nothing, rarely a creature.
There is was. Biped. Two tentacles. Two vision bulbs. The skin white, soft. How easily my talons would pierce it, the High Principal thought and had to control himself from quivering.
"Hook me up for the test."
Francis Hanover threw open his mouth to let out a scream that filled the cell. The flash of pain was a blinding, paralyzing fire devastating his nerves. He flopped to the floor when it hit and his muscles stiffened in contraction. Never in his worst fears, imaginations, nor nightmares had he thought pain could be this intense. And it continued, unabated. The clawing at each nerve ending drove his panicked conscious mind running, screaming, begging for unconsciousness...
The High Principal woke and found himself slumped in his chair. His body was red, covered with slime. Its joy smell flooded his smell holes. His mouth was dry. Drool oozed down his jaw. He had trouble focusing. Strength was drained from his limbs. His heart was palpitating. "So that is satiation," he thought. "No wonder the Old Ones could not control their desire for this joy. Who could deny themselves the ultimate experience?"
Why wasn't he being attended to? Then the High Principal smelled the other joy smells in the room and turned his head.
The crew members were lying on the floor, their death smells mixed with the joy smell. Against standing orders they had linked with him for the test and died for their misconduct. The joy had killed them. The High Principal realized, he, too, had been close to death, but the diet of Miglopods had filled much of his need. He crew had been starved, their tolerances low.
They were fools because they had left him to die, too. High Principals did not lower themselves to learn how the transport machinery worked. He looked around the control room with its lights and switches. Underlings existed to make them work, not he.
When Francis awoke, the memory of the pain almost made him faint again. But the pain was gone. Its absence was like a zephyr. He couldn't believe that every bone in his body wasn't broken. His muscles ached from their prolonged contraction, but that hurt felt almost good in comparison to the catastrophic pain that had invaded him, that had crunched every nerve ending. He stretched his limbs and the ache of the muscles was a strange relief. But if that other pain should come again, how could I live, he wondered. No, he realized, how could I die to make that pain stop?
The High Principal had regained strength in his limbs and reached his decision. He would join his underlings and partake fully of the sublime death joy.
Francis whimpered when a door to the cell opened and the short, three-legged beast shuffled in. A smell like cabbage and decaying skin made him want to retch. Francis saw that the beast's gray-green hide was covered with red drops. Its jaw looked as if it was chiseled out of granite and the two blocks of that jaw opened and closed, grinding against each other. A gurgle sound came out. Francis backed away as the beast shuffled nearer, eye coverings flickering over red orbs. The corner of the cell stopped Francis. Two arms reached for him. At the end of the arms were claws with long sharp nails the beast snapped together. He's going to stab me with those things, Francis realized. His body started shaking. He felt sick. He could imagine the talons piercing his skin, stabbing into his body, crushing his bones and organs. This had to be a nightmare. He had to wake up. The clicking of the talons was louder, the arms nearer. Francis looked down and saw his body fade...
"No!" The High Principal screamed and tore his talons into the cell wall, ripping through it in his rage. "No!" He had been so close. The creature's waves of fear had given the High Principal a joy he had never felt before. It had made him wobble; he had sensed the coming death ecstasy. He had been so near. He'd forgotten that the automatic return cycle hadn't been switched off because the crew members were all dead. The creature had been thrown back to wherever it had come from. The safety device worked as it was supposed to.
If only he knew how to put the capture point into the casting machine. It was all Ponce's fault. If only Ponce were alive so I could kill him, the High Principal thought. But Ponce was always lucky.
Francis fell to the shower floor where his sweat was washed off his body by the cold spray. The stinging cold needles of water felt good. They didn't really hurt. He got up, turned the shower off, stepped out, took a towel, and dried himself. As he rubbed over the bruise on his thigh, he realized he didn't mind the ache. He pressed hard on it, then harder. It hurt, but the pain did not matter so much. Nothing could compare to what he had just been through. What HAD he been through? A psychotic experience, he decided, but a healing psychotic experience. My mind must have healed itself. My algophobia imagined the worst possible pain. Now, everything will seem minor in comparison.
His right thigh started itching. He scratched it. The phone rang.
He recognized the voice of Mr. O'Brien's secretary.
"Oh, it's horrible, just horrible. It's Mr. O'Brien," she said and stopped to sob. "Mr. O'Brien's been in a car accident."
"Accident? Is he hurt badly?" Francis asked.
"Horrible. The doctors say he'll live, but, horrible. The windshield shattered in the most horrible way. He'll be gone for who knows how long. The head office said you're the only one who knows both claims and investigations. You've got to come right in and take over."
"I see, well, I'm just on my way," Francis said and rubbed the itching on his thigh.
He would go and visit O'Brien in the hospital. The thought of seeing him helpless and in pain didn't frighten him. He looked forward to it. And, in O'Brien's absence, I can show them I'm a better manager, Francis thought. They might even give me O'Brien's job, even if the man did recover.
Why, a person who didn't fear pain, he thought, could be President, and a person who didn't mind inflicting pain on others could rule the world.