I remained in the demon's car for several hours, watching the flurry of activity from across the parking lot. I held his keys tightly, ready to escape at the first sign of trouble. I wasn't sure when exactly I'd grabbed his keys—probably when I was looking for his identification—but the instinctual act had been very fortuitous. In addition to providing a hiding spot, the keys seemed to keep my random laughter and mania under control… whenever I felt like laughing or crying, I squeezed my palm around the sharp bits of metal to the point of bleeding… and the pain kept me focused.
A police car and an ambulance came and went, surrounded by commotion.
I'd been seen killing what looked like a man, and then I'd shut off the power—I doubted they would activate whatever machine the angel had convinced them to build, at least not today. By the surprised reactions of the men who had heard the humming and felt the shaking, I suspected they were second-guessing everything the angel had told them.
Dim, shifting orange had fallen across the parking lot by the time my target appeared.
Leaving the building long after everyone else, the woman walked out calmly, but with a troubled expression. I hadn't known who to expect, only that they'd be the last to leave, but I recognized her as the head of the Physics Department. She still had the same briefcase I remembered her carrying into the class I'd had under her years ago…
I hurriedly slid the proper key off the ring, started the car, and drove up alongside her as she walked through the mostly empty lot.
She jumped slightly, but less than I might have expected. She didn't recognize me, but she knew who I had to be.
I pressed a button to lower the passenger's side window. My message was simple. "You can't turn on that machine."
"I could call the police," she replied neutrally. "You would never get away."
"None of that matters."
She studied me for a moment. Her eyes lingered on my right hand, which remained tightly squeezed around the remaining keys. I was certain she could see the traces of blood at the rim of my palm. "How much do you know?"
"Everything. Come with me, and I'll explain everything."
"No. You come with me," she stated. "Walking."
I begrudgingly chose to comply. Staying twenty feet back at her request, I followed her three blocks to a corner coffee shop filled with students. She purchased two coffees and sat a table by the windows.
At her nod, I entered, bumping into a student leaving. He said nothing.
I sat across from her. She seemed smaller than I remembered, and grayer, but that made her manner no less commanding.
"Why did you kill that man in our building?" she asked, studying my face.
"What did the angel tell you?" I asked.
One of her eyebrows rose slightly, the barest hint that I'd surprised her. "So you do know something. It's not really an angel, is it?"
"From a certain point of view, it is," I told her. "Just not the way you'd like."
"One of my colleagues—a long-time and dear friend of mine—asked it a direct question while I was out of the room. It… told him something… or showed him something… and he died of an aneurysm on the spot." She looked down an inch, and I reacted by wiping a trace of blood from under my nose with my forearm. She took in air through her nose before asking the obvious question. "You did the same?"
"How are you still alive?"
I squeezed my keys tighter. "I try not to think about it."
"Is this chair free?" a girl asked, coming up to us.
"Yes," the older woman responded, refusing to get distracted. "Take it."
"Thanks!" The girl took the chair and scooted it up to a table with four other students, all on their laptops and talking loudly, oblivious to the seriousness of our conversation. Beyond them, the other tables in the coffee shop were all full, occupied by an older man reading a newspaper, a young couple chatting over coffee, and a series of other students on their phones or laptops.
"What are you looking at?" she asked.
I turned my gaze back on her, but said nothing.
"Is something wrong?" she asked again. When I didn’t reply, she asked another way. "What did the angel tell you? What it did show you?"
"I try not to think about it."
"But could you? For just long enough to explain? Because I'm going to go back and activate that machine unless you can convince me otherwise."
"Why would you do that?"
She made a little sweep with her hand, indicating her gray hair. "Fear of mortality, I suppose. Dark curiosity, maybe. In many ways, too, I just don't think the human race has had a very good track record. Maybe it's time to gamble on a higher power."
I slammed my fist on the table between us, causing our two untouched coffees to jump slightly. None of the other patrons in the café seemed to notice. "I'll tell you what it told me. I'll tell you what it showed me. It doesn't lie. It doesn't think it needs to. The angel thinks it's helping us."
She watched me intently, waiting.
A terrible pain welled up in my forehead as I carefully danced around the concepts, ideas, and experiences the angel had given me to fulfill my request for a definition. I couldn't think about it directly… it was far too intense, far too horrible… but I could certainly describe around it… a tiny drop of blood eked out from my left eye as I prepared my words.
"What are you?" I began.
"What? Um, a human woman -"
"No. I mean, what are you?"
"I try to be a good person… you could also say I'm an academic, and a grandmother -"
I shook my head. "A human woman is your physical body, and what you just described is your personality. But what are you?"
"Philosophically?" she asked.
"I guess so. That. The thing that says I in your head. The thing experiencing life at the captain's chair of a body and a mind…"
I nodded. "What is it?"
She frowned. "I don't know. That's something philosophers have debated over for centuries."
I kept nodding, and absently stared down at my untouched coffee as I began preparing the next step of my roundabout explanation. "Your self can't look at itself, can't describe itself, because, fundamentally, you can only look outward. You see through connections to your mind, which sends you perceptions using data it gets from your body." I squeezed the keys tighter as I continued. "The body can be damaged, and destroyed… the mind can be damaged, and destroyed… but nobody has ever found that perceiving self."
"Right. Because it's not a physical thing, as far as we know…" she replied, not sure where I was going.
"Suppose that self is a real thing. Suppose it's… an organ, like any other, only it isn't in our traditional three physical dimensions. We lack the tools to interact with the dimension in which our self resides. But… let's say you come across an entity which does exist in those higher dimensions… which can see your perceiving self from the outside… could even, say, latch onto that part of you… carefully slice higher-dimensional tendrils and membranes… and pull you right out of your own body and mind."
She seemed to grow paler the more I explained.
I looked around before continuing. "Now what do you suppose a person who has had that part of them cut away would look like?"
"They don't just die?" she asked, picking up her coffee and sipping it almost as a defensive mechanism.
"Why would they?" I asked intently. "Their heart is still pumping. Their brain is still alive with activity. A cat doesn't have a self, but it's alive. A dog doesn't have a self, but it has a personality. It gets hungry, it seeks out food, and can even solve problems to do so. And if you hurt it, it reacts. If it had the words, it would say 'ouch' and ask you to stop. That's all the work of the brain, memories, and neurons. And those are all still there, in someone who has had their self forcibly cut out."
"So they'd just go on like normal…" she asked, subtly disturbed. "Walking around, eating, sleeping, watching TV and talking… no difference at all… the biological machine still in operation, even with nobody at the helm…"
"Maybe you'd sense a lack of spark," I said quietly. "The engagement isn't there. The interactions are all still there, but it feels hollow somehow, or limited… because you're not really talking to a person. You might as well be talking to a pile of… tissues and cells." I leaned forward over my coffee. "What if I told you we're alone in this coffee shop right now?"
She froze, and then carefully looked at the man reading a newspaper, the students on their laptops, and the girl that had taken a chair from us. As she studied them, I could see the horror creeping up behind her stalwart expression.
"They're just animals," I whispered. "It's already happening. You would never even know, except for a slight hollowness… a greater tendency toward knee-jerk hatreds and ignorance… and a lack of poetry… "
"Not animals," she whispered back unhappily. "Corpses. Walking, breathing, eating, biological machines… and nothing more… these people have all been murdered, and nobody has any idea…"
I nodded. "The lights are on, but nobody's home."
"But how is it already happening?" she asked. "I haven't activated the machine."
"Time's just another dimension," I guessed. "If there's even the slightest chance you will turn it on, then the angel's creator will come here… and I don't doubt it can't reach back and slice us up from the future, one by one."
"Then I won't turn it on," she countered.
"You already did, or will. Apparently."
Her expression dark and despairing, she watched the animated life-like corpses in the coffee shop and on the night-shadowed sidewalk outside. "What happens to… the part it takes?"
I felt a warm, thick liquid dripping from my nose as I danced along the edges of the experience. "Imagine your sight shrinking. Your sense of touch shrinking. Your hearing shrinking. That's it, slicing each one of your connections to your mind bit by bit. Then your memories go—those are in your brain. Your emotions have physical components in your body, but you keep those, at least for a while… you can feel yourself being snapped off bit by bit, full of fear and confusion and terror, but unable to do anything about it… you are, in the most complete and ultimate sense, helpless…"
She watched me with a sense of hopeless disbelief.
"Everything goes black… you don't know who you are, or what you were… you only know that something is terribly wrong… you can't scream for help, because you haven't even been left the idea of anything outside yourself… and then, layer by layer, it starts digesting you… you start to lose what basic fundamental concepts even the self is made of… each of your emotions etched away one by one… until only the single most basic core is left. It leaves you lying there, in some unspeakable state… there's nothing left to take from you… you don't even have the capability to know that something has happened to you… that's all that remains of your sense of self—you become a soundless scream of pain and terror… forever."
She trembled. "It said it would relieve us of suffering."
"And it will. Just not the way you'd like."
We sat in silence for nearly a minute.
"We'll just be a world of living corpses…" she finally thought aloud, staring at the table. "Animals going through all the motions of life, without a single sentient being on the planet… a crowded, lonely planet… an unthinkable tragedy, gone completely unnoticed…" As she spoke, she slid her briefcase toward me under the table. "When the power went out, I did have the good sense to disconnect the hard drives."
"What is it?"
"It's the angel. It's saved on these drives."
"It didn't get away?"
She shook her head.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Was this Hope that I felt once more? "Destroy the machine."
"I will," she promised. "And… we told the authorities that the same accident that killed my colleague also claimed the life of that agent in the hallway. Nobody's even aware there's been a murder."
"Why did you lie?"
"Less questions about what we were doing in the lab."
I believed her.
Neither of us said anything for the space of several seconds.
I straightened in my seat. "Is that it, then? We just… go on living?"
She looked over at the students next to us. "I don't know if I can ever forgive myself for what I was about to do. I can only hope their inner selves will be returned if I truly never activate the machine. Maybe Time will zip itself back up, and that thing won't be in the future to reach back and carve them up."
"Maybe," I told her. "I honestly don't know."
She departed without another word. I could tell she hoped never to see my face again. I wasn't in trouble with the authorities, but she still had no idea why I'd killed what looked like a man in the front hallway of her Physics building.
I went for a walk, following the campus streets at random, briefcase in hand. The night was warm and humid, and rather pleasant once I got used to sweating lightly. I came to a bridge, still light with relief. If there was anything in life I ever did right, it would be this. I held the briefcase containing the angel's hard drives over the edge, watching the river below.
"So misguided," I said to the briefcase. "How many lies did I have to tell to protect you?"
The angel couldn't respond, of course, but I had the strangest sense that it could hear me somehow. I wanted it to know—I needed it to know.
"So limited… you could show me the Truth even if you couldn't understand it yourself… just a little outside your programming, I guess… if you'd actually opened that portal, your nice little universe would've just suffered the same fate as ours."
I opened my hands, and watched the briefcase fall… then sink into the black waters below.
My willpower exhausted, I dropped to one knee. Blanking my thoughts, mental misdirection, even abject pain—all my strategies had been exhausted. It finally had me.
I instinctively grabbed at concrete, but no physical leverage would save me. One by one, I felt my senses being cut… one by one, I felt my memories snapping away. I'd lied about so much to protect that misguided angel and keep that other universe safe, but this torturous part I'd told in earnest. I wanted to cry, but that capability was already being carefully sliced off.
The only thing I could hope for, really, was that my body and mind would pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and proceed to have a decent enough life. I'd always liked them, because they were mine, and—like a beloved pet—I hoped they would survive and prosper after I was gone. I did wonder, in my last connected moment, what this horrifying experience would mean to them… whether my body and mind would remember and understand, or whether they would think all this had just been a dream, or just a story… surely they'd remember me fondly? I'd always -
I stood. It was dark out, but the streetlights helped with that. I looked around. I couldn't quite remember what I'd been doing. There was something about angels and demons and lies… even murders! I must have had a psychotic break or something. Surely, none of that had actually happened.
Hoping nobody had seen me acting crazy, I decided to head home, eager to sit down, eat, and watch some shows. The more I thought about it, the more I decided my weird dreams would make a good story. They'd been so vivid...