“See? What did I tell you?” Mu asked expectantly, walking back and forth to and from a cabinet, rearranging potions and powders of various colors. The man was sitting in a chair with an IV hooked to his arm. It was pumping in some strange mix of chemicals. They hadn’t been bad, though, for he felt strong for the first time since gaining consciousness.
The room they were in was, unsurprisingly, unkempt. Medical books blanketed the floor. Human physiology, biology, psychology, and others were stacked in towers and placed randomly. There was a bed in a corner, neatly made. There were dressers, cabinets and displaced drawers strewn about.
“You were right,” the man said with a smile. “No fever.”
“It’s gone permanently,” Mu said, examining some orange concoction carefully. “The deal has finally been met.”
“Yes,” the man said. “But why are you even helping? What are you getting out of this?”
“Me?” Mu asked, turning to face him. “I’m getting the chance to meet you.” He pointed whimsically. “Nothing more. Nothing less.”
The man chuckled. “But why didn’t Iota or his worker cure me themselves?”
Mu waited a moment before speaking. “Well, that doesn’t sound like it was part of your deal. The book for water and me, correct?”
“But he took my book before I could say anything.”
“But you took the water. You took my medicine. A deal’s a deal,” Mu said. “Even if it’s not one you accepted initially.” As he finished his sentence, the IV drained the remaining fluid into the man’s arm. Instead of waiting for Mu, he pulled it out himself. He grunted in pain for a brief moment, tensed up, and then eased into the chair.
“I need that book.” The man groaned.
“And why’s that?” Mu asked, moving closer towards the man in the chair. “Do you think you’re going to learn why you’re here? Do you think you’re going to learn who you are?” Mu took a deep breath and lowered his voice to a whisper. That close, the man could almost see through the shadowy veil beneath his hood. His eyes seemed to be glowing a fiery yellow, glinting with some kind of hidden knowledge. “Because if that’s the case, they’ll never give it back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Too many are scattered.” Mu turned away. “We’re all creators, boy. Iota is the creator of those bots. I’m the creator of this town. Lambda created your rock. Well, all rocks.” Mu chuckled as he played with some glass tincture that was just out of the man’s sight. “Omega is a creator, too.”
The man’s brows furrowed.
“You already knew that, though. That’s why you’re here. You don’t remember anything. Yet, you know everything. But still…” Mu paused. “What if I could help you?”
“And what would you want in return? Isn’t that how this works? Everything’s a deal.”
“Well,” the medicine man said. His head bobbed back slightly. He was probably smiling behind that thick beard and shadowy veil. “I already got one thing by meeting you. There’s really only one other thing I want.”
The man said nothing.
“Here. Take my hand. I’ll help you up.” The man did as he was told. “Good. Follow me. Grab your case.” The man did that, too.
Mu led the way. There was a slight hobble in the way he walked, as if there was some pain in his right leg. “You probably have so many questions,” the leader said as they came upon a wooden door at the end of a long hall. He lifted a lantern off a large metal hook from nearby. “It’s dark where we’re going. Watch your step.” The door opened to a wooden staircase that led down. It was all the same in this town: dark, wooden, and starting to rot. Repetition without an end.
They took to the steps slowly. Mu went down carefully. His bad leg seemed to get the better of him at times. Every once in a while, he groaned. The stairs creaked with each step, and together they made discordant music. The man’s steps were considered and cautious. At the bottom, there was another door. This one, though, was made of metal, and it looked heavy.
“Help me with this.” Mu leaned back to let the man go in front.
It took his entire weight to scrape the door back, and it screeched in response. A faint blue light washed over the two as if in greeting.
“Follow,” Mu said. The man followed.
He followed through a room of different lights glowing from many different bulbs in many different brightness levels and shades and hues. He followed through a room full of tanks filled with many different liquids of many different colors and consistencies. He followed through a room with piles of different types of alien sand that could stay frozen in impossible gravity-defying shapes. He followed until they stopped in a barren room with a single chair in it.
It was a large armchair made of red leather, and it was facing away from them. Its legs were, of course, wooden.
“This is why I brought you here,” Mu said.
“And here I thought you just liked being creepy.”
Mu chuckled. “Well, isn’t that a peculiar emotion? I suppose it’s to be expected, though.” He cleared his throat. “Now, I’m going to show you what’s on this chair. I need you to remain calm.” He waited, and then he spoke up again almost as an afterthought. “Creeped out is fine, but calm is key.”
The man nodded.
Mu walked to the front of the chair and beckoned for the human. The man inched his way forward, feeling the floor creak and bow under his weight with each step, something he hadn’t sensed with Mu. He took one final breath and one final step past the chair, turned gently, and saw the being, lifeless and limp.
It was a porcelain doll. The same kind he had seen in the lone shack many miles ago. The one whose name had been MARY in all caps on a name tag. Its cracked skin was smooth, fragile, and impossibly white. This one was another girl…or it was in the shape of a girl. It had a mop of messy brown hair. Its eyes were closed. Its mouth was a thin straight line. Its cheeks were red, obviously painted on. It was wearing a flowery dress, light and warm. Bright colors.
The man suspected the truth, but he didn’t want to believe it. “What is this?” he asked, trying to keep the disgust hidden from Mu.
“This is my daughter,” Mu said without any hesitation. “I have many children. I created them.”
The man said nothing. Instead, he took a deep breath and hid his emotions. “Why do you need me for this?” The deal was done. He could leave now if he chose without feeling burdened. He’d find Iota by himself, on his own terms.
“What I want from you—in exchange for the knowledge of how to find Iota, my other—is to teach me. Teach me what you know of humans. A growing knowledge spanning hundreds of thousands of years cannot simply be replicated. I want something from you. I want this to be as much yours as it is mine,” Mu said. His hood folded on itself and bobbed with each word he spoke. “I tried giving them emotions, but I always put caution as a priority. And do you know why?”
The man took a breath, but Mu spoke up before he could say anything.
“It’s because of your sense of self-preservation. I thought if my children had it, then all would be fine. They’d be authentic. A bunch of cowards, they are now. Some violent, too. No matter. What say you? Help me, and I help you.”
There was the sound of electrical humming from nearby. The man got the sense of electronic machinery all around them in the walls, above them hidden in the ceiling, and just out of sight around unseen corners. Mu was a scientist. Plain and simple.
“And what do I do?” the man asked. He had forgotten about escape. There was a creeping curiosity, though.
“The only thing you have to do…” Mu stopped himself. Whether it was some dramatic joke or it was a flamboyant expression, he allowed a pause before speaking again. "All you have to do is hold my hand.” Mu smiled, flashing his teeth at the man without a name. They were visible through the veil. There was nothing remarkable about them except for that they were long and jagged. The smile almost looked sincere.
“I can do that,” the man said. He tried to reassure himself by flashing a smile back, but Mu didn’t see it, and the man didn’t care enough to try again. It didn’t help, anyway.
“This might sting a little,” Mu said as they clasped each other’s hands. The man could hear Mu’s smile linger through his words as he placed his free hand on the doll’s head. There was nothing at first, but then there was an explosion of light. A switch had been flipped. One moment everything was calm, and the next giant orbs were erupting inside the man’s head. A loud high-pitched buzzing whine screamed and rattled inside his brain and bounced around the emptiness of his unknown past. Sounds from old memories played out. A woman’s loving voice chirped in his ear. Her words were vague, but they were comforting. Something about a man with money. They both faded away quickly. Only the screaming loud white noise was constant.
And Mu’s hand was no longer a hand, but instead it was slimy and porous and slippery. A blue aura pulsated out from it in wild, radiating waves. Almost eel-like, it wrapped itself around his arm, climbing up towards the man’s shoulder, around his neck, squeezing until the lights were gone and it was unending darkness in all directions. Purple shock waves in his vision told him he was still alive. Then he couldn’t take it anymore, and he dropped to the ground, panting madly and sweating profusely. His head pounded in tune with his heartbeat.
“It’s a success!” Mu yelled. It was a muffled whisper to the man.
“What? What? What?” The man rolled onto his back. “My head. What did you do? To me? What did you do to me?” He couldn’t catch his breath.
Mu finally noticed him. “Oh. Well, that’s not what I expected. Although…” He waved the human off. “You’ll be fine! Look at this!” He gestured toward the doll. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
The doll looked exactly the same as it had before.
“Shush,” Mu said. “Can you speak, my daughter?”
“D-d-daughter?” The doll’s voice was gentle, soft, and light. It was almost airy in a way. It turned its head towards the pair that had just given it life. “Yes? Yes.”
“Wonderful,” Mu said. He was solely fixated, though, and his voice revealed that he wasn’t as ecstatic as he had made himself out to be. “Tell me,” he started. “What do you feel?”
The man was quiet. His eyes were sore, and so he forced them shut during this exchange. His body was tired. His head hurt.
“I feel…happy,” the doll said. “I also feel quite sad.”
“Oh?” Mu asked. “You feel happy and sad? At the same time? Why?”
“I’m happy, because nothing is wrong with me, but I am sad because of what it took to bring me here. This man is in pain,” she said.
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” Mu said, ignoring her. “Two emotions at once. And this early too! Fascinating.”
“Should we help him?” The doll slid from her chair and onto the floor. She was small and slender. The blush on her cheeks didn’t look any more natural now that she was alive, but it helped to add a sense of genuine innocence to the doll’s gentle nature.
“If you wish,” Mu said, shrugging. The man caught a brief glimpse of him. There were no tentacles now, only hands. Perhaps there never were any tentacles to begin with. He was lightheaded, but he took the doll’s hand. She was unnaturally strong. No muscle in her body, yet she wasn’t frail or weak like he had expected. When she moved, she made clinking and clanking sounds. It was like before when the man had listened to the townspeople hide from him. It all made sense in the end.
“Your hand is callused,” she said. “Why is this? Are you okay?”
“Huh?” The man looked down at his hands once he was back on his feet. The fingertips on his left hand were hard and thick like an animal’s hide. The fingers on his right were fine. “Oh, I didn’t even notice. Yeah, I’m fine.” He waved her off.
The doll smiled at him. “You must take care of yourself. You can’t be fixed like me,” she said.
He felt a small smile show on his face. “Yeah, I will. Thank you.”
Mu cleared his throat. “Yes, well, there are greater issues to concern ourselves with than the state of your perfectly normal fingers,” he said. “I thought you wanted to find Iota? Or is that not a priority for you anymore?”
The man didn’t care for his tone. “No. Let’s talk business.”
“Great,” Mu said. He turned towards the doll. “You stay here. I’ll be back later.” He looked at the man. “Follow me,” he said as he led the way back up the stairs. The man, like he had before, did as he was told, eager to leave the oppressing dungeon and the creepy doll.
Above, Mu was digging through a chest. “You require food and water, correct?”
“Yes,” the man said. “To be honest, I’m quite hungry now.”
“Well,” Mu said. “Just wait.” And he left it at that. It took him a few moments. In that time, he had unburied an old plastic box from underneath randomly assorted strips of cloth and bits of metallic junk. Inside was a pill bottle. Mu examined it, read its label, and ripped it off without giving it so much as a second thought. “Used to be fluoxetine,” he muttered, turning his back to the man. There was a high-pitched whine again, but the pain the man felt was far more subdued than before. It was a mild scratch in his brain. He wondered how Mu had come to possess such power. He decided he didn’t want to know. He was a scientist, a medicine man, and a magician…apparently.
“What is that?” the man asked Mu when they were facing each other again.
“It’s a gift,” Mu said. “You’ll never need to seek food or water again. There’s not much of either here, but I’m sure you’ve come to that realization yourself.” He waved his arm. Visions of an alien tentacle flashed in the man’s mind, but he ignored them. “Anyway, you take one of these every other morning when you first wake, and you’ll be fine for about two earth days. Use your best judgement, of course. Miss a pill, and you’ll be sorry. Not dead or anything. Just not happy. Half starved. I don’t know how many you’ll need, but there’s eighty here. They’re small so try not to spill them.” He handed the orange pill bottle over. The man took the cap off and examined the pills in all of their white, powdery glory before recapping and pocketing it.
“Thank you,” the man said. “But what about the headaches?”
“The headaches?” Mu asked. “What about them?”
“Shouldn’t I be concerned? I collapsed onto the floor for Christ’s sakes.”
“Christ?” Mu asked, clearly puzzled. Like earlier, he waved the man off once more. “No, no. There’s no need to be worried. That’s just your human brain not comprehending this place. Us. Nothing I can do for you, I’m afraid.” Mu chuckled. “Try not to go insane. You’ll start to see things that just aren’t there.” He smiled again. His teeth shone brightly in the lantern’s dim glow.
The man grinned back, but it wasn’t a happy one. “I don’t think I’ll need this anymore,” he said, handing over the water bottle. “It’ll just add to what I have to carry.”
“Yes, I’m sure it’s quite heavy,” Mu said, taking it. “Have you thought about your sleeping arrangements at all?”
The man paused. “No. I haven’t.”
“Well, not much weather here, so that’s good. You can have that quilt,” he said, pointing to his bed.” Folded at the end was a red blanket.
“Thank you,” the man said. “I’ll need it.”
“No, thank you. I have much to research now. Furthermore, it’ll be interesting to see if you succeed on this journey. Your book will not be your last stop, I think.”
“I don’t think so, either,” the man said. “I only hope I can do it all in a hundred and sixty days.”
Mu laughed. “Days. Right.”
The man swallowed hard. The implication unsettled him.