A Study in Torment – J L Corbett

Dear reader, I fear my sanity is escaping.

The following account is written with intentions of importance, none of which include the provision of entertainment. I urge you, the reader, to heed the foolish actions detailed in these pages, for it seems increasingly likely that you too may one day find yourself in a situation as sinister as mine.

It began with an interruption. The day thus far had been spent mostly in frustration as I had attempted to untangle several theories of human cognition; I was at the precipice of a breakthrough when the door to my office swung open without the customary preceding knock and my thread of thought was snapped. Professor Hadleigh strolled into the room with a level of joviality that suggested a complete disregard for his mid-afternoon trespass.

“…as you can see, it’s quite spacious. It’s just Doctor Pendleton in here presently, but I’m sure he would be happy to- oh, Pendleton! Dear fellow, my apologies, I didn’t expect you’d be here!”

“Well it is my office, professor. Who else would you expect to find?”

“Don’t you usually have an undergraduate seminar around this time?”

“I cancelled it. The children never listen to a word I say, they can teach themselves for all I care!”

“You cancelled… why on earth would you- no, not today.” Hadleigh made a big show of biting his tongue. He’s quite insufferable as a head of department. He subscribes to a hierarchy determined by job title rather than intelligence or academic brilliance, because this is the only hierarchy of which he can be certain he sits atop. I despise him.

“I’ve just been giving a little tour of the university to Doctor tuh-woah-mist-oh, who’s on loan to us from karr-killer university in Finland,” Hadleigh spoke the foreign words with an irritating slowness and still managed to horrendously mispronounce them. “His work on cognitive empiricism has caused quite a furore in academic circles in Finland, and he’s chosen our humble institution as the location for a year-long sabbatical. I expect you’ll be eager to pick his brain, given your shared field of study.”

I noticed for the first time the figure standing beside him, a stocky young fellow with a rather vacant facial expression. The heavy little man’s bored demeanour persisted as he complimented Hadleigh’s pronunciation, who grinned proudly like a dog who’d received a treat.

“I was not aware that Karkkila had a university,” I said as I shook his cold hand. His grip was strong, which I supposed was unsurprising given his Viking heritage. In the moment before he made his reply I could hear a faint whirring sound, similar to that of a gramophone record spinning on the centre spindle before being touched by the needle. At the time I dismissed the sound as of no significance.

“Karkkila Yliopisto was founded in 1847 and is one of the finest academic institutions in Finland,” he stated, and the whirring stopped. The cadence of his speech was eerie. Listening to the words, one got the impression that they were merely sounds which had to be made in a specific order rather than words with meanings attached. I reasoned that I was simply unaccustomed to the lilt of the Finnish accent.

I informed Hadleigh that I really did have quite a lot of work to be getting on with, and I turned back to my desk.

“I’ve decided to put Doctor Tuomisto in with you, Pendleton.”

“Put him in with me?”

“Well, this office is intended for two. I know you’ve had it to yourself since Doctor Clemens left last year-”

“Doctor Clemens’ leaving was nothing to with me, as I have told you before! His work was abysmal, and if it were not me it would have been one of my colleagues!”

“Enough, Pendleton! Everyone in this department is required to share an office, including you. Your thoughts on the matter are irrelevant!”

So, it was done. The empty desk which sat opposite my own was dusted off and half my office was surrendered to a man hailed as an expert on human cognition, but who had clearly yet to master human interaction. The Finn’s saving grace was that he did not say much. All the things he did decide to verbalise, however, were decidedly odd.

“Pendleton, tell me the details of your current thesis.”

“Pendleton, delineate, if you can, the unifying themes of your numerous research papers on the subject of empiricism versus nativism within the study of cognition.”

“Pendleton, share with me your thoughts on Descartes’ mind-body dualism and your reasons for these thoughts.”

I did not take to the Finn at all. His skin had an unnatural, metallic hue and his dull eyes were unshakable. His joints moved slowly, and his centre of gravity appeared to shift with each footstep, as if his body was fighting against its poor design. If Finland is filled with people like him, it must be a very queer place indeed. I decided that I should very much hate to visit a place like that.

For a couple of weeks, I hated him quietly. Each time his joints wheezed as he moved about my office in his strange, stiff way, I tutted loudly. Whenever I looked up from my work to find him staring at me as though his eyes were recording my every move, I made a rude gesture (which appeared to perplex him). Each time he probed me about my research, I suggested he return to Finland, where he was clearly much better liked.

The event which tipped my annoyance into fear transpired on a Tuesday afternoon, when I was enjoying a rare moment of solitude in my office. I glanced out of the window at the gaggle of students who were sitting in the grass, enjoying the unexpected April sunshine, and then I spotted the Finn awkwardly traversing the path leading from the library to the Micklethwaite building. I groaned inwardly at yet another intrusion by the irritating foreigner into a quiet moment, when I saw him stop quite abruptly as his right eye popped out of its socket and rolled about on the path like a large marble.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! None of the students lounging on the grass and loitering outside the campus buildings even noticed – they were much too immersed in their own idiotic conversations to notice that mere feet away from them a suspicious foreigner had spontaneously expelled one of their body parts!

The Finn looked around himself quite slowly, eased himself into a kneeling position, retrieved his runaway eyeball and carefully slotted it back into its socket. He carried on towards the Micklethwaite building in a manner suggesting nothing strange had happened at all.

That evening I returned home to find Hirsch, with whom I shared a small house at the time, sprawled on the chesterfield in the drawing room with his eyes half closed and a glass of red wine dangling in his limp grip, dripping onto the pages of the book lying open in his lap. I snatched the glass and he awoke with a start.

“Wha..? Pendy, what the…?” he sat upright and ran his fingers through his dark curly hair, as he often did upon awakening. I knocked back the remains of the wine and poured myself another from the bottle he’d left on the coffee table.

“The filthy European is a damned machine!”

“I feel this is a story which could have waited until I woke up more comfortably,” Hirsch groaned. He set the sodden book on the coffee table and lit a cigarette. “I’m getting a little tired of hearing about this chap, you know.”

“He’s not a chap! He’s a thing, he’s an it!” I told Hirsch of what I had witnessed and when I had finished he seemed irritatingly amused.

“So, what you’re telling me is that Doctor Tuomisto is an incredibly sophisticated automaton posing as a human, hellbent on stealing your research and thus ruining your career?” he chuckled.

“Yes! Why else would he appear in my life, watching my every move, asking all these questions about my work?”

“Ah yes, because your work is of great significance.”

“Oh, be quiet. I should’ve known you’d be like this, you always are after this muck!” I slammed the glass of wine back on the coffee table and stormed upstairs to the spare bedroom. Just before the door slammed behind me, I heard his taunting words chase me up the stairs.

“…yes, of course you’re right, Pendy, you always are! He’s a machine which has travelled across the North Sea specially to steal your fascinating research, because nobody else in all of Europe is half as smart or as brilliant as you are…”

Bastard.

I was certain of the Finn’s true nature, but as a loyal subscriber to the scientific method, I decided to gather more data before making any irreversible decisions.

The next day, the Finn wandered into the office and made a low hissing sound as it slowly lowered itself to a seated position at its desk. I had come to believe it to be some sort of mechanical necessity – clearly the spies at Karkkila University had not invested as much money has they should have into their pet automaton.

“Doctor Tuomisto! Just the man I had hoped to see, could you weigh in on something, please?” I was sickeningly cheerful. The Finn turned its head ninety degrees to meet my gaze.

“Yes, Doctor Pendleton. I am always happy to help.”

“Excellent. So, tell me – what are your thoughts on alumantheses?”

Its dark eyes bored into mine as it attempted to compute the nonsense word. “Alu… man… theses.” It tested the syllables.

“Yes, alumantheses. Thoughts?”

The Finn repeated the word once more. “I believe the subject of alumantheses to be of considerable intrigue and the area as a whole is deserving of further scrutiny. Don’t you agree, Doctor Pendleton?”

“Interesting, Doctor Tuomisto, very interesting indeed. Whilst we’re on the subject, what are your thoughts on diptherescence?”

Again, the Finn made a show of repeating the word slowly and pausing in mock consideration.

“I believe the subject of diptherescence to be of considerable intrigue and the area as a whole is deserving of further scrutiny. What are your thoughts on the matter, Doctor Pendleton?”

It had been programmed with a sentence template for use in response to unfamiliar terms. There was no doubt – it was a machine!

For several hours I seethed, infuriated at the insolence and utter weasly nature of the dirty worms at Karkkila University for being so threatened by my research that they would attempt to steal it, and at Hirsch’s disbelief that my research would be worth stealing.

I was sick of science being wielded as a weapon. I had devoted my life to the study of the human mind, and where had it gotten me? Out of ideas and barely middle-aged, sharing an office with a dirty foreigner for weeks before finally stumbling upon the discovery that it wasn’t even a real man.

Reader, it was this moment of utter mortification at my lacking intellect that drove me towards my downfall. I was sick of looking at the Finn. I decided to bash its stupid metal face in.

*      *      *

“So, Doctor Tuomisto, how are you enjoying our humble university?”

The Finn’s neck wheezed as it turned its head ninety degrees to look at me. “I am adjusting to your institution most pleasantly, thank you for asking.”

“Is it much different to your university in Karkkila? It is Karkkila, isn’t it?”

“Yes. My home university is Karkkila Yliopisto, with a student population of 8152, home of the Karkkila Bears, who have won a total of three pesäpallo games against competing universities. Pesäpallo is a Finnish sport in which…”

There was, as always, an abundance of words but a dearth of intelligent information. A further twenty-five minutes passed without incident or conversation. I pretended to write fervent notes for much of this time, all the while carefully listening to the sounds of my colleagues locking their offices for the evening and saying goodbye to one another.

By half past seven, there were no sounds at all from the corridor outside.

“Doctor Pendleton, you have been working for several hours. I am interested in your work. Describe it in detail, please.”

“Perhaps later,” I paused, as if a thought had just occurred to me. “Damn. I think I left some of my notes in the library. I’ll be back in a few minutes, Doctor Tuomisto.”

The Finn stood up so abruptly that its chair clattered to the floor. “I will retrieve your notes. I will return promptly.” The stupid machine clomped down the corridor, determined to complete the wild goose chase.

As its heavy footsteps died with distance, I darted out of the office and strode quickly up and down the corridor, peering into each office window. All of them were empty, with the lights switched off. There entire building was most likely deserted.

I darted back into my office and rifled through my desk drawer, my hand finding the paperweight, one of two objects I had ensured were inside earlier that day. The glass cube felt heavy and important in my hand, and I found myself trembling.

Behind the open door was the best place to hide, and I stood with the paperweight raised over my head, my left foot positioned slightly forward. I was ready to pounce. Several minutes passed and I wondered where the infernal thing had gotten to. Just as my arm was beginning to ache I heard a noise outside and my whole body jerked, flinging the paperweight into the door, where it bounced back and hit me square in the jaw.

Pain erupted in my face and I whimpered involuntarily. I set the paperweight down on my desk, retrieved the second object from my desk drawer and took a quick swig. The liquid pleasantly burnt my lips and eased the pain in my jaw. I had hoped it would steady my nerves, but it did not.

“Hello, Doctor Pendleton. I was unable to retrieve your notes from the library.”

I whipped around, then froze. The Finn was in closer proximity than I had anticipated and we almost collided. This was the first time I had been close enough to examine its dark, inscrutable eyes, and I wondered if perhaps the whole damned thing had been a product of my imagination. Were those eyes truly as lifeless as I had assumed?

Suddenly, the metal man looked quite human.

“Perhaps you would like to recite your notes, I would be happy to-”

The paperweight cracked heavily against the surprisingly thin metal which had been painted to resemble skin, and it was only when my hand drew back that mind caught up to body. The Finn staggered backwards. There was a large dent in its left temple and the whirring noise was louder than it had ever been previously.

There was no scenario in which I could leave this miserable job half done and escape unimplicated. I approached the spasming machine, raised the paperweight above my head and, god help me, I did not stop until the whole ghastly thing was finished.

Towards the end, it became difficult. Sparks flew from the Finn’s joints; its eyes were pinwheels and its entire body seized and shook. Suddenly the limbs flew away from the torso, shot past me and smashed against the four walls of my office, leaving the abandoned torso to clatter against the floorboards.

I was a murderer.

No. It was just a machine. Machines can’t be killed.

It was an interesting conundrum. What makes a killer? Does the victim require a certain level of sentience, or is the sensation of killing sufficient to change a person irrevocably from man to murderer?

As I knelt by the remains of the Finn and peered down at the mess, the torso swung upon on a hinge and I was sprayed with a thick black liquid. It stung terribly as it appeared to bond to my skin; I gagged on the smell and began to hyperventilate. I would later scrub my skin red raw in the shower, and it would be futile.

The black liquid has long since faded, after staining my skin for several days. The infection, however, has yet to fade. With each passing day I find it increasingly difficult to write as the muscles in my hands continue to inexplicably atrophy and my eyes lose their ability to focus. I have thrown blankets over every mirror in the house so that I do not have to risk catching sight of myself – once a man, then a murderer, now a spectre.

My body cries for rest but rarely finds it. My nights are fitful spats of broken sleep, wherein I am taunted by nightmares in which Finnish academics have tracked me down and threaten my life for destroying their spying machine. I am tired. Hirsch has left.

As far as I know, the remains of the Finn are still where I left them: locked in my office’s equipment cupboard, the only key to which is in my possession. In the days following the killing my telephone was ringing a lot, presumably Hadleigh wondering where on Earth I’d gotten to. It rings less frequently now.

I wonder each day about the true purpose of the Finn. Was it ever really trying to steal my work, or was it simply pushing me into a scenario in which it could douse me with poison? And if so, why? More importantly, who would build such a machine and send it to my door?

Such questions hardly seem relevant now.

I fear the Finns will come for me.

 

 

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_

J.L. CORBETT is the editor of Idle Ink, an online publisher of curious fiction. Her short stories have been featured in Storgy Magazine and Preoccupied With The History Department. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read, and she doesn’t get out much.

 

Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

 

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