Helter Smelter

Helter Smelter

By Mark Burnham

Part 1: Procedure

Val Pinker stopped struggling and just hung there, feeling every minute of his sixty-five years of age. Suspension cables hooked around his feet, arms, and torso. The medical apparatus had him clutched in its metallic teeth, splayed in midair, naked and awaiting a benediction he told himself he wanted.

“Val, can you hear me in there?” It was Dr. Catherine Danvers, her voice distant, echoing from somewhere above.

Val tilted his head upwards but could not see her. Surgical lamps blinded him. He forced himself to imagine her purple lipstick and chrome-blade hairdo, her bionic left arm that had touched his shoulder gently when they first met yesterday.

“Val? Yoo-hoo,” she called to him again, in a pretty sing-song. Her voice sounded filtered and tinny coming out of the intercom.

 “Yes,” he finally answered in a hoarse bellow. “I hear you.” The sedatives they’d pumped him with made him groggy. His mouth tasted like a mix of vitamin C and alcohol. He couldn’t swallow. Something buzzed behind his eyes. His body thirsted for sleep. It made him shudder.

“Good. We’re going to get started in just a minute. Hang tight.”

The sound of something large and mechanical unwinding and grating in the distance, like a huge onion made of steel, peeling itself layer by layer.

The peeling sound morphed into a flutter, high-pitched and whirring. It was the sound of a motor, Val recognized. Pistons were at work, like the trash compactors he’d operated throughout his career. But this was something smaller and more precise than the lumbering machines he knew.

Val squinted dead ahead, nervous to spot what approached. He saw nothing. The Procedure Room was a dim void, its distant walls a brutal gray granite, the ceiling perhaps a mile overhead. Heavy mist soaked the air. It was an exceedingly unwelcoming place, and not at all what Val pictured when he agreed to this experimental procedure. He’d worked forty years as a disposal technician, honest work with a clear purpose. By the time he wondered if he should try something else, he felt too old. Like he’d wandered deep down a workman’s tunnel, ahead of him no endpoint in sight, not even a soft glow, behind him only darkness. He was lost and tired. Osiris Labs had approached him with a blessing, an unthinkable second chance. But as he peered into the void, awaiting what dark machinations approached, he was fearful.  

Then he saw it. It was a man, lying on his side, motionless, knees tucked so tight they nearly touched his chin. The body floated towards him in the dark, cradled in a sort of metal dish, conveyed by a rod that telescoped out of the mist. Val could not discern how far away the body was, only that it grew closer with time. His depth perception was poisoned. His field of vision expanded and contracted as he breathed. It could have been thirty feet or three hundred.

“Stop,” Val shouted, mist-water dripping from his face. “I don’t want this. I’ve changed my mind.”

“Val, you’re perfectly safe. Try to remember that,” Dr. Danvers said in a soothing tone of voice through her intercom.

The man floated closer on the metallic dish. The dish was concave, like the cupped palm of a god that presented a gift from on high. The man had brown hair, short and thin, the tips wet and clumped together, like he’d recently emerged from a hot shower. His skin was a golden-peach color.

 “I don’t care,” Val growled. “Let me die in peace.”

“Mr. Pinker, remember the agreement you signed,” Dr. Danvers replied. Her tone was punitive now, like a teacher chiding a student. “We will be proceeding.”

The man grew closer still. One of the man’s testicles bulged out from behind his pressed thighs.

“It’s my life!” Val roared.

“We are saving your life,” Dr. Danvers declared in a grandiose tone.

The man’s toenails were untrimmed, long and sharp and jagged.

“Please,” Val whimpered.

“You are a blessed pioneer. You are the first, but not the last.”

One of the man’s hands was tattooed on its backside: a single disembodied wing, belonging to a large bird or angel.

“Get ready, Val,” Dr. Danvers instructed. “It’s starting now.”

 Val felt something stir within his chest. It felt like the dial on a safe being tuned by a careful operator. The tuning accelerated until it reached a speed impossible to distinguish from stillness. The force vibrated his entire body.

A bionic porthole opened in Val’s chest, from the top edge of his navel to his collarbone. Dozens of blades fanned out of the porthole, blossoming into a series of propellers. The system of slicing blades reached such a speed that the wind pushed hard against Val’s face, his long, gray hair whipping behind. His chest had become a meat grinder. He looked down to watch the carnage, his face wet with either tears or mist or drool.

The man had reached the front of the blades. The wind pushed the man’s thin hair into a comb-over as it closed within inches. The blades first began cutting the man’s hair, which flew about in clumps. A spray of debris followed: red, gray, black. Something white and globular flicked away from the fray at high velocity, like a baseball pitch. Val recognized it was an intact eyeball as it darted away into the shadows. The man’s head had been swallowed by Val’s chest. His neck and shoulders followed. The blades chugged as they worked the thicker material of the man’s torso. After a decisive crunch, the blades regained their previous tempo and things passed easier. Val could bear to watch no longer, and craned his head upward. It was easier not watching, barely. He could still hear the blades working on bone and flesh, and something else—a gulping sound, like water getting sucked down the thirsty gullet of a toilet.

In time the blades began to slow, until they stopped altogether. Val felt the blades fold back into his chest. The porthole closed and seemed to lock itself shut.

Life expectancy updated, a digital voice said, emanating from Val’s chest. From the porthole.

New life expectancy: 145 years.

It was a vicious feeling in Val’s heart, hearing those words. It was something like a relief, an orgasm, and a thirst all at once. He wept out of disgust and joy.

Part 2: Recovery

The floor of the Recovery Room was cold and hard against Val’s feet, but he was thankful for it. It was shelter.

The room was dimly lit and small, the far wall alive with monitors that displayed flowing medical charts.

A man was talking. He wore a white lab coat over a crisp, dark business shirt. He stood in front of the medical charts, speaking with intense animation that Val found aggravating. Val had a headache and did not appreciate the talking man’s excitement.

Dr. Catherine Danvers leaned against the wall nearest the door. She was mercifully quiet, offering to Val only the occasional smile. She gave him a thumbs-up with her bionic arm.

“Enough of this technobabble,” the talking man finally said. “The bottom line is you’ve been given a second life, Mr. Pinker. What are you going to do with it?”

The man’s name tag said ‘Ray.’ He held his hands in a triangle formation while he waited for Val’s answer.

Val took a drag from his K-flute and let the smoke slowly drain from his nose. He pulled on a loose-fitting button-up shirt, leaving the front wide open. Already he felt different. Stronger, looser.

“Oh, old man’s dreams. You don’t want to hear those,” Val said.

“C’mon, Mr. Pinker,” Ray said, closing the distance and giving Val a good-natured slug in the arm. “And you’re not an old man anymore, bud. Try to get used to that.”

Val sighed before he spoke. “Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to be a gardener. Work in a vineyard. Guess I’ll take what I’ve saved up and catch a light-train over to Rome. Work in the hills for free until they pay me, I guess. Still working it all out. Feel like a kid. No more trash work for me, that’s for sure.” He smiled.

“I love it. I can see it now,” Ray said, forming his hands into a frame like he was looking through a window into a dream. “Garbage man turned gardener. It’s beautiful.”

Dr. Danvers glared at Ray. It was clear his corpo-energy rubbed her the wrong way too.

“We started the Osiris Project to offer humanity more freedom,” she said to Val. “The Smelter, the device in your chest. It transmutes life from one place to another. Energy, Mr. Pinker, cannot be destroyed. It can only be re-purposed. So do with your new life whatever you wish. Energy has no politics. Its purpose is to be spent.”

Val touched the porthole in his chest. He rubbed his fingers in a circle around its perimeter, searching its tracks. It felt like a puzzle box. He took another drag from his K-flute and frowned.

“I’m not sure if this is against protocol,” he began. “But I have to ask. Who was he? The man. Why him?”

Dr. Danvers opened her mouth to speak, but Ray raised his hand to silence her.

Ray sighed deeply and nodded. “I understand your curiosity, Mr. Pinker. I really do. But I don’t think you’ll like any of my answers.”

“And why not?”

“The truth?” Ray said, shrugging in an emphatic gesture. “I simply don’t know much more than you. The man was a convict slated for execution, I know that. He was selected by the Osiris ethics board, based on his background and organ fit. That’s about all I know. I hope you understand. Rules and all. Way above my pay grade,” Ray laughed and rolled his eyes.

“Was he…alive?” Val asked.

“Yes,” Dr. Danvers answered, before Ray could cut her off this time. “Barely, but yes. The smelting process requires live organic material.”

“The uncomfortable truth of how the, uh, sausage, is made, if you will,” Ray said, pleased with himself.

Val tried to balance the moral weight of what he’d taken part in, but it just made him feel ill. As a waste engineer, he’d witnessed all the harsh fates that can befall matter: it could be burned, evaporated, buried, transformed, and recycled, even shot into space to be forgotten, but Dr. Danvers was right: matter cannot be destroyed. It made a kind of raw sense to repurpose life from one person to another. But this logic was savage. It required a cynicism that Val felt uncomfortable with, even as he felt fresh youth pumping through his body.

“Enough about all this stuff,” Ray said, motioning to the charts behind him. “How do you feel, Mr. Pinker?”

“Pretty good, actually,” Val said, stretching his arms out in front of him and observing them. The truth was he felt magnificent. Sixty-five years old, and he hadn’t felt this sturdy in decades.

“What about mentally?” Dr. Danvers asked, walking towards Val, her hands in her pockets.

“I feel okay. Maybe a little…mixed up,” Val admitted. “I keep having these…daydreams. I don’t know what else to call them. I keep snapping out of it and feeling like I’ve lost time.”

Ray and Dr. Danvers exchanged a glance.

“How long do these spells last?” Dr. Danvers asked.

“Minutes maybe,” Val said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can you describe one of these daydreams?” Dr. Danvers pressed.

“There’s only one. I’m somewhere outside Crucible City, up in the hills. I can see the corpo tower lights in the distance. There’s a campfire. I see a bunch of faces in the firelight. They’re looking at me. Staring. I try to scream but a strange sound comes out, like a buzz-saw. They all raise their hands in response. Everyone has tattoos on the back of their hands, some sort of symbol. An angel wing. It’s the same every time. Like it’s on a loop.”

Ray’s expression morphed from an interested stare into a leering grin. He put his hands in his pockets and paced to the other side of the room, seemingly to hide his enjoyment. Dr. Danvers sat on a nearby chair and hung her shoulders. The disparity in their responses made Val nervous. He didn’t know who to seek for counsel.

“Is everything okay?” Val asked. “Am I sick or something?”

Ray spun around. “Mr. Pinker, Val, baby,” he started, opening his arms wide. “You are the opposite of sick, my friend. What you’re describing is a perfectly normal part of recovery. The smelting process shocks your brain with a ton of new energy. You’re having vivid dreams as a result. They’ll pass. Right, Dr. Danvers?”

Ray looked at her to answer.

“Yup,” she nodded. “You’re just fine.”

“There you have it, right from Dr. Frankenstein,” Ray said, laughing at his own joke. “I think that’s our cue. Mr. Pinker needs some rest. He’s the guest of honor tonight at the Osiris Labs Gala.” He slugged Val in the shoulder again. “Everyone wants to hear your story, man. Come find me later, let’s clink glasses.” Ray pointed a finger-pistol at Val and walked to the door of the recovery room. “Coming, doctor?” he asked Dr. Danvers.

“I’m right behind you,” she responded. “Just going to give Mr. Pinker something to help him sleep.”

“Don’t be long,” Ray said, looking at his watch. He turned and left.

Part 3: Awakening

The doctor went to a cabinet on the far side of the Recovery Room. She loaded an auto-injector. Bright green fluid bubbled in the chamber. Its color made Val uneasy.

“Honestly, I’m so wiped, I don’t think I need any help falling asleep, doc,” he said.

She ignored him, walking to the door and locking it shut. She peered out of the small glass window at the top of the door.

“Is everything–”

“I need you to stand up,” she said, turning to face him. “We don’t have much time.”

Val stood with some effort. He was confused, exhausted.

“Listen, ma’am,” he said, getting annoyed. “I don’t really–”

 Pain rippled behind Val’s eyes. He became a passenger in his own body. It felt like someone seized control of a rod protruding from the back of his head and pointed his vision downward, at a brutal angle, so that he peered inside himself. Whoever it was that operated his body was conducting a search. His brain was a filing system, each record examined and set aside. The search was for coordinates, directions to some sort of base underground, a facility in the hills.

The spell passed, and Val fell to one knee. Something was seriously wrong. A consciousness was asserting itself in place of his own. Something sentient and cruel was spreading from organ to organ, ripping through veins and tissue, replacing the fluids there with a different mixture.

“What’s happening to me?” he asked.

“He is overtaking you.”

“What do you mean? Who?”

“Kal Ronan,” Dr. Danvers said, tears in her eyes. “The man you devoured. Ray lied to you. He knows very well who that man was. He was the leader of the Seraph Collective. God, I didn’t think…none of the data suggested this was possible. Those crazy motherfuckers, with all their eternal-life, death-cult bullshit. I’m so sorry, Val.”

“It feels like I’m…dying. Am I dying?”

“No. Not exactly. It’s more like your consciousness will be…deprioritized. Moved to a back seat. You’ll still be aware, but you won’t be in control. He will.”

Val pictured his vineyard, rolling hills of green, a place of peace and craft and toil. Flames sparked in a corner of the vineyard, and soon the entire valley was engulfed in rolling flames, billows of smoke and ash and char. He smiled grimly. The universe wasn’t about to let him just walk away with a new life. Perhaps this was some sort of cosmic justice. He’d attempted an existential thievery, savage and gruesome, in order to enrich himself. But he was always a puppet, nothing more. He felt like a fool.

“How long do I have?”

“If I can help it,” Dr. Danvers said, injecting herself in her organic arm. “An hour, maybe.”

“What do you mean, if you can help it?”

Dr. Danvers reached out and ran her hand over the Smelter in Val’s chest, searching for grooves in a sequential order. Something alighted within Val, heat that grew and bloomed. The Smelter unfolded its fan of blades from his chest and chopped the air.

“What are you doing?!” Val yelled.

“Trust me,” she said.

She stepped forward slowly, her arm extended outward as an offering. The tips of her fingers were devoured. Blood spattered across her lab coat, her face, which was grimacing but unafraid.

“Why?” Val asked. He could feel garbled flesh and bone flush through the Smelter hardware. Already he felt new strength, and something else–part of Dr. Danvers herself awakening behind his eyes. He felt her compassion, her devotion to the Osiris Project, a deep fear. Someone she wished to keep safe.

Her hand vanished with a single flick, then her forearm was diced easily. She pushed what remained of her arm into the Smelter up her shoulder, blood spraying everywhere, coating the medical monitors, the walls, Val’s bed sheets. She fell to the ground. The blades slowed down, shut off and folded back inside Val’s chest.

Val stumbled back in horror, feeling the new material course through his internal systems.

“They’ll probably kill me,” Dr. Danvers said, swimming in blood, reaching for a piece of hardware on the floor. It was disc-shaped with a large handle. She pressed the hardware against the stump where her arm had been. Her flesh seared. She gritted her teeth.

“At least this way I can say you attacked me.”

Val fell into a chair, intoxicated by the fresh intake of material.

Life expectancy updated. New life expectancy: 160 years.

New memories washed over Val. Two delicate hands shaking a professor’s, accepting a diploma. The same two hands, holding a child in the air, an adoption and a dream. So much joy in those hands. Two arms draped in lab coat sleeves, tired arms, resting on a desk in the dark, the glow of a computer screen bearing the Osiris logo. Two arms in restraints, one of them bionic, typing on a keyboard, a letter of resignation, over and over, deleting it after each rewrite. A single bionic arm, touching a man’s shoulder, Val’s own shoulder he recognized, their first meeting, the mechanical arm conveying so much intensity: admiration, warmth, fear, pride.

The vision faded, and Val regained his focus. 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry it’s just me. An old man with simple dreams that cost so much. This isn’t what I wanted.”

 Dr. Danvers winced and shifted her weight, her bionic hand holding her fresh arm stump. “You still have time.”

“To do what?” Val shouted. “Seems like time’s up.”

“Take down as many of those motherfuckers as possible,” she said, spitting blood. “The Seraph Collective won’t stop until all their incarcerated members are devoured by a Smelter, resurrected in new flesh. Like you, Val. They’ll go on a rampage, create an army of members with infinite life.”

Val mustered his energy and stood. He’d go down swinging.

“I guess I need something to wear.”

“I have just the thing,” she smiled.

“Let’s take out some trash.”

Part 4: Feeding

The backstage of the Osiris Theater was dark. Long hallways snaked into the distance ahead of Val. He checked the time. 7:15. By Dr. Danvers’s description, he had thirty minutes left, tops. He wore blue tactical pants with a black leather jacket. Underneath the jacket he wore a plate of red ballistic armor, a porthole custom-cut in the chest to display the Smelter. His shades were hot pink, mirrored, and glowing.

“I gotta say, sir. This is a real honor.” It was Val’s ‘handler,’ a man who’d introduced himself as “Zen” a few minutes earlier back at the recovery room. Zen wore a robe of chains. He was armed with a high-caliber stun pistol, which he handled like it was a toy.

“Kal Ronan, in the flesh. Dressing room is right here.”

The door to the dressing room was open. A man stepped out. It was Ray.

“My god, look at you,” Ray said, beaming. “Good to see you back, sir. You look fantastic, crowd’s gonna love it. I suppose we have Dr. Danvers to thank for this ensemble? Glad that bitch is getting better at following orders. Right this way, sir. Let’s toast to your good health,” Ray said, shooting Val with a finger-pistol like he’d done before.

Val clenched within himself and engaged the Smelter. The fan of blades unfolded and began chopping the air. Before Ray could react, Val closed the distance and the Smelter chopped off the tip of Ray’s finger-pistol. Ray looked at the exposed bone of his index finger in horror, blood spurting upwards like a geyser.

“Holy fuck,” Zen screamed. He fumbled with the stun pistol, finally cocking it and raising it to aim. Val spun in his direction and leapt forward. The Smelter caught one of the chains of Zen’s robe and tangled him into the blades, face first. There was a crunch and a spatter, and the man’s bottom half fell to the floor, lifeless and decapitated.  

Life expectancy updated. New life expectancy: 185 years.

Ray stumbled backwards into the dressing room holding his bleeding finger, his eyes wide and frightened.

“It’s you,” he said. “The fucking garbage man. You can’t stop what’s coming, man. This is prophecy. You should be honored. You are the vessel. He will live until the foretold fire, within you.”

Ray tripped backwards and fell on his back.

“I’m no vessel,” Val said. “But you’re right about one thing. I’m just a garbageman. And you’re trash.” He leaped into the air and belly-flopped square on top of Ray with the Smelter blades spinning. The sound was loud, industrial, grinding.

Life expectancy updated. New life expectancy: 236 years.

Part 5: Benediction

Val emerged onstage from behind a thick black curtain to uproarious applause. A woman at the mic looked back at him in excitement.

“Look who it is, folks!” she said, the crowd growing even more feverish. “You’ve heard enough of me. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce our guest of honor. The messiah in the desert. The one who will witness the fire. In his new flesh, I present to you, Kal Ronan!”

The crowd erupted.

Val approached the mic, and signaled for the crowd to quiet.

“I’m not your messiah,” he said. “I’m just a garbageman.”

He engaged the Smelter. The fan of blades unfolded and sped up to a blur. The crowd grew uneasy. Val thrust his own arms into the blades, first one, and then the other. He felt himself getting pulled downward, sucked into the vortex. Memories of his own came flooding back. He’d been a good employee, an innovator in waste management in his own small world. His favorite bar on Gower Street, the locals there who always welcomed him. His vineyard dreams, so real they’d become like memories of genuine experience.

Val pushed forward and his head and shoulders were swallowed inward by the Smelter, converted to red mulch. His decapitated body fell to the floor in a sitting position, and then folded forward in half. His legs were caught in the blades and ripped upward, pants, boots and all. The Smelter blades chopped into the wood of the stage, flipped on end and spiraled out into the crowd, whipping the remnants of Val Pinker throughout the theater, the greatest garbage man this world has ever known.


Copyright © 2022 Mark Burnham

The Author

Mark Burnham