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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #508
L'homme de l'amiante
David Gunn

Sheila was sitting in a chair in the Post Ophthalmological Care Unit on the hospital's fifth floor when she heard a strange squeaking noise from outside. Instinctively, she got up, hurried to the window and glanced out. The squeaking instantly turned to shrieking as the powerful W rays her eyes emitted melted a dozen Mouseketeers who were touring the city promoting their thirty-first farewell tour. Great, just great, she thought. That made at least a hundred innocent people she'd incinerated in the two days since the bandages had come off. She rubbed her eyes charily, careful not to peer at her hands. How long would it be, she wondered, before she could control her withering gaze? She'd posed that question just that morning to Dr. Bleiber, the St. Salmons Hospital surgeon who had performed the operation, but he hadn't had a satisfactory answer for her. And now, with fourth degree burns covering 95 percent of his body, he might never provide a satisfactory answer. Well, she hadn't really meant to look him in the eye!

She picked up a cup of tepid coffee from the bureau and tried to heat it with a quick glimpse. The W rays briefly illuminated the liquid, but otherwise didn't affect it, and the coffee remained lukewarm. Funny, she thought, how selective the rays were. She looked at the clock on the wall--nothing; the pulsamatic monitoring contraption attached to her wrist--likewise nothing; her red flannel bathrobe--and abruptly it burst into flames. Nertz! She tore it off her, ran into the lavatory, and flung it into the bathtub, but in the process she impulsively peeked to see if there was any water in it. There was, and the tub immediately turned into a boiling cauldron. Well, this was getting to be intolerable! What on earth had those St. Salmons doctors done to her? Sheila had a good mind to go downstairs and give them what for! They'd locked her in her room, but a quick gawk summarily made an ash out of the door. Two guards who had been posted outside were smart enough to run away before the searing heat was on them. Averting her eyes from anything remotely flammable--such as the bale of hay that stood outside the door of Bob, the (former) man afflicted with Species Identity Disorder who had recently undergone an operation to turn him into a reindeer--Sheila looked down the corridor to see if the coast was clear. It was ... at least as far as the stairway, where a large figure lurked. Although both light and sum were dim, she was pretty sure she recognized him. As she approached the stairway, the figure stood up and defiantly blocked her path. The long, thin fibers that trailed from his jacket and trousers identified him at once: Asbestosman! It looked like the confrontation she had long anticipated was at last at hand!

Asbestosman! The mere mention of the name sent most people running for cover, if not for office. Formerly known as Bob--not the Species Identity Disorder individual--he had been a mild-mannered accent coach with the Jehovah's Witness Protection Program. But one day, while training a whistle-blowing finance officer with a stem cell phone research firm to speak conversational Finnish ("Mikä tuo korvastasi pilkottava juttu on?" What is that thing sticking out of your ear?), the ceiling to his office suddenly collapsed, spilling eight hundred kilos of asbestos insulation on him. Alas, the finance officer--who coincidentally was also named Bob--choked on his whistle and died. The other Bob survived, though he inhaled what was later estimated to be nearly a godzillian fibers. The good news is he didn't contract pneumoconiosis. The bad news: his body went on a magnesium silicate binge until it mutated him into Asbestosman. His skin turned from a healthy translucence to a flaky and incombustible achromasia. But the real change was in his demeanor. Perhaps because he had lost the ability to accentuate, the erstwhile mild-mannered company man had transformed into a curmudgeon with a terroristic bent.

Sheila, too, had worked for JWPP, in the insurance division: it was her job to insure that Asbestosman was neutralized. So she allowed the Program's covert health care unit to modify her body to counteract her ex-coworker's newfound strengths. But she had expected she'd be outfitted with better abs and pecs, not those darned W rays! Well, it was too late to gripe about it now. Might as well make an ash out of Asbestosman and get on with her life.

She stopped six feet from him, warmed up her eyes with a little blepharospasmic bourée, then turned her gaze upon him full bore.

Nothing happened. Not to her quarry, anyway. The adjacent balustrade and the wall behind him burst into flames, however, except for a wisp of smoke curling out of a singed nostril, Asbestosman was unharmed. The heat from the conflagration drove Sheila back into the corridor while Asbestosman just stood his ground, smirking.

But it was his devil-may-care attitude that led to Asbestosman's downfall, in more ways than one. For, within seconds, the fire spread to the floor directly beneath the former accent coach. Before he sensed his impending misfortune, it gave way, and down he fell.

Five floors of free falling is enough to jeopardize the well-being of any individual, even one as finely re-engineered as Asbestosman. Sure enough, by the time he reached the ground floor lobby--or rather, what was left of it--he was all strung-out, fiberwise. His only remaining recognizable feature was, oddly enough, a normally combustible pocket protector.

The demise of Asbestosman was good news for JWPP's insurance division; the inferno that the bottom five floors of St. Salmon's Hospital had become was not. Nor was it particularly good news to Sheila, who had had no recourse but to retreat down the corridor from the flames. Each time she saw a possible escape route, her eyes' mischievous W rays set fire to it. Now she was at the end of the hallway next to the hot beverage machine. And then she remembered her cup of coffee. It hadn't been affected by her searing gaze! She glanced at the machine. It shuddered slightly, coughed up two dollars in change, but was otherwise unaffected. On an impulse, she spun the dial to "Decaf, extra cream," and suddenly the whole front of the machine fell away. Inside were not the workings of a vending machine but rather the rungs of a ladder that led down into a very dark and narrow hole that faded into and out of focus. Coruscating pinpoints of light glimmered from far away, and she thought she smelled hay. It was rather unreal, much as the flames that licked at her heels were not, so she hopped into the machine, grabbed the rungs, and started down.

"Down" is how I hope you, our listening audients, will calm once you learn that the rest of the story will not be revealed on this 508th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar due to time constraints. Why, there's barely time enough to pass the microphonic baton over to Kalvos.