Man or machine.

In Response to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Leeches [1983]

Ray Boone

Jeffery rocked his skull against the computer screen. The passcode would be set soon. 30 keys with 28 completed. 28 keys, 28 years, 28 roaches he’d counted in the metal room.

He’d been out of water for three days now, food for seven. The warnings he’d been given were discarded in his memory. All he could now remember were his reasons to keep going.

“The formula contains the key to a new mind” ——- but the formula was meant only to erase the mind.

“The new cure will bring an end to cognitive decay” ——– or so the public was told.

“Jeffree here is fixing to get himself a promotion!” ———- An extra two dollars in exchange for his humanity.

Six hours past noon meant the metal man would come again. He’d been spared six times but he’d soon come to an end. Six more minutes until the metal man would arrive.

Jeffery’s knuckles roughly punched the keyboard as his fingertips were oozing from the acid in the air. Breathing was a privilege he sacrificed to ensure his city’s survival. He wouldn’t let the demise of himself scare him away from the importance of his last days.

Another key turned green. He was closer than ever, only one key left. If he could crack the last one in the next minute he could miss the metal man.

Keyboard click after keyboard clack with only ten-seconds to go until suddenly a familiar blue mist filled the factory: the decontamination to rid itself of pests.

The poison failed to kill the insects that had grown resistant throughout the years of production but was milligrams away from killing Jeffery. He’d run out of time before the metal man’s entrance.

The man cowered over him tonight like any other. Blue fog wisped around his face as he smiled. He had two horns made of pipes with lines like railroad tracks. His yellow eyes stared directly into Jeffery’s, taunting him. Jeffery knew if the metal man smiled any wider he’d be digested by golden teeth and the last key would never be solved.

Each night the golden man’s stare would threaten him until he absolved himself into a nightmare-filled sleep. Depraved pupils followed his every time he tried to look away. This man wasn’t man, he was a metal demon. Behind the 28 keys was the public’s knowledge to the empire that Jeffery helped build. The Metal Man was hiding the password to the pseudo cure’s formula. Only the devil himself would do such a thing.

Jeffery stared back, no longer hiding from the metal demon. He was too close to the password to back down. One more key and the metal man would be gone and the city would be safe. He would die a martyr and take the metal man with him.

Without turning away from the metal man, Jeffery reached in agony for the keyboard. All he was now was remnants of flesh, puss, and blood. He was certain now that his body was host to the parasitic test tubes that broke the first time the metal man haunted him. Maybe the bugs under his skin could move his lifeless fingers to the keyboard if the metal man took him tonight.

Maybe he could’ve explained his mission to his family more thoroughly. The metal man reminded him of his husband’s words that the cure had already been released, that the company’s damage was already done, that breaking into the laboratory was pointless and he’d be trapped as soon as he’d entered. However Jeffery couldn’t risk his spouse being wrong. He couldn’t trust the papers about the cure six months ago, why would he trust them now? How could he trust himself, the traitor who knew all along the first cure was sabotaged?

The metal man continued to mock him. His face scowled at Jeffery and twitched as he winced in pain. He knew the metal man was planning to feast tonight.

Jeffery’s fumbling fingers slipped into the loop of cords beside his head before the metal man could reach it. The keyboard crashed into his lap as he cried in pain. The metal man continued to mock him.

The tricky part was typing each key before the metal man could. Each time his finger got close to a key; the metal man would follow suit. The metal man would know the code to permanently lock the sequence from this computer, and Jeffery couldn’t risk that possibility. The public must know the truth of what the pharmaceuticals actually were, what the company had done, what he had done.

Jeffery screamed as he mashed his knuckles into the keyboard. His eyes burned and hands bled so badly he couldn’t tell what keys he was pressing. His aimless efforts had to work, he couldn’t risk it otherwise.

The machine responded with words he couldn’t discern anymore. His ears rang with screeching tones from the metal man who screamed back at him. Sparks from the ceiling burned his face but he couldn’t quit-couldn’t give up-couldn’t lose to the metal man.

Yet the metal man continued to mock him. Continued to feed him blue fog. Forced his lungs to choose between poison or suffocation. Metal eyes refused to blink as Jeffery stared back. Metal fists crashed into Jeffery’s punch. Metal smiled as Jeffery bared his teeth. Metal laughed and Jeffery cackled back.

Something was wrong. Something had happened. Something didn’t smell right. Jeffery turned around only to be met with blazing fire. The metal man distracted him and set this! Jeffery looked down to his hands only to see a shattered keyboard sticky with crimson. The metal man must have crashed the entire computer system and left the keyboard in Jeffery’s hands to trick him! This was the metal man’s fault, and he must pay.

Dread and despair were no longer found anywhere inside of Jeffery. The passcode to the cure would never be discovered, everyone he loved was as good as dead. All that he had left was this metal monster that would pay for his crimes.

Jeffery didn’t know if it was the acid, the dehydration, or adrenaline, but he no longer felt pain. He stood to meet the height of the devil who stood in front of him. He had never faced this monster standing and was surprised to realize they were the same height.

“Your time is up, demon” said Jeffery to the man.

“Your time is up, demon” responded the metal man.

Jeffery stared at the man, refusing to be mocked.

“You’re going to die today,” Jeffery yelled.

“You’re going to die today,” the metal man solemnly responded.

Jeffery marched closer to the metal man, he would not back down from this threat. He raised his fist as high as it would go and punched the metal man. His human fist met a metal hand and both collapsed to the ground. Jeffery screamed in agony.

He rolled over one last time to meet the metal man centimeters from his face. Both of their lives were about to end.

“You can’t last much longer,” Jeffery growled.

“You can’t last much longer,” the metal man quietly whispered.

“This is the end for you,” Jeffery choked through his own blood.

“This is the end for you,” the metal man sadly smiled.

The corpse of Jeffery was discovered the next month at a pharmaceutical company during a routine inspection, pressed against a metal wall.