“Have you ever experienced what real pain feels like?”

I looked up from my mug of coffee. The steam had covered my face in a shallow film of water droplets. I reached for a napkin, but the man in front of me pulled the dispenser away from me.

“Hey, what’s the big idea?” I asked, reaching again for the napkins, the man once more pulling them farther out of my reach. I sighed, defeated, and wiped the mask of dew from my skin with my shirtsleeve.

“Did you hear me?” the man asked again, this time leaning in towards me across the table that separated us, his unclipped tie falling from his crisp white button-up and into my ketchup covered eggs.

“No, I didn’t.”

“I said, have you ever experienced what real pain feels like?” The mysterious man leaned back into the booth opposite me, seemingly oblivious to his now-soiled tie.

“No, I can’t say I have,” I replied, rather curtly, “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Oh, just someone passing by,” the man said, grabbing my coffee mug from in front of me and taking a swig from it, despite my half-hearted, still half-asleep attempts to prevent him. “You’re a man of science, aren’t you?”

He pointed at the blue embroidery just above my breast pocket with a fork that was holding my scrambled eggs. “Massachusetts Institute of Technology” was sewn in cursive lettering just above my own name and degree.

“Or, my bad,” the man said while shoving the fork in his mouth rather unceremoniously before speaking again with his mouth full, “Doctor of science.”

“What do you wan—hey! Stop eating my food!”

He had already reached in for a second bite with my fork, but I was able to grab it away from him.

The handle was covered in blood.

“What the fuck?” I exclaimed, dropping the bloodstained utensil onto the table, the excess blood splattering onto the unfinished eggs that I had yet to taste.

“Oh, pardon me,” the man said with an air of confidence. He raised his hands in front of him in a mocking way, almost as if surrendering. That’s when I saw his palms clearly, but what I didn’t see was skin. Blood gushed from the top of his wrist to the base of his fingers. “It seems that my stitches must have come undone.”

Through the thick layer of red, I could see the muscles and tendons of his hands twitching with every minute movement and involuntary spasm. Further beneath the exposed viscera, I could see the sickly pinkish-white of still living bone. There was no way that these wounds were held together with just stitches.

“Stigmata,” he stated. Clearly my expression was easy enough to read for him to decide that the state of his hands deserved some sort of explanation. “As someone who has been through the courses of higher education, I’m sure you have at least a passing awareness of the concept.”

“Y-yeah,” I stammered.

“Funny, them,” he continued, “They were once a big part of the Christian tradition, but, of course, now they’re not exclusive to them. Well, not since the mass crucifixions in the Kaiserreich during the 20’s. How funny is it that now they’re more than just a symbol of the wrongly accused?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re a man of science…” he said, leaning in once again, his tie dragging its way into the eggs that now would surely never be finished. “Tell me, are you aware of Aether?”

“Rather…have you ever experienced what real pain feels like?”

The eggs ran a deeper red as he reached his hand out to caress my face.