My Time with Doctor David Risona

By Rick Landon

Summary: I spent three weeks living with an online friend I never met in person. I knew he was a mad scientist, but he nevertheless managed to surprise me.

There are many misconceptions about Doctor David Jonathan Risona, including those he spreads himself. I write this account to clarify a few things about a man I have conflicted feelings about, although I still consider him a good friend. He does what he believes his best, although his occasionally condescending and recalcitrant bearing repelled those that might otherwise be his friends. That is even before considering his personal eccentricities, of which I learned in embarrassingly particular detail.

While he was a year or so older than me at the time of this writing, Dr. Risona lived a very different life than me. He grew up under disturbingly average parents in a Delaware Valley suburb. He received a master's degree in electrical engineering with a biomedical focus, before completing his doctorate in New Zealand. He unwillingly returned to the US due to circumstances I am still entirely unclear about, but he received a postdoc working with some governmental or military research. I am not entirely sure of the details, but I am familiar with the more sordid details of his private research.

Dave was always a man willing to try new things, at least if given the chance. He traveled across North America and Oceania. He ate food from all sorts of places. He bedded and dated men and women from more countries than I could find on a map. He explored martial arts, weapons, and histories of even more distant lands in time and geography. He'd undergone the transition from an insecure wallflower to an incessantly babbling extravert. He flaunted his knowledge whenever given the chance, yet he was more than ready to listen when necessary. He gained such a mindset from his travels, but that was not how I originally met him.

I'd say Dave is an example I've met of a polymath, of skills equal parts fascinating and useless. He enjoys reading and writing, particularly of strange speculative fiction and history. He practiced parkour, and martial arts from aikido to krav maga. He dabbled in sailing and first aid, courtesy of his time as a Coast Guard Auxiliarist. His pornographic fetishizing of weapons, brains, and cyborgs was something I'd been aware of since I met him. He was up to date in geopolitics and well-versed in many technical fields, specializing in those that mated tissue with technology in particularly grotesque ways. His tenure diving through dumpsters during a period in New Zealand even gave him a particularly obscene habit of compulsively digging through trash. In this way, I'd suspected him of being a half-rate, though ultimately harmless, mad scientist. My current assessment is quite different.

I met Dave as a fellow speculative fiction writer, of whom I established a voluminous online correspondence. After spending some time in Central America, personal duress drove me back to the United States to seek work unrelated to my unconventional employment in the tropics. Dave was kind enough to invite me in while I looked for work. I'd never met him in person, but I'd known him online for a decade at that point, as a good friend and confidante. Being frustrated with the place I grew up, I'd resolved to give it a chance.

I flew into Washington, DC and took the train north. It stopped at a dead-end town in Maryland that seemed superficially familiar to the Rust Belt berg I grew up in. Waiting for me at the station, science fiction book in hand, was Dr. Risona. After traveling through a brick tunnel under the tracks that bore the unmistakable aroma of hobo piss, I saw him. He was taller than I was, with a face like a bemused owl. He was able to discern me out of the throng of passengers, and we left for his car, which was parked nearby.

Dave was more mellow than I envisioned he'd be in real life. He bought me groceries at the local supermarket, and he tried to help me settle in as best he could. I brought a tent I pitched in his living room, alternating between my sleeping bag and his sofa while spending most of the time on the floor. I was surprised how upscale his apartment was, with an elevator, pool, and gym more like a hotel. He was keen to allow me to move around, but barred me from his bedroom and closet. Such a demand seemed logical enough, so I complied with it unthinkingly.

Dave kept the apartment somewhat clean, although one corner was dominated by a stack of cardboard boxes he used for target practice for his bows and blades. For edged weapons, he also showed me his kukri, a combat knife, a bayonet, a diving knife, and a Malay kris he polished regularly. He covetously showed me his collection of firearms, which was solely comprised by authentic and reproduction Victorian revolvers. Of those, I noted his favorite seemed to be the Remington 1858 with a conversion cylinder. Why do I remember that, you ask? Because he'd incessantly talk about the guileless simplicity of such weapons, and how humanity would be better if we'd be brains instead of convoluted meat-bags. His cache held other supplies, of which I scarcely remember. Of the fictional scientists he admired, Indiana Jones and Gordon Freeman were clearly at the top of the list.

Dave was always eager to share his knowledge and insight, much like a rabid dog was eager to share its disease. He'd launch into rants about the history, philosophy, or science behind random objects he saw at the slightest provocation, with all the excitement of a young child that never learned self-control. When not on one of his tangents or discussing plans for various stories, podcasts, or creative endeavors, his mouth was unceasing cavalcade of humorless puns. Despite this, he always offered to show me martial arts or shooting techniques, as though he sensed my general disinterest in martial rigor.

Despite his seemingly erratic behavior, Dave had a daily routine more akin to a broken record. He'd get up early in the morning, exercise, eat, and clean up before work. Once he returned, he'd exercise once more before powering through his own work into cyborg bodies. I was "fortunate" enough to be on the receiving end of one such lecture several times, about the wonders of being a brain in a life support jar. Dave pursued that, and head transplants, and similar work, despite few sane institutions pursuing them. I believe that made him double down on such research instead of ignoring them, like his tenure and career-minded counterparts would.

Dave was stubborn and thickheaded on points of philosophy, politics, and lifestyle, but more than willing to accommodate me. He even turned on the air conditioner in the middle of summer, instead of leaving the windows open like he'd doing prior to my arrival. Outside the window was not much to see, as there was an empty parking lot with a wooded area beyond it. Dave said there was a homeless camp living in the woods, of which he made references to being familiar with. When I pressed him for details, he said it was a component of a research project.

I was not one to question too deeply, given my nescience of his mad science projects. And so, I got into something of an uneasy adjustment of my new routine. I'd spend most of my time online with my laptop, writing and talking with friends in different time zones. Dave would have his fruit, yogurt, and cereal for breakfast while I did so. For lunch and dinner, it was always uncooked tofu salad. He'd eat like a Buddhist monk, save his fixation on chocolate chip cookies. He nevertheless was similarly obsessive about disposal of waste, religiously separating recycle and trash from each other. He'd also sometimes come in with objects I suspected came from the dumpster outside, but I did not bother asking.

I had little luck looking for work, despite some initial hopes. I'd had few offers for serious jobs that paid above minimum wage. There was also the issue of transport, complicated because I lacked a car and the dearth of decent public transit around. Despite this, Dave was kind enough to ferry me around on various adventures. We toured the preserved mansion of a Civil War general, where he gave me a more garrulous and thorough explanation than the tour guide. He took me to an archery range, where we chased errant arrows into the underbrush. We went sailing in the mouth of the bay, with a captain that superficially resembled Brienne of Tarth. Sometimes, he'd claim a need to return early, as if to weasel his way out of prior commitments. Despite this, it was at least fairly interesting.

Dave was a teetotaler against alcohol in all its forms, much to my annoyance. He claimed ignorance of the lack of stores around here selling liquor, which nevertheless seemed genuine enough. I knew his longstanding aversion to alcohol and drugs was some vestige of his time as a Boy Scout, perhaps with a helping of some inscrutable personal asceticism. In addition, I noted the frequency of his sojourns to the hobo camp in the woods increasing, and the bizarre odors in his closet increasing. I was tempted to bring this up during our daily walks, in which we brainstormed story ideas, but I never felt confident asking directly. While I was able to tune this out at first, my curiosity grew like the incessant gnawing of a charnel worm.

About three weeks into my arrival, my curiosity claimed the better of me. When Dave left for work, I looked inside the closet. There were brains in some manner of translucent jars, attached to wires and bizarre life support apparatuses, the minutiae of which I'd been bombarded about over the last three weeks. A pair of severed heads looked at me from under translucent plastic cases, their veins conjoined with a complex pump apparatus. One winked at me, and I slammed the closet behind me.

Dave walked back in then, and I realized I must've tripped some unseen alarm. He began to detail the silent detection system, and how vital his work was. He claimed that the homeless would entrust their dead to him, and like a carrion-feeding ghoul, he'd collected their heads and brains for his macabre research. He claimed he'd given them a virtual eternity of pure nirvana, a sensation of pleasures beyond mortal sensations. He claimed such work would enable the development of full body prosthetics, cyborg bodies for transplanted brains. Then, he offered me the chance to join them. Seeing how paradisiac such a state of mind would be, I eagerly assented.

Just kidding. I ran like hell and didn't look back. I hitchhiked all the way to my parents' house over the next few days, bedraggled and battered. While I won't go into the gory details, I was happy to put distance between the mad scientist's place and myself. Unsurprisingly, I got an email from Dave shortly thereafter. He said he'd respect my decision, and he'd mailed all my things back to me at his own expense. Even as my things trickled back through the mail like bits of a dismembered body, I could not help but think about my friend. You know what? We're still friends, but I am going to turn down any offers to be a research subject in the near future.