Blackness lifted slowly, like a struggle through decreasingly thick layers of cotton.
Voices, far away and indistinct: “He’s coming around, Doctor.”
“Good, good. I’ll be—”
Consciousness floated away again; the feeling was one of riding on top of a balloon that was gently drifting through clouds, changing direction at the faintest hint of a wind. It was at the same time a peaceful feeling and a disturbing one, because somewhere the consciousness knew that the feeling was wrong. Drifting was wrong, aimless motion was wrong—
“Can you hear me?”
The voice was male, soft, determined but kindly.
Somewhere inside the emerging consciousness tried to make a connection between the sounds and some sort of answer; it did not know if it succeeded. It drifted again and when it returned, the voice was still there.
“Can you hear me?”
Again the connection floated away; this time, though, the consciousness did not go with it.
“Justin? Please answer me if you can hear me.”
A brief red flag flared, half disappointment, half fear. The voice was a mistake. It was meant to be somewhere else.
It was not meant for him.
Awareness crept forward faster now as the formless consciousness had arrived at the beginnings of an identity. The haze that surrounded him lightened once again. Vague shapes swam ahead of him, but whether they were truly there or only parts of his own imagination was not something he was yet capable of identifying.
The same voice again. Soft, patient, its lack of emotion managing somehow to still convey an emotional state.
He thought he might have answered that time, but it sounded like nothing but unintelligible sounds to his ears. He fought for an anchor, for someplace for his mind to grab hold and stop the floating.
Far away the voices continued. They didn’t seem to be speaking to him now:
“Discontinue the dosage. He’s trying to come around.”
The second voice was female, soft like the male one but efficient, dispassionate. He felt a presence next to him, a rustle of fabric and the faint change in air pressure as if someone might have been leaning over him slightly, and then it was gone.
“Thank you, Nurse. You may go now. I’ll call if I need anything.”
He could hear the voices more distinctly now, and even manage to attach some meaning to the words. The floating sensation was beginning to fade now, lowering him gently back to earth and to awareness.
Still, he did not know how long it was before he opened his eyes. It was a sudden thing, not the product of a long thought process, but rather, one moment they were closed and the next they were open—he could no longer stand the feeling that he did not know what was happening.
He was lying in a bed. The first thing he noticed beyond that was the man sitting in a chair next to the bed. The man was tall, middle-aged, with severe gray eyes and a bearing of authority; he wore a white shirt and dark tie covered by a white lab coat. There were pens in the pocket of the lab coat, and he held a clipboard in his lap. He was watching. He smiled—it was a tight little thing, as if he were not the type of person who was accustomed to smiling but he still gave it his best shot because he knew it was expected of him. “Welcome back, Justin. It is good to see you awake.”
He stared at the man for a moment. His mind was suddenly alive with images: a room, a chair, a small creature chittering in his ear, pain, the sound of running feet, the roar of gunfire. These images seemed important to him, but he could not place them in his life. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. The images receded. “I—”
“You’ve been asleep for quite some time. Are you feeling better today?”
He thought about that. Better than what? his mind supplied, but he did not voice the words. He struggled to rise, to move to a sitting position, but something stopped him. He became slowly aware that his arms were drawn up above his head, held into position by something soft but unyielding. “Why—can’t I move?” His voice sounded strained and ragged in his ears.
The man—the doctor, apparently—sighed ruefully. “I’m sorry about that, Justin. You were a bit violent when you were brought in. It was for your own good. Why don’t we talk for a bit and then I’ll see about having the restraints removed, all right?”
He tilted his head, fixing his gaze on the doctor. “I—I don’t understand. My name isn’t Justin.”
The doctor’s expression suggested that this was well-traveled territory and not altogether unexpected. He jotted something on his clipboard and regarded his patient again. “Do you remember who I am?” he asked, changing the subject smoothly.
His eyes traveled over the man’s features, his clothes, his hands. Finally he shook his head. “No. I’ve never seen you before.”
The doctor smiled the tight little smile again. “That’s all right. It’s quite understandable. You’ve been through a great deal lately. I am Dr. Henry Sorensen. We’ve been working together for awhile now, but you’ve apparently had a setback. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine in time.”
He frowned as his mind tried to make sense of the conflicting information it was receiving. “Doctor... What... what kind of doctor? I was hurt—” He remembered pains: pains in his chest, his shoulders, his wrists, his ankles, his head, his ribs, his side—all of them seemed to be gone now, except for the dull ache in his side that was at the moment barely worthy of notice.
Dr. Sorensen patted his shoulder; it was a mechanical gesture disguised as a compassionate one—the gesture of someone who never quite grasped emotion but realized that the expression of one was called for. “Don’t worry, Justin,” he repeated. “Everything will be fine. I’ll tell you everything you want to know, but first I want to make sure you’re all right. You gave us a bit of a scare before, because you’d been doing so well. Let me just give you a quick check-over and then we’ll talk if you feel up to it.”
“Why do you keep calling me Justin?” he asked as the doctor pulled out an instrument and pressed it to his chest. It was cold against his bare skin; he shivered.
“Shh...” the doctor whispered, holding up a finger for silence. A moment passed and then he took the instrument away. He noted something else on his clipboard and then addressed his patient. “Because it’s your name,” he said gently. “Your name is Justin Christopher Griffin.”
He shook his head. “No, it isn’t. I don’t know who that is, but it isn’t me.” He wondered if he was still in the grip of whatever strange sensations had been plaguing him before, if this were all just a dream.
Sorensen nodded understandingly. “All right—what shall I call you, then?” There was a very slight tone of solicitous condescension in his voice, as if he were consciously agreeing to pretend to grant the fantasies of a five-year-old the stamp of reality for the moment in order to gain some unknown advantage.
The answer came to him before he had time to think about it, with the swiftness of the kind of certainty about which one did not have to think: “Gabriel.”
He wondered why the doctor’s brow furrowed a bit at the name, why a brief look of disappointment crossed his eyes, why he made more notes on his clipboard. When he finally spoke his voice held the edges of weariness: “I thought we’d worked through that before.”
He was confused. “Worked...through—?”
Sorenson sighed. “It’s all right. We’ll start over. We’ve got time. There’s no hurry, and this sort of treatment is never quick.” He stood. “You rest—later on I’ll send the nurse in to see if you’re feeling better and then perhaps we can talk some more. All right?”
His mind whirled, once again throwing images up against the screen of the inside of his skull. “What? Oh...yes.” He looked at the doctor, remembering harsh ropes on his wrists, on his ankles. “Am I a prisoner here?”
Dr. Sorenson shook his head, perhaps a little more quickly than was absolutely necessary. “No, no, Just—No. You’re not a prisoner. Think of it more as being a guest. You’re here because you need help, and we’re here to help you.”
“Will you untie me, then?”
He looked troubled, though it was hard to tell if it was sincere. “I’m afraid I can’t do that yet. As I said, in a little while we’ll re-evaluate your condition and then perhaps, if you’re feeling better, we’ll remove the restraints.” Concern crossed his eyes. “They’re not hurting you, are they?”
“No.” His mind wasn’t moving fast enough yet to take advantage of that question—the fog still interfered with his thought processes, though not as much as before.
“Good.” Sorenson smiled his thin-lipped smile again. “I’m glad to hear it.” He patted his patient’s shoulder again and repeated, “You rest. I’ll see you later.”
And then he was gone, the door swinging closed behind him. There was a brief click that might have been a lock engaging, but it was hard to tell for sure.
He settled back with a sigh. The images weren’t stopping. He felt odd with his arms stretched out above his head like that—it gave him a dim memory of another time in his life (chains...stone altar...blood...no!) but the details wouldn’t quite come yet. He thought they might, if he gave them time. It appeared that he had little else. Tentatively he pulled on the wrist-restraints, trying to see if he could work his hands free, but it was no use. They were soft, pliant, their tethers loose enough so he had some freedom of movement, but the cuffs were snug and strong. He realized that his legs were similarly restrained, but with more play in the tethers. He found he could bring his knees up to a bent position but no further; like the wrist cuffs, the ankle cuffs were soft, snug-fitting, and quite unescapable.
He spared only brief attention for the room. He was lying on a comfortable but rather institutional bed in the middle of a room that was made of whites and beiges and pale grays and the silver of efficient metal instruments. There was a nightstand next to the bed; it contained a small lamp and nothing else. The chair on which Dr. Sorenson had sat was as institutional as the bed: the kind that could be stacked to the ceiling with its fellows and then brought out to fill a room. Even the chair was beige. There was a window on one of the walls; it looked out on what appeared to be a grassy courtyard. The bars on the window were white, unobtrusive and as tasteful as it was possible for bars to be. The room’s only ornamentation, other than the door through which Sorenson had made his exit and another one which presumably led to a bathroom, was a framed print of a seascape on the wall opposite the bed. He noticed, idly, that the glass was gone from the frame.
With nothing else to do, he closed his eyes and allowed his mind to drift, to touch lightly on the images, on the memories, on the faces that flashed across his consciousness. It had the odd quality of trying to remember a dream: if he concentrated too hard on it, it flitted away like an elusive bird that would allow him to come just so close, but no closer.
The faces paraded through his mind in an orderly procession: a tall, dark-haired man; a blondish man with eyes and moves like a cat; a pale, severe elf; an Amerind troll—
—and then there were the other two faces. The faces that quickened his breath and spurred his heartbeat: a wiry blond woman with green eyes and a powerfully-built, dark-haired man with a gaze like a bird of prey. I should know these people. Why can’t I remember? Impatiently he tried to force the memory, but his only reward was to see it dance even further out of his reach. He sighed, momentarily defeated, and then started again.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but when he woke up, the answers were there as if they had never departed. His uneasy dreams gave way to reality as the fog drifted away and the faces and memories fell into place. I am Gabriel. I am a dragon. Those people are my friends and my brother. My brother is in trouble. I must help him. That is why I am here.
It was all back now: the memory of what had happened before he had come here, the memory of the strange dark city and his captivity, the memory of hearing shots, seeing them aimed at him, but feeling nothing—how could that have been? Grimly he struggled against the restraints, exerting more pressure than he had before. He had to get out of here. Even though he suspected it would do no good, he tried to magically open the cuffs. Nothing happened. A couple more experiments confirmed for him what he had feared: his magical abilities had not yet returned.
There was a knock at the door and then a second later it opened to admit a nurse dressed in white pants and a beige scrub top. She smiled when she saw he was awake. “How are you feeling?”
He noticed she didn’t refer to him by name. He did a new inventory of himself and discovered to his surprise that there was no sign of any of the injuries that had been inflicted on him by Salazaro and his thugs. The only remnant was still the throbbing ache in his side, which flared up occasionally but was otherwise a dull and constant companion. “I’m fine,” he told her. “Can you let me out of these restraints, please?” He forced his voice to remain even, calm, pleasant.
She shook her head as she checked something on the chart attached to the foot of the bed. “Sorry, can’t. You know that. Only Dr. Sorenson can do that. But if you’re feeling better I’m sure he’ll do it after you talk.” She jotted something on the chart and then looked at him again. “So—shall I tell him you’re ready?”
He shrugged. “I suppose so.”
She regarded him for a moment and then turned away toward the door. Gabriel caught a quick look of kindly pity in her eyes before she left. This time there was no mistaking the sound of the lock.
Sorenson returned several minutes later. He did not knock. Instead, he entered the room with the familiarity of an owner and pulled the beige chair up next to the bed. “Did you rest well?”
He shrugged, as much as he could with his arms above his head. “Well enough. Can you let me out of these, please?”
The doctor looked at him for several moments and made a note. “I don’t know. Can we trust you? You seemed quite calm earlier, before your—outburst.”
He took a deep breath. “I’m not going to have any outbursts, Doctor. I just don’t like to be restrained.”
“Do you promise to behave yourself if I let you go?” He indicated the door with a head movement. “There are orderlies outside the door—if you do have another outburst, they’ll have to sedate you again. I’d imagine you don’t find that pleasant.”
He remembered the grasping fog and shuddered slightly. “No. I don’t.”
“So do I have your word? No misbehavior?”
Sorenson smiled; it hadn’t gotten any more cheerful since he’d left. “All right, then.” Rising, he crossed the room and knocked once on the door. It opened and two burly orderlies came in. “Take them off,” he ordered.
Gabriel’s eyes widened as he looked at the faces of the orderlies. They were Carl and Luke, Salazaro’s goons—or their twins. His breathing picked up pace a bit.
“Are you all right?” Sorenson asked, holding up a hand for the orderlies to wait.
He nodded, forcing the reaction away. “Yes. I’m fine. Sorry.”
A tense pause dragged on for several seconds and then finally Sorenson nodded once to the orderlies. They moved in and removed the restraints from Gabriel’s wrists and ankles, their motions practiced, efficient, and gentle.
Gabriel let his breath out slowly.
“Thank you. You may go now,” Sorenson said, dismissing the orderlies from his attention before they even left the room. When they were gone he turned back to Gabriel. “There. Better?”
Gabriel sat up, propping himself against the wall with the pillow at his back. He looked down at himself: he was dressed only in loose-fitting white scrub pants; he could see no sign of injuries on his chest, his arms, or his wrists—nothing but the single scar. He looked at the doctor. “Better,” he acknowledged. “Would you mind telling me where I am—and what I’m doing here?”
There was no visible reaction on Sorenson’s face to the words, but Gabriel nonetheless got the impression that the man had been asked this question—by him—on more than one occasion. “All right,” he said at last. “We’ll start again.” He leaned back in his chair, not in a pose of relaxation, but rather one of a man who expects to be in the same position for a long time. “Do you remember when you first came here?”
“I just woke up here today.”
Sorenson shook his head. “No, not today. I mean—before. Do you remember being here before?”
“I haven’t been here before.”
The doctor paused to make a note on his clipboard. His eyes rose, but his head did not. “You don’t remember your previous stays here?”
Gabriel frowned, his intent eyes meeting the doctor’s. “Doctor, I don’t think you heard me. I have never been here before.”
Another pause. “All right, son. It’s all right. We don’t have to talk about that now if you don’t want to. Suppose you tell me what you do remember, then? We’ll go from there.” His voice was soft, soothing.
Gabriel was silent. There was nothing he could tell this man that would placate him—he had no idea what this particular reality was asking of him.
The silence didn’t seem to bother Sorenson. He waited patiently for several moments and, when it became clear that his patient wasn’t going to answer, he nodded almost as if he expected it. “I know you’ve been through a great deal, Justin. I just want you to keep it in mind that we’re here to help you. We want to help you. But you have to talk to us.”
“My name isn’t Justin. I told you that before. It’s Gabriel.” He looked past the doctor as if gauging his chances to get out of the room; he had promised no outbursts, but a swift run for the door could not technically be classed as an “outburst.” Still, though, he did not know what awaited him on the other side of the door. He decided to bide his time and try to figure out what he could from the doctor’s questions before making a decision about the future.
“Gabriel,” the doctor said. His tone was that of a loving father who had suddenly been asked by his young son to refer to him by the name of some fantasy superhero from the child’s imagination. “All right, then—if it will help you talk to us, Gabriel it is. You do know,” he added gently, “that we’ll have to get to the bottom of this eventually, don’t you?”
“What do you know about Stefan?” Gabriel asked suddenly, ignoring the doctor’s query.
Oddly, Sorenson seemed to anticipate the question. His features took on a mien of careful contemplation, as if he were deciding what he was and was not allowing himself to say. Finally he nodded. “It’s normal for you to be thinking about him, Jus—Gabriel. It hasn’t been very long since it happened. Do you want to talk about that?”
“I want to know what you know about him,” Gabriel repeated.
Another pause. “Well...I know that he was tragically killed a few months ago, and that you’re having a hard time dealing with his death.” His voice was clinical but gentle.
“How was he killed?”
Dr. Sorenson drew himself up a bit in his chair. “Gabriel, I don’t think we’re quite ready to discuss that. Please—trust me to help you. It will all come out in time, but I think it could jeopardize your treatment if we try to take things too fast.”
Gabriel sighed. “Am I a prisoner in this room?”
This time the doctor was caught off guard, but recovered quickly. “A prisoner? No—no, of course not. I’d prefer it if you’d stay here now and talk with me, but when our session is done you’re welcome to visit the common areas if you like.”
“But I can’t leave—whatever this place is.”
Sorenson smiled. “Not yet, son. That will come too, but you’re here for your own good. If we let you go too soon, you could hurt yourself and others. We need to help you work through these difficulties you’re having.”
“What difficulties?” Gabriel’s voice was soft but implacable. As long as the doctor was going to carry on the illusion of being helpful and communicative, Gabriel was going to take advantage of it.
This time, though, Sorenson didn’t answer. He jotted something else on the clipboard and then looked at Gabriel. “Suppose you tell me about—Gethelwain.”
Gabriel stiffened just a bit. “Who?” He kept his voice carefully neutral. It was not what he had expected.
The doctor’s expression suggested that he had scored a point, but it lasted only a split-second before returning to clinical detachment once again. “Gethelwain. How do you feel about him?”
“I—don’t understand the question.” It was true, but he made it sound even more uncertain than he felt in hopes of leading Sorenson to explain.
“Do you still feel as if he is—part of you?” Sorenson’s words were the verbal equivalent of carefully tiptoeing toward a destination.
Gabriel fixed his gaze on the doctor. “Doctor, please come out and say whatever it is you’re hinting at.”
He seemed surprised, and paused to jot something down. “All right—do you still believe that you are a dragon named Gethelwain, Gabriel?”
For several seconds silence hung in the air as Gabriel was too stunned to answer. Finally, carefully, he said: “What... makes you think that I ever did?”
“This.” Sorenson held up the clipboard. “Would you like me to refresh your memory?” His voice was as smooth and emotionless as ever—but was there a faint hint of sarcasm there? When Gabriel didn’t answer, he went on in a dry tone: “Justin Christopher Griffin, age 20. First brought in approximately six months ago. Believes self to be the human manifestation of a Great Western Dragon named Gethelwain. Has proven unable in all cases to prove this claim. Tests indicate that patient has been deeply disturbed for an unknown period prior to first admittance—breakdown occurred following the murder of older brother Steven—” he emphasized the name “—by a group of criminals. Treated briefly and released, but re-admitted when he proved that he was unable to cope with reality at this time. Delusions persist despite ongoing treatment.” He lowered the clipboard and looked at Gabriel. “That’s what makes me think so, Gabriel,” he said. His voice was still gentle and now showed no sign of the sarcasm, real or imagined.
Gabriel took a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be easy. “No,” he said calmly. “I don’t think I’m a dragon. That’s preposterous.”
“You’re lying, Gabriel.” Sorenson continued to speak softly, his eyes locked on Gabriel’s. “I can see it in your eyes. You want out of here badly, I know that. I don’t blame you. But you’re here for your own good, to keep you from hurting yourself and others. Lying to me in order to try to get out sooner isn’t going to work.” He smiled as if this didn’t bother him. “I’ll tell you what—I think this is as far as I want to go with this session tonight. I don’t want to tire you out. We’ll talk again tomorrow, all right?”
“Am I free to leave this room?”
“If you’re feeling up to it, of course. I’ll send the nurse in—ask her to show you where the recreation room and the trideo room are. It’s a bit late in the day so you won’t be allowed out on the grounds, but tomorrow you should be able to go outside.” He paused a moment. “Oh. I almost forgot.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew an object. “I’ll need to have you wear this if you’re planning to go out.”
The object in his hand was a metal bracelet. Its only adornments were a small button and a tiny light which was currently dark. Gabriel regarded it with suspicion. “What is it?”
Sorenson smiled. “You should know by now, son. All the patients wear them—it helps us keep track of you. Without it, I’m afraid I can’t give you permission to leave this room.”
Gabriel weighed his options. He knew nothing about the bracelet and its function, and didn’t feel comfortable taking the doctor’s word for it. Once again he regretted the loss of his dragon’s senses, which would have given him an instant reading on the man. Now, he was forced to rely on nothing but normal human perceptiveness—which was convinced that Sorenson wasn’t telling him the whole story. “What else does it do?” He didn’t move any closer.
“Nothing. It’s merely a locator.” His face took on a look of fatherly commiseration. “You know that some of the patients here—well, they like to hide, to run away. We have to have some way to find them or they could hurt themselves.”
Gabriel didn’t believe a word of it. He sighed. Refusing would mean he would be held prisoner here, while accepting might allow him the chance to at least find out some things about this place so he could use them to his advantage when the time came. Perhaps after he had found out what he wanted to know, he could change his mind, have them confine him to his room and remove the bracelet, and figure a way out from there. “All right,” he said reluctantly. He held out his right wrist.
Sorenson looked pleased. Moving with quick efficiency he positioned the bracelet around Gabriel’s wrist and snapped it shut with a final-sounding little click that was a faint echo of the one that had been made by the door. The formerly dark light flicked on, glowing a bright green. “There. Now you can just ask the nurse to get you a shirt and you’re free to go. I hope we can talk again tomorrow.”
“Do I have a choice?”
The doctor didn’t answer, except to stand up and slide his clipboard under his arm. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said as he opened the door, slipped out, and closed it behind him.
Gabriel did not waste any time in getting out of his room and beginning his exploring. Clad now in a white T-shirt and soft slippers to go with the white scrub pants he’d been wearing previously, brought to him by the pleasant but efficient nurse he’d seen before, he headed down the hall in the direction she had pointed him, toward the recreation room. He had to pass through two sets of heavy double doors to get there; the doors were open now, pressed against the walls by means of small magnetic pads. His bracelet made a tiny chirp sound each time he went through a doorway, but the light remained green. He wondered if his course was being recorded somewhere, but decided it didn’t matter.
He could hear the room before he reached it—the low intermittent rumble of conversation interspersed with the sound of music, probably from a trideo unit. He slowed as he reached the last doorway, pausing to get a look around before entering.
The rec room was large and brightly lit; its walls were painted white and there were several windows along one wall, all covered by the same type of artistic but functional bars that he’d seen outside his own window. The furniture was scattered around in smaller groupings: a trideo nook here, a conversation pit there, a ping-pong table on the far side near the wall, a few card tables near another wall. There were about fifteen people, all male, all dressed as Gabriel was, occupying the various areas. Most of them were at the moment watching the trideo, which was showing a baseball game. The majority of the men were human, with a few dwarfs, elves, and orks; there were no trolls. All of them were wearing the locator bracelets. Stationed near each of the room’s three exit doors were orderlies; they were sitting in chairs leaned back against the walls, reading newspapers or watching the trid shows, their watchful gazes occasionally sweeping the area before returning to their pursuits.
He was looking at the group watching the trid when a voice broke free of the rumble: “Hey, look! Dragonboy’s back!”
He swung around in the direction of the voice. Three of another group, two humans and an ork, were looking toward him, grinning. As he watched, they got up and approached him.
The ork, who was apparently the ringleader, was several centimeters taller than Gabriel, a wide young man with a slightly off-kilter look in his eyes and a nasty grin. The two humans trailed him like loyal dogs. “Hey, Dragonboy!” the ork boomed as they came up next to him and fanned out. “Long time, no see. You been off flyin’ around and layin’ eggs or somethin’?”
“Excuse me,” Gabriel said softly, ignoring the two humans and trying to move past the ork.
No such luck. The ork’s meaty hand fell on his shoulder in a gesture designed to look friendly for the orderlies’ benefit, but which actually gripped quite tightly. “Aw, where ya goin’? We wanna hear about whatcha been doin’ while you were gone. Don’t we, boys?”
The two humans nodded and made appropriate affirmative noises. One was short, skinny, and twitchy, with an unruly nest of dirty-blond hair; the other was of medium height and chubby, with his T-shirt not quite covering his gut. They both had mean little gleams in their eyes.
“I’d rather not talk right now,” Gabriel said calmly. He looked at the hand and then at the ork, clearly indicating for the ork to move.
The ork laughed. “Listen to that! Pretty Dragon Boy doesn’t want to talk to us. That ain’t very social. We’re a very social bunch around here, right Freddie?”
“Yeah, Otto. Real social.” If Freddie’s tone was any indicator, he had very little awareness of what he was saying. As if to prove this, he repeated his last sentence twice more.
“So,” Otto continued, “See, it’s kinda expected around here that if ya go away, ya tell everybody where ya been when ya come back. It’s only polite, see?” His grip tightened.
Gabriel paused a moment, then smiled. “All right, Otto. I’ll tell you where I’ve been on two conditions.”
The ork’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What?”
“One: you take your hand off my shoulder. Two: you tell me about this place. I’ve—been forgetting things. That’s why I’m back here.” Gabriel watched Otto calmly, ignoring his two human friends.
Otto looked at him like he’d just sprouted wings—obviously this wasn’t what he had expected. “Uh...” Then he grinned. “Yeah, okay, Dragonboy. C’mon. Let’s go over there and make nice so the orderlies don’t bother us.” He transferred his hand from Gabriel’s shoulder to his back and steered him over toward one of the conversation pits. Once Gabriel was installed on an ugly green vinyl couch with Freddie and the other human on either side of him, Otto sat down across from him and moved his chair forward so their knees were almost touching. He leaned forward in anticipation.
Gabriel took a moment to examine the ork’s face. As orks went, Otto was one of the more human-looking of the species, with small tusks and a delicate (for an ork, anyway) bone structure. The light of sanity was nowhere to be seen in his pale brown eyes. “So you want to hear about where I’ve been.”
Otto nodded, his grin still nasty. “Yeah. I wanta hear about what dragonboys do when they’re not in here with the resta us.”
“I’m curious, Otto—have I told you before that I’m a dragon?” Gabriel kept his expression carefully neutral and nonconfrontational.
The three surrounding him exchanged puzzled, suspicious glances. “Sure ya have,” Otto finally said. “That’s why yer in here. ‘Cause ya think yer a big gold dragon. That’s what ya told everybody.”
“Yeah,” Freddie added. “Dragon. Fly away. Big magic. Scarrryyyyyyy.” He waved his arms in emphasis, then dissolved into a fit of giggles. After a moment his other human companion joined him.
Otto shook his head in disgust, then returned his attention to Gabriel. “Pretty-boy rich kids like you don’t end up in places like this unless somethin’s seriously weird. We hear stuff. We’re not supposed to, but we do.” He hooked his thumb toward the nearest orderly. “They think we don’t listen.”
“So I’m here because I think I’m a dragon?” Gabriel asked calmly. If I keep him talking, perhaps I can learn something useful.
“Yeah, and ‘cause you freaked out after some shadowrunners killed yer brother.” Otto said it matter-of-factly, with no emotion in his voice.
Gabriel tensed a bit. “Shadowrunners?”
“Yeah. You don’t remember?”
“No. As I said, I’m—having trouble remembering things.”
Otto shrugged. “That’s what I overheard ‘em talkin’ about. They murdered yer brother and almost killed you, and ya freaked out. That’s when they said you started actin’ like a dragon.” He laughed. “Good thing no real dragons heard about it. You ain’t big enough to be a midnight snack.” His eyes narrowed. “So—you were gonna tell us what you were doin’ after they let you out.”
Gabriel nodded gravely. “All right, Otto. That’s the deal. But I still want to hear more about this place.” He held up his wrist. “What about this? What does it do?”
Otto was momentarily distracted by Gabriel’s change of subject. He held up his own bracelet-clad arm. “Oh, this? We all gotta wear ‘em. It helps ‘em keep track of us so we don’t escape.”
“What does it do if we do try to escape?”
“Huh?” The ork looked truly confused by the question.
“If we try to escape—what does it do? Does it tell them were we are? Does it hurt us in some way? Does it somehow prevent us from leaving?”
Otto paused a moment to go over all of that. “Uh...” He shrugged. “I dunno. I ain’t never tried to escape.”
“And you don’t know anyone who has?”
That was a surprise. “I’ve tried to escape before?”
“You don’t remember that either?”
“No. Tell me.”
Otto grinned, making arm-flapping motions. “You snuck away when nobody was lookin’. They caught ya tryin’ to fly over the wall.”
The two humans had just gotten their giggle-fits under control, but this put them right back into new ones. “Like a dragon!” Freddie choked out.
“Whoosh!” agreed the other human.
Gabriel sighed, ignoring them. “What did they do with me after that?”
Again the ork shrugged. “Dunno. You disappeared after that. I think they stuck you somewhere else.” He reached out and gripped Gabriel’s arm. “Yer stallin’, Dragonboy. You were gonna tell us—”
He stopped suddenly as the attention of both Gabriel and the two humans seemed to be diverted by something behind him. A second later he was grabbed and hoisted up from his seat.
Gabriel had watched the two other orks approaching, but had not attached any significance to them. They were both bigger than Otto and looked even less sane. “Get lost, shrimp,” one growled to Otto, giving him a shove to the side. “You too, meatballs.” This last was addressed at the two humans.
The two humans looked like they would be only too pleased to remove themselves from the situation, but Otto was having none of it. Otto glared at the new orks. “Frag off! Can’tcha see we’re talkin’ here?”
In answer, one of the orks grabbed Otto and flung him forcefully into the other one, who caught him and tossed him over the back of a chair. Otto recovered quickly and dived back into the fray; after a moment, so did the two humans. Gabriel backed off a few steps and checked out the rest of the room. The others were starting to pay attention, and the orderlies were putting aside their newspapers and getting up.
Gabriel didn’t pause to consider when he noticed that one of the orderlies had, by moving in to help control the developing fight, left one of the doorways out of the room unguarded. I have to get out of here. Moving swiftly and silently, he slipped along the wall and out through the doorway. What about the bracelet? some part of his mind was asking, but he didn’t worry about it. If it was a locator, then let them locate him. With any luck he would be long gone before they could find him, and then he could see about getting the thing off. He wasn’t finding Stefan by allowing himself to be locked up in an insane asylum.
The corridor was oddly deserted. The lights were low, all the doors along the way closed. Gabriel didn’t know if they were locked as he didn’t check them. He hurried down the corridor toward what his sense of direction told him was the outer part of the building. Any moment he expected alarm bells to sound, but they didn’t. He made it unchallenged through two more doorways and found himself in what looked like a lobby area with a large central desk, several chairs clustered around a table with magazines, and a big glass door on the other side.
The room was empty. Can it be this easy? Am I meant to get out of here?
He didn’t pause to think about it. He kept going, glancing quickly back over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed. No sign of anyone.
He grabbed the handle of the door and shoved, trying to fling it outward. It didn’t move. Breathing a little faster now, he looked around the room and was about to grab a chair to toss through the door when his gaze fell on the door’s lock. It was a simple spin-type deadbolt that allowed the door to be locked or unlocked from the inside. With one last look over his shoulder he spun the deadbolt open and once again shoved the door. This time it moved easily. He hurried out—
—and dropped as a wave of agonizing pain shot through his body. The source of the pain seemed to be his right arm, but the intensity was such that it was nearly impossible to tell for sure. All rational thought was driven from his mind as he writhed, screaming, clawing at the bracelet on his wrist. He had a vague impression of several large figures approaching him and then that was all he remembered.
“...Gabriel...are you awake yet...?”
He opened his eyes. His vision slowly cleared.
There was someone standing over him.
He looked around. He was lying on the floor, on something soft. Small room, white walls—padding?
He scrambled to a sitting position as he remembered the pain. The pain was gone now as if it had never been. “Don’t stand up,” said the voice. “Stay there. We need to talk.”
He ignored it and continued to rise.
Pain—brief, then gone—ran up his arm. Gasping, he dropped again, glaring up at the man.
It was Dr. Sorenson. He didn’t look pleased. In his hand he held a small device. “Please don’t make me do that again, Gabriel. It isn’t pleasant for me either.”
Sorenson backed off a bit until he was leaning against the far wall of the room. It was a classic padded cell, the sort that appeared in trid shows about old-time insane asylums. There was a padded door next to him with a tiny window looking out on a lighted corridor. “What are you doing here?” he finished. Shaking his head, he looked down at Gabriel like a stern father. “You tried to escape, son. You incited a fight with the other patients and then tried to run away.”
“Incited—?” He shook his head. “No. I didn’t—”
Sorenson looked even more stern. “Lying won’t get you anywhere. I tried to trust you, to see if perhaps you might have made some improvement, but I can see that things are as bad as ever—possibly worse. We’re going to have to try a new treatment, I think.”
“No,” Gabriel said, trying to get himself together.
“I’m sorry...Justin,” Sorenson said. “I’m not going to let you live with your delusions anymore. I think I might have made a mistake before in allowing it. It has been holding back your treatment. You must be made to see that the world you inhabit is not the real one.” He settled back. “Remember, I can tell when you’re lying, and lying won’t be tolerated. You will answer my questions with the truth. Do you understand me, Justin?”
“My name isn’t Justin.”
The pain lanced his arm again. It lasted a little longer this time before dissipating. Gasping, he fell back against the wall and clutched his wrist.
Sorenson sighed. “I hate having to do that, Justin. Just so you know, the pain is agonizing but absolutely harmless. There’s no physical damage being done to you. If you answer my questions truthfully and behave yourself, you should never have to experience it again. Do you understand?”
Gabriel glared up at him and dragged himself back up to a seated position, leaned back against the padded wall. He didn’t answer.
“All right. Now, let’s start out easy, shall we? What is your name?”
Sorenson’s finger was poised over the device he held. “That’s the wrong answer. I’ll give you another chance, since we’re just starting out. What is your name?”
The doctor touched the button and watched dispassionately for several seconds as his patient thrashed in pain, then let up. “What is your name?”
Gabriel, eyes blazing, lunged for Sorenson, trying to rip the device from his hands. He wasn’t quick enough. Cut down in mid-lunge, he dropped back to the padded floor, screaming. When Sorenson released the button Gabriel glared at him with wild eyes, his breath coming in short sharp gasps.
Sorenson’s expression didn’t change. “What is your name?” he repeated.
Gabriel bowed his head. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest; he wondered if Sorenson had been telling the truth about the fact that the pain wasn’t doing any physical harm to him. He had lied about the bracelet’s purpose—
“I will help you. Your name is Justin. Say it. Justin.”
“No—” His voice came out as a harsh whisper, cut off by a scream as Sorenson triggered the bracelet again. He rolled into a ball, his right wrist clutched in his left hand, his back facing Sorenson. “No...”
“Say it.” The doctor’s voice was implacable. “Justin. Say it!”
Sorenson activated the device again. “Say it, Justin! I’m not going to make it stop until you do!”
The pain, the screams, the writhing went on for almost a full minute. At last the word was forced unwillingly from him, coming out as another scream: “Justin!”
Because he was facing away from Sorenson, he didn’t see the doctor smile as he cut off the pain. “Good. Very good, Justin.” He took a step back. “That will do for now. I’ll be back in awhile and we’ll talk some more. You rest. You’re doing very well.”
Gabriel didn’t even hear the sound of the door opening and closing behind Sorenson.
He lost complete track of time shortly after that. Sorenson came back, he left, he came back again. The questions varied in specifics but were always of the same type: forcing him to admit to details about his life that he knew were not true.
At least at first he knew they weren’t true. At some point—it seemed to him that it took a long time, but he wasn’t sure—the doctor added a new component to the treatment: in addition to the bracelet and its agonizing pain, there was the needle—the needle with something in it that made his head float, that made his mind confused about what was true and what wasn’t. Sorenson didn’t have to use the pain much after awhile, because whatever was in the needle made him calm. He didn’t notice how pleased the doctor was looking during the last few visits when he used the drug.
His world became the small room, and that was all he cared for it to be. The rest of the world was too complicated—he could not make sense out of it often anymore. Occasional moments of lucidity were more fearsome than enlightening, as he realized that there was a vast amount of unknown territory out there and, according to Sorenson, most of it was hostile. He could believe that because the nightmares were the worst. He tried not to sleep, although that wasn’t possible—when he slept he was haunted by images of dark things, of screams and blood and death, of faces that he thought he should recognize but did not, but that he knew somehow were enemies to him.
He didn’t tell Sorenson about the nightmares, but in his rare lucid moments he thought perhaps the doctor knew about them anyway.
Time went on.
The door opened, letting a slim and then widening wedge of light creep into the small cell. A dark figure stood framed in the doorway, blocking the light. “Justin?”
He huddled in the corner where he stayed now most of the time, his eyes wide and fearful like an animal’s. He made a low, moaning sound in the back of his throat and waited.
The figure entered the room—of course it was Sorenson. It was never anyone else. He dragged a chair in as he often did and sat on it, looking down at his patient. “Good morning, Justin. How are you today?”
He didn’t answer.
“Why don’t you sit up? I want to talk to you about something new today. Believe it or not, I think we’re making progress in your treatment.”
He slowly dragged himself up to a half-seated position, his eyes never leaving Sorenson. He plucked almost obsessively at the bracelet on his wrist—he didn’t remember when it had become a habit, but now he couldn’t seem to stop doing it. The little green light mocked him.
The doctor smiled down at him. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes...sir.” Somewhere along the line Sorenson had ordered him to refer to him as ‘sir’ or ‘Doctor’ as a sign of respect. Patients should respect the doctors who were trying to help them, he had said. Patients should want to please the doctor. Sorenson’s approval had become very important to him. He thought the drugs might have had something to do with it, but he couldn’t hold a thought long enough anymore to be sure.
“Good.” The doctor seemed utterly unfazed, as he always did, by the fact that his patient was huddled on the floor at his feet. He smiled. “I’m excited about today, Justin. Do you know why?”
He shook his head, too quickly. “No...sir...”
“Do you want to know?”
Sorenson leaned down and patted his head. “Good boy. I’m excited because I think we’re about to achieve a breakthrough in your treatment. We’ve had quite a number of productive discussions, and today we’re going to begin to get to the bottom of what’s causing your difficulties. Are you happy about that, Justin?”
“Yes, sir.” His voice was flat, lifeless.
“Today, Justin, we’re going to talk about your brother Steven and the people who killed him.”
As almost nothing else could have done at this point, that thought had the power to drive a small wedge into the haze that surrounded his mind. He stared up at Sorenson. “Stefan...” he whispered.
“Steven,” Sorenson said firmly. “Steven, Justin. Say it.”
The doctor nodded. “Do you remember Steven, Justin? Your older brother?” He pulled something out of his coat and held it out.
He looked at it. It was a holopic of a man several years older than he was: tall, powerful, dark-haired, dressed in a fine corp-style suit. He reached out for the holo.
Sorenson pulled it back out of his reach. “This is your brother. Steven. He was killed. Do you remember?”
“He is...dead...” He reached for the holo again, stretching out his arm. “Please...sir...”
Sorenson nodded almost dismissively and dropped the holo into his hand.
He clutched at it, staring at it as if it held a great secret. He was shaking.
His head jerked like it was on a string at the tone in the doctor’s voice. He shrank away a bit, holding the holopic tightly and looking up at Sorenson with fearful eyes. “Sir?”
“You need to listen to me now, Justin. If you can’t do that, I’ll have to take the picture back. All right?”
He nodded. “I’ll—I’ll listen.” He glanced down at the holo and then back up at Sorenson. “I’ll listen...”
“Good.” The doctor sounded pleased. “Now. Do you remember what happened to your brother Steven, Justin?”
He struggled with the images that suddenly filled his mind: confusing, conflicting images of a big green dragon, a horrific thing, a chasm, the man in the suit holding a machine gun, dark cars, a chair, a room, blood— “No!!” he cried, dropping the holo to clutch at his head with both hands.
He felt a hand on his back, oddly gentle given the doctor’s previous actions. “I know it’s difficult for you, Justin. It was a horrible thing, and it’s quite understandable that you haven’t come to grips with it yet. I promise you, though, it will be good to talk about it, to get it out in the open so you’ll know what happened and can grieve for your brother. All right?”
Slowly, he turned his head, looking up at Sorenson with haunted eyes. He nodded, his expression trusting like a child’s.
Sorenson returned the nod, resuming his position in his chair. “Good. That’s what I wanted to hear, son. That’s what it’s going to take—I can’t help you unless you want to help yourself.” He paused a moment. “Now, Justin—can we talk about what happened to Steven?”
He drew himself up a bit, pulling his knees up and achieving a more-or-less sitting position with his back against the padded wall. He picked up the holo and stared at it intently; it shook in his hand. Then he nodded.
“All right. Now, I know this is going to be hard for you. You’re blocking out what really happened because your mind doesn’t want to deal with it, but you’ll need to let go of that block. Remember, I’m here with you and I’m not going anywhere. I’m here to help.”
He nodded. “Yes...yes, sir.” He hadn’t taken his eyes off the holo.
“Look at me, Justin.”
He did as he was told. The doctor’s face was calm and emotionless.
“Good. I’m going to show you some pictures, and I want you to let me know if you recognize any of the people in them. All right?”
He nodded slowly.
Sorenson reached into the pocket of his lab coat and pulled out several more holopics. He shuffled through them, selected one, and held it up. “Do you recognize this man?”
He examined it intently without reaching for it. Something told him that Sorenson wouldn’t surrender these particular pictures. This one showed a tall, slim, sharp-featured man. The man was dressed in a long dark coat over a stylish suit. His hair was dark with two white stripes, and his eyes were brilliant blue. His expression was cold and distant.
He stiffened, holding his breath. The image was familiar, but he could not place it. “I—”
“It’s all right, Justin. Everything is fine. Just let me show you a few more, and perhaps it will come to you.” Sorenson held up more pictures, showing each for several seconds before moving on to the next one. The first showed a tall, well-muscled man with his long blond hair in a ponytail; he was dressed casually and was glaring with pale blue catlike eyes at whoever had taken the picture. The second showed a pale elf with severe features, wearing jeans, black T-shirt, and bomber jacket. The elf’s eyes were stark white with one tiny pinprick of black in the center of each; his expression was even colder than the first man’s had been. The last picture was of a massive troll with black hair and Amerindian or Aztlaner skintone, dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and Amerind-print vest. The troll looked as if he might be preparing to remove the head from anyone who looked at him the wrong way. “Do you recognize any of these people?” Sorenson asked. He had one more picture in his hand, but had not shown it yet. He looked at his patient questioningly.
Sitting there on the floor, he was trying to remember to keep breathing. Thoughts whirled around his head as they had before—images, snatches of conversations, locations—but none of it was making sense. “No...” he whispered. “No...I—Please...sir...I—” He moved away a bit, scooting down the wall toward the corner where he hid.
“Justin, it has to be done. You’ll feel better when it’s over. Now come on—don’t run away from me. That won’t help any of us. This is important. I have one more picture to show you today. Will you look at it?”
He stopped, hesitating between the urge to hide and the urge to please the doctor. He drew his knees up again and clasped his hands on top of them, gnawing gently at his knuckle to try to get himself back under control. He raised his eyes but not his head, looking up at Sorenson. “Y...yes, sir,” he whispered.
“Good boy.” Sorenson put the other pictures away and held out the last one.
His eyes immediately widened. He reached out almost blindly for the picture, but once again Sorenson pulled it away. “No, Justin. You can’t have this one. Just tell me if you recognize the person.”
He stared. It was a woman this time: slim, tall, toned, with white-blonde hair and green eyes. Like the subjects of the other pictures the woman looked angry at something and was glaring at the camera. She was dressed in jeans, boots, T-shirt, and long black coat. Not even aware of what he was doing he made a dive for the picture. Sorenson barely had time to back off and hit the button to activate the bracelet device. He screamed and fell writhing to the floor.
Sorenson maintained the pain for only a few seconds. “I’m sorry I had to do that, Justin,” he said matter-of-factly, sitting back down as if nothing had happened, watching his patient sobbing at his feet. “You should know better than to do something like that by now. You know it displeases me.” He paused. “Are you sorry, Justin?”
“Y-yes...sir...” he got out between sobs. It had been a long time since the doctor had used the pain on him—he was more upset now about the fact that he had disappointed Sorenson than because of the pain itself.
“Are you going to misbehave again?”
“Are you going to answer my questions like a good boy?”
He nodded, his breath hitching in his chest as he struggled to get himself under control.
“All right, then. Let’s go on.” Sorenson watched and offered no assistance while his patient slowly dragged himself back up. The young man’s tear-streaked face, his disheveled hair, his despairing expression had no obvious effect on him. He simply waited. “Are you ready?”
He nodded, swiping a hand across his eyes. He picked up the holopic of his brother and held it like an anchor.
Sorenson held up the picture of the woman. “Do you recognize this person?”
He answered before he thought: “F...friend...”
The doctor shook his head. “No, Justin. She’s no friend of yours.”
A name fought its way up through the quagmire in his head, but didn’t quite make it all the way: “Ju...Jul...”
“No, Justin.” Sorenson’s voice was a little sharper now. “She was your friend once, but she betrayed you. All of them did. They’re the ones who killed your brother.” He held up the other pictures, fanning them out. “Do you remember? They set you up, Justin. Both you and Steven. This woman befriended you, and then she and her friends took advantage of your trust to break into your home. That was when your brother was killed. Do you remember?”
He was breathing hard now, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead. He could hear the rasp of his own breath in the silence left in the wake of Sorenson’s question. “No...”
“It’s true, Justin,” Sorenson went on inexorably, paying no attention to his patient’s distress. “They killed him in cold blood. Would you like to see? Would you like me to prove it to you?”
He bowed his head, burying his face in his hands. “No!” he cried from the depths. The images wouldn’t stop. “No! That—that isn’t—She’s—”
“Justin...you’re getting agitated. Do you want me to use the needle again?”
“No!” He tensed, fighting to control himself. “No... please... I’m—I’m all right...No needle... no...”
“Well, then, calm down.” He stood up, stowing the pictures away in his coat pocket. “I’m going to leave you for a few minutes, but I’ll be back. Get yourself together before I return. It’s important that you see what I have to show you, and that you understand it.” Without waiting for an answer, Sorenson picked up his chair and departed with it, closing the door behind him.
In the room, the patient watched the door swing closed. He looked at the little window for a moment and then down at the picture in his hand. His breathing was slowing but not by much. He crept over into the corner, turned his back to the door, and lay down, drawing his knees up and wrapping his hands around them. By closing his eyes and humming softly and tonelessly to himself he found that he could keep the images at bay, at least for a little while. That was all he asked for, just a little while—
He spun around so fast he made himself dizzy. Sorenson was back—he hadn’t heard him come in. The door was closed again and the chair was back in place, although the doctor was not yet seated. “Sir...?”
“Get up, Justin. You can sleep later. Didn’t I tell you I was going to be back?”
“S—I’m...sorry, sir. I—” He shrank back as if he expected Sorenson to strike him.
The doctor waved him off. “Never mind. Just get up. I have something to show you.”
He noticed that Sorenson was now carrying a briefcase, which he placed on his lap and opened. “What—?”
Sorenson pulled out a small object attached to a long cord. At the other end of the cord was a mesh of contacts and wires. “This is a simsense rig, Justin. I’m going to put it on you. Do not touch it or try to remove it. If you do, then I’ll have to use the needle—or the bracelet. Do you understand?”
He nodded despondently. “...Yes, sir.” He did not want to wear that thing, to see the images Sorenson was going to show him, but he didn’t want to make the doctor angry either.
Sorenson approached him and quickly arranged the electrodes of the simsense rig in their proper places on his head. He moved efficiently with no trace of fear, and the patient did not attempt to interfere with him. Returning to his chair, he took up the small box and looked at the patient. “These are the security tapes from your house the night your brother was killed. We’ve had them enhanced to show more detail. Now Justin, I know this is going to be hard for you, but I have to be firm. You must watch the whole thing. Will you do that for me?”
He nodded, his eyes fearful. “Yes, sir...”
“Good. Close your eyes, and we’ll start.”
He closed his eyes.
It was a large house, opulent, everything about it suggesting that its owner possessed wealth and privilege. The cameras—the view kept switching between several—were set at intervals around a large room with marble floors, thick Oriental rugs, big windows, and a massive staircase dominating the far wall. There was a set of French doors on another of the walls, and it was outside these where the figure appeared.
It moved furtively, crouched down as it approached the doors. It did not pause long—judging by the ease and speed in which the door swung open, the figure was either a master lockpick or else had a key. Either way, less than ten seconds passed before entry was gained. The figure beckoned and then rose up: tall, swift, dressed in longcoat, boots, and dark cap, carrying a submachine gun strapped over its shoulder. He caught a glint of gold in the figure’s hair as he watched the scene. His heartbeat sped up.
More figures were coming now: four more, all male, ranging from tall and slim to enormous and almost as wide as the doorway. All carried weapons, all moved nearly silently. The first figure made some sort of sign to the others and they crept into the room, pushing the French doors almost but not quite closed behind them. They moved into the middle of the room, toward the staircase.
“Who is there?” The voice—deep, masculine—called from off-camera. The figures’ heads all snapped in unison toward the staircase. There was the sound of running feet and then two more figures came into view.
He gasped. One of the figures was himself, dressed in jeans and casual shirt. The other, the one who had spoken, was unmistakably his brother Stef—Steven.
A light switched on, throwing strong illumination over the room. The figures resolved themselves, as he had expected them to, into the five people in the pictures Dr. Sorenson had shown him. Four men and—
“Juliana!” His breath quickened again as he watched his alter-ego in the simsense feed call to the woman. His voice was shocked, confused—obviously he didn’t expect her to be here.
“Hi, Justin.” The woman pulled off her cap and smiled at him, that smile that always melted him right away ever since he’d met her. “You weren’t supposed to be here, you know.”
“What are you doing here?” This was his brother, stepping up next to him. “Justin, who are these people? Why are they—?”
“Shut up,” said the troll, waving a gun at Steven.
“Juliana, why?” he was asking her. “You—we—”
“Just biz, kid,” she said. She looked almost rueful. “We had a job. We had to get in here and grab some of your brother’s trinkets. What better way than to get in tight with his little brother?”
“No—” He watched himself shaking—he was shaking now in reality as well.
“We’ll have to kill them, you know,” one of the other men said. His accent was clipped and British.
“Can’t leave any witnesses,” the blond-ponytailed man added. The troll and the elf were already moving toward the stairway.
“You’ve already tripped the alarm,” Steven said calmly. “Lone Star will be here in less than five minutes.”
“Well, we’ll just have to be gone by then, won’t we?” the woman said, and fired her gun.
The burst from the SMG caught Steven in the chest, throwing him backward onto the marble floor. Blood sprayed from three separate wounds and spattered down. He was dead before he hit the floor, and expression of angry astonishment on his face.
“Kill him,” the woman ordered over her shoulder as she headed for the stairs. She smiled coldly at him. “Trust’s bad for the lifespan, kid. Too bad you won’t get a chance to use that lesson.”
“No!” he cried, and it took him a moment to realize that he wasn’t yelling in the sim, but in reality. He ripped at the sim-rig, trying to pull it off his head, trying to get it as far away from him as he could. He didn’t hear Sorenson yelling at him, and he barely felt the pain as the bracelet was activated again. As his body and his brain spiraled down toward unconsciousness, all he could see were the twin images of his brother lying dead in a pool of blood and the cold contempt on the face of the woman he thought had loved him.
He turned his head away. He didn’t want to hear any voices right now. The voices whispering to him in his head, half-remembered voices that flitted away like ghosts, were enough.
“Justin, you have to wake up now.”
“No...” He flung his head violently back and forth.
Something stuck him in the arm. He flinched away, but then calmed as something entered his bloodstream—something cool and soothing and welcome. It did not send him back to unconsciousness, but left him instead with a rather pleasant floaty feeling. He opened his eyes.
Sorenson was there, sitting in his chair. He was wearing a different tie than before. Wonder why I noticed that...
“Justin, how do you feel?”
He shrugged and muttered something unintelligible. He didn’t even know what it was supposed to be. He was lying on the floor in the padded room. Someone had put a pillow under his head. His hair was stuck to his forehead, his shirt stuck to his back. His body seemed to hover slightly above the floor even though he could clearly feel the rough cloth of the padding beneath him.
“Please answer me. I’m worried about you, Justin. It’s been two days since we spoke last. Do you—remember what we talked about?”
He struggled to remember, and rage gripped him. Only the drugs coursing through his system kept him calm. His fists clenched. “Steven...”
Sorenson nodded. “That’s right. Steven. You remember now, don’t you, Justin? About Juliana and the others?”
His eyes hardened as the images replayed in his head. “Killed him...”
“That’s right. They killed him. She killed him, and they helped. She betrayed you, Justin, in order to gain entry into your home so she and her friends could steal your brother’s data. You remember now, don’t you?”
He nodded. He wished the drugs weren’t dulling the rage. His body screamed for action, but the message wasn’t reaching his muscles. “Killed...Steven...”
“Who killed Steven?” Sorenson leaned forward a bit, his posture anticipatory. “Who killed him, Justin?”
“That’s right.” He gave him a sympathetic smile. “It’s a terrible thing, I know. I wish there was another way, but this is the root of your problem. I think you’re almost there, Justin. Juliana was your friend, wasn’t she? You thought she loved you, but she was just using you. She never loved you. You know that now, right?”
He looked up into Sorenson’s intense gaze. Something seemed wrong, but he couldn’t place it. It didn’t matter anyway. He knew the truth now. “Yes. She...she didn’t love me. Never...loved me...” His voice was a whisper. His fists clenched again. “No...she can’t—”
“She can’t get away with this?” Sorenson supplied. “What would you do about it, Justin?”
He looked confused. “Can’t—do anything...She is...gone. All of them...gone...”
“But if you could,” Sorenson prompted. “If you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?”
Again he was confused. “I—”
“Would you kill them, Justin? Would you kill Juliana and her friends?”
He stiffened, fighting the drug’s effects, rolling his head back and forth on the pillow. “No...No...I—I don’t kill...”
“They deserve it, Justin. They used you. She betrayed you and killed your only brother. She would have killed you if Lone Star hadn’t shown up. She’s out there, Justin. She’s laughing at you for being such a sucker, such a lovesick boy. She’s not like that. She doesn’t love you. She never loved you. Isn’t your brother’s life worth avenging?” His voice was soft, almost hypnotic. His eyes never left his patient’s face.
He moved uncomfortably, trying to get his body under his control. “But—”
“But nothing. No one would blame you, Justin. No one at all. After what they did to you, they deserve it. I’ll bet that right now they’re enjoying the money they made from the data they stole. Think of them—laughing, drinking, having parties—all with the blood money they got for killing your brother.” Sorenson leaned in further. “They didn’t have to kill him, you know. They could have taken the data and left. They liked to kill, Justin. The world would be a better place without them. You don’t like to be made a fool, do you?”
Something was still trying to poke its way through his mind, but it still wasn’t having any success. “No—” His eyes hardened again. “No...she—”
“What would you do, Justin?”
He fixed his gaze on Sorenson. “Kill...them?”
The doctor smiled. “Right. Exactly.” He pulled out a hypo from his pocket. “Now, let me give you something to help you relax, so you can think about what we’ve discussed. We’re almost there, Justin. Almost. You should be ready for release soon. How does that make you feel?”
He didn’t answer. Truthfully the thought frightened him, but he didn’t think Sorenson wanted to hear that. His fearful eyes found the hypo. “No...”
“Don’t worry. This won’t hurt. This isn’t punishment, Justin. It’s a reward. It will make you feel good. Don’t you trust me? I’ve gotten you this far, and we’re almost there.”
He nodded. “Yes...yes sir.” He lay still and allowed Sorenson to inject him. Almost immediately a pleasant, even more floaty feeling than before washed over his body. He smiled.
Sorenson stood, leaning down to pat his shoulder. “Good boy. You get some rest, and when I come back we’ll talk about what we need to do to get you out of here.” He didn’t wait for an answer; it was obvious one was not forthcoming. He left the room and closed the door behind him.
Time passed strangely after that, and perception was even stranger still. He felt as if he had been in this room forever one moment, but the next moment it felt like he had just come here from some other place. He could never remember the other place, though. Sometimes there was pain, sometimes almost unendurable feelings of pleasure. He thought that people were entering the room, talking to him, telling him things, but he could never remember them afterward. All he could remember, the one constant in his mind, was the thought—it didn’t even have words anymore—that Juliana had betrayed him, that she and her friends had used him, had murdered his brother—that she was laughing at him now, him and his naiveté for trusting her, for thinking she loved him as he had loved her.
His life became a progression of images, few of them pleasant. He relived the scene of Steven’s death over and over, thrashing around, crying out occasionally, unaware of anything but the visions in his own mind. Rarely he wondered why Sorenson had not returned, but decided that the doctor knew best and would do what was best for him.
Sometimes he slept, and the dreams were similar to his waking visions. Uneasy dreams of death and blood and betrayal, his brother’s face as he fell backward onto the floor and Juliana’s cold smile. He fought those dreams as hard as he could, but it was almost as if someone else was feeding them to him, fueling them with their own energy. Occasionally he wondered if the occasional small pains in his arm had anything to do with this. The dreams continued.
Then, at one point, the dream was different. It started out the same way as before, with an unsettled, surreal recreation of Steven’s death scene—everything was there: Juliana and her friends, the guns, Steven, the house—but then, suddenly, the scene changed. It was a slow, languid change, like a dissolve in an old-time movie, peaceful and comforting rather than the abrupt and jarring changes from the old dreams. One moment he was standing in the house watching Steven’s blood spray out, feeling it covering him, threatening to choke him—and then he was in a different place. A place of whites and columns and blue skies and rolling green fields off in the distance. There was a creature there—an immense creature, long and sinuous and beautiful, with golden scales and soft, deep brown eyes flecked with gold. The creature was looking at him. She (somehow he knew the creature was female, in that way that you know things in dreams) approached, lowering her great head until it was level with him, and he was not afraid. Somewhere, far back in his mind, in the part where conscious thought never reached, he felt that he knew this creature and that she meant him no harm. He looked up into her eyes and got lost there.
“Fight them, child,” she said, her soft voice speaking in his mind, flowing over his consciousness like a soothing balm. “You must fight them or all will be lost. This is not what you are.”
“Who—who are you?” he heard himself ask. Unlike in the real world, his voice sounded strong and confident.
“You do not know me, but you will, as I will know you. It is ordained.”
“What is your name?”
“I may not tell you that now. I travel far in my dreams and I have been drawn to you as someday you will be drawn to me. But you must fight them. They seek to destroy you. That cannot be.” There was sadness in her voice.
He had been unable to draw his eyes from hers as she spoke to him; his heart ached at her sadness, at the desire to do something—anything—to ease it. “What do I do?” he asked softly. “I can’t—”
“You are stronger than they are, child. Remember that. Fight them. They have tried to make you believe you are lost, but you can never be lost if you continue to believe and to fight. You must.”
He thought he heard an echo of another thought in her mind, but it was lost on the gentle breezes. (Could it have been I cannot lose you? No, that didn’t make sense. He must have misheard her.)
“Will you fight, child? Will you deny them their victory?”
His mind returned to the dark figure, the constant presence in his life, the man who guided his thoughts and showed him the way. He wanted so much to please him, but this creature—his entire being was drawn toward her. He felt that he could die now, and happily, if only to see the light in her eyes one more time. “I—”
“Will you fight because I ask you to, if you cannot find the strength within yourself now?”
He took a step toward her. “Yes...” he whispered. “Yes... Please... Tell me who you are...”
“You will know me, child, and I will know you—when the time is right.”
Her voice was already fading—he became dimly aware of the fact that he had felt another of the sharp pains in his arm, and his mind was drifting up toward consciousness. He clung to the voice with increasing desperation, not wanting to let it go, fearing that if he did he would never hear it again. Such a beautiful voice... such beautiful eyes...
“Your fate is in your hands...” she whispered. The vision faded into fog and nothingness, withdrawing into the back of his mind as he awakened.
The door was opening. He rolled away instinctively as he always did, drawing up into his protective position with his back to the door.
“Justin, I know you’re awake. I know you can hear me. Turn over.”
He had become too accustomed to obeying the voice. Slowly, he rolled back over and blinked at the light shining in through the door’s window.
Sorenson was standing there. He didn’t have the chair. He was smiling. “Stand up, Justin. Can you do that for me?”
He didn’t know how long it had been since he had stood up. It seemed like an eternity. He struggled to a seated position, then raised himself on shaking arms to his knees.
When he swayed, Sorenson grabbed his arm and hauled him up. “Good boy. I’m so proud of you, Justin—you did it!”
“Did—what, sir?” His voice was barely more than a whisper, shaky and uncertain.
“You’re cured! You’re going to be able to leave here soon.” Sorenson clapped him on the shoulder. “Isn’t that wonderful? The treatments have worked magnificently. We just have to do a few more things today and you’ll be free to go.”
He simply stared at Sorenson. “Out—side?”
“Yes, outside! Freedom, Justin. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
He had to think about that. “Freedom. Yes...yes, sir. I—guess so.”
Sorenson didn’t seem to notice the tremor in his voice. “Come on, my boy. Come with me and we’ll take care of the administrative details, get you some street clothes and a nice hot shower, and you’re out of here.” He put an arm around him and steered him toward the door.
“But what?” The doctor kept steering. They were out the door now and moving down a lighted corridor.
“You don’t feel quite right yet? That’s understandable. That last injection we gave you was different from the others—they were to help you relax, while this one was more to bring you back up to full alertness. They’ll do some strange things to your head for a short time while they’re interacting, but you’ll be fine in half an hour or so.” He smiled. “Have I lied to you before?”
He tried to remember when and thought there might have been a time, but he shook his head. “No, sir.”
Sorenson looked pleased. “Of course not, Justin. I would never lie to you. I’m here to help you.”
“Yes, sir.” He followed along with Sorenson obediently. His mind was feeling a little clearer now, but the fog was still there. He wondered if it would ever leave.
They had almost reached the doorway at the end of the hall when an ear-splitting klaxon began to sound. He clamped his hands over his ears and dropped to his knees as around him red lights began to flash in time with the sound.
Sorenson hauled him up. His expression was grim and tense, his gaze darting around. “Get up, Justin! That was the intruder alert! Someone’s broken in here. Come on!” He grabbed his patient’s arm and dragged him quickly off in the other direction.
He stumbled along behind the doctor, unable to quite get his legs working right after his long period of inactivity. “What—sir—?”
Sorenson didn’t answer. Instead, he pulled up next to a panel in the wall. He tapped out a code and the panel swung open, revealing a small rack of weapons. There were three submachine guns and several pistols there. Sorenson grabbed two of the SMGs, shoving one into his patient’s hands, and slammed the panel shut again. “Take this, Justin.”
He held the gun as if it were a dangerous animal. His eyes were wide with fear. “No—I—” He moved as if to hand it back to Sorenson.
“Take it, Justin!” Sorenson ordered. “You have to be able to defend yourself. I’m not going to have brought your mind back only to lose you to some intruder. Come on! I know where we can go to be safe until the problem’s been dealt with.” Again he grabbed his arm and headed down the corridor.
As they moved down the hallways they were passing other frightened-looking hospital personnel, all heading the other way. At some point he noticed this. “Sir—”
“Not now, Justin!” Sorenson picked up his pace, hurrying through a doorway just before it slammed shut behind them. The klaxons were still sounding; they seemed louder than ever, almost as if they were getting closer to the source rather than further away.
At the end of the hallway beyond the closed door, they burst out into a recreation room much like the one he had remembered from long ago. Sorenson took a split-second’s stock of the situation and jerked him sideways toward a desk—but he did not move.
He stood there, staring.
Across the room, the five figures who had just come in from the other side stared too. Then they smiled. Especially the woman. Her smile was the biggest one of all. “Well, look who’s here. Hi, Justin.”
Sorenson was pulling on his arm. “Justin!” he hissed.
Juliana stepped forward. She carried her own SMG cradled casually across her arm. It wasn’t aimed at anybody at the moment. “Long time no see. How have you been, kid?” Behind her, the other four spread out.
His hand tightened on the gun in his hands. His body shook with rage. “Juliana...”
“Yep. It’s me. In the flesh.” She cocked her head, her eyes moving up and down his body with the familiarity of an owner. “You look terrible, kid. They not been treating you right here?”
He raised the gun in trembling hands. “You... killed... Steven...”
“I sure did. So what are you going to do, Justin? Shoot me?” Her expression changed to one of contempt. “You don’t have the guts.”
“Shoot her, Justin!” Sorenson hissed from behind the desk.
His gaze darted back and forth between Juliana, her four companions, and Sorenson. A male nurse made a run for the door and the elf calmly spun his gun around and fired once, cutting the nurse down. He didn’t even have time to scream.
“Come on, kid,” Juliana said, spreading her arms. “Do it if you have the balls.”
“Shoot her!” Sorenson barked. His voice, normally so flat and emotionless, took on a decidedly unwholesome impatience.
He blinked. In his hand, the SMG wavered. The rage rose, but the visions were distracting him again. A golden creature—a creature who was the antithesis of rage—
A woman’s eyes, green, lively, loving—
The feeling of his flesh next to the warmth of a woman, of looking into those green eyes, of being one with her—
His hatred of himself for hurting her—
You are stronger than they are, child—fight them—
An altar, a thing, blood—
A little gray creature on his shoulder, trying to warn him—
A courtyard in the darkness—
The sound of gunfire, the feeling of bullets hitting him, but not hitting—
He clamped his teeth together as a connection fell into place in his mind. The scar on his side throbbed like it was on fire. He wheeled and savagely jerked his finger over the SMG’s trigger. “NO!”
Three things happened simultaneously at that point:
The rounds from his SMG tore into Sorenson, ripping flesh, exploding bone, sending blood spraying out in all directions.
Sorenson, at the same moment, fired at him. The doctor had aimed straight at his chest, at point-blank range—the rounds ripped through his arm, his leg, his shoulder, sending white agony up and down his body. He screamed.
Juliana and her four friends faded into nothingness without firing a shot.
After a moment, the hospital faded as well.
He stood there, alone, bleeding on a blasted red plain. The gun was gone. There was no sign of any other beings or structures. He fell to his knees and looked down at his wounds. Then he threw his head back and screamed defiantly at the sky:
“You can’t kill me, can you?? No matter what you do to me, you can’t kill me! And now I KNOW it! How do you like that? I KNOW it!”
His cries dissolved into an inarticulate scream of rage and triumph as the blackness settled over him once again and he fell in a heap on the ground.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.