My head hurt when I woke up.
It wasn't the throbbing, amplifying pain of a hangover. It didn't bring pain with every sound and make light unbearable. It wasn't the piercing, immobilizing pain of a migraine--like I used to get when I was a kid. It was just a regular sort of headache.
Still hurt like a bitch, though.
I groaned and tried to move. Everything ached, so I stopped immediately. My eyes were closed, but I knew I was lying on something flat and firm that filed itself instantly away in my head as a bed, but not my bed. That wasn't worrying; I haven't had my own bed in months. I'd been living motel-to-motel, bus-depot-bench-to-motel-again for long enough that waking up someplace weird wasn't an issue anymore. I opened my eyes, expecting to see the dull interior of one more rented room.
I instead saw plain white walls and ceiling. A light blue linoleum floor with a white checker pattern. Two green, plastic sheets hanging on either side of my bed that shielded me from view. An IV hanging nearby, and several tubes leading to my wrist, and a little computer on a small table with wheels and a little wheely chair next to it.
The smell of lemon cleaner and antiseptic filled my nostrils. The lights were bright and the sheets were white and the clothes I was wearing weren't mine. I don't have that many clothes, so I know them all, and these weren't them. I looked around as well as I could, and saw that my sunglasses and duffelbag were nowhere in sight.
I was in a hospital. Why was I in a hospital? My heart started audibly thudding in my chest.
Relax, I thought. Just because it's a hospital doesn't mean that it's Iotech.
I tried to get up, but was stopped; my my wrists had been cuffed to the railings on the side of the bed. Not police handcuffs, but some kind of cloth-like restraints that attached to the bed.
Oh god, I thought. It suddenly became more difficult to breathe. Iotech. They'd found me. They'd caught me.
Then I thought, Dog? My heart beat even faster. What had happened to Dog? He never left me!
"Dog?" I said, not too loudly, in case somebody nearby heard. "Dog?"
I waited for him to appear, to just walk out of a shadow like I had seen him do before.
It didn't happen.
"Dog?" I shouted, feeling self-conscious about breaking the silence. "Hey, Dog?"
"Bugsy?" I said. "Guys?"
Someone to my left groaned, beyond the hanging sheet. There was a bed over there, I realized. And that meant there was probably another one to my right. I shut up.
No dog appeared. No beetles crawled out from under the sparse furniture. I was on my own. Cold fear clawed in my chest.
When was the last time I was alone? I mean, I'm alone from people all the time, but not Dog. Not the beetle boys.
I tried not to let it worry me. I tried to keep my thoughts light. How long had I been alone before those guys? A long time.
But I also hadn't been alone in a long time. If Dog and Bugsy weren't with me, that means either they thought it better to stay away-- which was unlikely. They didn't really seem to grasp the concept of "time and place"-- or something was keeping them away.
I inspected the restraints, wondering how much it would hurt if I yanked my hand through and broke my wrist, and if the people on either side of me were in any condition to rat me out, when a woman in blue-green scrubs came into view.
"Oh good!" she said when she saw me. She smiled warmly and took a clipboard that was hanging on the foot of the bed. I quickly looked down at the covers, not wanting her to see my eyes.
"Glad to see you're awake, Mr. Fischer. Looks like you had a pretty nasty bonk on the head." She scanned through the clipboard.
Fischer? Who the hell was Fischer? My breath caught in my throat. There had been some mistake. Fischer wasn't my name.
I almost asked "who's Fischer?" But stopped myself. Was I actually in a real hospital, then? Iotech wouldn't forget who I was. Did something happen to me? Then why the handcuffs? Or maybe Iotech had me, but put me in a real hospital under a fake name so as not to trace back to me. Maybe this was just a holding place they could stuff me before shipping me back to HQ. But maybe it was all a setup and everyone here knew exactly who I was, and this was all a mind game--
Let it slide, a thought cut through. If it's Iotech then they know who you are, if it's not, then this is a perfect cover so Iotech doesn't find you.
Alright, I agreed.
"Mr. Fischer?" The nurse said. I got the feeling she had said it a couple times before, and I just hadn't heard her.
"What's in there?" I said, jerking my head towards the IV.
"Some pain medicine," she said. Her tone was a little too cheerful, like someone talking to a child. "And some things to keep you clear."
What does she mean 'clear'? I thought.
"What's in there?" I said again, more urgently.
"Haloperidol," she said. "Nothing you haven't had before. Now, I'm going to check your head, but before I do, I'm just going to ask you a few questions first. Is that alright?"
I nodded slowly, silently trying to figure out what Haloperidol was, and where I might have had it before. It didn't sound familiar. Was it a pain medication? But then she said it was pain medicine and Haloperidol. . .
"Great! First, do you remember how you got here?"
I tried to think, and my mind came up blank.
"No," I said. "What happened?"
"Why don't you tell me the last thing you remember."
"I was at the motel," I said, trying to dredge up the memory through the headache I had. "My dog and me. We were checked in for the night. I went to bed."
"And that's the last thing you remember?"
"Alrighty then. Have you been hospitalized recently?"
I thought if the few times I had been. Broken bones. Smoke inhalation. One or two psychotic breaks. But those were months ago. I was almost hospitalized after the bus incident, but Dog and I managed to get out of that one.
"No. We got the cops to drop us off at the bus station."
She paused a moment. Then she made a "hmm" noise and glanced back at her clipboard. "Allergic to any medications?"
"Not that I know of."
"Have you had thoughts of suicide or self-harm in the past or present?"
"Have you had any violent thoughts, regarding yourself or others?"
I thought about the void creatures I'd killed and the thing in the woods a few months back. I thought about the showdown Simon and I had had and the arson I'd done. I didn't think that was what she meant.
"Have you been taking any recreational drugs?"
"No. Miss, how did I get here?"
The nurse checked the clipboard again. "Well, it says here you were found by the waterfront."
Waterfront? Last time I checked, I was in the desert highlands. What waterfront?
"What was I doing there?"
"Police report says you were passed out. You were soaked in blood and had a head wound. Someone called it in, and when the police confronted you, you started ranting about monsters. You made a fuss, and eventually they held you for disturbing the peace, then sent you here." She peered at me. "Any of that ring a bell?"
"No," I said. "Not at all. Why am I strapped in? Are they going to arrest me?"
"Doubt it. You're labeled as a flight risk, though, and after what happened in Goldview, the doctor doesn't want you up and around just yet. I'm going to check your head now."
I wanted to ask her what the hell Goldview was and what happened there that made doctors think I needed to be handcuffed to the bed, but I was distracted by pain as she removed the bandage. She clicked her tongue, swabbed the mess with some stinging solution, and then put on a fresh bandage, all in the span of a minute.
"That's a nasty gash you got there," she said, putting the old bandage in a trash bin that was labeled Biological Waste. "You're lucky, though. It looks worse than it is; not too deep, just ugly. The stitches are the dissolving kind, though, so you won't need to worry about having them removed when you're better."
"Great," I said. "Do you know what happened?"
"Haven't a clue. Again, the doctor will be in here in a few moments, so you'll get more information then."
I was about to ask more questions when we were interrupted by a man and women in white lab coats entering the room. Behind them were two more nurses or orderlies in blue-green scrubs, one male, one female.
"Good evening," the first doctor said-- a tall man who was bald on top. "My name is Dr. Mize. This is my colleague Dr. Harper."
"Hello," said Harper. She took a clipboard from the base of the bed and began looking through it.
Mize pulled up the stool with wheels and sat down beside me. "How are we feeling, Mr. Fischer?"
"Like I got hit in the head," I said. I kept my eyes on the blanket, careful not to look into any of their faces.
"Glad to see your humor's intact."
Harper said something to the doctor that I didn't catch. She gave him the clipboard and he looked through it.
Then he said, "Mr. Fischer, I'm going to ask you a few questions just to check. Can you tell me what day it is?"
"No," I said. "I don't much keep track of the calendar these days."
"Do you know the month?"
"February? I think?" I shrugged. "Like I said, not much for calendars."
"Have been seeing or hearing anything out of the ordinary?"
My back and shoulders stiffened. "What kind of question is that?"
"There's no need to get defensive. A simple yes or no will suffice."
Yes. Near constantly.
"No," I said.
"Brandon, we're only trying to help you, and we can help you better if you tell us the truth."
I looked resolutely down at the bedspread. "I haven't heard or seen anything out of the ordinary."
"The police say you were talking about monsters."
"I was drunk."
"No you weren't."
"I was high."
"Your blood results were clean." He shifted on the stool. "Mr. Fischer, I'm going to be blunt. Have you been taking your medications?"
Instant guilt. Once upon a time, what felt like a very long time ago, I had doctors orders to take some pills to keep me sane. I stopped taking them when it became clear that I was sane and it was the world that was crazy. But there was no way these people would know that.
"Medications?" I said.
"According to your file, your psychiatrist at Goldview prescribed you Paliperidone for your psychosis--"
"I'm not--! Look, okay. You got me. The jig is up. I've never heard of this Fischer guy before. There's been some kind of mistake."
His eyebrows arched, but his voice stayed perfectly neutral. "You say you are not Brandon Fischer?"
"No! My name is Alan."
Isn't it? I thought. The only reason I knew that was because Simon Brandenburg had told me. Fear clawed at my chest. What if that was a lie? What if. . .
I cut the thought short.
"I'm Alan," I said again. I lifted my eyes and glared at the doctor. I expected him to look away, or go all pale and nervous. People usually did that when looked at them.
Instead, he met my glare with a professional smile and said, "Mr. Fischer, we're here to help."
"Campbell," I said. "My name is Alan Campbell."
"You're not in trouble, Mr. Fischer. Nobody here is mad at you, we're just concerned."
"Don’t patronize me. I'm not this Fischer guy. There's been a mistake."
He looked at me. I looked at him. He didn't turn into a gibbering mess.
"My name is Alan."
"Dissociative Identity disorder?" said Dr. Harper.
"Goldview was certain it's schizophrenia. He's been with them for years." Mize stopped looking at me and turned to them. "I got ahold of Shaub from Goldview. He said the usual positive symptoms for him are auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions, but nothing regarding identity."
"But that was months ago," said Harper. "Could it have progressed? Could be a new, sustained delusion--"
"Unless the initial diagnosis was wrong? Though again, he's been with them for--"
"I'm right here!" I said.
"My apologies," Mize said. "Mr. Fischer, I think it would be for the best of you just stayed here for a bit. We're going to refer you to a specialist who can help you get this all straightened out. We've contacted your family and--"
"Family? I don't have any family. My family's dead. You're lying. Did Iotech send you?" I said suddenly. Might as well get it out in the open.
"What?" Mize said.
"Iotech! Did Simon send you?"
"Iotech?" said the male nurse. He raised an eyebrow. "The TV manufacturer?"
"They've been after me for months. If I stay here, they'll find me again. I need Dog."
"Schizophrenia," said Harper with a nod. She made a note in the chart.
"Your dog?" said the lady nurse.
"My dog," I said through gritted teeth. "He's not here with me. That means something is keeping him away. I want him back."
"There was no dog when the police found you."
"You're keeping him from me," I said suddenly. Of course! This was Iotech after all. "You're keeping him from me! I want him back."
"Mr. Fischer, please calm down--"
"I want my dog!" I bellowed. "I want my bugs! Let me out of here!"
I tried to conjure up electricity. I tried to suck it out of the walls, to get my hands burning, to tear off the restraints, but all that happened was me wriggling around and people trying to stop me. They said stuff, kept telling me to calm down, to stop fighting them, but I couldn't. They had dog. They were keeping us apart. They probably stopped Bugsy and the others, too. I started kciking; the idiots had left my legs free.
"What have you done with my dog?" I shouted. "What did you do to him? Dog? Dog!" I called, in case he could hear me. "Dog!"
"What's going on?" said a voice to my right. The other patient had woken up.
"Hey!" shouted the other voice to the left.
"Security!" shouted someone else.
"Sedate him," said Mize.
They did. The orderlies grabbed me and held me still while someone got a needle into my shoulder.
"Stop it!" I said. "I'll stop! Get off me!"
I felt the hot pressure of something being injected-- a terrible and entirely too-familiar sensation-- and then they all jumped away from me.
"What did you do to me?" I screamed. "What did you do to me?"
Had they seen my eye? My third eye in the back of my neck? I struggled against the restraints, trying to reach my head. I had to check if they'd taken the band-aid off.
"What did you do to me?"
"We'll come back later," said Mize to the nurse.
He left. Harper followed. The nurse checked the IV, fiddled around with the little computer, and then she too left.
And I was alone.
* * * * *
I woke up some time later, I don't know when. I didn't even know I'd fallen asleep. I was in a different room, but cuffed to the same wheely bed. There was a security guard near the door, arms crossed and looking professional, but watching the little ceiling-tv in the corner.
"What happened?" I said. My voice sounded slow to my ears, even though my brain felt fine.
The guard didn't acknowledge me. I tugged on the restraints, and it felt like I was moving under water.
"Can I geddup?" I slurred.
"Just go back to sleep," he said, not looking. "Make it easier for both of us."
"They're gonna kill me," I said. "They're gonna cut me up."
"Just take it easy," he said. He sounded bored.
"they want to hurt me," I said. My mouth was dry enough that it hurt to swallow. "Please."
He said nothing.
After a while, I said, "I gotta pee."
He ignored me.
"No, really!" I said. "I have to use the bathroom."
"Buddy. . ."
"Come on, man. I gotta go."
He gave an exasperated sigh and stood in the doorway. A moment later, and he had flagged down an orderly, who flagged down another, larger orderly. They undid the restraints, with the security guy close at hand.
"Don't try anything," he said. "Let's just have a peaceful rest of the night, alright?"
I was led down the hall, flanked by the guard and larger orderly, the smaller one leading the way.
"We'll be right out side if you need anything," they said.
I said nothing and entered the room, feeling weirdly like a kid. like I couldn't be trusted to use the freaking potty by myself.
The bathroom was surprisingly small: no stalls or anything. It just looked like someone had put a sink, mirror, and toilet into a broom closet and called it a day. Above, three ceiling lights gave off a high-pitched whine that was a little different from the normal electric buzzing noise I was used to. There were no windows, which ruined plan A. I'd been hoping against hope that I'd be able to break out that way, but no, we were apparently in the middle of the building. No way out.
I sat on the john and tried to think. My hands were shaking, my skin felt hot and cold at the same time, and I could feel a scream crawling its way up my throat.
I had to get out.
My powers weren't working, though. I still heard the electricity humming in the walls, but I couldn't call it out. I couldn't use any of it. Whoever put me in the hospital had shorted me out--
Unless it was the head wound.
The thought choked me. I was hit on the head. It probably wasn't an accident. What if it knocked out whatever part of my brain let me do things? What if it damaged whatever part of me could control electricity, or talk to Bugsy, or--
I stared at the floor.
What if I was cured?
But, no. That didn't explain anything. I had to get out of the hospital and find out what the hell was going on.
I got up and felt along the walls. The electricity there buzzed beneath my palms, so close and yet so far from reach.
Above them, the ceiling lights hummed. I looked up at them, gears moving in my damaged head. There were three light fixtures dotting the ceiling. Maybe I could put them to use.
Maybe I just needed to give my powers a little nudge.
I clambered awkwardly onto the sink-- it was taller than the toilet-- and stood on the edge. Careful not to lose balance, I unscrewed the plastic cap of the nearest light fixture and revealed the bulb beneath. I hopped onto the floor and winced at the thud. Hoping my landing wasn't loud enough to stir suspicion outside, I placed the plastic cover on the floor. Then I went up again unscrewed the bulb, which I then also placed on the floor, this time sliding down the sink instead of jumping. No way in hell did I want to add broken glass to my list of problems.
There was a knock on the door.
"You alright in there?"
"Yeah," I said, partway onto the sink again. "Sorry. Stomach's not feeling to hot."
That seemed to satisfy them. They didn't knock again.
I examined the fixture carefully, looking into the little hole where the bulb was screwed in. It looked normal. It didn't look like anyone had tampered with it. But what if they had? What if they'd anticipated I would try this, and that was why they brought me here, instead of to a different restroom? What if--
I shook the thought out of my head. I'd get nowhere thinking like that.
With complete confidence, I shoved my finger into the socket.
I tried to scream and couldn't. Bolts of pain shot up my arm, and for the first few seconds, I didn't try at all to stop it. Maybe that's what was needed to kick my powers into gear. Maybe any second, the pain would transform to the usual blissful burning, instead of this horrible painful one.
The room started to smell like smoke and burning meat.
After what felt like ages but was probably only a few seconds the pain got the better of me, and I tried to pull away, and found I couldn't. Every muscle was involuntarily tense, and I couldn't make myself remove my hand from the socket.
The lights flickered. Smoke started trickling out from the socket. Distantly, I heard banging on the door. Then the door opened up and people swarmed in. Someone hit my legs with something that felt like a heavy sticj-- a broom maybe? I didn't see. My feet slipped from the sink, and I fell into several waiting sets of arms. They lowered me to the floor, and I collapsed into jelly. Only then was I able to start screaming.
"Jesus," said the security guard. "What the hell did you do that for?"
Faces flooded my vision, and from the ground I had a perfect view of the smoking light socket. A nurse was looking at my hand and hissing in sympathy. With a groan and wince, I turned my head to see what she was seeing.
Tip of my index finger was black where I'd shoved it in the socket. The skin at the end was split open, like an over-heated hot dog. The area immediately around the blackness and all down my hand was red and puffy. I cried out in pain when she turned it over, examining the burns.
Oh, I thought. So that's what that burning smell was.
People were talking. I wasn't rally hearing them. Then they got me to my feet and started leading me to the door.
"Wait a sec," I said, waking up a little and pulling away from them, trying to get back to the sink.
"Sir, you need to--"
"No, hang on. Real fast."
Two of them grabbed me, and I tried and failed to shake them off.
"Let me just see!" I said, attempting to get back onto the sink. "I just need to see something!"
I twisted suddenly and elbowed the one to my right in the chest, knocking him back. I squirreled away from the other and made to to the sink, but before I could get on top of it, they grabbed me again. I yelped in pain as one of them jostled my burned hand, and it made one of them back off, but the other kept going. Gritting my teeth, I grabbed the faucet with my good hand and held while they tried to pry me off. I turtled up as completely as I could, hunching over the sink bowl, putting my weight awkwardly onto the sink so I'd be harder to move, my head down.
"I need to know if it worked!" I shouted into the bowl. They just needed to let me climb up and see if I could pull electricity from the socket now. It wasn't like I'd shove my hand inside again, just rest it in the outside and see if I could draw the power out. Besides, what did they care? They worked for Iotech, so why would they care if I went and electrocuted myself? As if Iotech didn't do that all the time--
"You don't want me to get them back!" I screamed, gears in my head snapping into place.
A few of the people had fallen away, presumably to call in back up. There was still the orderly and security guy, both trying to talk to me and drag me off the sink. I felt their hands around my sides, like they were going to yank me off.
"Sir--" said one.
"You want me to be weak! You want me to be helpless so you can cut me up!"
"Nobody was going to cut you up!" said someone else. "The doctor needs to see your hand--"
On cue, a blast of pain shot up my arm. The security guy had jostled me, and I screamed.
"Stop that!" I hollered. I raised my head to yell at him again, to tell him exactly what he could do to himself, but it was at that moment I caught sight of the mirror, and the words died in my throat.
For a confused moment, not even a full second, I thought I was looking into the reflection of one of the people holding on to me. The face was broad. The nose was a little wide, the eyes a pale green. The hair was dark with grease, but still lighter than mine. Longer, too. But that face didn't look like the security guy, or the orderly. I could see them too, to the sides of that strange face.
The stranger's green eyes widened. I opened my mouth to speak, and the stranger mimicked me. I let go of the sink in surprise, and watched as the strange face and the strange body attached to it were wrestled to the ground, just as I was.
"Wait!" I shouted. Someone-- I think the security guard-- was on my back, and others were pinning my arms and legs down. "Wait! Who was that? Who was that?"
The answer came in the form of another needle-prick in my shoulder.
I might have started screaming. I mean, I was screaming before, but now I was really screaming, begging them to let me see the mirror again, or to let me shove my hand in the socket again.
It was only when the edges of the world went fuzzy and black that they got off me. Only when every part of my body felt too heavy to move, and I couldn't even walk that they finally let me go. In a blur of faces and voices, they hefted me back to the bed.
They locked me back in.
They left me alone.
* * * * *
I was in and out after that.
"That's the Lorazepam," the nurse said when I tried to ask.
At some point, I remember being in a different room, on a different bed. No, it wasn't a bed, a table. I tried to tell them no. Begged them not to cut me up, told them that I'd work with Simon, okay? I wouldn't fight him, I'd do anything he told me to, just don't cut me up.
I woke up with a bandage on my hand and a comfortable fog in my head.
They told me again that my name was Brandon Fischer. I told them they were stupid and wrong.
In retrospect, I should have rolled with it, should have let them call me whatever the hell they wanted until they'd signed the discharge papers, but I was drugged up and upset and stupid and not thinking straight. It was ridiculous! How could they mistake me for another person? How could they tell me with a straight face that I wasn't me? Being me wasn't all that great, but dammit it was me. But then, that face in the mirror wasn't me.
They said they were going to transfer me somewhere. They didn't say it to me, but to each other. People kept talking around me. Sometimes they'd talk at me, trying to ask questions that I didn't catch or care about, and I was trying to talk back, to tell them that they were all being used by Simon Brandenburg--
But nobody was listening.
In the end, despite how hard I tried to fight it, I sank into that comfortable, warm haze and let their voices wash over me until I heard and saw nothing.