"Break the link, Felix. Break it or you'll die!"
The words reached his ears as a faint echo. He lay on a narrow table, half-blinded by white lights. Hands gripped his shoulders and shook him, but he barely felt it. "Felix!"
"Don't leave me," a voice in his mind whispered. "Please, I'm so scared."
"I won't leave you."
A woman's face filled his vision, her eyes wide. "Can you hear us?" she asked. Her features melted into a blur. Most of Felix's mind was not there, anyway: he was miles away, inside Alice, who hung upside down from the ceiling of a filthy basement, a meat-hook through her left foot. He watched through her eyes as a pair of pale, elegant hands raised a long knife, made a cut in Alice's abdomen, and pulled out a glistening coil of entrails.
Felix's belly burned as if he'd swallowed a mouthful of acid, but Alice did not scream.
"Why doesn't it hurt anymore?" Her voice was strangely calm. Too calm, for a ten-year-old watching her own guts emerge, inch by bloody inch, from her body.
"It's God, Alice. God is protecting you from the pain".
"It's not God." He felt tears pool in her eyes. "You're doing this, aren't you? You're taking the pain from me."
Smart kid. "It's the least I can do," Felix said. "I'm sorry, Alice. I tried."
"It's okay," she whispered. "Just...please stay until I'm asleep..."
"His blood-pressure is dropping."
"Felix, for God's sake, break the link!"
The searing pain spread through Felix's middle. He lifted his head--the simple movement took all his effort--and watched a purple-black bruise bloom on his abdomen. He'd probably be shitting blood later.
The pale, elegant hands pulled out another coil of Alice's intestines and stroked it, as if it were a pet snake. Blood dripped from the gash in Alice's stomach and pooled on the floor. Darkness ate away the edges of her vision, until only a faint blur of light remained--the naked bulb on the ceiling. Then that, too, vanished. "Thank you for staying," she whispered. Then everything went blank, and Felix's mind slammed back into his own body.
A squeezing pressure constricted his chest. He coughed. Something warm bubbled from his lips and ran down his chin.
I'm dying, Felix thought. He wondered why he wasn't afraid. He'd always believed that death would be terrifying, but now it came to him like a lover, enfolding him in its soft, dark embrace. The crushing pain in his chest ebbed. The glare of the overhead white lights faded.
"Give him another shot." The man's voice seemed to be coming from the other side of the universe. "Hurry up!"
"His system can't handle--"
"For Christ's sake, he's slipping away! Do it!"
No. Leave me alone.
Something sharp stung his neck, and his muscles clenched in a spasm. His heart galloped as the drug jump-started his nervous system, forcing him to live. He moaned.
"Easy," said a woman's voice. A gloved hand smoothed his hair back from his sweat-drenched brow. "You're gonna be okay."
No, I'm not, he wanted to say. I'm not okay, because you're bringing me back.
"His heartbeat is still erratic."
"It's starting to stabilize. Just give it a moment." A heavy sigh. "That was close."
Felix sank into a dark place where dreams could not reach him. But even in that darkness, the pain was still there.
He opened his eyes to find himself in a white room. Why, he wondered, did everything in the Department of Psychic Research headquarters have to be white?
Tubes ran from his wrist, his chest, his nose, tubes connected to bags and machines. His dry throat hurt, and his tongue seemed to fill his whole mouth. He could tell from the heavy, sluggish feeling in his limbs, the cloudiness in his head, that he was sedated.
He hated the drugs. He hated the helplessness, the disorientation, the terrifying moments of blankness when he forgot who he was.
"You're awake," said a voice.
Felix slowly turned his head and blinked, trying to focus his eyes.
A man sat in a chair by his bedside; an older man with graying brown hair and deep grooves carved into his cheeks. His right eye stared down at Felix. Its companion gazed into empty space as if seeing another world. The man's white coat glowed in the fluorescents.
Felix's tongue crept out to wet his numb lips. "Da...Dr. Burns, may I have some water?"
"In a moment."
His throat prickled and burned. "I'm very thirsty."
"In a moment, I said." He sat, looking at Felix, his long fingers pressed together in a steeple. A narrow metal band gleamed on the doctor's broad brow: the device emitted a dull, crackling mental static, muffling his thoughts so Felix couldn't read him. "Do you remember what happened?"
Thirst clawed at Felix's throat. His swollen tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Why does my stomach hurt? Memories danced just out of his reach. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know what happened. Something told him it would hurt. But he strained, anyway.
The memories came into focus with a sharp jolt. The basement. Alice.
Felix flinched and closed his eyes. "I remember."
Paper rustled, and Dr. Burns spoke, his voice dry and precise: "Major abdominal bruising. Gastrointestinal inflammation, resulting in a veritable flood of vomit and diarrhea--you weren't conscious for that--and last but not least, cardiac arrest. All physical symptoms of the mind-merge. This is the worst case of transference we've dealt with so far."
Felix stared at the ceiling.
"It was foolish to merge with her mind so tightly," said Dr. Burns. "Why didn't you break the link? We gave you the command several times."
It wasn't really fair, he thought, for Dr. Burns to confront him now. He could barely concentrate enough to speak, let alone defend his actions. "She was scared. I couldn't leave her alone."
"There is no justification for endangering your own life. I trust you will not do it again?"
Felix's body ached. He was so tired. "No, Doctor."
Burns held a paper cup to Felix's mouth. He drank. Water dribbled down his chin, and the doctor wiped it away with a folded napkin. "We can't afford to lose you, Felix."
Felix turned his head aside. "I couldn't save her," he whispered. "I couldn't find her in time. If I'd tried harder..."
"It's not easy to pinpoint someone's location through psychic resonance. It always takes time. In any case, what's done is done. Nursing your guilt won't help anyone."
"Don't you care that she's dead?"
"I care about saving lives. Focusing too much on a single life is counter-productive. Grieving won't bring her back, will it? I know you were only trying to help the girl..."
"Her name was Alice."
"Alice, then," said Dr. Burns, in the tone of a patient adult humoring a child.
Felix's throat tightened. "She was so brave," he whispered. "Even when she was scared to death, she tried to tell me everything she could to help us find her. All she asked was that I stay with her in those final moments. How could I possibly have said no?"
"There are larger concerns."
"You weren't linked to her. You don't understand how it feels to hear a dying child beg you not to leave her alone."
"How it feels isn't the issue here." Dr. Burns stood. "You will remain here at headquarters for the next two days so we can monitor you. I want to take some blood samples and run a CT scan. I think you should report to Dr. Sullivan tomorrow morning for psychological evaluation, as well."
Felix looked away. He wanted to go home and rest in the healing solitude of his own apartment, but arguing never helped; if he made a fuss, they might hold onto him for three or four days instead of two. "Okay."
"After we release you, I want you to take it easy. No deviations from your normal routine. Report back to us in ten days for another set of tests."
"Whatever you say, Doctor. You always know what's best, after all."
Dr. Burns either didn't notice or chose to ignore the edge of sarcasm in his voice.
Felix closed his eyes and listened to Dr. Burns' receding footsteps. The door clicked shut. Felix clenched one hand into a tight fist, hidden beneath the sheets.
A heavy, groggy feeling stole over him. He looked at the bags of fluid hanging next to his bed, the tubes running into his wrist. They'd probably increased the dosage of his sedatives. He hated that they could do that to him without his awareness or consent--steal his consciousness, switch him off, as if he were a household appliance--but he couldn't fight it. He sank into nothingness.
Dr. Burns stood before Felix's bed, hands laced together behind his back. The resemblance to his mother was most striking when he was unconscious: the pale, unblemished skin, the broad forehead and large eyes. And that red hair, of course.
When he woke, Burns knew, the effect would diminish. For now, however, it was like seeing her reincarnated. He looked away.
Dr. Sullivan stood beside him and tapped a clipboard with a pen while she stared at the array of screens monitoring Felix's condition. His vital signs had been stable for the past few hours, but they were taking no chances. Felix's faint, raspy breathing echoed in the silence.
Dr. Sullivan set down the clipboard and pen. "We're killing him, you know," she said. "It gets worse each time."
Burns scowled. "What are you saying? That we should give up? Just stop?"
"I'm not saying that," Sullivan said. "But we can't use Felix for much longer."
"Who else is there?"
"He almost died."
"It won't happen again," Burns said. "The next time he links with someone, we'll keep a sedative on hand. That way, if he tries any more foolish stunts, we can break the link ourselves."
"What about the damage to his psyche?" she asked. "Are you considering that? This sort of work would take its toll on anyone, and his mind was...fragile to begin with."
"This is what he wants. It's his choice. Ask him if you don't believe me. Ask him if he wants to leave."
"What he wants isn't the point. I believe he's becoming unstable."
"Increase his medication."
"Medication isn't magic," she said. "There's only so much it can do. What he needs is a less stressful environment. If he snaps, we'll have much greater problems to deal with. We don't want another Haze."
"Haze was a miscalculation. We didn't monitor her closely enough. We're doing things right this time."
"I certainly hope so. For all our sakes. We can't afford another miscalculation, not when we're still dealing with the consequences of the first. Our dear Ms. Haze is certainly building up an impressive list of victims. Little Alice was...what, number ten?"
"We'll find her," Burns said. "Haze is just one person. She can't elude us forever. Sooner or later she'll slip up. In the meantime, we have to continue our efforts. We are very vulnerable right now. The government is looking for places to cut back. If we don't produce concrete results, we may be shut down entirely."
"You used that same argument to justify the Reform Project, and look where that got us," she snapped. "That's the whole reason we're in this mess."
Burns narrowed his eyes. "Don't push me. I'm worn very thin. You had better remember who you work for. I made your career, and I can destroy it."
Her shoulders went rigid, and she turned burning, baleful eyes to him. But her voice, when she spoke, was cool and neutral: "I apologize, Doctor. I overstepped my bounds."
Felix stirred and made a faint noise in the back of his throat. Both doctors looked at him. A moment later, his breathing relaxed.
Dr. Burns stuck his hands in his pockets and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob, he paused. "Keep an eye on him. And tomorrow, give him a thorough evaluation. CT scan, PET scan, MRI. And give him another PAT, as well."
Burns walked down the hall.
In a month or so, none of this would matter. But of course, he had to keep up appearances. Now more than ever, that was important.
A tingle crept up his spine. He was on the verge of something big; the single greatest event in human history.
His breathing quickened.
Burns keyed in a code on the door panel, and the door slid open, revealing a set of stairs leading down. He walked down the stairs, down another hall, to a ten-foot-high set of titanium double doors. Leaning forward, he peered into the retinal scanner, pressed his hand against a black panel, and spoke his name aloud: "Doctor Sebastian Burns." The computer clicked as it verified his voice and handprint. The door swung open, revealing a vast, round room. The floor ran around the room's edge: in the center lay a circular pit. He walked to the railing and stared into the pit. Far below, in the shadows at the bottom of the metal chute, blue light writhed and shimmered.
Dr. Burns gripped the railing, fingers tightening until his knuckles whitened. He wiped his sweating brow with a kerchief. Soon.
Felix met Dr. Sullivan in the Exam Room. She asked him some questions and "hmm"-ed over the latest batch of brain scans. Then she removed the thought-muffling device from around her head, removed a pack of playing cards from her pocket, and pulled one out so the back faced Felix--the usual cherubs-on-bicycles design. "What card am I looking at?"
"You're testing my powers?" Felix asked, surprised. They'd done this years ago when he first entered the DPR.
"I know, it's sort of silly, isn't it?" She smiled. "But Dr. Burns wants to see if your score has changed at all."
"Well, okay." He closed his eyes. "Two of diamonds."
He did this about ten more times, and each time, she put a checkmark on the paper in front of her. Then she started trying to trick him by looking at one card and thinking about another, or by looking at a blank card. She was trying to keep her mind on the test, but as she went through the motions, he felt her thoughts begin to wander. He heard her thinking about the fact that she'd just entered menopause, how it was too late to have children, and if she'd had them in her first marriage they would have been about Felix's age now. Would they have had brown eyes like Jack? Jack the Bastard. Oh, but he had the most delicious devilish smile. You could eat it like chocolate...
"Felix? Last card."
"Ace of spades."
"Very good. Your score has actually improved a little since last time."
"Oh. Good," he said, though it made no difference to him, really. He was too tired to wonder about the implications.
Sullivan sent him down to the lab, where a bumbling technician stuck him five times with a needle before finding a vein. By the time he walked out of the room, his arm looked like a junkie's.
Shortly before they released him from headquarters, Dr. Sullivan handed him a little amber bottle of pills. "Take one of these if you start feeling stressed."
Felix studied the label. Diazepam: his old friend. This same pill had floated him through the rockier moments of his childhood when his father was too tired to deal with his crying. He pocketed the bottle.
"Take it easy this next week," Dr. Sullivan said. "Don't put any unnecessary strain on yourself, physically or emotionally. I know this last job was particularly hard on you."
"Don't worry about me. I'm fine." He forced a smile.
Her eyes searched his face. A frown crinkled the smoothness between her pencil-outlined eyebrows. "Do you want to be here, Felix?"
"At the DPR. This job...is this what you really want to be doing for the rest of your life?"
He shrugged. "What else would I do?"
"I just wonder if you should take a break. You've been taking a few classes at the university, haven't you? Focus on your studies for awhile. You're twenty-two years old, and you've been working with us since you were thirteen. Don't you want to experience life outside the DPR?"
Felix lowered his gaze. "It has nothing to do with what I want. Sooner or later there'll be another victim, another little girl like Alice. And I'll have the power to find her. All I need is a photo, a few of her things, and I can find the door into her mind. I might even save her life this time."
Dr. Sullivan glanced around, then leaned closer and said, "Dr. Burns will use you up like a tube of toothpaste if you let him."
"You work for him. You should be encouraging me to stay, shouldn't you?"
"I'm concerned for you."
He looked at her face and saw she was telling the truth. A lump formed in his throat, and his eyes started to fill. He had to turn away; if he didn't, he would lose it. God, I'm a mess. "I just need to go home. I need to rest. That's all."
"I can have a man drive you back to your apartment, if you wish."
He shook his head. "I'll take the El back."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." He didn't know why he bothered. Maybe it made him feel more normal, taking the train like anyone else.
He left headquarters, walked the half-mile to the El stop and waited in the underground station, head down, the hood of his sweatshirt up, hands in his pockets. The train pulled into the station with a mechanical groan, and he boarded.
Ten minutes into the trip, he wondered how he'd been so stupid. The Red Line train was always crowded. Felix had to stand, gripping one of the poles as his fellow passengers bumped and jostled him. It wasn't the crush of bodies that bothered him; it was the crush of thoughts. They hummed around him, blending into an unintelligible babble, countless minds pressing in on him as if they had physical weight. He shut his eyes, head pounding.
When he got off the El, there was still light in the sky. Exhaustion weighed him down, but he wasn't ready to go back to the apartment just yet. He'd been in the DPR headquarters for the past week and a half. His body craved sunlight and air.
Felix bought a loaf of white bread from a convenience store and walked to the edge of Lake Michigan. Darkening waters reflected the orange glow of sunset. He found a bench, tossed a few crusts onto the ground and waited until the seagulls and pigeons gathered around him. He watched them peck up the scraps and smiled.
"You're lucky, you know," Felix said. "You guys. You never have to think. You don't have to make difficult choices. All you need to be happy is a few crusts of bread."
A sudden chill ran through him, making the hairs on his arms stand on end. Felix looked up--and froze.
Alice stood out on the lake, her feet half-submerged in water, wearing the school uniform he remembered from a photograph of her: white blouse, dark blue knee-length skirt, now stained with blood. Her intestines hung in coils from the gash in her stomach as she stared at him with a blank expression. Her lips moved, forming words he couldn't hear. A cold hand squeezed his gut. "Alice..."
Her lips moved again. She was trying to tell him something important, but he couldn't make it out.
A bird took flight with a rustle of wings, and he blinked. Heart pounding, he scanned the water, but Alice was gone. Felix stared at the spot where she'd been. He raised trembling fingers to his brow. Had she really been there?
No, of course not. He was tired, that was all. He stood, turned away and walked home, wondering if he'd already lost it.
It was 8:15 pm when he returned to his small, one-bedroom apartment. He walked up the stairs, his footsteps stiff and slow, and wondered if this was what it felt like to be old, every movement an effort, a struggle against the invisible sandbags tied to his limbs.
When he reached the top of the stairs, an image flashed through his mind, and he grabbed the stair rail to steady himself. He saw the inside of the basement, the dirty floor, the walls, old, cracked cement smeared with blood, his blood...
No, not his. Alice's.
He blinked hard and squeezed his eyes shut. Visualize something else, he thought. An orange on a white tablecloth. He focused all his attention on the orange, and after a minute, his breathing slowed.
Felix opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and shoved his shaking hands into his pockets. He walked down the narrow hall and opened the door to his apartment. He took in the familiar details--the threadbare brown carpet, the couch (once cream-colored, now faded to a dull urine yellow), the stacks of books and CDs on his shelves--as he repeated his own name over and over in his head. He was Felix Burns. Felix, not Alice.
But her ghost would live forever in his mind, alongside the others.
He looked down at his hands and saw them trembling. He started to reach for the bottle of pills in his pocket, then stopped. He'd barely been home for five minutes and already he felt like he needed one. He was tired of needing pills.
Felix set the bottle on the coffee table, showered, changed into a faded t-shirt and pajama pants, and flopped down on his couch.
He had class tomorrow morning. Sociobiology. He wondered if he would be able to face a roomful of people. Head aching, he draped an arm over his face.
His thoughts trailed away as exhaustion overcame him.
A serrated knife, wet with blood, gleamed in the dim light. The blade slid through the soft flesh of a little girl's belly as she lay limp on a metal table, head lolling to one side. All around, small corpses hung from the ceiling on meat-hooks, their eyes glassy with death.
A woman's husky voice sang as she cut open the little girl's body: "Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee...all through the night..." Pale hands slid into the bloody slit, pulled out two pink ovaries and set them on the metal table. "Guardian angels God will send thee..." The hands reached back in and pulled out a slick purple liver. "...all through the night..."
The little girl's dead eyes suddenly blinked.
Felix woke with a gasp, heart pounding. His chest tightened, making it difficult to draw a full breath.
Just a dream, he told himself. Or had it been something more? Normally, he couldn't get into Haze's mind--he could only link with her victims--but perhaps when he was asleep, when his mind was wide open, there was some connection between them. Felix shuddered.
He reached for the pill bottle on the table, shook two capsules into his sweat-damp palm, and dry-swallowed them. Then he went into the bathroom and stared at his own face in the cracked mirror: the pale skin, the glassy blue eyes, the dark circles around them. Tendrils of messy red hair clung to his damp, waxy brow and temples. "I can't do this anymore," he whispered.
"God, you're such a pussy," a deep voice growled in his head. "You hate what this is doing to you, but you can't say no to them, can you?"
Felix blinked and gave his head a little shake. "What...?"
"Yes, I'm talking to you. Remember me?"
Felix's shoulders tensed. He clenched his jaw and glared at the face in the mirror. "No. You're an auditory hallucination. Go away."
His reflection grinned at him. "You can't keep me walled up in here forever," it said. "Why not work with me instead of trying to suppress me? We could have such fun. You'd like to kill that asshole, wouldn't you?" A vision of Dr. Burns filled his mind. "I can make it happen."
"I don't want to kill anyone," Felix told the reflection.
"You can't hide anything from me. I'm inside you. Remember? I'm buried here in your subconscious with all the things you don't want anyone to see. All the hate and rage."
"Stop it," Felix whispered. His breathing accelerated. He pressed his hands over his ears. His reflection mimicked his movement, but the grin on its face remained. Felix touched his own face and felt his lips stretched into a wide smile, though he'd never felt less like smiling. "You're not a real person," he said. "So shut up."
The grin vanished. "Fuck you. I've got feelings, you know. How would you like it if someone said that to you?"
"You are me." Even as he said it, his voice wavered with uncertainty. "You're a part of me."
"There's where you're wrong. And I'll prove it to you. I'll do the things you want to do but would never have the stomach for. Come on. I'll take care of him the way I took care of those fuckers at school. Admit it, that was satisfying, wasn't it? Hearing that dick Larry Gleeber squeal and cry like a little girl? He never called you a faggot again."
Felix shut his eyes tight, breathing hard. His hands clenched into fists, nails pressing into his palms. His heart thundered. In the darkness behind his lids, red veins lit up with each heartbeat. "No," he whispered. "I'm not going to talk to you anymore. You're just in my head." A minute later, he opened his eyes and looked at his face in the mirror, and it was his face again. Felix exhaled a shuddering breath, and his knees crumpled. He dropped to the floor in a heap of limp limbs, like a string-cut marionette, and leaned back against the bathroom counter.
God, what a day.
He sat on the bathroom floor and waited for his heart to stop racing. Then he rose, every joint and muscle aching, and walked into the living room. He picked up his cell phone and dialed a number he knew by heart. Two rings, then she picked up. "Felix?"
"Hi...Dr. Sullivan? I'm sorry to call you now. I know you're probably at home."
"Don't worry about it. What's on your mind?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He would do this without crying. "I'm hearing him again. I'm hearing Edward."
"Oh dear." A pause. Then, quietly, "I'll adjust the dosage of your medication. In the meantime, if you start hearing the voice again, try to ignore it. Don't talk to it, don't acknowledge it at all."
"It's not that easy. He gets angry if I ignore him."
"It's not a 'him.' It's not a person. It's just your own brain. There's nothing there, nothing you need to be afraid of. I know it's difficult to ignore, but the more you treat the voice as real, the more real it will become to you. And it's very important for you to keep a grip on what is real and what isn't."
"Do you want to come here tomorrow morning? Or even tonight, if you like."
"Tomorrow is okay. I know it's late."
"Will you be all right 'til then?"
"Yes," he said. He didn't feel all right, but he also didn't have the strength to leave his apartment right now. He couldn't face the outside, not in his current state. "I need to get some sleep."
"All right, tomorrow then. Noon?"
"Sure. See you then." Felix hung up, shuffled into his room and collapsed into bed. He fell asleep within minutes. This time, mercifully, there were no dreams.