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Chapter 1

December 19, 2011

I remember the flash.  Then nothing.

 

The pain forced me awake again.  With a wince I rolled off my left side, stretched out my arm and tried to work some feeling back into my fingers.  Lightning strikes of pain surged through my shoulder.  They said that I’d broken it not long ago, and that it was still healing.  The exercises I had been doing for the past few days helped.  A little anyway.  They’d told me not to expect things to get better quickly.

Cradling my arm I swung my feet off the bed and onto the cold linoleum.  The room itself was warm, but somehow the floor was always frigid to the touch.  It had been that way for as long as I could remember.  And that wasn’t long.  A grey light was just beginning to filter around the blind on the room’s single window.  With my left arm I grasped the cord to pull up the slats.  Immediately pain bloomed in my shoulder and burned with a fury, my grip so weak that the cord nearly slipped through my fingers.  Gritting my teeth I pulled.  Lights danced behind my eyes, sweat popped out of every pore and my stomach churned, until eventually I was forced to let go of the cord.  The blind was only half way up, but it was an improvement on yesterday.

The view outside was grim reward.  A thick blanket of dark grey clouds shrouded the sky, making it impossible to identify where the sun hung.  The washed out half-light gave no indication of the time of day, but I knew it could not be long after dawn.  With my arm the way it was I slept in short bursts, the slightest change of position enough to set the pain building.  When I’d last woken it was still dark.

The building I was in was set in a small hollow, and as such was a poor place to admire the mundane view.  On the horizon, atop a rise, I could just make out the dark grey ribbon of the motorway, the odd flash of white indicating the traffic passing north or south.  Otherwise there were just trees.  Tress marching in every direction.  It might have been an attractive natural setting, were it not for the dull grey sky and the twenty foot security fence that stood between me and it.  Vicious looking razor wire was coiled around the top of the fence, and from where I stood I could see two guard towers.  Men armed with rifles stood at their posts twenty four hours a day, and regular patrols were made around the building’s perimeter.

This was nothing to worry me of course, they’d said.  This was all just for protection, nothing more.  But that didn’t stop the door to my room being bolted shut, and I most definitely couldn’t leave.  Not yet, anyway.

A key rattled in the door and it swung slowly open, yellow artificial light oozing its way into my room from the corridor.  I could just make out the uniformed shoulder of a guard before a small weasel faced man carrying a covered tray pushed his way into the room.  The door was shut quickly behind him.

“Good morning Dr Collins, I hope you are feeling well today?” said the weasel faced man, his features describing concern, together with something I couldn’t identify.

I didn’t answer, instead I turned my back to the man and stared out of the window.  Talk was pointless.

The weasel faced man gave a forced laugh, notes of hysteria creeping in at the edges, before placing the tray down on the table.

“Ah, you still yearn to leave.  And where would you go Dr Collins?  Has your memory begun to return?  That would be good news.  Tell me just one thing you recall, your address perhaps, and I will see to it right away.”

There was more than a hint of mockery in the man’s voice, but it was tempered by something.  Was it concern, respect?  Nearly, but not quite.  Besides, he was right.  I couldn’t remember a thing before eight days ago, other than the flash.  Of course it was worse than that. I struggled to remember things since the flash as well.  It was almost as if my brain couldn’t hold on to things, like memories kept leaking out of it.  As if sensing my thoughts the weasel man continued.

“Or perhaps something easier, hmm?  Maybe you could tell me my name, just my name.  I have told you it twice since the accident, maybe it has lodged in there now?”

Anger and shame welled up inside me.  His tone was irritating, but what stoked my rage was that he was right.  I couldn’t remember his name!  I turned to face him and he must have read the anger in my eyes. He took a step back, his hand reaching out for the door handle.

“You must try to relax Dr Collins.  You have had a significant head injury, and it will take you time to recover.  Remember, we are all here to help you on the path to recovery.  Once you are well you can get back to your work, we are all so eager for you to return.  But for the time being you must trust us, and allow us to protect you while you heal.”

As much as I didn’t want to, I could feel the truth in some of his words.  I had nowhere to go.  I didn’t even know who I was.  The small man gave an involuntary gasp of surprise.

“Oh my, that really is progress!” he said, his eyes fastened on my left hand.  In my frustration I had balled my fingers up into a fist.  I hadn’t even noticed the pain.  Concentrating I unfurled my fingers.

“Well, that is good news, congratulations Dr. Collins.  I must return to our work, enjoy your breakfast.”  Turning the handle the weasel man hurried from the room.  With a deep metallic clank the door was locked.

With a grimace I sat down at the table and pulled the cover from the tray.  Bacon and eggs.  Good, I was hungry.

As I chewed through the food my mind ran through the same exercises that it had for the past few days.  It seemed less foggy today, less shrouded, or was that my imagination?  I forced myself to try and remember everything I had been able to piece together.  It wasn’t much.

My name was Dr Collins.  If I had been told my first name I couldn’t now remember it, as hard as I tried.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask the weasel faced man what my first name was.  What kind of a person can’t even remember their own name?

The first feeling I remember was panic.  Panic and rage.  Eight days ago I had woken in this room, tied to the bed and unable to move.  At my scream a woman in a nurse’s uniform had rushed into the room and loosened the straps.  Somehow I had struggled free, and pushed my way towards the door before my legs gave way and the world went black.  When I came round the weasel faced man was in the room.  The straps were gone, but he’d explained that I would now have to be guarded day and night.  For my own protection.

My name was Dr Collins, he explained, and I had suffered a terrible head injury.  I had been unconscious for two months, and delirious for the past three weeks.  The straps had been to stop me rolling out of bed in my delirium, but there was no need for them anymore.  He was delighted I was awake, and appreciated how confusing this must all seem.  He had asked me what I remembered.

“Just, the flash.”

My voice had sounded strange in my own ears, the muscles of my jaw uncomfortable and unfamiliar.  I had to clear my throat twice before I could croak out the words.

“Well, that is a start.  I am sure that all you need is time Dr Collins.  Time and rest.  It will all come back to you, of that I have no doubt.  Then we can get you back to your work, you have been badly missed!”

My work.  The two people I had met both spoke about my work, the word said almost reverently.  The room I was in was part of a laboratory complex in the South of England.  The motorway I could see from the window was the M3, and we were located somewhere close to Southampton.  This the weasel faced man happily shared with me.  That the work was top secret was obvious from the security around the compound, and that my role in the work was important was clear from the attention I received.

I was the lead scientist at the facility.  Our research was pushing the boundaries of neuropathology and human cognitive function.  I had been on the verge of a breakthrough when a car accident had left me in a coma with a broken arm.  Once I was stable I had been cared for at the facility.

“Do you remember any of your research, Dr Collins?”  The weasel faced man had seemed unusually eager.  I shook my head.  I couldn’t remember anything.  Even the word ‘neuropathology’ meant nothing to me.  That my work was indeed important was evident from the man’s reaction.  For a moment his face fell, before contorting into a mask of good humour.

“Not to worry!  Time is all we need, no doubt,” he had said.

My name was Dr Collins, the road was the M3, I do important work, I had just eaten bacon and eggs.  Such was my life history.  I may have been told more that I had forgotten.  Evidently I had tried different ways to remember things.  Glancing down at the inside of my left forearm I could see what looked like ‘M3’ scratched into the skin in jagged cuts.  The skin around was swollen and puffy, the lines the dull brown of old blood.  Goodness knew what I had used to make the cuts, I wasn’t even allowed a pencil.  For that matter, why had felt it so necessary to remember that the road was the M3 that I would self harm?

I had been comfortable in the small room, and while my body recovered from the months of inactivity I hadn’t needed much more space.  The small table I was sat at was of a dull unpainted metal, the top a grey laminate with a coffee ring stain near the centre.  The laminate was cracked and peeling in one corner, revealing the yellowy chipboard underneath.  I was sat in the only chair in the room, a simple wooden kitchen chair.  The only other furniture was the metal hospital bed and a small bedside table.  The walls were painted a faded cream, more nicotine than magnolia, and in the far wall a door led to the bathroom.  In there a white sink, white toilet pan and a slightly rusted shower completed the contents of my universe.

On the bedside table were four books.  Two had indecipherable titles about neuro-somethings, one looked worryingly like a calculus exercise book and the fourth was a low quality paperback adventure novel.  I had read some of the last one, the first three I hadn’t even touched.  When I had first woken these three were the only books on the table, the weasel faced man explaining they were my favourites.  On the fourth day Sarah – I could remember her name – had taken pity on me and brought me the paperback.

Sarah was the nurse, and I liked her much more than the weasel faced man.  She never said much, but she had bought me the book.

It had started to drizzle outside.  With a grunt I pushed the tray away and made my to the window.  With my good arm I pulled the blind the rest of the way up.  The guard in the tower must have noticed the movement, as for a second he turned towards my window, his finger hovering over the trigger of his rifle, before he turned back to scanning the woods.  Neuropathology must be a big business to need such security.

I started running through my exercises.  Standing push ups against the wall until my shoulder burned, then wide circles with my arms.  Finally I tried jogging on the spot.  My legs were definitely stronger than they were, I would have to ask weasel face for more space to exercise soon.  Every day my body felt stronger and yet my mind still sloshed around him my head, struggling to hold on to information and to dredge up any of my past.  After a while the movement caused my shoulder to burn with fury so I stopped.  Now I was stronger the days were going to get more and more boring.  Unless I could remember.

 

I’d dropped off to sleep.  Being asleep was the only refuge at times, but something had woken me and for once it wasn’t my arm.  I couldn’t tell how long I had dozed for – my room had no clock and I wasn’t permitted a watch, but it couldn’t have been long.  Sarah would have woken me for lunch.

The paperback fiction book was propped against my chest.  It was a spy thriller, and while it wasn’t the finest piece of literature it was more appealing than calculus.  Suddenly I could hear far away screaming, followed by shouts and what sounded like gunfire.  The sound of running footsteps in the corridor and my door cracked open.  A stern faced man peered quickly into the room and grunted, before slamming the door closed and bolting it.  I could just make out the barked command of “increase the guard”, and then the sound of running footsteps in the other direction.

I rose quickly from bed, knocking the book on to the floor.  Just to the right of the door was a small metal ventilation grate.  I had discovered days ago that through it you could just about make out noises in the corridor.  There had never been anything to hear though, other than footsteps, but if there were now more men outside my room I might be able to learn something.

Lying face down on the floor I pressed my ear to the cold metal, ignoring the chill seeping up for the linoleum floor.  My heart was beating quickly and I could hear the rush in my ears.  Controlling my breathing I sought calm, straining my hearing as much as possible.  There was nothing.

For long minutes I lay there, hardly daring to breathe.  There was nothing but silence.  No running steps, no more gun shots. I was starting to shiver, the cold from the floor penetrating through the thin gown.  I clenched my teeth to stop them rattling, and was just about to give up when I heard a voice.

“Do you know what’s going on?”  The voice was pitched low but I could make out the words clearly.  There was a long pause before another voice, presumably the second guard, replied.

“One of the patients got loose.  The same guy.  Knifed a guard and stole a gun.”

The owner of the first voice let out a low whistle.

“Hush,” said the third voice. “You know where not supposed to talk here.”

The voice had the snap of command.  For a further ten minutes I lay on the freezing floor hearing nothing but silence.  Abruptly the silence was broken by the sound of approaching footsteps.  I heaved my cold limbs from the floor and hastily made my way back to the bed.  Before I climbed under the covers I kicked the book under the bed and into the corner of the room.  I wasn’t sure if Sarah was supposed to have given it to me, and I didn’t want to get her in trouble.  I was just settled under the sheets when the door opened and weasel face stalked into the room with a tray.

“Lunch time Dr Collins!”  He seemed more cheerful than usual, a strange glimmer in his eyes.  “And how are you feeling now?”

I knew from experience his questions didn’t need answers.  I’d taken to not speaking, but this time I wanted something.  As used to silence as I was it took a few moments to form the words.

“Better.  I need more room to exercise now.”

The weasel’s eyebrows quirked up.

“Well, well, a rare treat.  Words from the great Doctor.  Very well, I will see what I can arrange.  Enjoy your meal.”

“What was the fuss about earlier?”

He hesitated for a second, and for a moment I thought he was going to tell me.

“Nothing for you to worry about Dr Collins, you just focus on getting better.”  With that left and bolted the door.

Ignoring the food I sat staring at the closed door, warmth returning to my frozen limbs.  Like a sick bird something fluttered through my mind.  Desperately I clawed a hold of it, careful not to shatter it in my grasp but desperate to get a grip.  In an instant it became clear, a grim smile of victory spreading across my lips.  Weasel’s name was Damian Richter, I hated him, and he was a murderer.

 

I stood facing the fresh breeze, the faint sunlight on my face, the smell of trees in the air.  Man, this felt great.  I had been allowed into the exercise yard for two hours a day for the past week.  Already I was a lot stronger.  Whoever I was I must have been reasonably fit before the accident.  My muscles had atrophied through bed rest but I was regaining fitness quickly.

The exercise yard was a square patch of grass roughly twenty metres on each side.  By my estimate it lay roughly in the centre of the facility, wings of the building running around it on all four sides.  All the windows I could see had bars on them, and the vast majority were blacked out.  There was never anyone else here when I was brought to exercise, and I rarely saw anyone else moving around in the facility.

The sweat was beginning to cool on my back so I set off again at a quick jog, my path tracing the outer edge of the grass.  I sprinted in bursts then lapsed back to jogging, delighting in the ability to stretch my legs after so long inside.  Even my shoulder felt better, although my left arm was still weak, and the pain would occasionally flare up at night.

As I circled the grass again and again my mind ticked over.  It was definitely getting better, I found that I could remember most things that people told me now.  My memories from before the accident were still impenetrable, but I had started to remember things, or vague fragments of things.  For example, I now knew for certain that I had been in this facility before this week.  The exercise yard wasn’t familiar, but somehow I knew that the blue door on the Western edge would take me to Extraction Lab 12.  I had no idea what Extraction Lab 12 was for, but I knew I could find it there.

Despite these fragments there was no escaping the fact that, for me at least, this facility was a prison.  I was more certain of that now than ever.  I wasn’t allowed to leave, and even in this yard I was watched.  I suspect they thought I didn’t realise, but I could see the silhouette behind the glass in a window on the Southern perimeter.  Yes, I was a prisoner, but unless I could remember more there was no way out of this place for me.  My captors all claimed they were looking after me, that I must rest so I could get back to my work.  That might all be true, but it also included being under lock and key twenty four hours a day.

My calves started to ache.  With a grunt of frustration I increased my pace, pushing down the rising discomfort.  While I could remember more, Richter’s name for example, I wasn’t letting anything on.  He still thought I had no idea what his name was and continued to mock me.  It was a struggle to keep the look of disgust from my face when he was talking.  I hadn’t remembered anything specific, but even the sight of him filled me with hatred.  They had their secrets, now I had one of my own.  All I had to do was avoid ramming my fist into Richter’s face every time I saw him.  It wasn’t easy.

It carried its rewards thought.  I could tell that my continued inability to remember anything from before the flash, even feelings, was of immense frustration to him.  The hysterical edge to his laughter was more pronounced and he found it difficult to even act cheerful in my presence.  I had realised something else as well.  The odd look in his eyes, the edge to his words that I couldn’t identify, was fear.  Not a general fear – he was afraid of me.  Terrified in fact.  Now if I could only remember why.

Abruptly the blue door slammed open and I had to check my run to avoid crashing into it.  A bulky guard stood in the doorway.

“I’ve only had an hour and a half,” I panted, hands on hips while I gulped in the air.  In reply the guard just fingered the taser that hung at his belt.  Not once had I convinced one of these guys to talk.

“Ok, buddy, not need to get like that.”

Squeezing past the guard I made my way back into the compound.  This was something new.  My room – my cell – lay on the Eastern side of the compound.  I had never been in this part of the facility.  Not since the flash at least.  Idly I wondered if we were going to Extraction Lab 12.  The guard gave me a shove in the back and we moved forward down the corridor.

Gentle persuasion was clearly not in this guy’s vocabulary.  Wrenching my arm behind my back he pushed me face first through a side door and into a room flooded with white electric light.  With a snarl I turned on the guard but he just slammed the door behind us and stood there impassively.

“Ah, Dr Collins, this is a treat!”  Richter hurried around from the far side of a long white table.  He was dry washing his hands and looked very on edge.  His lab coat was dishevelled and dark circles ringed his eyes.  It looked like life wasn’t treating weasel face all that well at all.

“How is the memory, any clearer no?” he simpered.

I shook my head.  I wasn’t about to let him know things were improving, albeit slowly.  I needed to figure all this out, and something told me that to do that I would need any edge I could get.  For the time being, playing dumb was the best I could do.  And it wasn’t hard, beyond the remembered hatred for this man there was pretty much nothing I could recall.

“Ah, that is a pity.”  His words had a forced levity, but his eyes betrayed how crushed he felt.  Was this really concern for my welfare?  I couldn’t reconcile this with how I felt about the man, even if I couldn’t yet remember why I felt that way.  No, Richter was desperate for me to start remembering, but why, when he must realise I would remember how I felt about him?

“Well, given the improvements you have made in your health I thought a trip to your lab might help jog things in your mind.  Do you recognise this room?”

I certainly didn’t, not even vaguely.  It was the largest room I had seen in the compound, wide and high ceilinged.  The walls were plain concrete, the far wall lined with steel shelves.  Each shelf was loaded with a wide array of foreign looking implements.  Standing in one corner was a large double door fridge.  In the other corner was a small desk with a computer monitor and keyboard next to a large freestanding whiteboard.  Dominating the entire room was the huge central table.  It was made entirely from steel, its surface brushed so as to not reflect the bright light above.  The light in the centre of the room looked like some kind of surgical array, with fluorescent tubes lining the entire ceiling above.

Richter interpreted my silence correctly.

“Ah, not to worry.  How about any of these items, do they ring any bells.”  He swept his hands to indicate the items on the huge table.  I made my way around the table to get a better look, although I doubted it would help.

The first item looked much like some sort of mechanical socket set.The handle had a series of dials and swivels, together with a small digital display.  Next to it was a coiled length of cable.  The sheath of the cable was metallic inside a plastic covering.  One end of the cable had a large socket that was reminiscent of some sort of computer input.  The other end finished in a boggling array of small hairlike fibres.  The last item was a leather bound notebook.  It looked well used and beaten up, but in no way familiar.

I looked up at Richter and shook my head.  The man’s face crumpled for a second before he gained his composure.  I had little time to register his reaction though.  Just over his shoulder was the whiteboard, a complex series of equations scrawled across it in black and red ink.  The letters and symbols at first looked meaningless to me, but for brief second they flashed into stronger focus.  As it stood the equation was meaningless.  Whoever had written it had hashed up the factors and missed out a section that was clearly integral.  As quickly as it had come the moment passed, the writing returning to meaningless scrawl.

“Dr Collins, are you OK?”

Richter had his patronising simper back in full force.

“I’m fine, just fine.  I over did it in the exercise yard though, this is giving me trouble again.”  Wincing I rubbed my shoulder and pushed it through small circles.  In reality my shoulder felt pretty good, but my explanation seemed to satisfy him.

“Well, don’t overdo it Dr Collins, we need you fit and well!  Take him back to his room.”

 

We didn’t go back via the exercise yard, instead taking a confusing route through the centre of the facility.  My heart was still racing and my mind buzzed.  I recognised that equation, for a brief fraction of a moment I understood it all.  Not only that, I knew what was wrong with it, and how to fix it.  I felt elated, but I was still a prisoner.  As friendly as they tried to appear no one here would answer my questions.  Sarah came the closest, but she was nearly as tight lipped as the Richter.  Why had no one come to visit me?  Where was my family, my friends?  The people that would tell me something about myself that I could hold on to.  Why was I being kept away from these people?  Rage rose up from my stomach like bile and my breathing quickened.  I was never going to remember in this place, they were holding me back.  They were holding me against my will!

As we rounded a tight corner we almost collided with an orderly pushing a large covered trolley.  I dodged quickly to the side, but the trolley skidded forward and crunched into the knee of the guard.  As he groaned and fell forward I slammed my fist into the side of his head, sending him sprawling dazed against the corridor wall.  The orderly looked on in shock as I pushed past him and sprinted down the corridor.

We had started on the Western wing, and I knew my room was to the North.  Left was the way out then.  Running hard I took the first corridor on the left.  A guard sat on a metal chair by a room halfway down the corridor.  In surprise he shot to his feet and reached for the holster at his hip.  With a snarl I launched myself at him, crashing into him at full pace and hurling us both down the corridor.  I felt the wind smash from his lungs as we landed.  I rolled clear and scrambled to my feet.  At the end of the corridor I took the left hand turn, but after a couple of quick turns the corridor ended abruptly at a single door.  I was considering turning back when I hear shouts of pursuit and the sound of running footsteps.  The door was unlocked and I crashed through, slamming it shut and locking it behind me, resting my back against the wood.

Controlling my breathing I fought for calm.  What I had just done made no sense.  I knew this facility was surrounded on all sides by a security fence twenty foot high.  Even if I could find the exit there was no way I could just walk out.  The knuckles of my right hand were red and cracked, blood starting to ooze out of the cuts.  That was going to hurt later.  I only hoped the guard had a headache to match.  Man, he had a hard head!

The room I was in was small, more of a large store cupboard than a room.  A narrow window set high on the wall was the only source of light.  It was far too small to offer any hope of escape, it was barely wider than my hand.  At the back of the room were four tall filing cabinets.  Experimentally I tried all the handles.  They were all locked.  I felt around the top of the cabinets for any key that might fit the lock on the front of each cabinet.  Nothing.

I was calmer now.  I didn’t really have a choice.  The only sensible thing was to give myself up.  This was a waiting game, I couldn’t punch my way out of this situation.  Until five minutes ago I didn’t even realise I could punch, but I realised with a shock that it had been instinctive. The shouts were getting closer.  Unlocking the door I re entered the corridor, shut it behind me and walked slowly back the way I had come.  As I rounded the corner two guards saw me and gave a shout.  I stopped and raised my hands above my head.

“It’s OK guys, I’ll come quietly.”

The lead guard raised his hand, pain bloomed in my chest, and the world went dark.

 

Something cool was on my brow, I felt the tickle of water running down my face.  I didn’t know if I wanted to wake up.  Being asleep could be dangerous, there was something waiting in the darkness.  But I knew that waking up meant pain.

At first it wasn’t too bad, just a dull ache in my head.  The cool pressure on my forehead vanished.  Experimentally I opened my eyes.  For a second everything was a blur, then it flexed into focus.  It was Sarah.  With a smile I pushed my head up off the pillow and the pain exploded.

“Easy now, easy,” Sarah soothed.  With a groan I lay back down, my hand going to my head.  There was a bandage wrapped around my temples, the side a little sticky and damp.  The room swam but after a few seconds the pain reduced.

“Wow,” was all I could manage.

“Wow indeed.  Idiot.”

Her tone was full of recrimination, but it was touched with flecks of concern.  And what else, affection?

“That was really dumb you know.”  There was no concern this time, just pure disappointment.

“I know.”  And I did know.  What kind of an idiot, in full realisation that he can’t even remember his first name, tries to break out of a heavily guarded compound?  A compound where he is fed well and looked after.

“You’ve made some new enemies you know.”

I tried to nod but it hurt too much.  Instead I grunted.  If I didn’t move the pain went down a notch.  Sarah picked up the cold flannel and rose to leave.

“What else am I supposed to do?” I croaked.

Sarah looked me straight in the eye for several seconds before shaking her head and giving a heavy sigh.

“Well, no more Rambo stuff for one.  How about finishing that book I gave you, hmmm?”  She quirked her eyebrow, probably in annoyance, and left the room.  I heard the lock being thrown before I fell back to sleep.

 

I could see myself, just across the room.  I was laid out on a hospital trolley, straps at my knees, waist and chest.  My left arm looked a mess, and my face was covered in scratches, a long cut running up my right cheek and ending at the hairline.  A mask was over my face and a ventilator attached to the bed pumped up and down rhythmically.  The straps seemed unnecessary; I looked in no state to go anywhere.  I recognised the room, it was the one where Richter had showed me the strange equipment.  The one with the equation on the whiteboard.  I tried to turn my head to see if it was still there but I couldn’t move.  In the centre of the room there was a giant piece of equipment with two chairs attached.  It looked like the kind of thing you might find at the dentists.  The sight of it made me shiver.

The metal door swung open and two men walked into the room.  One of them was Richter, a metal clipboard in his hand.  I didn’t recognise the other man.  He was tall, well over six foot, with broad shoulders and a powerful stride.  His hair was bright white, and as he turned towards me I noticed his most memorable feature.  He was an albino, eerie red eyes shining out with intensity from his powerful features.  He was agitated, his knotted fists and tight jaw attested to that, but his voice was controlled and clear.

“I have run out of patience Richter.”

Richter was clearly terrified, his hands shaking.

“I need more time, if I could only have more…”

The albino cut Richter off with an angry grunt.

“You have had more time that I think prudent.  No, we do things my way now.”

“But there are still inadequacies in the process, the dangers are immense, the chances of…”

“Enough!” roared the albino.  Richter took a stumbled step back as the man advanced on him and gripped him by the collar, hauling him to his toes.

“I am not prepared to wait any longer, do you understand me?  I want that information, need that information.  I feel – no I know – that we have exhausted all other avenues.  We begin tonight.”

As he spoke he seemed to calm down, and as he finished he seemed almost surprised to be gripping Richter’s collar.  With a sigh he released the fabric, Richter’s heals clicking back onto the floor.

“You understand of course, my old friend, there really is no other way.”

Richter hesitated, the look of terror on his face in no way reduced by the albino’s change of tone.

“Of course, it will be as you say,” he said quietly.

“Good man!” said the albino with gusto.  “Let me know when the preparation is complete.”  With that he slapped Richter on the shoulder and strode from the room.  Richter shivered and wiped a hand across his brow before smearing the sweat down his lab coat.  Reaching down he checked the straps holding my body to the bed and made some notes on his chart.  Suddenly a massive explosion rocked the room and made my ears ring.  Richter seemed not to notice and carried on with his note taking.  The room slid sideways and my ears were filled with the roar of an engine and the rushing of wind.

I pitched the helicopter to the left and dove, tracer fire lighting up the sky and skimming past the cockpit.  The engine gave a hideous whine.  A series of metallic pops told me we were hit, the fuel pressure gage dropping like a stone.  Rolling to the right I tried to level out but the stick felt dead in my hands.

“Brace for impact,” were the only words I had time for.  We hit the ground with a crash of tortured metal and the world went black.

 

With a gasp I sat bolt upright in bed, my heart racing and my clothes drenched with sweat.  My right arm grasped my left shoulder, but other than a dull ache it felt fine.  There were two shallow wounds on my chest where they had tased me, and my head thumped with a vengeance.  Other than that I was fine.  Slowly my heart rate fell and my ragged breathing returned to normal.

Already the dreams were fading.  One of them had been here, in this facility.  I could see myself clearly.  The other one made no sense at all.

Shaking my head I swung my legs off of the bed.  There was no light in the room other than a narrow yellow bar under the door.  It was night time then, when exactly I had no idea.  Pacing up and down the room made me feel a little better.  Someone, Sarah maybe, had left me a tray of sandwiches and a plastic jug of water.  Thirstily I gulped down the water and demolished half the sandwiches.  The bread had hardened in the air but I was too hungry to care.  Pulling up the blinds I gazed out at the view.  It was too dark to make much out but I could see the dark smudge of the forest edge.  The moon in the sky above was just a tiny sliver, waning its way to the darkness of a new moon.  I couldn’t even make out the guard towers, but I knew they were there.

Resting my head against the pane I enjoyed the coolness of the glass.  I must have hit my head when they had tased me.  The bandage was wound around my temples, the skin at the back of my head delicate to the touch.  None of this was making any sense!  Everything I experienced in this place just made me more confused.

A gentle stream of air rolled across the window pane, bringing with it the fresh scent of trees.  I’d not noticed that before.  The window had no way of opening.  A series of three screw holes indicated where a handle used to be, but this had been removed and the entire edge had been covered over by a length of steel that had been glued firmly in place.  But in the corner there was a tiny gap, just large enough to let in a trickle of fresh air.  Experimentally I worked my finger into the gap and tried to push it wider.  It was no good – the glue held firm and my fingers were far too wide to get into the small crevice.

With a grunt of frustration I turned away from the window and grabbed up another of the stale sandwiches.  The napkin that had been underneath it fluttered to the floor, and as it hit the ground I noticed writing on the back.  Sweeping it from the floor I carried it to the window where I could just about make out the writing in the weak moonlight.

The writing was sloped forward and rounded, the message consisting of just three words.  ‘Follow my advice’ was all it said.  I stuffed the napkin into my pocket, a small smile on my lips.  This had to be from Sarah.  “No more Rambo stuff,” she had said.  I meant to follow her advice, I didn’t fancy my head feeling like this again.  But I had to have answers, this had gone on for long enough.  I turned back to the tray and realised with disappointment that I had eaten the last of the sandwiches.

 

There were no more dreams, thankfully, and when I woke my head felt better.  Someone had left breakfast while I slept, toast and jam, and I set to eating immediately.  Before long I was licking the jam from my fingers and pushing the empty tray away.  Digging into my pocket I pulled out the napkin and wiped my fingers clean.  The sticky jam obliterated some of the ‘follow my advice’ message.  I stopped still.  What part of her advice did Sarah mean?  She had told me to be careful, but what else had she said?  Finish the book, that was it.  I jumped up and made my way to the metal bed.

Stooping down I could still see it there, in the corner of the room where I had kicked it.  Stretched out flat I could just reach it with my fingertips.  It looked no more remarkable than before, just a plain paperback.  Could Sarah’s message really have hidden meaning, or was my mind really just falling over the edge?

I had got about half way through, my place in the story marked by a folded down page.  Immediately I flicked to the end and read the last few sentences.  Nothing remarkable there, and a poor ending that I didn’t mind ruining.  The last few pages were plain and unmarked.  There was nothing.  With a chuckle I dropped down onto the bed.  My situation was pretty messed up, no wonder I was getting paranoid.

Flicking back and forth through the book I noticed something odd.  There seemed to be a page missing, about three quarters of the way through the book.  The page before finished mid sentence and a jagged tear showed where the page used to be.  The next page was the beginning of a chapter, chapter 24.  Scrawled messily above the 24 were the words ‘under the stain’.  The words were poorly etched in a brown ink that had bled through the paper but were still legible.  My skin when cold.  Did Sarah know this was here?  In this room it could mean only one thing.  Glancing across at the table I studied the coffee stain, dead centre in the peeling laminate.  Was it my imagination, or did I notice a slight bulge in the surface there?

The laminate had cracked off at the edge and I could just about slide my hand under.  Pushing my hand slightly forward I winced.  A sliver of the laminate had snapped off and jabbed into my hand, drawing a bead of blood.  Man, this stuff was sharp!  A few centimetres forward and I could feel something.  Straining my fingers caught the edge and pulled it out.  It was the missing page of the book, folded tightly around something.

 

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