Techies unstrapped Ethan from the bed and took him to a small suite consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, and sitting area with a big-screen TV. High up against the ceiling, video cameras watched Ethan’s every movement. He scowled at the cameras in the bathroom.
Ethan had two hours of rest before Ted escorted him back to the test lab. Gunderson had gone, replaced by Doctor Stewart, a tall, saturnine figure.
Ethan stared straight at Stewart. “Gunderson got his phone call, I see.”
After Doctor Stewart connected the Memnon drip to the IV line in Ethan’s forearm and hooked up the monitoring leads, he shot a nervous look at Ted and hustled out of the test room.
“It’s you and me, kiddo,” Ted said, smiling.
From a metal toolbox on the floor, Ted extracted a foot-long metal rod with a black handle from which extended an electric cord. He plugged this into the wall and soon Ethan smelled hot metal. Ted smiled and held the tip of the rod near enough to Ethan’s face that he felt the heat. “Okay, West. Your prediction on Doctor Gunderson turned out true. We want another piece of information. Anything, just so it’s something you couldn’t possibly know and that we can verify.”
“What’s the soldering iron for?”
“That’s not a soldering iron, that’s an incentive enhancer. The human body has nine square feet of skin. Plenty of room for incentification.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“Probably. All the more reason to cooperate, wouldn’t you say?”
Ethan glanced at his flimsy hospital gown. Great protection. Before he could think much more about options, his skin tingled. Images burst across his vision and his thoughts lurched.
Ethan found himself in a dim room, curtains drawn in the middle of the day. He heard creaking from the bed as he approached. From a tangle of limbs and blankets he heard a woman’s voice. “God, baby, that feels incredible.”
Ethan peered down at her face. She had lashes so lush, even a deer would feel envy. On the nightstand a photograph featured that same face in a wedding veil. However, the groom in the photograph did not look like the man on top of the woman. The groom in the photograph was Ted.
The bedside clock said . Below large digital numbers a date glowed in green. Two days ago. Ethan’s mind blinked and he returned to the lab. “Ted, your wife has a unicorn tattoo above the nipple on her left breast?”
Ted’s eyes went wide.
“Ted, if I were you, I wouldn’t go home in the middle of the day without calling first. It could be embarrassing. Further fuel for your feelings of inadequacy.” Ethan enjoyed seeing the twitch that jiggled Ted’s beefy face. He picked up something else. “You’ve suspected, haven’t you, Teddy? Just haven’t caught her yet.”
Scorched human flesh gives off a pungency not unlike that of burning bacon. Some far-off corner of Ethan West’s mind made that analogy even as his consciousness danced like a pinball in his head. He howled and twisted in a vain attempt to evade that hot, angry little stem of metal that seared his left armpit. As pain blossomed and Ethan’s nerves shrieked he knew he had no way to reason with Ted. Ted continued like a machine.
Maybe not quite a machine. He did have emotions. Why else would he be smiling as he brought the soldering iron against Ethan’s skin a third time?
Pain triggered fear and fear triggered instinct. Inside his mind, Ethan blinked again. In one moment, like an insect tacked to a mounting board, completely at the mercy of a remorseless collector; in the next moment, he flew a billion miles or years or a billion somethings away. Like throwing a light switch.
I was there. Now, I’m here.
Where was here?
Here felt vaguely familiar, the stuff of a million childhood daydreams. How many times had he stared out the window of a classroom to set his mind adrift and feel the presence of an unseen land, a different sky just out of reach of his senses?
Witchery. His mother had warned him. He had tried not to feel it, had tried to ignore the images that spilled into his brain, but on a spring morning when he was seven, when the last grains of the school year slipped through the hourglass of his thoughts, he had felt the first irresistible tug of a faraway place, of a dream world. Young Ethan had dipped into the syrupy river of time and experienced the power and pulse of a current far beyond the abilities of a little boy to comprehend.
But grown-up Ethan knew the place existed, like a beating heart on the other side of a door. Dimly aware that somewhere his body suffered, he did not care. He had unhinged himself from physical reality.
He was not having a vision. He had transported to a real place with vivid sights and sounds. He found himself hovering over a landscape. Emerald-green cornstalks jumped out of soil so rich it looked black.
In the distance stood a farmhouse. By thinking of it, Ethan suddenly hovered next to it. He knew this whitewashed building. His house, but from an earlier time.
Ethan watched a tow-headed child waddle across an overgrown lawn. The child’s feet tangled in the jungle of grasses and he stumbled and spun and was suddenly sitting upright and smiling as if he had rehearsed the complex maneuver and fell exactly where he wanted to be.
The toddler’s pink fingers reached into the lushness around him. His eyes sparkled and his throat bubbled with sounds of joy as he pulled bright green slivers of grass from the ground. Ethan felt dizzy as he recognized his young self.
From the front porch his mother eyed her child briefly, then returned to her task. Fingers brown from the sun split pea pods and thumbed fat, sweet peas into a cobalt-blue bowl.
Gray eyes glanced up, eagle-like, sharp as a judge’s decision, and they stared right at Ethan.
A thrill of fear shot through Ethan as his young mother’s gaze impaled him. He saw the moment of recognition when they blinked and focused, trying to see something more a function of belief than of light. He saw the mind behind the eyes struggle with the image of what it had uncovered on this bright afternoon when a thousand familiar sounds and scents drifted across the fields and felt so normal. He saw that mind rebel at the unnatural something that had jumped into the foreground and pulled her thoughts to a roiled space she had sworn never to visit.
In that brief instant, he saw that she knew him and he sensed her revulsion. He knew how she avoided the place in her mind that spawned such images. She threw down her bowl and leaped from the porch and seized her child. She scowled at the older Ethan as she clutched his young version and she shouted one word into the still, afternoon air.
Ethan’s eyes flew open and saw Ted above him. A tendril of smoke rose from the tip of the soldering iron. Ethan West lay exhausted and drenched in a sweat that did nothing to cool him.
“Jesus Christ, Andrew! Look what he did! I’m going in there.”
“Sit down, Cliff.” Churchill got between Dolci and the door.
“He stuck a soldering iron into the guy’s side. He’s totally out of control.”
“You know the saying about omelets and eggs, don’t you, Cliff?”
Dolci’s arm pointed at the one-way mirror. “That’s not an egg in there. That’s a man and before you start scrambling him, you need to throw out that ape you think can do research.”
“Give him a minute.”
“Why? So he can burn him some more?”
“Cliff, the idea was to scare him, not to use the damn thing.”
“Was this the result of your come-to-Jesus meeting?” Dolci’s face had turned almost purple. “I’d say Ted didn’t get the message too well, did he?”
“No, he didn’t. West pushed him over the edge.”
“Are you saying it’s West’s fault?” Spittle gathered at the corners of Dolci’s mouth.
“Hold on, Cliff. Ted was only supposed to scare him. He went too far, I agree. Let’s replace the soldering iron with something that gives an electric shock. Okay? If he uses it, there’s no damage, but it gets West’s attention. Would that work for you?”
“We’re supposed to do research, not torture. That’s a goddamn felony, Andrew!”
“You’re right. We have to keep our eyes on the ball.”
Dolci squinted suspiciously. “Why are you coming around on this so easily?”
“I just thought of the other egg analogy. The one about the golden goose.”