His skin increasingly itchy and hot, Ethan watched clear fluid drip out of a transparent IV bag into a plastic tube and down into the needle stuck in his arm.
He lay in a bed in a beige room with white enameled cabinets along three walls. Bundles of wires trailed across the floor, like multi-colored pythons. Ethan’s inclined bed faced the fourth wall which held a gigantic sheet of mirrored plate glass from floor to ceiling. He sensed people behind the glass.
A door opened and a short, bespectacled man in a lab coat entered. Ethan quietly pulled at his restraints as he catalogued the thinning gray hair, the watery brown eyes.
“Mr. West, in a room somewhere in this building, a person is looking at a photograph and trying to project to you what is in that photograph. I don’t know if it is a man or woman and I don’t know what is in the photograph. Your job is to try to tune in those thoughts and tell me what is in the photograph.” The man’s calm, professional voice complemented his thin, academic face.
“My job? You’re out of your mind. Do you know this is kidnapping? I’ll have your ass, you little jerk.”
The creases in the man’s forehead deepened. He said, “You signed a release for extended research in a residential environment. You’d have a hard time proving you were held here involuntarily, especially since we’ll be making a large deposit to your bank account every week.”
When the man turned, Ethan strained against the nylon straps that secured his wrists until veins popped out on his neck and forehead. Brute force was not the answer. He needed another way. He folded his fingers down as far as they would go, felt along the edges of the cuffs. Velcro. Ethan extended his long fingers. His right hand could barely touch the end of the Velcro strap around his wrist.
Ethan scowled at the mirror wall.
The man in the lab coat wrapped a pressure cuff around Ethan’s left arm, then flicked on the automatic blood pressure monitor.
Ethan nodded his head toward the line that dripped fluid into his arm. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s a little cocktail called Memnon. It stimulates neural receptors. Kind of a tune-up for your brain.”
“To make you more able to do what you do.”
“And that would be?”
“Don’t be coy, Mr. West. I’ve seen your test scores.”
“Yeah, they’re lousy.”
“Conveniently so. I’ve also seen the security camera video of your little adventure.”
Ethan’s eyes narrowed.
“Ah, I see you understand the significance of that. Let’s not play games. You have abilities you’re hiding. We want to see what you can do.”
No. Ethan clamped down every shred of his control. He tried to blank all thought from his brain, tried to block all information as he felt his mind jump. This damned drug was doing something to him. Flashes of thought sparked across his cerebral cortex and he saw images of things he didn’t want to see.
The man checked his wristwatch, then ran his right hand nervously through his hair. “Try to relax.”
“I’m not giving you a goddamn thing. Let me go.”
“That’s not in my power, Mr. West.”
“Why not? You’re just a powerless little shit?” Ethan tried to stay in the moment, wanting to argue with this drone to keep his mind away from images that were forming against his will.
The man stood a little taller. “I’m a senior member of the research team.”
Ethan had the end of the Velcro strap between his middle and ring finger. Pulling part of it free, he kept talking to camouflage the sound. “You’re a veterinarian? You take care of the lab animals?”
“I’m a clinical psychiatrist.”
Another inch of the strap came free. “Look like a glorified nurse to me.”
With open smugness, the man in the lab coat said, “I assure you, I’m more than that.”
Ethan let out an artificial laugh and stared at the one-way mirror. “Good one, you horse’s ass.”
The man leaned over Ethan and shined a penlight into his eyes.
Ethan said, “See anything?”
“No? How about now?” Ethan spat into the man’s face.
The man’s eyes flashed and his pale skin turned pink. A vein in the center of his forehead stood out like a blue worm.
“What’s the matter? Never had a lab rat fight back?” Ethan squinted at the man’s name tag. “You’re looking a bit vexed, Doctor Gunderson. Except you’re too much of a gutless prick to do anything even when a man spits in your face. Am I right, Doctor?”
Gunderson took off his glasses and wiped his sleeve across his face. In the instant Gunderson’s eyes were covered, Ethan’s fingers yanked the rest of the Velcro strap free. His right fist crunched into Gunderson’s throat; the doctor staggered back, gasping for breath. Ethan’s free hand released the other.
He sat up and freed his left ankle just as Gunderson rushed him. Unable to get totally free, Ethan rolled to his right side, pivoted his left leg at the hip, and kicked Gunderson in the ribs. As the smaller man hit the floor, Ethan released the last restraint, yanked out the IV needle, and hopped off the bed.
Then the door opened.
The man who stood in the doorway wore a white lab coat, but any other similarity between him and the doctor did not exist. Here stood a tub of muscle behind a grin. Hands like hams reached out and shook Ethan, then slammed him against the bed.
“Be a nice little fellow there, Mr. West, and do like Doc wants.” His python fingers wrapped around Ethan’s throat and immobilized him while Gunderson re-strapped Ethan to the bed and reconnected leads. Then, just for fun the big man squeezed his fingers and gave Ethan a good shake. Ethan’s face turned red from the pressure around his neck. “You try any bullshit like this again and I won’t be so gentle next time.”
Suddenly, Ethan stood in a room filled with TV monitors. A man watched half of these monitors in which tiny versions of Ethan were lying in a hospital bed. A woman watched the other half of the monitors on which various graphics wiggled and blinked. Two other men sat at a console with a microphone.
The multi-faceted view of all those monitors made Ethan think he was standing in the head of a fly, looking out at the world through a thousand lenses. He turned and peered through a glass wall to where he saw himself strapped to a bed.
“Heart rate is getting up there,” one of them said.
“He’s strong. Let me know if it hits 200.”
None of the people in the room seemed to notice Ethan standing next to them. But then he realized he didn’t have a body. He was conscious. He was aware. He just wasn’t there.
Ethan blinked in his head and he suddenly hovered in bright sunlight on a mountain top. Jagged spires of granite rose around him, thrust up through a world of snow. Wind whipped a curtain of ice crystals into the air and the sun transformed them into a billion glinting prisms.
Ethan blinked again and suddenly floated on a street in a large city. The street teemed with fast-walking pedestrians and bumper-to-bumper cars, but the cars didn’t look right. Tall buildings cast stark shadows on their neighbors from a red sun low in the sky.
Ethan rotated his vision, looking down the wide avenue. His mind rebelled. In the distance he saw the twin towers of the . Ethan saw a newsstand further up the block. With no lapse of time, he hovered in front of it. He read a headline on the New York Times above which he saw the date.
Ethan felt like a frog in a blender. For a second his mind went blank and then he stood in a doctor’s office. All around him nurses and clerks talked on phones and filed papers and ushered patients. Ethan peeked over the shoulder of a woman at a desk. She opened a file labeled Gunderson.
Ethan read a test report as the woman dialed her phone. “May I speak with Doctor Gunderson?” she said. Ethan noticed her wristwatch said three thirty-seven. The nametag on her lapel said Vanessa Ercig, MD. The desk calendar showed today’s date.
Ethan blinked and suddenly he lay in the hospital bed, the attendant just releasing his grip on him. Detached, confused, disoriented, he glanced at the wall clock. 1:32. Here no time had passed, but he had explored somewhere else for an hour.
This made no sense. Gunderson was still attaching leads to his body, yet Ethan had been watching his data already registering on the screens in the control room. And what about that newspaper? What had just happened?