NINE | Visitor
Drifting on a vast blanket of empty blackness, shifting arms and hands, fingers twitching as needles pricked his skin, E7 tried not to wake up. There was pain here, and soon another death. If he could get that far from the suits, sleep—endless, painless sleep—could take him away. The dark grew heavy like a blanket pressed against his face. He saw nothing but felt it all. Every poke and prod. A surge of electricity shot into his body from two flat metal panels pressed onto his chest—icy cold and then scalding, burning, pulling every muscle taught until it felt like they’d snap. When would it end? he wanted to know, mutely begging an answer. They wouldn’t tell him when it was over, only that it had just begun.
No more, his body protested. No more beginnings.
But the suits with their tubes and needles and lightning-filled paddles had done it again. Drawn him from his cocoon like a butterfly plucked out of its chrysalis by a pair of tweezers. Shine the light through its wings. Examine every vein. Trace the origin of change.
“We got him. He’s stabilizing.”
“Tighten those restraints and keep your eye on his pulse. The minute he starts waking up, I want another dose of CPZ in his drip.”
“Give him nothing.” James’ voice suddenly cut through the dark, deep and steady in contrast to the higher, accented voice of the woman who was giving orders. If E7 could open his eyes, he knew he would see a pair of black gloves. He let out a soft whimper, a wisp of sound barely louder than a breath. He didn’t want that doctor anywhere near him, but he couldn’t make her go. The monster was frozen in his chest, heavy on his spine as it lay coiled between his lungs. Its fire had burned up before he went to sleep. Waking up without the familiar heat felt abnormal as if a part of himself—some vital organ—had been removed. The monster had never been so distant before. Never this cold.
“Are you insane?” the woman demanded in a shriek. “He nearly brought the roof down on our heads and you want to let him try again? You have no control. None. Everything you said in your reports was a goddammed lie!”
“I have complete control over the subject. I know exactly what he will do, and what makes him react. I told you not to agitate him. He was in a fragile state after this morning and he had not fully recovered. But...you insisted.” James sounded regretful, though there was a smooth undertone that betrayed his true feelings to anyone who could recognize it. He was pleased—excited, even, by what had happened.
Not failure, E7 realized. He had done exactly what James had wanted him to. That thought forced another cry from him, this one louder than the last.
“I have a job to do, Dr. Crane. Are you going to let me do it, or do I tell the board you are in direct violation of our agreement?”
“This subject is still under my authority. What you tell the board is at your own discretion, of course. But what happens to E7 is up to me. Not you.”
“You think they are going to be happy with what you have done here? This—this thing is more dangerous than before. You have not controlled him, you have given him more than he can handle. More than you can handle. He is a time-bomb. Tick, tick, tick, Dr. Crane. It will be more than a little bunny rabbit that is killed next time. Perhaps you will be the one they scrape off the walls tomorrow.”
“What a disappointment this must have been for you,” James murmured.
“You came all this way to try and piece together a career built on the successes of others, only to find that old techniques don’t work on the weary or wise.”
“You can hardly call yourself wise after what you’ve just done.”
“And you can hardly call yourself a doctor. How is our mutual acquaintance? Still flooding your lab? The two of you are saving the world...one fish at a time?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” The woman’s voice lowered, anger rising.
“I know you wouldn’t be here if you had succeeded. E7 will not be a replacement for the people you’ve failed, Dr. Blair. He has a much greater purpose than that.”
“And what about the people you’ve failed, Dr. Crane? The lives you have destroyed. What about the ones who never should’ve been born? Failure may have crossed my shadow, but death hides in yours. You’re like a curse. Everything you touch—”
There was a scuffle—shoes squeaking against the tile and the muffled slap of a rubber glove hitting something solid. “Out!” James shouted, no longer calm.
“I’m going.” The woman responded. “But I’m coming back. And I’ll make sure before I do that the board knows about all of this. You have taken liberties and they will not ignore that. The agreement has been broken. Your time at Geist is nearly done.”
E7′s eyelids felt too heavy to open, but he strained against their weight to see what was happening. A fuzzy picture started to form through the narrow slit of vision between lashes. Two doctors stood at the foot of the gurney, one wearing pale gloves, the other wearing purple ones. There had been more people in the room a moment ago, but they had gone, including the woman—Dr. Blair. Don’t let her come back, he wanted to say, but managed to slur something foreign and incomprehensible instead.
“What now?” Soto asked, crossing her arms and turning to look at James.
“Go home,” he answered stoically.
“What?” she said, taken aback. “I still have to run the panels.”
“After the weekend. Let’s get a urine sample tonight to check for neurotransmitter dysfunction. The results should be here by Thursday if you put a rush on them. I’m going to schedule surgical resection for tomorrow to get some tissue samples and analyze his endothelial cell count.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Soto demanded, her demeanor suddenly changed.
E7 tried to move away from them, fearful of the familiar words coming out of their mouths. “Tissue samples” and “surgical resection” made his body stiffen. He cringed and shifted his head, feeling an old scar on his scalp bump against the metal gurney as he turned toward the mirror. There was his reflection staring back, a face unrecognizable and pale. His eyes were open, but it was as if he’d never woken up.
“There is no time like the present,” James replied, his fingers looping under the restraints on E7′s wrists to unfasten them. “Go get a cup.”
“You’re unbelievable. He’s not—you don’t have to do this,” she said, a purple glove reaching out to grasp James by the arm. “There’s still time, James. Give him some time.”
James paused, his gray mesh panel directed toward the gurney. When he spoke, his voice was soft but determined. “You heard Blair. There’s no more time. She’ll bring in the cavalry and we will be taken out of the equation. Our only option is to figure out the enzymatic balance between our prototypical neurons and the neurotransmission efficiency. Without that piece of the puzzle, we’re back to square one. Blair will take over. That’s what she wanted today.”
“Maybe she should,” Soto mumbled.
James snapped his head upward. “Twenty years of work. Two decades, Soto. You would hand that over to someone like her?”
Her hands were trembling as she pointed. “Look at him. He died today. He almost died three days ago, and again a week before that. E7 flatlined three times last month and it took a hell of a lot of effort to get him back. What we are doing isn’t working. If Blair can do better, isn’t it the most humane thing to let her try?”
“Humane?” James repeated, laughter in his voice. But it wasn’t the good kind, that made others want to join in. This laugh always made E7 afraid. “You have no idea who that woman is, or what she does, do you?”
“I’ve read her case studies.”
“But you don’t know her tactics!” James snarled, stepping closer to Soto than he’d ever done before. After a moment, he leaned away. “You think I’m being competitive. You think I’m that petty. Well,” he scoffed and nodded as he walked toward the door. “Send somebody else to get that sample and then meet me in the file room. I have something you should see.”
Lisa ducked into the corner next to the restroom as three people in white suits came trudging up the hallway toward the elevators. One of them tore off their mask and black gloves after passing her hiding place, revealing a thick mane of frizzy blonde curls, the hairs at her neck darkened by sweat. She was walking quickly, charging down the hall. She was either in a hurry or really pissed off. Lisa watched the woman go before venturing out of her corner. It seemed silly to hide since she was wearing a suit with a mask just like everyone else. Nobody would recognize her. But she couldn’t shake that feeling every kid has when they’re doing something they know they shouldn’t. It’s a tightness in the chest and a panic that makes you feel like you’re going to pee your pants. I am going to pee my pants, Lisa thought, wishing she’d used the bathroom before putting on the suit. But it was too late now. Ignoring the pressure, she kept walking. The urge to duck into a room whenever someone walked toward her was strong, but she didn’t give in. Act normal, she told herself. They don’t know you. No one here knows you.
Lisa slowed, a little lost in thought. “Huh,” she said, glancing at the fire extinguisher sitting in a glass box on the opposite wall from the one she leaned against. The sensation of loneliness that had plagued her in her father’s office was suddenly gone. As soon as the realization of anonymity hit her, she felt...cured. It was better to be unknown. With no one to watch her, control her, she could do what she wanted. She could put on a weird white hazmat suit and parade down the hallway like she belonged here. Without anyone to put her in her place, Lisa belonged anywhere.
The sound of a slamming door a few yards away set her in motion again. She walked stiffly passed two more people in suits. Like that blonde woman, these doctors seemed angry too. They were having a heated discussion under their breath as they went by. Lisa’s eyes widened at the familiar timbre of her father’s voice.
“...but they respect her. You can’t disregard that—there must be a reason!” the other person said. Lisa recognized her voice as well, though it had probably been years since she heard it. Both of them removed their masks and Lisa glanced back to catch sight of the woman’s face. Thick brown curls were coiled into a tight bun at the top of her head. She wore a pair of rectangle-shaped glasses perched on a nose that cut a sharp angle downward toward her mouth, which was set in a very grim line whenever she wasn’t speaking.
“Marley,” Lisa breathed, a little disappointed that she couldn’t go over and say hello. She had known the woman for years. They had met over and over again at family barbeques and had gone on a few camping trips together with Chris, Marley’s husband, and Fiona, Lisa’s mom. Dr. Crane had shown up late a couple of times, only attending to prove that he was making an effort before giving it up altogether. That was when they were normal. A very different era.
Lisa let out a sigh as she turned around. “Oh,” she uttered, stumbling back before she nearly collided with a nurse—the first person she’d seen in a while wearing scrubs and not the favorite white coveralls the doctors and nurses wore in this part of the hospital. The nurse pivoted to avoid a collision and carried on their way.
The door at the end of the hallway—the same one her father and Marley had slammed shut a minute ago—stood solid. It was locked, a small red light blinking up from the black box secured to the wall next to the push plate. Still holding the access card in her hand, Lisa held it out and swiped downward next to the box. The red light flashed three times and then stayed on, beeping loudly with each blink. She tried again, with the same result. “Come on, work you stupid thing!”
Lisa whipped around to see the same nurse from before coming toward her now. He was taller than her, with red hair and a patchy face made up of freckles. She blinked, unsure what to say. Had she been discovered at last? Would freckle-nose bring her back to the dungeons of despair with nothing to do but rot in a swivel chair while waiting for internet videos to buffer?
“You’re the orderly they sent up from the lab, right?” he said, sticking out his hand. “I’m Pete.” Lisa shook it, gripping tight enough that Pete winced and withdrew. That’s for scaring me, punk, she thought. “They keep forgetting to send clearance cards with their errand boys.” Pete reached out and swiped his card over the black box. The light turned green and the door swung inward, a mechanical whirring noise accompanying the movement.
“Uh, thanks,” Lisa mumbled, trying to keep her voice low.
“Sure thing. You’ll have to put in a four-digit code to get into the room and it changes every couple of weeks.”
Lisa gave him a thumbs up.
“It’s 092797. Just, uh...” he bit his lower lip, eyebrows raised with concern. “Don’t get too close. They probably forgot to tell you that, too. It’s good advice.”
Confusion colored Lisa’s face and she was instantly glad that Pete couldn’t see her expression because he would’ve known that she had no idea what he was talking about. And that would have resulted in some awkward questions. Speaking of awkward questions... she thought, staring down at the small plastic cup in his hand. It had a white label on one side and a thick plastic cap screwed onto the top. Is that what I think it is?
“Oh, yeah. You’ll need this.” He held it out. Lisa flinched away without thinking before realizing that the cup was empty. “Here,” Pete wiggled the cup and peered at her curiously. She slowly reached up to take it and grabbed the plastic bag in his other hand as well when he held it up. Upon closer inspection, Lisa saw some kind of rubber tube in the bag. Her eyes popped open wider than before. She snapped her head back up to look at Pete, already walking away from her. It was obvious at this point that she was expected to collect a sample of some kind, although the exact nature of the task remained unclear.
Pete turned to look at her over his shoulder. “Remember what I said,” he pointed at her. “He goes kind of haywire after too many tests, so just pop in the UCD and make a break for it as soon as you can.”
Lisa nodded slowly, waiting until Pete was out of hearing range before she turned back to the door. “What kind of hospital is this?” she mumbled, stepping through to the other side. The door swung shut behind her, the handle accessible on the inside of the room. She was glad that it didn’t take an access card to get out since hers wouldn’t work this far down the rabbit hole. “This is not Kansas,” she mumbled, taking in the room. Cupboards and metal cabinets filled every space along the walls, each one filled with medical supplies or white suits or blankets. From where she was standing, the room seemed like a really big supply closet. There was food too, tucked away in an oddly narrow refrigerator, each container labeled with a date and time. “You live here now,” she said to the cup, placing it and the bag in the fridge next to something that looked a little bit like a tuna sandwich.
Lisa closed the refrigerator and took a step back, eyeing the door to her left. It stood there, waiting, tempting her like some kind of secret chamber. There could be a crazy person inside, like the bearded freak she’d seen in one of the other locked rooms she’d opened. But curiosity was a fierce hunger in her belly. Boredom brought her this far, and it would take her all the way. That room was the prize at the end of a game she’d managed to win. The big boss in the final level. It was Pandora’s box and she, Elisabeth Marie Crane, was going to open it.
It took E7 close to a minute to realize that James and Soto had left him alone in the room, one wrist unfastened, the other still pinched tight in the grip of a restraint. He used his free hand to slowly—clumsily—try to liberate the other. His fingers, cold and numb from the chemicals still floating around in his bloodstream, fumbled with the plastic tie. It would have to be cut, like the other one. Grunting, he slowly lifted his head up to see if he’d made any progress in loosening it. Dizziness crippled his efforts and he dropped his head back down onto the gurney. The room was spinning in nauseating circles, turning and turning until he couldn’t tell if the ceiling was the floor or the floor was the ceiling. E7 shut his eyes tight, holding his head with his only free hand. The familiar buzz returned to his ears, ringing until he was nearly deaf to any other sound. Through the waves of sickness and silence, he heard something crack.
The mirror was shaking beside him, his reflection mutating into a blur of white skin that seemed to fuse to the metal table, consuming each other until his complexion was as reflective as the glass. The blanket one of the doctors had placed on him began to slide onto the floor. He grabbed it, clinging to the fabric as the reflection started to change again. The boy in the mirror was no longer lying down. He had sat up and turned his head the other way, to look at the door. E7 blinked rapidly, thinking the drugs had taken a tighter hold on his mind than ever before. In the mirror, the boy raised his arm and pointed to the opposite side of the room. That’s when the door opened.
He turned his head toward the sudden intrusion and let out a sharp cry, then a gasp. The suit had only taken a couple steps forward, but it was close enough for him to see their purple gloves. Noises gurgled out of his throat, an agonizing sound that made them take a step back and grab the door handle. They said something under their breath—a word he didn’t know—and fumbled with the lock, trying to get out. To leave him alone again.
“W-wait,” he begged, gasping and swallowing, trying not to throw up. “P-please d-don’t go,” the words escaped in quiet bursts of breath. His chest moved up and down, lungs sore and tired but unable to rest at the thought of abandonment. He didn’t want to be alone again. “S-S-Soto,” he finally managed to say her name. It had to be her. She was the only one who wore purple gloves. Unless it was that other doctor trying to trick him. Would she do that? Could it be her—Dr. Blair—wearing Soto’s gloves? How could he be sure who was wearing that suit? The mirror had just shown him that he couldn’t trust his eyes. “Will you...will you speak to me, please?” he asked, knowing that their voice would tell him what he needed to know. They had said something earlier, but it was impossible to hear them over the ringing in his ears—a sound that was only just beginning to subside.
They stood frozen by the door, gripping the handle as tightly as E7 clutched the blanket to keep himself covered. He kept his eyes on the person in the suit, terrified to look behind him at the mirror, unsure what he would see there.
After a minute, the visitor shook their head.
“Please,” he cried softly, face contorted from pain. He could tell that they were afraid of him. “I-I don’t want to hurt you,” he tried, hoping that would make them want to speak, to break the silence. He blinked several times, very slowly, wondering if they were really there. Could they be another warped reflection in the mirror?
Fear clawed his eyes, drawing tears, choking him. He could no longer distinguish reality from the distorted manifestations of his mind. He cried, unsure what to do or say. Would Soto or Dr. Blair go back into the mirror without talking to him? How long were they going to stand there staring at him like that? They just stood there watching him without a face or eyes or anything resembling a human at all. Panic seized his lungs in a paralyzing embrace. E7 could no longer speak amidst gasps, forced to concentrate solely on pulling air through the narrow tunnel of his throat.
“Hey,” they finally spoke. “Are you—are you okay? Can you breathe?” the voice was smooth and young, lighter than the voices of the doctors and stronger in tone than the orderlies. The stranger didn’t seem scared anymore. Her hand slipped from the door handle as she approached the gurney, crossing the room in measured strides. “You’re going to hyperventilate. Just quit freaking out and take some deep breaths.”
E7 tried to do what she said. He sucked in a sharp, short breath but then exhaled too quickly. Air was moving in and out of his lungs, but no oxygen was getting into his bloodstream. He could feel his eyes starting to move on their own, rolling up toward the ceiling, lids fluttering.
“That’s still too fast. Here, like this,” as the words came out in calm, encouraging tones, the visitor reached up and pulled off her mask. Dark blonde hair tumbled onto her shoulders—the color of the oatmeal Soto brought him sometimes with the dark granules that were sweeter than anything he’d ever tasted. A pair of honey-colored eyes peered at him, wide with worry. He stared at them, ceasing all movement, his expression shifting from an agonized grimace to a look of utter terror.
This face was not the one he had seen every day in the mirror. It was not the face of a white suit with a gray mesh panel, either. It was a person he did not know, speaking in a voice he could not recognize. A voice no longer muffled by crinkled, sweaty plastic.
“Inhale through your nose, like this,” she pulled air into her lungs with a closed mouth, “now out,” and exhaled softly through curved lips.
E7 watched, mouth agape, skin turning purple. It was as if he had forgotten how to breathe. The air she exhaled poured over his bare chest, warm in contrast to his skin. The edges of the room were darkening, closing in on him. Would he sleep again? Had she slipped something into his veins without his notice? He moved his arm and lifted his head as much as he could. It was impossible to distinguish old injection wounds from a new one. The skin on the inside of his elbow was a dark purple, covered in black spots from dried blood. It would heal soon if he didn’t die. Would they bring him back this time, he wondered, will I wake up?
As his eyelids closed, slowly obscuring his vision, a gentle pressure on his hand pulled them back open. E7 lifted his arm once again and saw that she was touching him, not with gloves, but with bare skin. A soft, wheezing breath penetrated the barrier in his throat, filling his chest and then pouring back out, forcing a terrible, hollow moan to push through his parted lips.
“That’s it,” she said, tapping his arm with her fingers. “Just breathe.”