His eye was cut out. His skin was melting. The floor was black and sucking his body in. Strips of flesh, shaped like words he couldn’t read rent themselves from his skin.
Petersen laughed, held his face and told him he was going to die.
A wall of blood crashed down, blood turning into bricks turning into-
Curt heard himself screaming.
And the scream cut into the dream.
He opened his eyes and let the scream turn into a whimper and into tears. The bed was drenched with his sweat, and there were spots of blood from where he’d been clawing at his chest.
After three tries, he managed to disentangle himself from the blanket. After another few seconds, he felt steady enough to get to his feet, to run to the bathroom, and to hang his head over the sink.
He didn’t need to throw up, but being ready in case it came somehow felt safe.
He turned on the cold tap and splashed his face, careful to make as little mess as possible. Unlike some of the rooms he’d observed, his room didn’t clean itself when his back was turned. It was just a small way to tell him that he was different, that he didn’t deserve all of the courtesies that they could offer.
Curt cupped his hands and drank some of the cool water, then flipped down the lid on the toilet, and buried his face in one of the clean, plush towels.
Three days. He’d been there for three days. All survived. All signs were indicating that this was a genuine second chance. All nights disrupted with the same nightmares that had plagued him in his cell.
So far, he’d managed to get through on adrenaline and coffee, but all of that was taking a toll. It was borrowing energy from his future self, and his future self was running on empty.
He’d been managing about four hours of disrupted sleep – even when he managed to stay asleep during the nightmares, the sleep wasn’t good quality, and after he woke, he was staying up for a couple of hours, before getting another couple of hours of light sleep.
His performance was suffering – not in an obvious way yet, but in another couple of days…
He dropped the towel to the floor, took a moment to centre himself as best as he could, then walked into the main part of his quarters. There was already soft lights on – as much as it had been torture in the white cell, he couldn’t sleep without lights now.
These lights weren’t there to hurt him, they were there to stop him from seeing Petersen in every shadow.
And the only mostly worked.
He flicked on the kettle in the kitchenette and made a cup of tea that was supposed to help with sleep – that at least, was what the clerk at the shop that sold all the fancy teas had told him. He probably could have required it, but- But that was going to take some time to get used to.
As the tea seeped, he went to his desk – the one piece change he’d been able to bring himself to make to the room was to increase the size of the desk and to add a shelf and a lamp. It wasn’t a commentary on the existing desk, it would just make work and study easier, and surely that was something that they couldn’t find fault with.
He grabbed the thick handbook, along with his pen and highlighter. He was awake enough to read, but not awake enough to take notes, so he left his notebook on the desk. It wasn’t wasted time – he’d already silently committed to reading through the entire thing at least three times – or as many times as it took until he felt like he had some grasp on how to act like a proper recruit.
After five minutes, he fetched the tea and settled on the small couch, his socked feet resting on the coffee table, the handbook open on page ninety-seven and resting against his thighs as he sipped at the weirdly floral tea.
Future Curt was fucked. This wasn’t a sustainable way to live.
He tried to read a passage on uniforms, and the display of the feature colour – which for the Australian agencies was the deep navy blue; with other countries and areas having their own. Another thing he hadn’t known.
The words blurred as he tried to read the next paragraph.
There was a knock at the door.
He looked over at the door, possibilities already spiralling through his mind. There was no drunken shouting, indicating that it was some other recruit lost on the way back to their own room. If anyone had decided to rescind his second chance, they wouldn’t be knocking, if-
The knock turned into a pound. ‘Room service,’ a sarcastic voice called. ‘Open the fuck up.’
Curt dropped the handbook onto the couch, stood and stumbled over to the door. He hesitated for a second, then opened it, only to have a tall man in a lab coat push his way in as soon as an inch of light from the corridor outside was showing.
‘Ugh,’ the man said as he walked to the centre of the main room. ‘I know you’ve only been here like an hour, but my god, you could have done something. Everything is still default, it’s like being in a hotel room. And not a very good hotel room. You can install a spa you know, I highly recommend that you do.’
Curt stared at the man – tall, with dirty blond hair that was shading to grey at the temples. A lab coat meant either science or medical and-
‘Do you have the right room?’ he asked, unsure of what the stranger wanted.
The man picked up the teacup and sniffed at it. ‘You know this shit doesn’t work, right? Placebo effect at best.’
‘Can I help you?’ Curt asked, raising his voice a little.
The man’s manic energy seemed to dissipate in a second, and two long strides brought him nose-to-nose with him. ‘Good evening, Recruit, I’m Medical Agent Parker. The second. And much to your horror, I’m sure, you weren’t assigned my better half to be your physician.’ The agent reached a hand forward and flicked at a curl of hair that had been hanging over his eye.
Curt stepped back, eager to get out of the agent’s reach.
‘Honestly,’ the agent said, ‘I would have expected natural occurrences to bring you to me by now. I’m not saying your department is entirely staffed by shitheads, but your entire department is staffed by shitheads.’
Curt hated the small smile that found its way to his face, and he carefully schooled it away. Whatever this agent wanted, his brashness was a nice change from the politeness of Agent Jones, or the disinterest of Director Ryan.
‘They’re not great with outsiders, and I figured someone would have accidentally shot you by now.’ The agent smirked. ‘Not to kill you, of course, but five rounds rapid of paint is a bastard to clean out of the ear canal. All those tiny little bones I never want to deal with.’
‘Is-’ Curt swallowed. ‘Is there something I can help you with?’
The agent sat on the couch, picked up the teacup, and with a wink, it turned into a beer. ‘I’m here to keep you alive, whether you like it or not.’
A hundred fears buzzed in his mind.
Petersen had used every cruelty, and surely some of those couldn’t have been solved by Farnshaw as quickly as-
And the bomb. Petersen had-
Curt took two steps backward, hoping it didn’t look too much like a weak stumble and braced his back on the wall. ‘What are you talking about?’ he asked, his voice thick.
Parker sculled half of the beer before answering. ‘I’m hoping you’re an intelligent young man. It’s so much easier than dealing with utter and complete fuckwits. Are you a fuckwit?’
‘Most fuckwits would say “no”,’ Curt said. ‘So I’m not sure your question could provide the answer you’re looking for.’
‘Oh, you,’ Parker said with a grin. ‘I think I like you.’ The agent curled a finger and pointed to a freshly required chair opposite the couch. ‘Take a fuckin’ seat, please.’
Confusion and curiosity displaced some of the fear, and Curt made his way to the new armchair.
‘Tracking blue,’ Parker said. ‘For my money, it’s the best utility we have.’ He stared at the bottle of beer for a moment. ‘Did you want one? I’m guessing by the state of your room you can’t require yet.’
‘I don’t drink at one in the morning, Agent.’
‘Well you’re no fun,’ Parker said. He slammed back the rest of the beer. ‘Tracking blue,’ he said, seeming to get himself back on track. ‘Lets us know where you are, connects you for requiring, a lot more shit, and for purposes of this conversation, tracks your vitals.’ Parker put down the empty bottle, and another appeared in his hand. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, seemingly offhand, ‘required piss can’t get agents drunk. I just like the taste, and I’m having a shit night. I was planning on being arm deep in my better half tonight, but I’ve mostly been arm deep in recruits, and not in the fun way. There’s this girl, Stella, Combat. She eats my fucking kidney dishes while she’s waiting for surgery. Who does that? I mean, trolls apparently, but Jesus fucking Christ.’
‘Call me sir again,’ Parker said, ‘and the next time I have to replace something of yours, I will put it in backwards.’
Immediately he wanted to ask “how do you want me to address you?”, just to continue to acknowledge the power differential, to let the agent know that he was still respected, that he still knew his place, even if he wasn’t allowed to use the word “sir”.
And something about the challenge and smirk in the agent’s expression told him that the question would be a bad idea.
‘You haven’t made your point yet,’ he said, trying to keep his voice neutral.
‘And you’re not getting any sleep, Recruit.’
Curt stared down at the carpet. ‘It tells you that?’
‘I could sit here and shit out a bunch of medical jargon you won’t understand, leaving me feeling superior and you feeling like- Well. Much like you do already in the presence of someone so clearly intellectually superior to yourself. Enough to say yes. I know you’re not sleeping. Some of what Agent Farnshaw unofficially relayed to me gives me a big fucking clue as to why.’
Curt pressed knuckles into his eyes, then forced himself to look up at the agent. ‘I’m sorry if my performance had been noticeably-’
The agent leaned across the coffee table and flicked his forehead, the quick, sharp pain enough to shut him up. ‘I said I was here to help you. I’m not looking for your contrition or post-midnight apologies. I’m not your boss, I’m your doctor, so the only thing that interests me is keeping you healthy. Or getting you healthy in the first place, because where you are right now is not healthy.’
Parker laid down two small plastic cups. One contained an amber coloured pill, the other was faintly green. ‘Both of these are fairly basic formulations. We’ll need to tweak as we go along, as I get a better idea of what works with your brain chemistry, and importantly, what outcome you’re looking for.’
‘Just repeating shit I say gives you fuckwit points, Recruit.’
‘So tell me what you mean,’ Curt said, trying to adjust his energy a little to match some of the agent’s sarcasm.
‘You go to a doctor with a problem. Most of the time, that problem has multiple solutions. End of life patient, for example, do they want to squeeze every second out that they can, but damn the quality of that life, or do they want a few months where they’re still themselves? You?’ Parker lifted the amber pill. ‘This will knock you out for eight hours, give you the quality of sleep that you need, but you’ll probably still have nightmares.’ He lifted the green pill. ‘This will short circuit your ability to have any kind of dream, but you’ll probably still wake up tired. I’ll tweak on your feedback, but right now, it’s a binary choice.’
Function was more important than comfort.
Curt reached for the amber pill.
Parker scoffed. ‘Please don’t tell me you’re an annoying martyr in every aspect of your life.’
‘I’ve got a lot of shit to make up for, Doc,’ he said, then dry-swallowed the pill. ‘I can’t do that if I’m tired.’
A pad and paper appeared in the agent’s hands. Parker scribbled down something, then tore off the top sheet and dropped it on the coffee table. ‘I’m giving you the next two days off. Don’t worry, I’ll file the electronic version with Ryan. Sleep now.’ A bottle of pills appeared next to the sheet of paper. ‘Take one before bed tomorrow. Don’t do anything stupid with these. If you try and overdose, I will feed you your own kidneys. And I won’t even use garlic. Come to me on Friday. If someone hasn’t shot you by then, and you can give your first-round feedback.’
‘Th-thanks,’ Curt said.
Parker winked, then went slightly fuzzy before disappearing.
A yawn came unbidden, and Curt felt his eyes begin to droop. He rubbed a hand over his face, and took a few seconds to tidy the coffee table before falling into his bed, and barely managed to pull the sheet up before sleep took him.