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Authors: Marjorie M. Liu

Shadow Touch (6 page)

BOOK: Shadow Touch
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Or not
, she thought, as a man suddenly screamed. Distant, faint; the echo of his heartrending voice twisted down the corridor until he sounded more animal than human. Or perhaps there never was a man, and she had only imagined the brief baritone that now raked the air like a wildcat’s cry: high, ripping. Elena missed a step.

Rictor said, “Keep walking.”

“What’s being done to him?” The screaming continued; a spit and howl that broke her heart—and scared the shit out of her.

“It’s nothing you need to worry about,” he said. The screaming stopped abruptly. The silence was almost as horrible, heavy with exhaustion, as though the air itself were glad of the man’s quieted cries. For a moment Elena felt the strain of guilty comfort. She was not alone in this place. Someone else was here, suffering. Someone else had been targeted, their comfortable world ravaged.

I’m sorry
, she thought, remembering the anguish in that one long note of pain.
I’m so sorry for my selfishness
.

Just not sorry enough to take it back.

Again she studied Rictor. She wondered why he ranked more important than the men in white, what he had done to earn a place inside this facility, why he would even want to work for people who kidnapped women and then treated them like lab experiments. Must be tough to get a girlfriend, with a background like that.

Rictor’s pace faltered and he gave her an odd look something almost like confusion. It was the most human expression she had seen on him so far. He tore his gaze away. Quiet, he said: “Do what the doctor tells you. Don’t push him too far. He needs you, but he’ll take only so much defiance.”

Hearing him give advice—after everything he had just done to her—stunned Elena. She could not tell if he was trying to trick her, or whether he was serious. If he was serious, then he was definitely in the wrong line of work—and his motivations were totally suspicious.

Rictor glanced at her. “Are you going to listen to me?”

“Why should I?”

He remained silent. Elena said, “Hey.”

“We’re here,” he said. She shut her mouth.

It was a different room than she expected. No cabinets full of medicines and equipment. No tables with restraints or bloody hooks or ropes or dirty scalpels. Nothing very maniacal at all. Just white walls, a white tile floor with a drain in the center, and a small table with some familiar electrical equipment perched on top: a black flat-screen monitor and a plastic box full of wires. The table had a chair beside it. Rictor gestured for Elena to sit.

He pulled a small tube of gel from a drawer in the table. “This is why we had to wash and cut your hair.”

“I figured it out,” she said, still trying understand his sudden surge of helpfulness. “EEGs can’t handle scalp oil or moisture.”
Although I could have kept my hair, you son of a bitch
.

“No,” he said, “you couldn’t have.”

Elena blinked, startled. Rictor spread glue on the end of an electrode and stuck it on her head. She watched his face, but he was as impassive as ever. A bored man, doing a boring job. He totally deserved an Oscar.

“Rictor.”

“Hold still.”

Elena thought about bouncing up and down just to aggravate him, but killed that idea when his hands tightened on her head. She felt like a fool, but had to ask. “Can you read my thoughts?”

He put another electrode on her head.

“How about the doctor?”

“What about him?” Another electrode.

“You know.”

She thought he would say,
Oh, what folly! What an imagination! Such things certainly do not exist
! Instead Rictor said, “No. He is not like us.”

“Oh, God.” Elena stared at him. “And there are more? Are there more prisoners in this place? And why the hell aren’t
you
locked up?”

He did not answer. Out of all the things that had happened to her—the kidnapping, waking up in a strange place only to be manhandled like a lab rat—
this
rattled her the most. It shook up her mind, her heart, her entire view of the world, because she had wondered, she had hoped, and now, finally, here was confirmation. She was not alone. There were others like her.

Once upon a rime, dreaming as a child dreams, she had wished for such a thing. Oh, how lovely it would be. Not a freak, not some lightning that struck only once and never again.

But she would rather be alone than find out like this.

Elena tried to speak, found her voice too weak. Tried again, whispering, “How? It doesn’t make sense. There can’t be so many. Regular people would notice, wouldn’t they? It would be in the news.”

“You managed to stay out of the news,” Rictor said. “Or so I hear.”

“That doesn’t mean—”

“There are six billion people in the world,” Rictor said, interrupting her. He still looked bored, still continued to glue electrodes to her head, but he was talking, and Elena was desperate for words. “If even half of one percent of the population exhibited some kind of unique wiring, that would be thirty million. Cut the percentages even steeper, and you’re still talking about a lot of people. Now
be quiet
.”

Elena did not want to shut up, but she heard someone at the door. It was the doctor. He held a cardboard box in his hands.

“Ah,” he said, when he saw Rictor gluing electrodes to Elena’s scalp. “I thought you would be done by now.” He studied the scratches on his neck. “Problems?”

“No,” Rictor said. He kept working.

The doctor studied Elena’s head. “A very nice look on you, my dear.”

She resisted the desire to tell him just how quickly he could go to hell. From the way Rictor’s hands tensed on her head, she thought that was a good idea.

The box rattled. Elena heard a whimper.

“I’m done.” Rictor stepped away from Elena and flipped a switch on the machine. After several seconds the monitor flickered to life, revealing a set of numbers, prompts.

“Hold out your hands,” said the doctor. Elena hesitated. She thought about what Rictor had told her.
Do what the doctor tells you. Don’t push him too far
.

She remembered the screaming man, the pure animal sound of his voice.

Elena held out her hands. The doctor looked at Rictor, who reached past her to take the box. The old man flipped open its flimsy lid. Elena smelled blood.

“No,” she breathed when he pulled out the body. She thought it might be a puppy, a little beagle, but it was difficult to tell because of its injuries, the blood covering its broken body. A small paw moved; closed eyes twitched beneath the lids.

“I like to start small,” the doctor said. “To set certain parameters. Think of this as a flashlight blinking in your eyes.”

He placed the dying animal in her hands. Horrified, Elena grappled with the puppy, trying to hold it in a way that would not cause more pain. Blood smeared against her legs, dripping on the white floor. Now she knew why there was a drain. The doctor smiled. Rictor looked bored.

“I can’t,” she whispered. “I—”

“The injuries are very recent and quite severe,” interrupted the doctor. “He is going into shock. If you wait much longer he will die, and then I will be forced to do this experiment again, on a different animal. Are you really that heartless, my dear?”

Yes, I really am that heartless
. Because if she saved this puppy, she had no doubts as to the doctor’s willingness to harm it again for another kind of test. That was a torture no living creature should endure.

But then the puppy opened its eyes and looked at her, looked at her in the way only a small helpless animal could, and she remembered a little rabbit, torn, her mother saying, “God, you are such a freak,” and her grandfather, running, running to hold back the ax. She laid the puppy flat on her lap. She did not look at the doctor or Rictor as she pressed her hands to the animal’s jutting ribs. She tried not to think of them at all as she sank deep within her heart, summoning up the strength that was hers, the essence of beautiful pain that she grappled with every time she used herself for others. Her skin prickled as the power rose—higher, stronger—until her body felt encased by lightning. Cancer was different. Cancer was easy. This required more, more and ever more. She lost her vision, but her hands were still on the puppy and she could feel—could feel that little heart, that broken, twisted body, and she pressed her will upon its spirit and goaded it to heal.

Just take a little of me
, she told it.
Just take a little of what I have to give
.

It did, and through the roaring in her ears, through the pain, she heard the doctor whisper, “Thrilling.”

Chapter Four
In his last moment of consciousness, Artur felt certain he was dying. The explosive pain in his head and chest felt immense as a thundercrash—lethal, final—so that when he fell into the nightmare it was the same as hell, that ready inferno waiting sharp as a kiss of hot iron, burning his mind blind with the furious tide of his sins. It was a nightmare symphony, screaming cries of myriad lives—his own and other’s—sucked back into the past where the world was full of concrete and windowless rooms, dozens of starved, filthy boys crammed together to live and grow and die like animals, unwanted because they were broken, defective, lost beyond help, beyond love…
Endless and undying. I could trap you in a memory, you know. Choose one, Artur. Choose your perfect horror. Your mother, perhaps? When she left you at the orphanage and you watched her sign the papers, watched her scrawl that lovely name while you screamed and beat your fists against the floor as the men took you away and she never turned around to say good-bye, never turned to say, “I love you
,”
or
, “
Sorry
,”
or, “I’ll be back
,”
became no

no

it was forever, and she left you to die, you unnatural son, you burden, you pariah

No
. Artur pulled himself free of that sinuous voice, so dark and persuasive. He fought for true consciousness. No.
You are wrong
.

I am never wrong, Artur. Never. You should have come to me while you had the chance, while you still had a choice, while you still had

Artur felt pain. He clung to that discomfort and it led him away from the voice. He savored the rawness of his throat, the spinning of his head, the ache in his chest. He rolled his mind through agony and was happy for it. Happy for the torture of the physical, which anchored him safely away from that voice with its horribly patient certainty.

He was alive. That was good, too.

Artur moved his arms, his hands, sliding his fingers over the surface beneath him, which was cool and slick, carrying echoes of another kind of pain. Confusion
where am I, oh, God, oh

damn it, I hurt; I

please don’t touch me please I was just going in for a medical study; please

Artur froze. Lifted up his hands and opened his eyes.

He was not wearing gloves. He was not, in fact, wearing much of anything. Except for underwear he was completely naked. Naked to the world.

Artur shot to his feet, stumbling as dizziness racked his tall frame. He doubled over, gagging, but his throat was so dry that all he felt was pain. Pain, pain… his own and others’—and he could not stop the onslaught, could not control the rush inside his head as his bare feet danced over the cold floor, trying to find safety, a virgin tile, something yet untouched.

Nothing. Everywhere he stepped, the memory of souls—so much was swimming through his head, it was difficult to tell where he stopped and strangers began. A scream bubbled up in his throat but he swallowed it down, forced it away and quiet. If he began screaming he would not stop, would not stop; he could not stop screaming when he was a boy, and his mother, his poor mother—

Do not lose yourself . Be in the now, this moment. Nothing else matters. Nothing else.

Artur forced himself to stop moving. He planted his feet firmly on the ground, forced his chest to expand for air. Every breath invited a vision, a piece of another soul. He felt the taste of a stranger’s fear inside his head—endless, undying in its certainty of doom:
I am never going to leave here alive
.

It was an emotion Artur recognized. He had felt it before, more than twenty years ago—been swamped in a similar manner, cast out to lose his mind among strangers squatting in darkness. He’d been twelve years of age and untested in his gift. Exposed. Helpless.

I thought I had grown stronger
. He was older now, more practiced. Had become, over the years, slightly desensitized to the shocking flood of memory and emotion, the schizophrenic invasion of minds so different from his own.

None of that mattered now. Not in the slightest.

It was difficult to breathe. His chest hurt. Artur looked down. A large purple bruise covered his skin. He saw a puncture wound above his heart. A tranquilizer dart, not a bullet after all.

It was all a lie. She still wants you. Still needs you.

Artur gazed around the cold room. White tile everywhere. No furniture or restraints. One door. Artur did not want to go to the door. Walking meant more, new everything that might conspire to strike the final blow against his weakening brain. He touched his nose. No blood yet.

Stand here and die, or do something and die. It is your choice.

Artur walked to the door. It took every ounce of his strength not to run on his toes like some overgrown cartoon character. He was certain there were cameras, that someone was observing him. He kept his pace dignified, as though he did not care that his brain was on fire or that at any moment it might burst.

Memories not his own flashed by: rough men, strong men, grappling with the half-dazed, the stripped and feebly fighting. The men thinking,
Why the bloody fuck go to all this trouble
, and
Jesus Christ, she tried to bite me
, and
Fuck this all, fuck this freak, fuck you

Artur stopped in front of the door and pulled off his underwear. He tore it down the seam and wrapped his feet, trying desperately to knot the edges around his ankles. His hands shook; his fingers felt stiff, clumsy. The cloth kept slipping. Artur finally gave up; standing on his underwear would have to be enough.

It was. Relief sang through his head, the cool emptiness of perfect silence. Artur pressed his palms against his eyes. His skull hurt, still felt nails bursting from its base, but the quiet was a balm. He was perched on two islands of cloth, naked as the day he was born.

Artur opened his eyes. The door waited for him like a monster. He touched the knob…

New memories surged: the same people—captor and captive—from different angles, different moments, imprinting themselves until his mind cried out with the echoes of their souls, the echoes of hard fear and confusion. His scalp felt as if it were peeling back from his skull. Too full, too much fire, and—


it is time for me to lose my mind

A sound filtered through the chaos. Real sound, not from his head. Artur’s hand flew off the knob. Blessed silence returned, but only for a moment; he heard the shuffle of feet, the low rasp of voices. A loud click. The knob turned.

Artur stumbled sideways, leaving the protection of his cloth shields. Chaos returned, but the visions were familiar; Artur could partition them, summon up strength to focus. The door opened just a fraction, not enough to see into or out of the room. A hard voice said, “Step away
so
that I can see you. Do it now.”

Artur did not move. He heard low words behind the door, familiar as the images in his mind, and knew like a memory that this was routine, that these men had practice dealing with recalcitrance. Ruthless, they were allowed to be ruthless… but only up to a point.

Artur would have smiled had the pain in his head been less severe. These men could not kill him: he felt the truth of that in the layers of vision beneath his skull. They might be permitted to beat him, abuse him, but in the end, life would still be his. Death was a decision left to other people. Other, more frightening individuals.

Like Ms. Graves.

The door slammed open, the edge of it a blur, a bare miss as Artur jumped backward and—
focus, here and now
—pushed off the balls of his feet, launching himself into the three white-coated men who entered the room. The first got slammed in the face with a hard right hook, a—
jail time has to be better than this
—kick to his kneecap, taking the man down to the floor, howling. The second, thick around the neck and waist, shouted and came at Artur with his fists raised. Artur drove a palm into his nose, savoring the crack, the cries, the
fuck, this ain’t worth the money
, and the man doubled over, cradling his nose, leaving Artur wide-open to knock him unconscious with a massive blow to the back of his head. Unskilled fighters. Thugs. Not used to resistance. Perfect.

One man remained. Small and lean, dressed all in black. Brown hair, green eyes. “Hello again,” he said, smiling. “Do you recognize me?”

“I do,” said Artur, and beneath the shouting in his head, the chaos, he heard a low familiar sob.

Artur went for the throat and groin. The man blocked his blows—quick, strong. Artur fought for openings, grappling with wiry muscles that refused to yield, refused to be held. His hands slid off air again and again and he was blocked. Denied. In more ways than one.

“You are a psychometrist,” said the man calmly. “You learn secrets through touch. Have you learned anything from me yet?”

“No,” Artur said, wondering why that was.

“Interesting,” said the man. “Let’s try this again.”

He hit Artur—moved so fast there was no time to dodge. Pain sparked light in Artur’s vision, filling it up with images of darkness, something solitary and quiet and—
I am very good at waiting

Artur struck back. Landed blows, but they were light, glancing—as though his opponent wanted to be hit, touched. And every time Artur laid his hands on the man it was like watching a nuclear explosion inside his head: a mushroom cloud of singular images riddled together in themes. A boy playing God with a trapped squirrel, peeling it open like a banana; the same boy, older, doing the same to a girl, and then—
because it is his turn rum
—a man.

Artur’s body rebelled. Just as in the cellar, he doubled over, vomiting: dry heaves, bile. Pinpricks of throbbing light broke up his vision. The man beside him smiled.

“So, you like that.” He placed his cold hand on the back of Artur’s neck. “Try
this
.”

It was like having a nail gun drive iron into his brain: a precise agony, concentrated in one spot. Images flashed—controlled, sharp snapshots of deliberate cruelty that went beyond anything Artur had ever experienced. The cold human power of a strong mind, bearing down upon his soul, stripping him like that squirrel: inside to out.

It did not matter how. It did not matter why. Anger sidled hard against pain, and Artur held tight to his fury.
No more
, he thought, gathering his strength.
This is just a picture show, a movie. It is not real
.

Not real. Only the past, only real for another—a man whose hand pressed tight against Artur’s body, still linked, ripe for opportunity. That cold flesh, that cold heart, with secrets still to tell.

You are mine now
, Artur told him, and his mind focused to a needle point and shoved hard, up through memory, up through the channel of his assailant’s thoughts. A cold place, an oubliette rich with dark layers, and Artur saw a boy, the same boy, beaten bloody by a man—
father, my father
—scrabbling to pull up his pants, to think past the pain, the shame—
why, why
and then the boy running away, running to the woods, beyond woods to the town, to the city, surviving by theft, by murder, by whoring, by—

“Get out of my head,” snarled the man. He released Artur, tried to step back, but Artur spun and grabbed his ankle, holding him still. Whatever shields the man had were now gone. New, fresh images filled Artur’s head: a small woman with inhuman eyes, black eyes, alien, framed by tangled blond curls tumbling to her pale shoulders. Confined to a wheelchair, smiling and smiling—

The man kicked Artur away, but not before he shared his bitter, quiet rage at being bound to such a woman, tied to her body and soul—
the black thread of the spider
holding him like a dog, like a—
soldier, her first guard
with her voice in his dreams—
endless and undying
.

The man touched his head, a slow, deliberate gesture. “You should not have done that.”

Artur struggled to stand, to focus past the fire in his head. “You are a pitiful man. Not even your own man, are you? A joke. You showed me your worst because you thought it would be more than I could endure, but your worst is nothing. You are nothing, Charles Darling.”

The name slipped off his tongue, a gift from his unconscious. Artur knew instantly it was not a true birth name, but a name this man had used for so long it had become part of his identity. The only identity that mattered to him.

Charles went very still. Quietly, in a voice scaled with venom, he said, “How unfortunate. There are not many people who know that name.” He looked at his two companions, only one of whom was still conscious. It was the man with the broken kneecap. He had stopped howling, but sweat rolled down his white face. He rocked back and forth. Artur did not think he had heard anything of their conversation; he seemed completely absorbed by his own pain.

Charles took two quick steps and grabbed the man’s head. He twisted hard to the right. Artur heard a crack. The man slumped, dead. Fast, merciless, breathtakingly efficient.

Charles gazed down at the second man, who still lay unconscious. He said, “What do you think?”

Artur thought he was in a lot of trouble. “That man is already dead to the world. No need
to
make it permanent.”

The corner of Charles’s mouth tugged upward. “Permanent is my specialty. But you know that.”

“Yes,” Artur said, but memory filled him and he remembered rules—rules and something else.
Someone
else. A dark face, green eyes. And that other, the woman.
Sweet Beatrix. L’araignée
. The spider.

“Interesting,” Charles said. He backed away from the unconscious man like a snake with a mouse in its belly, full on death. Maybe later Charles would kill this colleague—when he got the itch, when he got hungry but he was satisfied for now. Good enough to move on. The rules that bound Charles did not protect the people he worked with, which was significant and familiar. As with the mob, certain people were expendable: disposable resources, thrown away when broken or inconvenient. It did not speak very highly of the Consortium.

BOOK: Shadow Touch
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