Devon passed out.
That’s what they told him, anyway.
He’d been waiting in line like everyone else, and next thing he knew he was the center of attention for a ring of bystanders, a pair of old ladies were rubbing his arms, and the bank manager was asking if he needed an ambulance.
The worst part, initially, was the embarrassment.
But on the drive home an icy fear crimped the back of his neck, made his shoulders lock and his elbows seize, made his hands sweat all over the wheel. What if it happened again? What if it happened while driving? He could be barreling along nicely, completely absorbed in the intricacies of lane surfing, and—BAM: dead man. Or find he’d unconsciously plowed through a crosswalk full of horrified lunchtime toddlers. Splattered innocence, crippled joy.
That image was so appalling Devon had a phantom episode, imagining, in one missed heartbeat, that he’d blacked out again, and was surfacing anew.
He pulled over with extreme caution; using only the rear-view mirror lest, in looking back for even a moment, some inexplicable mini-seizure should send him hurtling into a compound bloody fireball. Devon was marinated in his own sweat. He’d always been the healthiest of men; didn’t drink, didn’t touch drugs, didn’t over-exert. The tremors passed gradually, but not so the terror; it had become a vital shadow in the center of his skull. Devon called a cab and a tow truck. He sat slumped in the back of the cab, steadying his breathing. The driver was a talker; Devon let him roll on. All he could see was the cab’s windshield, streaked and spotted, a broken mosaic of shocked baby faces that never had a chance to grow.
* * *
“Your scans are clean,” Dr. Goodman beamed.
The big clipboard was tucked against his chest, hiding its secrets. “I think we can cheerfully write this off as one of those little anomalies that pop into our lives, shake us up a bit to give our egos some perspective, and then pop right back out as though nothing occurred. And who knows? Maybe nothing did. Sometimes nature just drops the ball for no apparent reason. I like to compare the body to a complex harp with one or more strings always out of tune, and hard work and healthful living as the elements that re-tune those—Mr. Devon?”
Devon blinked at him. A low hum had just passed through his brain like a train through a tunnel. There were things in there, moving around, clattering without sound. It was as if his thoughts were loose shingles on a roof, responding to a sudden high wind. Devon blew over.
He opened his eyes to another perspective. It was not his own; this was a skewed view of three vulnerable specimens frozen in a brightly lit box. The action resumed: staring receptionist slipping out of room, frowning doctor standing squarely before seated patient.
Goodman’s entire demeanor had changed. He tapped his pencil on the clipboard—thuda-thuda-thud—little alien heartbeats in rubber on pressed cork. “You’ve heard of narcolepsy, Mr. Devon? Once we’ve ruled out the obvious—epilepsy, tumor, arrhythmia—we have to rely on conjecture, which, in a modern, mature practice, always comes down to empiricism rather than guesswork.
“What I’m attempting to impart is this: symptoms are templates. Narcolepsy is a known condition, but it’s not a common one—though I’m reasonably sure there’re plenty of cases going misdiagnosed. I won’t beat around the bush here. In narcolepsy, the brain’s steady-state waking electrical activity is abruptly interrupted—the subject goes to sleep on the spot, rather than drifting away naturally. Why? The current’s been cut off, the lights shut down. Why? We don’t know yet; and there’s that dreadful non-answer which of course seems, to the anxious layperson, an evasion rather than a helpful response. But it’s all we’ve got. That, and a medication I’m prescribing. Although still in its trial stages, it shows tremendous promise in the short term. However, there’s a caveat: you must be prudent in your approach to everyday activities whenever a recurrence might prove injurious to yourself or to others, and you must curtail these activities any time you experience symptoms that are in any way out of the ordin—”
* * *
“Mr. Devon?” Goodman’s smile was frayed around the edges. “Are you feeling all right now? We were discussing your prescription when you appear to have relapsed momentarily. I’ve checked your vitals and you’re good as gold. The episode was quite brief, yet it absolutely confirms my immediate diagnosis of narcolepsy.”
He drummed his fingers on the clipboard. “Miss Aines is going to administer a single dose of your prescription, and you are thereafter not to approach the medication without my approval over the phone. Then I want you to go home and take a load off your mind as well as your feet. I’d prefer you walk rather than take a cab or bus. Moderate exercise is always a precursor to healthful recovery.”
He pulled open the door, hesitating halfway. “If you experience a recurrence, or become morbidly anxious, or entertain any weird, traumatic sense of alienation, I want you to give me a call right away. Miss Aines will produce my home and cell numbers as soon as you’ve received your medication and taken that single dose.”
He smiled genially while ushering Devon out. “You’re going to be just fine.”
* * *
How can a man know what’s going on around him, behind him, within him—when he can’t see or feel a thing?
Devon was unconscious. The vague electrical discharges were unlike anything he’d ever experienced, so he had no point of reference, but he absolutely knew his brainwaves were being scanned…somehow. His ideas, his dreams, his very identity were being manipulated by somebody or something. Devon was being violated, from somewhere bleak and far away—for reasons of cold research, for inhuman experiment, for purposes that made no sense whatever in regular terms. Only hatred and frustration crossed the ether connecting whoever he was with whatever they were…and he knew that if he let go for even a second they’d—
* * *
A thumb peeled back Devon’s eyelid.
Sensible impressions were returning. The sounds of traffic. The interior of a paramedics’ van. A man’s face; a face like any other. “Sir, can you feel the pressure of my hand on your arm?” A pinching above the elbow. “How about now?” The full-screen thumb splintered into five fingers on a rocking hand. “Follow my hand with your eyes, sir.” The face turned. “He’s receptive.” The face turned back. “You’re in an ambulance, sir. We’re bringing you to the emergency room at Mother Of Mercy Hospital. But we’ve determined this is no emergency; that’s why we’re not using the siren. So just relax; what’s going on is purely procedural. You appear to have blacked out while sitting on the bus bench at White and Lincoln, yet no one observed any evidence of seizure or foul play. There’s no indication of brain trauma, no signs of physical injury, and all your responses to outside stimuli are well within the normal range. Do you feel okay now?”
Devon’s voice phased in and out. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just need to—”
Two strong hands gripped his biceps.
It was the second paramedic, leaning over the first.
“You’ll have to remain quiet, sir. Until you’ve been thoroughly examined you’re under our supervision. It won’t be long. There’s the hospital now. We’re pulling up to emergency. Try to stay calm.”
“I can’t be strapped down. I…that’s what they want.” Devon’s mouth was too dry for more.
The paramedics exchanged looks. The first rattled a prescription bottle. “The label reads fifty. The count is forty-nine.” He looked back down at Devon. “I’d call yours a pretty extreme reaction. Now just relax.”
The van stopped with the gentlest jolt. A moment later the rear doors swung open. The second paramedic climbed out, and the first, hesitating, said loudly, “Sir, you’re under restraint only for your own safety, okay? We can’t have you blacking out and rolling off the gurney now, can we?”
The driver poked in his head. “What’s the hangup?”
“We’re fine back here. One of the straps is tangled. Just give me a second.”
The driver’s head disappeared. The paramedic brought his voice down to a patter. “Look, fighting only makes it worse. They’ll get in sooner or later, so unless you enjoy being flattened out of the blue, over and over and over, you’re just gonna have to play it cool. The more you resist, the worse it gets. And don’t listen to anybody telling you it’s all on account of medication, or that you have a condition, or that you’re losing your mind, or anything like that. Let them get what they want and they’ll go pick on somebody else. Take it from a guy who’s been there. Read my lips.” He strapped a small oxygen mask over Devon’s nose and mouth and said noiselessly, with exaggerated movements of the lips, “Stay down.”
A hydraulic whine, a rocking and settling. A voice came out of the floodlights: “Okay to roll.”
The bright assault of antiseptic fluorescence made Devon’s eyes burn.
Faces looked on curiously as he was wheeled by; faces just as indifferent as the paramedics, as indifferent as Dr. Goodman’s, as indifferent as that burned-out receptionist behind the glass, as—
* * *
The electrical activity, Devon realized, functioned incidentally as a conduit. They were getting into his head, and they were learning what it means to be human, but it was tough work. Through this connection he’d become electrically empathic—able to glean their drive and exasperation, to know that, through their resolution, they were going to learn what they needed, if they didn’t kill him in the process, or if he was unable to kill himself first. He was experiencing their excitement as well as their frustration, their urgency and their demand. He was losing hold, losing self-control. He knew it. He could feel it.
* * *
“Well, I’m taking him off the medication, at least for the present, and I don’t give a good holy crap what you or Lancet have to say on the matter, is that clear enough for you? As of right now he’s under our care. Your prescription arguably precipitated this patient’s arrival, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s mitigating his condition in the least. Fine. Feel free to talk to the coordinator in the morning. I’m presently handling Mr. Devon, and this conversation is officially concluded. Now go back to sleep!”
Devon embraced the room’s hard white light like a lover. He kept his eyes fixed wide, afraid even to blink, as Dr. Grant replaced the receiver and turned, hands clasped behind his back.
“Mr. Devon, you’re doing great. You’ve been through a bit of a scare, but there’s no reason to worry. Your provider has authorized any necessary procedures, though I’m confident we’ve no cause for alarm.” He raised Devon’s prescription bottle like a dead lizard. “As of this moment you’re off these—and that bastard Goodman should be sued for malpractice. Don’t think he’s heard the last of me.”
“No,” Devon managed. “Not the medicine. Like I told you, this started before I was given the prescription.”
Grant leaned in grimly. “And, like you told me, you’ve been riding a roller coaster ever since. Okay? Voices in your head; that kind of nonsense. A misdiagnosis of narcolepsy from some predatory quack who will have his license suspended, mark my words. Delusions of channeling aliens or whatever—you’re a victim of too many horror movies, Mr. Devon, plain and simple. Now I want you to stop fighting it. Please. You’re only making things worse.”
“Not my imagination,” Devon stressed.
“Would you listen to yourself?”
Grant leaned back.
“Narcoleptic episodes, my friend, aren’t just muggings out of nowhere. Reports suggest transitory events that are only occasionally violent; analogous to, but not equivalent to, minor epileptic seizures.”
“Not narcolepsy,” Devon tried. “They’re knocking us out. They can only read us when we’re unconscious, the deeper the better.”
“And how,” Mr. Devon, “have you managed to divine all this?”
“We’re wide open to them once they’re in. I can tell what they’re thinking when I’m out. It’s like some kind of open line, but through…space, I guess.”
Grant could barely contain his disdain. “They think, or speak, in English?”
“No, no, doctor. It’s a different kind of communication. Both sides are transmitters and receivers. And it’s not just me. It’s a whole lot of people.”
The room froze up. Dr. Grant leaned in.
“And you’re ready to point out these people? You’re prepared to corroborate your claims?”
Devon shrank into himself. “I think I’ve said all I want to say.” He clammed right up.
“You never should have been allowed on the street in the first place; not without a guardian, not without a complete examination. I’m going to give you a little injection here—it’s just something to help you relax—and then we’ll let the specialists have a go at you.”
Devon instinctively scooted in reverse. “I feel better now. I just want to go home.”
Grant again zoomed himself in. “I give you my word of honor it’ll be painless. These are some of the best men in their field, and they need to get a real good look at you right away. Now, I’d like you to just stretch out on the recliner, close your eyes, and make a fist. You’ll feel the tiniest pinprick.”
“No, please…give me something that’ll help me stay awake. They’re getting closer. If I fall asleep they’ll be right back in.”
Dr. Grant stepped to a wall intercom, his expression sour. His hand moved up to the call button. “Who’s getting closer?”
* * *
Facets of his identity were being shed like flakes of dandruff. Memories were being stripped, copied, filed—Devon’s humanness was being assaulted, weakness by weakness. The excitement was palpable—he was naked, he was down, he was road kill. His flaws were being recognized and categorized, in some universal way only a natural predator could understand. The meeker humans were easy; they were fait accompli. Devon could struggle all he wanted, but he was pinned and purpling, a pretty bruised butterfly. He thrashed, but didn’t budge, called, but didn’t peep, screamed, but didn’t—
* * *
“The harder you fight me,” the security guard snarled, “the harder I fight back. You got that?” He shoved Devon into a plastic chair, one of many lined against the wall.
“Listen to me!” Devon begged. “I can’t hold on any longer. Please. Something.”
The guard sneered over his shoulder. “I’ll give you something. Now for the last time: Do. Not. Fight it!” He pressed the intercom’s call button. “Security on floor one, east wing. I have a disturbed patient who somehow got out into the hall. Not a biggie, but Riley and Forbes, I’d like you to assist. Wills, call in a van and get straight back to me.”
* * *
The feelers were in. He was going. A great company was in his skull; a kind of delirious clamor and buzzing crescendo. Devon was a transparent display, every nerve-ending under intense scrutiny.
Ecstasy, comprehension, anticipation: his mind was being peeled open; his nightmares, his mistrust, his mortal horror.
* * *
Devon leaped from his chair, tore the guard’s gun from its holster, crammed the barrel in his mouth.
A bear hug and shattering of teeth. The gun went spinning across the floor.
A hard stomping down the hall, a flurry of shouts, the pulsing buzz of an alarm.
Devon hit the plate glass window like a bug smacking into a windshield. He blew out into the night, a mass of porcupine shards, blood spraying in his wake. He heard Dr. Grant puffing behind. “Mr. Devon! For the love of God! Don’t fight it! Somebody call the gate. Devon!”
* * *
His arms were shaking wildly, his eyes bursting in his skull—he was seizing—they had him by the cortex. Devon’s very consciousness was being eviscerated: through that real-time conduit, his thoughts were being pasted to an empathic helix, synapse by misfiring synapse. And they’d grown exasperated. Devon was about to learn the hard way that, no matter how grounded a body might be in reality, a mind is wide open to compromise:
Liquid fire tore through his frame, spewed from his mouth and nostrils, set his fraying hair ablaze. His head snapped back and his mouth ripped open at the corners, peeled off his face and blew away in shreds. Devon’s rib cage shattered from the sternum down. He was being zipped open, torn apart, dug into. With a shriek of bone his spine snapped free, his pelvis collapsed, his skull halved to expose the hysterical animal writhing within.
* * *
A number of men hit him in a compound flying tackle.
An orderly snarled in his face, “Stay down, damn you!”
Now Dr. Grant’s pulsing round head broke into a crazy wheel of arms and nightsticks. “Sedate him, for Christ’s sake! I don’t care if you have to use chloroform. Drag him over to the shack.”
* * *
Night sucked him up like a giant straw. Consciousness was a black wiggly thing, all-pervading, all—and a flashlight’s beam hit him right in the eyes. For a long hazy second he was dazzled by the badge on the gate guard’s cap. Devon was logy and going fast, his limbs uncooperative, his toes and fingers numb.
“I’ll tell you one more time, and then I’ll brain you if I have to—stop fighting it!”
The guard’s eyes became compassionate. Mentoring. “They’ll get what they want and be done with you. Then you can go back to whatever you’ve always been doing.”
He tried to mask his shame with a pretense of fellowship. “Look, friend, they’ve been at it forever—knocking us out and picking our brains, trying to figure out what makes us tick. But we’re tough nuts to crack. So now you’re finding out what’s it’s like to be psychologically raped—to be mentally dissected—in real time, just like the rest of us. And simultaneously you’re reading them back as they work, just like the rest of us. And pretty soon your identity will be appropriated, and you’ll be eating right out of their hands. Just like the rest of us.”
The guard gripped Devon’s shoulder.
“Listen, man, it can get really really bad, okay? And nobody, but nobody’ll ever take you seriously. So you gotta learn to kind of switch off when they get busy, and play it off as humbly as you can. But there’s no disgrace in obeying; not when you have to survive. I mean, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He looked around uneasily. “We’re just human beings, right? We’re not supermen.”
From outside came Dr. Grant’s familiar voice barking orders, followed by the gentle rumble of an approaching vehicle. The sound of doors swinging on their hinges. A new voice called out: “Okay to roll.”
The guard looked back. “Anyway, there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. So stop fighting—just let go and relax.”
He passed a hand back and forth over Devon’s eyes. “Is any of this getting through?”
“Yes,” Devon said thickly. “Hear you.”
The guard patted him on the shoulder. “It’s not the end of the world. Just another boss.”
He placed the hand over Devon’s eyes.