The Black Blood

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Contents

Part I: Descent

I

Late one night in October, Jason Fleischer threw himself out of an eleventh-story window. Wrapped in cold night air, he plunged face first towards what he had come to know was the only freedom left to him. He was a prisoner in his own flesh, it seemed, and that flesh had lately been imprisoned itself. He found himself smiling, now, for the first time in many months. He didn't close his eyes; the paving bricks speeding towards him were a welcome sight. Freedom came to Jason, in a sudden wet crack and a flash of black nothingness.

Blackness receded, to be replaced by a red haze of agony. He couldn't see, his jaw didn't work right, and at least one of his arms was broken, but the fall had not killed him. He groaned and mewled, but each breath brought spears of fresh pain into his chest. A sucking sound from his side accompanied each attempt at breath, louder than any expression of pain his shattered mouth could make.

Shouts came from somewhere, the shouts of the men who had imprisoned him. There was a sort of concern there, but no sympathy. Feet pounded on pavement, and someone gingerly touched his side. He felt something vast and alien rise up within him, a darkness that could no longer be suppressed by his will or their drugs. Jason wept with gratitude that he would not have to see what came next. Then the sounds began, and he cursed that he was not deaf as well as blind.

Sight came back to Jason, as well as control of his limbs, a few hours later. He found himself walking along a deserted country road, forested hills on either side. It was well after midnight, and the moon was obscured by clouds. Yet he saw the trees clearly in the dim pale light reflected from the sky. He could not resist looking down at himself.

He wore the remains of a hospital gown, tattered and stained with blood. Beneath that his skin was a dead white in this strange illumination. But his chest was whole. There was a bundle of cloth beneath his left arm, he realized; he set it down on a boulder. In doing so he saw his hands, caked with more blood. He recoiled momentarily, but felt no need to vomit, which in its way was worse than if he had. Jason ran a shaking hand over his stubbled scalp, then probed carefully at his face. It was entirely whole, but it was not the face he had seen in the mirror that morning. The thing had reshaped him for its own purposes as it healed him. He curled into a ball, half-naked in the freezing air, and sobbed.

But he wasn't cold. In fact, he felt strangely healthy, even sated. Thinking of this, and of the blood quite literally still on his hands, only made things worse. So, for a distraction as much as anything else, he took the bundle of cloth he'd been carrying and opened it. He found clothing: pants, a shirt, a warm jacket. He dressed quickly, sobbing with relief at the opportunity to feel that much more human again. He tried not to think about where these ill-fitting clothes must have come from. He scrubbed at his hands and face with handfuls of damp leaves, removing as much of the blood as he could.

When he had finished dressing, Jason looked up and down the empty road. He didn't know why he'd been brought here, of all places, or where the thing had been taking him. But going somewhere, anywhere, was better than standing here with nothing to do but think. He picked a direction, and started walking.

After perhaps half an hour, the country road merged with a larger one, and Jason began to see cars passing. Their lights would blind him briefly, and then they would pass and he would be alone again. He wondered what they thought of him, filthy and stumbling alone through the night, barefoot in the newly-frosted grass. A faint, irrational hope surged in him the first few times headlights appeared. Someone would stop, and pick him, and take him home, and make everything better. He knew this was nonsense, but for a time he wanted it anyway. Then he remembered the sounds he had heard while blind in the courtyard, and he became glad that no one stopped.

The sky became gray, then pink along the horizon. Jason passed the edge of a town, but didn't dare leave the road to enter it. He wasn't sure if this was self-sacrificing bravery, or simple cowardice. The sun shot red rays through gaps in the cloudy sky, now. He kept walking, until he came to the bridge. It was a huge work of iron arches and braces, painted an inoffensive pale green and lined with streetlamps.

The bridge stretched across a vast river, a sight he knew was familiar, but whose name he could not place for some reason. The far shore, thousands of feet away, was a steep cliff of rock cut by the roads of men, and furred with trees. Those that still had leaves were red or orange.

Traffic passing Jason increased as he watched the water flow by. Sooner or later, he realized, someone would find him. They would call the police, or his former jailers, and he would be imprisoned again.

A plan formed in his mind. He stepped onto the bridge, and was heartened to find that nothing stopped him. He walked forward, into the warmth and light of the rising sun. There was nothing beneath him but the metal of the bridge, hundreds of feet of air, and then rushing water.

He began to feel pain in his face. He touched his cheek, and discovered that it was tender and sunburnt, skin peeling after less than two hours in the sun's light. He found himself grinning, suddenly.

"You don't like that, do you?" he said, loudly, suddenly not caring who heard. The thing within him didn't answer, but he knew that what he said was true.

Jason had reached the middle of the bridge. He walked to the edge and looked over. His hands clenched tightly on the railing, without him telling them to, but he willed them open again. Perhaps it was the sun, but they obeyed. He climbed onto the railing, clinging with one hand to a lamp pole.

A car screeched to a halt behind him. He heard a woman shouting at him, but ignored her.

"Alright, fucker, let's see you survive this." Grinning insanely, Jason leapt from the bridge.

The river slammed into him like the slap of an angry giant, stunning him and driving the breath from his lungs. Cold burrowed into him almost instantaneously, and current pulled him downward. Jason made no effort to fight it, but his arms and legs spasmed and twitched nonetheless. But the thing was weakened by the sun, or perhaps the freezing water was too much even for it. He tried to scream, and water rushed in to fill his lungs, burning and freezing them all at once. Darkness closed over Jason Fleischer, and he dreamed of his freedom.




Jason's body tumbled downstream for many miles. The thoughtless play of the current battered it against sharp rocks, tearing skin so as to leave a sluggish, billowing trail of blood. The heat of its life was sapped by the river's cold, until it was one of many icy vortices, held together by its tattered sack of skin.

From time to time, his body would bob to the surface. When it stayed there for more than a few minutes, the skin would begin to redden and peel beneath the midday sun. Then the current would drag it under once again. The next time it rose to the air, the blisters were gone.

As the hours passed, the water changed. The shore spread apart, and the currents slowed. Creeping tidal washes fought with the river's heedless downhill plunge, bringing a taste of salt. Jason's body was caught in a mass of reeds, which surrounded the slimy concrete pilings of another massive bridge. Crows and gulls landed on the pilings, where they squabbled loudly over scavenger's rights but never approached the body itself. The fish and crabs of the estuary avoided it. It lay there, half-buried by mud, until nightfall.

Beneath the cold light of the moon, other scavengers found it. They were not so picky as the gulls and crabs; with cold pale hands they pulled Jason Fleischer out of the mud. They probed his motionless throat and wrists, sniffed the river-mud smell coming from his mouth, and were somehow satisfied. They slung him over their shoulders, and took him away.




Somewhere, Jason heard the drip of water. Then a long silence. Then another drip.

The monstrous fact that he was still alive pressed itself upon his groggy consciousness.

He lay on something cold and rough. He was utterly exhausted, beyond the point where sleep was possible. His limbs were dead weight, incapable of motion.

More minutes passed, and he realized that movement was also impossible because he was chained down. Panic surged through him, and he fought and flailed against his bonds. All he managed to produce through these struggles were a few twitches, and a fit of violent coughing. His chest hurt immeasurably.

From somewhere in the darkness, a vaguely female voice rasped, "He's awake."

Things shuffled all around him. He felt them looming over him. A phlegmy, male voice said, "That he is. Open your eyes, lad; best get it over with."

Jason hadn't realized they were closed. He hauled them open, and screamed. This broke down quickly into another fit of coughing, but when he recovered, the figures had not disappeared, so he screamed again. More coughing resulted.

They seemed untroubled by all this noise, as if kidnapping people and chaining them to slabs of concrete were perfectly ordinary to them. There were four of them. All had fishbelly-white skin with skeins of starkly visible purple-black veins moving beneath it. On the two of them that had hair, it was likewise totally white, and all four had an emaciated look to them, their ribs visible through rents in their grimy, tattered clothing. One seemed a human woman, but her forearms ended in vast clawed hands like hairy spiders; they could each engulf Jason's head trivially. Another was hunched almost double, with a wide froggish mouth; he smiled, showing entirely too many serrated teeth. A third was covered in shaggy pale fur, and Jason thought he saw bony knife-sized hooks where fingers should have been.

The fourth, leaning over Jason, spoke again. "Done yet? If not, we'll wait." He spoke as if he were chewing something soft as he did so. His face was nearlythat of a gaunt human man, if one discounted the hairlessness, the huge dark eyes, and the batlike ears. But when he turned to make a circuit of the concrete slab, Jason saw that his legs bent wrong, and seemingly in too many places; he did not walk so much as lope.

The spokesman made irritated gestures at the other three. "Give the boy some air; you lot are ugly enough without piling upon him all at once." He bent down beyond the lip of the slab, out of Jason's sight. When he came back into view, he proffered a cracked mug in black-clawed hands. It was filled with something that gave off a coppery stink. "Drink this," he said.

Jason could not speak yet, but he had presence of mind enough to clamp his mouth shut and twist away from the man's hands. The thing in his body betrayed him by salivating at the smell of that gory mug.

The creature made an exasperated sound. "You can lay there and scream and twist for as long as you like; we've got time."

A slow voice came from the edge of Jason's sight; he thought it was the shaggy one. "He thinks we're gonna eat him, Krieger. Or mebbe torture him or something"

The one called Krieger rolled his eyes and said, "If the thought has crossed your mind that we're going to eat you, or kill you, or do something else unspeakable to you, let it pass out as quickly as it came. We mean you no harm, yet, but there are things that you must know. We will not unchain you until we have had this discussion, and you will not be in any fit shape for said discussion until you drink this."

"I d-don't drink blood, goddamnit! What do you think I am?" Jason gasped, before clamping his jaws shut tight once again.

He saw the shaggy one digging through a pile of something in his peripheral vision. It triumphantly raised a string of dessicated bags, thick plastic with labels stuck to the front of each. The bright red cross on each label made the blood's origin clear.

"Yes, you do, now," Krieger continued. "And we know what you are, better than you do yourself, which is why you'll be chained to that rock until you get a bit of this in you, and we have a nice chat."

It was ridiculous. Utterly, horrifically, ridiculous. Jason found himself sobbing. Krieger withdrew, taking the mug with him; a part of Jason wanted to lunge for it, even as the rest of him recoiled in disgust. He sobbed and cursed incoherently, railing at the monsters who had chained him down. Soon he found himself raging, not at them, but at the monster inside him, the thing wanted the blood in Krieger's hands badly enough to tear the other limb from limb if it were given the chance. Soon he exhausted himself, and slept.




When he woke again, the room was silent. He twisted around, trying to get a view of his surroundings. "Is anyone there?"

Krieger came into view, materializing out of the darkness. He held the mug of cold blood. "Ready yet?" he said, almost sadly.

He was starving, and the smell of blood made him want to retch and gorge himself all at once. But it was the tone of sadness that broke down the last of Jason's resistance. He nodded, the cup was brought to his lips, and he drank. The contents went down so easily that it frightened him, and he slept once more.

When he came to, he felt warmth on his feet and heard the crackle of a fire. He felt actually rested, more alert than he'd been since leaping into the river. The fire itself he couldn't see, but its light revealed the full extent of the room he'd been chained in.

He lay on a jagged slab of concrete, propped roughly level on a heap of fallen brick; by craning his neck upwards, Jason could see where this heap blended into a slowly collapsing brick wall. His hands and feet were fixed, spread-eagle, to the slab by loops of rusty iron chain, which in turn were anchored to the floor out of his sight. Looking past them, he saw a vast and moldering room. The high ceiling was supported by concrete pillars; each of these had collected heaps of rubbish and debris around its base. Shopping carts, bicycles, umbrellas, bottles, and more were bound up by tangles of twigs, dead grass, and scraps of clothing. Pools of scummy water filled some of the spaces between the pillars, while others were occupied by rusted hulks of obsolete machinery. All of this was visible as clear as day, but the only light available was the little fire; Jason was keenly aware that, a few weeks ago, this would have shown him nothing.

He jerked his attention back from the spectacle of industrial ruin around him, fixing his eyes on the water-stained concrete ceiling. "Krieger?" he rasped.

Shuffling sounds from below Jason's feet. The creature moved into view again, his edges dyed orange by firelight.

"Will you unchain me now?"

The thing called Krieger shook his head. "Not yet. First we must talk."

Krieger disappeared, and Jason heard a scraping of metal against concrete. When the monster reappeared, he placed a metal stool next to the slab and sat on it. It felt, for a moment, absurdly like a visit from a doctor in any one of the hospitals Jason had seen. He regarded Jason silently for a while, as if unsure where to begin.

Finally, Jason said, "You said... you know what I am?"

The other nodded. "You're black-blooded, like us." Jason must have looked as puzzled as he felt, for he continued, "Vampire. Loup-garou. Ghul."

Jason shuddered. "I'm a...ghoul?"

"You tried to commit suicide, I'm guessing; I've seen it before. As you've noticed, it won't let you die. I don't know if the sun has burned you yet, but it will if you stand beneath it again. And, you'll hunger for red-bloods. Humans, that is. It's a hunger you'll need to learn to live with, and to sate somehow."

Jason's face twisted in disgust. "No. I won't."

"You will, if you ever want to get those chains off. We won't release you otherwise, for the same reason we won't let you try to end yourself again. Because the alternative is worse."

Krieger spoke slowly now, giving Jason time to soak in the strange import of his words. "Starve yourself, and it'll take over to glut itself on fresh blood." Something must have shown in Jason's face, for the other paused, then nodded, before continuing. "Eat cold, dead stuff, and you can satisfy it while at the same time keeping it weak. And death is no escape. Whether you shoot yourself or hang yourself or even, God forbid, jump into a fire, you'll survive. It'll heal you, and every time it does it'll remake you a little more into what it needs."

"And what is that?"

"A bearer of plague."

Jason stared at him, bewildered.

"You are not contagious, yet - nor are any of us here. If your transformation advances far enough, that will change. Your saliva and blood will carry the contagion. If the change advances farther still, it'll stop healing you." Krieger reached over, grasped Jason's chin, and forced him to stare into the ghoul's eyes. "Yes, then you'll be able to die. But in dying you'll contaminate everyone around you, and make them suffer everything that you've suffered."

He released Jason's face and stepped back. "So. Those are the rules of the game. Swear to hold off the contagion as best you can, live with us who can pin you down when the madness takes hold, and I'll unchain you. If you won't, I'll leave you bound."

"For how long?" Jason whispered harshly, closing his eyes.

"As long as it takes. You'll starve, and suffer, but eventually it'll send you into a sort of hibernation."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

"I knew one of us, once, who claimed to have lived in ancient Egypt. When they found out what she was, they gouged out her organs, stuffed her with salt, and sealed her in a stone tomb. She healed, eventually, and hibernated until the smell of some fool explorer woke the thing in her, but she claimed to have been aware the whole time." He chuckled bleakly. "Thousands of years, drowsy and immobile, but aware of each second passing. She was mad, no doubt about it, but I'm not sure she was lying."

Jason was silent; he tried to take in all that Krieger had said, but was able to only grasp fragments of it at a time. The room smelled like a grave, mold and damp mixed with the taint of rotting meat. He felt sick and weak, and just wanted to sleep. Would even that be denied to him, now?

"Please..." he said, then stopped, unsure what he would even ask for.

Krieger's monstrous face hovered over him. Was there sympathy there? "You don't have to decide now. What is your name?"

"Jason. Jason Fleischer."

"'Fleischer' has an ill sound for one of us, I think, so if you don't mind I'll just call you Jason. Brother Jason, you have entered a strange and dark family, and much of your old life is lost to you. Yet your life need not be over. Think about it; I or one of the others will be around when you make up your mind." With that, the ghoul withdrew; Jason watched him until his prone position made that impossible, then watched the shadows his small fire cast on the brick ceiling.

Chilled and uncomfortable as he was, Jason tried to relax, to let sleep claim him. But that seemed impossible now, and memory found him instead.

II

Jason's memory was patchy in the extreme, now. He couldn't recall if this had always been the case, or if it had come with the strange illness Krieger called the black blood. Whatever the reason, it often seemed that the vast majority of Jason's remaining memories were of hospitals.

The first of these was when he was very young. He did not recall how young, exactly, but the memory was suffused with the glowing vagueness of early childhood.

He remembered the death of his grandfather.

The waiting area, where he'd sat with his mother, had vast tall windows that looked out over the parking lot and surrounding wooded country. The rays of the setting sun streamed through those windows, dying the clinical whites and blues of the hospital with fiery oranges and reds. Jason's father would sometimes come and sit with them, but he would inevitably be called away by one of the white-coated nurses, to the room where his father lay dying.

Jason recalled his grandfather chiefly as a smear of warm, earthy color. He had vague impressions of gnarled hands, holding him against a chest swathed in a brown sweater. He recalled those hands wrapping him in a well-worn leather jacket. Grandpa's breath smelled like pipe smoke, and coffee, and was tinged with something else that made young Jason flinch back when he smelled it. Rot, perhaps.

Jason's last memory of his grandfather was of him lying, asleep or perhaps already half-dead, in that hospital. His gnarled hands seemed cooler, and the rot on his breath was overwhelming. All the color had leaked out of him, and been replaced with sterile white, beige, and powder blue.

Jason's father did not cry that night, or at least not in front of him. But each time he returned from grandpa's bedside, his face was a little bleaker, a little older. No one told Jason when, exactly, that night his grandfather died. But, sifting through the memories now, he thought he could pinpoint it by the progress of that desolation in his father's face. For when the long, drawn-out death came to its conclusion, the totality of his father's grief was tinged with a tiny, shameful relief.




He had not been, Jason thought, an especially sickly child. There had been the usual diseases of childhood, chicken pox and flu. Stitches in his thigh. Once, a broken arm. Each return to the white and blue halls of medicine, he remembered with startling clarity. But he couldn't remember in what childhood game he'd broken that arm. He remembered the look and feel of the stitches with startling clarity, but not why he'd needed them.




The holes in his memory were frightening, sometimes. He remembered working in a hospital, as a nurse or an intern, but not the years of school that should have preceded such a position.

It was a demanding life. He worked long, strange hours in the emergency room, ssewing and splinting. Making rounds with a crowd of other interns, under the eyes of a more senior doctor, he watched life and color seep out of the patients, replaced by medicinal sterility. In most, this was a prelude to recovery; once foulness and disease were driven out of them, they would come back to life. But in all too many, it was just a slower death.

Often, such morbid thoughts would drive him from the company of his fellow students. Very rarely, they would have a quiet night, and for an hour or two Jason would be free to wander. Where his fellow interns napped, or played card games, or watched television, Jason went exploring.

St. Luke's General, the hospital he worked in, was a sprawling old pile; its first stones had been laid in the 19th century. The original structure, noted for some historic value, had never been torn down; instead, each subsequent generation had added new layers of construction. A concrete shell of wings, halls, and tower blocks now surrounded the original, carefully maintained, brick building. Some of these generations had favored building up, as far as the technology of their time had allowed; others, stymied upwards, built out; a few had dug down into the rock beneath.

Jason developed, over the course of several such expeditions, a sort of exploration plan. He would find some branching point, a stairwell or cross-corridor, and return to it on several sequential occasions. From there he would take a different direction, choosing according to whatever whim or mood struck him, each time. Generally he wandered the empty corridors for a time, and then his pager would buzz, or he would glance at his watch, and he would return to the more populated portions of the hospital.

Only once had he stayed to explore the building outside of his shift. It had been late May, an unseasonably hot and humid day, and returning to his un-air-conditioned apartment had held little appeal. His latest branching point had been a deep stairwell, buried in the guts of the building. So down those stairs he went, planning to seek the relatively cool depths of the basement for an hour or so.

He soon discovered that this particular stairway led deeper underground than any other he'd found. It terminated in some obscure sub-sub-basement of an older portion of the hospital, apparently abandoned from active use due to the whims of the directors or of funding agencies. Someone had stored boxes of obsolete electronics at its base, and then forgotten about them; their beige casing and dark glass screens were caked with dust.

Jason passed through double doors with narrow, wire-mesh-backed windows, and into a dark corridor. He flipped on the flashlight he carried, and swept its light down the hall. The corners were thick with dust, the center clearer; someone occasionally came down here, he supposed to access whatever was stored in the old rooms. He walked slowly down the hallway, examining the bulbless fixtures and gutted outlets. Those doors that gave to a light push, he opened, and saw piles of broken chairs, or torn mattresses, or boxes of yellowing paper. Many were stuck shut, and it seemed to Jason an unconscionable violation of the silence of the place to pound and force them; these he left behind.

The hallway branched a few times, and he decided to keep to whatever path seemed least used. This plan led him into a section of large rooms, whose only purpose had ever been storage. Some of these yawned empty except for dessicated mouse-nests in the corners. Others had heaps and stacks of obsolete equipment. One room had nothing but what looked like dentist's chairs, reduced to metal and plastic frames. Another had heaps of broken glassware in one corner, and child-sized desks in another. There was a crate full of rusty screws, clamps, and blades; he recoiled instinctively when he stumbled into this in the dark, in the middle of the hallway, then bent closer to examine what he knew to be surgical gear from at least fifty years past. Mostly, there was dust, sparkling in his flashlight beam when his footsteps raised a cloud, and a vast peaceful emptiness.

Eventually he realized that he saw light ahead. At first he thought it was sunlight, reaching this level through some tortuous path of skylights, but it was late, and the sun should have been setting. Then he thought it was his own flashlight, reflecting off some forgotten piece of glasswork. But it did not disappear when he briefly thumbed off his own light.

Jason had a good memory for twists and turns and directions, and he was fairly sure that he had not somehow worked his way back to the actively used portions of the building. So this basement was not as abandoned as he thought. Curious, he went to investigate.

He found a storeroom, lit by a single bare bulb that someone had forgotten to switch off. The forward part of the room was open, and lined with metal tables. The back was a dense row of parallel shelves, separated by gaps just wide enough for someone to pass through. Shelves and tables alike, however, were filled with the strangest, most eclectic collection Jason had ever seen. There were rows upon rows of glass jars, filled with discolored fluid and bits of preserved matter: animal fetuses, oddly-shaped flowers, cancerous organs, and less identifiable things. Alongside these were older, even ancient, vessels: bottles of thick, flawed glass, iron-bound wooden cases, and clay jars painted with gods, heroes, and monsters. One table was devoted to a jumble of bones and bone-fragments, each tagged and labeled in what looked like Latin. He could not say for certain from what creature, or creatures, those bones came.

Shaking his head in wonderment, Jason turned his light and his attention to the shelves. The room, and these strange stacks, was deeper than he'd thought; the illumination of that single bulb did not penetrate far beyond the tables. He walked up and down the closely-packed rows of shelves, playing the beam of his flashlight over uncertain shapes. Much of the space was taken up by books and papers, the latter jammed to overflowing in boxes and folders. He saw a few titles in English, but many more in Latin, Greek, German, and what he thought must be Arabic. None of these could he read; the English titles were full of biological and anthropological technicalities beyond his grasp. Between the books were more strange samples in jars, bones in boxes, and innumerable weirdly-shaped chunks of stone. Some of these were clearly fossils, others clearly carven, but there were a great many about which he was not certain. Their geometries did not appeal to any aesthetic sense he could think of, and their forms were too alien to have been made by nature.

As he was peering at one of these objects, he heard footsteps in the distance. A sudden panic seized Jason; he was somehow quite certain he did not wish to be seen here. He turned off the flashlight, and crouched down low among the shelves. The footsteps grew closer. Jason caught a glimpse of a doctor's white coat beneath the light at the room's other end. The man was turning slowly around in the center of that ring of tables, looking for something; Jason held himself as still as he could, and tried to breathe quietly.

The unknown doctor left. His white shape paused in the doorway, then flipped a switch on the wall, plunging the room entirely into darkness. A flashlight was flicked on in his hand, and its beam proceeded out the door and down the corridor beyond.

Jason waited, slowly daring to breathe again. His mind spun vast conspiracies involving the senior doctors of the hospital. He knew quite well that all of them were baseless; a doctor entering an unused room and turning the light off was hardly a criminal act. And yet the sheer isolation of this room argued that to whomever kept its strange collection, it was a deep secret.

As he stood up, he felt something catch on his shirt sleeve and totter off balance. He snatched for it wildly in the dark, which only pulled the item entirely off the shelf. Something shattered on the floor at his feet, sending up a great cloud of spicy-smelling dust. Jason had enough presence of mind not to begin coughing, as his lungs demanded; he held his breath, tears streaming down his face, and waited for the sound of running feet in the corridor outside.

After a minute or two, nothing responded to the noise, so he thumbed his flashlight back on and stumbled forward. Coughing and wheezing, he staggered out into the clearer air of the table-lined space; once there, he stood bent over with hands on his knees, and simply breathed for a while. When this process, aided by the occasional cough, had cleared the dust from his lungs, he was finally able to direct the beam of his light back the way he'd come.

He swept the circle of illumination between the rows of shelves directly behind him, then to those on either side. He realized he was no longer quite sure which he'd come from. In any case, whatever had fallen was now indistinguishable from other drifts of dust and broken pottery that had collected around the shelves' base.

His trip back to the populated parts of the complex was harrowing and uncertain. Now that he knew this basement was not abandoned after all, he expected to see a flash of white coat around every corner. Jason told himself repeatedly that the other's presence here was completely innocent, but somehow he couldn't believe it. He kept his light pointed low, and every time he heard something move in the darkness he fumbled it off and froze in place until he could convince himself that the sound was just a mouse, or setting masonry, or something similarly harmless. And when he finally reached the stairwell from which he'd set off, the pale fluorescent light felt as clean and warm as the rays of the sun.




Over the weeks that followed, Jason inevitably tried to match up this or that doctor to the flash of white he'd seen in that strange room. He hadn't seen the man's face clearly, but every now and then he'd catch a familiar-looking stride in his peripheral vision. Inevitably, when he turned to look, the impression vanished.

The hospital entered into a long, busy period, and Jason no longer had much time for exploring. The collection room faded in importance, and for quite some time he ceased to think about it entirely.

III

He remembered the taste of blood in his mouth, but not how it had gotten there.

"Freeze!" someone yelled from behind him, "Keep your hands where I can see them!"

Jason stood beneath a vast oak tree, in a small park by the riverside. Gravel paths looped around the edges of his vision, and the river was a vast misty presence away to his right. Though it was a familiar place to him, the park felt strange and new in the murky predawn light. He did not remember how he had come to be there.

Still uncertain, he turned to face the shouter. Wet ground squelched beneath his feet as he did so. He saw the dark blue uniform, its buttons and badge leaden in the gray light. He saw the policeman's sweating face, eyes twitching rapidly between Jason and something at his feet. He saw the blunt black gun, shaking slightly though it was gripped in both of the man's hands, pointed at him.

Carefully, he brought his hands up until they were level with his head, and showed his palms to the man. "What seems to be the trouble, officer?" he said. A tiny voice inside him cackled hysterically at the canned banality of these words. Jason noticed again the coppery flavor that coated his mouth. His peripheral vision caught something odd about his hands; he turned his eyes slowly to the left and then to the right, and saw that both were slicked with something wet and red.

"Just...just stay right there," was the policeman's only response. He let one hand drop from the gun to his belt, where it fumbled for a hand radio. Without looking away from Jason, he brought this to his mouth and began speaking into it in an abbreviated jargon.

Jason's confusion was starting to give way to fear. His legs shook. There was a vast blackness in his memory, leading up to the moment of the officer's first shout. This hole was not empty, but filled by a terrible presence. The presence bid him look down, and he did, and beheld what was left of a human being.




Sheer gruesome fascination with his case gave the local papers material for weeks. For most of that time, Jason himself was in jail, so he caught only glimpses of the story. Furthermore, his mind was elsewhere. The gap in his memory was like a loose tooth; he couldn't help but probe it, though he discovered nothing new.

The police questioned him, and he answered as best he could, which wasn't very well. A lawyer arrived, and told him to cease answering the police. This wasn't a public defender, either; the fact that he worked at a hospital, of all places, had already been latched onto by the media. No doubt the directors were eager to see the case resolved as quietly and quickly as possible. In any case, the lawyer had his own questions, which Jason was equally unable to answer clearly.

The memories he couldn't find in daylight taunted him in the night. For all of those weeks, he tossed and turned on his hard cot in the grip of nightmares. He was never able to recall these in any detail, but fragments would remain with him in the morning. Occasionally he was running hunted, by something nameless and shapeless that was nonetheless very close by. More often Jason himself was the hunter, but not of his own volition; something else drove him forward, and wielded his body like a knife. The worst dreams were those of the void in his memory: he drifted, utterly alone, in freezing darkness. Claw and struggle as he might, every ounce of life and identity was drawn from him, until he was naught but an empty sack of skin, the void outside him matched by the hollowness within.

Jason could no longer remember how long they held him before the trial; he moved in daze, no more than half alive. He couldn't imagine that it had been very long; he had been found standing over the body (James Clark, they said, did you know him?), the blood on his hands still warm. He had no doubt that his body had done this thing, but he couldn't believe that it had been guided by his own mind.

As it turned out, his lawyer agreed. 'Not guilty by reason of insanity' they called it, though Jason certainly felt guilt enough when his stunned brain could grasp what he had done. He spent far too many hours staring at his hands in those days, tracing muscle and vein with his gaze, and trying to find the place where they had stopped obeying his brain. For certainly he couldn't have wanted this, couldn't have wanted Mr. Clark dead and, and gnawed. Certainly not. Certainly not.

The taste in his mouth said otherwise.




The trial itself began. Jason sat in the courtroom, surrounded by rich wood paneling, and listened to the lawyers make their statements. It was a peculiarly roundabout way of talking, each word chosen deliberately and placed just so amidst the crazed mass of precedent. To Jason, who knew of the law only in its simplified, everyday form, it hinted at meaning but did not actually express it.

He watched the prosecutor as she spoke. Her words were carefully directed at the jury alone, as if the handful of spectators, the court officials, and the defense table alike did not exist. She spoke calmly, laying out the facts of the case. The principles: James Clark, known to keep a morning jogging routine; Jason Fleischer, the accused, surgical intern at St. Luke's; Dan Gleimens, patrolman, the first to arrive on the crime scene. The unreliability of eyewitnesses was admitted, and countered in almost the same sentence with the possession of DNA, photographic, and dental evidence. She finished her opening statements; as she returned to her seat, her eyes briefly met Jason's, then turned away.

She doesn't hate me, he realized, and a heaviness he hadn't known he carried lifted from his chest, To her this is just a role, one case out of hundreds. Me, the person of Jason Fleischer, means nothing to her.

His own lawyer stood to make the defense's case. In their private conferences, it had been made clear to Jason that the man did not like him. Nor did he dislike his client, exactly; it was more complicated than that. He seemed to regard Jason as some kind of wild animal: potentially dangerous, potentially not, but not something that was part of society. He had been sympathetic, but unrelenting in his questions. Jason's incoherent report and blank memories had not satisfied him.

The lawyer spoke carefully, implying that Jason was ill and needed help, while at the same time managing to not actually admit that his client and done any wrong. He spoke of the well-known stress undergone by medical interns, and of his client's clearly damaged memory. Jason's attention soon drifted; he had been told, in no uncertain terms, that the absolute worst thing for him to do at his trial was to speak up himself. He would be called as a witness later, but even then he would be practically reciting answers from a script. He wondered fuzzily if the outcome were as predetermined as the steps of the trial itself.

During a recess, he watched the jury file out, followed by those few people who had been permitted to stay in the courtroom and watch for one reason or another. One of these latter was Mrs. Clark, supported on the arm of a younger man (who bore a faint resemblance to the photos Jason had seen of Mr. Clark). The widow was red-faced and haggard; she had not cried during the trial, but it was clear that this was only through sheer will. The young man's eyes met Jason's, and were pulled away just as quickly. Not quickly enough, however, to hide the fear and disgust that welled up in them.

Looking back, Jason realized that the Clark's son, or nephew, or whatever he was, had to have been several years older than he himself. He didn't know why he thought of the man as 'young', exactly.

He caught a glimpse, out the open door of the courtroom (he was not allowed to leave without an escort, and even then only for the strictest necessities) of a little circle of these assorted doctors. One in particular he kept returning to, trying to figure out why the man was familiar: a man with thinning gray hair but an indeterminately-aged face, wearing glasses framed in gold wire, dressed in a dark blue suit. The group passed out of his sight before he could place him, exactly, but Jason was sure both that he was not one of St. Luke's resident doctors, and that he had seen the man there several times.

The trial dragged on, lumbering through the steps so carefully planned and agreed-upon by the attorneys. Jason, worn thin by the continuing nightmares, barely heard a word that was said. Witnesses were called, and questioned; these included a few faces Jason knew from the hospital, as well as many he didn't know. Coroners and forensic scientists presented the prosecution's evidence: fingerprints from Mr. Clark's clothing, DNA from the blood on Jason's hands and face, dental imprints taken from the flesh of the deceased. The outcome was not, to Jason at least, ever really in doubt.




There would be counseling, they told Jason, and medication if necessary. Every humane effort would be made to see that he became able to rejoin society. He recalled his parents weeping, hugging him, before a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder guided him away. He was taken to a small room with cloth-padded walls, no longer quite white. There was a window high up, through which the sun would occasionally make striped patterns on the wall that were just within his reach.

The counselors asked him questions, some about the days leading up to the killing of Mr. Clark, some about his life at the hospital or in years previous. Jason answered as best he could; he had found that it was easier, all in all, to just let these things happen to him. Trying to understand what he had become was what brought the nightmares.

He lost weight, to the concern of those who watched him; the food they provided was not excellent, but it should not leave him so apparently malnourished. Sometimes, he would wake surrounded by concerned faces, and be told that he had howled and raved in the night. Sometimes they would just talk, but more and more often he was drugged until he could sleep once again. The drugs left everything hazy and uncertain; his white room with its single beam of sun became a mass of cloud upon which Jason Fleischer drifted away.

And then the nightmares would begin again, as something clawed him back to himself. Though it flinched from that beam of sun, it told him it was not finished with the world outside. It spoke to Jason in the voice of his innermost thoughts, and it told him that the hunger he now felt had already been satisfied once. It would be satisfied again, and this would be good. When he was not drugged, this was when he woke screaming, and sat sweating in the lightless room until the dawn. When the drugs took hold, however, this escape was denied him, and the voiceless voice continued in visceral, excruciating detail.

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