The pain didn’t stop for three days and even then it only faded, never really going away completely. Instead, it became a background hum, like static playing on a television in the next room. None-the-less it took three days for it to get to that point, when at least I could manage it. Those three days were the worst days of my life.
Imagine, if you will, your intestines being slowly squeezed, like a clown making balloon animals it felt like like my intestines were some obscene plaything, being twisted and turned and bent into all kinds of shapes they were never designed to accommodate. It felt like I’d been eating a strict diet of wasps and broken glass, washing it down daily with cups of rust and vinegar. I’d like to say I was exaggerating, but really words can only barely describe the depths of the agony I felt.
It had all started out of the blue several months ago. What I had assumed was a basic infection, bringing with it panicked rushes to the toilet, turned out to last for over a week. It subsided after a time and I thought nothing of it, after all everyone gets sick now and again, but then without warning it came back, exactly as it had before, two week later. This pattern of on/off, on/off continued for almost two months before I went to see a doctor.
Yes, I know, I’m an idiot, what was I thinking? Here I am with persistent bowel problems and I waited two whole months? I must admit I was surprised myself, but I’ve never been prone to worrying, I’m far too easy going, even for my own good. I was convinced that each time would be the last, that it would sort itself out. I didn’t want to make a fuss.
The doctors dismissed it as nothing and prescribed me some medicine to cope with the symptoms and for a while, I was fine. The illness was still there, I could feel it grinding away in my stomach, like a millstone slowly grinding wheat into flour, but at least the toilet was no longer my favourite room. Then the pain started. The pain was only slight at first, the odd ache in the gut, the occasional shock as the feeling of a red hot wire being pulled through my liver came and went in an instant too fast to properly notice. It used to come and go with my trips to the toilet and I went to the doctor again, knowing that I couldn’t afford to keep paying for medicine to avoid the symptoms of a disease I was sure I still had, not to mention these new pains of mine.
Again, I was written off, some were samples taken (and let me a tell you, it is possibly the most embarrassing thing ever to walk down the high street to the doctor’s surgery knowing you have several little bottles of your own poop in your bag) and told I might have IBS. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Well, my bowel _were_ irritable, that was true, so who was I to argue. I took my new meds and for a time, things seemed a little better.
Then, almost a month and a half later, the pain came back with a vengeance. It was almost like the symptoms had retreated only to regroup and get reinforcements. They stormed the chemical walls of my medicinal strongholds and laid waste to my guts with cold and ruthless efficiency. I was in agony, so much so I ended up in hospital. Three days of pure agony, three days of being barely conscious while I was poked and prodded, x-rayed and examined while being pumped full of that wonderful drug morphine. They say some people get high off of morphine, that they reach a state of euphoria. I didn’t. I just felt tired, tired and heavy, like I was weighed down with lead weights. Quite frankly, I don’t think I had the energy to be happy, let alone euphoric at that point.
When you’ve been suffering an illness this long, you almost get used to it. You find it hard to really measure the pain, because it’s always there. What to some people is unimaginable, you think of as an every day random ache. It changes you, it wears you down. Before long, you stop caring about anything, you can’t even remember what it was like not to feel pain. You become tired, defeated. You just want to give up.
If you’re lucky, you get the chance to do just that. Give in and let the disease whisk you away to that blissful land of eternal sleep. If you’re like me however, you get recruited.
I was laid back in bed at the time. The doctors had sent me home, still clueless as to what was happening. They were pretty sure it wasn’t appendicitis, pretty sure it wasn’t cancer. In fact, they were fairly sure it wasn’t a lot of things but as for what is actually _was,_ well, they still had no ideas. Instead they’d given me some extra strong meds and sent me home, told me to rest up. I was starting to get a little stressed out. I’d been off work now for two whole weeks and while I didn’t mind the time off, there was work that needed to be done, that I wanted to do, but I was in no fit state to do it. Computer programming is hard when you’re drowsy all the time, even harder when every time you try to concentrate on something you get interrupted by a shudder of pain. Laying there, miserable and wishing it would just end, or that at least time would speed up so I could get my next test - something more invasive and hopefully more informative for the as of yet clueless doctors - when the doorbell rang. I laid there for a moment, half in a daze, hoping someone else would answer it but of course, I was alone. The bell rang again.
“Hold up. I’m coming.” I groaned as loudly as my tender diaphragm would allow and hauled myself out of bed.
I stumbled out of the bedroom, grabbing my dressing gown off of the bedroom door hook and wrapping it around myself to conceal my nakedness. Gripping my stomach, I undid the latch and opened the door a sliver.
There were two people on the other side. One, a tall yet stocky man, someone who would not look out of place on world class rugby team, dressed in a smart, black business suit. He had a face like a bulldog’s arse, I thought, and a military grade buzz cut that did nothing to soften the look. Accompanying him was a woman, short, red hair and an odd expression on her face, what was it? Anticipation? I looked down and saw the clipboard in her hands and groaned.
“Whatever it is, I don’t want it.” I said, before they could answer and went to push to door closed when a boot jammed open the door.
“Wait, Mr. Mills? Mr Andrew Mills?”
I looked up angrily at the man the foot belonged to but could see no reaction through his dark glasses. The woman, an eager smile on her face that gave away the fact she was on the younger side of twenty, ducked into view.
“Mr. Mills, this is important, it’s about your condition. May we come in?”
My condition? Seemed odd that now of all times I’d get an unexpected home visit, but given I’d been messed around and all for nothing so far, I welcomed it. Still their appearance was strange and the man in black didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.
“Could I see some identification, please?”
“Oh sure.” The woman chirped and pulled out an identity card from a lanyard that had hung down between her cleavage. Dr. Alison Paige, Phd. Thistledown Research Institute. Research Associate.
“And err, him?” I could literally feel his eyes rolling behind his glasses as he pulled out a similar card.
Peter Grimwood. Thistledown Research Institute. Security.
I swallowed and handed back the card.
“Could we come in?” The doctor smiled.
I sighed and slid back the chain.
I led them both into the living room. The place was a bit of a mess but it’s not like they were guests, they’d shown up unannounced, they could live with it. I took the leather chair in the corner while the doctor and the big guy sat next to each other on the couch.
“So…” I said. “What is this about? I wasn’t expecting any visitors.”
My stomach grumbled in agreement and I grimaced as a lance of pain broke through the barrier of pain killers and shot through my guts. The leather sofa creaked as the big guy tensed up. Sympathy pains I guess.
“Andrew, I may call you Andrew, right?” I nodded my consent. “Good. Well Andrew me and my colleague here are from the Thistledown Research Institute and we were made aware of your predicament, we think we might be able to help you.”
“The hospital, they gave us you details.”
“Wait, what? Is that even legal?”
The doctor shot a worried look at the big guy, who cracked his knuckles.
“The Thistledown Institute has an… arrangement with your government. We take on special cases that the NHS can’t handle, at no charge to the patient I might add. As such, yes, it was legal in much the same way that another hospital may request your details from your GP.”
Okay, that made sense. “So, you can help? Do you know what this is?”
The doctors’s worried frown turned back into an eager grin. “Well, every case is unique Andrew, in that respect you are no different. We can’t pin down exactly what it is that is causing it, but if you are willing to come back with us to our facility, we can run some tests to determine that. Needless to say, problems of your kind are the very thing we specialise in and in all cases patients we’ve treated have gone on to live, healthy, productive lives. We have everything ready to receive you right now, if you’d like to come along with us.”
“Whoa, hang on a second, Doc. You want me to go with you now? Isn’t this all a bit sudden?”
The doctor laughed. “Unlike the NHS, we like to be as prompt as possible and due to the rarity of your particular condition, we aren’t swamped with patients, so there really is no need to wait when a case such as yours arises.”
“Please, call me Allison.”
“Okay, Allison, you keep calling it ‘my particular condition’. What exactly is it that I have?”
I was starting to get weirded out by all this. A lot of what she said made sense but there was something off about the whole thing. She looked down at her shoes and then back up into my eyes, all the cheeriness gone out of her face.
“I’m sorry to say Andrew, but you have an extremely rare form of cancer.”
The pain suddenly gripped me and I buckled over, gritting my teeth together in agony on my chair. The big guy stood up suddenly, leaped up in fact, his hand hovering by his waist.
“Cancer!?” I cried through gritted teeth. “But… but they said they were sure it wasn’t.”
“It’s a particularly rare form, so rare it’s undetectable by most modern equipment. However my team at the Institute and I specialise in this specific form and have developed a cure. We believe we can help you, Andrew.”
Unfolding myself back into a normal sitting position, I nodded at the big guy. “What’s his problem? A bit flinchy for a body guard isn’t he - that’s what he is, right? Just how important are you?”
Just then a car alarm went off. I wasn’t bothered, the stupid kids around my neighbourhood set them off all the time, playing football in the street but the bodyguard went ballistic, lunging to the window and looking outside.
“They found him already.” He grunted.
“Crap, this soon?” She got up and crouched down on her knees by my feet. “Okay Andrew, I didn’t want to have to do this, but it looks like we don’t have a choice.”
“What the hell are you talking about, it’s just kids? What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m sorry Andrew but it’s either us or it’s them, and you really don’t want it to be them. Peter, ETA?”
The big guy pulled back the curtain a sliver and peeped out. “Crap.”
The window suddenly burst inwards and a huge, brown tendril, glistening in the sun, coiled itself around the big guy’s leg lifting him up into the air and slamming him back down against the floor.
I nearly crapped myself, I thought I was dreaming. “What the hell is that!?” I screamed, turning towards the doctor in blind panic.
She pulled back the hem of her skirt to reveal a row of hypodermics attached to her leg in some kind of strap. She yanked one out and tested it.
“Okay Andrew. this is going to hurt just a bit.”
She slammed the syringe into my stomach and injected me with the contents. Pain suddenly erupted from within me like nothing before. I felt it rising out of me, like an explosion until it engulfed me. I felt like I was turning inside out, like the pain was feeling me rather than me feeling the pain. I found myself having an out of body experience. As I floated above my contorting body, twisted and racked with pain I felt beyond it, like it had passed through me and over me. Beyond me. I floated out of the shattered wall of my apartment and saw the thing that had grabbed Peter. It was a hideous monstrosity, a grey-brown mass of organic tissue, bulging and stretching, flesh bubbling out of it and forming new and crazy shapes seemingly at random. It should have driven me mad, but I felt nothing. I was totally disassociated, watching all these things happening with a sense of complete detachment. As the fleshy mass boiled, a wheelchair emerged from the main bulk, pushed out of he surface like a cold sore forming on the surface of a lip. Sat in it was the semblance of a person, their flesh as much a part of the creature as of itself. Two huge eyes formed and looked straight at me, not at my body in the apartment, but at me, floating up here above it all. They saw me and suddenly I felt afraid, I wanted it to go away, to leave me alone and I lashed out at it with all that I could muster of my ethereal form.
Suddenly the meat sack was hurled back, smashing into the opposite building by a soft, fleshy whip. Out my flat I saw my body rise, it’s guts hanging out impossibly huge and long, carrying my limp body like a set of spiders legs. It stepped out of the third floor flat, the intestines stretching down, thickening and bulking out to support my body at that height as the other creature picked itself up with tendrils of it’s own. I lashed out at the creature again before it could get up and a bundle of my intestines bunched themselves up into a fist and pounded the creature into the ground. Blood gushed everywhere, there was so much of it, it washed over cars, tipping them over like a huge, red tsunami. I felt the pain flaring again but somehow it didn’t hurt, it just was. I just wanted to end it and my crazy, warped body responded. My intestines swelled and bloated outwards like a huge balloon the size of a car and then burst, spraying the half-crushed creature with gooey ichor. The creature let out a gurgling scream as the ichor burned it, dissolving it’s flesh and the freakish, intestinal creature I had become let out a roar of triumph. I felt dizzy all of a sudden and then suddenly my body came rushing up to meet me.
“You took an unacceptable risk Ms. Paige!”
“Would you have preferred I let them get him?”
“Of course not, but there need to be restraints, proper training, without it you might very well have created another one. One is hard enough to cover up, two, impossible. We have procedures in place for a reason Paige.”
The voices drifted over me as I slowly came to. I couldn’t remember what had happened. Last thing I remembered I was in my flat and then suddenly darkness, had I been taken to hospital again? I slowly opened my eyes and looked around to see the sterile whites of a medical ward.
“He’s waking up. We’ll finish this later Ms. Paige. Debrief him.”
A woman, fuzzy in my blurred vision, walked into view. Short, red hair, I could swear I recognised her from somewhere.
“Where… where am I?” I croaked.
“Hello Andrew, I’m Dr. Allison Paige and you’re being cared for at the Thistledown Research Institute.”
“Why don’t you try and tell me. How much do you remember?”
I tried to think back but all I could remember was darkness and pain. I told her as much.
“Not surprising, you had another episode Andrew. Me and an associate of mine came to visit you a few hours ago with an offer of treatment for your condition. You had a particularly bad attack almost as soon as we arrived and so we rushed you here to our facility.”
“Treatment? You mean, like a cure?”
She hung her head. “I’m… I’m sorry Andrew but I’m afraid what you have is terminal and there is no cure.”
My guts churned. “I’m… going to die?” I swallowed, my throat dry, not wanting to believe it but needing to ask anyway. “How long do I have?”
“Well Andrew, that depends. Your condition is rapidly approaching it’s worst stages. Conservative estimates place your remaining active life at around two to four weeks.”
“However, with our treatment, we believe we can extend that time significantly. Perhaps even indefinitely.”
“Where do I sign up? I mean, what have I got to lose?”
I tried to sit up and realised I was restrained. “What the- what is this?”
“You became violent, you were having a seizure. We needed to sedate and restrain you for your own protection.”
“Christ. So where is the dotted line?”
“It’s not that easy I’m afraid, Andrew. What we’re offering you - there is no going back. We need you to agree to it fully, knowing full well what you are getting into. Anger, betrayal, even disbelief, these are all feelings we can’t afford for you to have so I’m going to be fully transparent with you. Before you make any decisions, we’ll take a tour of the facility and I’ll explain what we do here. Of course, I expect you to show me the same courtesy. Are you sure there is nothing you remember?”
I frowned up at the white ceiling tiles and wracked my brain. Fragments came back, something about cancer, fragments of dreams about guts bursting and bloating, too large to fit in my stomach.
“No, except, it’s cancer isn’t it? You said it was cancer.”
“Excellent, it’s all coming back I see. Yes, I did say it was cancer. Unfortunately I have to admit I wasn’t being entirely truthful with you. It isn’t cancer, not exactly, it’s, well, allow me to show you.”
She walked over and tapped a control panel on the bed and it tipped up, holding me upright. Looking around, down at my feet I could see the table was mounted on some kind of treads, like a tank. The restraints held me in place perfectly.
“Sorry I should have warned you. We have some of the most sophisticated medical technology in the world here at Thistledown. This robotic bed is just one example. You’re in no state to go walking around, so the bed will be escorting you.”
She swiped a key card through a slot by the door and the bed followed her out into the hallway. As I passed through the doorway, I noticed two guard holding nasty looking weapons.
“What’s with the guards?”
“From what, Godzilla?”
“From you.” At that I I didn’t even know how to respond. I was the prisoner of crazy people. “I’ll explain as the tour goes on.”
I was led, not that I had a choice, the bed moving alongside the doctor whether I wanted it or not, down a long white corridor. The place was austere, sterile and had a distinctly military vibe about it. Whatever this was, it wasn’t any ordinary hospital. I had visions of secret government experiments, being subjected to things against my will. The doctor’s voice snapped me out of my fears.
“At the moment we are in our isolation unit, you’ll see here on the left other patients like yourself that are awaiting treatment. Some have already gone through the preliminary procedures, see this one here. This patient, before our treatments couldn’t walk, he suffered from severe pain in the bones of his lower spinal column and hips that rendered him incapable of the simplest task. Now look at him.”
The bed tilted me around and I peered through the thick glass window into the bedchamber. There was a man inside in a simple white medical gown, punching and kicking at a punching bag like he was training to be some kind of fighter. The bed turned back towards the corridor and we continued.
“The particular conditions each patient has here are all unique They are the only ones in the world with their particular versions but they all same a common ancestry with a particular chemical compound and similar symptoms. Andrew, how familiar are you with the placebo effect?“
“What? The thing when you think you’ll get better so you do?”
“Essentially, yes. Well, the condition you’re suffering from has something similar. It’s been proven for a while that the exact opposite is true, that you can mentally cause yourself pain by just believing it’s there. In fact, the brain’s capacity for controlling the body is quite remarkable. Studies have been done on the placebo effect beyond merely pain, in studies on the effects of caffeine for example it’s been shown that merely believing that a drink was caffeinated had a measurable effect similar to that of drink one that actually was.”
I was angry, the pain flared up as if to prove her wrong. “So you’re saying I’m making it up, is that it? That it’s all in my head?”
“No, no, not at all. What I’m saying is that a similar process is going on inside you but shall we say, in reverse. You _are_ experiencing your symptoms, they are real. The problem in your case, and that of the other patients, is that the cause isn’t. There is no cause, other than that which you create to deal with it.”
My mind boggled. That didn’t make any sense. I told her as much as I grimaced on the bed.
“Quite but none-the-less that is the case. This is why you are dangerous, Mr. Mills. You affect a real, tangible change on reality as a result of your pain, you make there be a cause of it. For now, that cause is internal but what next? I’m sure you’ve imagined the pain you’ve felt as being caused by all sorts of horrific monstrocities, things clawing at your insides. Those things might very well become real with the right trigger and that’s why you’ve been contained here at the facility.”
I shook my head in disbelief, speechless. I was convinced I was going to die at the hands of some crazy medical cult. We passed through a doorway at the end of the hall and into a large room. Another doctor, I assumed by the lab coat, came up shaking his head.
“Allison, you’re not filling his head with that bollocks about your ‘reverse pain’ theory are you?”
“Alex! It’s not bollocks, its the most promising theory we have so far!”
“Pah! It’s not even a theory, not even a hypothesis, it’s conjecture at best, bloody pseudo-scientifical bull at the worst. You give science a bad name with that garbage.”
I felt worried and relieved at the same time and looked pleadingly at Alex for a way out.
“So, you’re the new boy are you? You gave us quite a show, not seen such a strong reaction to a trigger like that since, well, since never. Don’t you listen to Allison’s nonsense. The truth is, we have no bloody idea what causes it, but we do know how to control it once it’s there, so that’s something at least. I’m Doctor Alex Gunn by the way. Perhaps you’d like to watch a video?”
The doctor, Allison, grabbed Alex by the arm and spoke harshly into his ear. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You know the procedure - give them answers first, it calms the process. And a video? I haven’t even debriefed him yet! You could inadvertently trigger him!”
“Err, excuse me, I can hear you.” I said, grimacing. “What process? And what do you mean by trigger me?”
Allison slumped her head into her hands and Alex just winked. “Watch this, newbie. It’s a doozy.”
The bed followed him over to a workstation. The desk was covered with all sorts of scientific looking apparatus, though I had no idea what half of it was for. It looked pretty technical, whatever it was. He picked up a remote and pressed a button. The screen on his desk flickered to life and started playing a video. It took me a while but a eventually recognised the place as a top-down view of the area outside my flat.
“That was live satellite footage from the incident at your flat, watch the top right corner.”
I watched and after a few minutes something came into view. It was a tiny speck on the screen but if I squinted I could tell it was a man in a wheelchair, wheeling himself down the road. Alex elbowed me on the arm.
The man stopped in the middle of the road opposite the flat and then suddenly exploded. Wait, no, that wasn’t it, it wasn’t an explosion, more like an… inflation. It was as if he suddenly was enveloped by a huge, sticky, fleshy mass, like his liver just suddenly inflated to the size of a small house and enveloped him inside.
“What the hell is that?”
Alex didn’t answer but just kept on watching. The mass budded a long tentacle and slammed it into my flat. It wriggled around, as if hunting for something, like a hand reaching into a huge jar to try and pick up the last jelly bean when, almost faster than I could see, something pink shot out from the flat and slapped it across the yard into the block of flats opposite. The pink, squidgy arm stretched out, touching the ground and out of the flat, my flat, came a single figure suspended on the end of the arm like a ragdoll. More soft pink and brown tendrils emerged from beneath the figure, forming a weird, spider like gait with the man in the middle.
Alex paused it. “Smile kid, you’re on candid camera.”
The pain went wild and everything turned a whole new shade of crazy.
My stomach stretched and distended as the agony took hold and burst, spewing forth a thick black-brown slurry of human filth across the desk. My intestines poured out after them, whipping around and crushing everything they could coil around as I stared on in disbelief and horror, barely able to contain the sheer agony of what was happening to me.
“Oh crap!” Alex said, diving out of the way and narrowly avoiding being coated in the contents of my bowels, which impossibly, were still flowing out like the grossest items from an obscene version of Mary Poppin’s bag. The desk began to dissolve, letting off thick black smoke.
“Alex, you are a grade A idiot.” I could hear Allison yelling.
“Help me! What’s happening? Arrrrrgh!” I screamed, panic and pain competing for control of my senses.
“Quick, get a team down here. We need to neutralise the patient now. Over.” I heard Alex yell into a radio.
“Copy that. Over. A team is already on it’s way. Over.”
“Copy that. And tell Brain his new idea sucks! Over.”
As I watched my guts lashing out impossibly at the rapidly dissolving desk, still secured to the bed, I could hear Allison shouting.
“This was Brain’s idea? Why wasn’t I told? How could someone with a brain that size be so stupid!? Gah! Andrew! Andrew! If you can hear me, remember what I said about the placebo effect! Remember, the brain has more control over the body than you realise. You can stop this if you really want to. Just channel the pain, focus on it.”
My guts picked up the smoking remains of the desk and hurled it in the voiced direction.
“Just focus on it, imagine it receding, forming into a tight fist of pain in the centre of your stomach and then closing the door behind it. Visualise it.”
I closed my eyes and focused on the pain, imagining it as Allison described. I visualised my guts pulling inwards, wrapping themselves up into a ball, the pain following them, running down them like an electric current into a little ball at the centre of my stomach. I imagined the ball in a room, a generator pumping out arcs of electricity and I shut the door on it. I opened my eyes.
I realised the noise had stopped, no more sounds of smashing furniture and sickening, wet slaps of flesh on ceramic tiles. The smell was horrific, like the worst public bathroom in the world and then some. A team of 6 people burst in, all carrying flame-throwers and they rushed to surround me.
“Stand-down! Stand-down! It’s under control!” A voice yelled.
I strained to turn around but the bed still held my in place, facing the scene of destruction I had somehow unleashed. I felt something suddenly thud into my chest and looked down to see some kind of dart.
“Don’t worry, its morphine. We need to have a talk.” The voice said.
I began to feel drowsy, things started fading to black. I heard Allison’s voice as I fell into unconsciousness.
“You need to talk? We need to talk, mister! What the hell were you playing at Brain?”
“Mr. Mills? Mr. Mills? Wakey, wakey Mr. Mills.”
“Whuh?” I moaned, opening my eyes.
I was in another room, like the first ward I’d woken up in. I was still restrained, even more so this time, by entire body from the neck down encased in something akin to a metal egg.
“Ahh good, you are awake. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Paul, or you can call me Brain if you like. I’m the founder of the Thistledown Research Institute and your host.”
“What the hell is this place? What did you do to me? You can’t keep me here like this!” The pain swelled and the sharp sounds of something hitting against metal with extreme force emanated from the egg.
“Now, now, let me explain. I am sorry, it seems after all this time I still don’t always get it right. I honestly thought a blunt confrontation would be better with you, after some mild, gentler priming from Doctor Paige, which she performed admirably I might add, but alas it seems I miscalculated. Mr. Mills, we didn’t do anything to you, no-one did.”
“You’re lying! You have to be! I mean, what happened, it’s impossible, you must be doing some kind of experiments on me!”
The man rolled his eyes. As far as super-villains went he didn’t look all that scary. He was short, slightly fat but not overly so, ginger haired with thick, black-rimmed glasses. He looked like a stubby Gordon Freeman after a diet of too many burgers. To be honest, I had my doubts but what else could I believe in?
“It’s quite the opposite in fact Mr. Mills. Thistledown exists to stop such things from occurring. We don’t know why it happens, but every so often, seemingly at random, someone gets a random pain with no apparent cause. Eventually it gets worse, consuming them, turning them into little more than physical expressions of suffering, a human embodiment of reasons for that pain to exist. It’s like one side of an equation manifests itself and the universe, liking balance as it does, forces some poor person to become the other side of the equals sign. Inevitably, the person dies, people are fragile and all things must be reduced down to zero in the end.”
He sighed. “Mr. Mills, I’ve been researching this phenomenon for almost 17 months now. The first recorded case started exactly 17 months, 3 days and 15 hours ago. A Tuesday afternoon at 3:15. Ever since then, there have been more occurrences with increasing frequency. You are one of the lucky ones, we managed to find you before it was too late. The ones we don’t get to in time, well, you saw what happened at the flat. You saw that monster.”
“Mon-sters. I saw what I was. Allison did that, I remember now, she stuck me with some syringe!”
“Doctor Paige injected you with a compound we developed here at Thistledown that gives you a certain measure of control over the process. We call them triggers. People react differently to them but they all have one thing in common - they come back from it. Doctor Paige was hoping the trigger would allow you to control it, avoid becoming one of them when the horror of seeing that thing sent you panicking. I’m sure you can understand that there wasn’t much time for calibration. Seems you don’t react well with the Type A serum.”
“Say I even believe you, and that’s saying a whole lot, why am I even here?”
“Mr. Mills. You are going to die, that much is certain. Eventually, no matter what we do to prevent it, the pain will consume you and you will succumb. Your here because I need your help, the world needs your help. This phenomenon keeps happening and will keep happening and frankly the world does not have the resources to cope with it. You can’t fight these things with conventional weapons or medicine, we can’t let the public know what’s happening. Think about how people would react. Hospitals would become slaughterhouses as the sick and injured were killed in blind panics. We can only fight fire with fire, Andrew. We can keep you alive, stop you from turning but we need something in return. Will you join us Andrew? Will you fight?”
“This is insane! How can I even trust you?”
“Because,” Paul said, touching his fingers against his forehead and grimacing, “you are not the only one.”
Before my eyes, Paul’s face split open, his head bulging like an over-ripe fruit and grey brain matter poured out through the cracks, flooding down him in waves until he was hidden behind a barrier of pulsating brains. They pooled no the floor around him, expanding, growing until half the room was a spongy mass of brain. The smell of ozone filled the air as electricity, far stronger than any nerve ending had a right to deal with, crackled along the moist surface. A human jaw wove itself on the surface of the mass, followed my eyes and a nose.
“They call me Brain for a reason.” The face spoke. “17 months ago I had the mother of all migraines, no amount of drugs helped. No scans, to doctors, no-one could find a reason why the pains persisted. I was patient zero and it was only luck, if you can call it that, that I survived at all. More brains aren’t just for show, when I’m like this I’m smarter. I used my extra brain-mass to learn all I could, to find a solution. I’m still working on it, but it least I’ve found a way to hold things off, to save people like you and me from becoming nothing more than engines of destruction. They’re trying to stop me, the others, the ones that gave in. They can sense us, I don’t know how, I just need more time. Time to figure it all out. You can help us Andrew. You can help save the world and maybe, you can save yourself in the process.”
Of course, I agreed. I mean, what can you say to that when you get an offer like that from a giant brain? I was insane, everything about it but I’d seen it with my own two eyes, felt it in my guts, literally. I was going to die, that much was certain, so I might as well go out fighting alongside a bunch of other nutters crazy enough to go along with this nightmare.
They weren’t many. Out of all the terminals, that’s what they called us, only five including the new addition of myself worked for Thistledown, excluding Brain that didn’t go out in the field. I learnt there were different types, some more common than others.
In the team was Pietr, the man I had seen before with the punching bag. He was a Russian, paralysed from the waist down. The pain a phantom pain in the legs he could no longer feel. He’d been training here for almost a year and could control his pain-body abilities almost as well as Brain. He could walk again, using the pain to reanimate his legs. The most unsettling thing was the true extent of his powers. Being a phantom pain, his powers matched, he could create invisible legs, kicking out with impossibly long limbs of phantasmic force.
Johnny had a drug overdose a few years back that had nearly destroyed his liver. The pain had started there and never went away. His was one of the most common and I learned that the wheelchair guy that had attacked me at my flat had been the same type.
Carlos had been recruited just under a month before me and had a rare disorder that meant his muscle tissue turned randomly to bone, ossification I think it was called. His bones, both new and old ached. His type was unique, as far as Brain’s case files showed. He was still learning but already he had mastered forming a basic bony exoskeleton, which to me, newbie as a I was, was amazing and horrifying to behold.
Last of all, the only female on the team and the one I pitied most, was Jennifer. Some cruel fate had given her an unending labour, an eternal childbirth whose only offspring was suffering. Her abilities were both astounding and sickening, she could swallow things whole inside her bloated belly and form malformed, vicious homunculi to do her bidding, twisted mockeries of the children she’d never had. It had been a miscarriage and she’d almost lost it, almost gone over to the other side. She’d killed her husband, swallowed him up inside, an unimaginable unbirthing and he was gone forever. When Brain rescued her, Pietr helping back in his early days, they’d thought she wouldn’t make it but she’d shown a remarkable strength and a refusal to allow this to happen to anyone ever again. She dreamed sometimes, she heard the voice of her husband, somewhere inside her, like he never truly died but somehow became part of her, a ghost haunting her flesh.
I felt lucky. My type was one of the most common, though I was an unusually strong example, I learned. My condition was well understood, unlike Carlos for whom every day was a challenge and a new set of tests with Alex and Allison. I wasn’t allowed out on missions, I was too new, too green and so I stayed behind, training, being taught by Brain the true meaning of pain and how to control it, harness it and the powers that bizarre flavour of suffering gave me.
Learning to control it, I felt happy, I felt that I had a purpose again, that I had something to live for instead of waiting, even hoping for a swift death to relieve me from the pain.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last.