Glancing at the woman behind my head, he says, “One, two, three.”
They hoist me onto a gurney and lock padded restraints around my ankles and wrists.
“Only for your protection, Dr. Dessen.”
I watch the ceiling scroll past, forty or fifty feet above.
Where the hell am I? A hangar?
I catch a glint of memory—a needle puncturing my neck. I was injected with something. This is some crazy hallucination.
A radio squawks, “Extraction team, report. Over.”
The woman says with excitement bleeding through her voice, “We have Dessen. We’re en route. Over.”
I hear the squeak of wheels rolling.
“Copy that. Initial condition assessment? Over.”
She reaches down with a gloved hand and wakes some kind of monitoring device that’s been Velcroed to my left arm.
“Pulse rate: one-fifteen. BP: one-forty over ninety-two. Temp: ninety-eight-point-nine. Oh-two sat: ninety-five percent. Gamma: point-eight seven. ETA thirty seconds. Out.”
A buzzing sound startles me.
We move through a pair of vaultlike doors that are slowly opening.
Stay calm. This isn’t real.
The wheels squeak faster, more urgently.
We’re in a corridor lined with plastic, my eyes squinting against the onslaught of light from fluorescent bulbs shining overhead.
The doors behind us slam shut with an ominous clang, like the gates to a keep.
They wheel me into an operating room toward an imposing figure in a positive pressure suit, standing under an array of surgical lights.
He smiles down at me through his face shield and says, as if he knows me, “Welcome back, Jason. Congratulations. You did it.”
I can only see his eyes, but they don’t remind me of anyone I’ve ever met.
“Are you experiencing any pain?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Do you know how you got the cuts and bruises on your face?”
“Do you know who you are?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Do you recognize me?”
“I’m Leighton Vance, chief executive and medical officer. We’re colleagues and friends.” He holds up a pair of surgical shears. “I need to get you out of these clothes.”
He removes the monitoring device and goes to work on my jeans and boxer shorts, tossing them into a metal tray. As he cuts off my shirt, I gaze up at the lights burning down on me, trying not to panic.
But I’m naked and strapped to a gurney.
No, I remind myself, I’m hallucinating that I’m naked and strapped to a gurney. Because none of this is real.
Leighton lifts the tray holding my shoes and clothes and hands it to someone behind my head, outside my line of sight. “Test everything.”
Footsteps rush out of the room.
I note the sharp bite of isopropyl alcohol a second before Leighton cleans a swatch of skin on the underside of my arm.
He ties a tourniquet above my elbow.
“Just drawing some blood,” he says, taking a large-gauge hypodermic needle from the instrument tray.
He’s good. I don’t even feel the sting.
When he’s finished, Leighton rolls the gurney toward the far side of the OR to a glass door with a touchscreen mounted on the wall beside it.
“Wish I could tell you this is the fun part,” he says. “If you’re too disoriented to remember what’s about to happen, that’s probably for the best.”
I try to ask what’s happening, but words still elude me. Leighton’s fingers dance across the touchscreen. The glass door opens, and he pushes me into a chamber that’s just large enough to hold the gurney.
“Ninety seconds,” he says. “You’ll be fine. It never killed any of the test subjects.”
There’s a pneumatic hiss, and then the glass door glides shut.
Recessed lights in the ceiling glow a chilled blue.
I crane my neck.
The walls on either side of me are covered with elaborate apertures.
A fine, supercooled mist sprays out of the ceiling, coating me head to toe.
My body tenses, the frigid droplets beading on my skin and freezing solid.
As I shiver, the walls of the chamber begin to hum.
A white vapor trickles out of the apertures with a sustained hiss that grows louder and louder.
Opposing streams crash into each other over the gurney, filling the chamber with a dense fog that blots out the overhead light. Where it touches my skin, the frozen droplets explode in bursts of agony.
The fans reverse.
Within five seconds, the gas is sucked out of the chamber, which now holds a peculiar smell, like the air on a summer afternoon moments before a thunderstorm—dry lightning and ozone.
The reaction of the gas and the supercooled liquid on my skin has created a sizzling foam that burns like an acid bath.
I’m grunting, thrashing against the restraints and wondering how much longer this could possibly be allowed to go on. My threshold for pain is high, and this is straddling the line of make-it-stop or kill me.
My thoughts fire at the speed of light.
Is there even a drug capable of this? Creating hallucinations and pain at this level of horrifying clarity?
This is too intense, too real.
What if this is actually happening?
Is this some CIA shit? Am I in a black clinic in the throes of human experimentation? Have I been kidnapped by these people?
Glorious, warm water shoots out of the ceiling with the force of a fire hose, pummeling the excruciating foam away.
When the water shuts off, heated air roars out of the apertures, blasting my skin like a hot desert wind.
The pain vanishes.
The door behind me opens and the gurney rolls back out.
Leighton looks down at me. “Wasn’t so bad, right?” He pushes me through the OR into an adjoining patient room and unlocks the restraints around my ankles and wrists.
With a gloved hand, he pulls me up on the gurney, my head swimming, the room spinning for a moment before the world finally rights itself.
He observes me.
There’s a bed and a dresser with a change of clothes folded neatly on top. The walls are padded. There are no sharp edges. As I slide to the edge of the stretcher, Leighton takes hold of my arm above the elbow and helps me to stand.