Bzrk, p.7
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       Bzrk, p.7

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
 

  Getting out of the hospital gown—it was a very nice hospital gown, but still something for an invalid—took a while. Finally she stepped into the water. Then slipped and fell in all at once.

  Unbelievable pain as her broken arm hit the side of the tub. The shock of hot, hot water on every square inch of her battered flesh.

  But then, slowly, the heat seeped down into her muscles, found the bruises and began to leach the clotted blood from them, soothed the twitchy nerve endings, and lulled her mind to a state that wasn’t quite sleep but was close to it.

  She heard a door open, but it seemed to come from far away. The voice, however, came from right next to the tub.

  “Sorry to intrude.”

  Sadie’s eyes widened to see a youngish man, maybe in his early twenties, but with a very serious mouth and emotionless brown eyes.

  “What the hell?” Sadie cried. She jerked too suddenly, and her arm bounced and sent shrieking pain up from elbow to shoulder. “Damnit! Get out of here!”

  “No,” he said. “Not yet. We need to have a conversation.”

  “A what? I don’t know you. Get out before security gets here and I have them beat the crap out of you.”

  The serious mouth very nearly twitched. As though it was thinking about a sort of smile, but not really planning to go through with it.

  For Sadie’s part, she refused to give in to an instinct to cover herself. That would have signaled vulnerability. And she might be naked, neck-deep in water, and half crippled, but she was nowhere close to seeing herself as vulnerable.

  “My name is Vincent.”

  “Well, good for you. Now fuck off.”

  “I’m a … a friend … of your father’s.”

  “So now you sneak in to get a good look at me naked?”

  Vincent drew back fractionally. He blinked. “Yes, you’re not wearing anything.” Like it was the first he’d noticed. And the concerned furrowing of his brow and the way he’d kind of jerked back almost made Sadie believe it was the truth.

  “What is it you want?” Sadie demanded.

  “Your father and brother did not die in an accident. They were murdered. You were targeted as well. They have not given up. You will either be killed or enslaved.”

  Sadie stared at him. For a good long minute. She was realizing how little the word murdered surprised her. No one had said it to her. No one had suggested it within her hearing. But in the day and a half since the crash no one had said anything like “engine failure,” or “bird strike,” or even “pilot error.”

  “There’s a robe,” she said, and jerked her chin to where a thick, heavy terry-cloth robe hung. Vincent fetched it, held it open, and then turned his face away.

  She climbed slowly, painfully, to her feet. Murder. Yes, that did not seem at all crazy. Her mother had taught her to listen to what wasn’t said. The holes in conversation were often the most interesting parts.

  Of course if she was in danger, maybe this guy was the one bringing it.

  Vincent kept his eyes averted until she had dragged the robe slowly, slowly and carefully over her broken arm and tied it with her good hand.

  Then, with a sudden fluid motion, Vincent had a pen in his hand and pressed it against her heart, just beneath the breastbone.

  Sadie froze. “What are you doing? Autographing me?”

  Vincent shook his head. “Making a point.” He drew the pen back, aimed it safely away, and squeezed it. A glittering blade shot up. “Making the point that if I were here to kill you, you’d be long dead by now.”

  Sadie breathed. More calmly than she had any right to do.

  “Let me guess: you’re here to save my life. How exactly are you going to do that?”

  “For a start, like this.” He touched her face and held the contact for a several seconds. There was nothing erotic in it.

  “So,” Sadie said flatly.

  Vincent nodded. “Like I said, I knew your father.”

  EIGHT

  The instructions Noah had been given included directions for getting to Selfridge’s department store. He already knew how to get to that place. Selfridge’s is on Oxford Street: it’s vast, it’s sleek, it’s very bright yellow, it’s full of things like designer bags and exotic cosmetics and oddly dressed mannequins. It glows and glitters and glistens.

  It was the sort of place that instantly made Noah feel small, shabby, self-conscious, awkward, shockingly unattractive, and possibly criminal. Everything was polished and clean—and that definitely included the employees, who did a creditable job of concealing their concern that such a creature as this grubby teenager should be in, actually physically in, their store.

  On the other hand, quite a number of those employees wore high heels and pencil skirts and taut blouses. So the environment wasn’t entirely without points of interest for Noah.

  He’d been instructed to go to the food department and buy a jar of sherbet pips, which cost a shocking five pounds, nearly all the money he had. Well, they’d make a gift for his mum, although she’d think him an idiot.

  He was to carry the sherbet pips in a bright yellow Selfridge’s bag to the cigar humidor, a walk-in sauna of sorts with hundreds of very expensive cigars on shelves and behind glass.

  This was ridiculous, and Noah very nearly decided to walk away. Of course first he would try to return the pips.

  But as he hovered indecisively outside the walk-in humidor a man—Indian or Pakistani by the look of him, with an extravagant mustache—gave him a look. A look. He ushered Noah into the humidor and said, “You enjoy a good cigar?”

  And Noah completed his instructions by saying the coded response, “I have your pips.”

  He handed the jar to the man, who looked at them and nodded and said, “Yes, I do.” The mustache stretched into a smile. “You were not followed,” the man said. Seeing Noah’s quizzical look, he added, “We of course have watched you on the CCTV cameras since you left your home, and then security cameras within the store.”

  He was lying. No question about that—whoever these people were, they weren’t that hooked in, no. They weren’t police or the sort of people who could just tap CCTV at will, or even the store cameras, most likely. If they had that kind of juice, they wouldn’t be doing this whole cloak-and-dagger thing.

  The man eyed Noah very closely, and his eyes crinkled when he saw Noah’s suspicion. “Good. You’re not a damned fool at least.”

  “And you don’t work here.”

  “Clever boy. Meet me on the street in five minutes.”

  It was cold outside, and dark compared to the store’s bright-yellow-and-chrome magnificence. It was only just noon, but the rain clouds were so low Noah could have reached up and touched them. The man materialized beside Noah and said, “Walk with me. You must not tell me your name, you have no name yet, but my name is Dr. Pound.”

  Noah did not believe that. Maybe Chaudhry, maybe Singh, maybe a lot of things, but the man’s accent did not flow from places where the last name of Pound was common.

  They had left Oxford Street and now skirted Cavendish Square, one of many small, contained, melancholy parks in London. The rain started up and the umbrellas bloomed, and for a while conversation was impossible.

  Then up Harley Street to one of the doors in one of the segments in the endless line of indistinguishable four-story townhomes.

  There was no lift, so Noah followed Dr. Pound up quite a number of steps to a brown, varnished wood door with no number or nameplate. Dr. Pound came out with the key, flourishing it and grinning as though this in itself was quite an accomplishment. Dr. Pound was missing two teeth together, the right canine and the one behind it. Something about the gumline spoke of a cause more traumatic than mere dentistry.

  “After you,” Dr. Pound said.

  Noah heard a Pfft! sound and felt a sting on the back of his neck. Then he decided it was time to lie down on the rug, time to lie down right there and then. He was conscious of the doctor’s hand grabbing the back of his shirt an
d softening the facedown landing.

  No time passed—well, none that Noah was aware of—before he woke. He was sitting in a chair. Not a comfortable chair, a very sturdily built chair that looked as if it had been bolted together out of 4 × 4 beams. Wide Velcro straps held Noah’s legs to the legs of the chair, and his arms to the arms of the chair, and his back to the back of the chair.

  It wouldn’t have held the Incredible Hulk, but after a few experimental muscle flexes Noah decided that it would do a pretty good job of keeping him pinned down.

  Both of his hands were encased in black gloves, and the gloves extruded a tangle of wires. Red, blue, green, white, black. Thin little wires that tumbled messily toward a panel that had simply been placed on the floor. It wasn’t exactly elegant.

  A cable ran from the panel to a Mac on a small card table.

  Two moderately large TV monitors were directly ahead at eye level. They showed nothing but a creepy sort of logo, like a mechanical insect, and the word BZRK.

  All of this had been recently moved into place. Sofa, easy chairs, and tables had been shoved aside. A rug had been rolled up. Noah was certain that this apartment had been temporarily appropriated. The owners no doubt off somewhere warmer and drier than London, entirely unaware of what was happening at home.

  “What the hell?” Noah said. His voice wasn’t slurred. In fact he felt perfectly alert. He’d gone from unconscious to conscious in record time, and he wondered if it had anything to do with the head band he was wearing. Wires seemed to be coming from it as well. They tickled the back of his neck.

  Dr. Pound appeared. “Awake then?”

  “What the fuck?” Noah said, feeling this called for something a bit stronger than a mere “hell.”

  “Sorry to have to render you unconscious, but I had to check you out at the nano level. Don’t worry, you appear to be clean,” Dr. Pound waved a dismissive hand. The hand was holding a lit cigar that trailed putrid smoke. He also appeared to have one of the sherbet pips in his mouth. It was pink.

  “From here on, this will only take fifteen minutes,” Pound said.

  “Get me out of here,” Noah said. But not like he thought it would happen. Not even like he really, really wanted it. Because he had volunteered to take some sort of test. And his brother had done it, hadn’t he?

  Unless this was all some sort of elaborate trick. He tested the Velcro strap around his right bicep. Yes, it was still there, and no, he was not the Hulk.

  “You will play a video game,” Dr. Pound said. “Two games, actually. One game on the left screen is controlled by your right hand. The one on the right by your left hand.”

  “Games.”

  “Games,” Dr. Pound agreed. “But you don’t play for points. Points are an abstraction. On the other hand, pain is real.”

  As he said this he let the hand holding the cigar drift down until, as if unaware, the cigar’s hot glowing tip was near Noah’s arm.

  “And fear of bodily injury, say the loss of a limb, is also very real.”

  Noah stared at his captor, looking for evidence in his liquid brown eyes that he was joking, exaggerating, fooling, or anything other than speaking the truth.

  “Do you know the poet Ezra Pound?” Dr. Pound asked.

  “What are you doing down there?” Noah asked, wishing his voice was not quite so obviously shaky.

  Dr. Pound had wheeled a cart into place beside Noah’s right leg. It wasn’t tall, just maybe eighteen inches high, and it looked like it might be an emergency generator. Except that someone had attached a chain saw to it.

  “Whoa. No, whoa. No, wait up.”

  Again, testing the Velcro. Again, not possessing superstrength. The Velcro gave up a few gritty Velcro sounds, but that was all.

  “Pound was considered perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth century.” The doctor locked the cart’s wheels and swung a bracket around to affix the machine to the chair leg in such a way that the glittering chain of the saw came to within a quarter inch of the back of the chair leg.

  “Okay, I’ve quite changed my mind,” Noah said.

  “But I’ve gone to all this trouble.” Pound winked up at him. “Unfortunately, Pound was also mentally disturbed. He was a rabid anti-Semite. And he was a supporter of Hitler.”

  Pound had gone around to Noah’s left. He picked up a wire, thicker than the others, a cable really, and ending in two small alligator clips. Pound applied one of the alligator clips to Noah’s earlobe.

  “Jesus!” Noah cried. “That bloody hurts!”

  “Yes, and it will hurt a lot more later. I’ll just apply the ground to your nose.” The second clip pinched Noah’s nostril.

  “All right then,” Pound said. “The sooner we start, the sooner we’re done.”

  “What am I supposed to do?” The clips hurt. The presence of a chain saw was terrifying. And Noah did not want to hear about insane Nazi poets.

  “Two games. One is the familiar first-person-shooter sort of game. The second is a different game, one that requires you to traverse a complex three-dimensional structure wherein you are represented by a cute little robot called Nano.”

  Noah’s eyes blazed at that word. His brother had babbled that word madly.

  Nano nano nano.

  This then was what had driven Alex mad.

  “This isn’t a game!” Noah cried, suddenly seeing the truth. “You’re going to do what you did to my brother!”

  Dr. Pound raised his eyebrows in a leer. “The funny thing about Ezra Pound? He did much of his best work in a mental institution. You have thirty seconds to learn the game,” Dr. Pound said, walking over to his laptop. “Then we will begin.”

  Both video monitors came on.

  On the right Noah was represented by a gun. Symbols on the right side of the screen. Weapons choices? The environment a London street. No, not London: the taxis were yellow. New York, maybe. Animations of pedestrians walked by, cabs and cars and trucks drove by.

  The graphics were impeccable. The sound was realistic.

  On the left screen, the scenery was inexplicable. He was represented by a spider. The spider was atop a wavy, corrugated surface beneath a sort of Dalí cathedral of soaring buttresses.

  When he flexed the left glove—no, no, they were crossed, that’s right. So right glove, left screen. When he flexed, the spider moved. And the gun. Hands crossed: he would need to remember that.

  Okay, a game. Focus on that. They hadn’t sawed Alex’s leg off. He was panicking for nothing, had to stay calm here; it was all part of that Chinese American dude’s test, all about that. So foc—

  “Aaaahhh!” The alligator clips sent a stab of unbelievably intense, immediate pain shooting from ear to nose. It convulsed that whole side of his face. His left eye filled with tears.

  “Just so you understand the stakes,” Dr. Pound said. “And now: game on!”

  A woman in the shooter game, just a housewife by the look of her, drew a knife and jabbed it straight for Noah’s face. He twisted the glove, causing his avatar to dodge, and flicked his right finger experimentally. His gun fired. The round hit a passing car, shattering its window.

  And suddenly, the unmistakable, ear-shattering noise of a chain saw. Real world. Not game.

  He shot a look down, and oh my God, it was spinning, and now the teeth were just grazing the wood of the chair leg, with splinters flying and sawdust cascading.

  The left! Three crudely mechanical robots, not so different from his own avatar, came rushing across the sphere, and that wasn’t as important as the way a cab’s window was rolling down and a gun appeared and Noah twisted his glove and fired and the shooter’s very, very realistic face suddenly had a neat round hole in its forehead.

  And the tiny buglike creatures in the other game, the left game, fired what looked like cute little beam weapons at—

  “Goddamnit!” The electric shock again and stronger this time.

  The little robots fired again and once more his face was convulsed, but now
he’d missed the big man who came rushing out of an alley with an axe and swinging it and his avatar crumpling and the chain saw shrieked as it bit into the chair leg.

  “Stop it!” Noah screamed, but he had no time for screaming because he had to propel his Nano avatar forward while stepping back from the axe coming down again and the little bugs spraying something at him and—

  “Jesus!” as the shock seemed to blow his consciousness apart while the chain saw screeched as it bit fully into solid oak, and he could feel the splinters and feel the wind coming off it.

  And then, the calm descended.

 
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