“What are you doing!” he said. Even as he said it he knew it was a stupid question. He didn’t need the answer. He could see what they were doing. One of his junior colleagues turned, his face made lurid by a sheen of sweat, spots of hectic colour under his eyes. The doctor thought how repellent he looked, how unattractive was this panic, this inability to cope.
Two more of his team were clustered by the bed, their eyes darting between the patient and the monitors, their hands moving with frantic haste over the lines and valves.
The object of their attentions, the young woman, was violently trembling, racked by contortions that arched her spine and pushed her feet against the bedposts. Her lips were drawn back in a grimace that made the tendons on her neck stand up like strings about to snap. Her eyes were wide open, idiot eyes in which there seemed no speck of humanity, no sense or reason; no thought or intent, only hideous pain suffered moment by moment without release. Things, objects in the room, moved with her, rattled and quaked and drummed, as if in sympathy, yet nothing fell, nothing overturned or spilled. This had happened before, and everything was tied down or otherwise fixed in place.
Even so the doctor, as he approached, felt the floor under his feet shudder as if it was not solid, as if he walked across the tight-drawn skin of a drum reverberating under the onslaught of a fast and heavy beat. He clenched his teeth to stop them chattering and managed in time to lift his hands to his ears as the woman on the bed arched again and opened her mouth wide in a scream.
It was an almost useless gesture. His hands couldn’t block that shriek. It rose and swelled, carried by more than a voice.
One of the junior doctors at the bed slumped to the floor. The other stayed on her feet but she clutched her head, blood flowing in a thin stream from her nostrils to pool at her mouth like badly-applied lipstick.
The doctor, his vision reduced so much he felt distanced, as if he was watching everything from the bottom of a deep well, managed to gesture to her and make her understand. Blood dripping freely now, trickling down her chin and falling in crimson blooms on her white lab-coat, her hands were nonetheless steadier than his as she grasped for a valve switch. Together they counted, watching each others’ mouths move. He could see she was shouting, but could hear nothing from her. Nothing but the siren scream that held his mind, pressed on him so he felt his skull was about to burst apart. It worked on his eyes, that pressure. He wanted to close them, shut his eyelids against the danger of them being forced entirely out of their sockets. His ears too, it felt as if the tubes inside were being ruptured, turned inside-out, curling and writhing like molluscs sprinkled with salt.
He hoped he showed nothing of this, but his hands trembled and it took an effort of will to steady them. The sedatives rushed through the tubes. He could picture the clear liquid entering the patient’s bloodstream at a microscopic level, moving into the streams of red blood corpuscles carried by the fast beating of her heart. At the same time the field around her was re-established, functioning like a shield, isolating her.
The screams died away, and the sudden release of pressure would have made him stagger had he not leant against the cool metal frame of the bed. He aimed an angry kick at the prone figure beside him on the floor.
Moments later they stood in front of him, the three of them. The woman held a tissue to her nose and of her two male colleagues, one was still breathing heavily, obviously only standing upright by a superhuman effort, while the other sweated and stank and quivered like a child called in for discipline.
“Well?” the doctor said. He felt a momentary pleasure at their discomfort and chagrin but it was quickly banished by the thought of how he had himself felt when facing the Excellence. His pleasure and triumph became shame, guilt that bore him down and made him feel old suddenly, old and tired. He sighed. “Well?” he said again, more gently.
“I apologize,” the woman said. “It was my idea.”
“Beth, don’t,” the heavier of the two men said. “It was a collective decision.”
“We thought if we...”
They spoke together, competing and defeating each other in terms of clarity but the doctor thought he gathered what they’d tried to do. He held up a hand until the muddled explanations petered out and they subsided expectantly.
“In future, run any ideas by me first. Me, or Rees or Coulton. Keep monitoring as before.” He was too tired to punish them. Even if he’d wished to be rid of them there were no others to take their places. “Where are they? Rees and Coulton?”
“With subject Eleven.”
“And who’s with Eighteen?”
“Mr. Lund’s team.”
“Doctor? We heard...I mean, what about subject Twenty-three will they...?”
“Don’t worry about Twenty-three. He’ll be brought back.”
The doctor gave new instructions and then left them. If he didn’t lie down, if he didn’t eat something soon, he would collapse. He knew it. He dragged himself to his rooms somehow though his legs were almost too heavy to lift, lay down on the clean-smelling sheets without even kicking off his shoes. His last thought was of subject Twenty-three.
Subject Twenty-three, who would have been rejected for the earlier experiments for the borderline criminality and deliberate non-conformity made apparent by his test results. Subject Twenty-three, whose dark eyes had judged and condemned with the stubborn, unyielding rock of an untried, uneducated, but still alert intelligence. Subject Twenty-three, who was unpredictable and thoughtful and untrusting. Subject Twenty-three, who would not be easily caught. Thinking of the great Chief of Security baffled and struggling, the doctor smiled as he drifted into sleep.