Both of the young men awoke in a rather odd predicament. Edgar’s eyes opened first, scanning the room in one solid motion, feeling the soft of cotton sheets underneath him, and hearing a metal on metal clink. When his head finally turned to the other side, he saw Mick in the adjacent hospital bed, the medical grade blankets to his hips and his torso wrapped in bandages.
Mick looked and felt as if he was still coming out of that dazed state, trying to move his arm, but he couldn’t.
Edgar looked down, seeing the same thing that held Mick’s arm to the bed; a single, padded leather strap was attached firmly to his wrist, keeping his mobility limited to a few inches around the length of the chrome guard that the strap was affixed to.
Both of their beds faced a mostly blank wall, covered only by two equally spaced and waste high shrubs. A wide window, the shades half drawn but shading tightly what it did cover, was allowing a grayish sunlight to the left, and a heavy, wooden door stood ceiling to floor on the right. This room, much like the entrance to the hallway when the two young men had first stepped through, was as clean as anything you could expect from a normal hospital.
Edgar and Mick still couldn’t decide what was real for the time being. Considering they had both made explosive devices, blown Norman Eldridge, the black mass, to smithereens, then held him hostage after his unexpected regeneration by shoving one of the other devices in his only massive eye and tying the tripwire around the door for safe keeping, they both started to feel as though anything were possible.
Edgar had a thought. This is what Herald had told them would happen, really. The creator would be testing them with a series of randomized events. The thought broke from Edgar’s mind as the metal on metal clink, one that wasn’t his own, started again.
Mick was trying to forcibly move his arm, and Edgar, thinking that someone might hear them and seeing that both of their arms were affixed with several tubes bearing needles at the end, snapped his fingers and motioned Mick to stop. Mick did, although reluctantly, and Edgar, holding a finger to his lips, craned his neck to listen for footsteps.
“What the hell’s going on,” Mick whispered. Edgar was tapping his finger against his lips now, staring into oblivion to better focus his hearing, then he turned back to Mick. “We have to be quiet. When the doctor or whoever the hell comes in, we need them to think that we’re still asleep. Can’t do too much to them since we’re tied down,” Edgar said, holding up his leather bracelet.
Mick saw what Edgar meant, but was still hurting so much that he was on the verge of panicking. His ribs were stiff and it hurt to even breathe. “Have you found out where we are at least,” Mick moaned, clutching his chest.
“You’re both on level two,” a voice said casually in their ears. Mick and Edgar both stared around, trying to see who the voice belonged to. “Good job with Norman. I honestly thought the creator would have wanted you to kill him, but what you actually did was a lot more—-interesting,” the voice continued, speaking as though he was genuinely surprised.
“Is that Herald,” Mick whispered over to Edgar. Edgar looked back over in Mick’s direction, still scanning for the owner of the voice and nodded. “I think so,” Edgar said.
Both of the young men turned to the blank wall as Herald appeared through another purple, static-ridden portal and walked up to the beds, only this time he was dressed like a doctor, a white lab coat over teal scrubs and white sneakers. He kept one hand linked around the wrist of the other, holding a stiff stance as if he was about to deliver the news that they both had cancer.
“You boys did a number on level one. Simple stuff, really, but the creator even had a hell of a time deciding whether or not to label the table that you found all those nifty trinkets on Plot Devices. He really likes you two,” Herald said, sounding like a reporter giving a summation of what was going on as if he knew a thing or two.
“You could see us the whole time,” Edgar said a little louder than he had wished to. Herald stepped a bit closer putting his hands in his pockets, just like any doctor whose about to give you the business.
Herald stared at his shoes for a moment then back up to the both of them, trying to hold a humble smile, “Yes I could, but believe me when I say that that I was sincerely rooting for the both you.” Mick and Edgar glanced at each other before looking back at Herald, who seemed to be more upset about it the more anyone in the room spoke of it. “Why didn’t you help us,” Mick asked, suspicion and accusation had flooded his once panicked voice. He sounded like a lost child, beckoning questions he wouldn’t fully understand the answers to.
“I’m not allowed to,” Herald said thoughtfully. “I can only give you two a bit of encouragement along the way, but you should both know that I was rooting for you the whole time. My job is to watch from a distance and sort the new ideas that come in the creator’s mind. I can’t intervene past that. You two are the first real characters he’s ever wanted to see make it through an incredible journey. I’m just his assistant.”
Edgar could hear the honesty in is voice. Mick sat up a bit more, hearing it the same but not looking as satisfied. “What is the point of you being here then,” Mick groaned, still holding his ribs. Herald considered this for a moment, looking back down at his shoes. Edgar shot another glance over to Mick, but he wasn’t breaking his stare at the curator.
Edgar glanced back at Herald and said, “I understand Mick being as upset about this as he is, but maybe if you could just give us an idea of what’s going on here—-,”
Edgar paused to look around the room for a moment, thinking he had heard something but started to think better of it. “—-or at least what’s going to happen next in this place. The basement is a gutter, but this place looks like a normal hospital,” Edgar finished.
“I’m sorry about your ribs, Mick,” Herald said kindly, “but to answer you, Edgar, would be to plot what’s supposed to happen versus what could happen. It’d be far too easy a journey if you were given too much information. The creator doesn’t even like the idea of me talking to you right now; he thinks it’s breaking the fourth wall just a bit too much.”
“Maybe you should just go then,” Mick snarled. Edgar, not being able to punch him in the shoulder, shot him another glance. “He’s only trying to help,” Edgar said, speaking low now as if urging Mick to do the same.
“By doing what,” Mick said, speaking in a normal voice still. He lowered it, still being cautious, and looked around to make sure no one was coming. “He’s no better than a cheerleader at this point. Who knows what else is about to happen. We’re in this journey for ten levels, but what happens if we get to one that doesn’t end?”
Edgar considered this for a moment and looked back to Herald, who was still looking down at his shoes. Edgar had his own doubts, but hadn’t thought about something like this before. “Herald—,” Edgar started.
“No,” Herald said in a low voice, “Mick’s right. The contract states that both of you must complete this journey. Afterwards, you can decide whether to renew your contracts or go back to your normal lives. No more and no less. That’s the only obligation that pushing the red button holds.”
Edgar and Mick both paused; Herald was looking back and forth at the both of them. He wore a a morose look but wiped it immediately, trying to look as if nothing was wrong, “Well, I’ll leave the two of you to it. Good luck.”
“Wait–,” Edgar said, but Herald had already conjured another portal and disappeared through it. Mick was still holding a gaze that was less than friendly.
“You didn’t have to be an asshole about it,” Edgar said.
“You didn’t get your ribs crushed by a giant pile of sewage back there,” Mick said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Edgar was going to say something else, but cut his eyes to the door, hearing voices honing in and put his finger to his lips instead. When he turned back Mick was already playing comatose; Edgar quickly did the same as the door handle gave. Two sets of footsteps were grew louder towards the bed as the doctors’ conversation became audible.
“When do you think Eisenhower is going to announce the release of the new labs,” one of the doctors said in a smooth voice.
“Probably as soon as he releases the test subject results from the main labs from last quarter,” said a much grittier voice. “Last month’s explosion shouldn’t have affected the results themselves, especially not to have’em withheld for such a long time.”
Edgar could hear them plainly and wanted to see their faces, but he didn’t dare open his eyes. ‘It’d give away too much of an advantage,’ he thought to himself.
Edgar heard the doctor with the smooth voice continue speaking as he walked to Mick’s bedside, fondling the tubes and tapping a chrome guard. “This one’s doing better since we found them; but really D’mor, you shouldn’t joke about that explosion.”
Mick could hear the voice changing direction, as if the doctor with the smooth voice was now looking at his colleague in distaste. “It nearly killed a dozen people— scientists and other subjects we knew— God knows what would have happened if the boy would’ve set it off in a crowded area,” the smooth voice said.
“I know you’re new here Joe, but you really need to reconsider this line of work if you’re going to being ragging about compassion all the time,” the doctor called D’mor said. “This is a place that gets work done. We don’t pretend to cure patients by simply bandaging a problem—we fix it,” D’mor continue coldly, scribbling something down on what sounded like paper on a clipboard.
The doctor with the softer voice, D’mor had called him Joe, made his way over to Edgar, checking his tubes and putting two icy fingers to the artery in his neck. Edgar thought to himself that he must’ve been able to go numb in that area for a moment; the icy fingers made him desperately want to flinch. “This ones BP is normal now. Where did you say you found these guys,” Joe asked.
Mick heard D’mor scribbling something down on the sheet of paper before saying “North entryway. Both of’em looked like they had just been through hell. Lacerations in the torso region, bleeding from the ears, nose, and mouth, and both of them suffered a pretty nasty concussion according to what Rodgers had found. This one had several broken ribs.” Hearing his voice carry in that direction, Edgar imagined D’mor pointing his writing utensil at Mick.
“We don’t really know where they came from. Just popped up really,” D’mor continued. He started scribbling something down again when Joe asked, “But what are we going to do with them?” D’mor stopped writing and Edgar perked his ears as much as he could without feeling himself move.
“What we do,” said D’mor slowly, “is get them back on their feet, you and I let the scientists figure the rest of it out, and then none of us ask any more questions.” It sounded to Mick and Edgar both that Dr. D’mor’s voice easily towered over Dr. Joe’s, but the both of them couldn’t help but sensing that D’mor may have been shorter than Joe by its placement
Edgar could hear the lighter footsteps moving towards the door, turning the knob before Joe, voice still coming from beside Mick’s head, asked, “You don’t think the heads upstairs will want their first releases? It could be good for publicity considering they’d be the first patients out in over thirty years, right? At least that’s what I’ve heard about this department.”
There was a pause, and then the door shut rather hard. “Alright Joe, so you’ve heard of few of the childish rumors about this place and what goes on around here, but now hear this: they’re all only rumors. You shouldn’t believe the ones you hear, especially the outlandish ones like thinking we need publicity for the things we do here. Secondly, and I’ll say this only once,” D’mor said slowly, “once you come to the ward, there’s no going back.”
The door opened briskly to a few passing murmurs in the hallways, (‘Not too busy,’ Edgar thought), and had a pronounced close. Dr. Joe was still present, but only for a brief time; he gave a scratching sound that was probably the back of his head, let out a sigh, and walked out of the room.
As soon as the door had shut, Edgar and Mick both opened their eyes to the sight of the empty room as if nothing had happened at all.
Mick looked over to Edgar, “You think they knew we were awake?”
Edgar held his finger to his lips again, waiting in case either of the two men decided to walk in again. He relaxed, “no, or they would have said something, surely.”
“What explosion do you think they’re talking about,” Mick asked. Edgar shifted in his bed to sit upright, looking out the window. All at once, without much warning at all, the gray light shining through the window grew even darker; it began to rain.
Edgar looked back at Mick. “I don’t think it has anything to do with us,” Edgar said. “I think we’re before anything really bad happened here.”
Mick looked perplexed, but thought to himself that after the events of the last few weeks, and, of course, the monster they had ran into, anything was possible. He peered, more intently this time, back over to Edgar. “I’ll tell’ya what I think,” he said, ” I think we need to find out what we need to get past level ten and get the hell out of this place, and what do you mean in the past? We wouldn’t have time traveled.”
“We would have if the creator was trying to pull a fast one, but for now we need to keep an eye out for those two,” Edgar said, concern in his voice. “You heard what the guy with the attitude said.”
“D’mor, right,” Mick asked, sitting up for himself. Edgar nodded. “But what about these subjects? What if they’re like Norman and are being changed,” Mick asked.
“I don’t know about that one just yet,” Edgar said. “First, let’s focus on getting you mobile. How bad does it hurt?”
Mick shifted on his bed for a moment. “It stings like a mother; I don’t know what to do man, I’ve never had ribs broken before.” Mick shifted a bit more. “I think I can make it through,” he said, then quickly fell back to the bed.
Edgar hissed, “Shhhh, don’t do anything stupid or you’ll end up puncturing something that can’t be fixed.” His voice squared itself once Mick had calmed down just a bit. “Herald never said anything about us having an infinite amount of lives to work with, either,” Edgar said in a loud whisper.
“What difference does that make,” Mick said under what looks like several different kinds of pain. Edgar looked perplexed this time but brushed it off, leaning his head in closer. “We have to assume that you only have a single life in this world, same goes for me, too. We have to play it safe and follow the rules as we see them coming,” Edgar said, working it out to himself as well as his friend.
“The creator is testing us, that we know for sure, but what the creator can also do is throw us for a loop to shake things up a bit,” Edgar continued, pulling the curtain aside and revealing the operator’s control panel. “We have to focus on finishing the story above all else. There’s no escaping unless we play by the rules.”
Mick, color leaving his face and looking as though he could spit fire and pass out within the same second, held his anger. He lay back on the hospital pillow and started a few laboring breaths to calm himself down. Edgar relaxed himself as well, still keeping an eye on Mick.
“Do you think we should’ve pushed that button,” Mick asked, staring at the ceiling and sounding as though he were on the edge of giving up all hope. Edgar had thought of this before, but the thought hadn’t seemed to show its face until now.
“I—I don’t know,” Edgar said, thoughtfully. “What I know now is that we have to stick together on this one. I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to see that spooky old house of yours again,” he said, giving a thoughtful smile.
Mick was breathing heavy now. “Yeah—the old man— had a thing for—antiques,” Mick said, lapping his lips as if they had gone dry. Edgar could see that Mick’s face lacked any color at all now. Perspiration was thick enough on his forehead that Edgar could see it from his own bed.
“Mick?” Edgar asked, sounding as if he was checking the room to make sure his friend was still existent, even though he was right in front of him. Mick had started to look as if he wouldn’t be existent for very long though; Edgar could only guess that he wasn’t far from reaching unconsciousness.
Edgar grabbed his leather cuff with the other hand that hadn’t been bound and started pulling furiously on it. “Mick—-MICK,” He said in a quick, but loud blurt, still looking around to make sure no one was coming. With the constant static from the rain, he wouldn’t have been able to tell if someone were coming or not anyway. ‘—But maybe they won’t hear me either,’ he thought.
Mick blubbered a few words before beginning to drool. Edgar, hearing the rain more prominently now, began kicking his heels to the chrome guard on the bed, writhing and bucking like a wild horse. “Mick——MICK,” he yelled between kicks, “WAKE UP YOU ASSHOLE!”
The chrome guard was starting to give, and Mick looked as if he was starting to convulse. Edgar started kicking less accurately; he felt one of his ankles start to give, but hadn’t thought much else about it until it gave an audible crunching sound.
He pulled his leg back, not to kick again, but to examine his foot. It didn’t take but a few seconds for his ankle to swell to the size of a tennis ball. He felt that it was already beginning to get feverish to the touch.
Looking back to Mick and seeing that his condition looked much worse, Edgar had one last option. ‘Time to fight or freeze,’ a voice said, trickling the options delicately across his mind. Edgar figured his brain knew that his instinct had made decision-making skills hair-triggered because a light sprinkle was all it took.
Edgar took his good foot, the other was now tightly swollen, hot to the touch, and was just now starting to tingle with numbness, and kicked the chrome bar one more solid time, sending more shots of pain up his leg. He paused just long enough to make sure he would be able to at least hobble. He felt his cuff give as the chrome guard clanked to the floor.
Holding this foot close, he felt the pain, but it was very little in presence. ‘I can live with a small sprain,’ he thought and hopped off the bed. As soon as he did the heavy door swung open and three men began to pour into the room. They had all been dressed like Herald, teal scrubs, white lab coats, and white sneakers.
Edgar saw them immediately and began hopping on his good ankle over to Mick, who had started foaming at the mouth, but he fell short, hitting his forearm hard across the chrome bar.
Being unbalanced hadn’t been his most favorable position in the past, but the pain in his arm started to easily match the pain in his ankle. He stayed his movements when he finally hit the floor. He sat stolidly, holding his forearm and wincing in more pain than he had ever felt in his twenty-three years. He was starting to believe the creator was having a time with this, thinking it couldn’t have possibly gotten any worse.
Edgar watched as two of the doctors went to Mick’s aid; The third began to help him up. He was a gruff man, who looked as though he could be a solid six foot tall. All of the hair on his head was at a buzzed length, and felt like he had the strength of an ox when hoisting Edgar up and back onto his bed. He didn’t complete this task with any amount of bedside manner.
“Tell Cyrus to get another Bed in hear and make sure it’s a secure one,” the doctor said. His voice was gritty, and Edgar could feel it was not friendly, but commanding. It was Doctor D’mor.
Edgar decided to finally speak up, the pain being cut so fresh earlier that he could hardly remember how to breathe, much less form a full sentence. D’mor had started messing with something on the floor. “Doctor, my friend needs help,” Edgar said, not wanting to let D’mor in on the fact that Edgar knew who he was.
D’mor popped his head back up and looked at Edgar, giving a grin that chilled Edgar to the bone. “Joe, you hear this,” D’mor said. Edgar looked up to see a burly man with a much more defined face look back from Mick’s bed; he was holding Mick down at the shoulders.
Joe was starting to look a bit angry, looking from Edgar to D’mor, “Take care of him already so you can help us,” Joe said in protest, looking back at Mick.
Edgar’s head went from D’mor to Joe, and back to D’mor. “Gladly,” D’mor said, seeming to spit venom as he spoke.
“Help my friend,” Edgar screamed, starting to understand what Mick’s panic must have felt like in all that pain.
“Oh, I’ll help him,” D’mor said, “just as soon as I do what doctor goody-two-shoes says. After all, it’s a doctor’s job to take care of you, young’n.”
Edgar couldn’t believe the cynicism in the man’s voice. What he did believe, what had finally dawned on him and pronounced itself was the gravity of the situation.
D’mor re-wrapped the cuff on Edgar’s other arm, while having a knee on the one Edgar had recently believed to be broken. Streaks of pain like lightning made Edgar writhe so fully and strain so much so that he began to feel his face get red hot, and his eyes bulge.
D’mor gleamed with excitement at this, but that smile he wore was soon wiped clean when Edgar cocked the heel belonging to the sprained ankle and let it fly, catching D’mor in the mouth. Blood shot high, a few splotches tagging the ceiling, and D’mor was knocked backwards as much as he was knocked out cold.
Edgar thought he had felt a few of the doctor’s teeth give from the pressure, but all of his thoughts faded as a small but shocking pinch shook any remaining peace he had once held on to. He felt himself seize in a strain and felt a chemical force relaxing him.
Joe, the doctor with the healthy looking demeanor, stood over him, holding up a needle that he had likely produced from his pocket only a few moments earlier.
“It’s okay,” Joe said, his voice sent adrift from whatever he had injected Edgar with. “You’ll be okay.”
Edgar felt his vision fade with the pain as the lights in the room seemed to dim more and more with each passing heartbeat; the heartbeat, his heartbeat, was the last thing he had heard before the black empty of unconsciousness took him over.