I’m not a bad person.
I repeat it, over and again until the words scorch into my brain. I’m not a bad person. I don’t deserve this.
It’s the white room again. I’m strapped to the hard metal chair, my eyelids taped open. A dangling light bulb flickers. My feet are bare, my half-shaved hair a knotted mess under the heavy alloy helmet they’ve bolted around my skull to neutralize my power. I’m sweating in my gray hospital smock. It itches and stinks of piss. I don’t remember pissing myself.
I don’t remember much about anything.
But I’m not a bad person. They can’t trick me into believing I am. Hour after hour, I repeat the words, so they can’t make me forget: My name is Verity Fortune. I’m thirty-one years old. I’m not a bad person.
In the dim control room behind safety glass, the pretty doctor pushes her glasses up on her nose. She’s the one I call Dr. Mengele, blue eyes like ice and a thick blonde braid over her shoulder. She wears a clean white coat. She twiddles knobs on her machine and hurts me.
I brace for the next assault, struggling to keep my thoughts untangled. They can’t make me forget. I know who she works for. My archenemy, the psychopath who locked me up in this place. He’s the evil one, not me. If I ever get out of here…
Mengele presses one of her buttons. Current crackles along my skin, and the tiny hairs on my arms jerk taut. My muscles crunch and twist in agony. An angry bonfire ignites behind my eyeballs, and even after so many days—even though I know it’s what she wants—I can’t help it.
My power flexes, a warm muscle in my head. I remember that, all right. I can break glass, crush concrete, move objects at will. But nothing happens. The augmentium helmet just heats up, absorbing my telekinetic energy. Electrodes sizzle. My skin burns, the stink of singed hair. I gnash my teeth. Spit bubbles on my lips, coppery with blood.
“Zero point three micra on the left frontal.” Dr. Mengele’s voice, distorted over the tannoy.
The orderly waddles closer, his grin full of bad teeth. It’s the fat one today. The fat one likes to hurt people, and his greasy hospital greens are already pinpricked with blood, mine or from one of the other poor fools they’ve got locked up in this dungeon. A black expanding baton dangles from his thick waist. The name tag sewn onto his shirt says Frank.
I’ve been watching the orderlies, while each day they tie and untie me, shove me from room to room, bring my plastic trays of pureed food. Fat Frank is slower and stupider than the others. And today, I’m more awake than he thinks.
Last night I choked up my meds, mashed peas and acid and two little red capsules of mindfuck. Again this morning. I’m feeling more alert, more alive than I have in weeks. And for the past few days, I’ve been giving Frank attitude. Making wise-ass remarks. Spitting stewed apple in his face. He’s already blacked one of my eyes, and he wants to hurt me more. He’s easy game.
Frank looms over me, his globular shadow blotting out the light. I whimper, like I usually do. Let myself drool. Fight to keep my senses sharp, though the raw-scraped nerves in my brain scream for silence and surrender.
Keys jingle on Frank’s belt. My ears twitch. I can smell the peculiar sweetness of his breath, like spoiled flowers. His sour body heat is an unpleasant caress. His thigh squashes mine. He reaches for my helmet to make the adjustment.
Clickety-snap. The vise-tight band around my skull loosens, just a fraction.
I sink my teeth into his fat wrist.
Blood spurts. Frank howls, and slaps me upside the head. My ears ring, and the helmet knocks crooked, just an inch or two.
Told you he was stupid. An inch or two’s all I need.
I let loose with a clumsy surge of power, and rip the buckle from my left wrist. I’m out of practice—creaky, like a rusty cell door in some ancient prison—but the leather tears clean off its studs. A crushing ache squeezes my skull, but I don’t care.
Mengele shouts. Frank’s already lurching for me like a bleeding ox. But he’s too slow. With my free hand, I tear the helmet from my head. Horrid thing, now I see it, wires and clamps and a rusty bolt at the back. I throw it across the room, and I’m free. My power thrashes and screams, a tortured beast released at last, and I pick Frank up with a huge invisible fist and slam him into the wall.
He hits with a splat like the blubbery sack of shit he is, and slumps. Blood trickles from his nose to stain his shirt. Never mind. A few drops more won’t make a difference.
I crack my neck, satisfied. See? A bad person would have killed Frank. But Frank, so far as I can tell from the way he’s groaning, isn’t dead.
I rip off my restraints. Tear the tape from my eyelids. Blink, one-two-three-four-five-six. Ah, sweet relief. In the control room, Mengele’s reaching for the alarm, calling for her heavies to come pin me down.
The glass pane judders in my unseen grip, and the window explodes. I dive through headfirst, hit the console and tumble onto the floor in a glittering hail.
Mengele backs off, stumbling for the door. I slam the bolts shut and jump up.
She cowers, alone. In close-up, with no glass separating us, she looks slender and breakable. Her fear smells rotten, like she’s crapped herself. Maybe she has. But that sly headshrink’s guile still glints in her gaze. “Okay, I can see you’re upset. Would you like to talk? We can talk about whatever you want—”
“Shut up!” My voice is rusty, too, like I’ve forgotten it or screamed too long. “Give me my files.”
“I can’t divulge personal information.”
I fling out my hand, palm outwards, and invisible force rams her against the wall. My hands quiver in memory of everything she’s done to me, the machines, the voltage jerking my muscles tight, the agony chewing in my skull as she tortured me. I’m sweating, shaking. My breath’s on fire. My power is starved and vengeful, hungry for prey. A bad person would squeeze the life from her.
I ease up, just a fraction. “Give me the goddamn file before I crush your throat.”
“Okay.” Mengele’s voice strangles. Her face gleams bloodless. She believes me. “On the shelf, white document box. Just let me go.”
I let her go and tear the box from the shelf. It’s empty, but for a single pink slip of paper, duplicate to a form headed INPATIENT ADMISSION. The carbon-copy handwriting is dusty and black. I blink stinging eyes, confused. I don’t recognize the name or birthdates. My thoughts swirl and tangle, sinking into chaos…
No. I grit my teeth. I know who I am. I’m Verity Fortune. I’m thirty-one years old. These details are fake. They just don’t want anyone to find me.
Date of admission: October 2nd. Must be what, three weeks ago now? Addresses, phone numbers, none of which I recognize. Ten square boxes for my fingerprints, but the ink doesn’t show on this copy. A scrawled signature at the bottom that I can’t read. The space for Discharge Date is blank.
My knuckles crack white, and the paper crushes in my fist. It’s not enough. I need details. Proof. Once I’m gone, they’ll deny everything. “Where’s the rest of it?” I demand.
Mengele swallows. She’s stalling. “It’s digital. That’s the only paper copy.”
“Then download it—”
The door implodes, and her heavies pile in. Six of them, armed with batons and capsicum spray and hissing tasers. One of them’s holding an iron-ribbed strait jacket.
Fine. Screw details, if that’s the way they want it.
I stuff the paper into my itchy gray scrubs—no pockets—and fight.
Ten minutes later, I’m done. Outside, on the mountainside, it’s nighttime, the wispy fog drifting though fragrant eucalyptus trees. It’s warm for October, and in the valley, Sapphire City’s towers glitter like frosted flames. Smoke roughens my throat. Shadows flicker, and behind me, someone screams.
I leap the fence and run into the forest. The dirt feels good under my bare feet.
Before I left, I opened all the doors and set the asylum on fire.