There’s a certain allure in the chase; an enjoyment of the game itself. Win or lose, you’re still playing, still making move and countermove, full of energy and action. Throughout, there’s a sense of importance that no other activity can really match. The game is the game… but now it’s over, and, I’ll admit, I’ll miss the feeling.
Although… having the horrible truth - possessing it and holding it close like a prized treasure - the truth can almost replace that feeling.
I felt that I was on the path to victory once I calmed down from my delusion about the patients escaping. I realized that I had quite a few cards in my hand to be played. My unknown opponent had made a mistake somewhere, and allowed me far too many leads.
The first: the girl I helped escape during my delusion was nowhere to be found. Her room was empty, and her file was deleted. None of the other staff could remember her, and… I believed some of them. An old nurse like Mabel would not possibly be part of a conspiracy so dark and vast. Her primary concern was the next episode of her soaps…
But I wrote about the girl. I have the words on my computer, and on the internet. I told no one here that I’ve been writing about patients - I would immediately be fired, for obvious reasons.
I have the words, and I remember.
Memories are tricky, as I know personally, but the words are still there. Furthermore, I went through the patients one by one, looking for discrepancies. I could have just helped the girl escape while having an episode; that proved nothing… but while so deluded, I saw one patient carve up another, even had his lung slide up against my shoe.
The murdered patient was missing, too.
At that point, I had a few logical choices to consider about my opponent.
A strong - but imperfect - case could have been made that, somewhere in the maze of owners and financial backers and stockholders behind this place, some nefarious corporation had an agenda involving the patients and their various insanities. The likeliest intent was to incubate and refine memetic hazards; ideas carefully constructed to infect anyone who heard them, carefully constructed to spread and destroy. This would be a new kind of weapon, perhaps changing warfare forever.
Their primary agent would have been the chief of medicine, and much of my paranoia, delusions, and inconsistencies could have been explained by drugs in my pain killers, meant to imbalance me and discredit me should I uncover their agenda.
The foremost problem with that theory is the lack of recall on the part of the staff. Perhaps some were lying, perhaps Mabel just rarely interacted with the girl, perhaps some didn’t care enough to remember individual patients… but all of them? It felt wrong.
While an uncharacteristic downpour on the roof filled the building with the constant rhythm of heavy rain, I stalked the halls, eyeing everything. I asked the responsive patients if they remembered the girl - and they did. The only people that could remember her were patients, and me. That struck me as extremely important…
No, the corporation angle didn’t add up.
The booming thunder outside added to my tension. There were other explanations.
I could have been a patient myself, the signs were not lost on me. Claire had been employed here, and I suspected the chief of medicine had some idea she was off balance - but her particular brand of insanity was harmless… for most people. My bandaged hand had begun itching painfully some time that morning, and it added an undercurrent of increasing anger to my strategizing.
I’d dwelled often on the nature of memory and insanity. I had nothing to prove that I was not, myself, some sort of employed patient with a carefully crafted delusion of a normal life beyond the walls of the establishment. The sun did feel ages distant, but the rising storm outside made even that luxury impossible.
All the specific memories I could recall had no basis other than whatever sanctity I granted them. I asked myself if it mattered… I asked myself where that logic would lead…
It would lead backwards, to the conditions that created this situation. Someone like Claire, someone like me - potentially - employed to watch over the other patients… that meant critical underfunding, so much so that moral and ethical lines had long since been redrawn - or erased. It meant a world filling up with people, a world struggling for resources… a dark, dreary, and painful reality for the human race.
That was a situation with no enemy, and thus no victory. Humanity would suffer increasingly as the population rose, and only some great disaster or rupturing of morals would offer any salvation.
Adding to the strength of that theory was the story of every patient here. The pressures and brutalities of society had pushed them all in this direction - perhaps it was society itself that was insane, and these poor men and women were merely the most unfortunate victims of that derangement.
That notion felt right - but my being insane required a crumbling society, while, reversed, the existence of a crumbling society did not necessarily mean I was insane.
These tracks had consumed my investigation, but I had been given a third option by the last patient I interviewed. His was a tale of deception and control, and it profoundly disturbed me. I’d been interrupted writing it up, but… the more I thought about it… the more the pieces seemed to fit.
A sudden spike in the intensity of the rain reminded me of something… and then it hit me.
I’d read his story before.
I’d read it on the internet.
His file was missing from here… had someone else read it and put it up? Or had he done it, before his admission here? The details would have been lost to time, so I decided not to pursue them. It was the greater framework that was important.
I began to entertain an… expanded notion of reality, hypothetically. If the bonewalker had been real, it had been fighting some worse force on a grand scale.
Was that force also my opponent now? What was its concern with me, with this building and its patients? I had seen absolutely no indication of any outside force…
I remember stiffening, then. I stood in the hall, next to a window spreading rain-dappled shadow patterns on the floor, knowing implicitly that I had hit upon the first iota of the truth.
Evidence was the deception! It had me delving in every direction except the right one.
Unable to fully comprehend the massive idea building in my head, I made for the blind girl’s room. I found her sitting in a different corner than before, but still writing. As I entered the room, my bandaged hand began to itch distractingly, and my headache returned.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” I asked her. “I thought before that it might be because I’m crazy, like them, and don’t know it… but now I think you know what’s going on, and you’re protecting yourself.”
Poised against paper, her pen stilled. “How are you asking that question?"
“What do you mean? Should I not be able to ask questions?”
“Not that one…”
I moved down on one knee, nearer her. “Why?”
She glared at me with unseeing eyes.
I widened my own eyes. “You don’t talk to anyone who…”
Suddenly extremely uneasy, I raised my hands to my own temples. Gently feeling the skin near my eyes, I searched for any aberration… the sensation was disconcerting. Beneath my burning hand and increasingly sharp headache, I felt… two conflicting results.
My temples were smooth. The skin was soft and normal.
My temples bore two strange, subtle, and irregular raised lines, like rough veins gone awry…
“What the hell is it?” I breathed, wincing from a blast of pain in my head. “It’s there, and not there…”
“I’m sorry…” she whispered.
“What is it? What the hell is it?” I forced out, my face screwed up from continually rising pain that approached a crescendo that threatened to knock me unconscious. I struggled to breathe, even as little blurs and flickers appeared in my vision. “How many… have this?”
Her lip trembled in response to my sounds of pain. “… everybody… except the other patients…”
Surging with adrenaline and will, I stumbled from her room, running for the emergency operation room. I pushed the door in forcefully, almost falling from the pain, and rushed for the tools.
Facing the mirror, I fought the blinding pain and blurry vision to see - I could see it - the little ridges were plainly visible, running from my eyes, across my temples, and around the back of my head like some horrible lobotomy line…
I pricked my temple with a scalpel. Blood welled out, but I ignored it, instead carefully prying at the ridge with a gripping tool.
My vision flashed white and black.
I did not relent. I pulled at the foreign tissue underneath… I screamed in agony, but refused to pass out… slowly, so painfully slowly, I pulled out a long, stringy fiber. Hanging from my bleeding temple, gripped in my tool, I knew that this was it. This was part of it. I’d considered the impossible… and I’d been right.
The pain immediately lessened as I cut the fibrous tissue as close to my skin as I could. There was still some inside, near my eyes, and all the fiber on the other side of my head… but this was a start. Holding it up, I tried to comprehend what I was seeing.
It looked like nerve tissue - stringy, webbed, made of tiny little fibers… and that’s what the blind girl had said when she was first admitted. She’d said she wouldn’t talk to anyone with nerve fibers in their temples…
…but she’d been here for years…
I repeated the same procedure on the other side. My headache was still barely there, but I felt vindicated and relieved.
Was that it? Was I free? And what the hell were these nerve fibers? Some sort of infection, or parasite? By themselves, these fibers couldn’t possibly have controlled or deceived me… there simply wasn’t enough tissue for complex interaction with the brain… in fact, the fibers looked like they were from an optic nerve. It was sensory tissue, designed to… fool the senses?
That made a sick sort of sense. Connected to my eyes and ears… and probably my brain, directly through my optic nerve… these fibers could completely deceive my senses, perhaps even my memories. She’d said I shouldn’t have been able to ask that question… how much control did these fibers normally exert?
And why was I now able to detect them, even remove them?
I’ll be honest, I felt like breaking down and crying then, both at my sudden freedom and vindication, and at the implied utter domination I’d lived under for so long - possibly years. I probably would have broken down, if I did not have some terrible notion that these fibers received signals or control from elsewhere.
After cleaning up my blood, I took a quick and surreptitious circle through the halls. Mabel smiled at me, and then turned away - a subtle ridge was evident on the side of her head.
She was infected. I kept walking, kept looking - they all were.
I returned to the safety of the emergency operation room as the pain in my head began rising again. I looked in the mirror, horrified - I could literally see the skin on my temples rising, as the nerve fibers inside began to regenerate.
I remember quite clearly - I laughed out loud, a hearty, dark, full belly laugh. This was too much. Infecting me, growing back even if I cut it out, what the hell was I supposed to do?
My laugh died as my medical knowledge supplied an answer.
Disinfecting my hands and donning gloves, I prepared for something I knew was probably insane - and I’d promised myself I wouldn’t cross that line when I came to it, but, oh, how foolish I’d been then - and I readied several mirrors.
I had no painkillers, because I couldn’t risk dulling my amateur surgical ability.
Breathing hard, surging with adrenaline, I placed a separation tool against my eyelids… and ratcheted them open. I steeled myself against what I was about to do…
My eye slid out more easily than I’d expected.
Just an inch or two, just enough to keep the optic nerve at tension… frozen with unbelievable discomfort and pain the likes of which I’d never imagined, I brought the scalpel up, carefully cutting away at the connected foreign nerve fibers.
Five breaths… ten… twenty… I took as long as I could stand it, carefully severing the connections at their base. My animal mind screamed incessantly in my head - I could see my own eye out of my head, see a bundle of blood vessels and nerves connecting it! - but I fought the impulse to panic.
I pulled the rest of the nerve fibers out through the side of my eye socket - they came quite easily, from that direction… and then, incredibly, I was done. I carefully took my eye between my gloved fingers and slid it back in.
I took five minutes to calm myself, to test my eye, to let my panic subside… and then I did the other eye.
By the time I finished, my headache was gone. The nerve fibers did not regenerate. I’d gotten them all.
For an hour, I lay in that room, enjoying my freedom, thinking, breathing, calming…
Where did these nerve fibers come from? There was unmistakably a will behind the ongoing deception. Who was it? What was it? Deception would not have worked against the bonewalker’s slaves - they did not know the reasons behind their actions; they simply followed its orders on threat of death…
And the patients were free of the fibers… why? The illuminating realization struck me that the reason was quite possibly the same as it might have been for society: containment. The people here were dangerous, and their insanities even more so.
Maybe all the explanations shared a common thread: the world was dark and grim, growing overpopulated as my mentor had said, creating increasingly virulent and dangerous insanities on the sheer weight of numbers and probability…
And maybe this other force, whatever had infected people with nerve fibers and used deception for some purpose… the next step was obvious. I wouldn’t want my nerve fibers connected to a brain full of delusion and virulent ideas. I wouldn’t want those ideas broadcasting through my network of nerve-fiber-controlled slaves… infecting them, ruining them, destroying them… and, possibly, freeing them.
I was losing my mind. I knew it, then, quite certainly. The pain killers, the exhaustion, the obsession… I’d let the other patients' delusions get to me, regarding their ideas as increasingly real, and there I was… free. That was why I could now see the nerve fibers, why they constricted around my skull, why they fought me at every step.
It was ironic, really… the doctor, becoming the patient; growing insanity, bringing reality…
But my stories were on the internet. His story, the male patient that had stabbed out his own eyes - his story was on the internet. How was it that the Opponent allowed such a thing to happen and spread? Was it the same notion that kept the patients here contained and uncontrolled? Was the idea itself anathema to its network of control? It couldn’t identify the ideas, couldn’t regard them, without understanding them… and becoming infected.
I was laughing often, alone in that room, as the logical steps increasingly fell into place.
There is no defense against an idea.
I walked back into the hall a new man. I was free, and there was nothing the Opponent could do. It could no longer regard me, no longer think of me. I must not exist to it, because to acknowledge me would be to think of me, and then understand me, and then… become infected. I had the black and hilarious notion that the nerve fibers would probably have left me of their own accord at some near point, had I allowed my descent into madness to continue.
“What did you do to yourself?” the chief of medicine shouted, seeing me from down the hall. I heard him call urgently for orderlies, but thunder obscured his first shout.
The side door’s lock had been fixed - damnit! I used my keys, unlocking each door as I passed, releasing the patients as a distraction. I heard the orderlies shouting and organizing somewhere nearby - I had a sudden idea as I passed the maintenance room. It was easier than I’d expected. I flipped the circuit breakers, and all the lights went out.
As I emerged back into the hall, strangely at home in darkness and rotating red emergency light, the only sounds were the rain slamming against the roof, and intermittent thunder.
Strange… I’d imagined this… or not imagined this… the night before… no, this time there was rain…
I grabbed my laptop from the on-call room, slung it over my shoulder in its bag, and ditched my white coat. I stuffed as many snacks from the vending machine in my bag as I could, promising to pay it back someday for the broken glass and cost of what I took.
Screams and grunts filled the shifting darkness. I could hear staff members shouting and trying to find one another. I could hear patients muttering… and somebody screamed in pain.
I smiled as I crept through the darkness. The confusion was working perfectly.
Thunder shook the building as I approached the main door. The area was empty, as the orderlies contended with the escaped patients - I was free.
“Wait!” he called, as I put my hand against the door. I could hear rain slicking the other side. “Don’t do it!”
It was my mentor.
“I’ve been following your actions as best I could,” he explained, concerned. “That patient, at the end of the far wing - we keep him back there, attended as little as possible, for a reason. Remember what I said to you?”
I stared back at him, ready to bolt through the door, but willing to hear him out.
“His psychosis, it’s infected you!” he shouted over the grunts and screams from the back halls. “And I know you believe insanity is a choice. Choose to stay, to remain here, to be part of the staff and real life!”
I turned away, ready to leave.
“What’s out that door for you?” he asked loudly. “What are you going to do - run, hide from society, hurt people for whatever reasons you’ve come to believe?”
His reasoning and compassion made sense… perfect sense. I hesitated. Was I really that far gone? What if I did accept that reality? Whether some entity was deceiving me or not, life was… decent enough, right?
This was the moment. I felt it. Out that door, I was de facto insane, at least compared to whichever reality society bought as true - here, I was one of them, a staff member, accepted, and normal…
It made too much sense. It was too perfect.
“It’s you!” I realized, practically screaming it.
Lit in crimson, he shook his head, confused… I didn’t expect the Opponent to reveal itself, just because I’d figured out that it was speaking through my mentor - no, his body's reaction was perfect, deceptively real.
Thunder boomed, and I pushed out into the rain, running for my life.
Life will be a bit harder from now on, I’m sure. I’m outside the construction of society’s reality… but it can’t regard me anymore, can’t think of me, without risking itself. I am free to move undetected and ignored, for the most part. I think I’ll change my name, get a job, put on a façade of normalcy, and operate from behind a mask - because it must ignore me, so the only people I have to fool are other humans.
It can’t stop my ideas, which I release to the world like the virus they are. We are all being deceived, every one of us. I saw the true nature of the world once the rain cleared. I see what has really happened to us.
I was on a hill, outside the city, when the clouds parted, and the blessed sun finally brought long-sought relief. I’d seen indications of the truth, as I ran through the rain, but the darkness and water obscured the extent…
I stood and looked down on the city.
Growths hung high up, between buildings, street lamps, and trees - thick, ropey fibers - nerve fibers. It infested most everything, wrapped around the trappings of civilization like a strangling vine. I had a flash of understanding then - this thing, this infestation, stretching the world over most certainly…
Nerves, neurons, brains, interconnected, deceived, a similar network to the internet itself… the entity may have begun as just an idea, a meme, or a mutation somewhere, and spread from there… and now it was a massive parasite on humanity. I could feel its past influence on me, now that it was gone, and I understood what it wanted.
It wants more people, more brains, more stress, more consumption. It loves caffeine. It loves stimulants of any kind, but caffeine especially. It wants you to drink more. It wants you to eat more. It wants you to consume and reproduce, as it guides the human race toward some dark and unknown goal… while the pressures it creates, humanity’s own needs sharpened to the extreme, crush whole swaths of people underfoot.
Whether it be body image, or the desperation of being poor or on the street, or financial slavery to massive debt, or the need for affection, or - in my case - the basic desire to believe that suffering is not the normal fundamental nature of life… whatever your stress, your weakness, it will grind increasing numbers of us up and push us past our limits of will and reason, for it is society, and it is us, and we are all expendable.
But today is the first day of the Resistance. I post now from free wireless at a coffee shop, smiling at passersby. The Opponent cannot regard me, and everyone else is consumed in their own private struggle against society’s extreme and rising pressures. They’re all too stressed to notice that someone like me - someone insane, as compared to society’s reality - is sitting among them. After this post, I’ll disappear even from here, and no one will be the wiser.
But don’t worry. This is my life’s work, now. I took my scalpel and tools with me. I will find you, and I will free you all - one pair of eyes at a time.
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