The following is a standalone story but operates as a prequel to characters and events seen in Kill Switch: Final Season, available on Amazon in eBook and paperback form.
Thick straps knotted around slender wrists. Two hulking orderlies pinned the young woman down until clasps were secured. Screaming through gritted teeth, she lashed out to the limits of her restraints. Cold and sterile, a mirrored window took up one wall of the tiled room. Tables and electrical equipment cluttered the space.
She couldn’t remember a time before the hospital or before the tests. Something made her fight them anyway. Willowy and pale, the young woman was almost anemic. Half her head was shaved, the left side, while the right had been allowed to grow long enough that it reached her throat, dark blonde and unwashed. The orderlies in their white uniforms moved around the room, picking up equipment with gloved hands. One of the men retrieved a metal spike. A handspan in length, thick at the base and then tapered to a blunt point, the spike attached to an insulated cord. He loomed over the young woman and she jerked away, teeth gnashing. She knew it was inevitable, every day it was inevitable, but she battled it all the same.
Several metal sockets ran down the shaven half of the young woman’s head. Shaped like audio jacks but each the size of a large coin and fused with her skull. Bristles of hair poked around the edges of the sockets. The orderly picked out a socket, the second from the front, and ran the blunt end of the spike around the rim. The young woman threw her head around until he gripped her by the forehead. Shoving her head against the seat, he jammed the spike in. The young woman’s growls turned into a pained hissing. Her eyes rolled back in her head as if looking for the vanished point of the spike. It was less about pain and more about the feeling of invasion. Thrumming with potential energy, the spike vibrated against the meat of her brain. As her head and neck were freed, she could move again but the spike moved with her. The thick cord attached to its base, black and crinkly, trailed along. A split ran through her head, a familiar but nauseating gap. With her wrists strapped to the sides of the bulky chair there was nothing she could do to pull the spike out.
The orderlies moved back to other equipment. One of them hovered over a boxy device, covered in dials, which attached by way of the cord to the spike in the young woman’s head. Two more people entered the room, also dressed in white but with lab coats instead, both doctors. One of them retreated into the corner with a glowing handheld screen to take notes. The other doctor, an older woman, sat in a chair opposite their subject. The young woman strained against her straps to glare at her.
“Good morning, Echo Three,” the doctor said. “How are you feeling this morning? Are you ready to get to work?”
Echo’s head lolled. “No.”
The doctor ignored her as she shuffled a set of playing cards, plastic-coated and fresh out of the box. Mixing them so the order would be unpredictable. The motions looked familiar although the doctor didn’t have the flair of a professional dealer, and her hands were slightly arthritic. Eventually, she picked out one at random and held it up to Echo Three, the back of the card facing her. It was shiny and covered in a blue pattern.
“Can you tell me what this card is?” The doctor asked.
Fight bled out of Echo like water swirling down a drain. The sooner she cooperated the sooner it would all be over. Her eyes unfocused. Gnawing at her bottom lip, she let her mind wander and imagined it stretching invisible fingers toward the playing card. The doctor was patient and held the card, facing away from Echo, with only the slightest tremors.
“Diamonds, two,” Echo said. “Two of Diamonds.”
The doctor turned to one of the orderlies. Her face betrayed nothing as she slipped the card back to the bottom of the pack.
“Thirty percent power, region eight, half-depth,” the doctor said.
“No! No!” Echo screamed.
One of the orderlies jammed a rubber mouthguard into Echo’s mouth. The other man turned dials and electricity coursed through the cord to the spike inside Echo’s head. She went rigid as energy shot through her body and caused her muscles to constrict. Her brain in a blender. At thirty percent power, the sensation was comparatively mild but Echo’s skull felt like it could explode open from the inside. Eventually, the power stopped and the young woman slumped. The first orderly yanked the mouthguard out of Echo’s teeth, dragging strings of drool with it.
The doctor shuffled the playing cards throughout. Her face remained professionally detached. She picked another card off the top of the pack and held it up for Echo, identical to the first card.
“Can you tell me what this card is?”
The words took a lot longer to come together in Echo’s mind as she recovered from the blast. The spike no longer felt cold but hot and staticky inside her brain. She stared at the back of the card and let her mind wander, trying to build up a picture in her head instead of focusing on what she was seeing. The doctor waited patiently, eyes watching Echo from behind round glasses.
“Spades, Jack of Spades,” Echo said.
The doctor slid the card back into the pack. “Fifty percent power, region eight, half-depth.”
They jammed the rubber mouthpiece into Echo’s mouth and turned the dials. The routine went on with the cards and the machine, again and again and again. The doctor kept shuffling until they’d gone through more than the fifty-two cards in the pack. A couple of times, one of the orderlies changed the socket the spike was inserted in. Withdrawing it, dripping, wiping it down, and inserting it into a new plug.
Halfway through the exercise, they added a second spike. The electricity from the machine poured over Echo’s brain like molten metal. By the end of the exercise she could no longer speak. Drool ran freely off her bottom lip as they removed the mouthguard, hitting her chest and the seat between her legs. No sense of time existed in the room, she had no concept of how long it had been since they had strapped her to the chair.
“I think that’s enough for today,” the doctor said. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
The orderlies undid Echo Three’s straps. Her arms and legs felt so foreign she couldn’t move on her own or attempt to fight back again. Picking her up, they carried her out of the room. The long hair on the right side of Echo’s head fell across her lifeless face. In the corner, the other doctor was still taking notes.
More people used to occupy the rooms surrounding Echo’s cell. Now there were a lot fewer, although Echo didn’t know how long it had been between then and now. Time was meaningless. ‘E3’ marked the door of her cell, which was narrow and grey and windowless like the rest of the hospital. A cot sat in the middle of the room, complete with wrist and ankle straps, and a combination toilet and sink was crammed in one corner. As the orderlies carried her inside there was nothing Echo could have done to resist them even if she had wanted to. They dumped her on the bed, rolled her onto her back and spread her arms and legs. Wrists and ankles went back into the straps to stop her hurting herself during the spasms that would come later.
Lying on the bed for an indeterminate amount of time, Echo recovered. Eventually, a third orderly returned. A large woman, bulky with both muscle and fat. Her hair was dark and cropped short, revealing tubelike rolls of fat down the back of her neck. In one hand she carried a tray of food, cold toast and grey slop, and a small paper cup with pills.
“Food and medication, honey,” the orderly smiled.
Echo could barely raise her head to look at the woman. She hulked over Echo and thrust the paper cup at Echo’s mouth, the pills inside rattling. Echo was forced to swallow before the orderly gave her a drink of water from another paper cup. Echo’s stomach rumbled and made her feel sick. The orderly checked her mouth to make sure she had taken all the pills and none were hidden below her gums or the folds of her cheeks.
“Good girl, good, good girl,” the orderly said. “Now, here comes the butterfly, eat up.”
The orderly scooped a spoonful of grey gruel and steered it through the air to Echo’s mouth, feeding her like a baby. Arms trapped, Echo struggled to raise her head so she could eat. The thin gruel was tasteless. The toast was dry and made her choke. Still, Echo tried to eat quickly. She needed food to keep her strength but the medication would make her too drowsy to eat if she didn’t hurry. The orderly jammed the toast into Echo’s mouth and unhurriedly spooned up the slop.
“Poor baby, you’re not going to finish.”
As Echo moved lethargically, the orderly deliberately missed Echo’s mouth. She tipped it against Echo’s cheek and the gruel dribbled down Echo’s chin and neck.
“Oh no, I’ll get that.”
Sitting on the side of the bed, the orderly leaned heavily over Echo’s prone form. Running her tongue up the side of Echo’s neck and onto her cheek like a slug, she licked away the gruel. Echo grunted and tried to pull away but could hardly move as it was. The big woman inhaled deeply from Echo’s greasy hair. As she moved away she left a sticky trail of saliva and gruel on the side of Echo’s face. Echo’s head rolled across her pillow, her breathing thick.
“Okay, baby, sleep tight,” the orderly said.
The big woman stood, taking the rest of Echo’s meal with her, and stuffed the remaining wedge of cold toast into her mouth. Thankfully she at least undid the straps around Echo’s arms and legs before she left. Echo rolled onto her side. She hurriedly scrubbed the spittle off the side of her face with the back of her hand before unconsciousness welled up and took her.
The next morning, assuming it was morning, Echo was fed and allowed to shower under supervision before being given fresh clothes and taken back to the lab. The shower and clean clothes were a highlight in Echo’s routine. She still fought the orderlies as they forced her into the chair. The test today was different. They cycled through all kinds of different tests.
An orderly slotted one of the metal spikes into the socket at the very back of Echo’s skull. She felt the cold and the pressure, invading her. It vibrated with potential. The same doctor as yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, set a tray down in front of the young woman. The male doctor sat in the corner, taking notes. An old compass rested on the tray, along with a small knife, and a pen. The doctor pushed the compass forward. It looked like brass, with its lid open and delicately balanced needle pointed north.
“Make the needle move,” the doctor said.
Echo Three stared at the face of the compass. Unlike the test the day before, Echo didn’t let her mind wander but instead focused all the mental power she could muster. She honed it down, like a knife, and aimed it at the compass needle. The face of the navigation device filled her whole world. Echo could feel the metal spike in the back of her brain and the effort of her mental strain started to make her head throb, creating a headache.
The needle quivered, but it was only the last of the vibrations from the compass being set down. No matter how much she focused, Echo couldn’t make the needle move with her mind alone. The minute tremors faded and then stopped. Echo’s focus was genuine and used all the effort she could create. If she couldn’t exert any mental influence on the compass she knew what was coming next.
“Fifty percent power, region two, quarter-depth,” the doctor said.
“No, no, no!” Echo screamed.
Echo thrashed and tried to kick. If she couldn’t move the compass needle with her mind she wanted to at least boot the tray and make it move that way. Straps around her ankles stopped her feet from traveling, however. All she could do was jerk around and scream in frustration. A lancing sensation seared through her brain, white hot agony that made the headache she’d been developing feel like a warm breeze compared to a hurricane.
“Echo, Echo, make the needle move.”
After a few hours, the orderlies unplugged the metal spikes and cords from Echo’s brain. They undid the straps from her arms and legs. Echo was as limp as a wet sock. The doctor packed away her notes. They had gotten nothing from the compass test, or from attempting to have Echo balance the pen on one end. They hadn’t even gotten to whatever test they’d had in mind for the knife.
When the two orderlies peeled Echo out of her chair her fresh clothing was soaked in sweat. For a moment it seemed like she had her legs under her and the orderlies loosened their grips. Going limp again, however, Echo fell forward before she could be caught. She crashed into the table with the tray. The antique compass was knocked over the side, clattering on the floor.
“Get her out of here,” the doctor said.
The pair of orderlies carted Echo out of the lab, lifting her under the armpits. The doctor bent over and retrieved the cracked compass. The tray had been upset. Looking around, they couldn’t find the pen knife.
That night, the orderly in charge of feeding Echo and unstrapping her from her bed mopped the hallway. The mop sloshed back and forth between mostly empty rooms. Dim light glowed on the fresh streaks.
The orderly stopped outside of the cell marked ‘E3’. Licking her lips, toadlike, the woman fetched a ring of keys from her belt and unlocked the door. The room was dark but the orderly could see Echo spreadeagled in her cot. She had left the straps on earlier, it was the orderly’s prerogative if the subject was still having seizures. Wrists and ankles trapped, Echo lay flat on her back. The sockets down the left side of her head gleamed in the dim glow from the hallway.
Oozing her way inside, the orderly gently swung the door closed. She left her mop propped against the wall beside the door. Dropping one fat hand against Echo’s stomach, the orderly ran it upwards and caused Echo’s shirt to bunch on her chest.
“Don’t try to fool me, baby, I know you’re awake,” the orderly said.
The orderly bent over, warm, moist breath misting on Echo Three’s face. She moved to kiss her. Suddenly, Echo sat up in one explosive movement. The straps around her wrists and ankles were tattered and cut, only wrapped across Echo’s limbs to give the illusion she was still strapped down. Glittering in her right fist was the pen knife she had stolen from the lab after that day’s battery of tests. Echo had planned to use it after dinner when the orderly unstrapped her. She had successfully hidden the pills under her tongue, spitting them out as soon as the orderly had left, feigning an even quicker sleep than usual. When the orderly hadn’t unstrapped her, Echo had known the big woman would be back. She’d used the small blade to saw through the straps, set them back in place on her wrists and ankles, and waited.
Before the orderly could react, Echo stabbed the knife into the side of her neck. Blood spurted from the wound. The orderly’s eyes went wide. Tearing the blade loose, Echo stabbed the woman in the neck again, and again, and again. By the time the orderly formed the thought to fight back she was already losing blood too fast. It vomited out of the tears in the side of her throat, splattering Echo, her cot and the surrounding walls, painting them all in crimson.
Once she was done, Echo left the knife sticking out of the side of the orderly’s jaw above bleeding flaps of skin. Shoving the heavy woman off of her, Echo rolled her to the floor and jumped out of the cot over her body.
Splattered in blood, Echo moved into the hallway. She had the orderly’s ring of keys in one hand. Acting on instinct, Echo snatched the mop resting beside the door. After a few moments of thought, Echo set the handle against the wall again and gave it a hard kick just above the mophead, snapping the wooden handle in half. She was left holding a jagged spear.
The escape was on. Echo started to move past the other lettered and numbered calls, picking up speed through dimly lit corridors. The ring of keys she needed to get through the building but she could also use them as a weapon. Carrying the broken mop handle in her left hand, Echo threaded the keys between the fingers of her right. They jutted like little spikes from her fist.
Coming around the corner, Echo came face to face with another orderly. Neither of them had heard the other coming. He was a young man, short and dumpy with a shaved head and pockmarked face. He stared at Echo holding the makeshift spear and sprayed from head to toe in blood in amazement.
Echo used his shock to close the distance between the two of them. She raised the spear and drove it into the centre of the male orderly’s chest, putting her shoulder into the butt. The spike sunk into the man’s chest. It slotted between two of the man’s ribs and blood spurted along its length. He let out a wet cry, gagging as one of his lungs popped.
The man staggered, the mop handle waggling obscenely from his chest. After a moment he seemed to recover his senses and came back, clawing at Echo. She swung as hard as she could with the keys locked in her right fist. Punching him several times, the small spikes tore holes in the orderly’s face. Blood sprayed out of the wounds. They were shallow but distracted the orderly and he grabbed at his face, looking to protect it. It gave Echo the opportunity to grab the mop handle again and she twisted, drilling it deeper. Hemorrhaging, the orderly spasmed and fell on his back with the spear sticking out of the front of his uniform.
Behind the orderly was a barred door. Removing the bloodstained keys from her fist, Echo sorted through them and found the key to unlock it. No one seemed to be alerted to the fact Echo was moving around the building, out of her cell. She moved past empty room after empty room, many of them marked with letter and number combos like the ‘E3’ on her door. Echo needed another weapon. Coming across a closet marked ‘SUPPLIES’, Echo sorted through her keys again and opened it.
Inside the supply closet were more mops and brooms Echo could use as spears. A cleaning cart sat in the middle of the closet surrounded by shelf after shelf of chemicals. Beside the cleaning supplies were racks of medical equipment. Echo rooted through boxes of supplies until she came to a container of syringes. She took a syringe and selected a large jug of bleach from the other side of the closet. Tearing off the paper wrapping, Echo jammed the syringe into the side of the bottle of bleach and pulled the plunger back, filling the syringe with colourless liquid.
Holding the syringe of bleach by her side, Echo left the supply closet and kept heading down the hall. The keys bristled in her other hand. Echo reached the laboratory where she had been forced to go through test after test. The room was totally dark. Through the observation window Echo could see the shadows of the chair and the equipment, all shut down. Beyond the lab she was in uncharted territory, she had no idea what was in that section of the building.
Another barred door and then an office. Light spilled into the corridor from an open doorway. Echo rounded on it. The room was small and plain with a narrow desk and a computer, and a calendar on one wall. The female doctor with the round glasses stared at Echo from across the desk and for several seconds they just regarded one another. Taking in her blood-splattered appearance, the doctor’s eyes slowly widened.
Echo rounded the desk and tackled the older woman. She yelled and fought back but as the doctor stumbled out of her chair Echo thrust the syringe at the doctor’s neck. The needle scratched the side of her throat and drew a pinprick of blood. Realising the threat, even if she hadn’t seen the weapon, the doctor froze.
“Holding syringe of bleach against your throat,” Echo said. “Screw with me and I’ll inject into your bloodstream. Don’t know what will happen but don’t think you’ll enjoy it.”
“What do you want?”
“What do you think? Getting out of here.”
“If I say no, how will you make me?”
“Just told you, the exit or I’ll pump this shit into your veins.”
Echo stabbed the syringe deep into her neck and the doctor cried out. Echo’s thumb hovered over the pad of the plunger.
“Okay! Okay, Echo Three, I will take you,” the doctor said.
Echo kept the syringe pressed into the doctor’s neck. Moving as one, they waddled into the hallway. The doctor was shorter and stockier than Echo. She had always seemed taller, bigger and more powerful, sitting across from Echo. Echo hunched over slightly and pushed the doctor in front of her like a human shield.
Another orderly mopped the alcove by the building’s elevators. He stared in shock, halfway through a friendly greeting when he saw the doctor before he realised one of the subjects was behind her, holding her hostage. Echo clutched the doctor tighter, keeping the bleach-filled syringe against her neck.
“Stay back!” Echo said. “You, get the elevator.”
Echo forced the doctor over to the elevator. One of the two sets of metal doors dinged and opened as soon as the doctor hit the call button. They shuffled inside with the orderly staring. Echo hammered the close button but then saw the elevator needed to scan a card in order to pick a floor.
“Go! Get moving!” Echo said.
“You’ll never escape, you know that, don’t you?”
The doctor scanned a card clipped to her coat and selected the ground floor. The elevator closed and moved downward. Using the syringe to keep her in line, Echo kept holding the doctor. Her heart pounded as she watched the numbers count down on the elevator’s indicator. She was so close. If the doctor resisted then Echo wouldn’t hesitate to kill her.
The doors dinged again and opened, and Echo looked up. Distracted, she didn’t see the stun gun that the doctor slid out of the right sleeve of her lab coat. The doctor pulled away suddenly, wrenching her neck away from the needle. She rammed the stun gun back into Echo’s chest. Echo yelled and was flung backward, into the rear wall of the elevator. She dropped the syringe filled with bleach as she fell.
“What are you going to do, Echo Three?” The doctor said.
The doctor kicked Echo in the midsection as she sat, groaning, against the rear of the elevator. Echo cried out and tried to stand. The doctor hit her again with the stun gun, right on the bare flesh where her shoulder met her neck. Skin sizzled and Echo’s body went rigid. The pain was nothing though compared to what she had been through in the tests, shocking sections deep inside her brain, every day for as long as she could remember. Echo fought through it, clawing at the doctor, and then bit the doctor on the wrist. She dug her teeth in as deep as she could and forced her to drop the stun gun. The doctor leapt backward and retreated, out of the elevator.
Outside the elevator was a short hallway, still dimly lit. The doctor took off running with her low-heeled shoes clopping on the tiled floor, disappearing around the nearest corner. The elevator doors started to close again. Snarling, Echo lunged forward and jammed an arm through the gap to force the doors to retreat. Echo picked up the stun gun and stumbled to her feet, taking off running again.
Echo sprinted around the corner and the hallway opened up. Directly across the open lobby was the building’s front wall, made of glass. It was night but Echo could see the sky and an empty street outside. It was the only glimpse of the outside world she could remember, certainly the only one she had gotten inside that terrible place. There were no furnishings in the lobby except for a curving front desk off to one side of the hallway, unattended.
Tremors continued going through Echo’s body from the stun gun. The doctor who had shocked her was across the lobby, near the exit to the outside world. Fanned out between them, however, between Echo and the exit, were at least a dozen men in black body armour. All carried assault rifles. They looked like police officers, in heavily strapped vests and black pants, but wore black balaclavas that hid their features.
The stun gun was useless. Echo dropped it and it clattered on the floor beside her. She had no idea where the armed men had come from. The orderly upstairs who had seen Echo with the doctor was the only one who could have raised the alarm, and they had arrived way, way too fast for that.
“Raise! Fire!” One of the men yelled.
The dozen men raised rifles to their shoulders in unison, pointed directly at Echo. No time for her to retreat back into the hall or run for the front desk to use it as shelter. No hesitation. The men opened fire.
The gunfire was deafening, echoing off the lobby walls and windows. Echo threw one arm across her face and the other reached forward as if to ward off the bullets. Smoke filled the air. The chatter of the rifles went on for several seconds, cycling through hundreds and hundreds of rounds.
The noise died off. Smoke wafted through the room in a thick fog and after all the gunfire the silence billowed. Echo remained frozen for several moments, believing she was already dead. Eventually, she peeked out from behind her crooked arm. Echo could see the men in their black armour and balaclavas watching her, guns trained. There was no pain. The only blood on Echo was the drying blood from her first attack on the orderly in her room, none of her own.
Teetering over backward, Echo fell and sat down hard. It was like she had caused the bullets to evaporate in midair. For a few moments, stunned as she was, Echo thought that was what had actually happened. After all this time, after test after test after test, the brutality, the powerlessness, the hopelessness, the mental powers they had been trying to force her to manifest had finally appeared. None of the armed men, or the doctor, looked as surprised as Echo felt, however.
One by one, the masked men lazily lowered their weapons. No brass cartridges littered the floor. Echo herself was obviously unharmed and there was no evidence of bullets around the lobby, no holes in the walls around her. The guns had been loaded with blanks. All the sound, smoke and fury, but none of the bullets.
“That settles it, the final stress test under real world conditions was a complete failure,” a male voice said. “No sign of abilities.”
The other doctor that Echo had seen but never spoken to, the male doctor who observed all her tests, emerged from a small observation room at the side of the lobby. Still in shock, Echo’s gaze went from him to the female doctor and back again. The men stood with their weapons lowered as if awaiting new instructions.
“So it would seem, shame, I had such high hopes for this one,” the female doctor said.
“A little bit bloodier than we expected,” the male doctor said.
“Yes, when we let her get her hands on the knife we may have underestimated her-, spunk. I suppose we should dispose of her, like all the others.”
“Why? Why did you do this?” Echo said. “Why did you do all of this to me?”
Ignoring her, the male doctor turned to one of the men. “Carl, could you take care of that for us?”
Assault rifle loaded with blanks, the man reached for the gun holstered to his hip instead. Withdrawing a long, skinny pistol, he aimed it at Echo as he crossed the lobby. Echo no longer had the energy to fight back. The man fired and a feathered dart appeared on Echo’s chest, sticking through her shirt. Echo looked down at it in surprise. A couple more muffled pops and two more darts appeared near the first. Echo’s vision started to go hazy. She felt a surge of vertigo before her body fell to the floor, unconscious.
“There were those television people sniffing around, looking for more contestants for their little game,” the male doctor said. “I suppose we might as well get something for our investment?”
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