Shattered plaster rained down as unseen gunfire tore chunks out of the wall above her head. Kirsten raised her arms to shield her face from the fall of debris and closed her eyes. After the shooting stopped, the wall rocked with a powerful impact that knocked her forward into a squatting wobble. With a flail of her arms, she recovered her balance enough to fall back against the crumbling cinderblocks. Sinister laughter, touched with insanity, echoed from around the corner before fading to silence. Soon, only the rasps of her rapid breaths and the crunch of her boots shifting over the debris broke the stillness.
Kirsten kept her back against the wall, crouched with her service weapon, an E-90 laser, held to her chest. Dampness hung in the musty air and the smell of rotting wood teased at her nostrils. Two spots of azure light traced along the sides of the pistol in an endless march, tinting the dingy walls with undulating light. Division 1 officers outside had no idea what went on in the building, their sensors unable to read anything but static. The same sort of static shimmered above her left arm guard where a tactical holographic display struggled to appear. Since she had entered this old asylum, the device managed only to make a panel of scintillating black and white dots that saturated the area around her with an otherworldly glow.
He has to be alive. Ghosts don’t use guns, and he sure isn’t having any trouble projecting his voice into the mortal world.
She held her weapon out to the left, using its mirror-like housing to peek around the corner. Seeing nothing, she sprang to her feet. With her E-90 leveled off at the darkness, she swatted dust and scraps off her uniform while she tried to sort out the situation. Her comm-link proved unreliable as well. With immediate danger to worry about, she forced the unending hiss in her right ear out of her conscious mind. Her psionics couldn’t pinpoint any specific source of the disturbance. The entire building vibrated with paranormal energy.
What am I doing just hiding here? Those cops need me. Urgency dispelled her worry about the malfunctioning gadgetry.
Not only had two Division 1 patrol officers been trapped in here by who-knows-what, a living suspect fired at her. She’d made it only ten feet in from the door when the slugs started flying, and the shooter vanished before she could return fire.
I’m being an idiot. I see half a man walking around… no sweat. She shivered, gazing around at the walls while wondering where the next bullet would come from―an attack she couldn’t stop with her mind. At least I got farther than Div 1. A distant scream from the second floor drew her gaze to the ceiling.
They’re counting on me. I can’t let them down.
She swallowed her fear and forced herself to continue deeper into the old building, pausing by a small window overlooking the front yard. Blue bodies, blurred by a century of grime upon the glass, huddled outside, clinging to their guns a few yards from the stairs. Whatever they had seen was enough to keep them out of the building. Kirsten placed her boots with caution around the scattering of debris that filled the halls, mindful to prevent her gear from snagging on any of the old furniture or carts left lying around. Distant cackles and screams emanated from the distance, punctuated with shouts and banging metal. At least some of the noises came from the dead trapped here. From the appearance of the place, this old hospital had been out of commission for a long time.
Probably hasn’t been in use since before the Corporate War.
Kirsten dreaded the possibility she would have to kill a man. Not only did she loathe taking life, killing someone only started another—more annoying—process of having to deal with them. Ghosts could be vindictive. If they felt like being real sons of bitches, they would linger for years and mess with her at every opportunity. Of course, not every astral sensitive shared her other talent. Most could only see, hear, and speak to spirits. Kirsten could hurt them, even to the point of final obliteration. That made her Division 0’s ace in the hole against spirits. So far, she hadn’t been forced to confront a ghost she was responsible for creating.
The thought she might one day have to kill someone kept her up at night. That she might have to kill this mechanic mere minutes from now made her sick.
Her eyes focused on a faint light radiating from a half-closed door further ahead in the hallway. A patch of shadow darted through it, a hint of a man ducking for cover. Kirsten chased, stopping against the wall next to the room. After a short pause to listen at silence, she kicked in the door and aimed over a flipped bed into an empty room, the walls hung with the tattered remnants of padding. Roaches scurried away from her noise.
Oh, hell, he’s getting to me―I’m seeing things.
The sound of a terrified man sniveling from beyond the bed wavered in the air. Relaxing her guard, she advanced in a wide angle that kept plenty of distance between her and a potential knife. When she cleared the foot end, she pointed the E-90 at an emaciated and neglected man in a dirty hospital gown. He cowered on the ground in a ball. His bleeding hands, fingers gnawed bloody, didn’t stain the bed. For an instant, they locked eyes, and then he looked up and past her.
You poor bastard, how long have you been trapped here?
“No,” he shrieked, crossing his arms in front of his face. “Not again.”
Kirsten opened her mouth to say something to calm him, but powerful hands grabbed her arms. A pair of inhumanly large bald men hauled her backward away from the screaming patient. The man holding her left arm had dark skin, the other fair, and both wore dingy white orderlies’ uniforms smeared with old, dried blood. They gazed at her with stark, all-white eyes, grinning with demonic glee. Screaming, Kirsten struggled futilely as the men hauled her into the air as though she weighed nothing.
The clatter of her E-90 hitting the ground never made it to her ears amidst the nauseating blur of the floor and ceiling trading places. The men overpowered her as easily as adults manhandling a six-year-old. She twisted and kicked her legs, but the stone-hard fingers digging into her arms didn’t budge. The sensation of being dragged around brought back memories of her mother and set off a panic attack of thrashing and shrieking. She snapped out of it to stunned silence when her face struck a padded floor with a sharp pop.
A straitjacket appeared out of thin air. Straps like living snakes coiled around her body and between her legs, buckles clattering. They cinched tight, forcing the breath from her lungs. Straining at her trapped arms, she kicked herself over onto her back and stared out the door of a filthy padded cell. The two orderlies hauled the malnourished patient, protesting and kicking down the hallway outside. The huge men walked into the wall at the end of the corridor, the panicky ghost passing through the open doorway between them. His eyes frantic, he clawed at the air, reaching for her, screaming as if the orderlies dragged him off to his second death. In defiance of her trapped arms, Kirsten scrambled to her feet and ran after them, but the padded door of her cell slammed closed in her face, trapping her.
“No, dammit, let me out!” she screamed”
Her aimless squirming did little against the dirty jacket. As the reality of being locked in a small room flooded her mind with terror, images flashed on the walls. Her mother’s gargantuan face appeared around her on all four sides, laughing in a deep, demonic voice. Kirsten scrambled to get away from the woman in front of her, but tripped over a torn cushion and landed sitting with her back against the cushioned wall. The instant her head hit the padding, clothes appeared in the air above her, swaying. The cell took on the appearance of an oversized closet. Her uniform faded away to a dingy dress and bare, bruised legs. For an instant, she became eight years old again, locked in her mother’s closet. Kirsten closed her eyes, steeling her mind against whatever external force drew these images to the surface. I am not a child. I am not a child. When she looked again, her uniform had reappeared. Ducking under the hanging coats, she lunged to her feet and attacked the door, screaming while kicking at it over and over until she sagged against it, out of breath.
The E-90 lay on the floor, mocking her with its uselessness. Not only did it require her fingerprint on the trigger, it would do more damage to her than it would do to the straitjacket. The whisper of a child’s voice in the back of her mind warned her not to make too much noise, or mother would be angry.
No, Mother’s dead. She’s not coming.
Kirsten concentrated, slowed her breathing, and ceased her impotent struggle against the canvas crushing her arms to her chest.
Not real, this is not real, she chanted in her mind.
Mother’s visage sank back into the walls, leaving them once more simple tattered pads. The ancient door should crumble at a touch, not behave like stone. Likewise, a centuries-old straightjacket should be as brittle as paper, not crush her with suffocating force. This thing isn’t real either. It appeared out of nowhere. With a tenuous grasp on her composure, she wriggled around to peek. Her shivering ebbed at the sight of unfastened buckles, drawn ever tighter by an unseen force.
Just energy. She gasped. I can get out of this.
Her short-lived respite ended with the sudden appearance of the mechanic’s face in the door’s dirt-encrusted window. Her heart almost stopped.
He flashed a gleeful grin and licked the glass. “Time for dying, little one.”
She gave up squirming and opened her senses. The energy imbued in the restraint became tangible to her, like a coat of slime. Her trembling ebbed. She locked eyes with the man in the window.
“I’m not that easy.”
Kirsten snarled and focused her power at the entity. Anger and fear sent a surge of energy outward from her mind, overwhelming the spirit. The straightjacket exploded away from her as she flung her arms out to the sides, and a long-needed rush of air filled her lungs. She leapt through a flurry of tattered canvas scraps at her weapon.
She somersaulted over the E-90, popped up onto one knee, and put a blast of azure light into the padded door. Kirsten fired twice more, tracking to the left as the man ran off. Each shot left a half-inch hole in the wall, ringed with embers. She closed her eyes and allowed a few short breaths to calm her nerves in a room too small for comfort. After bracing her hands on either side of the door, she stomped on it until it gave out and swung open. A wheeze of relief leaked from her throat as she stormed out of the cell. Before she could enjoy freedom, an unexpected noise made her turn.
A gurgle emanated from a doorway down the hall, past a fallen gurney and a wheelchair that had been rusting in place since before she was born. Smoky haze that could’ve been the result of laser fire or disturbed dust hung in the air.
Oh shit, please don’t tell me I hit a cop.
The E-90 had left holes in the wall opposite the cell, and also in the far walls of the rooms beyond. Fortunately, none had any indication of fresh blood. She edged up to the doorframe, taking in a deep breath while trying to rein in her racing heart. Fragments of conversation floated out of the hiss in her ear. The officers outside reacted to laser streaks coming out of the building, but what they said after that drowned in white noise.
The tip of her gun quivered in midair for the second or three it took to find the courage to whirl through the door and aim at the source of the gurgle. A pallid man lay upon the bed, clad in a hospital gown, his body arched such that only his shoulders and feet made contact with the mattress. His head, crushed almost flat, stained the pillow black with a puddle of gore. Hands raked in erratic strokes clawing at the air, in motions like film fast-forwarded in short bursts. He struggled to rise, but appeared glued to the bed by his smashed skull.
She ran to his side. “You poor man, what did he do to you?”
Most would have run screaming at the sight; then again, normal people wouldn’t have even seen him. Kirsten frowned, shaking her head at the confused haunt. A disembodied eyeball amidst the carnage of what used to be a head shifted to look at her.
This is where you realize I can see you. Yep… that’s right. I can see you.
The eye followed as she backed into the corridor.
“I’m sorry for what he did. I will release you.”
Twitching hands pointed up at the ceiling.
Kirsten jumped as the ambient lighting flickered in time with a distant electrical buzz. Screams in the voice of the starved man the orderlies had taken rang out from far away in the building. Agonized shrieking continued for a moment, then fell silent.
A shiver of dread ran down her body. Please just be a residual imprint and not that poor guy suffering all over again.
The man with the crushed head had gestured at the second floor. She remembered seeing the steeple of a small chapel at the back of the building on the way in, and cringed. That always meant trouble. Dark energy often congregated in those places, as if the structure could focus their power.
Nothing good ever happens in a place of religion. She shuddered, cringing at the memory of her mother’s voice calling her the spawn of the Devil.
Kirsten opened the doorway to the stairwell, and yelped, startled by the sight of an old woman in a wheelchair. Her crushed head ran down into her lap like crimson wax from a melted candle. The mangled skull shifted toward her as the ghastly flow of gore retracted upward into an intact face bearing a commanding look.
Kirsten nodded. “Yes. I’m here to help. I will set you free from this place.”
Satisfied, the elder pivoted and wheeled off through the wall.
Once the old one disappeared, Kirsten advanced. Her boot alighted with a squeak on the first step. For no particular reason, the scent of industrial lubricant surrounded her all of a sudden. She froze, sensing the approach of paranormal energy—behind her. An involuntary eep escaped her lips as she whirled to find the mechanic, close enough to kiss, his handgun pointed at her forehead.
Scraggly brown hair hung to the shoulders of his stained blue jumpsuit, his head cocked at an odd angle. His eyes, solid white without a trace of color in them, glowed against the unnatural darkness settled over his face.
Kirsten leveled off her E-90 at his chest without thought. The weapon chirped when it detected her fingertip on the trigger. But he’d snuck up behind her. He should’ve shot her in the back of the head.
The man just stood there waiting for it. Her eyes narrowed. She eased her finger away from the kill button. For a second, she gazed into his eyes. With the initial shock of his sudden appearance gone, she felt it: two entities stared at her, not one. Her lip curled as she summoned up a wave of mental energy.
She scowled. “No.”
A tendril of ethereal white light formed within her hand. She swiped it like a whip across his chest, pulling bits of ghost out through his flesh. The man shuddered as a spectral apparition exuded out behind him and coalesced a few feet away into the shape of a middle-aged man in a white doctor’s coat, holding an ancient medieval mace coated in blood. The ghostly doctor emitted an echoing wail, rattling windows and small objects on distant metal trays. Her astral lash hurt the spirit in no small way and filled his lifeless eyes with fear of obliteration. After a brief glare, he darted up into the ceiling before she could attack again.
The dull thunk of the mechanic’s head on the stairs brought her attention back to the living. Devoid of strength, his hand released his pistol, which clattered to a halt a foot or two away, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel. The blinking red light above the handle meant it had run out of ammo.
Thank you… Grateful for not having to take a life today, she kicked the gun off to the side for added security. This poor sot is as much a victim as anyone else.
Kirsten rolled him onto his back and pinned him with a knee in the chest, just in case he woke up fighting. After checking his pulse, she patted his cheek until he opened his eyes. He tried to look at her, but his head wobbled in delirium. She held his head still and gazed into his eyes, diving into his mind with telepathy. The boundary between their thoughts blurred. His recent memories became clear to her. Fleeting images of the outside: walking to his car, a cactus, a cat darting out of a hiding place, a trace of motion from the window of the rotting abandoned asylum. Then, without warning, the doctor right in front of him, nose to nose.
Kirsten shrieked and jumped back, the abruptness of the face in her mind interrupting her link. The rapid motion snapped the man out of his daze and he sat up, squinting, one a hand on the side of his head.
Kirsten tried to use her comm. Only static answered, but even if she had gotten through, she doubted the ordinary beat cops would come inside. “Come on, get up.”
“Huh? Where am I?”
“You’ve been attacked by a paranormal entity. I’m Agent Wren with Division 0. Please, come with me.” She nudged him to his feet and dragged the stumbling man by the arm to the exit. Once outside, she shoved him into a line of waiting Division 1 officers who all cringed and aimed at the door’s sudden opening.
“Hey!” shouted Kirsten.
The officers relaxed—a little.
“An entity possessed him. He’s a victim, not a suspect.”
Without waiting to see what they did, Kirsten left him there and ran back inside. She rushed to the stairwell and up to the second floor.