Flash Fiction: The South Ward
For Terribleminds’ Flash Fiction Challenge “Sci-Fi Fantasy Open Swim“:
Terrance Palmer wasn’t a field agent. Most of his days were spent in the office, examining the profiles of perpetrators to assist the investigations of braver men than him. However, Agent Burrows had tapped him specifically to ride along to the mental hospital. With its wrought-iron fence and gate, long drive to the main building, and security measures including several checkpoints, Palmer felt it resembled a prison more than a place of healing.
“What do we know about her?” Burrows asked the question as they waited at the second checkpoint in the building.
“She is, or was, a professor of anthropology.” Palmer kept her file and notes from one of her books under his arm. “Her main area of interest was religions and cults, and she wanted to prove that there really is no difference between the two.”
“Makes sense.” The door buzzed and the two FBI agents were shown into the south ward. “How does she go from that to… what was it?”
“Paranoid delusions.” The doctor who met them supplied the answer and offered his hand. “I’m Doctor Ahmed. Thank you both for coming.”
“Has she made any more threats?”
“No, Agent Burrows, she has not. She continues to say the world is in danger and she knows the how and why.”
Palmer looked into the common area as they were lead back towards the woman’s room. One man watched them walk by, his left eye twitching in a disturbing fashion. Palmer tried to ignore it, and stay on task.
Ahmed produced a ring of keys, unlocked the deadbolt, and opened the door. “Doctor Chamberlain? The men from the FBI are here.”
She had been facing the wall, sitting at an old desk, and turned to face her visitors. Palmer had seen photos of her before, but they hadn’t captured how piercing her blue eyes were in person. Her long brown hair, normally braided or in a bun for her promotional photos, was only loosely tied back, and strands hung in her face. She stood and smoothed out her formless gray sweatsuit.
“I apologize for my attire, gentlemen, but creature comforts like appropriate clothing are hard to come by in this gulag.”
Ahmed held up his hands. “Now, Doctor Chamberlain…”
“You be quiet. Go drug up some of the others. You know, the actually crazy ones.”
Ahmed said nothing, but retreated from the room, leaving the door open. Burrows leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his red tie and FBI badge.
“You said there was going to be an attack.”
“Yes, I did.” Chamberlain’s eyes were fixed on Palmer. “You’ve read my book.”
He blinked. “How did you know?”
“You have a haunted look about you. And I see a photocopied page of Worshipers of Stars in your folder, there.”
Palmer took the folder out from under his arm, and nodded. “Yeah, that’s the one. Do you really think that ancient civilizations worshiped beings from beyond the stars?”
“Is it any more fantastical than worshiping an old man in a nightshirt living in the sky?”
“Let’s stick to the facts.” Burrows did not sound at all interested in the theological discussion. “The attack. How do you know about it? When and where will it happen?”
Chamberlain blinked. “I know about it because I pay attention. You can’t see them now, but the stars are right. It will happen soon.”
Burrows narrowed his eyes. “We were told you were making threats.”
“Not threats. Predictions.”
“Ugh. Come on, Palmer, we’re wasting our time.”
“Wait a second.” Palmer studied Chamberlain’s face for a moment. “You’re not crazy.”
Burrows’ voice was incredulous. “What?”
“I study crazy people. She isn’t crazy.” Palmer kept his eyes on the professor. “Did you mean to get incarcerated here?”
Chamberlain’s eyes went wide for a moment, and she nodded. “I knew it would be here. The layers between dimensions are thin where sanity is at its most tenuous. And the candidates are ideal. Pliable, weak in mind and body due to medication and sub-standard food…”
“Wait.” Burrows stepped forward. “Candidates for what?”
A scream came out of the common area. Something grabbed Burrows by the ankle and yanked him out of the room. His badge and sidearm clattered to the ground. Palmer rushed into the common area, and stopped short at the sight of what was happening.
The man who had watched them before now stood, his left arm replaced by some sort of rubbery, squid-like appendage that now had Burrows by the ankle. Blood and ichor seeped through his gray sweats and half of his face looked melted. His good eye, the human one, swung towards Palmer.
Palmer pulled his jacket open to grab his sidearm. At the same time, the man’s right hand split open like a banana peel and another tentacle spilled out onto the floor. It whipped towards Palmer. He ducked to his right, raising his Sig and lining up the sights. He went to the range every week as a habit, but had never fired on another human being. But is it STILL a human being? The question hung in his mind.
A gunshot went off behind Palmer. He glanced to see Chamberlain, with Burrows’ gun, her grip practiced and her expression calm. Turning back to the… thing… Palmer followed suit. A few rounds later put their target out the window. Palmer holstered his sidearm and helped Burrows to his feet.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ahmed was indignant, and terrified. Palmer turned to Professor Chamberlain and put out his hand.
“The gun, please, Professor.”
“Diana.” She put the gun in his hand. “My name’s Diana.”
“I’m Terrence. People call me Terry.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Terry. I think it’s safe to leave now.”
“I demand to know…!”
“Doctor Ahmed.” Burrows rubbed his neck. “My partner and your inmate just opened fire on something terrifying. Give me the paperwork to release Doctor Chamberlain. The Bureau needs her.”
“Not just the Bureau,” Diana said. “The world.”