Content Warning: Random Access discusses warfare, violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attempted suicide. Please exercise your own judgment. If you feel reading this story will have a bad effect on your health, please don’t read it, and seek professional help.
Francine held her breath as the phone rang with long, obstinate chirps. One. Two. Three. Do failed call attempts count towards your call balance, she wondered? She hoped not, because given the fact this was an overseas—
"Hello," came the voice of an American man, crackly and textured by his breath, potted with compression artefacts.
"Hello," she said, in her best ‘telephone’ voice, "is that Carter Settle?"
A second or so of silence, followed by a sudden cut-in of white noise. "Yes, speaking. Who’s calling?"
Francine glanced at the clock and did a quick calculation. Half past midnight Alaska time. Bollocks. She always ballsed up in some way or another with calls like this.
"Yes, hello," she said, settling back in her chair, relieved to have the right number. "My name’s Dr Francine Sheppard, and I’m calling from King’s College London… I’m phoning about Keir Liddell."
Another second or two of garbled silence. There was a whistling that might be breathing, or might be a problem with the line, and then—
"I’m sorry, could you say again? You’re calling from King’s College where?"
"My name is Doctor Francine Sheppard," Francine repeated, slowly, "and I work in the neuroscience department at King’s College in London, England."
"Aaahm…" (definitely a bad time to call, Francine thought.) "I’m sorry, what were you calling about?"
"I’m calling," said Francine, restarting her sentence when she realised what she wanted to say, "I’m looking for any information, no matter how minor, about the disappearance of Private Keir Liddell."
There was another pause. Francine assumed that, on the other end, Settle was screwing up his face in confusion.
"Keir Lidell went missing twelve years ago in Mosul," Settle said, in a tone that radiated passive hostility. Francine was beginning to think that calling at half past midnight Alaska time had been a bad idea.
"Private Lidell went missing after you were ambushed while out on patrol in Mosul. You woke up in a military hospital in the U.S. three weeks later with no recollection of the event. Correct?"
"Yes, that’s correct. I don’t understand…"
"I believe I may be able to help you find some closure," Francine said, quietly.
That caused another pause, followed by an ‘umm…’ of bewilderment. Then, "I wonder, could you call back later?"
"I could," Francine said, "but I was wondering if we could arrange to meet some time this year, and I quickly need to check if that’s possible so I can file my expense forms."
"Uh… you’d probably find it difficult to come and meet me, I live in a very remote part of Alaska…"
"I know you do. I was wondering if there was any point at another time when we could meet when it’d be convenient for both of us," Francine said, wincing at the clunky phrasing she’d allowed to flood from her mouth.
"Well," Settle said, "I’m heading out to visit my family tomorrow—today, sorry—so I’ll be in New York from Friday evening. I’m only staying for a week, though, so I’m not sure if you’ll be able to make it in time."
"Right," Francine said, slowly, buying herself time to think about whether or not she’d be able to get it past the finance office. "I could probably arrange to fly to New York to arrive by Saturday there. Shall we do Saturday evening or Sunday morning?"
"I’ll be very busy, I’m not sure I’ll have time."
"I’d only like to speak to you very briefly," she stressed, "we could meet in a coffee shop, or somewhere, if you’d like. I’ll only need you for a quarter of an hour, at most."
There was a long pause, and a loud, deep noise that might have been Settle clearing his throat.
"I’ll see what I can do."
Carter shivered awake, as he always did, at exactly the same point, every time he had a variation on that same dream (which must, by now, have been at least three nights in the last seven.)
He found his hand drifting downwards, and consciously pulled it away, remembering the stab of guilt he felt whenever indulging one of his Keir Liddell fantasies. He’d slept on his other arm, which was now numb, heavy, and red.
Carter groaned as he shook it out, burning blood trickling back into his capillaries. He used his good (right) arm to fumble for the light switch, turned it on, and read the clock. 8:49 a.m., eleven minutes before his first alarm was set to go off. The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour and a quarter.
He hauled his torso upright on both arms and took a deep breath. Silence: the only sound was of the distant water mill generator, Carter’s own breathing, and the howl of the wind. There was no way he was going to be able to get back to sleep now.
The phone call.
Carter locked his hands behind his head and recalled last night’s phone call. Francine Sheppard, neuroscientist at King’s College in England.
Why would a neuroscientist be interested in Keir Liddell? Everything surrounding his disappearance was classified. At least, the report Carter had written had been classified.
He shivered: it was getting a little cold. He could still smell the embers, the latent smoke from yesterday’s fire. The soup he had made himself, too.
There would be no point in lighting himself another. He would have to leave by one o’clock to ensure he was stood by the railroad line in time to catch the train at three. The flag was there, in the corner, furled by the door.
Carter swung his legs over the side of the bed, and breathed deeply. That little mental detour had taken the best part of ten minutes: it was now coming up to nine.
He stripped out of his long johns, and sat on the toilet while he waited for the heater to warm up enough water for the bathtub. He flipped through the news on his tablet while the coffee dripped through the filter and into the jug. Predictable stuff: cyber-security, religious freedom; the President was making noises about the Middle East.
We always find some excuse to be in the Middle East. Those eighteen months in Iraq had made Carter fiercely apolitical, and cautious of anyone painting themselves as a liberator. Iran, Iraq: what difference does one phoneme and a few degrees north-east make?
Two slices of sourdough bread, toasted, topped with poached eggs, buttered, eaten slowly. Carter shivered a little, and tightened the belt on his robe, cocooning himself in the latent heat. He ran his hand through his hair, still drying: too long. He’d have it buzzed back short once he got back to NYC.
He phoned his mom, the voicemail answering for her. "Hi, Mom," he began, as the tone reverberated into silence. "I’m taking the train in a couple of hours, so I’ll be at Newark tomorrow evening…"
He thought like he should say something else, but had run out of things to say. It was what it was. "Yeah," he finished. "I’ll see you tomorrow."
Carter hung up, and rootled around in his closet for a shirt.
Amira positioned herself by the doorway, glaring daggers at Francine as she stuffed her computer into her travel bag.
"You can’t keep doing this," she said. "I’ve already got the Principal on my arse after I authorised that trip to Copenhagen."
"I know," Francine said, not looking up. "I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do—"
"I understand you need to contact your test subjects," Amira sighed, "but for god’s sake, this is the twenty-first century—"
"I know," repeated Francine, zipping up her bag and bustling past Amira.
"Just…" Amira began. "Call him, now, tell him you’ll be able to meet him but it’ll need to be… are you even listening to me?"
"No," Francine called, as she strode through the double-doors and walked straight into the back of a taxi on the Strand.
"At least send me the receipt!" Amira bellowed, as the cab scooted off.
She retreated to the office, poured herself some herbal tea, and tried not to consider her next budget meeting with the Principal.
The train gave a distant hoot of its horn by way of acknowledgement.
Carter rolled the flag around its pole, and collapsed it on the telescopic tubing. He tossed his rucksack to the conductor as the train squealed to a halt, and hauled himself up onto the car.
He shivered as the conductor took his fare and printed his ticket. His North Face jacket was soaked through, his boots were waterlogged and muddy, and he was certain that his underwear was damp. The hailstones that had settled on his coat began to melt as he found a seat and relaxed.
The train lurched. It was unusually quiet. It had improved in recent years, but it still only ran once a week: if, like Carter, you lived, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere, the flag-stop train through to Anchorage was your only route back to civilisation.
The hailstones reduced to a patter of rain, a gentle yet fierce shower casting grey trails across the windows. Carter leaned his head against the glass, glaring at the landscape—and his own reflection.
He closed his eyes in weariness, and mulled over last night’s phone call. Again.
It took less than a mile of glacial acceleration for him to be lulled into sleep.
Francine felt Settle’s eyes drilling into her face as she sipped her flat white.
His appearance was generally unchanged from the photograph on his file from fifteen years ago. There was pale skin (whiter than in the picture), a finely-performed buzz cut that made his head look slimmer than it truly was, and a brow that seemed perpetually furrowed. You could tell he was ex-military, although he looked at least ten years younger than he actually was.
"I’m sorry about the phone call," Francine said, taking her computer out of her bag and placing it on the table. "If I’d have known…"
"It’s nothing," Settle interrupted, dismissively. The brow remained furrowed, and he was sat bolt upright in the chair. He hadn’t touched his tea. Francine waited for a moment out of courtesy, but it was clear he wasn’t going to add anything.
"The reason I got in touch with you," Francine said, "is because I believe you would be a good candidate for my research project. Did you…"
"I know you’re a neuroscientist," Settle cut in. "I saw your website. Extracting information from the brain, is that right?"
"That’s over-simplifying it," Francine said, "but in essence, yes. Specifically, we’re looking at using it in therapeutic environments."
"In treating post-traumatic stress disorder." She opened her laptop bag, and pulled out a folder of freshly-printed documents.
Carter Settle leafed through the report with slow, deliberate page flips and an occasional glance up at Francine. The cup of Earl Grey he’d ordered on entering the Starbucks remained untouched.
"Why me?" Settle asked, suddenly. "Why did you ask me?"
"Your case was referred to me by Sergeant Trommer."
"Kyle Trommer?" His old platoon leader.
Settle placed the folder down on the table. He spent a few seconds surveying Francine, blankly.
"You think you can help me remember what happened in Mosul," he said.
"You were ambushed during a routine patrol in Mosul," Francine recited, from the report she’d read half a dozen times on the plane, "and you managed to hide in a nearby house. You were shot in the firefight, and woke up three weeks later having been flown back to New York. Keir Liddell’s body was never recovered, and the family whose house you’d barricaded yourself in were killed in the crossfire." She looked up, made eye contact. "I know this might be sensitive… but we might be able to offer you some closure on the matter. See if you can remember what happened to him."
"I remember that a whole family was killed in the building," Settle snapped. "And Keir—Private Liddell was never seen again. I know enough."
"We can do the test in the US, if you prefer," Francine said. "It’s very non-invasive. No drugs, we use hypnosis to induce the recollection. The electrodes are on the inside of a helmet, you don’t even have to peel them off—"
"Forget it," Settle said. "It’s…"
His lip softened, creased a little, and he broke eye contact.
"I’m sorry. It’s something I don’t want to revisit. I don’t want to see him die." He paused for a moment, his eyes seeming vacant, disinterested. "He meant too much to me."
Francine made the deduction. "Were you…"
"Not officially," Settle said. "Fraternisation regulations… don’t ask, don’t tell…"
"I see." An ideal candidate, Francine thought, if it wasn’t for any kind of moral compass. Treating PTSD was one thing—re-opening old wounds was another.
"Well," she said, standing up, leaving the report on the table, "I’m sorry about that, and thank you anyway…"
"If you change your mind, you’ve got my number," Francine said. "Thanks anyway."
She left the coffee shop and strode for the subway station thinking about the kicking she was going to get from Amira for a wasted airfare to New York.
Keir Liddell was almost certainly dead. There was no need to look back in time and relive the gory details.
That was what Carter had been telling himself, during the walk back to his mother’s apartment. True, there was an inkling of curiosity: the same inkling of curiosity that made you wonder, stood on the subway platform, what it’d be like to step onto the track into the path of an approaching train. L’appel du vide, psychologists call it—the call of the void—the sudden urge to jump from high places, or to turn the bread knife on oneself.
That was as far as his knowledge of neuroscience extended… but he’d given the files a quick read. Attach electrodes to the subject’s head (they were actually stuck to the inside of a helmet, or skull-cap) and use the brainwaves to build up a scene in the Half-Life 3 game engine.
The idea made him feel queasy. Carter Settle put a high value on his own privacy of thought: it had been critical for him in Iraq, in a secret love tryst and quietly pessimistic about the war, their chances of success, and the entire political landscape; his mom had made perpetual attempts to erode it, too. She’d sat him down to ‘talk,’ something he hated. Despite his insistence that he wasn’t ready for another relationship (having confessed his longing for Keir Liddell) Mom had tried to set him up with no less than seven separate men and women.
Sometimes, Carter wondered if he would ever be ready. He was not doing well at "moving on," unless you counted an eremitic existence in the middle of nowhere. He liked his life, though: the simplicity, the tranquility, the silence in place of NYC’s perpetual assault on his senses. He had slow-band satellite Internet, a satellite phone which he received no calls on, running water, firewood—that was enough.
For now— dammit. His phone was buzzing.
He frowned at sight of the screen. ‘Number withheld.’
His finger hovered over the ‘reject’ button for a few seconds—was it worth it?
"Hello," he said, lifting the handset to his ear.
"Hello? Who’s calling?"
A single breath, filtered, deep—
The line went dead.
Carter’s blood ran ice-cold as he felt the key turn without resistance in the lock.
Someone had been in his house. There was no doubt about it.
He nudged the door open with the tip of the flagpole. No-one in the living area, and the pistol he kept in the airing closet was still there. His computer was still there, and so was the satellite arrangement; the drawers had been neatly opened, searched through, and closed, selectively. Not the work of a burglar, who would have ransacked the place and quickly cleared off—
And a creak of the floorboard confirmed it. Whoever it was, they were still here.
He raised the pistol, his pulse quickening. Someone was in Carter Settle’s house, miles away from the nearest road—had they come in on the same train that he had? No, he would’ve seen them…
The gun’s grip was warming in his hands, but something felt off. It was too light. He checked the magazine. Empty.
"Show yourself," Carter growled. "I’m—"
Light poured through the windows as the sun emerged from behind a cloud… and cast a shadow, a human shadow, in the kitchen.
Carter moved. He smashed the door back on its hinge and sidestepped into the kitchen.
He pulled back his arm, but before he could bring it forward to connect, something was making blunt contact with his head.
Carter didn’t remember his legs crumpling.
He opened his eyes slowly, allowing the irises time to adjust and for the vaulted ceiling to come into focus.
He was still in his house. That was good. In his own bed. Someone had lit the fire.
He turned to face the source of the noise. A man, sat at the bedside. A little shorter than Carter was, a fair bit swarthier, with a full head of hair in place of a regulation high-and-tight. And he was thinner than Carter remembered him being.
"Shit," Carter whispered, blinking, squeezing the eyelids shut, then open, reaching to pinch himself.
"Sorry about knocking you out," Keir Liddell said, sitting forward in the chair. "How you doing?"
Carter closed his eyes. This must be a dream… mustn’t it? Keir Liddell is dead.
"Great," he whispered. "You’re… you broke into my house."
"Sorry." Keir moved the mug on the bedside table a little closer. Earl Grey.
"You’re dead," Carter said, stupidly. "You’re…"
"It’s a long story." He looked down at the bedsheet, and the smile that had been forming on his face evaporated. "I’m sorry I didn’t try to get in touch."
Carter didn’t have the words to finish the sentence. The tea had become cold, and his bladder was nearing capacity.
Keir gave way as Carter swung his legs over the side of the bed, keeping a wide berth. He waited quietly outside the toilet, and did not speak as Carter poured the tea down the drain and warmed the kettle on the stove.
"You could’ve just microwaved it," he said, breaking into the silence softly.
"It doesn’t taste good," Carter said. "Best to use fresh water each time."
He turned to face Keir, stood, slack, nowhere in particular in the middle of the kitchen.
"Can I get you some coffee?"
It took him a second to shake himself back to reality, turn his attention from the middle distance to Carter. "Just some water, please."
He filled the mug from the faucet, and their fingertips brushed as he handed it to Keir—he was here, he was alive, this wasn’t some kind of hallucination, or a ghoulish apparition of his dead friend.
Lucidness returned, like blinding sunlight as a morning fog lifts.
It had been twelve years. Twelve years since the clandestine kisses in places they knew they would not be discovered and drummed out for every regulation under the sun; twelve years since the loss, the hail of bullets that had struck Carter’s back.
"Come here," he whispered, placing a hand at Keir’s waist, and closing his embrace with a deep breath.
It was a few seconds before his old comrade loosened, and Carter closed his eyes and held him tight.
"How did you get here?"
"Hired a truck, drove up from Portland. Hiked up to here." Keir didn’t look up as he spoke. He was in the bathtub, sat in front of the fire, washing himself in slowly-cooling water. Carter had never got round to installing a shower in his little log cabin.
Age had made him better, Carter decided. He looked in the mirror in the mornings and saw an old man—Keir looked like someone matured, rugged. Back in the Army, it had been impossible to consider communal showering as anything but a necessary evil (despite the number of porn movies the idea had spawned, in practice it was one of the least erotic experiences possible.)
Now, on the other hand… Keir Liddell was a handsome man. This was quiet, intimate, and he had the time to appreciate him as he scrubbed the sponge into a blossom of yellow and white lather.
"You didn’t get any trouble at the border?"
"Nope. They don’t seem to check if you’re dead," Keir said, leaning back in the tub and exhaling.
"Figures. Was the hike OK?"
"Fine, if you know what you’re doing. Would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if you’d lived somewhere… y’know. Near a street."
"Why live out here?" Keir asked.
"I needed the quiet. New York looks different once you’ve done a tour of duty. Too much noise." He felt himself smirking involuntarily. "And my mom."
"She’s still trying to hook me up with people."
Keir snorted, cringing, a chuckle rising from his chest. "Does she know?"
"Yeah." Mom had made a big thing of it when he’d told her he was bisexual. "Just means she’s tried to hook me up with men and women."
"And you didn’t…?"
"No." Carter remembered the parties his mom was fond of throwing—the times she’d clumsily advanced someone towards him, and how he felt awful every time. "I told her I wasn’t ready. I needed more time. I didn’t want…"
He trailed away, and when his voice returned, it was hushed, little higher than a whisper.
"I couldn’t have something else. Not after what we had together."
Keir’s gaze had drooped again, staring at nothing in particular, his attention undrawn by Carter’s voice—he was engrossed in nothingness. The thousand yard stare, they call it: like the life’s been sucked out of someone, leaving them vacant, despondent, usually after hours on the battlefield.
"Right." His acknowledgement was with cut breath, reserved. He looked around, furtively.
Carter rootled in the drawers for a towel, and tossed it to Keir.
"You can borrow my robe, if you like."
The bathrobe looked good on him, if a little oversized. Carter made up some ramen noodles from a packet, and posed his question as they were eating.
"You still haven’t told me how you got out of Iraq."
"Hmm." Keir swallowed before answering properly. "I’m not sure."
"You’re not sure?"
Carter paused before swallowing his next fork of noodles. "Go on."
"I don’t remember much. I remember running, I remember driving into Turkey… I don’t remember it."
Amnesia. One doesn’t easily forget something like that. "Keir," Carter said, stopping the motion of his fork to address him directly, "I don’t know how or why you’re living off the grid, but you’re not yourself. You need to see a therapist."
Carter glared at him for a few seconds before he continued.
"That’s why I came back."
"Because I want your help."
"This is… a surprise."
"You could say that," said Carter Settle. "I was as surprised as you are."
"I do appreciate the thought, Mr Liddell," Francine continued, "but I’m afraid I must decline. I doubt the ethics committee will let me run the experiment on someone who’s legally dead."
Keir let out a hoot of breath in exasperation. "Right. Great."
Carter cut in. "You’re sure there’s nothing you can do?"
"It’s not a case of ‘can I do anything.’ Even if I could get a proctor, a hypnotist and get it cleared by Ethics in the next few days, they’re very serious about background checks, especially after the Butler-Cruise scandal. They’re going to find out that I’m testing on someone listed as MIA in a war that ended eight years ago."
Keir’s head drooped. His eyes narrowed, and his next few breaths were heavy, laboured.
"I’m sorry." Francine leaned forward, her elbows on the desk. "I’m considering your personal safety, too. I’m not an expert on military regulations, but I don’t want to put you at risk of being court-martialed for going AWOL. You’ve been living off the grid for twelve years, I suggest you stay that way."
"I know the risk." Keir’s mouth remained open, as if he was to continue with something else, but no other words came.
Francine twirled her pen between her fingers, looking down at the desk for a moment before making eye contact again.
"If," said she, "if all you need is access to the equipment, and our software…"
"Yes." Keir snapped in at that point, his posture sharpening.
Silence for a few seconds.
"I’ll need to think about it."
Keir had asked for a room with two beds at the hotel reception: Carter had not had time to protest, nor to suggest otherwise.
They had bought dinner (if it could be called that) from a nearby McDonald’s, and not said anything of value to each other in the process. The hotel room was distinctly average, with musty-smelling sheets—they’d got what they paid for, at least.
"You must have questions," said Keir, blankly staring out of the window, at the partly-obscured view of the London Eye.
The dimness of the lighting accentuated the threads of grey in Keir Liddell’s hair. The hair suits him, thought Carter, breathing in to speak.
"You had the perfect way out. Why come back?"
Keir did not say anything. He barely moved.
"Why are you so desperate to find out what happened back then?" continued Carter, his voice rising involuntarily. "It was twelve years ago, now."
"You remember the little girl, right?"
Carter remembered that much. The house they’d barricaded themselves in had been home to a small family who’d given them shelter from the charging insurgents. After the firefight, they were all dead.
"She couldn’t have been older than, what? Seven, eight? She should’ve been a young woman by now."
"It was a war," Carter said. After a pause for an extra breath, and a look away, "people die in wars."
"They didn’t deserve to." The statement was blunt, but delivered softly, and he thought he could hear Keir’s voice cracking at the end of the sentence.
Carter had nothing to add.
"I need to know for sure," Keir continued. "I need to know what—who killed them. I need to know."
"You don’t remember anything?"
"I remember you getting shot." (Carter remembered that much, too: the spray of an automatic rifle, a shear of dull punches followed by abject pain and unconsciousness.) "I don’t remember much after that."
Keir turned to face him. "What about you?"
"I remember getting hit," Carter echoed, quickly.
"I don’t know. I blacked out, I… I woke up in the hospital three weeks later."
Silence. He was expecting something else.
"I remember having a dream," continued Carter, picking his words delicately as he went. "I remember you being there. In the hospital… but it was a different hospital. Like a field hospital."
"You were in these… these old clothes, like you’d scavenged them. You came to my bed… you told me you loved me, you kissed me, you said goodbye."
Keir let a pause run through, opening his mouth a second or two before any sound came out.
"It wasn’t a dream," he said. "I remember that."
"Oh." Carter felt that he should be more astonished, but in light of everything—the reappearance of the only person he had ever truly loved, their surprisingly seamless journey onto a plane to England—he could not bring himself to be surprised. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense.
"Look." Carter stood up, and gingerly approached Keir as he spoke—not too quickly, not too aggressive. "I… uh…"
Finding the words was proving difficult.
"I never found anyone else," he said, "I never wanted anyone else."
"Yeah." Twelve years: twelve years throughout which he’d felt guilty whenever even considering a relationship with someone else. "I don’t know if…"
He didn’t have to say anything else—he took Keir’s hand, but he wriggled and pulled away a little.
"Sorry," said Keir, after a pause. "Not tonight."
Carter’s insides sank in disappointment.
"Once this is done… maybe."
"Right." Carter sat back down on the bed, and swirled the plastic spoon around in the melted McFlurry on the bedside table. Keir had turned to face the window again—he was avoiding eye contact.
He had a hunch, but he was not sure.
"Why are you so desperate to find out?" he asked. "It was twelve years ago. The bastards who murdered those people are probably dead and gone."
"Maybe." Keir leaned against the window-sill, and took a deep breath before the next sentence. "I just need to have a clear conscience."
Amira stopped, and took a brief glance at the man’s visitor ID. Keir Liddell. "Yes, sir?"
"Do you know where I could find the bathroom?" The man spoke with an American accent, a soft-spoken New Yorker. His clothing was simple, jeans, loose-fitting shirt, North Face body-warmer.
"Downstairs, on the left. Follow the signs for reception," Amira said. The man nodded, and she returned to her office.
Keir Liddell. Something about that name rung a bell…
She logged into her computer and did a desktop search for the name. Three documents, all tagged with Francine Sheppard’s name.
This was odd. A report—scanned—stamped with the word ‘DECLASSIFIED.’ U.S. Army.
Amira scanned the report. She’d read it before, when Francine was still trying to justify her expense claim for an open airfare to New York… but this was the first time she properly paid attention to its contents.
And the summary at the end. "Pvt K. Liddell, M.I.A. Pvt C. Settle, W.I.A. (discharge recommended.)"
She searched the web. Keir Liddell was a name on a monument in New Jersey, a plate added to a World War II memorial. Pvt Keir Liddell. Iraq. 2007.
There was a video, too. A documentary on some American cable channel about the Iraq war. She scrubbed through it—and there was the face of the man she’d seen in the corridor asking for the bathroom.
Pvt Carter Settle, said the lower-third caption. Amira blinked. She checked the other documents the search had brought up: the file for one Carter Settle, with a fresh-faced, close-shaven head attached to it.
The same face as the man looking for the toilets. The man with ‘Keir Liddell’ on his name badge—a dead, or missing, man’s name.
Amira’s hand hovered over the telephone receiver: she was in two minds about whether to call security or not. Is it worth it?
She stomped towards Francine’s office with heavy footsteps. No answer when she knocked. Room 249—that was where her experiments were happening.
The lift doors opened. The man she’d run into was there. Keir Liddell, Carter Settle—she was not in the mood to challenge him. How would she? The visitor ID cards did not have photographs.
The man smiled at her as she stepped in, and she politely returned the gesture, avoiding eye contact as they left the elevator and strode for room 249.
Amira held back for a moment, feigning use of the water cooler, allowing the mystery man to enter before she knocked on the door.
"For Christ’s sake, can’t this wait?" Francine asked, "I’m in the middle of an experiment. I haven’t got time to piss around with finances."
"That report you sent me," Amira snapped, her voice hushed, "the declassified one from when you were justifying your little jolly to New York."
"What about it?"
"That man who just walked past me had a dead man’s name on his ID. I read the report. Don’t try and bullshit me."
Francine looked beyond, the next room. The short-haired man was squatted aside a psychiatrist’s couch, upon which laid a man in his thirties, with a green shirt and brownish hair peeking out from the electrode cap he was wearing.
"Who’s that? Who’s your subject?" Amira demanded.
"I can’t name my test subjects, you know that—"
"You must have a record of his name. I need to see it. Now."
Francine sighed. "His name’s Carter Settle. He’s the man I met in New York, he had a change of heart—"
"And his friend? His friend whom—"
"Doctor Sheppard! Doctor Sheppard!" The man in the North Face jacket was signalling to Francine.
"Excuse me," Francine whispered, pushing past Amira.
She peered at the desk in the little alcove area of the room. Bottles of water, a first aid kit, a plastic pot of some strange powder—the label said Methoxetamine.
A folder filled with papers. She rifled through them—consent forms, declarations. The last one in the pile was dated Monday. Today was Thursday. No sign of any declaration signed by Carter Settle.
Amira returned her attention to the methoxetamine, searching for the word on her smartphone. Her eyes widened as she scanned the Wikipedia page: a disassociative hallucinogen, banned since 2012.
She remembered Francine’s research proposal. It had never mentioned hallucinogens: it had proposed using hypnosis to induce a recurrence.
And then she heard the grumbles from the next room.
The grumbles, the grunts, the heavy breathing, something that barely stopped short of a scream.
"Keir! Keir! It’s OK!" That was the man’s voice—North Face-man, the man masquerading as Keir Liddell.
And then the noises… "Ggg… gah! Get off me!"
Amira spun about and strode through the doorway. "What the hell is going on—?"
A green blur pushed past her, sending her askew into the doorframe and caught in a trail of wires. The electrode cap fell to the floor.
"Shiiiiiiiitttt," growled the North Face Jacket-man, dashing out into the corridor after him.
Amira plucked her legs free of the tangle of wires. "What the fuck was that?" she demanded.
Francine was on the phone, frantically jabbing the number for security. "I’ve got a test subject loose on the second floor!" she shouted down the receiver. "He’s delirious, he’s on methoxetamine, he might be a danger to himself… methoxetamine, it’s a hallucinogen…"
Amira had ceased paying attention. Her interest was piqued by the screen—three seconds of exquisitely-rendered violence, on a loop. Yellow-shirted NPCs (civilians, the key said), mown down by assault rifle fire, sprays of simulated blood erupting from the models.
From the first person.
It took a few loops before Amira processed this, remembered Francine’s experiment, and fully understood what she was seeing. Yellow shirts on the 3D models meant civilians. Some of them were children.
This was a flashback, enhanced by a hallucinogen. A memory of the murder of a family.
"My God," Amira breathed, averting her gaze and feeling queasy in the stomach.
Carter bolted out of the building and ran straight into a crowd of schoolchildren.
He looked left. He looked right. People, everywhere. Indistinct, anonymous—and there was no sign of the green smudge of Keir’s shirt moving along in the throng.
It was him. Was it? No. He’s delirious, he probably thinks—
He twisted around, looking down the road to the river. He had been to London once, as a little kid—he knew nothing about its geography. Buses roared past with destinations, place-names which meant nothing. Aldwych. Penge. Streatham. Westbourne Park.
Where had he gone? He didn’t trust Keir not to do something stupid—there! At least two hundred yards away, at the road crossing.
What’s he doing?
Carter sprinted, charging through clumps of tourists, and commuters, as the pedestrian lights went green, then red. An eighteen wheeler truck was now occupying the lane—dammit!
Bus. He jumped onto the rear platform of one of the buses, grasping the handrail as the thing accelerated viciously past the truck, past Waterloo Bridge.
"We’re only going two stops, sir," said the conductor, a wizened, overweight man with withering grey hair. "Charing Cross. You need the other 15."
"I know," Carter breathed. (He did not.)
He held tightly to the handrail as the Strand rolled past—the Savoy Hotel, streets and shops he had never seen before… there! There he is, thank God!
He leapt from the bus. The conductor shouted something indistinct at him—Carter had crashed into a trashcan, and rolled into a group of elderly women.
"My god," one of them whispered, primly, bending down to help the young man up—but it was too late, he was up, and Carter hurled himself down a cobbled street—Villiers Street—as the green smudge of Keir’s shirt vanished into the building ahead. EMBANKMENT STATION.
He fumbled at the gates for the card he had bought the other day, and slammed it against the yellow panel.
"Would Inspector Sands please report to Platform One immediately," boomed the announcer, with startling clarity.
The screen lit. The gates snapped open. Carter dashed through, but stalled—staring incredulously at the signs ahead of him.
District and Circle lines. Northern line. Bakerloo line. Where had he gone? He could not tell—
"Would Inspector Sands please report to Platform One immediately."
He started down into the labyrinth, tripping, stumbling down the stairs two at the time—
"Would Inspector Sands please report to Platform One immediately."
—barging through the stampede of people, away from the train, disgorged, on the platform, its doors opened, the train empty—
"Attention, please, this is an emergency! Will all passengers leave the station immediately!"
and Carter’s heart sank as he stepped onto the train, and peered through the window.
The other train was stopped, halfway into the platform. Three men in high-visibility jackets were crowded around the stopping point.
"Attention, please, this is an emergency!—"
Something green was on the track beneath it.
The office was bare. All Francine’s things were in her bag, stuffed in so tightly that the zippers were coming off.
The only thing that remained was the computer. The e-mail application was open, with a letter that had been drafted and redrafted so many times that by now, Francine was sick of it.
Amira had brought her a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers—she had fought back tears—but no amount of goodwill from her colleagues would undo this damage. This all felt… dammit. Everything about this felt wrong.
She gave the mail one last scan.
Many of you will by now be aware that I have been suspended in light of serious malpractice charges brought against me by the College, following an incident with one of my research test subjects.
In the past few days it has become clear to me that, regardless of whether or not I bear ultimate responsibility for this deeply saddening event, my position is now untenable. It is therefore with great regret that I announce my resignation from my post at the College with immediate effect.
I would like to thank all of you who expressed your support, and wish you the best of luck in your future studies.
Sod it. She clicked ‘send,’ and closed the computer.
A rumble passed through her office, a distant groan of an Underground train passing beneath her. The same stretch of track onto which Keir Liddell had thrown himself.
Francine stood, meaning to leave the room.
She could only bring herself to stand, and glare at the beechwood of her own desk.
The muzzle of the handgun did not recoil between Keir’s teeth as he squeezed the trigger. No bullet came to offer the blessed relief he had hoped for.
He loosened his grip on the pistol, and sank back to the floorboards, shaking, half in laughter—no, mostly in sorrow.
No way out. Even the subway train in London had failed him: mangled his legs, yes, but not released him from his burden.
Lucidness returned, like blinding sunlight as a morning fog lifts.
He did not say a word as Carter entered the room, removed the gun from his grip and lifted him back into his wheelchair. I should be grateful, he thought, as he failed to reciprocate a kiss on the eyelids—where the tears were—and the whispered affections.
"It’s OK. I’m here. I love you."
Every time, when he was stupid enough to think he could do it, Carter brought him back down to earth. The same talk, every time. "It was your own confirmation bias," was the usual gist of the words. "You were on hallucinogens and worried you’d done it. That doesn’t mean you did it."
But Keir could not know for sure. He could not know that he had not once flown into a cold rage, shooting everything and anything in sight—riddling children with the contents of a military-grade magazine. The image of the little girl—whose name he could not even remember—had been seared into his mind.
He could not know what had truly happened. He could never know.
"Feeling better?" Carter asked him, gently, placing a glass of water at the bedside. Keir nodded, although he was not, in any way, feeling better.
He glared at the curtain, at the glare of the sun behind it. He could go outside if he wanted to—Carter had moved them both to a first-floor apartment in Seattle—but it was nearing mid-winter.
In legal terms, Keir Liddell was still a non-person. He could not find a job (if anyone would take a person with only half of one leg, the remainder lost in a botched suicide attempt) and he could not claim welfare. Carter was working two jobs, and it was showing—a desolate look on his face whenever he arrived home after one of his shifts, a blank stare into the middle distance. A thousand-yard-stare if there ever was one.
Keir was exhausted—these fits of mania were tiring—but he did not want to sleep. He knew his dreams would be tempestuous, an internal debate: did he do it, or did he not? Was it his rifle that killed that little girl, or that of the man chanting the name of Saddam Hussein? Re-living everything that might have been, in supreme, vivid detail…
He felt something soft at his ear. Carter had kissed him again. Keir clumsily turned his head to return it, but he was gone: he heard the hissing of the shower, and could see the time on the bedside clock. 3:15pm. Carter was on another shift at four.
Keir rubbed his eyes, taking deep, cool breaths. He felt lucid, but he could not know his own mental state for sure. And of course, when he was feeling better, it had to be just as Carter was leaving.
He was not here, seventy per cent of the time. Both of them were thin, unattractive: Keir was having trouble maintaining a solid appetite; Carter was over-worked.
In light of the twelve years he’d spent as a non-person, moving slowly from country to country, with the occasional casual lover, this was very different. Sedate. Bound to the apartment by another man’s love and a wheelchair.
Carter emerged from the shower and dressed quickly in the uniform, the gaudy green of a prominent hypermarket’s corporate dress. It always hurt Keir to see him like that. It was not so different to the khaki of the U.S. Army, but inversely humiliating—doubly so, Keir felt, as he was doing the extra shifts to support him.
"Call me if you need anything," Carter whispered, bending down and lingering with a kiss on the lips.
Keir breathed. He made a weak attempt to kiss back. Carter kissed him again.
"I love you," he whispered, standing up to leave.
"I know," croaked Keir, though his voice was lost in the rumbling of the light rail outside.
That was all that remained once the door closed and locked. The sound of the wind, of screaming traction motors, and the orange light of the sun.
Keir Liddell was alone. A non-person whose only remaining fixed point was someone in just as bad a state as he, but better at hiding it.
Carter loved him. Unconditionally. He knew that much. But whether Keir could bring himself to love him, after all the time, all the pain…
He could not know for sure.
Random Access is a short story written by Jonathan Rothwell. Text © Jonathan Rothwell 2011. This story is NOT licenced under CC-BY-NC: see its special copyright licence.
Thank you for reading.