I often wondered what it would feel like to be in love; in fact I have no memory of any love interest in my life. The closest thing to a childhood girlfriend I ever had was my next-door neighbor Cynthia; she would see me sat on the curb, on my own and talk to me. Her caring green eyes used to make me forget the outside world; she would tell me stories of far of places and show me pictures of her family, we were the closest of friends until her father died and she move to Washington with her mother, before the Puritan administration. I remember watching her car drive off into the distance. I was truly alone after that; my brother and father became more and more distant as I grew older.
I can see her now, walking towards me, she’s all grown up. She holds her hand out to me, but I can’t touch it, I don’t know why but I can’t. I call out to her but she can’t hear me. I try to move but I’m stuck caught on something that will not let go. As I make one final push to grab her hand I awake with a start.
My eyes sting at first as I try to open them; a sheer white light forces me to jolt my wounded shoulder causing me to yelp. As my eyes de-sensitized, I made out a whitewashed hospital room. The beeping of the heart monitor and the hustle of the ward assured that I was safe. I found it hard to believe that Ryker’s men would have driven me halfway across the city to the hospital. I began to search desperately for any sign of my rescuer, but there was nothing. Seconds later a nurse hotfooted into the room.
“Good morning Mr. Callahan.” She checked the chart before administering an injection. “You’ve been asleep for an awful long time”
My throat was dry and made it almost impossible to speak.
“How did I get here?”
The nurse smiled.
“Your friend brought you in; I’m sorry he didn’t leave a name.”
I sat up right.
“Can you describe him?
“Sure, he was short and walked on a cane? Wore a surgical mask?” The nurse smiled and walked out of the room.
My mind raced; had Ryker brought me himself? Of course not, Ryker didn’t use a cane, nor would he risk walking into a government building. My mind raced with possibilities, until, one possibility crossed my mind, ‘it could have been.’ The Hunched man.
“Nurse!” I pressed the call button erratically. “Nurse!”
After a brief pause, an elderly white-coated doctor entered.
“It’s alright Mr. Callahan, calm down, I’m Doctor Simmonds. How can I help?” The doctor perched on the edge of the bed.
“The man who brought me here, did you see him?’ I began to panic.
The doctor smiled and flipped through his clipboard.
“Listen here Mr. Callahan, The man who dropped you off, saved your life, I understand that. If you’d like to thank him, you’ll have to wait and see if he visits you. Otherwise just assume he was a Good Samaritan.
“No, I need to see him. It’s a police matter.” The heart monitor increased as I spoke.
“You’ve undergone a great deal of physical and mental trauma. You need your rest, try to forget about it for now. I’ll see if we can’t find any CCTV footage of him, ok?”
After a long deep breath I nodded and sunk back down into my bed.
“Now the real reason I’m here, I’ve noticed that we have no medical history for you on file. Don’t worry; it’s not unusual given the current deterioration of the hospital and the city around it. But I need to know if you’ve suffered any allergies in the past, or have any genetic disorders in your family’s history?”
I froze, I could not remember ever visiting a hospital before now, nor could I remember my Father ever telling me about a disorder within the family. Chunks of my memory had disappeared.
“Uh, I’m having trouble remembering, but I don’t think so Doctor.”
Doctor Simmonds’ smile dropped and he checked his clipboard once more.
“Hmm, it would appear that you’ve suffered a great deal of stress, perhaps it’s causing some of the amnesia you’re experiencing. I’ll schedule some tests to be done, ok?”
I clasped at my aching leg.
“Yes Doctor, thank you.”
As I sat trying to piece my memories back together, I couldn’t help but think of Cynthia. I hadn’t thought about her in years, why now?
Another sleepless night, laced with flashing images of my childhood. Both my leg and shoulder were still in a cast; I was bound to this hospital ward until further notice, with nothing to do except stew in my own festering paranoia. The extent of my social interaction included answering some of Doctor Simmonds questions as he attempted to generate a new medical history, and thanking the nurses as they administered painkillers. The insomnia and painkillers began to take its toll, the world around me gradually melted into a fluid transition of light and sounds. It was then that I realized the reason for Cynthia’s resurgence, I was in love. To fall in love with a memory would bring me nothing but eternal anguish, but there was no denying the emotions that I felt. It became apparent I had a knack for forcing my self into impossible situations, and if my encounter with Ryker was anything to go by, then I truly was destined for misery.
A knock at the door stirred me from my delirium. Stood by the door was a shadowed figure, I could barely make an outline before a voice spoke.
“Richard?” a calm feminine voice emerged. “Richard is that you?”
With little more than a splutter as my response, the figure moved forward and stepped into focus. A tall burgundy haired female stepped forward, her hair just brushing her shoulders, and her eyes? Her eyes were an encapsulating green.
“Richard Callahan?” Her soft voice reflected her sheepish demeanor. “It’s me, Cynthia. Do you remember me?”
I began to panic, this couldn’t be real, and she couldn’t have found me. The medication and sleep loss must have driven me to madness.
“You’re not real, are you?” My voice quivered.
Cynthia sat on the edge of the bed, and stared at the floor for a moment before looking back into my eyes.
“It’s me Richard, I over heard a nurse mention your name; I asked what room you were in and thought I’d stop by. You know, catch up?”
I sat up and stared without fault at, what must be, some kind of hallucination.
“You can’t be here, you moved to Washington D.C?”
“I moved back to Chicago after the administration, I found work as a anti-addiction councilor. What do you do for a living Richard?”
My eyes began to water, Could Cynthia have found me?
“I am…I was a detective for the Chicago Police Department.”
“Oh, I see.”
“You can’t be real, you can’t be.” My attempts to move were futile.
“Richard, calm down!” Cynthia rose to her feet.
“You’re not here, you can’t be.” I reached over to the call button. “I’m losing it.”
I began to push the button frantically; my chest grew tight with anxiety.
“If this is your way of telling me to leave, then I’ll leave.” Cynthia’s voice cracked as she burst into tears. “I can’t bear to see you like this Richard.”
As Cynthia left, I began to weep; my mind had played a cruel hoax. Moments later the on call nurse burst into the room, panting as she did so.
“What’s the problem, Mr. Callahan?”
“I’m starting to hallucinate, I-I can’t focus on anything.” I had broken down.
The nurse rolled her eyes and walked towards the bed.
“It’s ok Mr. Callahan, it’s more than likely a reaction to your medication. I’ll give you a sedative to help you sleep, how does that sound?
After a long exhale, the nurse pulled a small syringe from her pocket and pushed gently into my arm.
“There we go, Mr. Callahan. You get a good nights sleep and I’ll have Dr. Simmonds talk to you tomorrow.”
Almost instantly my body went numb, and a tingling sensation forced my eyes shut; for the first time in six days I slept.
Light peering through the blinds of the musky hospital room flickered across my face, gently awakening me from my well-deserved slumber. I gently shifted my self into an up right position and scanned the room for any potential sign of Cynthia, luckily for the sake of my mental wellbeing there wasn’t. I felt content for the first time in days.
“They’re going to section you.” A dramaturgical voice emerged from nowhere.
The shock forced me to knock my shoulder wound on the bed railing, I yelped in both astonishment and pain.
“They’ve determined that you’re a ‘paranoid schizophrenic with delusional tendencies’. And in about twenty minutes, they’re going to sedate you and transfer you to a Puritan cell where you’ll be, most likely, put down.”
I turned frantically to search for the source, until a shortened man stepped forth from the shadowed corner. His face covered with a surgical mask.
“W-Who the fuck are you?” I panicked and tried to feel for the call button.
“I’ve removed that call button for your own benefit Mr. Callahan.” The desiccated man sat against the radiator and smiled.
“How do you know my name?” I froze in fear.
“Come now, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that your name is clearly marked on the chart at the end of your bed. But the manner in which I learnt your name is irrelevant, you’ve got less than sixteen minutes now.”
“You’re the hunched man?” My eyes widened.
“Of course I am, you’ve been unnaturally interested in me as of late, have you not?” The Hunched Man stared with out falter.
“Y-Yes, you’ve been smuggling people across the Puritan border.”
“That, my friend, is the tip of the iceberg. Now, I am in need of your services, and therefore I will be preventing Dr. Simmonds from taking you away.”
As he spoke I examined the Hunched man’s, somewhat, gruesome complexion; standing at no more than five foot four, and shouldering a hideous growth, the Hunched man had more than deserved his name.
“Why would I help you?”
“My dear boy, I’ve already answered that. Let me put it another way, if you don’t help me? I’ll leave you here to be exterminated like a sick dog.”
“Why would they commit me after one episode?” I questioned.
“Because, they found something in your blood.” The Hunched Man’s smile widened.
“How do you know that?” I Sat forward and met his gaze. “What did they find?”
“Twelve minutes, Mr. Callahan, though I’m assuming I can call you Richard?”
I nodded and sat in deep contemplation; was this another hallucination?
“Richard? Can you fathom the haste that this situation requires?”
I shuffled to the edge of the bed and dangled my feet. There was still an intravenous in my arm; I clasped it nervously.
“I’d hurry up and remove that if I were you, no doubt they’ve been sedating you via intravenous.”
With a sharp tug the needle slid from under my skin. I turned off and removed the heart monitor and stood, stretching my neglected muscles. I felt a mass of blood rush to my legs and head.
“How do we get out of here?” I gestured to my hospital gown.
The Hunched man stood and walked over to the door.
“Associates of mine should be preparing to create a distraction in about three minutes, when they do we shall simply walk out of the proverbial back door.” The Hunched Man’s smug grin shone through the mask.
“What kind of associates?”
“Oh, you know, the loyal ‘don’t ask too many questions’ kind.” The Hunched Man checked his watch. “Ok, one minute.”
We stood in near silence as we waited for our chance, all the while I ran through the various outcomes in my mind, none of which were positive.
“What’s your real name?” My abysmal attempt at small talk.
“Richard, this is neither the time or place. But, I promise you, once this is over I will tell you everything.”
The Hunched Man smiled, before loud gunshots rang out from the corridor.
“Everyone, down on the floor!” a voice bellowed, “Now, hand us all the meds you got.”
The Hunched man motioned for me to follow and walked out into the corridor, as I turned to establish what was going on. I saw three rag-hooded thugs wielding sub-machine guns. The attention of all three men was entirely focused on Dr. Simmonds who was lying on the floor with a gunshot wound to the chest. As the medical staff remained distracted, the Hunched Man and I made our way out through the fire escape. The ladders proved difficult for the hunched man to negotiate but we eventually made it to the ground floor.
“I present to you, Richard, your freedom, due, in no small part, to yours truly.” The Hunched man’s smug smile had returned. “Shall we move on?”
“Wait just a minute, did you tell those men to kill Dr. Simmonds?”
“The time for questions Mr. Callahan is later. Now is the time to retreat to a safe facility.”
“Answer me!” My patience had worn thin.
The Hunched Man stopped mid step, his notorious smug smile had dissipated and had been replaced with a malicious frown.
“Did I, or did I not, just save you from almost certain death?”
I swallowed my pride and retreated.
“Then it seems to me, that you owe me a debt of gratitude.” The Hunched Man leant forward with menacing intent. “Gratitude, Mr. Callahan.”
“Where can we go?” I felt somewhat ashamed.
“There should be a car on its way.”
We waited for a moment before a rusted-black car pulled around the corner and screeched to a halt.
“Let’s go Richard, you’ll get your answers.”
The jerking of the car woke me. I opened my eyes to see wide-open snowy plains and a cheery Hunched Man sitting next to me. The rolling plains seemed to stretch for miles and miles. No sign of civilization or the looming Puritan wall.
“Where are we?” I yawned whilst rubbing my eyes.
The Hunched man turned with a smile.
“I’m glad you asked Richard.” He swiveled round and prepared himself. “We are rapidly approaching Lake Superior north of what was left of Milwaukee. Why? You might ask, well, I am a highly sort after specimen, and seeing as both Ryker and the Puritan administration want me dead on a platter, hiding in either state would be tantamount to suicide. So, I decided to move my operations north, to the abandoned territories, as to create a sort of, ‘wild goose chase’ in Chicago.”
I tried, with difficulty, to keep up with him.
“Operations? What kind of operations?” I prepared for another lengthy monologue.
“Now now Richard, that is exactly the right question to ask. But in order for you to fully comprehend the situation, I need to tell you a little about my self, a luxury not bestowed to most.”
“I’ll do my best to keep up.”
The Hunched Man chuckled before settling into his story.
“Let me start by asking you a question Richard, what do you know about the Puritan reproduction cycle?”
“They’re genetically grown in a lab, somewhere in Washington D.C”
“They are indeed, and like any other manufactured item, do you think that there may have been prototypes?
I paused for a moment, sensing a verbal trap.
“The first Puritan was unveiled in D.C back in twenty-seventeen”
“Ah, ha! You see, I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you Richard, but they lied to you, to all of you. The first ‘official’ lab dedicated to the research and development of what you know as the Puritan, was established in Michigan, in twenty-fourteen.”
“Bullshit! Why would they lie about that?”
“For a very good reason.” The Hunched map took a swig from a flask. “Originally designed as a method of curing cancer, the G.E.O.P or genetically engineered organics program, was nothing more then a collection of fourteen ‘farmed’ fetus. These fourteen lab grown organisms were one hundred percent artificial, using chemically engineered cells to form a humanoid life form with all genetic impurities removed.”
As preposterous as it sounded, I found it hard to doubt him.
“How do you know all of this?”
The Hunched man laughed heartily.
“One question at a time Mr. Callahan. As I was saying, once the fourteen organisms had reached what would typically be ‘birthing’ size, the team were presented with a choice; terminate and start again or attempt to ‘birth’ the organisms, of course it would have been highly immoral to birth the creatures, especially as the Christian Church had gained such an overwhelming presence in the U.S, the phrase ‘playing god’ was more than commonplace ”
“How did they cover the birthing up from the government?”
“Who do you think requisitioned the experiment? Who do you think was in charge? Who ultimately had the final say in the birthing?”
The Hunched man’s smug sense of satisfaction emanated from ear to ear.
“I don’t understand; if the government were behind it all, surely…”
“Mr. Callahan, please, what I have just told you is merely the tip of the iceberg. We’ll have plenty of time to deliberate on it more when we arrive.”
“If you say so.” I sat, swirling in my own thoughts, endless possibilities and vicarious morals that had broken all of my mental barriers; setting all manner of dangerous assumptions loose.
The Hunched man turned to look out side the window. I decided to take my mind off of the unwelcome information that had been revealed to me, and began to think about the fair-haired girl that had stalked my dreams, for the past few weeks. Seeing Cynthia grown up, hallucinated or not, only confirmed my feelings for her. She had developed into an astounding figure, yet her eyes were all too familiar, her eyes were doorways into my childhood, I’d never forget them for along as I lived.
We drove for another hour or so before the Hunched Man sprung back into action.
“Ah! We’re here.” He clutched his cane and prepared to disembark.
I peered out of the grimy window to see an old rust-ridden derelict structure emerging out of the almost pristine tundra landscape that surrounded it. The car jolted and ground to a halt just outside. After a brief moment, the driver and passenger both departed and immediately assisted the Hunched man with his own dismount.
“I can do it my self!” The Hunched man barked viciously. “Get away!”
The two ragged men retreated politely as I exited the car and made my way round to the trio. The taller of the two exhibited a shaven head covered in a series of red sores that had manifested, no doubt, from a strong addiction to methamphetamines. His ragged clothes and slumped posture indicated he was still a frequent user. The Hunched man straightened him self, as best he could, and turned to face me
“Richard, meet some of your new colleagues, your ‘partners in crime’, quite literally so; Ernie Samuels.” He motioned to the taller addict. “And, Mr. Fredrik Dansk.”
Fredrik Dansk, the shorter of the two, stood at no more than five foot eight inches, his darting eyes and chewed lips and patchy blond hair suggested that he too had a strong addiction to meth. The two nodded toward me, their focus still primarily on the Hunched man.
“You’ll see the others once we get inside.” He motioned us towards the tarnished door.
Samuels and Dansk both escorted the Hunched man and my self through into a large, poorly lit, warehouse. The metal supports and a large proportion of the ceiling had rusted, almost, beyond recognition. The pools of light that seeped through caught tiny swarms of dust that fluttered in the gentle breeze. As we entered three other ramshackle looking minions emerged from a large collection of metal crates that sat in the center of the warehouse. The hunched man turned and held out his arms emphatically.
“Bienvenue à notre masion, Mr. Callahan. This is my sanctuary, and a damn good distance from any Puritan patrols, you will be safe here mon frère.” The Hunched man gestured to the three, as of yet, unknown followers. “These are the remainder of my devotees; I would like to introduce you to Mr. Christophe Hartley.”
Christophe was a lumbering African-American man around six foot-seven; his large defensive arms and disgruntled expression forced me to take a step back. His shaven head also covered in a series of meth-related sores.
“Christophe here, killed five Puritans in a raid in downtown D.C back in twenty-twenty. He fled to a little shanty town in southern Chicago, and I plucked him from the ashes of squalor and into the light.” The Hunched man let out a hearty chuckle; all the while Christophe’s eyes remained intently focused on me.
“Next, I’d like you to meet Phillip Werner, our little snitch on the streets of Chicago.”
Werner’s appearance can only be likened to that of a balding sewer rat; his small beady eyes and repugnant clothing contorted my face into that of a grimace. His sweaty swollen hand rose for a brief wave. From what I could tell Phillip Werner was a heavy heroin addict, his pothole eyes, swollen red hands and gaunt face were all telltale signs.
“There isn’t a great deal I can tell you about Phillip, he’s a quiet sort. With not much of a history to speak of, or at least, it’s not worth your time.” The Hunched man beckoned over to the final figure. “This fine looking specimen is Daniel Crosby. I believe you have had the pleasure of meeting his younger brother, Edward?”
Anger boiled up within the very core of my being, I felt the sharp mocking eyes of the Hunched man peer into my soul and pick at all right buttons and switches, I held my ground and turned to greet Daniel.
“I was tasked with interviewing your brother, I’m sorry.” My heart fell heavy. “I’m sure he was a good man.”
I held my hand out for Daniel to shake; he stared for a moment.
“My brothers did what they needed to, Edward was no exception.” Daniel’s cold and demeaning character flowed with every mechanical word that emerged from his mouth.
“I don’t understand.” I turned to quiz the Hunched man.
The Hunched man raised his hand and stepped toward me.
“Daniel, despite his chosen circle of friends, is not an addict; when I found him, he had been working as a laborer in downtown Chicago. His brothers had all succumbed to addiction in one form or another-“
“They died the day that needle first pierced their skin.” Daniel interrupted.
“Quite so, Daniel. After much discussion Daniel and I decided to give his brothers a profound purpose; we used them to gather information on the other side of the border.” The Hunched man proudly exclaimed.
“How? They must have been caught and carted off to the Puritan state.” I folded my arms skeptically.
The Hunched man chuckled.
“Yes, normally, that would be the end of the story. However, I had, over the years, managed to acquire a series of fiber-optic cameras, no larger than a pinhead, from, shall we say, failed undercover narcotic agents.”
I had heard of a series of narcotic agents attempting to infiltrate the drug ring in downtown Chicago. Twenty-seven agents were either M.I.A or killed and displayed outside the precinct, the chief had put it down to snitches within the precinct, and had Internal affairs sweep every staff member, including myself.
“You killed all those agents?”
“No, of course not. By this point I had only Christophe and Daniel under my employ. We had swept the bodies for the devices and yes, maybe Christophe had to kill one or two agents, but that was all.” The Hunched man smiled.
“So what did you find out?”
“Ah ha! A very astute question, Mr. Callahan. After Daniel’s youngest brother, Simon, was escorted over the border, via lake superior and Michigan, his camera picked up a series of factories that we assume produce the Puritans. Minutes later he headed south towards Chicago; searching for any sign of weakness within the border.”
“But you’ve already infiltrated the border.”
“The route allows for one person only, if more attempted to infiltrate the Puritans would notice, and my plan would be thwarted.” The Hunched man’s smile seemed to have reached a new level of arrogance.
The Hunched man waved his finger and tutted disapprovingly.
“Patience Richard. As I was saying, moments after spotting the central production facility for this sector, he was caught and carted off to a Puritan detention facility. God rest his soul.”
I had never pictured the Hunched man to be religious, if anybody had a reason to disbelieve in an all knowing god it would be him, yet it seemed to in its own funny way, make sense. The Hunched man’s total motivation could be that he believes the Puritans are playing god, or maybe he believes that they are abominations and need to be ‘cleansed’ or maybe all of the above.
“A successful reconnaissance mission then, at the expense of Simon’s life?” My arms remained in the defensive-folded position.
“Simon was a waster, just like Eric and Edward. They served a useful and prosperous purpose before they died, they couldn’t have asked for better.” Daniel broke his silence once more.
“Quite. You see Richard; these men would have only perished like every other addict in downtown Chicago, and we presented them with an opportunity to make a difference.” The Hunched man mediated Daniels antagonistic answer.
“I understand. I just don’t like the idea of sacrificing people against their will.”
“Against their will? My dear boy, they gave themselves willingly in order to, both, end their suffering and provide a purpose; to achieve penance for their sins.” The Hunched man smiled and continued with his story. “As Daniel mentioned, the next oldest brother Eric was sent in to fully examine the central production facility, what he saw was truly magnificent; the Puritan birthing center for the entire merger operation. Eric found the army that the Puritans plan to use against the remainder of the Imperfect state.”
Involuntarily, my expression dropped; the entirety of the Puritan’s ‘eggs’, quite literally, in one basket.
“We plan, Mr. Callahan, to stop the merger outright, and from the source.” The Hunched man’s smile dropped and a tear manifested in the corner of his eye.
Suddenly the atmosphere in the room changed to a much more serious, almost militaristic timbre. I was in awe; for the first time in months I felt a glimmer of hope for the human race, and yet as I returned to earth, I noted the quantity and quality of the potential ‘comrades’ that stood before me, and my hope dissipated.
“Four addicts, a laborer and the Hunched man, is going to stop an entire army?” I dropped my arms in despair.
“Yes.” The Hunched man did not display his proud smug smile; instead he turned, emotionally, to his followers. “Yes we will.”
The Hunched man turned back to face me.
The pieces fell into place.
“You want me to help you over the border?” I felt curiously flattered.
“This is where Edward came into the fold.” The Hunched man turned to Daniel and smiled. “Edward was different; his addiction was not to drugs per say, but escapism, to a life not his own.”
“He was begging to be killed, he told me you had promised him execution.”
“I promised him the ultimate escape, the only true way out. He was supposed to investigate the Chicago border thoroughly. We were never to know that he would assault a Puritan, manage to sneak back across the border and into Chicago. His fiber-optic camera remained streaming when he was arrested by the Chicago police department, and that’s when I saw you.”
“You were watching the whole time?” My voice was low and harsh.
Christophe and Werner retreated to the large metal crates and resumed their previous tasks.
“What I saw, was a man in a rut; a position of great dismay. You hated the system almost as much as you hated the addicts who defied it. But more than that, I saw an inert instinct unlike any other I had witnessed before; you’re tenacious. But I was not entirely convinced, not, that is, until you wandered fool heartedly into Ryker’s drug fortress looking for me.”
I felt faintly nauseous, the fact I had been surveillanced by a group of addicts was a heavy and undesired notion.
“How did you know?”
“Werner infiltrated Ryker’s den long before you had waltzed in.” The Hunched man sat on one of the smaller wooden crates. “I sacrificed two good men to free you from that hospital, Oliver and Cameron were loyal until the end, and before you ask, they were shot on sight by your law abiding conglomerates.”
“What makes you think I’m worth it?”
“Because, I choose to. The reason you are here and not –god knows where- is because I choose to believe you’re the man we all desperately need.” The Hunched man smiled. “I can’t, however, include you into my operation until I know that you are willing to commit entirely.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“I intend to make one last defiant strike against the inevitable. I intend to sabotage and disrupt one last time.”
This man, this, marred man had evoked hope in the hopeless, provided purpose to the purposeless, of which I now considered myself. To this man, the Hunched man, I owed my life, and yet my desire to join came from an entirely different source. To this day I do not know if I pitied him, empathized with him or simply hated the Puritans enough to side with anyone apposing them. After a brief pause I agreed, a purpose, rebellious or not, was a purpose nonetheless, and I now felt a soothing sympathy for every begotten soul that begged the Hunched man for meaning. For I was one of them.