Aside from its red bricked facade, Queen Charlotte hospital wasn’t all that different from any other military treatment facility. Years of foot traffic and various spills had discoloured the linoleum flooring. A strong antiseptic smell wafted through the wards and out into the waiting room, mixing with the greasy, meaty stink of the nearby cafeteria.
A flurry of dead leaves followed Valerie Dutch into the facility as she strode through the automatic doors. The warmth of the hospital’s interior was a blessing after the biting cold outside. Several other people occupied the waiting room, transfixed by the overhead television and the witless prattle of a talk show broadcast.
Only a few people noticed Valerie’s arrival: a young man clutching his bandaged wrist in one corner, his head down and expression furtive. It grew more furtive once he caught sight of her. On the other side of the room was a woman wearing a shirt bearing the slogan, ‘Army wife – toughest job in the military‘. She, and her two young children, gaped openly at Valerie as she passed them by.
The reception desk was manned solely by dark-skinned man who sat behind a plexiglass shield. At Valerie’s approach, he looked up from his work. Valerie didn’t miss the way his eyes assessed her face before he spoke, but by this point, she was used to receiving scrutiny, disgust, pity.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I’m a visitor for Jagadish Kurian,” Valerie said. “Dr. Jagadish Kurian. Could you tell me what room he’s in?”
The man behind the desk nodded, consulting with his computer and clicking around with the mouse.
“Kurian, Jagadish,” The man repeated, eyes glued to his screen. “He’s on level 3, room 31-B. Visiting hours are only till 3 o’clock, so you’ll have to make it quick.”
“Thanks,” Valerie replied, stepping around the desk and towards the nearest elevator.
Like the rest of the ward, the elevator interior had a peculiar smell which only grew in intensity when the doors reopened onto level 3. A dull placard was front and center on the wall opposite the elevator, its stark black lettering authoritative and final. They spelled out the words, ‘Palliative Care’.
The entire level was quiet, punctuated only by the occasional cough or a muffled conversation. Valerie followed the numbering which designated the rooms until she found 31-B. For a moment, she stood with her hand on the doorknob, wondering whether she was making the right decision. Coming here at all was a risk. Dr. Jagadish Kurian could damage a person just passing them by on the street. It took some time before the courage required to open the door arrived.
Valerie expected Kurian to be in bad shape, but expecting and seeing were two different things. In her mind’s eye, Valerie still recalled Kurian as he had been two decades ago: an imposing nightmare of a man, with an aristocrat’s bearing and a sadist’s predilections. What she saw now couldn’t have been more different.
Kurian looked much diminished upon the bed, his thin blue hospital gown not concealing his thin arms or sagging skin. A wan beam of sunlight from the window illuminated the IV tube in Kurian’s hand and cast the contours of his drooping flesh into sharp relief.
Valerie looked at him.
He looked at her.
There was no sound apart from the quiet beeping of the EKG monitor.
“Valerie Dutch,” Kurian chuckled, giving her a rictus grin. His teeth were yellowed from years of tobacco use. “It’s good you came. No one else would.”
“Is that surprising to you?” Valerie muttered, dragging over a chair to sit by Kurian’s bedside.
“After everything I did for them, for you, I might have expected a bit of courtesy for the nearly departed,” Kurian replied, still leering at her.
“Everything you did to us,” Valerie corrected flatly. “Not for us, Kurian. To us.”
Kurian held her gaze impassively. Even now, that black-eyed stare was enough to make Valerie feel like she was 26 years old again and back at the facility which still haunted her dreams.
“Now, now, Dutch,” Kurian said, his smile cooling. “You know you wouldn’t be where you are today without me.”
Valerie shook her head at him. “Where I am today?” She raised a hand to her face, allowing her fingertips to trace the invasion of scars which had colonised the right side of her face.
“Where I am today?” Valerie asked again, voice growing louder. “Look at what happened to my face. Do you have any idea what it’s been like -”
“You knew what you were signing up for, Dutch,” Kurian snapped. “I’m not interested in revisiting old scores with you.”
“Then what are you interested in?” Valerie countered. “You asked me to come here, so here I am.” She frowned deeply at him. “I don’t even know why I bothered to come here. I should have my head examined again.”
“You’re here because you still have questions,” Kurian replied. “And you have questions, because you were always my most curious student. That’s why you were my favourite, you know.”
“I never felt that from you,” Valerie replied, gesturing meaningfully at her face. “And I’m one of the lucky ones.”
“We’re going around and around in circles, Dutch, and I don’t have -” Kurian began, and then devolved into a series of hacking coughs that saw him doubled over and trembling.
There was a glass of water on the bedside table, but Valerie didn’t bother handing it to him. At length he ceased and lay back down against the pillows, a trail of spittle upon his chin.
“I don’t have time, Dutch,” Kurian croaked. He lifted one frail arm and pointed at the battered briefcase propped up on the wall behind her. “Open that.”
Valerie did as instructed, lifting the briefcase onto the bed and unlatching it. Inside it was completely empty save for a few papers, and a nondescript black cube. Its surface was glossy like polished obsidian, and it was featureless aside from a circular notch on one of its sides.
“What is it?” Valerie demanded, although she had a feeling that she already knew.
“Do you even need to ask me that?”
Valerie looked warily at the box, like it was something diseased. “It can’t be what I think it is.”
Kurian laughed. “I don’t hear any conviction in your voice when you say that.”
Valerie scowled at him. “You actually created a black box device for human memories?”
“Is that so hard to believe? As I recall, you actually developed the beta version of it, so give yourself a little credit,” Kurian pointed out.
Unconsciously, Valerie’s hand drifted to the nape of her neck where, hidden under her hair, was a metal implant. The implant, a visible reminder of past sins, was the same size and shape as the socket on Kurian’s device.
“And this is the thing you asked me to see?” Valerie asked, letting her hand drop.
Kurian laughed. “Don’t be stupid. It’s not the memories. It’s what the memories contain, that’s what I want you to see.”
Valerie stared at him.
“I can’t finish my work, but you could,” Kurian continued.
“Hell. No,” Valerie said, emphatic and serious. She wanted to bolt out of the room. “Are you crazy? Scratch that; I know you’re crazy. You’d have to be to think I want any part of you inside my head.”
“It’s memories, Dutch, not mind control,” Kurian replied, trying and failing to grasp Valerie’s hand as she got to her feet.
“I don’t trust you either way,” Valerie replied, pulling her hand away. “I should have known better than to come here. I’m leaving.”
“You can’t do that,” Kurian bit out, trying and failing to make himself appear bigger. “I need you to say that you will at least look at them.”
“Why should I do anything for you?” Valerie demanded. “In case you haven’t noticed, the last twenty years have been nothing but misery for me. Not once have you ever reached out to help me. Even now, you can’t even be bothered to acknowledge any of what you did to me. To us. Top brass might have let you sweep it all under the rug, but I know the truth.”
“If you don’t finish what I started, then it’s all been for nothing, Dutch,” Kurian replied. “In that box are all the answers you’ve been looking for. If you used my work, you could be better. More than better. This I promise you.”
“I want nothing to do with your research,” Valerie said. “I’ve had to carry the results of it on my face for years. If you think I’m interested in going another round, think again.”
“I know you, Dutch,” Kurian said softly, a small smile playing around his cracked mouth. “You’re not the type of person to walk away from an unanswered question. That’s why you’re the only one of my people to see me here. I always knew it would be you.”
Valerie frowned deeply at him, but didn’t reply. Kurian picked up the box and held it out to her. He pressed the object into her reluctant hands.
“Guard this with your life,” he said urgently.
“What makes it so important? I already said, I want nothing to do with it,” Valerie protested.
It was the truth. She wanted nothing to do with it. Yet, despite her misgivings, or maybe because of them, she walked out of Queen Charlotte’s hospital that day with Kurian’s briefcase in hand.
By the time Valerie returned to her hotel on the outskirts of town, it was already dark. She had brought little with her for the trip, just one suitcase (still open on the bed) and a case of beers (cooling in the refrigerator). Upon entering the cramped accommodation, she kicked off her boots, shrugged out of her coat and tossed Kurian’s briefcase onto the bed.
It was strange to think that her encounter with Kurian an hour ago would likely be her last. It wasn’t like she would miss the bastard, but perhaps she could actually move on with her life without his spectre looming over everything she did.
Or maybe not.
Valerie leaned against the kitchenette counter, nursing a bottle of beer, and contemplated the briefcase, and the black box inside.
Valerie didn’t like unanswered questions, Kurian had been right about that, but there was no way to guarantee that the contents of the device wouldn’t simply create more questions. Perhaps the good Doctor had engineered events precisely so that she would spend the rest of her life trying to unravel a mystery.
She stepped towards the briefcase, stopped, and then pivoted to head into the ensuite bathroom. The harsh overhead lighting at least told no lies. Her face in the mirror was a familiar, if horrible sight, the contusion of scars on one side complemented by her sullen mouth and sharp cheekbones. Two blue eyes gazed tiredly back at her in the mirror. The scars had faded since the events at Kurian’s camp twenty years ago, yet no amount of time could heal all that ruined flesh, nor the phantom pain which accompanied it.
Slowly, Valerie propped her hands up on the bathroom sink and peered closer at herself. Should she bother with Kurian’s research? Was it possible to fix this? Or was it just another trick?
With a weary sigh, she switched on the shower, stripped off, and stepped inside of the tub without waiting for the water temperature to warm. She hissed as the cold spray hit her naked flesh, but it was a good pain, the kind that made you feel alive and let you know something still tethered you to the earth.
Valerie stepped more fully under the water and wished she could wash the memories down the drain.