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Wild Card Shuffle

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The click of his shoes against the tile floor echoed behind him like a ghost. This particular corridor was no longer fit for patients, and the overpowering antiseptic smell of the hospital had become significantly more dusty the further in he’d traveled. Through open doors he could spot bare cots and tables looming against the walls in the dark.

Sasha was not a suspicious sort. He did not scare easily. He refused to let ‘nerves’ overpower his rationale. But no sane person ever enjoyed being in a hospital. Especially not when their mission involved interviewing a formerly deceased person.

Eventually the dim natural light gave way to a beam of fluorescence at the end of the hallway. Below it stood an old, gaunt man in a dark-stained coat. His eyes were shut in thoughtful reprieve as he leaned his back against the wall. He reached into his breast pocket, retrieved a slim metal canteen, and took a deep swig.

As Sasha approached, the man looked up at him in unfriendly expectance. He must have been worried about the intrusion of other hospital staff, but his features softened into stale exhaustion at the presence of a stranger.

His face was grim, and his voice carried a knowing solemnity. It held the timbre of a macabre poet, dripping and drawling under its own weight.

“Let me guess... You’re not the victim’s family.”

“No.” Sasha said plainly. “I’m afraid not.”

He stepped beneath the circle of light, allowing the other man to see him fully.

“What a pity... Usually, when a body goes unclaimed... They aren't there to know about it.”

“I’m hoping to help him. Is there anything that you could tell me, Dr. ...? ”

“Membrillo. And I'm no doctor.”

“Forgive me. Did the... patient tell you anything? Something that could help us identify him?”

“Not really. He was asking questions, mostly.”

“About?”

“What you’d expect, I’d suppose... Who I was... what I was doing. But then he started asking... about nothing, really. What this town is like... ‘what I do for fun around here’... I suspect that he was just talking for talking’s sake.”

Sasha nodded, leaving a gap in conversation for him to continue. Membrillo let out a long sigh and scratched the back of his thinning hairline as he spoke.

“If you’re looking for answers, I’m afraid you won’t find any here. He wants to know what’s happening just as well as the rest of us. And if you’re looking for a scientific explanation, well... I doubt you’ll find that either.”

Sasha was unmoved. “There’s always a scientific explanation.”

Membrillo regarded him directly, and Sasha could almost feel the coroner's stare reaching under his skin. Much like his voice, Membrillo's eyes carried such depth that it felt like looking down a bottomless well.

“You sound like the boys upstairs. You know, they pulled him around for hours when he arrived... Back and forth. Test after test. And when they couldn’t find anything, they got scared... So they sent him down to me.”

Sasha shifted minutely. One of his shoes felt tight across the laces.

Membrillo sighed through his nose and released his hold on Sasha. He busied himself with the canteen once more, took a sip to wet his palate, and turned to look at the door.

“You’ll find the lab results on the counter in there, near the sink. Maybe you’ll make some sense of it that the rest of us couldn’t...”

Silence lapsed, and Membrillo hid the alcohol in his coat again. He chuckled darkly.

“That’s probably why they called you. Another set of hands to trade him off to...”

“I’m here to help him. That’s all.”

Membrillo’s gaze did not feel as condemning as before, though Sasha was looking to the door now, too.

“I hope that you can,” he said, one last sigh drawing his words out slowly. "I wish you luck. Both of you..."

With that, he left the light and shuffled toward the exit at the other end of the hall.

Sasha was alone, save for the dead man waiting for him on the other side.

It was a chilling, irrational thought.

He pushed aside his unease, pressed a gloved hand to the door, and stepped inside. He was instantly soothed by the clean, banal efficiency of the room. It was much tidier than the rest of the abandoned hospital wing had been. The lights were bright (almost glaringly so), and the reflective metal surfaces of the counters and work tables were clean and shining, aside from the one directly ahead of him.

One of the rolling autopsy tables had been converted into an impromptu examination bed, with a paper sheet covering its surface and a clean pillow brought down from upstairs. The "patient" was resting on one (thin) elbow to prop up his chin (jaw) as he lounged. His back (spine) was facing the door, and based on the tilt of his head (skull), he was reading something that was laying on the table in front of him.

As the door slid closed behind them, the skeleton spoke up conversationally.

"¿Ya has vuelto? Eso parece rápido... ¿Me extrañaste?"

Sasha didn't know what he expected, but it wasn't this.

Perhaps he had anticipated something more along the lines of a zombie... Someone who had died recently and come back, looking worse for wear but still recognizably human.

The short-statured man in front of him was nothing but bones, and yet very much alive. The blue hospital smock that he wore was open in the back, and Sasha could see straight through to the fabric on the other side. The clothing didn't hang limply, it rose and fell against the pressure of nonexistent flesh and muscle that should have been there. It was a disorienting view that made Sasha feel as though he were witnessing something unspeakably private.

The silence had stretched for too long. The skeleton took a glance over his shoulder and startled at the sight of the looming agent. He turned to sit up in a hurry, but the unexpected banging of bone against metal managed to frighten them both. Sasha stumbled back against the door and the skeleton flinched, holding a boney hand over his ribs with a muttered curse. The commotion was still ringing in their ears as they stared at one another in shock.

“Sorry-” Sasha started, but wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for.

Even without any true facial features, the skeleton's emotions were apparent. Fear and confusion were all legible across the bony creases of his skull, his empty sockets seemingly blown wide with shock. Sasha noticed three petal-like carvings etched into the center of his forehead.

"I'm not here to hurt you," Sasha said, controlling his voice back into an even tone and taking a careful step closer. "My name is Sasha Nein. I'm with the Psychonauts."

The skeleton straightened but did not relax. Sasha couldn't help but notice how the smock shifted across his chest with each invisible breath.

"We were called in by the hospital... We'd like to find out what happened to you, and help, if we can."

While he spoke, the skeleton's hand drifted down to his side. He attempted to drum his fingers against the table's surface, but flinched again at the unnatural sound of it.

Sasha couldn't help but think that Milla would have been a better fit for this mission. She would know what to say, not to mention how to say such things fluently. He didn't trust his own bedside manner or conversational Spanish to attempt it.

The skeleton's shoulders sagged, and his head dipped with a heavy sigh.

"...You wouldn't happen to have a smoke, would you?" he asked.

After a shocked pause, Sasha answered, "We're in a hospital."

"Come on. We both know that nobody's gonna come down here."

Sasha couldn't argue with that logic, and he knew intimately well that it could help ease tensions. He was even tempted to take one for himself, but thought better of it. He didn't want to get too comfortable.

Sasha reached into his pocket and handed one over. He lit the end with a small spark of pyrokinesis as it passed from hand to hand. He didn't miss the surprised jump, and the considerable pause before the skeleton took a deep drag.

As expected, Sasha could see (and feel) a wave of calm pass over him. He blew out a plume of smoke and sighed, "Gracias."

"You're welcome. I'd like to ask a few questions."

The skeleton took his sweet time before answering. Sasha could see some of the smoke trailing out beyond the confines of his breath. It seeped out from below his collar bone and the back of the open smock. He gave a faint ‘go ahead’ gesture with his hand.

"Shoot."

"What is your name?"

"Manny."

"...Last name?"

There was another pause as Manny held the cigarette to his teeth.

It was strange to watch him, and sense the expressions play out over his face rather than actually see them. His brows should have been pulled in thought.

"Not applicable," he said with a dismissive wave. "Next."

"...You don't know your last name?"

"Nope. Sorry to ruin your paperwork," he said dryly.

"Do you know your full first name, at least?

"What?"

The small comfort afforded by the smoke was fading fast.

"It's clearly a nickname." Sasha said calmly.

Manny seemed to glower.

"What do you care? I'm just going to be sent off to some psycho-research place, right? You can cut it with the small talk."

“...I think you misunderstand,” Sasha said carefully. It was frustrating to be caught on the wrong end of such suspicions.

But certainly not as frustrating as Manny’s night must have been thus far.

“I'm not here to study you, I'm here to find out what happened to you. There's a difference.”

Manny leaned back, crossing his arms over his ribs. “Yeah? And what happens to me when you can't find anything?”

“I can't say for certain, but if you’re worried about being treated as some sort of science experiment-”

Manny visibly bristled. Paled, if he could have.

“-you will not have to worry. I can tell just from speaking with you that you are not some medical anomaly. You are a human being.”

The air in the room was stifling. Neither moved.

After a few agonizing seconds, Manny cracked the tension with a single, disbelieving chuckle.

“...Albeit one that has experienced something very dramatic,” Sasha amended softly.

“Sure. I'd say dying's pretty dramatic.”

With the triumphant return of his aloof tone, Manny busied himself with another drag. Sasha looked away and spotted the folder of medical tests on the far counter, as promised. He made his way around the autopsy table.

“Well, that’s another thing you don’t have to worry about,” Sasha said.

Beside the folder, he also found a few small, brightly marked medical bags sitting in a plastic bin. He pulled one of the bags up gently by its edge, and discovered a dirty, crumpled bullet tucked into a clear corner. He set it back gently and took the folder instead. When he turned around, Manny was staring at him.

“¿...Perdón?”

“You’re not dead.”

At this, Manny openly laughed.

“You don’t happen to have any eyes under those glasses, do you?”

Sasha flipped the folder open. The photograph sitting at the top of the pile was more graphic than he anticipated, and Manny laughed again.

Sasha’s face had barely moved a muscle, but perhaps Manny was reading his emotional state as well.

The medical staff of the hospital had taken multiple, thorough photographs of their first examinations, likely as proof. The first showed Manny’s arm. It was covered in an indiscernible mixture of dirt, flesh, and tattered clothing; with a deep gash across his wrist that exposed the ulna and radius below. Clearly they had tried to find a pulse, and what little was left clinging to him from the grave had sloughed off under pressure.

Sasha continued flipping through the other photos and notes. The already illegible handwriting of the doctor gained a new tremble as the night went on. No pulse. No eyes. No functioning organs. One of the pictures showed the exposed cavity of his torso. White roots stuck out between broken ribs.

Over the course of hours, the patient became the cadaver.

With another turn of the page, Sasha found the proof of what he already knew.

“I know how it looks, but you are very much alive," he stated again.

Before Manny could quip back, Sasha handed him the printout of his CT scan.

"A dead man would not have a living brain."

Sasha leaned against the counter and felt for the changing emotions that emanated off of Manny as he studied the image. Disinterest. Confusion. Shock. Realization.

Manny snuffed out the cigarette against the metal table so he could hold it with both hands. "Madre de Dios," he breathed.

“I’m surprised you didn’t realize sooner,” Sasha said. “This amount of telekinesis would not be possible without it.”

Manny shot him the most obvious ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about and I’m beyond the point of asking’ look that he possibly could.

Sasha frowned. “You don’t remember your name or how you’ve come to end up like this. What do you remember?”

Manny snorted and set the image aside. “Well, hard to know what I don’t remember if I’ve forgotten it. I know the basic things. I can talk to you, for example, but I don’t remember learning English... or going to school for that matter.”

Sasha nodded, listening. Manny looked down at the scan.

“...Seems like the real problem is remembering anything to do with me.”

“And you don’t remember how you became such a talented psychic, I would assume?”

Manny’s jaw slacked open in surprise. “What? No. Pretty sure I wasn’t some palm-reader, if that’s what you’re saying.”

Oh, good. An amnesiac skeptic.

Sasha crossed his arms and raised a brow over the rim of his glasses. “Really.”

“It’s all mind games,” he continued derisively. “It’s just about reading people, making them think you know more than you actually do, right? It’s a trick.”

“You seem awfully certain for someone with no familiarity.”

Manny’s jaw clicked shut.

That explained quite a bit, as far as Sasha was concerned. If Manny had been using his powers as some form of personal trickery, it was likely that he was completely off the Psychonaut’s radar. He may not have recognized his own abilities as genuine.

Not to mention the fact that psychics often came into a greater awakening after enduring trauma. While he had never seen a case like this... perhaps a frighteningly deep near-death experience could suffice.

It was impossible to say either way, with memory loss on the table.

“I understand you may have your... suspicions. But the Psychonauts are a legitimate organization. The forces that we work with are tangible, quantifiable. I wouldn’t even be here if we didn’t think that your case may be within our wheelhouse. I can safely say that it is.”

“What, just because my brain’s still in my head?”

“No. Because it’s manipulating the world outside it.”

Sasha tried for a more direct approach. He had been sensing Manny’s aura since their conversation had begun, but now he used his own aura to reach out and make direct contact. Twining blue energy connected with the right-angled white light of Sasha’s immaculate mind, and he sent a small jolt of electricity through the link.

It was only a slim fraction of the power that would be necessary to form a mental bullet, but it was more than enough to give a light shock. Sasha could feel the flash-second as it hit the brain and branched out into the telekinetic tapestry Manny had strung his body together with.

Manny flinched so hard that he nearly fell off the autopsy table. “Augh! What was that?!”

“A demonstration,” Sasha said. He didn’t disconnect their linked minds, and allowed Manny the chance to sense his presence as well. He did.

Sasha could feel as Manny’s opinion of him changed.

There was a slight quaver in his voice, either from the new weight of reality or the lingering static leftover from the jolt. “This is insane.”

“It’s the truth. Would you like more evidence?”

“No.” Manny said quickly. He rubbed at his skeletal arms, and Sasha did feel a slight tinge of guilt. That kind of direct contact with his psychic body may have been overwhelming.

He looked aside and noticed the bin of evidence left on the counter. An idea struck him, and Manny looked up dubiously.

“I’m not actually interested in showing you what I can do,” Sasha said. “I would like to show you what you can do.”

He set the plastic bin onto the autopsy table before Manny, who now seemed much more wary of the entire situation. He held up his hands and scooted back from him. “I’m not sure-”

“Humor me,” Sasha said humorlessly. “Close your eyes and choose one of these items.”

Manny stared. “...Are you being serious?”

“Very.”

“I don’t have eyes!

“Cover them, then!”

Manny sighed and did as he was told. He reached blindly into the box, only to be stopped by Sasha’s gloved hand.

“Not like that.”

Manny pulled his hand back sharply, and moved the fingers away from his face for a moment just to glare.

He held his hand out above the box, fingers splayed. He cast it back and forth slowly, “feeling” his way in an utter mockery. But even through his disbelief, Sasha could sense that there was still some level of connection happening through Manny’s dowsing. He could sense the faint imprinted energies left over on each bagged object.

Manny plucked a bag that jingled as he pulled it up. He moved his hand away from his sockets and saw a ring of keys sitting in the plastic.

“Lucky guess.”

“Very. Now, let’s see...” Sasha said, taking the bag and unzipping the top. He tipped the contents into his hand and passed them to Manny, who leaned away.

“Isn’t that evidence?”

“The police will have very little to work with in your case,” he explained. “You can do more to make sense of it than they will.”

He took the keys begrudgingly and looked down at their grooved surfaces. They were still caked with dirt, and nothing about them looked familiar. They may as well have belonged to a stranger.

“Oh, yeah. This is totally helpful,” he deadpanned.

“Try to find an emotional connection to them.”

“Of course... These were my emotional support keys.”

Sasha’s patience was beginning to run thin. He peeled the glove from his right hand and tucked it into his pocket.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to help you,” he said, taking Manny’s hand in his so that they held the keys between them. There was a spark there, he could sense it, but he couldn’t follow the energy through any further.

“This object meant something to you. Even if you don’t remember why, the connection may still be there.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

“Open your mind.”

Manny tried to pull his hand away, but Sasha held it firm.

“I’m being serious. I can guide you, but you’ll have to be open to it. Trust yourself.”

Manny groaned and looked down. But with nowhere to go and nothing else to try, his skeptic bravado began to ebb away. Sasha could feel the tentative rise of energy as Manny’s attention focused on the keys, until it was the only thing that either of them could sense.

Nothing happened at first. It was as though the keys were floating in a featureless void, with no context or importance beyond themselves. But a change crept up on them, as though one of those very keys had found purchase in some invisible lock, and each turn was slowly opening a door.

An engine.

The clairvoyant vision hit them both like a speeding car, knocking a gasp out of Manny as his third eye focused on a sight that was countless miles away. In fact, it was a car, wrapped in a protective sheet and sitting in the darkened corner of some auto shop. There were other senses tied to the vision too, the strong burnt-in smells of motor oil and solvent that permeated the garage. And then there was the feeling- warm, inviting, comfortable. Someone was talking in another room, far enough out of earshot that the words couldn’t be deciphered, but the voice carried. The too-loud laugh was still in his head as the vision faded, and he gasped for breath like he just had crawled out of the earth all over again.

Manny pushed the keys into Sasha’s hands and climbed off the table in a hurry. He stood there, clutching his skull in his hands and trying desperately to keep the sob out of his throat.

Sasha watched him and waited. In truth, he needed to recompose himself as well. He methodically put the keys back into their bag, put the bag in its place, and moved the bin aside.

“Do you know who that was?” he asked carefully.

“No.” Manny grit out.

The energy was still clinging to him. He paced back and forth, shaking out the arm that had conducted the vision.

“We can help you find him,” Sasha said, bringing the issue of the Psychonauts back to the forefront. “We have the resources to form our own investigation. And more importantly, we can help you hone the abilities you already have.”

Manny glared at him over his shoulder.

“What are you getting out of it?” he asked bluntly.

“You are under no obligation... But our agency offers countless protections for all of its agents.”

Manny scoffed. “Agent?”

“We’ll pay you. Handsomely. We also offer food, lodging, and transportation. We’re the best resource for psychics available. It is in our best interests to look out for each other.”

Sasha could feel the faint unwinding as Manny unlinked their minds and retreated. He needed to think about this alone. Sasha remembered to pull his glove back on.

“...Admittedly, you are also a special case. We can ensure that your personhood is recognized, and you will not be forced into studies by outside sources.”

“Oh! Well then,” he said sarcastically, “How can I refuse?”

Sasha sighed. “We won’t let anything happen to you. If you would like to find out more about what’s happened to you, we can, but otherwise... Any experimentation or research is completely off the table.”

Manny set his hands on his hips and thought in silence. Sasha was having trouble reading his expressions anymore.

“...Alright. How do we do this?”

“We can worry about the details at the Motherlobe. For now, let’s just get you out of here.”

“Oh, I like the sound of that.”

Sasha looked around the room one last time. “You don’t have any clothes left, do you?”

“Most of it got wrecked,” he admitted. “And the rest of it’s in there.”

He pointed to the bags of evidence. Indeed, Sasha could see a few folded scraps of fabric amidst the plastic.

He reached into his back pocket and retrieved an extra pair of shades, and handed them to Manny. Manny looked at them in confusion before realizing that Sasha was also removing his overcoat, and he got the message quickly. He put both on, popping the collar over the sides of his face to obscure what he could. It wasn’t much, but it might keep a few wandering eyes off him.

Before they turned to leave, Manny lingered by the bin and reached for the keys.

“Take all of them with you.” Sasha said. “I suspect that these will either be thrown out or left to sit on a shelf.”

Manny nodded and hefted the entire bin from beneath.

“Hey”, he said conversationally, “I’ve got an idea for a last name I can use.”

“Yes?”

Manny grinned up at him, all teeth visible on his bleached-white skull. “Calavera.”