Bear Shirt

A man wakes up with a fuzzy memory and has to piece together what has happened to him. For starters, why is he upside-down?

It felt like his brain had been scooped out and replaced with a big fat wad of cotton. Beyond that, he couldn't feel much of anything. He opened his eyes, but nothing would come into focus. It was mostly a bright white blur with smudges of other colors mixed in here and there. One of the smudges began to move, smearing the already incoherent image. He heard a voice, a nasal, unemphatic voice that seemed vaguely familiar.
"So you're coming out of it, are you?" the voice asked. "A little sooner than expected, I must admit."
He knew the voice.
He couldn't remember anything more than 'Doc'. Everything was lost in the cotton haze. This disturbed him a little bit. He got the feeling he was supposed to know certain things and it was wrong that he didn't. Then again, maybe it was something else that was wrong.
"Hey, Doc..."
"What is it?"
"Where am I?"
"You're in the hospital. Why else would I be here?"
"Uh, who am I again?"
"You don't remember?"
"Not really, no."
"You should try to remember it on your own."
"Come on, Doc, toss me a bone here."
"Very well. Specialist Francis T. Meiers, born 26 June 92, serial number 932 dash AGK dash 5634."
"Doesn't ring a bell. Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"Oh, and, Doc?"
"Am I upside-down?"
"Any reason why?"
"You'd slip out of your restraints otherwise."
Sounding like his patience was wearing thin, Doc replied, "Your vision will improve shortly. Why don't we wait until your head clears up a bit, shall we?"
It wasn't like 'Frank' (as he'd decided to call himself) had anything better to do, so he just hung out for a while. As time passed, he could make out the general outline of the smudges, but none of the details. It was a start at least.
Looking down (with respect to his body), he saw the lights glaring back at him. He was suspended from the ceiling by a length of rope or chain and bound at the ankles. His eyesight was still fairly blurry, so he couldn't be certain what his restraints were supposed to be, but it looked something like a straightjacket. He couldn't say he was in pain or even uncomfortable. His whole body was numb, like they filled him with novocaine from head to toe. Still, brain was starting to take back some of the cranial space occupied by the cotton and he was getting closer to being able to think his way through the mess he found himself in. It was enough for him to realize something else was significantly wrong.
"Doc, what happened to my arm? I think it's missing..."
"Which one?"
Why did he have to ask such difficult questions?
"Uh... Gimme a sec... Ah, left."
"Well," Doc said matter-of-factly, "a high caliber round can do that sort of thing."
That didn't sound right.
"Um... How did that happen?"
"What do you remember?"
"Not a damn thing..."
Doc paused for a moment.
"Well, I think I'll refrain for the time being. See if you can remember on your own."
Doc paused again, longer this time, as if he was hesitant to reply.
"I'd... rather not set you off."
"What do you mean?"
Doc probably wouldn't have answered anyway, but if he had any inclination to do so, he was interrupted by a new arrival. It was an OD green figure, more or less human.
"What's his status?" it demanded.
Doc turned to the figure.
"Ah, Captain, so good of you to come."
He couldn't make out facial expressions yet and with no change in the tone or pitch of Doc's voice, it was impossible to tell if the figure's appearance was really welcome or not. Doc's head turned toward Frank.
"He regained consciousness a few minutes ago," Doc told the figure, this 'Captain', "but it will be a while until the sedatives wear off. I'm afraid you won't find him too terribly coherent."
As the figure walked up to him, he was hit with a sudden burst of information. The figure was his company commander, Captain Le, and Doc was Doctor Altman, a civilian doctor working at the hospital. So this was the hospital after all. If Doc wasn't lying about that, then Frank concluded that he might actually be this 'Francis Meiers' person, too. If his brain would just kick it into gear a bit, he might be able to remember for sure.
Captain Le walked up closer to him. Frank still couldn't make out the details very well, but the major shapes were starting to take form. He didn't know if it was the fault of his poor vision or Mr. and Mrs. Le, but the Captain's face seemed rather bland.
A new thought trickled into his head and it made him smile. He couldn't resist the urge to act on it.
"Sir, I may be upside-down, half-blind, missing a arm, and have a head full of cotton, but you're still short."
He was rewarded with the sight of red creeping into Captain Le's face. He had successfully remembered that his CO was sensitive about his height. What was it? Just a bit over a meter and a half? Something like that... If he could remember that, maybe he could piece together the rest of what had happened. Before that, though, he'd have to deal with the repercussions of his insubordinate remark.
"You've got some balls," Captain Le growled, "spouting that crap after what you did."
"What did I do?" Frank asked curiously.
"What!? Are you telling me you don't know!?"
He might as well have said he hadn't heard the earth was round. Before he could reply, Doc hastily intervened.
"I'm going to have to insist that you stop, Captain. Given the dosage he's been given, this level of cognitive dissonance is normal. Besides that, it's highly probable that he remembers nothing from the incident. If the memories are repressed, I don't want to risk dragging them out until he's transferred to a more secure facility."
"No," the Captain insisted stubbornly, "he's going to see what he did."
"I must protest."
"I don't care. You'll have to get Colonel Hollingsworth if you want to stop me."
Doc sighed.
"Are you willing to take responsibility if something happens?"
"Yeah. Now show him."
Doc sighed again and shuffled over to what was probably a phone on a desk. If it was a phone, he must have pressed the speakerphone option since he didn't pick up the receiver.
He could barely hear the voice on the other end. It sounded like a young woman with a bit of an accent. Okay, it was a lot of an accent.
"Yah, sah."
"Can you route a video feed to the monitor in Room 254A?"
"Ta-five-fo-alfah? Yah, Ay can da that, sah. Which fed da yah ned?"
"Don't worry about it. I'll get the video from the directory myself. I just need access to the main interface."
"Rojah that."
"That's all."
Doc hung up the phone and sighed yet again. He looked back to the Captain.
"Are you sure about this?"
"I don't like repeating myself, Doctor." The Captain was used to people hopping when he said 'jump,' Frank recalled. Le continued, "How's he going to see any of this anyway? He says he's half-blind and the monitor is way over there."
"This room is equipped with a wall panel display screen," Doc replied. "The image should be big enough even for him to tell what's going on."
Doc apparently noticed something show up on the monitor and he hunched over the computer next to the phone. While he was searching through the directory, Captain Le walked up behind him and peered over his shoulder.
"Do you know where it is?"
"Yes, Captain. They spliced the footage together to follow him throughout the incident. I only hope G-2 doesn't complain about me accessing the file. I don't intend to take the fall for this."
"Don't worry about it. I want him to see what happened. I said I'd take responsibility, didn't I?"
"So you did," Doc said, looking over his shoulder. He looked back at the monitor. "Ah, here it is. I'm transferring video to the wall panel now."
A sizable piece of the wall on the right side of the room flickered briefly. It had been white before to blend in, but it was now a dark grey. Doc looked over at Frank.
"Before we begin," he said, "I'd like to ask you a question: What's the last thing you remember doing today?"
Another trickle of information conveniently provided something he could use. His brain was like some starved dog pouncing on the few scraps tossed his way. He couldn't think any farther than the bits and pieces that came to him.
"Let's see... We did PT, I went back to the barracks to get changed, I had breakfast... Uh... Right... I was headin' to the motor pool, but I wanted to pick up my mail first. I'd forgotten it yesterday and I was expectin' somethin'... I don't remember actually gettin' there, though..."
"Well then, I suppose you'll have to see for yourself. Direct your attention to the wall panel if you would."
The first image to come on the screen was a view of the mail room from the perspective of a security camera. There were already a few people in there, the usual mix of civilian and military found on post. Less than half a minute passed when another person in uniform entered the mail room.
"Is that me?" Frank asked.
Nothing seemed wrong as far as he could tell. He watched himself go to his mailbox, open it and reach in to get his mail. Perfectly normal. But then it happened. His image on the screen stopped moving, still as a statue. The time passed slowly, a full two minutes until someone took notice of his immobility and gave his shoulder a light shake. His response was so fast that it was a blur to camera, not particularly helpful given the current state of his eyesight. The person who had roused him out of his stupor was slammed into a nearby wall and left slumped on the floor. He felt a tingle in the pit of his stomach.
"Is that guy dead?"
"You crushed his windpipe," Doc said, "among other things. He might've lived if the medics could've gotten to him sooner. The same goes for most of the others."
"Keep watching."
Frank kept watching and saw himself spring onto one of the civilians. He couldn't tell what happened to her. The video shifted to another camera inside the mail room that bore witness to him attacking the postal workers. He didn't like to think of himself as the vicious creature on the screen. He couldn't see well enough to be a hundred percent sure it was him, but because he couldn't remember anything, he had no way of being sure it wasn't him. It didn't have to be him, did it? It could be someone else. For all he knew, he could've been one of the victims. That was possible, wasn't it?
The video switched again to a camera outside the building. Two MPs were waiting only a couple meters from the door. Apparently one of the postal workers managed to call for help before meeting his or her fate. Within seconds, Frank saw a figure he could only assume to be himself emerging from the building. Hands on their holsters but not yet drawing, the MPs seemed to be demanding his surrender. They wouldn't live to regret their hesitation. He pounced on one and then the other before a single shot was fired. Now he had a ten-millimeter in each hand.
The video would shift as needed to follow him down the road as he randomly took shots at hapless pedestrians and vehicles passing by. He soon ran across a column of vehicles from a mechanized unit coming back from deployment. An unfortunate soldier in an IFV poked his head out of the hatch in response to all the commotion and took a slug for his trouble. This prompted a comrade to take control of the machine gun mounted on top and open fire.
Frank wondered what they were doing on post with weapons hot, but that wasn't his biggest concern at the time. He watched the ground erupt all around him in the barrage of automatic fire only to charge forward less an arm, unloaded the surviving ten-millimeter into the gunner's body. He just stood there seemingly unfazed by the bleeding, ragged stump that was once his left arm when the video stopped abruptly.
His vision had improved a good bit over the course of the video. He couldn't say the same for his mind, though. It still felt like there was more cotton than brain stuffed in there. He knew what he had just seen was bad, but he couldn't appreciate the true ramifications of it all.
He looked over to Doc and the Captain. He could now tell facial expressions well enough, although things were still a little fuzzy. Doc's face seemed as inexpressive as his voice, while Captain Le looked at him with the kind of scorn and disgust you'd reserve for a rabid dog who mauled a five-year-old girl.
"Eighteen people," the Captain growled. "Eighteen people dead and four seriously wounded in less than five minutes. What've you got to say for yourself, soldier?"
Frank didn't have anything to say. What could he say? 'Sorry 'bout that'? 'My hand slipped'? 'Please forgive me'? 'Aw, only eighteen'? The truth, perhaps?
"I don't remember."
Wrong answer.
"You try that at the court martial," Captain Le challenged, getting up in Frank's face. "You try saying those exact words and see what you get. You're gonna fry for this, boy. You're gonna fry and I'm gonna be there for it. Oh yeah, you'll pay for what you did here today. We'll fry you here as a warm-up for when you burn in hell."
Doc seemed to be compelled to intervene.
"That's quite enough, Captain. I don't need you making things any worse. I'm going to have to ask you to leave. You were supposed to come to inform him of the proceedings against him. You've done more than enough."
Captain Le clearly didn't like getting chewed out by a civilian. He left without another word, probably intending to vent his frustration on some poor junior enlisted schmuck. Doc didn't stay in the room either. As he was pulling the door close behind him, he looked back to his patient one last time.
"Did any of that refresh your memory?"
Shoot. Why not try the honest approach again?
After the Captain's reaction, Frank was surprised at the result: Doc had a little self-satisfied smile on his face.
"Good. I'm glad hear it." Doc switched gears without skipping a beat. "Well then, it's about time we start preparing for your transfer. A nurse will come by shortly to retest your vitals. Try not to cause any trouble until then."
The door closed and Frank was left by himself. He hadn't been alone ever since he woke up and his head was still too messed up for him to feel comfortable on his own. His eyesight was all but completely restored by now. If only he could say the same for his head...
He had no idea how much time had passed when the door opened again. It wasn't Doc, it wasn't the nurse, it wasn't even Captain Le. It was a man he'd never before, an officer in dress uniform with a lieutenant colonel's insignia and the regimental crest of PsyOps above a nametag that read 'Murdoch'.
"So, Fenris," the LTC said, "we meet at last."
The LTC looked down on Frank contemptuously, like he was a bug or something. "You're hardly worthy of it, but I wasn't the one responsible for assigning codenames."
Frank's head was starting to hurt.
"What're you talkin' about? Who are you?"
"Never mind who I am, though I suppose I might as well tell you what you are."
At this point, that'd be nice to know.
"You see, Fenris, you may think you're nothing more than a mere mechanic, an insignificant cog in the great military machine, but you're actually a vital component of a program that could shape our fortunes. Tell me, what do you know of berserkers?"
Frank struggled to remember, drawing from all the high school history classes he slept through and snippets from documentaries he saw while he was flipping channels.
"Um... Painted blue and howl at the moon?"
"Not quite," the LTC said curtly. "You're thinking of the Celts. Similar, but not the same. No, berserkers were a special kind of Viking warrior that knew neither fear nor pain in battle. You might think of them as the Old Norse version of the Green Berets. The berserkers were said to go into a mad rage in battle, either through the influence of a unique disposition or some primitive psychotropic drug. They would throw themselves headlong into the enemy formation, their audacity alone enough to shatter the courage of their opponents.
"Some historians discount the existence of the berserkers, insisting that they were nothing more than an embellishment by the skalds to make the sagas more interesting. I, however, like to believe that the Norsemen had unlocked a powerful secret in human warfighting capacity. And that's where you come in.
"War has changed since those days. We live in an era of guided munitions and precision strikes. The public cries out at the slightest degree of collateral damage and our leaders lack the courage to annihilate our enemies. While we may no longer be able to wreak utter devastation on a large scale these days, there are fewer complaints when it comes to neutralizing a small, hostile population. Yes, we can rely on the superb skills of our Special Operation Forces, but they are very expensive to train and maintain. To that end, we need a more economical alternative that sacrifices little of the effectiveness. We do this by reviving the berserker."
"Our research has yielded evidence of a high-adrenaline, high-aggression physiopsychological state we have dubbed 'The Berserker Syndrome'. The subject has virtually no cognizance of what he or she is doing, driven only by the urge to eliminate anything that stands in the way. Your little rampage was a good demonstration of the sort of capabilities I'm talking about. Eighteen dead in under five minutes without any medium or heavy weapons... Imagine what could've happened if that mechanized unit hadn't gotten in the way."
The LTC inhaled deeply, seeming to relish the thought. None of this long spiel was registering, not a single word would stick. The LTC either didn't notice or didn't care.
"Imagine if instead of a friendly base, you had been activated in the middle of a terrorist training camp. You would've been a hero."
While the LTC was yammering like some two-bit supervillain, Frank's brain continued to pull itself together. As his thoughts became more and more coherent, some relevant questions stepped forward. He wasted no time asking them.
"Why was I activated here? How was I activated?"
The LTC smiled and began to pace. He looked up to the ceiling as he talked.
"In addition to the ancient sources, there have been countless hints throughout history of the existence of the Berserker Syndrome, even in more current events. Did you ever hear the stories about the serial killer several years back, the one the press called 'The Outer Rim Ripper'? He killed 43 people before he was finally caught."
The LTC stopped right in front of him and leaned forward, looking him dead in the eyes. He didn't seem happy.
"He was my brother."
Frank stared at the LTC blankly. What was he supposed to say?
The rather tepid reaction seemed to amuse the LTC. A grin crossed his lips, followed by a low chuckle. He rose up, trying to stifle it, but soon burst into a loud guffaw. As the laughter died away, he abruptly swiped at the air and any levity was instantly erased from his mood. His features had regained the hard edge from before.
"My brother was unfortunate to have hit his prime before this program began. He clearly had the potential to be a candidate. Perhaps we still could've used him if there hadn't been that attack on the detention facility." The LTC exhaled deeply. "It's too late for him...
His spirits were buoyed as he changed topics. "However, there's no reason the program should move a single step slower than it has to. The puppet masters were beginning to lose their nerve and threatened to pull the plug. I couldn't let their cowardice put all our efforts to waste just as they were beginning to bear fruit. I activated you to open their eyes to the danger of canceling the program, the sort of risk they run by not keeping the experiments in a controlled environment." The LTC looked at Frank. "Yes, I was the one responsible for activating you. I knew they'd opt to preserve the program once they saw what would happen if any of us involved choose to sell our knowledge to the enemy. Now they'll fully appreciate our services and keep the program alive, maybe even expand it.
"As for how you were activated, the explanation is rather simple. Years and years ago they trained assassins to be activated by a codeword to execute their missions. The effectiveness was limited and it required the operative to be both fully trained in the required task and heavily conditioned to respond to the codeword. By finding specimens with Berserker Syndrome, we take advantage of a preexisting mental condition and use the built-in skill set to achieve the necessary objectives. Rather than conditioning the specimen, all we have to do is find the natural trigger and manipulate it. In your case, a particular olfactory signature acts as the trigger."
Frank's head was still hurting.
"An olfa-what?"
"A smell," the LTC replied, "a particular smell activates you as a berserker. We isolated that scent and I released it in your mailbox to set things off. As you already know, the execution was perfect... except for one minor detail."
The LTC pulled something out of his pocket, a syringe filled halfway with some amber liquid. He removed the cover for the needle, held up the syringe and flicked the side with his index finger.
"I can't allow you to live, Fenris," he said coolly. "It's a shame they managed to save you after you lost your arm. Although we expect most of our specimens to be used more than once, you must be disposed of. I don't know if there's any evidence connecting you to me in that brain of yours and I don't intend to find out in front of a court martial. History will justify what I've done, but I've got to continue my work if my efforts are to be recognized." The LTC crouched right next to him and ran a gloved finger along one of the veins in his neck. "You will be a sacrifice for the sake of the future. Take comfort in that."
No! He had just gotten his sight back and he was almost able to think straight again. He was just starting to understand what was going on around him. He couldn't die then and there and leave it at that. He had to get to the bottom of it all. Why was all this happening? Why him? How far did it go?
His racing thoughts did nothing to slow the LTC's steady hand. He wouldn't be able to stop him. ... ... ... What was that? Just as he was about to give into despair, a sharp odor pierced his nostrils like the needle meant for his neck. It was like the ammonia stink of used cat litter bathed in turpentine. He knew this smell. He had smelled it before... in the mail room...
His eyesight, which he had been so happy to regain, became murky a red mist descended on him like curtain. A surge of power rushed through his entire body like a wave of icewater and his scrambled mind went blank. He had no idea what happened after that.

* * *

Doctor Altman stared at the video feedback from the hidden camera in Room 254A. Even with one arm and the lingering effects of powerful sedatives, his patient had torn apart his restraints and yanked down a few ceiling tiles along with the chain that bound his feet. He was on top of LTC Murdoch in a classic mount taught in the hand-to-hand combat segment of basic training. His hand was buried in the Colonel's chest, a technique not covered in any training the doctor was aware of. Nevertheless, he demonstrated once again that a berserker would rely on skills and techniques naturally embedded in the unconscious, whether it was the product of formal training or mere observation. Indeed the berserker was a flexible tool, but far from invincible. Murdoch had used his last bit of energy to inject the berserker with his fatal cocktail, bringing both men to their end in a grim draw. It was a bit of a shame, really.
The door opened and a portly, bald-pated Naval officer let himself in. The doctor only glanced at him briefly before turning back to the monitor.
"Captain, what brings you here from Norfolk?"
"I heard there was an incident here involving one of our subjects."
Doctor Altman nodded. "Yes, Murdoch activated Fenris. As you can see, both are dead now."
The Captain looked at the screen appreciatively, stroking his well-trimmed goatee.
"I take it you were the one who activated Fenris the second time."
"That is correct. Was I out of line?"
"Not at all," the Captain replied, shaking his head. "I couldn't have asked for a better scenario. Murdoch was overstepping his bounds and needed to be put in his place. It was a mistake to involve someone like him with the program."
"That may be so, but he was useful for a time."
"Indeed he was," the Captain agreed. "The Minister of Defense won't dare cancel the program now, but the experiments will have to be more low-key from now on, at least for the next five years."
The doctor turned off the monitor. "It's for the best anyway. The controls will be tighter in these most delicate stages of testing."
The Captain nodded, but stopped as if he had suddenly remembered something. He handed a folder to Doctor Altman. He looked at it curiously as he opened it.
"What's this?"
"The latest candidate," the Captain said. "She's still in the Academy, but her potential as a berserker is promising. We have yet to find the trigger, though."
"All in good time," Doctor Altman replied.
He looked at the picture of the young cadet and all the preliminary statistics that had been gathered in her. He deliberately ignored her real name, as he did with all the other specimens, and indexed the mental image by her codename: Hrist.
With candidates like her, the program was guaranteed a long and fruitful life. The cost of recent events was a small price to pay.