The boots were military, which narrowed his list of possible visitors considerably. Granted, there was no one on the remaining list he wished to see, so Dirk remained where he was, still and silent under his bed.
He watched whoever it was come fully into the room, the door closing behind them. Someone cleared their throat. Dirk recognized the voice immediately. There wasn't enough room under the bed to curl into a ball, but Dirk wanted to. Oh how he wanted to.
"Svlad," Riggins said, sounding unusually patient. Dirk didn't answer. Riggins gave an exasperated sigh.
Dirk watched him cross the room to retrieve Dirk's chair, Riggins dragging it to the edge of the bed, its legs scraping obnoxiously against the terrazzo floors.
"Aren't you a bit big for this?" Riggins asked, the chair creaking beneath his weight. "Also, your feet are sticking out."
Dirk liked it under the bed. It was quiet and dark and when he was a kid no one had ever thought to look for him there. Oh, he had no doubt they knew where he was, but they'd seemed content to leave him in peace, and in a place where he was rarely unobserved, it was nice to escape their scrutiny.
Still, Riggins had a point, Dirk no longer a boy of eleven, the tiny frame of his childhood bunk nowhere near big enough to hide the lanky excess of his adult body. Slowly, and with care not to bump his head, Dirk slid out from beneath it.
He stood with as much dignity as he could muster, taking a minute to straighten his clothes before perching on the edge of the mattress. Only then did he acknowledge his guest.
"I've been told," Riggins said after an extended silence, "the technicians think you're growing restless."
Dirk shook his head, somewhat desperate.
"I'm not, I promise I'm not," he said. Riggins held up a hand.
"That's not what I meant."
In the time he'd known Riggins, Dirk had come to think of him as two separate men. There was the kind, gentle Riggins, who, under different circumstances, Dirk might have considered somewhat of a father figure. This was the Riggins who'd consoled Dirk in the months following his mother's death, back when the Blackwing compound was still a new and terrifying place, Dirk wanting only to go home.
But then there was the other Riggins, the one who was convinced Dirk was psychic--he wasn't. The one who was certain that if he only pushed hard enough he'd find proof. This was the Riggins who took away Dirk's things even when those things consisted of basic necessities like light.
It was hard to tell which Riggins sat across from him now.
"I thought," Riggins continued when it became clear Dirk wasn't going to ask, "that you might like some new books." He glanced to the shelf secured above Dirk's tiny desk, the handful of Blackwing-approved texts worn with overuse.
Dirk knew better than to show excitement, and yet…
"I like the ones with adventures," he said.
"I'll see what I can find," Riggins told him, though he made no move to get up from his chair. Even without asking, Dirk knew: the books came at a price. Some of his excitement faded.
"What do I have to do?" he asked, feeling impossibly small. Riggins tutted, as though disappointed by the question.
"You don't have to do anything, Svlad. The books are a gift."
Dirk knew better than to accept gifts. Nothing here was free. Everything had its price. And yet Riggins remained seated. No cards appeared from his pockets, no thick manilla envelopes were thrown onto the desk. The silence was unnerving. Dirk briefly considered crawling back under the bed.
But then Riggins stood, his hands brushing the creases from his fatigues. He gave Dirk a solicitous look, one Dirk recognized as faint apology, the kind Riggins tended to offer before assigning a particularly unpleasant task. This time, though, Riggins merely shook his head, his jaw tight as he swept from the room.
For a long time after Dirk sat upright on the bed, his fingers curled around the side of the mattress.
The books arrived sometime during Dirk's time in the common room.
They were the first thing he noticed, three new spines staring at him from where someone had stacked them on the desk. The shelf above held similarly coloured spines, the books the only hint of colour in an otherwise sterile room. Dirk had read every one, multiple times.
His favourites were the detective novels. Wilkie Collins. Agatha Christie. Arthur Conan Doyle. The detectives in them used logic and reason to solve puzzles, which was not at all what Dirk did, but Dirk was certain a holistic approach could lead him to much the same conclusions. He saw no reason the solution couldn't be found inside the pattern and web of the whole.
The book on the top of the pile was another detective novel, though not one he recognized. Dirk reached for it with barely concealed excitement.
Removing it from the pile, however, revealed the book directly beneath it, Dirk's breath catching in his throat. This wasn't a novel. It was a travel guide, its front cover depicting a large ferris wheel, London emblazoned overtop of it. Dirk's heart stuttered in his chest.
His mother was from London, or so he'd been told. Supposedly Dirk had lived there for a time, back when he was still Svlad, back before they'd gone to live on his father's sprawling estate in Romania. He didn't remember it, of course, but he supposed he might have gone back there had his mother not died; had Blackwing not come to bring him to America.
The prospect of learning about London, of maybe even visiting there someday, was enough to make him forget about detectives and their interesting puzzles. The first book forgotten, Dirk gathered the guide, and the torch he'd earned by agreeing to let them attach electrodes to him that one time, and carried both under the bed. Away from Blackwing's prying eyes, he began to read.
He read about sprawling shops and how to navigate the city by tube. He read about landmarks and the numerous points one could cross the river. He read about playhouses and quintessential pubs. He got as far as the chapter on London's palaces before the day finally caught up with him, Dirk drifting somewhere between Buckingham and St. James's.
Even then London followed him into his dreams. Big Ben loomed above him, while somewhere on Regent Street the Queen's Guard were having a parade. He entered a chip shop and ordered battered fish in his very best accent. The woman behind the counter asked his name. He gave it over readily. Dirk Gently was a perfectly sound English name. It made him rather glad he'd chosen it, even if Dr. Fenchurch and Colonel Riggins refused to acknowledge it.
Dream Dirk had just convinced himself that London was where he was meant to be when actual Dirk jolted awake. Caught on the hazy edge of not-quite sleep, it took him several seconds to figure out why. Someone, somewhere, was screaming.
His first instinct was to bolt upright, but this proved disastrous, his forehead immediately connecting with the metal frame of the bed, the force of which then sent him ricocheting back so that the back of his head connected with the floor. Wincing, Dirk glared at the frame above him.
"Stupid traitor bed," he said, feeling betrayed.
Out in the hall, the screaming continued.
Dirk considered. He could get up, check the door's window, see if anything presented itself. Or he could remain where he was, secure under the relative safety of his bed. Staying, he suspected, would have been a much more appealing option had his torch not run out of batteries during his nap. He flicked it on and off several times just to be sure, but there was nothing for it. Slowly, with his heart lodged in his chest, Dirk slid out from under the bed.
It was later than he realized, the light filtering in through the window unusually dim. They didn't usually let him fall asleep under his bed. Perhaps this was the privilege of adulthood, Dirk thought, his twenty-first birthday having come and gone. That ought to mean he could do what he liked, even if he still wasn't allowed to leave.
Sometime between emerging from under the bed and reaching the door the screaming had fallen silent. Dirk wanted desperately to believe he'd imagined it. He knew better than to hope for pointless things, though, so with courage he didn't feel, he pressed his face to the glass and peered outside. The hall was empty.
As if on cue the screaming picked up again. It was accompanied by a fierce howling that set his hair on end. Terror coiled in his chest, though the sensation felt more akin to a hunch than outright fear. Whoever was doing the howling was not someone Dirk wanted to meet.
The hunch fast became an impulse to flee, though with nowhere to go Dirk's only option was to retreat back to the relative safety of his bed. More than anything he wanted to crawl back beneath it, but he forced himself to climb under the covers instead, his body stiff as he draw the sheets up over his head.
The next morning, after breakfast, after Dirk was up and dressed and waiting patiently for a technician to bring him to the exercise room, Dr. Fenchurch came to see him.
This wasn't unusual, but given the day's itinerary it was slightly out of the ordinary and if Dirk had learned anything during his time at Blackwing it was that slightly out of the ordinary events were to be treated with caution.
Unlike Riggins, who affected an air of paternal command, Dr. Fenchurch was distant and brisk to a fault. She barely knocked before entering the room, her steady gaze pinning Dirk in place. He knew better than to squirm beneath her scrutiny, and yet he couldn't quite suppress the slight twitching of his hand. Dr. Fenchurch frowned. Doing so hardened her already severe features into an expression of frank disapproval. Her dark hair, drawn back into a tight bun, accentuated her ferocity.
"There's been a change of plans," she said.
"I'm not going to the exercise room?" Dirk asked.
Contrary to its name, the exercise room was not a place to engage in physical activity. It was, instead, a place where Dirk was run through a series of exercises designed, he suspected, to prove Riggins' theory (re: Dirk's non-existent psychic powers). As a child this had meant guessing the backs of cards or choosing numbers seemingly from thin air. As an adult this usually meant getting locked inside a room, his release conditional on Dirk solving an unnecessarily complex puzzle. Needless to say, he wasn't particularly fond of the exercise room. He might even have gone so far as to say he hated it.
"Not today." Dr. Fenchurch said, Dirk torn between trepidation and relief.
She gestured for him to stand, Dirk doing so with some reluctance. As usual, Dr. Fenchurch didn't wait for compliance. Instead she set off through the door, trusting Dirk to follow. Dirk did so with only a mild sense of curiosity.
The halls were silent now, though the screaming had carried on well into the night. At one point the alarms had sounded, pulsing red light spilling into his room. Walking now beneath the faintly blue flickering of the fluorescents, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual had happened, today just another ordinary day.
Except, there was nothing ordinary about Dr. Fenchurch leading him down the hall, away from the exercise room, towards, he suspected, the common room. He wasn't scheduled for time inside the common room, Dirk beginning to wonder if this was another of Riggins' rewards. Either that or another of his tests.
Sure enough, Dr. Fenchurch brought them to a stop outside the common room doors where she turned abruptly to face him.
"I trust you'll be on your best behaviour," she said, Dirk utterly baffled by the statement.
"Um… Yes?" he replied, not sure what else to say.
Dr. Fenchurch gave a curt nod, as though she'd expected nothing less, and then threw open the doors.
Dirk half expected her to follow him into the room. Instead she waited until he was inside and sealed the door shut behind him. For a long time he stood staring over his shoulder, not entirely sure what he was meant to do.
But Dr. Fenchurch was apparently done with him, so Dirk turned around, his gaze flitting about the room before it finally landed on the figure sitting at the table.
Perhaps because he wasn't expecting it, perhaps because it had never happened before, Dirk gave a somewhat embarrassing yelp and scrambled back, stopping only when his back collided with the door. The figure, who had been watching him curiously, narrowed his gaze.
It was a boy, Dirk realized. Well, a man, he supposed. They were around the same age, Dirk thought, though in place of the grey t-shirt and sweats Blackwing provided--or the blue scrubs the technicians wore--this man was wearing jeans and a faded t-shirt, the sort of clothes Dirk only ever saw on television.
It was all terribly exciting.
The boy had stood the second Dirk had noticed him, and was now shifting restlessly from foot to foot, as though not entirely certain how to proceed. Dirk thought he caught a hint of nervousness, but the boy wore a look of sullen annoyance on his face, as though perhaps he was tired of waiting; as though he was thoroughly unimpressed by Blackwing's games. Dirk liked him immediately.
"Hii," he managed, muster the courage to come fully into the room. The boy examined him with open scrutiny.
"Are you part of the program?" he asked. Dirk's heart stuttered in his chest.
"Do you mean Blackwing?" Dirk asked, excitement mounting.
He'd heard of the others, knew of their existence, and yet to meet another subject, to meet someone like him, someone…
"What's Blackwing?" the boy asked, shattering Dirk's illusion.
"It's… um, where we are?" Dirk said, half a question. His words were met with frank incredulity.
"I mean are you here for the program, the pararibulitis one."
Pararibulitis was not a word in Dirk's vocabulary. He tested it silently, forming the letters with the tip of his tongue. The boy continued to stare, wary and suspicious.
"I don't think so," Dirk said. "I live here."
That earned him a slight widening of the boy's eyes, as though he couldn't imagine why anyone might live in a place like this. It struck Dirk then that the boy was someone from outside. Dirk bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet.
"You're from outside," he said.
He had so many questions. So many things he wanted to know.
"Sorry, who exactly are you?" the boy asked. He sounded as though he was starting to worry Dirk might be dangerous, the very last thing Dirk wanted him to think. He forced himself to stop bouncing, though his body continued to tremble, this without his permission.
"Sorry, I'm Dirk. Dirk Gently. Well, that's not technically my name, but it's the name I chose for myself. It's quite a good name, don't you think? As I was saying, I live here, but you're from outside so obviously you don't live here and… sorry, why did you say you were here again?"
Dirk couldn't remember having ever spoken this much in his life. At least, not to another person, and definitely not since arriving at Blackwing. He wanted to know everything there was to know about the boy. He wanted to know his name and where he'd bought his clothes and if he'd ever been to London. He wanted to know what it was like outside these walls, Dirk's memories hazy and ill-defined. He wanted to know if pizza tasted as good as it looked on television; if the world was really like that, all colourful sets and carefully timed jokes. He wanted to know if there was something more than all this grey.
The boy cleared his throat.
"I...um... signed up to be part of a research study. They told me to wait in here. Wait, what do you mean you live here?"
The boy spoke like he was half asking a question, half making an accusation. He was easily the most fascinating person Dirk had ever met. He was still standing at the table, so Dirk crossed the room and claimed the seat across from him. This seemed to startle the boy, but after a moment he reclaimed his seat so that they ended up sitting directly across from one another, Dirk riveted by the boy's stare.
"I've always lived here," Dirk explained. "Well, since I was a kid anyway. I came to stay here after my mother… But that's not really important. What do you mean you signed up to be part of a research project? Voluntarily?"
The notion seemed ludicrous. He couldn't imagine anyone volunteering for this. Were the choice his, he would have left long ago.
And yet, where would he go? What would he do? The thought of leaving Blackwing both excited and terrified him. And now here was this boy--this man--someone from outside who knew what it was like to live outside Blackwing's rule, and he had come here voluntarily?
"Well, they're paying me," the boy said, as though this ought to explain everything. "And you know, pararibulitis kind of sucks, so I guess it would be cool if they found a cure for it."
Nearly everything the boy was saying went straight over Dirk's head, though Dirk was too busy fixating on the part where he was having an actual conversation to notice. It was the kind of thing he'd only ever read about, but here he was, talking to someone who might have been a peer, the two of them getting to know each other via a series of back and forth questions. The experience was far more gratifying than he'd imagined.
"Ah," Dirk said registering then that he was meant to respond. "I suppose you could say I'm part of a research study, too, except I don't think it's the same thing. Well, maybe it is… What exactly is pararibulitis?"
The boy was staring again, as though he was beginning to question why Dirk was the only other person in the room. He glanced briefly over his shoulder, to a set of doors Dirk had never been allowed through. When he glanced back, he suspicion had returned.
"Sorry, you're part of a research study, but not one on pararibulitis, and you live here?"
That sounded accurate. Dirk nodded. The boy looked a little taken aback, like he wasn't quite sure where to start. After a minute, he shook his head.
"Right… Pararibulitis. It's a nerve disease. It causes your brain to misinterpret certain inputs."
Dirk smiled as though the boy's explanation made perfect sense. After a minute, he realized it didn't.
"So that means…"
The boy huffed with impatience.
"You have hallucinations that feel real. Water on your hand can feel like fire. Breathing can feel like drowning."
Dirk was beginning to get a picture. "God, I'm sorry, that sounds terrible."
"Yeah, well, like I said, it sucks, so if this study can help find a cure for it…"
The boy shrugged, as though the final outcome didn't matter. Dirk rather thought it did, however none of that explained why Blackwing was interested in a boy with a nerve disease, or why they'd allowed Dirk to meet him.
More importantly, none of it offered Dirk a name.
"Sorry, what's your name?" he asked.
The boy blinked, seemingly surprised by the question.
"Um, Todd, it's Todd," he said.
Todd, Dirk thought, savouring the name. It was a good name. Almost as good as Dirk. Dirk liked it immediately.
"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Todd," Dirk said, not quite able to suppress a wave of giddy excitement. Todd was still looking at him strangely, so Dirk hastened to explain.
"I don't get to meet that many people, or any people at all, really, so… I mean, obviously I've met some people, and before I came to live here I had friends. Well, not really friends, per se. More like acquaintances. Possible people I knew who didn't much like me, though that was so long ago now it's hardly worth remembering. My point being that it's nice to meet someone my own age. I think we're going to be great friends. Do you like pizza?"
The conversation, Dirk thought, was going swimmingly. And if television and books had taught him anything it was that Todd would answer, perhaps provide a personal tidbit that Dirk could file away for later. This was all part of the process, and it was all going exceedingly well, except for the part where Todd hadn't answered; where Todd was still staring at Dirk like Dirk had grown a second head.
Just to be sure, Dirk checked. Nope, still only the one.
"I think I'd rather like pizza, though I haven't yet had the occasion to try it. It's on my to-do list, you know, for after I… Well…"
Dirk gestured to the room, feeling then as though they probably weren't yet at a point in their relationship where Dirk could divulge that information--never mind that Blackwing had cameras here too, nothing they said confidential.
"I'm also going to live in London," Dirk continued, when it became clear Todd didn't intend to say anything. "My mother's from London, and I have this guidebook that lists all its attractions. Have you ever been to London?"
Here he paused, half expecting more of Todd's silence. To his surprise, Todd shook his head.
"I've never been outside the country," he said, still sounding impossibly tense. Dirk waved it aside.
"Well, then you'll have to come visit me," he said, as though Todd visiting was a forgone conclusion.
He could almost picture it, the two of them strolling about arm in arm, poking into shops, perhaps taking a riverboat cruise up the Thames. Oh, they probably sold pizza in London.
It was entirely possible he was getting ahead of himself.
"Sorry, you said you were here for a study?" Todd asked, drawing Dirk from the thought. It was a fair question, but not one Dirk wanted to answer.
He was spared from having to do so when the far doors--the ones Dirk had never been through--swung open, someone he didn't recognize coming into the room. The man wore the same blue scrubs as the technicians Dirk did know, so it wasn't hard to piece together who he was. He glanced briefly to the table, and then to the clipboard in his hands.
"Todd?" he asked. Something caught in the back of Dirk's throat.
He couldn't quite tell if it was disappointment at the prospect of Todd leaving, or relief at no longer having to answer Todd's question.
"That's me," Todd said, rising from the table. The technician gestured for him to follow. Dirk's stomach sank. Disappointment then.
"I guess I'll see you around," Todd said, turning his attention back to Dirk.
"Of course, I…" Dirk got out before registering the technician's scrutiny. Swallowing his words, he offered a brief nod instead. Todd's gaze lingered, though only for a moment, and then he was shaking his head; following the technician from the room.
Dirk stared after him, still not entirely sure he understood the point of the exercise; still not entirely sure what Blackwing had gained from the encounter. He contemplated both until a technician he did recognize came to bring him back to his room.