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Losing our minds, bit by bit

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He motioned towards the stairs with raised eyebrows. ‘What do you think?’

“I...” Lance stammered. “I don’t know what they were talking about. Maybe we’re misunderstanding it because we don’t know the context-”

Keith sighed. There were no double meanings there. At least it didn’t seem like that. Professor Zarkon, along with Dr. Sendak, knew what had happened to Blaytz. And they were afraid it could happen to the others too – when Keith put it that way, it sounded harmless, except that the reality was much darker. The two doctors weren’t completely in control of the situation.

But they had found the mistake. And they would try to fix it. Surely, the patients had nothing to worry about. Whether it was their medication or an untreated issue, the voice would shut up soon and Keith wouldn’t have to fear for his life every night anymore.

Lance shook his head hastily and smiled at Keith. “I should ask Pidge about what has happened, maybe then this all would make more sense for me… Besides, I still want to beat her at Jenga. You coming?”

Great. Lance didn’t take this seriously, he should’ve expected that. But what could he do? During the day, not so much.

He trotted behind Lance, not paying any attention to the sudden pressure at the back of his head. It didn’t feel uncomfortable, just a sort of prickling sensation running down his spine. Worrying about it wouldn’t have changed anything, though, so Keith decided to stick with thinking about more important problems right now, and relax a bit from all the recent stress by playing a few rounds of Jenga.

 

All week, Lance kept acting rather… odd. Pidge theorized that he just remembered how much stuff he missed since his accident a year ago and was feeling a bit down because of it. Nothing unusual. That theory soon got disproved when Shiro had tried to talk to him about it. It turned out that Lance was still clueless regarding all the events since his injury. Thus, the guessing continued, since even the nurses couldn’t figure out what the matter actually was.

He wasn’t socializing, nor eating enough, and Hunk reported that his roommate also seemed clumsier and more unfocused than usual. It was easier to blame it on a relapse, though, than find out if it had another reason. But they had to face it: it most likely was a relapse, meaning they had nothing to worry about.

Still, playing board games without Lance made the whole thing a lot less fun. At least in Keith’s experience. There was no one to roll his eyes at, no one whose jokes were simply so terrible that he couldn’t help but laugh.

The day everything had officially started going downhill, though, was on Sunday.

Keith's parents were visiting him since they both had the day off, and the three of them sat in the cafeteria, his mom talking about how his school dealt with him missing for such a long period of time. Them kicking him out sooner or later was quite frankly what he was expecting, which didn't fuel his motivation at all. Not only was it pending if he would be able to go to university in the future, but now his current education was also on the line. Awesome.

He angrily stabbed his piece of cake with a fork, with as much force as he could manage. Which wasn't a lot, but that didn't make a difference.

To balance all this frustration out, at least he slept through the night the last few days. No homicidal roommates, no secret cult meeting between sleepwalking patients, and no reckless amnesiacs. Keith almost couldn’t believe he had a few days of peace and unbothered recovery.

After a few minutes, Pidge came over to their table and introduced herself to Keith's parents before getting into a conversation with them about how things were here at VRC. Keith couldn't tell them much himself, after all.

Incredibly thankful for a break from talking about his education, Keith leaned back in his chair and looked around the cafeteria, hoping to spot something or someone who could entertain him. He had no luck. Most cafeteria visitors at this time in the day were elderly, and it wasn't very exciting to watch them solve crosswords.

However, soon after that thought crossed his mind, none other than Matt Holt entered the cafeteria, grinning as if he had just won the lottery or something. He noticed Keith looking at him from across the room and winked. Then, using his crutches, he made his way towards the salad bar with a speed Keith could only dream of achieving with his walker.

Figuring his parents would be fine with him leaving for a second or two, he stood up and excused himself from the table to go over to Matt. His curious side couldn't wait to find out what the hell was making his friend so damn happy.

“Hey, guess what.” Matt shoveled a bunch of salad and feta-cheese onto his plate before turning to Keith. “My dad is doing a lot better. Allura said he’ll probably wake up in a few days... It’s absolutely amazing. At first, we weren’t even sure he would ever wake up, and now – this! I have to tell Katie. Would you mind helping me carry my stuff?”

Keith just stood there a few seconds before comprehending everything Matt has said. Then, he finally took the plate from him and started heading back to his table, holding the walker with his other hand. There was no way Matt could’ve carried such a huge plate of food that far while also using crutches, so Keith didn’t mind helping him while he rambled about his dad.

“Shiro said he would be able to talk and probably also walk right away. It’s truly unbelievable. I can’t wait to talk to him again, we-” Matt didn’t get to finish his sentence. He suddenly slumped forwards and landed face-down on the floor with a loud thump.

With a moment’s delay, the light in the cafeteria also vanished – not completely, there was some daylight coming through the window, although Keith couldn’t see clearly anymore with that. As if someone just turned off the light switch.

Everything had happened so fast, he didn’t even have time to react. There was no visible cause to the sudden fall or the blackout. No sign that it was going to happen, but it couldn’t have been a coincidence that the two things happened at the same time.

“Matt!” Pidge hurried over to them, closely followed by others, while Keith just gawked at Matt’s motionless body in shock. “What happened?” This question was clearly meant for him, but he couldn’t answer. He didn’t know either. Matt had fallen forward and the light had gone out. That’s all.

In the meantime, the kitchen staff tried to help Matt by putting him into a better position, and someone left to call a nurse.

Other voices around them started expressing their confusion as well as everyone slowly got closer to find out what all the commotion was about. “Had he pushed him?”, “Shouldn’t we call a doctor?”, and simply “Why is it so dark all of a sudden?” were among the crowd’s favorite lines.

Keith’s parents made their way through as well.

“Keith? What’s going on?” His father went up to them and put a hand on his shoulder. His expression was one of confusion, but his son could tell he was willing to comfort him, Pidge, or anyone who needed it. He seemed to want to be in control of the situation, mostly because that’s what he was used to. But this wasn’t a situation he was familiar with, he was still getting used to Keith being here, and so there was no way that would’ve worked out.

Without missing a beat, Keith shook his head. No idea. All he knew was that the sensation of knowing that a couple dozen eyes were fixated on him made him want to throw up.

Finally, he turned to Pidge and held up one finger to get her attention. He imitated falling forward before shrugging. That’s all he had witnessed.

 

A minute later, Shiro and Adam appeared at the door along with a server who must’ve been the one to alert them. The two ran to Matt and knelt down beside him.

“Matthew? Can you hear me? Guys, would you please give us some space?” Adam seemed just as worried as Shiro. That was new. He was usually the more levelheaded one of the two.

After they went through basic first aid procedures, the nurses carried Matt off to bring him to his room and to have a doctor examine him as well.

And so, the rest of the cafeteria was left to stand around in the dark room and wonder what had just happened. After a few seconds of silence, people started going back to their seats of course, but there was still this inexplicable tension left in the room.

“But why did the lights just turn off?” Pidge voiced the question they all had, asking no one in particular.

“Perhaps a power blackout? Or just some smaller problem with the electricity. I’ll report it to the porter, he’ll have a look at it.” One of the servers gave Pidge a pat on the back before turning and walking off as well.

“Well, it was weird, that’s for sure. Keith, are you sure you had nothing to do with it?” His dad asked with a deep frown.

Keith nodded. It was a lie, to be honest, but it’s what his father wanted to hear. Not like he would’ve believed him anyway.

“But did he really just collapse? Out of nowhere? What if it’s like Blaytz? I mean the circumstances are kind of similar...” Pidge mumbled under her breath, staring at her lap with glassy eyes.

“I’m sure he’ll be alright. The doctors here seem to know what they’re doing.” Keith’s mom assured her, giving her a sympathetic look.

Keith, though, wasn’t so sure about that.

 

Once his parents left, he went up to his room and sat down at the end of his bed.

‘Did I do it?’

Despite how long he waited, the voice kept quiet.

Keith sighed and looked at the lamp over his nightstand.

‘On.’

The lamp, of course, didn’t light up. Keith bit his lip and tried again. Just like before, no success.

But the fact that the lights just went out when he had thought about it was too bizarre and surreal to be a coincidence.

Was he dreaming? Could this be a low-budget superhero dream? Head trauma wouldn’t make a solid backstory though, his head wasn’t exactly creative on that part. It had probably been used a million times before, to the point it was kind of cliché.

Still, he was pretty sure he was not dreaming. It could still be just an electrical mishap with the right timing. He had just been surprised by Matt and a bunch of thoughts had filled his head at once because he slightly had been slightly panicking. He had simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing more and nothing less.

He reached for the clipboard at the end of his bed absentmindedly.

His reading ability had majorly improved in the span of a few days, Keith noted. The fact that it went from almost zero to one-hundred in a span of a few days was nearly inhumane.

Eyes scanning over the sheet of paper, he was disappointed to not see any remarks about possible superpowers. Of course, it had just been for fun, but now that he already had it in his hands, he became interested in his medical stuff, and he didn’t put down the clipboard.

TBI after an accident with speeder. That one was clear. Cerebral edema. He had no clue what that meant, but it didn’t sound promising. Then a list of damaged parts of his brain, which he already knew from Romelle’s explanation. That, followed by a bunch of broken ribs, a broken leg and some damage to his shoulder – weird, he didn’t even know about the rib part. And last but not least, ENB Gen 3. Now that he thought about it, that little remark seemed to be on almost every clipboard here.

With shaky legs, he stood up and climbed over to Lotor’s bed.

Basically traumatic brain injury after an assault, 20 years old… And there. ENB Gen 2.

What was the difference between Gen 2 and Gen 3? And what did that even mean? He should probably not disturb the nurses, they already had to deal with poor Matt. His not existing knowledge of medical terms wasn’t more important than that, not even close.

But the fact that Lotor got his injuries from a fight…. Well, Keith wasn’t sure if that surprised him. Who was he kidding, it didn’t surprise him at all. He didn’t have the chance to talk to Lotor yet, but from his experience with him… Well, he didn’t exactly seem like a peaceful personality.

Keith was about to return to his bed when the company he had been waiting for finally arrived.

‘Get help. Storm.’ It seemed very much like the voice had found a new favorite word. He had repeated it at least a hundred times this week.

‘That’s nice. Have you heard about my new ability to turn off lights? At least I suspect I can do it, can you support my claim?’ Keith thought, changing the subject nonchalantly.

‘Beware Lotor. He’s becoming unpredictable.’

Becoming? Surely that’s a bit of an understatement. Lotor has been unpredictable ever since Keith arrived here. But at least the voice was starting to say something new – don’t mind the fact that Keith might as well have used a magic 8 ball to get such random responses.

What it was saying definitely wasn’t a good thing, though. If Lotor was becoming even more unpredictable… Well, Keith didn’t know what to expect, but it was definitely nothing good.

 

Since Keith didn’t enjoy the company of Lotor and his own madness, he chose to instead check on how Matt was doing. Anything was better than an aggressive comatose guy and a voice telling you that said comatose guy has it out for you.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one wanting to pay their friend a visit. Pidge had apparently been there for almost an hour, Hunk and Ryan had visited him before, and now even Lance had decided to crawl out of his voluntary solitude to wish Matt Holt to get well soon.

When Keith stepped into the room, everyone looked up. Lance was sitting on Matt’s roommate’s bed, Pidge, well, in her wheelchair parked next to Matt’s, and his roommate, the only one not paying attention, was busy playing with his tablet.

“Oh, hey Keith. Sorry if I caused you trouble earlier. The whole thing was really unexpected… Apparently, my legs decided to give up and with my luck, I hit my head on the floor. As compensation, I got this nice bandage on my head though, so I’d say it was all worth it.” Matt jokingly explained with a smile, as if the whole thing wasn’t happening to him but an acquaintance. “Guess the universe can’t handle three Holts roaming through the hospital at the same time and decided to send me back to my room.”

He patted a spot on his mattress to basically suggest Keith to sit down, which Keith appreciated and did right away. His legs were still not quite used to walking so much.

While walking to the bed, Keith dared to steal a glance at Matt’s medical information. It took him a few seconds to decipher the letters from the distance – it must’ve been awkward for the other to watch Keith squinting at the edge of the bed for a few seconds – but he could make out that there was the same remark at the end of his stuff as well. ENB Gen 2.

To not make things even weirder, Keith pointed to Lance with a questioning expression. That would make for a good conversation.

“Oh, Lance is doing okay too. Slight numbness in his right hand and a bit moody, but he’s not on the verge of death.” Pidge brushed it off. “He’s not really in the mood to talk though, he only came because it was an emergency.”

Lance averted his gaze, nervously fidgeting, pinching his right hand with his left and massaging it. It was clear as day that the numbness was bothering him a lot.

“I swear, everyone is getting worse here. At least I’m spared, but that’s also only because I can’t get any worse anyway.” Pidge let out a sort of pained laugh as she took off her glasses to clean them. Perhaps she wasn’t dealing with her paralyzed state as well as Keith had thought.

“Okay, enough with all the negativity here. Why don’t we talk about dad instead? He’s improving.” Matt stepped in, and the Holt siblings started discussing it right away. Not that it bothered Keith, of course. He was always just a spectator in conversations lately – and he didn’t mind it actually. Considering he had to save that minimal self-pity he had for more important stuff, like, for example, feeling like a marionette in his own body.

He looked at Lance, then followed his gaze towards the window. The sky was slightly darker than the past days, and there were small rain clouds forming in the distance.

‘Get help. Storm. Get out of here. Thalamus means chamber. It’s going wrong. They’re learning. Not many seconds are left.’

Keith almost jumped up as he heard the voice speak again. And it had even said so much at once. Yet nothing made sense. Who was running out of time? And what did the voice mean by ‘they’? He couldn’t understand how the recovery of the patients was a problem. Wait, wasn’t that also what Zarkon had talked about? No, Zarkon couldn’t be in his head. That would be scientifically impossible.

Not aware that he had let out a surprised ‘yelp’, he shifted his attention to the others now, all looking at him with worried expressions on their faces. Lance could’ve even been described as panicked.

“Keith? Are you feeling unwell too?” Pidge rolled a bit closer to him.

Matt’s roommate, who was only now minding them, spoke up as well. “He looks unnaturally pale, don’t you think? I think we should alert someone.”

There was no response Keith could give to that. If they called a nurse, they’d bring him to his room, sure, but what then? Nobody would believe him if he told them about the voice, and it obviously wouldn’t just go away.

Instead, he pointed at the roommate’s tablet. “K- Key… Caaaan…? Ai- A. Iiiiii.” Well, that wasn’t going well. Perhaps speaking more would’ve helped, but despite that, there should’ve already been visible improvements to his speech from the weeks he had spent here nonetheless. The speech therapy couldn’t have been for nothing.

“Uhm...” Matt’s roommate clearly wasn’t used to caveman speech.

“You want him to lend the tablet to you?” Lance guessed, his suddenly hoarse voice barely audible.

Keith nodded and looked at the others with such a pleading expression one could’ve thought it was a life or death situation.

“Look, I… I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t like giving my tablet to others… They have a tendency to not give it back, or break it, since, you know…” He shakily knocked on his own head with his right hand.

“Dude, we talked about this. We’re not any stupider just because our brains aren’t fully intact. I’m sure Keith will give it back to you in a minute, right Keith?”

Right. Of course.

The guy finally gave in and handed the device to Keith, holding on to it just a bit longer than necessary to send the right message to Keith – he still didn’t trust him.

Considering he was lacking time, he went straight to google instead of putting up with the trouble of finding a notebook app. It would do just fine.

Okay, let’s do this one more time.

The sentence he produced wasn’t completely correct, grammar-, and spelling-wise. But it was comprehensible, and that would be enough.

“What do you mean Professor Zarkon wants to hurt us?” Pidge looked at Keith with the most pitiful expression, as if she was sure Keith was just a tiny bit crazy. “I think you’re misunderstanding something. Zarkon isn’t the one responsible for Matt getting worse. He has absolutely no control over that. It’s simply a relapse.”

Keith shook his head. Zarkon wouldn’t be talking about concerns like that if he wasn’t planning something. The patients were learning, they were becoming more independent, that’s what he had said. That wouldn’t be a problem in a normal situation.

“Okay, calm down. Can I have my tablet back?” The roommate leaned over and tried to grab his prized possession. Keith didn’t let him. He would not let it go until the others believed him.

He erased everything he wrote so far with a bit of difficulty and started typing anew.

How could he convince everyone that Zarkon wasn’t just a doctor trying his best? No matter what he said, his friends would write it off as hallucinations as long as he didn’t give a proper explanation – and well, he didn’t have one.

‘NMadtt’… He already messed up, that’s for sure. But he couldn’t stop, not if he wanted to get his message through.

The next word, ‘sleepwalks’, turned into ‘slewepwaalkas’. That didn’t make any more sense than the first one, and this time the others were starting to look over his shoulder to see what he was so busy with.

“Look, Keith, you said you would give it back… Google won’t understand your garbled messes anyways.” That was pretty rude from Matt’s roommate, but Keith had learned not to mind it. Just keep on writing.

‘Nmadtt slewepwaalks. lotpor to. Theyr g retting worrrsie cuz of Thalia moose thalamus.’ Apparently, even autocorrect wasn’t on his side. At least, for whatever reason, he suddenly knew how to spell ‘thalamus’ even though he had only heard it in his head before.

“What’s the first word?” Matt questioned, then after Keith pointed at him, he added: “And thalamus? Do you mean the hypothalamus?”

Since Keith didn’t know for sure if it actually was what Matt guessed, he shrugged and kept motioning towards what he wrote, as if that would get the others to understand.

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to communicate here, but if ‘lotpor’ is supposed to be Lotor… Trust me, that guy is as good as dead. We all know that he won’t wake up. He’s not going anywhere.” Matt’s roommate gritted his teeth and gave Keith a bitter pat on the back before gently taking the tablet from him. This time, Keith didn’t resist.

“Also, Keith, my thalamus isn’t even damaged. That isn’t why I’m getting worse. Besides, relapse is a normal thing. I’ll be back on my feet in no time, don’t worry.” Matt assured him as well.

Grabbing his walker, he nodded and stood up, promptly waving and setting off towards the door, making the others question if they had offended him in any way. They didn’t of course, Keith was just disappointed and desperate.

Before he left, though, he took one quick glance at the clipboard of Matt’s roommate, looking for the same ENB Gen 2 or 3 that was seemingly in everyone else’s medical info. To his surprise, there was nothing. There wasn’t even that much information on the reason he was here, only something about paraplegia.

Keith sighed and exited the room quickly, preventing the others from protesting. He could see Pidge starting to roll after him, but he raised his hand to tell her to stop.

There would be no point in bringing the others into this. He was facing this whole mystery alone, and he had to learn to accept that.

But there was nothing holding him back from investigating alone.

He sucked in a breath as soon as he was out of the room, the abandoned elevator being the first thing that he spotted. There was no one in sight, as everyone was busy at this time, cleaning up after the lunch break or tending the patients.

Finding out what was happening to the patients was the top priority. And there would be no easier solution to that problem than talking to none other than the guy responsible for all of this himself.

It was time to confront Zarkon.