Delivering on a long ago promise, herewith a story set in Muffy Morrigan's Custodes Noctis Universe. This is her world, the rest of us play in it from time to time. This is complete in four chapters.
The title was borrowed from the movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington. No filibustering here, just Washington, DC, in August.
Mist. Bulging eyes. Smoke. Sparks. Movement.
Stars. They were stars. Stars through smoke. A few clouds, almost bright in the night sky, but mostly stars littering the sky above him.
Gods, his head hurt.
Screaming. Tendrils of smoke, fog everywhere. Drums.
He came to with a start. He was lying on the ground. Star gazing? Something else was here...
Noise, like firecrackers. Sparks—sparklers? Voices. Some talking. Some screaming. In his head. Behind his eyes. Dancing. Movement.
Gasping, head pounding, he tried to breathe without screaming, to breathe slowly, calm himself down. Finally, he could reach out a hand and found concrete beneath him. Warm concrete. He blinked a couple of times. But it was night. He struggled up, gasping when a sharp pain skewered his head, ear to ear. Another through his torso. Something dripped in his eye. He put up a hand and wiped at it. Dark liquid on his fingers. Up to his nose – it smelled warm, coppery. Blood. Another drip went straight into his eye.
His left arm felt leaden. Wiping his fingers on the concrete, he used his right hand to tentatively touch his head, his arm, his side, hissing when he found things that hurt. His tee-shirt was damp with blood. He looked down at himself – jeans, a button down with rolled sleeves over the tee, sneakers. More blood in his eye. He used the hem of his shirt to wipe his eyes clear, dabbing tentatively at the cut and bump he'd found on his scalp.
His surroundings were … confusing. Sidewalk, shrubs, lights off in the distance, concrete walls, and a smell. Earthy, unspecified, too many odors mixed together but primarily animal, mammals, furred things … he looked behind him and saw metal bars. That couldn't be right. He wasn't in a cage. Was he?
He got onto his knees and unsteadily to his feet, his vision swimming with the motion. Just his luck to go on vacation and find…get…run into…a what?
He stopped and closed his eyes. A vacation? A vacation from what? From where? Groaning, he rubbed his temples. Something caught his eye. A watch on his right wrist. He brought it up to his eyes and angled it to catch some light. Almost three. Slick watch. Big face, moon phases, ticking secondhand. On his left wrist a bracelet, copper and something else.
If he was in a cage, at least they'd left him his stuff. He checked his pockets. A handful of paper, a money clip with a roll of bills that turned out to equal $124, another tissue, lint. No wallet, no ID, no credit card, no license, no car keys. Maybe they hadn't left him his stuff.
There was something on the ground. He bent down and caught a corner with one hand. He thought at first it came apart when he lifted it, but it was the front cover of a book. Big book. Really big book. He got upright and hoisted it up with him, and without thinking tucked it under his left arm. It hit the ground again. Groaning, he bent to pick it up again, this time pushing the spine up under his right arm. The cover felt dry and worn. It smelled good, like… old bookstores. That made him smile.
A loud high pitched "Wha" came from his left. He spun toward the noise, staggering a little, but still tense and ready, right hand twitching up for something over his shoulder, something not there. He wasn't sure what.
At least he didn't drop the book.
'Wha, wah, huff, wha.' There it was again. He laughed suddenly. It was an animal. He lurched down the sidewalk toward the light, ignoring the jackhammer pounding in his head, round a building, and emerged onto a broad walkway. He angled toward the sound and looked around curiously. He was in a—zoo.
He approached a fence and peered in but it was too dark to see anything. Spotting a sign illuminated by the nighttime lights, he moved to his right. He let the book rest on the sign, and tried to focus his eyes. Oh. Red Pandas.
He loved pandas.
He looked at the display sign again, running his hand over the cool plastic. Gripped the edge tight when he read 'National Zoo'.
He looked up, almost going over backwards when his body took a few seconds to catch up with his head. There was Polaris, so that was north. Draco was all wrong, centered where it was over the horizon. Ursa Minor—and it was Ursa Minor he confirmed, picking out Kolchab— above and east. Draco should be rotated well northwest of Polaris if he was, was … where?
Pain lanced through his head again. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Smoke. Huge eyes. Tongues, tendrils, smoke. Screaming. Music.
Forcing his eyes open, he breathed raggedly for a moment before gingerly prodding the bump on his head. He watched as the book started to slide off the edge of the sign. He caught it with his hip and tried to think. Head injury—that would be what's causing this stuff in his head. He'd get it looked at and he'd be fine. And he'd get some aspirin—names rattled through his head like he was reading a list. Or labels, handwritten labels. Feverfew, valerian, skullcap, lemon balm, lavender, mullein. Passion flower? Maybe he'd get some of that stuff too.
So, he wasn't where he expected himself to be. Not where he was. Not in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Not on the East coast. He shook his head and almost passed out.
He checked his pockets again, this time frantically. Still nothing. The handful of paper were some receipts and a zoo brochure. A time was circled to visit Tai Shan. Squinting. Washington's baby panda. He must have seen him. And now he couldn't even remember that.
He dropped heavily onto a bench, groaning, and let the book drop heavily next to him. It was an octavo volume. Octavo had something to do with eights, and right now that meant eight times larger and heavier than any book had a right to be. He brought the book closer and draped his thigh over it. Holding it down, tight.
Normally he thought he was pretty good at remembering but he'd forgotten coming to the zoo, being in the zoo, getting set upon in the zoo. He didn't remember why he was in Washington. He didn't remember even coming to Washington. He couldn't remember where he'd been before Washington. Not anywhere. Nothing.
Oh gods. He couldn't remember his name. An unexpected flash of pain from his left arm made him look down and there was his right hand twisting the bracelet round and round his wrist. And it hurt, just twitching his left fingers hurt enough to make his breathing hitch, and this is what he did subconsciously anyway?
He closed his eyes and sighed in relief. No smoke and screaming. Just darkness. Then there was someone. Someone in his head. He could see him. Young. Hair all askew. Pretty sure the kid was yelling something, but he couldn't hear anything. And his head hurt so much.
Elbows on knees, head in his hand, he concentrated on the pavement. What the hell was wrong with him? He closed his eyes only to jerk them open again. The angry kid was there again, yelling at him. Gods damn it.
Something was wrong. Really wrong. He couldn't remember his fucking name.
He couldn't have amnesia. Amnesia was melodramatic and practically non-existent, a conceit of fiction writers and soap operas, not real life. At least until you really couldn't remember your own name. Then it wasn't hackneyed and trite. It was terrifying.
He was sitting in a national park—the Smithsonian National Zoological Park—sitting in a zoo at three in the morning and he didn't know who he was or what he was doing there other than he liked pandas. And he had a freakishly large book. Great.
He breathed in through his nose and pushed the air out through his mouth. All he had to do was concentrate; amnesia was an urban legend, a folk tale, not real. If he could think long enough, it would all come back …
A light swept over him and an amplified voice brayed so loudly in his ear he almost fell off the bench.
"You are trespassing on Federal property. Stand up! Lace your fingers together and put your hands behind your head."
He looked up and squinted in pain when the light hit his eyes. Might as well have stuck a knife in his head the pain was so bad, rattling around, sparking, and digging into his brain. He squeezed his eyes closed and groaned again.
Swirling movement. Feet stamping. Cymbals. Drums.
"Stand up! ¿Habla usted inglés? ¡Párese! Parlez-vous l'anglais ? Se lever! Sprechen Sie Englisch?"
Footsteps. His head was going to explode.
Bright lights. Firecrackers. Dancing. Screaming.
Rough hands dragged him to his feet. He couldn't find his point of balance. A flashlight. Voices shouting. He covered his ears, tears sparking in his eyes.
"What language do you speak, boy? Italian? 'Lei parla degli inglesi? Russian? 'Вы говорите на английском языке?' Crap." The light turned away from his face. His breath huffed out in relief.
"Lace your fingers and put your hands behind your head!"
He tried, he got his hands together. He was turned abruptly, patted down. The light was in his face again.
"Oh, god, what happened to you? Brian, call it in. We need an ambulance." A hand pulled his head up. "Are you alright?" Hands tight on his biceps.
"English, English." He tried to concentrate on lacing his fingers but he lost track. "I can't lace my fingers." He looked up, pleading with the man to understand. "I'm trying but, I, um, can't…" The ground was tilting under his feet. "Gotta lie down."
"Whoa, whoa. Don't fall. Sit down, there's a bench behind you."
It wasn't graceful, but the bench was there. Once sitting, he started to slide over, feeling suddenly boneless. The book would make a great pillow. "Need to lie down."
But 'lace-your-fingers' guy wouldn't let him. "I'm thinking it's better if you sit, man. You've got a head injury—blood all over your shirt. Gotta stay awake. The ambulance is on its way. Brian's gone to get them, he'll bring them right here." He was interrupted by a squawk from the radio on his hip, and a tinny voice. "See, they're at the gate. Just a few minutes. Do you remember what happened? Did someone mug you?"
"No. Yes. I don't remember. I woke up and…"
"The park's been closed since nine o'clock, man. If you've been out since then, well, the hospital will take care of you."
He gulped, "Am I really in Washington?"
"Dee cee, my man, dee cee, glorious capital of the United States. Except now in August when it's a sauna. Where're you from? This your first time visiting?"
He tried to shake his head but stopped himself in time. "Not sure."
"You'll figure it out. My name's Shymal. Shymal Krishnamurthy. What's yours?"
Now that was a problem. Name, name, name. Ross—House—Welby? Great. All he could think of was TV doctors. "Don't know that either."
"Okay, okay, it'll be fine. Here're the EMTs." Shymal stood, but had to stop and catch him again as he listed to one side. "Come on, guys, he's in rough shape. I think he was mugged. I've been keeping him awake."
A new voice. "What's his name?" He heard Shymal reply but his eyes were locked on the gurney they were rolling towards him. He breathed out in relief.
"Can I lie down now?"
"Sure, fella, sure. Here, let me help you up. Can you stand?"
"Yeah." Gloved hands tugged at him, an arm pulled him up by the waist. "No." He reached for the gurney. "Wait. My book. Need my book." He tried to turn, but his legs were like water. "Need to lie down." And then finally he was and Shymal put the book next to him.
He closed his eyes and found only darkness. No one, no thing waiting for him. Just darkness and quiet and relief from his headache.
Pain in his chest. Light in his eye. Someone shouting. "Wake up, fella. Wake up. What's your name?"
Pain in his ear? "Ow, quit. Awake."
"Then open your eyes, buddy boy."
Something on his cheek. His ear hurt again. He cracked an eye. "Leave m'ear 'lone."
"Hey, bud. Welcome back."
"You're in an ambulance. We are en route to GW Hospital, ETA about eight minutes. I'm Rob and the driver is Buck."
"Yeah, and Buck."
"GW? Washington? I'm going to Washington Hospital?" That sounded familiar. "Good."
"I guess you could call it that." Rob talked while he checked vitals. "It's GW University Hospital. Best in the city."
He breathed in sharply. "My book–where's my book?"
"That thing? It's here with your personal effects." Rob held up a garbage bag sized clear plastic bag. "Your Lemans watch is in here, and man, is that nice, bracelet, giant book… looks like everything. Anything else the hospital finds will go in here too, and they are good at keeping it safe."
He snapped out, "Need my bracelet back. Now. Never take it off."
"Here you go, man, calm down. Left wrist?"
"Yeah." Once it was back on, he breathed easier. "Sorry. Sorry, Rob. Just can't take it off."
"Don't worry, pardner, it's okay. It's on for now. How's your pain? Head, arm, chest?"
He groaned. "Wish you hadn't said anything."
Something warm in his arm. He looked down. "What happened?"
"Give it a second. You're going to be fine. I've got to call this in, but I'm right here." Rob gave him a big smile. "Moan if you need something."
Rob turned to talk to Buck and then into a microphone, rattling off information to the ER. This seemed familiar. "What's wrong with my arm?"
The EMT held up a finger. He tried to pay attention but things kept slipping in and out. "Caucasian male, late twenties, mildly hypertensive", that must be him, "…head, penetrating wounds", lost him again, "blood loss, potential break left humerus … hey, buddy, open your eyes."
He didn't remember closing them. His eyelid was pulled up, Rob's face barely visible when the glare of the penlight faded. "Stay awake for me. Just a few more minutes. Doing okay? How's the pain?"
"And here we are." He was pretty sure Rob followed the gurney for a minute or two, he thought he recognized the voice, but the lights started to smear and this time when he closed his eyes, no one woke him.
TBC. Chapter 2 will post Friday.