Ryland knew he might not get invited to the party if he didn’t use his connections on the football team. He had been a kicker the last three years, though he hadn’t tried out this year because of taking on a second job. He’d been avoiding the irritation of his buddies the first few weeks of school, hoping to save himself from the lectures of privileged athletes whose families weren't struggling financially. His mom told him he didn’t need the job, but he got one anyway. He could work an extra 10-15 hours a week now that he was 18, and it would help him put away more money for college. He wanted to get out of this small town, with its small-minded, boring people. He turned the corner in the hallway of the aging high school, walking absentmindedly toward his last class of the day. He threw a passing glance at the window of a classroom on his right and stopped. What was that? He wondered.
His English teacher was standing behind his desk, hunched in midair, as if he’d been in the middle of standing up, but had suddenly stopped. Ryland couldn’t figure out why this bothered him so much, but fought his rising panic by counting. He was about to enter the classroom, when the teacher stood up suddenly, with jerky movements, and then smoothly walked around his desk and toward the back of the classroom.
Ryland watched him for another moment, seeing nothing else out of the ordinary. Weird, he thought to himself. He blinked several times, wondering if he should be concerned about this, or if something was just wrong with his brain. He felt a sleepy feeling that weighed on his mind and suddenly felt strongly that it was nothing to be worried about. He glanced back down the hall, seeing one of his football buddies rounding the corner ahead. Alright, focus man, he thought to himself, you can do this. He took a deep breath and walked confidently forward.
Officer Lara Walker sat in the uncomfortable chair, fighting the urge to fidget, as she took notes on what Commander Vinn was saying about the operation, in its current stages. She didn’t need the notes, but knew it would make the Commander feel important to have her rapt attention and to be “learning” from him, though she was certain she knew more of Project Strella than he did. She glanced at the screen, where a hazy image of the subject was moving around on the screen, a backpack slung over one shoulder.
Vinn tapped the screen of his tablet out of frustration, “Ugh. NEXA!!” he yelled as he slammed the speaker button of the phone on his desk. “Yes?” came the bored drone of his secretary. Walker thought the yelling was in poor taste, especially since the commander’s secretary was directly in the next room and could probably hear the screaming through the wall. “This screen thing is not connected to the tablet. AGAIN. I thought the guy fixed this mess last week.” “Right, sir, well the technician said the disturbance in the connection might be coming from the core itself. He said he’d be back out next week, with a bigger team to examine it in more detail.”
The Commander rolled his eyes and continued poking at the tablet with his finger. Walker looked back up at the screen and started. The confused eyes of Subject 12 seemed to be peering through the screen, and directly at Walker as she sat in her chair. That’s not possible, she thought, reminding herself of her in depth training of the project and technologies involved. The screen glitched, distorting the already hazy images. The subject was now seated, and seemed to be writing something in a notebook. Walker made a note of the time, so she could go back to this timeframe later and make sure all the transitions were smooth in his memory. She glanced back up at the screen, fixating for a moment on the subject’s face, and then decidedly turning her attention back to her own notes.
Ryland was sitting at the party, surrounded by people, with loud music bumping in his ears. It felt like it was just beating against his brain, but his thoughts were louder than anything else, as usual. He looked down at the cup in his hand and felt like a stranger in his own body. So weird, he thought, morosely, do other people feel this way? Is it just me? What’s wrong with me? He looked to his left on the old basement couch, and saw the group of girls perched on the other end. He made eye contact with a brunette, who blushed and glanced away from him, quickly. Mina. She was the reason he’d delved back into the crowd he’d been avoiding, and gotten one of his buddies to pick him up for the party.
He got up to get a refill, even though he’d barely taken a few sips of the swill being served at this party that gave the distinct odor and taste of rubbing alcohol. He couldn’t be completely sure. He’d never tasted rubbing alcohol, after all. He just needed an excuse to move around, instead of sitting by himself.
He was standing awkwardly at the table full of used cups and various bottles of alcohol that had been stolen from a parents’ liquor cabinet or had been purchased by an older sibling. Maybe he should just head home. What am I even doing here? She’s never going to be interested in me. He swiped his hand dismissively, in the air above the table of cups, and pretended not to notice when a few fell over. No time for your weirdness now, dude. He glanced toward the door. There she was, looking at her phone. She must have moved while he was lost in his own thoughts.
He took a deep breath and moved toward her.
“Dating apps?” he asked, kicking himself for the lameness that oozed out of him when he opened his mouth. He’d been around girls his whole life, but sometimes still felt like they were a different species altogether. Or maybe you’re the one who’s different, he thought to himself, and felt a twinge of panic as something about the thought disturbed him greatly. Something... missing... The morose thoughts tried to spiral, but he refused to go into the pit of baseless fear that occasionally consumed him.
He shook his head, in an attempt to clear his mind by pure brute force, if necessary. She glanced up at him, having missed his awkward encounter with the table, thankfully, and said, “Yeah, the prospects here are pretty slim, don’t you think?” He smirked as he recognized her tone as one of sarcasm and playful banter, and not a tone of “get away from me, jerk,” that he’d seen his friends experience. “Yeah, I agree. Probably best to just give up on all these dudes completely. There’s gotta be something more than conversations about football and video games, right?”
“Yeah,” she smirked, as she tucked her hair behind her ear, “You get it. So what… are you saying you’re different from these other guys?” she asked, eyeing him with playful suspicion. “Me? No way. Ask me about 16th century English Literature, and I guarantee I will make a joke about how Elizabethans ‘scored’ or maybe even a space joke. I do have a variety of corny jokes going for me.” He was shocked at his own response, it was more bold than he’d felt in a long while. Something was stirring in his spirit.
“Some wouldn’t consider corny jokes to be a personality trait,” Mina said as she laughed. She laughed! He thought, excitedly. Okay, don’t screw this up now, man. He found himself grinning as well. “Then I guess you’ll just have to let me know what personality traits you’re looking for, and I’ll make sure to confirm that none of these other jokers have them. You know, just to save you some time.” Her laugh sounded far away and tinny, like it was ringing in a metal box, but he decided to ignore it and lean into the boldness of the flirtatious feeling, and whatever else this was.
Officer Walker typed thoughtfully, thinking of how to add nuance to the story she was writing. She knew this wasn’t technically part of her job, but she’d finished all her admin duties, checked the subject’s vitals and memories, and needed something to do. The pre-programmed personalities were falling flat and hadn’t been able to keep Subject 12’s attention. She needed to keep his mind walking through a combination of positive and negative experiences, just like a real life would be, so that they could monitor real progress.
She was the youngest in her rank, having graduated college at 16 and finishing Academy training at 18. Sure, she was just six months on the job and her accelerated technical skills had landed her in a senior position, but the higher ranking officials had been doubtful of her ability to head a department at a young age, and placed her with monitoring Subject 12.
I mean, it’s not a bad job, she thought, remembering the long conversations with the handsome, knowledgeable man she shared a space with, during her shifts.
She silently reprimanded herself for thinking about this. Again. He doesn’t really know me… does anybody really know anybody else? Walker shifted her thoughts back to the job at hand, and reminded herself that Project Strella could not suffer under her watch. She would make sure of it. She wouldn’t let others’ doubts affect her, and she wouldn’t dwell on her own doubts long enough to let those keep her down either.
She glanced at the projection screen, which was a blank, black rectangle, right now, since the subject was sleeping. I mean, I guess he’s technically always sleeping, she thought to herself, feeling a bit sad about that thought. She picked up her worn copy of Romeo and Juliet and flipped through to some of her favorite passages. She put it down before she could get too caught up in the story, and looked at the book underneath, which was supposed to be a guide to Elizabethan England, and heard her dad’s voice reminding her: Get it together, Walker; there’s a job to do. She took a breath and continued typing thoughtfully as she sharpened and defined the program with lines of code.
Ryland sat in Mina’s living room, for the 10th time in the past few months they’d been dating. He looked around, the walls of her home were mostly white, except for one that was a deep red. The color of blood, he thought morbidly, or wine, if you’re not being dramatic. Mina was discussing her favorite Shakespearean plays and comparing it with some reality tv drama her friends had convinced her to watch.
Ryland was trying to listen but found his mind wandering. He’d had so many deep conversations with her, but then, sometimes, it felt like she was saying the thing he wanted to hear, instead of whatever she was really thinking. If she’s really thinking at all, he thought to himself, chiding himself for the unnecessarily mean thought.
He realized his gaze had wandered back to the red wall, and he looked back at Mina quickly, so she didn’t think he was ignoring her. He jumped as he looked at her eyes. They’d gone from a deep green to the same red as the blood-colored wall. He instinctively scooted back from her on the couch, stammering, “Wh-- uhh-- your eyes!!! Are you okay??” She blinked at him, tilting her head and bringing a hand up to touch around her eyes. “Yeah? I mean... What’s wrong with them? Did my eyeliner smear or something?” She got up and walked toward the large mirror over the mantel in the living room.
He didn’t know what to think. Yes you do, a voice resounded in his mind. It sounded like his voice, but older and wiser. Do I? He thought back to it. Look. Really look. It echoed in his mind. Look at what?! He asked in a panic, thinking of the blood red eyes of the girl, who was now looking at her face in the mirror. The disembodied voice didn’t answer him. She turned back around, having examined her face, and finding nothing out of the ordinary, apparently. Her eyes were still a deep, crimson red. “I’m -- I -- I should go, I’m just not feeling well,” he choked out. Grabbing his jacket and rushing out of her front door.
He could hear her calling out to him, but he just didn’t care. He felt this realization growing in him, mixing with the bold confidence like a fire in his chest of determination. He was walking briskly down the street toward his own home. He glanced at yards to his left and right, and quickly looked behind him as his pace picked up into a run. No one was following him, but he knew, he just knew he was being watched. His heart started racing and the warmth in his chest grew as his run turned into a full sprint.
He passed his own house, and despite knowing his parents would be inside, he felt no pull to see them. He felt cut off from everything and everyone he knew. He was only a body, only a mind. Only your mind can help you, now. They have your body, the voice whispered. He pushed himself, not physically, but mentally. He was physically sprinting, but he pressed his mind and began mentally sprinting. He allowed the warmth in his chest to grow and increase, until it felt like it would consume him. Maybe he should let it consume him. Being consumed was better than whatever this thing was inside him that made him feel so disconnected all the time. So stuck.
He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth in chest like a burning fire now, and letting it flow into his arms and legs. Instinctively, he jumped. He opened his eyes, not understanding why his feet weren’t hitting the pavement anymore. He was flying. He was flying over his sleepy little town. He didn’t feel that sleepy, fearful feeling weighing on his mind anymore. He had left that on the ground. He pushed out with his chest, putting his arms out in front of him, and flew.
Everything around him began to blur, and his eyes began to water, but he pushed harder. He felt a weight on his chest, as if someone was trying to press him down. He roared in anger at the invisible hands he knew were keeping him imprisoned in this place. He remembered his life before this hell they were keeping him in. I will get out! I will be free again! He pressed forward, with everything he had.
Subject 12 arched his back off the table, the Alien Life Support and Simulation Device on his chest glowing orange as it sparked. He roared a terrifyingly desperate sound as Walker worked furiously on the computer connected to a diamond-shaped, glowing instrument implanted in his chest cavity. She hit the Code Red button on the wall and barked orders at several medical staff who had run in when the device had started going haywire. “Hold him down!” she yelled, “You two stand on that side! Push hard! Give him more sedatives. I don’t care if he’s hit the limit, just do it, or he’s coming off this table. DO IT NOW!” she screamed as the subject came a full 2 inches off the table.
More military personnel had flooded the room, responding immediately to a Code Red. “PUSH!” she screamed again, as six full grown men and two women pressed their hands down on Subject 12’s body and attempted to push him back down onto the table. Two doctors worked off to the side of the flailing man, putting syringes of medications into the fluids that were connected to his elongated, lavender colored body. One doctor looked frantic as he finished unloading the syringes into the fluid bag connected to the lavender man. He walked over and jabbed a needle directly into Subject 12’s upper arm.
The vitals of the subject slowly came back down to normal levels. He floated effortlessly down onto the hospital bed. The screens returned to normal, flashing warnings receded, and the main screen reflected a projected mental image of the subject sleeping, as Walker finished coding the subject’s journey into brief images that the subject would accept as memories of how he’d gotten from one place to another.
She sat down in a huff, sweat pouring down her brow. She knew if one more thing had gone wrong, She’d have been punished severely. She might have even permanently lost her assignment. Maybe she should request a new assignment anyway. She glanced at the tall, lavender colored man on the table, now seeming to rest peacefully, as the device glowed a light green color. She’d gotten too close. Put too much of herself into the program. She brought out his feelings, but they had been too strong for the program to contain.
What about her feelings? Her heart ached but she tried to keep her mind in check. She was failing, and allowing feelings to get in the way of the mission. She scolded herself for the panic she felt, reminding herself that she was trained for this. Trust your training. Trust the greater purpose. She repeated the mantra that she’d heard since her first day at The Academy. She was serving a greater purpose, right? She felt a pang of sadness that threatened to overwhelm her. The potential disaster scenarios swirled in her mind again. What if… what if Subject 12 had died? Or worse. What if Ryland had woken up?