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Mystery Science Fiction Suspense

The chalk, white and crumbling, more fit to be called powder than a writing tool, squeaked as it moved along the blue tile. 

“Three-hundred-fifty,” Scallia paused, her brain going momentarily blank. “Five.” 

She stepped back and admired the work, a line. A simple, 1 and ½ inch, white line, standing out against the blue tile. Scallia hated the color. The calm, relaxed tint that wouldn’t go away. No matter how many times she yelled at it to do so. Always blue, always tile. The hideous texture covered everything. 

“Look at that, Ava.” She said to the white rat in her hand. “I’ve been here three-hundred-fifty-five days. How about that.”

Scallia sat down on her cot and placed Ava next to her. His little whiskers were twitching, red eyes glancing around curiously as he crawled along. Beside the white cot, the room contained a small porcelain sink, tarnished mirror and a toilet. The overhead light was small and colorless, retracted into the ceiling like recess lighting. It was covered with a glass lens, probably so Scallia couldn’t break it. She’d been tempted to do so many times. 

After checking her watch, Scallia jumped up and stood at sharp attention. Hands down rigid at her side, legs straight and tight. 

“It’s three o’clock, Ava.” She said, walking to the middle of the floor and sitting down. “Time for our workout.”

She began the daily routine: Seven ab crunches, ten push ups and six squats. Afterward, she was hot and sweaty, but satisfied. 

“Okay, Ava. Your turn.” Scallia announced, picking up the rat. 

Using some key words like ‘circle’ and ‘climb,’ she had trained Ava to do assorted activities. The white rat ran in several circles, and climbed up and down the legs of Scallia’s cot. By the end, it seemed tired as well. 

“Well, you're in luck, Ava.” Scallia told it, looking at her watch. “It's three-fifty-nine. We finished just before Rest Hour.”

For the next sixty minutes, Scallia laid on her bed or paced the room. She considered how long she’d been in the blue tiled room, just one day shy of a year. It seemed to be all there was, she had no memory of what had been before. 

The woman didn’t quite know where she was or why she was there. Scallia assumed that she was in a prison cell of some sort. The words ‘solitary confinement’ always came to mind. Okay, so she was in ‘solitary confinement,’ but for what? This type of punishment was reserved for heinous crimes: murder, assault, that type of thing. Scallia was sure that, if she had done something horrible, it would’ve come to mind by now. 

“Ava,” Scallia re-entered reality. “It’s four fifty-nine. Dinner coming.” 

Resolutely, she arose and picked up the rat. After walking to a corner of the room, she seated herself in front of a small metal opening. It had a swinging attachment on it that was similar to a dog-door. The thing was very strong and almost completely air-tight. 

After one more minute of very patient waiting (Scallia was excellent at that), there came a rushing sound from the door. The plastic tray, going very fast, rushed out the opening. It skidded across the floor before losing momentum and scraping to a halt.

Scallia stood, brushing herself off and marched to the tray. It was beige, sealed with saran wrap and divided into three sections: the largest for meat, second for vegetables and third for fruit. Usually it consisted of greasy beef, watery green beans and mushy grapes. A small container of water came with it.

             It may have been unappetizing, but Scalia dutifully emptied her plate, setting a portion aside for Ava. The rodent devoured the grapes and green beans, but, for some reason, always had trouble with the beef.

“Uh-uh.” She said, pulling the white rat back. “Eat your meat.”

Her pet protested, letting out a defiant eek! before running away faster than Scallia could catch it. She rolled her eyes.

“More for me.” The woman laughed, popping the piece of beef in her mouth. 

While she ate, Scallia began reciting to herself. The piece was rather short, but had a very organized and official quality about it, something she deeply admired. 

“I, Scallia, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;” She paused here to chew and swallow a grape. 

“That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

She had absolutely no idea what it meant. Some air of significance hung on the words, like a memory that slipped away just as soon as it arrived. 

“I, Scallia, do... solemnly...” She tried again, but the wisps of familiarity had gone.

In frustration, Scallia threw her now empty tray across the room. She (due to the laws of physics) expected it simply to hit the wall, swerve and stop. Instead, after it collided with the wall, the tray bounced as a beach ball would. Then, it ricocheted off the floor and flew, landing perfectly in the returning slot.

Scallia blinked rapidly in disbelief. How could that have just happened? She looked to Ava, who hadn’t noticed.

“I’m losing my mind.” She groaned. 

It was only around 5:46 pm, but she decided to turn in early. Obviously, her brain was done with normal function for the day.

She quickly brushed her teeth and cleaned her face. The water tasted faintly of copper pipes, as always.

The woman studied her face in the mirror. She had a somewhat hollow face, with big, brown eyes, full lips and noticeable dimples. Her chocolate-colored skin looked almost alien in the harsh white light. The short black curls on her head were too short to braid, and thus untidy. 

“Goodnight, Ava.” Scallia yawned, walking to the cot and laying down. She tucked herself under the bedsheets. 

Her rat, hearing the bed groan, stopped sniffing around, and came to its master. Scallia watched it curl up at its usual spot on the pillow, content. She, in some way, wanted to feel like that too. Able to curl into a little ball, perfectly satisfied. Not a care in the world.

She sighed and stroked its soft fur, closing her eyes tightly. 

Three-hundred-sixty-four days gone, how many more to go?

She could tell something was different. From the moment Scallia opened her eyes, something just felt wrong. But what?

“Ava?” She called softly, feeling around the pillow.

It was still there, sleeping soundly. That wasn’t it then. After sitting up, nothing looked immediately different about the room around her. The ugly blue, check. The tile, check. The appliances were still there, the food hatch still shut tight. 

“Ugh! What is it?” Scallia asked aloud. 

The room did look a little wider, more… empty. And that’s when it dawned on Scallia. Making her head spin, startling a gasp from her lips: the tally marks were gone. 

“What? What?!” She cried, leaping from the cot. 

Spinning in a complete circle confirmed the disorientating truth. The simple, 1 and ½ inch white lines, usually coating two complete walls, were gone. Gone as in gone. There were no remnants of the chalk, no residue or even faint smudges. Poof! Magic! Abracadabra! Gone.

“Ava, Ava.” Scallia murmured. “I think I’m losing myself.”

Feeling faint, she leaned back to sit down again. But, instead of landing on the cot, she fell back and landed painfully on the tile floor. Ava stood next to her, grooming itself. After a short oww! She regained her composure and was shocked to find that her cot, too, had disappeared.

Scallia scarcely had time to react to this, when she heard an untimely sound. From the food return door, out came a tray. It looked identical to the one she’d eaten from last night, containing even the same meal. After falling from the slot to the floor, it bounced off (like last night) and soared into the opening which it usually came out of. Scallia heard a reversed scraping sound as it went backwards up the chute.

The woman rushed over to the door and pressed her ear to it, but the tray had already gone. When she stood up again, the new scenery around her evoked a small scream. The tally marks were back, pasted to the wall just like they’d never left.

Fearing the worst (whatever that may be), Scallia picked up Ava and held it close, backing herself into a corner. 

“What is going on?” She asked the rat.

It had no answer. 

Oddly, now that she took a closer look, Scallia noticed that the tally marks seemed to be… vanishing. Five at a time, they left. Each time a cluster disappeared, the room seemed more fuzzy. Less real, like when you watch someone do a drawing, but backwards. Instead of definition being added, it was being taken away. The room seemed real, then like a blurry picture, next a faded photo, losing its color, finally seeming like Scallia was looking at a fully immersive sketch. 

The lines were fading, giving the room a look of blank paper. Ava had dissolved.

Once everything melted away, Scallia was just floating in an empty space. No noise. No color. Nothing. Her eyelids felt suddenly very heavy. 

She closed them. The world came back to her all at once. Scallia gasped as light seeped in through her eyelids. She became suddenly aware of the bed she was in. The uncomfortable sensation of having tubes hooked up to her arms. The noise of voices meeting her ears. She hadn’t heard that wonderful sound in one full year. 

After an attempt or two, Scallia managed to open her eyes. The room around her was similar to a hospital, but at the same time, very different. She was laying in some sort of metallic pod, its lid open and laying limp to the side. Around her, in long rows, were other pods. Some were closed, guessably holding other men and women like Scallia. More were open, showing people sleeping or being tended by nurses.

“Hello?” She called to a passing woman.

“Oh, hello.” The lady smiled. “Are you waiting to be sealed into your simulation?”

“Am I… what?” Scallia knitted her eyebrows. 

The nurse walked over and bent down, looking at the side of her pod. Scallia could see the reflection of a screen in the woman’s glasses. 

“Oh, you’ve just been removed.” She nodded, straightening herself. “Well you just couldn’t wait to come back, could you? The sedative shouldn’t have worn off for at least another hour.”

“I’m sorry, where am I?” Scallia asked. 

“My apologies, Private Michaels. I’m not in charge of Re-entry Briefing.” She told her. “I’ll send for your Unit’s Specialist.”

Scallia stared at her awkwardly, having understood nothing she just said. 

“Just wait, I’ll be right back.” The lady promised, hurrying away.

Scarcely five minutes later, she returned with a tall man in a lab coat. 

“Hello, Private Michaels, my name is Doctor Herrington.” He said, his voice containing no emotion. “I’m here to give you your Re-entry Briefing.”

“Oh, alright.” Scallia agreed.

“Now,” He pulled out a clipboard. “You’ve been in a solitary confinement cell simulation for about one day-”

“That’s not true! It was more than a-” She cut him off, but was then cut off.

“Don’t interrupt me, Private Michaels.” He ordered, giving her a harsh look.

Like when she had recited the mysterious creed, an air of recognition fogged in. The word respect came to mind.

“Yes, sir.” Scallia said. 

“Good. As I was saying, you’ve physically been in your SRS Cell for one day.” The doctor gestured at her pod. “SRS stands for Synthetic Reality Simulator. The system uses certain drugs, hence the tubes, and a computer system to train you.”

“Train me for what?”

“This will make sense in a moment.” He looked down at his clipboard again. “I’m going to say three choice numbers that will bring back your memory. It’ll be slightly disorienting, so I’ll say them all slowly. Ready?”

Doctor Harrington sure liked to be direct, throwing all that information out there at once.

“Yes, sir.” Scallia took a deep breath. 

“Good. The first number is: 611391225.” He read the digits. 

Scallia’s head began to spin as a rush of memories came back to her. Family! She had a Family! The faces of her sister, brother, mother and father came into focus. She remembered where they had lived, her childhood, the good and the bad, all of it. 

“Do you remember your family now?” The Doctor asked.

“Yes, yes I remember!” Scallia laughed. 

“Good. The next number is: 1181325.” 

The next wave of memories were of her time in the army. The pain, yet excitement of leaving home. Enlisting. The difficult training camp. All the work leading up to a blank space, the gap between becoming a soldier and sitting in that ugly blue tile room. 

“Do you remember why I call you Private Michaels?”

“I do.” She told him solemnly.

“The last number is: 20181914.”

And finally, it was complete. Scallia remembered being selected for a special division. A section of the military that would be used in a new space exploration program. At last, mankind had the means to go beyond the limits of their home solar system. Two discoveries had led to this: One, the ability to freeze the human body for long periods of time. Two, a signal from outer space. Possibly one from an intelligent life form. 

The journey to the selected destination would be long, lonely and grueling. Yes the human body could be frozen, but for a price. In order for the mind not to atrophy over time, It had to be kept active. This was where the SRS Cell came in. By connecting a human brain to the system, it was kept healthy and operational. However, this, too, came with a price.

Technology enabled us to slow down the perception of time within the SRS Cell. For example, one year in the actual world could be equal to six months in the simulation. But cosmic travel, even with cutting edge spacecraft technology, could take hundreds of years. Hence, the problem. How much solitary confinement could the human brain endure? The SRS Cell was still relatively new, only able to produce simple things: blue tile, virtual mice, a small room. Could humans ever last ten, even twenty years alone? Or would the SRS Cell simply run it into insanity, destroying the very thing it was created to maintain?

“Do you remember why you’re here, now?” Doctor Harrington asked.

“I-I do. I remember.” Scallia whispered, her head still spinning.

“If I’m going to be honest with you, Private Michaels, I have great hopes for you.” He said, momentarily shedding the cold indifference. “Of all the soldiers I’ve put through the SRS Cell so far, you’ve done the best.”

Scallia (her vision beginning to clear) didn’t really believe him. She still remembered how angry her life in the cell was. How many times she’d snapped, screaming at the blue tiles to go away. Causing her fingers to bleed from scratching at the wall, trying to pry open the food hatch.

“A lot of people stop responding after a couple months and have to be pulled out.” Herrington continued. “But you, you fell into a routine. Made friends with your Assisting Virtual Animal, or Ava. Kept busy, active. That in itself shows a lot of promise.”

“Yes, sir.” 

The doctor chuckled. 

“Do you have any questions?” He asked, tucking the clipboard away.

“Well, actually, yes- sir. Why did everything fall apart? Before I was pulled out, I mean.” 

“Ah, that’s part of an important procedure.” The Doctor said. “You see, as you were in the simulation for a year, your mind learned to accept it. It became your reality. If we just pulled you out willy-nilly, your mind would simply,” He snapped his fingers. “So, in order to ease the brain’s transition, we thwart the perception of the SRS Cell. The more improbable the physics becomes, the easier it is to believe that the simulation is, in fact, counterfeit.”

After absorbing what he said (the man really did talk fast), she signaled with a sharp ‘Yes, sir’ that she understood. 

“Excellent. You get some rest, Private Michaels.” He looked at his watch. “We’re putting you back in after a couple days.”

“You are?” Scallia bit her lip.

“Yes. But for longer this time. A year and a half.” He said. 

The woman paused.

“Will it be the same? Me, Ava and no memories of anything?” She asked quietly.

Herrington nodded a yes. 

“I’m sure you’ll perform fantastically.” He assured her. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some more soldiers to brief.”

And without so much as a ‘have a good day’ or ‘rest well,’ he was gone. But, Scallia realised, that wasn’t exactly his style. 

“Alright, Private Michaels.” The nurse came over and re-situated her blankets. “Try to get some rest now.”

Scallia nodded, rolling over. She heard the nurse fiddle with some controls on the tubes, then leave. 

The woman closed her eyes and pulled the blanket over her head. One and a half years. She thought. That’s eighteen months. That’s approximately five-hundred-fifty-eight days.

How could she possibly last that long? Could the SRS Cell really preserve her? Or would her sanity slip through her fingers, rendering her a mental wasteland. She didn’t really know. All she knew was what Dr. Herrington had said: “Of all the soldiers I’ve put through the SRS Cell so far, you’ve done the best.”

And she knew, with Ava at her side, she had to try.

...

January 01, 2021 20:28

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5 comments

23:46 Jan 05, 2021

Also, please note that this is an un-extended version. I had to shorten it to fit the 3,000 word minimum, but the ending is very different in its full form. If you'd like to read Tallying the Cell in all of its 4,252 -word-long glory, go to my site at: https://poetrygardener.weebly.com/tallying-the-cell.html Thanks!

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21:25 Jan 05, 2021

Hello! In the process of writing this story, I have included some military references like rank and the title within it. I did research this before putting it in, but please forgive any mistakes I may have made.

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Tolu Odel
03:09 Jan 08, 2021

Hello! I'm here from the critique circle. Great job writing such a detailed story in such a short amount of time. It was fun to read.

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Nyla N
15:37 Mar 08, 2021

Wow! This was really amazing. I really liked, "The plastic tray, going very fast, rushed out the opening. It skidded across the floor before losing momentum and scraping to a halt." as I could literally imagine it in my mind And this was absolutely hilarious, "Then, it ricocheted off the floor and flew, landing perfectly in the returning slot. Scallia blinked rapidly in disbelief. How could that have just happened? She looked to Ava, who hadn’t noticed. “I’m losing my mind.” She groaned. " And I love how even Ava, that name has a reason- tha...

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Pika Okoye
07:47 Jan 29, 2021

Now you chose a good promt and very well done👍 The title is so interesting and sticks perfectly to the story. Great work. Would you like to read my stories?😊

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