TW: mind control, mental manipulation
In the beginning, you don't even know your name.
Time passes, or seems to, but you can't mark any of it. You know you exist, but can't feel anything. You are always dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, and just want to rest. You can't remember anything, not who you are, or where you are, and the only constant is a dream you experience. You aren't sure it's a dream, because it's just like everything else, but it feels like it.
In the dream, there's a door. It’s made of a hard metal, like a hatch. It's illuminated faintly by a green glow. You're drawn to it, and can't tear your eyes away.
A woman approaches the door and stands next to you. Her hair is as black as night, but her eyes are green-gold, and remind you of a chameleon, although you can't picture what a chameleon looks like afterward. "Are you sure about this?" she asks.
You find yourself saying, "It's all tested. Nothing can go wrong." The woman nods hesitantly, but places a hand on your arm.
"Good luck," she says. Then she's gone.
Suddenly, red lights start flashing, and there's a deafening blaring noise. You cover your ears. The hallway starts spinning and spinning, until it transforms into a new place, one you never remember once the dream ends.
You feel excruciating pain in your head, then nothing, and it's over.
This mind-state continues with you for what feels like a long time - you can't tell.
Then one day, you wake up.
It looks like a cell, but it's a bedroom, they tell you. You look like a prisoner, but you're a guest. And us? We're not your captors. We're your saviors.
They're always saying this, and you always believe them. The Institution has been very kind to you, so why shouldn't you trust them?
A Member stops outside of your door, and enters the key code. You don't bother watching to try to see what the code is. That wouldn't be very kind to people who have only shown hospitality.
The Member opens the door, and wheels in a cart. The gray suit that Members wear covers most of their bodies, and you can't see this one's face through the shimmering mask. You take the tray of food, and thank the Member. They say nothing, and leave, shutting the door behind them, which whirs as it locks again.
Don't worry about the lock, they say. It's only for your safety. If you want to leave, you'll be able to. Of course, we know that you'll never want to. Isn't that right?
Of course it's right, you think. The Institution is like my home.
You can still remember your first - or what seemed like the first, the others said you had been here a while - meeting with the Members. It was soon after you woke up.
"Hi there," a woman said to you. Her hair was blond and tightly pulled back, and her face looked doll-like, with black eyes. She was the only Member you would see without a suit and mask. She smiled reassuringly. "My name is Celia, and I am the Head Member. I work here at the Institution. I'm afraid that you were in an accident. The roof of your Bedroom was unstable, and some of it collapsed on you. You were unconscious for two weeks, but we nursed you back to health."
You nodded. That sounds right, you thought. A roof accident. That would explain the pain in your head.
"Now," Celia continued, leaning forward. "What do you remember?"
You thought long and hard. "Nothing, really," you said. "Although in this dream, I remember that something reminded me of a chameleon. What's that?"
"That's ridiculous. There's no such thing as a chameleon."
You poke your food. It's all gray. It's delicious, you're told, although you can't taste anything when you eat it. Of course, that doesn't matter, because it relieves that pain in your stomach.
"Free time," you hear a Member say over the speaker in your Bedroom. The door whirs, unlocking. You get up and open it, stepping into the hall. You see other Guests do the same.
A Member ushers you and the rest of the Guests into a single-file line, and you walk down the hall. I wonder what makes the halls lit, you think. You can't see any lights on the ceiling.
The line walks slowly but surely, like soldiers, towards the Outside Area. The Outside Area is a dome with pictures on the ceiling of the color blue, and odd shapes like the mashed potatoes you're sometimes served. Pokey green plastic lines the floor. It reminds you of something, but you can't remember what.
Then you hear it. A high-pitched, screeching noise. The sound is unfamiliar to you, but a word highlights itself in your mind: scream. That's peculiar, you think. None of the Members or other Guests have ever screamed. You wonder if you can.
You turn toward the sound. There's a black-haired woman, struggling against two Members who are trying to put her into the Hospital Ward. "Get your hands off me!" she yells.
She looks up at you, and you gasp. She has the gold-green eyes. Could it be possible that she's the woman from your dream?
"Monsters!" she yells at you desperately, slapping another Member's hand off her arm. "Under their masks! They're monsters!" You just stare at her. "We came from Earth looking for you on a mission after! It’s a game to them, controlling our minds-" The Members overpower her, cutting her off, and shut the Hospital Ward door behind them.
Your feet can't move. It's like they're glued to the ground. You've never felt this sensation before.
"Hey, Guest 3!" says the Member leading your group to the Outside Area. "Get back in line."
But for the first time, you realize that you don't want to.
Celia sits across from you. Her smile looks odd now, you notice. Fake. Maybe it's a mask. "I hear that you witnessed Guest 53's outrageous rebellion today. You have to understand that none of what she was saying is true. She's delirious. We're giving her medication now."
You nod. "I understand," you lie. "There was just one thing." Celia purses her lips, but then continues smiling.
"And what's that?"
"She mentioned Earth. I've never heard of Earth before. What is it? Is it a place?"
Celia replies automatically, "No. There is only the Institution. Guest 53 is delirious. Earth does not exist."
You lie on your cot in your Bedroom, thinking. You wonder about what other things the Institution deceived you about. Earth has to be real, you think. It needs to, because this can't be all there is.
You fall asleep, and then you remember.
There's a spaceship. You stand in front of it, staring at the hatch to go on board. It's going to take you to a new planet, someplace humans haven't been before. There might be life, there might not be. That's what makes this mission so dangerous: the World Space Organization barely knows anything about it.
Your sister, Serena, approaches. There's worry in her gold-green eyes, and why shouldn't there be? "Are you sure about this?" Serena asks you.
"The ship's all tested. Nothing can go wrong."
Serena looks up at you. "If anything happens, we'll come looking for you."
You nod. "I know you will," you say.
"Be safe up there," she finishes, teary-eyed, and the two of you hug. You know this may very well be the last time you see each other. You reassure her that you will be, and she wishes you luck. Then you board the ship.
It takes forever - or at least it feels like it - to reach the planet. You wonder how your family and friends are. Have they forgotten you? You hope not.
When you touch the planet's surface, the whole crew cheers. But the celebration is interrupted by a blaring noise. "Life detected," it says on the scanning screen. Suddenly, something crashes through the ship's port, and the emergency lights start flashing. Someone's screaming. You realize that it's you. You can hardly see through the smoke, and can only make out a shape coming towards you.
Something comes down hard on your head, and you're blinded by the pain. The last thing you hear is a voice saying, “Take it away,” before the darkness encloses you.
"No!" you scream, and jolt upright in your bed. You're sweating. Anger courses through you, and pain, and sadness. "You are monsters! Where's my sister? Why are you keeping us like prisoners?! I want out!" You kick your bed violently, and the cot's leg breaks.
You run up to the door and wham it with your body. And again. And again. It hurts, a horrible pain in your shoulder, but you don't care.
A Member rushes up to your cell and quickly puts in the code. The door whirs and they open it. The Member barely avoids being rammed, and you collapse on the ground. More Members come, and carry you away. You struggle, but they're too strong. You realize they're taking you to the Hospital Ward.
They bring you through the door, and one grabs a needle. You wince as it's shoved into your forearm, and the blue substance injected into your vein.
You fight against sleep, but it's coming anyway. The more you lose consciousness, the more you lose control.
"Hi there," a woman says to you. Her hair is blond and tightly pulled back, and her face looks doll-like, with black eyes. She is the only Member you will see without a suit and mask. She smiles reassuringly. "My name is Celia, and I am the Head Member. I work here at the Institution."
"Nice to meet you, Celia," you say. "But um, why isn't this place familiar?"
"I'm afraid that you were in an accident," Celia replies. "The roof of your bedroom was unstable, and some of it collapsed on you. You were unconscious for two weeks, but we nursed you back to health."
You nod. A roof accident. That would explain the pain in your shoulder. It felt like forever that I was like that, you think. Was it really only two weeks?
"Now," Celia continues, leaning forward. "What do you remember?"
You think long and hard. "Nothing, really," you say. "Although I keep having this dream where I'm locked in a room and I bang and bang on the door. Is that normal?"
Celia smiles. "Oh, yes. It's common after accidents to have dreams like that."
You find yourself contemplating her words, and it doesn't sound completely correct. But, if there's anything you've learned so far from the other Guests about the generous Institution, it's this:
They are always right.