The room’s mostly dark. A bit of light filters in from the the window next to her head. The fan blows cool air over her. White noise makes her eyelids heavy. Clink. Clink. Clink, the sound of metal—hanging medals for things that don’t matter now— hitting the wall. Two to three seconds of silence between each tap. The ceiling swirls. She blinks, an attempt to reorient herself, but it continues around in her eyes. The bed starts to give way beneath her. She goes to grip the sides to keep from sliding. Her fingers grasp absolutely nothing. Just air through the webbings of her fingers.
It’s a free fall, a spiral descent, before abruptly landing on cold. Her wrist and ankles are locked into place with firm silver metal. This is her return. She always comes back here—to the cold, to the emptiness before the play. This time she’s dressed in a thin orange cotton dress instead of being half naked on the table. The door hisses open. There’s a misty cloud that precedes the figure. A tall and lanky stature behind it. It must be that damn doctor, always coming back. Even here, that doctor follows her. She should be pushing against the metal; she should be fighting. There’s no use to it, though.
The figure closes in, a grayish colored skin sagging from the bone. Then down she goes again, a small swoosh as the air rushes back her ears. This is a straight drop down. She lands feet first in the market. It’s empty, not a Grandma in sight. If they were here, they would surely be fussing with ears and the attached antennas, no doubt about the length.
If the Grandmas were present, they’d bring their trembling fingers to her antennas, asking if she’d just do something about them. All she’s doing is embracing something natural to her body. All she is doing is letting them do what they do, with no intervention. There’s nothing wrong with that. Or at least, not to her. She always tried to convince them that she was just embracing who she was. But the Grandmas were always worried. If they wore their antennas too long, they’d surely be caught and surely be fixed. They always said, “Resistance does not have to get you killed.”
Maybe it did. Maybe resisting had to take a life. She was not going to go down without a fight. She was going to wear her resistance proudly, and if it got her killed, then it got her killed. She’s okay with that. Subs, as they were called a shortened version of Subversions, were getting picked off every day. More and more women crying about their sons, their daughters living a peaceful life, heading to and from the market, playing ball in the field just gone. Disappearing for days only to be found in the hub fixed. The sight of people resurfacing with those yellow eyes angered her.
Though, those that never resurfaced are the ones that haunted her the most. They were just gone. Integration, that’s what it was properly coined, in the hub meant they would not come back to the woods, but they were still alive. In a physical sense. But mentally, they were different. They were not the people that they had known before. Only one who had been integrated ran back to the woods. He had failed to fully integrate. He wanted to try and negotiate between the two groups. But he was shot dead trying to cross the border. She was only seven.
She assumed then that all other failed integrations were killed too. Because she has never seen another in the last eighteen years. Sometimes the sight of his body practically imploding on itself wakes her in the night. He didn’t fly backwards. He crumbled, a straight fall down. Before the sand and dirt could be stained with more than an ounce of his blood, his body was scooped up and flown deeper into the hub.
She shakes her head. She’s not at the border. She’s in the middle of the market clearing. There’s not a single Grandma in sight, or earshot, which is no shock. She’s here, in another game of cat and mouse. She already knows the outcome. She is here, surrounded by wooden stands. They are waiting to be filled with fresh produce and meat. She will never see that again, though. She will never smell fresh meat cooking over firepits again on a Saturday afternoon.
The wind howls through, whipping up dirt into its vortex. She squints to keep the tiny debris out. It doesn’t work. Never does, and she throws her hands up to cover her face. The dirt and dust settle in the front. However, from behind her it whips up full force and knocks her forward. The wind answers to no palm.
“You want to chill out?” The wind knocks her forward again. She digs heels into the dirt. She will not be moved, or so she plays. She knows the attempt to stay put will fail. Another push of the wind moves her forward. “Seriously, please, calm down.” Her parents always taught her to say please and thank you, she’s not an animal, of course.
In retaliation the wind swirls, picking her up a couple of inches from the ground and releases her to the mouth of the woods. She hits a few low hanging branches. Forearms stinging much less than her pride. “I was polite,” she huffs. Well, at least the second time around she was. That must count for something. Or it might count for less.
Definitely less, she thinks, noticing a clearing in between the branches. And right there in the middle three flowers, all growing together, twisted around each other. A large yellow bloom that droops down, a pink and white blossom, both bell-shaped. Both of those bloom downwards too. She knows the flower, or at least of it. Her mother told her to never drink from it. But god, her throat is dry.
How had she not noticed that before? Maybe it’s because she wasn’t screaming like before. Now she is just going through all the motions and her body had grown accustomed. It might have been become conditioned to see that amber sap and make her almost cave, to be tempted to drink of a fruit no good for her. Even though she is here, resisting, the thought that one test could cease all neuron firing is tempting.
Her fingers graze the thick sap, which threatens to drop from the pink petals. Gravity hasn’t fully claimed it yet. As she watches the amber sap stretch between her fingers, she times the shakes. She won’t give in this time. Maybe not even the next. She will count. Three, two, rumble.
“Like clockwork,” she whispers. The ground splits open. The darkness is next. A snicker passes her lips. Darkness—what a funny name. Should that be its name now? Darkness with a capital D, not like it’s known by any other characteristic, not when there is nothing but an absence of light. Maybe Vacuum. No, that’s too formal. She’ll call this drop with no light the Darkness. Darkness here is different than the darkness before. Before it was a false sense of comfort. To get her to drop her guard, think it’s not so bad. She knows their tricks.
An orange glow filters up from the bottom of the pit. This is not a good sign, but her eyes are grateful for the slow introduction back into a lit reality. Then she is dropped, turned and now her fingers and toes scratch at the dirt walls. She must climb up. Up and out until the top is now the bottom and as her gut flips now attempting to exit her rear, she reaches for that Root. It will not hold. It never does. She dangles there for a few moments. She does not need to look down to know there’s a ledge with a black piano.
When she lets go, she will try to aim herself. Will herself to just be tall enough, just have a longer wing span. She remembers when her heart pounded at this moment, when she would cry out for anyone to save her. She remembers the way her grip would slacken over time—minutes, definitely not hours—and with terror swelling in her chest she would fall. Now she unwraps her hand all at once and worries not. There is no time like the present. The orange light is not dangerous. Her mind always thinks it’s lava, that she’s fallen through the core of the earth. And maybe she has. She ought to bring a camera, document the adventure.
She covers the back of her neck and when her back and lower shoulder fall into the solid structure, she turns to her stomach. “Hey, Xavier,” she grins, body stretched across the length of the piano. Her muscles don’t ache, don’t shout in pain.
He smiles at her, fingers working over the keys. He pauses the operatic reframe. She knows her brother’s next words. But her throat always seizes at this. “Will you miss me? When they come and take me away, will you cry out for me? Why didn’t you come when they attempted to fix me? I cried for you.”
She did cry out for him. She cried for nearly a week when she saw him fixed. She hates that word. Fixed, as if anything were wrong with him except the fact that he hated doing his laundry and ate for three people. But that was normal. That was to be expected. That was Xavier and she misses that. “I still cry for you brother. I don’t think the oceans could hold my tears. I’m the reason water levels are rising. My hot tears melt ice caps. My snot is dissolving the ozone layer. The only one that runs after you is me and it’s the memory of you. I run after your ghost.”
His smooth black skin, slightly blue in undertones, stretches and reveals elongating teeth. His chin, normally a chubby roundness, sharpens to a point. His eyes change from hazel to yellow. Xavier laughs, standing up. He’s taller than usual. His body is all bone and skin—barely any muscle. “Run as fast as you can,” he hisses. There is something behind in his eyes. Worry, concern, warning maybe.
“I’m not scared of you.” This is new. Very new. But whatever is happening here, she is not going to let the few moments she gets with him be ruined.
“Good, because I’m not the one you have to fear.” He swats at his sister, sending her body over the edge. He wants to save her. Wants to prevent her from having to come back here ever again. But she is stubborn. She is tough and will never crack. He prays she cracks, sometimes he wishes for her death.
All she can focus on is that orange. It draws nearer. Splash. This is the part where if she had a camera she might turn it off. There’s nothing exciting about water just being orange. No one cares about the plummet if it is certain that no harm comes. The water is warm. She breaks the surface, coughing only a little this time. She’s taking less into her lungs, getting better at the right angle to enter the water.
The cold comes back, wrapped around her ankles. She takes deeper breathes. Every attempt to kick herself free makes her tired. So she resists just a little, enough to say she did something, but she knows she was waiting for the drag under. She gives a third and final half-hearted, half-pathetic kick as the water becomes more viscous. The hand yanks. The water turns back to its normal consistency. Long, thin, spindly fingers have pulled her under.
It’s the doctor, back yet again in this form. This monster. The beady yellow eyes set in ghastly gray skin gaze at her through the pale orange water. The second hand reaches up for her face. It could easily wrap around her face four times. As it grins, their red teeth are revealed. Something’s caught black between the razors.
There’s a tint of pink on the backside of it. It looks like flesh. No, no, no, that’s not what she thinks it is. It can’t be. The first wave of denial rushes through her body, followed by the fire of panic and lit with gasoline as her lungs take on water. She screams. Her chest aching. That is not Xavier’s flesh in the mouth of this doctor. The doctor is sadistic, running her through this simulation, over and over again. But this—not this. This cannot be right.
Her lungs sting. Her body is on fire. She is consumed by another darkness. Without the capital D. This darkness is a resolution that calms her.
Beep. Beep. Beep. A foot twitches. “She’s coming out of her sedation, ma’am,” one of the assistants says into the phone to Dr. Simmons.
“Is she still agitated?”
“No, ma’am. She seems quite calm. Like usual.” He’s afraid to add that. Why is she calm? Her simulation, there’s no way she could not be affected by that.
“Usual?” The word comes out in a bark. He thinks Dr. Simmons was not planning on this type of reaction. “I’ll be right down, Kinan.”
He watches the girl, her secular name Laurel. She’s a pretty sight, dark skin with a unique violet undertone. When she was first brought in, her antennas had passed her waist. They’ve since been cut to her shoulders. Still much longer than most. But much more slick and acceptable now. Antennas grow well into adulthood. Before their modification practices, the antennas would droop, falling down to the waist if not longer. Because they no longer serve an evolutionary purpose anymore, it is there, those in the bub-cities, that antennas must be modified.
Subs are more easily identifiable if they choose not to modify them. It’s an unclean look kept up from Dweller days. No one is a Dweller anymore. Cities shared their technological advances with those that lived out of the hub. Dwellers just chose not to integrate, but now it’s a huge issue. Too many Subs live on the outskirts, abiding by old rules. Some Subs of course create trouble. Ultimately, they must keep up, even if it’s by force. Kinan, while he admires her protest, mostly pities the girl. She’s fighting for ideals she doesn’t understand to be outdated.
Finally, her eyes finish fluttering and the irises are still lilac in color. They should be bronzy yellow. Not a terrible sign; others were reset and fixed without the eyes changing color.
Dr. Simmons’s heels click as she enters the room. Kinan turns up the volume on the speaker to hear their conversation. The girl says nothing. She’s still watching every centimeter of Dr. Simmons approach. Hope still remains.
Dr. Simmons reaches out to stroke the girl’s cheek. She rears back, hissing out, “Fuck you.” There goes all hope. They’ll have to try and reset her again. This is their fourth attempt. No one has ever needed more than two attempts. They must be frying her brain now. They must be getting through at least a little. He can only hope.
“Alijah, I really want to like you. But you’re making this difficult,” Dr. Simmons says.
“Name’s Laurel. How many times I have to tell you?”
Dr. Simmons tsks, bends down low, lips close to the girl’s ear. Kinan turns the volume up more to hear her. “All you’re doing is making this worse for yourself. I will break you; you will submit.”
The girl grins. “Are you betting woman? Because I’ve got forty titanium that says you’re going to kill me before you break me.”
“Oh Laurel, why would you say that?” Kinan sighs. He wishes he could tell her to just pretend; it gets better if she’d cooperate.
Dr. Simmons chuckles lowly and straightens out. “Try resetting her again. Double the dosage,” she directs to the window where Kinan is stationed. “Add another couple of twists. Think of the worst thing you can imagine, and then double it.”
He presses down on the speaker button. “Understood, Dr. Simmons.”
Dr. Simmons directs her attention to the girl, her eyes gleaming and a mischievous grin on her face. “You’re going to regret crossing me.”
“No, what you’re going to do is regret me. You’re going to regret trapping my brother and finding me.”
Laurel would admit, while she was happy that they hadn’t killed her for failing integration so many times for scientific research, she almost rather they would. She’d rather die than be given a new mind, a new identity. Forced to be someone she was not and never have a memory of what it was like before. She’d have basics—remember her family, her birthday. But her name would be different. Maybe her preferences would change.
She was curious as to how Xavier responded to his Sub’s name. Maybe it was all just the simulation. They programmed it that way so it would feel real to her.
“When I break you, it will be a breakthrough on how not to waste so much on failed integration disposal.”
“My bet is still on the table. You will have to kill me before that happens. You too chicken to take that?”
“Did you know that if you cook flesh just right, it doesn’t taste that bad? Don’t even notice what you’re eating really.”
As Dr. Simmons heels click, to punctuate her refusal to hear another word, Laurel’s chest burns. Tears fall, but she tries her hardest to swallow that sob. Her nose stings, the slow drip of mucus running from nostril to cupid’s bow. She cannot give that doctor the satisfaction of a sound. It’s just a line. It’s just a line. But it cuts deep. When the doors slide closed, she unclenches her jaw and the wail scratches over her throat. “My brother! You rotten bitch!”
Laurel will make good on her words for this. If the doc wants to play dirty, then she had better want to bury Laurel six feet and then some. “Kinan,” Laurel speaks after she’s unlocked from the table. Her wrists are sore, her body sags as she sits up. She wants to cry again. She wants to release the pressure sitting on her chest. But she can’t. Everything is just heavy now. Things don’t feel real anymore.
“Tell Dr. Simmons when they finally cremate me, burn me to a pile as ashes, you put me ass up so she can kiss it.”
“I-I don’t handle such affairs.”
“Well, you tell who does. Pass along that message. Write that down in my file. Ass up, give Dr. Simmons a perfect front-row view.”