Aug. 25, 2017
Bill threw down his notepad and darted across the room to the phone in the corner of the kitchenette. He snatched up the receiver and, without hitting any buttons, said as clearly as possible, “108 is ready for extraction. I repeat, 108 is ready for extraction.” He hung up the phone and ran back to the window, yelling for James to get up. He ran out of the bedroom tying his robe shut in haste.
“He figured it out!”
“No shit! How?”
“The bird loop!”
“Did he notice the delay?”
“He didn’t say anything about it so probably not, but who cares? We can go home!”
The two men laughed and hugged as the extraction team opened the steel door at the front of the apartment and charged in, guns at the ready. They were dressed all in black, with helmets and large rifles, it was almost comical given the fact that they were merely incapacitating and removing a test subject. Bill and James had always secretly joked that the guns were plastic, or at least not loaded but they had no way of knowing for sure. These experiments were always a 90-10 split of theatrics and reason but you could hardly tell one from the other most days. The team quickly subdued 108 and gave him a tranquilizer. The two men watched proudly as the team carried the unconscious subject out of the apartment and closed the door.
The elevator chimed and James got in, “ready?”
“Yeah, hit the button, I want to see.” James punched the button for the lobby and held the doors open with his hand. The apartment erupted in turmoil in front of his eyes. The furniture flew in the air and erupted in flames, pictures rocketed off the walls and incinerated before hitting anything, and the walls appeared to melt into the floor. After half a second of intense burning there was a flash of light and Bill shielded his eyes. When he looked back he was staring at a cement chamber as ashes swirled towards the vents in the ceiling. He smiled and headed for the elevator, glad for a little vacation.
Bill and James shared a pleasantly quiet ride to the surface. As they watched the doors close behind them in the lobby the smiled and thought of their lab being incinerated now that it was empty. They walked outside into the sun laughing and joking together.
“Wonderful job, boys!” Their driver said with a smile as he opened the door for them. “Your families are waiting.”
Aug. 25, 2017
Francis gripped the coffee cup with a shaky hand as he stared out the glass door at the birds hopping from branch to branch. He hated those birds as they flew about, unaware of how marvelous their freedom was. He glared down at his coffee mug and lifted his other hand to stop the shaking. He wasn’t quite sure if it was the lack of sleep, the anger, or the jealousy but the shaking had grown progressively worse every day.
For ninety days and ninety nights he had been trapped in his apartment. His cell phone had no signal, not even for a 911 call, his windows were unbreakable and his walls were backed by cement. He had spent days trying to break out from every angle he could think of, nothing worked. On this, the 91st day, he stared at the birds and wondered why. It was a thought process he had visited before but he felt it was time to really address the issue. Why had someone done this to him?
He drank the last of his coffee in a large gulp and kicked some confetti around mindlessly before one of the birds caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. A little brown bird hopped to the feeder, grabbed a few seeds, saw him in the window and promptly flew away. “That’s odd,” he thought to himself. These same birds had been coming for the past 90 days and he wasn’t moving, even in the slightest. This bird should be used to him standing in the window by now and not become alarmed. He glanced at the clock, 9:42, and committed that to memory. He figured the bird would be back at a similar time the next day and he wanted to see him. Francis smiled and went about his daily routine of trying to find a weakness in his prison walls.
The next morning he washed his coffee mug from the previous day, filled it, and placed himself in front of the glass door by 9:00 AM. He even wore the same clothes as the day before, he wanted everything to be the exact same to see if his little friend would still be startled. After a considerate amount of time a brown bird with the exact same markings hopped onto the feeder, grabbed a few seeds, became started and fled. It was all exactly the same as the day before. He looked at the clock. 9:41, right on schedule. It was frighteningly punctual and he sat down to puzzle over it.
The next morning he arrived at the window around 9:30 and a thought occurred. What if the bird couldn’t see him? He drew his blinds on the window adjacent to the door and gave himself just enough room to see out. Sure enough his little brown friend arrived, ate, startled, and flew off. He was relieved that it wasn’t him frightening the bird but was still confused as to what its problem was. He glanced at the clock; 9:41. The most punctual bird in the world.
The next morning Francis was grumpy. He had been up all night puzzling over the bird’s odd behavior and had grown angry with his little feathery friend before falling asleep. This morning when he saw the bird hop to the feeder he started to holler and pound on the glass. “Go away! No one likes you!” He pounded the glass until his fist hurt. The bird paid him no mind and exhibited the exact same behavior as the day before. Francis was frustrated and glared at the clock. 9:41, this was too uncanny. A sudden realization struck him as he grabbed his phone and brought up the camera app. He started to record the birds outside his window. The next morning he watched his little friend show up, do his dance, and leave. He checked the clock; 9:40. He was early today. He then held up his phone and began to play yesterday’s video as he watched the birds outside. The video and the birds outside matched up exactly. They zipped this way and that, first on the phone, then outside. Francis sank down on the couch.
“It’s a recording, it’s not real…” he said out loud, he had taken to talking to himself lately. “It’s….it’s all fake…simulated…where…?” He put down his phone and began to cry.
Aug. 25, 2017
“Up and at ’em, Bill! Show’s about to start.” Bill groaned and rolled over. Six A.M. Why did everything have to happen so early? They were buried three miles underground in a cement lab next to a mock apartment. The sunrise and sunset were all faked and controlled outside fake windows, they could start the experiment at any time but they insisted on “realism.” “The subject wouldn’t notice the difference, this is all just a pain in our asses,” he insisted to himself as he dragged himself out of bed and tried to rub some clarity into his eyes. James had taken the night shift, he specialized in analyzing sleep patterns while Bill focused on behavioral patterns and mental health.
“Pretty normal night, nothing special. Slept pretty soundly, seemed to dream pretty heavily…wish we could have hooked him up to something but whatever, we did what we could.” He handed bill a cup of steaming coffee. “What was really fun was watching those clowns prep the apartment. I swear they moved that gun about thirty times, two inches here, two inches there, like it matters.” Bill took a sip of the coffee and chuckled.
“They call it attention to detail, plus if he doesn’t find it whose head do you think will roll? Not ours.”
“Yeah yeah, I get it, it’s just funny to watch.” James left the room, sensing that Bill needed a moment before starting work. Once he was alone, Bill stared about the room. Cement walls with no decorations, a wide window with simulated sunlight streaming through dusty blinds, a small black dresser in the corner and a twin bed fit for a prison inmate were all that they had to call home during these experiments. He listened to the silence and felt it creeping into his bones. These cement labs may have been economical but they were depressing to say the least.
He wandered into the main room, an expanse of more cement walls devoid of decoration. They had a small kitchenette in the far corner with appliances from thirty years ago. They were hardly used but that didn’t make them any newer. They also had a small two-person plastic table with two plastic chairs where they could eat together, though they hardly did. The rest of the unit was wide open. The entire southern wall was a giant window in the apartment they were viewing. They could see every room and were to keep the subject in view at all times. There was no furniture along the wall so they had nothing to trip over, just a wide open space to pace back and forth alongside their poor experiments. James was standing at the window staring into the bedroom. His final task was to observe the subject waking up, then he could finally get some rest. Bill joined him, ready to start the day shift.
“108, right?” He checked, grabbing his clipboard from the nail below the window.
Bill sighed, “107 failures, 108’s the charm, right?”
James chucked and scribbled his final notes as Subject 108 got out of bed.
“Well, I’m beat. Enjoy! I heard they left you a present in there.”
Bill ignored the comment as James headed to the bedroom to sleep. He knew Bill got bored and always hoped for some excitement, they always teased him, telling him something exciting would happen that day. Twenty years on the job and it was always the same, it was getting rude to claim that anything could be any different. The subject went about his business like they all did, experienced the same sudden panic when he was stuck inside and had the same realization when he found the gun. Everything was par for the course until the subject turned towards the window, gun in hand, and aimed straight at Bill’s head. He froze for a second, unsure of what to do. He knew he was in no danger, the bullets couldn’t breach the glass they installed there, but this was completely new behavior, not to mention potentially detrimental to the facility. Most of the subjects threw the gun away or turned it on themselves, never had they turned it on their environment before. If he fired that gun he might be able to deduce that he is not just stuck in his apartment but in a different facility altogether. The bullet may not breach the window but it may show that the window is there and 108 would become the fastest failure yet.
“Don’t do it, Frank” Bill mumbled under his breath.
Subject 108 pulled the trigger and an explosion of confetti rocketed out from the barrel covering the window with bright bits of paper. Suddenly balloons were falling from the ceiling and dancing around the floor as party blowers sounded and a rush of voices all joined together behind him. “Happy Birthday, Bill!” They broke out into song as a young intern grabbed his clipboard and took over his post to take notes on Subject 108 collapsing onto the couch in confusion and misery. James clapped him on the shoulder, laughing.
“You thought we’d forgotten? Nah, man, have a piece of cake! Your family is waiting for you upstairs when you’re done. Enjoy a day on the surface, let me know if the birds still sing, eh? The real ones, anyway.” Bill laughed, he couldn’t believe they remembered. He couldn’t believe they had gone through all the trouble, this was sure to be his most memorable birthday yet.
Aug. 25, 2017
Francis awoke the next morning to the familiar chirping of birds outside his bedroom window. He shot up and looked around, confused and tired. He stared around the room for a few moments, piecing everything together. “What a dream,” he muttered to himself as he dragged himself out of bed, finally. He rubbed his neck where he had felt that prick that knocked him out and felt nothing there. It had all seemed so real and yet here he was, safe at home with no sign of injury. He stumbled to the kitchen to prepare his morning coffee. “Work is going to be strange with that weighing on my mind” he thought to himself as he waited for his coffee to finish. He decided to shower and dress for the day instead of staring at the pot as it filled and by the time he was finished his coffee was ready. Thinking a breath of fresh air would be good he filled a cup and headed for the balcony. As he reached the door he flipped the lock and tugged on the door but it wouldn’t budge. Confused, he set his coffee down on the coffee table behind him and gave the door a harder tug. When it still didn’t budge he fiddled with the lock a little and tugged on it some more, nothing would make the door open. After several minutes of puzzling over the door he reached for his coffee to take a break. Laying on the coffee table next to his mug sat James’ gun from his dream, exactly as he had imagined it. Francis stood there, frozen in horror as the blood drained from his face as a million explanations ran through his mind, but none of them made any sense. He crumpled onto the couch in awe.
“It was a dream, wasn’t it?” he wondered aloud, “It had to be.”
An hour passed of Francis sitting on the couch in a trance, sipping at his coffee and staring at the gun, thinking. When the coffee finally ran low and he stood for a refill he was struck with inspiration. He set the mug down and ran from room to room trying all of the other windows and doors. None would budge, he was completely sealed in. He returned to the living room, breathing heavily and feeling lightheaded. His mind was racing and he was starting to panic. He grabbed the gun from the table and pointed it at the window across the room, hesitating for only a second before pulling the trigger. The gun made a loud pop and a shower of brightly colored pieces of paper shot from the barrel, dancing to the floor in a colorful and showy display. Francis was stunned. He sat on the couch, jaw dropped, and let the gun hang down beside him. As he stood there the last bit of confetti ran down the barrel and onto the couch. He watched as the last of it settled on the floor and the room was quiet and still again, save for the constant repetitive chirping from outside his window.
He heard the door click shut softly but he waited a few more minutes, listening for the clicking of heels down the hall. Once he was satisfied and sure he was alone he opened his eyes slowly to look around. The floor felt cold against the side of his face and he could feel the corn syrup pooling underneath his suit. The red dye would stain but it didn’t matter, the boss would replace it. James let out a sigh and grunt as he hauled himself off the floor, shaking his right arm to try to dry it slightly. Corn syrup flung off his sleeve and left blood spatter patterns on the white walls. He glared at the deep-red door filling with rage as he thought about the turn of events from the past few minutes.
“Fool,” he muttered as a chuckle broke out behind him.
“A fool indeed,” Bill Wyatt beamed at him and slapped him on the shoulder. “Dumbass really thinks he got you, how’s the arm?”
James shrugged his shoulder and swung his arm in a windmill, checking the muscles. “Worst part was pretending it hurt and that I was stuck. Hell, I thought I was going to have to hand him the stupid gun myself.”
Bill smiled again and chuckled. “I’m just impressed that he went for it. Kid’s got balls.”
“Had balls” James corrected as they shared a laugh. “Anyway, shall we?”
Bill snapped his fingers and a man in a gray jumpsuit came out of the blood-red door across the hall carrying a mop and pail. Bill motioned for James to follow him into the next door. They entered the unit adjacent to the one that Francis had entered. Bill helped James off with his jacket and tossed it back into the hall. “Don’t touch anything.” They walked around the corner into a dim living area. “There’s a clean suit in the back room.” James headed to the back to change while Bill moved a frame on the far wall and flipped the switch under it. A larger mirror on the wall behind him lifted into the ceiling revealing a window into the room next-door where Francis was staring, perplexed, at a TV. James walked back into the room straightening his tie.
“What’s good ol’ Frank up to?”
“I think he’s drooling.” The two men laughed again and settled in to watch the show in the large comfy chairs that had been set in front of the window.
“So how long you think it’ll take him?”
“Please, you know Harvey started a pool, I’m not giving you any tips. Kicking all of your butts will buy my kids’ christmas presents this year.”
“Like you need the money.”
“It’s never been about needing it.”
The two men quieted down as their boss entered the room silently. James pulled out a notebook and a pen while Bill grabbed his phone and activated the room’s cameras and set them to record, their work had only begun.
Aug. 25, 2017
The elevator chimed as it pressed down into the earth. Floor after floor it would chime and the display above the door would update. Minus eight, minus nine…Francis looked at his feet then adjusted his tie.
“It’s too bad, really…the way this will all shake out,” the suit next to him said evenly. “I always liked you, Frank. You had a lot of potential, a lot!” Francis shuffled his feet as the elevator continued to beep. He glanced sideways at a faded picture on the wall. A sunrise over the desert with one word emblazoned in the sun. “Life.” His gaze was interrupted as the suit nervously checked his firearm inside his jacket. Francis sighed and stared back at the display over the door. Minus twenty, minus twenty-one; deeper into the Earth than he had ever planned to go before.
“You know,” the suit began but was interrupted as the elevator came to a halt at minus twenty-four and the doors opened. Before them stretched a long white hallway lined with dark-red doors with black trim. The hallway had no visible end but it couldn’t possibly go on forever, could it? The suit cleared his throat and smoothed his tie before striding forward with the faux confidence his employer required. Francis followed him closely, dazed. After some time, a half a mile perhaps, they came to a sudden stop.
“Here we are, 4815.”
Francis stared at him blankly then looked at the deep-red door to his right. There was no number on it, how did he know where he was? What does it matter, asking questions is what got him here in the first place. He nodded at the suit and waited for him to open the door. The suit nodded back and reached for the knob saying “Well Frank, it’s been a pleasure.” Francis grabbed his wrist and looked him straight in the eye.
“My name is Francis.” With one swift move he twisted the man’s arm behind him and reached around to his jacket pocket while he flailed to free himself. He lifted the gun from it’s holster carefully and clicked off the safety. Before the man even knew what was happening Francis pulled the trigger and sent a round into his chest at an angle, flinging them both backwards and onto the floor. Francis scrambled out from under the man and steadied the gun in his face as he tried to stand up as well, clutching his chest and gasping for air.
Francis fired a final round into the man’s forehead, painting the white walls and floor with blood and brain matter. He stood there watching the blood gather and pool on the floor before he stepped back a few feet and checked the clip. It was full when they arrived so he was in good shape. He turned toward the door and straightened his tie.
“4815” he muttered, clicking the safety back on and stuffing the gun into the back of his pants. Francis turned the knob and pushed the door open. The blood on the floor behind him had almost reached his shoes and he thought about looking back. He decided not to, just in case there is life after death and he didn’t want to give the man’s soul the false impression that he cared. Without further hesitation he pushed his way into the dark room and gently closed the door behind him.
Once the door was shut the room was completely dark except for a dim light playing on the wall as if someone had left a TV on in the adjacent room. He double-checked the gun in the back of his pants to make sure it was accessible and then turned the corner. The dim TV in front of him was flickering dully across a few familiar images when he entered. He scanned the room and, seeing no one around, allowed himself to relax a little. The screen suddenly brightened with an intensity that made him blind int he dark room. An audio feed started playing suddenly and seemed to match the video. His eyes couldn’t adjust to the dark around him and he was consumed by the picture in front of his face, as if he and it were the only two things that existed.
“You know when you’re driving and there’s no one behind you or in front of you going the same way, but there’s a line of cars coming at you?”
“Sometimes I like to think that they are all trying to escape some sort of apocalypse, zombies or something, and I’m heading right into it without knowing.”
Francis shrunk back against the wall behind him as a new scene began to play.
“Happy Birthday to you!”
He tensed up.
“Happy Birthday dear Francis, Happy Birthday to you!”
The screen flickered again and he was staring at the tiny meeting room from his first job.
“Truthfully, I can’t take credit. Francis ran the project himself, he’s really shown initiative on this one.”
He took a couple steps forward, jaw dropped as more memories flashed by. Promotions, breakups, parties, conversations, it was all here. The audio quieted and the lights came up in the room slowly, showing a cozy living room with a couch, a couple of chairs, some end tables, a coffee table…his coffee table. It was all his, this was his exact apartment ten years ago, before he had taken that job out of the city.
“It’s uncanny, isn’t it?” A voice said sharply from behind him. He spun to find an older gentleman in a gray suit with white hair and a graying beard. Francis opened his mouth to speak but the man continued, walking in a slight curve towards one of the armchairs. “We had to upgrade the TV, of course, but I think you’ll find everything else to be the same.” The man eased himself into the chair and motioned for Francis to do the same across from him. He obliged as the man continued. “As you see, we have been with you for some time, Francis.” The audio picked up again as a scene from his toddler years emphasized the point. “The path that led you here was no accident, you see, it was all an exercise. Sure you improvised here and there, poor James paid for that out in the hall, but in the end the result is the same. We are here and now we must complete the exercise.” The TV turned off and retracted into the ceiling leaving behind a map of the Atlantic ocean and adjacent shores. The man sighed as Francis stared at it blankly. “I really expected more from you by now, has nothing occurred to you yet?” Francis wracked his brain trying to figure out what was going on but he came up short. After a few minutes of awkward silence the man continued. “Well, we hired you as a sort of recruiter, yes? You brought us new employees and we bought you things to hide your misery.” Francis opened his mouth to object but the man silenced him with a wave. “We taught you everything about the company that someone of your pay grade could handle and you absorbed it. You became our star employee but when offered a raise and a promotion you refused it. You were happy to stay in your pathetic position even though you had been professionally groomed for higher management, why?” Francis opened his mouth to answer and was silenced again. “Because you knew something was up. So how is it that you could know something was wrong then and be so stupid when we are right here in your face?”
Two strong hands suddenly grabbed his shoulders and held him down as the man stood up. “We don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, you’ll accept this promotion and you will excel at it. I will be back to accept your formal apology and a statement of intent for your new position as soon as you figure out what we do here.” He crossed the distance between the chairs and leaned into Francis’ face, pausing inches away. “Don’t be long, I’m not a patient man.” He patted Francis on the cheek and left the room. Francis struggled to rise and go after him but the hands held him strapped to the chair. As he continued to struggle he felt a sharp prick in the back of his neck and a wave of calm washed over him. The muscular hands released him as the room faded to black.