“Blow into the tube on the far wall please.” There were outlines of handprints to either side of it as if I needed help figuring out how to stand against a wall. I wiped the tube as best I could, put it in my mouth and puffed my cheeks. Kept doing it until my face turned red. Finally I heard the “ding” and the woman’s voice instructed me to proceed into the next room.
I envisioned the cold concrete rooms, laid out end to end in a line separated by the metal doors. Like a rectilinear centipede. I understood the lack of color but at least adding carpets didn’t seem like it would bankrupt them. The next room had a video monitor which flickered to life and at last gave me a face to put to the nondescript female voice which had ordered me through the process up to this point. Plain features, pointy nose, black hair down to her ears and a pair of horn rimmed glasses.
She instructed me to strip. I did so reluctantly, struggling to cover myself with one hand while putting my folded up shirt, pants and underwear into a cubby under the monitor. My shoes and socks next. I shuddered as my bare feet touched the floor. I’d anticipated it but it was still profoundly unpleasant.
“Just how many rooms are in this place” I muttered. The microphone built into the frame of the monitor must’ve picked it up. She chuckled. “Not far until the end. Don’t worry, I can’t see you clearly, they blur it a bit ever since that law was passed. The Erratics get much more of an eyefull than I do and they’re almost all boys. Really is like a maze in this place though, isn’t it. Rooms upon rooms, all together making up a building.”
I shrugged, said “I guess so” and awaited further instruction. But she kept going on about rooms. “Rooms upon rooms upon rooms. One building is made of many rooms. Then there are many buildings per colony. And many colonies…”
Her eyes widened. The edges of her mouth drew up into a twitching grin. The look of someone pretending to be happy at gunpoint. A maniacal, paranoid grin, like she was awaiting the punchline to a joke told by someone who meant to kill her. She started to laugh. Even her laughter sounded nervous and manic.
“Ahaha…haha….hahahahhaaHAHAHHAHAHA!! Oh it can’t be, can it!? It’s so simple! And here I thought it would be something grand and complicated so somebody like me without much education would be safe, but I aaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHEEEYYAI-YAE-YAEI-YEI-YAI-YIIIIIIIIII”
Her head began to lift up off of her shoulders on a shiny black helix of muscular flesh. The skin just ripped apart at the neck like tissue paper, the head slowly rotating as it ascended. The mouth hung open, shrieking almost musically until cockroaches began pouring out of it. Her eyes looked just like Mrs. Kugla’s when it happened. Wide open, pupils dilated as though noticing something vast and incomprehensible for the first time. But which had always been there.
I heard gunfire and screaming through the monitor. Then it broke up into static. The emergency lights in the room came on and the familiar siren sounded. Naked, cold and afraid, I waited for the doors to open. Then, although the monitor still displayed only static, I heard men’s voices.
“Is it dead? Fuck me. They really went to town in here. Were any of the Erratics hurt?” A second deeper voice with a subtle drawl answered. “Not the most abrupt epiphany I’ve seen. Lead time of nearly ten seconds before the eruption followed. One type 2 Erratic was outside of the plexiglass enclosure when the sterilization team swept through, minor burns to the neck and shoulder. The others were inside when it happened, no damage. To their bodies, anyway.”
I struggled to follow most of it. A lot of the words were unfamiliar. “What is it? Drives me up the wall. Something they figure out all of a sudden. Reframes their understanding of everything so powerfully that it warps reality. But what is it? Shut up, I know. It’s the one big idea you never wanna have. Curiosity killed the cat. Worse than killed, in this case. Still, if I forget to fight it I just get to thinking about it again.”
The voices drifted off as the two walked away from what I guessed must be the desk the woman I’d seen before was sitting at. I probed the edges of the room looking for a way out, shivering, until someone finally came for me.
“It’s outrageous!” Dad bellowed on the drive home. “What do they do in there all day that justifies their paychecks? If they can’t even protect themselves, how can they protect us?” In his fit, the car strayed a bit off the road. The vibration of the markers at the edge startled him into returning his attention to driving.
Mom turned in her seat and doted on me. “I’ll bet you would have caught it soon enough, sweetheart. If only those idiots had calculated your score right.” She still hasn’t really accepted it, or given up. I could see the symmetry in her face expressed as faint polygonal outlines. Something which happens subconsciously for others, never visualized. I blinked a few times to disrupt the effect.
I found out after I’d gotten dressed and ready for school the next day that there wouldn’t be any. Everyone who’d been in that classroom had the next three days off to recuperate. A gift horse I had no interest in inspecting the teeth of, as I whooped in excitement and tore out the front door before Mom could object.
The streets were uncommonly clear of traffic. In the distance I heard the faint echo of the emergency siren, and shuddered. The sun continued climbing overhead, with a couple more points of light towards the Eastern horizon. A cluster of stars some fool had forgotten to shut off before sunrise. Then the rain started.
According to one of Dad’s stories, it used to be that we’d all vote on when rain days would occur. But it took up too much time, there was too much contention between groups who wanted to schedule outdoor events on the same day, so eventually it was simply randomized. That made nobody happy, which I’m told is the sign of a successful compromise.
So I ducked into an open utility closet. What I thought was a closet, anyway. The door hung slightly open, inset in the side of an immense concrete stairwell up to the business district. Once my eyes adjusted I discovered a long corridor lined with wall mounted pipes of varying thickness.
I recalled some of the older kids claiming to have come down here to smoke. Rumors of a makeshift fort with some dirty magazines in it, but also that on occasion kids who came down here alone didn’t come back. I could see why just the appearance of the place might lead someone to make that up.
I could hear dripping, but didn’t see water. There was a constant gentle whooshing of air moving down the tunnel, carrying strange scents with it. The pipes would flex and rattle now and then as I explored, as if I were within some great beast. All concrete, unpainted of course as it’s already grey.
Nothing to write home about so far, but it beat sitting in class. I eventually reached a dead end. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that. Why build a corridor with nothing at the far end? That’s when I heard the whisper.
“Psst. Kid.” I looked around. Seeing nothing, I began walking back the way I came. “No, down here.” I took a second look around and this time noticed an eye peering through a wide crack along the bottom half of the wall. Between the pipes. Very easy to miss. I strongly considered making a break for it.
“You’re in Mrs. Kugla’s class, right? Or you were.” Just like that, he’d captured my interest. I knelt, peered back at the eye through the pipes and replied. “You’re one of those things, aren’t you.” I heard stifled laughter. “I couldn’t very well be talking to you if I were, could I? I’ll bet you’re wondering how I knew which class you’re in.” In fact, I was.
“Used to work for security. It’s a misnomer now, nothing secure about it. That’s actually the worst place to be. All those Erratics. They can stare it right in the face and not realize. That’s just how their brains are put together. But if they talk to one of us, put the necessary ideas into our head, we put the pieces together on our own some time after that. You’ve seen what happens.”
I noticed as I listened that something was changing. The air felt charged somehow. My vision blurred slightly, and the world seemed to be rocking subtly beneath me. I at last identified the source of the dripping sound. Looking past the pipes, droplets of water were running up the walls and pooling on the ceiling before draining through a mess of thin cracks.
Stay Tuned for Part 3!