There’s nothing in the quiet darkness of the room. They see only the pale bands of faint light. They feel the bare walls, the cold floor and one another. How long have they been imprisoned?
Thank you to Meg Oolders , Jim Cummings , and Jim Sarasu for helping me revise this short tale.
I have stopped yelling. I no longer pound on the wall demanding to be released. It is a pointless waste of energy. I force myself, instead, to breathe calmly, quietly, in - two - three … out - two - three … in … out ...
I wait in the darkened room, hour after hour, watching the faint beams of yellow light flickering on the wall. There is no sound but that of trickling water, no movement. It is cold. The air smells faintly of isopropyl. Who are they? Why did they bring me here? What do they want? Are they observing me?
After what feels like days, a door glides open, soundless, letting in a breath of new air. Another person is pushed into the room, stumbles and crawls over against the opposite wall. The door glides closed and seamlessly disappears.
I say into the darkness, “Hello?” There is a muffled cry. A woman?
“It’s all right,” I say. “Don’t be afraid. I am not one of them. They left me here a couple of days ago. Do you know who they are, what they want?”
She is just a shadow, an outline across the small room. I can’t make out her face. “No,” she answers softly. “I was ... just walking home from school. Someone grabbed me. I … I don’t remember anything more. I’m scared.”
“Yes. Me, too. My key was in my hand. I was opening the door to my house … and now … I’m here.”
“Did they talk to you?” she whispered
“They said nothing.”
“I’m so cold.”
“Come over here, if you want. It’ll be warmer if we sit together.” She doesn’t move.
After a while, a small panel slides open in the wall. Two bowls appear.
“What is it?” she asks.
I hand her a bowl. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s food.”
She pokes at it with her finger. “It’s disgusting.”
“I can’t eat this.”
“Yes, you can. Maybe not now, but you’ll get hungry. They bring nothing else.”
She rejects the bowl of gray, viscous goo. From what little I can see in the dark, she appears to be older than I am. She seems harmless.
“Where do you think we are? Will they let us go?"
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “You are not alone. There are two of us now. We’ll be fine.” She doesn’t need to know that I am as terrified as she is.
She lies on top of him, her body soft and comforting. His hand rests loosely on her back. After so many hours, so many days, they’re no longer shy with each other. Immersed in their intimacy, they forget, for a brief time, that they are imprisoned.
His breathing slows, his eyes focus on the constant, faint flicker of light — light that doesn’t penetrate the darkness of the room. He thinks he sees a slight pulsing, a movement on one of the walls, but he might be imagining it. Lily is softly humming.
"How long have we been here, Matthew?”
“Not sure... ten days, maybe twelve? I’ve lost track.”
“Is it morning or night?”
“Does it make a difference? There is no time in this room, Lily, only you and me, that’s all. No yesterday, no tomorrow. It is always only now here.”
“It will change! They put us in here for a purpose. Why don’t they just get on with it? Show themselves?”
“If you were not here, Lily, I’d be insane by now, I’m sure of it.”
“Yes, me too.”
There’s nothing in the cold, quiet darkness of the room. Nothing to stimulate the senses. They see only the pale bands of faint light. They feel the bare walls, the bare floor and one another. They hear only each other’s breath and the bubbling trickle of water that continually flows from the wall and runs out through a wide floor drain. It reminds Matthew of an enclosure in a zoo. He doesn’t say that out loud.
Every few hours, two bowls of gray slimy paste appear in the open panel. The contents of the bowls are repulsive, but they get it down without complaint. The arrival of this food is the only diversion they have in the darkness, other than what they, themselves, devise.
They daydream about peaches, about sunlight. In order to bear this dark, claustrophobic isolation, they fall into discovering each other’s bodies. They can’t see each other, so they explore with hands and mouths. They talk of what they want for their futures. They have to believe they do still have a future, that this abduction is temporary.
To pass the long, monotonous hours, to keep despair at bay, they tell jokes, they quiz each other about music, they talk a lot about food. They tell stories – some of them true, some not. He learns that she is from a small town in northern Montana, she’s thirty-one years old and she teaches science in a high school. Her parents died in a car accident. She used to have a yellow lab named Coochie. Matthew listens attentively as she talks, yet he can’t imagine being close friends with her, being intimate with her, had he met her under normal circumstances.
Matthew tells her he is twenty, and that he’s always lived in a small harbor town near the mouth of the Columbia in Oregon. He was on a swim team in school. He’s been working on a fishing boat. He tells her he’ll to go to college next year, as soon as he’s saved enough money. He is so young and nothing like Lily at all. She knows this shared fear is the only thing they have in common, but still, in the dark she clings to him.
“Matthew, look! What is that? Look – just there, on the wall.”
“Yes, I thought I saw something there earlier. It is changing, isn’t it? What is happening?”
One of the walls of their room begins to shimmer, growing lighter and lighter until they become visible to each other.
“Matthew!” she says. He is surprised by her red hair.
“Hello, Lily.” He smiles at her. Now shy, they find their clothing.
Suddenly, a noise, a hissing, a metallic, AI-generated voice comes from a lighted panel.
“Hello, subjects. We have observed you closely for 480 hours. Our study is now complete. You are no longer needed. You will go back today.”
“Back?” Matthew shouts. “You are letting us go? But…but…I don’t understand. Where are we? Why did you want us?”
“The human species is one of natural aggression,” the digitized, disembodied voice continues. “You are known to demonstrate violence toward others of your species. You eradicate members of your own kind. You kill other living species as well, without compunction. Among the males of the human species, there is constant battle for power. You two humans do not match the expected behavior pattern. You appear to be deficient. You have not provided us with the data we require.”
It is night. Matthew awakens on the front porch of his rundown cabin by the sea. He is dizzy, disoriented. He slowly gets to his feet. On the back of his hand he sees a small red mark.
Lily finds herself lying under the shrubs behind her home in Montana. As she stumbles erratically to the back door, she notices a small red mark on the back of her left hand.
The mark is only one word: *DEFECTIVE*
In the small dark room now there are three other human subjects under observation. Hour after hour, they wait, terrified, as the faint beams of yellow light flicker on the wall. There is no sound but that of trickling water, no movement. It is cold. The air smells faintly of isopropyl. This time, one woman and two men are wondering aloud, “Who are they? Why did they bring us here? What do they want?”
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