Flashing lights. Large hands. Tubes. Needles. Moaning. Silence. Coroners. Bodies. Syringes. Blood. Sleep.
I stand upon a pristine white stage. I look down at the many cameras and reporters, and I take a deep breath. I smile. “Hello. Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us here today. Soon, as you all know, will be the tenth anniversary of United Labs! Here at United Labs, we’ve created miracles. We’ve cured thousands, and now there are United Hospitals all throughout the world! So we thank you, the citizens, for supporting us through ten years of greatness. We are now putting all our effort into curing and preventing the plague using state of the art technology and the greatest scientific minds to solve this issue. Now, I’ll open up the stage for questions.”
A reporter in a blue suit steps up. “Hello. Don Hei, Metropia Post. Are you sure your tests are humane?”
“Of course! We have created a set of standards to ensure that… ”
Blood. Capsule two is vomiting blood. The Attendants rush in. One gives me a sedative. As if it would damage me to see what is inevitably my future.
“Oh, come on. Capsules 6-2 have all died! What was it this time?”
A man in a white lab coat responds. “Vomiting blood, side effect of the plague. The counter drug is only slowing the process.” The man walks swiftly away, making marks on a chart.
“Ugh, wow. Leave us to the dirty work. You know we never get any appreciation. It’s always, oh noble scientist saving us from the plague, but what about us, you know?! Who mops the blood after they vomit?! Who collects the bodies?!”
They’re wheeling me up. The soft fuzz that’s grown on my head since my last surgery is being shaved off, revealing a map of scars. Scalpels, masks, tubes, darkness.
“Hello. Mr. Green. How have the trials been going?”
“Wonderful. I talked to my lead scientists this morning, and everything’s going great! We are taking some huge steps, and I just want to thank you. Your performance as head of press has been beyond satisfactory.”
“Thank you, sir. Would you mind having the analysis crew send me the statistics on deaths in the labs?”
I remember the before. I don’t think the others do. I have flashbacks from before the plague. I remember them: my family. Not everything. Just bits and pieces. The one I remember most is a little boy. My brother… I think. Sometimes, if I let my vision go fuzzy and squint just right, I can see a pair of hazel eyes staring down at me. The same pair that in my memories looked up at me as I held… my brother’s hand. The other test subjects can’t remember, I don’t think. They used to have a spark of life. A hint of emotion in their eyes, but after two surgeries, it begins to dull, and they start becoming the lab rats the scientists are convinced we are. I’m only me in my memories. I am a product of my mind. On the outside, I am identical to the rest of the subjects. On the outside, I am patient 204589. It’s only when I close my eyes and remember that I live.
I sink into my couch and sigh contentedly. I try not to look out the window. Even from the penthouse, the destruction caused by the plague is horribly obvious. The bloodstained streets and the beggars begging for just a couple more cents to buy the latest medicine make it all too apparent. My status. But I am doing my part, seeing as I work for United Labs, which is helping cure this awful sickness. I mean, it’s awesome. I do my part, and they provide me with a state of the art plague protection kit. I wonder what it would be like to be a test subject at United Labs.
I hear I’m some sort of marvel. I don’t pass on the plague. It just stays trapped inside of me, killing me slowly. I think I broke some sort of record. Longest life of any test subject. Not that I would know how long that is. I have no idea how long I’ve been here. Time melts under the constant glare of the fluorescent lights. Day and night are lost. I tried to keep track by deaths around me, but there were soon too many to keep track. If I close my eyes and concentrate, sometimes I can almost convince myself that I’m not some sort of human lab rat.
Every single tabloid and magazine have created their own crazy United Labs scandal, usually revolving around inhumane experimentation or some such nonsense. It keeps me on a tight schedule of press conferences and meetings. How dare they accuse United Labs of such atrocities! United Labs has given me everything! After my family died, I was put in the orphan relocation center at United Labs, and then when I was old enough to work, they gave me a job. They have built futures for so many. Plus, they are working on developing a cure to this terrible plague!!
My favorite thing to think about is escape. It’s pure fantasy of course. I’m kept so sedated I can barely move, and even if I could somehow override that insurmountable hurdle, I’m kept on so many drug’s I might just die from a withdrawal without the drugs. But I can still dream, although I can’t help but wonder: For how much longer?
The next wave of fake scandals is bigger than most I’ve seen and calls for me to personally oversee inspections. So of course, I start supervising inspections. The scent of bleach and plastic fills my nostrils, and I pinch my nose. Bed after bed after bed lay in a seemingly endless corridor. Each one identical and immaculate. The only difference being the people themselves. They all have the same vacant look in their eyes. They look like mannequins, and a shiver runs up my spine. I can’t wait for this to be over. I walk quickly down the rows of beds, checking boxes on my clipboard haphazardly and my heart racing. I stop for a second as something catches my eye. A woman about my age, maybe a little older, is lying in a hospital bed identical to all of the other beds lying identically to all of the other test subjects, but something flickers in her eye. I shake my head. I’m seeing things. I have to get out of here.
A young man walked passed me today. He’s new. He looked scared out of his mind. His eyes were wide, and I swear he looked at me and saw life. He saw the difference between me and the other subjects. He saw that I was no husk. Even so, his perfect suit and expensive haircut gave everything away. My bet was that he was some hotshot working for United Labs, completely unaware of the truth. Oh well, I will try to act unconscious all day, so they might not sedate me as much, and maybe I’ll tap my finger or something if the man comes by. I can’t wait to see the look on his face.
Something about that woman freaked me out. She seemed… familiar somehow. Her eyes’ seemed almost desperate. As if United Labs was doing anything awful to her. Ha! In any event, there was definitely something strange going on. It was probably just a trick of the light. Yes, that’s it. When I go back tomorrow, she’ll be just as empty as the other test subjects.
Today is my lucky day. Fifteen patients in my row died today. Fifteen!!! The scientists and lab assistants were so busy cleaning that they forgot to sedate me. I’m so happy I could fly. Well actually, I’m like 90% sure that I won’t be able to walk, so flying seems out of the question. But still. I feel free or at least less trapped! I can make some sort of signal to that strange United Labs inspector. I hope his ignorance doesn’t completely blind him.
I hate these daily inspections. Row after row of subjects. They look like corpses, except their chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. It is good that United Labs is helping them. I walk and walk until I find the girl from yesterday. She’s easily distinguishable because of her scars. Most only have one or two, but her head is covered with crisscrossing scars. Puckered white skin that will never again be smooth. In fact, there’s more scarring than unblemished skin on her scalp. I walk over, ticking off boxes on my clipboard haphazardly. When I reach her, her eyes widen, and her body seems to tense, and I hear a faint tapping. I walk closer, and the tapping becomes louder. I look down, and her pale bony finger is tapping the metal frame of her bed. I stare back at her. All of the other patients have been completely still. She’s straining, and her eyes are bulging like she’s trying to tell me something. Her muscles are tensed, and she’s breaking out in sweat with the sheer effort of attempted communication. Her dry lips crack open. I lean in, trying to distinguish any words she’s trying to say. Vocal cords that have been long out of use vibrate tentatively and a voice that had been silent for so long bubbles up forming a single word in a hoarse whisper.
“Lies,” she croaks.
“Crap, sorry about that one. We must have forgotten to sedate her this morning. Just a sec, lemme pump her up,” an attendant blurts out.
Pain. My throat is on fire. Each of my vocal cords a string of torture. The only relief I will find is in the sharp point of the syringe in the attendants hand. One push of the attendant’s thumb will be as good as pulling a trigger, because before I know it, I will be drugged back into submission. Barely alive yet so painfully far from the mercy of death, which seems to taunt me each day, holding blissful oblivion in front of my face, then yanking it away at the last second, forcing me to endure this torture they call life.
Lies. That was what she said to me. Lies. This single word could mean anything, Anything. United Labs has given me everything. Why should I believe that patient over United Labs, who has made me who I am. I stop myself. Who am I kidding. I have read angry letter after angry letter, each one illustrating a new unspeakable crime that United Labs has commited. This single whispered word has given these words life. Each frantically scrawled letter will rise from the page upon which they were written and form a noose around United Labs’ neck. They will that is, if word gets out.
I drift in and out of consciousness. Darkness occasionally fractured by the glare of fluorescent lights. Sometimes in the darkness, hazy, distorted images appear of syringes and blood and operating tables and sometimes a glimpse from the before. A flower in a meadow swinging slightly in the breeze, or a hand weathered and calloused but gentle, or sometimes even a face, distorted and twisted, but still a face of someone I once knew.
I go over the possibilities again. Maybe some rival company snuck in here and made her say it. Maybe she was having some sort of hallucination. These naive questions are merely space fillers, distractions in a flimsy attempt to block off the real question: What should I do about this? There is little doubt she is lying, but… her words open a new door. A whole new realm of possibilities. Her voice has given meaning to the thousands of conspiracies, allegations, and failed lawsuits. What now separates fact from fiction? Which theories are just that, and which ones are more, and even if I somehow uncover truths, what will I do? What can I do against the most powerful corporation there is? What can anyone?
I must escape. My drug induced dream land has finally disappeared, and I must escape. I am completely and utterly trapped. Trapped in a prison of flesh that refuses to obey me. I must break loose from the constant stream of sedatives. My last spindly fragile thread of hope has snapped in that United Labs employee. The so-called press secretary. The one who was supposed to speak the truth to the public. What an atrocity. The strongest words for hate or anger could not begin to express what I feel towards these sins. I must do something, anything! If this only leads to death, well it’s not like I have anything worth living for. I suck in a breath mustering all the strength I have, and…
I’m sprinting towards the center, towards the patient beds. I’ve finally figured it out, well, bits of it. But first, before anything, I must get that test subject before the guard’s break is over.
I stare down at my feet. Blood trickles out of the places where my many IVs and tubes once were. I feel nothing. I’m lightheaded, and pinpricks of light dance through my vision, but all I am focused on is my body. I sway slightly. My bones feel brittle, hollow like birds. It’s almost as if I could take flight at any moment, fly out of this broken body. What once was muscle is now flaps of skin. Clinging to my bird-bones. The lights in my eyes grow brighter, and suddenly I am in a grassy field at dusk. Blinking lights dance all around the field as if they are flying. I look down and wide hazel eyes look up, accompanied by a grin of crooked teeth. The lights go out, and all of a sudden, I am alone.
I sprint into the hospital, and the test subject is on the floor, a tangle of IVs framing her head like a twisted crown. I whip my head around. No guards in sight. I shake her frantically, willing her to wake. She jolts awake and immediately tries to wobble to her feet. I loop my arm around her, and we start to walk. Each disjointed step she takes sends spears of anxiety through me. I constantly check my shoulder, terrified of a guard meandering through the hallway. She is painstakingly slow, and by the time we finally make it to my car, it seems as though eons have passed. I help her into the car and speed off, leaving an empty hospital a little more empty. Black skid marks from my car scar the pavement. As absolute as what I had just done.
I quickly realized that going up the stairs to my apartment is futile. I give up and steer the patient into the elevator. I’m barely paying attention to the patient. My mind is a storm of thoughts and emotions. What did I just do. My thoughts are interrupted as I see the patient tearing at my apartment.
“Wait, what are you doing?!” I blurt out.
She doesn’t respond and continues to paw through my home until finally she reaches the pantry. Her eyes widen, and she snatches a brightly colored box of cookies. The big bright pink letters contrast with the bleak white of her hospital gown and the pale deathly pallor of her skin. She sits on the couch, keeping her distance from me, and starts shoveling the cookies in her mouth. She suddenly looks so familiar, like family almost, but no. I’m an orphan, my parents and twin sister died of the plague. I was raised in a United Labs orphan relocation center, but now that I see it, her face, her eyes, she looks like me. The patient is staring at me.
“Brynn?” I whisper.
I stare at this person, the sweet, familiar aftertaste of the cookies still lingering. This person who has just uttered my name, and suddenly I catch his eye. His eyes are the very same hazel eyes that visited me in my memories. The very same ones of my brother.
It all comes together.
It all comes back.
“What happened,” I whisper. What horrible fire consumed our happy lives and left us with this burned, disfigured world.
Over several hours, Brynn and I place shards of memory in place and pick apart conspiracies until we have something resembling a timeline. Basically, our lives were normal. United Labs was merely a shadow, until a brilliant idea struck the (clearly insane) CEO of United Labs, Eris Eliades. She would create a plague that would stump every other health organization. The world would go crazy, and out of the chaos, United Labs would come, providing pricey partial cures to the plague. Everyone in the world would want these cures, and United Labs would have complete control. Anyone, especially those in power, would do anything for safety from the plague. Soon, United Labs controlled the world. Anyone opposing Eris Eliades would be sure to get the plague and die a horrible death.
“We have to find her”
I jump, still not used to the grating voice of Brynn.
“Eris Eliades. We have to stop this.”
I pause. There is no way the security cameras didn’t pick up what I did. There are probably already “wanted” posters with my face on it ready to be plastered all around the world.
“It’s hopeless,” I respond.
“Not when there are others.”
“I have spent so long listening in to the secrets of guards and scientists. I know that there is a small resistance on the edge of United Labs controlled area. Even if we fail to get to Eliades, if we can broadcast it, then we can succeed. Now I need you to sketch out the building.”
“Here is the hospital building,” I say as I point to the largest square on the paper. “These circle are guard stations. This big circle in the middle is the central guard station. Not only is it constantly staffed by guards, it is where the surveillance database is located. Now this little box branching off of the central guard station is the break room, where the guards are when they finish a shift. Now this building branching off of the hospital is the Laboratory area. This is where they are testing new substances. It has crazy security, but if we manage to get through there, I’m sure we could find some incriminating evidence. Finally, these are the corporate offices, where I work. From what I know, Eliades splits her time between the top office.” I point to the top of the corporate offices. “Which is covered in security, and the lab.” I finish.
I nod, thinking. “So I propose that we go into the hospital, at the time when the guards switch shifts, then we lock them in the breakroom. We then find extra uniforms. I’ll wear a hazmat suit, because I look a little conspicuous with my scars and all, and you will wear a scientist uniform. Of course we’ll have to knock one out to get their ID cards. Then we will go through the lab, and if Eris Eliades is there, we will get revenge.”
“And if not?” Ronan asks.
“Then we will go to the corporate offices and say we are there for a meeting with Eliades.”
“So it’s a plan,” Ronan says, his eyes hardening with determination.
I run into the back room of my apartment and grab my mobile broadcasting equipment. It’s what I use for press conferences if my TV crew can’t come. “With my password, I can broadcast this all over the world.” I know the power of media. I know that this could be the spark that sets the world aflame. Brynn nods her head and gazes forward, her eyes as hard, as sharp, as the knives that scarred her.
We stand outside of the hospital, My eyes on my watch. In exactly five seconds, we will creep into United Labs and put our plan into motion. I click my mobile broadcasting set, and it whirs to life.
We dash through the sliding doors and sprint underneath a bed right behind the central guard system. We see one shift worker sigh and head towards the break room. They step in, and the door squeals shut. Brynn, ghostlike, runs towards the door and shifts the bolts into place. She turns back at me, and her pain seeps through her stony expression. This, for her, is a place of nightmares. “Let’s go,” she whispers. We run to the nearest supply closet, and we dig around until we find what we are looking for, an extra uniform for me and a hazmat suit for her. With all of the profits that United Labs is rolling in, it is no wonder they are able to have such lavishly stocked supply closets. I try hard to remember what my life was like, what I was like before my world turned upside down, when I was just an unassuming United Labs employee. I take a deep breath in, and I push open the supply closet doors.
I walk down the halls as confidently as possible. I clench my hands together, a desperate and useless attempt to stop myself from shaking. The fluorescent lights illuminate my too-pale skin. Even under the hazmat suit, I feel naked. Something’s off. I just know it. We haven’t seen anyone since the guard station. I try to shake my unease. I look towards Ronan. He looks equally perturbed. He is focused on his broadcasting equipment, and he is typing up captions. We reach the huge metal door separating the hospital from the lab. Ronan enters the security code, and the door whooshes open. Not a single soul is inside the lab. I gasp as Eris Eliades steps into the light of the lab, a giant clock behind her. Her perfectly tailored white suit smells of bleach, and each white hair on her head is perfectly swept into a tight bun. The harsh lights make her pale skin look ghostly and her sharp features skull-like.
“Well, isn’t this a picture,” she croons, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“The runaway patient and her ex-employee brother.”
I look at Ronan. His mouth is agape in horror as she walks towards us.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised,” she says to Ronan. “You didn’t really think that you might fool me.” She puts a hand on her chest, fake surprised.
“You think that I didn’t know about what you were up to this whole time? You think that your apartment doesn’t have surveillance cameras in every room? You think I didn’t know that you two were siblings?” Eliades sighs. “Such ignorance. Well, I suppose you know I can’t have this getting to the press.”
My eyes widen. She doesn’t know about the broadcasting equipment. She doesn’t know that her every word is being shown to her loyal employees right now.
“Why?” Ronan asks, his eyes fiery.
“Humans have ruined this world for too long! I will fix the mistakes of our stupid predecessors, I will control the population, and with me there will be peace, and I can’t have you ruining it.” Ronan shakes his head.
Her eyes harden. She pulls out a white revolver as pristine as she is and points it, at me. Ronan’s eyes widen. Her eyes harden and she
I stare in shock as she falls backwards, slowly. All I can hear is the tick tock of that huge clock across the wall.
Her body hits the floor.
Blood rushes out.
Her lips part.
“Take the video and run,” she whispers.
I look into those dying green eyes.
I look down at the person who changed my life.
And I run.
Ronan positioned the mobile broadcasting equipment atop his podium. He clutched his speech, the piece of paper too flimsy for the heavy words upon it. He looked down at the crowd below him. He saw hard faces, eyes aflame with anger and passion, each one wanting revenge for what United Labs had took from them. These were the writers of the angry letters. These were the people who United Labs left behind, these were the victims, the survivors. They held Red Flags, each one plastered with Brynn’s face with a crown atop her head. They had made her beautiful, with a full face and open eyes. So foreign from her hollow face and dying eyes. They made her a martyr, a symbol for survival. How funny that they now gathered around her casket. He took a deep breath, checked his equipment one last time, and began to speak, each of his words a dagger into the facade of United Labs.