Time passed, trickling through my fingers like water, and still no word from Simon. I sent three letters; I’d given up on more. I doubted I could focus well enough to implement the code properly. The sessions lengthened daily. Soon, the hole in my head no longer ached. It remained open, a clear path to my cerebrum. The side effects of having a rod shoved into my brain were less than pleasant.
Sometimes I sat catatonic, stable for hours after sessions. Unable to move from the chair or progress to the next assigned station or interview. Other times my mood would verge on manic, the noise in my head refused to be still and the silence around me crushed down The dreams got worse.
Every time I sat in that chair, I dreamed. The dreams were filled with my fears as well as those around me. The monsters in my head were terrifying, but also beautiful. Sometimes I would cry myself to sleep as I lay forgotten in the dorm; drifting on a thousand lucid memories of things I couldn’t begin to comprehend.
But of one thing I was certain. I was in Hell.
Twice I’d gone with Lee and Nevva to meet the boys in the boathouse, but they no longer invited me. I’d hear them whispering about meetings, but I was no longer included and I knew why. I frightened them. What Dr. Mathias did to me in the chair was changing me beyond what they would understand. I knew Nevva still cared, still wished me well and wanted to free me. I could see that much in her head. I could also see how she worried that I was lost, my brain too fragmented, my soul broken into pieces and thrown to the wind.
She’s wasn’t wrong.
“River! River!” I hand slapped my face. Dr. Mathias smiled down. “There you are. We were beginning to worry; you were asleep for so long.”
“I don’t sleep anymore,” I mumbled, hugging myself as I stepped shakily from the chair. There was a strange twitch in my shoulder that I couldn’t stop. “The mission is still open.”
“Excuse me?” Dr. Mathias squinted at me.
“I’m undirected, no one has explained what I’m to do, and the burning grows warmer.” My hands clenched and unclenched at my sides.
“I see.” He almost smiled, looking at his compboard. “Why don’t you go back to the dorm for an hour or so before your interview?”
“It’s all a fool’s business,” I muttered, walking away from him as I shook my head. I’d begun to sense fear in him. He was oh so proud of the work he’d done, but scared of the resulting compendium of possibilities he needed to decipher.
I found myself in my room with no recollection on the steps that made up the journey. My bed felt too big. It seemed to be growing, I had no tool to discern for certain, but estimated it grew.0006 percent a day. Logically I knew the conclusion must be fictitious, unless…unless the bed was a challenge, they challenged us, tested our strengths.
I walked to the window and punched it. It shattered and my fist came back bloody but I was able to pull a large piece of glass from the frame. I tore the covers off my bed and began slicing away at it, tearing at the stuffing and dropping the glass when it begins to cut me. I tore strips of the mattress off until I felt hands grabbing me from behind, tugging me from the ruined bed.
“What the hell are you doing?” the security guard asked, holding me tight to his chest.
“It’s a test, a challenge, I need to do this, don’t stop me.e” I twisted and turned, trying to pull from his grasp.
“You’re insane.” He shook his head before speaking into the com at his shoulder. “Back up floor two.” He managed to hold me until the other guard arrived and together they dragged me to the med center.
An elderly nurse sealed up my hand and tsked at me before sending me on to the interview. I paced the room as the interviewer sat watching me silently. I knew they were watching, they always watched. No way to get away. They watched, judging, twisting, and turning me words like a knife in the gut.
“Why did your destroy your mattress?” he finally asked.
“It was a test, a hidden test, had to smoke it out, find the bad seed and show them that the world doesn’t stop spinning just because they’re no longer interested in this vestibule of faith. No…no, not faith, faith denotes something older, something made true through the belief of many, this is one man’s quest.” I couldn’t stop my hands moving as I spoke.
“Okay…are all the mattresses hidden tests? Should I ask that they all be locked up so you don’t systematically-”
“Yes I have a system. You make an assumption because you have a system, your system, you’re symptomatic, it’s chronic! You think it’s benign, that it has to be cut out, this system is simple. Blanket folded thus the sheet pulled taut the mattress. The mattress can’t be trusted, it has to be gutted. I looked under twenty and found a pea and you wonder why I’m not sleeping?” I caught my breath and took a good look at him. Scared. Worried, the emotions played across his face, but I couldn’t see him. “Are you worried that I cut up my mattress for no reason or that I had a perfectly good reason that you can’t see? Can’t...see...anyone. Even the orderlies wear masks.”
“Why did you cut up your mattress?” He looked slightly annoyed. He couldn’t understand me even when I was speaking perfectly clear. But I wasn’t clear. My words were a jumble I couldn’t set straight.
“I am trying to protect my spine.” They couldn’t see how at their mercy I was, how we all were. None of them understood or saw the truth like I did. Not the teachers, not Nevva. She was too afraid to listen.
“Are you worried you might be injured? Your movement trainers have given you excellent marks-“
“No one will give me a mission.” I could help if they just let me.
“A mission.” He jotted something down.
“I have a reason. I’m...rea-son-a-ble. I have a reason.”
“I’m sure you do. But there are no missions here. You’re delusional.”
“Delusions, images not real, but real to the one who sees them,” I muttered, pacing the room.
“Exactly, you are the one seeing them. Delusions.” He gave me a mild smile.
“No, no there is a mission A reason, a common goal to unite us. The Pax, they had a mission.”
“Enough of that, River!” he yelled, it was the first time I’d seen him show any emotion. “You are a useless little child here only as a possible weapon. You are nothing.” His face was red, but he attempted to compose himself.
“My movement hasn’t been dictated yet, but I am not here for nothing. I...am a...sti...sty. And you know I have a spine. There’s something wrong...with the body politic.”
“Your body is fine, River.”
“No, you want. You want me to work the way they want. I disappoint, but I know. No, not that I know, I don’t know, but I do and the facts remain the same. I know the facts and you want them secure. It’s the Pax. I shouldn’t know.” That was it. I was never meant to know about the Pax, peace. But not peace, death.
“I really need you to be quiet.” He speaks with forced calm.
“Miranda,” I whispered, tapping my cheekbone. I felt a small prick on my back. “What?” I glanced over my shoulder to see a young man backing away from me. “You?” I reached to my back, feeling a round object on my spine. Spine, they attack the spine. “Get it out!” I yelled grabbing it and trying to pull it out, but its arms dug deeper into my skin. I screamed.
“This is for your own good.” The interviewer smiled sadly.
“No, please!” I whimpered, knowing what was going to happen. He pushed a button on the controller, and my body started to jerk, as electric pain shot through me. I screamed again.
“They’re sticking in me! It’s in the mattress, and it’s crawling inside me! You cut it out, you cut it out, you cut it out!” The pain stopped.
“And the Pax?” he asked.
“You.” I glared, face on the table where I’d fallen without realizing. “You killed them, you were there, helped kill them all. Dead, so many dead.” I didn’t even scream when the pain began again, only lay still until the world went blessedly dark.