When I decide I’m finally finished staring at myself I turn away from the mirror to don the clothes lying folded next to the towels. Black pants that are overlarge, a long-sleeved gray shirt and a pair of thick-soled black boots. I have a feeling the shoes are the only thing that actually belonged to me. The rest of the gear is ill fitted and unfamiliar, but the boots feel snug and mold to my feet. As I move towards the door to be released, Naomi’s parting words echo in my head.
You are not our prisoner here. Not yet. Not until you pose a threat.
I am not prisoner here, I think. Yet what kind of guest requires a guard?
I snort. Yeah, guest.
The lumbering jackass leads me—in front this time, good for him—up a flight of steps and into an oblong conference room. Much like the rest of the building, the room is windowless. There is little to interrupt the crumbling beige stucco that spans the entire interior wall. I scratch at a chunk of plaster that is peeling from the wall and, finally freed, it celebrates its newfound liberation by plunging from its height and embedding itself gratefully in the dark carpet. My guard pokes me in the back with his gun, ushering me forward. I take one brief moment to level my best approximation of a death-glare in his direction.
All the familiar faces from earlier—the doctor, Sydney, the director Naomi, Beckett, and the smug man I head-butted are present. Evander smiles mockingly, passing me a flirtatious wink, and I decide the best response is to greet him similarly. I make every effort to form my facial muscles into the right pattern, but the movement comes out forced. My dry lips crack with the unfamiliarity of the gesture.
The guard shuts the door behind him, herding me to the only open seat left between Beckett and Evander. One glares at me while the other grins—all smarm. I briefly consider head-butting him again. Naomi collects the papers spread out in front of her and stacks them in a neat pile. She hands off the pile to Beckett who stands and moves leave the room. He hesitates at the doorway, shooting her an uneasy glance. Naomi nods her dismissal and he departs.
She folds her hands on the table and observes me intently.
I raise an eyebrow.
“Eve,” she pauses. “Is that an acceptable form of address to you?”
I rap my fingers on the table. “It certainly rolls off the tongue better than A01902.”
At this the side of her mouth twitches upward. I am beginning to think it’s her only method of conveying anything besides absolute authority. It’s a tiny crack in an otherwise concrete veneer.
“Eve, then. Are you finding your accommodations to your liking?” Sydney scoffs, and for once I’m inclined to agree with the lab assistant. This is small talk. I know she wants something from me and I don’t want to drown playing games while she tests the water to see if its safe. I decide to go with the blunt option.
“You want something from me,” I deadpan.
It isn’t a question. She nods, and I take it as a sign I may continue. “I want things, too. I want answers. I want to know who you are, why you brought me here, why I can’t remember anything before an hour ago,” my voice is building and a loud ringing is gathering in my ears, creating a dull wall between myself and the sounds of the world. “Why the does my brain feel like it’s trying to drill its way out my skull and what the hell happened to my back!” It takes a second for me to register that I shouted the last part. I stood without realizing it, my hands gripping the table. My knuckles are white. My throat, which has been mostly unused since I woke, feels raw now. Blood thrums in my veins and I can feel my heart rate rapidly speeding up. Some weird spike of adrenaline rushes through me and I am aware that I must breathe deeply or the energy I have built up is going to erupt into physical violence.
They all stare at me. From my peripheral I see the guard step further into the room, a warning hand on his gun. I glance down again at my white hands and focus on breathing to distill the energy. After a time, it works. Dr. Whittaker jots something on his legal pad quickly and I can practically feel lab assistant Sydney boring holes into me with his open stare. Evander puts his feet up on the table, an amused expression on his face. We wait in a tense silence as my last barked words hang in the air. When my heart rate slows and I feel I’ve regained control, I sit back down.
Naomi makes eye contact with the guard and waves him away with a passive hand. I look her in the eyes again. When the energy finally departs, I realize it was the only thing I had been holding on to inside. Now I feel only the physical aftereffects, the agitated beat of my heart and the chilling sweat on my brow.
Naomi speaks, “I am prepared to give you those answers. Not all. There are things you cannot be a part of for reasons I am sure you will understand later. But we are to conduct this interview session calmly or you will to be escorted back to your quarters to stay in solitary confinement until I feel…lenient. Understood?” I nod. “Very well then.” She pauses and takes me in for good measure. I force myself to adapt a more relaxed pose and, once satisfied, she continues. “Am I correct in understanding that you remember nothing before you woke in our medical facility?”
“Yes,” I reply curtly.
She sighs, pinching her nose and straightening her shoulders. Upon closer inspection I notice the dark circles underneath her eyes, the way her skin appears stretched out too thinly along her high cheekbones. It is clear that command has weighed heavily on her. Her jet-black hair is starting to show signs of greying at the temples, although the woman can’t be over thirty-five.
“That makes things complicated. We have never had a patient suffer such detrimental…mental loses. It isn’t easy to start from ground zero. I’m not sure how much you are capable of processing right now.”
“Try me,” I respond.
She seems to consider it for a moment she begins quietly. “You were the most recent generation in part of a decades long experiment, called EXCERP, in human neurological and chemical functions. A controlled militia based around the concept that human emotion is capable of being repressed, and that humans incapable of empathy make for more effective soldiers.” I stare blankly at her, uncomprehending. She looks across from me to the doctor, expression strained. “Thomas, perhaps this would sound better from a more medical standpoint?”
“Of course,” says the doctor. He coughs and readjusts himself more comfortably in his chair. “Essentially our brain is composed of a series of electrical functions and chemical reactions. The emotions that people feel are results of the brain releasing chemicals that work as neurotransmitters. That anger you just felt, fear, the ‘fight or flight’ response, all of that is all epinephrine and norepinephrine in action. Human joy is simply the release of serotonin into the brain.” He sees my stare and coughs awkwardly. “The science—the idea behind the External Cognitive Emotional Repression Program was the concept that human emotion, in its most base form as chemistry, could be selectively suppressed. Essentially turning on and off the neurotransmitters that would encourage feelings of empathy at will. That, combined with coercive persuasion, would be effective in creating…well the end goal was—is— soldiers completely incapable of processing human emotion the way functioning, normative humans do.” The doctor looks at me expectantly. I say nothing and he continues. “Essentially the subjects were given shots that almost completely repressed feelings of joy, sadness. All the normal range of human emotions was completely broken down. The brain becomes completely incapable of firing off the neurotransmitters in a normal way. Stops producing anything other than adrenaline and an animalistic rage. At this state the…subjects are left completely feral.”
My voice comes out hoarse, “Feral?”
Sydney interjects before the doctor can respond, “Like a rabid beast that needs to be put down.” I meet his eyes and once again find them alight with a burning hatred. I think he intends to scare me, but it isn’t working. Am I supposed to feel threatened? Does it not work because I am incapable of feeling fear?
I look to the doctor. “But what good will a rabid animal be for an army? Soldiers need discipline. Order. Structure. They can’t run rabid.”
Sydney opens his mouth again but the doctor shushes him with a look.
“Rabid, no. The feral stage doesn’t last long. It’s a midpoint in the process. The rest involves behavioral conditioning. The subjects are exposed to thousands of images in rapid succession. Images of children crying, family—all met with a high voltage electric shock. That’s responsible for one of the scars on your back. A series of wires were led to your spine to deliver a controlled dose of electricity directly throughout your nervous system. On the other hand, when they showed you images of violence they shot your system straight up with the serotonin your body was incapable of producing. They led a series of cannulas through the entry wound at the base of your skull up to your brain to deliver the chemicals to different areas that corresponded to the desired response. The result being complete ecstasy— relief, all the things you couldn’t create for yourself. And when the subject’s mental capacity is reduced to such a primal state it becomes malleable and easy to manipulate. The idea is to create the link in the subject’s brain. It becomes bred in that violence equates to joy, so the subjects actively seek it out.”
I meet Dr. Whittaker’s eyes for the first time, “Violence?”
It is Sydney who answers. “Torture. Rape. Murder. Abuse. If it is cruel and horrific then your people seek it out and find it.”
My head snaps to attention. I stare him down, our eyes meet in a collision of intensity and I continue staring, unblinking, before he turns away, looking down. I feel numb. I feel nothing. My head pounds savagely. I am supposed to feel guilty. I know this. I feel thirsty. Hungry. Angry. I think I understand guilt. Guilt is shame. I feel nothing like shame.
“What was the purpose of all this?” I ask.
Sydney makes an indignant noise in the back of his throat before he answers in a low growl that speaks of danger. “Imagine the soldier that does not feel guilt, nor remorse.” I can picture it Sydney, believe me. “Nothing. No fear for themselves or their comrades. Before EXCERP existed the government lost soldiers to PTSD. Some of them lost the taste for fighting, some just got tired of violence. But soldiers who didn’t care for their safety? Who charged in voluntarily, provoked by the scent of blood and the promise of more? Soldiers devoid of empathy. No hesitation, no questions asked no matter the mission. Soldiers that would burn the world just to watch the people perish and die in the flames. Soldiers that would laugh while they burned, too. The atrocities committed by your kind are innumerable. There’s nothing that’s too far. Everything belongs to you just because you have the strength to take it!” It is clear his words are clouded with emotion and I feel the burning inside myself respond to his harsh resentment.
“You act like I did this voluntarily!” My head is throbbing painfully in waves that start at the base of my skull.
“Because you had to! The program doesn’t conscript, it only takes volunteers! These things, these decrepit excuses—hell’s own rejects—” he sputters for words, “they have been tearing apart the world for years and we know for a fact that you joined seven years ago—meaning you watched these monstrosities destroy everything and you volunteered to join knowing exactly what you were doing. You’re the one that abandoned humanity to join the rot!” With one last scream he stands, throwing his chair back in the process.
Naomi rises, every inch of her in command, “You’re out of line, Sydney!”
“What does it matter, it isn’t even human!”
I feel nothing but the pounding in my head. Black spots gather at the edge of my vision. My chair makes a loud scrape as it backs away over linoleum. The furious pulsating gathers and the last thing I see before everything fades to black is Sydney’s red face and disgusted sneer. What a prick.