A few hours earlier--
A woman in a loose light blue uniform slides a small gate open in the bars between us. Her face is almost impassive, tinged ever so slightly with nervousness when she looks at me, and still generic enough to blend in with everyone else's faces here. I wouldn't be able to recognize her later if I tried.
She lifts a hand and gently, carefully beckons, as though I'm a dangerous animal out for blood. I rise to my feet and am through the gate and behind her in an instant. Her eyes widen, and she pales as shock registers in her. But she doesn't stumble backward like some of the other nurses do when I move.
She's nervous and intimidated, but not scared.
I follow her through a mind-numbing series of hallways--white with the light spread so evenly even shadows are invisible--with so many turns it's near impossible to find one's way through them. But when you've been here as long as I have, it's easy.
Her footsteps are the only sounds in the hall. Mine are silent. The nurse continuously glances down at the metal cuff on her wrist with the embedded screen at what looks like a map.
She doesn't know the way.
Her hands shake a little, a sign that she's new. They haven't numbed her yet.
They tried numbing me when I first came here, at the age of ten. A dark, murky substance just thicker than water, a needle that was duller than it looked, strong rubbing alcohol, a well-placed knife slit on my arm when the needle didn't puncture, and pain that took my breath away--and my consciousness--in a burst of stars falling around me.
It was supposed to make me numb, cold, slow, manageable, like most everyone here. And for a couple of days, it worked. I did everything they wanted, thought everything they wanted, wanted everything they wanted, was everything they wanted but it was too much too much too much and then it broke. I threw up a lot that night, in the toilet hole in my cell, and what came up was tinged in a rotten green, dark and fungal. The stench was almost unbearable.
The numbing serum hasn't affected me since.
The nurse stops in front of a door, so washed with white it's difficult to see the edges. I stop inches behind her, silent and still and she stiffens. I sense fear on her, smell it like it's her perfume.
Afraid of me? I hear voices floating toward us, and then the nurse visibly starts trembling. Yes. But she's also afraid of them.
A small group of doctors and nurses passes us, their excited voices rising and falling in quick chatter.
"Yes, but did you see her? It's incredib…."
"No, we already checked… it's not… but.."
"This is revolutionary. This can change the way we've edited minds forever." The voice is high and sounds convinced, as though the woman speaking needs what she's saying to be the truth.
"No, it's not. Just because one girl shows up and knocks out half the security team in the east wing doesn't mean she's 'special' and 'revolutionary.' She hasn't changed anything; it's just you who wants something to change so badly." This comes from an agitated-looking man, gesturing vaguely in frustration. The other doctors come into view from an invisible turn, slowing as they catch up.
A particularly energetic woman swings around to face her team, holding a clear glassy device. She swipes at it a few times, her face animated with excitement, then holds it up for the other doctors to see. A picture--a headshot-- of a girl comes into view. Her skin is dark, but slightly pale, as though she hasn't been outside in a long time. Despite that, her eyes are alive with a kind of light I haven't seen in people before.
The girl's expression looks to be neutral, but when I look closer, her features seem to have a sort of restlessness, like she's tired of being cooped up and wants to get out and do something, change something.
The woman's voice rises to the point of yelling. "No, she isn't some ordinary subject. We've worked on her before--well, not us but the teams before, the ones from the beginning of this project. And she's different from the others, I can feel it. She has a stronger mind than the others we've worked with and has outstanding abilities and why can't you see this? She even has the scar to prove it!" She jabs a finger at the picture, at the outside corner of the girl's left eye, where a small white slash is just barely visible.
"That scar doesn't mean she's been here before, Agnes. It could've been from an accident. And if you just looked at her test results, she has no abilities. Why are you so set on the idea that she's special?" Her expression looks to be neutral, but when I look closer, her features seem to have a sort of restlessness, like she's tired of being cooped up and wants to get out and do something, change something.
The woman's--Agnes's--voice is accusatory and angry. "Then why are you so set on defending her? Huh? She's just a measly stick of a girl from Below, why do you care so much? Do you want to get reported? Numbed? Erased?"
They continue this back- and- forth as they walk, but just as Agnes's voice is verging on being too loud, a man taps her arm and tells her something. He's much younger than the rest, perhaps twenty or so, and probably newer. And more afraid. She quiets down immediately, and her posture tenses, probably feeling his fear.
The team walks past us and their voices fade out completely.
The nurse is breathing shallowly. A thin sheen of sweat coats her forehead and neck, and as though she senses my eyes on her, she wipes at it with her sleeve. We stand there for a few minutes, just in front of the door--the dreaded door-- as she recovers from her panic. And then I can't take it anymore, just can't wait.
"Are you just going to stand there?" My voice is scratchy from disuse and feels strange in my throat, but it does the trick. The nurse starts as though someone jolted her, then looks at me like she doesn't quite believe that I can talk. She doesn't spare a glance at the door and continues down the hall, checking repeatedly to make sure I'm following.
As we walk, I mull over what I witnessed, trying to fit the pieces together.
The girl must be from Below, which explains both the strange dullness of her skin and how she would've been here before. Everyone meant to be exiled to the Below was visited by Government Officials over three days. By the fourth day, they were all gone. So this girl must have found a way back and made herself a target for the Government.
And those doctors had to be high-level ones, the ones who are in charge of the editing and the ones who take orders directly from the Government, the very top of the pyramid. They aren't numbed because that would affect their performance and efficiency, but can be put down if they display extreme emotion.
That woman, Agnes, is getting numbed soon. They'll need another doctor on their team, and maybe I--
I stop myself before I start jumping to conclusions. To know what really happened, I need to meet the girl. I need to talk to her. I make it my goal to find out who she is and why she's here, because she might be the one chance I have of leaving this corner of hell.
And that's a chance I'm not willing to lose.