Chapter I- Viola Romano
Fear smelled like the way blood tastes, the sharp tang of old pennies held too tightly in your sweat-slick fist. It was a bitter, potent smell that could fill a room, capturing everyone’s senses in its snare. Being exposed to it day after day never dulled the shock of it, never seemed to smooth the goosebumps that rose along your arms or the hairs that were raised at the back of your neck. One whiff and there was a ghost in the room, breathing in your ear.
Too much Panic in the body’s system led to an overload, and soon your fright perfumed the air, flowing from your pores. So concentrated that any animal within a mile radius could catch a drift.
Ignoring the minute chemical spike in adrenaline, I slid on my medical gloves with a snap of plastic. Tchaikovsky trilled through a large speaker on my desk in the prep room. Sound-proof walls sealed in the violins and cellos, though the Panic still seeped in through the frame of the two-way mirror and microscopic cracks in the door. Open that door and the flood would be strong enough to bring a grown man to his knees. Strong enough to cause him to slaughter his entire family because the paranoia was so powerful, slithering through his veins.
I grasped a clipboard and pen, running over my collected data so far. My mask waited for me on a hook by the door, its thin black fabric covered in a graffiti-like drawing of a vampire’s grin, sharp teeth flashing in a menacing smirk. Two built-in air filters were on each side. Hanging it over my ears, I breathed deeply, and opened the door.
Muffled screams immediately filled my ears. The solitary chair was screeching and rocking across the floor, scuffing the laminate. Its occupant, a middle-aged man with gaunt cheeks and crazed blue eyes, stared at me, chest heaving. My skin prickled with the drugged air, goosebumps rising. With the mask on, the symptoms were all but nonexistent. The most I ever felt was mild apprehension, and I’d learned to push that aside.
The door sucked shut behind me, and the man stilled, quivering like an arrow pulled tautly. His eyes twitched, nostrils flared. Drool coated his chin, trailed to his sweat-soaked shirt.
I tapped my pen on the clipboard and he flinched like I’d struck him.
A throat mic projected my voice from the wall. “Mr. Anthony Schwartz, it makes me so happy to see you alive.”
He whimpered, breathing hard through his gag. His eyes scrunched shut and I could see his veins bulging in ropes around his neck, through his forehead. Thick chains bound his arms to the chair because anything less had led to violent performances of extraordinary strength and bloody murals on the walls.
A thrill of pleasure shot through me. The brain has so much potential. Science has shown over and over again that with the proper motivation, human beings are capable of amazing feats. A mother will lift the three-thousand-pound car to save her trapped child. Incredible. Super-human, even. The body was a fascinating thing.
So much untapped potential.
Now, for the constant question: how far could the human body really go?
I circled Anthony Schwartz, jotting down the occasional note. It takes approximately twenty-four hours to burn off the effects of Panic in its usual pill form. Dust takes less than four. Yesterday, Mr. Schwartz had been capable of short sentences and control over his own saliva. Things had certainly changed.
Checking symptoms into my chart, I glanced up at Schwartz again. He was still pulling against the chains, anger flashing dangerously in his eyes. I smiled, eyes crinkling.
“You know what time it is, don’t you?” I tread closer, unzipping my belt and retrieving the next stage of enhanced Panic. The liquid minerals rolled like syrup, the color of sunshine. Stronger effects, but the same time frame. I was very pleased with Mr. Schwartz. I’d been pushing his adrenaline limits for an entire week now. No one had ever made it this far with increased dosages before their heart stopped beating.
I slid the needle into his neck, and he roared as I pushed the plunge. “Don’t fail me now,” I murmured. Capping the needle, I slipped it back into my belt. Rabid shudders wracked his body, like his own earthquake. His pupils devoured the irises.
Taking more notes, I left the room, removing my mask and hanging it on the hook. I flipped a switch on the wall and fans whirred to life, oxygen generators purifying the air in the room. Cool air washed over my face, drying a thin sheen of perspiration on my forehead. Probably another side-effect.
I took a deep breath, bracing my hand on the doorknob leading to the compound outside. This room, this one test subject I’d been granted, was mine. No one could touch me here. My chance to prove myself was finally within reach.
On the other side of this door, however…
I threw it open and immediately my vision was filled with neon blue letters, scrolling over the top of my vision. Missed texts. Well, the signal-blocker built into my office was nice while it lasted. Ignoring them for the time being, I strolled through the hall. Lesser employees were repelled, clearing a path for me in the halls like Moses in the Red Sea. Their fear and distaste were palpable, but completely natural. It was empowering.
If I focused on anything long enough, a label or brief explanation appeared in a little text box in the corner of my eye. Due to the neurotransmitter and corresponding contact lenses I wore, a simple thought could show me a brief synopsis of anyone’s profile. Their criminal records, close family, education, and mental health diagnosis. A prompt and I could locate a person’s weaknesses, their pressure points, and target them as I wished.
Maybe that was one reason why they avoided eye-contact. Why they were so afraid.
Head held high, I finally read my texts. All of them were from Mother. Not surprising.
Monarch: Your list is building… up to six consumers now!
Monarch: Your fascination with Panic is absurd. Focus on where you really belong-- delivery and termination.
Monarch: You give me gray hairs.
Monarch: Nine consumers.
Demanding much? I smirked to myself and began the walk to her office. Naturally, it was the biggest room in the compound. Booming business means booming rewards. The stark contrast between my sisters, me, and the average personnel was obvious. The higher the rank, the better pay. Most donned magi-frames--- large rectangular glasses that glowed with older tech. The halls were filled with icy blue glows and neon greens and yellows. Look closely enough and you can make out the blocky texts running along the front, the flashing ads that demanded an upgrade.
People with power--- people like my family and I--- privilege ourselves with the newest versions. My transmitter and contacts were unreleased and the highest tech out there. I’d chosen violet-colored eyes. They caught people’s attention.
I reached the double-doors of my mother’s office and they swooshed open before I could scan my irises. It was like a disturbing magic trick, or maybe devilish witchcraft, but there she was. The woman in question. Imposing and regal, my mother.
Her contacts were a rich bloodred, chosen specifically for their intensity. Although, her normal hue--- a dark brown--- was just as scary when she was in the mood. She loved her makeup, and she got away with it too. Her lashes were like silk fans accentuating her eyes and her lips were always an earthy brown pout. Knifepoint cheekbones shimmered gold in the light. She smiled like a wolf, but it never quite reached her eyes. Those red eyes were dead, and intentionally so.
“My little cucciola,” she said with narrowed eyes. “Report?”
My little puppy. Sometimes I think she maintained her Italian accent all these years to remind people of an old mob boss.
I bowed my head. “Mother.” I took a breath, unable to stop the edge of excitement from creeping into my voice. “The subject is progressing wonderfully. It’s been an entire week, and the dose is still building, still going up. The records say that most subjects only lasted---”
She raised a hand, silencing me. My heart raced.
“That is all I wish to know.” Her words were crisp, already moving forward. “Your real job is waiting for you, Viola. Has been all evening.”
I closed my mouth, swallowing. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”
Mother’s lips pursed in scrutinizing disgust as she leaned forward. I didn’t move away. Showing weakness was never a good idea.
“Your lack of ambition disappoints me.”
I clenched my jaw and kept my gaze straight ahead.
The Monarch’s voice was a low hum, right in my ear. Her breath sent goosebumps up my neck. “I know you’ll make it up to me, doing what you do best,” she said.
A thin smile spread over my lips. “Of course, Mother.” I glanced at her. “You are right, as always. My skills lie with...the consumers.”
At my submission, her eyes glowed with a tiny flicker of life. Pleased, she said, “Yes.”
There was no show of fancy tech or enormous wealth when it came to delivery. It was discreet. Hidden and confidential. Half of our customers relied on that detail alone. I delivered the goods on foot, hidden in a spacious backpack slung over my shoulder. We dispensed in the evenings because that was when the streets were unpredictable. As the youngest in the family, I fit right in with them, blended in perfectly. I was just another teenager skulking down the street, both earbuds in. Nothing more.
Those earbuds now sang Vivaldi’s Four Seasons but turned down enough to where I could still pay attention to my surroundings. A cool wind drifted through my short black hair, wisps of it rising in and out of my face, the ends short enough to brush my chin. I breathed in the smoggy air, the smells of exhaust and tangy metal filling my nose. A trace of rain perfumed it as well, as evidenced by the shiny black streets. Flashing neon signs reflected in the rain puddles that rippled with passing Cortisol bikes and sleek hover-cars. The buildings gleamed, proud of their washing, standing as tall, cylindrical advertisements. The desperate ones linked to my transmitter, whispering suggestions into my thoughts.
Don’t forget to adopt a picture today. We have the oldest and rarest: the Great Barrier Reef, the plains of Australia, even Notre Dame! Connect to your VR system now!
Why play the games when you can live them? Buy Realism now!
I frowned, annoyed. Connecting to your transmitter without permission was illegal, especially since a connection went both ways. I walked quicker, leaving the bandwidth. The ads silenced.
People jostled each other all around me, magi-frames glowing like giant retro glasses, snapping curses at each other when someone stomped on their toes. They were a hive, dressing in the same metallic fabrics, walking or taking the hover-train to the same jobs as models and programmers and fashion designers. In a world where image was everything, you either were the image or you created it. You climbed the ladder to the top, all the while knowing that each of the steps was actually the backs of others. Everyone was a threat to themselves and their peers. A targeted enemy.
Yet, none of them touched me. Not a soul brushed against my side or even glanced my way. It was still a tad bit disconcerting, though this behavior was nothing new. Even without knowing my status and family name, people veered widely around me, like I was in my own bubble.
The thought of my indisputable danger-vibe had me walking straighter, lifting my chin coolly.
As I neared the poorer part of town, the obvious veins of technology began to slowly leech away. Wood replaced metal, shining and skintight clothing was now loose and natural. Skyscrapers became homes with cobbled walls and brick fences. Here, no one wore magi-frames or contact lenses. Mailboxes still littered the streets. Everyone rode bicycles and scooters, pumping their legs as they waved and hollered at each other. It raised my guard. Even the air tasted different here.
Odd buildings speckled the area. Things like retirement homes, community centers, and cupcake shops stood meekly nearby, watching life move forward. It always annoyed me, delivering in this area of downtown Ether. They were too good to progress into the future like us, but they still wanted our product.
A retirement home passed me by, its bare wall painted in a supposedly endearing image of a wrinkled old woman who looked more prune than human. She beamed at me as I walked by and I made a point of scowling back.
My next order was coming up. Twenty pill capsules, filled with pure Rapture, medium dosage. Her name was Harper Mills, and we had her in our pocket. She would need a much higher dosage soon, when the cravings got to be too demanding. If we were lucky, maybe...just maybe her little girl would admire mommy so much that she’d try it too.
I rang their quaint little doorbell and shifted my feet while I heard footsteps padding closer. Purple and yellow pansies showed their faces from a dry flower pot nearby, their leaves wilting and yellowed with neglect.
I startled as the front door slammed open, smashing into the inside wall. A picture fell from its tack and glass shattered all over the floor. Harper Mills, single mother of one daughter and a teacher at the local elementary school, stood at the entrance, hand braced against the abused door. Her eyes were more red than white, veiny and dim, dark smudges of makeup underneath. Gaunt cheeks were waxen and void of color. Tear-tracks were evident, and even then more were coming. Harper’s lips trembled. Her chest heaved as she stared me down, reminding me a bit of a wild animal. Slowly, my gaze trailed to her hands and found that her nails were bitten to the quick and trembling, dark flakes of blood staining her fingers.
“You’re late,” she said in a watery voice and choked out a gasping sob.
I tilted my head. “Oh, dear Ms. Mills.” I paused and more crying wrecked my ears. Sliding out of my backpack, I unzipped the largest compartment and removed a small pill bottle. She stilled as the pills rolled around, tumbling over each other. In each capsule was her very being, her reason to live. The crushed minerals were like crystals in their ambiance, the light hitting the bottle and causing them to shimmer like diamonds.
I smiled at her. “May I come in?”