First day at work is gonna be awkward, I remind myself, glancing around the empty staff room and waiting for something to happen. You just have to be patient, they know you’re here, they’ll come get you. There are worse places to spend a couple of lonely minutes, I suppose; the swivel chairs clustered round the small tables are comfortable enough, and although there are no windows on the walls, a skylight still provides some morning sun to the quiet room. The table surface feels nice to rest my hands against – I wonder idly if it’s real wood, or just a thin layer stretched over chipboard or plastic. A couple experimental taps with my fingertip doesn’t clear up matters much. In here, the gentle background music which fills the rest of the facility is almost inaudible, just about any move I make rustles my clothing enough to drown it out. Oddly, I almost miss it a little; I had gotten used to the subtle tones whispering in the background, and now their absence feels like the quiet is… more quiet than usual. There don’t seem to be any speakers in the simple off-white walls, but I didn’t see any speakers in any of the other rooms or corridors, either.
I decide I might as well take advantage of the break. I fish out a cookie from my pocket, crunching the sweet treat with relish. The cookie doesn’t last long; if I wasn’t alone, I would probably have taken my time with it, but since nobody’s watching, I don’t feel too bad about stuffing my face. I don’t forget my manners completely, though, I still have the presence of mind to scoop up any crumbs and deposit them in the bin. As I’m crossing back to my chair, I remember my new labcoat draped over its back. Trying it on experimentally, I find it’s a good fit, and the little swish the long ends make when I turn is very satisfying. Glancing down, it doesn’t seem to have a nametag yet – I’ll have to ask about that, I think.
An electronic buzz and a click from behind me makes me whirl around; one of the doors leading off from the staff room has seemingly spontaneously cracked open. I hadn’t paid it much thought before; the door is small and out of the way, I had just assumed it was a walk-in storage closet or something. The little sliver of the room beyond looks a lot bigger than a storage closet, though. I can’t see much of it, but the surfaces I can see are polished a gleaming white, and I can hear someone talking in there, although they’re too muffled to make out any words. Maybe this is where I’m supposed to go? I wonder to myself. Or perhaps whoever’s in there might know where I should be going. There’s a moment of trepidation, but I steel my nerves and pull open the door, stepping inside.
I immediately get a sense that something is… off, here. The room seems filled with a soft white glow, yet I can see no light source except for a set of dully blinking screens lining one wall over a polished white countertop. The other walls are so white it’s almost hard to see them, making it feel like I’ve stepped into some sort of… blank void. I’m not sure how big or small the room is; when I look around, my eyes keep trying to find corners, edges, seams, anything to give me a reference point, but I find almost nothing other than the man standing in front of me. I know I’m not too tall, but this guy towers over me, at least a head and a half taller, so I have to look a good ways up to focus on him. Wavy dark hair frames a light olive-skinned angular face, staring imperturbably at me, one eyebrow raised. His labcoat is slightly rumpled and stained in places – it’s clearly seen a fair bit of use. “Andreveos” is embroidered boldly next to his upturned collar. I’d hazard a guess that he’s in his late twenties, perhaps early thirties.
“Morning,” the man says, his tone neutral – not exactly friendly, but not rude either. “I don’t think I recognise you. Mind telling me what exactly you’re doing in here?”
My brain is struggling too much to keep up with the disorienting room, so I choose to focus directly on the man. It’s much easier than trying to look anywhere else. “I’ll start by apologising for the interruption,” I reply, glad that my voice is staying reasonably level despite my heart beginning to pulse in my chest. “It’s my first day here, and I was only shown the way to the breakroom back there. I take it I wasn’t supposed to come in – unless you were expecting someone new? Name’s Ray, if that helps.” I end somewhat lamely – I feel like I need to justify myself more, but I can’t think of a thing to say.
The man folds long arms across his chest, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “First day, hm? I can understand getting lost, these hallways can be a little confusing even for those of us who have been here for years.” He never breaks his cool, level tone, nor eye contact with me. I’m glad of the one thing to focus on, his green irises are a welcome splash of colour. He seems entirely at ease with the bizarre room, his posture seeming quite relaxed. “So… Ray… if this is your first day, you should already have been issued an auth code? Series of three letters, four numbers? Mind repeating that for me?”
“M-O-K-nine-four-one-eight,” I reply confidently. There’s a flood of relief – at least I got one thing right.
As soon as I’ve given the last digit, the tall man finally breaks his gaze, glancing up towards the ceiling, or at least where I assume the ceiling is. “Wisdom, could you confirm that for me?” He calls, raising his voice slightly to make himself clear.
After a moment, a high, smooth voice responds: “Authentication code confirmed.” As far as I can see, there seems to be no speakers in the room, yet the voice reverberates around as if it’s coming from every direction at once. It doesn’t stay around long, though – I feel as though it should echo in this seemingly vast space, but the sound deadens quickly.
The man looks back at me, now breaking into a genuine smile and extending a thin hand in greeting. He seems no more perturbed by the disembodied voice than he does by the room. “Good memory,” he says, his voice having lost the bluntness and monotone, and gaining some warmth in its place. “That’ll be very useful during your time here. I’m Dr. Andreveos von Hresvelg, R&D specialist. Nice to finally put a face to a name, Ray.”
I return his smile, feeling a little more at ease with him, if not the bizarre environment. At least he’s no longer staring straight through me, I don’t seem to be in trouble. I’d never admit that I’d practiced shaking my own hand in the mirror this morning, but I’m glad to say that I seem to pull off the handshake comfortably. “Glad to make your acquaintance, Doctor,” I reply smoothly. “And… glad to be in the right place.
Now that I have the opportunity to take my eyes off the towering figure in front of me, I scan around what I can see of the room. A short way behind Andreveos, there’s a young woman with straw-coloured hair falling around her shoulders, sitting in a comfortable-looking padded chair. Upon a closer look, her eyes seem… blank, unfocused. Perhaps she’s under some sort of sedative. There are soft but nonetheless effective cuffs around her wrists and ankles, binding her to the chair, but she makes no move to struggle against them. A volunteer, maybe? I turn back to the doctor, who has crossed over to stand at the high, gleaming white countertop. I hesitate just for a moment before speaking again. “What… exactly is going on here? Is this an experiment of some kind?”
He nods, beckoning me over to the countertop with a finger. I’m relieved to focus on the familiar navy blue of inactive screens subtly glowing in front of me, something familiar to ground myself with. “I’ve been developing a new hypnotic blend,” Andreveos explains, keeping an eye on my expression as he begins reaching into a drawer below the counter. “Something volatile enough to be easily aerosolised, but without any odour. Poupée here has... been elected to act as our first human trial.” He turns away for a moment, but as he does, I can see his expression twist, the creases at the corner of his mouth deepening for a moment. When he turns back to me, though, his expression is as genial as before. “I could use some help setting up the sensors for the test.”
He holds out two objects: one looks like a pair of simple plastic jaws, held together by a spring, while the other is a long strip of rubber with two velcro pads. Both have a pair of wires dangling from them, trailing along to connect to a computer tower tucked underneath the counter. Three years of med school have taught me to recognise the instruments immediately: a pulseox and a sphig- sphis- sphigmam- oh, everybody calls it a blood pressure cuff anyway. The designs are a little unfamiliar to me, but they seem to work as I expect – as soon as I attach the pulseox to Poupée’s finger, one of the screens lights up, displaying a slow but steady heart rate and high oxygen saturation. When I attach and inflate the blood pressure cuff, a similar graphic displays just below the first one – for somebody under sedation, her vitals all seem pretty healthy.
As I work, Andreveos has crossed over to stand behind Poupée’s chair, making an approving noise when he sees how quickly I’ve attached the instruments. He detaches a strange helmet-like device from the back of the chair and begins affixing it onto her head, careful not to let her hair get caught or tangled. When he flips a switch on the side, I can hear the mid-pitched hum of a motor coming to life, as the second screen on the wall begins displaying the text “RESOLVING IMAGE…” As he works, he begins speaking to me again, seeming quite capable of continuing his slow, easy tone while focusing intently on the helmet. “Good, now, in the cupboard on the far left, under the counter, there should be two respirator masks, the filters should already be attached. I want you to wear the blue one and bring the black one over to me. And make sure you get a tight seal on your face; I need you to stay alert for this.”
I find the masks under the counter easily, putting the blue one on as instructed. The rubber around my mouth and nose is tight, but I know that means I’ve got a good seal. When I cross back to Andreveos, he’s still adjusting the helmet, so I simply hold it out gently, waiting patiently for him to be ready. “Here. Let me guess: your favourite colour?” I say, smiling and bringing a note of humour to my tone.
Andreveos ties the final strap under the young woman’s chin before accepting the black mask, barely suppressing a chuckle. “Something like that,” he replies warmly. As he begins affixing the mask to his face, a three-dimensional translucent image of a brain appears on the second monitor, while a body temperature reading appears on the first. The centre of the brain is a blue so dark it’s almost black, while the outer periphery is closer to a lime green colour. It looks like… a PET scan, but three-dimensional. I didn’t realise something like that was possible yet. Andreveos nods approvingly at the displays – things, apparently, are going to plan. “Now, when I begin the test, I’ll be watching her biometrics, so I want you to keep an eye on her from the outside,” he explains. “And watch her closely, any little jerk of the head, any little blush in her cheeks, any subtle change in her breathing is good data. As soon as she starts waking up fully, I’ll begin. Any questions?”
I pull my hard-covered notebook out of my spacious labcoat pocket. “Should I take notes?”
Andreveos shrugged. “You can if you don’t think you can hold it all in your head. But don’t worry if you can’t hold it all in your head, that’s quite all right as well. Watching somebody in the process of going under is… shall we say, eyecatching.”
I nod gently. I suppose this is as good an opportunity as any to learn how hypnosis works – that’s part of why I applied to this job in the first place. “I think I can keep up writing things down. Old habits, you see. It’s not that I can’t hold a thought, but I like to keep them organised.”
Andreveos is unable to hide his smirk this time, despite the mask covering the lower half of his face – he’s obviously amused by my choice of words, but I can’t quite think why. “If you say so,” he replies in a slightly sing-song tone, before he crosses back to sit at the counter, sending a second swivel chair rolling towards me. Glancing up towards the ceiling again, he speaks as clearly as his mask will allow: “Wisdom, could you ready up test protocol ORT-7 phase 1 to begin on my mark?”
Again, that clear, smooth voice resonates through the white void. “ORT-7 phase 1 confirmed. Initialising.” The whirr of a motor precedes the sound of something metal clunking heavily into place. As the machinery whirs into motion, I take a seat on the surprisingly comfortable chair and begin dashing out notes on what’s happened so far – Andreveos, Poupée, the preparation, what’s expected of me, as much as I can get down. I also take down the time which I can see from the digital clock tucked into the corner of the screens. Feeling the pen scratching across the paper is reassuring in an otherwise alien environment – it’s one of the more socially acceptable ways to fidget.
Nodding, Andreveos gestures towards me encouragingly. “If you can just shake her shoulder lightly, you should be able to wake her up now. Then we can begin.”
Not wishing to waste any time, I gently reach out and give Poupée a slight shake. She blinks, her eyes slowly beginning to come back into focus. A wild look comes into her face as she tries to look around, but her head is kept steadfastly in place by the heavy helmet affixed to the chair. She begins straining against her bonds, but they are unyielding. She grunts with exertion, putting whatever focus she has on getting herself free, to no avail. “What the hell?” she says, a strong accent making her a little difficult to understand. “Okay, you’re going to tell me fast, why I am in this chair?”
I blink, shocked, pulling back and turning to Andreveos, who seems entirely unconcerned by Poupée’s struggle. Behind him, the screens spring to life, her vital signs all ratcheting up, and the PET scan exploding into colour, blotches of red, yellow and green spreading like wildfire across the slowly rotating image. Andreveos wastes no time, saying clearly, “Mark.” Within seconds, I can hear a gentle hissing sound from where I think the corner of the room might be, as if somebody’s just turned on a smoke machine, yet no gas appears – at least, no gas that’s visible. A set of numbers blaze to life under the PET image – a timer, audibly ticking up second by second from zero.
I turn on my chair, looking back and forth between the unflappable doctor and the agitated subject, utterly confused – this isn’t how I was expecting things would go at all. I try to mouth a question before realising that the mask obscures my lips, so I flip open my notebook to a blank page and scrawl “EVERYTHING OK?” as big and obvious as I can make it, showing it to Andreveos, careful to angle it so Poupée can’t see. That sense of unreality has returned – can I trust him? Do I have any reason to distrust him?
Andreveos nods gently to me, looking at Poupée over his shoulder. “Nothing to worry about, Poupée. Just a little routine test. I know, being woken up like this is a little disorienting, but just take a deep breath. You’re quite safe.” His voice has regained that smooth, gentle, almost monotone quality it had had when I first entered the room; it’s quite comprehensible even through the mask, and oddly comforting to listen to, like one of those velvety-voiced late-night radio presenters from the 50s.
I take a deep breath, silently praying that Andreveos knows what he’s doing and turning my attention back to Poupée. She seems to breathe in time with me – although she’s still struggling against the restraints, her eyes wide, her movements are beginning to slow. She blinks, and blinks again. I can see her pupils beginning to dilate, millimetre by millimetre, which I’m quick to scribble into my notes. “H-hey,” she says, still indignant, but somewhat softer than before. She sounds… less angry now, more confused. “W-why are you guys suddenly…?” I can see her shoulders relaxing – the hypnotic agent is working way quicker than I had expected.
“Good, Poupée, very good,” I hear Andreveos’ voice from behind me again, still with that gentle, relaxing timbre. I glance back to look at him and the displays – it looks like her heart rate peaks, and then slowly begins to tick down again, along with her blood pressure. Colour begins fading from parts of her brain, her frontal lobe in particular turning a dull green, while a strip of bright red branches across the top and outer sides, accompanied by a pair of fiery spheres burning deep within the inner core. The changes earned another approving nod from Andreveos. “Very good. See how taking a deep breath can help calm you down so much? I can already see you’re a lot more relaxed than you were a moment ago. Maybe you can try another deep breath for me? That’d feel nice, wouldn’t it?”
Unconsciously, I breathe in time with Poupée, keeping my focus on his words and her movements. My handwriting suffers a little as I get into the flow of writing, shifting from elegant cursive to small print letters – still perfectly legible, but requiring less concentration. Taking another deep breath, and then another, Poupée’s struggles are little more than idle jerks now; a dreamlike quality has taken over her face, her jaw beginning to slacken, the corners of her eyes beginning to soften, her pupils almost fully dilated. Is this how quickly hypnosis usually works? Or is this just because of the drug? I settle back into the chair, allowing my own shoulders to droop a little – it is a very comfortable chair, after all, I might as well enjoy it.
All the while, Andreveos’ voice still drones on from behind me, speaking calmly, smoothly, consistently. There are far worse things to listen to while I write. “That’s it. Just letting yourself build up a nice rhythm. Not having to worry too much about what’s happening around you. If any thoughts or ideas come, let them flow with your breath. It’s all okay. Breathing in… and out… as quick or as slow as feels comfortable to you. That’s it.”
At some point, I turn to glance back at Andreveos, realising he’s looking at me, not Poupée. Although I can’t see his mouth below the mask, the way the corners of his eyes and the lines in his forehead are slightly crinkling betrays his amusement. I can’t help but wonder what’s running through his head right now as he continues speaking. It’s amazing how clearly I can hear his words despite the mask. It’s almost like… like…
Abruptly, I realise I’ve entirely lost focus on the job that I’m actually supposed to be doing. I quickly and ruefully turn back to Poupée, straightening my posture and shaking myself a little. I hadn’t realised how much I had begun to slump in my chair – when had I gotten so relaxed? Hoping that the doctor hadn’t noticed my momentary lapse in concentration, I refocus my attention, noting that Poupée has almost entirely stopped struggling at this point, a restful smile beginning to tug at the corners of her mouth.
“Everything all right there, Ray?” Andreveos’ voice sounds from behind me again, never breaking that consistent calm. “How are you feeling?”
I blink – he noticed my lapse. At least he doesn’t seem angry at all? Maybe this is common for this kind of test? Or maybe he’s just not too fussed? “I’m fine, thanks…” I yawn, only half-faking it. “Sorry. Still fine. A little tired, I guess. Meant to sleep more before my first day, but nerves kept me up late.” That much is true. I hope that that really is all that was, just a little sleep deprivation.
When he speaks again, there’s a soothing, slightly apologetic tone in Andreveos’ voice – it’s comforting to hear. “Sorry to hear you didn’t sleep well. But you’re here now, and you’ve been doing very well so far. And besides, tests like these are a lot of waiting around for things to happen, so if you want to settle back in your chair and relax a little, you can. Get as cozy as you like. We have time.”
I nod gratefully, glancing back at him. “Thank you. I suppose a moment can’t -”
As I speak, I see Poupée twitch against her bonds again from the corner of my eye. “Oh! Did you see that? They haven’t moved that much for a while…” I scribble down the movement quickly and dutifully. At least it’s something new to write about, something to focus on.
“I saw it,” murmurs Andreveos, glancing upwards for a third time. “Wisdom, increase nebuliser chamber pressure by 10%.” The command was followed immediately by the quiet hiss becoming a little louder, sounding now more like TV static than anything else. I had lost track of the sound, allowing it to fade into the background, only now realising it had been hissing all along. Still, it was only loud enough to be audible for a few seconds before the doctor spoke again. “Still with us, Poupée? Interesting to see you’re still trying to move. Are you sure that’s what you want? Surely you’re still feeling very woozy – after all, you were quite deeply asleep a few minutes ago. But if you want the energy to escape, you’re going to need to breathe deep, right? Get all of that air into your lungs to feel your muscles… tensing? Is that what you’re feeling? Are you sure?”
Poupée’s eyelids begin to droop, now half-closed, looking down at the floor, not quite having the strength to maintain her eyeline. “D-deep… breaths… yeah… would be nice…” Her murmurs are soft and sweet, as if she’s half-asleep, barely paying attention to what she’s saying. She takes another slow, deep inhale, and her eyes drift yet further shut, barely more than slits now as her shoulders and arms slacken fully against the comfortable padding of the chair. “I… c-can… escape… I think… I… I can… I…” Her words are coming in fits and bursts, barely able to form a coherent sentence at this point, taking all of her effort just to make herself heard. It’s… a weird thing to watch, somebody falling into trance. It looks… comfortable, in a way, seeing each of her muscles relax, one by one. It’s like she’s falling asleep, almost. There’s a peacefulness in her face. It’s… nice. I wonder how she’s feeling right now.
Although I can’t see his face, the wide grin spreading across Andreveos’ cheeks is all too audible. “Of course you can try to escape. I can see how hard you’re trying, how hard your lungs are working to supply more oxygen to your muscles. But it’s not working, is it? No matter how hard you try to move, your muscles just keep feeling more and more tired, don’t they? You must be tiring yourself out. Maybe it’s time to let yourself rest for a moment? Just let yourself breathe, allow yourself to relax. It’s okay.”
One final twitch from Poupée, a flick of her eyes towards Andreveos, and then she’s gone. She slumps in her bindings like a marionette with its strings cut – if she was not secured to the chair, she would have fallen to the floor. Her eyes have closed completely, a blank smile curving the corners of her mouth up. It looks… it looks…
Somewhere, in some primal part of my brain, an alarm bell pings. Maybe it’s the sight of her slumping in her chair from nothing more than a bit of gas and a few words, maybe it’s the bizarre white void I’m sitting in, maybe it’s the smirk I can hear in my superior’s voice. Something is wrong here. I know it. Careful not to let my anxiety show, I keep writing, making it look like I’m still observing Poupée’s movements, looking around the room as much as I can without giving myself away. The door I entered through seems to have vanished, but I think I can remember where it is. How many steps do I need to get there? Are there any other exits I can see? After a few moments of furiously scribbling, I stand up, turning to face Andreveos. “Doctor… a moment?”
Seeming entirely unfazed by my sudden movement, he leans back in his chair casually. Behind him, a green line passes across the screen, still following Poupée’s slowing heart rate. Left, to right, left to… right… I realise her heart is beating in sync with the timer, still ticking smoothly away beneath the scan of her brain, now looking much as it did when we first entered, mostly dark blue with a corona of green. “Yes, Ray?” I realise he’s speaking, looking at me with unabashedly. “You seem a little off-kilter. Are you sure you don’t want to sit down and rest? We can take our time.”
“I’m not tired,” I respond quickly, trying to wrench my focus back to the present. “I have…” I close my eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath to steady myself, before snapping my book shut and opening my eyes with a forced smile. “Questions. Do you have time for questions?”
Andreveos’ eyebrows raise ever so slightly in surprise, but he nods. “Of course we have time for questions. Just give me a moment…” He raises his head and voice to the ceiling once again, breaking eye contact momentarily. “Wisdom, let’s move onto phase 2 now, please.”
The distinctive, slightly robot-like voice once again responds: “Acknowledged. Commencing phase 2.” Suddenly, I feel a small… vibration from the inside of my mask. It’s not quite loud enough to really call it a sound, but I can definitely feel something popping or clicking inside it… once… twice. The sensation is so slight it’s almost imperceptible, but I immediately notice that my breaths are suddenly coming easier, as if the pair of filters are suddenly providing less resistance to the flow of air.
“Now then,” says Andreveos, returning his cool gaze to Ray’s and his tone to its previous smooth quality. “What did you want to ask me? Feel free to ask, I don’t bite.”
I realise now that time is of the essence – I need to get out of here before the hypnotic gas overwhelms me, but this could also be my only opportunity to get any answers about what just happened. Holding my breath, I flip open my notebook to a blank page, scribbling in a set of questions as quick as I can. As I write, I slowly edge towards the bit of white void where I think – where I hope – the exit is, hoping beyond hope that it’d materialise once I touched it. Once I’m done, I flip the notebook around to show Andreveos my questions:
Is Poupée a volunteer?
You never said that.
What did WE do to her?
What’s going to happen to me?
Taking another glance at my questions, I lock my blue eyes with his grey ones, cold anger beginning to replace my fear. “Another question,” I growl through gritted teeth, momentarily forgetting to hold my breath. “I nearly forgot to ask. Why did I trust you?”
As he reads my questions, Andreveos raises a jaunty eyebrow. Although I can’t see his lower face, I have no doubt there’s a cheerful smirk hidden behind that black mask. When he speaks, it’s with the same even, friendly tone he’s been using when he spoke to Poupée, seeming completely unfazed by my rising anger and fear. “Writing to spare breaths, hm? Interesting tactic. I’m afraid that won’t buy you much time, though; the gas is quite water-soluble, so it’ll drip down your throat in your saliva if you try to hold your breath. And when you clench your throat like that… mmm, that’s quite a bit of saliva you’re making. But please, if you think it’ll work, please, be my guest. Go ahead and try to resist.”
Suddenly, he cocks his head to the side, a slight frown coming to his brows. The upper part of his mask shifts; he seems to be sniffing at something. “Hmmm… interesting. I suppose when the aerial concentration is this high, it still has a bit of a scent. Smells… kind of sweet, I suppose.” Although his tone had become quizzical, he never breaks his intense stare, locked with my hardening gaze. From this distance, the lines of ciliary muscle in his green irises were clearly visi- hang on. I was sure they were grey a moment ago, not green. A trick of the light, maybe? No, wait, hang on, they’re definitely grey again. Are they… changing? “Can you smell that? If you take a sharp whiff, you ought to be able to get a good smell of it.”
I scoff – does he honestly think I’m that stupid? “Can we trade? You answer a question, I take one of those… nice deep breaths,” I reply scornfully, almost spitting out the last three words. It takes me a moment to realise that I’ve spoken out loud again, breathing the saturated air. I hastily snap my mouth shut, but I’m relieved to find that I’m still feeling… normal? I think? I must not have gotten much. At least, I hope I didn’t.
Andreveos shrugs gently, seeming quite unconcerned at my rude tone. His calm seems unassailable, acting as though he has perfect control of the situation. “Sure, if you like. Now, let’s see, is Poupée a volunteer? She’s more than a volunteer, she’s a guest at this facility, she signed on for the occasional test as and when needed. If she didn’t read the fine print on the terms of her stay, well, you can hardly fault us for that, can you?” He scratches his temple in mock pensivity, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a smile. “As I recall, didn’t you sign a similar contract when you applied to work with us? Ah, and that reminds me… you have an end of the bargain to hold up, don’t you?” A wheedling note comes into his voice, gently encouraging me. “Come on, now, you should know better than anyone how this works, you just watched it happen to Poupée. One deep breath can hardly hurt, right? Then you can hold your breath again. You can try to resist, I know you can.”
I inwardly curse myself for the stupid deal I proposed – seriously? One breath for each question? I’m not a big person, each breath is definitely going to count for quite a bit. Still, if it means I get more information… I can handle four breaths. I take my first, nice and deep to make sure the doctor is satisfied. In… and out, holding my breath again. I’m pleased to find that I still feel mostly fine – the influx of oxygen is a relief to my taxed lungs. I shift a little closer towards where I think the door is – woah. I feel myself swaying a little, the step seeming to take a second or two longer than it should. I can do this… right? “Go on,” I mutter, again forgetting that I should be holding my breath. “Next question.”
Andreveos nods genially, but he still never breaks eye contact. The sight of his eyeballs seemingly staying still while his head moves is… disorienting, to say the least. And it definitely did nothing to clear up what colour his eyes are supposed to be. Green? Grey? Wait… are they blue? It’s… it’s not… clear, exactly. Every slight movement he makes seems to cause the colour to shift. “Very kind of you. That wasn’t so bad, was it? I’d say it’s as easy as breathing, but, well… it is, isn’t it? Now, let’s see… what did we do to her? I told you, we’re developing a hypnotic agent which I designed to be easily aerosolised, and we needed a human test subject. I never lied to you. Why would I ever lie to such a fine, competent employee? I just… never quite explained the finer details of the test. Now, my employee, I believe it’s time for you to breathe deeply again…”
I can’t help but look at those… those eyes. Are they changing? Is my brain playing tricks on me? No. No. Need to stay focused. I’ve got more questions. I breathe in, feeling the faintest hit of something sweet catching at the back of my throat, and… and…
At some point, I become aware that I’m beginning to slump against… a wall, it feels like. I force myself to tear my eyes away from those… his eyes, trying to reorient myself. It looks like I’m leaning on nothing, an invisible barrier in this infinite space. How… how is that possible? The room can’t be that big, I know I’m still indoors, but… how? Where am I? I try to figure out the space around me, but I can’t catch sight of any distinguishing features, corners, edges, furniture, just… him. I tear my eyes away again, trying to put a coherent sentence together. It takes far longer than it should. “Disorienting,” I hear myself say, shocked at how much I’ve begun to slur. “I thought so, didn’t I?”
I feel myself beginning to slip down the wall, but before I can get very far, a familiar, soft pressure begins supporting the backs of my thighs. It takes a moment to realise there’s a chair being nestled underneath me, the same chair I’d sat in a few moments… Moments? Minutes? I suddenly realise I have no idea how long it’s been since I entered the room. I can’t see the clock or the timer any more, but I can still hear that tick… tick… ticking. I’m being guided into that comfortable seat by… Andreveos? But… he was just sitting across from me, how could… how could he have moved to my side that quickly? I can feel his warm hand on my shoulder, gently pulling me back, allowing me to sink into the chair. There’s… a tightness in my chest… I’m… holding my breath? I… why am I doing that again?
“Yes, I know. It’s all so much to keep up with, isn’t it? Knowing something’s off, but not quite knowing what it is? It’s okay, you don’t have to worry about it. Just focus on me, okay? You can let your brain take a load off if you focus on just one thing. There we are. Thaaaaaat’s it. You’ve been doing wonderfully, I hope you know that. Now, one last question. What am I going to do to you? Well, I hope to do the same as any other employee of mine: to help you relax. To help you feel good. To help take your cares away and make sure you don’t have to worry about anything anymore. You’ve done so well, and you deserve a reward, don’t you? And you know exactly how to get that reward. It’s as easy as breathing in…”
I… I obey, opening my lungs and filling them with that sweet air. I feel… I feel… a sort of numbness, starting in my chest and spreading outward, spilling down my torso, filling my arms, creeping up my neck. I vaguely feel my notebook tumbling from my hands. It sounds like it lands a million miles away. I don’t… care, really. It feels nice to just… breathe. I can’t remember why I was holding my breath. It feels so much better to allow myself to sink into the chair, breathing, slowly, in, out, in, out. But… wait, there was… there was more. I struggle to move my head, eyes searching, scanning through an infinite white void. I barely even remember what – or, no, who I’m looking for. I feel the world spinning around me… no, the chair under me is moving. Turning. The movement overpowers what little control I have over my neck muscles, causing my head to begin to loll, until it’s… caught. I can feel someone’s hand against my face, gently, carefully, guiding me back to rest against the chair. Another hand, another warm pressure on my shoulders, allowing me to droop back into the plush cushions. It’s a… comfortable seat, so… nice… to melt into, in the warmth of his touch…
“Of course, how could I forget? Thank you for reminding me. But before I answer, I’d like to tell you how grateful I am for your help. This may be your first day, but you’ve proven yourself wonderfully. Very, very well done.”
I can feel the corners of my mouth beginning to creep up, a heady warmth rising to my cheeks as I hear the praise. Suddenly, through half-closed eyes, I see what I’ve been looking for, that familiar, focused gaze filling my vision. Green… grey… blue… definitely changing, pulsing, ring after ring after ring… that’s… I know that’s impossible, and yet… and… yet… green… grey… blue… I… I don’t… I can’t th… think, I just… I…
“You should trust me because I would never, ever, do anything to harm you, or anyone else. I only want what’s best for you. All I want is to make sure your time here is as comfortable… as relaxing… as pleasant as I can make it. And you know it’s true. I’ve never harmed you. I’ve never lied to you. All I’ve done is conducted your orientation, and, may I say, you passed with flying colours. All that’s left to do now is…”
A pressure, a single point of warm, comfortable pressure, directly against the middle of my forehead.