“Alright, now focus. Home in on the sound of my voice. Remove distractions, and let everything else fall away.” As always, the tone was soft, level…practiced. The proctor wanted to keep him calm, passive. He didn’t have much choice, and so he complied, closing his eyes and taking a deep, quaking breath. He hated this part.
In a windowless room he sat in silence, the only sound and light coming from a buzzing neon bulb above. In its narrow column of light, dust floated in the stale air, mingling with the smoke wafting from the proctor’s cigarette. He hated those cigarettes. He hoped that one day they would be the death of him: that they would kill the proctor, and he might be left in peace. They weren’t working fast enough, so here he sat, skin broken by goosebumps from nerves and the cold, protected by nothing more than thin, white pajamas. The white collared shirt and loose pants made him feel like a criminal, the cheap canvas shoes made him feel like they wanted to keep track of him, as the rubber always squealed on the impeccable tiled floors.
Now, here they were, as they were every day. Early in the morning, the door would open. Guards would storm in; big, burly men in crisp uniforms, with mirrored sunglasses hiding their beady little eyes. He didn’t know that their eyes were beady, but it helped him to think that way. With blank expressions they’d draw tasers on him, their yellow and black-striped muzzles hiding wires that would hurt him if he misbehaved. Once, long ago, they’d bark orders at him.
“On your knees!”
“Face the south wall!”
“Knees apart, in the yellow box!”
“Hands on your head! Slowly!”
Now they seldom bothered. It had been years. He had no idea how many years, but years surely, and by now he knew the drill. He would comply. They would tase him otherwise. He would always comply.
They’d pat him down, roughly, then they’d drag him off down the hall, the soles of his cheap shoes squealing helplessly against the tile. He usually struggled, lightly. They seemed on edge when he didn’t struggle, so he would put on a half-hearted show, lest they be rougher than usual. The walk was never the same…they never took the same path, and over the years he could swear they’d never taken him to the same room twice. No doubt they were doing so intentionally, to confuse him, keep him from forming a mental map of the place. Invariably they’d toss him callously into a small room, with a single light, a single table, two chairs and an ashtray. There, in one seat, would be the proctor.
He was an older man…balding, salt-and-pepper hair, his beard thick but well-trimmed. He wore thick rimmed glasses over eyes that flitted between half-lidded disinterest and stern concentration. He always wore a three-piece suit, always a dark red tie, always there was a cigarette pinched between his fingers or pressed between his chapped lips.
“Good morning,” he’d say, his words bereft of sentiment. “Now, let us begin.”
He’d sit silently, trying not to squirm as the proctor affixed the collar to his neck. He’d try not to tear up, knowing what was to come. He’d clench his fists to steady himself, close his eyes as he felt the leads slipped onto his fingers, one by one until each was tipped with a metal cup. The leads on his fingers fed to some manner of sophisticated lie-detector. He didn’t know the details, only that it always worked. The collar was for…something different. That was why he never lied.
“OK,” the Proctor would begin, sounding almost disinterested as he sat back, flipping a tape deck to record as he took another drag from his Marlboro. “This is a cognitive study. You will be asked a series of questions. Please answer them to the best of your knowledge or ability. Your answers will be recorded, and your vitals monitored. Answer all questions honestly and the test will go quickly. All intentionally false answers, or any other direct disobedience will be punished by a corrective shock, as per the conditions of this study. I must now demonstrate the corrective shock. Are you ready?”
He used to nod his head, nervously. Now, he didn’t bother. Contrary to the proctor’s words, his consent was not required. Instead, he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. The proctor flipped a switch, and in an instant his world exploded. His temples would throb as every muscle seized at once, tensed until they hurt. Eyes clenched shut against the pain, he’d ride it out, an eternity of anguish, and in an instant it was over. His muscles would release, tears wetting his cheeks, gasping for air as he fought to regain his dignity.
“Further shocks will be administered only for corrective purposes,” the proctor would continue, casually, his hand beside the switch as he drummed his fingers, each tap ringing hollow on the aluminum table.
First, he would establish a baseline. There would be simple questions. What was his age, his hair color? The proctor always avoided personal questions: his birthday, his hometown, his name…anything that could be used to determine who he was. No doubt it was intentional…to keep anyone who might acquire his tapes from learning about their subjects. Perhaps this meant these tests were unsanctioned…even illegal…not that it would help him. Here, he had no name. No identity other than “the subject”, as though he were a lab rat, squeaking around corners in a maze, hoping for a wedge of emmentaler. In some ways, he envied lab animals: at least the rat in the maze had no recollection of freedom, or even a concept of what it meant to be free. One cannot miss that which one has never known.
Over the course of their sessions, the proctor would move on to trivial questions: geography, history, politics, mathematics. Sometimes he couldn’t remember the answer, sometimes he got it wrong. There were never shocks. If he answered truthfully, he wasn’t punished; the proctor was many terrible things, but at least he was a man of his word. And for his part, as “subject” he complied. He always told the truth. If he didn’t, the machine would know, and he would be punished. In the beginning, he had resisted. He would demand to be released, protest that he had rights. When that didn’t work, for a few months he’d been belligerent, spitting in the proctor’s face, fighting the guards. Shock after shock had failed to stifle his defiance…for a time. Then they’d put him in the fridge.
He didn’t know what they had called the tiny room, but that was what he had called it. It was barely as large as a closet. It was freezing and dark. They would throw him in there for a few hours whenever he grew unmanageable. After a few days, they simply left him there. For an eternity he had shivered, his eyes straining to make out the corners of his featureless cell. Initially he’d sat silently, refusing to give them the satisfaction of hearing him plead. Then at last he’d taken to pleading. Then came anger; for nearly an entire day he’d pounded on the heavy door until his hands bled, bellowing insults and roaring indignantly as though a trapped animal. After a few days more, time began to lose meaning as he began to lose hope. He clawed desperately at the door, weakening from cold and hunger. He sobbed, begging for release, and after another agonizing eternity in the dark he’d begun to apologize, begging for a second chance, assuring them he’d comply. A short time later, they let him go, ushering him roughly back to his room.
There, he was at last what they had wanted. He became their compliant lab rat, the one who jumped on command and followed the maze. He’d become a drone, a slave, but he had a warm bed, and he ate. If he could not live, at least he would survive, in hopes that he might live again.
Eventually, the sessions would progress to more…unusual questions. The proctor would begin asking him personal questions about others…usually they were men, their names Russian or sometimes Chinese. He would ask invasive questions…about their daily routines, what they were wearing…about their wives, their children…their mistresses. At this point, he would switch the tapes, and everything would change. This was the part he dreaded. The proctor would put out his cigarette. He would lean in close. Every wrong answer elicited a shock, followed by the proctor’s insistence that he “focus”. No matter how hard he focused, more often than not he couldn’t muster an answer. He’d guess, hope for a shot in the dark to ring true. He’d plead with the proctor to stop. He never did, and the next several hours would be a blur of shouting and pain.
When at last he could take no more, it would be over. He’d be left shaking, sitting slumped in his chair, all but drooling, barely able to hold a thought as his head swam through the ache of tensed muscles. The proctor would sit back, shaking his head. “I think we’re done for today,” he’d say, and as he lit a fresh cigarette the guards would come to collect him. They’d pry his clenched hands from the armrests, lift him up, and drag him back to his room, rubber squeaking on tiles as his shoes dragged limp across the floor.
At last they would heave him into his room as though a sack of grain. The door would buzz locked behind them, and for a time he’d stay curled on the floor, whimpering. He’d close his eyes tight, struggle to imagine a better time, a time without white clothes and cheap shoes, without pain and cigarette smoke. He’d send himself back to that distant happiness, as tears fell and wetted the tile. Every day, the images of that vanishing past grew fainter. Faces blurred, moments faded, scenes became jumbled, details foggy. Little by little he lost himself, as his former life became the dream, and his current nightmare his only true reality.
In the evening they would feed him. Styrofoam trays, paper plates, sandwiches and sliced apples, paper cups filled with milk. Nothing caffeinated, nothing carbonated, nothing that ever required cutting. No utensils, no heavy materials…no flavor, no joy. An hour to eat and they’d come in and snatch it away, whether or not he was finished. Then they’d dim the lights, and in the cold and silence he’d retire to his bed, sometimes to rest, more often to weep and dream.
It was always late at night when it happened. It didn’t happen every night, but more often than he wanted. He’d wake up suddenly. The lights would flickering, or flashing. The room would shake…sometimes a little, sometimes almost imperceptibly. Other times the room would shake so violently as to suggest an earthquake. The rumbling would be deafening, the lights almost seeming to strobe in time with his pulse, his thoughts. He’d jump down, roll beneath his bed, cover his head…hope it would end soon. It was never the same. Some nights it would only last a minute or two. Sometimes it seemed to go on for hours. Other nights it simply didn’t happen.
He didn’t know why they did it. What did they expect to gain? He’d heard of psychological warfare, but there was something odd about the episodes, as he’d taken to calling them. Something just felt…wrong. How did they do it? The lights would be easy enough, perhaps, but the shaking…was the room on rollers? Was all of this hooked up to some manner of hydraulics? Why would they do this? It seemed to have nothing to do with the testing during the day. The proctor never said a word about it. Following suit, he never mentioned anything to the proctor, either. If the proctor didn’t know about it, telling him might only make things worse. If he did…well…he wasn’t about to give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing his fear. He suffered in silence. It was something he’d gotten better at over the years, a skill he still honed each day.
This was his life now. How long had it been? Three years? Five? Ten? A hundred? It was difficult to say. He was kept unaware of the outside world. No phones, no televisions…not even a clock. Not so much as a calendar to cross off the days. He never saw the outside world. There were no windows, no doors, not even perceptible sound from beyond the sterile white walls and gleaming tiled floors. Those walls and floors had become his world. The silence, the anxiety, the bland meals, the monochrome madness of it all had replaced everything he had known before. Early on he’d tried to figure out what they wanted from him, what they were trying to do. Were they trying to break his will? To brainwash him? Was he supposed to be some sort of spy? A sleeper agent? Did they want him to spy on the Russians? He had asked questions and been punished. Over time, he stopped asking questions, partly because he was punished for asking, but mostly because the answers no longer seemed to matter.
Days bled together as time lost all meaning, yet this day would be different. Today, he would ask the proctor about the shaking…
“Hmm…” the proctor responded. As usual, he hardly seemed fazed…nothing appeared to get to him, save wrong answers in testing. Yet he seemed to press his lips a bit harder into his cigarette. Something was wrong…he was hiding something. Years of observing the proctor had at least accounted for something: he’d learned how to read this almost unreadable man. He was cool, composed, largely unexpressive…almost maddeningly level. Yet he had his tics, his tells…subtle habits that most wouldn’t notice, unless they’d spent as much time across a table from him as he had. This was one of them.
“And you say this happens every night?” the proctor inquired, appearing to feign casual interest.
“No, not every night.”
The proctor asked further questions. Duration, severity of the shaking…at first they seemed to be fairly routine; the sort of questions one might ask if such a thing were reported. Yet soon the proctor could no longer hide his concern…or was it enthusiasm? The questions turned from routine to bizarre. Around what time each night did the shaking happen, if he had to estimate? What did he eat before the last episode? What about the one before that? Had he been dreaming before the latest episode? What had he been dreaming about? What had he been thinking the last time his room shook?
As question followed question, it became clear that the proctor had at least some idea of what was happening to him. There was something…expected…about it, at least for the proctor. He didn’t seem to be responsible for it, yet clearly this news came as no surprise. Who was behind the episodes? Could someone else truly be doing this without the proctor’s knowledge or consent? The thoughts gnawed at him long after the day’s testing, until the guards arrived unannounced, and for the first time in years his routine changed…
They arrived just after he’d finished his evening meal. When first the door opened, he’d expected a blue-clad orderly to come through, ready to take his tray as always. Instead, two guards rushed into the room. Shocked, he’d scrambled to kneel in the yellow box, as he always did, yet this time that wasn’t enough. This time was different. They didn’t draw their tasers, didn’t bark orders. Instead, they rushed in, grabbing each of his arms, forcing him to his knees as a third guard entered, approaching slowly. His expression was hard, his fists clenched. Something was wrong. He grit his teeth, preparing himself.
He was savagely beaten. They never told him why it was happening. Never asked any questions. Never spoke a word. Just blow after blow, landing hard, splitting his lip, until at last he nearly lost consciousness. Then, and only then, did they relent. The third guard glared down at him, rubbing his bloodied knuckles as the others released him to fall to the floor. He collapsed in a heap, bruised and bleeding, choking back sobs. He barely heard the door closing. The next day, the guards returned, and it happened again.
For days the beatings continued. Soon he stopped seeing the proctor. They didn’t test him, didn’t ask him questions. Once a day he’d be brutalized, then left alone. The shaking and flickering at night continued, and indeed it got worse. Now he would hear plaster cracking, watch sparks shower from the lights. He wanted so badly for it to stop. For the first time in years, he actually began looking for ways to end it all…to stop the pain for good. Of course his efforts were for naught, as they had always been; they never gave him utensils, or glass plates, or metal trays, or indeed provided him with anything he might use to harm himself. His white prison could hardly have been safer had they covered every surface with foam rubber.
Night after night they would storm in, hold him to his knees and pummel him, until he could take no more. One night, finally, he fought back. He struggled, shouted at them, and as he did the shaking began. The walls shook, buckled and cracked…the lights flickered, then pulsed and exploded, spraying glass and sparks. Though the guards holding him wavered, the one hitting him continued, unfazed. He stared up at the brute, glaring, defiant, awaiting the next punch…the punch that never came. His expression shifted from defiance to shock as the guard’s bloodied fist hovered, mid-thrust, as though waiting for a flinch. The guard, too, stared in disbelief. Only then did he understand what was happening; the shaking, the lights…it had never been the proctor, or anyone else. It was him. All along he’d known something strange was happening to him, yet he’d felt powerless for years though he’d held all the power. Now, knowing it was there, he harnessed it. In his mind, he could hear the proctor’s voice. Focus.
The slightest stray thought sent the guard reeling. Lifted from the floor, he flailed helplessly as his body was hurled into the far wall, crushing the plaster. Released, he fell from the fresh indentation and crumpled to the ground, dead. The other two guards drew their tasers. A brief glance to each of them, and their tasers were torn from their hands, dashed against opposite walls. A blink, and their necks were snapped. Both were dead before they hit the floor.
His eyes narrowed, pulled into a scowl hardened by years of torture and indignity. Rising slowly, wiping the blood from his nose and mouth, he breathed heavily, seething with rage. They…the ones who’d done this to him, whoever they were…had taken so much. They had lied to him, tormented him. They’d broken his will, stolen years of his life. They’d degraded him, eroded his identity until he had, for a time, felt less than human. As the days bled together he’d abandoned all hope, accepting the role of a specimen, a laboratory animal. Now, all of that was over. Now, they would pay.
Unrestrained, his mind tore the door of his room from its hinges, flinging it carelessly into the hallway, where it bounced and clattered across the walls and tiled floor, showering the hallway with plaster and porcelain tile. The lights continued flashing, now frantically, wildly, in time with his pulse. He walked slowly, with purpose, hands clenched in vengeful anger. Alarms rang out through the hallways, echoing endlessly through the labyrinth. In moments two guards clambered around the corner ahead of him. In place of tasers they carried revolvers, and drew them quickly. They weren’t fast enough: both were dead before they could squeeze the trigger, heads twisted, necks snapped.
He turned the corner, walking with purpose, gaze forward, sharp as steel. The time for restraint had passed, and he lashed out with his mind. Arms stiff at his side, his unseen hands loosed their rage, tearing at the stark white plaster, ripping up the impeccable tile and grinding it to dust. Through the dust of destruction he kept his eyes fixed on his goal. His mind had expanded, and now he found himself viewing the complex from every angle. Mysteries were no more; he saw all. His prison was a labyrinth of corridors, endless rooms, yet he homed in on one in particular. It was an office on the far side…off on the far end, near the elevator, surely positioned with a mind to easy escape. There he was…sitting in his chair, calm despite the blaring alarms and shaking walls, the flickering lights. Beard full but trimmed, suit neatly pressed, cigarette pressed firmly between his lips.
With the barest of effort, his unseen hands wrenched the door from its hinges. A gesture of his hand and it flew down the hallway to the left, bouncing off the walls, showering the floor with splinters, flipping through the air as though weightless. Turning his head slowly, he expected the proctor to be hiding behind his desk, or recoiling in fear, or perhaps even armed. Instead, he leaned back against his desk, arms and legs crossed, staring at him with that same, maddening expression he always wore…halfway between calm and disinterest.
“Took you long enough,” was all he said.
He was shocked. For a moment he merely gaped at the proctor, confused.
“What?” the proctor began, almost mockingly, “did you think I’d be surprised? I mean hell, you’ve been here, what…three, four years? It was bound to happen sooner or later.”
“What was bound to happen?” he asked quietly, taking a step into the room.
“This,” the proctor replied, gesturing toward the empty door jamb, where his door once stood before crossing his arms again. “You figuring out that it was you doing the shaking, not me.”
“You…you knew about this?” he stammered.
The proctor scoffed, almost laughed before replying. “Of course I knew about this! Why the hell do you think we brought you here? For our health? For yours?”
“You…you did this to me!”
“Me?” the procter replied, sounding almost taken aback as he gestured toward his chest. “No, no…you. Well, your genetics, anyway.”
“Wha-…what are you talking about?”
The proctor sighed heavily, adjusting himself before continuing. “One…in, what, maybe five…even ten million people in the world have…potential. The potential to expand their mind, to stretch past what is physically possible.”
“…and I’m one of those people?” he inquired, curiosity overcoming rage as he took a few careful steps toward the proctor.
The proctor nodded. “First one we’ve found.”
His head was spinning. None of this made any sense. If he’d had these abilities from the start, why would the do all of this? The tests, the torture, the beatings…he looked back over everything he’d done in the brief minutes since his discovery…the damage, the death…wouldn’t it be an incredible risk to do as they did? Not knowing what else to do, he posed this question to the proctor.
The older man scoffed in response. “Why didn’t you do anything sooner?”
“Well, I didn’t know I could…”
“Of course you didn’t,” the proctor replied, calmly. “You see, these…abilities…of yours, they’re innate, but only manifest themselves through extreme psychological duress.”
He gaped at the proctor, horrified. “So…the testing…the confinement…the torture…the beatings…all of it…”
The proctor merely nodded. “Mmm-hmm.”
“So you knew…when I told you about the shaking…you knew-”
“That it was you?” the proctor finished for him. “Yeah…yeah I knew it was you. That wasn’t important, though. What mattered was that you knew it was you,” he finished, gesturing toward him.
He shook his head, dazed from the flurry of revelations. “So…” he began, haltingly, “so…what happens now?”
“Now?” the proctor inquired, leaning forward. “Well, what happens now depends on you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, this can go one of two ways. You can stop here, cooperate, and nothing bad happens. We can help you.”
“And if I don’t stop?” he shot back, coldly.
“Well, then by all means, take your chances,” the proctor replied, flatly. “Go ahead. Kill me, and anyone else you find down here. Try getting out of here. You do know we’re underground, right? Try making it out there on your own, without any help. If you think you can, sure, go ahead.”
Angry, unwilling to relinquish his new power, he held out his hand, arm outstretched. “I could do it…”
“I know you could,” the proctor nodded, unafraid. Was he unafraid? He seemed so nonchalant, so confident. Surely there was some sort of failsafe in place. Surely he wouldn’t be so brash, so arrogant, if he were truly defenseless. “But then you’re on your own. No one to help you. Do you really think it would be easy? Hell, you just found out that you could do this today. In, what, under ten minutes, you destroyed half this installation, killed how many men? And you think you can make it on your own out there?”
“What…what other choice do I have?” he demanded, hand yet raised, threatening.
“Stay…” the proctor replied. “Stay, let me help you…and then, help us.”
At this, he raised an eyebrow. “…help you?”
At this the proctor chuckled. “What, did you think this is just our thing? What, we just go around helping rare people with powerful telekinetic abilities and precognition out of the goodness of our heart? Look around, asshole!” He gestured widely for effect as he raised his voice. “Do you think all of this was cheap? Well it wasn’t. No, this isn’t some charity. It’s an investment, and once we’ve done our part, we expect a healthy return.”
“So…” he began, slowly, “how would this work?”
“Well, we keep you here for a while. Better food, better room…and I’ll put away the shock collar for good.”
“Really?” he asked, skeptical.
“Scout’s honor,” the proctor replied, drawing an “X” over his heart for effect. “So you stick around until we figure out how to keep your talents under wraps…or how to focus them when needed.”
“And then, you walk.”
“…just like that?” he was incredulous.
“Yeah,” the proctor replied. “Just like that. Until we need you.”
“What do you mean? What, you want me to be some kind of spy?”
At this the proctor laughed derisively. “A spy? Oh, grow up! Spies require years of training, not to mention a natural talent for subtlety and tact, and we both know that would be a waste of time here. No, we don’t want you to be a spy. We want you to be a weapon.”
“What?” he demanded, shocked and afraid. “No! No, I can’t! I-”
“You what?” the proctor roared, suddenly angry, uncrossing his arms and stalking toward him. “You can’t kill? Huh…tell that to the guards you mowed through to get here. That didn’t seem to bother you too much.”
“No! That was different!”
“Why?” the proctor shot back. “Because they hurt you?”
He opened his mouth to respond, yet no words emerged. There was nothing he could say. The proctor had snatched the words from his mouth before he could utter them. Satisfied, the proctor cracked a cruel grin and nodded.
“Yeah, I thought as much. So, why not do it again?”
“Listen…” the proctor began, “if I have learned anything in fifty-six years on this planet, it’s that we humans are about the most despicable things in the world. We suck. There are only two kinds of people in this world: people who get hurt, and the ones who do the hurting. And the only way you start being one of those two is when you stop being the other. You’ve been hurt a lot these past few years, haven’t you?”
He nodded, though he hardly felt that question deserved a response.
“And did you like that? Huh? Do you wanna get hurt again?”
Of course he shook his head.
“Yeah? Then it’s time to stop letting yourself get hurt, and start doing the hurting.” The proctor stepped closer, and thrust out his hand. “It’s time to start over. Hi. Doctor Lyle Braun.”
“…Paul Draughn…” Paul responded, slowly, shocking himself by taking the proctor’s hand in a firm shake.
“We’re gonna do big things together, Paul,” the proctor replied with a sincere smile. Releasing his hand, he breezed past him, heading into the compound. “You did a number on this place, Paul. Good thing for you we’re insured, and we’ve got a lot invested in you. But-”
“Hey, Doc…” Paul interrupted him.
“Yeah, Pau-” the proctor was stopped mid-sentence as he turned, feeling his tie tighten around his neck as though a noose. Paul’s gaze was fixed on his, his mind pulling that horrible tie nice and taught before he uttered his final word to his captor. He’d thought it over for so long. He’d chosen well.
“Focus,” he hissed, and with that he twisted the proctor’s head sharply, three hundred and sixty degrees, splintering his neck. He was dead before he hit the ground, his shock frozen permanently on his face.
Before the proctor’s corpse had even cooled, the final living inhabitant of his complex walked free. The suit had been a good fit, though he’d left the tie behind. Now, with death and destruction behind him, he set out to make a new life for himself. He could never return to what he had known…there would be too many questions, too many cameras and prying sets of eyes. He would change his hair, his name…everything. Somehow, some way, he would find a way to live with this new reality that had been forced upon him. It wouldn’t be easy, but at least now he had the power to do whatever was necessary to protect himself.
The proctor had been a monster, but he had taught Paul one valuable lesson: there are those who are hurt, and those who do the hurting. In that, at least, the proctor had been right, and Paul would never allow anyone to hurt him again.