Some things don't die easily, and Mark Dalton was desperately hoping he was one of those things. He was frozen for a moment as instincts battled in his mind. Fight or flight? His back was to a wall, but he had no weapons, either…
No time to think! The shadow in front of him was swiftly taking on shape again, a horrifying, gruesome form that sent a chill racing down his spine. The nightmarish figure leered down at him, reaching out with twisted hands. Mark tried to pull himself together, but he was badly shaken. He had been fighting this monster for hours it seemed. He could not touch it—it passed like smoke through his fingers—but it could touch him, its claws solidifying as they grabbed him and tried to drag him away again and again. Where to? Mark didn't know. Didn't care. He just wanted it over.
"Get the hell away from me!" he shouted, diving under the monster's outstretched arms. As he sprinted away, Mark berated himself. He thought he was going into the Coast Guard –going to rescue people—and he couldn't even save himself.
As he ran, the landscape shifted. Walls seemed to rise around him: a labyrinth. He felt cold air at the back of his neck; the monster was closing in!
It was hard to run through these winding corridors, and he slowed to an anxious jog. Mark reached another dead end. Leaning against the wall, he tried to catch his breath. There was no reason left to fight, a voice in his mind told him. Why bother? Why prolong the inevitable?
"Je me rend," he murmured surrender under his breath, knowing it would only be a moment before the monster found him again.
Suddenly, the world went black.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Mark slowly opened his eyes. He was lying on a hospital bed with machines chorusing their whirs and clicks around him. The monster was gone, so was the labyrinth. His lungs no longer hurt taking a deep breath. He tried to sit up, but was restrained.
Wires. Hundreds of wires were connected to his body. Panic seized Mark for a moment when he could not move and didn't know where he was. His mind felt lethargic and hazy. Fragmentary images of the monster floated in front of his mind's eye. He shuddered, closing his eyes against the awful memories.
"Mark?" a female's voice asked from somewhere behind him.
Twisting his head as far as the wires allowed, Mark tried to see the speaker. Her voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it.
Noticing his struggle, she stepped into his line of vision. Mark felt somehow relieved at the sight of the short, pretty blonde, but couldn't figure out why. Wake up, he urged his memory that was still lagging far behind the questions he wanted answered.
"Who are you? Where am I?" he mumbled. "Why can't I move?"
"Shh," she said. "It will come to you in a minute or so. Here, try to relax while I get you out of this machine…" Able hands began quickly undoing the wires, trying to be gentle.
This process felt familiar to Mark and he closed his eyes, waiting for it to be over. While she worked, the woman answered his first questions. "My name's Rebekah. You're in the Garmond Laboratory. It's the thirteenth day of testing. You signed up as a test subject for our study of the human mind, belief in light of nature versus nurture. You've done very well so far and only have one day left." She recited these facts as though reading a script.
Mark nodded. That sounded right.
"You can sit up now," Rebekah said, once all the wires were disconnected. "Can you remember yet, Mark?"
"You guys are paying me?" Mark asked, still fighting the fog around his mind.
The woman began checking his vitals. "Yes, ten thousand dollars."
"I remember," he said. He waited until she released his arm from the blood pressure band. "I'm not sick right? You're just experimenting on my mind?"
"Well, studying your mind yes," she agreed, emphasizing the difference. "They have brand new technology that allows sociologists and psychologists to examine how you respond to the simulated situations."
"Yeah," Mark agreed absently. "That's right."
"I'll take you to your room now," Rebekah said. "They're done with you for today." A trace of pity was audible in her otherwise professional tone, making Mark wonder if she was privy to the sequences that played out in his mind. He hoped she wasn't; he didn't want to share his failures.
He followed the nurse down a long white corridor to a small room. Inside were a cot, table, and chair. On the table was a black shoebox. Mark sat down on the cot, feeling suddenly exhausted.
"I'll bring you some dinner," Rebekah said, closing the door as she left.
Mark put his head in his hands. These tests left him shaken and confused. He had always trusted himself before; now he felt weak and powerless. Why had he signed up for this in the first place, he asked himself cynically. But he knew why.
Ten thousand dollars was a pretty good reason to do just about anything. Especially when he was unemployed, alone, and essentially unnecessary to the world. Yes, unnecessary.
Mark shook his head. In the past year, he had lost his father and his dream. Their dream, really. Mark was going to join the Coast Guard some day; he was going to save lives and make a difference in the world. But then Dad had gotten cancer and battling the disease had taken all the money saved for school. In the end, Mark hadn't been able to save the person who mattered most to him.
He shoved the bitter thoughts away with a snarl directed at no one in particular. What did it matter now? His life wasn't so bad. A small apartment just for him and the beta fish, Geoffrey. Any spare moment was spent in the Rocky Mountains, only 15 minutes away. Hiking and biking, but mostly swimming… He found it easy to lose himself in any adventure.
That was one of the reasons they'd let him take these tests anyway. He had a very… obsessive personality. Well, not quite. He was easily consumed in the moment—no reason to think about the past or the future. Mark grinned to himself and reached for the black box on the table: his personal effects. Pulling out his I-pod and a box of Altoids, he lost himself in the blaring Nickelback and the explosion of cinnamon burning his tongue. The terror of that day's testing began to fade away.
The next morning Rebekah explained how the last simulation would go as she prepared Mark in the lab.
"Today, they want you to try to remember what happened in other trials while you go through the new one."
Mark frowned. He could only recall bits and pieces of the earlier simulations, and most of those were humiliating and dark. "What do they want me to remember?" he asked uncertainly.
Rebekah handed him papers to look over while she busied herself with other things about the room. Talking while she worked, she explained the strange charts. "Well, sometimes you beat the situation, and sometimes it beats you, right?"
Mark thought about it and nodded in agreement.
"When you got the higher scores—when you did win—they had fed into your mind the belief that you had something worth fighting for. A loved one, a cause, a religion… whatever it was, when you believed in something bigger than yourself, you made it through safely. The other times, you were essentially fighting for your own preservation and, although you certainly tried hard, well, something was missing. You never made it out in those."
"What am I getting today?" Mark asked, hoping he could beat the system on his last day of testing. After a good night's sleep and half a box of Altoids, he was feeling much more optimistic.
"Today you have to create a purpose of your own to fight for. In the simulation, they want you to make up something to believe in. If you can do that, you'll be in control of whatever happens. If not… then your enemy is in control."
Mark was silent for a few minutes. He lay back on the bed as the nurse began attaching the wires to his arms and chest.
"Rebekah?" he asked finally. She paused in her work to look him in the eyes. "I'm not sure I have anything to believe in."
The woman shook her head: she could not help him. "Find something Mark, anything."
He took a deep breath as she inserted the IV into the back of his hand. "I can try."
A few minutes later, the anesthetic kicked in, and Mark's world faded to black.
When Mark came to in the virtual reality, his first, overwhelming feeling was that he was alone. He sat on the roof of a warehouse-like building, staring up at the vast night sky. The stars above shimmered in a sea of black, floating about like a million lighthouses. Leading the way to… what?Memories fed to him by the simulation said he had just escaped some sort of captivity. Abrasions on his wrists attested to just what sort of captivity it had been. He shivered in the cold night air, a foreboding chill crawling up his spine.
Memories of the laboratory and testing were quickly falling into the shadows of his mind. Foremost in his thoughts was the need to escape. Something told Mark that things would become very bad very fast if he didn't find a way to get far from this building and the people inside it.
"Something to believe in," he said aloud to himself, sending a questioning glance to the sky. Stars stared silently back, offering no help. His captors would find him missing soon enough, Mark realized; he didn't have long to think. There had to be something worth fighting for—something that made existence more than a struggle for self preservation. That's it! he thought to himself. It was worth surviving to find something worth living for. The epiphany gave him a momentary high of invincibility.
Was that enough, though? Doubt gripped his mind. At that moment he heard footsteps pounding up the escape stairs that led to the roof. It had to be enough, Mark decided. Now, it was time to run.
His fit body carried him quickly to the far edge of the roof, with his new, if shaky, confidence urging him on. The several story drop to the ground below, however, screamed a very convincing halt. Three men burst onto the roof, guns in hand.
Mark glanced back at them, adrenaline spiking his blood. Cold sweat prickled across his skin and he gasped at the impossibility of the situation. He spun towards the edge but jerked back when he realized just how far down the ground really was. Looking up to relieve his sudden vertigo, Mark wasted precious moments staring at the stars. He felt the seconds rush by with his pounding heartbeat, but the lighthouse-like stars had captured his attention. The sky was a sea… and he was a swimmer. Mark forgot all else and jumped into the black expanse.
He plummeted. It went quickly and the ground rose to meet his fall. Simulated pain exploded through his body. Mark lay, choking air back into his lungs as black and yellow exploded across his vision. So much for belief, he thought bitterly, the euphoric faith of moments earlier all but forgotten.
Mark tried to rise, but his disillusionment hurt as much as the rest of his body. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Was this it, then? A defeated sigh escaped him as he toyed with the idea of surrender. But…wait. One clear thought slammed through the muddled pessimism clouding his mind: he had escaped, hadn't he? He had taken the risk, thrown it all—quite literally—to the wind…and he had fallen. But he hadn't died. He was free.
Suddenly, Mark found his body didn't hurt quite so much as it had at first. The air didn't seem as thick and hard to breathe. He slowly opened his eyes, as if not trusting this shift in his situation. A smile twitched on his lips as he raised his head experimentally and found it painless. He pushed himself into a sitting position and the smile grew into a broad grin as he realized that he was bruised, but otherwise unharmed from the fall.
"Haha!" a reckless laugh broke from his lips as Mark sprang to his feet. He winced at the loud noise, remembering the men on the roof above. He pressed himself against the side of the building, hiding in the deeper shadows. He searched the darkness as his eyes adjusted and followed the dirt road that led away from the warehouse. Above the road were only the stars. Lighthouses, huh?
A harsh voice floated down from the roof, "Think he made it?"
"He'd have to be God to survive that jump," a sarcastic voice replied. "We'll get the body in the morning."
"Easiest hit of my life…" the third man agreed and their dark laughter faded as they walked back across the warehouse.
Mark shivered at the conversation. They hadn't heard him, then… Well, he decided. I'm not sticking around 'til morning…
He ran. Away from the warehouse and down the dirt road, Mark sprinted, his eyes on the stars. I believe, the conviction pounded with each footfall. Believe what? He wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. He was alive, and that was proof enough that something somewhere was worth believing in. Something was worth living for.
The road should have been a dead end. It led straight to a dilapidated dock sticking halfheartedly out of the water. Mark didn't break his stride as it came into view. He tore off his t-shirt and at the end of the dock he dove in, welcoming the sensory shock of icy water. He surfaced once and dove deeper into the darkness.
The blackness ended with an explosion of light. Mark blinked uncertainly and tensed. Where was he? Something blipped in the background. A woman walked past him. She stopped and turned, leaning over him.
"Mark?" she asked. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes…" He closed his eyes again and sighed. He was confused and lost, but it didn't seem to matter at the moment. "I believe," he murmured.
"I know," she said.
An hour later, Mark had been reacquainted with reality. He sat across from Rebekah in a small conference room, his shoebox of personal items in his lap.
"Are you absolutely sure you want to remember all this?" she asked.
"Yeah…" Mark answered slowly. "I think it's important."
"Okay," Rebekah nodded and wrote something on her evaluation sheet.
"Did it work?" Mark asked suddenly. At the woman's confused look he elaborated, "Did the tests prove anything?"
"Oh," she smiled. "They still have to analyze all the results, but it looks like belief is ingrained in human nature after all." She handed him a check and an appointment card. "Come back in a month so we can run some post-test evaluations. There shouldn't be any complications, but give us a call if anything changes."
Mark thanked her and walked out. He had a feeling a lot of things were going to change. Sitting the parking lot of the Garmond Laboratory, he contemplated the tests over a handful of Altoids. Somehow, that ten thousand dollar check in his pocket didn't feel quite so important anymore; not compared to the discovery of belief.