I trace ripples in the plaster with my pointer finger. The plaster has yellowed with age, but is not yet at a state of crumbly disrepair. I don't know how long the plaster has been here. I don't know how long anything has existed. Not even myself. I've been in this labyrinth of cells and hallways and laboratories as long as I can remember. I assume that I once lived somewhere else, somewhere where I learned how to talk and think and walk. Somewhere besides this endless tangle of plaster worming its way into the Earth.
I have a vague concept of a place outside the labs. Somewhere with a soft floor and lots of noise and a bright openness above my head. I assume that there are other people outside this place, people besides the scientists that visit me. People different from the scientists. People who dress in colors besides white.
I know that there are other colors. There's a gaunt tinge to the plaster of the walls called yellow. Sometimes I see colors in the labs – green or blue. There are tints in the nutrient juice I am fed. Nutrient juice comes in two colors – orange and pink. My hair is somewhere between orange and pink, but much darker than the translucent nutrient juice. It's called brown. I don't know what color my eyes are, but I like to imagine that they are pink.
Once I tried to paint my suit with nutrient juice. The watery colors slid and blended on the shiny white material, feeling cool beneath my fingers. The scientists weren't happy. They yelled at me and gave me a new suit. Nutrient juice is for drinking, not painting.
I've never eaten anything but nutrient juice. Once a day, a plastic tray slips through a slot in the heavy door. On the tray rests a cup of water and a cup of pink or orange liquid. They tell me that the liquid has all the proteins and vitamins and energy I need in a day. I don't know why it comes in different colors. Perhaps it depends on what they expect me to do on a certain day.
The air in my room glides on my skin and I shiver. I suppose the room would be considered cold, but I can't know for sure. It's the same temperature as everywhere else that I've been, so I haven't been able to compare it.
I've been out of the room lots of time, but never alone. I don't know my way around or anything. Everywhere in the lab looks the same. Long tile hallways with green stripes on the wall, illuminated by blaring ghostly ceiling lights. Small, polished laboratories with bright lights and dark counters. The labs all look the same, but I know I've been to different ones because they have different equipment in them.
I've seen lots of equipment. Sharp pointy sticks with glass bulbs and metal fastenings, heavy canisters with knobs and buttons, long plastic tubes that disappear into humming boxes, and all sorts of scientific monstrosities. I know what these tools do, because they are often used on me. Most of the time, the scientists just want to collect samples. They take layers of my skin or strands of my hair, but most often they collect my blood.
Sometimes I'm surprised that I haven't run out of blood by now. Where does blood come from? They never told me. I suppose that my body just keeps making more. The scientists don't tell me what they do with my blood. They don't tell me much at all about what they do. When they talk, it's all about me.
The scientists have lots to say about me. They tell me that I'm special. That I could do anything I wanted, if I tried. They tell me that I shouldn't be afraid to test my limits.
They say I have a power. A magical power that could give me anything I wanted. They encourage me to use it. Every time I shudder at a needle or whine or show distress in any way, I am met with a cheery voice reminding me that I could make it all disappear in an instant, if I chose to. It's not their fault that I'm in pain; it's mine for not doing something about it.
I don't know what my power can do, or how to use it. I figure that if I concentrate hard enough, something will happen. I've never tried. I'm afraid to.
They tell me that I can only use it once. I'll never be able to again. I suspect that they are lying, but I can't afford to be wrong. I might not have a power at all, but of course I can't test it. The scientists will always be one step ahead of me. I could try to teleport away, but I would end up in a trap with no ability to escape.
Sometimes I think that I might as well. I don't have anything to lose. But the idea that I've never have a power is almost more frightening than the possibility of being stripped from it. I want to believe that I have one final layer of protection against the scientists, as a last resort.
A flake of plaster peels off the wall, sticking under my fingernail. I pry the scraps out, shedding them onto the floor.
A voice sounds through a crackly speaker in the corner of the ceiling.
"Lena, stop making a mess, please."
Lena is my name. Or at least what they call me. There are three scientists who talk to me. Two men and one woman. They are smiley and bright and encouraging, always laughing and joking. Their job is to talk to me. Mostly they talk about my power. How lucky I am that I have it, how jealous they are of me, how many things I could have if I wanted.
I don't know what they do when they're not talking to me. Probably murdering fuzzy little animals with scalpels.
The other scientists don't call me Lena. They don't talk to me at all. They come in and stick me with a needle, and when I wake up, they're bent over me with their tools. They murmur things to each other as they work. When they are done, I am once again drugged. I wake up in my chamber, left to pick at the plaster walls.
"Lena, you need to stop now. We can't always be picking up after you."
I don't respond. The plaster is soft in some places and hard in others. The soft, oily surface peels better.
The door opens. The door to my room is a thick white block that is almost indistinguishable from the wall around it. There is a handle on the other side of the door, with a heavy lock. I've never opened a door before, but the scientists are very good at it. The door shuts again.
"Lena. We've been over this before. Don't destroy your walls." The speaker is one of the men assigned to talk to me. He is the youngest of the three, but is already going bald, leaving tufts of dirt brown hair bulging over his watery blue eyes.
I look at him and don't say anything. The man produces a small brush and dustpan. He kneels in front of me and scoops the plaster flakes into the pan.
He yanks a small plastic bag out of his pocket and deposits the plaster shreds inside. With a steady twist of his hands, he knots the bag and shoves it back in his pocket, looking at me. He waits for me to make eye contact. I stare at his shoes. With a sigh, he rocks back on his heels.
"Lena. You need to be more communicative. This room does not control who you are, or what you can become. You have amazing potential. Why are you limiting yourself?"
I don't see what creativity this man expects me to express when locked in an empty white room. I'm just a box of DNA for the scientists to examine. Why does it matter what else I try to do?
"Look at me. I'm talking to you. We want you to flourish, Lena. We want you to do your best. What's important to you, Lena?"
I stared at him. I try to give scientists the silent treatment, but sometimes they are just too irritating.
"How do you expect me to answer that?" I muttered angrily. "What on earth do you expect to be important to me when I live inside a tiny white box?" The scientist smiles gently, and I kick myself. The scientists love it when I talk. To them, it means that they're doing their job as negotiators.
"What about freedom Lena? Isn't freedom important?" he crooned, leaning forwards. "We're not the ones imprisoning you, Lena. You're doing that to yourself. You know that you could escape if you really wanted to."
Of course. Everything all comes down to my power.
The man waits, hopeful, for me to talk again, but I refuse. He frowns at me.
"Lena… there is something serious we must talk about. The administrators aren't very happy with your… progress." I stare at him. Why should I care if the administrators were unhappy?
"Look, Lena. You know that we keep you here because we want you to grow. Unfortunately, you haven't been. You hardly ever talk, only when you're mad. You refuse to acknowledge your power, let alone try to use it. I don't know why you're so reluctant, but the administrators want results."
My reluctance isn't news. I've never been willing to talk with the scientists. They generally don't require my cooperation. If I've ever smiled, I certainly don't remember it. Does my face even know how to smile? Are the muscles capable? What if my smile is like my power, and I can only use it once before it is gone? I decide not to try.
"Lena. We might have to switch you over to a different program. It won't be as nice as this. We don't want to have to do that. Do you want us to have to do that?"
"I haven't been social for as long as I can remember. Years and years and years. Since I came here, if I've ever been anywhere else. Why is this so important now?"
"Your brain's development is slowing, Lena. You're much older than you were before. How can we collaborate with you as an adult if you're unwilling to even talk as a teenager?"
I fiddled with the edge of my suit. An adult me. Sitting in this empty white room. Not talking. Not doing much of anything. To afraid to use the one advantage I might have.
"You don't have to put up with this. You can leave right this minute, if you want to. I'm just warning you that things are going to get harder."
There's a rip at the bottom of my suit. I tug at it, unraveling a thin thread.
The man sighs and stands up, groaning slightly. The dustpan and brush still in his hand, he nods a goodbye and leaves. The scientists can open the door from the inside. They flash a thin card at the wall and it pops open. The door closes automatically after they leave.
As his footsteps fade into the distance, a small pop issues from the walls, and the light in the ceiling dies abruptly, plunging me into absolute darkness. The lights turn off so that I will sleep. Sometimes the lights stay off longer than normal, or shorter.
There is no bed in my room. Sometimes I have fantasies of saving enough plaster shreds hidden inside my suit to make a cozy plaster nest that I could curl up in, just for one night before they would take it away.
That will never happen. They always know when I peel the plaster. Instead, I roll into a little ball against the wall, tucking my head between my knees.
A fog fills my brain, and I drift off to sleep.
I dream that I am in a large bubble of nutrient juice. It's the pink kind, but darker than usual. The bubble is rolling down a hallway. Behind me, a long snake is worming its way down the hall. I encourage the bubble to roll faster, but it does not listen. Before the snake can reach me, I explode with magical sparks and stars, rocketing through the ceiling. I have used my power. I am floating, up in a high place of blue. My nutrient juice bubble follows me. We find more juice and dance around together.
The lights click on. I jerk awake, blinking. Bright. Why do the lights have to be so bright? I roll to my knees and start. Standing inside of my room is one of the scientists, the woman.
"Hi, Lena!" she sings cheerily, seating herself on the cold floor beside me. "Rise and shine! How was your sleep?"
I stretch and yawn, ignoring her.
"Lena, I have some news for you. It's very important, so pay attention." I inspect my nails. The edges are ragged from years of picking at the walls.
"We're going to be switching you to the second program soon. We've been monitoring your progress, and have come to the conclusion that we need to put a little more pressure on you to accelerate your growth. Hopefully it will be something a little more suited to you. It'll certainly build your character, and you can never have too much of that when you have a magical power!" She chuckles lightly.
"Anyways, to prepare you for the transfer, the lights are going to go off early today. Nothing to be alarmed about. Here's your water for today. " I take the cup and stare at it. Where is the nutrient juice?
The woman seems to realize what I ams thinking. "Oh, silly me, I forgot. No nutrient juice today! The scientists want your systems to be nice and clear for the procedure tonight. Nothing big, Lena, just a few final samples before we start the second program."
I sip the water. I hate being "sampled". They knock me out before it begins, and by the time I wake up I am always well anesthetized, but being tied down in the lab is always unpleasant.
The woman smiles at me for a few minutes, watching me drink. Her lips are thin, and look painfully stretched when she smiles. Eventually she grows tired of smiling and pats me on the back, shrinking her mouth back to normal talking size.
"You are so lucky, Lena. So special. I wish you were more willing to work with us. Don't you want to use your power? I'd think it would be worth it. Even just the one time."
I gulp down the remaining water and hand her the cup. Of course she thinks it would be worth it. They say they want me to test my limits, but they would die for the chance to test them for me. I don't even know what my power is supposed to do. They tell me I could do anything, but surely even that has limits?
The woman accepts the cup and reads it correctly as a sign of dismissal. Sometimes the scientists sit with me for hours, not even saying anything. Today, however, she seems willing to give me space.
"Good luck, Lena. I know that you'll make the right decision." She winks at me and leaves.
I lay out on the floor and stretch, hoping to touch both opposite walls at once. I can't. Disappointed, I roll across the room to one wall, then back. I'm scared of the new program. Part of me anticipates it, yearning for anything that brings a stop to the dull existence in the plaster cell. Part of me dreads it, because nothing the scientists do to me is desirable. I'm so tired. Who would guess that sitting in a white room day after day would become stressful?
My stomach ties itself in knots with nervous energy. How soon will the lights be turned off? One hour? Two? How long will I have before they come to take me to the lab? When will the program start?
My head buzzes. I'm so distracted that I don't notice that the lights have turned off until the second before I fall asleep.
My dream is abstract and strange. Shapes poke tentatively from a back background. There is no story or sound to my dream. Just a smear of dark colors and shapes.
Suddenly, there is light. People. Footsteps. The light is blinding me – I cannot see. I sit up as the needle slips into my arm, beneath the elbow. There is a prick of pain, and then I am sinking back into the sluggish blur of my dream.
The dream fades gradually. First there is light behind the black, brightening the dancing colors. The light is almost unnoticeable at first, but it slowly pales to a fuzzy grey color. Then the faint pinwheels and triangles wonder sideways, to the edge of my vision. The colors fade. Then there is a tiny rip in the grey background.
Through the rip I can see a sliver of reality. It grows bigger, melting away at the collage surrounding me. Now the dream is nothing more than speckles of static and distortion through my eyes, which begins to clear.
I can see the gaunt glow of the lab. Everything is bathed in a green tint. There is a man hovering over me, covered in a white suit. His face is obscured by a heavy surgical mask, and light reflects off his glasses so that I cannot see his eyes.
My whole body is numb. Somewhere along my left leg is a faint rubbing sensation, of something coldly lub-lubbing away at my skin. I strain my eyes to look down towards my feet, and can barely make out the silhouette of a tall person in a white coat. The man directly above me places a rubber cup on my arm. The cup is connected to a wire that leads away from the table. I try to squirm, but my arms, feet, and head are latched onto the table with heavy metal clasps.
The man mutters something to the person at my feet, who hands him an opaque black tube. A plastic syringe disappears into the tube, and is pulled out containing clear liquid. With gloved hands, the scientist pries the side of the rubber cup up, slips the syringe through the gap, and pushes the plunger. I feel no pain, only an odd prickling sensation as the needle slips through my skin. My arm is very cold.
The scientist removes the syringe and fiddles with a machine out of side. There is a faint prick, and I can feel the suction cup vibrating. I start to shake involuntarily. The scientists will have none of that. A third person in a lab coat emerges from my other side with a second syringe, which she sticks in my leg.
My mind grows soupy and the shaking stops. I feel heavy. Someone places a plastic sheet on the back of my head, covering my eyes. There is a clacking of metal tools behind me, and my brain registers spurts of pressure behind my skull. There is a pulling sensation, and a slight jabbing. I develop a headache.
The rubbing in my legs has not gone away, in fact it has spread further. There is prickling on my ankles and above my knee. Some on the other leg too. I try to jerk my leg and there is no response.
Time slows. After an eternity, the sheet on my eyes is lifted. The dim green glow is blinding to me. I blink. Only one scientist is visible. In his hands, he holds a bouquet of needles. This is the part of the procedures that concludes every session. The blood samples. He sticks the needles along my arms and legs and in my sides. Almost twenty needles, lining my flesh.
From his pocket he takes a small black pod. The pod is a remote. It controls all the needles. With a final glance at his clipboard, he presses the button. My body jolts as the metal bits penetrate my skin as one collective punch. Fluid fills the tiny vials perched above the needles. My blood. I don't know what color blood is – in the light of the laboratory, everything looks a dark murky color.
A second figure helps him collect the needles, as if picking flowers. They don't look at my face. When they are done, a sting penetrates my elbow, and once again I sink into fog.