Story inspired by the following prompt: A drug has been outlawed decades ago that has a fifty-fifty shot at making you incredibly intelligent, or completely insane. You hold the last pill in existence.
There were twenty of us when we first started training. And there were ten of us when we finished training, which was where the 50% success rate statistic documented in the Top Secret labeled government folders originated. Technically, I suppose there were still twenty of us alive, but the other ten were different.
I was recruited out of high school, just like the other nineteen candidates in the program. Back then, I thought that I was applying for a job, and had been lucky enough to find someone willing to hire me. Turns out, they had found me long before I knew they existed.
“Mr. Lionel,” Said the man in the black suit when I entered the interview room, holding a computer print out of my application sheet. I’d found the job online three days prior, when I was searching for a summer position online to earn cash before starting college, since my parents could not afford to give me aid after my father had developed skin cancer. An ad had popped up, an ad that seemed to match my description perfectly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a tad too perfectly.
Intelligent, with a GPA of 3.8 or above. Athletic, above the 95th percentile of the class. Socially adept. With these qualifications, join Brickman Associates, servants of society.
And three days later, I was shaking the man in the black suit’s hand, nervously introducing myself for the interview inside an unmarked brick building.
“Mr. Lionel, the name is Brickman,” He continued, his deep voice rumbling, “It is my understanding that you are looking for a summer position with Brickman Associates? We are searching for only the top candidates, Mr. Lionel. The position can only be described as strenuous, but I assure you it will pay off.”
“What is it, exactly?” I had asked, meeting his eyes, the irises so brown that they appeared to be pupils.
“Mr. Lionel, it’s a position of extreme confidentiality. Consider it a military position, with some fieldwork combined with intelligence operations.”
“Some what?” I said, “I thought I was applying for a government desk position. I’m not interested in joining the army, sir. I’m going to college.”
“It’s not the army, son,” Brickman answered, and leaned across the table, sliding a small piece of folded paper to me, “It’s the best of the best. And I can assure you, we pay more than than you would receive out of college. Better yet, we’ll expand your mind in ways you cannot yet comprehend.”
I unfolded the paper and stared at the number written on it, the zeros seeming to jump from the page.
“This can’t be real,” I said, handing it back, and turning to leave.
“I assure you it is. But if you’re in, you must be fully committed. We will look after your best interests, but once you are in there is no turning back. We’ll be in touch in a few days with further information.”
They had, through telephone. The decision was difficult, but logical. I couldn’t pay for college, and they were willing to pay me enough to retire in fifteen years to participate in their program. And more importantly, they promised to bring my father to the best doctors in the country, free of charge.
So I accepted.
And they trained me.
I’d never learned to fight before training. None of the twenty had- that was one of the requirements, that we start fresh, with no prior knowledge. But by the end, we were the best. Not just in hand to hand, but in every method. Verbal, mental, political- if there was a way to fight, we learned it. And we mastered it by the end of the three years.
At the end of year three, they had gathered us together in a room. And that was when we found the true purpose of our program, listening to a presentation that would change our lives. I’d found my girlfriend in the program, and she was sitting next to me, concern creasing across her face.
“These pills,” Said a doctor at the front through a grey mustache, shaking a small bottle in his hand and smoothing his lab coat, “Have the potential to turn you into something greater than human. Something incredible. Right now, you may believe you are the best of the best. And I assure you, you are. But with these, you will no longer be men. You’ll be gods.”
He whispered that last word, and our class leaned forward, trying to get a better glimpse of the bottle. The pills had been mandatory, one for each of us, or else we had to leave the program. And I remember watching from the corner of my eye as my girlfriend pocketed hers, and pretended to take it.
I’d swallowed my own, as my father was still taking treatments for his cancer.
The effects had taken one month.
One month before my intellectual capabilities made my previous state appear as if I was a child. And one month before the first of the murders began, as the first of the ten began to turn insane. One month before they were forced to shut down our program, and sign the ten of us who had survived mentally into secrecy, and put the ten others in straight jackets.
“It’s us or you,” Shouted one of my classmates, Geoffrey, frothing at the mouth as they carried him away, struggling to point at me, “You don’t know the potential we have! You don’t know, and you stand in our way! We know you’re the only ones who can stop us, and we won’t rest until you are dead. It’s us or you! Gods and devils, but which is which?”
It had worked for a time, keeping them locked away. Until two years after the program, when the electric power to the psych ward mysteriously shut off. And when it turned back on, ten inmates were missing. The ten who had taken the pill, and had lost their minds, and had spent the last few years screaming into the walls of their cells.
I’d taken my girlfriend then and gone into hiding, living in the tropics far away for the next seven years, doing our best to blend into society. Until one day, our phone rang, and I rushed to answer it.
Not much was said on the other line. Not much had to be.
“We’ve found you,” Then Geoffrey’s laugh, “It’s time for the games to begin, Lionel.” Then there was a click as the line went dead.
I knew I couldn’t face all ten of them, and I knew I could only run for so long. So I walked to my cupboard, and reached to the back, where a bottle had gathered dust for several years, and a single pill was inside. A pill my girlfriend had pretended to swallow long ago.
At times, I still wonder whether the first pill made me intelligent or insane. As I reached towards the cup of water to wash the second one down, I’m leaning towards the latter.
“You have been chosen,” Said Brickman three weeks after I accepted his offer, walking across the tile floor and the wood heel of this dress shoes making a click with each contact, “Simply because you are the best. You may have thought that you discovered us- no, rather it was we who discovered you, and we brought you here today. To form the most elite team in all of history.”
The room we were in was small, with a whiteboard that looked as if it had not been cleaned in years and twenty desks resembling those that I had used in high school, inhabited by the other recruits. We had been shuttled there from the Atlanta airport, traveling north about two hours to rural Georgia, and our individual taxis letting off each of the recruits at what amounted to little more than an old educational building in the woods, little more than a classroom and a boarded up sign that said “Eileen’s Montessori School for the Gifted” outside. The sheer variety of recruits was astonishing- the girl to my right with bright pink sneakers could not have been more than five feet tall and had the body of a gymnast, while the boy to my left stood at least a head higher than me and had a gut that suggested cheeseburgers were a staple on the food pyramid.
“Sounds creepy,” he said, leaning back in his chair and squinting at Brickman, whose pinstriped suit made him appear to leap out from the whiteboard.
“It could be perceived in that way,” Answered Brickman, “But consider us more of guardians. We’ve seen incredible potential in each of you and we’ve helped nurture you along the way. If that concerns you, I welcome you to leave.” He said, and pointed to the open door.
But no one moved.
“As I said, we nurtured you, Alexander. Our records indicate that you were an incredible computer programmer since the age of six, one unrivaled by his peers, even taking down a cartoon channel’s website and holding it hostage when they cancelled your favorite show at age twelve. To me, that sounds like an offense that could land you some time in a Juvenile Detention facility, but the charges were mysteriously dropped, were they not? And all those summer coding camps, the ones notorious for being the best, just happened to send you scholarships and free flights to their campus? No, Jeremy, we hold your best interest at heart.”
“What is this, then, some sort of puppet show?” Jeremy remarked, staying slouched in his chair though some of the color had drained from his face, “Do you think you can control all of my actions whenever you feel like it?”
“Sadly, we cannot. We also signed you up for countless dietary programs throughout the years, but I see our efforts have, quite unfortunately, been widely unsuccessful. No matter, for that can be fixed.” Then Brickman turned to the entire class, addressing us as a whole, “We have given you the means to be successful. And each of you have taken advantage of that fact. We offer it free of charge, and again, you may leave now with no consequences if you wish. I assure you, you will never hear from us again.”
But again, no one moved to the door.
“Good,” Brickman said, “As our program requires one hundred percent commitment. As I was saying, you have been chosen to form a team, to serve your country, each of you for your individual talents. Each of you because you have the grit, the drive, and the right stuff. Moving forward, you will be asked to complete tasks more demanding than any in your life. And often, the lives of others will be on the line. It’s a noble cause, what you will be supporting. You will be the forefront of those protecting the free world, of those who protect the lives of the innocent. But again, it is not an easy one.”
“How do we know that we’re not the bad guys here,” Said a voice from the back, a boy wearing a backwards Yankees baseball cap and jeans, leaning forward in his desk, “I don’t want to be a villain, Mr. Brickman. I need to be sure that if I’m signing up for this program, I’ll be used for good, and the government has a way of redefining what is good for them and good for the people.”
Brickman spread his arms wide and smiled.
“You have the right to refuse any mission you believe has immoral intentions. A great question, Geoffrey, we intend to make you heroes, not villains. Now, again, the door is there ladies and gentlemen. There for you to take! If you do not walk out now, then you are committed for the next three years.”
But each of us waited, each making the biggest decision of our lives, though we did not know it then.
“Good,” Said Brickman, walking parallel to the whiteboard, and placing his hand on a hand crank pencil sharpener old that it had started to rust, “Then let us begin.”
He pushed the sharpener into the wall, where it receded with a soft click. And the floor began to move, started gasps sounding from my classmates as the ceiling and walls fell away, and we had traveled down a hundred feet like an enormous elevator.
With a shudder, the floor stopped, and Brickman smiled.
“I always did hate that room,” He said, and pointed, “As I was saying, recruits, there is the door. It’s time your training was started.”
And he led us out, out into a life we had agreed to without fully reading the contract.
“This is Maree,” Brickman had said, as my mouth fell open at the sheer expanse of the underground facility. The expanse was easily the size of a football field, polished concrete floor extending ahead with alcoves for offices on the left and right. High above, men and women walked along corridors jutting in and out walls, carrying briefcases and high end laptops as they rushed between meetings. A glass staircase circled the center, catwalks branching off leading to higher levels, and lights dropped from the ceiling, casting the entire area in a white glow.
Hundreds of monitors covered the walls, adding color to the white glow, displaying moving charts and updating pages, several surrounded by small groups of people holding clipboards. Plaques were engraved underneath, each containing a short description of the purpose- China, Russia, Taliban, Most Wanted North America, and Immediate Threats were among them.
“As I was saying,” Repeated Brickman, “This is Maree. Maree will be your administrative guide throughout the program, serving as a link between yourselves and any members of staff. Maree, if you will lead them to their rooms, I’m afraid I must depart on other business.”
“This way, this way.” Shouted Maree, a short, mousy women in a conservative blue business suit, who seemed to use far too many steps move forward at her current pace, “We are all very excited to have you. Should you have any difficulties in your training, be sure to give me a call on your cell. Your luggage has already been transported to your rooms, and we shall be introducing you to your general education teachers within the next half hour. You will have approximately ten minutes to change,” She said, casting an eye at Irene, the hispanic recruit from California who had arrived in a shirt cut so low it had succeeded in capturing the male half of the class’ attention, “Into more appropriate attire.”
“You said we could call you if we have issues?” Asked Alexander from the back of the group, holding up his cell phone, the most recent release in technology.
“Yes dear, yes.”
“Well can you give us your number then?” He said, “Kind of need that to call.”
“My apologies, I forgot you are so nuew. My number has been pre-loaded into each of your phones, simply as Maree.” Then she winked at Alexander, and led us to a side corridor, “Our friends in the NSA come in very useful at times.
“Now,” She continued, and pointed down the hallway, where ten doors were numbered, “There really is not much time, so please change quickly. Two of you to a room, by the way, assigned on the door way. We will go over ground rules tonight.”
I found my door, Lionel, Geoffrey, and entered.
As I toured colleges, I had been shown dorm rooms that all claimed that they were top notch. Some had come with washers and dryers, others with personal bathrooms, and some even provided miniature kitchens.
But there were nothing in comparison to what I was now seeing.
There were six rooms in the apartment- one room for each Geoffrey and I, a full living expanse, two studies, and a room blocked by a shaded glass door. The bedrooms alone were enormous, a flatscreen television taking up the majority of the wall, a king bed staking claim on the floor, and walk in closet filled with a wardrobe all tailored to my body. The living room hosted two leather couches, another television tuned into the day’s schedule, and a complete dining set. Each of the studies had computer towers that whirred softly, a bookshelves already bent with the weight of textbooks, a laptop identical to the one I had seen others carrying earlier, and a full oak desk.
“Five minutes!” Shouted Eileen from outside, and I heard Geoffrey changing next to me, so I slipped out of my jeans and into the uniform. It was made from a polymer of sorts, somewhat reminding me of the tight fitting UnderArmor shirts for sale at the gym by my house, but felt sturdier. The color was dark grey, matching that of charcoal, and as I stepped back into the hallway I saw that everyone else now were matching.
“To the gym!” Said Maree, taking her short steps forward as we followed down a flight of steps, and into a room filled with padded walls, weights, and mannequins.
“Welcome to Eileen’s!” Shouted a towering man as we entered, his muscles bulging through his too small T-Shirt and his ears seeming to stick too close to his head in knotted bulges, “I am Ivan, and I teach Americans fighting. It has been long time since Ivan has seen recruits so pitifully prepared for what awaits them. For next three years, you belong to Ivan.”
“For next three years, I skip this class.” Retorted Alexander from the back, and Ivan’s eyes narrowed as he walked forward.
“For next three years, if you speak out again, you learn.” He said, three inches from Alexander’s face, the double chin wobbling, “I make you half the many you are now, literally!”
Alexander glared, but kept his mouth shut until Ivan a few steps away and addressed the class.
“Before we begin, many of you have seen movie describing fighting. In movie, person goes to learn to fight, and become master in one week. They have, how you say, fighting montage. Next three year is fighting montage for you, painful montage. Montage of Jitsu, Maga, Systema, and more. We will see who makes it, no?”
“Did you learn that in the KGB?” Quipped Alex again, but this time Ivan was only three steps away. Before he could move Ivan had his wrist in his hand and twisted, pulling Alexander closer and whirling him through the air. The motion looked impossible, Alexander’s several hundred pounds tumbling forward, his feet arcing high above. And right before his back hit the ground, Ivan caught him, and dropped him only the last foot.
“I learn much in KGB.” Said Ivan, his voice low as Alexander gasped, “But number one thing I learn, is how to kill Americans. I kill many Americans, too many, that is why I work here now. I am too valuable to put in a jail cell. And I can always kill one more.
“Now,” Ivan said, standing up to speak with the group again, “Any questions?”
“Oh God,” I complained back in the apartment, “Oh God, I don’t think there’s anywhere I don’t hurt.”
“You did sign up for this,” Answered Geoffrey, sipping from a protein shake we had found ready on the counter after training, “And you should have listened to Ivan when he said to duck.”
We were in the therapeutic hot tub in our apartment, which had been behind the glass door noticed from the first day. Geoffrey nursed a hand that he had suffered a particularly hard punch in training, while I nursed the eye that had been on the receiving end of that punch.
The class schedule was not unlike high school, except that instead of ending at three they ended at ten. And instead of History, English, or Music, general classes took the form of Armed Fighting, Grappling, and Military Tactics. Then there were individualized classes, specialties for each individual recruits. For Alexander, the top hackers in the industry headed his classes, men and women who had spent years in jail before being scooped up by the government for confidential projects. For Geoff, he attended twice as many martial arts and combat classes, soon rising to the top of the class in the more pugnacious categories.
And me, I was designated to learn a bit of everything, sitting in on the different classes and observing the members at work. There was Irene, who had a talent for languages, and had already picked up eight on her own. Now, she was working on four more. And there was the girl with pink shoes I remembered from the first day, who stance gave her presence despite her short stature, and whose specialty was psychology, concerning in depth details to body language cues and influence tactics. Her name was Nataly, and I found her classes to be the least entertaining- hours of watching film, or looking for visual clues in pictures, or classifying people based upon their attributes.
Until, six weeks into the program, the sparring matches began.
“We have drilled six weeks straight,” Said Ivan, “But drilling can only take you so far. Ivan has taught you to throw, to punch, to kick, and to break.” He rubbed his mammoth hands together at the last word, smiling, “And now it is time for you to show Ivan what you have learned.”
He hung a bracket on the side of the gym, paring off those that he thought were closest in skill. Geoffrey versus me. Irene versus Lisa, whose marksmanship and home state of Tennessee had already earned her the nickname of “Crockett”. And Alexander, the largest in the class, versus Nataly, the smallest.
Geoffrey and I went first, circling around the padded ring as the rest of the class watched, our eyes watching each other’s hips for tell tale signs of footwork changes. He struck first, circling closer and wrapping my shirt in his wands, attempting to sweep behind my right leg in a classic judo throw. I countered the attack with my own, copying his move to remove the pressure on my right leg. But he had been prepared and twisted, pulling me closer by my arm as he crouched, rolling me across his back and onto the ground. Before I could recover he was on top of me, struggling for control of my right arm, before bending it across his groin in a bar.
But before I could tap out and surrender, he released the hold, switching his weight to my other arm, twisting the hand backwards such that my wrist painted the ground and pain shot up my forearm. I jerked, trying to buck him off, but he applied pressure and Ivan’s whistle sounded.
“Well done, well done.” Ivan said, as Geoffrey gave a last twist before rising to his feet, “But next time, be swift, Geoffrey. There is no need to draw it out.”
Then it was Irene and Lisa, a long battle with several stalemates that Ivan judged the winner after ten minutes, choosing Irene. Then Alexander squared off against Nataly, crossing his feet in a classic error as he shuffled, while Nataly’s shoes flashed across the mat. Alexander lumbered forward, swooping a hand down in an attempt to snag her ankle, but her feet were too fast and she fluttered away. Already his breathing was struggling as her chest barely rose and fell, and she danced in circles around him as he continued to tire. He made another lunge at her, his hand trying to catch her elbow, but he missed.
And in his recovery time, she was behind him, a streak of pink sweeping away his left leg and taking him to the ground. In seconds it was over, him tumbling forward, and her wrapping a fist around his collar in a choke hold as Ivan’s whistle sounded.
The rest of the matches followed swiftly, most of them close, the amateurish techniques fumbled over in an attempt to gain the upper hand. And towards the end, as the bracket neared the top, only two remained.
Geoffrey, whose longest match had lasted two minutes with me. And Nataly, whose quick footwork and reaction time had rendered her untouchable to every opponent.
They stared at each other as Ivan had them shake hands.
“Do we really need to do this?” Said Geoffrey, staring down at Nataly.
“Scared?” She responded, her expression stone, and her short blond ponytail extending over her shoulder.
Then Ivan’s whistle blew, and the match began.
Geoffrey took an immediate lunge at the knees, but Nataly danced away before he moved, anticipating the move.
“Gotta be faster than that,” She said, “With all those extra classes, this should be easy for you.”
With a grunt he leapt forward again and she laughed as he missed, his fingers barely brushing her skin.
“This will be short,” He answered, face red.
“I bet that’s what all your past girlfriends said too!” She retorted as the watching recruits laughed, and she ducked to avoid a punch, the red of Geoffrey’s face deepening, “Was that before or after the acne started? Looks like you’ve gotten rid of most of it, but with all of the exercise, I think it’s coming back! Is that why you look at your reflection in the spoon each morning after breakfast, and you constantly touch your face? That’ll only make it worse- right there, across your jawline, looks like it is starting back up.”
For a second, Geoffrey froze, his eyes wide. Then he charged with his shoulder lowered, his training forgotten, relying on sheer mass to win the fight. But before he connected, there was a flash of pink, extending from the ground to Geoffrey’s jaw, the laces plowing into the bone.
Ivan’s whistle blew when Geoffrey fell to the ground, and Nataly landed in a crouch, her ponytail swinging behind her.
I still remember Ivan raising her hand in the air, after she had won the battle I lost. And I still wonder what her potential would have been if she had taken the pill all those years ago like the rest of us, and her eyes were opened like ours were. And whether she too would have gone insane.
I can still remember what it was like before I learned to read.
I remember at staring at pages of symbols, knowing somehow that they meant something, that there was meaning behind the shapes. And sometimes, when there were pictures, I could infer what those words meant. Or I would be able to sound out some of the smaller words, taking several minutes of intense concentration to realize how the vowels and consonants strung together to form meaning, and even then it was difficult to hold that meaning in my mind as I attempted to sound out the next word.
And then, within a year, it clicked. Words would leap at me from billboards, presenting themselves whether I wanted them to or not. Forming patterns so obvious that I could not understand how they had eluded me before.
Taking the pill was like learning to read.
Concepts that were once muddled and confusing were now incredibly obvious, in ways that I could never had imagine. In ways I never knew thay could be.
And it all started the next morning. Well, technically, it started before then. When I was asleep, dreaming.
I was walking in my dream, circling down a dark staircase, my bare feet cold against stone, flaming torches illuminating the thin walkway as I continued downwards. And as I travelled downwards, the echoes of my footsteps sounding in front of me, I began to pass doorways. There were hundreds of them, all with different handles and locks, some cracked slightly open, some with hundreds of nails securing them to the doorframe.
Nearly a mile down, I stopped, my fingers touching a handle of lukewarm temperature, and pushing it open.
“Hello Lionel,” Came the voices from inside, from two men that stood on opposite sides of a room. Behind the one on the left, precise geometric shapes stacked on the walls, paired with finely drawn lines and stacks of thousands of perfectly round spheres. And behind the other, the wall was painted, streaks of color arcing across the stone in an abstract too difficult to properly discern. Between the two men and dividing the room was a stream of water, wide enough that it could not be lept across, with a single small bridge connecting them in the center.
“Hello.” I responded, from the doorway, “Who – who are you?”
“Oh, you know who we are, Lionel.” Said the one on the left, so I could properly see his face. My own face, with a fresh pressed suit underneath, not a wrinkle in sight with angles that perfectly accented my shoulders.
“Yes, yes you do,” Said the one on the right, himself dressed in a colorful button down shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, and considerably messy shirt, “We talk all the time.”
“We do?” I said, my eyebrows furrowed.
“Oh yes, we do,” They answered together, “Every day we talk, through your thoughts. You ask us questions, and we fetch the answers. We’re a team, us. You. And you’re lucky, because not everyone gets along as well as we do. But even so, we hold our distances, and our territories.” They gestured to the stream in between that separated them.
“And why exactly have you brought me here?” I asked, as they walked towards me.
“Because it’s time that our conversations became more intimate,” They said, and reaching out, each took one of my hands, and lights began to glow behind their eyes, “There’s so much we have to share with you Lionel. So much to see.”
My eyes opened in my apartment, as the sound of my alarm clock began, set to the tune of Semi Charmed Life. But instead of simply hearing the music, I saw it, a flood of colors and shapes that filled my thoughts with each passing note, the vibrations classifying themselves in my mind as my fingers tapped at my leg. And thought it had been years since I had my last piano lesson, and had never made it past beginner level, I knew they would have struck home each note on a keyboard.
For a moment I lay there, until I heard footsteps, and my door burst open, Geoffrey standing in the frame with his eyes wide.
“Lionel,” He gasped, his chest heaving, “Lionel, everything- everything is different now.”
“And yet the same,” I said, and prepared for class.
Classes took on a different tone since we took the pill. Constantly we were watched, men and women that carried clipboards and studied our movements. And more importly, there were twice as many classes as before. Not because they ran shorter.
Rather, because we could now take two at the same time.
The closest way to understand the sensation is to try to say two memorized passages in the mind at the same time. For me, I used prayers I had learned as a child, trying to recite the Our Father and Hail Mary together. Before the pill, I could only maintain one tract of thought, one inner dialogue. And after the pill, I had at least two, and on a good day, three.
“Begin!” Ivan shouted, two weeks after taking the pill, as I circled Geoffrey on the athletic match, our sparring beginning.
“A little more than kin, and less than kind!” Said Geoffrey, circling, and attempting to sweep my leg as he recited the first line of Hamlet.
“Not so, my lord. I am too much i’ th’ sun.” I responded with the second line, countering his attack, and looking for an opening near his arm.
“Integrate x squared times x square plus twenty five,” Called out our mathematics teacher, while Geoffrey attempted a collar tie and I deflected.
“Ay, madam, it is common.” Said Geoffrey, the third line, and I with Hamlet’s fourth, “Seems, madam, Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’”, before we both shouted out the answer to the calculus question, while Geoffrey attempted to topple me from balance using a jab followed by a trip, and I responded with a sideways elbow to his ribs.
And from the bleachers, the men and women looked on, writing in ther notebooks, watching our actions. And looking back, I suppose they were searching for signs.
Signs of what was to come.
Behind them, Brickman watched, his smile wide at his creation. And from the edge of the matts, far below, Alexander’s eyes narrowed, and his right fingers began to twitch as he stared at the clipboards. In his left hand, he held something, something curled up tight between his fingers.
Something the staff later informed me was his suicide note.
I sat in on Alexander’s class two days before it happened.
Nataly had slept over the night, stirring slightly as I woke up early. 5436, I thought, slipping into my clothes. The amount of breaths she had taken last night, not consciously counted, but simply a fact.
“What are you doing?” She asked, sitting up, her hair still messy from sleep.
“Just some extra homework,” I answered, slipping out the door.
“You’re lying,” She had called after me, “Those pills may have made all of you smarter, but your body language is clear as day now. Almost too clear.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” I shouted back, and she didn’t respond. That part was the truth.
I sat in the kitchen, holding a book I would need to finish for homework by the end of the day in my hands, flipping through and spending about a second on each page. I’d discovered the week before that while I could not read a page in under a second, I could memorize them, and then later read the page in my mind. It was how I now finished most of my assignments.
I started reading the material later that day, while overhearing a lecture. I was scheduled to partake in Alexander’s class that day, as he worked with a team of four hackers that clacked away at their keyboards. I’m not sure if hackers were the best way to describe them- it wasn’t as if they were breaking security, or trying to attack others on the internet. It was more as if they were trying to do things never before accomplished with computers. Even after the pill I had trouble following their logic, as they discussed algorithms, neuron networks, and other concepts.
But I could tell Alexander was getting frustrated.
“It’s not working,” He complained, staring at his screen, his right hand typing on a keyboard that appeared on one monitor while his left hand typed on a separate simultaneously, “I could be the smartest coder in the world, hell, I am the smartest coder in the world, and I keep getting bugs. Damn bugs!” And his slammed his fist down on the keyboard, narrowing his eyes to a squint as he scanned lines of code.
“Relax man,” I said with one part of my mind, the other part reading, “It’s not easy stuff.”
“Of course it isn’t,” He hissed, “But with the pill, it should be. They should have made the pill better, so that there aren’t bugs, ever. But there still are. No matter what you try to do, there still are bugs. Problems that no matter how smart you are they still arise. Nothing ever works right the first try.”
Then his eyes widened, and he whispered again.
His hand reached into his pocket, and I heard a crinkle as he gripped a piece of paper. And Alexander stood, his hand still in his pocket, and addressed his teachers.
“I’m not feeling well today,” He said, “I can’t focus, and my head is pounding. I’ll meet with you tomorrow, or the next day, but anything before then will be fruitless. I need to rest.”
The four nodded, then resumed their work. And in a far corner of the room, one of the attendants scratched away at a clipboard, recording the incident with his eyebrows raised.
But Alexander never rested. Instead, I was informed he tore his entire apartment apart, shredding the carpet and punching through walls in his final moments of freedom. That by the time they found it, it was almost unrecognizable, and even the computer that Alexander held nearly sacred looked as though it had been fed through a paper shredder.
I never really understood what made the pill so dangerous, about why it made people insane. But I have my theories, and one of them is that the pill itself is benign. Rather, its side effects do the damage.
My main hypothesis is that the pill allows some form of bacteria of fungus to attack the brain, which kills all sense of rationality. And I base this theory off of one observation.
The insanity seems contagious.
Of those that went insane, all of them had insane roommates. And those rooms were clustered, near the far end of the hall, and in consecutive numbers. It’s my guess why we were never allowed to visit them in the insanity ward, after the event. I never wanted to, but I also never had the privilege.
And it’s the reason why, even if I could beat them in a fight, contact with them even after all these years could still put my own sanity at stake.
As I mentioned, every one of the insane had insane room mates. All, that is, except for two.
Myself and Nataly.
We were together when the incident occurred, sharing my bed. Geoffrey had started dating her room mate, Mika, and was over at her apartment.
“People are starting to notice,” Said Nataly as we lay together, “I’m not keeping up with the class. Everyone has been improving except for me. Tomorrow, I think I’ll take the pill. It’s only helped you, and it will only help me.”
“Does anyone else know?” I asked, my arm under her shoulders like a pillow, her hair draped across my hand.
“No one,” She answered, her blue eyes staring up at the ceiling, “And no one ever will, I-”
The gunshot cut Nataly off, exploding into the room, the thin wall on our right doing little to muffle the sound. She jumped as I threw the blankets away, leaping off the bed, my feet hitting the floor right as the second shot cracked through the air.
“What’s going on?” She shouted as the screams started and I opened the door.
“Going to find out!” I shouted back as she threw her clothes back on, nearly stumbling over the pink sneakers in my path. I slammed the door to the hall open so hard it bounced off the wall, just as the room across from me opened and I saw Lisa rush into the hall.
Twelve heavily armed guards swarmed the end of the hall outside of Alexander’s room, wearing bulletproof vests. Two seconds later the door burst open and Geoffrey stumbled out, a pistol in his hand and blood seeped into his shirt.
He yelled in surprise as he collided with the guards, his eyes widening in realization as the gears in his minds began to turn.
And his fighting became art.
A fist and an elbow shot out, catching one guard in the throat and another in the eye, sending both sprawling. He stepped to the side to dodge a blow, his footwork impeccable, and lashed out with his heel against the side of a guard’s knee and was met with and enraged scream. He moved fast, faster than any human should, a blur of motion that turned the guards to mannequins in comparison. He almost appeared as two seperate poeple, their movements overlapped and tied together in one body, yet independant.
But as quick as he was, and as skilled as he was, Geoffey was no match for the taser one of the guards jammed into his side, and the electricity that overrided his impulses. He writhed on the floor as the sparks jumped to his skin, handcuffs applied to him before he could move, and twenty more guards on the scene before the pulled him to his feet.
A guard near the door pulled a cannister from his belt, and threw it into the room, slamming the door shut. There was a pop followed by hissing, smoke issuing from the crack underneath the door, and frightened shouts from inside that quickly died down as the gas took effect and they were rendered unconscious.
They dragged Geoff away, and he made eye contact with me down the hall, screaming before they rounded the corner.
“It’s us or you. You don’t know the potential we have! You don’t know, and you stand in our way! We know you’re the only ones who can stop us, and we won’t rest until you are dead. It’s us or you! Gods and devils, but which is which?”
The unconsious bodies of four more students followed, four of the gaurds together carrying Alexander. Then two more bodies were dragged out, bodies plastered with blood, bodies that no longer breathed.
Brickman and Maree.
By morning, they had successfully found the other six who had fallen insane, isolated them, cuffed them, and taken them away. And by the end of the week, the announcement about the fate of the program was delivered.
“We regret to inform you that the program has been terminated,” Said a representative in a white lab coat, “Each of you will be reintegrated into society, where you shall have an opportunity to live alongside the general population. Your program was highly confidential, and much of its goals and purposes were coordinated by Brickman and Marie. With their deaths, much of the information regarding the program has been lost, and as such it will no longer be continued. We wish you the best and appreciate your cooperation.”
Then the man nodded to us, folded the paper he had been reading from, and left the room.
And we left Eileen’s.
Nataly and I waited until nightfall to run.
The first pill had not taken effect until the next morning, so I’d felt nothing different. It meant I’d have to survive the night to have a fighting chance against Geoffrey, especially if he brought friends.
But until then, I had a semi automatic, a sports car capable of outrunning mostly anything on open highway, and fifty thousand dollars in cash sewed underneath the car seat. And I had Nataly, who was a formidable force of her own, and was also armed.
“Gameplan?” Asked Nataly as she jumped into the passenger seat, and the engine roared to life.
“We head to Eileen’s,” I said, “And fast.”
“Should we call ahead?”
I grimaced as we pulled out of the driveway, the needle on the dashboard for RPMs dipping into the red zone.
“Geoffrey never hung up on the phone,” I answered, “He jammed the signal. Which means I can’t call anyone, and he likely has Alexander with him to help build the electronics. And it also means he’s close, probably watching us right now. Our only option is to try to escape, as staying to fight will result in a ten against two battle.”
“Why hasn’t he killed us already? It’d be so much easier to rig a bomb to our car, or blast us with radiation from a distance, or take us out with a sniper.”
“Because Geoffrey lives for the fight,” I answered, “He said let the games begin. Even when he was sane, Geoffrey liked to play cat and mouse, and I would be surprised if insanity did anything but enhance that quality.”
“All the same,” Said Nataly, “We know he is not stupid. Quite the opposite. We’re likely running straight into a trap.”
“I never said we weren’t,” I replied, and the lights on the dashboards shut off as all noise ceased from the engine and the power steering cut out.
“Car was rigged,” I shouted, pulling out my gun and opening the window, “Get ready! They’ll ambush us!”
Adrenaline flooded my system as the car rolled to a stop, Nataly holding her breath as we were met by silence disturbed only by the chirping of crickets. To my left there was forest, and in the darkness I heard movement, the snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves.
And in the light of the moon, a shape approached.
A shape that moved like a cat, slinking forward towards prey. A shape that walked calmly, that had a bright white smile extending ear to ear. That wore a Yankees cap atop its head, one easily over a decade old, and a face that I knew all too well.
“Hello, Lionel.” He said as he exited the woods, ten feet away from the car as I raised the gun. And when he was five feet away, I fired five times.
Three times in the chest then twice in the head in case he wore a bulletproof vest, all from a distance impossible to miss. And Geoffrey’s smile grew wider as he took the final steps to the window, leaned over, and whispered inside.
“We switched out your ammunition and rigged the car,” Said Geoffrey as Nataly gasped, “The pistol in the back seat is filled with blanks as well. There are four agents nearby, all with tranquilizers trained upon you as we speak in case you try to run.”
“Tranquilizers?” I spat, “You want us alive?”
“You’d be no use to us dead.” Answered Geoffrey.
“And what do you plan to do with us?” Shouted Nataly from the passenger seat, “What sadistic ideas are next? Are you going to torture us just like you killed poor Maree and Brickman?”
“Ah yes, poor Brickman and Maree,” Said Geoffrey, “No, I don’t want to kill you. I want to clear up what happened all those years ago. Devils and Gods, Lionel, which is which? I tried to tell you but couldn’t, because they’d have taken you to the mental ward too. I was never the devil. They were.”
“Bullshit.” I said.
“I thought so too,” Geoffrey responded, “Until Alexander showed me what he found in his room.”
A second figure approached from the woods, much larger than Geoffrey, with a lumbering gait I remembered too well.
“Here,” Said Alexander, handing a piece of paper through the window, the suicide note from years before, “Go on, read it. I found it when I tried to rig my refrigerator to better cool my computer back in my apartment. It was tucked into the insulation, somewhere where it never would have been found when the rooms were cleaned. And it’s dated for a year before we arrived at Eileen’s.”
And holding the paper so Nataly could see, I read.
Today, we took pill six, and it is our fourth year of training. Six pills, each time we became smarter. Every time it works, but every time I feel like I am being fractured into more and more pieces. The voices started after pill four. At pill five, they started shouting. And who knows what tomorrow will bring, if we can cling to sanity. Already there have been two suicides. But this is the last pill, after this we will be agents. After this, we will be the best in the world, and our sacrifice will be worth it.
“That was from the class before us.” Said Alexander, “But they were not the only ones. Ten classes happened before us, Lionel. Ten, for a total of sixty five suicides, while the rest were committed to insanity wards.”
“How do you know this?” I asked, the note shaking in my hands.
“Because after I found the note, I hacked into Eileen’s electronic records.” Said Alexander, “That day when you were in my class, I said everything has bugs. Everything does, including a pill to make you smarter. And Brickman used our classes to work out the kinks. Only him and Maree had access to the data, both of them planned to continue feeding our class pills until we reached the limit. Until we cracked. That first pill we took, that was equal to four of the pills that previous classes took. And only when they discovered the limits of the pills were they actually going to create a team of agents. It was all a lie, Lionel. Everything.”
“So you shot them for revenge or out of anger?” I asked, “You killed them instead of trying to escape?”
“We were left with no choice,” Replied Geoffrey with a grimace, “There was a reason why the insane always shared room mates. After Alexander found out their secret, he started telling us, bringing each of us to his room to show the evidence, and help him tear apart his room in search for other notes. And we should have known, but our rooms were bugged.”
“So Brickman and Maree came to stop you once they overheard,” Said Nataly, and Alexander nodded.
“Exactly. They came to offer us a deal, that either we continue the program or we be sent to mental institutions. Naturally, neither of these options were appealing. So I panicked, and tried to run. But when I did, Brickman pulled a gun.”
“Which was his mistake,” Said Geoffrey, “Considering he had spent the last three years training us in combat and I was the top of our class. I think Brickman expected us to take the deal, and I don’t think he expected violence, which is why the guard came later and not initially. I was able to disarm him before Maree pulled a gun as well, and I did what I had to. When she fell, Brickman went for the firearm, and I had to shoot him too.”
“But why pretend you were insane?” I asked.
“Alexander deleted the files in their system,” Geoffrey responded, “As well as the bug recordings from the rooms before destroying his own computer. But the others at Eileen’s were aware of our program and its results. By pretending to be insane, they assumed that we had already reached too high of a dosage, and Brickman had acted like a fool confronting us. According to protocol, they sent us to the insanity ward, along with the other names that Brickman had written down before his death in his office, labeled as dangerous on a notepad.”
“So you never actually went insane,” Said Nataly, eyes wide, “You only protected yourselves.”
“Exactly,” Said Geoffrey, “After all these years, we wanted to clear our record with you. And we wanted you to join us, to make sure that Eileen’s has been shut down permanently.”
“But the pill dosage,” I said, throat tightening, “You said that we would have had to take six for the side effects to start?”
“Typically, yes.” Answered Alexander, “But as I mentioned, they upped the dosage in our group. Each of our pills was worth four of theirs.”
“Which means it would only take two,” I finished, as realization flooded across Nataly’s face, and I heard the whispers start in the back of my head. Whispers in my own voice, of two men separated by a narrow stream, as they began to argue.
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