Fish Tank

Fish Tank

Credit: Carole Maillard

A light rain tumbled down the faces of the vinyl-sided houses lining the street. Towering above the apartments and construction sites at the end of the block, the hulking iron support columns of the elevated train line stretched upward to the platform like the legs of a giant rusting animal. Every so often, Renee was struck by the sheer verticality of her neighborhood; seemingly endless structures rising above her, connected by a maze of corridors, bedrooms, and balconies.

She closed her umbrella, plucked the cigarette from her mouth, and crushed it on the handrail to the staircase. Climbing the stairs, she reached into her black leather bag for her wallet and swipe card. She slid the card out of its slot, hunching her shoulders and drawing in her elbows to avoid the descending passengers swooping past her on either side. As she reached the top of the stairs, she ran her card through the reader on the turnstile, stepped through and sat down on one of the bright red benches lining the wall. The train arrived two minutes later, spilling people out onto the damp platform. She glanced reflexively at the time on her phone, and realized she was going to be late.

As the train crossed the bridge into the city, she stood up from her seat and crossed the car to the door. The normally striking vista of the skyline and river loomed vaguely beyond the rain-speckled glass. In the unseasonal morning gloom, the buildings looked submerged and abandoned. She typically made the most of the sparse pleasures of her commute, the brief minutes where she could admire a panorama in three dimensions before her near solitude began in the narrow hallways and workstations of her laboratory. Today, the obscurity was like a curtain enveloping the subway car as it hurtled underground.

The clinic was nestled on the third floor of a midtown office building across the street from the public library. Accessible only via a dull bronze elevator, the waiting room was lined with worn green padded chairs and illuminated by yellowish halogen bulbs. She walked to the front desk.

- Renee Estrada. I just got on the Sloan Kettering employee plan, she said. I’m here for the mandatory checkup.

The man behind the desk responded without looking up or acknowledging her lateness.

- Okay, please be seated and we’ll call you in half an hour.

She sat down on one of the available chairs and tried to get comfortable under the sallow glow.

Twenty minutes later she was seated in a small room with a nurse, a blood pressure monitor squeezing her bicep. As the band inflated, the nurse scrolled down the screen in front of her.

- Have you ever taken erythromycin?

Renee thought for a second, then shook her head.

- I don’t think so. You mean the antibiotic?

The nurse nodded briefly and continued to stare at the screen.

- Wait in the reception again. We’re going to call your name for some blood work.

After a brief wait, she was called into a beige-tiled room with a chair in the corner and plastic bins filled with boxes of syringes and swabs. Another nurse, as distant in her demeanor as her colleagues, wiped her arm inside the crook of her elbow, and swiftly inserted a small syringe. Renee breathed in sharply. A burning sensation radiated from the spot where it entered. She watched her blood travel along the thin tube to a vial in the nurse’s hand.

- It hurts. Is that normal?

- Yes. If you have any questions, you can schedule a call with Doctor James after we send your results.

The nurse removed the needle and placed a cotton pad over the spot, covering it with a piece of tape.

- You’re all set, she said, gesturing vaguely to the reception room.

Renee stood up and walked out the door and into the reception. She stopped at the front desk.

- Hello, can you tell Doctor James that I’d like to speak with him? Renee Estrada. Tell him to call me as soon as he can.

The receptionist blinked at her then looked back at his screen.

- Soonest he can do is tomorrow, 4:30pm.

- Tell him to call me then. I’ll be following up if I don’t hear from him.

Renee turned and walked through the hallway door to the elevator.

Her workstation was nearly silent; only a dull hum from the sequencing machines furnished a bit of white noise. She didn’t bother with the lab coat or gloves. With no one else around it was better to hold off on new samples and just work on what was already prepared. Though it was unpleasant, she had gotten accustomed to working with mouse samples, and as seasonal staff she was invariably the one that had to do it the most. The other, permanent staff on her team seemed to have taken some of their apparently inexhaustible vacation days.

She stared at the visualizations on her screen. Inflammations of infected lab mouse tissue glowed bright green, and the resulting T-cell responses shone deep red on the next panel. Her eyes stayed fixed on the screen as her fingers skittered across the keyboard, annotating the trial results.

She clicked through to the next panel, and did the same, noting the uniformity of the results across all the subjects so far as she moved through each dataset. After an hour, she began to frown, biting her lip. The visualizations were starting to blur and vibrate. Spirals of green and red floated against the black background like deep-sea plankton.

She took a step back and rubbed her eyes. Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. She held it up to her face. A college friend was texting her about a dinner party the next week. She wondered for a second if her ex-boyfriend Evan would be there, then put the thought out of her mind. She felt a wave of dizziness as she typed her response, as though she had stood up too quickly. Pressure collected behind her forehead as she struggled to focus on her phone’s keypad. She looked around at the empty laboratory, then back at her annotations on her workstation computer. She clicked ‘Save’ on the document, then grabbed her coat and bag from beside her desk, requested a cab on her phone and headed for the door. Her phone was operating more slowly today, as though some bulky program was running in the background. Perhaps her drowsiness just made her impatient.

It was still overcast when she arrived home, and she pushed herself up the stairs to her door. Inside her place, her dizziness felt more subdued, especially without the pressure to concentrate at the lab. Perhaps she had caught a bug going around. She stepped gingerly around her couch, whose armrest nearly blocked the door, and walked to her fridge, wedged in the corner of the compact room. She took some leftovers from a plate on the top shelf, and put them in the microwave, then lay down on the couch and turned on her television. Within a few minutes she was asleep.

She dreamt she was on the train again, heading back over the bridge to the city. There were lights shining through the downpour, and from under the water below. As she watched, the water began to rise, at first imperceptibly, then ever more quickly. The river swelled, flooding the tennis courts, parks and waterfront on both sides. The train sped up, pressing the passengers back into their seats. She tightened her grip on the pole near the door and continued to stare out the window as the water ascended, surging beneath the tracks until it was lapping at the window. Soon the train car was submerged, accelerating underwater as bubbles slid across the windows. From outside the window, she could hear muffled voices trying to speak to her through the greenish gloom. Everything flickered under a pale light as the surface steadily receded above her.

- Okay, I think she’s awake now.

- Yeah, it looks like it.

Two voices woke her, followed by another.

She could feel white light against the backs of her eyelids. As she processed her sensations, she could feel an ache in her wrist from sleeping on her hand. She was lying on something yielding, but smooth, like soft plastic or rubber. She couldn’t open her eyes fully; the light was too strong.

- Hello, sweetie. Can you hear me? asked a woman.

- Yes, yes, I can hear you, hello, she said quickly, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. She felt a jolt of unease as her surroundings began to grow more distinct.

- What happened, she asked.

- Okay sweetie, I need you to stay calm, okay? the woman replied.

- What is happening?

She was sitting in a large rectangular glass room, about twenty-five feet by ten feet. The walls were smooth and reflective, dark green in color, and segmented by thick vertical grooves. Seated in front of her were two women and a man, resting on a dark green rectangular mattress that emerged seamlessly from the floor. Behind them, she could see another woman and man seated similarly, looking at her. Near the back of the room, another pair were standing, speaking quietly, and glancing in her direction. In the far corner, she could see the shape of someone stretched out on one of the cots, which were distributed evenly across the space.

Her eyes focused on the woman in front of her. She had brown eyes, with white streaks in her hair. Seated beside her was a woman close to her own age with glasses and a bob haircut. The first woman spoke slowly and deliberately, a pained expression on her face.

- You’re in here with us now, okay?

Renee blinked. Her lips curled in confusion.

The woman nodded sympathetically, placing her palms outward in a peaceful gesture.

- We’re all stuck in here. It’s not permanent, we think.

- Where the fuck are we, Renee asked.

The woman looked into her eyes, unblinking, shaking her head empathetically.

– We don’t know. Everyone just wakes up here.

Renee reached into her pocket instinctively and pulled out her phone.

- It’s not going to work. Everybody tries, said the second woman.

Renee quickly entered her password and dialed 911. The reception bars on the upper right side of the screen were empty, and the battery was almost depleted. The call didn’t connect. The women watched her as she dialed.

- What time is it? the woman asked.

- Just after 9pm. She exhaled, trying to push down her anxiety. How long have you been here?

- A week and a half, just about. She nodded towards one of the women standing at the back of the room. Annie has been here for two.

A wave of dizziness swept over her.

- What’s going to happen to us?

A man’s voice called out from the back of the room.

- Uh, we’re all going to die.

Renee saw her companions’ shoulders hunch.

- Just ignore him, said the first woman.

- It’s true, he called out again, provoking a wave of mutters across the room.

He was lying on a cot near the end of the room, facing away from Renee and the others.

The first woman looked backward briefly and called,

- Peter, you've got to stop. She looked back at Renee.

- Every few days they let one of us go and bring someone else in. You arrived this morning and you’ve been out for the whole day.

Renee felt her eyes starting to sting with panic and pushed the feeling down with a deep breath.

The first woman stood up and walked over to Renee’s cot. She extended her hand.

- My name’s Diane Tufton. What’s your name, sweetie?

Renee shook her hand.

- I’m Renee Estrada.

Diane gestured to the space beside her.

- May I sit down?

Renee nodded. The second woman chimed in from the opposite cot.

- I’m Hanna Faisal. Nice to meet you.

- You live in New York? asked Diane, sitting down and putting her hand on Renee’s shoulder. Renee’s shoulder jerked back.

- Yeah, Brooklyn.

- Same here. Everyone is from the five boroughs as far as I can tell.

Hanna held up a finger.

- I live in Long Island actually.

There was a silence. Renee scanned the room, slowly breathing in and out for twenty seconds. The walls’ green hue was uneven, as though the shade was in a subtle state of flux. The air was cool and slightly damp, just a bit below body temperature. Round flood lights embedded in the walls just under the ceiling lit everything palely from the inside.

The other two waited politely as she took everything in. She exhaled loudly, then turned to them again, lowering her voice so only they could hear.

- Okay, who are the others? asked Renee. Have they been here long?

- No one’s been here long, said Diane. Except me and Annie.

The man sitting beside the two women nearest her spoke up,

- Sorry to eavesdrop. But yeah, we’re all New Yorkers. Don’t worry, most of us are pretty nice.

He walked over from his cot and stretched out his hand. He was tall, dressed in wrinkled slacks and a button-up shirt.

- I’m Matt Capaldi. Brooklyn too, Bay Ridge.

Renee shook his hand, as if in a dream.

- Renee Estrada. How long have you been here?

- Five days.

- And you’ve never seen someone leave or enter this place?

The second woman shook her head.

- It always happens when everyone’s asleep. We’ve tried to stay up, but it never happens if someone’s awake.

Matt chimed in again,

- I still think it’s probably . . . government? It looks expensive, anyway.

Peter’s voice rose again from the back of the room.

- Rich psychos. Russians. Or Saudis.

Renee could see from across the room that his eyes were closed, and his hands folded on his chest.

- Not that it matters. No one is ever going to see us again.

- Shut up, man, said the man in the back. I’m tired of hearing that. And tired of you.

Peter shook his head and smiled, his eyes still closed.

The man who had scolded Peter turned and disappeared into a small compartment in the back-left corner of the room.

Quiet conversations began to pick up across the floor.

- What’s the food situation? Renee asked with a weak smile.

Diane nodded toward the other side of the room.

- There’s a pipe in the back that drops these little cakes every day. It’s usually in the morning, but sometimes they come late, like today. You just missed them.

- They’re actually quite good, said Hanna.

Renee pointed to the back corner.

- I saw there’s a bathroom.

Hanna smiled wearily.

- Yeah, they’ve got everything, even a running tap.

Again, she let her eyes pass across the small herd of fellow captives spread out across the room, some standing, some reclining, their hair flattened slightly by a slight dampness in the air, their clothes rumpled.

- Which one is Annie? asked Renee.

As she spoke, she saw one of the women standing at the back looking over at her. She looked to be in her forties and wore a grey cardigan and white blouse with horn-rimmed glasses framing her face.

- I’m Annie, she said.

Renee looked at Diane and Hanna and smiled politely.

- Excuse me, she said, and got to her feet.

She crossed the floor, her feet slightly unsteady, until she was standing in front of Annie and her male companion, a thin man with curly black hair in a dark blue dress shirt who was sitting nearby. Annie was rocking gently on her heels, her arms folded. Renee extended her hand and introduced herself to both. Annie shook her hand softly.

- Annie Franz.

The seated man shook her hand in turn, speaking in a soft Caribbean accent.

- Emil Duhamel.

- You’re a New Yorker as well? Renee asked, turning back to Annie.

- Morningside Heights, yeah.

- How long have you been here?

- Seventeen days. I’ve seen five people get switched out so far.

- Do you know what’s going on?

- Yes . . . but it’s pretty complicated.

- Tell me, said Renee.

Annie sighed.

– There’s a lot to explain. But the most important thing is not to eat too much of the food. It’s all been drugged.

She looked Renee in the eye.

- This is part of an experiment that’s been going on for decades. It goes all the way to the top, the Vatican, the Rockefellers, the whole globalist empire.

Renee nodded slowly.

– The … globalist empire.

- Sorry to say, replied Annie, nodding ruefully. We’re all guinea pigs for population control.

Renee nodded and looked down, pondering how to respond. After a moment, she looked up and said,

– Ok. Thank you for that.

- You’re welcome, Annie replied. I’m here if you want to know more.

As Renee returned to the group around her bed, she caught Matt’s eye. He smiled.

– Anything?

– Well, she appears to be crazy, muttered Renee.

Matt frowned, nodding. Diane and Hanna were silent. Renee looked at the ground.

- So we’ve got nothing, she said.

Diane shook her head.

She saw that Annie had curled up with Emil on his cot. The man and woman in the back were lying down on their own respective beds. Peter was still lying on his bed with his eyes closed. She looked at Hanna, Diane and Matt, pressed her palms together and rested her cheek on the back of her left hand in a sleeping gesture.

- I’m going to rest for a bit, I think, she said. I don’t know what else to do.

The other three nodded.

– It’s late, anyway, said Diane. But if you can’t sleep and need someone to talk to, you can wake me up at any time, okay?

Renee nodded at her and gave a smile.

She lay down and stared at the ceiling, absently observing her companions in her peripheral vision as they dispersed to their respective cots. The dark green glass hung above her head impassively. The soft rubbery mattress shifted beneath her weight, and it almost felt like the floor of the room was rocking gently beneath her. She looked at her phone again, but the battery was dead. Her prior dizziness had subsided to a faint light-headedness, the same kind she often felt in her own poorly ventilated living room at this time of night.

The quiet sounds of conversation grew more intermittent, and within a half hour it seemed she was the only waking person in the room. The only sounds to be heard were the rhythmic breathing of her new companions, some regular, some fitful. The lights seemed to have dimmed imperceptibly. The room felt noticeably warmer as well. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her thoughts. She wasn’t tired, but perhaps if she let her mind drift, she could sleep. After an hour or so, she succeeded.

She dreamt she was back in her apartment. Evan was lying beside her in the dark. They were perched on opposite ends of her mattress, looking at each other’s faces, or lying on their backs talking upwards to the ceiling. Arguing with him had always felt like stumbling through an unlit room full of fragile objects. Eventually he rolled over, his back tight, shoulders curved. She reached out and grabbed his shoulder in exasperation, to pull him back to face her. She pulled, but he was unyielding. She tried to pull again, and as she did, a metallic screech filled her ears.

She lay on her cot in the dim light, hearing only the breathing of the others. A vague sense of unease fanned upward through her chest, as though she was being watched. Near the back of the room, someone’s breathing became labored, and descended into a droning snore. In the silence, she was struck by the heaviness of her companions’ breathing. They slept remarkably deeply.

A series of high-pitched knocks reverberated suddenly through the room in quick succession, like metal rapping against glass. She bolted upright and looked around the room. No one reacted; all appeared to still be unconscious. She placed her feet on the ground and listened hard. Minutes passed with no further noise.

- Did anyone hear that, she called.

There was no response. She slowly lay back down; her brow furrowed. The rhythm of the knocking sound had been irregular. No one else seemed to have noticed at all. She stared at the ceiling, touching her dead phone reflexively, as an hour passed without further interruption. She stared at the floor beside her mattress, her mind jumping between memory and speculation and abruptly she was asleep again.

Renee woke to the sound of chatter. She opened her eyes and rolled over. She could see Hanna sitting with Diane on her cot, eating a brown puck-shaped pastry. Behind them, the others were clustered around their cots, eating.

- It’s breakfast time, said Hanna, licking crumbs from her lips.

She beckoned Renee over. Renee put her feet on the floor and stood up.

- Did you hear that banging sound last night?

Diane shook her head and held out one of the cakes.

- No, I didn’t. Here, have this. There’s usually only two per person, so you need to make sure to get one before they’re all gone.

Renee walked over and took it. She was suddenly very hungry. She took a bite. It was crunchy and faintly sweet, altogether more pleasant than she had expected. She wolfed the rest down.

- Are there any more?

Hanna looked at her and held out her hand.

- You can have half of my last one if you want.

- Thanks, said Renee.

She sat for a minute, her stomach still rumbling. A woman approached her from the back. Her shoulder-length black hair had a bright sheen. She held out another half cake.

- If you’re still hungry you can have this.

Renee felt a wave of gratitude, and her eyes stung a little with unexpected emotion.

- Thank you so much, she said. What’s your name?

- Janice Wong, the woman responded.

- I’m Renee Estrada, she said.

- Yes, I heard, said Janice. I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier. It’s my first time seeing someone new arrive.

- How long have you been here? Renee asked.

- Two days.

Renee nodded.

- Where are you from? What do you do?

- Queens. I’m a pianist. With the Met. She gestured with her head. Do you want to sit down?

Renee said yes and followed her to her cot. They passed Peter, who was still horizontal, crumbs from one of the cakes scattered over his shirt collar.

Renee sat down beside Janice.

- So, you were the newest one before me?

- Yeah. It feels weird not to be the newest person anymore. Janice suddenly reached out and clasped Renee’s hands. This whole situation is so awful, we just have to be nice to each other.

Renee nodded, with a half-smile. She felt nervous but wasn’t sure why.

- Do you know why we’re here?

- No, said Janice. Nobody seems to have any clue. But I think … if things were going to be okay, someone would have already tried to tell us. We’re not being treated like people.

- I’ll treat you nice, baby, said Peter from the next cot over.

- Dude! shouted Matt from the other side of the room. You need to chill.

- I told you to shut the fuck up last night, added Emil.

- Yeah, yeah, Peter replied.

- What do you do, asked Janice.

- I’m a researcher in a lab at Sloan Kettering, replied Renee. I mostly work with mice.

- I guess we’re the mice now.

- I guess so, said Renee, tears welling up again as she spoke.

Sometime in the late afternoon, a scuffle broke out between Matt and an older man named Tom, who had a cot near the back.

- Dude, you said I could have one of yours like an hour ago, said Matt.

- Yeah, that was before someone took one of my last ones. Back off, said Tom.

- You are always fucking with me. What did I ever do to you? Matt replied.

Their voices grew louder and more insistent, and suddenly they were face to face. Tom shoved Matt, whose feet skidded back across the smooth floor. Emil moved between them, pushing them apart. Renee was sitting with Diane and Hanna. She could sense the fragility of the peace Emil was trying to preserve. She saw Annie walk quickly toward the tussle and stood herself with a start, darting to help Emil. She heard a slap and Emil’s voice rose in a high-pitched yowl.

- Ah, my fucking eye!

She threw her arms around Matt’s waist and yanked him back. As they staggered backward, she tripped over the corner of Peter’s cot and fell, pulling Matt with her. He landed partly on her hip, sending a cold pain through her side.

She could hear Tom’s heaving breaths as Emil held him back.

- Everyone, calm down, said Diane. It’s time to calm down. There’s enough food for everyone.

- You’re an asshole, Tom screeched at Matt.

- I’m going to kill you if you look at me again, said Matt.

- Guys, guys, holy shit stop, panted Hanna.

After a minute, a quiet settled as Tom and Matt sat in their respective sides, flanked by their handlers. Emil had his palm pressed to his eye, a column of tears running down one cheek.

- I’m so sick of this shit, said Tom.

- Exactly, said Emil. Everybody’s sick of this shit. That doesn’t mean you have to beat the brakes off each other.

- I didn’t need you to break it up, said Tom. He inhaled deeply and made to get up, but Diane put her hand on his shoulder, shushing him, and he stayed put.

- You’re a scumbag, said Matt.

- You are both idiots, said Renee, pushing anger into her voice as she stood, maneuvering to stay between them. I will smack the shit out of both of you if you do that again. I’m not playing.

- Seriously, said Emil. You hurt my eye really bad, Matt.

- I’m sorry, said Matt.

- It doesn’t matter, said Emil. But you’re not a smart man.

- I’m sorry, Matt repeated.

- Apologize to me, said Tom.

- Okay, I’m sorry, said Matt.

- Yeah, I bet you are.

The tension began to dissipate. Renee could feel a calm seep into her bones, as though the sudden excitement had activated some kind of intoxicant, and noticed the others’ breathing start to decelerate. Tom sat down on his cot, and Diane patted his shoulders. Renee stood by Matt until it was clear the confrontation was at an end. She walked him back to their side of the room and sat down, trying to relax.

- It’s not your fault, guys. They want to make us crazy, said Annie, looking downward. They’re cooping us up and running tests to see what we do.

No one responded. Janice and Peter were speaking together in low tones, perhaps for the first time, and Tom was still deep in conversation with Diane. His voice kept rising and falling with indignation, in contrast to her even, sensible tone.

- I need to let you guys know what’s going on, said Annie. It’s my fault for keeping this to myself.

Renee heard a yawn, and Tom’s low drawl saying something inaudible to Diane in the back of the room. The lights were already dimming.

- Look at all this, continued Annie, gesturing expansively. We need to put two and two together. We’re looking at a fishbowl as though it was the entire ocean.

- Please show us the way, said Peter.

- Shut up, Emil said to him.

Tom and Diane continued to mutter in the background as Annie spoke. The hum of their conversation ran against Annie’s monologue, made listening feel less obligatory.

- Ten years ago, I worked on a case that the Organic Farmers Association filed against the Department of Agriculture in New York’s Second District. We’d caught them tampering with GMO research. They would only monitor exposed lab mice for three months, even though it takes much longer for GMO’s effects to appear.

Renee closed her eyes.

Tom’s voice cut through her anecdote suddenly.

- Hey Matt, come here, I want to talk to you.

Diane tried to shush him.

- Shhh, Tom, remember what we were just talking about.

Matt’s eyes stayed focused on the floor, and he drew a shuddering breath.

- I don’t want to talk to you.

Annie continued talking, raising her voice over the chatter.

- They were stonewalling us, because the DOA, EPA and FDA don’t want you to know that all soy products have formaldehyde in them, which is a class one carcinogen. That’s why everyone feels sick all the time and doesn’t know why.

- That’s not how carcinogens work, muttered Renee. And I work with mice at Sloan, and I frankly don’t think you know what you’re -

- Excuse me, interrupted Annie. Why do you think we all woke up here right after a medical checkup?

Renee blinked.

- Is that true?

- True in my case, said Peter.

No one else responded.

- Yes, it’s true, said Annie. But no one’s saying anything because they want me to shut up.

Renee looked at Diane.

- Is that true? Did you have a doctor’s appointment the day before you arrived here?

Diane nodded.

- It’s true.

- Why didn’t you tell me that yesterday?

- Because I have no idea what it means. And no one has been here long enough to help me figure things out. Except for Annie.

Renee closed her eyes and exhaled slowly.

- And what is your theory, Annie?

- It’s not a theory. Back in 1972 the Club of Rome, which is run by the Vatican, published ‘The Limits of Growth,’ which predicted a so-called ‘catastrophe’ if the world population kept growing. Which started the so-called ‘environmental sustainability movement’.

- What are you talking about? asked Renee, opening her eyes to look at her. Annie glared back.

- I’m talking about Agenda 21, AKA the United Nations agreement for ‘sustainability’, AKA population control. The whole medical establishment is in on it.

Peter began singing to himself.

- I-I-I . . . I’m so-o in love with you . . . whatever you want to do, is alright with me-e.

- And in 1989, the US signed an agreement with Germany at the G8 to let our health and safety regulations go obsolete. And then-

- I know you feel strongly about this, said Diane. But you’re making everyone upset.

Peter’s voice kept on. – You-u make me feel, so-o brand new-ooh-ooh . . . Janice, I’m singing to you.

Annie looked at Diane with frustration.

- Well I get upset when people don’t want to know what’s going on. Even when they are, as we speak, literally trapped inside a globalist lab experiment.

Renee put her head in her hands, closed her eyes, and tried to picture the inside of her apartment, the green couch in the living room, the chipped paint on her bathroom window, the black stains at the bottom of her shower curtain.

- What’s the first thing you want to do when you get out of here, asked Janice suddenly.

Peter stopped singing.

- If I got out of here, I would try to go see my daughter, he said.

- I’m going to call my husband, said Diane.

After a pause, Tom chimed in, I’m buying a lotto ticket, for sure.

Emil laughed.

–That will have to be a winning ticket, man. We’re all going to have a run of good luck. We’ve got to, after this!

Renee heard Janice sigh.

- I hope we do get out of here, she said.

Annie waited for a few seconds after Janice spoke.

– If you really want to get out of here, just eat more of the food, she said.

- Why, asked Janice, after a beat.

- Whoever eats the most usually disappears next, Annie responded. Not always, but often. I’ve seen it happen five times now.

- You don’t know that, said Diane.

- I’m certain, Annie replied. Marco ate three cupcakes the day before Renee took his place. I saw him do it. And now he’s dead.

Peter started laughing.

– Here we go!

- Okay, said Diane. You don’t know that. I am leaving this conversation.

Renee shook her head, staring at the ground between her feet. She recalled the many times she had learned to ignore speeches on public transit, but there was nothing to distract her, nothing else to listen to.

Annie paused, and sighed. The other conversations had lulled. There was a soft tapping sound as Janice removed one of her shoes. Annie spoke again.

- Matt, Tom, I’m sorry.

Tom turned away from Diane.

- Sorry for what?

- I’m the one who stole Tom’s food. I think I started stealing about a week ago.

Diane kept talking to Tom, and darted sideways to maintain eye contact with him, trying to prevent him from listening. He turned his whole body toward her.

- Why, he asked.

- I can’t help it, Annie said. I’m pretty sure I’m addicted at this point. But it’s not my fault. I’m just a guinea pig, like all of you.

There was a pause.

- Annie, you’re totally nuts, but you’re closer to right than the rest of these idiots, said Peter. I’m going on the record with that.

Annie’s voice was strained with emotion.

- I’m sorry, everybody.

A tense quiet descended.

- It’s okay, said Matt. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s not your fault.

Some scattered mutters of agreement followed, and then nothing. Sparse chatter followed, as one by one, over the next hour, they all dropped off to sleep.

The next morning Annie was gone from her bunk, and a man in a black jacket was lying unconscious in the center of the room.

The new arrival seemed unwell. A layer of sweat covered his forehead and his breathing was heavy. Renee noticed that he was lying parallel to the grooves in the ceiling. Hanna and Matt sat down across from him as he slowly came to. He regained consciousness as they spoke to him, blurting out noises rather than words, like a patient after anesthetic. Hanna and Matt explained the situation to him patiently and kindly. His eyes widened as his neighbors tried again and again to explain things and introduce themselves.

- How long have you all been here, he asked, finally. His voice was thick and muffled.

- This is my third day, said Renee. She felt light-headed. She had switched roles.

Renee, Diane and Matt walked him over to his new bed, recently vacated by Annie. He sat down unsteadily and leaned back against one of the smooth rubber-like ridges along the side.

Emil sat quietly on his own bunk, avoiding everyone’s eyes. Janice tried to talk to him, but he refused. He had been lying beside Annie the night before, and his clothing was noticeably damp. Peter was quieter. Already everyone was gorging themselves on the round pastries, piled at the bottom of the aperture in the far wall. Hanna brought Henry two. He ate one and laughed weakly.

- Not bad!

He spoke, haltingly, above the sounds of crunching and chewing that filled the room.

Renee couldn’t bring herself to eat. She could see Hanna, Tom and Matt hovering around the aperture, glancing at the unclaimed cakes she hadn’t taken yet. She stood up and walked over to the dispenser, picked up her two pastries, gave one to Matt, who always seemed hungry, then brought the other over to Henry.

- Here, she said. You must be hungry.

- Thank you, he said. He removed his jacket, and his shoes.

- I . . . thought I was going to get kicked out of my place this week. So, this is almost like an improvement. He gave a mirthless laugh.

- Why kicked out, asked Hanna, joining the others seated around him.

- Two months behind.

- That sucks, Hanna replied.

Renee sat down beside Henry, and Diane stood up to go over to Emil, who was growing noticeably more upset. She sat down beside him and began talking to him quietly. Renee heard Diane ask Emil if he had seen anything, and saw him shake his head, his eyes downcast.

- Well, I wish I could tell you this was an improvement, but it’s not, said Renee, turning to Henry. As far as we can tell, it’s some kind of prison.

- We even had our own little prison fight yesterday, said Peter from his habitual reclining position.

- Oh, said Henry. His eyes darted across the room. I hope you guys worked it out.

- It’s fine now, said Matt.

Tom said nothing.

- I was going to mention this before. Are those handprints, asked Hanna. Look over there.

Renee looked over to where she was pointing. The edges of the room were filthy. Above the floor near the middle, one segment of the wall was decorated in a wild, dense pattern of smudges. Renee wondered how many people had been there before them.

- It’s creepy, said Hanna.

- That’s why I tried to stop you guys fighting, said Emil from his bunk. There’s no one to stop it. All kinds of things could happen here. Diane patted his shoulder supportively.

- Something did happen, said Tom. Your girlfriend stole my food.

Emil said nothing, and stared at Tom, who stared back for a second, then shrugged and looked away.

- Did I ever tell you about the time I met New Zealand’s richest man, asked Peter, sitting upright.

- No, who is that, asked Matt.

- He was giving a speech in the big conference hall, and we were doing the sound. Do you know what he said?

Peter held his hands up in an expansive gesture.

- He said everyone on Earth has a ‘net present value’. He had charts and everything. What they’re worth now compared to the future. And he said most people have a negative ‘net present value’.

- Sounds like a dickhead, said Hanna.

- He actually came to the audio booth to talk to us before the speech. Came in, shook our hands. I swear this guy never even looked at me once. Not even when he was shaking my hand. He didn’t care. I’m negative value to someone like him.

- I work with a couple people like that. It doesn’t matter what those people think, said Matt.

- Oh, but it does, buddy, it does, said Peter. That’s what none of you understand. This place is proof. That’s what it is. Being in here is what it means to have a negative net present value.

Henry got unsteadily to his feet and put one hand against the wall, the other on his throat.

-Is the bathroom over there, he asked. I think . . . I might be in there for a while if that’s alright.

He hobbled to the corner, then disappeared inside the compartment and slid the door closed. For the next several minutes, the faint sound of retching and moaning carried into the room. Eventually Diane got up and walked to the back corner, followed by Matt. She asked if he was okay, and from behind the door he said yes. A few minutes later, he emerged and shuffled back to his cot with his head down.

Later that evening, as the lights dimmed, Hanna started a game with Matt at the end of the room. They stood with their feet shoulder width apart, trying to push each other’s hands to cause their opponent to lose their balance. Diane, Renee, Tom and Janice watched with varying degrees of attention. Hanna had clearly played before, and outwitted Matt by pulling her hands back at the last second, causing him to lurch forward and stumble.

-Wow, said Janice. Very good, Hanna.

- I’m usually better at it, said Hanna, but I feel dizzy. I was a pro back in boarding school.

- Would you like to play, Renee asked, turning toward Janice.

- Sure, she replied.

They stood in the opposite corner to Hanna and Matt and chuckled as they positioned themselves. Renee looked into Janice’s eyes and held up her hands. Janice raised her palms to the same level as Renee and immediately shot her arms forward to push her over. Renee barely reacted in time. She barked out a laugh, and held her hands down below her hips, as Janice hovered, waiting to strike.

- Whoa Janice, cheered Emil, watching from his cot. You’re really going for it.

They stood in a stalemate. Suddenly Janice began pushing at Renee’s wrists underhand-style. Renee hid her arms behind her back.

- Is this allowed, she asked.

- Maybe, replied Janice. I say only for ten seconds at a time.

She continued to surveil Renee’s defenses, looking for an opening. Suddenly, Renee popped her hands up. Janice pulled back, but was caught off-guard, and stumbled backwards, almost falling. Renee darted forward to help her right herself. Janice smiled, but her eyes were wide and slightly tense. They hugged.

- Whoa! Oh my God. Think I’m getting a head rush.

On the other side of the room, Matt and Hanna seemed to be more evenly matched, and their fingers lazily intertwined every time they paused to chat. Renee was slightly distracted, looking over Janice’s shoulders at their warming interactions. Janice herself had grown listless and seemed to be losing energy quickly. Within fifteen minutes everyone had retired to their beds. Peter lay in his usual position. Emil was curled up, his head resting on his arm.

The newcomer Henry was deeply asleep, his breathing still a bit ragged. Tom faced the far wall, his back a large, rounded hump. Hanna and Matt spent several minutes speaking closely in their corner and had finally drifted to Hanna’s cot. Hanna seemed to have fallen off the mattress and was mostly on the ground. Matt lifted her back up onto her bed and then trudged shakily to his own. He collapsed on it with a slap. Diane lay on her side, her arms folded across her chest. Janice was almost non-verbal. She pointed, with one exhausted arm at her pallet, and made her way to it, swaying slightly.

Renee couldn’t tell if the damp, tepid air was to blame for the speed with which everyone had sought their bunks. She herself didn’t feel ready to sleep. Nor did she plan to. She looked around at the quiet, dim room. She lay down and stared up at the ceiling as her companions drifted off. Her stomach felt tight, but the pain of hunger wasn’t unpleasant. Her mind felt alert in a way it hadn’t since her first night. Taking care to make no movements, she waited. An hour passed, then another. Her eyes were unfocused, but she was very awake when she heard the sound again.

The near silence was broken once more by a shrill metal scrape like the one she had heard in her dream, two nights before. She lay still among her sleeping comrades. With great care, she shifted her weight slightly on the mattress for a clearer view of the room. As expected, the walls reverberated with two sharp knocks a few seconds later. Refraining from any sudden gestures, she scanned the walls for openings. Whatever was about to happen, would happen now.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw half of the ceiling slide open. A pitch-black surface floated where the roof had been just seconds before. She furrowed her brow and looked, trying to budge as little as possible, in case someone was watching. Her eyes widened. It seemed to be moving, undulating slightly. As she watched, a light emerged from the ceiling and shone onto the middle of the floor, before traveling toward her side of the room.

As the light settled on Matt’s sleeping body, a long, slick white appendage slid swiftly out of the dark billowing substance, curved sideways and darted towards him. It firmly encircled his middle and lifted him bodily upward as his arms and legs dangled, his head lolling backwards and bouncing gently. His eyes remained closed as he swiftly ascended to the ceiling. There was a sound like a stone dropping into a pond. Renee scrambled to the spot where he had disappeared, stumbling over Hanna’s dangling legs. She looked upward and gazed into the blackness, which she could now see was a rippling membrane of liquid hovering impossibly above her, beyond which Matt’s body, his arms and legs floated freely as he was pulled through the dark water.

He was illuminated by a pale, moving light above him, and as she watched another white limb fixed itself to him from behind. The appendages seemed to entwine and pull; there was a moment of tension, and then a cloud of blood billowed outward, partially obscuring her view. She could see him wilt as a mass of bone and tissue erupted from his back, and something larger latched onto him, pulling him away. The light faded along with his folded, drooping form and the view above her returned to an impenetrable black.

Renee felt a cold truth materialize in her mind, an echo of the sympathy pains she had sometimes felt for the mice in the lab where she had worked. She realized that she had fallen on the floor, her mouth open. She could feel the trembling of her vocal cords and hear her own screams as though they were coming through a wall.

A few seconds later the light from above the ceiling returned. She scrambled backwards, dreading to look up and see the shapes moving above her once more. Before her, a small compartment emerged on the other side of the liquid ceiling, its flat surface maneuvering until it was flush with it. The bottom opened and she could see a prone man in a yellow shirt being lowered down slowly on what looked like a plastic shelf. When the shelf had descended all the way, it tilted slightly, and he rolled gently onto the ground in the center of the room. The shelf rose back up on a pair of retracting rods, the door closed, and the box withdrew.

As she began bolting through the room, trying to wake her companions, the light intensified and moved toward her. She grabbed Hanna by the shoulders and shook her. Hanna’s eyes opened halfway, and sounds escaped her lips, but her pupils would not focus. Renee could hear herself whimpering, and she dropped Hanna to run to Diane. She tapped Diane’s face, begging her to wake up. Beneath her panic, she felt a surge of affection for the first person to speak to her in this place. Diane opened her eyes slightly, her eyes rolling beneath her eyelids.

- Diane, please wake up, said Renee. They’re killing us. They killed Matt; it’s some huge fucking thing in the ceiling!

- It’s okay, said Diane faintly, sounding barely conscious. It’s going to be okay.

- They ripped him apart! Renee shouted, weeping. They’re killing us!

- I know sweetie, said Diane. It’s okay.

The light was hovering above her now, almost like a spotlight following her movements. She turned from Diane, and a howl tore through her throat as something long, thin, pale and impossibly strong pinned her left arm to her side and tightened around her chest. It jerked upwards and she was lifted with such speed the liquid ceiling smacked her in the face.

The cold enveloped her. Bubbles poured from her mouth as a second, long tendril wrapped around her back. It was almost gentle, dragging her swiftly forward, the motion pulling at her lips and eyelids. She couldn’t see anything. Freezing water spilled through her lips. Her whole body felt squeezed by the combined pressure and motion. She could feel other slack extremities brushing her shoulders and legs, fluttering along as they moved through the blackness. Her panic rose and her body spasmed, though the coils around her waist remained tight. She saw light streaming through her eyelids and then gasped as she felt warm air on her face and forearms.

She opened her eyes, coughing, to see the arm sliding backwards up through the hole in the ceiling of wherever she was, and beyond it, maybe twenty feet up, she could see her old tank, floating above her. She gasped for air and coughed for what felt like a minute straight, struggling to pull herself backward as she gazed upward at the eyes looking down at her from the aperture above.

The eyes were lamp-like and unmoving, fixed on her as it hovered above the opening, its organs illuminated. The light was obscured by thick dark clumps in its torso, perhaps food. Its many limbs fanned out around its translucent body, some limp, others busily treading water. She stopped coughing, pulling herself back, unable to think.

The ceiling shut, as before, but its surface was a dark red, rather than green. The new room was bright and warm, illuminated by shimmering lights from beyond its transparent walls. In the middle of the room were two cots located about ten feet apart. The room was much like the previous one, but was differentiated by its emptiness, its maroon ceilings, and more dramatically, its walls and floor, which were perfectly clear, revealing a vast, yawning vista, full of twinkling lights that almost resembled stars, yet more expansive than any view of the night sky she had ever seen. She staggered to the window and touched it with her palm, looking up and down through the glass in every direction.

Through the black water, she could see scores of long, boxy tanks like hers gently floating in the distance, some far below and some as high up as she could stretch her gaze. Against the light emanating from the boxes, she could see the silhouettes of long thick wires attached to the top corners of each floating enclosure, rising upward toward the surface. Each tank was internally lit like the one she had left behind, and completely transparent from the outside, and inside she could see the tiny figures of people sitting, sleeping, eating, standing, and talking, oblivious to their external visibility. In one tank, perhaps one hundred feet away, she could see dozens of people stacked horribly on top of one another, barely able to move.

Between and beyond the constellation of floating capsules, hundreds of swimming shapes dipped and weaved through the water, emitting light like a dimly lit city that spanned the horizon in every possible direction. She turned from the view and in the center of the window behind her, emitting a pale glow that shimmered through its many fluttering limbs, she saw the undulating shape hovering in front of her tank, its flanks expanding and contracting like a fish, its round, unblinking eyes fixed on her for an endless moment. Then it turned and the light dimmed as it swam away. Towering above her little tank, the rows upon rows of capsules, connected by shivering cords, stretched upward like a lattice of some gargantuan undersea vegetation. Its verticality dwarfed anything she had seen; seemingly endless structures, a maze of rectangular, transparent human aquariums, which rose up above her, possibly all the way to the surface.

Charles Reinhardt

is a bookkeeper who lives with his aunt in Manhattan. He has written in the past for Barnes and Noble Review, Christian Science Monitor, Jacobin, Hazlitt and Maclean's.

All contributions from Charles Reinhardt

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