The Dead Sea
The wanderer has walked atop the dark waters for as long as he remembers. A silver sheen with tinges of blue and white starlight reflects off the surface of the sea. Motionless waves, their crests reaching high above the wanderer’s head, are adjoined as winding walls that curl and twist into an intricate labyrinth. An inch of surface water blankets the viscid floor and ripples away from his footsteps. Those gentle disturbances, accompanied by the wind that sings over the still waves, are among the few melodies in his sanctuary. The labyrinth stretches in all directions and has no end that the wanderer can find, though he has only sought an end to appease his curiosity. He searches not for a resolution or reward.
He comes to a stop and kneels to observe the serpents swimming below. Some are long and thin. Others are wide. Some boast frills and natural light. Others are near impossible to spot. Some dart to-and-fro while others ride the invisible currents with scarce the flick of a tail or push of a flipper.
Rippling water disrupts his view. The wanderer looks up at an approaching figure. It is a watery specter, a faceless humanoid. It towers over him and extends its hand. He regards the being with pause. Specters rarely acknowledge his presence, let along seek contact, and wander without aim.
The wanderer reaches his own hand. Red veins stretch beneath his translucent skin and coil around his blue bones. The specter’s skin is like the sea. It lifts him to his feet and leads him through the valleys of water. The specter drags its feet across the water and never breaks contact with the surface.
The wanderer follows the specter to an intersection of multiple winding paths in the labyrinth. Dozens of specters, more than the wanderer has ever seen, appear from each path, and the specter who led him gestures to the center of the clearing. The wanderer obeys and continues to the center alone.
Once in position, one star brightens until the rest are lost behind its light. The wanderer lifts his hand to block the intense spotlight. Something descends from the light and spirals around him before sailing along the surface of the sea and diving into the water. Another object descends, then another. He catches one. It is a shard of glass or ice. Let drop, it joins the thousands of shards swirling around him in an upside-down tornado. Then fanning out over the sea in every direction, the shards plunge into the water. Their collective light, both from above and below, becomes unbearable.
The wanderer shuts his eyes, and he feels fear for the first time.
The wanderer’s ears ring. A blinding light pervades, but its heat and hue differ from before. His eyes flutter while adjusting. He is lying down. Something rough and scratchy envelops his body. Every part of him hurts, especially his neck, where something chokes him. Finally, his sore eyes adjust enough to open. That rough and scratchy thing covering his body is a hospital gown. Handcuffs, their cold hard metal like ice against his skin, bind his ankles and wrists to a bed with sheets like sandpaper. He recognizes these things despite never seeing them before. His skin is pale, no longer translucent.
The wanderer is imprisoned in a small sparse room. And he is not alone. Four other beings occupy the room, and he recognizes them as humans. His sight is blurry, but three of them are dressed in bulky all-black uniforms that hide everything except their eyes. They also wield weird-looking guns. The fourth person, standing at the foot of the bed, is a pale young man dressed in black cargo pants and a gray T-shirt. A black, horseshoe-shaped collar grips his neck and frames his Adam’s apple.
“Can you hear me?” the young man asks, his voice hesitant.
The wanderer tries to respond, but his dry mouth cannot form coherent sounds. Where am I? What happened to my sea? Why am I shackled? Who are these people? If I somehow got out of these cuffs, would they kill me? He tries to speak again and again. His heart races as he fight at the restraints.
“Stop trying to talk and just nod if you can hear me,” the young man says.
The wanderer relents, closes his mouth, and nods.
“My name is Excelsior, and your name is Alaudae. I’m sorry if you don’t like it—I don’t pick the names.”
Alaudae groans and tries to sit up. His sense of balance is nonexistent.
“I know you’re scared,” Excelsior says. “I was scared too when I was born. The reason you can’t talk yet is because you’ve never used your vocal cords before, and the same goes for the rest of your body. Your eyesight is blurry, the bedsheets probably feel like a sea of needles pricking your skin, and my voice makes your ears ring.” Excelsior smiles shyly. “At least that’s what it was like for me.
“Your senses received no stimuli during growth, so the world will take some getting used to. During the past few months, you’ve grown from a zygote into an adult. You were removed from your growth tank today. Around here we refer to is as your birthday.” Excelsior pauses and stares at Alaudae. “Do you understand any of that?”
Alaudae shakes his head.
“What’s the first thing you remember?” Excelsior asks. “Do you remember walking on a dark ocean?”
Alaudae feels naked at the mentioning of his watery sanctuary.
“We call that place the Dead Sea,” Excelsior continues, “and you may not have been alone. The beings with you—I call them ghosts—hopefully they were nice to you. Sometimes they can get nasty. Earlier today, after removing you from your growth tank, doctors installed a collar just like mine around your neck. Using it they then coded your brain with artificial memory. While we’re on the Dead Sea, our minds usually project the memories as shards of glass that fall from the sky.”
Alaudae groans and tries to speak again.
“There’s a lot to cover,” Excelsior says, speaking over him. “I have to move quickly. We are in Starforge, a secret government facility in the Nevada desert. The year is 2040. There are others like you and me. All of us have been in your place. Over the next few days we’ll teach you about this place. Do you understand?”
Excelsior stands there with his brown eyes narrowed and strained, as if simply holding them open exhausts him. Alaudae does not respond to the question. Believing you, not understanding you, is the problem.
“I’m going to uncuff you,” Excelsior says. “You promise not to try anything stupid?”
Alaudae nods. He stiffens when Excelsior approaches him, and once his hands are freed, he reaches for his neck. But having never used his arms before, they flop around while he guides them to the thing choking him.
“You could paralyze yourself if you mess with your collar,” Excelsior warns, uncuffing Alaudae’s ankles. “Its rods burrow into your brain, and the bone around it is still healing.”
Alaudae scratches his arms and legs. Though he cannot see his bones, he feels them turn in their sockets. He feels his muscles stretch and flex. He pulls his skin and watches it snap back in place. His tongue dances over his teeth. His eyelids skim his eyes. He sweeps the peach fuzz cresting his head. He perceives the things he lacked when wandering the Dead Sea.
Excelsior brings a wheelchair alongside the bed. Alaudae tries to move onto it but flounders. so Excelsior pulls him into the chair and sets his feet on the footrests.
Excelsior pushes him out into a hallway. The three uniformed men escort them, one leading the way, the other two following. The floors and walls of Starforge are unpainted concrete. Fluorescent lights embedded in the white ceiling radiate a sickening white-blue glare, but Alaudae refuses to close his eyes. Starforge looks like a hospital. A few nurses, all in blue scrubs, roam without urgency and glance without expression at Alaudae when he is wheeled past them.
The men escort them to a small gym with one wall of solid glass and several high-tech exercise machines. Excelsior brings Alaudae to a doorless bathroom tucked into a corner and helps him change into an outfit provided by a nurse. Everyone watches him struggle. The clothes match Excelsior’s, except Alaudae’s gray T-shirt has no writing on it. Excelsior ties his shoes. After changing, Excelsior leads him toward one of the exercise machines, but Alaudae pulls back and shyly peers into the bathroom mirror.
His body is unrecognizable. His short hair is black. His eyes look almost black—off-putting against his pale skin. He wishes they were brown, like Excelsior’s.
“M-m-me,” Alaudae stammers.
Excelsior gives him a weak smile. “Yes. That’s you.”
“I have no comment on the matter. Come on. We have a lot of work to do.”
Excelsior guides Alaudae onto a massive treadmill, whose handles he clings to stand. A team of three nurses attaches several patches and contraptions to his body without objection, but he resists when one presents a respirator mask. After several assurances from Excelsior, Alaudae relents and covers his face.
“We’re going to teach you to walk,” Excelsior explains. “The knowledge is already in your head, but your muscles need to practice the coded instructions. We usually start with walking—that way I don’t have to push you around all day. Then we’ll move on to other exercises. Got it?”
Alaudae shakes his head. The nurse operating the treadmill ignores him and sets the band at a snail’s pace. Other nurses lift his legs for him, pulling one in front of the other and bending his knee. Within a few minutes he is stumbling on his own, though his joints hurt as much as his muscles burn. And nurses are ruthless. They reward every modicum of progress by speeding up the treadmill until he is running.
“I know it’s tough,” Excelsior says, slumping in a chair by the door. “But they don’t have time to waste. They need to see if you’re ready.”
Alaudae grimaces. Ready for what?
A lanky middle-aged woman enters the room and closes the glass door behind her. She wears a classic white lab coat and glasses, and she introduces herself as Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief physician of Starforge. Her smile looks forced. Her perfect posture is robotic. Standing in front of the treadmill, she produces a collection of cards from her coat pocket and begins quizzing Alaudae. Some of her cards are solid colors, some display animals, and others have basic math problems. The breathing mask muffles his responses, so he nods or shakes his head to answer.
“Is this red?” Dr. Miller asks, her voice masculine.
“Does four times five equal seventeen?”
Alaudae starts to nod then jerks his head to the side. Some answers leave him as easily as an exhale. Others elude him for an embarrassing amount of time, but he passes the test. Once finished, Dr. Miller tells him that she will continue quizzing him in the coming days, and that the difficulty will steadily increase. He tries to ask some questions of his own with half-formed words and grunts.
“Some of your memory packets aren’t ready yet,” she says, cutting him off. “We stagger the installations so that your memory will develop over the next forty-eight hours. It keeps your brain from being overwhelmed. The consequence is that there’s a lot at the beginning that is murky and frightening. Excelsior and the others will do their best to help you.” She turns to leave and mumbles something to Excelsior on her way out.
Alaudae groans after the nurse again hastens the treadmill, its band whining loudly with each circuit, his legs pounding the platform harder and faster to keep up. The heavy pants roast his legs. The muscles in his legs swell. The skin on his arms gleam with sweat. He focuses on the new sights and sounds and does his best to ignore the physical pain, the likes of which he has never experienced.
There’s no way I was born today. Something, a car accident maybe, put me in a coma, then I dreamt of the Dead Sea, and I’ve awoken with amnesia. This—all of this is—is a bizarre psychology experiment. Alaudae tries to voice his thoughts to Excelsior. His mouth flubs the words. It’s not because I’ve never used my vocal cords, I just I haven’t used them in a long time. Because of the coma. The really long coma.
His wobbling legs get a break as a nurse winds down the treadmill, though Alaudae remains tense even as he slows to a stroll. He rests his hands on his waist and continues walking. The nurses study computer screens and key information into tablets. Excelsior gazes at nothing.
The three uniformed men stand in different corners of the room and also have blank stares. Alaudae studies the nearest man. His weird gun is about two feet long and has a wide muzzle brake and a pistol grip. It has a dome cage where the carrying handle would be and is without a buttstock.
How do I know what a pistol grip is? Maybe I was in the military and I’m here recovering from an injury? That could explain the amnesia. The collar around my neck is a brace and these physical evaluations are testing my recovery. Excelsior was also wounded in combat. But why would they act like I was born today? Psychology experiment?
Alaudae forces himself to relax. He swallows saliva to wet his dry throat. There is a water fountain built into the wall near the closest man. He would prefer a gallon jar, but the puny cups from the dispenser next to the fountain will have to suffice. Still shackled to the treadmill, he asks the closest man for water with the best enunciation he can manage. The man glances at him with a blank look, so Alaudae tries again and points at the water fountain.
“He won’t do it,” Excelsior says.
The man fills a cup with water and walks over to the treadmill, his right hand still clutching the gun. Alaudae reaches for the cup, but the man stops and pours the water on the ground. He chuckles then returns to his post.
Excelsior gets a second cup at the fountain and brings it to Alaudae, who is hesitant to take it.
"I’m not like him,” Excelsior says. “Take it.”
Alaudae grabs the cup and drinks while eyeing the man. “W…what?” he asks when finished.
“Those men guard the facility,” Excelsior answers. “And they keep us from escaping.”
Alaudae’s quick, shallow breathing dries his throat. His eyes dart from guard to guard, sizing them up. His heavy stomach strains his body worse than fatigue. His attention settles on Excelsior, his only friend.
“We’ll do our best to explain everything,” Excelsior says. He breaks eye contact. “I will do my best. You’re my responsibility. Most of what you’re about to hear and experience is not easy. You’ll get angry and fight back and try to escape. I did. Before I continue, there are two things you have to understand. One is what I just mentioned—we’re not allowed to leave. Trust me, many in the past far stronger than you or I have tried and failed. Do as you’re told, and you won’t get hurt as much. Secondly, you and I are not human beings.”