A routine developed.
In the mornings there was breakfast—four bowls lined up by the door. You wanted to test your theory about the connection between behavior and food, but, watching the other complacently swallow mush from their bowls, you knew you couldn’t.
The days were spent in the cavernous training room.
The morning’s instruction was focused on mastering the beams. Once you were able to walk across easily without losing balance, Green Eyes and Red began teaching you various skills. First, you learned to walk backward. This endeavor generated a number of large purple bruises on your limbs. Next, you were asked to complete various hops on the beam. Green Eyes and Red started bringing a large assortment of medical supplies with them to the training sessions
In the afternoons, you continued your training in various acrobatic maneuvers. You acquired a number of new techniques for falling.
At the end of each day, you were brought back to the tiled room to be cleaned.
The first day that one of the white-coated As led you to the room, S refused to enter, freezing in the middle of the hall. You stopped beside him. He reached out and grasped your hand so tightly your knuckles ached.
The A waited in the doorway of the tiled room for a few seconds before pinching the bridge of his nose and walking back into the hallway toward you and S. He pried S’s fingers away from yours and shoved you in the direction of the room. Then he bent down, wrapped his arms around S’s middle, and lifted him from the floor. S went berserk, screaming and battering the A in the face and torso with his fists and feet. The A dropped him to the floor, and S scrambled away on all fours, before finally finding his feet and running down the hallway. He didn’t get very far. The door at the end of the corridor slid open. Three As pinned S to the floor and shoved a needle into his neck. Then, they carted a lifeless S into the tiled room.
This practice became standard. Every day S refused to enter the room, and every day a needle was shoved into his neck, and he was forcibly hauled in to be cleaned.
In the tiled room, each of you was submerged in a metal tub filled with whitish water that smelled peculiar. The vapors irritated your eyes and nose, both of which started leaking when in close proximity to the tubs. After only a few minutes, the water began to sting your skin. Due to this pain, you attempted to leave the tub early on the first day. The attending As forced you back into the water, gripping your shoulders for the rest of the bath. You added the marks from their hands to your collection of bruises.
After the third cleaning, you noticed reddish, flaky patches developing on your body. After the fifth, you were peeling off strips of skin three inches long.
L2’s patches itched. After a day of scratching them, they became sores that bled and oozed yellowish pus. Once the sores were noticed, bandages were taped over them. The bandages, however, did nothing to obstruct L2’s itching. Blotches of red and yellow soon bloomed through the white gauze. One day she disappeared after cleaning and was returned to your room with her hands encased in shiny white gloves. You and L1 attempted to remove them at her insistence, but they would not come off.
After examining the gloves—they were denser and tougher than they looked—S slapped his hands against them, amused by the hollow thunking noise that the gloves made. He then attempted to fashion them into a toy, insisting on playing his clapping game with L2. After he had grown bored of that game, he beat L2’s gloved hands against the posts of one of the beds, creating a rhythm that L1 added to by smacking his hands against the floor.
Once L2 had the beat going on her own, S stood up and performed a dance that made the rest of you laugh so much that the rhythm fell apart.
Using the bed for leverage, L2 pulled herself up off the floor and came to stand in front of S. She spoke to her brother over her shoulder. He nodded and began slapping his hands against the floor again, motioning for you to do the same. It took you a while to find the right tempo, but, eventually, the rhythm built back up. L2 then waited for S to start dancing again, so she could copy his actions.
She learned the dance quickly, but her movements were unbalanced and clumsy due to the weight of the gloves. Frustrated with her inability to move as she pleased, she jumped up and down, pounding her feet into the floor. Then, she screamed, piercing and incoherent, and rammed the gloves into the wall. Alarmed, S quickly backed away from her and attached himself to your side. L1 stepped forward to wrap his arms tightly around his sister and pull her away from the wall. She writhed in his hold, her flailing hands bludgeoning his body. She started screaming again, her face red and tight.
You fell asleep that night listening to L2’s whimpering.
In the morning, L2 refused to leave the bed despite her brother’s prodding. When Green-Eyes and Red came to collect you, Red attempted to coax her from the blankets, using the playful, light tone she always employed with L2. In response, L2 stuck out a gloved hand and thrashed it around wildly, knocking Red in the face. A small trickle of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth. Green-Eyes pulled her away from the bed and placed a small white cloth in her hand. She blinked rapidly and stared at the bed L2 occupied, absently dabbing at her mouth.
Green-Eyes clapped his hands to get your attention and motioned for you and the others to depart the room. You and S complied. L1 climbed back on the bed and sat down next to his sister’s cocooned body. Green-Eyes walked back across to the room to the bed and knelt down in front of L1, resting his hands on L1’s knees. He spoke softly as he gently pried L1 from the bed and set him on his feet. He bodily blocked L1 from climbing back on to the bed and, still speaking in a calm, soft voice, wrapped L1 in his arms and carried him from the room.
Once in the training room, L1 refused to do anything that was asked of him, choosing instead to perch on the edge of the mat at the room’s center. Red periodically called to him from her place by the beams while gingerly probing at her face with tentative fingers. Green-Eyes sat silently with L1 on the mat for a little while before finally tapping L1 on the knee and pointing over to the beams. L1 wrapped his arms around his legs and began rocking himself slowly back and forth. Green-Eyes stood and pointed to the beams again. L1 started singing to himself. Green-Eyes stopped asking for his participation.
When you returned to your room in the evening, L2 was gone. Only three bowls were brought for dinner. Once the lights dimmed signaling bedtime, L1 stripped blankets from one of the beds and hunkered down in them, close enough to the door to hear the movements outside in the hallway.
For the next two days, L1 refused to leave the room. You assumed he would be taken away like his sister, but the As opted to leave him in his little nest. They did stop bringing food for him, but he displayed no interest in eating. He displayed no interest in anything other than staring at the door. Only when L2 returned did L1 finally rouse himself. He stood, shook off the shroud of blankets, and studied his sister. She reached out to touch his arm. He knocked her hand away and screamed at her. Eventually, the screaming turned to sobbing, and, when he could not speak anymore, he picked up the blankets from the floor and crawled into bed.
L2 left him alone that night, choosing instead to settle in with you and S in the bed furthest from L1’s. She draped herself around S, who was always happy to have someone to cling to, and molded herself into your side. By the morning, L1 had joined you, curled up at the end of the bed.
Breakfast that morning was uneventful.
This routine—breakfast, then training, then cleaning, then dinner, then bed—was not overturned until they introduced the floating boards.
On the twentieth morning of your stay, you were taken to an empty room adjacent to the training room.
Green-Eyes spaced you out at equal intervals on the floor while Red poked at a panel on the wall with her fingers. She pressed one final button, and red holograms—the shape of the floating boards you saw on your first day—appeared beneath your feet. Then, with a mechanical humming, two platforms rose from the floor. Red stepped up on to the first one. Green-Eyes took his place on the other—a broad inclined plane that sloped down toward you. You could see that he stood on a hologram that was identical to yours.
Red had a small device clipped to her hip. When she pressed a button, tones of various pitches would sound. With every series of tones, Green-Eyes would rearrange his feet on the hologram. One long high pitch and he shifted his weight forward. Two pitches—one high and short, the other low and long—and he shifted his weight to the left.
Once they had finished going through the whole series of interconnected movements and sounds, Red played the very first series of tones again. Green-Eyes repositioned his feet, shifting his weight back to his heels. Red played the series again, and each of you attempted to place your feet in the correct configuration. When you got your feet in the right place, the hologram lit up green.
By the end of the day, all of you had apparently more than satisfactorily learned which tones prompted which actions. On the way out of the room, each of you received a smile from Red and a ruffling of the hair from Green-Eyes.
The next day, they determined how well you had taken to their conditioning. Red would play three tone series in sequence while Green-Eyes provided you with a visual aid. From his actions, you gathered that you were supposed to perform the series of movements in the order Red was providing. For you, this posed little problem. Long high pitch meant shifting forward on to the balls of your feet. The next pitches signaled a shift to the right. The final pitches signaled you to dig in hard with your heels. Your hologram lit up green. No one else’s did.
The rest of the day continued in this fashion. You weren’t sure why the others were having so much difficulty matching the sounds to the movements. You tried to help them, but Red wouldn’t allow it.
That night, through a series of complicated gestures, S requested tutoring for himself (and, it seemed, for L1 and L2 who nodded along with S from their perch on the bed). You did your best whistling out the tones and helping them get the right configuration their feet. Once the lights inside the room had been dimmed, you worked by the orange glow of artificial lights outside the window.
The next morning they could perform any combination Red gave them. Given the dismal performance from the day before, Red appeared puzzled. Then, the look on her face shifted, she spoke to Green-Eyes, and they both turned to look directly at you. Their blank expressions unnerved you. You were not ashamed of what you had done and could not even fathom why it was wrong. But, apparently, it was. The unsettling feeling of heavy disapproval followed you the rest of the day and slept beside you that night.
The next time you were led to the empty room, it wasn’t empty. Four of the boards were sitting, inert, on the floor by the east wall. They were thin, less than an inch thick, and about a foot and a half wide. Green-Eyes gently nudged the four of you in their direction. S approached with caution, sticking to your side. L2 leaned down to run her fingers over the machine’s smooth edges. L1 poked at it with his toes. You placed your foot into one of the grooves on the machine’s surface. Then, because no one told you to stop, you positioned your other foot into the second groove. S followed your example—once he determined nothing bad was going to happen. L1 and L2 stared at you and S for a moment, then shrugged at each other, and climbed on their own boards.
When you were all settled, Red stood at a safe distance and played the first series of tones. The accompanying movement turned the machine on. It vibrated delicately beneath your feet. The second series of tones signaled a shift that propelled the machine forward. You had to adjust your center of balance—as you had been doing on the beams—in order to stay upright while moving. Responding to Red’s commands, you did several slow short circuits in the room before you were given the signals to stop, lower, and power down the boards.
It was addicting, the sense of power and pleasure that came from the machine. All of you had to be pried from the room, and none of you, not even L2, displayed any interest in that afternoon’s acrobatics instruction.
The next day’s instruction focused on raising and lowering the board to various heights and speeding and slowing forward progress. The following day, since you had more or less mastered these skills, Green-Eyes and Red allowed you to play around on your own.
Flying was much better at faster speeds and higher altitudes. It would have been perfect if you were outside. You imagined flying over towns and fields, heading toward home. You imagined the others flying with you, saw their faces, flushed red by the wind, glowing in the sunlight. You could picture the circle of homes, could see your mother standing in the tall grass waiting for you. A tightness erupted in your throat.
You had raised your board about five feet from the ground, just about parallel with Green-Eyes’s head. His entire attention was focused on S, who was still having difficulty maintaining balance at higher speeds. S’s attention was waning, and Green-Eyes placed his hands on either side of S’s head to get his attention. You turned and pressed forward with your feet. The board picked up speed. When you were less than three feet from him, Green-Eyes turned abruptly toward you. You banked a hard left and went zooming upwards. From elsewhere in the room, Red started yelling at you while playing the sequence “slow, lower, stop, off” over and over again. Pressing backward with your heels, you slowed down. Turning your feet outward, you lowered the board. You stopped, hovering an inch or so from the ground and turned the board off.
Furious, Red stalked over to you. Green-Eyes intercepted her and said something that made her even angrier, but she turned away from you and went back to watching the others. Green-Eyes came over to you and extracted you from the board. You were exiled from the rest of that training session, forced to sit outside the room.
The following morning, Red prevented you from going to train with the others. S turned to look at you, bewildered, when she barred the exit with her arm. Red gave you a hard stare and allowed the door to slide shut, creating a barrier between you and the others. You were left in the room but not for long.
The door opened again. Green-Eyes stood in the doorway. He smiled and beckoned for you to come to him. You hopped up from your perch on the bed, the mystery of Red’s behavior solved. She was still angry, so she had left you in the room. Now Green-Eyes had come to take you to training. He guided you down familiar hallways, his hand weighing comfortably on your shoulder. But then he took you into hallways that weren’t so familiar. You looked up at him, but he just smiled back at you, squeezing your shoulder. He eventually stopped outside a door, slid it opened, and walked you inside.
Looking around the room, you suddenly recognized where you were. The same tray of instruments sat in the corner. The same plastic padded bed with the restraints rested against the wall. You bolted for the door. Green-Eyes caught you under the arms, lifted you up, and deposited you on the bed. Another A entered the room and helped hold you down while Green-Eyes fastened the restraints. You twisted against them, creating burns on your skin. Green-Eyes placed his hands on either side of your head and spoke to you, saying the same word over and over. His fingers stroked your forehead. He could not calm you. Your nerves were split wide open, your body thrumming, overrun with panic.
Someone’s hand clapped down on your arm. Something sharp jabbed into your wrist. As the room lost its definition, you felt the restraints loosen. A hand carded through your hair. You heard someone crying.
You were still awake when you were lifted out of the room.
You began to drift off when you were taken outside.
You did not fall asleep until you were locked within the metal walls of a truck.