Aren’t You All Aglow In Your Thousand Yard Stare
Rand woke with a start, her eyes observant as they darted around like a frightened animal watching out for a predator. Her body, however, was heavy with the exhaustion that seemed to pull her down into the flimsy cot.
Rand had been curled up in a fetal position when she finally came to, the knuckles of her right hand chalk white from gripping the end of the cot, its mattress drenched in a pool of sweat that lay underneath and around her body. She made a sudden, violent jerk and gasped for air with a groaning hiss, filling up her belly with the stale air thirstily before letting it out with an audible heave.
“God, how long did I go without breathing?” she thought.
The dampness under her gown was uncomfortable, so with difficulty she got up to her feet and stood against the cool air in the cell in the hope that maybe the draft would dry her out.
She pulled at her smock from various places on her body in vain. It had been a few days since she and the others were given shower privileges, so the days old dirt on her skin mixed with the perspiration, making her itch.
Started, Rand turned to where the voice had come from, and spotted a dark haired young woman in the cell next to hers, to her right. The expression on the young woman’s face was hesitant, inquisitive as she leaned against the glass of her cell and waved to Rand.
“I see you’re back,” said the young woman.
Rand raised a brow. “Is this woman an idiot or what?” she thought.
“Yeah, I’m back. Was I supposed to be disappeared or something?”
The young woman smiled. “Some have, actually.”
This was true. There were at least a couple of cadets that came to mind. This was a program of elimination, after all, as those who couldn’t hack all of this state-sponsored abuse ended up being dropped from the program, or leaving on their own accord. The guards were all too delighted to tell the remaining cadets about it also. Rand felt bad for those who had spent four years of their lives training in The Academy, only to crack up during this Crossing the Rubicon program. How it must have been like for them to return to their dorms and pack up while they tried to come up with different ways to tell everyone back home that they would not be graduating and why!
“’Tis true,” said Rand sympathetically. “But, luckily, not that many. Most are still here, Thank God.”
The young woman smiled back at Rand. “Let me tell you, this is a long, long way from Mount Holyoke.”
“You went there?”
“Got my degree in Astronomy and Sociology there and entered the Academy straight away. How about you?”
“Similar story. Cultural Anthropology and Library Science at from Rutgers back in Jersey.”
“Oh, a Jersey girl, huh? I have family there. Where from?”
“Oh, I know Montclair. That’s in Essex County, isn’t it? “
“Yeah, that’s the place. Wish I was back there.”
Rand didn’t usually go in for small talk. She found it downright irritating at times, but in this lonely place, in these conditions, it was a real welcome.
“What did they do to you?”
Rand was taken aback by the sudden turn of questioning, though she really shouldn’t have been surprised.
“What did they do to you?”
“You don’t waste any time, do you? Who may I ask wants to know to know?”
“You mean my name?”
“That might help.”
The young woman giggled. “I’m sorry. It would make sense to introduce myself if I’m going to ask questions like that, huh? My name is…”
The young woman mouthed out what must have been her name, but Rand couldn’t hear what the name was.
The young woman tilted her head, clearly puzzled. She looked around her cell and then back at Rand, pointed at both her eyes and shook her head, clearly indicating that she could no longer hear her.
“What the hell is going on? Why can’t we hear each other? “
But there was something that Rand could hear.
It started out like a low humming breeze, building up into a strong wind with a howl that morphed into a brutally piercing whistle that invaded and reverberated inside her head mercilessly. She pressed her palms against her ears in a fruitless attempt to block out the sound and shut her eyes tightly. Then, she felt a rush of cool air slam her body, and when she opened her eyes she saw a group of guards running into the cellblock, long rods in hand, placing themselves in front of each cell as the doors rose. Rand’s door revealed that same stocky female guard sneering at her, that same female guard who has been right there by her side-to push, shove and bully her throughout this whole ordeal. She reached in, grabbing Rand by the arm and yanked her. Rand was hurled out of her cell and tumbled onto the ice -cold floor, landing hard on her hip, making Rand yelp in pain. She could see other cadets being thrown on the ground, yelling in protest. Some of them cursed at their guards, and were rewarded by a level shock from the rods. Others raised their hands in surrender and escaped that punishment. It was a scene of menace, chaos, in the black chrome plated halls of the cellblock. Rand looked up and glared at her guard, who stood over her legs apart and hand on hip while the other hand held the rod strategically over Rand’s head. Rand looked dead square into that torture device, and knew better than to invite a shock to her system the way some of the more unfortunate cadets had. She raised her hand in surrender and then when with the other hand placed it onto the floor and hoisted herself up. Slowly, she walked towards the center where she and her guard converged with the others as they marched in line down the long, wide, black hall. The hall was cold-it always was outside of the cell, and Rand hoped that wherever they were going it would be warmer, but she wasn’t holding her breath.
The long march was a dismal one, both visually and mentally. Rand was consumed by a mounting anxiety as she wondered exactly what kind of bullshit was in store for them, and as the black hallway came to an end they entered a wide stairway, with an interior of dark grey punctuated with a horizontal dingy white line painted across the wall. In front of the cadets stood massive grey steps, which were just a few shades lighter than the surrounding walls. The whole visual language for Rand was morose and oppressive. One of the guards, a young man with a blond buzzcut and overdeveloped thigh muscles, positioned himself up front so he could face the group, pointing to the stairs with the staff in his hands. “Go,” he said simply.
The cadets went up the stairs. They went up in slow, deliberate steps, as the stairway had no handrails on either side of them. For Rand, it was almost like walking on a tightrope, but with no net underneath to catch your fall.
“If I fall on my face and bust my teeth, the Academy better damn well supply the dental work,” she thought.
Finally, the cadets reached the landing-much to their relief. But they had a ways to climb, as they had to go through yet another long wide hall. They continued on the stairs for a good while until the group came up to a black partition wall.
“To your right, prisoners.”
The cadets turned onto a passageway that opened up into what looked like an arena, but with no spectator seats. There, imbedded into the lacquered floor was a wide, large round grid that closely resembled the Wheel of Fortune from the Tarot card deck. The grid was black like everything else in the room, but it seemed to be dull and somewhat faded, as if with advanced age. It looked old, like a relic against the backdrop of the gleaming floor and walls of this imposing area.
“Exactly what are they going to do to us here?” Rand wondered.
Rand turned to either side of her and looked at each of the cadets on line, amazed that more of them didn’t drop out of the program. She couldn’t tell whether it was a testament to their academy training, or to whether it was a strong aversion of returning home with their tail between their legs. Frankly, she was amazed at herself for hanging on so far. Nothing would make her parents happier if she came home, whether it was for failing this test or for finally realizing the insanity of it all and quitting. They had wanted her to stay in New Jersey and pursue a graduate degree…
“Prisoner Rand! Are you paying attention?!”
Rand turned to her ever present and viscerally irritating female guard, who was suddenly up in her face.
“Do I have a choice?”
The female guard answered with a glare, and Rand smiled back mockingly.
“I guess the answer is no.”
The female guard gripped tighter onto the rod and hefted it with both hands in order to punctuate her point. Rand certainly took notice of the gesture, but didn’t lose her humor, looking back up at her guard.
“Fine,” she said rather blithely. It was then that this guard stepped back and away from Rand so that she could position herself to address the cadets.
“See this grid over here, prisoners?”
“You are to step up, one at a time, onto this grid. Then, you are to walk around until we tell you to stop. Now, let’s go.”
The cadets all looked at each other and then the guards. The expression on their faces betrayed hesitation, distrust.
“Let’s go people!”
The cadets slowly walked onto this grid wheel, stepping over the various sections, compartments and wedges to avoid misstep. Rand stepped onto the grid, too weary and disgusted to be scared. It was always this way with Rand, her moods swinging from anxiety to annoyance, hotly wired to utterly bored, from fearful to indifferent. It was at this particular moment that Rand had a real ‘fuck it’ attitude.
But she knew that it could turn on a dime.
The cadets continued on the wheel, following the directions of the guards as some were told to stop and stand where they were while others continued to move about. It wasn’t until each cadet was face to face and across from one other that the guards told everyone to stay in position. Rand stood, facing another young woman right across from her. A brunette, but not the one she had been talking to earlier back in the cellblock.
An echoing sound came from the middle of the grid, like a sliding compartment door. From out the bowels of this wheel, a ball popped out of a round hollow slot.
There it sat, big and red like an eye sore against the monolithic dark of everything else in this place. Another sound followed, and the ball was set free as it slid down until it landed onto the feet of a male cadet, who looked at it with apprehension.
“Why are you staring at the ball?! Push damn thing! Push it to another prisoner!”
The male cadet, clearly confused, bent down and pushed the ball hard, rolling it to the female cadet who was positioned right across from him. The ball bounced off her feet softly a few times, then stopped. The young woman hesitantly bent forward from her waist and pushed the ball.
The ball was completely at the mercy of the grid, with its network of grooves, angles, corners and slots as it finally made its way to the feet of another female cadet. This young woman, a petite blonde, eyes Rand from across the grid and pushes the ball towards her. Rand watches as the red ball glides on the grid and reaches her feet, bouncing a couple of times before it stops. She looked up and searched through the faces of the cadets standing in their assigned spots until she spotted the female cadet who she had been speaking to earlier. Rand smiled at her, and the young woman smiled back and waved. Rand bent down to push the ball in her direction.
Time passed, and as this activity continued the mood among the cadets began to loosen up. There were even some smiles and tepid laughter coming from them as they bent forward and pushed the ball to each other like dutiful school children.
After a few more passes of the ball Rand received it again, and laughing more heartily, she sought out the same young woman whom she had passed the ball to earlier and rolled it to her with a flourish. The young woman laughed herself and bent forward to get the ball. As he reached out with both hands, a low-pitched scraping came from underneath the spot where the young woman was standing.
A deafening, searing crash reverberated throughout the chamber. Rand turned and looked at the other cadets, who appeared just as bewildered as she was.
Then, she heard the scream.
It sliced through the grid and throughout the arena, high-pitched and screeching as it faded, swallowed up by the sheer distance of the fall. Rand turned her attention back to that young woman, but she was gone. The spot where she had stood was empty. Rand suddenly felt sick. What the hell were they doing to us, and where in the hell did that woman go?
What did they do to her?!
Rand could see an opened slot that revealed a hole, a black pit where the cadet had fallen. Rand felt sick. For the first time since this ridiculous game began, she was terrified.
She leaned forward, trying to get a view of the opening where the young woman had fallen through, but saw a grayish slab glide over the pit, effectively closing it. The murmurings of the other cadets rippled throughout the arena, rising and falling in different pitches.
Then, another red ball appeared from the center of the grid.
“What’s wrong with you people?! Let’s go! Roll the goddamn ball!”
The cadets quieted down, turning to the buzzcut blond guard stomping onto the grid wheel, his cartoonish thighs making rubbing sounds against the fabric of his uniform. Picking up the ball with an exasperated sigh, he tossed it a little too hard to a young man who caught it hard in the chest, his arms wrapped around the ball in a bear hug. He stood there a bit, trying to get his bearings after such a hit. This clearly annoyed the guard as he pointed a finger to the cadet in a threatening manner.
“I’m going to walk off this wheel, and when I do you better be rolling that ball like a good little prisoner,” he said icily.
He walked a few inches before jumping off the wheel, and when he did the young man dutifully bent forward with the ball in his hands and rolled it. The ball stopped at the feet of another young man, who slowly picked up the ball with slightly trembling hands and sighed with relief when he didn’t fall through the ground. There was a murmur of sighs and chuckles from the cadets around the circle.
“Come on, roll the ball!”
The cadet, clearly more at ease now, bent over and rolled the ball to a tall, gawky blonde woman. There was no open slot and no fall. The game continues without anymore incident, though there was an air of tension throughout, as cadets could be seen wiping their sweaty brows, biting their lips, glancing at one another with looks of uncertainty. Then, a few passes later, a stocky brunette leaned over with her palms open as the ball headed towards her. She picked up the ball slowly, and sighed as she turned to the young man to the left of her. They nodded to each other and smiled, acknowledging her good fortune.
The stocky brunette, and everyone else, turned to the area on her right, to the spot that was now empty of a red-headed male cadet-an open slot glaring at the frightened cadets as its door slid closed slowly and mockingly against their howls, exclamations and complaints.
“Shut up! Keep playing,” yelled one of the guards. “Keep playing or you’ll end up playing a game even worse than this one!”
Rand could feel her insides scream. Sweat poured from her brow and entered one of her eyes, the salt stinging the corner of her lid. When was this going to be over?! When was this nasty little game going to end?! She clearly saw how it was going to end, but how long could these bastards prolong the inevitable? God, you didn’t even need the fucking ball in your hands to be eliminated. These guys were really playing dirty with this Ten Little Indians shit!
The young stocky cadet held the ball in her hands, shuffling her feet. Her eyes were wide with terror and confusion as she turned to the other cadets; it was like she was trying to ask what she should do next.
“I’m warning you, prisoner!”
The cadet bent forward and pushed the ball to someone else. What else was there to do?
The game continued. For Rand, it seemed to go on forever. When she was not handling the ball herself, Rand followed it with her eyes-not like one would during an ordinary game of fun like she had earlier-but with wariness, like someone who paid very close attention to her enemy. At times she would get a glance at the other cadets, with their knitted brows, drawn lips, and darting eyes. They acted more like members of a bomb squad, trying to deactivate a MOAB then they did participants in a ball game.
The ball rolled to a short male cadet. He reached for the ball half-heartedly, and held it by the tips of his fingers as if there was a corrosive sheen on its base.
“What the hell does he think holding it like that will do?” thought Rand as she watched the cadet hold the ball at arms length as he proceeded to bring the ball towards him.
Then, Rand heard a creaking.
“Good Lord,” she thought wearily.
The chute opened, and the cadet fell through the slot.
Rand shook her head in disgust as she stared at the vacant spot where the cadet had stood.
“They couldn’t even wait for the poor sap to pick up the fucking ball!” she thought.
Then, Rand felt the floor begin to vibrate beneath her.
She looked down.
“Oh, my God…don’t’ tell me…”
Rand felt the force of the drop throw up her arms as she descended rapidly. She screamed while her stomach leaped to her throat, her eyes widening and blinded by tears. She was surrounded by a huge panorama of black, the endless chrome black that had been with her since the beginning of this ordeal. The velocity billowed out her prison garb, exposing her legs while her ponytail flapped like a sail. Underneath her was a glistening sea of black that she couldn’t’ make out, and her terror increased as she got closer to this unknown.
Rand landed feet first onto a taunt, smooth springy surface, bouncing before landing on her buttocks with her legs flying in the air. She grabbed the mat underneath her in order to steady herself and then raised her arms to hoist herself onto her feet. As she got up, Rand was seized by waves and throbs swirling in the lightheadedness of her skull. The fabric stretched underneath her as she made her way out of the center. Rand didn’t know where the hell she was, but she did see a male guard standing by the edge of this black membrane standing by, like he was waiting for her. She labored against this irritating air mat until she reached its end, her feet unsteady. Rand fell a few times as she waded towards the male guard, who was joined by another one of equally grim temperament. When she was close enough they reached over and pulled her up; they did so unceremoniously, like she was a chicken being pulled by its neck before being laid on the butchering block. Rand fought the urge to vomit up all those dried-up yeast squares that passed for food in this program, though upchucking on one of the guards might have been a bit of fun.
“Hey, take it easy damn it!”
One of the guards shot Rand a menacing look as he brought a finger to his lips. She rolled her eyes while she was escorted to a corner where she spotted familiar faces-the other cadets who had fallen through the wheel earlier. She scanned their faces, noticing the boredom, the fatigue. Probably tired and bored of this whole ordeal, this test.
God knows she was.
The room is humongous, like an airplane hanger. The black plaited hue of the area hovered over like the wings of a bird of prey. Sounds of scraping, clicking and squeaking could be heard from the ceiling, their sounds permeating the area with their dull, hollow, heavy echoes.
Rand was exhausted, and in her exhaustions she was particularly irritated by this noise hanging over her. She looked up, and her eyes landed on a colossal, black cylinder embedded in the ceiling. Then, like a shot, a trapdoor at the bottom of this massive wheel opened, and a screaming cadet was dropped out of its body. Rand watched dispassionately as the young man made his howling descent. He fell, feet first, onto the mat where he disappeared in the rubbery membrane of the material. The other guards hurried over to the mat and retrieved the cadet, pulling him up in the same abrupt way they did her. Watching this unfold in front of her, Rand shook her head in disgust while she folded her arms over her chest and snorted.
“Space had better be worth all this shit,” she thought.
End of Chapter 5