Chapter 12 – Earth, Five Months Ago
Mercury was getting good at keeping secrets.
The fact still felt strange to her; she’d always seen herself as a pretty open person, before. But the nightmare in which she lived, a nightmare of alternating painful horror and soul-deadening living conditions, required that she learn how to keep secrets.
The first secret she’d learned to keep was her name. That was the most important secret, the one she could never let anyone know – not even the other kids, lest the scientists and that horrible Director somehow drag it out of them. She recited it to herself every night, along with the other names that were most precious to her, but only in her mind. She couldn’t risk that secret ever getting out.
The second secret was the clandestine meetings with the other kids. She still marveled at their powers; Lyra’s growing ability to send and receive the voices from six separate cells, through solid walls and without anyone outside the conversation overhearing, boggled her mind even after all this time. And Mercury found that sharing stories and info about normal life in the real world, however silly and trivial most of it seemed, gave her focus, something to anchor her sanity so that she – and, by some extension, the others – didn’t completely lose themselves in the soul-deadening atmosphere of this place that treated them like objects. For those short periods, she could ignore the shuddering fear of what they all were being molded into.
The third secret was newer. She was still learning to understand it, just as she was still learning to understand these horrible, deadly, microscopic nanites that lived under her skin and in her eyes and, she suspected, deep inside her brain. But they had uses, she was learning, and an extremely handy one had just become clear to her.
She could remember what the nanites saw when they left and later returned to her body.
Mercury sat on a bench at the side of the training room, taking her allotted five-minute break while the others sparred. Brock was putting on a show, the electric rods in his hands throwing sparks like small fireworks. Mercury pretended to watch as she put her hand down on the seat and reached out for her nanites with her mind.
One convenient factor of her condition was that the nanites could move to her. It hadn’t seemed like a convenience at first. They had very little will of their own, but no matter how hard she’d initially tried, she couldn’t make them stay away. They acted like magnets – which she found ironic, being pretty sure she’d learned in Middle School that mercury wasn’t magnetic – and always found their way home. Because of this, the cleaning staff had stopped bothering to mop up the little splotches of silver that dripped from her wherever she went. If she’d realized this talent a little sooner, she could have made less effort to stop leaving those messes as she gained more control.
Thankfully, no one found it strange when she started leaving small dots around again. They would just clean themselves up, after all.
As the few droplets of mercury nanites slipped across the bench like a rolling seaslug and absorbed into her hand, Mercury held in a small gasp. It was always so strange when the nanites came back into her system, transmitting their saved observations into the main network. Disorienting to momentarily see the world in her mind’s eyes from floor-level, all of the passing people and objects like giants. But she was getting better at sifting these dizzying sensations and searching them for information. What kind of information, she didn’t know; but even if it was just one more way to feel less helpless and trapped, she was happy to take it.
Mercury suddenly gasped for real, as if she’d been sharply punched in the stomach. One image that flashed through her mind, almost too quick to parse, was pulled back, and she closed her eyes, hardly daring to believe it.
There was a new man at the facility. And a new child. A short, petite little girl, blonde, bright-eyed, sucking her thumb. She couldn’t be older than six – Were the others that young when they came here? Her stomach rolled, then rolled again. Because the face of the man standing next to the little girl was one Mercury knew.
One she had prayed never to see again.
Her break ended, and Mercury returned to the mats. The other kids sent her sidelong glances for the rest of training practice. They’d never seen her spar with such fury before.
They met the new girl a week later. The new man, another doctor, led her by the hand. Mercury avoided his gaze, avoided the questions and rage boiling in her gut, and focused on the little girl. She had braced herself for a crying, sobbing mess, similar to her own arrival; or, at the very least, another docile puppet, molded into submission like the others had been when she’d arrived.
“Pretty eyes!” the little girl exclaimed softly, pointing at Mercury’s face. Mercury stared at the girl, completely caught off guard. Dressed in a one-piece jumpsuit like the other Subjects – this one orange – the little girl nonetheless looked around the room with a sort of shy excitement. She gazed up at the doctor, chewing her small lip. “I’m staying wif them now?”
“Wi-TH,” the doctor corrected with surprising patience. Scientists in this place were rarely patient unless it could gain them a specific result. “We will work on your pronunciation at your next lesson.” The little girl nodded, one hand gripping his starched pantleg while the other directed its thumb back into her mouth.
The doctor straightened, his face smoothing out as he looked over the six older Subjects. There was the imperious attitude they were all used to. “I am Dr. Brian Thomas. I have just been transferred to this facility as Subject 7A’s personal handler. I expect you will make her feel welcome.”
“Yes, Dr. Thomas,” the six Subjects responded together. Dr. Thomas nodded, but hesitated before leaving. His gaze finally, almost hesitantly, shifted towards Mercury’s cell. When their eyes locked, everything else disappeared.
He remembered her. Of course, he did. She couldn’t have expected differently. Well, she would make sure he was aware that she remembered him, as well. Mercury narrowed her eyes, communicating as much of her fury across the short distance as she was able. I know you’ll punish me, her thoughts seethed. I know you don’t care. But I want you to know just how much I hate you.
She expected him to look down his nose at her, as cold and inhuman as she remembered. Maybe flinch or look worried, if she allowed herself a bit of wishful thinking. So it was a shock to her system when his face relaxed a fraction, the stiffness on his face turning… relieved?
“I will be in the observation room,” Dr. Thomas said, breaking eye contact with Mercury to address the whole group. “This is 7A’s first interaction with a large group of her peers, and so your behavior will be very important to her social development. Be polite and do not agitate her. You will be graded on the appropriateness of your conduct.” The man hesitated fractionally, then bent over Subject 7A, gently working her hand from his pantleg. His voice lowered, gentled. “Remember what we talked about, okay?” She nodded obediently, taking her thumb from her mouth. Mercury’s confusion increased at what almost looked like worry on Dr. Thomas’s face. But just as swiftly, the man straightened and exited the room, reappearing behind the observation window alongside doctors Vern, Samson, and Jansen. The Director, Mercury noted with gratitude, hadn’t attended.
Mercury didn’t know what to think about the man’s alien reactions to her, or to Subject 7A. But the little girl stood awkwardly in their midst, looking lost and anxious. Better to focus on her for now. Whatever she could do, it wasn’t as dangerous or unstable as Mercury’s abilities, if they were introducing her to the entire group so quickly. Mercury felt a smidge jealous, but she put on her best non-fake smile for the new member of their group.
“So, 7A,” said Brock, crouching down so he was level in height with the blonde girl. “What cool thing can YOU do?”
7A looked down at her hands, probably wanting to suck on her thumb again. “What’s that mean?” she finally answered, shooting him a quick, nervous look.
“You’re here ‘cause you have a cool power, right?” Brock pressed eagerly. “Something you can do that nobody else can?”
“Oh!” 7A shook her head. “I don’t do anyf— an-y-THing cool.” She enunciated carefully, her look of concentration almost comedic.
The kids exchanged perplexed frowns. Shannon was just opening her mouth to say, “Then why are you—?” when 7A held up her hands, cupped as if holding something.
“But I have my friends!” she added quickly, her blue eyes brightening. “Maybe fey, um, they-re the cool thing?”
In her hands sat a butterfly. But not exactly a butterfly. Its wings were huge, far too large to have fit in the little girl’s hands. And the body was that of a tiny dog-like animal with a long, curling tail. Brock yelped, taking a reflexive step back. But his surprise didn’t last long, and soon all six kids had gathered around her, staring in amazement at the tiny creature.
“What is that?!” Shannon whispered, reaching out to touch it. Her finger seemed to press into it a little, like her hand might keep going straight through if she really tried. The creature chirred as if pleased, curling in on itself and running small circles over and around 7A’s hands. “That’s so weird… I can feel it, but it’s almost like it’s not all here,” the redhead murmured. “Is this an animal?”
Mercury shook her head wonderingly. “No, it’s not… not a REAL animal…” She noticed Subject 7A staring at her with the beginnings of a pouty lip, and hurried to add, “I mean, it’s not any animal I’ve ever heard of… but it’s very cute.” Cute didn’t even begin to describe this thing. But what was it?
“Cute,” Dirk snorted as if it were a bad word, but even he couldn’t hide amazement over the tiny creature. None of the original five Subjects had seen an animal in person before; it could have been a beetle and still held their attention. But this thing, with its gaudy colors and sparkling eyes, would have enchanted the sternest critic. Dirk grudgingly reached out a finger to poke it, but 7A took a sudden step back, her hands closing over her “friend.”
“Fruby needs to go ‘way now,” she said shyly, and when she opened her hands again, the creature was gone.
There could be no doubt now that this little girl had a reason for being here. But stranger than the unexplained nature of her power, at least to Mercury’s mind, was how innocent this little girl seemed to be – about both her power and her terrible situation.
As if to punctuate the point, 7A took a tiny step towards Mercury, shyly holding out a hand. “Do we get to play now?”
She had known he would come to see her. Not where or when, but still, she’d had a feeling. She just hadn’t expected it to occur during one of her testing sessions. Mercury walked through the door, already bracing for the painful and degrading process, but seeing Dr. Thomas standing over her chair made her freeze.
The tall, brown-haired man looked innocent enough; if she’d met him on the street, she would think he was one of her dad’s friends. Which made his involvement in this madness all the more chilling. She had learned this lesson hard: you really couldn’t know who to trust.
Dr. Thomas didn’t say anything at first, simply studying her as the door slid shut at her back. He glanced up at the corners where the cameras hung, then walked to the computer against the wall and typed a few commands. Finally, he turned and looked her square in the eye.
“You remember me,” he said. It was not a question.
“Yes,” Mercury answered coldly. She stood rigid as a pole, every alarm in her head screaming. But she would not show fear to this monster.
Dr. Thomas breathed out a sigh of relief and wiped his brow. “Thank God,” he whispered. “I’d hoped, but I wasn’t sure…”
Mercury stared at him, so appalled that it shocked her out of her silence. “You WANT me to remember you?!” she yelled, for once forgetting the risks of raising her voice in this place. “You WANT me to remember what you did to me?! How you ruined my LIFE?” But Mercury stopped short, his words catching up to her. “Wait… why wouldn’t I remember you?”
The man’s eyes closed, pained lines creasing his face. “No… no, I’m sorry. That’s not…” He took a deep breath and forced himself to meet Mercury’s gaze. “I assumed they would have told you, if you did remember. Haven’t you noticed that none of the other children can remember anything before this facility?”
Mercury paused, curiosity briefly supplanting her anger. She had wondered about that. The answers the others gave her were always hazy at best – that there was a “big hole” before the Facility. “Yes… I assumed it was… something you all did to them.” She tensed. “Something that you’re going to do to me, probably. Well I’m not going to take it lying down, do you hear me?!” Silver runnels of mercury crept around the edges of her suit, traveling into pools inside her fists. It probably wouldn’t do any good, they knew too many of her weaknesses, but she wouldn’t let them take the last vestiges of her old life without a fight…
But Dr. Thomas raised his hands in a warding gesture. “No, no! That’s not why I’m here. I mean, yes, that is what happened.” He took a deep breath, gathering himself before trying again. “When the Subjects… the children… are sent from the experimentation sector to the training facilities, their memories are wiped so they can be developed with a fresh mind. But you… it didn’t work on you. Do you remember when we… when I put you in a large metal seat, and something was attached to your head?”
Mercury hesitated before nodding. The strange device had hurt, but nothing had come of it; she’d nearly forgotten the brief incident, paltry compared to the other things she’d suffered there and in her new prison. “Yes… it was right before I came here…”
“That should have suppressed all your surface memories,” Dr. Thomas explained. Was his tone actually apologetic, or was this a trick? “They can’t do a complete mindwipe, or it would destroy many of your basic motor functions. But for you… I could tell when you came out that something had gone wrong. You were gone before I could properly look into it, and I couldn’t get straight answers from the staff here.” He pointed at Mercury’s head. “My theory is that the mercury nanites in your brain are acting as a… a sort of databank, for your memories. Or they blocked the signals being directed at your brain. Either way… you didn’t lose your memory. Just as I hoped.”
Mercury shook her head, rubbing her arms against a sudden chill. They tried to take my memories… She wouldn’t have known who she was any more than the other kids did. An even worse thought came to her: had they been like her at one point? She’d assumed they were somehow raised in this place, but… could some or all of them be from the outside, too, and they just couldn’t remember?
“Why are you telling me all of this?” She glared at this man, her tormentor, one of the impassive faces who had stripped away everything normal and good and innocent in her life. “What were you hoping for? Forgiveness?” she demanded acidly. Fury was tainted by a stirring of guilt even as she said it; “Forgive as you have been forgiven,” came Mom’s words from her memory. But Mom didn’t know what she had been through – what this man had DONE to her…
Dr. Thomas looked strangely… sad. He rubbed his hands together, staring down at the floor.
“I’ve heard that you gave the other Subjects names,” he said quietly.
They had wondered for some time if the scientists knew about the names. Hearing it spoken so bluntly by the enemy made her shiver, but she held her chin up. “Yes.”
Dr. Thomas nodded, still not looking at her. “Subject 7A… you don’t need to name her.”
Mercury stiffened. She hadn’t had a chance to ask the little girl about names yet, but she’d been planning to, as soon as she could get her alone. “Why wouldn’t I?” Was she really challenging a scientist? After all this time? Fear writhed inside her at the thought of what punishments she’d receive for this. But so far, she was getting away with it, and it felt good to finally vent some of her anger. To stand up to one of them. “She deserves to be a person as much as any of us.”
“Because.” Dr. Thomas met her gaze. “Her name is Jenny.”
Mercury couldn’t have been more thrown if the man had turned into a donkey and done a dance number. She stared at him slack-jawed while he continued, his voice furtive as he glanced over his shoulder at the cameras. “We can’t talk like this for long; I convinced them to let me review one of your testing sessions, since I was involved in your original development. But they’ll notice the audio feed has malfunctioned if it goes for too long.” Mercury barely resisted looking up at the cameras. The doctor took a step towards her, stopping abruptly when she skittered backwards.
“I transferred Jenny early because of you,” he said urgently. “Because I hoped you would remember. Please, I… I need your help.” He swallowed. “I want to get Jenny out of here.”
Mercury stumbled back until she ran into the door. This couldn’t be real. The man who had so callously taken her life from her couldn’t be saying he wanted to help one of his experiments escape. He couldn’t have a heart for another Subject, not even that sweet little girl. He couldn’t!
“I know I’m a monster.” Pained lines filled his face, as if he knew her thoughts. “I couldn’t hide from the truth anymore, not after Jenny… grew on me. I was able to convince them to keep her memory intact, because of what she is and for the sake of her unique powers, and to let me transfer here with her, but…” He stared at his hands, his countenance ghostly pale. As if he saw blood dripping from them. “What they might do to her… I can’t bear it. I can’t bear any of this anymore.”
Hope, long dormant, leapt like a spawning trout. Fear lashed back at it. This had to be a trick! “No.” Mercury snarled, but she was trembling. “No, you’re a liar! You can’t expect me to buy this!”
Dr. Thomas nodded resignedly. “I understand. You have every right not to believe me. But… but please, think about it.” He glanced up at the cameras. “We need to get back to your testing now. I promise I won’t be… I won’t be cruel. But for the sake of appearances, I have to keep going through the motions.” He gestured at the chair. “Please.”
Mercury slowly sat, and the normally-scheduled testing session began. And he hadn’t lied; the exercises they went through were simple, covering what she could comfortably do, all his commands and queries given in a patient, respectful tone of voice. It was the least painful, the least humiliating of her testing sessions since she had come to this horrible place; she could have been at a real doctor’s office for a routine exam, if not for the poisonous nanites shifting at her command.
There were more moments when her rage, her humiliation, surged to the surface, and she wondered what it would be like to turn those nanites on him. Let him see up close just what he had helped create: a living weapon, designed to destroy. He deserved to—
But shame and horror chased the thoughts away. She wouldn’t become that – not for him, not for anyone. She wouldn’t kill. And he was being kind. That confused her most of all. This man, the source of so many of her nightmares, was never kind.
She didn’t trust him. He couldn’t be trusted. But his strange plea wouldn’t totally leave her mind.
And so we meet Jenny! She’s changed a bit since I first wrote her, becoming a bit more withdrawn but still bright and talkative when she trusts you. It’s a little hard to write a child that young, which is weird since I have a nephew her age XD; One reason why this chapter isn’t from her perspective. Despite her having Dr. Thomas on her side, she’s still to some degree emotionally damaged by her experiences, as can only be expected. But she always has her ‘friends’ to keep her company, so she does pretty well! She’s a resilient little squirt. ^^ Btw yes I named her after me but it started as a placeholder XD I wasn’t tryna do a self-insert! But then it stuck and I never changed it, so HERE WE ARE
This is actually the first part of what WAS the final chapter for the kids. I’m glad I decided to split it up; Barrenger’s remaining chapters are all so long, it was easy to find a splitting point for each of them! I’m hoping it will also make the transitions a little more fluid. We shall see! Thanks for reading and see you next week!