In my defense, I hadn't actually been trying to get hit by a truck.
The first hint that something was off was the smell. Or, more precisely, the lack of it.
It didn't immediately occur to me that I should've been anywhere else aside from the dubious comfort of my cheap mattress. Therefore, as I woke and stretched and moaned and did all the necessary things to rouse myself from among the sleeping dead, it wasn't quite until I opened my eyes that I realized something was off.
Because the ceiling I was looking up at was clearly not my own. It was white and too clean. It lacked a ceiling fine, serpentine cracks running across, that weird brownish-red stain in the corner I'd always been too afraid to touch even with cleaning gloves. And it definitely wasn't supposed to be comprised of smooth, spotless white metallic panels.
Then the realization set in, and I bolted up in my bed. Or, really, "my bed". Quotation marks because, first, it wasn't mine - a fact I discovered as I looked down and yelped and fell out of it like an idiot - and second, it didn't look like a bed. In fact, it looked more like the kind of pods space people in the future sleep in, where you're either floating in some kind of liquid or frozen. I'm not really a nerd, but I've seen enough sci-fi things simply through the sheer power of pop culture osmosis. And speaking of sci-fi...
The room I was in was brightly lit, about the size of a high school classroom, and was similarly comprised of those spotless, white, grooved metallic panels, save for what seemed like a futuristic-looking screen here or some kind of black super advanced machinery I couldn't identify there. All things I would've described better had I any idea what they even were, all the markings of a super far-flung future that belonged in a sci-fi film.
Which probably meant I had been abducted by a secret government cabal. And definitely meant I was suddenly very, very far from home.
I thus felt it was entirely appropriate for the next three words that came out of my mouth to be "what", "the", and something rather impolite, roughly in that order.
I spent a while sitting frozen on my ass like a little pussy and gauging my surroundings before coming to the conclusion that there wasn't going to be a distorted voice on unseen speakers going "I want to play a game".
"Hello?" I called out as I walked down large, wide corridors, halls, and chambers, my voice - which I hoped sounded inquisitive rather than scared shitless- echoing off too-clean walls in the empty silence.
The good news, for better or for worse, was that I still had all my clothes: A cheap suit-blouse-skirt in slightly mismatched colors, picked up at a garage sale where a middle-aged woman had kindly offered me a pity discount until it became clear I intended to haggle down from even that. So no one had undressed me and put me in fetish wear yet. Not exactly a particularly optimistic outlook, but it's sort of amazing to see the twists and turns your brain makes when you want to look for any hint of comfort in an alien situation.
Speaking of aliens, I had probably been kidnapped by them. That was my revised assessment after I finally became half-convinced that the room I woke up in wasn't some kind of death trap, and that it was okay to get off my ass and explore. That, or I’d sleepwalked onto a truly humongous set for Hollywood's next multi-million dollar sci-fi blockbuster. Or, like I said in the beginning, I'd actually been kidnapped by the government and sent to a high-tech facility like Area 51 or something.
The first possibility was stupid, only slightly credible in the mind of a scared little shit like me. The second was a bit more probable until you realized that - seeing how everything here was actually made of metallic substances and glass instead of cardboard and green screens and CGI - this was well beyond the budget of even Hollywood. The third was most probable on its face, save for the fact that I was more likely to have been kidnapped by aliens looking for random test subjects than I was of government interest.
The architectural theme largely repeated itself as I walked further and further, surrounded by black metallic walls largely covered over by large white metallic panels that were so clean and pristine that they were almost semi-reflective. This minimalist design was sometimes complemented with gold-colored highlights that might've been wrought from real gold for all I knew, all well-illuminated by nothing in particular; there were no obvious major sources of light, nothing like a fixture or a lamp or even a spotlight, almost as if the architecture itself radiated luminescence. There were, of course, tinier sources of light, like the power indicator on devices that looked like computers but had no obvious interface or screen and did not respond to my attempts to press anything that looked like a power button. Not to mention glass panels, futuristic-looking furniture that resembled tables and chairs, barriers here that looked like railings and barriers there that looked like computer consoles embedded into the architecture, and little decorative details that seemed to suggest whoever designed this place didn't want it to look drab and soulless. Certainly, there was a simplistic elegance to it, the place looking less like an empty canvas and more like it was itself a work of art.
Not that it changed the fact that this place was huge and creepily deserted. "Hello?" I called out for what felt like the hundredth time for who knows how long. Hours, at least, but I didn't know how many; I didn't wear a watch, my phone was missing, and there were no clocks. Or perhaps there were no clocks I could recognize.
Nor was I keeping track of how many doors I had passed through at this point. Sure, the fact that there were sliding doors - terrifyingly thick metallic barriers that glided open soundlessly, the kind you'd think you'd find only in military bases or secret government labs researching the zombie virus - was, almost bizarrely, a source of relief: There was a familiarity about it that reminded me of supermarkets. But at this point, I was almost certain that I had passed through at least a hundred different rooms, hallways, corridors, chambers, and passageways in this unholy maze. Save for corridors that were nonetheless about as wide as two-lane streets, the rooms were all invariably large, or at least large by the standards of a poor person, ranging in size from "high school classroom" like the room I woke up in to "Las Vegas hotel lobby", not that I'd ever been in one. I had no good frame of reference, but given how long I had been walking and how much my feet was starting to ache, I was convinced that I long passed "baseball stadium" territory and was in danger of surpassing "Disneyland" on the scale of hugeness as well.
There were signs that people were supposed to have lived here once; I could, at least, recognize chairs, tables, desks, and similar pieces of furniture, sculpted in the same futuristic minimalist style as the rooms. And after what felt like hours of walking, I passed by at least two more rooms that resembled the one I woke up in, complete with those weird futuristic pods that looked like sci-fi beds. But no one was in them, nor were there any hints that anyone had been in them recently. And even at what felt like a hundredth-plus-one "hello", there was still no response but the echo of my own voice.
I started to tremble. It wasn't particularly cold - air conditioning, if there was such a thing here, must've be set to a comfortable temperature - but there was a very real fear given the...nothingness. Things could've been worse, but even though I didn’t seem to be at risk of any particular harm, that I was here with no tools, no explanation, and no people was inherently terrifying.
Equally terrifying was the suddenly realization that I wasn't entirely sure - now that I had spent hours exploring - how to get back to the room I woke up in. There was no actual rational reason for me to go back, seeing how all of these rooms had a similar level of utility for me - that is to say none - but I must've been put in that specific room within that specific pod for a reason, right? If anyone was ever going to come along after having deposited me there - even if they were aliens who just wanted to stick an anal probe in me or something - surely that's where they'd come looking for me, right?
It was another few hours when I finally got back to "my" room, a little breathless from frayed nerves, the anxiety of the possibility of never being able to make it back having weighed rather heavily on my mind. I managed not to hyperventilate, something I would've felt more proud of had circumstances been different. For better or for worse, the room was exactly as I had remembered it, untouched and unchanged. Which was both relieving and depressing. Relieving in the sense of me going back to my room after spending the entire day worrying someone had broken into it, only to find out that there's no sign of such whatsoever, save for the fact that this wasn't my room. Depressing in the sense that, of course, I'm still alone.
I'd spent the last few years of my life being something of a loner, so it felt almost pathetic as to how starved for company I was at the moment. It hadn't even been an entire day.
At least, I thought it was an entire day. It's hard to tell, what with the whole "being stuck indoors with no windows or clocks".
It had just occurred to me that I was growing hungry when a slot at the bottom of the thick doors to "my" "bedroom" - I actually wasn't sure it was a bedroom - slid open, something that actually made me turn around in shock and alarm and anticipation; was someone finally here, someone I could talk to and get answers out of?
But in scooted in what I could only describe as a futuristic Roomba, sliding across the pristine floor. And on it was...a tray, actually. At least, it certainly resembled a cafeteria tray, albeit stocked with what seemed like blocks wrapped in a plastic wrapper, the kind of packaging you might've expected for a block of butter at a supermarket.
Tentatively, I picked up the tray, wanting to give its contents a closer look, trying to figure out if this was actually a tray of food...and then the Roomba-like device - I'm just going to call it a Roomba - suddenly slid away towards the open slot in the door. "Wait!" I called out, half-hoping - and half-dreading - that the Roomba was actually sentient.
No good. It ignored me completely and disappeared under the door before the slot slid shut. I rushed after it nonetheless, waiting for the doors to slide open as I reached it, but by the time they opened, the Roomba was long gone.
Scowling at my unsuccessful attempt to befriend a Roomba and at the fact that I had been attempting to befriend a Roomba, I returned to my bed and the discarded tray left there. The blocks of food were still there - at least I assumed it was food - still wrapped tightly like something on a supermarket shelf. I didn't plan on going hungry if I could help it - I had a longstanding grudge with hunger - but peeling open the wrapper was admittedly a half-hearted affair; the unwrapped block inside looked brown and nondescript, odorless and textureless. I couldn't help but think that what I held in my hand was what would happen if you threw a granola bar into a blender and tried to turn it back into a granola bar.
I also had no way of ascertaining whether or not what I held in my hand was poisonous - or if it would cause me diarrhea - but hunger sucked, so I took a tentative bite.
...It actually didn't taste too bad. A little salty, which I didn't quite expect. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, honestly. I couldn't really place the taste, and maybe hunger was playing a role here, but I wasn't instantly spitting the part I nibbled out of my mouth in disgust, so that nibble turned into a bite. And several bites and unwrapped plastic peels later, I had not died from poison.
So the food was safe to eat and - although entirely boring - was largely not utterly revolting. Hooray.
Speaking of diarrhea, I was pleased - at least as pleased as I could be under the circumstances - that there was a bathroom at the back of the room. That allowed me to wash up with warm water - coming in two varieties, clear and soaped - and relieve myself. Fortunately, unlike the pod-like bed, the weirdest thing I could say about the bathroom was how automated everything was. The faucet I expected, but warm water coming out of the shower the moment I stepped in was a surprise, although given there were no obvious knobs or buttons, I suppose I should've saw that coming.
So if this was some kind of super high-tech facility where confused inmates were subject to weird social or psychological experiments - like, if I was later expected to fight ninety-nine other people I didn't even know were in this facility to begin with, and to the death at that - then at least I got to spend my days in relative comfort, with weird but functional food, running water and toiletries, a clean "bedroom", and - of course - a bed. At least, if that's what you called the weird science fiction pod thing I was lying on. In. Whatever.
"Alright," I muttered to no one in particular, except possibly the ceiling above where I was lying down in the aforementioned "bed", "you're trapped in a giant base in the future. You have no idea where you are, you have no idea how to get out, and your only company is a space Roomba that feeds you.
"Got any bright ideas?"
Roughly four days had passed, and I came to several conclusions.
I had, of course, absolutely no faith in my conclusions, nor in the assumption that four days had passed, but that's beside the point. Is that my first conclusion? I'll say that's my first conclusion.
The second was that unless this was some kind of experiment as to how much boredom a human being could tolerate, this place was probably well and truly abandoned, for one reason or another. Everything was still automated, which meant that while my hunger needs were being seen to by some kind of supercomputer - at least for now - it also meant until I could find a way out of this place, there was no one I could talk to. No weapons that I could find either, reducing the possibility that I was being set up to fight ninety-nine other abductees. Almost strangely, I wasn't sure how to feel about that.
I had hoped that by tugging on the thread that was the Roomba, I could at least figure out whether or not there was actually someone hidden away in another room, toying with me through the power of a remote control. I "ambushed" the Roomba bringing me my meal by clinging onto it, preventing it from fleeing without me...except the Roomba ended up having much more torque than I thought. As a result, I was pulled along the floor screaming in terror before the Roomba slid into a small slit under the wall. A small slit that I couldn't fit through, so - obviously - I slammed into the wall very ungracefully.
That actually caused me to roll on the floor for a full minute, writhing like I had stubbed my toe. I'll remember that, you little Roomba.
Third conclusion: Getting out of here was going to be a problem. I had already known that this place was mind-bogglingly huge. To test just how huge it actually was, on the third day, after the little Roomba handed me my meal - and after I had failed to catch it again - I tried to walk in as much of a straight line through a series of rooms as possible, leaving crumbs from my food where I made turns, almost like Hansel and Gretel, if Hansel and Gretel were stuck in a science fiction facility and were actually nineteen-years-old.
This method worked great, actually. I felt pretty good about myself as I started my return trip to my room, except that was when I realized that the bloody Roomba was cleaning up all the crumbs I had left behind.
So the space Roomba was actually a Roomba. I again attempted to chase it down - albeit this time in frustrated anger rather than desperate curiosity - only for it to flee and lead me to another abrupt kinetic visit into a wall while it slid into a slot at the bottom.
Clearly, the space Roomba was fast becoming my greatest enemy in this facility.
Finding the way back to "my" room afterwards was a difficult exercise, and the fact that I managed it actually made me feel pretty good about my own abilities at pathfinding. It did mean, however, that long excursions from my room were out of the question unless I developed a strong familiarity with my local surroundings...or unless I got creative with my pathfinding.
The space Roomba eventually came back with what I assumed was dinner. Previously, it had waited for me to take the tray from atop it before darting off; this time, it hit the brakes the moment it came through the slot underneath the giant double sliding doors. The tray of space food subsequently slipped off the space Roomba, slid across the floor, and came to a halt at my feet where I was seated on a chair. It then turned around and fled through the slit in the door before I could even get up and give chase.
I was becoming increasingly sure that the space Roomba was sentient and screwing with me.
Back when I had still been in college, some student activists had come up to me and started talking about the prison system and how we needed to fight against solitary confinement, which was apparently a form of torture. Something that had always stuck out to me in that half-minute of our interaction was how human minds are just not meant to cope with isolation, with the absence of any human interaction, and that permanent psychological damage can be seen in as little as fifteen days.
Of course, at the time, I had told the girl - more politely, and in different words - that I was broke and already busting my ass trying to graduate, so please piss off.
Oh, incidentally, I had no way to tell aside from hoping that my sleep schedule in any way still resembled a twenty-four-hour clock, but I suspected it was just about fifteen days at that point.
I couldn't really tell, of course, but I thought the isolation had done something to my posture. Also to my attention span; I wasn't exactly getting jumpy, at least not in the sense that every little hint of a noise scared me, but given how silent the whole place was, I started at every little hint of noise - some of them merely the echoes of my own footsteps - hoping that it was someone or even just something to change the routine. I was pretty sure I was slowly becoming a very obvious basketcase who would've been thrilled even with the company of those annoying student activists who had stopped me from going to class one day.
Part of it could've simply been the deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability that was invading my mind. The understanding that human minds were not meant to cope with this kind of isolation. That I was feeling deeply bored and also simultaneously panicked at the idea that I might have to live in this strange futuristic facility, forever, with no one for company but a space Roomba that kept fleeing from me. There was nothing to figure out here, nothing to deduce or to discover. It was just...more and more of these spotless, beautiful rooms that explained absolutely nothing. There were no systems for me to analyze, nothing for me to take apart, no story to be uncovered.
It was great that the place was clean and that my basic material needs were being met. There was sadly no laundry room that I'd found yet - at least nothing I recognized as a laundry room - which meant I had been stuck in the same clothes for about two weeks or so, and I was not yet desperate enough to just go nude for the sake of hygiene and risk the off-chance that I'll eventually run into someone naked. It was tempting, though. Wearing my unwashed clothes felt dirty at this point. I'm pretty sure that the space Roomba wouldn't mind looking at my naked, malnourished body. I had actually thought of throwing my clothes at the Roomba in hopes that maybe it'd do my laundry or something. I didn't go through with it, though; for all I knew, it was just as likely that it would burn my clothes.
In fact, I was thinking about removing my jacket and unbuttoning the entire row of buttons on my blouse in "my bedroom" when the lights abruptly turned from white to flashing red and alarms began to blare at a distractingly loud volume to my oversensitive, unstimulated ears.
I froze. Actually, I cringed first, covering my ears, not panicking insomuch as having a complete deer-in-the-headlights moment as I tried - after fifteen-days-or-thereabouts of isolation - to act like a normal human being at something that resembled a fire alarm. Or air raid alarm. Or zombie alarm.
On the one hand, I was relieved there was something to break the utter tedium of the uneventful weeks spent with a space Roomba and literally nothing to do. On the other hand, fire alarms and just pop culture in general teaches most people that sudden red lights and klaxons were very bad things.
I was still in the midst of trying to figure out what was going on and what I was supposed to do when, lo and behold, the slit at the bottom of the metallic sliding doors admitted my old archnemesis, the space Roomba...which, for some reason, had a white flashing light blinking on top of its disc-like structure. When I approached, it started moving away again, through the slit in the door that promptly slid apart for me. But rather than fleeing like it usually did whenever I tried to chase it, it traveled at a noticeably slower speed, traveling almost exactly at my pace - which was not particularly fast, seeing how I was in the heels I had been wearing from work - and keeping an even distance from me even as it navigated the twists and turns of this facility, remaining in my line of sight at all times.
In a way, it reminded me about the jokes about blinking light on an airplane that led you to an exit in the case of an emergency. This was clearly the space Roomba's equivalent.
I followed, of course. Not just because I still had no idea why I was here or where I was or what was around the corner that could probably eat me very messily so as to trigger an alarm with scary red lights and scarier alarm sounds. There was, in fact, a weird kind of hope that this was an opportunity to follow the Roomba out of this clean and convenient but lonely and desolate. Maybe I'd just end up stuck in the middle of the Nevada desert, but at least I'll be back under the open sky. The irony that I had spent so many years struggling to keep a roof over my head was not lost on me.
The space Roomba continued to dart along ahead of me, taking me through a series of twists and turns through pristine halls and immaculate corridors, the white walls and golden highlights reflecting the red lights into my eyes. I swiftly lost track of how many times we've turned left and right; the space Roomba navigated the place with a daring I would not have imagined, at least not without leaving a breadcrumb trail behind me.
That the Roomba would clean up anyways, so maybe it is its fault to begin with. I haven't forgiven it.
The twists and turns continued, building an anxiety in me even as I felt my body practically vibrate with each and every blare of the alarm, my eyes straining to adjust to the flashing red lights that played hell with my vision. "How much further?" I asked the space Roomba with no real expectation that the question would be answered. Indeed, the glorified metallic saucer ahead of me simply went ever onward, flashing a white light for me to follow. At this point, I had long taken off my heels and was running barefoot across the metallic floor, if one didn't count my black stockings; I was at least thankful that the floor was almost perfectly flat and without a hint of cracks or bumps that would end with me rolling on the floor, clutching my toes and howling in pain. The space Roomba was good at setting me up for that, but I'd like to think it wasn't actively trying to mess with me this time.
I was getting tired. I had no idea how far I had run and wasn't exactly keeping track, but I felt like this was the closest I had ever come to running a marathon. My breath was coming up a little short, the minutes blurring against each other with every honk of the alarms and every flash of dreadful lights.
It was also beginning to occur to my sense of direction - my limited sense of direction, anyways - that I was not running in a straight line. That the space Roomba was leading me in weird directions. Which felt like it was screwing with me - it's already done so for the last two weeks or thereabouts, why would it stop there? - but there was part of me that wondered: What if it was trying to avoid something? Something dangerous? A bit more peripherally: How would I get back to "my" room?
I was just about to stop running so as to catch my breath and rest my burning legs when something happened. A sound, specifically, unintelligible, muffled behind closed metallic doors to my left. Sounds, actually, continuing to ring at a barely audible volume.
I blinked, straining to hear it against the blaring of the alarm, wishing it would be quiet. There was just something about that noise that made me pay attention, that made me think I needed to stop running and figure out what it was and why I was suddenly so interested in it. Instead of doing the smart thing, which was realizing that this was very possibly the thing the space Roomba was trying to lead me away from, and run away.
Annoyingly, the space Roomba had stopped about ten feet in front of me, turned around, and flashed its white light a little harder, as if realizing we needed to flee.
Then I remembered that the back of my brain categorized this sound as "unintelligible". And then the front of my brain suddenly realized that "unintelligible" meant something. It meant I couldn't understand what was being spoken. It meant something was being spoken. After a fortnight of what had amounted to "comfortable" solitary confinement, after having been isolated for so long, after struggling to find someone - anyone - in this facility to take to...
...There were people. On the other side of this door. Talking.
I ignored the increasingly urgent flashing of the light on the space Roomba's head, moving breathlessly instead for the metallic sliding double doors from which the voices were coming from. Three more steps. Two steps now. One more step and the doors would slide apart, admitting me to whatever was on the other side, and I would see people. I would see people who might very well mean me harm, but I didn't care at this point. This was stupid, and I would probably hate myself later for being so weepy and needy and stupid, but I needed to see someone right now.
I took the last step. The doors slid open.
I'm not sure what I was expecting on the other side, exactly. I mean, I expected people. That much was reasonable. But what I got instead as I was presented with another one of those ornate futuristic halls ahead of me was the sight of three people prone on the ground - all of them clothed in dark outfits that actually looked kind of like spacesuits - and a redhead girl, roughly my age in her early twenties, dressed darkly in something that looked like this weird mix of "modern soldier" and "medieval knight" - straps and pockets over tight leather clothing, linked with something that looked like armor plates here and there - who was suddenly charging at me with something that looked very much like a pistol in her hand.
When you grow up in a bad neighborhood, you learn to defend yourself, especially if you're a girl. Not necessarily in learning how to fight - although I had tried to do that - but just in how to protect yourself. Little things like shielding your head and kicking sensitive spots and running away. This being said, I'd only ever been in one actual fight with another girl, and it hadn't really been something I walked away victorious from. Not that I had lost either, strictly speaking, but whatever.
The point I'm trying to make here is that when the girl delivered a kick to my midsection, I wasn't really in any real position - any real training, any real expectation that I would be attacked so immediately - to defend myself from the painful blow that sent me tumbling equally painfully onto the ground. I barely caught my fall backwards in time, which was to say the back of my head slamming against the metallic floor beneath me didn't knock me out entirely, only "merely" momentarily reduced my thoughts to white noise and my vision to stars swimming through the night sky.
Somewhere in the back of my head, at least, alarms were screaming for me to get up, to repair those connections between my brain and the rest of my body. But my vision had only just cleared - even as I remained flat on my back - when I felt something cold and metallic - something that suddenly and terrifyingly felt like the barrel of a gun - press against the soft bottom of my jaw, and for a moment my vision was filled with the face of the redhead girl looking down at me with a surprisingly blank but ultimately scary expression.
"Sorry," she said dispassionately, her eyes cold as they locked into minds, and for no reason I could explain - even through the terror - I found it weird that I could understand her, even as her finger increased the pressure on the trigger to slam a slug right into my brain. "This isn't personal."