Alt-Universe: Symbolism 101 Short Story

Alt-Universe: Symbolism 101 Short Story

Night came upon them as if in a flash of nothing. The life of before was a fever dream. The life of after, well, that'd be nothing but learned behaviors set to a fever's pitch, inside a machine they didn't know the layout of.

A machine they were stuck within.

Left with no tools, no memories, no discernible way to talk to each other, and nothing to hold onto, they would have to defy all odds to escape.

01 — Wake

Sleep came and went like music drifting listlessly from a distant radio. With each eyelid flicker came the cognition of a sound, then static, then nothing, until he roused, bleary-eyed. The blur of time broke when he crashed his head into the ceiling above.

"Ah...what the fuck?" he cursed. The man ran his hand over the top of his head, then looked to the ceiling, mere millimeters above him.

"Where...the fucking shit am I?" he asked nobody, and naturally nobody replied.

He was in a small room, barely small enough to house his once-sleeping body. It was off-white, transparent but not fully clear. Like a fogged glass cage, where he could see shadows of bodies next to him. All in a row of sorts, he counted six other shadows.

There was no discernible exit.

The man, clad in an unassuming white suit with a shock of blond hair on his head, banged the side of the cube.

02 — Wake

Sleep was heavy like a downy blanket. A woman fought herself, in and out of rose-colored dreams, with sunny skies, and places she didn't remember ever visiting.

A noise shocked her, hazel eyes flicking open. The slim, short woman twisted, her pink hair matted against her face with sweat. With wide, almond-shaped eyes, she scattered her vision and took in the space around her. Constricted, and she saw no door.

Another thud resounded; the woman pressed her face to the wall. She saw the shape of someone, with a presumably raised fist making a third slam.

"Hello?"

03 — Wake

Sleep was a comfortable void of something-feelings, and vague electrical static. A man jostled, trying to turn inside the small space to find a more comfortable position. Someone, or something, was slamming against a wall.

The man raised a thick brow, one eye creeping open.

A third and final slam resounded, and he jerked upright to crack his head on the ceiling.

"Oi, fack me!" was all he said, rubbing and twisted at his scruffy brown hair.

He didn't bother looking for an exit.

04 — Wake

Sleep was dark, deep, and full of fear. Nightmares had plagued a woman, casting beads of sweat down her brow. The first thud had woken her, topaz eyes shooting open as she deftly backed herself into the corner of her little box.

With arms outstretched, she felt around for a seam, and watched the shadows move around her, seemingly roused as she had been.

"This...where am I?" she asked, long, pale braided hair falling over her dark shoulders. She looked down at the braids.

She didn't remember ever having braids before. She didn't remember what 'before' had been.

05 — Wake

Sleep was a giddy menagerie of preposterous sex dreams and parties he never remembered going to. A man with expressionless brows slowly opened his eyes, reluctantly awoken by the slamming of a fist in rapid succession.

He stooped low to the ground, surveying his surroundings with calculated interest.

"This is going to be a problem," he said, finding it hard to move about the confined area. He watched the shadows around him, but didn't pay them any mind.

He was too busy trying to find an exit.

06 — Wake

Sleep was a relentless game of toss and turn, in little starts and stops, for a woman with dyed blonde hair. She woke with a start at the sound of a war-drum, and found it to possibly be just a distant fist, considering the vague outlines of people she saw.

Skittering forward, she scoured her fingers across the seams, trying to remember just how she got here, and where 'here' was, exactly.

"Um...like...is this a dream, or whatever?"

07 — Wake

Sleep came and went like domestic noises from a lapsed attention. Dishes being washed. Mouths moving without listening. A lawnmower starting and stopping. A woman remembered that ebb and pull of focus.

Cat-like eyes flicked open. The woman's dark waves of brown hair fell over her shoulders as she sidled forward, to crawl on hands and knees, and press her face against the wall she saw had no shadows.

She tried her best to imagine what was beyond, but all she could see was a milky void.

"Hmm...curiouser and curiouser."

Open

For the seven trapped souls, they found their exit when the floor bottomed out, and they were dropped. Some traveled through long winding tunnels; 01 and 02 cackled the entire way down.

03 landed without much fanfare; as confused as he had arrived, and still yet not looking for an exit.

Some traveled a very short distance, to make a rough landing; 04, 05, 06, and 07 suffered bruised knees and/or ankles.

They were all alone, yet again.

Task A

01 — Colour Theory

Before the blond man was a series of colorful tiles. He edged forward, blue eyes scanning the shades he saw, teeth worrying his lower lip.

"Please pick the correct color," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"...there is no 'correct' color, you fucknugget," he said.

"Please pick the correct color," the voice repeated.

The blond man narrowed his eyes, looked over the tiles once more, and then stood. He stepped on one color; the indigo tile, and it depressed with a hiss. Then he pressed the orange one with his hand. Then he used his other hand to hit the teal one.

He ended up hitting every color because, as stated, 'there is no correct color, you fucknugget.'

"That is incorrect."

02 — Colour Theory

Before the pink haired woman was a series of colorful tiles. She skittered forward, a bright smile on her face.

"Wicked!" she said.

"Please pick the correct color," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"...oh, that's all?" she asked, "it's tha' baby pink one," she continued, pressing the square with her small hand.

"That is correct," the voice replied.

02, having completed the test, fell through the hole created by her chosen colored tile vanishing into thin air.

03 — Colour Theory

Before the dark haired, strong-browed man was a series of colorful tiles. He raised his hand into the air and slapped the green tile in the top right corner without being asked.

"That is correct," the voice replied.

03, having completed the test, fell through the hole created by his chosen colored tile vanishing into thin air.

04 — Colour Theory

Before the tall, braid-wearing woman was a series of colorful tiles. She scanned their contents cautiously, and waiting for...something.

"Please pick the correct color," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"...there is no such thing as a 'correct' color," she said, hesitating.

"Please pick the correct color," the voice repeated.

Cautiously, the woman placed her palm on the yellow square.

"That is correct," the voice said.

04, having completed the test, fell through the hole created by her chosen colored tile vanishing into thin air.

05 — Colour Theory

Before the expressionless man was a series of colorful tiles. He surveyed the tiles, but still yet looked around for the sign of a door, window, or other escape route.

"Please pick the correct color," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"This is preposterous," he said, planting a firm fist down on the orange tile, "furthermore, red isn't here. Red would be my choice."

"That is correct," the voice said.

05, having completed the test, fell through the hole created by his chosen colored tile vanishing into thin air.

06 — Colour Theory

Before the blonde-haired woman was a series of colorful tiles. She was instantly drawn to the magenta tile, and pulled herself forward on her slightly bruised knees to get a better look at it.

"Please pick the correct color," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"This is like, totally, my color," she said, and pressed the tile.

"That is correct," the voice said.

06, having completed the test, fell through the hole created by her chosen colored tile vanishing into thin air.

07 — Colour Theory

Before the dark-haired woman was a series of colorful tiles. She let out a small sigh and stood, wielding around to try to pinpoint an exit.

"Please pick the correct color," a caustically pleasant female voice said. Making a disgruntled sound, the woman stomped forward and struck out to the far end of the room.

"Please pick the correct color," the voice repeated.

With a frustrated groan, she rounded back and stomped on the indigo tile.

"The brightest color in the spectrum, hmm, darling?"

"That is correct," the voice said.

07, having completed the test, fell through the hole created by her chosen colored tile vanishing into thin air.

01 — Colour Theory 2

The blond man, realizing he was trapped in a test that made no actual sense, was still yet reluctant to choose. The question itself was incorrect, because there was no better color than any other.

Quite simply, color choice was predominantly, well, a choice.

"Some cultures didn't even have a fucking word for blue at some point, what crack are you on?!" he screamed at the voice overhead.

"That is incorrect."

"That is correct, you goddamn fascist greeting card from hell!" he spat.

"Please pick the correct color," the voice repeated.

01 — Colour Theory 10

The blond man, while being too smart for his own good, was also decidedly pig-headed, stubborn, and lacked the common sense necessary to know he had but to pick a color to leave the area.

"My integrity requires me to question the fucking question."

"That is incorrect."

"The question is incorrect!"

"Please pick the correct color," the voice repeated.

01 — Colour Theory 17

The blond man, realizing he could not fight this inaccurate question, picked the color he liked most. Indigo. It felt like an important color, being as bright and vibrant as it was, and he seemed partial to it.

"Indigo."

"That is incorrect."

"What?!"

"Please pick the correct color," the voice repeated.

"Fine then, you fuckshit. Black," he spat, slapping his flat palm on the tile.

01, having completed the test, fell through the hole created by his chosen colored tile vanishing into thin air.

Task B

01 — Pattern Recognition

Before the blond man was a series of words, floating in space. He moved his head around them and they flickered darkly. They were projected, but from where, he couldn't say.

Thoroughly pissed off at this point, he stymied his anger as much as he could, and sat on his knees, with his hands in his lap.

"Please respond with a single word to each word as spoken," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"...fine," he huffed.

"LOVE."
"Unconditional."

"FAITH."
"Fake."

"LIFE."
"Hell."

"PAIN."
"Pleasure."

"HEAVEN."
"Imaginary."

"WAR."
"...depends," he hesitated.

"WHITE."
"Isn't a real color. Achroma—sorry."

"SKY."
"Clouds."

"TRUST."
"Fake."

"PROTOCOL."
"Can...you repeat that one?" he hesitated again.

"PROTOCOL," the voice boomed.
"PROTOCOL," it repeated.

"Vengeance."

TIME
"Fake."

MEMORY
"...faulty."

The room was as silent as death for a few spare moments. The blond man shifted, looking not unlike a chastised child, worried he'd be punished for giving the wrong answers to a test he didn't understand.

"That is incorrect."

The blond man sat forward and buried his head in his hands.

02 — Pattern Recognition

Before the pink haired woman was a series of words, floating in space. She cracked a toothy grin and skittered forward, happy to play this 'game' again.

"Please respond with a single word to each word as spoken," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"Okey dokey," she chirped.

"LOVE."
"Great."

"FAITH."
"Science."

"LIFE."
"Fun!"

"PAIN."
"Bad."

"HEAVEN."
"Candy."

"WAR."
"...uh," she hesitated, "...bad?"

"WHITE."
"Paper!"

"SKY."
"Blue."

"TRUST."
"mmm," she hesitated again, "hard."

"PROTOCOL."
"Can...ya, uh...say that one again?" she asked, a smile on her face.

"PROTOCOL," the voice boomed.
"PROTOCOL," it repeated.

"Im-immaturity."

TIME
"R-relative."

MEMORY
"...story."

The room was as silent. The woman looked up at the words, a conflicted smile on her face. Some time passed, as if something may have been calculating her answers.

"That is incorrect."

The pink haired woman gnawed at her lower lip, biting at an old scar she had.

"...何で (なんで)?" she asked, surprised at the phrase that came from her mouth.

03 — Pattern Recognition

Before the strong-browed, dark haired man was a series of words, floating in space. He did nothing but chuckle, seemingly impervious to this series of 'tests.'

"Please respond with a single word to each word as spoken," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"Roight, roight," he said simply.

"LOVE."
"Hate."

"FAITH."
"Skepticism," he mused.

"LIFE."
"Death."

"PAIN."
"Pleasure."

"HEAVEN."
"Hell."

"WAR."
"Peace," he said triumphantly, clenching his fists.

"WHITE."
"Black."

"SKY."
"Earth."

"TRUST."
"Mistrust."

"PROTOCOL."
"Oi, uh..." he started up, strong brows pitching, "can ye' repeat that?"

"PROTOCOL," the voice boomed.
"PROTOCOL," it repeated.

"Stupidity."

"TIME."
"Space!"

"MEMORY."
"Forget."

The room was as silent, but not for very long.

"That is correct."

The brown haired man puffed up with confidence, and was about to stand, but the floor beneath him gave way. As 03 had passed his test, he was allowed on to the next one.

04 — Pattern Recognition

Before the braid-wearing woman was a series of words, floating in space. She ducked forward to peer around them, her topaz eyes narrowing.

"Please respond with a single word to each word as spoken," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"Hmm," she mused, positioning herself behind the words to scan them more closely.

"LOVE."

She said nothing.

"FAITH."
"LIFE."
"PAIN."
"HEAVEN."
"WAR."
"WHITE."
"SKY."
"TRUST."
"PROTOCOL."
"TIME."
"MEMORY."

The room was silent for a moment. The tall woman stood, eying the words as they flickered.

"Would you like me to repeat the words?"

"Yes, please do that," the woman said. The caustic voice repeated them, and again the woman said nothing back. Each time the words were repeated, they flickered in air.

With a glint in her eye, the tall woman stooped, asked for another repetition, and caught something curious. At each repeat, the flash of a different word took the prior word's place.

She knew the answers, slowly but surely, in successive repetitions, she memorized what she'd have to say.

She produced 03's answers exactly, save for PROTOCOL. For that, she gave "Silence" as her answer.

"That is correct."

04 had passed her test, she was allowed on to the next one. She fell through the floor as 03 had.

05 — Pattern Recognition

Before the expressionless man was a series of words, floating in space. He ignored them and stalked to the far corner of the room, his fingers searching for a seam, a crack, a crevice—anything.

"Please respond with a single word to each word as spoken," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

"Get on with it," the man said, prying at what seemed to be an air vent, but was truly just the painted-on artifice of some possible escape. A trick.

"LOVE."

He said nothing, emoting with his face as much as possible that he was particularly pissed off at the trick the room had played. He crossed his arms over his chest.

"FAITH."
"LIFE."
"PAIN."
"HEAVEN."
"WAR."
"WHITE."
"SKY."
"TRUST."
"PROTOCOL."
"TIME."
"MEMORY."

The room was as silent for a moment. The expressionless man snorted.

"Would you like me to repeat the words?"

"Yes."

As the words came and went, the expressionless man responded without any affect to his voice. As he'd approximated 03 and 04's relative answers, save giving "Ignorance" for protocol, he'd apparently passed.

"That is correct."

05 fell through the floor, with his arms still crossed over his chest.

06 — Pattern Recognition

Before the blonde-haired woman was a series of words, floating in space. She had, apparently, since grown bored of these tests, and was now staring off into space.

"Please respond with a single word to each word as spoken," a caustically pleasant female voice said.

The blonde woman stared yet again into space, as if thinking of everything and nothing. She was trying to grasp at who she had been before, but wasn't making very much headway.

"LOVE," the voice began, rattling off the words as the blonde woman was lost in thought.

The room was as silent for a moment. The blonde woman snapped to attention when the voice yet again spoke.

"Would you like me to repeat the words?"

"Like, totally."

As the words came and went, the blonde woman responded as 03, 04, and 05 had. She hadn't even had to think very hard; the words came naturally. The PROTOCOL word had been chosen differently, of course, and this time it was "Jealousy."

"That is correct."

06 fell through the floor, not yet realizing she was falling until halfway down, wherein she screamed.

07 — Pattern Recognition

Before the dark-haired woman was a series of words, floating in space. The dark-haired woman had, apparently, decided all of this was a waste of time and took to slamming her foot on the tiles below her to see if she could dislodge one and push the 'tests' forward.

"Please respond with a single word to each word as spoken," a caustically pleasant female voice said. The dark-haired woman raised a feline brow.

"LOVE," the voice began, rattling off the words as the dark-haired woman caught a shadow behind the milky wall from the corner of her eye.

She stalked to the wall and pressed her face against it, barely making out the outline of a person with their head in their hands.

"Hello!" the dark haired woman said, pounding a fist to the wall. The shape grew closer and pounded back one time.

"Can you hear me, darling?" she asked. A fist pounded back once.

"Well, that's not exactly an answer, is it?!" she sneered, pounding the wall once again. The person on the other side gave a light thud, as if waning in energy.

The dark-haired woman grimaced. She stepped back and kicked the side of the wall as hard as she could.

"I don't know what you're playing at, dear, but if you're a lab rat like I am, you'd best just complete," she kicked the wall again, "these boorish tests, so that you may leave! I feel," she kicked again, "that it may be the only way," one more kick, "out of this place!"

Silence.

A thud resounded. Dull and distant.

"Oh," she grumbled, stalking off to stand in the center of the room.

"Repeat your words, you terrible creature."

The caustic female voice repeated them. The dark-haired woman gave her best approximation of the answers, but faltered on "PROTOCOL." She gave a series of positive words:

"Beauty."
"Grace."
"Poise."
"Flawlessness."
"Vibrancy."

The machine did not seem pleased with those, and so she had to give a different answer, the word that kept plaguing her repeatedly; "Betrayal," she admitted.

07 had passed the test, and from where she stood, the tile vanished and she fell into darkness.

02 — Pattern Recognition 2

The pink haired woman had run through the word test as best she could, but had grown tired enough to nap for a while, after repeated failures. In her tiredness, she roused, and gave answers not particular to herself and her vague idea of who she was, but easy, simple answers.

Those had apparently been correct, and she had dropped as all the others had, save 01.

01 — Pattern Recognition 56

"LOVE."
"FAITH."
"LIFE."
"PAIN."
"HEAVEN."
"WAR."
"WHITE."
"SKY."
"TRUST."
"PROTOCOL."
"TIME."
"MEMORY."

"Please, stop," the blond man begged, now curled in a ball in the corner of the room. Contrary to the others, he had not been set free.

It had been hours.

He had given every possible answer he could think of. The 'correct' ones, blatantly incorrect ones, and he even tried to sing some Billy Idol, hoping his excellent singing voice counted as an answer. Anything was possible.

Yet, it had given him no ground.

Finally beside himself, and unable to give the answers the caustic female voice wanted, he sat with his back against the wall.

"I feel like...I'm giving you my answers, then your answers, and they're still not fucking right..." he said, placing his head in his hands to sigh, "I feel like...this test is harder for me, and I don't know why. I see the shadows leave, so other people obviously are getting through it..."

Silence.

The blond man stood, using the wall as leverage, and walked towards the words. He stood inside of them, and looked up. The tops of the words seemed so far away, but he knew the ceiling wasn't very high.

It seemed like a trick of perspective.

He reached up a hand and grasped around what he could not see, but could now feel. A metal device, something round and smooth. Plucking it from the ceiling with an electrical sizzle, he dropped it to the ground with a thud.

The words dissolved. The sound of a crashing speaker blared, and the caustic voice spoke.

"You do not understand the test?" the voice asked.

"No. I don't understand why the questions seem to have one fucking answer, when they shouldn't, and when I give the motherfucking answers I'm 99% sure you want, you still don't accept them," he sighed.

"Why is this so hard for me? Is the test fucking weighted?"

The sound of a typewriter or metronome started up, distant but audible. It seemed the caustically-voiced machine was thinking.

"Yes."

"Fucking pardon?!" he spat.

"The more you fight..." the voice paused, "the harder the tests will be...you must prove."

"Prove?" the man asked, his hand on his hip.

"Prove," the voice repeated, "that you are capable of compliance."

The blond man looked up at the ceiling, lips slightly parted as if he wanted to speak, but no words came out.

Test C

01 — Reformat

01 had been allowed to proceed, but for what reason, he couldn't say.

Before the blond man was a series of objects floating in space. Some of them had suspended squares of color beneath them. All of them were tangible, they seemed to have weight, mass, and cast a shadow.

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

The blond man walked forward, blue eyes scanning the things in front of him.

"Compliance, huh?" he asked. The machine-woman's voice didn't respond.

He reached out his hand, wrapped his fingers around the banana suspended in air, and pulled it free. He was hungry.

He looked around the room, the food in his hands, waiting for an answer. The caustic voice didn't chime on.

He shrugged, unpeeled the banana, then began to eat it.

"That is incorrect."

"I'm fucking starving!" he protested in between bites.

02 — Reformat

Before the pink-haired woman was a series of objects floating in space. Some of them had suspended squares of color beneath them. All of them were tangible, they seemed to have weight, mass, and cast a shadow.

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

As the pink-haired woman was no longer confident in her answers, and the 'game' was no longer fun, she hesitated before stepping forward.

Stretching out a small hand she, at first, reached for the clock. The pink-haired woman pulled her hand back.

"Please pick the correct object," the voice repeated.

"I dunno' how I know, but I think ya' wan' me ta' pick tha' fortune cookie," she said in a small voice, "and that's kinda' racist," she admitted. Rubbing the back of her head, she looked over the objects.

"I don't think I'm that kinda' Asian, but...okey dokey," she said, reaching for the fortune cookie. Holding it in her hand, she resisted the urge to take out the fortune and eat the cookie.

She was hungry.

"That is correct."

A frame of light ebbed from a tile across the room. The tile depressed with a hiss and a click. It slid away, at first revealing a color. Green, but not like a tile. Green like trees, with clips of blue from a sky beyond.

02 tottered towards the door, her conflicted smile growing confident. She knew who she was now.

"What is your name?" the caustic voice asked.

"Olive," she chirped, "sometimes Maya, I think."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty four!"

"Where do you live?"

"Queens" she said, quickening her pace.

"What do you love most?"

"Candy!" she said, her arms struck towards the ceiling. A moment passed, a realization came upon her, "No...that's not..." Now at the door, Olive looked back around the room.

"...if I'm stuck in this crap, that means the rest are stuck too, huh?" she asked, framed in the landscape behind her, "that means...he's stuck in here too, huh?"

Olive dropped the fortune cookie to the floor. In a flash, she twisted around.

"What do you love most?"

"Al—!" she began.

The tile beneath her feet shifted, skittering her through the door. It closed her out with a hiss and a click.

03 — Reformat

Before the dark-haired man was a series of objects floating in space. Some of them had suspended squares of color beneath them. All of them were tangible, they seemed to have weight, mass, and cast a shadow.

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

The dark-haired man instinctively reached for the sunglasses. He plucked them from the air, then placed them on his face. He waggled his eyebrows, chuckling.

“Ladies, ladies, ladies! Great ta’ see ya’. Like me new sunnies? They got me lookin’ like a proper fuckin’ rocket scientist, ya’?” he asked, using a line he didn't remember using, but knew belonged to him.

"That is correct."

A frame of light ebbed from a tile across the room. The tile depressed with a hiss and a click. It slid away, at first revealing a color. Green, but not like a tile. Green like trees, with clips of blue from a sky beyond.

03 strolled towards the door, a simple smile on his face. He knew who he was now.

"What is your name?" the caustic voice asked.

"Henry," he said, "sometimes Eric, but I think me 'eads got tossed n' all," he continued with a brief shrug.

"How old are you?"

"Old enough to drink, love. Young enough ta' party!"

"Where do you live?"

"Brooklyn, mate," he said, stalking on long limbs.

"What do you love most?"

"Me friends," he said with a broad smile. Now at the door, Henry looked back around the room.

"...if I'm 'ere, that means tha' lot of 'em er 'ere, too, yeh?" he asked, framed in the landscape behind him, "tha' means...she's 'ere too, yeh?"

Henry's goofy disposition instantly vanished. He ripped the glasses from his head, flung them, and struck out into the room.

The tile beneath his feet shifted, skittering him through the door. It closed him out with a hiss and a click.

Henry banged his fists on the door to be let back in, all the while, bellowing for someone named 'Percy.'

04 — Reformat

Before the braid-wearing woman was a series of objects floating in space. Some of them had suspended squares of color beneath them. All of them were tangible, they seemed to have weight, mass, and cast a shadow.

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

The tall, braid-wearing woman stepped forward and eyed the objects cautiously. She looked underneath them, trying to figure out the game as she had before, but saw nothing but colorful squares, shadows, and things that looked real.

"Please pick the correct object," the voice repeated.

"There is no such thing as a 'correct' object," the woman said, narrowing her topaz eyes.

"Please pick the correct object," the voice repeated.

The woman stood tall, stalked to the floating flower, grasped it in her fist, and pulled it free. In her palm was a slightly gold blossom with dewy petals. She felt compelled to pluck the flower apart, but stilled her fingers.

"That is correct."

A frame of light ebbed from a tile across the room. The tile depressed with a hiss and a click. It slid away, at first revealing a color. Green, but not like a tile. Green like trees, with clips of blue from a sky beyond.

04 looked at the door, then back around the room. She wasn't going to miss her chance to escape, but this too could be a trick or test, of sorts.

The woman bolted.

"What is your name?" the caustic voice asked. With each plodding step, the answers came to her.

"Lauren. Lauren Roberts," she said as she ran, "Yet, they know me most of all as Vox."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty eight."

"Where do you live?"

"The Bronx," she said, urging herself to run faster.

"What do you love most?"

"Singing," she said, slowing only slightly now that she was at the door. She turned back to look around the room.

"...if I have been placed here, they have as well," Lauren sneered, "...and I will not risk myself to help them escape."

The tile beneath her feet shifted.

"They do not deserve it," she said simply, letting the tile push her through the door, the flower still in her grasp, "especially not him," she added, finally leaving. The door closed behind her as she pulled the flower to shreds.

05 — Reformat

Before the expressionless man was a series of objects floating in space. Some of them had suspended squares of color beneath them. All of them were tangible, they seemed to have weight, mass, and cast a shadow.

With crossed arms, the expressionless man stepped forward. He scanned the objects, then scanned the rest of the room, still yet looking for a way out. He wasn't sure how many more tests there were, but he'd felt like he'd been there for days, and he wanted out.

"Get on with it," he hissed.

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

The man stalked forward and ripped the curious pink glass from the air. He held it in his hand, looked inside of it, then investigated the bottom.

"That is correct."

A frame of light ebbed from a tile across the room. The tile depressed with a hiss and a click. It slid away, at first revealing a color. Green, but not like a tile. Green like trees, with clips of blue from a sky beyond.

05 looked at the door, then back around the room. Yet, he did not hesitate. He walked on quick limbs towards the obvious exit.

"What is your name?" the caustic voice asked. With each hastened step, the answers came like shots of vodka, muddling his brain.

"Sebastian," he blurted out, "Once Markov. But Sebastian is preferable."

"How old are you?"

"Then? Thirty three. Now? Twenty, perhaps."

"Where do you live?"

"Queens," he said, picking up the pace.

"What do you love most?"

Sebastian kept walking, despite the question. The machine wanted an answer, apparently, as it parroted it again.

"What do you love most?"

"...I'm here, so the rest are too," Sebastian said, still walking. He was almost at the door.

"What do you love most?" it repeated.

"Myself," he said, now at the door. He looked back at the room, finally hesitating for once, "...he's not going to be able to figure this out..."

The tile beneath his feet shifted, skittering him through the door.

"Wait!" It closed him out with a hiss and a click.

06 — Reformat

Before the blonde woman was a series of objects floating in space. Some of them had suspended squares of color beneath them. All of them were tangible, they seemed to have weight, mass, and cast a shadow.

The blonde woman didn't seem to notice the caustic machine voice was speaking to her. Instead, she was looking at the objects, then through the objects. Lost in space yet again.

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

"Oh my god, fine," she droned on, jutting forward to snatch the banana from the air and hold it up above her head.

"Like, none of these are even the right ones, or whatever!" she protested, wielding the banana into the air as she spoke, "there should be, like, lipstick!"

"Or, shoes! Or whatever!"

"That is correct," the voice said. The blonde woman still yet had the banana in her hand, but dropped it in mere moments.

A frame of light ebbed from a tile across the room. The tile depressed with a hiss and a click. It slid away, at first revealing a color. Green, but not like a tile. Green like trees, with clips of blue from a sky beyond.

06 looked at the door, then tilted her head. She squinted, trying to see what lay beyond the trees she saw.

She took a few steps forward, slowly at first, then broke into a sprint.

"What is your name?" the caustic voice asked. With each step, the answers came to her in starts and stops.

"Like, totally Percy," she said, "but now-now, or whatever...Polly."

"How old are you?"

"Then?" she giggled, still yet sprinting, "Like...twenty five, or whatever. Now?" Percy let out a snort, "ageless, totally."

"Where do you live?"

"Queens," she said, "but not like, Chinatown Queens."

"What do you love most?"

Percy was now ignoring the questions, intent on getting through the door and into the open forest. It smelled like all things green and lovely. She wanted to feel the leaves between her fingers. The brush below her feet.

"What do you love most?" Percy stopped at this question, a few feet before the door.

"Do you, like, want the real-real answer?" she asked, "or like, the romantic answer, or whatever?"

"What do you love most?" the voice repeated.

"I totally hate everything," she said, "...except..." she hesitated, placing her hand through the door, feeling the cool, wet air on her skin.

"...If I got, like, trapped in this shit-hole..." Percy paused, hand still outstretched, "then so did they...or whatev—"

The tile beneath her feet shifted, skittering her through the door. She stumbled, reaching back inside the room, but it was too late.

"N—" the door closed on her face, locking her out.

07 — Reformat

Before the dark-haired woman was a series of objects floating in space. Some of them had suspended squares of color beneath them. All of them were tangible, they seemed to have weight, mass, and cast a shadow.

The dark-haired woman struck towards the center of the room, hand to her chin as she examined the objects floating in space.

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

"Curious," she said, narrowing her cat-like eyes. She outstretched her hand, wrapping her fingers around the toy gun. She removed it from its teal square, the cord yet still attached to the game console.

She pulled that down as well, and held them in her hands.

"That is—"

The dark-haired woman placed the gaming system and gun attachment back. The caustic voice grew quiet. Raising a feline brow, the woman grasped the clock.

"That is—"

"Hmm..." she mused, "none of these belong to me."

"That is correct."

"I..." she paused, "would choose a snake."

"That is correct."

"And, well," she said with a gracious tilt of the head, "it is simply not here, is it?"

"Then," she began, reaching up to grasp the lighter, "though I do not remember smoking...this is the only one."

Silence.

The dark-haired woman held it in her hands, then flicked the lighter on, to stare at the fire.

"Why did you not choose the glass?" the caustic voice asked.

"It does not belong to me, darling. But fire?" she raised her brow again, looking through the flames, "Fire can be passion, and certainly that's my weapon, isn't it, pet?"

"That is correct," the voice said.

The dark-haired woman tucked the lighter into her cleavage and walked gracefully towards the door, apparently in no rush. She looked around the milky-white walls and twisted to walk backwards, eying the space that had kept her here for what felt like years.

A frame of light ebbed from a tile across the room, she looked over her shoulder as she walked, noticing it. The tile depressed with a hiss and a click. It slid away, at first revealing a color. Green, but not like a tile. Green like trees, with clips of blue from a sky beyond.

07 looked at the door, then looked forward once more as she sauntered backwards, hands behind her back. She twisted around to face the door, squared her shoulders, her steps quickening.

"What is your name?" the caustic voice asked. With each step, the answers came to her, like shards of focus she still had to force herself to pay attention to.

"Moira. Moira Angela Darling," she giggled, "That's a joke," she admitted, "But now? Diana. It's a strong name, like he said."

"How old are you?"

"Then?" she chuckled behind her hand, "Oh, who can say? What a nasty question to ask a woman," Diana chided, "and now? Immortal, as all beauty is immortal, isn't it, dear?"

"Where do you live?"

"Nowhere" she said, "I did once live in East Harlem," she mused, "but now, I live in a constructed space, made by a mad-man, one I love dearly."

"What do you love most?"

"My little darlings," she said, "and for that," she continued as she walked, "it pains me to know I was marked a Betrayer."

"How curious, isn't it? I love them enough to ruin my life at every turn, and yet, I'm labeled the untrustworthy woman."

"Seems a bit of a stereotype now, doesn't it, pet?"

Now at the door, Diana placed both her hands on either side. She looked through at the trees, the sky, the distant earth she could see. Her expression, though graceful and bemused until now, broke.

"...If I've been caught, poked and prodded..." Diana began, "then surely, my little darlings have been too. And," she continued, pulling away from the door to look back at the room.

Her eyes grew glassy.

"And I know...that you will not let our most fragile little bird..." the tile beneath her feet shifted, but slower than the others. She was being passed through the door, as if on a conveyer belt, "ever leave this cage."

"You terrible creature."

The door closed on her face, locking her out.

01 — Colour Theory 18

01 had not been allowed to proceed. Instead, he was placed back at the first test, to grapple with it yet again. Nothing had changed, the colors remained the same, but as always, the answers eluded him.

The blond man pressed the indigo tile with his foot, a mute expression on his face.

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 19

The blond man was laying on the floor, his cheek against the cool tiles below. He reached out his hand, a labored act, and gingerly graced the teal tile with his fingertips.

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 20

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 21

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 22

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 23

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 24

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 25

The blond man had chosen indigo again, as he had countless times before. This time, the machine had let him pass. The rules were never the same for him.

Every time he made a choice, the goalposts seemed to change.

Even if he sat perfectly still, didn't fidget, didn't curse, waited for the caustic voice to finish its parroting, and demurely dabbled a finger to a square, it made no difference.

He had cussed and flung the tiles; that had made no difference.

He had tried to discern a pattern; there was none.

The man had a thought.

"There isn't a pattern for it, is there? It's completely fucking arbitrary," he half-asked, hand yet still on indigo.

"That is correct."

01 was allowed to proceed to the second test yet again.

01 — Pattern Recognition 57

The blond man produced the answers he knew the machine wanted. He sat perfectly still, no emotions read on his face. He did not curse. He did not fight. He simply gave the answers he knew were the ones he'd been allowed to give before, ones that felt 'correct' for the machine.

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 57

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 58

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 69

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 73

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 98

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 99

Now at the 99th version of this test, the blond man was exhausted. He was yet again starving. He was dehydrated. He was very sure he'd been here for at least 24 hours.

The blond sat himself down in the center of the room, cross-legged, and looked up at the words. He had plucked the projector from the ceiling, and yet, there the words hung all the same.

It was a twisting machine of great consistency, and yet, the way through was never the same. For the others, the ones he saw the shadows of, and the one who kicked the wall, well...they must have been let through, he imagined.

He saw no more shadows. There were no more thuds. No more kicks.

And so, he was alone, grappling with a 'game' that had no real rules. And every time he tried to make sense of it, to question it, to understand it, he failed. Every time he tried to prove 'compliance', as it'd asked, he was only allowed to pass when...

"I give up," he blurted out.

"That is correct."

01 — Reformat 10

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

The blond man struggled to stand. He knew now that he had, in fact, been here for days. He'd been given no water, he'd slept when he could, but he did have food. Food in the form of the floating banana.

However, if he ate it, he'd either be tasked with the object test again, sent back to the word test, or worst yet, plucked and placed at the color test to begin again from square one.

"...I give up," he said.

"That is incorrect."

01 — Reformat 12

"That is incorrect."

01 — Reformat 15

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 26

"That is incorrect."

01 — Colour Theory 32

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 100

"That is incorrect."

01 — Pattern Recognition 112

"That is incorrect."

01 — Reformat 20

"Please pick the correct object," a caustically pleasant female voice said, "by grasping it."

"My name is Alex," he said, the machine not having yet asked him this question. He was skipping steps. He had been here long enough, he supposed, that whatever mind control it had over his memories and identity had grown faulty.

Because he remembered. He knew who he was. Who he had been. What he believed in. Who and what he loved. He knew who his friends were. He knew what his past had been.

He knew what his future would shortly be, when he'd finally manage to get out of this microcosmic space, and be allowed to finish the task he'd set out to do. He didn't remember what that task was.

But he did know he had to complete it, at all costs.

"My name is Alex," he repeated.

"That is incorrect."

"I was born in край; Russian territory, Anapa," he continued, peeling himself from the floor with each word, "I left because my type often gets forced," he took to his knees "into hiding, or, into a certain job," he struggled to stand.

"A job I didn't ask for. One that followed me to America," he continued, "until I fought my hardest to prove, " he stood on shaking limbs, "that I could be something more," Alex faltered, reaching out for the wall as leverage.

"That is incorrect," the voice repeated.

"I was pushed to my breaking point, and pillaged from, at every..." Alex used the wall to steady himself, "fucking possible moment of my life."

"Even when I asked what more I could do to move forward," his voice was glass, "I was only ever given things that held me back," tears came, but were back-bitten with an acidic smile, "if you're really good at something, even if it kills you, they just make you do it, forever, until you break."

"That is incorrect," the voice repeated.

"And when I snapped in half twice," he leaned against the wall, "Once because of Markov, and once because I'm broken, I hurt people that didn't deserve it," he stumbled against the wall but found his footing.

"In the wrong I'd done, and in the unfairness I suffered, I took up a mission," Alex used the wall to balance him as he made his way across the room, ever so slowly. His vision was blurred. The objects were watercolor, and nothing more.

"That is incorrect."

"I made it my life's work to never let anyone suffer the unfair shit I'd," he struggled against the wall, dipping down to one knee, "h-had to go through. The only way I knew how," he inhaled, "was to make poppy-blood paintings of the systems that wronged me, and others."

Alex had made it halfway across the room. He had to stop, to rest.

"But it wasn't enough just to attack one problem. I was still colored in the shit I'd had to deal with," his breathing was shaky, "and it lead me to death."

"That is—"

"...so the only way out, would be..." thoughts, images, words, colors, ideas, scenes, flickered behind his eyelids, "a second chance, used wisely."

"It wasn't enough to tell my story," he inhaled, "I had to tell it, to teach it, to unlearn it, and tackle...a bigger problem."

"That—"

"One that's beyond me, my loss, my trauma."

"Th—"

"Where I am now, in this fucking place, is another version of the problem," he said, standing again to make his way to the edge of the room, his breathing labored, "it's a system where the rules don't make sense," Alex fell to his knees.

"Where we're told if we're good, we work hard, and try our best, we can move beyond our means," he breathed, "it's a system that lies."

"It's a system where people like me can be chewed up and spit out, despite taking on everything anyone ever gives us."

"It's a system that creates people who can't think about why people like me explode under pressure. We have an empathy problem," Alex dragged himself forward, then managed to stoop, hands to his knees.

"We have a nuance problem," he continued, trying to straighten his back, "we have a critical thinking problem. We have a problem with obeying something that, at its best, gives us blueprints for living," he stood.

"At its worst, keeps us boxed in those blueprints," he staggered forward, "then churns us out like human currency."

"That is in—"

"Now, I don't know who the fuck you think you are, but," he paused, jagging forward, "I have been through absolute hell, and back again."

"I've recognized the harm I've done, though it takes me ages, I still manage to be fucking brave about it." He took a strong step forward.

"So brave in fact, that I made an entire space opera about it, and about everything else I've just discussed. I've then tried to work through systems to get my mission completed, and that hasn't worked out for me." He took three more steps.

"And now I find myself back in this space of rules..." he took another step, "that don't make sense. Of proving myself, repeatedly, " he took four more steps, "of being told, in no uncertain terms, that this will never be easy for me."

"That is in—"

"And you have the motherfucking audacity...to keep me here...and think," Alex had reached the far end of the room, "that any door, blockade, or stupid shitty test of compliance, is going to keep me from completing..."

Alex hefted himself against the panel that he knew was the door, because of its slight indented line, nearly imperceivable—but there.

"Something that I know, if done right, if it reaches enough minds, can help people wake up, and decide," he pushed against the door, "to be better," he banged his fist on the door.

"To not have to become someone like me," he banged his fist again, "to not have to suffer as I had to," he slammed his fist again, "to not make more like me, by learning to listen," he kneed the door, "And you know—"

"That is not—"

"You know that I will die trying to change just one human mind for the better. If I can impact just one life," he slammed his shoulder into the door tile, "I will be whatever villain people need me to be," he inhaled a shaky breath.

"If it means the mission hits. If it means the message flies free. If it means just one little broken bird finds out it can fly, then I will do..."

"The only thing," he slammed the door again, "I can do. To make," the door tile depressed a millimeter. Alex pushed harder, "that happen."

"And you have the motherfucking audacity to put up a goddamn arbitrary barrier between me, and my goals..."

"When I would do anything in my power to upend...unfair systems...regardless of repercussions for myself," sweat poured down Alex's forehead as he pushed the depressed tile with all his strength, "regardless if it's harder for me. Regardless if playing nice would make it," he pushed, and the door shifted further, "easier."

"When my integrity fucking requires me not to take the easy path."

"And being an absolutely insane, arrogant bastard," Alex pushed with all his might. The door screeched, cracking open, "requires me to bow to no fucking master," Alex grimaced and pushed.

The door slid away, at first revealing a color. Green, but not like a tile. Green like trees, with clips of blue from a sky beyond. He fell through the opening, absolutely exhausted.

Yet, his journey was not yet over.

He crawled through the dirt. He grappled with the bramble. He made his way, struggling with every inch, to a lake with clear water. He gulped the water down using his shaking hands to cup and sip.

"You're on my shit-list, fuckhead," he spat, chin jutting out in the direction he'd just come from, "but first, I gotta' figure out where the fuck I am," Alex said, looking around.

"Then, I gotta' make plans."

Alex settled with his back against a tree and tapped his finger to his temple. Nothing happened. He did it again. A holographic display filtered over the air and read out data on the surrounding area in cyan shapes and yellow text.

"...I'm...still on the ship? Where the fuck are my other PROTOCOLS?"

Alex picked up a strange reading from his left. He struggled to stand. A group of shadows made their way through the brush.

"Alex!" Olive screeched, leaping towards the disheveled synth who gathered her in his arms. He held on for dear life and buried his head in her pink hair. He showered her face with kisses as she giggled.

Henry stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. Percy poked her head from around Henry's side, crossed her arms, rolled her eyes, but ended on a smile she tried to hide. Sebastian came from Henry's other side and tried to emote relief.

Whether his non-existent eyebrows did anything, nobody could say, but he tried.

Vox passed by Sebastian's side and crossed her arms, glaring at Alex. The glare didn't last, however, because she gestured vaguely, then spoke.

"Are you...functional?"

"Yes. Yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean to worry you all. I'm just sort of a fucking mess."

Diana rushed forward, tackling her arms around Alex's shoulders, thus pressing Olive to death between the pair of them.

"A-ah!" Olive protested, face crushed into Alex's chest.

“I think you’re a pendajo, is what I think, darling,” Diana spat, but still seemed intent on crushing both the blond and pink-haired girl stuck between them.

"Mate, ya' had us worried, n' all," Henry said softly, now standing back with his arm around Percy's shoulder.

"I know, I know," Alex struggled to speak with Diana nearly breaking his spine, "I forget, sometimes."

"W'dya mean?" Olive asked, cheeks pressed together. Diana let the pair go and stood back with her hands on her hips.

"I forget...what we are," Alex continued.

"Who we are," Vox corrected him.

"Alright, we've wasted enough time with literary distractions," Sebastian chimed in, "I'm happy our writer exorcised some demons, but it's time to get back to work, little bird."

"Do ya' think other people'll get it?" Olive asked, nestled to Alex's chest.

"Naw," he said.

"Naw?" Olive asked.

"But I don't give a shit. There's a mission. Can't care about the ones that don't fucking get it," Alex paused, twisting around, "Did anyone keep the lighter?"

"I kept it, darling," Diana said, pulling the lighter from her cleavage.

"Of course you did. Clever girl," he said with a wink.

Diana tossed Alex the lighter.

"Who has a cigarette?" Alex asked.

Henry patted down his pockets, "Oi! Hey...how'd this get in 'ere?" he asked, producing a package of cigarettes.

"Our writer doesn't care about the rules, that's how," Alex said with a smirk. Henry pulled out a cigarette, Alex plucked it from him, lit it up, and turned to look back at where they'd come from.

"Guess we have something else to burn down and rebuild, huh?" he said.

"Do you think our writer will do this themselves, or through metaphors and art, as always?" Vox asked.

"He's a bit of a coward, isn't he, darlings?" Diana asked. Sebastian shook his head.

"He's just a broken bird," Sebastian said emotionlessly, "attempting flight with any tool he has, or has to make, for that matter. Even us. It's logical."

"Dunno, Vox," Alex said, narrowing his eyes at Sebastian, "Depends on what he thinks'll cause the biggest explosion. Personal brand soap-box, possible product, or dismantling-via-entertainment, like this," he gestured around at the others, "but..." he paused, exhaling payne's gray smoke into the air, "it's important, right?"

"Very," Vox said, placing her hands on her hips.

"Ready to fuck some shit up, anyways?" Alex asked the others.

"Okey dokey."
"Roight."
"Totally."
"...I suppose, if I must."
"Let's get on with it."
"Yes, pet."

STAY TUNED

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alex [redacted]

alex [redacted]

I'm just a dude from the 90s, trying to make sense out of being a robot in the future, and failing horribly at it.