Red carpet. Red stairs. On the wall a snowy landscape that usually filled him with the calm and stillness of winter, containing in it the promise of an eventual spring. This afternoon it only compounded the sense of dread that had taken root in his gut, slowly spreading tendrils out to the other parts of his body. He paced under the low ceiling of the loft which usually felt comfy but today confined him. Finally, at a quarter after 4:00 the phone rang. He was across the small space and lifting the receiver in an instant.
"Yes?" he said before anyone on the other side could utter a word.
"Henry?" they asked tentatively.
He exhaled impatiently. "Yes it’s me. Now tell me whether we have results!" He was speaking scarcely above a whisper yet managing to somehow yell as well.
"We..." the voice hesitated, "we have results. But you’re not going to like them. Look, it might be better if you came in in-person."
Henry was silent.
"Henry it’s her memory. I know this is not ideal but—"
"I’ll be there!" Henry interrupted and slammed down the receiver. He turned, surveyed the clothes he’d laid out on the bed in case it came to this and then swiftly began to change into them. Once he’d donned the slacks, button-up and coat he stepped to the portal room. These chambers all look like glass-doored showers, that was an intentional design decision by the manufacturers, but this one resembled a shower even more than most. It was an idle thought that struck him every time he entered it, one that he immediately forgot by the time he pressed the button to initiate the transfer.
In Hong Kong it was still dark out, besides all of the lights of the city of course. An assistant led him up three flights in the elevator then down a long hallway that stretched nearly the full length of the building. It was a walk he’d made countless times over the last few months and he laughed internally that they still sent the assistant, this time an unassuming young man with glasses and a tired look on his face.
"Is Rebecca in?" Henry asked the assistant absently.
"Yes, she arrived just a few minutes ago."
The transfers weren’t instant and Rebecca lived a lot closer than Henry did; a whole continent closer to be precise. Yes, if they’d called her at the same time as him then she would have arrived a little before him, early enough for the assistant to make the whole trip from the transfer chambers to the research wing and back once already. Henry liked to keep track of these things. He wanted to be sure they hadn’t contacted Rebecca before they had him, especially after he’d spent the day waiting impatiently by the phone.
The assistant led him into a conference room with wood paneling, floor-to-ceiling windows, and leather seats. Rebecca, Chenguang, and Robert were all standing near the conference table, engaged in soft idle chatter while they awaited the last addition to the group. As soon as he walked in they took their seats, each offering him only a faint nod of the head in acknowledgement. Chenguang stifled a yawn. It was now just after 4:30 in the morning her time and it had probably been quite a few hours since she had slept. The same could be said for all of them. Each had bags under their eyes and slightly disheveled looks, even Henry in his fresh clothes.
"Well Robert, I’ve waited a half an hour and I’ve come back all this way," he smiled slightly at the weak joke; after all it had taken him only a few minutes to cross half the globe. He looked Robert directly in the eye. "Tell me how the new subject is doing."
"This is what were discussing just now when you arrived. Robert, we agree. You need to talk to her yourself."
Henry felt his hands clench involuntarily. The last time hadn’t gone so well. But he let nothing show in his voice or his face, that he could tell.
"All right. If that’s what you think is best, I trust all three of you. You know that. But let’s get this over with".
He stood immediately. The others did the same. There was little else that could be said. As they filed out of the conference room Chenguang laid a hand on his arm. He looked into her eyes and smiled, though he didn’t feel it. She did the same and her eyes said "Good luck".
They’d been studying these ’subjects’ for nearly three years and yet no one really seemed to know what they actually were. A whole series of researchers had visited to lend a hand and quite a variety of theories, each wilder than the last, had been propounded in the rooms and corridors of the facility. Henry had his own theories, but he largely kept them to himself. He was afraid that they might be true. As he stripped yet again and put on the protective clothing and gear, his brain could not help but exploring some of the more lurid possibilities of these private pet-theories. Finally he was suited up.
"Ready to go, Henry?" a voice (Rebecca’s) asked into his earpiece. He gave the thumbs up to one of the cameras in the ceiling. A loud buzzer sounded, and the door to the chamber where the subject was currently housed swung slowly open. He stepped through and into the brightly illuminated chamber. There the subject was in the center of the room, seated atop an oversized medical bed. They’d had to have the bed made special for this subject, who was larger than the last. He was scarcely into the room when the subject spoke.
"Ahh, so you’ve come back. Why do you keep me here?"
It was an eery voice, in some ways like a young girl’s, but in others like no human voice at all. As always it raised the hackles on his neck, made his posture stiffen. But he kept his voice calm. He always kept his voice calm.
"We have to keep you here, for your own protection. For your safety."
He took another slow step forward.
"You and I both know that that simply isn’t true."
That was part of what was unsettling about her, no about the subject’s, voice. She always spoke in a slow, overly deliberate manner, imbuing each drawn-out word with weighty meaning. The words seemed to echo in Henry’s brain. Sometimes as he was drifting off to sleep he would hear things this subject had said to him. Things he had previously forgotten. They caught him unawares and affected him the way he imagined lines of poetry might affect a very few, very sensitively attuned people in the world, though he’d never had such a response to anything literary himself. With the ponderous words of the subject it was different. He often had to get out of bed and run cold water over his face. He had never mentioned these incidents to his colleagues, nor to his wife.
"What do you mean, not true? You don’t know much about the outside world. You don’t know what sorts of dangers, what risks you would be exposed to if we allowed you to leave this facility. And it would be more than just allowing. We’d have to help you, you wouldn’t be able to make it from this room without assistance."
He tried to avoid looking at the subject on the wide medical bed in the center of the empty, brightly illuminated room. The room was too bright. The light glanced off the white walls and almost seemed to blind him. He took another step forward.
"Yes, yes, come a bit closer. You must know, I’ve been terribly lonely."
"Lonely? The others have been in and out of here running tests on you all night."
"Yes. But they don’t... listen. You, you listen Henry,"
He took another step forward. And then another. The lights seemed to be even brighter as he neared the center of the room. He found himself tilting his head from side to side to find an angle that didn’t blind him.
"Wait," he suddenly paused in mid-step. "What did you say? How do you know my name?"
"I don’t like this, Henry, perhaps you’d better come back out," Rebecca’s voice sounded into his earpiece, uncharacteristically tense. He ignored her. The subject was looking at him. He then did something he knew he should not do. He looked, for the first time since he’d entered the room, directly back.
"How do you know my name?" His voice was still steely calm but he felt a slow wave of panic rising in his chest.
"Because, Henry. I listen too."
"Henry! Henry! Are you alright?" the voice came to his earpiece. "Henry, listen, can you hear me? We’re sending someone in for you. This was a mistake. Henry, you’ve got to move back toward the door. Henry! Listen!"
The words echoed in his brain like the sound of large stones striking the bottom of a pool.
The words continued to echo. The subject was looking at him. At once the white walls begin to tilt. He felt his balance go, and a flash of white that was the floor rushed up to meet him. But the subject still looked at him. And he looked back. And the subject was speaking. Speaking to him. And he listened.