I woke up, my head aching even more than usual. “Ugh,” I announced, eloquently informing the world that I had returned to consciousness.
I tried to open my eyes, but they were still half-crusted shut from whatever I’d been up to the last night. I only managed to get them half-open, and saw that I was someplace dim. I reached up with one arm to wipe them free of the crusty debris-
Wait a minute. I blinked a few times, trying to clear my vision. Slowly, still swirling a little and making me feel dizzy, the world swam back into shaky focus.
I was sitting up, I realized, in a chair that definitely did not have any padding. My muscles were crying out from various areas, suggesting that I’d been here for a while. I gave my arms another tug, but they still didn’t move.
I looked down at them, and saw thick metal straps locked around my wrists, holding them in place. I gave my arms another tug, and saw them rattle against those steel bracelets, but the cuffs on my arms didn’t budge.
I still felt woozy and half-conscious, but it was starting to sink into my mind that something was wrong. I didn’t remember coming here, and I definitely didn’t remember being locked up for anything.
My legs had similar shackles down around the ankles. I tried to jerk my whole body, but the chair didn’t budge – it must be bolted down to the floor, I realized. This was not good at all.
I could feel my panic level rising. I pulled my head up, staring around at my current location. What the hell was going on?
I appeared to be alone, inside a room of some sort. My initial impression of dimness was correct – there was a single bulb hanging down from the ceiling above my head, casting a yellow illumination over everything, but there was no other light in the room. The walls were featureless and gray, just like the floor. I felt as though I was entombed inside a block of concrete.
I opened my mouth, feeling my tongue rasp, dry and swollen, against my teeth. “Hello?” I called out, my voice sounding somewhere between a croak and a squeak. “Is anyone there?”
My voice echoed dully around the room, but there was no response. And as I tilted my head around, I realized something else that made fear shoot deep into my heart:
There was no door in or out of the room.
Now, I was definitely scared. What the hell had happened last night? I tried to cast my mind back, but it felt as though it was stuffed with cotton. I very vaguely remembered heading out to the bars, a typical Friday night, but everything after that dissolved into abstract color.
I was still trying to recall what had happened when I suddenly heard a click, and felt the pressure around my wrists and ankles stop. I looked down, and saw that the clamps around my wrists and ankles had opened.
Cautiously, I stood up, reaching around to massage at where the steel had bit into my wrists. “Hello?” I called out again, but again received no response.
I heard a hiss behind me, and spun around. On the wall behind me, a slab of the concrete had slid aside, revealing a passage leading out of the room.
I paused, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice. I took a minute to hold up my middle finger in the air before heading through the passage. I couldn’t see any cameras, but they had to be watching from somewhere, right?
Cautiously, I made my way down the revealed hallway, the walls and floor the same color and texture as the room where I’d awoken. I could see another light glowing at the far end, but I had no idea what to expect.
What I found, when I stepped into the next room, was a doorway.
The doorway was mounted on a plinth in the middle of the room, raised up about half a step from the rest of the floor. There was no door in the doorway, but it looked as though someone had stretched a white, shimmering sheet across the open rectangle.
There was also, I noticed, no other way in or out of the room.
With nothing else to do, I advanced slowly on the doorframe, examining it. It looked quite ordinary, aside from that rippling whiteness that filled it. I reached out and carefully extended a finger towards that whiteness.
As I made contact with it, I felt absolutely nothing; it was like trying to touch air. But when I tilted my head to peer around the frame, I saw nothing on the other side.
My finger wasn’t appearing!
I drew back, confused. My head was still killing me! What was I supposed to do, step through?
But on the other hand, I didn’t seem to have anything else to do – and there was no sign of anyone stepping in to give me instructions.
I took a deep breath, braced myself, and stepped up to the doorway. “I hope this is what you want,” I announced out loud, and then let my breath out in a slow whoosh.
And then I stepped through the doorway.
For a moment, nothing happened in the room. It was all still, aside from the shimmering, rippling motion of the whiteness in the doorframe.
And then, a man came stumbling out the other side of the doorframe.
This was, at first glance, not the same man who had stepped into the opening a moment earlier. He had a thick beard covering most of his face, and his hair was a shock of white. His hands were covered in wrinkles, and he seemed to be missing several fingers. He stood with a hunched, bent back, and looked about to snap like a twig at any second.
He stared around at the room, his eyes wide but unbelieving. “No! Not again!” he screamed out, as his whole face dropped open in horrified recognition.
The old, withered man took a step or two forward, but then let out a last sound, somewhere between a gasp and a scream, and collapsed forward, down onto the floor.
For several minutes, he just lay there, not moving.
After it was clear that the man was dead, another door opened, and two men in white protective suits, hoods, and booties stepped into the room. They hurried forward to the man, scooped up his limp and lifeless body, and hauled it towards the door. On the other side, they casually dropped the body down a chute built into the wall.
Before the door closed, the sound of a blaring intercom could be heard from the far side. “Bring in the next volunteer,” the voice called out with a crackle of static.
The door closed.