This story is by Cassie MB Rybka and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I awake in the darkness and know it has begun. Virtual Naturalization Objective: get out. Intimation: dive down. My bare feet register a stone platform, my hands reach out to find a circular wall. My investigation confirms my suspicions: a well. Clever. The dark, closed space would terrify the weak minded. I am not weak.Taking a breath, my feet leave the stone platform, leading the way into the icy water.
“Congratulations, B. Primary Level complete.”
B? I hear the voice echo in my head. The reference sounds familiar but the voice is a foreign entity sloshing through my brain. It has a whispering, almost comforting quality. Seductive? Definitely. Reliable? Interesting thought. I’m out of time to ponder. My lungs are already burning. Time to rotate and pinpoint my exit.
“Your wisdom guides you well, B. Reach for the chain to replenish your air.”
The bottom of the well is a mere three strokes, the chain coiled to the left. As I reach for it, my right hand brushes against something solid. I grasp it and run both hands along its cylindrical shape.
“You are clever, B. The pole has its own utility, but will do little in feeding your starving brain.”
Starving? Well said. My head feels as if it hasn’t eaten in days, concave on itself, shriveled, and wanting for anything that can fill the increasing void.
“Grab the chain and pull, B”
That settles it. The voice in my head has spoken. Summoning the last bit of my strength, I reach for the chain and guide my body down into the water until I can touch the floor. Pivoting my feet, I brace my body between the wall and grab the chain with both hands. I pull with a desperate reserve of strength. Nothing happens. I pull back again, jerking the chain a few times, mentally cursing the voice who is clearly trying to kill…
“Congratulations, B. Secondary Level complete.”
Before the voice can finish its mocking, (I am certain now there’s an undertone, albeit minuscule), there is a percussive pop and the chain goes limp in my hands. A whirlpool forms at the bottom of the well, churning the water around me, pulling my body down with an impressive force of gravity. Unable to maintain my hold on the wall, I let my body ride tide down into the…drain? Of course. The hole in the floor is massive and leads to a brightly lit “other world”. There is more of the unknown ahead. Awesome. The water level finally lowers past my face, bringing sweet release to my lungs. My head clears and I am allowed a moment to catch my body on the slippery walls before being sucked into another situation unprepared.
The light shining through the hole is far too bright to see past, leaving my eyes squinting and tearing uncontrollably. Is it getting warmer? Wherever the light comes from, it must be drier. That’s a silver lining. My brain rationalizes it could also be the surface of the sun. Uncertainty is a snake curling around my chest, taking sips away from my hard earned breath. Irrationally, I hope the voice returns to give me direction, but all is silent. The water is nearly gone, giving me solid ground to stand on. Regardless of where this hole leads, one thing is certain: the longer I stare at it the more likely I am to piss my pants than jump. Before I can think any more, I bend my knees and jump as close to the center as I can.
“Well done, B. New objective: find the parachute and satchel.”
Simple enough. I manage to open my eyes. They instantly dry and are nearly glued shut from the wind. I dive rapidly, and if the blue expanse is any indication, I am free falling from the sky. Finding a parachute won’t be as easy as I initially assumed. Maneuvering my body, I manage to fall face down giving me a bird’s-eye view of my surroundings.
“Excellent forethought, B.”
“Not helpful,” I say.
The blue sky stretches as far as I can see. I wonder if this, like the well, is an illusion beyond the natural laws of physics. As the thought enters my mind, my eyes find a speck of brown directly below me. Speak of the devil, I think. The spot is enlarging with each passing second, looking more like a land mass than an anomaly. The seriousness of my predicament hits me, and once again my breath is squeezed out my lungs. Looking around for some clue, my body begins to somersault over itself, speeding faster towards the ground. It takes several heart-stopping seconds to gain control of my limbs. Somehow I manage to straighten my arms and legs, slowing down my descent. There’s still no sign of a parachute or satchel. Desperate, I decide playing nice to my snarky muse might help.
“Hey Voice!,” I shout. “I’m about to become a pancake. A little help?”
“Your restraint of hubris serves you well, B.” You have no idea how unrestrained I can be. I fight back my murderous thoughts, clamping my mouth shut to keep from responding. I need cooperation. Out of nowhere a flock of large brown birds ascends towards me. I’ve observed multiple species of birds before. These, however, are nondescript; the epitome of what a basic avian would look like. Every bird has a satchel and parachute each. Luck be a lady, the tramp.
“Prudence is wise, B.” I manage to scoff, reaching for the closest bird to my right. I don’t window shop. I grab both bags with one hand, adjusting my balance to maintain a flat profile. Immediately the birds fly over my head and my descent accelerates. Damn. That’s a forest directly below me. After adjusting the large parachute on my shoulders, I take a moment to tie the satchel around my waist. My memory gives me no clue as to how and when I should pull the rip chord leaving me no choice but to just do it. I estimate there are only a few seconds before I will be able to identify each leaf on the trees. Reaching back, I grab what feels like a handle and pull. Nothing happens.
“Congratulations, B. Tertiary level complete.”
I scream. Curses and nonsensical promises leave my lips. I am begging the Voice to help, flailing my arms as if I could sprout wings like those brown bastards. No help comes. Figures. The tree tops meet my face at high velocity, flaying skin like a whip. My left arm connects with a pine tree, and I can feel my shoulder separate and bones fracturing. Instinctively, I curl into myself but not before my right knee hits another tree, bending my leg out and around. Pain overtakes my senses. “Ow,” I whisper as the ground reaches up and slams me into its bosom.
Darkness is my companion for what feels like an eternity. The pain pulls me up out of the abyss, or maybe it’s the Voice. I hear it mumbling in my subconscious, growing louder.
“Initiating Quaternary Level. Conducting body scan. Hello, B. Congratulations. You have reached the final level. How are you feeling?”
I’ve decided. It’s definitely mocking me and I’m officially in my own personal hell. I try to form a scathing response, peppered with witty and colorful descriptors, but my mind is a cotton field; all fluff and sticks gently waving in hot, sticky air.
The Voice repeats, “How are you feeling?” at least five times before my tongue successfully releases a single word.
“Pissed,” I say with as much force as I can muster. It comes out a hoarse groan.
“Your honesty is appreciated, B. Your final task is simple: put to use the instrument from the satchel before the sun falls.”
“Why?” I croak.
“Once it is night, your body will freeze. Your death will be slow and painful.”
That’s morbid; and specific. I take a moment to mentally prepare for the pain before moving my right arm across my body towards the top of the satchel. A scream tears from my throat. My hips are broken and perhaps a few ribs. It takes another attempt before my fingers find the latch on the top flap. The satchel is larger than it looks and I think it must be empty. Finally, at the bottom most corner, my hand brushes against cool metal. The object is heavy as I pull it out. My mind recognizes it before I see it: a gun.
“You want me to use a gun,” I say, the question implicit.
“Your instincts are correct, B.”
“Congratulations, B. You have surmised the purpose of the instrument.”
This time I do curse the cowardly entity, rambling for several minutes before my voice gives out. I lay panting, sweat rolling down my face.
“Have you decided?” Heartless bastard.
“My answer is no. I’m not killing myself.”
“You will die a painful death.”
“I will die on my own terms.”
I close my eyes as if to end the discussion. The Voice doesn’t respond, and for a while I doze in smug satisfaction. Much sooner than is natural, the sun begins to dip. My teeth begin to chatter and I look around for anything to keep me warm. I’m lying on pine needles under a canopy of trees. I try to arrange them over my core with little success. My body shakes in protest, getting weaker the more I try to move.
“Will you comply, B?”
“No,” I say, panting through gritted teeth.
“Do you choose to reject an easy death?”
Icicles begin forming around the edges of my body. How is this possible? The sun set mere minutes ago. My legs, left immobile from the fall, begin to go numb. My hands will soon follow.
“Do you choose to reject an easy death?” the Voice asks again.
“Screw you,” I manage to say, cold crawling up my body, slowing my heart. Every breath is like swallowing a knife. At least I won’t suffer long, I think.
“Congratulations, B. You have completed your test,” I hear the Voice say before the darkness takes me again.
“Welcome back, Detective Beattie. Please sit up and drink this. It will flush the nanos from your system.”
My eyes blink open, warm air rushing into what I thought were cold lungs. A pretty brunette is standing next to me with a small paper cup. I take it and examine the blue syrup inside.
“It tastes better than it looks.”
She flashes me a smile. Beautiful women can sell anything. I drink it, pleased she was right.
“Your results are printing out now. Dr. Laszlo will be in momentarily to go over them.”
She takes the cup and leaves. I look around the sterile room, pondering if I passed the damn naturalization test. My hotel room and a few dozen shots of vodka are calling my name. Minutes later a short, muscular man stomps in, a clipboard in one hand and a gun in the other. My gun.
“Detective Beattie!” His voice is boisterous, filling the echoing spaces of the room. “I have your results and you are good to go! In fact, you passed with flying colors. That last bit with the whole ‘die on my own terms’,” he actually laughs. I contemplate decking him. “Priceless! Here are your belongings. We have confirmation from your state department that you are who you claim to be. You are now free to enter the country.” He smiles. I don’t return the favor.
“Thanks,” I mutter. I take my things and move toward the door.
“No, thank you, Detective. We appreciate your cooperation in keeping terrorists out of our country. Next time, try to remember your identification. Then you can avoid the Virtual Naturalization test altogether!”
He shakes my hand and I leave, vowing to tattoo my ID card on my ass next time.