Ghosts Not Real | A ‘Vector H+’ Short Story

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2113 – ÆI Bio-Tech and Medical Research Facility, Australia

Back to the wall, she breathed so shallow the Other could not hear her. She did not know this boy. He did not look like them, her and Brother. His skin was much paler and his hair very pale yellow. Not at all like them. He looked like Dr. Ulster. As he turned toward her, listening in the pitch black, she saw that he truly could not see where she was. What the girl lacked in night vision was made up for with a sense of echolocation, but this stranger was completely lost.

Dr. Ulster’s voice spoke through the darkness, an uncanny gentility that unsettled her as it disrupted the stillness. “Now, Gold-CM-6139, Silver-SR-0042… you are trying my patience. Must I move things alon–”

“No,” the boy he called Gold-CM-6139 replied. His voice was sharp and cold, but she could see his fist shaking as his fingers curled up. Dr. Ulster hadn’t called them ‘children,’ which meant he was angry. Bad things happened when he was angry.

In the boy’s distraction, she crept along the edge of the wall, circling out around him, staying low. Gold was larger than her, older, stronger. If she was to win the game, she must be clever. He had no sense of his location, or where he faced, so she kept behind him and waited, shimmied along the walls until he was close enough and facing one wall. Pushing off the opposite wall, she sprinted.

He growled into the darkness, “C’mon! He’s going to hurt us if we don–!”

Leaping, she threw her body weight into the back of his shoulders, grabbed his head and slammed it forward into the wall with a resounding crack. The shock of it and the propelled force of her eleven-year-old body was enough to daze him. Dropping on top of the teen, she straddled his chest. Grasping his blond hair with one hand, she delivered an upward jab with her palm to his nasal passage. Drawing her hand back again, she punched his throat then grabbed at his skull with both hands and positioned her thumbs over his eyes.

The door had unlocked and the lights exploded to full brightness. Large hands hauled her back and she felt a device rest behind her ear but nothing happened. “NO!” Dr. Ulster called, his Irish lilt more soothing as he continued, “no… no need for that. Silver-SR-0042 you will be calm, yes? The game is over. You see? You see, Gold-CM-6139 is found. He lost the game.”

Panting, she looked at Gold then looked toward the ceiling to the disembodied voice. Plainly, she observed, “he’s not getting up.”

“The losers rarely do. Humiliation, you see?” The orderlies holding her turned her and started walking her from the room. She tried to look back at the still boy as they left the room. Dr. Ulster’s voice spoke to her as an observant god, “you did very well, young lady. I think you’ve earned some picture time and a treat.”

The girl looked down at her hands. The tawny skin was smeared and spattered with blood. She rolled it around to feel the slickness between the pads of her digits. It was so very different than water, thick and warm. It smelled different too.

Led to stand at a table, the orderlies stepped away, looming at a distance. A lab technician meticulously cleaned her hands as the med scanner took the requisite tests. The girl looked at her, confused by the shaking of her hands and odd expression. The adult would not look her in the face. Peering over her shoulder, she saw others talking and focused to hear them.

“There was time. He could have stopped her.”
        “I don’t think he wanted to. The man is psychotic.”
“That CHILD is psychotic. All of them… just something not right about them.”
        “Shh… she can probably hear us… part bat. God knows what unholy mix is in her.”

Turning back to the technician she murmured, “you are Xiao Lian.”

The woman looked up in terror. “Y-yes. How did you–?”

“Brother had a dream about you. He said your name.” The girl met Lian’s eyes. “He does not like you.” The woman trembled and stepped back at her stoic tone, “he said you call us Zhenren and Niren. Are these names like Xiao Lian?”

“N-no. You don’t have names… like that,” she muttered. “They’re… nevermind.” She gasped the last with a shake of her head.

Lifting grey-green eyes to watch Lian transfer the scanner results to Dr. Ulster, the girl asked, “are these Japanese words? I have not learned them.”

“It’s Chinese,” Lian quipped with a scowl. “You are not Chinese. You’re not Japanese… you aren’t even–”

“Miss Xiao,” Dr. Ulster’s cool tone cut through the room. “A word please.”

Raising her head with a start, Lian drew a sharp breath then crossed to Dr. Ulster. Only eleven, the girl could still see the fear that the woman tried to hide. Perhaps she and Dr. Ulster were to play the game now. Dr. Ulster gestured for her to follow. Walking over, she blinked up at Lian. The woman gave a polite nod, scanning past the child’s gaze, then left. She watched with passivity. “She did not tell me what the words mean. Brother will not say either.”

“And which words are these?” Dr. Ulster guided her from the lab and down a barren hall with security at each end.

Zhenren and Niren.”

“Hmm.” He pondered a moment. The girl leaned forward to look at his eyes. The shifting of his eyes indicated the doctor was looking them up with his brain computer. Their eyes moved different when they used their brain computer. “The cultural connotations could affect the meaning but, I suspect that Miss Xiao meant to reference, “true person” and the Buddhist antithesis.”

“A liar?”

The man chuckled and looked down at her, his muted brown eyes sparkling. “Not quite, although, I suppose in some ways. I think she means more in the sense of ‘real’ and ‘not real’.”

Considering this, the girl was silent a long time. Only their footsteps filled the space around them. When he guided her into another room, she looked to him again. “I conclude that I am Niren.”

“How so?” The man arched a brow as she lowered to sit on the single cushion, the only item in the spartan room.

“Brother would not have refused to tell me if Lian called me Zhenren. He always tries to say things he thinks will make me happy. And he gets angry when someone is mean to me. He does not like Lian. So, I conclude that she named him Zhenren and I am Niren.” Looking at him expectantly, she folded her cleaned hands in her lap. “Is this correct?”

There was a flicker of something in his eyes, a disapproval. Perhaps she had been wrong. Failing a test was bad, the punishment for failure was unpleasant. The flicker was snuffed and he smiled, “excellent logic, Silver-SR-0042. I’ll inform Miss Xiao that you successfully completed this test. No more Zhenren and Niren.” He crouched beside her and produced a candy from his pocket. “You’ve earned a treat, and I have a new film for you to watch today. It is very old, but I want you to pay special attention. Yes?”

“Yes, Dr. Ulster.”

“Good girl.” He beamed a smile at her and caressed her hair a moment before standing. She watched him, feeling nothing, only a tiny spark of relief she had passed her test and won the game. Brother would be pleased.

The room was dim, but not black as the other. Most of the light came from the wallscreen and the film played. The candy treat was sweet and tangy in her mouth. As always at picture time, the soft tingling began at her temples. Time felt different. Space felt full, more like a suspension fluid like thick water or jelly within which she drifted. The film’s images moved before her, just pictures, but her muscles felt the movements of the warriors on battlefields and in palace halls. There was something beautiful in the swords, the way the warriors danced with them, silent and elegant, not like the loud weapons of the other films. Her lips repeated their foreign words and she marveled at a sense of awareness. None of the others were given picture time, were a part of this place with her. Not even Brother was allowed, though she pleaded with Dr. Ulster to let him come. She was never to ask again. It was her place, her time and she felt a oneness with the whole of the universe, not just this strange ancient land where men rode animals and waged war with swords. Always Dr. Ulster would tell her before naptime, after the pictures, she was special and one day she would understand who she was meant to be.

– – – –

Curled under the table, Brother held his head. They were doing it again. Putting her in that room, doing strange things to her head. He only ever felt a lingering dizziness and, on occasion, a desire to vomit, but he always knew. Those nights she would dream too. Sister’s dreams would be a nightmare of blood and slaughter. Any other child would wake screaming. She was no more distraught than if she’d dreamt of the beautiful fantasy lands depicted in storybooks.

Taking deep breaths, Brother fought back a wave of nausea. Whatever drugs they had given to her were extra-strong this time. He worried he might piss himself. How did she endure this? He still didn’t understand what they were doing to her. What Sister explained to him made no sense or explain what he felt.

A body dropped onto the table above him, causing Brother to spasm with terror. He was out of his room without permission. If an orderly or doctor found him–

A pair of bare feet and linen pants like his own lowered off the table beside him before a boy two or three years older than him crouched down. “I’m not going to tell on you.” He reached back up onto the table then produced a pouch of electrolyte juice and a pack of crackers. “This will help.”

Brother stared at him, baffled at his appearance and oddly appropriate gift. When he said nothing, the boy took it upon himself to start introductions. “My number is Gold-NV-0957… but I suppose that’s awkward to use as a name.”

“Amber-SR-0043.”

“A twin.” He brightened with a smile. “All the Ambers are twins. You were the second. Is your brother a Gold or a Silver?”

“Sister… actually.”

The youth’s brows raised and he eased down to sit crossed legged. “Really? That’s… strange. They must have changed you then, or–”

“Silver. She’s a Silver.” Brother was still only holding the proffered gifts as he studied the visitor. He didn’t understand what he meant by ‘changed him,’ but it didn’t sound like something he would like. The older boy was thin and tall for his age. Like the Twins, he was Asian of some heritage, tawny skin and black hair. His eyes were black, however, not their grey-green. The Gold-line youth reached over and took the juice pouch. Opening the straw for him like an elder brother, he then handed it back with a gentle smile. Brother gave a meek grin in gratitude then sipped at it. He was right, it did help.

“Did they give you drugs?” the youth asked him.

Shaking his head, Brother had to force himself to stop drinking. It tasted too good. “No… Sister. I’m not sure what they do to her, but I feel it. I don’t like it.” He whined and leaned against the wall. “She says… she says it feels like… being fire. Not on fire– being fire. I don’t understand that. I don’t know what that means.”

“It means they give her drugs.”

The two sat in somber contemplation, then the elder youth asked, “you just call her ‘Sister’?”

Picking at the rice paper wrapping on the crackers, Brother was embarrassed to answer. “Not allowed to have names. We… we never used to see other kids. Then Dr. Ulster started having us play games. We realized that the numbers they called us weren’t names. They’re codes. Sister asked why we didn’t have names like the doctors and techs.”

“Dr. Ulster said you had to earn one,” the youth whispered.

Brother just nodded. “Brother and Sister seems to be allowed. I hear the techs whisper mean names they’ve given us, though.”

Hugging his knees, the youth leaned forward, “I’m a Gold, you’re an Amber and she’s a Silver. We could just call each other that when they aren’t around to hear. It’s like a name.” He gave a soft grin, “and maybe someday we can pick better ones.”

Giving a timid nod, Brother grinned, “I think I’d like that. Better than a number.”

“Do you know what room you sleep in?”

“Sister and I sleep in one marked sb29-16a.”

“Ok.” The youth now calling himself Gold stood up and started to climb onto the table. Brother leaned out to look up at him as he hopped up and caught hold of the edge of the vent high on the wall.

“You’re just leaving?”

“Yes.”

“But, you didn’t meet Sister yet.”

As Gold shimmied around in the vent so he could pull the cover back up, he grinned, “I’ll meet Silver tonight when I come to your room.”

“Through the vent?!”

The youth smiled broadly and whispered, “why do you think I stay so skinny?”

Brother suspected that was a lie, like the lies he and Sister told one another. Just like Sister, neither he nor Gold would acknowledge this as a known truth.

– – – –

I don’t want to talk about it. Sister scowled at him in the dark, then rolled over on her mat pulling her hand out of his. Their Twin-talk did not work if they were separated. After lights-out, the orderlies only checked on them every hour. He looked toward the door to see if there was a face at the hidden window. Seeing it was empty, he crawled over to her and wrapped an arm over her so she had to wrestle if she wanted to pull away.

You never do, but you’ll dream about it. Horrible dreams and I can’t– …please?

Sister never cried. He could only remember seeing it once when Dr. Ulster had hurt them. When he thought about it now, he wondered if she had cried to spare him any more pain, not because Dr. Ulster had broken her. As he held her now, however, he could feel her tears as he would his own. Reaching up to her face, he brushed at her cheek. His telepathic voice felt small and scared, even in his own mind. Please tell me what happened?

There is no Gold-CM-6139.

I don’t understand.

The crying ceased. Sister grew still and he knew there would be no more answers. Like every other horrible thing, he would see monstrous visions as they slept. It was the only time that their Twin-speak worked without them having to touch. The only closest similarity was the sickness he felt when Dr. Ulster took her away for ‘pictures’. He learned through her about strange places, new words and ways to move and fight. No one had ever taught him how to fight he just knew, because Sister knew.

Dr. Ulster once put a heavy metal thing in front of him. He knew it was called a gun without being told. He could take it apart, put it together and knew how to use it. Dr. Ulster gave him a ‘toy’ that only fired tiny ink pellets. He said it was a test of “hand-eye coordination and visual acuity.” The other doctors grumbled but did not stop the test. It took him a few tries but it felt as if he’d done it before. After the first four shots, every shot following hit his mark, each target becoming more difficult, some moving. Dr. Ulster was very pleased.

A sound caught his attention. His first instinct was ‘Orderlies,’ but the sound was inside the room, not at the door. Sister heard it too and rolled away, coming up to a crouch. He recognized that stance. When it occurred to him the sound was a scuffing from inside the air vent, he grasped at her foot. No, wait… I think it’s Gold.

You make no sense.

The boy that gave me juice and crackers. He said to call him Gold and that he’d call me Amber and you Silver.

In spite of his reassurance, he could see Sister’s hand curled in a fist at her waist as she turned her head to look down at the vent to her right. The magnetic cover pushed free and carefully swung down on its hinges. Gold’s voice whispered to him from the shaft. “Amber… you awake…?”

One hand reached out to the floor so the boy could pull himself in. Sister grabbed it, jerked him in with a strength beyond that of a normal girl her age. She pounced upon him, fist raised.

“Sister don’t!” Brother hissed lunging forward to grasp her wrist and hold it back. I told you, he’s a friend.

I’m not going to hurt you.

The youth’s voice was as clear in both of their minds as their Twin-speak, sending both Brother and Sister reeling back in shock. Sister was breathless as if he punched her in the chest. It was enough to allow Gold to sit up. Brother had released her wrist, so Gold took her hand and held it to show he was gentle, kind, meant no harm.

Sitting back Brother watched them. Although he could not ‘hear’ what was being said, he could feel they were speaking. While it marveled him, he also felt excluded and rejected. Drawing his knees up, he leaned his back to the wall and waited to be included again.

– – – –

I’m not going to hurt you.

Never had she heard a voice in her head other than her own or Brother’s. It was intimate and invasive. Shocked at the unexpectedness of it, she drew back on her haunches, recoiling from him, which only allowed for him to sit up. The youth was only a few years older than her, lanky, scruffy-haired and gaunt. As he reached for her hand she flinched, but he took it and drew it toward him. His expression grew pained and he lowered his eyes from her face to look at her fingers. She followed his gaze. He didn’t have the metallic reflection in his eyes indicating night vision like she and Brother had, unless he had some other kind. It was obvious, though, he was studying blood stains along the deep valleys around her finger nails and under them. Lian had not done a thorough job cleaning them.

This is not yours. The observation was sad.

No.

I’m sorry. He looked up at her face again, knowing something more than she did. Older, more experienced, maybe he’d played the game too.

He lied to me.

Gold nodded his head and sighed, still holding her hand. You mustn’t let them empty you. The more they take out, the more they will fill up with what they want to put in you.

You talk like the doctors. You sound old. She ducked her head and amended, older, I mean.

The youth smiled at her. I’m sure other children would think the same of you. We grow up different here. Faster in a way. It’s not just what they teach us. We have to.

Confused by this teen who spoke like an adult, she studied his face. With another flinch, she tensed as he reached up and touched his thumb to the space between her eyebrows. She felt oddly calm as he lightly pressed there, then drew along her right brow and repeated this on the left. He then drew a line from the center of her brows up to her hairline. When he was done, he smiled again. Better?

She nodded then asked, how can you talk like we talk? Are you a twin too?

The question eluded him a moment, then he confessed, there is another girl. We are not siblings– well… not twins. She can mind-speak too. It’s called telepathy, but we keep it secret. We are afraid if they know–

Dr. Ulster knows Brother and I can. He hurts us to see if we– …and–

Guilt filled her and she rose up, climbing off of the youth’s lap to sit with her back to Brother. The boy did not follow immediately, perhaps he spoke to Brother first. If her twin knew what Dr. Ulster leveraged with her, he would argue, tell her not to do what he wanted. She couldn’t just allow that. They both knew Dr. Ulster would only find a way to make things worse until he won.

A tender hand on her back signaled Gold’s return. With cautious movement, he sat beside her. You’ve not told Amber that Dr. Ulster has threatened to hurt him if you don’t play his games. She blinked at him, not bothering to ask how he could know. One look over her shoulder to Brother who pretended not to be listening was confirmation. The youth was sharing with him, she could tell. Gold shook his head, locks of unkempt hair falling in his face. You understand that it doesn’t matter, that he lies and will hurt you both no matter if you do as he wants or not?

I have to try to protect him. I have to try.

I know, and he does the same for you. Has he told you how sick he gets when you have your ‘special treats’ from Dr. Ulster? Guilt flooded her again. She looked back at Brother, angry he lied about his juice and cracker story, said he was just hungry. Brother wasn’t hiding that he was listening anymore, his expression sad and regretful. Gold stroked her back. I’ve had his ‘special treats’ too. I know that he’s giving them to you, and what they do.

Chin tucked behind her knee, she pouted. It’s all a game to him, isn’t it? We keep playing until…

Hanging her head, she stared at the floor, the vision of the blond boy filling her mind. It wasn’t until picture-time she realized what she’d done. It was not ‘humiliation’ keeping the boy from getting up. Gold reached over and took her hand again.

Yes. He doesn’t see girls and boys. We aren’t ‘his children’ as he says.

Where did that boy come from. He was older than you.

Gold hung his head and grimaced. He was likely promised a place to stay, some form of schooling until he was old enough for the… other programs here.

So the orderly did not lie. He was not one of us.

No.

Tucking her head down, Sister wasn’t able to decide if that made it any better or worse. Brother’s whisper cut through the somber weight of their silence. “Room check!”

Without hesitation, Sister clicked the vent cover closed and pushed Gold toward the door to hide beneath the window. Brother grabbed her and pulled her down, both dropping limp onto their mats and pretending to sleep. Not needing to see with their eyes, the twins focused on the sounds. Their echolocation didn’t work as well through walls and doors, but the quiet of the night helped just enough to produce a splashing effect as the orderly walked. They saw a flexing ripple as he moved down the hall rather than a distinct shape.

Once he passed, and they were certain they were safe for another hour, they sat up. Gold crawled over and sat between them, resting a hand on one’s leg or a foot. Someday we’ll get out of here. I promise.

Out to where? Brother studied him with confusion, but she could see interest and eagerness in his eyes.

That enigmatic smile spread slow across Gold’s face again. Sister liked his smile. Leaning forward, he took both of them by the hand, then bowed his head. Images like those from picture-time rolled through her mind. These were different, though. She saw some of the doctors and the places looked different than the places in her pictures. It was vast and dead. What few trees she saw weren’t the same as the ones in her pictures, and the other plants were different too. Some had needles in them. She had a sense it was very hot in this place and the sky was almost always blue. The doctors she saw dressed and acted different in these pictures. They laughed, did strange things she didn’t understand, games maybe. There was a strong sense these were memories, the doctors’ memories.

Where is that? Brother gaped at him breathless and excited. There were no walls and–

We could see the sky, she whispered. In the pictures they go out into forests with so many trees and… fields with sky. I thought it was make-believe.

Gold smiled again and pointed up toward the ceiling. We’ll go someday. I promise.

The swell of Brother’s excitement wrapped around her like a hug. More promises. Promises always led to pain. Not knowing what else to do she gave him a soft smile, then turned away and went to the vent. Opening the cover she waited. Gold was smart, as smart as an adult. He understood her cue and in a few moments he crawled over to her. Resting beside her on one knee, her touched her foot.

It isn’t lies to make you feel good, Silver. I do mean it.

My name isn’t Silver. And he isn’t Amber.

Gold looked her in the eye. He is whomever he chooses to be. That is not for you to say.

And he said to call him Amber?

Gold lowered his gaze to the floor as if she had smacked him. After a moment his black eyes fixed on her grey-green ones and with all sincerity, he asked, what would you like me to call you?

Staring at her fingers in the dark, she rubbed at one thumbnail. He sat patiently waiting. All she saw through the darkness were the stains and knew they wouldn’t be the last. A name seemed a selfish desire after such a thing. It felt as if he were rewarding her in spite of what she had done. A word came to her mind as his fingers gently stroked her bare foot. Turning to peer at him she repeated it, more fitting than a precious metal, than a precious anything.

Rei.

That’s pretty. This smile made her feel tingling warm and she lowered her head to avoid his gaze. May I visit you and your brother again, Rei?

Only able to nod her head, she peeked at him and tucked her long hair behind one ear. Always grinning, he did so at this too. I am glad they haven’t shaved your head. You have pretty hair too, Rei.

She felt an inner glow again. Silently she waited as he climbed into the vent, then she closed the cover behind him. After watching him through the slats, she turned and crawled back to her mat. Brother wrapped his arms about her and hugged her tight. It confused her, but she hugged him in return. The girl snuggled closer to her twin feeling comforted by his nearness, although her thoughts were also trying to decipher the mystery of this new boy. She and Brother no longer had a language special to just them and she wasn’t sure if that upset her or she felt a desire to know Gold more because of this. It meant they weren’t alone. After a moment, Brother confessed. I don’t mind if he calls me Amber. Maybe I’ll think of a name I like someday. But he’s right, Rei is a pretty name. Did you make it up?

No. It’s a word. I heard it… in one of the pictures.

What does it mean?

Resting her head on his shoulder, she let out a soft, tremulous breath. Ghost.

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