By E.B. Gula
The shuttle drops me off at the edge of town, far removed from any trace of civilization. When the invitation told me to meet here, I was wary at first. No one in their right mind would pick a location so close to Neurolyx territory. I considered making up excuses to miss it, but ultimately, I decided the pay-off was worth the risk. It’s part of the job, after all. So here I stand, in front of a run-down building with its barred windows, décor-less entrance, and metal grate stairway. I’ll be late if I hesitate any longer.
The door detects my movement and swings open of its own accord. I swallow hard before stepping inside to face my fate.
The main floor is empty of guests, although numerous tables have been set around the room. An attendant awaits me at the foot of an upwards spiralling staircase. “May I take your coat?” he asks courteously. I pass it to him, observing his neatly pressed black dress clothes and unnatural smile. He gives me a polite little bow and gestures up the never-ending stairs.
Upstairs, a corner bar greets me, complete with a shelf of unidentifiable bottles. The waiting bartender hands me a glass of sparkling champagne. I accept it graciously, and then do a double take. He eerily resembles the attendant from downstairs. Or maybe he’s the same person, and I missed him coming up the stairs.
I look around the simple room reserved for us with its plain white walls and mood lighting. The upper floor studio is what they called it in the invitation. Apparently I am the last to arrive. The other guests are already seated around the single table, filling all places but one. I don’t recognize most of them, although they all should have been recruited from Protostar. I spot J***, who pulls out the empty seat to his left and motions for me to sit down.
I pull my chair in, and I startle as our server appears at the head of the table, inches from where I’ve settled. It’s then that I notice his malformed ears behind a tangle of black hair. They jut out significantly from his head and curve inwards like claws. If any of the other invitees find his features strange, they don’t outwardly react. I try to pinpoint if I’ve studied anything like him before, but I hit a mental barricade, unable to summon any applicable alien profiles.
Now that everyone is here, the curvy-eared server gives us a rundown of the menu for the night. Each sample will be paired with a speciality drink. He lists off an assortment of names that are foreign to me. Regardless, my stomach is already gurgling at the thought of a multi-course meal. Maybe this will be better than I originally anticipated.
The man diagonally across from J*** rises from his seat. He wears a gold medallion around his neck, embossed with the Protostar logo, an ellipse intersected by a vertical line. I assume he must be the one who arranged this whole affair. The big boss, R~. He is the mastermind behind our operations. No one really sees much of him at headquarters; the fact he made an appearance means this event is critical to our findings. “Thank you all for coming. Those of you here are my hopefuls.” Someone blocked from view clears their throat. “The presentation will begin shortly. Enjoy the meal.”
As soon as he sits back down, the other members begin to share their speculations about this meeting. Everything has been hush hush so far, and R~ doesn’t even bother to dispel the various theories. He remains idle, enjoying the converse opinions being flung left and right.
Beyond the bar, another room mirrors the one we’re in. It’s shrouded in obscurity, presumably because no other groups have made a reservation today. We are isolated from the outside world, typical for our line of work.
Suddenly, the bartender and server both appear at the end of the table to introduce the first food sample and beverage pairing. The bartender brandishes a bottle of blood red wine and occupies himself with pouring it while the server disappears to retrieve our “melting sphere.”
Once my glass is full, I prop my elbow on the table, side-eyeing J***. “So, does anyone actually know what we’re doing here?” I ask him in a half-whisper.
J*** fidgets in his seat, his eyes darting back and forth between me and the retreating staff. He casts an uneasy glance at R~. “Just wait and see,” he replies finally. I suspect he has no more idea than anyone else. This is my cue to stop pushing for information. However, I can’t help but be more and more curious about the affair.
The Protostar Cooperation has been around for almost a century, researching and implementing environmental protection plans. We encourage peaceful cohabitating on earth, creating a balance that allows all species to thrive, while learning as much about the world around us as we can. There was a recent rumour surrounding a potential resistance to mental manipulation by the Neurolyx, so our team diverted resources into a special research unit.
And that’s sort of why I ended up here. Protostar seemingly handpicked members they thought were suitable for this special event. Supposedly they found some kind of genetic marker in our DNA. The invitation spewed a load of propaganda though. Being chosen meant you were more valuable to Protostar, and promotion awaited those who succeeded. Except no one in upper management gave us any indication as to what we’re required to do.
Both servers shuffle back towards the table, deftly laying down the first course in front of each attendee. I peer at it, a massive inflated pea with morsels of bacon decorating it like wings. The first bite explodes on my palate, oddly cold. I can’t describe the taste, only that I have never been blessed with such quality. I sip at the dark beverage and the incredible savour amplifies tenfold. I nudge J***, and we share a silent moment of assent.
The server and bartender flit back and forth between the far dark room and the upper floor studio, swapping out our appetizers and drinks for the next round. I hardly question it whenever they vanish, assuming the kitchen is out of view.
The person beside R~ speaks, but the words are jumbled. The invitee across from her murmurs an equally unclear response. Supposedly, they understand each other’s meaning, even though I cannot begin to decipher the exchange.
“All of you have been specially chosen to be part of the experiment,” R~ booms. My head jerks up at the sound of his loud voice, but the implications barely sink in.
Everyone stares down at their plates, too engrossed in the marvellous food with its splendid savour to worry about anything else. Right now, I stare down at a garnished bird, almost too pretty to eat. A thick sauce is drizzled over it, topped with an edible flower.
I suddenly feel nauseated. Something is wrong.
The ambience of the room unnerves me. The lighting seems dimmer than it was moments before, and I swear I can see movement in the adjacent room, pitch black apart from the brilliant red exit sign.
“Where’s the washroom?” I ask. I am met with dead silence. Then, before I can even register where he came from, the server is at the head of the table again. He gestures down the hall. I gulp. I don’t want to be near the shadows.
The hallway doesn’t end. I walk for what feels like hours before I find the restroom. “Good luck.” I hear the voice somewhere behind me, and I startle as I notice the server standing there. He seems to be in multiple places at once, and I deliberate how many staff members actually work in this restaurant. Probably fewer than there should be for such an extravagant set-up.
I lock myself in the tiny bathroom, relieved to be away from the unending meal. I glance in the mirror, and a shiver crawls up my spine. I don’t look like myself. A circular halo of light borders my iris. I breathe out. There’s nothing to be concerned about; it’s just a reflection from the ring light. Glowing blue. Unnatural. Like everything else about this place.
I shudder. The content of those mystery drinks must be getting to my head. I go to splash some cold water on my face. Even the taps are oddly designed, a “T” shape where the handles don’t seem to have a purpose. Before it even registers why water is only spurting out the middle, a screeching noise reaches my ears. The sound of air blowing onto my hands from the built-in dryers is almost painful.
I sneak another quick glance in the mirror. My bizarrely luminous eyes and a toothy grin that I don’t feel stare back at me. I blink, but it doesn’t disappear. I want to scream, but my body won’t obey.
Something is wrong.
I come back just in time for the dessert presentation. I shuffle back into my seat in the same instant the server brings forth a floating ball of sugar, tied with a string.
“Allow me to demonstrate.” He sucks in the edible balloon, his subsequent speech sounding high-pitched thanks to the embedded helium. Tittering sequentially passes around the table as each person manipulates their vocal timbre. I opt out of it, which is met with a patronizing look from the server.
Another server that I have never seen before brings out the second dessert. I shudder at the sight of the shuttle-shaped cookie buried in chocolate crumbs, replicating a crash. “It’s an edible shuttle.” He addresses my unspoken thought and I poke around at it with my fork. I’m too sick to eat anymore, but it calls out to me.
The courses finally cease to be brought out. While the food tasted otherworldly, I can’t shake the little voice in my head screaming at me to get out.
Tablets in a dish are set in three places along the long table. The server pours a jug of water into each of the dishes and the round tablets grow into face cloths. I tentatively take one. It’s lemony.
“I don’t think I’ll need to eat for another year,” J*** says. He is too placated given his usual temperament.
The server looks especially pleased with himself, as if he is the cook who impressed the party. And maybe he is. “Ten courses is no easy task,” he drawls.
Everyone shows signs of unnatural lethargy, slumped back in their chairs, silent and unmoving. Someone occasionally leans across the table to mutter some incoherent speech to another guest.
Something is wrong.
I shove my unfinished final drink aside and make eye direct contact with R~. His eyes glow a brilliant blue, his smirk growing. “A resister.” The whispered word sparks panic within me, and I rise from my seat so abruptly that I knock the chair over.
The entire staff is instantly present, their curved ears and light-ringed eyes setting off a warning signal in my brain as I finally realize what they are and what they have been doing. Neurolyx. Manipulating the environment to make us believe that this is real.
I close my eyes and count down, honing all my focus into remembering my task. One. Two. Three. I open them again. The table is void of aliments as I expected, no glasses or plates to indicate that anything ever existed.
R~ winks at me. Only us two are conscious, surrounded by those who failed the task they were selected for. This entire experience was simulated, and my brain is finally beginning to comprehend the logic.
The rest of the recruits chatter aimlessly amongst themselves as if the world around us no longer exists. I am the only one whisked away from the table, down the stairs, past the deserted ground floor, and out the decrepit exterior. My localizer wristband flares up a signal, and I tap it to receive the ping and associated message. “Come back to Lab Z. You’ve succeeded.”
The servers see me off, staring at me with their identical smiles. I am swept away from the pseudo restaurant and ushered into a return shuttle, and I realize that I remember next to nothing about the upper floor studio. The false memories are rapidly fading, replaced by concerns about the imminent future.
Now that they have confirmed I can resist, I expect that field missions will be a necessity. Protostar will send me headfirst into the Neurolyx enclave. My mind cannot even begin to formulate a plan for what will happen next. All I know is that I’m completely alone in this ordeal. And they’ll expect me to succeed again.
About the author: E.B. Gula is a former audiologist and science major who ultimately turned to the arts side. When she’s not reading, writing, or studying French literary theory, she enjoys cosplay, singing, and watching Korean dramas. @Emmbeve
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