You just didn't question the Gamers. No one did. If they said eat this, you ate it, even if you hated pea soup. If they said go to bed, you closed your eyes, even if you just woke up. Anything they said you obeyed, their mere presence eliciting silence like a wildcat stalking its prey; you did not make a sound.
It's not that the Gamers were to be feared, even with the dark hoods and glowing red visors they garnered little more than passing curiosity from the children, they were just a presence to be obeyed, it was how things had always been. And Colesk was content with things being the way they always had.
An older girl with long black hair giggled and wiggled her fingers in front of Colesk's face. Are you even listening, Kei-Kei?
Colesk wrinkled her nose at the silly nickname and twirled her ponytail. Um, sorry Mei-Mei, what is it?
Mei-Mei leaned across the table and tugged the soft chocolate locks from her friend's slightly larger hand. Stop it silly, you're going to pull it all out, she chided gently. Although she was two years older, her Chinese ancestry left her smaller than her Station mate, even when she hit a sudden growth spurt at fourteen, she was still a whole inch shorter.
Colesk crossed her arms and scowled at her friend, angry green eyes meeting mirthful deep brown, twinkling in the neon lights. I'm not like you Mei-Mei, worrying about my hair and what boys think of me. She paused. Oh Joshhhh, do you like my new barrette? Is it pretty? she mocked in a high falsetto.
Hey! I do not act like-
Yo, Kei-Mei! A boy about Mei-Mei's age called out and strode across the hazy room as he pulled a white and orange headset off, You two talking about me? Kei-Mei was what the other children called them, it was much easier than saying Colesk and Mei-Mei all the time, and since they were never apart, it caught on fairly quickly.
Mei-Mei blushed and murmured an apology, and shot Colesk a look that clearly said you better not utter a darn word. Colesk grinned wickedly and wiggled her eyebrows at her friend. She was rewarded by a sharp kick from under the table.
OUCH! Colesk grabbed her leg.
Sandy blond hair swished in her direction and Josh's eyes crinkled in concern. You alright there Kes?
Watching an ominous twitching in Mei-Mei's temple, she quickly added, Oh, a bug must have bit me, I think another one of those creatures got in yesterday. The older girl did not look appeased, but sensing no further violence towards her lower appendages, Colesk relaxed in her seat.
Josh chuckled. Whatever. He tossed the headset to her, then unhooked another from his belt loop and handed it to Mei-Mei, their fingers barely touching. If her face was any pinker, he wisely didn't comment. Gamers' looking for ya, it's time for my break. He grabbed an empty chair and sat in it, arms folded behind his head, and kicked his boots onto the table. Let's see if you two can impress them any more than I have, he smirked and winked at them.
Mei-Mei was cherry red at this point, and Colesk pulled on her arm. C'mon, don't wanna be late. She slipped her hand into her friend's and started across the room. The glowing neon signs caught the bits of dust as they were flung from the concrete floor, and Colesk imagined they were guardian specks, guiding them on in the darkness. One-two slide slide, one-two slide slide... She moved in time to a rhythm only she could hear, dancing along the edges of light in the floor, leaving a ghostly dust trail behind. Mei-Mei humoured the younger girl, and let herself be led in this bizarre symphony, swaying behind like an after thought of the conductor.
All too soon they had twirled their way through the door, and waltzed into an equally darkened hallway, long and winding so far no one could see where it started, or where it begin. The dank walls were littered with garish graffiti eerily lit by glowing green orbs interspaced every ten feet along the very low ceiling. A drip started at the corner of the ceiling, ran down the concrete wall next to the door labeled Testing Center in bright red paint, faded and chipped with age.
You ready to get your game on? Mei-Mei lifted her headset meaningfully and looked to her side. But Colesk had already shoved hers on and pushed the door open eagerly.
A blast of chill air assaulted them, along with the low steady hum of thousands of computers that filled the Center. The walls were covered with as many machines and monitors as the rec room had signs, and if one squinted hard enough they could almost see the other side of the vast chamber. The girls picked their way nimbly over the cables and surprisingly dust free floor, and stopped once they reached the appropriate station, number one hundred twenty four. When they had first recieved their station assignments, Colesk had joked the number was based on the age of the older partner. Even now when she snickered slightly Mei-Mei bopped her on the back of the head. That's enough now, funny girl.
Colesk stuck out her tongue, then straightened as someone cleared their throat.
A Gamer stood before them, red visor glinting almost threateningly, long black robes hiding his identity, for Colesk was certain he was male when he began to speak. Go through the normal exercises today, children, do not mind the added observation. He swept an arm towards his side, and Colesk blinked when she suddenly noticed another man standing there. He was shorter than his companion, and slightly bent, as if he had spent the majority of his life hunched over consoles. A long white lab coat hung down to his knees, and his face was obscured by a half mask.
A White Coat. Colesk suddenly remembered all the tales she had heard about these men, they were rumoured to exist at the very far end of the hall, where no one had been before, or at least none of the children who went there had ever returned. Some Stationlings fantasised there was a secret laboratory way back there, others argued it must be a door into the Outside, for surely there must be other things surrounding their home, just as computer casings surrounded motherboards and wiring. She had privately agreed with the latter, but whenever she tried to learn more, Mei-Mei would show up and drag her away from what she termed foolish babbling.
Ever since the beginning Mei-Mei had taught her not to question anything, to just follow their routines and be happy. The older girl had already been immersed in Station life when Colesk arrived three years ago, and lead her through the exercises and showed her the ropes. Colesk would argue and ask her about what had been before, because Colesk couldn't fathom it, although she was positive there must have been a before because she remembered arriving, and in order to arrive one must have been elsewhere to start with...
Mei-Mei would only giggle and tap her on the head, and remind her to get back to work, or come join her in a game of cards, whatever they had been doing. They spent the majority of their time either in the recreational room, or at the testing center. Their meals were dispensed by the vending machines littered throughout the rec room, both hot and cold dishes were served there. She had a new found love for rich beef stew late in the evening, and turned her nose up at the eggs and bacon at breakfast, but Mei-Mei would eat anything. Even the strange red candies they were fed every night before bedtime, sour and metallic, she would swallow them without complaint, before threatening to tickle Colesk until she did the same. Then they would go to their room, and climbing into the top bunk, Colesk would sing songs she had learnt through her exercises to Mei-Mei, until they both fell asleep.
Colesk adjusted her headset, and turning away from the two strange men, she stood before her machine. She could see Mei-Mei already hard at work, finding her peace in the noise canceling tranquility and chants of her headset, and sparring effectively against several holographic opponents. Colesk smiled slightly and flipped her power switch.
It was like turning on an entire new world, the world in which she stopped being the lesser half of Kei-Mei, and was truly Colesk, and all she encompassed. The rhythmic tunes that pulsated from her headset immersed her into a wave of feeling mirrored in the flickering lights on her console. Her hands danced gracefully across the screen as she captured each light with her finger tips, and she reveled in the pure abandonment of melody.
I continued on this path step by step,
the town I expected to find on the map wasn't there.
As I looked back over my shoulder,
the scenery that was just there disappeared.
I am the single last remaining person in this world.
This was Colesk's favourite song, and when it suddenly ended mid verse, she looked up in surprise. Were they finished already?
Turning over to Mei-Mei, she saw the White Coat fit a small mask over her face, and it puffed little bits of steam in intervals. The other one is very talented, but still needs developing. White Coat nodded to the Gamer as he finished with Mei-Mei. Help me take her, will you? Mei-Mei hung limply between the two men, eyes glazed, and stumbled as they pulled her past Colesk, who seemed to be forgotten in their task.
Alarmed with the strange behaviour, Colesk dropped her headset and slinked after them. They were too busy holding Mei-Mei upright to notice the trailing shadow, and the other children were too far gone into their work to look behind themselves as she passed. They continued down the long winding hallway, Colesk lurking just far enough behind she could slip into the shadows if they chanced a glance back. But they didn't, and she shivered from the cold damp as they continued in this vein for nearly a quarter hour.
Finally they came to a stop, at the end of the hallway, in front of a large steel wall looking out of place admist the concrete and graffiti. Had they known she was following them after all and only lured her out here for revenge? But no, the Gamer was pressing his hand into the door, which started to glow a deep blue as the wall simply melted away before them, and a blinding white light came bursting out into the hall. Frozen in shock, Colesk watched them through barely opened eyes and a hand in front her face, as they dragged Mei-Mei forwards...
Suddenly she realized the entryway might become solid again, and she hastened after them although she could hardly see where she was going. Squinting around she found herself in a room with machines similar to the testing center, and threw herself behind the first console she could find, not a moment too soon, because the Gamer had stalked back to the entryway and was using the same blue power to close the wall again.
How is he progressing? the Gamer's low voice was heard over the hundreds of droning computers.
Not at all, I'm afraid, we just haven't found the right one yet. A squeaky voice returned.
Peeking around her hiding place, Colesk found herself adjusting to the harsh glare as she identified the speaker as a different White Coat, who was holding an older boy up to his side. Eyes glazed and brown hair matted with sweat, he had the same mask on as did Mei-Mei, who was currently set in a chair to their left. Further in the center of the room, was a large glass room, it had to be a room for it had four walls and another of those steel door thingies. But this isn't what made her bite her tongue in effort to not gasp out loud.
Inside of this chamber was a large pulsing, oozing pink mass, like cooked brains that still survived, or muscles strewn apart until they fused and mutated into a large being with angry throbbing veins. It seemed to burble, and as it pulsed little bubbles would come to the surface and suddenly pop, spraying thick pus on the rusted floor.
And what do you think is going to happen if this little proposal of yours does not work? Do we keep sacrificing to the senseless beast? The tension was palable in the room, the Gamer's voice with an undercurrent of fury. We were granted permission behind the chancellor's back, need I remind you... what- is- at- stake- here. He punctuated the last bit by slamming his fist rhythmically in the console next to him.
Y-yes sir, we're doing everything we can, but Bilgameth has not accepted-
Then MAKE him accept! The Gamer roared this time, bits of spittle flying out from under the hood. WE are doing OUR job, training these little brats and raising their abilities. YOU need to do YOURS. If this project fails and it comes under scrutiny I will personally make certain YOUR company is the first to take the fall! He stormed out of the room, black robes billowing and crackling with blue energy, the wall melting away to offer him access to the hall, then suddenly snapping back into place with a bang, as if he had slammed the door on the way out.
There was a silence, then awkward mummuring was heard between the two men. Nodding to the other, the man holding the boy proceeded dragging him to the chamber in the center of the room. There was a keypad to the right side of the entrance, and he began punching in a series of numbers. As soon as it opened, Colesk fought her gagging reflex as a rancid odor wafted out, reminding her of the time a greedy bunkmate had hidden a steak between her matresses, and forgotten about it for a couple weeks, only this stench was a thousand times worse. Eyes watering she watched him toss the boy into the chamber where he landed like a limp ragdoll, and the White Coat hurriedly slammed the entrance shut.
The pink mass suddenly stopped bubbling, and raised itself up slightly, like a dog sniffing the air. It reached towards the boy, and wrapping a meaty extension around his ankles, it dragged him across the floor. The boy was moving his head and muttering, trying to shake free of whatever external influence he was under, when it happened.
At first it didn't seem so bad, the oozing creature seemed to grow smaller, and smaller, until Colesk could hardly see it anymore, and it slowly slimed into the child's ear, seemingly calming him down. Then the boy's eyes jerked open, wide and bloodshot, he grabbed his head with both hands and started to scream. She shook her head fiercely, and tried to will the scene playing out before her away, but as it refused to stop she suddenly realized the floor was not in fact, red from rust. His body fell to the floor and the pink mass grew back to its original size, and burbled in irritation, like it had been denied a particularly wonderful treat.
Darn it all! He denied another host! How long can this keep going on before the whole operation is shut down?! The White Coats seemed frantic, and Colesk watched them as she crouched shaking a few feet away. The door was open again and someone was lifting Mei-Mei towards the chamber-
NO NO NO!!! Colesk rushed after them, knocking one down as she watched her friend landing into the center of the room. Screaming incoherently, she flung herself through the entrance just as it slammed shut behind her. Heart pounding she slipped across the floor, trying to not think of the various fluids covering it, she threw herself over the unmoving form of her dearest, and best friend just as the dripping beast was reaching out towards her.
Then Colesk screamed as her entire world erupted into pain.