He lies in darkness, no sound but his own heartbeat in his ears.
The sickly warm air inside the bag suffocates him; the plastic sticks to his skin, making him sweat.
How long has it been? Hours? Days?
How much longer?
He waits—he doesn’t dare do anything else. To pass the time he tries falling asleep again; for a long time he hovers on the edge of consciousness, eyes slowly growing heavier…
A door opens, the sound gunshot-like in the stillness—his body tenses up, fully awake. Fluorescent lamps flicker to life on the ceiling, harsh light stabbing at his eyes through cracks in the bag’s zipper. He hears footsteps nearby, echoing, growing louder, closer, no doubt about it now, they’re coming for me…
The footsteps stop, not two feet from him.
He goes deathly still, afraid to even breathe: a dark shape lowers itself over him, blotting out what little light filters into the bag. He hears movement, feels hands move over the plastic—
With a screech-like sound the bag’s zipper is yanked open—light floods his entire field of vision; he gasps, blind, defenseless.
“It’s all right, Xiang,” a voice says. “I’m a friend.”
He blinks, his eyes gradually adjusting to the light; slowly, the figure standing over him is revealed in more detail—an older man in a white lab coat, his gray balding head shining under the lamps. His plump features are impeccably shaved, his eyes tiny-looking through the thick lenses of his glasses.
“Who… who are you?” he croaks at the man, his voice feeble from lack of use.
“I’m a doctor,” the man in the lab coat says. “I work here.”
“You called me ‘Xiang’.”
“I thought you’d prefer that to ‘D-239009’.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I read your file.” The doctor holds out his hand. “I suggest you come out now if you want to stretch your legs, I can’t stay long.”
After a moment’s hesitation Xiang takes the extended hand, and the other man helps him out of the body bag, then off the gurney. Wincing at the stiffness in his joints, the sweat-drenched fabric of his jumpsuit clinging uncomfortably to his skin, Xiang takes in his surroundings. He’s standing in a pristine-looking room, its floor and walls covered in white ceramic tiling; there are counters, metal tables loaded with shiny surgical tools. About twenty black body bags like the one he’s just come out of are placed on gurneys on either side of a central aisle, each of them with a cadaver inside.
“Where am I?” Xiang asks, nervously eyeing the bodies. “How long have I been here?”
“You’re still in Site-97, I’m afraid. In the morgue, to be precise. And it is…” the doctor looks at his watch, “…two thirty a.m., which means you’ve been here roughly… nineteen hours. I imagine you’re hungry, I brought you some food.”
He reaches into the pockets of his lab coat, takes out a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a bottle of water. “I hope you don’t mind egg salad, it’s all they had left at the cafeteria.”
His eyes widening, Xiang takes the offered items and, without a word, unwraps the sandwich and devours it in a few bites; finished, he opens the bottle and begins guzzling down its contents.
Between two gulps he looks up at the doctor. “That woman… that guard… she brought me here…”
“Yes, she’s a friend.”
“I don’t understand… She came to my cell, said she had to bring me to the lab for tests… on the way there she pushed me into a room, told me to get in the bag. She said not to move, not to come out, whatever happened.”
The doctor nods. “I’m sorry we had to leave you here for so long, but it couldn’t be helped. You won’t have to do this much longer. Your autopsy is scheduled for later this morning. I’m the one supposed to perform it, but I’ll simply sign the documents attesting you were killed in an experiment with SCP-1993. Then you’ll be taken via underground tunnels to another building, to be incinerated. One of the employees there is with us. I don’t have all the details, but he’ll help you get out.”
Xiang frowns. “Get out?”
The older man blinks, taken aback. “You mean… the guard, she didn’t tell you?”
Xiang shakes his head, confused.
“I’m sorry, I’d assumed…” the doctor says. “Well, then I suppose I have some good news for you. We’re getting you out of Site-97. If all goes well, by this time tomorrow you’ll be a free man.”
Xiang stares blankly at the man. “You’re… helping me?”
“We run periodic checks through our databases, and your name came up last month. You fit the parameters.”
“You haven’t been involved in any tests posing a statistically-significant risk of contamination by anomalous agents or entities. Also, you pose no threat to the public based on your past history. That is to say, you’re innocent of the charges you were convicted of.”
“How do you…”
“I told you, I read your file. You were an activist, your only crime was standing up to an oppressive regime. You didn’t deserve the death sentence, just like you don’t deserve to be here now. We can only help so many people if we want to remain unnoticed, so we try to make each one count.”
“You’re… you’re serious.” Xiang realizes his heart is racing.
“You’re getting me out.”
Xiang considers this, not yet daring to believe it. “What happens after… when I'm outside?”
“Someone, an agent, will be waiting for you. You’ll be given papers, a new identity, a little money. The tattoo with your designation will be removed. You’ll also be given amnestics, that’s uh, pills to make you forget your time at Site-97, and false memories will be implanted in your mind. Probably some story about you spending the last year in jail, being tortured, but then escaping and seeking political asylum. Sorry, but we simply can’t allow you to leave with any knowledge of what goes on here, some people would go to great lengths to obtain that kind of information.”
“Then after that… I’m free?”
“You’re free,” the doctor says, giving him a brief smile. He looks at his watch. “Now unfortunately I have to leave very soon, but if you need to relieve yourself before you go back in the bag, there’s a bathroom at the back, there.”
In a daze, Xiang wanders over to the small bathroom and closes the door behind him; turning to the small mirror he nearly jumps—it’s a full second before he realizes the man in the orange jumpsuit looking back at him is himself. In shock, he stares into those haunted, sunken eyes, their sheer darkness making him shudder; his face, too, is unrecognizable, a taut emaciated mask of pale, sun-deprived skin, its features blurred, deformed by all the scars, by the burns, the six or seven missing teeth lending the mouth a sinister air…
He looks like a corpse.
I'm dying, he thinks. They’re killing me.
Then it hits him—then it becomes real.
I’m getting out.
The first sob takes him unaware, rattling him from head to toe—another one comes, then another, and soon he’s weeping so loudly he has to cover his mouth so the man outside won’t hear him. Through his tears he stares at his own ravaged face in the mirror, the sight conjuring up memories of all the horrors, the indignities, the death from the past year, raw, unfiltered images flitting before his mind’s eye in quick succession, like scenes from some sick snuff film.
It’s over, he tells himself, desperately holding on to the thought. I’m getting out.
I’m getting out.
When he finally manages to stop crying he steps out of the bathroom.
The doctor is waiting for him, pacing up and down the aisle—he looks up when he hears him. “Ah, good. Come, I’ll help you back in.”
Xiang walks to the gurney—he’s about to get on it when he turns to the doctor instead. “Why are you doing this?” he asks, looking into the man's eyes, trying to understand. “Surely you’re running a huge risk helping me.”
The doctor pauses—for the first time he seems at a loss for words. “Because none of this is necessary,” he says at last, gesturing to the nearby cadavers.
"What do you mean?"
The man shakes his head. “We tell ourselves that everything we do here, we do for a reason, but that’s not the truth. Every single day we do things we don’t have to do. We throw prisoners at anomalies that are already contained, just to see what happens. We drop them with a flashlight and a camera in godforsaken places we have no need to explore. We test deadly objects on them that wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone if they were just left alone in some storage locker.”
“Then… why?” Xiang asks.
“They say scientific curiosity has a way of running amok. We’re certainly proof of that, it’s become a damned compulsion with us. We have to know everything, no matter the cost. We’ve come to value empirical knowledge above human life, to the point where our whole way of conducting research hinges on the idea that a certain type of people are expendable.” The doctor pauses, visibly agitated; when he speaks again it’s in a quieter voice. “Well, I disagree. Guilty or innocent, I say people like you aren’t just things to be used and then discarded. I say you matter. And I’m not alone.”
Xiang stares at the man, wanting to say something, trying to, the words not coming.
“Now,” the doctor says after a moment, “I really do have to go. If you could just…"
Xiang complies, climbing onto the gurney; he leans back, and the other man begins pulling the body bag over his legs, his chest, then around his head—through the still-open zipper Xiang, a lump in his throat, looks up at the other man.
“Thank you,” he manages to say, his voice breaking. “I'll never forget this.”
The doctor smiles at him. “You will, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same.” He reaches for the bag’s zipper, then pauses. “I wish you all the best, Xiang. Have a good life.”
Too close to tears to speak, Xiang can only nod as the man zips the body bag shut over his face.
When he's finished the doctor heads for the door; reaching it, he looks back—whatever sense of accomplishment he'd been feeling at having helped Xiang instantly crumbles at the sight of those nearly two dozen body bags neatly placed along the aisle.
How many of them were mine? he asks himself, the familiar feelings of guilt and self-loathing, never far from his mind, returning in full force. How many of them did I send here? Three? Four? More?
He realizes he can't even remember.
With a bitter sigh he turns around and leaves the room, locking the door behind him.