In the distant future, buried under the dirt and filth and plants and trees and pain of a land closer to normal than your soul would have wanted, you awaken at freezing temperatures. Your body gasps for air, but finds very little. Your brain tries to tell your arms to move, but you're only met with searing muscular agony and a slow realization that you're restrained. In the semi-reflective glare of the plate glass in front of you, you catch a glimpse of eyes staring blankly. You're just beginning to to wonder if they're your own or something else when they shift downward, and before you know it, your arms and legs are unbuckled and you're tumbling out into open arms.
"We'll see. Get it to the labs with me."
The conversation blurs indiscriminately as you make all conscious attempts to access your memories - if there are any - but you're quickly distracted by the pain in your legs. The two lab-coated people are trying to hold you up, but you must weigh too much for them, and you drag your stiff, lifeless feet next to their energetic and living ones as the three of you head down a blindingly white hallway.
What is 'white?' your mind echoes as you try to stand and walk. What is 'weight?'
"Wouldn't be in there if it wasn't. All of 'em are someone important." The one with warmer hands lets go of you to use a keycard. You immediately find yourself aching for them to touch you again. It was the only spot of warmth you'd ever felt.
"Don't panic. Shh. It's okay," the other one says.
Why did they say that? Are you upset? Are you crying? Is that the fluid coming from your eyes? If that fluid is crying, then what is the fluid coming from your ears, or your fingernails, or between your legs, or- bleeding. Yes, you're bleeding. You recall the context and definition of bleeding as they haul you into the white-walled room, but as they walk you over and set you down on the crisp paper of the exam table, you start to remember several other subsets of bleeding. Are they subsets? Is that the word? No, they're… associations. You have memories associated with bleeding.
The doctors talk to each other in jargon your mind hasn't yet learned to process as you lie on your back, staring at the ceiling. This shade of white - it's one of millions, is it not? There are other colors, you recall. Yes. The last color you saw was blue, in the warmer doctor's eyes. Blue is a cold color, but the doctor's hands were warm. Does that mean the person is warm or cold? Is that how differentiation is supposed to work?
"What have you got?" an unfamiliar voice asks. This voice is softer, and the person has longer hair. You can't look at them for too long, because your neck can't handle the strain and your head soon crashes back onto the padding of the table.
"Minor damage. Probably one of the healthier ones." Fingers probe you, and you realize you're restrained again. You want to ask them why, but you don't think that your vocal chords work yet. You swallow a gulp of extra saliva and air bubbles, but you can't feel it go down your throat. In fact, you can feel it pile back up out of your throat. You try to ask for help, but the thought surfaces as a panicked, jolting motion against your cuffs. The warm-handed doctor looks down at you with worry in their cold blue eyes. "What's wrong? Can you breathe? Can you speak?"
You shake your head side-to-side and choke again. Something is in your throat, and it's wet. You open your mouth, now realizing that your arm would be fully capable of moving to your face if they'd only let you do it. The doctor leans over and holds your mouth open. "Stay calm. I'll get it out. It's going to be okay." You gag as fingers pull something slimy from deep within your throat. It drips on your chin and neck as they drop it into a pan beside the table.
One of the other doctors turns around, lowering their clipboard. "What the-"
"Preserval fluid. Never seen that happen before. Log it in the book."
"P-p- what?" you stammer. You immediately start coughing again. Speaking feels like a hundred ice-cold needles jabbing the inside of your throat and mouth. You swallow. "D-do you have water? Can I have water?"
"Yes." They all seem busy with their notes and readings. You strain your head, trying to look around the room. There's text by the door, and a symbol you recognize. Pointed and harsh, with three spears. Looking at it hurts your mind, but it also brings color and clarity to the room. "W-what is that? Where am I?" Your words shake just as your limbs do, and you distract yourself trying to figure out why you're so cold. The air temperature? "I'm not wearing clothes," you reason aloud. "W-where are my clothes-"
"Coming. Just calm down. You've only been out of stasis for six minutes. Full accustomization can take up to forty-eight hours. You don't need to panic."
"W-why am I tied up-"
"Muscle spasms. Give it thirty minutes. Else you might kick one of us in the face."
"Oh, oh, I'm- sorry-" You're interrupted by another bout of coughing, and decide you'll probably feel less panicked if you just close your eyes and let them attend to you.
"Alright. Who is this? Late one?" someone by the door says after a light knock.
"Oh, hello, Director. Yes, two days late. Wouldn't wake from preservation."
"Even after draining the fluid?"
"That's correct. It actually had a bit of congealed fluid working its way into its esophagus. Safe now, but glad we caught it in time."
"Hmm. Must have been an effect of extended stasis. Who is it?"
You hear the shuffling of papers. "Let me see," the warm doctor says. "Uh… Teresa Ann Lockwood, Level 3 Field Researcher, Site-81. Biologist."
Your eyes shoot open. "Please tell me why I'm bleeding," you interject in your trembling voice, and two of the doctors rush over.
"Where do you feel bleeding?" one says.
"M-my gums, my f-fingernails, my- between my legs- am I on my period? Please help-"
"West, you gotta help us with this," the one in teal scrubs with bouncy dark ringlets of hair says over their shoulder. "Vaginal and rectal bleeding, that's not normal-"
"It shouldn't be menstruating, no. Must be internal bleeding. Teresa, do you have abdominal pain?"
You nod. Being called that makes your eyes and ears ache. You have memories of other people calling you by that name, but they feel dreamlike and fragmented, as if you're looking at them through stained glass. They feel false.
You feel West push a speculum into you. You wince. You still don't have much of your sense of touch yet, but you feel something large wedged deep in you, painfully pressing, almost as if it's in your stomach. You shake and grip the edges of the table.
"Shit, is that more of that stuff?" one of them mutters.
"It sure is," West says, pulling a long, heavy string of something out of you. "Yeah, this is bad." He dumps the slimy, blue, congealed lump in one of the stainless steel pans. "Check its eyes and nostrils."
For the next several minutes, you retreat as far into your mind as is possible while more hands than you can count pull chunk after chunk of preserval fluid out of every conceivable orifice your body has to offer. When they're done, they take you out of your restraints and carry you into a side room, where at least three of them ask you at least five individual times whether or not you're safe standing in the shower on your own. You insist that you are, if only to make them leave you alone. You stand on shaking legs and scrub your skin until it turns bright red, replacing the artificial blue of the preserval fluid that had drenched your pores for so long and watching it run in rivulets down the center drain. When you're done, you rise off and lie curled up under the water until the doctors come in and drag you out.
"You really think so?"
"It only makes sense! What else could have done it?"
"Come on, the lizard? Did this? You've gotta be kidding me, Ketson. I think you're overestimating it."
"Overestimating? About the end of the world? Ha! I've… I've… seen better jokes!"
Your coworkers laugh, albeit with an unsettling two-second delay. You swallow and stare at your pale mashed potatoes. There are a lot of things about this place and these people that bother you, but your coworkers' restructured speech patterns will never stop sending chills up your spine. The unnatural humor, the backwards syntax, the lack of context for statements that come out of nowhere, all of it. It feels so forced. Not just forced, you remind yourself; artificial. You shudder and shift your eyes to the other side of the cafeteria.
Several hours later, in your quarters, you're staring at your next briefing. A societally unstructured town on the outskirts of the park, built on logged wood, deer hunting, and the determination of a family of reality benders. Their genetically - or potentially anomalously, noted the paperwork - engineered trees are leaking some sort of unidentified combustible substance into both the aquifers and potentially the geyser systems and Site water supply if you don't put a stop to it in time. And somehow they want a biologist to do this. Go figure.
You push your thoughts out of your mind and start packing your field bag.
There's a laser sight on your chest, or at least it seems like that. You sigh and look up into the trees. "Please don't shoot," you call out, holding up your ID card and paperwork above your head as you scan the trees for the sniper. "I'm not here to cause problems. I'm here on behalf of the-"
"I know where you from, stranger! I'd recognize that shit-eatin' Foundation accent anywhere! You turn around and walk your cold ass off this property and maybe we won't land a three-oh-eight in that God-fearin' head of yours, mmm? Scat!"
You bite your lip, finally locating the shooter. It's a camouflage-clothed older person with unkempt facial hair and a tan rifle, sitting in a hunting perch to your left. About what you expected. "Please, we need to talk. We're not taking anyone, or anything, we just need to talk about your trees."
"Yer trees? I mean- I mean- my trees? What are you after my trees for, skipper? There ain't nothin' wrong with 'em-"
"They're leaking a toxic substance-" You stop and gently shake your paperwork, trying to indicate that you need to read from it without getting shot for moving your arm. You gently bring it down in front of your face and clear your throat. "The trees- these ones, with the… er… tendrils? They're a problem, first of all, in that they display sentient behavior and seem to be fond of grabbing people. We've lost eight agents in the past month due to strangulation-"
"Ain't my fault y'all chokin' each other!"
"…N-not us, sir, the trees-"
"Oh, oh! Well guess what! That ain't my problem either! Now shoo, skip!"
"Will you please let me finish? They're going to poison the aquifers! This will be detrimental to your town as well!"
"Please, if you just cooperate, we won't have to send anyone else-"
"AHA! There's the fuckin' threat! I knew it was comin'! All y'all ever do is lie, lie, lie, and then there go the threats! Always!"
You jump as a round slams into the dirt beside your feet. "Look, can I at least take a sample?"
"If you can do it in thirty seconds!"
You sigh and hurry over to one of the trees, choosing to just yank off one of the tendrils and extract the substance later. It writhes in your hand and wraps around your wrist. You wince and give one last look at the man, who aims his rifle at you again.
"Yeah! That's right! Skip on outta here, skipper! Whoooo-hoooo-"
His voice fades out as you walk hurriedly in the direction from which you came.
"How did it go?"
"Unsuccessful. Town guard knew what I was up to and shot at me."
"I'm sorry to hear that. We'll make sure to send more agents next time."
You nod solemnly and wait for your supervisor to slide you the next assignment, but no paper appears. You look up expectantly.
Your supervisor chuckles. "The Foundation appreciates how eager you are to serve it, but there is no other assignment at this time. Return to your quarters until you are called."
"…Oh. Okay." You stand with a halfhearted "thank you" and walk slowly out the door, trying not to dwell on how much you miss the outside already. You pause. "Uh… Director?"
You take a deep breath. "Um… pardon me if this is… too personal, but…"
You expect an objection, but are met with only an expectant stare. You continue. "But, uh… you were there the day I was… um…" You trail off. "I'm just saying, am I supped to remember that? Day?"
"All personnel are on an opt-in list for amnesticization of the first week following removal from stasis for emotional stability."
"I… uh… where is, um, Doctor West?"
The Director raises an eyebrow. "He's doing the same work he's always done, if that's your question. I won't stop you from speaking with him, but there would be no purpose. Why do you seek him?"
You stare at the floor until your vision blurs, and continue staring long after that point. "I suppose I don't have a valid reason."
"Very well. If you have no further questions, I request that you leave."
You nod, mutter another "thank you," and walk out. You don't look up as you walk the hundreds and hundreds of meters of white-walled hallways and gray-walled elevators back to your quarters. It's only when you're about to slide your keycard through your door lock that you realize it's not where you want to be. You set off down hallway after hallway for hours - days, as it feels - until you find what you're looking for.
He jumps, hand knocking a cup of coffee on the lab table. "Apologies, I'm apparently a little on-edge today," he sighs. "Um, yes, what can I help you with?"
You linger by the door, not sure if he wants you to come in or not. "I'm, um… not sure if you remember me." You think you're going to finish your sentence, but you stand there with your mouth open. "I was, uh, the late bloomer. Y'know."
He stares blankly.
"The one with the chunks of dried blue stuff in my va-"
"Oh, oh! Of course, yes. My apologies. I see so many subjects that they all blur together after a while. Anyway, er, do you need amnesticization? Usually that's done earlier, come to think of it, you really shouldn't- remember-"
"It was never offered to me at the beginning, if that's what you mean."
"Well, it can still be done. Please, please, come in, sit down-"
"I'm, uh, I have a meeting in 30 minutes," you lie, gripping the door frame until your knuckles turn white. "Look, do you know why I was two days late?"
His face goes blank, hands clasped in front of him. "I don't, I'm afraid."
"You sound like you're lying." The words spill out of your mouth before you have time to think, and you curse yourself. "I mean-" You put your head in your hand. "Actually, never mind. I'm so sorry for bothering you. Have a good evening, doctor." You turn on your heel more slowly than you intended and catch him looking at you with a worried expression. As you turn the corner, you think you hear him call out again, but you don't look back.
You take the vial from the researcher and motion for the two guards to come in. Between their arms is a surprisingly compliant D-class; of course, you have to remind yourself that the Foundation fixed the "surprisingly" aspect quite a few decades back by training all of them to be submissive from the get-go, but it's not the type of thing you like to think about. After all, you're nothing but the falsely implanted memories of-
"Lockwood? You need assistance?"
You're staring at the cabinet door, you realize. You snap out of it and turn to the guard speaking. "Oh. No. You can leave it here with me, it's fine."
"Alright. We're in the adjacent room if you need us."
"Thanks. It won't take too long."
"Get on the table, please," you tell the D-class. "This won't take too long. It's just an injection." You snap your gloves on and start filling the syringe.
You turn around and start walking over to the table. "Alright, lay your arm out for me-"
You freeze, and the syringe immediately clatters to the ground. Staring up at you from the table is a spitting image of yourself.
You blink several times and back up a few steps. You're torn between asking the D-class to stand up and trying to cover up your reaction as much as is possible so that you can safely call the guards, but you've already locked eye contact.
"Is something wrong?" it asks.
"Are you okay?"
For fuck's sake, why does it care, you think, but panic quickly replaces your frustration.
"…Am I doing something wrong?" it says in your voice.
You stammer. "N-no, just- god, stop talking," you gasp as you run back to the door. You already forgot the two guards' names. They all look and act the same anyway. "Uh- help," you say in a tone you interpret as pitiful. They immediately come running. You put your hands up and stop them outside the door, talking in a panicked whisper. "Did you not look at her face? Did you not look at its- they-"
"The D-class?" the bulkier of them says. "What about it? Did it do something?"
"Wait, what is she talking about-"
"It's not you. You must be under the influence of something. Let's call the right team-"
"Shut up!" you snap. He widens his eyes and scowls. "Fucking- look at her!" You drag him by the arm to the doorway. "Look at us," you tell the D-class. It looks up. "Look at her!" you tell the guard, hissing. You gesture to yourself. "Look at me! She's skinnier than I am and she's bald, but look at our fucking faces!" Your voice cracks. "They're the same!" You put your head in your hands and lean on the doorway, but the image of her matching sharp nose and sad gray eyes lingers in your mind like it was branded there. You sink to your knees against the wall and stare at the floor through your shaking tears as the two guards drag your clone down the hallway and out of sight.
"It's a fluke. Nothing more."
"You're telling me it's a fucking glitch that one of- me- of- this body ended up in the D-class ranks? Are you fucking serious?"
"Remain calm. It's an error. You can be amnesticized."
"That doesn't make it right!" you screech, standing and pushing your chair out from underneath you. You see the Director motion for the two guards to come into the room. You don't care. "Don't you see how fucking fucked up this is? Don't you? Do you seriously look at that and think it's not disturbing?"
You turn around as much as the guards' grip on your arms allows. It's Dr. West. You say his name mindlessly, hoping that it's enough to trigger him to speak to you. He ignores you and walks forward to the desk. "Director," he repeats, dropping a manila folder down with a soft thud, "I'm to blame for this."
The Director stares through him. "Well? Speak, then."
West shifts nervously and clears his throat. "The subject - Teresa Lockwood. It was removed from stasis two days later than the rest of its batch."
"And why is that relevant?"
West takes a deep breath and looks at his feet before looking back up at the Director. "Because its file wasn't cleared in the second round of personnel research. The original Teresa Lockwood was demoted from her position as a Level 3 Field Researcher to the rank of Class D on September 30th, 2021."
Your mouth hangs open as your pulse quickens in your chest and your throat.
"As such, Teresa Lockwood was not intended to be in the personnel file listings for field operatives. She was meant to be in the D-class file ranks. The fact that her file appeared in both locations and was thus loaded onto subjects from both pools of personnel was-"
"A fluke," the Director finishes in a disturbingly nonchalant tone as he begins reading through the manila folder. "Hmm. And tell me, West, why was the field operative instance of Teresa Lockwood not immediately terminated when this information was discovered?"
West swallows. "That was my doing, sir, and I will accept demotion or other forms of punishment as my duty to the Foundation," he recites monotonously. "I acted on compassion and emotion instead of logic and established policy."
"And this situation?" The Director gestures to you with the end of his pen, looking over his glasses at you.
"The two of them meeting was entirely a coincidence. A fluke."
You feel tears welling in your eyes again.
"I see. Well, errors happen in this organization," he sighs. He stares at his desk for several seconds as the passage of time presses down on your head and shoulders and heart with the same weight as the miles of earth above you. "Either terminate or fully amnesticize Lockwood and remove her file from the database so that this does not occur again by accident in future production cycles. As for you, West, you can sit at my desk with me. We're going to have a talk."
The guards start guiding you toward the door. You strain against them and look at West. "West," you say with a surprisingly stable voice despite your panicked sobs.
"What?" he snaps, upper lip quivering as he turns around in his chair.
You open your mouth, but close it.
"Come on," one of the guards grumbles.
"West," you repeat. "Your eyes looking into mine were the first thing I saw in this world."
His eyes widen, slowly. As the guards pull the black bag over your head and start marching you away, his face is the last image lingering in your mind.
And as they turn you down hallway after hallway, walking in silence, you realize that you could be anyone. You are nothing other than a file in a computer loaded into an empty human; a false form taking the name of someone long, long dead.
And as you're laid down on a cold table not unlike that which you laid upon seconds from birth, only mere months ago, your last conscious thought as the needle pierces your vein is of the clear blue sky miles above you and the prospect of a world without the Foundation.
And when you close your eyes and the life and memories drain from your body, it is the warmest embrace your soul has ever felt.