This was definitely not D-3748's cell.
For one thing, the room was silent. During the day, his cellmates were constantly shuffling, scribbling on the blank paper they were generously given, getting into stupid arguments, and doing whatever else they could to alleviate the boredom. At night, there was tossing, turning, snoring (he really wanted to stuff a pillow in the mouth of the guy who slept above him), and the muted scratching of pens from those who refused to sleep at normal hours. For another thing, it was colder. They didn't exactly have luxury heating in the D-class blocks, but D-3748 swore he could almost see his breath. He tugged at the sleeves of his ill-fitting jumpsuit and curled himself up as tightly as possible.
Blinking the sleep from his eyes revealed further differences: the walls were multicolored tile, not the grayish-white cinderblock-like surroundings he was familiar with. The metallic bunk beds were absent. The opening that led to the common bathroom area was missing. In fact, looking around, there didn't seem to be an entrance or exit to the room at all. There was only a person, asleep against the same wall D-3748 had woken up on, wearing a collared shirt and khakis. Not another D-class, then. He couldn't tell if the person was male or female; their hair obscured their face from his viewing angle. They, unlike him, had clearly seen a qualified barber in the last several years, though like their clothing, their hair was slightly unkempt, presumably from whoever or whatever had brought them here in their sleep.
D-3748's eyes roved around the tile on the opposite wall. He wondered whether he should prod the other person awake. Maybe then he'd at least have someone to talk to.
He didn't have to wonder for long, though. Soon he heard the other person shifting next to him, and turned his head slightly to see them (he still couldn't discern their gender) looking around blearily and rolling their shoulders. He caught them muttering something under their breath about falling asleep in the bathroom again.
Yeah, definitely not another D-class.
The other person shivered and pulled their knees up to their chest. More awake now, they noticed D-3748, and confusion briefly passed over their face before it settled into a stoic (if tired-looking) expression. They sighed. "I don't suppose you're responsible for…our…current situation," they said, more of a question than a statement. D-3748 furrowed his brow and shook his head. How could he have brought them here? He didn't even know who this other person was. Or where they were. And last he'd checked, he didn't have the magical power to enter rooms without doors.
"Some of the things here can go through walls," he said, thinking aloud. "Maybe it was one of them."
"It better not be," the other person mumbled. "That'll be a hell of a lot of paperwork."
D-3748, still unable to figure it out himself, finally asked, "So are you a man or a woman?" That was probably rude, but politeness was a habit lost to the uncounted months he had spent doing odd chores and following nonsensical orders for experiments in a magic science lab…place…thing.
The person seemed unfazed. "Neither. I'm O5-6." They paused and felt around in their shirt pocket. "Not much harm in telling you that," they added, after they'd found whatever they were looking for.
What the hell kind of name is that? was D-3748's first thought, but he could hardly talk. He barely remembered his original name. He was pretty sure the Foundation people had wiped his memory more than a few times. Maybe that was what the person had found in their pocket: something to wipe his mind when they escaped so he wouldn't remember anything they told him. Well, that wasn't so bad; it was better than sitting in freezing silence with this stranger, anyway.
So he asked his second question. "Are you a robot?" It would certainly fit, with the person's numeric designation, apparent lack of gender, and slightly stilted demeanor.
The person — O5-6 — snorted, the first appreciable bit of emotion D-3748 had seen. "No." They shook their head. "The O5 stands for Overseer, clearance level five. The six is just to identify which one I am."
"Level five?" D-3748 asked. He'd seen a rare few ID tags showing a clearance level of four (those people tended to be far too important to even glance at him). "Is that the highest?"
A nod. "People like you don't usually see us. I'm assuming you're unaware of how far the Foundation reaches, but there are thirteen of us, and we're in charge. We're the most powerful people in the world" — D-3748 raised his eyebrows incredulously — "There are meant to be safeguards against us being trapped in isolated rooms with…" They glanced at him, implying with people like you. "There was a time when you were all criminals serving life terms or awaiting death sentences. That got unfeasible pretty quickly. There just aren't enough felons in the world."
D-3748 tried to think back to when he had first arrived at the Foundation. His memory was foggy, but he vaguely recalled…no, no he didn't. "Where else do you get us, then?" he asked, not daring to voice the real question on his mind: where did I come from?
"Here and there," the O5 said. "Many of you are nobodies. No friends, no family, no job, nobody to miss you. So we just pick you up off the street and give you something to do."
"You think you're a savior?"
"I didn't say that."
D-3748 had known others who'd come back from testing with their eyes wide and their whole bodies shaking, some who had returned with strange and disturbing injuries, and of course, those who hadn't come back at all. He felt a twinge of anger as he looked at this stranger who claimed to be in control of all that. Being alone in the world was one thing, but being whatever he was — a cross between a prisoner and a guinea pig, maybe — couldn't possibly be any better.
O5-6 continued. "Some of you are clones. We don't do too much of that, though. The process is overly complex, and then we have to spread them out so we don't end up with an entire cell full of lookalikes who'll figure out what's going on." They reflexively felt their chest pocket again. They were no longer huddled into a ball; D-3748 realized he hadn't noticed the room getting warmer, but now it was a suitable room temperature, and he stretched his legs out in front of him. Maybe the cold had just been to wake them up.
And what happens if someone does figure it out? D-3748 almost asked, but the answer came to him too quickly: they get their memory erased, that's what. They're forced back into ignorance. Everything stays in its place. What on earth had he gotten himself into? Or was he born into it? The thought that he might exist solely for these people's interests repulsed him. Then again, it was true either way at this point, he realized with a surge of disgust.
"Then there are the people who shouldn't exist in the first place. Some anomalies output human beings."
D-3748 couldn't take it anymore. "Human beings?" he burst out. "You think we're human beings? Because if you do, you might want to tell your Foundation to treat us like it. We're not people. We don't even have our own names. D-3748. What the hell kind of name is that?" he scoffed, echoing his own thought from earlier. He threw up his hands. "Sure, we've got food and shelter, that's great. So do zoo animals. So do lab rats. I've seen the looks. I know what you guys think of us. We're not people. We're numbers. We're tools. We're…disposable." He paused for breath. "Is that what the D stands for? Is it?"
The O5 was calm, which only irritated him more. "No," they said. "That's a common misconception. We initially designated personnel classes by letters, and when we switched to a numerical system, D was the only one we stuck with." They paused. "Your feelings are misguided, but not unfounded. Yes, we do consider you numbers in a filing system. To do otherwise would be…" O5-6 paused again, but didn't continue.
"Would be what?" D-3748 demanded. "Humane? Normal? You people are freaks, you know that? What is it with the stuff you keep locked up? Who even are you?"
"It would pose a risk of developing emotions regarding you. We recycle you as long as we can, but we can hardly afford to care about your well-being."
D-3748 stared, not quite expecting such open callousness. "So you're aware of it? You do this on purpose? You just sit there and…block out any part of reality that makes you guilty of anything?"
"We're no saviors," O5-6 said, face and tone hardening. "We do what we have to. Of course you don't understand the scope of what we deal with. Do you know," they said, starting to echo D-3748's vehemence, "what would happen if we didn't do our jobs? Everything. Total obliteration of the universe. A complete rewriting of history. The reduction of humanity to a lesser species. War. Death. Plague. Famine. We stop it all, and we do it whether or not you are there to be part of it."
A moment passed.
"Wow," D-3748 said matter-of-factly. "I've never heard so much bullshit in my life."
Deflating slightly, O5-6 sighed. "I may have gotten ahead of myself there," they said. "They say a lot of things about power. How it comes with great responsibility. We…perhaps tend to think of ourselves as something greater than we are." They sighed again. "Not that it means much for us. We're thirteen faceless administrators pulling strings we can't see the ends of. We don't see what we do — what our people do. We don't even meet with them in person, not below el-four. We're just as inhuman as you are."
"What makes you say that?" D-3748 scoffed.
"We don't think about it often. We're too preoccupied to reflect on our existence. But when you work your way up through the ranks, your job becomes your life." The words came out erratically, as if O5-6's mouth were running faster than their brain. "We have to stay removed — from everything. People respect us because they don't know us as people, only as a string of numbers and letters and a blacked-out silhouette on a monitor. We probably had lives before this. We probably had names." They patted their pocket again. D-3748 didn't need to be told that this was definitely not a rant he was supposed to hear. "I don't remember mine." The O5 sighed yet again. "I don't know you all by number. I couldn't tell you where you're from. But on the slim chance you were a criminal…"
"What could I possibly have done?" finished D-3748. "What could I have done that's worse than what you do? Using everyone as objects for some higher purpose you won't even tell us about…because I get the feeling we're not the only 'disposable' ones. Your guards and your scientists and your field agents, they're all just game pieces to you. You sit in your tower and you play God." He shook his head incredulously. "And you made yourself this way. You gave up your lives and your names to be oh-five-something who used to be a person who's dead now."
"We're more alike than we think, aren't we?" mused O5-6, with a slight laugh. "No names. No lives. No freedom. No moral code." They raised a hand to stop D-3748 from interrupting to say that he had a moral code, thank you very much. "No," they said, suddenly sounding sharp. "Knowing the difference between right and wrong means nothing. Your morality is based on what you're told to do and the consequences if you don't. That's it." With each phrase, the O5 sat up straighter and seemed to stride further back into their professional, 'removed' demeanor.
D-3748 opened his mouth, but he didn't say anything. Memories of his work for the Foundation rolled through his mind. How many times had he gone along with things that struck him as unethical, just because it was his job? Just because he'd seen a few people shot for disobeying? Just because someone with a name told him to do it? But that was exactly it, wasn't it? Nobody gave the O5s their orders…"I'm not like you," he said, and folded his arms.
O5-6's eyes shot from his face to his attire. "No. No you're not," they said with a self-righteous finality. I'm more human than you'll ever be, D-3748 swore he could hear them thinking. Funny. He was pretty sure it was the other way around.
He stared ahead at the wall, scanning it from top to bottom. The pattern was indecipherable. He was pretty sure it wasn't a pattern at all, that the colors weren't in any uniform order, but that was it. The top and the bottom were the only sections that were distinguishable, with borders touching the blank white floor and ceiling; the rest of it was a mass of tiles. He shook himself. He was looking for a distraction, not a metaphor. He closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. He thought he might have felt a pinch in his neck, but he ignored it.
He looked forward to not remembering any of this later.