Sphere

Posted: August 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lola almost turned back when she saw the darkened street filled with abandoned buildings. Love for her sister and a desire for a better life for both of them spurred her toward the address given by the woman on the phone.
48 Egasuas Ave. There it was. The building didn’t look like much; it appeared deserted, except for the freshly painted white door and intercom. Lola paused before pressing the button. Last chance to turn back.
Footsteps scuffled in the alley. A thin, hunched figure was approaching.
Shit. A junkie. Just what I need.
Lola slid her hand into her purse and felt for the smooth round security of her pepper spray canister. She jabbed the intercom’s call button.
“Yes?” A woman’s voice crackled over the speaker.
“Lola Cooper. I called on the phone. Can you let me in please?”
“Of course, Ms Cooper. One moment please.”
Lola wanted to scream that she didn’t have a moment. The junkie was only a few yards away and probably seconds from mugging her.
A buzzer sounded, followed by a metallic CLUNK and the door swung open.
Lola dashed inside and tried to push the door shut behind her, but it was automated and inched closed at an excruciating pace.
Fuck. Fuck. He’s going to get me.
“Hello? she called, “Is anyone there? I need some help here.”
The junkie was right outside the door. Lola heard his raspy breathing.
“Wait! Hold that door!” he said.
Not on your life, asshole, Lola thought. The door clicked shut and she slumped against it with a sigh of relief.
The intercom buzzed.
Seriously? He’s a persistent one.
Lola heard the muffled sound of the woman’s voice over the speaker outside, and then the buzz and CLANK as the door opened for the junkie. Lola backed away from the door, unsure of where to run.
“Help! Somebody! Help me!”
Footsteps echoed from somewhere and a door opened. Light spilled from the doorway, around the figure of a woman dressed in white.
“Ms Cooper. Sorry to keep you waiting. This way please.”
Lola scurried over to the woman and ducked through the doorway into the safety of the light.
“Thank you. But we need to hurry, there’s a – ”
“We just need to wait a moment. There is one more person joining us.” The woman held the door open for the approaching junkie. “Mr. Benson, welcome. Come this way, please.”
Lola’s cheeks flushed and she ducked her head to hide her embarrassment. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might not be the only one arriving at that time.
The young man who stepped through the doorway wasn’t more than a kid; maybe twenty years old, but his sunken cheeks and gray complexion told a story of a hard life and probably addiction, as Lola had suspected. He was part of this too? Lola realized it made sense. An offer of a large sum of money to participate in a scientific experiment was bound to attract a lot of desperate people. And nobody was more desperate than an addict.
“If you’ll both follow me, please,” the woman said.
Lola almost had to jog to keep up the brisk pace. She focused on the tight blonde bun above the collar of the woman’s lab coat, to avoid meeting the eyes of the junkie.
The woman stopped at a closed door and entered numbers on a keypad. Another CLUNK and the door opened.
The glare of fluorescent lighting reflected off of every surface in the room. Everything was white from floor to ceiling, even the furnishings. Small tables with chairs occupied most of the floor space. It was a cross between hospital cafeteria and futuristic nightclub.
“Please have a seat anywhere you like,” the woman said, “The others will be here shortly, and then we’ll begin. Can I offer you some refreshments?” She pulled a remote from her pocket and pressed a button. A section of the wall slid back, revealing a fully stocked bar, coffee machine, and a glass-front fridge filled with beverages. “Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll be back shortly.”
Lola knew better than to eat or drink anything offered by strangers who kept hidden lairs in old buildings.
The addict made his way to the bar and rummaged, probably in hopes of finding something besides liquor. He finally settled for a can of Pepsi.
He leaned against the wall across the room from Lola, arms folded, scratching himself every few minutes.
Some time passed and then the door CLUNKED again. The woman in white returned, leading three people: The first was a large bearded man who might have come directly from a taping of Duck Dynasty. He was dressed in camouflage clothing from head to toe, from his boots to his baseball cap. The other two were a couple, judging from the way they squabbled. The woman wore heavy makeup and her hair was teased into a jumble of red on top of her head. Part of a faded blue tattoo peeked over the top of her hot pink tube top.
“Lola Cooper and Josh Benson, please welcome our newest arrivals: Bradley and Becky Modine and William Worth”
“Naw, nobody calls me William, sweetheart,” Duck Dynasty drawled. “It’s Billy, but everyone just calls me Bud.”
“Very well, Bud. Why don’t you and the others get acquainted and help yourself to some refreshments. We are waiting for a few more to arrive, then we’ll begin.”
Lola wasn’t sure if she wanted to acquaint herself with any of the others. She remained silent and stayed in her seat.
Becky wandered around the room, searching for something.
“Where’s the ashtrays?”
“Sorry, there’s no smoking in this part of the building,” the woman in white told her.
“What? That’s fucking bullshit! I didn’t sign up for…”
“Shut up!” Bradley shouted in her face. “Don’t start your shit right now, woman. Why don’t you make yourself useful and go find me a drink.” He planted himself in a chair and put his feet on the table.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Becky said, making a beeline for the box of Merlot on the counter. She poured a generous glass of wine for herself before opening the fridge to look for beer. She grabbed a can of Coors and gave it an extra shake before tossing it to Brad.
Lola heard the crack of the can being opened, followed by a string of cuss words as beer foam spewed over Brad’s hand.
“Fucking bitch! Be more careful next time!”
“How ‘bout next time you get your own fucking beer?”
***
An hour later, the room was filled with men and women ranging in age from approximately twenty to forty years. Many stood due to lack of seating.
A man walked into the room. Like the woman, he wore a lab coat.
“I am Dr Lawrence Hughes. You have already met my associate, Dr. Kathleen Welch. Thank you all for arriving on time.”
Junkie Josh raised his hand. “How much longer is this going to take?” Sweat glistened on his forehead.
“Not long. We will get started with a brief meet-and-greet. After that, we will proceed to the next room, where we will begin the experiment.”
“And then we can get our money and go?”
“Unfortunately, not all of you will be accepted for our program. Those who don’t meet the requirements will be paid a thousand dollars each for their time, as a thank you for taking the time to answer our ad. We will need to see identification from all of you. Please have your I.D. ready for Dr. Welch to inspect.”
Wallets and purses opened and everyone produced identification for the blonde doctor to inspect. Except for one – Billy-Bud Worth, aka Duck Dynasty.
“What if I don’t show I.D? he said. “Not sure I’m comfortable whippin’ it out for a bunch of strangers.”
“Then you won’t be accepted for the program. You will leave and collect a thousand dollars, no strings attached.”
Josh waved his hand. “Hey Doc! I’m out. Got no I.D. I’ll take the thousand and get out of your hair.”
“That’s too bad. Ok, if you’ll just bear with us – ”
“Nope. Now. I have to leave now. Give me my fucking grand and let me out of here.”
Dr. Hughes gave Dr. Welch a nod and she led Josh from the room.
Bud pondered for a moment, then sighed and pulled out his wallet, which was attached to his belt by a chain. He slapped his driver’s license on the table.
“When I call your name, you will follow me to the next room. Those of you whose names do not get called, thank you very much for attending. Dr. Welch will see you out and give you your thousand dollar payment.”
Hughes began calling names, and those called followed him down a hallway. The rest remained in the room, waiting to be escorted out by Dr. Welch.
The next room was white as well, but with slightly different décor.
Rows of white psychiatrist-style couches lined the room. On each couch was a clipboard with a document attached and a pen.
“Take a seat, everyone. The document you see is a release. This is your last chance to change your mind. You can choose not to sign, walk away right now and collect a thousand dollars. If you sign it, you give consent to participate in our ground-breaking sleep study. It will also release our payment to you. As promised, you will receive one million dollars in cash, or electronic bank transfer if you prefer. If you choose bank transfer, please include the email address you use for online banking. The security password will be “payday”. We will transfer the funds and you can see it deposited in your bank account before we proceed.”
Mutterings rose across the room, along with a few laughs as everyone scoffed at the idea of accepting anything other than cash.
Bud’s voice boomed over the others, “Yeah, right. Like I’m gonna use any o’ that online shit for money. Y’all know that’s how the hackers git ya. I’ll take mine in cold, hard cash.” He signed the document with an illegible scrawl.
Hughes leaned over and pointed at a line on the document. “Be sure to add your next of kin, Bud. In case anything happens to you, we need to know who to give your money to. Just a precaution, of course.”
“Ain’t got none. If I don’t come outta this, I want my money to be buried with me.”
“As you wish.”
The rest of the room followed suit. All opted for cash except Lola. She chose the bank transfer option because it seemed wise to have a paper trail. She also had little confidence in her ability to tell the difference between real cash and a good counterfeit. She doubted anyone other than a banker could know for certain and the room seemed to have a distinct shortage of financial experts.
True to Dr. Hughes’ word, Lola accepted the transfer and then checked her bank balance on her phone. The new balance was one million dollars higher than it had been moments ago.
“Holy shit, it’s real,” she whispered. She hoped this was worth it, whatever this was. If anything happened to Lola, her twin sister Lisa had access to their joint bank account and the money would become hers.
Once everyone had signed and been paid, Dr. Hughes allowed them a few minutes to examine their briefcases full of money. Lola had never seen a million dollars in cash before, but didn’t dare ask anyone for a closer look. The paranoid glances that flashed from one face to the next warned her to keep her distance.
Dr. Hughes cleared his throat.
“It’s time to get started. If you’ll all please lie back on your couches and relax, we will get this over with quickly and then you will be free to enjoy your wealth.
They obeyed with some reluctance, not wanting to let their money out of their sight. Twenty-nine people lay on couches, clutching briefcases to their laps. Lola lay briefcase-free, her arms by her sides.
The lights dimmed until only shadows remained.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to make history. You are pioneers, about to take part in the creation of a brave new world.”
A murmur of excitement rippled over the room.
“Listen to the sound of my voice. Relax. And when the lights return, the experiment will be complete.”
The ones closest to the walls heard a faint hissing sound as colorless, odorless gas filled the room.
***
Bright light filled the room, accompanied by the rustle of movement, the rasp smokers’ coughs, and yawns.
Lola faded back to consciousness. It took a few minutes to remember where she was. Gradually the memories returned; the doctors, the million dollar payment, the Craigslist ad that started it all:
Volunteers wanted for sleep experiment. Payment in cash. Substantial monetary compensation for the right candidates. Call for more information.
When she called to inquire, the woman, presumably Dr. Welch, conducted a brief interview over the phone. Some sort of psychological questionnaire, judging by the odd questions:
“What is your favorite dinosaur?
How old is the Earth?
Who was the first man to walk on the moon?
Who was responsible for 9/11?
Is the Earth round, square, or flat?”
And so on… simple questions any fool would know how to the answer. A week later she received a call saying that she had been accepted for the experiment, and the payment would be… WHAT?
“I’m sorry, could you please repeat that?”
“One million dollars.” You will be paid one million dollars in cash,” the voice on the phone said.
Lola was skeptical, as was her sister Lisa. They had made the phone call together, via speaker phone. Lisa answer the questions, even though it would be Lola who showed up for the experiment. She didn’t agree with Lisa’s answers, but she never argued with her sister. Lisa needed to feel in control whenever possible. Her disability didn’t allow her that luxury very often.
“But what if it’s for real? We need the money.”
Lisa rolled her wheelchair closer to Lola and reached for her hand. “I need you more than I need money. Let’s pray on it. The good Lord will guide us with His wisdom.”
Lola tolerated the prayer like she tolerated the rest of Lisa’s eccentricities: her obsession with chemtrails, her membership with the Flat Earth Society, and of course her religious beliefs, which bordered on fanaticism. But all quirks aside, Lisa was her twin, and she loved her. Lola knew she was going to go, regardless of what Lisa thought God wanted.
She didn’t want to upset Lisa; her faith was her life. But Lola lived in the real world. Prayer didn’t pay medical bills. Lisa’s insurance didn’t cover the cost of her treatments, and as her illness progressed, the mountain of debt grew ever bigger. God wouldn’t have given her sister MS. God wouldn’t have buried them in debt they couldn’t pay. Fuck God. But maybe science could bail them out. She left Lisa a note asking her forgiveness and promising to return, then made her way to the address given to her by the caller.
***
While the rest of the room yawned and stretched, Bradley and Becky were already arguing.
“Gimme one of them!”
“Get your own damn smokes, woman! I only got a few left.”
“You ain’t gonna have any nuts left if I don’t get a smoke right now! Gimme!”
“Keep sassin’ me and you’re gonna get a fat lip. Here.” Bradley threw a cigarette at her.
“Gimme a light.”
He lit a smoke of his own, rubbed the lighter on his crotch and then flung it at her. “Stupid bitch.”
“Aw, real mature. Dickhead.”
Bud opened his briefcase to look inside, then snapped it shut again, as if worried that his cash would escape.
“Hey! Anybody know where a guy can drain the lizard ‘round here?”
A murmur ran through the group. Several others had the same idea.
“Over here!” A blonde woman in a leopard-print dress and stiletto heels clip-clopped toward an open doorway with male and female restroom signs on either side.
Other members of the group followed, forming dual lines in front of the bathroom doors, all clutching their briefcases of money. Bud drained the lizard one-handed, keeping a firm grip on his briefcase with the other.
The group milled around the room, exploring their surroundings. It wasn’t the same room they were in when they fell asleep.
A large TV screen hung on one wall with bland yet comfortable looking couches and plush armchairs arranged in front. Lola noticed one oddity: all the seats were equipped with seatbelts. A blind covered the opposite wall. The third wall accommodated the restrooms and the fourth held a set of double doors that led to a large open kitchen with booths and tables, all bolted to the floor like a fast food restaurant. Like the TV room, the seats had seatbelts.
“I still can’t find no ashtrays. Maybe I can open a window and ash outta that.” Becky strolled over to the wall opposite the TV and pulled on the blind. “Let’s see what’s behind here.”
The blind rose, revealing a large window. The room fell silent.
Space.
Blackness with stars stretched before their eyes.
A small tube was attached to the window. Becky saw the word TELESCOPE printed on the side of the tube. “Anyone know how to work this thing?”
Lola joined her at the window and examined the telescope. Astronomy was a hobby she kept secret from her sister, who didn’t believe in space or anything scientific. The telescope’s mount was a collapsible accordion-style thing. She pulled it away from the window and then expanded the telescope.
“Dang! Ain’t that nifty!” Becky said, breathing a lungful of smoke over Lola’s shoulder.
“Please, would you mind blowing that somewhere else? I don’t smoke.”
“Whatever, snowflake.” Becky huffed, moving back a few paces.

Lola ignored the remark and peered through the telescope. After a few seconds of searching, she found what she was looking for and confirmed her suspicions. A tiny blue planet with an even tinier moon could be seen in the distance. She adjusted the magnification on the scope to enlarge it.
Earth.
And they were not on it. In fact, they appeared to be moving away from it. But to where?
“Now what?” Becky said.
As if in reply, the TV screen flickered to life.
Dr Hughes was on the screen.
“Greetings everyone! If you’re watching this, then the sleep experiment was a success. Congratulations! Feel free to help yourself to refreshments and use the facilities at your leisure. You will be arriving at your destination shortly, and you will be notified prior to landing. When you hear the landing announcement, we ask that you follow instructions and remain seated with your seatbelts fastened. It’s just a precaution, of course. We anticipate a smooth landing, but in case the opposite occurs, we can’t have you hurtling around the cabin.”
“Cabin? What fucking cabin? Are we on an airplane?” Brad said.
Hughes droned on. Apparently they were watching a pre-recorded video.
“I’m sure by now you are wondering what your destination is. Let me start by saying that you are the first humans ever to set foot here. You are making history. You are pioneers in every sense of the word.”
Blondie stomped over to the screen and shouted at the larger-than-life image of Hughes. “I demand to know where you are sending us! This isn’t funny! I have an appointment tomorrow, and my manicurist will flip her shit if I have to cancel! You don’t even know…”
Voices rose across the room.
“Where are we?”
“You sendin’ us to one of those A-Rab countries? This better not be no Eye-Rack, or you gonna hear from my lawyer!”
“What the fuck kinda plane is this, anyways?”
“Hey! Quiet! Maybe we should listen to the rest of this!” Lola shouted over the crowd and pointed at the screen.
The TV screen had split into two panes. One continued to display Hughes, and the other, an image of outer space. A large reddish sphere filled most of the screen.
“What you see is your destination. The Red Planet, also known as Mars.”
“What? Fuck outta here with that bullshit.” Bud said.
“Yeah,” another voice piped up. “Y’all know that shit ain’t real.”
Dr. Hughes continued in the background. “You good folks have the honor of being the first humans to set foot on Mars. You will be the leaders of a new colony that has been decades in the making. We have sent numerous missions to Mars, manned by robots, which have constructed the domes and various structures that make up the colony. All that remained was to introduce a human population. You have all been carefully selected to be that population.”
Lola scanned the faces in the room. It looked like a trailer park block party. She had nothing in common with these people. How was it that she was chosen?
And then it hit her.
Lisa.
The questions.
Lisa had answered the questions, which were carefully selected to screen out everyone except science deniers, conspiracy theorists, Creationists… Flat Earthers…
Hughes droned on.
“You are all very fortunate to be part of this group. Your group is the only one to recieve a large cash payment for participation. Our financial backers cut our budget immediately following our payout to you. They felt a million dollars was too extravagant and that we should select test subjects with less… financial motivation. So you not only have the honor of being the first humans on Mars, you will also be the most wealthy.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ bout!” Bud whooped, waving his briefcase. “Rest o’ them assholes can suck it!”
“To be honest, we didn’t think you’d get this far,” Hughes said. “Our previous test subjects didn’t survive the hyper sleep. And then we thought; why not kill two birds with one stone? This can be an experiment in education as well. So we chose individuals who would be most resistant to the idea of a space colony. Non-believers, if you will. Well, I predict that if you survive this experiment you will emerge as believers. How can you not believe in space or science, when you’re in space, making scientific history? And anytime you feel homesick for your beloved “flat” Earth, you can gaze at your home planet through the telescope and bask in its beautiful spherical glory.”
The screen switched and the image of Mars filled the screen again, but Hughes’ voice continued to narrate.
“I’ll ask you now to please find a seat and fasten your seatbelts. The ride might get a little bumpy from here. Best of luck, we’re all rooting for you. If you survive the landing, you can rest assured that your colony is going to grow. We have already dispatched a second shuttle filled with death row inmates to keep you company.”

Copyright © 2018 Mandy White

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