[Project Oberon: Day 3, 19h30m] The third trial was carried out at 1900h. A benign black ink blob was shown to all six participants in their unconscious state. Results varied significantly across subjects. Of note: subjects who were shown stressful images prior to trial no. 3 demonstrated strong parasympathetic reactions, while those who were shown nothing or milder stimuli remained calmer. Results suggest that subjects are being influenced by external sources. Due to the extreme responses, discussion was raised as to whether stimuli should be amended to evoke more positive reactions. Decision: such a change would alter the parameters of the study and evoke milder or indeterminate results. Study will continue as planned.
[Project Oberon: Day 3, 20h15m] Vital signs of those subjects who showed immediate response to stimuli continue to be heightened. Of note: subjects who previously showed no adverse reaction have now begun to display signs of fear. Possible explanation is that they are picking up the reactions from the other subjects. Subject 526 again shows a significantly heightened parasympathetic response. Will monitor closely, but decision remains to leave subject in the study.
I back away from the black cloud reaching towards me. Josh is still yelling at me to run, and my legs are already moving, ready to obey.
It’s only when I’ve taken a few steps, the others close behind me, that I stop and realise how silly it is for me to flee. This is my dream. My mind. Even if the scientists out there in the world are pushing me to see this, I have the final say.
With a deep breath, I draw to a stop and turn back towards the cloud.
I raise my hands higher and summon my new-found power into my fingers. Closing my eyes, I imagine the cloud dissipating, drifting away into the ether.
“Regan, look out!” Mark shouts at me. I open my eyes to find the cloud looming closer. I jump out of its reach, and Mark is suddenly there to take my place. He draws the gun from his back, and I see that it’s more of a BB gun than a rifle. Yet when it pulls the trigger, nothing comes out except little balls of fire.
The cloud dodges the attack.
At Mark’s side, Mary-Ann draws her sword. I expect her to charge, but instead she takes the hilt in both hands and holds it out straight. From the end of the sword, bursts of sword-shaped light shoot forward. With every strike, the cloud breaks up, but doesn’t stop its pursuit.
“Come on!” Josh yells, and this time I don’t hesitate. None of our attacks are working. No matter how hard I might hope that wishing will make this threat go away, I can’t take the chance.
Mark grabs Mary-Ann’s hand, and they reach the path. Claire and Andrea follow Josh, who has taken an impressive lead, and I bring up the rear.
Andrea stumbles over the low heels of her white shoes, looking over her shoulder as she runs.
“Where are we going?” Mary-Ann asks. Her voice rises and falls with her shallow breath.
“The school!” Claire shouts over her shoulder.
I don’t understand why fighting back didn’t work. Is it because Josh’s fear made me doubt our success?
“There it is!” Clare yells, and we pick up our pace towards the building that has appeared in the distance.
It’s a classic high school: boxy, with square windows evenly spaced. Brick. Boring. Designed to keep the inhabitants safe.
Mark reaches the door first and yanks it open. His gun is still at his side, and he raises it again as I pass into the school’s atrium. By the expression on his face, I guess the monster is closing in. Just as I reach the centre of the room, Mark leaps in behind me and slams the door.
Mary-Ann rushes to his side to help throw the bolts, closing us in, and they both keep their weapons pointing at the floor in case the cloud comes through the crack.
Josh goes to the window and peers outside. “I don’t see it anymore. The sky’s clear.”
Something in me relaxes. Only now do I notice my legs shaking, my heart racing. Sweat has pooled in the small of my back, and no matter how many times I beat my T-shirt against my chest, I can’t catch the slightest breeze.
“Andrea!” Clare shouts, and our attention jumps to the young woman who has collapsed on the ground. Her hands are pressed against her chest, and she can’t catch her breath.
“You’re all right now,” Mary-Ann says, kneeling beside her. She’s sheathed her sword, though the hilt still appears to be glowing with whatever energy she’d been shooting out of it. “It’s gone. Just take a few slow breaths. You’re okay.”
As she speaks, Andrea seems to calm down. Her skin has paled further, until I’m certain I could see through her if I really try. I’m worried that she’s going to have a heart attack, but that wouldn’t happen. No matter what dangers we face, ethics regulations exist for a reason. We might all need therapy when we get out of here, but that would be the worst of it.
I crouch down to let my own lungs settle and look at Mark. His golden eyes are still focused on the door, his gun firm in his hands.
“That’s quite the weapon,” I say to him.
He glances at me, then at the gun, his brow furrowed. “It’s something I invented as a kid. Designed the schematics for it and everything. Every character I drew had one. It’s weird to see it in person.”
“Shame none of it works on that blob,” Claire says with a shudder. “Anyone know what it is? When I first saw it, it was nothing. Just a cloud. But when you guys started freaking out, I watched this face start to form.”
It takes my brain a moment to understand what Claire is saying.
“So you mean that if we’d taken your lead and calmed down, it might have disappeared?”
“I hate this place,” Josh says, coming away from the window. “When they told me I’d be stuck in a dream state for two weeks, I was ready to be a badass superhero or something. Not to be chased by clouds that can’t be killed and get trapped in a high school.”
I look around us. “We’re not trapped,” I say. “We’re in a big empty building that could contain defenses if we’re imaginative enough.”
Mary-Ann frowns. “What are you thinking?”
“That we can manipulate everything in this place, for better or worse. Most of us already have weapons that have worked against other creatures, so maybe if we think hard enough, we can come up with something to fight off that cloud if it comes back. If we believe it works, it has to. Everything here is in our heads.”
Andrea gasps and shakes her head vehemently. “I don’t want to see that thing again. I want to get out of here.”
The terror on her face still hasn’t left, and I can’t help but think she should never have signed up for this study in the first place. I’m surprised the researchers accepted her.
“You can stay here,” Mary-Ann says. “No one is going to force you to leave.”
I nod. “Maybe Josh can stay with you.”
It would be a good way of getting him out of my hair, but I also think it would be smart not to leave Andrea alone.
“I don’t think any of us is going anywhere,” Josh says. He’d returned to his place by the window, and is now backing away, his eyes wide, his hammer in his hands. “It’s back.”
Andrea lets out a cry and buries her face in her hands. “It’s coming for me. I know it is.”
“It’s not,” Mary-Ann says, putting her arm around the other young woman. By the way Andrea tenses, I don’t think she enjoys the lack of feeling that comes with the contact. I can’t blame her. It’s unnerving. “We won’t let it get anywhere near you. Have a little faith.”
The doors of the school shake in their bracings, and I stand up beside Mark. I raise my hands, which seems silly and ineffective when he has a gun.
The doors stop shaking, but I don’t move. I sense the cloud outside the door, can imagine those dark arms reaching for me.
Sure enough, the light streaming through the windows vanishes, dousing the atrium in darkness. Puffs of black fog seep under the edge of the door, and we all back away, weapons raised. My pulse begins to race again. I try to breathe through it, to use Claire’s insight and stay calm. If I don’t see it as a threat, it can’t be a threat.
It makes so much sense to me that I say it aloud. “If we don’t see it as a threat, it can’t be a threat.” I keep my voice steady and repeat it.
Mary-Ann catches my eye and nods, then joins her voice with mine. Mark tags in along with us, and then Claire picks up the refrain. Josh’s gaze jumps between us and the fog, never settling, his whole body braced to run. The fog now covers the floor in swirling clouds three feet into the atrium, gradually rising towards the ceiling. For now it’s just fog, and I try not to picture the eyes I’d seen before.
Josh joins in, our volume getting louder as the cloud grows thicker and larger. Finally, Andrea’s soft voice sneaks under ours. The only reason I can hear it is that her breath wheezes on the inhale, a faint whistle cutting between her words.
At this point, I don’t know if we’ll win. I have to have faith that my mind is still in control here, but if the cloud transforms into that reaching monster, I know my sanity will snap.
Nothing happens. The fog hovers, but remains against the door, blocking our way, but leaving us be. I try to imagine it dispersing. I raise my hands and try to guide it away.
I think it’s working as it drifts in swirls and eddies, but then I realise it’s coming closer. In my mind, it’s still a harmless cloud, but when Andrea starts screaming, I understand what’s happening. She’s saying the words, but she doesn’t believe them. For her the threat is very real, and is rapidly closing in on her.
“Andrea, close your eyes,” I tell her. “Tell yourself it’s not there. Tell yourself that you don’t believe it. That you’re safe and sound and nothing is coming for you.”
But she doesn’t close her eyes. Her breaths come faster. Mary-Ann tries to shake her out of it, but how can it work when she feels nothing?
The cloud reaches Andrea, and although I can’t make out anything other than dark condensation, Andrea is panicking, She’s flailing her arms and trying to get away. The fog presses in on her, wrapping around her. Her eyes are wide and there’s no longer any noise coming with her screams, only hoarse whispers.
My worries earlier—that if I looked at her from the right angle, I could see through her—begin to come true. Her skin is growing paler, her dress whiter. She’s thrashing against the ground, her limbs jerking as though trying to get away.
Suddenly, she falls still. The fog vanishes as though it had never been, and when I blink, Andrea herself is gone.
The five of us stand there, staring at where she’d been.
No one seems to know what to say.
What just happened? I, for one, can’t wrap my head around it. Did she wake up? Did she… die?
Either way, it opens my eyes to the danger we’re in. It doesn’t matter that this is all in my head. What happens here affects the real world, and all I want right now is to wake up.
I need to wake up.
I pinch myself and shout in my head. I’ve backed up until I hit the wall, moving without noticing, but nothing is working. I’m stuck here, trapped, just like Josh said, and I have no idea how to move forward.
“We should leave,” Mark says. “Staying here won’t help us get through this.”
“What good will leaving do?” Josh asks. He’s gone as pale as Andrea was. “We’re not getting out of here for another week and a half. We’re at the mercy of these creeps. Why not just spend them here where we can hide? Wait it out.”
I don’t know what I want to do. Transforming the school into a fort is appealing. If we can’t escape, we can at least defend ourselves. That has to be better than venturing into the unknown where the rats and banshees live.
But staying here where Andrea… disappeared…
I look to the others, unsure what choice to make.
Does Regan stay behind or see what else is out there?
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