I. Summer Storms

Three cages left, file paperwork, and report to the manager before leaving the shift. Go immediately home. Do not stop for anything in the intermediate zone. Do not go anywhere other than to the correct, assigned living facility. Do not visit anyone for reasons outside of work or assistance. He repeated those words in his head after he completed each cage check. The higher-ups expected everyone to mentally repeat their assigned tasks and the rules as frequently as possible. The more ingrained the rules, the less room there was for considering breaking them. After finishing the cages, he filed the paperwork on each animal's condition. His coworker, Austin, tried to make small talk with him, to his annoyance. He was on a last name basis with the other workers, but Austin was strangely adamant about everyone using his first name. Austin stretched at his desk and turned to him. "Another day done. What are you going to do for your free day?" "Get food for the week, I suppose." He moved quickly with the papers, wanting to get out as soon as possible. "Well yeah, but what else?" Austin asked. "What else is there?" With that, he got up from his desk. "I've finished my part. I'm going to report in now." "Alright, see ya Monday!" The cheeriness in Austin's voice annoyed him. There was nothing to be looking forward to. He left the lab area quickly, swiping his ID card at the door and not bothering to say goodbye. At the end of the long hall, he met with the woman in charge of filing reports. "Another productive day. Thank you for your hard work, Mr. Thomas." She said as she took his papers. "Dr. Linwood should be coming this way soon. If you would, please inform him of your departure as per the protocol or file this form to prove you are leaving for the day." "I'll tell him myself, Ms. Norman." He said. "Very well. Goodnight, Mr. Thomas." Austin passed him again on his way to meet with Norman. He waved and loudly greeted Norman. "Hello, Lidia. How has your day been?" He tuned out what Austin and Norman were talking about. Today was no different than the previous day. Tomorrow, he would repeat his Sunday ritual--buy what he needed for the week and spend the rest of the day reading through instructional books the facility sent to his tablet. Monday, his work cycle started again and it would be the same as today. There was no point in looking forward to anything and no point in asking about each other's days. The answer Norman would give Austin would be a canned one anyway. Everyone was expected to respond to that question with the same answer--productive. To do otherwise was to warrant an evaluation. "Going home, ALC?" His manager, Linwood, said as he nearly passed him in the hall. Linwood had a habit of referring to him by the acronym for his job position, Animal Laboratory Caretaker. He technically did far more than that, but job titles rarely correlated to job expectations. He had gotten used to this nickname. He responded to Linwood. "Yes, sir. I have completed my work for the day and turned in my paperwork." "Good, good. I'll see you tomorrow." Linwood nodded. "There's no work tomorrow, sir. It's Sunday." He reminded him. Linwood could be scatterbrained at times, an odd trait for someone in a higher position. "I didn't mean at work. I'm sure I'll see you out on your balcony in the morning, neighbor." Linwood smiled at him. "Oh, yes. Probably." He glanced away from him. "Good night, sir." "Good night. Be safe on your way back, Eric." Linwood touched his shoulder briefly. Eric. It annoyed him when Austin called him that, and the other people who used his first name always did so in conjunction with his last name. A formal matter. When Linwood said it, it carried something different. He stumbled on his words. "Y-you too." Eric couldn't add on another name. Linwood and manager would sound odd. Using Linwood's first name without his last name was a tempting line to cross. It was best to avoid it, so he said no name at all. He awkwardly waved goodbye and headed out of the building. Like every other work day, it began and ended in darkness. All workers were expected to arrive before sunrise and leave after sunset. There were no windows in the building. The only time he saw the sun was on his off day, the rest day. Failure to report to work on time resulted in an evaluation. Regularly failing to report on time constituted removal. He had missed work only twice in the six years he had been there. Though he was slightly above the lowest level workers by having an official title, only Assistant Managers, Managers, and Directors were allowed vehicles. For his position, he was allotted a bicycle. The lowest workers had to walk to and from work on foot. It made for an uncomfortable trip during heavy rain. He was envious of the upper management sitting in their warm, dry cars, but it was better than nothing. He sighed. There was no point in thinking deeply on it. He needed to get home and sleep. He rode his bike up to the gated exit. The guard asked him for his ID and opened the first gate once he was cleared. Eric rode through. The first gate closed behind him. When it was completely closed, the second gate opened. Do not linger in the intermediate zone. Do not stop for anything in the intermediate zone. He repeated those phrases in his head as he peddled out. The area between the work zone and the living zone was only about a mile, but it was dangerous to stay out. That was why they had to live like this. If he was attacked outside the gates, no one would come to his aid. He would be left to die. When the second gate opened, he rode through into the night. No lights aided him along the road. The only lights he could see were the lights of the facility behind him, the living area's few outdoor lights, and the distant city lights in the forbidden zone. Between the three light sources, the lights in the forbidden area were the brightest. He didn't know exactly how far away the lights were or how big the buildings, but he was always in awe of the city's brightness. During the day, he couldn't see it well. His days were either always indoors or, on Sundays, within the living area. The city couldn't be seen from any of the places he had access to in that area, except his balcony and that view was largely obscured by trees. He wondered what it looked like during the day. He knew he shouldn't, but he stopped his bike halfway across the bridge at the midpoint between the two gated zones and watched the lights for a while. Sometimes, he fantasized about running away there, but he reminded himself there was no safety outside. There were only the safe, metal gates or the defenseless lands outside them. No compromise existed. Eric sighed and looked up at the night sky. A storm was coming in behind him. He needed to leave. Lightning flashed, illuminating the field down below the bridge. His eyes widened. For a moment, he swore he saw something looking at him. Lights brightened his back. He looked over and saw a car slowly approaching him. The car stopped beside him and the driver rolled down the window. "You shouldn't stop out here. It's dangerous." Linwood said. "I'm sorry. I thought I saw something." Eric said to hide his real intentions. It wasn't entirely untrue, he rationalized to himself. Linwood unlocked the car doors. "Get in." "What do I do with my bike?" Eric asked. "Leave it. I'll order a new one for you tomorrow." "Thank you." Eric parked the bike and got in the car from the front passenger side. He buckled himself in. "But isn't this also against the rules?" That was another rule. One who owned any kind of vehicle, even something as insignificant as a bike, was forbidden from giving rides to someone else in the intermediate zone without advanced approval with a reasoning directly related to work. The rule was in place to not risk the lives of those who were more important. If someone were on the outside and saw another person stranded or being attacked, they were required to abandon the other person and report the incident once behind one of the gated areas. Linwood smirked and drove on. "Don't worry about it." "Is this going to get you in trouble?" Eric asked. "No." Linwood rolled the window back up. "What did you see? I need to file a report." "I saw..." Eric hesitated. "I'm not completely sure what I saw, but when the lightning struck last, I thought I saw someone or something staring at me from below the bridge...down in the field...red eyes. I don't know...maybe it was my imagination." "It's possible, but I'm going to report what you saw to be safe. If you really did see anything, those red eyes mean we need to be on high alert. It's a good thing tomorrow is Sunday. No one without a vehicle should be traveling through here tomorrow." Linwood glanced in his rear-view mirror. "Look, the rain is following us." Eric glanced back. The rain quickly caught up to them. Thunder echoed through the open area. "It's peaceful." Linwood said. "What is?" Eric asked. "The rain. Thunderstorms in summer on the weekends, they've always made me really nostalgic for something I can't quite remember. Something just out of reach." Linwood stared intensely ahead. The rain picked up and the road nearly disappeared in front of them. Heavy wind further blurred the view through the windshield. "Heh. Well, this is pleasant." "Should we pull over?" Eric asked. "We can't stop here. Don't worry. I've got this road memorized. I could drive it blindfolded." As soon as he finished saying that, he ran over a pothole. "Blindfolded, huh?" Eric commented. "We're almost there. Don't worry. See, there's the lights." Linwood pulled up to the gates, nearly running into the outer gate. He swiped his ID at the box on the outside to open the outer gate. Once opened, he went through to present his ID to the guard stationed in between. The box for the guard had a window both in between the two gates and one on the inside of the gated area. ID was taken at a different window if one was coming in rather than leaving. The guard returned his ID and opened the inner gate. Linwood drove through. He parked in his assigned space in front of their apartment building. Eric followed Linwood into the building. Eric and Linwood lived on the same floor, the fourth floor at the end of the hall, in rooms 410 and 411 respectively. When they reached their rooms, Linwood turned to Eric and said, "Goodnight." "Goodnight." Eric said back. "Ah, about my bike..." "I told you, I'll take care of it tomorrow. You should have a new one delivered to your slot around five." Linwood reassured him. "Thank you, again." Linwood lingered in his doorway. "Eric, do you want to come over for a while? We could talk about what you saw." "I shouldn't. I'll file a report in the morning." Eric said. "Don't worry about that. I'll file the report. I have to fudge the truth a little. You weren't supposed to stop, and I wasn't supposed to bring you back. We can't have anyone finding out about that." Linwood leaned against the door. "We could talk over coffee, if you'd like." "I really shouldn't." Eric declined. Linwood shrugged. "It was worth a shot. See you tomorrow." Eric nodded and closed the door to his apartment. The space inside was as empty as always. Black, metal furniture was all he was allowed, with white walls and white everything else. He had a coffee table, a couch, a bed, and a night stand as all the furniture in his apartment. For dishes, he had two plates, two glasses, two bowls, two spoons, and two forks. He was given two of each in case he broke something. Stored in the nightstand drawers, he owned two white uniforms for the same reason. Food came dry and was eaten dry or heated with water in a special packet. Other than food, he was allowed protein shakes, instant coffee, energy drinks, and water. According to the facility, all of his nutritional needs were met by the food provided. Coffee, of varying degrees of quality, was a special luxury they were allowed at any level, but he suspected this luxury was largely offered because of its energy boosting abilities, much like the energy drinks. He opened cabinets in the kitchen area to find something to eat and get some coffee. The coffee came in two forms--in a powdered form that required adding water or in a can that had a special heating mechanism inside it. He took one of the canned ones and popped it open, then waited thirty seconds for the drink to heat up. For his last meal of the night, he prepared a heated soup from one of the packets and drank his coffee. He typically spent an hour sitting on his balcony, watching the city lights and eating his last meal of the day, but the rain prevented him from going out. He watched the rain from his bed instead, then fell asleep. Every morning, he woke up at five. His tablet had an alarm programmed to go off at that time--another gift from the facility to ensure proper work ethic. The alarm went off even on Sunday. Eric got up and changed clothes. His dirty clothes were placed in the bottom drawer of the nightstand, where they were sent down to the laundry room. A clean pair would be sent up to the top drawer. He opened up another can of coffee and walked out onto the balcony. The morning air was one of the few things he enjoyed. Right after a rain, the air was cool and refreshing. He closed his eyes and listened to the breeze. Aside from the distant city, a forest was also in his view, directly on the other side of that part of the gate. He listened for any signs of life in the woods, but heard nothing more than the usual human noises down below. "Morning, neighbor." Someone said. Eric opened his eyes. Linwood stood to his left. He was improperly dressed, per the rules of the facility, wearing nothing but his boxers and an unbuttoned shirt. He looked away from him, as his mind was beginning to picture something far more indecent. "Good morning, Manager." "You don't need to call me that when we're off the clock." Linwood said. He climbed up and sat on the railing that connected each of their sides of the balcony. There were an odd number of apartments per floor, and every floor with balconies had two rooms sharing the same balcony with a part splitting the balcony in half, except for the first room on the floor. Linwood often sat on this middle railing when he talked with Eric on Sundays. He spread his legs out widely to keep himself balanced and gripped onto the railing with his hands. "You don't need to be formal here." "Sorry, habit." Eric said. He caught himself staring where he shouldn't and averted his eyes. "Sleep well?" Linwood asked. "Yeah, I guess." Eric leaned against the part of the railing that faced the forest. His mind wandered exactly where he wanted to stop it from going, as was usual on Sunday mornings. "Rain always puts me to sleep. We got a lot of nice thunder last night too." Linwood, Eric could sense, was staring directly at him. "Are you doing anything today?" "Just the usual food stocking." "Do you want to go with me to put the order in for your bike?" Linwood hopped down to his side of the balcony. He reached in through the sliding door to grab something. "I'm going there in a few minutes." "Isn't that area restricted to me?" Eric turned to him. "Not if you're with authorized personnel." Linwood said. He held a cup in his hand and drank from it. Eric stared at the white mug with want. Glasses for water, he had. Having mugs were luxuries not allowed to someone in his position. Eric could smell the coffee in Linwood's mug. It gave off a deeper, richer scent than his self-heating drink. He wasn't sure what else Linwood was allowed that he wasn't. He assumed his food was slightly better too, but Eric never asked him about that. Eric wondered how warm the cup was, how it would feel in his own hands, and how warm Linwood's hands were from touching it. As he watched, both desire and envy crept into his body. Linwood noticed him staring at the mug. He held it out. "Do you want some?" "I am not permitted to..." Linwood pushed the mug into his hand. "Nevermind that. It's only coffee. Try it." Linwood was leaning in so close to him their faces were nearly touching. Eric took the mug. The warmth radiating between his palms did not compare to the burning sensation in his chest when he looked into Linwood's eyes. He broke eye contact and held the mug to his lips, thinking about how that mug had just touched Linwood's. The strong aroma of the liquid filled him. The taste was better than he imagined, and yet uncomfortably familiar. He couldn't place why. It was an absurd thought, but the flavor of the coffee itself somehow reminded him of Linwood. He could almost picture him standing in the kitchen area, adjusting everything to his tastes. As he thought about that, his body craved a different drink. Visually, the memory was too vague for him to understand, but he could taste the flavor he wanted on his tongue. It was something else brewed, he was sure, but he didn't know what. Something milder and just as warm, something he was certain Linwood would enjoy. Then, it faded and all he could taste was the drink in his hands. "How is it?" Linwood asked. "It's a lot better than mine." Eric said. He went to hand the mug back to Linwood. "You can have the rest. I brewed plenty." Linwood got on the railing again, positioning himself like before and directly in front of Eric. "So, are you coming with me?" Per facility rules, Eric knew he should move back and put more distance between them. This level of closeness in this sort of context was completely inappropriate. Eric didn't budge. He took another sip of the coffee. "I suppose, if it's allowed." "Hey," Linwood leaned in. He whispered in Eric's ear. "Do you mind if I come into your apartment?" "What for?" Eric asked, heat rising in him with the steam of the drink. "I wanted to talk to you about the report, in private." Linwood said. "Could we do that after we get the bike?" Eric asked. He had to refuse Linwood. He couldn't keep himself composed as he was. "Alright, we'll talk about that later." Linwood leaned back. He lightly brushed back the front of Eric's hair and grinned. Eric couldn't get himself to say anything. His body burned hotly. Linwood hopped down from the railing. "I'll get ready. Meet me in the hallway in a few minutes and we'll go." Eric nodded. He watched Linwood go into his apartment before leaving the balcony. Once they were both ready, they went down to the supply store. Linwood led him to the door in the back of the store that went to the restricted area. He took out his ID and approached the table beside the door. A red beam went over Linwood when he stood in front of the tablet. The program running on the tablet's AI said, "State your name and position." "Alexis Linwood, Manager of Animal Lab 3." Linwood said with a groan. "Present identification card." "For fuck's sake, why do you even ask my name then?" Linwood muttered under his breath. "Did you ask for assistance?" The AI asked. Linwood rolled his eyes. Linwood put his card inside an attachment connected to the tablet. "No. I did not." "Touch your hand to the screen below to confirm your identity." It said. The ID card popped out. "I know." Linwood sighed and took his card back. He put his hand on the screen. "You do not need to confirm that you understand." "I know." He said louder. The tablet displayed a circular, moving symbol, then went to a new screen when finished. "Processing...you are cleared to enter. Second person clearance needed. Authorized personnel or guest access?" "He is my guest." Linwood said. "State guest's name and position." The AI said. "Do I say it?" Eric asked. "No, it won't accept your input at all." Linwood said to him. He then spoke to the AI. "Guest's name is Eric Thomas, Animal Lab 3 Caretaker." "Present guest's identification card." "Put it in that slot." Linwood pointed to the slot. Eric put his ID inside it. After a few seconds, the card popped back out. "Both guest and authorized personnel, touch your hand to the screen below to confirm your identity." "Like this?" Eric went to put his hand on the tablet. Linwood stopped him. "Wait. We have to do it at the same time or the damn thing will start over from the beginning." "Are you serious?" Eric couldn't believe it. Linwood nodded. "Yes. I've seen it many times." "Processing...your guest is cleared to enter. Please proceed through the entrance to the left." The door beside the tablet unlocked. Linwood led Eric through the door. "I hate that thing." On the other side of the door, the store appeared to be even larger than the side open to all employees. The shelves went higher up and were stacked with far more items. Eric stared in awe at the selection of things. "There are so many things here...I'm not sure I know what half of them are." "Do you want to try some different food?" Linwood asked. "Am I allowed to bring these things into my apartment?" Eric asked. "If I buy them, yes." Eric shook his head. "I can't ask for that. What about your weekly limit?" "My pay is higher than yours. I don't usually use all of mine." Linwood got a cart and put several items in it. "Oh, I didn't know we had different pay amounts. I thought we were only supposed to have what we needed to get essential items for the week." Eric watched what Linwood took. He noted a bag of coffee beans in the cart. Linwood grabbed a jug of milk, bacon, and a carton of eggs. "That's just what they tell the lower level workers. I make triple your pay." "Oh, I see." Eric said. He wasn't shocked by this. He had long suspected something like that was going on. "I don't need anything...I don't know what I'd want to get anyway." "Suit yourself." Linwood continued to put items in his cart. "You don't mind if I do my shopping too, do you?" "No. It's not like I need to be anywhere." "Just wanted to make sure. I have to escort you out. It's a rule." Linwood stopped in front of a desk at the back of one of the aisles. A woman was stationed there. Linwood spoke to her. "Excuse me, I need to place an order for a bike." The woman put a tablet before him. "Very well. Please use the tablet here to fill out your order." Linwood tapped through the digital catalog displayed on the tablet. He stopped at the bicycle section and passed the tablet to Eric. "You can get whatever you want. When you're done picking out what you want, let me know. I need to fill out the delivery information and sign it." "Alright." Eric said. He stared down at the options. His color choices were white, black, grey, and ones that were different combinations of those three colors. Eric didn't know they had bikes in anything other than black. Everyone he worked with who had one had a black bike. He wanted to choose a different color, out of spite for the sameness they all endured, but he didn't want to draw attention to himself either. It didn't matter in the end. All the options were still limited to the same three colors he was already trapped by. Eric selected the black bike. "I need to purchase something else." Linwood leaned over the counter. His voice was just above a whisper. "Black Box A & D, please." "Size for Black Box A?" The woman lowered her voice. "Regular." Linwood said. "Sign here and declare intended party to be used with." The woman handed him a paper. Eric read over some of the information on it while he filled out part of the form for the bike. After Linwood signed the document, he slipped it back to the woman at the counter. The woman took the form, then left. She came back with a black bag and a receipt. "Thank you, Dr. Linwood. Here are your items." Eric couldn't see what was inside it, but it appeared to be two different sized boxes. He got Linwood's attention. "I finished filling out the information." "Okay, let me take care of the rest of that." Linwood put the black bag in his cart. He filled out the rest of the information for the bike and handed the tablet to the woman at the counter. "There. Your new bike should be delivered to your slot around five. Now, for the rest of the shopping." Eric walked away from the counter with him. Once the woman was out of earshot, he asked. "May I ask what those are?" "Something you're not supposed to know about." Linwood said. "You put my name down." Eric said. "For intended party to be used with." "Oh, you noticed?" Linwood laughed. "Don't take it as meaning anything. I have to write in someone's name to get these. It doesn't really matter. They don't check if it's true." "I'm sorry for prying...it's just you put my name down. I was wondering if I should be worried..." Eric said. 'Why won't you tell me what you signed my name off for? Why did you bring me on this trip at all?' "No, don't think anything of it. It's just a stupid rule." Linwood said. Eric realized he wouldn't get a real answer out of him. He worried for a moment that something bad might happen to him, but it faded. 'What does it matter? Nothing good happens anyway.' They continued the shopping trip together. Linwood insisted on staying with Eric through his own grocery shopping as well. Afterwards, they went back to their apartments. "Sorry for dragging you around." Linwood said. "I didn't mind." Linwood stopped at his apartment door. "Do you want to come in?" "Your apartment? But I'm not supposed to enter someone else's apartment except to assist them or under direct orders." Eric reminded him. "No one's going to care if you break the rules with me." "I don't know...I don't want to get in trouble..." "Then, I need help. You can help me put away my groceries." Linwood held up the bags in his hands. Eric knew he shouldn't do this. He had managed to reject every offer to come inside that Linwood gave him before. His will power was waning after spending all day alone with him. "Well...I suppose I can. You did get more stuff than me." Linwood laughed. "So, groceries was what it took. I should've tried that before." Eric entered the apartment. His heart raced. He could be punished for being in here. His excitement soon turned to disappointment. "Oh." "Something wrong?" Linwood asked. "I thought it'd look different. It's identical to my room." Eric sighed. 'So even he doesn't get something better when it comes to this.' "There are certain things I'm still not allowed to have too." Linwood put the bags on the kitchen table. "Color and nice looking furniture is obviously among them." Eric stayed near the door. He stared at the floor. "Why did you invite me in? Am I under investigation?" "No, not at all." Linwood said. "Consider it a friendly gesture." "The facility rules prohibit all interpersonal relationships outside of work." Eric responded. Linwood put away his cold items into a small fridge. "Not for me they don't." "How do I know everything you're saying is true?" Eric stayed near the door, watching Linwood. Linwood closed the fridge door. He walked over to Eric and leaned in close. He whispered in Eric's ear. "Rules prohibit you from questioning my judgment." "I feel like you're trying to trap me." Eric said. He knew he should leave, but his body wouldn't let him. He wanted Linwood to lean in more. "I'm not." Linwood said. He backed away. "You don't have to stay here if I'm making you uncomfortable." "What's in those boxes?" Eric asked. "I might show you one day. Right now, you don't need to know." Linwood turned around. He went back to putting away the groceries. "Are you staying or leaving?" Eric looked at the door, then back to Linwood. This was his opportunity to escape. He walked away from the door toward the kitchenette. "I can stay, if you still need help." Linwood grinned. He picked up the black bag and handed it over to Eric. "Can you put these on my nightstand in my bedroom? It's in the opposite direction as yours." "How do you know?" Eric asked, taking the bag. "All the apartments have the same floor plan. Every other room has the plan in reverse. Our apartments share the same balcony, so your bedroom is on the opposite side of your apartment as mine." "Oh, I see." Eric went to the bedroom. As Linwood said, the room was in the exact same location as his, down to the same furniture. The only difference really was that every area was in the opposite direction of where it was in Eric's own apartment. Despite being in the opposite direction, the furniture all faced the same direction. He wondered why. Looking at Linwood's apartment, the order of the furniture in Eric's suddenly seemed off to him. It seemed more natural in Linwood's, but he didn't know why. If he had his memories from before six years ago, perhaps he would know why. He let that thought go. It didn't matter. Eric looked down at the bag. He wanted to peek inside, but there was a good chance that was a trap. He placed it on the nightstand. Though the rooms were identical, being inside this room was getting him a little worked up. This was where Linwood slept, where he dressed and undressed. He wanted to get on the bed. He knew he shouldn't. Eric lay down on the bed to see if it felt any different than his own. To his disappointment, it was the exact same mattress after all. Still, it smelled like Linwood. The scent turned him on. Exhausted from suppressing his thoughts all day, he allowed his mind to linger on dangerous daydreams that, if fulfilled, would likely get him killed. "Tired? You can take a nap if you want." Linwood leaned against the door frame. He was grinning from ear to ear. "Ah, no. I thought...I don't know. I know you already said it's all the same, but I figured they'd at least give you a better bed." Eric quickly got off the bed. "Unfortunately not. Mine's as shitty as yours." Linwood threw himself down on the bed. He looked up at the ceiling. "I hear some of the higher ups do though. Guess we're too lowly." "But you're above me and make three times as much as me." Eric said. "The Facility Director makes more than ten times my pay. The Director of the entire project makes more than a thousand times what our Facility Director makes. We're nothing." "What would anyone need all that money for? Are there stores only they can go in?" Eric asked. He looked over Linwood's body. He had never seen him in such a position before. At least, as far as he could remember. Linwood spread himself out on the bed. He looked up and down Eric's body. "Something like that. Richard...ah, the Facility Director took me into one of theirs once, outside our zone. It's mostly access to certain things. I can't tell you about them, technically." "I won't ask about it." "You wanna stay here tonight?" Linwood patted one of the pillows on the bed. Eric's face went red. "What? I can't do that." "Come on. I'll give you a ride in the morning." Linwood reached for Eric's hand. Eric let Linwood make contact for a moment before forcing himself to pull his hand away. "I live next door. That's not necessary." "At least stay for dinner." "We're not supposed to share meals." Eric reminded him. "I won't tell." Linwood smiled and put up a finger to his lips. "However you want it, I'll do it. What do you want me to serve you?" Eric was certain this must be some sort of test, to see if he would fall to temptation. This sort of behavior was completely forbidden. Regardless of what Linwood said, Eric knew this was against the rules. However, he couldn't keep his eyes off Linwood. Even if this was a test, he wanted to remember this moment. This was as close as he could get to engaging in his desires without crossing the line. Much as he may want more, he could only look on. If he did go any further than this, the game would be over. Linwood would surely reveal his real intentions and Eric would be taken away for his punishment. This would always have to stay a fantasy in his mind. "Are you sure this is allowed?" "You're supposed to trust me." Linwood said. Eric considered his options. So long as he didn't do something deeply forbidden, he could at least pretend he thought this might be alright since Linwood claimed to him it was. He could use that in his defense if he were questioned about this. He was only listening to the word of someone with a higher rank on what was right. Surely, a simple dinner wouldn't get him the worst of punishments. He suspected he would be allowed to go that far. Linwood seemed more intent on catching him slipping up with a much bigger rule violation. If he never went that far, he might be able to get away with these sorts of things for a while. Eric decided to test his luck. "I suppose if you think it's alright...I could stay for dinner..." Linwood sat up. "That's more like it. What do you want to eat?" "Anything you cook is fine...it's not like I know much about food anyway." Eric said. Linwood smirked. He got up from the bed and went to the kitchen area. Eric followed, sitting down at the dining table. Linwood didn't say much to Eric while he cooked. Eric preferred it that way. It was awkward enough he had agreed to stay for dinner. Eric had no idea what they were going to talk about. There was nothing to talk about with anyone. Instead of talking, Eric watched Linwood. Mentally, he was undressing the man. He knew better than to think about such things. He had an evaluation coming up. His medication dosage would likely go up once they forced that confession out of him. As Eric watched the man, in his mind, his fantasy faded and was replaced with another image. He was with Linwood in some other kitchen. This one was much bigger and full of more color. It was early morning. Linwood appeared to be younger. He was cooking in that place too, wearing clothes very different from what was allowed in the facility. Eric saw his own reflection in the drink in his mug. He looked younger too. 'Jeez, are you gonna get ready or what?' Younger Linwood asked. Eric looked down at himself. He was only wearing a tank top and underwear. 'Eh, can't we skip today?' 'You know we can't.' Linwood answered. "Something wrong?" Present day Linwood asked him. Eric blinked. He remembered where he was again. "Huh? Ah, no. I spaced out for a sec." "Dinner's ready." Linwood put a plate in front of Eric. "Thank you, but are you sure it's alright for me to be here?" Eric wondered what that was that he saw in his mind. He heard from the psychiatrist that if his dosage was too low, he might start remembering things from the time before. But if that was what that was, that would mean Linwood was someone he knew before they came here. Who was Linwood to him then? "Quit worrying about it. Remember, flat level and all that." Linwood sat down across from him. "Yeah." Linwood laughed. "What's funny?" Eric asked. "We've been here, what? Six years?" "That sounds right." "Feels like eternity." Linwood played with his food. He kept his gaze down as he asked in a low voice, "Do you want to stay tonight?" "That's not appropriate." "If you don't want to stay tonight, why don't you come over in the morning? You don't have to use that bike, if I give you a ride." "I'll be fine with my bike." Eric rejected him again. Alex laughed again. "Suit yourself. If you ever want a ride, I'll come for you." Their conversation shifted to quiet small talk about work. After dinner, Eric quickly got ready to leave. "Thank you for everything today. I need to get back to my apartment and do some reading before bed." Linwood smiled at him, a defeated look in his eyes. "See ya tomorrow, Eric." Once Eric was back in his own apartment, he went straight for the shower. It wouldn't last long. His shower automatically cut off after five minutes. It would be freezing cold. That was what he was seeking. Once he got back out, he went straight to bed. "Forget about it. Forget it." Eric whispered to himself. "Forget about him." His mind replayed select moments from earlier. Linwood sitting on the balcony railing, his legs spread out. The heat from his breath on Eric's skin when he whispered to him. How he looked laying on the bed. 'Don't think about him. You have an evaluation tomorrow.' Eric told himself as he pulled down the front of his underwear. In the morning, Eric rode his new bike to work. Halfway between the two facilities, Linwood drove up beside him slowly. Linwood rolled his window down. "Morning." Linwood greeted him. "Good morning, sir." Eric said. "Wanna ride with me?" 'He's still testing me.' Eric shook his head. "No, thank you." "Alright. Be safe." Linwood drove on ahead. Eric was dreading going into work today. It was time for his monthly evaluation. His appointment was at the start of the day. The office of the facility's psychiatrist was at the end of a long hallway at the far end of the building. Dr. Felicia Dogwood had been the facility's psychiatrist since he was brought there. She was a young looking woman. She spoke in a soft voice that always carried an undercurrent of judgment perfectly capable of drowning him in shame and fear. Eric feared her more than anyone else at the facility. Eric knocked on her door. She opened it. There was no greeting between them. "Patient, state your name and position." "Eric Thomas, Animal Lab 3 Caretaker." Eric said. Like his trip to the store with Linwood and their daily traveling between the two buildings, here too he needed to reaffirm his own identity to someone who knew very well exactly who he was. He never understood what the purpose of this was. There was rarely anyone new. People disappeared more than they arrived. "Good. Please take a seat while I go over your information. This may take a moment. Please don't be upset if I don't remember you. As you know, I see all of the lower and intermediate workers, but I do keep detailed records." Dr. Dogwood said, as if to taunt him about his own internal complaints. Eric knew very well she knew who he was. That was always obvious from the way she interacted with him during his evaluations. "Let's see, Eric Thomas. Age twenty-four, white, male, homosexual, tested positive for prior VC-15-RM infection...current dose of Aequa is listed as needing possible revision. Yes, it looks like we will need to conduct a thorough analysis today. Do you understand what this means?" Eric's heart raced. "Yes, Doctor." "Then you are aware of the procedure. As required, I must restate it for you. First, you will fill out the survey I will give you. Afterwards, I will look over the results and then ask you a series of questions. During that part, I will connect you to the detector to gauge your emotional reactions and the truthfulness of your answers. This is so I may provide the best care for your needs. Do not worry about the results. Do you have any questions?" Dr. Dogwood sat down at her desk. "No, Doctor." "Let's begin. Complete the survey on the tablet. This will be recorded for future reference." Eric sat down on the sofa across from her desk. He hated that sofa almost as much as the squeaky, hard chair she used to have in the office. Eric picked up the tablet on the sofa and went through the questions. He knew them by heart. They never changed. "I've completed it." "Good. Now, we will begin phase two. I will connect you to the machine now." Dr. Dogwood got up. She put a metal band around his head. She turned on a big machine in the corner of the room. Eric didn't know what it was called. He never bothered to ask and she never bothered to tell him. "Now, your record indicates that you have previously had issues controlling your sexual urges. Your current dose of Aequa is already at a relatively high level. And your record also lists you as frequently refusing to take your medication. Are all of these statements true?" Eric's face flushed. "Yes." "What is the reason for you refusing to take your medicine?" Dr. Dogwood asked. "I feel strange after I take it." Eric said. 'You'd know that if you bothered reading my survey answers.' "In what way?" "Um...I feel...I'm not sure how to describe it. It's unpleasant, but not really in a physical way." "You feel mentally bad when you take it?" Dr. Dogwood asked. "Yes." "You are aware that it is normal in the beginning to experience some unpleasant side effects. If you take your medicine regularly, this phase will pass. The only reason it is taking so long for you to get used to it is because you aren't taking it correctly." Dr. Dogwood lectured him. She did this same lecture every month. "Isn't there something else you could give me?" Eric asked. "I will not request something else for you when you have failed to take your medication properly. If you can take it properly for the next three months and this does not subside, I may consider giving you a different medication. Next question, about your sexual urges, have you been indulging in them?" "No." Eric said. The machine beeped three times and flashed red. "You're lying." Dr. Dogwood gave him a disapproving glare. "Why are you lying to me?" Eric looked away from her and did not respond. "Are you afraid of being punished?" The machine beeped twice with a purple flash. "I see. Have you been engaging in sexual activities with anyone?" "No." Eric said. The machine beeped once and turned green. "Have you considered it?" Dr. Dogwood asked. "No." Three beeps, red flash. Eric clenched the arm of the sofa. "You're lying again." Dr. Dogwood scribbled down notes in her little notebook. "It's alright. You won't be punished for your thoughts, only your actions. Your record states you have a history of frequently masturbating to alleviate your urges. How often have you been engaging in this discouraged activity?" "Once a month." The machine revealed his lie once again. "Another lie. How many times this week?" "Twice." Eric was honest this time. He hoped she wouldn't follow up with asking how many times he'd done it this month. While twice this week was true, he had intentionally avoided it this week suspecting she would ask about only the last week or less. The other weeks of the month, he usually did it at least four times a week. The week of the evaluation, he tried to get it to two or less. She asked the question about the week so often it was a safe bet. "Is there are particular person causing these desires? A male coworker, perhaps?" Dr. Dogwood asked. Eric panicked. She didn't usually ask that. "No." Dr. Dogwood looked at the red on the machine. "Does this man work in your lab area?" "No." Another red flash. "It's alright. You don't have to deny it. I simply want to know. We may be able to assign you to a different lab until you're properly medicated." Dr. Dogwood wrote more notes down. Eric's eyes widened. He knew Linwood was testing him, but getting to see him at least gave him some brief enjoyment out of the day. He had nothing else to look forward to. "I don't want to work in a different lab." "Why is that?" Dr. Dogwood looked up at him. Eric turned away. "No response? Is the person you're sexually interested in a lower ranked worker?" "No." The machine flashed green but sent out seven beeps. "You reacted strongly when I asked that, but you didn't lie in your response. I see, it's your manager then." Dr. Dogwood smiled confidently. Eric's face turned red. "I will alert him to this." "I don't want him to know." Eric said. "It is his right to know. He will decide whether or not you will be moved. Given that you still have not been properly taking your medication, I am keeping your dose at its current amount for now. Take it as directed this time. If you continue to refuse your care, I will be forced to have your manager administer it to you." Dr. Dogwood picked up the tablet and started filling out information on it. "May I leave now?" Eric asked. "Not yet. I wanted to discuss something further with you. You must understand you need to take this medicine for your own good. Your emotional reactions are extremely high. The facility wants to see a flat level. Efficient workers don't react the way you do. Now, your work history suggests you are a very productive worker, however, given your issues, this only speaks to how much more productive you could be." Eric winced at the word "productive". He loathed hearing it. "Your preoccupation with sexual urges is also worrying. The medicine will take care of that for you. Until it starts working, I want you to practice some mental exercises to help you prevent yourself from acting on your desires. I will send you those to your personal tablet. And remember, touching yourself is discouraged, but allowed. Engaging in those activities with another comes with the maximum punishment. You will be removed. Please, do not disappoint the facility." She put the tablet down on her desk. "I understand, Doctor. May I leave?" "Yes. I expect to see progress during our next monthly evaluation. I will be contacting your manager after you leave about your issue. If he chooses to move you, you will receive a new apartment by the end of the day." Eric headed for the door. "I see." The walk down the long hallway seemed longer today. He sighed. Was this why Linwood was testing him? Did he or Dr. Dogwood already suspect his feelings and were seeing if he would go further when presented with the opportunity? He knew he was likely being tested, but if Linwood and Dr. Dogwood had arranged that together, he doubted he could get anything out of seeing Linwood at the lab anymore outside of greater fear. Eric felt a deep sadness hit him. He wanted to die. Eric reached in his pocket and pulled out a bottle of pills. He took the dose he was supposed to take that morning. Tonight, he thought, he might take all of them. In the lab, Austin was his usual cheery self. Eric avoided him. He cleaned out the rat and mice cages and ran the experiments scheduled for that day. Lab 3 only had rodents. He heard Lab 4 used opossums exclusively. He always wondered why. Maybe, he thought, he might be transferred to that lab. The more he thought about that, the more his curiosity dropped. Did it really matter what they were doing there? It wasn't like he was allowed to know what they were testing for here either. Only Linwood was allowed to analyze the data they collected. It would likely be the same in the other labs, a job left only to the manager. Eric wondered why they were even called that. It sounded more like a business term than a science one. Why not "Lead Researcher" or something like that? Was it like that in the time before? Was this how any lab was run before? Eric thought about climbing the fence or riding his bike off the designated path in the intermediate zone and never looking back. Could he be happy out there? Would he learn anything? The results would probably be the same as him taking all his pills. Linwood didn't speak to him until the end of the day, when Eric was required to inform him of leaving. Eric expected this was when Linwood would inform him of where he was being moved to and what his new job would be. Linwood only smiled and told him he'd see him again tomorrow. "Manager, um, did the psychiatrist speak with you about me?" Eric asked. "Oh, yes. She contacted me." Linwood shuffled through a stack of papers. "Am I being moved?" Linwood looked at him strangely. He laughed loudly. "No." "Really? The way that she was talking, I thought that..." "Don't worry about her. That reminds me. She wanted me to ask you daily if you're taking your meds. But I don't really care. I never take mine." Linwood gloated. "You don't get in trouble with her for it?" Eric wondered if he was lying. Was this another test? "I don't see her. My evaluations are done by my boss, the Facility Director." Linwood shook his head. "He asks me if I'm feeling fine and if I want more. That's all there is to it. I just nod my head a lot and then toss the bag on the way out the door." "Does he not notice you doing that?" "He doesn't care. He doesn't take his either." Linwood whispered. He laughed again. "For the record, you didn't hear any of that from me." "Y-yes, sir." Eric blurted out. He wasn't sure what he should even say in response to that. "Actually, tonight, can you stay behind to help me with some paperwork? I don't have an assistant like most of the other managers. I could really use the help." Linwood said. "If you want." Eric remembered what he was told before. The later it was, the more dangerous it was to be in the intermediate zone. That wasn't as much of a problem for Linwood. He had a car. Eric would need to travel back on his bike, exposed and at a slower speed. "Um, about the time..." "Don't worry about being out so late. I'll give you a ride back." Linwood typed something up on his computer. "What about my bike?" Eric asked. "We can put it in the back. Last time, we were already out in the intermediate zone so there was no time for that." Linwood looked up from the screen. He smiled at Eric. "You know, if you want, I can give you a ride in the mornings too. It's really not a big deal." "You don't have to do that." "It's not an issue. We work in the same department and we're expected here at the same time." Linwood motioned to the chair beside his desk. "Go ahead and sit down. I've got a lot of data to go through tonight. All you have to do is put the information in." Eric sat down. "How do I do that?" "I'll show you. It's really easy. You're just going to be filling out spreadsheets tonight." Linwood booted up a laptop. He opened up a specific file, then passed Eric a stack of papers. "See these tabs down here. The names match different data sets on these papers. Everything's already labeled. Just fill in over here all the new information for each set. That's all I need you to do. You do these and I'll work on this half of it." "Um, is this the same file?" "Mm-hmm. It'll save both our edits. Both of these computers have access to this file. I can even send you messages about the file." Linwood opened up a chat box in the file. "Don't worry too much. I'll check on your progress every now and then to make sure you're doing it right. The chat is monitored, by the way. Just so you know. They monitor everything we send." "Oh...I see." Eric wondered why Linwood told him that. Eric got the hang of maneuvering through the spreadsheet pretty quickly. Seeing the way everything was being recorded, Eric wondered if he would be able to make some guesses about what they were really doing. Occasionally, he glanced over at Linwood. While they were working, Linwood said little to him. Everything he said was related to what they were working on. Was the testing over? Was he ever testing him? If he wasn't testing him, then what was he doing? Did Eric misread Linwood's previous interactions as having intentions that weren't there? But what about him claiming he didn't take his medication, Eric wondered. If he was telling the truth, then Linwood was a much more disobedient employee than he was and simply better able to get away with it due to his rank. But he also claimed the Director of their building was like this too. Were only lower ranked employees expected to be perfect? Or was he lying to get him to break the rules? Around eleven, Linwood packed up his things. "Thanks for staying. I always have so much paperwork to do." "Why haven't they assigned you an assistant?" Eric asked. "I have to pick the person." "Oh. Is there no one you want to choose?" Eric was surprised to learn that. He assumed assistants were chosen by skill evaluation tests like all other positions. "Actually, there is. I was thinking about you." Linwood said. "Me?" "What do you think? Is it too much work?" "Not at all." Eric was confused. Today, he thought he'd be moving and never see Linwood again. Now, he was offering Eric a promotion. "What about my lab job? Will I not do that anymore?" "I'll have Austin promoted, if I decide to have you moved." Linwood said. "Technically, I can move you up whether you want me to or not, but I won't unless you want it. Think it over, okay?" "I will." As they were walking toward the exit, Linwood asked, "Why don't you sleep at my place tonight?" At this hour, there were few others still in the building. There were cameras everywhere though. Perhaps, he thought, Linwood was really out to test him after all. He rejected him. "I really shouldn't." "Suit yourself." Linwood laughed and sighed. They went out to the car. Linwood put the bike on a bike rack on top of the vehicle. Eric didn't realize it had one, but he never thought to pay much attention to the car before. As Linwood drove to the gate, he sighed. "Does everything in this building need verification? I'm already here." He pointed to his bag in the backseat. "Can you get my ID out of my bag?" Eric reached back and grabbed the bag. He saw the badge hanging from a card holder on the side. Eric pulled out the card. He pretended to fidget with the card holder as he read over the information on the card. Alexis Linwood. Twenty-four. Male. Two or more races. Homosexual. Negative for prior VC-15-RM infection. He handed the ID over to Linwood, who quickly went through the verification process. Once they were out in the intermediate zone, Linwood gave him a smirk. "Did you find what you were looking for?" "Excuse me?" Eric said. "You peeked at the information on my card." He smirked. "What were you wanting to know, I wonder." "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean anything by it." Eric apologized. "The fifth category down. That's what it was, wasn't it?" He drove the car towards the other building, high beams on. Eric pulled out his own ID card to see what the fifth category was. 'Name, age, sex, race...' His face lit up. He looked over at Linwood. "I am sorry." "You're aware of what Felicia told me." Linwood said as he pulled up to the gate. He swiped his card to open the first gate. When they approached the second gate, he rolled down his windows and handed his ID over to the guard. "Could you open the gate for me, please?" The guard glanced over the card and ran it through a machine inside the tiny building. The guard handed it back and the gate opened up. Linwood rolled his window up and drove through. The second gate closed quickly behind them. Eric stayed silent. When they were parked in Linwood's assigned spot, Linwood turned to Eric. "Do you want to come over to my apartment tonight?" 'This has to be a test.' Eric's hands started to sweat. "No, sir. That would be inappropriate, especially given what Dr. Dogwood informed you of." "Well, of course. What's your point?" Linwood leaned closer to him. "It is only appropriate I decline." "Is that so? That's a shame. I could have used the help in sorting some more files." Linwood changed the subject to work. 'What is he after? Is this a test to see if I'm fit to be his assistant? Maybe I'm supposed to agree to do more work.' Eric decided to see where this was going. If it was test where he was supposed to reject Linwood, then he would. He was curious, what were the man's real intentions? "Well, if it's for work, then it should be alright..." Eric followed Linwood up to his apartment. Linwood tossed his bag on the floor and took his shoes off. He turned a lamp on and turned back off the main light. "Sir, aren't we going to sort files?" Eric asked, lingering by the door. 'Shit. This is a trap. This is definitely a trap.' "No." Linwood tossed his coat to the floor. He walked back over to Eric. "You know, I'm glad we're neighbors. If I didn't get to see you every Sunday morning out on the balcony, I'd lose my mind." "Why am I here?" Eric asked. Linwood put his arms around Eric's neck. He leaned against him, one of his legs between Eric's. Eric looked away. "I'm sorry. That is against the rules." "You may leave if you want." Linwood whispered in his ear. "But you want to stay, don't you? We don't have to do anything. I'd be happy if you stayed to talk with me." "That isn't productive." Eric answered with the words he was trained to say. "You don't believe in any of this crap, do you?" "I don't. But if I break the rules, they'll kill me." Eric admitted his real thoughts. "This is a trap, isn't it?" "Is that what you think...? Well...I suppose I can't blame you for being paranoid." Linwood moved away. He turned around. "No, I brought you here because I wanted to be alone with you. Why don't we just talk for a little while? I'll keep my distance if you want." "You don't need to do that." Eric asked. He told himself he should leave, but he didn't want to. "What did you want to talk about?" "Let me make us some coffee. Let's talk on the balcony." Linwood said. Eric agreed to stay for coffee. If he was possibly going to be moved or dead in the near future, he thought, he might as well enjoy the drink one last time. They drank the coffee out on the balcony. "What do you remember? About before we came here?" Linwood sipped slowly on his drink. "Not much. I think I had friends. I think most of them are dead." Eric said. He got bits and pieces every now and then. Smiling, familiar yet unknown faces and happy moments mixed with gruesome images of death floating into his mind at unexpected times. These were supposed to be taken away with the medication. When they first came, all their memories were temporarily wiped, but with time, they would come back. It needed to be this way for order, they told him. No one could handle having all of their memories back, they said. It would be too much to handle. "I see." Linwood leaned against the railing. "And what about me? You don't remember me?" "Did I know you?" Eric asked. He did have memories of Linwood, but he didn't want to admit what they were about. "I'm not sure. When I look at you, sometimes, I remember things. Playing outside as a child with some other boys, doing stupid things when I was a teenager. You're there. I think we were friends at some point, at least. There's still so much I can't remember." "You're not supposed to. You know they'd tell you your prescription is too low." "I'm sure they would. Of course, you know I don't take it. That's why it's coming back." Linwood looked up at the night sky. "I don't know who you were to me before, but I can't help feeling drawn in when I see you. You don't feel the same?" "I don't know what I'm feeling." "You know, this is the only place here I love. This balcony. The view from here is beautiful...those lights in the city, the moon. But the best view's usually to the left." Eric looked over. The only thing to the left was his own balcony. "There's nothing there." "Not tonight. That view's to my right tonight." Linwood looked over at him. Eric blushed. "That's really inappropriate." "Who's going to hear me?" "Someone might see us." "I'll tell them we were discussing work." Linwood turned around and rested his weight against the railing. "What if no one believes that?" Eric put his mug down on the railing. He looked out across the building to see if anyone else was outside. As far as he could see, they were alone. "No one will question me. If it were two lower workers, that would be different. I'm not in a position to be questioned by most." Linwood took another sip from his drink. "Have you thought any more about my offer?" "I don't know..." "It looks like it's going to rain again soon. The clouds are moving in." Linwood said. He put his mug down on the railing. "Do you like rain?" "Yeah...the wind is nice tonight." Eric said, placing his mug beside Linwood's. "Let's go back inside." Linwood said. Once they were both back in, Linwood closed the sliding door and locked it. He got behind Eric, putting his arms around his waist. He buried his face in Eric's neck. Eric didn't move away. He couldn't get in trouble for someone else touching him. He still had a work around to get out of this if questioned. Eric would reject him soon enough, but he wanted to enjoy this contact for a little longer. Linwood slid his hand up Eric's shirt as he kissed his neck. Eric's body burned hotly. He had to stop this now. "I thought you'd keep your distance and we'd just talk?" "Lift your arms." Linwood was sliding Eric's shirt up. "This is forbidden." "The words you're saying don't mean stop or no. Say what you want." Linwood said. Eric knew he needed to make a proper rejection. He need to deny him. He didn't want to. The desire building in him was fighting with his fear. He pushed Linwood's hands aside, turned around, then backed him against the sliding door. Eric wrapped his arms around Linwood's waist. Leaning in close, he looked him in the eyes. "I want to fuck you." Linwood's eyes lit up. "Then what's the problem?" 'This is a trap. If I engage in this, that's it for me.' He warned himself. He had gone too far. Then, the fear slipped away. 'Why do I care? There's nothing to look forward to anyway. I should fuck him.' Eric tugged at the waist of Linwood's pants. "Take your clothes off. I want to see your body." Linwood stripped his clothes off. Eric did the same. Linwood pulled him over to the bed. Kisses quickly turned to into other motions as they explored each other's bodies. Eric ran through the actions in his mind he always fantasized about. If he was going to die in the morning, he wanted to get as much out of this as he could. Linwood reached over for the black bag sitting on his nightstand. He pulled out two boxes. The first box had a roll of condoms in it. The second one contained a bottle of lube. Eric remembered what Linwood told him before. He needed to list someone he was planning on using them with. What did that mean? Did he have to get permission to do this to test Eric? Or...? Eric's thoughts on that matter soon left him as Linwood opened a condom. He put it on Eric, then opened the bottle of lube. The lube he used on himself. He straddled himself over Eric. Eric let him lead their movements from here. He adjusted his speed to match what Linwood seemed comfortable with. His body was buzzing with excitement. He didn't care anymore he was probably going to die in the morning. The last six years here had been nothing but emptiness anyway. This felt amazing. He should've done this sooner, he thought. Nothing mattered. Tomorrow wasn't going to get better. If this was it, then he was fine with it. He'd enjoy every second of it. Eric's vision shifted. Around them, the walls were yellow and the sheets were orange. The moonlight shone on them through a window directly beside the bed. For a moment, it felt like he was wearing underwear and a shirt. Then he saw a kitchen in his mind. It had yellow walls in the same shade, faded a bit around the corners. The two of them were kissing by a table. Then they were in a tree house together, cleaning their faces of blood. The pictures faded in and out incomprehensibly. Linwood's movements were familiar, as were his own. Eric had no idea if he had ever had sex before. He never recalled any memories like that. As their bodies moved in a smooth unison, another image appeared before him. He was still there with Linwood, somewhere on a rickety bed with no sheets. The walls were dark and dirty, made of a cold concrete. The floor matched. A single dim, flickering light bulb illuminated the windowless room. At the boards of the bed's frame, cut, bloodied ropes dangled. A knife rested on a small, wooden table alongside more rope and a stack of wash clothes. The table was stained heavily with something dark. Something else dripped into his mind, washing away the scenery of both that room and Linwood's apartment. An infected animal stared at him through a window in a kitchen. Its eyes were completely red and its face distorted. His mind jumped back to that first place, on that bed in the yellow room and the warm sensation of their bodies pressed against each other, of being inside him. The illusion faded as the intense sensation in him was near a breaking point. He was back in that colorless apartment, holding tightly to the sheets and thrusting hard with his hips. Linwood's voice, exactly as how he imagined it would sound in a moment like this, broke down what little resistance he had left in him to hold back anything. A fear rose in him once more about how they would kill him. That spike in his heartbeat drifted back along with all of his thoughts until his mind was empty. Everything was surging through him, flowing out. He expected to feel a little bit of regret. There was none inside him, only satisfaction. He caught his breath and pulled Linwood down into a kiss. They locked eyes. Eric saw the same dazed look in him as he knew he had himself. He saw places in Linwood's eyes he didn't recognize, places that made his heart burn with longing. Eric caressed his face and kissed him again. He couldn't think of anything to say. He wanted this to be real. It likely wasn't. He was going to die tomorrow, he was almost certain. For this moment though, Eric chose to pretend this was what he wished it was. Linwood got off of him and cleaned up everything. They lay together in silence, Linwood resting in Eric's arms. Eric held him close, contemplating what tomorrow would bring and wishing he could say the words he felt without fear of what they would lead to. Before he fell asleep, something caught his attention on the balcony. Two red eyes staring in. He presumed he was already dreaming and thought nothing of it. In the morning, he was alone. His clothes were neatly folded at the foot of the bed. Eric lay there for a while, thinking on the previous night. He committed an offense punishable by death. Once he left that room, anyone could be waiting for him. Linwood opened the door. "Are you still in bed?" "I just woke up. I'll get dressed, sir." Eric sat up. 'This is it. I die today.' "You don't have to do that. We can eat breakfast in here." Linwood brought a tray of food over to him. "Oh, thank you, Manager." Eric continued the formal act. "Enough with that. Call me Alex." Linwood got on the bed with him. He hugged him. "Did you enjoy yourself last night?" "Yes." "Did you remember anything?" Linwood asked. "Yeah. I think we were dating at some point." Eric admitted. "Really? I knew it!" Linwood grinned. "I don't know if it worked out or not." "Felt like it could work out last night." Linwood lay back on the bed. "What do you think?" "What if we get caught?" "We'll be fine. Just don't do anything reckless." He waved dismissively at him. "But the rules..." "They don't apply to someone in my position, and if you're with me, they don't apply to you either." Linwood pointed to the box. "You saw me buy that box a while ago. That was before Felicia informed me about your 'inappropriate urges' for me. This isn't a trap. I'm allowed to have those." "But why is it different? What's the point of the rules if they don't apply to everyone?" Eric asked. "While the previous project director would never approve of this, let's just say the person that took over once all this was set into motion can't resist temptation either. Those at the top justify their actions by saying they already do far more than everyone else, so it's fine if they slip up or don't follow all the rules." Linwood shrugged. "Sir, what do..." "I told you, call me Alex." He corrected Eric. "Alex." Saying the name sent a shiver through Eric. As soon as it left his mouth, it felt as if no other word was right to say. "What do you mean by set into motion?" Alex laughed. "I have a lot of explaining to do."
II. Secrets in the Field