Not A Stranger In Paradise
Copyright 4/5/2014 by Raymond Daley
The dream felt very real, but then again they quite often do.
The whole feeling of being taken away, quite roughly too, off to a secret Government Establishment to be tested for initiative and persistence. Dreams are fine. It’s the whole waking up back into a cold reality that’s the worst part.
There’s nothing like waking up in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by complete strangers, not knowing why you’re there.
I opened my eyes slowly.
“Sir, he’s waking up!” I heard a man’s voice close by my head calling out to someone, he sounded vaguely familiar.
My vision started to return. I could make out the wall but it was so big that it was impossible not to see it, looming off into the distance, covering two sides of the perimeter. It stretched away in both directions as far as the eye could see, it also went up and vanished out of sight. Who knows how high it was?
At that moment I thought I did. I’m not really sure why though.
As I tried to stand, a man in a blue uniform offered me his hand. “Here sir, let me help you.” I recognised the uniform, US Air Force. By the markings on his arm he was a Technical Sergeant, the name badge on his chest read Green.
“Thank you Sergeant Green,” I said.
“You remember me sir?” he asked.
“No Sergeant. I can read,” I said. “So who the heck am I?”
“Rank of Captain, sir. Name badge reads Hykerson,” Sergeant Green was helpful there. “If you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t sound very American sir.”
Okay. I don’t know that name, it’s not mine. I’ll have to accept it for the time being though.
“No Sergeant, I don’t. That’s because I’m not. The rank is mine, the uniform is on loan though. And that’s all you need to know for the time being. Understood?” I said.
“Yes sir, not really though sir. Ah, here comes the Colonel now sir,” said Sergeant Green.
The Colonel was instantly familiar, Wilson, that old dog. “I’m Colonel Wilson, welcome back to the land of the living, Captain. We were getting a little worried about you for a while there, didn’t think you were ever going to come round.” Wilson shook my hand, but he clearly didn’t remember me.
I didn’t offer him a salute and he didn’t stand on ceremony, obviously etiquette was out of the window here. Where ever they thought here was.
“So Captain Hykerson, do you know where the hell we are?” Wilson asked.
I looked at him. Things were already clearing themselves up in my mind. I knew things. By my guess they’d already been here at least five hours, they should have started to work some stuff out for themselves by now. I decided to play my cards close to my chest, say nothing yet. “It doesn’t look familiar sir. Is there anyone here you know, or at least recognise?” I asked.
He shook his head. “The whole place is a mystery, Captain. There appear to be several different groups scattered about the place, we’ve spoken to some Brits – they’re all civilians though. The Japanese soldiers were helpful enough but they didn’t know anything more than us. The Chinese soldiers won’t speak to anyone but each other.
The Brits told us there are some Russians in here somewhere too, we’ve not met them yet though. Here appears to be an enclosed space, you can see the wall over there in the distance. That goes as far as anyone can see both left, right and straight up. It’s pointless to try climbing it so we discounted that idea already. There appears to be no way out,” Wilson said.
I smiled at that.
“Captain, why are you smiling?” Wilson asked me.
“Sir, if we got in here, we can get out. Any way in should allow egress also,” I said.
The Colonel nodded. “Possibly Captain. Unless they teleported us here.”
I shook my head. “Unlikely, teleportation is the stuff of science fiction Colonel. If you don’t mind me asking sir, who do you think is “they”?”
He didn’t bother answering, he just shrugged his shoulders. Not what I’d expect from a man of his rank and experience. Not even a guess? At least try to project the pretence of knowledge? Not like most senior officers then.
“Apart from what you’ve just told me, what else do you know?” I asked.
“There are supplies, stuff for camping. Oh, and there’s food too,” Wilson said.
Food. That suddenly registered something else in my mind. Something important.
“Sir, has anyone eaten any of it yet?” I asked.
“Oh yes Captain, most of us. Don’t worry, it’s all quite good,” Wilson said, smiling at the pleasant memory of a recent hot meal.
“So you ate some?” I asked.
“Yes, all but two of our group have eaten. The abstainers were vegetarians and teetotallers. I should have said earlier, there’s only meat and wine,” Wilson said.
Walking with him I was introduced to the rest of the group, they numbered twenty-five in total, not including myself. I saw the table, laden close to bursting with food and bottles of wine. Whoever left this certainly hadn’t intended for us to starve.
“Help yourself to food, Captain,” Wilson offered.
“I’ll pass for the time being sir. After all, it might not be safe to eat. Did you think about that?” I asked. By the look that passed across his face they clearly hadn’t even considered the possibility of that.
Then I saw the statue.
I knew exactly where we were. Where I now was. Yet again.
“Colonel, of the groups you’ve already met, which of them had food like this?” I asked.
“Only the Chinese. They wouldn’t share what they had. We had so much that we shared it with everyone,” Wilson said.
“Colonel, how many of the others have already eaten any of this? Or drunk the wine?” I asked.
“Almost everyone Captain. Is there something wrong with the food? I’d rather know than be left in the dark,” Wilson said.
“Not wrong as such sir. I need to see everyone who hasn’t eaten, bring them back here, ideally as soon as possible. Can that be arranged?” I asked.
It could be, and it was. Colonel Wilson sent runners off to bring back the other groups that were willing to meet us. Apart from the runners, only twelve people returned. That took a little longer than an hour for them to reach us. I led the group off some distance away from the others, I didn’t want to alarm them or have them overhear us either.
“So none of you have eaten or drunk anything since you woke up here?” I asked them.
Then Colonel Wilson came over, clearly eager to be involved. “What’s the plan Captain, are we going to escape?” he asked me.
“No sir, I just needed to speak to those who hadn’t eaten anything yet,” I looked at him. “in private please sir?”
He got my gist and walked back to the table.
“Okay ladies and gentlemen. Ignore my uniform and badge. As you can tell from my accent, I am not an American Air Force Captain. My real name is Ian Phillips and I’m with Canadian Intelligence. And not only do I know exactly where we are, I also know precisely how to get us out. But it can only be the thirteen of us right here. I’ve been here once before, and I successfully escaped. That was about nine years ago.
There’s something in the food, some kind of chemical inhibitor. It makes those who consume it very passive, they will have no desire other than to stay exactly where they are. Even to the point of hindering others from leaving here. That’s why we can’t eat anything we see. But don’t worry. We aren’t that far away from food we can eat. I assume everyone in the group does want to get out of here?” I asked.
Everyone in the group nodded.
“Okay folks, follow me.” I said.
The marble statue was about a mile away, it took us a little over twenty minutes to reach it at a gentle walk. I looked around the plinth and found the recess just under the right foot. I reached my hand inside and found the lever, which I pulled.
One of the British civilians, a man called Perkins came forward. “Is something wrong Mister Phillips?” he asked.
“Yes. That should have triggered a door over there in front of the statue. Last time the wall opened, we got out that way,” I said.
“Mister Phillips. There are many statues exactly like that all over the compound,” Perkins said, shaking his head.
I reached down into the ground and picked up a handful of mud.
“What are you doing?” Perkins asked me.
As I smeared the mud over the chest of the statue I explained, “Marking this statue. If they all look the same we’ll need to know which ones we’ve already tried. This is the quickest way to do that. Now, which way to the next closest statue?” I asked him.
Perkins pointed off into the distance.
“Come on then folks. One of these is our way out of here,” I said, and headed off towards the next statue.
Several miles of walking and six more statues later we finally hit the right trigger. A few feet away the wall silently opened, hinging inwards.
“Did someone ask for a way out?” I quipped.
I made sure the rest of the group went through before me, after passing through I discovered the Japanese Major, Kurisawa waiting on the other side. “Are we leaving it open for the others?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “Sorry but no, Major. They all failed the test when they ate the food. Don’t worry, once we get up top they’ll be taken care of,” I said. That was a lie, but one that he needed to be told. The rest would never leave their friends behind otherwise. I pushed the wall and it shut with a click.
We were now in a dark passageway, heading off in only one direction.
“Now what, Mister Phillips?” asked Kurisawa.
“Put both arms out wide, you should feel both walls either side of you. Just keep going forward until we see light. That should be the stairs,” I said.
“Stairs?” asked Kurisawa.
“You didn’t work it out then Major? We’re underground. This is a secret Government Establishment where subjects are tested for initiative and persistence,” I said.
“If it’s so secret, how come you know what it is?” that was the voice of Perkins again.
“As I explained earlier, I’ve been here before. We were aware of the existence of this place, just not the location. I was in charge of the team tasked to discover it when they found me and dumped me inside for testing. It was a clever idea on their part, I just wish that I had anticipated it,” I said.
“So it’s a Government Establishment. Which Government?” asked Kurisawa.
I remained silent.
“Something you won’t tell us Mister Phillips?” asked Perkins.
“Not that I won’t tell you Major, I can’t tell you. Because it’s the one thing we never found out,” I said.
At that moment a call came from the front of the line. “I’ve found some stairs!”
Kurisawa called back, “Where do they go?”
“They go up!” the voice from the front of the line replied.
“See? I told you Major. An underground experiment,” I said. If it hadn’t been dark I’m sure he would have punched me for the smug look on my face.
I’m not sure how long we climbed up for but it started getting lighter as we went up. This wasn’t the same route I’d left nine years ago. That passageway had been lit the whole length, the stairs had been climbed in a little over ten minutes.
We’d been walking long enough to need at least four rest breaks already, well over two hours by my estimate. During the current rest break Kurisawa came over to me for a quiet chat.
“Did it take you this long to get out before, Mister Phillips?” Kurisawa asked me.
“No Major. But this is a different passage way, a different set of steps. You saw down there, the statue I expected to work, it didn’t. I had always guessed there might be other ways out of here. I never got to test that theory before today. All I remember from before is climbing my stairs, reaching the surface and finding fruit trees,” I said.
“And from there?” he asked.
“It was a garden, in the English countryside. I was able to walk until I found a car, they gave me a ride to the nearest city,” I said.
“So how much longer do you suggest we continue to climb before we turn back?” Kurisawa asked.
“We can’t go back Major. Put all ideas of going back completely out of your mind. Once that wall closed, it stays closed until someone works out how to open it again from the inside. And the only people left inside are perfectly happy where they are thanks to the influence of the food that they all ate. There is no back to go to. We continue to go up, until we can’t,” I said.
“You are of course aware that none of us has eaten or drunk anything in at least the last twenty-four hours?” he said.
“Yes Major, fully aware. We can last a few more days before we can’t carry on. I hope we don’t reach that point,” I said.
Fortunately for us, it didn’t come to that. We reached the top of the stairs a little over thirty minutes later. But there was no daylight, no outside. Just a poorly lit square concrete room with two metal doors. One marked “Women Enter Here”, the other read “Men Enter Here”.
Kurisawa gave me a look I’d rather not be on the end of again. “Well Mister Phillips. Now what?”
I looked at him, I was just too tired to put up any kind of offensive front any longer. “Why don’t we just follow the instructions?” I suggested.
Of our party, only two were female. They didn’t look overjoyed at the idea of being separated from the rest of us. One of them piped up, “Mister Phillips, if it’s all the same to you – we came this far together. I’d rather remain with the whole group, where I feel safer.” She was another Brit, some sort of scientist.
I looked over at our other female party member, “Do you feel the same way?” I asked her.
She just nodded.
“Okay folks, I guess it’s just a matter of which door we choose. Would one of you ladies like to briefly open your door and take a peek inside?” That got me two heads shaking no, very vigorously.
“Listen, the signs don’t say Only Women or Only Men. Maybe we can all just go through one door together?” I suggested.
Kurisawa pushed the Men’s door open. “It’s dark in here,” he said.
I walked over and pushed on the Women’s door. It wouldn’t budge. I looked over at the group. “Ladies? A little help?”
The British Scientist pushed it for me. It opened straight away for her. “Dark in here too,” she said.
“Leave it then, all or nothing I guess,” I said.
We both walked back to the Men’s door and I held it open while everyone went through.
From the darkness inside I heard Kurisawa call out, “How far does this room go Mister Phillips?”
And then I let go of the door.
It clicked shut and I counted ten seconds, nice and slowly. Then I pulled the door again.
As expected, I was greeted by the artificial lights of the Control Room. A man’s voice called out from inside, “Is that you Jonesy?”
“Who else were you expecting, the Tooth Fairy?” I said.
“What happened to the group?” the voice asked.
“They didn’t want to split up at the doors. All of them went through the Men’s door. So I had to shut them down. Are they being redirected?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re hitting them with the sleep gas now. What about the others?” the voice asked.
“They ate the food. And totally believed the implied story that it was tainted, not one person questioned that. I left them there, pointless taking them any further into the test procedure,” I said.
“Your group did pretty well, did they really believe you weren’t familiar with this area?” the voice asked.
“Yep, all of them fell for it hook, line and sinker. I thought Kurisawa might work it out at one point though,” I said.
“So Jonesy, are you ready for the next group? Your new uniform is ironed and waiting,” the voice said.
“Jeez, there’s no rest for the wicked, is there?” I said.
“No Mister Jones, there certainly isn’t,” the voice said.
I shouldn’t complain. They pay better than the so-called “good guys”. I made my choice, to lead these test groups. Now I have to live with it. For how ever much longer I have, that’s anyone’s guess.
Authors Notes:- Initially our 3 named protagonist was with British Intelligence but it didn't sound right in my head to have him referring to the other British citizens as Brits so I changed it. I also added the extra bit where Sergeant Green notices his accent as "not American" after the fact so his explanation was easier later on.
Other than that (and that the original ending was to climb the steps and arrive on a sandy beach, discovering they were on an island only to ask how they got off that where the ending was totally open) this is exactly how the story came out as written.
This was the second story written in week 18 of my Year Of Living Bradbury.
(subbed to Morpheus Tales 10th June 2014, rejected 19th July 2014)