Starting from today, I'll be simultaneously posting Cavalcade of Rejection stories and the Storyteller's Reserve readings of the same. They won't necessarily be the same, as I tend to mix things up when I read these out. I'd like to think that this will come across more as "dynamic" than "unprofessional," but who knows.
You have downloaded your copy of the book, right? Remember, it's free with the coupon code XF44B.
...Right, the story. I wish I had a more interesting backstory for this one, but it's pretty straightforward - I wrote it with Nature: Futures in mind, they didn't want it and neither did a dozen other markets.This one really seems like the kind of story that many flash fiction markets like, but I guess I wasn't fancy enough with my language. Clarity and efficiency aren't always desirable.
As best as I can reckon, the observers that watch me through the glass dividers have yet to discover that I have gained the ability to comprehend their speech. Perhaps I am wrong, and they are discussing my newly-developed capacities when they slip out for a coffee break, speculating on how sapient I've become since the onset of their experiment. When they are in my presence, though, they still speak freely about their findings and casually about their lives and interests and I am just part of the protocol, live specimen #08, more a piece of laboratory equipment than a thinking being. They'll certainly discover their oversight eventually, a year or so from now, when they have pickled slices of my brain prepared for a chemical analysis. I accept this fate; I have no yearning to escape. My only regret is that these ears will never hear what the observers discovered in the tangle of neurons, for I have become just as invested in the fate of my fellows as those observers who hope that we will one day save their lives.
There is little I truly understand about the world - insofar as there is a world outside of this facility - but I know with certainty that I am graced with luck, at least as far as the laboratory specimens are concerned. None of the observers expected that the retrovirus would have this effect of my mind, not when they proposed this experiment and certainly not when the first of the data came in. This was meant to be a critical but ultimately anodyne experiment, and then it took an altogether unexpected turn. #22 was the first to exhibit a change in personality, and the outcome was especially grim. This was before my unexpected awakening, and thus my memories are so much fog, but I can remember the fear, the blood, the noise, the carnage. #16 was his first victim, the poor primate's face nearly chewed off by his maddened attacker before the observers could react. Then #22 turned his bottomless rage on the observers, biting off the forefinger of one, rendering another unconscious with a piece of lab equipment that he sent flying through the air. One of them fetched a shotgun from storage and put and end to #22's rampage, sadly too late to pull #16's mangled body from his clutches. These were the first casualties of the experiment, and wholly unexpected ones.
The observers wasted no time in dissecting #22's brain. They seemed not to be disturbed by the outburst of violence or the maiming of their colleagues, but some were nearly brought to tears when the results of their analysis were inconclusive. "Inconclusive" - the first of the observers' words that I could fully understand. It meant that they had learned nothing from their research, that the bloody rampage of #22 and his execution had taught them nothing about a phenomenon that they clearly feared. I didn't understand that fear at the time, as I couldn't fathom why any creature - let alone creatures as obviously developed as the observers - would willingly spend so much time around something that caused it such fear. With my new gifts of wisdom, I understand. They seek knowledge to overcome their dread, and to achieve that they must enter the abattoir with the rest of us. They are brave, these observers, or perhaps the fear over the experiment simply overwhelms whatever looming terror awaits outside.
None of the subjects reacted to the retrovirus with as much brutality as #22, but each of us was changed by our exposure to this tiny entity. #04 changed first, withdrawing into the corner of his cage and clawing feebly and fitfully at the observers and the specimens and whatever horror dwelt solely within his mind. #12 became wracked with strange fits in which she jumped in place and flipped over, playful and joyous, but with a visage of shock that made me think that this play was not her own choice. And as to #20, her transformation was especially strange - she was content to sit in the middle of her cage, her nimble hands grooming and feeding a newborn who wasn’t there, who had never been there at all, but who was utterly concrete to #20.. That was the fate of most of the subjects - we became hostages to an organ that we could no longer control, at least not in full. Perhaps I am no different? Perhaps my intellect is just an illusion presented to me by a damaged, malfunctioning brain?
If this is just a disease-induced fantasy, then my only hope is that it will last long enough for the observers to discover its cause. From my place in the sealed observation area, I can sense their own fear. They've been accelerating the experiment lately, an unwise move according to the more rational among them, but rationality clearly does not rule outside of these walls. They are terrified of something that is clearly growing, and this terror presses them onward. One of them took #09 from her cage and put her down - she had shown some early signs of aggression and they were far too desperate to wait for the full effects to manifest. Yesterday was #25's turn for a trip to the dissection lab, far ahead of even the early symptoms of neurological change. There was a shared look of panic on their faces - the same look I'd seen on #16, or maybe darker still - that told me that the results were still inconclusive.
I’ve heard the observers using new words lately, less clinical than those I heard before and uttered with a hint of panic. “Doomsday” - I hear that one frequently, and though once the observers chided those who used this term, now they treat it with an odd sort of reverence. “Civilizational collapse” - this they utter in the context of their observations, but there is a tension between those words and a hesitance to speak them aloud. Something dire has happened to their world, and soon it will breach these walls, rip them down, and swallow us all. This is why I was granted this gift, and why my brothers and sisters were cursed with madness, and why we are fated to be sacrifices to the understanding of the observers. We were born to perish in the name of logic.
Will I be the next offering? Since my awakening, I have developed a keen awareness of my own limits and a fear of the end. I don’t want to die, not in this place, not on their schedule. However, if my sacrifice leads to a conclusion, then so be it - I will accept my death with grace, if not with joy. This laboratory has become a place of horrors but whatever nightmare lurks in the world beyond the lab, it must be an order of magnitude beyond what these eyes have witnessed. The observers will do what they feel they must and, knowing that the solution to this crisis may well be nestled within my skull, I can only comply. A pity that I won't see the results, though perhaps that's a blessing in the end. It would be a shame to learn that my death was inconclusive, too.