This short story was inspired by a writing prompt: “Say cheese!” You push the camera button, hear the click, and… that’s when all hell broke loose.
I woke up on the floor of a 20x20-foot room, surrounded by twenty-three guests from my cousin Mike’s wedding. They were losing it. Screaming, pounding on the walls, crying and praying and feeding on the panic of everyone else. I was apparently late to the party.
I had no idea how long we’d been here, but one look around told me they were quite justified in their panic. The room was like none I had ever seen. It was a featureless white box: there were no doors, no windows, no furniture. Every surface was luminescent, and there were no light fixtures.
Sara, the once-radiant bride, lay on the floor a few feet from me, gasping like a fish out of water, her new wedding dress wrapped around her like a cocoon. I started to reach out to her, but a human silhouette appeared over me before my hand reached her. “Thank God you’re alright,” Jamie said. “I was starting to worry you’d never wake up.”
Jamie was, by my estimation, my best friend. “Yeah,” I said, placing a hand on my aching head. “I’m starting to wish I hadn’t.” I paused for a moment, trying — and failing — to hide the pain. I had never had a concussion, but this sure felt like one. “How long have we been here?”
“Everyone’s phones and watches died before we came to.” He handed me his watch. The dials had stopped at 12:23; which day, month, and year were not specified. “It feels like we’ve been awake for about two hours, but I… I’m not sure.”
Nowhere to run, nothing to do but stare at the walls and go insane. How did we get here? If the room had no entrances, then whoever did this must have sealed off the openings after we were inserted; but I could see no sign of any alterations. As Jamie left my side, I looked around at every square inch of the room, but could find no seams in the glowing material. It was like the structure had been assembled on a molecular level.
They quieted down, gradually, and after what seemed like another hour the room was almost silent. Mike and Sara were sitting together against a wall, trying to comfort one another with whispered promises. Next to them, a group of older folks sat discussing why the government had brought us here. Three teenagers were playing cards on the other side of the room. They kept their game remarkably quiet; under the casual facade, it was obvious they were scared shitless.
Then the room began to change. The shape of it was changing, and the color. The corners disappeared as the walls curved outward, turning a deep, near-asphalt gray. The silence erupted into a shocked uproar as we began to slide toward the new low point of the room, which in a matter of seconds had transformed itself into a dark sphere, with a single source of light at the top. A skylight.
Everyone, myself included, was back on their feet and scrambling to the walls, trying to climb to the opening. There were no pores in the sphere’s inner surface, and our hands and bodies invariably slipped down before we achieved a vertical orientation. The atmosphere, which a minute ago had held a newfound determination and excitement, now became increasingly hopeless.
The room changed again, more subtly this time: the structure’s surface became uneven, developed pores and divots, so that it looked less like seamless obsidian and more like rock from the weathered side of a mountain. Was the room adapting to facilitate our escape?
A hush had come down over the prisoners with the most recent change. The majority had given up and were standing in the middle of the floor, and those on the walls joined them when they felt the texture begin to shift under their fingers. Everyone stood still now, for the first time since my awakening, gazing around and wondering what the grand plan was for their being here. “There has to be a plan,” I heard someone mutter ferociously. “Some demented fucker is doing experiments on us, I’m sure of it. Are we pleasing them?”
Old Mr. Mahan spoke up. “We should send up one person. The best climber among us; they’ll be the most likely to make it. They can figure out what’s outside, and find a rope to send down for the rest of us.”
Most of us nodded our assent. I voiced the next logical question: “So, who’s the best climber?”
Mike raised his hand, slowly, as if waiting for someone else to do so. No one did. He was a logical choice: he had won rock climbing tournaments in college, and he’d been climbing mountains for most of his life. Mr. Mahan, who seemed at this point to have taken on the position of group leader, spoke up again. “Very well,” he said, “Michael, will you make the climb?”
Mike nodded, and approached the wall. He took off his shoes and socks, ran both hands over the surface until he found two decent handholds, and spent a long moment gazing up the wall, looking for a path. Then he took off.
He chose his path carefully, hugging the wall to preserve his arm strength while planning his next move. He was hanging from the ceiling now, just a few feet from the skylight. Three, two, one. Sara squealed with anticipation as he reached through and grasped the outer surface of the sphere.
The room vanished.
We were floating in black space now. No gravity, no surfaces to cling to; but we could breathe, and see the others despite the absence of an apparent light source. Everyone remained in exactly the same position they had been in before, Mike hanging almost twenty feet from the rest of us in the direction which would previously have been defined as “up.” There was no ambient sound. One of the teenage girls screamed. No reverberation, no echo; the darkness swallowed the sound like a black hole swallows light. And again there was silence.
I decided to try and lighten the mood a bit. That was my M.O.: I was the funny guy. I generally didn’t speak unless I had something humorous to say. So, as loudly and innocently as possible, I again asked the question on everyone’s mind. “How did we get here?”
A few people laughed. A good start.
Jamie spoke up. He was a real science-minded guy — back in the white room he had spent most of the time sitting in a corner, probably trying to figure out every possible answer to the question I’d just asked. “Teleportation maybe?” He threw the idea out there as if waiting for someone to shoot it down, but at this point anything seemed possible. “I mean, that first structure we were in didn’t have any openings or seams…”
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
“-So apart from the question of how they built that thing in the first place, they must have either built it around us or teleported us in.”
He was warming up to the topic; though nowhere in sight, I imagined he must be gesticulating wildly. Another voice broke in, shy and shaky — Monica, my seventeen-year-old niece. “Well, yeah, but if they can teleport things, that calls into question whether they’re even human. Have we ever been able to teleport anything?”
“Nothing bigger than an atom,” Jamie replied. “And we need a particle accelerator the size of New York City even to do that, as far as we know.”
“Plus,” I added, “we have to consider what has happened since we’ve been here. The room had luminescent walls, then changed shape, then vanished altogether-”
“And the gravity went out,” Mike pitched in from his distant vantage point. “Can’t forget that.”
I sighed. We weren’t making a lot of headway here. If everything we had postulated was true, then we were almost certainly dealing with a nonhuman species — something I never thought I’d find myself considering. In that case, how could we possibly hope to escape? And why would they choose us, over everyone else on the planet?
Anyway, I had failed to lighten the mood.
“Alright,” Monica said, a little steadier now. “Why don’t we try looking a little further back. What was everyone doing just before we got knocked out?”
Mr. Mahan, evidently just coming out of shock, re-entered the conversation. “Good question, Monica.” He had apparently decided it was best to get the leadership role away from the stand-up comic before the situation devolved back into chaos. I couldn’t agree more. “Why don’t we start from… that side of the group.”
Quite some time later, after hearing the testimonials of some twelve people, things were beginning to look hopeless once again. Not one of them had been doing anything that seemed meaningful or important. One had been halfway through drinking an entire bottle of wine, straight from the bottle; another had been taking a piss behind a bush, and woken up with his trousers undone; the list goes on. I started to wonder if we were wasting our time going over entirely extraneous information. Then it came my turn to answer.
“I was taking group pictures,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” said someone — I can’t remember who. “You brought that old disposable camera, didn’t you?”
I nodded, not sure if they could see the gesture. “My parents asked me to bring it so they could have some vintage-looking pictures, and I ended up replacing the hired photographer.” Another chuckle from the group; maybe bringing that stupid, outdated camera had been a good idea after all, if only to get a laugh now. “Anyway, I was getting ready to take the last shot in the camera, and the last thing I remember was — oh, shit.”
How the hell had I forgotten that? I scrambled around desperately in search of the camera, digging through my pockets with a voracity I had seldom displayed before. It was gone.
“The last thing I remember was pressing down on the capture button and seeing a blinding flash of white light.”
Our ears were assaulted with the loudest sound I had ever heard. I craned my neck around in the direction it came from to see a giant thing had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, behind Mike.
“Oh my God.” A voice from behind me. Jamie’s. “It’s a Romulan Warbird.”
Jamie repeated himself at the request of several people. “From Star Trek. It’s a Romulan Warbird!”
“Jamie, for Christ’s sake, this is not the time to be making science fiction jokes!”
“I am not joking, Chad! I have seen every episode of TNG three times, and THAT IS A ROMULAN SHIP!”
It was definitely a space ship. Vaguely phallic, with a blunt, bullet-like nose and green highlights along the fuselage and ellipsoid wings. It was moving fast, the sound of its engines growing louder and louder with reduced proximity. “It’s powering up its phasers!” Jamie was yelling now, and I craned around to see he was pointing at the ship’s nose, on which a glowing point of light had formed and was growing brighter by the second. Jamie, along with several others, tried to get out of the way by throwing his body weight around, but only ended up spinning around in circles and bumping into people. I looked back at the ship. It was almost upon us now — almost upon Mike.
“MIKE!” I screamed. “You’ve got to get away from that thing!”
It opened fire. Green beams of light streaked across the black, narrowly missing several of my friends. It was at this point that I, too, decided to move.
I had just swung my arms around, throwing myself to one side in a lazy spin, when the beam hit Mike. One instant he was there, trying to swim through space, as though this were possible — and the next moment he had vanished.
Oh Lord, I prayed, please let this be a dream.
The ship had passed us, and we heard another great WHOOM as it went back to warp speed. Evidently one of us had been enough.
We were drifting apart now, carried in different directions by desperate momentum. We would soon have reached such a remote distance as to be completely isolated, if we had not suddenly been transported back to the blank white room.
We held a memorial service that night for Mike. A few of us spoke about the man and the glories of his short life, and Sara cried and wailed until most of the guests joined her. When the mourning song had died down a bit, I shared my idea.
“It occurred to me while we were out in space that this might all be in our heads. Who- or whatever has captured us might have hacked into our minds in order to run psychological experiments on us. We might just be sitting in chairs right now with wires hooked up to our heads, imagining all of this.”
Mr. Mahan reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. His voice was quiet. “Son, I’m sure Sara appreciates you trying to give her hope about Michael, but sooner or later we’re going to have to face the fact that he’s gone-”
“No,” I interrupted, rather more loudly than anticipated. “I’m serious. How else can we explain the structures we’ve been in, the teleportation, the Romulan Warbird, for God’s sake? You can’t possibly think that Romulans, as imagined by whoever the hell created Star Trek-”
“Yes, thank you, Jamie. You can’t possibly think that Roddenberry’s Romulans exist in real life. They only exist on TV, and in the minds of the people who watch the show. Which means that either they recreated that thing from the television appearances it’s made, or they took it straight from the mind of Jamie, who for some reason is more scared of the Romulans than the Borg.”
Everyone but Jamie was staring at me blankly — but Jamie was nodding, bobbing at my shoulder. He would back me up till the end. I continued, undeterred: “If we find my camera, maybe we can find what they used to put us to sleep. If memory serves, every single person here was outside, somewhere around that camera, when it went off. Quite a few of you were posing right in front of it. And I, the last one to wake up, was holding it up to my face. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we went under at the same moment I pressed the button.”
But the camera was nowhere to be found. The only possession to go missing through this whole ordeal, and the most important. Without that camera, and whatever was inside it, it seemed no one would believe what I was saying. No one but Jamie.
“We should get some sleep,” Mahan said, as Sara started to sob again. “I’m sure most of us are exhausted. We’ll wake up rested in the morning, and look at this problem from a new angle.”
“How are we supposed to know when it’s morning?” I muttered hopelessly, so quietly only Jamie could hear. “And how do we get to sleep when we’re already dreaming?”
I woke up in a gray paradise. It would have been beautiful, were everything not faded; it was as if the world had turned down its own color saturation control and proceeded to die. The disposable camera lay in weather-worn pieces by my head, and before me stood the remains of an altar. The wedding altar.
A voice from behind me. “So you’re the one that made it. I have to admit, I’m pleasantly surprised. I didn’t expect it to be you.” I recognized that voice.
It continued: “I suppose some explanation is necessary. One hundred and fifty years have passed since you and the other guests were knocked out by the flash-bang we placed in your camera. We kept you all in suspended animation for a while until one of you could correctly explain your situation, then terminated the others. This was done to groups of varying sizes all over the world, resulting in the elimination of a full eighty percent of the global population. Only the best, the smartest, remain alive.”
I tried to suppress the shock, the anger. Didn’t succeed. “Kind of unfair to kill Mike early, wasn’t it?”
“You and I both know he wouldn’t have figured it out. Valiant as he was, he had a weak mind. Besides,” he said, “it was necessary to simulate the death of a group member to galvanize the others into action. If you had not solved the puzzle so soon, more would have died until the entire group was gone, at which point the simulation would have reset. As it is, we ran your group’s program seven times before you figured it out; that’s why it took so long.”
I rose, slowly, to my feet. Shaking. Still facing away from my captor, I asked, “and what, exactly, is the benefit of torturing and killing most of the world?”
“Why, increased quality of life, of course.” He sounded so sincere, like a cult member. “There are so many more resources at each person’s disposal now; you wouldn’t believe how wealthy a man you have become, just by living to see this day. Besides,” he added, “with that many people, the world would have festered and decayed until it could no longer support life. I’m sure you had similar thoughts; most everyone did.”
I turned around. “You never did tell me: why exactly are you more afraid of the Romulans than the Borg?”
Jamie smiled. “Welcome to the new world, my friend.”
Sean Jannay is an aspiring author and musician from Northern California.
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