To Learn or to Burn

I wrote this tidy little thrill ride for the New York City Midnight Flash Fiction contest. I’ll tell you in the comments the prompt I received from them that inspired it, but I DO recommend reading the story BEFORE you check that out. Enjoy!

Dr. Zella winced under the weight of the crumpling security guard. I’m so sorry, she thought. She didn’t dare voice the words. Even though the cocktail she’d injected would wipe his short term memory, she couldn’t risk leaving a voice imprint. She knew some people here had ways of digging after such things.

She pulled the guard behind the tall bushes. If she was right about the placement of the security cameras, nothing would show on the facility video feeds. Unclipping the key card from his waist, she straightened up and started toward the large dome-covered running track.

Though she willed herself not to, her eyes betrayed her, stealing a glance up at the forbidding concrete wall rising behind the fitness complex. It stood 20 feet tall with a reel of razor wire at least three feet in diameter coiled along the top. She’d heard the wire was electrified. While she knew almost nothing about what lay beyond, she felt acutely aware on this quiet cold evening of the fact that the wall’s primary function was not to keep people out.

She forced her focus onto the building in front of her. She knew the dome enclosing the track to be gray-green in color, though in the dim light, she could see only its oblong silhouette. Vainly she tried to picture its sunlit appearance, how its strange shape, drab hue and bright red entry conjured the image of a giant olive slightly sunken into the ground. Her jittered mind refused all such levity.

Dr. Zella used her phone to light the lock and swiped the security guard’s keycard. Feeling a sudden and unaccountable flash of terror, she pulled desperately at the handle. A whir, a click and she stumbled inside the dome. Blinding darkness greeted her, and she had to forcefully shove down the rising panic. She turned her phone toward the wall in search of light switches.

Upon finding the panel, she began testing them one at a time. Illuminating various parts of the track for a half-second each, she confirmed she was indeed alone. Eventually she settled for a switch that dimly lit the area right around the entry. While she didn’t like being unable to see the far end of the track, she reasoned there was only one way in and out. Dr. Garta would probably knock on the door to avoid having to use his keycard. That way, neither of their names would register in the security system as having visited “the olive” this evening.

He would be coming from the other side of the ominous concrete wall. The thought sent a fresh shot of adrenaline to Dr. Zella’s raw nerves. She knew Dr. Garta only by reputation, but the tone of his cryptic summons, the story one of her colleagues had murmured to her after too many glasses of wine…. she’d known better than to dodge his request.

She stared at the door, trying to clear her mind. How late would he be? Seconds later, a tap on her shoulder summoned an unquenchable scream. Someone shoved a hand forcefully over her mouth. She felt herself pulled into a restraining hold and spun around. Seeing Dr. Garta’s face, she let her body relax and forced back tears of relief. But how had he gotten inside?

“I know you’re wondering how I got in,” he said. “Believe me, you’re happier not knowing, and either way I’m not telling you.”

Dr. Zella had no idea how to reply. He looked older than he’d appeared in the online images. Did that have to do with his work behind the wall?

“I’ll spare you as many details as I can,” Dr. Garta continued. “Did you bring it?”

Dr. Zella nodded, still unable to find her voice. She reached in her pocket and procured the small vial and thumb drive. A look of greed reshaped Dr. Garta’s face as she placed the items in his hand.

“Thank you, Dr. Zella,” he said. “You’ll be happiest if you go ahead and show yourself out. You could even deposit that dear fellow whose key card you borrowed back at his post.”

Dr. Zella realized she was shaking her head as the words escaped her. “What do you need my formula for?”

Dr. Garta’s eyes darkened as if he were literally retreating back into a closed part of his mind. “You don’t want to know, Dr. Zella.” After a pause he asked, “Is it true, does it really help them learn?”

“In small doses,” Dr. Zella confirmed, thinking of her double blind rat studies, the undeniable enhancements to both time and accuracy.

“But a little goes a long way,” she added quickly, wincing at the memory of the rat with the gray spot behind its neck. A terrible thought entered her mind. “Hey, who wants my formula? Is it you or someone else?”

Dr. Garta looked up at her. His hand closed around the small items. “Your part in this, Dr. Zella, is over.”

His tone sent the coldest freeze of the evening down Dr. Zella’s spine. Still, she held herself steady. “Who wants my formula?” she asked again, and then before he could answer, “How did you get in here tonight?”

“So many questions!” He stepped toward her. She stumbled backward. “As I said before, you’re happier not knowing. The sooner you can put tonight out of your mind, the better.”

“Why?” Dr. Zella countered, but the look that came into Dr. Garta’s eyes closed her throat. She gasped as he pinned her between himself and the metal door frame.

“It’s time for you to go,” he said, his eyes looking utterly inhuman. “Go back to your innocent little rat racing and forget about tonight.”

Dr. Zella sensed the enormity of her error. How could she have been so trusting? And the awful memory ricocheted into her mind again, the rat with the gray spot behind its neck, its eyes locked on the target on the other side of the flames. She stared up at Dr. Garta. How like that rat he looked now!

As soon as he released her, she fled out the door. She ran, looking wildly over her shoulder almost every other step, but no one emerged from the dome. Neither sound nor shadow betrayed anyone inside.

Too shaken to guard against it, her mind replayed for her in horrific detail the image of the rat with the gray spot, the one given a meager two and a half times the optimum dose of her serum. In her memory, it hurtled itself toward the fire that separated it from its target. She could still smell the burning fur, still see its writhing body, still remember how its eyes never left the target, even as it gasped for its last breath amidst the flames.