Amateur writer. On the path of the phrase that says "practice makes perfect." Avid consumer of books that make me think, make me feel.
The moon illuminated the soft, fine sand like a glow worm would light a gloomy cave. A cool breeze of air swirled around, tickling my neck, and a blanket of peace enveloped me.
We were again split into groups—because the sectors were in three different directions. We had made sure we had all the supplies needed before we headed to our different destinations—paint, all different shapes and sizes of paintbrushes, sleeping bags, and of course, food.
I walked alongside Antoine after having said goodbye to the others and agreed to meet again at the same place tomorrow, by sunset.
The two-kilometer-long hike felt empowering, and time flew by. Antoine and I talked all the while, never getting bored and always finding a new topic to address. We’d gone from arguing about which of the four seasons is the best, to trying to estimate the number of stars we could see, to discussing our hopes and dreams.
It was such a peaceful night—I slept like a child.
I woke up to the sound of Antoine, humming a song as he poked around the painting material, seemingly ready to get his job done.
I walked up to him silently.
“Look at you, you’re actually not a horrible singer,” I teased.
“I’m not even trying to sound good,” he answered with a smirk.
“Are we starting to paint right away?”
“Well, I thought it’d be better if we’d just get the painting out of the way so that we can enjoy the rest of the day out here,” he said, gazing at the pure sky and the lively waves.
“Sounds good to me,” I replied. I opened my mouth to say something but hesitated. I paused, then decided to say what I had on my mind anyway: “Doesn’t it feel weird that this might be our last day here?”
“It does. I was just going to bring that up…” He turned away from the painting supplies to face me. “I have no idea why we were sent here, but I’m glad it happened. I’m glad I met you.” His words were soaked in the sweet, satisfying syrup of sincerity.
“I’m glad I met you, too,” I said, reaching out for his hand. He took my hand happily, pressing his palms onto mine. After he’d let go, I decided it was time to get to work. “Shall we?” I asked.
“We shall,” he replied with a smile.
Who knew that painting could make you sweat so much? It was a chilly day despite the bright sun, and somehow I was sweating furiously after I’d finished my painting. A giant brain. I peeked over to the other side of the famous black line at Antoine’s artwork. He was done, too, and it was only noon. Our eyes met and he smiled, walking over to me.
“Nice brain,” he commented.
“Do you mean the painting, or my actual brain?” I asked jokingly.
“I was talking about the painting,” he said, trying to sound as serious and convincing as he could. I didn’t even answer, I just laughed aloud.
“Do you want to grab something to eat?” he suggested. “We haven’t had breakfast, and I’m starving.”
“Same here,” I agreed, walking over to the bag we had packed the previous night. I reached for some sandwiches and handed one to him. We both ate in silence and relaxed on the humid sand of the beach.
Exactly four hours later, the five of us were sitting in a circle telling each other how our day had been, when a loud thump filled the air. It sounded like a gunshot, or fireworks—I had absolutely no clue what happening. I blinked, the last thing I saw being my friends sitting around me.
A few milliseconds later, my friends were still there, except for one tiny difference.
We weren’t on the island anymore.
I wasn’t the only one to put on a puzzled expression—we were all flummoxed. Despite our bewilderment, we stood up and started walking around our new environment. It was a building (again), but it seemed more like a research laboratory than our shelter back on the island. Our footsteps uttered shrill metallic thumps as we headed towards a room shining with blue lights that made everything look dull and gloomy. As we stepped inside, the only thing I could notice was the heavy machinery all around the room, and I felt as if I were inside a science fiction novel. Out of nowhere, a metallic door shut with a click, and as if its closing were a signal, the machines all came to life, whirring and clanking at once. Five silhouettes stood by the door. They came closer. Women. They came closer. One of them was my mother.
I stared so widely I thought my eyes would roll out of their sockets. Somehow, with the corner of my eyes, I saw my friends in the same shocked state: it seemed like they’d recognized their mothers as well.
Thankfully, it was the moms who started talking—we were too shocked to pronounce a word, and even Antoine hadn’t tried speaking.
“We knew you’d make it,” my mom said dryly.
Suddenly, Antoine had snapped out of that engulfing bubble of confusion.
“Wait, you were behind all of this?” he snapped.
“Yes” she said with conviction, “but you’ll understand shortly all the reasons behind our actions.”
“Well, could you start explaining, mom?” I asked. My words were weak and shaky. Her eyes glittered and I thought I’d seen tears forming in them.
“We all work—or at least used to work—as researchers for the same association,” she began, motioning at the other women that stood beside her. “HIRS: High Intelligence Research Society. They were trying to come up with a more efficient way to test the IQ, something more realistic, more engaging, but also more challenging. Though we lived in different countries, the five of us worked in the same research team.” She paused and sighed, as if she was about to get rid of a burden she’d been carrying around for ages. “We are the ones that came up with the whole scenario of the Deep Isles and the riddles… All the things you went through. We created some sort of isolated environment where we could control what happened to you. It was meant to measure your response to the events that you were faced with, and the data we collected out of that would be used to determine the IQ. It was supposed to be harmless, but obviously, it wasn’t—the whole setup caused trauma to both Syb and Louise and temporary memory loss to John.” She lowered her gaze in shame. She took a deep breath and kept going: “Still, when we expressed our dissatisfaction, the company didn’t permit us to withdraw the idea and start over. They actually added more components to the original idea, making it not only more challenging, but also…deadly.
“They incorporated the newest forms of technology of the 2030s into the project, using teleportation to send participants to the Isles. The supplies and notes were sent by teleportation as well. They’d decided to use those technologies without testing them, risking the lives of the people taking the IQ test.
“We all threatened to quit if the association didn’t take the necessary safety measures and start to behave ethically. They seemed understanding and suggested we first try the test on a group of ‘volunteers,’ after having checked all the machinery involved for safety. There was one thing we did not know at that point: You were the volunteers. They forced us to make you participate. Your memory of the process of sending you to the Isles was erased, that’s what made it all so confusing for you. We couldn’t prevent what happened.
“What you don’t know is that you actually haven’t fully completed the IQ test. The ‘deadly’ components I mentioned earlier were cancelled in the last minute. By us. What was actually meant to happen was that after you’d painted the different body parts and solved the riddle, nothing would happen. That you’d be left on the island with no notes from us until the spring tides would hit and the island would be drowned. They claimed that this factor was meant to measure your brain’s ‘ability to respond to unexpected events’ and your ‘reaction to cognitive dissonance.’ It had drifted from a test measuring IQ to an investigation about how long you could survive.” She huffed angrily, emphasizing on the absurdity of it all.
We’d been silent all along, but again, Antoine intervened: “So, what was supposed to happen after that?”
“We don’t know. You see, they were so careless they didn’t even bother finishing the project before putting it into practice…”
“And how did you stop that from happening? How did you get us here? Where are we, anyway?” It was Eddy, always full of questions.
“Emily, here,” my mom said, pointing at Louise and Syb’s mother, “knew the man who had designed their computer laboratories and set them up. We just needed his knowledge to be able to deactivate their system—the one that controlled what happened on the Isles. Obviously it was only temporary, because they were smart enough to restore everything, but it was enough time for us to get you out of there.
“You see, Andy Duncan, the man who designed the labs, helped us set a plan to save you. He was at HIRS’ headquarters in Iceland when we deactivated the system, and he teleported you guys to here, where we were waiting for you. We’re in Geneva, by the way, in small research center that we rented for a couple of days.” She paused, as if to wait for all the stormy information to sink into our bewildered brains.
No one spoke. No one dared to break the silence that weighed the room down. Except John, of course. He was always the exception.
“So… You basically saved us from… an unknown fate? Possibly death somewhere along the line?” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes. We did. We couldn’t afford leaving you under their control, and the whole project just turned into an atrocity anyway. They were treating you like lab rats, basically. And—” Her voice came to an abrupt stop, and I realized that she was trying to fight tears. “We’re sorry you went through that. We’re the ones who started it all.”
“Mom, don’t worry about what happened,” I said comfortingly. “The important thing is that you saved us. Thank you.” I walked over to hug her for the first time since she’d appeared in the room.
It made sense now. The thing we had in common was that we were all victims of the HIRS’ barbaric ambitions.
I turned to ask the only question that had been bugging me all along: “Why didn’t anyone support your effort to stop HIRS? Aren’t their actions illegal?”
She raised her soft eyes to look at me. “Honey, today in 2043, the major corporations are what rule the world. And HIRS is part of them. There are no governments, no rules, no laws.”
I couldn’t find an answer to that.
Look at what happens when HIRS rules the world, I thought. I decided to change what the letters stood for. To me, HIRS didn’t stand for ‘High Intelligence Research Society’ anymore, it stood for ‘Hope, Instinct, Reassurance, Support.’ Words that reminded me of my family and friends.
Antoine spoke up again: “So, what do we do now?”
“Go back home, I guess,” my mom said. “In case you haven’t noticed, you guys are about to start your first year in university,” she reminded us.
It hit me. The last thing I remembered before waking up on the Deep Isles was my graduation day.
Another thing hit me, along with a pang of devastating pain. The six of us would have to part ways.
I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They had been with me every day. They were part of me now. They were part of my family. And now I was forced to leave them behind. I couldn’t fight the tears. They rushed out of my eyes, and I couldn’t stop them.
A moment later, Syb and Louise were hugging me, and I clung to them with all my strength. I stared at their pure eyes. They were my guardian angels. They were sisters to me. And they were gone.
John came to me with a tender smile across his face, wiping a tear from my cheek with a gentle gesture. He put an arm across my shoulders, and then looked into my eyes. “Take care of yourself,” he said, holding me tighter. “I wish I’d known you for longer, Abby. You’re one of the most amazing people I’ve met.”
“I’ll miss you so much” was all I could mumble.
“Me, too,” he said. He lifted his arm, smiled at me once more, and turned to leave.
The tears, which had stopped for a while, came pouring back. Eddy approached silently. He sat beside me, putting his hand on my knee. I looked at him, and he told me: “Abby, you meet people for a reason and a season. And I guess our season is over. But it doesn’t mean we won’t see each other again. You learn from every person you meet, and I have learned so much from you.” He paused. “It’s hard to let go of someone like you, but you have a bright future ahead. Just keep being the incredible girl I know.” His words of wisdom made my heart bleed and my eyes leak.
“You’re unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say…” I couldn’t express the thoughts that ran through my mind. Every word he said continued to show what a great guy he was, and I wished I could spend more time to learn from his wisdom. He hugged me and left the room.
Antoine and I were the only ones left. We both knew it was time to say goodbye, but neither of us wanted to say it aloud. We just sat silently side by side until Antoine turned to face me directly. "Well," he began, looking into my eyes as if the right words might appear in them. He took my hands into his, and once again, his warmth slowly heated my cold fingers. "You don't need me to tell you that you've been an amazing friend. You already know how I feel about you." He paused, not sure of what to say. I opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out. I was speechless.
"You're my best friend, you know that?" He questioned.
"Really?" His words warmed my heart, and this is all I could say. I hated myself at that instant.
He laughed softly. "I thought I'd already told you."
"You're mine, too" The smile that grew on his face was something I knew I would never forget. I stared in his pure brown eyes and felt tears forming in my own. I fought as hard as possible to keep them from drizzling across my cheeks and ruining the moment. He pulled me into a hug that made me feel like I was at home. I wanted it to be everlasting, but it wasn't. When we pulled apart I squeezed his hands tightly. We hugged once more, for the last time.
"I'll see you again," he said. It was a statement, not a question. A promise. "You live in my home country, remember?"
"Yeah. I can't wait." My words were barely audible. I paused. "Thank you. For everything."
He smiled, and then walked away, not looking back. I didn't cry, too busy processing how unbelievable it was that he was gone. I wondered whether the gap he'd left inside me would ever be filled again. It didn't seem possible.
They were gone, and had taken parts of me with them.
I was scattered all over the world.
I closed my eyes.
It was the worst day ever, because I'd left my friends.
It was the best day ever, because I knew I had such friends.
© 2017 H Bakerley