Ted stared at the wall of empty cubbies. They had been his countdown calendar for five hundred days. Each cubby was meant for one day’s worth of food. It was now day 501.
Yesterday, the final food cubby contained an extra box. He celebrated his supposed last day with chocolate cake.
Today, the wall of meals was completely and utterly empty. He hadn’t brought any of his own snacks when he entered the room. The study told him not to. He brought entertainment – video games, a kindle, notebooks to record his experience – but nothing edible.
He walked back to the thick, windowless door. It was still locked, like it had been the past ten times he checked it that morning.
“Hello? I think there’s been a mistake.”
It hurt his throat to speak aloud. Was this another test within the larger study? What would future astronauts do if they were en route to Mars and ran out of food? Ted had done well with the brain teasers and other tests that were sent to him. But to tell him he would be finished and then leave him? That was something else entirely. Something must have gone horribly wrong.
He banged on the door. It echoed hollow through the room.
“Hey! Is anybody out there? I’d like to come out!”
Hadn’t there been a code phrase for if he had a mental breakdown? They would open the door immediately if he said the right thing. Ah, that was it.
“Little green men!”
Ted folded his arms while he thought. He’d been chosen for this study because he could handle extensive time alone. But even he had limits. After a year, he’d been eager for the isolation to end.
Now, he’d kill to get out.
By the evening, looming dread picked at the edges of his mind.
He had been forgotten. Some explorer of the distant future would find his skeletal husk and wonder what Ted had done to be put in such a prison.
He laughed to himself. He could barely remember why he signed up for the study in the first place. It wasn’t money or fame. He never had the noble urge to expand humanity’s knowledge either. It was… a girl. She left him and he needed purpose in his life. Then again, maybe that was a lie he told himself. Maybe he was insane. Maybe everything around him was an illusion. Or he was dead. Or…
His stomach growled.
Dead men didn’t get hungry.
Ted shut off the light, retreated to his cot, and hoped for sleep to distract him.
He was awoken by vibrations a short time later. He rolled over to press his hand to the floor. The room’s hydraulic system was meant to simulate space flight. He breathed a sigh of relief. At least the machines hadn’t left him.
But, they felt different today. Louder, more insistent.
Bright yellow light poured in from a crack on the far wall.
The door was opening.
Bright, yellow light filled the windowless room. Ted raised his hand to shield his eyes from its brightness. He waited anxious moments for someone to enter the room and tell him that the experiment was finally over.
As he waited, he was filled with both great relief and murderous rage. It had been five hundred days since he’d last seen or talked to another person.
It wasn’t what he had signed up for. Not exactly. He wasn’t sure if he was going to hug or strangle whomever came through that door.
But, then, no one came through.
Was this part of the experiment? he wondered.
He took small steps towards the door, contemplating if he should stay inside or leave.
His stomach growled.
He looked at the empty cubbies. 500 days of food, gone. It hadn’t even been a day since he’d had his last meal, and yet, he felt like he was starving.
He edged closer to the door. Surely, it’d be fine if he were to go out and eat. The researchers would understand. And if they didn’t, who cares? They’d forgotten about him. They had left him isolated and alone for nearly a year and a half. He didn’t care about their approval anymore. He didn’t care about keeping his journals or messing up the study. He was hungry.
His resolve began to fade as he neared the door. This place, this room, it had been his everything for so long. Outside of this chamber was bigger and alien. From what he remembered, there were long hallways that stretched through a building as big as a warehouse. And the outside world beyond that. It was safe in here. Comfortable and familiar. It wasn’t just his prison, it was his home.
“Is this what you wanted?” he yelled at the open door.
There was no reply.
“Why don’t you just come in here and tell me what you want me to do? Should I leave? Should I stay? Is there even anyone out there?”
He was getting more agitated. Still, no response came.
He laughed at the absurdity of his own indecision. He may have signed up to go into this box, but they couldn’t keep him here any longer.
He summoned his courage, reminded himself that agoraphobia wasn’t a legitimate fear, and walked towards the door. Though it was open, the intruding light was too bright for him to see through.
As the brightness increased, he turned his head. He noticed his journals on the desk. He wondered if he should take them. He dispatched the idea. If the scientist wanted to know what he had been through, well, then they could read it. He continued on.
He was only inches away from the door when he heard a static sound from overhead. He turned back to the room, searching for the source of the sound. It crackled once more.
Then, for the first time in 501 days, he heard a voice.
Ted staggered towards the door. The voice sounded amplified somehow.
“There it is!”
“Where did it come from?”
He heard these and many other words. He understood the words, but the light was too bright. Ted had never experienced anything so bright. He had lived his entire life under the artificial illumination of his home.
His reverie was interrupted by the staticy, amplified voice. “Steady, men. Do not engage the alien unless given the order.”
Alien? Ted stepped towards the door. He felt strange. The only word he could think of to describe it was ‘buoyant.’ The yellow light was also heat – Ted’s skin felt funny.
Crack! – a sound echoed outside the door. Once the sound permeated his room, he could see the ripples of sound and a projectile.
He stepped aside and watched the projectile lazily impact the rows of empty cubbies.
Was it a weapon? He thought as he watched the concussive waves dissipate. Why would anyone create a projectile weapon that travels so slowly?
Ted stepped away from the door. “Soldier! Secure that weapon!” The voice wasn’t amplified this time. “Fall out and retreat to location zulu.” The voice continued; then it was amplified again. “Do not fear us. That was an accident. Please show yourself again.”
“The light… It’s too bright,” Ted called out.
“Kill the floodlights,” the amplified voice said.
Ted heard clicks and other noises. Their waves were beautiful. He had never seen concussive waves like these before. He stepped toward the door again, but the light and heat were still overpowering. He staggered back. “The light is too much.”
Ted heard some murmurs. He heard rustling. Then, the voice. “There are no lights on. Just the sun.”
“The sun? What is that?”
Ted heard footfalls. So inefficient, he thought. Why would anyone use bipedal locomotion? He recalled he and his friends trying to ‘walk’ instead of floating. It was difficult, to say the least.
A soft voice this time – close – perhaps a few feet from the door. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Kraken. The largest city on Titan.”
“Kraken? Titan?” Ted heard an inhalation. It sounded odd as if… as if…
Ted shielded himself from the bright light and whispered, “Are you breathing a gas?” He tried hard to keep the disbelief from his voice.
“Of course,” the voice replied. “On Earth we breath oxygen and nitrogen.”
Earth? “Ha!” Ted retorted. “Oxygen is poisonous.”
Before the voice could reply, the door closed with a click. Another wall descended and more food cubbies revealed themselves. The floor vibrated, and Ted felt a pressure from one end of the room.
He floated there in the middle of his box and counted the new cubbies. Five-hundred. He walked to the first cubby and ate the food inside.
Five-hundred more days?
Perhaps when this was all over, Ted thought. I’ll visit the polar vortex. Ted looked forward to seeing the organonitrogen skies of his city. He looked forward to looking up to see the crystalline rings of home.