Allison opened her eyes, bleary, and a little disoriented from the drugs her captors had used. She shook her head and blinked a few times as she pulled on the ropes binding her wrists behind her. A grumbling behind her alerted her to the presence of her partner in the room.
“Nelis?” she said, pausing for a response. “Come on, Nelis. Wake up. Are you there?”
Allison heard a shift of fabric and chair legs against the concrete floor.
“Physically, yes. Mentally is debatable at the moment,” he replied.
“Do you know where we are?” she asked. There were no windows in the room, and, in the dark, only the faint outline of a door could be seen from the light on the other side.
“Nope,” Nelis said.
“Any ideas on how to get out of here?” Allison asked.
“Kill everyone?” Nelis said. Allison could hear the smile on his face.
“You know, for someone in such an odd position, you’d think that you wouldn’t have a sense of humor,” a voice said through a speaker above them.
“I figured that when I requested the VIP treatment that I wouldn’t wake up like this. I could use some breakfast, though,” Nelis said. “Crepes, Fresh berries, and O.J., please. Allison, you want anything?”
“I could use some food,” Allison said, nodding.
“You can joke all you want, but it won’t help you,” the voice said.
Allison heard a door close hard somewhere nearby, then the room flooded with light from the hall. The dark outline of the figure in the doorway reached over, and the light overhead flared to life.
The man was burly in his build with dark hair and a scowl on his face. He wore dark clothing that Allison assumed was a uniform for whatever private military force he worked for. He walked into the room with purpose in Allison’s direction.
Allison looked to her right and made a point to keep her breathing even as he reached out and grabbed the back of her chair. She spun, still dizzy from the drugs in her system, to face Nelis.
“So, now what?” Nelis asked, winking at Allison. “Are you going to bad things to us now?”
“My name,” he paused as though it added dramatic effect, a smile forced through his teeth, “is Dr. Houlden. I’m not here to hurt you. I am your friend.”
“I’m going out on a limb here, buddy, but I feel like you’re lying to us,” Nelis said, pulling on his bindings. “I’ve had some fun times with some people, let me tell you, but this dark concrete room, steel chairs, and rope bindings leave little to think you’re our friend. Furthermore, I’m fairly certain you need to rethink your strategy because most of this is the shit you see in the movies. Shit doesn’t actually work this way. You know that, right?”
“I can assure you that I have no intention of harming you unless you give me no other choice,” Dr. Houlden replied, still forcing his smile. “You are correct that most of this is a little overly dramatic, but it’s necessary for my goals.”
“Are you going to do the movie bad guy thing now and tell us your evil plan?” Allison asked, drawing his attention from Nelis.
“It’s important for things to happen a certain way,” Dr. Houlden answered with a nod. “There is no evil plan, just a method that needs to be observed.”
Dr. Houlden snapped his fingers. Two men came through the door with a cart with several things on it. It looked straightforward like a strobe light, a projector, and a few speakers. The men didn’t look at Allison or Nelis as they left the cart and exited the room.
“This, my friends, is part of the process,” Dr. Houlden said, examining the items thoroughly. “Before we begin, I should ask, do either of you have epilepsy or sensitivity to flashing lights?”
“Are we having a party?” Nelis asked, shifting his shoulders in a rhythm. “I prefer to have the ability to dance if that’s the case. I think you’d be impressed with my moves. Seriously, though, I am actually pretty hungry. If you could get room service in here, I would kill for a crepe right now.”
“You’ll be fed in time,” Dr. Houlden replied. “For now, we should get started. I hope you enjoy what I’ve put together for the pair of you.”
Allison watched the man leave the room, turning out the light before he shut the door. She heard the other door close once again, muffled through the walls.
“Everybody ready?” Dr. Houlden’s voice asked through the speakers. “Here we go!”
The strobe began flashing in a clear progression of patterns. The projector turned on and began displaying images of them individually that looked real enough, but the things they were doing in the pictures didn’t line up with reality at all.
Allison saw herself sitting alone in a living room that looked like it could have been a set design thirty years ago. In each picture, she appeared alone, with no one around her. Each photo of Nelis showed him painting, or in a school setting. Each image progressively snapped faster in time with the light.
“Are you trying to brainwash us?” Nelis asked as the speakers began to emanate a low tone. “This is probably the lousiest thing I’ve ever seen! Did you even go to medical school, Mr. Doctor, sir?”
Allison didn’t know why, but there was something about the images, light, and music that seemed off. It wasn’t evident at first, like the tickle of a ladybug crawling on thin fabric on her skin.
“Nelis,” Allison whispered, hoping that no one else would hear her. “Nelis, something’s wrong with this stuff. I don’t know what, yet, but it isn’t what it seems.”
Nelis looked right at her. His eyes seemed off too. “I know what you’re saying,” he whispered. “It feels like the very beginning of a bad trip. I’m trying to make him think it isn’t going to work.”
Allison watched Nelis’ eyes glaze over a little as his attention turned to the wall where the images were. She felt drawn to look as well.