Author’s Note: Hello, friends! Welcome back for this week’s installment of Paradise. When we left off last week, another belief was brought into question. Even though Rick was sure that the bunker was the real world, in the last moments of last chapter he woke up back in the compound. I promise at some point it will all come together.
I appreciate each and every one of you taking this journey with me. Please share this story with others and let me know what you think.
“Pea…” Peadar grabbed my arm to stop me.
“Rick,” he said the name forcefully. “Do you know where you are?” His eyes weren’t blinking.
“Um, I think,” I tried to sit up, but something was holding me down.
“Don’t try to move,” Peadar said. “You’ve fallen and hit your head. We need to make sure you’re okay.”
Gregg and Todd stood expressionless as centurions behind Peadar.
“Fell?” I asked, but I didn’t really expect a response.
Nothing made sense. The compound was supposed to be a construct of my mind. It was created by microbots in my brain. Max had performed surgery on me and removed the bots. I shouldn’t have been seeing anything from the compound.
Something in the hall caught Gregg’s attention. He nudged Todd and the two left the room.
Peadar leaned in close and started to whisper in fast, eager words.
“Sir, we may not have much time. Remember, you have to call me Paul. I don’t know what happened to you. They told me you fell. You were in the center for several days, and when you came out your head was bandaged, as it is now. You’ve been unconscious for two months. We all thought we had lost you.”
I tried to make sense of what he was telling me, but my mind was clouded. I had just been in a cramped, awful place in a dark cave. Now I was in a bright, open and comfortable room.
“Sir, they are going to make me leave in a minute. They don’t like that we are friends. It was supposed to stop after the last time they reconditioned me. I don’t know why they came to tell me about your accident. They have let me come sit with you for about 15 minutes each day.”
I looked at Peadar, with fear obvious in his eyes. I wanted to hug him. It didn’t seem likely I would seem him again, and yet here he was. At the same time, I couldn’t grasp the meaning of what was happening. If the compound was a construct created by bots, then it wasn’t real. Peadar wasn’t real. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing.
In addition, I had never lost time in the compound before. Several times I had been unconscious in the bunker, but never before had I stayed unconscious in the compound. Something had changed. Someone had changed the rules.
My head was pounding, but I ordered Peadar to help me up. Standing was out of the question, so I pushed myself back to lean against the headboard.
“I don’t understand,” I told him. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Speak softly, sir. I’m sure they are trying to listen.”
I glanced to the door. From my limited vantage point I didn’t see anyone in the hallway outside.
“Peadar.” He glared at me. “Paul, I shouldn’t be here. Max said I wouldn’t ever be here again.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “You’ve not been anywhere.”
“I was back in the bunker,” I whispered to him. “For a long time. Max found bots in my brain. Sam and I were just setting out on a mission to capture a Plax.”
I swear Peadar’s dark skin turned white for a moment as he glanced toward the door.
“You can’t talk about them,” he whispered. “Not here. You’re not supposed to be remember them. Especially not now.”
“Why not now? What’s happened?”
“Sir, I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that you were in the center for several days. There’s no way they didn’t try to do at least some reconditioning while you were there. Even if someone came to your aid again this time, you have to pretend like it worked.”
I nodded slightly. I turned my head to the right and could see the vineyards off in the distance through the window. Irony struck me for a moment. Even though the compound was open and beautiful with every attempt at simplicity, it was far more complicated to live in than the bunker.
“Time’s up.” Gregg appeared in the doorway again. There was no attempt at a fake smile on his face. In fact, his contempt for me and Peadar was clearly evident.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Peadar told me, and he obediently got up and left my room.
I improved quickly. The first day I woke up, I couldn’t even get out of bed. By the end of the second day, I was able to get up and move around some. The third day, I was able to take my meals in a communal dining area.
I knew the food wasn’t real, but after months in the bunker, I savored every bite. There seemed to be no need to restrict myself to three bites, so I ate with fervor, devouring everything I could get. Fruit especially garnered my attention. There was no way to have fruit in the bunker.
The fourth day, they removed my bandages. I saw no evidence of any damage to my head and wondered why it had been bandaged. Vann came by that day and attempted to tell me that advanced medical techniques had allowed my head to heal in such a way there wouldn’t be scarring.
“How did I fall?” I asked him.
“Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t know.” His fake smile never wavered. I imagined smashed the lamp on the bedside table over his head.
“How do you know I fell, then?”
“Gregg found you.” He nodded to the brute behind him. I remembered watching him change from a tiger into a man and a cold chill ran up my spine.
“Where?” I asked them.
“Not far from the vineyard,” Vann told me. “We think maybe you were climbing a tree.”
“Climbing a tree? Why would I do that?”
“Isn’t that the question?” he chuckled, but he was the only one in the room that found it funny.
I may not have remembered the details of my past, but I did know how to read people. The look on Gregg’s face told me that not only had I not fallen out of a tree, but I had also not been in any accident.
“You’re doing much better,” Vann went on. “You can return to the vineyards tomorrow if you would like. Or, if you prefer, you can continue to rest for a few days.”
As comfortable as I found my bed, I was ready to get up and set about discovering just what was happening.
“Tomorrow sounds good,” I told him.
Vann and Gregg started to leave, but then Vann stopped in the doorway and turned to me. He was still smiling, but there was no warmth in his voice.
“It would be best, Rick,” he spit my name out like something that tasted bad, “if you stayed close to the main buildings. Go to the dining hall, the barn and the vineyard, but only those areas. There is no need for you to go exploring. It would be awful if you had another accident. We might not find you in time.”
If there was any doubt in my mind, it was now gone. Vann’s words confirmed, not only that they had done something to me, but that they knew I had been exploring the area around the compound.