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Rat in a Maze

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Dr. McKenna has bright red hair that she keeps tied in a thick knot at the nape of her neck. She carries a clipboard and she wears a white lab coat and, for the first two weeks, she doesn’t hurt Chase at all.

That confuses him. When he last saw Mr. Davenport he was panicking, rambling about all the probes and experiments Chase and his brother and sister would endure locked away in a secure desert facility. But so far, Chase hasn’t had to go through any of that.

So far, it’s just been this— Dr. McKenna takes him out of his cold white room and into a colder whiter room with a desk and a chair. She gives him a thick packet of advanced physics and chemistry problems and he sits down and completes all of them. 

He does this every day for two weeks, and he notices how the problems increase in difficulty as the days go on. Still, it’s like child’s play. He could do these kinds of equations when he was seven. After all, he’s basically a human computer. 

One day it changes. Dr. McKenna comes into his cold white room and says, “We know there’s more than just brains to you, Subject C. It’s time to examine your force field ability.”

As she guides him down the hall, Chase wonders how many of his bionic abilities the scientists know about. Intelligence and force fields, sure. But they would have known that from the video. What about the rest of it? Molecularkinesis, levitation, super senses? Do they know?

The test they have set up for him is similar enough to how Mr. Davenport used to train him. An automated cannon, kind of like a pitching machine in a batting cage, hurls projectile after projectile at him. Chase stays calm and deflects all of them, actually kind of relaxing into the familiarity of training. It beats lying in a cell and staring at the walls, wondering if he’ll ever see daylight again. 

Just as he’s thinking that this test is going to be as easy as the ones on paper, a shrill tone echoes through the room. Instinctively, Chase claps his hands over his ears, but the noise is so loud it feels like it’s burrowing into his skull. Two projectiles rocket out and hit him in the gut while he’s too distracted to block them, but still the noise persists. 

He’d gotten used to the bell at school, and even the fire alarm, to an extent. This is louder. Louder, and more painful. 

It feels like his head is cracking in two. He presses his hands tighter to his ears, digging his fingernails into the skin just beneath his temples. The sound is excruciating, and it’s all he can focus on. He can’t block any of the projectiles. He can’t even stand up anymore. Chase collapses to the floor, tears rising in his eyes as he tries frantically to get away from the noise. 

And then, as suddenly as it started, the noise stops. Dr. McKenna leads him back to his room and doesn’t say a word.

So, Chase thinks as he sits alone in his quarters, they know about his super senses. 

 


 

Chase’s brain is a work of art. It’s his most important tool. It’s a supercomputer. He’s convinced that, no matter what they might do here to break his body, they can’t break his brain. 

He’s terrified they are going to prove him wrong. 

 


 

Dr. McKenna and another woman show up sometime after his first “meal” the next day, leading him down the hall without a word. 

Chase follows his captors, trying to ignore the warning signals his bionic brain keeps sending him. This behavior is different , this routine is different . Why aren't they talking? Are they going to torment his supersensitive hearing once again?

He tries to mentally prepare himself for an assault on his ears, but it's hard to push down the panic. 

The two scientists take him into a room with a sinister metal table in the center, and Chase has a horrifying vision of being dissected, his bionic brain carved apart like a Christmas ham. 

No , he tells himself. He is too valuable to these people, has to be. They don't know enough about him yet to destroy— damage— him. Thinking of himself as a tool, a thing, doesn't feel good, but it's the only way he can make an accurate assessment of the current threat level.

They do see him as a thing. They don't even call him by his name. 

Dr. McKenna asks him to lie down on the table. "Why?"

"We need to run a test," she says. 

"I don't want to."

She clenches her draw and then looks toward the mirror on the far side of the room— definitely two-way glass. Dr. McKenna nods. 

A shrill tone screams through the room and Chase claps his hands over his ears. It doesn’t matter. The tone penetrates right through his eardrums, leaving him in agony. His fingernails dig into the sensitive skin of his scalp, wishing he could just stop hearing the noise, wishing everything would just stop

Feeling as if his brain will boil inside his skull, Chase crawls up onto the table and lies down like Dr. McKenna told him to. 

The noise stops. 

“You’re becoming more responsive every day,” she says, glowing with pride. She snaps restraints over his wrists. Chase shuts his eyes so he doesn’t have to see her smile. 

And then the first electric shock rings through him. 

Chase has been electrocuted before— as a bionic superhero, it’s kind of one of the many hazards of the job. He also lives ( lived ) in a house full of techno junk and two of the biggest pranksters in California. So he knows what it feels like to be electrocuted. 

He doesn’t know what it’s like to be strapped down while it happens.

He doesn’t know what it’s like to have it happen again and again and again while he screams to be released.

Well, he didn’t know. He does now. 

When it’s finally over, Chase doesn’t even have the clarity of mind to walk upright. He just shuffles behind Dr. McKenna back to his room, feeling his bionic brain form connections forged by pain and trauma. Disobedience equals pain. 

Obedience equals pain too, though. 

Chase wonders whether these scientists and doctors know anything about operant conditioning. Maybe they don’t care. They aren’t trying to teach him or train him. They’re ostensibly trying to study him. 

Maybe they’re only trying to hurt him. 

 


 

The next morning, when Dr. McKenna comes to his room for today’s round of tests— or torture— those new connections in his brain flare to life and advise him that he’s in a fight-or-flight situation. 

And Spike comes online. 

 


 

The next thing Chase knows, he’s looking at his sister for the first time in over two months. An alert pops up in his vision about the Commando App disengaging, but it barely registers with Bree in his line of sight.

“Bree,” Chase gasps, surging forward to hug her. He wants her to just grab him and start running, just take off and get them both out of this place. 

And then Dr. McKenna comes in and pulls them apart, and he keeps calling Bree’s name and she’s looking at him with big sad eyes and Dr. McKenna won’t let her stay. 

When he’s left alone in the room, without even Spike to keep him company, Chase realizes that he hates Dr. McKenna.

He’s never really hated anyone before, not even Marcus. Not even Krane. It’s an interesting sensation. 

 


 

Things happen. Time passes. Chase does as he’s told and feels himself gradually disconnecting from his body and his situation. 

 


 

He “wakes up” in a freezer, the cold cutting through him in his dissociative state and making him feel more aware of his surroundings than he’s been in awhile. 

A bone-rattling shiver overtakes him, and Chase draws his knees in closer to his chest, trying to conserve what little heat he has left. His breath frosts and forms a cloud in front of his face. 

"You c-c-can do this," he mumbles out loud to himself, but it sounds pitiful even to his own ears. 

He can survive this, though. He's already survived this. There was the time Mr. Davenport froze him as an experiment and then forgot him for three minutes. There was the time he was caught in the avalanche in Antarctica, burrowing underground and just waiting to die.

He'd give anything for a bowl of Uncle Dougie's Tuscan bean soup right now. 

 


 

The day they let him go doesn’t feel real. He’s imagined it so many times, Chase is half-convinced that his bionic brain somehow built a whole envisioned scenario, that it’s not really happening. 

It doesn’t feel real until he’s outside in the sunlight and Bree and Adam are standing right there, real as can be. Chase sprints toward them, feeling every scratch and strain on his muscles, every bit of torment they tried to use to break him. He crashes into his siblings and they cling to each other, alive. Bruised and battered but not broken. 

“Let’s go home,” Bree says, and then they march to the parking lot where Tasha and Leo are waiting with open arms. 

As Tasha’s car pulls away, Chase thinks about looking back at Dr. McKenna. Wonders if she’s watching the bionic “freaks” escape with a look of fury, or if she’s just casually observing them leave, a disinterested, detached scientist through and through. He thinks about looking back, but ultimately decides to keep watching the road ahead instead. 

 




Some days are harder than others. Some days, Chase can’t make himself go upstairs. After so many months being caged and trapped, he finds himself longing for his earlier days. That kinder, gentler isolation, when it was just him and his siblings and the outside world didn’t exist. 

Some days, Leo convinces him to get on the elevator and go upstairs. He makes whole-grain toast with sunflower seed butter, just like Chase likes, and he and Adam and Chase all watch cartoons together. 

Some days, Chase feels the trauma and anxiety building up in his chest like a battery overpowering, and Tasha notices. Tasha always notices. She gives him a lot of hugs and the business card of a good therapist. 

Bree, Adam and Chase all have nightmares. Sometimes on the same night. Leo, Tasha, Donald and Douglas have their fair share of nightmares, too. Chase doesn’t think the nightmares will ever fully go away, but they do lessen and become easier to deal with. 

Chase is playing pingpong with Adam one day while Bree paints Leo’s nails in the corner of the lab. Adam, after winning the third game in the row, says abruptly, “I love you guys. You know that, right?” 

Bree and Leo both glance up, startled. “Yeah,” Chase promises. “We know. Love you too, Adam.” He glances around at his family. “I love all of you.”