“And that concludes my report.”
Francisco dropped his gaze from the screen as a quiet filled the air. After some time he felt the need to fill the awkward silence.
“I know it’s only the first floor, and it’s already been cleared, but this was a bit step for us as a team. We plan to descend to the second floor tomorrow. We’re going over the documentation now.”
He looked back up at the screen at the garbled mention of his name.
“You have done well. I will extend your rations by another day.”
Another day? Just one? Francisco clenched his fists, realizing any sort of breathing room would be considered a luxury.
“Barnabas?” he said. His captor didn’t reply so he continued. “You can imagine that, given our circumstances, morale is quite low across the board. I realize this may be premature to ask given the lack of novel accomplishment, but perhaps something that you might consider a luxury might be in order.”
Francisco squirmed as Barnabas continued his silence.
“If I may explain my reasoning, this team is only as strong as its weakest link, and we currently have several. Any excess frustration or negativity has a compounding effect and makes everyone less capable and focused at their assigned tasks.” He gulped at the continued lack of response. “As the leader I’ve done what I can by requiring everyone to see Matthew once per day, but I really think any sort of morale booster will act as a lifeline for the stragglers.”
“And what would you request?” came the reply.
Francisco breathed a sigh of relief. This response, though neutral, at least didn’t seem angry. “I was thinking something like a movie. It’s lowkey, and doesn’t take much time. Takes the mind off of our current circumstances. And if I may be even bolder, perhaps an assortment of fiction books would serve a similar purpose.”
“I see,” Barnabas said.
“I really do believe it will give us the distraction we need. Like it or not people don’t have an iron will, and I’m seeing firsthand what the stress is doing to some of the members of our team.”
“Your request is granted. I’ll have Jack show you where the projector is in the office space and how to work it. Return back here to the storage room in an hour and you’ll have a small collection of films and books. Though I would caution you to ensure you don’t waste too much time with these frivolities.”
“Of cour—” but before Francisco could continue, the screen switched off.
For a few moments, he didn’t move, but after a minute his legs began to shake and he dropped to his knees. Why was his throat so dry? Why was his heart pounding in his chest? He felt as if he was coming down off of an adrenaline rush.
And why not? He had just successfully made a bold request from their captor who would leave them to die if they made one wrong move. He took a moment to collect himself and then stood to his feet. He needed to clear his head. Francisco walked to the door and pushed it open.
The others were split between the library and their bedrooms, but he didn’t feel like going to either of those places. Instead, he walked down the corridor that Jack had shown them and through the doors that led to the courtyard. A cool breeze hit him as soon as he stepped out into the night sky. He blinked in surprise. There, carried on the wind. Was that the smell of the ocean?
He made his way to one of the benches and sat down, shaking his head as he did so. No. Trying to deduce their location was a waste of time and energy. Their only way out lay with the completion of their tasks. He’d shown much bravado during the morning meeting, but despite his speech of how things were different in here and how they shouldn’t expect any normal sense of self while they were held captive, Francisco couldn’t keep Jeremy’s plea from ringing in his head.
Keep everyone alive and safe. First and foremost from each other. He put his head in his hands. No, there needed to be some part that held tightly to the past. To their humanity. They couldn’t lose themselves in here. And all of that started with him. Above all, Francisco needed to keep his own body, mind, and soul in order if he was to make good on his promise to Jeremy.
The door behind him squeaked, tearing Francisco from his thoughts. He looked over his shoulder to see Matthew who hadn’t yet noticed him. The psychologist turned his face to the sky and breathed deeply. Francisco cleared his throat and Mathew flinched.
“Oh. Francisco. I didn’t see you there.”
“Sorry,” he replied. “If you wanted to alone time I could head inside.”
“That’s not necessary,” Matthew said. “It’s not so much alone time as time away from that heavy atmosphere, you know?”
Francisco nodded, but kept silent.
“So,” Matthew started. “You just finished up with Barnabas, I’m guessing?”
Again, Francisco nodded. “It’s rough in there, man.”
“Yeah? Why so?”
Francisco shot Matthew an exhausted look, causing the latter to raise his arms in mock surrender.
“Whoa. I mean, I get it somewhat. Wasn’t trying to make light of it or anything.” He sat forward and clasped his hands together. “I know it must be stressful. I’m more trying to get at what specifically makes it stressful for you.”
A bitter chuckle escaped from Francisco’s mouth. He closed his eyes and set his head back. “My turn, huh?”
“Seems so,” Matthew said. “I mean, this whole mandatory session thing was your idea.”
“That it was.” Francisco groaned and cricked his neck before setting his gaze back on the psychologist. “All right. What was the question? Why is talking with Barnabas scary?”
Matthew shrugged. “I know it seems like an obvious question, but try to dig a little deeper.”
Francisco furrowed his brow and put his hand to his chin. “I mean, I don’t know if this counts as deeper since it’s pretty obvious, but I feel like if I make a single mistake and Barnabas leaves us, then I’ve doomed us all.” He paused for a moment and ran his hand along his face in a display of weariness. “That’s pretty heavy on my shoulders. I could take all of you down with me and do it without ever knowing what I did wrong.”
“So it’s the burden of leadership that’s eating at you the most?”
“That seems like the most likely scenario,” he said. “But there’s so much to process and we’ve been so little time to do it.”
“That’s why we have this time though, right?” Matthew gave a reassuring smile. “Making time to process. Even if it’s not long.”
Francisco thought for a moment. “So, I know this is like, super against the rules for you guys under normal conditions, but I’d like to know how the others that you met with are doing.”
The psychologist shifted in his chair and huffed, but kept silent afterward for a time as he pondered the question. He looked at Francisco intently.
“Like I said, I know it’s a big, uncrossable line.”
“Yeah. The biggest.” Matthew shook his head and mumbled to himself.
“Right.” Francisco let the silence linger for a moment longer before speaking again. “But I think I’m going to need you to tell me.”
Matthew gave him an anxious look, and Francisco realized the less than ideal nature of his wording.
“No, no. That wasn’t a threat,” he said. He stood to his feet. “Look, I really need to get an accurate gauge for if this team actually has what it takes to pull this off.” He looked up at the dark shadow that was the outcropping of the cliff above them. “If we have a weak link in the chain, it’s better to know sooner rather than later. Not so we can leave them out to dry, mind you, but so that we can ask for additional help if we need it.”
Matthew said something under his breath.
“What was that?” Francisco asked.
“You’d bring more people into this mess?”
Francisco raised his eyebrows. “If it meant getting out of here then of course. You wouldn’t?”
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.” The psychologist hung his head and looked at the ground.
“Well neither would I, but we’re here.” He stepped toward Matthew, who jerked his head up to face him at the movement. “I know you all heard what Jeremy said,” Francisco continued. “I mean to keep the promise that I made to him. Actually, let me back up to our ‘session’ a bit if I may. That’s actually the thing that’s weighing on me too. I’ve got to worry about what’s below and above. We’re like one more person breaking down away from being non-functional as a team, and the line dividing us from that breakdown is razor-thin.”
Matthew said nothing, still avoiding eye contact with the leader of the group.
“This isn’t the outside world, Matthew. If you know information from your sessions that could help us not tear at each other’s throats, it would be stupid to keep it to yourself.”
“Yeah, I know,” Matthew said at last. He raised his head and stood. “Everyone has to do things in here that they wouldn’t normally do. Like Riley with the shooting guns and stuff. I guess I’m no exception.”
Francisco nodded. “So…?”
“I’ve spoken with everyone except for Andrei. I tried getting him out of the computer room, but he brushed me off. He said we’ll do it later.”
“Not surprising.” Francisco put his hand on his chin. “If anything I’d say he needs it the least with how stoic he is, but I’ll have a talk with him about that anyway.” He looked back at Matthew. “And did anything come to light with your talks?”
“Nothing out of what I would expect from an introductory session. Well, beyond the acute, high levels of stress from our current predicament. The thing that did take me by surprise though was how willing Martin was to cooperate with me. I think he was aching for an outlet for his fear, but hasn’t had one until we talked.”
The breeze picked up again causing Francisco to shiver. “That is a bit surprising, yeah,” he said. “Do you think he’ll come to a mental place where he’d be useful to us? Sooner rather than later, I mean.”
Matthew drew his mouth into a line and sighed. “Given enough time, yes. As to on the timescale we’d like, I don’t know.”
“Because the laboratories are the next floor, and I’d really like him to come with us. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Matthew opened his eyes wide. “That’s so soon.”
“Barnabas only promised one extra day’s worth of supplies for going down to the first floor.”
“Oh.” Matthew’s face fell. “Well that explains the rush on this then.”
Francisco studied the psychologist’s face, not encouraged by the evident doubt on his face. “So I take it that’s a no on the Martin thing?”
“Tell you what,” Matthew started, “let me talk with him again tonight before bed. I won’t tell him that he’s going down tomorrow, but I’ll broach the idea that he’ll probably be expected to go down at some point. We can let him sleep on that, and maybe that will give him enough time to process that thought so he won’t completely freak out when you tell him.”
Francisco gave a resolute nod. “Well, I think that’s about as good a shot we have as any. Thanks, Matthew.”
Neither man spoke for a moment, the salt-laced wind picking up even further.
“I’m headed inside,” Francisco said after a time.
“I won’t be much longer myself,” came the reply.
“Take your time. Do what you need to do.” Francisco turned toward the door. “I know my session wasn’t long and we veered off topic. We’ll have a proper one tomorrow, but there’s a lot I need to think over and do.”
“Yeah, I understand,” Matthew said.
“Oh, and one last thing.” Francisco turned his head back to the psychologist, who looked at him with a quizzical look. “We’re having a movie night tonight. In a couple of hours. Not mandatory, of course, but I managed to convince Barnabas to give us a little something to take the edge off.”
Matthew chuckled. “Interesting. I was just lamenting that we didn’t have something like that actually.”
“Speaking of,” Francisco turned his whole body back. “That’s something I don’t want to hear anymore.”
“If you think that there would be something that could help all of us, or even just one of us in a major way psychologically, you need to tell me ASAP. The movie thing was my idea, but if you’d thought of it also I would have hoped that you’d tell me sooner.” Francisco tried to keep his voice even and non-threatening. “I’ll do what I can to get Barnabas’ cooperation for it, and if it’s too big it’ll probably be a no, but it would be really good to be on top of that stuff. Proper outlets could probably nip several meltdowns in the bud, no?”
“You’re right. Sorry,” Matthew said. “We’re still establishing a dynamic here. All of us. I’m still trying to determine what is appropriate to say to who, and when, and what the power dynamics are here. I’ll get better at that as time goes on.”
“Survival,” Francisco said, with a darker edge in his voice. “With the others, sure. Do as you see fit. But if there’s something that helps us survive, I will never be upset at you for taking my time.”
Matthew gave a small nod. “Got it. You’ll be hearing more from me then.”
“Glad to hear it.” Francisco turned back to the door and started toward it. Once he was sure Matthew could no longer see his expression he shut his eyes tight and grimaced, the conversation stinging him. It was clear that being the leader meant more than just collecting information and giving reports. It meant keeping the ball rolling. It meant being the driving force.
While others had to do things they weren’t comfortable with, such as Matthew breaking patient confidentiality, it seemed that he was the constant voice that convinced them to do so. In a sense, he had to give up portions of his morality first so he could get others to do the same; a stark contrast to his thoughts before talking with Matthew about not losing himself and keeping his humanity.
He reached the door and passed through it, the fluorescent lights buzzing as he walked down the hallway back toward the foyer.
It was all a balancing act. Go too far to one side, give up too much morality, and it wouldn’t be long before they were at each other’s throats. But give up too little and the team would be limp and ineffective. Death on one side, and death on the other, and that was before dealing with whatever lay below.
As he entered the foyer he spotted Felix headed up the stairs. “Hey Felix,” he called out. “Headed to bed?”
The boy flinched and turned toward him, relief washing over him when he saw who it was. “No. To the computer lab. I just finished helping with dishes.” he said. “Why?”
“We’re going to be having a movie night in a couple hours, if you want to join us.”
“Really?” Felix asked. “Where? What are we watching?”
“I actually don’t know yet.” Francisco grinned. “I convinced Barnabas to get us a movie, so I guess we’ll have to see what he gives us.”
“I see. Ok” Felix sighed and gave him a sincere smile. “Hey Francisco?”
“I heard what you and Jeremy said.”
Francisco gulped. “Yeah…”
Neither spoke for a moment before Felix continued.
“I think you’re doing a great job so far,” he said. “When you’re around, I feel a little less scared. Thank you.”
Francisco looked at the ground. “Thanks, Felix,” he said. “I appreciate that. I’m really trying and it’s good to know it’s working.”
Felix nodded. Another silence followed before he took another step up the stairs. “Well, I’ll go help Andrei a bit before the movie. I’ll see you soon.”
“Yeah,” Francisco’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “Good luck.”
Felix disappeared up the stairs, leaving Francisco to his thoughts. He peeked into the library through the frosted glass walls and saw several silhouettes moving about. He shook his head and grunted as he found himself in exactly the same position as he was when he wanted to go outside to clear his head. Perhaps the gym would offer some relief.