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The Products of Stardust

The Products of Stardust It was 3PM on a Thursday in April, in the year 1959. Buttercup had no access to a clock, or calendar, or even a window in her cell, but she had no need of those things, at least not anymore. She could tell the time simply by the rotation of the earth and its exact angle to the stars and planets around it at this very moment. Of course, she didn’t need to see those things either. She could feel them. Buttercup could feel everything now. The walls of her cage flickered and sputtered, in time with her heartbeat. They were solid, of course, material, but at the same time not. She could see the atoms, the protons and electrons and everything else constantly moving buzzing swirling around each other like water in a drain. The fabric of the universe was laid bare before her. Nothing was real. The world was transient, inconstant, and always changing. Even the concrete wall behind her bed which she had been staring at for the last three hours was not solid at all. Buttercup could feel behind it. She could feel the whole facility through the buzzing wall of particles, the sky through the ceiling, and somewhere below, the molten core of the earth through the floor. Jerking her hand awkwardly, Buttercup felt the wall, if only to remind herself that it was really there at all. Everything was in constant motion, constant change. She was in a box in a box in a box, the world was claustrophobia and Buttercup couldn’t make it stop. Amongst all the world’s imperfections and chaos, Buttercup was the only perfect thing in existence. The government had gotten what they’d wanted. Project Paragon was a success. Sort of. Or it would have been, had Buttercup not been the only survivor. She wished she hadn’t been, she wished so badly that she was just as dead as Huck, or Anne, or Alice. Her friends’ faces swam before her, the smiles she would never again see. Buttercup wanted to scream, to tear down the walls of her cell and bring this whole facility to the ground. She could do it too; it would be easy, like ripping tissue paper. But her body felt too heavy. She couldn’t move, could hardly think. They were sedating her, some new, special chemical they had developed to work even on the perfect human. Every experiment needed safety measures, even her. For the hundredth time she tried lifting her arm, but only managed to get it a half-an-inch above the thin blankets of her cot. The sedative lasted for exactly three hours and thirty-eight minutes before it began to wear off. Yet by the time she was nearly in full-control of her body and mind at three hours, fifty-nine minutes, and twenty-seven seconds, a doctor would come in to give her another dose. And so the cycle continued over and over again. At 3:35 Buttercup could feel herself beginning to function again. If she focused very hard, she could almost see normally. Almost. The building blocks of the universe still danced in the corners of her vision. She focused on finding where her head had wandered off to for the next twenty minutes, groping like a fish out of water. This was made especially difficult by the fact that she was so different now. The Buttercup from before the Project seemed so far away, so innocent. It was hard to believe they were the same person. Whoever she was now, well, she didn’t really know. What she needed was time: time to think and to feel without being numbed by sedatives. If she could just... there. Her arm moved two inches that time. By the time the Doctor entered through the thick, iron door she could speak normally again, though her tongue still had the distinct feel of cotton to it. She was lucky, this time it was the man with the thick glasses who looked about ready to vomit every time he placed the breathing mask over her face. He hesitated briefly at the door before approaching her cot, dragging the squeaking cart with the gas canister behind him. “Please. Wait,” she mumbled as he went in with the mask. Buttercup looked up at him, eyes wide in an attempt to appear childlike. She remembered him. He was the psychologist who had regularly talked with her and the other children before the end. In order to seem more familiar, he had once mentioned to her that he had a daughter of his own, about her age. She had no idea why they had put him of all people on knock-out duty. Perhaps they were shorter on personnel than she had thought. But that didn’t matter. Right now she needed to play to his sympathies. That was the only way to get him to listen. “No more,” she pleaded, crinkling her face together pathetically. “I promise I won’t fight anymore. Just please stop.” It wasn’t an ideal situation, but if that was a promise she had to make... Buttercup never broke a promise. And if she could just get her mind in order, she could come up with a way around it. The Doctor hesitated, struggling with himself. He reached into his lab coat pocket, the one that Buttercup knew had a picture of his daughter in it, and seemed to come to some sort of conclusion. Glancing into the small mirror on one wall that wasn’t a mirror at all, his face was set. “Your orders?” He asked the mirror. There was a crackle of static, and a muffled voice came from a speaker hidden somewhere in the cell. “Paragon Alpha,” it addressed Buttercup flatly. “We are... willing to negotiate. You will be allowed full control of your person, but know this: any further escape attempts will result in severe punishment.” “Those terms are acceptable.” Buttercup attempted to nod. “In addition, you will comply with all further tests and questioning that we require.” Buttercup’s heart sank, but what choice did she have? The only way she would ever see the sun again was if she could utilize her whole intellect. “Agreed.” “Doctor,” the voice addressed the Doctor, who looked about to pass out from relief. “We’re initiating Operation Icewalker. Report to the briefing room immediately.” He nodded, and made to leave, but paused briefly at the door as he heard Buttercup whisper. “Thank you.” Glancing back furtively, he nodded, and smiled briefly before stepping out of the cell and closing the door behind him. Yes, Buttercup was beginning to get a clear picture of the man. He didn’t agree with their treatment of her. Perhaps he had become involved with the project for a love of his country, or for science, but had become disillusioned sometime along the way. Buttercup surmised that it had something to do with the subjects of Project Paragon, the children. Ordinary people had become incredibly easy to read. They wore their hearts on their sleeves, their whole stories made clear to her by the subtle intricacies of their expressions. Perhaps, she thought, if she could read other people so easily, then maybe she could figure out herself. It took another half-an-hour to regain full control of her body, and the time nearly killed her. Over and over again she tried to force herself upwards, to look into the not-mirror, but for the longest time her body wouldn’t work properly. Finally, Buttercup struggled into a sitting position. If she hadn’t been so numb, she may have fallen back down again as she turned to her reflection. The creature staring back at her looked like a child from a war-zone. The face was thin and emaciated, the lips cracked, the eyes large and looming. The hair, once the lightest shade of yellow you could have imagined, had darkened into a dishwater blonde that hung limp and tangled. It looked dead, and far too wise for its age. Before, she probably wouldn’t have recognized herself, and wondered who the poor child through the window was. Now she just accepted that this was what she had become. This was what they had made her. A perfect monster. She heard the hand on the doorknob a split second before it opened, and turned before the Doctor reentered the room. For a second she feared they had changed their minds, but he had no gas canister, only a battered clipboard in one hand. “From now on I’ll be conducting evaluations of your mental state every other day for the foreseeable future, as per your agreement with the institution,” he explained, gesturing towards the not-mirror. “You remember me, yes?” The Doctor stuck out a hand, but when Buttercup nodded and hesitantly took it, she was surprised to find a slightly crusted hunk of bread hiding on his palm. Not about the fact that it was there, of course, she could tell what it was the instant he stuck out his hand, but that he had the guts to sneak it to her at all. Buttercup was very hungry, though now she could survive on almost nothing for a very long time, so she took and hid it in her lap, staring up at the doctor thankfully. He said nothing, but his mouth twitched upwards for just a moment. Sitting in the flat-seated folding chair across from Buttercup, the Doctor cleared his throat, and clicked his pen. “I need you to be 100% honest with all your answers. You are our first success, there’s so much we need to learn.” “Are you planning on making more Paragons?” Buttercup asked bluntly, sitting cross-legged on the cot. “That is inadvisable. You’re having enough trouble controlling me alone.” “Your rebirth was rather... traumatic,” he admitted. “In the future we hope to make the transition smoother.” “So you’re planning on brainwashing people.” “Well, I wouldn’t call it ‘brainwashing’, but—“ “That is what it is,” Buttercup cut him off with an ice cold stare. “You’re going to convince people that this is something they want, to be ‘Perfect.’” The Doctor’s eyes narrowed. “How did you know that?” Shrugging, Buttercup didn’t break eye contact. “I guessed. It’s what I would do. But believe me, this is not what people want.” “And what is ‘this’ exactly?” The Doctor leaned forward. “What are you feeling, Alpha? What is it like to be a Paragon?” There was a hint of awe in his tone, and Buttercup almost threw up. “It feels...” she began, not searching for the right word, because she knew it already, but wondering if she should say it. “...Empty,” she decided finally. “I can see everything now, the very fabric of the universe. Nothing is real, nothing is material, and nothing is a secret. I know the Truth, and the truth is that we are all made of the same thing, the universe is homogeneous, so we are really just bits of fallen stars. Our lives are meaningless.” “I wouldn’t say meaningless necessarily,” the Doctor said. “It may not be my place to say, but if we’re all just ‘bits of stars’ as you say, wouldn’t that be something to be proud of? After all, that just means that we’re a part of something greater.” Buttercup stared at him for a moment in confusion and envy. Atoms and quarks crept back across her vision as her concentration wavered. Of course he would think that. This “something greater” that he spoke of wasn’t etched into the inside of his skull as it was in hers, down to the tiniest speck. But why couldn’t she turn it off? Why couldn’t she think as he did? She hated it, hated it, the unending isolation of her own head. Turning back to the concrete wall that was really just a cluster of specks, Buttercup resisted the urge to punch through it. “You should kill me,” she muttered finally. Behind her, the Doctor made to open his mouth, but she didn’t let him. “I can’t... I can’t think like people do. I’m not human anymore, I’m... a monster, an abomination. I’m broken. You. Broke. Me!” Her whisper reverberated through the tiny cell, before everything fell silent.

The only sound was Buttercup’s thumping heartbeat in her ear. “Alph—Buttercup,” the Doctor began, and Buttercup’s heart caught in her throat. No one had called her by her real name in so long. “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry, I can’t... no, I won’t kill you. Because the truth is: you’re not a monster. That’s something you can choose to be, not what you are.” She glanced up as he stood. “I wish there was something more I could do for you,” he admitted. “Here, I’ll... leave you my clipboard.” Smiling sadly, he held the battered piece of cork out to her. “I believe drawing your feelings will make you feel better.” Buttercup’s eyes narrowed. That was something you’d say to a child, and he of all people knew that she was not one, so what was he playing at? She took the clipboard hesitantly. There was something written on it. Out of the corner of his eye, the Doctor glanced towards the not-mirror nervously. Buttercup tried not to smile as she read in the Doctor’s shaky, untidy scrawl: “One week from today. 8PM. Pretend to be asleep.” Even to her, it had come as a surprise. A breakout plan? From this psychologist, who even now was shaking in his boots? It was risky, and could go south easily. But to see the sun, to end the isolation, the tests, the control... She smiled wanly. “Thank you, Doctor,” she said. “I believe I will...”

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