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(A/N: This is still in the Equinox Task)

The word turns black with the bang of the gun, pitch blackness swirling like a midnight sky. There is no more emotion, hurt, fear. Only nothingness and the blackness of a night sky.

Knives. The harsh shrill of an emergency alarm blares into the nothingness. My eyes spring awake as my heart skips a beat. The alarm continues to scream as I gain a sense of where I am. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. With a glance I notice my bare feet, cold and pale. Then the panic awakens.

A chill rises from my toes up my spine. "No, no, no," I whisper. The alarms are gone. My chest sinks in.

"No."

I whip my head around the room, searching for an exit. Of course there isn't one. I'm in Enhancement Project, the white jail cell I know all too well.

I somehow think to check my wrists, and as I peer down, the blocks of ink hiding my number are all gone. What's staring back at me is clear as day and scary as hell: 400. The bold, bleak font stamped on my wrists.

I rub at the tattoo. It doesn't fade or scrape away. It's as permanent as the fear building up within me.

Red flags are going off in my brain, but somehow they're not helping me connect the dots. These numbers shouldn't be here. I  shouldn't be here, yet how am I here? How am I trapped in this white cell again? Why did the Equinox send me here of all places. Everything feels so realistic, like I'm actually here.

"Oh, another inmate," Stephen's voice says to my right.

I flinch hard, hitting my skull on the wall against my back. Deja vu floods my bloodstream as Stephen half-grin half-shrugs at me.

That iconic grin of his plays with my heart strings. My throat feels tight. It's Stephen.

But what? Why does this all seem so familiar to me? I answer my own question with a million different emotions vying in my stomach. This already happened before! Back when I first met Stephen in this very cell, this all already happened!

With a temptingly attractive glance, Stephen makes a sudden grab for my wrist, grasping it between his fingers. I don't bother to yelp out in pain or command him to let me go. That was then in the Project. This is now.

Instead of resisting, I cherish his touch. "Nice to meet you, too, Number 400," Stephen says. His voice is fluid, sharp, and addicting all at once. I can hear the knowledge in his voice and the suffering embedded in his paleish-yellow skin.

I nod, staring into Stephen's deep brown eyes. He doesn't recognize who I am, yet we've been through so much. Project, rebellion, Equinox. All of them interconnected to the point where it's hard to distinguish which one is which.

"Be careful, 400," the boy says. "Next time they won't fight you. They'll give you a poison or an injection instead."

I nod, not sure what else to do. How do you talk to the boy who knows everything you've been through but hasn't experienced it yet.

The wall in the corner of the room flies open without warning, and three Screeners rush in. The first one punches Stephen clear in the face as I scream.

The two remaining Screeners lunge at me. Hands push me, suffocate me, drag me. I claw away from the guards, but it's too late. Stephen and I are kicked into the Enhancement Project hallway. A boot contacts my stomach, forcing the air out of my lungs.

I gasp for oxygen, pain beating into me. As if on cue, my limbs freeze. The Enhancement Project forces me to climb to my feet. I'm then marched down the hall without any choice in the matter.

Each step sends fury through me. The feeling of no control is the worst feeling in the world.

The hallway soon opens into the massive atrium full of prisoners. Everyone faces a row of intimidating red Screeners. My stomach churns.

Stephen and I unwillingly join the ranks of inmates. The three Screeners with us resume their positions at the front of the room, ready for a big announcement.

"Subjects," one Screener says. "Welcome."

I nearly roll my eyes.

He continues. "Welcome. The nation is quite disappointed in all of you. You need to learn how to behave. You need to understand timeliness for the sake of productivity; control for the sake of order. Within yourselves, you've lost your loyalty."

My stomach churns again. I'm going to throw up.

"Control for the sake of order. No one can have destructive thoughts or actions. This will collapse our safety and result in the deaths of everyone you care about."

The Screeners reach for their helmets, clicking them off. Liad, Tanner, Peyton, Delphin, my parents, and everyone else I know reveal themselves and focus their attention on me.

Mentally, I scream in fear. I blink and all the rest of the prisoners disappear around me. What's left is everyone I love looking mad at me. With another blink, Stephen appears in his own Screener gear just feet away from me.

Stephen takes a few steps closer to me. His nose is just inches from mine, and his voice is sweeter than I thought it would be. "Number 400, you have the tendency to disobey the law."

My feet freeze to the ground, bare feet stuck to the cold floor. Stephen glances at my lips. He raises his hand to graze my cheek with affection. Reluctantly, I feel myself relax against him. I wish I could help it, but I can't. I can't.

Stephen keep his hand on the side of my face, kissing me warmly. It's so intimate I'm afraid for him to let me go.

He pulls back an inch. "You disobeyed the law, and you'll pay the price for it until you learn to stop."

My eyes widen. With a final stroke of my cheek, Stephen pulls his hand away from me. He lets me watch him intently for a final eerie two seconds. I force myself not to blink and break eye contact.

Then Stephen's fist makes a sudden swish and slams me in the face.

-- -- -- -- --
this whole Equinox thing is brutal! holland just never gets a break from all the confusion, torture, and control...

and neither do you ;)

winning word this week was "more equinox," and you got your second chapter in a row within the equinox and it's strange simulations.

i hope i'm not confusing everyone too much. the whole intent of the equinox is to tell who's truly loyal to the nation and who isn't. and we all know which category holland falls into ;)

Question: Choose a phrase: keep it up, slow it down, or stop it now.

Follow-up Question: Choose another phrase: root of the cause, fully-explained answer, or spiral downwards.

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