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"400?" Stephen says quietly next to me. We've been sitting, lost in our thoughts, for an eternity. Stuck in a state of denial, I stare at the wall, rejecting everything. It's not working.

Stephen's voice pulls me back to harsh reality, reminding me of my upcoming, inevitable second round with the Enhancement Project injections. The latex hands, injections, bruises. I can't do it.

"Yeah?" I answer, my voice echoing as I turn my head to look at him. The floor is uncomfortable and freezing, and my legs are stiff. I stretch them out painfully, again noticing the sharp stabs of my ribs. The pain has gradually subsided over the past few hours, but it hasn't vanquished quite yet.

Stephen turns his body so he's angled towards me. His legs sprawl out in front of him, like he could be lounging on a rooftop instead of soaking in the industrial lighting of our jail cell.

"400," he exhales with a slight chuckle. "How can you possibly be comfortable sitting like that?"

I look down at myself, seeing nothing wrong. I give Stephen a weird look and mimic him, crossing my outstretched legs at my ankles. "What are you talking about? I'm sitting just like you are."

He chuckles again. "No, you're not. You just had your legs folded up to your chest."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know my posture would bother you so much," I say boldly. The corners of my mouth rise, and I feel guilty for even attempting a smile. It's been a long time since I've been openly sarcastic. Any form of defiance, including sarcasm, would have resulted in fines from the government.

Stephen surprises me and smiles largely. He has a pretty smile, but it highlights the gauntness of his face, the yellow tinge of his skin. "Oh, your posture totally bothers me. I can't even look at you, 400."

I smile, looking down for a second before meeting his eyes again. "It's Holland, you know."


"Holland," I repeat. "My name."

A lightbulb clicks over his head, and his eyes widen. "Holland," Stephen repeats. "I know that from somewhere."

He pauses for a moment, thinking. My heart beats a million times a second. What should I do? Should I tell him that I know him, too? That he's more connected to me than ever before?

"Holland," Stephen says in dreadful realization. His eyes widen when he looks up. "Oh, God, I know you. You're the girl I--"

Part of the wall next to Stephen zooms open, and four men rush into the room, no longer in gas masks but Screener gear. Immediately, one of the men punches Stephen, a dull smack filling my ears. The rest of the Screeners seize my arms as I watch in horror. Stephen groans, trying to push himself off the ground while getting kicked back down.

My jaw drops for Stephen, and I scream as the other Screener's fist rushes towards the side of my face. I draw my eyes shut, bracing for the impact. Pain explodes from everywhere, then tight grips on my arms yank me towards the exit. I yell again, my high-pitched screams bouncing sharply off the walls like blades.

"Holland!" Stephen yells as the door zooms shut again. "Don't fight it!"

Don't fight it? I do the exact opposite, kicking and screaming as Stephen is locked away behind the closing wall. The Screeners continue to drag me down the hall, unfazed.

The Screeners. How could the people trained to protect be abusively cruel? I'm not the enemy, not under any partial screening order that issues approval for a little unconventional force. My entire existence, years of learning the acute ways of life, flips upside-down.

The struggle is useless, laughable. Four Screeners can easily subdue a hurting, stunned teenager, and the slowly-fading pain in my ribs is their strongest weapon. Single-handedly, they turn half my focus away from fleeing and instead towards enduring.

The Screeners pull me through the maze of halls, and I struggle to keep track of the number of lefts and rights. My head spins, body on fire. I scream emptily through my agony-laced trance and realize I don't know which will be worse: the pain in these halls or the pain at my destination.

After yet another sharp turn, a new portion of the walls open, and the Screeners yank me into the cavern. With a gruff toss, my back hits a hard, cold table, hands and straps buckling me tightly to it. They exit quickly, leaving the doorway ajar behind them. I writhe against the table, aches never stopping to take a breather. They'll be coming back soon.

Silence descends over the blank room as the distant marching of boots fades. I grit my teeth for a minute, warding off the sting from my spine's slam against the table. It feels wrong to fight Screeners, to disobey the rules ingrained deep in my soul. But I can't be expected to accept unjust torture.

I breathe heavily for a few seconds, straining against the belts while noting they're not as tight as I remember. No, this can't be true, I think in disbelief. I pull my wrists against their smaller belts, feeling them slacken eversoslightly.

I take a deep breath and throw my wrists as hard as I can against the straps, feeling them loosen by an inch. Attempting to squeeze through the new space, my arms battle until they finally fit through the tiny gap.

I don't bother gloating in the success or taking a second to reflect. My hands fly like darts and tremble like chills as I unbuckle the belt around my neck. Torso, waist, and legs claim freedom as I undo the restraints. I nearly laugh in relief as I hop off the table.

Now run.

And I do. I bolt out the door and take random turns as fast as I can. My bare feet slap against the cold floor as I run, my hair billowing out behind me. Ignoring my half-injured ribs the best as I can, I peel down an especially long hallway.

I spot the outline of a door at the end of the hall, an old-fashioned one, and I head directly towards it. Skidding to a halt, I push the door open, expecting to face an exit, the outside, anything that will free me, but I don't. I stand rigidly in a blank white room, exitless. My adrenaline rush disappears. Silence sets in.

"You have failed your second compulsory assessment."

"You gotta be kidding me!" I growl automatically, looking towards the ceiling. This cannot be happening.

The stomp of a single boot sounds behind me, and a force launches my body forward, my head crashing into a wall. I groan and try to fight off the Screener, but it's too late. A sharp, piercing pain enter the back of my neck, causing me to scream. As soon as the cold needle delves an inch into my skin, I realize it's an injection.

This is what Stephen tried to warn me, and I've realized it too late. He knew all along what they'd do. My grand attempt at escape wasn't even real.

Stephen knew it, and I was too stupid to listen. We will never win when the odds are stacked too high against us. The syringes and the violence will always beat the innocent. A simple missed Train from two years ago will ruin our both our lives forever.

As my eyes flutter shut and fade into darkness, my thoughts are taken up by a single, methodical chant.

Welcome to the Enhancement Project. Welcome to the Enhancement Project. Welcome to the Enhancement Project.

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intense chapter! I hope you caught the winning word: attempt. the color has not been revealed yet, and that will be coming in the next update. Enhancement is already getting crazy, and you don't even know my master plan yet...

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