The National Institute of Mental Health
The National Institute of Mental Health loomed like a giant medieval fortress, a dismal and imposing figure against the orange sky. Two towers, remnants of the war, flanked the Institute’s entrance. Atop each tower, a sniper sat in waiting, laser rifle in hand, his index finger lightly caressing the trigger. A young man was making his way toward the entrance.
Joe Raymond couldn’t see the shadowy figures whose sights were aimed his direction, but he knew they were there. His stomach gave an unsettling lurch. He took a few more steps. Fifty feet from the entrance, slid up his legs, his torso, his nose—finally coming to rest on his forehead. Their scarlet glare floated just outside his vision.
Though he had never visited the Institute before, Joe knew the drill. Legs quivering, he raised his hands above his head slowly, deliberately.
“Stay right where you are,” commanded one of the snipers over a loudspeaker. “Security will be with you shortly.”
Minutes passed, but it seemed like hours to Joe. When at last the door in front of him opened, he breathed a sigh of relief. Three men attired in black uniforms stepped through the opening. The insignia on their shoulders revealed them as the Institute’s police detail.
An older man with a scarred face stepped forward. “State your name and your business.”
“Joe…Joe Raymond. I am here to visit Marietta Lee.”
The man pulled a small electronic device from a pocket in his uniform. He pressed a button, and the device projected the details of Joe’s visit in the form of a hologram. A fuzzy reproduction of Joe’s face accompanied a few lines of type. Only one word mattered to Joe. Approved.
“It would seem you have been approved,” said the man. “Please come with us.” His eyes examined Joe thoroughly. “Also, now would be the time to inform us if you are carrying any weapons.”
“N-no, no weapons,” said Joe.
“Come with us.”
Joe followed the security detail hesitantly. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something would go wrong as soon as he stepped through the door.
“You must go through the detector,” said the same man.
“Okay.” Joe stepped into a large, metallic box. This box was currently dark, but it would light up quickly after he entered it. The light, he knew, would turn green if he was deemed safe and red if he was deemed unsafe. A few anxious moments passed before the light turned green.
“Alright,” said the head of the security detail. “Please come with us. There is some paperwork to fill out.”
As Joe followed them, he couldn’t help but think the word paperwork was a bit outdated. No one used paper anymore. However, paperwork was, and always had been, associated with bureaucracy. And seeing as the National Institute for Mental Health was a part of the government, he had expected bureaucracy of the most tiresome sort.
The only man who had spoken thus far took a seat behind a table. He pointed to the seat opposite him. “Sit.”
Joe acquiesced. His heart pounded against his ribcage as he lowered himself into the chair.
“What is the reason for your visit today?” asked the man.
“Didn’t I already tell you?” Joe noticed his words appearing on the hologram, exactly as he had said them.
“Yes, but I would like to know your actual reason.”
“Th-that is my actual reason,” said Joe nervously, eyes intent on the text that was appearing.
“I don’t doubt that. What I’m looking for is the ulterior motive.”
“Does their have to be an ulterior motive?” said Joe.
The man scrutinized Joe with a piercing look. “Don’t play the whole stupid act with me. It won’t fly. This is not a pleasant place. People don’t come here unless they have a very good reason.”
Joe fidgeted in his seat. “Well, I just heard that an old friend of mine was here. Marietta and I grew up in the same housing unit. I wanted to see her.”
“Very well,” said the man as he rose from his chair. “Follow me.” He turned to the other guards and ordered them back to their posts. The head of the security detail clicked a button on his device, and the fuzzy hologram of type faded.
Moments later, he opened a door, then beckoned Joe through it. Joe shuffled hesitantly through the door, peering back at the man warily. There was no visible expression on the guard’s scarred face.
Hundreds of doors lined the long hall Joe had entered. The floor beneath his feet was white, as were the walls and the ceiling. The general effect was blinding. Joe slowed his pace, prompting the guard to prod him from behind.
Joe tried to calm his nerves, but he couldn’t help feeling like a prisoner as he marched down the hall. His mind drifted to the horrors of life in the Institute. He couldn’t fathom Marietta’s misery in this bleak place.