The Tape Silo
Chapter 5 of “Partners”
Static comes upon the gray television in the daycare. Everyone turns their heads. The attendants watch intently, lifting their eyes from whatever thing they’re attending to.
An Operator appears on the television, sitting neatly at a desk with a pen, paper, and small paperweight that changes during every occasion. This time, the paperweight is a red X inside a bright circle.
The attendants stiffen. In the Operator Center, they were trained that certain paperweights had certain codes. The X in the center of the circle meant that there was a problem.
And there’s a problem.
The Operator smiles. “Hello, everyone,” he says, voice completely calm and collected, as always, “I hope you’re all doing well today.”
His smile turns to a frown. “This broadcast is an unfortunate one. Sadly, two Partners have decided to run away.”
At this, everyone gasps.
“It’s very ill-fated for them to decide to break the rules like this. We have all been searching for these Partners in the Operator Center. I ask that you look out for them, too. It was dangerous for them to decide to run away without any materials whatsoever.”
The attendants mutter amongst themselves in low voices, pausing from their work of cleaning the daycare. They think about the Partners’ decision. If you run away, you have no food, no water, and no place to sleep at night. Why would anyone ever want to do that? What made those two Partners think so differently?
The Operator looks away, lowering his head. “If you find them, please let us know. This is such an unfortunate case that there aren’t many other ways to describe it.”
The attendants shake their heads slowly, echoing the Operator’s sadness. If an Operator uses the same word twice in an explanation, it really means that the situation must be very, very dire.
A sad smile graces his expression. “Please keep an eye out for these Partners. They could be in danger if we don’t find them.
“Thank you for listening.”
The television clicks back to static. Every attendant looks at a fellow attendant, sadness in their expressions. What a very, very, very unfortunate event. Partners deciding to run away hasn’t happened for a very, very, very long time.
Those two Partners, however, have not even left the confines of the Operator Center. In fact, they are right in the deep, deep middle of the facility, right where no one will think to look.
Faris and Ilona listen, ears to the door, wondering what the Operators are talking about. Tucked in the corners of the doorway, they wait to understand the Operators, but it’s like they’re speaking a different language. It’s difficult to translate any of their complicated words into words that little five-year-olds can understand. Even Faris, who has the intelligence of an Operator, doesn’t actually know what they’re saying.
All of the words are scientific and technical. They’re too long to pronounce and too complicated to even guess. The Partners listen hopelessly to the endlessly misunderstood conversation.
Finally, Faris grasps her wrist. In a silent voice, he whispers something to her, and it’s the only thing she can understand out of everything she’s heard in the last five minutes.
“We have to go.”
The brunette nods. She and Faris quietly slip down the hall. They don’t talk or step fully on the ground until they can’t hear the Operators’ confusing conversation in the background.
“Do you think they’re gonna find us?”
Faris looks up at the ceiling, as if searching for something. “Not in here. We’ve got to get as far away from them as we can. We’ve got to hide somewhere where they’re never, ever gonna find us.”
A crazy idea comes to Ilona’s mind.
“Could we hide in Somewhere Else?”
Faris turns his head and stares at her. Gently, he takes hold of her wrists, causing her to stop walking. “What?” she asks, “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve been to Somewhere Else before.”
She blinks blankly, then shakes her head. “You couldn’t go to Somewhere Else. Only Operators go there.”
“But I told you I was always with the Operators. I’ve been to Somewhere Else.”
Ilona considers this, letting brown hair fall over her green eyes. “Do you think this is Somewhere Else?”
Both of them think about this comment. Everything in this hallway doesn’t look very different. Ilona thought that Somewhere Else would be way, way in the distance, like she saw on the playground. She thought Somewhere Else would be a place filled with things she’s never seen before. This doesn’t look a lot like Somewhere Else. But maybe it is.
Faris thinks about this, too. He’s sure he remembers Somewhere Else in his mind. After all, as Ilona mentioned when they’d first met, he doesn’t remember his parents. He doesn’t remember going to daycare. All he remembers is being with the Operators his whole life– being with the Operators in Somewhere Else. He remembers it being shiny and gray and silver…
He turns his head to look all around. “Maybe this is Somewhere Else. I remember something like this when I was with the Operators.”
She turns to him.
Ilona has never seen anything like him before.
His static skin. His black-and-white eyes, which don’t seem to have the circular shape of pupils, just lines going in several directions. He is not a monster, she knows that. That’s what they’re proving to the Operators by hiding away.
But he is different.
Different enough to be from Somewhere Else?
Her eyes widen. “Are we really in Somewhere Else?” Ilona squeaks.
Excitement lights up in her eyes. She and the other children could only ever imagine Somewhere Else… and now that she sees it, it’s a lot more boring and scarier than she thought it’d be.
“Well,” Faris says, “We’re probably just entering Somewhere Else.”
“I thought it would be really far away,” says Ilona.
“It was right here the whole time.”
“Maybe this isn’t Somewhere Else.”
The two of them start walking again, talking back and forth a bit adorably about where Somewhere Else could be and how they could ever, ever get there to avoid being caught by the Operators.
“I think,” says Faris finally, as they keep walking along the oddly long corridor, “Somewhere Else is where nobody ever goes.”
“Then how come the Operators live there?”
“I mean… nobody normal ever goes to Somewhere Else. So Somewhere Else can be anywhere. It can be way, way in the distance on the playground, or it can be right here, right in the middle of the Operator Center.”
Ilona frowns. “It could be on the playground, too?”
She sighs. “We shoulda gone there…”
Faris shakes his head. “This is better. Only the Operators can find us here. The other people can’t find us here. If we went out to the playground, everybody could have seen us.”
“Do you think we could go out there and play? Maybe… after all this is over?”
“I’m sure we can go out there,” Faris says softly, “once everybody knows about me and the Operators.”
She blinks. The two of them stop walking, both completely paused by the words that have just come out of Faris’s mouth.
“What do you mean?”
“I… I don’t know.”
The boy leans against the wall, a hand against his head, squinting at nothing. “I just remembered something.”
“What kinda something?”
“It’s… it’s scary.”
His breath catches in his chest, just for a moment, as he thinks of it.
Faris’s memory loss is something he’s never questioned. Then again, he’s never questioned the Operators, either– until they started calling him a monster, of course. His memories have always been very vague, especially about… the beginning.
Ilona has her memories of the beginning. She remembers seeing her parents. And she also remembers the problem a year after her beginning, when the people stormed the streets saying that the Operators were bad.
Faris, however, has no memories of the beginning. One of his memories has just come back to him, and it hasn’t gone away yet, as they usually do, so he holds onto it as tight as he can. The memory is… is…
There’s a street… and a door… and someone takes his hand and leads him out of an unfamiliar house. Unfamiliar people wave at him, sadness in their eyes. He sees the blurry Operator Center in his vague memory and squints at it.
That’s it. Then, it’s gone, before he can remember anything else.
Ilona gently takes his shoulders. “Faris! Are you OK?”
“I’m OK,” he says dizzily, “I don’t feel very good, but I’m OK.”
“What happened? What did you remember?”
He explains the indistinct images that had entered into his mind, only to slip away once more.
Ilona narrows her green eyes in confusion. “Then you weren’t always with the Operators,” she says, “You probably had parents, too, and you probably went to daycare, too.”
“But the Operators always told me that I was with them.”
Both of them squint.
What does that mean? Another reason to distrust the Operators? They “helped” Faris twice by making him dizzy and sleepy, and now they’ve been lying to him?
She shakes her head. The Operators? Lie? They never could. Ilona folds her arms. That’s impossible. The Operators only try to help people. They could never hurt anyone. They could never lie to anyone. Lying is a rule that can never be broken. Operators would never, ever, ever lie!
“Ilona,” Faris says softly, “Please, calm down.”
“I can’t,” the girl huffs frustratedly, fire in her green eyes, “The Operators never lie! They never did anything bad to anyone!”
“Then why did they take me away from that house?” Faris demands, a serious tone in his voice, “Why did they take me away from those people? Why did they ‘help’ me and why can’t I remember? Why can’t I remember anything about before?!”
Ilona rubs her eyes, wiping away tears she doesn’t want her Partner to see. “I dunno,” she mumbles under her hands, “I dunno… I dunno anything. I thought the Operators were nice.”
Faris knows the only way out of this conversation. Since Ilona has been educated to trust the Operators all her five years of life, there’s only one way. “The Operators are nice. We just have to prove them that they’re wrong about me. We have to show them that they’re wrong.”
He takes her hand.
“Then why’d you say that… thing…?”
“About the Operators?”
The boy sighs, pushing curly strands of hair out of his eyes. “I don’t know. But… but the Operators have to have something to do with me, right?”
He lets go of Ilona’s hands and climbs across the wall, then up to the ceiling, where he says, “How can I do this and you can’t? Why do I look like this and nobody else does? Why do I know things about Somewhere Else and nobody else does?”
Those are interesting questions to consider. Ilona shrugs her shoulders as Faris drops to the floor. “Can we find out?”
Faris looks down the hall. It seems to go on forever. But surely, it has to end somewhere, and when they get there, who knows what they’ll find? More people like Faris? Or maybe things that nobody has ever seen before, like spiders, or Ferris Wheels, or…
There are many, many things to consider. Too many things for two five-year-olds to think about.
He nods at Ilona’s remark. “Let’s go.” Faris turns his head back toward the door to the room where the Operators are. “We have to go where they’ll never find us.”
So they keep walking.
It turns out that the hallway has several twists and turns in it, like a large, metal maze. Faris and Ilona eventually find their way to a door at the end of it all. Several doors. None of them are labeled. The two Partners don’t know which one to go into, because any of them could have Operators or guards or even other Partners in them.
They can’t get caught. This isn’t Tag. This is Hide-and-Seek. They have to find a hiding place, not keep running.
Faris opens the door at the end of the hall. It swings open without a sound. Inside of the room are shelves, silver shelves, lined with… books? Squares? Rectangular objects?
They are all labeled, although that doesn’t really do anything to help their situation. The labels are things like “FM-000 - TRIAL 1” and “YR 55055 - PRTNR 046,” none of which they understand.
Ilona looks at the tattoo on the front of her hand, feeling over it with her fingers. She compares it to some of the labels of the small boxes, noticing a similarity.
“Faris,” she asks, “What’s your number?”
He looks all along his arms. “I don’t have one.”
She blinks at him. “Really? Everyone got one.”
For a moment, the two of them search Faris’s wrists, and then Ilona sees something white on his neck.
“You do have one!” she shouts, “But it’s… zero. Zero doesn’t count as a number.”
He looks down in surprise, trying to see his white numbering. “Zero? What does it say?”
“F… M… Zero-zero-zero.“
He considers this, hands feeling across the several book-like rectangles lining the walls.
His eyes open wide when he discovers that there are several hundreds of tapes that say “FM” on them. It’s the same number that’s on his neck. Each of the tapes with “FM” is labeled with “TRIAL” and then an ascending number.
“What does ‘FM’ mean?” Ilona asks, looking at her own hand. “And… and mine says ‘IF’.”
“I-F,” explains Faris, “I think it’s… ‘I’ starts your name, right?”
Ilona nods. She often misspells her name like Ilone or Illona, but she knows for sure what letter it starts with. “What about the ‘F’?”
He looks at her hand. “F for female,” he murmurs, recalling a memory of quiet voices talking to one another, “037 for the 37th I-named female…
“What does mine say, again?”
She looks at his neck, squinting. “F-M-zero-zero-zero,” Ilona answers.
Faris mulls over this, muttering things to himself that Ilona can’t even remotely hear. Finally, he says, with some form of confidence in his understanding, “If yours means ‘Ilona’ and ‘Female’, then mine must mean ‘Faris’ and ‘Male’.”
She blinks at him. “I never knew what the numbers meant. The Operators always said it was just a way to… to… keep track of us. But I dunno what that means.”
“It means,” he starts, “that they know when one of us is missing. There are 37 females– girls– with the letter ‘I’ at the beginning of their name. And if only 36 of them are here, then the 37th must be missing. And since they record everyone’s numbers, they know that the 37th girl is you, Ilona. That’s how they keep track.”
“If that’s what my number means, what does yours mean? Zero isn’t s’pos’ta mean anything. It is a number, but it means nothing. That doesn’t make any sense. If you were the first ma– b– boy with ‘F’ at the start of your name, then it should be one, not zero.”
Faris looks at all the objects on the wall, sliding his hands over the soft bumps. “Maybe I was before the Partners were even here. I lived with the Operators for a long, long time.”
“That means I was never the first. I was… before. Before everyone. Zero is before one. I was before everyone.”
Ilona’s amazed. “W… wow…” she breathes.
The two of them lift their eyes to the countless book-like objects lining the shelved walls.
“What are these things?”
Faris shrugs his shoulders. “I dunno. The Operators must come back here a lot. All of these say ‘FM-000’ and then ‘TRIAL’. There must have been a lotta trials about me.”
He squints. “I think these are… are… tapes.”
Ilona shakes her head at her own reasoning. “I forgot about tapes!” she laughs, back, just for a moment, to her unworried, unbothered, five-year-old self, “We watch tapes all the time at daycare! My favorite is about the Cats, things with pointy ears and big eyes. After we watched that movie, we would always play with stuffed toys.”
The happy tone of her voice makes Faris look over, only to see her smiling.
He realizes how much she’s changed just in the past week-and-a-half. Maybe it was the nightmares. Maybe it was the Operators.
Maybe it was him.
He turns back to the tapes, imperceptibly shaking his head. “These tapes are about me and trials…”
His eyes widen. “If we found a television, we could watch them and see what happened!”
Ilona looks up, up, up at all the tapes lining the walls. There must be millions, billions, trillions of them. It rises so high above her head that she can’t even see up that far. She didn’t know the Operator Center was that tall.
Maybe she should’ve known, because when she and the other children were entering the Operator Center, it was so high above all their heads they could barely see the top of it.
“But there’s so many! We can’t watch them all! That will take forever!” she whines.
Faris shakes his head. “Not all of them! We just have to choose a few.”
He skims over several of the trial tapes and takes one away from the wall, flipping it back and forth in his hands. “What about this one?”
“The third trial?” Ilona asks.
Her Partner nods his head. “I don’t remember any of these. We should choose at least one more and then see if we can find a television.”
As Faris slides his hands over more of the tapes, Ilona slouches. At the daycare, slouching is considered rude, unless you’re sitting down. But here, alone, with her Partner, no one minds. Particularly because Faris is very busy looking at the tapes.
Ilona has a good reason for slouching. She’s sad. Sad and considering something.
It’s the Operators.
There are so many tapes here. So many tapes about the Operators. And she wants to know if the Operators are bad or not. She doesn’t know if they’ve been lying to Faris. She doesn’t know why they said he needed to be controlled. She doesn’t know how they’ve “helped” him. She doesn’t know… anything, really.
She tugs on Faris’s sleeve, causing him to look down.
“What is it?”
“What about the Operators?” Ilona whimpers quietly, “Can we find a tape about them?”
They lift their heads. The tapes about the Operators must be high, high into the sky. Ilona could never get them down. And how could the Operators even–?
Faris sets the tapes down. “I can get one.”
Ilona stares at him in disbelief. Him? Her Partner? Go all the way up there? She immediately starts to shake her head. “You can’t do that.”
“I can climb the walls.”
“It’s too high!”
“I can climb back down, too.”
“What if you fall?”
“I’ve never fallen before,” though that’s a lie, because he doesn’t remember the things from his past.
“You can’t go up there!” Ilona protests, grabbing his sleeve, “I won’t let you!”
“You could fall and get hurt! And falling from all the– the way up there is worse than falling down the stairs or off the slides or off the swings! You can’t go! You’ll fall and get hurt!”
She refuses to let go of him, as much as he attempts to shake her off.
“I’ve climbed lots of things before,” he says, “I even climbed the swingset, remember?”
“That’s not the same,” Ilona cries, “It’s too high. We can find something about the Operators down here.”
Faris narrows his eyes. The second shelf is too high above their heads that they could never reach. How would they ever get a tape about the Operators down here? All that’s down on the first shelf are things about Faris and the Partners in the past.
“We’ll never find one down here,” he says, “I can get one if I go up there.”
Ilona huffs. “We don’t have to. I just asked if we could–”
“–And we can!”
He clears his throat. “I can. Then we can find out if the Operators… if the Operators are… as good as we think.”
She’s hesitant for a very long time. She doesn’t let go of his wrist.
Ilona doesn’t want her Partner to fall. She doesn’t want him to get hurt. Yes, he jumped down from the ceiling several times and hasn’t gotten hurt. But the ceilings in her room are very low compared to this.
At the same time, if she never finds out if the Operators are bad, she’ll wonder about it all her life.
Slowly, very, very slowly, she lets go of his wrist. Faris watches her curiously, giving a sympathetic expression. “I’ll be fine. I can climb really far.”
Ilona doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t approve of this, that’s clear.
Faris turns and latches onto the shelves, pulling himself upward. He’s careful not to touch the tapes with his hands. Ilona watches him pull himself from shelf to shelf to shelf to shelf to shelf… until he’s just a speck high up on the wall.
She sits down and leans her head in her hands.
Waits for what feels like eternity.
Even though she knows Faris and she can’t stay here forever, this hiding place seems perfect. There hasn’t been a single footstep remotely near the room they’ve been in here.
The girl squints at her white shoes, wondering… Wondering what in the world must be going on at the daycare, at her house, and in the rest of the Operator Center.
There must be Operators and guards everywhere, searching for her and Faris. Her parents must be very worried about her. The other Partners who were her friends in daycare must be crying about the fact that she decided to break a rule, decided to run away. Ilona has never broken a rule before, even when she was very little and didn’t understand them. She’s never done anything like this before. She’s always been so obedient and kind and friendly.
Ilona buries her face in the puffy collar of her shirt. In just a week-and-a-half, everything about her has changed. She doesn’t trust the Operators as much as she used to. She doesn’t trust the guards. She doesn’t think Faris is a monster. And she’s broken several rules, especially the most important one: Don’t run away.
How quickly things can change…?
“Ilona!” shouts Faris from above, “I found some!”
She looks up and stands, stumbling on her legs. “Are they about the Operators?” she shouts in return.
“Yes!” Faris echoes back, “They say ‘OPERATOR TRIALS’ on them!”
She bites her tongue harshly. “Come back,” she says.
And she waits.
Ilona knows how quickly Faris can skitter across the walls. But here, he must be avoiding needlessly touching the tapes. The Operators might come into this room after they’ve left it, and they might know that the two Partners have been in here, snooping around in the large collection of labeled tapes.
But Faris seems to be taking forever. It must be very difficult to shift his weight from shelf to shelf, especially because he’s holding so many things in his hands. He said he found “some,” and “some” can either mean “a few” or “a lot.” She begins to hold her breath, standing erect as she waits for him to come down.
Maybe she should’ve told him to be careful. Of course, he already knows that, and it’s meaningless to tell someone something they already know. In certain situations, like with the Operators, for instance, it’s considered rude. The attendants at the daycare taught her that.
“Faris?” she calls up the tape silo.
Silence comes back to her. And then, she hears her own voice echo, wondering why she sounds so much more grown-up in her head and why she sounds like a little child out loud.
Perhaps because she still is a little child and only thinks that she’s more mature than she was, just because she’s playing Hide-and-Seek with the Operators and she’s winning.
There’s a scraping noise. Ilona squeaks when three tapes come flying down toward her. She dodges them and they land on the floor, probably broken and probably useless.
“Faris?” she shouts, “Are you OK?”
She watches a shadow scamper from the darkness of the distant ceiling. Ilona’s green eyes widen to the widest they’ve ever been. Her Partner tries to keep his grip on the shelves, but his hands are slipping off them. She can hear him struggling from the force of gravity heavily pushing him down.
Faris grunts, fingers groping the shelves as he tries to keep hold. But all of the sudden, his hands give way, and he falls, causing a scream to fly out of Ilona’s mouth before she can consider whether or not it will get them caught.
With a thump, Faris lands face-first on the tiled floor.
For a moment, Ilona stands still. She’s never seen anyone die before. She’s never really heard of death before. She’s only heard about it from attendants who talk about their great grandparents, and even then, she doesn’t know what “death” actually is. But she knows it’s when someone goes away and never, never, never comes back.
She’s afraid Faris has just gone away, and he’s never, never, never gonna come back.
Ilona bends down. “Faris,” she says, “Faris! Faris? Are you OK?”
The only thing she’s ever fallen from is her bunk bed, and even that would never hurt as much as this must’ve.
“Faris!” she says, louder this time, desperate to wake him up, “Faris! Wake up!”
His fingers claw at the ground. Faris moves his arms, pushing himself upward very weakly. He can’t manage to heave himself into any position at all.
When Ilona hears a muffled cry, she feels hot wetness come to her eyes.
Faris is crying.
He is not OK.
She tries to keep herself from panicking. Ilona isn’t afraid of other people crying, but she just doesn’t know what to do. The attendants have tried repeatedly to show her what to do in certain situations– when someone falls and scrapes their knee, when they tumble off the back stairs of the slide, when they get into an argument with someone else. But she just doesn’t know. She just doesn’t understand how to comfort people like that. She doesn’t know what to do.
Instead, she ends up crying with the other person.
But perhaps sharing your tears with someone else is more comforting than having them tell you that you’re OK.
Faris’s cries of pain become louder and louder as the girl just sits there next to him, stiff and still as a statue.
Not deciding to fight against it, she lets her tears fall. The sensation of warm liquid sliding down her face is perhaps the most relieving thing she’s ever felt. This is the real way Ilona feels about all of this– sad. Sad and alone and wondering what in the world the Operators are doing and what they did to Faris.
She’s not alone, though.
And Faris isn’t alone, either.
Ilona reaches out and tugs him away from the floor, gently setting his back against the wall.
Seeing Faris cry must be the most discouraging thing in the whole world.
His black-and-white eyes fill with wet tears that blur up the mesmerizing image, making it all look like a puddle of television static in the rain. He’s hurt. Hurt enough not to talk about it. He’s sad, too. Sad that he dropped the tapes and probably broke them and fell from a very, very high place.
Ilona stares at the black-haired boy sitting next to her as he lets out endless wails.
Just because he has the smarts of an Operator does not mean he is not five.
Just because he can climb on the walls and stand on the ceilings does not mean he is not five.
Just because he is different still does not mean he is not five.
He’s still just a child– both of them are. Both of them are scared little children trapped in this manipulative spiderweb that they don’t know how to get out of. Every move they make seems to suck them in more and more.
So now both of them sit on the floor, crying. Because right now, that is the only solution that makes any sense.
Faris continues to sob, pain stinging and throbbing all across his chest.
Ilona scooches closer to him, also crying. And the both of them stay there, stay there for a time that they can’t count. They stay on the tiled floor, crying, in Faris’s case, wailing, and hold each other’s hand. The only comfort they have is that they’re still together. Even in all of this madness and suffering, they’re still together. Just like Faris promised.
(A sneak-peek of the future book “Partners”…)