Sometimes, when the digital whiteboard starts to blur in front of Carlos's face, his first assumption is that the software is glitching. This time, his fine motor coordination starts failing before his vision, so he's already fumbled and dropped the stylus by the time the equations start to swim.
Maybe Strex has another scientist double-checking his work, and they've picked up on the small but crucial errors that will make the final chemical compound prone to exploding while it's still in the warehouse. Maybe they don't know anything for sure, but his observer didn't like the look on his face and got suspicious. Maybe they just need to knock him out to do maintenance on something in the cell. Either way, the collar around his neck has been remotely activated, feeding a sedative into his bloodstream.
Carlos doesn't even try to pick up the stylus, just makes his way over to the bed.
Cecil is already there, sitting crossways on the mattress, tapping at his StrexPilot. The gadget sends him work from an internal corporate server, and feeds the answers back. Nothing as complicated as the work they send Carlos: last time he looked, Cecil was dutifully filling out a long list of captchas.
"They're coming," says Carlos, taking the seat beside him. "Just a heads-up."
"Oh, are you on your relaxation dose?" asks Cecil, putting away the StrexPilot. His eyes, jet-black and depthless, regard Carlos with innocent concern. "Do you want to lie down?"
Cecil stretches out his legs, and Carlos curls up on his side with his head resting on Cecil's thigh. The yellow fabric of the corporate-issue jumpsuit is rough against his cheek; the weight of the collar, by now familiar and tolerable when he isn't medicated into muscle weakness, holds him down now like a ball-and-chain.
"I've done everything they asked," he says hoarsely. "You tell them that."
"Of course I will!" exclaims Cecil. "Of course you have. My productive, industrious Carlos."
He pulls off Carlos's glasses and runs his fingers tenderly through Carlos's hair. (It's curling over Carlos's ears right now. He gives it three days before he wakes up to find it cut.)
There was a time when Carlos thought it was a stroke of luck, that he and Cecil had been moved into the same cell. He could study the collar on another person more easily than the one around his own neck; this would help him figure out a way to get them off. Between Cecil's government-subversion experience and Carlos's expert knowledge of scientific laws, they would work out an escape plan together. They could keep each other's morales up during the day, and tap out secrets in Morse code against each other's hearts when the lights went out.
None of that has happened. Strex doesn't need Cecil's brain in good working order the way they do Carlos's, so they've drugged him so deep into complacence that he thinks he's a happy model employee. Some of his old emotions are still intact — he still loves Carlos — he just can't seem to understand why Carlos isn't happy too.
"Love you," mumbles Carlos, as the solid outer door of their cell rumbles open. His tongue feels swollen, his mouth stuffed with cotton.
"You too, dear Carlos...."
Cecil sits up straighter. "Yes, sir?"
"You haven't been fulfilling your job description to management's expectations," says the guard on the other side of the bars. "They've assigned you a workshop, effective immediately."
"If management thinks that's the best strategy, of course I'll be a team player," says Cecil. Carlos can hear the smile in his voice, can imagine how it stretches his latest scars (lines of Frankensteinian stitching across his forehead and cheeks). "But I don't understand what they expect! My job is to encourage Carlos to do his very important job to the best of his ability, and he is, so how much more encouragement can I provide?"
"That's not for me to say, Mr. Palmer," says the guard. "Come with me."
"Right away, sir." Cecil slides his leg out from under Carlos's cheek, careful to support Carlos's skull until he can slip a pillow under it instead. Carlos's own limbs are dead weight by now, useless for helping himself.
"I'll see you after the workshop!" says Cecil brightly, kissing Carlos's cheek. Carlos sees him turn, catches just a flash of the folds of the shirt moving over his shoulder blades and the bar code inked on the nape of his neck, but can't move enough to keep watching as Cecil leaves the room.
If only he had managed to sneak through one of those oak doors before the last factor holding them open went back, and they slammed shut.
If only he had kept an eye on his drinking water while Cecil's eyeless doppelgänger was around.
If only he'd gotten suspicious early on. If he'd wondered why the featureless desert was starting to seem captivating, or why he adjusted so easily to the news that his team members were dead, or why he was no longer feeling pangs of sympathetic distress when Cecil's voice cracked on the other end of the line.
He wonders, sometimes, why they're not keeping him on that dosage now. It would make his expertise shallow and vacant and disconnected again, but it's not like that stopped him from delivering world-changing scientific discoveries into the Smiling God's hands before.
Once the collar gives him a shot of adrenaline to get him moving again, Carlos starts his assignment over, from the first line of calculations.
He's thought about giving in. About faithfully analyzing whatever they put in front of him, sending back his best work, and not thinking too hard about where it might lead. For all he knows, Night Vale could be crushed by now anyway. Tamika Flynn could be captured and killed. The reconstituted Strexcorp might be on the fast track to swallowing the rest of the world, whether Carlos plays ball or not.
On the other hand, maybe he'll be good and loyal and productive and Strexcorp will keep right on torturing Cecil, once they've used the information to wipe out any chance of either of them being rescued.
Carlos fixes two errors in the work, and introduces three more. This time the chemical solution won't be explosive, just completely inert. Following this process to the letter will allow Strex to create the world's biggest and most expensive paperweights.
He never knows exactly what they do to Cecil. A scientist is curious, but a boyfriend is too guilt-ridden and cowardly to ask.
All he knows is that, every time, they patch up Cecil's last set of injuries and send him back with fresh ones. Sometimes it's just welts or bruises. Once it was four missing teeth. This time, he returns with the scars on his face and chest reduced to barely-visible lines, but with raw stripes all over his back.
Carlos makes him lie on his stomach on the bed, and brings him water...and the StrexPilot. He doesn't want to, but Cecil begs for it. Enough that Carlos is afraid Cecil will get up and make the bleeding start again if he doesn't give in.
Between sending faulty answers, Carlos wastes his captors' time with superfluous or hard-to-find information requests. They're hardly going to give him unfettered access to the internet or a research library, but they know he can't hold all the science of the world in his head unaided. In between figuring out the complexities of how to sabotage his own work without being caught, he sends them on wild-goose chases.
He fills the digital whiteboard with three demands for state-of-matter equations of chemicals that don't form in nature, at temperatures and pressures that cannot be empirically tested, and sends them up.
A few minutes later, the lights dim. Apparently they're not going to get the data back to him soon, so they've decided to send him to bed early instead. Cecil gasps in dismay and makes a last-minute toilet run, while Carlos shrugs off the top half of his jumpsuit and crawls shirtless under the covers.
The bed is wide enough for the two of them to sleep next to each other, and no wider. Wouldn't be an efficient use of space. Carlos scoots all the way up against the wall so Cecil can snuggle in with him; their foreheads touch; their collars click together.
Neither of them moves on to more intimate touches. Carlos doesn't think his body would respond if they tried. He suspects they're being drugged with something to kill their libidos, keeping them from feeling any need to waste time on something so unproductive, and in a twisted way he's grateful: at least they don't need to worry about their sex life being salivated over by company supervisors, or packaged and sold for an extra revenue stream. At least Carlos doesn't need to think, is this really what you want, Cecil, or are they pumping it into your bloodstream along with that smile?
"I had a productive day," says Cecil warmly. "How about you?"
Carlos refuses to be disturbed by those inky-black eyes. It's still Cecil in there. No matter what they do to him. "I'm with you now. That makes it a good day."
It isn't long before the lights switch off completely. A minute later, the collars inject them both with their scheduled soporific. Carlos doesn't try to fight it anymore, just closes his eyes and listens to Cecil's breathing and lets it pull him down, down, down.
A few not-subtle-enough rebellions later, Cecil comes back from a workshop with two metal pins (bolts? screws?) fixed through one forearm, and three fingers missing to the second joint.
If he's in pain, he doesn't seem to be conscious of it. Still, he's more dazed than usual, and they can both tell he's having trouble moving what's left of that hand. "You should lie down," says Carlos, shepherding him to the bed.
Cecil obeys, but reaches automatically for the StrexPilot. He clutches after it, heedless of his bandaged fingers (can Strex fix that? Or have they stopped caring about not doing permanent, irreversible damage?), when Carlos takes it out of his reach. "I haven't filled my quota for the day."
"You went to a workshop. That counts toward your work quota," says Carlos firmly. "Besides, doing manual work while one of your hands is in a compromised state like this would be...counterproductive."
He studies science, not medicine or anatomy, but he manages to put enough authority into the words that Cecil relents. "Oh! Well, I wouldn't want that. I...Carlos, how's your work coming along? Will you have time before lights-out to cuddle?"
"I have time right now," decides Carlos.
He pulls the sheet over both of them and loops an arm around Cecil's waist, holding him as close as he dares. A few of Cecil's uninjured fingers crook between the buttons of Carlos's jumpsuit, skin warm against skin.
Cecil's eyelids flutter shut as he taps idly at Carlos's chest with his knuckle. Tap-tap. Brush-tap-tap.
No, hold on, that's Morse.
...and Carlos has lost his place, too out-of-practice to recognize the letters fast enough. He closes one hand over Cecil's to make the signaling stop, and, with the other, picks out a response against the small of Cecil's back: SLOWER PLS.
Cecil takes a steadying breath through his nose. He starts over.
I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU LIE TO STREX.
Carlos's heart stops.
I USED TO THINK WE SHOULD RESIST THEM, continues Cecil. His eyes are still closed; he's still wearing the vacant smile that his face settles into when he isn't moving. I KNOW BETTER NOW. WE'RE MORE PRODUCTIVE WHEN WE WORK WITH THEM. WE'RE HAPPIER WHEN WE BELIEVE IN A SMILING GOD. DON'T YOU WANT THAT? FOR US? FOR YOURSELF?
I DO WORK W THEM, brush-taps Carlos with shaking fingers. He doesn't know what he'll do if Cecil turns on him.
THAT'S WHAT I TELL THEM, replies Cecil. His injured arm flops between them, blue veins standing out against the skin. BECAUSE I SEE THE LIE IS IMPORTANT TO YOU. BUT I DON'T SEE WHY.
And the worst of it is, Carlos doesn't even know if this is coming from Cecil's heart, or if Strexcorp fed him these lines to bait Carlos into giving himself up.
WANT US BOTH HAPPY, he taps. Slow and vague and careful. DOING THE RIGHT THING. PLS TRUST.
And if we ever get out of here, please forgive me.
His hair is much too short to card through right now. Cecil's still-working fingertips skim over the chopped curls as the lights go out. One caresses the shell of Carlos's ear, and, in the darkness, brush-taps:
I WILL TRUST YOU.
For now, it'll have to be enough.