05 May The Anima Project
“The Anima Project”Written by Josh Morelli Edited by Craig Groshek and N.M. Brown Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 18 minutes
I awake in the darkness, and where I might have otherwise thought myself blind, there is a thin shaft of light piercing the solid curtain of black around me. The light is reflected through a rounded patch of glass above my head, matched with the darkness. This tells me I must be within a confined space. I am lying on my back, and I notice that my limbs feel a peculiar resistance when I try to move them, as if I were underwater. I can breathe, but it doesn’t feel natural, and as I force my stiff right arm through the substance surrounding me, I touch my mouth. A large tube protrudes from my throat, and I nearly jerk it free out of pure instinct until the rational part of my brain reminds me that I am still submerged.
Instead, I reach above me toward the light. I feel the roof of my container and push. It takes effort, but it gives, and I slowly push it aside. Once freedom is within sight, I rip the tubing from my mouth and I lift myself. As my head breaks the surface, I take my first gasp of proper air and crawl out of my cage. Rubbing it with my fingertips, I can tell now that what I have been sleeping in is not liquid at all. It feels like some kind of gel. As my eyes fully adjust, I can see the faintest of dust particles fluttering around the section of floor where I sit. The ground is hard, something like cracked linoleum, and I see what looks to be mounds of rock piled around the room.
Rising to my knees, a pain like pins and needles shoots through my extremities as life creeps into them. My mind feels empty, my thoughts covered in cobwebs. So many questions plague me, not the least of which is why my limbs feel this way at all. I look at the rough, calloused hands in front of me, turning a reddish-pink as blood starts coursing through them again. I squeeze my right fingers into a fist, flex them open again, raise my left hand, and touch my face. Hesitantly, I press it to each of my features – nose, mouth, hair, ears – everything is there… But it all feels wrong. I can’t remember anything, how I came to be in this place, where I had been before – even my own name eludes me.
Something is odd about the attire I awoke in as well, a suit of some kind, seemingly crafted from stitched nylon fibers, with small lines running over it that track along my biceps. The way I recognize things, like the suit’s material, it’s as if certain sights and sounds are igniting vague sensations, like déjà vu, inside my head. If these observations are tapping into some unconscious memories, it would explain why I seem to know things about my situation instinctively. Like the way I know this room is deep underground or how I comprehend the fundamentals of my suit and know that it tracks its wearer’s health and bodily functions. I somehow know these things, every motion, every small interaction between flesh and fiber; every action I’ve taken feels familiar. Without warning, while lost in my contemplation, I feel a strange kind of vibration begin to emerge from the plating on the upper torso. It seems to buzz along my chest until I hear an audible click and then I watch as red numbers appear, right above my heart.
They look digital, like an alarm clock, and flash four zeros for a moment before they change. I am looking at it upside down, but it is still apparent even from that angle what it means. The numbers read 60:00 for what I’m guessing was precisely one second before they change to 59:59, and then 59:58 etc. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is functioning as a stopwatch and that it is counting down one hour, though for what reason I can’t possibly fathom. The light helps to illuminate my surroundings a little, and I decide to place this unknown element in the back of my mind while I explore the here and now. The room is large, and I decide to investigate the closest thing I can see first, which is one of the enormous mounds I had spotted when I awoke. As I approach it, something assaults my senses, a smell, sickeningly putrid that nearly brings me to my knees and makes my eyes water. Every bone in my body is screaming at me to turn back, to avoid this sight and explore elsewhere, but curiosity overwhelms good sense. So, I cover my nose with one hand and continue, though I would soon profoundly regret this decision.
As I approach, I can see things sticking out of the pile at strange and jagged angles, the smell ever-worsening. I finally come close enough for my suit’s lighting to expose what makes up this horrendous thing. Corpses surrounded me, what must be close to or more than- a hundred of them, all in varying stages of decomposition. The odd things I had seen jutting out at strange positions from the piles were limbs, hands, feet, all green with decay, some even skeletal. What I initially had thought were more dust particles from afar turned out to be flies hovering and gorging themselves on the copious amounts of flesh, seemingly stored here just for them. I froze for a moment at the sight, the pure horror of it overwhelming me, before taking a step backward and then fleeing back to the spot I had awoken. As I reached my destination, a sudden, horrible thought occurred to me. Many more piles I could see throughout this room that I had first mistaken for rock mounds as well. If all these piles were the same, that would mean there were possibly thousands of bodies in here with me. I sit in silence, trying to recuperate, to calm myself. Something has shifted in my mind; however, I have come to be here, whoever I had been before. All of these things are now less important than getting out of this place. Raising the light from my arm over a spot beneath me, I can see that a trail is visible. It seems to stretch on from the site I awoke, deep into the unseen blanket of darkness ahead. It doesn’t matter, I have to escape this hellish nightmare, so I break from my contemplative silence and begin my descent into that bleak unknown.
The path continues about 200ft to the other end of the room, stopping at the threshold of a doorway. The door itself is firmly shut, though as I lift my forearm to shine as much light as I can to inspect it, I noticed that there are words inscribed upon the center of its frame. They are underlined and written in large bold font: “Veritas est anima mea.” The phrase feels familiar, though I can’t recall its meaning. I shined my meager light from side to side. The door looks to open from left to right, with a keypad attached to the wall on one side. I can make out jagged lines of indentation along the face of the metal, as if it had been hit repeatedly with something of equal density.
A glint catches my eye as I stare at the marks, off to the side, about 15ft from the door; I can see something off in the shadows. I briefly hesitate and then quickly walk off the path to see what it is, and as I near it, I see the flash again. I reach down and grope around until I feel something on the floor and lift it. I can see now. It’s a tool of some kind, about 3ft long and made of a metal similar to the door. One end houses a rounded blunt edge that seems to have a crack along it, and the other has a hexagonal shape with three intersecting lines that form to create a tip at the end. Each side of the hexagonal end is highly reflective and is obviously what caught the light from my suit. Its intended purpose eludes me, but from its mild aesthetic damage and the look of the nearby door, I can guess what its recent makeshift use was. Looking the thing over once more, I place it back on the ground and head over to the door. Though the item itself held no clues to explain my situation, what it did do was instill a dawning sense of hope inside me. If the tool was recently used to inflict those dents on the door, then I suppose it stands to reason that whoever was using it was recently here as well.
I look back towards the door with new enthusiasm at the thought of finding a fellow captive. This time, I thoroughly inspect the pad along the side and notice something I hadn’t before. There is a keypad, but above it is a flat screen with five distinct dots aligned on it. Four of these dots are spaced about half an inch apart, with the third spaced a little more than an inch. Each dot has a line that stretches beneath it about four or five inches and stops at a curved angle that creates a circle. Looking at the spacing of the dots and the relative width and height of the pad itself, it takes me only a few moments before I think to try something. I place my right hand on it, making sure to align my fingers with the outline of the dots.
At first, nothing, but just as my excitement starts to wane, it quickly reignites as the pad suddenly bursts to life. Each dot flares with a bright neon green that then flows down the lines and loops around the circle under my palm, and as the light finishes its trajectory, a loud chime blares from some unseen speaker. Suddenly I can hear a mechanism whirl as the door easily folds in upon itself and shelters in the crevice on its right side. I cautiously approach the threshold of the now open door, so many questions still haunting my thoughts. Who were all these people I had been entombed with, and if others had come before me, why had they not woken me up? I suppose that none of these questions will ever be answered if I continued my inaction, and so with a deep breath, I step over the threshold and continue forward.
I don’t get far; however, the moment my entire body is across, something ignites, and noise starts spreading all around me. There’s a blinding flash, and then I am bathed in red light, faster than I can react to; a long synthetic arm appears from the wall to my side and grips my left wrist. Before I even see it, I feel it tug my arm straight, and with terrifying efficiency, it emits a searing line of heat from some utensil attached to it. White-hot, blinding pain courses through my body, so intense that my vision goes black for a fraction of an instant. Then, with ferocious animal instinct, I react before my mind can process any of it. I turn and reach for the mechanical device, ready to tear it from the wall, but I am too slow. It releases my wrist and quickly disappears as my right hand swings uselessly at the air where it had been.
Enraged, I scream and kick the wall where it had re-entered before eventually caving to the pain. I hold my left arm and sink to the floor, slowly turning it over to see what kind of damage has been done. Strangely, as I turn my arm to face me, I don’t see the type of severe lacerations or bleeding that I was expecting. From the amount of pain I endured, I was sure that my arm would be in tatters, but it isn’t. Instead, all that I can see are four numbers seared black into my lower wrist: 9292. As I read them aloud to myself, I feel the pain diminishing, and my breathing begins to normalize. Within a few minutes, the pain ceases entirely, and I sit stunned, staring at my distasteful tattoo. No discoloration or swelling marks the spot, none of the regular signs one would find when carving flesh. It’s as if it has always been a part of me. I raise my head and get to my feet, only to be startled again as a short thump sounds from behind me. I quickly turn around to discover the door has shut again, and it becomes clear, whatever plans I might have made before, whatever chances I might have missed, the only option left to me now is moving forward. There is still the knowledge that someone else has come before me, and there are surely more clues that will aid me in finding them. I have to keep my head and follow their trail.
The path, now illuminated in that harsh red lighting, blazes bright enough for me to continue through the corridor. Details are complex to make out, but whatever these walls were designed for, they had been fashioned to look like an industrial complex, possibly military in design. I haven’t been walking long when I am forced to stop; the path in front of me now forks in two directions. On the center wall, placed on a section that divides the paths, hangs a screen where words hover in LCD imaging. On the left side of its display, it shows an arrow with the word “Answers,” on the right is the same arrow, but the phrase reads “Escape.” Stunned, I read the words over and over again, racked by a sense of horrible Déjà vu as I repeat them in my mind. Paralyzed by indecision, thoughts whirling with frustration, anger, and fear, while the ever-dwindling numbers displayed on my chest hold a constant sting of concern.
What kind of sadistic game is this? These choices are so absurd they feel comical. How am I supposed to choose between options like this? I shut my eyes to think, trying to consider the possible consequences of this decision. Powerful dread begins welling up within me, amplified by the relentless sense of déjà vu that seems to be a constant on this journey. My choice will have to be made with my gut rather than through any logical deduction. I take a deep breath and cautiously step to the right, moving closer to a decision. I stop; again something has caught my eye. From the left side of the path, I see something odd glinting from the shadows. I hesitate for a moment and then move to examine what I’ve seen. Though difficult to spot in the dim lighting, there are words drawn clearly into the interior of the left-side hallway. Scribbled in what looks like poorly faded ink, I study them for a few moments and decipher the lines: “To whoever may come after, I seek the truth and pray it sets me free. Do not follow me.”. I lick one finger, wipe it against the wall, and taste it. My suspicions are proven correct when the coppery flavor hits my tongue. The fading brown text on the wall has been scrawled in blood. I briefly consider their warning, but my longing for answers and the thought of human connection easily sway my decision. I take one last glance at the timer, which has decreased by nearly fifteen minutes and walk down the corridor to the left. This time, I expect it when the solid wall appears and quickly closes the gap behind me as I head down the first ten feet of the passage. I look back for only a moment as a cold sweat forms on the back of my neck and question whether I have made a mistake.
For what feels like an eternity, I make my way deeper down the path I’ve chosen until I can see the corridor begin to widen. Eventually, I step into a far nicer room than anything I have seen to this point. A gigantic monitor stands in the center of the room, surrounded by dozens of smaller computers and other displays, all protected by glass shields. As I approach, I notice one of them has a black disk sitting in an open drive. On it is a plain sticky note label, dust has gathered on and around it, and it looks like it has sat here for a very long time. Standing above it now, I can see that written on the label itself are the words: Play Me.
I stare at it before almost unconsciously raising my hand to press it in, then stop before I do. My hand still hovering hesitantly in the air, I turn to look around the room. Monitors line almost every inch of the walls, and thick dust has settled on the floor, tables, and on the front of every screen in the room. No one has been in this room for a long time. Looking back to the disk in front of me, I carefully move my finger to the button by the tray and gently press it. The disk quickly sinks back into the machine, and I can hear its internals whir to life before a sound rings out that echoes through the chamber. Images flash across every display in the room, pictures of a child, a woman, and a man. Scenes of them smiling and hugging, laughing and playing, the woman is beautiful, and the little girl by her side brings tears to my eyes. But the man, I recognized the man, in the reflection of the nearest display I can see my face, the same face the man in the picture wears. This is my family, how have I forgotten? Their faces feel so familiar, and yet, the sensation of recognition is there, but something about it is foreign… Something feels old.
Suddenly a voice cuts through my thoughts and grips my heart with fear, a man’s voice that rings throughout the speakers. “The blind leading the blind into eternal suffering, the fate I chose for you.” I spin around as the voice bounces from speaker to speaker within the room, anger welling up inside me; I tremble with rage as I scream out: “What have you done to me, dear god… to my family… Where are they?!?”
The voice is silent, before, in the same dull tone, it speaks again: “I truly pity you, I created this suffering, and I deserve your hatred, every infinitesimal drop of it.” My fists clench so hard that blood starts dripping to the floor. Hands slick with my own weeping plasma, I am lost in my outrage and hardly notice the sting of the marks I have dug. The vague sensation of pain only serves to feed my anger, and I start shouting again, thrashing my hands about in a futile tantrum: “I swear to god if you’ve hurt them, I will fucking kill you!”
Again, the voice is silent a moment before it responds: “I know my sympathy is worthless to you, and though I can do nothing to ease your torment, I can at least give you what you seek: the truth of things.”
From out of the ceiling, a long synthetic chord snakes its way downward, faster than I can react, and embeds itself into the back of my neck. My vision blurs, I become dizzy and fall to my knees as it works its way deeper into my cortex. I reach for something to steady myself, but my legs give way, and I collapse. As if I am sinking into a hole while a wretched umbral pitch clings to my limbs. The murk suddenly gives way, and my mind is swiftly overwhelmed with the uncanny sensation of falling. Gracelessly tumbling through the air until my ears start to ring, there is a pop and I am staring at a new world through unfamiliar eyes. I cannot move. I cannot control any part of the being I am inhabiting. I seem to be a passenger watching events unfold through their eyes. I know almost immediately that I am driving, my hands are on the steering wheel, and I watch as I lift one and move it to flick a switch for my turn signal. The eyes stare ahead at the road for a few seconds before turning to the passenger in the front seat, and it is then that I recognize where I am.
The woman, my wife, sits there, she speaks something that I cannot hear, and the eyes look into the rear-view mirror to see my daughter sitting in the back seat. The child says something else I can’t make out, but it makes the woman frown. I lift my hand and say something to her, which makes her nod and remove her seat belt. She leans into the back, quickly undoes the girl’s belt, and I can see her trying to fiddle with the girl’s coat in the rear-view again. My mouth repeats something that makes her stop and look at me while I stare in the mirror; she is smiling. But as quickly as it comes, the smile vanishes and is twisted into a look of sheer terror.
As my eyes refocus on the road, I see why traffic has stopped in front of us. I can sense my foot hitting the brake pedal incredibly fast, but at the distance we are, it hardly matters. Our vehicle careens into the back of the pickup truck in front of us, and I watch in horrifying slow motion as our wife and daughter soar through the air and crash straight through the windshield. I see the glass tear at their faces, peeling skin from bone, blood freely spilling in every direction. As our vehicles contort, a shard of metal rips free from the back of the pickup. I watch in horror as it slowly gouges out the left eye of my wife and continues forward into the throat of my daughter. An explosion rocks my head backward, and I am mercifully knocked unconscious as the front airbag hits my face.
Blackness engulfs me. I am sucked back into that pit, only to awaken again as a passenger. This time standing in a graveyard, staring at a priest as he silently finishes his sermon, then watches helplessly as my family is lowered into the ground. Blackness again, this time I come to a place that feels familiar in a lab of some kind. I’m standing at a computer, multiple monitors splayed out in front of me, and I watch as my fingers type on a keyboard, deftly inputting complicated-looking equations. More images flash across the screens, strings of numbers and code run across the monitor to the left, while pictures of blueprints and documents titled “scenarios” run simultaneously on the right. My hands work furiously at the keyboard for a few more moments when I catch a reflection in the center display. The door behind me slowly opens, and a man quietly enters the room. My hands cease typing at the sight of him, and as we stare at one another, everything fades to black again.
This time, I come to sitting at a table while a man is speaking to me. His face looks grave, and he places multiple papers in front of me and hands me a pen. I can see as I reach for the pen, the papers all have the same insignia at the top and are all addressed with the same name, “The Anima Project.” As I sign them, I shift again. This time I am putting on a suit, the same one I awoke in and stepping into a vat filled with that gel-like blue liquid. I lay on my back, completely submerged, and watch the tank’s lid slide over me before the blackness takes me. I feel its preternatural depths engulf me, and I tread the path that brought me here a second time. Violently pulled upwards, through darkness as thick as heavy mist, that feels like a soggy pitch wrapping around me. I surface, awakening in my natural body, immediately I feel the chord release from the back of my neck with a sickening crunch. The dreadful sound vibrates through my ears as the machine ejects, ripped out from between my vertebrae, tearing through any remaining cartilage.
As I attempt to catch my breath, the voice in the speakers around me starts again: “Plato once said about the soul that love calls back the halves of ourselves and tries to make one out of two, knitting and healing the wounds of our natures. What then can we do when one half of that soul dies?” Gathering my senses, I lash out, screaming back at it: “My god… How long have you kept me here? What is the Anima Project? You son of a bitch… What have you done to me?”
The voice continues as if I hadn’t spoken: “Veritas est anima mea: Truth of the soul. That is the reason all of this exists. Project Anima exists as a means to discover how closely connected the flesh is to the soul.” I try to yell, voice my anger and dismay again, but something catches in my throat, and I fall to my knees. I am suddenly gasping for breath, while the voice continues unperturbed: “It was my project from the beginning. We had perfected methods to create exact replicas of flesh but sought the means to transfer a soul. My final contribution was to create a test, a method of determining perfect conversion. A simple choice that would dictate how much comprehension was transferred from host to host, to gather the necessary data to play god.”
Everything has started spinning, and the voice sounds like it is coming from every direction at once. It is all I can do to keep myself from falling to the ground while I listen. “My soul was torn asunder the moment my family died. I am nothing but a hollow carapace now, with no fight left in me. It seems only fitting then, as its creator, that I volunteer to be the project’s first test subject. They will wipe all memories of having created it, working on the test, and of anything related to project anima.” I can no longer stay on my feet, my legs buckle, and I crash to the floor hard. I struggle to my side with immense difficulty, and through my anguish, I catch sight of the red display lights. Even with my weakening vision, I can see the terrifying image of four blinking zeroes.
While I stare in horror, I can hear the distant sound of the ever-present voice continuing: “The plan is to awaken with only my civilian memories intact, and while I suffer the anxiety of the unknown, I must make a choice. If I choose poorly, I will be killed, and the test will start again. If I choose to do nothing, a timer will be set off, and I will be killed as well. They hope that through numerous deaths, I will develop latent memories that should act like instinct and keep me from the wrong decisions. Should this come to pass, it would show a possibility for connection to the soul without any interference. For my part, I no longer truly care about the outcome.”
I try to stand but fall, landing on my back; I can do nothing but lay here and stare at the ceiling. I watch as it begins to move, slowly at first and then with slightly more speed. It takes a moment before it dawns on me that it’s not the ceiling that’s moving. Something has taken hold of me and is lifting me off the floor, carrying me. I can no longer struggle; I can do nothing now but slowly turn my head as I lay limply in the things grasp.
I watch with mild interest as I am carried past the rooms and corridors I had only recently traversed. All the while hearing that goddamn voice, still talking. “We are in the complex I created, which exists deep underground, and I designed the program to be entirely automated and self-sufficient. Any interaction is done through robotic appendages and the like. I made sure it will continue until the desired outcome is achieved. It will never stop, but If it fails, I will eventually regress to something only vaguely human, a shell of what once was. Memories will fade with every renewal until there is nothing left except hazy images and blurry recollections. I recorded this message before the procedure and set it as my only request that they give you the option of listening to it. I must sign off now. The vat is calling… I have doomed you and the countless others who have come before, and will come after, to eternal suffering you do not understand; please forgive me, because I cannot forgive myself.”
As the recording ends, I am hardly given time to think before my ragged breaths become racked with coughs. I feel my body shake with each tremor as I reach a hand to my mouth. When I pull it away, it is covered in blood. Passing a familiar room, I can make out the bold letters I saw earlier – Veritas est anima mea – inscribed upon the door as I’m carried by it. Then, as suddenly as it began, my ride ends. Dragged back to the start of my journey, I’m tossed, efficiently and carelessly, onto a thing that is rigid and smells terrible. I use the last of my strength to turn my head, trying to see what brought me back here. I only catch a glimpse of a metallic form as it exits the room, but what I see much more is far worse. Something that brings my brutal nightmare into perspective, as I realize I now lay on a pile of corpses waiting to die. I see the body lying beside me, so fresh it can’t be more than a few hours old. As I look into its opal white eyes, it is as if I’ve stared into a mirror, but worse than that…
Far worse than that is the series of four numbers I can see emblazoned on its wrist. Numbers that read: 9291.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available