Beneath piles of slime and discarded scrap, shaking from hunger and near-blind in the darkness, Amy held her breath. The creature was just outside her hiding-hole. The scraping noise of claws against metal filled the space. Beneath it was a wet growl, the sound of the beast’s anticipation. Amy’s grip tightened around the steel shard. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but the point was sharp, and it was sturdy. She didn’t have the luxury of pickiness.
She yearned to scorch the creature with flame, or freeze it to the garbage, or bind it in vines. But the metal collar digging into her neck taunted her. If she tried any sort of rite, it would respond in kind, sending a surge of electricity through her body strong enough to render her comatose. If she still had the sending stone, maybe she could have done it. But the Foundation had taken that, like it took everything from her.
Above her, the garbage shifted. The creature was getting closer. The vibrations of its growl made the scrap shudder. She could feel the weight above her lifting as her protection stripped away. She tensed, waiting. The growl grew higher, like a dog whining in anticipation of meal. Not yet. She kept waiting. A beam of light peeked into the nest. She could see the shadow of its claws. Her muscles shook in anticipation.
Its claw scraped her back and she struck. Amy screamed, leaping up from the garbage and hurling herself at the beast with the force she could muster. They collided, fell, tumbled down a mountain of trash. Bits of broken metal and wood and wire tore at her skin. She ignored the pain, slamming the steel point into the creature’s chest, its arms, its eye, grinning at its howl of pain. Before it could attack her she pushed off. She struck the bottom of the pile and jumped to her feet. A few feet from her was a broken metal beam. A remnant of the massive, dilapidated ships that filled the scrapyard.
She snatched it. Before the creature had time to stand she charged it again, beating the beam against its body. It fell to its knees. She kept attacking, striking again and again, until the pole snapped and the creature was barely more than mush.
The rod slipped from her fingers. Amy stepped back, panting. Her whole body shook with adrenaline and fatigue. For a moment, everything was still. No noise but buzzing flies and the far-off whine of compaction engines.
A moment was all she had. The creature’s body was already beginning to knit itself together again. It was time to run again. She rushed off, taking a random path through the piles, hoping she had done enough damage to delay the creature. If it caught up to her again, there would be nothing she could do. Just moving made her feel like she would collapse. Her run wasn’t much more than a limping jog. Dark frames threatened to close off the edges of her vision. She stumbled through the maze of waste,
She barely had time to react to the sound of footsteps before the creature struck. It slammed into her from behind, sending them both tumbling into a mound of trash. Clawed fingers wrapped around her throat. Amy stared up at is canine face, still half-smashed in, dripping with white blood. The creature smiled. And spoke.
“I’ve been waiting so long for you,” it said.
Amy gurgled, struggling for breath through its grip.
“When you return, remember this. You belong to me.”
And then, between one blink and the next, the world was replaced by darkness. The grip around her throat disappeared. The garbage and stench vanished. She was no longer trapped by a monster but huddled in a featureless cell without the faintest hint of light. The only noise was her gasps and a constant, far-off scream.
In this room there was no time. No testing to mark the days or weeks. No meals to count off the hours. How long had she been here? A week? A month? More? At first she’d counting her sleep cycles. They’d begun to blur together before she reached five, the division between reality and unconscious slipping away. The only moments of clarity were when she was yanked away to another universe, hunted like an animal. And even if she escaped the creature, she always returned here. To the Foundation. She wanted to scream. She wanted to slam her head against the wall until she felt her skull crack. But it wouldn’t do any good.
She may have been able to cope if it weren’t for the isolation. The first time they’d imprisoned her, three years ago, the Witness’ absence had relieved her. To finally have the voice gone, after it ruined her life- it was a small relief in the horror of the imprisonment. This time the Witnesses’ disappearance felt like a missing limb. The only other being she saw was the one chasing her across worlds. So she lay on the floor, day after imperceivable day, wondering when this would end.
The answer came in a blinding light. Pure, brilliant white, it bisected the darkness of the cell like a razor. Amy squealed as it flooded the room. She clamped her eyes shut, but she could still see the light beyond, a mass of flame-red burning through her eyelids. The sound that came from her cracked throat was less that of a human than a wounded animal.
Large hands grabbed her shoulders. A pair of handcuffs slid over her wrists. The hands yanked her up. Still blinded, she struggled to catch her balance and stumbled to one knee. The hands were there to drag her back up. Without waiting for another movement from her, they began to pull her forward. Amy struggled, struck at the hand holding her, but blind she had no chance of getting a good hit in, and she was still exhausted from her fight with the creature. There was no choice but walk with them or fall
She risked peeking one eye open. At first, all she saw was a faint blur under the brightness. Slowly, that focused into a tile floor. She opened the eye the rest of the way and peered around. There were three guards with her, all dressed in identical grey uniforms. The one dragging her by the shoulder had the kind of bulk typically found only in bodybuilding competitions. Moving her barely seemed to be taking him more effort than dragging a suitcase.
The hallway they walked through was so nondescript it looped back around into uniqueness. It was so near-identical to those of the last Site she had been kept at— sterile white walls, featureless tiling, silver doors— that it must have been calculated on the Foundation’s part. If it weren’t for the signs labeling it otherwise, she would have thought they were the same. God knows why they did it. The thought of even trying to understand the organization’s thought processes made her feel queasy.
They guided her through a maze of corridors, taking seemingly random lefts and rights, occasionally doubling back, at one point walking in a large loop for five cycles. She imagined it was meant to confuse her. But after finding her way through the shelves of the Library, memorizing the route was instinctive. She doubted it would do much good. If she was trying to escape, the last place thing she wanted was a route back to her cell.
The halls shifted slightly as her group travelled. Physically, they remained the same. But the changes in atmosphere between each were palpable. She felt her captors tense as they turned to enter one hall, relax as they departed. She saw how the flow of people swelled and shrank from one corridor to the next, how traffic could go from pushing against the walls to nonexistent after rounding a single corner. She heard variations in ambient noise, the far off sounds of lab work, testing, occasional training. Amy committed each detail to memory, building her mental map one line at a time.
They stopped in front of a metal door identical to every other in the facility. As it swung open, Amy glanced at the placard on the wall. Procedure Room G-10. Beneath it was a block of smaller text, which she didn’t have time to read before the guard shoved her through the entrance.
The room reminded her of her high school science lab, if it had been redesigned by a dominatrix. The only surfaces were polished black and chrome. Shelves running along the walls held equipment that could have been scientific tools or instruments of torture. In the center of the area sat several beds that looked disturbingly like platforms for dissection.
Another set of guards was already in the room. Between them stood a boy who couldn’t have been older than 14. His dark skin was covered in pale scars, and his black hair had been shaved to stubble. The pale blue jumpsuit he wore was identical to Amy’s in everything but size and the number printed on its breast. He looked away as Amy entered the room.
Rows of lights flickered to life along the ceiling as the door slammed shut behind her. The guard released her shoulder and yawned. Across the room, one of the Warden’s guardians leaned in to whisper something to his partner. They both chuckled.
With as little movement as possible, Amy tested her handcuffs. The chain linking them wasn’t longer than her pinky finger, but she could tell it was strong. Two thin wires snaked between the links. They probably functioned under the same principle as the collar. She saw identical shackles on the neck and wrists of the boy.
There was an opportunity here, but it would be like trying to throw a bullseye while swinging upside down. If she didn’t time everything exactly right, if the guards were a bit too quick on the uptake, if her calculations were just a bit off… well, she’d just end up back in the cell. Or dead, she supposed, but that wasn’t the way these people operated. She doubted they would kill her until she forced their hand.
Behind her, she heard the door open, and a pair of footsteps enter the room. A man stepped into her vision, a tall, dark-haired doctor she’d never seen before. He posted himself between the two sets of guards. He stared at the wall in front of him, as if thinking, but Amy couldn’t shake the feeling that he was perfectly focused on her.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about what to do with you,” he said. He paused, as if waiting for a response. When the room stayed silent he continued, “Especially you, 4521.” He pointed at Amy without looking at her. “Several people thought the project should be scrapped. That trying to utilize two humanoid objects, especially ones who had been so… damaging to our organization was foolhardy. I disagreed.”
Amy glanced at the guards. They only seemed to be half-paying attention to the speech. The one who’d dragged her through the halls was standing with his arms crossed, eyes seemingly unfocused. She tried shifting in place slightly. He had his arm in his grip before she was even aware he had moved, his brown eyes staring into her. He glared at her for a moment, then dropped his grip and resumed his stance.
The doctor’s eyes glittered above his smile. “We’ve had… unfortunate results from utilizing the anomalous in the past. It’s understandable that so few are willing to entertain the idea. They don’t realize the nature of this war is changing, and we must change with it. To leave you locked in a cell would be a waste.”
He walked forward until he was inches away from her. Amy fought the instinct to step back. She hadn’t realized it when he was on the other side of the room, but he towered over everyone else. The labcoat he wore looked so tight it might burst. His arms, hanging by his side, almost touched his knees. “So. Will you help save the Foundation?”
Just like that, all resistance left her. It was like being slapped in her face. Amy blinked. Once. Twice. Played the words back in her head. Looked for the hidden meaning. There had to be something, right? Because just taking the question at face value… it was ludicrous. They’d held her captive for years. Chased her through entire universes. Threatened her family. And now they were offering her a job? She struggled to think of a reply, but could only come up with “Are you fucking serious?”
“Entirely.” He gestured behind him, to where the boy stood. “The Warden has already accepted our offer.”
Amy looked over at the boy. He looked away, expression unreadable.
“What happens if I don’t?” she said. “You throw me back in the cell?”
“Yes,” said the doctor. “But if you do accept, we’ll give you new quarters. Not a cell. You’ll be free to roam the site as you please, with most of the privileges of a normal human agent. Full use of site facilities. Training with a Mobile Task Force. Just to start.” His voice rose with excitement as he spoke. “Prove yourself sufficiently, and we may even allow you off-site privileges. Just think. You could walk outside, go shopping, dine out, swim, as you wished, without the constant fear of capture. Do enough for us and you might even see your family.”
Amy jolted back. Her expression must have changed when he said that, because he almost seemed to pounce forward.
“They’ll be rewarded for your work, of course. Enough to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Provide for your brother’s schooling. Ensure your parents never have to work again, if they don’t wish to. All you need to do is say yes.”
Amy swallowed. It felt like someone had shoved sand down her throat. “What if I don’t believe you?”
The doctor shrugged. “Your only other choice is the cell. And the next time we put you in, you don’t come out. We’ll keep you alive, don’t worry about that. But just barely. There’s plenty we can learn, studying how you react to such conditions. We’ve only done a few long-term isolation studies, and never on someone of your nature. We’ll lock you in the dark and extract every scrap of data that we can. And when that’s finished, we’ll forget about you. You’ll die. Decades from now. In the dark so long you’ll have forgotten what it was to see light. Believe that.”
“Oh,” said Amy. A feeling of revulsion rose in her. The thought of working with these people, helping them in any way… She thought back to the testing they’d done on her for years, the slaughter of the Warden’s village, the fear those in the Library spoke of them with. Being a part of that? In any way? It would be selling her soul.
And then she thought of the darkness. The cell. Of going back.
“What do I have to do?”