Time disappeared into a pool, memories dropping into it like rainfall rippling into chaos as though their sequence had never held relevance. Swimming in the darkness, Kerin’s thoughts played free of her control, the woman herself just a passive bystander. A man’s voice, one she thought she recognized but wasn’t relevant to the images, echoed through the emptiness. “Dream,” he said, but Kerin fought the order with what little control she could muster. She focused on the darkness, unsure of what was going on but feeling as though her mind was not her own. Whispers and beeps and the breaking of glass rang loudly in the forefront of her mind as images of tubes and bars and dozens of familiar faces played over at an alarming rate.
Slowly, she began to see what she thought was real as the dreams overlayed images that weren’t familiar. A dark room came into view with translucent memories scattered against the walls. Corners appeared first, then creases in the walls, what appeared to be rust stains from where the ceiling had leaked. The scent of dust and chemicals filled her nose, and she held her breath against it.
“Sh’ain’t dreamin’ anymore,” a gruff voice spoke, then a crash sounded. Kerin’s memories faded from the walls, though the dark room was no more clear than it had been a moment ago. A stout shadow hobbled toward a door, opening it to reveal piercing beams of light. She closed her eyes against the brightness. Her heart and breathing had slowed drastically, a defense mechanism that kicked in automatically when she felt threatened. The voice grumbled a few things as its silhouette exited the room, shutting her into the darkness again when the door closed behind it.
Her nostrils flared as her golden eyes darted around. Instinct being what it was, she wouldn’t even dare try to move, not until she knew she was alone. Attempting to turn her head to search the rest of the room, she felt a pressure on her forehead holding her in place. How had she gotten here? All of her memories still felt scattered, images from years ago feeling as though they had been only moments before. It was hard to determine the series of events, to understand what had come just before this.
Aside from a faint beeping – the last remaining part of her dream that faded slowly – the room was silent. She smelled nothing but the dust and chemicals that had so rudely greeted her moments before. Muscles tensing, she attempted to break away from whatever bonds surely held the rest of her in place. A loud tearing echoed in the room as the leather straps tore away, accompanied by the metallic tink of a few small metal pieces hitting the hard floor and rolling away. Kerin pulled the straps from her forehead and wrists, tossing them aside as she used her hands to rip the belts from her ankles as well. The table she was on was hard metal that smelled like aluminum, but it was hard to tell with all of the other chemical scents swirling in the air.
Regardless of how she got there, she needed to get out. The room was cold, and she didn’t do well in the cold. Her eyes scanned for windows or doors, anything other than the one that shadow had hobbled through, but found nothing. She backed against the wall, touching a hand to it while keeping her eyes on the room. It was so dark, she could only barely make out the shapes of some tables and fixtures that she didn’t recognize. Digging her fingers into the wall behind her, her fingertips bore holes in the cement wall they rested on. While it would not be the most stealthy escape, she at least knew that breaking down the walls would be an option.
“I’m sure there are more civil ways for us to deal with this,” a familiar voice echoed in the room. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but immediately the memories of the grocery store came to the forefront of her mind. “Besides, I’m sure the kind of attention that would attract would be bad for your rep, Sugar.”
“What the actual fu-” Kerin started, her temper kicking in far quicker than usual. She didn’t like being cornered, tricked, or trapped. Well, nobody did, but this woman had a particular distaste for situations like this.
“But, by all means, if you think that’s the best way to handle this, go ahead. You’d certainly be making my job easier.” She could hear the voice chuckle in the darkness, but still saw nothing.
Her nostrils flared again as she tried, in vain, to pick up his scent. It made no sense that he didn’t have one, and she could only assume it was some sort of trick. It would have to wear off sometime, she thought. Assuming that was how his magic worked. She really had no idea. “Listen. I already told you I have nothing to say to you, so what the hell do you want me here for?”
“I already got the answers I needed,” the man retorted, suddenly seeming less playful than before. “Why I’m keeping you here is simple: you are dangerous.”
Kerin scoffed, feigning over-confidence to disguise her fear of the unknown. “I threw sugar at a pixie. Had I realized the world had gotten so sensitive about bullying-”
“Let’s just skip over the part where you lie to me repeatedly and get to the portion where I explain to you what I already know. If you feel like working with me, then, we may have something to talk about. Deal?”
Kerin paused. Working with him? How did they get from strapping her to a table in a dark room to working with him? She shook her head in the darkness, eyes still skimming the room anxiously. Though she didn’t know how much she could get, she was trying to buy time.
The man let out a sigh in response. “Why not?”
So he could see her shake her head. That was unfortunate, and put him at a great advantage if she did try to pull anything. He was fast, strong, had no scent, and could see in the dark. What kind of unfair bullcrap was this world coming to? “Sorry, honey, but I’m selective with my friendships. Simply put, I just don’t like the way you smell.”
He chuckled again, and she thought that she heard movement to her left. Quickly, she turned her head to look at the space next to her, but found nothing but more empty wall space. “If it’s any consolation,” the man added, his voice still seeming to come from everywhere in the echoing room, “you smell like an animal.”
A shiver went through her body, half attributed to the chilly air around her and half to the fact that he seemed to know more than he should. “Welcome to the New World,” she teased, “where even the humans have a little something on the side. It’s not a crime, you know.”
“No, but you don’t exactly fall under that description. Do you, Subject K?”
Her fingers dug farther into the walls, and she could hear the tiny pebbles of cement breaking away and falling to the floor by her feet. “I don’t know what you’re-”
“See, originally, I thought you were a weapon released on the city for some nefarious purpose. I have to admit, you weren’t easy to find. In fact, I think we can wholly thank fate for having brought you to me. Imagine my surprise, though, when I learned how you actually found your way into the city from Traux Labs. You know, I would venture to guess that, if you had come to me first, we could have skipped the past three years of hunting and gone straight to what I can do for you…” The man let his voice trail off at the end of his seductively elusive offer.
Kerin’s curiosity burned nearly as hot as her temper and her fear. She didn’t want to know how he had found that out, or what else he knew. That was the second time he had hinted at being allies, and she was clearly in no position to back away from such an offer. Pride aside, she could use someone like him far more than he used her, if she played her cards right. “If you’re so interested in being friends, why the leather belts and the dark room with no escape route, huh?”
“Consider it an insurance policy. I know the nature of snakes, and would rather not be bitten – especially by you, given the nature of your abilities.”
The woman grinned, removing her tense fingers from the holes they had bore in the wall. A few small rocks tumbled to the floor. “Alright, you’ve flattered me into attentiveness. But I don’t trust you.”
“That’s preferable, since I don’t trust you either. It’ll keep us both on our toes. So long as you can handle your distrust rationally-”
“Get to the point. Having my attention doesn’t mean you have my patience, you know.”
The man chuckled again, a sound that seemed closer to her than it had been yet. In front of her, maybe? Above? Her eyes darted through the darkness as he spoke. “Whatever you say, Sugar. Well in summary, you have a few things that are useful to me. Your abilities, for one, and your intense distaste for Aiden Traux.”
Kerin scoffed. “Intense distaste is an understatement.”
“Yes, yes, I can imagine. Considering our mutual hatred, I propose a deal: I will no longer see you as an enemy, and you do whatever is necessary to bring down Traux from the inside. It would-”
He stopped speaking as soon as she held up a hand to stop him. “I’m not going back inside there.”
“You wouldn’t be alone.”
“Yeah, I don’t think you get it. I didn’t say, ‘You’re going to have to send someone with me and do a lot of buttering up and probably lick my shoes to get me to do this’. I said I am not. Final. There is no other option. If you want to tear it down so badly, go in there yourself.” She shivered again, this time entirely from the temperature in the room.
There was a short pause before the man responded finally. “If I go in there, it will start a war. If someone – anyone – with abilities broke into that lab, it would come down on the heads of every person who lives in this city that isn’t human. Boulder City would be in a worse state of chaos than when the worlds first merged, and countless species and modified humans would be detained or otherwise punished simply for my actions.”
The man sighed. “So, my intention is not to cause chaos, but to end it.”
“And how will my destroying the place or whatever you want me to do be any different?”
“Because,” he replied, his voice more stern now than before. “You were created there. You were born in those labs, manufactured as an artificial life-form for whatever purpose. Your rebellion would bring down the company, so long as word spread outside of the building, because people would have to see what Traux is doing and how dangerous it can be. It can’t be anyone else. If you are the one to go in, and you do enough damage that the world can’t help but notice, then eyes will be opened to the monsters that are being created there. People will start asking questions, wondering what Traux intends to do with these weapons if not integrate them into society. Best case scenario, your actions will lead to the downfall of the company. Worst case scenario, your anarchy will lead to a revolution that will leave Cyber Corps Industries wounded and open for another attack.”
Kerin took this all in. This man clearly knew more than he should, and far more about her than she was comfortable with. “So you want me to go in there, wreck up the place and piss a bunch of people off. Worst case-scenario, I die in the process. Best case-scenario, I’m in prison for life or some kind of lab where they detain the violent and insane or something like that. That about right?”
“As I said before, you won’t be alone. I already have a plan for how to get you out safe and sound, assuming you don’t get yourself killed. You’ve done it before. The only difference is that, this time, we need to make sure that people know about it. I saw the slaughterhouse that was left in your wake, the chaos that you caused in your escape. It was…disgusting. But it’s exactly what we need. This time, though, there will be someone there to document it. Proof of what happens in there, and what can happen if-”
“But I will still be the monster,” she replied, chuckling after. “Fine. Yeah, sure, fine, I’ll do it. But don’t think I’m doing this to help you. Truth is, I’ve been hungry for months. If you’re giving me a free ticket to an all-you-can-eat buffet, I guess I’ll put forth the work to earn it.”
“I’m glad that we coul-”
She interrupted again, feeling very much now like she had the upper leg in all of this. He really did need her. His plan would be useless without her, and that meant that she had room to bargain. “Not so fast, pretty boy. I’ll have a list of demands. First, turn the damn light on. And warm this place up. If we’re going to keep talking like allies, then you’re gonna treat me like a damned princess, deal?”
There was a pause, and she thought she heard whispers. “Anything you want, Sugar,” the man replied, and suddenly the room was filled with light. At first, it was blinding, and it took everything in Kerin not to shield her eyes from the brightness. She was not so trusting as to give him that advantage, though, in case it were some kind of trick. Sure, he had all the time and opportunity in the world while they’d stood in darkness to make a move if he was going to, but that did not register for the perpetually paranoid woman.
As her eyes adjusted, she could see more clearly the cold gray room that she had been imprisoned in. Her eyes avoided the details as they quickly searched for the man she’d been talking to and found nobody. She stepped forward curiously, nostrils flaring again as she instinctively smelled for what she already knew had no scent. “If you think being all hidden and mysterious is charming or intimidating, you’re wrong,” she lied. No response came. Turning around to face the wall behind her, her eyes took in the damage she’d done to the cement there. She traced up the wall to the ceiling, turning to skim it carefully, and then the rest of the room. “You’ve seriously been talking to me through speakers this whole time? The hobbly silhouette guy is braver than you.”
“Sorry, Sugar, I just like watching you squirm on the inside,” the man chuckled, his voice very clearly coming from behind her. She turned quickly to face the wall that she had been looking at only moments ago to find him leaning against it non-chalantly. His long dark hair trailed over his shoulders, which were covered in a dark grey jacket that went down to his knees. He was still in the outfit he had worn at the grocery store underneath the jacket, which told her that she likely hadn’t been there for very long. “Any more demands? Or were light and warmth all you cared about?”
As he asked, a space heater in the corner came on of its own accord. After only a moment, she could already feel the warmth on her legs. “Yeah, stop calling me Sugar.”
The man’s face scrunched up a bit. “I can’t make any promises on that one. The only other thing I know you as is Subject K. I just thought you’d like Sugar better. You could tell me your real name, but since you haven’t exactly been forthcoming with information, I just assumed it would be pointless to ask.”
He wasn’t wrong. While she had no legal “birth” name, Kerin wasn’t exactly comfortable giving out the title. It felt too personal, and she wasn’t exactly in a giving mood after all of this. “Well, you haven’t told me yours either,” she chided.
“Touche. I’m Israel,” he replied without hesitation, motioning with his hand to imply it was her turn.
She watched his hand motion with a raised brow. “What? For all the information you seem to know about me, all I know is your name. I’m keeping mine until you come up with something worth the trade.” Come to think of it, she was wondering if he didn’t already know her name, and was just messing with her. Best not to test those waters, though. She was far too stubborn to turn just because logic told her to.
“Whatever you say, Sugar,” he said with a grin, winking one of his glowing blue eyes at her. How he had kept them from lighting up the room when they were in total darkness was beyond her, but it was most unsettling how she seemed to have a hard time tearing away from them. Of course, he was attractive and even charming, but Kerin wasn’t the fawning type. Something else was keeping her attention, almost as though she was being forced to look.
She pursed her lips irritably, but knew that she had set herself up for that one. “Fine. Sugar it is. Don’t expect me to be sweet, though.”
He laughed. “Oh. I don’t. So. We have a deal? Or were there more things on your list?”
Kerin thought. “I’ll get back to you on that. I assume I’m free to leave?” After he nodded his response, she continued. “Fine. You just give me a heads up a few days before everything is about to go crazy, and I’ll-”
“You’ll know when it’s time, trust me.”
“Trust you?” she forced a laugh, rubbing her arms with her hands to try and bring some warmth to them. The heater was helping, but not quickly enough. She could already feel herself getting tired.
Israel chuckled lightly, “Yeah, probably not the best choice of words. Still. I won’t really have time to give you a heads up on anything. Some factors are out of my hands.”
“Oh, that’s great news. And here I thought you had everything under control. So, do you have a cell phone?” Israel shook his head. “Pager? Beeper? Carrier pigeon? Magical owl? Minions?”
He chuckled. “I guess you could call them minions. Yes, I’ll have one of my minions drop off some information for you soon. Everything is pretty compartmentalized, though, so information is on a need-to-know basis.”
Of course it was. “Well, where exactly do you think you’ll be dropping this information off?”
“Your place of work, naturally.”
Kerin laughed, crossing her arms over her chest. She could only assume that he hadn’t seen her whole life’s story, just the parts that were relevant to her escape, otherwise he would realize that was impossible. “And how exactly do you intend to do that?”
“It’s simple, Sugar,” Israel said, pushing off the wall and moving toward the door. He set his hand on the wall by a light switch. “I have a wish,” he added before flicking the switch off, again. Kerin didn’t have to see to know, despite all logic, that she was now somehow alone in the room.