Ren Alvarez was ripped from a deep sleep by a harsh, blaring noise that felt like it was going to shatter her eardrums at any second.
Her heart tripped into a violent rhythm, her lungs seeming to fight for every breath. Her skin tingled all over, a cold sweat clinging to her brow, matting her dark hair. Something was wrong. Something was terribly, horribly wrong, but she just didn’t know what it was.
Sitting up in bed, Ren placed a hand over her thundering heart and willed herself to calm. She was shaking, adrenaline still pumping through her body. Yet as that first, clinging fog of sleep began to lift, she realized her mistake.
It was just an alarm.
Jesus. All that fuss, all that panic, and the only thing potentially out to get her was her tech professor if she was late to another morning lecture.
Ren reached for the offending device, her head still fuzzy. But there was nothing on her bedside table. There wasn't even a bedside table, and the mattress she was sitting on now felt even thinner than the one at her dorm.
She blinked away the last vestiges of sleep and finally took in her surroundings. Cold, bare metal walls. A floor that was little more than a metal grate with some rugs over it. A bed that looked to be a military-issue cot. Another cot, empty, on the other side of the room.
This time when her heart started to pound, Ren ignored it in favor of figuring out what the hell was going on. Fear was still present, but there was a strange, distant sort of familiarity tied up in this place, and so she pushed past it in favor of finding answers.
Ren stood and padded out through the open door. A long hallway loomed, the metal grates cold against her bare feet. Other rooms, all with doors open, lined the hall. She looked up, and that was when she saw a flashing red light mounted to a contraption that was making the horrible sound she'd heard earlier.
Ren felt more than saw someone bump into her. A short woman with half of her head shaved, her remaining hair parted to one side. She was wearing a dull green bomber's jacket with a red patch on one arm. That too looked familiar, but Ren still couldn't place it.
"Jesus, Alvarez. Aren't you supposed to be upstairs already?"
Well, at least these people seemed to know her, even if she didn't know them. That was a good sign, right?
"What's going on?" she asked, her voice still scratchy from sleep.
"Drill," the woman said, her tone impatient. "C'mon. He's gonna dock points if we're late."
He? Ren didn't have a chance to ask. The small woman who knew her was leading her toward a yellow ladder. It was thick and metal, leading up through a half-tube shape that seemed more fit for a submarine than… wherever they were right now. She climbed it with surprising ease, like she'd done it a million times before, and was faced with another long hallway that featured a large metal door at its end.
So. Much. Fucking. Metal.
The woman rushed ahead, held up her forearm to a panel, and waited as the door opened. Ren just blinked in surprise.
"Where are we?" she asked. "What is this place?"
Her new companion turned back and looked at her, gaze fixating on Ren's eyes. Ren just stared back, utterly confused.
"Shit," the woman muttered. "Okay, look. Follow me, do what I do. We'll figure this out when the drill is over. Got it?"
"Sure…" Ren said warily.
Not like she had much of a choice. She was in a vaguely familiar place with a vaguely familiar person and she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.
But the woman led the way through a few more doors, with one of those doors opening up into a spacious room. A room filled with more guns than Ren had ever seen—or ever wanted to see—in her life.
"Flash your implant here," the woman instructed.
She demonstrated, holding her forearm up to another panel. The sound of something unlocking bounced off the walls, and Ren's companion grabbed a rifle from the case.
"Come on, we don't have all day!" she said.
Ren's brow furrowed. She had the odd sense she'd done this before, but that made no sense. She was deathly afraid of guns, and firmly against their usage by all but those professionally trained, which she definitely was not.
"I'm not taking one of those," she asserted. "I don't know what they're for, and frankly, I don't think I want to know."
"Jesus Christ," the woman muttered. "Just sign in and pick a gun, Ramirez. You're not even gonna use it."
Images flashed through her mind. Her family, huddled in the cellar. Her mother's arms wrapped around her. The chained cellar doors rattling violently. A warning shot fired into the air.
"No," she said, her voice trembling. "I'm not touching them." The woman reached for her arm and Ren tore it away. "Get your fucking hands off me, I'm not taking one!"
Someone came running up behind them, heavy boot falls hitting the grates, and Ren pressed herself against the wall.
"What the hell, Sloane? Why aren't you guys out there?"
"She's having another freakout," the woman—Sloane—said, as if this were a common occurrence. "Go get the boss."
The man spared a pitying glance at her before running off and turning a corner. Ren stayed right where she was.
"You're fine, Ramirez. You're just having a bad trip or something. Everything'll be back to normal before you know it."
"Where am I?" she asked, gritting her teeth as she tried to force the panic out of her voice. "Who are you people?"
"I'm Sloane," she said, finally leaning her rifle against the wall. Ren visibly relaxed. "Your roommate. Remember?"
She thought some part of her did, but it was so, so hazy, and mixed with a certainty that she shouldn't be here. She should be in class, sitting at a terminal, writing beautiful lines of code. She should be hacking her way into some asshole's security system and finding incriminating evidence on his video feeds.
She shouldn't be here.
Boots echoed on the grates again, but at an even, measured pace. And unlike everyone else in this place, the man who appeared around the corner was someone she recognized.
Light brown hair, hazel eyes, and a smile that had broken more than one heart in Everton. She hadn't been the first to have a crush on him, and she wouldn't be the last. Seeing him grounded her, made her remember when he'd stood up in front of her lit class and gave a moving speech about The Deafening Blind, her favorite book.
"Dallas, thank God," she said, the words coming out with a relieved sigh.
"Having a bit of a day, huh?" he asked, that smile beaming brightly.
"You aren't kidding." She smiled back at him, and for a second, she almost forgot she was standing in the middle of an armory. "Look, I don't know what's going on here—I guess one of Mr. K's simulations?—but I want out of it."
If they were being graded on this, she'd take the incomplete. This was too much. Too real. She could practically smell the gun polish.
Dallas jerked his chin and Sloane looked between the two of them before leaving.
"I'm gonna get you out of here, okay? Just give me your arm and I'll get us both out."
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled, but still, she offered her arm, watching as Dallas pulled out a handheld device she didn't recognize.
The last thing she saw was him waving it over her implant before everything went black.
* * *
Ren was sitting in front of a terminal, her fingers poised on the keyboard. She could tell she'd been there for a while, but it was almost like she'd been working in a fog. Just typing away, producing line after line of code, her mind deciding to take a little vacation.
It was an experience she'd had in the past, when she just got so into the flow of what she was doing that she forgot everything else. But this felt… different.
The code in front of her was something she didn't recognize. She had to read over it, squinting, to even see what it did. The shell of it seemed to be geared toward interacting with an implant's programming, and the functions within were meant to shut down certain processes. To undo the biochemical coding that made implants work within a person's body.
Her brow furrowed. She'd tinkered with implant code before, but never anything like this. Never anything this… destructive.
And yet as she scrolled down, she found three familiar lines commented out in the code:
In darkness, we fear. In darkness, we wait. In darkness, we see.
Ren's heart stopped for the longest moment and she just stared at the words. As pretentious as they sounded to most people, those lines meant something to her. They spoke of triumph through impossible odds, and she’d been using them as her signature—the comments she used on every program she'd ever published—for years.
What were they doing on this?
"Hey, Ren. You got a sec?"
Dallas' voice broke her from her thoughts and she turned to see him standing beside her, his hand on the back of her chair. Her heart beat fast, adrenaline coursing through her veins, but not for the reasons she would have thought.
She wasn't sure what was going on, but somehow she knew Dallas was at the center of it. And somehow—against every instinct that told her to bolt—she had to try and act calm. Normal.
"What's up?" she asked, forcing a smile.
If Dallas sensed her nerves, he didn't let on. "I need you to beef up the security system. Just reinforce everything across the board. I want to make sure we're prepared when those Karuvar show up."
Ren's eyes widened. Karuvar? Was that what this was about? This place, these people? Were they hiding from the Karuvar?
It would make sense. The Karuvar had more power than anyone on Earth. They controlled the implants, and so they controlled all of humanity. She'd given talks on this subject. Talks she knew Dallas had heard. Maybe this was just the result.
But then she remembered the guns. And the malicious code. And suddenly Dallas' smile went back to being far more chilling than reassuring.
"Yeah, I'll get right on it."
Something big was going on here, and she had the sense she knew exactly what it was. If only she could remember.