• Nadège Richards

Read the first chapter of Ground 33.8!



PROLOGUE

"Never-dying Darkness"



There was a rope tied around Caeshua’s moons. Although it appeared secure, its fibers were as delicate as the wind-tossed trees beyond my window. The tail end dangled above the city lights, and I watched it, rocking with the swing of its movements. Every time the rope drifted within reach, a rush of my breath fogged the space between me and the metal bars that kept the world at a distance. Anticipation―it was a toxin in my veins because I knew the feeling wouldn’t last. Yet, with one hand pressed against the window sill and the other stretched through the holes of my cage, I closed my eyes and imagined myself catching the rope in a firm fist.

I pulled slowly, careful not to damage the glowing orbs among the clouds. If I was too rough, too eager, the moons would break. They’d plummet from the sky and submerge my world in darkness when all I wanted was light. Just a little to carry me through the night; I couldn’t be too greedy. Even a small fraction of a moon would subdue the creatures in my mind—and the ones that were still present in the day. Then, perhaps, I would be able to remember why I was here... How I was here...


I closed my eyes as I concentrated on reeling the moons in and wound the rope around my hand several times so that my hold wouldn’t slip. Although my fingertips had grown too cold to feel anything, the space behind my eyelids held a clear view of the treasure that approached from the sky. I tugged once, and held my breath. I tugged again, and then reached out with my other hand to fully grasp the luminous spheres.


I felt like a fisherman, though I wasn’t searching for any ordinary fish. I was hoping to catch two, specifically, and they would be the fish big enough to fill my belly and sustain me for many nights to follow. I would never hunger again, not when I slept beside the moons.


With that thought came an audible scrape across the door to my room, and it startled me out of the reverie before I could anchor the rope to my window bars. The knot loosened around the moons and their bright glow quickly spun out of focus. It vanished into the atmosphere, and when I reopened my eyes the sky was covered with stormy clouds, as if it, too, mourned the loss of the lights. The only thing I caught in my hand was a single raindrop.


I’m too late, I cursed myself. Another night without them.


The scrape across the door came again and I parted from the window to face the room I called my cell. The only thing I valued was the pail of food in the corner behind my cot. Although I was never given much, the grains kept me fed, kept me conscious. In a strange solitude like mine, it was the only companion I had.


I pushed the pail further into the shadows so that my saved rations weren’t obvious, then tiptoed to the door. With my ear pressed against the metal frame, I waited for the third and final sound I knew would come, every night like clockwork. It usually signaled mealtime or a pot to relieve my bladder if I was lucky. When I felt lonely enough—and I often did—I’d mimic the sounds with my mouth and pretend an old friend had come to talk to me. It was always a one-sided conversation that ended as soon as I remembered where I was.


But the next knock was softer than those that had come before it, and it was accompanied by a quiet hiss. I listened closely as locks were disengaged on the other side and a latch see-sawed on its hinges. Gears turned, bolts detached. A warm pressure built within the frame until it expanded with a pop beneath my fingers. In that instant the entire wall felt … un-corseted, as if the lacings of my cage had been loosened.


I wanted to believe it was just the noise outside my window. For a moment, with my cheek pressed against the heated door, I almost did. Though when another lock slid out of place, I knew for sure that the usual fixtures meant to keep me in this room were coming undone. Not slowly, as I’d first assumed, but all at once, falling away in a measured pattern that started at the top of the door and slowed near the middle. By the time my psyche sensed another presence, the door was already moving.


Someone was trying to get in.


I jolted back, nearly tripping over my nightgown in my haste to get away. Must be mealtime, I guessed. Except … no one had ever entered my room to deliver a new pail. I had never seen my captor’s face and I didn’t know any names. When my food was pushed through the slot in the door, I often tried to peek out and catch something as simple as a hand, a shoe color—anything to identify the person, or persons, that had locked me away. I got nothing, every time. The hole to the outside was slammed shut before I found my answers, and I was left to wallow in more confusion.


Now, something had changed. My room was completely unlocked and a soft light was spilling in from what I presumed was a hallway. The visitor didn’t say a word, nor did they give any indication of what they had come for. It was just quiet enough to catch the shift in their stance as they moved toward the door.


Did I do something wrong? Or is this a trick on my mind? I worried, backing myself into a corner of the room. My chewed nails immediately sought purchase in the ridges of the stone walls. I think I’m still lost in my head again … and this is what sleep deprivation has to offer. Not the moons, but delusion.


Fear seized my mind as I waited for the person to enter, but a long moment passed and I was still alone. I took the opportunity to rake my gaze over the things in my room, searching for a weapon, but failed to find anything useful. All I had was my cot, a plastic pail, and the five chips of paint I had scratched off the window bars. If the person behind the door was equipped to hurt me, my hands were my only defense. And they were trembling at the mere idea of a threat.


Would I hurt them? If I had no other choice, would I hurt someone else to protect myself?


Before I had time to process the question, an object was pushed through the slot at the bottom of the door, frightening me into another step backwards. The visitor didn’t enter to tell me what it was, but it wasn’t food. It was too small. Too solid, too smooth. I tracked its movements as it skidded across the crooked tiles to hide beneath my cot, but it went out of sight before I could identify it, or before I could think to reach for it. Panic had clouded my judgment and rooted me to one spot. Even as footsteps began to echo outside the door, I couldn’t bring myself to move. The visitor retreated, and all I did was listen. I tried my best to trace their direction, but lost focus once the person was down the hall, leaving my senses to fade in the following silence. The visitor was gone that fast.


And my door was still open.


I counted backwards from fifty, and the beat of my heart calmed to a bearable pace. Still, my hands were reluctant to release the wall, as if it were a shield between me and the door. My thoughts bounced around my skull like there were truly two voices in my mind. The loudest among them made me wonder if my visitor would return. And the item they had left behind... Would they want it back?


Instead of going to the door, I rushed for my cot on hands and knees, scrambling to collect the unknown object from beneath the bed frame. I was desperate to know what it was—more desperate than I was to know the face of my captor. Foolishly, I hoped the item was a note, or a clue as to why I was here. I needed something other than the empty beliefs I fed myself, on those nights when neither the city lights nor my shadow could comfort me. I understood that I had been locked away, but I needed the reason.


I swung my arm around to reach for the item. It had rolled all the way to the cement wall and parts of it glimmered in the pale light streaming from my window. It wasn’t tiny, but it wasn’t large, either. The object was silver metal, with a rounded head and a long body. When I finally held it up and blew away the dust that covered my fingers, I registered what it was. A key.


There were no pockets in my nightgown, so I clutched it in my palm, tight enough to feel the ridges poking into my flesh. I held onto it like it could give me the moons I so badly craved, while still unsure why I was its chosen owner. The mysterious person had already unlocked my door, so why would I need a key? Was it a mistake?


Unless, I thought with growing suspicion, it’s meant for another door.


In all the routine days and nights I’d stubbornly spent awake, nothing like this had ever happened. I hadn’t thought to step through the threshold of my room, because the door was always locked. My only interaction with the outside world was a hand outside the barred window. This space where I wasted my hours was all I knew.


So what was I supposed to do with a key? I didn’t know the perimeters of this building or what was beyond it. When I awoke four nights ago, I had feared I was a prisoner, a captive in what had to be a self-designed horror. I’d reasoned that my past crimes must have caught up with me, and my punishment was to lie within the never-dying darkness of this cell. Here, I couldn’t harm anyone. Here, my thoughts twisted together in open mayhem, the perfect torture. The only person I posed a danger to was myself.


But now, perhaps, my sentence of isolation had been cut short. There was a world beyond the steel door that I knew nothing about, and with the click of a lock, it had been given to me.


By whom, I didn’t know.


After a breath, I dragged my bed frame over to the doorway and stood on the mattress. The added height allowed me to peek through the second hole, at the top of the door. There was very little light in the hallway, but my vision adjusted to show me what appeared to be a garage, with a single parked hovercraft. No one sat inside of it, and there were no guards posted around the area. Oddly, my prison seemed vacated.


My attention diverted to the farthest wall as I searched for the beeping device I knew to be a camera. Like the knocks on my door, the camera was a constant. Sometimes its clicking sound kept me from falling asleep, but now it was silent and had been turned away from my cell. Its red light flickered at the ceiling instead, like someone had jerked it around on its axis.


Were the people who put me in here no longer watching? I wondered. Was I truly free?


My bare feet trembled on the cot as I thought about my options: to stay or to go. The restless ache in my knees pushed me toward the latter, toward the promise of fresh air and the pleasant disharmony of a city full of lights and music. The thought was so vivid I could hear it, and I wanted it, though anxiety threatened to hold me back. I had to go. I was ready to stand beneath the moons. I needed an immeasurable amount of space to fit my night stars into, and this room wouldn’t do.


Hopping down from the bed, I pressed my right hand to my side to protect the key and nudged the door open with a foot. I paused before sticking my head out to survey the corridor, glancing both ways through strands of my hair.


A stiff quiet greeted me. It was almost too quiet, as if it were the precursor to a gathering storm. That storm was bound to be the visitor come to lock me up again. I imagined they’d arrive like a flood and I’d suffer beneath a wave of pain as they shackled me to familiar walls. I’d drown, not because I was willing but because another night confined to this room would be enough terror to fill my lungs for the final time.


As irrational as it was, it confirmed my decision.


I had to go. I had to leave now.


With a jump, I broke into the hallway, arms out and feet planted on the concrete. When nothing happened and guards didn’t approach from the shadows, I set my attention on the opposite ends of the hall.


I’d been too distracted by the key and had no way of knowing where the stranger had vanished to. Turning left would lead me into certain darkness and walking straight ahead only offered the empty hovercraft in the garage. The right end of the hall wasn’t much different than the left, except my vision had an easier time adjusting to the minimal light. As I strode in that direction, I saw the same barred windows lining the walls, and the subtle cracks in the ceiling paint. The floor was wet beneath my feet, and so was the air around me, like the evening rain approached sooner than I expected. Every step soaked my socks with a slight splish splash, as the hem of my nightgown dragged behind me.


I was close to the outdoors, I hoped. The hall seemed to be narrowing out, with no end in sight. Holding on to the walls provided some guidance, but I was otherwise tripping down a path with nowhere to go except forward. The further I went, the darker it became. Curiosity urged me to turn and look back, as if I might find the stranger tiptoeing behind me. The hair prickled at my nape as I fed into the notion, and with no one there to stop me, I caved, slowing my pace to squint over my shoulder. Again, my vision waded into darkness. I felt both foolish and terrified at the same time, because not a single shadow moved with me, and the only sound came from my own lips as I breathed deep and quickened my steps.


There’s nothing for you back there. Don’t ever turn around.


I pinned the words to the top of my mind and let them carry me even farther. My escape wouldn’t come from a cage, but surely I would find it within the night sky. Somewhere outside these walls was the desert landscape I had only seen from my window, the one with freedom written across its horizon, and I had to be close. It was the way sweat slicked my skin, rolling beads between my brows, and the tremble in my bones every time I moved. This was real, not my imagination.


I was so close.


At the end of the corridor I found an ascending staircase with a rickety railing. I slowed at the bottom and glanced up to see where it led, but the flights of stairs seemed to go on forever, climbing toward a faint light. I didn’t wait long before taking that first step, or even the second. Like I promised myself, I didn’t look back. I raced up the prison’s different levels, gripping the banister for support. On each landing, my feet whipped around the bend and toward the next ten steps. I moved this way, like every stride filled a void within me, as I darted toward the top.


I counted twenty-five flights of stairs. Twenty-five before I bumped to a halt in front of a door, sweat stinging my eyes. The air was sparse so high up without any windows, and I’d shredded parts of my nightgown on the railing’s loose screws. I was running blind on adrenaline, so none of that mattered. My mind could only process the door and what might be beyond it.


Squinting, I pushed my body flat against the wall and felt for a knob. I found one with a frantic sweep of my hand through the darkness, but it was locked. I shook, tugged, and turned it, and still ... it was locked. There wasn’t even a space between the door and the frame for me to wedge a finger into. The knob wouldn’t budge, but the faint light I’d seen from the bottom of the staircase now bled from the other side of the door, casting a glow on my dirty toes.


I gave out a maddened cry as I slapped the wall, thinking, Please, not something else in my way. I can’t go back. It was a long trip down, and there was a chance my captors had already returned to my room to find me missing. I could try to evade them, but I didn’t know this place as well as they did—whatever this place was. Even if I managed to find another exit, I knew I’d be tracked and collared before I ever saw the outdoors.


Pain blossomed in my right hand and I remembered the item I still clutched to my side. The key from the stranger. I gasped and uncurled my fingers, flipping the item over as though to reassure myself it was real. And it was. Its weight in my palm cleared the white noise in my head, bringing my current situation into focus.


This key… Was it meant to open the door? Did the stranger know I would escape and end up trapped in this exact spot? If they did, why were they helping me?


...Were they helping me?


My swelling frustration was replaced by curiosity. Key in hand, I wiggled it into the lock and twisted it to the left, and then to the right. I murmured a plea against the metal frame as I turned the knob. It clicked in several places, so I knew it was a perfect fit. When the door didn’t open right away, I pushed forward with a shoulder and gave the key another nudge. This time—as if my persistence had willed it—the door creaked open and I was washed in a cool, balmy wind. It blew the door out of my hands, leaving me to spill onto a cold surface. Other than the stone parapets that circled my perimeters, I was alone with the night.


A roof, I marveled, sweeping the hair out of my face. This is it—the outside.


My gaze lifted immediately. This particular sky held no stars, but it was beautiful all the same. Dark and vast. It was sirenic, calling to some part of me that hungered for adventure. It wasn’t a cracked ceiling meant to lock me away. In a sky like this, I was neither alone or forsaken. It felt like the closest thing I had to a true home, every time I looked up. It felt like mine. And now that I had seen the moons up close, I knew this was the one memory I’d never lose.


I shot to my feet, wrestling with my torn nightgown, and walked out across the concrete, then circled around like it would somehow help me take in my new reality faster. But there was so much to lay my eyes on. Below the plum-colored sky were the city lights I had admired from my window. Now, as I rushed to the edge of the prison’s roof, it seemed within reach. A few miles away, perhaps, but definitely walkable. The lights blinked back at me like tiny suns and it brought a slow, satisfied smile to my lips.


All I have to do is find my way down.


I scanned the rooftop for a ladder, though the wide platform appeared deserted. The only reasonable ways out were the staircase I had just used or a climb down the side of the building. It wasn’t ideal but wasn’t entirely impractical. I rocked over the parapet and hung my head off the side, staring down at the lots below. There were enough grooves in the structure of the prison to push my feet into, and then slide my way down to the prison fences. I’d jump right over them and vanish without a trace or regret. I had nothing to lose by leaving. In fact, I believed I had everything to gain.


I knotted the end of my nightgown and gripped the edge of the roof, ready to take the journey down, but as soon as I threw a leg over the ledge my senses picked up on another presence. The person shifted behind me like a shadow, but they didn’t get too close. Their footsteps were barely audible over the sound of my breathing. Caught in the act, I didn’t do much more than stand still. I could fight, I reasoned. If they tried to rip me away from this ledge, I’d fight them off and jump into the sky if I had to. Twenty stories high or not. They’d have to pry the moons from my angry, bleeding hands.


“Do you know who I am?” I whispered into the wind. I didn’t turn to see their face, but I knew it had to be the stranger who’d gifted me with the key. Their presence felt the same. They occupied space, yet that space was small. They felt ... small. With grit in my tone, I asked again, “Do you know my name? Is that why you’ve followed me? Because you know me?”


They gave me the second gift of silence and it incensed me even more. Were they mute? Perhaps they were waiting for me to take that first step off the building, and this was all a joke. Or maybe this was a test, and in order to pass I was supposed to have stayed in my room. If it was, I doubted they knew I would have been so willing to fail.


Before I could turn around, the stranger finally spoke. “Your name ... is Bionic: 6145.”


Four numbers? I thought with a huff. I wasn’t sure what I expected them to say since I didn’t remember my name at all, but I wasn’t expecting numbers. They weren’t even in numerical order. The only thing I had to identify myself was a code ... and it meant nothing to me. Was I that insignificant? Did I lack so much purpose that I wasn’t owed something as conventional as a name? A series of numbers stripped me down to little more than DNA. They were the conditions of my life: inhuman, easily cast aside.


How can that be?


Tears burned behind my eyes as I brought my leg back from the edge of the roof. “I don’t think that’s right. Are you su—” My throat closed up as I struggled to speak the words. Instead, I said, “Tell me why I’m here. Was it something I did? Did I … hurt someone?”