Illumination 7.2: “And one by one the stars go out.”

They kept Natalie in darkness, except for when they came to see her. Her cell was a larger closet now, with smooth floors and walls, and a rough facsimile of a toilet created by the belligerent Tower voice. The room was large enough to pace, and pace she did. The darkness swallowed her, otherwise. It was worse that having her eyes closed, worse than being blind. The Guardians called the monsters that stalked humanity Awakened Darkness for a reason, and even passive and sleeping, the endless darkness tried to creep inside.

One wall was clear, with a mesh at the top that let her visitors speak to her, and a small sliding door they used to pass her food. After a day in the dark, even oatmeal was a taste explosion. The visitors came with light more often than they came with food, to speak with her and inspect her. She didn’t want to cooperate. But she couldn’t look away from the light, and didn’t want to return to solitary silence.

Hatherly stood on the other side of the window, his hands behind his back as he watched her eat. They’d fed her three times now. Had it been a day? Two days? She wasn’t getting very hungry between meals, but once, when she’d stopped moving, she’d forgotten she had a body. She couldn’t trust its cues.

“It’s a shame you can’t be trusted yet.” Hatherly’s voice was pleasant, like they were back at home again. “But we can’t rush things. I’ve rushed things before and the results have been… unsatisfactory. Still, you do have an element of choice here, and I understand that boredom is a killer in times like these. And other things.” He sighed. “Striking a balance is hard.”

“What choice can I make, alone in the dark?”

“Even alone, you fight the darkness.”

“Isn’t that what you want?” Her voice cracked.

“No,” he said gently. “I want you to defeat it.” He left her again in darkness.

She stared at hands she couldn’t see. An hour into the darkness, she’d turned them into a stage 1 weapon, just to have something to look at. She’d watched the walls belch forth little horrors that came for her and dragged her down. Her hands burned them but they didn’t care. They’d held her until she let the light fade.

The Tower voice rasped, and the monsters faded away. “Next time,” came Hatherly’s voice in the darkness, “The tower will kill you. It presents a convincing argument that only monsters do not learn.”

Later, it was Tainter who brought the light. His Cambion came with him, and he stroked spiky fur as he crouched on the far side of the window and stared at her.

She stayed away. Even on the other side of a wall, he frightened her. She didn’t think he’d ever been sane; he was like an alien wrapped in a human skin, operating under different rules and different assumptions about the world.

He cleared his throat. “It’s a lot of work, changing the world. Nobody ever talks about the grocery shopping. It’s not all robbing banks and high security research facilities, you know. I picked up hamburger for the next meal. I do hope you like it.” He laughed. “There was a dog outside the store. It could smell Rend, I think. Poor little thing didn’t like that at all. But I gave it something else to worry about.”

Natalie gagged. Tainter moved closer to the window. “Are you sick? Would you prefer something else for your meal?”

“I don’t want anything cooked by you!”

He shook his finger. “No hunger strikes. We’ve got to keep you healthy.”

“Why? What do you want with me? What’s going to happen to me? Won’t you just tell me?”

“Oh, the boss has special plans for you. Aya was a target of opportunity, but he thinks you’re exactly what he’s looking for.”

“For what?”

Nuh-uh. Not going to spoil his surprise. Besides, isn’t the unknown so much more frightening? Being scared is important.”

“What are you guys doing now? We fought you, we destroyed your experimental machine.”

“You did fight me. I haven’t forgotten. I still have the marks! They hurt.” He grinned. “Make me feel tingly.”

Natalie stared at his feet. “What about your machine?”

“Well, it was an experiment. A prototype. One expects prototypes to break somehow. I’m a scientist, you know.”

He left, and took the light with him. She missed the light when he was gone, and thought of Seth, and threw up. She didn’t want Tainter to make her think of Seth. Seth was so much better than he was.

Was Seth even alive? He’d seemed pretty badly hurt, and she realized she didn’t know, didn’t know anything. She’d been telling herself they’d won, and she was just a final causality. But she didn’t know.

She started being unable to tell the difference between sleeping and waking. Even in her dreams, she was lost in darkness.

Aya brought her a sticky roll. It was crusted with a glazed topping, and the faintest hint of salt made the caramel almost savory.

Unlike Tainter, Aya wasn’t chatty. Natalie tried to ask her questions about Hatherly’s plans, but Aya just watched her eat.

Finally, Aya said, “I don’t know. I don’t care. I have to be here, and I’m supposed to talk to you, but there’s really nothing to say, is there?”

Natalie put down the roll. “Why are you here, Aya? Didn’t they kill Slade? You brought him back to us.”

“He’s better off dead,” said Aya. She sounded dead herself. “Hatherly still has hope. He found something. He told me we could strike at the source of the darkness.”

“Do you believe him?”

A flicker of expression passed across Aya’s face. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Natalie considered the other girl. “When we were nine, we used to play in the garden, you and I. Do you remember? We’d play tag, and hide-and-seek, and if we could get enough kids, we’d play that game where we made a chain with our hands and somebody tried to break it.”

“Shut up.”

“Your grandmother would stand with my mom and they’d talk about the babies, and how the primary school was going. Once, when we were playing hide and seek, you hid behind your grandmoth—”

Natalie wasn’t quite sure how it happened, what with the wall in the way, but somehow Aya was on her, knocking her to the ground, shrieking as she grabbed Natalie’s head and started banging it into the ground.

Two solid cracks, and a blossoming of pain and sparks, but Natalie still had more self-control than Aya. She managed to get some leverage, enough to get her shoulder under herself, and her hands up to defend herself. They rolled, and rolled again. Pain came again.

Then monsters chittered, and a shadow passed in front of the light Aya had abandoned. Malachi pulled Aya off of Natalie. Aya fought and screamed in fury. “I’ll kill them. I’ll kill your entire fucking family. I’ll kill them all, the babies and your brother and your mother, all of them.” Malachi dragged her beyond the window, which grew back into place behind him. They left the light behind.

It glowed for a few moments, before fading away. She might have slept. She might have dreamt.

Malachi was in the room, watching her. He didn’t say anything. She had no idea what to say to him. She hadn’t intended to provoke Aya into violence, just push her a little closer to who she’d been before. Now she was afraid of trying to connect again. Her head ached too much. She was afraid of him, bigger and older and far more enigmatic.

He pushed a tray through the door. “Painkiller for your head, too.”

She crawled over and took the pills, ignoring the meal. She felt too sick and afraid to be hungry.

“If you don’t eat, you won’t heal. You’ll lose your strength, end up as nothing more than Aya.” His voice was cool.

She closed her eyes. “Where is Aya?”

“She’s not allowed to come see you anymore. She’s too dangerous.”

“Did he want her for whatever he wants me for?”

“No. But what he got isn’t what he hoped for. Tainter enjoys himself too much.”

She thought the light went away, beyond her eyelids.

Time started to get strange. Conversations with different people flowed together.

Malachi said, “He wants somebody like himself. Like he used to be. Somebody who can generate many cambions.”

“It’s a sweet spot,” Tainter said. “Balancing on the edge of a knife.”

Behind closed eyes, she saw Seth, playing with his blades. He said, with Malachi’s voice, “I expect Hatherly to fail. His grand experiment will fail, and I want to see it. I know what will really happen. After all, what happened to the Antecessors?”

She opened her eyes to light. In the flare of light, she saw Ajax, a glow emanating from the curved scythe he held easily in one hand.

She blinked. It was a dream.

Somebody was watching her, but it wasn’t one of the humans. The Cambion called Surge sat on the other side of the wall, watching her calmly. Its tail was long, plug-like, and the claws on its paws were like the pins of a computer connection.

Amber eyes met her own. It spoke. “You aren’t as angry as my master. Nor as the girl Shard. I wonder if my master is right.”

Natalie shuddered, remembering the first Cambion she’d spoken to. Descry, it had called itself. They had names. She wondered if they chose them.

“Shard? Do you mean Aya?”

“Perhaps she was Aya once. I do not know. But she is Shard now. We see it.”

“What… what do you see in the others?”

The Cambion tilted its head. “In my master, I see the Ashlander. And then there is Tainter, and Void, as named by their children.”

She curled up on the floor. “If your master is angry, why are you so calm?”

“That is how I was born. First there was anger, then calm, and desire, and then there was I.”

She closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, Surge sat there. Had time passed? How could she tell?

“What do you see in me?”

After a moment of silence, Surge said, “At the heart of this world is a captured star. You and she have much in common. But it is not for me to name you. That is the task of your own firstborn.”

“Why are you visiting me? Hatherly makes the others come, I don’t know why. But why do you care?”

“I’m curious about you,” said Surge. “I’ve tasted many minds since setting out on my master’s mission. Each mind I touch seems to change the world. Isn’t that strange?”

Not an animal, Natalie thought.

The light went away. When it returned, it came with Hatherly. She sat up.

He looked at her, his hands behind his back. “I would like you to think about this. They did not come for Aya. Do you think they will come for you?”

She hadn’t been thinking about that, not at all. Not in darkness, not in light. She closed her eyes.

He went on speaking. “Sweet girl, you must remember this: now, we are all you have.”

She covered her ears.

After a moment, the light went away.

In the darkness, she began to cry.
**

Hi there and thanks for reading. If you’re on the story-only feed, I wanted to invite you to read my latest update on my upcoming novel Matchbox Girls. There’s some pretty exciting news.

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