That night, I lie awake in the dark. The group I’ve been assigned to bunk with – which thankfully includes my friends – has finally settled in for the night. Each figure has a gun lying by their side for safety. My own presses against my side.
My back aches. Near me, Xander mumbles in his sleep. Almost everyone in the room has fallen asleep already. I can hear it in their deep, steady breaths. I, on the other hand, haven’t been able to close my eyes for hours.
The retelling of finding Warrick was...less than enjoyable. Carper had me recite what I found at the murder scene over and over to ensure that I hadn’t forgotten anything.
I wish I could just forget the experience. Maybe doing that wouldn't be so difficult to if I hadn't been alone when I'd found him. If there had been another person with me, it would have been different from...from the last time something like this happened.
My throat tightens. Don’t think about last time, I order myself. Don’t think about Dad. I force my eyes closed and reroute on my thoughts, drawing them away from memories of lifeless bodies and blood. Stay in the moment.
Eventually I fall asleep, although my slumber is light and restless.
Reality fades into what must be a dream. Around me, walls stretch and distort, and the light dims to a strange shade of green. The sound of the door opening travels like a skipping stone off every wall. Light spills into the room, an off-color glare. It shines behind a figure standing in the doorway. Red drips from his wrists, gleaming in the strange light. Dad.
It’s just a dream, Nat, I try to tell myself. Just another dream.
But as my father takes a step into the room, the thought feels less convincing. I try to move, but I’m frozen, my legs made of lead. He stares at me, coming closer and closer, until I can smell the blood, can feel his fear, his hopelessness.
And as his red fingers reach for me, I hear him say my name - so vividly, as if he’s speaking directly into my head.
Just as he reaches me, I startle awake.
My heart slams against my ribs. I look towards the doorway. There’s no familiar man standing in the doorframe, no unearthly light crawling across the floor.
My eyes search the darkness, trying to find Darren in the sea of bodies. It’s in vain, of course – it’s too dark. I know he’s still there, but the fact that I can't find him makes me anxious.
There are too many people in here. It feels as if they’re pressing against me, their presence too overwhelming. Their faces are lost in the darkness.
The ceiling is lowering on me. The room is shrinking. I'm dying-! The panicked thoughts cram in my skull. I need to get out of this room. Now.
I quickly get up, not bothering to take my gun with me. I need air, now.
It’s difficult to maneuver the sleeping bodies, but I eventually get to the other side of the room and out the door. My heart pounds like a jackhammer, practically leaping out of my chest as I walk down the dark hall. I need fresh air, space, then I’ll be fine. Just give me space.
I find the nearest exit and force it open, taking in a huge breath of fresh air. The tightness in my chest begins to loosen.
I cross the grounds, avoiding the guards doing their nightly rounds, and sit down by the trees’ edge, where Xander and I sat a few days ago. The place is so different at night; the air is cool, the space dark except for a silver stream of moonlight that slides across the stiff grass. I fold my legs under me and look up at the stars. Darren always tells me to look at the sky when I panic.
I lean back on my palms and tilt my head upward, listening to the low chirps and clicks of night insects. I just sit there and listen for a moment, clearing my head of the hellish images that overtook me in the crowded room.
Then, suddenly, everything stills.
The insects silence, and the breeze dies, leaving the air clammy and thick against my skin.
Something’s off. I feel a sensation creep into my being, a visceral presence that has haunted me before. The same consciousness that spoke directly into my mind so many months ago, that invaded my thoughts as we explored the techwave region.
ALPHA is here.
Its consciousness slips through the trees and bounces across the grass, growing more and more powerful with my every heartbeat. Its presence rivets me, locking me in place.
I need to run back and tell someone that It’s here, that we’re in danger. I order myself to move, but fear has taken a hold of me, pinning me in place.
Wait. Elle said It couldn’t leave Its network. Not for very long. How is It even here?
A barrier is broken, and I hear a voice. Not outside, not around me, but in my head. It projects Its words onto my thoughts. The voice is mechanical. Soulless.
“Flawed,” it hisses.
My hands tremble uncontrollably. Deep darkness creeps in around me, accompanied by the voice; ever growing, emerging from the shadows, getting stronger as it pulls at me, mocking my weakness against It.
I vainly look around me for the source of the presence. From the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a small flicker of light dancing between the trees. It’s enough to snap me back in motion. As I move my gaze to follow the light, a sickening sense of dread builds, brick by brick.
Headlights begin to streak across the darkness nearby.
An army covertly makes its way to the outpost, like a predator circling its prey.