Cas stared at Raph, both urging and daring him to elaborate. Raph merely shook his head in response.
“We need to keep moving,” Raph said. “I am truly and deeply sorry, but there are things you cannot know for the time being. It’s for your own good.” He nodded to the catwalk behind Cas.
Cas glanced over her shoulder, half-expecting someone to have caught up with them. She realized Raph was only indicating the path they would need to take. “What if I choose to wait here?” Cas challenged. “What if I refuse to press on? Or worse, what if I refuse to let you pass?”
Raph pursed his lips. “I can only speculate,” he said. “Nothing good.” He stepped forward. Cas grabbed at the railings on either side and stood her ground.
“I have no reason to trust you that I can think of,” Cas said. “Though you set me free, this could all be some elaborate ruse to lull me into false security.” She studied Raph’s face, hoping for answers that he refused to speak to manifest.
“You don’t,” Raph said. “Right now, you don’t. I let you out and guided you away from the more heavily-surveilled areas, but we can still be seen.” He gestured toward the wall. It was only then that Cas noticed the otherwise-sheer metal surface was interrupted at odd intervals by small, translucent domes.
“Like it or not, we still have a way to go before we can really talk,” Raph said. “Or we stop here and now. Gavin will find us. I’m sure my punishment will be far worse than yours.”
The scars. Cas found herself fixated on the scars that traversed Raph’s face. “Were you punished before?” she asked before she could stop herself. She clenched her jaw, not allowing herself to complete the line of questioning though it still lurked in her thoughts.
Raph frowned. “If I answer truthfully, can we please proceed?” he asked. Cas nodded silently.
“Yes,” Raph said simply. “These scars are a reminder of another time I disobeyed orders.”
Cas stepped back onto the landing, allowing Raph to pass her. The catwalks clinked quietly with each step they took. The dull echo of their progress proved to be the only conversation for some distance as Cas followed Raph deeper into the compound.
The Facility, Cas reminded herself.
“I’m sorry,” Cas said. “That was rude of me before.”
Raph chuckled. “No need for an apology,” he replied, rounding another bend. “There will be a time when everything can be made clear. When you can have answers. Until then, however, we must press onwards.”
A small opening in the wall was visible, blocked from being viewed overhead by a small outcropping. Raph turned around and smiled. “Besides, I know you meant no ill will,” he added before turning and continuing ahead. Cas was taken aback by the comment. Clearly, she reasoned, Raph was someone who knew her. Who seemed to trust her.
“Don’t linger too long,” Raph called back over his shoulder. He was now some distance ahead, Cas realized as she was snapped back to the present. She sped up, and as she reached the opening to the concealed room, she realized she wasn’t looking simply a door. A wall had once stood there, its remains clinging to where the ceiling met the other walls.
Raph tapped at a spot on his chest as they entered the room. A powerful light sprang to life inside a panel of armor on Raph’s chest, illuminating a room like the one she had been in earlier. This one, however, was in a state of great disrepair. A large, cracked glass panel blocked where the cells had been. Only a handful of the consoles remained, and of those only a few had monitors that were still in one piece.
“Keep your wits about you, Miss Cas,” Raph said. He approached the consoles. Cas followed close behind. There was something to the quality of the shadows in the room that put her on edge. Maybe it was paranoia, but she was certain something was moving at the edge of her vision.
“What is this place?” Cas asked as she looked around the room.
Raph tapped at the console. “Better to show than just tell,” he responded, his words shaped by a hint of a frown. He stepped back and clenched his fists. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Raph struck the side of the console. A dull whirring emitted from somewhere beneath its surface, and a few lights blinked to life.
“That’s a step in the right direction,” Raph said. He stepped closer to the console once again and resumed tapping away at its surface. Cas watched as small points of light followed Raph’s fingers, tracing lines along the dusty surface.
The floor shuddered as something shifted deep within the facility. One after another, panels of lights in the ceiling flickered to life. They were dull, Cas noted, and some of them remained off. Raph nodded to where the large pane of glass was, and Cas turned to face it.
Birds darted around a peaceful meadow. A family of deer appeared in the distance, only partially visible amidst the trees. A small stream bubbled along its path.
“It’s beautiful,” Cas said, drawn to the glass. A field mouse scurried up to the glass and stopped, eying Cas. The floor shuddered again, weaker this time. The lights flickered, and the animals briefly became transparent. The trees shifted and twisted unnaturally, branches briefly suspended by nothing. The grass and sky inverted colors. Cas felt her heart sink.
In an instant, the simulated environment returned to the way it initially had been.
Raph’s footsteps were quiet as he approached and placed a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I should have explained first,” he said. “This is the prototype for what you saw upstairs, which in turn is a prototype for the functional version. Formulated Installations of Reality.”
Cas stared at Raph for a moment.
“It’s hard to explain, but I needed you to see this,” Raph said, the pace of his speech rigid as if he were reciting something. “It’s important that you question everything. Don’t let your guard down for a minute.” He paused, and something else blinked in the reflection on the glass. It was brief, but long enough to catch Cas’s attention. She spun around to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.
One of the little spheres from the wall rested on the floor, a dull red light visibly blinking at its core, visible through its outer, translucent layers. Cas took a quick step towards it, landing hard on one foot as she swung the other towards the device. It was deceptively light, and once her boot made contact it shot out of the room and down into the vast expanse of catwalks.
“We need to press onwards,” Raph said, a panicked look on his face. “I fear our time together is short, and there was still much I needed to cover. This is bad.” He motioned for Cas to follow, and Cas did so without question. The door at the opposite end of the room was tucked into the wall slightly, blocked by a honeycombed forcefield. Each portion of the forcefield was a distinct color.
Raph motioned for Cas to stop. “These old security features,” Raph muttered. “Keep an eye out. I’m certain we aren’t alone.”
As if on cue, a dull beep emanated from the space the highways of catwalks crisscrossed. It was followed by another, and yet more. The camera-orbs appeared, rolling into the room along the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. Points of light traced along the floor, moving with slow deliberation towards Cas and Raph.
“We have company,” Cas said. She glanced over her shoulder. Raph was tapping at the panels one at a time. At some point in entering each combination, the honeycombs flickered bright red and Raph recoiled in pain.
Cas looked back at the entrance. There were significantly more orbs. They rolled over each other, their progress slow.
“They don’t seem terribly dangerous,” Cas said.
“They’re mapping the room,” Raph said without bothering to look. “Anything out of place will be encapsulated and incinerated.”
“A detail you could have lead with,” Cas said, backing up. She kept her eyes on the camera-orbs. She could hear Raph tapping away, cursing under his breath with each failure.
Something caught her eye beyond the glass wall. Raph tapped a green panel, and the simulated grass turned slate gray. The brown honeycomb drained color from the trees’ trunks, the red and orange claimed their leaves, and the blue drained the sky. He tapped a second brown honeycomb and recoiled. All color returned to the simulated environment. The thing Raph had called a Formulated Installation of Reality.
“Let me try,” Cas said absent-mindedly.
Raph met her gaze. “Getting it wrong is quite unpleasant, you know,” Raph cautioned.
“It seems that way,” Cas replied. “We’re running out of time. I have an idea. Let me try it, please.”
Raph stepped aside, allowing Cas to take his place. She tapped a blue panel and the sky faded. She tapped orange, red, and yellow honeycombs, and the leaves on the trees went gray. She tapped the brown and green, and the trees and grass went completely dark. A single, golden panel lit up in the center of the barrier. Cas took a deep breath, held it, and pressed her palm against the golden panel. A silver light flashed across the barrier, and it vanished. The world beyond the glass disappeared completely, replaced now by a plain room. Metal poles stood where trees had been, and small, simplistic robots slowed to a halt—they were all that was left of the animals.
The glass blinked, then broke down and slid across the floor.
“Very clever, Miss,” Raph said appreciatively. “Let’s make haste. There’s an old habitation unit not too far from here.” He walked towards where the glass had been, stepping over its powdered remains and into what had only moments ago looked to be a picturesque meadow. The beeping of the camera-orbs grew closer and louder, their number having increased significantly. Cas crouched down as she stepped across the threshold, scooping up some of the substance.
She sifted it through her hands as she walked, moving fast to match Raph’s pace and keep ahead of the camera-orbs.
“Sand,” she said quietly to herself as the last of it sifted between her fingers. Something dark was left behind on her palm. She closed her hand, dragging her fingers across it. It smeared gray and off-white against her skin.
“More ashes,” Cas said.
The beeping intensified. Cas glanced behind her and saw the camera-orbs had picked up speed, now rolling after her. Cas started to jog. The room turned out to be a long corridor, mercifully free of obstacles. Cas and Raph only had to change course slightly to avoid the occasional tree-posts. The camera-orbs seemed to be pursuing them with purpose now, rivers of glass and metal splitting into individual streams to track Raph or Cas speicifically.
“What’s at the end of this?” Cas asked. Her legs had started aching some distance back, and she saw Raph’s pace had started to slow as well.
“Another control room,” Raph panted.
As if in response to their plight, the floor seemed to angle towards their destination. Cas and Raph ran faster, aided by the shift in the room’s configuration. The sound of metal on metal grew closer as the camera-orbs reached the hill as well.
“They’ll overrun us soon if we’re not careful,” Raph said.
Cas shook her head. “I have no intention of dying here,” she replied, pushing herself to run faster.
“The strange thing,” Raph said. “I don’t recall any of the older environments being advanced enough to handle shifts in terrain. The programming hadn’t progressed that far yet.”
Cas faltered briefly, her stride broken for a split second. She glanced back and spotted a crack in the floor. The paneling was uneven, shifted downwards like the surrounding floor but at a more severe angle. Scanning the floor ahead, Cas spotted more cracks and damage to the floor.
“Watch your step!” Cas shouted to Raph. A doorway loomed ahead, large enough that an airplane could pass through. Raph came to an abrupt stop, having maintained a few paces’ distance ahead of Cas.
“Look out!” Raph shouted. Cas stopped with only inches of floor left. A significant portion of the floor between where they stood and the exit had broken away. Nothing was visible at the bottom of the chasm – only darkness.
The camera-orbs had nearly closed the distance and were still rapidly advancing.
“We need to jump,” Cas stated decisively.
Raph stared down into the pit, then looked back at the robots. “Certain death or possible death,” he mused. “I trust you. Tell me we can make this jump.”
Cas raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t the time for me to question why you trust me,” Cas replied. She turned on her heels and sprinted back the way they came. In a flash, Cas slid to a stop only inches away from the camera-orbs. She turned again and sprinted back towards the chasm. She leapt forward, gliding through the air like a seasoned ballerina executing a flawless grand jete. She landed on the other side, rolling forward to a kneeling position.
Raph offered brief applause. He ran back, forced to stop sooner than Cas as the oncoming wall of robots had moved closer still. He ran, huffing and puffing as he did, and leapt. Cas ran towards the gap, knelt down and grabbed Raph’s arms as he collided with the edge.
“Don’t you dare let go,” Cas demanded. “I still want answers, especially now.”
Raph nodded. Cas pulled at Raph while Raph carefully walked his way up the small portion of wall between him and safety. Raph fell forward, breathing heavily.
“I always knew you’d be the death of me, Miss,” Raph joked. “Thanks for that.”
The wall of camera-orbs continued to advance, nearly at the gap. “Don’t thank me just yet,” Cas said. The orbs rolled up to the chasm and stopped. They formed a neat, even line. Another orb rolled up onto the first layer, and then another.
“They’re forming a chain,” Cas observed. “They’ll be upon us before long.” She watched the chains of robots continue to grow. Something else caught her eye, however.
“Perhaps we should continue on, then,” Raph suggested.
“Hang on,” Cas said. “I’m curious. Something’s happening.” A dull, steady creaking sound was only barely audible over the din of beeping noises. The camera-orbs began to lean forward, high enough to reach. Raph leapt to his feet and started a slow but steady retreat when a loud crack filled the air. The camera-orbs heaved up and back, the floor falling away from beneath them. They disappeared from sight in an instant.
“That,” Raph said, pointing at Cas. “was luck.”
Cas offered a smile in response. “Shall we press onwards now?” she asked.
They arrived at a single door set in the wall, with a simple doorknob. Nothing elaborate. Raph grasped the doorknob and turned it, breathing a sigh of relieve.
“These old parts of The Facility have been decommissioned for so long,” Raph said. “Honestly, I’m grateful there are so few upgraded sections.”
“The disrepair certainly worked to our advantage,” Cas admitted.
Raph shook his head. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.
Cas chuckled. “Was that a joke?” she asked.
Raph considered his words and smiled. “I suppose it could pass for a moment of levity, yes,” he conceded. He stepped through the doorway, and Cas followed.
“More catwalks,” Cas said. One catwalk was held aloft from one end of the room to the other. Several smaller catwalks branched off to doors. The opposite end of the room looked like the room Cas had woken up in, imprisoned. Nothing beyond the end of the catwalk was visible, as the lighting ended just before that point.
Cas walked ahead, her hands on the railings. “At what point will you tell me more?” she called back to Raph. “I would certainly appreciate it.”
One of the orbs appeared ahead of Cas as she reached the center of the room. This one looked different, Cas noted. A lense shifted over its surface in a familiar way, and as it rolled away Cas realized what the odd apparatus had done.
It had winked at her.
“Show yourself!” Cas demanded. She heard Raph’s footsteps stop.
“Is something wrong, Miss Cas?” Raph asked.
“There’s nothing wrong at all, is there Cassandra?” Gavin said, stepping into the light. His cybernetic eye was back in its place.
Cas tensed, a searing pain shooting through her. Her knuckles went white from how tightly she gripped the railing.
“Little details hurt,” Gavin said. “Big ones could kill you, Cas, my dear. Come along. There’s no report of this little excursion, nor does there need to be.” He glanced past Cas to Raph and smiled.
“This will be a little less pleasant for you, I’m afraid,” Gavin continued. “That could have been avoided if you had just let Ismeria watch over her.”
Cas worked through the pain. “What are you going on about?” Cas demanded.
Gavin took a step forward.
“Cas!” Raph shouted. “Look here!”
Cas turned, facing outwards. The void below was dizzying, but Cas refused to allow Gavin a chance to catch her unaware.
“I’m sorry,” Raph said. “I didn’t think we would have enough time. It looks like I’ll have to take a raincheck on giving you those answers.” He produced a small disc from a pocked on his uniform and threw it onto the catwalk.
Cas saw the look of triumph fall from Gavin’s face, replaced by intense rage.
“You know there will be consequences,” Gavin said, taking another step forward.
“Cas, you need to run,” Raph said. “Help those who can’t help themselves, and accept help only if you are certain you can trust the person.”
“What are you going on about?” Cas demanded.
“Above all else, don’t forget,” Raph continued. “As a wise person once told me, never forget this. Follow the ashes!” He pressed a button on his gauntlet and the disk emitted a bright light. Cas watched as Gavin jumped backwards, off of the catwalk. The world heaved beneath her, then fell away as the metal of the catwalk was reduced to ash.
Cas tumbled downwards into the darkness. As she fell, she fought to focus so as to prepare herself for what might await at the bottom of her fall. Even if it was her death.
Something shone dimly below. Cas fought to stop turning over in the air and tried to focus. She saw spots glimmering along a moving surface.
Cas braced herself for impact, held her arms tightly at her sides, and shut her eyes. She hit the water feet-first, plunging deep beneath its surface The cold hit her hard, and she gasped before she could stop herself. She fought her way to the surface. Small waves moved along the water’s surface. Not far in the distance, Cas spotted a small stretch of beach. She swam to it as quickly as she could, throwing herself onto the ground.
Nothing was visible above.
“Now what do I do?” Cas asked herself. She stood up, brushing the sand off as she did. There was a rusted recess in the wall, just at the edge of the beach, and in that recess stood a door. I
“Restricted area,” Cas read on the door’s surface. “Sealed habitation zone. No outside influence permitted.” She considered the words.
“Sounds like an invitation,” Cas said. She stepped forward, placed a hand on the door’s surface, and pushed.