Cas remained still as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She could see the shape of a small tent in the distance. A small light from within the tent cast Raph’s shadow against the cloth wall.
“I know you’re watching me, asshole,” Cas said to the darkness.
“Not very nice of you, but I’m hardly surprised by your hostility,” Gavin replied, his voice echoing from all around. “Given how busy you’ve been, how could I not keep an eye on you? You’ve caused a lot of problems.”
Cas massaged her temples. “I don’t feel like playing games with you,” she snapped back. “What did he mean when he called me Commander? Who are you people and why am I here?!”
Gavin’s laughter was quiet enough that there was no way Raph could hear it, but loud enough to ensure Cas heard it loud and clear.
“Asking the big questions now,” Gavin said. “Perhaps you should investigate and see what you learn on your own.”
There was a shift, small but perceptible, in the atmosphere, and Cas could tell that Gavin was gone. At the very least, he had stopped watching for now.
Cas sighed, considering her options. Talking to Raph could very well be part of an elaborate trap, as he had helped her escape Gavin before but showed no signs of recognizing he did as much. She steeled herself for the worst, took a deep breath, and walked towards the tent. Raph’s silhouette indicated he was sitting with his back to the door, hunched over something. Cas cleared her throat and watched as Raph turned around. He poked his head out of the tent’s opening seconds later.
“Yes, Commander? Didn’t expect you so soon. Is all well?”
Cas considered her words with care. “At ease,” she said, and Raph seemed to relax a little. “Let’s say I am testing you. Care to answer a few questions?”
“Of course, Commander,” Raph replied. He stepped out of the tent. “Ask away.”
Cas paused, wondering what a good starting point would be. “This is all artificial,” she said gesturing to the field around them, pausing to point at the trees before gesturing towards the sky. “What purpose does it serve?”
Raph smiled. “An easy first question, Commander,” he said. “We are here to rigorously test the simulated environments before they are deemed acceptable for population. We evaluate the quality of each simulation and pass those evaluations on to high command.”
Cas nodded. “And from there?”
“Well above my pay grade, Commander,” Raph replied.
“Good answer,” Cas lied. She decided quickly this was not a line of questioning worth pressing and moved on. “Have you seen Gavin?”
Raph raised an eyebrow. “The Lieutenant? Not since you sent him off on his special assignment.”
Raph blinked. “You wouldn’t tell me and he kept very quiet about it, unlike his usual routine,” he replied. “Highly classified from the sound of it.”
Cas nodded. She considered her options as she didn’t know what would or wouldn’t raise red flags. “All right. Good answers so far. Last question.”
Raph offered a polite smile. It was only at this point that Cas realized what seemed off about him. He had none of the scars she was used to seeing on his face.
“First thing that comes to mind when I give this command,” Cas said. “Follow the ashes.”
The stars went out, and with them all light left the wooded area. Cas couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and suddenly she felt very alone.
The room lit up, the metal poles that stood in place of trees her only company. The walls were covered in endless data streams, the information moving too rapidly for Cas to process. The only detail she could focus on was a solitary word present on each wall.
“Just another simulation,” Cas muttered to herself. She looked around until she spotted a door. She walked over to it, absentmindedly allowing her hands to graze the placeholders for trees and shrubs as she walked. She half-heartedly acknowledge the presence of ashes on the door handle before she opened it, stepping out into a control room.
A series of panels stared down at her from their lofty posts along where the wall met the ceiling.
She hesitated, however, when she spotted an envelope propped up against one of the consoles. It was plain and unassuming, the only markings on it her name in swooping, elaborate script. Not just Cas, however.
Sharp pain rolled over Cas as her vision grew dark. She tried to muscle through it, and when she felt herself getting the better of whatever was happening she noticed the envelope was gone.
The door on the opposite side of the control room was slightly ajar, and so Cas approached it, opened it, and crossed the threshold without hesitation.
She needed answers, and she was determined to stop letting them slip between her fingers.