THE NIGHTMARES ARE THE WORST.
They are always the same: I wake up in total darkness, crammed into a wooden box too small to hold me. Every nook and cranny is filled with shards of glass and metal. My skin weeps blood from a million tiny cuts. When I lift my head, my forehead scrapes against the rough- hewn wood of the lid.
Outside the box I can sense someone moving. I try to shout, to let them know I’m trapped in here. To let me out. But I can’t. My breath freezes in my lungs, solidifying into a mass of fear so intense it threatens to explode from my body.
That’s when the first shaft of light pierces the box. I feel the bullet enter my chest, splitting my skin, pushing through my ribs, before coming to rest against my spine.
Another shaft of light. Another bullet. More drill through the box’s wooden top, until the fear melts into warm blood filling my lungs, drowning me in my dark coffin. I am dying. Can you die in a dream?
The lid opens slowly on well- oiled hinges, and all I can do is blink in the sudden brightness. My mouth opens and closes like a fish pulled from water. I can feel the hot blood running past my lips and down my cheeks, filling my ears. I gag, spitting more of the coppery, viscous fluid onto my face. Above me is a mirror, placed so I can see what’s left of my body as my life seeps away.
But the reflection I see isn’t mine. Instead it’s Quincy. The man I killed.
I told myself— keep telling myself— that it was in self- defense. That I’d had no other choice. It doesn’t make any difference.
Quincy lies in the small box, his skin sliced in a thousand places. His chest is a morass of blood and bone and flesh where the bullets—bullets that only moments ago I had felt— plowed into him.
And then the nightmare gets worse.
Quincy stares back at me, stares into my soul, and he begins to change. His black, beady eyes soften into hazel. His narrow face widens. His thin lips fill, curving into a persistent smile. It’s not Quincy in the box anymore. It’s Ian Miller, the man I love. The fine lace pattern of old scars on the left side of his face make him more beautiful rather than less. His hazel eyes— eyes I’d lost myself in so many times— slowly lose their light, until they are as dull as the Level 1 ceiling.
I used to wake up screaming. Thrashing in sheets wrapped so tight around me that it took two people to unwind them. My heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst through my chest. They moved me out of the bunkhouse until I learned to control myself better.
It took almost six months, half the time I’d been at the ACE training compound.
While the other ACE trainees bonded over bunkhouse chats and shared spaces, I learned how to squeeze more into the dark corner of my mind where I kept the other memories. Memories of being told I’d never see my parents again, of my uncle and aunt. Of Quincy’s handiwork.
I was moved to a small room off the cookhouse. I’d lock myself in early at the end of the day, avoiding the others, avoiding everyone. Sometimes I’d hear the other students come in for a late night snack, chatting and happy; smell the fresh coffee and biscuits the cook, Pat, made for them. All I had to look forward to was another agonizing night. After they left, I’d hear a soft knock on my door and footsteps walking away. Pat would always leave a little snack for me.
We’d all been here almost a year, and I was bunking with the others now. The beds, hard, lumpy, and smelly, reminded me of the halfway house I was placed in after my parents were killed, adding more fuel to the nightmares that still came almost every night.
Only the screaming had stopped.
At the compound, I learned it helped to be outside, to feel the sun beating on my skin, the sky open above me. In winter, I walked from the bunkhouse to the cookhouse in just a t- shirt and shorts, wanting… needing to feel the wind and sun on my bare skin, no matter what the temperature.
There were no ceilings here, no putrid water dripping from the Ambients and girders, no recycled air. I’d grown to love the huge open expanse, no longer scared by a sky that stretched on forever. There was nothing to break the silent splendor of the mountains. Even transports were forbidden from flying overhead by the Canadian government, to keep the wilderness as pristine as possible.
ACE BOOT CAMP, KANANASKIS— SUNDAY, JUNE 11, 2141 5:35 A.M.
I woke up early again this morning, the nightmare’s sweat still clinging to my skin, making the sheets cold and clammy. Turning over onto my side, I stared at the bunk beside me as the tendrils of fear slipped back into hiding. In the dim morning light, filtered through frayed red and white checked curtains, I could see the blanket rise and fall as the bunk’s occupant slept. I knew her name. I knew she did well in physical challenges and poorly in others. But I didn’t know her. I had missed that chance. I’m not sure I would have taken it even if it was offered.
From what I’d been able to pick up, we’d all come from below Level 3. None of us had family or real friends that would miss us. Emma seemed to be the only exception; she’d been recruited from a small group of insurgents creating havoc on Level 2 near San Francisco.
The room stank of old shoes and sweaty clothes. Yesterday afternoon we’d done endurance training, tasked with running the mountain’s trails while carrying our own food and water. We’d gotten back well after the sun had gone down, using small headlamps to light the way, and fallen into our bunks, exhausted. It was a relief not to hear the other girls talk. Not to be ignored, excluded yet again.
Janice, one of the other students, walked in from outside and silently crept back to her bed. I lay still, not wanting her to know I was awake, until her breathing evened out. I cautiously raised my head off the pillow. For the last three days, I’d felt nauseous in the mornings, barely making it to the latrines before throwing up. Things seemed to be better this morning. Hopefully, whatever had made me sick was gone. At least I didn’t have to hide it from anyone today. I didn’t want to be sick this close to graduation.
Even completely wiped out, I’d remembered to take Oscar out of my pocket and slip him under my pillow last night. Oscar was my small golden figurine, a vague image of a man with his arms crossed holding what I always thought was a sword. It was passed down from mother to daughter for generations. No one remembered why they called him that, but the name stuck. I’d been using him as a key chain when I was a courier. Now the chain and ring attached to Oscar’s back were empty, my bike safely stored at Kai’s restaurant.
Mom didn’t give him to me. I’d snatched anything I could when the police dragged me from our small apartment— when the corporations killed Mom and Dad. It was all I had of them now.
Knowing I wasn’t going to sleep anymore, I crept out of bed with Oscar in my hand, the cold floor raising goose bumps on my skin. Pulling on a pair of sweatpants, I grabbed my climbing gear off the hook by the door and slipped out of the bunkhouse into the chill morning air. I pulled on my sneakers, stiff and cold with yesterday’s sweat. The sun had risen over the low hills at end of the valley. By the time I reached the western cliffs, it would have warmed up the rock well enough to get some climbing in.
One of the first things we were told when we got here was that we were never allowed to leave the compound without authorization. I hadn’t let anyone control my life that way since I ran away from my aunt’s house at fourteen, and I wasn’t going to start. I’d been heading out since the first week, and kept on doing it. Either the instructors had gotten used to me, or they had finally given up. I walked across the yard, but barely got halfway across when I heard the cookhouse door slam shut.
Over time, Pat’s late night offerings of food had turned into talks— and tears. After we shared our names, we shared our opinions on the camp students and staff. Eventually we became close enough to share our nightmares.
Hers were worse than mine.
I angled over to the cookhouse entrance. On the bench outside the door, Pat had left a muffin and a bottle of water. She didn’t come out to see me. She knew I needed my time alone in the mornings. Time to get over the nightmares. Good friends did that. If I had a chance to head back to the cliffs after dinner, she’d probably join me.
Pat had been Black Ops before she became a cook. Before her breakdown. ACE had kept her on, and she was happy. For the most part. Sometimes her stories made me second- guess being here, but I really had nowhere else to go. She made me wonder if my nightmares would turn me into a cook instead of an operative.
I left the compound, pulling the crisp mountain air deep into my lungs until they hurt, trying to get rid of the smell of the bunkhouse, and took the path heading to the cliffs. The muffin, still warm from the oven, was gone before I hit the band of trees surrounding the valley. Some of the nausea I’d felt for the last few days came back, and I hoped the food would help quell it. It didn’t, but at least I didn’t feel like I was going to throw up. The sun had risen enough for me to feel its heat through the leaves. By the time I finished the steep half-hour hike, I was sweating and breathing hard. I stopped at the bottom of the cliff and took a swig of water.
Sitting on a rock, the morning sun warming my face, I stared at the valley below. The compound hid behind the trees I’d just hiked through. Low hills in the east turned rocky as they moved up the valley toward me, eventually becoming small peaks before growing into the cliff face and mountains behind me. I knew if I sat long enough, letting the silence permeate my skin, I would almost believe I was alone in the world. Six weeks ago I’d wanted to believe anything but. Ian had joined me; one of his rare visits to the compound. We had sat up here, the sun warming our naked skin. We didn’t climb that day.
Pulling myself from the memory with difficulty, I took off my runners and socks, squeezed my bare feet into climbing shoes, and laced them up.
I stood and faced the cliff. It rose almost thirty meters here, slowly gaining height until it was more than double that at the far end. I’d been up and down the cliff face so many times the rock was like an old friend. The mornings I came here alone, I never climbed higher than three meters off the ground, my route traversing the rock face from right to left. When you put a new climb on a cliff, you got to name it. I called this one Eyes of Hazel.
I moved to the route’s start, stretching my back. The large scar between my shoulder blades felt tight, as it always did first thing in the morning. I got it last year when the black box that blocked my tracker had melted into my skin. The trackers were active devices, injected into us at birth. They sent out a low power signal with every heartbeat. The good thing was we had to go near a sensor for them to be read. The bad was San Angeles was littered with sensors. I had control of mine; we all did if we worked for ACE. I was injected with a modified transmitter that I could control with my comm unit, letting me be anyone I wanted. Or no one at all, invisible to the sensors.
ACE still made the occasional offer to remove the scar. I always refused. I might try to shovel all my memories into a box where they couldn’t hurt me anymore, but the burn was part of me. Part of who I was. Like Ian’s scarred face. But on days like today, when it really bothered me, I wondered what it would be like without it. It was something I thought of more and more often.
I climbed up a meter before starting the traverse. My fingers slid over the rough limestone, finding the tiny fingerholds. I’d done this route so many times, they knew where to go by themselves. My feet moved from positive edges to gentle slopers, and I lost myself in the workout, the only sound my breathing. As I traversed, the sun casting my shadow on the rock in front of me, the tension slipped from my shoulders, the nightmare’s memories slowly fading into the background.
Climbing wasn’t part of the training process, but when an instructor had found me on one of my early forays from the compound, I’d been right here, touching the rock, feeling the captured heat of the sun seeping into my hand. It almost felt like the rock was alive, with a beating heart of its own. I wanted to know if there was a way to get to the top. Over time, the instructor brought Pat out to meet me. She showed me holds and routes. We progressed to real climbing, using ropes and cams and nuts and other types of protection against falling I’d never heard of. I’d learned to lead, to boulder, how to protect my second on a traverse. And through it all, I got stronger.
More recently, Pat had preferred running the mountain’s trails, trying to best her time of slightly less than twenty- five minutes for the five- kilometer loop, and I climbed alone.
Looking back at the girl I was, the one who had walked into the compound almost a year ago, I saw someone weaker, mentally and physically. Her skin had been so pale it was almost translucent—the result of living under a roof and Ambients her entire life. Today, I could feel my muscles tense as I moved across the rock face. I knew when I pulled sideways on a hold that my lats would kick in to take the load. My skin had tanned under the not- so-gentle sun. The only thing that hadn’t changed was my height. Being only a few inches over five feet made me try even harder at climbing. At everything.
My ambition, my dedication, didn’t help me win over the other students. They all tried hard, all wanted to be here, but while they were outside around a campfire, I was in my bunk studying. All of that disappeared when I was on the rock. The cool breeze coming up from the valley floor blew through my short hair, the sun warming me, and the silence becoming part of me. This was why I left the compound as often as I could. I wasn’t here to make friends. According to the instructors, we were here for Agent training. Like Ian, I called it boot camp. Black Ops boot camp.
Across the valley, the unexpected thrum of a transport shuttle interrupted the quiet.