The steel collar was just loose enough to keep from choking Cipher, yet tight enough that she had to stop herself from clawing at the metal around her throat. Every five seconds, a small red light blinked, accompanied by a shrill chirp. She shifted her neck. The feeling of the metal squeezing her windpipe remained. According to their captors (or “partners”, as the woman had referred to herself), a small device inside it would detonate if it detected any variance in local Hume levels. Or if Cipher tried to escape. Or if her captors got bored and decided to press the button just to see what happened.
The car grumbled as it rolled across the gravel road. They’d been driving for hours now. Cipher had no idea where they were going, or where they were. So far they’d only caught glimpses of civilization- an old house here, a distant farm there. But between that it felt like they had somehow entered a different, empty world.
Cipher and Kantos sat next to each other, facing the woman across from them. The fake O5-4 was asleep next to her. Their captors hadn’t handcuffed them. The woman had said she wanted to start their relationship “friendly”. She tapped a message into a small black phone of a make Cipher didn’t recognized. Since getting in the car, she hadn’t looked up from it. Once Cipher had tried to discreetly lean forward to see what she was typing. The woman had just shifted position slightly to hand the screen, as casually as crossing her legs.
Cipher glanced at Kantos. He sat with his hands balled into fists on his thighs. His eyes were unfocused, staring at the car floor. She wondered what he was feeling right now. They barely knew each other- she’d only arrived at the assignment two weeks ago. Still, she’d felt a strong friendship developing with the man. The thought that he was being targeted for… whatever this was solely because of her made her stomach ache. She glanced out the window. The sun was beginning to set, dying the sky orange. The clouds had fled the sky, as if they too could sense what was coming and were preparing for it.
“When will this be over?” Though Kantos’ voice was near-whisper, the sudden breaking of the silence made Cipher jump. She looked over at the man. He sat hunched over, glaring at the woman.
Her eyes flicked up from the phone. She held her gaze on him for a moment before returning to whatever she was typing. “Soon.”
“Not good enough.” Kantos’ voice sounded like the warning growl of a hungry dog.
The woman sighed and put the phone down. “Is there something about this situation that makes you think you’re in a position to make demands?” The fake O5-4 cracked open one eye and watched the conversation.
“You said we were not your captives. That the bomb on my partner’s neck was simply a safety precaution. If we are your ‘partners’, tell us where we are going.”
The woman looked at the false O5-4. The imposter shrugged. The woman looked back at Kantos and sighed. “We’re going to Site-19.”
“Bullshit,” said Kantos. “There is no Site-19.”
“It’s funny how much information they’re willing to keep from the bodyguard of an O5,” said the woman. “Yes, there is a 19. The rumors about computer error “skipping it” in the numbering sequence are just that. And we’re going to it.”
“I’ve seen maps. There is no secure facility in this area.”
“Correct. It takes a rather… unorthodox route to access.” She glanced at her phone. “We should arrive in 20 minutes. Now be a dear and shut up.”
Kantos sat back, scowling. The sun had sunk completely, casting the sky into night. Cipher frowned. It shouldn’t have gone down that quickly, especially not at this time of year. Through the darkness, she could just barely make out the silhouettes of passing trees. The only light seemed to be coming from the car itself. There were no stars, no visible moon. No noise could be heard except the rumble of the engine. The car slowed. Cipher felt the gravel road change into asphalt. She glanced out the front window and her eyes went wide.
The largest building she’d ever seen loomed over the horizon. It looked more like a mountain than a construction. Even leaning forward and craning her head, she couldn’t see the top of it. She glanced out the sides of the window, but there seemed to be no end to it- it stretched to the edge of the horizon and beyond. The walls were black and reflective, like the surface of spilled oil. Patterns of rainbow light rippled across it as the car drew closer. Small drones and planes buzzed around the surface.
The woman turned to Kantos. “Still think it’s just a rumor?”
Kanto frowned and said nothing.
“How have I never heard of this place?” said Cipher.
“The Foundation isn’t a fond of airing out their dirty laundry,” said the woman. “Of it all, this might be the dirtiest. Don’t worry. It’ll all make sense soon."