Stella braces herself against a pole as the car shakes on its track, knuckles white, head pressed to steel. She never knows what hour of the night it will come, but when it does, there’s no stopping it. Resignation is the only sensible path.
The last passenger, save for Stella, shuffles out onto a platform at the next station. Her body jostles from side to side as the tram resumes its forward trek. Stella barely notices. Her mind has been nearly given over.
Colors fade, bleached by light. She closes her eyes only to find it’s the same behind her lids. White as a blizzard seen from above a storm cloud. White as an absence, a harbinger of oblivion.
She’s never ready for this. Hands still gripping, sweat trickling past the scar on her temple, it strikes her as it always does. After minutes of anticipation, of fighting not to fight it, the eruption of light blinds her.
Stella is an exploding star.
Her senses return gradually. Warm fingers on her brow, blurry flashes of movement — the familiar figure of a man crouching over her, his breath a low sigh.
Warren has come.
Her head throbs. This is always the worst part — returning to herself just when she’s accepted being gone.
Stella brings her hand to his.
“How long?” Their palms slide down to her heart, covering it like a shield.
“Since just before midnight.” He frowns. “You were in the void for six hours. The Employer blocked you from me until twenty minutes ago.”
Warren’s job is to collect her after blackout missions, making sure she’s gotten through the void with no major injuries. Or memories. While he’s allowed no direct contact with her during her blinded hours, until a few nights ago, he’d at least been able to trace her location the whole time. This sudden change in procedure is alarming.
Struggling to sit up, Stella takes in her surroundings. She hates that he always finds her like this, lying prone and insensible on the sidewalk of some random street. “I’m all the way across town.”
“I know.” His hand remains over her heart. “It’s not yours, so don’t panic. You’re fine.”
“What’s not?” She follows his gaze down to the lower half of her shirt. Noting the sticky red stain, she twists away in order to heave into the street.
When she’s finished, half-digested noodles from a meal she doesn’t remember eating adorn the grates of a storm drain. Wiping her mouth, she brings her knees to her chest.
“It isn’t your fault.”
This is a kind thing to say, though they both know it’s untrue.
Stella recalls one of the last nights from a time when all hours of her life were her own. Impeccably dressed people calling themselves “Recruiters” fill her kitchen. With smiling eyes, they offer her generous monetary compensation. The fine print is nonsensical to her (she must have glossed over the part where it mentioned becoming a mind-controlled super assassin). She signs the contract. No one forces her hand. The Recruiters use flattery, not coercion.
Her participation will alter humanity’s perceptions of reality, they tell her. Stella doesn’t understand how this can be, but it sounds compelling, almost as much as the paycheck.
After the implantation and a deposit into her bank account, she returns to her life and waits for instructions that never come.
Months pass. Fearing something is wrong, Stella seeks out the Recruiters. Their number is disconnected, their office empty. She’s sitting on a park bench wondering what to do next when a man approaches her.
“The Employer sent me.” He shows her a scar above his ear identical to her own. “Tonight’s your first mission. Don’t be nervous — you won’t remember anything.”
He turns to leave. “See you when you wake up.”
In his true life, Warren doesn’t even know Stella, but in his blinded hours, she’s become his closest companion. Even though their relationship is contrived, engineered by a malevolent employer, his presence is comforting. It shouldn’t be, of course. He’s a tool just like she is.
Three months ago, she tried to remove her chip. Blood was dripping down the blade of her knife by the time Warren arrived.
“If you do it,” he’d sobbed, “he’ll make me kill you.”
She knew enough by then to realize he was right.
This is Warren’s void. He does what he’s been programed to, though she’s convinced herself his affection for her is genuine. She believes the authenticity of their emotions is what’s driving the Employer to separate them.
“He’s going to take you from me.” She wonders if they love other people in the hours that are hidden from them. “I’ll never know the real you.”
“I don’t even know the real me. This is all I have too.” Blood soils his jacket as he presses her close.
The day is its own kind of void — a stretch of hours in which there’s no escaping her own mind, though whether it is her own mind anymore is debatable. Perhaps there’s no life apart from the one that’s been devised for her. Maybe she’s been blinded permanently. Or all along.
She grows to distrust her every thought, save for one — she has chosen to love someone. She refuses to believe this decision is not her own.
Stella picks up her knife. She wants all of her decisions, all of her hours back, even if those hours are severely limited.
Warren will arrive too late to stop her this time. She won’t blame him for whatever the Employer makes him do. When his blinded hours have passed, she hopes it will be for him as it has always been for her, awakening with no memory of the life she’s taken.
Teeth gritted, she slices deep into her scar, prying loose the chip.
Resignation is the only sensible path.
Amber K Bryant is a speculative fiction writer and a librarian living among the Sasquatch in Western Washington State. As winner of the Fill in the Fear Contest, she collaborated on a short story with R. L. Stine. Her flash fiction has appeared on 365tomorrows.com and she is a featured author on Wattpad.com. She hopes to achieve her childhood goal of being a farmer by day and a writer by night sometime before the apocalypse renders all of her formal education useless, and on the upside, eliminates the need to pay off her student loans.
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