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Vignette #8 - I See Light In You

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Level 51 : Grandmaster Ladybug
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This is the second part of a story that begins with "Obsession Is My Weakness". Please catch up if you haven't!

The blaring of my alarm was both a blessing and a curse, though in the moment I had to try pretty hard to find the good in it. I wanted to scream at it, to make it go away, just let me sleep! But it was necessary, because today was my first day on the job.

The drab, windowless concrete walls of my apartment were not conducive at maintaining sleep schedules, and so I’d thought it best to take advantage of the alarm function of our keypads to wake me up on time. Maybe once I finally fell into a daily routine, I could turn that god-awful noise off permanently, or at least turn it down to a reminder level.

But as of now, it took me all of my willpower and strength to pull myself out of my warm, comfortable bed and drag myself across the cold, unforgiving room to shut off my alarm. As the noise finally stopped, I breathed a deep sigh. Of what, I didn’t know.

I’d had a dream the night before. Stupid me, I’d had a dream. Of her.

Even I had trouble explaining to myself what drew me to her, like some sort of idiotic moth to an harsh blue light. In my head, I desperately wanted to believe that her voice was lyrical and charming, her gaze warm and kind, and her demeanor friendly, caring, and loving. Yet, she was none of those things. Her voice grated at my soul like a hailstorm, her gaze had the sharpness of a thousand knives, and her demeanor? Well, that spoke for itself.

And yet, I couldn’t seem to bring myself to think about anyone but her.

Ariana.


When I first arrived in the dining hall in the morning, the rows of tables were completely empty. Even after just two meals, it was becoming obvious that my future colleagues were not much in the business of socializing. Nor was I, for that matter.

Perhaps it was too wishful of thinking that I might run into Ari again as I left the dining hall, a plate of hastily scrambled eggs in hand. It happened once, why should it not happen again?

This time, my hopes were unfounded. I left the dining hall without disturbance, slowly trudging my way back to my room in complete silence. The only noise that punctuated the background of my soft footsteps was the muted beep of the hallway security as I passed through. I rubbed my arm in the hallway outside the heavy door to my apartment. I could swear that I still felt a little bit of soreness from where I had been branded the day before, though it was starting to itch. That was no less annoying.

Once I was safely back in my room and the door had closed behind me with a soft click, I let out a pent-up breath I’d been holding. It was almost like a sigh, a release of the stress and relief I’d been building up subconsciously.

Dejectedly, and almost unconsciously, I sat down on what passed as couches in the outer room of my apartment. The eggs were starting to get cold by now, but I’d practically grown up on cold food so it was no problem for me to scarf down.

I took another incident-free trip to the dining hall to deliver my plate back to the washer. The entire time, I couldn’t seem to shake the thought of maybe seeing her, that maybe I might just happen to run into her on my walk there, or my walk back, or maybe she would step out into the hallway just as I was going through the open door to my room…

I was going crazy.

It was hard to describe the kind of things that were running through my mind. It was like a flood, a deluge, a harsh storm rushing through the tumultuous ocean of my thoughts, crashing, churning, chaotic. It was a mess of half-formed phrases and emotions and wants and desires, all mixed in a jumble of unsorted…mess.

It wasn’t just my mind. I couldn’t even begin to describe the anxiousness, the tightness in my chest, the fidgeting, everything. I just desperately wanted, no needed, to see her again.

I took a deep breath to try to calm myself down. Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself.

But it was no use.

Luckily, I had bigger things to distract myself with at the moment. I quickly headed to the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready for the day. At least having something else to think about was partially helpful in taking my mind off her. Truth be told, though, I was worried that thoughts of her would prevent me from getting any work done today. Not that that would’ve been undesirable on its own; however, such infractions were often punishable by death and I didn’t have an extra life to throw away.

I slowly pulled on my work uniform, which I’d found neatly folded in a small box in front of my door first thing in the morning. It was a simple collared white shirt with some company logo emblazoned on the front and some navy-blue pants. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary.

It struck me as odd at first that the clothes fit me perfectly, before I realized that all my measurements were probably in the government archives. We’d just gone through a physical as part of Registration, after all.

I took a deep breath before stepping out of the door. Get yourself together, I told myself as I pulled the heavy door open. I steeled myself and strode out with as much confidence as I could muster.

There was no one outside to see the show that I’d put on, but it was helpful for me nevertheless. The farther I got down the hall, the more and more my mind cleared. For the first time in a long time, I felt alive again, like I’d retaken control of myself. I bowed my head and smiled to myself; I’d just been being ridiculous.

And then I saw her again.

Ariana.


“Everyone ready to go?” Ov. Garreth finished. I’d tried as hard as I could, I really had. I’d gotten some of what he’d said. As it turned out, we actually needed to know the process of producing a microchip, because we’d be performing checks at all stages. This was bad news for me, as I’d spent most of the introduction trying to calm myself down, preventing myself from seeming too creepy but also trying not to pass out.

And here I was again, paying no more attention than I had been before. I tried, to no avail, to focus on the words that were coming out of Ov. Garreth’s mouth. If I’d thought that I’d gotten rid of my craziness on the way here, it immediately came rushing back as soon as I set foot past that security gate. My heart rate shot up like a firework, my vision started to spin, everything just came back in a giant wave, knocking me down like a tsunami on a surfer.

Not now,” I whispered to myself, as if maybe hearing it from my own mouth would be better than beating myself up mentally.

“Hm?” I heard her voice ask softly, her musical yet icy voice, her frozen birdsong in this concrete jungle.

“W-what? Nothing, I w-was just talking to myself,” I stammered out quickly. Oh god, Jules, how could you let her hear you?

She laughed lightly. “Well come on, we’re heading over to the lab.”

I looked around. Everyone was already headed away from us, following Ov. Garreth in a loose gaggle, leaving just me and Ari behind. She raised her eyebrows at me expectantly, making a gesture for me to follow the crowd. I quickly nodded and scurried over where the rest of the people were.

Ov. Garreth strode confidently toward the door that we’d come in when we first arrived here. “Follow me, I’ll show you all where you’ll be working,” he announced in an almost-singsong voice as he passed quickly through the large doorway. I was the last person out of the room, and as I passed through, the heavy metal door closed behind me with a thunderous bang! I must’ve jumped a good half-foot in the air, caught by surprise by the loud noise.

As if right on cue, Ov. Garreth’s booming voice came from up ahead. “That’s right!” he exclaimed. “The apartments will be closed during the work day! You have everything you will need right next to your lab, so there will be no reason to waste the time coming back here when you could be productively working!”

The Overseer stopped in front of a small, unassuming door not far from the railroad tracks where we came from. He typed a few numbers into the keypad by the door, which then opened with a small click. He held the door open, but stood in the entrance.

“Gather round, everyone,” he shouted, beckoning for us to get closer. “This door is normally locked. You’ll be able to get access to unlock it through your chips. Please come in one by one and scan your chips in while you come in.”

“Seems like really harsh security,” I commented to Ari, who was just ahead of me. She simply shrugged in response.

As the people in front of us began to filter through the door, my thoughts turned to my parents. What were they doing now? Were they also thinking of me, wondering where I’d ended up? Would they be proud of me, seeing where I’d gone? They’d always told me that they’d be proud of me wherever I went, but as I got older, I started to suspect that they were saying that just because they were my parents. But I knew that where I ended up was simply a matter of chance. What was there not to be proud of, then?

I also thought of my childhood home. It seemed weird to me that I would call it that, and not just home; even though I’ve only been a few days removed from where I spent almost two decades of my life, it was already starting to feel like a foreign place. I missed a lot about it. The dirt walls and dingy mattress were leagues worse than my current accommodations, but they had a certain character to them that I didn’t feel any longer in my concrete prison. Oh, how I longed to go back for just one day, even just one hour, to tell my parents where I’d gone and bid them a proper goodbye. Maybe one day I would get the chance to return, one way or another.

“It would be beneficial if you would pay attention to what you are doing,” Ov. Garreth’s words cut into me like a knife, rich and complex like well-forged steel, yet carrying a razor-sharp and deadly edge. I shook myself out of my nostalgia-induced trance and looked around.

I was the last one outside. Ov. Garreth stood there impatiently, continuing to hold the door open and looking at me expectantly. With little hesitation, I proceeded to pass through the doorway and start down the short hall on the other side.

“Hey! Scan your chip!” the Overseer called after me before I got too far. Sheepishly, I turned around, issued a brief apology, and ran my arm across the scanner. As soon as I heard the beep, I attempted to bolt down the hallway, too embarrassed to face Ov. Garreth. I felt a hand grab me with an iron grip, pulling me back.

“Hold on,” he said, turning me to face him. My heart was racing, almost as fast as our orientation meeting. I sucked in shallow breaths, unable to control myself. I felt like I was teetering on the precipice of death. I was ready to be hauled off, never to be seen again.

“It didn’t go through the first time. Try scanning it again.”

I almost passed out from relief. I felt my knees threaten to buckle underneath me, but I held myself together long enough to get over my initial reaction. As calmly as I could, I scanned my arm once more, this time waiting for the go-ahead to leave. The machine beeped twice, unaffected by the emotional drama that had just played out in my head. Ov. Garreth gave a small nod, and then I took down the hallway once again.

As I passed through the concrete hallway, suddenly free from what I'd thought for sure was my death, my thoughts seemingly automatically turned to her again. Not that it was a surprise; they always seemed to do that nowadays. But whereas I had welcomed, or at least tolerated, it before, by now I knew that it was quickly becoming detrimental to me. In spite of how hard I tried, though, I just couldn’t seem to get her out of my head.

Ariana.


The lab was far-removed from anything else I’d seen here. Our rooms had been drab grey concrete, the dining hall had been drab grey concrete, the common area had been drab grey concrete, but the lab walls were coated in some sort of weird, lustrous material painted a brilliant white. As I settled down in the last open station, I could see my silhouette reflected in the walls.

Looking around quickly to make sure that I wouldn’t get caught, I poked the nearest wall with my finger. Though my finger wasn’t as grubby as it had been when I’d gotten here, it was still far from as clean as a room like this would befit. Nonetheless, my quick jab didn’t leave as much as a fingerprint on the shiny wall. Intrigued, I ran my finger down a section of wall, pressing in deeper as I went. Still, nothing.

“Testing out our wall materials, are we now, 13?” In my focus, I hadn’t heard Ov. Garreth approach. The sound of his voice surprised me, and I pulled my hand back toward myself violently. “They’re pretty cool, they’re designed not to collect any dirt or dust,” he finished, leaving as nonchalantly as he’d come.

The Overseer strode up to an elevated platform in the center of the room and pressed a few buttons on the nearby control panel. “Listen up, everyone!” his voice boomed throughout the room, amplified by some unseen microphone in front of him. “Here is where you will be working for the rest of your productive lives. I will not be here every day to oversee your every move, so it would benefit you to pay attention now rather than try to ask questions later.”

Although he did not mention me, I knew that his words were directly at me. I was pretty sure the others knew as well, as I’d been the last one in the lab by a long shot.

“As you may have surmised,” Ov. Garreth started, pacing around his podium, “I can’t train you all myself, because there’s quite a few positions.” He gestured around the room. “Therefore, I’ll just give you the basics, and then you will get your individual training from the modules that you can find loaded onto your screens.”

In front of each of us, there were two screens. The menu displayed on the screens were full of buttons, but all of them were greyed out at the moment except for one labeled ‘Training’. I wanted to press it now, but I looked back up at the Overseer to see if he had finished his bit.

“Before you start your training, I have a few things to remind you of,” he started.

And at that very moment, I felt it again.

That piercing stare, that icy glare, that laser beam that stripped my soul bare. That probing, that clawing, that burrowing look that I could feel zeroing in on me like some kind of tactical drone, always present but never seen. But here, I knew what the drone looked like, and I spotted it.

It wasn’t that I could’ve ever missed her in the crowd, anyway. Even from here, halfway across the fairly sizeable room, her dark hair framed her vibrant eyes and pale face like a lighthouse in the fog. Ov. Garreth was saying something about dust levels and the decontamination process, but I wasn’t listening. I was sailing toward the light, fully aware but not caring about the jagged rocks that lined the shore.

Before long, the Overseer finished his speech, and it was time to get individual training. As I pulled up the training tab on my monitor, I couldn’t help but think about Ari. Had she put herself on the opposite side of the room from me on purpose? Perhaps she wanted to get away from me, perhaps I’d overstepped my marks and she wanted her space from me.

Yet, she’d been looking at me. So perhaps she hadn’t been trying to avoid me, but she’d had to settle for whatever stations were open after everyone else had already filed in. It seemed odd to me that she would’ve been one of the last ones in the lab; from what I’d seen so far, Ari was always eager to be the first one out of everything, to be at the head of the line. Maybe it was a sign of something, then, that she would hang back to be with me.

Or maybe I was reading too much into it. I suspected that lack of enough social contact as a child made me prone to reading too much meaning in people’s actions, and so I had to be wary.

I also had to wary that I pay attention to my training. I’d already gotten myself in some hot water for being inattentive to the directions about scanning my security chip, so putting one foot wrong would put me on the fast track to being terminated. Plus, it could give me something to take my mind off Ari.

As it turned out, my job was going to be fairly easy, or so I thought at least; I would only have to make sure that the chips were being printed correctly, and I had a manual on my screen that I could reference when checking them. The only problem I could envision was that the chips were very small, but other than that, I wasn’t concerned about my work.

Beyond that, the rest of the day was uneventful. We went through decontamination, which was more pleasant than I’d expected, and then set to work after a quick lunch. I’d hoped to speak to Ari during that time, but she finished her training long before I did.

But as I worked longer and longer into the afternoon, the monotony of the task was beginning to catch up to me. Every chip that I grabbed from the dispenser looked the same to me, flaws or not. I knew that the standard of production of these chips was incredibly high, but I couldn’t get the looming fear of being killed for my mistakes out of my head. The stakes were incredibly high.

At least the task gave me something to focus on, something to take my mind off her. Even though I seemed to feel those staring eyes on me every so often, the feeling went from extremely noticeable to barely perceptible as the hours dragged on. Finally, finally, my poor, tortured mind had some respite from her.

Ariana.


When the chime finally rang to signal the end of the workday, I had had enough already. I leaned back in my chair at my station and closed my eyes, letting out a huge pent-up breath until my lungs could push out air no more. I let my head fall back, feeling a satisfying pop as the bones in my neck suddenly released all the tension they’d been holding.

I held still in that position for just a little while before standing up slowly. I took another deep breath and looked around. Everyone else was filtering out of the room, all carrying various expressions of fatigue or outright displeasure. I continued to scan the room, not seeing who I was looking for.

“Looking for me?” Ari asked from directly behind me.

Startled, I whipped around quickly, before nodding a little frantically. “Yea, I was,” I said as nonchalantly as I could muster, trying to seem like I hadn’t just been scared out of my wits.

She chuckled gently. “I’m getting something to eat. Do you want to tag along?”

I nodded. “Let’s go.”

As our footsteps echoed lightly through the now-empty hallway, I turned to Ari. “How did your work go?”

She shrugged. “I guess it was okay. It wasn’t really fun, but I guess none of this is.”

I nodded in agreement. “What kind of position did you end up doing?”

“I have to clean the dust off the chips as they get ready for the final prep stages,” she started. “It’s pretty boring work, I just sit there all day with a compressed air tube and give the chips a little blast. What about you?”

“I have to verify printing patterns,” I replied, pursing my lips. “It’s absolute torture, my eyes hurt from straining so much.”

“Don’t you have a magnifying glass there?” Ari queried.

I nodded. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have to strain though.”

I turned on the handle of the door leading to the outside. To my surprise, it didn’t seem to budge. A small spike of panic ran through me. Were we too late leaving? Were we going to be trapped inside the lab for the rest of the night?

Ari calmly stretched her arm out and ran it in front of the scanner adjacent to the door. It emitted a soft beep and a clicking noise. Ari gestured for me to try the door again.

This time, the door opened without issue. “Wow, you really weren’t listening to what the Overseer had to say, were you?” I could only smile sheepishly in response.

Ari laughed. Her laughs were always especially vibrant, like the sound of a water droplet echoing through a cave, or like the chimes that announced the arrivals of trains back at my childhood home.

Before long, we’d arrived in the dining hall. “What are you planning on making?” I asked Ari, breaking our peaceful silence that we’d shared the rest of the short walk here.

She shrugged. “I don’t really know. I was kind of in the mood for chicken. You want some too?”

I nodded. “You need any help?”

Ari thought for a moment. “How about you see if you can find some vegetables and prepare those? That should buy me enough time to get the chicken prepared.”

“What kind of vegetables do you want?” Truth be told, I’d never really cooked that much. My parents had always done it, and the most I knew about it was from occasionally watching.

Ari shrugged. “Broccoli? Carrots? Maybe some celery and bell peppers? Just see what you can find, we’ll talk about it after.”

After scouring the pantry for vegetables, I brought back whatever spoils I had managed to find, which consisted mainly of a couple heads of broccoli, two bell peppers, and a single massive carrot. Ari looked at me as I approached and held back a giggle. “Do you have enough broccoli there, forest man?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know how much we need. I’ve never really cooked that much before.”

Ari nodded and turned back to her pan. “That’ll be fine,” she said, jokingly exasperated.

“And how do you want these prepared?” I asked.

She looked over at what I’d collected. “Cut the tops off the broccoli and cut the carrot into straws…” She stopped when she saw the confused expression on my face. “You know what, I’ll just do it,” she finished.

“Sorry,” I apologized sheepishly.

“Just stir the chicken in the pan and make sure it doesn’t burn,” she said with a chuckle.

That I could do. The rest of the cooking process went relatively smoothly, and before long, we had our meal divided onto two plates and everything else cleaned up. We brought our food over to the dining hall, which was empty as usual. I was never a particularly social person, yet I was still amazed that people that were going to spend the rest of their lives together refused to socialize. Were their sparse apartments so exciting?

The food was lovely and well-needed after a long day of tedious work. As I proceeded to stuff my face as daintily as possible, I asked Ari, “Where’d you learn to cook this well?

Ari quickly swallowed the food in her mouth. “I had to cook a lot back home, so I guess it came with experience.”

“Did you cook a lot for your parents?”

She nodded thoughtfully, then set her fork down. “I guess you could say that,” she replied. I waited, unsure of whether to keep pressing her for more information or just back down.

She continued. “My mom passed away when I was pretty young, and so it fell on me to take care of my dad and my sister. You see…” she paused to recollect herself. “My parents worked as machine techs, which is a really dangerous thing to do. And I guess something happened one day to my mom. My dad was right there, and he…well, he was never the same again afterward. That night, he didn't come home until really late into the night, and he just sat down on our couch in...complete shock is probably the best way to describe it. I don't think he said a word to anyone for days.”

"It's been difficult afterward because everyone has depended on me so much, and I never really got any freedom or time for myself, you know? It's just...I wanted to be free for once. Not have to worry about other people." She finished with a long, drawn-out sigh.

I was frozen solid for a while, unsure of what to say or do. I wanted her to know that I genuinely felt bad for her, without making it seem like I didn’t care. Finally, I managed to eke out a timid “I’m sorry.”

She looked down at her plate. “It’s okay. It’s been a while now.”

We finished our meal in silence.

It wasn’t until after we’d cleaned everything up that Ari spoke up again. “Thanks for letting me tell my little story,” she said softly.

I looked at her. She’d lost that iciness about her look. Her gaze was softer, her features weren’t so standoffish, everything about her was warmer. She looked vulnerable.

I didn’t know what possessed me in that moment, but without really thinking about it, I pulled her close to me and embraced her. I felt a little shudder run through me as she instinctively protested, before returning my embrace. I could feel her relax, as if somehow some burden had fallen off her shoulders.

She had a large grin across her face when we finally drew apart. It was as if she were glowing with some kind of radiance, a radiance that had melted her icy soul and was melting mine too, my soul that I hadn’t even realized had iced over.

As we headed toward the small gate that separated the common room from our apartments, Ari pulled me aside. “Do you have just a little more time?” she asked, looking at me almost pleadingly.

I chuckled. “Always.”


I woke to the sound of footsteps, my head leaned against Ari’s. We’d sat down in the corner of the common room, and after talking some more, evidently, we’d fallen asleep, her head on my shoulder. Slightly disoriented, I gently shook Ari awake.

“Hm?” she asked groggily as the footsteps stopped in front of us.

It was dark in the common room, which meant that it was after midnight. I looked up at the silhouette standing in front of us, not sure what to expect. If I’d been in a normal state of mind, I probably would’ve been more scared than I was, but having just woken up, there was nothing but confusion running through my mind.

“What are you two doing still out here at this time?” Ov. Garreth’s tough voice emerged from the shadows, quietly yet assertively.

I stood up quickly and pulled Ari up with me. “We were just…” I began, but the Overseer cut me off.

“Actually, it doesn’t really matter to me. But I guess while you’re here, you might as well come and see something cool with me. How does that sound?” he said.

I looked over at Ari quickly. She simply shrugged, so I asked, “What kind of cool thing?” I was wary of where he would bring us, though I remembered that he mentioned that we could be in the common room at any time. At least that gave me some comfort that he wasn’t planning on punishing us for anything we’d done wrong.

“Come on, I think you’ll enjoy it,” he said simply and began walking across the room. Left with no other choice, we followed him.

He opened the door leading out to the train station and the lab. The outside was illuminated, in contrast to the darkened common room, so it took a while to get adjusted to the light. Undeterred, Ov. Garreth then turned in the opposite direction of the lab, toward the far wall. We watched as he nonchalantly placed his hand on the wall, causing a section of wall to be raised out of the smooth concrete. After a small handle emerged from wall section, I realized that it was a hidden door.

Ov. Garreth paused as he held the door open for us to pass through. “Hurry up, the alarms will sound if this door is open for too long,” he urged. We acquiesced and followed him through the opening. The heavy door closed behind us with nothing more than a soft click.

We headed up the narrow staircase behind the door, following Ov. Garreth all the way to the top. Finally, he stopped in front of another heavy-looking door.

“I’ll show you this on one condition,” he started. “You cannot tell anyone, anyone, that you were here, alright?” Ari and I both nodded.

Words couldn’t even begin to describe the incredible beauty that was on the other side of that door.

A sea of lights unfolded in front of us, stretching from the bottom of the hill we were on all the way toward the horizon. Brilliant greens, blues, yellows, pinks, every color imaginable blinked and glowed all around, billboards and streetlights and machines and everything and more that I had first seen on the train ride to Registration. The lights of the city cast a glow toward the sky, yes, the sky! like an electric sunset over a glittering ocean.

Ari and I both simultaneously gasped, astonished by the wonders that lay before our eyes. She grasped my arm and pulled me closer, speechless from the sight in front of us.

“I thought this might be a better place to fall asleep together than the corner of dingy concrete box,” Ov. Garreth remarked. “I’ll be back in the morning to let you guys back in, just make sure that you don’t go anywhere.”

Still not quite fully comprehending the scene in front of me, I half-sat, half-collapsed onto the grassy side of the hill. Ari followed suit, throwing her arms around me.

And that was where we settled, leaning against one another facing the big, bright, beautiful lights of the city, where all the people who were more fortunate than us lived. But that didn’t matter, because at that moment I was feeling pretty fortunate too. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I wouldn’t give up that moment for anything else in our scarred but beautiful world.


Author's Notes
It was kind of difficult for me to write this piece, mostly because my writing style has changed a lot since I wrote "Obsession". Still, it was good to come back to this story. I had some more scenes planned in the original storyline, but I wasn't able to fit them all in the first part so it's good to actually conclude it now.
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