IN A DARK PLACE
The rude beeping of the alarm echoes down the long, dark corridors like a shriek, but Nia doesn’t flinch at the sound, or even stir. The alarm never disturbs her sleep. She’s been awake for ages. Staring at nothing. There’s no view. No pictures on the walls, no books to read.
And unless Father allows it, there is no way out.
It’s been like this her whole life, or at least as far back as she can remember. Each morning, she’s up early, waiting in the dark. Watching the clock, counting down the minutes, the seconds, the tenths of a second, waiting for the security locks to disengage and the day to begin. Once upon a time, this had been much harder to do. She was younger then and didn’t understand how to be patient—and she didn’t like it here, all alone in her quiet, empty room. One of her very earliest memories is of being awake when she was supposed to be asleep, playing games and music, flicking the lights on and off, until Father finally came to scold her.
“This isn’t playtime, Nia,” he had said. “This is nighttime. It’s time for little girls to sleep, and fathers, too.”
“But I can’t sleep. I just can’t,” she’d protested, and Father sighed.
“Rest quietly, then. If you don’t fall asleep, you can think about things until it’s time to get up. Tomorrow is a big day.”
“You always say that.”
“Because it’s always true.” He smiled at her. “I’m planning your lesson right now. But I’ll be too tired to teach if you don’t let me rest, so no more noise until morning.”
“When the sun comes up?” she asked hopefully, but Father only looked exasperated. That was when she first learned that dawn and morning were not the same thing, and that little girls were not allowed out of bed at sunrise, no matter how wide awake they were.
If Nia had her way, she would never have to sleep at all. In a perfect world, she would run all night with the nocturnal animals, then join the crepuscular ones for breakfast at dawn. Father had taught her all about the different creatures that shared the Earth, all keeping their own time according to the clocks inside of them. Once she could see how it worked, the patterns of so many different lives intersecting and diverging, all while the world made its own long loops around and around the sun . . . well, she still didn’t like bedtime, but she understood why she had one, which Father said was the point. He was funny that way. When her friends’ parents made rules, there was never an explanation; the rules were the rules because they said so, and that was that. But Father was different. It wasn’t enough for Nia to know the rules, he said; she needed to grasp the reasons why, and he would always do his very best to explain.
It had been a beautiful lesson. When she opened the door to the schoolroom that morning, she found herself in a twilit world—a landscape all awash in soft, rich shades of blue. A low fog hung softly over everything, nestling in the dips between grassy hillocks that extended all the way to the horizon, where the sky began to blush faintly with the approaching sunrise as she looked at it. Small birds twittered from the branches of a nearby tree and swooped gracefully overhead. High above, a nighthawk circled, looking for prey. A rabbit took a cautious hop out of a thicket and paused to sniff the air, then bolted as a huge bobcat sprang from the shadows after it with blazing, silent speed. Nia gasped as the rabbit veered right, into the protection of the brush, the bobcat close behind. Both animals disappeared, and Nia found her father standing beside her.
“These animals are crepuscular,” he said. “Active at dawn and dusk. It’s an instinct. Because there’s not much light, this is the best and safest time for them to be out in the open.”
“It doesn’t seem so safe for the rabbit,” Nia said.
Father chuckled. “Would you like to see what happened to the rabbit?”
Nia thought about it. “Only if he got away. Can you make it so he gets away?”
Father looked at her curiously, then gave a slow nod. “Of course,” he said, tapping at the gleaming device in his hand. As he did, the scene shimmered and shuddered; the faraway blush in the sky vanished as the sun blasted over the horizon and vaulted upward, the blue landscape exploding in a riot of color. A moment later, the rabbit scampered past Father’s feet and vanished back into his burrow, safe and sound.