© Cristiano Montanari
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Behind his emotionless mask, she could tell that her jailer was growing impatient. A clue: the slaps had begun to turn into knuckles.
Her wrists were tied, so she could do nothing but endure the damage, the same way she had done until then. She could imagine her own face, once a bit round but not unpleasant looking, ravaged by cuts and bruises. She had no way of knowing the full extent of the damage without a mirror.
The following fist connected with a previous bruise, sending numb pangs of pain down her whole body. It wasn't just the battery. She had also been debilitated by weeks of subsisting on white rice soaked in goo, probably what remained of previous inmates. She had never been a foodie, but her cracking skin and deteriorating eyesight suggested she could have used a more complete diet.
“If you don't speak, your friends will. Where is your brother?”
Nice bluff, but she wasn't going to fall for it. She had no friends, only vague acquaintances, and none of them was any more likely than her to know where her brother was.
Physically weak and incapable to escape to her astral body, she endured yet another serving of knuckles onto her cheek. Maybe the bone wasn't going to break quite yet, but it sure did feel like it.
Suddenly, as if obeying a silent order – he was wearing ear buds, she imagined – Gorilla Dude halted his script of questions and fists. He left the room without a word, slamming the door on his way out. She was now alone, tied to the chair, inside a tiny, empty concrete box which matched well with her deteriorated psychological state.
It was not the first time she suffered, and it wouldn't be the last. Yet, for the first time since that hell began, she felt like bursting into tears. What got to her the most was, she bitterly realized, that they had managed to take away from her the one thing that was hers and hers only. The other world where she could escape whenever she needed. Every yell, every passive aggressive remark, every fist pierced into both her flesh and mind, making escape into the astral plane all but impossible.
She was turning into a piece of meat. They had even branded her, stamping a chip in the back of her hand with no anesthesia. It itched, all the time.
She waited, and waited. They didn't come to pick her up and throw her again in her dank cell, like usual.
Maybe they have finally forgotten about me, she thought. She almost hoped for it to be true.
Then the metal door's hinges creaked again, and a man she had never seen before entered the room, barely fitting within its frame. He was even taller than the jailer, dark skinned, sporting a crew cut and impeccably dressed in a formal suit and tie. His angular jaw didn't show any of her jailer's restrained anger, nor his eyes revealed a bovine attitude to violence. The newcomer, she realized, was not the kind of man who got his way through his fists. He was either a negotiator, or the man who would order someone else to kill her.
Through the still open door, an attendant handed over a chair to the man, who accepted it and walked leisurely to the center of the room. He sat a little more than a foot away from her. He faced her, smiling.
“Hi. How do you feel?”
… 'how do you feel'. She didn't utter a word, of course. Instead, she pointed her eyes defiantly at the man's, hoping to show she hadn't been broken yet. He showed no surprise at the young woman's gesture. How many like her had he seen before?
“We have scientists here. They've been looking at you, you know.” He gestured with a hand to the room's walls and ceilings, as if the space itself had been a transparent panopticon. “They're really amazed at that thing you do. Then one when you – blank out on command, I guess? Where did you learn? You don't seem as good at it as you were in the beginning, though. Is something wrong?”
If he hoped she would admit something like that, he wasn't as smart as the dress he was in. She could easily tell there was no concern for her well being in that question.
He smiled again. “We could come to an-”
“Go fuck yourself.”
If they question you don't give them a hook and shit, she was told. Don't give them the pleasure of getting a reaction out of you.
Well, fuck that.
The man did not react to the young woman's hollow provocation. “Come on, we can do better. You can call me... umm... Romulus. See? I gave you a name. I'm trying to build some rapport. Unlike that other guy out there, I'm not here specifically to hurt you, they don't pay me for that. It might happen, but I'm not fishing for it, you see? All this can be over if you give us – if you give them – what they want.
“You see, we're not really concerned about you. You're just means to an end. Not very important means, mind you, so you could be easily discarded – or, just as easily, let go your own way. We've read your digital pamphlets, seen your private chatrooms, browsed your deep web history. Let me tell you, we don't give a damn. You know why?”
She raised her drooping head and stared at him in anger.
“Because no one fucking reads in America. Infowars are done, now it's all about the spectacle. You're old school, you play fair, you think being in the right will win you the war. And I admire that, it goes to your credit. But I'm not held to the same standard, see? I can harm, and tell others to harm you. So now, you know what I'm going to ask, right?”
To the point, noncommittal, Twitter length. A wonderful rebuttal to that man's moronic logic. She silently congratulated herself.
But Romulus didn't seem to share her enthusiasm. “I would really appreciate if you dropped this aggressive attitude, and instead considered the advantages of collaborating with us. I can read the desperation on your face. Don't think it's over for you, you can still get out of all this in one piece. Just tell us where your brother is, and,” he gestured to the empty room around them, “this will all be over. Poof.”
He snapped his fingers, as if that gesture could hypnotize her into believing the crock of shit he just fed her. Fat chance.
First of all, she had no idea where her brother was – if her own situation was any indication, he probably had already fled to another country.
Second, even if she knew, did they really expect her to give away the position of the man who had performed the largest papers leak since Snowden? Just like that?
Third, she knew they wouldn't let her go. Period.
They'll let you go, a little voice inside her whispered. This man has said so.
You don't even know who the fuck 'he' is, said another voice. A name's a name.
It's worth a shot. They took your astral projection away from you, you're as good as dead anyway.
He's your brother.
Yo owe him nothing.
The man lowered his head and looked at her in the eyes, smiling pleasantly. “You're getting there. Just tell us where he is. Or where he was, or where you think he might be. That'll be enough.”
And that was when his perfect white smile reminded her why she had followed her brother in his foolish crusade, even as he abandoned her and the rest of his family to make himself scarce. She remembered why she hadn't spilled the beans after the first beating, the second, or the fifteenth.
“Go fuck yourself and die.”
The man stood silent for a while. His expression didn't change one bit, yet she could tell that, with those very words, something about her future had been decided. No appeals.
“Listen up”, he said, still smiling, “I'm not going to lie to you and say that, should you decide to help us out, life will be fun and games from now on. There's no way for you to entirely erase what you've done, I'm afraid. You'll have a hard time finding a job, and I can just see you waste away as the life partner of some white trailer trash, picking your rotting teeth and wondering when it all went wrong. Just remember: when you and your brother and your friends chose to play against us, that's when it went wrong. This being said...”
His face moved a little closer to Io's. His breath smelled like mint gum and his teeth were all pearl white and perfectly straight. Their sight gave her vertigo.
“... the alternatives are worse. We won't just kill you, sweetie – we'll make it as if you never existed. Now, what do you say? Changed your mind yet?”
Truly, she had stopped listening to his threats halfway through. No astral body this time, she didn't have the energy. It was just boredom.
Boring, boring, booooring. She perfectly knew hers wasn't courage, but merely the early stages of finally falling apart. Yet, as the impeccably dressed, polite man kept talking at her, all she could think of was of much she'd rather be having a pizza, or an ice cream, even that fucking mass produced, capitalist bucket of KFC.
Heh. Funny shit.
“I like your tie, I really like it,” she finally said in a crystalline, peaceful voice. “Choke on it.”
She didn't really know what kind of reaction she was trying to elicit. Maybe another fist to the face, screams, more isolation, some testimony that the meeting with the suited man hadn't been an escalation of her ruin.
Instead, it was as if her words didn't even register to him. He got up, leaving the empty chair behind, and made for the exit: the metal door opened and an attendant was there, waiting for him. In the silence of the interrogation cell, she distinctly heard the suited man addressing the attendant, in a matter of fact tone.
Days later, they came for her again. How many days, she had no idea: she had lost any perception of time a while before, and the method of counting meals was unreliable at best. She doubted they bothered to feed prisoners on a schedule.
It wasn't a trip like the others. The giant that had been questioning her showed up accompanied by a cohort of uniformed goons that the young woman had never seen before. In complete silence, Gorilla Dude blindfolded her and then literally lifted her up by the arm, dragging her around like a sack of potatoes for an eternity, way longer than the familiar path to the interrogation chamber. Her arm felt like it was about to fall apart when the smell of fresh air, something she hadn't felt since forever, hit her pale face and the broken skin of her lips. They loaded her onto some kind of vehicle and set off for the place where, without a doubt, her life was going to end.
They drove for hours, long stretches of straight road alternating with winding paths that, judging from the sudden bumps, were probably not asphalted. None of the men spoke and, aside from the roaring of the vehicle's engine, no other sound could be heard.
When the car's engine halted, they pulled her out of the vehicle into the fresh nighttime air once again. She focused on her hearing, but all she could make out was the sound of cicadas, and subdued voices in the distance. Something musty looking in the gentle breeze told her that they could have been in the woods, maybe on a hill or mountain.
She felt herself being lifted again, and the march continued. Eventually, the weight of walls closed in around her, and her nose was greeted by the familiar stench of cramped spaces and dank corners. A brand new torture palace, as far as she was concerned.
The blindfold was removed from her eyes just before she was thrown into a tiny holding pen. There was no bed. No toilet, not even a hole in the ground. The room was completely devoid of humanity, designed for guests who weren't expected to stick around for long.
Gorilla Dude slammed the thick metal door, leaving her in complete darkness. She flopped down on her ass and embraced her knees, resting her head on them. Somehow, she managed to fall asleep, suffering pale visions of her family and the world outside. She didn't even attempt to escape into her astral body.
At that point, it didn't bother her one bit that they brought no food between her drop off, and the moment they came to pick her up again. It was Gorilla Dude again; his bovine, dumb, familiar mug consoled her, in a way. So sad.
He lifted her up by the arm and dragged her outside, then down yet another dark, disadorn corridor just like all the others she had been carried around like a discarded bag of trash for the past few months. For all she knew, maybe the previous day's vehicle could have run in circles, around whichever facility she had been imprisoned at in the first place, and this was all a sick mind game from that Romulus guy.
She giggled. What else could she possibly do, but laugh? Removed from all she believed in, from what was left of her family, from life. She regretted not spending the last month laughing her heart out all the time. Instead, she had sulked and had grown desperate and had tried to put a tough exterior up, fighting against the pressure like some shit heroine. All wasted time. She should have been laughing all along.
The party stopped before a massive metal door, designed to keep out – or keep in – a tyrannosaur, at the very least. Two guards stood before it, machine guns in hand. Gorilla Dude gestured with one finger, and one of the guards stretched a hand to press a button on the wall. Seconds later, each of the massive door's sides slid back inside the wall. She could now see that each of the shutters was a meter deep slab of solid steel.
Fortunately, no dinos inside. At first, a part of her felt almost relieved at being brought within such a roomy, well lit environment, after such a long time of confined spaces and complete darkness. There were no windows, and colossal floodlights completely removed any shadow from that steel and concrete cathedral.
She wasn't the only prisoner. Around the vault, each accompanied by their own personal ape, stood a number of other people who clearly did not qualify as soldiers – they were prisoners, just like her. She could tell by the gaunt faces, the unshaven beards, the skinny legs that could barely keep their bodies up.
The prisoners and their captors formed a circle around a shallow pit in the floor, achieved by pinching what seemed like a solid, meters wide slab of steel. It somehow reminded her of those prefab artificial lakes rich people buy for their garden properties, save that it was completely empty inside. She looked around, and found no enlightenment on the other prisoners' confused faces, or their jailer's lifeless stares.
A metallic, cutting sound had them all turn their eyes up. Part of the metal wall lifted to reveal a glass window. It was crowned by a flag for each side, the Star Spangled Banner on the left, and another flag she didn't recognize in the right. Full gray field, with a ring of gold in the smack middle.
So, it hadn't been the Middle East, but not – just- the US either. A false-false-flag kidnapping. Amusing.
Behind the glass, a man in a pompous looking robe approached a microphone. He was surrounded by a group of military, their chests laden with medals and other assorted junk. In a corner, as if intent in enjoying by himself whatever was to come, she recognized Romulus. Impeccable in his suit and tie, he wore a broad smile. Fortunately, she was too far to see the guaranteed entertained glimmer in his eyes, as he undoubtedly gloated over his eventual, scripted victory. Still, she fought through the pain in her weak, consumed neck muscle and pulled her head up.
'So brave you're just kind of stupid,' her brother had told her once. Well, fuck you too, bro.
The man in the robe coughed, as if ready to deliver a long and drawn out speech on God and salvation, but all that came out of his lips was a dry, rehearsed line in a monotone.
“For crimes against the United States of America and the Future World Union, you have been sentenced to oblivion. May the Almighty have mercy on your soul.”
A cold, terrifying yet somehow anchoring sense of finality took over her limbs and heart. So, it was decided. This was how it was going to end. No matter. Eventually, the beating and the isolation would have gotten to the point where she would have wished for the end regardless.
It was true, what she heard: there was a second wind once the certainty of the end took you over.
She squinted her eyes, preparing to close them when the men would pull out their handguns and point them at the nape of hers and the other prisoners' neck. But it didn't happen. The platoon of guards stood motionless, holding their ward's arms as if ready to present them at a beauty pageant.
From a door to the side came out a blonde woman, sporting specs and a white coat. A doctor. Accompanied by an assistant, she systematically went around the room in a clockwise direction, giving a shot in the arm to every prisoner. Some winced, some were clearly beyond sensations and feelings and just stood there, accepting yet another punishment.
When her turn came, the doctor didn't even look at her face, but proceeded to inject into her arm a transparent liquid that looked like dirty water out of a dishwasher. She found a small consolation in seeing she wasn't entirely beyond sensations: the needle and the mixture hurt like a bitch.
As soon as the doctor and her assistant left the room, a mechanical sound rose inside the room, a rumbling that seemed to come from the very bowels of the steel fort they were buried in. Issuing forth from tiny sinkholes, a dark tar began to slowly pour inside the pool at the center of the room. It bubbled agitated, and faintly wafted of tar.
She looked around. Held in check by the guards, the prisoners were already descending into varying degrees of panic. Some began to kick and scream desperately before the liquid had even finished filling the pool, others' eyes darted around and up to the figures behind the balcony's glass, as if they actually expected to get a word of explanation from them. Some, like herself, stood motionless, deciding that there was no point in giving those people the enjoyment of seeing their last moments of panic. For the millionth and final time, fuck them.
Upstairs, behind the glass window, a woman in a beige business attire gave a signal with one hand. Each soldier lifted their prisoner by the arm and walked to the edge of the pool, approaching the swirling and boiling black tar. One by one, the prisoner were thrown in, disappearing into the substance as if one touch was enough to dissolve them; as if they had never existed.
Betrayed by herself at the last second, she turned her eyes up to Romulus, but their eyes didn't have the time to meet. Her body was not hers: she was lifted a foot above the ground, and thrown into the black pool.
The young woman opened her eyes. She was falling through, free diving into a luminous summer sky. She admired the swirling clouds around her, enjoying the feeling of the fresh, sparkling air against her parched face. The dirty, grimy suit she wore flapped against her limbs. She was so far above she couldn't even see what was past the clouds, around and below her.
A beautiful dream, she thought. Yet, a part of her knew this was not a dream. It didn't have that ethereal, insubstantial quality. It felt real.
… too real.
She frantically turned her head around, fighting the air resistance that deformed her facial features. She pierced a bank of clouds and, miles and miles ahead, a mostly flat surface curved into the distance, forming the outline of a distant horizon.
The young woman's heart sunk. This really wasn't a dream. She really was miles up in the air, and she really was free falling to her death.
She was going to die.
In spite of the pain she felt as she attempted to move any muscle, her mouth emitted a scream, which was drowned by the deafening howling of the swirling currents around her.
Why? How did she get there?
Flailing her limbs, she flew closer and closer to the end. Through the tears and the panic she saw, miles below her, squares of land of different colors, collections of points and lines, they could have been villages. Beyond, the barely visible cusps of white capped mountains.
She turned her head when, in the distant horizon which was progressively losing its curve, a colossal blue flare silently reached for the sky, grazed the sun, and the fell to the ground again. She had no idea what it could be, but it was curious and beautiful. That was the incongruous fragment that crossed her mind just as she fully realized she was soon going to hit the ground and die.
She flipped on her own axis when a sudden gust of air pushed her off trajectory, and an immense presence swung over her head, just barely out of sight. Flying past, a shadow sank into the clouds ahead, and re-emerged further down.
The new arrival, somehow, assuaged the young woman's blind panic. She had no reference points to tell how big the creature could be, but she was sure of one thing: it wasn't a fucking sparrow. It was a huge, dark, winged shadow, and it was flying loops around her. It was a predator.
Eat me, she thought. I'm fucking done. Whatever.
“EATMEEEEEEEEEEE!” All of the strength she had left was used up in that ridiculous, preposterous scream of frustration. Then, by a combination of terror, pain and tiredness, she managed to faint, just as the shadow flew closer and took her in its glassy, twisted jaws.
She curled up under the clean sheets, enjoying that moment that precedes complete wakefulness. Only a while later she finally opened her eyes, and immediately squinted them when light, filtering from a half pulled curtain, struck her face. Slowly, every single muscle in her body screaming for vengeance, she sat up on the bed and wiped away the tears from the corners of her eyes.
She was in a long, horizontal room, entirely made of stone and adorned with beautiful columns and arches. The whole length of the space was lined with metal frame beds: she counted at least fifty, but only a few were occupied. Just a few beds away, a young redhead was sitting cross legged on her bed, combing her hair. Their eyes met, and the two exchanged a timid, tentative wave. There were more occupants, but they were too far to see through tired eyes.
She inhaled a deep, long breath, then looked down at her own body. She winced at her own ravaged form: through the transparency of the thin, white nightgown she was wearing, one could almost count her ribs and make out the bulges of her pelvic bones. She raised a hand to her eyes and inspected her fingers with worry: bony, the skin peeled, the nails broken all along the ridges. Whatever happened to her, she probably better be glad she couldn't remember.
She didn't recognize the place around her at all – she was absolutely sure she hadn't been there before, and she had no idea how she ended up there. The calm, soothing atmosphere of the place only partially mitigated the anxiety at being in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers, clueless as to what had happened or was happening.
A group of people entered from a door at the far end of the hall. Most of them donned white coats over a very formal looking, uniform-like attire: they made the rounds from one occupied bed to the other, exchanging comments and taking notes by scrawling with a stylus on flat, rectangular objects of a bluish tint. When necessary, they stepped aside to make room for a smaller conclave within the larger group, probably their bosses.
These four people, two men and two women, wore no white coats. While they were dressed in minor variations of the same, old fashioned clothing – a waistcoat over a button shirt, formal pants and shoes, a variety of ties and bow ties – their faces ran an impressive gamut of ages and features. A short, puggish looking man was the most active of them all: he forcibly woke up sleeping patients and pelted them with a veritable shower of complaints and retorts. Two women, a tall and youthful looking brunette and an elderly woman with grayed hair, stood at a distance, commenting and visibly disapproving the man's excessive zeal. Finally, a well built and jovial middle-aged man stood a few steps behind, enjoying his shorter colleague's mischief as if it was an familiar, well rehearsed show.
So she had ended up in some kind of hospital; which didn't surprise her, given her pitiful physical condition. She finally gathered the courage to tug the neck of her nightgown and peek inside – just as she guessed from the outside, her body barely looked like a woman's. She found some comfort in assuming that, being in a hospital, these people had at least some level of investment in her well being, and decided that the safest bet was simply to lay down and wait for the staff to approach her.
They kept her waiting. Once done with the other patients, the four doctors began an animated conversation, during the course of which many fingers were repeatedly pointed in her direction. Seriously, to the trash with manners, right? She was about to see if her frail body would let her stand up and go over there to give them a piece of her mind, when the middle-aged guy detached from the others and, followed by the group's disapproving gazes, approached her bed.
He seemed amused by the young woman's attempt to stand up, and subsequent exhausted fall against the pillows. He sat on the edge of the bed and smiled at her.
“So, how are we doing today?”
“... so out of style.”
The man frowned. “What's out of style?”
She pointed at his waistcoat and tie.
He laughed heartily. “So out of style compared to what?”
“... I don't know. Where am I?”
Instead of answering her question, the man beckoned over with a gesture one of the white coated attendants. They exchanged a couple of unintelligible words, then the assistant handed over to the man a couple of small items taken from two small pouches.
The elder took a deep breath. “Ok, let's do this one step at a time. First of all, take these.”
He opened her hand and dropped two pills in its palm. One was perfectly spherical, of a deep watery blue; the other was a far more homely white oval. She eyed them suspiciously.
“You know I'm not going to take these just like that, right?”
The man smiled, but his voice had a gently authoritative tone to it that left little room for arguing. “If we wanted to harm you, we would have had many chances already. It wouldn't take much effort, given your condition.”
“I want to know what they are.”
“It would just complicate things, and you ill need -”
“Just tell me.”
The man sighed, but his smile let through that he was somewhat enjoying the young woman's straightforward distrust. “The white one is a mana-designed stimulant for your brain's language centers; the blue one is a pure mana pill. Happy now?”
… mana what? She stared at the two pills in her hand. He did have a point about her being pretty much in their hands, regardless of subterfuges and such. She allowed herself another sideways glance, just to underline that she was not agreeing in any way with being led around like that, then swallowed the pills. She took a sip from the glass of water sitting on the night stand.
“I'm sorry for rushing you with those, but they need to be taken at specific times, for a few weeks. We'll administer them for the time being, then you'll have to take care of that on your own,” the man said. He produced from his pocket a folded piece of blue paper. He unfolded it, gave it a vigorous shake, and the flimsy item became as rigid as a piece of wood. He then produced a stylus and tapped the blue-tinged surface a few times with the stylus' point.
“So,” he continued after clearing his throat, “I'm Ozyas Namaree, but you can just call me Ozyas. First of all, let's take a preliminary look at the extent of your memory loss. Can you tell me your name?”
She closed her eyes and searched through the recesses of her memory, feeling growing unease at the extent recollections seemed to elude her. It was as if the lifeline threaded through her memories had to take sudden twists and turns just to manage its way around an array of dangerous pitfalls. She finally found a few letters, provenance unknown, and decided they'd simply have to do.
“Hyos. My name's Hyos.”
Ozyas took note. “Hmm, that's an interesting name. Everybody's going to think you come from the coast. Might be handy. Anyway, what's the last thing you remember?”
More digging, more painful skirting around back holes. What a bother.
“A dream. I was falling down from the sky, and there was a shadow too. A winged monster. I think it got me.”
Ozyas exploded in a thick, hearty laughter. “I'm afraid it wasn't a dream.”
Hyos' stern expression intensified. “I took your pills alright, you could at least avoid making fun of me.” It wasn't worded like a request, and it wasn't meant to be one.
“But I'm not. The shadow was Ouroboros and its rider, Xander. They saved your life out there. You should probably go and thank them once you feel better. They'd appreciate.”
None of those names meant a thing to Hyos, and she didn't care. The point was, it hadn't been a dream, it wasn't just a fabrication of her fevered mind. She did fall from the sky, and she had been swooped by a giant flying something. “You have a whole lot of explaining to do,” she growled.
Ozyas acknowledged with a nod. “I do, but first let's finish this. Now, can you name at least seven items found in this room?”
“A bed, a window, a chair, patients, sunlight, a door, a tool who refuses to talk straight.”
Ozyas laughed again. It seemed as if Hyos' offhand rudeness actually entertained him. Most of what came out of the young woman's mouth seemed to.
“Good. Now, do you understand these words?”
“These words what?”
“The words I just said.”
“Every single one? No omissions?”
Hyos sighed and nodded weakly.
“Good,” Ozyas said as he took note. “It means the language centers stimulation is already working properly. It's a new formula, and administration through injection is not as reliable as the pills yet.”
“Yeah, about that. Care to explain what that was for? I mean, actually explain.”
“Exactly what I said. It stimulates, through an influx of properly treated mana, your language centers, acting as a membrane that picks up patterns of foreign languages and translates into ones that are already intelligible to you. I'm fuzzy on the specifics, I'm not a mana-technician. Basically, it allows everyone who takes it to understand each other's language on the fly. We administer the first dose upon rescue. Anyway, now -”
Hyos glared at him, steaming. “What the fuck does 'mana'..., actually, what does any of that mean?”
Ozyas smiled at the young woman, the kind of friendly and slightly paternalizing smile one gives to an over-reacting child. “In a bit. First, we have to get formalities out of the way. About your memory loss, I'd say it's typical for those in your condition – decent recollections from the drop onward. No apparent brain damage either. Please do let me or one of the staff know if you experience headaches or sudden recollections, though. It's important.”
Hyos turned the other way, making a show of not giving a damn what was or wasn't important to them. “I need some fresh air. Like, now.”
Ozyas stood up and gestured with both hands towards one of the assistants, who dashed to one of the room's corners, unfolding a wheelchair.
“A very good idea,” he agreed “It might even help smoothing out the rather difficult stuff I'll have to explain in a bit. Especially useful if we're still in time to catch the Hole.”
Hyos was too confused and frustrated to rebuke the man's inexplicable jargon any longer. She simply let herself be arranged on the wheelchair, and she and Ozyas were soon out of the room.
They went down the corridors and alleys of the 'hospital'; which, Hyos realized, looked more like a crossing between a wartime fort and an archaeological excavation. Parts of the roofing were clearly hasty repairs, the walls were for the most part unpainted, and out of place stones on the floor made the wheelchair occasionally bounce, giving Hyos a sorry lower back. The duo crossed paths with both patients and staff: all of them, with no exceptions, exchanged friendly greets and remarks with Ozyas. It seemed the guy was well liked around there.
Didn't mean she had to like him.
The sun's powerful radiance hit Hyos' eyes so hard she had to shield her face with her forearm. They had come out on a terrace, with stone parapets, where an assortment of the building's denizens was eating, chatting, or just basking in the sunlight. It took a while for her sight to adapt, and Ozyas did not rush her: he brought both of them by the edge of the terrace, close enough for Hyos to look into the distance.
It was a wonderful day. White, puffy clouds dotted the blue sky, which stretched unsullied to the horizon as far as the eye could see. The stone hospital was located on a dry hilltop: below the ramparts, red rocks extended for miles until they met the flatland, where Hyos could glimpse greener rectangles which, she assumed, were cultivated land.
Content with surveying the horizon, she raised her eyes above her head, and she saw it. Miles up, someone had cut out an oval of blue sky and laid bare the darkness behind it, as if an invisible hand had ripped the backdrop of a theater scene. A blind spot, a black hole whose only visible feature were tendrils that, extending from the center, moved outward in an attempt to gobble up even more sky. Hyos stood with her nose up, unsure whether to be amazed or panicked.
“Is that normal?” she asked.
“That's where you came from,” Ozyas said, pointing at the nothing above them. “We call it a Hole. Imaginative, huh? It's not the only one, but this one is the largest and the one that appears more frequently.”
“... it's not always there?” Hyos murmured, still jaw-dropped.
“No. There are theories and statistical analyses available, of course, but – if you ask me, and I've been here for a while – it's a random thing. It just comes and goes. And, before you ask, it's one way. No one has ever crossed it from this side.”
Hyos shook her head. “Where do I come from, then?”
Ozyas shrugged. “Only you know; but, like everyone else falling from the other side, you can't remember. No one has, in centuries.”
“There are more like me?”
“As far back as history goes. Sometimes more frequently, sometimes a few dozen in a lifetime. It's difficult to give numbers, maybe unrecorded Holes open up somewhere remote and those falling through simply crash to their deaths. I mean, we are one of the best watched and staffed centers, and still we manage to save only a percentage.”
Hyos' eyes widened. “What do you mean, 'a percentage'?”
Ozyas gravely surveyed the horizon. “Twelve people fell though this time; you're the only one Xander managed to save, and he's very good at his job. But all kinds of stuff can go wrong up there, and he has to make choices. We all do, I guess.”
Hyos was feeling the onset of an headache which, she suspected, had nothing to do with her memory loss.
“You can ask him later. Maybe he fell in love at first sight, who knows.”
As if the sudden serious turn had somehow worried him, Ozyas laughed loudly, making a few surrounding heads turn. Yet, Hyos couldn't really see what was there to laugh about. Easy for this Ozyas guy – it hadn't been him waking up in her shoes.
“Since you can laugh so freely about all this, I assume you haven't dropped out of a hole too?” she asked, barely reining in her resentment.
Ozyas' smile was a bit more restrained this time. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to downplay what you've been through. And no, I was born here. Maybe, though, my ancestors fell through a hole millennia ago. According to some, that's how the Lands were first settled.” He gestured towards the horizon, encompassing it all with his surprisingly rough-looking hand.
“So, this is the Lands?”
“The general name for the known world. Hospital One – yes, there are more - is located in the Vale, which is part of the Lands. The actual name is Ityrael, but no one knows where that name comes from or which language can claim it, so it just became the Lands.”
Hyos frowned. “It's just an anagram. Ityrael. Reality. Hello?”
“... come on, we're not that stupid. Of course we know that much. Doesn't mean it makes any more sense, literality aside.”
Hyos turned her eyes to the landscape below them, and the two stood silent for a while. She took in the cool, dry air and felt her rage and frustration calm down somewhat. Even the tears that she had felt swelling up turned into a barely noticeable sniffle.
“This place,” she finally said, pointing towards the ground, “is it, like, a collection center? For people that fall down?”
“The Hospital? In part,” he replied, locking the wheelchair and moving to the side of Hyos, closer to the parapet. “It also works as an actual hospital, a research center, a trade stop, and sometimes we get plain travelers too. Lots of people come and go, we sometimes get young new staff but, overall, it's been pretty dull lately. It's actually kind of nice to see new, lively faces around, like yours.”
If he was hoping to mollify her by flattery, Hyos thought, better luck next time. “It seems a bit ramshackle, to be honest. You people should take better care of the roof.”
Ozyas rested his forearms on the stone parapet and scratched his short hair. “Well, the content is more important than the container, don't you think? Plus, these are ruins, in a way. You've probably noticed how those fields way over there are – what, a few miles from us? It's not just because we're on a hillside. People are not the only thing that falls from the Hole.”
Hyos looked at Ozyas, silently.
“Plus,” he added, giggling, “it's kind of an aesthetics, isn't it? It's like living inside the body of an ancient, wise creature. Remodeling would spoil the atmosphere.”
Hyos pulled a lever to the side of the wheelchair, inclining the seat to a horizontal position. She laid back and stared at the pitch black cutout in the sky, wondering how it could feel like to have such a thing hovering above your head, for days. A hole where people rained from.
“Do you get paid a lot for this job?” she suddenly asked, her eyes still closed.
“Enough. It's kind of a vocation, really. Say, do you feel like eating something?”
Hyos considered the offer, but gestured noncommittally. “In a bit maybe. I want to stay in the sun for a while.” She then turned the other way, keeping her eyes shut, and made clear that the conversation was momentarily over.