I stood atop a tall spire, and the world reminded me that I was, in fact, only sitting.
So high above the Earth that everything I could see was nothing more than an expanse of wispy clouds dipped in azure.
Floating out in front of me was a pale young girl, dressed all in black. She looked through me as if I were transparent, her peach-coloured eyes engraved with a sadness that her empty face betrayed. She held out her hand, fragile and soft, to anyone that would listen.
In her hand was a strange object. Calling it an object at all was inaccurate. It fit perfectly in the folds of her skin, yet viewing it from any angle made it appear two-dimensional. It was circular, the most circular thing I had ever seen. Its outer ring glistened with iridescent colours, but its centre was a thick, all-encompassing black from which the dainty sprites of tincture around its edge seemed unable to fully escape. I reached out to touch it, but no matter how far forward I moved my hand, it would never cross the gap.
I asked the question that had been in my mind before the girl had even appeared. Which seemed impossible, because as far as I could tell, she had always been there.
"What is it?"
"It looks like a black hole."
Not that it would even be possible for her to hold it if it were. But I think inconsistencies like that are the least of my worries.
"Maybe it is."
Her tone melded with the air and slipped into my ears.
"One could consider the universe a collection of stars all waiting to die. If the universe is timeless, then one might consider it a black hole waiting to happen."
The girl's mouth didn't move but I heard her words all the same.
"Try again to touch it."
I reached out once more. My finger made contact this time, but I felt nothing. I felt less than usual, not even the faint sensation of the air on my skin. Absolute nothingness.
The finger I had been using to touch it, as well as the hand it belonged to, and the arm to which that was also attached was floating away from my body, detached. The girl collected it and stuffed it into a bag.
"Were you satisfied?"
"Well, I didn't feel anything. Did I actually touch it?"
"Would you like to try again? What would you sacrifice at a chance to be able to try again? To truly feel it?"
The girl spoke robotically, the arm that once belonged to me flopping grotesquely from the messenger bag slung over her bony shoulder.
I reached out once more to touch it.
Everything faded to white. A bolt jumped from my finger as it disappeared.
Something soft brushed my finger.
Then, the soft feeling enveloped my back, slid along my arms and rested in my hands. It cradled my head. Memories leaked into my mind: fabric, rest, warmth. It was the caress of a bed.
Other senses began to reactivate. The smell of antiseptic and medicine irradiated the unfamiliar air.
I cracked my eyelids open as far as they would allow me. A thin layer of crust broke away, revealing a world floating through a sea of fog and fluctuating into being. Each new sensation hit me like the gentle roll of a wave on a beach.
The first sound I heard was a low, harsh yet feminine voice. The waves warped by her voice had high crests and folded over each other, slamming against the sand with a satisfying crash.
"She's stabilising. Is she awake?"
This was met with a reply from another voice. It was closer, almost beside my ear, and had a calm, studious tone to it. These waves were fast to appear but slow to retreat, soaking an impression into the beach that remained until the next one.
"Let me check. You shouldn't be here when she wakes up. It'll be too much for her to take in."
"If you say so. She'll have to see me eventually anyway. But I'll wait outside for now."
The waves began to ripple apart, breaking to reveal the reality underneath. Footsteps crossed the sand until the sand became the laminated floor of an unknown room. What sounded like a sliding door trundled open for a moment before rattling shut, taking the footsteps with it.
The source of the calm voice approached me. Their presence was a pristine white blob in my bleary vision, marked with a cosy orange centre.
"Hello, Beryl, are you awake?"
I tried to move my head, but they swooped in, placing their hands on my shoulders.
"That's not the best idea right now. I'll explain everything soon but for now, you need rest. Don't move unless it's really important."
My stiff body released its tension, and they sat on a seat beside the bed.
"Sorry, it's a reflex of mine to call patients by their first name when they wake up. I didn't mean to sound so informal when we've technically just met for the first time, on a mutual basis. You are Miss Beryl Ether McNeal, correct?"
I replied with a head movement as close to a nod as I could manage.
"Right. I'm Anya Yahontov. Doctor Anya Yahontov, for the purposes of what we're going through right now. It's a bit unfair since I've had a headstart in getting to know you. As much as you can learn from someone's biology and records, though. Based on my experience, that kind of knowledge barely scratches the surface."
Anya picks up a clipboard from the table behind her and clicks her pen.
"Did you have any side effects from the anaesthetic? It can be known to cause some unusual dreams."
Before I can even form a word, I cough, as if my body were rejecting it.
"Don't force yourself, lapachka. I'm not your psychologist, you don't have to describe the dream to me. Just a yes or no should suffice."
I clear my throat while nodding groggily, and despite not being able to see them, I could sense the bags under my eyes. Anya slides a glass of water closer to me and my jittering makes me struggle to lift it without spilling. The sun peeking over the horizon through the wide glass window across from me catches my eyes as I raise myself up on the bed.
"How long was I..."
"About 13 hours."
Oh god, the soup's definitely gone cold now.
"It must be hard to hear that. You've been in transit as well, it was a very risky operation."
Where I was at that time hadn't even occurred to me until she, Anya, had mentioned it. Shuffling up further, the pillow against my back, I gazed out of the window through still-fuzzy eyes. Outside lied a vast outstretch of blue with the radiating yellow ball that was the sun floating atop it.
Spluttering again from the water, struggling to swallow, I placed my hand on my chest out of instinct.
My hand leapt away and I flapped it like I was shaking off a bug, a harrowing dread manifesting in my bowels. Anya's expression grew concerned while she scanned across me, my irises blank. Recovering from the shock, I hesitantly returned to feel my chest.
Anya reached out, looking to me for confirmation before wrapping her fingers around my wrist.
"I'd hope I could explain it before you found out, but I couldn't bring myself to break the news."
She shakes her head and presses her other hand to her temple.
"And I call myself a doctor..."
"Easy, slow breaths."
I felt my hand being pulled toward Anya before it settled on her chest. The fabric of her orange cardigan met my skin but even through the supple material, I could discern an underlying cold. Strangely, my hand wasn't touching her chest directly. There was some resistance in Anya's grasp, preventing it from truly making contact with her.
A similar noise accompanied the vibrations that moved through my palm.
"You're not the only one."
She released my hand as quickly as she had put it there, and I pulled back the bedsheets, peeling away the sleeve of my hospital gown. A fresh, crimson scar. On my left side. Where my heart is. Where my heart... was.
"It's called a RepliCor."
I was dragged out of my focus, unable to comprehend the word.
It sounded like the brand name of some sort of over-the-counter medicine, or an all-purpose household appliance.
"It's a non-commercial artificial heart. It's only transplanted in civilians in very extreme cases."
"So... why me?"
She paused for a moment, pushing her half-moon glasses further up her nose.
"The RepliCor we transplanted into you wasn't, how you say, ours to give. We were given special permission. In fact, even with special permission, I wouldn't have gone ahead with it in most circumstances, but..."
Anya mumbled to herself in Russian for a moment as she rifled through some files, picking out one.
"We couldn't identify either of the people present at the scene, but we tracked them to your location. RepliCor implantees aren't allowed to be-"
She tossed me a glance and held back her words.
"W-We can easily follow anyone with a RepliCor, and we knew one of them was a threat. We arrived when your wound was still relatively fresh. You were beyond saving but... they offered to transplant their RepliCor into you to save your life."
I pulled my gown back further to my lower chest. There was still stitching around my lower abdomen where I imagine a gaping hole once was. It eased me somewhat, making me think what I saw there last was just a nightmare. But it was impossible for me to deny the lingering pain in my shredded solar plexus. It thronged just like the faint memory I had of the incident.
"They had red hair like me, didn't they?"
"Did you know them?"
I drooped my head, my hair brushing past my cheeks.
"No. I could barely even see them..."
"Hm... Then we still don't have any leads on the motive for why either of them were fighting in a peaceful suburban neighbourhood, let alone why they involved a civilian."
She placed the file on the table.
"Anyway, I'm a doctor, not a private investigator. I'll let the others worry about that, for now, I have to make sure you're looked after. I asked the chef to prepare you something simple and easy to eat. How does soup sound?"
My expression soured a little.
Sipping my soup from a plastic spoon as the bowl rested in my lap, I stewed in the view of the rising sun that filtered through the window.
Anya chirped in from across the room after being silent for a little while.
"While you've been asleep, a lot more time has passed in the world than you think. Relatively, at least."
The fact that I could see the sea so easily had told me that I wasn't anywhere near home anymore, but just how far I'd come was still unknown to me. I was almost afraid to ask.
"I'll let you rest again soon, but I think it's important that you know where you are now. As much as some people might disagree."
There was a rustle from outside, and I was reminded that, until recently, there was a third person in the room with us.
"Currently you are in the hospital wing of Port Tatsumi, a man-made island off the southeastern coast of Japan."
I definitely wasn't making it back in time for dinner.
"It's an international island under the jurisdiction of the Japanese government due to being in the exclusive economic zone of their territorial waters. The island was established-"
When Anya had turned back to me, I was starting to doze. My body was overwhelmed as much as my mind, and I couldn't deny its desire to return to sleep, perhaps even in an attempt to see if it really is all a dream. Or perhaps if I'd see that girl dressed in black again.
The way Anya was delivering the exposition wasn't exactly helping, either.
Her response, after being startled at me sleeping during her explanation, was to simply let out a breathy chuckle and a pursed smile.
"Okay, you get some rest now."
The door clattered open, spurring me awake. The same steadfast voice from earlier spoke, accompanying the commanding presence that entered the room. Her aura, as much as it was generated from her straightforward speech pattern and purposeful stride, was delivered in handfuls by her clothing, of which details were flitting into view. She wore a high collared white shirt with the top button undone, and a tremendous black jacket plunged over her shoulders and spread out, like an animal making itself larger to scare its prey.
She adjusted the brim of her peaked cap, wasting no time in addressing me.
"The island was established by the United Nations, and is home almost exclusively to RepliCor implantees."
Anya rushes over to the woman that entered the room, but maintains distance.
"Don't you think it's a bit early to introduce her to all of this?"
"She's going to have to be told either way. The earlier she finds out, the more time she can have to process it. We don't have time to wait around."
"You were the one that didn't want to tell her about where this place is yet."
"That's because we haven't earned her loyalty yet. Port Tatsumi is an important and covert location, we can't have civilians on the other side of the world learning about it, especially not when they've had a run-in with a hostile. But since you've already told her, I don't have to bide my time any longer."
The imposing woman turns to me, but doesn't come any closer.
"I'm Audrey Minamoto.
From now on you need to remember one thing.
As far as the world is concerned, you're no longer human."