I woke with a great, heaving breath through my parched throat, a noise like a steam locomotive barrelling across icy tracks, a whistling and crackling wholly disturbing to the ear, a sound that portended some grotesque derailment of steel into a frigid valley. I was so cold. Sprawled on a yellowed cot, rust on the metal ceiling swirled in my vision like moths aflutter. I rolled the wrong direction and fell onto ceramic tiles with a meaty thud. I winced. My wrist was bound to the cot’s post.
Roughly a month had passed since I was found in (I later learned) a newly-established mining site, but my mind and body still hadn’t gotten accustomed to my surroundings. I was in an infirmary. It reminded me of a nurse’s office at school…if the school had been abandoned for decades. The papery coverings peeled off the walls and ceiling, revealing metal repairs behind. The floor was chipped ceramic and had, I assumed, an abstract design. It was not. It was dried blood. Pipes protruded here-and-there and more than once I thought a cockroach scuttled between the gaps. Aside from my cot, there was a metal countertop with various tools and containers, a spare chair, and a sign on the far wall that read:
‘City the body; we the cells.’
During the operation, I’d worn a medical smock. When I woke in the infirmary, I’d been dressed in a threadbare grey t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts. Of all the things to survive, I mused. Plastic slippers sat next to the cot.
Without a window or clock, I had a poor sense of time. Occasionally a girl in a blue smock brought food or checked my condition. The word “food” used in a general sense. The soup or gruel or porridge or whatever was edible, but I couldn’t identify any of the ingredients. I couldn’t stop thinking about the cockroach scuttling between the pipes.
It took an estimated week to regain my ability to talk, but the girl wouldn’t answer my questions. I wondered if she spoke a different language, but after another week of pestering her with questions, she opened her mouth and pointed. She had no tongue. I maintained my composure until she left, and then I fought to remove my wrist’s binding. It was futile. Even if I escaped the cot, I doubted my ability to run. Plus, during the girl’s visits, I spotted through the doorway a guard stationed outside.
So, I endured. I drifted in-and-out of consciousness, forced myself to eat, and tried to piece together what had happened. Sometimes the girl was accompanied by men or women in similar attire. It took a while to adapt to their style of speech. In this way, the month passed, bringing me to the aforementioned waking and rolling and falling off the cot.
As I lay on the floor, a faint part of me hoped Father would come in and ask what happened, but nobody came – and nobody was coming.
That was a lie.
As I tried to collect myself, a door screeched open. A woman in a maroon leather overcoat strode in, hands in pockets, expression impassive. We’d met before because after I was found, she’d ordered the miners carry me to an infirmary. She’d visited a couple times early on to ask questions, but I hadn’t been able to answer any.
She paused upon noticing I’d fallen off the cot. Did she think I’d tried to escape? I tried to speak, but my throat was dry as sandpaper, and the mug near the bed hadn’t been refilled. The woman rolled her eyes, unscrewed a canteen, shoved it at my mouth, and poured. I lapped at the water, though much of it dripped down my chin. Swallowing hurt. I managed to say:
‘Where am I?’
‘So, you do speak.’ She had a coarse, gravelly voice; a sardonic tone gave the impression she was always just about to insult me. Coupled with her sharp, predatory gaze, and I found it difficult to maintain eye-contact. ‘Who are you?’
‘What year is it?’
The woman’s lip curled. She hoisted me back onto the cot with the ease of adjusting pillows. ‘I ask. You answer. Understand, cygaki?’
I frowned. The last word wasn’t familiar, but I noticed the people around me spoke an altered language. I’d assumed it was a dialect difference, but throughout the month I discerned the language was an amalgamation of Japanese, Chinese, English, and a smattering of Eastern European countries. The majority was easy enough to mentally translate, as travelling with Father while growing up let me interact with speakers from all sorts of places.
When I nodded, the woman continued. ‘Why were you down there?’
‘I don’t know.’
Her jaw clenched and she spoke through her teeth. ‘I ask. You answer—’
‘I’m telling the truth. I don’t remember.’
After a moment scouring my eyes for dishonesty, she relented. ‘Do you remember your name?’
‘Yagi Akinori,’ I replied, though perhaps I should’ve chosen an alias. ‘Aki, for short.’
‘What level are you from?’
‘Let me guess: You don’t know.’
Level? Did she mean training, rank, or something else entirely?
The woman sighed, pulled the chair over, and propped her boots on the end of the cot. ‘This might go faster if you ask the questions.’
Finally. ‘Where am I?’
‘Where in the world?’ I clarified.
She cocked her head, before snapping her fingers. ‘Oh, relax, this ain’t an outpost. You’re in the City, safe and relatively sound.’
‘The…city. Which exactly?’
Her scowl deepened as she stood. ‘This isn’t helping.’
‘W-Wait. How about a dog? Have you seen one running around?’ A stray dog used to wander around the base. Soldiers and staff fed or played with it. I’d grown attached and wanted to give it a name, but I resolved to wait until the war was over.
‘Dog.’ She crossed her arms. ‘Who’s that?’
Oh. Oh no.
She started to leave. I scrambled to swing my legs off the cot. ‘Last question! I promise! What year is it?’
She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Third year in the reign of King Itagara.’
That…doesn’t help. With each question I asked, two more took its place. The insurmountable hydra of my confusion consumed me, and I sunk back into the cot, questions and answers pushing me down as if a tangible weight on my chest.
The woman’s features softened. ‘Look, kid, you’re confused, but I can’t waste time dealing with you. If you don’t accept what’s going on, you probably won’t survive.’
Is that supposed to be advice? How vastly had the world changed? Though, she spoke not unkindly, but rather with a practical, advisory tone. I felt an understanding (even liking) of her take hold, as I preferred cold advice to warm lies. Then in the face of such uncertainty, I reached for what information could be confirmed. ‘What do I call you?’ I asked.
‘You promised no more questions.’
The woman sighed and squared her shoulders. ‘Amborella Coen, Blank Venator of the first-level. Now, stay here until the Venator captains come to question you.’
‘How long will that take?’
‘One, maybe two months. Three at most.’ At my shocked expression, she added: ‘They’re busy, and you’re the least of their worries. And now we’re done.’ Before I could ask more questions, she yanked open the door and hastened away.
Three months, I thought. Well, screw that.