There was… light.
And pain. It hurt, it hurt, every muscle screaming, and she was crying wordlessly, wanting nothing more than an end.
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe… and light, again, more light, blinding, light and pain pain and light please please please
Then cool air, something solid under back and buttocks and thighs, something cold and hard and gritty.
Pain drifting out of the body, leaving behind an ache and an absence.
She was born from the tank like this, in pain and confusion, breathing hard and whimpering. After some time, she stopped shaking long enough to get on her hands and knees. She lifted one hand and looked at it, wondering. Then around herself.
She was in a room, huge and empty. The floor was grey concrete, covered in layers of dust, now disturbed by the liquid thrashing of her emergence. Other tanks like the one she crawled from sat in rows, equal distances apart. Of the two next to her, one was empty, but the other held a dark and floating shape. The walls in between the tanks were a dingy and chipped white. Somewhere a machine groaned as it pumped dusty air into the building.
She had something to do. Somewhere to go…
She couldn’t remember. Just. East, go east, towards the rising sun. Go east.
She got to her feet, unsteady as any newborn thing, and wrapped her arms around herself. She, walked the rows of tanks, some empty, some carrying other people, like herself. She wiped away the condensation from one tank, and gazed in on the face she revealed. It was distorted by thick fluid. It stirred nothing in her, no memory, no feeling. Who were these people? Friends, family, enemies?
There was a door set in one of the white wall. It was marked with a green sign saying EMPLOYEE EXIT. A smaller sign, this one in red, said PROTECTIVE GEAR MUST NOT BE WORN OUTSIDE OF THE FACILITY.
Through this door was a small, dingy locker room. Rags of clothes hung from pegs. Benches collapsed inwards on themselves. Shower cubicles lurked behind dirty curtains. In one of these showers a skull grinned up at her. She shut the curtain hurriedly.
She stared about for a bit. She was still naked, and cold, and the goo from the tank had dried on her in great pinkish streak.
“Try the shower,” said a high-pitched voice behind her. She turned round, heart suddenly pounding.
No-one there – but there was a small animal, sitting on one of the broken benches. A ?? dog bird rat capybara otter ferret cat?? Cat?? CAT!
“You’re a cat,” she slurred. They were the first words she’d ever spoken.
“That tank really did a number on you, didn’t it?”
“Try the shower. Get the gunk off you.”
She stumbled in to one of the shower cubicles – not the one with the skull in it. This one had a dark stain at the base that she tried hard not to think about. She fumbled with the taps until – finally – a burst of freezing water hit her.
“The boilers don’t work,” said the cat. It was sitting well out of the way of the spray. Cat’s don’t like water, she thought, and giggled.
“Rest of building…”
“I don’t know how it’s running. I’m a cat. I thought you might.”
“Why would I…?”
“Never mind that. It’s not important. Do you know why you’re even out?”
“East. Go east.”
“Thank all the gods for that at least.”
“Cats can’t talk.”
The cat started grooming one leg. “I’m a special kind of cat.”
A flash, knowledge just beyond grasp, something important. A memory. Cats, lots of cats, wired up to machines…
“Special cats.” She closed her eyes. “Something to do with me…?”
It looked at her again, with bright, clever green eyes. “Well done.”
She was clean. She stepped out of the shower. The cat stuck its tail in the air and twined around her ankles. “Clothes.”
“Try the lockers.”
In one locker there was a remarkably well preserved jumpsuit thing. It was red. On the breast pocket, a number. 87.
“Red 87,” she said. It meant something, rang a bell somewhere.
“Is that your name? I know humans are weird about names.”
“I don’t know.” She wanted to cry with frustration. “Why can’t you say?”
“I don’t know either. I just decided to come here and wait for you.”
“Curious,” said the cat. “Anyway, if we have to call you something, Red 87 seems good enough.”
“Humans don’t have numbers,” she said.
“Sure about that, are you? Miss can’t-remember-simple-things?”
“I-“ She shook her head. Wet hair slapped across her face. “Warning,” she said. “Beware… enemies? Maybe enemies? Are you an enemy?”
The cat stared at her again. “Not me,” it said. “But there might be others. Beware, indeed. Can you use a gun?”
“Yes,” she said, with certainty. “I can. And I know…” mind racing, images in front of her eyes. “Foraging hunting fire-building survival eat bugs knife fighting killing hiding bodies escaping.”
“Good things to know out there,” said the cat.
“My head,” she said again. “I was in the tank. For something. It was important…” She looked up at the cat with helpless blank eyes.
“Sorry,” said the cat. “Can’t help you. Just a cat.”
“I am physically present and talking, if that’s what you’re asking. Hadn’t you better be going east?”
“East. Towards the rising sun. Something…”
“I really hope your memory comes back.”
With that, the cat sauntered off, through a small hole in the walls, and was gone. The woman – Red 87, as she supposed she now was – was alone.
She ran her hands over the jumpsuit. It was soft and faded with age, but still good and strong. She wondered if someone had left it here for her.
Into a corridor. It too, was white, and along the walls were stripes of different coloured paint. Blue, green and red. She rested her hand against one of them.
She knew things. She could feel them jostling around in her brain, like fish in a too-small pond, but she couldn’t reach them.
“Red is… testing. Blue is…?” she shook her head. She couldn’t remember. But there was a brief memory of offices and computers and… “Green is out. Green is out!”
Where’s yellow? There should be yellow, too. Did they paint over yellow?
Did that even matter? Green was out.
She kept her hand against the green paint and followed it. She took the stairs, not the lift, and kept following green, and ignored the open doors that she sometimes passed, the ones that opened on rooms that she half knew and that she didn’t want to see now.
As she went on, the hallways became dirtier and dingier and more destroyed. There were holes in the walls now, opening into rooms that were sometimes completely collapsed. Once she stumbled over something that slid away from her with a skittering sound, and when she looked, she realised it was a human bone.
Eventually, she reached a corridor that was completely blocked by rubble except for a small, person-sized gap at the top. She climbed up, grazing her bare hands and feet on the broken apart concrete and steel, and wriggled through the gap.
She found herself in a large room that might once have been stylish and grand. Large window frames opened up onto a blinding world outside She lowered herself onto a huge overturned desk.
As she walked away from her second birth and into the shattered city, orange eyes watched her from the shadows.
OK, please leave suggestions for things to include in the next chapter in the comments. What will Red87 discover out in the shattered city? What strange things will happen to her? It’s up to you! Well, mostly me, but some of you, too.
Don’t forget that by suggesting something you’re giving me permission to use it as I see fit, here and in the future.
The cats in this episode of Lone Rambler out of Lost City are thanks to @ragesinggoddess on twitter.