...FIVE YEARS LATER...
Void pressed into her from all sides as she struggled to find light, to create it from the inky black around her. All was formless and expanse and solitude. What had become of her here? No answers came to her questions, and when she realized she had no way of speaking them aloud, she began to fret. It was unbearable. What if she never saw the light of day again?
But a shining dot would hover before her face now and again. Every time, she willed herself toward it, but it danced out of reach, or vanished entirely. How frustrating.
The time came when she could bear it no longer; she had to get that dot. It was the only thing besides her that existed. It appeared before her, and she gave every shred of strength she had to acquire it, strained at the barriers holding her down, focused very atom of her person at it and heaved.
Which is when, like a charm, she broke through.
o o o
The shapes and colors in the room refused to make sense; it was out of focus. Or she was. There was no way to be sure.
"Oh my God, Celica - you're awake, you're awake!"
A heavy weight was on her stomach, and tendrils were wrapping around her throat. She tried to ask what was happening, but all she came out with was "Whrnghh..."
"Bless this day!" the attacking force breathed. "Bless it from above, I never thought it would come, it- oh, I have you back!"
"Heyyy," she managed to drawl, mouth parched and useless. "Whass... gn... helb!"
"Helb? Help? Oh, I'm so sorry - here, I'll back off."
It was then that the figure sat back, and she recognized some parts of her features but others were foreign and disconcerting. Finally, it came into focus - and despite the long, flowing hair and the slight laugh lines, she knew.
"A..." She coughed, then tried to croak it out again. "Accela?"
"You remember me!" she exclaimed, lighting up like an Appreciation Day tree. "Quick, how many fingers am I holding up?"
"You aren't." It was true; in her overwhelming joy, Accela had forgotten to actually hold any up. "What's... where am I?"
"You're in the hospital," she soothed, laying both hands on the patient's chest. "Thank God you woke up, the doctors were beginning to think it was more cruel to keep you on life support than euthanize you - I've been fighting them tooth and nail, insisting you just needed a little more time to come back to us..."
"Come back?" There was something about that - and about the way Accela looked - that brought with it a sense of foreboding. "Wh... where have I been?"
Only now did Accela pause before speaking to think. "M-maybe that's not for me to say, Celica. The doctors might have a b-better way of breaking it to you than I can, I'm not an expert in mental trauma like they-"
Seconds passed; the clock on the wall was loud and deafening in its marking of the passage. "Um... about five years."
"It's going to be alright now, though," Accela blubbered. "B-because- because we've got you, you're alive, you're awake! That's what matters! Don't worry about the time, or your condition or any of those, they're details!"
"My name... is Celica," she realized - Accela had said it. Now it sounded like a foreign word from a half-formed memory. Why was she so disoriented? "Yayoi - C-celica Yayoi. And... and we were... friends."
Fresh tears began streaming down the redhead's cheeks. "Oh God... oh no, they told me- they said you might not remember anything, oh I'm so sorry, Celica, I'm so sorry..."
Flashes were coming back to her, but they refused to settle; a bloody corpse on the floor in RUC with Ashley Lynx standing over it. But how could that be? Nobody had ever been murdered on RUC property. And Rose Anderson, the infamous criminal, sitting at one of their terminals in the office and wearing their uniform.
"What is it?" Accela asked gently, her voice now taking on that irksome extra-sweet quality that some people adopt when speaking with the mentally handicapped. "Do you need something?"
"My mind... it's smashing all this crap together. Tell me - did the Andersons ever take over RUC headquarters or something?"
Accela's eyebrows raised. "Are you remembering Rose there? Yes... she worked with us for a while. After she almost died in the second Blast Fall, the director took her under his wing because she was a Proceed. That's what set the dominoes falling."
"Second Blast Fall! Wait... a clocktower. I remember."
"It was Integra who rescued her." Accela folded her hands in her lap and sat back. "None of us knew until later what Ashley was up to. He was grooming her to replace us entirely... so she could interface with Eunomia."
"Forget about that right now, okay? You need rest."
"Wait!" Celica gasped as more images assailed her, forced their presence upon her weak mind. "I n-need to know, I... Sylvia is dead, isn't she? But how could that be, she was always... but she's dead. The director..."
Suddenly, her chest felt constricted, her airways tight. As her breathing turned ragged, Accela whispered, "What is it, a panic attack? Or something else? I'm calling the nurse-"
"No!" she managed to wheeze, clutching the center of her hospital gown. "I don't- I want to know, I need to know what happened!"
o o o
Three days passed without Celica seeing hide nor hair of anyone but medical staff; they refused to tell her anything that mattered, other than that she would be fine, and that more tests were needed. She'd had enough of tests after the first few hours.
Once her condition had stabilized beyond shadow of doubt, Accela was allowed to come back to see her - and she brought Integra along. They hugged and made some small talk for a few minutes before Celica said, "Okay. So I love you guys and I'm glad you made it through the Apocalypse more or less intact, but... now I want answers. Big ones."
"Very well," Integra said - succinct as always. "What do you wish to know?"
"Firstly, I want to know where I've been for five years. And second..." When she raised her arm from the bed and rolled up her sleeve, both of her friends recoiled. "Why do I have Resemble parts?"
"Oh," was all Accela could get out before dissolving into a puddle of tears and misery.
"They had already been grafted onto you when we found you," Integra began. "At RUC.
"Ashley Lynx, it seemed, had a number of clandestine projects he was operating within the RUC building, unbeknownst to the staff at large. As has been disseminated to the press and the populace, this was due in part to the fact that he was among the human settlers who first came to this planet in hopes of terraforming it. There was an orbiting shuttle he wished to return to and reunite with a former colleague. Suffice it to say, he never made it, and that the colleague was long dead anyway."
"Wait, no... what? Terraforming?" Celica's eyes widened in shock. "Is this not Earth? Are we... aliens?"
"I suppose, in a way," Integra said with a small smile. "We are humans from Earth, but this isn't it. No amount of research has turned up the original name of this planet; it's likely lost to time. Joseph has been... less than forthcoming. But we're glad to call it home now."
"Fine, fine, we're aliens," Celica groused impatiently. "Ashley's projects?"
Integra nodded solemnly. "The slow dissolution of RUC's assets as it was broken down into smaller companies and governments also involved combing HQ for any other... surprises. Almost a year ago, we found yet another; a chamber full of bodies. They were all perfectly preserved in stasis tubes, energy from the city still powering them, functioning all on their own without supervision. You are the third to wake. The second only regained consciousness for mere seconds before expiring; his prognosis wasn't encouraging to begin with, but the doctors gave him a fighting chance. The first, on the brighter side, is now home with her husband."
"Stasis..." She got a faraway look in her eyes, gazing into and through the wall.
"I'm... disgusted to inform you that we also recovered Sylvia's body there, but nothing could be done for her. All medical technicians and specialists were brought in, and it was decided there was no way to remove her from stasis without killing her - or what was left of her. Clinically braindead; she had become nothing more than a shell. So we disconnected her. At... at least she was able to receive a proper burial."
Now they were all crying to varying degrees. "S-so I was in stasis for five years, too. Why? Why did he keep me alive?"
"They were running tests on new Resemble parts," Integra supplied with a sniffle, gesturing to the arm. "Scans have shown that you are now roughly 35% artificial. I can list what they've replaced in you, but you... may be better off not knowing."
"No, tell me. Tell me so I can know when something breaks what needs fixing."
Integra drew in a shaky breath. "Your left arm, of course - and your right shoulder only. Right knee joint, both hips, one lung, one kidney, the liver... one eye. Also, it seems you've had an oophorectomy and partial hysterectomy; since your data file was lost when the servers self-destructed, we can't be sure if they intended to replace those with Resemble as their next experiment."
"I'm a freaking cyborg," Celica growled, pounding her new metal fist into the mattress. "That bastard turned me into an abomination!"
"For once, I'm thankful." The sobs couldn't dull Accela's gratitude. "I'm grateful he was such a monster. Because he saved your life, even if he only did it to further his own research. At least it means I have you back."
Celica blinked. "Have me back? You say it like..." And then a shot of recognition surged through her; damage control. She had to cover it up before Integra picked up on anything. "W-wait- nevermind, sorry, it was a joke. Don't m-mind the coma victim."
"She knows," Accela assured her softly.
"If memory serves," Integra began with a wry grin, "Accela was of the opinion that denying the... uncommon turn your friendship had taken was a disgrace to your memory. So she told me about you, how you had become so close just before you were..."
Accela blew her nose on a tissue. "Torn apart."
In spite of all the tragedy, of her righteous fury at becoming little more than a lab rat after she sacrificed herself to help bring down the company that ended up benefiting from her near-demise (or had she actually died? Perhaps that was a question best left for later), she felt her face growing hot. Someone knew. For the first time since Garabine - who had also been a lesbian, so she didn't count - someone had found out about their relationship, a friend and coworker. It was unexpected, and though she told herself she ought not be embarrassed, she was.
"Hey, what is it?" Accela asked as she swiped at her eyes. "You look flushed. Should I call the-"
"No, dammit," Celica grunted, folding her arms. "It's nothing the nurse can fix."
"Why, Celica Yayoi," Integra chided. "I do believe you're coming over bashful."
At that, Accela let out an exasperated sigh. "Oh, grow up, Celica. It's been a long time since we first became an item, you have got to learn to-" But she cut off when she noticed the look in Celica's eyes and buried her face in her hands. "Shit. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm such a moron..."
"It's only been a few weeks for me," Celica whispered. "I've missed... I missed everything."
"I know!" Accela choked out, rapidly becoming hysterical. "I know, I can't believe I somehow for- forgot about- I'm so sorry!"
"Shh, it's okay," Integra soothed, picking her up under the arms and hugging her before guiding her toward the door. "Let's go get you some coffee..."
"Hey - hey, wait a minute," Celica blustered, amazed that they were leaving. "Where do you think you're going? I'm still stranded in the dark - there's a lot more details that I don't-"
But then they were outside her room, the door shut. Celica settled back against her bed and yanked at her hair - which was several inches shorter than she was used to it being - flailing her legs. She fully understood that she was throwing a temper tantrum, but why shouldn't she? Her life had been crumpled up and burned like so much refuse.
She listened for one of her knees to creak as her legs flailed. Nope; perfectly smooth. State-of-the-art Resemble. Not that it was much comfort. Would she still be able to drink with an artificial liver? Maybe not - and that might be a positive aspect of this. If the only. This is what I get for always joking that I'd get a Resemble liver, she thought bitterly.
Then the door was opening again. Celica weakly looked over, expecting to see a doctor, but instead she saw Integra, alone this time. "What? Come back to tell me my boobs are Resemble, too? If so, they could at least have made them bigger."
"Not quite. I came back to tell you to get your act together."
At that, Celica felt her eyes flashing. "Excuse moi?"
"It isn't that I feel no sympathy for your position; I do. None of us could ever know what you've been through, what you're waking up to. It must be terrifying." Then she stalked over, steely blue eyes narrowed and serious. "On the other hand, have you given a thought to what Accela's been through?"
"HELL." Integra's teeth gritted. "This hasn't come up in conversation yet, but I've been living with her for the past five years. Since neither of us have significant others - or did - it helped ease our mutual loneliness, having a trusted friend to share a space with. It took her three years to get over your supposed death. Three. Which means she had a single year to function with some semblance of normalcy before you turned up in a lab and ruined all her progress. It dragged her right back to seeing you on the news, a splotch on the pavement. On top of that, she had to lose you all over again every day you didn't wake up. Until now."
Now Celica felt her own eyes streaming, and she couldn't pin down the source. Likely because it wasn't any one source. "Why are you telling me this? Are you blaming me? Blaming me for existing? I DIED! What was I supposed to do, go all suicide-bomber and make sure there was nothing left for Ashley Fucking Lynx to manipulate?"
At this, Integra's fury abated slightly, and she stood back and folded her arms. "No. No, you're not to blame. But on the other hand, there are things for you to consider."
"Such as the fact that Accela has been tearing herself apart for the past months. Such as the fact that now you're awake, all she can think about is how you're going to adapt to life all over again, whether or not you're well, how you function." There was a brief moment as she built up the courage to speak her mind. "Such as the fact... that when you try to make her feel guilty, because you were in the coma and she wasn't..."
"You know that's not what I-"
"You had it easy. Blissful, unconscious ignorance? That's picturesque compared to the incalculable hours of suffering she's logged. While you were sleeping, she's been trying to survive in a world without you for thousands of days, one at a time, and I had to watch what it did to her. She had to become so strong... just to keep on living. Full disclosure? She barely - barely made it."
Celica's shoulders shook as she took all that in, as she tried to digest it without much success. "I... please, Integra, I'm not... do you hate me for waking up?"
"Maybe I do." When Celica looked up, slack-jawed, Integra sighed. "Partly. I'm hoping I won't have to, but that depends on how you handle your second chance. Despite all this, I really am glad to have you back among the living; it's miraculous, and I've missed you with all my heart, but... if you screw this up and make Accela miserable... I might put you back in the coma."
But she was already on the other side of the door, leaving Celica alone to contemplate.
o o o
"I brought you something."
"What is- oh, no." Celica laughed weakly when she saw the little black box. "Let me guess; Dune Race 3 is still in there, isn't it?"
"Yep," Accela whispered excitedly. "I know they're discharging you tomorrow, but I didn't feel like waiting. We can run it through this monitor."
"Why on earth did you hold onto that for so long? I'm sure there's much better games on the market these days."
Accela shrugged as she began hooking it up. "There are... but I'm a sucker for the classics."
The two of them played for nearly an hour, cackling with glee and trading insults, only stopping when the nurse came into check Celica's vitals and bring her another can of fruit juice. Then, once they were watching a readout of their racing statistics, Celica said, "Hey."
"I've... been wondering about something." She cast a wary glance at her friend, who had turned all the way around to look at her properly - so she focused her eyes back on the screen as she tweaked a few settings. "Did you, um... date?"
"Date?" After a moment, she sat back, appearing somehow smaller. "Um... you mean, see other people?"
"I don't think it qualifies as 'other people' when your last partner is no longer of this realm, Accela."
Accela tried to laugh, but it faltered and expired before it really got rolling. "Um... yeah, a little. Never anything serious, or more than a few drinks. Just... didn't work out."
"What about Garabine? Didn't you..."
"Nah." As they started racing again, she continued, "I did look her up, and we hang out now and then. Once, we tried to take it to a more serious place, but... oh, nevermind, you don't wanna hear all this ancient news."
"Go ahead. It's time for me to get caught up."
"Maybe I don't want to tell you that we started making out, and I broke down crying on her, and she took me home," Accela said tersely, guiding her car into a giant boulder. "But if you must know..."
"I'm really sorry," Celica pleaded with her. "I just... I must, I really must. Five years? And I wouldn't judge you for that, I'd expect you to date. I'd probably do the same thing if I'd los- lost..."
Hearing the way she'd faded away at the end, Accela smiled wearily. "You would have, huh?"
"No." Celica set down her controller and popped open the juice. "Probably not. Sorry."
"Let's not dwell in the past, Celica. I want to live in the now - the now with you in it. I want to forget the Sans-Celica Era of my life and start fresh. Help me with that?"
"Anything you want. The sky's the limit for my Accela." Celica flipped at the lip of the can with her thumbnail. "I mean... if you're taking me back."
"Wh... why wouldn't I?"
"That's something I have no right to assume. You're a person who's five years older than me now; I mean, not bodily, but mentally. Are we even still compatible? Plus, I'm kind of part-robot now, too; that's not bizarre for you? There's lots of stuff to consider. Just taking for granted that I'll slip right back into the place I vacated-"
"Are you saying you don't want to?" Accela said with no insignificant amount of alarm. "T-tell me now, are you unsure? Because I was going to let you come live with me right away, but if you need-"
"Hey, hey, simmer down, spaz," Celica laughed. "I didn't mean we won't be getting back together. But... well, I think we both owe it to you to ease back into this. For sanity's sake. Besides, I also owe it to my parents to crash at the mansion for a while; they missed me, too."
Suddenly Accela broke out in a genuine grin; the first one since the day Celica had awakened. In a flash, she was sprawled across Celica's bed, lips roving over hers, pulling and kneading. Celica felt her heart skip over a beat before speeding up in earnest; this was her first kiss since waking. Five years - such a long dry spell! At long last, Accela sat back in her chair, panting as she picked up the controller to avoid sitting on it. "Do you have any idea what it's like to go half a decade without anybody calling you 'spaz'?"
"Uhh..." Celica smiled shyly, her fingers playing across her bottom lip as she reflected on the new-yet-familiar sensation. Apparently, easing back into a relationship meant different things to different people. "I dunno, must be a relief?"
Accela started the next race without Celica noticing and blew her away effortlessly. "Nah. Not nearly as much as you'd think."
o o o
Right on schedule, Celica left the hospital far behind and was reunited with her family. She decided to avoid Accela for a couple of days, just long enough to reconnect with her mother and father, reminisce about the good times, find out what they'd been doing with themselves while she was lying forgotten in some chamber. Her mother spent a lot of time fretting about her Resemble parts, but she reassured her that they had all been checked out by top specialists and that while the technology was ahead of its time, it was nothing they couldn't backwards-engineer should she need replacements in the future. As a matter of fact, between her and all the others found at RUC HQ, they expected to see the rejection rate of the synthetic parts in human organic systems go way down.
At last she felt ready to venture out into the world. She called Accela and told her to expect a visit, then put on an ensemble that was eye-catching but didn't make her look overly desperate. After spending an hour or two kicking around the city, visiting old haunts and spending a bit of money, she walked the familiar path to Accela's apartment and rang the doorbell.
"Just a second!" a voice called out. A few seconds later the door slid open, and without warning two hands were pushing into her chest gently as Accela joined her in front of her place, decked out in a simple carnation-pink blouse and white capris. Her hair was in a functional ponytail, but cute hoop earrings the exact shade of her eyes gleamed; a single touch of the fanciful that flew in the face of her mostly-reserved outfit. "Don't get comfortable, we're going out."
"We are?" Celica's hand was caught up in hers and they were suddenly heading outside. "We are, I guess. Where?"
"It's a surprise," she whispered, cheeks glowing. "I think you'll like this."
o o o TO BE CONCLUDED o o o