The first thing she noticed was the dark.
Not so dark anymore, though, the thought popped on her mind, confusing her. Anymore as compared to what exactly?
Now she thought about it, there was an awful lot she didn't remember. Her name, for one. Leah sounded very familiar, so maybe that was it.
She was distracted from her wonderings by a muffled laugh, though not just any laugh: it most definitely belonged to a child, maybe six or seven. The way children laugh when they find something not particularly funny to be hilarious.
Well, whatever was going on, if children could laugh, it couldn't be that bad.
The child giggled again, then said, "Wakey, wakey, sleepy head!"
It took a moment for the sounds to turn into words in her head, definitely longer than she felt it should. As if the girl - the voice sounded distinctly like a little girl's - were speaking in a language she had very little domain over. And only once the words sank in she noticed her eyes were closed, with some light filtering through her eyelids - hence dark, but not that dark.
Wondering why she hadn't just opened her eyes in the first place, she ordered her eyelids up - and they seemed cemented closed, it was so hard to open them. She tried again but barely managed a slim chink before losing her strength.
She heard the little girl giggle again and then footsteps scuttling away. She put her every effort into urging the child to stay, but no sound came out of her mouth.
It was strange, at first, not to have control of her own body; trying so hard to move anything, and not succeeding.
Then panic set in: why wasn't her body responding? What could possibly be happening? Why wasn't anyone around to help?
She wanted to hyperventilate, her muscles straining to suck in more air faster, and her panic only increased when she realized she couldn't even control that: her breaths came in perfect evenness; air was pushed into her lungs for the exact same amount of time it was sucked out - and now she was paying attention to it, she could hear the faint noises of what she assumed was a medical ventilator.
Was she in a coma? Had there been an accident, and she'd been vegetating for who knows how long? And that was the reason nobody was around, because nobody expected her to wake up ever again? And the little girl was just visiting someone else and got bored and decided to wander the hospital?
How would anyone know she was conscious again, if she couldn't even open her eyes, or scream, or...
Surely they'd be monitoring her brain waves and would notice the change, right?
If only she could stay calm and maybe focus on something else, someone would be around soon enough to explain everything.
But seconds seemed to drag when all she had to distract her were her own thoughts and the beeping of machines, without as much as sight to allow her to count the tiles on the ceiling, and now she'd noticed she wasn't even breathing for herself, every moment demanded an insane amount of effort to keep herself under control.
It was hard to keep track of time, but surely a couple of hours must've gone by already, she thought. And during the whole time she never heard a single footstep. How could it be she was in a hospital close enough to other people for a little girl to find her, and so long go by without as little as a footstep?
She could feel the panic growing in her chest again, blurring the edges of reality. Was she hallucinating yet? Or was she actually dead and this was what the afterlife looked like? An endless amount of nothing except her conscience, just enough to drive her over the edge for all eternity?
She felt her heartbeat rising at the thought, and a wave of relief washed over her to know that, even though she wasn't actually controlling that, no machine was either.
And they would be monitoring her, and the sudden spike would raise flags, wouldn't it?
Even if the change in brainwave patterns hadn't.
Another nondescript amount of hours went by without any changes of any kind. It was harder and harder to keep a hold on her sanity, and she began wondering if she had any sanity to begin with.
Not even the lights flickered, making her assume the room was fully illuminated by artificial lights.
That couldn't be healthy for the patients, could it?
She couldn't sleep.
Her mind kept racing through more and more absurd scenarios, and that only when she managed to tap her panic down. Surely it'd been long enough for day to become night - or the other way around, who knows, but perhaps the prolonged sleep period meant she'd stay awake for longer.
Besides, the thought of dreaming terrified her. What could she possibly dream of that wouldn't be even more terrifying that being awake, trapped in a shell?
She felt exhausted.
At least now she was too tired to panic, and the only scenarios that interested her were the ones involving her very quick and very painless death.
Still, she couldn't sleep.
She didn't know why, but it felt like every time she got close to falling asleep, an outside force dragged her back, denying however tiny relief and comfort sleep could provide.
It felt like at least several days had gone by since she heard the little girl laugh, but for all she knew it could've been hours or weeks. Time was no longer a factor for her: it was everything and it was nothing at all, and she couldn't muster enough energy to care either way.
She was angry.
She could feel white hot anger bubbling on her stomach, trumping even her overwhelming exhaustion.
She wanted to thrash around, to scream at the top of her lungs, kick and punch and do something, and though she knew it was pointless, the strain of the effort on her muscles made her feel alive for the first time she could remember.
And if felt good.
Her body went still, her last energies dried up. Still, she felt relieved, relaxed. She was beaten, and whatever fight had been going on was over.
She was ready to let go.
But then came the darkness. The artificial lighting in the room was turned off, and she sunk into the most complete darkness. And though she'd thought it couldn't possibly scare her, after all, she couldn't see anything in the first place, it filled her with the most complete dread and sheer panic.
At last she managed to open her eyes - or so it felt like -, and they went wide, searching for any tiny sign of movement, anything at all. And she felt her body pushing to move, though it obviously couldn't, trying to curl into fetal position, as if by becoming smaller she could also lessen her fear. And once the shock from the first few moments had passed, she felt her eyes dampen with tears; it was her body's last resort to try and fight the feelings, and judging by the intense flow that followed, it was a fight to the death.
The worst part of it was, once she was done crying and there were no other sounds in the room, everything felt perfectly static for hours, as it had since she'd woken up, and though she had no more reason to be afraid than before, the complete lack of light kept her fear in overdrive.
She didn't know how long it lasted, and she would've puked several times if she could've, but at last there was a sound: the scuttling of little feet in the darkness, and the same little voice saying, "Wakey, wakey, sleepy head!", a fraction of a second before the lights came back on, blinding her completely.
Well, on the bright side, she'd managed to open her eyes after all.
While trying to recover, she heard a short, high-pitched scream, and a man's voice said, "Leah, haven't I told you already you're not allowed in here?" It was clear whoever it was, was irritated at the girl, and she thought the sound that followed were little feet being dragged on the floor towards an exit.
There it was, the name she thought she recognized. Leah. Maybe it wasn't hers after all, maybe her subconscious had registered the multiple visits the little girl made her, even if she couldn't remember her own name.
"It was about time you woke up, Hayley." She heard the same man say as the world slowly went back into focus, his voice sounding distant.
Other than the extreme brightness of the room, one of the first things she noticed was that, although it wasn't excessively big, it was immaculately clean with minimalist, directed-at-scientific-environments furniture: she could see a metal chest of drawers roughly to her right, beside which was an equally metallic desk with papers carefully organized over it, and a black-and -chrome chair, towards which the man, who she could now see was wearing a lab coat, was moving.
She tried to speak, then suddenly became aware of the tube in her mouth, and remembered the machine breathing for her, depriving her even of a deeper, calming breath.
What had he meant by 'about time', anyway?
"Don't try to speak." He advised, his eyes running through papers kept in a manila folder. "The tube in your mouth was put there to help you breathe, and any attempts will only strain your vocal chords and cause you pain."
The tone of his voice was completely deprived of any compassion or even interest; she felt no better than a fly being used in an experiment - not even a lab rat, because those required a certain amount of care and training and the outcomes were eagerly awaited; but a fly one could catch anywhere just out of boredom. Feeling her anger stir in her stomach, she chose instead to focus her attention on the man in front of her.
He was an utterly unremarkable man: of average height, with thinning hair, and slightly overweight, wearing a coat that was maybe one or two sizes too big, and ended on booted ankles. Even after several seconds staring intently at him, she was positive she couldn't pick him out of a line up the moment he walked out of the door.
"I'm Professor Acheson, in case you were wondering." He said absently, not bothering to look at her. "You're here because you needed some specialized care, and depending upon your progress now you're awake, we'll decide on how to proceed. I just need to check a few indicators on the monitors you're attached to," he motioned towards the machines she couldn't see with his pen, "and then I'll leave you to rest."
Her mind was spinning now. What exactly was going on? Why wasn't the man telling her anything about her condition, or how she ended up there, even though it was obviously of her utmost interest? And who were the 'we' who'd decide her fate? And where were her family and friends?
For a few minutes, the thought distracted her from the insistent scratching of pen on paper. Did she have family and friends? She couldn't remember anything at all, but she must've had someone in the world, right? Even if it was only one single person who cared about her and wanted her to wake up - and would be dying to pay her a visit now that she had.
Professor Acheson finished taking his notes and walked out of the room without another word. She immediately felt some relief; she couldn't pinpoint the reason why, but the presence made her notably uncomfortable. But not long after that, she started wishing he'd come back, as it was unbelievably boring in the room. In not longer than a few minutes, she'd memorized to the last inch the floor plan she could see, and waiting for the analysis of her stats to decide her future was nerve-wrecking.
It was only after a while she'd been alone that she noticed she wasn't lying on a bed: she was halfway between lying and standing, at maybe 50 degrees in inclination from the floor, which had been what allowed her to see the professor in the first place. And yet, she couldn't locate particular points on her body by which she was hanging; it wasn't her arms or underarms, her waist, or supports under her feet.
Straining as much as she could, she looked down at her own body and was shocked at what she saw: she was immerse in some kind of gel-like substance that supported every inch of her body, that was solid enough to hold her up, but still allowed for some elasticity, not cutting the circulation to her limbs, for example, and letting her skin breathe - what she could see of it, at least, looked very healthy. It also explained the muffled sounds: she was sunk into the substance up to her ears, so noise had to filter through before reaching her.
It was definitely like nothing she'd ever seen or imagined, though she didn't think she ever spent a long time thinking about how to hold someone upright softly enough not to hurt them, and yet firmly enough not to let them move.
She couldn't say how long it had been since the professor left, but at some point, the little girl with the familiar name came back, and was quite excited to see her awake. She kept smiling and babbling about things Hayley didn't understand, all the while pulling off the heads of the handful of dolls she had brought and making incisions on the bits that were left with a knife too big for someone too small.
Conflicting feelings filled her: on the one hand, she wanted to take the dangerous object from her hands and protect her from whoever it was that let a little girl run around with a knife; on the other, there was something disconcerting and even repulsing in the nonchalant way Leah maimed her toys.
She couldn't hear lower sounds, but by the child's reaction, she guessed footsteps sounded from the hallway, followed by an anxious girl gathering up her belongings and making for the door as fast as she could, in fear of getting caught.
It became the closest to a routine she ever had the following weeks. Every few days, the little girl would come to play in the room, chatting away while doing increasingly more worrying things; she seemed to have a predilection for sharp knives and fire, and no shortage of insects and mice to torture, their screams and desperate squirming and thrashing not bothering her in the least; and periodical visits from the professor, who would occasionally be accompanied by other men in white lab coats, though they'd never talk to her, merely around her.
And she still hadn't a clue what was happening.
Now that she was sleeping more or less regularly - never in complete darkness; there was always some light, however faint, for which she was strangely thankful -, she felt confident enough to start counting the passage of time again. Soon days became weeks, and the feelings of panic and desperation began to diminish marginally as it became clear things weren't about to change anytime soon.
The only change that occurred were in the activities Leah chose to do in her presence. The discomfort with what she was witnessing soon turned into repulsion, which in turn began acquiring a hint of indifference caused by constant exposure, and even brought on a spark of curiosity to find out what would come next. Every time she noticed her interest in the girl's activities, a wave of disgust washed over her. Just what kind of person was she turning into?
After enough visits, she thought she knew what to expect from Leah. So when she walked in one day holding a mouse by the tail in one hand, she knew it'd be one of her least favorite spectacles: the desperate screaming was high enough that even she heard them, and the pleasure on the child's eyes was simply terrifying.
Before taking a seat in front of her, she dug through the drawers and brought out small knife and a lighter she'd hidden there, and then sat cross-legged on the floor. She was talking about school and how a few of the kids had gotten into a fight over who could hit a smaller child the hardest, when she cut off one of the back paws of the small mammal, filling the room with desperate sounds and covering the floor and herself in blood. She kept babbling as she set fire to the injury until it stopped bleeding, before moving on to the next one.
The game soon became boring - as much as the animal tried to fight, she easily overpowered him. So she dropped the creature on the floor, and Hayley watched him drag himself to a corner for as long as it was in her field of vision, her heart aching for him. When she turned her attention back to the girl, she noticed her alarmingly close, enough not to be able to look at her properly. And the delightful exclamation that followed did nothing to reassure her.
She couldn't see what was happening, but could hear and feel it. The first machine Leah found was the ventilator, and she spent several minutes entertained in turning it off and watching Hayley struggle desperately to breathe, her skin slowly turning a shade of blue as the lack of oxygen grew more pronounced, and taking much longer than necessary to recover, since she couldn't hyperventilate to make up for the forced apnea.
Then the child disappeared behind her, and the next moment she felt pain spreading through her whole body, more intense than she would've thought possible. All her muscles contracted, desperate to stop whatever was happening, and in a few seconds, tears were springing from her eyes. But since those were the only evidence of what had happened, the experience was deemed a failure and wasn't repeated.
Instead, Leah found out she could pierce through the gel-like substance with the knife, and cut the skin lying under it - and it bled, too, so she started making drawings on the bits of skin she could reach, enjoying the way Hayley's eyes moved from side to side desperately. She was as easily overpowered as the rat, but at least she was a new toy.
Both her legs had been drawn on, and the girl was pondering over whether or not to move on to her bare stomach when the door flung open and she jumped half a step back. In walked a man she recognized but couldn't quite place, and who was dressed unlike any of the others so far: he was very clearly part of the security staff, not the medical one. The joy in Leah's eyes immediately turned into fear as he walked towards her, and she faintly heard the girl apologize and call him dad, before he hit her across the face with the back of his hand hard enough to throw her to the floor a few feet away.
"You know you're not allowed in here." He told her severely, towering over her. He was about to add something else when the mouse screamed again, catching his attention. He looked at the animal, then at the child, and drew a bayonet from his belt, offering it to her. "Finish it." He told her simply.
She still had her hand over her reddening cheek, but stood up and took the weapon with a sigh. The sound, however, wasn't that of someone who's forced to do something that violates their moral code - as killing should be for everyone -, but of a child who's told they've got to stop playing to go to bed. All it meant to her was that play time was over.
She walked to the corner where the animal curled up trying to hide, and put the knife right through it, giving the blade back to the man with the animal still on it.
"Now get out." He said in a low, angry voice, and they both left the room.
It took Leah almost a week to return, and when she did, she made sure to keep her distance.
Exactly 47 sleep cycles later, the professor entered the room with a smile, announcing he had good news, which only made her more suspicious.
"My dear, there's nothing to be afraid or anxious about, really." He continued, bringing the chair closer to where she stood and sitting in front of her, his eyes quickly scanning page after page in a manila folder now considerably larger than when she first saw it. "You seem to be recovering extraordinarily fast, and will soon be able to go back to your normal life. There is, however, one little obstacle still standing in the way." With that, he finally looked at her, and she rolled her eyes.
Of course there was something else, she thought, and then berated herself for it. It meant something was changing, and she was being offered the chance of a normal life again, even if she couldn't remember what 'normal life' meant.
"It's really nothing you haven't done before, but I understand your memories are still a little jumbled, so it might not come so naturally to you. The government requested you for a small mission, which we're all confident you'll succeed at, and then you get to choose your own path." She could see he was carefully analyzing her every reaction, even though she had no idea what he was expecting to see other than the obvious confusion.
Forgetting for a moment she still had a tube down her throat, she tried to speak, which only resulted in momentary pain.
"Oh, don't try to speak, dear. You know you can't. Yes, of course by the time you're expected to perform this task, you'll be back on your feet and unconnected to any machines, as we're confident your body can stand, but for safety reasons, we can't disconnect you just yet." He watched her for a moment longer before standing up and returning the chair to its original place. "And unfortunately I can't give you any more information; not even we know what your task will be. But it will happen within the next few days, and everything will make sense by then."
He left the room without saying anything else, leaving Hayley with a lot of thinking to do - it was, after all, the only thing she could do.
With her anxiety levels rising with every day that went by, being left in complete isolation wouldn't have been her first choice, and she felt her heart leap in her chest when Leah walked in a few days later. She was a creepy child, but she was better than nothing.
That day, however, instead of practicing new torture methods, she merely stood in front of Hayley in silence for several minutes, thinking very hard.
"They say you're my mummy," she said at last, her head tilting slightly to one side. "Well, are you?"
Her first reaction was confusion. Mother? Her? Of that... That child? Of course not! She'd never let her child end up like that. And of course she would remembering having a child, right?
But it surely explained why the name was so familiar.
And why she would come visit, since she wasn't a doctor or a scientist.
Feeling equal parts disgust at the thought and the urge to protect the girl, all she could do was watch her.
Leah shrugged at last. "Whatever. I don't need a mummy." She took two steps towards the door before stopping and looking over her shoulder. "But they said that if you were my mummy, you'd let me play with you too, and I'd really like to play with you, because mice are boring."
Hayley could feel her eyebrows creeping up her forehead.
She didn't have a shred of doubt that 'play' meant 'torture' for the little girl.
When she opened her eyes, she found herself standing on a deserted street, surrounded by gray buildings, and a dusty wind playing with her hair.
She didn't remember she had long hair.
Inhaling, all she could smell was pollution, and she was suddenly aware of the heavy combat knife on her hand.
And she knew what her mission was: the target was ahead of her, far enough not to be more than a faint shadow in the distance, and she had to terminate it.
Hayley never thought of herself as a killer, but it didn't feel like murder either: it was a task like filing paperwork would've been; something she knew she was capable of, and didn't need to think about before executing.
She weighted the knife in one hand, then the other, trying to remember how she knew what she was supposed to do. That was her mission; that much was clear. But there hadn't been a briefing meeting of any kind, and she had no idea when or how she'd left the hospital.
Shaking her head to dispel the confusion, she started walking forward. It was a simple enough job that would close a chapter of her life she was more than eager to leave behind, and the sooner it got done, the better.
She walked fast, eyes focused on the growing shadow. Would there be a struggle? What if her target was much bigger than her? Somehow she knew her body would know what to do. It had been trained to exhaustion, even if she couldn't remember any of it. And the shadow didn't seem to be growing much anyway, so there was no danger.
Actually, after she'd covered half the distance separating them, the target didn't seem to be growing at all. Had she been deployed to kill a really short person? Somehow that made them more innocent in her mind, made her think of children. They're probably just really short, she reassured herself. Short and capable of enough harm to deserve this fate. That had to be it.
When at last she was close enough to see her target, she couldn't fool herself anymore: the person wasn't short because of bad luck in the genetic lottery, but because they didn't have the chance to grow yet. And it wasn't just any child: it was her child, the girl who tortured little animals, and who was now clutching a rag doll against her chest, watching her curiously. Her breath caught in her throat, and fragments of memories flashed through her mind: the pain of labor, the joy of holding her for the first time, saying her name for the first time, a vague image of her at two, at five. Leah asking her if she was her mummy.
Before she even had time to process any of it, an intense light erupted from the horizon, blinding her momentarily. What the hell was happening?
She felt confused and put one arm up, trying to shield her eyes, trying to make sense of the world.
'Up her dosage, you idiot!' She heard an urgent voice cry, and looked around desperately, trying to find the source of the noise.
At the next moment, the light was gone, and she was alone with the little girl again. And the memory of the voice began to fade, and those of Leah became faint echoes in her mind. The only thing that was clear was her mission, and the certainty she'd carry it out.
Without hesitation, she walked forward, knife pointing outward at the child who merely stood there watching her. The blade had already cut the skin on her neck, and blood had started trickling down, when Hayley looked up to the child's face and noticed the silent tear running down her cheek. There was no reason why she would let anyone do that to her the way it was happening, and yet the only thing she allowed herself was to silently weep her own death.
And Hayley knew she couldn't do that. That she could never do that. Maybe the child was a monster, and maybe if she kept on the path she was on, she'd bring death and suffering to millions of people, but Leah was her daughter, and she knew that if she could only take care of her for a little while, she was absolutely certain she could fix everything. It was her job as a mom to fix what had been done to her baby, not to get rid of her.
So she dropped the knife and pulled the girl against her chest, holding her tightly, so overwhelmed by the instinct to protect she didn't even notice the girl wasn't moving any more than the rag doll in her tiny arms.
And then her head exploded in pain, and she would've screamed if she could've, she would've ripped it opened with her bare hands if she could've.
It was only her subconscious that picked up the angry exclamations coming from somewhere in the room, something about having failed, something about starting over.
She was no longer in a street in the middle of nowhere, she was back in the lab, immersed once again in that strange gel, with wires connected to her, tubes going into her body, a mere experiment to the men in lab coats surrounding her.
And like pieces of a puzzle she struggled to put together, fragments of memory were returned to her.
The moment her month-old child was ripped from her arms and the way she'd screamed and fought the three policemen holding her back.
Reading about scattered protests against the government and deciding to do something about it.
Seeing her two-year-old spend her days in complete isolation, and then be physically and verbally abused by people she desperately wanted to please.
Meeting Leah's father for the first time.
Being told by a police officer she'd never challenge the government again.
Waking up when the girl was three, and seeing the damage that had been done to her.
Turning from just another voice in the crowd into the leader of the movement.
Seeing the love of her life turned into an empty shell, ignoring a tiny Leah who begged for some attention.
Failing the test and being thrown back into the darkness.
And then she understood why darkness terrified her so. Suddenly she remembered the endless time she'd spent in limbo, with no hint of light anywhere, just her conscience floating in space and the voice narrating all the terrible things Leah was put through. A voice that was her own, a voice she couldn't doubt, because despite the disconnection between body and mind, parts of her witnessed it all happen, and she was just aware enough to feel completely impotent.
She opened her eyes, seeing men frantically rushing around her, following instructions, and she fought as hard as she could to regain control of her body, to get out of that horrible place. She needed to find her child, and get them away from that hellhole.
She just had to.
And then the words drifted to her ears and slowly made their way into her consciousness, halting her struggles at once.
"Put her back under," the professor had said.
And it was the last thing she heard before diving back into complete darkness.