I wake three times into something like a dream. Sharp light from high above, the faces of strangers. I can speak to them, in my dream, but can't hear anything I'm saying. I try to ask where I am, and how badly am I injured, but I'm not sure if any of it gets across.
The fourth time it isn't a dream at all. I lie on a bed in a small clinic, tilted up so it's like sitting. There are no other patients. No windows but one in the door, and I'm at the wrong angle to see through it. The bedsheet is tucked in tight around my waist, and my right arm is in a sling. I'm sure it should ache, but there's a humming in my skin instead, that druggy feeling and a long sleep. The folded wreck of my bicycle is stashed in a far corner of the room.
There are no hospital noises, no shushed feet or chirping machines. I'm not hooked up to anything. I'm wearing a thin teal gown. My clothes and bag aren't anywhere obvious. They'd better be around here somewhere, though. It's my only work uniform, and damn expensive to replace.
It's quiet for maybe an hour, maybe ten minutes. There aren't any clocks. Then a man walks through the door who looks nothing like a doctor. Because I'd rather not be afraid of him, I ask, "are you the doctor?" His face is blank, though he looks down at my question, like I've disappointed him in record time. I try again.
"Are you militsya? If my clothes are being washed or whatever, that's fine, but I really need to go. I'm probably pretty late to work by now. Are they… Can I have my uniform back?" He's looking me in the eyes, giving me nothing. "It's grey. Grey and red, I work at the post office. And I feel fine now, so. Thanks, I guess."
After a moment he sighs minutely, turns, and drags a molded plastic chair from across the room to sit near the foot of my bed. He leans forward with his elbows to his knees.
"You cannot go to work today, Nullya," he says.
"You have me at a disadvantage," I say. An English phrase from a movie, badly translated to Illitan, and I try to put some charm behind it. It comes out nervous and grammatically faulty. He looks at me, not like he didn't get it, but like my tone was in bad taste.
"I'm Tye," he says. "You know where you are?"
I look at my bike in the corner. The handlebars have bent into a tight V, and the front wheel has no tire. I look at the door, and the empty window there, at my gown, the other empty beds lined up around the room, at the blank man staring at me. He knows my answer, but I'll try another.
"Which hospital is this? I was near the University. I think I was, yes, I was a few streets from the University. Have you called my office? Or my mother? She's programmed in my phone, they both are, it's in my bag. I'll call them if you haven't."
He's looking down again, and says once more, "You know where you are."
My arm is starting to throb. I suck in a breath and haul myself up to lean closer to him, make him catch my eye again. He does.
"I was in a traffic accident. We can forget this, you and me. It doesn't have to go anywhere. I'm still…" I try, but there isn't a word for it. Myself? Aware? "I know where I am. We can forget this, and go home. Nothing has changed." I try out a dismissive shrug; it's painful. "I just need a new bicycle."
He puts a hand on the bed, on top of the sheet beside my knee. Pats the mattress as if that should be a comfort to me.
"You're not on trial, Nullya."
"Well good, that's good," I say, but he purses his lips.
"There is no trial. You breached." His hand withdraws. I feel strongly the blood draining from my face, from the tips of my fingers. "You're ours now."
Something happens in my guts and I think of my mother.
She's been working at a travel agency, at the front desk. It's a good job, and pays decently, so she's felt secure enough to start haranguing me about finding a man, moving out, no one your age wants to live with their mother. And the shameful thing is, it's true. I go out with friends, maybe coworkers, once a week at most. Each time, she'll say she's glad I'm getting my own life, and each time I come home earlier than anyone. No amount of good company can drown out the idea of her sitting in that apartment, watching the television, making her dinner, alone.
I'm earning enough now that I could move out if I find roommates. Two days ago I scanned the rentals section of the paper for the first time. Didn't circle anything, call anyone, but it's going to happen, it's percolating. I'm going to choose to leave my mother alone, with nobody to talk to, with empty nights. She will wash her own dishes, and I will take my things from the apartment so it'll be like she's always been alone. My coat not in the closet, and I won't visit often enough. I've vacillated between being overcome with excitement, and feeling like shit about the decision.
And now. I've never known someone who's breached. I don't think so, anyway. I don't know what the family is supposed to do. Will she pack up my things and store them away? Leave them where they are, as if maybe I'd just stepped out for a while?
Or will someone come around for them? Some dour man like this one, with a shabby suit and indeterminate manner, to catalogue everything I'd ever touched. Perhaps he'll let her stay and watch or unwatch as he boxes up old mementos. My dusty grade school projects, my collection of glass animals, my socks and underwear, my American baseball cap from uncle Miroz in Boston.
"I was in a traffic accident," I tell Tye. I know I sound more flat than pleading. "It was only a moment. I passed out, damn it, how does that even qualify as breach."
"I saw you," he says.
"Then you saw he drove right in front of me," I say. "And I swerved, I tried not to, nobody actually wants to get hit by a freaking car. But I swear he must have sped up, or turned, or something. I tried not to hit him."
"So you know the driver was male," Tye says, and I clutch my hands into the sheets. He stands up, he walks to the mess of my bike. Tugs at the seat a bit and it comes right off. "You're lucky to be alive, you know."
"Can I make a phone call?"
"This is Breach, not the city lock-up. We have a different protocol."
"So tell me the protocol."
"We need to understand why this happened." He drops the bicycle seat onto a metal table, loud and clattering. "And then you need to make a decision."
He looks at me and his face is careful, waiting. He knows I want to ask if I can decide to go home. And I want to ask it very, very badly. The nerves of the fingers of my injured hand are flaring. My eyes sting. For the first time I realize the right side of my face is scraped and scabbed over.
I ask, "How many people have you done this to before?"
"Breach is as old as the cities. They didn't keep very thorough records a couple centuries ago."
"But you. You. How many people."
"Twelve," he says. He blinks slowly. My arm throbs. "Yeah, it's been twelve."
"Where are they now?"
"Different places," he says. "Each breach is different, and they made different choices."
"And were there any other accidents?" There's bile rising in my throat. I may vomit. I may spit into his face. "Like mine."
Far too rapidly, he's across the room and standing right next to me, fisted hands leaning onto the bed. The space around him is cold. His voice is hard, tired.
"The accident was not your breach. You know exactly what you did. You know when you did it. We know. I saw you."
"I never set foot in Beszel. Never in my life."
"That's not at issue here."
"I mean, yeah, I touched his car. Because he hit me with it."
"Just stop it, Nullya."
"You stop. Stop using my name like you know me."
"I know why you're here. I saw you. You lay on the ground, your arm out of socket, and you looked right at him." I can't watch Tye. I unsee him, inches from my face. "Even in your pain, I saw your lip curl." I look at the door over his shoulder, I hear the sounds of my own breathing, and feel the thrum of blood through my arm. "He saw you too, you know," Tye says, and God help me, I hear him. "I saw his eyes flare. You hated each other. And you saw each other. And then you fell onto your back, and saw everything around you, without discrimination. You were in pain, and you were angry, and you were on your own in a foreign city. You were in Breach, and when I came to tell you, you even saw me. Just before you blacked out."
Somewhere outside is Ul Qoma. Somewhere out there my supervisor is shaking her head, calling my mobile, doubling up the shift and scrounging for somebody to fill in.
"Is the driver here?" I ask.
"He was uninjured. He's elsewhere, also with Breach."
"What happens if I leave. If I run."
He backs off slowly, does something with his eyes instead of smiling. Something in his stance seems meant to broadcast that he's armed.
"You know what would happen. If you went out there right now, by yourself. You'd scare the pants off people. You'd scare the hell out of yourself. The city you lived in, that you grew up in, it doesn't exist anymore, not on its own. Not for you."
"…vigilance," I say. Like the end, or an admission.
"That's right. Just like they taught in grade school. You remember."
"Yes. You chose to be in Ul Qoma. The same choice, every day."
"Until today." I say, "And where do I go now?"
"Anywhere," says Tye. "Everywhere. But not home."