A thousand voices spoke at once. They whispered into her ear, hissing jargon that she couldn’t understand. Then came the breathless whirl of images, a terrifying visual assault that made her wheel across scenes as quickly as the pages of a book could be flipped. Abruptly, they froze and faded into nothingness, leaving a throbbing pain and a painfully racing heartbeat that took a while to subside.
Out of the chaos, a small, low-pitched voice insistently said her name.
Reflexively, her hands closed into tight fists as she fought the rising tide of nausea that has taken up residence in the pit of her stomach.
The voice has stopped. Frantically, she searched for her lifeline, swimming out of the darkness, kicking with a force that brought the pain back. Wincing, she opened her eyes, then shut them immediately against the brightness, catching the faint words issued from the mouth of a smiling man dressed in white, black and dark red.
“Do you hear me?”
It was a struggle to work a dry, parched throat. “Yes.”
A straw was placed at her lips and she sucked at it gratefully, feeling the cool rush of a sweet liquid down her throat.
“Now, can you see me?”
“Yes.” Her voice came out more clearly this time.
This was the part that she liked the most. They were familiar questions that she allowed herself to answer on autopilot, asked in a monotone that acted like a soothing balm to the blinding pain in her head a few seconds ago.
“Open your eyes.”
She obeyed wordlessly, lifting her lids fractionally against the piercing light, then slowly retracted them until everything swam into sight as a blurry mass of whites, blacks and reds.
“Tell me what you see in front of you.”
She exhaled sharply, waiting until her sharpening vision brought her surroundings into greater clarity. “I see you.”
“Good,” the voice replied affably. “Tell me what you see around you.”
“Lights. Quiet. Chair. Calm. Soothing-” With no trace of hesitation in her speech, she continued her fragmented litany, giving the man who faced her a monosyllabic description of what she felt in no particular order, repeating the words that she had repeated at least a hundred times.
He was putting her through her paces. It was routine conditioning, a framework of known variables arranged in a fashion that was easy enough to follow, a prescribed list of instructions that she instinctively gravitated towards. There was some comfort in its unchanging nature.
A short period of silence fell after she exhausted her long list of words.
“You are showing marked improvement,” he said and paused, peering straight into her eyes, the weight of his approval evident in his voice.
Inordinately pleased with her progress, she smiled tentatively in response. “It’s good to hear that.”
“Now tell me about your past.”
She took a deep breath and began. “I lost my parents a decade ago. They died in what the military called a tragic accident. I studied at the Institute of Science. I was a prodigy whom the Administration noticed.”
“Tell me more.”
She dug deep, obeying the soft command, forcing herself through the thick morass that was a wasteland of ruined memories, sifting through the haze and the ash in a fruitless search for a gem of clarity.
Yet none came.
As though from a distance, the machines whirred and clicked in time with her roiling thoughts and emotions, giving inadequate expression to the mental tangle in which she found herself. Reluctantly, she pulled herself back and opened her eyes, frustration turning her voice into a raspy whisper. “I don’t know anymore.”
Sucking in a quick breath, she dove in again…only to come up short with an insurmountable block that hadn’t been there before. Panic clawed at her arms, forcing its fingers into her heart, ready to rip it open. A scream rose and died in her throat, stopped only by the heavy weight of a hand over her bare arms.
It was her only lifeline in an anchorless sea of blank solitude.
“I’m sorry,” she cried out, blinking away the moisture that pooled hot and traitorous at the corner of her eyes. “Please. I can’t!”
His voice was a low monotone, containing no judgement. “It is alright.”
But it wasn’t, was it? More upset at herself than anything, she snapped her eyes open, needing seeing for herself that there was no trace of disappointment in the man’s face simply because she hadn’t been able to remember what had apparently been taught to her a few times before.
The man stood, apparently satisfied with her reply and twisted a few knobs on the topmost machines next to him, sending a low pulse that went straight under her skin, veining out from her chest, to her neck and finally to the back of her head, like the rapid downward flow of a river’s tributaries over a steep embankment. She tensed as her muscles contracted, awaiting the splitting headache that was to follow – as routine dictated. Her eyes fell closed involuntarily, shutting out the machines’ blinking lights as their hum intensified-
Instead, all that she saw was a slow montage of images that told a story of a city in pain. Crumbling ruins, washed out faces and screaming children – loss personified in senseless destruction. But pain was also personal….she saw her face in the faces of the children who mourned their dying parents, in those who died, in the populace who lost their trust in the government and its military. She saw herself working, churning out reports and calculations in the constant strive to prove her intellect as big as they had said it was, the endless nights of working for a purpose.
Instinctively, she reached out, as though the physicality of that action could capture the intangibility of a moment, then drew it back when the image flicked past her consciousness. Faster and faster, these fragments coalesced into a single image…of a blond woman with blue eyes, who stood tall and steady with her feet firmly planted on the ground.
The disquieting images in her mind faded to blackness.
She jerked hard in her seat, opening her eyes to take in the familiar room and the man who stood opposite her with his fingers poised over the machines’ dials. A quick glance down told her that she was restrained. As was the usual practice. The long time that she had spent in this chair has taught her well that struggling would get her nowhere and simply brought about more pain.
The visual invasion was exhausting. But they helped her to remember what she’d forgotten and perhaps, that was all that really mattered. Everything had transpired to bring her to this very point – a place that was infinitely better than where she’d been previously.
“Do you remember now?”
“Good. Now tell me your name.”
“I am Thera Arann.”