“What were you thinking?”
The voice sounds angry. He sits and stares at the floor, listening. Angry, definitely. But far away, as well. Two rooms away. That’s safe enough. Two rooms.
“I could hardly leave him there. He’s a kid.”
The other voice – the voice of the one who ordered him to follow – is less angry. Is calm, for the most part. But there’s still a little anger there, bubbling under, and he knows well enough never to assume that something that’s bubbling under won’t eventually bubble over. Still: two rooms away. Safe enough.
“He’s not a child! You don’t know what’s been done to him.”
The one in the room with him is definitely dangerous. Very tall, very broad. But he doesn’t seem to be angry. He just stands in front of the door, silent. He’s watching, but he doesn’t come any closer. If he’d done something wrong, surely the one in the room with him would have corrected him by now? So perhaps it’s not him the voices are angry about.
“I don't want to speak out of turn, your majesty, but you haven’t seen the kid. If you had, perhaps you’d understand a little better.”
“I have no wish to see him.”
There’s a silence, then. He sits as still as he can, slowing his breath so that he can hear as much as possible. Two rooms away is far enough that the voices are on the edge of his hearing, and if they start to speak more quietly, he won’t be able to hear them at all. He feels a sense of dizzying insecurity at the thought.
“Your majesty. It may not be your wish, but I truly think you should.”
Good. It was only that they weren’t speaking. He doesn’t understand their conversation, not at any level deeper than the words, but still. He is here, in this place that he doesn’t recognise. Any world beyond the hard surface of the bench beneath him and the sound of the voices feels blurred and unreal. If he loses the voices, too – he doesn’t know what he’ll do.
And then: footsteps. The voices are coming. And suddenly he doesn’t want to hear them any more. Two rooms away is safe, but now they’re coming closer, and one, at least, is angry. That is not good – not good, not good. He curls his fingers around the bench, feeling somehow that if he can just keep hold of it, this one thing. This one solid thing. Just keep hold.
The door opens, and the silent one steps away. Two new ones enter the room. One is the one who ordered him to follow. The other is older. He has a beard and carries a club. A stick. Or a club. He isn’t sure. This is the angry one, so – so it’s a club.
“Kid,” the one who ordered him to follow says. This one keeps calling him that: kid. He isn’t sure why, but he raises his head. Should he stand? He doesn’t want to stand. If he stands, he will have to let go of the bench.
The new one stands, staring down at him. He lowers his eyes. He looks at the club, the ornate head of it clasped in the new one’s fist. He watches, waiting to see what the new one will do.
“Boy,” the new one says. “Look at me.”
He raises his head again. He doesn’t want to look – it’s never good to look. But it’s never good to disobey, either. So he looks.
The new one looks back at him. He doesn’t look angry. But he sounded angry, before. Now he just looks – stern. Frowning. He reaches out with the hand that isn’t holding the club, but then stops.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
He blinks. Everything in his mind is fog. The only thing that feels real is the bench under his fingers.
“Zero five nine–” he starts, but then – but then the numbers fade into the swirling fog. He frowns, shakes his head. “Zero five–” he says. “Zero five nine – n- nine–”
The numbers won’t come. They aren’t there. Nothing’s there in his mind but darkness. The only thing that’s real is the bench. The bench. He just needs to keep holding onto the bench.
He swallows. The new one looks upset, now. The new one’s upset because he can’t remember his designation. The new one will be even more upset when he realises how much more is gone from his mind than that.
Where has it gone? He doesn’t know. He lowers his eyes again, stares as the new one’s fingers tighten around the club. He scrabbles, desperately, for the next number. Zero five nine– Zero five nine–
“Five!” he says, loud enough to startle himself. “Zero five nine five – uh – uh –” There’s more numbers than that, a lot more. But they won’t come. And the new one is waiting, waiting for him to obey.
He squeezes the bench as hard as he can. “I can’t remember,” he whispers. “I can’t – I’m sorry–”
There’s silence, then. He waits. He keeps his head down, watching the new one’s fingers flexing around the club. But it’s the other one that speaks. The one who ordered him to follow.
“You’re right, your majesty,” he says. “We don’t know what’s been done to him.”
Another silence. Then the new one sighs.
“I cannot have him here. My son is here.”
“I understand.” Neither of them sound angry any more. The new one’s hand is still clenched tight around the club, though. “I’ll take responsbility for him. Whatever it was they were doing, they never finished it. He’s no danger to me.”
A pause. Then the new one speaks. “Very well. I’ll expect a report in the morning.”
“Of course, your majesty.”
The new one turns, then, and the one who has been in the room with him the whole time follows him out. Now it’s just him and the one who ordered him to follow. The one who ordered him to follow finds a chair and sits down in front of him. He has no weapon – no obvious weapon. He doesn’t seem angry.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t want to tell this one about the swirling darkness in his mind, the grinding misery in his guts, the dizzying feeling that if he lets go of the bench, there’ll be nothing left to tether him to this world.
The one who ordered him to follow nods.
“You got hit pretty hard,” he says. “Sorry about that. We didn’t know – we thought you were –” he pauses. “We’ll find you some new clothes. Maybe a shower. You can stay with me for now.”
He nods. “Yes,” he says. “I understand.” He doesn’t, not really, but he hopes this one won’t realise.
The one who ordered him to follow stares at him for a moment. He keeps his eyes down.
“You’ll need a name,” the one who ordered him to follow says at last. “You don’t have a name at all? Nothing from before they did–” He gestures. “–this to you?”
He doesn’t know what he means by they, or what they are supposed to have done to him. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It starts with – zero five nine five. I know that’s not enough to look it up, I – I don’t know why I can’t remember.” His stomach thrills with fear, and he tries again to find the rest of the numbers, but with no more success than last time.
“It doesn’t matter,” the one who ordered him to follow says. “Hey – hey, listen. Don’t be frightened. It doesn’t matter. We’ll think of something to call you – in the morning.”
He stares, hardly daring to feel the sick relief as it filters through his guts. “It doesn’t matter?” he says.
“No,” the one who ordered him to follow says. “It really doesn’t. You don’t need that number any more. We’ll find something to call you.”
“A new designation?” he asks. He’s never heard of anyone getting a new designation.
“A name,” the one who ordered him to follow says, with heavy emphasis. “We’ll find you a name.” He pauses. “Mine’s Cor, by the way.”
The relief floods through him then, and he lets it. It really doesn’t matter. He doesn’t understand why it doesn’t matter, but that’s not important now. What’s important is making sure this one understands how obedient he is. How grateful.
“Cor,” he says carefully. “I should call you that?”
“You should call me that,” the one who ordered him to follow says. “And you should come with me. Do you need help?”
He’s so grateful that he stumbles to his feet without thinking, lets go of the bench without thinking – and then he’s lost, floating in empty space.
“Hey,” he hears the voice say, somewhere in the space that surrounds him. “Are you all right? Here, let me–”
He feels a hand on his arm, and it’s almost, almost enough.
But it’s not enough, and then he sinks into the darkness.
When he wakes up, he’s more comfortable than he’s ever been in his life. He’s so – warm, and the surface that he’s lying on is so soft. So soft. He didn’t know things could be so – soft.
He keeps his eyes closed. He’s astonished, genuinely shocked by this new thing, this warmth and softness. It’s – it’s indescribable, it’s so – so good, but even the fact of it makes him nervous. He’s lying on his side, and there’s a warm cover over him. His head is on a pillow, and the pillow is so soft. But he can’t remember how he came to be there, and he definitely can’t understand why he would be in such a place, in such a position. And that doesn’t feel safe, not at all. So he keep his eyes closed and listens.
Silence. He’s somewhere inside, and outside there are people walking and talking, and vehicles a little farther away. He can hear what some of the people are saying, if he sharpens his hearing the way he’s been taught. Snatches of conversation: –hope it’ll stay nice for Mom’s birthday– –do you think he remembered to– –naw, bro, they’ll definitely win this year–. None of it makes much sense, but none of it sounds threatening, either, and the people out there aren’t moving any closer. In here, in the room he’s in, there’s a quiet hum, but otherwise nothing at all. Nobody moving, nobody breathing.
Cautiously, he opens one eye.
It’s bright, outside his eyelids. It’s bright in a strange way that he’s only seen a few times before. He looks up at the ceiling, but there’s no fluorescents there, and the lights that are there are switched off. He turns his head, and sees the room is small, with nothing other than a table with two chairs, a shelf with books, and the bed he’s lying on. There’s an image on the wall, and he stares at it, hoping for some kind of instruction, information. But it’s just a picture, a wash of blues and yellows and greens. He’s not sure what it’s supposed to be, but if it contains instructions, he can’t decipher them.
He turns his head towards the source of the light and sees it’s a window. On the other side is – outside. He knows about outside, but he’s barely ever seen it. No-one gets trained outside until they’re much farther on in the programme than he is. But there it is. There’s a swatch of grey sky and the edges of some buildings. That’s where the voices are coming from – they’re all outside. There are people out there, somewhere, talking. Walking. There are people outside, under that grey sky.
He feels a sudden swelling feeling in his stomach, bubbly and unfamiliar. Laced around it is the much more customary feeling of fear. Why is he here? How did he get here? He is not supposed to be here. Here, in this bed, this warm, this astonishingly comfortable bed. Here, next to a window, where if he wanted he could just get up and go and look, and he would see outside. This is all a mistake, and when the mistake is discovered, he will be corrected, and it will be the worst correction he’s ever suffered.
So he’s afraid. But he’s not only afraid. The bubbly feeling is something else. And even though he’s afraid, he wants to get up and look out of the window. He wants to see the people whose voices he can hear. He lies still, listening. He sharpens his hearing as far as it will go. He knows that outside the window is outside, but what’s outside the door.
He listens. Listens.
There’s nothing. There’s no sound outside the door. But he’s high up – he realises that now – and below him is another room. And in that room is a person. He can hear them shifting in their seat, and sighing sometimes. There’s something bubbling down there, and the occasional tapping of keys. Nothing else.
Right. Right. He’s in a building, and someone’s in the building with him, but they’re below. They’re not paying attention to him. If they want to come up here, how will they do it? He looks around the room again, but he doesn’t see any way in other than the door and the windows. And if the one down below wants to come up, he’ll have to use the elevator, or stairs. That will make a noise. So if he listens, he’ll be safe.
He lies still a moment longer, wriggling his toes and fingers in the warmth of the bed. He’s so comfortable that he almost doesn’t want to get up to go and look out of the window.
But he really wants to look out of the window.
He closes his eyes, draws a breath, and gets up. The loss of warmth from the bed is immediate, and he sits on the edge of it and shivers. His stomach rolls, and his head spins, and he clutches at the edge of the mattress and hopes he won’t faint. If he faints, the one downstairs will definitely hear the thud. So he can’t faint.
So he doesn’t faint.
After a few seconds – long, long seconds – his head and stomach seem to come right. He still feels like he’s half-floating, but he doesn’t think he’s going to faint or be sick. He flexes his hands on the mattress, then grips the head of the bed and stands up.
The world fades in and out and there’s a buzzing in his ears. He can feel the edge of the bed, though, under his hand. He can feel that. That means it’s real. So he concentrates on that and waits. And eventually, the world resolves itself again. Here he is, standing by the bed. Now he can see more of the buildings through the window. More of the sky. It’s only three steps away. He’s just got to be quiet, so the one downstairs doesn’t realise he’s got out of bed.
He takes a deep breath and lets go of the bed. He walks towards the window, feet as light as he can make them. He’s not wearing his boots, and that helps, though he feels a thrill of fear as he realises he doesn’t remember taking them off and he doesn’t know where they are. But that’s forgotten when he reaches the window and looks out. For a moment, everything is forgotten.
He sees: sky. So much sky, slate-grey and wide and arching and bright, lit with a light whose source seems to be everywhere and nowhere. And buildings – tall, thin, jutting up into the sky like stone fingers. Some of them have lights on in windows, but most don’t. There are hundreds of them, some close by and some further away. And in the distance, in the gap between two buildings, he sees a tower with two parts, like two fingers close together, so much taller than everything around it that even though it’s far away he feels suddenly very small. He’s never – he doesn’t remember ever seeing so much, before. He stares at it for a long time, trying to force it into his memory. Everything else might be murky and foggy in his mind, but this – he wants to remember this.
After a while, he looks down. And there, he sees: a drop of several storeys to the ground below, and there, vehicles and people. Mostly people. The vehicles seem to be forced to drive slowly, making their way through the mass of people. They have different-coloured hair, wear different clothes, and they move, all of them move in different directions. He’s never seen so many people in one place before, and he feel almost mesmerised by the sight. What are they doing? Where are they going?
He sharpens his hearing, and begins to pick apart the skein of sound that drifts up from below. Voices, voices. Some high, some low. Angry, happy, sad. –do we need any more– –I heard that– –no, that place costs a fortune– He can’t make sense of them, so he tries to follow just one thread. But it’s difficult, there’s so many, and people keep moving into and out of the range of his hearing. He’s concentrating so hard that he loses sight of where he is, what he’s doing, and that’s stupid. That’s exactly the same kind of stupid he always is. But he doesn’t realise how stupid he’s being until the door to the room opens and he realises he was concentrating so hard on the people outside that he forgot to keep listening to the one inside.
The door opens, and it feels like an electric shock to his whole body. He spins, and that’s enough to send his head spinning again, and he staggers against the wall even as he’s trying to run back to the bed. So by the time the one from downstairs comes in, he’s pressed into a corner, between the window and the wall, trying frantically to think of a reason for why he’s next to the window while his traitorous mind just swirls with blinding darkness.
The one from downstairs is the one from yesterday, who ordered him to follow. He looks at the bed, and then looks at him, in the corner, sinking even though he keeps telling his legs to hold him up. The one from downstairs frowns at him, and he opens his mouth to try to defend himself even though he still hasn’t come up with an excuse.
“I–” he starts, but then his throat seals up with fear.
The one from downstairs kneels down in front of him.
“Hey,” he says. “Are you all right? What happened?”
He shakes his head. His voice won’t work. His throat won’t work. He can’t – he can’t breathe–
“Hey.” The one from downstairs leans forward and grabs his shoulders. He doesn’t squeeze, doesn’t hurt. But he shakes him. Not so hard his head hits the wall. Is he being corrected? It doesn’t feel like he’s being corrected. “Hey,” the one from downstairs says. “Snap out of it. You’re fine. All right? What are you so scared of? Calm down.”
He blinks. The one from downstairs doesn’t sound angry. He’s frowning, but he’s calm. There isn’t even that undertone of anger that he heard yesterday. And he wants to obey, so badly. There’s bright, coloured blotches impeding half his vision, drifting and floating across his field of view. But he looks past them and sees that calm, frowning face.
“Calm down,” the one from downstairs says again, and somehow, he does. His arms are tingling, and he’s sitting on the floor, now, though he doesn’t quite remember how he got there. But his throat opens and he starts breathing again. It’s hard, at first – he tries to breathe too much and it’s painful in his throat and his chest. But the one from downstairs squeezes his shoulders – not hard, not so it hurts, just a little.
“Slow, now,” he says. “There’s no hurry.”
So he sits on the floor and he breathes. And eventually, it feels normal. Not normal – nothing that’s happened to him this morning has been normal. But at least not like he’s about to pass out. He doesn’t know what’ll happen if he passes out.
Finally, the one from downstairs sits back. “All right?” he says.
He nods. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know I shouldn’t have looked.”
The one from downstairs frowns. “Looked at what?”
He gestures towards the window. “Outside,” he says. He tries to think of an excuse, but there’s nothing but swirling fog. He hasn’t even been corrected for forgetting his designation yet. Are they saving it so that they can do it all at once?
The one from downstairs frowns deeper, then raises his eyebrows as if he’s suddenly understood something. He looks angry, then, and that makes his stomach roll.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, quickly. “It won’t happen again. I was – I didn’t –” But still, the excuse won’t come, and he runs out of words.
“No,” the one from downstairs says, and now he does have that sharp tone in his voice. He falls silent, waiting for the correction, but it doesn’t come. Instead, the one from downstairs sits quietly for a moment, staring at him with a look that he can’t interpret. Then he sighs.
“No,” he says. “You did nothing wrong. You’re welcome to look out of any and all windows, any time you want. Understood?”
He blinks. He wonders if he heard right. No-one is allowed to go outside, not until they’ve reached the correct phase of their training. No-one is allowed to look outside. But here – there’s a window. Right here. And this one says he’s allowed to look out of it, even though it's still a long, long time before he reaches the right level.
“I’m not–” he says, and then chokes on the words. He could just lie. He wouldn’t even need to lie, he could just not say anything and follow orders. But then – but then eventually this one would find out, and that – and then he would be corrected. He doesn’t want to be corrected. It would be a big correction. So he swallows and clears his throat.
“I’m not level five,” he whispers. He’d thought it was obvious. He doesn’t look anything like level five. But maybe this one isn’t used to looking for the signs.
The one from downstairs frowns. “What does that mean?” he asks.
“I’m not – I’m not level five,” he says again. He doesn’t know how else to say it. He didn’t expect the one from downstairs not to understand. “I’m level two. Level twos aren’t permitted to – go outside.” He doesn’t say to look out of the window, because he doesn’t know about windows. He’s never heard anything about looking out of windows, but he’s so rarely seen a window to look out of, it hasn’t been relevant.
The one from downstairs is still staring at him. He doesn’t look angry, and even though he knows it means he won’t be allowed to look out of the window any more, he’s glad he told the truth now, rather than waiting for it to be found out. He sits and waits to see what will happen next. But nothing does happen. The one from downstairs just stares. Then, finally, he speaks.
“Do you understand where you are?” he asks.
He looks around. He doesn’t know what this building is like, apart from this room. It’s not like any room he’s been in before. “A new training facility?” he says, even though it doesn’t look anything like a training facility.
The one from downstairs slowly shakes his head. “No more training facilities,” he says. “You’ve been rescued. You’re free now.”
He doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t want to say he doesn’t understand. He wants the one from downstairs to think he’s smart, obedient, useful. So he nods. “Yes,” he says.
The one from downstairs frowns again, and he thinks maybe it wasn’t the right answer. But the one from downstairs doesn’t say anything else. He just gets to his feet.
“You should eat something,” he says. “Come with me.”