When Nell opened her eyes, she was lying on the seashore with the cold waves lapping her legs. The evening sky spread blue above her.
She sat up, shivering. Nearby floated a little star-shaped robot with a light in the center that reminded her of an eye. She froze, watching it warily, waiting for it to shoot lasers or something. But all it did was watch her.
"Hello?" she said.
The robot didn't move. Maybe it was some kind of hovering camera. Its edges were scuffed and rusted, and one of its segments was slightly bent. This robot had been through the wringer.
Nell climbed to her feet, shivering, water streaming from her thin jumpsuit. What had happened to her clothes? Surely she'd been wearing something else. A dress. Hadn't it been a dress? Then she'd fallen off the boat, and the sea had been so cold ...
"Did I drown?" she asked the robot.
It didn't answer.
She turned in a circle, scanning the beach. As far as she could see, it was deserted. Boulders littered the sand, and pines crowned a bluff behind them, somber and dark. "Is anybody there?" she called. "I found your robot."
Nell crossed the sand, picked her way through the boulders, and climbed a low spot in the bluff. Despite having drowned, her body felt strong and nimble. Even in her wet clothes, warmth burned inside her - not quite a fever.
The robot followed her.
The rapidly approaching night made it hard to see under the trees. Something scurried away as Nell stepped into the wood. "Hello?" she called again. "Anybody?" She looked at the robot. "You had to come from somewhere. And why are you following me? Shouldn't you be trying to take me back to your owner?"
In response, the robot's eye brightened like a flashlight. It shone a beam of light ahead of her, under the trees.
"That's more like it," said Nell. "I'm getting hungry and it's cold out here."
The robot guided her through the woods with its light. Nell hurried along, her damp clothes clinging to her and her wet shoes squishing with each step. She felt wide awake and alert. It may be growing dark, but she had been asleep a long time. Sleep wasn't necessary right now.
But she had the oddest feeling that she hadn't been asleep. "Was I dead?" she asked the robot again. "My brain feels so strange. I can kind of remember a few things ... like, I was wearing a dress. I think my name is Nell. Nell ... Anderson? But I can't remember anything else. Did you erase my memory?"
The robot's silence seemed sinister.
Nell tried to put these pieces together. "So, I have amnesia. I was injured or drowned or something, but now I'm alive somewhere in weird clothes. Am I some kind of escaped experiment?"
The robot mimicked the human motion of shaking its head, making the headlight sway from side to side.
"You understand me!" Nell said in surprise. "Or whoever is controlling you does. So. I'm not an escaped experiment?"
Another head shake. No.
"Was I dead?"
A nod this time. Yes.
"I was dead!" Nell exclaimed. "But how am I alive, now?"
The robot moved on, and she followed the light. "You're not going to answer me, are you? Or the people running you. I'll bet there's somebody in the back of a van with a headset and a remote, listening to every word I say."
The robot didn't reply.
Nell kept following it, despite her growing misgivings. Where was this thing leading her? Was she being kidnapped? Sure, it could claim she had been dead, but what kind of crazy story was that? The escaped experiment theory seemed the most likely. Well, as soon as they found a town, she was ditching this robot. Surely somebody could help her. Maybe the cops. Unless she was dangerous.
It might be cool to be dangerous. A dangerous escaped experiment. Maybe with superpowers.
After a few hours of walking in silence with only the chirping of crickets to keep her company, the robot guided Nell onto a road. It was an old, cracked road, with grass and small trees growing through the asphalt. But it cut through the woods in a straight line, promising easier travel than the woods.
The robot turned left and indicated the direction with its light.
"Nope," Nell said, and turned right.
The robot pursued, flew around her, and pointed its light the other way.
"Nope," Nell said again. "I'm just assuming that you're evil and guiding me to where people will take me apart. I'm out of here. Tell your evil boss." She broke into a run.
To her surprise, running was easy. Even a jog moved as fast as a sprint. The robot flew after her, its beam inadvertently lighting her way. It made an anxious beeping sound.
"Can't hear you!" Nell called.
She followed the road for about a mile, up and down several small hills. Her body thrilled at the exercise. She may not remember much, but running like this was definitely new. She'd totally been augmented.
To her disappointment, the robot kept up, flying behind her like a balloon tied by an invisible string. It wove from side to side, once in a while making a beeping sound. It didn't want her going this way. So Nell was going this way until she dropped of exhaustion. And as good as she felt right now, that might be days.
Lights up ahead. A campfire. Excellent! She'd found people. For some reason, they were camped right in the middle of the road. In the darkness, all she could make out was a crowd of figures crouched beside a fire. The aroma of cooking food touched her nose.
The robot flew in front of her, its headlight off. Its glowing blue eye looked imploring as it emphatically shook its head at her. Or body, or whatever.
Nell swatted it aside. "Go back to your boss, creepy. I'll see if these guys can give me a ride back to town." She walked down the hill and into the camp. The robot followed at a cautious distance.
The men around the fire were busy eating something and didn't notice her. She tapped one on the shoulder. "Excuse me ..."
The man turned, and he had four glowing eyes.
Nell gasped and backed away. The other men looked up, too. All of them had four eyes, like a spider's. They opened their mouths to expose sharp teeth, like a shark's. As they rose to their feet, their arms were too long, their limbs too thin, to be anything close to human.
"Um, sorry to disturb you," Nell said, forcing a smile. "I'll just be going, okay?"
"Guardian!" one of the creatures roared. It lunged forward and caught her arm. One of its other hands produced a long hunting knife.
Nell shrieked. She raised a hand to fend off the coming blow.
The lingering warmth inside her suddenly flared into a wave of white-hot heat across her skin. It flashed down her arm and formed into a gun made of fire in her hand. She shot the monster between his two middle eyes.
The monster's entire head vanished in a spurt of flames.
Nell ripped her arm out of the dead monster's grasp and ran for her life. Behind her, the monsters roared and hissed. A look over her shoulder told her they were mounting motorcycle-things parked beside the road.
She was fast, but she couldn't outrun a motorcycle.
She dashed into the woods, swung up into a tree, and climbed as high as she could. The dumb robot had vanished, thank goodness. Probably grabbed by those monsters.
Monsters! Why were monsters camped in the middle of the road? Had she awakened in some kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare? And what had that energy gun been?
This must be a world where everyone was either augmented or mutants. Or aliens. Those things could have been aliens. The robot had certainly tried to warn her away from them and she hadn't listened.
The motorcycles screamed down the road toward her. In a moment they passed and were gone, speeding away in a cloud of chemical exhaust that hurt her throat. Not gasoline engines, then.
But one motorcycle slowed and circled back, the alien driver studying the trees. A knife glinted in his fist on the handlebars.
Nell grinned fiercely. Here was a chance to score a bike for herself. She reached for that warmth inside her and held it ready, waiting.
The motorcycle chugged by slowly, then stopped and reversed under her tree. The alien's four eyes stared up at her. Its fanged mouth opened in a grin.
Nell conjured the fire gun and shot him in the chest.
The alien shrieked and fell off the motorcycle. The hole in its chest caught fire and burned across the whole body. The stench was hideous.
Nell leaped down from the tree, grabbed the knife from the dead alien, then climbed onto the bike. It didn't have wheels - it floated somehow, instead. All the controls were on the handlebars. She fiddled with them, made the bike shoot a blue bolt of fire that ignited nearby brush, then found the accelerator. Then she turned the bike away from the camp, back the direction the robot had wanted her to go, and squeezed the accelerator.
The bike shot up the road like a rocket. Fortunately it had lights on the nose, so she could actually see the curves in the road. The remains of the painted lines on the road helped, too.
Lights up ahead - the aliens were coming back. Nell crouched low behind the handlebars, aimed for a gap, and shot between the aliens. They yelled and spun their bikes to give chase.
Nell concentrated on steering the motorcycle. Without wheels for friction, it took turns badly, floating sideways. She had to release the gas while she turned, then fire the accelerator to move in a new direction.
Still, it wasn't too hard to learn, and the road had no traffic. Nell raced the aliens on one of their own bikes, and for a while, she held her lead.
Then the road made a sharp right turn that Nell didn't notice until it was too late.
She crashed the motorcycle straight into the woods, branches lashing her face. The bike smashed into a tree and exploded into flame. The frame buckled and pitched beneath her. Nell flew into the tree trunk, headfirst. Light exploded through her head.
Deep blackness enfolded her.