He opened his eyes and lay looking at the ceiling for a long time before thoughts began occurring to him.
The first, uninspiringly, was ceiling.
He didn’t know who he was, or where, but he knew it was wrong. So very, very wrong. It should not be. He should not be. He had no right. He pushed himself up on his elbows, then sat, then swivelled around and set his feet on the floor. It was cold, metal that would have been mirror-shiny but for the crazed tangle of scratches. He looked down between his feet at the shattered reflection of his face. He didn’t recognise it. He didn’t like it.
He was going to remember soon, and he didn’t want to.
He was barefoot. In fact, he was naked. He looked around the room. Between the white ceiling and scratched metal floor, there was the bed, and a table with a book on it, a door set into one wall and a wall-wide mirror set into another. He recognised all of these things without managing to identify himself. He rose to his feet, avoided his own gaze in the mirror, and walked to the table.
The book was large, as wide as both his hands side by side and as tall as both his hands end to end, and as thick as his first and second fingers. Its cover was red, textured like soft leather but not, his fingertips insisted, actually organic. It felt old.
On the cover, inlaid in gold about two-thirds of the way up, was the name Augustus Sloane.
That was his name, he realised. That was who he was. What he was.
Who he was, was written on the cover. What he was, that was inside the book. And that was as it should be.
After looking at the closed book for a time, he turned and crossed back to the mirror. He didn’t look at himself. There wasn’t much to see. It was just another cover. He looked past it, into the darkness behind the mirror.
He stood that way until a voice spoke from an invisible speaker system somewhere in the ceiling.
He remained silent.
“I’m pleased that you’re up and walking already. Your balance is good. You’ve studied your surroundings and you’re obviously aware that this is an observation mirror,” the voice stopped with a soft mechanical crackle, and again Augustus waited. “Why did you not open the book, Augustus?”
Augustus shrugged one shoulder. The movement was smooth, effortless. He felt strong. He also felt afraid. He shouldn’t be here. If she found him-
“Can you speak, Augustus?”
“Yes,” Augustus said.
“Excellent. And you understand English. This is outstanding. This brings the number of people who still speak English back up to … well, two, as far as I know,” the voice said happily. “Pre-Fall dead languages are so romantic, don’t you think?”
“I’ve always considered English to be the lowest common linguistic denominator,” Augustus said, “although admittedly I have never learned another language so maybe it’s not my place to say.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Augustus,” the voice said. “You’ve come out speaking Old Meg, Terellian, even Xidh once. We’ll probably never know why. And if you think English was the lowest common linguistic denominator, wait ’til you hear Mygoni,” the voice waited again. “Don’t you have any questions?”
“When will I be allowed to leave?” Augustus asked, since it seemed expected of him.
“You can walk through that door at any time,” the voice replied. “It is not locked.”
Augustus turned and walked over to the door. He turned the handle, opened it, and stepped through.
It was a room identical to the one he’d woken up in, except the naked man on the bed was not him. He was a large, muscular fellow with thick black hair and only one arm. The other ended just below the shoulder in a crisp white-bandaged stump. He was bound to the bed by padded canvas straps at neck, wrist, waist and ankles. He was, aside from the missing arm and another clean white bandage stuck to his lower belly between waist-strap and pubic hair, quite unblemished.
When he heard the door open he turned his beefy, strapped-tight neck as much as he could, eyes rolling. “Cayo?” the man said. “Kadano mori? Cayo? Cayo?”
Augustus walked past the bed, pausing at the table. Instead of a book, there was a sharp, thin-bladed knife lying there. Augustus looked up at the mirror that ran the length of the room. It was, he imagined, one long observation room on the other side.
“Hello?” he said.
“Cayo?” the one-armed man on the bed said hopefully, trying to look up at Augustus through the top of his own head.
“Cayo,” Augustus said absently, then ignored the man’s jabbering and crossed to the door. It was locked.
He looked at the straining man on the bed. The knife on the table. The bandage on the man’s stomach. The knife. The lock on the door. The bandage. The hint of blood in its centre. Clearly a fresher wound than the severed stump of his arm.
Augustus picked up the knife, crossed to the door and pushed the blade between door and frame. He slid it down, bumped it with the heel of his hand, and the door opened. He stepped through.
The next room…
Augustus looked at the thing on the bed as it strained and flexed and flailed. It was roughly humanoid, but elongated and grey-green, and with a roachlike rack of additional arms folding and unfolding down its sternum. Skeleton and wiry tendons stood out sharply, as if the thing had been flayed alive. It, too, was strapped at neck, waist and ankles, as well as elbow and wrist of its main human-situated arms. These, like the rest of its body, were distorted and over-length, thumb and forefinger massive and blunt while the rest of the fingers were curled little vestigial things. The wavering set of arms on its chest were twisted and foetal-translucent. Its wide, wet grey eyes squinted out at him from folds of skin disproportionately close to the top of its head, and in between them was a tiny button-nose with mismatched nostrils. The eyes fixed on Augustus’s face, and its lips peeled back … and back … and back.
The clammy skin of its upper and lower jaws wrinkled up and down, baring a tiny, clean and almost-human set of baby teeth and a rank, mottled expanse of gums that extended down to its chin and all the way up to the squashed collection of eyes and nose. The teeth clicked and the creature mewled and reached for him with enough strength to make the straps groan, but not quite give way.
He went to the table. There was a pen lying where the knife had been in the previous room.
Picking up the pen, he glanced at the next door. Then he turned and headed back the way he’d come. As he passed the monster on the bed he reversed the knife and, holding it by the blade, put the handle into one of the thing’s grasping chest-hands. He stepped back through the door, hearing the creature snuffling wetly and the sound of thick cloth parting as it sawed at its bonds. Leaving the door open, he crossed the next room.
“Kadano mori?” the one-armed man said in a small, fearful voice. Augustus leaned over him, gave him a sympathetic smile, and patted his unbandaged shoulder.
Then he crossed back to the room he’d woken up in, closed the door firmly, put the pen down next to the book, and sat on the bed.
The screaming in the next room went on for almost an hour. Augustus was impressed. After the first twelve minutes it faded, as though muffled by something – some blockage, Augustus imagined. With the screams stifled, the snuffling and chewing sounds came loud and rhythmic, methodical, for another twenty-three minutes, accompanied by a guttural wheezing, whooping noise – not screams, but almost like laughter, an ecstatic muffled howl completely devoid of sanity. The crunching and the slick tearing sounds came faster and faster, the blockage was withdrawn and the screams resumed, even more frantic and animal than before, for the final eighteen minutes. Then it ended, with a final splatter and a sound of high, unmistakable frustration from the creature.
For a short time, Augustus heard a low rattling growl and a damp slithering of hands on his door, but the handle didn’t turn and the door didn’t open. Then there was silence.
He stood, stretched, and crossed to the table. He opened the book. It was paper, oddly soft and yielding. Sheathed in something artificial, he thought, to preserve it. The first three-quarters of the book, two or three hundred softly crackling pages, were filled with writing. Margin-to-margin stream of consciousness, tidy little concise boxes of thoughts, extended poetic verse, even sketches and diagrams. Some of it was in languages he couldn’t read. All of it, he knew, was in his handwriting.
The last hundred pages or so were crisp, unmarked and new. He examined the pen for a moment – it was an odd design, but a pen was a pen was a pen – and then leaned in and set it to the paper.
A pen is a pen is a pen.
He smiled as his muscle memory adapted to the slightly unfamiliar weight and function of the pen.
Today I woke up in a very, very strange rehabilitation ward. I think I made excellent progress for my first day.
He paused for a moment, thinking. Then he put pen to paper once more.
I wonder if any of my predecessors did so well.