The first breath Catelyn took felt different – the first real breath; the first one on the outside.
The first breath Catelyn took felt different – the first real breath; the first one on the outside. It was laboured; harsh and heavy and bitter. By comparison, breathing inside was light and easy. She wished to return immediately.
As soon as she took that breath, before she had even opened her eyes, she knew something was wrong. She remembered – vaguely – that the car had hit her. She had stepped out into the road, looked left and realized her mistake too late. Sinking dread but not enough time to react. Then, nothing.
Waking was different too; unnatural as though she were stirring after being asleep for a hundred years. Her head was pounding; every muscle in her body ached, and unforgiving light shot through her bleary eyes like shards of glass falling through her retinas, forcing her to close them again immediately. Catelyn’s insides felt limp and depleted, like week-old party balloons, filled only with stale, useless air and devoid of all buoyancy.
She assumed she must be in hospital but she didn’t want to risk opening her eyes again to find out. Everything was wrong. The air smelt and tasted off – like milk that was just turning. Subtle, but distinctly repugnant. The lights that had hurt her eyes were fluorescent; like the lights you would perhaps expect to see in a hospital. The room was bright and clean but Catelyn still could not shake off that unsettling feeling of unfamiliarity. She tried to call out but her vocal chords stretched taut: guitar strings behind her throat and she could barely conjure more than a squeak.
Each breath was still a struggle, sustaining her but just barely or so it felt. There was no sign of life anywhere and somewhere amidst Catelyn’s aching body and stifled voice and oxygen-deprived lungs and burning retinas; she began to panic.
Cat, chill. Breathe this shitty air and just calm down.
She lay back and focused for a few moments on only her breathing. In. And out. In. And out. It was still heavy and unsatisfying but she began to feel better and soon the rhythm of it lulled her, pulling her inconspicuously out of the strange room and into her own subconscious.
Catelyn’s thoughts drifted from her breathing, to the room, to the light, to the crash. The crash. What had she been doing that day?
It was a normal morning, she thought, I had woken up a few minutes late. I rushed to get Max up and ready for school. Oh God – Max. If I’m here, where is he? How long have I been gone? Who is taking care of him?
The panic within her began to rise again.
Catelyn forced her rigid muscles to soften and bend; accepted the light burning her eyes when she opened them; forced a groan through the terse strings in her throat and jolted to action.
I must be in hospital. There must be someone close. They will know where Max is.
When her bare feet made contact with the ice-cold floor, Catelyn began to establish more of an awareness of her surroundings. The room was white, as you may expect a room in a hospital to look. Only it was too white somehow; sparse and –
- inhuman, Catelyn thought.
There were no windows; very little equipment besides a small trolley upon which some small, metal implements were arranged, none of which Catelyn even vaguely recognized. She looked down and noted that she was wearing a grey jumpsuit, on the breast of which was embroidered 348902897. Where she would have expected to feel the warmth and heaviness of her hair around her shoulders, there was nothing but cold, thin air. She raised her hands and felt that it had been chopped off almost to the roots.
What kind of hospital is this?
Passing through the gleaming metal door, the corridor was equally white, and equally barren. She continued to fight for each breath as she walked.
What happened to me?
She poked her head into several of the metal doors, all of which were identical to the one she had opened from her own room, as she walked – aching and gasping along the corridor.
Some of them contained patients – all of whom without fail looked sedated. Each one lay perfectly still in their uniform beds; the odd one twitching occasionally but otherwise oblivious to the world around them. Most of the rooms though, were empty: clean blank spaces waiting for confused, sore bodies to occupy their spaces.
‘Hel – hello?’ Catelyn called out feebly, as her strange plight continued on, and on. Asleep. Empty. Empty. Asleep. It was a long corridor. Where were the nurses? The doctors? It was a long corridor. Catelyn could barely see the end of it. Just doors, and doors, and doors.
She didn’t realize, but as she walked, moved, checked - Catelyn’s sentient thoughts; her motivation; her memories, started slowly to slip away from her. One-by-one, lost without witness, tumbling out of her mind. After some time she had barely any comprehension at all of who she was, or what she was looking for.
Finally, she reached the end of the corridor. The final door. She opened it, not really understanding why. She continued to rasp with each breath though this didn’t bother her so much because she had started to forget what breathing had been for her.
This room looked different, entirely different. In contrast to the stark white of the others, this one was dark and its walls filled with screens and backlit switches and buttons. She stepped through the door and it closed behind her. As soon as she entered, a neat, female, monotone voice announced, ‘348902897, you have encountered premature, accidental death. To return the section of the simulation you just left behind, you must reset your password’.
‘Wha-?’ In her current capacity she could barely understand the words. In a desperate plea, she tried to reason, to beg.
‘I need to - ,’ She faltered. ‘I need to – ‘.
But it was too late. She could not remember what she needed to do.
‘If you do not speak your current password within the next sixty seconds, you will be redirected to a new section of the simulation.’
A countdown timer appeared on one of the screens mounted on the wall to her left.
59, 58, 57
My current password, my current password.
But it was useless. She had no idea what it meant.
41, 40, 39
‘Password. Password.’ She said out loud, desperately. ‘Password’. Her mind searched; reached as far as it could stretch.
The flash of a face came into her mind for a second – a fleeting flash; a brief, innocent smile.
24, 23, 22
‘Mmmmmmm – ‘ the sound came naturally – ‘mmmmmmmmm – ‘
She tried again.
‘Mmmmmmmmm – mm – mm – ‘ but the sound would not progress and she did not understand the sound she was trying to make.
17, 16, 15
What was left of her stared in frantic confusion at the timer.
9, 8, 7
She did not know what numbers were anymore, they were just strange shapes as she watched them
4, 3, 2 –
and it was finished.
‘You will be assigned a new place in the simulation, 348902897.’ The monotone voice rang out. ‘Stay calm, while we transport you to the loading bay.’
The words had ceased to make sense to her. She stood and listened in a state of disassociated confusion while something – she couldn’t identify what – escorted her out of the room and back into the corridor. She followed without question, lacking the capacity entirely to respond otherwise.
At length, they arrived at the loading bay.
‘We have a female who has just gone into labour in Saynshand, Mongolia.’ Proclaimed another monotone voice.
Wordlessly, she was taken to a chair and pushed gently into position. She stared blankly at her captors.
‘Initiating insertion. Five. Four. Three. Two –‘
Inside the ger, a woman cried out as the baby descended; then finally emerged, and cried out itself, taking in it’s first deep, clean, satisfying breath.
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