As Rishi plummeted to her death, a wordless shriek filled her mind. A tiny rational voice pushed the panic to the side a little, and whispered that perhaps she should have double checked her equipment.
The soot covered walls of the high rise blurred to grey streaks while the speed of her descent stole the scream from her throat. Fingers, once nimble and quick, splayed in rigid claws as they tried to snatch at handholds that couldn’t save her.
Her safety rope, which she would have considered ironic had she any space for any such thoughts, unravelled alongside her. The end she had relied on to prevent such an event whipped around her head, frayed.
In the seconds before she hit the ground, she had no space in her panicked brain for any coherent thoughts. Instead, there was a static image of her daughter, laughing into a mug of ale. Rishi had no capacity for reflection, but, if she could’ve, she would’ve been glad that Kayla’s smile was the last thing she would ever see.
Ready to begin initialisation of Subject 47. Rebuild is complete. Protocols 23a and 28d completed. Ready to commence Subject Restoration.
Rishi’s awareness built in waves. A calm, undulating sensation where her consciousness was a piece of flotsam floating closer and closer to the shore.
When she was delivered onto the golden sands of self-hood, the first thing she understood was that her heart was beating. The heavy thuds beat a staccato rhythm on her rib cage, and she marvelled for a moment at the simple act of a muscle convulsing. The second thing she understood was a sense of enclosure. Her limbs didn’t respond to the cues she was sending, and there was a general feel of enforced stillness.
Adrenaline levels spiking. Subject is awake.
Rishi opened her eyes. The sky was blue and free from clouds. Rishi frowned and felt her heart rate pick up. She had, of course, heard about blue skies. They were in all of her childhood stories: tales of groups of children exploring pirate coves and fairy forests under the watchful eye of the benevolent sun, which was hanging in the endless blue sky. Rishi’s skies had been grey as far back as she could remember. The most she could hope for was a change in the shade.
She tried to turn her head. That wasn't responding to commands either. It seemed she was in control of her eyes alone.
A figure moved into view; Rishi narrowed her eyes at the familiar face. Everyone in District 3 knew him: Dr. Joshua Malone. The government’s number one scientist and all round hero-in-the-making. He was in charge of the division for Climate Change Reversal and, according to all the people in charge, doing a great job and making amazing technological advances.
Rishi had died on the way back from breaking into his lab.
“Welcome back, Ms. Shain.” His perfectly white teeth gleamed in the light, and Rishi wished that her mouth was working so she could spit on him.
“It’s been quite an eventful time for you,” he continued, the smile edging into a grimace of disdain. At least she knew the dislike was mutual. “There is a lot to catch you up on.”
He moved out of sight and left Rishi to stare at the too-blue sky for a minute or two. Given time to examine it, she could make out brush strokes and uneven coatings of paint. A blue ceiling then, rather than the sky. She felt a little more comfortable knowing that she hadn’t been asleep long enough for them to fix the layer of smog blanketing the globe.
“Ms. Shain.” Dr. Joshua moved back into sight and reached over to tap the side of her chin, neck and top of forehead clinically. Rishi felt his touch, but it felt wrong. Slightly more distant than a fingertip on her face would usually feel. “I will be blunt, because I feel we know each other well enough for me to be so.” Rishi assumed that he was putting more meaning into the screamed abuse she had flung at him during the protests outside parliament. Perhaps he felt they’d developed a bond in the seconds that he’d happened upon her stealing files from his computer and she’d knocked him out. She noticed, with no small amount of satisfaction, that he still bore the scar on his temple.
“You have been dead for three weeks and two days,” he said, a slight smile twitching at the corner of his mouth when her eyes widened in alarm. The memory of her final descent - and the millisecond flash of pain she’d felt before there was nothing - consumed her. The same image of Kayla. A spike of panic. Where was Kayla? Was she safe?
“Ms. Shain.” The voice brought her back to the present and released the terror a little. Kayla. He didn’t sound particularly friendly or comforting. In fact, if she had to guess, she would say he was enjoying her fear. Perhaps the head injury was not forgiven. “The sedatives we have given you are wearing off. In a few minutes, you will start to regain control of the rest of your . . . body.”
Another rush of panic. What did that pause mean?
A pause and a calculated look in his eyes. “I’m sure you must be wondering why we have gone to so much effort and expense,” he said and Rishi blinked. She’d been so caught up that the thought genuinely hadn’t occurred to her.
It was a good question though. She knew her name was on a watchlist, and her final few hours before the fall would have cemented her as one of the top names on it. Environmental terrorist, she thought - the first fully coherent thought she’d had. As if we were the ones terrorising it.
“Only a few people are considered fit for rebuild,” Dr. Joshua continued. “Top level government operatives, valued family members of high-ranking officials and,” he looked vaguely disgusted, “you.” He leaned in slightly and Rishi felt a muscle in her cheek twitch. She experimented with the new sensation and found that she was now able to move her facial muscles enough to change expression. She focused as hard as she could and rearranged her face so that she looked as derisive as possible. Not an inch of gratitude for you, she thought fiercely.
“Trust me,” he said, noticing the change. “You wouldn’t have been my first choice either. This order came from the top. They seem to think you would be a valuable asset and so I have done my utmost to make you so.” He smiled cruelly and reached behind him. “Perhaps now is a good time to show you my handiwork.”
He raised a small hand mirror and directed it so she could see herself.
Subject 47 in distress. Heart rate and adrenal function increased to dangerous levels. Subject 47 in distress. Requires assistance. Subject —
Dr. Joshua hit a button behind him and the automated voice cut off abruptly. He smiled, shark-like, at her but she barely noticed.
Before, she had had auburn hair streaked with grey that curled around her ears. Hazel eyes surrounded by lines which spoke of a difficult life. Underneath the near permanent layer of soot that plagued the Lower Levellers, she’d had pale skin that, had she ever been given access to sunlight, would have been smattered with freckles. Before, she’d been passably attractive in a weathered kind of way.
Now. Now her auburn hair was dark, replaced with a neatly styled bobbed wig. Her skin was clean enough for her to see the faded scar on her eyebrow from a collision with her brother as a toddler but parts of her face were a polished white. The bioskin usually found solely on the droids used as personal assistants to the rich and influential blended seamlessly with the skin that she’d lived in all her life. The doctor moved the mirror back so she could see her neck and shoulders, too, and the patchwork of bioskin and organic continued as far as she could see. The only things which appeared untouched were her eyes.
“Not my neatest work,” Dr. Joshua allowed, “but my motivation wasn’t great, if I’m being perfectly honest with you.” He touched the scar at his temple. “I can only offer you my sincerest apologies.” The sarcasm barely registered.
Rishi felt tears spilling from the corners of her eyes. She was just somebody's creation: a modern-day Frankenstein's monster.
Why? She felt her mouth moving to frame the word, though her voice box still wasn’t working properly.
“An excellent question that can be easily answered with another question.” Dr. Joshua put down the mirror and looked directly at her. “Where is the hard drive?”
Rishi closed her eyes and concentrated on clearing her expression. Of course. No wonder he was being so abrasive. The data on that hard drive would destroy his life as a best case scenario. All of the atrocities on it had his name front and centre.
She opened her eyes but kept her face carefully blank.
“Oh good,” his voice clearly transmitted his delight. “I was hoping you would be difficult about it.”
It must be hard for him, she thought, to balance his need for speedy results with his need for vengeance. She had little sympathy for his plight.
“It gives me the opportunity to explain your situation in a little more depth.” He pressed something at the side of her bed, and she felt the surface tilting, lifting her into a more vertical position. There was a large window directly in front of her, and she stared into the reflection, hungry to see the changes in herself. Some of her was obscured by wide straps that kept her in place and hid her modesty. Not that it makes much difference, she thought. She’d never felt so exposed or violated. From what she could see, parts of her were entirely organic: left shoulder, left arm, stomach. Much of her right side had been rebuilt. Must’ve landed on that side.
Movement beyond the glass startled her and she focused on what was behind instead of her reflection. There was a viewing room, filled with plush seating and expensive artwork. Seven or eight people milled around, most looking at her with interest and all being waited on by droids. She recognised some of the human faces - the Prime Minister was there, hands on the burgundy arms of the throne-like chair he occupied. The Deputy Prime Minister stood at his shoulder and the Minister for the Environment sat nearby.
Lying murderers, she thought angrily. Complicit in the climate conspiracy. She thought of the data, sitting behind a brick on the roof of the Grace. Hiding in plain sight until one of the other cell members could retrieve it safely - there had been too high a risk she would’ve been caught on the escape. They had plans to collect two months after Rishi’s break in, knowing that security would’ve been heightened following it.
She’d found a treasure trove, too. Thousands of pages proving their guilt. Proving that the smog covering the world was an agreed measure by the leaders of the free world. A way to control the populace. A way to bring in ‘protection’ laws that were anything but. Just another way for the powerful to consolidate power. A suffocating boot on the necks of the poor. Unavoidable climate disaster, my ass.
“These fine gentlemen have come to view my work in practice,” he said. “They have been most anxious for you to finally be able to tell them where you hid the data you stole from us before doing a swan dive from the Grace. A clever way to protect the others in your little terrorist cell, by the way. Although the whole ‘dead don’t talk’ cliche is rather redundant with our current technology.”
Rishi kept her face still, despite the surprise coursing through her. He thought she’d fallen on purpose. If we’d had half the resources and cunning you thought we did, maybe we would’ve been able to source better quality ropes. The descent from the Grace - originally called the Royal London Hospital until the nickname stuck - was intended to be a smooth abseil, not a freefall plummet. I wonder if we’re there now. It would make sense - Dr. Joshua had commandeered the top two floors for his ‘research station’.
“They assured me your gratitude for the return to life would be enough to secure the knowledge,” he continued. He pulled a keyboard forward and tapped away for a second.
Rishi’s mouth opened without her permission. “I will not tell you a thing,” she said, the words stilted and forced. Dr. Joshua’s eyes sparkled, though he adopted a stern expression.
“Ms. Shain,” he admonished, “be reasonable. We have given you a gift. It is traditional for you to give one in return.” He returned to the keyboard.
Once more, Rishi’s mouth opened and formed words that she had not given it. She listened in horror to her voice. “Death to the government. Death to the pollutors.”
A frisson of horror made Rishi shudder. If he could control her with such fine precision, what else could he make her do? Images of her protecting those she’d sworn to dethrone; being used to subdue riots sparked by the government’s incompetence and discrimination and, worst of all, forced assassinations of those she respected or loved. These all flitted through her mind in the space of a breath. I won’t do it. The defiant thought bolstered her even as the inevitability of it all sank into her bones.
Behind the glass, the politicians stirred: a beehive jostled with a stick.
Dr. Joshua continued, a sadistic gleam in his eye. “You will, of course, be interested to know that your miraculous return to life and even your exact location was broadcast this morning. We are currently using an array of methods to intercept anyone attempting to rescue you.” He smiled as Rishi’s heart sank. “We have managed to capture no less than five members of your team so far and are anticipating more as time goes on. Alas, I have been instructed to offer you a trade. The data in exchange for the release of your friends and a week’s grace period before we resume hunting them.”
Rishi was silent. There’s no way I can believe him. But what if he has Kayla? Her beautiful, militant daughter was so new to the cell, and she had already proven herself to have the recklessness of youth. Kayla been gifted with a knack for demolitions and had used it already to disobey two direct orders in her quest for justice. I should never have told her about any of this.
This time she was in control of her own words. “The people are going to tear you limb from limb when they find out what you’ve done. Our lives in exchange for the truth is a bargain we’ve already struck.”
Dr. Joshua tutted loudly and opened his mouth to reply. It snapped shut at a shout from the room beyond. The cry was followed by what sounded like yelps of pain and Rishi craned her head to see what was causing the commotion.
“AI: put Subject 47 under, continuous sedation until further notice,” he barked, moving away out of her eyeline. There was a beeping next to her and she felt the cold seeping through her veins as the screaming started.
The world began to fade. In the seconds before her world went dark, Rishi could’ve sworn she heard an explosion.
Kayla playing in a garden. Wooden toys, made from actual trees. Blue sky. Grey clouds rolling in. “Come inside, honey!” Rishi’s voice ringing clearly through the air. A pout. A long, drawn out, “But mu-u-u-um.” A faux stern expression and the answering exasperation. The scent of a tropical fruit as long hair flows past. Catching Kayla’s arm. Gathering her in. Holding on tight. Stiff shoulders melting into the embrace. Kayla pulling back. Looking into Rishi’s eyes seriously. “Wake up.” Confusion. Kayla’s face flitting from child to adult and back again. Repetition. “Wake up.” Fear. Her face, 21 years old, leaning in. “Mum. Wake up.”
The route to consciousness was harder than before. It was less like the gentle lap of waves and more like a bloodied drag up a cliff face. Snippets of noise filtered through the murk but she couldn’t make sense of any of it.
eds wearing off an
enough tranqs to kill an eleph
ok? Is she g
Then there was the voice from her dreams that kept her hauling her way up the rocks.
Mum. Wake up.
This time, when she opened her eyes, the sky was grey. She hesitated before moving, half-convinced that she would still be paralysed but her neck moved smoothly.
She was in a concrete room, one she’d been in a thousand times before. Four people sat around a rickety table, drinking from battered metal mugs. They were bloodied and covered in dirt but the relief and triumph poured off of them in waves. They hadn’t noticed her waking and so she was able to watch quietly as they joked together. Each one was familiar to her and the sight of each face was a comfort, one most of all. They'd come for her. She'd come for her.
As she focused on her daughter, laughing into a mug of ale, Rishi felt hope for the first time since her death.