I wake to a false sky with trails of white cloud all pixels at their edges. Recycled air dries the gunk around my eyes and it's then that I realise that I'm floating in space.
Ascending notes play, the signature chime of the ELC. I instantly place it but remember nothing of me. Why the ELC should mean anything. Why I'm even lying here, come to that.
This comfy state of non-reflection doesn't last long.
“Prepare to disembark,” speaks a female voice and then I'm smothered by a rubber sheet. I try to inhale but breathing isn't possible and I'm about to be suffocated when I feel a force pull me to my right. And then I'm spat through a side aperture and on to a bed. I gasp and turn, the membrane now shrivelled in my wake.
A dark cave opens out and my eyes struggle to adapt and my breath tries to gain a foothold but it is too cold for that. I am close to hypothermia, my grey smock so damp and thin it is making it worse. The cave draws out forever, low red lights identical to my own and in grid formation. A human wakes underneath each one. Well, apart from the ones where a human never wakes at all.
“Oi!” comes the shout, male and impatient. “Get up!”
I squint as my face is caught by the approaching glare of a flash-light.
“Get up, now!” The beam drops and I see a large man in a brown boiler-suit walk over to my right. He repeats the order, to some poor sod languishing in the dark. “Get up and on your feet!” He means both of us.
I try to stand but my muscles feel wasted. One look at my arms suggests they've been stolen from a twelve year old. And then there's my pot belly. And the pristine look of my pale and fleshy hands. I shake my head and wonder how long it's been since this body walked on its own two feet. Decades, possibly. Probably longer.
Corporation inspectors prod dead bodies and check for signs of life. The number of those not moving is easily one in ten. The inspectors seem unperturbed by this, however. Just nod and exchange words with one another and cross codes and numbers from their tablets. Apparently this number is accounted for, well within expected rates of attrition. They each shrug as the corpses are loaded onto programmed flat-beds that patrol the cave's great floor. I remember tales about medieval times past. “Bring out your dead” I almost hear them cry.
This historical note is about the only thing I can remember. It's alarming that a thick fog obscures everything where my name and self should be. This kind of symptom is probably to be expected, I think, especially after a sleep of however many years. But knowing this doesn't help me feel any better about it. Or reduce a fear of the unknown that's building.
I look to my neighbour - a young man with a pleasant face and mixed complexion - wave and clear my throat.
“You two!” barks the inspector, aggrieved to be telling us more than once, “on your feet! Now!” He wields his kosh. We won't get another chance.
Fear gives me strength and I jump up to my feet. The inspector seems satisfied and moves on and I'm left to my own devices. Surely the fact that I'm unused to this kind of treatment means there's been some mistake?
It's a vain hope. Being a sleeper doesn't work like that.
Cold steel nestles in the small of my back and pushes me forward.
A pale blue sign illuminates over the entrance up ahead, changing to every language of the Confederate at one second intervals. I recognise the characters but none of the words. Below, a brightly lit doorway reveals a chamber with rusted walls. They bear the words “HOLDING CELL” in white and flaking paint and so we shuffle towards it like a procession of the walking dead.
And then I see a message in a language I can understand.
This way please. It is written in plain English.
And so slowly, and with a heavy sense of dread, I join my fellow passengers in the holding cell. For now, any questions regarding my identity will have to wait.