She fell upwards through the blinding darkness. Black night erupted around her. Consciousness hit her like a bus, the shock kick-starting her heart. A whirl of stars as her eyes tracked helplessly in spirals. Focus. Got to breathe. Remember how to breathe. Fresh wet lungs regretfully inflate with the fear of dying so soon. A shuddering gasp; barely remembering what to do. With air the sensations become overwhelming – inside matching the outside. Coldness invades her, at odds with the fever burn of raging senses. Focus, draw it in. Hot. No, cold. Colours; the body cycling through them a painful kaleidoscope. The whorls on her fingertips are huge, overlapping with the revolving star-scape above. The spiky wet green below comes overhead and the dark is behind her again.
Sound penetrates her. It judders up from the earth before the air insinuates it into her mind. She’s preoccupied by the awful whole body retching for a while and doesn’t notice that her vision has stopped slip-sliding around. She only notices that when the hands reach down out of the blue and turn her over so she’s vomiting safely on her side. Through tear-stained eyes an assemblage of white and brown shapes descends on her and moves rhythmically. The noise is concurrent with the motion but is meaningless. Belatedly she realises it’s a human face talking. Pressure on her hair – which she has – pressing the follicles down on her scalp. It tingles violently but the nausea retreats. The velvet dark takes her away again.
The light is fainter here. Dimmer? Less harsh. She’s lying down, warm and dry. She can identify the sensations. Her breathing feels regular, if not yet natural. There’s some weird sensory feedback going on – touching of touching. Oh yeah, fingers. Right. Fingers, knees and toes. That’s not right. Fingers – hands. Arms shoulders body legs feet. Toes. Head on top. Okay, this is normal. Gender-appropriate. Good. Apart from the corporeality. Suddenly there’s a roar and whistling and a terrible rocking of the world that she remembers from a different time. Different place. Different body. A man rushes in (the one from outside?). His face is contorted with emotion, and disfigured with blood. She giggles: blood should be inside, not outside. “You’re feeling better then? Good. We have to go, now.” He hauls her to her feet, making the room spin as her own blood sways inside her. Ah, empathy.
Now she’s upright the dismal dimensions of the room are evident – it’s a small square room, made of concrete and dust. The dust is falling from the ceiling, following each booming crack above. The next roar throws them both into the door frame, his weight pushing her hard into the edge of the door. She cries out at the new pain but adds it to the set of feelings she recognises. Her motor response is working better than she thought too – they get up together and stumble into the corridor.
There’s smoke which bites at the throat and eyes, adding tears to its own misty blur. The frequency of strikes increases into a steady rain of blows to the corridor they half run half walk down. His clothes are rough, torn and patched. A soldier’s garb, but probably not his own. Her own feet are not bare, she realises but in light boots. Someone dressed her. She turns to ask the man who smells of sweat, dust and blood if it was him.
There’s no answer. Not in the vastness of noise which explodes around them. There is no longer a roof. Through a halo of fire and smoke the sky is etched with contrails and explosions. She’s on the ground again, thick with plaster and brick. The man lies over her. Still. More hands tear him away from her and pull her out to the now distant background of screaming and detonations. The man doesn’t join them. With the help of the new hands she’s pushed up the wall and into the open air.
A scream of strangled metal whips her attention to the left – a four wheeled vehicle rotates through the air above her, landing with a crash amidst a group of armed men and women. It explodes. More screams. But… that was only an effect so she re-traces its arc. The cause is a shocking assemblage of metal and fury, snarling and loosing death into scattering soldiers. It lunges towards her, its car-sized feet gouging the earth. The thing’s nightmare Cubist face angles towards her and its hulking girder arms extend vicious grasping claws. She’s overwhelmed, terrified.
The hands that forced her up and out of the tunnels’ safety hold weapons. The closer the giant’s fingers reach the greater the intensity of fire. It flinches away as the steady stream splashes over its face. Then it makes a concerted movement, stepping forward huge and imposing, claws reaching down at them. There’s a brief, shrill squeal. A gout of fire nearby. The giant’s angular face comes apart suddenly. The tangram panels of its head bouncing around them. The headless monster reels drunkenly, trips in the trench it uncovered and collapses, an arm still swinging wildly, beating down into the ground.
Aside from the still-thrashing windmill all is calm. Screams mute to sobs and moans and the staccato gunshot retreats into their barrels. Another man helps her to her feet (again- must re-learn balance), she can tell them apart now. He’s sooty and bloodied too; so is she.
“I’m John,” looking at her expectantly, gently releasing her hand.
I should have one of those she thinks, a name. What’s in a name?
“What’s your name?” again an expectance in his voice, heavy on the pronouns.
It takes a moment, but she can feel it rising within her. A coiling around her mind, squeezing it, re-framing her world:
“Marielle” she blurts, ” OverTwelve: Marielle.” She can feel that she looks surprised.
“Good, welcome back Marielle”.
It did seem familiar being here, back in the world.
While Marielle rediscovers her name, John continues, though not to her. The soldiers have gathered round. Guns point out from their perimeter.
“She’ll get it all back eventually. Primed with key word question and answer responses. We’ve just got to ask the right questions.”
The camp disintegrates around him. Half the soldiers vanish across the fields, leaving the torn earth and the foundered machine behind. Only John and three others remain. John is tall and thin, dressed in the same third-hand uniform as the others.
“This is Jules”, he distinguishes her with a casual wave. A short woman toting a massive weapon across her back and shoulders. The sides of her face and hair are red and scuffed from the barrels of her gun. She smiles encouragingly.
“Jules finished off the Testament.” Marielle stares at them both. Jules smirks; turns away and starts packing a series of cases.
“Sergeant Mastiff,” he says nodding at the man tending to her own shoulder. Cleaning and wrapping the long gash she’d received when the ceiling was torn away. His hands are gentle. His face a mess of scars and missing shapes. He brushes her hair out of a cut above her left eye. The cuts are strange, they feel… strong. “They’ll hurt for a bit” Mastiff says. That’s the word: hurt. The other side of sensation. Pain. Now she knows it her shoulder aches terribly. He stands. Slowly. Stiffly. Only one of his legs bends. “She’ll be fine”.
There’s just one of the party left, a smooth-faced man who wears the uniform like it belongs to him. He can’t take his eyes off her. “Wh- why did you. Why are you here?” she’s talking to John but looking at the man by his side. The other man exchanges a look with John that Marielle cannot understand.
“We saw you. You won’t remember, but we saw you. Coming down in a pillar of fire. From up there.” But she does remember, her memory unlocking to that time before she had memories. Remembers shedding her skin.
“You came down, coming back to us.” John continued, “we saw where you’d be and reckoned we’d get to you first, though not by much”.
The clarity, blackness in the distance, everything pin sharp wherever she looked. Then the fall, burning through the atmosphere. The inside of her twisted, reforming, sucking at the substance of her strength. Plates, parts ablating away, ripped off by the speed of descent. A sudden shift of self and then that hard contact of mind.
“She’s doing better than you did.”
“It hasn’t been as long. She’s slept too.”
They’re still talking as is she isn’t there. Maybe she isn’t, not really, not yet.
“This is Michael.”
Michael looks at her intently. “You don’t remember me do you?”
“I- I don’t know. I don’t. I remember falling.”
“Yes. It’s a long way back down isn’t it?” he sighs. “I’m Michael. Michael OverEleven.” Her face crawls between blankness, confusion and recognition.
“How long has it been?” she manages.
Michael nods to John. “We think- we know- we looked you up once we found you, before the Testament came. It’s been seventy-two years Mariella. Seventy-two years since they took you.”
“She doesn’t get it.” says Jules, “we have to go. The others are away but we have to go now.” She stuffs a case into each soldier’s arms and stalks away across the field.
“Come on Marielle. We’ll talk more when we get there.” Michael slings the case onto his back. Glances warily around. Takes Marielle by the elbow. His grip is tight. Warm. Marielle goes with him.
The Testament brokenly slumps alone in the mud. Its pounding fist slowly beats a pit into the earth as Sergeant Mastiff limps about the battlefield. He kneels by each dead soldier for a moment and steps away. When the metal fist finally halts, hanging twice the height of a man from the ground, the bodies are burning in tight fierce blazes and Mastiff has gone.