His eyes struggled to take in the sight in front of him, with his mind trailing not far behind. It was all too much to see all at once, too much to process, and he held onto the railing in front of him to keep his balance.
What lay before and below him looked very much like the mile-long strip of a bustling town, yet it was entirely enclosed at the far edges by high, metal walls covered in plants both living and dead. Birds dipped and danced overhead, hunting for insects in the air. Above it all, at least fifty meters up, was a curved ceiling painted the deepest sky blue. A sun seemed to be floating in the distance, just out of reach, lighting the town with its warm rays. A closer look revealed it to be as artificial as the lights outside the Medlabs. An apparatus kept it suspended from the ceiling, moving it almost imperceptibly slow across the fake sky on a floating track system.
As he looked across that place, a sudden pitch of vertigo gripped him, that cold spiral of nausea threatening to throw him over the railing. Below, waiting for him to fall and crack his spine across them, pipes and plants mingled to become bio-mechanical tangles jutting up from the floor and through the walls.
What was this place, and how had he come to be there? What sort of people lived in a walled-in town with a fake sun? He decided to keep moving, to stop drawing attention to himself before someone noticed the look on his face and realized he wasn’t one of them.
He walked down a long set of curving, metal steps, staring at the various formations of metal and plastic ahead. Every bit of space seemed to have been utilized in the strange town, an interlocking puzzle of walkways and hanging gardens that grew seamlessly up from the floor. The open-faced structures were like storefronts, yet filled up with people doing anything but buying and selling things. As he watched, a beautiful olive-skinned woman showed a group of children how to hand-knit a sweater. In the next building a small group were gathered around a series of holograms, playing against each other in a game of some kind. In yet a third, three women with delicately tattooed faces sat drinking tea while a young girl played a sad song for them on a transparent violin.
Continuing on, he walked under and through a series of turns and tunnels. The crowd of unfamiliar faces moved ever around him. They were of every age, every gender, some wearing regular clothes and some in uniforms very much like his own, only differing in color. To his right a pair of teenagers walked up a flight of steps to an elevated tram platform before being hummed off into the distance.
It was all too much. His legs felt as if they were going to give out and he would go crashing to the floor. Locked in a daze, he walked until he came to a small park area ringed with green shrubs and white birch trees. He passed a single bench where a couple were seated, stumbling to the large fountain at the center. The water there danced in ways that defied physics, snaking in mid-air and looping back in on itself before falling down and starting all over. It was mesmerizing, though it did nothing to calm his vision.
Strangers moved around him, unknown people in a foreign place. A hundred nationalities making up one people. Through it all a dull sound had been at the back of his mind, and as he paid more attention to it he realized it was the sound of whispering. It was the strangers, it had to be. They were talking about his presence among them, how he didn’t belong, how he’d escaped. His pulse quickened, his palms sweating as he waited for their wrath, but when he gathered the courage to look at them, to peer at some of their faces, he realized the whispers weren’t coming from the strangers. In fact, the whispers seemed to be coming from no one at all; hushed and hidden voices, intertwined like the dancing water beside him, voices sharing secrets between them, and all saying the same thing, over and over, in multiple languages, in every language, in every tongue, yet none of it decipherable, and they grew and grew in volume until they were all he could hear, so much that he wanted to scream, yet no matter how much he listened he couldn’t make out the words they were saying, that whisper-scream tearing his brain apart.
And then the whispers fell silent, all at once, like rats scurrying from the light. But they were replaced by a sensation, a creeping dread across his neck, as if the tiny thistle hairs of spider legs were crawling over his shoulder. Someone was watching him, unknown eyes on the back of his head. He turned to find the small crowd had parted to allow two men through.
They stood five feet from him in blue uniforms, both with gray and black sticks on their belts. “Now just stay calm,” the shorter one said. His hair was cut tight to the skull, his eyes unblinking.
He backed away, his foot hitting the fountain. “Stay away from me,” he replied, reaching into his pocket.
“You had a bad thaw, it happens to everyone,” the taller officer said, taking a step forward.
“Back up!” He pulled the blade from his pocket and held it out. His thumb brushed the small button on the handle.
“He has a knife!” The shorter officer pulled the black stick from his belt.
“Kash, put that down!” The tall officer scolded his partner, with little effect. The shorter man was shorter-tempered as well, and he refused to back down. His eyes were wild, the whites flashing. The tall one, realizing his partner wasn’t listening to him, turned away and lowered his voice. “Hey. Hey, it’s okay. We just don’t want you to hurt yourself, alright?”
“I don’t know who the fuck you people are.”
“My name is Nicolai. This is Kash. We’re all friends here. Now if you just put down the knife and talk to us, I’m sure we can-”
He ran. He was done talking, and he wanted out of that strange place.
He left the park behind and cut through the crowd. The officers shouted for people to get out of the way as they pursued, but he managed to put a good amount of distance between them in a short time. He weaved through people and buildings and trees, nearly knocking over a man and his metal dog doing tricks for a few gathered folks. He kept the knife tucked against his side- no use scaring people and drawing attention. He took a moment to glance back and was pleased to see the officers were nowhere in sight. Still, they couldn’t be far.
A screen pointed the way to a cafeteria. He followed it, hoping to lose them once and for all. What he needed most was to resume his escape unencumbered, and he hoped a cafeteria would give him proper cover. He rounded the corner and found himself in a very different place than he’d expected. Rather than the cafeteria of a school setting, it was closer to a mall food court, though one combined with an aquarium. Large, thick-glassed fish tanks filled the space from floor to ceiling, curving delicately between patrons seated at several dozen long tables. Schools of fish large and small swam lazily on either side, the water deep with no bottom in sight, as if it connected to a place far below. The sight of a huge silver tuna floating by distracted him momentarily, its long, yellow fins swaying in the water as it regarded him with cold and unfeeling eyes. The nature of the place he’d woken up in still escaped him. It was an enclosed community of some kind, that much he could decipher, but beyond that its purpose was utterly alien to him.
A man appeared ahead, running into view and stopping so short his shoes squeaked on the floor, drawing the attention of a few cafeteria patrons. It was the taller officer, Nicolai, his partner nowhere in sight. Either Kash had fallen behind, or-
“Give it up,” a familiar voice announced from behind. He turned to find the shorter officer, Kash, with black and gray stick in hand. He smiled, proud of himself.
In response he pressed the small button on the knife’s handle. The weapon whined in his hand, vibrating ever slightly as the blade grew white hot. It was a cauterizing knife. He aimed the hot blade at Kash and grit his teeth, ready to do whatever he had to do to get past the man.
“Get out of my way,” he spit, “before I get you out of my way.” A look of fear flashed in the officer’s eyes before quickly returning to determination.
“There’s nowhere for you to go.”
He raised the knife, preparing to lunge at the smug officer and bury its blade in the man’s neck. But just then:
A confused voice rose up from the cafeteria. He turned to see a man in a yellow uniform staring at him over a plate of white meat. The man stood from his chair, revealing himself to be tall and wide, a somewhat imposing man with a friendly face.
“It’s me. Gunnar.” The man glanced at the heated blade. Then he looked at the two men in blue uniforms, and back. “What the helveta are you doing?”
He was taken off-guard. This was the first face he’d seen that actually looked familiar, like someone he might know, and the big guy looked back at him with the same familiarity, almost like a friend looking at a friend. He let his hand loosen on the knife’s handle as he looked back at the man. “You’re-”
Something touched the back of his head. His entire body froze stiff as a sound filled his ears, a building pulse of energy that stood the tiny hairs inside up on end. His skull felt like it was expanding, a balloon of bone filling with crackling potential, then suddenly contracting with a pop.
When the sound was gone, his vision went with it. He fell back to the darkness he knew so well.