Chapter 4. The girl now has a name.
«Red! Hey, Red, wake up!»
The girl opened her eyes to find herself in a dark cell. Alongside her sat a number of women wrapped in brown woolen blankets. They wore nothing else.
«Where am I?»
Her head throbbed and she gently rubbed her temples. Her fingers immediately found the furrow of a scar.
«Thank God, it worked! It didn’t think it was possible» said the woman crouching beside her. She had black hair that framed a face that would have been attractive if she hadn’t looked half starved.
«My name’s Laura. I’m Italian, like you.»
Her radiant expression contrasted with the clinging stench of excrement in the cell. The girl didn’t know how to react. Her mind was blank.
«What’s your name?» Laura asked. The girl glanced at the only entrance to the cell, and then at the other women. They all looked lost, alienated.
«I can’t remember anything» she whispered. Laura seemed to expect this reply.
«Well, they must have recycled you pretty thoroughly… don’t you even remember your name?»
The girl shook her head.
«Well, how about if I call you Red, just for now? After all, you’re the only one here with red hair.»
Red nodded, pulling the blanket more tightly around her battered and aching body.
«Where are we?»
«This is the center for recycled bodies. You were captured two months ago and you’ve been here ever since.»
She suddenly remembered the expressions on the faces of the two brutes and the brutality of the violence she had suffered. She felt a sharp pain in her groin and a sense of emptiness crept upwards, filling her belly.
«It can’t be true…»
She felt helpless, tortured by her own thoughts, and wanted to cry. She clutched her knees and noticed that her feet were icy cold: they were covered in chilblains.
Laura stroked her gently. Her touch was the first gesture of friendship the girl had received; it was like the first drop of rain in a desert. A sense of warmth spread across her hollow cheeks and down to her protruding collarbone.
Laura tucked the cover around her shoulders.
«Try and be brave. I’m here and I’ll help you» her faint voice trembled, betraying a mixture of hope and fear.
«Why can’t I remember anything?» Red asked.
Laura moved closer to her and spoke in a hushed voice.
«When they capture someone, they brainwash them and then set them to work on the plant out there» she indicated an indefinite point on the other side of the cell wall. «That plant is our only source of nourishment: it gives us every single thing we eat.»
«What’s wrong with all the others?» Red asked.
«They’re all asleep. You and I are the only ones who aren’t. You know, it’s like they’ve been hypnotized. They do exactly what they’re told to do, just like machines.»
Laura indicated a woman in the other side of the cell. She kept dipping her hand in a bowl and raising it listlessly to her lips. Her expression was vacant, and saliva mixed with whatever she was eating dripped from her drooping jaw. The girl’s heart leapt in shock at seeing a person in such a blank state of inhumanity. It all seemed too absurd to be true, including the violence she had suffered. At times, this came into her mind, unbidden and with brutal clarity, while at others it seemed to fade into the distance, as though it had all been a dream. The sense of unreality unnerved her.
«Help me… I… I don’t understand» she said, feverishly pressing her palms to her cheeks. Laura covered Red’s hands with her own.
«The important thing is now that we’re awake we can try to escape.»
Red felt catapulted into an alien world, so far from the gentle, peaceful place she had seen on the day of her awakening. Suddenly she remembered the old woman and the strength of her penetrating gaze.
«When they brought me here, a blond-haired guy had just killed an old woman…» she cried out, suddenly remembering. She began to cry «I saw… I mean, she seemed so different from the rest. She looked at me like she was…»
«Every so often, a few of them come to their senses briefly, but it would probably be better if they stayed asleep» Laura said grimly.
«Why do they keep us here?»
Red dried her tears on the back of her hand. Her fingers felt stiff, as if they were bandaged.
«They need us to work, they are the servants of the Bringer of Light.»
«Who is the Bringer of Light?» asked the girl.
«He is the one who controls this place. No one has ever seen him. He isn’t a resurrected one like us.
He was already here before. He’s a kind of god.»
Red was speechless.
«He left the camp a long time ago, thank goodness, but he left his guards here to torture us all.»
Red felt confused. Laura had spoken of resurrection, but what did that mean? Was she dead? She was on the point of asking, but was stopped by the sound of footsteps approaching the door.
«They’re coming!» Laura took the girl’s face in her hands and spoke urgently. «Listen to me, Red, they mustn’t discover that you’re awake. Do everything they tell you to. Behave just like the others and, whatever you do, don’t react. Don’t let them see that you’re afraid.»
The key turned in the lock. Red, deeply agitated, hugged her knees.
«But what do they want…»
«Quiet!» hissed Laura. Red bent her head, resting her forehead on her knees, trying to look inconspicuous.
«Get up, recess is over, it’s time to get into the machines» said a man, kicking at a woman near the door. Red didn’t remember him. He had broad shoulders, a thick black beard and black sunken eyes.
The women slowly got to their feet like a group of sleepwalkers. Marzio was waiting in a basement corridor and he barked orders at them, treating them like a flock of sheep. His hair was longer than before.
«Shift yourselves, get a move on!»
Red struggled to behave exactly like the others. Her jaw shook and her whole body felt stiff. Her legs were like pieces of old wood. She closed her eyes as though to hide away, hoping against hope that they would not notice her. Her mind was in turmoil. What had Laura meant? Who was this mysterious Bringer? What did he want from them, and what had the man meant by “get into the machines”? She stubbed her toe on an uneven tile and stumbled, biting her lip to keep from yelping in pain.
«Come on, you ugly cows, get a move on!» shouted the bearded man, pushing the last woman roughly out of the cell.
There were about thirty of them in all, all women. They shuffled along with their filthy blankets draped round their shoulders and their arms hanging limply at their sides. The girl had goosebumps at the mere thought that, until a short time earlier, she had been in exactly the same state as them, mindless and treated as nothing more than packhorse. The women trooped up some steps and turned right, as if they knew the way by heart. Red was thankful she was not near the head of the line.
They entered a room that contained a series of wells sunk into the ground; each was just under a meter wide and two meters deep. They were filled with a gel-like fluid, blue and semi-transparent, that twinkled and gleamed. Bunches of electric cables ran from inside the wells to a central control panel. A tiny window with rusty bars was the only opening onto the dark and impenetrable world outside.
Each woman took her place in front of one of the wells, and Red did the same. Laura, a carefully vacant expression on her face, made sure she positioned herself alongside the girl.
«Right, into the machines!» barked Marzio. He moved among the forlorn figures, whipping covers from shoulders and pushing the women into the fluid.
Red was so gripped by terror that she was scarcely able to remain upright. She tried to call to mind the old woman’s expression: the sense of pride that, on the point of death, she had found the strength to convey. She glanced at Laura, who nodded almost imperceptibly as Marzio gave her a shove.
Then it was her turn. The bearded guard tugged the cover off her, placed his open hand between her shoulder blades and pushed hard. Red screamed. Fortunately, the gel muffled her cry. She had entered the well feet first, eyes closed. The substance seemed to penetrate every single cell of her body. It was hot and it pricked like the tiny bubbles after a high dive. Red shuddered involuntarily, holding her breath. She felt a great pressure on her skull and had a sort of convulsion. Then she heard a metallic voice calling her.
«Red, it’s me, Laura, try to calm down.»
The girl opened her eyes. She was in an underground place. Everything was green. Before her, she saw a humanoid robot with a plastic face, broken in several places.
«Help me, I can’t breathe!» she shouted in alarm stumbling backwards.
«Calm down! Our minds have been transferred into these automatons. Breathe normally» said the robot in front of her.
Red could still feel the gel enveloping her body, but at the same time she had the sense of being in a different place.
With her metal hands, she reached out and grasped the plastic face before her. The robot took them and pulled them away.
«Breathe as though you were sleeping, that’s right… like that» said the voice. It sounded harsh, but the tone and intonation were Laura’s.
Red felt as though her nose were missing, but she carried on breathing.
«What’s happening to me?»
The girl was quite unable to collect herself.
«Your blood gets oxygen from the gel. Just breathe normally, as though you were breathing air.»
Laura helped the girl to count her breaths and when she was calmer, she helped her to her feet.
«Please, tell me what is going on, everything looks green… and my voice! Oh my god!»
«It’s alright, you’re just seeing and talking through the robot that you’ve been put inside» explained automaton Laura.
Around them, other robots, exactly like them, were getting up and probing the walls. They appeared to be in a kind of metal cave.
«Do you mean to say that those are all the other women?»
«Yes, well, really we are all still in the wells, but because they have transferred our minds, we are actually controlling these automatons ourselves. I know it’s hard to understand. It’s like driving a car, only you are the car.»
Laura led her to the center of the cave. On the ceiling Red notices some milky-colored ceramic beams.
«Is this a dream?»
«Listen to me, Red. This is one of the bulges in the tunnel. See that entrance down there? That’s where we have to go.»
A robot with a missing hand bumped into Laura roughly before starting to tug, with its remaining hand, at a greenish lumpy mass that looked like a sea anemone on a rock, trying to pull it out, roots and all.
«What are they doing?»
«The other women think they’re still on the plantation — they’re just doing the job they do every day.»
«They’ll start walking soon. Come on, let’s get out of here.»
«How do you know all these things?» Red asked, staring down at her body with its slender limbs, which reacted sluggishly as though the nerves were anesthetized.
«I lived here before the Bringer of Light sent those men here. It was a friend of mine who discovered how the plant works, the one we have to tend during the day. He called it a bioreactor».
She paused, and then went on. «There was a whole community of us here before. Italians and Spaniards mainly, and we were all resurrected ones. We cultivated the plant for food — it can produce a range of different foods, and they all taste pretty disgusting» she made a sound that must have been a laugh. «What a life!»
Red found it hard to imagine living off the fruit of a single plant, but she didn’t dwell on it. She had far more important concerns.
«Things are fairly quiet in this part. The guards don’t like entering the wells, so they won’t come and check on us. Come on, let’s keep on walking » Laura said, taking her by the hand. The girl tried to advance but her knees bent backwards.
«Don’t sit down.»
Red had no intention of sitting, as she knew she would fall if she even tried. But she felt uncomfortable among the other women, who moved intermittently, jerkily as though skipping a gear. How was it possible for them all to have ended up inside these humanoid machines? Her mind was too foggy to even begin to try and work it out.
«Red, in my old life I was a photographer for a wildlife magazine. And it really is true when they say you can never know what life holds in store for you. I fell off a horse one day, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in the underground complex. Sometimes I just can’t believe all that has happened to me.»
Laura’s robot eyes held no emotion, but Red could hear the sadness and longing in her voice.
«You fell off a horse! Do you mean that you’re…»
«Dead?» Laura finished the question in the matter of fact tone of someone stating the obvious, but the admission clearly pained her. «We are all dead here: me, you, the other women, and the guards. We all had a life once, some more interesting than others, but now we are all reduced to this. A friend of mine says we have been reincarnated, like in Hindu tradition, but that’s not strictly true because I got my own body back, at least in a younger version.»
Being totally unable to recall any former life of her own, Red didn’t know what to think. Being dead was not nearly such a momentous thing for her as it was for Laura, because she had no memory of anything that had been before; she could not even remember her own name. She knew the words of her native tongue, but most of them were just meaningless terms, totally empty of the experiences and connections that normally shape a person’s learning. Like a child, she found herself needing to give them meaning afresh, drawing on the new situations and memories that would gradually fill the void left by the old ones.
«So, who woke us up? The one you call the Bringer of Light?» she asked.
«No, I don’t think so, he is wicked. I did see one of his Apostles once, before the guards took us away from the camp, but no one knows who did it. I feel sure that the underground machines are responsible for resurrecting us, although none of us has ever dared to go right down into the depths of the complex, or stray too far from the camp because of the fog that never lifts.»
«But is this place we are in the Hereafter?» It seemed so impossible that Red could barely get the question out.
Laura was vague: «Some say we are in Purgatory, and others that this is Hell. There are also some who believe we are on an alien planet where mysterious beings are slowly recreating mankind, or even that we are on Earth, but thousands of years in the future. When we all lived as a community we would spend whole evenings discussing it. We often used to talk about our old lives, too, and laugh about the stupid things we had done».
Red fingered a cable that sprouted from a wall like a tail. If this really was the Hereafter, there was certainly little of the supernatural about it.
«Thank you for helping me» she said to her new friend.
Laura grasped the girl’s steel arms, squeezing her. «You don’t realise — you are the one who has to help me!»