After a lifetime in darkness, he emerged into the light. Above an endless windswept, snowy plain, the sun was setting. It was cold and there wasn’t a single soul in sight.
It was cold.
It was lonely.
“Hang in there.”
The fading sunlight was cold. It passed through him unhindered.
“You’re still -”
Something searing burst through his chest. He looked down in horror.
“- owing me a favor!”
Gentle light was warming his skin. He could immediately tell it wasn’t sunlight, though. It was just another sun lamp. Who was wasting valuable electricity on him, though? He tried to shield his eyes with his right arm, but it wouldn’t move. At least his left did. Before he fully opened his eyes though, the sound of a chair creaking nearby made him freeze. Slow, heavy footsteps plodded away from his bedside. A door was opened and clicked shut again. Silence resumed.
He took a deep breath to calm himself. He closed his eyes again so he could use his remaining functional arm to lever himself up. His head bumped into the sun lamp, but he barely felt it. His torso and back throbbed with dull pain.
He squinted and looked around. He was in a room crammed with old junk cleared from offices - desks, filing cabinets and such. His bed was actually another desk with an old mattress laid on it. Compared to what most people had, though, it was unimaginable luxury. He most certainly wasn’t in the hospital.
Wait, why would he be in the hospital?
He racked his brain for some details of what had happened before he’d ended up here, but it replied with a simple. “You don’t want to know. Trust me.” So he did.
Just as he was about to check the rest of his body, the door opened again. Two people stepped in, both tall men. The first wore a stained white coat and glasses that reflected the light. His rectangular face, permanently fixed in an amused grin and framed by unmaintained dark, if slightly grizzled, hair and stubble was well known to every Citizen: he was The Mayor. The slightly shorter, completely dark-clad figure behind him was bound to be Dog, then. The Mayor and his bodyguard were supposedly inseparable for reasons that were the main source of gossip in the CIty.
“What a swift recovery!” The Mayor exclaimed as he sat next to him. “I wish I were this young and full of life again. But alas -”
The Mayor’s voice was strangely familiar. He had met The Mayor before, back when the man was known as Medic. A lot of time had passed since then, but there was barely any change to The Mayor’s exterior or behavior.
The Mayor proceeded in what felt like a routine check up.
He relaxed. He trusted the man. The entire city did. If he told them all to hurl themselves down a mining shaft for the common good, they probably would. The Mayor’s bodyguard was a different matter altogether, though. The short man’s deep-sunken eyes were barely visible, but still peering at him with palpable contempt.
“What’s going on?” he brought himself to ask.
“You’ve had quite a blast last night, haven’t you?” The Mayor laughed and patted his right shoulder heartily. He couldn’t feel anything aside from the slight force it exert on the rest of his body. “It’s time you begin a new life young man.” The Mayor stopped laughing, though his ice-gray eyes did not. “And a new life means a new name.”
A new name? He had a name. It was just that he couldn’t recall it at the time. A blast it must had been.
“You’ve got eight lives left I bet. So much like a cat,” The Mayor went on, ruffling his hair. That he could feel. It creeped him out a little. “Or rather a kitten.” For the briefest moment, The Mayor’s smile seemed as icy and distant as the snow field from before. “Yes, why not,” The Mayor muttered as if to himself, “Kitten seems appropriate.”
“What?” Kitten bristled.
The Mayor put a finger on Kitten’s lips. “Shush,” he said softly. “Save your strength, little cat. When the anesthetic wears off, you will find yourself needing all seven lives to cling to your last one.” He stood up and nodded to Dog. The man took a couple of wobbly steps and collapsed into a nearby chair. “He will watch after you. I need to get back to the office now.”
Kitten contemplated calling after him as he walked away, but found it too embarrassing. After the door closed, he was left with the morose Dog and an uncaring sun lamp. There were no other exits in sight. The only window in the room was blinded.
Kitten lied back down. He tried to imagine lying in the sun, but a dark fear of immense pain-to-come was lurking in the back of his head. What had happened? He still couldn’t recall any of it. Or much of what had been before. He squinted into the light. A sun lamp was usually to be found in greenhouses where meager vegetables were grown to feed a meticulously culled crowd of hungry mouths. The Mayor had almost all electricity redirected to those “life factories.” Wasting the precious resource on anything besides vital supplies was bordering on criminal activity.
Such was the world.
Humanity had returned to living in a cave. A cave of Ice engulfing the City - a few hundred ruined buildings huddled around the central Capitol building where The Mayor resided. They were a completely isolated society. Most of the men were diggers, mining the Ice for water, scouring the debris for resources left behind by a long-forgotten civilization. Women tended to families and chores, with a few exceptions who worked in administration. Crime rate was practically zero. Convicts worked in the Ice Smelter, a nasty job if there ever was one. The capital punishment was to be exiled - taken to the surface where there was virtually no atmosphere and people burned in the blistering heat of the sun or froze to death at night before they could asphyxiate.
Kitten had been convicted once. His punishment was to clear snow off the solar panels on the surface in the early morning and late evening before temperatures had become lethal. He could remember how the sun up there felt. The lamp was nothing like it. Its warmth was gentle and soothing.
Kitten stirred. The pain he’d felt when getting up returned.
He had no family to wish to be by his side at that moment. He’d lost his parents before he even really got to knew them. His grandmother who raised him since always changed the subject when he asked. Only once did she tell him they had done something the old government hadn’t agreed with. After that they had sent her to a hospice, while he went to some boarding school. Reunited after a year, instead of the kind, cheerful person, he met the husk of an old woman, babbling incoherent nonsense to herself. The only phrase that he’d been able to make out was “release me,” so he did.
He’d had her put down by the Medic.
That had been his crime.
He grit his teeth as the pain grew stronger.
Had he gotten hurt up there? Or was what he recalled some distant past? He couldn’t know. He couldn’t concentrate.
Dog moved. He got up from his chair and walked slowly over to the makeshift bed. Kitten watched with growing discomfort as the pale face came close. He still couldn’t see his eyes, and then he realized the man had been wearing a clay mask all along. The lips didn’t move, but a hoarse whisper poured out nonetheless: “Don’t worry.” A raspy breath. “This room is soundproofed.”
The face drew away and was replaced with a black-gloved hand. Another appeared to take the glove off. It revealed a mess of desiccated flesh and jutting bone.
“One hundred years,” Dog said. His voice was weak, but the silence carried it solemnly. “I have reached my limit. I have passed it.” He removed his mask as well. Underneath it was a mostly bare skull with empty eye sockets. “I am handing it to you: my quest.” he leaned forward again, staggering slightly. “Find her.” He dropped to his knees and fell silent.