Tia’s eyes fluttered open. She looked about herself— blinking at the bright blue sky. Where was she?
A town square of some sort. The landscaped roundabout at the centre had a marble fountain that spouted water energetically in the air, and wrought iron benches arranged just out of spraying range, but there was nobody around. There were shops all around, their awnings fluttering gently. An ice-cream shop, a café, a tattoo studio, a garments shop, a salon and spa, a gym … all empty and shuttered.
Even as she took it all in, she felt a growing sense of familiarity. The other question in her mind—where had she been all this time?—began to fade. She had a vague sense of a long incarceration, but where, by whom, and for what, evinced no ready recall in her consciousness. She looked down at herself. Did she imagine it, or had the pale grey of her incarceration changed before her very eyes to the red top and embroidered denim cut-offs that were familiar and comforting so that she knew immediately that they had always been hers? Had that bracelet on her wrist with those particular charms, the red polish on her nails, the auburn highlights in her hair and the sequined heels on her feet appeared just now, or had they always been there? With every passing moment it was getting harder to know. Or to care.
She turned and walked out of the square, taking one of the streets that led from it. She went down empty lanes and kept walking, until she came to a junction at which the town seemed to end abruptly and several trails winded up and down the side of a mountain. Her walk turned into a stride, gaining confidence with every step, and, with what felt like muscle-memory, she took the path that led uphill.
All around her, things that were hazy in the distance took on solid shapes and forms as she approached, as though the entire world was emerging out of a heavy mist. She glanced back and saw other hazy human shapes moving in the town now, but they too were enveloped in a fog, even though the weather had been clear when she had left the square.
Instinct propelled her on, and she knew by then that she had walked this very path a thousand times. It was the way home.
Shlok stood in the line at the self-service counter of the office cafeteria.
“What’s this about? Do you know?” the man in front of him asked his companion, indicating the wall-mounted TV on which a news reporter, standing in pouring rain outside the steel and glass façade of a corporate building, was talking animatedly into the camera.
The other man shrugged. “Somebody hacked into OtherWorldly Inc.’s servers, I believe,” he said. “I saw the news flash on the internet just before we came down for lunch. Not many details yet, the news is just breaking. They’re mostly showing background material for now.”
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