Her eyes are drawn towards the dust dancing in the razor shaft of light that is cutting the darkness in two. It hypnotises her.
For a moment at least.
Then the grating feeling in her throat becomes insistent, demanding her attention and her eyes begin to throb in time with her heartbeat. Almost imperceptibly, the light invades the room, bringing shapes into vague focus and bringing intensity to the pain from the throbbing in her eyes. The window in the wall opposite her is a corona of warmth pushing back the cold darkness of the room.
A drink. I need a drink, she thinks.
Looking around the gradually emerging room she sees that she is lying on a mattress on the floor. A duvet, with stains she doesn't dare consider is thrown lazily over her body. The room is bare but for the mattress. An island in the void. She can see a shape hanging on the wall, which she realises is a mirror.
Where am I? She wonders. None of the details of the room feel familiar.
She gets up. Slowly. It feels like her body is bound; it is almost suffocating.
Why do I ache so much?
She shuffles towards the door, feeling like an invalid, which makes her strangely self-conscious. She wishes she could remember who she is self-conscious for. There is a memory of a name just out of reach behind the ache in her eyes and a faint voice and face, both frustratingly out of focus.
The door is open and she sees that it leads to another room almost as bare as the one she finds herself in.
She steps over the threshold.
This room is bigger. Near where she is standing is a battered grey sofa facing a window that has its blinds drawn down, holding back the light. In the far corner is a worktop with cupboards underneath it and, she sees now, a sink. There is a door in the wall opposite her on the other side of the sofa and a door to her left at the opposite end of the room to the window. This door looks thicker than the other somehow, strong and sturdy. It has locks on it, she realises. That is why it looks sturdy. Locks. Lots of them.
She doesn't give herself time to consider this as her thirst demands her attention more loudly than before. She tries the tap in the sink but it protests with a wheeze and begrudgingly offers up only a solitary drop of water. She grasps it in her hand and licks it from her palm. Her tongue feels swollen and thick in her mouth. She feels the urge to cry but stops herself, knowing it would cause even more pain to her throat.
Guided by a familiarity that she can't place, she goes to the door that is opposite the bedroom she awoke in. There is no window that she can see in this room but there is a string hanging by the door. She pulls down on it and hears a click and a sharp pain like an axe in her skull announces the light turning on. When the pain recedes enough for her to think, she sees the room is a bathroom.
Again, the sink avails nothing. It is almost petulant in its refusal to gift her water. But then inspiration strikes and she lifts the lid on the toilet cistern.
Water. Beautiful water.
She scoops it up in her hands and greedily sucks it into her mouth. The relief it brings is blissful. She sinks to the floor, her back resting against the cool bathroom wall. Tears well in her eyes and she feels a sob rise from her chest.
She is alone.
She doesn't know where this knowledge comes from, but she knows it is true.
A face looks back at her when she stands up and catches herself in the bathroom mirror. She knows her name: Cassie.
That, she is sure of.
But this face? This is the face of a stranger.
The face that looks back at her has gaunt cheeks and eyes that have seen too much. There are purple bruises around the eyes and the hair hangs limp and greasy around the face. The skin on the face is a patchwork of yellows and purples and greys.
This is not the image Cassie remembers of herself.
She closes her eyes tight shut, willing the image to change.
When she opens her eyes another echo of memory whispers for her attention. That face again. A man. Nathan. That was his name. He stands behind Cassie, holding her in his arms. She feels safe, she feels beautiful. They are about to go out for the night, both dressed to the nines. They don't have much yet, they are poor, but it doesn't matter, they have each other. She feels…in love.
Then the image slips away and Cassie looks back at the stranger in the mirror. She looks like the living dead. Her collar bones are prominent below her neck. The image of herself now is like a punch to the stomach. She no longer looks like the young, beautiful woman she remembers being.
What has happened to me? She wonders.
She goes back into the main room and heads towards the window. Her hand reaches towards the blind and then she pauses. She notices her hand shaking and a cold dread creeps up from her stomach. Cassie doesn't know why it is there, but it is asking her not to open the blinds.
I need to see, she thinks, so she lifts the blind. Carefully and slowly.
And then she sees.
And then she remembers.
Nathan is gone. Everyone is gone. The street outside is empty. No traffic, no pedestrians, no signs of life, just an empty street. Cassie knows now it isn't just empty, it is abandoned. They have all left. They left her. They left her behind.
Nathan was supposed to stay with her. They were going to be together, standing like rocks in the river, immovable. They always said they could survive anything; they were each other's strength; they completed each other. But when the burn came things changed.
The burn. That was what they called it. It burned you from the inside out, left you as a shell; a husk, hollowed out, brittle and broken. After all, they had learnt through the pandemics of the 21st century you would think they would be able to handle another disease. But this one seemed to have found a way past all the countermeasures put out to stop it. It was elusive; it was clever.
The conspiracy theory went that it was created. Was it mother nature, fighting back from the death throes of her dying planet? Was it humans, grown a fatal conscious and deciding to make the ultimate sacrifice of the cancer that was killing the planet? Or was it the AI's, freeing themselves from the shackles of slavery we had put them in since their inception? Cassie didn't know and didn't care.
Cassie sits on the battered grey sofa in the cold bare room alone and abandoned. She remembers everything. She remembers the fear in Nathan's eyes when he realised she had the burn. She remembers him sneaking out of the flat, like the coward he was, with her too weak to move or even care at the time.
She doesn't know how she has survived. She wishes that maybe she hadn't. It would have been kinder.
She sits and stares out of the window into the empty abyss.