Spec-Fic Month: An Excerpt from When We Wake

An excerpt from Karen Healey's dystopian novel, When We Wake.

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Tegan Oglietti was having a great day with her best friend and her new boyfriend. Then she died. A hundred years later, she was woken. 

The following excerpt is from Karen Healey's dystopian novel, When We Wake. You can read our conversation with Karen Healey and Rhydian Thomas about speculative fiction, escapism, and why literary fiction can be so fucking boring.

Of course I didn’t believe her. Would you? Think about waking up to a complete stranger saying, Hey, surprise! It’s the future!
      Marie says that not believing her was a defense mechanism, and also a perfectly natural traumatic response.
      But I don’t know. I still think it was rational to assume that she was lying.
      I mean, come on. She told me I was lucky.
      At the time, I was just relieved that telling her to get out was apparently on-script. The blurry shape of Dr. Carmen stood up. “Of course, Tegan.”
      “And stop calling me Tegan,” I added viciously. “I don’t know you. We’re not friends. What’s your name?”
      She hesitated, and I got the feeling she was leaving the prepared speeches behind for the first time. “It’s Marie,” she said.
      My middle name. Huh. “Okay, Marie. Thanks for the info. Get out.”Something smooth and slim was slipped into my hand, and I jumped.
      “It’s a… well, like a bell,” Dr Car- Marie said. “When you want anything, or if you want to talk to someone, just squeeze it three times, and they’ll come. All right?”
      “Fine. Bye, Marie.”
      I heard a chiming, and then a swish, and I lay there, blinking hard and counting down the seconds as the room gradually became clearer around me.
      When I was eleven, I spent three days in the hospital with an infection that needed IV antibiotics - thankfully, it wasn’t a drug-resistant strain. This place smelled like a hospital, all right, that clean industrial smell. But it didn’t sound like one. I couldn’t hear anyone moving back and forth, or talking in the corridors. There was no beeping machinery or rattle of wheeled beds being rolled over linoleum floors.
      I slid my legs out of the bed and stood. The soles of my feet felt tender against the floor, but I could support my weight on them. Well, that was proof against the whole revival thing, right? Surely my legs wouldn’t hold me up if I’d actually been out of it for a hundred years.
      I was wearing a loose blue thing, sort of like really wide tunic dress, made out of some material I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t game to just strip it off, but the neck was wide enough for me to pull it out and look down at myself.
      There were lots of little white scars on my chest and stomach, but I’d expected that and braced myself for it. What really shocked me was a much smaller thing.
      My legs and underarms and, in fact, all the skin I could see were completely bare. I didn’t go in for all that shaving-plucking-waxing stuff. Someone had done it to me while I was asleep.
      I mean, I had those scars, so they’d probably been a lot more intimate with my body than just shaving my legs, but for some reason the idea that someone had removed all my body hair while I was unconscious really grossed me out.
      When I took my first step toward the door and automatically reached to push my hair over my shoulders, I discovered that it wasn’t just my body. My questing fingers found only the soft, bare skin of my scalp.
      The bastards had taken my hair. Eight years of growth, just gone.
      My fists clenched. I was suddenly more angry than scared, which, let me tell you, is a much better response when you wake up in a hospital bed with no hair, no underwear, and no memory of what got you there. Being frightened had threatened to make me slow and stupid; being furious made me move.
      I wanted to throw the alarm thing at the wall, but instead I put it carefully on the bed, with a hand that trembled with control, and tested the door. It wasn’t locked, and I could see no one moving down the dimly lit corridor.
      So I walked out.
      The corridor was long and silent and completely empty of people.
      It was also almost completely dark. Lights turned on overhead as I padded along and turned off behind me. There were other doors evenly spaced on each side, but I wasn’t brave enough to test any of them yet.
      To be honest, I was thinking about Alex’s games, and how many of them involved long halls, flickering lights, and monsters jumping out of nowhere. I didn’t have a grenade launcher or a flame thrower. I didn’t even have Alex’s right hook.
      I kept close to one wall and walked fast, ready to take my chances with one of the side doors if I heard anyone coming.
      No one did, and that didn’t make sense. What kind of hospital didn’t have a nurses’ station or full-time lighting? My skin prickled under what I was almost certain was silent scrutiny. There had to be security cameras somewhere.
      Twelve doors down was a door striped in red with a picture of a flame above it.
      It was way too obvious an exit. What I needed was a window - something that would give me an idea of the lay of the land, or possible even an escape route in itself. I’d dropped from a storey up a couple of times, when security crews had come to investigate the lights Alex and I were flashing around their construction sites. I wasn’t the best free runner in the world, but I was confident I could safely do it again.
      I opened the door to the left of the fire escape.
      There was no window there, just an empty trolley bed with a mattress, and equipment I didn’t recognise. I backed out, crossed the hallway, and tried the door on the right.
      There was no window there, either. But the bed was not empty.
      On the white mattress lay a naked man, several years older than me, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two. It was hard to tell, with all the wires and tubes attached to him. His bare chest rose and fell, and his eyes were open, but his face was slack and quiet.
      There was no curiosity or alarm. He was staring directly at me, and nothing about him said he registered my presence at all.
      I could have stayed there for a few minutes, gaping like an ill-mannered jerk, but my ears picked up the sound of someone else’s voice in the corridor. The man’s room was a dead end: I had to get out.
      Obvious escape or not, I ran for the fire door.
      In the dim light, concrete stairs stretched upward; I was apparently on the bottom floor. I pounded up two steps at a time. The feeling of air rushing over my bare scalp was weird, and running without a bra was really uncomfortable, but my muscles worked fine.
      I was hitting the zone where everything was smooth, efficient motion. Other fire doors flashed by on the landings, but I wasn’t interested in going back inside.
      What I needed was the roof, and eight floors up, I found it.
      Gasping for breath, I burst through the roof door at pretty close to my top speed and stumbled two steps to a clumsy halt that wouldn’t have hurt so much if I’d been wearing shoes.
      The sky was dark, but there were a ton of lights; under them, the roof was bright as noon and almost as hot. It was a flat, skinny rectangle, edged with a low concrete wall. That would have been easy to deal with, but inside the wall there was a wire fence taller than I was, except at the narrow gap left for the fire-escape  ladder. There were lights showing the roofs of other buildings, close by and lower. I was way closer to the ground than I’d thought - maybe only two or three floors up, which meant that most of the building was underground.
      And standing by the fire escape, the obvious exit, was a man in a uniform with a long weapon in his hands, spinning to stare at me.
      I took off.
      “Halt!” he called behind me. Something whistled past my ear, and I dodged behind an air-conditioning unit, teeth gritted.
      Keep moving, I thought. Keep momentum. My flying strides eating up the concrete, I charged at the corner where the wire fence made a right angle.
      I loved right angles.
      I was trying not to remember all the times I’d tried this trick and had to bail out, for Alex to laugh hysterically at me (and, one time, help me to the emergency room). Free running is half body, half mind. If either one quits on you, you can’t pull it off.
      I’d never tried the trick with someone shooting at me, but my timing, for once, was perfect. I popped up the fence right-left-right, using my momentum to push off and up. In fact, I had so much speed I nearly went straight over, but some frantic grabbing at the top turned into a decent grip, swinging me around and down to stand on the edge, facing back along the length of the roof.
      The man in uniform was aiming directly at my face. “Halt!” he bellowed again, just as another man burst out of the fire door.
      “Don’t shoot!” he shouted, and then, “Tegan! Stop!”
      I jumped off the roof.
      I was two storeys up, I was wearing very little, and I’d never done a drop that high onto a hard surface. Even though I rolled to take the impact, it should have really hurt, but my brain was busily pumping out endorphins, and I couldn’t feel much. As it was, my right forearm, which hit first, went numb and then throbbed. There was no stopping to assess the damage, though. I was on my bare feet again, seeking out shadows.
      Ahead and behind me, sirens sounded.
      I darted between buildings, listening for shouts and footsteps as well as I could over my own frantic heartbeat. If I could get far enough away, or find a good spot to hide, I might be okay. All I had to do was make it to someone who’d let me borrow their phone.
      There were voices ahead. I flattened against the wall and edged back around the corner.
      Voices ahead again, and coming closer. But on the other side of the narrow alley was a door, and if luck was still with me, I could make it there in time.
      I darted across, praying for deliverance, and yanked at the door handle.
      The good news was, it wasn’t locked.
      The bad news was, the room was full of people.
      They’d been looking toward the front of the room, where a small, dark-haired woman was speaking at a podium. But as I burst in, they all turned in their seats to stare at me.
      “Who the hell is that?” someone muttered.
      “Tegan?” the woman at the podium said, sounding stunned.
      “That’s her,” said someone else. “The Living Dead Girl!” And then I was surrounded by people, all of them loud and excited and shouting questions at me.
      “Tegan, what’s your opinion of Operation New Beginning?”
      “Tegan, what do you think of the twenty-second century?”
      “Tegan, are you proud of what you’ve helped achieve?”
      “Tegan, do you think it’s acceptable to add revivals to an already overpopulated society?”
      “Tegan, are you looking forward to our dead diggers coming home?”
      I shrank against the wall, staring at them, unable to register details or tell them apart. They were just a blur of strange clothes and outlandish hairstyles. A swarm of small things swooped in, buzzing around me like mosquitoes. I shook my head back and forth, and stared into one, watching the tiny camera lens. Something zipped past my eyes, and I shrieked, slapping it away and stamping on the horrible thing as it hit the ground.
      They stopped shouting all at once, apparently appalled at this destruction.
      “Out of my way!” someone sounded through the hush, and shouldered her way through the pack, hair flying, elbows akimbo. “Can’t you see this girl is injured? This press conference is over! Leave my patient alone!”
      I recognised her voice and clung to it as the one real thing in the nightmare.
      “Marie?” I asked, too scared to be ashamed at the way it came out like a sob.
      “Yes,” she said, turning my hand over carefully. “Oh, Tegan, what happened?”
      “I ran,” I said, distantly aware that the pain in my arm was getting worse. Men in uniforms were filing into the room and herding out the journalists. Some of them were still shouting questions as they went.
      “Sit down,” Marie said, and got me into a chair. “I’ll fix this up. Nothing’s broken: you’re all right.” She pulled out a little black pouch and sprayed something on my arm.
      There was blood on the floor. Blood from my torn feet, from my scraped arm. The endorphins and adrenaline were  fading, and my body was telling me I’d hurt it a lot more than I’d had time to feel in that wild flight.
      Sore as I was, I still tensed all over when someone else came through the door. It was the second man on the roof, the one who had told the guard not to shoot.
      “There you are, Tegan,” he said.
      Marie didn’t look up. “Colonel Dawson, please wait in the hall,” she said.
      “I need to-”
      “I need to establish my patient’s physical health.”
      The colonel stared at the back of her head, still bowed over my hand, then at me.
      “Well, then,” he said, forcing good humour into his voice. “I’ll see you later, Tegan. Unless-“
      “Get out!” I yelled, my voice squeaking with the strain. The door closed, leaving Marie and me alone in the big room.
      The journalists had made it feel small and crowded. Those mosquito machines, buzzing around me. They were only cameras and microphones, I thought, nothing to be scared of. But they’d been picking up every detail of me - my shaven head, my torn skin, my fear.
      “Those people,” I said. “Their clothes. Their tech.” I couldn’t make myself form longer sentences.
      But Marie seemed to understand. “We meant to introduce you to change gradually,” she said. She sprayed my feet and shook her head. “A big dose of culture shock… that wasn’t supposed to happen.” She looked up at me, and I found myself inspecting her face, concentrating on the details to keep myself steady. Marie had thick, straight, blue-black hair in a tight bob, creamy skin, and high cheekbones. There was no fold in her eyelids, but fine wrinkles spread from the corners of her dark brown eyes. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t wearing any makeup. She was maybe my mum’s age, maybe a bit younger.
      “Marie,” I said, “is this really the future?”
      She took my good hand in both of hers, looking steadily into my eyes. “I’m sorry, Tegan,” she said, sounding so, so sad. “It really is.”

When We Wake by Karen Healey is available from Allen & Unwin
Read our conversation with Karen Healey and Rhydian Thomas about speculative fiction, escapism, and why literary fiction can be so fucking boring.