A Cold Morning
By William Butler
Snow fell; large, wet clumps of snow that made noise as they touched the ground and covered the landscape turning it white.
Mai sat with her back against the only tree occupying the open field. The ground beneath her was dry and warm in spite of the cold, winter morning.
She tried to remember.... Anything.... Who she was, why she was in this place or the identity of the red-haired woman whose head lay across her lap; an answer to any of those questions would have eased her mind. As it was, the effort failed so she gently nudged the other woman.
"Wake up." She whispered.
The woman murmured quietly but turned over, nuzzled closer and continued to sleep. Mai nudged the woman again, poking her shoulder with a finger. This time the woman turned her head, opened her eyes, and stared up at Mai.
Slowly, a contented, happy smile came to the woman's face.
"Good morning," issued forth as a soft, comfortable moan.
It did nothing to alter Mai's state of confusion. She frowned and asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm Hana, you're Mai," Hana sat, folded her legs beneath her and pushed her fingers through her hair, "and before you ask, we're in Hoan province. It's a farming colony."
Mai's frown deepened and she added a pout, scrunching her mouth.
"Farms...." She glanced around, taking in their snow covered surrounds. "What farms? And why don't I remember any of this?"
"Because," Hana smiled, "it's not part of what they gave you before they sent you here?"
"They?" Mai asked. "What they?"
Hana stood and brushed dirt from her pants.
"Don't expect to make sense of it. Not yet, anyway." She held out her hand. "Come on."
With some reluctance, Mai accepted the hand. Hana pulled her to her feet and immediately started off across the field with Mai in tow.
"Where are we going?"
They trudged through ankle-deep snow that crunched beneath their feet. Mai again considered that despite the snow and chill air she felt no discomfort.
"The ready building's just over the rise."
Hana pointed to the small knoll ahead of them.
"Are you," Mai panted from the effort of keeping up with the taller woman, "planning to tell me what this is all about, any time soon?"
"Yeah, but I figured we'd get out of the weather first. That and you'll probably be hungry soon. So we need to get you something to eat."
Their trek to the ready building lasted only a few minutes. The remainder of the journey was made in silence, as much because Mai was too dumbfounded to think of anything to ask, as for any other reason.
Hana pushed through the front door of the long, low building and stomped her feet to shake off the snow. Mai followed behind, eyeing the unfurnished anteroom with its polished metal walls.
"Okay, if you go through there," Hana pointed to a door on the far side of the chamber, "you'll find some clothes. Slip into them and come out through the only other door. I'll be waiting for you and we can get some breakfast."
Hesitantly, Mai shuffled to the door but stopped when she opened it and turned back to Hana.
"I...." she began.
"It's okay. Please...." Hana's expression turned sad. "Please trust me. It's really okay."
Mai curled her lips into her mouth but turned and went into the dressing room. She found a wooden bench between two rows of lockers. A drab, gray jumpsuit hung on the end of an open locker door. On the bench in the same vicinity Mai spotted a pair of heavy boots, a black satchel and a pair of animal hide work gloves.
While she changed, Mai continued to search her memory for some clue to her situation. At one point she considered she may be dreaming and pinched her arm. When that changed nothing, she continued to dress then found the exit.
As promised, Hana waited for her on the other side. She held two trays of food, one in either hand.
"Here." She handed a tray to Mai. "Let's get a table and I'll try to bring you up to speed."
From its size, Mai figured the facility could hold a thousand or more diners. Presently only a handful sat scattered among the many tables. Like the anteroom, the walls were plan and of the same polished metal. While well lighted, Mai could find no evidence of light fixtures.
"First off," they sat across from one another, "I'm a doctor and I get to follow you around for a while to make sure you're really okay."
Mai stopped with her fork on its way to her mouth.
"Why wouldn't I be okay?"
Hana sighed, "Because you were mostly dead when we got to you."
Mai shook her head.
Watching Hana fidget, Mai considered her companion was having trouble formulating a response. She helped her along.
"Since you seem to be having as much trouble explaining as I do understanding, why not just start at the beginning?"
Hana stopped eating and folded her arms atop the table. For a long moment she simply stared across the table at Mai.
"You're memory was wiped for a very good reason," she began. "Most of the people that come here don't have that done because there's a real risk of permanent damage. But when we found you...."
She trailed off and lowered her head.
"Hey," Mai prompted her again, "don't stop there."
"When we found you," Hana looked up, "you were burned badly and I could barely recognize you. And the radiation poisoning was bad enough I thought we couldn't save you."
She turned in her seat, putting her back to Mai. When she continued, her voice was choked and weak.
"You finally came around after we got you here, and that's when you started screaming. Even after we fixed your body, you just...."
This time Mai didn't prod her. She waited patiently until Hana continued on her own.
"You just wouldn't stop screaming. And so we wiped your memory—all of it. Then we pushed what little you know back into your mind. By that I mean, your name, how to speak and stuff like how to walk and feed yourself."
"So," Mai's brow arched over her almond-shaped eyes, "who am I and why'd you bring me here?"
Hana turned back around but her head was still lowered.
"We're three-hundred years in the future from when you were born. The Lyani...."
"The Lyani." Hana raised her head. "They're the people who... how should I put this? They own everything and everyone you see here. This is their world. They learned how to travel time and they use it to harvest people who were supposed to die. They bring them here to work. Some go into the military, some into farming communities like this one. Others go into professional fields like medicine—like me."
"Pretty much we're slaves, Mia. I'm a slave. You're a slave. Everyone you see here... all slaves. There's really no other way to put it. We're slaves and they expect us to work here until we die of old age."
Mai scooted from the seat and stood, shaking her head in disbelief.
"If I'm a slave, why are you being so nice to me?"
Hana extended her hand for the second time that day. To her surprise, Mai returned to the table and sat again.
"Because," her eyes watered, "you're my mother."
It took a moment for Hana to compose herself. When she did, she smiled.
"They got to me before the bomb went off. They recovered probably ten, maybe twenty thousand of us. But not you. No one could find you. It took me years to finally work my way up to the point where I could go on recovery missions. And even after that, it was nearly impossible to find anybody to listen to me when I wanted to go back and search for you."
Mai realized Hana's gaze had gone from fixed to something like a trance. She watched as the other woman licked her lips, absently grabbed a metal cup and took a sip of water. Even when she lowered the cup, Hana eyes seemed far off and unfocused.
"But I met a man; Tchan," she continued. "He was with the military wing that does captures for special missions. He's like us; a slave. But he's been here long enough and they respect him enough that they pretty much do whatever he says. Anyway, he drew up the mission plan and we went back. It's the only time they've ever gone back after a recovery was closed."
Her eyes finally came back and she turned to Mai.
"And I found you and brought you back."
Mai considered the words for a moment, then, "and why would this man do something like that for you? Is he your lover or something?"
"Hmpf!" Hana snorted. "I guess they put more into your head than I thought. Lover? No. Not Tchan. He said I reminded him of someone he knew once. Someone he tried to bring here. Someone he loved very much and so he was going to help me because he couldn't help himself."
"When we map a mission," she took another sip and held onto the cup, "we have to make sure the people we recover died and their bodies are never found. So part of the mission plan is verifying all of the records about incidents."
This information peeked Mai's interest.
"What would happen if you got somebody you weren't supposed to? Would it change things... here I mean?"
"I don't know." Hana shrugged. "The Apita say you can't change time."
"No." Hana corrected her. "It's Apita; one word. They're..."
She bit her lip and gestured with her hands, searching for an explanation.
"They can travel time without machines. They're like... well, they're like witches but they don't do magic. Or at least that's what the Lyani say. I've never really met one."
"The point is they have this mantra, 'All can travel; none can change.' It means that anything you do when you travel time is what already happened. That nothing you do can change anything and so they never worry about it. Still, it's a big part of our training; this whole thing about not stepping on butterflies."
"Butterflies," Mai questioned. "Why butterflies?"
"Don't know." A smile turned up the corners of her mouth, "but hey, I'm a medical doctor. I don't do physics and the only reason I went into mission training was so I could find you. So I keep my mouth closed, fix the broken ones we bring back and most of the time I do what I'm told."
Mai cocked her head to one side and eyed her new companion for a moment. Finally she said, "My daughter, huh?"
"Will there ever come a point when I remember you as that?"
Hana shook her head and it was Mai's turn to nod.
"Okay then. But I'm still not too clear on this slaves thing."
Hana opened her mouth, as if to speak then stopped and considered her words.
"We work and they give us clothes, a place to stay, and they feed us four meals a day. When we aren't working you can pretty much do whatever you want—except leave of course."
Mai raised an eyebrow and sighed, then pulled the tray closer and started to take a bite when a thought came to her.
"Where are we from? I mean, what place is it that this thing could happen and kill so many people but you could just whisk them away and nobody would know?"
"It was a war and in the end two cities died just days apart. We lived in the one called Nagasaki. Maybe someday I'll tell you about it and show you pictures."
"No." Mai shook her head. "It's probably better that I don't remember something like that. It's probably better that this is where my memory begins."
Hana reached across the table, grasped her mother's hand and smiled.