The evening is a long one, to say the least, and by the next morning I realise exactly what Day meant when he said time drags on when Lockdown happens. Somehow I hold myself back from killing Abel in his sleep and, when Lockdown is lifted, going to the cafeteria is torture when you know that all you can do is sit and wait to find out where you’re placed today. Everyone’s irritable and I don’t hear much of the usual conversation, so when I sit at the spot I tend to frequent I drop my head to the table; my ears are met with a stiff and hushed quiet.
There are people whispering, of course, but I can feel the tension in the air. They’re going to want to point fingers and find someone to blame for being made to miss two meals – an entire day’s worth.
The chairs near me shift, others making themselves at home there, and when I glance up I’m met with the sight of the same people I was in the field with yesterday.
A side note: I don’t quite know how to call everyone around me, even in my head. People sounds too general, but a convict is too… condemning. Too unforgiving. Kids sounds just insulting, peers too posh for this lot, so I’m really grasping at straws here. I figured I’d find something eventually, but I don’t think there’s a word made to describe criminals in anything but an unforgiving light.
I don’t want to use that.
For a moment we smile a little uneasily at each-other, tense for many reasons, and then Marid breaks it by nodding towards me imploringly.
“Word is you had a strange… let’s call it a worm, with you yesterday,” he says casually, arching an eyebrow, and I splutter an uneasy laugh before I push myself up a little, resting my elbows on the table and crossing my arms there.
Marid reminds me a bit of Day, although minus the childish optimism; he kind of has the same brown hair and dark eyes, but his skin is darker than my old friend. He does, however, have the same sense of humour.
“I was thinking rat suits him better,” I tell him, grinning, and Oliver barks a laugh.
“To be honest, I’m surprised you two didn’t kill each other. I saw you clock him a good one before he stormed in like an idiot.”
“I was contemplating the pros and cons of shanking him in his sleep.”
“Too bad you didn’t, because I had a bet going with Ben and I lost.”
“I’m flattered that you have such faith in my moral compass, Marid.”
“You may have many things going for you, but a moral compass is not one of them, Cas.”
I swat at him and he leans into Ben to avoid getting hit, but I’m laughing with the others as they start idly shoving each other. I’m plenty happy just watching the others bicker casually with each other, brought together by some strange happenstance; I’ve never seen them actually actively hang out together like this before, but I imagine they’ve always known each other in some way if they’re so easily at ease doing so.
Everyone here is more than their crime, and for me that means they deserve to be treated like human beings even though our death sentence hangs over our heads.
The screen flickers to life to my right, and the others grow quiet as everyone in the cafeteria turns their attention to it – I don’t even doubt that a great many of us just want to be in the kitchen today, and those who are clearly sigh in relief and even cheer half-heartedly.
Oliver and I are fixing our gaze on the fifth column, the red numbers running down lower than I’m used to – I count nearly twenty, which is not a lot in comparison to the number of us in the facility, but still a considerable amount. Marid and Ben are under Testing, and Oliver and Jehu are going into Latrines. I’ve been placed in the kitchen alongside Mitch, but Oliver’s attention is drawn to the last number on the Terminated, and he points at it.
“That’s Ishmael’s,” he says quietly, and it’s only then that it hits me.
When you go to Solitary, you never come back.
The others fall silent a minute, looking at it as if it’s foreign, and the sight of it brings me back to the time I saw Day’s there, how furious I was. How I couldn’t and wouldn’t accept his death.
Was that really only yesterday? So much has happened.
What hits me is that the others sitting with me slowly turn back to their conversations, although the atmosphere is decidedly hushed. Oliver looks down at the table and scratches his nail on the worn metal surface, clearly lost in thought, and my mind refuses to let me forget it so easily. I see his face again as he notices I’m watching, and the way he saluted me.
As if he thought I was someone worth enough respect for that, even though I’ve done such a horrible thing. The fact that I’ve stopped regretting it probably makes it worse.
I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere down the line I stopped thinking of myself as a victim, and I don’t feel that aching regret and guilt anymore whenever I actually let it grace my thoughts. I used to think about it constantly every day, but lately… it’s rare if it happens once every few days, and even then it’s only fleeting.
Before I can really reign in my emotions and stop myself, I push myself to my feet – getting their attention, but I ignore their curious stares – and let that bitter anger I felt when I saw Day’s number up there multiply and flood over me. I walk right up to the screen, my ears catching not a sound – my actions have caught quite a bit of attention at this point – and then, for a second, I stand in front of the screen with my fingers flexing at my sides, my eyes locked on all the numbers there – just another statistic. That’s all we are to them.
That’s all we can ever be, and the thought makes my anger boil over.
So it lashes out the only way it knows how.
My right foot slides back as I fist my left hand and punch it right through the plasma screen, shattering the glass in a shower of fragments and blood. The pain is immediate, shooting up my left arm as the glass digs into my skin and draws the blood that drips to the floor in rivulets; but the pain is numbed by the adrenaline pumping my heart, a drug my system has gotten good at producing, and for a moment I stand there with my fist digging into the glass screen, the fissures expanding outwards under the duress.
There’s a hush behind me as I clench my jaw and pull my hand out, ignoring the pain of the glass digging into my arm. The chunks that have fallen out cut through whatever parts of me they could touch, and I can feel a numbing burn on my cheeks and chest, and all along my arms. My left arm falls uselessly to my side, my hand twitching with the pain as my blood flows down and falls sloppily to the ground.
I find that I don’t care.
Then, without warning, the door on the other side of the cafeteria that never opens does just that, admitting five armed guards with impressive gear that almost immediately makes me want to disappear.
Everyone else ducks down and some dive under the tables before the one in the lead even yells them to do so, and they all aim their assault rifles at me and the red laser sights dance across my chest. They’re all wearing bulletproof vests and dressed as if they’re going to war: crisp dark green uniforms and combat boots, and armed with about three different guns, a medley of grenades, and other weapons I can’t even identify. Their faces are covered with shiny helmets that have a visor covering their eyes, leaving only their jawlines exposed.
“Get down on the ground and put your hands up!” The same one who issued the first order to the others in the room gives me this one, and while two of them remain at the door the other three march towards me cautiously, as if I have a bomb strapped to my chest. “On your knees, criminal!”
My heart hammering in my chest, I do as he orders me to. I can hear some sort of lockdown mechanism being issued, probably to lock the other door closed to keep everyone in here, and I can only lift my right hand up as I carefully get onto my knees; my left arm flares up in agony, and my hand twitches with the pain.
I wince, and let it hang limp at my side. It’s useless to me right now, and I’m starting to feel a bit light-headed at the rapid loss of blood. I blink a little more quickly.
Two of the guards flank me and press the barrels of their rifles to my head, and my body tenses at the fear that shoots through me. I never wanted to know what it’s like to be on the wrong end of a gun, and the way that my life is suddenly theirs to do with as they please makes my skin crawl. Just like that, they can decide my fate with just the twitch of a finger.
The third guard presses the end of his gun to my forehead and I bite back the urge to glare at him and instead shut my eyes tightly, ready to feel the sharpness of the bullet enter my system. I can feel the owl-eyed stares of everyone in the room watching me, waiting to see if I’m going to be executed before their very eyes.
Even so, under my breath I find myself saying my name is Cas.
I am more than what I have been made to be.
“Now you’re going to do exactly as I say, or the next thing you’ll get is a bullet in your head,” he snaps, and I catch a distinct middle-eastern accent, further into the ruins of Iraq than even I’ve been to, which is saying a lot.
After all, refugees of that Godforsaken land tend to have a rather thick accent and I’m pretty sure the government wouldn’t let people like me work for them. No, those bastards practically slaughtered us.
But this guy doesn’t strike me as a refugee. Probably a father from that region.
“Is that understood, or are you a bit thick in the head?” At that I snap my head up and glare at him, ignoring the fact that I can’t exactly see his face entirely, and I know I’m treading a fine line but my mind goes irrational when it realises I’m backed into a corner.
“Kerim bimzha, heez,” I spit, and for that the man takes his rifle and hits me with the side of it. Stars explode in my eyes and the other two take me by my biceps and pull me to my feet while I try to right my world again, their arms looping around my armpit to hold me as the guard then punches me right in the gut and I’m forced to take it.
Gasping for air, my head pounds as if a thousand hammers are banging against my scalp as they begin to pull me out of the cafeteria, bleeding arm and all. I fight against their hold for a second once I find the axis of my world again.
“I refuse to let them be just another number!” I shout, and for that I get punched in the gut again; I spit out blood. My head’s spinning and I definitely feel as if I’ve hit the threshold of critical blood loss by now, but still I glare at the guard’s back as I’m made to follow him. “We shouldn’t have to die for you.”
They drag me down hallways and up to another floor via the elevator, but I start blacking out from the pain and blood loss around then so the only thing I feel definite about is when I’m shoved unceremoniously onto an uncomfortable and slightly reclined chair, my right wrist clamped against the armrest. My left gets put on a surface level with my chest, and I’m told that if I try to move they’ll shoot so I sit back and try not to pass out.
A scientist comes in, takes one look at the state of my arm, and grabs a chair to get to work. Two guns remain trained on me, and the third guard stands in front of me, looking quite displeased.
No surprise there; I probably pissed him off.
When the woman starts pulling the glass out and barks an order for an assistant, I hiss against the pain and pull away from it a bit. Despite that, she doesn’t apply any anaesthetic and I suppose she wouldn’t waste such a human action on a criminal like me.
“You have two options, kid,” the guard tells me stiffly, and I can imagine the kind of glare I’m getting. A second scientist comes in carrying a medley of first aid supplies on a tray (including a bag of blood, making me cringe), and helps the woman pull out the glass as quickly as possible with no regards to my comfort. “Either we throw your ass in Solitary, or you give yourself up for testing like the little rat you are.”
I stiffen as the woman dabs the wounds on my hand and arm with peroxide, shouting in pain, but she ignores this; the second scientist is setting up an IV feed for the blood, and I regard it warily.
My mind races even through the fog, weighing that option – on one hand, I’ve heard a ton of things about Solitary and how you never come back from it; but on the other hand, giving myself up for testing makes it sound like an execution.
As if they’ll relentlessly test things on me until my system fails.
I definitely don’t want that.
So, despite everything in my body screaming at me not to, I force myself to look at the guard as squarely as I can and say, through my teeth, what I’ve decided.
“I’m going to Solitary,” I spit through my teeth, and his lips tug into a shit-eating smirk that automatically makes me feel as if I’ve made the wrong decision. His look of complete and utter satisfaction makes me wish I would’ve jumped in the trench as I watched the flames greedily lick up the bodies of those we’d thrown in, letting whatever hell I’m going to take me.
I have to sit there for a while as they finish bandaging the wound up and getting me hooked up to the blood transfusion. Never once do the guns drop from their aim at my head, which is about as pleasant and nerve-wracking as it sounds; my life hangs on the twitch of a finger and I have to sit hoping that they’re not feeling trigger happy.
I mean, sure I complain a lot about wanting to die and disappear, but at the same time I kind of like this whole living thing. After all, if I didn’t have a will to live I wouldn’t be fighting tooth and nail for it.
The transfusion is long and kind of dull, to be honest, not to mention a fair bit stressful. Once I’m hooked up one of the scientists leaves and the other idly monitors my blood pressure with about half as much attention as a regular doctor would, more interested in talking to the guard about how disappointing it is that I’ve chosen Solitary. Apparently they haven’t had a good candidate for OST in a long time, and I doubt they’re talking about the music albums of movies and games.
No one tells me more about Solitary until I’m told to get out of the chair an age and a half later, where I’m them shackled at the hands with my arms pulled back tightly, the cuffs digging painfully into my wrists and flaring up the pain from that time I got experimented on. I honestly don’t know why they bother, seeing as how I can’t really go anywhere. Probably to drive the point home.
The guard I insulted is the one to lead me down the hallway and swipes his card through a reader next to a steel door to the left, just before the second elevator connecting the area to the cell blocks. It beeps in confirmation, a light blinking on the sensor before the hydraulic door slides back and allows the stifling, cold, and musty air behind it to waft towards us. The smell is so strong that I gag a little bit, and then the guard behind me (the third one walked off to do something else) pushes me forwards once the one in front starts going down the staircase there. I watch my feet as I follow, ignoring the way the sound of the door clicking shut sounds final.
If I’d known that that would be the last time I’d see the light of day for such a long time, I might’ve stuck around to enjoy it a bit more. All the hell I was subjected to up there was nothing compared to what lay below.
An unforgiving metal staircase winds down in a spiral almost instantly, the steps echoing around the tightly-enclosed space as we descend deeper into the depths – to places I didn’t think the facility even went. The place is barely lit but there’s this weird stench of copper in the air, and I’m familiar enough with it now to know that it’s not a sea of pennies we’re about to walk into, but something quite unpleasant.
There’s a second door at the bottom with a red light overhead bathing the place in a glow that makes me think even more of blood as the guard gains entry with his magical card. This time the door’s older than the hydraulic system, one he has to swing open with an ear-shattering wail that makes me grit my teeth. It reminds me of a banshee wail, and I imagine that’s not very far off all things considered.
The sight beyond the door makes my steps falter. I wonder to myself if it’s too late to ask for the second option instead.
The long stretch of the hallway is lined with heavy steel hatches set into the floor along the walls, separated with about a cell block’s length between them, probably less. Thin pipes visibly run along the walls to the ceiling and disappear both into it and the floor below, probably into the cells themselves. I can see thick pools of blood that have long since dried up, leaving dark stains on the walls as well as other, weirder things. A body sits almost near the end of the hallway as if it was dropped there long ago, the skull caved in as if it was kicked and bugs infesting whatever’s left – which isn’t much. The God-awful stench makes me dry heave and curl a little inwards, unable to tear my eyes from the body.
It’s not the only one, either. I can see others, left here to rot, with various wounds inflicted on them – festering cuts and infected gashes, flies and maggots plentiful as they feast and thrive. Some have holes for eyes and noses, others are bare-ass naked, and unfortunately the list goes on.
I get escorted along this, the lights in the ceiling flickering sometimes. The concrete walls have bloody palms and scratch marks on them, and I half expect to get dumped into one of the hatches but instead I’m brought through the gate at the end of the hall and past another steel door.
I’m going to be real fucking honest and say that what I’m about to describe next doesn’t even begin to do the event justice. What they did in there… it haunts me, and I can’t go a day without thinking about it and having to spend some time holding my head in my hands, trying to stay sane. They did to me everything you expect them to do of prisoners of war. It’s hard for me to say it.
But I’m going to do it anyways.
It’s a weird room, upon first glance. There are manacles bolted to the wall and there’s an old cupboard made of wood shoved to the far corner of the room. A reclining chair is against the wall to my right where there’s a hole set into the wall and a large basin sits on the ground with a faucet next to that. Then, the last thing of note is a set of chains hanging from the ceiling with manacles affixed to it.
I’m brought to the latter by the guard behind me, who roughly pulls on my binds and releases me from them just so he can grab my right arm and pull it up so he can fasten the rusted manacle to my wrist. After he does the same to the other I’m left with just about my toes capable of touching the ground, which doesn’t do much for the pain that almost immediately settles in my shoulders and back, burning there. He’s handed a black cloth that he pulls over my head, fastening the bag around my neck with what’s probably a rope to keep it from moving. Effectively, it cuts off all sight and I’m left breathing in air that feels all too hot and smells of what I imagine fear would smell like.
The kiss of a cold metal settles at my collarbone where the neck of my shirt touches my skin, and the next thing I’m aware of is a ripping sound as it gets cut off my person. Naturally, it only makes me more nervous; my heart rate spikes.
“You’re going to wish you’d chosen the other option, filth,” I hear one of them say from somewhere I can’t quite make out. My mind’s telling me to panic, but I grit my teeth and fist my hands already beginning to numb from the lack of blood getting there efficiently. Despite that I can’t stop my hands from shaking, and the chains give me away as they rattle chillingly. “We have a way of dealing with rebel types like you, kwanii, and you’re going to find out real fucking fast that I’m not going to stand for any shit from the likes of you.”
I start breathing a little uneasily as my ears register complete silence, my eyes wide and straining even though the bag’s too thick for me to see anything through it. There’s movement and I know it’s there, but I can’t hear it or see it and it’s making my mind freak out.
Then something cracks along my back and I cry out at the shock of pain – the immediate burn that settles in as well as the stinging of the merciless strike. I don’t know what it is at first but I get a good taste of it about six times before there’s a lull and I’m left to breathe short gasps, my entire body wracked with pain-inducing shivers. My heart hammers in my chest as my mind tries to make sense of what’s going on and my lungs are working overtime to make up for it.
It happens again twice, and I can feel the whip – I know what it is, but that doesn’t make me feel better, especially since I think it’s a cat ‘o nine tails – break through my skin with the second. Blood starts dripping down my back, and this time I know they’re not going to take care of the wound.
I lose track of how long this goes on for, but it’s enough so that, somewhere down the line, I vaguely recall passing out for a blissful moment due to the overload – only to be brought back with another crack along my back that makes me choke on my breath.
When my wrists are released – my torturers painfully quiet – I drop straight onto my stomach, too weak to hold myself up at all. Every single muscle in my body is twitching with the pain, screaming at me to do something to end it, and at this point I’d do anything these two wanted of me if I knew they were remotely interested in anything I could offer. Hands grab my arms and pull me up to my feet so roughly the wounds on my back make me cry out, and I half-stumble as they pull me somewhere within the room and yell at me to kneel. I do so, more out of sheer desperation to please them than anything else.
It’s disgusting how it quickly turns you into a compliant animal. Hell, the most pain I was used to before this was getting tripped up in the halls for the most part – and while it seemed to me a synonym of the word hell, I’d take that a thousand times over instead of this.
A hand grabs my head roughly and I’m forced forwards, the lip of what I can only assume is the basin digging into my chest just before my head is shoved into the water held within. It’s so cold I can’t help but inhale some in the shock, and that of course only makes me cough into it as the bag on my head tries to go down my throat.
I’m still coughing painfully as my head is pulled out and I get to breathe, the bag pulled unceremoniously off my head with no regards to how I feel about the rough treatment. Water burns through my nose as it comes out, and fingers dig into my scalp that make me cry out in protest – when my hands rise to instinctively try to get the hand off, they’re grabbed and pulled roughly in front of me so they can be shackled again.
“Like I said you little koos,” he hisses at me, and I can hardly manage to crack an eye open to glance at him, my entire body screaming and protesting. I can slowly feel my mind shutting itself off, trying to pull away from this, but it’s already faced too much and I know that this will stay. These scars won’t heal. I can’t see his face thanks to the helmet. “You’re little more than my bitch right now, you understand me you little mud-blooded Iraqi trash?”
Still coughing the residual remains of the water, I nod in agreement – anything to end this. Fuck, just end it.
I’m not that lucky – I’ve never been.
“That’s right, and in here I’m your God.” I grit my teeth and shut my eyes as the grip in my hair tightens, my breath hitching with the pain. “First you’re going to get a real fucking nice reminder of who’s in charge here, and then your ass is going right in that little hole in the ground where you’re never going to see the light of day again – not until your time is up or you kill yourself. Whichever comes first.”
There’s one thing I don’t want to describe, and it’s what he does next. I don’t care what the fuck else he would’ve done to me – I would take the whipping a thousand times over, let it be my death sentence, instead of what he did. And when he’s done?
His friend gets a turn. I get turned into an object then and there, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.
I get tossed down one of the hatches nearest the door I was initially brought in from, falling some odd meters to the cold ground below and left there, the hatch snapping shut over my head with a ring of finality. The fall brings so much pain on top of what’s already there that it makes me pass out for a moment, only to then be brought back because of just how painful it really is.
I can hardly get up on my knees, surrounded by an inky darkness that smells as if something died here a long time ago and was left here a while. Getting on my knees only makes the pain starting at about my lower back on down to come around for round two, and I shout in protest and fall to my side, breathing heavily.
For a while I simply lay there, shaking uncontrollably and trying to calm my heart beating so quickly in my chest it’s actually painful, my eyes burning as I shut them tightly and try to push all I’ve just been put through out of my mind. I can’t see anything in this cell that sounds as if it’s no bigger than a coffin or two placed next to each other, but right now the darkness almost feels like an old friend. I drag in one lungful of air after another, trying desperately to calm down.
God only knows how long I spend like that. It feels like no time at all has passed, and yet for all I know an eternity might have flown by. Nevertheless, I eventually manage to pull myself to my knees once I grope in the darkness to find one of the walls, and then again to my feet – however shaky my legs may be. My pants threaten to slip off my hips and I lean my right shoulder against the wall to pull them back up and fasten the button, hands shaking as I look up to the indistinct ceiling and take a deep breath, blinking away the tears.
I have to tell myself that it’s over, at the very least. They’re done torturing me.
Nothing could ever be worse than that.
So, with my hands on the wall I start mapping out how big this hole in the ground actually is – and with the darkness so thick I can’t even see my hand in front of my face, I have to rely on everything else instead of my eyes. I can’t hear anything except for my own breathing.
The walls seem as if they’ve been carved right out of the stone, a bit jagged and sometimes threatening to cut me if I’m not careful. What’s more is that I was right in my previous assumption: the width of the cell is about as big as it would be if you put two coffins side by side, which does wonders for the morale. The length is about that of a coffin, too.
I step on something with bars on one end that makes me shout in surprise and almost lose my balance, and I get back on my knees to see what it is with my hands. It’s kind of like a grate, upon closer inspection. There’s an odd, slightly sour, smell coming from it so I decide to leave it alone.
The ceiling is so high up I can’t even reach it when I try to, but then again my back protests loudly when I try reaching up and I can feel one of the scabs tear open. Deciding that it’s not worth it, I opt to find a spot to lie on my stomach and try to ignore the pain.
I don’t know how long it takes for the pain to fade, but I manage to nod off at some point to sleep off some of it – although I wake up to the feeling of my stomach curling in on itself a little bit.
I get restless eventually: first all I can do is lie on my stomach and think, but at some point my back stops hurting so much and I’m able to sit up a little more, though the wounds won’t let me stretch up at all. The grate, I figure out, is this place’s version of a bathroom, which is a very gross idea indeed.
Whenever I wake up and do the usual once over of the coffin, I always find a much smaller portion of what they usually serve in the cafeteria sitting in a bowl near me – as to how they get it down here, well I’m clueless. At least they keep me fed, so judging from that I imagine they’re planning on keeping me here a while.
One time I find out that there are holes set in the right wall (I decide to try thinking of it that way, to help keep myself oriented). I explore them a little, and they lead me up to the top of the coffin where the hatch lies. It’s hard holding onto the wall, but I manage to free a hand and try to ‘see’ what it looks like, and if there’s a handle of some sort from this side. Unfortunately, it’s smooth metal.
Then after some time my wounds stop hurting – they just stretch a little unpleasantly as they scar over, the scabs falling off. I spend my waking hours so restless I start trying to entertain myself, just for want of something to do.
It’s around then that I start running in place rather than sitting, sometimes opting for doing push-ups against the wall since I’ve never been good at doing them on the floor. It keeps me busy, anyways, and that helps me feel as if time’s passing by more quickly.
Sometimes I just sit there and talk to myself, which probably makes me sound as insane as you’d think – then again, anyone thrown into a dark and somewhat cold hole in the ground with no human contact would do the same thing. Hearing the sound of my voice just helps to remind myself that the world isn’t so quiet.
I talk about a lot of things: how I’ll beat Abel’s face in when I get the chance, finish reading that book Day liked, and so on. Sometimes I think about the world outside, but I find it hard to imagine up what that world is like – I get fragments of memories, those days spent beyond the fence so long ago I don’t exactly understand what the word means anymore. The memories of my parents are fuzzy at best, what I did even worse off, but the things I can still remember are the smells.
Like how the world smells when it rains – which isn’t that often in this region – and the way the wind carries the smell of a thunderstorm just before it hits. I tell myself that, if ever I get to leave this place, I’m going to track one down just to see what it feels like to have rain on my skin.
One time, I start thinking about what Abel told me – what the injection is made to do and how his hand literally burst into flames before my eyes to prove his point. I can’t see my hand, but I hold it up and look towards it anyways as my mind goes down that memory lane.
He said it reacts to the will, but that sounds utterly absurd. Essentially he’s talking about magic – and magic doesn’t exist.
One day I hear a deafening squeal above my head that makes me look up instinctively from where I’m sitting at the top left corner, shielding my eyes from the harsh glare of the light that spills in and blinking the afterimages. It hurts to look at such a bright light, and a silhouette pops its head to look down at me from there.
“Well I’ll be damned, this is definitely a first,” they say, a feminine voice. “No one’s ever stayed in that place as long as he has without going insane or offing themselves.”
I squint up at the sight, my eyes very slowly getting used to the light as a second head looks through. They’re both wearing helmets so I can’t make out anything of their faces, but they’re backlit anyways so that’s already out of the question.
The sight reminds me of something, but for the moment I can’t remember what.
“Get your ass up here, kid – your time’s up,” the second growls, distinctly male. The sound is all-too familiar and I tense up, my eyes widening as the memory comes back.
Very cautiously I do as I’m told, climbing up the holes I’d discovered one time I explored and being hauled up by the arm the rest of the way, the hatch closing heavily behind me. That same grip pulls me to my feet and I wince at the jolt of pain it causes, but say nothing.
“The wounds healed well – he has a great ability to heal. I see no sign of infection,” the female voice, to my left, says. I get pushed forwards, back towards a metal door, and I stagger as I follow the prompt. “We’re to bring him to section B, correct?”
A thought keeps trying to come to me as I’m lead up a metal staircase bathed in red light, but it escapes me until one of them refers to me as criminal.
It’s Cas. The retort is on the tip of my tongue but I bite it back, lifting my arms up to shield my eyes from the painful light bathing the pristine white hallway in a painful glare. Everything feels foreign and familiar at the same time, which isn’t a nice thing to feel.
I don’t know how long I was in there for, but I feel as if it was a long time.
I get brought down the hall and into a room to the left, where a half-reclined chair sits waiting, surrounded by monitors and equipment. There’s a man in a white lab coat, thick glasses sitting on his nose, and a mask covering the lower half of his face that clicks his tongue distastefully as he looks at me while the guards instruct me to get in the chair. I do so.
“For the love of God, were you trying to kill him?” the man in the coat asks incredulously, walking over to me and pressing cold fingers against the base of my neck. “Never mind, I know what you types are. About as bad as the new experiments they have section C devising, only human.”
I stare at the man, the words bouncing in my head before he pulls away and begins affixing my wrists to the arms of the chair and securing them in place with a metal clasp. The way he systematically prepares me makes my skin crawl, as if I’m about to get cut open, and I watch with rapt attention as he places a few sensors to my chest that’s starting to house my increasing heart rate.
“I swear this one’s going to have a heart attack,” he mutters, and I notice how the guards have retreated to the doorway, waiting for this procedure to finish up. “I’m not doing anything drastic to you; just making sure you didn’t kill yourself down there and checking in on SC36.”
The name makes a red flag go off, but by then I’m strapped in and I know there’s nothing I can do about it.
Still, my curiosity’s getting the better of me.
“Checking in?” I parrot, my voice surprisingly quiet in comparison to the gentle hum I can hear in the distance. The scientist looks up curiously, and then nods as he goes to the side of the room to pick up a syringe and a brown bottle.
“You’ve shown no signs of it affecting you in any way, shape, or form, contrary to the others who have been injected,” he says, as if he doesn’t think this information is worth keeping from me. I appreciate the sentiment, but the thought makes my gut churn unpleasantly. “As a subject with no autoimmune system, you were the perfect candidate with the potential of it having an unprecedented effect on you, and yet there’s not a single sign. Even those we’ve suppressed their systems to then inject with the drug have responded.”
Filling the syringe with the clear liquid contained within, he sets the bottle aside and rids it of all air bubbles, concentrated.
“From what I’ve heard, you reacted the most violently, too. Maybe the new formula will be enough… huh. Perhaps the other simply assimilated into your system, attached itself to your DNA, but needed more to actually function.”
The needle is pressed to my arm with no prior preparation and he begins injecting the serum into my system, humming a tune that sounds vaguely familiar and foreboding – kind of like a funeral dirge.
The sensation is familiar, but somehow less painful than I remember: I can feel it burning through my veins as it slowly gets pumped to my heart, and once it gets there I tense and grit my teeth, but I can bear the pain. Comparing it to the pain of what they put me through makes this seem like child’s play even though I know it’s altering who – what – I am, changing me on a molecular level.
Then, after a while, it simply fades. The scientist looks oddly disappointed, putting the syringe down and looking to the guards.
“That’ll be all. Get him to the shower block before releasing him, why don’t you? I know you can’t smell anything thanks to those filters on your helmets, but this guy smells like he’s hasn’t gone without a shower for a month.” Waving a hand in front of his face to prove a point, he unclasps my wrists from where they are and takes off the sensors. “I’ll have him scheduled for another dose soon.”
The guards escort me back to an elevator and down to the service hall, and from there we pass through the door leading into the shower block once the opposite door has been locked to keep the other inmates out. I’m told to strip and wash up in quite the callous tone, which makes me frown, but I do as I’m told and ignore the way it feels as if they’re both watching me with rapt attention.
Suffice to say that, while it’s easily the most refreshing thing I’ve had in a long time, I don’t take very long.
A pile of clothes is brought for me in the meantime, the pants I’d been in being tossed out, and I gladly pull on the whitewashed jeans over a fresh pair of boxers and glare at the male guard as I zip them up – the memory painfully fresh and a nightmare fuel that has only stoked the fire since.
After pulling on a grey cardigan over the white undershirt, I leave it unbuttoned and pull on my sneakers before I’m pushed forwards in the direction of the inmate wing by the man, making me grit my teeth and bite my retort. The door’s lock buzzes loudly as it’s lifted, and the hydraulic door hisses back and admits me into the world I’ve come to be familiar with.
The guards make it a point to escort me all the way back to my block, and it takes a few seconds before the nearest inmate watching curiously recognises who I am. At first I get lazy, mildly interested stares, but then it hits them one by one. One of them walking actually stumbles and almost falls, a swear leaving his lips in utter shock.
Once I get back to my block the male guard pushes me back against the wall just outside the door with a hand on my chest, so hard my head hits the wall and I see stars, and even despite the helmet I know he’s glaring at me. I’m all too happy to return the sentiment.
“The next time you’re down there, don’t expect me to let you live,” he threatens, and I curl my lip in distaste at the thought of ever being at his mercy again. My hands fist at my sides and it makes my blood boil.
“I wouldn’t dream of giving you that satisfaction, kanith,” I spit back, which earns me a fist to my gut but I know I’ve won that battle anyways. The guards both walk off and I spit on the ground in his direction, followed by a rude gesture before I walk into my block and slam the door loudly.
Everything’s too loud.
I can hear shouting and yelling and everything around me suddenly feels too suffocating; I fall to my knees on the ground and drop my head to them, breathing through the rising panic. My blunt nails dig into the metal ground and I try to calm my speeding heart.
Eventually I get back to my feet, pulling myself together and looking at the painfully familiar setting that brings back many memories. My fingers brush along the two names carved into the wall and my eyes stare at the stack of books Day stole from the rec room way back when, the messed-up sheets on the cots. The sight of everything here makes the idea that I’ve lived here and now I’ll die here pop into my mind – an unpleasant reminder.
Nevertheless, it’s better than that coffin. For one, it’s bigger.
My thoughts are rudely interrupted when the door behind me swings wide open and slams into the wall so loudly I jump with a shout, the sound making my heart lurch in my throat. The one standing there looks unapologetic – rather, you’d think he’d seen a ghost with the way he’s staring at me in disbelief.
It takes me a moment to recognise Oliver: his dark brown hair is longer, almost enough to be tied back, and he has a bit of a scruff on his jawline that he hasn’t bothered getting rid of yet. His dark brown eyes are wide, locked on me as the dark-skinned inmate stands in the doorway, completely convinced his eyes are playing tricks on him.
“Cas?” he manages to choke out, and I push away from the wall I’ve curled towards instinctively and try to calm my racing heartbeat. I press a hand to my chest and breathe out, swearing quietly.
“Christ, Oliver! Are you trying to kill me?” I yell breathlessly, rubbing my chest at the pang of pain that makes itself known. The Turkish doesn’t apologise, of course, but rather he walks up to me and puts his hands on my shoulders and stares at me so intensely I get uneasy. “What?”
“You’ve got the luck of the devil, man. How the hell are you alive?” I look away towards the cots, making a face at his question and unconsciously bringing my arms up to hug them to my chest. The sight of my cell had managed to chase the memories off a bit, but his inquiry brings it all back.
He seems to realise this when I don’t answer for a few seconds, his eyebrows shooting up before he drops a hand to his side and squeezes my shoulder.
“Hey, it’s good to have you back. I’m proud to say that I won that bet.”
I can’t help the smile that tugs at one side of my lips, and when I look back at him I laugh uneasily.
“I should’ve known you would’ve had a bet going.”
There’s another shout from the doorway, and pretty soon more familiar faces appear in my cell – all of them unbelieving but plenty glad to see me. I get welcomed back by those who were a witness to Day’s burning with me, and despite how everything around me is almost overwhelming, I’m happy to see them all. They remind me what it’s like to be normal.
Well, as normal as you can get here.
I find out that I’ve been gone for a little over a month, which is why everyone simply assumed I was dead. None of them ask what happened, but they seem to realise that I get quiet and pensive for a while sometimes, simply staring at nothing in particular and in my own world. Every time someone accidentally brushes me or touches me, I tense and my skin starts to crawl again, which only makes the quiet moments more frequent as I try to beat away the memories.
I’m going to put this out there and say that I’ve never been happier to eat the slop they serve here, even though I can only eat about half of it. Marid tells me that I look thinner than before, which probably means I wasn’t being fed much to begin with.
The shower block is a nightmare. All throughout I’m self-conscious of the scars running along my back and I try to avoid getting much water on them, since the scalding temperature just makes the pain come back. I can practically feel the stares of everyone around me, so I’m quick to wash up and dress so I can get the hell out of there.
I’m so consumed by my own thoughts that I bump right into Abel on my way back to my cell, which only serves to make the day that much shittier. Out of all the things that could happen, it had to be the one thing I didn’t want to deal with right now.
I don’t feel like picking a fight. I just want to sleep.
So, before he can say anything to try and provoke one I simply catch his gaze and stare at him emotionlessly, surrounded by God knows how many other kids. It stops whatever he was about to say, and I don’t know what he sees in my eyes and I don’t want to cook up some metaphor at my own expense, but whatever it is it makes him pause. That’s what matters.
Shaking my head slightly, I frown.
“Unless you’re here to kill me, Abel, I don’t want to hear it,” I say bluntly, and I can hear the exhaustion in my own voice. His eyebrows crease at the sound of that. “I’m just really, really sick of it.”
I walk by him to my cell, closing the door quietly and breathing out a sigh of relief. As I walk over to the dresser to grab some nightclothes I roll my shoulder and rub the back of my neck to try and get rid of some of the tension.
I have to try really hard to stay on my feet right now.
It’s as I’m just about to get up onto the top bunk to sleep that the door opens and closes really quickly, as if whoever is there doesn’t want others to know he’s here, and I glance at them with vague interest.
“I told you, I’m not-!”
“I don’t give a shit about any of that,” Abel hisses, keeping his voice down as he steps away from the door. I sigh heavily, rolling my eyes and leaning against the ladder of the bunk as I cross my arms and frown at him. “How are you still breathing?”
“Like hell I’d tell you,” I say, too tired to bother putting the venom in my voice that I want to put. “Just… just don’t ask. There are some things that are better left unsaid, Abel.”
“Forgive me, but if it’s to the point where I question how the hell the prototype who was hell-bent on picking a fight whenever we crossed each other looks half-dead on his feet, I think I’m allowed to be curious.”
I scoff, deciding it’s best if I pull myself onto the bunk so I can ignore that statement.
“Careful, it sounds like you’re actually worried about your favourite punching bag,” I warn, making him laugh dryly.
“How about you think of it as me wondering if the guy I want to manipulate into helping me escape wants to live so badly he’s willing to give it a shot?” he shoots back as I throw myself onto my side facing the wall, an arm under the pillow. I frown at the sound of that.
“I don’t have any power to help you. Find someone else.”
“If you think I won’t use you anyways, think again. You’re my ticket out of this place, and if I’m going down you’re coming to hell with me even if I have to drag you down screaming.” Scowling, I push myself up so I can look at him incredulously.
“You seriously think I have some sort of weird mutation, don’t you?” I ask dryly, and he arches an eyebrow as if that’s a stupid question. I sigh in irritation.
“If you remembered what you were thinking during the procedure, that would help you a lot.”
I throw myself back down onto the cot and make a face to the wall.
“Get out of my cell before I kick you out myself – and I’m not kidding when I say I’m sick of fighting for a while.”
“Then let me leave you with one more piece of advice: if you want your revenge on whoever did that to your back, it’s going to have to be my way.”
When the door closes behind him I lie in the lulling quiet, staring blankly at the wall without really seeing it. The voices slowly start quieting as lights out draws ever-nearer, and the cot I’m lying on almost feels too comfortable as I lie in the growing quiet. The hush soothes my frayed nerves, and it allows my mind to let go of the panic that’s settled in some time ago and just take a breather.
Again, I think about what Abel’s said.
I won’t lie: I freely admit that the thought of making the guard pay for what he and his buddy did to me was one of the many I’ve entertained when I was in that hellhole. I wanted them to suffer a fate worse than what I’ve been through, and I wanted them to know that it was happening because they thought I was something they could control.
No one can control me – or own me. I am my own person, and I have been robbed of one of my inherent rights – freedom, and that given to us by God when we were told to question authority. This system we use now denies all of us that, as whoever questions the way we sacrifice prisoners like cattle because “the use of animals was unethical, but that of prisoners was not” always mysteriously vanishes.
Humanity really never learns from history, huh?
I want that freedom back. I want that right – I want them to know what this God-forsaken institution has become. I don’t want children like Day to disappear anymore.I don’t want to disappear.