They were led down a step hallway lit not by torches, but fake fire. Large, rounded bulbs held it’s tamed contents. Only fools would tame fire. Maria had once called it electricity. The city they were in was the city of electricity. It ran by the sun and most of the people inside the city were selfish. They ate more than their fill and wasted the rest in large underground landfills. They produced mass quantities of plastic, that when thrown into the water, dissolved and sickened even the biggest of lakes. They purposely killed their rivers and drove the wildlife out. They connected with faces on screens and not the ones that we’re beside them.
“Another one?” A guard spat as he spotted Tian, only then noticing the boy’s blood. “Put him with the beast.”
“Put them with the other slaves, as usual. They’ll all sell for a nice price since their mountain folk. Tag ’em and store ’em.”
RT grabbed Tian’s arm and guided him in a different direction from his people. Wails and screams arose but he didn’t dare turn back and look at them. It was time for them to part ways, until he won their freedom back.
“Your people will be safe,” RT whispered as he put his palm against a pad. The door slid open effortlessly, and both stepped through. It opened to another, longer corridor filled with hundreds of cell doors. Hands immediately stuck through the bars, begging. “I’m sorry, though. For what happens next.”
He pushed Tian forward gently and as they passed the bars, even the prisoners fell backwards in shock. Their pale faces got even paler as they huddled against the bars. They were a mix of males and females with weakened, frail bodies. Their eyes were wider than the average humans. It almost seemed like they were in a completely different world then their own.
“Those born to the poorest divisions of the Capital,” RT stated. “Used for experimentation. Cosmetic testing, drugs. There’s nothing more the Capital hates then those born of the land, and those born poor. Slaves that were unable to sell.”
“My people… they’ll become like this?” Tian whispered in horror.
The closer they got to the end of the hallway, the worse the people got. They were progressively getting weaker and quieter, laying in heaps on their own floor. They had their own toilets, but they didn’t have the energy to use them, they were living in their own filth.
“I’ll keep them as safe as I possibly can,” RT replied as they went through another door.
The room was just as long without the cells. It twisted to the left, probably leading to another set of doors or perhaps something worse. However, at the end of the hallway was a singular door with a painted label on the door. ‘The Blue Monster’. They came to a stop at the door, and RT pulled the handcuffs off.
“Wait, I’m going in there with that thing?” Tian asked with fear coated words.
RT nodded before the door opened and he was shoved inside. The door slammed shut behind him and every instinct in Tian’s body told him to slam against the door and beg for release. The cell wasn’t completely barren. There were blankets on the cold white floor, a toilet hidden by a small door, and tiny pencil-like objects. They were colorful, and seemed to be the cause of the scribbles on the wall. Whatever else was in here seemed to like drawing the sun over and over and over again. It had drawn a crowd with sad faces. The faces were unrecognizable, but they felt familiar.
Something shifted behind him and Tian whirled around only to come face to face with a young boy, about 12 years old. He was pale skinned with bright golden eyes. Similar black lines peeked out from the color of white clothing. The boy was tiny and frail looking, but Tian knew his own people when he saw them. It was a Kukouk boy with major scar tissue stretching against his skin. Tian struggled to contain his shock.
The boy surged forward, grabbing Tian’s arm. He traced Tian’s lines shyly, eyes filled with the same shock. He made a weird sound in the back of his throat before grabbing and dragging Tian over to the drawings on the wall. He pointed at a sun excitedly before slinking off to the other side. There was a line of roughly drawn mountains and a familiar pass. Death’s pass. The boy made another weird sound before coming to a stop in front of Tian once more.
“I-I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Tian answered and the boy shook his head before picking up one of the colorful pencils.
He turned to the floor and drew out vague words. ‘Am Maniar’. In the Kukouk’s native language. The name’s meaning was dark. ’Trapped’.
“Maniar? Is that your name?” The boy tilted his head for a brief second and then nodded. He pointed at his chest and the name at the same time before pointing at Tian.
“My name? I’m Tian.”
Maniar nodded slowly before sitting down. He patted the floor beside him and grabbed another color. He started to make a yellow circle and Tian guessed before he’d started to color it in.
“I’m from outside. Why can’t you speak Maniar? Did you never learn how?”
The boy shook his head before opening his mouth. He pointed in, and Tian felt sick to his stomach. Where his tongue used to be was a small mutilated stump. With a blunt blade, or a saw, they’d cut his tongue out and it seemed to be an older injury, something the boy had to learn to live with at a much younger age.
’Bad people said Maniar talked a lot’. The boy scribbled before taking his hand to smear the words as soon as he wrote them. ’Maniar was bad. Maniar is a Kukouk. Maniar is a bad. So they took tongue’.
At 12 years old, this small boy was taught that his own people were monsters. They cut his tongue out and treated him like a monster. The horror twisted Tian’s gut. Not to mention that the boy only knew broken parts of two different languages and struggled to even write them fluently. He switched between the two languages messily.
‘But Tian from outside? Tian from safe place? Why Tian not look like Maniar, but Kukouk to? But Tian know my language?’
“I’m half Kukouk, half human,” Tian answered.
’Half? What is half?’
Tian grabbed one of the color objects and roughly drew out a person before splitting it in half with a line. He pointed at one half. “Human.” Then he pointed at the other half. “Kukouk.”
Tian nodded. “Half. Are you the only one?”
Maniar shrugged. ’Maniar had small sister, small, small. But gone now. Maniar been here 3 years, baby sister never show up. Baby sister was half.’
“I’m so sorry, Maniar.”
Maniar shrugged before taking a deep breath. He clutched the colorful object in his hand briefly. ’It ok. Maniar not lonely no more. New friend like Maniar. New friend thirsty, Maniar have water. Maniar share food.’
Maniar slunk off long enough to pick up a small pail and struggled to carry it over to Tian. Water sloshed over the side as Maniar set the pail down before disappearing again. He pulled something wrapped in paper out of his blankets before setting it in front.
’Maniar friend can have food and water.’
“Thank you Maniar,” Tian whispered before tipping the bucket back to drink. The burn in his throat was finally eased and his stomach roared in hunger. The food was completely bland and dry, but Tian was so hungry he didn’t care.
They didn’t see anyone all day and into the night. A chute opened near the door and a tray of mush was pushed in before the chute slammed shut once more. Maniar surged over the mush with shaky hands. He scooped up some of the pale mush and shoved it into his mouth. He choked quietly, tilting his head to the side to slide it down his throat. He pushed some towards Tian and the hunger won out. This time, once the food hit his tongue he retched.
“The hell is this?” Tian hissed, trying to choke down the mash despite the horrid taste.
’Tian don’t want to know. The cells full of gross bugs. Crush down and boiled. Not always bugs. Maniar can’t eat solid food without choking. They make me mash.’
With somewhat full stomachs, they settled down for the night. Maniar was proud to show him a pile of scratchy blankets he called his home before curling underneath them. The room was icy cold and Tian had no choice but to join him.
However, Tian was restless and awoke easily. He managed to wiggle his way away from Maniar the koala, the boy had managed to warm up to him quickly. He sat in front of the door to the cell with his knees pulled up to his chest.