It’s been six months. Six months since I’ve seen anything outside of this hell.
A week before that I was held somewhere else: a small room in Oasis, deep underground. There was only a chair fitted with straps and buckles to hold me down, and blood stains on the floor.
A day before that room I was in the Celian City, pushing Aaron ahead of me, my fingers vicelike around the gun in my pocket, attempting to do the unthinkable.
A night before that I was wide awake, barefoot and cold, but human. Acutely aware of my humanity as I pressed closer to him, my fingers in his hair and my heartbeat in my temples and his mouth pressed to mine.
But between that night and today, humanity began to feel a lot less concrete. I press closer to the icy walls of my cell, trying to ignore the blisters on my feet and the bloody, bruised numbness of the rest of my body, and I attempt to push myself back …
Back to six months ago. When the cold felt less like the slow, methodical thud of death’s approach, and when being awake didn’t mean trying, trying, trying to block out the wailing sounds beyond the walls of my cell. Back when I felt my humanity like air in my lungs, like blood in my veins, like thin but tightly held hope. When terror used to feel like a knife and a gun and gripping to life with bloodied fingers. Now terror is just being awake.
I’m hungry. I’m always hungry. It feels like something separate from me: a gnawing, greedy beast within me, screeching and howling for relief.
I shuffle barefooted along gravelly sand, and I tell my brain that I can’t feel the grains of sand grating along the wounds on the bottom of my feet. I tell myself I can’t feel it, that I can will the searing pain away. But the pain doesn’t leave me; it shoots up my legs with each step.
I hear a sound to my left and I turn too fast, my body swaying in the heat. It’s just another buzzard. I release a relieved sigh, even as my stomach turns at the sight of it picking away at the fresh carcass strewn across the ground.
A human carcass. A boy. Too young to be in here. Too stupid to stay alive.
I keep moving, tightening my hand on the knife inside of my pocket. There’s got to be something I can find here. There’s no chance of finding food, but maybe something I can trade. A weapon or a tool, or something that would be valued on the Outside. Not many people care about things like that in here, but sometimes Toa does, if it’s valuable enough.
But the place has been scraped clean. The bodies have been raided. First by the inmates, stripping them of clothes, shoes, goods. Then by the buzzards, stripping them of their flesh in the same desperate manner.
It’s been too long since the last shipment of food. Everyone is half starved and half mad and fully ready to kill for what they need.
My fingers fidget at the knife in my pocket. It’s worn and not the sharpest, but it’s the most precious thing I have. I don’t want to have to trade it, but there’s no use in having a knife if you’re dead.
I see movement on the far side of the opening and I give up. I’m not going to find anything, and I’m not willing to be out here in the middle of the day. During the day you’re more likely to have your throat slit than find your next meal.
When I return to my cell there’s a man standing in the centre of the floor, and my stomach curls in fear. He’s thin and wiry, with greasy, thinning hair that falls in rat tails around his sharp face, his long nose sticking out obnoxiously.
Get out.’ My voice doesn’t shake, but my hand does, gripping my knife within my pocket. ‘Get out of my room.’
‘This ain’t your room, pretty.’ His smile is yellow, his lips cracked and bleeding as they stretch around his teeth. ‘This everyone’s room.’
‘I said, get out.’ I move further into the cell, past the rails and over to the corner. There’s a strange blanket and some ratty clothes left on my makeshift bed, and I bristle.
I pick them up, shoving them against his chest.
‘Get out of my room before I skin you.’ I pull the knife from my pocket and press the tip to the skin of his cheek.
His eyes go wide, showing the bloodshot whites of his eyes.
‘I don’t want no trouble,’ he mumbles, his voice trembling.
He does want trouble, I think, as he stumbles out the door, almost tripping over his clothes on the way out. But he wants trouble with the defenceless, not someone with a knife and the will to use it.
This has been happening more and more frequently. It feels like every time I return to my cell some new idiot is trying to take it.
There aren’t enough cells in the prison for everyone, so most of the people here have to sleep in the old mess rooms or out in the open, both of which are dangerous. Groups of looters go around during the night, robbing those too stupid or too naive to sleep with one eye open.
I haven’t slept deeply in the six months I’ve been here. It’s not worth a few hours’ sleep to wake up with nothing.
‘Hey.’ I turn around as Clarke walks into the room, her eyes snagging on the knife in my hand.
I’m fine,’ I say, tucking the knife back into my pocket. The weight of it feels heavier now than it did a moment ago. Yet again it was the only thing standing between me and death. I can’t believe I thought about trading it.
Clarke draws her eyes down in question, ignoring what I said in favour of whatever it is she’s reading off of me, as usual.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing. There are just too many people in this prison.’
‘How many people is a good amount of people in a prison?’ she asks, dropping down onto the improvised bed I built on the cold stone floors.
‘Most of the people out there deserve this place.’
‘But not you,’ she says, inspecting her nails.
I roll my eyes at her, but she’s not paying attention. I might get mad if I thought she actually meant it, but I know she doesn’t. Besides, she wouldn’t be in here if it weren’t for me, so I can’t help but let it slide.
‘Still no sign of the shipment,’ she murmurs a few minutes later, shifting her focus from her nails – which are both filthy and broken, same as mine – to sharpening her knife with that damned stone she carries around in her pocket.
I don’t respond. There’s supposed to be a shipment every four weeks, but it regularly slips to five or six. Since they only give us the bare, bare minimum to begin with, a late shipment leads to starving inmates, and starving inmates lead to irritable, violent inmates.
More violent than usual, at least.
The past six months stretch out behind me like a series of slightly altered photographs. Nothing much has changed from the first week, and yet the torture of being stuck here feels a little sharper with each passing day.
‘How long more?’ I ask, not even turning to look at her. I shouldn’t be asking at all. We both know there’s no chance of escaping on our own. The prison is built a lot like Oasis itself, with two seemingly impenetrable walls wrapped around it, but instead of the beautiful Celian City, we’re gifted with the Colosseum, a bowl-like building with two layers of cells and an open centre, where people wander around looking to rob you, to fight you or to make a deal with you. The Officers rarely dare to step foot inside, so we exist with our breaths held, waiting for everything to fall apart.
I should be able to stay focused. To stay present. With criminals and murderers surrounding me at all times, I should be able to force myself out of the past for my own safety, but I can’t. All I can think about is what happened, and what I’m going to do when I get out.
Find Sophi and Kole, kill the Oasis President, and rip Oasis apart in the process.
‘What was that?’ she asks.
‘That face. You keep making that face.’
‘Nothing.’ I shake my head, but there’s no amount of shaking that can rid my mind of their faces. The OP’s, as I walked out of that room with a gun directed at his head. Sophi’s as I left her with Nails, a million promises hanging in the air between us. And Kole’s, a million images folding in on top of each other — the night before we left for Oasis, the night he kissed me in the hall, my last memory of him as we stood in that elevator, the air filled with fear and grief. ‘Nothing,’ I say again, and it feels like a punch in the gut.
Six months ago I stepped out of an elevator and into the arms of the enemy. There was a fierce calm then, almost a tangible thing, so much so that when I stepped out, over a dozen Celian City Officers just stared at me, suddenly uncertain. They expected me to scream, to thrash and pitch for the door towards some imagined ability to escape the City of Light … but I wasn’t that stupid.
Instead I tightened my grip on that cold, silver gun, and gritted my teeth in the resolution that if I was going down, I was bringing as many of them as I could with me.
I had told Kole – beautiful, naive Kole, hopeful still that we might complete our grand escape – that we’d find each other after, but I wasn’t really sure what ‘after’ meant. Because at the time I was naive, too. In a different, bloodier way than Kole, but naive nonetheless. I thought I would step out of those steel doors and blood would spill – mine along with theirs – and I would die in Oasis amidst a hail of bullets and righteous anger.
I imagined myself a hero. I would not do much, but I would die with more of their blood on my hands than they could draw from me.
But they didn’t fight back. They didn’t unload their weapons into my chest and drain my blood onto the pristine floors of the Justice Tower. They pushed me against the too-white walls and disengaged that cold, silver gun from my hands with an ease that echoed Kole’s skill. Then there was a pinch at my neck and my consciousness dripped off me like water sluicing off a roof.
Only two. For the next few days, for some reason, I kept thinking about that. I only shot two: one in the chest, one in the leg, and they had me.
I never thought it would end so simply.