Boy From the County Hell
by Maya Tawi
I wish that all this raining would stop falling down on me.
-The Pogues, "Boys From the County Hell"
Consciousness returned slowly, in small bursts of information. I was alive. I was upright. I was- what?
I couldn't help thinking that, for one reason or another, the appropriate word was "screwed".
No premature panicking; I couldn't panic properly until I was fully informed. Instead I kept very still, cataloguing the extent of the pain, trying to remember what had happened. Beka- then the shop- then the Niets-
Cautiously I let my eyes drift open, testing them. Vision was blurry. No big surprise, considering how much my head hurt. Something warm dripped from my nose. Blood or snot. I couldn't tell.
I sniffed hard, hoping to staunch the flow, and inhaled a noseful of stale sweat and blood and steel bars. I couldn't move my arms or legs. A Niet cell, then; I'd been in them often enough to recognize one by smell.
Dark shapes moved back and forth in the cell in front of me. I forced myself to relax, letting my chin slide down on my chest, slowing my breathing in an attempt to feign unconsciousness. A split second later, hard, unyielding fingers wrapped around my chin and yanked my head up, so fast it nearly popped off my spine.
Fucking Nietzscheans always know when you're awake.
My eyes flew open and a croak escaped my throat, an automatic protest against the rough handling, and that's when I realized I would've given a limb for a cold glass of water.
"Well," I said, "I am now."
It was meant to come out acerbic and contemptuous; unfortunately, to my own ears I sounded like a petulant kid. Very manly, Seamus.
The Niet's smile was cold, just like everything else in the room. The rough stone wall against my back, the hard metal shackles around my ankles and wrists, the flat black eyes boring like laser probes into mine: all cold.
I gritted my teeth together and forced myself to glare back. I despised Nietzscheans. I wasn't afraid of them.
He said something, then, that I didn't understand. Maybe my hearing was going along with my eyesight. I shook my head, and instantly regretted it when I felt my brain rattle.
"The spacers," the Niet said again, slower this time, and way too loud. I winced, but it didn't seem very prudent to ask him to keep it down. "What did they want with you?"
"My good looks and charming personality," I mumbled, and braced myself for the reply. I heard something in my arms crack and relaxed slightly. That wasn't so bad. I wasn't even feeling the pain yet.
"What did they want with you?" the Niet repeated again. He was starting to look pissed. The subtext was all too clear: What could anyone possibly want you for?
I'm good enough for you to want me, I thought spitefully. Good enough for you to kill my parents trying to take me.
The problem was, he just couldn't understand. To the Ubers, we kludges are worthless as anything more than slave labor; they could barely comprehend the possibility of us being useful as individuals. This guy wanted to know what made me special enough for Beka and Bobby to risk smuggling me off planet.
Oh God. Beka....
"Why don't you go ask them?" I growled finally, when I got my breath back. Beka had definitely been at the shop. Her voice was the last thing I remembered hearing. Warning me off.
The most amazing thing anyone had ever done for me in twenty long years, and I owed her for it. Owed it to her to keep my mouth shut.
I stiffened, again, when I heard more bones crack. Pressure vises, I realized. Stress fractures. I was analyzing the damage even as another part of me finally gave in and screamed.
"What. Did. They. Want?"
I gasped a faint laugh. "They got away, didn't they? Slipped through the grasp of the almighty Ubers-"
Pain ripped through me, from the roots of my hair to the soles of my feet, then circulated back through my skull. A shrill animal scream echoed through the cell. It took me a long time to realize it was mine.
"Mechanics!" I blurted out, as soon as my throat stopped convulsing, as soon as I could force my lips around the words. I was shuddering uncontrollably, cold and fear and pain. "Engineering, mechanics, I fixed her ship- she wanted me for the ship, that's all, I promise, I swear...."
The aftershocks were still rippling through my jaw, slurring my words in new and interesting ways. I tried to stop talking, tried to cut off the flow of words, but they poured out by themselves. So much for repaying Beka in kind. I wanted to die.
I was probably going to get the chance.
"Very good," the Niet said, utterly emotionless. "Where are they going now?"
At least this one I could answer honestly. "I don't know, swear to God, she never told me-"
But all of a sudden I did.
We've got an appointment at the Kaziykan trading post, and we've never missed a money-making opportunity yet.
Didn't matter. They still weren't going to get Beka. Not because of me.
My mouth snapped shut, but not fast enough. Or maybe too fast.
"Where?" the Niet demanded again.
I opened my mouth and said clearly, "Bite me."
Then I clenched my teeth together, and kept them shut. And for a long time I didn't say another word.
The next time I woke up, I was flat on my back and my throat felt like the Kalahari. I swallowed hard and tried to speak. All that came out was a rusty-sounding grunt.
Cold, dispassionate eyes flicked down towards me, then said something I couldn't understand. The last thing I saw before I passed out again was the knife descending towards my throat.
The third time, I remembered everything right away, and for a panicked moment I couldn't figure out why I wasn't dead yet.
I struggled, trying to launch myself away from the blade, towards relative safety and relative freedom. After a few seconds spent struggling, I realized why I wasn't getting anywhere: I was strapped down to the table.
Better and better.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
As if on cue, the pain flared up yet again, burning through my arms and legs and my skull, and it took me a moment to realize that the fire throbbing on the side of my neck was something completely new.
I sagged back against the table, letting my head thunk against the hard metal and not even wincing when it started the pounding anew. I was busy re-running my earlier period of brief consciousness through my head. In my mind's eye, I saw the knife coming again- and suddenly it wasn't a knife, but a scalpel.
They didn't want me dead, I realized with a groan. They wanted an experiment. They wanted to play with me.
It was pretty well-known on the streets that the Ubers didn't turn all their captives into slaves. The Nietzschean credo, after all, is to continually evolve into the best of their species. And, sometimes, to help evolution along. And of course, being Nietzschean, they wouldn't try anything on themselves that hadn't already been tested on a worthless kludge.
On the whole, I'd've preferred to have my throat cut.
That not being an option at the moment, however, I turned my attention to the matter at hand: finding some way out of the restraints. After that, I could worry about whatever the hell they'd done to me.
At least they'd healed my broken bones. It made thrashing in the restraints slightly less painful, if no more effective.
I tried first with my fingers, then my teeth, but it was no use; I couldn't reach the restraints. And even if I could, I wouldn't know how to undo them. As far as I could tell, they didn't lock, or buckle, or do anything that could be undone; they were just solid circles of metal around my wrists and ankles.
I tried stretching my thumbs as far as they would go in an attempt to dislocate them. All I got for my troubles was twin aches in my knuckles to add to the rest of my collection.
I was seriously considering gnawing through my wrists- not very seriously, but I was definitely calculating angles and tendon thickness- when the lock clicked and the door started to open. I snapped my eyes shut and abrubtly fell back again, too fast; my skull smacked none too gently against the table, and I suppressed a wince.
Four heavy boots hit the cement floor before the door swung shut again. I concentrated on slowing my breathing. By this point I didn't really expect to fool anyone into thinking I was asleep. I just didn't want to deal with them if I could help it.
The footsteps stopped just by the table; I could feel body heat radiating onto either side, surrounding me. My heart pounded, and I swore silently. Calm thoughts. Off to Neverland, baby.
Then a familiar, raspy voice asked, "Is he ready to test?"
The Uber who'd tortured me. My hands hurt; it took me a while to realize I was clenching them into fists, tight enough to crack knuckles. Didn't matter. They had to know I was awake; obviously they didn't particularly care.
Then I thought, Aw crap, test?
A cool, quick touch rested on my wrist, then pulled away before I could flinch. I clicked the observations through my head like a computer: fingers. Checking my pulse. A doctor. Human doctor.
I cracked one eye open reluctantly, just in time to see hands reaching for my face.
"Hey!" I yelped, trying to pull away. The doctor ignored me; strong, efficient hands grasped the top of my head, tilting it none too gently to the side, and I felt simultaneously ill-used and idiotic. Either one was better than the mind-numbing fear that threatened, so I didn't take it too hard.
"Minimal scar tissue," the doc reported after a moment. "The skin's closed up, and he doesn't seem to be rejecting the implant."
His words sent a chill through my stomach; the... thing (implant?) in my neck started throbbing again, as if it'd been waiting for me to remember it was there. Except it couldn't wait for anything. Because it wasn't alive. I hoped. God, I hoped.
I licked my lips, tried my voice. It seemed to be working, though I felt each vibration rattling amplified through my skull. "Uh. Doc? What's going on? What's with the impromptu surgery?"
He ignored me, or maybe he was just too preoccupied to take note, because in the next instant those same strong, efficient fingers were pressing directly against the burning, screaming pain in my neck. I might've screamed. I wouldn't be surprised. "Skin's still tender," I heard him say distantly, and I thought bitterly, I could've told you that. Would have said it out loud if I'd had any air in my lungs.
While my body gradually unclenched and I started breathing again, the Niet was saying, "It doesn't matter if it hurts. It's the technology we want to test, not the comfort level."
This did not sound good.
"I would advise against it," Doc said, and just when I was thanking whatever gods were listening for having a humanitarian on my side, he went on, "Pain spikes could skew the test results. We want to stay well within the parameters of the experiment."
My eyes darted back and forth between the Uber and the doc, the latter still keeping a firm grip on my skull. "Um. Excuse me? Experiment? Pain spikes?"
The doc flattened his hand on my forehead and pushed my head back down on the table. So much for him being the nice one.
"Twenty-four hours," Big Ugly said, and I couldn't tell from his voice if it was a concession or a threat.
"Come on," I pleaded, trying not to panic, shooting instead for levity. A choice I seemed to be faced with more and more lately. Oh, how I hate my life. "Aren't you gonna tell me your evil plan before you kill me? That's how the bad guys work, right? I know you Ubers, you're very big on tradi-"
I realized my mistake as soon as it was out of my mouth, but I couldn't stop in time. Like that was new: Shameless Z. Harper, always shooting his mouth off without ever taking the time to think. I didn't shut up till the Niet's backhand cracked across the side of my face; then I let my head drop back again, dazed by the sudden explosion behind my eyelids, fighting against the looming unconsciousness that threatened to take over.
Ubers hate being insulted by the lesser races.
They left without another word, turning the lights off and closing the door behind them, plunging the room into complete, unrelieved blackness. I ignored them, concentrating on breathing, and eventually the pain faded to just another dull throbbing, barely noticeable under all the other hurts.
I lay there for a long time, wide-eyed in the dark, trying not to think about what would happen in twenty-four hours. Then I started struggling with the restraints again, more to keep busy than with any real hope of getting free.
I kept telling myself that I'd been a survivor. That whatever happened now, I'd had a longer life than most.
It really didn't help.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Epilogue