Heavy footsteps thump ominously around me, the sound harsh on my sensitive ears, and they circle me like jackals, their massive shadows looming over my fallen frame. Had I never seen their physical appearances, I would still know that they are not completely human, their cold demeanour, mechanical mannerisms, herculean strength and complete lack of emotion setting them apart on the scale of what defines an actual person. They had been the secret development of the country’s General, who had unleashed them amongst the public soon after his violent establishment of a new regime, and they are a horrific race, a disturbing hybrid of, and clash between, flesh and metal. They are built for one clear purpose, to do their master’s bidding, and this is accomplished purely through their monstrous nature.
The steel toecap of a boot crashes into my already-damaged ribs, the bone underneath splintering instantly into two. I barely have enough time to process the white-hot flash of pain before the repetitive sensation becomes too much, and my eyes fall closed of their own accord, my brain opting to shut down rather than face the brutal horror, and a heavy darkness surrounds me. The reprieve is short-lived though, as one of my captors grabs my arm in a bruising grip, hoisting me upwards and jolting my broken joints, fresh waves of pain rolling through my body and setting every nerve end on fire. They want to make sure I feel each wound as it is cruelly inflicted upon my skin, know each vicious cut, burn, slice, and break individually – I am witness to it all, as always, and I will not be granted the luxury of losing consciousness.
* * *
Electricity crackled in the air, the high voltage of the current causing sparks to leap off the metal frame and into the open space surrounding me, the other bodies in the chamber safely protected from the raw energy behind clear observation screens. My body convulsed, limbs twisting and straining against the straps and steel barrier holding me down, the sharp edges of the frame pressing easily into my skin and causing fresh pain, to accompany the excruciating agony triggered by the electrocution. Eyes squeezed tightly shut, it took every ounce of what little strength I had left not to scream. The sensation couldn’t have lasted longer than a few moments and yet it felt as if it dragged on forever, until finally, the current was turned off and I stilled on the table, choking and gasping for breath, a few stray tears escaping from under my eyelids and running down the side of my face. There was a slight hiss as they hit the still red-hot metal, causing a slight shock that shuddered through me, but I was past caring as I felt the grips of unconsciousness at the edges of my mind, lulling me inwards.
Out of nowhere, the sting of a backhanded slap across my face forced my eyes to fly open, instantly snapping me out of my dazed state of confusion, and I was met with the sight of familiar, unfriendly faces, each staring down at me with piercing eyes and careful to keep neutral expressions, giving nothing away. One of them asked a question, and I said nothing, instead turning my head to the side and spitting out a mouthful of blood in defiance, the pristine, sterile white of the tiled floor instantly stained. He glanced at it disinterestedly, before looking off to the side and flicking his head slightly, and almost instantaneously, the heated-red point of a laser burned into the area just above my abdomen, where the torn t-shirt had left open an expanse of dirtied skin, a blank canvas ready to be etched with fire and painted with strokes of my own blood.
The pain was agonising, forcing my worn muscles into spasm, locking down and refusing to shift. The circle of observers around me began to disperse, and though I couldn’t physically move, my senses were still intact – as a result, the cold instruction to continue the torture using any means necessary, while ensuring that I was fully awake the entire time, did not go unheard.
* * *
I feel, more than see, one of them lean down and close towards me, forcing myself to keep still and not react to their proximity or the cold voice making unwelcome passage through my ear. The question is not unfamiliar, and neither is the ruthless blow that follows swiftly at my usual lack of response. Vision swimming before my eyes, I grit my teeth and force myself to appear as indifferent as possible to the torturous treatment, trying to regain some semblance of control. It will mean nothing to the group surrounding me, but it will grant me a brief sense of satisfaction, reminding myself that as much as they try to break me, push me to my limit and leave nothing but an empty shell, I am still a living, breathing being – flesh, blood and bone. As long as some part of my psyche is my own, I have a chance, and as small as it might be, it still exists. Unbidden, my older brother’s voice springs to mind, his oft-repeated words ringing like a shot – “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Invictus had grabbed him from the moment he first read it, becoming his own personal mantra, so it comes as no surprise that I think of him now, but with his image comes the recollection of my most painful memories, those usually kept so carefully hidden within the deep recesses of my mind that it becomes almost possible to forget their existence. Not anymore though, as they replay in constant motion behind my eyes, provoking an emotional pain far worse than any physical could ever be.
* * *
We walked quickly through the crowded street, heads ducked low and eyes on the ground in front of us, mindful of the wingcams that flew above our heads purposefully, and careful not to draw any attention to ourselves. All around us, others moved in similar ways, no-one wanting to be stopped for doing something that was considered wrong or suspicious – the sense of fear was evident as it filtered through the polluted air, adding to the tension already in place from the armed police stationed throughout the town centre. The stark, desolate reality of the city now was far removed from the picture of vibrancy, colour, beauty and culture it had been only a few decades ago. Huge billboards loomed overhead, constantly flashing advertisements for ridiculous items that no sane person could possibly have any use for, while tall, unsightly grey structures lined the roads, the result of excessive urbanisation. There was no green to be seen for miles. Under new totalitarian rule, Edina had become a former shadow of its self, very few of its features resonant of the unique characteristics that had once made it great.
From up ahead there came a commotion, where the sound of raised voices, terrified pleas and yelling came clear through the dead silence that had just fallen. My brother and I glanced sharply at each other, before he nodded once and we continued on our way forwards, pushing our way through the crowd that had unwillingly but inevitably formed around the spectacle – a young woman lay cowering on the ground, various packets of food strewn around her, while no less than three officers encircled her, guns raised and ready to fire. It seemed that out of sheer hunger and desperation, she’d attempted to steal something to eat, but had unfortunately been caught. My throat constricted at the sight, and yet I could do nothing but stare from the side – intervening would only result in my own arrest, or possibly even worse. The woman’s pleading garnered no sympathy from the officers, her heartbreaking cries falling on deaf ears, but she continued to babble incoherently despite their warnings, and in an effort to shut her up, one of the guards reached out quickly, striking her hard across her face.
There was a collective sharp intake of breath from the crowd and I felt my own fists clench at the action, but still, lacking bravery, I did not move. However when my brother, always a man of conviction and courage, stiffened and straightened his shoulders next to me, I knew he was about to do something, and I caught his sleeve, silently imploring him not to be stupid. The opportunity to easily slip away unnoticed had presented itself, and we could take it, but he wouldn’t be deterred from his task. He spoke up angrily, striding forward to lock eyes with the brawny figure responsible for the hit, refusing to back down. I watched with growing trepidation as he held out a hand to the fallen girl against the threats behind him, when suddenly one of the officers raised his gun as if to strike down on his head, and my brother turned swiftly, throwing a punch before the blow could hit him. And all hell broke loose. The scene seemed to play out in slow-motion as watching in incomprehensible horror, I saw the man stagger back, while his colleague swung his weapon round, took straight aim and fired. One shot was all it took as the bullet met its mark, and I witnessed my older brother murdered in front of me.
* * *
Lost in my thoughts, I must’ve mumbled the words out loud without realising, for the sharp throw of a punch to my nose is enough to snap me back to attention, bursting the inner vessels so blood gushes forth and runs past ruptured lips, into my tender gums. There is no dwelling on it though, as only seconds later, I feel a harrowing tightening in my chest, the restrictions making it difficult to breathe, while my ears pop and an overwhelming pressure builds up rapidly inside my head. My insides feel as if they will either explode or liquefy, but the pain is so intense, both options seem equally appealing. I press my hands to the side of my head, trying to ease the force pushing in on it, but to no avail, and unable to prevent it, I fall backwards, head hitting soundly off the concrete floor. The sounds of harsh laughter ring clearly throughout the room and I lay there for what seems like endless minutes, like a tortoise on its shell, helpless and at the mercy of whoever decides to intervene – out of the two of us, the tortoise would surely be the one to fare better. Slowly but surely, the pressure fades, and I dimly realise that the sonic device has probably been turned off.
One of them leans over me, his expression leering, and a wicked grin plastered across his disfigured features. He reaches out a gloved hand, trailing the tip of his kris dagger slowly across my cheek, over my chin and down my neck, but the sound of someone clearing his throat at the front of the room stills him in his advancements. All of a sudden, I am yanked off the ground, and having a rough canvas bag shoved over my head, I’m half-carried, half-dragged through the facility towards the unseen and unknown. There is no limit to what they would do here to try and push me for information, no limit to the technology and array of devices they have, and the image of what might lie ahead terrifies me. However, as the familiar clicks of a number being punched into a keypad, and the buzz of a cell door opening, sound in front of me, I blow out a slight sigh of relief, ignoring my ribs screeching in protest, and send a silent prayer upwards in thanks. They must’ve filled their quota for torturing me for the day, but to no avail, and despite the fact I have absolutely no reason to, I feel a slight sense of victory. The moments come few and far between, but occasionally there are those times where I almost feel as if I’ve won, and I relish the emotion.
* * *
I listened in bored silence as the officer rattled off a list of my so-called criminal activities, secretly mindful of the fact that his list was nowhere near as long as it should have been. I gazed steadily at the surface in front of me, pointedly ignoring the stares of everyone in the room, immune to the hostility rolling off them in waves, and giving off the clear impression that I couldn’t care less.
“…kidnapping the daughter of an official, demanding and procuring ransom, arson, taking part in a terrorist plot to blow-up an official government building, robbery, numerous counts of grievous bodily harm upon an insurmountable number of politicians and city officials, smuggling, aiding and abetting unlawful activity, and the first-degree murder of Lieutenant Walsh, one of the city’s most-respected and lawful figures. What do you say to these accusations of your intentional commission of crimes against our mighty country and leader?”
Silence. Stillness. Nothing.
“Have you any regrets for the course and consequences of your actions?”
Finally, I lifted my gaze upwards, staring with hooded and blood-shot eyes towards the face in front of me, feeling a grim satisfaction at the visible flinch. When I spoke, my voice was rough with disuse, harsh in tone but unmistakeable in its certainty.
“I regret not slitting that bastard’s throat sooner.”
The grim satisfaction only grew in full-force at the cloud of shocked fury that descended upon his expression.
* * *
I am thrown carelessly into the tiny space, landing with a thud before the bag is removed and my hands untied, but despite the acrid dust kicking itself up my nostrils and down my damaged throat, I don’t move from my position. My mind races, lines of thought barrelling at full-speed past one another, eventually blurring into one giant colourful image that simply connotes fear and hurt and loss. I can’t differentiate between them anymore. Exhaustion overcomes me quickly as I fall into an infinite abyss, a welcome escape from the aching pain and the brutal reality of the situation, but as I lose consciousness, at the back of my mind remains a concise representation of my world having gone to hell.
* * *
I waken to the sound of my cell door slamming open, a pair of hybrids marching in with purpose to grab me off the floor and hold my limp body between them, turning me around to face the facility director, who follows them steadily. He glances at me coolly as, like every single day, he takes position in front me, feet slightly apart, shoulders straight and hands clasped behind his back. And like every single day, his voice is devoid of any emotion as he recites the same line, the answer to which determines the course of the rest of my day.
“Alexia Tait, are you now willing to impart vital information as to the identities and whereabouts of your militant accomplices, as well as any details of pre-planned terrorist activity?”
Determined, I lift my heavy head with effort to lock my gaze with his, eyes blazing with conviction.
Having to fend for myself, attempt to survive in a broken world, has been an invaluable lesson, and taught me many things of importance – betrayal of your only allies is unforgiveable, surrender is never an option, and defeat doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your cause. Damning myself to eternal torture is a minor detail in the bigger picture, and for as long as I am able, I will play my part, and avenge my brother’s death.
I am Alexia Tait, master of my fate, captain of my soul.