There were too many people here.
He couldn’t see them, but he felt their presence. The air in the room was thick with quiet breaths, metallic rustling and the sounds of people moving slowly about, shifting uneasily from side to side. It was dark, and he was suffocating. Waves of panic surged through him, and he wanted to shout out, to make noise; but he couldn’t really feel his body. He was aware of the vague frame of himself, but he couldn’t find his fingers or reach his lips to open them. It all seemed very far away, and disappearing further into the distance as the minutes went by. I want to stay awake. The thought was as clear as a scream in his mind. I can’t sleep any longer. He struggled to stay conscious, but his senses were shutting down, leaving his thoughts in numb darkness. Soon, he couldn’t taste the stale air, and could no longer feel warm breaths against his skin. Then the last remaining part of his consciousness was snuffed out like a candle.
When he awoke again, he knew that he was someplace new. It was still as dark, but the room felt larger and more open. The sound of heavy footsteps against metal floor echoed between the walls, together with shouting voices and distant sounds of machinery. Grateful for the fresher air, he gasped and inhaled deeply, only to bend over coughing when he felt a gag between his teeth. He slowed down his shaky breathing, focusing on the feeling of his chest falling and rising. Slowly, the numbness in his limbs faded, and he knew he was standing against a wall, his hands handcuffed behind his back. With that awareness came the pain. His limbs ached as if he had been laying in an uncomfortable position for a long, long time, and his muscles stung from the effort of standing up. Suddenly, hands were on his face, removing the gag and the blindfold he had been unaware of so far. He squinted against the bright light until the spots in his vision gradually cleared.
The room was a large hall, with a curved roof of metal panels in different sizes, held together by rusty bolts at random intervals. A few panels were missing or broken, ending in jagged edges, and he could catch glimpses of moving machinery and steaming pipes from behind. Along the walls stood people chained to steel beams, like him, each of them kept company by at least one darkly dressed person each. The hall was dimly lit apart from the lamps above each prisoner, showering them in bright light, letting the others get lost in the grim shadows. He glanced down at his right shoulder, where the pain was the sharpest. There was a rectangle filled with thin black lines on his collarbone, branded into his flesh. Beneath the rectangle ran a long series of numbers. The skin around the brand was searing red, and judging from the pulsating pain that was slowly spreading throughout his upper body, the wound couldn’t be more than minutes old. He must have made a sound, for the man in front of him – an assessor of some sort – looked up from the papers he had been filling out and stepped closer, the lamp throwing light down his pockmarked cheeks and forehead, leaving his eyes in dark hollows.
The man spoke, but the language was foreign to him. He tried shaking his head, but the movement made him dizzy. The room spun softly as the man mumbled something and began rustling around in a large toolbox. Eventually he found what he had been looking for; two small copper-colored discs the size of a thumbnail. The man twisted his fingers into his hair to hold him still as he shoved the discs into his ears, where they settled at the top of his ear canals. He flinched, preparing for pain, but instead felt a low buzzing that spread from his ears throughout his scalp. A switch flipped in his mind, and the voices that so far had been spouting unintelligible sounds were suddenly neatly rearranged into words and sentences, words he could understand. “Have to keep them here, you see, until…” “That’s good. Do it once more, so he’ll learn.” “Please, no!” “Scorch him.” He inhaled sharply in surprise, eyes darting around the hall to locate the voices. At last, something he understood, although he knew the language they were speaking was not the one he had grown up speaking. Not that he remembered anything about his upbringing. His earliest memory was of the dark, and the crowded room.
“You understand now?”, the assessor asked. He opened his mouth to respond, only to realize he had no idea how to actually speak the language himself. The words were clear in his mind, but dried out and fell apart to dust on his tongue. “Not responding, eh? Feeling sassy?” The man lifted a long rod that had been leaning against the wall. The grip was of leather, with black wires hanging in coils below, the rest had the dull gleam of dirty metal. At the top, the material forked into the shape of an unfinished pentagon, and blunt spikes pointed towards the center of the figure from each joint. It was a strange device, but from the way the man held it – carefully but tightly, ready to cause hurt – he knew it was a weapon. The sight of it had done nothing to help him assemble an answer in his jumbled thoughts. He hesitated again, which he shouldn’t have. With a sneer, the man pushed the weapon to his chest.