Stealing Souls, Chapter Seven: Underground

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

They tried to take Ainsel by the hand, and she bit the hands that were offered. Then they tried to take her by wrapping her in a blanket, but she saw it coming for her. Unencumbered by the weight of unnecessary legs, she darted through parted feet, and found hiding places in the brush. Finally, somebody managed to catch her by the foot and drop her into a crate.

They put the crate on a cart on the wheels, and drove her deep underground for miles, until they stopped at the heart of the old city. It was at this point they gave her water that tasted strange, and she fell asleep.

When she woke up, her back hurt, where the limp limbs had been cut off. It was a new, different kind of pain; the sting of something devouring. She wasn’t wearing any sort of shirt, or any other clothes, and reaching her arms back she could feel the lower two scars. Her fingers touched warm metal embedded into her skin. They were delicate nubs, almost needles. As she tried to feel them more carefully, the movement hurt worse, and she drew her hand back.

She wasn’t in the crate anymore, or in the metros. She was in an enclosure of metal, plastic and glass, lying on a seat of soft but scratchy fabric. Through the windows, she could see orange torches and grimy pale walls, and many other squat enclosures like hers, the light reflecting off of black, blue, white, silver, tan, and occasionally red. It was a parking garage.

In many of the other cars were human figures. Some were moving from seat to seat, but most stayed in one place, rocking restlessly, or still as corpses. They were young; mostly children like her, a few teenagers, and nobody older than their early twenties. Metropiads didn’t kill. They would provide food and water, and deep underground the garage was a stable temperature year round. But the children died anyway. Even fed, they wasted away. Even given medicine, a cold would ravage through their body like a tempest. Isolated, bored and purposeless, they would die of darkness.

Ainsel saw that no one was watching her, and began to explore. Her fingers explored and found a panel full of little switches and knobs that she could move, but none did anything. The wheel barely budged. The switches along the doors were equally useless. Even the inner lock, which should have worked without a battery, did nothing. The Metropiads had disabled it, and padlocked the doors from the outside, so access in and out would happen always on their terms, never on hers. She did not know any of this, any more than she knew the word for what she was in. It wasn’t even that she expected any of the switches to do anything observable. She was the purest sort of scientist; one open to any discovery, including discovery of nothing at all. She explored for exploration’s sake.

After the doors and dashboard, she found a working lever. It was the one on the side of her seat, and it made the back of it she was sitting on flop forward. She was knocked back into the horn, which she had overlooked before. The long, loud blare set the girl in the car next to her screaming. Ainsel was pinned for a moment, watching the other girl press her hands against the window, the breath of her angry shrieks fogging the glass. She was about twelve, and had long but sparse hair. Her scalp was patchy, like she had ripped it out chunk by chunk. It had gone brittle and tangled, so it looked like winter branches rattling in the wind. Everything else about her appearance was obscured, by dark, by her own breath, and by the motion of her body as she flung it, again and again, against the door. Her hands were up, but not with defensive intent. It seemed that her only aim was to make the most sound possible, as if her voice was inadequate to her rage and she needed the slap of her palms to make her full point known. In fact, her head hit the glass before her hands as often as the other way around, and she seemed to be indifferent to the pain. It was not suicidal, it was not unsuicidal. It was a tantrum, and whether she killed herself in the process of expressing the anger was simply a matter she was indifferent to.

Many would have found this expression mysterious to the point of alien. To Ainsel, it was perfectly understandable. This did not make it any less frightening.

After a few moments of paralyzed shock, she managed to wriggle out from between the seat and the wheel, down to the useless pedals on the floor. Although the horn’s blare had silenced, the screams and the bangs did not. She covered her ears with her hands, and covered her hands with her knees, and this failed to block out the sound. In fact, she began to hear a new sound. It was laughter, low and juvenile. It came in bursts, making an odd rhythm against the screams, the beat of a drum under sustained melody. The ugliest of syncopations.

Then the screams began to fade. The song was ending, and Ainsel could smile a little at the relief. She did not remember when she had started to cry, but her cheeks were wet. Her breath started to come more easily.

“Baaaaaaaaaaaaaeeeeeeeeeep!”

Another horn blared from another car. The screams resumed, and so did the laughter. It wasn’t a song anymore. It was a nauseating merry-go-round of sound. Beep. Scream. Laugh. Beep. Scream. Laugh. It would be so easy to expect one or the other to get tired, for the girl to realize her screams were encouragement of her torture or the torturer to get bored of his game. Neither happened. Beep. Scream. Laugh. Beep. Scream. Laugh. Ainsel tried to crawl under the seats, as if that would be enough to shut out the noise, but she was too big. She wanted to scream herself, but she was afraid to make a sound, so she bit her tongue. She tasted blood and salt and water. She cried until her throat ached from thirst. The best thing that could have happened at that moment was for her to cry herself into exhausted sleep, but that could not happen. Even with the agonizing din, she might have managed if it was at least consistent. But it wasn’t. There was the split second of silence, where the girl caught her breath, ran out of energy, and the question lingered, was it over? Baaaaaaaaaaeeeeeep! Again it started.

In the end, figures came and took the other girl from her car. The boy continued to beep the horn for a while, but with the absence of someone to torment, he finally stopped, and did not start again when she was brought back. A while later, those same figures came for Ainsel. She tried to hide from them, crawling back to the recesses of the back seats, but there was no hiding place. Every door, which had seemed a solid wall to her, could be opened as soon as she backed away from them. Her teeth and jagged nails, which so often were such an effective defense, found hard leather gloves and masks that were as impervious as a falconer’s gloves.

She was thrown over someone’s shoulder and carried up a stairwell, through a dark hall into what had been a public restroom. She was strapped to one of the toilets. In the stall next to her, she heard feet kicking and a grunting moan. She began to kick and cry as well.

Someone came in with a tray of crackers and water, but Ainsel was angrier than she was hungry. When it was brought within reach, she made it the scapegoat of her rage, knocking the contents to the floor and nearly tearing the tray out of it’s carrier’s hand. The carrier backed out quickly, and Ainsel was left alone, to kick and cry.

After some time, the leather clad Metropiad came back. He or she unstrapped her, ignoring her exhausted punches. Ainsel was returned to the prison of a car, where she slept a little.

For a while, her life was tears, both her own felt and others heard. It was darkness so constant that sleep came when it pleased, which was not as often as Ainsel wanted it. Any nightmare was better than this; or at least, it provided some comforting variety. Every so often, figures came and took the children in the cars to the toilets, where they would be given food and strapped in place until they relieved themselves. After a few of these rotations, Ainsel became hungry enough to take the food, though she still hissed when she was taken and sometimes she still knocked the tray to the floor on principle.

One day, when she was relatively calm, the tray they put before her on the toilet did not carry crackers, cheese or berries, but little tiles of letters. Half of them were locked into a line on top, the other half scattered on the bottom. They were kept from falling out by a raised lip, and there were little square holes for them to fit into. The Metropiad took her hand and got her to put them in, one by one, copying the row on top. Then Ainsel was given a cracker. After she had eaten her cracker, the tiles were taken out of their slots, and she was shown the tray again. The Metropiad took her hand and put the first few letters in, and Ainsel completed the row on her own. She was given another cracker.

At last, she was being given a challenge. The next time the tray was brought out, she copied it without help, and received a piece of cheese. After two more successful copies, the tiles that had been locked in piece were removed, and the Metropiad again took her hand and began to show her where to place the tiles in. Ainsel pushed the Metropiad away and began to place them in again. When the last tile was put into place, a spark jumped from the tile and stung her fingers. She began to wail.

The Metropiad took her hand again. Ainsel fought this time, trying to avoid touching the tiles again, but she was forced to transpose the tiles in three places. Then she was given another cracker. In her frustration, she spat it back out. She kicked and screamed until they took her back, but the next day the tray of tiles was back, and she soon learned it was copy the rows as best she could, or starve.

This went on, until Ainsel could copy the lines of tiles from memory without error. It did not occur to her to be surprised at how easily she remembered the lines, as she had no idea of what a child her age would normally be able to do. All she knew was that her back still throbbed, and the throbbing ebbed and flowed, and when she reached back to touch sometimes she felt warm, smooth metal, growing from her back like lichen.

To occupy herself, in between meals, she would destroy her prison, but not with any aim except to give her something to do. There were frayed threads to be plucked at, foam to be ripped out, and flaking bits of plastic to break. It gave her a sense of progress and activity. In a sense, it was art; her futile rage and boiling boredom made visible and tangible. It was through this methodical destruction that she discovered the hole.

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