You wake, after a fashion, to cold, and dark, and hunger. There is dust on your tongue, and a dryness, a taste like a dead thing in your mouth.
You realize everything hurts, sharp throbbing ache beneath your skin, in muscle and tendon, bone and blood. Your lungs are burning, and you gulp breaths of air that smells of mildew and stale piss and something like charred meat. Though you've hardly moved you feel the skin pull tight across the bones of your chest; it's itchy, feels thin and too stretched, like parchment.
This is not the first time you've woken like this. This is all you've ever known.
You do not know who you are.
For a long time you drift. You don't really know what sleep is (they've programmed that out of you), but you think you come pretty close. Close enough, maybe, even to dream.
When you open your eyes again all is white, knives of electricity, of incandescence sharp against your retinas. Around you they are thin, skeletal shadows, but their hands are protected by white gloves, you can see that, yes, and their scalpels glitter in the light, starbursts in your vision that explode in fine lines of pain across your skin as they slice you open.
They cut deep into your belly, peel back the skin and muscle and staple it in place, out of the way of their work. Your body jerks with every sharp pinch, every ruby bead of blood, every loud crack as the staples snap home. They reach into your guts, sifting through spider web veins and organs (intestines, stomach, liver, you catalogue it all with a vague sort of awareness that is as clinical as their unfeeling torture), and their hands are wet and red, so red, with blood.
You do not scream, because they have never given you a voice.
Sometimes you remember, or think you do, a time before this, the now that has stretched on for longer than you could possibly grasp. There was a house, small, old, weather beaten, the paint curling from dangling wooden shutters. The sand rolled away from the cottage like fine gold dust, the boom and crash of the ocean a steady, glittering heartbeat on the horizon.
You think you had a wife. You think you would dance barefoot at the water's edge, moonlight cool and silver on your skin. The surf would break around your ankles in a glistening white froth, salt spray like snowflakes on your cheeks, and your laughter echoed like bells off the dunes.
You don't know if the memories are real or if they're your own creations, the crazed imaginings of a shattered mind.
They come again for you, sometime later, after your body has had enough time to rearrange the tangled mess they had made of your organs. Every second had been an utter agony, and there are long periods blank of memory, fuzzy at best and simply gone at worst; you assume, from past experience, that the pain had been too much even for your body to handle.
They carry you unhindered through long, white hallways, as cold as they are sterile. You're not sure (haven't been for as long as you -- aha -- as long as you remember) why the guards loom so-- you're not sure why they have guards at all. You don't think you've ever harmed them, don't remember ever even attempting to.
You let your head loll back, only distantly noticing the hard shoulder it rests against, and watch blindly as the ceiling swirls dizzily before your eyes. They've
--your tongue is heavy, swollen in your mouth. a thought is coming. (you try and think) slowly, slowly (it's like) you feel it, in the distance, moving ever closer (swimming) and suddenly (through molasses) it is here--
The hallway fractures before your eyes, two halves that shimmer in and out of focus, just enough out of alignment to make your eyes ache. The doorway pulses like a heartbeat, and it roars in your ears like the sea, so loud you feel the hallways around you begin to quake.
When they strap you down on the table you are surprised to find your face forced carelessly into the metal; its surface kisses your skin like ice crystals, so cold you know (without knowing how) that when they finally rip you from the table your skin will likely be separated from you as well. The restraints leave rings of frost burns around your wrists, your ankles. The cold is a shock sufficient enough to clear most of the drug haze from your mind.
The cold burns, you quickly discover, are the least of your problem.
Sharply you inhale, muscles all across your back rippling with tension as they map a freezing line down the length of your spine with the scalpel, feeling your flesh part before the blade. They trace a parallel line down the opposite side of your spine, ice blossoming into fiery agony so bright it knocks the breath from your lungs.
And then they peel the strip of skin and meat from the bone and you feel your eyes fill with tears, feel the muscle cling desperately to bone and then tear away, feel the rivers of blood pouring from the open wound, copious enough to warm the table beneath you. Tears drip wet tracks down the curves of your cheeks, salty on your tongue. The rings around your wrists are more ragged skin and hot blood now than they are frost burn.
It is so intense that for a moment you don't even notice when they wrap blood-slick fingers around the base of your spinal cord and pull.
Slowly, vertebra by bloody, agonizing vertebra, they tear your spine from your body, and through the red haze of pain you feel your ribs crack as bone snaps, feel your body fall numb as the nerve endings connecting it to your brain are rent apart.
There is bloody foam at the corners of your mouth, and you can see nothing, for your eyes have rolled wildly back into your skull.
The pain rises to a bone-rattling crescendo, and you pass out.
How long does it take for the human body to regrow a spine?
You don't know. What you do know is this:
First, you are blissfully unconscious for most of it, returned to awareness only by the pins and needles of sensation rushing to your limbs. You gasp for breath, but the pain is a welcome one.
Second, the time it takes is a span far greater than your comprehension, because the guards are not only entirely new but, disturbingly, not human. When they touch you their hands are dry and cold, and they smell like metal and machinery. When they move, they click (you might find the sound funnier if it didn't remind you so strongly of the staples snapping into your skin). You can hear what sounds like a clock -- or maybe, hee, maybe a bomb, tick, tock, tick, tock -- ticking in their great barrel chests (you imagine that they are giant clocks, walking around in a great puppet-like parody of human beings, and then you imagine smashing open their faces and shattering the gears because that ticking, oh, the ticking would drive you crazy).
Third, the room they bring you to has changed surprisingly little with the passage of time. So, apparently, has their procedure. They skitter about in excitement, babbling about you, amazing, how miraculous you are, the thing (you would growl at this, this idea that you're nothing more than an insect-- fascinating, yes, but in the same way as a painting or particularly stunning sculpture) which can regenerate an entire spine. You are, in a way, a defiance of natural laws, of physics.
This does not make you proud.
You know, in that strange, vague way you know that what they do to you is wrong (you are a human being, not a literary work, not something to be taken apart, to be dissected and analyzed), you know that they are new, that the they you knew last have been dead for possibly centuries, and the new they are young and easily excitable and, probably, immensely stupid.
They perform their tests until you slip into a state of drifting, lulled by the familiar rhythm of your heart and the simplest of tests.
There is blood on the walls.
It drips from wide arcs splattered across the lengths of entire hallways, long dribbling trails that collect in shallow pools on the floors, glimmering like rubies in the harsh sodium glow of the lights.
You cannot look away. It is red, so red, against the white tiles.
You are in a hallway you do not recognize. You have no recollection of how you came to be here.
Stumbling, you fall to your knees, kneecaps vibrating with the force, feel pain fire sharp through to your hips as you hit the ground. Your stomach is seething, your head cloven in two by a tremendous white wash of agony. You clutch at your head, fingers tangling in your hair, as though by doing so you can keep your skull from flying apart, as though it will hold all the pieces where they belong, inside. A scream falls mute on your lips. There is a ringing in your ears. You come to realize
the screams fuel the rage that simmers beneath your skin, high and shrill and so wretchedly pathetic it makes you sick
it is an alarm siren, shrieking through the halls of this place, the only place you've ever known.
Gulping desperately for air, you force yourself to your feet and lurch blindly through the halls, staggering into enough walls to leave your shoulder throbbing. You turn a corner, pitch forward as you trip over the mangled corpse of what was once a human being. You catch yourself badly on your hands and feel your right wrist break like a stick of chalk, pain lancing through your arm.
You scramble for a moment on hands and knees before turning and settling back on your heels, breathing raggedly through your teeth and cocking your head to consider the corpse.
It lays in a broken sprawl, head twisted around and neck bloated like a gutted fish. Its stomach gapes wide, intestines spilling across the floor in a spray of half-dried blood and stinking waste where the fat, swollen snake of the larger intestine has cracked open and dumped a puddle of rot on the linoleum like a bucket of old paint.
You lick at your lips, tongue a fluttering butterfly's wing around the edges of the wounds they carved into your face, tasting blood, hot and coppery.
"What the fuck?" the man had shouted, throwing open the door and interrupting them, somewhere in the middle of an experiment that involved prying off your fingernails, attempting to break every vertebra in your neck without injuring the spinal cord itself (with only mixed results), and carving -- aha -- carving a smile into your face.
The man, oh, oh, he had stormed in, face twisted with fury into something horribly beautiful, his black coat swirling around his ankles like wings-- like bat wings. They -- ahaha -- they had gone all a-titter, panicking at having this mere human, this contaminant in their precious, oh-so-sterile laboratory, and he, the bat-man, had simple grabbed one of them by the throat and thrown them bodily into the wall. "What is this?" he had snarled, and you shiver to remember his voice, rough like gravel, like he'd swallowed a handful of broken glass.
You don't know where he is, now. You know that every time you breathe, every time you swallow, the still-oozing wound breaks open again and the blood surges forth anew.
Every time they heal you will tear at the scabs, freshen the wounds.
Breath harsh in your lungs, you claw at the wounds with fingers still bare of nails.
You are alone.
Someone is laughing.