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Three Hundred Days and More

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Ethan decides when he's first brought to the base that he'll call the cycle of dark and light in his cell a day. It isn't; he can tell that they're varying the cycle, keeping him disoriented for some reason. Sometimes the brightness goes on forever, and sometimes it only seems to last an hour or two. On the other hand, he has nothing better to do than to count the changes from dark to light to dark again, and he bores easily.

The boredom is the worst part. Whatever they do to him--and he knows it happens; he wakes up with no memory of ever having gone to sleep, with neatly-stitched incisions in his skin or a head shaved for electrodes--he's never allowed to remember. The drugs they put in his food and water (and pump into the air if he goes too long without eating or drinking; he tries that within the first few days) keep him from feeling very much: pain, fear, anger, they're all muted. The boredom, however, continues. No one speaks to him, or even shows himself; food and occasional clean clothing are delivered through a chute in the door, the other end sealing tightly before the panel on Ethan's side slides open.

He wonders if Ripper told them that this would be the best way to drive him mad. He wonders if Ripper even remembers how much Ethan hates to be ignored. He wonders when Ripper will decide that Ethan's had enough of this and will make the ninja-boys--and isn't it funny how Ripper's willing to let them deal with Ethan, no matter how much he'd claimed to resent them--release him.

Ethan counts off a hundred days--night to morning to night--before he stops wondering about any of it. Ripper put him here so that Ethan could be forgotten. "Disappeared," isn't that how the conspiracy nuts put it? Ethan's met a few of those in his time. Ethan has been disappeared, and Ripper doesn't have to worry about him any more. Tucked away out of sight, and he can't even claim that he's being tortured. Boredom is hardly the same as thumbscrews.

There are electrodes, he thinks, and knives. Scalpels and secret medical tests. But that's only guesswork, based on the evidence he wakes up to. If the soldiers had used thumbscrews and a rack, Ethan would at least have been able to remember it.

He entertains himself by trying to remember songs, spells, anything he can recite. Anything that keeps his mind working, that keeps him sane.

In his dreams, he escapes: summons up enough magic to blast through the drugs and the walls and the guards, and brings the soldiers to their knees. In his dreams, he is powerful again, more powerful than ever, and he finds Ripper and makes him pay for this betrayal.

When he awakens, there's a new bar of soap and a bowl of some bland, nourishing porridge--he can't identify the grain, and the stuff tastes of absolutely nothing--waiting for him, and another day of staring at too-white walls. He can't do magic here, and he thinks it's only partly the drugs. When he'd starved himself, he'd felt more alert, but he hadn't felt the power coming back. It's this place, and he doesn't know how to break through it.

He counts off another hundred days, knowing it could be half that, or twice that, and that he has no idea how long he's gone when they take him away. But he's calling it a hundred days, and it's the second hundred he's endured in this place.

His dreams change, and now he dreams not of escape, but of rescue: of Ripper charging in, the Slayer at his side, to set him free; of mutiny within the ranks and some disgruntled corporal unlocking the cell doors when no one's watching. Once, he dreams that he discovers a blue box in the corner of his cell; it puzzles him until he reaches deep into the fog of drugs and dredges up a boyhood memory of Saturday teatimes in front of the telly. It's no less likely than Ripper coming to play white knight, he supposes; no less fictional.

Days turn to nights turn again to days; his hair grows back--they must be done with the electrodes--and in his reflection on his breakfast tray, Ethan can see that it's nearly all grey now. He hasn't counted off a year yet, but they've made him an old man. He discovers he's still vain enough to be almost glad Ripper won't be coming back for him now.

He chants spells to summon demons. They haven't given him a razor--though sometimes when they take him away he comes back clean-shaven--so he bites and claws at his own flesh to get the blood to draw the sigils. He paints them on the walls, red on stark white, and waits. The spells fail, and he succumbs to the cloud of sweet-smelling gas that has been piped in through the air vents. When he awakens, the walls are spotless again, and his wounds have been stitched and bandaged.

Some time after the three hundredth day, he stops dreaming altogether, or at least dreaming anything he can recall. No escape, no rescue, not even nightmares. His sleep is as blank and featureless as his waking hours, and Ethan would sell all that's left of his soul for a good book, or even a bad one. Anything to break the monotony.

He counts three hundred and twenty-two days, and guesses that means he's been here some time between six months and two years, given that they're still trying to keep him confused. Then, on the three hundred and twenty-third day, he stops counting. He doesn't need to try to preserve his sanity. There's nothing to preserve it for, and madness might at least be interesting.

Ethan has no idea how long after that it is when the door slides open. It's dark in his cell, but there's light in the corridor, enough that he can see Ripper standing there, looking tired and drawn and worried. He closes his eyes for a moment when he sees Ethan, his lips pressed tightly together. Ethan makes himself get to his feet, smirking and stretching and refusing to acknowledge the flash of pity he sees in Ripper's expression.

Ripper tells him something about a chaos god, and while Ethan can't follow most of he's saying--it's been too long since he's heard a voice other than his own, and he hasn't been much for linear conversation lately--he hears Ripper's last words with perfect clarity: "I need your help."

When Ethan doesn't reply at once, Ripper adds, "You're free to go whether or not you agree. I've made certain of that."

"Why not?" he croaks, his voice sounding strange and rusty; most of his conversation has been in his own head. He reaches out to shake Ripper's hand. That's what you do when you make a deal with the devil, after all--though he isn't certain which of them is playing Satan in this particular bargain.

Ripper grips his hand tightly for a moment before turning to lead the way out of the cell. He has gone mad after all, Ethan thinks, but he was right: it's more interesting this way.