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The Last Traveler

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Isaac is used to people judging him for his looks first and everything else second.

People usually either judge him as too young or too black. Sometimes even too pretty, which is flattering in all the ways that it’s not insulting. So not that many ways.

But this, he has to admit, is a first.

“Let go of me!” he shouts at a passing guard. He thinks they’re cops, they’ve got guns on their hips the typical lack of empathy in their eyes, but he doesn’t recognize the uniform. It’s white, about the only thing that is in these damp, dirty cells. It just makes them all look like janitors. His father would be appalled and begin lecturing him about keeping his head down and not getting shot, but he’s been here for over a day, and he’s sick of it. He wants to go home. “I’m not whoever the hell you think I am! I didn’t do anything!”

The cell doesn’t even have bars, just four cement walls and an iron door, and small window just big enough to see through. 

The officer taps something on the door so the window recedes back. He’s figured out that the cells are only almost soundproof, and they can hear him if he yells. He can never hear them if they don’t want him too, though.

“Shut up.” Her icy blue eyes the only bit of color on her, her hair tucked up under her cap and her skin nearly blending into her uniform.

He does not shut up. “I wasn’t loitering, I work there! I’m Isaac Roberts, I’m a robotics professor.” Adjunct, but it still counts. “You can google me! I even have my ID on me, I can show you if you’ll just stop and listen for a second-”

It shouldn’t be a surprise, exactly, when she turns on her heal, reaches for something on her belt, and jams it in between the bars of the cell, but it is, and he flinches away before it even touches him. He doesn’t move back fast enough, and the taser sends a painful jolt of electricity through his skin, and he stumbles back from it, the smell of his own burning flesh enough to make his stomach roll even through the pain.

He trips and falls over, hitting his head hard enough that he cries out and curls up on his side, squeezing his eyes shut and breathing deeply to keep from vomiting.

“Shut up,” the officer says again, but this time it sounds like she’s laughing.

Isaac curls his hands into fists, even as he lies there unable to move, and what he can’t help but think, despite his best efforts is that he’s going to die here.

Alone, in this dirty cell, with his coworkers and students and father wondering what happened to him. He wonders if they’ll spin some sort of take about him resisting arrest, about him being violent, if they’ll scour his social media for a picture that makes him look like a thug, if they’ll make him take a mug shot they can splash on a news reels before they kill him.

Or if maybe they’ll just take the photo after he’s dead and hope no one notices the difference.

He doesn’t know how long he lies there on the cold stone floor, waiting for the waves of pain to leave his body, for the sharp throbbing in his head to soften to a dull ache. It all still hurts when he hears his cell door opening, and he scrambles to his feet. Or, well, attempts to. He slips and lands hard on his knees. He’s forced to break his fall on with his hands, and he remembers only after he’s done it that it’s bad for his wrists.

There’s a soft thump, like something’s been thrown in his cell, and he hopes it’s some clean clothes.

He pushes himself up onto his knees and looks up.

It’s not clothes.

It’s a little girl, maybe around eight or nine years old, and she’s staring at him with wide, scared brown eyes. Her face and clothes are dirty, and she’s got a split lip, but Isaac can’t tell if it’s because someone hit her or if her dry lips have just cracked. “Shit,” he says, then winces. “Sorry.”

She doesn’t say anything, just keeps staring at him, and he’s not good with kids, especially hurt, scared kids.

“Where are your parents?” he tries. What’s she even doing here? What crime could a little kid have possibly committed?

Then again, he hadn’t done anything wrong, and he’s still here, and he’s not sure if they’re planning on letting him leave.

Her eyes well up, and she rubs her arm across her face, trying to scrub them away before they can fall. She opens her mouth, sound comes out, and Isaac thinks he’s having a stroke. It takes him an embarrassingly long moment to realize that she’s not speaking English.

His Spanish is excellent, and his French is less than excellent, but he doesn’t understand a word of what she’s saying. The ebb and flow of her speech makes him think she’s speaking Arabic, but he doesn’t even know enough of the language to recognize it with any certainty.

“Hey, slow down,” he says, like her saying words he doesn’t understand will suddenly make more sense if she’s not saying them as quickly. He holds up his hands in what he hopes is a universal gesture meaning slow down, and her rush of words trickles to a stop. Her eyebrows are pushed together, and she looks from him to his hands in confusion. She steps closer, hesitates, then darts a glance at his face one more time before reaching out her hands and slapping them against his in a high five.

The laughter bubbling up his throat takes him by surprise, and he laughs all the harder for it, until his chest aches for an entirely pleasant reason. She’s glaring at him, arms crossed with an exaggerated little kid pout. Clearly she doesn’t appreciate being laughed at. “Sorry,” he says, even though he’s pretty sure she can’t understand him. It seems important to say anyway. He points at himself and says, “Isaac.”

“Isaac,” she repeats dutifully, then points at herself, “Sunny!”

“Hi Sunny.” The good humor drains from him as they look at each other, the reality of their situation hitting him harder than it had before. She’s frowning now, looking at him in a serious, considering sort of way that he wouldn’t normally expect from a kid. “It looks like we’re stuck here together.”

She responds in Arabic, and then laughs a little at his lost look. She holds out her hand, and when he goes to high five her, she grabs it, holding on. 

~

Isaac had never really thought about wanting kids, and he’d have thought being stuck with one in a tiny cell would be terrible. 

It’s not, but he’s not exactly reconsidering his stance on kids either. He’s sure they would both be a lot more annoyed with the other if they weren’t both stuck in survival mode, if they weren’t clinging to each other as literally the only person around them that isn’t out to hurt them. 

Sunny’s English ends up being better than his Arabic, but that’s not exactly saying much. The British couple who run the middle eastern restaurant on his block probably knows more Arabic than he does. She’s still limited, painfully so, and they can’t really communicate, not in any sort of complex way. He eventually gets across that he’s asking about her mom and dad, but her eyes just well up with tears and she shakes her head. Isaac doesn’t know what that means, if they’re dead or gone or somewhere in this prison with them. “Okay,” he says, patting her hair when she finally stops crying, “Okay. Please okay.”

As far he’s been able to discover, her repertoire includes: okay, yes, no, Mom, Dad, puppy, car, and please. He’ll talk to her in English, she’ll respond in Arabic, and neither of them have any idea what the other is saying, but sometimes it’s just nice to listen to someone else speak.

Solitary confinement is a special sort of hell, and anything is better than that, even stuck with a little girl whom he doesn’t know and he can’t communicate with. It does make him wonder though, and worry. What reason could they have for putting her in this cell with him? He can only think of one. 

Overcrowding. 

This place is so full of prisoners that they’ve started doubling up the cells, when really they’re only barely big enough for one person, never mind two. He doesn’t understand why. Are they just going to kill him? For what? His dad has to be looking for him, his work and his students must have noticed that they’re professor hasn’t shown up to work. 

Right? 

Or whoever’s taken them has spun a lie about him being some sort of criminal, and there’s no way his father will buy that, but what’s old man against the type of people who kidnap little girls and put them in cages with strange men? 

Days slip into weeks, and Isaac is silently, guiltily grateful for Sunny’s presence. He can just tell he’s on the edge of some sort of mental breakdown, as them getting out of here seems less and less likely, and the only way he can keep himself in check is by focusing on Sunny, by trying to get her to eat and drink and holding her when she cries. If he didn’t have a kid to look after, he doesn’t know what he’d do, he’d probably be half mad already. He sleeps with her tucked against his chest, his back to the cell door. There’s only one bed, and even if there wasn’t, he likes making sure she can’t be taken from him while he’s sleeping. He’s already had too many nightmares about waking up to find his cell empty, to Sunny being taken somewhere and never knowing what happens to her, if she’s dead or alive.

She’s not the one that ends up being dragged from their cell in the middle of the night.

He’s jerked to his feet, being forced upright by a person on either side holding onto his arm, and he presses his heals against the floor, trying to pull from their grip. “Stop it! Let me go!”

They only force him forward, his feet dragging against the floor. “Isaac!” Sunny cries, and he turns his head and one of the officers has an arm around her waist, holding her back. “Isaac! No! No please! Please Isaac!”

She twists so she can bite the arm holding her, and the officer lets her go with a curse. “You brat-”

“NO!” She grabs onto Isaac’s leg, trying to tug him back. “No!”

One of the officers holding him leans out and kicks her in the side. He hears a horrible sound which he thinks might be a rib snapping, and she tumbles to the ground, her scream high and primal and somehow so much worse than he’d imagined.

“Stop it, don’t hurt her!” he shouts, struggling to get out of their grip. “Let me go!”

They don’t react, pretending he hasn’t said anything at all, and he watches them slam the cell door shut behind him, still struggling to get back to her. What if her rib really is broken? What if it punctured a lung?

The last he sees of Sunny before they turn a corner is her curled up on the cold floor, her dark eyes wet as they watch him leave.

“You have to get her a doctor,” he tells them urgently, fear closing around his throat. “She could be really hurt.”

“We don’t need her unhurt, just alive,” the officer on his left says, marching him through a set of security doors, and he blinks at the sudden onslaught of bright light.

Everything here is as blindingly white as the officer’s uniforms, clean pure white floors and walls, like they’ve just stepped into a hospital but even more sterile. Medical officers will at least try and spruce themselves up with some hideous wallpaper.

“She might not stay alive if you don’t check on her,” he snaps, trying not to be disoriented. How could this just be behind a set of doors? It was so dark and dirty and miserable in those cells, and somehow this was right next to them?

“Don’t worry about her,” the officer says, and they take him into another room and start pushing him back into something hard and flat and forcing his limbs to straighten.

Isaac cranes his neck around, trying to see, and he maybe it’s the weeks without proper food sleep, but he’s so confused, he feels like his thoughts can’t keep up with the things happening around him, which is an unfamiliar sensation for him. He’s used to being, if not the smartest person in the room, then at least in the ballpark, but nothing he’s seeing is making any sense to him. “Why are you taking an MRI?” he asks, finally recognizing the machine they’re forcing him into. Or at least he thinks it does. He doesn’t remember MRIs looks quite like that. They don’t answer, strapping him into it with thick leather cuffs around his wrists and ankles. Then, they do it around his thighs, stomach, and chest, and on one hand it makes sense, whatever they’re looking for won’t show up if he’s squirming around in there, but it doesn’t make him like it any less. “What are you doing?”

“Test subject one hundred and fifty three is secure,” one of the officers says.

“Excellent,” says a new voice, and there’s a woman in a lab coat standing in the observational window, her bright red hair the only spot of color in this whole room. Standing next to her is a man that looks to be twice her age with a full grey beard. “Calibrate for maximum travel capacity.”

For the first time, Isaac sees the officers hesitating. “Maximum? But we don’t know when he’ll-”

“And we never will, if we don’t test it,” the bearded man says briskly. “My estimations are around twenty five to twenty seven hundred years.”

The officers share a wary glance but seem to know better than to argue. They start pushing him into the MRI machine, and he calls out, “Are you a doctor? There’s a little girl, her name is Sunny, and she’s hurt-”

“Sequence initializing,” the woman’s voice says clinically.

The machine whirs to life, and he quickly realizes that whatever this, whatever they’re doing, it has nothing to do with magnetic resonance imaging.

If it did, it wouldn’t hurt this much.

He thinks he’s screaming, but he can’t tell, can’t think past the pain long enough to figure it out. It feels like thousands of needles being pushed into his skin until they reach the other side, and then like claws are tearing open his skin, not just in one place but all over, there’s not a single inch of him that isn’t currently in agonizing pain.

Next there’s the oppressive sensation of pressure, like his body is being pressed into a different shape, and it’s so foreign and uncomfortable that he prefers the pain, because at least that’s a sensation he can understand, but this – he doesn’t even have the words for this, like his body is made of jello and being hit with a hammer.

Then he’s no longer on his back, no longer in the machine, no longer inside anything at all.