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As Many Lullabyes

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Late 2008 (Exact Date Unknown)

Keith lay curled against the steel wall, not in the corner where he could more easily be hemmed in, but near the center of its length with his ear resting against one of the cold, slick plates.

As unbearable as life in this laboratory-prison had been before, it was fathoms worse now, not because he had been given a taste of freedom to contrast it with — that was the one light in the darkness that kept him going — but because he had become a security risk. He had escaped. He had killed. None of the researchers were going to gamble their lives by coming into the room with him. Instead, they kept him sealed every waking hour in this steel box and interacted with him only through a speaker on the wall and an assortment of robotic arms that nested in the ceiling like a monstrous spider out of some science fiction nightmare. Those arms were strong enough to crush ice despite his every effort, and he lived beneath them knowing that they could come to come to life at any moment, sometimes for no apparent purpose except to terrorize him.

When the robot arms weren’t enough to conduct whatever experiment they wanted, the researchers also controlled the room’s ventilation and would pump in gas to render him unconscious. If he succumbed, he might wake in a heap on the floor hardly able to move, his entire body filled with a crushing ache and perhaps in one or more places the clawing of a new line of sutures. He might wake on his back with steel cuffs restraining him and electrodes studding his body to be set off one by one in hopes of controlling his power. Someday he might not wake at all. If they decided they were finished with him, there was nothing to stop them.

Even if he fell asleep on his own, there was no telling what would happen — and so he didn’t fall asleep on his own anymore, or so it seemed. In his cell, there was no sun nor even a clock to give him any sense of day or night or how long he had been here, only constant artificial light. With no darkness to put him fully to sleep and nothing to do in the light to keep him fully awake, the untold hours dissolved into a warily shallow trance, and he lay curled with his eyes closed. Sometimes he warmed himself with memories of Burn, ideas of what he might be doing now and when —not if but when, Keith told himself — they would meet again. Sometimes he wandered back over the books he had read before even that shadow of escape was taken from him, trying to retrace the stories or invent new ones to pass the time. Sometimes his mind settled into a stillness that was close to sleep, but he could never lose himself in thought or slumber because a part of him remained fixed upon the ever-present threat, always vigilant, always listening.

It was because they had left him alone so long to listen in the silence that he recognized the tiny sound inside the wall.

phung-shhhhh…

Keith sprang instantly to his feet, pivoting with a sweep of his hand. Ice sang into being all around the room, coating the walls — and sealing the vents against the gas. He retreated far enough for a clear view of the robotic arms and circled them, scanning for syringes, gas canisters, or anything of the kind, but his captors at least seemed to have learned that those things wouldn’t work on him. The last time he had come to this point, one of the arms had chased him down and pinned him while others fought to break the ice away, but physically restraining him didn’t stop him from using his power, and it had been a running battle for who knew how long, refreezing everything as quickly as they could unseal it until enough gas crept in through the momentary gaps that his head swam and he couldn’t keep up.

Now, however, even as he watched the arms with his heart pounding in his ears, not one of them moved. Perhaps a few minutes passed, long enough to wonder if he had only imagined the sound, but then the speaker crackled on.

“Listen, I don’t feel like playing with you today,” one of the usual male voices said, slowly and deliberately, with a metallic buzz that only sharpened the note of exasperation. “We both know this ends with you going to sleep. You can cooperate with us and make it quick and easy, or you can do it your way and keep yourself sealed in an airtight room, in which case it will be very slow and unpleasant. It’s up to you, but you’re really only hurting yourself.”

The voice cut out with a few pops, and Keith stared after it almost as if a person had spoken and then left the room. He knew already that he wasn’t going to cooperate. Whatever they wanted out of him, he could at least make them wait for it or fight for it, he at least had that much power, and it wasn’t entirely true that he knew how it ended — today might be the day Burn came for him, if he could just hold out a little longer.

This was a crazy notion, and it pulled paradoxically at his other hope, that Burn’s powers would stay forever hidden from everyone, even himself, so that no one would ever think of doing things like this to him. Even so, Keith clung to the fantasy of rescue like a talisman, if only to remind himself that he was more than a nameless vicious animal; he mattered to someone on the outside, someone who wouldn’t want him to give up.

Against the possibility that it was a trick, he kept pacing watchfully for some time longer, then settled against the middle of the wall again, against the thick layer of ice, which he now controlled well enough to stop its chill at the boundary of his skin. This time, he kept his eyes open as he sat watching, listening for any movement — and waiting.

And waiting.

It could have been hours, or a day or more in which nothing happened, but he knew better than to relax his vigil. The first changes he felt were an ache in his legs and a twitching hollow energy in his arms, followed, as more hours passed, by a spidery shimmer of blackness and color that scurried across the edges of his vision and the angles between the walls and ceiling but vanished if he focused on it directly. Those weren’t so unfamiliar, probably only the lack of normal sleep, and he kept waiting.

More immeasurable time crept past. If a voice had come on the speaker to tell him that a week had gone by, it would not have surprised him. Little by little, he felt the air growing heavy, and he carefully allowed cold to bleed out of the ice to make breathing it more comfortable, but even freezing the entire room solid couldn’t have stopped the inevitable. A dull ache in his head gradually drew tighter into an intense pounding, slow acid settled into his muscles and burned deeper bit by bit, and each unknown span of waiting pressed the heaving of his chest on minutely but inexorably faster. It was as if the breathless fire of a hard run were slowly creeping up on him, but no amount of the stifled air could soothe it; it only seared deeper and deeper until he was hugging himself against the pain and panting desperately, his chest bursting with that insatiable hunger as well as sheer exhaustion that demanded how much longer he could possibly withstand this.

When sparks began to form around the edges of his vision and fall away toward the center, he knew it couldn’t be much longer, but the rising bitterness of another defeat was pushed aside by a sudden panic. He had no idea how long it had been since the voice on the speaker, since any evidence at all that anyone was watching. Could they have forgotten about him, or finally decided he wasn’t worth the trouble? If he didn’t relent, could he die like this?

Keith reeled under the sudden doubt. His hold on the ice had loosened, leaving it wet and slippery where he lay against it, and he slid down it to collapse on the floor, still curled in agony, still gasping with all his faltering strength. He couldn’t surrender, he couldn’t do their work for them, but he also couldn’t die — I’ll never get out of here, I’ll never see Burn again if I die — and if he only had this chance, it was quickly slipping away…

When one of the robot arms finally groaned to life, reached out to a wall, and scraped down it through the ice, it gave him such a surge of relief that for a moment he didn’t even think to fight it — they weren’t going to let him die; this torture was about to end — but in the next moment, he knew that he had to fight no matter what happened. Cursing himself for ever forgetting that, he struggled to rise and raised his hand, but it was all he could do to follow in the bare-metal path with a slow, hoary frost.

It was too late. In his moment of hesitation, he had shown weakness. The robot arms spread out with all their claws and the ice groaned and crunched on every side under their attacks. Keith still fought to reseal what he could with frost, but it was no use. He was far beyond the point where he could keep up with all of them.

Still gasping for breath, when the gas hit him he couldn’t help pulling it in deep. He sagged to the floor, plunging away from the world as if into dark water. Something like water buffeted his fingers with a dull tingle as they lost the cold steel floor and washed away into nothing. He couldn’t see, couldn’t feel anything outside himself, and he clung desperately to the last sensations — his pounding head, his heaving chest, his burning throat — until even these were enveloped in blackness and he sank into oblivion.

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