This story is rated M, for all of the usual reasons. Readers beware!
Those two, curt words were all the warning subject 427 was given, before something hard struck him between the shoulders. Prepared as he was for the guard’s displeasure, the blow was still enough to send him sprawling. Pain blossomed across his back in a wave, sharp enough to drive the breath from his lungs, and make his vision blur around the edges. His legs seemed to refuse his orders, if only temporarily, and 427 knew he’d have another bruise to add to his modest collection before the end of the day.
“That was supposed to be a warning, not an invitation for you to sit on your ass. Get up and get moving, or you won’t even make it to the testing chambers.”
The guard’s dry, gravelly voice was thick with impatience. 427 could barely hear it over the rattling of his own gasping breaths, loud in his own ears. Even so, he was almost tempted to call the man’s bluff. He doubted the guard would actually kill him, and even if he did, death was likely a kinder fate than whatever waited behind the door at the end of the hall. The rebellious thought disappeared quickly, though. 427 had survived every other experiment they’d thrown at him so far. He could survive whatever today held too. In this hell, that was the only thing that mattered. He rose on shaky legs and began to stumble forward, moving at a marginally quicker pace than before, despite the pain.
Every step 427 took down that hallway brought the far door closer, and his thoughts inevitably turned to what lay beyond. What were the scientists planning on subjecting him to this time? A lot of the options were painful, and that was always unpleasant, but it was still better than a lot of the alternatives. Anything but the little girl, really. Those days were always the worst. When they had her in there already, waiting for him.
When the moment inevitably came, 427 slowed to a halt before the thick, metallic door. He knew that the testing chamber lay just beyond. One of them, anyway. Anticipation rose in his throat, threatened to make him sick. There was no delaying any longer, though. The guard swiped his ID card and pulled the door open, before shoving 427 inside. The man pushed it shut almost immediately, too, seemingly glad to be rid of him. The electronic locks slid home with a heavy clunk, confirming that he was trapped.
The testing chambers were much as 427 remembered them. A wide open space – the largest room he was ever allowed to visit - defined by four metal walls. A large observation window sat at the far end; a screen of reinforced, foggy glass, with three silhouettes standing behind it. The ever-watchful scientists, really to unleash their newest torments upon him. A series of loudspeakers and cameras hung from the roof at regular intervals, well beyond easy reach. Less familiar were the room’s contents, which tended to change every time 427 came and visited. Today, they contained a large metal chair, locked into a partially-reclined position, and adorned with several leather straps. To one side of it stood another of the facility’s guards, accompanied by a tray piled high with several rows of neatly-arranged medical tools and syringes.
It wasn’t the girl. He wouldn’t have to hurt anyone today. 427’s shoulders sagged as relief filled him, though it proved short-lived. Before he could do anything, the speakers overhead crackled to life. A woman’s voice echoed through them, almost unbearably loud.
“Welcome back, Subject 427. Would you be so kind as to have a seat, please?” The scientist’s voice was calm. Friendly. Cheerful, even. As if he were a treasured guest, gladly received by a gracious host. 427 had no idea how she could talk like that, knowing what sort of horrors awaited him. He briefly considered another show of disobedience, but quickly squashed the notion. If he refused to cooperate now, they’d find a way to make it hurt more. They’d keep making it worse, too, until he gave in and did what they asked. He had learned that lesson a long time ago. Learned that the scientists’ proficiency was matched only by their creativity.
He began the long walk to the far side of the room, head low, only for a flicker of movement to catch his eye. 427 turned his attention to his left arm, just in time to watch a small ink fox peek out from beneath the sleeve of his jumpsuit. Once it saw him watching, the fox rushed out to perch on the back of his hand. It’s fur was a mixture of the typical red and white, surrounded by a thick black outline. An impossibility, made familiar by the steady march of time. 427 watched on as the living tattoo pranced back and forth. It worked it’s small jaws, but they made no sound. The sight of it was almost enough to bring a smile to 427’s face. He had no idea how she could remain so optimistic, so energetic, in circumstances like these.
“I don’t think now is the time, Sesta.”
427 whispered the words, but it was enough. Sesta quickly got the hint. She abandoned her frolicking and disappeared beneath the edge of 427’s sleeves again. As soon as she was out of sight, he felt lonelier for it, but it was probably for the best. He almost imagined that he could feel her tiny footsteps against his skin, though he knew that was just a trick of the mind.
Following more spoken instructions from the watchers, it wasn’t long before subject 427 was seated in the metal chair. He waited patiently as the guard tied him down, wrapping the thick leather straps around both of his wrists and ankles, before pulling them tight. He tugged against each of the bindings individually as the guard finished them, out of reflex more than anything, and found each one secure.
“Today, Subject 427, we’re going to find out if physical trauma impacts your abilities at all. We’ll start by…“
The scientist kept speaking over the speakers, but 427 couldn’t hear her. His eyes widened as the implications of what she were saying set it, and he began to struggle against his bonds again. This time, in earnest. “No. No, no, no. You can’t do that to Sesta. You can’t hurt her like that.” The protests flowed from his mouth freely, his words so hurried that they began to blend together. Physical pain was something he could endure, but that little fox was the one good thing that had happened to him in this place. He just couldn’t just let them hurt her, couldn’t lose her, couldn’t possibly allow them to try and take her from him-
427 was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice as the guard picked up a scalpel from one of the carts, and stepped towards him.
When he was finally released, 427 had no idea just how much time has passed. Only that they hadn’t given him anywhere near as long to recover as they had spent hurting him. As soon as he’d found the strength to walk again, the guard had practically shoved him out the door, and back out into the walkway beyond. He didn’t doubt that the testing chambers were being cleaned already, so that they might prepare for the next experiment.
427 trudged down the next hallway at a snail’s pace, cradling his arms against his chest. Blood had already soaked through the single layer of bandages that they had hastily applied to his new cuts, but they’d stopped dripping already, much to his relief. 427 knew better than to believe that they’d tended his wounds out of any sort of compassion, though. The scientists were only interested in treating him enough to ensure he didn’t die, so that they might get more use out of him. Even so, it was better than nothing.
More importantly, Sesta had turned out to be okay. The small fox sat inside the crook of his left arm, tucked between two different sets of bandages. She was as quiet as ever, but watched his face with equal parts guilt and concern, despite his reassurances.
The guard who was ushering him along now was more patient than the one from that morning, despite everything he had just done. He made no effort to hurry 427 as he stumbled down the hallway, moving as quickly as his body would allow him. This soldier spoke only once, to order 427 to turn left at the next intersection. The hallways all looked the same, but 427 had been here long enough to have most of the routes memorized, and soon realized that he was being taken to the meal hall. Well, that gave him a rough idea of how long he’d been in testing, at the very least. Would his usual meal partner be there? He couldn’t help but wonder. The two of them had never really spoken, but 427 liked to imagine they were friends. Hope was a futile thing in this place, but if he hoped for anything at all, it was that her day hadn’t started out quite as poorly as his.