They fed me. Just enough.
Submerged in darkness, I had long since lost track of time and day. Reality wasn’t far behind. The four windowless walls and secure airlock door of my underground prison were all I now knew. A faceless, nameless guard rapped on the door at regular intervals, opening the bottom hatch to pass through my carefully controlled rations, and my sluggish mind speculated that this might be a daily occurrence.
But with no light to gauge the passing of day to night, time had become elusive.
If the guard’s schedule was daily and my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, somewhere between four and six weeks had passed. That was, until he stopped coming altogether. I knew that he’d been gone for longer than usual because the hunger pains were almost unbearable.
I kept to my routine as best I could, trying to force my muscles to work. Trying to stand when all I wanted to do was lie still. Even so, I knew I was sleeping much more than was normal.
That was what the darkness wanted. Darkness is like that … it seeps into you in an indescribable and unavoidable way. It becomes part of you until eventually you become part of it. I worried that it would take over, that in the end there would be nothing of me but the silent dark, but until that time came, I continued to fight the despair, continued to push past the physical and mental barriers as much as I could.
And at my lowest moments, I thought of him. I imagined him speaking to me, making me laugh, making me frown and, fleetingly, I would indulge in thoughts of him forgiving me. Most of all, I saw him hating me. None of it was bad.
He kept me grounded, gave me a reason to endure the maddening silence. Because it was his right. His to hate me. His to destroy me. If anyone, it was he who held the right to sign my death warrant and if he chose to use it, then so be it. These bastards would not steal that right from him.
And still … there was a part of me that held on. The part that knew I had things to set right. Things that went beyond me and my suffering, and even him.
‘Quentin,’ I whispered to the darkness, my voice cracking with misuse, my lips pulling apart from having set together. ‘I was wrong. About everything. About you.’
Silence answered me, but in my mind he was there, watching over me. Still deciding. And perhaps it was simply that – the smallest shred of hope that love could conquer all – which forced me to my unsteady feet yet again. I started stiff laps around my cell, using what energy I did have to ensure that if my chance came, I would be able to make the most of it. Of course, I wasn’t stupid and saw the blatant irony in my reasoning. The irony that I would tear down a man, take away all of his hopes and dreams only to have my own stripped away, and then hope in vain that his love for me would go on. It made me a hypocrite and ultimately selfish, but since it was all I had to hold on to, I wasn’t going to talk myself up onto higher ground.
Tiring of my walk after a dozen laps – which didn’t equate to much – I dropped to my hands and knees, but persevered, forcing a round of push-ups despite my heavy breathing. After ten attempts, I stopped. Not because I needed to, though I probably did, but because if I did more, I was sure they would scale back my food and water. I was well aware they were monitoring my
movements and vitals through my M-Band. If they felt they were giving me enough food to maintain any level of fitness, they would immediately make an adjustment.
I had learned how to walk the tightrope. Maintain enough strength so that I could try to get away if I found an opportunity, maybe even fight. But not so much that they reduced my rations.
With a sudden thought, I shuffled into a better position, ignoring the sharp pain as my ankle bone scraped roughly against the ground, and started to pat the floor around me. Inexplicably frantic, I navigated my way across the familiar grooves in the cement until I felt the leg of the cot, then stretched out my arm until my fingers came in contact with my supplies. As always, I exhaled with relief when I found them – as if someone could have snuck in and stolen them. Crazy, I know.
One energy bar and less than half a bottle of water was all I had left. I opened the bar, enjoying the sound of the wrapper crinkling, took a small bite followed by a sip of water and breathed as calmly as possible as I carefully put them back in their safe place beneath my bed. I must have fallen asleep or passed out some time after that because the next thing I knew I opened my eyes to see a dim blue light surrounding me.
I was sure I’d been on the ground, but now I was on my bed. Waking up after an unknown period of time wasn’t a strange occurrence. And while there was a good chance it was paranoia, I was certain that on some of those occasions I had been moved and I’d often felt different when I woke up. Sick. Running a fever. And sore all over. I didn’t like to think about it.
But the blue light? That was new. Nervous and struggling to get my mind to switch on, it took a few moments for my brain to connect the sounds I was hearing with the door. It wasn’t just the hatch; the entire door was opening.
I shuffled back on my small cot, watching as two uniformed M-Corp guards entered my cell and approached without hesitation. Eyes wide, I felt their hands – the first human contact I had experienced in a long time – grip my arms and lift me like I was nothing. On some level, deep in the part of my brain that still functioned, I considered my chance of putting up a fight.
And quickly discounted it.
‘Oh man, she stinks,’ one of them said. ‘This is worse than clearing out a clean-up hub.’ It made me flinch, knowing that he was comparing me to clearing away dead bodies.
‘Breathe through your mouth. We just have to put her in the pod,’ the other one replied.
I wanted to defend myself. But even I could smell the stench I’d been living in. Hell, I hoped it would make them pass out.
My thoughts kept moving back to the water and half-eaten energy bar under the bed. Food had become everything and I now regretted not storing it on my body somewhere. What if there was no more food where I was going?
The tunnel they moved me into was lit with a red light and it caused me to squint. It felt like a lifetime since I had really used my eyes. The guards paused briefly, one of them letting go of me long enough to pull out a pair of glasses from his jacket. He put them on my face. I blinked, adjusting to the new tinted vision. Instantly darker. More comfortable.
‘Leave them on until you adjust, otherwise you’ll blind yourself.’
Until I adjust to what? Jesus, I was starting to panic. Were they taking me to see my father? Were they taking me above ground? Outside? My breathing sped up even as I tried to pull myself together.
‘Where are you taking me?’ I managed to rasp out.
They ignored me.
‘Should we sedate her?’ the one on my right asked. He was chewing gum and I could smell the mint on his breath.
The other one shook his head. ‘You’re a real bastard. You know that, right? Look at her, she’s already half dead and you want to pump her full of drugs. Have you forgotten how awful this shithole can be?’
No surprise they were negs. Or what the public like to call ‘rehabilitated’ negs.
‘Can you help me?’ I asked the one who’d defended me, leaning in his direction.
He turned to me, meeting my eyes. I noticed that each of the many creases around his eyes were almost crying out with a story to tell. None good. But beyond that, his eyes were … empty. He wasn’t going to hurt me, but he wasn’t going to help me either. Down here it was survival of the fittest and I was most definitely lowest on the food chain right now.
I didn’t even blame him, knowing that I myself had turned and walked away from others just as desperate, just as in need as I was. It was one of the things I would never forgive myself for. Or my father.
‘I know ways to get out of here. I can help you get out,’ I tried.
‘Sorry, girl. After enough time down here, you understand there is no escape. You’ll learn for yourself. Best advice I can give you is, do what you’re told. That way we won’t have to hurt you.’
His face softened slightly, but it wasn’t comforting. Mostly because I knew he was telling the truth. He would kill me if I tried to get away from them. The alternative was simply not an option for him. And again, I understood.
We started moving down the long hallway again with me walking between them. After a dozen steps, I stumbled. My legs shook. Hell, who had I been kidding when I told myself I was keeping fit in that cell? The guards slowed their pace, giving me a chance to get my feet under me.
After a few turns, we went through a set of doors and back into the darkness. At first I wondered if this was a new cell, if they were relocating me. But then my eyes adjusted.
We were in the transit tunnels. And there was a transit pod idling with its door open.
‘Get in,’ the first guard said, pushing me towards the opening.
As I got closer to the pod, I started sweating. My steps were so small I was barely moving.
Sensing my hesitation, the guard to my right nudged me forwards. ‘Get in, or we throw you in.’
I nodded, attempting to wet my lips with my sandpaper-dry tongue. My leg shook as I placed my foot tentatively on the first metal step. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to get on this thing and hoped to God it would take me out of hell, but I’d just gotten
out of one very small, very confined, extremely isolated place. Convincing my body to move into another …
I turned to the guard at my left, swallowing nervously. ‘Are you coming with me?’
He shook his head. ‘More guards will meet you at the other end. You need to go now; they don’t like waiting.’
As if his curt words prompted the other guard, I was suddenly pushed from behind, my hands clutching the
edge of the door to stop myself face-planting on the pod floor. ‘I said, move it, bitch!’
But he didn’t wait for me to move anything, instead choosing to place his booted foot on my upended ass and shove me again, hard, until I was inside the pod. Before I managed to sit up, the doors were closing. My eyes fixed on those of the more humane guard. Even as his cold eyes stared back at me – a look I knew well, one I had delivered myself – I found myself nodding to him
with acceptance before he flinched, turned, and walked away.
The high speed of the pod ride was disorienting and I managed little more than to stare at my hands for most of it. Firstly as a point of focus. Then out of fascination. My palms were raw and blistered. I wasn’t sure exactly what had caused the damage – perhaps my attempts at exercise; perhaps my pathetic moments of lashing out when I had pounded on the door and walls, screaming for my father to show himself. There was a good chance it was something I’d done and simply not been aware of
doing. And, no, that was not a comforting thought.
My fingernails – those that remained – were caked in dirt. The cell itself hadn’t been overly dirty. The floor and walls were painted concrete so it wasn’t as if I’d been digging, although that was what it looked like. Tentatively I lifted my fingers to my nose and smelled. I quickly returned my hands to my lap as the pod came to an abrupt halt.
Two guards stood outside the door as it opened. The lighting was harsh here and I pushed the glasses closer to my sensitive eyes.
It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t used one second of the pod journey to devise any type of plan to escape. It was a sure sign that my grip on reality was shaky at best, and that my grip on myself was all but gone.
The guards silently led me from the pod and across the junction, down another tunnel, through a door and then into a corridor. I tried to activate my brain, blinking a few times and thinking back to what the old Maggie – the one who would do whatever it took, at any cost, to get what she wanted – would do right now. I glanced to my left and right. The guards were much bigger than me. They were armed. My sluggish eyes moved down to their M-Bands and I saw red lights flashing. Their camera zips were activated, streaming directly to whoever had decided to watch.
Was my father watching? Even for the old Maggie, I was almost certain this was not the right moment to pick a fight. My M-Band gave a short beep and I wasn’t surprised. The screen remained blank, just as it had since the day they imprisoned me, but I was fairly certain that the beep was a heart-rate monitor. I was scared.
Mostly, it was fear I was being taken to Garrett Mercer. My father was a close second. I knew it was likely the next time I was brought before either one of them, it would be for the final act. Garrett Mercer wanted me dead. But he wanted me to pay too. Maybe I was about to find out which one he wanted more.
I glanced up at the curved ceiling and wondered where we were. For all I knew, I was metres away from thousands of people going about their daily business. That was the strangest thing about the tunnel network that travelled all the way from Washington DC, beneath the Potomac River, under the city of Arlington and out to Bluemont, Virginia. What had once been part of the FEMA organisation was now controlled by the private and all-powerful entity of M-Corp, and there were similar underground locations just like this one around the country. Around the world, I had no doubt. But this was where it had all begun. This was the devil’s kitchen. And while I had always known that Garrett Mercer was the devil, I now also knew that my
father was his cook.
I tripped over my own feet, the guards not slowing their pace as they tightened their grips on my arms to stop me going over. I struggled to get my footing back, my legs like jelly.
But it was so hard. My mind was erratic and childish, its only consistent line of thought revolving around the remaining energy bar I’d left under the bed.
We reached a large door and one guard moved ahead to enter the code, causing the door to slide open. I gasped. My M-Band beeped.
My legs gave out momentarily and the other guard hauled me back onto my feet. ‘Breathe,’ he instructed.
It was impossible to stop my body shaking as it argued with itself – one part wanted to move towards the light, the other shied away. The guard, clearly aware of my internal battle, suddenly produced a baseball cap, holding it out for me.
I fumbled with trembling hands to put it on and reduce the unsympathetic glare of sunlight – something I had convinced myself I would never again see. I lowered my head just in time to conceal the stream of tears.
‘This way,’ the guard said, wrapping a firm hand around my upper arm and pushing me forwards. I let him lead me to the doorway, and noticed the other guard had already made his way outside and was standing by the open door of a black Jeep with heavily tinted windows.
I turned to the guard beside me. ‘Where are you taking me?’ I asked.
Wordlessly, he walked me towards the waiting Jeep. The other guard held out a long dark coat and they fixed it loosely around my shoulders, covering up my filthy state. He then gestured for me to get into the car.
‘Please. Where am I going?’ I asked again, noticing there was a driver and yet another guard already sittingin the front passenger seat.
The guard beside me shrugged. ‘This is as far as we go. Get in.’
I swallowed nervously, but did as I was told.
As soon as I was inside the car, a privacy divider slid up between the front seats and the back and the vehicle began its journey to God knows where. Once again, I was alone.
I looked out the window – which did not open, like the door – and after a short while I realised with a start that I was beginning to recognise the landscape.
They were driving into Arlington. They drove through the city. Eventually the streets became more and more familiar and I felt a desperate cry fall from my cracked lips. I was so close it was cruel.
Once again, I tried the handle, but the doors remained locked. I looked around for something to smash the windows with, but there was nothing – without the right tools, car windows are a lot harder to smash than they look. Instead I closed my eyes, shoved my putrid fist into my mouth and bit down on my cries. Suddenly the car pulled over and the door locks clicked open. A loud beep sounded and I flinched, then stared down at my M-Band. The screen was alight. It was back online.
Holding my breath, I reached out and opened the door, half expecting someone to hold a gun to my head.
Cautiously I stepped out of the car onto the kerb and closed the door behind me, surprised when the black Jeep simply drove off, leaving me there.
In the light.
And that wasn’t even the best part.
Convinced I must be dreaming, I refused to turn around, choosing instead to watch the Jeep as it travelled to the end of the road and slowly took the corner. Once it was out of sight, I finally braced myself and turned, falling to my knees instantly. My fingers sank into the damp grass and I wept uncontrollably as I looked up towards my garage.
They’d driven me home.