I wait for hours, praying Dardy won't come back. Everything is wrong, twisted into knots I'll never be able to untangle. The metallic smell of blood is starting to fade into the soft burn of fried electrical wires and stagnant water; everything is fading back to normal and yet I'm encased in memory. I shake my head, feeling an incredible need to wash the feeling of today from my body.
I stand, making my shaking legs carry me through the tunnels. Everything seems to be covered in a grey haze, almost as if a layer of smoke has descended in the halls. My fingers feel clumsy as I pull the stained sheet covering Dardy's room aside, almost as if my fingers have been formed from a lump of half-cooked dough.
I walk back to the room of heated water, my thoughts sluggish. I need something to do, a task to take my mind off of the days events. The women don't notice me as I grasp the first shirt in a pile of sweat stained garments. I shove it into a pool, gritting my teeth against the searing pain of the bubbling water. "Here, let me help you." I look up to see Paula, her red hands extended towards me, a small smile staining her cheeks.
She reaches into the water without flinching and pulls my hands—and the shirt—out of the water. I can't stop the sigh of relief from pushing past my lips. "You have to flair out the shirt the first couple of times, make sure the whole thing is exposed to the water. It' will eat away anything unsanitary from the material." She rings the water from the material, squeezing until even the frailest droplet falls back into the pool before she unravels it again. She hands it to me. "If you can, try not to submerge your hands in the water. The chemicals eat at your skin, even after you've removed them."
I glance at the red splotches forming on my palms and start rubbing them against my pants. Paula laughs, "Don't worry, it takes years for them to get as bad as mine." I look at her hands again, at the red that is so pronounced it could be one of Their tattoos. Cracks; fine, white, and minute spread out from her wrists like the branches of a dying tree.
I reach out a finger and trace the deepest until it twists around her thumb and out of sight. She smiles although no light shines from her eyes. "Did Dardy send you here?" she asks, kneeling beside me as she expertly flings the shirt into the water. It floats for a minute, looking as if its human has dissolved into the water without it. I shake my head, watching as it begins to sink below the surface. "Kairim?" She carefully avoids my gaze as she leans out over the pool to grip one of the sleeves between her thumb and forefinger. She carefully pulls the shirt toward us again before she flips it over and sends it back out.
"I came on my own." My voice is barely louder than the boiling liquid. She nods.
"I came here when I was thirteen." she says, pushing a strand of curling hair behind her ear. "My parents couldn't feed all their children, so they offered me up as part of their Tribute." Her voice holds no self-pity, no sorrow. This is just a fact about her life, one I suspect many of the other humans here share. I watch as a row of bubbles burst at the same time.
"My brother attacked one of Them during the ceremony. I offered myself in exchange for him." She turns to me, her face sharp, her eyes lighting with curiosity.
"Did he succeed?" Her voice rumbles with hope, soft and insecure.
"No. They pulled a sword from nowhere. He was dead before he could nip Their skin." I shudder, reliving the moment. Paula's gaze has fallen back to the water, I can see the fight leaving her body. "He survived. They stabbed him with a purple syringe and he came back to life."
"Heshla." Paula says, licking her chapped licks. She looks forlorn. Her eyes are distant. "They don't use it very often. He was lucky." I scoff; luck had nothing to do with it. She turns to face me again, this time with her whole body. The shirt floats forgotten in the pool. "Listen. I've lived here for over half my life and I've only seen them use that substance once—just once. Your brother is both lucky and unlucky. It won't be long, before They go back for him."
YOU ARE READING
Us vs ThemScience Fiction
One one-thousand. They take what they want. Who they want. No one is safe, no one is secure. When They come, They take. Loyalties gone, loves lost, a world swiped away with a scream. Two one-thousand. When They come, They take. Sadness, sacrifice...